Chapter 1: I. The Approach
(all illustrations by glaciergrace)
I. The Approach
“Remus Lupin,” says his Da. “Remus John. Lupin.”
“Five,” says his Da, and tightens his palm around Remus’s fist.
Five and a half, thinks Remus, somewhat indignantly. His wrist hurts again, just below where his Da is holding his hand, where the juniper branches got at him as he fell. He scratches at it. A sticky edge of the small, white bandage peels under his fingernails; he sighs, and shifts his feet.
"Shropshire," says his Da. To Remus, the word smells very strongly of apples and sheepswool, of dark grasses and scummy ponds and goose down, old flowers and rain. He rubs his nose. His side twinges, where the bigger bandage is, wrapping his ribs and holding him together.
There is a long pause. Remus can't see much above the desk in front of them. He knows it is a lady - she sounds sort of dull and bored – with a voice like the clicking keys of the typewriter in his Da's study, a dry and airborn noise, the stamp of hard, black ink into clean paper.
"Yes?" says his Da.
"Another one - " says the lady behind the desk. "They're all coming out of Shropshire this year. Last year, it was Wales, mostly."
"Ah," says his Da.
"Seen the authorities? We need the letter from your First-Responder before we can process him."
"Ah, yes," says his Da. He lets go of Remus's hand; a rustling of cloth and the crinkle of paper. Remus flexes his fingers in front of his belly, because they feel very stiff and damp with his Da's sweat. He scratches his wrist, again. "Yes. It was -- Moody. Ah, Alastor Moody. Here."
"Ta," says the lady behind the desk. "Have a seat, then. The Registrar's in with another one now. I'll call for you when he's freed up."
His Da touches his shoulder, and he looks up at him.
"All right?" says his Da.
"Yeah," he says.
"Want to sit down, a spell?"
"Okay," he says.
They sit, side-by-side, in two of the long row of wooden chairs. His Da keeps close to him, long legs and arms bent up and over, his elbows on his knees, and his tall spine curved so that he and Remus are about the same height, when they are sitting. He is wearing his good jacket, the one with the green and brown stripes, and the yellow lining, that his Mum has repaired six times just this last Tuesday, but it's such a nice jacket, she'd said, that she didn't mind, much. His Da's hands are knotted together, long fingers with his craggy knuckles, the three dark freckles on the crest of his bony thumb. His hair looks less red, today, and his Mum would just die, probably, if she could see it now, because he knows his Da was mussing it in the lift, because something was bothering him, and now it's all sticking up in the back and pressed down in the front, and it looks pretty awful, Remus thinks, really awful. The floor is very clean, and smells like rubbing alcohol. Remus swings his feet, and a bit of dirt falls from his heel, onto the floor, just beside his Da's chair.
"Sorry," he whispers. The guilt hits him like a top spinning. He feels dizzy.
"What?" his Da looks at him. "Remus -- "
"My shoes aren't clean," he says. He feels awful.
"Oh," says his Da. "Oh. No. That's all right -- Remus, it's all right."
"I'm really sorry," he says.
"I know," says his Da, and takes his hand, and holds it there, over his knee: so tightly Remus can feel his Da's heartbeat through his own skin, the blood thudding and the beat solid and now, all of it - suddenly, he knows, somehow - so different from his own.
After six months or so, they fight more – his parents. It is the kind of fighting where Remus will come down to breakfast, and there will be a bowl of cold oatmeal where his Da usually sits, in the sunlight by the window with the birdfeeder outside of it, and his Mum will immediately stop speaking, and his Da will be standing very silent in the middle of the room, instead of sitting in the sunlight by the window (with the birdfeeder outside of it – it’s because he used to like to watch them, the birds), and the wireless will be turned up very loud, broadcasting a recap of Quidditch match or if his Mum is very angry, something classical from the Muggle BBC.
“Hi,” he’ll say.
“Morning, love,” his Mum will say. They will both not really look at him.
TODAY IN LEEDS, MORE FLOODING ALONG THE RIVER AIRE, says the wireless. Or: IN OTHER NEWS, THE CANNONS FELL TO THE FALCONS AGAIN LAST NIGHT.
His Da will ask him if he wants cereal or eggs, and he will say eggs, please, and his Da will make him eggs, and he will eat them and drink his cold milk, and his Mum will kiss him on the top of the head, before she disappears somewhere upstairs.
Remus assumes eventually this sort of thing will end. He thinks, either his parents will stop speaking to each other altogether, or his Da will stop making him eggs altogether, and he will have to fade into the background, into the wallpaper, into the wall of the hollyhocks and marigolds in his Mum’s garden, into the grey cracklings of the cold fireplace and the white noise between the words of the wireless, or he will be cured, altogether, like they all keep hoping, against all sense and common knowledge, and then everything will be normal and lovely again.
He wants it desperately. He sits every morning eating eggs or porridge or toast with marmalade, and all he wants, for months, every morning, is to be better for them.
But if it is the morning after the full moon, it is different – he almost begins to look forward to it. They all come together in the relative newness and pain of it. He stays in bed, even though he is not too bruised or too cut up – mostly because he feels so tired - and his mum will bring him a book, and sit on his left side and read to him in her beautiful brown-coloured voice, wheaty and sweet and soft like the middle of a freshly baked cinnamon roll, and his Da will bring over the bandages and some soup, and whatever potion or pill it is that they are trying this month. And whatever it is, it will not work. And they will all be very tired, and exhausted, and fall asleep together eventually in Remus’s childhood bed, but at least – Remus thinks, every time – they are together.
They learn together about discretion, about how important secrets are. Remus is told repeatedly that this thing, this thing that he is, this is something no one must ever know.
“Never?” he asks his Da.
“Never,” says his Da.
Why, he wants to ask. Why am I so wrong --
“It’s not that we don’t trust you,” says his Da. “We don’t trust them. Wizards are very frightened of werewolves. And Muggles don’t believe in them.”
“I know,” says Remus.
“So until we find a cure,” says his Da. “Just until then. It’s a very important secret.”
“I know,” says Remus. “I promise.”
(It will be something is he told all his life. It will be eight years later when he sits down with hot, raging tears building behind his eyes, blurring his vision of the parchment and the inkwell, trying to compose some form of a letter to his Da, to try and explain that he didn’t tell anyone, only he’s so sure they’ve figured it out, somehow, because James keeps looking at him like he’s grown a tentacle from his forehead, and Peter physically cannot seem to speak to him, and Sirius – Sirius looks as if he might be violently ill every time he comes within four feet, and every time he’s rounded a corner or come down the stairs of the common room in the past week, and found them clustered together, heads bent over a book or over James’s waving hands, they stop, and there is this dreadful, horrific silence, and Peter just stares and Sirius goes a little ashen, and James will usually yelp something like OH HULLO WAIT WE ARE OFF TO SEE SOMETHING WE ARE SO LATE HUP HUP LADS, and they will scatter to the wind.)
He keeps the secret very well. He keeps it when he is six, and there is cold oatmeal and fighting.
He keeps it when he is seven, and his Mum has stopped teaching at the local school in order to help his Da with the research they’re doing, which isn’t all about goblins and old bronze-silver-wars and things, he realizes, but is also an awful lot about werewolves, too.
He keeps it when he is eight, and he stops asking if he can go out and play with the other children around That Time, since he Knows Better by now, and it keeps his parents very happy when he is curled up in the armchair under a blanket with a heavy, smoky-smelling book open in his lap. (He even enjoys reading.)
He keeps the secret when he is nine, and his parents take him to the Lethecary.
“Is it a doctor, Mum?” he asks. They have seen a lot of doctors.
She touches the top of his head, briefly, as she straightens his pillow.
“No,” she says. “Not exactly.”
He tries not to pull a face – he tugs of the sleeve of his pajamas instead, fingering the cuff. He imagines the scent of all those apothecary bags, the potions-masters and the medicinal Muggle concoctions of analgesics and soothing mint jelly creams. The smell of antiseptic bandages is more comforting than the parade of sludge and small gem-like pills he’s downed. Something in them crackles at his skin – as if his body grows too tight for itself. Like the translucent casing of a pork banger, he feels stuffed-all-in and meaty, suddenly too aware of his blood fighting against something that doesn’t belong.
One day, when he is fifteen, he will tell his Da this. This idea that there is something different inside him, that he is poisoned, somehow, against most of the world. That he is now made to resist those things that are good and kind and easily magical. That his body is now meant for something unkindly different. He will read an exclusive in the back pages of the Prophet, about the Aurors who hunt down werewolves, about a monster-man named Greyback who is Number One Most Wanted, at least where those sorts of things are concerned. Sirius will cut it out for him and leave it on his pillow with a note that says, OI STOP EATING LITTLE CHILDREN. It will be meant as a joke. He will keep it with him, and read it twenty-nine times before Christmas hols that year.
They will be separating holly leaves, for the wreath his Da makes every year. They will be sitting on the floor of the den with holly branches strewn around their ankles, and Remus will shift and will feel the crinkle of old folded newspaper in the back pocket of his trousers. He will speak without thinking, because he has been thinking it so long.
“Da,” he’ll say.
“Mm,” his Da will say, because he will have a holly branch between his teeth.
“D’you think I’m bad?”
His Da will raise one eyebrow, very slowly.
“Not like, no.” He will feel horribly silly, and he will stare very hard at the pile of thorny twigs in his lap, and at the small silvery scars that creep up over the lines of his wrists and his hands. “Not like, detention bad. Like, d’you think this is something that’s made me. Meant to do bad things?”
His Da will take the holly branch out of his mouth and hold it between both hands, gingerly, as if it were very fragile.
“No,” says his Da. “I don’t think you’re meant to do bad things.”
“I feel different,” he will say.
“You are different,” his Da will say. “It doesn’t make you evil. It makes you who you are, and we are what we do, Remus, not what people expect us to be.”
It will not make him feel much better. What his Da will say to him is not what they say to him when he is younger, when he is nine years old and sitting in bed and asking his mother about the Lethecarist, asking Is it a doctor, Mum? and his Mum says, No, not exactly, which means, you need to be fixed, you need to be cured, there is something very wrong with you.
That is what he thinks the Lethecary is, the night before, tucked into bed at eight in the evening, so as to be well-rested for the trip: the place he will be better.
Common Woodbrown is a village inland of the North Sea, somewhere to the east of Barrow Mere. It is not on the green and dull-yellow pages of the Muggle Atlas that his Da has in the library, on the page marked in thin red lines – 10A-4C, England, United Kingdom and Wales, Grimbsy – but it does appear, through heady summer mist, after they have parked his Mum’s dusty and powder blue Citroen by the road and walked up a farmer’s path, through the woods. It is the end of the afternoon - verging on suppertime - and the light all around them is washed-out and earthy and growing-orange: the bare hints of a dying light, like the slow, smooth skin of a slightly rotten peach. The trees are shedding golden bits of dust and soft pollen when the sun finds a way through the mossy shadows and the heavy, humid air; and Remus is getting hungry, but his Da is holding his hand rather tight so he knows better than to think this is a good time to ask about a sandwich, perhaps. There are sun-bleached twigs crackling under the soles of his trainers, and he can see his Da reach up to brush away the thin, invisible line of a spider web from where it is suspended across the path, but no one speaks. His Mum is walking behind them, with her arms crossed over the front of her blouse, and her long hair pulled up off the back of her neck. She looked very young this morning, Remus thought, when they pulled out onto the road and the dust flew up under the wheels, and she checked behind her in the mirror, and her small, thin fingers drummed a staccato on the gearshift. His Da had touched her elbow then. He'd seen it, but then he'd looked away.
Is it a doctor, Mum, he'd asked. Only once. He hasn't spoken of it again since she said No, not exactly and touched the top of his head with her palm. He has been rolling the word around in his head since they'd first said it. Soft on the tip of his tongue, like a pillow fold, the hint of a sneaking shadow in the diphthong, the hard and surprising snick of the 'c'; at the end the breathy exhale, an escaped sigh, translucent like a flywing. The word had not been in any book he'd looked at, skimming the pages with the pad of his finger pressed flat and hard down the margins: Lacewing -- Latherwort -- Leptandra – Lethifold. He would stop. It had unnerved him, that this thing that he was about to encounter, that was not, not exactly, a doctor, was something that did not exist. It could not be explained, apparently, in words the way that other things could; things like "tree" or "blood" or "teakettle". It was either not exactly this, or not exactly that, Remus had decided, but could not be something in and of itself.
It was like him. He had thought it that morning, over his half-eaten cold cereal. He might be called a Remus, he thought, throughout his life, as a word to signify the form of him, something to gesture at across the yard or on the other side of the room. But if he were asked what it meant, if he were more like a boy or more like a -- something else -- he'd have to say, he thought, No, not exactly.
The woods open up onto a rocky shoreline – a dark pebbled beach with dark saltwater-rotted piers scuttling up onto the ground and disappearing out their other ends into the sun-painted water. His Da pauses at the place where the trees stop and the path exhales out into a smooth, sandy dirt road: in front of them, behind the shadow of his Da’s hip, Remus can see the sun setting over the other side of the inlet, where the low farmland creeps into black silhouette. He can see the water in front of them, beginning to glow red and pink and opaque with colour. He can see the place out beyond the bay, where the sky and the sea almost meet, where they almost match: orange for orange and red for red and flesh-pink for flesh-pink. He can see there, in front of them, the black blot of the village Common Woodbrown, with its faint-grey stone chimneys and its yellow-tinted roofs thatched and patched and bound-together with bits of straw and string, and the beginnings of a lantern glow from a few tidy windows.
He can hear it creaking. There is a low wind over the water, and it carries the sound of the village up over the path and through the wool of Remus’s cap. It sounds like old houses, and the slow strain of ancient seaboats, held together at their seams only by sheer will and threads of sticky black tar. It sounds like the heavy slap of waves against a buoy or a tangle of weighted netting or a slab of crusted, mossy rocks. It sounds like a distant, unintelligible voice, neither man or woman, just a cry – disappearing into pure noise: a wail, a wisp of thunder, something that makes you stop and turn your head, just for a moment.
It smells hot and salty, out here on the shore, on the outskirts of this small dark village. A thick, fishy scent, the way that dried seaglass has a certain metallic tinge to it – he knows – or the way that old houses collect dew and dust and wet dirt inside their bones. It curls up inside his nostrils, grabbing at his blood and his bones and his nerve-endings, tugging his eyes out to the edge of the sea, where the world dissolves into light. From somewhere – out at the ends of the clustered little homes and the fat, scuttle-black shadow of the lone church spire, Remus smells something like animal skin, burned on a low fire. Suet, he thinks, automatically, fat and lard and charred skin and hanging bits of meat, he thinks. Cooking blood, he thinks, congealed and blackening in someone’s hearth.
He smells strange herbs, too – something dark and dangerous and like a warning. Poison, he thinks. The wind brings it too him, like a screaming red flag snapping sharply across his nose. Somewhere, there, someone is making something deadly. He grips his Da’s hand.
“Da,” he says.
“Almost there,” says his Da. Which is not the answer he wanted, at all.
“John,” says his Mum, from the edge of the woods. Remus turns halfway round to look at her, held back by his Da’s hand, and all he can see is a pink smudge at the edge of his vision, crowned with a halo of dark hair, turned a bright and iron-rich red by the dying sun.
“We’ll regret it,” says his Da, and Remus knows now that this is not his conversation. It is conversation happening Over him. “If we turn around now.”
“I’m regretting it already,” says his Mum, and there is the sound of her lovely, sensible shoes on the sand, shuffling closer: the scent of her hair and skin slicing through the seasick, heat-bent air. Remus looks down at his shoes; pulls his tweed cap further down over his ears with his free hand.
“John,” his Mum says again.
“What if – ” his Da says, more gruffly, now. “ – you want him to spend the rest of his life not knowing if we did everything – ?”
“I don’t like this place,” says his Mum. It is a whisper, forced out between her teeth.
“It feels – ” she says, and Remus thinks, I know. He thinks, me too.
“It’s entirely Wizarding,” his Da begins. “Sometimes – even Muggles can – it’s normal to feel somewhat – ”
“I’ve been to Diagon bloody Alley,” his Mum says, the way she does when she is in no mood for arguing over whether Remus should get in the bath now or later, because it will be now. “Just because I’m considered ill-equipped where you come from, it doesn’t mean I’m an idiot. This is – it’s not like that.”
“Oh, for – ” his Da’s grip tightens around his fingers, and he winces. “For christ’s sake, it’s not what I meant – we’ve been over this, and we’ve come this far, now, we owe it to – ”
“You think you owe it to him,” says his Mum. “And you must know how no one else in the world thinks this is your fault.”
I hate this, thinks Remus, with conviction. When his Da opens his mouth again, Remus pulls his hand away, and takes five firm steps down the path, the sand kicking up around his ankles and the tall, scrubby grasses leaning in to tickle at the bare skin of his forearms.
“Remus – ” his Mum calls.
He turns, in the path, out of arm’s reach. “I’m going,” he says, and tugs at his cap again. “Please stop fighting?”
They both stare at him: his Da with his long limbs and his bright orange hair, and his skin all lit up by the sun, and his Mum with her arms still half-crossed over her pretty blue blouse, and her hair all knotted up and flying away around her face, and her dark, dark eyes, gone wide and almost sad. His stomach twists.
“Remus – ” says his Da.
“I’m hungry,” he says. “After this, can we get an ice cream?”
His Mum makes a noise in the back of her throat, half-lyrical. It makes Remus uncomfortable again; he stands his ground – the wind tugs at the back of his collar, flips the hair at the nape of his neck, cools the sweat building in the palm of his curled hands.
“Yes,” she says. “Fine. Fine, we can get – ”
They stand apart. He stares at the space between their shoes, and tries to count the inches there. The sun is bright and diving behind the trees, and blanketing the earth in gold and orange and heavy anticipation, like someone's breath held just behind their teeth. And at his back, he can hear the sea.
The Lethecary is a small building. It is a small building, thinks Remus, and I’d thought somehow it would be bigger, on the outside. It is made of stone on the sides, and moss and peat at the roof, and straw thatching in patches, like the side of a hill that has half-grown house inside of it. Like a half-thing, thinks Remus. Like a me-thing.
The windows are dark, but they are lit up with the edges of the day - with the brilliant, fading light of the sun. It looks all golden and burgundy on the inside, like a mouth, like the inside of an opened vein, the colour of the dark wine and brandies his Da will drink sometimes.
The door is closed. It is tightly shut, and his Da stands on the threshold with his hand raised where he has knocked, and Remus is beside him, pressed close against his side. And his Mum is behind them, her form gone all tight and strong, with her arms crossed over her body and her mouth gone small and pinched. He tugs his cap further down over his hair, and stares at his shoes.
The door opens. There is a man there. He looks strange - neither particularly old nor young, somewhere in between. A half-age, thinks Remus. His eyes are very light, very clear, as if there is nothing behind him. His hair is fair - almost transparent - it soaks up the sunlight instantly, so that all of his flesh and hair have gone bright red, for a moment. He is wearing a very plain set of robes. He is wearing, Remus notices, when he raises his hand to shake his Da’s, a lot of jewelry. A row of thick, gold-coloured rings along his thin fingers, set with clear stones; a strange glimmer of necklaces under the collar of his robes. The clink and shudder of bracelets under his cuffs. It looks, thinks Remus, sort of heavy.
“The Lupins,” says the man, who is the Lethecary. His voice is like his eyes: very thin. Half-noise, half-air.
“Hello,” says his Da. “This is - my son.”
The man looks down at him. Remus looks up. They look at each other. And the man does not smile.
“I require payment up front,” says the Lethecary, who is still looking at Remus. “As we discussed via post.”
“Ah,” says his Da. “I have it here, yes.”
“There are no refunds,” says the Lethecary. “As we also discussed.”
“We’re - ” says his Da. “We’re aware. Yes.”
“Lovely,” the Lethecary smiles, then. And his mouth appears to be all lips: pale and shiny. “Please come in.”
The inside of the building is as small as the outside. It looks to be, as far as Remus can tell, only two rooms. There is the one they walk into, which is golden-coloured by the light, and is very spare. There is a long wooden table in the centre of the room. There an enormous stone basin sitting atop it, at one end, covered in a thin black cloth. There are no chairs, except for a small stool in one corner. There is a fireplace, with a fire going. There is a spit above the fire, and a small pot with something boiling in it. The floor is made mostly of dirt and stone. The walls are bare. There is a closed door by the stool. Remus squints at it - he wonders what could be behind it, if there is nothing to live with in this room. Everything worth having, he thinks, must be behind that door.
His Mum is in the doorway, behind them. Her hand is on the wood, as if she has not decided which way to go.
“Please shut the door,” says the Lethecary, turning to her. “This is a long process, and it will have to be uninterrupted for its success.”
His Mum does not move. When he turns to look at her, her eyes are focused steadily on the table - on the large stone basin.
“If there are - ” says the Lethecary. “ — Concerns, they will have to be addressed before payment is made. Otherwise you will be out the money, and I will have been denied the possibility of saving your son’s life.”
His Mum’s eyes flash. “I want you,” she says, softly. “To tell me exactly what you are going to do. In your own words.”
“Please shut the door.”
His Mum makes a noise: impatient, no-nonsense.
“And I will do so.” The Lethecary extends a helpful, jeweled hand. “The door, please.”
His Mum steps inside, and shuts the door behind her. The room is plunged into pure light and shadow - the Lethecary seems to fade into invisibility, except for his rings, his jewels, his bracelets - they catch the light and signal his body, when he moves.
“Lovely,” says the Lethecary. He presses his hands together in front of his chest, and looks down at Remus again. “Werewolf. If I’m not mistaken?”
“Yes,” says his Da, roughly.
“Four years, now,” says his Da. Remus thinks, automatically, about that first day at the Ministry, when his shoes were dirty and his side hurt terribly.
“Ah,” says the Lethecary. “Not so long, then.”
“Does it make a difference?” His Mum, from behind. “What are you - ”
The Lethecary’s eyes narrow, to little clear slits of light, when he looks at her. “I believe it does. There are theories, of course, that it doesn’t - those few of us that still practice have our own methods, of course. There’s no cohesive sense - no research I could cite you, unfortunately, especially since the Ministry has seen fit to essentially make our work tantamount to illegality - with no other rationale than they seem to believe it a threat to their bureaucratic consolidation of power via the regulation of soul-based magic.”
