torch, torch@doubleagent.org
May 2004 - September 2007

Disclaimer: a lot of dragons under the bridge. Story written for C, with love. Beta work by Shoshanna; britpicking by Temaris. Do not archive this story without permission.

A bright particular star

Remus hadn't bothered to put on robes over his shirt and trousers, feeling that a school tie, however sloppily tied, was enough of an attempt at being proper on what was, strictly speaking, the first day of the holidays. He regretted it, though, because the entrance hall was quite drafty. Standing with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched against the chill in the air, he watched as James juggled two bags, an umbrella, a seven-foot scarf, and Lily's hat. "You're not nervous by any chance, are you, James?"

James dropped the umbrella. "No, of course not!" The hat shot away from him and landed on Remus's head. "Not a bit of it."

Remus adjusted the hat to a more rakish angle. "My mistake."

Lily just laughed and picked up the umbrella, but Remus thought that she was nervous, too, going to spend Christmas with James's parents.

"Where's Peter?" James asked, dropping one of the bags.

"He's already outside. You'll catch up with him. He's got all those bags of Honeydukes sweets for his seventeen cousins." Remus took the scarf and wrapped it around James's neck. "Get going. You don't want to miss the train."

"Merry Christmas, Remus," Lily said, fishing something out of an inner pocket under her thick winter robes. It was a small package, and she pushed it into Remus's hands. "Here."

"Thanks," he started to say, and then Sirius came running down the stairs and threw a cage at James.

"You forgot your owl, dimwit. Everyone ready?"

"Yes," James said and dropped the second bag.

Sirius rolled his eyes. "Honestly, James. You'd better leave that to me." He picked up the bags. "Lily, please lead the poor confused lad out of here before he drops his glasses. Or his head." Lily shepherded James towards the doors, and Sirius turned to Remus. "Very fetching," he said gravely. "Pink is definitely your color."

"It really doesn't go with red hair, though," Remus said with the same air of gravity.

"No. It really doesn't." Sirius grinned. "I'll see you soon," he said, clasping Remus's arm with his free hand.

"Sirius!" James howled from the doors. "Sirius, the carriages are about to leave!"

"Honestly, some people," Sirius said, and ran.

Remus smiled faintly as he watched Sirius crash into James and both of them more or less fall out through the front doors. He turned and went towards the stairs, and was nearly bowled over by a fourth-year Hufflepuff who ran head down, like a charging bull, towards the exit. Very few students were staying at Hogwarts over Christmas this year. Though no one said anything outright, everyone seemed to feel that it was a good idea, this year, to spend as much time as possible with family, with loved ones.

Lunar cycles took very little heed of the unsettled state of the wizarding world, though. Remus looked up the staircase to make certain no one else was charging down it, and started up towards the Gryffindor tower again. He stopped halfway, at a small landing with a window nook that overlooked the road from the castle. The last of the carriages bowled away as he watched.

"It is a great pleasure," a voice said behind him, "to be able to celebrate the Christmas holidays with you, Remus Lupin." Remus turned to see Dumbledore smiling at him. "And to see that you have finally decided to be a little more daring in your choice of color. I have always felt that the clothes make the wizard." Dumbledore himself was wearing a deep violet velvet frock coat and an emerald-green cravat.

"I'm afraid it's Lily's," Remus said, tugging off the pink hat. It leaped in his hand, and he leaned forward and quickly yanked the window open. Not a moment to soon, as it turned out, since the hat flew from his grasp and zoomed out the window, following the carriages. "And it seems she wanted it back."

"Ah. And you have everything you need for this evening?"

Remus looked down at his hands. "Yes." He wanted the others, but as for need, he needed nothing but sturdy walls and a locked door between himself and the rest of the world.

"Excellent. I have taken the liberty of asking the house elves to bring you a little something in the Gryffindor common room, as you'll be missing tonight's dinner. They assure me that they know just what you require."

Dumbledore continued down the stairs, humming what sounded like Good King Wenceslas. Remus took a last look out the window, but he could no longer see the carriages, only the empty road, and a few snowflakes drifting through the air. He admired the stark black trees for a moment, the delicate icicles hanging from the ledge above the window, the way the snowdrifts piled high on either side of the castle's main entrance. Then he went on up the staircase with resolute steps, and headed for the library.

No one else was there. He read for a couple of hours, at first with ambitious note-taking, later with just a scribbled word here and there as a reminder to look something up later. After all, he had days and days of uninterrupted time. The library was very silent around him, no murmurs from other students, no rustle of pages turning anywhere else. Eventually he began to feel as though he were underwater. He put the Arithmancy books away, and went back to Gryffindor Tower.

The Fat Lady was napping, and none too eager to wake up to hear him say "Ailuromancy," but eventually the portrait hole swung open and Remus scrambled inside. The fire burned warmly in the common room, and in front of the fireplace was a small round table holding a tray filled to overflowing. It smelled delicious. Remus went to the table and found one pot of tea and one of hot chocolate, plates of cheese and cucumber sandwiches, cold ham and chicken and roast beef, mince pies, candied fruit, thin cinnamon biscuits with red and green and white icing, chocolate cake, clotted cream, scones, five kinds of jam, a bag of vanilla fudge, and a large gingerbread man standing sentry over it all. It was enough food for six growing boys. Evidently the house elves did know just what he required.

He ate a sandwich, and then another one, and then all of the chicken and most of the ham. Someone had left a small pile of books on the hearthrug, and Remus read about the adventures and research behind the discovery of common potions ingredients through the centuries, and only spilled chocolate cake and clotted cream on himself once. He moved on to the biscuits, chewing methodically while he learned about Nicolas Flamel's innovative use of Boomslang skin, and the experiments of "Explosive" Elfrida Wattle, who ordered her cauldrons by the gross. Two scones later, he wiped his fingers clean of cream and jam on a linen napkin, poured himself a large cup of hot chocolate, and went to curl up in the window seat and watch the snow fall.

It wasn't a lot of snow, just a few flakes here and there; nothing like the heavy snowfalls over the past few days that had left drifts waist-high to Hagrid in places. Yesterday afternoon, some Hufflepuff third-years had built a snow fort down by the lake, and lobbed snowballs at everyone who passed until they hit Professor Prism by mistake. After the chastened third-years had left, Sirius and James had taken turns trying to conquer and defend the fort, losing every shred of near-adult dignity in the process. Remus sipped at his chocolate and ran his fingers over the velvet nap of a cushion. Shorter than fur, and so much softer.

Far below, he could make out the gaunt form of Argus Filch wading through the snow towards one of the greenhouses, carrying a well-wrapped bundle that was probably his cat, Mrs. Elton, who was getting on a bit in years. Remus smiled. She was a cantankerous old beast, and had shredded any number of his socks with her claws over the years, finding him in places he shouldn't be.

For now, though, it was close to time for him to go to the place where he should be. Remus finished his hot chocolate and put the cup back on the tray. He ate a mince pie, then wrapped another two and a couple of sandwiches in a clean napkin and put them in the pocket of his robe. The bag of fudge went in another pocket, and he went up to the dorm for gloves and a hat, which was not pink. Peter had left six bags of sweets behind on his bedside table, and shirts and socks trailed across the floor from Sirius' bed towards the door. Remus picked them up and put them on the foot of the bed. He rubbed the tip of his nose and walked down the stairs.

The Fat Lady was asleep again as he left. A few other portraits wished him a merry Christmas as he passed them on his way down. Remus had to wait for a while on the second landing while a staircase changed direction; he dug into the bag of fudge and ate two large pieces.

Down in the entrance hall, he admired the giant Christmas tree that had appeared in one corner, blazing with lights and glittering with real icicles, protected by an anti-melting charm. Remus pulled his gloves and hat on and went outside.

The sun had already set, but with all the snow on the ground and all the lights in the windows, the school grounds closest to the castle were not particularly dark. Remus made his way around the castle, following shoveled and trampled paths for as long as he could. Snowflakes settled in his hair and on the tips of his eyelashes, gathered around the cuffs of his robe, melted against his cheek to run down his neck. When he stepped away from the path to walk towards the Willow, he sank to his knees, and snow grained its way over the tops of his boots.

The Whomping Willow was almost quiescent in the cold, rustling into enough life to dump snow on him as he strode in quickly to press the knot at its base, but not managing more than a half-hearted swipe. Remus slid down into the hole in a rush of snow. He shook himself off as best he could and walked quickly along the passage, feeling his skin prickle. There was a deep itch behind his eyes, in the joints of his knees, at the lowest point of his spine. Fishing in his pocket, he got out another piece of fudge and gulped it down, barely tasting it. He should have eaten more, earlier. Thinking about the food in his other pocket made him faintly nauseated, but the fudge was still possible to choke down, sugar and fat to fuel the pain to come.

Emerging into the dusty hallway of the Shrieking Shack, Remus got his wand out and said a quick spell to get the last of the melting snow off his clothes. He closed and locked the door to the tunnel and went upstairs to take his clothes off. Remus put the food in one pile on the bed, his clothes in another. The Shack was very cold, and he refused to say a warming spell for the wolf's benefit.

Remus walked out and closed the door at the top of the stairs, locking and spelling it closed. Down on the ground floor again, he climbed up on a wobbly three-legged stool that had been four-legged once and stuck his wand carefully in a crack in the molding by the ceiling, checking twice that it wouldn't come loose when the wolf hurled itself against the wall. He walked around the room, rubbing his arms, and took the same deep breath he always did when he tried to prepare himself for eleven hours of being something other than his thinking, remembering self.

Cold. Dark. The itch under his skin was stronger. Remus tried to recite the ingredients of a Swelling Solution to distract himself, but he couldn't remember how to — how to—

Hungry. Hungryhungryhungry. His teeth ached with the need to bite, and then the pain came.

The moon set at thirteen minutes past four in the morning. Remus became aware, slowly, that he was breathing. He opened one eye, then the other, and whispered "Accio wand!" Necessity had forced him to perfect this one piece of wandless magic, and it did not fail him now, but the effort made his eyes close again, and he fought the darkness inside his head. He should try to heal himself, should summon his clothes.

A clatter at the door gave him focus. Madam Pomfrey came in, putting her solunar watch back in her pocket. Remus tried to turn towards her, and she tsked reprovingly. "Don't move. Let me see... oh, and you've been doing so well lately. Still, not as bad as it could have been." She conjured up a stretcher, and once again he failed to see how, though he thought it must be some form of transmutation. When she levitated him onto it, he bit back a whimper; his left arm had stuck to the floor with dried blood. "Oh, I'm so sorry, dear."

She spread a warm, soft blanket over him and pushed a piece of chocolate into his mouth, and he felt warmth returning, slowly, to his fingers and toes. Remus let the chocolate melt in his mouth while Madam Pomfrey went over his body with quick, capable hands, folding the blanket this way and that to leave him as covered as possible while she was healing and bandaging. "Thank you," Remus whispered. His voice stuck in his throat.

Madam Pomfrey went upstairs. Remus closed his eyes for a second, and then she was back again with his clothes and the food he should have eaten last night. He tried to sit up, and she put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down again. "Infirmary for you," she said. "I'm afraid I didn't think to bring some of the ointments. You didn't need them the last few times, and I was hoping... well, but it's not so bad. I don't think anything will scar this time." She flicked her wand, and the stretcher twitched and floated after her.

"You shouldn't," Remus said, and his throat protested, "you shouldn't have to get up in the middle of the night. For me."

"Nonsense." She floated him down into the tunnel. "Your health is my responsibility. A fine help I'd be to you if I slept when I was needed. Are you warm enough? Do you need another blanket?"

Remus shook his head. The gentle rocking of the stretcher was enough to jar what he thought might be a couple of dislocated fingers and broken toes, but he wasn't so cold any more. The cold had made him numb, though, and he almost regretted the regained sensation when he had to hold on to the sides of the stretcher as it tipped to float up and out of the opening by the Willow. Outside, crisp cold air bit into his lungs, and he coughed, looking up at the stars. The Willow rustled as Madam Pomfrey walked out of its reach, the stretcher with Remus floating by her side. Behind them, the Willow thumped the ground, churning the snow and erasing their footprints.

They entered the castle through a small side door at the foot of the Astronomy tower, and went by narrow corridors and rarely-used staircases to the infirmary. The stretcher tipped Remus gently onto a bed, and Madam Pomfrey set up screens around him and went to fetch her supplies. Remus popped his jaw and prodded his teeth with his tongue; he'd knocked three of them out, once, and almost choked himself. One of his lower right molars seemed to be chipped, but not too badly.

Madam Pomfrey came back, drawing the screens closed. She set his dislocated fingers quickly and painlessly, mended the broken bones in his foot and wrapped both foot and toes in bandages to hold them steady for the next couple of days while the breaks set properly. Then she covered him almost head to toe with a thick, greasy salve that smelled of wintergreen. The cuts burned a little as they began to heal, but the same burning warmth felt good on his bruises. Remus had long since ceased to be embarrassed at this kind, brisk woman seeing and touching every part of him. She was very thorough, but her hands were gentle.

"Can I go back to my bed now?" The words rasped in his throat.

"Give it an hour, let the ointment sink in. And drink this." She handed him a mug of something that steamed ominously.

Remus drank. It felt like fire rushing down his throat, but then the burning sensation receded and left a more comfortable, soothing warmth. "Thank you," he said, and the words didn't hurt so much any more.

He waited, and slowly the greasy salve eased into his skin; deep scratches turned to mere red lines, and bruises faded from black to purplish blue. Remus ate some more vanilla fudge as he waited. He didn't want to fall asleep here, he wanted to go back to his own four-poster bed and draw the heavy velvet curtains to shut out the coming day. No one would bother him there. His skin felt tender, even the pressure of the soft sheets almost too much. Moonburn, he thought. Other people got sunburned, but not he.

At long last, Madam Pomfrey came back, felt his forehead and touched his shoulders, nodded, shook his shirt out and handed it to him. "Best get back now," she said, "before the castle wakes up. Come and see me around noon and I'll have some more ointment made up for you."

He pulled his shirt on slowly and buttoned it with stiff fingers, then reached for the rest of his clothes. As soon as he was dressed, Madam Pomfrey pushed the screens aside, and he was free to go.

The stairs and hallways were still dark, no torches or candles lit yet, and most of the portraits snoozed peacefully in their frames. It took Remus five tries to wake the Fat Lady, who muttered something disapproving about young people and their lack of manners. The table and tray had been cleared away from the common room, but the book he'd been reading still lay on the window seat. Remus staggered up to the dormitory, heavy-eyed and drag-footed. Inside it was warm and dim and comforting. He went towards his bed, and then the door was flung open behind him and hit the wall with a thump. "Remus! Happy Christmas. I'm so sorry I'm late."

