1. The Perfect Flat

~o~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~o~

"Sirius, I need you to set off at once. You are to alert
Remus Lupin, Arabella Figg, Mundungus Fletcher—the old crowd.
Lie low at Lupin's for a while; I will contact you there."
Goblet of Fire, chapter 36

~o~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~o~

Morning light crept apologetically into the basement flat, through two small windows set high in one of the thick stone walls. Remus blinked as a sunbeam spilled across the Help Wanted pages of the Daily Prophet. He ate the last bite of his toast, sipped some tea, and sat for a moment, looking over the job notices he'd circled. Only two today. He wondered, not for the first time, whether such meagre prospects were worth the five Knuts the Prophet cost him. But then he smiled a little and shrugged, pushing his plate aside to make room for a clean piece of parchment. Since it was his newspaper, and not the library's, at least he'd have the crossword to look forward to that evening.

Still, as he reached for his quill to begin yet another letter of application—this one for a part-time bookkeeping and filing job at a shop in Diagon Alley—it was hard to silence the voice in the back of his mind that mocked, Why bother? One way or another, lycanthropy had cost him every job he'd ever managed to scrape up. When he was lucky, his employers merely became annoyed by his frequent absences and sacked him. When he was unlucky, they worked out why his illnesses were so very regular; some of them had even looked him up on the Registry before confronting him and sending him packing.

Remus picked up the teabag that balanced damply on the edge of his plate and dropped it back into his teacup. As he poured more hot water from the kettle, he watched it swirl around the teabag and turn an anaemic brown. The second cup was never quite as good.

And if finding steady work had been difficult before his year as a teacher, it had got much worse since last spring's media frenzy. (Hogwarts Teacher Exposed as Werewolf! Dark Creature Teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts! Are Our Children Safe at School?) Now his name was known to most of the magical world. He rarely even got a chance at an interview, let alone a job. If not for the occasional research assignments commissioned by the Wizengamot—presumably sent his way by Dumbledore—he'd have had no income at all for a whole year.

He folded the letter, sealed it, and began on the other one. He would bother. He had to. Because the alternative was to give up.

Remus hadn't given up fourteen years ago, when the world as he knew it ended. So he certainly wouldn't give up now.

In one way, things were better this year than they had been for a long time. He kept in touch with people now—people from what he thought of as before. He tried not to count on that, not to assume that the owls would always come, but for now he could enjoy the letters when they arrived. There was a kind and newsy message every few weeks from Dumbledore or McGonagall. And Sirius wrote to him, too. Remus chuckled, thinking of some of the silly, rather ribald comments sprinkled throughout his old friend's missives.

Sirius wrote to him.

Thank Merlin.

~o~o~o~

Remus had been the first to write. He spent the night after his departure from Hogwarts in a shabby little inn somewhere in northern England. As exhausted as he was from the transformation, grief and shame kept him awake most of the night. Finally, an hour before dawn, he dragged himself out of bed and found a quill and a piece of parchment in his battered briefcase.

Dear Sirius,

Dumbledore told me what Harry and Hermione did last night, and that there is a chance you may have made it away safely.

I don't know if an owl will be able to find you. Even if it does, I am probably the last person on earth you'd want to hear from, as it's all my fault you're on the run again. If I hadn't been distracted by the Map and run down to the Shack before taking my last dose of Wolfsbane, you would have got Peter all the way up to the castle, and you would now be a free man getting to know your godson. I can't even begin to tell you how sorry I am, and I know there's no way I can make things up to you.

But please, if you get this letter—just write back and let me know if you're all right.

—R.J.L.

No answer came for days, even though Remus didn't think Sirius had been caught, since there was nothing in the news. He fought down worry and swallowed his disappointment, telling himself it was no more than he deserved if Sirius wasn't willing to reply.

But then a letter arrived after all, delivered by a tiny Scops owl that could barely keep from dropping it. And the letter was nothing like what Remus had expected.

Dear Remus,

I would have written sooner, but it took some doing to get my hands on a quill and a bottle of ink. I'll reuse your piece of parchment, though. Hope you don't mind.

Buckbeak and I are fine. We're on our way someplace warm and comfortable—I won't say where, just in case. Being on the run isn't easy, but it's a damn sight better than being in Azkaban. Or being a soulless wretch that a dementor has Kissed. And that would be me, right now, if you hadn't seen us on the Map and come down to the Shack. I don't think Harry would have killed me in the end, but he and his friends certainly could have Stunned me and turned me over to Fudge. They never would have listened to my story if you hadn't been there, but they trusted you enough to let you explain. So you can stop beating yourself up about the Wolfsbane and be glad that you did exactly what you did. I owe you one.

