The Sugar Quill
Author: Canis M. (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: A Fearsome Business  Chapter: Chapter Three: Shadows Risen
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Chapter 3: Shadows Risen

~ ~ ~

Morning came, a slow, murky shading from darkness into grey. The rain had ended in the night, but the smell of it still bathed the fellsides, the sloping hills, the somnolent cottage. Lingering wet slicked the banks of the tarn, whose resident had just emerged from her lair.

She rose from the water in horse-shape, flanks gleaming, and waded up the bank until her hooves touched not mud but mossy ground. After a long, lazy stretch, she tossed her head, flinging droplets as she shook the skein of weeds in her mane. She did not bother to make herself beautiful. There was no need for that until she set off in search of two-legged prey.

Briefly she flicked her ears toward the cottage. It would be best, she supposed, to stay well clear of it. She had no desire to tangle with the wolf, and trying to eat his guest would probably be poor manners. Besides, wounded or not, any creature that kept company with a werewolf was likely to have fangs of its own.

If she went in the other direction, up the narrow valley that held the tarn, there would be nothing but rocks and sheep.

Sheep.

Perhaps just a nibble, then, to whet her appetite for other meat.

Baring her teeth in a razor-white flash, she sprang into a canter that carried her around the tarn's rim. Water was her element, but still it felt delicious to be on land and running, treading firm earth instead of lake-bottom silt. Gravity dragged at her limbs, and she reveled in testing her strength against it. She was not young: none of her kind were young. Her hooves, however, were as flinty as they'd always been, her muscles as limber, her legs as spry.

Before she knew it, she had overtaken a ragtag Herdwick flock, and was forced to slow her pace to keep from startling the animals into bolting. Some of the flock--the older and wiser members, perhaps--did take to their heels, scrambling up the side of the fell as if altitude might afford them some protection. There were stragglers, though, and a few held back to eye her curiously. From among them she singled out a young, white-faced ewe, one that peered up at her with dumb interest, seeing only the form of a fellow grass-eater.

She almost grinned. It was far too easy. No sport at all.

She lunged.

Too late the ewe tried to dart away, only to slip and stumble as jaws seized its wooly neck. Bleating tore the air, and the other sheep scattered, their eyes rolling with panic. Fleeing hoofbeats hammered a warning on the scree of the rock slope: /Not a horse, not a horse--danger, danger--EACH UISGE!/

Then the bleating and flailing stopped.

By midmorning, nothing lingered on the banks of the tarn but hoofprints, and a dull, fleshy lump that quivered at the water's edge: the liver of the slaughtered ewe.

~ ~ ~

Sirius was sleeping late, thought Remus. He'd been about to fetch himself a second cup of tea, but he couldn't resist the impulse to creep past the parlor, just to check, just to make sure that the previous day had been real. Yes, there was the pea-green sofa, hideous as ever, and on it the dark shape--in the end Sirius had refused to put him out of his bed, despite Remus' protests. But it wasn't a man sprawled too-tall and rangy across the cushions: it was Padfoot, nose tucked under one folded paw.

Remus stared. Granted, the sofa was a bit cramped for someone of Sirius' height--that was one of the reasons he'd argued that Sirius shouldn't be made to endure it. But he'd seen Sirius settled in last night with a blanket, ankles protruding from borrowed pajamas like those of a little boy who'd outgrown his old trousers. Why go to bed human, and later transform?

Then, as he watched, the dog's limbs began to twitch. At first it was only a flutter, the same subtle quivering Remus had seen the other night on the kitchen floor. An instant later, though, the black forelegs thrashed out as if to repel something, or to leap away in mortal terror. Eyes still closed, Padfoot whimpered.

/Of course./ Remus drew a tight breath. He was a fool not to have realized sooner. Swiftly he went to the sofa and sat down on the edge of it, reaching to cradle the furry head in his hands.

"Padfoot." He stroked as though to soothe a fevered child. "Sirius, wake up. You're dreaming."

With a wrench the dog jerked out of sleep. He lurched nearly to his feet, eyes flaring open. When he saw who was beside him, he went stiff. He blinked for a moment at Remus, ears flattening, then cowered down on the sofa with an almost inaudible whine.

