Updated: 6 November 2005
disclaimer: Books, fortune and empire belong to JK Rowling. I only dally with her characters.
It was a quarter to nine, and Remus could stand no more of it. He stood, his attempts at casualness thwarted as he almost knocked over his wine glass. "I think I'm going to call it an early night," he announced to the room at large, gathering his plate and glass.
"Are you all right?" Molly asked, a concerned frown tugging at her lips.
"Of course," Remus answered, smiling even as he avoided everyone's eyes. "I think the night shifts have finally caught up to me."
"Sleep well then," Arthur bade him, and as Remus dropped his dishes into the sink, he nodded.
And it was done. His heart was racing, but he forced himself to stay calm as he climbed the stairs. The door clicked shut behind him, and he finally gave into the smile that had been threatening for the last hour. He knew that this visit was going to be a very serious one, and it was not going to end up with a repeat performance of yesterday afternoon. He knew that it was going to be a difficult conversation, full of awkward moments and it was not going to be enjoyable in the least. Rationally, he knew all of these things. He still couldn't stop the grin that stretched from ear to ear. He leaned against the door, his eyes closed and his head tilted back, and he surrendered to the knowledge that Severus would arrive any minute.
Lost as he was in that comfortable apprehension, the sound of Sirius' voice sliced through his complacency like a dagger slashing at silk curtains.
"He's asleep, you fuckwit! Can you not shove that concept through your thick skull and lodge it into whatever is substituting for your brain?"
For a fleeting moment, Remus admired Sirius' way with words. That particular sentiment had sounded so much like the Sirius of old, that it brought a different sort of smile to Remus' face. Perhaps his old friend wasn't lost entirely to his sentence in Azkaban.
Whatever pleasure he derived from that thought was short-lived, though, as the realization of whom he was talking to penetrated Remus' mind.
"I am not here to discuss this with you, Black, and I am not seeking your permission. I need to speak with Lupin, so kindly inform him that I am here or tell me where I may find him."
Severus. Remus' eyes flew open. What the hell was he doing? This was supposed to be a secret!
"I told you that he's asleep—"
"At nine o'clock?"
"--and I'm not waking him for your asshattery!"
"Then tell me which room is his and I will wake him," Severus snapped. "I've no such compunctions."
"Get the hell out of my house. I told you—Snape! What the hell do you think you're doing?"
There was no answering reply, but the sound of feet thudding up the stairs, and then a door at the end of the corridor opening and slamming.
"Go to hell."
Remus leaned against the door, praying that Severus knew what he was doing and gathering the wits he was going to need to lay into him for this tactic.
"You can't open every fucking door in this house!" Sirius shot as another door opened, then slammed.
There was a pause, then Severus' voice again. "I beg to differ."
Another door slammed, then another and another. They were getting closer, and panic rose in Lupin's throat. Shit. He was supposed to be in bed, not standing here listening to doors open and close.
"Get the hell out of my house!" A door opened, but slammed as soon as it had opened.
"I'm warning you…"
"Sod off, Black, and stop making this so difficult! I need to speak with Lupin, because I have important information for him, and every minute you spend arguing with me is one more minute I have to spend in this place. Believe me, I don't want to be here any more than you want me to be. So either tell him I'm here, tell me where he is, or get out of my way."
There was a pause, and Remus could almost envision them squaring off, nose to nose, a battle of wills that he hoped didn't include wands. At last, Sirius spoke again.
"Fine. Get downstairs then and wait in the drawing room. I might have to give up the use of public rooms to the likes of you, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let you have run of the bedrooms as well."
"You'll send him down?"
"I'll tell him you're here. Whether or not he comes down is his business."
"If he is not downstairs in five minutes, I'm--"
"You're leaving a message," Sirius interrupted. "With whomever you like. But you are not going to come into this house and tell me what I will or will not do, and you certainly will not tell me what my guests will or will not do!"
There was another silence, then footsteps retreating downstairs. A moment later, there was a soft knock on his door. "Remus?" Sirius called through the door. "Are you asleep?"
Shit. He was still standing there, fully clothed, his bed not even touched. He backed away from the door, snatched the blanket off the bed to give it a more mussed appearance, ran a hand through his hair and kicked off his shoes, then opened the door, squinting into the hallway. "Not quite," he replied, attempting to keep his voice light. "Someone was yelling right outside the door."
Sirius looked a bit sheepish as he leaned against the doorframe. "Sorry about that, mate. Snape's downstairs and wants to talk to you. I told him I'd tell you, but if you don't want to talk to the git, I'll tell him to go fuck himself. Not that he needs my permission for that, of course."
Remus' heart was racing and he resisted the battling desires to defend Severus and to shove past Sirius and run downstairs. Instead, he scrubbed a hand through his hair. "What does he want?"
"A word," Sirius answered, managing to fill the abbreviated reply with mocking.
Remus took a deep breath and hoped it would pass for a sigh. "Where is he?"
"You're actually going to go?" Sirius asked, shaking his head. "In the drawing room. Want me to come with you?"
