The whole ride to Remus’s house, Sirius rehearsed scripts in his head. Old habits were hard to break. He had imagined, during his time as a human in Azkaban, what he would do to Peter, what he would say to Remus, how he would drop to his knees in front of a Harry who looked almost as much like James in real life as he did in Sirius’s imagination and pull him into his arms, splay his hands over Harry’s small back and tell him that no harm would come to him ever again. None of the scripts had quite played out the way he imagined it, though he had imagined countless variations of each scenario: casting Avada Kedavra on Peter, or using Cruciatus on him, or wrapping his hands around his thick soft throat. Embracing Remus, or apologizing for ever suspecting him all those years ago, apologizing for all the nights Remus had to run alone or, worse, claw his skin to shreds. Kissing him, kissing him, kissing him. He had imagined Remus as he had been at twenty-one, imagined them both as youths again, Remus’s skin and his own as he remembered it. As though when he finally left Azkaban the world would revert back to how it had been before he’d been locked away: his hair black instead of shot through with gray, his chest and stomach no longer sunken, his mind no longer wracked with horrors. Remus, in love with him again, that indulgent smile on his lips, Sirius still able to catalogue every scar on his slim body. James and Lily alive.
Buckbeak had been warm enough to counter the bite of the still-cold night air but Sirius had handed him off to one of Dumbledore’s contacts, waiting, though he wasn’t supposed to, in the shadows behind the dense forest underbrush to be sure the witch who came for Buckbeak treated him with respect. Sirius clutched the broom that had been left for him; her robes all fell forward as she bowed deeply. Buckbeak looked at Sirius. Sirius nodded. Buckbeak bowed; the witch straightened and tossed him a ferret. He wasn’t sure what he would have done if she had failed his assessment.
The broom was cold, the night air was cold, and the robes that had been left for him in a small packet had only a weak warming spell that had totally worn off by the time Sirius arrived at the house that the homing charm told him was Remus’s. Sirius had gotten better at wandless magic but it took energy he wasn’t sure he could spare. The house was small, with yellow light emanating from its windows and casting a warm half-circle on the grass around it.
Sirius landed a few meters away from the house and straightened his robes, flattened his hair. He still hadn’t bathed and his hair was oily and left a distinct sheen on the palms of his hands; he assumed he smelled like hippogriff and body odor and dead ferret. In the Shrieking Shack Remus had embraced him, his wool sweater soft on the bare skin of Sirius’s chest, his chin on Sirius’s bony shoulder. He had smelled of Hogwarts, the citrusy cleaning charm that the house elves used and parchment and the dust in the old hallways, and of chocolate, and of himself, the smell that Sirius had thought he’d forgotten for good in his cell in Azkaban. He had smelled of home.
Sirius could hear Remus’s footsteps approach the door after Sirius knocked. The last time, they had had an audience, he had been about to get revenge, he had been running on adrenaline alone. The house was quiet and the wind softly rustled the trees not very far away. The doorknob turned. Sirius closed his eyes. The warm light lit up the insides of his eyelids with a red-orange glow. He took a breath. He opened his eyes.
Remus was backlit and his tawny hair, now threaded through with silver, caught the light and haloed his face. He wore a soft-looking sweater and very worn trousers and he was barefoot, his feet pale and slim on the wood floor of the entryway of the house.
“Sirius,” Remus said. He opened the door all the way and stepped aside. “Come in.”
Sirius suddenly felt trapped, panic rising in his throat for a heart-pounding moment. He felt certain that he couldn’t possibly be allowed in Remus’s small, orderly home, with his stacks of books and his chipped mugs and all his sweaters carefully folded and put away in drawers. Not Sirius, feral Sirius, who hadn’t been able to brush his teeth in thirteen years and who had just spent five days living in a cave with a hippogriff. Wild Sirius, who had screamed his throat so hoarse when he was arrested and committed to Azkaban that he hadn’t been able to speak or eat for two days afterward. Not that he had had an appetite. Not that there had been anything to say.
Sirius stepped into the house, panic still a vise tight around his chest. The stacks of books were neat, the couch dilapidated, the kitchen counter he could see through a not-so-distant doorway covered with mugs.
“Remus,” Sirius said. It felt like a very old spell in his mouth, one he hadn’t used in a long time. He stood in the little entryway as Remus closed the door behind him. He still held the broom in his hand.
“You can put the broom beside the door,” Remus said, gesturing, and Sirius did so, and then his hands were empty, and he thought about the runes tattooed on his knuckles that enhanced his wandless magic, and he thought about the pale knots of scars on Remus’s long fingers from when he, during his childhood transformations, chewed his paws to a pulp. Remus stood in the middle of his living room, leaning against the back of the couch, and Sirius wanted to touch his hand.
Remus fidgeted a little, looking down and then back at Sirius, as though he knew what Sirius was thinking. He couldn’t, of course, he couldn’t know. Sirius couldn’t figure out where to focus. “Would you like some tea?”
“Uh,” Sirius said. “Thanks. Actually, I was wondering, I haven’t had a bath in thirteen years…”
“Oh.” Remus’s mouth opened and closed. “Bubbles or no bubbles?”
