Author's note: Well, it's done. After all this time the story has finally come to a close. It's ended much as I planned it, although many of the characters somehow took on lives of their own along the way and brought about developments I had never intended.
Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read my ramblings - and a lot of time it must have been. You may be interested to know that you have, according to the latest word count, now read an incredible 499,977 words of this fanfic! I swear I never meant it to get that long, it just happened.
Thanks also for all the praise and encouragement you've all given me over the years, and I hope you will enjoy this final instalment, short though it is.
One other thing. This epilogue briefly mentions a profession within the wizarding world that was not entirely my own idea. I picked it up in a fanfic I read ages ago and thought it was a brilliant idea, but I honestly can't remember who wrote that story, or I would give them proper credit here. Of course, credit also goes to J.K. Rowling for having created so many of the wonderful characters I've been playing with for the past five years :)
Anyway, that's it from me. Take care. Don't let the Nargles bite.
Epilogue: Between Wars
The dusty bottle of elf-made wine stood unopened upon the kitchen table, while the man who had opened it sat erectly on one of the mismatched chairs. His right hand was absent-mindedly playing with the empty wineglass, catching the glow of the single lit candle that stood in the middle of the table. It was not so much a candle, really, as the stump of one, with only a very short life left to it. The sort of candle most other people would have taken one look at and deemed unworthy of ever being lit again, and thrown unceremoniously into a rubbish bin. But most other people did not have to be as careful with money as the owner of this candle - correction: stump of a candle. And one last bottle of elf-made wine.
Remus John Lupin, thirty-four, werewolf, formerly Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry, remembered very clearly the occasion on which he had opened the previous bottle. August 27th, 1993. Another correction: He had not opened the bottle, it had been opened for him. His uncle had opened it, after they had returned from the cemetery. That was almost a year ago now. It seemed incredible that so much time should have passed, when the memory of that day was still so fresh in his mind, the thought of it still so painful. Yet so many things had happened since then. Things that had led him to go to the larder and take out the last bottle, and set it upon the table, ready for drinking. Things that occupied his mind so much that he had not got round to opening the bottle for dwelling on them.
Remus gave a heavy sigh and stopped playing with the glass. His left hand reached for the bottle, while his right picked up his wand. But the motion was suspended again almost immediately, as he thought he heard a strange scraping sound outside the back door and then, unmistakably, a dog barked. It was only one bark, and muffled by the door, but Remus would have known it anywhere. There were few sounds that could have been more welcome to him, or have caused him more anxiety - both at the same time.
He got quickly to his feet and wrenched open the back door. A large, black dog bounded straight into the room. By the time Remus had closed the door, bolted it and turned around, there was no sign of any dog, but a man stood before him, a man with a gaunt face and matted black hair that hung down to his elbows. The man grinned into Remus's astounded face.
"You seem surprised to see me, Moony," he said in a rough voice. "In fact, you don't look altogether pleased."
"I'd be more pleased if I wasn't so concerned," Remus replied. His voice was slightly hoarse, as it had been for years now.
"Relax, the Aurors aren't looking for stray dogs. They're hunting a notorious mass murderer on two legs, not four," Sirius Black said, dropping onto the chair Remus had vacated.
"If they happened to be watching the house," Remus said, taking the chair opposite, "what they were looking for wouldn't make much difference - they'd take what they found."
"Watching the house? Why would they do that? They don't suspect you of helping me to escape, do they?"
"According to Dumbledore, they don't. Though I wouldn't like to know just how much it cost him to persuade them."
"Good old Dumbledore," Sirius remarked. "Now there's a trusting nature, if ever there was one. Pity he didn't trust me more thirteen years ago."
"It's a pity none of us did."
"Well, I did lay a pretty incriminating trail of evidence against myself. Still, I had flattered myself that I was popular. I never dreamed my friends would believe so wholeheartedly in my guilt."
"Not wholeheartedly, Sirius," Remus amended with feeling. "Never that."
"No? I thought, after you never responded to my message ..."
Remus frowned in confusion, and Sirius's grey eyes narrowed.
"I asked Crouch to tell you I needed to talk to you. I was going to tell you the truth. Throw myself on your mercy. Hope that you would believe me I hadn't done what I was accused of - or at least, not deliberately," he finished darkly.
"Crouch never told me any such ..." Remus began, then broke off as realisation hit him. "Wait! He did say that you had mentioned my name. But he made us believe it was in some way incriminating me."
Sirius gave a snort. "Well, it wasn't. I just wanted to talk to you, that's all. When you didn't come, I thought that you'd made up your mind definitely that I was guilty." He paused, then asked, "If Crouch had told you what I'd said - would you have come?"
