Sirius opened his eyes to find himself on the floor, Remus’ arms around him loosely. He was cold, and his heart hammered as though he had just run a great distance. “I can’t do it,” he muttered.
“You can,” Remus insisted gently, smoothing the hair back from his face. “Harry had a difficult time with the spell as well. You’re out of practice, but you have the skill. You were able to do it without the Boggart. You can do it with one. Don’t forget you’ve already escaped your greatest fear. If you can do it once, you can do it again. And this time you’re not alone. Remember that.”
Slowly, the living room came back into focus. His side ached from knee to shoulder; he must have fallen too quickly for Remus to catch him this time. Gritting his teeth, “That’s a little hard to remember when I see those things...” he grunted.
“I know. But you must remember.” Remus gripped him so tightly then that he winced. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right. Don’t let go.”
Sirius willed his body to relax. It was not easy. He’d been so confident when Remus had first released the Boggart. But then the lights had gone out and he’d been unable to see Remus or anything but the bars closing in on him from each direction. He’d felt the cold of Azkaban, worse somehow than it ever was in his dreams, seeping into every pore, freezing his heart. The cold and the bars, he had known, would hold him until the Dementors came for his soul.
But none of it had been real, he told himself forcefully. He was safe in Remus’ arms. Remus would keep the cold away. Remus would protect him.
But it was his duty to protect Harry, his godson. And to do so effectively, he had to master the Patronus charm. Harry had once defended him against a hundred Dementors. Sirius could not do less. With Voldemort risen again and his Death Eaters gathering, it was long past time Sirius claimed the role of defender.
“Let’s try it again,” he said.
“Are you sure?” As the minutes had ticked by, Remus had not stopped stroking Sirius’ hair. Now he did, but it was to cup his cheek and tilt his head back so they were looking at each other. Remus’ fine brows were drawn together concernedly over his dark brown eyes.
Wonderful eyes, thought Sirius. How could he give up when there were eyes like that? “Yeah, I’m sure,” he said resolutely, and struggled to rise.
Remus helped him.
Once he was on his feet again, Sirius took the time to memorise the room around him. Maybe if he could keep it in his head that he was in Remus’ sparsely furnished, book-cluttered living room, the cold would not penetrate so deeply. His gaze took in pictures on the wall (Remus had actually found one of the two of them, with James, and hung it over the fireplace), the threadbare sofa where he had slept for the first few nights before relocating to Remus’ bed, and the chipped tea set they’d been using just a little while ago.
“Are you ready?” Remus knelt by the chest that held the Boggart he’d obtained in Knockturn Alley yesterday.
Sirius swept his hair back over his shoulder, rolled up his sleeves, and held his wand high.
“Are you thinking of something happy?”
He’d scoffed when Remus had told him about that particular component of the Patronus charm. I have no happy memories, he had said bluntly and taken a perverse, savage pleasure in watching his words wound the other man. The Dementors took them all, do you understand that? I can barely remember how things were--before--
That’ll come back with time. Think about after. Think about now.
I wouldn’t call the past two years a joyride…
Try, Sirius. Please, just try.
He had tried. He had thought about Harry and the joy he was sure he had not imagined in the boy’s eyes when he’d suggested they get a place together. It hadn’t worked. Once Remus had released the Boggart and his old cell had begun to take shape around him he’d remembered that he could not look after Harry as he’d promised James because he was still a murderer in the eyes of the world and Peter, the real traitor, was still on the loose. Peter--Wormtail--had helped Voldemort regain his power, had helped him catch Harry, had hurt Sirius’ godson, and Sirius had been unable to stop it. The memory of joy had been snuffed from his mind and he’d been trapped.
What else was there?
Well, there was his first night in Remus’ bed after fourteen years. There were those arms holding him tightly, as though he were in danger of slipping away. That scent, so familiar and so missed it had made his throat burn. Falling asleep with the knowledge that for once he was perfectly safe. Waking hours later, and gazing across the pillow into those wonderful eyes. There were the kisses, gentle and unhurried.
Holding that memory firmly in his mind, he nodded tersely. “Ready.”
Remus lifted the chest’s lid and the Boggart rose in the form of a cold black vapour that grew and spread.
Sirius gripped his wand.
Remus’ arms, he thought. Remus’ eyes.
The lights flickered and went out.
He could not see Remus, could not see anything of the room in which he knew he still stood. Bars slashed across his vision, rending the air.
“Expecto…” he croaked, brandishing his wand before him. “Expecto patronum…”
This isn’t real.
But it felt real. The damp, the cold, the darkness, they were all there, pressing in on him, squeezing his heart. They would wring it of every last bit of warmth and leave it for the Dementors. Any moment now he would hear their rattling breath. And there was no one who would help him, no one who would listen, no one who would hear.
No. There is Remus. There is Harry. And Dumbledore. They know. They’ll find you.