"Er… no," Remus said, a little too quickly. "I think it'll go better if you're not there."
Sirius nodded, grinning. "Say it."
"Say what?" Remus asked, picking up his wand and glancing around the room.
"He can't keep his mind on business when I'm around. Stupid wanker. He thinks he's going to get the better of me someday."
It was quite the effort for Remus to hide the skeptical look that crossed his face. "You know, you could try not provoking him."
"But it's fun," Sirius replied, grinning. Remus sighed, and Sirius' smile slipped. "What's wrong?"
"Don't you think we've outgrown the antagonism?"
"I'll outgrow it when he does," Sirius replied. "If you want to put a stop to it, I suggest you bring it up with him. And good bloody luck."
There was a hint of irritation in Sirius' voice, and before Remus could answer, Sirius walked away.
I will, Remus thought, adding it to his mental list of things to discuss with Severus. A list that was growing, it seemed.
Remus found Severus in the drawing room, his arms folded and his back to the door as he looked at a painting. Remus closed the door behind him with a quiet click, and Severus turned around.
"Was this a good idea?" Remus asked, raising an eyebrow.
Severus directed his wand at the door and muttered, "Securorus," then folded his arms again and scowled. "It is provided you don't walk in here and start talking as though we're alone in the world."
"What are you doing here, Severus?" Remus asked, sinking onto the sofa.
"I was under the impression that we agreed this was a necessary conversation," Severus replied. "If you've changed your mind, I can—"
"No," Remus interrupted, patting the cushion in invitation. "I meant why did you come in that way?"
Severus sank onto the sofa. "As opposed to what?" he asked. "Apparating directly into your bedroom? Do you think that no one would have heard it and come to investigate? Then we would be in the position of explaining what I was doing in your room and why I felt the need to Apparate there instead of coming through the front door. It begs the question of what we're hiding, and half the task of working out a secret is knowing one exists."
"Oh," Remus replied. He wished Severus wouldn't do that. His tone and mannerisms made Remus feel like an idiot. So he hadn't thought that far ahead. Was it a crime against humanity?
"As it is, I caused enough of a scene that everyone in the house knows I'm here. And no doubt that—" Severus stopped and pressed his lips together into a tight line. "And no doubt Black is telling everyone how unfortunate you are to have me paying you a visit."
"And when they ask me what you wanted?"
Severus shook his head. "I don't care what you tell them. Complain that I was harassing you and it was nothing that couldn't have waited until morning. Give vague excuses. Say it is a private matter between the two of us and that you don't want to discuss it. Most of them are noble witches and wizards who will respect that sort of answer."
"Like I do?"
Severus frowned at him for a moment, then nodded. "Like you do."
"I hate this already," Remus muttered. "How do you live a lie?"
Severus shrugged. "You get used to it."
"I don't like keeping things from everyone," Remus said.
"Then tell everyone," Severus snapped. "I don’t give a damn who you tell as long as it doesn't get out into the general population."
Remus studied Severus for a moment. "Do you really not care who knows?" he asked at length.
Severus opened his mouth, then his expression changed and his mouth closed. "Yes," he said. "I care."
Remus reached for Severus' hand, and after a hesitation, Severus returned the squeeze.
"Does this mean that there's something for us to hide?" Remus asked.
Severus let go of his hand and moved to the end of the sofa, putting a cushion's distance between them.
"Do you have any idea what you're asking?"
"I'm asking if there's a chance for us," Remus replied. "Not a chance for a fuck, because you've already made it clear that you are willing to go that far. I want to know what you weren't telling me this morning. We can move past our differences, you know."
"So true love can conquer all?" Severus asked, folding his arms. "Please."
For a moment, Remus was quiet. Severus had an unnerving way of cutting straight to the heart of the matter. "I guess the real question is whether you want to move past our differences. I'd thought that your being here was going to be my answer, but I guess not?"
"It's not that simple."
"So you keep saying."
"Then perhaps you would do well to listen."
"Or perhaps you could lower yourself to be a little less vague." The exhilaration from earlier had worn off, replaced by a reluctant weariness. "We're off to a bad start again."
"We got off to a bad start when we were children."
Remus exhaled slowly, not opening his mouth until he was in control of what came out of it. "You know, I'm really getting tired of hearing that. As far as I'm concerned, there are four questions that need answering tonight."
Severus snorted, then gestured magnanimously. "By all means," he said, and Remus had the brief impression that there was humor in that dry tone.
"Do you want this?"
"Very well. What's the second question?"
"What’s the answer to the first?"
"Wouldn't it be more prudent to get all the questions out in the open?"
"Well, you see, whether or not the other questions are even relevant depends on your answer to the first question."
"Very well," Severus replied. "Define 'this'."
Remus hesitated, then waved a hand, his gesture encompassing the two of them. "Us," he said. "You, me. This."
"But what is this? Are you asking me for a lifelong commitment?"
"I suppose that's—"
"If you say that's what you're looking for, I'm leaving. I'm not committing to anything more than ten minutes into the future."
Remus stared at him for a moment. "Then what is my answer?"
