All characters and situations belong to Ms. Rowling.
Author's note: Thanks to jadeddiva for beta-ing. Title lovingly stolen from the Decemberists song of the same name.
"Lie low," he'd been told. Well, of course he was going to lie low. What did they think, he was going to run through Diagon Alley naked with his hair on fire? He might be mad, but he wasn't stupid.
It was all right, here at Remus's little North London flat. He had a warm place to sleep, human company, and regular meals. He was safe here. The body in motion had finally come to rest; the fugitive was in flight no longer. And it had occurred to him, more than once, that he had merely exchanged one prison for another, with Remus as his jailer.
From the couch where he slept, it was five paces to the kitchen, two to the front door, seven to the toilet. There was a pattern in the woodgrain by the window that looked like an old man with a beard. The tiles on the kitchen floor were hexagons, the tiles in the toilet were squares. The cracks on the ceiling in the kitchen formed a map of Australia. There were three dead flies in the light fixture over the couch.
Other than the flies, Remus's flat was scrupulously neat and curiously anonymous. There was little that would've told you that Remus Lupin was living here; even the framed Art Nouveau prints on the walls were the sort of thing you could buy at any poster shop. Only the bookshelf, full of tomes like A Field Study of the County Clare Pooka, betrayed the identity of the flat's inhabitant. That, and the two photos on the mantelpiece: Lily and James at their wedding, and a prim middle-aged couple he dimly recognized as Remus's parents.
Remus himself was usually out most of the day. He worked a series of odd jobs, including tutoring the landlord's son in exchange for lower rent, and running errands for the nascent Order, having taken over from Sirius as Dumbledore's messenger boy. It annoyed Sirius a bit, and he complained about it, but Remus told him he needed to stay where he was. He fumed inwardly and shrugged. At least he knew Remus would do a good job of it. Moony had always been so thorough, a model student. When he got home, he tended to be tired and terse, though he always gave a full report on preparations for the war in which they were all soldiers now, and any news he could glean about Harry. There never seemed to be enough news about Harry.
Remus was kind enough, when he wasn't busy. He bought new clothes to replace the filthy prison robes Sirius had been wearing for the past year, though Sirius knew bloody well he couldn't afford it. He brought home books and magazines and a deck of Exploding Snap cards. Opining that Sirius needed "fattening up," he even attempted to cook, with some small degree of success, though it took three days to soak the burned eggs off the bottom of the frying pan. He'd forgotten to put in cooking oil.
One gray afternoon about a week into his stay, Sirius unearthed a cache of old records, stashed away in a hallway closet under a protective sheet of plastic: the Buzzcocks, the Clash, the Jam, Elvis Costello. He knew these records intimately, remembered sitting in Remus's student bedsit listening to them; surely that burn mark on the back cover of "This Year's Model" was from a drunken gesture with a burning Gauloise? He remembered Peter listening with an intent look on his face as James earnestly discussed the finer points of Bruce Thomas's bass playing. Lost and gone.
"I don't want to listen to that old stuff," said Remus dismissively when he got home. "I should've sold those years ago." But Sirius prevailed, and they sat on the couch and listened to voices from the past through a haze of crackles from the blunt needle on Remus's gramophone. About halfway through "London Calling," Remus got up and fetched a dusty, nearly untouched bottle of firewhiskey and a couple of shot glasses, and they toasted to punk rock and the memory of James Potter. Soon they were fairly well pissed, and Remus got up to perform a hilariously awkward two-step to the tune of "Wrong 'Em Boyo," in his faded old tie and professorial tweed blazer with the patches on the elbows. "What's so funny?" he demanded as Sirius howled with laughter. "Can't a man cut a rug in the privacy of his own home?"
There were still six or seven albums left in the stack by the time Remus announced that he needed to go to bed. "Ministry business tomorrow," he said, trying and failing to look portentous. "Must get my beauty sleep."
"You'll wake up and that nose of yours will have magically disappeared."
