Updated: 6 November 2005
disclaimer: Books, fortune and empire belong to JK Rowling. I only dally with her characters.
Tuesday, 27 July
What the hell was that bloody werewolf thinking? Severus asked himself for the dozenth time. More to the point, what was I thinking, letting him touch me like that? I should have known.
And why should he have known? Beyond a general tendency to blame himself when he failed to notice something, Severus could think of no valid responses to that question. What was it that should have made him suspicious, should have made him raise an eyebrow? He couldn’t think of anything, and that made him all the more determined to find the signs of it. After all, this sort of thing didn’t just crop up overnight.
Of course, it was possible that the reason he’d never noticed was because in his youth he had tended to spend his time looking for reasons to haul the inseparable foursome into the headmaster’s line of occluded vision. Dumbledore had been infamous for not seeing what he didn’t want to see. He was still infamous for it. He had never wanted to see what prats were the four untouchable Gryffindors who were the self-proclaimed co-rulers of the school and the exalted idols that everyone else was supposed to emulate. Had there been indications of perverse preferences, Severus had missed them because such things had not figured into his concept of damning evidence.
Scowling at the situation in general, he brought his knife down sharply, laying open a pomegranate with a single slash of the blade. He swept the dripping red fruit into a bowl, then jabbed the knife into a sand-filled bag with enough force to set the handle to quivering.
Regardless of whether he had suspected or should have suspected the werewolf’s disgusting habits, there was still no excuse for him to have put himself in that position to begin with. Perhaps his back had been itching as though a thousand wool-socked centipedes were crawling over it, and even in his contrary mood he had to admit that the salve had been utter bliss. It had been against his better judgment, but as he had relaxed on that bed, Severus had felt a creeping sense of calm soothe away the tension of a meeting that had gone better than he expected it would. He still twitched at the memory of the Dark Lord’s demands that he tell everything he knew.
He scratched at his left forearm.
He’d forgotten how excruciating the Cruciatus Curse was. That curse alone was reason enough to fear the Dark Lord. It was a brilliant curse, actually, and the product of a brilliant mind. In a way, it was a beautiful curse, a marriage of theory and practice that was worthy of admiration on the most basic of levels. Students were not taught that curse, of course, even though it was a model of perfection in terms of spells. Any student would do well to learn the basic premise behind it—every weapon, every defense one could ever need, nature has already provided. The Cruciatus Curse worked because it excited the nervous system, making every nerve ending aware and awake and susceptible to a series of hexes that any second year could perform. Wave upon wave of hot and then cold and then prickling and then searing sensations, all heightened by the body’s own ability to sense. After enduring a Cruciatus Curse, a woolen robe felt like a tangle of briars, a warm embrace like the constrictor’s cuddle. And all that was before the muscle cramps set in.
It left the victim feeling raw and vulnerable, as though his skin had been stripped away. It left him drawing ragged, gasping breaths as the need to breathe battled for supremacy with the pain that every breath sent scorching through the body. It was a curse that reduced the strong to shivering and whimpering piles of misery and robbed the weak of their minds.
Perhaps it had been the curse. God knew that the curse alone would have been excuse enough for an uncharacteristic susceptibility to perceived kindness. The fear that the Dark Lord had stricken into his heart would have been excuse enough. The close brush with death, the prospect of servitude as Lucius Malfoy’s toady—any of it would have been enough to prompt him to let down his defenses. Combined… well, perhaps he had been craving kindness, not even realizing it until it was offered.
He paused in his working seeds out of the pomegranate and sighed, swiping the back of his wrist across his brow in a futile attempt to move his hair from his face. He knew he should tie it back when he was working, but that always left him feeling vulnerable.
He hated to admit, even to himself, that he’d responded to Lupin’s gentle touch and amiable words. A soothing hand on his back, meaningless words that required neither thought nor response drifting over his abused consciousness. He could not remember the last time he had felt so comfortable in another’s presence. Not even Dumbledore had ever made him feel so at ease.
Closing his eyes, he braced his hands on the workspace and leaned onto his arms. Why did it have to be Lupin whose touch had made him relax so? Why couldn’t it have been… well, he couldn’t think of anyone in particular he wished it had been, but there were dozens of options that were better than Lupin. Others who wouldn't have forced him to stand here now, wondering if it meant anything that he’d spent the last two hours thinking about that bloody werewolf.
