“I thought it would brighten up the space a little bit.”
She stood in her thin bathrobe, holding a cup of weak coffee in hand as she stared at the walls of her living room. The trim around the ceiling and floor had received a fresh coat of white paint, and paper with pale blue stripes had been applied to all four walls. The walls of the kitchen were now a rather cheerful goldenrod, sure to shock her into consciousness if she woke up late and had to eat breakfast quickly, and by the door stood another canister of yellow paint and a roll of ivory wallpaper with small pink flowers scattered all over it. These, she assumed, were intended for her bedroom and bathroom.
Sirius stood in front of the half-finished kitchen, looking somewhat sheepish.
“Do you like it?”
She sipped her coffee, swallowing slowly to give herself time to think of something to say. The color was quite nice, and it certainly gave life to an otherwise dead space, but who was he to barge in and repaint her life? They barely knew one another – who would do this for a stranger?
And how on earth had he paid for it all?
“Yes.” She said finally, braving a slight smile. “Um… thank you.”
“Sure.” Sirius turned happily back to his work. “It was the least I could do, you know?”
She realized that he was referring to the free meals and room and board. Perhaps it wasn’t so strange for someone to do after all. She stood and watched him for a moment, still working on her cup of coffee. She had a strange relationship with the beverage; she usually drank several cups a day, at least five or six, but she savored each and every taste as if it were a rare delicacy. Along with keeping her warm, coffee was one of the few things she could fully enjoy without worrying about adding extra pounds to her bony frame. After all, it usually just wound up flushing itself out a few hours later, taking some other water weight along with it if she was fortunate. In recent weeks, she had achieved the perfect ratio of grounds and water, making it so that she could take the drink without milk or sugar and not be turned off by its bitterness.
As she took another careful sip, she remembered that it was Sunday, which was the one day the diner was closed. She had nothing to do today, unless she decided to sit and read like she did every Sunday. Instead, she crept back to her room and changed into a pair of old jeans and a soft blue t-shirt, pulling her hair back gingerly into a loose bun as she returned to the corridor.
“Would you like me to help?”
Sirius glanced back at her, smiling widely. “Sure!” He handed her a clean paintbrush from the pack he’d purchased the previous night, happy that she seemed to be appreciating the surprise.
They worked steadily through the morning, finishing the kitchen and bathroom quickly and moving to apply the pink and white wallpaper to the bedroom. Sirius, being the taller of the two, applied paste to the blank walls, and the waitress handed him the paper strip by strip.
“So, what are you doing out in the middle of nowhere like this?” He asked.
She paused. It was foolish to think he’d never ask, and she already had a story prepared from when she’d begun working at the diner. It wasn’t even a false story. She just hated having to tell it.
“I like it out here. It’s quiet. I just kind of wanted to get away from it all.”
“I just can’t believe a pretty girl like you doesn’t have a husband. At least a boyfriend.”
“That’s sort of what I was trying to get away from.” She said quietly.
He stopped, glancing down at her from where he stood on his tiptoes to paste the wall space nearest the ceiling. He motioned for another strip of paper, clearing his throat softly. “Did he hurt you?” He asked carefully, knowing he was stepping into impolite territory.
“No.” She shook her head, watching him paste the paper onto the wall. She did like the look of it. “I just don’t think we were right for each other, that’s all.”
“How’s that?” He questioned.
“Different goals, I guess.” She explained.
“No, I mean – the wall.” He’d finished one out of four and she hadn’t even paid enough attention to notice.
She blushed despite herself, most of the blood in her body flooding her pale, soft cheeks. “It looks really nice.”
“Good.” He moved to the next wall, beginning to apply more paste. Suddenly, he stopped, glancing back into her eyes. “Do you love him?” He queried softly, pitying her.
“I did.” She glanced down. “I mean, I don’t really know him anymore.”
Sirius nodded, taking a piece of paper from her and changing the subject. “I hope you like the colors I picked out. I tried to get things that looked a bit girly. Just a guess.”
“They’re lovely, really.” She smiled tentatively, grateful that he had moved the conversation forward.
The two of them finished the bedroom by lunchtime, and she stood up, brushing stray paint chips from her thighs. “Well, I’m going to go make us a sandwich.” She offered.
“Sounds wonderful.” He looked down at his hands, which were caked with wallpaper paste. “D’you mind if I use your shower?”
“Not at all.” She said, making her way down the hall and letting her hair down.
