When death is the greatest danger, we hope for life; but when we learn to know the even greater danger, we hope for death. When the danger is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not being able to die.
Sirius Black is comfortable at University. It is a place where he can finally thrive without the constraints of etiquette and stiff-backed aristocracy. At university he allows himself to at last breathe in the toxicity of youthful cigarettes, drink coffee when it pleases him, and enjoy the small pleasures of the old school library.
There are a hundred thousand books behind those oak doors, shelved high to the ceiling, a myriad of knowledge at his fingertips. He will not willingly admit it to his friends, but Sirius strongly believes that there is an eternal happiness to be found if ever he became lost in that library. Its ornate wallpaper and squeaking chandeliers and peeling desks hold a multitude of secrets, and he wants to know them all. But he isn't very good at reading, despite his private school education, and tends to appreciate only the simple aesthetic of books rather than their intellectual value.
On this day, however, Sirius is on mission beyond the help of books. Rather than getting lost, as is his favoured pastime, he must find within the teetering shelves of the library. Professor McGonagall has assigned to him a task he thinks is rather beyond his academic capabilities, and he is sure that this is exactly the reason why she has appointed it to him. It's all very well, he thinks, to sit in the back of the class and doodle in his notebook, and accept the consequences in the form of poor grades, but it is quite another to be burdened with the responsibility of someone else's education. Sirius isn't too sure his pathological behaviours will grasp such an obligation. He is determined, of that he is certain, but fears he lacks the appropriate discipline.
Today, the library feels bigger than usual. Sirius is accustomed to spending hours just searching for one particular book (Heaven forbid he will ever ask for help), and despite the library's enormity he has gotten to know its nooks and crannies exceptionally well. However, walking through the double doors, he suddenly feels very small and very lost. He is nervous, he realizes, and he scolds himself for it.
He collects his bearings, self-consciously adjusting his school bag over his shoulder – there is a motorcycle helmet clipped to the strap, banging against his leg as he walks. He has no reason to be nervous. Although, that being said, never has he been asked to be someone's study assistant before.
Sirius strolls passed the librarian's desk (he can feel Mrs Pince's eyes drilling holes into the back of his head at the sight of his muddy boots) and over to the study area in the middle of the library. Surrounded by the books were a collection of desks and armchairs, most of which are filled with students cramming for tests, eyes feverish in the afternoon rain. Sirius stops, surveying them, searching for a boy with sandy hair and wearing a blue jumper…
There he is – Lord, is that a sweater? That's not a jumper, that's a sweater. Sirius has never known anyone to voluntarily wear a sweater.
He takes a deep breath, inhaling the dry books for assurance. He approaches the boy, who is bent over his notebook, writing furiously. His eyes seldom flicker to an open textbook in front of him and he is inattentively devouring an entire block of chocolate. He has poor posture, Sirius notes, and his handwriting is very messy.
Sirius stands in front of the desk pointedly, but the boy does not acknowledge his presence. Flustered, Sirius clears his throat and the boy looks up, exasperation written across his sharp features. His eyes are brown and old, flecked with honey gold.
"Er – Hi, I'm Sirius," says Sirius loosely, slightly taken aback at how attractive this boy is. He hadn't been warned of that. Had he known, he might have thought to look more presentable. His jeans are a little worse for wear. But there is nothing to be done about it now. "Professor McGonagall said you needed someone to take notes in class for you?" It is not technically a question, but Sirius poses it as one, and the boy in front of him is slightly confused. A cross little knot forms between his eyebrows.
"She sent you? You're taking Gender Studies?" he says icily, regarding Sirius with a critical eye. Sirius feels unwelcomely insecure, which is rather a new to him.
Honestly, this kid is wearing a sweater, he shouldn't be judging anybody.
"Yes," he replies indignantly, like it is perfectly normal for a Criminology student to take up Gender Studies as an elective class, though he knows it probably isn't. Sirius refuses to let this boy gain the upper hand of… whatever this is. He takes an empty chair and drags it over noisily, resulting in multiple infuriated glances in his direction. He sits down on the other side of the desk and glances down at the textbook the boy is studying from. Philosophy; of course.