"Shh," whispered Remus. "It's all right. It's over now. It's all right." He could dare things with Padfoot that he wouldn't with the man: it felt like no trespass to stroke the dog's ruff, reeling him back into the waking world, away from nightmares of cloaked figures and soul-stealing cold. He kept up his litany for a long time. Only when Padfoot gave a shuddering sigh did he fall silent, patting the dog once more before withdrawing his hands. Released, Padfoot burrowed into the green cushions, trying to hide himself amid their ugliness.

Remus laid his palms on his knees, careful to keep them from straying again toward black fur. It seemed there would be little use in asking whether Sirius wanted to talk about it. Regret chafed him; for a heedless instant he wished that Sirius hadn't had to sleep alone. But it would be easy, too easy, to tumble down the steep slope of comfort, to offer far more than was wanted or needed. He closed his eyes.

"I'll let you wake up a bit more, shall I?" he murmured, gathering his weight beneath him. "I'll be in the kitchen. You take your time."

He had turned toward the door, leaned forward, was halfway to standing when a rigid grip closed on his arm. It dragged him down and backward, pulling him off-balance. He heard a ragged indrawn breath before an arm locked around his waist, and sudden warmth pressed into his shoulder, his back. It pushed and clung like a frightened animal, but the shape of it was human.

Remus kept still, unbreathing for fear that the motion of exhalation might startle Sirius away. There was a hand clenching in the cloth of his robes, just above his stomach. He felt the plea in it, the words Sirius could or would not speak: /Stay, don't go, don't leave me alone with this, not yet./ The other man held him fast, face hidden against his shoulderblade; Remus could not turn or open his arms, could not offer anything more than to be a solid presence, an anchor against whatever tides of nightmare still buffeted his friend. His mind flashed to their last meeting in the Shrieking Shack, how he had pulled into his embrace a limp, stunned body, so thin--oh, too thin--the flesh whittled down to nothing but vengeance and bones. How Sirius in his arms had been still as someone knocked unconscious, had only just begun to lean forward into him when Hermione screamed.

His own fingers found the taut knuckles, covered them. He let himself breathe and relax. There was silence for a while.

"Do you always sleep as Padfoot?" he asked at last.

A nod against his shoulder.

"Because of the dreams?"

Another nod. He felt Sirius shift, face turning to one side. The words came haltingly, still thick with sleep. "They're not any...less vivid, but they are...easier to bear, as a dog. I forget them faster." Little by little the grip on Remus' arm began to unclench. "And I suppose I got in the habit while I was on the run. I tried to sleep in human shape once, at Arabella's. I thought maybe in a real bed, in a safe house...but I woke up screaming. I think I frightened her cats witless."

The hand slid out from under his; the arm unwound from his waist. Remus half-turned, ready to object. He froze again as Sirius' forehead lifted from his shoulder, and space returned between them.

"Dreamless sleep potions are easy enough to come by," he said, speaking over the catch in his throat. Strange that not until now did his heart begin to batter against his ribcage, the tightness in it blooming into ache. Only the barest thread of restraint kept him from reaching and gathering the other man into his arms again, as he'd done that night in the Shack. Or perhaps it was merely cowardice; he himself was unsure. "I could probably brew one."

"If I start taking those things, I might never stop."

The words were bleak. Remus nodded. "You'd have to be careful. But I'll make one if you like." He looked over at Sirius, who had leaned back into the sofa, shoulders hunched. The other man's face darkened as he lifted a hand to rub at his eyes.

"I'll be all right," he said, then muttered something that might have been an apology.

Remus made a small sound of negation. "Could you eat breakfast, do you think?"

At that Sirius gave a little huff. "I can always eat."

"I'll go and fix something, then." Remus got to his feet, willing himself to step away, to leave the room. "Take your time," he added, and heard Sirius mumble a reply.

The walk down the hallway seemed oddly long, almost vertiginous. Remus tried to keep his pace steady, to clear his mind by thinking of what to make for breakfast. He'd long fallen out of the habit of preparing real meals; there seemed no point to it when one was cooking only for oneself. But here was an opportunity, a reason to revive his skills, such as they were. He would make something good, something hearty. Scrambled eggs and fried mushrooms, the way Sirius had always liked them. Bacon, maybe. Toast and marmalade.