He turned with an effort. Sirius. Pink-cheeked, snowy-haired, and clearly not in Cornwall. Remus blinked. "Late?"

"I meant to come back again last night." Sirius flung off his cloak and rubbed his hands together. "I didn't want you to have to do it alone. But I was delayed and had to take the night train. Perfect horror, colicky babies and the steam whistle, I don't believe I slept five minutes."

"Late," Remus repeated, hands fumbling with his crookedly buttoned shirt. He blinked at Sirius, who wasn't supposed to be there at all.

"Sleep," Sirius said firmly. "I'll tell you later." He caught Remus by the shoulder and pushed him down on his bed, sitting beside him. "I need sleep, too. Just as long as we don't miss Christmas dinner."

A part of Remus wanted to growl at having Sirius there, mybedmyplacegetout, but Sirius smelled like snow and friendship, and he was warm and human, and Remus felt exhaustion rise like a black undertow and pull him down. He slumped down against his pillows and closed his eyes.

He dreamed about running and biting and woke up with his arm pressed against his mouth, teeth not quite breaking the skin. The room was lighter, and Sirius was snoring, sprawled across most of the bed, one hand curled loosely around Remus's other wrist. Remus elbowed him until he rolled over and breathed more quietly.

Squinting at the dormitory clock, Remus thought he could make out that it was a little before noon. Not quite time for Christmas dinner yet, and he was starving. He could eat the rest of his fudge on the way to the hospital wing. Remus sat up a bit gingerly and scooted down to the foot of the bed, opened his trunk, and pulled out a grey and blue knitted jumper that Peter's mother had sent him for Christmas last year. The sleeves were too short now, but it was still the softest, most comfortable piece of clothing he owned.

Remus didn't remember taking his boots off, but they were standing by the bed, next to Sirius's fancy but battered black dragon-hide ones. He pulled one on and then dropped the other one on the floor when a muscle in his back cramped up. Sirius stirred at the thump and blinked at him. "Where're you going?"

"Infirmary." Remus very carefully straightened his back and looked down at the boot. The floor seemed quite far away.

Sirius sat bolt upright. "D'you feel worse? Do you need help? Why didn't you wake me?"

"Madam Pomfrey said she wants me to pick up some more ointment." Remus tried bending forward again. His back twinged.

"Oh, stop that." Sirius swung his legs over the side of the bed and scrubbed at his face with both hands, then stood up. "You get back to bed — I'll go."

Remus shook his head. "I need to move, or I'll get too stiff. You sleep, and I'll wake you in time for dinner." He reached for his boot. "Bloody hell." Remus leaned against the bedpost.

Sirius shook his head, knelt on the floor and tilted the boot for Remus to slip his foot into. "I suppose it didn't occur to you to sit down and ask for help?" He got up again and pulled his own boots on. "I think James put a shrinking charm on these. Come on, then."

"They're two years old," Remus said as they went down the stairs. "People do grow at this age, you know. Even those who don't actually grow up."

"Maturity is for boring people." Sirius opened the portrait hole and scrambled through. Remus followed, less gracefully. "And these are charmed to grow with me. Or they were, before James got at them." He pulled Remus's arm across his shoulder and put his own arm around Remus's waist.

"I can walk," Remus said.

"Stop looking as though you're about to fall over, then." Sirius grinned. "If you fall down the stairs and break your neck, we can't go ice-skating on the lake tomorrow."

"I don't have any skates." Remus fished the bag of fudge, now rather squashed, from his pocket. "I'd been planning to sit in the library and work on my Arithmancy paper."

"On Christmas?" Sirius shook his head. "Good thing I came back to save you from yourself, Moony."

The infirmary was empty of other patients. The screens stood against the wall again, and the bed Remus had used was made up with clean sheets. Madam Pomfrey came to meet them, looking a little surprised to see Sirius, but concentrating her attention on Remus. She felt his forehead, checked his pulse, and stripped him of jumper and shirt, handing them to Sirius. Then she paused, and looked at him. "I expect you friend has told you that he's had a bit of a nasty accident."

Sirius nodded earnestly. "The Whomping Willow got him, he said. Bit careless of you to get that close, wasn't it, Remus?"

Remus showed his teeth at Sirius, and lifted his arm to let Madam Pomfrey get a closer look at the gashes on his left side. Sirius went very, very quiet.

"Much better," Madam Pomfrey said, prodding his ribs. "Let me fetch that ointment for you, and you can be on your way."

She bustled off, and Remus turned to take his shirt from Sirius.

"I'm sorry," Sirius said.

Remus frowned. "For what?"

"I should have been here."

"No, you shouldn't." Remus tugged harder. "Do let go of my shirt, Sirius. You should be with the Potters, and I don't understand why you're not."

"I think James and Lily will do much better without me there. I only went down because Mrs. Potter asked me to."

"And stayed for ten minutes? That's not very polite. My shirt, Sirius. I'm cold."

Madam Pomfrey came back before Remus could shrug the shirt on. "Let me put this on you first," she said, opening one of the jars she carried. The smell was even sharper than that of the first ointment, wintergreen and menthol and smokeweed mixing harshly in the air. Remus sneezed as she began to smooth it on. "Have you had any trouble with muscle spasms?"

"No."

"Yes," Sirius said. Remus glared at him. "You couldn't even put your boots on!"

"I'll bring you a relaxing draught, then." Madam Pomfrey handed the jar of ointment to Sirius. "Put it on all the scratches. I'll be back in just a minute."

Sirius dropped Remus's shirt and jumper on the floor and went around him. "Your back's not too bad," he said, rubbing ointment across the top of Remus's shoulder.

Remus twisted his neck around and tried to look at Sirius. "That's because it's harder to reach. Why are you here? Ow!" His muscles seized up again. Moments later, Sirius had grasped his shoulders, digging his thumbs in on each side of Remus's spine. Remus felt like howling in pain for about ten seconds, and then the spasm gave way to the relentless pressure of Sirius's fingers.

"Ungrateful sod, you are," Sirius said. "Better?"

"Yes." Remus sighed. "Thank you."

"I'm here because it's the last time I'll be able to spend Christmas at Hogwarts. I'm here because James and Lily are trying to impress James's parents with how serious and grown-up they are, and I'm no help there and never was. I'm here because I wanted to be with you over the full moon, except I bollocksed that up. Hold still, you've got a nasty one over your kidney, here."

"Kidney?" Remus tried to twist around again, but another warning twinge from his back stopped him. "I don't keep my kidneys down there. Were you asleep through all the human anatomy classes?"

"Only the boring parts." Remus didn't have to see Sirius to know what that grin looked like. "Turn 'round, let's see the front. There. Now drop your trousers."

Remus snorted. "Thanks for helping me with my back," he said.

Madam Pomfrey came bustling back with an earthenware cup held in both hands. Small, light blue bubbles floated from the liquid in it and spun around her head. Sirius blinked. "You're going to drink that?"

"Wouldn't have to if you'd kept your big mouth shut," Remus pointed out in an undertone.

"It's only half-strength," Madam Pomfrey said, handing the cup to Remus. "Come back tonight before you go to bed and I'll give you a full-strength draught so you can sleep."

Remus pinched his nose and drank. The taste was rather like blueberry-flavored soap. When he'd emptied the cup, he hiccupped, and blue bubbles came out of his nose and mouth. Sirius laughed. "Oh, brilliant! Do that again!"

Remus tried to glare, but the relaxing draught was already taking effect, with a feeling as though someone had cracked an egg of lazy contentment on top of his head and now it was sliding down, covering him all over. "Are you sure this was half-strength?"

"Yes, of course." She looked at him critically. "You do look much better, dear. You could do with a bath before dinner. Do you need help with that? I could—"

"No," Remus said, horrified. There were limits. "But the ointment..."

"I'll give you a hand with that." Sirius bounced the pot on the palm of his hand. "Plenty left. Keep an eye on you in the bath, too, in case you come over all funny. Funnier."

Madam Pomfrey gave Sirius a stern look. "Remember that Remus needs to rest," she said.

Sirius looked angelic, then, under the force of Madam Pomfrey's still very stern eye, toned it down to merely virtuous. "Yes, of course. He slept all morning."

Remus picked his shirt and jumper up from the floor and put them on. "I'll come back tonight, then. Thank you."

Sirius put an arm around him again as they left. Remus would have protested, except that his feet seemed very far away and a bit loosely attached to his body. He slipped going down the stairs, but Sirius caught him, leaning them both against the wall. "I ought definitely to keep an eye on you in the bath. You might drown. Prefects' bathroom? James gave me the new password."

"Sirius, I don't need to be supervised when I'm bathing."

"Yes, you do. More to the point, I was on a train all night, I've slept in my clothes for hours, and I want a bath, so you might as well have one, too." Sirius sat Remus down on a low, broad windowsill. "Stay there and I'll fetch us some clean things."

Remus stayed there. Through the window he could see the lake, its thick ice covered with uneven drifts of snow. The sky was a crisp shade of blue, looking rather like fine porcelain. It was hours yet until the moon would rise and speak to his blood in a far quieter voice than last night, and the relaxing draught had left him so numb, all he did was hiccup at the thought. Tiny pale blue bubbles streamed from his nose again. He swung his legs up and leaned back, and tried to catch and pop the bubbles before they hit the window. He felt removed from himself, drained twice over. He fumbled in his pocket and found the vanilla fudge, rather squished by this time.

Eating steadied him a bit, both the act itself and the sugar. He watched as tall torches set all around a balcony came alight, burning white and gold and deep crimson that glowed against the snow, as Dumbledore came outside with Fawkes on his arm, strolling slowly back and forth. Frost roses crept down the sides of the window; this night would be colder still.

Running footsteps made him look up, and there was Sirius, with his arms full of robes and shirts and socks and trousers and pots of ointment. Remus got up, stiff-jointed from the cold seeping in through the window panes. A bath would be good. "Let me take some of that."

"Don't touch it or I'll drop it." Sirius looked at the bag in Remus's hand. "Is that fudge? Can I have some? I brought chocolate."

Remus picked out the least squished piece of fudge and stuffed it in Sirius's mouth as they walked. Sirius grinned and snapped at his fingers, and Remus gave him a second piece. "You brought invisible chocolate?"

"Pocket," Sirius said indistinctly.

Remus could smell it, actually, but he decided that trying to get anything out of Sirius's pocket at the moment would only lead to an accident and spilled ointment. He ate the last fudge himself as they came to the statue of Boris the Bewildered and Sirius finally lost his struggle with gravity. Socks and shirts fell to the floor, and the pot of ointment landed on Remus's toes. "Ouch."

Sirius poked at the door. "Spick and span," he said, and it swung open.

The bathroom was much warmer than the hallways, and when Remus turned on the hot water it became warmer still. He took off boots and socks, jumper and shirt, while Sirius dumped everything he was carrying in a heap on the floor and began to play with the taps, filling the pool with blue and green and pink bubbles. Remus looked at Sirius, kneeling at the edge of the pool. He considered his own bare foot, then applied it to the part of Sirius that was nearest and most protruding.

There was a very satisfactory splash. Remus took off the rest of his clothes and slid carefully into the pool. "The water's very nice, don't you think?"

Sirius had pink bubbles in his hair. "See if you get any of my chocolate."

He heaved himself out of the pool and started to fight with his wet clothes. Remus sat on the nearest ledge, appreciating the cushioning charm even more than he usually did. The water felt wonderful, and he leaned back and closed his eyes. He hadn't realized how much his joints ached until the heat eased the pain. "See if you can find a tap of soap that doesn't smell like bloody flowers."

Another, gentler splash, and the water stirred, little waves slopping against his chest and throat. "Open up, Moony." Remus blinked his eyes open. "I meant your mouth," Sirius said and pushed a square of chocolate between his teeth.

Remus ate it, and the next one, and the next, and several next ones after that, until Sirius crumpled up the shiny gold wrapper and tossed it out of the pool towards the pile of wet clothes on the floor. "Is that all?"

"You can have the other one when we get out of the water." Sirius ducked under the surface of the water, came up again with his hair plastered to his skull, and started looking at the taps. "You'd think they'd label these things. It's been ages since I was here... bubbles, bubbles, something that smells like oranges, something that smells like— Yuck."

"Lily of the valley," Remus said. "Try down at that end."

Sirius turned another tap, and a jet of bubbling water shot out and hit him in the face. He shouted something that was mostly drowned out by the water streaming into his mouth as soon as he opened it.

"Language, dear!" The mermaid in the bathroom's only painting had woken up and was leaning forward on her cliff, mouth pursed disapprovingly. "There's no need to be coarse."

Sirius finally stepped to one side and turned the tap off. "Sorry," he said, and smiled up at the mermaid. "I thought you were asleep, beautiful."

The mermaid fluttered her lashes, and Remus chuckled. She leaned forward in her frame and waved at him. "Hullo, dear. Haven't seen you in a long time." Remus smiled at the mermaid, too, but rather than flutter her lashes, she looked at him with motherly concern. "Oh, you don't look good at all. Have you been ill?"

"I'm looking after him," Sirius said, drawing her attention back to himself. "Listen, beautiful, don't suppose you can tell us if there's any soap that doesn't smell like flowers?"

The mermaid, apparently deciding that she really liked Sirius, flipped her hair back over her right shoulder. "Could be that one," she said and pointed. "Or over there."

Sirius looked very appreciatively at her, and then tried the first tap she pointed at. "Freesia," Remus said. "Perhaps the other one — no, that's lavender." He sneezed. The pale blue bubbles were barely noticeable against the mountains of foam.

The next one was lemon, and the one after that was honey and oatmeal. Remus slid off the ledge and half swam, half waded over to that side of the pool. It felt good to scrub himself thoroughly; though he really did not have any blood or dirt left on his skin, he still felt far from clean. Reaching around was still tricky, but Sirius washed his back for him without even asking, and then pressed strong thumbs into Remus's shoulders again. "You're a bit less tense, here."

"Ouch. Doesn't feel like it." Remus slid down under the water to rinse his hair out. He came up blinking and shaking his head, sneezing some more, and the mermaid giggled at him before she went back to watching Sirius, who was making quite a production out of soaping himself up. Remus grinned and shook his head and climbed out of the pool, rinsing off the last of the soap under the shower to one side.

The towels in the prefects' bathroom were always heated to just the right temperature, and Remus wrapped one around his hips and used a second to scrub at his hair. True to the nature of towels, perfectly heated or not, the one around his hips slipped off, and the one he was using on his hair fell damply across his face.

"Naughty boy," the mermaid said in a laughing voice, "peeking like that!"

