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Learning New Lessons

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Learning New Lessons

Ancient China, 215 BC

The First Emperor sighed and shoved aside the pile of scrolls. For one moment, he let his head fall into his hands; his fingers rubbed his temples. He’d been working on this project for the past three years and it only grew more complicated every day. At least everyone understood why it was sensible to make axles the same length – well, except for that one man in Fan Yang - but the fights he was still dealing with about regularizing the monetary system were making him wonder if he wouldn’t have been happier if his family had remained merchants in Han.

“My Lord Emperor?” The man in the doorway bowed deeply, then moved smoothly into the room. “I know you are fatigued from your work on these complicated matters. It distresses me to see you so overworked.”

The First Emperor looked his advisor, noting that his hands were full of more scrolls. “Is that more for me to look at?”

“No, my Lord,” Li Si said. He bowed again, and the Emperor curled his lip. Li Si was useful and very smart, but he didn’t like the way the man moved. His obsequiousness was so total it obscured any honest personality. “However,” Li continued, “I do have the reports you ordered from the Ministry of Education.”

Ah. He was interested in those. He needed intelligent men to lead his new country, and he had hopes of finding people he could trust to understand his schemes. With a glance at the scroll that had made his head ache in the first place, he reached for the information.

“You’ll see, my Lord,” Li Si murmured, as the Emperor began reading down the paper, “that there are many ideas circulating that are detrimental to your honourable and noble goals. If I may be so bold as to remind you of my earlier warnings, I believe these reports bear them out.”

The Emperor flicked a hand at him, and Li bowed his head, but not before hiding the gleam of triumph in his eyes.

“These men are teaching dissent and sedition!” The Emperor threw the first scroll across the room and tore open the second. “Why do they think they’ll be allowed to continue this? How long have they been instructing the students in these subjects?” In a fit of rage, he shoved all the scrolls off his desk. The crash filled the room, echoing off the far corners.

Across his desk, Li Si stood, hands tucked calmly into his sleeves, head still bowed. “If I might be allowed, Most Gracious and Noble Emperor, to deal with the seditious writings and educational methods in your place?”

Cold with fury, the Emperor nodded. He’d disbelieved Li Si when they’d discussed the schools – Li Si had said that the schools were hotbeds of sedition and licentious behaviour – but now he believed all of it. Better Li Si deal with the whole situation – clearly he understood what was going on.

A timid knock at the door was followed by a small female face. “My Lord Husband?”

The Emperor stood. “Do as you see fit,” he snapped at Li Si. “I do not wish to be bothered by such disgusting matters again.” As he left the room with his wife, he heard Li Si say, “As you say, my Lord.” behind him.

***

The small sound of a cleared throat made Severus look up from his work. His door framed a tall man in soldier's garb, bearing an armful of scrolls.

“Yes?” He sat still, unwilling to be disturbed.

“I’m here to see,” the man checked a note clutched in his fingers, “Severus Snape. I was told that he was here.”

Severus nodded curtly. “I am he. What is it you have brought for me?”

The man stepped up to Severus' desk and looked for a place to put his scrolls. As the man stood there, Severus let his eyes move up from the stranger’s feet, over his muscular legs and to his wide shoulders. He found that most people couldn’t stand silence, but this man seemed impervious.

Finally, deciding that he wasn’t going to be rid of this interruption without some help on his part, Severus reached out and took the scrolls from the soldier’s arms. Instead of acting as he should have, upset about the disrespect and personal contact, the man grinned.

“That’s better,” he said, and fell into the chair Severus was forced to keep in his office. “Those are the distribution reports for the latest manoeuvres in the north. Albus said you’d need them right away, so I brought them straight down.”

Severus looked down at the scrolls in his hands. He didn’t need them. He wasn’t even in the right department. What was Albus doing?

“I am sorry you have wasted your time.” He held the scrolls out. “I am not the correct person. You need to bring these to Pettigrew, in the war department.”

The soldier didn’t reach out to take the scrolls back. “Oh. Albus was quite clear. He definitely said I was to bring them to you.” He held out the note he’d been holding and turned it so Severus could look at it. “He even wrote your name down for me, so that I wouldn’t get lost.”