"Fine. I just need someone to take notes for me, not be my friend," he snaps, returning to his writing.
"Er – okay," Sirius mutters awkwardly. "Why?"
"Because I'm not interested in making friends."
"No, I mean why do you need someone to take notes for you? I would kind of like the know the details of this job description."
The boy meets Sirius' gaze, eyes narrow with what could be suspicion. The piercing stare alarms Sirius slightly and he shifts uncomfortably in his chair, looking away.
"I am required to make frequent visits to the hospital and I don't want it to affect my grades," the boy answers tersely, tapping his ball-point pen absently on his wrist for a moment before guiding his attention back to his book.
"Why?" Sirius says again.
"It's none of your business."
Sirius is amazed at the curtness of this boy; he is sharp and hard and Sirius wonders why. He must be severely sick to oblige to frequent hospitalization, so surely he cannot be blamed him for being so aloof. However, he does not look ill. A bit thin perhaps – though that could be a side-effect of his ludicrous sweater – but certainly not ill.
But then the boy coughs into the crook of his elbow, wretchedly and painfully, and Sirius is startled by the abrasive sound. It makes the muscles in Sirius' stomach tense. He suddenly pities this boy, feeling bad now that he has thought poorly of a person who is now apologising for something he clearly cannot control.
"Don't trouble yourself," returns Sirius kindly, smiling lightly. "My uncle used to have a cough like that."
"What was wrong with him?" the boy asks, rapt on Sirius now and making him feel even more uneasy, if that were possible.
Sirius shrugs, heavy shoulders and awkward arms. "I don't know. He died of it, though," he elaborates briefly, remembering his uncle as a pack-a-day smoker. Sirius reflects momentarily on why such a death in his family hadn't deterred him from his own smoking.
"Oh. I'm – I'm sorry,"
"Nah, don't be; he was an idiot. And besides, he left me all his money when he died. Which only further proves how ridiculous he was, really," Sirius smirks genially, amused by the boys' stunned reaction.
"Right," is all he relays.
They sit in silence for a long while, both lost in their own thoughts. Sirius is fascinated by this creature; handsome, by all accounts, and probably nice enough if you can humour him. With such a burden on his shoulders, Sirius can understand why he does not wish to make friends. However, Sirius cannot fathom tolerance for such loneliness. Doesn't the boy have any friends at all? He must, at the very least, have a pet, or a fish.
"So – you got a name?" Sirius initiates, quirking an eyebrow, genuinely wondering if this guy has a name or not. It's not written on any of his books or pens. Sirius does not recall Professor McGonagall providing a name.
Sirius jerks at his response. "Like Romulus and Remus?!" he exclaims.
The boy called Remus sighs dangerously and gives a stiff nod. "And you're Sirius; the brightest star in the sky."
"Mmm, that's me; not as bright as they say, I have to admit. I keep forgetting which constellation I'm a part of. You'd think I'd be all hankering for this astrology stuff, but it bores the heck outta me. My mum tried to teach me, but I think I was so reluctant towards it that I sort of blocked it all out," Sirius prattles on, partially to himself.
"You're part of two constellations, actually," Remus clarifies patiently, only half-focused on the rapidly building conversation. Sirius notices that he is concentrating on something else, though can't decipher what it might be. "Canis Major and Orion."
"Oh," says Sirius, blinking stupidly. "My middle name is Orion."
"You have an odd name," Remus agrees, flicking his fringe out of his eyes. "Is your surname astrological as well?"
"Black? No, it's a colour."
"Black isn't a colour, it's a shade."
Sirius rolls his eyes at Remus' pretentious comment. Despite this, he is all the more captivating, for Sirius has never met anyone like Remus, hard and withdrawn, yet easily mollified. Sirius' best mate, James, would call him a nerd, most likely. Lily would probably take to him.
"I better go; I have work in a few hours," Sirius concludes, rising from the chair. "Will you be in class tomorrow?"