Remus emerged from the towel to see Sirius grinning up at the mermaid, who had flipped her hair forward again, hiding most of her chest. She looked rather pleased, though. Small wonder, really. Remus fished around in the pile of clothes on the floor for the pot of ointment. When he got the lid off, the scent of wintergreen rose up and surrounded him, drowning out the bubble baths and the soaps and the cotton towels and the steam and the chocolate and Sirius. Remus sneezed.

"Here," Sirius called from the pool, "have you caught cold?"

The ointment was thick, squishy, and greasy, like softening butter. Remus began to rub it into the fading scratches on his left shoulder and upper arm. "No, it's just the smell."

"Bit pungent," Sirius agreed, getting out of the pool and wandering over to Remus. "I said I'd help you with that." He dried his hands on Remus's fallen towel and took the pot of ointment. "Turn around."

Remus turned around, stepping in a small puddle where Sirius had dripped on the floor. Neither Sirius nor James had any modesty when it came to things like wandering about naked; Remus and Peter had speculated, years ago, about whether it was a pureblood wizarding custom, or if it was just a siriusandjames thing. Remus tilted his head forward and sighed as Sirius smoothed ointment onto the deep scratch at the base of his neck. His skin tingled.

"Can you get the one across the ribs, too?" Remus lifted his arm, with a little difficulty, and Sirius worked the ointment into his skin in slow, even strokes. He lowered his voice, so the mermaid couldn't hear. "I've been wondering, you know. If I pulled all my nails out, would the wolf still have claws?"

Sirius smacked his hip, hard. "That's possibly the most disgusting idea you've ever had." He rubbed some more ointment on. "Anyway, you'd have to pull out your front teeth, too, and it doesn't sound practical at all. You might not be able to put them back in after so many hours, and you're far too young for dentures."

Kneeling down, Sirius started to work on the marks on Remus's legs. They were mostly on his calves and his left foot, where the bones had broken. The bandages around his foot and toes were water-proof, Remus saw, and had held up well enough during his time in the bath. He lifted each foot in turn and flexed the ankle slowly. Nothing grated, and there was only a faint whisper of possible cramp in his calves. Remus rolled his shoulders and stretched his neck; it was easier now that the warm water had relaxed him a little. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that the mermaid was watching them both with frank appreciation. Remus looked down at Sirius. "Aren't you done yet?"

"Oh — yes, just about." One last swipe of ointment across the back of Remus's left heel, and then Sirius appropriated the towel Remus had dropped before, wiped his fingers on it, and wrapped it around his hips as he stood up. "Did I miss anything?"

"Don't think so. Thanks." Remus stretched slowly, arching his spine, pleased when his muscles only twinged and complained rather than cramp up. The relaxing draught had its advantages, though he still felt a bit more woozy-headed than he liked. But the nausea from the transformation was fading, and he was getting hungry again. Very, very hungry. "What time is it? We're not late for dinner, are we?"

Sirius, just turned away to wring out his wet shirt, shook his head. "We're just in time to get dressed and go down to the Great Hall."

"Good." Remus sorted through the clean clothes Sirius had brought back from the dorm, putting on what seemed softest and most comfortable.

"That's my shirt," Sirius said behind him.

Remus shrugged. "I like it." He rubbed his cheek against one sleeve. "I ought to shave."

"Can't argue with you there," Sirius said with a smile in his voice. "I think your hair's grown an inch overnight, too."

Remus got his wand out and went to look at himself in the nearest mirror. His hair did look longer, a coarse shaggy mess, falling in his eyes. When he touched it, it felt rough, like the pelt of an animal. Remus made a face. "Perhaps I ought to shave this off as well," he muttered.

"That's quite enough of that," Sirius said, coming up behind him and taking his wand out of his hand. "You're not going to rip your nails out, you're not going to shave all your hair off, and if we don't hurry, we'll be late." He tapped the wand against Remus's chin. "Folliculo!"

Remus rubbed his chin. "Thank you." He felt a little more civilized. The hair might be a lost cause.

Sirius performed the same spell on himself and handed Remus his wand back. "Come on, I'm starving." He turned and waved at the mermaid. "See you later, beautiful!"

She giggled. "Good luck!"

They walked out of the bathroom, leaving a pile of wet towels and clothes behind. Remus looked at Sirius. "Good luck with what?"

"Oh, she knows I'm always up to something." Sirius tugged at the sleeve of Remus's shirt, which was a little short on him, and slung his arm across Remus's shoulders as they went towards the stairs. "Do you think we'll get any of that amazing whisky cheddar this year?"

Remus chuckled. "Flitwick got drunk on that cheddar. I'm not sure you should have any."

"Body mass," Sirius said, steadying them both against the railing as the staircase began to move. "I should be able to eat at least three times as much cheese as Professor Flitwick and still be able to walk."

Since Remus had last been in the entrance hall, someone had sprinkled silver glitter on the Christmas tree. The candles still burned brightly, and the icicles gleamed. Inside the Great Hall were four more Christmas trees, hung with delicate, shimmering ornaments: red and gold, silver and green, blue and bronze, yellow and black. Tiny metal birds with tails and wings made of silk feathers sat in the branches, giving an occasional sleepy chirp.

So few of the students and staff had stayed over Christmas break, only one long table had been laid. Remus smiled at Madam Pomfrey as he and Sirius slid into seats at one end of the table, nodding in response to her questioning look. Dumbledore was happily pulling crackers with Hagrid, and trying to persuade Hagrid to wear an enormous flowered bonnet that sprang out of one cracker, but in a few moments he clapped his hands, and the table filled with food.

Remus ate turkey and thick slices of ham and veal cutlets and sausages and chicken dumplings. He ate boiled potatoes and roast potatoes and fresh bread with unsalted butter and Yorkshire pudding and sprouts and peas and carrots and cabbage boiled with suet. He ate whisky cheddar and Wensleydale and sage Derby and Stilton. He ate mince pies and apple sauce and plum pudding and was about to start over with the turkey when Sirius elbowed him. Remus looked up to see that a couple of younger Ravenclaw students were watching him with a certain awe.

"They probably think you're going to explode," Sirius said in his ear. "We'll go down and ask the house elves for leftovers later if you can't survive until tea, all right?"

"Mm."

"And if you make yourself sick on those chocolate liqueurs you just put in your pocket, I'm not cleaning up after you."

"I'd rather be drunk on chocolate than cheese," Remus said, looking down the table at Flitwick, who looked suspiciously cheerful as he put a large piece of whisky cheddar on a very small cracker. "And is that your third helping of trifle?"

"Oh, shut up."

Gradually, people began to drift away from the table. Remus and Sirius stayed to listen to a funny story Dumbledore told about his brother Aberforth, but then they left, sauntering out into the entrance hall to admire the Christmas tree again. Remus took out one of the chocolate liqueurs and bit into it, laughing when some of the Grand Marnier spilled down his chin. "It's because I lose body mass," he said.

Sirius blinked. "What?" He swiped his thumb across Remus's chin and sucked the liqueur off. "Do you really like this stuff?"

"Yes." Remus licked his lower lip. "I lose body mass," he repeated. "The transformation takes a lot of energy, and so does the healing. That's why I have to eat so much. Madam Pomfrey weighed me once, before and after, when she began to wonder about it." Remus licked melted chocolate off his fingers. "Apparently there's quite a noticeable difference."

"Do you want to go for a walk?" Sirius asked abruptly. "Or if you're too tired, we could go back to the common room. I've got Christmas presents — didn't seem to be the right moment for them this morning, somehow."

"Oh, you went down to the Potters to get your Christmas presents," Remus teased. "It all makes sense now." He rolled his shoulders. "I wouldn't mind a short walk while it's still light out."

Remus got his wand out and put a warming spell on his clothes, then on Sirius's, since neither of them had brought their cloaks. They slipped out through the front door, and Remus took a deep breath. He could smell more snow on the way. They went slowly along one of the neatly shoveled paths, and when they got as far as the greenhouses, Sirius stopped to admire the snow roses, and then turned around and started to walk them both back again.

"My fingers are cold," he said, tucking one ungloved hand into the pocket of Remus's robes, since he wasn't wearing any of his own. "Remus, seriously, did you put chocolate liqueurs in all your pockets? I think I just squished one. Sorry."

"Barbarian." Remus grabbed Sirius's hand by the wrist and pulled it out of his pocket. There was chocolate all over Sirius's fingers and crème de menthe running down his wrist. Remus shook his head at the waste and began to lick it up. Heady, though not nearly enough to be intoxicating, and then the chocolate, a thick mess of it, sticking to Sirius's skin— Glancing up, Remus found that Sirius was staring at him with wide, shocked eyes. He froze. "Er. Sorry?"

Sirius tried to twist his hand out of Remus's grasp, and Remus let go at once; Sirius turned away and plunged both hands into the snow, using it to clean away some of the mess. "Remind me never to get between you and your chocolate ever again."

"I'm sorry," Remus said again, helplessly. "I wasn't thinking. And I suppose I'm still hungry."

"That would be it, of course," Sirius agreed, turning back again and drying his snow-wet hands on Remus's robe. "Let's scrounge up some leftovers and open a few presents, all right?"

"Mm." They walked back to the castle at a slow pace. The heating spell was wearing off, and Remus was quite grateful to get back inside. As they crossed the entrance hall, some of the mechanical birds with silk wings came flying out of the Great Hall and came to rest in the Christmas tree — all except one, which landed on Sirius's shoulder and chirped brightly in his ear. Remus smiled. "It would seem you actually can charm the birds out of the trees."

"Course I can," Sirius said, grinning. "I can also charm food out of house elves. Go on, I'll meet you up in the common room."

Remus nodded and turned away, walking slowly up the stairs with one hand on the banister. He could still taste chocolate and mint and Sirius on his tongue.

Some of the portraits were calling out more merry Christmas greetings; others had wandered off to go visiting, and a party of nymphs wearing flimsy silk draperies and flower garlands could be seen trying to learn to skate on a frozen river, shrieking and laughing. Ghosts floated up and down the staircases, reminiscing about how much more enjoyable Christmases past had been. The Fat Lady had invited a few friends for gossip and a game of cards, and it took Remus several tries to get her attention.

The fire in the common room crackled warmly, and now and then it sent up a shower of red and gold sparks. Remus sat down to watch it. It wasn't long until Sirius came in, carrying a covered basket. A bottle peeked over the edge. Remus smiled. "Are you on your way to visit your grandmother?"

Sirius stared blankly at him. "Er, no? 'Specially since she's dead. Eat," he said, setting the basket down at Remus's feet. "There must be half a turkey in there. I'll go get the Christmas presents."

The bottle was pumpkin juice rather than wine, Remus discovered as he unpacked. The house elves had packed goblets, but Remus drank straight from the neck of the bottle, and started gnawing on a drumstick. He could feel his blood humming, his body rebuilding itself as fast as it could. Sirius came thundering down the stairs again. "Mind the biscuits," Remus said with his mouth full.

Sirius piled the packages in front of the fire and pulled down a cushion to sit on. "Right," he said, cracking his knuckles. "This is for you, and this is for you, and you can't touch before you clean all that grease off your hands, and this is for you, and this is for me, and this is — whoops, that was for James." Sirius shrugged. "Oh, well. It'll be a nice surprise for him later."

"But," Remus said, wiping his fingers on a linen napkin. He picked up one of the packages, wrapped in shiny red paper. "Who is this from?"

"Mrs. Potter," Sirius said, tearing into the green striped paper around another gift. "Go on, open it."

"James's mother is giving me Christmas presents?" Remus shook his head and carefully worked the gold ribbon loose and started to peel off the tape. "I barely know her."

"Very nice lady," Sirius said. "She gives amazing gifts, too. Just look at this." He'd unwrapped a pair of polished wooden bookends. One was carved in the shape of a boy in an armchair, reading, and the other was the same boy leaning against the trunk of a tree, with stars in among the leaves.

Remus reached out and touched a finger to the wood. "It's you," he said. "That's amazing. Where did she find something like that?"

"Oh, she'll have made them. She makes things. Makes them personal." Sirius rubbed his thumb over one of the stars in the tree. He turned away and ripped into another present, then burst out laughing. "Of course, sometimes she gets a bit carried away." He held up a pair of jeans that were embroidered from the flared hems to halfway up the thighs with stars in yellow and red and blue and green and orange.

Remus grinned. "It's you," he said again, and ducked as Sirius threw balled-up wrapping paper at him. He finally opened the gift he was holding, and froze. "Sirius."

"Yeah?"

Remus held up a knitted hat, gloves, and a scarf. The gloves had a crescent moon on each palm, and the scarf had all the phases of the moon, from new to full and back again, knitted all along its length. "Does — does she know?"

"No!" Sirius shook his head. "No, no. She just heard us talking about you, calling you Moony, and James said you were really interested in astronomy, and I said we already had a star," Sirius grinned, "and then Mr. and Mrs. Potter called James Meteorite for two days because he crashed his broom into the lilacs."

"Oh." Remus relaxed. The gloves were soft and felt very warm. The yarn was a sort of reddish brown, with the moons picked out in ivory.

"I know you probably don't want to wear the moon," Sirius said. "But I couldn't very well explain that."

"They're nice," Remus said. "They must have taken a lot of work." He blinked. "It's very kind of Mrs. Potter — I mean, she barely knows me."

"If you'd come visit James in the holidays when he asks, she'd know you better." Sirius shredded some dark blue wrapping paper with silver stripes. "Oh, James. Very funny." He held up Simple Cooking Spells for the Single Wizard, Cleaning Your Home the Muggle Way, an egg whisk, and a feather duster.

Remus burst out laughing. "If it teaches you how to boil an egg without making it explode, I'll send James flowers."

Sirius sniffed. "That was only the once." He reached across Remus and fished a biscuit with pink icing out of the basket. "Open that one next, the blue one, I want to see what James got you."

The package was small and square, dwarfed by a giant bow of gold ribbon. Remus took the bow off and carefully unpeeled the Spellotape from the paper. Inside he found a small box, and in the box, a small solunar pocket watch. Remus peered closely at it. It was more delicately made than Madam Pomfrey's, and gold, not silver. In addition to sun and moon hands, it had a star one. "This is amazing," he said. Then he frowned. "James gave me this?"

"Er." Sirius took the paper and crumpled it. "Actually, that's from me."

"Yes?" Remus looked at Sirius. "Then why did you say it was from James?"

Sirius grinned. "In case you didn't like it, of course. This one's actually from James."

Remus took the gift Sirius handed him, but he kept looking at the watch. He could see moonrise and moonset, sunrise and sunset, but he couldn't figure out the star hand. "What does this one do?"

"Oh, that one shows you important things," Sirius said. "Are you going to open that present from James or not?"

"Is it really from James this time?" Remus peered suspiciously at the wrapping paper.