Severus thought, the idiot probably can’t even read. Albus is really getting worse as he ages. He sighed deeply, then placed the scrolls on the small tea table to his left. “Thank you very much. I will ensure that they reach the correct destination. Now,” he bowed his head in the shortest bow he could make and still be respectful, “as there is still work I must finish…”

The soldier smiled at him again. “Oh!” He stood up and Severus tried to ignore the man’s strong arms. At the door, the soldier turned back, his face wreathed in a smile. “I’m sure, with all the work you have, you simply forgot to ask, but my name is Remus Lupin.” He gave a jaunty wave and left. Severus could hear his footsteps as he walked down the hallway.

~*~

Two weeks later, the same soldier came to pick up some reports from Potter, who worked in the War Division. Severus was in Potter’s room trying to get the man to release some information he’d gotten from one of the astronomy schools near the western border. Potter had refused very rudely, saying that someone of Severus's background wouldn’t be able to understand the implications in the information.

Severus was holding onto his temper by the barest thread, when the soldier, Lupin, entered the room. To his disgust, Potter lit up and called out, “Remus! Where have you been? Has old Dumbledore been keeping you busy up there?”

Lupin smiled at Potter and answered, “Oh, you know, James. I have to do something with myself.” He stepped closer to Severus. “Snape. I didn’t think to see you again. I hope you’re doing well? And your work? Did it get finished?”

Potter’s face clouded over. He scowled at Severus, but spoke to Lupin. “You know this guy? Did he tell you his usual thing about being too busy to do any real work?”

Severus stiffened. He did real work, much of it things that were unfinished from Potter’s department.

“I see that you are unable to give me what I have requested. I will have to find a person with access to the high level information I need.” He bowed, smirking slightly at Potter’s sudden snarl and left the room, trying not to look into Lupin’s face at all. He should have known that someone who looked as ... who was as high ranking as Lupin was would be friends with Potter. Potter came from one of the most influential families in the Capital, Xianyang. He shouldn't be working in these offices at all; Severus often wondered why Potter didn't have a post in the Emperor's Court, the way the rest of his family did.

He'd almost made it to his office when he heard quick footsteps behind him. “Snape! Snape, wait,” called Remus.

Severus turned, sliding his hands into his sleeves. He'd met friends of Potter’s before; he couldn't think of why knowing that Lupin was good enough friends with Potter for them to use each other's personal names was so upsetting to him. “Lupin,” he said softly.

“No, really, it's Remus,” said Lupin, who was standing next to him, almost too close. “I'd be pleased if you called me Remus.” He started to walk towards Severus' office door, making Severus follow. “You never answered my question.”

Severus sat down slowly in his chair. “Which question?” He felt like he was losing control of the conversation.

“Whether or not you finished what you were working on when I saw you last.” Remus lounged back in his own chair, smiling. “Oh!” He shifted around and pulled a scroll from his tunic. “I got that information from James that you wanted. I don't know why he was being so stupid about where it was. I saw it on his desk as soon as you left.”

Severus took the scroll and glowered at it. He'd known that Potter had the information, that he'd just been withholding it to be combative. Severus couldn't understand why knowing that Lupin had followed him just to give him the scroll made him feel so disappointed. “Thank you,” he said. He put the scroll down and folded his hands. “As you have now delivered the scroll, I am certain there are other things you wish to do.” He saw no reason to make Lupin come up with a reason to leave; better to just have the disturbing man leave his office now rather than listen to him fabricate an excuse.

Lupin raised his eyebrows. “Other things? No, actually. There's nothing. Well,” he shot a small smile at Severus, “there is something, but I'd hoped—“

“Yes,” replied Severus shortly, “you can go do whatever it is you must do. I am grateful to you for bringing me the information I needed.” He pulled some papers closer on his desk, not wanting to watch Lupin leave the room. It wasn't as though he didn't have his own friends; why did he so want to be friends with this soldier?

After several long silent moments, Severus looked up. Lupin was smiling at him quizzically, head tipped to one side.

