He wakens to starlight.
This is confusing, because the last thing Remus remembers is looking up at the enchanted ceiling and seeing stars.
Or maybe it was the hex that made him see stars; judging from the way merely scrunching his forehead sends lightning bolts of pain through his skull, it was a doozy.
But, apparently, not lethal. He wouldn't hurt like bloody hell if he were dead.
Unless he is in Hell. But he suspects the ceiling of Hell's Great Hall isn't enchanted to look like the sky, with or without starlight.
Starlight. He painfully ponders the meaning, with a growing sense of a din around him, and concludes that either he's been out for mere minutes, or that a night and a day, at least, have passed, since--
He tries to sit up, fully aware now of the groans and wails and sharp, frantic voices echoing off the stone walls and floor. Hands, two pairs of them, gently push his shoulders back onto what feels to be a camp bed. Not, however, before he glimpses of the rows and rows of such beds in place of the long tables and benches that furnish the room, converting Hogwarts' Great Hall into a field hospital.
Ignoring the painful shockwaves radiating through his body, he strains his neck to scan the wounded for a head of pink hair against the stark white linens. When he doesn't find her his eyes do a second sweep, this time for a Dora with brown hair; she reverts to her natural state when she's ill or injured, he'd have thought of that if he himself were in better form. He's seeing double, and his periphery is black, as if he's got blinders on.
"She's not here, Remus."
He stops struggling against the hands, falls back onto the narrow frame bed, barely registering that the message is delivered by Harry and that this means Harry is alive, which means they won, because what does that matter if Dora is…
A broken cry, high and lonely, thrusts its way out of his throat. It sounds like the howls he hates so, but he doesn't even care.
"Harry, you idiot!" scolds Hermione Granger, unpinning his shoulder to catch his hands as she crouches at his bedside. "It's not what you think, Remus. Tonks is alive."
Relief--and pain, he realises, belatedly--make it hard for him to catch much of Hermione's breathless explanation apart from Dora having been moved to St. Mungo's to receive more specialised care--an Auror's privilege. He answered the call to battle believing he would die, summoned Dora trying not to believe that she would, too, so that the idea that she is alive, he is alive, both of them are alive, causes him to float somewhere up among the stars...
Until he notices that The Boy Who Lived Again seems to keeping vigil at the neighbouring bedside, as well, and is pulled down rudely from Heaven to Earth. No, not Earth. He must have died and gone to Hell, after all.
The occupant of the next bed is none other than Severus Snape.
He wakens to daylight.
This is surprising, because the last thing Severus remembers is gazing into a pair of green eyes with the certainty that on the other side, if there was one, would be only darkness.
Not that this light isn't equally blinding, searing his eyes even though he has yet to lift the lids. He recalls stories of light beckoning the near-dead...bright light, lily-white…Lily…and everything in him becomes weightless with the unhoped-for thought that maybe he has found his way into Heaven, after all.
Or maybe he is simply numb. The snake's venom would do that. Numb or dead, he's not particular. He's just relieved to be rid of the burden that's weighted him down for so long.
Then, sound. Sweet, joyous sound, as one could only hear in Heaven, or in a dream of Heaven: the laughter of a child. A small child.
He feels the corners of his lips turn upward in response, the muscles around his mouth burning from the months, years, lifetime of making any sort of smile but a sneer. Only in Heaven could this be possible. It is difficult to turn his head, as if someone has cast an inadequate Immobilisation Charm or bound it tightly in a thick muffler, and his eyelids are leaden, but he exerts every ounce of his willpower to open on the glory of what he never dared hope for…
Instead, he sees a laughing black-haired man with his face buried in the neck of a laughing black-haired baby.
It seems Severus was quite mistaken. This is Hell.
Of course it is.
A broken cry, low and lonely, gurgles its way out of his throat. It feels like it's tearing his jugular and the sinews of his throat to shreds as surely as Nagini's fangs did, but he doesn't even care.
The black-haired man--boy--snaps his head up from nuzzling the baby, and Severus draws in his breath in a sharp hiss which feels like swallowing burning bits of ash with a sore throat. Through the watery sting, he sees Lily's eyes blinking at him from James' face.