"Yes, and this one's really from Peter." Sirius tore into more wrapping paper. "The little rat, he's given me dog biscuits!"

Remus grinned. He unwrapped the gift from James, which was a thick leatherbound notebook. The pages were blank, but when he tapped them with his wand, they became lined, then checked, then back to blank again. Peter had given him three bottles of ink: black, red, and blue. "I think they must have conspired on this. I'm surprised James didn't give you a collar and leash, to go with the biscuits."

"Not that kinky, our James," Sirius said. He opened the tin of dog biscuits, took two out and put them on the floor, transformed, and ate them. Remus burst out laughing. Sirius transformed back again. "Not bad. Here, is this from you?"

Remus nodded. The plain brown wrapping paper looked dreadfully out of place, even with a red ribbon around. He watched Sirius tease the knots open. "It's, er. It's nothing fancy."

"No?" Sirius quirked an eyebrow at him. "And here I thought it might be a dragon egg or a singing peacock quill or something, instead of a." He opened the gift. "A strip of leather. Y'know, Moony, if this is a leash, it's awfully short."

"Put it round your wrist," Remus said. "There's a loop and a button — right. Now look out the window." Sirius looked rather confused, but he turned around. Remus got his wand out, pointed it at Sirius and began to say "Furnunculus!"

Sirius threw himself forward, rolled across the common room floor, and sat up with his own wand in his hand. "Petri— Remus! What was that?"

Remus grinned. "It worked." He put his own wand away. "See, it's charmed to warn you if someone tries to attack you with magic. I don't think it works against anything really advanced, and it doesn't help if someone just comes up and hits you over the head, but."

"Oh." Sirius looked down at the leather around his wrist. "So I'm safe if James tries to hex my boots again?"

"I don't know if it works for things that belong to you," Remus said. "I just thought." He looked down at the notebook and the ink and the beautiful watch. "I know what you're going to do after school, and I thought it might be. Useful."

"Oh," Sirius said again, in something of a different voice. He put a hand on Remus's shoulder. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Remus looked up again, and smiled a little. "You'll have to let me know how well it works, so I'll know if I should make them for James and Peter as well."

Sirius ran a fingertip under the leather, around his wrist. "Where did you find the spell?"

"It's a version of that spell you can put on your bags against thieves, or on clothes against pickpockets," Remus said. "Just a bit — more."

"Lot more, I'd say." Sirius petted the bracelet some more. "But where did you find it?"

"Erm. I made it." Remus looked at Sirius, who stared at him. "Modified the first spell, really, it's perfectly safe, don't worry—"

"Brilliant!" Sirius thumped him on the back. "You'll have to show me your notes later, so I can make one for you." The thump turned into a one-armed hug. "Thank you. Ouch. What's that in your pocket?"

Remus dug into the inner pocket of his robe and pulled out a small gift-wrapped box. "It's from Lily. I hope I haven't crushed it." He picked at the tape with his nails. She'd wrapped it in Muggle wrapping-paper, with pictures of rabbits wearing Santa hats.

"Does James know that his girlfriend is giving you Christmas presents?" Sirius shook his head. "And she seems like such a nice, steady girl. I'm very disappointed."

"She didn't give you anything, did she," Remus said, amused. He opened the box.

Sirius stared. "Socks?"

"With warming charms on them." Remus took them out.

"They're pink."

"Lily likes pink. Last year she got me mittens. She — I always used to complain my hands and feet were cold. And my nose. Wonder if she'll get me a pink nose-warmer next year."

Sirius looked very thoughtfully at him, but didn't comment. Instead he ripped into his next Christmas gift, which turned out to be a book about classical Arithmancy problems through the ages, from Mr. Potter. "Just the thing to fall asleep over during those long winter evenings." He looked around. "Not a bad haul this year. Except for the dog biscuits."

Remus dug into the basket and found more fudge — chocolate and vanilla. "You forgot one," he said, gesturing with a piece of fudge at a carelessly wrapped gift with a crooked ribbon.

"What? Oh, no." Sirius pushed the gift away out of sight. "That's not. It's not for me."

"Who's it for, then?"

"Someone else."

Remus poked a finger in just under the edge of Sirius's ribs. "And does this someone else have a name?"

"Regulus," Sirius muttered, face half turned away.

"Oh." Remus sat still for a moment. Then he leaned forward and pushed a piece of chocolate fudge into Sirius's mouth. "I heard that none of the Slytherins have stayed this year."

Sirius nodded and licked fudge-crumbs from the corner of his mouth. "You know what?" he said, with an air of great thoughtfulness. "Wouldn't it be the perfect time to redecorate their dreary little dungeon a bit?"

"Well, we could at least try to get inside," Remus temporized. "Look around a little."

That brought a gleam to Sirius's eyes, and he nodded and swallowed enthusiastically. "Of course. And if it turns out to be as dull as we suspect, it'd be a nice tribute to Lily if we made it over with her favorite color."

"We should take a good look around," Remus said. "Investigate." He grinned, and it turned into a yawn; he shook his head to clear it.

"You can get an hour or two before tea." Sirius swept a pile of wrapping paper out of the way and pushed a sofa cushion at Remus. "I could do with a bit of a nap myself." He curled up and put his own head on the cushion.

Remus shook his head, yawned again, and sank down on the floor, laying his head on the cushion in the opposite direction from Sirius, so that he was looking at Sirius's face upside down. It looked oddly different, the chin more pointed, the eyebrows slanting at an unfamiliar angle. There was a chocolate fudge crumb at the corner of Sirius's mouth, and Remus thought about wiping it away, but somehow, before he could find the energy to move his hand, he was asleep.

Hunger woke him, and Sirius's hair in his face. His shoulder ached from sleeping on the floor, but he still rather felt like smiling. Remus rolled over on his back and sneezed. "Wake up," he said, looking at the ceiling. "It must be time for tea." Sirius made a rasping sound in the back of his throat, like a cat or a very old engine. "I'm hungry."

"I'm shocked," Sirius muttered, and then his breathing evened out into sleep again.

Remus sat up. "I'll go down without you, then," he said. "Have a nice nap."

He got halfway to the door before Sirius caught up with him. "Food, is it? I suppose I can always watch you eat, and roll you back to the dorm when you're finished." Sirius clambered out of the portrait hole and stood looking around while Remus followed. "Mind you, we'll have to put some work into finding out how to open their door. I hear they changed things and took additional security measures," Sirius pronounced the words with cheerful contempt, "after last time."

While they were asleep, thick red and green garlands had wound around every bannister on every staircase, and someone had hung mistletoe on several portrait frames; a few of the ice-skating nymphs from earlier were chasing Sir Cadogan from landscape to landscape, trying to herd him back into their own sun-misted Arcadia. He was wearing a Santa hat on top of his helmet.

"Or we can go in the back way," Remus suggested. He felt more clear-headed now, after sleeping. "Peter and I were looking at the map the other day, and I think—" Two of the young Ravenclaws came hurtling down the stairs, ties askew and hair on end, leaving a trail of snow-melty footprints. Hard on their heels came Mrs. Elton, her tail twitching arthritically. "I think we should discuss this later."

"Good idea." They went down the stairs at a leisurely pace, shoulder to shoulder, so engaged in debating the merits of the Wimbourne Wasps that they entirely failed to hear Argus Filch running up behind them and demanding to be let past; he had to shout at them and grip their arms before they noticed him and tried to move aside in opposite directions, Remus towards Sirius's side of the staircase and Sirius towards Remus's, blocking the way for another minute or two while they got themselves untangled. Filch was hissing like a teakettle when he finally managed to shove them aside, and the trail of wet footprints had inexplicably dried up and disappeared.

Tea was a less extravagant meal than dinner had been, but not likely to leave anyone starving. Remus discovered that he had an unstoppable craving for chipolatas, and it took him twenty minutes to notice Sirius and Flitwick having a silent, polite fight over the whisky cheddar, moving the platter this way and that across the table. The young Ravenclaws were hunched so low in their seats they were practically underneath the table, while Filch was stabbing moodily at his apple fritters.

Madam Pomfrey caught Remus's eyes across the table. She tapped her watch and nodded at him before excusing herself and leaving the Great Hall. Remus put away another couple of chipolatas and a slice of cold roast beef before tugging at Sirius's sleeve. "Keep that up and he'll challenge you to a duel. Over cheese."

"It's good cheese," Sirius said, eyes glittering. Remus could smell the whisky on his breath, and his hair fell forward, dark and feathery, over his flushed cheek.

"I'm going to the infirmary," Remus said quietly. "I'll see you in the common room later." He slipped away from the table nearly unnoticed, except for a quick glance from Dumbledore, who never let anyone go unnoticed. In the entrance hall, he stopped by the Christmas tree and watched the birds for a while as they hopped from branch to branch, tiny crystals glinting on their chests in star patterns. Remus wondered what would happen if he tried to scatter breadcrumbs for them. Perhaps they only fed on starlight and snow.

He wasn't the only one watching. Mrs. Elton was sitting underneath one of the lowest branches, perfectly still except for the tip of her tail. Remus shook his head at her, but she leaped anyway, and got nothing but a clawful of tinsel for it. The glass bells hanging among the icicles jangled softly as Remus walked away.

Climbing up the stairs, Remus began to notice twinges from his foot again, and his bruises felt as though they could do with a little more wintergreen salve. The door to the infirmary stood ajar, and Remus slipped inside. One of the ice-skating nymphs had just turned up in a portrait of some stern-faced, cowled and wimpled physician of centuries ago, pouting and pointing at bruises that her flimsy draperies did very little to hide. Remus walked over to the dispensary and tapped his knuckles against the doorpost.

"There you are, dear," Madam Pomfrey said, glancing up at him and then returning her attention to the alembic on the table. "Your relaxing draught will be done in just a minute."

The earthenware cup stood by her hand, along with a few bottles and vials, labelled in tiny, precise writing. Remus squinted at them for a moment, then wandered off to look at the bundles of drying herbs hanging in the window, the large wooden cabinet and its many locked drawers with labels such as Paregorics and Purges, the neatly rolled bandages and jars filled with brightly colored pills. He was leaning forward to examine a small metal device that claimed to cure hiccups when he heard a clatter of glass and then a soft hissing sound. Turning around, Remus saw that Madam Pomfrey had mixed in the final ingredient, and a cloud of light blue bubbles hovered above the earthenware cup she was holding out to him.

"Thank you," he said, getting a face full of bubbles.

Before he could drink, Madam Pomfrey put a restraining hand on his arm. "This is the full-strength draught," she said. "You should bring it back to your dormitory and drink it there, unless you would prefer to sleep in the infirmary tonight."

"Oh. No." Remus lowered the cup.

"And I want to see you here tomorrow morning, too. Those bandages don't stay waterproof for nearly as long as the manufacturers claim." She sniffed. "I certainly won't be ordering from Stoffield's Sickroom Supplies again. There is no excuse for sloppiness when it comes to medical matters."

"I'll come by after breakfast," Remus said, and bore his cup away.

He climbed through the portrait hole without spilling a drop, and found the Gryffindor common room empty. The fire burned steadily, red and gold at its heart. Some zealous or bored house elf had tidied the room after Remus and Sirius had left; all the wrapping paper was neatly smoothed out and folded, the gifts stacked in two separate piles, and what was left of the food had been packed up in the basket again. Candles burned in red and yellow glass holders. Remus stretched and felt his shoulders twinge, and every tender spot on his back began to ache all at once.

There was probably fudge left in the basket, but he wasn't tempted; hunger had given way to a kind of grumpy fatigue. Remus picked up the solunar watch and saw that the star hand had shifted from its previous position. He watched it for a few moments, but it didn't move again, so he put the watch down and trudged up the stairs to the dormitory.

"There you are," Sirius said, rising from the foot of Peter's bed. "Is that more of the relaxing draught?"

Remus nodded. The dormitory, too, was lit with candles in the same red and yellow glass holders, and looked very cosy. The warm light softened the imperious lines of Sirius's mouth and chin, and made him appear very nearly tractable. "Madam Pomfrey told me it's quite strong. Did you want to try to break into the Slytherins' common room tonight, or..."

"No, no," Sirius said. "We've got loads of time. You should sleep." He smothered a yawn, half-heartedly. "Of course, if you really truly want to go—"

Remus shook his head. "Tomorrow," he said. "I think I should drink this before it goes completely cold."

The relaxing draught at full strength tasted more of blueberries and less of soap, which was a distinct improvement. Remus drank it down resolutely and resisted for a full five seconds before giving way to the inevitable hiccup of blue bubbles. A feeling of warm contentment washed over him, and all the tension flowed out of his body. He went to put the earthenware cup on his bedside table, and found that the floor rocked gently under his feet like the deck of a boat.

Sirius caught the cup just before Remus set it down on thin air. "P'raps you should lie down," he said, catching Remus by the shoulders and steering him to the bed.

"Oh yes," Remus said. That seemed like an excellent idea. He sat on the edge of the bed and kicked his boots off, stood up to get out of his trousers, then sat down again a little more suddenly than he had expected. The pillows looked wonderfully soft. Remus unbuttoned the shirt he was wearing, frowning for a moment at its slightly unfamiliar buttons before remembering it was Sirius's. He rolled his shoulders carefully. "I forgot the ointment in the prefects' bathroom," he said, dismayed. "And I promised I would use it — I'll have to go back for it."

Remus stood up, and swayed, and Sirius prodded his chest with one finger and somehow he fell backwards and the bed came up to meet him. "I've got it here," Sirius said, pulling the pot of ointment out of a pocket. He took off the lid, and the pungent smell of wintergreen filled the room. Remus breathed deep. It was rather pleasant. The bed dipped as Sirius sat down next to him and began to rub ointment into the marks and bruises on his chest.

"I can do that myself," Remus said, feeling Sirius's fingers smooth the ointment over an ugly bruise on Remus's hip. "I can..." He yawned, and then breathed out another cloud of blue bubbles.

Sirius snorted. "You can't even keep your eyes open. Here, scoot up a little and turn over, let me see your back."

Remus moved, although every part of his body felt impossibly heavy. He rolled over and buried his face in a pillow. The ointment warmed and soothed him, sinking into his skin, or perhaps it was Sirius's touch that warmed and soothed; Sirius pressed his fingers into sore muscles along the length of Remus's back, gently enough that it didn't hurt at all. Remus made a rusty sound of contentment in the back of his throat. He only dimly noticed when the smell of wintergreen grew fainter as Sirius put the lid back on the pot.

When Sirius stopped touching him and stood up, Remus thought about opening an eye, or saying something, but he got no further than the thought, and then soft thick blankets were laid over him, and the bed dipped again, and Sirius was there once more, a warm presence against his back. Remus hiccuped one final small blue bubble, pressed back against Sirius, and drifted away.

