ever after

Title: Ever After
Author: busaikko
Betas: islandsmoke, schemingreader, and aunty_marion
Rating: PG13
For: nyxfixx, on occasion of her Big Birthday
Summary: Non-magic AU. Once upon a time, an astrophysicist was wooed by the gay Scheherazade. . .

"So," Sirius said brightly, sliding his hip onto the scarred check-out desk and perching there with a lean intended to keep their conversation private, even in the ghastly cacophonous room that housed the sciences library. For all that librarians went on about the gold of silence, he would have thought they'd have some idea about the resonance of high arched ceilings. But no.

"Oh look," Remus said, pointedly not looking up from the amber of the computer monitor. "It's the gay Scheherazade."

"Nah." Sirius smiled winningly, just in case Remus deigned to notice him. "I've got more staying power."

"That's because I can't order you executed," Remus shot back, but the way he held the corners of his mouth suggested that he was trying to hold amusement in. Sirius pulled his jacket off and squashed it behind him. The windows were open and the evening air had a chill; but the movement and the indecorous behaviour made Remus glare at him from behind the desk, so the gesture was worth the goose-pimples. Remus' eyes were the colour of black coffee, and their focus was its own kind of caffeine high. Sirius grinned; he couldn't help it; and Remus held onto his stern look only a moment longer before he smiled back.

"What are you in the mood for tonight?" Sirius asked. "Mystery? Romance? Science fiction double feature? Free verse?"

"I'm tired," Remus said, and Sirius knew it was a concession for him to simply say that. Remus was in the habit of being cagey. Sirius knew he'd be out on his arse if he pursued the subject; and he'd lose the wary closeness that he'd spent so long establishing. Remus was a fox in more senses than one, and he'd needed quite a bit of taming.

"Bedtime story, then." Remus huffed a little, almost a laugh, and started poking at the computer again. "You still have that thing against anthropomorphic animals?"

"They give me nightmares," Remus said absently, spinning the chair around to grab a turquoise folder from the filing shelves. Turning back, he flipped it open, took out a fat stack of barely legible forms, and set them between the keyboard and Sirius' hip. It was late to be starting on inter-library requests, but there were two full trolleys off to the side, which suggested that Remus had been adding books to the on-line system again. More tedium, and more eyestrain.

"All right. So. Fairy tale it is." Sirius glanced around. He recognised most of the students in the carrels under the windows as regulars, just as surely they recognised him as the idiot who chatted Remus up nearly every night. He doubted anyone could hear a word, but he pitched his voice lower anyway: it made Remus lean, unconsciously, closer. "Once upon a time and all that, our faithful hero, a loyal knight, which would be me, departed from the castle with his dear companion, a bookish monk — "

"I'm not a monk," Remus said with the glare he turned on defacers of books, his eyebrows down and drawn together and his mouth tight. Sirius had recently discovered that Remus was a virgin; he surmised that it was a sensitive point, and he backpedalled. The point of the whole exercise was, after all, to break down Remus' reservations.

"Okay," Sirius agreed. "You could be a vampire. Seeing as how I've never seen you during the day." Which was true. James. . . James would have hurt himself laughing if Sirius told him that he'd only ever seen the love of his life in a library, at night. They had had other things to do after dark.

"I attend classes. It is, in fact, why I'm here. I'm actually a morning person, and vampires are trite, anyway. Not my style." Remus made a small up-down gesture with his right hand, indicating today's geeky t-shirt (the front was a ridiculously complex equation; the back, Sirius knew, read the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow), his fraying jeans, and the 2QT2BSTR8 badge that Sirius had given him, pinned just under his collar.

"Elf," Sirius suggested, just to see Remus cringe. "Hobbit." He grinned. "Fairy."

Remus raised his hand from the keyboard long enough to make an obscene gesture. "Werewolf. So I could have the occasional run around the countryside, eating grandmothers." Remus fixed Sirius with a look that dared him to protest, so Sirius shrugged acceptance as if it were nothing.

