It was worse than Sirius had expected. His fringe was still long enough that it fell into his eyes, but a small patch of pale scalp was visible on the left side of his head. Everyone had laughed at him. Even some of the teachers had had difficulty hiding their amusement. While James employed his considerable popularity and social status as captain of the school rugby club to make the other students leave Sirius alone, in private he and Peter were the worst of the lot, keeping up a running stream of hair jokes until Sirius was ready to clobber them both. Only Lupin said nothing.
By Wednesday evening, Sirius had come to the end of his endurance, and when that happened, he knew of only one means of escape. Sneaking back to the dormitory early from supper, he felt around under his mattress until he located the small, flat box hidden there. Making certain he was not observed, Sirius left the building, walking quickly.
When one wished to be alone at St Godric's, Sirius had discovered that the best place to hide was between the back wall of the chapel and the high, thick hedge that ringed the school grounds. Few students or staff had cause to frequent the area, and the building blocked the worst of the cold autumn wind.
Sirius flopped down on the grass in the shadow of the stone building. Opening the box and unwrapping a twist of paper, he shook out some of the precious green herb it contained onto a rolling paper. Supply could not always keep up with demand at St Godric's - especially not of the quality Sirius preferred - so he hoarded his stash for occasions like this when he especially needed it.
The first cloud of smoke left his lungs with a sigh of relief. Already, he could feel the tension draining from his muscles, his frayed nerves relaxing. The haircut, the sleeplessness, the annoying habits of his friends and classmates, and the mystery of Remus Lupin all receded, for the moment, into unimportance.
When Sirius heard footsteps on the path that fronted the chapel, he pressed his back instinctively against the stone wall, even though there was little chance of his being noticed if he kept quiet. Peering around the corner, he saw Lupin hurrying towards the administrative building. He disappeared through the main doors, unaware that he had been observed.
It occurred to Sirius's hazy brain that his roommate must be visiting the matron again - that he must do so every night. He slouched in the shadows, taking occasional long, slow drags on his joint, waiting for the doors to reopen. When they did, he saw Lupin once again spit the pills into his palm and fling them away into the shrubbery.
Sirius knew he should withdraw further behind the chapel before Lupin saw him, but his curiosity about the boy's odd behaviour got the better of him. Lupin might be strange, his stability questionable, but Sirius did not think he was a snitch. He took a step out into the open. Lupin halted, catching sight of him. When Sirius beckoned him closer, he approached warily.
"Want a toke?" Sirius held out the half-finished joint.
Lupin stared at him for a moment, then shrugged and accepted, inhaling deeply. He did not cough.
Maybe not such a swot after all, thought Sirius, observing the other boy from beneath lowered lashes.
Lupin leaned back against the chapel wall, hair falling into his eyes, lips pursed around the little roll of paper. Sirius caught himself staring at Lupin's mouth, and quickly looked away, flustered. Casting about for a topic of conversation, he remembered the reason he had wanted to talk to the other boy in the first place.
"Are you going to tell me what those pills are for?"
"Nothing that this doesn't do about a hundred times better," said Lupin evasively, passing the joint back. "That's decent stuff. Aren't you worried about getting caught, though?"
Sirius took a drag, smirking. "If you knew how much money my parents give to this school, you wouldn't be asking. They tend to turn a blind eye to little things like this, so long as I keep it quiet, and my parents don't care, so long as my marks are good." He passed the end back to Lupin, and began rolling another.
"Don't bother on my account," Lupin said quickly. "You're not sharing with Potter and Pettigrew; you don't have to waste your supply on me." He took a last drag and discarded the remainder with a practiced flick.
Sirius smiled and lit the new roll, taking the first drag for himself. "Potter doesn't smoke because of rugby. He'd be chucked off the team if they caught him at it. Pettigrew worries that it will make him stupid. His marks are bad enough as it is."
Lupin nodded, accepting the new joint from Sirius's fingers. "So, does turning a blind eye apply to your being queer, too? People leave you alone about it?"
Sirius shrugged, resettling his shoulders against the wall. "Mostly. But Potter's part of it. He's always been really good about it, and Pettigrew follows his lead. Everyone does, really. People like him. Being rugby captain doesn't hurt."
"He sounds like a good mate," said Lupin. "Are you and he -?"
Sirius laughed. "Me and Potter? Not bloody likely! No, he's my best mate, and that's all I'd ever want him to be. Anyway, he only likes girls."