"This nose of mine tells me there's going to be rain tonight," said Remus. "I can smell it. Remember to shut the front window when you turn in, will you? Goodnight, Padfoot."
Remus shuffled off to his room. Sirius sighed then, and unearthed his loaned pair of pajama bottoms from between the couch cushions. The couch was not an entirely comfortable place to sleep - he had to either curl in a tight fetal position or prop his feet up on one of the arms. He could have been more comfortable in his dog form, but he had spent too much time sleeping as a dog in the past year. Anyway, he was immune to discomfort at this point. He turned off the light and slept.
He dreamed that the room had filled up with dark warm water, and he was floating about in a cloud of cushions and bedclothes. It felt quite pleasant. It wasn't until his head was pressed up against the ceiling that he realized he was going to drown, and he began to thrash and panic until he finally woke up, his head wedged up against the back of the couch. There was a cold draught in the room and the sound of rain against the windows: Moony had been right. He should probably get up and close the window. In the morning he'd do it. Meanwhile, the venetian blind was swaying in the wind, hitting the windowsill with a clattering sound, a random rhythm like a code, like Morse code, spelling out some nocturnal mystery that followed him down into sleep.
The man in the cell across from him had gone mad some weeks previously. Sirius had talked to him for a while before it happened: the usual "What you in for, mate?" conversation. He got an involved story about stealing some magical artifact out of a Muggle museum, and then the man asked what Sirius was in for. "I killed my two best friends," he said.
Now the man raps his empty food bowl against the bars over and over again, an interminable clattering that threatens to drive Sirius mad himself. Finally, mercifully, the man manages to tear up his robe and hang himself with it, and Sirius wakes up one morning to see his bloated blue face wedged up against the bars a yard from his own.
He was standing in the middle of the living room, the blankets discarded on the floor, his knees trembling so hard he thought they might give way. He leaned against the mantelpiece, and the tension in his jaw told him that he was going to puke. Seven paces to the toilet.
He had the foresight to pull his hair up and out of the way just before he lost his dinner and a goodly portion of firewhiskey. He felt better after it was over, but stayed kneeling on the cold tiles (square, not hexagonal) for a long time before he managed to get up again.
As he staggered back into the hallway, he heard a sleepy voice from behind Remus's closed door. "Sirius? You all right?"
It took him a moment to collect himself enough to speak. "Yeah."
"You need anything?"
"No. I'm fine." He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and staggered back into the living room. The venetian blind was still clattering away, and he shut the window. (Four paces.) He lay awake for the rest of the night, until the suffocating darkness was finally replaced by healing daylight, and he managed to doze off.
Remus was gone when he woke up. He dragged himself off the couch, every muscle in his body aching, and went to take a shower. Leaning his head against the wall, he watched the water running down the emaciated ruin of his body, trailing off the ends of his long hair. Remus wanted to give him a haircut, probably because he was using up Remus's shampoo at a rapid rate, but he refused. He was proud of his hair - his crowning and only glory.
He spent the afternoon - it was afternoon already - playing the rest of Remus's old records, though he didn't pay much attention to them. He felt oddly numb and disconnected. Outside it was still raining. Remus had left a bottle of something pink and sludgy on the kitchen table, with a note in his neat block letters: "Muggle remedy - take a tablespoon if you feel sick again. Back at six. - RJL." The stuff looked foul, and Sirius didn't touch it.
The rain had let up by the time Remus got home, and Sirius talked him into taking his dog-self for a walk before dinner, since that was his only chance to go outside. So while Remus watched, Sirius romped madly up and down the wet streets, delighted by the panoply of new smells. Usually he didn't allow his dog nature to overwhelm him, but today he let it all go: he marked his territory, rolled around in rotting stuff in the gutter, chased a terrified little Jack Russell back to its yard, and finally trotted back to Remus thoroughly exhausted, his tongue lolling out and his furry sides heaving.
