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Are We Yet Free Men?

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The room was small and spare. Peeling whitewash shivered in a bit of breeze from the crack in the window, fluttering accompaniment to the clack-bang of the wooden shutter just beyond the pitted glass. Remus stripped the bed and folded the limp sheet to rest on the sagging mattress. He rinsed the tea cup in the sink and left it upended to dry on the rack. And that was the last of it. Every sign that he'd ever lived here was undone, put away, erased. Only his bag waiting by the door was proof he'd ever been here.

He sat in the chair. There were grooves in the fabric over the arms, where a man's hands naturally fell. Dozens of hands before his, perhaps rubbing anxiously at the worn velvet, as he did now. He was paid through noon, though it was only nine, and he was reluctant to leave early. Hunger was a slight twinge in his belly, readily ignored, for now. Water would fill him well enough til luncheon. He rose to fill his cup in the sink, drank it down and another after, and then it was sitting again, twitching his ragged thumbnail against his pointer finger and thinking of nothing, no matter how he tried to focus. Everything was scattered and flittering. He'd known for a month it was come to this, he'd planned and plotted to the precise inch. There was nothing left to think about.

Like the empty state of his vault in Gringott's. Twenty-six Galleons, that was all he had to his name. Two years of hard saving, that, and he'd known since Hogwarts how long he could afford the trappings of a normal life. Two years, no job too small, not if it earned. He'd swept floors, brewed potions, served bar, stocked groceries, loaded boxes, scooped feed for training owls. Twenty-six Galleons. He thought sometimes the number was burnt into his eyelids. He saw it in stacks of gold whenever he closed his eyes. Gold on dusty black, the vastness of his vault that would never be filled. Twenty-six Galleons was a rainy day fund, his mother had always called it that. He'd live the entirety of his adult life on that.

He would. He had no intention of giving up. He'd planned. He was ready. He could do it.

Was determined to do it well. That was no surety, and he couldn't afford mistakes. He'd read every free moment, Wizarding and Muggle law both, and he knew every requirement he'd face, every rule. Which benches in which parks could be slept on. What he could carry with him. How long he could sit in pubs without purchasing anything. And, for when he'd inevitably need it, what records he'd need to qualify for Ministry dole. Hospitals. Libraries. Diagon Alley, Regular Alley, Knockturn Alley, Hogsmeade-- places he'd gone without a thought as a child would be inaccessible to him if he hovered too long at the edges of Wizarding society, and the life of an exile was too difficult for a man with no Muggle connections. He would be careful because he had to be. There were no surprises awaiting him.

He rubbed damp palms on his trousers. It was barely half-nine. The silence was overwhelming. He rose to use the loo a final time, washed his hands thoroughly beneath warm tap water, treasuring it. He touched the cool porcelain basin of the sink, the edge of the small mirror. The curtain over the shower cubby, still damp from his final bath. No. He would not be foolish. Nostaglia for what he couldn't have would drown him, he knew it. Better a clean cut. And with the sudden agitation that thought engendered in him, he donned his coat and his walking boots, dimmed his lights with a flick of his wand, and shrank his bag to hang no larger than a small sack over his shoulder. He locked the door behind him and when he deposited the key at the front desk a moment later, he did it firmly and without looking back.

'Checking out,' he said evenly. 'Remus Lupin. My tab's paid up.'

'I can ring the Knight Bus for you, love,' said the matron, though her disinterest in his answer was plain from the way she kept her nose in her magazine. She took his key without so much as glancing up.

'No thanks,' he replied. 'I'll be walking.'

'Rain today,' she said, and turned a page.

It was grey indeed, and chill. He buttoned his coat and wrapped his scarf tight, though it wasn't quite cold enough to warrant it; he didn't want to catch a sick. Barwick-in-Elmet's Wizarding public house was one of only three renters in the village, and Remus kept to the ditch beside the lone road leading out of town. A few Muggle cars passed him, courteously swinging wide of the kerb when they tootled by, but it was otherwise solitary travelling. The maypole at High Street and Cross was lonely, sporting a tatty ribbon that blew dispiritedly in the wind. Curtains were drawn on nearly every window he passed, even at the little stone chapel where the Methodist preacher had occasionally paid him to pull weeds. That was a connection to keep, when a few pounds might mean a hot supper in a chippy some dire night. Remus lifted a hand as he trudged by, in case the old man were in there to see, but the lace at the office window never twitched.

