A/N: Obligatory reminder this is SLASH (and that all characters belong to JK Rowling, albeit in a more sexually ambiguous state). It's not too late to turn back if this is not your cup of tea.
For the rest of you tea-drinkers, still a little different from my usual in that I'm departing from my usual girl-world and focusing on Remus and Sirius.
Thanks to Rhysenn for beta-reading and encouragement. I have greedily incorporated just about all of her suggestions.
The sound of urgent barking broke the night-time stillness outside Remus Lupin's isolated house. Startled, he hastily snapped shut the photo album he'd been looking at. The barking was punctuated by the sound of two big paws bouncing off the warped front door, and Lupin stood up so quickly that he sent the pile of albums scattering to the floor. Dashing across the tiny sitting room, he yanked open the front door. Sirius Black staggered inside.
Although Sirius looked better than the last time Lupin had seen him, over a year ago in the Shrieking Shack, his hair was still wild, his body gaunt. Helping his old friend over to the sofa, one of Sirius' lanky arms looped across his shoulders for support, Lupin deposited him and stood back.
Sirius leaned against the cushions, eyes closed. Lupin glanced down, noticed the collection of photographs lying at Sirius' feet, and with a discreet flash of his wand sent them all back to their place in the cabinet.
Leaning closer to Sirius, Lupin asked, "What's wrong?"
Sirius' dark eyes snapped open and he answered hoarsely, "It's Harry."
They talked well into the night, before Remus finally insisted Sirius get some sleep. Remus returned to the living room, his mind too engaged to be interested in sleep himself.
Sirius had just told him about the conclusion of the Triwizard Tournament and all that had ensued. Remus had been following the Tournament through the Daily Prophet, of course, and had been deeply concerned on learning that Harry had mysteriously been selected as a fourth champion. But this turn of events left Remus utterly shocked - one boy dead, Voldemort restored to strength, and Pettigrew... Lupin shook his head and glanced at his albums again.
He'd spent hours that evening poring over old pictures. For some reason all of them - Sirius, James, Lily, even Peter - had been on his mind. He rarely looked at the photographs, and reviewing them that evening had been almost like reliving their moments together all over again.
He closed his eyes, the images still painfully in his mind as if they were right in front of him: James a slender, not-quite-handsome boy with dark and unruly hair; Sirius darker in both appearance and personality, his almost sinister good looks tempered by playfulness. And Peter... Whenever Lupin thought of Peter he remembered the way Peter had so often uttered "Moony," his voice escalating into a whine that drew out the last syllable. Even the plaintiveness of his voice had marked him as the one out of his depth among them.
Lily had always marvelled at the way he, James and Sirius had borne Peter's presence, how they had teased him in the indifferent way boys had, yet still accepted him into their circle. She had often remarked, again in amazement, how boys could tolerate someone like Peter more easily than girls. Peter's female equivalent, she informed them, would have been isolated, ridiculed, constantly reminded of her inferiority. Remus wondered now if they shouldn't have been a bit more cruel, discouraged him. Would things have turned out any differently?
Remus knew why he had been tolerant of Peter, understanding even. He recognized in Peter the sense of not-belonging, the same outsiderness he sometimes felt as well. Not just in the world at large, but even at Hogwarts. He had been, of course, the only werewolf at school and the anxiety of keeping his secret had weighed upon him with an almost physical force.
James and Sirius - even Peter - had accepted him, had gone to incredible lengths to keep him company. Still, he was the werewolf, the one who couldn't control his transformations. Besides, James and Sirius had been like brothers, sharing a kind of closeness and intimacy Remus could only observe from a distance and wish for himself. Although the truth was, he hadn't wanted a brother, exactly - but what he had really wanted scared him too much, was far too great a risk.
He crossed the room and stood at the bookcase, staring once again at the moving photographs. In some ways he felt wizard photos were crueler than Muggle ones, at least when looking at people who no longer lived. The people still moved in their pictures, with the same mannerisms, making it all the harder to believe they were not alive anymore.
