Winter had brought fresh falls of snow to the hills around Hogsmeade. In the town shopkeepers cast spells in unison to thaw the icy cobbles as they opened up, preparing for another weekend of thickly-garmented schoolchildren running half-amok in their stores. The first puffs of smoke from freshly-stoked fires began to billow from the rows of crooked chimneys and swirled with the morning fog, its thick blanket almost obscuring the rooftops. From one of the snow-covered hills Remus Lupin stood shivering, gazing down at a misty sea studded with jaunty-angled roofs, their frosted tiles glinting like serpent's scales by the first rays of dawn.
Every month he made sure he stayed to watch the sunrise, to watch hope reassert itself upon the world after the longest and bitterest of nights. Last night had been more bitter than most; the full moon had lasted three full nights this month, and its influence over him only grew with time. With every breath he thanked his friends for staving off the worst of the madness, his blessings dissipating with the chill of the wind. As he had returned to form they had somehow managed to stretch clothes over his naked, still-thrashing body, restraining and placating him long enough to keep him steady until his mind had fully restored itself.
Through the haze of semi-conscious memories he heard snatches of whispered reassurances, frantic babblings and steely dedication. He smiled, his face stinging from the cold winter air, his fingers rubbing stiffly at his aching biceps. Every month it seemed worse, and every month his friends pulled through, going above and beyond to ease his suffering. Through the pain and nausea and weakness, still he smiled, pulling the bedspread hastily thrown about his shoulders tighter to his body. "Thank you," he whispered into thin air, coughing throatily and repeating, "Thank you."
"Don't mention it," came a voice from behind. Remus turned too fast, bending almost double and steadying himself as his fragile stomach punished him for his exuberance. Sirius Black grinned affectionately, trudging closer through the thick snow. The goosebumps on his bare arms betrayed his nonchalantly light clothing; so like Sirius, thought Remus, to bring jeans and a t-shirt to wear over the coldest night of the year.
"Aren't you cold?" Remus asked, tucking his arms under his makeshift cloak. "You really don't have to stay out here, you know," he offered, already knowing his friend would decline, and secretly thankful for it.
"You're one to talk, Mr. Grand-Symbolic-Gestures," Sirius retorted, "standing in four inches of snow without so much as socks on." Remus, Sirius' voice lowered as he cleared his throat and asked more seriously, "Are you okay?"
Remus' face flickered, his mouth straightening a little and his eyes softening. "Yeah," he replied, "yeah." He paused and licked his lips, almost embarrassed to ask the question Sirius knew was coming. "It was a bad one last night, wasn't it?"
Sirius looked down to the snow and sighed, a gentle puff of mist disappearing into the morning. "It was a bad one, yeah," he admitted quietly, his deep brown eyes locking briefly with his friend's. A thin, sympathetic smile stretched across his face as he reached out and clasped Remus' shoulder, squeezing it gently. "But we got through it…we always do."
"We always do," Remus repeated under his breath, exhaling in relief to feel the warmth of Sirius' hand upon his shoulder; a sure sign that he was, once more, human. He turned his head to his friend, whose dark eyes and sharp cheekbones held so much reassurance, and his body instinctively leant towards him. Gulping as he felt his body betraying him, Remus turned away, regretfully shrugging away Sirius' hand.
Sirius flinched as if he'd just taken a Bludger to the gut, treading a step closer to Remus. Standing not a foot from him he wrapped his hand gently around the crook of his elbow and leant in, his voice barely a whisper. "I just…want to be…" He trailed off mid-sentence, shyness making an extremely uncharacteristic appearance and freezing his tongue.
"I thought we agreed," Remus replied, keeping his back to Sirius, his voice equally low, "I thought we agreed to forget it." Sirius scoffed and withdrew his hand, running it through his long, black curls. For a week he and Remus' conversations had been stilted, stifled by a mutual sense of insecurity.
