Title: Before the Cock Crows
Summary: What gift can you offer to a werewolf? Mild slash.
Warning & Disclaimer: Slash. Characters and the Harry Potter world belong to J.K. Rowling.
You say I'm tragic
I say it's magic, kid
You say I'm lucky
You know who's in the cards
Get out, get old
You've lost control
You're growing old
Can anyone, anyone be true?
Does anyone, anyone want to be you?
~smashing pumpkins, dross
Sirius offered three times.
The first time was in second year. Remus's sense of smell and hearing were overly sensitive that day, as they always were in the week before the full moon; they were the only heartbeats in the dorm and all scents overlapped like wet paper. Someone was burning leaves outside, James's Quidditch gloves held traces of the type of soap from the lavatory outside the Charms classroom (where said owner of the gloves was already wont to linger when one Lily Evans was practicing), and he could tell that Sirius had been sucking a peppermint toad not long ago. It was early afternoon, and Sirius had an ink smudge on his wrist and sunlight in his hair as he pulled the sleeve of his robe back and leaned closer, speaking low, intense, and excited.
"You can do it. I'd let you, Remus. I could be that way."
The words hit Remus like a physical blow, deep and wrenching, nothing like the minor jinxes they shot at each other in play, or even the more damaging spells that Sirius and James hoarded for Snape and their other determined foes. It was just after Transfiguration and Remus always wondered if things would have been different if Defense Against the Dark Arts had come first that day.
"Get away," he managed to force out, something inside him already yearning to close its teeth over the pale skin on Sirius's forearm. "You don't know anything—just go away."
They didn't speak to each other for a week, Peter and James's first puzzled then irritated efforts notwithstanding. At the end of the week, Remus awoke with a hand on his shoulder in the dead of night and Sirius's disembodied head peering out from beneath the folds of James's invisibility cloak.
Sirius crawled in next to him and wordlessly shoved a book at him. Forever after that Remus associated love as the feel of ancient parchment, smooth as leather binding and dark as ink drawings of human muscle and sinew twisting into animal form. Dry like ashes and bookdust and the unwilling excitement in his mouth as Sirius matter-of-factly started listing what they would need and just as casually twined hands with him and they read together, late into the night until the moon went down.
The second time was the night before everything went to hell. Remus had his own flat by then, and Sirius lived one block away, although lately he spent more time at James and Lily's house than his own. It was October and there had been a record heat wave that week despite the time of year. Evenings were as thick and stifling as the calm before a hurricane.
Remus heard the motorcycle before he saw Sirius in the Foe-Glass. Wand in hand, he waited, listening to the familiar sounds: engine shutting off, ring of boot heels on the ground, Sirius fumbling his helmet off and swearing when his hair got caught. He mouthed the syllables of expelliarmus and protego to himself, and opened the door when Sirius finally knocked.
"That's new," Sirius said, nodding towards the Foe-Glass.
"You can't be too careful right now," Remus replied. His grip on the wand was steady; his breath was even. He imagined that the expression on his face was nothing more than amiable curiosity for a friend turned up at one in the morning. "What's going on, Sirius?"
"You look tired. The full moon's in two days, isn't it?" Sirius asked quietly. "Remus--- Moony-- Look, I was thinking, and I just…" He shook his head, black hair in a flurry around his face. "I'm not so good at this."
Remus stepped forwards carefully, aware of the closing distance and wondered, briefly, how it ever could have come that he would be afraid to stand too close to a best friend and the first he had managed to kiss without botching the whole process. "Just tell me, Padfoot," he said, and tightened his fingers on his wand, already waiting.
Sirius gave him a strange smile, tight and small and pained. "I'm not supposed to tell anyone anything these days, isn't that the way it goes?" He tucked his helmet beneath one arm and shrugged out of his jacket. He held both hands palm up to Remus, open and empty, and then began to roll up the sleeve on his left arm.
Confused, Remus was briefly and completely sure that what Sirius meant to show him was the Death Eater mark, newly inked into flesh. His certainty was so strong that for an instant, he actually saw the blackness of skull and snake against smooth skin, sinuous and vivid as shadow on snow, before he blinked again and saw only an ordinary forearm marked with nothing more damning than the pale blue of the buried veins. His fingers flexed once against polished wood and then relaxed.
Sirius gestured to his bared forearm. "Do you remember what I said I'd do?"
He could say nothing, do nothing under the flaring ache. If Sirius had reached for the wand held slack in his hand now, Remus didn't think he would be able to keep him from it. He wouldn't be able to move if Sirius called over his shoulder for Voldemort himself. He didn't think this would be the way Sirius betrayed him. The want had never gone away, he had merely banked it under time, like live coals buried under ashes. Now, it was as though Sirius blew on them and the flames leapt up high again. He made a noise that must have passed for assent.
Sirius nodded and rolled his sleeve down again. He smiled tautly again, and Remus realized with some bemusement that there was something close to desperation in Sirius's eyes. "I still trust you, Moony," Sirius said. "That doesn't change, does it?" Briskly, he walked away to his motorcycle, tugging his jacket back on as he went.
They didn't speak for twelve years.
