Fall on Me
By Marina Frants
Some things never change. Put food on the table, and Sirius turns up.
I’d just finished making breakfast when Padfoot made his appearance. I didn’t know it was him, of course. I just heard the scratching outside the door and went to look out the window, expecting to see someone’s lost pet or maybe a particularly adventurous squirrel. Instead there was Padfoot, looking dusty and disheveled, squatting on my front doorstep. There were thistles caught in his fur, and mud on his paws.
I stood there like an idiot until he barked softly and raised one paw to scratch at the door again, then I went and let him in. He waited until I shut the door behind him and drew the curtains before he turned back into Sirius. He looked dusty and disheveled as a man, too. One thistle still clung to his collar like a disreputable buttonhole. He brushed at it irritably with the back of his hand.
“Hello, Remus,” he said quietly.
“Hello, Sirius.” I stood with one hand clutching the window-curtain and looked him over as I tried to think of something more meaningful to say. It had been just over a year since I’d last seen him, eight months since I’d heard from him. I hadn’t even known if he was still in Britain. And now there he was in my hallway, swaying on his feet with fatigue, watching me with a guarded, uncertain look in his eyes. It occurred to me that if I didn’t say something soon, he might start thinking he wasn’t welcome.
“It’s good to see you.” I stepped into the kitchen, gesturing for him to follow. “Unexpected, but good.”
“Dumbledore sent me,” he said as if it explained everything, which I suppose it did in some ways. The tense set of his shoulders suggested that he hadn’t been sent to deliver good news, but before I could ask, he sniffed the air and took a step toward the table, as if his nose was pulling him along. “Hey, is that sausage I’m smelling?”
“Help yourself.” I hadn’t cooked enough for two. Hadn’t shopped for two, either, but I’m used to skipping meals from time to time, so I just took a second cup from the cabinet above the sink, poured tea for both of us, then sat and nibbled on a piece of toast while Sirius attacked the eggs and sausages. He barely bothered to chew, and I wondered how many meals he had skipped recently.
“So what happened?” I asked when he was done.
Sirius had relaxed a little while he was eating, but now his eyes hardened again, and the lines around his mouth grew more pronounced.. He pushed his empty plate away, drummed his fingers lightly against the table.
Suddenly, I was glad I hadn’t eaten much. The half-slice of toast felt like a lump of lead in my stomach. I put my cup down slowly, managing not to spill the tea. “Is everyone all right?” Stupid question. Of course everyone wasn’t all right. No one was all right. “How did it happen?”
I sat and listened, appalled, while Sirius described what had happened at the end of the Triwizard Tournament. The articles I’d read in the Daily Prophet had been criminally misleading, creating the impression that the whole thing had been an isolated incident engineered by someone with a grudge against the Ministry. I had worried about Harry and grieved for Cedric, whom I remembered as an excellent student and thoroughly decent human being, but had no idea how bad things really were.
Sirius looked drained by the time he finished speaking, as if telling the tale had used up all his strength. I poured the last of the tea for him, and he drank mechanically, not looking down at his cup. I think I could’ve poured him bubotuber pus and he wouldn’t have noticed.
“I had no idea what to say to Harry afterwards,” he muttered after a while. “Couldn’t keep him out of danger, couldn’t help him when danger came, couldn’t comfort him when it was over. And now he’s back with those Muggle relatives of Lily’s, whom I wouldn’t trust to take care of a flobberworm, let alone a child, and I can’t even visit him to make sure he’s all right. As a godfather, I’ve been about as much use as an invisibility cloak with bells on.”
“I doubt Harry thinks that,” I said, though I was painfully aware that I had no real idea of what Harry might be thinking. Sirius looked miserable, but I could think of nothing to say to him but lies and platitudes. So we sat there in increasingly uncomfortable silence while he finished his tea. I watched him, trying not to be too obvious about it. Our reunion in the Shrieking Shack had been too rushed, too dangerous, too filled with distractions – this was my first chance in fourteen years to really look at my friend.
He needed a bath, a shave, a decent haircut, and a great deal more feeding than I could provide. Maybe then he would… but no. He would never again look like the man I remembered from fourteen years ago. He might, given time, begin to look familiar again, but until then I had to make myself accept that *this* was Sirius now, this thin haggard man across the table, holding a teacup as if he couldn’t quite remember what it was for.