Severus gives up trying to work out where they are. The daylight, Harry Potter's presence, the pain, his own damned soul...it doesn't all add up. He shifts his line of questioning.
"Dare I believe that our deaths signify success?" he rasps, barely audibly. "Bit confused about the baby, though."
Understanding dawns brilliantly as the sky above about what has happened the moment before Potter speaks it. "We have succeeded--and somehow we've lived, too. And this is my godson."
Severus follows Potter's movements with his eyes, and watches the baby' hair shift from black to light brown, no, greying brown, as Potter hands the baby off to the person propped up on pillows in the next bed.
He does not add So, one of your merry band survives, conversation never having been a comfortable task when with Lupin, and sheer agony with a mangled throat. He does wonder whether Lupin knows what an unsatisfactory end Wormtail came to for his betrayal, and then balks at the idea of sharing his deeply personal feelings of loss and vengeance with the likes of the werewolf.
Lupin is paler and weaker-looking than usual, shirtless and swathed all over in gauze, as if he's been burnt--probably a victim of that nasty specialty curse of Dolohov's. He holds on to the baby as if it is the only thing keeping him clinging to his life. Severus would sneer, if it weren't for the stab that is nothing to do with the wounds inflicted by Nagini.
For seventeen years his sole purpose in living has been to dispatch his duty to Lily. Never had he entertained the illusion that once he had done, he would have a life left at all.
He forces his savaged vocal chords to work. "How heartening to see that some of the Order found the last year enjoyable while others were out on the front lines. I daresay there isn't much entertainment besides procreation when you're in hiding."
He expects Lupin to muster something of that polite smile Severus has always found so supremely irritating, but the blue eyes are cold as the lake in winter.
"I confess, Snape, that you are the very last person to whom I wished to introduce my son. However, as the truth of your role in all this makes it rather an honour, please allow me to present Mr. Ted Remus Lupin."
He shifts the baby in his arms so that it faces Severus' bed. In spite of himself, Severus watches in fascination as the wide eyes in the round face turn dark as they focus on him, as does the baby's downy hair.
"Charmed," Severus says. "I see he takes after his mother."
Remembering, then, that during the battle he glimpsed a flash of Nymphadora's ridiculous hair as she was locked in a brutal duel with her aunt--he hadn't known she had recently given birth--Severus thinks to cast his gaze to the bed beyond Lupin's. The werewolf's mate does not occupy it. In light of her absence from her husband's bedside, and the child's being here with its godfather, Severus can conclude only one fate for her.
"Do I correctly understand that Nymphadora has--"
"She has not woken," Lupin cuts him off, "but she lives. " He cradles the baby, who is yawning hugely now, against his chest. "No thanks to you."
Now Severus cannot stop his sneer, even as his head lolls back against his pillow and his eyes flutter shut. "I should think that it is very much thanks to me."
Lupin's voice is a growl of rage. "It was you who informed Bellatrix Lestrange of our marriage!"
"Mmm. The Dark Lord, actually."
"But you were his spy. The information could only have come from you."
"We had infiltrated the Ministry of Magic on all levels, as the Order were rightly paranoid. Any one of us could have procured the news of your marriage."
"Only you would have. Not because it would prove your loyalty to your master, or serve any purpose but to satisfy your implacable desire to wound those who once wounded you--"
"SHUT UP!" Potter shouts.
Severus' eyes pop open as the Great Hall, which up till now has been a low thrum of suffering and efforts to save, goes silent, except for Lupin's child, which whimpers, and he shushes to soothe it.
Potter fairly quivers as he goes on with his dressing-down. "You both gave up your lives to win this war. For what? To carry on with a stupid childhood grudge?" The green eyes pierce Severus. "What would she think?"
Severus blinks against the hot prick that wells up against his will. Potter's blow hits below the belt--typical--but Lupin's accusation is shamefully right on the mark: Severus had brought Bellatrix's mania upon Nymphadora to get to Lupin. Only now does Severus recognise the extreme lowness of it.