"What is your question?"
"I told you—"
"No, you didn't."
"It isn't difficult, Severus."
"Nor is it simple."
"Only because you won't let it be!"
"What is it you want?" Severus asked bluntly. "You want something, or you wouldn't be here. I want something, or I wouldn't be here."
"What is it you want?" Remus asked after a moment's pause.
"I'm not the one pretending this is simple."
Remus sighed. "Do you want to pursue a relationship?" he asked, enunciating each word.
"And what does that entail, precisely?"
"Damn it, Severus! Is anything simple with you?"
"No. You're the one who only acknowledges two possibilities."
They were both quiet for a few moments, and Remus knew it was his turn to speak, but he didn't know what to say. So much for four simple questions. Why did Severus have to complicate everything?
"Perhaps I should rephrase," Severus said, breaking the silence. "What is it that you want from me?"
"I don't want anything from you," Remus replied, closing his eyes and massaging the bridge of his nose. This was impossible. Severus was right. There was too much history between them, and nowhere to start building a foundation of trust.
"Well," Severus said, his voice sounding a bit closed again, "I suppose that's my answer, isn't it?"
"If you don't want anything from me, then there's nothing else to discuss." He was standing, and Remus got to his feet too.
"What are you doing?"
Bewildered, Remus reached for Severus' arm, and as Severus flinched, he flinched as well. "Why?"
Severus jerked his arm away. "I don't know what you're playing at, but I'm tired of it."
"I'm not playing at anything!" Remus said. "I thought we were discussing—"
"We were. You made yourself quite clear, though. You want nothing from me and—"
"Do you want something from me?" Remus interrupted.
Severus' features shifted through a kaleidoscope of expressions before a blank one settled across his face. "Everyone wants something from everyone else."
Remus placed a hand on the wall, blocking Severus' exit. "What do you want from me?" he asked.
"I want what we had yesterday afternoon," Severus said after a moment's pause. "Sex, intimacy, conversation. A little patience wouldn't go amiss, and neither would a bit of understanding.
Remus leaned against the wall. "I am trying to give you those things," he said when he trusted himself not to snap. "I have been trying to give you those things."
"But it isn't enough?"
Severus folded his arms and took a great interest in the threadbare carpet. "You're upset again."
"A little. You're standing there and telling me that you want what I've been trying to give you."
Severus only shook his head for a moment, his eyes closed, lips moving slightly.
"Whatever it is you're not saying. That's what I want from you. I want you to sit down on that couch and talk to me, because I can not read your mind."
Severus opened his mouth as though to protest, then closed it again, and after another brief hesitation, he returned to the couch and sat. Half the request granted, at least.
Remus joined him, sitting at the opposite end, a cushion between them. "Well?"
"Think out loud then."
Severus narrowed his eyes, and for a moment, Remus expected to be told to go to hell. Severus sighed, though, and said, "Very well. I don't think the language I'm speaking and the one you're hearing are the same."
"You asked what I wanted from you—"
"Only because you asked first!"
"—and I told you. And it upsets you that what I want is the same as what you are giving. Thus, I must wonder how to impress upon you that if one party wants what the other is offering, the conditions are generally right for an exchange. Then, when I asked you what you want from me, you replied with two things that I had not offered as of yet, and given the spirit in which I informed you of what I want, I was immediately inclined towards offense, because it seemed that you wanted nothing I had offered so far, only that which I had not—"
"Shut up, Lupin. You told me to think out loud, and I am."
Remus blinked, but closed his mouth.
"As I was saying, it seemed that you wanted nothing I had offered so far, only that which I had not, and as I have been making quite the effort to be personable over the last few... well, hours at least... I doubt my ability to ever live up to your expectations. It is certainly a possibility that I'd never be able to give you what you wanted from me.
"Another possibility has presented itself as well, though. Perhaps when I asked what you want from me, you interpreted that to mean what you want that I haven't been giving, and that explanation makes some sense, given your reaction to my telling you what I wanted. Thus, I am led to consider that a miscommunication has taken place."
Leaning his head against his hand, Remus watched Severus' face as he spoke. Severus did not look at him, nor at anything. He did not fidget, did not move a muscle except for his lips and the occasional blink.
"My theory of a miscommunication, tempting though it may be to believe, is certainly not a given. I must now weigh the possibility that this potential miscommunication might be cleared up against the rather substantial possibility that it is not a miscommunication at all, but that my first instinct was correct—that you want nothing I have offered and much which I have not, in which case I'm not at all sure that it is even in my best interest to try and reconcile."
Remus only stared.
"And, assuming for the moment that I would be interested in reconciling, I wonder if I know how. After all, I thought I was being quite clear when I asked the question in the first place, but if a misunderstanding results from such a simple question"—he acknowledged Remus with a wry nod at that—"I wonder if we have established the necessary rapport to give each other the benefit of the doubt when such miscommunications do arise. It would appear, just from the last two days, that these miscommunications and misunderstandings would be inevitable. After all, we operate from two different perspectives, and while I think it is certainly possible to accommodate each other's differences, it is crucial that we be able to recognize them, preferably before one of the two of us attempts to walk out, as we both seem rather inclined to do. And that actually begs another question." For the first time, Severus looked at Remus, and seemed almost surprised to see Remus there.