Unbidden, the memory of a comforting hand on his back returned, and despite himself, Severus rolled his shoulders, arching into the imaginary touch. Except that the touch felt too real to be imaginary. He spun on his heel, withdrawing his wand, his eyes already flashing with the flint of anger. It was just Dumbledore.
“Are you all right, Severus?”
Severus closed his eyes for a moment and shoved his wand back into his pocket. “I’m fine,” he muttered, leaning against the counter.
“Are you sure? It isn’t like you to not hear me when I speak to you.”
He turned back to his work to conceal his scowl. “I was busy,” he lied.
“Of course,” Dumbledore replied in an infuriating, patronizing tone that said that he didn’t believe it for a moment.
Severus grabbed the pomegranate again and resumed his work on the seeds.
“When did you say that Lucius had invited you to dinner?”
Severus sighed. “Thursday,” he said. The owl had arrived late yesterday evening, and despite the polite façade of a dinner invitation, Severus knew that it was a thinly veiled order.
“Then you’ve time for a brief meeting in London tonight,” Dumbledore said with a cheerful smile. “Ten o’clock.”
As Dumbledore walked away, Severus could have bitten his tongue in half-- why hadn’t he told the headmaster that he had pressing business to attend?
A few minutes before ten, Severus emerged from the fireplace in the drawing room at Number Twelve Grimmauld Place and glanced around. He steered clear of the walls and made a point not to touch anything, holding his spine rigid as he walked through the hall and down the stairs into the kitchen. Molly Weasley was directing Black in the storing of the contents of a cauldron. Any pleasure Severus derived from watching Black relegated to the tasks of a servant was negated, however, by five familiar faces at the end of the table.
“Is it really a good idea for the children to be present?” Severus asked the room at large, and several pairs of eyes swiveled towards him.
“We’re not children anymore,” one of the Weasley twins—and God alone knew which was which—protested. “We’re of age as of last April.”
“They can take care of themselves,” Black said, folding his arms and narrowing his eyes. “I’d trust them a hell of a lot further than—“
“Sirius, take this upstairs with the rest of the laundry, please,” Molly interrupted him, shoving a pile of rags into his hands.
Severus smirked and began to lean against the wall, but thought better of it, and folded his arms instead.
“The kitchen’s safe,” came a voice from behind him, and Severus jerked his head around, just resisting the urge to back away from Lupin.
He opened his mouth for a sharp retort, but the words dried on his tongue and he watched the werewolf as he would watch a dangerous animal. Lupin deposited a pile of parchment onto the table, sending teacups and saucers flying across the kitchen to the sink.
“I think it’s time you lot found something to do upstairs,” he told the children. Severus watched through narrowed eyes as Ron protested.
“Why can’t we stay? It’s not as if we don’t know what’s going on.”
“We had this conversation last night, Ron,” Molly replied in a tone that held no patience. “This is no place for you kids. Go on now, upstairs, all of you.”
“But Mum! George and I aren’t—“
“That’s enough, Fred,” Molly replied.
“I said that’s enough!” Molly put her hands on her hips and glared at the boys.
“Come on, Ron,” Hermione said. “We’ll go write Harry and—“
“Be sure not to let anything slip,” Molly warned, turning her attention away from the twins.
“And don’t mention our location,” Lupin added.
“In fact, it’s probably best you don’t mention any of this,” Arthur said.
“Maybe you’d best bring the letters back down and let us read them before you send them,” Molly mused.
“Might not be a bad idea,” came a rough voice belonging to Alastor Moody.
“Actually, I’d prefer there not be any more owls around than is strictly necessary,” Dumbledore said from the corner. “Though if you children want to write Harry—without revealing anything, of course—I will see the letters to him.”
The children exchanged glances and Ron sighed, but there were no more arguments and the five of them trudged out of the kitchen, Ron and Hermione casting confused and curious glances in his direction.
When just the adults remained in the kitchen, Severus crossed the room and seated himself at the table, leaning back in the chair and ignoring everyone else who was still finishing with the last of the dinner dishes.
“Why don’t you make yourself at home, Severus?” Black suggested in a loud voice as Molly directed him to the dresser with an armful of flatware. “Don’t mind that the rest of us are working.”