Sirius ended up having to take two baths when the bubbles immediately dissolved; he dunked his head under the water and scrubbed at his hair with his tingling fingertips, still cold from the broom ride and heated too fast by the steaming hot water, and then his hair dripped down his face and neck and shoulders as he let the dirty water drain from the tub and refilled it. The water was not quite as hot the second time but the bubbles stayed in glistening peaks around his bony knees. He sank into the water and closed his eyes.
Remus knocked on the door. “Tea?”
“Just bring it in.” Sirius didn’t open his eyes as the door opened. A cool breeze licked over his wet chest and he sank lower into the water. Remus closed the door.
“I hope you still take it with milk and sugar,” Remus said.
Sirius looked up at him, then, and Remus held two mugs in his hands, and suddenly Sirius’s eyesight was blurry. A drop of water slid down his face. He nodded.
Remus knelt beside the tub and Sirius lifted his hands out, water spilling back into the tub, coursing down his arms, and he clasped his wet hands around the warm mug that Remus handed to him. He couldn’t remember how Remus took his tea and it suddenly seemed urgent that he know. It seemed horrifying that Azkaban had taken even this banal memory from him. Maybe he’d never made tea for Remus, though that didn’t seem right.
Sirius held the tea, not drinking it just yet. “I can go,” Remus said.
“No!” Sirius barked before Remus even finished the sentence. “No,” he repeated, looking down at his knees sticking out of the water, the slowly falling peaks of bubbles, the slate-gray mug he held in his wet hands. “If… please.”
“Okay,” Remus said softly. He settled on the floor with his back against the tub, though it must have been wet from when Sirius had sloshed around trying to wash his hair and not get water up his nose. The water lapped gently against the edges of the tub as Sirius shifted. The tea was hot and strong and too sweet; when was the last time Sirius had had sugar? He drank it anyway. He could imagine coming to like it this way.
There was a hole near the collar of Remus’s sweater; he wasn’t wearing a shirt under it and Sirius could see the pale gleam of his skin through the frayed edges of the hole. The hair at Remus’s temple was silver. The strands of silver that shot through the rest of his hair shone in the bathroom light. Sirius recognized the double scar that crossed the bridge of his nose, the top one longer, scar tissue pale and raised, the lower one almost invisible unless you were looking for it, which Sirius always was. Remus had hated the scars when they were at school together but Sirius loved every part of him and he remembered the first time he was allowed to run the tips of his fingers over it, gently tracing the line it made over Remus’s nose. The scar at the side of Remus’s jaw was there, too, just as Sirius remembered it, though, as with all the rest of them, this one had faded just slightly with time. Or perhaps Sirius had emphasized it in his memories, had imagined Remus’s scars like slits in a lampshade, bright white light shining through.
When Remus took a sip of his tea his eyes fluttered closed, his pale eyelashes gleaming, steam curling up over his face. He held his mug in both hands. This close, Sirius could just barely see the faint twists of scar tissue on the backs of Remus’s fingers. Remus always ran warm and he must have been hot in the humid bathroom but he didn’t show it if he was. He didn’t look at Sirius. The bubbles popped softly.
“Thanks,” Sirius said.
It was quiet for a very long time. The small, pale blue-tiled bathroom seemed very close and very warm and Remus’s orderly house seemed so neat and so quiet and Sirius was utterly sure he couldn’t possibly handle it, the closeness or the warmth or the neatness or the quietness, the threadbare second towel Remus had placed on the edge of the sink, the wind gently rustling the trees outside. Sirius seriously contemplated screaming. He clutched his mug, trying to quell the trembling of his hands. His knuckles turned very white. The scream rose up in his chest. He wanted very much to turn into Padfoot but he remembered the mug still in his hands and he couldn’t bear the thought of shattering Remus’s very unchipped gray mug so he closed his eyes and let it wash over him, let the thought take him and roar through his mind like the passenger trains that rattled all the dishes in his first apartment as they passed. The dishes clattered and then quieted. His mouth was still closed. He still held the mug.
“Would you mind passing me the towel?” Sirius managed, unable to modulate his voice, well aware of the strangled catch of his throat.
Remus picked up the towel and then stood, his knees cracking, and Sirius unclenched one hand from around the mug and took the towel. Remus’s hand was still extended. Sirius stared at it.
“The mug?” Remus said gently.
Sirius passed it to him and Remus left, closing the door gently behind him, though Sirius hadn’t asked him to leave. The lukewarm water sluiced off Sirius’s body as he stood and he pressed the towel to his face. It smelled of Remus’s home. He breathed out shakily.
It was a struggle for Sirius to put on the soft pajama pants and t-shirt Remus had left beside the towel. The pants had little white snowflakes against a faded blue background and Sirius stood naked, holding them in his hands, thinking about Buckbeak and the cave and all the nights he had spent curled up on the dilapidated bed of the Shrieking Shack as Padfoot, all the nights he had spent on the floor of his cell in Azkaban looking at the wall he could draw from memory if anyone sat him down with a pen and knew just how to break him.
