It was much darker where they were now than where they had been the night before, because now the moon was gone behind the clouds. When Kurt's eyes lifted from the book in his hand to the sky, there were no stars. He shivered, and edged closer to his candle - a tiny light in an infinite darkness.
He was not with the caravan. They were settled where the trees parted to reveal a little river, and he could hear the dancing ladies bathing in the water. His tail flicked in time with their singing, and part of him wished to risk a look, to see their delicate bodies wrapped in wet linens, clinging to the curves the men pay dearly to see.
Another, better part of him stared down at the book, his fingers curling at the edges of the brittle pages, and under his breath he softly intoned the things he knew would keep his eyes turned away, fixed and tracing tiny letters to words he already knew by heart.
When a breeze came, and blew out his candle and the night came completely around him, he did not stop reading. The candle was not for light to read by. He didn't need it; he could see the words perfectly. The candle was comfort, a guardian against the things he couldn't.
Particularly the thing in the cage behind him.
He knew why they had not kept that particular wagon with the others. The thing inside it rattled the bars and growled low whenever approached. Kurt had not seen it clearly, not even when they first brought it to the circus, a triumph of an unplanned hunt. At first snarl he'd put himself high in the trees, out of harm's reach, and while he listened to the screams below he spoke the words, repeated them with his face to the Heavens, to be heard.
"Vater unser im Himmel, geheiligt werde dein Name. Dein Reich komme Dein Wille geschehe, wie im Himmel, so auf Erden."
Kurt did not know how they managed to cage the creature. It was not without loss. They buried the dead in the same forest and killed the others out of mercy. It would be three more towns before they could find ones to replace them, and it would be a long time yet until they were no longer a family shattered and wounded, but healed. He thought perhaps it could not be, so long as they had the new thing with them.
It did not have a name, but quietly, Kurt called it der Teufel, because that is what they had called him, before they understood what he was.
He did not understand what it was, not yet, and until then it seemed only fair.
The cage – and it was a cage, more than it was a wagon, because the bars were thicker than its wheels - behind him groaned, a low and keening sound and Kurt heard words in it. Human words, human pain. He turned and his eyes flickered and narrowed, and he picked shapes out of the criss-crossed shadows. The shapes moved, fitted together to become one quivering, dark thing struggling to rise from the floor.
The clouds parted, a little, and gave a bit of moonlight through the trees. Kurt could see der Teufel now, lurching slightly and toppling over onto his side. The man was on his back, writhing beneath a sheen of sweat and blood. His mouth worked in silent words spoken to no one, or perhaps to Kurt, because he was the only one there to hear them.
Kurt put down his book, beside his spent candle, and slowly crept in for a closer look.
He went as far as the shadow of the cage cast across the ground by the moon, and peered between the bars. The man was almost not a man but a boy, no older than Kurt himself, though in the light there were flashes of gray in his hair. From that distance, Kurt could hear what the man was saying. A foreign tongue, English, but he knew the words for they were the same that he had held in his own mouth so many times before.
"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want... He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters... He restoreth my soul... He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake..."
Kurt held his breath and listened to the familiar rhythm of the words, the soft yet hoarse voice that spoke them, and without thinking he began to recite it to himself, his voice mingling with the stranger's, the languages weaving together, like a spell.
"Und ob ich schon wanderte im finstern Tal, fürchte ich kein Unglück; denn du bist bei mir, dein Stecken und Stab trösten mich... Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil: my cup runneth over..."
The man's eyes opened suddenly and flicked toward him. Kurt inhaled, prepared to vanish to a safer place but then the moon showed him those eyes to be plain, and brown, and not at all like the strange ones he'd seen in the darkness the night before. Not at all like the eyes of der Teufel.
"Don't go," said the man. His voice rattled in his throat and Kurt was reminded of raw meat, and wind. "Please, I'm not- I don't want to..."
"Sprechen sie Deutsch?" asked Kurt, tail twitching against his shoulder like an urgent finger tapping him to flee. The man looked suddenly weary.
