Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter

3. Trench battles

He woke the next morning to Kingsley standing over the bed, startling and serene in Ministry robes.

"Morning, Lupin."

"Good morning," Remus said, or thought he said. He suspected it came out as an incoherent mumble by the look Kingsley gave him. He blinked and tried to stir awake, his surroundings coming into focus slowly: the small room next to the library, walls a faded paisley that reminded him of Devil's Snare; the ancient, looming footboard framing a mattress he'd swear hadn't been used since the last giants war. Kingsley still standing like a tall pillar over him, looking entirely too fresh and awake compared to how Remus felt.

"I've been talking with Sirius downstairs," Kingsley said, his deep voice apologetic. "He said to wake you."

"Hm-mm," Remus managed. He thought about locks. Wizard-proof locks. "I'll be down in a minute."

Kingsley nodded and left.

Remus yawned. There was a clock in the room, a small, squat clock perched on a shelf by the bed, which occasionally chimed but never the right time. It read four o'clock. Remus didn't find that likely. His robe was folded on the chair across the room; he pulled it on hurriedly, shivering in the cold morning air, and glanced in the gold-framed mirror above the dresser.

"You look like you just rolled out of bed," the mirror commented.

"Be quiet," Remus muttered. His hair was sticking up at odd angles, and he flattened it out with a comb until it was somewhat presentable. His eyes looked swollen. He wondered how many hours of sleep he'd had.

He took the long way down to the kitchen. The dirt streaked windows at the end of the corridor framed a sky grey with haze, which told him nothing, and the house was as dark and dismal as usual. He saw the tail end of Kreacher slipping around a corner when he reached the ground floor, but he left it alone, just glad he didn't have to deal with the house-elf this early in the morning. Maybe he'd make himself scarce for a while.

Voices drifted up the stairway as he went down to the kitchen: Kingsley's deep, cultured voice and Sirius's rougher one. Sirius sounded impatient.

"I don't see what there is to get worked up about. It's not as if---" He broke off when Remus entered the room. "Morning."

Remus slipped into one of the chairs, propped his elbows on the table and rubbed his eyes. "There isn't any tea, is there?"

"Steeping," Sirius said. He grinned, but his eyes were stormy.

"I think we should schedule these morning meetings in advance," Remus said.

"Blame Kingsley," Sirius said. "These Ministry types do get up early."

"Most people consider this normal working hours," Kingsley cut in dryly.

Remus yawned and stole another glance at Sirius, who looked as tired as he felt; not like someone recently wakened but someone who'd never gone to bed in the first place. "How long have you been up?"

Sirius shrugged. "Couple of hours." He retrieved mugs from the dresser and poured three cups of tea. "Kingsley's brought us news."

Remus turned his attention to Kingsley. "So I assumed."

"One of my team members received an owl last night, with a note that Sirius had been sighted in London. Anonymous, of course."

"Were you able to head him off?" Remus asked.

"I sent him to the other side of the city to search." Kingsley smiled, the gold hoop in his ear winking in the dim light. "I'm personally searching this area myself."

"Any precautions we should take, other than the usual?"

"This is ridiculous," Sirius interrupted. He slammed down two mugs in front of them, and tea sloshed over the sides. Remus eyed him warily. "So the Ministry knows I'm in London. You know they can't find me in this house."

"When you stay in this house," Remus said pointedly.

Sirius threw him a scathing look. "I'm not one of the Weasley children, with their mother to nag them into obedience."

Kingsley coughed. He looked uncomfortable. "As I was trying to tell you before," he said patiently to Sirius, "I don't actually think this is anything too alarming. It might be tight for a few weeks, but I'll find a way to divert them."

"But I've been talking with Dumbledore," Kingsley continued, turning back to Remus, "and he suggests that we restrict movement going in and out of the house. For a few days, at least."

Remus nodded. "I don't have any trips planned," he said. "And there's nothing that can't keep."

"Good," Kingsley said. "If anything comes up, send an owl--but only if it's absolutely necessary." He took a sip of tea and stood up.

"Will you stay for breakfast?"

Kingsley shook his head. "I shouldn't. The search teams will report in soon." He turned to Sirius. "Thank you for the tea."

He disapparated.

Remus sipped his own tea as Sirius slid into the chair opposite, mug cupped in his hands. "Terrible news," Sirius said, his face so bland Remus thought it might break.

