The huge black dog's steady gait rolled along, mile after mile. The rhythm was constant, as was the syncopation of the limp caused by swollen joint in the rear left leg. It didn't matter. Pain didn't matter. Time didn't matter. Distance didn't matter. The dog continued cross-country, bearing steadily south, the patter of his large paws drumming a hypnotic tempo.

He had traveled steadily for days, only occasionally straying from his path towards human habitation for food. He wasted no time hunting. He scrounged quickly for scraps of garbage, although once he did grab an unwary chicken as he loped through a farmyard. Roasted chicken would have been marvelously tasty, the human element of the dog's brain mused. But, the dog was content to eat raw flesh and crunch up bones. He cleansed the blood from his muzzle while he drank deeply, standing midway across a cool stream. He stood still for a long time, the refreshing water soothing his tender leg.

With an effort, the dog clambered up the bank on the far side of the stream and walked until he found a copse of pine trees. He flopped down on a bed of fragrant needles to rest through the heat of the day. Eyelids drooped, breathing slowed, and the dog eased into a restless sleep. The early summer hum of insects and the occasional chirp of birds registered in his brain, but caused no alarm. A shout or the loud snap of a branch or the alien smell of human would have jolted the dog into complete wakefulness if not actual flight. But, none of these stimuli intruded on his light slumber.

The shadows lengthened. The dog awoke and rose stiffly to his feet. The leg was no better. Briefly, the dog transformed into a man, tall and haggard, his clothes ragged and worn. He took a few tentative steps and decided that his human leg was much more uncomfortable, tightly constricted as it was by the black boot. The dog reappeared and continued on his way, easing into his limping lope once more. He did not stop for the next twenty-four hours.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Remus Lupin paced aimlessly through his small house, occasionally stopping to peer out a window. Each time, he hoped to see a black dog bounding up through the meadow at the front of his home, or ghosting through the trees beyond his garden at the back. Restlessly, he flung himself onto one of the three mismatched kitchen chairs, where he sat drumming his fingers on the battered table. For at least the twentieth time, he mentally ran down his checklist to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. The larder was well-stocked, the linen was clean, and he had even scrounged up some clothes for his expected houseguest.

The note he had received from Albus Dumbledore had been short and rather unnerving because of what was left unsaid. His old Headmaster had summarized the end of the Triwizard Tournament, and said he was sending a messenger who would give him all of the dreadful details. Albus also requested to board a large dog at Remus' for an indeterminate amount of time. He described the dog as weary in body, sick at heart and in need of care. Had anyone intercepted the note, they would never suspect that the dog and the messenger were one and the same. Remus had sent a brief response back:
'The dog may stay as long as he needs a home. I will do my best to ease his pain and help him recover.

I'll let you know if the messenger's words need clarification.'
Now, all he could do was wait. He decided to roast a chicken and some vegetables, in spite of the early summer warmth. The meal preparations would at least fill up some time and perhaps stop his jumbled thoughts about sharing a house with his erstwhile lover, Sirius Black.

Other than those few moments in the Shrieking Shack last spring, they had not seen each other for almost fourteen years. An eternity. Remus suffered that loss every day. Through those long years his feelings about Sirius remained the strong, central core of his being, even when he would have sold his soul to erase all thoughts of his long-limbed lover. He had burned with a white-hot, murderous rage born of betrayal. He had drowned in a cold abyss of loneliness and despair. He had survived the first few years of his isolation by feeding the coiled snake of pure, poisonous hatred.

Eventually, even the hate dissipated, but it left a monumental self- loathing in its wake. Remus could barely stand to live with himself, because once the righteous blaze of hate was gone, once the bleeding wounds of loss had scabbed over, all he had left was his bond with his mate. His mate. A man revealed to be a traitor and a murderer. A man whose betrayal was as dark as his name. And Remus still loved him. He would never be free of that polluted star. The strongest magic could not release him. No matter how many other potential partners Remus found, and there had been a few, they could never replace his raven-haired devil. And, God forgive him, he loved that Satan to the depths of his being.

So, Remus existed, and daily fought to think of Sirius with loathing, not with love. He strove to not fret about the torments of Azkaban. He struggled to not wallow in longing for touch and understanding and a smile that kept nightfall at bay. He was not very successful.

