(all illustrations by glaciergrace)
I. The Approach
“Remus Lupin,” says his Da. “Remus John. Lupin.”
“Five,” says his Da, and tightens his palm around Remus’s fist.
Five and a half, thinks Remus, somewhat indignantly. His wrist hurts again, just below where his Da is holding his hand, where the juniper branches got at him as he fell. He scratches at it. A sticky edge of the small, white bandage peels under his fingernails; he sighs, and shifts his feet.
"Shropshire," says his Da. To Remus, the word smells very strongly of apples and sheepswool, of dark grasses and scummy ponds and goose down, old flowers and rain. He rubs his nose. His side twinges, where the bigger bandage is, wrapping his ribs and holding him together.
There is a long pause. Remus can't see much above the desk in front of them. He knows it is a lady - she sounds sort of dull and bored – with a voice like the clicking keys of the typewriter in his Da's study, a dry and airborn noise, the stamp of hard, black ink into clean paper.
"Yes?" says his Da.
"Another one - " says the lady behind the desk. "They're all coming out of Shropshire this year. Last year, it was Wales, mostly."
"Ah," says his Da.
"Seen the authorities? We need the letter from your First-Responder before we can process him."
"Ah, yes," says his Da. He lets go of Remus's hand; a rustling of cloth and the crinkle of paper. Remus flexes his fingers in front of his belly, because they feel very stiff and damp with his Da's sweat. He scratches his wrist, again. "Yes. It was -- Moody. Ah, Alastor Moody. Here."
"Ta," says the lady behind the desk. "Have a seat, then. The Registrar's in with another one now. I'll call for you when he's freed up."
His Da touches his shoulder, and he looks up at him.
"All right?" says his Da.
"Yeah," he says.
"Want to sit down, a spell?"
"Okay," he says.
They sit, side-by-side, in two of the long row of wooden chairs. His Da keeps close to him, long legs and arms bent up and over, his elbows on his knees, and his tall spine curved so that he and Remus are about the same height, when they are sitting. He is wearing his good jacket, the one with the green and brown stripes, and the yellow lining, that his Mum has repaired six times just this last Tuesday, but it's such a nice jacket, she'd said, that she didn't mind, much. His Da's hands are knotted together, long fingers with his craggy knuckles, the three dark freckles on the crest of his bony thumb. His hair looks less red, today, and his Mum would just die, probably, if she could see it now, because he knows his Da was mussing it in the lift, because something was bothering him, and now it's all sticking up in the back and pressed down in the front, and it looks pretty awful, Remus thinks, really awful. The floor is very clean, and smells like rubbing alcohol. Remus swings his feet, and a bit of dirt falls from his heel, onto the floor, just beside his Da's chair.
"Sorry," he whispers. The guilt hits him like a top spinning. He feels dizzy.
"What?" his Da looks at him. "Remus -- "
"My shoes aren't clean," he says. He feels awful.
"Oh," says his Da. "Oh. No. That's all right -- Remus, it's all right."
"I'm really sorry," he says.
"I know," says his Da, and takes his hand, and holds it there, over his knee: so tightly Remus can feel his Da's heartbeat through his own skin, the blood thudding and the beat solid and now, all of it - suddenly, he knows, somehow - so different from his own.
After six months or so, they fight more – his parents. It is the kind of fighting where Remus will come down to breakfast, and there will be a bowl of cold oatmeal where his Da usually sits, in the sunlight by the window with the birdfeeder outside of it, and his Mum will immediately stop speaking, and his Da will be standing very silent in the middle of the room, instead of sitting in the sunlight by the window (with the birdfeeder outside of it – it’s because he used to like to watch them, the birds), and the wireless will be turned up very loud, broadcasting a recap of Quidditch match or if his Mum is very angry, something classical from the Muggle BBC.
“Hi,” he’ll say.
“Morning, love,” his Mum will say. They will both not really look at him.
TODAY IN LEEDS, MORE FLOODING ALONG THE RIVER AIRE, says the wireless. Or: IN OTHER NEWS, THE CANNONS FELL TO THE FALCONS AGAIN LAST NIGHT.
