warning: some other hp characters are dead.
note: this is for buckle_berry, who is now nearing the end of her twenties. and whom i love. tenderly beta-ed by the lovely fitofpique.
In places where nobody was meant to see
Socks are by far the worst of it. His back won’t bend quite far enough to grasp a foot with both hands, and he has to toe his way in awkwardly, wheezing and rocking on the edge of the bed. It’s early spring, still too chilly and damp to make staggering about half-dressed at all advisable, but Lupin regards it as a test of mettle – not to mention his independent living skills – this struggle with the socks. Besides, if he topples sideways and lies like an upturned beetle for a moment or two, panting, waiting for the crick in his lower spine to right itself, there’s no one here to see.
That’s usually the case, at least. Today, curled, foetal, on his side in white vest and corduroy trousers, one sock half on, Lupin is face to face with a large black owl. It eyes him from the window ledge for at least ten withering seconds before tapping at the pane.
Lupin unhooks the window – Merlin, it’s freezing – and the owl leans into the room, offering a leg. It swivels its head to one side, then back, then the first way again, and back. There’s a definite disparaging glint in its eye. Lupin loses patience.
“Come on – out! Out!” He shooes at it, then edges the window slowly closed. The owl jerks back, looking offended. Too bad. He unrolls the note.
Lupin. Are you still alive? The kettle has boiled. I am not making your tea for you.
Spidery handwriting on a torn square of parchment. Unsigned. Well it is a little late, after all.
When he arrives in the kitchen, slipper-clad and leaning on his cane, a cup of coffee, a crumpet and a folded newspaper are sitting on the kitchen table. Severus himself is standing in front of the sink, his back to the room. The window is almost opaque with condensation, but Snape seems absorbed, gives only a grunt when Remus says “Morning, Severus”, and goes to open the cupboard with the mugs.
“Mind my begonias, you wretch!”
“Oh, surely not–”
“Wasn’t he here yesterday?” Remus leaves the cupboard hanging open and goes to stand by Severus. He rubs at the window with the cuff of his shirt, smudging the condensation into a little clear circle that weeps down the glass as far as the frame.
“I told him to come back and cover the vegetables in case you felt the need to mark the garden tonight.” Severus doesn’t look round as he says it. “It’s getting warmer.”
“It must be.”
Harry Longbottom – yet another under-educated, brainwashed, incompetent Gryffindor saddled with the handle of an ignorant and kamikaze boy hero (Severus’s opening gambit last year) – has stripped down to his undershirt. Remus and Severus stand side by side for a minute or two, watching as the man in the garden arches his back, stretching, and rubs his forehead with the back of a gloved hand. Muscles flex and slide in his upper arms; a smear of mud is left on his brow. Set against the farm and hills beyond the garden, he looks surprisingly picturesque – a lusty son of the soil.
“Why don’t you look like that any more?”
Remus laughs, surprised. “I never looked like that.”
However one may try, it’s difficult to ignore the memento mori their reflections make, ghosting over the far more pleasing view outside. Two aged wizards – one jowly and pinched, with a forehead set in deep lines, something bitter on his tongue, the other scarred and grey, perpetually tired-looking. No beauties, it’s true, even when they were young and full of energy, they make a pair of very plain old men. Longbottom finally seems to sense their gaze, and looks up towards the house. Remus lifts his hand in a little wave, only to lower it again sheepishly when Severus’s head snaps round towards him.
“Tea, Lupin. Stop making a fool of yourself.”
Lupin retrieves a cup, barely batting an eyelid as the cupboard door slams shut, a whisker away from his fingertips. “Any post today?”
“Only the usual.” Snape has gone to sit at the kitchen table, where he is leafing through the Prophet. Through a mouthful of crumpet, he says thickly, “Another brochure from St Bingo’s Asylum for the Incurably Lycanthropic.”
St Mungo’s Benevolent Society Residential Home for Wizards with Congenital and Acquired Dark Afflictions. Lupin sighs to himself. It’s just not worth saying it any more.
“Where is it, then?”
“It’s keeping us warm.”
Remus leans back a little from his position by the worktop and peers over Severus’s shoulder towards the fire. There indeed is a brochure beginning to collapse into the timber, its pages curling, crisp and black. Remus levitates his cup over to the table, then follows it with his lumpy gait. His knee is twingeing unpleasantly this morning; his is a body full of complaints, tired of anticipating the queasy thump of dislocation. He lowers himself slowly into a chair opposite Severus, hooks his stick over the table edge and wraps both hands round his mug.