“I believe I shall,” Severus replied, earning himself a scowl from Black and a reproachful look from Dumbledore, both of which he ignored. The smirk from Lupin was a little harder to ignore, and much harder to interpret. His eyes lingered on the werewolf for a moment, until he realized with a start that Lupin was staring back at him. Severus broke eye contact and folded his arms across his chest again.
It was another fifteen minutes before everyone was seated at the kitchen table and Dumbledore began.
“I see no reason for this meeting to stretch on indefinitely. There are two tasks we need to discuss, and neither should take long…”
Dumbledore had been right. There was no reason for the meeting to stretch on and it was unfathomable that it should last more than an hour, certainly not two. Certainly not three interminable hours and seventeen excruciating minutes.
Of course, Dumbledore hadn’t taken into consideration that Tonks would have a suggestion for another member—a Kingsley Shacklebolt—and that this new member would garner more than half an hour of debate that Remus could have summed up in two sentences. On the one hand, they needed all the additional help they could get. Balancing that was the need to keep their identity and mission silent for as long as possible. An hour of that before Dumbledore suggested they move on and discuss new membership another time.
Dumbledore also had not taken into consideration the fact Molly intended to give them all a full and detailed report of everything that needed to be done to make that house ‘inhabitable’—no one bothered to mention to her that the house had been inhabited for better than a month already. No one other than Dumbledore had even managed to feign interest in the doxies that were nesting in the drawing room curtains or the itch-weed powder covering the wallpaper in half the rooms on the first and ground floors.
It was almost half past eleven when Dumbledore finally broached the first of his two subjects—the prophesy that had brought about the deaths of James and Lily Potter.
“Voldemort never heard the prophesy in its entirety,” Dumbledore reminded them, “and it is likely that he still does not realize that he has transferred a measure of his power to young Harry. It would behoove us to ensure that this is never discovered.”
“We’re safe then,” Sirius interjected. “The only people left alive who know what the prophesy said are in this room, and the ones who know are people I’d trust with my life.” He looked at Snape as he said this, and Remus sighed inwardly. Neither of them ever missed an opportunity for a jab, but Sirius was making quite an assumption that Severus didn't know all of it.
“Ah, but a record of the prophesy resides in the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic, and we must protect it at all costs.”
“That part of the Ministry is well guarded,” Tonks said. “I don’t think anyone could get in without the proper clearance. There are six guards on duty every day, and no witch or wizard has ever defeated more than four at a time anyway.”
“It’s very well guarded during the day,” Dumbledore conceded. “And it would be foolish for Voldemort or any of his followers to attempt to breach that security while the Ministry is occupied. At eleven o’clock sharp, though…”
“All the guards go home,” Arthur finished for him. “That was why you were so adamant that I return to my office at midnight last night.”
“I wanted to see what sort of resistance you encountered, but as you said, there was not even anyone present to check your wand. You were able to Apparate directly into your office and remove documents without anyone ever realizing you were there. That does not speak well of the level of security at night.”
No one seemed interested in arguing that point.
“Everyone who has reason to be in the Ministry will take a shift at guarding the prophesy,” Dumbledore continued. “That means you, Tonks, and Arthur, Hestia, Podmore, and Emmeline.”
There was a brief murmur as the five of them began comparing their schedules already, but Remus hadn’t long to listen to it as Dumbledore was already speaking again.
“As for everyone else, there is a second matter of equal importance, and that is the subject of the prophesy. Arabella Figg has told me that she has seen at least half a dozen witches and wizards in Surrey since school ended, and don't believe for a moment that this is coincidental. I believe it would be prudent for us to have a presence of our own near Harry Potter. Everyone who is not a part of the team guarding the prophesy will be part of the team guarding Harry. I want two people near Harry at all time. Two witches or wizards.”
That should have been a simple and straightforward enough. It should have taken another fifteen minutes or so for them to work out their schedules. It should have been a quick, painless encounter with everyone volunteering as their schedule permitted and no petty arguments over who had to take the night shift on Fridays. After all, they were all adults and this was important.
There is a difference between ‘should’ and ‘is’.
The first roadblock they ran into was named Severus Snape.
“Headmaster,” Snape said as the schedule landed in front of him and he peered down at it. “I would question the wisdom of this. If we already have reports of activity, I doubt it will give credence to the supposition that I have returned to the Dark Lord if I am seen patrolling the street where Harry Potter lives.”