“I don’t - ” his Mum shifts her weight. “John, do you understand this?”
His Da makes another gruff noise, and the Lethecary stretches his thin mouth into another smile.
“This is old magic,” he says, slowly. “Old. Magic. The Ministry finds much of it distasteful at best, and labels it terrorism at its worst. It is not unlike the Pensieve Regulations of 1894, as I’m sure you’re aware, Mr Lupin. The State finds fear in these forms of magic that are of the oldest sort, because they are most highly attuned to the consciousness of its subjects. The less access one’s subjects have to their own souls, the more easily they are assimilated into the dominant culture of magic and power. It is a simple philosophical and political truth.”
Remus squeezes his eyes shut; he feels dizzy. There is something he can smell in the air, making his ears buzz and his vision swim. When he opens his eyes again, his Mum is speaking, and he feels a warmth from the thing that is bubbling over the fire - a thin line of vaguely poisonous scent curling across the room to his nostrils.
“We will remove his soul,” the Lethecary is saying. “And attempt to separate that which is good from that which is bad. The curse from the child, as it were.”
“What — ” his Mum has moved beside him now, and both her hands are on his shoulders. “ — Will it hurt him?”
“I doubt it,” says the Lethecary. “I am of the mind that the proper sedation potion has no ill effects on the process itself, neither the removal, nor the successful reinsertion once the separation has occurred.”
“Is that - ” his Da points, vaguely, in the direction of the stone basin.
“It may look like a Pensieve,” says the Lethecary, sounding almost jovial. “But it is not. It is not meant for memories, Mr Lupin, but for something far more powerful and precious. It is a container for the self, for the consciousness, for the very soul of a human being. It is crafted out of much of the same organic material as those guardians of Azkaban, the Dementors. But it is a safe extraction site, I assure you, where the separation can ostensibly occur.”
“How does it - ” his Mum’s fingers tighten on his shoulders, biting into the skin.
“It will look for him,” says the Lethecary. “Once it is uncovered. It will look for any soul, in reality, so positioning and sedation is key, as well as my direction of the process. The extraction must not be resisted, or the entire thing could go horribly awry.”
The room falls silent. Remus feels as if he is breathing very loudly; that everything is echoing between his ears. He looks at the basin; sees the edge of the cloth flutter, and his vertigo ratchets sharply upwards.
“Are we ready, then?”
Remus blinks. The Lethecary is standing in front of him, hands half-raised to Remus’s face. Remus sees the flickering light of the fireplace spark off the rings on the Lethecary’s thin, white fingers.
“Child,” says the Lethecary, and takes Remus’s face in both of his hands. His skin feels like pure heat: like warm air, like steam. The Lethecary’s rings are hard, and cold: he feels them like bright little points of pain, digging into his cheeks.
Remus nods. The cool metal slides up and down his skin. Behind him, his Mum releases his shoulders.
The Lethecary removes his hands, slowly. His fingers linger on the line of Remus’s jaw, thumbs sliding under the fleshy dip of Remus’s lower lip. Remus feels a sharp shudder creep up his spine; his bones are still creaking noisily inside his body - something about them is fighting this place.
“I think,” says the Lethecary, with that shiny, pulled-thin smile. “That this is going to be a wonderful success.” He moves to the fireplace, removing a small goblet from the mantle and dipping it into the bubbling pot.
“A simple sedation - ” says the Lethecary, extending the cup. “Brewed to keep him alive, but not exactly awake, certainly not remembering, not consciously functioning, as it were. Mothwings — the key addition.”
Remus feels his throat closing up. The Lethecary is standing there - with the potion held out to him, directly at him - and he cannot seem to move. His heart is thudding in his chest; his ribs are aching, something in his body seems to be tasting the scent of the air and rebelling.
“Remus — ” his Da is bending down, touching his forehead with his big, rough fingers. “If you don’t want to do this, you — ”
“It’s okay,” he whispers. He can’t stop looking at the goblet, at the way the sun is bouncing off the edges of the rim. The way the steam is turning golden and solid-looking in the light. “If you think it’s okay, I’ll. It’ll be okay.”
“That’s the spirit,” says the Lethecary. All sibilant, like the hiss of the wind under a closed door.
He takes the cup; he holds it in both hands. It is warm all the way around; it feels vaguely alive. He bends his head to it, and smells the steam. It almost knocks him back on his feet - the force of it - the full-on poisonous scream now ricocheting around in his skull, the thudding of his heart against his ribs rises to a terrifying pounding beat.
I want to be - he thinks, wildly, his eyes squeezed shut against the now-blinding light of the world. I just want to be good.
When he drinks it, it tastes like dust and fire.
Mum, he whispers. Da?
Something jerks. Under his body. He reaches out a hand, blindly — feels cool, smoothness — glass? Glass.
Mum. Where is his voice? Where is —
“John — John. He’s awake.”
He opens his eyes. Something jerks again, and he sees the slow blur of green and dark-blue-black fading into sight. The pale blurry press of his own fingers. He flexes them. His body feels thick and slow. He presses his hand down to his side, to right himself - had he been lying down? It is the back-seat of the Citroen. The thin navy-blue upholstery. The half-fuzzy linting fabric.
He squints, he blinks, he rubs his eyes with a numb fist. His Mum is twisted in the seat, watching him with her forehead creased and her eyes bright, and wet - little points of shining light in the darkness.
Night, he thinks. It’s night. Time — has passed?
“What - ” he whispers. Finds his voice - his mouth is so dry. “What happened?”
“John,” says his Mum - her voice pitched.
Something very concrete seems to settled in his ribs, all at once. He looks down at his hands; turns them palms-up, in his lap.
“It didn’t work?” he asks, very slowly. Because he knows his body is exactly the same. He is still this thing that he is, which is nothing whole.
“It didn’t - ” his Mum reaches out a hand, and grasps his fingers with her warm, small palm. “Remus. We didn’t do it. We couldn’t do it.”
His Da does not speak, the whole drive home.
Why not? he will ask his Da, much later - when he is maybe ten or eleven. It is the last time they will ever speak of it. What if it had worked? Why didn’t you go through with it?
Because we love you, his Da will say. All of you.
Chapter 2: The Shore
II. The Shore
It is early in the evening when the owl finds him. He is in the attic. His is elbow-deep in a pile of photographs and his dead mother’s scarves, because he wanted especially to save packing up the scarves for last, because he couldn’t quite bring himself to take them down from where they hung in the closet, in the room with the faded rose-coloured wallpaper, the fold them up into his hands and carry them up the stairs to the attic, where the rafters were covered in fine dust and the light sifted in sometimes through the shingles and the cobwebs, and everything smelled a little like old leather.
There is a whole pumpkin downstairs on the stoop, because he hadn’t had the time to carve it (even though there was a bowl, and a knife, and his wand, if he’d really wanted to). There is the tin basin still half-full of candy from the town’s greengrocer: not many children ever came out their way any longer, and most of them were Wizarding, so the cheap Muggle thrill of costumes and candy collection never ran well with the traditional parents’ broods. It’s what his Da had said, anyway.
His mother has been dead nine days, now. She died, in the morning, around 10 o’clock, on October 23rd, 1981, while he was downstairs warming the kettle for tea. Most of the village came to the funeral. She was buried in the graveyard of St. Agatha’s, in the family plot (beside his father, who had said once he’d rather be buried there too, rather than in some smelly London ditch, he said, and the trees were so nice, at St. Agatha’s, and your mother’s family always threw the best Muggle parties I’ve ever been to, at any rate). So they were buried there together now, and now his parents’ house was full of flowers, and food he’d never be able to eat on his own. The icebox had six puddings, and there was an enormous boiled ham from Mrs. Downsthwait, who had walked three miles to deliver it herself.
They were lovely, she’d said, at the door, while Remus stood there with an enormous boiled ham in his arms, wrapped in white paper. Your parents, she’d said, they were so lovely.
Thank you, he’d said.
I hope you’ll stay a bit, she’d said. You look so much like your mother. And I heard Mr. Stone was looking for some help, in his shop.
Thank you, he’d said, again. Yes. And, for the ham.
The funeral was lovely, she’d said, before she went. They would have thought so.
The funeral had been lovely, he supposes, with a blue-and-white-striped scarf balled up in his palm. It had been calm and warm, and shady in the graveyard, and everyone had been there, from the town. And he had been hugged by many old ladies that he used to know, when he was young and growing up, and he had been given many handshakes by many elderly men who knew him when he was this tall. And at the end of it all, when they had all gone back to the cottage to put out the puddings and the wine on his family’s dining room table, he lingered at the edge of the grass, and wondered how this would be any different if he could turn slightly to the left and see James’ face, with a grave, Very Grown-Up sort of smile, or if he could feel Sirius’s heavy palm on his shoulder, or feel Peter at his side. He wondered if it would feel any different, this thing about your parents dying, if he could Apparate to London, right now, into the flat he and Sirius used to share before things went sideways, before Dumbledore said, quite calmly: I think, perhaps, it would be in everyone’s best interests, before James and Lily and Harry went into hiding – he wondered then what that would feel like.
It has mostly just been very quiet. It had been quiet in his parents’ cottage for a few months now – with his Da dead and his Mum sick – but it was such a different breed of quiet. He had been restless. He had wanted things he couldn’t have. He had it wanted it back, that vaguely terrifying scrape-by life he’d had back in London: the shared flat, with the singing kettle and the two umbrellas hanging on the hook by the door, and the mattress without a bedframe, the few jobs he’d held, the silent rows he’d had with James about money (where a few dozen galleons would turn up in his sock-drawer, and he’d send it back via owl, and then Sirius would just kick him in the shins and pay rent for the both of them).
He hadn’t wanted this life that had seemed to be unfolding so rapidly over everything. He hadn’t wanted the owls returning with no responses. He hadn’t wanted to sit at the edge of his Mum’s bed and lie through his teeth to her about what Sirius Black was up to these days. He hadn’t wanted to have to guess what Harry was doing now – whether he was speaking or cooing or crawling or standing or whose hair he was pulling now. He hadn’t wanted to miss things the way he did. He hadn’t wanted to have had things, and then have them taken away.
It made him nervous, edgy – for three weeks, in the beginning, when his Mum could still get up and walk around now and then, he kept dropping cutlery – like his fingers weren’t working very well. He kept forgetting to switch off the lamps. He would take walks around the edge of the lake, half a mile from St. Agatha’s, where there were downy geese on the water and fat, mottled toads in the dewy grass, and long streaks of orange-coloured sky at sunset that lit up the leaves of Mr. Emmison’s crabapple trees, turning them lacy and pink. He would stand at the edge of the water and feel a tugging, somewhere from deep inside his belly – it led to somewhere out there, out there, in the woods. He could smell the loam of the earth and the hot dying sun. Part of him – seeded, struggling, maligned and furious – wanted to run. But he would stand there, at the edge of the water, and not have the strength to move unless it was back towards the cottage, with the blue tablecloth and the faded sunshine-yellow walls of the kitchen, and his father’s office, empty except for books and ink, and his dying mother.
He had waffled about for a few days, after her death. He was taking his time, he said to himself, in packing up her things. He supposed he would have the sell the cottage, at some point. For all he had remembered telling Mrs. Downsthwait, he couldn’t stay. If he stayed, he’d get comfortable. If he stayed, he thought, the quiet would blur into his skin. It would seep into his bones and his blood and make him curl up into his dead parents’ sheets every night, thoughts clinging fondly to the faded wallpaper and the yellow soapdish in the loo. He would grow old here, alone and quiet. He would chain himself up, once a month, in the cellar where he changed as a child, and then wash himself in the tub the next morning, and think of his father’s broad hands, and how much bigger they seemed when he was younger. He would grow into a fat old monster, engorged on fond memories, and he would eventually forget about pain. He would, he knew, eventually die here. Probably at night, in the cellar, having taken too much out of himself to care.
I will go back to London, he thinks, with his hands full of the scarves, silk cool around his fingers. Once I’ve put away the photographs, he thinks. Once I’ve folded all these things and given them to charity, he thinks. Once I’ve sold the house. Once the war he over, he thinks, I will go back to London.
And then the owl finds him. It is early in the evening, and he is thinking about London, and he is kneeling over the trunk, with a pile of photographs at his ankles and the owl flies in up the staircase and perches on a rafter, looking exhausted and terribly peevish. It looks very familiar. It looks like –
“Oh - ” Remus starts. His own voice sounds odd: dust-ridden. His throat is suddenly very tight.
The owl pecks at cobweb, disinterestedly. There is a curl of parchment in its talons.
“Hullo,” says Remus. “May I – just – ”
It is a very small piece of parchment. It looks as though it has been torn from the back leaves of a book, or a spare bit left over from another piece of post. It is only about the size of his palm. It is a little brittle, a little crinkled, and hurriedly folded. The owl pecks at his fingertip.
Remus, something’s gone wrong, says the note, in a familiar, overinked hand. Where’s Sirius? Have you seen him?
It is signed at the bottom: Peter.
He Apparates into the middle of Diagon Alley two hours later, with his father’s briefcase stuffed with his toothbrush and one change of clothing. He made sure the cottage was locked, before he left; that the puddings were in the icebox and that none of the food would spoil. He put the lids back on all the boxes in the attic. He put the fat, lumpy pumpkin indoors, on the kitchen table, so that the birds wouldn’t peck at it. He had had a feeling – these were important things to do.
The burst of noise is terrifying: he has Apparated into a sea of swirling people with their features twisted and ecstatic – overhead, the spitting flash of an explosion – a firecracker? A warning? – a glittering-blue shower of sparks from a wand held high, someone jostles him and shouts something unintelligible in his ear, high-pitched and disorienting. He can barely see his own feet, for all the bodies, the tangle of robes and hair and heights. He stumbles back with the force of it, puts out a hand behind him and touches a wall to orient himself.
What, he thinks, what is -
Someone’s hand falls heavily on his shoulder, gripping – he instinctively goes for his wand, tucked into the waistband of his trousers, twisting under the fingers that are holding him up. He finds himself face-to-chest with a woolly waistcoat and the smell of burnt hair, his nose is almost buried into the wiry beard of Rubeus Hagrid.
“Oi, all righ’, there – ”
“Rubeus – ” he manages, vertigo tugging at his limbs. “What’s – ”
Hagrid pulls back, a meaty palm on either side of Remus’s shoulders. It feels oddly steadying, to be looked at so closely for the first time in months. Behind them, another sharp bark of noise – there is a flash of red and marigold light over Hagrid’s sweaty cheeks, his fat nose. His eyes flicker once, up to the roofline of Diagon, and back to Remus’s face.
“Yeh – ” he starts, hairy brows furrowing. Then, a blink of recognition, sudden and strange. “Lupin.”
“What’s – I’ve come,” Remus tries. His palm is sweating where his hand grips the handle of the briefcase. “I got an owl.”
“From Dumbledore?” Hagrid’s face seems to crumple, his bottom lip sucked underneath the top row of his teeth. “He didn’t say nothing ‘bout – ” another whip-crack, a green flash. They both flinch, too instinctively. The roar of the crowd behind them. Hagrid’s hands grip tighter; Remus feels the creak of his bones all the way up into his skull.
“Well,” says Hagrid. “Well, yeh’d best. Yeah, come on.”
Who, he thinks. What is this, he thinks, as he finds himself pulled along by the elbow, through a crowded back lane swarming with a mob of children – children, he thinks, why are they out it’s too dangerous here, with everything, everyone – and tall, pointed hats bobbing out from the shadows. The dizzying noise of the crowd fades to a hum when Hagrid pulls him down the dark, dank space between two buildings: mossy cobbles under their feet, dusting, cobwebby walls pressing on them, too narrow to be an actual lane. Hagrid is forced to turn sideways, his great arms raised slightly above his shoulders.
They stop in front of a small door – green flaking paint, a brassy number 8 swinging on a loose nail. Hagrid is breathing rather heavily, rummaging in his waistcoat pocket while a flash of begonia-blue sparks from over the rooftops paints his temples. Remus leans against the wall behind him, briefcase handle slipping in his damp palm. Peter’s note is in his pocket. He watches Hagrid pull a small pink parasol from somewhere in his waistcoat and tap the door, and he clenches his teeth against the urge to tell the truth. He knows, he thinks, what kind of shibboleth Dumbledore’s name still is. Especially to those who’d rather not know the inner workings of the frayings of the Order of the Fucking Phoenix, he thinks. He bites at his own tongue.
“Rubeus – ” he starts.
“Ah - ” Hagrid mutters something, triumphantly, and the door swings open with a coughing-sound; below the threshold is a dark flight of sod-and-stone steps.
“Where – ” he says, hesitating.
“Not supposed to see ‘im, yet,” says Hagrid, ducking his shaggy head below the low ceiling of the stairway. And Remus, with a backward glance down the darkened alley, follows. Inside, it smells of peat, and dust, and motor oil. The crowd outside is a distant, thrumming pulse at Remus’s back, even from the door which creaks closed behind them.
“See who?” asks Remus, almost a whisper.
“Dumbledore,” says Hagrid, as if it were obvious. As if everything were obvious. “He told me, yeh know, he says, ‘take Harry to his aunt’s an’ uncles, Hagrid’. But I’m supposed t’wait, ‘till things are a bit quieter. Poor lad’s all a bit confused, all upset, yeh’d understand – I thought I’d bring him here: it’s safer, no one knows ‘bout my storage cellar at all, ‘cept Dumbledore, of course.”
“What,” says Remus, half-stumbling down the last step. Beyond Hagrid’s bulk there is a large room – windowless, lit with three candles and a hovering, humming bluebell-coloured orb tied to a birdcage – stuffed to the ceiling with bags and boxes, orphaned cupboard doors, the shattered shell-bits of a dragon’s egg, several silk umbrellas, a cage with a sleeping ferret. There is a canvas tent bursting with bent wire and bits of Quidditch brooms, and a barrel full of what looks like the shed translucent skins of several particularly short, fat snakes. Between the wall and a pile of cabbage heads, there is a motorbike. It has a sidecar. It is shiny and black, and terrifyingly familiar.
“What,” he says. “That. That’s Sirius’s – ”
“Gave it t’me,” says Hagrid, going towards it. He bends down, lifts a bundle of white sheets from the sidecar bench. “Said he wouldn’t be needin’ it. Thought I’d keep it here for ‘im, least for tonigh’.”
“Rubeus,” he says, hoarse and hollowed-out. The bluebell light flickers. “What’s going on – has there been – is Diagon under attack? Is it – ”
Hagrid turns, the bundle is clutched tight to his chest. His huge face is sudden very white, stark against the dim light of the cellar.
“Under attack? No, they’re. They’re celebratin’. D’yeh mean – you don’t know?”
“Why don’t you tell me,” says Remus, through gritted teeth.
“There’s no – ” Hagrid stop-starts, hesitates. The bundle in his arms stirs, squirms. “Lupin. He’s dead.”
His stomach plummets. His ears are ringing.
“You-Know-Who is dead,” says Hagrid, and extends the bundle – slowly, carefully – toward Remus. “Harry’s killed ‘im.”
He reaches out, touches the edge of the folded sheets with numb fingertips. He pulls the corner back, it hangs limply over Hagrid’s wrist. And just beneath his hovering hand, Harry Potter’s infant face – slightly smudged with dirt, a large bandage on his tiny forehead – blinks sleepily up at him.
The motorbike lands on the frosted grounds of Hogwarts when the moon has just started to set. It is waxing. It is almost at first quarter. It is greedy-looking, large: icy and fattening, curling up around the stars and the slipping wisps of grey-blue clouds. Remus guesses the time at eleven, perhaps half-past.
He has been holding Harry for the whole journey. It was very odd to hear the noise of the motorbike, to feel the vibrations, and know the smell, and then to look over and see something else entirely. So he focused on the small, sleeping child curled up against his chest. Harry was fussy, for the first fifteen minutes, while London was growing very small behind them, and the air was spiked and chilly. He’d squirmed a little, and batted at Remus’s chin with his fist, and made a few noises like he’d wanted to cry or speak, but hadn’t. Only once, he’d called for Lily, in a way that he could have simply been making a sound, except for the way he’d said it. Half-asleep, and Remus pressed his palm gently against Harry’s bandaged forehead, and blinked back the stinging chill of the night sky from his eyes, and focused very hard on calming Harry down.
It seemed to work; Harry slept, soon after. Wrapped in the same white sheet, with the stark white bandage on his tiny head, and his soft dark hair dried, and cleaned of the remaining ash.
They were dead, Hagrid had said.
Who, he’d said. Not. James? And –
The Potters, said Hagrid, very gruffly, as they’d climbed onto the motorbike.
He thinks now they will have to pry Harry from his arms. There is nothing more important than this.
Hogwarts swallows him up. It is full of that quiet, emptying buttery light of deep night - when everyone is sleeping except the candlesticks and the dying hearths. On the inside, he feels suddenly very small again: like a useless little lumpy bit of sinew and blood and unusable, prepubescent magic inside the yawing expanse of time and stone that knit together the walls and the stairs and the tapestries and even the shadows in the corners. He holds Harry tighter, as Hagrid leads them down a corridor and the torches on the walls flicker at the moment of their passing. It was how he felt at eleven, the first time he set foot in the doors - awed and overpowered and so happy to be so terrified of everything, suddenly, because everything was so mysterious with its own potential - before he was tripped by a boy with coal-black hair and very expensive-looking shoes.
Oi, the boy had said. Watch where you're going.
You tripped me, Remus said, to the boy's shoes.
I know, the boy had said. And I said, watch where you're going, didn't I.
Right, Remus had said, and realized that punching a stranger in the mouth would probably be the exact opposite of Keeping a Low Profile, which had been what he had promised his Da, and his Mum, and the Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. He'd felt only a mild sense of retribution when only a few hours later, the boy was sorted into Gryffindor, and looked utterly miserable about it.