He woke in the middle of the night, possibly because he was lying on Sirius's arm, which did not make an entirely satisfactory pillow. Remus managed to get out of bed and go to the bathroom, and not fall down the stairs and break anything, although the floor still swayed a good deal and he had to steady himself with one hand against the wall. When he came back, he crawled in under the blankets and put his cold feet on Sirius's warm ones, and Sirius whuffed in his sleep and flung an arm out, crooking it around Remus's neck and settling down with his nose against Remus's shoulder. Remus squirmed, but Sirius merely tightened his grip, and as soon as Remus closed his eyes, the blueberry bubbles of sleep rose up to claim him again.

The next time Remus opened his eyes, it was close to dawn. He lay curled against Sirius, close enough that they were breathing on each other; their knees bumped together, and Sirius once again had one hand around Remus's wrist, as though even in sleep he was planning to tug Remus along into some mischief or other. He looked pale in the dim winter-morning light, the spiky curve of his eyelashes blacker than usual, and the hair falling across his cheek cast deep shadows. Remus could feel his pulse beat against the palm of Sirius's hand.

It wasn't entirely strange to Remus to be sharing a bed with Sirius or James or Peter; there had been some particularly bitter winter nights over the years when they had doubled up for warmth, and other times when someone's bed was unavailable because it was covered with some experiment in progress, or soaked with water, or, on one memorable occasion, entirely saturated with custard. The smell had lingered for weeks.

But this was different. Remus still felt languid with the after-effects of the relaxing draught, and perhaps that was why he didn't hesitate to lift his free hand and brush the hair out of Sirius's face.

Sirius opened his eyes and looked at Remus. He smiled, a small, pleased smile. "Morning," he said, making it sound more like a statement than a greeting. He shifted his head, and Remus hurriedly lifted his hand away from Sirius's hair. Sirius's smile deepened, the corners of his mouth turning up. "D'you want to get up, or are you still tired?"

"I'm not that tired," Remus said. He was just very comfortable where he was, in the warm softness of his bed, where everything smelled familiar and good. "Do you think we should try for neon pink, or baby pink?"

"Baby pink." Sirius still had his hand on Remus's wrist, and was rubbing his thumb softly over the bony part on the outside. "With little pink teddy bears on their sheets. Here, did you really say you've found a secret way into that dreary dungeon of theirs?"

"Possibly," Remus said. "I think that door we found behind the tapestry of the centaur archery competition leads to more places than just the kitchens. Peter and I were looking at the map a little while ago, and one of the walls just below is suspiciously thick. Of course, it could be a secret passageway that leads somewhere else."

"Still worth exploring," Sirius said with a grin, and then, as Remus tugged to reclaim his wrist and hand, "Where do you think you're going?"

"To take a bath," Remus said. "And then I thought I might have some breakfast. I know it's unusual at this time of day, but—"

"Save it for after we're done climbing around dusty secret passageways. 'Sides, the way you smell of wintergreen, no one can tell if you've bathed or not." Sirius sat up. "I should put another layer on you."

Remus sat up, too. The air outside the blankets was decidedly cool; the skin on his arms pebbled and his nipples tightened. He drew a breath of that cool air to say that he was quite awake, now, and could attend to the matter himself, only somehow the words never made it across his lips, and he didn't protest as he felt Sirius's fingers, warm and steady, stroke ointment over the cuts and bruises on his back, and then on his shoulders, and his chest, and his legs, and his foot. He felt tender all over, and his skin tingled in the wake of Sirius's touch.

"Thank you," Remus said on an indrawn breath.

"You need to get this bandage changed," Sirius said, also sounding a little out of breath, "it's gone all manky."

"Oh. Yes. I said I'd stop by the infirmary after breakfast."

"Infirmary it is, then. I mean, breakfast," Sirius said, and turned away to get dressed.

Breakfast was rather quiet; only a handful of other people shared the table with them, and most looked content with tea and toast. Remus found himself with a plateful of buttered toast soldiers and a seemingly endless supply of soft-boiled eggs, and ate silently and methodically until one of the young Ravenclaws came to sit across the table. Remus turned his head and looked at Sirius, who gestured eloquently to the crumbs and other debris on his plate, and they excused themselves and left the hall. A quick count of the birds in the Christmas tree told Remus that Mrs. Elton had not enjoyed any overnight success in her hunting.

Madam Pomfrey met them at the infirmary door. "Good morning," she said briskly. "Let's see how your bandage is holding up, then. Sit here and put your foot up — yes, just like that." She took Remus's shoe off and rolled his trouser leg up. Sirius sat down next to Remus on the bed. A few moments later, Madam Pomfrey said, "Sirius Black, please go and sit down on that chair on the other side of the window."

"Why?" Sirius shifted reluctantly. "I'm not in your way, am I?"

"Yes, you are, and I assure you I don't plan to amputate Remus's foot as soon as you take your eyes off it." Sirius almost fell off the bed, and Remus couldn't hold back a soft crack of laughter. Madam Pomfrey shook her head at Sirius. "You're also blocking the light. This will go much faster if I can see what I'm doing, and then you two can get on with whatever you're up to today."

"Ice-skating," Sirius volunteered; he had draped himself over the chair, more or less as instructed, and his hair fell forward over his eyes, as usual. "Unless you think Remus shouldn't, with his newly amputated foot and all."

Madam Pomfrey pressed down the edges of the new bandage and patted Remus's knee. "He most certainly should not," she said. "Try to get some rest, and I should like to see you back here tonight for a half-strength relaxing draught. Do you need more ointment?"

"I don't think so." Remus looked at Sirius, and found himself curiously unable to meet Sirius's eyes. "Or do I?"

Sirius took the pot of ointment from his pocket and bounced it on his palm. "Should be enough for today," he said airily. "Unless you fall down on the ice a lot. Where we're not going. So."

Madam Pomfrey looked from Remus to Sirius and back again. She stood up and briskly straightened her apron. "The wintergreen ointment is rather strong," she said. "I'll give you something else to use on your older bruises. But you can keep the wintergreen ointment for new ones."

While she went to the dispensary, Remus put his sock and shoe back on and pulled his trouser leg down. He felt much more clear-headed today, and the frost crystals on the window were very precise and pretty. From this window, he couldn't see the lake, but the trees below were knee-deep in snow. "Ice-skating?"

"I suppose we'll have to wait a couple of days."

"You can go," Remus said.

"All on my own? Where's the fun in that?" Sirius shook his head. "You should come out and watch, at least. Hagrid told me he was going to clear the snow off the ice, and you can put cushioning charms all over your clothes. And we'll need some fresh air, after—"

He broke off as Madam Pomfrey came back almost immediately with another ointment, this one in a substantial glass jar. The jar was so much larger than the ceramic pot, Remus wondered if he would be supposed to cover himself head to toe twice daily with this one. "This is a much milder cream," Madam Pomfrey said, making sure Remus took the jar with both hands. "You can use as much as you like, anywhere on the body, with no side effects. But you should be careful with the wintergreen ointment; it is quite unpleasant if you should get it in your eyes, or any other sensitive areas."

"Then I won't," Remus said. He looked sideways at Sirius. "Will I?"

"Absolutely not," Sirius said. "Would be a shame if it happened to anyone else, though."

"Yes," Madam Pomfrey said, "it would. And if it did, I would know exactly who had access to the ointment, wouldn't I?"

"Outwitted at every turn!" Sirius said, jumped up from the chair and made a sweeping bow. He turned and held his arm out, elbow crooked at a precise angle. "I think we should leave now, Remus. You can come back for your amputation another day."

"Twerp," Remus said, temporarily bereft of all powers of repartee, and hit him on the back of the head. He did take Sirius's arm, though. Sirius complained all the way out of the infirmary that Remus had severely injured him and he was going to have to put greasy ointment on his head and then he'd look like Snape.

"And it will all be your fault," he finished dramatically.

"Now that you mention it," Remus said, "there is a certain likeness." He timed the words with a last-second step onto a moving staircase and left Sirius stranded in the open doorway, and successfully dodged several small projectiles and an Elephant Ear Hex without even dropping the giant jar of ointment; Sirius was clearly going soft.

They met up again in the Gryffindor common room. Remus came down from depositing the jar of ointment in the dormitory to find Sirius sprawled in front of the fire, studying the Marauder's Map. "Tell me again about this secret passageway," he said.

Remus sat down cross-legged next to Sirius on the rug and put a fingertip on the map. "There. A suspicious amount of nothing, to my mind. None of the other walls are even half the size of that one."

"Could just be because the Slytherins are a bit thick," Sirius suggested. He grinned up at Remus. "Start behind the centaur tapestry, then?" Rolling over and stretching lazily, so that his shirt rode up over the waistband of his trousers, he pointed to the end of the couch. "Think that's for you."

"What?" Remus redirected his gaze and saw another covered basket. "Oh." He wondered just for how long the house elves would be bringing him extra food. Usually he had to go and ask for it, after the full moon; Dumbledore must have been quite emphatic in his request.

Remus refused the suggestion to bring the basket along and have a picnic in the Slytherin dungeon, but he stowed away a fair amount of fudge and ginger biscuits in his robes, and Sirius pocketed a giant ham sandwich. Going to the window to see if it was snowing, Remus gave Sirius time to tuck away the Christmas present for Regulus somewhere on his person. They climbed out of the portrait hole and wandered casually down a few staircases and along a few hallways and passages and around a few sharp corners. Today the nymphs had gate-crashed the tea party of a few staid former professors, and looked set to enliven the proceedings considerably.

Mrs. Elton was sitting at the entrance to the corridor that led to the room with the centaur archery competition tapestry. She hissed when she saw them, and it took ten minutes of Sirius feeding her most of the ham from his sandwich before she consented to move out of the way. They hurried along the corridor, and Remus kept looking back over his shoulder to see if she had gone to fetch Argus Filch after all.

"Hurry up, will you," Sirius said, and pushed Remus in behind the tapestry.

The air was thick with dust, and Remus sneezed twice as he fumbled towards the door. "Alohomora," he wheezed, tapping the lock with his wand. As soon as the door opened, he squeezed through the narrow opening, and Sirius followed, crowding him against the opposite wall to make room for the door to close again.

They were in complete darkness for a moment, and then both called light to the tips of their wands, and grinned at each other. A steep, narrow flight of stone steps led down from the small landing by the door, and Remus walked down it cautiously, one hand on the wall. The stone was chilly and rough under his fingertips. Behind him, Sirius was whistling quietly to himself.

The stairs turned sharply to the right, and went on down. "Is this where the walls change?" Sirius asked. Remus heard a rustle of parchment.

"No, I think we need to go all the way down." Remus stopped and turned to point at the map; the lines wavered in the blue-white light from Sirius's wand, but he could see their names, squeezed into a narrow passage inside an interior wall. "Down here, see? And find out if there is a way to turn left instead of right."

"Lead on," Sirius said, folding the map up again. In the wand-light, his face looked different, and something other than ordinary. Remus closed his eyes for a moment and reassured himself that at least Sirius still smelled exactly the same. Some of that scent still clung to Remus's skin, too, from a night spent sleeping in the same bed. A sharp finger prodded his shoulder. "Oi, what's wrong with you now?"

Remus opened his eyes again. "I'm fine. A little dizzy," he added truthfully.

"If you go head first down these stairs and add a broken neck to your troubles, Persnickety Pomfrey will kill me," Sirius said. "Here, hold still. I'll go first."

He began to wriggle past Remus on the narrow stairs, and skidded on one of the worn-down steps. Remus grabbed Sirius's shoulders and held him steady. Sirius's hands landed on Remus's hips as he fell sideways into Remus; as he was mostly standing on the step below Remus, his forehead banged against Remus's chin, hard enough that Remus bit his tongue. "Ouch."

"That was all your fault," Sirius said, his voice muffled against Remus's chest. He straightened up and braced himself against the wall before turning and continuing down. Remus shook his head and followed.

At the bottom of the stairs was a narrow passage to the right that led to the kitchens. They had marked the passage on the map at least a year earlier; it came out inside a small storage room next to a cupboard full of blackcurrant preserves. To the left was nothing but a solid-looking stone wall, and Sirius, who had reached it first, was prodding the stones one at a time with his wand, muttering various incantations under his breath.

Remus sat down on the steps and watched him. He would get up and help in a little while, of course, but it was rare to see Sirius give his complete and serious attention to anything, and Remus had to admit he rather enjoyed the sight. "Peter thought there was something off about that corner," he said, mostly to hear Sirius snort and ignore the comment.

Remus leaned back on his elbows on a higher step and stretched his legs out as far as he could without kicking Sirius in the shins. He felt much better today; he hadn't expected such a quick recovery. Perhaps distraction was playing its part. Remus dug into a pocket for ginger biscuits and found that they were in a lot more pieces than they had been when he'd last seen them, probably from Sirius's little stumble.

He ate some of the larger pieces and held out a fistful of crumbs to Sirius. "Want some?" Sirius gave him an evil look, and an instant later, a very large and enthusiastic black dog was licking the crumbs out of Remus's hand, making a mess of his shirt-cuff in the process. "Padfoot!" Remus smacked his nose. "Bad dog!"

Remus started to wipe his hand on Padfoot's fur, when he changed and suddenly Remus was wiping his hand on Sirius's thigh instead. He froze and looked up at Sirius, only to see that Sirius was laughing. Remus took his hand away and wiped it on his own trouser leg. Meanwhile, Sirius turned back to the wall and tapped three stones in quick succession. "Ianua!"

The center stone slid back and turned around, and on the other side of it was a large iron door handle. Sirius grinned triumphantly.

"Good work," Remus said, standing up. "Why don't you do the honors?"

Sirius's hand was already on the door handle. When he pressed it down, the stone wall split down the middle, stones pulling back into the walls on either side until an opening formed that was wide enough to walk through comfortably. Sirius bounded ahead, wand held high, and Remus followed him. The air on the other side of the door was noticeably damper and cooler; they were in a narrow room full of old furniture, such as half of a fourposter bed hung with ragged green velvet drapes, broken chairs, and rolled-up carpets fringed with dust. At the other end of the room was an ordinary locked door, which Sirius made short work of, and they stepped out into the Slytherin common room.

"I don't know how they can even breathe down here," Sirius said disdainfully. Although no one was expected to be here for several days yet, most of the green-shaded lamps were lit. Someone had left a pile of books on a table, and a set of Slytherin Quidditch robes lay tossed on a chair. "And where do they sleep?"

"In beds, I should think," Remus said, wandering around the room. On their previous raid into the Slytherins' sanctum, they had never gone past this point; they had been discovered and forced to flee before James could do more than turn Snape's quill into a hairbrush. "Quite possibly through this door."