"You're just pleased you're not the only one stuck here."

"It will do you good," Sirius said. "See how the other half live. Anyway, I imagine there's loads of work to be done."

Remus nodded. A few days of uninterrupted work would be welcome. There was a report due to Dumbledore he'd been meaning to write up, and they could always start cataloguing the library.

Sirius was gazing at him over his tea mug, far too smugly to be allowed.

"Then again," Remus said, "there's wizard chess in the drawing room."

If Dumbledore was their first line of defense--and Harry, too, as much as Remus hated to think about it--then he often thought of the house as the reserve trenches of the Order. Too used to shellfire to even hear it anymore, the dirt and grime of the house a sign of impermanence in the face of likely retreat. Day-to-day existence taking on the guise of normality; the surreal become simply habit.

Which, he reasoned, was all they could hope for.

Remus watched moodily as Sirius's knight beheaded his pawn, but not before performing some rather messy evisceration first. He cupped his chin and brooded over the chessboard.

"Was that really necessary?"

"I'm doing you a favor," Sirius said, unrepentant.

Remus looked down at the ranks of men, who were waving their fists wildly in the air at this new war atrocity. His remaining bishop's cheeks blazed with outrage, and he brandied his crosier like a sword. Both knights had to restrain their horses pawing furiously at the air.

"They're no use to me now," Remus said. "All anger and impulse. They're likely to martyr themselves just for appearances."

Sirius smiled. "Never underestimate the power of revenge."

They'd found the chess set in the attic a few months ago, dusty grey and buried under old photo albums and cracked china. From the way Sirius brushed off the pieces carefully, examining them for any marks on the stone, Remus gathered it had been his. He wondered why Sirius never brought it to Hogwarts. They'd mostly used James's set, whose pieces were more interested in standing around looking rakish than actually fighting, or Peter's, whose pawns had a tendency to run off the board at any sign of conflict.

He supposed it shouldn't surprise him that Sirius's were the more bloodthirsty type. Remus studied the chessboard and then took out Sirius's knight with one of his own, who leapt forward eagerly. Bits of anatomy flew about before Remus's knight stood smugly alone in the square, missing an ear but otherwise victorious.

"And this is a game we teach children," Remus said.

Sirius wasn't listening. His face was screwed up in concentration over the board. He had that look to him that Remus remembered from school, complete focus on whatever he was doing at the time as if doubt were something to be scoffed at, fought through, made weak and conquerable. It was strangely endearing.

Sirius moved his bishop. Remus winced. He'd lost two moves ago, and he was quite sure Sirius knew it, but he moved his queen out anyway. She stared down the opposition like a modern-day Boadicea, and he half-thought her powers of intimidation might nudge the game his way.

It didn't. Sirius soon had Remus's king caught between his queen and a pawn. For a moment Remus thought his king would surrender gracefully, but he chose to fight it out, bloodily. Remus looked away. "I used to be able to beat you at wizard chess. Half the time, anyway."

"Your strategies are sound," Sirius said frankly as he reset the pieces on the board until they stood straight and whole, eager for the next battle. "You just don't always follow through on them."

Remus stood and crossed the room, opening the curtains to a grey London street. Below, a Muggle woman walked by, hunched in a dark wool coat, umbrella held up against a light rain that Remus could just barely see through the glass. He imagined he could hear the clicking of her heels on the pavement, still marked with traces of snow, fading now as she turned a corner and the street was deserted again.

"It's raining," he said, as if the world outside made any difference.

He didn't hear Sirius get up, but he felt hands on his shoulders, resting there as if holding him up; it would be easy to lean back into them, let someone else take over and just forget for a little while.

Then Sirius was kissing his neck, and that was different. He didn't think that fell under the category of comfort. Sirius kept kissing him, pushing his hair aside, one hand trailing the curve of his back.

Sirius whispered in his ear, "Come on, Remus. It could be days before we're interrupted."

Remus ducked his head and laughed. He turned and Sirius looked back at him with a gleam in his eye, ten years younger and entirely self-satisfied. Remus lifted a lock of the long dark hair, let it fall. "It's hard to get used to you like this," he said.

"I'm not so different," Sirius said. "Neither are you, if you think about it."

Remus wasn't sure he agreed. "A lot has happened. We're not kids anymore."

Sirius leaned in. "I should hope not," he said, and kissed him on the mouth.

