Note: First November. On this day in 1981, a band of Hit Wizards from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement apprehended one Sirius Black, suspect in the fatal attack on James and Lily Potter in Godrick's Hollow. Black was discovered standing on the brink of a crater in the street, laughing manically over the remains of Peter Pettigrew, longtime friend and confidante of the Potters. All that was left of Pettigrew was a lone finger…
Also, thank you to all my lovely, patient readers! I'm sure many of you have seen how prolific I've been with "Mudded", and those of you who are writers will understand: when the story just writes itself, you have no choice but to follow. I've been told that "Mudded" has merits as a stand-alone historical novel, if that's of any interest: knowledge of "Hell on Wheels" canon is not required.
A gentle reminder: I cannot reply to anonymous reviews, though I am always happy to answer questions in signed reviews and PMs.
Chapter 105: Black by Nature
A year ago, such a question would have sent Remus into a fit of cold terror, shrinking into himself and groping frantically for some excuse, any excuse at all, to explain his appearance. Now he was too astonished even to feel a flutter of embarrassment at this revelation of the wolf's savagery. He dug his left elbow into the mattress and tried to push himself up a little. The effort sent out tentacles of pain, but he hardly felt them. 'Where did you come from?' he asked breathlessly. 'What are you doing here? You shouldn't be here!'
Sirius sauntered into the room, swinging the door closed. 'How do you do, Sirius?' he drawled, curling one hand onto his hip and flapping the other one like an overanxious debutante. 'A pleasure to see you, Sirius! How kind of you to call! How's the weather in London? Read any good books lately?'
Remus was abashed. 'I'm sorry. It is kind of you to call, but—'
'All I wanted to hear!' Sirius said blithely. He twisted his hip and made an abortive hopping motion towards the bed, halting himself mid-spring with an uncharacteristic wobble. 'Oh, blimey, can't do that!' he exclaimed. He looked around the little room and seized the kitchen chair that stood next to the bed. He dragged it around to face Remus and flopped down onto it. 'Never jump onto a bed full of werewolf," he scolded himself. 'Particularly not if said werewolf looks like he's been put through a mangle.'
'It isn't that bad, really,' Remus demurred, surprised to find that he did not flinch at his friend's use of that abhorrent word. 'It only looks unpleasant.'
Sirius raised a skeptical eyebrow. 'Have you actually looked at yourself, mate?' He cast his eyes over the clutter of nursing sundries on the bedside table and seized the glass of water. 'Something to drink?'
'Thanks,' Remus said, taking the cup with his unsteady left hand. The right one was fixed in a conjured splint, no doubt awaiting further attention when his body could bear it. He sipped cautiously, felt his stomach roil and then settle, and balanced the tumbler on his hip. 'How did you get here?'
'Came by Floo,' Sirius said, brushing soot from his shoulders as if to say this should be obvious. He ran a hand through his hair, which was beginning to look shaggy and untrimmed. Somehow it still seemed artful in the way it tumbled about his aristocratic face. 'Did you think I took an omnibus?'
'No, I mean how did you get permission?' said Remus. 'I didn't think your mother would ever let you come here again, not after what happened last time, and when you didn't turn up at Peter's I supposed…'
Sirius wafted an airy hand. 'Oh, Mum's out of the country,' he said. 'It's their annual hen weekend, so she and Grandmother and Aunt Druella took Bellatrix and Cissy to Paris. They'll be shopping for silk robes and sapphire earrings, and hexing Muggle fashion models on the Rue de la Paix and eating tiny snails off of wheat crisps and things. Bet they don't even make time to visit the Citroën autoworks.'
'The what?' Remus said weakly, not quite comfortable with the idea of Sirius being here without his mother's consent, even with the English Channel between her and them.
'You know, where they make the GS!' said Sirius. 'It's not much to look at: family car, not flashy at all. But it's one of the most advanced models in the world. It was voted European Car of the Year the year before last, and the hydropneumatics are amazing! The new model's going to have two rotors, and—' He paused, mouth already open around the next word, and then shut it and shook his head. 'I don't half bang on,' he said. 'How do you feel? You look ruddy awful, you know. I had a feeling it was a bad one. Hermes and I were watching the moon last night, and it just looked… how bad is it, Remus? Really.'