I probably looked just as different to him. We’d both have to get used to it, that was all.
“Uhm… Remus?” Sirius had put down his cup and clasped his hands in front of him on the table. “Dumbledore said I should stay with you until he sends instructions. You don’t mind, do you?”
Maybe he’d noticed me staring after all. I wondered what he could’ve seen in my face, to make him think he needed to ask that question.
“Of course, I don’t mind.” One of us would have to sleep on the floor, and I anticipated an argument about that, but it could wait. In the meantime, here was a perfect excuse to change the subject. I got up from the table and waved my wand at the dishes, which obediently stacked themselves in the sink. “Come on, let me give you a tour of the accommodations.”
It was a very short tour, as my cottage is barely large enough to merit the name. In fact, at the time I acquired it, “hovel” was a more appropriate term, and it took several months of effort, both magical and physical, to get it to its present clean and unbroken state. It was still tiny, and the purchase and repairs had eaten up every sickle I’d saved during my year at Hogwarts, but it was mine with no strings attached. Whatever might happen in the future, I’d never again need to worry about having a place to live. It was more security than I’d ever expected to have in my life.
I showed Sirius the living room, the bedroom, the study, the bathroom and the linen cupboard. I did not show him the cellar with the barred window and the reinforced door, the powerful containment spells and the four iron shackles embedded in the floor. It was two weeks until the next full moon. If Sirius was still around when it came, I’d have to deal with him knowing, but I didn’t want to think about it just then.
The bathtub seemed to call to Sirius with an irresistible siren song, so I gave him a couple of towels and some clean clothes, and left him to his own devices. I returned to the kitchen, washed and put away the dishes, then went out the back door and sat on the steps, looking out at the garden. There wasn’t much to look at: a square of grass that needed mowing, some wild blackberry bushes that needed trimming, and the rotting remains of a tool shed that needed rebuilding from the ground up. Maybe next year I’d start a vegetable garden. Or an herb garden. They always smelled nice.
I was trying to decide where my hypothetical lavender bed should go in relation to my hypothetical rosemary bushes when Sirius appeared, still slightly damp and a lot less dusty than before. The robes I’d supplied hung loosely on his shoulders, which made me want to drag him right back into the kitchen for a second breakfast, but I restrained myself and shifted over on the step to make room.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Ah.” He sat down next to me and stretched out his legs. “Looks like hard work.”
“It is. Want to help?”
We sat there for a while, not moving, not talking, just enjoying the quiet. Sirius closed his eyes and tilted his head back, turning his face to the sun. Some of the lines around his eyes and mouth smoothed out, and for a moment he was clearly recognizable as the Sirius I remembered, basking in the sunshine as if nothing in the world was wrong.
Something crashed loudly in the tool shed, and Sirius opened his eyes with a start.
“Wow. You must have some really big rats in there.”
“Actually, I think it’s a boggart,” I said. “I noticed it a couple of days ago.”
“And you just left it there?” Sirius eyed the shed with a wary expression. “Did you, perhaps, spend a lot of time with Hagrid when you were teaching at Hogwarts? You seem to have picked up his taste in pets.”
“I just haven’t had time to deal with it yet.” Truth to tell, I had been content to let the creature stay where it was. I’m fairly immune to boggarts, since they can’t mimic my fear well enough to be convincing, and as long as it stayed in the tool shed, it wasn’t bothering either me or anyone else. Now that Sirius was here, however, it had to go. “I’ll see to it today. After lunch, perhaps.” Boggarts are at their weakest around midday, when the sun is high in the sky and the shadows are short.
“I can help,” Sirius said quickly.
“That’s all right, I’ll do it.”
“I can help,” he repeated, hurt and angry this time, and I realized that to him it must’ve sounded as if I was doubting his ability, or his courage. “You’re not supposed to go after boggarts alone. And it’s not as if I don’t know what to do. I was brilliant when we did them in class, remember?”
“I remember.” It had been our third year, and Sirius’ worst fear at the time had been his mother telling him he had to spend the Christmas holidays with his boring Muggle cousins in Brighton. “But it won’t be the same boggart for you this time, will it?”