"Have fun?" said Remus, and Sirius waggled his head up and down, spreading his jaws in a doggy grin. Remus scratched behind his ears. The human contact felt good, and he wagged his tail eagerly, looking up at his friend in the hopes of getting more. But Remus seemed to have lost interest; he merely stared off down the street with an abstracted expression, as if expecting someone. Sirius pawed at him and he looked down again. "Ready to go?" he asked.
Sirius couldn't say what he wanted to say, so he gave another approximation of a nod, and they walked off down the street together.
Another night, rain on the rooftop, a few days later. One leg off the couch, one arm dangling, the other gripping the blanket like an anchor, his hair spilled across his face, once again he dreamed.
The food here is stale water and mealy porridge, three times a day, and whatever rats and other vermin he can catch. One of them must have disagreed with him, because he spent the night crouched over his slops bucket, and in the morning he lies weak and debilitated on the stone floor, unable to move.
Human guards do the dirty work here. He opens his eyes to see one of them standing over him with an expression of disgust on his face. The cell reeks, so Sirius can't blame him. "You're Sirius Black, ain't you? The one who killed all them Muggles?" says the man in his gray uniform. Sirius makes no response. "Well, don't you go putting on airs, 'cos your shit stinks just as much as anyone else's." He Scourgifies Sirius's bucket and pauses on his way out. "Peter Pettigrew was my mate, you fucker," he says, and kicks Sirius hard in the stomach, several times. Sirius doubles up in agony and the guard walks out, the cell door clanging shut behind him.
The man never knew Pettigrew. He's just cleaned up a brimming bucket of human excrement, he's pissed off about it, and he wants someone to blame. Sirius clutches his bruised belly and lies still, squeezing his eyes shut to prevent the humiliating tears from coming.
This time he woke himself up. He had been saying or shouting something, he didn't know what, but it was enough. He was tangled in the blankets, sweating like a pig. Had he woken Remus up? Apparently not. He tried to catch his breath, sat up and pushed his damp hair out of his face.
Nothing was wrong. Just a dream. He was perfectly fine.
"Sleep well?" said Remus in the morning, stirring sugar into his tea.
"Not really." He smeared butter on his toast.
Remus took a sip from his mug and glanced shrewdly at Sirius from over the rim, his eyes narrowing. "I can get you a sleeping draught, if you need one."
"If you want," he said diffidently. The toast was very good. Remus got day-old bread from a fancy bakery down the street.
"I'm going to visit Severus today to get my potion. I'll ask him for something to help you sleep."
"Don't mention it's for me. He'll probably poison it."
"I doubt that, but I won't mention it if you don't want me to."
"You're a trusting soul. It's the full moon tonight?"
"Yes." So calm about it, so casual. Well, he must have been used to it by now.
When Remus came home from work that evening, he was showing the familiar signs of the coming transformation: slightly pointed ears, hair sprouting on the backs of his arms and hands, and he was sullen and snappish, even telling Sirius to "fuck off out of here" when Sirius tried to take over doing the washing-up.
"Did you take your potion?" Sirius asked, retreating to the kitchen table, feeling somewhat wounded.
"Don't be stupid. Of course I took it. Oh, I've got your sleeping draught." Remus dug around in his coat pocket and extracted a vial of purple fluid. "Snape says a dropperful will knock you out for twelve hours. I told him it was for a friend. He didn't ask."
Remus shook his head as if irritated. "I'm going to my room."
"I'll see you later, then?"
"Tomorrow," said Remus, and stalked out of the kitchen. A moment later, he heard the bedroom door slam and the lock turn.
It wasn't going to be like old times, then. He thought it would be. He'd been looking forward to it, in an odd sort of way - wolf and dog in amiable fellowship. He shook his head, got up and started cleaning the remaining dishes.
When he was done, he transformed and, his claws clicking on the hardwood floor, trotted to the closed bedroom door and lay down in front of it. (He couldn't count the paces in this form.) He would stay here, he decided, in case something went wrong with Remus's transformation. It was something to do, anyway. The sky outside was growing dark, and the moon would be up soon. It would be an hour or two at most. He rested his muzzle on his paws and closed his eyes.