'It's… I've had worse,' Remus mumbled miserably, casting his eyes away from his friend's earnest gaze.
'Well, I know that,' said Sirius exasperatedly. Then he sighed and reached to pat Remus's elbow, gingerly. 'Why hasn't somebody put that wrist right?' he demanded. 'We should send for Madam Pomfrey! I can pop back and send Hermes—'
'No, don't!' Remus said hurriedly , before Sirius could launch to his feet and tear out of the room. 'It's not worth troubling her over. She'll only say the same thing: it's got to wait until tomorrow or the next day. Too much magic all at once is a strain on a body, you know, and besides I'm not sure if Father… well, it doesn't hurt anyhow, bound up like this.'
'Hmm.' Sirius gave him an appraising glare through narrowed eyes, sitting back on the chair and crossing his arms and legs. 'If you say so. I, for one, don't like the look of it. And I mean, your face! I can't work out how you'd do that. You know, as a wolf. How'd it happen?'
'I don't know,' Remus said earnestly. His gaze faltered and fell back down onto the coverlet as he whispered; 'I don't remember.'
'That's just not good enough, mate,' Sirius muttered darkly, but he did not seem to be speaking to Remus. He shook his head as if throwing off some unseen burden, and sat up straight again, letting his foot slip down onto the floor and clapping a hand onto each knee. 'Now, then, what can I do to help?' he asked. 'I could fix you something nice to eat. Well, toast. I reckon I could manage some toast. Where's your mum anyhow? I'd have thought she'd want to look after you the day after.'
'She had to go to work,' said Remus. 'Father's looking after me, but he had to go to the apothecary for more – oh, no!'
He tried to sit bolt upright as the thought struck him, but his body was in no condition for sudden contractures of the abdominal muscles. As they tensed, they spasmed violently and he fell back, gasping hollowly as the pain tore through his viscera. His bandaged legs flared with anguish and began to throb, and he felt something wet trickling along the outside of his right knee. His broken wrist sent out a bright flare of torment, and the broad muscles of his back shuddered. Sirius cried out and leapt to his feet, clutching Remus's left hand and putting a palm to his right cheek. He said something that Remus could not hear over the roar of his pulse in his ears, and Remus shook his head frantically.
'No, no, you have to go,' he gasped, forcing the words out through the pain. 'Father… he could be back at any minute and he mustn't see you. He mustn't… he doesn't… he can't… he wouldn't, he wouldn't understand. He'd think…'
'Hold on, take a breath,' Sirius said. 'Just take a breath, and don't do anything so bloody foolish as trying to sit up!' There was abject relief on his face, and his eyes were very bright. 'Sodding Slytherins, you scared me! Just catch your breath, now. Did you tear anything open?'
The wet patch on the bandage was spreading, and Remus was certain he had opened one of the wounds on his leg, but the bedclothes hid that and he was not about to admit to it. 'I'm fine,' he puffed. 'I'm all right. But Sirius, you can't be here when Father gets home.'
'You think he might rat me out to Mum?' asked Sirius. ' 'Cause I'm sure if I reasoned with him… we crossword puzzle types, we listen to reason. It's those ones who like tangrams you really need to watch. Now, Regulus, he's a tangram monster. Make a rabbit out of an elephant in no time at all.' He frowned. 'I wonder if Potter likes tangrams.'
Remus was not entirely certain what he was talking about, and he did not much care. The issue at hand was far too pressing. If Father came home and discovered Sirius here, he would be terrified. He would never believe that Sirius had known the truth for months and had accepted it unconditionally. He would assume that Remus was in danger, and in his present frame of mind he might even do something rash and unforgivable.
'You need to go home,' he said hoarsely, twisting his hand in Sirius's so that he could clutch it. He fixed his eyes on the other boy's face, his blurred left one smearing the right ear and shoulder. 'You need to go home before Father comes back. Please, Sirius.'
Now the other boy looked genuinely puzzled. 'Why?' he asked. 'What's he going to care? Aren't you allowed to have visitors? Your mum would understand.'