He had left his prison clothing in a small, foul-smelling bundle in exchange for the weakly self-warming robes; he had considered setting them on fire but he figured it best not to let on how strong his wandless magic now was. Dumbledore hadn’t left him a replacement wand. He knew the score.
It’s just pajamas, he told himself. He pulled them on and cinched the waist tightly, cuffed the overlong ends so he could walk in them. The shirt was white, with the bone-bleached look of too many cleaning charms, but it too was soft against Sirius’s skin. His hair curled damply around his face. There was a mirror over the sink but Sirius couldn’t bring himself to look into it. It had been thirteen years; he could wait one more day to see the lines carved into his face.
Remus was giving a folded paper to an owl perched on the sill of one of the living room windows when Sirius emerged from the bathroom. He stroked one hand over its downy head and it pressed up into his palm, wings fluffing out a little. It trilled softly.
“I’m sure you’ll get a nice mouse at the owlery,” Remus murmured to it. “Off you go.” The owl turned and launched out the window, spreading its wings and soaring up into the dark sky. Remus closed the window.
“Would you like anything to eat?” he asked Sirius; a strange expression flickered over his face just for a moment, too briefly for Sirius to place. He realized he was unused to reading facial expressions and it felt like another thing Azkaban had stolen from him, another hole in the sieve he had become.
“No, I think I’ll just go to bed.” Sirius’s grasp on the concept of time had always been tenuous at best even before he went to a place where the only way of tracking days was the meal he (usually) got once a day and the only way of tracking seasons was whether he had feeling in his extremities. He had no idea what time it now was, but it was dark and Sirius had had a trying decade and a half. He felt well within his rights to go to bed.
“Right. You can have the bed, I don’t mind the couch.”
Sirius protested but Remus was as obstinate as he had ever been. He herded Sirius into the bedroom and grabbed one pillow off the bed and shut the door between them, telling Sirius to wake him if he needed anything, as though Sirius were a fussy child who would yell for a glass of water in the middle of the night. Well, Sirius thought, he might yell, though there wouldn’t be anything Remus would be able to do to solve that problem.
Sirius stood beside the bed for a long time, looking at its white sheets and blue comforter, carefully mended in a few places with a neat row of black stitches. The pillowcase was also white, the pillow rounded in the middle as though fluffed for his arrival. Sirius couldn’t quite remember what a pillow felt like. Hesitantly, he reached out and touched it. It was unbearably soft like the tea was unbearably sweet, like Remus’s house was unbearably orderly. These things weren’t for him. Tugging the blanket aside, Sirius laid down in the bed.
It was awful.
As though recalling a dream, Sirius had a vague memory of being the kind of person who preferred a soft surface and a quiet, dark room in which to sleep, though he had been notorious during school as the kind of person who could fall asleep anywhere, including, though James had never believed him, sitting up with his eyes open during one sixth-year History of Magic lecture. Now, though, the bed was hideously plush, bending his spine in some strange and terrible way though he shuffled around to try to find a comfortable position. The pillow felt wrong, twisting his neck. He tried to remember the last time he had slept as a human instead of a dog and couldn’t. He thought about the dilapidated couch in the other room that couldn’t possibly be long enough for Remus to stretch out all the way.
There was still a light on in the living room. Sirius stood at the threshold of the room for a moment watching Remus’s bowed back, the pale sliver of the back of his neck between his shirt collar and his slightly overlong hair. Though he must have heard the bedroom door open, Remus didn’t look up. Sirius circled the couch. A single lamp illuminated a coffee table at which Remus was looking intently. On the table was a rectangular frame bleeding into its center an image with jagged, irregular edges. There were piles of small, differently colored bits on all sides.
“A puzzle?” Sirius asked, once he had dredged the memory up from the depths.
Remus looked up at him. “Did you think I’d get more fun as time went on?”
Sirius felt his face do something altogether unfamiliar; he brought a hand up to his mouth and realized he was smiling, not the mad pained grimace he had seen on the wanted posters around London but something softer, turning up just the corners of his lips.
“Do you still use the system?” Slowly, Sirius circled the side of the couch and stood next to the table.
“Of course I use the system. The system works.” Remus had been turning a piece around in his fingers and now he looked at it and lowered it carefully, turning it ninety degrees and fitting it in its place. “Sit, if you’d like.” Remus glanced at Sirius and then the empty space beside him on the couch.
The couch looked uncomfortably lumpy but after the bed, Sirius wasn’t willing to risk it; he sat on the floor with his back against the bottom of the couch, crossing his legs and wrapping his hands around his bony ankles.
Puzzle pieces clattered quietly together as Remus sifted through them with his long fingers. Every so often he’d pick one up, turning it around and around, and he’d fit it into place with a gentle, definitive sound.
“You should have the bed,” Sirius said.
“Okay,” Remus said, impenetrable.
“It’s very soft,” Sirius explained. He picked up a puzzle piece. The underside was pale blue, the top dark and glossy. “And I’m not sure I can sleep as a human, anyway.”
“Ah,” Remus said. “Right.” Sirius wasn’t sure whether it was courtesy or something else that stopped Remus from looking directly at him. “Well, I wouldn’t mind Padfoot on this couch, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m not sure much more damage can be done to it.”