Write to me often, Moony, won't you? I'll want to know how Harry's doing, and what's going on back home. And I'm bored. Buckbeak and I are good friends by now, but he's not much for conversation.

—Sirius

And so Remus found himself trading letters with his old mate. It was almost as though the long years after Voldemort's fall had never happened.

Especially since neither of them ever wrote a word about the past again.

Sirius wrote frequently at first, his cheerful scribbles delivered by great gaudy tropical birds. Lately, though, the notes had become cryptic and much more sporadic, and they were carried by owls that seemed to have been...diverted...from the post office at Hogsmeade. Remus suspected that Sirius was back up north watching out for Harry, who had been caught up unexpectedly in the Triwizard Tournament at Hogwarts. He could only hope that Sirius was watching out for himself as well.

~o~o~o~

After finishing the second job application, Remus eyed the soggy teabag, considering his chances of coaxing yet another cup of tea out of it. But pale brown water was not really what he wanted, so he settled for doing the washing up instead. Then he sent a broom skimming over the already spotless floor and set things to rights, looking around with some pride. He was managing perfectly well. He had this flat. He had his Wizengamot research, his eternal job hunt, and towering piles of library books to keep him busy. He even had letters from friends to look forward to. Things could have been so very much worse.

He fished a few Sickles out of a leather pouch he kept deep inside a cupboard and picked up his letters. It was time for the daily trek to the Owl Office.

Remus locked his flat, climbed a narrow dark staircase, and opened the building's front door to a sunny June morning. His eyes were dazzled by the sudden brightness, so he heard the gruff bark before he saw the huge, shaggy black dog bounding toward him from behind a row of dustbins.

He froze—but only for an instant. Then he pulled the heavy door wide open. "Inside!" he hissed. The dog obliged, thumping eagerly down the stairs, sniffing as it went. Remus followed more slowly. Without a word, he let the dog into his flat and paused to lock the door behind them. When he turned around, the scruffy stray had transformed into a gaunt but roguishly grinning Sirius Black.

~o~o~o~

Sirius stretched, savouring the feeling of standing on two legs instead of four. He glanced around the minuscule flat—dark stone walls, cold stone floor, tiny windows that barely let in any light at all. A battered metal table that someone else must have cast off, because surely, no one would choose such a thing. It was awfully depressing.

But he grinned at the look of shock on old Moony's face when he turned away from the door.

"What on earth are you doing here?" Remus's voice was sharp. "It's not safe! Someone could have recognized you!"

"Is that any way to greet an old friend?" Sirius shook his head in mock disappointment. "Aren't you glad to see me?"

Remus sighed, and some of the anger and worry faded from his eyes. "Of course I am." He even managed half a grin, for a moment. "But you know it isn't worth the risk!"

Sirius shook his head slowly, hit with a sudden rush of guilt for letting his delight at this reunion push aside the weight of the sombre news he bore. "Actually, I'm afraid it is." He spun one of the rickety chairs around and straddled it backward, leaning his elbows on the backrest. "Dumbledore sent me to find you."

Remus went rigid. "What happened?"

"Voldemort's back."

Staring in disbelief, Remus pulled another chair out and slowly sank into it. "Back?"

"He's got himself some kind of human-like body again, and he managed to summon about a dozen old Death Eaters to join him."

"Harry—is he—?" Remus's face was white.

Sirius rested a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Harry's all right. It was a close call, though. There was a Portkey—long story—anyway, it sent Harry to a graveyard where Voldemort was waiting for him." Rage boiled up, as it did whenever he thought about what happened that night. "Peter was there."

Remus's face darkened, and he muttered something under his breath.

"Peter's been looking after Voldemort all year, it seems. He was the one who brewed the potion that made the new body." Sirius grimaced. "They needed a bit of Harry's blood for it. Then the little rat cut off his own hand into the potion—that's how devoted he is to his master." He spat into the fireplace. "Peter even killed the other boy."

"What?" Remus looked horrified.

Sirius blinked, dismayed. "I forgot; you must have taught him last year! It was the other Hogwarts champion. I can't remember his name..."

"Cedric Diggory," said Remus distantly. "A fine young man."

They sat without speaking for a moment. Sirius watched as Remus clenched his jaw and closed his eyes, fighting back what was obviously a wave of cold fury. He couldn't help wondering if Remus used to feel that way about him, before last year. Damn that rat. For everything.

