It had been fifteen years since Remus had last walked this stairway. His strength already sapped by the waning moon, he walked it slowly and steadily, not wanting to be out of breath by the time he reached her rooms.
He hadn't had the chance to talk to her at the Welcoming Feast. The view from the High Table had been surreal, like watching his childhood from above. She'd been sitting at Dumbledore's right hand, but he'd only caught glimpses of her from the corner of his eye. Snape had been an icy presence beside him, seeming to dare him to step out of line.
The centuries-smoothed bannister felt so familiar beneath his hand as he gripped it tightly, using it to help pull himself up each step. He flinched inwardly at the memory of what it was like to have everyone else racing, bustling, laughing round him in these corridors, to be the only boy his age who got winded just walking up the stairs.
At last he reached her office door. It was shut, with an outline of orange firelight round the edges. For a long moment, he stood still. As his breathing slowed, his ears caught the subtle echoes of children's voices far below the stairwell — new students being shown to their rooms. He raised his hand to knock, but stopped halfway, caught in the shadow of decision. All during the long, hazy summer he'd thought of this, of what he should say, of how he should act.
He still didn't know.
He closed his eyes, drew in a long breath through his nose, and knocked at Minerva's door.
When it opened, the years since they'd last stood face to face vanished in an instant. Seeing it was him, her eyes crinkled into a smile; the knotted tension in his stomach unraveled.
"Remus," she said, a note of relief in her voice. "Please, come in."
He did. The door clicked shut behind him, and with a small hesitation that made them both chuckle awkwardly, she opened her arms and they embraced. It had been so long since he'd held her this way — his palms on her back, her birdlike frame pressed against him, the clean scent of her.
"I'm so glad you've come," she said, muffled against his shoulder.
"You look beautiful," he replied into the crook of her neck, and for a moment he was certain it was all going to be as it was before, only this time better, older, wiser.
He felt her body tense. She put her hands on his arms and gently moved him away, held him before her. She wasn't smiling anymore.
"Please don't misunderstand me," she said. Over her glasses, her eyes were both stern and sorry. It reminded him of how she'd used to look when delivering bad news to a student who'd tried his best. "I am glad to see you, but... I'm with someone now."
Remus's hands went cold.
"Oh, I — I'm sorry. I shouldn't have assumed... It's been a very long time, after all."
He heard himself say that, and it sounded very reasonable. That was a skill he had — to sound calm when he wasn't.
"It's not a bit your fault." She drew her hands down to his and held them gently. "It's not meant to be generally known, given that... well, teachers aren't technically permitted to fraternise."
"Ah," he said, feverishly flipping through a mental list of the Hogwarts staff.
It was with an air of combined apology and defiance that she put him out of his suspense:
"It's Severus," she said.
Remus took it well. He was not the sort to be envious, nor a sore loser.
That was what he told himself as he got ready to take Minerva out to dinner for her birthday. As a friend, of course. He looked at himself in the mirror, combing his hair and frowning at the streaks of silver. He looked so much older now, and she so much the same.
When they met at the restaurant, he gave her a hug that only made their shoulders touch. Not too close. Appropriate.
As they waited for their meals, they chatted about his new students, as colleagues would naturally do. Her elegant hand brought the wine glass to her lips, and he didn't think of how her mouth had felt pressed against his own, nor of the dry warmth of her palms against his skin. He didn't think, either, of her hands touching Snape's body, nor running through his long, black hair.
What he'd had with Minerva was a thing of the distant past, a folly of youth, a relic of the War. It was moments together in exhaustion after a long stakeout; it was quiet conversation at his flat late at night, when death seemed loomingly close. It was her calmly assured presence beside him, in his arms, in his bed. It was his face buried in her chest, her touch pressed against his back, strong and steady.
With a merry little smile, she thanked him for a lovely evening and kissed him on the cheek. And as he returned to the empty offices he'd been assigned, he told himself again and again: He was not still in love with Minerva.
The scent of the wood of the Quidditch stands, wet beneath a day's worth of rain, was the same as it had been when Remus was a boy. He squinted out through the misty grey, barely making out the flecks of red and yellow moving like leaves in the wind.
Below and to his left, Minerva and Snape were sitting together under the same umbrella charm. He couldn't hear what they were saying over the hiss of rain and the roar of the crowd, but whatever Snape just said made Minerva quirk a wryly amused smile and nudge his shoulder subtly and companionably with her own.
Remus's transformations were always worse in the winter. The nights were so long that they felt eternal, and the cold seemed to make the wolf's blood run hotter.
But more than that, when he checked the calendar and saw the dreaded white circle beneath the 25th, he felt a jab in his chest at the memory of a little boy crying because he was going to miss Christmas.
The day before the moon, he went out to Hogsmeade. The sky was a frigid blue, and he walked idly round the village for longer than he needed to, fiddling with the holes in his coat pockets. He went past the door of the Three Broomsticks twice before finally deciding to go in.
"Might it be possible," he asked Rosmerta, "to have a bottle of port delivered to someone on Christmas Day?"
