Charlotte stepped out of the fireplace into the Leaky Cauldron, tightly clutching her handbag. She hated coming to Diagon Alley by herself, especially now it was so dangerous to be out alone, but sometimes she didn’t have a choice, and if she didn’t make it to Gringott’s today then she couldn’t pay her rent. She looked nervously around before pulling her hood up over her head and making her way to the back door, taking a deep breath as she steeled herself for what lay beyond.
“Charlotte!” She wouldn’t usually have turned at the sound of her name, having heard horror stories of people who had done just that and turned to find a Death Eater who had known them at school or as a child or something similar. However, this time she recognised the voice and it was with relief that she turned to its owner.
“Remus,” she said with a smile. “What are you doing here?”
“Just got back from Hogsmeade,” he said noncommittally. She knew what that meant – he’d been to see Dumbledore – but she also knew that he couldn’t say that out loud. It was too dangerous.
She nodded. “I’m just off to Gringott’s,” she said, hoping desperately he’d offer to come with her. When he did just that, her sigh of relief was so loud it could probably have been heard in the alley behind the brick wall.
“You okay?” he asked her as they made their way down the cobbled street.
She nodded. “I don’t like coming here anymore,” she admitted. “Too many shops have closed, and too many Death Eaters around. Even if you don’t know they’re Death Eaters, I mean.” She looked up at him. “But with someone, it’s not so bad, if you know what I mean.”
He smiled. “I know exactly what you mean. Some things are easier when you’ve got company.”
“Especially Gringott's,” she went on. “I know it’s safe and all, but part of me can’t help but feel that the goblins, if they’re on anyone’s side, are on his.”
She couldn’t help herself gripping him a little more tightly than usual as they headed up the marble stairs into the bank, but relaxed when they got inside. In stark contrast to the dank feel the alley now had, the lamps were turned up and the goblins serving all looked – if it was possible – almost friendly. There was an air of safety and reassurance resonating from every counter and, for the first time that day, Charlotte felt her fear fading away. Flashing a grin at Remus, she headed for the nearest teller.
Not long afterwards they left the marble building, Charlotte’s purse jangling with the gold she’d withdrawn. “I was going to drop in to see Sirius,” Remus said mildly as they walked together down the stairs and back towards the Leaky Cauldron. “Did you want to come too? It’d be nice, I think.”
She hesitated. She wasn’t sure if he meant it would be nice for him or for Sirius, and she still wasn’t really sure where she sat with him. It was February fifteenth, for example, and he hadn’t been in touch with her the previous day, nor had he mentioned it since they’d met that morning. Yet he was still happy to behave like a boyfriend – sometimes. It was incredibly frustrating, and she knew that she shouldn’t put up with it, but then again it was Remus. Somehow that made it all okay.
“Sure,” she said finally. “Why not? It’s not like I’ve got anything else to do this afternoon.”
They Apparated to a part of London she didn’t know and she followed him to a modern block of flats, climbing one flight of stairs and stopping at a door at the end of the corridor. Remus turned to look at her.
“You haven’t been here before, have you?”
Charlotte shook her head. “Nope.”
He smiled weakly. “Don’t expect too much. He may not even have tidied up; he’s not always the best at that. Or, whatever girl he picked up last night may still be here, that’s always possible.”
She looked at him, surprised. “He really does that?”
Remus shrugged. “Occasionally. I think it’s more something to do than anything else. We never see them more than once, though.” Dropping her hand, he knocked three times on the door.
A moment later it opened, Sirius looking a little unkempt and running a hand hurriedly through his hair. “Moony!” he cried, obviously pleased. “Charlotte! Come in, come in.”
Remus smiled as they followed him inside. “Cleaner than I was expecting, Padfoot,” he chuckled. “What, did you know we were coming?”