Remus sat back down and squeezed his eyes shut, remembering now why he rarely took out these albums. When he'd first learned of James and Lily's death he had stared compulsively at their photographs, unable to imagine he'd never see them ever again.
So he imagined them as they once had been, all of them young and - in the pictures - happy. Hogwarts seemed to have had the power to amplify all his experiences: everything from the green of a new spring leaf to the intensity of his emotions had seemed more vivid when he was at school. Remus glanced from the sleeping form of Sirius, now in his bedroom, to the old photograph of Sirius at seventeen, cocky and grinning. Was there anything more powerful, Remus wondered, than the memory of having once been young and happy together?
"Moony?" Sirius croaked from the bedroom.
Remus stood up and crossed to the bedroom, where he stood in the doorway. "Yes?"
Sirius raised himself in bed, his dark hair messier at this moment than James' had ever been. "What time is it?"
"Going on noon."
"Noon," repeated Sirius, still looking dazed.
"I thought you could use some sleep," explained Remus, lounging against the door frame.
"What about you?"
"Werewolves don't have the same sleep requirements as humans, if you'll recall," Remus remarked matter-of-factly. "Come on, I'll get you something to eat.
Although the sun shone brightly - a hot, clear June morning - Remus felt very dark indeed as he made his way to the kitchen. The curtains in all the rooms were pulled against the sun, so the interior of the house remained shadowed and cool and very still. Almost as if someone had died. Someone did die, Remus reminded himself, and felt guilty for being relieved it hadn't been Harry.
When Sirius emerged from the shower and took a seat at the kitchen table, Remus was struck anew by the way his friend filled up a room, the way he seemed larger than life. Even more than a decade in Azkaban hadn't completely extinguished that quality in him, although it had definitely been muted, Remus admitted, noting the veiled look that always seemed present in Sirius' eyes and his face.
"Will you be going on to Arabella's?" Remus asked, watching Sirius consume everything on the table except the silverware and linens.
Sirius shook his head, swallowed, and explained, "Dumbledore said to lie low with you here for a while. He'll contact us soon."
"Oh." Remus couldn't help feeling startled. Sirius rarely stayed long in any one place; he hadn't thought they'd have more than a few hours together.
"Hope that's not a problem." Sirius smiled, observing Remus' less than enthusiastic response.
"Sorry." Remus roused himself and looked abashed. "I just wasn't expecting it. You usually move on so quickly."
"So I have a few commitment issues to work on."
"I didn't mean -" Remus reminded himself Sirius was joking. Considering the recent events he was surprised Sirius could joke at all, but then again Sirius had always had rather irreverent sense of humour.
The rakish grin faded from Sirius' face as he regarded his old friend. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. I've just been thinking about you and James, how we all used to be..." Lupin trailed off and frowned. "Stupid, really. Morbid."
"It's not stupid," Sirius said softly. "I think about it, too."
Remus didn't respond, just got up and moved into the living room, as if standing in a different place could somehow make him forget the one memory that persisted the most strongly of all, the one for which he had no photograph: the night he and Sirius had kissed in the Forbidden Forest.
Sirius followed and sat down across from him in the battered arm chair. "Do you remember how we all were, before -"
Remus cut him off. "Yes, I already told you I do."
Sirius' dark eyes sought and held Remus' as he persisted in his questioning. "Did you ever think -"
"I try not to think too much about the past," Remus said shortly. "I don't know why I've been dwelling on it today. We've got to focus on the present now, especially for Harry's sake."
"When I look at Harry - he's best friends with the Weasley boy, and the girl, Hermione Granger?" Sirius looked to Remus for confirmation. When he nodded, Sirius continued. "They're so close, so young and don't know any better. They think they can get through anything together."
"That's what we thought, too. But we were wrong." Remus watched Sirius standing in his living room and realised in a rush that it hadn't just been youth that made the world seem brighter or his emotions more vivid: he'd felt that way because he'd experienced it all with Sirius.
Something in Lupin's voice made Sirius look at him more closely. "What's on your mind, Moony?" he asked.