“Oh. That—” It wasn’t at all what Sirius had been getting at. “Okay. Thanks.”
“Of course,” Remus said.
Sirius was abruptly, horribly frustrated by the yawning chasm between them. He had spent so many years so angry at the world for all its hideous injustices that he had thought his anger had burnt out, or been burnt out of him, leaving just his grief and his singleminded desire for revenge. But even in those last hard years when Remus had been off on the missions he’d never gotten to explain the purpose of to Sirius, when the seeds of mistrust it was so easy in hindsight to see Peter was planting had bloomed between them, even then he hadn’t felt as though Remus was an unknown quantity whose reactions were impossible for Sirius to predict. He realized there must be someone, anyone, in the world who could read Remus’s emotions better than Sirius could and he felt an intense and fathomless jealousy.
“I’ll leave you be,” Remus said, and he rolled back his shoulders and stood. “If you need another blanket, they’re in the closet.” He gestured to the small door near the entryway. “Again, wake me if you need anything.”
“Good night,” Sirius said hollowly. The door closed. He stared at the puzzle. It felt like a metaphor. He turned off the light.
Transforming into Padfoot was a relief. His human emotions were an impossible tangle but his dog emotions were so much simpler. The barrage of memories, ghosts stirred up by the sight of Remus’s pale eyelashes or the unselfconscious way he bit his soft lower lip when he didn’t know what to say, finally, finally slowed. He was left instead with the extraordinary tapestry of smells of Remus’s home and his own exhaustion, now stark when his worries and reservations and human discomfort were stripped away. He jumped up on the couch and curled up. It was much softer than the thin, bare mattress in the Shrieking Shack. Padfoot liked it immediately. He fell asleep.
Remus had resigned from Hogwarts, Sirius learned over breakfast the next day, because thirteen years and the invention of a potion that would ease Remus’s transformation and make him calm, allow him to sleep, were still apparently not enough to eliminate prejudice.
“It’s all right,” Remus said placidly, though Sirius knew it wasn’t.
Remus got the paper and Sirius read it, asking him about all the events he’d missed while in prison, and Remus patiently explained about the new Minister of Magic and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He must have made an incredible teacher. Sirius rediscovered crossword puzzles, too, in the back pages of the paper, frustrated at first when he couldn’t call up the right word, raising his voice above the hush of running water as Remus filled the kettle to ask about a popular culture reference he didn’t know.
There was a small garden to one side of the house and Remus tended it daily. Sirius sat outside with him, cross-legged on the grass, sometimes doing the crossword but more often with his eyes closed and his face turned toward the sky, the sun so bright and warm. When Sirius got antsy he ran around the small forest that bordered the property as Padfoot, twigs and leaves crunching under his paws. Now that he was no longer hunting to survive, chasing squirrels was fun again.
One day it rained, and Remus wrote letters and blotted and folded them before Sirius could read over his shoulder, and he addressed them and left them in a stack. Albus Dumbledore, Molly Weasley, Kingsley Shacklebolt. Sirius didn’t open them, and owls came and Remus cast drying charms on the letters and the owls spirited them away into the gray sky.
Sirius began shaving again. It was strange to see the reflection of his own tattooed hands pulling taut the skin at the underside of his chin, the runes backwards in the mirror. He got Remus to help trim his hair and when Remus’s fingers traced over his scalp and he felt the cool line of the scissors at the back of his neck he suppressed a shiver. Remus asked if he was all right. Sirius said, “Keep going.”
It was almost a week before Remus had to leave for a few hours. He apologized for going out until Sirius told him that if he didn’t stop apologizing, Sirius really would start to feel bad about being confined to the grounds of the small house. Remus stepped into the small fireplace and Floo’ed away in a burst of green flames and Sirius spent two and a half hours as Padfoot, alternating between lying on the couch and sitting in front of the fireplace. Padfoot had never been particularly subtle.
When Remus returned, he had two bags of groceries and a shoebox that he withheld from Padfoot until he turned back into Sirius.
“I’m not sure they’ll fit you like this,” he said very solemnly, holding it above Padfoot’s head until Sirius transformed, bones popping, rising on his hind legs until his paws turned into feet and then standing before Remus, head tilted to the side just as Padfoot’s had been. Remus smiled and handed the box to him.
Sirius opened it to reveal a pair of black eight-hole Dr. Martens.
“Moony, you didn’t!” Sirius exclaimed in delight.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get you more clothes, it’s—”
“It’s fine,” Sirius said. “Really. This is amazing, Moony. Thank you.”
Sirius refrained from wearing them about the house, but just barely. It took him almost a full day to realize Remus must have remembered his shoe size from when they had gone together to purchase Sirius’s second pair of Dr. Martens after an incident their final year at Hogwarts with a botched and thus irreversible shrinking spell doomed his first. He dragged Remus along on an illicit trip to London on a Tuesday evening, invincible though Remus worried the whole way there and back. Sirius remembered stepping into the new pair of boots and missing the soft, broken-in feel of his old ones. He remembered the familiar twine of Remus’s hand with his, fingers interlocking, the ropes of old scar tissue smooth beneath the pad of his thumb as he ran it over the back of Remus’s hand.
