Remus is enlisted by the Unspeakables to help bring Sirius back -- but for Sirius, this simply turns things from bad to unbearable. (Written pre-HBP)
The Portkey's familiar gut-wrench was barely subsiding as the man who greeted Remus took the offending object from his hands -- an empty ink bottle that had been converted to its new use by Albus Dumbledore only moments ago, and that Remus did not expect to still exist by nightfall.
The Unspeakable -- Remus had been told his name was Navidson -- set the Portkey atop one of the stone benches that circled the back wall of the amphitheatre. "You must understand," he said, "that the research conducted inside the Department of Mysteries is classified Double-Ultra Top Secret, so I'm afraid that, because we are unable to reveal to you any of our secrets for your own safety -- and sanity -- much of what we do here will seem utterly incomprehensible. We must ask that -- no matter how odd any request made -- you follow our orders without question."
Remus nodded in reply. This was nearly word-for-word the speech Dumbledore had given him before Remus had been entrusted with the details of the mission. The Department of Mysteries was staffed with very clever, very secretive, and very paranoid wizards and witches -- wizards and witches who had somehow managed to become even more paranoid after what had happened at the Department's heart between Harry Potter and Voldemort over the summer. These people made Alastor Moody seem /rational/.
It was, in Remus Lupin's opinion, about bloody time. The home of the Wizarding World's most secret affairs needed to be guarded by something more powerful than a watchman, some anti-Apparition wards, and spinning doors.
These days, one could only gain admittance with an authorized Portkey. Anything else, and the would-be invader found himself in a small interrogation chamber where a group of Aurors would soon be asking him a great many questions. (The Unspeakables might be paranoid, but they weren't without mercy. Or an appreciation of curiosity.)
The room Remus had been Portkeyed to was the subject of particularly intense security -- the new protective wards still glowed with a faint silver light on the rough-hewn stone walls of the chamber. Current speculation among members of the Order was that the Death Eaters might attempt to return at will and use the archway as their own private memory hole, eliminating... undesirables without having to worry about disposing of the bodies or an Avada Kedavra that would be revealed were a Priori Incantatem administered to their wands.
Odd how a few wards could make a room look so different. Feeling his host's gaze on him, Remus turned around. Navidson was smiling blandly at him. For a man who dealt with fundamental mysteries of the universe on a daily basis, he looked remarkably like a bureaucrat, right down to his prissy, too-neat moustache. Remus hid his own smile behind a discreet cough.
"If you'll follow me, Mr Lupin, we're nearly ready for you."
It was then that Remus realized the two of then weren't alone in the chamber. Two witches, one on either side of the archway, were drawing intricate, invisible patterns in the air with their wands as they whispered incantations, and a young wizard was intently watching a crystalline contraption he held only inches from the surface of the curtain hanging in the archway.
It seemed to be moving, rippling and pulsing as if inhabited by a life of its own. Only Dumbledore's insistence that he keep his mouth shut unless told otherwise kept Remus from peppering Navidson and his colleagues with questions.
Almost as if he could read Lupin's thoughts, Navidson asked, "Do you know what day it is, Mr Lupin?"
What? "Yes. It's Hallowe'en."
"And do you know what the significance of this holiday was, Mr Lupin, before it was co-opted as an excuse for trickery and mischief?"
"Of course." Remus remembered that particular History of Magic lesson very well. It had been on the importance on the lunar calendar in Wizarding tradition, and that had managed to pique his interest enough to counteract the influence of Binns' coma-inducing delivery. "The barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead, for lack of a better term, was thinned, and various ghosts and spirits were able to cross over unhin- Good Lord. Are you saying that's... ?"
Navidson's lips quirked into an odd little smile, and he suddenly looked nothing at all like a bureaucrat. "Oh, no, Mr Lupin, I said nothing of the sort. The assumption was all yours." The odd little smile widened. "But I don't believe anything would be amiss in telling you that you are, for the most part, correct."
Navidson lead Lupin to the foot of the archway's dais. "This is a fragment of that barrier -- we call it the veil -- made corporeal and visible. It is thousands upon thousands of years old, and, no, we don't know how it was made. I certainly would not be surprised if dark magic were involved in the creation of such an artefact, but I do fear that might be a naive assumption. We still do not know what purpose this originally served. If any."
Lupin took a deep breath, trying to quell the mad poundings of his heart. He passed his tongue over his suddenly-dry lips. It had felt so unreal when Dumbledore had given him his assignment, but now, seeing this... "What are you saying? Will Sirius-"
"Ah ah ah! You're skipping ahead, Mr Lupin!"
"I'm sorry. It's just- I was told there might be a way to- to resurrect Sirius-"
"No. It is impossible to bring the dead back to life, Mr Lupin. Every wizard knows this -- or at least they should."
Remus ignored the insult. "Then why am I here if it's impossible to revive Sirius?"
The Unspeakable sighed. "Mr Lupin. We cannot revive Mr Black, because in the strictest sense of the word, he did not truly /die/."
What? "What? That's impossible. I saw him fall through that thing myself. I saw him disappear!"
"Indeed you did. And that is precisely why we are able to bring him back. Mr Black did not cross the veil in the normal way -- as a spirit -- but instead went bodily. Mr Black, in his entirety, is in the afterlife."
Remus laughed in spite of himself. "He always had- has to be different."
"Mm, yes. Now, normally, passage through the veil is one way -- and one alone -- but-"
"But tonight it's thinned. You can go through both ways."
Remus passed a hand over his face, ran his fingers through his hair. "My God. This is just- It seems so-"
"Unbelievable? Unreal? Oh, yes. I must confess that, though we've done this over a dozen times in my years as an Unspeakable, that feeling never does quite go away."