Remus kept his face carefully blank.
After a hesitation, Severus cleared his throat and stood, clasping his hands behind his back as he continued. "Why are we both so willing to walk away? Are we trying to test each other? Trying to see whether the other will stop us? Looking for excuses to leave? It is pointless for me to try to consider your motivations, of course, so I will consider my own. I think that perhaps it comes back to the same question I had already posed before: I weigh the potential for clearing up a misunderstanding against the potential that we will not clear it up. If we come to an understanding, what do we—or rather, I—stand to gain? And if the misunderstanding is not resolved, what do I stand to lose? The answer to the former is an answer I don't have, and it is the answer to the question I posed earlier—what does 'this' entail? Not knowing the answer to that, I cannot properly assign a weight to the benefit of resolving our quarrel. By contrast, if we do not make amends, I can assume that the end result will be a return to the lull in hostilities we have established, and that, at least, is familiar."
Still watching him, Remus stood and joined him on the other side of the room. Part of him wanted to respond, part of him did not. The part that did not was simultaneously reluctant to interrupt now that Severus was finally talking and mesmerized by the sound of Severus' voice—which had taken on a musing quality and was smoother in monologue than it was in dialogue even.
"Ultimately, it is a question of taking a blind chance. Is the potential for what might be worth the risk when the alternative is a comfortable, if unfulfilling, familiarity? Thus, another weighing of possibilities. At its worst, tipping the balance in the wrong direction might result in outright hostility, and whether or not you believe it, I have enough conflict in my life at the moment without the addition of that which is not strictly necessary. Another possibility is something of a status quo, and that, perhaps, is enjoyable enough to tip the balance. I did rather enjoy our interlude yesterday, however abbreviated, and I think I would continue to enjoy them. The variable becomes the possibility of more, which is a question that refers back to the original one—what do we stand to gain from each other? And that, Lupin, is the question which resulted in the miscommunication that began this line of reasoning. In essence, I am faced with the decision of returning to the previous condition of stability—which, as I said, is acceptable if dissatisfying—or of taking a chance that by tipping the balance, I will tip it in a favorable direction." Severus was holding both his hands in front of him, palms up in imitation of a balance.
"Then, I further muddy the waters by asking how I might go about tipping the balance to begin with, and the only answer which readily presents itself is to somehow make clear to you what I was asking to begin with, as that seems to be the source of this misunderstanding. But then, if I knew how to articulate that question more effectively, I would have done so in the first place and the miscommunication would have never occurred. Thus, I have come full circle, posed many questions, answered none, decided nothing and realized that even if I did decide I wanted to take action, I haven't the slightest idea how to do so. Given all this, my inclination is towards the safety of our previously stable condition, because even if it is not satisfying, it is preferable to the potential hostility that might result from the tipping of a precarious balance when I don't know how to control the outcome." A faint, wry smile turned up the corners of Severus' mouth. "Of course, all this might be resolved if I could articulate a bit of this to you. It would be very convenient if you could, indeed, read my mind on this point."
Remus stared at him, dumbfounded, then reacted in the most reasonable way a man could react to such a speech. He stuffed his fist into his mouth and turned around in an effort to keep from laughing to Severus' face. After a few moments of regaining his composure, he turned around and found that Severus had returned to the couch and was sitting very still. Remus joined him, sitting close enough to put an arm around his shoulders. "Do you put that much thought into everything?" he asked.
Severus' eyes narrowed, then he nodded. "If not more."
"You're mad. You do realize that?"
Severus shrugged and tried to scoot away, but Remus moved off the couch and crouched on the floor in front of him, bracing his hands on Severus' knees.
"Don't you dare turn away from me now," he whispered. "This is the first time we're getting somewhere, and I'm not letting you go that easily."
Severus looked away, but Remus placed a hand against Severus' neck, turning his face to the front again.
"I'm glad you told me all that," he said, looking into Severus' eyes. "You have the same doubts and questions I do, don't you?" He moved to sit on the sofa again, keeping his hands firmly on Severus' neck. "You were right. There are many more than four questions, more than a hundred. And they all come back to one, over and over again. You do want this as much as I do, don't you?"
Severus looked as though he might protest, so Remus went on without giving him the chance.
"Don't worry about exactly what 'this' is. We're both adults, and if it doesn't work out between us, we can reach an arrangement that will be no worse than it ever was, and possibly one that will be better. We don't have to be afraid of what might happen. What might happen is that we might find something we've both been looking for, and worst case scenario, we've cleared the air between us, right?" He rubbed his thumb against Severus' jaw. "You don't have to be afraid of what might happen. Hope for the best. The worst that can happen is nothing at all."
"Am I a fool because I want to believe you?" Severus asked, his voice hoarse.
"Probably," Remus agreed, touching Severus' cheek. "But I promise I will never make you regret it."