Slowly, Remus replied honestly, "I don't know, Sirius."
Their eyes met across the table. But where, once upon a time, such a reply might have angered Sirius, now he merely nodded his understanding.
"I don't know whether I would have, if it had been the other way round," he admitted.
Suddenly he smiled. Remus's eyebrows rose questioningly.
"I was just thinking," Sirius said. "Lily would be very happy with me, I think. She always hoped we'd set aside our differences one day, they both did. I think they'd be glad to see us sitting together at a table after all these years, sharing a bottle of wine. Well, we could be sharing it, if you'd only open it."
Now Remus smiled also. He tapped the wine bottle with his wand so that the cork flew out obligingly, and then he fetched a second glass and filled them both.
"You'd better drink it slowly, though," he warned. "That bottle's all I've got left. Some things haven't changed in the past thirteen years. Elf-made wine still doesn't come cheap."
"I thought the wages at Hogwarts weren't all that bad."
To this Remus did not reply, but drank a sip - a much smaller sip than his friend - of his wine, then set down his glass again.
"So," said Sirius, sliding a little lower on his chair, his glass still held in his hand. "What's the world like these days? What's Harry like? Apart from being the spitting image of his father."
"He seems to be like James in more ways than one, rule-breaking being one of them. But I think there's a lot of Lily in him, too."
"You think? Still the same old reserved Remus, eh? You've had thirteen years to study the boy, I'd have thought you'd have a pretty good idea ..."
"I've only had one year, actually," Remus corrected. "As you will have found out, Harry has been living with his aunt and uncle since James and Lily died. I never saw him for many years, not until I went to teach at Hogwarts, and that was only for one year."
Sirius gaped at him. "You ... what? But I thought ... what have you been doing with yourself all this time then, if not teaching?"
"A bit of this, a bit of that. Actually, I did start out with a few teaching jobs to begin with, in various parts of the country. They only ever lasted until the parents found out about my condition."
"Same old prejudice still firmly in place, is it?"
"More firmly than ever, I'm afraid. Especially since Dolores Umbridge has risen through the ranks of the Ministry of Magic."
Remus reached behind him and handed Sirius a copy of the Daily Prophet dated the previous July, which was open at a page entitled Ministry's Modern Monster Management - Dolores Umbridge makes wizarding working world safer. A moving photograph of a woman with an incredibly toad-like face, wearing a big bow on top of her head, accompanied the article.
"The days when wizarding businesses could be hoodwinked into employing half-breeds without their knowledge, often experiencing a rude awakening when the true nature of their dangerous staff members was revealed, are long gone," Sirius read aloud. "Now Dolores Jane Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic and the driving force behind the stricter job application laws for beings, half-breeds and non-wizard part humans, has gone one step further to making our lives that little bit safer. According to the new law passed by the Ministry yesterday, businesses and institutions wishing to employ dangerous magical creatures will, in future, be required to install special Ministry-approved safety measures, as well as paying the new Safety Tax ..."
Here, Sirius broke off and looked up at Remus.
"Dangerous magical creatures?! They can't put you in that class, you're a human being!"
"Not according to the Ministry," said Remus with a touch of bitterness, taking the newspaper out of Sirius's hands. "In their eyes, I'm nothing more nor less than a registered beast - class five. 'Known wizard killer, impossible to train or domesticate'."
Remus smiled briefly at his friend's outrage, but nevertheless said heavily, "Unfortunately, not many people would agree with you. The new laws have made it practically impossible for someone like me to find legal employment. Since I'm not keen to stray down the path of illegality, that has meant that finding paid employment has been something of a Herculean feat for the past several years. There was a time when the Ministry offered jobs - of the most unpleasant sort, of course. Exterminating magical creatures in private homes was one of them - getting rid of doxies, ghouls ..."
"You didn't ..."
"I did. I had to, I had no choice. We needed the money. But in any case, the Ministry changed their minds about that after they'd had one too many respectable citizen saying that, far from exterminating, we ought to be exterminated ourselves. Umbridge supported those opinions wholeheartedly, of course. All in all, I'll admit I was nearing the end of my tether when Dumbledore offered me the Defence Against the Dark Arts job."
"So it was back to the old Whomping Willow again?"
"Not quite. Thankfully, there are some wizards and witches who aren't quite as anti-werewolf as Dolores Umbridge. Damocles Belby discovered a potion a few years ago - Wolfsbane Potion. It's hard to come by - expensive to buy, and difficult to make - but it really works. It's not a cure, but it reduces a dangerous half-breed to just a half-breed. Provided they remember to take it," he added heavily.