And perhaps, to banish the dream Dementors, some hot chocolate.

~ ~ ~

Breakfast seemed to fortify Sirius. His tense, hunted look gradually eased, and he inhaled everything edible that Remus set in front of him. He was just murmuring appreciation around a final mouthful of eggs when something rapped at the kitchen window. At the sound Sirius went rigid, fork clutched like a weapon in one hand.

"Must be the post," Remus said calmly, rising to check. Pushing aside the curtains, he saw the round, disgruntled face of a familiar owl--Arabella's grey Oberon--and beyond that, perched on the nearby trellis, another bird, this one snowy white. "Well, it seems to be a two-owl day." He opened the window to let the birds in, then helped to relieve Oberon of the small package he bore. As the snowy owl hopped inside, rustling her wings, Remus heard an exclamation of muffled startlement from behind him.

"That's Hedwig."

Sirius had risen from the table. He was smiling as he approached the bird, all tension forgotten. The owl swiveled her head and bobbed at him by way of greeting. Sirius extended a finger. After brief scrutiny, Hedwig gave it a polite nibble.

"Friend of yours?"

"She's Harry's."

"Ah." Remus picked up the letter that the owl had deposited on the countertop. "She's brought something for a Mr. Snuffles."

"That's me," said Sirius. He grinned at Remus' raised eyebrows, then ripped into the letter the instant Remus handed it over.

"From Harry, I take it."

"Mm." Sirius frowned over the parchment.

"How is he?"

"As well as can be expected, considering."

"Is he back with the Dursleys for the summer?"

"Yes," Sirius spat. "And they ought to be flogged, the three of them. Harry hardly complains at all, but some of the things Arabella told me about those people...I'd have gone in as Padfoot and destroyed their entire garden, but they'd only have forced Harry to clean up the mess. I couldn't get inside the house, of course. The protections on that place are beyond anything I could slip past."

Remus kept quiet, lest he fuel the fire of anti-Dursley animosity. It wasn't that he didn't share the general poor opinion of Lily's sister's family, but Sirius was more than capable of tending that conflagration on his own. "You did get to see Harry, though, when you were at Arabella's?"

Eyes on the letter, Sirius nodded. "He came to visit." He fell silent then, brooding over whatever Harry had written.

Remus began to unbundle the small package Arabella had sent. It rattled curiously as he turned it, and when he pulled the paper wrappings away, he laughed to see what lay within: a container of herbal vitamin supplements. There was a note, too. He turned the paper into the light and squinted. As he skimmed it, he laughed again, and Sirius looked up.

"Arabella says, 'No offense, Remus dear, but I don't trust either of you to feed yourselves properly. See that he takes two of these a day.'" Remus displayed the vitamins. "She says it wouldn't do me any harm to take them, either. And she'll send more when these run out. Oh, hang on, there's a PS. 'You'll be tickled to hear that when September arrives, I may be stepping into some old shoes of yours at Hogwarts.'" He blinked. "Good Lord. That must mean she's going to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts."

"What's she going to do with all of her bloody cats at Hogwarts?"

"They'll have the run of the castle, I'm sure." Remus rattled the pills. "You'd better do as she says. Snuffles."

Sirius grinned again. "It's my new alias."

"I see."

"What, don't you fancy it?"

"I'm just partial to the original, I suppose."

He had meant it lightly. Perhaps he should have been quicker to feel the chill in the silence that followed--the deadness in it ought to have warned him. By the time regret began to prickle down his nape, infecting his spine, Sirius had already turned away from him.

"The original." The other man's voice was low. Remus could see the tightness of his grip on Harry's letter, the way the skin whitened over his knuckles. "Well. I can't blame you for that."

"Sirius--"

"But I'm afraid there's not much of it left." Sirius stalked toward the door to the hall, taking the letter with him. "I'll be in the shower."

His footsteps echoed down the hallway, clipped and biting. Remus listened for a moment, on the verge of calling after him, then turned to Hedwig, who was glaring after the departed man with an expression of mild affront, feathers ruffled.

"Well, blast," he murmured. He went to the table and picked a tiny piece of bacon from his own plate. "Don't mind him," he said to the snowy owl, proffering the tidbit. "He's had a rough time of it. But I expect you know that by now." Even as he spoke the words, he couldn't quite blame Hedwig for looking as she did. Still, one had to make allowances.

