His left foot was still a mass of vehement red scar tissue. It shot sparks up his shin when he didn't step gingerly enough and pressed too hard against the tongues of his new shoes. He pushed his heel back against the stiff leather. Already it was rubbing up a blister. The Ministry healer, with a face like lemon juice and salt, had muttered something about a permanent limp perhaps, they'd have to wait for the tendons to knit.
Remus Lupin closed his eyes a second, took a deep breath like Mam had taught him, and slowly let it go. It was stifling hot in the train corridor but the air felt just the tiniest bit cooler off the tip of his nose. He would do this.
Remus Lupin, 11-and-a-half years old, kept his good foot steady underneath him and knocked an iamb against the frosted glass.
(Nor hand nor foot, nor arm nor face, he mouthed in his mind. That is Remus Lupin.)
"Yeah?" Two high-pitched voices cracked around the word, not nearly as James Dean on a rebel's motorbike as their owners wanted them to be. Remus had seen 'Rebel Without a Cause' on his Grandma's TV set, the day the channels had been his and his alone to decide – the day after a Rough Night, school had been out of the question. He remembered twisting up his hair in the bathroom mirror, trying to get it to look like a rebel's or a motorbike rider's, or anything more interesting than flat and trimmed to the edges of Mam's second best mixing bowl. That had been his cause, trivial as it was, but one so hopeless he might as well have gone without.
Remus Lupin ran both hands through his plain and ordinary hair and messed it up thoroughly before opening the compartment door.
(A plain and ordinary child, unremarkable but for the very ordinariness of his life – no articles were ever written for the Canterbury Times announcing young Remus Lupin had worked three baby teeth free in one afternoon, because the feeling of them loose in his mouth chased every other sensation from him, drove him to push and pull and prod at them until something happened. No grainy photographs of a boy with freckles over his straight arrow nose and hair falling in his walnut-sized eyes – no laughing quote from his Dad, "All the better to watch the puddings rise!" – holding three slightly bloodied milk teeth in the palm of his hand and smiling because he knew a great secret: there'd be three whole pounds in the egg cup beside his bed tomorrow morning, and no tooth fairy but his own Mam who would sneak in a little after bedtime with her wand and pretend not to see his wide eyes shining in the dark.
Remus Lupin knew a great secret indeed, and one he kept with the gravity of the pilgrims who walked the Burgate on bare, bleeding feet. For he knew magic was real.)
He pushed open the compartment door, and the air that washed over him was as he'd imagined the first lungful of the Inferno would be. Burning.
"Just hold still you great clot, I can't—"
"You try holding still when you've got bloody great ignium poppies growing out of your shoes! I dare you! Finite incan– OW! Merlin, that's hot! – finite incantatem! Finite incanfuckingtatem!"
"I tried that already, you twit! Think of something else!"
Two boys, no bigger than Remus was after a second bowl of treacle and ice cream, crouched together in the otherwise empty compartment. Both soaked to the bone on seats that were dripping tiny creeks of water onto the floor. A botched aguamenti charm, the still-rational fringe of Remus' mind supplied. It hadn't done much to dampen the flaming flowers sprouting from one of the boy's shoes, but it was probably the only reason the Hogwarts Express wasn't on fire.
"Bloody Narcissa, I'll kill her! I'll hex her hair into snakes and her perfume into frogspit and she'll get so many warts no one'll ever look at her stupid, preening face again!"
"Mate, watch where you're kicking those things! You're gonna take my eyebrows off!"
"They're going to burn my sodding feet off if we don't find a way to put them out!"
"Um..." Remus held onto the door, ostensibly to make quick his escape if things went south – he had no wish to lose his eyebrows. (And he'd rather shrivel like a blackened poppy on its last puff of smoke than let them see his hands were shaking.) "Do you need some help?"
The boy with the firegarden feet turned desperate eyes on him, the same colour as the smoke escaping out the windows.
"Can you do fire?"
Remus' first act of magic had come at age 8, lighting candles in the basement. A little light, to see if the damage this time was as bad as it felt. He'd put them out again with a weak wave of his hand, mirrored in a pool of his own blood. Yes, Remus could do fire.