'Yes. Yes, I think she would,' Remus sighed, thinking of his mother's fondness for Sirius and her innocent insistence that Remus and his father were both too paranoid about the need for secrecy. 'But my father won't. Please, Sirius. He's been under such a lot of strain with the search for work and everything else. He mustn't find you here.'
'But why not?' asked Sirius. 'I'm not doing anything dangerous or rambunctious. You're the one who tried to sit up all of a sudden and hurt yourself. I didn't even jump on the bed!'
Remus closed his eyes – or rather, his right eye. The left one more sort of oozed shut of its own accord and stuck there. His post-transformation exhaustion was flooding high again, threatening to breach the dam of his resolve and send him straight back to sleep. He didn't want to cope with this and, for a single, horrible, ungrateful moment, he wished that Sirius had not come at all.
'He doesn't…' he began, but just at that moment he heard it. From outside the window propped ajar to catch the breeze off the ocean, came the sharp crack of an incoming Apparation. Remus's heart sprung into his throat, and for a moment he could not speak. His lips moved, contorting oddly against the bruising on the left side of his face, but no sound came out. Then somehow he managed to overcome his muteness. 'Go!' he croaked. 'Oh, please, please go…'
But it was too late. Below he heard the click of the back door's latch, and a moment later the heavy, tired tread of his father's feet on the steps. Sirius, still bewildered, offered what he no doubt considered a reassuring grin. 'It's all right, Remus,' he said. 'Your dad and I get along famously.'
Piteously Remus stared at him, wishing there was some way he could explain and knowing there was not. Sirius would be so hurt when he learned that Remus had not told his parents of his friend's cleverness in making the discovery, of their acceptance and their bounteous support throughout the year. And Father would be indignant, protective, no doubt terrified. In just another moment it would happen, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
The footsteps reached the top of the stairs, changing pitch as they moved onto level flooring. Remus held his breath, braced against the inevitable. And the footfalls moved past his bedroom door and on into the bathroom. He heard the hinges of that door creak, and then the crackling flick of the light switch.
Unable to believe his luck, Remus exhaled and sent anxious eyes flying to Sirius. There was no time to waste. 'Go now!' he whispered. 'You've got time to sneak downstairs and be off before he even knows you were here!'
Sirius squared his shoulders and scowled indignantly. 'Marauders,' he pronounced firmly; 'don't sneak.'
'Marauders frequently sneak!' Remus snapped, his patience breaking. Sirius wasn't listening to him. Once again, he was just assuming that Remus had overreacted, and that all this worry was unnecessary, and this time the consequences would be disastrous. 'Go on, quickly! He'll never know—'
There was a muffled roar of water as the toilet was flushed, and the sound of the sink coming on. Suddenly Remus felt the urge to weep with frustration. 'Please, Sirius,' he begged. 'Please go now.'
'After I've come all this way? Not a chance,' Sirius said. He pushed back the chair and stood up, straightening his robes and grinning impishly. 'Besides, maybe he'll ask me to stay to supper. Your mum's cooking is worth any risk.'
And before Remus could say anything he heard the bathroom door open, and there was a gentle rap upon the door. 'Remus? Are you sleeping?' Father asked in a low, gentle voice that would not have wakened a sleeping werewolf. The handle turned and the door crept smoothly open, and with one hand on the knob and the other holding a stoppered vial, Ross Lupin came into the room.
He stopped dead, eyes widening as his jaw lost its muscle tone and his mouth fell open. Sirius was standing by the bed, but the ramrod rigidity that had been in his spine a moment before was gone. He almost seemed to be lounging, though he was firmly on both feet, and his right hand was resting loosely on his hip.
'Afternoon, Mister Lupin,' he said pleasantly. 'How are you today?'
For an indeterminate eternity, no one moved. Sirius stood there languidly, grinning as cheerfully as if he were standing in front of McGonagall with perfect plausible deniability and an airtight alibi. Remus was almost supine upon the bed, head and shoulders bolstered only a few degrees by the pillows. And Father was frozen in mute astonishment. His tongue moved, probing the roof of his mouth and then bucking against his lower teeth. Slowly, hypnotically, he shook his head first to the left and then to the right.
