The common room was still dark but Severus' sore neck woke him up. He'd fallen asleep in one of the chairs near the common room fire, his head resting on his forearm, and the pain wouldn't go away even after he'd sat up and rolled his head around a bit.
He couldn't really remember why he'd fallen asleep there. Maybe he'd stayed up too late inventing spells or something.
The door to the boys' dormitories opened but Severus paid no attention to them until Mulciber opened his mouth.
"Have you been here all night?"
Severus was staring into the fire but he could picture the cold amusement in his eyes, like everything was a joke and he was the only one in on it.
"Leave him," said Rosier. "He's in one of his anti-social moods again."
They vanished into the stone wall and Severus crossed his arms over his chest as though he could deflect the blow. He wasn't about to get up and run after them, but he thought they might change their minds and wait for him.
He supposed he could skip breakfast, go straight to his dormitory and read awhile before his first class. But his arms and legs were already weak and he knew he'd never be able to concentrate, and anyway, he hated going hungry, he'd had to do it enough over the summer. Lily never spoke to him, never brought him any extra food the way she used to do.
He wouldn't have been able to face them all, all those fucking ordinary people who'd laughed as he was reduced to nothing, if it hadn't been for Avery and Rosier and Mulciber walking alongside him, swaggering with a confidence he wished he could feel, wands at the ready, powerful in their magic, the dark curses they whispered in abandoned classrooms waiting on the edge of their tongues. They could take on anyone.
Severus knew more curses than any of them, but without them he might as well know nothing at all. He could see his arms and legs out of the corner of his eye, heavy and stiff like wood, jerking and twitching like a marionette. Could see strands of hair hanging over his eyes, so lank and oily it made his scalp itch.
He could hear the voices echoing off the stone walls before he reached the top of the dungeon steps. There must've been a thousand of them, at least. Were they always so fucking loud?
His chest was so tight he couldn't breathe right. He was getting dizzy. He gasped for breath. The air wouldn't go in. His heart slammed against his chest and the base of his neck hurt.
He'd seen a man collapse in the middle of the street in Cokeworth, just walking home from the mill. He clutched his chest and the metal lunchbox he was holding fell to the ground and burst open. But Severus was too young for that.
He sucked in a breath again, but nothing would go in and now his head was dizzy and he was going to pass out, right there in the Entrance Hall, and no one would see him, no one would stop to help, but then he wasn't sure he wanted them to.
He didn't know how he ended up in the bathroom. Maybe he thought there'd be someone there. But there wasn't and he paced the floor, every heartbeat pounding in his head, knowing any one of them might be the last he ever felt, and he didn’t want to go like this, with the chipped sinks and the piss-smelling stones...
I can't breathe.
"Severus! Is everything alright?"
Someone was there but he didn't see who.
"It's alright. You're alright."
I can't, I can't...
“Just breathe in. Through your nose.”
Severus gasped for air.
“Good. Now...erm...hold it for a few seconds. Then breathe out.”
Severus let out a breath. So he was still breathing.
“That’s it...so, can you remember how to make Polyjuice Potion?"
Severus clutched his head.
"Add three measures of knotweed, right?...two bundles of knotgrass, stir three times..."
"Four times," said Severus, and he realized then that he could talk, that he was still breathing.
"Right. Four times...and then what?"
"And then...and then you let it brew," said Severus. "And then you add four leeches." His breathing was slowing some. He put his thumb to his wrist and felt his pulse. Still too fast, but not as much as before.
"And then...a scoop of lacewing flies?"
Severus knew that voice. Lupin.
He narrowed his eyes at him. "Two scoops. With brains like yours it's no wonder you didn't make it to N.E.W.T level."
The corners of Lupin's mouth twitched in smile that he might have thought self-deprecating if he'd been anyone else. "Well, I can see you're feeling a bit more like yourself."
Severus didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before. The whole thing was a trap, it had to be. His heart pounded harder and he stepped towards Lupin, voice breaking, slipping into his wretched Black Country twang. "Wha' the fuck you doin' here?"
Lupin lowered his eyes. "I saw you in the Entrance Hall. I thought you looked...unwell, so I followed you here."
Severus glanced under the stalls for shoes, listened for breathing, fingers groping for his wand. "Where are they?"
Lupin raised his eyebrows slightly. "Sorry?"
"Don't play dumb with me Lupin. Where are Potter and Black?"
Lupin's eyes widened too quickly to be put on, but he still didn't believe it. "It's just me."