He was on his feet as soon as the screaming started. Got to shut him up before the guards come, he thought. They'll beat him silly for making a fuss. But it was always like that when the dementors passed on their endless circuits around the prison, there were always prisoners who couldn't handle it. A few of them could, but for the most part the hallways would be total bedlam until the creatures passed and the barred gates slammed behind them.
What on earth was he thinking? Was he going mad? He wasn't there anymore. He was here, and his mate was screaming behind that door, going through his monthly trial by fire. There was nothing he could do about it. But the sound - which he hadn't heard in so long - shook him to his core. He lay back down, transformed without thinking back into his human form, curled up on the floor and stuck his fingers in his ears. He could still hear, though - his quiet constrained friend shrieking his pain in a voice which became more and more hoarse until it turned to animal howls.
He wanted to ask if Remus was all right, if he could come in. But of course Moony couldn't respond, and couldn't unlock the door even if he wanted to. Sirius stayed where he was. He would guard, even though he no longer knew what he was guarding from.
The sleeping draught was sickly sweet, and its effect was like a painless blow to the head. He slept, as promised, for twelve hours, waking up stiff and sore from lying in the same position for so long. There were no dreams, but he was so groggy the next day that he didn't really appreciate the fact.
It was like that every day for the next week, as long as he kept taking the stuff. When Remus was around, he forced himself into alertness and managed to carry on coherent conversations - making the effort because he was grateful, he really was. And then when Remus went to work or to bed, he would lapse back into the numb, dragging half-stupor he was beginning (and this frightened him) to become accustomed to.
He sat in the living room on a sunny day, a copy of the NME in his hands - a Muggle music magazine he used to enjoy reading. He didn't know the names of any of the bands anymore, and after a while the text seemed to blur before his eyes, words forming inky smears across the paper. He let the paper slip from his fingers and simply sat, his arms folded over his chest. He didn't need to move. He had walked all the paths in this place already, not only from the couch to the toilet but the hall closet to the kitchen pantry (five paces), the fireplace to the stove (seven paces), and so on. Getting up just wasn't interesting anymore.
Last night Remus had washed the wooden floors with a solution of vinegar and water, and the sharp smell still lingered. It made him think of fish and chips, which he hadn't had in. . . was it really thirteen years? Thirteen years. He was thirty-five years old. He was older than his parents when they'd had him. He was as old as his professors in school whom he used to mock for being old. He wondered if Remus might bring home some fish and chips some time. Greasy fish and chips in grease-soaked paper, fresh from the chippie on the corner by his old flat. The smell made Lily vomit one night, and that was when they all learned she was pregnant.
The shadows on the clean floor were very sharp-edged and black. There were bulky shadows from the couch and the armchair, and a spindly shadow from a wooden chair by the window. He didn't like that shadow. He needed to keep an eye on it. Soon, he thought, it would unfold, spread its spindly black limbs, and glide towards him, smooth and silent as a ghost.
Oh dear sweet Merlin, make it stop.
"Oh, for goodness sake, Sirius. I wish you'd be more careful."
"I'm sorry. It was an accident. I'll clean it up, if you want."
"You know where the mop is. You should probably put some shoes on."
"Do you think you'll be all right without the potion for a few days? I don't know when I'm going to see Severus again."
"Yeah, I'll be all right. Hey, maybe I can lick it off the floor."
"Go right ahead, but I'm not picking broken glass out of your tongue."
"Oh, come on. What sort of friend are you, anyway?"
"Sod off, Padfoot."
He didn't need that stuff anyway. He was better off without it. He slept perfectly well now, as long as he kept a light on during the night, or kept the fire going. The first night he'd tried sleeping without the potion, he had woken up and thought the walls were closing in on him in the dark.
Another day, rain in the morning giving way to sunlight. A large white owl battered at the window, holding an envelope in its black beak. He tore the envelope open eagerly and nearly ripped the letter in half.