Hedwig accepted the bacon, gulping it down as delicately as any raptor could. Oberon, too, demanded a treat, and Remus poured a dish of water for each of them. When both birds had rested to their satisfaction, he opened the window and sent them on their way.

He glanced then at the dishes on the table. The half-drunk mug of chocolate could stay where it was; it could be reheated later if Sirius wanted it. Pulling out his wand, he pushed back the sleeves of his robe and set about cleaning up. Soon suds were geysering in the sink as the dirty plates merrily soaped themselves.

Not much left, thought Remus, his mind only half on the dishwashing charm. Was it true? There was no denying that Sirius was changed, that Azkaban had marked him fiercely. This morning's nightmare had proved that. Still, Remus thought, still--there was that unabashed grin, the brightness in the blue eyes. A name like "Snuffles." He shook his head, dunking a saucer into the soapy water with a single wand-flick. Changed, yes. But not beyond recognition. As the water splashed and dishes clinked, he let himself wonder what Sirius might be like now if he'd never been framed for murder, if Azkaban had never held him. Wondered, just for the fleetest of instants, what might have become of them. Would things still have ended as they had? Or would Sirius have regretted, and--

His wand hand slipped, and a jet of hot water scalded his bare wrist. He hissed, muttering mild epithets at himself. Divination had never been his subject, be it of past or future. His arms were full just with managing the present. And it was ridiculous to expect that the pair of them--if one could be so liberal as to call them a pair of anything--would settle into some cozy routine of domesticity. After so long apart, they were bound to jostle one another if thrown into constant company. Besides, it was only natural for Sirius to grow fretful in idleness: he needed occupation as much as he needed rest.

Remus pondered as he began the drying spell. There was something that might do--if Sirius didn't take it badly. If it didn't strike him only as a further reminder of what had been lost. It would be a risk--but they would get nowhere without taking a risk now and then. By the time the other man returned from the shower, Remus had made up his mind.

Sirius cleared his throat as he wandered into the kitchen, damp-headed, awkward in all his motions. His glance darted first to the table, then to the sink. "I would have helped," he said. "With the dishes."

"Next time," said Remus easily, straightening his sleeves. "Come here for a minute, would you? I want to show you something."

Sirius blinked, then followed him out of the kitchen to the back door. "Outside?"

"In the shed, there." Remus pushed aside the curtain and nodded toward the far end of the garden.

Mouth flat, Sirius furrowed his brow. Remus glanced through the window again. There was no one about--there never was anyone about, except for the occasional bedraggled hillwalker--but he supposed it was sensible of Sirius to be wary. An escaped convict did not elude capture for more than two years without exercising caution. When Remus turned back to the other man, Sirius had changed into Padfoot, and the dog was looking up at him.

Ducking his head, Remus opened the door and gestured. "After you," he said. Padfoot trotted down the steps and out onto the grass. At the edge of the vegetable beds he paused, waiting for Remus to catch up, and then padded the rest of the way at Remus' heels.

The garden shed was sturdy enough: a generous person might have called it charmingly rustic. It had once been white, but the color of the wood had long since degenerated to a chipped and flaking grey.

"Needs to be repainted, I know," Remus murmured as he unlocked the door with his wand. "If we get a dry day, you might have to help me." He pushed the door open, and Padfoot slipped in ahead of him.

There were no windows. When Remus tugged at the light switch, the bulb overhead flickered, casting its dingy shine on the concrete floor. A few spades and trowels leaned near the doorway, and a vast, canvas-covered lump hulked against one wall. Sirius transformed again, and stood looking about himself. Remus saw his eyes fix on the gouges that marred the wood of each wall, heard his sharp intake of breath.

"Is this where you--"

"Yes."

Sirius made a feeble noise. "It's tiny."

"Well, one cage is much like another."

There was no reply. Then again, Sirius knew about cages now. Shaking himself slightly, Remus took a step toward the tarpaulin-covered lump. "But that's not what I wanted to show you," he said, unable to repress the kick of excitement that started in his belly. "This is."