Hagrid mutters the password at the old stone gargoyle, at the bottom of the stairs. When the staircase opens up to them, the scrape of stone and mortar makes Harry stir, shifting against Remus's shoulder, a sweaty fist pushed just under Remus's adam's apple, against the stubble on his throat. Remus's arms are a little numb: it has been months since he last saw Harry, maybe much more since he last held him. I've forgotten, he thinks, how heavy other people's bodies can be, however small. But Harry sleeps as they climb the stairs; he continues to rest his fat cheek on Remus's collarbone, and breathe very deeply against Remus's heart.
He feels daunted, at the door. Hagrid reaches over his shoulder to knock, twice – and very loudly – and there is no response. He shifts Harry in his arms, and puts an open palm to the dark wood, and pushes, very slightly. The door swings open, soundless, skimming the carpet and the stone: cutting a smooth arc through the air.
The office is mostly dark, lit only at the very back by a row of haphazard candles, and a lantern on the large desk. Remus stills in the doorway – his eyes adjust slowly, to the darker haze – and there is the Headmaster, half-turned to the door, with his head bare and his spectacles very low on the bridge of his nose, and an unreadable sternness on his face.
“Oh, dear,” says Dumbledore, very quietly.
“Beggin’ pardon, professor,” Hagrid rasps, from over Remus’s shoulder. Remus feels him push forward, and Remus stumbles into the room, Harry still tight against his chest. “Lupin, here, he found me in Diagon Alley, and I though’ – he said you’d owled ‘im.”
“I did no such thing,” says Dumbledore, still staring directly at Remus, who feels a spine-jarring shiver run up the length of his body.
“Bu’ - ” Hagrid makes a rough noise, turning.
“Peter,” rasps Remus, finally. “Peter owled me. He said – he said something was wrong. And Rubeus said – James. And Lily?” His voice skitters, over the sound of their names. Somewhat distantly, he feels Harry’s tiny fist gripping at the front of his shirt.
Dumbledore straightens, his shoulders very square, and his beard very long and very white. Behind him, a thick mass of red and gold-maroon feathers shifts, and makes a downy-rustling sound: Fawkes opens one bright, coalstone eye.
“Sit down, Mr Lupin,” says Dumbledore.
“No,” he manages; it sounds sharper than he feels. “No – I won’t. Is it – how on earth is it possible?”
“In the simplest of ways,” says Dumbledore, and his gaze finally drops: down, to the soft tuft of Harry’s dark head.
“What does that - ” Remus shakes his head, feels something rattle against his temple. “What does that mean.”
“It means we have been betrayed,” says Dumbledore.
The room is silent. There is a long expanse of night sky in the open window behind Dumbledore’s broad shoulders; purplish-black sky that seems too deep, too open, too far-away and too soft, and too-bright stars pricking at Remus’s eyes. There are sheer curtains hanging limp at the edge of the window. The thick night has swallowed the breeze; it is cool, and still, and utterly quiet. Remus feels, for a moment, as if he is forbidden to breathe.
“There was a spy.”
“There was a spy,” says Dumbledore.
“Who – ” It is Hagrid who speaks – his large face contorted, his hands knotted together in front of his chest, tugging at the buttons of his tweedy waistcoat, the furry collar of his coat.
“Pardon me?” says Dumbledore. “Hagrid – I am not at liberty to make conjecture to anyone, not at the moment.”
“They were under protection,” Remus whispers. “They went into hiding. There’s only one person it could be.”
Dumbledore looks to him again – it is sharp and sad; the tiniest flick of his eyebrows are the only sign of it. “Your logic, Mr Lupin,” he says. “Is unfortunately sound.”
“Who,” he echoes. “Who was their Keeper?”
A beat. Fawkes shifts in his cage.
“It was Sirius Black,” says Dumbledore.
“No,” he says, firmly: immediately. No.
Dumbledore is silent. He looks weary – and it makes Remus irrationally angry – hot under the skin, as if something scalding were poured down his throat and was coiling in his belly, radiating out through sluggish veins and half-severed nerves. How dare he, he thinks, Spare me your bloody worldliness, he thinks, savagely, and he shakes his head.
“You’re wrong,” he says.
“I am not,” says Dumbledore, in a voice edged with limited patience.
“He – ” says Remus. “He would never.”
“You are in no position, I think, to make any judgments on what Sirius Black has done in the past six months, Mr Lupin. We are both aware enough of that.”
It is cruel, however true.
“Fuck you, sir,” he snaps, hoarsely.
Hagrid gulps, and makes a move as if to cover Harry’s ears.
“If we are going to resort to crudeness, Remus, please drop the pleasantries,” murmurs Dumbledore. “It hardly suits you.”
He swallows down a hot surge of bile. Something is buzzing in his ears again. “Imperius - ” he manages.
“Possible,” says Dumbledore. “Though we have not the time for those complex speculations, I’m afraid.”
He feels his lip curl, involuntarily, chill air searing the point of his eyetooth. His mouth is very dry. “Time,” he parrots. “ – what d’you mean – time. They’re. They’re already dead.”
“The last time anyone saw Sirius Black,” says Dumbledore, briskly, folding up his hands into the sleeves of his robes, and crossing to his desk – finally, finally, turning his back on Remus. “He was at the ruins in Godric’s Hollow, handing over his motorbike to Hagrid, and requesting that he take Harry with him. Hagrid prudently – for the time being, at least – followed my instructions that, were anything to happen to Harry, he was to be delivered under my supervision to his aunt and uncle in Little Whingeing. Considering we still have very little in the realm of concrete information, I think it prudent to continue on the assumption that Harry is very much still in danger, and that before we act on pursuing Sirius Black, Harry should be placed safely with his aunt and uncle.”
“What aunt and – ” Remus feels a distinct tightening in his chest, the fleeting sensory experiences – hazy with wedding wine and Sirius Black’s fingertips against his forearm – the smell of a thick, flaking cigar, too much perfume, a sharp jawbone and thick, black, pudgy-looking eyes.
“No,” he says. “Not them.”
“There is no alternative, I’m afraid.” Dumbledore turns again, watching him over the rims of his spectacles.
“No alternative?” He knows he is squeezing Harry too tightly. “What about you – here? Or, Hagrid – or – ” A choking pause. He won’t say it. He can’t seem to get it past his thickening tongue, the cracking of his lips.
“You?” Dumbledore murmurs.
“Yes,” he rasps. “Yes. I could – ”
“You could not,” says Dumbledore.
“They can’t even do magic – ” he clears his throat; tries again. “How on earth could they keep him safe against – ”
“Prejudice?” Dumbledore eyes look highly unamused, whatever his tone might suggest. “From you, of all people.”
“It’s not prejudice, it’s reality,” he insists. “What good will they be against an – an army of murderous wizards?”
“Indeed,” says Dumbledore. “What good were we all.”
It has been hitting him very slowly, since the moment that Hagrid lifted the edge of the sheet and showed him Harry Potter's resting face. It has been coming in a long, slow thread – the realization of things, How Things Are Now – a little coil of nausea, worming its way up from his groin, into his throat. It is starting to solidify. He is tasting bile, now. His eyes feel worn, scratched at. His throat is stuck up with something thick and heavy. His limbs feel numb.
What good were we all, he thinks, and blankly considers where the best place to vomit might be, were it to happen sooner than he expected.
“Mr Lupin,” says Dumbledore.
He realizes he has been staring. He blinks, once, and drops his eyes. He sees, immediately, the dark hair of Harry’s small head.
“Please,” he says.
“No,” says Dumbledore. “I’m afraid not.”
“After everything,” he says, feeling the tug of bile again. “After all that’s happened, now – with Harry, and. You knew they suspected me.”
“Yes,” says Dumbledore.
“Did you?” Remus says. “Did you think it was – you must have thought it was me.”
Dumbledore folds his fingers together, across his chest. “I think that is an unfair assumption, Mr Lupin.”
“How is it unfair?” Remus begins to feel a tightening in his chest; a hot irrationality hammocking heavily under his ribs. “It’s. It’s not.”
“Because I’ve never said as much. I think – ”
“No, you – you let them think it was me,” he snaps. “After all your posturing about my relative equality, after all your help and what you did for – and – you let them chase me out of London, out of my life, however poor it was. Who cares what you think.”
The candles flicker. The air in the room has gone very cool – the hairs on his arms prickle and a shiver runs up his spine. He is very still. He thinks if he stays very still, perhaps Dumbledore will not have heard him. Harry fusses softly in his arms, and Dumbledore is watching him with steady, unblinking eyes.
“I do not owe you Harry’s safety as an apology,” says Dumbledore, finally. “I will not endanger him as a gesture of goodwill towards your person.”
“Pardon me,” Remus hisses. “Goodwill? I don’t need your goodwill, sir. You’ve been reaping my goodwill for more than a decade. That I owe you everything, this isn’t in – that’s not something I’m going to bloody dispute with you. We’re – we’re all aware of how you opened up a world of opportunities to a poor, futureless werewolf child, and let a monster cavort around the grounds of the school in the interests of equal education. We’re all aware, sir, of how you let him stay, even after he almost killed another student. If I had any more of your goodwill, I’d be very under serious misconceptions of my own ability.”
“Your ‘abilities’ are not at stake here,” Dumbledore murmurs, quite softly. “In fact, you should take comfort in the fact that I do not question them, as most everyone else in the Wizarding World would.”
Remus snorts hoarsely against Harry’s hair; it ruffles against his chin. “But it concerns you.”
“Of course it concerns me,” says Dumbledore, brow sharply furrowing. “Harry will not be safe with you.”
“Why? If not because of what I am, then why.”
“I assure you, I would be resistant to release Harry to anyone who was not his direct blood relative, be they werewolf or pureblood au pair.”
“I don’t understand,” Remus exhales, trying to release some of the tension in his clenched teeth. “Have – have you met these people? His aunt and uncle?”
“Indeed,” says Dumbledore. “I’m aware of their relative – inhumanity.”
“Then – I. I don’t. Sir, I just want – I just want Harry’s. He’s James’s child, and I owe more to himthan anyone, yourself included, sir.”
“Believe me, Mr Lupin,” says Dumbledore. “I am far too old to be dealing in new debts. You are free, however, to feel as though you have evened your score with the recently dead, at no concern of mine.”
“But. I love him, I love – I love Harry – ” he feels drawn very thin, his muscles weakening, exhaustion seeping indelicately into his bones. “Why would you take him from that? Into – into that.”
Dumbledore goes very still; the air in the office seems to follow suit. Remus breathes, three times – inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale – and Dumbledore has not moved, the air has not moved, Fawkes has not moved, the curtain in the window has not fluttered, the candles ringing them with dull and yellow light have barely flickered. And Dumbledore is looking at him – at him holding the sleeping body of Harry Potter, having told this space that this child in his arms is all he has left in the world that he loves. That this child will receive all the love he has inside him, because there is nothing else. It feels – in the moments that Dumbledore is silent, and watching him – that it has been minutes, but he knows it must be shorter.
“I – ” he says, the silence tugging at his tongue, to dispel the growing heat in his cheeks.
Behind him, the door swings open – he feels the rush of air at his back; hears the rustle of Hagrid’s heavy wools and tweed as he turns behind him. He smells something familiar – dark black tea leaves, a faint oxidization, the oiliness of India ink – he turns his head, catches the sweep of McGonagall’s dark robes in the corner of his eyes.
She looks harried – and far less surprised to see him present in Dumbledore’s quarters than Dumbledore himself was. The sleeves of her robes are rolled up to her elbows, revealing a long line of pearl buttons at her wrists, and her hat is slightly askew, a wisp of grey hair pulled free from her bun, tangled in the arm of her spectacles.
“You said midnight, Albus,” she snaps, with a perfunctory glance at Remus, before her eyes seem to settle on Harry’s bundled, resting form, and she pauses, mid-stride.
“Is that – ” she starts.
“I’ve had an unexpected guest,” says Dumbledore, calmly.
“Lupin,” she says – her face looks on the verge of crumpling entirely: something Remus has seen only once, and it is as unpleasant and unsettling now as it was at sixteen.
“Hullo,” he manages. “Professor.”
“Remus has just been describing to me his overwhelming qualifications for stewardship of young Harry,” says Dumbledore, looking directly past McGonagall’s left shoulder, into Remus’s eyes again.
“That’s not what I,” says Remus. “I didn’t mean.”
“Oh, yes. I’m quite sure,” says Dumbledore, and smiles. It does not feel particularly reassuring; it has an edge, like the slit of the moon waxing, discomfort all around.
“I’m sorry,” he says, feeling a coldness creeping into his skin, a heaviness encircling his bones.
“This is a trying time for all of us,” says Dumbledore. His smile is gone – the candlelight throws deep grooves of shadow across his face. “Perhaps we would be best served in withholding judgment against everyone, myself including, until we are able to know for certain whether Sirius Black is responsible for the murder of Harry’s parents.”
Behind him, McGonagall makes a tight noise somewhere in the back of her throat. Remus thinks he must have heard a version of that sound – disappointment, disbelief, disgust – at some point over the seven years worth of various experiences in her office, perfecting faux innocence and pleading the case of James Potter. Of pleading the case for Sirius Black. He feels ill.
“Mr Lupin?” Dumbledore’s voice is a little distant. The light is blurring.
“I’m going to sit down,” he says, and does: at the edge of one of the armchairs. Harry presses a sweaty infant fist against his collarbone.
“A wise choice,” says Dumbledore, who is suddenly crouching in front of his knees, who is raising a wrinkled, long-fingered hand to rest against the dark hair of Harry’s head. Remus fixes his eyes at a distant point just beyond Dumbledore’s temple.
“Albus,” says McGonagall.
There is a long pause. He closes his eyes. He feels Harry breathing, heavy and gentle, against his own chest. It puts strength in his own lungs.
“Yes,” says Dumbledore. There is the sound of rustling robes as he stands, a vague wisp of air – smelling of sandalwood and old wool. “Yes, a wise choice, for now, I think. Mr Lupin, for the moment, I think you and Harry had best stay here – we will make space for you away from the students – until we know more.”
He breathes: once, twice. He thinks, thank you. He thinks, thank god, thank you.. But he does not say it.
Harry cries through the last hours of that first night. Remus has transfigured one of the small, rickety bookshelves into a crib, which rocks from a fulcrum of Rudyard Kipling (the rest of the books remain stacked haphazardly on the floor). And, for the first few hours, Remus sits on the floor amongst the pile, and rocks the crib with one hand, with his eyelids drooping, and listens to Harry crying. It’s absolutely mad, he thinks, and almost admirable, that this tiny incapable body can produce the loudest, most perfect, completely interrupted noises of grief for hours and hours and hours and hours.
The rocking, he thinks, doesn’t help. When he finally gets to his stiff and aching feet, and picks Harry up with his stiff and aching arms, it doesn’t help. Harry just buries his small, snotty nose into the front of Remus’s jumper and makes little fists against his chest and cries: loud, perfect, completely interrupted. When he fixes a warm bottle with one arm and the help of a little magic and the slightly dated, mostly sexist Dr. Margaret Tubpipe’s Essential Guide For The Young Wizarding Mum, it doesn’t help. Harry just drools warm milk over the snot-spots already dotted over Remus’s jumper, and only opens his mouth to cry some more.
Don’t you know me? Remus wants to say, at one point past three in the morning, when he has bounced Harry in his arms for more than three quarters of an hour. Don’t you understand we’re all we’ve got, why are you doing this why are you punishing me, I had nothing to do with this, I know how you feel.
But he can’t speak. Harry is taking up all the space in the world, it seems. It seems like Harry’s is the only voice, the only thing that could ever make a sound worth making, and his own voice won’t dare impose, it couldn’t. So he can’t, and he won’t. He only can rock, and stand, and try to soothe with a hand on the back, on the head, under the small legs, he can only – when the dawn finally comes – sit on his small bed with his back against the wall, and hold Harry curled against his chest, while the crying gets hoarser, but stays just as strong.
And he reaches, blindly, bleary-eyed, for the book on the top of the nearest floor-stack, cracks it open on his bent knees, behind Harry’s shaking, curved back, and squints at the spindly, blurring type swimming over the pages.
i, he whispers, because he cannot have a voice above Harry’s, but this might, for now, he thinks. i carry your heart with me. (i carry it in my heart.)
And in the first eerie blue light of the very early hours, they sleep together, finally. Finally, they sleep together and are quiet against each other’s chests, with someone else’s words of love so slow-slowly building up the walls around them.
He does not dream. He has memories, instead: and worse than nightmares. He is sitting in the chair with Harry sleeping against his chest. And his eyes are closed. And the world that is past grows around him, slowly, like a growing blanket of mist, until finally it is so real around him he can almost feel the heat of Sirius’s bare arm, when they sat together on the tiny juliette balcony with the iron railings, which you could only get to by climbing out the window of the kitchenette, while trying not to snag your shirtsleeve on the loose nail, just there.
He can almost smell the cigarette Sirius was smoking. He can just taste the thin coat of gin on the back of his tongue, his throat. He can see, behind his closed eyelids, the way Sirius’s hair – grown far too long that summer – grazed the razorsharp edge of his clavicle, vaguely damp with sweat.
It’s a nice place, Remus had said. He’d mostly meant it. He almost mouths the words into Harry’s hair.
You’re a fucking liar, said Sirius. It’s smaller than James’s fucking loo.
Oh, shut up, Remus said. You love it.
Sirius had smiled, slow and enraptured, eyes closed, face raised to the orange-painted sky of London at sunset.
I love it, he’d said.
“I like that,” Remus whispered, slipping his fingers from his knees to pluck the cigarette from Sirius’s dangling hand. “I like that you love it.”
Sirius looked at him, a long, drawn-out drag of his gaze from the sky to Remus’s face. His cheekbones were slicked with pink and orange, a shining highlight of pure white on the highest edge of his temple.
“Why?” he asked.
Remus shrugged and looked at his bare toes, sucking smoke into his lungs, feeling too acutely the dirt under his fingernails, the film of dried sweat on his skin, the last time Sirius had kissed him: three hours ago, when he woke up on Sirius’s couch.
“You seem,” he said, finally. “You seem sure.”
“Sure of what?” Sirius grinned. “Of my own blissful ignorance and relative uselessness to the world at large.”
“Of yourself,” Remus muttered. “Wanker.”
“I’m sure of your mum’s fanny,” said Sirius, and Remus whacked him soundly in the back of the head with his open palm, and Sirius wrestled him for the cigarette until Remus found himself wedged between the windowsill and the iron railing with his knee shoved up against Sirius’s gut and his ankle twisted painfully under Sirius’s thigh, and Sirius’s sun-warmed hair shoved up under his chin, with the cigarette held at arm’s length, out of harm’s way.
“Augh,” he’d choked out. “Fine – fine! I give.”
“You do not,” said Sirius, voice tickling against his collarbone. “That’s no fun.”
“Your idea of fun is very harmful to my soul and my ribs.”
“And your idea of sure of yourself,” said Sirius, with his fingers wriggling along Remus’s spine. “Is not hating yourself all the time because you tend to get rather hairier than normal once every thirty-one days.”
“Er,” said Remus. “Well, yes. But the flat helps.”
“The flat helps,” Sirius parroted, a little nastily, raising himself off of Remus with aggrieved, exaggerated effort. “Christ.”
Oh, what, Remus wanted to say. He wanted to grab at Sirius's lanky, overgrown hair and pull him forward with both hands to kiss him hard enough to shut them both up for a good, bloody long while. He thinks that he did - that he pulled Sirius in for a kiss, and that it was sort of lovely, after all.
There is something, suddenly, that doesn't belong. He remembers the touch of Sirius's fingertips against his jawline, the way his palm would sometimes make that solid gesture of ownership: palm down, fingers spread, on the curve of his neck. He remembers the smell of concrete and iron and Sirius's hair, and the way the sun was dying, and leaving orange streaks all over everything, and the air in the city was so hot and so still. The air, he thinks, in London - this day, that day - it wasn't. It was so still. It wasn't moving, he thinks. But he feels a breeze against his cheekbone. He feels a fluttering there, just above his temple, like there is a small wind whispering over the balcony railing. There was no wind, he thinks. He realizes, oh.
He opens his eyes.
The light has grown soft and white-blue. The room swells slowly into sight, from the darkness. He can see, fuzzily, the outline of the transfigured crib, and the scattered pile of books, and the small writing desk by the window, and the fluttering of the curtain by the open window. He feels Harry breathing against his chest; when he tilts his head downward, his nose pushes into the soft, black hair crowning Harry's head.
There is a breeze. A breeze, he thinks, it woke me. I was dreaming, he thinks. Of course. Of course, he thinks.
He turns his head, slowly; Harry doesn't stir. There, just above his temple, between him and the window, is a small, black envelope, held aloft by its own magic. Its edges are slightly bent, beating slowly at the air.
"Oh," he says, to no one in particular. I know, he thinks, I know what this is.
James had one, he remembers. When his parents died, James got two black envelopes in the air, the morning after. He didn't open them, but Peter did, after Sirius left the room in disgust and pinned Remus back with a stare that said if he even tried to come console him in the garden with a cigarette Sirius would consider him a traitor and a Gigantic Girl's Blouse. And he had sat there, fingers knotted over his knees while Peter gently folded back the creases of the black paper on Mrs Potter's bedspread and read aloud: We Regret To Inform You -- of the passing of Mr Henry James Potter, on May 5th, 1978. As Direct Kin, this Notice of Death has been Ordered into Existence by the Well-Respected Traditions of the Goode & Ancient House of Pervell and its Descendants.
He plucks the envelope from the air. It flutters once, between his fingers, before it falls still. Remus holds it out, at half-arm's length, and breathes in: once, and very slowly. It is addressed to Harry - his full name written out in thin golden ink. He knows what it will say.
He will not open it. He will keep it as it is, he thinks, for Harry and for later.
On his second birthday, Harry speaks for the first time since his parents died. They are in the kitchen of the cottage in Iffley that Dumbledore secured for them after three weeks of living in the spare storage cupboard in Hogwarts’ East Wing. It is a darling place. Almost sickly with its own preciousness: a bright blue door, and four heavy stone walls, and a cool dirt cellar out in the small yard where Remus keeps the jars of preserves and pickled fish and beans and thick carrots with green fronds, and there is a large willow tree by the front door which almost hides the entire thing from view. It has been a very good place; he is usually inclined to consider it home. If only for the people in it, he thinks; and the routine that they have.
