“Padfoot, what are you doing here today?” Remus asked in surprise when he opened the door to an unexpected friend. “Sorry, come in.”
Sirius only glanced into Remus’s eyes for a moment as he walked past him. He wandered to the foot of Remus’s bed and ran a palm over one of the iron knobs on the bedstead. Remus began to dread whatever news his strangely silent friend had brought.
“Are James and his family alright?”
“Fine,” Sirius said in a voice that was high and tight. He cleared his throat. “Actually, I came to tell you that they’ve moved again.”
“Already? Damn.” Remus reached under his bed for his shoes and then sat upon the bed to put them on. “I have two more wards I want to put on the new house. I was waiting for the new moon to make them stronger, but I’ll go—”
“No. They didn’t go to that house,” Sirius said.
Remus looked up expectantly, waiting for Sirius to tell him where they had gone instead. The silence told him all that Sirius needed to say. Remus had feared—had known—that this day was coming. Now it was here, and with it came the realization that he would not see them again until the day came that they were completely safe. He realized that he might never see his friends again.
Sirius watched him until he was certain that Remus understood, then he turned his head and looked out the widow. Remus sat there, one shoe on and the other still in his hand. He didn’t know whether to continue putting the shoe on—he had nowhere to go—or if he should take the first back off. Some part of his mind screamed at him for even wondering such a stupid and mundane question when his entire world was crashing down around him.
“Kiss Lily and Harry good-bye for me,” Remus said at last.
“And tell Prongs—” Remus closed his eyes. There was too much to say. Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for becoming an animagus and allowing me to feel the forest floor under my paws. Thank you for saving me by saving Snape. Thank you for allowing me to hold your newborn son. Thank you for trusting me, for trusting a werewolf, as long as you did. Thank you for being my friend. “Just tell him I said, ‘Thank you.’”
Sirius flinched. “I have to go.” He walked out without looking at Remus again.
Remus drank a gulp of the after-dinner firewhiskey and blinked away the tears that sprang into his eyes. “Ooh—I forgot how this stuff burns. Do you actually like this?”
Sirius had finished his drink and was already refilling the glass. “No, but it makes the thought of living here more bearable.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Remus said as he gazed around at the kitchen they had spent two days cleaning. “New curtains, a coat of fresh paint, a catastrophic fire that burns this place to the ground, and it’ll be downright cozy.”
Sirius laughed. “You are so right. If we didn’t need a safe place for Harry to live—fwoosh! Bonfire.” The imagined flames almost danced in Sirius’s eyes as he looked around the room smiling.
“I missed you, Padfoot,” Remus stated.
Sirius looked back still smiling. “I missed you too, Moony.”
Remus was tempted to ask the question he’d been putting off for a year, “Why did you suspect me?” He didn’t want to ask while Sirius was in one of his depressive moods of self-recrimination, so this seemed like a good opportunity. However, he knew the question would instantly destroy this rare good mood, so he held his tongue—again.
Sirius emptied his glass again, but he did not refill it. Instead, he stared at the glass and toyed with it between his fingers.
“Whatever happened to Alex Vraci?” Sirius asked suddenly.
“Vraci? He’s dead.”
Sirius looked up sharply. There was something almost wary in his eyes as he asked, “What happened?”
“He killed himself in a holding cell while awaiting trial.”
Sirius nodded. Vraci hadn’t been the only one to do so. “So he was a Death Eater.”
“So they say.”
“You don’t think so?”
“They were wrong about you,” Remus pointed out. He took a small sip of his firewhiskey. “But they were probably right about him. The only evidence against him was the testimony of other Death Eaters trying to make deals to save themselves—there was a lot of that just after Voldemort disappeared,”—Sirius nodded— “but there were several people who named Vraci when they named names. Apparently, if you survived an attempt on your life and were sent to St. Mungo’s, your chances of recovery were much lower if he was assigned to make one of your prescribed potions.”
“Oh God.” Sirius thought for a moment. “Sylvia Prewitt.”
Remus nodded grimly. “Among others.” Remus took a deep breath before rising from the table and going into the adjoining pantry. “I’m still hungry. Where did you put those biscuits I bought?” he called over his shoulder.
“I’m really sorry, Moony,” Sirius said as he followed his friend as far as the pantry doorway.
“About Alex. I know that you and he—that you were involved with each other.”
Remus had just taken a package of biscuits off a shelf. He stood clutching them, not turning around to face Sirius. “Briefly,” he said softly. “How did you—” he cleared his throat and turned to face Sirius. “When did you find out?”