“Actually,” he said, the small smile still on his lips, “I was hoping you'd come to my house for a meal. My cook does amazing things with fish.”

Severus was even more confused. “You wish for me to come to your ...” He sat up straight, thinking that this was one of Potter’s friends and so couldn't be trusted. “Thank you,” he said stiffly, “but I am very busy. The Emperor is very interested in the information I have been compiling—“

“I'm sure you're doing a lot of work, Snape, but really? Do you think the Emperor wants you to skip dinner? It's only one meal.” His smile had grown. “I won't take no for an answer. Come to this address,” he pulled out a piece of paper with an address written on it in neat characters, “in three days. I'll make sure my cook makes something special.” He was out the door before Severus could respond.

Severus brought the address with him to and from work for the next three days. He wasn't going to Lupin’s lodgings, he knew that, but he was afraid to leave the paper at his house. His mother looked at everything in his room when she cleaned it, and he didn't want to answer any of her questions. Or, he thought with a shudder, his father's. He couldn't explain to himself why he kept the address in the pocket of his sleeve all day, rather than simply throwing it out or bringing it to the pulpers to make new paper.

On the third day, he sat at his desk, staring down at the precise characters. Lupin’s lodgings were almost on his way home. Maybe he could just... stop in for a minute or two. If Lupin did really tell his cook to make food, Severus would hate for her to have been made to do extra work for nothing.

Walking slowly, several hours later, he stared up at the large buildings around him. Each of these was a single dwelling. His own family lived in part of a small compound near the edge of the slums. They didn't even have a kitchen of their own; they had to share with the family next door. Lupin must be from a very wealthy family to be staying in one of these large houses.

Once he found the address, he stood outside the gate, straightening his robes and hopelessly dusting off his shoes. He didn't have the money to have more than one pair of shoes and now that he looked at them, he could see that his shoes were more worn than he'd realised. Giving up his attempts at looking neat, he pulled the silk bell cord.

A young girl met him at the gate and brought him to a small set of apartments near a fountain in the courtyard. He took courage from her bright smile as he stepped into the rooms. Lupin was sitting at a desk and he looked up sharply when Severus closed the door behind himself.

“Snape. You came!” He stood and, smiling broadly, came across the room. “I'm very glad. Come with me. I told my cook that you'd be here soon, but she didn't believe me.” He reached out and grasped Severus' arm, leading him into the next room, which turned out to be a small eating room looking out over a tiny garden in the central courtyard of the building. Severus could see a little bridge crossing a stream and a small willow tree dangling its branches in the water under the bridge. Lupin left him and trotted through yet another door.

Severus could hear him chattering quickly in a strange Northern dialect and moved closer to the door to see if he could hear what he was saying. He still didn't understand why a friend of Potter’s would invite him anywhere, let alone into his lodgings. Hadn't Potter told all of his friends what kind of a family Severus came from? Severus knew that Pettigrew had been told; he never missed an opportunity to remind Severus that he was only at Xianyang because the Emperor's noble families had been decimated in the wars.

However, Lupin simply seemed to be reminding someone of the soup he wanted to eat first, and Severus relaxed a little. He could stay for the soup, and then make his excuses. His family knew he didn't come home at the same time every day. He wouldn't be too late.

“I had her make her shrimp and noodle soup,” Lupin said, bustling back into the room. “I know you'll love it. She won't tell me what she puts in it, but it's the best soup I've ever had.” He smiled and urged Severus to sit at the table.

Suddenly there was a loud bang, and Severus heard a voice he recognised calling for Remus. It was Potter, and he cursed himself for the surge of disappointment he felt. Remus hadn't intended to eat with him. He'd invited Potter as well.

He glanced up, and saw, to his surprise, an unhappy look on Lupin’s face.

“Wait here,” he said, pressing down on Severus’ shoulder. “I'll be right back.”

Severus could hear the two men arguing in the other room, then the voices fell too low for him to make out any words. He stood, knowing that this had been a mistake, that thinking anyone like Lupin would invite someone like him to his house for anything pleasant had been an incredible delusion on his part. Clearly he couldn't be trusted around men with such appealing ... Shaking out his tunic, he strode through the outer room and towards the door he remembered led to the outer courtyard and the safety of the street.

