“Are you sure you weren’t followed?” said Remus Lupin, scanning the rain-washed grey streets.
The great, shaggy black dog crouched in his doorway gave him a very narrow glare, which Lupin interpreted to mean, Positive. The growl was muffled by the small, trembling, thoroughly waterlogged grey kitten it held in its jaws.
Lupin pushed the door open wider and the dog padded inside, as naturally as though this were its own flat. It deposited the kitten on the floor, glanced over its shoulder to make sure Lupin had shut and locked the door, then proceeded to turn into a tall, very thin man with long, matted raven hair and filthy, threadbare grey robes.
“I can only stay for a short while,” said Sirius Black. “The Dementors are still searching for me and if they do spot me it wouldn’t do for you to be anywhere near.” He leaned heavily against the wall and groaned. “But I need a break.”
“What can I do?” said Lupin. The way he said it, it didn’t sound like a question.
Black did not open his eyes. “Feed Buckbeak, wherever he’s gotten…” The transfigured hippogriff had vanished from sight, but a low, unhappy-sounding mewling betrayed its refuge under a chair in the other room. “Get me clean clothes, and something that’ll cut…scissors.”
“I’ll get you my Unerring Shears and I’ll make some tea. Sit down, meantime, or…” Lupin looked at the other man, took in the waxy, pallid skin, the grimy hair. “Or better yet, take a shower. This way.” He started back through the kitchen, but stopped and turned back when he realized Black wasn’t following. The other man still stood in the hall, his head tilted back against the wall, his eyes closed. “What is it?” Lupin asked softly. He narrowed his eyes and scanned Black’s robes again, this time for bloodstains. “Are you hurt…?”
“I had him, Remus,” Black whispered, his voice utterly devoid of emotion. “I had him at wandpoint. One curse… Or I could have ripped out his throat with my teeth. But that slippery, slimy coward, he got away from me again…”
“He did,” said Lupin, taking Black by the arm and leading him away from the wall and, stumblingly, through the kitchen. “We’ll work with that. He won’t get a third chance, now we trust each other.”
Black gave a short, bitter bark of laughter, and let himself be led.
In the small bathroom, Lupin gave Black an armload of relatively clean towels, the Unerring Shears, and pointed out the various shampoos and soaps. “Let the water run for a minute; it takes a while to heat. These Muggle pipes… It’s not what I’m used to, but it’s only temporary, until I find a better place…”
“It’s better than what I’m used to,” Black said shortly, without meeting his gaze.
Lupin left him quickly, saying he’d leave fresh robes outside on the floor.
Alone, Black gripped the sink with both hands and lifted his head, forced himself to look into the mirror.
“Seen better days, have you, dear?” the mirror said empathetically.
It was like staring out a window at a stranger’s face. The last time he’d looked at himself--really looked, not merely caught a glimpse in a dirty puddle or an iron bar--had been twelve years ago, before he’d been framed for the murder of James and Lily Potter, Peter Pettigrew, and twelve innocent Muggles. He’d been quite young then, and proud of his good looks. Now… He supposed he was still young, only in his thirties, but though he searched he could find little trace of the handsome young man he’d once been. Light seemed to disappear into the sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. The hair… Well, that he could do something about. The Aurors and Dementors would be searching for a slovenly man with a long, tangled mane, so he’d not be that man.
The Unerring Shears cut through the filthy hair easily. He had not expected to feel younger as the locks fell down his back and onto the floor, and he did not; if anything he felt more exposed. But it was necessary.
He put down the Shears, took his wand from his robes, and Banished the cut hair. Next he went to the door and listened. Once he was satisfied that the only sounds to be heard were Remus moving about in the kitchen, and the confused hippogriff, he went to the shower and turned on the tap.
Cold water sputtered and shot out, hissing, onto the porcelain. At once, panic seized him. Too loud… “Quietus,” he muttered, and the hiss became a soft shhhh. He waited a few moments for the water to heat up, and to be perfectly certain he, Remus, and Buckbeak were the only living things in the flat. Once he was sure, he disrobed quickly and stepped under the water.