And then, those few moments in the Shrieking Shack once again turned his world topsy-turvy. Equilibrium restored, it was all he could do to contain the brilliant joy that shrieked in his brain. They had been wrong! The entire world had been wrong! His beloved was innocent.

The joy had been short-lived, but he had clutched the comforting knowledge of his lover's innocence tight to his heart. Unfortunately, they had not seen each other since, and had exchanged only brief messages. Remus couldn't wait to see Sirius again, but his thoughts were filled with trepidation because he simply had no idea what Sirius felt for him.

Did giving Sirius a place to lie low include sharing his bed? Remus longed for that with every molecule of his being. The absence of his mate was a constant, crippling pain. Sirius' voice, his touch, his mere presence sitting at the table would provide a soothing balm for the werewolf's unseen scars. Remus craved him like a drug. He constantly thought about how it once was between them. Before mistrust and suspicion. Before death. Before Azkaban.

But, now? Remus had no idea what would happen once Sirius walked through the door. Would it be awkward? Tense? Would they misunderstand each other? How hard would it be after fourteen years apart?

Maybe it would be easy. Maybe they wouldn't even pause to say hello before they tore off each other's clothes and feasted with hands and mouths on treasured flesh, twisting their limbs in impossible positions as they collapsed on the bed, the couch, the floor in an irresistible flood of passion. Maybe they'd make love and laugh and cry and, later, realize their tired, lonely souls cleaved seamlessly together once more.

But, they had been separated for so long. What had Azkaban done? It was supposed to drive one mad. And, while the occasional notes he had received from Sirius over the past year had seemed quite lucid, surely he suffered some damage. How much joy and happiness had been sucked out of him? And, if gone, did those feelings ever return? Ever the researcher, Remus had found very few opinions written on the subject, as high-security prisoners simply didn't wander off from Azkaban.

So Remus waited, deep in thought, as the first toothsome aromas began to waft through the cottage. He was so caught up that he didn't notice the scratching sound at his back door. He was jolted to his feet by several deep barks. Flying to the door, he flung it open to reveal a great black dog. Dusty, thin and obviously very weary, the dog still managed to project an aura of hidden power and potential danger. Remus grinned and stepped aside.

The dog looked up at him somewhat uncertainly and then limped into the kitchen. Once the door was closed, Remus found himself looking at the human version of his visitor, who, if anything, looked even worse than the canine. Worn, unshaven, his eyes bloodshot, his skin stretched taut over his bones, Sirius Black was an absolutely ravishing wreck, and the sight of him made Remus' mouth water. He eagerly flung his arms around Sirius and hugged him tight.

"Oh, Sirius, it's so good to see you."

Tentatively, the gaunt arms hugged him back. "Thank you. Yes. It's very nice to see you."

And, then, too soon, the arms released him. Wiry muscles stiffened, pulling the thin body away. Remus sensed a distance between them that was not measured in inches, but in years. He felt bereft, as if an irreplaceable treasure had suddenly slipped from his hands and shattered into a million pieces on the floor.

"I'm sorry, Remus. I'm a filthy mess." The raspy voice sounded uncertain, like a man trying out a new language and unsure whether he was conjugating his verbs correctly. Or maybe Sirius was trying to cover up his awkwardness. Remus couldn't tell, and his inability to read Sirius pierced him with anxiety. Hesitantly, he stepped back a bit, but then seized on practical matters to ease them out of this situation.

"You were limping. Sit down and let me get that boot off. How did you hurt yourself?" The words tumbled out as he helped Sirius to the least rickety chair. Remus crouched on the floor in front of him, his slender, strong hands drawing the boot off, inch by slow inch.

Glancing up Remus saw a slight moue of exasperation cross Sirius' face, briefly hiding the exhaustion stamped across his features. "A couple of nights ago, I climbed over a stone wall, and I wasn't paying enough attention to what I was doing. I landed on a large rock, which shifted under my weight. I guess I sprained it."

The boot off, Remus carefully balanced the much-too-lean leg across his own knee as his fingers gently probed the tender, swollen joint. "Yes, nothing appears to be broken. Lucky for you, as bone mending is not my forte. You should give it a long, hot soak in the tub and stay off it for a few days."

"Remus?"

"Yes?" Remus looked up quickly, his hands still, frozen at the hesitant, almost timid tone in Sirius' voice.

"May I have a glass of water?"