It was strange. Awkward, as if he'd never done it before. He almost pulled back, but then Sirius tilted his head and deepened the kiss, and Remus's body caught up to his head; it thought that this was probably the most glorious idea ever.

Then he did push Sirius away. "Wait."

"For what?" Sirius said impatiently, one hand cupped on Remus's neck. His eyes were darker now.

Remus glanced around the room, the chessboard set up across the room like a year-old memory, two dust-covered chairs and a rather lumpy couch. A faded rug in the center of the room. "We're not having sex on the drawing room floor," he said.

"My mother bought that rug off a Turkish wizard," Sirius said. "I'm sure it's quite comfortable. Besides," he said reasonably, moving his hand just a little, enough to make Remus's skin feel like it had been set on fire, "by the time we move to the bedroom, you will have thought all of this through and decided it's not a good idea, and then where will that leave us?"

Remus thought that very likely. It was a terrible idea, in fact. "Oh hell," he said, and pushed Sirius back against the windowsill, kissing through the doubts.

At some point they made it over to the rug, which wasn't at all comfortable. Remus didn't care. He was naked. They were both naked, and Remus spared a thought of relief that no one could see in through the window, because he was quite sure they looked ridiculous. He didn't know if he cared about that, even. He was kissing Sirius's stomach, which did weird fluttery things. Then he was kissing Sirius's mouth again and he couldn't wait anymore. They rubbed against each other like teenagers until there was a roar in his ears and his brain shorted out, and he'd forgotten what this was like, letting go.

The sun was setting. The drawing room glowed orange and red. Remus could see dust where light angled in through the window, warming the room as if they were in the early days of autumn and not the dawn of winter. It felt good on his bare skin. Remus propped up his head with his arm. His backside was numb from lying on the floor.

Sirius was telling him about Bermuda fireworms.

"They swim to the surface after sunset and glow green, swimming in circles around themselves. Like very small salamanders." Sirius paused. "If salamanders were green and lived in water."

Remus shifted on the floor to find a more comfortable position. It remained elusive. He was too numb to feel much, anyway. "What do they do?"

Sirius frowned. "I don't think they do anything. They glow and circle and mate, then swim back home again."

"I meant, do they have any magical properties? Can Muggles see them?"

"They're Muggle creatures," Sirius said. "That's what makes it amazing."

Remus stared up at the ceiling and tried to imagine what it had been like, watching glowing non-magical worms thousands of miles and an ocean-span from home. "You never did write me," he said.

Sirius turned his head to him. "Did that bother you?"

"Not really," Remus said. "I assumed that if you'd been caught by the Dementors I'd have heard about it. Read about it in the Prophet. 'Sirius Black found dead on pile of coconuts. Ministry baffled.'"

"I don't think the Dementors ever leave Britain," Sirius said. "Besides, it's not like you didn't have important Voldemort-fighting business of your own."

"Not much," Remus admitted. "There wasn't a lot I could do." It had been a frustrating year, actually; away from Hogwarts, trying to fit together pieces that didn't quite match, knowing at the end that there was very little he could have done, anyway.

"Then I suppose we were both in the same situation," Sirius said.

"Perhaps," Remus said, thinking it strange that, if so, there had been such a vast distance between them at the time. And now their roles were reversed. Changed from the first war, at least, when Sirius had always been the one in the forefront, the one the older Order members went to when they deigned to consult the younger crowd. Now they went to Remus. He wondered if Sirius had noticed, if it bothered him at all. It wasn't something he would ever ask him.

Sirius's stomach growled loudly.

Remus smiled. He moved, this time to sit up, and winced as blood rushed to his legs. He tried to ignore the tingling, biting sensation as feeling returned. "Can you reach my robes? I think we have food in the kitchen."

They dressed and made their way down to the kitchen, which was dark and damp until Sirius set the fire going. Remus put the kettle on and thought a bath might have been the better idea, but then decided he was hungry enough to wait.

He expected this to feel more awkward. He stole a glance at Sirius, who was scowling doubtfully at their stock of food and appeared as comfortable as if they did this every day.

"Should we talk about this?" Remus ventured.

"Talk about what?" Sirius asked from across the room. He made a face. "Do you think the stew's still good?"

"Is there any left?" Remus asked, surprised.