The third and last time was in Grimmauld Place in the grey end of November, shortly before the winter holidays. Remus stepped out of the fireplace with Floo powder still tickling the insides of his nostrils, looked briefly around, and then simply followed the sounds of cursing and muffled thumps to the attic.
He still wasn't used to this house, the smells and noises, even after living there for some months now. Above them, he could hear rain beginning to fall in small sharp noises that sounded like claws tapping the ground while walking. The fact that he could hear the rain on a roof that was not technically there was what disturbed him most. He could hear a different drip as well; there was a leak somewhere.
In the attic, Sirius was fiercely engaged in close-combat battle with a wardrobe for possession of an armful of linen bedding. From the looks of it, the wardrobe was winning. Remus approached with the due amount of caution that a year of living in the house for the past year commanded, quickly sidestepping the questing sleeve of a nightshirt covered in silver embroidered snakes. His skin tingled even without the contact; real silver thread then, spelled not to tarnish.
Hearing his approach, Sirius looked up and nodded before grunting and giving the bedding another vicious tug. "Don't touch the handles, they bite," he panted briefly, and then kicked at another bit of alarmingly mobile carving on the inside of the door.
Remus spared a quick glance for the wardrobe handles, also snakes, before stepping next to Sirius and shoving his hands deep into the bundle of linen. The smell of camphor and dust was overwhelming and an antique set of ceremonial robes had a determined go at strangling Sirius before Sirius freed one hand enough to rip the sleeves off the robe itself. With their combined effort, the wardrobe reluctantly disgorged the sheets before slamming its doors shut and scuttling a few feet backwards on carved clawed feet.
"Bloody hell," Sirius muttered, and ran one hand through his hair in distraction. "I hate this house. All right there, Remus?"
"Fine," Remus replied. "These for company?" He thought that Molly Weasely would have probably demanded to perform a bleaching charm on them before they went anywhere near the beds.
"Only if I get some, and that's doubtful." Sirius smiled somewhat sourly. "I would have told Kreacher to find these but he probably would have dragged out the ones my mother stored that smother you in your sleep. I keep expecting to find his droppings everywhere as it is."
"Mm." Every time he thought he had a handle on Sirius's home life, something would usually present itself to prove otherwise.
Sirius caught the look and his smile widened. "We also have sheets" he said in a slightly more cheerful tone, "that burst into flame."
"Is it always just the sheets or do you have murderous pillows too?" Remus replied with a raised eyebrow.
"We have everything," Sirius said darkly and with great assurance. When he crouched down amidst the pile, it raised a visible cloud of dust.
The attic was dim, and the lights flickered, throwing moving shadows over the various boxes and pieces of furniture. At least Remus hoped it was the shadows moving, although from the example of the wardrobe it was debatable. There was a wand sitting on the box closest to him, new and clean amidst the dust and clutter, and he picked it up. "Is this yours?"
Sirius looked up from trying to fold the sheets. "The wand? Yeah. I didn't go out, Dumbledore brought it over from Ollivander. He said Ollivander was pretty confident that it would fit better than the one I was using on the run." He fiddled with a handful of linen.
Remus turned it over in his hands, feeling the uniform smoothness, the absence of worn finger grooves. "What is it?"
Sirius's already unpleasant smile sharpened into something that didn't fit his face even though he carried Azkaban there, the marks of hard usage that weren't on his wand. "Dogwood and dragon heartstring. Go ahead and make the joke, Moony."
The sheets were hopelessly tangled on Sirius's lap. Remus reached for a corner and started trying to straighten one out. "You're making a mess of that," he remarked. Sirius wordlessly started to search for the other end, separating it out from the bundle. "There used to be a story about the dogwood, you know."
"I'll bet," Sirius said without much spirit. He followed Remus's lead as they brought their sheet corners together, doubling the fold. The embroidery on the hems of the sheets were of twining leafy vines that Remus thought might be Devil's Snare. "Go on, you're obviously going to tell me about it."
Remus took the opportunity to step on Sirius's foot when they stepped towards each other to fold the sheet again, and then hastily stepped back before Sirius could retaliate. "Supposedly back in the day, the dogwood used to be one of the sturdiest and tallest trees, so they used it for the construction of the crucifix. The tree was so upset by this intended purpose that it cried out to Christ in shame."
"A whinging tree?"
"Shut up, Padfoot. Here, you've got that end twisted."
They finished folding the first sheet. Sirius laid it to one side and they began on the next. It was not unlike dancing, Remus thought. Step forward, step back, rhythmic and careful. This one was embroidered with what looked like a whole succession of Black initials, generations added on. He was so busy trying to decipher the ornate letters, that Sirius's voice made him start.
"How does the story end?"
"What?" He looked up. Sirius wasn't looking at him. "Oh. As the story goes, Christ apparently took pity and blessed the dogwood so that it would always be a sapling in size and never used for such things again." He paused and frowned. "The flowers are supposed to look like crosses and have the nail marks on the edge. Something about a crown of thorns, too."
Sirius gave a long, noisy exhalation of breath and immediately coughed on the dust, ruining the suspicious look he had been about to levy. "Was there a moral to that?"