'Black!' he yelped, and then; 'Sirius!' His eyes flicked to his son, and Remus's innards did a slow flop as he read the panic in them. Then he looked at Sirius again, and his lips twisted into a ghastly rictus that was surely supposed to be a casual smile. 'I'm sorry, Sirius: Remus isn't well enough for visitors. He's… he's had a fall.'
It sounded feeble even to Remus, who had used dozens of such excuses in his first year and those ghastly early months of his second. To his relief, Sirius did not laugh aloud. He only nodded sagely.
'A fall, was it?' he said. 'He told me it was a motorcar crash.'
'A—a motorcar crash!' Father stammered. 'That's… of course, yes; yes, that's just what I meant. When the motorcar crashed, he… er… that is, he fell off the seat and… and struck his head on the stick gadget. I mean the gear contraption. The… er… that thing with the knob. It caught him right in the eye.'
'I expect he broke his wrist on the handbrake, then,' said Sirius. 'And he's all bandaged up because of the rug-burn from sliding onto the floor mats. Or perhaps it was a random Hippogriff attack. Or he was used as a Quaffle by some Swedish giants. Or he ran afoul of a band of extremely fit pixies.'
Father's mouth flapped helplessly, grasping at the air like a flounder puffs water. The hand on the doorknob shook, and the other reached out, very slowly, to set the bottle of pain potion on the foot of the bed, propped almost upright by a fold of the counterpane. 'It was a car crash,' he said in a low voice, surprisingly steady. 'Just as Remus said.'
'Right,' said Sirius. He crossed his arms and shifted his weight onto his left, letting his right eyebrow creep almost to his hairline in a sharp arc of sheer disbelief. 'See, now, I'm thinking maybe you don't have any idea what Remus said.'
Father's eyes flicked to him again, swift as a cat's, and Remus wished that the mattress would open up and swallow him whole. He would sooner have been back down in the bloodied cellar than lying here, with his father shooting him imploring glances – begging him to help to keep a secret that had been given up months ago.
'It was a car crash, wasn't it, Remus?' Father said slowly. His hand was at his side now, and the one upon the door handle had stopped quaking. Instead, the knuckles were white with the force of his grip. 'There was a mad driver up on the cliffs, and your mother couldn't keep clear.'
'I thought it happened in town,' said Sirius. 'An old lady rolled through a stoplight without braking.'
All of the color was gone from Father's face now. 'Yes, of course,' he hissed. 'Just as Remus said.'
'Just as Remus said,' echoed Sirius. He spread his lips over his teeth with relish. 'And what I was just saying was it's remarkable how quickly the garage managed to fix up Mrs. Lupin's Morris Minor, seeing as it's parked just out front in fine nick, while Remus's bruises aren't more than… oh, nine and a half hours old.'
Remus waited, unable to speak or move or even breathe, for his father to attempt one more weak lie. For nine long years Father had been lying for him, and often lying very well, but all that was at an end. Sirius knew the truth, and in a moment Father would realize that he knew it, and then…
Quick as a duelist drawing to the call of a referee, Father whipped out his wand and levelled it at the gleefully grinning boy. Now it was Sirius's turn to stiffen, his smile faltering and his eyes widening almost imperceptibly. He did a good job of hiding his alarm, and in that first fleeting instant when his own surprise was raw Remus thought that this could not be the first time that Sirius had had a fully-qualified wizard – or witch – fix a wand so combatively upon him.
'Get away from my son.'
The words were hard and very cold, brooking no argument and leaving no quarter for defiance. Father's eyes were darker than Remus had ever seen them, and his gaunt face drawn into lines of unshakable determination. He did not seem to care that he had his wand pointed at a thirteen-year-old boy, nor that Sirius was unarmed, nor that Remus was lying not two feet to his left. In his eyes Remus saw a terrible resolve that he had only ever seen once before: on the face of Dorcas Meadowes on the night the Prefects had patrolled the corridors in Professor Dumbledore's absence. On the night that Owen Meyrigg was murdered.