Remus slowly rose, easing Sirius' leg onto another chair, all the while staring at him, wondering why this felt so wrong. He watched as Sirius' expression changed from mild appeal to puzzled concern. Even that seemed off, as if Sirius wasn't reacting to Remus, but to some internal unease.

"Of course. Keep still and I'll get it for you." He brought a tall glass of cool water back to the table. Sitting at the only unoccupied chair, Remus watched as his visitor downed it in one go. The smoky eyes drifted shut with obvious pleasure as Sirius drank the clean, quenching liquid. His head slowly tilted back, exposing a long throat. Pure, hot desire flashed like a sun storm through Remus' body. He wanted to launch himself at Sirius. Grab him, straddle him, press his face into the sinuous curve of that neck, feel the movement of those swallows against his lips. With an effort he tore his eyes away and happened to glance down at the empty boot on the floor. He started in surprise.

"Those aren't the dragonhide boots you bought when we got out of Hogwarts, are they?"

"Yeah, they are." Sirius shrugged, barely acknowledging his footwear. "I haven't had much opportunity to spruce up my wardrobe lately."

His tone was matter-of-fact, with even a hint of black humor, but Remus winced at his own blunder. He chided himself internally. 'What a stupid thing to say, like he's free to waltz down Diagon Alley and buy all the latest fashions.' At least Sirius hadn't noticed that Remus had been eyeing him hungrily. Once again he sought refuge in practicalities.

"You look famished. I'm roasting a chicken, but it won't be done for a while. Can I get you something to hold you over until dinner?"

Sirius stared at his empty glass, apparently giving the question some thought. No, he was losing himself somewhere, his eyes focused beyond the glass, through the table, somewhere outside the small, tidy kitchen. Again, Remus felt adrift. Sirius spoke softly, his voice tinged with sadness. "I had chicken just the other day. I thought about how good it would have tasted right out of the oven. Roasted rather than raw.Padfoot doesn't mind raw." The ponderous weight of his exhaustion pressed him back into the chair, a pained expression flashing across his face.

Remus felt increasingly alarmed. Sirius was so still, so motionless. The vibrant, vital young man he remembered was completely foreign to this ragged shell slumped in his kitchen. He drank in every detail; how thin and weary Sirius looked, his lovely, gray eyes dull and opaque as sea glass, his robes draped loosely from his bony frame, and the once-shining mane of thick, black hair hanging matted and lank below his shoulders. Gently, Remus sought to guide Sirius back from wherever his thoughts had carried him.

"Sirius? Can I get you something to eat now?"

The deadened eyes blinked, and then sparked to life like flickering candles as Sirius recovered his sense of the here and now. "No, I'm fine, thank you. But, I would appreciate the use of your bathtub, if it's no trouble."

There it was again, that oddly polite turn of phrase that kept cropping up in Sirius' conversation. Never before had they stood on ceremony with each other or hid behind the patina of correct manners. Remus didn't understand it, but tried not to reveal his unease. He helped Sirius limp to the bathroom and started filling the tub. He shot a liberal squirt of his favorite aloe and mint bubble bath into the water, enjoying the crisp, clean smell while he used his wand to set the water temperature just right.

Sirius perched on the edge of the tub, hauling off his remaining boot, and smiling a little as he watched Remus' preparations. "I must truly reek, if you're willing to let me use some of your precious mint stuff."

'I would pour the blood from my veins, if that would help you.' Remus bit back the words and instead tried to match Sirius' more casual tone. "I'm letting you use my 'mint stuff' because it's refreshing and invigorating. And I wouldn't care about your smell even if you had been sleeping with Dung Bombs."

He was rewarded this time with a real smile. A beautiful smile. Remus answered in kind and was about to say something when the words gurgled out of his head like water down a drain. Instead, his eyes fastened hungrily on the slash of pale skin that appeared as Sirius began unbuttoning his robe. Remus licked his suddenly dry lips. The long fingers suddenly stilled. Guiltily, Remus' gaze sprang back to Sirius' face. He was staring at Remus, his eyes for once not shuttered and veiled, but turbulent whirlpools of longing and need and pain and a host of other emotions that Remus couldn't interpret. Too much and not enough. Remus practically bolted for the door. "I'm going to go get some clothes for you. They'll probably be a little short, but they're clean."

He hurried down the hallway and up the stairs to his bedroom where he stood still, waiting until he felt calmer. A few minutes later, Remus returned, hovering uncertainly outside the bathroom door with a bundle of the some of the items he had found in a local thrift store. "May I come in?" he asked, immediately irritated with his fall into polite phrasing.