He nodded and the boy with the wire-frame glasses ducked out of his way, back against the window, keeping a wide berth of the poppies merrily burning. Behind his glasses, the boy's face was torn.
"Black, are you sure you don't—?"
"You tell Andromeda and you'll be walking into the Great Hall nose first! I'm not a bloody baby! Anyway, Brown Eyes here's going to put them out for us, aren't you?"
The jumble of panic, pride, and condescension spilling from the boy's mouth had Remus biting back a smile. A royal 'we' from a kid shorter than he, with long drenched tangles of hair plastered to his head and smouldering feet thrust in the air like bottle rockets.
"I'll try," Remus said, slipping inside and sliding the door closed behind him.
"Try?!" the boy with the wire-frame glasses squeaked. The other boy – Black – didn't even flinch, just kept his smoke signal eyes on Remus, certain, as if by will alone he could imbue twig-limbed lads with the power to slay dragons and wake entire kingdoms from sleep, let alone dowse a few fiery plants.
The seat squelched underneath him as Remus sat down. Another stream of water spilled down onto the floor and he was going to have a wet patch the size of Whitehall when he stood up – but this Black needed help, and help was one thing Remus Lupin could do very well.
"Bring them here a bit?" he said, and Black swung his feet closer.
Seven ignium poppies in flower, three on the right foot, four on the left. Tiny roots had wrapped and tangled through the leather of Black's shoes. They'd wound through the holes for the laces and pried the soles from the uppers, and from what Remus could see, they'd twined around Black's toes, trapping his feet within. The flowers licked with tongues of red and orange flame, but the stalks and numerous buds were still green – immature, he guessed. The igniums in his Grandpop's garden burned from root to petal; they gave off enough heat to power the boiler through the whole of April.
"Well?" the boy with the wire-frame glasses asked. His eyes kept darting to the door, either contemplating escape or the possibility of someone else stumbling across this rather odd soiree.
"You tried water, yes?"
"Yeah," both boys answered in tandem, neither blinking nor pausing in the aftermath. (What would it be like, Remus wondered, to know someone that well?)
"Would have done if Black could remember the spell!"
"My feet are about to catch fire, you remember the bloody spell!"
Remus bit the inside of his cheek to keep his mouth in a straight line. The smoke was making his head feel soft and heavy like the weight of a sheepskin over him on the worst days. Ice he could do too, over skin to stop the deeper gashes bleeding him dry, on cloths to cool the burn of torn muscles knitting themselves back together. From the worn sheath strapped to his forearm under his oxford, Remus drew his brand new wand.
It felt strange, the hum against his fingertips every time he touched the rowan handle, as if the wood were stirring into a life of its own – though Mam had laughed and said it was not the tree’s life but his own that he could feel, the strength of it within him. And never doubt that, love, not for a heartbeat. You are stronger than anything this world will ask of you.
He pointed his wand low, at the bowl of the blossom, and whispered the charm he had been taught over months and years, until he could draw on it like another breath. The magic was so much stronger now, fed through the rowan and the phoenix feather at its core.
From the very air the charm pulled water to itself, frost building on frost around the stem and up along the burning petals, pulling them tight and freezing even as the fire tried to melt off its constriction. Remus took a deep breath, felt the rush of poppy smoke to his head, and pushed. The magic poured down his arm and through his fingers. It flooded the rowan wood and burst forth in a concentrated stream of rime white light. Ice grew and frosted over the petals and their smoke turned black and acrid before snuffing out altogether.
And then there were six, he thought.
An elegant hand grabbed his wrist. Remus looked up. Both Black and the boy with the wire-frame glasses were staring at him with something akin to awe, though they both tried to hide it (poorly) behind rebel-may-care cool. Remus felt something akin to an ignium start to bloom in his belly.
"Show me how," Black said, with his other hand – he was left-handed? – already pulling a wand from inside his robes. Dogwood, just like Grandpop's. The handle was covered in etchings, likely symbolic, though one had the look of an overwrought 'S'.
Black's eyes were the colour of storm clouds.
And if Remus saw what could have been strikes of lightning within them, well, he was grounded enough in the blood and dirt of reality to chalk it up to his own imagination.