He still slept every night as Padfoot for reasons he didn’t examine too closely and woke up every morning when Remus shuffled out of his bedroom to put the kettle on. Remus closed his bedroom door every night and Sirius didn’t mention it. One morning, though, he woke up on Remus’s bed.
Remus was still asleep and Padfoot was curled at his feet, his back against the long lines of Remus’s shins. Remus was sleep-warm, his hair falling over his forehead, mouth slack, one hand curled beside his face. A sliver of early morning light fell through a gap in the curtains, illuminating his soft hair, his earlobe, the side of his cheek. Padfoot fought the urge to transform into Sirius right then and there just to have a palm he could brush over the faint prickle of stubble at Remus’s jaw, just to have fingers he could thread through Remus’s fine light hair.
When Sirius had been in Azkaban, he had created a box inside of himself. He had never been great at Occlumency but he had mastered at least this: a small box of the most precious things that he kept hidden. He barely looked at it as Sirius; to look would be to alert the Dementors of its presence. He sometimes opened it as Padfoot, though, when the wind whistled through the single high window of his cell and the monotonous crash of waves against the stone outside of the prison brought him to the lowest pit of despair. It ended up being a jumble of nearly indistinguishable sensations by the end of his time there: the glint of the pale blue-white Lumos light off James’s glasses; the touch of wand to parchment and the blossoming of words; the smell of autumn in the air, the crisp crunch of leaves underfoot; the deep rumble of a motorcycle’s engine; the slim white scar at the side of Remus’s lower lip, distorted by his wide smile.
In this box, nearly erased by time the way a river rock is worn smooth by the relentless worrying of the water above it, was a memory from the time they lived together. It was a summer morning, yellow and bright even before the streets had begun to clatter and bustle with commuter traffic, and Sirius had woken up before Remus. The light streamed through the windows they were too broke to buy curtains for, slanting over Remus’s face and their white sheets. He frowned more and more often as the war broke them all a little more each day, his eyebrows furrowing together, lines around his mouth. But now his face was smooth and relaxed and he looked young, so young. The apartment was warm and close. Bright dust motes drifted slowly in the ray of light. Remus huffed out a breath; his face twitched. Now, Sirius can no longer remember how many times he blinked sleepily up at Sirius before a small smile spread across his face. He can no longer remember whether Remus stretched his bare arms above his head, knuckles cracking as he laced his fingers together, palms outward, or whether he reached for Sirius. Whether he closed his eyes as they kissed.
Remus’s face was thinner now. The furrows between his eyebrows were etched into his skin. There was a new scar near his temple, beginning over his eyebrow and disappearing into his hairline. When Remus opened his eyes, though, they were the same clear hazel that Sirius remembered from the stone-smooth memory of that close summer morning. He blinked three times, the first time slowly, the second and third quickly, as though clearing his vision.
“Padfoot,” he said. His voice was hoarse.
Padfoot whined softly.
“No, it’s not a problem. I’m just wondering how you got in,” Remus mumbled, glancing over at the door.
Padfoot laid his chin on Remus’s thigh.
Remus propped himself up on his elbow, a little wearily, a joint popping as he rested his weight on his arm. He reached forward and very gingerly scratched his fingers across the top of Padfoot’s head. “I didn’t mean to keep you out. I thought you would want—privacy.” He smiled. “Now that I say it, it sounds stupid, doesn’t it.”
Padfoot pressed his face into Remus’s hand. Remus scratched around his ears. Padfoot closed his eyes.
Padfoot’s tail thumped against the bed.
They stayed like that for a long while, Remus’s hand resting on Padfoot’s head, fingers gently ruffling his soft fur. Sirius thought about it even after Remus reluctantly withdrew his hand and said, “Why don’t you put the kettle on.” He stood in the small kitchen, staring blankly out the window, wondering when the last time had been that anyone had touched him for so long, wondering why he had waited until he had exited Remus’s room to transform back into Sirius.
Remus took the classifieds and Sirius took the crossword, though Remus stared at the wall and Sirius stared at Remus, his quill leaking a black spot over clues 17 through 19 Down and Sirius’s left index finger and thumb.
“I’m sorry if you felt I was shutting you out,” Remus said. “It wasn’t my intention. I was—I thought you might want privacy.”
“I’ve had about as much privacy as I can handle,” Sirius said wryly.
“Sorry,” Sirius said.
“No, no, by all means.” Remus still looked pained. “If anyone has the right to make jokes about it…”
Sirius made a mental note to tone down the gallows humor. Remus didn’t need any more lines in his face.
A clatter at the living room window startled them both; Remus’s eyes went wide and Sirius dropped the quill completely, spattering drops of ink across the newspaper. Sirius recovered before Remus did, adrenaline still surging through him, and he went over to the window to let in a medium-sized owl with a cylindrical, paper-wrapped bundle. His heart rate slowly lowered; the owl nipped at his hand as he tried to take the package from it. Remus came up behind him.