He and Harry share the small bedroom, and most of their days. He does bits of work here and there for Dumbledore, and keeps the cottage from accumulating too much dust, and Harry plays very seriously, usually with his green toy dinosaur, or his box of crayons, or his rather pitifully incomplete – Remus thinks, ashamed – train set, and then usually they will go for a walk down to the river and Harry will bring his little plastic boat with the red smokestack, or they will go to the graveyard of the old church, and sometimes stop into a shop for biscuits or veg or bread, or to look at the model trains in the window, and every now and then, they will spend a special day in Oxford feeding pigeons in a square.
He has become accustomed to the general silence. He speaks to Harry in full sentences and expects – as he comes to, after only three months or so – no answer, only Harry’s full bright eyes, or a slight dip of his small nape.
Would you like toast? he will ask, in the morning.
And Harry might nod, and Remus will get the butter and jam from the cupboards. Or, if it is a different day, Harry might not make any motion, one way or the other, and Remus will get the milk and brown sugar instead, and they will have porridge.
He has come to know Harry through his silences, through his avoidance of black beans and his ability to finish three cups of pumpkin juice, and the way he falls asleep on Remus’s lap when Remus reads this book or uses that quill, or his unhappy restlessness otherwise.
He only worried for a while, when it was still fresh, and he was still convinced, as most would be – he assumed – that Harry had suffered something fully irreversible. Some now-seeded, germinating internal injury that was destined to destroy him, slowly, from the core outwards. After three months, or maybe four, he resigned himself to waiting, instead. He is, he thinks, more aware than most of the resilience of traumatized children.
Every night, he reads to Harry, and every morning, he leans over Harry’s bed to kiss his forehead and say, good morning, and Harry will always rub his eyes and blink up at him sleepily, and sometimes he will smile, and he is always an attentive listener, always a generally polite child, with large, solemn-looking eyes (that are, as everyone says, is starting to say, has always said, look so much like his mother’s, & etc), and a head of wild, coal-dark hair, that is stick straight and very soft. He is affectionate, but untrustworthy of strangers. He holds Remus’s hand very tight when people stop to talk to them on the road. He does not like visitors. (Neither does Remus, for that matter, but Remus knows he is far too old at this point to retreat to his room and scribble happily on large bits of parchment with a fat, blue crayon, however attractive that might be, when Rubeus Hagrid squeezes himself through the tiny hearth Floo with an armful of papers and lemon candies and a small bag of this month’s Galleon contribution, from Dumbledore.)
It is late in the morning. Harry is helping to decorate the cake, which will be for after dinner, and after gifts, and Remus’s hands are covered in crumbs and icing, which is blue, as according to Harry’s very well-considered selection made yesterday morning, with all the possible icing colours fanned out in front of him on the floor of the sunny kitchen (with the chairs pushed back against the wall to make room for the slightly dismembered rainbow).
“Pass me the towel, please, Harry?” Remus gestures, with his elbow, waggling his fingers in Harry’s direction.
Harry does, but he is clearly more interested in candle placement.
“Ta,” says Remus, absently. He wipes his hands. He moves to place the cake pan into the sink basin. “Want to help me clean up, when we’re done? And then maybe we could go to the river, if you’d like?”
“Okay,” says Harry, and white-vanilla cake crumbs scatter over the kitchen tile, when Remus drops the pan.
A week before Harry’s third birthday, Remus fixes him a small lunch, hands him his toy boat, and drops him off at the Weasley Burrow. He leaves Harry there, with a few tears, and he Apparates to the outskirts of Hogsmeade just as the day is ending, to the top of the hill just north of the Shack.
After all these years, he thinks, as climbs the incline in the shadows of overgrown pines and chestnuts, it is a place where time refuses to move. It is a place of absolute stillness, he thinks, where you open that door, or come through that passageway, and the world becomes a place of dust and filtered light. He is always eleven, here, he thinks, and takes the stairs. I am always what I started as, and I am everything I am when I was here, but I am never more than that. The Shack refuses it. It gives primacy, he thinks, to that grateful regression. To that helpless, crumbling nostalgia.
Nothing has changed, beyond what the wolf has shredded, and they once added. There is the bed. There is the small Victrola. There is the broken piano. There are the remnants of bottles, and a watering can in the kitchen. There are some playing cards spilled across one corner. There is the scattered detritus of nature littering the floor and the walls. It grows and it withers, and it rots, all around this room, and it does nothing to penetrate the little core of space, here: the place where memory stomps its foot and screams its presence.
He sets his small bag down in the centre of the floor, as he has done for years now. He inhales, once, deeply. He sets about unbuttoning his shirt. He removes his trousers, and his underwear. He folds it all, and sets them down on the floor beside his satchel. He sits on the edge of the bed, and closes his eyes.
The Shack captures things. It holds full conversations in the creaking of its ribs. It holds the shining naked skin of young men in the way the light slats through the shredded eaves. It keeps real laughter in its floorboards, and the halting, scratched waves of music in the trumpet of the old Victrola, when the wind moves right.
He places his hands palm down on his legs, one on each thigh. He feels the heat of the day leaving the air, the push of blood under his skin, and the nervous jittering of his skeleton, the rising acuity in his nose and in his ears. The tightness in his gut, in his legs, pushing up from his knees. It feels like a fever. It feels like — he inhales, once, sharply. Arousal.
He grits his teeth, and squints into the darkness of his own closed eyes. Not now, he thinks, vaguely desperate. I don’t need this, he thinks. I need some kind of forced serenity. I need bloody composure. I need — he thinks — good christ, I may be a monster, but I am an adult.
He hisses, into the creaking slowness of the Shack. The air sears at his skin. His thighs itch: his fingers dig into his flesh, and he holds down a groan. He knows if he opens his eyes, he will see his own erect penis pushing up at the air. He will want to touch it. He will want to wet his own palm with his saliva and wrap his fingers around it and stroke his own cock in time to his breathing. He will want to think about another body. He will want to think about the first time Sirius Black pushed three fingers up inside him with the wet ‘o’ of his mouth just circling the tip of his erection, and he will come with horrifying guilt staining his body, like the blood from his bitten tongue.
No, he thinks, fiercely.
It has been months, he thinks - years, since he came to the thought of Sirius Black. It has been months at least since he came at all. I am an adult, he thinks, and I have a child. I am not entertaining this sickness, he thinks. He tries. He wills. I am not —
Oh, god, he thinks, because he can almost feel the press of Sirius’s mouth against that little pulse-point on his neck. The small, slick trail of spit against his jawline, cooling in the air, when Sirius took his face with both hands and kissed him hard. Pressed him back against the mattress in the middle of the floor of his stupid, dreadful flat when they were seventeen and utterly free, and kissed him for the first, second, maybe third time?
Hard, he thinks. He. Oh — fuck.
What, he’d said. Half-drunk and horrifically betrayed, and so aroused, he’d only been able to stare up at Sirius’s flushed, open-mouthed face. What — are.
Please, Sirius had whispered, with that strange little desperate hitch in his voice. Don’t — don’t say anything. I just.
“I - ” he’d started. And stopped, because Sirius’s fingers had tightened on his wrist. He’d felt so raw.
“I just wanted to,” Sirius had said. His mouth had been so wet. My mouth - he had thought, wildly - my mouth has been there. On your mouth. “I just wanted to.”
“Oh,” he’d said. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t swallow.
“Moony,” said Sirius.
He couldn’t speak.
“Moony,” Sirius had said - and his voice had been breaking like he was thirteen again. Those three weeks in the middle of third year, when he didn’t speak at all, because James would become absolutely inconsolable with laughter and then Sirius would spend the rest of the day in a horrific sulk, and it had just been the worst thing in the world to live with.
“Stop,” he’d said, breathless, and Sirius had balked, flinched as if slapped. “Stop — if you don’t — I keep thinking. You have to do something or I’m — ”
“Do - ” Sirius’s eyes had glinted; they had had this sharp, desperate little spark. “Do something - like?”
And Sirius had bent his head, very slowly, and their noses had bumped together, and their foreheads were just barely touching. And Sirius had breathed, very slowly, over Remus’s mouth - their lips were so close, and his mouth was so wet, and Remus was paralyzed; he had felt utterly pinned back, by this shuddering little moment, by the inch of air between them.
“Like this?” Sirius had whispered.
“Are you teasing me,” he had blurted, half-hysterical. “Seriously. Are you teasing me. Now? You’re teasing me now?”
Sirius had smiled, and kissed him. He had kissed him. He had been kissed, by Sirius Black. By his smile.
And it was so lovely, he thinks. I had been so happy.
He comes, there on the edge of the bed in the middle of the empty Shack, when he presses the fingertips of his free hand to his mouth, and feels the exact resonance of Sirius’s lips.
On the afternoon of Harry's fourth birthday, Remus is sitting on the stoop of the Iffley cottage with last Thursday's copy of the Oxford Times and a cup of lukewarm tea, and Harry is playing in the shade of the crabapple tree just behind the corner of the house. It is very warm, and there are crickets just beginning to hum in the taller grasses across the lane, when there is a sickening crack of wood that splits the air, and then a meaty sort of thud that sends Remus's stomach plummeting into his knees.
"Harry?" He is on his feet and skidding rounding the corner of the cottage, when Harry starts to cry: big, choking gulps of air.
Harry is crumpled by the tree trunk, his face bright red and smudged with dirt; he is gripping at his arm with one small hand. Remus's first wild thought - absent of any context besides his own thudding pulse and the sick feeling in his stomach when he kneels in the dirt and sees the unnatural swelling of Harry's wrist, the way the set of his hand looks so off - his first wild thought is that they have been attacked: that someone, those people have finally come for Harry. That Dumbledore wasn't such an old paranoid fool, after all.
“Oww,” whines Harry, reaching for him, and he gathers Harry up into his arms, half-frantic, pushing his way through the front door of the cottage with his shoulder, while Harry starts to cry in earnest.
His heart is thudding wildly in his chest as he sets Harry down on the small couch, and Harry wriggles, his hand still clamped down on the warped line of his wrist. His face is still hot and flushed, and he kicks his legs out in response to the pain when Remus tries to take Harry’s injured arm in his hands.
“Don’t - ” he soothes. “It’ll be fine, Harry, I promise. Just — let me look at it.”
Harry squirms, whining: he pushes at Remus’s arms with all the force of his small body, turning his head away, his teeth digging into his lower lip.
“Harry,” he insists, but Harry only cries harder, and manages to wedge a knee in the side of Remus’s ribs.
“No!” Harry is half-screaming.
"Oh, good god," says Snape, from the fireplace.
He whips around, in his seat - and Harry gulps noisily.
“Stupefy,” murmurs Snape, arm extended - and Harry slumps back against the cushions, utterly gentle.
He can't speak; horrifically, he feels a hot sting behind his eyes, and he blinks rapidly to will it away. “What — ”
"I was under the impression that this was serious," says Snape, and crosses his arms.
"He's - " says Remus, hoarsely. "He fell. From a tree."
"Which is what children do, Lupin. They fall from trees because they are horribly inept at governing with their own actions with the slightest bit of common sense."
"I don't even understand how he got up there -- "
"Really. It wasn't because you weren't watching him?"
"Wasn't -- " he bristles, automatically. "If you've been sent only to insult me, you can leave."
"Believe me, I'd find the greatest pleasure in it," Snape mutters. "Move aside."
"What -- what. No." Remus finds himself gripping at the couch cushions with almost fabric-shredding strength. He swallows, exhales, and tries to relax the tension radiating from his chest.
Snape's mouth twitches in a slow sneer. "By all means, then, continue to helpfully blubber over his unconscious body. I'm sure you'll send for a healer in due time, and Dumbledore will not at all be displeased that you've revealed your position so necessarily to the Wizarding World at large."
"Dumbledore," he manages, taking one more steadying breath. He feels the pounding of his blood start to slow, in his veins. "Dumbledore sent you?"
"One of the protection wards went off," says Snape, finally raising his eyes to glance around the interior of the small room. Remus can't seem to tell if there is any judgment registered on his face - it seems to be all cool cataloguing - a swift, efficient record of the place. "It registered Potter as being in pain. Albus was indisposed - he sent me in his stead."
He exhales, slowly. "He'll be fine," he says. He realizes, of course, that it's true. "Thank you. For coming."
Snape snorts, and crosses the carpet, sweeping his arm to motion that Remus should move aside with the billow of his black sleeve. Remus does, reluctantly, keeping a palm against Harry's cheek. He notices a small scrape there, just above his temple, and his rubs his thumb over it: feeling the raised and ragged skin, the thin waft of blood against his nostrils.
"A simple break," says Snape, with the tip of his wand pressed to Harry's wrist. "I'll owl you a vial of Skele-Gro upon my return to Hogwarts. Follow my directions precisely."
"Er," says Remus. "Yes. Thank you."
Snape stands, brusquely. There is a moment where he looks at them - simply, appraisingly - and Remus can’t resist the urge to raise his chin: defiant in the face of that black gaze.
“We’ll be fine,” he says.
Snape does not respond. His exit is as quiet as his arrival: a simple swirl of black fabric, and the breathless sigh of the fireplace Floo. The cottage seems unbelievably large and empty, in the aftermath. He sits on the edge of the couch, with Harry’s head in his lap, and his hand palm down on Harry’s soft hair, and Harry’s slow, even breathing seems to be, incredibly, the only sound in the world. It fills his own ribs. It is the thing, he thinks, that is keeping his own heart beating at the pace it should be. It is the very thing that keeps him happy, most days.
It used to be, he thinks, that he thought he could be happy on his own. That he could go about the world and not depend on other people for an appreciation of his life. And yet, he thinks, maybe it was never that way at all. Maybe, he thinks, I’ve never been anything without other people’s breathing, other people’s beating hearts.
He closes his eyes. He leans his head back against the cushions. He feels Harry’s body against his own; the weight of his head on his thighs. He remembers what it was like to wake into the thin light of the Shack, his head swimming and his body stinging with the regrowth of his skin and the reknitting of his bones. He remembers what it was like to sit up against the tattered headboards with the sunshine filtering in all around him, and have the heavy weight of Padfoot’s body over his legs. To see - through blurred vision - James curled up in the corner with a thin blanket over his body, and Wormtail’s small form snuggled into a corner of the bedsheets.
He remembers what it was like, then, to dig his aching fingers into the warm and living fur of Padfoot’s ruff, and squeeze gently, and Padfoot would snuffle into the crook of his knee, and he would press his fingers slowly up through the muscles of Padfoot’s strong neck, and curl his palms around the soft, silly ears, and feel that particular comfort. That particular comfort, he thinks, that undeniable happiness of shared space and support.
He opens his eyes. He looks down at Harry’s sleeping body. The reddening swell of that small wrist. There is a twinge, somewhere in his gut.
I will give you that, he thinks, desperate and suddenly, so sad. Everything I can, but that above everything else.
I will try, he thinks. With everything I am.
On Harry's fifth birthday, Remus hunches down in the tall, July-dry grass behind Arthur's workshed, and sneaks a cigarette. There is a glass of pumpkin juice - freshly made by Molly this morning - at his ankle. He rolls the tobacco himself, over his knees, with papers drawn from a dusty pouch he retrieved from a shoebox that morning, before they left. It was a whim. But he was feeling it - the heightened edge of things. The way the light hit his eyes too hard, in the dawn; the way the dull clink of Harry's spoon against the cereal bowl felt like china breaking between his ears. The way Harry's skin seemed pulsatingly warm, and how he had avoided touching it, for fear of biting his own tongue and tasting blood. His shoulders creak inside his skin. His wrists are shaking, when he lights it. Harry is five today, he thinks, slowly with the inhale, and tonight I will have to leave him. I will go halfway across England to turn into a monster, and I will not be there when he wakes up tomorrow.
Inside, there is cake and puddings and laughter. He can hear them; if he strains, he can almost make out every word. He closes his eyes, and lets his head tip back against the wooden slats behind him. He lets the shade touch his skin. He exhales.
"Sorry," says Remus, automatically, his wrist jumping against his knee, when he startles; his eyes open to the sun. It is Arthur, leaning against the corner of the shed, his expression mostly hidden by the shade. "Sorry - did. Does Molly need me?"
"Ah, no," says Arthur. "Molls doesn't need any help - not from us, at any rate."
He smiles, glances down at his cupped hands. "No, suppose not."
"Budge up, then," says Arthur, with a grin in his voice, and Remus shifts slightly to the right; Arthur settles beside him with the sigh of a middle-aged sort of father. Someone settling in for a Talk, Remus thinks, with the kind of disgust that is well hidden behind a smoke.
"All right?" he asks, without much interest.
"Should be asking you, then, shouldn't I," says Arthur, calmly. "If you need to go, Molly'n I can handle it, you know."
He shakes his head - scratches at the back of his neck (his spine is tingling, unpleasantly). "No, it's. I've more than six - er seven - hours. I'll be fine."
"Hm," says Arthur.
"Ta," says Remus, somewhere in the direction of his knees. "Again. I mean. I honestly don't know what I'd do without your help."
Arthur snorts. "I imagine you'd find a way."
"Mm," he says. "Though perhaps not so pleasant."
"Nor so well-fed," grins Arthur.
"Mm," he says, again. He feels the tension in his teeth, now; talking is making his jaw ache. Arthur is silent beside him; he knows he's being watched. For five years, he thinks, everyone who is worth anything, and far more that aren't worth anything at all - they've all been watching. This dark little secret they've all decided to share in, he thinks, this little kindness to a poor, wretched blight on society. Waiting to see if he can fill their hearts with any more self-love, with how little he's managed to screw it all up, so far. He feels his lip curl over his eyeteeth, and cups his hands against his chin, bites the tip of his thumb, and watches the smoke snarl up into the dry air.
"He's a good lad," says Arthur.
Here we are, thinks Remus.
"Even Molly's impressed," says Arthur. "Which is saying something in and of itself, I suppose."
"Fantastic," says Remus. (He winces slightly, at the taste of malice on his tongue.)
"Remus," says Arthur.
"Sorry," says Remus, swiping ash from the top of his shoe. "I didn't. I'm not ungrateful."
"Never said," says Arthur.
He can feel it, rising in the back of his throat. It has a pressure - like nausea - making his eyes water and his tongue curl, and the membranes in his cheeks soak with saliva. It tastes vaguely metallic, oxidized, this rush of things he's wanted to say, these things he's feared for years, since he woke up one morning and felt Sirius Black's open palm resting on the small of his back: the moment he realized he was doomed to the same failures as the rest of humanity, only it was so much more terrifying, that he had no room for error, and so much more to lose. Trust, he'd thought, as he'd wanted to pin Sirius back against the bed with his knees and cup that stupid grin with his fingers and press his mouth there, to breathe inside this other body everything that made him feel heavy and weak and foolish, but was too real to ignore. Love, he'd thought, and pressed a hand against his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, to keep from turning where he was and grasping the back of Sirius's neck to pull him in so he had to listen, when he said I love you, I love you, please don't make me regret this, please. Just --
"I was five," he says. It spills over his fingers, into the air.
Arthur is silent.
"I was Harry's age," he says. "When I was. Bitten. And after that, everything was - well. Different, obviously. And my parents, they did. They did everything they could." He takes a breath - the air feels cold and sharp against his hot teeth, his tongue, the back of his throat. "I think it ruined them."
They loved you, he remembers someone saying. It's what everyone says. It's how they explain it all.
"I've been thinking, a lot," he says. "About sacrifice."
"Hm," says Arthur, and the way he says it means he must know, it isn't dramatic, it's just what it is, when they are yours: children.
"I'm worried," says Remus. He feels the words shake the base of his spine - a quiver that coils all the way up and out his limbs to his wrists and ankles. "That I can't keep Harry safe. Not like this."
"You're not alone," says Arthur. "You know."
"I want to be - " he starts. Normal. Alive. Strong, he thinks, and not this slowly-dissolving wraith, destined for some rotting, creaking body that gives out at thirty-nine because I didn't do, he thinks, all that I could to be here for him. "I don't know."
Arthur sighs: gruff and short, the flap of lips, the ruffle of a mustache. It reminds him of the way his Da used to snort at something he might've been reading - not funny enough to share, but too much to let it just sit around inside - sometimes he would be taking the stairs to his room, and he would hear it from the den, and he would smile.
"Come on, lad," says Arthur, and presses a hand to Remus's shoulder, as he stands. "Oof."
Remus tips the cigarette in his knuckles, grinds it slowly into the sole of his shoe. The heat dissipates from his fingertips, ash scattering to the grass. Inside, he knows, he will kiss the top of Harry's head, and place both hands on Harry's shoulders, and Harry will smile up at him, and they will open gifts with everyone, and Remus will still be nervous about whether or not Harry will like what he's managed to get him, and after Harry has fallen asleep on the floor, Remus will carry him to bed and tuck him in. And he will tell him, very quietly, that he loves him very much. And then he will leave the Burrow while the sun is setting, and he will Apparate to Hogsmeade, and he will climb the hill to the shack in the dead light. And he will spend the night without thoughts, without the over-tortured cynicism, without the relentless, shackling woe-is-me, without memories of loss or lust or silk scarves or cold cereal or memories of anything at all.
And in the morning, he thinks, he will be resolved. There are things yet to be done in this world, he thinks, in the name of love.
It is two days later - when the cramping in his left leg seems to have mostly dissipated, and the scratches on his arms are less visible - when he drops Harry off with Arthur and Bill, and the youngest Weasley boy. (There is a Cannons match near Uttoxer; the tickets were a birthday gift for Harry from the Weasley clan. Remus knew better than to mention the cost or Chudley’s horrific record, and graciously accepted on Harry’s behalf). He Apparates from the Burrow to the Diagon Alley entrance, a bagged lunch of sliced meats and cold potatoes from Molly stuffed in his coat pocket, and does the most innocuous of his errands first: a little banking, a debt paid off at the stationer’s, a new bottle of black ink.