“You could always say that you’re spying on his behalf,” Sirius pointed out.
Snape’s eyes narrowed. “One does not lie lightly to the Dark Lord’s face,” he replied. “And I am on tenterhooks with the Dark Lord as it is. I would be killed for less than a suspicion.”
A sneering smile curled Sirius’ lips. “Then don’t help,” he snarled. “I never expected courage from a snake. I’ll take his shifts.” As Sirius reached for the schedule, Remus was silently applauding him—it was seldom that Sirius came out ahead in these verbal spars. Remus had no more than finished his silent praise when Sirius, unable to let well enough alone, had to open his mouth again. “I will be more than happy to pull my weight for the Order.”
“If it will make you feel more… useful, then go ahead, by all means,” Snape said. "After all, there isn't much else you can offer, is there? And at least your loss wouldn’t be crippling to the Order’s functioning.”
“Just what are you suggesting, Snivellus?” Sirius sneered.
“Only that some of us have more influence and power, and some of us… well. Pawns serve a purpose, too.”
“That’s enough,” Dumbledore said. “Severus, you will take shifts the same as everyone else. When we have more aid, you will be the first to be relieved of this duty, and we will take particular care with your disguises. For now, though, you will take your shifts as a guard in Surrey.”
Sirius was smirking and Snape’s scowl darkened.
“And you, Sirius, will not be taking a shift.”
“What?!” Sirius demanded. “Why not? He’s my godson! I am—“
“Still a wizard with a price on his head,” Dumbledore finished for him.
“If I may, Headmaster,” Snape said, sounding smug. “Black is willing and able and, indeed, somewhat expendable. You said yourself that we haven’t enough wands right now, and perhaps this is the best way to allow him to serve the Order.”
Remus winced inwardly on Sirius’ behalf.
“No one in this Order is expendable,” Dumbledore said with an air of finality. “There may well come a time when we will ask your help, Sirius, but for now, I feel it is best that you remain safe. I fear there will come a time when we will not turn down aid from any who is willing to offer it.”
“Fine,” Sirius whispered. “If you decide you have need of me, I'll be in my room.” He shoved his chair away from the table and stormed out of the kitchen, letting the door slam behind him. Remus could hear him stomping up two flights of stairs before his steps became muffled.
Snape shrugged and scribbled his name onto the schedule, then passed it on to McGonagall.
After that bout of dramatics, Moody was the next to speak up. He was not willing to let the issue go without complicating matters just a little more, and by the time the schedule was in front of Remus, his head was spinning with the dozens of signals Moody had already invented. McGonagall, who was copying down the complex strings of sounds that Arabella Figg would produce to alert the guards to the need for help, was rubbing her eyes and looking beseechingly at Dumbledore. To no avail, though. There would be slamming doors and honking horns all up and down Privet Drive if Figgy needed anything.
Remus looked at the schedule—he was to mark himself for eight four-hour shifts over the course of the week, and his times were all but chosen for him—only Molly and Moody were left to write themselves in afterward. His choices, by and large, were from four to eight in the morning, or eight to midnight, any day of the week. Half of those morning slots were already occupied with Snape’s name, and just one of the times Snape had slotted himself for had another name beside it. In a way, it was rather sad, bringing back memories of schooldays when Snape was so often sitting alone in the Great Hall, or in the library. Lupin could remember a Charms class when they’d been told to partner up. If it hadn’t been for the flack he knew he’d have gotten from Sirius and James, Remus would have asked Snape to be his partner that day—anything was better than working with Pettigrew in any class that required skill.
Remus tapped his quill against the parchment, thinking. How might things be different now if he’d stood up for Snape a few times when he was a Prefect? If he’d partnered with him—clearly one of the better students—as opposed to partnering with Pettigrew? Hell, if he’d partnered with Snape in Potions, he might even have learned to handle a cauldron better. And perhaps there would be less animosity between them now. He tapped his quill against the side of the page for a moment more, then made up his mind and penned his beside Snape’s from four to eight in the morning Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday. He put himself with McGonagall on Friday mornings and with Snape again beginning at midnight Saturday night. He still needed to schedule himself an extra shift, and as he stared at the four hour blocks, he found himself wishing Sirius were helping out—another wizard on duty would have meant everyone could have a single shift a day. He found his eyes drifting back to the Saturday block—if he put himself from four to eight there as well, he’d have an eight-hour block early Saturday morning, which was preferable to a divided shift anywhere. Only trouble was that Snape had already penned himself into that block and Remus wasn’t sure he wasn’t already pushing his luck with four shifts scheduled with Snape. He settled on a split shift, adding himself to the schedule for Monday afternoons.