He'd never been the one with a flair for dramatics: that was Sirius. Still, when he pulled away the canvas cover to reveal what lay beneath, he was filled with the pride of a magician who has just stunned his audience mute. He couldn't take his eyes from Sirius' face, from the pure shock unfolding there, and the disbelief that rode hard behind it.

"Oh," Sirius said, his voice a rasp. "Remus."

The Black Shadow gleamed like something coiled and alive. Not even the shed's dimness could diminish its charisma, or subdue the seamless interplay of chrome and jet. There were times when Remus could have sworn that the motorbike knew its own radiance; it seemed to pose and flex as light rippled off its stainless steel mudguards, off the glossy petrol tank blazoned with the Vincent badge. The headlight winked. Every surface was polished, buffed, spotlessly clean: while he remained ignorant of the machine's inner esoterics, Remus had seen to that much, at least. Further repairs would have to be left to the real owner.

Still staring as if at a phantom, Sirius started forward, faltered, then reached out. His hand slid over the smooth, subtle curve of the leather seat. He began to shake his head, almost convulsively. His mouth opened several times before he managed even a single word.

"How?"

"I wrote to Dumbledore," said Remus quietly. "Seems Hagrid had been keeping it locked up somewhere at Hogwarts, untouched. I think Dumbledore must have spoken with him, and they sent it to me. Hagrid didn't begrudge it. It belongs to you, after all." He smiled a little. "I move it outside when I transform, of course. I hate to think of the state it would be in otherwise."

Sirius drew his hand back. "I couldn't--I can't possibly ride it. I'd be seen."

"Not now," Remus said. "But you will. After your name's been cleared."

The hand fisted; Sirius clenched it, covered his mouth. His eyes, as they met Remus', were liquid, broken. Roughly he turned back to the bike, then crouched down beside it.

"Do you know if Hagrid did anything to--"

"I've no idea what he did with it. But I get the feeling he knows a good deal more about caring for dragons than motorbikes."

Sirius began to mutter fervidly. "This battery's dead and corroded--I'll have to drain the fuel system--oh, hell, the carburetor must be--"

Remus smiled. The bond between man and bike was one he'd never fully understood, but the sight of Sirius intent on the Shadow was like a turned key clicking into place, an engine revved after long quiescence. It brought to his mind the giddy pleasure of riding, being tucked behind a lean body, clinging to that steady heat as wind and cloud and stars whipped past them. Maybe he was too old for that sort of thing now--but if the chance ever did come again, he knew that being too old would do nothing to stop him.

"I'll, ah, leave you two to get reacquainted, then," he murmured, edging toward the door.

"Remus."

He paused. Sirius was trying to look at him, trying to speak.

"I can't tell you--how much this--"

He shook his head. "It's yours." There was weight in the words, sure as stone; he knew Sirius could hear it by the way the blue eyes widened. He wondered if Sirius would understand that he meant more than just the bike. "I wanted to give it back to you."

When he stepped outside, he found that the sun had broken through the clouds. Squinting, he raised a hand to his brow and peered up at the stripe of clear sky. A small contentment settled in him, warm as the feel of sun on skin. Perhaps he would get some work done in the garden at last.

~ ~ ~

"What is this? What IS it?"

Carolina shivered, and the quill between her fingers shook. If only the wall weren't quite so thin.

"Well, you've got eyes, haven't you? I should think it's clear enough what it is!"

Her mother and father had been in the study shouting at each other since dinner. Carolina hated shouting. She hated it most of all when her parents were the ones doing it.

"Those people...I never asked you to...never WANTED you to get involved in something like--"

There had been a frightful amount of shouting lately. Always before the topics had been well-rehearsed, her mother's voice rising to halfhearted heights of frustration about the ignominy of the shop, the shame of living like Muggles, Carolina's prospects of attending school. That had been bad enough--it made Carolina sick with stomach-deep misery to think that she might be the cause of her parents' feuds. Sometimes afterward her father would notice her wan face, would take her aside and explain that Carolina was not to blame: if Mum was upset, it was Daddy's fault, and Carolina mustn't worry--they'd sort things out sooner or later. Usually Carolina allowed herself to be reassured.

Tonight, though, there was a wilder pitch to the argument. She couldn't make out all the words, but the fury in them was clear enough.

"I'm telling you, I've been careful! Think of it as an opportunity!"

"Opportunity for WHAT?"

