The Sugar Quill
Author: Canis M. (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: A Fearsome Business  Chapter: Chapter One: The Dark of the Moon
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It's a fearsome business

this loving and being loved.

Would anyone try it

if they hadn't been shoved

by a force beyond resistance,

velvet-fisted and iron-gloved?

- Christopher Reid, "Dear Diary"

~ ~ ~

Chapter 1: The Dark of the Moon

~ ~ ~

Somewhere above the village of Little Hesket, among the fells that rose like unsheathed claws toward the northern sky, there lay a tarn. It was too small, too drab, its surroundings too insufficiently poetic to attract many of the Lake District's tourists, who preferred the shores of Windermere and Grasmere for their scenic strolls. As a result, the tarn was mostly a lonely place, and so was the small cottage nestled just down the hillside from it. Even in summer the lake's depths were glacially cold, its waters thick and dark as old blood.

The creature who dwelled there was very pleased with it.

She--because on that night, at least, she fancied herself a she--waited until the clouds had cleared before she rose from her weedy bed, drifted upward, and broke the still sheen of the water's surface. With a brash snort she expelled the muck and mud from her nostrils. Turning first in the direction of the cottage, which could not be seen even from the tarn's banks, she tilted her muzzle and sniffed at the moonless air.

/Wolf, asleep./

Well, that was as it should be. She wasn't sure whether the current resident of the house had noticed her presence yet, although if he had, he'd made no move to evict her. Considering his nature, she'd expected him to be more observant, to say nothing of more hostile. Then again, perhaps he was merely busy. He had smelled preoccupied of late.

She was grateful for that. The tarn was a fine one, and after finally settling down in such an enviable lair, she hated the thought of being driven out of it. Still, she supposed she was lucky in some respects that her neighbor was what he was--it made for a sort of kinship between them, and while he might try to run her off his territory, she doubted that he would make any attempt to capture and use her. Only once in her long life had she been bridled, and she didn't care to repeat the experience.

Of course, she'd later eaten the man who had done it. That part of the affair had been entirely satisfactory.

Something caught her ears, and she swiveled them forward sharply. From across the lake came a rhythmic patter: the drumming of footfalls. Along the shore nearest the cottage, something with four paws was running. Its pace was middling, erratic, halfway between a hurried trot and a stumbling lope.

Not even uncanny eyes could pierce the darkness at that distance, but she knew the animal by sound and scent.

/Dog, wounded./

Or so she thought at first. Only after another flaring of her nostrils and a deep draught of wind did she revise her opinion. The dog smelled faintly of man--but most dogs smelled of men. It also reeked of magic. To a creature such as her, the spoor of various sorceries were as disparate as the flavors of food to a human tongue. From one deep whiff she could discern the scents of dog and man, weariness and longing, dread and hope--and beneath all these the mercurial scent of /change./

Treading water, she listened with ears pricked as the dog-that-was-not-only-a-dog padded toward the wolf's house. At last it vanished from earshot, and only the lapping of water on the tarn's sloping banks could be heard.

She shook herself with a small whicker of amusement. It seemed another newcomer to the neighborhood had arrived. At this rate the mountains would be getting crowded soon. Time for a conscientious predator to thin the ranks of her prey.

After all, it had been a good while since her last meal.

With a kick of one strong hind leg, she dove into the icy murk, leaving nothing but ripples behind.

~ ~ ~

Remus Lupin woke to the sound of toenails scratching at his back door.

For a moment he lay still, suspecting that he had dreamed the noise--it wouldn't have been the first time. Outside was deep night, with no light from the bedroom window but faint starshine. All honest creatures were asleep at this hour, or ought to have been.

He listened, and the scratching resumed.

Fumbling for his wand on the bedside table, he grasped it and sat up. With a mutter of "Lumos," he slid his bare feet to the floor. He reached for a dressing gown to pull over his pajamas as he made for the hallway, walking by the steady glow of the wand. When he came to the door, he stopped and listened again.

The scraping noises were so meek, he could hardly believe they'd carried with enough volume to rouse him. He might have expected a yelp, or at least a supplicating whine, but none came. There was only the insistent, meager scuffling, as if the creature seeking entry could manage nothing more.

He raised his wand to release the warding charm, the same one he'd set on every entrance to the house. Lifting his free hand, he flicked the lock on the door and pulled it open.