He saves the Apothecary for last. To get to Knockturn, he avoids the most obvious route. When he was little, and Alastor Moody turned his family’s attention to the Apothecary that was - lightly put - not as likely to pass judgment on the potential “unsavoriness” of its clientele as perhaps its competitor on Diagon would be, Moody had showed him and his father the small iron-wrought gate behind Flortesque’s rubbish bins. He still takes it as an adult - out of habit rather than shame. Pulvis Bumbrate, Apothecary, knows him now, after all, his specific sort of needs included; for his first three years at Hogwarts, Bumbrate had even shipped salves to Madam Pomfrey at the expense and request of his parents.
It is a dark building: constructed of flat stones and thick mortar. There is no name on the sign, just the chemist’s symbol on the sun-bleached board hanging from rusty chains, and the bottles gathering dust in the window. It is just beginning to rain when he reaches the door; when he opens it, the hinges squeak, and Pulvis Bumbrate’s beady eyes find his through the dusky light.
“Ah - Lupin!” says Bumbrate, from where he stands at the register. When Bumbrate speaks his short, broom-bristle beard does all the movement: his mouth is hidden behind the mass of dark hair. He always wears a greasy-looking smock over his tweed suit and shirt-sleeves; since Remus can remember his hands have been stained saffron-yellow, and the smell wafting from the curtained backroom was always thickly noxious, or disconcertingly sweet.
There is someone else at the counter, wearing deep black robes from high-collared neck-to-toe, and Remus pauses just past the threshold.
“Punctual as always,” says Bumbrate. The other figure at the counter does not move.
“If you’re busy - ” he starts. He keeps his hand on the door handle behind him: he has always preferred the shop to be empty.
“Not at all - Mr Snape and I were just finishing up. Be with you in a moment - your shipment’s already arrived.”
“Ah,” he says, because Severus Snape has turned his head: he can see the hook-nosed profile and the side-long glance, the deep-set eyes.
“Just a moment - just a moment,” says Bumbrate again, turning back to the register. There is the clinking of galleons, the soft rustle of paper.
He approaches the counter; his footsteps make the floorboards creak.
“Severus,” he says. His fingertips reach out, touch the edge of the oily-smooth wood of the countertop.
Snape does not speak, but Remus catches a slightly inclination of the head, out of the corner of his eye.
“You know, Lupin - quite a coincidence, your turning up just now - ” Bumbrate’s yellowed fingers are busy with a quill, scratching on an order pad.
“Oh?” Remus lets his eyes wander to a row of pickled newt livers just at eye level, on the opposite wall.
“Ah,” says Bumbrate, handing Snape the inked paper. “Well - Mr Snape here was just speaking to me about some interesting advances being made in the field of bestial-chemical sciences.”
“I’m sorry?” He feels his fingers curl, his nails digging at the wood.
“Well, it’d be particularly of interest to those of your - ah - ” Bumbrate pauses and looks up, the monstrous little betrayal just dripping from the edge of his tongue, as if he didn’t deal in questionable characters with deeply-shrouded secrets every day of his life. “Oh.”
"It's fine," says Remus, tongue pressing against his top teeth. He tries not to sigh. "Severus is -- a friend."
"Ahm," Bumbrate clears his throat; glances briefly at Snape. Remus decides not to think about whether he looks disappointed at Remus’s admission. “Well, we've heard - you might want to keep your ear to ground, as it were. Some of my friends at the Ministry, you know, heard about some recent money going into the Experimental Potions Grant. Could be big developments in the future, you know, for -- er, your condition. You might want to look into signing up for experimental trials, you know - might even be reimbursed."
"Oh, I doubt it," says Remus, trying for kindly.
"At any rate - I'm sure they'd be excited for a subject that wasn't just pulled from that madhouse that's the cells in the Beasts and Being Divisions, eh?"
"Oh, I'm sure," says Remus, feeling kindly slip away, and quite quickly.
"Er," says Bumbrate. "Well, hold on a tic, if you will? I'll just slip back and get the -- er. Your things."
"Ta -- very much," says Remus.
Bumbrate disappears behind the back curtain; his plodding little footsteps fading into silence. He thinks, briefly, of glancing over at Snape, but thinks better of it. He keeps both his hands palm down on the smooth wood counter, and thinks of what he and Harry might make for dinner.
"You'd do well not to listen to him," says Severus.
Perhaps some of that ham, thinks Remus. The ham from Molly, yes.
"Hm?" he says.
"Not the Ministry Grant," says Snape, again. "Those fools have no interest in anything but the advancement of their own careers. Particularly at the expense of others."
"Ah," says Remus. "Yes."
Snape shoots him a look - he can feel it against the side of his face - he knows his cheeks are flushing.
"Lupin," says Snape.
"I heard you," he says. "Thank you for your opinion."
"Don't insult me," Snape sneers. "Those men he’s referring to are no more my friends than they would purport to be yours.”
“You can sleep soundly, Severus,” he sighs. “Your name is clear.”
Severus snorts. “And your attitude is as juvenile as ever. It was meant as pure advice. Do with it as you wish.”
"Mm, and unsolicited, too - " Remus feels himself testing the waters further than he might be comfortable - were the day different; were he less committed, he thinks. "How out of character."
"Bumbrate wasn’t speaking idly - I have seen their general proposals," Snape says, sharply. "It's inhuman."
"Well, that shouldn't be a problem then, should it?" The words feel bright, and pleasingly sharp, against his tongue.
"I beg your pardon."
"I'm not - " he swallows; resists the urge to roll his eyes. "It was a joke, Severus."
"And in poor taste," Snape snarls. "Whether or not you see yourself as deserving of supremely ill treatment does not give others the right to deem your life expendable."
He blinks. He finds himself looking at Snape before he can help it. Not this, he thinks. Not this again.
You are who you are, Sirius had said. Sirius had said that, more than once. Maybe he'd said that all the time. He can't remember. It seems like -- it seems loud in his ears, in the way that Sirius used to say it: vaguely accusing, sort of superior, but so -- it was what he'd said. He thinks maybe it hadn't meant much to him then. He thinks it means less to him now.
“Fine,” he says. He feels his resolve harden. He thinks of the map well-hidden at the Iffley cottage, between two pages of his mother’s copy of Ulysses: the space between Barrow Mere and the sea circled in faded red ink. “Fine. Thank you.”
Snape snorts again and turns away, as Bumbrate returns from behind the curtain, his sickly-coloured hands clutching the small, familiar brown paper bag, tied together with sticky, frayed twine.
“Here you are, Lupin,” Bumbrate smiles at them with his greying teeth; his tongue flickers briefly against his bottom lip, as if tasting the tension bred between them in his absence. “Ah, still here, Mr Snape?”
“Just leaving,” says Snape, brusquely.
“Always a pleasure,” Bumbrate murmurs.
As he hears the floorboards creak under Snape’s retreat; at the screech of the door hinges, Remus is suddenly gripped by the urge to reach out and snatch at Snape’s elbow, to pull him back and either punch him across the mouth, or demand that Snape remain at his side and talk him out of this - this - thing that he is about to do. He will demand, he thinks, to have that acerbic voice of selfishness and cold-hearted rationality at his ear at all times; he will shout into the stagnant and dusty air of the shop that he thinks he is going slowly mad, in the silent space of his own head, with only his own voice convincing him that he is not what he is - that he could possibly be something else, that he could be normal, that he could be whole.
The door shuts.
He hands Bumbrate the money - 4 galleons, 3 knuts.
“Well,” Bumbrate is saying, scratching on the order pad: all bristle beard and black ink and yellow, cracking fingerpad skin. “I think you’d do well to think it over, Lupin - if it comes to anything, might be the best thing for your kind yet, no?"
“Hm,” says Remus. “No receipt, thank you.”
“Of course,” says Bumbrate, and his eyes flicker briefly over Remus’s shoulder, to the dusty, rain-streaked window. “Well - until next month, eh!”
“Ta,” he says, and feels his heart start to pound. After this, he thinks. After this little errand, he thinks, I am going to Common Woodbrown.
He can’t quite make out the shape through the fogged, dirty window, but it appears at though Snape has not gotten very far. When he has shut the door behind him, he thinks perhaps it is only because of the rain - that it is coming down too hard now, and Snape would rather for a break in the weather before venturing out beyond the shop’s awning. But when he emerges, closes the door behind him, Snape takes a step out, onto the cobblestones.
“Next month,” he says.
“Beg pardon,” Remus sighs, tucking his brown bag into his coat pocket, alongside the potatoes and cold meats.
“I am indisposed this month,” says Snape. “The overgrown wretch that is the charge of the Hogwarts’ grounds is making far too many demands of me.”
“Hagrid?” he feels a genuine pang of worry. “He’s not - ?”
“Not ill,” Snape snorts. “But his plants are in anguish, and his chickens keep dying of fright. It is not any of my concern that his incompetence has allowed there to be some kind of grand upheaval in the Forbidden Forest. It is not any of my concern that there are all manner of gigantic hairy beasts and uncontrollable fauna spilling out past their normal boundaries, onto the Hogwarts’ grounds, but Dumbledore has charged me with the duty of all preparing all conceivable varieties of calming potions, until the ogre can bumble his way to a solution.”
Remus blinks, slowly. “I’m sorry?”
“Not this month, but the next - you are to come to Hogwarts.”
“Under whose orders.”
“Under the force of your own common sense,” Snape sneers. “You play the rebel badly, Lupin. If you want to utilize what the sophisticated art of potions-making might offer as a solution, you should do so with the respect it deserves.”
His mouth feels very dry; there is a heaving sort of ache growing under his ribs. He can’t speak.
“If you insist on giving those murderers scientific credibility with the permission to use your blood and body as they see fit, I shall have no recourse but to speak to Albus of it.”
“I,” he says.
“You understand,” says Snape, and looks at him. “That your continued health and general existence is no longer a low-stakes bet. This has been made abundantly clear to me.”
He nods. He swallows, and feels raindrops settle on his wrists. He watches Snape’s heavy, black-draped shoulders disappear into the rain. He taps his umbrella against the cobblestones, and squints out from under the awning, into the cloud and the drizzle, and the looming chimneys and slate roofs, all stained dark-grey by the water. Somewhere beyond the boundaries of Knockturn, a clock tower rings in the hour, and still he can’t seem to move. He has come to hate these spaces – these spaces where memory digs its claws in, and roots him to the ground.
They tried to fix you.
There had been a long silence. It had been raining, like this – cold and sharp. It had been raining that day, and James had stumbled in from Quidditch practice with his face and hands and arms streaked with mud, his teeth flashing eerily white in the firelight of the common room. They were still not at the point where it was acceptable for James to Talk About Quidditch, with Sirius still feeling the brunt of his punishment for that thing, that thing that had happened, which was not so bad as to have anyone killed or carted off to a juvenile detention center for young and dangerous creatures of the night, but was still horrible enough to have Sirius be removed from his position on the Gryffindor team.
He had not yet expressed to Sirius how no longer being able to beat people’s heads in with careening Bludgers was the very definition of getting off easy – he can’t remember now, if he ever did. Maybe once, he thinks, when I was drunk and poor and tired of living off of other people’s floor and generosities. But it wasn’t then. I hadn’t told him then, he thinks, how much I hated him. How much I hated myself because I couldn’t hate him enough to stop wanting him there.
“You don’t have to write this, you know,” Sirius had said, when James had finished tracking greasy, grassy footprints over the carpet and up the staircase, and Sirius was absently spelling away two distinctly purposeful muddy fingerprint stains James had made on the sleeve of his jumper.
There had been an essay. It had been raining, and they had been sitting in front of the fire, and there had been an essay about the history of the creation of the Ministry’s Beast, Being and Spirit Departments, and Sirius had been oddly hyper-sensitive, considering the infamous Question Ten had been a riotous joke twelve months ago.
“I’ll write it,” Sirius had said. “For you.”
“It’s fine,” he’d said.
“But, didn’t you – ” Sirius had started, and then stopped short.
He hadn’t asked him to clarify. He was poised on a forgotten edge of a sentence; his quill was bleeding ink at the tail of a ‘t’- he couldn’t remember what word he was supposed to be writing after 1876, Theius Goldsnout introduced the contractual agreement t -
“They tried to fix you,” Sirius had said. “I thought. Your parents.”
“Yes,” he’d said, and he’d looked up then – because the sentence was obviously a lost cause.
Sirius had looked as if he was chewing on something, tongue working in his mouth, poking at his drawn-in cheeks, the skin on his face was full of shadows and the bits of marrow-coloured light that got through the rain.
“Least with,” said Sirius, finally, and then stopped, shook his head. “I dunno. I mean, with mine, it’s all different. Of course they’d want to fix me. I’m a bloody great blight on their fruitful existence.”
“It’s not that different,” he’d said.
Sirius had narrowed his eyes at him.
“It’s not,” he’d said.
“Yeah, but yours – ” Sirius looked as if he were tasting something unpleasant: nose wrinkled, brow drawn in, his lips edging on a curl. “They were – they loved you something fierce, mate. It’s only to. It’s not because they hate you.”
“I think they do, sometimes.”
He didn’t know why he’d said it. It just came out that way. It felt cold, on his tongue, the words, like little silver ball bearings tripping over his tongue and clicking against his teeth with the cool, watery rush of enamel and oxide.
He’d felt hot; ashamed. He picked at the edges of the parchment and looked down at his scarred, bony ankles, bare under the hems of his trousers. Sirius’s warm arm was pressed against his side and making his stomach contact in small, knotted curls of vague panic.
“I ruined things,” he’d said, finally. “I don’t even remember if it was my fault, anymore. Actually being, you know. Out there. But I. I just know it changed things, and they. They really wanted me to be normal again, you know. I think. I think they knew they’d be happier again if I were cured, somehow.”
“Of course,” Sirius’s elbow had shifted, jabbing his thigh. “We’d all be fucking happy if we were all fucking perfect. Christ.”
“It’s not about being perfect - ” He’d protested.
“Yes, it is,” Sirius had snapped. “If you want it to be the same fucking thing, then it’s the same fucking thing. All it is is people expecting everyone to be what they want them to be, not what they actually are."
"You don't have to be cross about it," he'd said. He hadn't liked the way it made him feel, how it changed the mellowed light of the evening, to hear Sirius's voice sharpen like that, readying for the words that would hurt.
"Yes I do," said Sirius. "Otherwise you'll never learn."
"I'm not going to hear you any better if you shout, you know," he mumbled. He'd tried to shift so there wasn’t so much of Sirius’s warm body pressed against his leg.
"You never hear me," Sirius snapped again, and five spread fingers went down on Remus's thigh: an open palm holding him in place, the hunch of his shoulders putting weight into it. "No matter what. You don't fucking listen."
"I - " he said. "I do. I do listen."
"You don't," said Sirius.
He felt angry: irrational, and hot under the thin layer of his skin. I do, he wanted to say. I listen to everything you say, I listen to you all the fucking time. I listen to you even when I don't want to anymore, because I can't seem to do anything about it.
"Christ," said Sirius, softly. "I can't believe they. You wouldn't even be the same person."
"That was the point, I'd wager," he'd said, somewhere in the direction of his own knees. He remembers what it felt like, then, to have Sirius's fingers grip like five hot points on his thigh.
"Don't fucking joke about that," said Sirius. "I'll break your fucking nose if you actually think that's funny."
"I don't," he'd said. "But it's true."
"Doesn't mean you get to be fucking flippant about lobotomizing your soul," said Sirius, and he'd pulled his hand away.
The fire snapped, and Remus felt the heat of it on his face too suddenly - crawling along his cheeks and down his neck like shame. He bent his head to roll up the parchment, essay unfinished, gut twisted, and Sirius leaned forward into the light of the fire - his whole body swallowed up by silhouette.
"That's not what it was," he'd said.
"Then explain it," said Sirius, sourly. The high, bunched line of his shoulders meant he was rapidly losing patience. "Properly. And not like a fucking book, either."
"I don't know," he'd said. "I was young - I don't really, I mean. I don't really remember much."
"Bullshit," said Sirius.
He smoothed out a wrinkled corner of the parchment, uneasily. He recalled the scent of the day - hot grass and fetid moss, the creaking, salt-crusted pine boards and dusty brick. Mildew, and the pickled fish hanging from the eaves of the small shop. The terrifying smell of the Lethecary's skin, like something empty, and faintly chemical, oxidized: the way it tugged at his nostrils and made him dizzy, made him breathe heavier, with the absence of itself. Like he was half-burned away.
He'd rubbed at his nose, and blinked at his hands, holding his half-finished essay.
"It wasn't just a potion," he'd said. "It was - like a process. I didn't know what a pensieve was, at the time, but I suppose it was sort of like that. It seemed -- complicated. A lot of steps, and all these silly ritualistic things were supposed to happen."
"What, like ablutions?" Sirius snorted.
"And old magic," he'd said. "And. Well, I suppose that's why it's been illegal for so long. It didn't seem particularly safe. Or, you know, particularly domestic. Even if it was impossible."
"Of course it's impossible," Sirius said, suddenly. "You'd probably've died, if you went through with it."
Maybe, he thinks. And then, again. Maybe not. "You don't know that."
"I do, that," Sirius insisted. "Believe me, there's enough of that shite in my family for me to know when something looks too bloody good to be true, all right? Nothing like that comes without a price."
"What, you think any old werewolf off the street could just pop in and expect that the only trade-in for a un-cursed soul is a few dozen galleons? Not likely."
"Look, I'm not stupid about it," he'd said. "But you can't assume that's how it works. It's not -- it's not everything I am."
"So?" Sirius had snapped. "You are who you are, and that's part of it."
"Part of what?"
"Part of -- christ," Sirius's hand had flapped in the air: exasperated. "Of you. Because we know you. Everything about you - even the. Even the parts that want to eat my intestines and maybe gnaw on my brains for breakfast, all right, that part too. I know that part too."
There had been silence. There had been the crackling of the fire – the shifting of the logs, and the thin beating of the raindrops on the stones and on the windowpanes.
"It didn't happen," Remus said. "So it doesn't matter, does it."
"It does matter," Sirius had said. "Because you can't -- you can't go around thinking that magic is the cure-all. Magic can't do shite to fix the things we really want."
He'd narrowed his eyes; Sirius's silhouette went blurry and slanted. "You use magic to tie your shoelaces, Pads."
"So? Shoelaces are -- those are shoelaces. They're just -- they're the kind of thing what magic was meant for, aren't they? I mean. Christ, it won't. It won't bring back the dead. It won't let you be someone else. It won't let you live forever. It won't get you real money, or love, or - you know. It doesn't do that. You still have to do the best with what you've got. And that means - it means knowing who you are. Even if it's - painful, or. Something you don't like. You just have to know that about yourself."
He’d closed his eyes. He remembers, then, what it felt like, to be surrounded in darkness and Sirius Black’s voice telling him that love was something human. That love and death were things that escaped magic itself. That they were made you what you were - what you were supposed to be. When he’d closed his eyes then, and Sirius Black had placed his hand, palm down, on his thigh again, and there had been a dim spark of firelight somewhere in the darkness, he had felt forgiven.
And now, he just feels so angry. I’d give anything, he thinks. Anything to be free. To be totally free of that part of me, that you had all that fucking power over. I couldn’t even own my own soul, because what little I had, I owed to you. I hate you, he thinks, desperately. I hate you. I hate you. I hate that I will never stop thinking about you.
He opens his eyes. Knockturn Alley curves away into grey and shadow and rain. He knows that by the time he arrives at where he is going to, the sun will be setting again over the shore of Common Woodbrown.
He stands at the doorway. He has a bag of cold meat and potatoes in one pocket, and some salve for his aching shoulder in the other, and there is rainwater drying in his hair, and he knows what it is like to feel as though the world has entirely left him behind, and he knows what it is like to feel unconditional love for a tiny body, and he has more scars along his face and wrists and legs and belly, now - but he feels as if he is nine years old again. His heart is thudding against his ribcage; he can taste the way the rattling of his skeleton sets his teeth on edge.
At his back, there is the sea. There is the dying sun: it is as though this town cannot exist without the exacting light of a fading day, where everything solid eventually fades into the same ethereal spark at the edge of the ocean. It smells the same: rotted salt and the flesh pulled freshly from the curls of the sea.
It is as though the moon has never touched this town, he thinks. Something else must govern the tides, he thinks. It’s all blood and ancient wood and heat, he thinks. It tastes unnatural, he thinks. It smells unnatural. It looks unnatural - cloaked in the way that night never seems to fall and the sun never seems to be anything more than pure light, diffused.
He stands at the doorway.
It was foolish, he thinks, to even consider the possibility that the Lethecary would still exist.
He stands at what used to be the doorway. He remembers it as a doorway. When he reaches out to touch the edge of the opening in front of him, he remembers the gleaming shine of the wood - catching the light of the sun. He remembers the smooth, golden sighing of the door when it opened in front of them. After all these years, he can still remember these things, where now there is only a dull, mossy hole. Clods of peat at his toes, and a dilapidated yawing of a door. Where he remembers the singed light of the interior - the blinding reflections of the sun against the surfaces, the gilding, the mahogany and the cherrywood, the tin bowls and the jewelry on the Lethecary’s long fingers - there is a only a deathly still, light-swallowing darkness.
He steps inside. He wipes away a cobweb, and he stumbles against a broken chairleg.
He expects the Ministry must have sent Aurors to shut it down not long after they had first been there - his Mum, his Da, and him. They must have shut it down. It was illegal, he thinks. It can’t have been long after, he thinks. The dust and mud and dried salt looks at least a decade deep on the walls.
There is a pile of stagnant driftwood where he had once stood, where the Lethecary had taken his face in those long-fingered hands, and he had felt the heat of those jeweled rings against his flesh, almost all the way through his cheeks, to his tongue. He kicks it - the driftwood - with a disaffected toe, and thinks about how hungry he is.
The stone basin is gone.
He clears away a bit of the broken furniture in a corner, and wipes some of the dust and salt from one of the unbroken panes of glass in the window that faces the sea. He turns a small table right-side up, and he finds a small scarred stool in what he supposed was the Lethecary’s bedroom - a tiny room with one window and a mangled, rusty iron skeleton of springs that once was a cot.