"Some," Sirius said. He stared down at the pot. "I don't remember replacing the preserve spell," he said thoughtfully. Then he shrugged and put it over the fire anyway. "It can't kill us. Hopefully."

The kettle was whistling. Remus took it off the flame and looked around for the teapot. It never was where he left it. He found it hidden behind the cookbook Molly had left them, Common Cooking Mysteries, which loomed dust-covered and mysterious. Remus ignored it and searched a random jumble of canisters for tea.

"Did you never wonder, though," Remus said, pouring water into the teapot, "how everything might have turned out…differently?" It was easier to speak with his back to Sirius. "Because you know it's not the same now." Remus heard the words, let them come without thinking. "We can't pretend that we can go back."

He risked a glance over his shoulder. Sirius was leaning up against the wall next to the fireplace, grinning at him. "You're quite mad, you know. Of course we can't go back. Did you think that's what this was?"

Remus shrugged and put the kettle down. "It would be easier in some ways. If that's all it was."

"Maybe," Sirius said, sounding unconvinced. He glanced down at the pot over the fire. "I think this is ready."

If the stew had gone bad, Remus didn't notice. They ate in silence. The space between them had shifted again, into strange uncharted places. Remus didn't know if they were friendly or just neutral. He couldn't tell by looking at Sirius.

He took a sip of tea that had gone cold. "I really should write up this report for Professor Dumbledore."

Sirius didn't say anything to stop him, so he left the kitchen, detouring to the second floor bathroom to wash up. There was a claw-footed tub in one corner, a modern showerhead above it. He had to say three different spells before the water would run hot. Even then it turned cold again after only a few minutes.

The library was cold as well. He said a spell to light a fire and sat down at the desk, his hair still damp and rubbing wetly against the back of his neck. He took out a quill. There was blank parchment in the desk drawer. He read through Kingsley's Ministry reports, the reports from other Order members tracking former Death Eater movements; he glanced back at his recruitment file, trying not to wince at its miserable inadequacy. He wondered what he could possibly report to Dumbledore that would make the situation seem less bleak than it was.

There was nothing he could tell Dumbledore that the headmaster didn't already know: this war could go either way. He put down the quill.

Across the room the fire crackled, and he felt old. Old and tired, and tired again of reports that told him no good news and reminded him just how powerless he was. He stood and left the library.

Sirius wasn't in the kitchen. Kreacher was, and the house-elf glared malevolently at him from the corner of the room. Remus felt his hand tighten into a fist without his willing it, but he left the house-elf to his bitter solitude. Upstairs, Buckbeak blinked sleepily at him. Down the stairs at the far end of the corridor, Remus paused in the doorway of the bedroom Sirius had been using. It was dark and he could just barely make out the pale shadow of rumpled sheets, the room depressingly empty of any personal possessions and empty of Sirius as well.

He found Sirius in the attic.

"Remus," Sirius called to him, as he creaked up the wooden steps and suppressed the urge to sneeze. The attic smelled like dust and the remnants of very old magic. Sirius was surrounded by boxes and old school trunks, crouched down beside an open box with brightly painted objects and what appeared to be piles of glitter around him. "Give me a hand with this."

Remus picked his way carefully across the attic floor, nearly tripping over a wooden chair with two legs missing. He caught himself on a low-slung beam and knelt beside Sirius. "What is this?"

"Christmas decorations," Sirius said. "I thought there might be some tucked away up here. My mother liked Christmas," he said wryly. "Not for the 'good will to man,' you understand."

Remus picked up a silver bauble with the head of a snake etched on its surface. The snake hissed and bared its fangs at him. He dropped it back into the box.

"We'll leave those," Sirius said. "But I thought I remembered there were some less…hazardous decorations." He pulled out a knotted pile of silver tinsel, and a box of red and gold baubles carved with milder scenes of snowy houses. "There should be more streamers in here, too."

They rummaged through the box until the streamers were found, and Sirius added them to his mounting pile. Tinsel clung in staticky clumps to Remus's robes, and he suspected a few snake heads might have found their way into the stack as well. Something to discover later, he supposed.

"Now we just need a tree," he said.

Sirius nodded. "I suppose that will have to wait." He glanced sidelong at Remus, and there was a warmth to his eyes, a gentle reminder--I'm in this too.

Remus found an empty box and began to fill it with the decorations they'd set aside. "Let me help you carry these downstairs," he said.