He had not expected the years to slough off him under the hot water’s onslaught, and they did not--but he’d expected to feel at least a little refreshed, and he did not feel that, either. He felt, instead, as though the water, like all things, was beating him down, chipping away at him, intent on finding his soul, his secrets.
But my secrets are there for the taking. They always have been. But they weren’t the secrets anyone wanted.
He dropped his head so that the water splashed onto his neck, put his palms against the porcelain, and looked down at his feet. The water sloshing about his ankles and running down into the rusted drain was almost opaque with dirt. How much of him was dirt and grime, and how much flesh? He wondered. If he looked in the mirror after this shower, would pieces of him be missing? Had he been in Azkaban so long that the place had somehow grafted onto him, protected though he was by his innocence?
He was contemplating the shampoo when he heard soft footsteps outside the bathroom, and then there was a knock on the door.
“Don’t come in,” he croaked, groping for the tap.
“I’m not coming in,” Lupin assured him. “I’m putting fresh robes on the floor. Also--what do you feed a hippogriff that’s been transfigured into a cat?”
“Anything,” Black answered, anxious for the other man to be gone. If he should come in, if he should see… “We’ve been living off pigeons and…” His lips curled in distaste, “…Rats. Any kind of meat, I don’t know…”
Black’s heartbeat did not slow until the sound of the other man’s footsteps had receded. He inhaled deeply, grabbed the shampoo bottle, and ducked back under the water.
He trusted Remus. He was, after all, the first person in twelve years who’d been willing to hear him out (although it had taken all that time and the unexpected reappearance of another long-lost friend to convince him to listen.) He had no choice but to trust Remus. He was the only one who could provide him with the information he needed to keep his godson safe. And since Harry was, at the moment, beyond his reach, Remus was his only link to the old days.
Still, some instinct told him to keep his old friend at a distance. The instinct, he suspected, had more to do with himself than with Remus. For too long he’d had none but himself to rely upon.
And anyway, should anything happen to him, Remus must not, under any circumstances, be implicated. James would never forgive him for that. He’d never forgive himself.
The bathroom lights went out and came back on again suddenly, startling Sirius from his thoughts. He turned off the tap and listened. “Coming!” he heard Remus call, loudly.
Someone must be at the door.
Hastily, and silently, Sirius left the shower. Ignoring the low wolf whistle the mirror gave him, he opened the door a crack and gathered the clothes Remus had left. He closed the door quietly and dressed, listening intently the while. Remus was taking his time getting to the door. Good…
Once he was dressed, he Banished his old robes, opened the door again, became a dog, and hurried to where Remus stood greeting the man framed in the open front doorway.
He was a wizard; Sirius caught the outline of a wand beneath his cloak. His hands were scarred, as was what little of his face Sirius could see. An Auror, he thought, and felt a cold prickle of fear along his neck and shoulders.
“Sorry I took so long,” Remus was saying, not sounding particularly sorry. “I was…” He glanced down at Sirius, “…bathing my dog…” There was a pause and for an irrational second Sirius thought Remus was waiting for his confirmation. He gave it by shaking himself dry--all over Remus. “…Snuffles,” Remus finished coldly.
Snuffles? Sirius growled darkly.
“Snuffles,” said the Auror, looking somewhat askance from one to the other. “Looks more like Killer, if you ask me.”
“Nobody asked you,” said Remus smoothly, laying a hand on the back of Sirius’s neck and gripping the coarse hairs. “Believe me, he’s no Killer. Although some may find that hard to believe.”
“Is it really safe for you to own a dog, Lupin?” the Auror asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Quite. I’m taking measures to ensure that what happened at Hogwarts this summer will never happen again. Snuffles here is my reminder that I must never be so careless again. Now, is there anything I can do for you? Would you care to come in? Some tea, perhaps? It’s still raining, I see.”