A black dog stood in the darkness. Head lowered, it gazed at him with pale meteor eyes. Remus saw its tattered tail move once in the merest ghost of a wag.

He sank to his knees. His joints clamored a little--years of abuse every month at the full moon had made his bones recalcitrant in general--but he ignored the aches, and smiled.

"You might have barked," he murmured. When the dog hesitated on the step, however, he held out his hand. "Come in, then," he said gently. "You must be ragged."

Slowly, as if every paw were tender, Padfoot limped across the threshold. Remus released the door, which groaned quietly shut. In the bluish flicker of the wandlight he could see how matted the dog's coat was, how speckled with nettles and burrs. It hung loosely over angled, harrowed limbs like an ill-fitted and temporary cover, scarcely hiding hollowed-out flanks. The shoulders that had once been so sturdy were now almost jagged.

Perhaps sensing that he was being stared at, Padfoot lifted his head. They looked at each other for a moment.

"I had an owl from Arabella," Remus said at last, after groping for speech as though he'd misplaced it. "She said you were on your way. But I expected you tomorrow evening at the earliest."

Padfoot gave a huff of breath, as if affronted at such a feeble estimation of his traveling speed.

"Don't tell me you've been running all night."

The furry ears drooped.

"Well, you'll regret it tomorrow." When he offered his palm again, Padfoot crept forward. A wet nose pressed against his outstretched fingers, and the dog's eyelids sank, shuttering the unearthly gleam of the eyes beneath.

"Are you too tired to change?"

The long snout bumped upward in a kind of nod. Remus let out the breath he'd been holding. It was a weary Animagus indeed who lacked the strength to return to his native shape, and he'd never seen Sirius so defeated by exhaustion before. But it was possible that his friend was reluctant to transform for other reasons. Changing to human form would, after all, necessitate human speech.

In any case, it wasn't something to fret over now. "That's all right," Remus said. His fingers rested on the rough fur behind the dog's ears, careful not to pull or tug at the snarls of hair. "Perhaps after you've had something to eat. Are you hungry?"

Padfoot's tongue flickered.

"I thought so. What on earth have you been eating?" Rising, Remus went around the corner into the kitchen. The click of doggy toenails on wood trailed after him. Glancing back, he glimpsed another phantom tailwag. It was a little too faint to be heartening, but he was glad to see it nonetheless. "I probably don't want to know. The menu here may not be much better, I'm afraid. I meant to go and buy groceries tomorrow. But let's have a look."

He filled a bowl of water and set it on the floor, then began to open cupboards, poking the lighted end of his wand into a pantry that was cluttered, yet somehow remarkably empty of consumables. Padfoot's lapping tongue made tiny plashes as the dog drank. "Digestive biscuits, well, there's a thought. Dill pickles, not much good to a dog. Brandy--that's for medicinal purposes only, I assure you. Ah, here we are. Madam Martha's Chicken Soup."

It was the cheapest instant variety--"Add water, wave your wand thrice, and it's ready to eat!"--but from the look in Padfoot's eye, the dog would have no complaints. Remus lighted a lamp to better read the package instructions. He poured the water, then performed the necessary wand-waving. There was a bright flash and a puff of savory smoke, and where a miniature cauldron had squatted empty, steam rose from a bowl of noodle-thick broth. Remus squinted at it for a moment, sniffing.

"I think that's done it." He glanced down. "And no disparaging remarks about my cooking."

Four paws shifted in a desperate, mincing dance. Remus lowered the bowl to the floor.

"It's hot, now. Mind you don't burn your tongue."

At once Padfoot pushed his snout at the soup, then jerked sharply back, mouth working in a canine grimace.

"I told you it's hot." Remus went to the stove to make himself a cup of tea. With a mutter he set the water in the kettle to boiling, then reached for a teabag and his favorite chipped cup. "You're welcome to the biscuits, too, if you like. I wish I had something more to feed you. I don't suppose you want tea?"

"Not at the moment."

The rough voice scraped like teeth on bone. Startled, Remus turned. Sitting on the floor with legs askew was not a dog, but a tall man with unkempt black hair. Sirius was thin, although not as skeletal as he'd been when Remus had last seen him, and he wore an undistinguished set of Muggle clothes. He blinked up at Remus with shadowed eyes, hair hanging loose over one side of his face, then cracked something like a grin. He looked, Remus thought, rather like a werewolf trying to be cheerful after a particularly nasty full moon.