The boys' dormitories lay down yet another flight of stairs. Here, too, the air felt too chilly to be comfortable, although Remus supposed it was possible that some of the heating charms weren't active unless the Slytherins were in residence. The green light made even Sirius look vaguely unhealthy.

"Smells like wet socks," Sirius said, wrinkling his nose.

"In here," Remus said, holding a door open. "Isn't that your — Regulus's trunk?"

"Suppose so." Sirius walked into the small dormitory and looked around. He kicked the trunk in question, hard enough to make the contents rattle, and then he slowly extricated the badly wrapped Christmas present from inside his robe and tossed it onto the tidily-made bed that the trunk was standing next to.

"What did you get him?" Remus asked.

The next moment, he regretted the question, as Sirius glanced back over his shoulder and said, "Nothing really," before dropping down on all fours and turning into Padfoot again.

Remus sighed. He walked up to Padfoot and put a hand on his neck, skritching gently behind one ear. Padfoot pushed into Remus's hand, pressing into his leg, and without thinking, Remus knelt down on the hard stone floor and put his arms around Padfoot, petting the soft fur as Padfoot nosed into his hair and whuffed quietly in his ear.

They stayed like that for a while, huddled close, and Remus pressed his face into Padfoot's neck and wondered what it would be like to change like this, so swiftly and easily, on a whim. To change and still be the same, because this was Sirius still, just a different shape of him, and — and Remus was clinging to him and petting him, and Padfoot nosed at his neck and licked behind his ear.

Remus pulled back abruptly and lost his balance. He jerked his arms away from around Padfoot and steadied himself on the floor. Padfoot backed away, claws scrabbling on the stone, and ran past him and out of the dormitory. Remus got to his feet more slowly; the cold floor had not been kind to his knees, or his bruises. When he followed, he found the big black dog sitting on one of the rugs in the common room, staring around; as Remus entered the room, Padfoot turned back into Sirius, who raised his wand. "Pink," he said brightly.

"We really shouldn't," Remus said, but the lamp glasses changed to a soft rose glow. Sirius ignored Remus and turned his wand on the chair-covers; they came out bubblegum-pink and white gingham checks. Remus couldn't help grinning. He bent down and concentrated on the fireplace rug, until it was patterned with large pink roses. Another tap of his wand, and the Christmas garlands on the wall turned pink and rose and white.

"Much better," Sirius said, and Remus turned around to see that he had changed the serpent on the Slytherin banner on the wall into a large pink rabbit. Remus started laughing, and Sirius grinned at him, glittery and wild. They changed the drapes on the walls, the colored panes in the windows, and Remus changed several of the green couch cushions to petit-point peonies, big and blowsy.

Sirius still had that look in his eyes, and he spun his wand between his fingers as if trying to come up with more things to change. Before Remus could ask him what he was thinking, he ran back down the steps to the boys' dormitories again. Remus tried to run after him, but his foot twinged too badly, forcing him to slow down. By the time he caught up, Sirius had already changed the bedcurtains in two dormitories, the first set to bright pink velvet, the second set to garish pink hearts on a white background. He looked over his shoulder as Remus approached him in the door of the third-year dormitory and flicked his wand without looking, and the pink and red stripes came out lopsided.

"Not your best work," Remus said lightly. He beat Sirius by a nose to the next dormitory and called up a memory of a flower-patterned dress he'd seen on a Muggle woman the previous summer.

Sirius hooked his chin over Remus's shoulder and laughed in his ear. "Merlin's ear wax, that's hideous."

"Thank you." Remus pretended his heart didn't trip faster as he felt Sirius's breath warm against the side of his face.

They collaborated on the next one: pink tulips and more rabbits. Then they split up, and Remus went for simple, classic pink polka dots, whereas Sirius, he discovered, chose pink flamingoes that moved, walking this way and that on the bedcurtains on long, gangly legs. "Particularly clever, that, if I do say so myself," Sirius said smugly. "Wasted on the Slytherin louts, of course."

"You don't know that," Remus argued. "One of them might actually be moved to take up bird-watching."

Sirius's smile was less sharp than Remus had worried, but more than he'd hoped. "Which bed is Snape's, do you think? I think something terrible is about to happen to his sheets."

Remus shrugged and took a couple of steps towards the door, taking care to limp. "I really don't want to think about Snape's sheets," he said. "I thought we could go out through the kitchens and liberate some leftover turkey."

"Should've brought the picnic basket," Sirius said, but he caught up with Remus and slung an arm around his shoulders as they walked up into the common room again. "D'you need to sit down and rest?" He gestured at the nearest couch, where giant heart-shaped cushions almost hid the black leather.

"Not on that," Remus said. He gestured around the room. "It's fine for Slytherins, of course — much nicer than before — but—"

His stomach rumbled. Sirius laughed and patted it with his free hand. "Let's go, then. And then we can go out to the lake and try to look as if we've been there all day."

Remus had not the least doubt that Dumbledore would know, from the moment the Slytherin redesign was noticed, just who was behind it; the only thing he was uncertain of was exactly how much detention they would get for it. Still, as pranks went, it was relatively harmless, and rather funny, and Sirius was looking relaxed and easy again as he towed Remus out through the storage room, locking the door behind them, and back through the opening in the wall. The stones slid back into place, the stone in the middle turned over, hiding the door handle from view, and when everything stopped moving, Remus held up his lit wand and peered closely, and could not see any difference between those joins and the others in the wall.

They followed the passage towards the kitchen, and did not have far to go before reaching the exit they were already familiar with. This door wasn't camouflaged from inside the passage, only on the other side, in the storage room, where it looked like a wall-to-floor maiolica-style pottery decoration with pears, apples, grapes, bananas, oranges, quinces, acanthus leaves, pine cones, and marigolds framing a scene of two hedgehogs cooking mushroom stew, or possibly getting ready to poison someone. Sirius put his hand to the door, then stopped.

"Go on," Remus said impatiently.

"Pink kittens on Snape's sheets." Sirius sounded dreamy.

Remus shook his head. "If you don't stop obsessing about Snape's sheets, I'm going to be ill." He reached past Sirius and prodded the door-latch with his wand, and the door swung open. They stepped out into the storage room, and the maiolica cooking scene swung closed behind them. Remus checked the cupboard. There was a row of ginger and apple marmalade jars and some canned peaches next to the blackcurrant preserves, each with a neatly-written label.

The kitchen smelled wonderful. Remus breathed deep, trying to take it all in: new bread, biscuits in the oven, ginger and cinnamon and sugar, frying onions, butter melting in a pan, roast lamb with rosemary... The first house elves to discover their presence looked comically dismayed, then, as Sirius began to sample the contents of various bowls and trays, rushed to fill their hands with cheese breads stuffed with turkey and cranberry sauce (which immediately began to drip onto Remus's fingers), and shooed them out by flapping tea towels at them.

"Not bad," Sirius said, with his mouth full of turkey.

Remus licked the cranberry sauce off his fingers before it could drip on his trousers. They walked slowly back to Gryffindor Tower, eating rather than talking; Remus finished his sandwich before they were even halfway there, and Sirius sighed in a very put-upon manner and handed over the remaining half of his. When they came back into the common room, Remus headed directly for the covered basket. He was even more hungry than he usually was after a full moon, but he also seemed to be healing faster. While he ate some thin ham and cheese sandwiches, Sirius ran up the stairs to the dormitories, and came back a little later with his arms full of robes and cloaks and hats and gloves.

Remus put on a few more layers, but draped his cloak over his arm, as he had no wish to steam-cook himself in front of the fire. When Sirius held out his new hat and gloves to him, he shook his head. "I don't know if that's really appropriate."

"I can't think of anything more appropriate," Sirius said, jamming the hat onto Remus' head and winding the scarf around his neck; it was so long that the new moon fell down to his knees. "And then you can be perfectly truthful when you write to Mrs. Potter and tell her that her gifts are keeping you warm in the cold weather we're having."

Sirius himself wore no hat, but a scarf even longer than Remus's; it was black with a pattern of white snowflakes. Remus reached out and tugged at the thick fringe of the nearest end, which was also white. "Not as Black as you're knitted?"

Sirius grinned. "Come on, Moony." He closed a hand about Remus's arm and tugged him along.

Down in the entrance hall, the Christmas tree stood slightly crooked, some of its lowest icicles knocked askew, and all the birds had fled to the highest branches. Mrs. Elton was conspicuously absent. Remus shook his head and put his cloak on, murmuring a warming spell. Sirius was already two steps ahead, opening the front door, and the birds chirruped at the wave of cold air coming in.

Outside, the air was even colder, and Remus breathed out just to see the thin cloud of his breath. The sky was colorless, and the snow made every sound seem muffled. They walked towards the lake, following a trampled path made, for the most part, by someone with extremely large feet. As they came closer, they heard voices, and when they reached the lake they saw that the young Ravenclaw students had also decided to try ice-skating. Hagrid had cleared the snow off part of the ice, which was black and smooth and glassy, except where it was already growing scored by the sharp white lines of the skates. There was a box full of skates of varying sizes sitting at the edge of the lake. Remus took a careful step onto the ice, and frowned. "Where does the giant squid go in the winter?"

"Skegness?" Sirius suggested, took three running steps, and went sliding across the ice until he fetched up against the wall of shovelled snow that bordered the cleared area, and fell over in it.

Remus took his gloves off so Sirius could hear the applause better. "Very graceful!" he called out. The Ravenclaws giggled, and one of them fell over as well; they all seemed to be novices at skating, but enthusiastic for all that.

Sirius watched them for a few minutes, criticising freely as they stumbled and crashed into each other, and then went and found a pair of skates from the box and skated over to the smallest Ravenclaw and took her by the shoulders. "This is really very simple," he said. "Just move your feet like this, push off — harder than that, or you won't get anywhere—"

At the edge of the lake, Remus built a snowman. He attempted to model a more interesting face for it than just a snow blob for a nose, and ended up giving it an unfortunate resemblance to Professor Flitwick, although it was considerably taller. When he glanced out over the lake, Sirius had progressed to trying to teach the Ravenclaws to skate backwards as well as forwards, with limited success. After the smallest one took yet another tumble and managed to drag Sirius with her, hands clenched in his robe, Sirius ordered them all to take their skates off and try ice-sliding instead.

Remus started to make himself a supply of snowballs. He watched Sirius and the Ravenclaw children run and slide across the ice, on their backsides, on their stomachs like penguins, on their feet, very daringly, before they windmilled and inevitably fell. Cushioning charms or no cushioning charms, it was to be hoped that Madam Pomfrey had laid in a large supply of wintergreen ointment.

When Remus judged that he had enough snowballs, he picked one up, took careful aim, and hit Sirius in the middle of the chest. Sirius looked outraged, then delighted, and rallied the Ravenclaws to come to his support. Remus managed to hit every one of the Ravenclaws, and Sirius two more times, before they could get any ammunition of their own; then he ducked behind his snowman as they came tearing across the ice, shouting happily and hurling snow at him as fast as they could. Sirius led the charge, and Remus looked out around the snowman just in time to see the Ravenclaw boy in the rear skid on the ice and clutch at the girl next to him, and both of them lose their balance and slam into Sirius from behind, shoving him forward.

Trying not to fall, Sirius stumbled forward faster and faster, until he reached the edge of the ice and came to an abrupt stop; he fell, arms outstretched, right onto the snowman, which was not built to withstand collision with athletic young wizards moving at high speed, and collapsed in its turn, on top of Remus. The Ravenclaws behind Sirius tried to stop their own headlong rush, and two of them managed to slow down and teeter to a halt just before they ran out of ice. The third did not, and landed across Sirius's legs.

Remus spat out a mouthful of snow. "I think you won," he said. "Can anyone see my hat?"

"A splendid victory," Sirius agreed, using the trailing end of his scarf to wipe the snow off first Remus's face, then the small Ravenclaw's. "Somebody help Sophronia up."

The Ravenclaw boys got the girl to her feet, and Sirius dug Remus out from under the snowman. Once Remus was upright, Sophronia shyly handed him his hat. "Thank you," he said gravely, and fished some extremely squashed fudge and chocolate out of his pocket. He handed out sweets to all the Ravenclaws, and then, after some increasingly pointed throat-clearing, to Sirius. "You should all get back to the castle, and get out of those clothes before you get wet to the skin."

"Yes, off with you," Sirius said. "Shoo!" He chivvied them until they walked off along the path, and turned back to Remus. "How's your foot?"

"I don't know," Remus said, grinning. "It's too cold, I can't feel it."

"You have snow in your eyelashes," Sirius said. He took his glove off and brushed his fingertips, very carefully, along the line of Remus's lashes. Remus held very still, though he could not help blinking over and over against the gentle pressure. "That's better."

Sirius sucked in a quick breath, just the way he did before jumping into the lake in the summer, and pressed his mouth to Remus's. His lips were cold and slightly chapped, and the kiss itself just a firm application of pressure, over in a heartbeat. Remus stared at Sirius, who stared back, wide-eyed and slightly shocked-looking. A trickle of melting snow ran from Remus' collar and down his back.

"All righ' there, you two?" a loud voice boomed. Remus nearly leaped out of his skin as Hagrid came walking down the path, a snow shovel dangling in his hand like a toy spade. "Yeh'd better get yerselves up ter the castle, there's more snow comin'. Don' want ter get caught out in it."

Remus looked up to see that the sky was growing dark, with lower, heavier clouds sweeping down from the north. Another trickle of melting snow slid down his spine, and he shivered. "He's right," he said, trying to keep his eyes off Sirius's mouth. "We'd better go in."

Hagrid picked up the box of skates one-handed, and the lid popped open and several pairs fell out. "Merlin's brass-plated— Here, one of yeh give me a hand wi' this."

"You go in," Sirius said, his eyes still too wide, and fixed on Remus. "Don't want to catch cold." He raised his voice. "Is that the call of honest work I hear?"

"Do yeh good for a change," Hagrid said with a low rumble of laughter, as Sirius walked over to him and began to gather up the skates. Remus turned away from them and started to walk up the path to the castle, feeling his pulse beat in his throat with every step. He felt as though the touch of Sirius's mouth on his own had left a glowing mark, and he half expected someone to stop him and ask what on earth he had been doing.

When he entered the castle, he became aware of the time, and hurried up to Gryffindor Tower. He spread out his wet cloak, robes, hat and scarf and gloves in front of the fire. There wasn't enough time for a bath; Remus went up to the dormitory and rubbed himself briskly with a towel and put on dry clothes, and hurried back down to the great hall, where most of the seats at the table were already occupied. The young Ravenclaws smiled shyly at him. When he looked up at the enchanted ceiling, he saw that the dark clouds were now directly overhead.