He sets the stool next to the table, and sheds his coat. He sits on the stool, and he takes out the lunch that Molly has packed for him, and he unwraps it carefully in front of him, on the table. He eats it slowly, methodically. When he is finished, he folds up the loose paper and twine, and he looks down, and sees his shaking hands.
Oh, he thinks.
I’ve failed, he thinks.
I was willing, he thinks. And I was too late.
I would have done it, this time, he thinks.
“I would have done it,” he says, to the sunset.
He closes his eyes, because he feels something like Sirius’s hand - palm down - on his thigh.
Fuck you, he thinks.
“Fuck you,” he whispers. “Fuck you.”
“I would have done it,” he says.
Why, says something like Sirius’s voice.
“I don’t know,” he says.
You don’t need to, it says.
“Why not,” he says. “Why not. I’m — I’m just so tired.”
You don’t need to, it says again.
“Why not,” he whispers.
Because I know you, it says.
“You don’t,” he hisses. “You don’t. Because I thought I knew you.”
There is silence. There is the hissing of the waves. There is the pumping of his own monstrous blood in his own monstrous veins and his own monstrous brain expunging thoughts and his own monstrous lungs breathing thick monstrous breaths, and his own monstrous heart still hopelessly in love with horrible monstrous things.
You do, it says.
He opens his eyes. He hasn’t realized that he had closed them.
His hands have stopped shaking.
“What,” he whispers, to the dying light.
Oh, he thinks.
There is nothing there. It is only him, and the sunset, and the waves, and the refuse of something false he had believed, beyond all the doubt screaming in his bones, to be true.
The sun disappears behind the horizon, and he stands. He thinks, oh, my god, and the world plunges into sudden clarity.
He thinks: Sirius.
Harry falls asleep at the kitchen table, halfway through a sentence about the Golden Snitch. Remus sips his tea for another minute or so, before he sets down the mug and gathers Harry into his arms. He carries him slowly up the stairs to the small bedroom, and gently tucks him into bed. Harry only wakes once, when Remus is buttoning up his pajama top.
“Remus?” he asks.
“Yes,” says Remus. And that’s all. Harry is asleep again.
He pulls the coverlet up, against Harry’s chin, and he sits on the edge of the mattress and smoothes Harry’s hair back from his forehead. He leans over, and kisses the bridge of Harry’s nose.
After tonight, he thinks. After tonight, he thinks, things might change forever, for us.
And he turns out the light, and he goes downstairs to the kitchen again to his cooling cup of tea, and he gathers a piece of parchment and a pen and he writes a letter to Dumbledore.
I would like to see you, he writes. As soon as possible, he writes.
Thank you, he writes. He signs it, and sends it, and he spends the rest of the night sitting up awake, unable to sleep, watching the moon slide across the kitchen floor.
Dumbledore arrives by Floo, shortly past ten the next morning. Remus is thinking about finally changing his clothes while cooking waffles for Harry, and Harry is drinking pumpkin juice at the kitchen table, when there is the soft whistling of the hearth, and Dumbledore strolls into the room.
“Good morning, Harry,” says Dumbledore. “Happy belated birthday.”
“Hi,” says Harry, wide-eyed.
Remus feels his tongue go thick, unsteady. He puts down the spatula and methodically wipes his hands on a dishtowel.
“Thank you,” he says. “For coming so quickly.”
“Not at all,” says Dumbledore.
“Would,” he says. “Would you like a waffle?”
“Delightful,” says Dumbledore. “Do you mind, Harry?” He gestures at the empty place setting at Harry’s side.
“No,” says Harry.
Dumbledore settles calmly in the chair, his long sleeves pooled around his clasped hands, where they rest on the table. “Might I trouble you,” he says, genially, “for a glass of pumpkin juice?”
“Ah,” Remus reaches for the refrigerator, feeling half-blind and suddenly childish. “Of course.”
His hands, he notes, are remarkably steady as he hands Dumbledore the glass.
“Much obliged,” says Dumbledore.
“I think,” he says. “I think mistakes have been made.”
“Oh?” says Dumbledore. His eyes have taken on that familiar, steely glaze; Remus steadies himself against the edge of the sink.
“What if,” he says. “I mean, what if we’ve all managed to make a horrible mistake?”
“Mistakes are - unfortunately - made far more often than most of us would care to admit,” says Dumbledore. He raises his glass, and takes a slow sip. Harry is watching him with wary, curious tilt of his head. “And all the more often in times of war and deep unrest, I think. Which says little inspiring about the human condition except for the fact that we seem to be, still, quite human.”
“Albus,” he says. “I think Sirius is innocent.”
Don’t test me, he thinks, as he meets Dumbledore’s eyes through the silence. Don’t you dare test me. This isn’t a goddamned joke, he thinks. This isn’t a trick. Don’t you fucking test my loyalty, he thinks, and presses a palm back against the countertop, to keep his vertigo at bay. He feels, distinctly, a press of warmth, like someone else’s hand, on the top of his fingers, and he takes a deep, rib-emptying breath.
“The waffles!” cries Harry, as a plume of black smoke erupts from the direction of the stove-top.
“Bloody — ” Remus leaps for the skillet, snatching up the spatula and clicking off the flame, just in time to save the entire mess from a severe burning. “Sorry - sorry, Harry - it’s all right. I’ll have this one, okay? I’ll just make you another.”
“Nonsense,” says Dumbledore, from behind Harry’s head. “I’ve always preferred my breakfast to be slightly charred.”
Remus stares at the half-blackened mess in the pan. “I couldn’t - ” he starts.
“Why would you think that?” says Dumbledore, evenly.
“Think what,” he whispers.
“That Sirius Black is not guilty of the crime of which he has been convicted. To which he has confessed?”
It takes all the effort he has left in his body not to look directly into Harry’s eyes at that moment. And it feels as though it actively weakens his spine, to have to ignore him, to talk over him, about the murder of his parents.
“I don’t know,” he says, honestly. “Yet.”
“You don’t know why,” repeats Dumbledore.
“I don’t know yet. I only know,” he says. “I only know that. That if I don’t do something about this - this feeling - it’s going to be. It would be an insult - to. To James and Lily.”
“You had none of these reservations four years ago,” says Dumbledore.
“I know,” he says. “Except that we all thought he wasn’t. That he couldn’t have.”
“Time does strange things to the mind,” says Dumbledore. “And the mind does strange things to memory.”
“Harry,” he says, and he looks at him. “I’ll bring you your waffles in the other room, all right?”
“Okay,” says Harry, scrambling down from his chair. “Can I take my juice?”
“Ah,” he grips at the edge of the counter again. “Of course - just. Of course. I’ll be in in a moment.”
Harry turns the corner, and disappears from view. Remus waits until he hears the soft creak of the old springs in the sofa, and he closes his eyes. He closes his eyes, and he waits, and he feels the sunshine filtered in through the checkered curtains on the raised planes of his face, and he thinks of how insane he must look, of how - if he tried - explaining his actions to Dumbledore would make him seem utterly mad.
“It doesn’t - ” the words come before he is fully aware of them, it seems. “It doesn’t add up. When you think about it, now. It doesn’t make any sense. Why — why would James and Lily have — we all thought there was someone, someone who was passing information. But none of the signs pointed to - ” he swallows. “They all pointed to someone like me, didn’t they? Someone already at the fringes. Someone just holding on to the edges of the Order. The Order that you crafted. With your own hands, no less. It — it never looked like it could have been — not someone like Sirius. If you had had the slightest doubt - the slightest doubt that Sirius could have betrayed your trust right under your nose, you know - I know - you never would have allowed him to be James and Lily’s Keeper.”
Dumbledore remains silent.
“If I’m wrong,” he whispers. “If there’s - if I’m wrong. What harm is there is trying to know the truth?
“A great deal, I’m afraid,” says Dumbledore. “But none more concrete than the feelings currently guiding you, I fear.”
“Not concrete?” He feels the bristling starting, deep and slow, under his skin. He feels the heat rising, in his cheeks. “I trusted him. I trusted him with more than my life.”
“Trust is a fragile thing,” says Dumbledore softly. It sounds vaguely sad.
“But not love,” he says.
“Ah,” says Dumbledore, and - for the first time - he looks away.
“I knew - ” he says. “I know him.”
On the table, Dumbledore’s fingers slowly unknit, re-knit, unknit again, to lay flat on the surface. “What do you need?” he says.
“His trial,” he says, hoarsely. “The one he never had.”
“It is far too late for that,” Dumbledore raises his eyes again.
“But - ”
Dumbledore holds up a hand; the words stop short in Remus’s throat. “If you are looking for a jury of his peers, however, I believe you already know where to begin.”
“What,” he starts, and then stops. There, in the morning sunlight in the kitchen, with Albus Dumbledore drinking a glass of his pumpkin juice, about to take a mouthful of half-burned breakfast, he knows. It makes his stomach sink, slightly - in the way he used to feel obscenely, nauseously excited at the very beginning razor’s edge of the planning of some particular prank, or that night before they finished the Map, or the first time he leaned across the distance between their two bodies and kissed Sirius Black on the mouth.
“Delightful,” says Dumbledore, wiping his mouth. “If it’s agreeable with you, I believe I’ll just take this with me.”
“Sir,” he starts.
“Always a pleasure, Remus,” says Dumbledore, as he stands. “Harry looks very well - you should be proud.”
He clenches his teeth; nods. “Sir.”
“Expect her Floo address by owl very shortly,” says Dumbledore, and he Apparates from the kitchen with a sharp snap of air - waffle already tucked away in his robes.
Her? thinks Remus, senses buzzing.
But when the owl arrives an hour later, it begins to coalesce. He unrolls the small bit of parchment with Harry sitting distractedly at his side, while the owl pecks at the remains of Harry’s (unburned) breakfast, and he runs his fingers slowly over the words inscribed in Dumbledore’s own hand. Implicit permission for this wild chase:
Malfoy Manor Estates, Wiltshire
East Wing, Blue Rose Antechamber
Second-smallest fireplace, iron mantle, below the bust of Delphi.
And then, just below:
I have told her to expect you.
Chapter 3: The Crossing
III. The Crossing
I’m so sorry, he’d said, hands stuffed deep into his pockets, feeling like a petulant child. I’m so sorry, Molly. I feel as though I’ve been -
Nonsense, said Molly Weasley, briskly. We love having Harry with us. And she had smiled, and asked if he had eaten breakfast.
Of course, he’d said, don’t trouble yourself. I promise, he’d said, I’ll be back to pick up Harry in a few hours. Only a few hours, he’d said. It’s just — it’s a quick errand.
You know, Molly had said, into his ear, as she hugged him goodbye. I know this lovely girl, absolutely lovely girl — you should really perhaps start to think about —?
He laughs, now, at the thought of it. He stands at the threshold of his own fireplace in Iffley Cottage with a handful of Floo powder, and laughs at the thought of Molly Weasley finding him a nice girl to settle down with. It used to be so much easier, he thinks, to beg werewolf, rather than have the first thought be I’m so sorry, it’s just that I’m in love with Sirius Black, and I think I have to go free him from prison, if you’ll just excuse me.
He looks down at his closed fist, at the slightly-frayed sleeve of his robes, at the blue veins of his wrist, at his thin skin, and he takes a slow, deep breath. He takes a slow, deep breath, and he steps into the fireplace, and he lets the powder fall to his feet.
The Floo spits him out in an airy room, full to the ceiling with sunshine and the faint scent of lilies. There isn’t a speck of ash at his feet, and he picks gingerly at a sleeve, seeing the smudgy remnants of the Iffley cottage’s less immaculate hearth. He presses a hand to the mantle: cold iron, wrought vines. Translucent blue roses climbing the wallpaper. To his right, a marble bust of an oddly androgynous head. Drapes turned half-sheer and golden by the sifting sunlight. Delicate, lacy upholstery on the high-backed chairs. A small, cherry-wood table, set with sparkling china.
Narcissa Malfoy, in the doorway, dressed in green silk.
“Ah,” he says. “Good morning.”
Her head tilts, very slightly. Her chin still has that way of staying just this side of upright, so that even though she was always the smallest of the Black sisters, she never seemed to look up at anything or anyone. He remembers it most vividly from a photograph. She was young - her sisters were young, they looked at you with dull, dark eyes, and once and a while, Andromeda would flash the edge of a smile. It had been winter - they were wearing furs, and Narcissa’s cheeks had the beginnings of a flush. Sirius had had the photograph for a year, tucked against the inside of the lid of his trunk. After April of first year, it disappeared.
“Dumbledore - ” he starts.
“I would like to make it clear,” she interrupts him, unfolding her arms, and crossing to the high-backed chairs. “That this conversation will be over the moment I decide it to be so.”
He presses his tongue against the inside of his teeth, and tries not to wince. Not that he had thought this would be particularly easy —
“Is that understood?” Her eyebrows arch perfectly - not a wrinkle in her face.
“Of course,” he says.
“Sit,” she offers one of the chairs to him: her palm upturned with the flash of diamonds, at her wrist. “Please.”
“Ah,” he sits, carefully, tries not to follow her eyes as she tracks the trail of Iffley cottage ash that follows him. “Thank you.”
She crosses her legs, when she sits across from him; she offers him tea, wordlessly. He can only shake his head, mouth dry - his pulse is racing again; he can’t — why, he thinks. Why am I here, have I gone absolutely mad, is this —
“This is not out of any obligation to you,” she says; she pours herself a cup, eyes lowered but hardly demure. “That I am agreeing to speak with you.”
“Then - ” he wonders, madly, if her husband is aware that he is here. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“I do,” Narcissa says, raising her eyes. “And as it’s none of your concern, I don’t feel the need to explain.”
He folds his hands in his lap, tightly. “Of course,” he says. “I’m not entirely sure what Dumbledore has said to you. I have - some questions.”
“About my cousin,” she says, teacup halfway to her painted mouth.
“Yes.” It sounds braver than he feels.
“You aren’t an Auror. You certainly aren’t involved with the Ministry in any capacity I’m aware of - as Lucius would certainly be aware if there were any investigations being made, considering how thoroughly our names were - rightly - cleared after the Inquiry.”
“That’s - ” he clears his throat. “This has nothing to do with the Ministry.”
“You’re his family.” The words come to him before he is aware. Ah, he thinks. Again, Dumbledore, he thinks, forcing all of our hands. “You knew him — you’ve known him for his whole life.”
She smiles, over the rim: it is a slow sweep of red. “We have not been ‘family’ for some time now, as I’m sure you’re completely aware, Mr Lupin.”
“What I meant, was - ”
“I know what you meant.” She lowers the cup. It clinks softly against the saucer. She holds it just so: half a foot from her navel, balanced on her palm. “Have you really come all this way to ask me what I think about Sirius Black?”
“Perhaps,” he smooths a crease from his lap. “In a manner of speaking.”
“I make no assumptions of your ‘manners’, Mr Lupin. You may ask me directly, or may not ask me at all.”
“Well - ” From beyond the drapes, the windows, perhaps in the gardens, there is an eerie cry - the scream of a peacock. “That’s. Certainly fair.”
She takes a sip of tea; when he looks to her again, he sees that her eyes have not left his face. He feels the slight, involuntary twitch of his ribs, the hyper-awareness of his own body; how it must appear to those people that are not himself, out there in the world. How his nose is rather large, and eyes are plain and creased at the edges, how his hair is streaked with grey and how his face and neck bear the traces of his own claws, he thinks.
And then, unbidden: how Sirius once called him beautiful. How it almost stopped his heart from beating, for that moment. How he had sat where he was in the single chair in the middle of Sirius’s kitchen, with dry toast halfway to his mouth, and crumbs and newspaper ink on his fingers, and had to deal with the fact that this objectively gorgeous young man was looking at him, and calling him beautiful.
And you’re daft, he had said. What of it.
Was that a lie, he thinks. Was that a lie, too? On top of everything else - he thinks, on top of all those things we thought, those things we thought we knew about — was that moment —
He closes his eyes. He opens them. Narcissa Malfoy is still watching him.
Well, he thinks. Well —
“Do you believe he was working for - for He Who Must Not Be Named?”
“No.” She has been expecting the question, clearly.
“Do I believe he was capable of betraying his allies and dearest loved ones? Certainly.”
“What — ” His vision narrows. He feels - wildly, for only a moment - that he should have a quill and parchment in hand. “How — how do you mean?”
“Sirius didn’t have a single ounce of courage in his body, Mr Lupin. It takes courage to be truly loyal to the ones you love - in the face of so much — adversity. His brother was the courageous one. Always.”
“— His. Regulus?”
A thin boy. Slytherin green and Black eyes. Always a pale pallor to his skin. Small fingers. A sun-blinking glimpse of him, caught in the air, high on a broomstick. A shadow in the corridors. A heavy pull on Sirius’s heels, he remembers.
“Yes. Regulus.” When she speaks, he smells the very faintest push of very female blood - a quick pulse of it suddenly raised to the surface of the air. There is the slight bleed of colour, in her cheeks. “I don’t care to know what you thought of him as schoolchildren, but if you came here for my opinion, that is it. Regulus was twice the man Sirius will ever be - even as his dreadful, wasting life continues behind the walls of Azkaban, and Regulus’s was cut cruelly short.”
“I don’t understand,” he says, carefully.
"No, I don’t suppose you could," she says. "Since we are born into what we are."
His lips feel chapped. I should have taken that tea, he thinks, when it was offered. "Sirius used to say that that didn't matter. To him."
"He was a fool," she says. "It's in his blood."
It chills him, to hear it. He feels the ice radiating out from his lungs, his chest, out through his limbs, to his fingertips. His knits them together more tightly, kneading at his palm with a stiff thumb. "What is," he asks. "This -- you think this was inevitable, what he did?"
Her eyes narrow - the blue almost disappears completely. "It has nothing to do with that. The moment he chose to deny himself - publicly, privately - he made himself a coward. It's as simple as that. To commit his entire being to putting on a show for the world - of course it would drive him to madness, possibly. Or worse."
"Do I offend you, Mr Lupin?" She sets down the cup and saucer with small, precise movement of her fingertips.
"Not me," he says. "No."
"You've come to ask me what I thought of him, haven't you?"
"Ah," he says. "Perhaps. Yes."
"Then that is it. My cousin, Sirius Black, was a coward. He was incapable of love, because he tried too hard to love only himself. He was incapable of peace, because he fought himself at every turn."
“Then. Then, why would he do it?”
“Because he has a selfish soul,” Narcissa whispers, sharply. “It is all I know of him, and it is the only answer I have for you.”
“You never heard - ”
“What would I hear?” she snaps, fingers tightening on the arm of her chair. “Where would I hear it?”
He swallows, tightly. “I never meant to imply.”
“You certainly did.”
He feels his lungs fill with air again, slowly. “My apologies.”
Her fingers loosen, gradually. He sees the porcelain in her skin again - the flush of her neck and cheeks fading away - and the well-crafted steadiness come into her gaze.
“Only one of them ever did anything worth remembering,” she says. It sounds like a wisp of steam; it sounds like the secret he may have come for, if he came for anything at all. “And it is clear now that it will never be remembered. And it was certainly not Sirius who did it.”
It doesn’t make sense, he thinks. Sirius, he thinks, was too brave for his own good. Sirius, he thinks, whatever he was — was he that? Had he been - truly - terrified his entire life? Could that possibly have driven him to —
“His brother - ” he says, before he realizes the words are surfacing. “Regulus. When he disappeared - we were. I only heard about it, afterwards.”
It is clear she is wary - watchful. Her neck has that tilt again, her chin on the rise.
“We never spoke of it.”
“He wasn’t at the service,” she says, plainly. “He was not welcome.”
“His mother - ”
"She's ill," says Narcissa. "And I hardly expect she'd agree to speak with you even if she weren't."
There is a long, thin silence. Outside, in the sky, the sun slips behind a veil of clouds, and the room goes strangely dull. Half-dark, no longer lit from the outside-in, everything falls into a cold sort of greyish being - his own hands in his lap, the porcelain on the mantle, the weft of the tapestries, the lines of her face, turned away. The gilding on the portrait frames have gone dull. He thinks he sees a thin sifting of dust on the windowsill.
"She misses them."
He feels his heart skip - involuntarily.
"She slips from sanity, sometimes." Her voice has gone quite flat - all heavy, old lace. "The Healers are convinced its a natural process. But it's wrong, to hear her talk about them as if they're still alive. As if she still thinks of them the way she used to when we were children. As if she still cares for him."
"She is his mother," he says.
She looks at him. Her fingers are pressed against the rim of the small cherry-wood table, grazing the edge of the china saucer. Her knuckles are white, the tips of her nails flushed pink with the collection of blood there - the force of her thinking.
“We’re done,” she says, finally. Her lashes lower. “Mr Lupin.”
He stands - his knees feel like water. “Thank you.” He tries for gracious, and ends up only feeling the vertigo rattle soundly in his skull. “For your time.”
A letter arrives one week later, via the talons of a proud-looking Great Grey. Harry asks if he can pet it, and Remus staunchly refuses, after catching a particular gleam in its eyes when it notices the size and general plumpness of Harry's fingers. They put a bit of cold chicken on a plate for it instead, and Remus leaves the letter tucked in his pocket for the rest of the evening, because he and Harry are almost finished Wind in the Willows, after all.
When he opens it, finally, it is by a single candle in his bedroom and well past midnight.
If you go tomorrow at four o'clock, it says, in thin, swooping lines of ink. She will see you.
He arrives at Grimmauld Place at quarter of four the next day. It is a horrible sort of afternoon - all rain and cloud and heaviness that sinks deeply into his bones and seems to makes the world trudge, full of effort, through its own dealings. Headlamps from the rare circling automobile reflect off the surface of the concrete; bounce off the dead, dark windows of No. 11 Grimmauld. They are tall, flat sort of buildings, with even, square windows and dull-looking facades. He stands, as he has been instructed to - by Narcissa Malfoy’s hand - at the curb of the traffic circle, between two rubbish bins, and an innocuous iron fence. He shoves his hands in the pockets of his thin coat, and ducks his head to keep the dusting rain out of his eyes.
He jumps, suddenly, when there is a clattering of tin behind him – and he just catches the fleeing culprit out of the corner of his eyes: a rangy calico, with matted fur. He follows it with his gaze as it skitters through the yard of No. 13 and through the iron railing of the fence, and out into street. It disappears into the gloom, somewhere between the yawing gape of two trees.