After another half hour of bickering and fine-tuning, the schedule was set, and Remus still had four shifts with Snape.
“Severus,” Dumbledore said as they adjourned, stopping Snape just before he approached the fireplace to Floo himself back to Hogwarts. “Perhaps it would be better if you stayed here until your shift begins. It’s only two and a half hours, after all.”
Snape shot a look of iced venom in Dumbledore’s direction. “We’re starting now?” he asked.
Dumbledore’s smile wasn’t quite as patient as the headmaster was best known for. “Yes, Severus. Now. And I’d suggest you get a bit of sleep—those are long hours before dawn.”
Rubbing his eyes with one hand, Snape sighed. “Very well,” he muttered. “Where can I find a bed? Preferably one that isn’t infested with anything nor likely to cause bodily harm.”
Remus breathed a sigh of quiet relief as Molly stepped forward to show him to a bedroom. Remus was also still reeling from the fact that their first shift was tonight; he’d hoped to have time to have a talk with Snape before they were set to be alone for four hours.
Stifling a yawn, he decided a nap wouldn’t go amiss for him, either. He didn’t make it as far as his bedroom, though; a light spilling from under the door of Sirius’ room caught his attention instead.
The door was partially ajar, and after rapping softly with his knuckles, Remus pushed it open. He wasn’t surprised to find Sirius sitting on the floor, his back to the bed, a bottle in his hand. Remus settled onto the floor beside him, lifting the bottle from his fingers. Sirius didn’t protest. Remus placed the bottle aside and didn’t say anything. For a long time, neither did Sirius.
When Sirius finally moved, it was to reach for the bottle again, and Remus let him take it. Sirius took a drink, then swiped his hand across his mouth and closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the bed again.
“He was right, you know,” Sirius muttered at last. The sudden words, though softly spoken, seemed to echo through the room.
“Who?” Remus asked, his own quiet words ricocheting off the walls like a stone falling in a cave.
“Snape.” Sirius hissed the name as though it were an expletive, and in his mind, it probably was the next thing to it.
“Every now and again he’s got to be right about something,” Remus said, shifting into a more comfortable position. “What was he right about this time?”
Sirius took another drink and barked his hollow laugh. “Worthless,” he muttered, then swallowed again. “Worthless pawn. Expendable.”
Remus frowned. “You heard Dumbledore—no one is expendable.”
“No one except me,” Sirius replied. “No use to the Order. No great loss if I weren’t here. The rest of you have work to do—protecting Harry and guarding that prophesy. Me?” He lifted the bottle to his lips again and sneered. “A scintillating future of dedoxifying curtains and rescuing housewives from dust bunnies big enough to rip your head off.” He snorted again. “That’s useful.” Thus proclaimed, he took another swallow of the whiskey.
“You know there’s more to it than that, Sirius. You’re an invaluable member of this Order,” Remus said, praying that his friend wouldn’t ask the inevitable question.
He did. “Oh really? And how do you figure that?”
“Well,” Remus replied, thinking quickly, “you’re Harry’s godfather…”
“Fuck of a lot of good I am at that,” Sirius muttered. “He can’t even come live with me. So far, the extent of my intervention into his life has been a broom and a permission form so he can go to Hogsmeade and get into trouble over a wider geographical location. He’s in danger, and I can’t even help protect him.” With this last bitter assessment, Sirius took another drink, then hurled the remaining half-bottle of whiskey across the room. It shattered, the golden liquid and shards of glass glittering in the light of the lone candle.
“He talks to you, Sirius,” Remus pointed out. “He tells you things he won’t tell the rest of us. He trusts you, and he looks up to you. You have more influence on him than the rest of us combined.” Remus shifted, turning so he was facing Sirius, and braced his hands on his shoulders. “As long as you have that, then you have what none of the rest of us do,” he whispered. “Maybe you can’t see it, but Harry Potter worships you almost the way James did. Where the rest of us are just clueless, interfering grown-ups to him, you’re an idol, and he’d bend over backward to keep from disappointing or worrying you. You can ask him to do what the rest of us can only order and pray he’ll obey. If that’s worthless, Sirius, then nothing has any value.”