'Get away from my son, you little pure-blooded monster,' Father repeated, this time spitting out the epithet with a chilled vitriol that made Remus's blood run thin. 'If you touch him, if you hurt him, if you tell your hateful parents and they expose him—'
Sirius's lips parted, but only a hoarse little yip came out. He was petrified now, reading the unmistakable message in those flint-hard eyes. His head quivered from side to side, hardly deviating an inch off centre in either direction. And the wand did not shift at all.
The single syllable cut the air, and both sets of eyes whipped to Remus, breaking their perilous contact. Only then did Remus realize the voice that had spoken so firmly was his own. And then he realized he had to say something more, if he was ever going to clear up this awful misunderstanding he had created.
'It isn't like that,' he said. 'Please put the wand down, Father. Sirius isn't going to hurt me.'
'He's a Black,' Father said, but now the hardness in his voice was somehow too fierce, too bright: as if he were putting forward a shining decoy to hide his uncertainty. 'You've seen the stock he comes from, Remus. I've said it all along: blood will out.'
'It won't,' said Remus. 'It hasn't. Sirius… he came to look in on me because he knew I'd be ill and hurting today. He… I think he sneaked away on his father, just to look in on me. I… you did, didn't you, Sirius?' He dared to look away from the wrathful wizard to the startled student beside him. 'You sneaked away.'
Sirius shrugged. 'Well, I suppose technically I might have done a little sneaking,' he hedged playfully. 'But then as I've been reminded, Marauders frequently sneak…'
'He did it for me,' said Remus. 'Because… because he's my friend.'
The wand drooped a little, no longer pointed at Sirius's throat but at his breastbone. Father's eyes softened sorrowfully. 'Remus, I tried to warn you,' he murmured. 'Once he worked out the truth…'
'But he did work out the truth!' Remus protested. Setting his teeth in determination he drove his elbows deep into the mattress and managed to lift head and shoulders off of the pillow. Pain flared in his wrist and rippled through his neck and spine, and he ignored it. It was nothing to the pain of the transformation, nothing to the pain of the wound in his abdomen after the full moon in October, and nothing to the pain of loneliness and terror that he had known before that life-changing night. 'He worked it out months ago, him and James and Peter. They've known since before Christmas. They've known all this time. They… they've stood by me, Father. All of them. And… and Sirius was first.'
Again the wand sank lower. Now its tip had a perfect trajectory for Sirius's left kneecap. Father was staring at Remus, dumbfounded. His tongue slipped over his lips before he could speak. 'What do you mean?' he breathed. 'You told them? After everything I've… in spite of all that we… and Dumbledore… the secret…'
'No,' breathed Remus, almost sobbing the word. He pressed his lips together and steeled his resolve. He would not weep, not now. He was drowning in guilt and self-loathing and penitence, regretting the lies he had told his parents and wishing so bitterly that he had just given them the truth – the truth that he owed them, after all they had done for him. He owed more to Sirius, too, than to conceal so carefully this proof of his goodness, his nobility, and his utter disregard for his family's bigotry. But it was too late to change any of that now: all he could do was keep his composure and explain.
'They worked it out on their own,' he said, letting his right eyelid flutter low so that he did not need to look at his father as he spoke. He inhaled through his nostrils, feeling the unpleasant grinding of sharp clots of blood in the draft of air. 'They're very clever, Father; James and Sirius. And they were determined. It… it isn't really a difficult pattern to follow, especially not when we started studying the moon in Astronomy, and…'
He was rambling, and he tried to steady himself. Again he took a deep breath, even though his ribs were still sore from the contortions of the transformation that broke them, stretched them, reformed them and then twisted them back again. And he felt something hot and firm upon his shoulder, squeezing reassuringly. Sirius's hand.
'They d-didn't abandon me,' he said, his voice breaking. He swallowed firmly and cleared his throat, raw with last night's howling. 'Sirius, he was the first… straight away he said it didn't matter. James needed time to think about it, and… and Peter was frightened. But not Sirius.'
He opened his eyes, the good one firmly and the left as far as he was able. Father was staring at him now, his face twisted into a mask of agony and disbelief and dawning wonder. Now his arm hung at his side, the wand dangling loosely from his fingers.