"Yes, of course."

Sirius was nearly submerged in a thick cloud of foam. Remus placed the clothes down, chuckling a little. At Sirius' warily raised brows, Remus said, "I can't help thinking that if your hair was red, you'd look like the cherry on top of the parfait."

Sirius cocked his head quizzically, attempting to get a more complete picture of his sudsy self. "A parfait this size would require an awful lot of ice cream, even for you."

Remus smiled and casually picked up Sirius' ragged prison robes. "I'll just toss these away, alright?"

"No! Don't!" The sudden, snarling vehemence stopped Remus in his tracks. He stared uncomprehendingly at aggressive stranger in his bathtub. Sirius was still swathed in soothing, clean foam, but invisible flames of anger flared out from him, burning the air around Remus.

Shoved once more into confusion, Remus quietly pushed back. "Why? I don't understand."

Abruptly, the heavy feeling of menace passed and left Sirius struggling for words, his face a mask of despair. "I have to.I can't." He shook his head miserably, eyes dropping to the floor, defeated. And he whispered, "I *need* them."

It was a very cryptic explanation, but Remus doubted he'd get a better one any time soon. "Then I'll put them with the rest of the laundry, alright?"

Sirius' eyes flicked up to meet his concerned gaze and, just as quickly, darted away again. He nodded.

Remus left him alone, taking the filthy robes and dumping them in the laundry. He returned to the kitchen, checked on dinner, and slumped onto a chair. Things were not going at all as he had hoped. He kept sliding across emotional black ice, scrambling to regain his balance. Trying to anticipate Sirius' mood was like trying to catch a shadow. He was all over the map, whipsawing between numbed exhaustion and emotional overload, only to sink behind a shroud of despondency.

Maybe some of the strangeness between them was a merely a symptom of how very tired Sirius seemed to be. After a few days of rest and decent food, perhaps he'd seem more like himself. A disquieting voice at the back of Remus' head intruded on his musings. 'Maybe he is himself. Maybe this *is* Sirius.'

As Remus' footsteps faded, Sirius sank deeper into the water, pressing the heels of his hands against his weary eyes. This wasn't going well. He couldn't seem to keep hold of his emotions. Like fractious horses, they raced out of his control, leaving his tired brain stumbling to catch up and impose some sort of order. 'What's wrong with me?'

When Remus had mentioned the chicken in the oven, a long-lost memory had slapped Sirius across the face. The delicious smell of the roasted bird, its skin crispy golden, and the warmth from the oven fogging up the window in the kitchen of their London flat. He remembered hovering over the stove making gravy while Remus had stood close behind, arms wrapped around his waist, chin digging into his shoulder.He had lost that simple domestic moment somewhere in the darkness of Azkaban and its unexpected reappearance had nearly made him weep. Only by focusing on Padfoot had he been able to control himself.

And his robes. He had reacted like a dog that had a bone snatched away from it. 'Ungrateful sod.' Blowing up like that when Remus was giving him food, clothing and shelter, in spite of his own reduced circumstances, not to mention the danger that Sirius' presence posed. Of course Remus wanted to toss the robes onto the nearest fire. Who wouldn't? They were disgusting. Sirius couldn't articulate why he had to keep them. The robes were a filthy, horrible reminder of prison and what he had done to end up there. But, he couldn't throw them out, not now, not until he completed his penance for.

Sirius ducked his head under the water, drowning his thoughts. He concentrated instead on getting his hair clean. Scrubbing shampoo along his scalp with his fingertips abruptly shook another memory loose. Bathing with Remus, the feel of Remus' nimble fingers working through his hair until the strands squeaked with cleanliness. Washing each other, their hands lingering over every inch of skin, more a soapy massage than a cleansing ritual. Remus' hands had been sensuously reverent in their touch. Sirius stifled a painful moan at the clenched, visceral need to feel those hands on his skin again.

But, then why had it been so hard to accept Remus' simple embrace? Maybe because he had sensed that it was more than friendship and welcome that Remus offered. And he had been right. 'I saw how he looked at me.' There were deep emotional waters flowing around both of them and Sirius felt buffeted by currents of sex and love and loneliness. He feared drowning.

Resolving to make a better effort at keeping himself under control, Sirius rinsed the shampoo from his hair.

TBC