Severus nodded, his eyes open again but cast to the floor. Remus laced his fingers through Severus' and lifted his hand, kissing his knuckles. Severus brushed his knuckles over Remus' face. "You're ahead of me again."
"You're talking about never and always," Severus murmured. "I'm still talking about tonight."
"Tonight, hmm?" Remus asked. "And what would you like to do tonight?"
"Nothing has changed since yesterday. I still don't want any commitments or—" Remus shut him up with a kiss.
Severus stiffened, then relaxed, and Remus took that as an invitation to continue. He rose to his knees as a dull roar began to swirl in his ears, growing louder and more persistent as their kiss deepened. Remus moved his arms around Severus, and Severus leaned back on the couch. Their bodies were pressed against one another, and Remus could feel Severus' heart pounding. The roar was growing louder, accompanied by a shift in his vision; the entire room seemed to be taking on a greenish tint.
Green? questioned a voice in the back of his mind. Shouldn't it be red?
Severus stiffened suddenly and shoved him away so fast that Remus was left gasping for breath, staggering to keep from rolling onto the floor.
"Headmaster!" Severus breathed, swiping a hand across his mouth, his eyes wide as he struggled to sit up.
Headmaster? Remus whirled around, and wished he hadn't. Dumbledore was brushing the ash from his robes, looking from one of them to the other.
"Dumbledore," Remus said, attempting a casual tone and falling well short of it. He could feel the heat rising in his face as Dumbledore's eyes narrowed. "We—er—" Remus looked at Severus, who hadn't glanced away from Dumbledore yet.
"We'll discuss this later," Dumbledore said, his eyes darting back and forth between the two wizards. "Stop looking so guilty, both of you. We haven't the time for this right now. There has been an urgent development, and we're all gathering in the kitchen. Straighten your robes and find your composure and come downstairs immediately."
"Not now, Severus," Dumbledore said, holding up a hand. "We'll discuss this later."
They straightened their robes and Remus forked a hand through his hair, attempting to force a blank expression onto his face. Severus, he noticed, had already smoothed his features into his signature scowl, though he was paler than usual and his eyes were darting about as he followed Dumbledore out of the room.
When they arrived in the kitchen, half the Order was already present, buzzing with the question of why they had been called like this. A loud crack!, followed closely by a second, announced the arrivals of Diggle and Doge.
"If everyone will please be quiet," Dumbledore said, raising his voice to be heard over the din of chatter. "I haven't much time, so it is imperative that everyone listen now. There has been an attack in Little Whinging—"
"Was anyone hurt?"
"Is Harry all right?"
"Who was on duty?"
Everyone was speaking at once, and Dumbledore held up a hand to silence the mounting questions. "There will be plenty of time later for the asking of questions, when we have had the time to find some answers. What I know right now is that Harry and his cousin were apparently attacked by Dementors, and Harry fended them off with quite the spectacular Patronus."
Remus cringed; on the one hand, he had never once regretted teaching Harry to defend himself against the Dementors, but on the other hand, he couldn't help feeling responsible for the attention a Patronus would have drawn in a Muggle neighborhood.
"This is the second time he has drawn the Ministry's eye in this way," Dumbledore continued. "And I'm afraid that this time, Fudge is not so keen to overlook it."
"It was self defense!" Sirius snapped, his eyes narrow.
Remus placed a hand on his arm. "Of course it was," he replied. "The Ministry will see that. What were Dementors doing in Little Whinging, anyway?"
"That remains to be seen," Dumbledore said. "With regards to both the Ministry and the Dementors."
"How did they get away from Azkaban?" Tonks asked, frowning. "They're supposed to be under control there."
"We will worry about the Dementors later," Dumbledore said. "Right now, I want three things to happen. Minerva, I need you to see to reorganizing the schedules. Increase all the shifts to six hours, three guards at all times, and overlap the changes. Sirius, I need you to write to Harry and implore him not to do anything else. He is not to leave the house, and he is not to perform any more magic. And I want Harry in this house no later than Friday, so everyone needs to put their minds to how we're going to get him here without drawing undue attention and what steps we need to take to ensure that once he is here, he is safe. Molly, Alastor, you two coordinate that please."
No one was speaking; Remus supposed everyone was too stunned to form coherent thoughts. That was his excuse, at least, and to some extent it was blessed. He didn't have time at the moment to worry about what Dumbledore had seen and what his reaction would be.
"If there are no questions, then—"
"Is Harry all right?" Molly interrupted.
Dumbledore's face was very serious as he looked at her over the top of his glasses. "He is safe at the moment," he replied. "But it would appear that keeping him that way has suddenly become more difficult." He stood and smoothed his robes. "I will return as soon as I can, hopefully with the news that Harry's expulsion has been reversed. For now, though, I need everyone here to put their minds to the task of keeping him alive."
This last was aimed in Severus' direction, and Severus looked away. Dumbledore Disapparated, and for a moment, the Order sat, staring at each other without speaking.
"Right then," Minerva said at last, standing. "We all have our jobs to do, so get to it. No use in sitting around the table."