“Well, no.” Sirius actually went a little pale, but the stubborn gleam in his eyes did not dim. “But it’s still the same spell. And it’s not as if it’ll be a real Dementor, is it?”
I had seen Harry face a boggart Dementor at Hogwarts. The effects had been frighteningly similar to the real thing. “Sirius… do you even have a wand?”
He winced and turned away from me with an awkward, jerky movement that hurt to watch. The Sirius I remembered was never awkward. “I could still distract it,” he insisted. “You shouldn’t go alone.” I couldn’t see his face, but the desperation in his voice was unmistakable. He really would rather face a boggart without a wand than be left behind.
“It’s all right,” I said quickly. “You can use my old wand. I’m certain I still have it.”
That startled him into looking at me again. “You switched wands?”
“Over ten years ago now. The old one just didn’t feel right anymore.” Some wizards spend their entire lives using the wand they’d bought in their first year. Others change as their lives change, sometimes more than once. Peter had bought a new wand shortly after we left school. James had switched a few months before Harry was born. Sirius had still had his school wand the night he was arrested. It was probably sitting in a Ministry storeroom somewhere, assuming it hadn’t been destroyed. “If it works well enough for you, you can keep it.”
“I—“ Sirius turned away again, but he seemed calmer now, less painfully rigid in his posture. “Thank you.”
“All right, then.” I hesitated over my next question, searching for the right tone of voice. It was a logical thing to ask, but the wand question had been logical too, and it hurt him when I asked.. Finally, I decided that “calm and business-like” would be the note to try for. “Say we do go after the boggart together, and it sees you first and turns into a Dementor. How would you make it funny?”
Apparently I did it right, because Sirius did not seem offended. He slouched for a few moments, looking thoughtful, then straightened up and grinned.
“I’m going to make its cloak fall off,” he announced gleefully, “and under the robes, it’s going to be Severus Snape in frilly pink knickers.”
“Ugh.” I squeezed my eyes shut, but it was no use. The image was now permanently engraved on the inside of my skull. “You’re supposed to turn it into something less horrible, not more!”
“This from the man who once dressed a Snape-boggart in Irma Longbottom’s dress?”
“At least I had him decently covered.”
“You have your idea of funny, I have mine.” He laughed and punched me in the shoulder, and I decided that maybe it would all be all right, after all.
“Very well, then. We go boggart-hunting after lunch.”
In order for there to be lunch in the first place, I had to go shopping. Sirius wanted to come along as Padfoot, but his enthusiasm quickly waned when I pointed out that I would have to put him on a lead. I left him curled up in the living room with one of my books and Apparated into town, determined to stock up on all of Sirius’ favorite foods. Five minutes later, standing in front of the local branch of Provendar & Grubbs, I realized I couldn’t remember what his favorite foods were. I ended up hauling my shopping basket around the shop three or four times, tossing in everything that vaguely rang a bell.
Sirius wandered into the kitchen as I was trying to cram all my purchases into the fridge.
“Expecting a food shortage, are we?”
There was no room for the strawberries, so I just dumped them into a colander, put them in the sink, and turned on the cold water. “I couldn’t decide what I wanted, so I got a little bit of everything.”
“Looks like a lot of everything to me.” Sirius fished out a strawberry and bit into it. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you.”
“The day you complain about too much food is the day Voldemort wins Witch Weekly’s Most Charming Smile award.”
Lunch was ham-and-cheese sandwiches, salad, crisps and strawberries. Sirius ate everything, down to the salt crumbs at the bottom of the crisps bag. As I stood to clear the table, I noticed him watching me thoughtfully.
“Where do you get your money?” He looked nervous about asking. I could clearly see what was coming next – the inevitable offer to help with expenses – and decided to put an early stop to it.
“Actually, I have a job. With Academic Alchemy Quarterly. They send me articles for copy editing and fact checking. I can do it all from home, and as long as I meet the deadlines, no one cares if I don’t work around the full moon.”
“Sounds custom-made for you.”
“I think it was. The Werewolf Services Division arranged it.” That was the official story, anyway. I was fairly certain that the arranging had in fact been done by Albus Dumbledore, but if he didn’t want to tell me, I wasn’t going to ask.