Over a dozen... "Are you saying that Sirius wasn't-"
"Mr Lupin?" It was the young wizard who had been watching the veil, his crystalline contraption now put away. "We're ready for you."
Remus stepped up on to the dais to face the archway. "What is it you need me to do?" This close to it, he could hear noises coming from behind the veil. It sounded as though he was standing very near to a wasps' nest.
"Just stand where you are, Mr Lupin." Navidson nodded at the two witches, who began another series of incantations as they drew blood-red glyphs in the air with their wands. Remus recognized a few of the shapes -- they were powerful, powerful protective wards, and were used specifically to guard against centuries-old Dark creatures and their ilk. If such protection was needed for someone who was only standing near the archway, Remus wasn't sure he wanted to know exactly what lived on the other side of the veil.
After a moment, once the witches' spellcasting seemed to have fallen into a regular rhythm, Navidson continued, his voice barely more than a whisper: "Mr Lupin. Mr Black is behind the veil. We need you to speak to him, to use your words -- your voice -- as a sort of anchor, something that might draw him through. Ah, this is not the most fool-proof part of the procedure, so if you feel at any point that you are unable to continue -- for any reason, we won't hold it against you -- either myself or Edgecoombe," a nod to the young wizard, "will take over for you-"
His resolve steeled, Remus interrupted Navidson. "But it will work best if it's a voice Sirius will recognize. If it's /me/."
"Oh, yes. But the veil does strange things to people who are unused to it, even when it isn't Samhain. Please understand that we will restrain you by any means necessary if you attempt to breech it."
"Of course. No sense losing anyone else." A thought occurred to him. "Couldn't we just use a Summoning charm?"
"No. Magic has strange effects on the, ah, things that live beyond the veil. Believe me, we have tried it, and the results are not pleasant. Not pleasant at all."
"Oh." Remus turned back to the veil. "May I begin?"
Navidson simply bowed in reply.
"Sirius?" He felt ridiculous. Draw him out/, the man had said. /God knows I've done enough of that over the years to be good at it. Pretend it's a door, Remus. Pretend you're calling him for supper. "Sirius, it's me. It's Remus. I know you're there, Sirius. I need you to come here, Sirius, I need you to come to me." He looked over at Navidson, who nodded encouragingly.
Remus closed his eyes. This might be easier if he didn't have to deal with the nausea-inducing writhings of the veil. The noises were bad enough. "Sirius. It's Remus. I need you to come here, Sirius. It's important, Sirius, /please/.
"I need you here, Sirius, for /me/. For Dumbledore. For the Order. We need your help, Sirius. I need you for... for...
"For /Harry/. I need you to come through the veil for Harry-"
Someone had thrown themself into his arms. Remus opened his eyes. Sirius Black stared back at him. "... Remus?"
Before Remus could formulate any kind of reply, Navidson had grabbed them both and hustled them off the dais. Edgecoombe jumped in front of the archway and began to cast incantations faster than anyone Remus had ever seen. Navidson was beaming. "Oh, excellent, excellent! Just a moment, Mr Black," he added as he drew his wand. "We simply need to ascertain that you are who we think you are."
"That I'm what? Remus, what's going on? Where's Harry? We need to help him, the Death Eaters-"
"Harry's fine, Sirius. Just let the man do what he needs to do."
Remus disentangled himself from Sirius' arms and took a step back to give Navidson room. The assurance seemed to have mollified Sirius, as he submitted wordlessly to the Unspeakable's examinations.
"So do I pass muster?" Sirius asked as Navidson slipped his wand back into his robes.
"Oh, yes, quite. I do not see any evidence that you aren't who you should be, or that you unwittingly brought a stowaway back from your sojourn behind the veil."
"Sojourn? What? Remus, will you please tell me what the fuck is going on? Where's Harry?"
"He's at Hogwarts, Sirius. He's got half the staff keeping an eye on him. He's fine, I swear."
Sirius clenched his jaw, his lips pressed together in a thin white line. "You didn't answer my question. Moony, what-"
"This is neither the time, nor the place. /Later/, Sirius, I promise. Mr Navidson," he continued, addressing the Unspeakable, "will there- is there any kind of permanent damage that accompanies what- what happened to Sirius?"
Navidson's lips quirked back into that odd little smile. "Mr Lupin, this isn't some badly-written Muggle novel. What is beyond the veil cannot, by its very nature be understood by a living mind. As you've seen, Mr Black had no idea that any time had elapsed between when he went into the archway and when he came out."
"Over four months, Sirius. Tomorrow's the first of November. Shh."
"For him, it is as if nothing happened. I promise you, Mr Black will have no funny turns, no terrifying nightmares, nor any odd, inexplicable transformations."
Remus wondered if Navidson had read the same 'badly-written Muggle novels' that he had. "So if Sirius wasn't aware of what went on, how was I able to talk him back here?"
Navidson spread his arms and shrugged. "Mr Lupin, I truly have no idea. It is what works, is all I can say. We have theories, of course, but no conclusive proof one way or another."
"A mystery, then."
A smile. "Yes.
"Besides, by his very nature, Mr Black is anathema to such a place. He would be seen as an infection -- a tumour of sorts -- and expelled as soon as the opportunity presented itself."
"My /nature/? What the hell is wrong with my /nature/?"
"What is wrong is that you are alive. That place is for things that are not."
Remus scratched the back of his neck, and surveyed the room. "You know, the last time I was here, I thought this place was an execution chamber. For things the Ministry didn't want people to know about."
Navidson laughed loudly. The sound rung hollow in the amphitheatre. "Oh, goodness, no."