"Nothing." Remus rested his face in his hands. Today was too much like that day so long ago. The beginnings of summer, the beginning of so much, he had thought. Even he, Remus, had dared to feel optimistic, had actually thought he could kiss his best friend and not disrupt the balance of the fragile threads that held them all together. He hadn't known - couldn't have imagined if he'd tried - that within a few years Lily and James would be dead and he would spend the next thirteen years believing Sirius to be a traitor.
When he raised his head, Sirius was still watching him intently. "I wish things could have been different - for all of us, Moony."
"So do I, Padfoot." Remus gave his friend a wan smile.
Another long silence passed, then Sirius said very quietly, "Dumbledore told me to come find you. But even if he hadn't, I would have come anyway. Moony, there's something I've been wanting to ask you ever since I saw you last year." Sirius paused then asked, voice still low, "I kissed you once, do you remember?"
"I remember." When Sirius didn't respond Remus added, "We were very young."
"Right. Very young."
"And everything was completely different then. I thought - you made me think that nothing but a wonderful future lay before us." Now that he'd started, Remus felt the words rush out of him, like a meandering current suddenly turned to whitewater. "Lily and James were Heads of School, you and I had such big plans. God, you don't know how I wanted that - wanted you." He closed his eyes and bowed his head.
"And what happened? Next morning you'd changed?"
"No, everything else did. Sirius, why are you even mentioning this?" Remus stood and walked to the fireplace. "Considering everything that is going on right this minute, how can you even ask me to re-examine one moment that happened decades ago?"
"Because it matters," Sirius answered fiercely. "You know the memory I still call up to perform the Patronus charm? That night in the Forest with you. I didn't understand then and I still don't - why didn't we pursue it?"
"Why? Because the world quickly became a very dark place, Sirius. Because it seemed no matter how hard any of us fought, nothing we did was ever enough. What difference does it make?"
Sirius was on his feet now, too, standing quite close. "It makes a difference because we were happy. It took all my strength to stay sane during those twelve years I was locked away with the Dementors, and the worst part was that the only way I could do it was not even to think about you, to make myself non-human. If you'd been to Azkaban maybe you'd value happiness more!"
"You think we could have been happy?" Remus turned his pale eyes to Sirius' dark gaze. They were now so close he could feel Sirius' breath, could feel the heat of his arm against his own.
"I think we can be happy," corrected Sirius, placing his hands on Remus' shoulders. "Don't you?"
"I don't think in those terms anymore." Remus shrugged off Sirius' grasp and edged away.
Sirius followed. "I don't believe you," he said quietly.
Remus turned. "You want to know why it didn't work before?" he asked, raising his voice. "Did you ever think how James or Lily might have reacted if they'd found out about us? Or even Peter? You were the only friends I'd ever had - once you start getting involved with a friend everything changes. I couldn't risk it."
"So you settled for the tepidity of friendship instead?" asked Sirius, arms crossed and one eyebrow raised at Remus, although whether he was angry or amused, Remus couldn't quite determine.
"My feelings for you were hardly tepid," Remus admitted, almost shyly.
"I can't believe it." Sirius shook his head. "Here I thought you weren't interested and it took so much out of me to be 'just friends' with you after that night. Now I know I wasn't altogether wrong - you did feel something more for me but you were just too afraid to follow it through." He looked at Remus incredulously. "But we were so close back then - I would have done anything for you. Why didn't you tell me how you really felt?"
"That's exactly why I never told you. How could I risk losing the friendship that meant most to me? How could I risk driving away the few people who had stuck by me and accepted me as a werewolf? I wasn't convinced they could take yet another strange revelation about Remus Lupin."
"But you and I, Remus - we could have been so much more to each other than friends." Sirius' dark eyes flashed. "And we still can be."
Remus didn't respond right away. Emotion worked in his face and when he spoke again his voice remained quiet, but a kind of wonderment and hurt slipped through. "The last time I saw you was a year ago, in the Shrieking Shack. Everything happened so quickly that night, and there was no opportunity for anything but the most basic of understandings and forgiveness. I wanted more time with you but it was a full moon that night..."
He trailed off for a moment then resumed. "I know I'll never understand what it was like for you in Azkaban, but it wasn't so easy for me, either. I had so many questions all these years and no way to ask you. Sit down," he gestured to the sofa.