Remus looks up at Sirius, eyes darting over his appearance again, though this time less disparagingly. He nods, and when Sirius departs with a farewell, it is not returned. Grumbling and rolling his eyes, Sirius trudges out of the library and into the rain outside, grieving over the complicated situation he has been placed in. On the one hand, he wants to help Remus, because Remus seems motivated by school and it's a shame he cannot attend all of his classes; but on the other hand, this boy is rude and antisocial and Sirius just doesn't get him at all. This is so unfair, he thinks childishly to himself.
Sirius finds his motorcycle parked with other student and faculty cars and wipes down the wet seat with a bare hand, though with a fruitless outcome. He ties back his long hair and shoves the helmet on his head. All that remains of the roguish Gender Studies participant is the low purr of a 1952 Vincent Black Shadow and skid marks on the tarmac.
He is found later that afternoon on his back underneath a Mercedes-Benz, a plug in his hand and motor grease on his overalls. Sirius cranes his neck awkwardly beneath the engine, trying to get a better view of the heater return to see what is wrong with it. Temporarily defeated, he rolls out on the creeper and tells James to start the car.
James Potter, a tall, sturdy and bespectacled boy at the end of his teens clambers into the car and turns the ignition. The car rumbles to life and Sirius splutters at the acrimonious smell of the engine, inspecting it with a trained eye. Twenty minutes later, the vehicle is fixed and the two boys disappear from the garage to get some food from the kitchen. As far as workplace kitchens go, the one at the Auto Repair shop is pretty decent, though the fridge is temperamental and none of the chairs match.
James retrieves a large lasagne from the microwave, slices it, and dumps one half unceremoniously onto Sirius' plate, who is eager to savour the marvellous cooking of James' fiancée. There is still grease on Sirius' hands and it is smudged across his cheek and has graced his hair in large clumps. His part-time job at the shop is nothing glamorous, he won't deny, but it keeps his hands busy and the bills paid. And he has the privilege of having his dinners cooked for him by Lily Evans (soon to be Potter), all without the encumbrance of having to live with her.
"I have to take notes for some snotty little berk in my Gender Studies class," Sirius says.
"Why?" James asks, his mouth full of food.
Sirius shrugs weightily. "He has to go to the hospital a lot so he needs someone to keep tabs on what's going on in class," he explains dully.
James makes a face and takes a large gulp of lemonade. "Why go to university if you're just going to be ill all the time?" he wonders.
"Ill people want to have decent jobs too, you know. But he's weird, Prongs. He wears sweaters and coughs terribly and he always looks like he's going to go spare at the next person who touches him."
"What's wrong with him, then?"
"He didn't say," Sirius says. "McGonagall sure knows how to dish out a punishment. I should probably start contributing to her class."
"Does he have any symptoms?" James continues, probably more for Sirius' irritated sake than personal interest.
"He has a nasty cough, otherwise no. Do you think Lily would know what it is?" Sirius inquires.
James shrugs and the conversation is lost to football and then to the Mini Cooper they are repairing next. Meals devoured and hands washed, they return to their work. It is late when Sirius rides home through the rain and the last of winter's slush on the road. His flat is a welcome sight after a long day. He climbs the stairs to the fifth floor, the elevator still out of commission, shaking his sopping hair out of its ponytail. He fits the key into the lock of his door and enters, dumping his helmet on the entrance table and shuffling to the bathroom to wash. Boxes litter the floor of the house, evidence of his recent habitation and general laziness.
Emerging from the shower, long hair damp and curling at the ends, Sirius notices he has two messages on his answering machine. He puts the kettle on and plays them.
"Hey, Padfoot, it's Peter. Do you have my Ramones album? I can't remember who I lent it to and I need it back. Cheers." The tone of the high beep sounds and Sirius snorts. The chances of Peter getting his album back are slim to none. It is never leaving Sirius' gramophone, especially not with that incorrect use of 'who' instead of 'whom.' The next message plays and Sirius is at first shocked by the only freshly familiar voice echoing through his flat.
"Hi, Sirius. This is Remus Lupin from university. I got your phone number from Professor McGonagall. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I won't be in class tomorrow after all, so if you could take notes for me, that would be wonderful. Thank you."