"Right," Molly agreed, standing as well. "Bill, go find parchment and quills. And check on your brothers and sister while you're upstairs."
Bill shot her a look that spoke volumes of a son who was irritated at being ordered around but too reasonable to protest. He crossed the kitchen in three strides and his feet were thundering up the stairs even before Molly turned towards Moody, her fists on her hips.
"How soon do you think we can get him here?" she demanded. "Tomorrow morning?"
Moody shook his head, his magical eye spinning rapidly. "No good," he replied. "We'll only draw attention if we bring him now."
"He's in danger!"
"He'll be under guard—"
"He was under guard tonight."
"I think everyone will be taking it a bit more seriously now. Three guards at all times; the house always within their sight."
"If anyone has preferences for duty times, speak up now," Minerva called above the racket. "I'm not spending the next three hours on these schedules."
"During the night," Severus called, closing his eyes and folding his arms across his chest.
"Not between nine and five," Bill replied, dropping an armload of parchment and quills on the table. "And don't put Charlie between nine and five either. Or Dad."
"Or me," Tonks called.
"Someone has to take shifts during the day," Minerva said firmly.
"I'm working," Bill replied, just as firmly. "Terribly sorry that's inconvenient."
"Arthur is still guarding the prophesy," Moody called over his shoulder. "And so are you, Tonks."
"Move the shifts forward by an hour," Severus suggested, leaning over Minerva's shoulder and pointing. "Put Bill from five to eleven and Charlie from seven to one…"
"What are you going to say to Harry?" Remus asked, turning away from the scene in the kitchen to face Sirius.
"I don't know," Sirius muttered, taking a piece of the parchment and staring at it. "Dumbledore said that they expelled him."
"He'll get that decision overturned," Remus said, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt.
Sirius nodded. "I'm sure you're right," he replied, as he dipped his quill into the ink jar. Dear Harry, he began, then stopped as a mournful look covered his face. "I haven't written to him nearly enough this summer."
"You're writing to him now," Lupin said, encouraging him to go on. "And he'll be here soon."
"This is no use," Severus announced, straightening. "We're short-handed. We need two more people."
"I said I'd do it," Tonks replied. "Just can't do it while I'm at work. What shifts do you still need covered?"
"Three to nine and nine to three."
"Morning or night?"
"Three in the morning to nine in the morning, and nine in the evening to three in the morning."
"Give me the nine to three."
"I'll take the other one," Sirius called out, not even looking from the parchment.
"Is that really a good idea, Sirius?"
"Why not?" Severus asked, sounding as irritated as Sirius looked. Remus shot Severus a warning glance, but Minerva had him locked under one of her sternest gazes.
"Severus, we haven't the time for—"
"Look," Severus said, bracing his hands on the table. "We need another person, he's volunteering to do it. We're shorthanded and it's only until we get Potter here. A week, Minerva."
"That's more than enough time for him to be caught and sent back to Azkaban," she argued.
"God forbid anyone ask me if I'm willing to take that chance for my godson," Sirius muttered.
"It's out of the question, Severus. I know you don't like him, but really," Minerva said, facing off with Severus.
"But really," he replied, mocking her stance, "I don’t give a damn if Black gets caught or not. We have a shift that no one can cover and he doesn't happen to be doing anything on a given afternoon."
"Sod off, Snape," Sirius said, though his voice lacked conviction. He looked at the parchment again and wrote a few lines. I'm sorry I haven't written to you more. I should have done more to get you here sooner and then none of this would have happened. It's my fault, but all we can do now is weather the storm.
"If it weren't right in the middle of the day, I'd say to put Shacklebolt down for it," Tonks said, wandering over to the table where Minerva was scribbling.
"Severus, you're just going to have to take an earlier shift," Minerva told him flatly. He scowled in response.
"I want at least a dozen people for the guard when we go to get him," Moody was saying in another corner. "We need volunteers."
"I'll go!" Bill said, the first to speak up.
"Count me in," Charlie called, and he was closely followed by several others.
"I'll do it!"
"Don't suppose it will do me any good to volunteer," Sirius said, frowning at the parchment. Remus gave him an encouraging smile.
"If you need me, I'll be glad to help," Remus offered, though from the looks of it, there were plenty of volunteers.
"I'd rather not," Severus replied from across the room, and Remus couldn't help but chuckle. Their eyes met across the room, and a warm feeling engulfed Remus, and as he looked back at Sirius, he was smiling, in spite of the situation.
"I don't know what to say," Sirius complained again, lowering his head into his hand. "I want to tell him so much, and…" He shook his head. "He should have been here and none of this would have happened."
"All right," Minerva called out again. "I think I have a working schedule. Bill, you're from seven in the evening until one in the morning."
"Come on, Mad-Eye. Don't you think eight will be enough?" Tonks was sitting backwards in a chair, her arms folded over the back of it, chin resting on her wrists.
"Charlie, you're from nine till three."
"I don't like it," Moody replied. "We need as many eyes as we can get. I'd feel better if we could gather a guard of twenty."