"So why the audience?" Sirius asked, jerking his thumb at the seats lining the room.
"Because, Mr Black, before we developed the wards we used today, we needed to fit as many witches and wizards in the room as was possible -- to repel the things that came through when the veil thinned. Arranging them amphitheatre-style was the most efficient method we found."
Sirius had kept his eyes fixed on the Unspeakable during their exchange, the furrow in his brow growing deeper with every word. The expression on his face was one Remus knew too well -- Sirius was primed for a fight. He still had his wand out, though -- thankfully -- not at the ready. Remus hoped Sirius could control himself until they left.
"If that's all, Mr Lupin?"
"Yes. Yes. And, thank you. I can't imagine how difficult this must have been to orchestrate, and there just aren't enough words to express my-"
"Mr Lupin! Please. Think nothing of it. Over the years, this has become nearly an annual event for the Department. Mr Black certainly isn't the first to have accidentally fallen through the veil."
"Maybe you should think about putting a rope around it, so it doesn't happen again," Sirius snarled.
"Perhaps. But this is the Department of Mysteries. Carelessness of this sort is not a desired trait among our staff. Hard lesson though this might be, a few months of missing time spent beyond the veil does make even the clumsiest of Unspeakables a trifle bit more attentive."
At the man's tone -- talking about falling into hell as if it were no more than an everyday occurrence, or, worse, a disciplinary action -- Remus felt himself grow cold. And judging by the look on Sirius' face (/"It's not you, Lily, really, that's just the face he pulls whenever he thinks someone's being a maniac"/), Remus knew he wasn't alone in his opinion.
"Mr Navidson, I was told that you would be responsible for our departure?"
"Ah, yes. I have the Portkey right here," he said, pulling a particularly garish novelty coffee mug from his robes. "I must warn you in advance that this is one-use only. It will take you to your destination, and then revert to an ordinary coffee cup. For security's sake, I would advise you to destroy it upon arrival."
Only a quick jab to Sirius' side made sure he bit back whatever sharp retort he would have made to Navidson. Remus ignored his glare and took the Portkey from the Unspeakable's hands.
"You need to touch it, Mr Black."
"I /know/," Sirius snapped, but put his palm flat against the side of the mug without another word.
Navidson drew his wand. "Good-bye, Mr Lupin, Mr Black. I wish I could say otherwise, but I doubt I will ever see the two of you again."
The Unspeakable tapped the cup with his wand.
It felt to Remus as though he were being pulled by his intestines into the cup. The odd, inside-out feeling that always accompanied any voyage he took by Portkey (and the reason he avoided using them) lasted no more than a split-second. Not very far, then. I wonder if we're still in London.
They had arrived in a small, dark room, lit only by the glow of the street lamps outside. From the noises coming through the room's sole window -- cars and music and people -- they had arrived in the heart of a Muggle city.
The electric ceiling lamp flickered for a moment, and then came to life, flooding the room with harsh white light. Remus took the room in with a glance, and wished the light had stayed off. It wasn't much to look at. The walls were white and in desperate need of a new coat of paint, the floorboards were scuffed and dirty, and the only piece of furniture was a bed, pushed into a corner so its head was near the window. There were none of the personal touches that indicated that anyone actually lived here. Remus wondered what purpose the room had served before being converted into a bedroom.
Through a door opposite the window, he saw the hall that lead to the rest of the flat. It too looked rather cramped.
Sirius, who had released his hold on the cup after they had materialized, was looking around the small room, his upper lip curled in a sneer. "/Now/ where are we?"
Remus dropped the mug to the floor, waved his wand over it; it vanished. Once satisfied that it was well and truly gone, he met Sirius' eyes. "This is a safehouse. Beyond that, I don't know where we are, and to be truthful, I'd like to keep it that way. I'm told this place has some rather... interesting protective wards -- I think some of our deep cover agents used it during the seventies -- so you should be secure enough. I doubt even Albus himself knows exactly where it is."
Sirius had stepped up to the window and was watching the street below. "And I couldn't have spent the last year here because... ?"
"I don't know, Sirius, I really don't."
"Right. Okay. Well, I'll ask Dumbledore next time I see him." Sirius turned around and sat on the window ledge, stretching his long legs out in front of him. "Four months. So. What did I miss?"
Remus sighed. He had been dreading this. "Sirius... There's no easy way for me to tell you this, so I'll be blunt. Until an hour ago, I thought you were dead. We all did. Harry included," he added to answer Sirius' unspoken question. "When I saw you fall through that thing during your duel with Bellatrix, I assumed the worst. You just- vanished."
"I don't blame you," Sirius said quietly. "I would have thought the same."
Well. That was too easy. "The prophecy's been destroyed-"
"- but fortunately before Voldemort et al got a chance to see it," Remus continued, as he ticked each point off on his fingers. "All the Death Eaters present -- save your cousin -- were put in Azkaban."
A sharp, bitter laugh.
"The Minister -- and the Ministry -- have now seen reason. For this, we can thank Voldemort, of all people. He deigned to grace us with his presence after the prophecy was shattered, and Fudge saw him."
"Pity that's all that happened to that little prick."
"I know. Dumbledore's told Harry about the prophecy -- because he needs to know, he really does -- and given him a rundown on most of what's been going on."
Remus shrugged. "His word, Padfoot, not mine."
"And Harry still thinks I'm dead?" Remus nodded, and Sirius laughed. "Get me to the nearest owlery, Moony, and I'll fix that right quick."
"No, you won't."
There. /There/. Now it was out. Now all that was left was to ride out Sirius' inevitable fury. But Remus Lupin had done that for years. It would be no hardship.