Hi Sirius -
How are you? I'm back with the Dursleys for the summer. It's awful here. I mean, it's always awful, but I don't know what's going on - nobody is telling me anything. I don't know what to do. I miss you and my friends and there's nothing to do here except worry.
Are you still staying at Professor Lupin's place? Say hello to him for me. Do you think I can come visit you for a while? I can sleep on the floor. It's OK if you say no.
It took him a long time to compose a reply. He wanted to say yes, but he knew Remus wouldn't be happy about it - another mouth to feed, after all. There wasn't really room here, anyway. And it would be a monumental strategic error to have two targets in the same, very small space. No - as much as he wanted to see his godson again, it was best for him to stay where he was. He wrote a brief message to that effect, added that he would be sending a birthday present soon (he had no idea what it would be), and sent Hedwig off with the letter, winging back to Surrey.
Remus came home that evening and, in a tight voice, announced that he had lost one of his tutoring jobs, schooling a third-year Hogwarts boy in Arithmancy. The boy's father, a cousin of Molly Weasley's, worked for the Ministry, and had just found out about a proposed law forbidding werewolves to take any employment involving contact with children. (A direct result of Remus's stint at Hogwarts, apparently.) The law was almost certain to be passed, the father explained apologetically, and "You're an excellent teacher, and Sebastian really has learned a lot from you, but in all good conscience I can't. . ." Now the only job Remus had left was tutoring the landlord's son, which - since it was for barter - didn't bring in any money.
Sirius didn't know what to say except, "I'm sorry, Moony."
"I didn't even get to say good-bye to him. I liked him. He was a good student and he wanted to learn. Dammit. . ."
"Maybe Molly can talk to him? The dad, I mean."
"No. Forget it. I'll just have to find something else." Remus sat down at the kitchen table with a thump and put his head in his hands. "I've got a bit of money left over from Hogwarts saved up. I'll be all right."
"If I could get into my account at Gringott's. . . there has to be some way. . ."
"No. I don't want to live off your money. I appreciate it, but. . ." Remus shook his head. "To hell with it. Let's get takeaway tonight. I'm sick of beans on toast."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. One final splurge before I officially become an unemployable deadbeat."
Sirius smiled in spite of himself. "It's not so bad once you get used to it."
The Indian takeaway place a few blocks away supplied them with chicken korma, lamb kofta ("The wolf shall lie down with the lamb," said Remus, as he did every time he ate lamb), vindaloo, heaps of fragrant basmati rice, and the best naan bread Sirius had ever tasted. Although he still would have preferred fish and chips, he ate voraciously, whereas Remus was more abstemious. Watching him pick at his rice, Sirius realized he was trying to save some of the food so he could get a second meal out of it tomorrow. At that point Sirius decided he was full, even though he could've done with another helping of vindaloo.
They cleared away the wreckage of dinner from the kitchen table and played a few games of Exploding Snap, and then Sirius remembered the letter from Harry. Remus read it, his graying eyebrows drawn together in thought, and Sirius explained how he had responded. "Good advice. Like in chess - keep the king safe." Remus smiled thinly. "If Harry's the king, I wonder what that makes us?"
"Pawns," said Sirius.
"Knights," said Remus.
Remus went to bed early. Sirius stayed up late, lying on the couch and reading one of Remus's Muggle books - a novel about a mad professor who thought he was an exiled king, and regarded the entire universe as revolving around himself and his imagined plight. He recognized the feeling, huddled away in behind a dumpster or under the bushes or whatever filthy place he'd found to hide in, wondering if those old women or schoolchildren walking by were talking about him.
He put the book away at last, and slept fitfully, caught up in one of those annoying dreams which last forever and keep repeating the same images over and over again: the king, the pawn, the knight. Knights jump two spaces forward and to the left or right, the pawns move forward only, or was it backwards as well, a game of chess in the Gryffindor common room, which way do the knights move? Two spaces forward. . . Eventually he forced himself to wake up, and went to get a drink of water. He fell back asleep again much more quickly than he thought he would.
