Remus dreamt of other autumns, in the spring of his life, when he had gazed out of train windows to see the golden afternoons wash over craggy cliff tops and gorse-bright highlands. His dreams were full of the memories of laughter, louder than the rising storm; of cloud-grey eyes and sharp-hewed wit, welcomed warmly.
Seven times before he had made this journey, at the dying of the year, in the company of those dearer than brothers. Now two were dead, and one worse than dead, and he was here alone.
The air had been cold this morning, sharp with the promise of frost. He had spent the hour between the dawn and the unbolting of the cage gazing out on the low downland beyond the Ministry’s secure facility. The trees were still heavy and green, and the days warm, but some shift in the morning light had announced the end of summer.
The window was cool beneath his cheek, but the touch of the sun was kind, lulling him to sleep despite the shrill and roar of teenage voices on the platform outside. He’d shared a dormitory with James and – James and Peter, once. He could sleep through a little noise.
When the train began to move, he let the rock of the wheels lull him into sleep, sinking into warm and hazy dreams, sliding through memories and might-have-beens, futures that had never come to pass and happy endings they somehow failed to earn. He saw another train, four heads bowed over a parchment, scribbling notes in overlapping lines, sketching maps. Peter was intent, face crumpled in concentration, chewing his quill into ruins as he plucked corners and cross-passages from his memory. James was smirking, pleased with the effect of his latest suggestion. Remus, crammed between them, felt a quiver of anticipation at the challenge, and joy at being back with them all again. He looked across to grin at Sirius, sharing his glee.
Sirius, wary and cynical of change, lounged back against the window. The sun, already low, blazed through the glass behind him, ringing him in gold and casting his face in shadow. His eyes were dark, but he leant forward to meet Remus’ gaze, falling into light.
“Like this idea, eh, Moony?” he said, voice husky, and Remus smiled and smiled, glorying in that familiar, long-silenced voice.
Then the long, lean rhythm of the train’s wheels began to slow, and Remus’ dreams took a darker turn. Sirius’ face creased into anger, bitter and vicious. The words he spat out swirled around Remus, merged with the slow clunk-clunk of the wheels and the frightened note of children’s voices.
The dream-Sirius vanished into flames, with a sound like a cage door slamming, and Remus found himself laying out the dead once more.
Lily’s parents were there, aging and bewildered, moving stiffly as if it was their flesh that was bruised. There had been no one else for James; the war had already taken its toll. He had been the only one left to pick through the ruins for something whole enough to be buried in; the only one there to decide on epitaphs and flowers. Now, he dreamt of the smell of death, the sickly stink of embalming fluid and dead flowers, and the way he had shaken and shaken.
He dreamt of the way that Lily’s sister had led him away, taking over with grim, cold efficiency, decreeing a quiet burial and curtly banning lilies from the service because they had been the wedding flower.
Remus, fighting to escape the dream, heard the sound of children’s voices, overlapping with panic. He seized on them, pulling himself awake, and felt the uncanny, unmistakeable chill of the air.
“Quiet!” he said, blinking into darkness, and was genuinely surprised when they obeyed. The train was still, and he couldn’t escape the sensation that they were balanced on some precarious edge. He summoned a light.
The first child he saw was a red-haired girl, fierce and frightened, and then beyond her, messy hair and glasses, turned towards him. For one wild moment, he thought he had slept himself back in time, and returned to his youth with all the memories of later years.
Then he realised that he was still old, and that he had been summoned back to Dumbledore’s rule to guard these children.
The air was growing colder, and there were shadows moving in the corridor.
“Stay where you are,” he said, pushing to his feet although his limbs were still heavy with sleep.
The door slid open, and Remus heard, ringing through his mind as if it was new, Alice Longbottom wailing, “It was Black! Black betrayed them!”
His fingers were shivering as he fumbled for his wand, thrusting his palmful of flames forward as if a small light was enough to hold off what stood there.
In front of him the boy whimpered, crumpling to the floor, and, as he fell, Remus saw James again, stretched out, cold and heavy, and Sirius, surrounded by these creatures in every moment of every day.
In defiance, he brought his wand down, summoning the boys of long ago from his memory as he snapped, “Expecto Patronum!”
And the dog, the stag and the rat, linked by shimmering ribbons, burst out of his wand, blazing through the darkness to drive the shadows away.