"Wouldn't mind a drop of brandy, though," Sirius added.

"Well, hello. That was a quick recovery."

In a vague toast Sirius lifted the soup in his hands. "Smell of food," he rasped. "Does wonders." Lowering his lips, he took a slurp directly from the bowl. "Tastes better this way, too." He slurped again. "Ah, that's good. Good old Madam Martha--"

"--'Best Friend of the Bachelor Wizard,'" finished Remus. He smiled as he poured his tea. "It's been years since I've heard that."

"I suppose there's a new slogan these days."

"There is. It's 'Chicken Soup for the Wizarding Soul.' Do you want a spoon?" When Sirius frowned, Remus cleared his throat and said, "Eating utensil, commonly found in kitchens--"

"I remember what spoons are, thanks. Had to use one at Arabella's. Don't think I'm capable just now." Sirius looked up over the rim of his soup bowl. "About that brandy."

"I'm getting it, I'm getting it." Feeling obscurely pleased, Remus found a semi-respectable glass and poured. When he handed it to Sirius, who showed no sign of interest in moving from his position on the floor, the other man was glancing blearily around the room.

"This place yours?"

"Lord, no," said Remus. "I couldn't possibly afford it. It belongs to my sister--or to her husband, I should say. I believe it was his money. They bought it earlier in the year, and planned to come up for part of the summer, but then his work interfered, and he couldn't manage the time off. I'm sure he's wishing they'd let it to a tenant who could pay decent rent, but Nell offered it to me first. I did promise to look after the garden, such as it is, and fix up a few things here and there."

"Nellie's married?" Sirius sounded startled.

"Two years now. He's a Muggle, works for some sort of publishing firm. Wears very smart ties."

"Little Nellie." The other man leaned backward, staring into space, then downed his brandy in one toss. "It's hard to believe."

"It is. I'm still not quite used to it. Here, why don't you have some." He crouched down next to Sirius, holding out the tin of digestive biscuits. Sirius accepted one, paused, then took another four and immediately stuffed two of them into his mouth. "You're in Muggle clothes," Remus observed. The t-shirt and trousers didn't seem to be new, but they were at least reasonably clean.

"Less conspicuous." Sirius swallowed. "Arabella lent them to me when she saw the state of my old robe. Said it was going straight to the rag heap the minute I changed into something else." He went quiet after that, studiously chewing another biscuit.

"Is she well?" asked Remus, when the pause had begun to stretch into awkwardness. "Arabella."

"She's fine." Abruptly Sirius shifted, managing as he did so to knock over the drained brandy glass with his knee. Wincing, he righted it. "Remus," he said, "there are things you need to hear." His voice was strained; his eyes, when he looked up from his soup, were haunted. "It's going to take a while."

Yes, Remus thought, it probably would. He took a sip of his tea. "I know a bit of what's gone on," he said quietly. "Dumbledore's been in touch with me, and Arabella told me what she could in her letter. I imagine you have the full version of the story?"

Sirius nodded.

"It can wait, then," Remus said, "until morning." He was not ready, at this hour, to listen to a tale that would end in the death of a boy he had taught, and the return of an enemy none of them were prepared to face. It was a tale unfit for any hour, and there was the teller to think of, too. "Bad news is best saved for daylight, I think."

Sirius tilted his head, hesitating, but at last he nodded. "All right." Then, as though the postponement of his duty had destroyed the supports that upheld him, he hunched over, leaning heavily on his elbows. Shadow and line mapped his face in a confusion of wearisome trails. He looked footsore, heartsore, and almost more fragile than Remus could bear to see. With a pang so sharp it caught at his breath, he set down his teacup. The clink of china sparked across the room, and Sirius glanced up.

Chipped it again, no doubt, thought Remus. He cleared his throat. "I'll run and, ah, find something for you to sleep in. If you don't mind old things of mine."

A mute headshake.

"Right." Remus rose, moved toward the hallway, let his hand rest briefly on the edge of the doorframe to steady himself as he passed through. He would have to get used to scattered silences, it seemed, or learn to fill them himself. He'd never had any talent for banter. But they could neither of them be talking all the time.