Each month, Snape brought Remus the potion personally, despite being obviously terrified of him. Remus found something perversely admirable in that.
He approached Remus's desk without a word, black eyes shining with hate, body tight as an overwound violin string. Remus took a breath and placed himself in calmness, as one would do with a frightened dog.
Snape set the potion down and stared Remus in the eyes. Remus could see how difficult it was for him to do that, each breath coming out with a slight tremor. Several breaths passed and Remus said nothing, waiting.
"Do you think," Snape said at last, in a tone of dire accusation, "that I don't know what you're up to?"
Remus hesitated, searching for the most neutral way to respond, and finally settled on, "I'm sure you know many things."
Snape bared his teeth, breath coming through in a hiss. He placed his palms down on the desk and leaned forward, the wisps of cerulean steam from the potion curling up about his face. Remus did not move back, but merely tilted his head to hold Snape's gaze.
Snape blinked first. With a snarl, he turned on his heel and walked swiftly away.
Remus watched Harry walking ahead of him, picking his way carefully among the icy patches where the earth had melted and re-frozen time and again. They'd taken to walking after their Patronus lessons; it seemed to make it easier for Harry to talk, perhaps because he didn't have to look Remus in the eye, and any gaps in the conversation seemed more peaceable than awkward.
The woods were at their safest now, on the day of the new moon, and Remus could almost enjoy the scent of moss and the cold, still air. As Harry hopped over a stone, arms out and trainers squelching in the half-frozen mud, Remus was suddenly astonished at how young he was, and for the first time felt actually old enough to be his teacher.
When he and Minerva had been together, Remus was twenty, and he'd thought himself quite old enough at the time. But Minerva had known him at this age, Harry's age, all skin and bones, earnest and uncertain, half-mad with adolescence.
And, of course, she'd known Snape, too.
"Look," Harry said, pointing skyward.
Following his gaze, Remus saw an eagle wheeling slowly in the pale sky. Harry's face was tilted upward and wore a broad, open grin. He was from the city, after all, and perhaps was seeing this for the first time.
After the moon, Remus woke to a firm but quiet knock at his office door.
"Just a moment," he called through a raspy throat. Coughing to clear it, he pulled on his trousers and hunted for a shirt. He always took his clothes off before he transformed; he couldn't afford to replace torn ones.
When at last he opened the door, it was Minerva, hands clasped before her and looking grave.
"What's the matter?" he blurted out, afraid someone had died (the perpetual fear he always had upon waking). "I mean — my manners. Come in." He opened the door wide for her.
"It's quite all right," she said, entering. "I apologise for disturbing you so early, but I'm afraid I have some urgent news."
"Tea?" he asked automatically with a gesture toward his private room, trying to tamp down the panic rising in his throat.
"Yes, that would be excellent, if you don't mind."
"No trouble at all," he muttered.
The elves came and went in moments, and he sat down beside her on the little sofa, hands trembling as he put sugar in his cup.
"Three nights ago," she began, "the day of the Quidditch match, after you'd retired..." She caught Remus's gaze and looked him squarely but kindly in the eyes, as though bracing him. "He broke into the castle again."
Remus set his cup down on the low table before them with a soft clink.
"Was... anyone hurt?" he asked, his mouth gone dry.
"No. Only frightened. He was gone before he could be apprehended."
Remus nodded numbly, watching the steam rising from the floral-patterned teapot.
"I thought it was important that you know as soon as possible," she went on. "I know it's—"
She stopped herself, seeming to think better of her words. Took up her cup and leant back in her seat, crossing her legs beneath her robes.
"I was about to say that I know it's been hard on you. But I don't suppose I do know, do I?"
A strange smile tugged at the corner of Remus's mouth. He shook his head.
With a sigh, she propped her elbow up on the back of the sofa and leant her head against her hand. As she moved, the morning light from the window passed across her face, making her skin seem to glow.
"My personal feeling of it," she said at last, "has been very much like the War. We're all in such danger, yet a surprising number of things go on as they ordinarily do." She sipped her tea.
"Keep calm and carry on," he said.
"Mm. Exactly. It all begins to seem a bit surreal."
"I suppose that was what made it all possible," he said tentatively, peering at her sidelong.
She looked at him quizzically; he made a small gesture between them.
She nodded, understanding. With a glance into her cup, she said, "When everything seems off-kilter, we can do things that we might not normally." Her eyes met his again, her gaze soft and even. "But I hope you don't regret it."
The surprised breath of a laugh escaped his lips. "I? All this time I thought you did."
A secret smile spread across her face; she shook her head. He found himself grinning back at her like a fool, and then somehow they both burst out laughing, not because it was funny, but in the joy of relief.
He wasn't doing anything wrong. That was what Remus told himself as he made the gradual walk up to Minerva's office, a bouquet of spring flowers in hand. Just to brighten her room. As a colleague. As a friend. He repeated these thoughts over and over, and the journey up the stairs made him too breathless even to laugh at himself for it. What in God's name was he doing?
As he approached the door, he heard a man's voice. Snape.
"—unbelievably irresponsible. How many times is Black going to mysteriously 'break in' before the most obvious explanation is even considered?"