"What about your family?" asked Lupin. "Do they know?"
Sirius nodded. "They think it's just a phase. I mean, it's not as if we talk about it, but they've hinted that once I finish school, I'll be expected to stop 'experimenting' and get on with the business of getting married and securing the family line."
"Charming," said Lupin drily. "How did they find out? Did you tell them?"
"We had a row," Sirius admitted. "I was angry. I wanted to shock them. Same thing with Potter, actually." He grinned at the memory.
Lupin gave a little huff that was almost a laugh. "That doesn't surprise me."
"Speaking of rows," Sirius ventured, "I've been meaning to say - about the other day ..."
Lupin stiffened, suddenly wary. "Yeah?"
"I'm sorry about Potter. Pettigrew, too. They can be a right pair of tossers sometimes."
Lupin raised an eyebrow. "But not you?"
Sirius grinned again. "Well, at least I know when I'm being one."
Lupin gave him a long, steady look as he inhaled deeply from the twist of paper. "Do you know," he said slowly, white smoke falling from his lips, "that your hair looks utterly ridiculous?"
Sirius blinked at him, then burst out laughing. "Really? I was told it was the very latest thing in Paris!"
"She's left it too long here, in the fringe," said Lupin, fingers lightly ruffling Sirius's hair in demonstration.
The brief touch stopped Sirius's laughter. He wondered if his heart had been beating so quickly a moment before.
"And she's missed this bit over your right ear entirely, " Lupin continued, oblivious.
"Um - yeah, I know," said Sirius, self-consciously tucking the uneven locks behind his ear as he fumbled the joint back from the other boy.
"I could have a go at it if you like," Lupin said doubtfully. Then he grinned. "I don't think I could make it look any worse."
Sirius's breath caught in his throat, and he had to remind himself not to stare at Lupin's mouth again. The wide, sweet smile that curved his lips translated the other boy's face into unexpected beauty.
It's just like Abernathy, Sirius told himself, turning away and inhaling the last of the relaxing smoke. It doesn't matter how pretty they are; you don't do anything about it when they're your roommate.
"Yeah," he said at last, exhaling in a steady stream. "Give it a go. What do I have to lose?"
Sirius slept well, and he did not cringe at the sight of himself in the bathroom mirror the next morning. He did not like having short hair, but Remus had managed to even it up a bit so that it did not look quite so much like he had lost a bet to a drunk with a pair of scissors. That afternoon, he visited the laundry room and requested an additional blanket, returning Remus's with thanks.
Once Remus warmed to him, Sirius found that he enjoyed his new roommate's company. Remus had a quick wit and a wry sense of humour. Sirius would have been pleased with their newfound camaraderie, but for one problem: he could not stop thinking about the other boy, or stealing glances at him. During their History lesson, Sirius drifted off into fantasy, remembering the pleasant sensation of long, sure fingers carding through the remnants of his hair, and shivering again at the memory of Remus blowing on the back of his neck to remove the stray clipped hairs that had fallen there. When he looked at his notes at the end of the lesson, he noticed that he had accidentally written Remus's name into a list of nineteenth century European monarchs, and hastily scratched it out.
All right, he thought, grinding his teeth in annoyance. You can look and you can daydream, but that's all. He's your roommate and he's straight. Nothing is going to happen.
That night, the dream found him.
It started off pleasantly. It was always pleasant at first. He could feel the sun in his hair and the sand between his toes. His brother Regulus was laughing as they raced along the shore. But then, inevitably, the dream turned dark. Even though Sirius had lived through it hundreds of times before and knew it for what it was, he could do nothing to stop what had happened - what would always happen.
"Regs!" he gasped, jerking awake, sweaty bedclothes tangled around him.
Sirius's heart was racing, his whole body was tensed and shaking. He realised where he was almost immediately, and fell back against the pillow, willing himself to calm down with limited success.
"Are you OK?" whispered a voice close by.
Sirius could just make out Remus, lying on his side in the next bed, watching him.
"Fine," Sirius lied. "It was just a dream." His teeth chattered as he spoke, and he clenched his jaw hard to make them stop, squeezing his eyes shut.
He heard the squeak of Remus's bed frame, and footsteps crossing the room. A moment later, Remus was back. "Here."
Sirius opened his eyes to find a glass of water on his nightstand. He sat up and drank gratefully. "Thanks."
"It's nothing," said Remus. "Are you OK now?"
Sirius shrugged. The panic had receded somewhat, but it might still overwhelm him if he let his guard down.