He stopped in the doorway, because Lupin was blocking the room. Lupin had been talking to Potter, but when Severus stopped in the door, Potter stopped talking and stared at him.

“Aiya, Remus, I can’t believe it. You’ve picked up another worthless stray!” Potter shrugged off Lupin’s hand, sneered at Severus, then stormed out. “I’ll call on you another day, Remus,” he called over his shoulder.

Remus sighed deeply, ran his fingers over his face and turned to face Severus. “I’m very sorry about that,” he said. “Please, don’t leave. He… he’ll come around. He’s never good with people he doesn’t know well.”

Severus allowed himself to be persuaded back into the eating area. The soup was really quite delicious.

After the meal, Lupin - Remus - brought him out into the courtyard garden. It was even larger than it looked from the outside. They sat on a low bench, under a spreading flame tree, watching the small brook chuckle as it passed under a low curved bridge. Severus was surprised to find how easy it was to talk to Remus. He’d expected the other man to be more like his friends – snobbish and class-conscious – but he found him down to earth, funny and sharply intelligent.

Suddenly, Severus realised that the shadows he was watching were sweeping slowly past his feet. He stood quickly. “Oh! I must get home. My family will be waiting.” He didn’t quite trust the look of disappointment that flickered over Remus’ face, but he couldn’t stop himself from feeling a similar emotion.

“Can I… will you come again?” Remus asked as he led Severus to a door in the exterior wall. “I would deeply enjoy hearing the rest of your opinion on the different methods of research.”

Severus paused. He’d enjoyed that part of the discussion as well, but he’d thought Remus was pretending interest in his private experiments. He’d had a few good ideas and Severus would appreciate knowing more about his own interests. “I would enjoy meeting you again. Perhaps we can work on something together.” As he walked home, he tried to make himself believe he was flattered at Remus’ interest in his experiments rather than simply hoping that someone as good-looking and smart as Remus would be interested in anything more personal.

They met again the next week, for dinner and then a long discussion about troop movement, highlighted by Remus demonstrating a group battle using sticks and small pebbles as the troops. By the end of the month, they were meeting several times a week.

~*~
Two weeks later, he began to hear disturbing rumours about the Prime Minister's new policies. The Emperor been working hard to make everything in the Empire uniform; things like axle lengths and wheel sizes had to be made the same across the country so that there could be free trade. However, the rumours hinted at something much less beneficial.

He first heard about it outside of Dumbledore’s office. He was standing, waiting for his turn to speak to his supervisor, when he heard the surprising sound of Dumbledore’s voice being raised.

“You want us to do what? Burn the books that... but they're simply books, just words on paper. How will burning them do any good, if there are still people who know them?” Severus stared, confused, down at the scrolls filling his hands. What could Dumbledore be talking about?

“I will be reporting directly about your insurrection to the Upper Minister,” snapped the man leaving Dumbledore office. “You will have to learn to control your tongue and your department.” He glared at Severus as he passed him, but that was nothing compared to the absolute hatred he had in his gaze as it fell to the scrolls in Severus’ hands. “What are those?” he demanded, stopping in front of Severus.

“They're a history of the peoples of the west,” he said, confused. The stranger snatched them from his hands, crushed them between his own hands and stormed off down the hall.

Severus ran into Dumbledore’s office. “That man, who was that? He just took the histories I was putting together for you, the ones with the interesting—“ He pulled to an abrupt stop at the bitter look on Dumbledore’s face.

“So it's begun,” the old man said, his white beard and moustache quavering a little. “Did he get your name?”

“My name? No,” responded Severus, now completely baffled. Why would it matter if some bureaucrat knew his name?

“Good, good.” Dumbledore pottered about on his desk, then pulled the teapot from its usual place and waved it at Severus. “Well, now that the histories are gone, we have more time to talk, just you and I. Tea?”

Severus fell into the chair he always used in this office and nodded, his brows drawn together. “But Albus, you wanted those. I can go to my office. I still have my notes.” He half stood, but Dumbledore gestured for him to sit back down.