"Nein," came the reply. "Nicht genug. Sprechen Sie Englisch?"
Kurt nodded. "I speak English little." The words fell heavy from his mouth, rough and unfamiliar. He saw the man struggle to understand them. "English though sounds still Deutsch."
The man laughed. "I understand you fine. Er, verstehen Sie." He coughed, and winced, and Kurt felt the stab of sympathy. "Where are we?"
"Bonn," said Kurt. "Is north. Luxembourg west." He inched closer to the cage, resting his hands against the bars. "You have name?"
"Remus," the man smiled. "Lupin." He reached up, pushed hair from his eyes and sat up with a sharp grunt. Through the bars he extended a hand, and tentatively, Kurt took it. Remus's hand was cold but soft, and he let go very quickly.
"Kurt Wagner," he said. "Here I am der große Nachtkriechert. Er... do not know English..."
Remus shook his head. "My Germans not so rusty as I thought. Nachtkriechert – Nightcrawler." He nodded. "Interesting..."
Kurt felt the scrutiny before he saw it, the way Remus's head dipped back into shadow for a moment, his eyes glittering as they swept over him and took him in – the blue, and the yellow, and the tail of course. When Remus moved back into the light, his face betrayed nothing, and Kurt frowned at having been studied without reaction. It was not something he was accustomed to.
"Sie sind weit weg von zu Hause," he said, without thinking. Remus's lips quirked at the corners.
"Yes," he replied, softly. "I am a very long way from home. And... I'm not entirely certain how I got here."
"You do not remember?" Kurt blinked in surprise. "They caught you. The hunters. They think you... you were wolf. Not man."
Remus's head bowed, and he brought his knees tight up against him, wrapping his arms around his legs and folding himself up small.
"Ich bin beides," murmured Remus. "I am both."
Kurt's eyes widened. "Werewolf," he breathed. "Maria, steh uns bei."
Remus peered at Kurt through the bars. "Have you never seen one before?" he asked. Kurt shook his head.
"Werwolf, they are of fairy tales. Story for children."
His tail slashed the air of its own accord. The night was shifting around them, the moon a little brighter, the stars emerging from their hiding places. Remus was more clearly visible now, a battered young man with gray in his hair and a pale, empty face. There were scars there, the kind you could see in lines and shapes across his skin, and then there were the other kind.
His eyes, though, were bright and kind, and regarded Kurt with faint amusement.
"Fairy tales," said Remus. "And where do you fit in, my friend? What sort of storybook would I find you in?"
Kurt frowned. "Am not in books," he said. "Nachtkriechert is real."
"As am I," said Remus. "We are both of us real." He put out a hand and touched Kurt's again, trailing gentle fingers along his knuckles. Kurt jerked his hand back, but Remus grasped it, and held it.
"There are no storybooks for us," said Remus, gravely. "Only dark nights and cages, and people who watch without seeing."
Kurt studied the hand in his. It was white, phosphorescent against his own, the fingers long and thin with ragged nails at the ends. The hand tightened its grip, and Kurt found himself squeezing back.
"There is book," he whispered. "One book. I heard you." He looked up, and found Remus's gaze steady and unblinking and fixed to his. "You prayed."
"Yes." Remus let his hand slip away, and he leaned his temple against one of the bars and closed his eyes against the cool metal. "I always do. I never know if... if this night, this change, might be the one that finishes it." He smiled suddenly, a mirthless laugh bubbling from between thin lips. "The end of my story. The last page of that book."
Kurt leaned against the same bar and looked up into that weathered face. "The last page is hope," he said. "Die Gnade des Herrn Jesus ist mit allen Heiligen-"
"-Amen." The word was a breeze, a sigh, a rush of breath against the top of Kurt's head. "I pray for salvation, Nachtkriechert," said Remus. "What is it you pray for?"
He watched Remus straighten up and open his eyes, and the cage bars cast shadows into them.
"I will not find it in here," he murmured, running a hand along a bar. Kurt reached up and caught that hand.
"You come here, why?" he asked.