Remus rubbed at his temples and looked up again, his eyes clear and calm now. "How on earth did Harry escape? Why didn't Voldemort kill him right there?"

Sirius thought of Harry, pale and exhausted in Dumbledore's office, and of the look on his too-young, too-old face when he told them about Priori Incantatem. Sirius knew that he would give just about anything to talk to James and Lily again, even if they were only a shadow or an echo of what they'd once been. He swallowed. "That's another long story." He forced himself to meet Remus's gaze. "I'll tell you some other time, I promise. But there are things we need to do now."

Remus watched him for a moment, looking curious but concerned. He nodded.

Sirius took a deep breath and plunged on. "Dumbledore wants us to recall the Order of the Phoenix right away. Discreetly. Fudge is being difficult...it looks like official Ministry policy is to deny that anything is happening at all. So Dumbledore told me to come stay with you, and get in touch with Dung, and old Mrs. Figg, and the rest of the crowd. You and I will need to contact everyone in person. No owls, no Floo."

But now Remus was appraising him through narrowed eyes. "So an escaped convict with a ten-thousand Galleon price on his head is going to wander around the country making contact with a dozen experts in Defensive magic?"

"They're fellow Order members, aren't they? I'll just tell them Dumbledore sent me..."

Remus was clearly unimpressed. "I believed you were guilty until I saw Peter on the Map that night, and I was one of your best mates. Even Sturgis, or Emmeline, or Dung might Stun you and have the Aurors on their way to pick you up before you had a chance to open your mouth." A faint grin stole across his face again. "Well, maybe not Dung." The grin faded. "Anyway, you need to stay here. I'll contact the others—and convince them you're innocent before they meet up with you."

Sirius glowered. Inaction didn't suit him.

Remus rolled his eyes and poked Sirius in the shoulder. "Besides, when was the last time you had any sleep?"

Sirius shrugged. "Couple of nights ago, I guess. I came straight down here from Hogwarts."

"I thought as much. Look, let me make you some breakfast. Then I'll go talk to everyone, while you get some rest." He poured Sirius a cup of tea and busied himself at the hot plate that was balanced on a corner of the small kitchen counter.

Sirius shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He would bet that old Moony was barely scraping by, and he didn't want to eat up all his food. But he was too hungry and tired to protest, especially once the lovely smell of frying eggs began to fill the flat.

He tipped his chair back and looked around the dim room. "Who does your decorating? Only I'd fire them, if I were you." Everything was spotlessly clean, and not an item was out of place—this was Remus, after all. But the only furniture to be seen, aside from the battered table and chairs, was a bed, neatly made up, with pillows all along one side as though to encourage it to pretend to be a sofa. A tatty blue rug alongside the bed was the sole attempt at decoration. It was truly dreadful.

Remus laughed. "Don't malign my flat," he said affably. "It's perfect, you know."

"Perfect." Sirius's eyebrows were lost in his tangled hair.

"Perfect." Remus turned the eggs with a deft flick of his wand. "For starters, the landlady doesn't mind renting to a werewolf. That's a definite advantage, right there." He set some bread to toast. "Second, look around. That's a Murphy bed—it folds right up into that cabinet on the wall. So every month I just close up the bed, lock my things in the cupboards, and voila—nothing for the wolf to damage. That's the beauty of stone walls." He passed Sirius a second teabag and filled his cup with hot water again. "Third, the rent isn't bad at all."

"I should think not," Sirius snorted, stirring sugar liberally into his tea. "Your neighbours all seem to be Muggle drug dealers. Between that, and the decor, I think your landlady ought to payyou to live here."

Remus laughed again, his eyes dancing. "It may not be up to the standards of your old bachelor flat," he conceded. "But it's my own place, and no one's going to throw me out. It's perfect."

He pulled a slightly chipped plate out of a cupboard and filled it. "I'm all out of jam and butter, I'm afraid. You'll have to eat the toast with the egg." He set the plate in front of Sirius and sat down at the table again, pouring himself a fresh cup of tea.

"Egg and toast is marvellous. Ta." Sirius fell to, making short work of the hot meal. But his thoughts were racing, even while he ate, and eventually he set down his fork and gave voice to the question that had been troubling him for months—ever since he'd started reading between the lines of Remus's letters and guessing how few people his old friend had to depend on.

"If your life is so perfect nowadays, who looks after you?"