“We can’t put it off for ever, Severus.”
Severus turns the page of his paper with an impatient crack. “Oh, I don’t see why not.”
Lupin frowns and reaches a hand over to pick a large crumb from Severus’s waistcoat. It’s only force of habit that makes Severus flinch. He does not look up.
“Oh, it’s you. He’s not here.”
“Good morning, Eileen!” Remus says, as brightly as he can, shuffling in with a large wicker basket floating behind him. “I’ve just come in for the washing.”
The portrait looks at him austerely. Her hair is a good deal blacker than Severus’s is now, but her nose is almost as ample and just as effective for looking down. Once, when he was younger and more agile, and out of earshot of Severus, Remus had tried calling her “mother”. That was an experiment not to be repeated, and an unwelcome reminder of the propensity of pureblood witches of the previous generation for having the mouths of Muggle dockyard workers. Still, he rarely has to see her these days – once a week at most, hidden away in Severus’s bedroom – and she has developed the same talent for disparaging tolerance that her son has, though perhaps she puts less effort into the performance.
It is not a large cottage – the dwindling of Severus’s potions work meant that despite some hopes on Remus’s part and many irate owls on Severus’s, they were unable to afford the pile in Yorkshire they had been covetously eyeing. As it is, they have to mind their routines to ensure that they are not constantly tripping over one another.
The positioning of the portraits is likewise strategic. Eileen is more comfortable with only her son for company, and now that Severus no longer visits Remus’s bedroom, Sirius has finally come out of sawdust. Sirius Black. He is beautiful and young in his portrait, perhaps seventeen; it was a gift from the Potters when he left school. When the image is in repose, his chin is lifted and his mouth curled in amusement; his hair is blue-black and still glossy. Sometimes, after a firewhisky too many, Remus remembers a long-buried desire to twist it around a finger and hold it against his lips. Sirius himself will usually break that mood.
“Where’s old Snivellus? Is he dead yet?”
“For pity’s sake, Sirius, shut up.”
After much bequeathing and changing of hands, Remus has also latterly inherited the over-flattering portrait of Harry Potter, commissioned as he spent the last weeks of his life unconscious at St Mungo’s, a hero. It’s more of a eulogy than a work of art; the brushwork is poor, and all things considered, it is much too large for the toilet, which is the only place in the house that Severus will allow it to be hung. Harry doesn’t often stir within the frame, which is just as well, as Remus finds it hard enough to relax his bladder as it is. Severus, for his part, has taken to whistling loudly and tunelessly when spending a penny.
The laundry is gathered with a quick immunda leviosa, but Lupin is not out of the room before he catches a frigid, “Lovely day for it.” Even with no view of the window and the moon, which barely dips below the horizon this time of year, Eileen has an unerring eye for Remus’s “black days”.
“Do bring me back a rabbit.”
Sometimes there is simply no need to reply to portraits.
Remus levitates the basket to the kitchen to be scourgified. His back creaks a little as he bends to remove a shirt. It is not yet more than he is capable of, but still he misses Ozzie, forcibly retired four years ago after an absent-minded incendio sent the entire kitchen up in flames. Ozzie was sent to Bournemouth and settled in Elves Unbound in Retirement – a Granger Home (EUR–GH). Since their stand at the Battle of Hogwarts Kitchens, house elves have been entirely out of vogue in ethical terms, and Ozzie was never replaced. It is progress, of course, but a sad misfortune for the cottage. Remus is useless with ironing charms and Severus is no cook, although he will not be told so. Nor will he have a Longbottom picking through his smalls.
There is a knock at the window, and Lupin straightens with a start. Young Harry is leaving. In the absence of Severus’s scorn, Remus applies his own, and tells himself he has no business waving again like a silly girl. He does anyway.
“This is delicious, Severus.”
There is a lot of it, at any rate, and Severus, although he does not look up, seems to smile a little with self-satisfaction. There is a thick grey steak, and potatoes, boiled to death and fluffy. Brussels sprouts for his blood. Remus saws at the meat until his wrists ache.
A plastic cup of wolfsbane potion sits at his right hand. Remus taps the cup with his knife.
“It’s an unusual colour this month.”