“Did you get the information from that nice young man... now what was his name?” Dumbledore idly tapped at his lips, his eyes bright and twinkling. “I'm sure I sent him to you with the papers you'd be needing.”

Severus stiffened. “You mean Remus? I mean,” he looked away. “I don't know which man you mean.”

Dumbledore chuckled. “I sent him to you – you could use the friend, you know. He's a nice boy. Give him a chance?”

Severus wrapped his hands around his teacup. “I’ve already got friends.”

“Ah, Malfoy and his group.” Dumbledore nodded, not noticing that the tips of his moustache dipped into his tea cup when he did so. “He's not like them, though. Did you notice?”

Severus stood abruptly. “I'm sorry. I have to get back, especially if I'm going to work on replacing those scrolls for you.” He left quickly, not wanting to see the determined look in Dumbledore eyes. He knew if he gave the old meddler a chance, he'd make Severus promise to bring Remus to meet his family or some other nonsense.

***

“I will be at Remus’ for dinner, Mother,” Severus called as he left. Behind him, he heard her grumble about him not using his time to find a nice girl. Dismissing her complaints, he strode quickly down the street. He hadn’t had a chance to see Remus for a week; the other man’s division had been training out of town. He was looking forward to having a long talk about what Remus had been doing out there.

That evening, he was packing up at work to leave, when Potter stopped into his room. “Going somewhere?” he asked.

Severus sighed. Somehow, Potter’s snide tones didn’t upset him as much as they used to. “Yes. I’m leaving for the day. I’ve done a full day’s work, unlike some I could mention.” Potter sneered at him, so Severus smirked and continued. “Since I’ve worked well today, I’m looking forward to a pleasant dinner.”

“Well,” Potter said, crossing his arms and smiling, “if you think you’ll spend any time with your friend after this evening, you’re mistaken.”

Severus felt a chill. He didn’t like to admit how much he worried that Remus would remember who his friends really were. Part of him was waiting for it all to have been a horrible joke, to find out that the friendship which had become so desperately important to him was nothing but a practical joke to Remus. “I have no idea to what you could possibly be referring.” He made sure his voice was even, but he saw Potter’s eyes glint maliciously.

That evening, he sat in the chair he’d come to secretly think of as ‘his’ in Remus’ sitting room. He reached for his cup of tea and returned to reading through the scroll he’d brought from work. He was still working on the histories for Dumbledore; he’d just received a new set of scrolls from someone with the improbable name of Argus. He’d long since given up being surprised at how many people Albus knew and how much information Albus got from them. He supposed some of the stories the barmy old coot told about his younger exploits must be true.

Remus came into the room, stopping in the doorway. “Well,” he said, his voice soft, “fancy finding you here.” Severus glanced up, Potter’s insinuations in his ears, but Remus’ expression was as soft and welcoming as his voice had been. “Oh, don’t get up,” Remus said. “You look very comfortable.”

Severus tried not to smile. “I’ve been drinking all your tea.” Remus laughed and pulled a chair closer to the tea table.

“I’ll just drink the last of it, then, and tell you how nice it is to be back home.”

Severus felt his cheeks warm.

Halfway through dinner, one of the little children from the family came in, saying there was someone to see Remus. Apologising, Remus followed the boy out into the courtyard. At first, there was the sound of low voices, then silence. Severus, curious, walked to the window and looked outside.

He froze at the sight of Pettigrew, his lips pressed passionately to Remus’ and his arms wrapped tightly around the slightly taller man. With a furious snarl, he whirled from the room, hearing mocking laughter behind him.

He'd made it most of the way to the door into the street when he heard Remus calling after him. Lengthening his stride, he pushed through the gate and into the street. To his shock, Remus followed him into the street, going so far as to grab his arm.