'He's my friend,' Remus whispered. 'He… he may be a Black by blood, b-but I'm a werewolf by blood, and it didn't matter to him. He's… he's not… he's not…' He groped for the right word, but it eluded him. His chest was tight and his eyes were stinging, and if not for Sirius's bracing hold upon his shoulder he might have sunk right back into the cushions again and dissolved into exhausted tears. There was nothing he could say to express what he was feeling, to lay out the truth about his friend in a way that his father could understand. And yet feebly he kept trying. 'He's not,' he said again. 'Sirius isn't a… a…'
'A Black by nature.'
Remus looked up at his friend, surprised that Sirius had known just what to say. Then he realized it was not Sirius who had said it after all. Wide-eyed, he looked back at Father, who was watching the upright boy with mingled anguish and admiration. Hypnotically, Father slipped his wand into his belt and held out his hand.
'I… I'm sorry,' he breathed.
'Aw, sure,' said Sirius with another indolent shrug, stepping forward to shake hands while still maintaining his hold upon Remus's shoulder. 'If you can't object irrationally to your son's friends now and then, what's the use of being a parent?'
To Remus's astonishment, Father laughed.
So it was that when Mother came home at half past four she found Remus propped up on pillows in his bed, with Sirius sitting cross legged by his feet and Father in the chair by the bed. The story had been told, the impossible questions asked and answered, and Father had retreated from the room for about an hour – during which Sirius had talked animatedly about his summer homework, his attempts at decorating his room with Gryffindor paraphernalia and a Permanent Sticking Charm, and everything else except the aftermath of his abrupt departure from the Lupin home some weeks before. Then Father had come back, face freshly scrubbed and eyes unmistakably bloodshot, and had settled down to talk to the boys. It had been Sirius who had done most of the talking, moving from Quidditch to automobiles to The Daily Prophet's recent crossword conundrums, for by this time Remus was almost too exhausted to keep his good eye open. But he had not wanted to sacrifice even a minute of his friend's company, and had not even considered suggesting that they take the conversation downstairs.
So Mother stopped on the threshold, just as Father had done, but instead of moving from astonishment to hostility she smiled. 'Why, Sirius!' she said, coming into the room almost as if she wanted to hug him. 'What's brought you down from London. Oh, I do hope you haven't run off on your mother!'
'She's in Paris,' said Sirius brightly. 'How's the Muggle Post, Mrs. Lupin? Did you sell a great many stamps today?'
'Oh, yes, dozens and dozens,' Mother said offhandedly. Her eyes narrowed a little as she looked at her son with his bandaged limbs and his gloriously bruised face. 'Sirius,' she said cautiously. 'Just what are you doing here today?'
'I came out to see how Remus was getting on after the full moon,' Sirius said frankly. 'I had a sort of a gut feeling it might be a rough one for him; you know how it is. So when I saw the opportunity I… ehrm… seized it.'
For a moment Mother was silent, looking at Sirius with eyes filled with a storm of unreadable thoughts and feelings. Then she turned warily to her husband, who feinted a tiny half-smile in her direction. 'Well,' she said with an air of breezy finality that seemed to freshen the very air of the room. She gazed at Remus for a moment and then turned back to Sirius.
'I did wonder,' she said softly. She reached out and lifted a stray lock of Sirius's hair, moving to hook it around his ear. Her hand stopped to cup the back of his head in an intimately motherly gesture that Remus would have expected Sirius to shake off with a ruffle of manly indignation. He did not. His eyes closed for a moment, and then he looked up at her again, silent and steady. Mother withdrew her hand and reached to unpin her hat. 'Well,' she repeated. Her smile broadened. 'Will you stay to supper, Sirius? There's soup, and I was going to mix up a batch of scones.'
'Yes, please!' Sirius said eagerly, bouncing just a little – not enough to jar Remus in the least. Then he grinned impishly at his friend. 'I told you I could wrangle an invite!"
Remus nodded, laughing a tired but earnest little laugh. His mother was looking at his father with eyes that said I told you, Ross. I told you.