The face is two inches from his own: the face he has seen so many times, he knows it so well that he could trace its features in the dark, now contorted with rage, spittle flying to splatter on his own face. Ten years of trust. Ten years. . .
And he doesn't know what to do, he is so angry and the grief and loss is tearing him to pieces and he thinks he might go mad with it. He would kill for his friends, he would die for them, he has always told himself that. But what happens when it's your friend you need to kill?
The choice is made for him. And his ears ringing with the explosion, he howls like the dog whose skin lies beneath his own, he howls and then he is laughing, he can't stop, if she were here she would shout at him to snap out of it, she was always so sensible, but she is dead and the scattered bodies stare at him with dust-covered eyes and the hands are on him and he laughs and laughs and laughs and laughs. . .
And he woke to the sound of his own screams.
He was on his hands and knees in front of the fireplace. He wanted to change, because dogs don't feel anything, but he couldn't find the spells, they were gone. He huddled down and buried his head in his arms, squeezing his eyes shut. "Make it stop. Oh please, please, please make it stop. Make it stop. Make it stop."
He looked up. Remus, in the old T-shirt and boxers he slept in, was kneeling in front of him, his face drawn and exhausted in the lamplight. He reached out and put a hand on Sirius's shoulder and Sirius jerked away, curling up on his side on the hearthrug. "Don't touch me!"
"No." Stubborn bastard.
"There's nothing you can do."
Remus was silent for a long time, his eyes downcast, until Sirius almost thought he had fallen asleep sitting up. Then he said, "What do you dream about?"
"No. . . no, not nothing." He groped for words. "It's like I'm still there. It's like I never left. It's not like proper dreams. It's like it's happening all over again. I can't make it stop. I tried, I really did. . . I can't get away from it."
"I know," said Remus very quietly.
"This is hell, isn't it, Moony? I died in Azkaban and now I'm in hell."
"I can assure you that you are very much alive."
"I don't know whether that's a good or a bad thing."
Remus settled himself into a more comfortable position, crossing his long skinny legs. Sirius remembered making fun of him when he went through a growth spurt in fourth year and seemed to be all leg, like a heron. He hadn't grown into his legs much since then. "I suppose you have to answer that question for yourself."
He didn't know what to say to that. He shut his eyes and listened to his heart beating, the sound of air moving in and out of his lungs. Thirty-five years and he was still ticking away, like a clock that refused to wind down.
"You should go back to sleep, Moony."
"I haven't got a job to go to tomorrow. I might as well stay up."
Sirius laughed weakly. "It's like a slumber party. We can do each other's nails and talk about boys." He sat up and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "It's not ever going to stop, is it?"
Remus was again silent for a long time before he spoke. "I don't know. Maybe not. It's your war wound. Old soldiers have war wounds, you know." He held out his arms, cross-hatched with faded white bites and claw marks. "It's just with some of us, you can't see them."
"Old soldiers," Sirius repeated.
"That's what we are."
He liked the sound of that. At least it made him feel a little noble. He sighed and rubbed his eyes again. "Well, you can stay up. I need to sleep," he said. "Or try, anyway." He got up, stiffly, and Remus got up too, his knees cracking like gunshots. "Bad joints," Remus explained, shaking his feet out as if they had fallen asleep. "All that changing, you know. Hard on the old musculo-skeletal system."
"More war wounds."
"I suppose so."
They stood there awkwardly for a moment, and then Remus stepped towards Sirius and stopped, took another step, gave him a careful appraising look, and then - in the comically abrupt way Sirius remembered from school - hugged him hard. It felt as real and comforting as it had a year ago, in the Shrieking Shack, and he realized they hadn't hugged since then - they had barely even touched each other. Men don't do things like that, he thought. Men are stupid. He held on to his friend's solid, bony body like a life raft in the darkness, and wished he didn't have to let go.
"Sleep well," said Remus in his ear, and released him.