It took Black five loud declamations and one rather sinister rasp – which Remus suspected was more for the boy with the wire-frame glasses' benefit when he shuddered and made as if to stuff a fistful of his robe down Black's throat – before a blast of arctic light shot from the tip of his wand, with so much force it snapped two poppies clean off their stems. The frozen blossoms shattered with a sound like glass bells the second they hit the compartment floor.
"HA! Top that, Blotter!" he crowed, kicking his legs about in elated triumph and unwittingly singeing a patch on the ceiling.
"Sod off, Black, you inbred knobhead!"
"Ten points to James Potter for rhyming his insults!"
Remus ducked on instinct.
James Potter's first attempt at the Glaciatus charm took out the remaining igniums, three brass coat hooks, one overhead light, a handle on the compartment door, and both of Black's already-ruined shoes.
(Curious though, the way the word didn't seem to fit in James Potter's mouth. The subtle modulations of his tongue were too big, too jolting for an insult that began softly, like the hum of a tune familiar and heard countless times before. Innocent. Innocuous. In. Only at the tail did it sharpen to a knife point, and the dull b slid into the gutting d. A reminder that in always presumed the existence of out.
The boys at the local school had thrown words at each other when they couldn't throw fists, and Remus had given as good as he'd got. The insults to his knobby knees and uselessness on a cricket pitch meant nothing in the face of the truth: I would tear you limb from limb. I would dig claws into your belly and relish the sound of the membranes ripping, the smell of your guts spilling down to twist and trip up your feet, bile and the bursts of blood from severed arteries soaking me in the scent of your terror. I'd sink teeth and jaw into the wounds and bones and tear you open. I'd gorge on the taste of your heart's pathetic beating straight onto my tongue, and then I'd rip it in two.
The Wizarding world saw the scars on his arms and threw other words at him. One word in particular that turned Mam's fists white and scraped all the warmth from her face. He'd looked it up in their big red-bound dictionary when she'd been out in the garden, harvesting mandrakes.
noun, [haf-breed, hahf-], often disparaging and offensive
1. the offspring of parents of different racial origin, especially the offspring of an American Indian and a white person of European heritage.
2. of, pertaining to, or designating offspring of people or animals of different races or breeds.
crossbreed, cur, half-blood, half-bred, half-caste, hybrid, mixblood, mongrel, mutt
pedigreed, pure, purebred, thoroughbred, unmixed"
And then, because he was curious, and the 'drakes were still screaming outside…
1. of or pertaining to an animal, all of whose ancestors derive over many generations from a recognised breed.
2. denoting a pure strain obtained through many generations of controlled breeding for desirable traits.
3. a purebred animal, especially one of registered pedigree."
Other words had followed as the years went on, and Remus had looked them all up. Sometimes he'd lain awake at night listening to Mam's muffled sobs and Dad's low-voiced comforts and wondered why people thought so much of these things. It seemed to him at the end of the day, in the darkness and under weak starlight, that one animal was not much different from any other.)
"Narcissa is going to wish she'd been born a bloody Veela, I swear to– OW!"
"Well hold still!" James Potter said and bopped Black (lightly) on the head with the tail end of his wand.
Having peeled the last bits of icy, crumbling leather and sock from Black's feet, Remus and James were attempting to loose the twines and tendrils from around his toes and arches. 'Attempting' because frozen roots and vines are not easily picked apart from one another, and Black couldn't stop fidgeting.
Longer nails would have been quite useful. Remus made a quiet mental note to stop biting them so much. Though why it might work this time, he had no idea – Mam had tried everything from spelling them harder to having him peel the onions for dinner every night. The stench on his fingers had lasted for days.
"What are we going to do with all this then?" Potter asked, gesturing to the pile of plant and leather scraps soaking up the water on the compartment floor… and then glanced around the compartment itself, dripping, ice-encrusted, slightly singed. A very good question.
Black, distracted from his vehemence against people Remus had never heard of, gave the mess a cursory glance. "Tip it down the back of Lucius Malfoy's robe. Aren't you done yet?"
"Slytherin'll deserve you, mate. Not even a scrap of thanks for what we're doing here?"