"/WHAT?!/ What the /fuck/, Moony? He's my godson, of course I'm going to fucking tell him-"
"/Sirius/. Sirius, hear me out. Dumbledore has his reasons for not wanting-"
"Tell me, then. Tell me. What are his reasons? Why the fuck am I supposed to keep Harry in the dark about this? Do you have any idea how he'll react when he finds out?"
"Yes, actually, I do," Remus said coolly. "He can handle it. He's more resilient than you think. As I said-"
"You said Dumbledore had his reasons. What are they? Why can't I tell Harry?"
"Because. The Death Eaters can no longer use you to get to him. Which is what happened last year. Because Harry thought you were dead. And he will continue to think so until it is no longer necessary, Sirius, and not a moment before."
"I don't like this, Remus. I don't like this at all."
"He'll be fine."
Sirius sighed and ran his hand over his face. "I know. I know. It's just- it's- I-" Another sigh, enough for him to collect his thoughts. "He's been alone his whole life. I just don't want to hurt him."
"You're not hurting him."
"I'm not- Remus, he thinks I'm dead. He's- he's got no one. How is that not hurting him?"
"Before, he was vulnerable through you. Now he isn't. Now Voldemort can't use you to get to him. We're- we're going around in circles on this, Sirius. Just accept it. A small hurt is better than a big one."
"It /is/. Yes, he's in mourning, and, yes, I hate to see him like that, but he will come to accept it. And he will know you're someplace safe and unable to be hurt, and he will stop worrying for you."
"Worrying. God. And here I thought I was the adult."
A joke. Good sign, that. "He is his mother's son."
"He is that."
Remus sat down on the bed, winced as it groaned beneath him. Sirius met his eyes. "So."
"My mission, should I choose to accept it?"
"Your mission," Remus replied, ignoring the smirk on Sirius' face. "We need you to spy for us, Sirius. You will serve as our eyes and ears in places where the rest of us would be too conspicuous. You have a freedom of movement that we do not, and it will be put to good use. You will go where we can't-"
"As Padfoot. Exactly. The Death Eaters know they no longer need to keep an eye out for you in either of your forms, but Sirius Black is still too recognizable to anyone in the Wizarding World -- not to mention, the Ministry is still under the delusion that you're alive."
"Dumbledore's keeping knowledge of the Order from Fudge for now -- we still don't know how many spies Voldemort has infiltrated in the Ministry, and we can't risk compromising the few agents of ours that he doesn't know about. You," he continued, "are too well-known to work as you are. But a big, black dog -- out of how many big, black dogs in all of Britain -- would not be remarked upon."
"Well, aside from 'My, what a big, black dog that is'."
"Yes, aside from that."
"Where do you need me to go?"
"For now, you're to lie low. Stay here. Read a few books, take in a film or three, go for long walks."
"So I'm allowed to go outside?"
"Yes," Remus said with a nod.
Sirius began to laugh. "Oh God. Oh God. You have no idea how good that sounds."
"I'll come 'round in a few weeks with the details of your first assignment-"
"Will it self-destruct after I've read it?"
"Sirius," Remus chided.
"Be serious?" And he laughed again.
God, but I've missed that sound. It had been so long since he'd heard Sirius this genuinely happy. That damned house was the reason, of course. Dumbledore couldn't have chosen someplace else? If I didn't know better, if I were a paranoid man... "No, it won't self-destruct. But I'd advise you to destroy anything-"
"I know the drill."
"I know. I should've remembered. I'm sorry."
"Mmm." A pause, long and awkward. Remus watched the wall, and Sirius, the street below. "How long can you stay?"
Remus glanced at his watch. "Another hour or so. But no longer. I've an early lesson tomorrow."
"Yes. I'm teaching again."
"Teaching?" Sirius asked, a note of surprise on his voice.
"Defense Against the Dark Arts, right?"
"'Course." Try to sound like you're not bragging, Remus.
"/Shit/, Remus. Congratulations. How'd you manage that?"
"Dumbledore pulled some strings with the Board of Governors, made a trade with the Ministry. My job, in exchange for his silence regarding what Umbridge did at the school."
"Oooh, you got shafted on that one, mate. You could've milked that bitch for all she was worth."
"Sirius. Please note the operative words: his silence."
"Aha. So how many 'How the Ministry fucked up my NEWTs' articles have there been in the Prophet in the last few months?"
"Not as many as you'd expect. The Ministry is supposed to be our ally, after all."
"Oh, who the fuck cares. They deserve to be taken to task for what they did, playing nice be damned."
"You really believe that?"
"Yes! They fucked up, they should pay for it."
"And to hell with all the effort we made to get them to see the light, is that it?"
"No. You didn't. Come on. I nearly forgot. There are things in the kitchen I have to show you." The bed creaked ominously as he stood. Remus didn't bother to look behind him to see if Sirius followed him into the hall.
The kitchen was the next door down.
"In here," Remus said. The lights had been left on, and he was glad for that. It was a small gesture of courtesy -- something normal -- that was much welcome after a night of such strangeness.
The kitchen was larger than the bedroom had been, but was no less dismal, smelling of old cabbages and burnt food. The countertop was stained, the appliances several decades old, and the small table in the centre of the room was chipped and looked ready to tip over. Again, any signs that the flat had ever been lived in were gone.
Atop the table were a few newspapers (Muggle one and all, from the looks of them), a bulky Manila envelope, and a neat stack of Muggle currency notes.
Sirius picked up the latter and riffled through it. "I love Muggle money. It's so colourful."
"There's supposed to be about a thousand pounds there."
"It's not as much as you think. These days, the pound is worth rather less than the Galleon. And be frugal. That's got to last you a good while. And these, I suppose," he said, waving his hand over the various newspapers, "are so you don't sound like a complete tit if someone asks you about anything deeper than the weather."