He knew how weak the Order was, how they needed every able body for the war--and, despite how often he had derided Nymphadora about her choice of mate, and, further back, in her schooldays, about the number of potion phials decimated by her clumsiness, he had always been fascinated by her intrinsic magic, and thought it an asset to the Order--if only she could control her emotions. Yet he would have wasted her valuable life as a salve for his own past humiliations.
He may have fought on the right side this time, but he is the same twisted soul Lily rejected all those years ago.
It would not matter to her that he saved her son.
"Harry is right, you know," says Remus later.
Harry is gone, having taken Teddy to St. Mungo's to see if the presence of her son can rouse Dora from the firm hold of the hex Bellatrix cast. Which makes it all the more difficult for Remus to say what he has just said to the man convalescing in the next hospital bed. But his silence in regard to matters that concern Snape has done enough damage, so he summons that Gryffindor courage he supposedly possesses and says it anyway.
"I don't entirely know your motivation for all you did," he continues, "but everything I did was to ensure that my son will grow up in a better world than the one I did."
After a long moment, he adds, quietly, sparing Snape the trouble, "The world I helped fuck up."
Severus is unsure how much time elapses since Lupin initiated what he must mean to be a conciliatory conversation. He might have slept. Lupin seems to be sleeping when Severus, slightly less weak for the effects of Blood Replenishment Potion, though his throat still hurts like fucking hell, finally speaks.
"Surely you don't hold yourself and Potter and Black responsible for my becoming a Death Eater."
Lupin turns his head on his pillow and gives Severus an almost wry look. "You'd give us that much credit?"
Severus snorts. Weakly. And then must work very hard not to look even weaker by reacting to the pain of that snort.
Looking away, Lupin fixes his eyes on the enchanted ceiling, sunset oranges and pinks which Severus think must make him think of his wife's absurd choices in hair colour.
"I don't give us that much credit, either," Lupin says after some time. "Though I have looked back from time to time and regretted my own actions. Or lack thereof."
He hesitates a moment, then glances at Severus with guilt etched on his haggard features. "Back in Harry's fifth year, when you were teaching him Occlumency…"
"I taught him nothing," Severus interjects, his heart accelerating at the unexpected personal turn in the conversation, his lowered defences instantly raised. "He refused to learn from me."
"He told me he saw your memory of us humiliating you after we sat our OWLs."
Oh God, Severus thinks, closing his eyes. Not only had he not imagined living through the war, he had not imagined living with Potter having looked not into his mind, but into his heart. Which aches more than any of his bodily injuries with that memory from which the prospect of death had come as a welcome, even desired, rescue.
"That was never about me being rejected by the Fab Four," he croaks.
The lifting of Lupin's eyebrows in surprise is fairly audible in his momentary silence. Eventually, he says, "No?"
It hurts too much to reply, so Severus shakes his head, very slightly, which also hurts. Though he realises Poppy Pomfrey and the emergency Healers haven't bothered to keep his head immobilised, so he must be on the mend.
Or else his comfort is not among their concerns.
His thoughts turn back to the conversation he doesn't want to be having with Lupin.
No, the pain invoked by that memory was not about Potter and his cronies, though it was typical of them to so overestimate their importance to be the centre of everyone's attention. And, for a long time, Severus granted them that importance. It was so easy to say that he never would have called Lily the unforgivable name if they had not provoked him, if they had not made him so utterly wretched in front of her.
The truth was, he never would have called Lily the unforgivable name had he not made himself so wretched by believing blood status mattered.
All the while styling himself Half-blood Prince.
"Nothing you could have done would have changed me."
Not even Lily had been able to do that.
"Perhaps my acting differently would not have changed you," Remus says, "but it would have certainly changed me."
The stars are just twinkling out, one by one, in the blue black of the enchanted ceiling, and Poppy has removed his burn dressings and finds his wounds infection-free so that the skin re-growth potions can be administered. She has no news of Dora from her colleagues at St. Mungo's, so her pronouncement that he might be discharged in a day or two brings a mixture of happiness that he will be able to go home to care for Teddy and grief that their little family will not be complete yet...or never.