“That’s for me,” he said softly. Sirius moved out of the way and watched him lean over the owl, stroking his hand over its head. It bobbed its head up and down and allowed him to take the package. “Thank you,” he said to the owl, and it turned around and waddled to the edge of the window and took flight.
“What is it?” Sirius asked.
Sirius’s cell in Azkaban had been on the easterly wall and sometimes he could see the bright glow of the full moon illuminate the high, barred window and he would think of Remus, his soft skin, the gruesome crack of bones warping and reshaping.
“I’ll stay with you,” Sirius said immediately.
“What? No.” Remus tore his gaze from the silvery green potion in its unmarked glass bottle to Sirius.
“Why not? The wolfsbane makes you harmless, doesn’t it?”
“Of course, but you shouldn’t have to.”
“I want to.”
“Sirius,” Remus said, and he sounded so tired.
“I missed thirteen years,” Sirius said, “but I’m here now. Let me help.”
“I don’t need help,” Remus said weakly.
“That’s fucking bullshit.”
Remus laughed shakily. “Okay,” he said, and he brought a hand up to his face, rubbing at his eyes. “Okay.”
There was a small distance between them and Sirius crossed it before he could think about it. Remus felt as slight and solid at once as he had been in the Shrieking Shack, his shoulders broad but bony, his chest flat against Sirius’s when Sirius crushed them together. Remus’s arms immediately came up around Sirius, the potion bottle still clasped in one of his hands and its curved edge pressing into the small of Sirius’s back. Sirius buried his face in Remus’s neck. He was warm and smelled like home. Remus’s body shuddered once in Sirius’s embrace.
“I thought you’d have had enough of being shut up in dark spaces,” Remus mumbled into Sirius’s hair.
“We’ve both had enough of being alone.”
The basement of the small house had a thick door with several soundproofing charms embedded in the wood. There were rows of deep claw marks on the inside of the door. Rows of uneven stones lined the walls and the single long, thin window had a warped glass pane. The daylight just barely illuminated the lush lawn outside; the shadows of the thin leaves of grass were dark against the glass.
In one corner of the basement was a thin, battered mattress that was striped with carefully mended gashes. Sirius brought down three blankets from the motley assortment in the hallway closet and piled them on the mattress. When Remus stopped halfway down the basement steps and stared at him, Sirius readied his arguments, but Remus didn’t say anything. Sirius liked to think he was grateful.
The sun sank slowly lower in the sky. Sirius remembered Remus once saying that he liked the summer because the nights were shorter; though the full moon rose and set at the same time all year round, the transformation only happened when the sun was gone. Remus got more anxious as the sky went pink and orange, drifting around the house in the lessening light, skating his hand over tabletops and along walls.
“If anything unexpected happ—”
“Nothing will happen,” Sirius cut him off.
“I don’t know how the wolf will—”
“Drink the thing.”
Remus growled at him but did, tipping his head back when he neared the end of the bottle. Sirius watched his throat.
The basement was cool but not damp and smelled of earth and fur instead of salt spray and rot. Sirius locked the three bolts himself, watching in the light of the single dim bulb his tattooed hands on the tarnished silver. Unlocked. Locked. He convinced himself he could get out whenever he wanted. Unlocked. Locked. Locked. Locked. He listened to the clack of the bolts sliding home and the soft sounds of Remus undressing in the middle of the room.
“I should just sleep,” Remus said, teeth chattering a little as shudders wracked his body. Sirius rushed down the stairs to him. Remus was shirtless, unbuttoning his trousers. “I think—you know I don’t remember much.”
“I know.” Sirius had forgotten what it was like to watch Remus transform; when he had witnessed it, he had usually done so as Padfoot and so the memories were more like impressions, half-shapeless. Remus stepped out of his trousers and picked them up, folded them and his sweater and gave the whole armful to Sirius. His clothing was still warm and Sirius held it to his chest.
“The wolfsbane just makes me sleep, I think.” Remus inhaled sharply and his head rolled back. A crack echoed through the small room. Remus dropped to his knees in front of Sirius and the bare yellow lightbulb illuminated his bare shoulders and the hair at the top of his head. A gutteral sound tore from his throat and he fell forward onto his hands, the indented line of his spine rippling grotesquely under his skin. There was a sound like a handful of twigs all being snapped at the same time.
Sirius tossed Remus’s clothes blindly toward the wall and knelt in front of him. Remus’s arms buckled and his hands curled into fists, his clawed fingers leaving little furrows in the hard-packed dirt floor of the basement. The skin at the backs of his hands bubbled and dark fur began to bristle out of it. There was a series of small pops, his fingers morphing, and Remus whimpered softly. Sirius didn’t know what to do.
The fur raced across Remus’s pale back, obscuring the sickening bowing of his ribcage under his skin but not the loud creak of it reshaping, nor the squelch of muscles shifting. There was another hideous creak and Remus’s stance shifted, his legs transforming. Remus’s hair had darkened and was shortening, his ears pointing and flattening, moving up as his skull changed. He finally raised his head and looked at Sirius. Fur bristled up from his neck and moved over his jaws. His eyes yellowed.