"And what's in the envelope?"
"Don't open it," Remus snapped as Sirius made to do just that. "It's a Portkey, it's activated by your touch, and you're to use it only in an emergency situation. I don't know where it's spelled to take you, though I assume it's somewhere safe. Grimmauld Place, most likely. You're to keep it on you at all times."
Sirius pocketed the Portkey in silence.
"There should be Muggle clothes in one of the other rooms. They should fit you, though they might be a bit big."
"You know if there's any food in the 'fridge?"
"I haven't the faintest clue. There's supposed to be a grocer's within walking distance, so you can stock up there."
With an absent nod, Sirius unfolded one of the newspapers and bent down to scan the headlines.
"What else... Use magic as little as possible. The last thing we need is for you to attract the Ministry's attention. And keep your nose clean."
Sirius looked up. "You're leaving already?"
"It's later than I thought."
Something close to hurt flitted across Sirius' features, but it had come and gone so fast that Remus could nearly convince himself that he hadn't seen it. And without another moment's hesitation, Sirius had closed the gap between them with two great strides and drew Remus to him in a rib-crushing embrace.
Remus went stiff. And then, hating himself for his reluctance and praying that Sirius would mistake it for surprise, he relaxed into his friend's arms and slipped his own arms around Sirius' back. It was only the layers of clothing between them that kept the pounding of his Judas heart from betraying the extent of his unease. He felt Sirius' hot breath on his neck, and he tightened the embrace, burrowing his face into his friend's shoulder. Yesterday, I would have given the world to be able to do this again. And now... and now...
"Take care of yourself," he whispered in Sirius' ear.
They pulled away at the same time. Remus took a step back, nodded. "I'll see you soon."
He Apparated back to the main gates at Hogwarts, ashamed of the relief he felt at the sight of them.
The lights flickered for a moment after Remus Disapparated, and in that brief span of time Sirius Black had crossed the kitchen to the nearest wall. He slammed his fist into it just as the lights came back on.
The noise wasn't as loud as he would have thought it would be, and his ragged breathing was the only sound that filled the silence that followed.
Sirius hissed and cursed and quickly backed away from the wall, shaking his fist madly to dispell the pain
His hand felt as though it were on fire, and the pain seemed to have tweaked his mind to a razor's edge sharpness, hyperaware and hypersensitive. He could feel the pulse of his blood throbbing through every vessel, vein and capillary in his hand as it beat in tempo with the pain that was radiating up his arm.
Sirius closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths and fought the rising urge to vomit. After a few moments, he had himself in check, and turned his attention back to his injury. He carefully raised his hand to his face and stared dumbly at it for a long moment, rotating it slowly. It took that long for his brain to connect the agony that had begun to radiate up his arm with the blood oozing down his palm. he moaned at how bad it looked.
It was a mess -- his knuckles were scraped raw, clotted with blood and plaster dust, and his fingers were an ugly red colour. He flexed them a few times, and despite the stabbing pains, the fact that he could was assurance enough that nothing had been broken.
Sirius licked at the wound to clean it, and slid the first three knuckles of his hand in his mouth. This was so much easier when he was Padfoot.
Suckling at the wound, he bent to survey the damage. There was now a vaguely fist-shaped crater in the wall that was quietly raining flakes of plaster on the floor. A few hairline cracks radiated from it, like a spider web. He was afraid to touch it, for fear of making it worse. Sirius had no idea Muggle homes were so fragile. But for all he'd done to his hand, he'd expected more. The wall seemed to have taken the brunt of the -- considerable -- damage.
He felt a brief spasm of guilt and swore softly. He hoped he would be long gone from here when the flat's owner discovered his little embellishment.
Well, a quick Reparo should take care of most of it. At the very least, it would make the dent smaller.
He pulled his knuckles from his mouth with a wet 'pop'.
His wand was on the table, where he had left it. He picked it up-
- And it felt as though someone had driven stiletto knives into every joint in his hand. His wand slipped from his fingers and clattered to the floor.
Fool that he was, of course he would punch his wand hand in the wall.
Sirius had never been particularly adept at wielding his wand with his right hand -- the last time he had tried, he had ended up setting Remus' hair on fire -- and he wasn't about to risk further damage to the wound by botching healing spells on it. And any attempts to even try to fix the wall would likely bring the building down around his ears.
It seemed he had no choice now but to follow Remus' edict -- he doubted he would be able to perform any kind of magic for at least the next two weeks.
Were it not for the pain and the potential of a crippling injury, Sirius was bloody well tempted to drive his fist into the wall a second time.
"Damn it to Hell," he muttered, "why am I so /stupid/?"
He walked back to the small table and slouched into one of the chairs. He hoped that when Remus had said he would return in 'a couple' of weeks, he had meant 'more than two' -- Sirius did not look forward to trying to walk on a damaged hand-turned-paw.
He fingered his knuckles, still slick with his saliva. At least the bleeding had stopped, and his hand did look much cleaner. But it still hurt like a bitch.
With luck, the pain would fade soon. Being knee-deep in Muggle country, he doubted he'd be able to find a pain-killing potion anytime soon. And he wasn't about to try his luck with some barbaric Muggle alternative, either, considering how toxic some were.
There might at least be something in the flat that he could improvise into a primitive bandage. If he was going to let it heal the natural way, he'd need to keep his hand clean.