Sirius makes a contemplative sound and thinks it is rather cheeky of this Remus Lupin to have gotten his number from a teacher. Usually it is Sirius operating a dastardly scheme to obtain someone's number, yet here he stands on the receiving end of that.
The lecture room for Gender Studies is small in comparison to Sirius' Criminology class. It is cramped and claustrophobic. He bumps elbows with people he doesn't know and receives stern glares from his teacher when she catches him doing someone he shouldn't be. None of his friends take Gender Studies. In fact, he is still coming to terms with why he chose it in the first place. Anthropology may have been more suited, or Psychology.
He slumps moodily in his chair, taking measly notes, much to the amusement of the brunette sitting beside him. He peeks at her extensive handwriting spilling out over five pages and feels guilty, knowing he is letting Remus down. Some note-taker he turned out to be. He has scribbled on two pages and has now resorted to sketching pictures in the margins of his notebook. Professor McGonagall is discussing the concept of non-binary gender, so Sirius draws a series of cartoons at the bottom of the page, explaining the different between sex and gender.
He continues onto a third page when Professor McGonagall changes the topic to cisgender and he writes a definition when she inscribes it on the blackboard. His handwriting is neat and slanted, sloping across the page in a series of black flicks and loops. Years of private school education have not failed him; he has learned all the essential characteristics of a good-mannered young man, his knowledge extending over the full spectrum of acquired etiquette. Sirius walks with perfect posture, knows which forks to use at a restaurant, and how precisely to pull out a lady's chair. It was later in his schooling years with James and Peter when they decided to read about physics, literature and history, realizing the value of books in the progression of their futures. Sirius curses his mother for sending him to such an obnoxious school.
When the class is over, he attaches a short letter to the notes he has taken.
To Mr Lupin
The topic of non-binary gender results in an enthralling discussion. Please find enclosed the original copy of the notes I took in class just for you, to be reviewed at your leisure.
Proud of his snark, Sirius retreats to the library to photocopy the lecture's notes for himself. The next day, he removes himself to hand them to Remus, but the haughty sweater-wearing git is nowhere to be found.
In fact, Sirius does not see Remus for next two and a half weeks as the weather develops into a perpetual cloud of overhanging rain and blistering wind. He begins to think he has dreamt this whole Remus Lupin dilemma and has been taking twice the amount of notes for no reason at all.
To Mr Lupin.
Did you know feminism is not about seeking power over men? Of course you do.
There was an ignorant berk in class today who thought it was about women trying to take over the 'dominion of men.' Like there is such a thing. If you ask me, women have held the upper hand for centuries. They're a terrifying lot. My mother could sure give a beating; she could teach them a thing or two.
What is your stance on equality?
And now, the weather – miserable, I say, and the misery will continue for the rest of the week.
Your obedient note-taker,
To Mr Lupin.
Roses are red
Gender Studies is a drag
I've no one to talk to
I think I'll go stag
- I won't, though. I know you need these notes. I hope you're feeling better.
Serving his punishment dutifully,
To Mr Lupin.
Roses are red
Gender is performative
- Please find enclosed new definitions we learned today.
To Remus Lupin
I think the majority of the blokes in this class are taking it to get with the girls. Let me tell you, they have another thing coming.
I, for one, have a long-awaited hamburger coming for me.
To Remus Lupin
How many radical feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
None, because feminists aren't afraid of the dark. Besides, you don't need a light bulb when you have a glass ceiling.
I'm the next Karl Marx,
Remus Lupin returns to university on a Thursday, much to Sirius' relief. He feels he has been under far too much pressure, taking notes for someone he is not sure even exists. He waves him over to two empty seats at the back of the classroom. He looks different; blanched and twitchy and thin. In the furrows of Remus' face, Sirius can see three weeks of what he assumes was vile hospitalization. He is glad to have kept his promise to take notes for the poor bloke; Sirius cannot imagine how awful it would be to pay for university and not be permitted to go.
Remus sits in the chair besides Sirius. He looks almost charming today despite his pallid features. If it weren't for his absurd sweater, which is far too many different colours, Sirius would very nearly have paid him a compliment if it weren't so abrasive to look at.