“Thank you,” Remus rasped, and there was a loud crack and prolonged creak as his jaws elongated. His lips drew back and Sirius saw his teeth lengthen and grow to points. He tossed his head to the side; there was a final crack and the wolf’s whole body shuddered. When the wolf looked back at Sirius its yellow eyes were blank.
The wolf watched as Sirius transformed into Padfoot. The wolf smelled familiar to Padfoot and obviously the wolf recognized him, too, as it circled him, nosing at his ears and shoulderblades. Padfoot remembered it being energetic, more aggressive, but the wolf merely went over to the pile of blankets on top of the mattress and sniffed around in a circle before lying down. When Padfoot stood in front of the mattress the wolf whined at him until Padfoot curled up next to him, pressed against the warmth of his large body, his thick fur.
The night passed slowly as Padfoot dozed next to the wolf, waking up intermittently when it sighed or shifted its massive paws. The wolf slept for hours; sometimes Padfoot stayed awake and watched its huge body move with its gentle breaths. Sometimes its ears would flick, or its eyebrows would twitch, or it would heave a sigh and readjust how its muzzle rested on its crossed paws. Padfoot kept a sort of vigil over it, his long-lost friend, changed, now, but still familiar. Still dear.
Padfoot awoke to a rush of movement, jostling his body, and a series of sickening cracks and pops. The wolf had scrambled up and away from him and was breathing heavily, paws braced far apart, head down as his fur rippled. He whined softly and his whole body shivered, his fur rippling. Just as it had appeared, the fur receded in waves, racing up the wolf’s back to reveal Remus’s smooth, pale skin, striped with old scars. One of his paws twisted, seeming to explode, fur disappearing as long fingers splayed over the mattress. Padfoot watched the wolf’s ribcage flatten into a human one, warping the old scars that spanned the length of Remus’s torso as his skin stretched. Muscles slid wetly. The wolf growled but the sound was cut off as his vocal cords changed, turning into a human groan. His face shortened, the fur receding from his cheeks and down his throat. He squeezed his eyes shut and something happened, a shift rippling through the bone of his forehead and eye sockets, and when he opened his eyes again they were Remus’s clear hazel, framed by his pale eyelashes and eyebrows, his jaw snapping into place, his teeth blunt again. Remus gasped.
Without thinking, Padfoot changed into Sirius, kneeling over Remus’s body.
“Moony,” Sirius said, his hands moving almost of their own accord over Remus’s collarbones, the dip at the base of his throat, the plane of his sternum.
“It’s fine,” Remus whispered, a small smile blooming on his lips. “I’m fine.”
“I know,” Sirius said. He tugged one of the blankets out from under them and tucked it around Remus.
“It’s not nearly as bad as it used to be.”
“I know.” Sirius smoothed back Remus’s hair, letting his thumb drift over the new scar on Remus’s forehead. His thumb was still stained with ink from the previous morning and he thought about how dark his hands looked against Remus’s pale skin, thought about his own dark tattoos and Remus’s white scars. Remus curled onto his side, resting his head on his folded arm. The basement was quiet, soundproofed, so they couldn't hear the clatter of the old refrigerator upstairs nor the intermittent twitter of the birds waking up outside, singing into the gray dawn.
“Lie down,” Remus said.
“Right,” Sirius said, and he laid on his side facing Remus, mirroring him. In the first few years Sirius had known him, Remus had looked awful after every transformation, haunted and hollow-eyed, gingerly cradling his new scars. He looked better after Sirius and the others could run with him, tired but not defeated. Now he had faint bruises under his eyes and Sirius wanted to touch the thin, soft skin there, just below his short eyelashes, and to touch the fine lines that fanned out from the corners of Remus’s eyes and the short neat graying hair at his temple.
Remus cracked one eye open. “Don’t stare, it’s creepy,” he mumbled.
“Sorry,” Sirius said, not sorry at all.
“Don’t lie to me.” Remus closed his eye.
Sirius smiled and reached out for him, brushing the backs of his fingers over Remus’s stubble.
Remus sighed softly. “We just slept, didn’t we.”
“Yeah.” Sirius’s hand slid down to Remus’s throat and he felt Remus’s heartbeat near the curve of the soft underside of his jaw.
“I don’t know how I’m always so tired afterward.”
Remus reached up and caught Sirius’s hand in his; Sirius experienced a moment of panic, afraid he’d gone too far, but Remus just laced their fingers together and held Sirius’s hand close to his chest, warm under the blanket.
“How did you get the tattoos?” Remus murmured, so softly Sirius was sure he had misheard him.
“I did them myself.”
“What are they for?”
“I thought you aced Ancient Runes,” Sirius said.
Remus smiled a little, his eyes still closed. “That was a few years ago.”
“It was.” Remus’s hand curled around his was warm, their fingers tightly interlocked, and Sirius’s wrist felt cold where it was exposed between the edge of the blanket and the sleeve of his sweater.
“They’re mostly protective,” Sirius said, “the ones on my chest.” It had taken him weeks to conjure the flame he needed to burn the little food he could spare; at the end of it he had watched a wilted floret of broccoli slowly smolder into a black shell of itself, which he had carefully crushed into a soft pile of ash.