His Da will ask him if he wants cereal or eggs, and he will say eggs, please, and his Da will make him eggs, and he will eat them and drink his cold milk, and his Mum will kiss him on the top of the head, before she disappears somewhere upstairs.
Remus assumes eventually this sort of thing will end. He thinks, either his parents will stop speaking to each other altogether, or his Da will stop making him eggs altogether, and he will have to fade into the background, into the wallpaper, into the wall of the hollyhocks and marigolds in his Mum’s garden, into the grey cracklings of the cold fireplace and the white noise between the words of the wireless, or he will be cured, altogether, like they all keep hoping, against all sense and common knowledge, and then everything will be normal and lovely again.
He wants it desperately. He sits every morning eating eggs or porridge or toast with marmalade, and all he wants, for months, every morning, is to be better for them.
But if it is the morning after the full moon, it is different – he almost begins to look forward to it. They all come together in the relative newness and pain of it. He stays in bed, even though he is not too bruised or too cut up – mostly because he feels so tired - and his mum will bring him a book, and sit on his left side and read to him in her beautiful brown-coloured voice, wheaty and sweet and soft like the middle of a freshly baked cinnamon roll, and his Da will bring over the bandages and some soup, and whatever potion or pill it is that they are trying this month. And whatever it is, it will not work. And they will all be very tired, and exhausted, and fall asleep together eventually in Remus’s childhood bed, but at least – Remus thinks, every time – they are together.
They learn together about discretion, about how important secrets are. Remus is told repeatedly that this thing, this thing that he is, this is something no one must ever know.
“Never?” he asks his Da.
“Never,” says his Da.
Why, he wants to ask. Why am I so wrong --
“It’s not that we don’t trust you,” says his Da. “We don’t trust them. Wizards are very frightened of werewolves. And Muggles don’t believe in them.”
“I know,” says Remus.
“So until we find a cure,” says his Da. “Just until then. It’s a very important secret.”
“I know,” says Remus. “I promise.”
(It will be something is he told all his life. It will be eight years later when he sits down with hot, raging tears building behind his eyes, blurring his vision of the parchment and the inkwell, trying to compose some form of a letter to his Da, to try and explain that he didn’t tell anyone, only he’s so sure they’ve figured it out, somehow, because James keeps looking at him like he’s grown a tentacle from his forehead, and Peter physically cannot seem to speak to him, and Sirius – Sirius looks as if he might be violently ill every time he comes within four feet, and every time he’s rounded a corner or come down the stairs of the common room in the past week, and found them clustered together, heads bent over a book or over James’s waving hands, they stop, and there is this dreadful, horrific silence, and Peter just stares and Sirius goes a little ashen, and James will usually yelp something like OH HULLO WAIT WE ARE OFF TO SEE SOMETHING WE ARE SO LATE HUP HUP LADS, and they will scatter to the wind.)
He keeps the secret very well. He keeps it when he is six, and there is cold oatmeal and fighting.
He keeps it when he is seven, and his Mum has stopped teaching at the local school in order to help his Da with the research they’re doing, which isn’t all about goblins and old bronze-silver-wars and things, he realizes, but is also an awful lot about werewolves, too.
He keeps it when he is eight, and he stops asking if he can go out and play with the other children around That Time, since he Knows Better by now, and it keeps his parents very happy when he is curled up in the armchair under a blanket with a heavy, smoky-smelling book open in his lap. (He even enjoys reading.)
He keeps the secret when he is nine, and his parents take him to the Lethecary.
“Is it a doctor, Mum?” he asks. They have seen a lot of doctors.
She touches the top of his head, briefly, as she straightens his pillow.
“No,” she says. “Not exactly.”
He tries not to pull a face – he tugs of the sleeve of his pajamas instead, fingering the cuff. He imagines the scent of all those apothecary bags, the potions-masters and the medicinal Muggle concoctions of analgesics and soothing mint jelly creams. The smell of antiseptic bandages is more comforting than the parade of sludge and small gem-like pills he’s downed. Something in them crackles at his skin – as if his body grows too tight for itself. Like the translucent casing of a pork banger, he feels stuffed-all-in and meaty, suddenly too aware of his blood fighting against something that doesn’t belong.