"Belby? I remember that name. He worked with you in that committee, right?"
"Yes." There was a pause, then Remus added slowly, "You may be interested to know that there's a Mrs. Belby, too - Heather."
Sirius's jaw dropped. "Heather? You do mean the Heather? Curly-haired kid, scared of werewolves?"
"The very same. She almost had me arrested."
"She didn't know it was me. Someone at the Ministry had told her they'd sent an exterminator who was a werewolf to deal with the plague of doxies in her children's bedroom. Her husband had arranged it, he had no idea she didn't know what I was. He thought as long as it was me, it would be all right. Maybe even that she'd be pleased to see me. When Heather came home with the wizards from Law Enforcement, of course, it all came out. Belby sent them away. I only saw her once after that, she came to see me the next day. Seemed to think that if only I'd told her sooner, things might have worked out for us. I told her I didn't think so. She protested, but ... well, there was a Boggart stuck in the cupboard under the sink at the time. I let it out ... that was all the proof I needed. That we both needed, really."
Sirius whistled. Remus picked up his glass again.
"I must admit," he said quietly, "that was one occasion when I used up a bottle of this wine."
"What were the others?" asked Sirius, taking a generous few gulps from his own glass, so that it was almost empty.
Remus replied slowly, thinking back and recalling the events.
"The first anniversary of Dad's death - I meant to open a bottle of wine each year on that day, but there were too many years and not enough bottles. Then there was Uncle Malcolm's fiftieth birthday, not that he was here. He went abroad after Voldemort was gone, and didn't come back at all for two years. I think he was trying to run away from his memories, but I'm not sure that it worked entirely as he planned it. We opened another bottle when he came home."
"Is he living in the old flat again?"
"No, he didn't come back permanently. He was only here for ... about a month, I think it was on that visit. Yes, it must have been, because he was here when Mum first started having breathing difficulties, and he got married in September ..."
"Married?" Sirius spluttered, and nearly choked on his wine.
Remus nodded. "He was different when he came back that year. I won't say he seemed happy, but he did seem more settled. I think he was more at peace with the world. Laura, on the other hand ..."
"Laura? Not - Laura Lovegood?"
"Yes. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but it seems Uncle Malcolm had rather disastrously proposed to her before he left - the day of Lily and James's funeral, in fact. He admitted to me that he hadn't really thought it through at the time, and Laura had refused him. Rightly so, he says. He was very grateful to her for it."
Sirius sat in stunned silence. Finally he said, "I thought that ... Bridget ..."
"He never stopped loving her," Remus assured him quickly. "I don't think he could ever have loved anyone the way he loved Bridget. Laura knows that. But he has always been very fond of Laura, and even though he says himself that he made a total hash of that first proposal, I think he genuinely missed her while he was away. It took him a long time to swallow his pride and come crawling back to apologise," Remus added with a faint smile. "He was actually rather anxious she still wouldn't have him. But there was no way Laura was going to refuse him again, that was quite clear from the start. She'd tried to move on while he was away, even made herself quite a name at the Ministry. I think if she'd stayed, she might have been the next Head of the Auror Office. But Mum and I both knew she hadn't been happy."
"Oh? Did you see much of her, then?"
"Yes. She offered her help at a time when we could do with a friend, and she and Mum became very close. Mum was a bit upset about them getting married, actually. She was very close to Laura by then, and felt like she was losing them both when they went back to Egypt after the wedding. But they often came back to see us. Uncle Malcolm was working as a curse-breaker for Gringotts when they got married, but Laura couldn't join him there because of her claustrophobia. Now they're helping wizarding communities in Africa escape the notice of muggles and establish their own schools."
"Now that calls for another glass of wine!" Sirius pronounced, flabbergasted, and helped himself. "Malcolm, building schools? I thought he'd always be an Auror at heart."
"I think he will, but even Aurors grow older and wearier. He was sixty-two this year."
Sirius shook his head. "It doesn't seem possible."
"I know. So much has changed." Remus paused, then asked, "Did you ever hear about Frank and Alice?"
"Yes," said Sirius grimly. "I saw the Dementors bring in the Lestranges and young Crouch, damn them. Have you ... ever been to see them?"
"I have looked in on them from time to time, when I was at St. Mungo's with Mum. But I'm afraid they don't recognise me."
"How are they?" Sirius asked quietly, unsure whether he really wanted the answer.