He caught himself then, wondering at his own temerity. Better the small silences of companionship, even the awkward ones, than the long, unbroken pall of being alone. He ought to be grateful for a respite from that, even if it turned out to be a brief one.

In the bedroom he went to his dresser, rummaged in the bottom drawer until he found another set of pajamas. They'd be too short on Sirius, and he grimaced when he felt the threadbare patches on the sleeves. But there was nothing else to offer. Unless--he paused, then dug through the drawer again. His fingers closed on the cotton of a Muggle t-shirt, and he pulled it out. It was old, but free of holes, at least. It would do well enough for a summer night. Sirius had never minded whether his pajamas matched, anyway.

Clutching his finds, Remus went on to the bathroom to check that there was a spare towel and plenty of soap. Then he headed back down the hall toward the kitchen. He did not feel prepared in the least to dictate their sleeping arrangements, but sleep they both must, and he was supposed to be the host. With a deeply drawn breath he rallied his nerve. First he would walk through the door, then he would present their options in an even and impartial manner. /There's only the one bedroom,/ he would say. /But you're welcome to it, and I can take the sofa in the parlor, or--/

/Or./

There really was no getting past that /or./

Oh, sod it, he thought.

"There's only the one bed," he said, rounding the corner, "but--"

He broke off.

On the kitchen floor lay Padfoot. Near his nose sat the empty bowl of Madam Martha's, which had been licked until it shone. The dog's limbs were outstretched and limp, his paws dangling off the edge of the rug, which was too narrow to contain him. In his prone position he looked even thinner than before, more like a collection of grubby shadows than a living animal. His tail resembled nothing so much as a decimated featherduster. He was obviously sound asleep.

Remus blinked for a moment, then sagged a little, smiling. "But you're welcome to take the floor," he murmured. "Do make yourself at home."

As he watched the rise and fall of Padfoot's breathing, he thought of the ghoulish Grim, haunt of churchyards, plague of Sybill Trelawney's predictions. Would his old colleague have managed to find a death omen in this scraggly dog sprawled on his kitchen rug? Knowing Sybill, she was probably up to the task. As far as Remus was concerned, no bearer of bad tidings had ever been more welcome.

The tea had filled him with mild but persistent wakefulness, and he knew that even if he returned to bed now, sleep would not come to him. Instead he sat down at the table, which usually doubled as his writing desk, since he liked to work in easy reach of the kettle, and the kitchen during daylight hours was airy and bright. He set the pajamas meant for Sirius on the unused chair, took up quill and parchment, and reached for his glasses. The lid of the ink bottle was stuck; it took several fierce tugs before he managed to open it again.

He dipped his quill and set it to the paper. There was a letter he needed to write.

~ ~ ~

Dear Headmaster,

The goods which you were kind enough to send to me have arrived. They do appear to be all in one piece, if more than a little the worse for wear. I'm not sure whether it's in my power to restore them, but I'll do my best. I can't say how grateful I am for the chance to try.

I've been in touch with my contacts at Durmstrang, as per your request. Whatever my conduct may have been in the past, I hope you will trust that I have never wavered in my dedication to the Order or its aims. I remain, as always, at your service, as do all friends who take shelter under my roof.

Yours most sincerely,

Remus J. Lupin

~ ~ ~

He sat back and removed his glasses, rubbing at his eyes. Writing to Dumbledore always meant an excursion into shame and guilt, no less so because the Headmaster of Hogwarts had never breathed a word of reprimand to him for any of his failures or transgressions. Remus was under no illusions about who was responsible for Sirius' presence here, and that knowing made it even harder not to cringe before the Headmaster, whose benevolent omniscience was sometimes more merciful than he could bear.

Quill still in hand, he considered adding a postscript: /Please don't hesitate to scold me when I am bad, and Sirius also. We are wayward children who should probably serve very long detentions./ Then again, he wasn't sure that Dumbledore wouldn't take him at his word. Smiling crookedly, he sealed the letter and addressed it. He would need to go down to the village tomorrow for groceries, anyway--he could post it then.

He leaned his elbows on the edge of the table and looked across the room to where Padfoot lay slumbering. The dog's paws were twitching in his sleep; as Remus watched, a tremor shook his body from nose to tail. Dreaming, Remus realized. He wondered what sort of dreams Padfoot had these days. It seemed unlikely that they would be pleasant ones.