"How are you?" he asks instead, casting a wary eye over Remus. Up close, Sirius can see the dark circles under his eyes and the waxy texture of his skin, pulled tight against his cheekbones.
"I've been better," Remus remarks cynically, pulling the sleeves of his sweater over his hands, which are deathly pale and presumably cold. His voice is soft, tired. "I've been worse."
"Have you been in hospital all that time?" Sirius says incredulously, keeping his voice low around the students milling into the room.
Remus nods grimly, but says nothing as he pulls out his books and pens, fingers trembling. Sirius has never seen anyone look so fragile. He suddenly feels the intense need to wrap this stranger in his arms and whisper into his hair and concoct a cure for whatever is ailing him.
In an attempt to overcome these strange feelings, he searches through his books for the notes he had taken for Remus, presenting them to him with a proud grin.
"Oh – thank-thank you," Remus mumbles, taking them.
"You're welcome," Sirius says sincerely.
He forgets about the silly drawings he included until after Remus begins to rifle through the papers.
"Did you write letters to me?" Remus says, examining the small pieces of paper stapled to the front of each dated section.
Sirius blushes furiously, feeling foolish. "Yes, I did," he admits. "I have a crappy attention-span."
"You don't say. And you drew in the margins?" Remus continues, eyebrows high with amusement at the quaint drawings Sirius procured.
Sirius awaits a reprimand with baited breath, wishing more than anything that the ground would swallow him whole. To his amazement, Remus chuckles lightly and puts the notes away in his book for safekeeping, saying nothing. Sirius regards him with a bemused expression.
"You're funny," Remus explains simply, smiling.
"What?" Sirius blubbers.
Remus' smile widens for a moment.
"Most people think I'm an idiot," says Sirius.
"Well, you're certainly that," Remus approves.
Sirius smirks and Professor McGonagall addresses the class. He leans down and digs into his bag for his reading glasses. Sirius is not ashamed to have reading glasses; it's not his fault he cannot see the page in front of him. If James can wear glasses every waking moment, then Sirius can endure them for two hours a day. However, he catches the mien on Remus' face when he puts them on and he is immediately embarrassed, wondering how effectively he can dig that hole with just pens at his disposal.
Year after year, early March proves to Sirius that the weather in the great nation of Britain truly can be a depressing affair. While it at last ceases to snow, the rain is ever persistent and sometimes he even braves the bus to university for it isn't worth it to get drenched on his motorbike every day. He longs for the arrival of summer; for beaches and t-shirts and socks abandoned under beds.
Sirius suspects, however, that Remus Lupin rather enjoys the cold that thunders at the beginning of spring. Wrapped snugly in his infinite supply of sweaters and coats and hats and scarves, he is typically pink-nosed and beaming, which Sirius admits is extremely sweet. Remus' sweaters may be as ludicrous as ever, patched in several places and falling apart, but his pink nose and cheeks and lips are exceptionally cute. Sirius has caught himself thinking about it on multiple occasions, and unconsciously drags Remus outside for more cigarette breaks than are probably necessary just so he can witness it more often. He always offers his cigarettes, but Remus never accepts them, always standing a healthy distance away from the toxic fumes. Sirius quickly learns that perhaps it isn't a good idea to smoke around a sick person, so he stops.
They have taken to studying in the library together, however, and Remus suddenly becomes Sirius' primary companion, spending more time with him than anyone else. He has never had someone to bond with over radical ideas and he adores the mutual ground upon which he and Remus stand. Remus is intellectually stimulating and bristling with enough concepts and statistics to sate Sirius' hunger for knowledge for another lifetime beyond this one. And through their long philosophical discussions about Kierkegaard and sometimes quantum mechanics, he soon grasps that Remus' sarcasm is quirky and funny. His aloofness is a defence mechanism, designed to hide his kindness and compassion. He is afraid to be hurt, and to hurt others in return, and Sirius never imagined he would ever meet someone he could empathize with. He apprehends the desolation of sickness and the inner battle of chronic pain and suffering. He no longer pities Remus, but respects him. Sirius wishes he could be that strong.