When he was perhaps two miles beyond the town and his walking looked to be a stretch of empty road between Barwick and Leeds, he detoured toward the stand of brown leafless trees across the fields. His first Apparation would take him north to York, and from York he planned another jump to Abernethy Forest in Scotland. He'd been out to scout the area in the past week, reasonably content that he wouldn't be exposed to Muggle tourists or nature conservationists. Abernethy was mostly ancient pine, and it was a large enough space to lose one man without fuss. Nethy Bridge was near if he had any emergencies, a village even smaller than Barwick and unlikely to bother with him even if he should be spotted. He emerged into that promised rain when he did Apparate in at the edge of the forest, only a few feet from the marker he'd left himself the other day, and he shivered when the wind blew a harsh gust into his face. Best he hadn't lingered in Barwick, then. He'd be settled before the worst of the storm came through.

His tent was a patchy third-hand purchase, but he'd done all the repairs himself and was reasonably sure of it would hold against the weather. It went up with a few swishes of his wand beneath a large tree with no low-hanging or loose branches that might lead to unwelcome surprises in the night, and he set wards carefully considered to keep out animals and encourage people not to notice his little homestead, but not wards strong enough to attract the notice of any wizards who might take it into their minds to investigate a strange magical signature. Once inside, he had a cot, a little table, his small collection of books, his radio, a smokeless stove, a lamp, and a warm blanket. Home, he mouthed, and breathed out a shaky breath. Fine. Yes. His. The entirety of his life, packed inside a stuffy little space, but his. He unpacked a tin of beans from his bag and warmed a conservative portion over the stove, eating slowly to make the most of it.

He checked his wristwatch. Eleven-forty-seven.

He removed the watch and stuffed it to the bottom of his pack.

He was struggling to tie knots the way they looked in his manual when the owl found him. Remus abandoned his rabbit traps and let the poor soggy creature rest on his cot. The letter it bore had a stamp of old-fashioned red wax binding the folds, vaguely familiar writing addressing the note to 'Remus J Lupin: Cairngorms National Park, Black Grouse Nesting Grounds, Red Flap Tent'. Mystified-- the wizards powerful enough to locate him had no reason to, surely-- he cracked the wax seal and shook the damp letter open.

My dear Mr Lupin,

Cordial greetings and well wishes.

Requesting your attendance at a small social do tomorrow evening at Summerlea House, Dunblane, Stirling. Dinner and a light aperitif shall be provided. Guests are requested to arrive at six o'clock, though late arrivals shall still have their share of the pudding. The password is 'Custard Pips'.

Please do mind Winfred. He's a cranky old soul. And, Mr Lupin, happy birthday.

It was signed Albus Dumbledore.

How odd. He'd had little enough contact with the Hogwarts Headmaster in school, and none at all since the night Dumbledore had warned him that Severus Snape had agreed not to disclose Sirius' nearly deadly prank in the tunnel beneath the Shrieking Shack out of consideration that it might trigger an investigation by the Ministry, which would surely have resulted in Remus' expulsion, if not imprisonment. However, Dumbledore had said, turning a sober look at Remus over the glinting rims of his spectacles.

However. Remus had never so dreaded a word as that one. However. Sometimes he thought everything in his life hinged on howevers.

There was a slip of soft parchment included with the note, which had fallen to his lap. When he touched it, it flared and burnt out in a wink, and then cradled on his knee sat a little box. Remus tilted back the hinged lid. Tea leaves. The scent of assam and ceylon and oak and malt was-- heavenly. Finer than anything he would ever have purchased for himself. Welcome indeed since he'd been unwilling to waste the money on having any tea at all; tea was a luxury, not a staple. A fine birthday gift for a man who could have no idea of his circumstances-- well, he hoped not. The letter had been addressed with a specificity that suggested otherwise.

He didn't cry. It was on him, swift and knifing deeply, but he only sucked in his air and bit his lip til the watering in his eyes passed. He was no child. He'd made choices, he'd planned, he'd worked for this. It was only the kind of gift you gave someone you didn't know well, good tea. It didn't mean anything. A nice gesture, remembering his birthday, and a nice invitation.

A dinner. Well, that was good luck, then, too, since his snares looked to be disastrous. But don't count on it, he reminded himself. He'd always been sparing in his appetite, knowing his next meal might be hard to come by, and he'd spared himself affection and human company for the same reason. Practise, he'd told himself every time, and it wasn't practise anymore.

'You'd be Winfred?' he asked the owl, and it hooted at him, then snapped its beak when he ventured a hand near. 'Be good and I won't put you back out in that weather,' he warned the beast. 'Now budge up. The ground's horrid hard.'

'Coo,' said Winfred, and began to messily preen himself with his razor-sharp beak. Remus curled his knees to his chest, and took up his knots again. His hands shook, but he made himself continue on without breaking. There was no good wasting time on thinking, nothing to think about beyond catching breakfast.