Remus looked up from his tea, surprised. "I look after myself, of course." His mouth quirked into a grin. "I'm perfectly capable of cooking. I can even tidy up, all on my own."

Sirius scowled at him. "That's not what I meant." No one who'd seen Remus at Hogwarts would ever question his ability to keep his flat neat as a pin. "Who comes and checks on you after full moons, the way we used to do after we all left school?"

Remus shrugged, scrutinizing his teacup. "I meant what I said—I can look after myself. There's nothing in this flat I can damage, and I know a lot of first-aid spells by now." He abruptly stood and crossed to one of the cupboards, pulling out a faded towel, a pair of shabby but clean pyjamas, and a new toothbrush. "Here, you go have a shower while I put things away, and then I'll get started rounding up people in the Order."

Sirius was far from satisfied with that answer, but it was clearly all he was going to get out of Moony for now.

~o~o~o~

Remus had just started making up the bed with fresh sheets when he heard the water stop running. Sirius emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later, still looking shaggy and gaunt, but clean now.

"Oh, much better." Remus lobbed a pillow at him, Gryffindor style. "Now maybe the Order will believe me when I tell them you're innocent. Especially if you've had a bit of a sleep by the time they lay eyes on you."

"Git." Sirius sent the pillow back—his aim was as good as ever. "Are you really planning to bring everybody back here tonight for a meeting?"

"Hardly." Remus couldn't help chuckling at the thought. "This flat is too small to hold the old crowd, let alone any new recruits we might come up with." He frowned. "The Order really does need a safe place to meet, though. I wonder if Dumbledore has something planned."

"I've been thinking about that," Sirius said. His voice sounded tight, and Remus glanced up in concern, but Sirius was staring intently at a point just past his left ear. "You know, my dear departed parents put all kinds of secrecy spells on the family house. And it's mine now that they're all dead, whether they've blasted me off that horrible tapestry or not." He forced a laugh. "I'm planning to tell Dumbledore he can have the place for headquarters if he wants it."

Remus turned away from the blankets he was tucking in and stared. Sirius hadn't spoken of his family's home since the day he ran away at sixteen.

"I should probably move back into the house, actually," Sirius went on, even more stiffly. "An Unplottable hideout would be useful for a wanted man." He shuddered. "I'm sure it's absolutely filthy in there, after standing empty for ten years. There was a house elf, but he never was much good for anything, and by now he'd be really old, if he's alive at all..."

Remus gently extricated the damp towel from his friend's grasp, but Sirius didn't seem to notice. "I never thought I'd go back," he muttered. "Hateful old place." He shook his head irritably and sighed. "I'll just have to make sure I'm off on Order missions most days, so I won't have to spend too much time there."

"Sounds like a pretty good place for Order headquarters, if it's Unplottable." Remus wasn't entirely sure what to say.

Sirius turned his sharp gaze on Remus again. "The thing is, Moony, I could use a hand cleaning out the house, and you're the tidiest bloke I've ever seen. Do you think—would you come along and help me get it straightened up?" He gave a deliberately casual shrug. "You could stay there too, if you wanted. There's plenty of bedrooms, all unused." He smiled grimly. "I can't promise it will be any more cheerful than this flat, but at least you'd have a lot more space."

A house abandoned for ten years, and inhabited by Dark wizards before that... Frankly, the prospect of cleaning it out sounded rather daunting. Remus knew better than most how many doxies, ghouls, spiders, and boggarts they were likely to encounter, let alone cursed and dangerous objects and furniture.

But he also knew, better than most, that Sirius Black didn't always say everything he was thinking.

This might actually be a plea for help, for someone to stand with Sirius when he went to confront the ghosts of his past.

Or, it might be Sirius's way of trying to pick up where they had left off, before missions and secrets and suspicions had begun to unravel the most important friendships of Remus's life. To start "looking after Moony," as he and James (and Peter, for a time) had done so many years ago.

Either way, it seemed that Sirius might be extending a metaphorical hand. Looking for an opportunity to make their friendship real again.

Remus looked around at his tiny, shabby, perfect flat, where he was content. Self-sufficient. Safe from any further heartbreak and disappointment.

Where he was alone.

Remus took a deep breath, looked Sirius in the eye, and grinned.

"Absolutely, Padfoot," he said, lightly. "If there are cobwebs that need clearing out, I'm the one for the job."

His flat would still be perfect—for full moons, anyway.

~o~o~o~


Author's note: Many thanks to jncar for beta-reading.