A quick search of the kitchen yielded nothing, save the location of the plates and the cutlery. And the 'fridge proved to have not been cleaned in many a month, evinced by its contents -- a bag of green sludge that might have once been a head of lettuce, and three dead oranges, one of which had deflated when he'd poked it
Across the hall from the kitchen, was a second bedroom, one that was much nicer -- and larger -- than the one he and Remus had Portkeyed into. Sirius knew where he was going to be sleeping during his stay. It had a fireplace for one, as well as some actual furniture, and shelves crammed full of Muggle books of all shapes, sizes, and provenances. The floor was wood -- great wide planks of oak -- as was much of the furniture. It was as if the owner was using this room to try to compensate for the depressing blandness of the rest of the flat.
There was also, as Remus had promised, a cupboard full of Muggle clothes -- which included some dress shirts that could be torn into strips to serve as makeshift bandages if nothing else could be found.
He lit a fire in the fireplace while he was in the room. A chill had already begun to settle in the flat, and he wanted to cut it off before it became intolerable. Sirius was pleased to discover that the wood basket and the matchbox had been spelled to discreetly refill themselves.
He left the fire to grow and continued his exploration of the flat. Down the hall from the second bedroom, and across from the first, he found the bathroom. It was clean and white and shining, and seemed even more so in comparison with just the hallway.
While he was quite pleased to see the large, long bathtub that dominated the room, the bathroom proved to be a great disappointment. The cupboards were completely bare, as if they had been picked clean, lacking in even basic amenities like soap and shampoo -- though there was a slightly used loofah on the edge of the tub, and a few towels were hung on a hook behind the door.
The bathroom, like the bedroom, was quite a bit nicer than the rest of the flat. It also didn't have any windows. Sirius wondered if that was intentional. Anyone trying to look in would see a typical Muggle flat, a bit worse for wear, but nothing out of the ordinary and would never guess that it was home to a wizard. And a wizard's home it was, Sirius thought with a grin. This room was nearly as big as the first bedroom and the kitchen put together, and the second bedroom was probably as large as the flat should be.
But for all its interesting properties, the bathroom had nothing remotely resembling a proper bandage. Torn-up bits of shirt it was, then.
He washed his hand in the bathroom sink to make sure it was completely clean, and carefully wiped it dry on his robes as he walked down the hall. He fetched a sharp knife and his wand from the kitchen.
The bedroom had become pleasantly warm in his absence. Sirius settled into one of the two wing chairs facing the fire, spread one of the shirts out on his lap, and got to work. He made a few quick slashes at the shirt's hem and tore it easily into long strips, each about an inch wide. He wrapped one around his injured hand, and knotted it carefully, surveying his handiwork. Yes, it rather resembled something he'd expect to see on a mummy, but all in all it wasn't bad.
He left the scraps of fabric and the knife atop the small table flanked by the two chairs and sat back to watch the flames dance, revelling in the heat of the fire.
Sirius contemplated his injured hand in the firelight. It had been an incredibly stupid thing to do, but he had been so mad when Remus had decided to return to Hogwarts so abruptly.
He'd seen Remus angry before, of course, but never like that, never over something so- trivial. Like he'd stepped on a landmine, but he had no idea what had brought it on.
It made him feel more than a little ill. After Azkaban, the years just melted away. Yes, they had both changed, but that didn't seem to have mattered. They fell back into their old patterns and habits as easily as they'd fallen back into bed.
That had been after being separated for twelve years.
Sirius had only spent about four months behind that damned veil -- four months of his life lost even worse than his years in Azkaban. It should have been inconsequential, the merest drop in an ocean already vast and mighty. But. But of all the Dementors had taken from him, the most important -- his mind, his sanity, his memories -- had returned. Gradually, yes, but he was at last whole, if not hearty. And that which he could not regain, well, he took succour from the thought of vengeance, and on some days that was enough.
But this. Four months, gone. Stolen forever. And none to shoulder the blame. An accident, an accident.
And now Remus seemed unnerved by his presence, recoiled at his touch. So distant. So cold. His mind went back to the expression on Remus' face before he had left for Hogwarts -- unease melting into relief -- but Sirius pushed such thought aside as abruptly as they had emerged. He wasn't sure he much wanted to know the whys and wherefores behind his friend's behaviour.
And then there was Harry -- God -- Harry, who thought he was dead. That hurt the most.
Sirius laced his fingers together and rested his brow on their knobbly surface. Remus had been wrong. Harry's anger, when he found out, would be a terrible thing indeed. The boy had been betrayed and lied to again and again and again
There was nothing he could do to make it right, no way to fix this muddle his life had become.
His gaze travelled to a lump in his robes, something he'd put in his pocket earlier. A Portkey. His emergency escape.
He drew it out and stared at it in the firelight.
There was a small part of his mind that whispered to him to use it, to defy Remus' edicts. If he Apparated to Grimmauld Place, that would be a violation of his word, but using the Portkey -- that could be an accident-
Sirius stood abruptly and approached the fireplace. He set the Portkey on the mantle and put it from his mind.
Sirius settled back in front of the fire. He sighed and flexed his bruised fingers. Sitting here, bemoaning his fate, was pointless. There was nothing he could do to change any of this. He'd be better off trying to get some sleep. He rose carefully, supporting himself with his good hand, and crossed the room.
He pulled his robes off and tossed them to the floor before he got into bed, making a mental note to burn them in the morning. The fewer things connecting him to the Wizarding World, the better.
Sirius nestled into the linens, pulled the pillows down closer to his chest, frowning as he pressed his face into them. He shut his eyes. After a few moments, he opened them anew and sat up. This wasn't working. The light from the fire was bright enough to be visible through closed eyelids. He'd never be able to sleep like this.
Sirius padded across the room to the fireplace. He banked the fire, shut the grate and crawled back into bed. The room was now dark, but it didn't help a whit. He stared at the ceiling for a long while before he fell asleep.