Remus flinched. "I had nowhere else to go."
"Dead," said Remus. "All of them, dead. Or as good as dead."
Kurt shut his eyes and felt the empathy bloom inside him, a dull ache that started somewhere deep like a sigh and traveled through his blood until he felt heavy and old with it.
"I am sorry," he said. "Much lost."
"Yes," said Remus dully. "Much lost. Lost them. I'm ... I'm lost, like them. Dead maybe, I don't know." He looked at Kurt. "Am I dead?"
Kurt looked at the hand in his and shook his head. "Very alive."
"Nein!" Kurt shook his head. "Do not say such thing!"
And then he was inside the cage, the faint scent of brimstone clinging to him like a chill, and Remus was staring up at him, mouth open and moving without words.
"Out," said Kurt, and he knelt before Remus. "It will not hurt."
Remus blinked, and nodded, and when Kurt put out his arms Remus fell into them, clawing at his jacket with clumsy hands that had forgotten that they were not paws. Kurt pulled him in, held him tightly, and thought.
When he opened his eyes, there was grass beneath his feet. Remus's weight brought them both to the ground and they knelt there, crumpled against one another, breathing quickly.
"Y-you..." Remus swallowed, hard, and clung to Kurt's shoulders. "You can A-apparate."
Kurt shook his head. "I do not know that word," he said. "I bamf."
"The sound. When I... Is like 'BAMF'. I make up the word." He reached up and smoothed Remus's hair away from his face, soothing strokes, the way he liked to pet the Strongman's dog.
"L-like magic," said Remus, curling up against him and hiding his face. "It's like magic."
"No magic," said Kurt. "Just Nachtkriecher."
The first breath of dawn ghosted through the trees, and the darkness slowly lightened to gray. Kurt could hear the caravan by the river stirring to life, and a thick cord of dread formed in his throat.
"You must go," he said. "They come for you, put you back." He lifted Remus up, struggling to haul the other man to his unsteady feet. "They kill you, I am afraid."
Remus stared blankly at him. "Where do I go?" He shivered violently, and his arms went around himself. "I know no one here. I don't know my way home. I don't-" He hesitated. "I don't know where that is. It is in the ground. It is in Azkaban. I can't go to either..." He reached up and pulled his hand through his hair and looked around. "The cage is as much my home as anywhere."
"Nein," said Kurt. "You go. Go back where you came. It is better. Circus, I like it for me. I am performer. You, they kill you. Beat you. Train you do tricks. Not life for you, werwolf."
"Remus." He smiled. "Is easy to say. Re-mus."
Remus smiled. "You say it, and it sounds like poetry." He reached out and touched Kurt's face, tracing a thin trail of raised flesh, intentional scars that resembled Braille. Kurt closed his eyes and let Remus read the sin beneath his fingers.
"You are more than a performer," said Remus, and his hand drifted across Kurt's face to the side of his neck. "You are more than this place. Stay with them if they make you feel safe, but don't stay forever. There are better places for the likes of you."
"Gutes und Barmherzigkeit werden mir folgen mein Leben lang," said Kurt, leaning into Remus's touch, the first of its kind he'd ever known, "und ich werde bleiben im Hause des Herrn immerdar."
Lips against his caught the last breath of the prayer, and Kurt nearly let himself disappear out of sheer surprise. Remus's mouth was timid, just feathering over his own, and the hand on his neck was only a shadow of touch. A flicker of movement, and then they were gone.
Kurt opened his eyes, and Remus smiled.
"Danke," he said.
"Lebwohl," replied Kurt, and he waited until Remus had moved through the trees away from the river and down toward the road. Then Kurt was instantly back inside the cage, kicking at the metal bars, bending and breaking them. He scratched at the wood, scraping until he knew his hands were bleeding, ensuring that when the cage was inspected later, it would leave no doubt as to how the werewolf escaped.
When he was satisfied with his handiwork, he left the cage and returned to his book and his candle, picked them up and started toward the caravan.
It was morning. Time to move on.