Remus pressed himself against the wall, eyes closed to concentrate better on what he could hear on the other side. Minerva's voice was harder to make out.
"...nothing worth considering. Do you not realise that Remus was indisposed on the night of last month's break-in, and could not possibly have..."
Snape scoffed sharply. Remus heard footfalls pacing back and forth on the creaky floorboards.
"So you think. But do you not realise that no one was watching at his door? I've told Albus he ought to be under guard, and do you know what he said? 'Hogwarts is not a prison, Severus.'"
"Nor should it be. Remus has done nothing worthy of such shabby treatment, nor such suspicion."
The footfalls abruptly stopped.
"Of course he hasn't," Snape said. His voice lowered, and Remus missed a few words; he strained to hear. "...your precious Remus."
There was a breath's pause. When Minerva replied, it was with a quiet voice that belied thunderous anger, barely contained.
"Severus," she said, "I have never seen this jealous side of you before, and I must say, it is extremely unattractive."
If there was more, Remus didn't hear it. He retreated as quickly and soundlessly as possible, the flowers dripping dew onto the steps behind him.
The potion made him harmless. That was what Remus told people, because it was what he needed them to hear. It was true enough, as far as it went. With the potion, he did not run and hunt, bite and slaver. He only curled up in the corner of the room and slept.
But when the wolf slept, it dreamed.
I'm running, running, running, eating up the ground beneath my paws. The boy's scent is on the wind and growing thicker, fouler as I close the distance. His sounds are in my ears, ragged fear-breaths panting through open mouth and branches cracking beneath stumbling feet. Under the trees the moonlight flickers and illuminates glimpses of my prey, wide wild black eyes and black hair that whips in the wind. The heat of him is before me and my lungs are bursting with the need for it, the rage that this one still exists, that this heart still beats that was meant for me.
His limbs flap like a wounded animal and his weakness strengthens me, pure power as I reach him, fall on him, jaws close like a vise, hot copper pours over my tongue and I hold, hold, hold—
Remus awakened, drenched in cold sweat. It was a fine spring day, birds twittering outside, beyond the cloudy, medieval glass of Remus's window.
He went to the toilet and knelt on the floor, naked, and retched, nothing coming up but acid after his three-day hibernation. The wolf did not eat; it only killed.
Trembling, he rose and drank straight from the sink, washing out his mouth. When he caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror, he turned sharply away, unable to look at himself.
The morning after it all happened, Remus awakened in the infirmary, nose full of the scent of sterile sheets. His vision was hazy, and it took several moments of blinking before he realised it was Minerva sitting by his bedside, a book in her lap and her thumb holding the page as she looked at him with concern.
"What—" He started to rise, but was stopped by sharp pains in his chest and legs: the familiar tug of wounds still knitting.
"I wouldn't get up just yet, if I were you," she said with a twitch of a smile. "Poppy's likely to go into fits if I let you."
He glanced round the room, still bleary-eyed. All the other beds were empty, except for one where Ron Weasley lay, eyes closed.
It all came back to him in a panicked wave. He grasped at her hand desperately, stomach somersaulting.
"Do you know what's happened? Did I—?"
"No, you didn't," she said, guiding his shoulder to lay him back down again. "At dawn we searched the forest and found only you. No one else was injured. As I understand it, that—" She nodded toward Ron. "—was Sirius's doing. And entirely accidental."
"So you know, then?" His mind was still swimming, still not sure if he ought to believe all that he'd learned, or if it might yet turn out to be some outlandish dream.
"Yes, Albus has filled me in on the details." Her smile tightened into a grimace. "As has Severus, after his own fashion."
"Sirius is innocent," Remus whispered forcefully. "There is no doubt in my mind."
She hesitated, but said, "I believe you. Unfortunately, there's no evidence. Pettigrew has disappeared, as has Sirius."
With a wincing sigh, Remus lay back on the pillow and shut his eyes against the light. There was the small sound of stirring against the sheets, and he felt Minerva take his hand.
His racing thoughts slowed. Minerva had always had this effect on him, like a rock in a rough sea. She carried an air of calm and surety with her — just the opposite of Snape, who seemed to radiate agitation.
Perhaps, it struck him, that was why Snape needed her.
"I can't do this anymore," Remus said.
"Can't do what?"
He opened his eyes, and saw that her face was openly curious. She really didn't know.
He was almost going to tell her.
Instead, at the last moment, he said, "Severus was right about me. Not— not about helping Sirius; I never did that. But he was right that it's irresponsible to have me here."
She drew back, looking startled.
"Well, I must respectfully disagree. One slip does not make you a danger..."
"And, respectfully," he broke in, "if I had hurt someone last night..." He glanced at Ron, still sleeping, slack-jawed. "...I would be the one who'd have to live with it."
Soberly, she nodded.
"Quite right, of course. It's your decision. Though I do — perhaps selfishly — wish you were able to stay." The corner of her mouth quirked into a smile, and she squeezed his hand.
He shut his eyes tightly for a moment, hoping it could be passed off as a mere reaction to physical pain.
"As do I," he said.