"Alice is docile," Remus said, "almost childlike in the way she enjoys little things, especially sweets. Frank ... Well, usually he's quite placid, and his mother tells me he likes Neville to read to him. But the Healers say he sometimes still has nightmares where he half remembers what happened."
Sirius shook his head gravely. There was a silence for a while, and then he asked,
"And what about your mum, how is she? You keep mentioning her, but she's not here, is she? You said she has trouble breathing? Is she at St. Mungo's, too?"
Remus's expression darkened. He looked down into his glass and said quietly, "Mum died last August."
Then he took another sip of wine. There was a stunned silence that lasted several moments.
"Faith ... dead?" Sirius breathed at long last. "I - I'm very sorry to hear it, Moony."
His friend nodded slowly.
"I know that she's better off, really," he said haltingly. "But I can't pretend that it wasn't difficult. She got gradually worse over the years. It was the poison at work. It made her stiff, and weak. In the end it caused her a lot of pain. She didn't want to take too many pain-relieving potions, she was always so conscious of what everything cost, but ... I couldn't watch her suffer. I never told her I was giving her the full dose the Healers had prescribed, she was trying so hard to make do with less. In the end, her breathing got so bad that I couldn't have gone out to work even if I'd had a job. She had fits where she could barely breathe at all. Uncle Malcolm and Laura came back last July to help look after her, but she didn't last long after that. I think she'd more or less been hanging on until they got here, to be honest. She was tired of living. The problem was that she'd never got over losing Dad."
"So she'd only just died when you ..."
"When I started teaching at Hogwarts? Yes. Dumbledore came to the funeral, and he asked me then. It was all very short notice, I had less than a week to get everything sorted out, and one of those nights was a full moon. On the other hand there wasn't really anything to keep me here any more. You had just escaped, giving us all every reason to believe you were after Harry. So I took the Hogwarts Express, because Dumbledore wanted someone on there who'd know how to deal with you if anything happened on the way to Hogwarts." He smiled wryly. "I must admit I'd dozed off when the kids got on the train, but when I woke up and found Harry and his friends were actually in the same compartment with me, I couldn't believe my luck. I let them think I was still fast asleep so they would stay ... and then the Dementors came."
Sirius shuddered. "Please, no talk of Dementors. I've had enough of them to last me two lifetimes, at least. I'd have liked to see you try and take me on, though," he added with a half amused snort.
"I'd have done my best, I can assure you," said Remus, genuinely smiling now.
"I bet you would have." He paused, and then said, "You know what? I don't think I've ever heard you talk so much in one go. Let alone about your own experiences."
"Perhaps, if I had talked more to you before ..."
"Don't blame yourself, Remus. Everything bad that's happened isn't your fault."
"Nor yours," Remus countered.
Silence fell between them again, but it was a comfortable silence, a silence between two old friends who understood each other at last. When it ended their conversation continued far more casually, almost as though the years in between had just slipped away into nothingness and they had been sitting together like this only yesterday, though Sirius's sunken face and tattered clothing and the premature lines on Remus's face and the liberal sprinkling of grey in his hair told another story.
"What will you do now?" Remus asked much later, when the bottle had long stood empty on the table.
"Oh, I shall roam about a bit. Make sure I'm spotted far away from Surrey, from Hogwarts and from here, so the Ministry don't get any silly ideas into their head that you've been aiding a dangerous criminal. I might go abroad. Perhaps I'll pay your uncle a visit."
"You'd better give me time to write to him first and explain. He hasn't forgotten his Auror skills. He may be getting older, but he could still curse you off your feet and feed you to a Tebo faster than you can say 'snitch'."
Sirius gave a bark-like laugh.
"As for my aiding a dangerous criminal," Remus went on. "I hate to tell you this, Sirius, but that new hairdo of yours is less than flattering. And I know you never liked my style, but I think even something from my wardrobe might look more appealing on you than those old rags."
"What, this lot?" Sirius tugged at his own sleeve, and pretended to look offended. "I thought the dark, careless rogue look rather suited me."
Remus continued to smile, and hoped that Sirius would not notice the underlying sadness he felt, seeing what had become of the once so handsome young man.
"Well," said Sirius, "while you're volunteering to give a mass murderer a free haircut and a change of clothes, do you reckon you might be able to throw in a bed for the night and - oh, I don't know, maybe a spot of breakfast?"
"Any time, old friend." He paused, then added with feeling, "It's good to have you back, Padfoot."
Sirius gave the ghost of one of his old, charming grins, and raised his empty glass.
"It's good to be back, Moony."
- MISCHIEF MANAGED -