He woke with the dawn. It was a habit long ingrained from Azkaban; those first few rays were always followed by a reprieve from the Dementors. His jailers had not been fond of the sun.
Sirius sat up, careful not to put any weight on his injured hand, which seemed to have survived quite nicely through the night. There were a few spots of blood that had soaked through the bandage, but no more than he had expected. It still hurt, yes, but it was more of an ache in his bones that yesterday's excruciating, throbbing agony. He was going to hold off changing the bandage for a few days, as he didn't have an unlimited number of shirts he could destroy.
His stomach rumbled loudly. He'd last eaten before he had fallen through that damned veil, and he knew there was no food anywhere in the flat, unless the books were edible. The first order of the day, before even figuring out where he was, would be to find the grocer's Remus had mentioned and get his hands on something to eat.
His robes were where he had left them, balled up halfway between his bed and the fireplace. With the knife, he cut them into more manageable pieces, and crouched before the fireplace.
The fire had gone out during the night, and like in all good wizard fireplaces, the ashes had been magicked away once they'd grown cold. He built another fire, layering the scraps of his robes between the wood. In a few hours, it would be gone and the only object marking him as a wizard would be his wand, which he intended to keep on his person at all times.
He dressed quickly -- he'd worn Muggle clothes before, so it wasn't difficult to figure out how to put them on. In the hall cupboard he found a coat and a scarf, which was enough to conceal his features without being too obvious about it.
Sirius drummed his fingers against the wall for a moment, trying to figure out what to do about the door without a wand to cast a Locking Charm. He cast his gaze about the wall in annoyance- and saw it.
There was a small table near the front door, and atop it was a key. Sirius palmed it and slid it into a pocket.
He let himself out and locked the door behind him.
A quick meal was easy enough to find, despite how early it was. It seemed some Muggles favoured the dawn as much as he did.
After only a few minutes of searching, Sirius found a fast food restaurant that proudly proclaimed in glowing neon that it was open twenty-four hours a day. He was pleased to see, also, that he would not be alone for his breakfast. A group of smelly, giggling teenagers were monopolising the tables by the windows. Sirius smiled at them, though he doubted they noticed. He remembered being that young, staying out until dawn, sometimes not even needing alcohol because the exhaustion could get you drunk enough without any help-
Sirius pushed that thought away.
From the tired-looking girl at the counter, he ordered the first special (whatever it might be) and, with a brilliant flash of inspiration, asked her if she knew where the nearest grocery store was. She laughed weakly at that, but drew him a little map on the back of a paper napkin.
Sirius pocketed it gratefully, and paid for his meal. He ate it quickly enough, out of both hunger and a need to taste it as little as possible. It was better than what he'd had at Azkaban, but only just.
But food was food, and he could get something better later.
He didn't linger once done. No matter that the Aurors had no idea where to look for him, but two years on the run left some habits ingrained deep.
The little map the girl had drawn for him proved to be accurate, but the store wasn't open, so Sirius continued walking. After about a half-hour, he saw something that made him laugh aloud.
A familiar red and blue sign of the London Underground.
So this was London. Home. He wondered if Remus had known when they'd arrived, if maybe this wasn't some odd test on Dumbledore's part. It would be too easy now to just walk to Grimmauld Place... He couldn't. He could not. Because it was as Remus had said -- no one must know. His secrecy was his only weapon, and if he lost that, he had nothing. Not his word, nor his freedom -- nor their trust.
Sirius turned on his heel, and walked back down the street, swearing to himself to avoid the station, this area of the neighbourhood, so as not to tempt himself any further.
He returned to the flat, not yet ready to go to the grocer's, even when it opened. He wasn't feeling too hungry anymore.
Sirius spent the next few days exploring the neighbourhood, familiarizing himself as much with the darkened alleys as with the small stores and restaurants that dotted the streets -- yet never straying too far from the flat. He walked at odd hours, and never allowed himself to follow the same route twice, relying on his excellent sense of direction to keep himself oriented. He did not want to become too much of a familiar face in the area -- it was doubly dangerous considering his situation.
But he would stay out of the flat as much as possible, relishing in his new-found freedom. It was strange that he couldn't remember how wonderful it felt to have the sun on his face, the wind riffling his hair, how comfortable it was to be able to walk down a crowded street without having to worry about his safety.
Sirius stayed in on Bonfire Night. A chill had settled in the air during the past few days, and if anyone set off any interesting fireworks worth seeing, it would be just as easy to watch them from his flat rather than wandering the streets in this weather.
It always surprised him how reluctant his fellow wizards were to embrace this holiday, even though it was Muggle and it celebrated Muggle history. It was secular, too, which was more than one could say about Christmas or Easter -- and it involved explosions, which seemed to be the favoured hobby of half the Wizarding World.
But James -- rest his soul -- had been an exception to that, just like Sirius himself, and every fifth of November, they would drag Remus and Peter out to the lake after dinner, where the four of them would set off the latest models from Dr Filibuster's. They would rarely be able to light more than a few before Filch would run screaming out of the castle to threaten them with detentions.
Or at least that's what Sirius thought he said -- they'd never been able to hear him over the deafening explosions.
Those were some of the happiest memories of his life -- the sky lit up by sparkling bursts of colours, surrounded by the three people he'd loved the most.
The night of Halloween, 1981, and what had happened after, had put a sour twist on then, and in Azkaban he had not allowed himself to dwell on them overmuch. They were memories he wanted to keep.
Sirius leaned back in his chair, staring out the kitchen window, and swore to himself that when this was all over, he would restart the old tradition with Harry, give his godson a connection with his father, something more tangible than looks or Quidditch. James deserved at least that much.