“Severus,” Remus said, slightly out of breath, “Severus, please don't leave. It's not... I mean...” Severus stared into Remus’ eyes, noting idly the tinge of light brown, almost the colour of amber, at the edges of his irises. Just as he felt himself begin to turn further, to think about returning, Remus continued. “My cook is devastated. She thinks the food—“

Severus tore his arm out of Remus’ grasp. “Please give her my apologies. I did not intend to stay for any food at all. Give her my...” he paused, realising he was repeating himself. “Thank you for the meal,” he remembered to say at the last minute, then he strode into the street and lost himself in the alleys.

He'd been afraid that Remus would accost him at work, but he didn't see the other man at all in the next few days. Once he did see Pettigrew, but, luckily enough, he was with several of his own friends, people higher up in the ranks of the scholars. All Pettigrew could do was smile mockingly and rub his lips.

~*~

Eight days later, he looked up to see Remus in his doorway. The other man's face was stiff with tension.

“I'm sorry, but you're in the wrong office,” Severus said, proud of how well he masked his emotions.

Remus took three quick steps into the room. “Does anyone here know where you live in the city, or where your family is?”

Severus pulled back. “No. Why do you want to know?”

“We don't have time. You have to hurry.” Remus seemed to be getting tenser and more upset with each passing moment. “Gather up anything you'll need and come with me.”

“Where?” Severus snapped his mouth closed. “I will not leave. I have to finish my work and there's nowhere I want to go with you.”

Remus snarled at him. “You don't have time, I tell you. Get out of that damned chair now, grab anything you'll want to keep from this office and come with me. They're only a corridor away and if you don't hurry, they'll get you, too.”

Suddenly Severus could tell that the sounds he'd been hearing from the corridor were ... it sounded almost as if there were people fighting outside. He stood, his hands quickly gathering up several brushes, sticks of ink and blank scrolls. As an afterthought, he snatched up the histories he'd been working on for Albus and tucked them all into his bag. “What's going on?”

Remus peeked out the door. “I'll tell you later. Listen, you've got to just trust me, okay? I might have to say things that won't make any sense. Just,” he came back into the room and moved close to Severus, “just believe me that I'm taking you someplace safe. I promise.” With that, he wrapped his fingers tightly around Severus' upper arm and snapped, “Get out of here, you disgusting piece of traitorous flesh.”

He pushed them through the halls, crowded with other soldiers, historians and scholars. Everyone was yelling, and several soldiers challenged Remus on their way through the building. He told everyone he'd be back, but that he had to take this one all the way to the top. Severus glanced into Albus' office as he was dragged past it and stumbled at the sight of red drops spattered on the floor. He must have made some sound, because Remus turned back to look at him.

“Just hang on,” he whispered. “Not much longer now.” Severus followed him, dazed and uncomprehending.

~*~

For Severus the next two weeks were nothing but confusion and change. Remus first took him to a rented room in a bad section of town, refusing to bring him to his home. He got the direction for Severus’ family and left him with the young girl who’d shown him to Remus’s rooms the first time. When Severus asked him what was going on, Remus said something about innocence being the last virtue.

Late that night, he sat in the cold room, his back to the wall, a thin batting blanket pulled over his drawn-up knees and stared at the empty door. Remus had said he’d come back, had said he’d tell him everything, but no one had come. He was alone.

The next morning, Remus gave him soldier’s garb and hustled him out of the capitol with a large group of other soldiers headed for the northern reaches. They stayed with the soldiers for two days, then left in the middle of the night, Remus still not answering Severus’ questions. He spent the first week looking over his shoulder and kept them moving at night after they left the brigade. One night, when they were walking along the interminable pathways he’d found for them, he said, “Pettigrew and I aren’t… he was just…” he trailed off and fell back into silence. Severus didn’t know what to say to get him to continue, so he stored the implications away to study later.

Remus brought them to a small village in the western plains. He handed Severus, like a package, to an elderly woman who met them at the outer fields, then started away without saying anything to Severus. He got about ten steps away before he turned back.

“Severus, I’m sorry. I have to get back to the group. They’ll cover for me, Black will, I know it, but I have to be the one to meet with the commander of the Northern troops. I’ll be back, I swear it.” He reached out and touched Severus’ shoulder, his fingers moving gently around the curve of it. “My grandmother here will take care of you. You’ll be safe here.” He ran his fingers over Severus’ cheek, then down to his lips. “Be safe.” Then he was gone.