"No." Remus snapped his wrist once and let the sheet billow out again. "I just like the story."
Neither of them spoke for the next two sheets. Sirius finally broke the silence again, and his voice was subdued and the words completely unexpected. "I wish you had done it. I still wish you would do it. Maybe they'd have a harder time keeping me caged up here."
His grip on the end of the sheet relaxed and Remus thought for a moment that Sirius would let it fall completely. He felt as though he was standing on the lip of some deep and uncertain pit, without clearly knowing where solid ground was in the darkness.
Remus tightened his own grip, took one step, then another, and then closed the distance between Sirius and himself. He folded the edges together, took it from Sirius, and set it aside before laying the same firm grip on Sirius's shoulders.
"You are a very foolish person, Sirius," he said firmly, not unkindly. The skin of Sirius's neck yielded to his human teeth like damp earth crumbling open, but he stopped short of breaking through to the blood he could smell underneath. When he moved his hands to Sirius's face and his mouth to Sirius's mouth, he smiled. "This feels far better, you know."
There was stubble beneath his hands; Sirius hadn't shaved in some days. Sirius's own hands on Remus's back and shoulder moved slowly, not as if he didn't know where to put them but more as if following some path of recollection. They stumbled a few steps, not so graceful as before, and then simply sank, down into sheets and dust and quiet.
"If I," Sirius said, and then, a little later, "I don't," and Remus licked his cheek then covered his mouth again, tasting. He remembered the sensation of waking up human but with a wolf's senses still, sprawled on the dusty bare floorboards of the Shrieking Shack with another warm body close to his and smelling of freshly cut grass, autumn leaves, woodsmoke. Even the slightly bitter sharpness of lingering alcohol scent wasn't unpleasant, like overripe apples that were turning to cider.
The attic was dusty and quiet but for the rain, somewhere there was water dripping in and he could smell that on the air as well. The sheets rustled beneath them not unlike dry fallen leaves, although certainly somewhat softer. It was not so difficult to close his eyes and take them out of the attic and into the place of their school days.
Remus reached past folds of age-yellowed linen and into the cleaner but no less rumpled material of Sirius's shirt, seeking warmer skin. This was not so complicated after all. He stroked gently, then more firmly. It wasn't hard to know when he was doing something right, but sometimes he had wondered if what he thought was right could be wrong from another perspective.
On the trips he made for Dumbledore, sometimes there was nothing to do at all except wait and try to fill the waiting with thinking. It was pleasant to think of simple things now, nothing but the pure physical sensations of the moment, and he could understand why Sirius sought the comfort of his animagus form when life became too much for him. There were a growing number of nights when he returned to find Padfoot on the bed snuffling softly in his sleep, or curled in silent communion next to Buckbeak.
His world narrowed to the feel of the sheets and Sirius's skin, the trace of salt-taste from their exertions with the wardrobe, the smell of both of them lying together. The smell, it was always the smell that was most important. Even during the lost years, he'd always remembered Sirius's scent, familiar as home and hearth and den. In his animagus form, Sirius had been the only one who had understood smells the same way Remus did, bright and distinct as the colors neither of them could see. James had laughed at them, but it was true.
Outside, the rain was slowing. Remus didn't realize he himself was slowing his touch as well until Sirius made a protesting sound in his throat and tried to nip the hand on his cheek.
"Don't be a git," Remus said, but he kept stroking. Everyone was essentially an animal at heart, or so said the book they had extracted their biggest accomplishment from. Everyone had the nature of the beast inside, a deep and primitive force, and that was why animagi could transform. It was only a matter of finding out what the beast was and accepting it.
Sometimes Remus wondered what he himself would have been if he hadn't received the bite. What was inside him that the wolf had devoured? The memory of teeth sinking into his skin had never left him, though he had been young when it happened. He never dreamed of flying, it was always running, running, running over the ground. No use thinking of those things, though.
In the long dark silences of his work for Dumbledore, he sometimes imagined the growl and tumble of mating wolves, the flash of playful teeth, the synchronized motion of a hunt. The unforgettable smell of the den, that which would always lead him back to where he belonged. Wolves were strange, both solitary and social by nature. Trust was required. The first dog was a wolf before it was a dog; perhaps even animals fit inside each other as they fit inside humans.
No use thinking of those things. No use to worry. They had managed and would continue to.
"Do you want to go downstairs?" Sirius asked him. His hand was warm on Remus's hip. "The attic's not ideal."
"I'm comfortable," Remus said. And it was true.
They stayed there until morning, wrapped in linen and darkness and each other. At some point, Remus removed his shoes and Sirius unbuttoned the rest of his shirt. Kreacher's furtive footsteps and muttered litany drew near and then faded away; Remus felt Sirius tense next to him, but then gradually relax again. He lay a hand on Sirius's shoulder to draw his attention again, and after a pause, Sirius touched him back in the dark.
When Remus went to sleep, he dreamed as he usually did, of running over smooth, solid ground, chasing the moon over the horizon. In the dream, Sirius was at his side and it made no difference at all that his pelt shone black instead of gray in the moonlight, no difference at all. In his dream, they were strong, they were alive, and they were together as they followed the moon until it became the sun.