Sirius’ face contorted and he shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut, but Remus didn’t let go of his shoulders.
“Listen to me,” Remus said. “You are our strongest link to Harry, and that’s a hell of a lot more than the vague hope Severus has of regaining enough position with Voldemort to pass us any real information.” Sirius tried to turn away again, but Remus held his shoulders. “Are you listening to me?” he asked.
After a moment, Sirius opened his eyes again, and Remus sighed, pulling him into his arms. How much pain could one man hold inside without exploding? He must have been hollow to contain so much. A few minutes later, Sirius drew a deep, shuddering breath, and Remus shifted again, leaning him against the bed again. He stood, and spent a moment tidying the room a bit, a spell to sweep the broken glass and golden whiskey aside, another spell to straighten the bedcovers, another to send a pile of laundry to the corner—Molly could deal with that later.
“Come on,” Remus said, bending again and sliding an arm behind Sirius’ back. “The bed’s a lot more comfortable than the floor.”
Sirius didn’t protest, but didn’t do much to help Remus either. Remus decided it wasn’t worth the effort to do any more than pull off Sirius’ shoes and toss a blanket over him—and he doubted Sirius would even realize he’d done that much.
By the time Remus left Sirius snoring face down on the bed, it was half past two. Remus wasted no time finding his own bed, and doffing his shoes, settling in for an hour of sleep before his first crack at guard duty began.
Two hours of sleep proved to be worse than no sleep at all, and as Severus struggled into a pair of Muggle-style trousers borrowed from an undisclosed source, he was wondering what had possessed him to choose this particular shift. Well, other than the allure of potentially working alone. He’d figured that there would end up being four shifts left uncovered if the ten of them each took eight. He had been hoping that his presence and the general distasteful time of the shift would have been enough to keep anyone from signing up with him. No such luck. He was sharing this shift, and three others besides, with Remus Lupin every week until they found another member of the Order or until Harry Potter was safe at Hogwarts again.
“Brilliant,” he muttered, gathering his hair back and securing it at the nape of his neck. “Just bloody brilliant.” He preferred to be a little more eloquent than that, but given that it was a quarter till four in the morning and the only other occupant of the room was a mirror that appeared to be asleep, eloquence wasn’t high on his list of priorities. He pulled on a distastefully sloppy shirt that someone had found on short notice and glanced at himself in the mirror—if nothing else, the sheer amount of color he was wearing would deter anyone from recognizing him.
He made his way downstairs, making several abortive attempts to pocket his wand. There was no place to put it. He could put it in his back pocket, but it jabbed him in the back every time he moved. If he put it in his front pocket, it jabbed him in the ribs. If he tried to put it up his sleeve, it poked past his elbow. He finally settled on transfiguring a slender pocket along the leg of his trousers; it would take a bit to get used to the wand against his shin, but at least it was accessible and not visible.
“Ready?” Lupin was coming downstairs behind him, dressed in Muggle attire as well, and though neither of them would go undetected among their peers, Severus thought they’d do well enough at avoiding notice.
“Where are we Apparating?” Severus asked with a sigh.
“Number 28, Privet Drive,” Lupin answered, stuffing a fist in his mouth as he yawned. “That’s a few houses down.”
Severus shook his head. “Very well,” he muttered, and Disapparated with a crack!
The sky was black, the world still, the street quiet. A single window of one of the houses glowed with a diffused, bluish light, but there was no sign of life anywhere else on the block. The twin pops that announced Remus’ and Severus’ arrival were offensively loud in the stillness of the night, and their footsteps on the sidewalk seemed the stomping of giants.
Severus’ eyes darted back and forth. “Which house is it?” he asked in a hushed whisper.
“Number four,” Lupin replied just as quietly. “On the next block and on the right.”
Severus squinted into the darkness, but it was no use; he could see nothing but darkness. They reached an intersection and he glanced up at the street sign, squinting to make out the name of the street. Wisteria Walk. It sounded familiar. He was about to ask Lupin why it sounded so familiar when something brushed against his leg.