Hagrid and Sirius came in a few minutes later, and Remus stifled a laugh. Sirius was wearing an enormous fuzzy brown jumper that fit him like a tent. It fell past his knees and looked as if something with large, sharp teeth had chewed on the hem; he'd rolled the sleeves up into such a thick wad, he looked as though he was wearing knitted manacles. Sophronia, the little Ravenclaw, took one look at him and slid so low in her chair the top of her head was level with the table. Remus could hear her giggling.

When the food arrived, it was excellent, as always. Remus particularly enjoyed the roast lamb he'd smelled down in the kitchen earlier. He looked cautiously down the table, but it was impossible to see past Hagrid; Remus could only get a brief glimpse of Sirius's hands as he reached out for the mashed potatoes. Instead, he applied himself to eating, and to remembering to stop, now that Sirius wasn't close enough to elbow him. His appetite ought to be back to normal tomorrow, Remus thought. And he was behind on his plans for doing homework during break, and he ought to send a thank-you letter to Mrs. Potter as soon as possible.

Leaning forward in his chair to pass the sprouts to Professor Flitwick, Remus strained for another brief view of Sirius's hands. He still had the eerie conviction that he wore Sirius's kiss on his mouth like a sign for anyone to see. When Dumbledore raised his goblet in a friendly toast, twinkling at Remus over the rim, Remus nearly spilled his pumpkin juice. After a second helping of lamb and some whisky cheddar, Remus took advantage of the young Ravenclaws leaving the table to excuse himself as well. He glanced back over his shoulder as he walked out of the hall and saw that Hagrid had clapped a giant hand on Sirius's shoulder and was talking enthusiastically to him.

"You could come and play Gobstones with us," Sophronia said. "If you wanted to, I mean."

"I should do homework," Remus said. "Perhaps some other time." He walked slowly back to the Gryffindor common room, but no one came running to catch up with him.

Everything in the common room was just as he had left it. Outside the window, the first snowflakes began to fall. Remus picked up his cloak and robes, which were beginning to dry, and hung them on chairs instead; then he sat down on the rug in front of the fire and leaned back against the couch.

The fire burned a comforting red and gold. Remus stared into the flames and pressed his lips together, trying to recreate the sensation of Sirius kissing him. He couldn't make himself think too closely about it; instead he just relived the way it had felt, falling into a state of near-hypnotic drowsiness as he watched the fire and immersed himself in a single moment of memory. Remus relaxed so much that when the portrait hole swung open, he barely even reacted, just turned his head and watched Sirius climb inside.

Sirius stopped as soon as he was inside and clawed his way out of Hagrid's jumper, dropping it on the floor. Underneath it, he wore his own shirt and underwear, and a pair of striped socks that came up well over his knees. He scratched vigorously at the back of his neck with both hands. "Festering flobberworms, that itched!" Sirius shook himself, like Padfoot shaking off water. "Remind me never to wear anything of Hagrid's ever again."

"Do you think you're likely to?" Remus grinned.

"No." Sirius took his boots off, took the socks off as well, and flung them aside. He kicked at the jumper for good measure and took a step closer to the fire, then stopped. "My wet things are still down in Hagrid's house."

"Get them later," Remus said lazily. "It's snowing." When he turned his head to look at the window, he saw that he was more right than he knew; the wind had picked up and the snow started to come down heavily, whipping past in thick flurries.

Sirius picked his way between the chairs Remus had draped his things over. He dropped down next to Remus, bracing one arm on the couch seat, and looked quickly at Remus and then away again. Remus deliberately did not move to make room for Sirius, and they were pressed close together, side to side and hip to hip, and Remus's trouser-clad leg to Sirius's bare one, with Sirius's arm behind Remus's shoulders on the couch seat, just an inch and a thought away from being around Remus. The fire had never been so fascinating to stare at.

"You're right, you could use a haircut," Sirius said, and Remus shivered as he felt Sirius's fingers on the back of his neck, brushing lightly over the skin and twisting into his hair. He looked sideways to see if Sirius was looking at him, and he was. Remus turned his head. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, and Sirius kissed him again.

The slow, shy determination of this kiss was something quite different from that quick meeting of lips earlier. Their mouths brushed together, clung and hesitated and parted, and tried again, closer and deeper. Sirius's fingers tightened in Remus's hair, and he tilted his head a little more to one side, and just like that, they fit together.

They turned into each other as they kissed, Sirius's bare knees tucking in underneath Remus's drawn-up legs, and Remus slowly lifted his hand and put it on Sirius's shoulder. He flexed his fingers in Sirius's shirt and daringly licked into Sirius's mouth, tasting him for the first time. Sirius sucked in a sharper breath and met Remus's tongue with his own, and Remus heard a rushing sound in his ears, the quickening crash and thunder of his pulse speeding up.

It was awkward to kiss in this position. Remus was leaning most of his weight on one hip, just where his bruises were at their worst; he had one arm braced on the floor for balance, and his hand began to go numb. He didn't care, but when Sirius put a hand on his side to pull him closer, his back muscles twinged, and he could not help flinching a little.

Sirius pulled back at once, brows drawing together over darkened eyes. "It's the floor," Remus said, not very coherently. "And my back." He leaned forward, trying to reclaim Sirius's mouth with his own, and they toppled slowly sideways, with awkward little shifts and adjustments, until Sirius was lying on his back on the fireside rug and Remus half on top of him, kissing Sirius again with frantic, hungry delight; Sirius's hand was still clenched tight in Remus's hair, as though Sirius thought that Remus might try to get away if Sirius didn't hold him there.

Remus was not trying to get away. All he wanted was to get closer, to have more, to know every part of Sirius as thoroughly as possible. He was bracing himself on one elbow, but his other hand was free to roam across Sirius's shoulder and chest and side. Out of habit, Remus stroked his fingers across the ticklish spot under Sirius's ribs, and discovered that a full-body shudder felt very interesting when you were lying on top of someone. He did it again, and the way Sirius twisted and rubbed up against him was irresistible; without giving himself time to think about it, Remus slid his hand up underneath Sirius's shirt, tracing his fingers over bare skin.

When he skimmed over the tiny, hard peak of a nipple, Sirius's fingers tightened almost painfully in his hair, dragging him down into another messy kiss. Sirius arched up, grinding himself against Remus's thigh. Remus became intensely aware of how little clothing Sirius was wearing. He himself was buttoned into several layers that felt a lot more constricting than they had earlier in the day, but Sirius was only covered in some flimsy linen and cotton that would probably come off quite easily if Remus could only coordinate his hands and his mind enough to remember how it was done.

Every time Sirius shifted his hips just so, a wave of pleasure rolled up through Remus until it caught in his throat like a growl. He rubbed his face against Sirius's cheek and jaw and neck, breathing him in, nosing just underneath Sirius's ear and dragging his lips across the pulse beating hard and hot beneath the skin. Sirius smelled so good, better than bread fresh from the oven or the cool air in the woods at midnight. He whined and pushed his entire body upwards, almost violently, but he had a firm grip on Remus's shoulders with both hands, so it was very clear he wasn't trying to push Remus away.

All the same, Remus found himself holding on tight to Sirius, too, pressing him down and kissing him like a challenge and a demand. And Sirius, Sirius kissed him back like confession, like surrender, like an invocation.

Remus ran his hand over Sirius's skin under his shirt, touching and stroking and feeling the wonderful heat and strength of Sirius's body. He trailed his fingers down past the edge of the ribs and over the soft skin of the belly, and then he had to shift back and take some of his weight off Sirius to get lower. Sirius complained, tongue to tongue with Remus, but then Remus's hand slid down into his underwear and closed around him and he said "Oh," in a soft, clear voice, and his fingers dug into Remus's shoulders with renewed fierceness. Remus began to stroke steadily, watching Sirius's face to see what to do, to find the right grip and the right pace.

Sirius panted, open-mouthed, and couldn't keep his eyes open, though he tried, staring at Remus with blown pupils before squeezing his eyes shut and making sounds that Remus wanted to eat right out of his mouth. Remus nuzzled him close, breathing on his hot skin and then drawing in the scent rising from it, rich and irresistible. Sirius rolled his head back and forth, and a strand of hair clung to his cheek like a fine black feather. He shuddered and cried out loud, and arched into hot, wet release.

Remus pulled his hand out of Sirius's underwear and sniffed at the wetness on his fingers and palm, then licked it. The taste flooded his mouth with rightness; he couldn't have described it, other than to say that it tasted precisely the way it ought to, locking into every part of him with an almost audible click. He cleaned his fingers, swiftly, then tugged Sirius's underwear down so he could lick up the rest, every smear and stray drop of it, and the taste was even better against Sirius's skin. Sirius's fingers were in his hair again, flexing and clenching, but not nearly so strongly; he felt a twitch and throb against his tongue and heard Sirius whimper.

When Sirius tugged him away, Remus didn't fight it; he crawled up Sirius's body and lay down on top of him again and looked at him, the way his eyes were wide and dark, the way his mouth was slightly open, the way his skin flushed and looked softer than usual. Everything about him was perfectly and completely Sirius, although Remus had never seen him look just like this before. Remus growled, half in contentment and half in anticipation, grinding slowly against Sirius's hip.

Sirius wouldn't hold still, though. He wriggled against Remus and worked a hand in between them, and started to push Remus away, but only far enough that he could start to unfasten Remus's trousers. Remus was willing to concede that this might be a good idea, but then Sirius pulled out of Remus's arms to sit up, to move. "No," Remus said, wrapping a hand around Sirius's wrist. He didn't want to lose the warm promise of Sirius's body against his own.

"Oh, yes," Sirius said, flashing him a bright and more than a little wicked smile. He pushed Remus down and bent over him, and that — and that was his mouth, and it was just like heaven. Remus fell back and fisted both hands in the fireside rug. He didn't know if he had gone blind or if he'd merely forgotten how his eyelids worked; all he could do was feel, experience every vivid moment of Sirius's mouth kissing and licking and sucking, taking him into wet heat and a pleasure he'd never even imagined. Everything fell away from him except the craving for more, the way his entire body strained towards release.

It came like a rain of stars, and took his breath away.

Time returned slowly to its accustomed course, and Remus came back to awareness of himself, lying flat on his back before the fire with Sirius curled up on top of him, with his head resting over Remus's heart, which seemed to be beating as it should, if perhaps a trifle fast. He lifted a hand slowly and brushed his fingers through Sirius's hair; it was fine and silky, like thistledown. When he tugged softly on it, Sirius lifted his head and smiled. His lower lip was moist and a little swollen, and Remus pulled him up and kissed him. "Yes," Remus said.

Sirius looked very pleased with himself. "What about the floor, and your back?" he said, mouth quirking up ever so slightly. "Can't have you doing yourself an injury."

"Lucky for me that you're here," Remus said, straining his neck to catch Sirius's mouth with his own again. "In case I should need help with anything." When he shifted up, that muscle in his back spasmed again, though not as badly as the day before. Remus grimaced.

The teasing smile vanished, and Sirius frowned at him. "You did hurt yourself."

Remus kissed him. "I didn't notice," he said.

"Oh." Sirius kissed him back, and grinned. "Still. I think you should have a hot bath, and some more of that wintergreen ointment. I'm happy to help you with that, you know."

"I'd noticed," Remus said dryly. "And what next, some hot milk and a nap?"

"Oh, I think we should go to bed early," Sirius said, not managing to keep either his voice or his eyes entirely grave. "Very important, getting enough sleep." He sat up and straightened his shirt, which had twisted around his torso. "D'you need me to help you up?"

"No," Remus said, hoping that he was telling the truth. He sat up gingerly and then got to his feet, well aware of every part of his body that he'd bruised and strained over the past couple of days, but feeling much too contented to care. His trousers were fastened crooked. Sirius, rising up next to him, was a vision of elegance, with his hair in his eyes and two buttons coming off his shirt.

They went up to the dormitory together to find themselves clean clothes; Sirius appropriated a pair of James's trousers and a pair of socks that no one remembered any more whose they were. "Let's go back to the prefects' bathroom," he suggested, picking up the pot of ointment. "Better towels."

"You're getting spoiled," Remus said, although that was nothing new. "What will you do when there are actual prefects in the prefects' bathroom? Boot them out?"

"Of course. At least the smaller ones." Sirius grinned and led the way back down the stairs at a clattering pace. Remus spared a quick glance for the rug in front of the fireplace as they went by. He had a sneaking suspicion that he would be unreasonably fond of that rug for the rest of his life.

The castle was quiet around them; Remus imagined that everyone had retired to sit in front of a fire somewhere, and drowse, and listen to the wind and perhaps watch the snow fall. When they passed a window, Remus stopped and looked outside, and saw nothing except snowflakes whirling. The Grey Lady fluttered through a corridor ahead of them once, disappearing through a wall, but they didn't see a living soul.

Someone had draped a tartan scarf around the neck of the statue of Boris the Bewildered, and put a tall clown hat on his head. Sirius tugged the scarf up over Boris's face to turn him into a tartan highwayman while Remus spoke the password and opened the door. The lights brightened as they stepped through, and the mermaid, who was sleeping, rolled over and turned her back on the room.

Remus began to strip, and realized abruptly that he felt self-conscious in front of Sirius, which he had not done in about six years. He looked sideways at Sirius, and found that Sirius was looking sideways at him, with pure and simple appreciation. When Remus took his shirt off, Sirius came up behind him and kissed the back of his neck, and then his shoulder, and put his arms around Remus's waist and began to unfasten his trousers again. "I think I remember how to do that for myself," Remus said, and Sirius laughed in his ear. "And I should take my boots off first."

"Oh, that's right," Sirius said, and stepped away, and was out of his boots and socks and shirt and trousers and underwear in the time it took Remus to sit down and find his bootlaces. "Let me help you with that."

Naked Sirius kneeling at his feet was a great deal more interesting today than it had been yesterday, although Remus was honest enough to admit that the greatest difference was that now he could allow himself to acknowledge just how interested he was. Sirius untied the laces and tugged off the boots, and Remus caught him by the shoulders and pulled him up to kiss him.

"Ooh," said a very cheerful voice from the other side of the bathroom. "Oh, aren't you two a pretty sight."

Remus turned his head slowly to see that the mermaid had woken up and was staring frankly at them. "I knew there was a good reason for using the student bathrooms," he said.

"Just pretend I'm not here," the mermaid said, arranging herself more comfortably on her rock. "I won't make a peep, I promise."

Sirius grinned. He kissed the tip of Remus's nose and got up and walked over to the pool. "Admit it, beautiful, you just want to make me blush," he said and stepped into the water.