"Tonks, you're from eleven to five. Does that leave you enough time to sleep?"
"I'm young," she replied, winking at Remus. "I don't need sleep. Cheers!" This was met with something of a chuckle, and an admiring look from Charlie.
"Severus, I've got you down from three in the morning until nine."
Severus didn't respond, but his displeasure was etched across his face.
"Don't look at me like that," Minerva told him. "Remus, you're from five to eleven. I'm from seven to one. Mundungus, you've got the nine to three shift, and you are to be there. No exceptions."
"Who's there now?" Sirius asked, looking up.
"Shacklebolt and Jones," Moody replied. "But a couple of you could go relieve them."
"Well, I'm supposed to be there now anyway," Bill said, standing. "I'll go."
"Me too," Charlie offered.
"And me," Tonks chimed in, hitting her knee on the table as she stood.
"Your shift doesn't even start for an hour, Tonks," Bill pointed out.
"Eh. Might as well go now. See you later!"
A series of three pops marked the departures of the youngest wizards and witches in their number, and somehow the kitchen seemed quieter. Remus turned back to Sirius again.
"What have you got so far?"
Sirius looked up at him and cleared his throat. "Dear Harry," he read. "I'm sorry I haven't written to you more. I should have done more to get you here sooner and then none of this would have happened. It's my fault, but all we can do now is weather the storm. I promise we're doing all we can to--"
"Oh for the love of Merlin," Severus interrupted. "Is that a letter to a long lost love? This is a fifteen year old boy and you are supposed to be playing the role of responsible adult telling him to not draw any further attention."
Sirius narrowed his eyes at Severus. "I really don't recall asking your opinion," Sirius said in a dangerous tone.
"And I don't recall that being a stipulation for speaking one's mind," Severus shot back. "Tell him to hide his wand under his bed and forget it's in his possession until he is told otherwise, and tell him to keep his hot head out of trouble!"
"So now he's hotheaded because he defended himself against Dementors?" Sirius challenged, pushing away from the table.
"Both of you, stop it," Remus snapped. "Sirius, sit down. Severus—just stop. We're all on the same side here."
Sirius gave him a venomous look, but sat again, snatching up his quill and crumpling the parchment he'd been scribbling on. The new sheet of parchment bore the brunt of his wrath as he jabbed the quill at it hard enough to rip the paper. It wasn't Sirius' very visible anger that clenched at Remus' heart though. It was the cold look that had found its way to Severus' face. His eyes were narrowed, his arms folded, and his stance spoke volumes of his offense.
"Are my services needed here any longer?" he asked coolly, and Remus stood.
"Never were to begin with," Sirius replied, half under his breath. As was so often the case, though, it was a remark made into dead silence; everyone had stopped talking when the tension between the two rival wizards had become palpable, and everyone heard the jab.
"Then I shall be going," Severus said, his voice icy now. "Minerva, you know how to reach me." Severus stalked out of the kitchen, and Remus was halfway to the door when Sirius noticed and gave him an incredulous look.
"Where are you going?"
Remus' mouth opened, but he was casting about for an answer that wouldn't be damning. Minerva rescued him with a hand on his arm.
"Let him be," she suggested. "It's probably for the better anyway."
They traded looks, his pleading and hers knowing, and after a pause, he nodded. She squeezed his arm.
"Alastor," Minerva said, turning back into the kitchen. "I think we should send Remus as part of the guard that goes to retrieve Harry. Aside from Sirius and Dumbledore, I can't think of anyone Harry would trust more, and I don't think Albus will be going."
"I said I'd go," Sirius muttered.
"I don't think that's a good idea, Sirius," Minerva replied. "You do this Order no good if you're dead."
"As opposed to the immeasurable volume of good that I do while hiding out," Sirius replied, dipping his quill in the ink again and again, scrawling words across the page with a jerky, irritated hand. "Forget it. If I can't go, Remus, I want you to. I'd feel better knowing that there is someone in that guard that Harry can trust."
"Harry can trust anyone in this Order," Molly pointed out.
"Fine. Then someone he knows he can trust."
"Of course I'll go," Remus replied, attempting to head off another argument. It worked to an extent; Sirius was no longer ripping at the parchment he was writing on, and there were no more arguments. After three more attempts, the letter was suitably written and an owl was flying off to Surrey to deliver the missive.
It was nearly midnight when Dumbledore returned with the news—Harry's expulsion had been reduced to a suspension and he would keep his wand pending the results of his hearing, which was scheduled in ten days' time. After hearing the news, most of the Order either drifted towards their beds or returned to their homes, but Remus lingered in the kitchen until everyone except Dumbledore was gone.
Finally, Dumbledore looked around. "Where is Severus?" he asked.
Remus cast his eyes to the ground. "He left about two hours ago."
"He left," Dumbledore repeated. "Why did he leave?"
Remus sighed and folded his arms. "I think I upset him. He and Sirius were bickering and—I told them both to shut up."
Dumbledore exhaled in what might have passed for a laugh. "Yes, I'm sure that did upset him," he mused, seating himself across the table from Remus. "Perhaps it is just as well, though I had hoped to have this conversation with the both of you at the same time."