“That last summer before James and Lily died. I happened to see a photo of you two kissing.”
Sirius sagged against the doorframe and reached up to massage the back of his neck. The tension of this conversation was making itself tangible there. “Alex was already under suspicion, and someone ordered periodic surveillance of him.”
Remus smiled slightly and used opening the package to avoid Sirius’s gaze. “Snogging a suspected Death Eater. That couldn’t have been very beneficial to the ‘Can we still trust Remus?’ case.” He took two biscuits and held out the package to Sirius.
“It didn’t help, no,” Sirius admitted as he took the package and preceded Remus back into the kitchen. He turned a chair to face the fireplace and sat with his feet propped up in front of the flames.
“Too bad I didn’t suspect him. I could have broken it off sooner, or better yet never started it at all,” Remus said as he took a seat on the hearth and looked into the flames as well. “Strange.”
“When he was arrested, I kept wondering why if he was Death Eater had he never tried to get any information from me. Sometimes he’d ask what I planned to do the next day, but he would have been a strange boyfriend if he hadn’t. If I were visiting James or scouting out their next place to live, I’d say something vague or lie. Alex was always fine with that. And I never brought him to my flat, and he was fine with that too. In retrospect, you’d think he would have wanted to go there and see if I was careless enough to leave anything lying around. I wasn’t, but why didn’t he check?”
“They didn’t need you to tell them where Harry was. They had Peter for that.”
Remus made a vague noise of assent and nodded.
“I guess you’ll just have to accept that Alex was interested in you because of your animal magnetism,” Sirius said with a grin.
Remus snorted and looked askance at Sirius. It was familiar—it was comfortable—hearing Sirius make jokes about his lycanthropy. When others referred to it, they always meant it as an insult. But when his friends had done it, they were showing that they accepted him, just as he was, pointy fangs and all. He wondered if Sirius would ever tease him about his homosexuality in that same way. He hoped he would.
“It doesn’t bother you that I’m gay, does it?”
The unspoken word “but” seemed to hang in the air. Remus felt himself tense as he waited. He resisted looking back at Sirius and kept his eyes fixed on the way one small flame kept licking around the edge of the uppermost log, trying to establish a steady burn.
“What bothered me was that you didn’t tell us,” Sirius said at last. Then in a low voice that was almost a whisper, he added, “There were a lot of things you didn’t tell us.”
Remus was afraid to ask what Sirius was referring to, but he was more afraid not to. Mistrust and silence had destroyed them all once before. They couldn’t make the same mistakes all over again. He wouldn’t allow it. He forced himself to face Sirius directly and fixed him with a stare. Sirius, conditioned by countless full moon nights, immediately dropped his gaze rather than challenge the wolf by staring back.
“Tell me,” Remus ordered. “Why did you suspect me? What did you think I wasn’t telling you?”
“Damn, Remus, do you really want to dredge this up?” Sirius glanced up again, a worried crease between his brows. “I was wrong. I know I was wrong. What does it matter why I thought it?”
“Because it still bothers you—”
“No! It doesn’t!”
“—and because you owe me an explanation, Sirius. Do you remember that day you came to my flat?” Sirius glanced back toward the firewhiskey bottle still on the table. Remus felt an anger he didn’t know he’d been carrying well up inside him, hot and bitter like vomit in the back of the throat. “August twenty-seventh, Sirius. Do you remember? I remember it. I knew I’d never—James was my friend too, and I never saw him again.” Tears were spilling down his cheeks, but Remus didn’t wipe them away.
“I remember,” Sirius said quietly. “Very well. I’ve relived it more times than I can count.”
Azkaban. Sirius had relived that day in Azkaban. Remus’s anger abated somewhat. He knew that he had a right to be angry, but Sirius wasn’t the right target. Sirius had already paid for his mistakes—paid a higher price than he should have. And if he had relieved that day in Azkaban, it must be as painful a memory for Sirius as it was for Remus.
“I’m sorry, but I need to know.”
Sirius nodded and twisted around in his seat to grab the bottle. He took a swig from it and offered the bottle to Remus. Remus took it and just held it. He thought it best to keep it out of Sirius’s hands for the remainder of this conversation.
“Photos. A pile of them this thick,” Sirius said. He held his forefinger and thumb an inch apart.
“Alex and me?”
“No—yes, but just a few. Damn, Moony, I don’t think there was anyone under suspicion that you weren’t seen with. Malfoy, Hugo Davis, Serrault, Goyle, Aidan Howes, Snape, my damn cousin Bellatrix—and those are just a few I remember off the top of my head.”