His heartbeat has just settled again, when there is a startling hiss at his ankles, and a tug of his trouser-leg. His hand is halfway to his wand when he looks down, and sees the dark, lumpy shape of an unfamiliar house-elf, with rat-bitten ears and large, phlegmy eyes.
“Oh - ” he starts. His fingers release, very slowly, on the handle of his wand. “Are you.”
The creature hisses again, and tugs on his trouser with a kind of upsetting distaste. “You - ” it says. “You are the man my mistress will be seeing.” Its voice is like wet sandpaper.
“Yes.” He lets his hand fall to his side. “Yes, I’m. I’m Remus Lupin.”
The elf hisses again, large lips curling. There is the glimmer of yellowed teeth; Remus grits his own jaw and swallows down a thin lump of fear. Is this, he thinks — is this, had Sirius ever mentioned anything like this strange little creature as part of his life?
The elf tugs at his trousers again, and turns toward the entrance of No. 11. “Then Remus Lupin will come this way,” it grunts. His name is formed on its lips with the utmost contempt.
He follows it up the walkway, slowly, and wonders - strangely - if this place, this odd, dark little street was really the place of Sirius Black’s childhood. He can hardly imagine that boy, that man that he thought that he knew, in this kind of yard, in this kind of house, with this kind of thing as a possible playmate or companion. Maybe, he thinks, as the elf halts at the steps and looks over its shoulder up at him, maybe that was the point. That he never did fit, clearly, whatever Narcissa Malfoy nee Black had said about that.
The elf raises its long-fingered hand, and suddenly, in front of them, No.11 Grimmauld Place seems to shudder, quiver, and pull back on itself from the side. It squeezes, like a frightened little animal, and No. 13, to their right, makes an answering kind of tremble. Between the two, something erupts. A house. Another house, he marvels, though he supposes that he should have expected something like that all along. It just pushes right between them, to center itself as if it had always belonged. The knocker is large, and silver-wrought. The shape of a serpent. There is a number, over the door, in large black iron. 12.
He starts to breathe again, slowly, when the house-elf pulls itself up the battered-looking steps to the porch, and reaches up to the wood of the door with one hand. The door - after a long pause - swings open, as if with reluctance. The elf pauses, and looks back at him.
“Remus Lupin will enter,” it says. “And it will wait in the drawing room up the stairs.”
He starts forward, up the stairs.
“It will not touch anything,” the creature hisses.
“No,” he murmurs, pausing as he takes in the dimly-lit interior of the corridor. The long hallway and the portraits, the gilding, the grandeur that seems - oddly - so half-faded. The enormous staircase, curving up and to the left. “I suppose not.”
“The drawing room,” the house elf mutters again, and disappears into the shadows of the corridor. The door shuts of its own accord, behind them.
The house is plunged into a sudden, strange light. Half silver, half golden. All edged and ringed by deep, heavy shadow. He takes the stairs very slowly, palm just grazing the smooth, polished railing. The carpet is very soft under his feet, but it seems to be fraying, in the corners, here and there. There is a grotesque line of portraits, and stuffed house-elf heads, halfway up to the landing. Remus swallows back another fearish lump in his throat, and takes the last few steps.
The drawing room must be, he realizes, the room at the end of the landing, with the half-open door. His footsteps seem to be swallowed up by the shadows, as he makes his way to the threshold, and pushes it open with the flat palm of his hand.
Mrs Black is sitting upright in a high-backed armchair. Her eyes are the first things he sees: utterly dark, and heavily piercing. Deep-set, like Sirius’s. Arching eyebrows. A beautiful, high forehead. A thin mouth, and that utterly powerful, aristocratic nose. Her skin is pale - paler than Sirius’s ever was. Paler even than what he remembers of Regulus. Her expression is almost dead, except for those eyes - eerily bright. Her hair is parted down the centre - deep black and spilling over her shoulders and over her breasts, falling almost to her waist. Her hands look disconcertingly wrinkled and old-looking where they rest, on either arm of the chair.
She regards him from where she sits; she does not rise to greet him. The illness, he thinks. She must be — unable?
“Hello,” he says, into the room. “I’m Remus Lupin.”
“I know who you are,” says Mrs Black. Her voice is steady, but full of age - it is ripped to shreds. It sounds like the creaking of an old room, like the way the Shack used to shudder and groan around them in the midst of a storm. “My niece asked that I speak to you.”
“Ah,” he says. “Yes.”
“You may come in,” she says. She lifts a hand, very slightly, from where it rests on the arm of the chair. As he steps inside, Remus gets the sense that that little movement was a great effort.
“Sit,” she says. She sounds so much like Narcissa, he thinks. The little inflections of life as a noble.
“Thank you,” he says, and settles himself into the smaller armchair, feeling suddenly, horribly enclosed.
“Are you pure of blood?” she asks, with a very small lifting of a dark eyebrow. “Who were your parents?”
“My — ” he clears his throat, begins again. “My father was a wizard. Many, many generations back. From France, originally, I believe. He was - a professor. A scholar.”
“A Muggle,” he says, and summons the courage to say it with a kind of pride. “English, from a small town in Shropshire.”
Mrs Black snorts. Utterly, completely dismissive. A thick silence descends, and Remus presses his tongue up against the roof of his mouth and knows, somehow, that if he speaks now he will never get the chance he came here for.
Mrs Black is watching him with sharply narrowed eyes. Her chin is pointed slightly upwards, and the shadows of the flickering candles catch the wrinkles in the corners of her face. Her breathing, he realizes, is very short, and very laboured.
She is dying, he thinks. If he lets himself, he can almost smell it. The way the necrosis of her flesh is just beginning from the inside-out, like the half-faded rot of an old bouquet of flowers scented from across the room. Something that should have been tossed in the rubbish bin days before.
“You spoke to my niece,” she says, finally.
“Yes,” he says.
“About my sons,” she says. It sounds so odd, somehow, to see her thin mouth make that word.
“Yes,” he says.
“You knew him,” she says. It is not a question. “When he was at school.”
“Yes,” he says.
“You were the reason he abandoned his family, the reason he defected to that little band of rag-tag blood traitors and Muggle sympathizers. The reason he forced our hands. The reason he is no longer a Black.”
He knows that the answer is yes. Perhaps. Perhaps, he thinks, perhaps only maybe.
“You have no reply?” her head tilts on her neck, very slightly.
“None that would please you, Ma’am.”
She snorts again. “My pleasure is utterly persona non grata, Mr Lupin, at the very presence of a person like you in my home.”
He bites his tongue; forces himself to keep his eyes on hers.
“Why have you come?” she says, the words so clearly grating on her throat. “To torment me with memories of my losses? To force me to recall the greatest sorrow of my life - losing one son to his own selfishness and ingratitude, and the other to death?”
“No Ma’am,” he whispers. “But perhaps - if you will allow it - I might say that I think I understand this loss.”
“Rude!” she snaps - her voice gaining a kind of shrill strength. “You are out of line, Mr Lupin.”
“My apologies,” he says. “But Sirius — Sirius was a loss I deeply felt as well. I was — I believe I was betrayed by him. We all were, it appears, at some point in our lives.”
Her eyes narrow. Her head sways gently, very slightly, on her neck, like a serpent. “How do you mean.”
“I mean,” he opens his mouth. Closes it. Opens it again. “I mean to say that Sirius - we all trusted him. Many of us, his friends, we trusted him with our very lives. And — and if what happened is true, really is true, then you and I, Ma’am, we share that certain kind of loss.”
She snorts, again. “He was not your blood kin. How can you even compare the two?”
“James,” he whispers, clears his throat. “James Potter. He — they were like brothers.”
“Then you should have been aware how easy it was for him to find that concept so utterly easy to cast aside.” Her breath wheezes through her teeth; there are sickly spots of colour beginning to appear on the high bones of her face.
He stays silent, a knotted coil of discomfort growing in his belly. He lowers his eyes from her face.
“He loved his brother,” she says, suddenly, and so quiet. When he lifts his face again, he sees that her eyes are closed, casting deep purple-bruised shadows across the whiteness of her skin. “When they were young. When they were young, they were. He kept him safe.”
“Safe?” he whispers.
The room creaks around them; there is the sound of the rain spattering against the hard, opaque glass of the windows.
“Just this past fortnight,” she whispers, and it is abundantly clear that she is gone from this place. “Just this past fortnight — Regulus has been sick again, you see. A fever. The Healers, came. Worried.”
“Oh,” he manages, voice stuck in his throat. He feels, oddly, as if he has stumbled inside someone else’s dream. “I’m so sorry.”
Her chin dips, almost resting against her neck. “He wouldn’t — wouldn’t let them in. Kept them at bay, at the door - like a common mongrel. Earned him twenty lashes.”
God, he thinks.
“Twenty lashes, and all he did was bite his tongue. Bite his tongue and return to his brother’s room, and sit at the edge of his bed. Refused supper. Refused sleep. Stayed there until Regulus woke.”
This is — he thinks, wildly. This is wrong.
“Ma’am?” he reaches across the thick space between them, with his hand outstretched. “Mrs Black.”
She spasms. Her hands startle on the arm of the chair, and her hair flies back from her face when her head jerks up. Their eyes meet, briefly, and he sees the exact moment when her pride and reality come back to her, filling her up and shooting through her veins.
“What,” she snarls. “What enchantment?”
“Ma’am,” he leans back, sharply. “Not that - are you feeling — ?”
“Out,” she cries. It rises, like a roar of bubbling water, into a scream. “Kreacher! Out of my house! Kreacher!”
The house elf finds him halfway down the stairs: its yellowed teeth bared close to lunging out and biting at his calves.
“Out!” it shrieks. It echoes her screams that follow him down the stairs, through the hall, and out into the wet and shaking evening light.
Now, every night since Grimmauld Place, he dreams that he has been in Azkaban.
Someone is calling him, down a long corridor. There is no light, and there is the sensation of cold fingers on the back of neck.
He wakes to the feeling of spiders skittering down his legs, disappearing through his toes. And he sits on the edge of Harry’s bed, watching his sleeping face until he is able to stop the trembling in his fingers.
Some nights, he dreams that he is in Azkaban, and there are bars at his face. There are bars lashing at his face, at his skin, and someone’s human hand is gripping at his wrist, trying to pull him in.
Other nights, he dreams that he is in Azkaban, and Sirius Black is standing in a pool of red light, under a thick sunset, watching him without a face.
Who are you, he screams. Because he has no voice, the Sirius Black with no face just laughs, without a mouth.
At the very end of the month, he dreams that he has been in Azkaban. He dreams that he is walking the corridors with a hoard of Dementors at his back, with their cold skeleton-hands and their slimy, rotting fingers pressed along his spine and his shoulder and his elbows, guiding him forward. He dreams that he hears distant screams of sorrow, like the howling of wolves and the squeal of dying prey. He dreams that there are iron bars around him - that it is dark. So dark.
He dreams that he is sitting in an armchair across from Bellatrix Lestrange. She looks half-young, half-old, this imagined crease of space and time. He dreams that he sits across from her, and when she opens her mouth to speak, the full moon presses open her jaws from the inside-out, flies out of her throat and hangs above them like a lantern.
Do you know Sirius Black, he asks her.
Do you know Sirius Black, she echoes.
Do you know Sirius Black, says the full moon. It sounds like Albus Dumbledore.
From somewhere down the corridor, the sound a baby crying. It is Harry, he thinks.
Harry, he says.
Harry, says Bellatrix Lestrange.
Harry, says the full moon.
Do you know Sirius Black, he asks her, again.
Do you know Sirius Black, she echoes, again.
Sirius Black, says the full moon. Do you know him?
I know him, he says.
The full moon howls, and Bellatrix Lestrange reaches out with both hands and grabs the full moon and cradles it to her suddenly bare breasts like small, nursing child.
Wolf, says the full moon. Monster. What do you know.
What do you know, says Bellatrix Lestrange.
He knows smell, says the full moon. He knows smell and blood.
I need him, he says. He says it, but he knows that he doesn’t, because his throat is full of the ocean and the setting sun, that all he can taste is salt and burning light.
You need the beginning, says the full moon, which is now Fenrir Greyback the way he looked all those years ago, before he was Fenrir Greyback, when he was a man pressing Remus - child Remus, small Remus, whole Remus - up against the rough wooden wall of a barn, and shoving his thick hands down around Remus’s thighs and licking at his straining neck with a mouth that smelled like gasoline and rotting fish. And then, when he was a wolf, biting at the thin, snap-able ribs of Remus’s skeleton.
You need to go back to the beginning.
No — he tries to stand, he tries to stand and leave and run out of this place that he has arrived to, that he has brought himself to the edge of, and he feels as if he is crying. Not you not you not you. Not you.
He wakes, with a horrifying shudder - and a shout halfway through his throat – with the sound of Bellatrix Lestrange’s terrible laughter in his head.
He spends the day in a daze. At first, halfway through his morning tea, with Harry happily chatting beside him, he chalks it up to that night’s full moon: to that fact that this month has been more stressful than most, perhaps, and that he is very tired.
But that afternoon, when he and Harry step out of the Weasley’s Floo, and Harry slips all too easily out of his hand to go find Ronald and show him his new toy boat and the box of drawing pencils that Remus purchased him in a fit of guilt, and the Weasley children are hurtling around him, screaming with all the excitement of the trip to Platform 9 and ¾ tomorrow, with the advent of the new school year and all the preparations that have happened that day — even with all that, all he can think about is the fact that he has been smelling Fenrir Greyback on his skin in a way that he has not since he was fifteen, and learned the name of him.
Molly looks appropriately frazzled: her hair coming loose from her braided bun, and her small daughter at her hip, her arms out to catch a wildly screaming young Weasley boy with spectacles, as he goes ripping past her legs in pursuit of an older brother.
“Muuuum! Mum, mum, Bill’s got Scabbers, he says he’s going to — ”
“Percy,” she scolds. “We have company, don’t act like such a crazed animal!”
“Mum!” the child wails - Percy. “Mum, Bill’s — Bill’s taken Scabbers, it’s my rat and he’s taken it and he says he’s going to take it with him to school tomorrow and that’s not - I want — that’s not fair!”
“Percy!” she says, sternly. “Remus, I’m so sorry.”
“No - ” he starts, but a teenaged Bill is screaming from the top of the long, twisted stairwell.
“My rat died! I want this one! If I go back to school without one, everyone will - ”
“It’s not your rat, William Arthur Weasley! You give it back to your brother immediately!”
“This instant! Remus — ah, I’m so sorry.”
“No, I’m. I’m sorry to have to - ”
“Nonsense,” smiles Molly, strikingly calm despite the fact that there is a struggling child trying to wrench free of her grasp. “We completely understand. It’s no trouble at all to take Harry with us to the station tomorrow, too - the whole brood usually comes anyway, and it’s so exciting for the children to get to see the train, even if they’re not getting on it, Merlin help us when they do!”
“I can’t thank you - ”
“Nonsense,” says Molly, with a kind of sternness normally devoted to her own children. “Now get going - I don’t want to have to keep you any longer than we have.”
He calls to Harry before he steps outside to Apparate, but Harry, it seems, is long gone, wrapped up in some game in one of the topmost rooms. There is something gnawing at his insides, he realizes, as he closes the door behind him. It is not, guilt, he thinks. It is not failure, he thinks. It is not the moon, he thinks. It was — it was that dream.
He pulls out his wand.
I’m so close, he thinks, at the very moment that the act of Apparation pulls him under.
When he spills out into the grounds of Hogsmeade - he smells it, immediately. It is there, on the wind, in a way that is entirely unable to be a coincidence. It is there, in the air. That horrible, glorious scent.
He hisses it out into the air. I’m so close.
Back to the beginning?
Back to the beginning, said the moon that had been Albus Dumbledore that had been Fenrir Greyback that had been himself, after all.
He takes off toward the flickering outskirts of the Forbidden Forest, in a way that he never has, in a headlong run. The sunset is at his back, hurtling him through the world.
He finds Rubeus Hagrid dozing by the fire in the middle of the small Groundskeeper’s hut. He has fallen in the pumpkin patch, scrambling - half-dazed - to the steps, and he is sure (somewhere, in the rational side of himself, long-distant now) that he looks an utter mess, bleeding from the forehead and panting in the onslaught of the suddenly chill air.
“Wassat — ” Hagrid starts, rousing halfway from the chair, and Remus holds out a hand, still catching his breath.
“Rubeus — ” he pants. “Rubeus, I need — ”
“Lu - Lupin?” Hagrid rubs at his grizzly face, rubbing at his eyes with his great mitt-like hands.
“Listen to me,” Remus pleads, sharply. “Snape — Snape said, last month, that — that there were animals, creatures being pushed out of the forest. Into the grounds. Is that — is that true?”
“Wha’ - I - ” Hagrid blinks unsteadily.
“Is that true?” He hisses.
“Wha’ - yeah. Yeah, bu’ - ”
“It’s him,” Remus grinds out. “I need - ”
“Lupin,” Hagrid is clearly more awake now. “They - the centaurs - they think it’s — yeh know.”
“Werewolves,” he says, with the pounding of blood in his ears.
Hagrid just stares. “Wha’ - how did yeh — ”
“The motorbike,” he says, before he knows that he is speaking. “I need it. Please.”
It has been stored under a thin dropcloth in the back of Hagrid’s shed for years now. When he pulled back the cloth, a shower of dust erupted, and dislodged a lumpy, black mass of fabric that fell to the floor of the shed with a dull thump.
What — he had started to say, to the empty room, when he leaned down to retrieve it, and had his fingers jolt at the utterly familiar sensation of soft, beaten leather under his fingers.
He is wearing it, now, as he hurtles through the forest on the motorbike, too close to skidding out at every turn, his pulse screeching in his ears, with the last vestiges of the light thudding through the whistling trees. The motorbike shudders underneath him; he feels crazed, vaguely sick to his stomach, but he knows it. He knows that this is what he’s meant to do. This is the beginning - it could even be the end.
I could know, he thinks, as the sun dips even lower on the horizon. I could know tonight if Sirius were innocent.
I could speak to this thing of evil - because he was, because we knew he was — he was one of them, and he will know, the thought swells up inside him like a howl of triumph. He has to know, if Sirius is -
Something like a solid shadow leaps across the forest floor in front of him, and he grabs at the brakes reflexively, the motorbike screeching with the effort of the sudden stop, and his weight tilts, and he goes skidding to the ground with dizzying force.
He is panting, wincing as he extracts one leg from underneath the toppled bike, and the shadow streaks across the corner of his vision again – his heart skitters in his chest. His breathing is loud, open-mouthed, and echoing in the creaking forest.
He pulls his leg free, staggering to his feet, and he clutches at his head when he feels that tug of vertigo, the unsteadiness of his own human body. He clenches his teeth and squeezes his eyes shut.
Not yet, he grits his jaw, and tries to hang on to the edges of his own flesh, his own bones - which are all bursting to be something else. Please, not yet I’m not ready I need to find him I need to, not yet.
When he opens his eyes again, he is surrounded.
They are naked, mostly. A few scraps of fabric hanging from their limbs, here and there, but mostly naked. They are still human, however vaguely. One of them is wearing a rabbit skin: he smells the blood, sweet, and gamey, and wheaty like the wet husks of a sown field. Their hair is overgrown, matted with leaves and dirt and the pure scent of themselves. In the eerie, dappled light, he can almost see all of their shining bodies, that they are all patterned with the cartography of silvery scars.
There is a young girl among them. Her body looks so young and whole. Her skin looks oddly serene - smooth. She stands with her shoulders straight, and she looks at him with narrowed, dark eyes. When she opens her mouth, to breathe the air with the flat surface of her tongue, he sees that her teeth have been filed into points.
He hisses, involuntarily, at the air. I am really here, he thinks. God - god, I’m here.
He smells him. Like the point of a knife slicing through the air. Greyback is there. Greyback is behind him.
Greyback’s voice is at his ear; Greyback’s fingers are pressed against his neck, pushing up into his hair, holding at the back of his head. Greyback’s nose is pressed up against the shell of his ear; Greyback’s voice is licked against his jaw.
“Know that sweet smell anywhere.”
He fights to keep his eyes open. The girl’s face seems caught somewhere between laughing and screaming - with her tongue out, and those teeth.
“Wish we’d had you, at that young.”
“You did,” he says, finally. The tug of the moon - growing hot and fat beyond the horizon, burgeoning - makes his throat rusty, his voice full of the dust of his grinding bones. “I was so much younger.”
“But I never had you,” says Greyback. Regretful, sweet.
It is the gentleness he remembers. When he first hit puberty, at thirteen, he had three months of horrifically confused, desperate dreams. The first time he made himself come, he thinks, half-asleep and terrified, buried underneath a Gryffindor coverlet, it was to a twisted memory of Greyback’s palm-paw pressing against his bared stomach, just before the teeth scraped his neck.
“Not the way you wanted, I suppose,” he says. “No.”
Greyback laughs. “No.”
“He’s not one of us,” comes a voice, from the edge of the shadows.
Greyback snarls; he feels the lips drawing back, the baring of teeth, against his temple.
“I am,” says Remus, and he feels the sudden shudder of Greyback’s body against his, when he says it. “I am one of you.”
“Such words,” Greyback purrs, pressing a hand up against the back of Remus’s skull, sifting through his hair. “I don’t believe you. You stink like them. You stink like you want a fucking human thing.”
“What if I do?” he whispers, turns his head slightly, into Greyback’s hand.
“We could kill you,” says Greyback, softly. So gently.
“You could,” he swallows. “But then you wouldn’t have me.”
A silence. A rustle in the leaves. From somewhere, a voice starting its groan, the weight of its body too much for it.
“Have you?” hisses Greyback.
“I’ll change with you,” he grits out, panting with the resistance against the tug of the moon. “Tonight - I’ll — I’ll be with you tonight.”
“And tomorrow - you,” he pauses, gathers himself. “You answer a question for me.”
Greyback laughs, a rusty howl. He leans in, presses his lengthening teeth to Remus’s neck, and whispers it — “Deal.”