One day, when he is fifteen, he will tell his Da this. This idea that there is something different inside him, that he is poisoned, somehow, against most of the world. That he is now made to resist those things that are good and kind and easily magical. That his body is now meant for something unkindly different. He will read an exclusive in the back pages of the Prophet, about the Aurors who hunt down werewolves, about a monster-man named Greyback who is Number One Most Wanted, at least where those sorts of things are concerned. Sirius will cut it out for him and leave it on his pillow with a note that says, OI STOP EATING LITTLE CHILDREN. It will be meant as a joke. He will keep it with him, and read it twenty-nine times before Christmas hols that year.
They will be separating holly leaves, for the wreath his Da makes every year. They will be sitting on the floor of the den with holly branches strewn around their ankles, and Remus will shift and will feel the crinkle of old folded newspaper in the back pocket of his trousers. He will speak without thinking, because he has been thinking it so long.
“Da,” he’ll say.
“Mm,” his Da will say, because he will have a holly branch between his teeth.
“D’you think I’m bad?”
His Da will raise one eyebrow, very slowly.
“Not like, no.” He will feel horribly silly, and he will stare very hard at the pile of thorny twigs in his lap, and at the small silvery scars that creep up over the lines of his wrists and his hands. “Not like, detention bad. Like, d’you think this is something that’s made me. Meant to do bad things?”
His Da will take the holly branch out of his mouth and hold it between both hands, gingerly, as if it were very fragile.
“No,” says his Da. “I don’t think you’re meant to do bad things.”
“I feel different,” he will say.
“You are different,” his Da will say. “It doesn’t make you evil. It makes you who you are, and we are what we do, Remus, not what people expect us to be.”
It will not make him feel much better. What his Da will say to him is not what they say to him when he is younger, when he is nine years old and sitting in bed and asking his mother about the Lethecarist, asking Is it a doctor, Mum? and his Mum says, No, not exactly, which means, you need to be fixed, you need to be cured, there is something very wrong with you.
That is what he thinks the Lethecary is, the night before, tucked into bed at eight in the evening, so as to be well-rested for the trip: the place he will be better.
Common Woodbrown is a village inland of the North Sea, somewhere to the east of Barrow Mere. It is not on the green and dull-yellow pages of the Muggle Atlas that his Da has in the library, on the page marked in thin red lines – 10A-4C, England, United Kingdom and Wales, Grimbsy – but it does appear, through heady summer mist, after they have parked his Mum’s dusty and powder blue Citroen by the road and walked up a farmer’s path, through the woods. It is the end of the afternoon - verging on suppertime - and the light all around them is washed-out and earthy and growing-orange: the bare hints of a dying light, like the slow, smooth skin of a slightly rotten peach. The trees are shedding golden bits of dust and soft pollen when the sun finds a way through the mossy shadows and the heavy, humid air; and Remus is getting hungry, but his Da is holding his hand rather tight so he knows better than to think this is a good time to ask about a sandwich, perhaps. There are sun-bleached twigs crackling under the soles of his trainers, and he can see his Da reach up to brush away the thin, invisible line of a spider web from where it is suspended across the path, but no one speaks. His Mum is walking behind them, with her arms crossed over the front of her blouse, and her long hair pulled up off the back of her neck. She looked very young this morning, Remus thought, when they pulled out onto the road and the dust flew up under the wheels, and she checked behind her in the mirror, and her small, thin fingers drummed a staccato on the gearshift. His Da had touched her elbow then. He'd seen it, but then he'd looked away.
Is it a doctor, Mum, he'd asked. Only once. He hasn't spoken of it again since she said No, not exactly and touched the top of his head with her palm. He has been rolling the word around in his head since they'd first said it. Soft on the tip of his tongue, like a pillow fold, the hint of a sneaking shadow in the diphthong, the hard and surprising snick of the 'c'; at the end the breathy exhale, an escaped sigh, translucent like a flywing. The word had not been in any book he'd looked at, skimming the pages with the pad of his finger pressed flat and hard down the margins: Lacewing -- Latherwort -- Leptandra – Lethifold. He would stop. It had unnerved him, that this thing that he was about to encounter, that was not, not exactly, a doctor, was something that did not exist. It could not be explained, apparently, in words the way that other things could; things like "tree" or "blood" or "teakettle". It was either not exactly this, or not exactly that, Remus had decided, but could not be something in and of itself.