“Acanthus leaves. I was reading about it in Potions Bulletin.”
“Really? I thought you cancelled your subscription.” Lupin stares into his cup uncertainly. “After they printed that article about the Weasley Scholarship.”
“The Weasley twins are charlatans and half-wits!” Severus’s drill-sergeant bark makes Remus jump a little in his chair. A potato skitters onto the table.
“Blood pressure,” Remus warns.
Severus takes a deep breath and his cheeks fade quickly from mottled pink to their habitual paper white. He waves a hand dismissively. “Well, perhaps it was Ingredient of the Month in Magic Works, then. I don’t recall.”
It tastes worse than the sprouts, but Remus chokes it down and pastes on a tight smile. At least it’s warm.
“Lovely,” he says wheezily, spearing a chunk of meat. “You haven’t lost your touch.”
Severus gives him a narrow-eyed look that stops Lupin’s fork halfway to his mouth. Severus hasn’t been in his room, surely? He can’t have found the stash under the bed. Remus stuffs the steak in his mouth and changes the subject.
“Will you be staying in this evening, Severus, or have you plans?”
The sun is low now, nudging at the brown hills behind the farm, and their late lunch must be brought to a close. There’s a tractor dragging slowly over the hillside. It must be about two miles away, but Remus’s eyesight is beginning to sharpen as usual, sloughing off the watery blur of a hundred and fifteen.
“I have some reading to do. I’ll be in the study.”
With the door closed, no doubt, as it has been for the past three years. A deep scratch on Severus’s arm and the remnant of a hex scar on Remus’s shoulder attest to the brief but very final contretemps that marked the end of their full moon experiments.
“I am far from an animal lover, Lupin,” Severus had said, the next day. He had insisted on treating the wound himself, though inexpertly. “I suggest that you keep your unfortunate natural instincts, as you call them, to yourself in future.”
Remus had been uncomfortably reminded of Sirius and the “furry little problem”. Eighty years since his first taste of wolfsbane, and he’s still barely house-trained. He’d wanted to wheedle and explain, or maybe clarify calmly exactly how much of the blame lay with Severus, but that has never been the way to Severus’s heart, and so now the door remains firmly shut and Severus firmly beyond it.
Remus limps back to the bedroom, leaving his own door slightly ajar, nose-able open. He sits on the bed and reaches underneath. His joints feel loose; already he can bend and stretch an inch or two further than this morning.
The cans of Weasleys’ Wondrous Were-away have not been touched, thank Merlin. Lupin pulls one out. On the wall opposite, Sirius smiles knowingly.
“I could still turn you round, you know.”
Remus snaps the can open and drinks. The potion tastes like spiced chocolate – richly sweet, but cold.
Remus hunkers down, his haunches against the side of the bed, keeps as still as he can. There’s a soreness in his pelvis that makes him want to whine, as well as the old ache in his shin. Just wait, just wait. Keep still. His ears twitch at the sound of a clatter against the window and he looks up smartly, thinking owl! His tail thumps once, twice, but there’s nothing.
He pushes slowly to his feet and pads around, making sure of the room as he does each month. His slippers, his towel, his pillow, cold metal cans under the bed, a sharp taint of something foreign, a mouse, maybe a day ago. Remus sniffs hard, his muzzle under the bed as far as his eyes. Gone now.
Remus feels dozy almost immediately. As soon as his brain adjusts to the too-sharp pictures, to the barrage of minute sounds, the stale smells of body and food, his conscience says sleep, lie down, sleep. Remus yawns like a lion. He used to run, but now his blood moves slowly.
He nudges the door open a little and slides through the gap into the hall. His hind leg dangles uneasily, dragging painfully with each tilt of his pelvis. There. Kitchen smells: sprouts and a big fat raw steak somewhere. It’s on a plate by the back door. He sniffs it, his nose almost touching the wet red flesh, testing for mice. There’s only Severus – his hand. Remus licks at the steak, then chews and chews in a sudden rush of saliva and meaty desire.
His teeth are blunt but itchy, and he chews for minutes, making as much of it as he can, the sweet metal softness of it, then he noses the plate away. He’s sleepy, he’d like a hand on his head to soothe and warm – so old now, no pack, only hands when they’re there, when they allow it. He yawns again and trots unevenly to where the coats and cloaks hang, Remus and Severus, pushes his muzzle into prickly black cloth. Severus Severus Severus. He snaps his teeth around a corner of the cloak and tugs. He tugs again, twisting his head, then harder, harder. His neck begins to ache.