“I don’t remember—” Remus’s forehead wrinkled in confusion as he tried to recall meeting with the people Sirius had named. He still remembered meeting Aidan Howes, but even all these many years later, he felt guilty that he did not warn anyone before Howes killed someone. He chose not to discuss him. “I did run into your cousin once, but just by accident. She gave me a rather nasty message to pass on to you—which I didn’t—and went on her way.”
“I can remember looking through the photos, and there was nothing wrong in any of them. I kept saying, ‘This one doesn’t mean anything, and this one doesn’t mean anything.’ But there were so bloody many of them, Moony.” Sirius’s eyes were pleading for understanding.
Remus smiled encouragingly. “I would have mistrusted me on less.”
Sirius breathed a sigh of relief. “I actually liked the first one. Malfoy tried to shake your hand and you refused.”
Remus laughed. “A point in my favour. I remember that happening. Did any of the photos bother you? Other than the one of me snogging a Death Eater, of course.”
Sirius nodded. “Snape.”
“Snape?” Remus deliberately chose to misunderstand. “I never snogged Snape.”
Sirius laughed—the desired result. “No, you prat. Snape gave you some papers.” Remus frowned as he tried to remember what they could have been. “Do you remember how much he hated you back then?”
“Just slightly more than he does now? Yes.”
“He wouldn’t go anywhere near you back then.” A wicked smile spread across Sirius’s face. “The mere thought of being alone with you would make him piss his pants in fear. But in the photo, he just walked up to you, spoke with you, and gave you some papers. I couldn’t imagine him doing that unless he was ordered to. Obviously, I was wrong.”
“Maybe we should ask Severus—” Remus had been trying to remember what the papers had been, but Sirius’s words caused his mind to spin off in another direction. “Oh fuck—I am so stupid!” Remus started to raise his hand to pound a fist down on the stone hearth and realized that the bottle was still clutched in his hand. He took a large swallow that left him coughing. Sirius watched him, the worried crease back between his brows. “Alex.” Remus coughed again. “‘—unless he was ordered to.’ He wasn’t even gay. It was all a set-up from the very beginning.”
“But you said that he didn’t—”
“I was seen with Alex. I ran into Malfoy when I was with Alex. I ran into Bellatrix just after I left Alex. Peter. That bloody bastard Peter. Alex wasn’t after information. Alex’s job was to frame me so you wouldn’t suspect Peter.” Remus drank again but didn’t cough this time; his throat was still numb. “Predictable. He said right to my fucking face that I was predictable.”
“Alex said you were predictable?”
“Peter! He knew I always picked up guys between first quarter and full. He knew my favourite place to go. He knew—Shit!—he knew that of all the guys in the place I’d pick Alex. God, I was so stupid. You were right to cut me off, Padfoot. I was too stupid to deserve your trust.”
Remus closed his eyes and hung his head in shame and embarrassment. He felt the bottle being pulled from his fingers and thought that Sirius had decided it was prudent to take it away from him, just as he had decided it was prudent to take it from Sirius earlier. Then he heard a clink of glass on glass as Sirius poured another drink of firewhiskey.
When he glanced up again, Sirius was staring into the amber liquid. Remus recognized the look in Sirius’s eyes. It was the hurt despair of a dog who has lost his master’s love. He had seen it in Sirius’s eyes many times in the days and weeks after “the prank.”
“What’s wrong?” Remus asked. Sirius shook his head. He started to raise the glass, but Remus put a hand on his wrist. “I’m the one who acted like an idiot. This is your chance to lecture me or tease me or something, you know. Get back at me for all the times I did it to you.”
“You fucked up, Moony,” Sirius said. A slight smile quirked up one corner of his mouth.
“It’s a start. You can do better.” The smile disappeared, and the hurt puppy look returned. “What’s wrong?” Remus asked again.
“It doesn’t matter,” Sirius said as he fixed his gaze on the fire.
Remus’s hand was still on Sirius’s wrist. He squeezed a bit tighter as he shifted on the hearth to be directly in front of his friend. “If it bothers you, it affects me. We can’t have any more silences between us. I can’t go through that again.”
Sirius shifted in his chair. “You told Peter. I thought you weren’t ready to tell any of us, but you told Peter.” Anger crept into his voice. “Damn, Moony, you used to talk to me. I don’t think you even wanted to tell me now—and I thought, ‘Fine, it’s just like being a werewolf. He won’t ever tell me, so I have to tell him that I already know.’ But Peter even knew where you picked blokes up!”