Breath catching in his throat, Remus forced himself to look at the headmaster, though he could feel the wariness wrapping around him like a shroud. "What conversation is that?" he asked, stalling.
"Let's not pretend that we don't all three know what is going on," Dumbledore said, pointing his wand across the kitchen. The doors opened and two teacups, a pot and a canister floated to the table. He continued to speak as he filled the teapot with water and heated it, all without the breath of an incantation. "You two were not discussing strategy in the drawing room this evening. How long has this been going on?"
Steam was coming out of the teapot now, and with another flick of his wand, Dumbledore was filling their teacups and pushing one across the table towards Remus. Remus busied himself with a spoon and a bit of sugar. "Since yesterday," he muttered.
Dumbledore smiled and nodded. "Then at least a month," he mused. "Severus does not rush into anything blindly and I am sure it took at least that long for him to warm up to the idea." He took a sip of his tea, then smoothed his beard. "I'm sure you are wondering what business it is of mine, anyway."
Remus was, but he had no intentions of admitting any such thing. Dumbledore didn't seem to need him to admit it though.
"It's not," Dumbledore replied. "Or rather, it wouldn't be if it were not for what we do here. Any other time and place, and I would be telling you that whatever makes you happy is a worthwhile pursuit. Perhaps I wouldn't be discussing it with you at all."
Remus held his breath, not sure what he was so scared he was going to hear.
"I want you to be happy. Both of you. All of you, in fact. I care very deeply for everyone who is a part of this Order, and I pray nightly that there will come a time when all of you may pursue happiness with no other cares. I want you to know that."
"Of course," Remus replied, attempting a casual tone.
"I'll stop dancing around the issue," Dumbledore promised, his teacup clinking against the saucer as he placed both on the table. "I do not approve of this. Not here and now."
That was the rockslide that Remus had been waiting for, and it hurt more than he would have cared to admit. He looked away, fighting the urge to protest.
"What we do is too important, Remus. I cannot have lovers' quarrels disrupting our business and endangering our success."
"Lovers' quarrels?" Remus repeated, snapping his eyes back to Dumbledore to peer incredulously at him.
"Yes," Dumbledore replied. "Such as the one you and Severus are having now. I needed the both of you here tonight, not one or the other—"
"Severus was here until the plans had been finalized," Remus protested. "He helped Minerva with the scheduling, he offered advice about Sirius' letter, he nobly volunteered not to be one of the ones to go fetch Harry. What more did you want him to do? Sit here and twiddle his thumbs until you came back? If you want to talk to someone about quarrelling, talk to Sirius and Severus about their ridiculous grudge."
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow, something resembling amusement flickering across his face for a moment. "Perhaps you are right," Dumbledore replied. "Perhaps I am not giving two grown men enough credit for being able to keep their quarrels to themselves and not allowing them to affect the Order's business. But allow me to remind you, Remus—whatever it is that you have found with Severus, if it does not work out, you will still have to face him and work with him. There is already more than enough tension in this group, and I'll have no more of it."
Remus folded his arms, looking at the table again. "You don't seem to have much confidence in us."
"I've twice known Severus to be in love," Dumbledore replied, and Remus' eyes shot back to the elder wizard's face. There was no mocking in the blue eyes, no indication that he was being anything other than perfectly serious. "He is not an easy man to love. I know this because I have spent the last fifteen years reminding myself daily that I do care for him deeply and consider him a friend. If I had to select two people to face any struggle with me, to advise me and protect my back, he would be one of the two. And yet, not a week goes by that I do not want to drop him in a vat of honey in the hopes that he will absorb some of the sweetness to cut through the bitterness that laces his words and actions."
Remus stared, thunderstruck by what Dumbledore had just said. There was so much in that simple, frank speech that it took a moment for all of it to sink in. Dumbledore, the patient and good-natured old wizard, found the dour Potions master as irritating and prickly as everyone else did. Yet he trusted him and was fond of him. And Dumbledore had known Severus to be in love. That, of itself, was possibly the most stunning of all the revelations.
"Who was he in love with?" Remus asked. "What happened?"
"That, I believe, is a conversation for you and Severus to have, and it is one I would suggest finding the time for if you are determined to pursue this. I'm asking you to consider it carefully, though," Dumbledore said. "Consider it from every side, including what it will mean if you find that it is not what you were looking for."
Remus nodded, and Dumbledore stood, straightening his robes. "I don't suppose you know what time Severus' guard shift is, do you?"
"Begins at three."
Dumbledore looked at the clock on the mantle, frowning. "Well," he said, seeming to waver for a moment. "It does seem quite rude to intrude so late at night when he must be somewhere so early, but I suppose he will catch up on his sleep. I feel that I need to have this conversation with him as well, preferably before the two of you share a shift again. Am I correct in assuming that you will be?"
Remus nodded. "Four hours of it, anyway."
"Then he will simply have to forgive my interruption, I suppose. Get some sleep, Remus. I want you alert while you are in Surrey."