He'd been telling Remus stories now for about three months. One of his freelance jobs was writing the weekly biography article for the TeenGirlz website, and he'd been doing a series on women in the sciences. He'd used his university contacts to gain access to the dusty archive to which Remus held the keys. Remus had been more than helpful, tracking down mislaid letters and prying ancient journals away from doctoral students. Sort of a thrill of the hunt thing, like one of those great buddy movies, only with calculus and ladder-climbing instead of stunts, and without evil henchmen. Even if the degree candidates had come after them with sticks, like Indiana Jones and the Ninja Zombies, Remus had let it slip, modestly, that he could bench press nearly what Sirius weighed. For a while there, Sirius had found the urge to squeeze his shoulders nearly irresistible.

But in the end, Sirius had been captivated more by Remus' contradictions than by his muscles (pretty though they were). His stern demeanour balanced against a sly sense of humour; he wore his convictions and ambitions openly but was sparing with any information about himself. Remus had been as Teflon to Sirius' attempts to chat him up, but Sirius knew his own one talent was stupid perseverance. He had gone on to different assignments, famous African women and women warriors and female technogeeks, which meant he worked from entirely different resources, but he still came back here in the evenings. He made up all his own stories, and he knew how to play his audience now, knew how to make Remus laugh or ache or impatient for the next night's instalment. He'd be here the full one thousand and one nights, even ten thousand and one nights, because Remus was starting to open up to him, if even in a sarcastic and desultory way.

"Take two," Sirius said, shifting and nearly knocking over the plastic rack holding informational pamphlets (yet again). He steadied it with the hand that wasn't supporting him, and Remus rolled his eyes. "Once upon a time, the loyal knight went riding out with his faithful companion, a bookish werewolf. They galloped off at full speed, desperately determined to rescue the King of the realm, who'd gone off himself to rescue the Queen, but ended up yet another prisoner in the dragon's lair."

"It won't work," Remus said, sending off the last of his interlibrary requests with a decisive jab at the keyboard. He returned the folder to the rack and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. Sirius wanted to vault the desk and rub Remus' shoulders. Or maybe just shake him by the shoulders. He thought entirely too much about Remus' shoulders.

"It's a story," Sirius snapped, bits of plot dissolving all around him.

"Look, my disbelief can only suspend so far, all right? Your knight and the werewolf, they're toast. Snacks. Crunchy on the inside."

"They could be magical wizards," Sirius protested, and Remus ran his hands through his hair in frustration. "They could have magic wands. Long and hard magic wands. Hey — you're the one who believes in dark matter."

"Give it up. I mean, I'm sorry, I'm not — that's not what would happen in the real world, all right? What's a dragon going to do with hostages?"

Sirius felt as if he'd been punched. "I know that," he said when his breathing allowed him speech. "Really. I know that. I know that in the real world, people die. That there's no magic to save them." He heard Remus' indraw of breath, and then Remus' hand covered his own. The first time, Sirius thought, that Remus touched him deliberately, which kind of sucked, because he really didn't want to be touched just now..

"I'm sorry," Remus said. "I don't want you to think — " He broke off, and his fingers tightened around Sirius', cold and bony and dry. "I like your stories. I do."

"If you're not going to be a learned monk, and if the King and Queen are going to be dead, then the problem is that I'm not really a knight, either."

"It's okay, really," Remus said. "The castle, and the dragon, and there can be magic, it's okay. Whatever."

"They — and I'm not defining they for you; the universal, ubiquitous they — thought the knight had killed the King and Queen, or at least had sent them to that place where they died, so they put him in prison — borstal, to you." The building had been Victorian, and all the windows had been set high, the idea being that eyes forced to look heavenwards would lead hearts away from darkness. The science library shared a basic architecture, but Sirius could look east out over the playing fields or west to the town. He enjoyed the freedom of having a view uncompromised by moral edification. "He stayed there until they found they'd been wrong. When he got out, his disreputable uncle took him in as an apprentice, trained him in the knightly arts until he passed his exams, and then sent him out into the world with naught but a trusty steed and a whopping big inheritance. When, in his pursuit of knowledge, he came to these halls of learning and the domain of his lunarly-challenged companion."