Sirius continued to look both thoughtful and nervous. I had a feeling he was trying to guess at a freelance copy editor’s salary and weighing it against the cost of the day’s shopping. Fortunately, I had the perfect way to derail that particular train of thought.
“So, are you ready for that boggart now? Let’s go and get you properly equipped.”
We went upstairs. I dug my old wand out from the storage chest at the foot of the bed and handed it to Sirius, who swished it experimentally.
“Willow, ten inches, dragon heartstring,” he announced in a passable imitation of Ollivander’s voice and manner. “Excellent for summoning spells, illusions, and toasting marshmallows.” He held the wand at shoulder level, looked thoughtful for a moment, then conjured a flock of tiny, jewel-colored hummingbirds that fluttered around the room for a few seconds before vanishing. “Seems to work.”
“I’m glad.” I pulled my current wand – oak, nine-and-a-half inches, dragon heartstring – from my sleeve and gestured toward the door. “Let’s put it to a real test, shall we?”
We came out into the garden, wands out, and approached the tool shed. It was suspiciously quiet. I pushed open the door and stepped inside just ahead of Sirius, murmuring “Lumos” as I went. The glow from my wand illuminated a row of rusty gardening tools propped against the back wall, a sack of topsoil sitting on top of a crate, an empty gallon jug of Gnome-B-Gone lying on its side… but no boggart.
“Where is it?” Sirius shouldered his way past me. His wand was glowing, too, a soft silvery light that threw the shadows around his eyes and under his cheekbones into sharper contrast when he lifted it above his head. “I don’t see it.”
“Neither do I.” If the boggart was still around, it would’ve attacked by now. “It must’ve left.”
Sirius stalked around the shed, kicking over empty boxes and peering into corners. No imitation Dementors appeared to confront him. He swore, loudly and elaborately, and stormed outside. I gave him a few seconds to let off steam, then followed.
“We should search the house,” I said. “It might’ve moved inside when we weren’t paying attention.”
There was no boggart in the any of the rooms, or in the linen cupboard. Sirius stood in the foyer and scratched his head.
“Where does this door lead to?”
Well, he’d been bound to notice eventually. “The cellar. But it couldn’t be in there; I keep it locked and warded.”
“I see,” Sirius said, and I could tell from his expression that he did see, but he wasn’t going to back off, either. “It’s worth checking anyway. Boggarts can be sneaky little buggers.”
That was true enough. “All right, I’ll go and look. Why don’t you check the kitchen cabinets in the meantime?”
Sirius frowned. “We should stick together.”
“I’ll be all right. It’ll save time if we split up.”
“I really think we—“
“I don’t want you to see it!” The words came out more harshly than I meant them to. Sirius took a half-step back, eyes wide and startled. He stared at me for a moment, then bit his lip and looked past me, staring at the coat rack by the door as if he expected it to be the boggart.
“We should stick together,” he said again, and I got the feeling he wasn’t talking about boggart-hunting at all. I took a deep breath and willed myself to be calm and rational about it. This wasn’t someone I needed to keep secrets from, or to protect from the harsh realities of being a werewolf. This was Sirius.
“I’m sorry, Padfoot. You’re right. Let’s go and look.”
There was no boggart in the cellar, but by the time we came out again Sirius looked as pale and shaky as if he had been confronted by a real Dementor. Neither one of us said a word as we retreated to the living room. I lit a fire in the fireplace and fetched the bottle of brandy that currently made up the entire contents of my drinks cabinet. I pulled out the cork, took a swig right out of the bottle, and handed it to Sirius. He drank, then hung on to the bottle as he sat down on the floor in front of the fire.
“I knew it’s been bad for you all these years,” he said in a tight voice, “but I never let myself really imagine it…”
“It’s not as bad as it looks.” I sat down next to him and held my hand out for the bottle. Sirius handed it to me, and I took one last sip before re-corking it and putting it aside. Getting drunk in the middle of the afternoon wasn’t going to help anything. “The chains are for my own benefit, actually. I can’t do much damage to myself if I can’t move.” I didn’t mention all the times I’d awakened with torn muscles, or dislocated joints, or bone-deep gouges in my wrists and ankles where the shackles had cut into flesh. The look on Sirius’ face suggested that his imagination was filling in the details without any help from me.. “Anyway, I’m used to it now. I’ve found that you can grow accustomed to just about anything if it goes on long enough.”