So he talks to Snape, even though the other man appears to be asleep, to distract himself, and to make sense of the thoughts and emotions swirling about his pain and worry-addled brain like potion ingredients in a cauldron. Merlin knew he'd always been rubbish at potions when left to his own devices.
He can't decide if he's relieved or annoyed when one of Snape's eyebrows twitches upward above the closed eyes to indicate that he has, indeed, heard Remus.
"There is a not uninteresting point of speculation," Snape rasps. "Who would Remus Lupin be had he not been so keen to please Potter and Black?"
That is not what Remus meant, at all. Annoyed at Snape for rebuffing his efforts at reconciliation with his usual sneers, at himself for expecting anything different, he retorts, "One might ask the same of Severus Snape had he not deemed it necessary to ingratiate himself to Avery and Mulciber."
"It seems we are each of us held back by a need to be liked."
Now it is Remus' eyebrow that hitches, though he manages to keep his mouth from falling open with his surprise and says, drily, "You admit we might actually have something in common?"
"I admit that I would have thought you, of all our schoolmates, might have considered what it is to be an outcast."
"Yes, I might have. But would you have been friends with a werewolf, Snape?"
He notes with some interest that less venom than usual drips from the sneer before Snape turns his face away.
As far as Severus is concerned, the conversation is over. Lupin seems to disagree, given the occasional looks he shoots Severus, who doesn't have to be a Legilimens to see that Lupin is waiting for him to take his turn in their slow, days-long dialogue. More than once Lupin opens his mouth as if to talk out of turn, but, mercifully, he always closes it again, and loses himself in worrying after his still unconscious wife and the baby at home with Andromeda Tonks.
It occurs to Severus at one point that Lupin might not wish to talk about them at all, but about Nymphadora. To be built up with hollow reassurances of her certain recovery, or to be distracted from the niggling fear of its unlikelihood. As patients in a hospital ward would. As men would.
As friends would.
For some reason, this turns Severus' thoughts back to his playground days, when he and Lily forged their unlikely friendship talking about all things wizarding during that breathless wait before they received their Hogwarts letters. And then those precious times they had shared at school, regrettably fewer and farther between with each passing year, stepping out from their respective houses to walk about the school grounds together, to confide hope and fear, to encourage and to divert.
Though he turned a corner today with the bodily pain of his wounds, Severus hurts deeply that all those years ago was the last time he had a friend, that everything since then he has done utterly on his own. He very nearly gives in and speaks to Lupin.
But Severus is no bloody Gryffindor. He can't find the courage within himself to take the leap.
Not even when Lupin, pronounced more or less healed and fit enough for discharge, delays his much longed-for visit to his wife to stretch out a hand to him across the breach.
"What do you think, Severus?" Lupin asks, dressed in his own shabby clothes again peering down at the bed where Severus still convalesces in hospital robes. "Is this where we part ways? Or is there any chance of us becoming friends?"
Severus is at the brink of blurting yes, he would like the latter very much, when Lupin utters the unfathomable in his hoarse, quiet voice.
"She told me often that she thought we could be."
The words cut straight to the jugular, so that Severus nearly cries out with the agony of it. He feels violated, as if Lupin has just probed his mind, and he is equally astonished and sickened by his own vulnerability, which has afforded this glimpse into his carefully Occluded mind.
Yet the pain of having his darkest depths plumbed gives way to something akin to relief. To be understood, to be known...and not to be blamed...Did he ever even had that with Lily?
She had told Severus the same thing about Lupinm, pointing out that while he was a complete moron where potions were involved, he was clever at everything else, without being the obnxious show off the other two were, that he was quiet and studious and kind, and that he made the kind of dry jokes that were actually capable of making Severus laugh.
But what Lily didn't realise was that anyone who earned her praise, Severus perceived as a threat to his own aspirations. And eventually he began to suspect the true nature of Lupin's regular illnesses, and Lily had finally given it up as one more lost cause with Severus.
She knew he was a prejudiced bastard who would never change. She knew it long before he ever called her Mudblood.
"Time doesn't heal all wounds, Lupin."
He doesn't intend to stop there, but it's so very hard to make his voice utter the words that are in his heart that Lupin, with places to go and people to see, can only interpret the lengthy hesitation as Severus' being finished.