Sirius took a seat. Remus joined him and continued speaking. "When I taught at Hogwarts I once had to explain to Harry about the Dementor's Kiss. The Ministry had just given the Dementors permission to perform it on you. He said you deserved it." He looked at Sirius carefully, gauging his reaction. The closed expression crossed Sirius' eyes but pain showed behind them.
Swallowing, Remus forged ahead. "Obviously Harry no longer feels that way. But even then - when I still believed you guilty - I couldn't agree with him. I'm not sure how I would characterise my feelings for you at that time, but I do know I would rather have seen you dead than have seen you lose your soul."
"If you're trying to make me feel better, Moony, I'm not sure it's working," replied Sirius.
"It's always a joke to you, isn't it?" Remus jumped to his feet, turning away. "You ask me how I feel and when I tell you, you start backing off by cracking jokes."
"I'm not joking." Sirius also leapt up and stared hard at Remus' back, as if the strength of his gaze would be enough to make his friend turn and face him. "Moony, for the things you're talking about - what can I do or say? 'Sorry' just isn't enough, I know. I'm not backing off from you. I know we have thirteen years' worth of conversation to catch up on, but all I'm asking you now is if you even want to try. Because it's not going to be easy and after all I've been through I'm not sure I could make that effort just to be friends - even for you. Especially with you."
"So what is your point, exactly?"
Sirius sighed. "My point is, do you still have feelings for me? And if you do, are you willing to take some risks to see if we can't make a go of it this time?"
Remus opened his mouth but found that words stuck in his throat. He turned, fixed his gaze on Sirius and felt his jaw tighten against his own emotions, all of which threatened to spill over should he speak.
Moving in front of him, Sirius asked, "What have you got to lose now?"
Remus dropped his eyes. "Nothing."
Stepping closer, Sirius rested one hand on the small of Lupin's back. "I know you were afraid of losing your friends back then," he said softly. "But they're gone now - we both lost them anyway. Don't you see? Hiding how you felt didn't save anyone. Silence doesn't guarantee safety. Lily and James will never get a second chance at life, but you and I - we still have a chance."
Remus nodded. He could feel Sirius's intense gaze upon him and willed himself not to look back. Hearing Sirius talk like that, feeling him so close by brought on a kind of churning emotion inside, one whose intensity was topped only by the sensation he experienced in the instant before turning into a werewolf. He'd been able to stave it off when feeling upset but now all he could focus on was the close proximity of Sirius' body to his own.
"If you want me to go, I will. I can contact Dumbledore from anywhere."
Although he'd been keeping his eyes stubbornly on the worn carpeting, Remus now looked up at Sirius. The frustration and pain he'd felt earlier receded as he contemplated how he'd feel if Sirius left. The shabby rented house had always depressed him but now the thought of remaining in it without Sirius was suddenly unbearable.
"No," he said, panic and desire catching in his throat and making his voice ragged. "Don't go. All these years, I tried to put away my feelings for you. Told myself it was something I'd have to contain, like my werewolf self. But I still - " Remus paused and swallowed painfully "- I still loved you."
Sirius said nothing, merely increased the pressure of his fingers against Lupin's back, bringing the two of them together without further prompting. Remus felt his heart beat more quickly and time seemed to melt away as they came together. He was seventeen again, feeling Sirius' body against him for the first time. Now as then, tentative lips parted and their mouths opened to each other. Remus recalled sharply the memories that had never left him - the way Sirius tasted, the way he smelled, the feel of Sirius' tongue against his own. Engulfed in the arms of his oldest friend, Remus felt a deep, unutterable relief. It seemed a missing part of him had been restored yet he'd never noticed the absence until now.
Remus knew the coming days would bring more darkness and risk and loss. Yet to have before him the possibility of even small moments of happiness - of love - was enough. It was more than he'd dared hope for. As he and Sirius stood entwined in the small, shaded room happiness seemed more than a mere possibility: with a swift rush of blood through his veins Remus saw passion shift before him, transforming almost imperceptibly from suffering to joy.