"I have work to do," Remus said, and Sirius pulled his hand back. Remus half stood, hovered. "No, that's not what I mean. This isn't — this isn't the sort of talk I can have over work. It's not exactly private."

"And when do you plan on being off work?" Sirius asked; he didn't stop giving Remus a hard look because it wasn't exactly fair, was it? Still, he stole Remus' book and sat on the steps to the balcony and muddled through astrophysics. He tried not to show that he noticed the way Remus' eyes constantly returned to him while he sorted and shelved and entered statistics into official ledgers; but it made him feel warm, even though he'd forgotten his jacket. When the woman with the nine-to-midnight shift came in Remus was already standing, rucksack on, looking for all the world as if he were eager to go.

Sirius held the door for Remus chivalrously. Remus gave him an annoyed scowl, but as soon as they were in the corridor he had both crutches in one hand and pulled Sirius into a tight, one-armed embrace.

"What kind of a job have you got that you can't dole out hugs over the counter?" Sirius groused into hair that was unexpectedly coarse, but he took advantage of the opportunity to do a little Remus-squeezing himself. Remus was a nice armful, just like he'd thought.

"A job I plan to keep." Remus' hand was tracing a slow, comforting arc between shoulder and spine. "You know you're my best friend, don't you? So you know that I'm self-centred and not good at talking, but — I appreciate that you haven't given up on me."

"Eh, small talk," Sirius said, and felt the light thump of Remus' fist. "I talk enough for four people, anyway."

"Oh, right, so I'll just continue to take you for granted, then." Remus stepped back and gave Sirius an awkward, resolved look. "I'm sorry. About your friends. About what happened to you. I can't really imagine — I don't want to."

"I've reformed," Sirius said, shrugging.

"Idiot," Remus said, and waved Sirius down the corridor to the elevator. "It must have been terrifying. And lonely. I always think of you as. . . vivacious."

Sirius' laughter bounced down ahead of them as he tried to get Remus in a headlock. "Vivacious? That's worse than pert."

Remus twisted sideways and very gently trapped Sirius' hands behind his back, his wrists pressed together in one implacable hand. "I meant spunky," he said, not even pretending to breathe hard from behind Sirius' back.

"I shall dye my hair and put it in plaits," Sirius threatened. "I'll wear gingham, whatever the hell that is."

"You're cute when you pantomime dark matter," Remus said, collecting his crutches and Sirius' jacket, and Sirius was proud of himself that he managed to translate this by the time they reached the ground floor.

"Macho?" he asked, to be sure, and he even understood all the subtle degrees of insult in Remus' demure er, no. (Months ago, he'd felt like the cartoon about What Dogs Hear when he'd read the draft of Remus' dissertation: blah blah blah Remus Lupin blah blah. Now, he kind of had a fondness for quarks, which were the gayest things in physics, ever.)

That they were starting to understand each other was the good part of taking things slow. The very first time he saw Remus he'd wanted to sleep with him; he'd known immediately how Remus' hair would be tousled the morning after, how those big eyes would catch the sunlight, and how his mouth would be lazy with pleasure, all sarcasm gone. Remus had been wearing one of his many pin badges; that particular one had read Yes, I am so gay, which had been a green light, all systems are go, commence chat-up sign from God.

But then Remus had stood up and gone haring after fifty year old journals, and Sirius caught himself thinking he couldn't handle having a crippled boyfriend. He had been immediately ashamed of himself, hearing echoes of his mother in his head, which made him, he saw in retrospect, insultingly solicitous. After a few weeks, Remus slipped him a medical journal along with the first textbook written by a female vulcanologist. Stop hovering like I'm dying he'd snapped. Sirius did his homework, asked a few questions that he hoped were more intelligent than nosy, and then went back to Plan A, which was hovering like Remus was dead sexy.