Severus settled into the life of the village slowly. At first he’d been almost afraid to leave the room Remus’s grandmother had given him, but she’d coaxed him out with bright chatter. Remus’s entire family was friendly and everyone seemed to like him; on the third day he was there, he found himself teaching several small children how to write.

There was something they weren’t telling him, though. He could tell, by the way Remus’s parents would stop talking if he came into the room, and the way one of Remus’s uncles never seemed to quite leave him alone.

One morning, about a month after arriving at the village, he woke up before sunrise. For the first time, he felt happy to be where he was. He wondered what had been going on in the capitol, but somehow he felt calmer here—he felt as if he had a place here. He’d always felt a little out of place in the capitol. He went outside, out into the fields, and stood where he’d last seen Remus, wondering where the other man was and why he’d brought him all this way out here. He told himself he wasn’t wondering if he’d ever come back; if he’d ever see Remus again.

As the sun leapt from the earth, he saw someone far across the fields. Gasping a little, he started walking towards the figure. Before too long, he saw the person was running towards him and he stopped, suddenly filled with fear. What if whatever had happened at the capitol had followed him here? What if he’d brought bad things with him?

But it was Remus; Remus laughing and happy.

Behind him, Severus heard the family coming from the house; he heard the sleepy voices of the children asking why the were up so early and the lower tones of the adults calming them. One little boy tugged at Severus’ tunic, holding his arms out, asking to be picked up. Severus bent over and swung him up to his hip. Severus watched Remus, closer now, amazed at how much his own life had changed.

Remus came up to him, smiling. “I told you I’d be back, didn’t I?” He grinned, panting a little from his run. “I’m back for good, now, too. We can stay here.”

Behind them, Severus heard Remus’ parents laugh a little, then the whole family was upon them, everyone hugging and chattering. The little boy in Severus’ arms tucked his head under Severus’ chin, popped his thumb in his mouth and fell asleep.

That night, Remus came to Severus’ room. He sat down and sighed. “I know you’ll have questions, but … I just want to say that I—“ he sucked in his breath. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Severus shivered at the look on Remus’ face. It felt almost as if the other man had kissed him. Blinking and biting his lips, he sat down, himself, making sure to sit near Remus. If this man, so bright and lively and with such a kind family, wanted to be… something with him, Severus wasn’t going to turn it down. Reaching out slowly, he twined his fingers with Remus’. “What happened, in the capitol? Is Albus…? My family?”

Remus’s face darkened, but his fingers curled tighter into Severus’ hand. “Your family is fine. I had Black help me move them to Xianyang. The rest, though, is bad. Li Si … he killed everyone else. I mean, everyone all the other scholars.”

Severus gasped. “Everyone? What do you mean?” He shook his head, trying to make sense of what Remus had said.

“He’d been getting angry about other ideas being taught, other schools of thought being given to the Emperor. So, so…” Remus seemed to be having trouble saying what he meant. “He had the scholars who didn’t agree with him … he had them buried.”

“What? He had them killed and then buried them?” Severus was shocked. This was terrible—there were hundreds of scholars, all studying different things, different histories.

Remus slid his other hand into Severus’. “No. No, he buried them alive. You’re the only one who got out.” He looked away. “I’m so sorry.”

Severus shivered, thinking of the busy corridors, all alive with debate and talk; now silent. He saw again the red splatters on the floor of Albus’ office. Finally, he turned his face to Remus, who’d braved death himself to save him.

“Sorry for what? For saving me? For bringing me here, into your family? Don’t be sorry—I’m not.” Carefully, in case he’d misunderstood everything, he reached out and slid his fingers into Remus’ hair. “I’m only sorry I didn’t meet you earlier.”

Remus’ answer was to slide his hand into the hair at the base of Severus’ head. He pressed his lips to Severus’; with a gasp, Severus opened his mouth, surging forward and wrapping both arms tightly around Remus. After several moments, Remus broke away and gently laughed. “I’ll be happy to meet you every chance I get.”