But then the bars loomed so near he was able to see his reflection multiplied over a hundred times in their cruel iron surfaces. He saw the sunken eyes, the hollowed cheeks, the wasted arms and why would anyone risk anything to save him? What good was he now? For twelve years he had failed everyone he had ever loved and he deserved to be locked away, forgotten.
“Expecto…” The incantation died on his lips.
His knees connected jarringly with the hard floor of his cell. He dropped his head and waited for oblivion…
…which did not come. Instead, as though from a great distance, he heard a voice calling what sounded like his name. Faintly curious, he struggled to rise, but the cold and dark dragged at him like chains. He could not move.
“Fine, then,” said the voice, nearer and familiar. “I’ll come to you.”
There were footsteps, and then an arm flung across his chest. Sirius choked in surprise.
“This isn’t real,” Remus said patiently, close to his ear. “You must remember that. What you’re seeing is the past. It’s over, now. I know the truth. I will never leave you in a place like this ever again. Listen to me. Sirius, can you hear me?”
He could not see. He could barely feel.
“Just hear my voice,” the other man said. “We are together and there is nothing on this earth that can separate us again. This isn’t real, but even if it were, if the worst happened, I would find you. Do you hear me? I would never leave you. I would find you wherever you were, whatever happened--” Remus’ voice sounded thick, as though he were holding back a sob. “I’m here,” he said. “When we were children you guarded me from my worst fear. I’ll guard you, now. I won’t leave you. I’m here. I can’t do this alone, though. Please fight…”
Something in the other’s tone stirred him, carried back to him, dimly, a memory--
I’m here. Look at me. I don’t care about that. You could never be less than beautiful to me. Then lips against his forehead, and arms reaching toward him, catching him and drawing him in close--
A shuddering heartbeat echoing his own.
Yes, that was part of the memory, but it was real now as well. He felt it. And the warm breath stirring his hair.
Nothing in Azkaban was warm. No one there had held him like this. For twelve years, not a single living being had touched him--
But this was not Azkaban. The bars he sensed all around him were illusion. He was in Remus’ living room, Remus knew the truth, had forgiven him, still wanted him, was holding him now, and if that, against all odds, could be true--and he knew it was--
Then no cage on earth could hold him.
“EXPECTO PATRONUM!” he roared, leaping up.
Something winged, something wild and shimmering and silver-white as moonlight flowed from his wand and soared about the room. In its wake, the darkness faded to grey and Sirius saw that the bars were immaterial as smoke. Had the great Mister Padfoot actually been tricked by a mere Boggart?
“Riddikulus!” he barked, then threw back his head and laughed as with a crack! the bars changed from grey iron to a truly lurid paisley.
He was still laughing when, a moment later, what had once resembled Azkaban vanished and the full moon shone balefully down.
“Riddikulus!” shouted Remus, who had risen beside Sirius.
The moon became a hunk of mouldy green cheese, which burst and vanished. Sirius’ Patronus circled the room once more before dissolving into a pearly mist that lingered above them for a moment, then dispersed.
Weary, Sirius and Remus sank onto the sofa together.
“Paisley?” Remus chuckled weakly as he stroked the dark hair that spilled untidily across his breast. “Remind me never to let you decorate anything for me.”
Sirius smiled and lifted his head to press a kiss against the other man’s cheek. “Courtesy, I’m sure, of all those detentions with McGonagall. And she thought they made no impression.” He was still trembling. They both were, he realised as he kissed the pulse at Remus’ throat.
“Shall we tell her she was wrong?”
“Not sure. I have a feeling this is one case where she’ll like being proved wrong.”
“Come here.” Remus guided Sirius’ head back to his chest. “Is this all right? We can move to the bed…if we can get up.”
Sirius thought of telling the other man that anywhere in the world was all right, as long as they were together, but he was afraid it would sound overly sentimental. The young man he had been would never have tolerated such rubbish. “S’fine,” he mumbled tiredly and thought that Remus understood. “Not expecting anyone, are we?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“And if a pair of Dementors should show up--say, for tea--we’re ready for them. Except the tea’s probably cold. And I’ve eaten all the biscuits.”
To his surprise, Remus’ hand clenched in his hair, and his jaw, resting on Sirius’ head, tightened. “I’m not,” he said brusquely. “Ready for you to face a pair of Dementors.”
Puzzled, Sirius craned his neck, but Remus’ eyes were closed, his expression set and difficult to read. “It was a good Patronus,” he ventured.
“It was an excellent Patronus,” said Remus, still not looking at him and not relaxing his grip. “I’m not ready for you to be in danger again. After these past two years… I need to keep you safe, if only until Dumbledore tells us what he requires of us.”