It was like him. He had thought it that morning, over his half-eaten cold cereal. He might be called a Remus, he thought, throughout his life, as a word to signify the form of him, something to gesture at across the yard or on the other side of the room. But if he were asked what it meant, if he were more like a boy or more like a -- something else -- he'd have to say, he thought, No, not exactly.
The woods open up onto a rocky shoreline – a dark pebbled beach with dark saltwater-rotted piers scuttling up onto the ground and disappearing out their other ends into the sun-painted water. His Da pauses at the place where the trees stop and the path exhales out into a smooth, sandy dirt road: in front of them, behind the shadow of his Da’s hip, Remus can see the sun setting over the other side of the inlet, where the low farmland creeps into black silhouette. He can see the water in front of them, beginning to glow red and pink and opaque with colour. He can see the place out beyond the bay, where the sky and the sea almost meet, where they almost match: orange for orange and red for red and flesh-pink for flesh-pink. He can see there, in front of them, the black blot of the village Common Woodbrown, with its faint-grey stone chimneys and its yellow-tinted roofs thatched and patched and bound-together with bits of straw and string, and the beginnings of a lantern glow from a few tidy windows.
He can hear it creaking. There is a low wind over the water, and it carries the sound of the village up over the path and through the wool of Remus’s cap. It sounds like old houses, and the slow strain of ancient seaboats, held together at their seams only by sheer will and threads of sticky black tar. It sounds like the heavy slap of waves against a buoy or a tangle of weighted netting or a slab of crusted, mossy rocks. It sounds like a distant, unintelligible voice, neither man or woman, just a cry – disappearing into pure noise: a wail, a wisp of thunder, something that makes you stop and turn your head, just for a moment.
It smells hot and salty, out here on the shore, on the outskirts of this small dark village. A thick, fishy scent, the way that dried seaglass has a certain metallic tinge to it – he knows – or the way that old houses collect dew and dust and wet dirt inside their bones. It curls up inside his nostrils, grabbing at his blood and his bones and his nerve-endings, tugging his eyes out to the edge of the sea, where the world dissolves into light. From somewhere – out at the ends of the clustered little homes and the fat, scuttle-black shadow of the lone church spire, Remus smells something like animal skin, burned on a low fire. Suet, he thinks, automatically, fat and lard and charred skin and hanging bits of meat, he thinks. Cooking blood, he thinks, congealed and blackening in someone’s hearth.
He smells strange herbs, too – something dark and dangerous and like a warning. Poison, he thinks. The wind brings it too him, like a screaming red flag snapping sharply across his nose. Somewhere, there, someone is making something deadly. He grips his Da’s hand.
“Da,” he says.
“Almost there,” says his Da. Which is not the answer he wanted, at all.
“John,” says his Mum, from the edge of the woods. Remus turns halfway round to look at her, held back by his Da’s hand, and all he can see is a pink smudge at the edge of his vision, crowned with a halo of dark hair, turned a bright and iron-rich red by the dying sun.
“We’ll regret it,” says his Da, and Remus knows now that this is not his conversation. It is conversation happening Over him. “If we turn around now.”
“I’m regretting it already,” says his Mum, and there is the sound of her lovely, sensible shoes on the sand, shuffling closer: the scent of her hair and skin slicing through the seasick, heat-bent air. Remus looks down at his shoes; pulls his tweed cap further down over his ears with his free hand.
“John,” his Mum says again.
“What if – ” his Da says, more gruffly, now. “ – you want him to spend the rest of his life not knowing if we did everything – ?”
“I don’t like this place,” says his Mum. It is a whisper, forced out between her teeth.
“It feels – ” she says, and Remus thinks, I know. He thinks, me too.
“It’s entirely Wizarding,” his Da begins. “Sometimes – even Muggles can – it’s normal to feel somewhat – ”
“I’ve been to Diagon bloody Alley,” his Mum says, the way she does when she is in no mood for arguing over whether Remus should get in the bath now or later, because it will be now. “Just because I’m considered ill-equipped where you come from, it doesn’t mean I’m an idiot. This is – it’s not like that.”