Remus was also starting to overcome his own prejudices. Sirius never hid that he had money, that he came from those Blacks. He knew that Remus was right, he didn't really understand why Remus kept his crappy job or chewed his fingernails off over grant applications. But Remus made fewer little digs and comments when Sirius wore new clothes or mentioned some of the people he knew or the places he ate, and he always apologised immediately after. He'd even given Sirius a sympathetic chocolate bar when his relatives had made the cover of Look for behaving badly half-naked on the coast of France. Sirius knew that there was a real concern, if one thing ever led to another, that someday headlines might read AlpharTex Heir Boytoy Gets Nobel! or Gay Love for 'Black' Sheep. He knew that Remus was weighing that knowledge, that he could lose his safety and privacy, and for what?

Sirius, when he was being level-headed and forward-looking, thought it was good that they hadn't had sex before figuring out who they were.

"Are you finally coming on a date with me?" he asked, putting a hand on Remus' shoulder. He figured maybe it was okay. Remus had always said good night to him in the library, usually with the distracted air of needing to talk urgently to the nine o'clock girl about important business. This walking about the campus, in the dark, in the cold — it was romantic, if you didn't mind the sniffles.

Remus grubbed about in his own jacket pocket, pulled out a tissue, and handed it to Sirius. "Don't breathe near me if you've got a germ." Sirius blew his nose loudly in Remus' direction. "I don't date disgusting people. I'm pretty sure you're just walking me down to the bus shelter, because you need the exercise."

"I had this dream about you," Sirius said, which wasn't exactly a lie: he often had dreams about Remus. He sniffled again, on purpose. "You were nice to me."

"Define nice," Remus said; Sirius could hear the grin.

"Oh, the occasional backrub, compliments on my hair, fixing my broken computer, telling me stories."

"What's wrong with the computer?"

"Down, geek boy," Sirius said, sliding his hand up to shake Remus' hair with mock violence. "Nice is also just doing — this. Walking about." There was no casual way to walk about with his hand tangled in Remus' hair, so he made a wide gesture that ended with his hands in his pockets. He'd accidentally ripped out some of Remus' hair, and he tucked it into the fold of the Times crossword he was working on.

"I'm no good at telling stories." Remus sounded like someone suddenly presented with a karaoke microphone; as if he were hovering on the brink, as if he needed just the nudge of persuasion.

Sirius gave an artfully derisive snort. "That's all you lot ever do. It's not like you're going to hand over a bucket full of dark matter to get your degree." Remus muttered something about having his photograph on the cover of Science if he did, and Sirius elbowed him. "No, you're writing a story about what you think happened, and will happen, and ought to happen."

"I'm actually not supposed to, you know, lie," Remus said, and Sirius said nothing back, just let the ideas percolate for a while in Remus' brain. "How can I be losing to your argument if you're not even arguing with me?" he asked a minute later, turning abruptly onto the brick walkway that ran the length of D Hall. The sound of his crutches changed, becoming hollow and loud and somehow conveying annoyance.

Sirius smiled, all Mona Lisa mystery (he hoped). "I'm clever that way."

"Fine," Remus said, rather grimly, with the suffering kind of impatience that he used on undergraduates who bothered him with questions. "Fine. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago but yet oddly right here in this very galaxy — " he rapped the pavement with a crutch tip for emphasis — "there was a boy who wanted to be an astronaut. He watched every rocket and shuttle launch he could. He used to build rockets — real ones that actually flew, which probably wasn't legal, but no one ever stopped him. It was kind of an obsession. He was going to go to the moon and then, who knows, stars, whatever." They rounded the corner and Remus paused at the top of the slope that led down to the blight of the demolished former economics building, soon to be a car park. Beyond the graffitied site fence stood a row of dying aspens, and above them hung the full moon, bluish-white and scarred.

Sirius supposed that Remus didn't need to think about the phases of the moon or the rising and setting of the constellations any more than a touch-typist thought about the placement of the keys: he probably always knew where things were in the heavens. But he gave Remus full marks for dramatic effect, because the moon was lovely, and Remus in the moonlight looked almost as if he were a magical creature.