His eyes fixed on the big, black paws that had carried Sirius here, over the harsh terrain of the fells. What he saw made him frown, and he got up to look more closely, his frown tightening when he drew near. All four paws were caked with dirt, battered, their nails blunted almost to the quick.

For a moment he crouched over the sleeping dog, trying to bind his splintering heart together. Then he stood, fetched a bowl of warm water and a worn old cloth. He settled down next to Padfoot, folding his legs under himself. His hands were steady as he dipped the rag into the water.

Padfoot shivered at the first touch of wet cloth on his rear paw, but did not wake. Careful not to grip or press too hard, Remus wiped each foot, pausing to remove embedded pebbles from between the leathery pads. When he had finished, he wrung out the scrap of towel, then drew his wand from the pocket of his dressing gown. It had been a while since he'd used a charm to heal any hurts other than his own, but at least he'd never fallen out of practice. Gently he touched the tip of his wand to one paw, repeating the gesture three times.

/"Palliatus."/

Stirring, the dog heaved a gusty sigh. His muzzle pressed toward Remus to nestle against one folded leg. Remus went still, then realized that Padfoot hadn't woken, after all. Closing his eyes briefly, he returned his wand to his pocket and laid a hand on the dog's ruff.

The furry head leaned against his thigh, heavy as the weight of memory. He thought of the last time he had been inside a house with Sirius: that night in the Shrieking Shack, wild with revelation. They had stood side by side for the first time in thirteen years then, united by the one who had sundered them. Since that meeting and parting, nothing had passed between them but furtive letters. Remus had scribbled the first one as his carriage pulled out of the Hogwarts grounds, too eager to care about the bumps and jolts that made his pen slip. Ink had splashed across the page, darkening like tearstains. /Are you safe? Where are you? Just tell me where and I'll come./

When at last it arrived, the reply had almost frightened him with its restraint, and shamed him for his thoughtless assumptions. Of course, if he'd considered it clearly, he would have seen that it was too dangerous for him to follow Sirius south. /I won't have you ending up in Azkaban, not on my account,/ the letter had read, and Remus had to recognize that while he'd managed to escape implication once before, to be caught again in the company of a notorious criminal--who was known to be his friend from years past--would be damning. And it was worse, far worse to think that someone might follow him to Sirius. Practice had made him skilled at covering his tracks, but he was not such a fool to expect that his actions were not being monitored. If Sirius was free, Remus would not be the instrument of his recapture.

So he had bitten his tongue and stayed in England, waiting to see if the winds would change. Thirteen years was a long time; he'd learned nothing from them if not endurance. At least he'd had a little money--Hogwarts instructors were not ill-paid--and the know-how to make it last. Other letters came, brought by owl, by toucan, even by Muggle post. Weeks passed, and stories about the unsolved search for Black gradually faded from the news. Then one day there had been a letter to make his breath stop.

/Harry may be in danger. I'm coming back. I've got to know what's going on./

Perhaps now, he had thought, as reckless shoots of hope uncurled their tendrils inside him. Perhaps they could risk it. But Sirius had charged straight to Hogwarts, blazing with protective fire, and all the letters after had been full of Harry, frustration, rising alarm. When he understood that the threat was immediate and real, Remus felt grateful that Sirius was there at the scene, acting as watchdog when he himself could not. His worry for Harry did much to subdue the whimpers within him, the small voice that had begun to ask, with the quiet, bewildered pain of an abandoned creature: /Will I ever see you again at all?/

There comes a point, he had discovered, in the exercise of true patience, when the yearning for resolution must at last dissolve. In the end there was nothing for him to do but relinquish hope--not to push it aside entirely, just to release his grip on it, to let go of the thing that was searing his palms. He had done that, or tried to.

He would be hard put not to grasp at it again, now that Padfoot had come to his door.

Remus looked down. For a long while his hand kept moving, stroking the matted, grimy fur. Precious fur. He knew how smooth it could be, how it would feel when it was clean again. His fingers remembered. They remembered other things as well.

His hand went still. He would have to be careful of remembering too much.

"It's good to have you back," he whispered.

The dog was deaf with sleep, and only the empty bowl heard him.

//
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