“No, no.” The Auror swiped at the drops that clung to his cloak. “Just checking to see you’re settled. Orders from the Ministry…”
“These are temporary accommodations, but I’d appreciate the Ministry’s concern a little more if I were sure your presence here had nothing to do with the accusations of Severus Snape. I should think Albus Dumbledore’s assurances that I had nothing to do with Black’s escape should suffice.” The fingers tangled in Sirius’s fur dug more deeply.
Sirius stole a glance at Remus’s face (a difficult thing to do in his current form). He could not see his eyes, but his jaw was clenched tightly.
“If that will be all,” said Remus, firmly but not impolitely, “there’s a minor flood in the bathroom, to which I must attend.”
Sirius growled again, more quietly, but the message was plain: clear off.
The Auror nodded, cast a glance over Remus’s shoulder at the flat and, having decided, apparently, that everything was in order, took his leave, mumbling a farewell and what might have been an apology.
Remus waited until the Auror had disappeared completely, then closed the door and locked it. “Wait a minute,” he said to Sirius. A quick sweep of his wand and a detection charm revealed no magical spying devices.
“That was a warning, I suppose. A reminder. They trust me, though,” he said, sounding relieved. “Well, that’s good for both of us. Exaresco,” he muttered, pointing the wand at his own wet robes. Then he glanced at Sirius, who had transformed. “I suppose I deserved that.”
“Snuffles,” Sirius barked in rejoinder. “And twelve years.” He stalked over to a chair in the tiny den and threw himself down in it. Buckbeak peeked out at him from behind a stack of books on the other side of the room, his great golden eyes wide. Sirius twitched his fingers invitingly, but Buckbeak only gave a small, rather un-kittenish squawk, and disappeared behind the books.
“What was I to do?”
Remus sank into the chair opposite his. His hands rested, palms up, on his knees. His expression was of deep regret, though there was no apology in his tone. “If I’d known, Sirius. If I’d suspected for one second that it was Peter and not you, be damn sure I’d be the first in line to break down the door to your cell in Azkaban.” He stopped and glanced at the other man uncertainly. But when Sirius offered no rebuke, he went on. “And there was no evidence.”
“There was no trial, either,” said Sirius, savagely. “If there had been, who knows what might have been unearthed. Priori incantatem. A few drops of Veritaserum. The only thing Wormtail really had going for him was his timing. By the time I was captured enough Dark wizards had been released for giving information. No doubt Barty Crouch wanted to show a firm hand. So no one asked…”
“I was in mourning,” said Remus heavily. “And not thinking. There was nothing I could have said, anyway. We’d been too close. I’d have been suspected, too. Of course I would, being what I am. I’d lost so much already. All my friends, the only people who trusted me. I couldn’t lose my freedom, too. That was all I had left. It was cowardly. But I just mourned. For James and Lily, and Peter. And for you, too. You were dead to me.”
“And there was Peter sitting pretty with the Weasleys all these years, and Harry in danger…”
“Know? How could I?”
“I mean, did you suspect?”
Sirius was silent for a moment. When he answered finally, he spoke very quietly, and slowly. “I did not kill him, and I was sure he’d be too craven to take his own life. So, I wondered… I had twelve years to play over different scenarios. He could never have shown himself without arousing suspicion. Voldemort’s followers--the ones who escaped Azkaban--would have wanted a piece of him, too. Sometimes I hoped he was alive, because then I really could kill him. Remus, I don’t think I’ll be happy until I have his head between my teeth. James was like my brother. And Peter killed him, not even out of ambition, but fear…” He broke off. He could not think about James, now. Some time in the future when he’d put a great deal more time between himself and Azkaban, perhaps he’d be able to recall some of the happy times he knew he must have spent with his friend. The dementors had sucked them out of him early in his incarceration, but he knew they’d existed. James was more than a reason to mourn.