He stripped off the green shirt, noticing that he’d somehow ripped another small hole in the sleeve while working on the living room trim early that morning. He folded it and the paint-stained jeans carefully and arranged the small pile on the toilet seat, hoping his hostess would be gracious enough to wash them for him later on in the day. He then looked at the faucet and the two knobs on either side of it, turning the one labeled ‘hot’ carefully. Nothing came out. He frowned slightly, trying the ‘cold’ knob. Still nothing. He turned a little harder, and it came on.
The water was freezing, but he didn’t care. It felt so good to wash the grime of Azkaban out of his hair, to feel the coarse black strands liberated from the dirt his cell had accumulated after twelve years of residence. Showers were a luxury that the authorities did not allow Azkaban’s highest security prisoners, seeing as no one ever came to visit them but the dementors. He scrubbed at his rough skin with his hands, eliminating years of filth and several hours’ worth of paint as best he could. Finally, when he was satisfied, he cut the water off and stepped out onto her soft bath rug, drying himself off with a towel. He tossed it onto the floor out of habit, his last memory of a place with a shower also having been home to a house elf, but on second thought he retrieved it and carefully folded it back onto the rack on the wall. It would be rude to leave it.
When he walked into the kitchen, his hair looked much cleaner, but he was still wearing his dirty, ill-fitting clothes. She offered him the ham sandwich she’d prepared, looking at him thoughtfully. He took a bite and then noticed her staring.
“What?” He asked, forgetting he had a mouth full of food.
“You don’t have anything else to wear, do you?” She asked, leaning against the counter.
“No.” He admitted, as if it weren’t already obvious.
“We need to fix that.” She said, offering him a smile.
“What, are some of your boyfriend’s clothes here?” He queried.
“Husband.” She corrected. “And no, I had something else in mind.”
Fifteen or so minutes later, when he had wolfed down both halves of the sandwich, Sirius found himself combing the racks of a secondhand store with the waitress at his side. She had offered to take him into mainstream London, but he remembered the wanted posters and elected to try out the little shop down the street from her flat instead. She seemed grateful, making a comment about his respect for her tight budget, and he thanked her inwardly for not insisting on new clothes for him. He felt guilty for not offering to pay for them himself, but she didn’t ask.
“What size do you wear?” She asked, pulling out a dark red button-down to examine it more closely. Sirius glanced at the empty rack where his stolen coat had hung, thinking about it.
He found that he didn’t know right off hand. His years in prison had dampened his memory for all but the most important things in his life, and he hadn’t thought of much while incarcerated besides getting back at Peter and clearing his name. Besides, he hadn’t bought a shirt for himself in years. When he lived with his parents, the house elves took care of purchasing his clothing, and after he’d moved out, he got most of his clothes from James, who had the luxury of discarding things he didn’t want.
“You look like a medium.” She said, sizing him up visually. “Broad shoulders, but slim frame.” She handed it to him, finding another one in brown and offering that to Sirius as well. “Care to try them on?” She asked.
“It’d be best, I suppose.” He murmured. “Can we see about trousers?”
“Of course.” She said, moving to that section of the store. “Now, this’ll be a bit trickier in the sizing…”
He leaned on a nearby rack, absently thumbing through for more shirts but secretly paying more attention to his companion. She looked so focused, and he felt that it suited her much more than the aimless expression she wore all day at the slow diner where she wasted her life six days a week. It was sort of tender, the way she cared for him when she was clearly only slightly less lost than he was, the two of them hiding away like sewer rats in this ramshackle, forgotten corner of town. Something about her was so familiar – her blue eyes, her smile, the way she watched him. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but he liked that something about her. He liked it very much.
“Those are women’s blouses.” Her voice interrupted his train of thought, and he looked up to find her watching him, an amused smile playing at her thin lips.
“Oh, right.” He smirked, no longer leaning on the rack. “So, trousers?”
“I found a couple that you might like.” She handed them to him. “Go on, see if they fit.”
After an hour of browsing, the two of them left with two pairs of jeans, two shirts, and a worn pair of brown shoes with intact soles. Sirius, who was wearing a third outfit that he’d changed into at the store, handed the bag of clothes to her as she put the key into the door of her flat.
“I’ve been meaning to pay an old friend of mine a visit.” He said. “Would you mind if I come in a bit late again tonight? I won’t redecorate this time, I promise.”
She laughed softly. “That’s fine. Just try to be quiet, okay?”
Sirius waited until she was safely inside before he set off into the night. He had a mission to complete.