Bending over her desk, Carolina finished scribbling her letter as quickly as she could. If nothing else, her parents were preoccupied. Now was a perfect chance to run her errand. Sealing the letter in an envelope, she wrote the address on the outside, then rose from her chair and padded barefoot from the bedroom. She tiptoed down the stairs, weaving expertly from side to side, avoiding all the spots that might creak under her weight. In the study above the argument continued unabated; her exit hadn't been noticed. Breathing relief, Carolina hurried down the hall, then slipped through the back door of the post office into the owlery.

The room was very dark, and smelled mustily of feathers. Only two birds rested on their perches: the others were out on deliveries. The owls stirred at her entrance, but they knew her, and showed no alarm.

"Hello, Frodo," Carolina whispered to the first. He hooted at her softly, and she smiled. "Hello, Sam," she said to the other. Samwise was actually a female owl, but when Carolina's mother had named the birds years ago, in a rare spasm of sentimentality toward animals, she'd shown little concern for such details as which were girls and which were boys. Carolina didn't mind; odd names pleased her, and any names were better than numbers, which she knew some post offices used for their service birds.

At Carolina's beckoning, Sam opened her wings, hopping down to the lowest perch so that Carolina could reach her. "I need a favor." Carolina gave the letter to the owl, who opened a claw to receive it. "You've got to deliver this tonight. Wait for the reply, then bring it to my window. Got that?"

Sam blinked, then clicked her beak agreeably. She had the sweetest nature of all the post owls, although her slowness made her unfit for anything but local deliveries.

"Good. I'll be waiting."

With a final dip of her head, Sam sprang into the air and winged upward, vanishing through the open window near the owlery's ceiling. Carolina said her goodbyes to Frodo, then crept back into the house and reluctantly mounted the stairs.

The shouting in the study had receded into heated murmurs. Somehow that quiet was almost more frightening than the row had been. Pausing on the landing, Carolina heard a name that made her freeze in her tracks.

"...Interested in that Lupin fellow...used to teach at Hogwarts...sent packing...."

Breathless, she strained to catch more, but her father's voice dwindled to an indistinct drone, and Carolina could understand none of it. Biting her lip, she hoped Samwise would hurry, and ghosted silently back to her room.

~ ~ ~

When he returned to the house for the evening, Sirius was grease-stained and slightly scruffier for his hours in the shed, but in his gait there was a looseness, in the set of his shoulders a tired ease that Remus was glad to see. Closing the German dictionary that lay open on the table in front of him, Remus set down his quill.

"What's the prognosis?"

"She needs work, but she'll fly," said Sirius. He stopped, stretched, wiped a dark smear from his palm. Then he pointed toward the air behind him. "Look what followed me in."

A winged shape glided into the room, and Remus sat up in surprise as it resolved into a large grey owl. For a moment he thought it was Oberon, back with an extra shipment of vitamins--but this bird was too plump to be Arabella's, and the burden it bore was the slimmest of envelopes.

"At this hour?" he murmured, reaching out to catch the letter that dropped into his hands. He blinked rapidly at the stationery, which was carnation pink. The owl, meanwhile, was making a spectacularly clumsy landing on the back of one of the empty chairs. "That's odd. It's from the Connistons."

"Remus?"

"Hm?"

Sirius was staring at his nose. "What have you got on your face?"

Involuntarily Remus' fingers flew to the thin, gold rims of his glasses. "Oh, these," he said. "They're only for reading. I got them--I suppose it must be more than a year ago now." Sirius looked so nonplussed that he almost chuckled. "You can stop gawking. We're neither of us getting any younger, you know. Here, come and read. It's addressed to you as well."

"To me?" Still rubbing vaguely at the stains on his hands, Sirius drew near enough to frown over Remus' shoulder, and they read the letter together.

~ ~ ~

Dear Mr. Lupin & Mr. Paddy,

Perhaps you will not remember me but we met at the shop yesterday. I was very pleased to meet you. My father says you do not come to the shop often but I would like to see Mr. Paddy again. May I come to visit at your house tomorrow?

I know the way to Cairnswater so I can find it.

Please RSVP. Samwise will wait. THANK YOU very much.

Yours Truly, Carolina Conniston

~ ~ ~

End Chapter 3.

 

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