While the mermaid was busy looking at Sirius, Remus took his remaining clothes off and left them in a heap rather than fold them. He slid into the water and sank down under the surface, coming up again with his hair plastered to his head and blinking water out of his eyes. Sirius was turning on the green and pink bubbles again. Remus found another tap of soap that didn't smell too bad, and washed himself a bit, and then went over and washed Sirius's back, and his arms, and his chest.

"Close your eyes, beautiful," Sirius said to the mermaid, and then he turned around and kissed Remus, slowly at first and then more intensely; Remus closed his hands about Sirius's upper arms and drew him closer, crushing the green bubbles between them. There was a great deal to be said for being naked, Remus thought hazily. And wet — naked and wet was an extremely pleasant combination. He trailed his hand along Sirius's wonderfully slippery side, over his hip and onto his thigh.

Sirius kept kissing Remus and pressing closer to him, until Remus turned them around and trapped Sirius against the side of the pool between two taps, and rubbed up against him. Sirius broke the kiss to draw a deeper, unsteady breath. He put his hands on Remus's hips, but instead of drawing him closer, he tried to hold him still.

"Wait," Sirius said. "I want. Er." He looked awkward, and Remus stopped grinding against him and waited. "I want you to. Oh, bugger." His eyes widened, his face flooded with color, and he started laughing. "That's not how I meant to put it, though," he added breathlessly.

Remus stared blankly at him. Then his brain turned the words over and put them together in a new and unexpected way. "Oh." He stared at Sirius, who was beautiful and embarrassed and naked and hard and wet. It was a little difficult to think about anything else. "Do you really, I mean, do you want me to..."

Sirius nodded. "But not here."

"Oh, don't mind me," the mermaid said, and they both turned and stared at her, appalled. She smiled and wiggled her fingers at them coyly, and Remus considered throwing a handful of pink bubbles onto the painting. He should be able to hit her face from here.

Instead, he turned to Sirius. "Not here," he agreed. He felt a little breathless, too. He let go of Sirius and stepped back, turned around and finished washing, trying to force his rushing fingers to be thorough. When he was done, he stepped out of the pool without looking at either Sirius or the mermaid and went to stand underneath one of the showers, rinsing off soap and bubbles in water that was a little cooler than he would usually have chosen.

Sirius came up beside him not long after, and Remus kissed him quickly and went to get a towel. Before he was even completely dry, Sirius followed him again, stepping up next to Remus and holding up the pot of wintergreen ointment. "You aren't done with this yet," he said.

"I can do it myself." Remus tried to take the pot.

"No, you can't," Sirius said. "Not your back. Turn around."

Remus turned around, because Sirius was right, he couldn't do it himself, and he didn't want his back muscles to spasm again at — he drew a steadying breath — some highly unsuitable moment. The bright smell of wintergreen cut through the air, and moments later he felt Sirius's fingers rub firmly across his cuts and bruises, working the cream in. This time, though, Sirius added light kisses here and there as he worked: to Remus's shoulderblade, to the small of his back, to his hip and the back of his knee.

Remus thought he was well on the way to developing an inconvenient reaction to the smell of wintergreen.

The mermaid kept miraculously silent as they got dressed and hung their wet towels up a bit haphazardly. Remus suspected that as soon as they were gone, some house elf or other would come by and make a much better job of it. Sirius waved goodbye to the mermaid, who pouted a little to see them go, and they slipped outside into the cool, dry air of the corridor. Remus rubbed a hand across his arm, feeling the sudden chill, and Sirius put an arm around his shoulders.

They walked back towards Gryffindor Tower without talking, although they stopped in the alcove at the foot of the second staircase to kiss, just a little. Just as Remus started to work his fingertips in underneath Sirius's shirt, in the back, he heard brisk footsteps coming along the corridor. It was Madam Pomfrey, who carried a steaming earthenware cup in her hand. "Oh, how convenient," she said, looking at Remus as though he hadn't just jumped out of an alcove with his hair tangled and two buttons undone. "I thought I might have to go all the way up to the tower to bring you this."

"I really feel much better," Remus said. "I don't think I need—"

"Nonsense," she said, pressing the cup into his hand. "And Sirius Black, stop skulking back there as though I can't see you, and do up your tie properly. This is a school, even during the holidays."

"Thank you," Remus said quickly. "It was very kind of you to come all the way here."

Madam Pomfrey smiled faintly at him, and instructed him to go to bed and rest, before setting off again in a swirl of skirts. As the sound of her footfalls died away, Remus and Sirius went up the second staircase, trailing blueberry bubbles in their wake.

One of the nymphs was visiting with the Fat Lady, giggling and gossiping. Remus thought it was the same one who had been in the infirmary the night before, but he wasn't sure, and he certainly wasn't about to ask her to show him her bruises. Once they got the Fat Lady's attention, the portrait hole swung open and they clambered inside to find the common room as peaceful as they'd left it, but a good deal tidier, with Hagrid's jumper and socks folded and lying on a chair, Remus's clothes dry and folded onto another chair, and the fireplace rug straightened.

Remus slowed down as they went past the fire, and put the relaxing draught down on a table; he was on the verge of saying something, but Sirius took his hand and pulled him along out of the common room and up the stairs and into their dormitory.

Lights burned here, too, and the red velvet hangings on the beds threw warm shadows. Sirius stopped and turned to Remus, stepping in close, and kissed him, just lightly at first, and then with a deep intensity, as though he was trying to say something to Remus that he had no suitable words for. Remus knew a little of what he wanted to say to Sirius, and he was just lifting his hands to put his arms around Sirius and say it more clearly, when Sirius stepped back. He smiled at Remus, mischievous and nervous and determined all at once, and took his clothes off, flinging them aside without caring where they landed.

Remus didn't much care where they landed, either. He breathed deep of the scent rising from Sirius's skin and watched as Sirius climbed onto the nearest bed, which happened to be Remus's, watched him sit back and look at Remus and stretch out his hand. "Come on, then," Sirius said. "Come here."

Remus thought he would have to be dead to refuse that invitation. He stripped out of his own clothes, aware of Sirius's eyes on him, aware of all the cuts and bruises on his body and all the old scars, but not really self-conscious any more. The way that Sirius was looking at him didn't leave any room for doubt or shame. Remus sat down on the bed next to Sirius and touched him, stroking his shoulder and his chest and his hip, dragging his hand slowly up the inside of Sirius' thigh. "You smell," he said, and then stopped, searching for a suitable word for so long that Sirius started laughing; Remus bent down and licked at Sirius right where the smell was strongest, and the laughter trailed off into a choked moan.

"Wait," Sirius said once again, and turned towards the bedside table and picked up the large glass jar. He set it down on the bed and looked thoughtfully at it. "Safe to use anywhere. You don't think she knew, do you?"

"Of course not," Remus said as Sirius wrestled the lid off the jar, because the alternative was too disturbing to contemplate. He couldn't stop touching Sirius: his hip, the line of his back as he turned. The soft fall of his hair.

Sirius scooped out a fistful of cream and smeared most of it onto Remus's fingers. He set the jar aside again and took Remus's hand and pulled it between his legs. "Here," he said.

Remus hesitated, because it was the last moment that he would be able to hesitate before the deep and eager want inside him broke free. "Are we in a hurry?"

"Yes," Sirius said, and his voice was a little ragged. He lay back, flushed and tense and smelling like desire, like the most right thing imaginable, like himself, and tugged on Remus's hand again, and guided his fingers. "Yes, oh please, yes."

And that was irresistible, the tone of his voice, the scent of him, the way he moved and panted and arched as Remus stroked the slick cream into him. The perfect line of his throat as he threw his head back. The hot grip of his hands as he pulled Remus close, the awkward shifts as they tried to fit their bodies together, the soft whimper as Remus finally pressed inside. Remus buried his face in Sirius's neck and held still and breathed, shaking with the effort, until Sirius's hands and Sirius's hips urged him into motion.

He was surrounded by the scent of Sirius, drowning in it. Remus lifted himself up on his elbows and looked at Sirius's face, at Sirius's mouth, which showed everything he was feeling, his reaction to every slow thrust. Sirius's hands moved restlessly over Remus's sides and back, gripping and clenching in time with his unsteady breathing, and strangely enough, it didn't hurt when Sirius happened to dig his fingers into a bruise; the sensation just arrowed down into Remus's hips and drove them forward a little harder and a little faster.

Sirius was perfect and beautiful, stripped down to bare skin and bare need and moving with a fierce, unashamed strength. The air drew close around them, warm and dark, as though some invisible bedcurtains were drawn and wrapped them in a private velvet universe. Sirius arched up under Remus, panting and gasping as he drove his hips up, trying for some particular angle and making harsh little noises when he found it and then lost it again. A drop of sweat trickled from his hairline. Remus pressed forward and kissed him, deep and hard, and then he pulled back and pulled out. Sirius whimpered.

"Turn over," Remus said, barely recognizing his own voice. A momentary confusion showed in Sirius's eyes, but when Remus pushed him into motion he shifted around easily enough, tangling and untangling their legs, and Remus licked along the long smooth line of Sirius's spine and pressed back into Sirius's body, and Sirius bucked against the sheets and cried out: yes.

That was it, that was just precisely it, and Remus couldn't hold himself back. Every thrust was like fire, like stars exploding behind his eyes. He panted open-mouthed against Sirius's back, blurring the line between smell and taste. Sirius was making those little noises all the time, now, between deep, jagged breaths, and one of his hands gripped one of Remus's, locking their fingers together.

Through the tight grip, Remus could feel the tension in Sirius ratchet higher and higher, could feel the way Sirius strained and and twisted and shuddered with their every move; the desire for faster more now like that right there seemed to come from both of them, binding them together although Remus could have sworn they could get no closer than they were at this moment.

In the space of a breath, Sirius's fingers clenched down impossibly hard, and his body clenched, tighter than the grip of his hand, and he yelled into the pillows and shook with release. The hot scent, mixed with the smell of Sirius's sweat, made Remus's mouth water and his mind blank out, empty itself whitely of everything except the gasping impossible joy of craving and having all at once. Starfire rolled through him and spilled out of him, and he fell from heaven to lie slumped across Sirius's back, breathing into Sirius's hair.

"You're squashing me," Sirius said a while later, not sounding particularly concerned about it. Remus twitched a finger as a sign that he was still alive. After a few more breaths, he levered himself up, taking most of his own weight again, although his arms were unsteady. In fact, his entire self felt a little unsteady.

He rolled to one side, carefully bringing Sirius with him, but their bodies slipped apart with the motion. Remus stroked his hand down Sirius's back and side, feeling Sirius's ribs rise and fall with deep, slow breaths. With a bit of wriggling, and arms that wanted to go in the wrong places, Sirius turned over. He'd bitten his lip. Remus licked it, and they kissed slowly, pausing to breathe and look at each other before they kissed some more.

"You still smell," Remus said, grinning a little. He pressed his face against Sirius's neck and breathed. "So very good." He kissed Sirius's collarbone, just because it happened to be there, and then settled down with his eyes closed, just breathing.

Sirius poked his shoulder with one sharp-nailed finger. "Oh, no. You don't get to go to sleep yet."

"Why not," Remus muttered, but he sat up all the same, and then he had to acknowledge that he was sticky and the bed was a mess, and Sirius, well, Sirius was probably twice as sticky, and clearly determined to do something about it.

They got out of bed, and Sirius took Remus's hand in a firm grip and dragged him, naked, to the student bathroom. Cool air licked up and down their spines, and inside the bathroom, the temperature wasn't much better. Remus wet a washcloth and wiped himself down; at least the soap here was plain and unscented, which he preferred to all the fancy alternatives that the prefects' bathroom had to offer. Then he watched Sirius, until Sirius turned around and noticed him doing it. "You're not going to fall asleep standing up, are you? You can go and decide which bed we're going to sleep in next. I draw the line at Peter's, though, unless we change the sheets first."

Remus frowned, because Sirius was never shy about being stared at, unless he actually had something to hide. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

Sirius grinned and kissed him. "No. But you're welcome to take a closer look later, if you want to be perfectly sure."

Going back to the dormitory on his own, Remus felt a bit more aware of being naked; this was not how he usually walked around, after all, and it felt odd, even though he knew no one was in the tower except for Sirius and himself, and the ghosts usually kept a polite distance from the students' living areas. Still, nudity had never seemed like such a natural and uncomplicated thing, to him. Except with Sirius. Being naked with Sirius was suddenly the most natural and uncomplicated thing in the world.

The candles burned low in their red and yellow glass holders. Remus walked into the dormitory and went directly to the window and looked out at the snow. The wind had died down, and the snowflakes no longer whirled past in hectic flurries; instead they feathered down at a gentler pace, drawing a soft, white curtain around Gryffindor Tower. Tomorrow would be a good day for another snowball fight, unless the snowdrifts became too high.

Remus moved the pile of clothes at the foot of Sirius's bed and turned the covers down. He looked at his own bed and thought about straigtening it up a little bit, and then just pulled the bedcurtains. When he caught sight of the solunar watch lying on his bedside table, he saw that the star hand was moving.

Intrigued, Remus picked the watch up and looked at it closely as the star hand moved in small, quivering increments. Then it stopped and held steady, and the door to the dormitory slammed open and Sirius came in, all over gooseflesh. Remus stared at him, speechless. Then he dropped the watch on the bedside table and went over and put his arms around Sirius, and Sirius smiled sweetly at him and stroked a fistful of snow down Remus's spine.

Remus yelled, and chased Sirius all around the dormitory; he finally pinned him down in Sirius's bed, mostly because Sirius was laughing too much to keep going. They rolled around and wriggled, and Remus tickled Sirius until he couldn't breathe, and finally they got underneath the covers and lay close together, sharing a pillow. Sirius was still shivering a little with cold, despite the vigorous chase. "Most people don't go out naked in the snow," Remus pointed out.

"I only went out on the small balcony at the top of the stairs," Sirius said. "Thought you'd appreciate it if I brought you a little present, showed you what a thoughtful kind of bloke I am." He yawned and settled himself more comfortably with his nose pressed into Remus's skin.

"Your feet are like ice." Despite that, Remus tangled them up with his own. "What do you think we should do tomorrow?"

Sirius's smile was a glint of pure happiness. "Oh, I reckon we'll think of something," he said. He kissed Remus's throat, and in the next breath, he was asleep.

Remus pulled the covers up higher over Sirius's bare shoulder. These sheets were clean and they'd both cleaned themselves up, but underneath the soap and water, he could still make out the scent of wintergreen and sex. The solunar watch lay where he had dropped it, and Remus knew that if he could look at the watchface, he'd see the star hand pointing straight at this bed. It showed him important things, after all. He was happier at this moment than he remembered ever being in his entire life.

A candle in a red glass holder guttered and went out, and the snow whispered across the window. Remus closed his eyes.

* * *

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