“Oh, for – ” his Da’s grip tightens around his fingers, and he winces. “For christ’s sake, it’s not what I meant – we’ve been over this, and we’ve come this far, now, we owe it to – ”
“You think you owe it to him,” says his Mum. “And you must know how no one else in the world thinks this is your fault.”
I hate this, thinks Remus, with conviction. When his Da opens his mouth again, Remus pulls his hand away, and takes five firm steps down the path, the sand kicking up around his ankles and the tall, scrubby grasses leaning in to tickle at the bare skin of his forearms.
“Remus – ” his Mum calls.
He turns, in the path, out of arm’s reach. “I’m going,” he says, and tugs at his cap again. “Please stop fighting?”
They both stare at him: his Da with his long limbs and his bright orange hair, and his skin all lit up by the sun, and his Mum with her arms still half-crossed over her pretty blue blouse, and her hair all knotted up and flying away around her face, and her dark, dark eyes, gone wide and almost sad. His stomach twists.
“Remus – ” says his Da.
“I’m hungry,” he says. “After this, can we get an ice cream?”
His Mum makes a noise in the back of her throat, half-lyrical. It makes Remus uncomfortable again; he stands his ground – the wind tugs at the back of his collar, flips the hair at the nape of his neck, cools the sweat building in the palm of his curled hands.
“Yes,” she says. “Fine. Fine, we can get – ”
They stand apart. He stares at the space between their shoes, and tries to count the inches there. The sun is bright and diving behind the trees, and blanketing the earth in gold and orange and heavy anticipation, like someone's breath held just behind their teeth. And at his back, he can hear the sea.
The Lethecary is a small building. It is a small building, thinks Remus, and I’d thought somehow it would be bigger, on the outside. It is made of stone on the sides, and moss and peat at the roof, and straw thatching in patches, like the side of a hill that has half-grown house inside of it. Like a half-thing, thinks Remus. Like a me-thing.
The windows are dark, but they are lit up with the edges of the day - with the brilliant, fading light of the sun. It looks all golden and burgundy on the inside, like a mouth, like the inside of an opened vein, the colour of the dark wine and brandies his Da will drink sometimes.
The door is closed. It is tightly shut, and his Da stands on the threshold with his hand raised where he has knocked, and Remus is beside him, pressed close against his side. And his Mum is behind them, her form gone all tight and strong, with her arms crossed over her body and her mouth gone small and pinched. He tugs his cap further down over his hair, and stares at his shoes.
The door opens. There is a man there. He looks strange - neither particularly old nor young, somewhere in between. A half-age, thinks Remus. His eyes are very light, very clear, as if there is nothing behind him. His hair is fair - almost transparent - it soaks up the sunlight instantly, so that all of his flesh and hair have gone bright red, for a moment. He is wearing a very plain set of robes. He is wearing, Remus notices, when he raises his hand to shake his Da’s, a lot of jewelry. A row of thick, gold-coloured rings along his thin fingers, set with clear stones; a strange glimmer of necklaces under the collar of his robes. The clink and shudder of bracelets under his cuffs. It looks, thinks Remus, sort of heavy.
“The Lupins,” says the man, who is the Lethecary. His voice is like his eyes: very thin. Half-noise, half-air.
“Hello,” says his Da. “This is - my son.”
The man looks down at him. Remus looks up. They look at each other. And the man does not smile.
“I require payment up front,” says the Lethecary, who is still looking at Remus. “As we discussed via post.”
“Ah,” says his Da. “I have it here, yes.”
“There are no refunds,” says the Lethecary. “As we also discussed.”
“We’re - ” says his Da. “We’re aware. Yes.”
“Lovely,” the Lethecary smiles, then. And his mouth appears to be all lips: pale and shiny. “Please come in.”
The inside of the building is as small as the outside. It looks to be, as far as Remus can tell, only two rooms. There is the one they walk into, which is golden-coloured by the light, and is very spare. There is a long wooden table in the centre of the room. There an enormous stone basin sitting atop it, at one end, covered in a thin black cloth. There are no chairs, except for a small stool in one corner. There is a fireplace, with a fire going. There is a spit above the fire, and a small pot with something boiling in it. The floor is made mostly of dirt and stone. The walls are bare. There is a closed door by the stool. Remus squints at it - he wonders what could be behind it, if there is nothing to live with in this room. Everything worth having, he thinks, must be behind that door.