"I know what it's like," Remus told him. "Having the window open helps a bit, for me."
"Nothing helps me except maybe tossing off, after," Sirius grumbled. "Sometimes it's the only way I can get back to sleep."
Remus gave a quiet huff of laughter. "I'll draw the curtain, if you like."
"Nah; not in the mood."
"So, who's Regs?" Remus asked. "Old boyfriend?"
Sirius hesitated. He had never talked about it before. What if it brought on the panic again? "My younger brother. Regulus," he said at last, quietly.
"I didn't know you had a brother," said Remus, surprised. "Does he go here?"
"No," said Sirius bitterly. "If he did, maybe I wouldn't have dreams like that all the time."
"You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," Remus told him.
"Is it the same for you?" Sirius tried to search his face in the darkness. "Nightmares because of something that happened?"
Remus turned on his back, fixing his eyes on the ceiling to avoid Sirius's gaze. "Yeah."
Sirius contemplated his new friend's moonlit profile. He had never told anyone about the dreams, not even James. But if Remus suffered from them, too, he might understand. And if he did not understand, losing Remus's friendship and respect would probably hurt less than losing James's would.
"There's a beach, just below the castle," Sirius whispered. "It's been in the family for generations. Regs and I always loved that it was our beach. Whenever the weather was decent, we'd go down, whether our parents gave us permission or not. We'd sneak away from our governess and make a run for it."
Sirius could not look at Remus as he spoke, but stared instead at the crescent moon, visible through the open window. He knew Remus was watching him. It was easier to make his confession without having to look into those searching brown eyes.
"That day - we were running along the beach and playing in the water. The weather was just perfect. Regs climbed up onto a big rock and declared himself 'King of the Castle'." Sirius smiled wistfully. "He loved to climb. He could scramble up the cliffs like you wouldn't believe, and be home in under three minutes, while the path took at least ten. Mother would shriek and carry on, and Father would strap him whenever they caught him at it, but it never stopped him."
His smile faded. "I challenged him to a race up the cliffs. He almost always won those, even though he was two years younger. But that day, I decided there was no way I would let him beat me. I started to climb, and I felt like I was flying, it was so easy. I got to a ledge about twenty metres up, and looked back to see him below me, laughing and telling me I'd won.
"I called him a pansy," Sirius whispered, so softly that it was a wonder Remus could hear him at all. His cheeks burned with shame at the memory. "I told him he was getting soft if he couldn't make it to where I was. He laughed and reached for another handhold, but his foot slipped. He fell. I still remember the sound of his head hitting the rocks. I don't even know how I got back down. I screamed and screamed for help, but -" He broke off, throat tight, realising his face was wet with tears.
"Did anyone come?" Remus asked, quiet voice tense.
"Yes," said Sirius bitterly. "Someone came. But it didn't matter. He died in hospital two weeks later. He never woke up."
"Oh," breathed Remus. "I'm sorry."
"He died," Sirius repeated helplessly, swallowing the sob that threatened to choke him, "and it was all my fault."
Remus shook his head. "No, it wasn't."
"It was," said Sirius, taking a deep, shaky breath and fighting to regain his composure. "My parents think so. They can barely stand to look at me since it happened."
"How old were you?" asked Remus.
"Ten," he whispered. "Regs was only eight."
"You didn't know." Remus's voice was firm but gentle. "Kids don't think about things like danger and getting hurt. They just see something that looks like fun and they do it. You can't blame yourself for acting like a kid. You said it yourself; your brother was a good climber. It was an accident. A stupid thing that happened. You couldn't've known, and you couldn't've stopped it."
"Maybe." It was a comforting thought, and Sirius wanted to believe it, but the guilt that gnawed at his guts was too huge and had been with him for too long to be dispelled by a few words.
"Thank you for telling me," said Remus, soft voice sincere. "I know it can't have been easy."
Sirius sighed wearily. His secret was out, and Remus did not think him a monster or a murderer. Sirius was not convinced, but knowing that Remus did not think ill of him made him feel ever so slightly better. "Thanks. For - yeah. But -"
"Potter and Pettigrew - they don't know," Sirius admitted. "About Regs. Could you maybe not say anything?"
"Potter doesn't know?" Remus sounded surprised.
Sirius bit his lip. "He knows my brother's dead. I never told him what happened."
"He won't hear it from me," Remus promised.
"Thanks," said Sirius again. "You're a real mate, Lupin."