In the silence, Remus conjured two cups of hot tea and a plate of Cornish pasties. Sirius took one teacup and cradled it in his hands, but he did not take a sip or touch the food.
Remus sipped his tea and waited. After a short while, during which Buckbeak clearly remembered what he really was, for he reemerged from behind the books and began strutting about the room glowering imperiously, he spoke. “So, what do you mean to do?”
“I was hoping you could tell me what I ought to do,” Sirius said. He tore off a piece of pasty and threw it to Buckbeak, who pounced eagerly. Straightening, he said, “I kept my eyes and ears open in Azkaban, but it was rare anyone from the Ministry dropped by, and almost all the prisoners went mad quickly. I need to know who I can trust. Dumbledore believes I’m innocent, I know that. But who else is there?”
“To be honest, I don’t know. I think you know Cornelius Fudge has alerted the Muggles to be on the lookout for you.”
“And of course there will be more Aurors and Dementors. They’ve been instructed to administer the Kiss on capture.”
Sirius shivered. “So there’s no one. None of our friends from Hogwarts…”
“I don’t know. You and James and Peter were my only friends at school. It’s been such a long time, anyway. Voldemort has become almost a mythological figure for so many. He was pure evil, and now he’s gone. And if he was pure evil, then clearly the ones who stood against him must have been pure good. They’d never have made mistakes. No innocents were sent to Azkaban.” Remus sounded bitter. His eyes were downcast, but Sirius saw the sparks in them.
“Mundungus,” said Sirius, grasping for names. “Arabella…Andromeda…”
“Perhaps…I don’t know…Andromeda's daughter became an Auror."
“I would go south, Sirius. I’d go to a warm, sunny place, get my strength back, and wait. You won’t find Wormtail, now. He’ll have hidden himself as far away as he can get, with the other rats…”
“I’m Harry’s guardian. I owe it to James and Lily…”
“You can’t guard him if you’re dead or--worse. James would not have wanted that.”
Sirius started at the severity in Remus’s tone. He was telling him not to be a fool, was giving him an order.
“Harry is not alone,” Remus continued forcefully. “He is safe with his relatives for the time being. At Hogwarts he has Dumbledore to watch over him. You should know as well as anyone how difficult it is to break into Hogwarts.”
“How could I not, after all the time James and I spent devising ways of evading those protections,” Sirius said dully, his gaze going to the floor. Buckbeak had finished his chunk of pasty and looked as though he wanted more. Sirius bent to tear another piece for him, but stopped. Overcome with weariness, he sagged in the chair and dropped his head. Buckbeak butted his shin insistently, but was ignored. “He has the Marauders’ Map and he’s been using it, despite all the warnings. I’ve seen him in Hogsmeade. He has James’s invisibility cloak. He’s as reckless and idiotic as we were.”
He heard Remus’s chair scrape against the wooden floor, but did not look up. He flinched when the other man placed his hands on his shoulders and squeezed.
“You and James ran with a werewolf,” said Remus, close to his ear. “No one was as reckless and idiotic as the pair of you.” He squeezed again, harder. Sirius gasped. “Harry will be all right. He’s getting older and starting to understand the dangers, finally. And he has Dumbledore and the other professors--and me--to look out for him. Even Snape has been watching him, believe it or not. But he also needs a parent figure. You’re the closest thing he has to that. That’s something you can be from far away. He can’t always go to Dumbledore or the other professors if he has a question, and he’s bound to have many. He’ll be fourteen this summer. From what I understand he can’t go to his aunt and uncle. He needs you. So instead of wasting your life on revenge, maybe you should concentrate on what help you can be to Harry by living.” He squeezed again. Sirius uttered a most doglike snarl and tried to throw him off, but Remus was stronger. He held on with one hand; he made a fist with the other and with his knuckles began to knead his way down the other man’s hunched back.
“It’s called a massage,” said Remus. “The professor of Muggle Studies at Hogwarts sent me to a Muggle spa one weekend after I’d been--taken ill. Magic seems as necessary to us as water sometimes, but I have learned that some of the best things do not require its use at all.”