Finally the coat stand totters. Remus scrambles back, and watches it crash to the floor, coats everywhere, a hat rolling past his left front paw and into the corner. It was too loud. He will come. Remus waits, whining a little, his tail and ears down, lips lifted from his teeth. He keeps his eyes on the kitchen door, but the house is quiet.
When it is safe, Remus grabs the Severus coat in his teeth and drags it across the kitchen. There is a warm patch of floor by the fire. Sleep, lie down, sleep. He pads the coat flat, sniffing, feeling his bladder tighten – mine, mark it – though habit and a stronger conscience smother the urge. He lies, hind legs tucked at his side, forelegs crossed. The black coat tickles at his belly where the fur is growing thin. He lowers his head onto his paws. Severus Severus Severus. A loud cough comes from somewhere down the hall and Remus’s head jerks back up, expectant. Wait, wait, nothing.
He settles again. Sleep is coming. His tail twitches. Remus dreams of running, of meat that moved.
Remus wakes on the kitchen floor, exhausted, naked and half wrapped in a cloak. Severus is standing over him with a face that says why must I always find you like this, and it’s a situation that has never really ceased to be awkward.
For want of something better, Remus tries “I think we have mice.” It comes out as a gasp. His leg is white-hot agony.
Severus raises an eyebrow. “Well, if you can’t even keep the mice away, you really are no use to me. I will owl St Mungo’s at once.”
He doesn’t put out a hand to pull, but crouches on his heels by Remus’s chest, an unpleasant cracking noise coming from the region of his knees. A hand is inserted under each of Remus’s arms and he is lifted bodily to his feet. Severus ignores the rough grunt as Remus takes a little weight on his left leg, but bends again and picks up his own cloak, wraps it around Remus’s bare shoulders.
“Not very decent, I’m afraid,” Remus apologises.
“My expectations have never been terribly high, Lupin.” Severus says it without rancour, almost without sarcasm. He feeds Remus’s arm around his shoulder and supports him slowly, ever so slowly, down the hall to his bedroom. Lupin’s fingers twist in his hair, gripping when the pain shoots through his shin.
“Snivellus!” is all the portrait manages to get out before it is summarily silencio-ed by Severus’s free hand.
There’s a cup of tea waiting on the table by his bed. When Severus has closed the door behind him Remus sips at it. Two sugars. An ashy potiony aftertaste. The stiffness in his shoulders begins to slide away. By the time he is halfway down the cup he’s in a dream. There’s pain, but it could well be someone else’s. He lifts his leg a little to look at his foot. No, it’s definitely his, but he doesn’t care. He smiles at Sirius, who seems to be peering at him in disgust, then he’s falling back onto the pillow, light as a leaf.
Evening sees Remus on the study sofa with a blanket over his legs. Severus has set the fire and it’s nice to sit in silence, eyes closed, listening to the snap of cones on the hearth and the light squeak of quill on paper.
“We could get the chess set out when you’ve finished that letter,” he says, without opening his eyes.
The squeak stops.
“Haven’t you suffered enough?”
“Ah, you never know, Severus. I’m actually feeling quite alert.”
Remus drops off again. He doesn’t dream about running. He dreams about a chess game he once had in an empty dormitory. The room is damp and cold, but his opponent knows a decent warming charm, as well as how to keep the other inhabitants away until lights out. There’s a hasty kiss when the game is lost, the bare minimum of vicious words, and an abortive struggle with a school tie. Then Remus is hurrying back to somewhere friendlier and calmer, and in his hurry he almost doesn’t notice his youth falling away like onion layers in water, a layer with each slap of leather sole on stone, until he is tired and sore and forgetful again. Someone is coming up behind him, nudges him in the arm.
He wakes with a little jerk, opening his eyes, gabbling before he forgets. “Do you remember that time when–” but Severus has left the desk and moved to the sofa.
He is sitting beside Remus, asleep, his mouth slackly open, skinny legs in a sprawl. His wrist is crossed over Remus’s, and their hands lie side by side, palms facing each other. Severus’s hand twitches slightly. His fingers curl inwards and one taps lightly at Remus’s palm with each twitch.
“Imagine holding his hand,” Sirius had said once in the second year.