"You still want the story?" Remus asked, not quite looking at Sirius but raising an eyebrow instead. Sirius made an affirmative kind of noise, and Remus started walking again. Without the ugly building to hold back the wind, the path leading out to the main road was too cold to linger on long. "Right. So then the werewolf thing bit. General unpleasantness with braces and crutches for a few years, but after that, besides turning into a murderous beast every full moon and having people point out how big my ears were, everything was fine. Until, oh, ten years ago, when I stopped being able to walk." He shrugged, sharply. "It happens. So he decided, if Mohammed can't get to the mountains, he can at least try his best to bring the mountains to him. Which is what he was trying to do when he was interrupted by all this madness about slaying dragons. Bookish werewolf, ha." Remus half turned to glare at Sirius. "You have no idea how many prejudices the public harbours about people who work in libraries."

"Your dissertation covers nine dimensions and at least three languages," Sirius said mildly. "And you're dating someone who writes for a living. It does rather imply literacy, unfortunately."

"I really think the knight ought to deal with the dragons himself first, before shanghai'ing the werewolf into some kind of purported relationship."

"We're on a quest," Sirius said. "Quixote and Sancho. Frodo and Sam. The Blues Brothers, except not, because they were brothers, but still. The whole point of the thing is the questing. Doing it together. And speaking of which, remember the Jeeves and Wooster story I told you?"

"The horribly pornographic one?"

"Ha," Sirius said, with his best Hugh Laurie leer. "The terribly funny one that had you laughing so hard you nearly threw up. I just want you to remember that I'm not Bertie Wooster, all right? I may have been raised to be a twit, and I am irresistibly good-looking, but there's more to me than that."

"I do know that," Remus said, quietly, and bumped elbows with Sirius as they walked.

"Everyone I loved died. I don't want to lose any time, not when I'm sure, and I'm pretty sure of you."

"You say things like that," Remus said, stopping short, "and I almost start to feel that this quest thing makes sense."

"What about when I do things like this?" Sirius asked, and kissed Remus quickly, before Remus could laugh at him for using such a terrible line.

There was a whole list of things that Sirius had wanted for their first kiss. Some had likely been frivolous — wine, boats, a fedora or two — but he would have liked privacy. He would have liked not worrying about sneezing right in Remus' face, or Remus yawning in his. He would have liked Remus off both crutches with wandering hands, instead of doing the single-crutch lean. But Remus did have his fingers threaded into Sirius' hair right behind his ear, and he was pulling him into the kiss instead of shoving him away, which meant. . . well, it meant that it wasn't a perfect kiss, but it was real.

Sirius changed sides, quickly, and put one hand along the line of Remus' jaw and slid the other up under Remus' t-shirt. This made Remus' eyes snap wide open, and he pulled back in protest.

"Cold hands, warm heart," Sirius said, and kissed Remus again, trying not to wiggle while Remus' icy fingers slid down the back of his neck. He pressed his fingertips right up against the arch where Remus' ribs met, thinking of high-vaulted ceilings and by extension, the heavenly chorus. Who being heavenly probably had very good lung capacity, but both he and Remus were running out of air; were breathing like they had been running. Sirius pulled back, reluctant to abandon Remus' heat for the nighttime chill.

"Huh," Remus said, still in the circle of Sirius' arms. "So about those dragons. . . "

"There will always be dragons," Sirius said. "Death, taxes, and dragons. We've both faced them down in the past, we know a few tricks, but there will be a next time, and a time after that. I really want you at my back."

"All right, then," Remus said. "I suppose. Are we ever going to get to happily ever after?"

"All good stories do," Sirius said, and the moon shone down.

The end.

Downtown Train (Tom Waits)
Dimples (John Lee Hooker)
21 Days in Jail (Magic Sam)
Everybody Needs Somebody to Love (The Blues Brothers)
Us (Regina Spektor)
Up Jumped the Devil (Clarence Gatemouth Brown)
Cold Tea Blues (Cowboy Junkies)
As Time Goes By (Dooley Wilson)
I Would Walk 500 Miles (The Proclaimers)
Son of a Preacherman (Cam Clarke)

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