“Feels like you’re pulling me apart.”
“I am trying to put you back together.”
He continued to knead and prod, and spoke over the other man’s pain-filled groans. “Listen to me, as you never listened to any teacher when you were a student. Get out of this country. Go south, and recuperate. Harry needs you to live. I need you to live. Yes, I’m a coward and I’m selfish. I need you to live. Since I was bitten I’ve had three friends, three people who really knew me.” His fingers dug deeper into the muscles of Sirius’s back and shoulders. Sirius was doubled over now, breathing heavily. “One was murdered,” Remus intoned harshly, as though he were speaking an incantation. “One betrayed and as good as murdered him. The third was also betrayed, only it took me a very, very long time to realize it.” He let go abruptly, and Sirius heard him step back. “I am sorry, my friend. I am so, so sorry for what happened.” His voice shook. “We forgave each other at Hogwarts, but I think it will be a long time before I can forgive myself. And if anything happens to you now, if I’m left the last survivor once more, I doubt I will ever forgive myself.”
Sirius lifted his head finally, turned and looked at his friend and saw him as he had never seen him before. “You had no reason to doubt my guilt.”
“You were my friend,” said the other, firmly.
“So were James and Peter.”
“Even so. Even so.” A very weak smile tugged at Remus’s thin lips. “I owe James as well. As you said, you and he were like brothers.”
Maybe it was the smile. Maybe it was the words or that fact that Sirius did feel somewhat closer to whole than he had in a long, long time. Whatever the reason, he felt the anger rushing out of him. He sank against the back of the chair, weary beyond words. The white-hot fury and desperation that had carried him so far was gone. “What should I do?” he asked dully.
“You should stay here,” said Remus. “For a few days, anyway. If you want, if you trust me that much, we can perform a Fidelius charm, so that only I will know of your whereabouts. I will make inquiries, try to determine the safest place for you. I will plant a few rumors to throw the Aurors off your trail. Once you are far from here, write to Harry and remind him that you are his godfather and that he should alert you to any problem he has, however minute. He has an unsurprising tendency to take things into his own hands,” he added with a slightly warmer smile…which fell a second later, as he said, “And you will not obsess about Wormtail. We will hunt him down together and make him answer for his actions.” The dark eyes sparked again and Sirius found himself looking up at his friend, the one he used to look out for when they were students, with a kind of awe.
“You sound,” said Sirius, “like a damn teacher.”
“I am a damn teacher. We’ve both changed…considerably. We have to work with that because…you know, we can’t go back. Ever.”
The words held such finality. Sirius knew he was right, closed his eyes, and dropped his head into his arms. Presently he felt hands in his hair again, and Remus was tilting his face back. He felt the other’s forehead rest against own, heard himself say, “Something else you can do for me…”
“What, my friend?” said Remus in a far gentler tone.
“You can tell me about us--you, me, and James. Tell me how things used to be. I know I must have happy memories because of what I feel when I think about the two of you. But I can’t remember.”
“I have pictures,” said Remus, not breaking the connection as he sank to his knees. “Of all of us. I haven’t looked at them in years, but I never threw them out. Pictures of us at Hogwarts. Some of James’s Quidditch matches…those parties in the common room…the interesting results of some of your practical jokes. I should like to look at them, too. It’s been so long I’ve forgotten the way things used to be, too.”
“Voldemort had the power to divide and manipulate,” said Sirius. “That was his greatest strength, I think. That power remained even after he fell.” He sighed. His anger had gone and some other emotion had taken its place. It was partly relief, partly hope, partly something else that had been absent for so long he could not name it.
He pressed a kiss against his friend’s brow and said, his voice rich with that unknown emotion, “But we’re not divided any more. He’s lost his power over us. We can’t go back, but if we trust each other from now on, maybe we can recover some of what we lost.”