“Really?” he said softly. “I haven’t found that at all.”
I watched his face in the firelight and tried to decide if that was an invitation to tell him more about myself, or a hint that he wanted to talk about Azkaban, or a stray remark he didn’t want followed up at all. I hesitated a long time, and before I could decide, Sirius rose to his feet.
“I’m going to sit outside for a while,” he said shortly and walked out.
The rest of the day passed quietly enough. Sirius carried a blanket and a book into the garden and sat there for several hours, until the sun sank low in the sky and the shadows stretched across the grass. I watched him through the windows from time to time and never saw him turn a page.
I sat down to edit a dense and lengthy article that was due in a week. It felt strange to be going about business as usual when somewhere out there, Voldemort was preparing for war. I felt as if I should be doing something else, something useful and meaningful. Instead I sat there and struggled with five pages’ worth of end notes for an article about a new method of distilling the base solution for Skele-Gro potion, which, apparently, increased effectiveness by thirty percent. I wondered what Severus Snape would say if he knew I was checking his references.
I heard the back door swing open and shut as Sirius came inside, heard his footsteps as he walked into the kitchen, but didn’t pay attention to any of it until I heard the cry and the crash of breaking glass.
“Sirius?” I came out of the study and half-way down the stairs, and leaned over the banister to get a glimpse into the kitchen. “Is everything all right?” There was movement inside, and something that sounded like a whimper, but no reply. I sprinted the rest of the way down the stairs. “What’s going o—“
The figure standing in the middle of my kitchen was not Sirius. For one confused moment I thought it was Harry, but no, Harry was shorter, thinner, younger. Still, there was no mistaking that profile, with the stubborn chin and the unruly hair, and the glasses sliding down the nose. Not Harry. James.
“I trusted you.” James’ voice was quiet. He didn’t sound angry or accusing, just sad and deeply, hopelessly disappointed. He was talking to Sirius, who had backed into the narrow space between the fridge and the counter and was staring at the apparition before him with the wide, frozen eyes of a trapped animal. “Trusted you with my life, my family’s safety, my son’s future… I knew there was a risk, of course, but I never thought you’d wreck it all on your first try.”
Sirius whispered something in a broken voice – a defense, or a denial, I couldn’t tell. He was trembling all over. There was a puddle of milk and broken glass at his feet. His legs buckled, and I thought he would’ve fallen if not for the wall at his back.
“Or did you even try at all?” James took a step forward. Bits of glass crunched under his feet. “The Fidelius charm was your first test, and you dumped it on somebody else a day after you swore you’d do it. Was it too much pressure for you, Sirius? Or just too much bother?” He still didn’t sound angry, but that note of puzzled betrayal in his voice was a thousand times worse. Sirius choked on a sob.
It was that last, strangled sound that snapped me out of my own paralysis. I forced myself to let go of the doorframe and stagger forward into the kitchen. There was a saltcellar in the middle of the table. I grabbed it and threw it at James’ face.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Over here!”
My aim was off – the saltcellar hit the wall above James’ head and shattered, showering him with a small flurry of white crystals. It was enough to get his attention; he turned away from Sirius and toward me. I took another step forward, pulling my wand from my sleeve. There was a sharp, explosive crack, and then James was gone and I found myself looking up at the full moon.
A boggart’s illusions always look more convincing to the victim than to other observers. Sirius, if he still had the strength to look, no doubt saw nothing more than a pale, glowing orb floating just below the ceiling. I saw a black night sky and a fat, yellow moon with its shadowy suggestion of a face. I even felt a cool breeze on my skin, heard crickets chirping, smelled the musty scent of earth and vegetation. Every sense I had told me I was outdoors, unbound, free to brutally kill any innocent human I might come across after I transformed.
But I wasn’t transforming. My mind was clear, my body still my own. My flesh was not stretching into an alien shape, my bones did not twist from their sockets. No boggart, no matter how powerful, can mimic that. I lifted my wand higher.