"Thanks?! It's your bloody fault I can barely feel my toes!"
"You could," Remus said, with all the calm he could muster and both eyes focused on prying loose a stubborn root knot, "just toss it all out the window?"
Back in Canterbury, or perhaps only in the back of his head, he could hear Mam's eyes narrowing. Here in the compartment though, Black and Potter were weighing a glance at one another and he could see a fish hook smile curling up the corner of Black's mouth.
"You want to do the honours, Potter?" Black asked.
"Bloody oath!" Potter breathed out, leaping to his feet and fumbling for his wand. "Wingardium leviosa!"
Remus half-expected the whole lot to hit the ceiling, but apparently James Potter had mastered levitation some time ago – his swish and flick had all the graceful efficiency of Grandpop's wandwork, before arthritis had got into his elbows.
"Prefects' compartments are two cars down. She'll be sidled up with Malfoy by now." Fiendish delight pitched Black's voice low and clear as a rumble of thunder. "Hit them both and I'll shout you from the sweet trolley."
"You're on!" Potter was grinning fit to shame a Cheshire cat, "Bloody blond git scoffed all the roast beef at that last Ministry do, we didn't even get a forkful of it down our end of the table. Greedy bugger, don't know where he puts it all."
"Probably spells it off. Old Abraxas'd have better luck trying to set him up with a hand mirror."
Potter laughed, a great belly laugh, and Remus couldn't help smiling along with him. The mess in the air wobbled a bit. Black had to duck his head out the way of a stray stream of water, that stretched and bobbed like the best melty cheese before Potter managed to pull himself together – with a little nudge of his wand, the water sucked itself back into the floating blob.
"Steady…" Remus murmured, mostly to himself. Potter guided their little pile of compost out the open window, then surprised them both (from the look of sheer glee on Black's face) by climbing up onto the bread-slice thin ledge and leaning halfway out after it.
His eyes full of mischievous stars, Black leaned over himself and grasped Potter's ankle. "Don't want him falling out," he beamed at Remus' questioning look. "Who'd hex all my cousins for me?"
"I can see them!" Potter shouted. Over the rush of the wind and the wheels, Remus could barely make out his words. "Just a littl– NOW NOW NOW GO!"
The boy was waving his wand hand like a mad orchestra conductor. Though it shot pain up his leg like ignium fire, when Black snatched his feet back and scrambled to press his face against the window, Remus scrambled along with him.
"Did you get them?!" Black demanded, twisting and contorting python-like, as if the glass might bow under the pressure. All Remus could see were the planes of grass-green countryside and the black and red caboose curving its way around the bend.
He'd never thought it possible for someone to slither down from a window with such abject dejection, but James Potter managed it. Even his heels hitting the floor had a dull thud of defeat to them. His hair looked like it had lost a war with a washing machine.
"What do you want off the trolley?" Potter said in lieu of an answer. It took a few seconds for Black's face to decide if he was ecstatic (he had just won a bet after all) or disappointed (at the expense of revenge on this Narcissa Whoever-she-was-when-she-was-at-home).
"A couple of boxes of Bertie Botts' beans, ice mice if they've got any. Some pumpkin pasties maybe?"
"You want a plate of parboiled dragons' eggs to go with that?"
"It's for all of us, kneazle knees! You'll eat a whole box of sugar quills on your own, there's got to be something left for me and Brown Eyes here to distract ourselves from the sight of you stuffing your face."
Potter blinked, as if the thought had only just occurred to him (in truth, it probably had), and turned his magnified gaze to Remus. "Sorry mate, what's your name?"
"Lupin," Remus said, forcing himself not to look down. "Remus Lupin."
"James Potter," the boy replied with a wide open smile, warm, full of golden syrup sunlight, and held out his hand. Remus kept his own palm up as they shook, and thanked Merlin and God and whoever else was listening that Potter's grip was loose – the scars on his right hand ran like a London road map. "Anything disgustingly delicious you fancy off the trolley? My treat – thanks to you I'll never have another ice mouse melt on me ever again!"
"Um… a chocolate frog, if you could?"
"A chocolate frog, he says." Potter grinned a little more, amused, and let Remus' hand slip. "Don't blow up the train without me, yeah?"