Sirius shook his head as he pulled some butterbeers out of the cupboard. “No, I’ve been procrastinating,” he admitted. “I’ve been meaning to get Laura’s stuff out and go through it, you know, send it back to her parents, but I can’t bring myself to start. So I did the cleaning as a way of putting it off. Now,” he went on, changing the subject, “would you rather sit inside or outside?”
“It’s freezing outside,” Charlotte protested, already standing in front of the fire to warm her legs. “This is one of the coldest winters on record. Why would we go out there?”
“Because I’ve adjusted the atmospheric charm to make it a very pleasant twenty degrees,” Sirius said with a smile. “There are that many screening charms on the balcony that the weather can’t get in any more. Owls, yes, but not the weather. Makes thunderstorms interesting, I’ll say that much.”
A while later, sitting on the balcony (which was indeed very agreeable, despite the snowstorm swirling around in front of them), Charlotte felt brave enough to bring back the subject of Sirius’ procrastination. “If you don’t mind me asking, how much of Laura’s stuff is actually here? I don’t see any, and it doesn’t look like you’ve got a lot of storage space.”
Sirius shrugged, a shadow passing over his face briefly. “To be honest, I don’t really know. I’ve got an idea, of course, but I haven’t really looked at it since … well, for months.” He paused and Charlotte knew what he meant – since the funeral. Sirius continued. “I got it out, and I’ve even opened it, but it was a bit much to deal with. There’s a fair amount, though, because she was half moved in here. Prongs and Lily packed it all up into a shoebox with an Undetectable Extension Charm on it, and ever since Christmas I’ve been meaning to go through it to send it back, because I know I should, but, well, I can’t.” He paused again, rubbing his unshaven chin distractedly with one hand. “It’d be like sending her back, you know?”
“Why go through it at all?” Remus asked. “Why not just send it back as it is?”
Charlotte put a hand on his arm. “Because he wants to see if there’s anything he wants to keep,” she said quietly. She looked at Sirius for confirmation, and the way he was staring into the distance, not speaking, told her she was right.
“That’s why her picture is still up, isn’t it?” she went on gently. “Because you don’t want to let go of her yet?”
Remus grinned suddenly. “Though it’d be interesting hearing him explain it to the girls he brings back here,” he said cheekily. “Why there’s a picture of someone else on the bookcase.”
Sirius looked like he didn’t want to go any further into this. “Hey, if they get jealous of someone who’s dead then that’s their problem,” he said shortly. “I’m not apologising for it, and I’m not taking it down.”
It’s not that, though, Charlotte thought. It was that Laura’s ghost, for want of a better word, was very obviously present in the flat, and the overwhelming impression was that everything Sirius did was with her in mind. Looking back through the window and into the bedroom, she saw that another photo of her hadn’t been put away, this one next to the bed. Any girl who came here would be competing with someone they could never live up to, no matter what they did, for the simple reason that Laura could now do no wrong.
“So, where’s the girl from last night?” Remus was asking. “You must have got rid of her nice and early.”
Sirius looked confused. “What girl from last night?”
“Well, it was Valentines,” Remus pointed out. “I was making the assumption that there would have been someone here.”
Sirius shook his head. “No, never got around to it,” he said. “All that happened last night was that I got drunk. Which I’ve been paying for today, I might add. Not a good time to run out of Sobering Solution.” He smiled ruefully. “But let’s cut to the chase, Moony. You’re not just here to give me crap about my drinking habits, are you?”
Remus grinned. “You’ve got me there,” he admitted. “I was up at Hogsmeade this morning. Dumbledore’s got some work he wants us to do.”
“’Bout time,” Sirius muttered. “I’ve been twiddling my thumbs for days.”
“You’ve only been back for four days,” Remus pointed out. “Even you are entitled to a break sometimes, you know.”
“If I want one,” Sirius shot back. “He knows I’d rather be out there. So what is it this time? Nosing around old family friends again?” Charlotte smiled to herself – even though she hadn’t joined this Order they kept talking about, even she knew his last three assignments had all been dealing with people he’d known as a child. “Because I’ve had enough of that to last me a lifetime.”