His Mum is in the doorway, behind them. Her hand is on the wood, as if she has not decided which way to go.
“Please shut the door,” says the Lethecary, turning to her. “This is a long process, and it will have to be uninterrupted for its success.”
His Mum does not move. When he turns to look at her, her eyes are focused steadily on the table - on the large stone basin.
“If there are - ” says the Lethecary. “ — Concerns, they will have to be addressed before payment is made. Otherwise you will be out the money, and I will have been denied the possibility of saving your son’s life.”
His Mum’s eyes flash. “I want you,” she says, softly. “To tell me exactly what you are going to do. In your own words.”
“Please shut the door.”
His Mum makes a noise: impatient, no-nonsense.
“And I will do so.” The Lethecary extends a helpful, jeweled hand. “The door, please.”
His Mum steps inside, and shuts the door behind her. The room is plunged into pure light and shadow - the Lethecary seems to fade into invisibility, except for his rings, his jewels, his bracelets - they catch the light and signal his body, when he moves.
“Lovely,” says the Lethecary. He presses his hands together in front of his chest, and looks down at Remus again. “Werewolf. If I’m not mistaken?”
“Yes,” says his Da, roughly.
“Four years, now,” says his Da. Remus thinks, automatically, about that first day at the Ministry, when his shoes were dirty and his side hurt terribly.
“Ah,” says the Lethecary. “Not so long, then.”
“Does it make a difference?” His Mum, from behind. “What are you - ”
The Lethecary’s eyes narrow, to little clear slits of light, when he looks at her. “I believe it does. There are theories, of course, that it doesn’t - those few of us that still practice have our own methods, of course. There’s no cohesive sense - no research I could cite you, unfortunately, especially since the Ministry has seen fit to essentially make our work tantamount to illegality - with no other rationale than they seem to believe it a threat to their bureaucratic consolidation of power via the regulation of soul-based magic.”
“I don’t - ” his Mum shifts her weight. “John, do you understand this?”
His Da makes another gruff noise, and the Lethecary stretches his thin mouth into another smile.
“This is old magic,” he says, slowly. “Old. Magic. The Ministry finds much of it distasteful at best, and labels it terrorism at its worst. It is not unlike the Pensieve Regulations of 1894, as I’m sure you’re aware, Mr Lupin. The State finds fear in these forms of magic that are of the oldest sort, because they are most highly attuned to the consciousness of its subjects. The less access one’s subjects have to their own souls, the more easily they are assimilated into the dominant culture of magic and power. It is a simple philosophical and political truth.”
Remus squeezes his eyes shut; he feels dizzy. There is something he can smell in the air, making his ears buzz and his vision swim. When he opens his eyes again, his Mum is speaking, and he feels a warmth from the thing that is bubbling over the fire - a thin line of vaguely poisonous scent curling across the room to his nostrils.
“We will remove his soul,” the Lethecary is saying. “And attempt to separate that which is good from that which is bad. The curse from the child, as it were.”
“What — ” his Mum has moved beside him now, and both her hands are on his shoulders. “ — Will it hurt him?”
“I doubt it,” says the Lethecary. “I am of the mind that the proper sedation potion has no ill effects on the process itself, neither the removal, nor the successful reinsertion once the separation has occurred.”
“Is that - ” his Da points, vaguely, in the direction of the stone basin.
“It may look like a Pensieve,” says the Lethecary, sounding almost jovial. “But it is not. It is not meant for memories, Mr Lupin, but for something far more powerful and precious. It is a container for the self, for the consciousness, for the very soul of a human being. It is crafted out of much of the same organic material as those guardians of Azkaban, the Dementors. But it is a safe extraction site, I assure you, where the separation can ostensibly occur.”
“How does it - ” his Mum’s fingers tighten on his shoulders, biting into the skin.
“It will look for him,” says the Lethecary. “Once it is uncovered. It will look for any soul, in reality, so positioning and sedation is key, as well as my direction of the process. The extraction must not be resisted, or the entire thing could go horribly awry.”