“You’re right,” Remus admitted, “but I do have an explanation. You might not like it.”
Remus released Sirius’s wrist, but continued to hold his gaze. “It was easier to talk to Peter—” the hurt puppy look began to reemerge under the scowl—“because he already knew. Apparently—and don’t kill me for saying this—he noticed me checking you out in the shower once or twice.”
“You checked me out?”
“Don’t play daft, Sirius. We both know that you were the best looking bloke in the entire school. Did you really think I could be in the same dormitory with you and not sneak a peak once in awhile?”
Sirius began to smile in spite of himself. “I did wonder if you had.”
“Do you remember how hot it was in September of seventh year? You got in this blasted bad habit of parading around our room without a shirt on.”
“Didn’t you like my bad habit? I was rather fit back then.”
“I couldn’t study! Peter started laughing at me one night because I was on the same bloody page for two hours!” Sirius burst out laughing. “Peter finally saved me by talking you and James into a kitchen raid or harassing the Slytherins or something.” Remus chose to edit out that next part of the story, but Sirius guessed.
“Have a nice wank as soon as you were alone, Moony?”
“Do I have to answer that?”
“You just did,” Sirius said with a smile. “I still wish you’d been willing to tell James and me, but you’re forgiven for telling Peter.”
“I couldn’t tell James; telling James was the same as telling you. And I couldn’t tell you.”
“Why? Just because the sight of me in the shower inspired a few wanks?”
“You would have hated me.”
“Never. I might have stopped showering around you, but—”
“Do you remember Philip Clark?”
Sirius did remember. Philip Clark had been a Muggle-born Hufflepuff a year ahead of them. Friendly, although a bit on the quiet side. He had joined the Hufflepuff Quidditch team as a Chaser his fifth year. A good player, but never in James’s league. Sometime during the summer between Clark’s fifth and sixth years, a fellow Hogwarts student had learned that Clark was romantically involved with another boy, a Muggle teenager from his town. On September first, the news had spread through the Hogwarts Express like wildfire. From September first until the Christmas holiday, Clark had endured an unending stream of taunts from his schoolmates. When he chose not to return to school at the end of the holiday, no one had been completely surprised.
Sirius had never taken part in harassing Clark—he saved that for students he disliked—but with an ever-growing sense of shame, he tried to remember what he might have said about Clark in Remus’s presence.
“Was I completely awful?” he asked contritely.
“It wasn’t your finest moment. James and Peter were just as bad, but you were all young and stupid, so I forgive you. I remember that it seemed like fortunate timing. I was just coming to grips with the fact that I might be gay, and I wondered if I could tell all of you. You’d all handled learning about my other little secret, so— Then I saw the disgust in your faces when you talked about Clark. This ‘shirt-lifter’ decided to keep his mouth shut.”
A log collapsed into glowing coals and set up a shower of sparks. Both wizards glanced into the fire at the sound. Sirius sat lost in thought, ashamed of himself for his words of long ago. He had always wanted to protect Remus from those who would hurt him, yet he himself had been one of those who hurt Remus. Remus’s thoughts drifted back to his earlier epiphany.
“Oh God,” Remus moaned and hung his head in shame again. “Alex wasn’t even gay.”
“That little detail seems to bother you. Why?”
“How would you like to realize that someone found the entire idea of sleeping with you repugnant and had done so only because he—excuse, me, she—faced possible torture or death if she didn’t?”
“Not flattering. But maybe he was gay; that’s probably why they chose him to seduce you.”
Remus snorted at the word “seduce.” He didn’t think “Do you want to come home with me?” merited the epithet of “seduction.”
“Trust me,” Remus said. “He wasn’t gay. The first couple of times we slept together, he had to get drunk to even face the thought of going in the bedroom. He admitted that he’d never had sex with a man before, and I thought he was just nervous about it.”
“So why him?”
Remus didn’t answer immediately. It was one thing to admit that at seventeen, he’d been aroused by the sight of Sirius naked or shirtless. It was another to admit that several years later he had chosen sexual partners based upon how easily he could fantasize that they were Sirius. However—no more secrets.
“Who did Alex resemble?” Remus asked.
Sirius thought about his extended family. “Mostly his mother I suppose, although the dark hair was from his father.”
“Good night, Padfoot.” Remus said as he rose from the hearth and headed for the door. “Don’t kill me when you figure it out. It’s really not my fault that you’re the sexiest bastard I’ve ever met.”