“Riddikulus!” There was that cracking sound again. The moon turned into a big, gleaming wheel of cheddar and thudded to the floor, where it was promptly attacked by a swarm of fuzzy purple mice. I chuckled, not so much at the image as at the memory of my thirteen-year-old self, who had thought it the funniest thing in the world. From the other side of the room came Sirius’ startled, half-hysterical laugh. One final, deafening crack, and the boggart was gone.
The kitchen seemed unnaturally quiet and bright after that. The only sound was Sirius’ harsh breathing. He had slid down the wall to the floor, and was now curled up in his narrow little corner, with his arms wrapped around his knees and his face hidden. He didn’t seem to notice when I cast a spell to clean up the mess on the floor, or when I squatted down in front of him.
“Sirius?” No response. Sirius’ shoulders were shaking, but he made no sound. I started to reach for him, and put my hand down again. Started to speak, and closed my mouth without saying a word. I felt a crushing sense of helplessness. Did he need contact, or space to collect himself? Comforting words, or silence? I didn’t know, and my ignorance held me paralyzed.
Finally, from sheer desperation, I reached out and tapped him lightly on the knee, just once. “Sirius. It’s all right, it’s gone now.”
Sirius shivered violently and ran his hands through his hair. “It was in the cupboard over the sink.” He spoke without looking up, and I had to lean close to make out the muffled words. “I was just looking for a glass. I wasn’t expecting it at all.”
“I know.” I put one hand on his shoulder and he shivered again, but when I started to pull away he grabbed my wrist. “It was a mistake. We never checked the kitchen cupboards.”
“I should’ve known what it was. Some part of me did know, but… I just couldn’t act on it, somehow.”
“That can happen when it takes you by surprise.” I had stood there frozen like an idiot myself, and it hadn’t even been my fear. I had no idea what the complete illusion had looked like to Sirius, and I didn’t want to know.
“It wouldn’t have mattered anyway.” Sirius let go of my wrist and finally lifted his head. He still looked pale and ill, but his voice was becoming steadier. “There’s just no fucking way to make that funny.”
“No,” I said, “I suppose there isn’t.”
“I would’ve preferred a Dementor. Even a real one.”
“No, you wouldn’t have.” I gripped Sirius’ shoulders and stood, hauling him up with me. “Sirius. It wasn’t James. It wasn’t even a good imitation of James – when did you ever hear him talk like that? That was your fear talking. You don’t have to listen to it.”
“Don’t I?” Sirius’ eyes were bleak. “It spoke the truth. I cocked up, and James and Lily died.”
“Aren’t you leaving out a few things? What about, ‘I cocked up, and Peter turned traitor, and nobody noticed, and James and Lily died because Voldemort killed them’? I don’t remember the boggart mentioning any of those details. But James would’ve known. There aren’t many things in this life I can say with certainty, Sirius, but this one I’m fairly sure of: James did not die thinking it was all your fault.” I had to fight back the urge to shake him, to yell at him, to *force* him to listen somehow. Sirius was strong, I told myself. He’d survived twelve years in Azkaban, two years as a hunted fugitive. He wasn’t going to give up the fight here in my kitchen. He just wasn’t. “Sirius? Are you listening to me?”
Sirius didn’t answer. I pulled out a chair and pushed him toward it, and he sat heavily, head lowered and shoulders slumped. I didn’t know what else to say to him, so I decided to make tea instead. I had just finished pouring the boiling water over the leaves when Sirius finally spoke.
“Thank you. That boggart would’ve killed me.”
“Don’t mention it.” I decided to take it as a hopeful sign. I had no idea if any of my words had registered, but if Sirius was grateful to have his life saved, then presumably he wasn’t yet ready to give himself up as a total loss. I took a cup and a saucer from the cupboard and put them on the table in front of him. “Here. Tea will be ready in a minute. Hope you don’t want milk, since you’ve spilled it all.”
“That’s all right.” Sirius sat up a little straighter and moved his chair closer to the table. I saw him square his shoulders, as if bracing himself for something unpleasant or difficult, but when he looked up at me, he was smiling. “So… how long till dinner?”
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