“No, we’re not so lucky this time,” Remus grinned. “I reckon this one’s a stranger even to you. Bloke by the name of Travers – ever heard of him?”
Sirius shook his head and downed the last of his butterbeer. “Should I have?”
“No,” Remus confirmed. “No one has, it seems. But the name’s been cropping up a few times of late and they want to find out who he is. So that’s our job.”
“Is that all?” Sirius groaned. “Can’t Wormtail do that? He’d be great, what with the rat thing and everything.”
“Which Dumbledore doesn’t know about,” Remus said warningly, and Charlotte noticed his eyes flick in her direction. This must have been something to do with one of their secrets, she decided. Remus’ life was built on them and most of them he’d opted not to share with her. Just more evidence that shows we’re not really a couple. “He’s part of it,” Remus went on. “Dumbledore seems to want to get the four of us back working together again.”
Charlotte cast a quick look at him; there was something that got her attention here, though she wasn’t sure what it was. Even though his voice and face were both benign, she had a feeling that this directive was intended to keep Sirius sane and on track, rather than letting him disengage from groups of people he didn’t know so well. It was the sort of thing their ex-Headmaster was likely to do.
“Well, if it’s all of us ... ” Sirius seemed to consider that. “Yeah, that’d be fun. We don’t hang out enough anymore, do we?”
Remus smiled. “Glad you’re in. We meet at Prongs’ place at ten tomorrow. You okay for that or do you want a reminder in the morning?”
Sirius laughed. “You must think I’m a complete mental case,” he said, punching his friend lightly on the arm. “I’m not that bad, mate. Ten o’clock it is.”
“So, will this one be dangerous?” Charlotte asked as they left some time later. “This job you’re doing, that is.”
Remus shrugged. “Probably not,” he said lightly. “These search-and-identify type jobs are generally pretty sedate. Of course, if Travers turns out to be one of Voldemort’s pseudonyms then we might be in trouble, but I doubt it.”
Charlotte felt the involuntary intake of breath at the use of Voldemort’s name, then felt ashamed of herself for reacting like that. The boys and Lily didn’t baulk at using the name, and she knew at an intellectual level that there was no reason for her to do so either, but she couldn’t help herself. Too many years of being taught at home that it was something she mustn’t do were proving difficult to shake.
“Does You-Know-Who use pseudonyms, then?” she asked, hoping she sounded braver than she felt.
Remus shrugged again. “We think so,” he said, “but we don’t know for sure. It just sets off the alarm bells when a name crops up that never appeared on the Hogwarts registry, that’s all.”
“Right.” She tried to sound like she wasn’t worried sick. It wasn’t like they were really boyfriend and girlfriend, after all, so she decided to change the subject. “So, then, are you going to keep an eye on Sirius like Dumbledore wants?”
He chuckled. “You picked up on that, did you? Yes, that’s one reason he’s putting the gang back together. That, and James and Sirius in particular do work better with the rest of us around. Wormtail, too, now I think of it. So it’s a win-win situation.”
“Right,” she said again. “And you’re going to look out for each other, aren’t you?” She had to admit that she was happier with Remus going out on an assignment for the Order if he had James and Sirius by his side; it made her feel much more confident that he was going to come back alive.
He chuckled again and reached for her hand, giving it a comforting squeeze. “Yes, I should be coming back uninjured,” he said lightly, answering her unspoken question. “I can rely on those three to watch my back.”
“And if you can’t trust them,” she said, starting to feel more confident already, “I guess you can’t trust anyone.”
“Exactly,” he agreed. “Now, let me get you home safely. I’d hate for something to happen because I kept you out after dark.”
She smiled and let him put an arm around her. “Thank you.”
Author's note: I'd like to give a huge thank you to NGseries/nextgenoration for betaing this chapter for me. Seriously, without her help this would have been a pile of unreadable rubbish.
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