The irritatingly polite smile. "But time does wound all heels?"
Severus exhales heavily, disappointed but accepting their return to status quo. He gives Lupin the expected smirk. "Quite."
Summer slips by and the crisp air of autumn settles in before Remus meets Snape again, once more in the Great Hall.
Gone are the rows of camp beds bearing the bodies of the wounded and the dying; restored are the long tables and benches, upon which sit black-robed boys and girls, shoulder-to-shoulder, their eyes ablaze with the light of hundreds of enchanted candles that light the vast chamber. Remus feels like one of them as he takes his seat on the raised platform.
He never expected to be here, not as a student, certainly not as a teacher, and within him wells profound gratitude to the man who took a chance on him.
There's gratitude toward the one who's given him this second chance, as well, though it comes mixed with a smattering of other, less identifiable emotions.
It's the understatement of the age to say that, in light of their last conversation, he was surprised by the letter written in familiar spiky handwriting a scant fortnight ago:
For reasons beyond my comprehension, the Board of Governors have deemed it prudent to renew my tenure as Headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
For reasons even further beyond my comprehension, I have deemed it prudent to accept.
My first duty, of course, is to fill the gaps left in the faculty by staff who have been offered irresistible residencies at Azkaban. The Defence Against the Dark Arts position, in keeping with its long standing tradition, is open. As I obviously cannot appoint myself to the post--or so the Deputy-Headmistress tells me--it is you, Lupin, to whom I must turn as the next most qualified wizard for the job.
Your prompt response is most appreciated.
In fact, the prompt response was very nearly no, thank you. Despite the fact that it was the offer of a lifetime--for the second time in a lifetime--and, apart from Dora, the most desired dream Remus never thought he'd have another chance of seeing realised. He had his reasons: Dora still not being fully recovered, Teddy still so young, and, most of all, the tone of Snape's letter indicating that, with the exception of his having paid Remus a grudging compliment, things were as they ever had been between them. Surely there was more to consider at this delicate time in the school's future than just a candidate's job qualifications.
Of course Remus' concerns hold no weight with Dora, nor with Minerva McGonagall, who expressed this very concern to Snape; she claims he insisted that he wants Remus there.
So, impossible as that is to believe here Remus is, seated at the faculty table beside the Headmaster's empty chair, waiting breathlessly along with everyone else for Snape to make his address to the students.
Only as Snape stands at the front of the hall, his gaze does not touch the students. Instead, the black eyes capture Remus'.
"Time does not heal all wounds. Therefore, we must do our utmost to heal them ourselves."
The collective breath continues to hold, but when the Headmaster steps down from the lectern and strides back to the dais, robes billowing behind him, it becomes apparent that the two sentences are the entirety of his address. Certainly it is not the most eloquent speech to begin a new term at Hogwarts, but it is exactly what needs to be said and receives as thunderous a round of applause as Dumbledore ever received.
Perhaps more so, from the students whose only concern is the feast to come.
Only Remus finds himself unable to clap, he is so moved by the words, which form a post-script to the conversation that spanned the long days spent healing from their battle wounds in this very room.
When he reaches his chair, Snape stands behind it, one long-fingered hand resting on the carved back. For the first time, Remus sees the scar above the high collar of the Headmaster's elegant black robes. But his eyes are drawn up from it by Snape's glittering black ones.
"I don't know how to make a better world, Remus. But I'd like to live a better life."
"I'm no expert," says Remus after a moment, a little undone by the use of his Christian name, and the note of hesitance and uncertainty in Severus' voice, "but I believe that is precisely how better worlds are made."
Severus pulls out his chair and seats himself with a swirl of robes. "Then you will not object to my request that when some student's boggart inevitably turns into me, Professor, it shall not wear Augusta Longbottom's vulture hat?"
The humour is so unexpected that Remus very nearly solemnly swears that no such thing shall occur in his classroom. He catches himself. He has won a tenative friend, but Severus will never be James or Sirius.
Nor is he meant to be.
"You have my word, Headmaster."
Severus raises his goblet, and they drink together under the starlight.