"Moony," he sighed compassionately, closing the gap between he and his friend. Hesitantly he placed both hands on his shoulders, his mind briefly buzzing as the scent of Remus' hair wafted across on the wind. "Let's get inside," he muttered, "Let's talk …just talk. Pure and simple."
Fighting a wave of paralysing weakness, Remus nodded silently and followed Sirius as he trudged back to the Shrieking Shack. Well he knew it wasn't the cold that was weakening him; when Sirius Black wanted to talk, the results were rarely simple and almost never pure.
Sirius threw himself down on the bed, leaving Remus to lock the door which barely kept the little heat in the shack in. Shivering, he swung his feet up and kicked off his boots. The old bed had never been used by any of the Marauders; their Animagus forms didn't require such human contrivances, and sleep was the last thing on a transformed Remus' mind. Though large, its wraught-iron frame had long since been stripped of its paint and begun to rust, and feathers tumbled out of the mattress from moth-eaten holes all down its length.
"Well, Gryffindor Tower this isn't," he grumbled as he fidgeted against the tickling feathers. Remus sat silently at the other side of the bed, the tip of his tongue running over his lips as words formed in the back of his throat, only to sink back down. Sirius turned onto his side and frowned as Remus' shoulders rose and fell laboriously. "You're not having a relapse, are you?"
"No," Remus sighed in reply, "just…thinking." As evasive as it sounded, he couldn't have been more right; the events of a week past had been all he could concentrate on for days. Were things meant to have played out that way? If only James hadn't disappeared when he did…
"Hm," Sirius grunted, amused. "I thought as much," he said perhaps a touch too emphatically, plucking absent-mindedly at a tuft of feathers poking through the worn mattress. "Think it's fair to say we've had a lot to think about." The silence between the two seemed to swell and ache to burst like the lungs of a drowning victim, and at length the dark-haired young man muttered, "I'm only assuming, of course, that you have been thinking about it." His gaze was transfixed upon his friend's back, so deeply pitted and crossed with long scars, his spine cresting out of his taut skin.
Remus frowned and felt that familiar burning sensation rise up between his shoulder blades once more; Sirius' eyes were upon him, staring that inscrutable stare. It was as if, thought Remus, he hoped to burn a hole straight to his soul. "You don't usually procrastinate this much, Padfoot," he chided him, staring at the floor, "Not unless there's a History of Magic essay involved."
Sirius let out a mirthless snort. "Well, you've got me there, Mr. Moony," he mumbled, adjusting himself on the bed to a series of squeaks. "So, what do you suggest we do about this," he asked, mulling over his choice of words, "situation? Ignore it and hope it goes away? Thought you of all people would know that's not how you deal with something…"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Remus shot back, irritated, turning around at last to face his friend.
"Nothing, nothing," blurted Sirius, batting away Remus' protests with a careless hand. "Just thought you'd understand that sometimes you have to face up to things, that's all," he muttered, an edge of bitterness in his voice.
Rising to his feet, Remus' soft voice grew in temerity. "If you're talking about what I think you're talking about-" Sirius rolled his eyes in frustration, "-then I'd thank you for not comparing those two things again! This thing that I am, I never chose it, I never wanted it, and this thing with…with us, I…" Remus trailed off as Sirius' eyes bored deep into his, already knowing the coup de grace that was to come.
"I don't know about you," Sirius said darkly, "but I certainly never chose this."
Remus swallowed, abashed. He began to pace slowly around the room, his footsteps echoing in the draughty old hovel. The smell of rotting wood, particles torn loose from frozen and split beams, filled the place in winter. Looking back sadly at the immobile, reclining body of his friend, he sniffed in the hopes of catching that comforting scent of lavender over the Shack's musk. When the silence had again reached breaking point, he called out in a dry, cracking voice, "Things aren't really ever going to be the same again, are they?"
Staring up into the bat-lined beams of the roof, Sirius paused a moment before replying, "Depends."