Leaping backward, he struggled to withdraw his wand from the makeshift pocket on his trouser leg, but to no avail. Instead, he toppled onto the sidewalk, closing his eyes and muffling a curse as a cat jumped onto his stomach and nudged his chin.
“Mrowr?” it inquired, blinking at him, before it turned around, flicking its tail under his nose, and walked away.
“Little jumpy?” Lupin asked, extending a hand.
Severus ignored the offered hand and got to his feet, dusting himself off. “Damn cats,” he muttered, looking over his shoulder. The cat was trotting off down Wisteria Walk, tail high.
“I’d say that one is one of Figgy’s,” Lupin said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “And next time, try not to go for your wand. Most Muggles don’t carry them, you know.”
Severus rewarded him with a scowl, which the darkness concealed. “Thank you,” he snapped. “I’d never have figured that out if you hadn’t told me.” He began to stalk away, but didn’t make it far; Lupin snared his arm and slowed him.
“Look,” he said, “I know you’re not happy about this arrangement, but it isn’t going to do any good to blow our cover on our first shift. It’s four in the morning, and the last thing we need is some nosy neighbor to call the police and announce that there are two strange men prowling around.”
“Let go of my arm or I will show you what a commotion is,” Severus said.
Lupin blinked at him, but let go of his arm. Severus began walking again, though at a more normal pace, and a moment later, Lupin was matching his stride. A light came on in one of the houses, but neither of them turned towards it. At last, they reached number four and Lupin knelt, as though tying his shoe.
“Does anything look suspicious?” he asked.
Severus leaned against a tree and spared a sidelong glance for the house. It was suspiciously normal, but that was all. All the windows across the front of the house were dark, and the ones upstairs were half-way open. A rolled newspaper lay in the middle of the gravel drive, the hydrangea bushes, though wilting, were trimmed, the grass freshly cut if parched. There was nothing unusual about the house.
“Nothing,” Severus replied, covering a yawn with his fist.
“I guess we should check out the neighborhood?” Lupin suggested as he straightened. “Might be beneficial to know the layout.”
“I’m sure it would be,” Severus answered. “But you’re the one who pointed out that it’s four in the morning.”
Lupin nodded and started walking again. “True,” he murmured. “It’s going to be difficult to look inconspicuous at this hour.”
“Perhaps you should have thought of that before you chose this shift,” Severus said.
Lupin shook his head. “Why did you choose this time of morning?”
“I was hoping that everyone else would have sense enough to choose another shift,” he muttered. “I should have known you wouldn't.”
For a few minutes, that shut Lupin up. Privet Drive ended at an intersection with Redbud Lane, a street that seemed different only in name from any other they’d seen. Rows of large, square houses with neat gardens and well-kept flowerbeds.
“Right or left?” Lupin asked, and Severus considered telling him left and then going right. Somehow he didn’t think that was would accomplish more than a few minutes of blessed solitude. He didn’t answer, but turned to the left. After two short blocks, they were facing a high stone wall and another choice. This time Lupin didn’t even ask, but turned left again. It was just as well. It wouldn’t do much good for them to stray too far from the house where Harry slept, unaware that he was being protected.
They walked north along Hibiscus Parkway and Severus reflected that whoever had named these streets had been a nitwit. But then, most Muggle street names were asinine—lack of imagination or too much thereof seemed to be a requirement for city planners.
They must have spent an hour or two walking through the maze of streets when they came to an opening in the wall and Lupin peered past it, catching Severus’ elbow.
Severus jerked away from him. “If you touch me again,” he began in a low, menacing voice, but Lupin interrupted him.
“I could use a cup of coffee about now. What about you?”
Severus glanced in the direction Lupin was gazing and saw a small restaurant picked out against the night with bright lights. He hesitated, torn between the lure of something hot to drink—which must have been a conditioned response to early morning, given that even at sunrise the air was far from cold—and a general disinclination towards lingering with Lupin in such close proximity. He looked back to the east again where dawn had just begun to whisper to the horizon.
“He’s only two streets over,” Lupin pointed out, misinterpreting Severus’ gaze. “We’re closer than we were when we started.”
Severus nodded. “Very well,” he muttered, and they turned into a brightly lit parking lot. The diner was on the corner nearest them, and across the lot was a long, rectangular building with a glass front and a low roof. At the far end of the street that bounded the parking lot to the north, there was a larger road visible, a small amount of traffic zipping past.