The two boys feed off each other, their conversations and company like a roaring tremor through one another's lives. Sirius begins to miss Remus when he disappears to the hospital, and consoles himself with diligent note-taking, a skill that he has developed admirably. He shamelessly charms Remus with drawings and letters to make him laugh, discovering he loves nothing more in this world than to hear Remus laugh.
Still he does not know why Remus is constantly unwell, but knows better than to ask. As the weeks trickle by, Sirius eases the tension between them by testing Remus' boundaries. Sirius finds it so easy and wonderful to know Remus and to understand this boy who is so unlike anyone he has encountered before.
And so March dissipates seemingly unnoticed that year. Sirius is too preoccupied with making a new friend to even remember James' birthday. Luckily, Lily dutifully organizes a small rendezvous at a pub, knowing expenses are better saved for their upcoming wedding.
"It's my best mate's birthday this weekend," Sirius tells Remus after class one Tuesday, shaking himself into his coat. He takes a moment to size himself up against Remus, as has become a habit of his, for Remus is preposterously tall. Sirius is used to being the short one thanks to James' height, but Remus is even taller. Sirius suspects that if he were to roll up his trousers, he would find stilts under there.
"We're going for drinks; care to join us?"
Remus casts him a stricken expression, his eyes immediately rejecting the notion of meeting Sirius' friends. This does not deter Sirius' eagerness, however. He grabs his books and elbows Remus affectionately, daring his puppy-like eyes to win over his new friend.
"If I will not be imposing, then okay," Remus submits a little ruefully, looking down at his battered shoes as they make their way slowly to the library, savouring the rare sunshine outside. "What are your friends like? You always speak of them, but I learn nothing."
Sirius scratches his chin thoughtfully for a moment, taking note of the five o'clock shadow there in need of shaving. "I don't know," he admits. "How do you describe the most important people in your life? James is sort of… my brother. We think we're genuinely distantly related, but we haven't looked into it enough to find out for sure. Peter is – well, he's Peter; he likes bobble hats and has no emotional filter. He's fun at parties, though. And Lily; you'll probably like Lily. She's James' fiancée and a total catch, if that isn't too bold to say. She's really nice and sweet and funny and she does one hell of a brew."
"How did you all meet?" Remus pursues as they enter the warmth and comfort of the library. They take their usual seats in blue armchairs around a low table, Remus removing layers of his clothing in the now stifling heat.
"James, Pete and I met at boarding school, so we've been mates for years. We shared a dorm and everything. And Lily we met through a mutual friend, Severus. They lived really close when they were kids and they grew up together. He went to boarding school with us and introduced us to her during the summer holidays. James was smitten, of course, and that made things go a bit sour,"
"So you aren't friends with… Severus anymore?" Remus processes the name unusually, rolling it against his tongue. He takes out a packet of crisps from his bag and two sandwiches. The boy eats like he has been starved for most of his life, Sirius has noticed. He just eats, and eats, and eats.
Sirius shakes his head. "It was a bit silly, really. He held a grudge against James for hooking up with Lily because he was sweet on her too. It's not her fault she was never into him," he says. "But yeah, those are my closest friends. There'll be others at the pub, too. And if I can give you a bit of advice; when it doubt, offer Mary a shot of tequila; should definitely make things exciting."
Remus laughs, opening his Gender Studies textbook and propping it on his knee as he indulges in a peanut butter sandwich on top of his crisps. "Well, your friends seem quite unusual," he says before coughing horribly. Sirius waits patiently for him to stop. Sometimes he does not even notice Remus' coughing. "Do you think they'll like me?"
Sirius watches Remus carefully, from the humble expression on his face to the way his feet snap together with sudden humiliation. He had let that question slip out without meaning to, and Sirius finds this curious. He has been studying Remus since their first lesson together and has come to comprehend him relatively well without asking too many nosy questions. But it always surprises Sirius how guarded Remus is. It is one thing to be reserved and quiet, but quite another to abandon any emotional charge. This question now makes Sirius wonder if Remus finds his presence comforting. That would be astonishing, for sure. Sirius finds he only ever makes people uncomfortable.
"I don't see why not," he finally says gently, putting on his glasses.