Severus listened. There was no sound apart from distant footsteps and the trickle of a leaking faucet.
So he was telling the truth. But he still didn't understand. He stepped towards the werewolf, so close he could smell the coffee on his breath. "If you tell anyone about this you will pay, d'you understand me?"
Lupin twitched as though to shrink back, but stood his ground, eyes wide and earnest."Of course. I won't tell a soul."
Severus sneered as though to say he doubted it, but he backed away.
Lupin shot him a furtive glance that was hard to read and made for the door, but when he'd reached it he stopped and ran his fingers through his hair, looking from the floor to Severus. "It happens to me too. And people give me shit about it, believe me."
Severus didn't know what to say to this, but Lupin didn't seem to expect him to. "Well," he said, turning back to the door. "I'll see you around."
Severus hated that he believed him.
Severus flattened himself against a wall and waited for the Bloody Baron to pass by before climbing up the steps to the Astronomy tower. He slumped against the castle wall and pulled out a twenty-pack of Woodbines he'd bought at the corner store just before the start of term, pushing the lid open and counting how many he had left. Just four. Shit. There were still five weeks to go before Christmas holidays and he knew his friends wouldn't have any, just the useless high-class pipe tobacco they smoked sometimes during one of their pretentious dinner parties. Ah well. He would savour them, anyway.
He pulled a book of matches out of his pocket and his muscles relaxed. He smoked fags for comfort, the way some people clutched hot cups of tea. He had a ritual. Pull it out of the box, bring it to his lips, strike the match, light the fag, breathe in. Peace.
The footsteps were heavy, shuffling, like someone running. Severus breathed out and stood up, ready to Disillusion himself if need be, but he didn't think it was a teacher.
Whoever it was ran right to the edge, stopping short at the railing as though only vaguely aware it was there. Severus stepped closer.
Lupin. He was clutching his chest and gasping for breath.
Severus took another drag and watched him, feet pivoted away as though he were going to turn around, but they wouldn't move.
Lupin made a strange keening noise and Severus stepped over to the railing.
"The fall constellations," he said. "Do you remember them?"
Lupin just kept breathing hard.
"Aquarius," repeated Lupin vaguely. "And...Lyra?"
"That's summer, you prat. Try again."
"I don't...I can't remember..."
Severus raised an eyebrow. "And they gave you an O.W.L in Astronomy?"
"I got an Outstanding," said Lupin, his voice stronger, clearer.
"Really?" said Severus, voice inflected to suggest his disbelief.
"Yes, really. Now let's see...right. Capricornus and Pisces."
Lupin took a deep breath and stared at Severus as though just realizing he was there. This time he didn't look down. "Thank you."
Severus shrugged and threw his fag on the ground, stamping it out with his boot. Somehow he couldn't bring himself to tell Lupin to fuck off. Which was good as telling him he could stay, and Lupin knew it.
He looked up, hands in his pockets. "Nice night for stargazing."
Severus made a noncommittal noise. He was more interested in what was on the ground.
Lupin nodded towards the wall. "Want to sit down?"
Severus followed him, pretending he didn't know why, that he didn't care. That he hadn't been aching for someone to sit down next to him like an ordinary person.
Lupin drew his knees up to his chest and ran his hand along the folds of his robes. "Listen. I'm really sorry. About everything."
Severus had played this scene over and over in his mind, and Lupin was always on his knees grovelling, cowering before his clenched fists. Severus clenched and unclenched his fingers and the heat rose in his chest and his heart beat faster but he knew he couldn’t do it. Knew Lupin meant it.
Lupin must’ve known it too, because the corners of his mouth lifted just a second before he glanced away again, serious, and looked up at the stars. “Do you ever feel like...I don’t know, like a stranger? Like you were just dropped on this planet to observe everyone but never really fit in?”
Severus was unnerved. He only felt like that every bloody day of his life.
“I feel like that all the time.”
Severus made a disparaging noise. “You think you don’t fit in? When you spend all your time hanging round with Potter and Black?”
Lupin ran his hands along his robes again. “I dunno...sometimes I think they’ve got more in common with each other. Like I’m just along for the ride, you know?”
Severus didn’t say anything to this. But he knew exactly how Lupin felt.
Lupin glanced at him and looked back down, opened his mouth and closed it. “Actually,” he said after awhile. “I’m sort of glad you were here.”
He stared down at his lap again and even in the low light Severus could’ve sworn he was blushing.
“Yeah,” he said, because he couldn’t really bring himself to say what he really thought. That he sort of was too. Even if Lupin was a prat.