You don’t understand, Remus had said that first night, when for the first time in more than a year they’d been able to talk face to face. This past year…there wasn’t a night I slept soundly or a morning I didn’t wake feeling ill…until the Prophet arrived and I saw there was no article about your recapture. Let me have a few peaceful nights, please. Tell me you’re not about to run off again…
And, I’m not, Sirius, somewhat to his surprise, had found himself saying. He’d gone to see Remus last, not because he’d entertained any fantasies about staying in his erstwhile lover’s house despite Dumbledore’s instructions, but because he’d been scared. Time had been merciful with neither of them, and though they’d exchanged letters he’d had no idea what to expect when he and Remus were finally under the same roof again. Then he’d added, because he had not been able to stop himself and because something in Remus’ eyes had made him think that maybe one thing had withstood all the years, That’s the latter bit, you understand. The not running off bit. I can’t promise you peaceful nights.
And to his acute relief, Remus had smiled.
Remus was not smiling now. He looked, Sirius decided, frightened. “I said I wouldn’t run off,” he reminded the other man, anxious to have his loving, pliable Moony back. “I still don’t plan to. I wouldn’t go looking for trouble. And if I did--I’d take you with me.”
Sirius turned his head and looked at the window. It was raining. It had been sunny earlier. He hadn’t seen the clouds rolling in. The wind had picked up as well. He’d missed weather in Azkaban. The first time he’d felt sunlight on his cheek after twelve years in the dank dark his heart had nearly broken with joy. He’d liked the rain as well. The first time he’d been caught in a downpour, he’d turned his wrists to the sky and shivered with pleasure as the droplets fell onto the delicate skin over his veins, refreshing him. Now, after two years on the run in all types of weather he was glad to be indoors and merely watching the rain as it fell. Especially when Remus had his arms around him and was acting as though he had no intention of ever letting go.
“You meant what you said before, didn’t you? About finding me wherever I went?”
“Yes,” said the other man softly.
“And whatever happened?”
“Yes.” Remus relaxed his grip, just enough so that he could resume stroking Sirius’ hair. “I don’t intend to lose you again. I’ve lost too much already. Of all the things I’ve lost over the years, the one thing I’ve wanted back more than anything--and thought I had no chance of getting--I got.” He tugged gently on a tangle. “I’ve done nothing to deserve this good luck, but I don’t question it. I’ve done that enough in the past. I won’t take it for granted, either.”
Sirius tilted his head back, and saw that Remus was looking down at him, the brown eyes tender. But Sirius saw the faint lines at their corners, and at the corners of his mouth, pulled down in a troubled arc. Weak afternoon light fell onto the grey hairs that threaded Remus’ light brown fringe and Sirius was filled with sudden foreboding.
“I’d never let anything happen to you, either,” he said quickly. “I’d rather die.”
“Let’s talk about something else,” said Remus.
“All right.” Sirius settled himself again and turned his gaze back to the rain-streaked window. Lulled by the steady beat of Remus’ heart against his cheek, “Am I as apt a pupil as my godson?” he wondered.
“Harry will be a great wizard, some day. If he studies,” Remus added reflectively. “He’s as powerful as James ever was, when he makes the effort. He couldn’t have survived his fight with Voldemort, otherwise. His Patronus takes the form of a stag. Did you know that?”
“Yeah. Dumbledore told me. Wonder what he’ll want us to do. Dumbledore, I mean.”
“I don’t know. But until we can clear your name, you’ll be in danger from the Ministry as well as Voldemort--even with Shacklebolt on our side. Keeping you safe should be a priority. Harry needs you. I need you. So, we should probably practise some more.”
But he’d said it reluctantly, and at that moment Sirius had no desire to get up. So when Remus struggled to rise, he stayed put, using his dead weight to hold the other man down. “That can wait, can’t it? I did pretty well the last time.”
Remus sounded mildly reproving: “The day may come when, for whatever reason, I can’t be at your side, helping you. You need to be able to summon your Patronus without coaching.”
“Coaching?” said Sirius, raising an eyebrow. “Is that what that was?” Remus opened his mouth to speak again, but Sirius interrupted him hurriedly, “Come on, Moony. We have time. I need more happy memories, remember? Help me make some?” He turned his gaze plaintively up toward the other man, who smiled. “Can we not practise something else?”
Remus sank back against the sofa cushions. “Something else?” he echoed, amusement rippling his tone. “I have no complaints about the other night. Do you?”
“Not a one. I just thought…it would be nice…”
“Mmm. It would.”
“And a little practice…can never hurt,” Sirius said hopefully, feeling, despite everything, as though he were all of sixteen and urging Remus to leave off revising for one evening. Who would ever have thought that Sirius Black, once the scourge of his school, would one day find a Hogwarts professor so damned sexy? It was, he reflected with a dreaminess only lightly tinged with bitterness, all he had ever known of justice. And equally, all he had ever known of grace.
Remus kissed his forehead. “There’s time,” he agreed softly.
The summer had just begun, after all, and though sides were forming they were not yet armies. The rainfall was still a long way from becoming a storm. And it seemed to Sirius, as he reached up and drew his lover down against him, that they had all the time in the world.