A violent 'boom' rent the air, and Sirius started, jumping to his feet as he tried to figure out where the noise had come from-
It was soon followed by another, and then a third. Sirius relaxed, and allowed himself a laugh at his own folly. The noise was coming from outside. It was only fireworks. He could see them the window, being set off atop the roof of a building across the street. They were nowhere nearly as magnificent as the ones he'd set off when he'd been young, but their beauty was in their simplicity, single-coloured sunbursts that lit up the whole neighbourhood.
The people setting them off looked no older than he'd been, and their screams of delight were barely audible over the sound of the explosions.
Barely more than children.
It could have been him across there, could have even been Harry and his friends.
Sirius felt something tighten in his chest, and turned away from the window. But he could still hear the fireworks, see their colours splashed on the far wall.
It was all too much for him.
They would understand. They had to.
Sirius stormed out of the kitchen, but after only a step into the hall, he froze.
He was stronger than this.
He turned on his heel and walked to the bathroom; it had no windows and there he could barely hear the explosions.
He sat with his back to the door until the night went silent.
Sirius slept, fitfully, in the other bedroom that night.
When he dressed the next morning in the main bedroom, he averted his gaze from the mantle above the fireplace, from what he knew was there.
But as he shrugged on his shirt, he turned, almost involuntarily-
It was a little envelope. It looked so useless.
And as if he were in a dream, Sirius watched himself walk across the room at a slow, even pace and pick the Portkey up off the mantle-piece as if it were no more than any other trinket.
He brought it with him to the kitchen and set it on the table. He sat down and picked it up again.
He looked at it for a long moment as he passed it from hand to hand. He wondered, but... No. No.
Emergencies, Remus had said. Only emergencies.
Sirius set it down with a thud and pushed himself to his feet. He couldn't stay here, not with that hanging over his head.
He left the flat without even bothering with breakfast.
He walked the streets, lost in thought.
He couldn't, he couldn't. He knew this, but it was as if he'd lost all capacity for logical thought. It was as if he were trying to put out a house fire with a thimble-full of water.
Dusk had barely fallen that evening when he began to make his way back to the flat.
He sat at the small table in the kitchen and stared at the Portkey in its envelope. He touched it at times, poking out its shape through the heavy paper, as if doing so would allow him to divine where it would take him.
From what Remus had said, he could surmise that it only worked in one direction -- that no matter how many times he touched it (and only him; he suspected that clever touch was Dumbledore's) it would always take him to the same place.
He took another sip of his -- admittedly not awful -- Muggle beer, and fingered the envelope, tracing the object's outline. It was a key, large and heavy and old-fashioned. A key as Portkey. Someone had a clever sense of humour, Sirius thought with a wry smile.
Somewhere safe, Remus had said. Probably Grimmauld Place.
Harry would not be there, Sirius knew. It was the middle of November, and his godson was still in school. Nor would Remus, as his teaching would keep him at Hogwarts same as Harry. But Grimmauld Place was Headquarters of the Order, and there might be someone there he knew -- Old Dung, Tonks, Kingsley (who Sirius still had not yet properly thanked for retrieving his wand from the Aurors' evidence vaults).
He picked the envelope up, tested its weight, and then set it back on the table. It would be beyond foolish. It would be insane to risk his freedom for something so stupid, so small.
Sirius pushed himself out of his chair, crossed the room, and leaned out the kitchen's smaller window, beer bottle still in hand.
He kept his gaze fixed on the street below, and sipped his beer slowly, watching the Muggle cars as they sped by. He tracked the progress of some pedestrians, and lifted his bottle in salute to the brave soul who crossed the street in the middle of the block and not at one of the intersections. That took courage, that did, especially considering how dangerous it was to tempt fate like that. Those cars were huge -- not to mention fast.
He knocked back the last of his beer, and pulled himself inside.
He needed to go for a walk, clear his head.
Sirius set the bottle on the counter, and left the Portkey where it was.
The coat he had tossed over the kitchen's other chair and the key -- to the front door -- was still in one of its pockets. He pulled it on as he left the room. Sirius was out of the building and down on the streets in record time. He headed north.
The cool night air bit at his exposed flesh, and with every exhalation, his warm breath wreathed his face. He strode through the city, his mind still fixed on a small envelope left atop a table.
After nearly twenty minutes of this, he came to an abrupt halt. He closed his eyes and tried to still his ragged breathing, his mad pounding heart. It worked, somewhat.
Sirius opened his eyes, looked around. Too long standing here, and someone would grow suspicious.
The maw of an alley gaped only a few feet ahead, and with several long strides, he had turned into it. Sirius kept walking until he was fully obscured by the ink-black shadows.
He forced his mind back to the kitchen -- to the peeling paint, to the linoleum floor, to the dent in the wall, to the awful smell that lingered no matter how long he had the windows open, to the old key in an envelope atop the chipped table-
He thought himself there.
With a 'crack', Sirius Disapparated from the alley and Apparated in the kitchen, barely a foot from the table and within arm's reach of the Portkey.
"I can do this," he said, and snatched up the envelope.
Sirius opened it easily and plunged his hand inside.
He had barely time to register the sensation of his fingers brushing against the cool metal of the key when he felt himself gripped by the Portkey's magic.
At first he thought it hadn't worked.
But it had. Sirius blinked and looked around. The transit had simply been so brief that he'd barely noticed it.
He hadn't been taken to Grimmauld Place at all.
The Portkey was spelled to return him to the flat's first bedroom, where he and Remus had first arrived all those days ago.
Sirius drew his hand from the envelope and ran his thumb over the lumpen shape under the Manila paper. "Damn it," he whispered, keeping his voice so low he could not hear it shake. "Damn it all."