With the one remaining handle, he forced open the compartment door – the ice in the runners crunched like grinding bones – and then dashed off down the corridor, wet, rumpled robe trailing behind him.
Silence settled in the compartment in the absence of James Potter, broken only by the rhythm of the train tracks underneath them. Remus had never minded silence. It was a comfortable companion on the arm of his favourite stuffed chair in the living room, reading the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts over his shoulder and listening for the sound of scones coming out of the oven. But the photos on the mantelpiece had never stared at him so intently as Black was staring at him now.
Remus bit his bottom lip. With any luck, Black would think it was in concentration as he picked apart the last remaining tangles of root and stem from around Black's toes (currently resting in his lap).
He'd never really examined anyone else's feet before. He could hardly stand to look at his own: woven nets of scar tissue, ripped anew most months, and round his left a once-neat row of stitch marks, where the healers had reattached one half back to the other. Black's feet, though, were entirely unlike the boys' from school, curiously glanced during the annual swim meets. No calluses roughened the edges of Black's heels, no ripped nails or blisters on the joints of his long toes. His arches curved ridiculously high, the skin white and traced with a myriad of veins where it had never touched the ground. His feet were shorter than it looked like they were meant to be, spanning wide at the ball and thin at the ankle. His ankle bones jutted out like aberrations, only to slide and dimple back beneath the skin.
Black's were not the feet of a middle-class market gardener's son.
"Sirius," he said, and Remus looked up in sudden confusion.
"Sirius Black." He dipped his head a touch to one side, managing despite the wet, matted hair and mostly still-sodden robes to look like a crown prince. He looked as if his name was supposed to mean something to the world.
"…nice to meet you," Remus said when the erstwhile prince offered nothing more, and went back to the last of the knots.
It occurred to him to wonder why on earth he was still doing this. Black had two hands and perfect use of them. But the thought of waking up on Sunday morn utterly alone for the first time in his life (only four more days) kept Remus where he was, holding onto something solid and real and human.
He was utterly, completely alone.
"They name us all after stars," Black said, and this time there was the hint of a question underneath, a whispered are you sure that doesn't remind you of something?
"I was named after my great uncle," Remus replied. Yes, I'm sure. "He died in the war."
"With Grindelwald, or against?"
"With Churchill, against Hitler."
For a long moment, Black looked perplexed. Then his eyes slowly widened until they were almost as round as Remus' own and his pupils were the size of pinheads. "You're…" he breathed.
Every blood cell in Remus' body stilled.
"And you can do Glaciatus?"
"Um—" Not what he'd expected. "– yeah."
"And fire? You said you could do fire. Like Inflamare?"
"Yeah." Black's mouth dropped open just the slightest bit. Remus could all but see the circuits shorting, and he felt something within him flutter: courage, perhaps? "Though, if you're angling for a new pair of shoes, you're shit out of luck."
Broadsided, almost despite himself, Black laughed. Then his pupils relaxed a few degrees, and he smiled. Like a boy who'd suddenly uncovered a great secret.
"…I think I might keep you around, Lupin. You're a lot more than you look."
Nor arm, nor hand, nor foot, nor face, came to him unbidden. Remus drew breath to say Merlin knew what.
He was interrupted, or perhaps saved, by James Potter stumbling back into the compartment, grasping at the seat, his right foot hexed twice the size it had been when he'd left and a moonstruck grin splitting his face.
"Ice mice?" Black asked, unimpressed.
"She's got reflexes like a champion Seeker," Potter sighed, with beatific ease, to the singe mark on the ceiling.
Sirius would swear forever after at breakfast that the only reason James Potter ended up in Gryffindor was because he was the only student in Hogwarts history pathetic enough to fall arse over tit for a swotty, uptight redhead, and the Sorting Hat had taken pity on him.
James' only response was to flip him the bird and go back to gazing lovelorn up the table.
Remus would swear forever after at dinner that the only reason Sirius Black ended up in Gryffindor was because he was the only student in Hogwarts history mad enough to go to his own Sorting in bare feet.
Sirius' only response was to smile like a boy with a great secret, and run his big toe along Remus' inseam.