The pin he had palmed from the robe of one of the Aurors who had brought him to Azkaban had been cold at first but had quickly warmed in his hand. The rune had to be cohesive to be powerful and he pricked row after row of tiny wounds into his skin, filling in the figure as much as possible. The blood rose up in little bursts, not gathering into drops right away but welling in small beads on the surface of his skin, gleaming in the dim light.
“What about your hands?”
Sirius hesitated. Remus was breathing softly, his lips just barely parted. When Sirius had explained, age fifteen, excitedly stumbling over his words, that he and James and Peter had become Animagi for him, Remus had cried.
“They… enhance my wandless magic.”
Remus hummed. “That’s brilliant.”
Sirius huffed out a soft laugh. “It’s illegal.”
“Has that ever stopped you before?” Remus murmured.
In Azkaban, there had been moments when Sirius was overwhelmed with such crushing despair he had thought his heart would stop, unable to think or move or even breathe, and all he could do was lie there stiff and silent in the darkness and hope that maybe this time it wouldn’t let up just as his breath ran out, maybe this time would be the last time. And then the dumb animal of his body would take over, gasping a shuddering breath into his raw lungs, and he would feel his pounding heart and hear the crash of the waves far below his cell window and he was alive again, prison robes wet with sweat and twisted in his clenched hands.
Now, here in this dimly lit basement on this battered, musty-smelling mattress, one of his slim arms folded under his head, eyes still closed, Remus smiled, and it felt like a deep breath, the air flooding his lungs, his body alight with it, alive, alive, alive.
“Go to sleep,” Sirius said.
Their hands were still locked together as Remus’s breathing evened and slowed, the backs of Sirius’s fingers pressed to the ridges of the ribs fanning out from Remus’s sternum. Sirius thought of the creak and pop of those bones warping and shifting. Remus seemed unutterably dear to him, strong and fragile at once, someone who had weathered storms without breaking and someone Sirius would burn down the world to protect.
Sirius would have picked Remus up in his arms if he could, bridal-style, the significance not lost on him, but he settled for hovering close behind him as they ascended the cool basement steps and Remus slid back the bolts on the heavy door and the daylight streamed in. He made tea and toast spread thickly with the blackberry jam Remus liked and when he brought it into the living room, a mug in each hand, the plate balanced on his arm, Remus was hunched over the jigsaw puzzle again.
“Are you feeling better?”
Remus looked up and a smile spread wide over his face. “Yes, thank you.” He accepted the mug with both hands. Sirius remembered lifting his own hands out of the lukewarm bath, the water streaming down his arms.
“What are you smiling at?”
Remus shook his head. “It’s nothing.” He slid a box top full of unsorted puzzle pieces over to Sirius. “Paw through those if you’d like.”
Remus opened his eyes wide, the picture of innocence. “What?”
“Been hoarding that one for a while, have you?”
“I don’t know what you’re yapping about.”
“You are a monster,” Sirius said.
“That’s what they tell me,” Remus replied, something almost giddy in his voice. They were sitting so close together Sirius could feel the warm press of Remus’s leg against his. Remus’s hair was a little greasy and he smelled not unpleasantly of sweat and his face was bright with laughter.
Sirius placed his mug of tea on the table next to the puzzle, carefully avoiding the pieces. His hands still felt warm from it when he brought them to Remus’s face, skating his fingertips over Remus’s jaw and along his neck, into his soft fine hair. Remus turned toward Sirius, leaning down.
Remus’s mouth was warm, his lips dry and a little chapped. Sirius’s mouth fit against it perfectly, familiar yet foreign, like the tea Remus had brought him in the bath: sweeter than he remembered, more decadent than he could have possibly imagined having every day, something he could get used to. Sirius gasped a small, desperate breath and they kissed again, or still, lips moving minutely. It seemed to go on and on; every time their mouths began to part Sirius pressed up toward Remus again, starving for every little human detail of him, his warm breath and quick heartbeat and the slight dampness of his palm as he ran it up Sirius’s arm.
For years Sirius had clung to memories of kissing Remus, now faded with time and feeling more like loneliness than comfort, edges softened and indistinct with wear, the details that used to be clear now vague and feeling more like hopeful fabrications. He let those go, now, and he let their now-empty spaces fill with the solidity of Remus’s neck beneath his palm, the warmth of Remus’s mouth against his, the way his leg pressed into Remus’s and the couch bowed beneath the weight of them, pushing them toward each other. Remus’s soft sigh against his lips.
They drew apart and Remus opened his eyes, blinking at Sirius from a little too close. “Really, a pun?” he asked softly, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “That’s what did it?”
“Two puns,” Sirius corrected. “I’m very serious about wordplay.”
“Oh my god,” Remus said. He slid one hand around the back of Sirius’s head, fingers tangling in his hair, and he splayed his other hand over the side of Sirius’s face, tugging him forward until their mouths met again, kissing him desperately. “You are terrible,” he murmured into Sirius’s mouth, “how did I live without you?”
Sirius kissed him back, his lips, his cheek, the scar over the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know, but you don’t have to anymore.”