Remus has never felt more grateful for the pain of his body ripping itself apart. The moon, at that moment, when it rises into being over the edge of the world, is like a wash of benediction, like the soothing touch of rain on his parched skeleton and his bared skull.
The light of the morning tugs at him, from under his closed eyes. He groans, softly, into the air, and tastes his chapped lips, and the remnants of gristle in his teeth, warm blood coating his throat. His body feels so old, but so purely aware of itself, coated in its painful newness.
He groans again, and opens his eyes. The sun pierces him, down to his ribs. He squints up into the swaying treetops, and feels the rough pulse of a tree-root digging into his spine. There is the heavy warmth of someone’s arm slung across his waist, someone’s hot breath ghosting over the crook of his elbow.
He remembers - with striking clarity - the freedom of that night, just past behind him. The push and pull of other bodies: of knowing that he was reassured and guided and fed by the pounding hearts and pounding feet of this sort of kin. He feels a sudden welling of nausea, and scrambles for a handhold, as he leans up and over the tree root, and vomits in a pile of dead leaves.
“Lovely,” croaks someone, just to his left.
He wipes his mouth, shuddering, feeling the little retching remnant-shudders of his body slowly dissolve back into his spine. He turns his head, hand still pressed to his lips, and focuses blearily on the naked form of Greyback just beside him.
He wets his lips - still tastes blood there. He cannot speak - only makes a hoarse, disgusted sort of noise.
“Wild hog,” says Greyback, with a blurry, full-toothed smile. His fingers press against Remus’s bare stomach. “Not our favourite, but good enough. Suppose.”
Remus heaves himself to sitting with a gasp of air, vertigo tugging at his temples. He takes several throat coating inhales of cool, early morning air, and focuses again on Greyback’s face, which is so strange when lit by something other than the shadows and the moonlight.
“Our deal,” he rasps.
And Greyback laughs. For a sick moment, Remus entertains the thought that he has been fooled: that he is doomed, now, to have this experience deep within himself like all the others, as a failure of his own soul.
“Our deal,” echoes Greyback, and his lips pull back in that half-gentle smile - with all the canines exposed. “Have you earned it?”
“Have I?” he whispers.
Greyback makes a thick, deep noise in his throat, and pulls himself to sitting: large, scarred hands pressed palm down on those old-man knees. “You stayed with us,” he says.
“Did you think I wouldn’t?” he manages.
“Yes,” Greyback grins, eyes flickering to Remus’s face. “I always thought you were my greatest failure - however sweet it was to take you.”
Remus feels saliva building in the back of his throat; his teeth clench together to keep the nausea down again. “But,” he whispers.
“You proved me wrong,” murmurs Greyback. “Somehow.”
He shakes his head, pinching the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, to try and clear a fuzziness that has settled there. “I don’t.”
“You are — ” Greyback’s voice seems very far away. “Powerful. It’s impressive. You embrace it - for one so long with them. You are unashamed.”
“I - ” I am, he wants to say. I am, so. But.
The jacket. It is there, by his naked feet. He reaches for it, suddenly, gathers it up into his hands, balls it up and holds it to his chest. He looks at Greyback, who looks at him, with narrowed, sleepy eyes.
“This - ” he holds it out. Extends it to Greyback, who takes it with a battered-looking hand. “This belonged to someone. Someone that I.”
Greyback is looking at it, very close to his face. Remus holds back a wave of nausea. So close.
“When you were near — near He Who Must Not Be Named. Did you ever smell — did you ever scent that person? The person that owned that jacket?”
Greyback presses it against his face. His eyes drift closed, so easily. There is a long silence. The wind presses through the trees and sends a chill up Remus’s spine. He cannot find breath to fill his lungs.
“No,” says Greyback, and holds the jacket out to him.
He takes the jacket back, with shaking hands. His stomach sinks, somehow. It sinks into the very bottom of his being, and empties him out. It means — he looks down at his naked lap, at his bare legs and his knotted fingers gripping the black leather. It means nothing. It means only that they were never close. It proves, he thinks — absolutely nothing.
“I smelled a rat,” says Greyback. He opens his eyes and finds Remus’s face with his jaundiced gaze.
“I know.” He presses a hand to his forehead, willing away the first edges of an ache. Willing away the first niggling thoughts that he has proved himself useless, that there is nothing left to know, nothing concrete that can save what he thought needed to be saved. “We knew - we knew there was a spy.”
“No,” says Greyback. “I smelled a rat.”
He lifts his head. “What?”
“You heard me,” says Greyback, and he smiles, very slow. “A nasty little rodent. Scent was wrapped all ‘round his feet.”
“Whose feet,” he hisses. His head is pounding. He feels the first rays of sun on his face, and the light finds its way through the trees and it dissolves Greyback’s face into pure, white blindness.
“Voldemort’s,” hisses Greyback, in return.
No, he thinks, slowly, straining into the sun. It couldn’t be -
“Smell him now,” says Greyback.
“What?” The world comes snapping back to sanity. Something deeply unsettling throttles at Remus’s gut. He starts to feel his mind whirling, the wheels clicking into motion, the pieces — all falling very, very slowly, into place.
“You’ve been around him,” says Greyback. “Smell it on you too - the rat. The same one, ‘cause it was never like any of the others - smelled dirty. All mixed-up. Not a good rat. Not a whole rat. A half thing.”
“I’ve - ” he stares. “I haven’t.”
“You have,” says Greyback, and stretches his long, thick-boned arms, the joints popping. “Not close, no. But recent. Same one.”
“I don’t - ” he grabs blindly at Sirius’s jacket, pulls it to his chest. “I don’t have a - ”
Muuuum! Mum, mum, Bill’s got Scabbers, he says he’s going to -
No - he thinks. No, not -
Oh, god, he thinks.
“Peter,” he snarls. He feels it rise up in his chest like a wail - like an expulsion of toxins, like vomit - it comes from a place of pure hatred, and it is uncontrollable, and it is making him shake.
“Oh, god,” he says.
And Greyback laughs.
He is half-crazed by the time he reaches the edge of the Hogwarts’ grounds. The sun is almost on its way back down again, from the crest of the sky. He’d left the motorbike wherever it lay when he was ambushed last night; no time to find it. He’d scrambled for his clothes - what was left of them - and wrapped Sirius’s jacket around his shoulders. He’d left the naked, slumbering bodies of his fellow monsters behind him without a second thought; his mind was one beat with his heart: Pe-ter pe-ter pe-ter pe-ter pe-ter.
He limps through the forest - the trees growing thinner now - the sound of Greyback’s laughter at his heels, and the horrific, gnawing sensation of his own brain trying to fit the scattered pieces back together. Was it? he thinks, panting, leaning on the trunk of an old, knotty oak to catch his breath. Was it even possible?
He hadn’t gone to the funeral. Nothing much left to bury, said Mundungus Fletcher, one night. Insensitive, but not unkindly.
Nothing much to bury, he thinks, and swallows, starting out again on his screaming, aching feet. Except —
That rat, he thinks. That rat - is it possible? Could it be. So close, all this time, and I never knew — I never thought, even once, that it could be —
He tries to remember when he first saw the young Weasley child clutching the rat to his chest. Not — not before James and Lily, he thinks. No. He is certain. Not before. It was after. It was after. It could have been – he chokes, on a stroke of nausea at the back of his head, and an upsurge of saliva in his mouth. He drops to his knees in the wet grass – free of the forest, now – and presses his forehead to the ground – the soft, sweet ground – and tries to breathe.
Harry wasn’t two, yet, he realizes, with a low groan. The timing, he thinks. It’s perfect.
In the distance, there is the rattle of wood and iron, and the Hogwarts Express announces its arrival with the beginning of the sunset. A low, coiled wail.
He raises his head. He lets his hatred surge up through his spine. He lets his anger carry him to his feet. He lets it all urge him forward, up the hill.
He is so dizzy. He stumbles into the Grand Entrance: his shoulder throbbing from where he shoved it against the enormous, heavy wooden doors, his hands too leaden to lift them to push it open. There is the soothing, dark-warm light of the Grand Hall, the low, mellifluous, utterly familiar hum and chatter of young voices from down the corridor, where he imagines the Welcome Feast has just begun. He takes three steps, and almost collapses against a marble statue of a griffin, holding the thick body of an eagle in its mouth.
Someone grips his arm.
He bats at them – dazedly. No. So close.
“What on earth — ” Snape is gripping tighter at his arm now, hauling him to his feet. “Where is Potter?”
“We — ” he tries, shakes his head. His mouth is only full of one sound. One sound only. “Peter,” he hisses, against Snape’s arm.
“What?” Snape makes a disgruntled, sharp noise, jostling his arm. “Where have you — ”
“Severus — ” he pants, desperately; tries to raise his eyes, and only manages to raise his forehead off of Snape’s bicep. “Severus, listen to me — there’s been. Peter. Peter Pettigrew.”
“Have you gone mad?” Snape tugs at his arm, he stumbles a few feet down the corridor. The noise of the children fades slightly. “Are you — ”
“He’s alive,” Remus hisses, and digs in his heels, as best he’s able. His head swims, with the effort. “Please — please, you have to. You have to believe me. He’s there — inside, one. One of the children, has him. He’s a rat, Snape. He’s an Animagus, they — they, James and Sirius and Peter, they turned into animals, so they could — they could — ”
“Help you,” says Snape, evenly. He sounds coldly unsurprised.
“Yes,” he swallows, blinks back tears of exhaustion. “Yes — except — I don’t think. It wasn’t Sirius - it was Peter — he’s alive, and. And. And he’s inside — there. One of the Weasley boys. B-Bill? Bill Weasley. A rat. His pet rat.”
There is a long silence. He feels his legs crumpling underneath him, and tightens his fingers on Snape’s arm to keep himself upright. He chokes, on his own breath. His heart is pounding.
“Stay here,” Snape hisses, in his ear, and deposits his shaking body against the statue of the griffin. He grips at its large, cold-marble paw, rests his head against the strong flank, and takes ten long, shuddering, even breaths.
It helps. He is either, he thinks, with a shattered smile tugging at his lips, going to be carted off to St. Mungo’s in the next few minutes, or Severus Snape will appear with Bill Weasley and the little rat, and then he will know. He will know.
His eyes snap open. Bill Weasley, all fifteen years of him, is standing with Snape’s long-fingered hand clutching his shoulder, his bag held tightly to his chest.
“Bill - ” he nods. “Bill, please. I need to see. See your brother’s rat. Did you bring it with you?”
“My mum — ” Bill Weasley is white-faced, and vaguely green around the eyes. “Did she — I swear I didn’t.”
Remus laughs: it sounds cruel and dry in his throat. “Bill,” he croaks. “Bill – for the love of god, give me the rat.”
“Please don’t tell her,” Bill Weasley whispers. “She’ll send me a Howler, and – ”
“Weasley,” barks Snape, at his back, and Bill jumps, dark eyes narrowing.
“All right — I — ”
The bag is opened. Bill reaches in with both hands, and draws out - cupped in his palms - the shaking, squealing form of Scabbers the rat.
He knows it. From the moment he sees that little, trembling, furry body: those black-bright eyes, those little half-bitten ears, he knows.
“It’s him,” he breathes.
“How do you know?” Snape’s fingers tighten on Bill’s shoulder.
“I know him. I’d know him anywhere.”
Wormtail screeches, high-pitched, and tries to bite Bill’s fingers with little, yellowed, gnashing teeth.
“Get Bill out of here,” he whispers, reaching forward to press a gentle hand to Bill’s shoulder. “Severus — please. I. You need to hold it — and. And I’ll.”
“Not here,” Snape says, sharply. “Back, Weasley. And not a word of this until we’ve spoken to the Headmaster. Understood?”
Bill stumbles away a few steps, and he winces, when Wormtail lets out a particularly high squeal, struggling in Snape’s grip.
“Back,” Snape snarls, even as he grabs Remus’s arm with his free hand, and drags him along the corridor, leaving a stunned and silent Bill Weasley looking after him.
“Where — ” Remus stumbles along after him, his fingers itching to dig into that matted fur and just wring that dirty little neck. If he could only —
“Anywhere but in front of the children, you stupid clod,” Snape hisses, dragging him into an empty classroom: darkened except for a single candle on the empty teacher’s desk, and a small pot of fairies on a shelf in the very back of the room. “If you insist on dragging me into your madness because you cannot see fit to make a coherent sentence, you will at least do so out of bloody sight of the rest of the world.”
Wormtail squeals, again: writhing and twisting, his long naked tail lashing in the air. Snape grunts, and redoubles his grip.
“Now, Lupin - ” he insists, eyes narrowed, skin even sallower in the pale, limited light.
Remus struggles to right himself to standing, putting the solidity of the teacher’s desk at his back. He draws his wand, very slowly. I remember this, he thinks, as his pounding heart fills his head with blood, his vision swimming. I must remember this. This spell.
He raises his wand. He points it at the rat shuddering in Snape’s fingers.
I know you, he thinks, and the room erupts with white-blue light. A flash. And Wormtail drops to the floor with a meaty little thud - utterly still, for the briefest of moments.
And then, the change.
It comes in parts: first the fingers, then the ears, then the nose, the neck, the ribs, the legs lengthening and sprouting and the spine shifting and growing and curving and the face pulling out from itself and the fur retreating into pale, blubbery skin, and the eyes — he knows those eyes. And suddenly. Suddenly it is the half-naked body of Peter Pettigrew, crouched at his feet.
“Well,” he croaks. “Hullo, Peter.”
“R-remus,” says Peter, in a voice that has been utterly misused - more animal than human. “Remus, my old. My old friend.”
Snape makes a noise like his throat has closed up.
His hands are so steady. He feels, suddenly, utterly serene. “Been a while.”
“Don’t move,” Remus says, gently. “Or I’ll kill you.”
“K-kill me — why, why would you — ” Peter reaches for his feet, trembling, curled hands begging for a soothing touch.
He steps back, feels his lip curl in disgust. “I got your letter, Peter.”
“The night James and Lily were killed,” he murmurs, wand still extended. “You sent me a letter. You told me something was wrong.”
“S-Sirius — Sirius was — ” Peter pleads, suddenly, and it sends white-hot flash through Remus’s spine. He lunges forward, grabbing Peter by the fleshy, flabby neck, and hauling him back against the wall, pinning him there.
“Lupi —” Snape starts to protest, but Remus snarls, in spite of himself.
“Say it,” he growls, against Peter’s face - his wand jerked right under Peter’s jaw, digging into the folds of his neck. “I know what you did — what you did to James and Lily — what you did to Sirius — I want to hear you say it.”
“I don’t know what you — ”
“I’m going to kill you, Peter, either way,” he hisses, and his wand jerks in his hand when Peter swallows, gasping. “Save what little of your soul you have left.”
“Lupin,” Snape hisses at his ear. “A body is not a confession.”
“In this case,” he hisses back. “A body is still evidence enough!”
Peter squeals. “Please! Please don’t — don’t — I’ll tell you, but please don’t — don’t. Don’t. James — James never would have. He never would have wanted you to — to become a murderer.”
It hits him, like a stinging slap. His fingers spasm against Peter’s throat.
“Like you did?”
Peter bursts into tears. “What — what could I have done?” he wails, clutching at Remus’s arm with both his hands. “The Dark Lord — the Dark Lord — he was so — so powerful. You have no idea. When — When Sirius came to me - suggested that I — that we switch, that we switch Secret Keepers, it was all because the Dark Lord had — the Dark Lord had. He already had me. Remus. Remus. He — he would have killed me, and I — ”
“Then you should have died,” Remus whispers, blood pounding in his ears. “You should have died.”
Peter lets out a low wail, and struggles once more - like the last spasm of a dying moth.
Avada Kedavra, he thinks.
Remus chokes. Bile in his throat. Pure anger in his veins. He can hardly see. He drives his wand against Peter’s throat - the words are almost in his mouth.
Avada Kedavra, he thinks.
It could be so simple. It would be pure revenge. So delicious. So simple, he thinks, and I would be right, in doing it.
I was right, he thinks, suddenly. I was right. Sirius. Sirius was — Sirius is innocent.
Avada Kedavra, he thinks.
Sirius, he thinks, and his eyes threaten to drift closed with pure release, pure exhaustion. Sirius can be free.
His wand jerks, in his hand.
“Stupefy,” he whispers.
And he hears Snape exhale behind him in pure relief, as Peter Pettigrew’s unconscious body slumps to the ground.
The sea is empty. The sky is full of golden clouds, and bright cherry-crimson light. Azkaban is a thick, black smudge on the horizon. It bleeds shadow like spilled ink. It has no form, from the shore: at this time of day, when everything is absorbed in light and reflection and light and reflection, and Remus can't make out where the ocean ends and the sky begins, because everything has fallen into the same collapsed space of breathing, seeing, waiting.
He is sure that the wind is picking up now, now that the sun is setting. He is sure that it will get quite cold, here on the north shore of some forbidden and forgotten beach, the shove-off for the last bit of real life those poor soul will ever see, he thinks. It must be cold, he thinks. But he can't feel it. He feels -- he searches for it. Exhausted, he thinks. I can't stop, he thinks. If I close my eyes, he thinks, I don't think I'll be able to wake up again - but it's not over, yet, and I can't stop until it is.
He tugs at the collar of his coat. He squints at the sunset. The sea is still empty.
"Are you sure -- " he turns his head, to look at Dumbledore, who is beside him. His throat is utterly raw - his voice sounds horrendous. He winces; curls his fingers around the top button of his coat, knuckles pressed up under his jaw. "They really will -- "
"I am sure they will," says Dumbledore. "However reluctantly."
He opens his mouth to wet his lips, and he feels the air rushing into his lungs - over the crest of his tongue, filling his cheeks, spiraling down his throat - tasting like salt and cold light. It jars his nerves. He hasn’t slept, he thinks, in — it must be days, now.
He misses Harry, dreadfully. The last time he saw him - yesterday, in the early hours of the morning, when he slipped in the door from another marathon pardoning session at the Ministry - Arthur Weasley was asleep on their lumpy little couch, and Harry was sitting awake in his room, drinking a glass of water he had cleared poured for himself. He had stood in the doorway of Harry’s cheery little bedroom, dark with shadows, and Harry had looked at him, silently, with those solemn, dark green eyes. It meant he was still half-terrified. And rightly so, he’d thought, and he’d traced the span of morning light across the wood floor until it washed across the skin of Harry’s bare ankle.
Hi, he’d said, finally. Couldn’t sleep?
I was sleeping, said Harry. I just woke up.
Oh, he’d said. Harry —
Are you okay? Harry had asked.
He hadn’t known — he hadn’t known what to say. He hadn’t known how to say it.
He had crossed the morning light scattered on the wood floor, and he had sat down on the edge of the bed next to Harry’s small-and-growing body, and he had pressed his palm down on Harry’s bare ankle, and Harry had let out this perfect little sigh - the kind that said it’s all right, you know, if you’re not, and he had pressed his side up against Remus’s side, and tucked his head down against Remus’s chest, and pulled his arm over Remus’s waist, and Remus felt his eyes growing heavy, and his arms were wrapping around Harry’s thin shoulders, and his face was buried in Harry’s hair.
And then he was crying — very quietly and all of a sudden.
I’m okay, he’d said, after a while, and then he’d made them waffles.
"How did this happen?" he says, watching the sun-coloured sea lick up onto the sand, frothing at the edges. "How did you -- "
"Me?" Dumbledore's voice is almost carried away by the wind. "Are you under the impression that this was my doing?"
He shakes his head. "You told those -- none of this would have been possible without you -- what you asked them to do, to even speak with me. I can't believe that any of them would ever have agreed to it, without your intervention."
"You seem to think that all I do, Remus, is collect favours from unsuspecting victims? I assure you, that is not entirely the case."
He frowns at the empty red skyline - the soft swell of the sea. A sudden gust of wind, and his robes whip around his ankles, and the air sends salt stinging against his skin, his eyes.
"It wasn't only for me," he says, hoarsely. "You know that."
His jaw clenches. "It was for Harry. And for James and Lily. And for everyone who fought with us -- who always thought that we might still be able to win, even when. When things didn't look that way."
"And it was for you," says Dumbledore. His long white fingers appear from the woolen folds of his sleeves, knotting in the skirts of his robe, gathering them up. "To deny yourself that satisfaction, I think, is to ignore the fact that this would not have been possible without you."
He feels a hot, chalky knot forming in his throat. He shakes his head.
"Without your considerable commitment to the man on that boat."
He raises his eyes to the skyline. "What -- " he starts.
And then, oh. He sees it. It is fragmentary - minuscule - a dipping little speck of darkest black that Azkaban has spit into the red water of the sea. It rides the crest of a wave, and disappears behind a swell, and his heart seizes up into his throat, and his ribs clench around his belly, and his lungs fill up with salty, ocean-whipped air, and his hands are shaking, suddenly, where they grip the collar of his coat.
He thinks -- he thinks he can smell it. Sirius's skin, from across the waves. Sirius's being - his long body folded in the prow, his black hair in the wind, his large palms gripping at the wet, splintering wood of the keel. The weight of some dark life - dark years full of madness and hurt and small windows and the smell of despair mixed with the sea - the weight of it all wrapped around those shoulders. The shoulders he remembers carrying the weight of all of them, of their courage and their sadness and their heady adolescent, all buoyed up onto the form of Sirius Black. At times, he thinks, at times, carrying - oblivious - the love of those people around him, who knew what Sirius Black meant to them - even those who were never so brave as to say it with their mouths and their words.
The sun slips behind Azkaban, and rings it with a halo of blood-coloured light.
The boat pushes through the waves like a black arrowhead.
He can see —
He finds himself at the edge of the water. He is pushing into the foam, he is pushing into the cold, into the wet, into the dark, mirrored surface that was the separation, the thing, the world that had meant all of the lies he had told himself — how easily he had let himself believe. He is pushing it away with his body, to meet this arrival.
He can see —
Is that — he thinks. The man in the boat raises his head. Is this —
The cold seawater eddies around his knees. It laps at his fingertips. Even in the glare of the dying sun’s crown, he feels -- he feels un-blinded. He feels un-bound. And when he reaches out a hand to catch the prow, he feels - here, in the world - the solidity of himself.