Lupin pushed the door open and Severus blinked against the blinding light as he stepped inside, squinting against the brightness and wincing as a bell above the door jingled, announcing their arrival.
A waitress in a blue dress looked up from a table she was wiping down. “Just sit wherever you like and I’ll be with you in a minute,” she called.
Severus glanced around and gestured towards a booth away from the large windows and seated himself with his back to the door. Lupin settled in across from him, a look of confusion on his face as Severus rearranged the napkin dispenser and salt and pepper shakers.
“I’d have thought you’d want to be able to see the door so you could see who was coming in,” he said.
Severus raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware you were capable of deductive reasoning,” he answered, being deliberately obtuse.
Remus sighed and leaned his head into his hand. “If you tried a little harder, you might even make this entire experience unpleasant."
Severus didn’t grace him with an immediate response, though when he did, it was in a low voice. “I can hear the bell if someone opens the door,” he said. “I prefer no one see my face if I can avoid it.” He tapped his nose, which was his most distinctive feature, then plucked a menu from the back of the table and opened it, reading over the breakfast fare.
Footfall announced the approach of the waitress and Severus returned the menu to its place as the woman approached.
“I’m Pam,” she told them as though the gold tag on her uniform didn’t say that. “What can I get for you?”
“A cup of coffee,” Lupin answered.
“The same,” Severus replied, and Pam nodded.
“I’ll be right back.”
A couple of minutes later, Severus was looking doubtfully at a cup of dubious cleanliness filled with black liquid that might have passed for coffee on some planet. Lupin had already taken a sip of his, and given the face he’d made, Severus wasn’t inclined to do much more than stare at his own cup while his companion dumped sugar into his.
“Not quite as foul-tasting as that medicine,” he said, “but a close second.”
Severus snorted, watching his face as he took another sip. The face wasn’t quite so offended this time. Severus added sugar to his cup and took a sip; it was awful.
“Can I get you two anything else?” Pam had returned, and Lupin shook his head.
“Cream?” Severus asked. Cream couldn’t make the coffee any worse, at least.
Pam leaned forward and reached across the table, pulling a half-dozen white paper packets from a wire caddy. Severus picked one up and looked at it. ‘Non-dairy creamer’ it said.
“Thanks,” he muttered, tearing one open and dumping a white powder into his cup.
“Just let me know if you need anything else then,” Pam said, and returned to the bar, where she seated herself and began talking to a man in an apron.
Severus and Lupin sat in silence for several minutes before Lupin finally said, “Listen. About the other night…”
“Don’t,” Severus interrupted. “I don’t want to hear it.”
“I was going to apologize,” Lupin said quietly. “I don’t know what came over me. I….” He trailed off and forked a hand through his hair. “I just wanted to assure you that it won’t happen again.”
“Very well,” Severus replied, taking a sip of his newly creamed and sugared coffee. It was palatable, even if it fell well short of being ‘good’.
“I hope that it isn’t going to affect our ability to work together,” Lupin was continuing.
“Enough already,” Severus muttered. He didn’t want to hear this. He didn’t want to hear any of it.
“I just wanted to apologize,” Lupin persisted. “I really didn’t intend to…”
“I said to drop it,” Severus snarled. “I don’t want to hear the confessions of depraved sodomites.”
Lupin snorted, a bitter smile turning the corners of his lips. “Depraved sodomite,” he repeated. “I don’t suppose it would do any good to tell you I’m not.”
“No, it wouldn’t,” Severus answered.
“I really don’t know what came over me, Severus—“
“Do not say my name.”
“—but I assure you, it won’t happen again. Believe it or not, I’m not accustomed to—“
“Allow me to rephrase,” Severus said, not caring that he was interrupting. “What you do behind closed doors is your business. Do not drag me into it and do not tell me about it. Is that clear?”
Lupin sighed. “Quite,” he muttered.
They finished their coffee—and their shift—in almost complete silence. After seeing McGonagall and then Moody on Privet Drive, Severus Disapparated without a word to Lupin, returning to his house.
He intended to crawl into bed and go to sleep in short order, but he didn’t. Instead, he lay awake, the oddest words echoing in his mind.