The room falls silent. Remus feels as if he is breathing very loudly; that everything is echoing between his ears. He looks at the basin; sees the edge of the cloth flutter, and his vertigo ratchets sharply upwards.
“Are we ready, then?”
Remus blinks. The Lethecary is standing in front of him, hands half-raised to Remus’s face. Remus sees the flickering light of the fireplace spark off the rings on the Lethecary’s thin, white fingers.
“Child,” says the Lethecary, and takes Remus’s face in both of his hands. His skin feels like pure heat: like warm air, like steam. The Lethecary’s rings are hard, and cold: he feels them like bright little points of pain, digging into his cheeks.
Remus nods. The cool metal slides up and down his skin. Behind him, his Mum releases his shoulders.
The Lethecary removes his hands, slowly. His fingers linger on the line of Remus’s jaw, thumbs sliding under the fleshy dip of Remus’s lower lip. Remus feels a sharp shudder creep up his spine; his bones are still creaking noisily inside his body - something about them is fighting this place.
“I think,” says the Lethecary, with that shiny, pulled-thin smile. “That this is going to be a wonderful success.” He moves to the fireplace, removing a small goblet from the mantle and dipping it into the bubbling pot.
“A simple sedation - ” says the Lethecary, extending the cup. “Brewed to keep him alive, but not exactly awake, certainly not remembering, not consciously functioning, as it were. Mothwings — the key addition.”
Remus feels his throat closing up. The Lethecary is standing there - with the potion held out to him, directly at him - and he cannot seem to move. His heart is thudding in his chest; his ribs are aching, something in his body seems to be tasting the scent of the air and rebelling.
“Remus — ” his Da is bending down, touching his forehead with his big, rough fingers. “If you don’t want to do this, you — ”
“It’s okay,” he whispers. He can’t stop looking at the goblet, at the way the sun is bouncing off the edges of the rim. The way the steam is turning golden and solid-looking in the light. “If you think it’s okay, I’ll. It’ll be okay.”
“That’s the spirit,” says the Lethecary. All sibilant, like the hiss of the wind under a closed door.
He takes the cup; he holds it in both hands. It is warm all the way around; it feels vaguely alive. He bends his head to it, and smells the steam. It almost knocks him back on his feet - the force of it - the full-on poisonous scream now ricocheting around in his skull, the thudding of his heart against his ribs rises to a terrifying pounding beat.
I want to be - he thinks, wildly, his eyes squeezed shut against the now-blinding light of the world. I just want to be good.
When he drinks it, it tastes like dust and fire.
Mum, he whispers. Da?
Something jerks. Under his body. He reaches out a hand, blindly — feels cool, smoothness — glass? Glass.
Mum. Where is his voice? Where is —
“John — John. He’s awake.”
He opens his eyes. Something jerks again, and he sees the slow blur of green and dark-blue-black fading into sight. The pale blurry press of his own fingers. He flexes them. His body feels thick and slow. He presses his hand down to his side, to right himself - had he been lying down? It is the back-seat of the Citroen. The thin navy-blue upholstery. The half-fuzzy linting fabric.
He squints, he blinks, he rubs his eyes with a numb fist. His Mum is twisted in the seat, watching him with her forehead creased and her eyes bright, and wet - little points of shining light in the darkness.
Night, he thinks. It’s night. Time — has passed?
“What - ” he whispers. Finds his voice - his mouth is so dry. “What happened?”
“John,” says his Mum - her voice pitched.
Something very concrete seems to settled in his ribs, all at once. He looks down at his hands; turns them palms-up, in his lap.
“It didn’t work?” he asks, very slowly. Because he knows his body is exactly the same. He is still this thing that he is, which is nothing whole.
“It didn’t - ” his Mum reaches out a hand, and grasps his fingers with her warm, small palm. “Remus. We didn’t do it. We couldn’t do it.”
His Da does not speak, the whole drive home.
Why not? he will ask his Da, much later - when he is maybe ten or eleven. It is the last time they will ever speak of it. What if it had worked? Why didn’t you go through with it?
Because we love you, his Da will say. All of you.