Stages

Disclaimer: No owny!

A/N – Heeeeeeey, guys! Hello! Sorry this took so long! Hopefully the chapter makes up for the wait! :D

No matter how much easiness and laughter lightens their world, they still have a war to fight. To win. It's something he really prefers they do very soon.


Chapter Twenty-two: Like His Blood


Remus Lupin loves Hermione Granger.

Her hand lends him comfort as they wait for the last of the funeral attendees to leave. Anticipation hangs in the air like smoke, a thing almost touchable; a taste in the back of his throat. He gulps the vinegar down with every swallow, eyes on the door, counting every open and close, every whispered final condolence to the Weasleys lined up next to it in a stern and solemn line.

She lends him comfort with her hand in his, but she doesn't stop the way his leg vibrates with the tension in the room – something he isn't aware of happening until her other hand is warm against it, cupping his knee with gentle pressure.

It's all he can do not to pull her into his lap. There is talking to be done, explaining to be handed out. He needs to take part in that. Maybe not to the entire Order, but to her and Sirius certainly. He swallows again at the thought of it, his lips dry.

His breath just starting to race makes it impossible to keep them moistened.

He knows he needs to talk. To tell them what happened while he was away. He needs to get it out, to purge the dark thoughts and memories, to fill them in because they're his family, the ones he loves, and they need to know.

But he doesn't want to.

He doesn't want to.

He doesn't want to think about it.

Coward.

How is he supposed to help Timothy if he can't even face it himself?

The hand on his knee squeezes. Remus wets his lips and sends Hermione a distracted smile, his hold on her hand tightening when the door closes for the final time and the members of the Order look to the Weasleys as one.

For a long moment the silence is oppressive. Then, with her children pressed in by her side – a single unit, a wall, Remus can't help but think – Molly's chin rises.

It's a startling comparison to the way the rest of her body trembles.

"Thank you for st-staying," she begins, having to stop and clear her throat twice before she can continue. "You didn't have to, but I'm grateful you did. The first thing I need to do is apologise."

Surprise has Remus sitting forward. Next to him, Sirius's brows shoot up.

"You don't need to say sorry for anything, Molly," Kingsley says, his voice a deep and calming rumble. He gets up and takes her by the hand, leading her over to the sofa. Tonks and Hestia immediately get up to allow her to sit. "Your only job here is to grieve, love. Nothing more."

The smile Molly sends Kingsley is weak, her sigh audible as she sinks back against the cushions. Her family surrounds her once more; a wall with shaky but determined foundations. Remus wonders which is stronger – the determination or the undeniable tremor that's licking quietly at their defences. Molly has lost an unhealthy amount of weight in a shockingly short amount of time, and the rest of the family…

Rough around the edges doesn't begin to cover it.

"I wish that were true," Molly says, taking Bill's hand and squeezing it hard enough to whiten her knuckles. She sits forward and straightens her spine, and pride zings down Remus's back. He smiles. "It's unfortunate that it isn't. Recent events have brought things to light that I've been ignoring. That has to end, for the good of everyone in this room."

Her hair tickles her chin when she takes a bracing breath. There's a lot more grey in it than there had been the week before. "I'll be the first to admit that I haven't been terribly… open to the fact that this war is starting again. I didn't- I d-didn't want it to be happening again. I wanted it all to be an exaggeration. I didn't want my family to be in danger. I didn't want my family to have to f-fight."

She stops and draws in another breath, clutching her daughter close when Ginny wraps her arms around her and burrows into her side. Her throat moves in a swallow, and Harry suddenly gets up and settles himself down at her feet, his back against the sofa's armrest. Molly looks startled for a moment, and then her fingers run very gently through his hair.

Remus has never been prouder of the boy in his life.

"But denial gives you nothing but crippling pain and sorrow, and horrible shock when what you're denying is shoved so very hard in your face. My husband is d-dead. A-Arthur is d-dead. I do not want anyone else I love to meet that same fate."

Tears run silently down her cheeks as she meets each set of eyes in the room, following tracks that have craved a path in her flesh, stained the fragile translucency of her skin. They look almost permanent, those stains. Like she'll never move past this; like this is where she ends, an anchor deep within this moment, locking her in place. However, there is power in the way she holds her head high. Remus feels her gaze deep in his chest when she moves to look at him.

It's a solid smack of an axe to his heart.

He can't breathe.

O-oh.

"We must be strong. We must fight. We must prepare. You're all aware the Albus is in-incapacitated at the moment, and not able to lend us his infinite wisdom and guidance for the foreseeable future. We must not let that bring us to our knees. The best way to keep everyone safe is to end this war as quickly as possible. To do that, we all must be given every advantage, every scrap of information we have to provide. Not just some of us. All of us."

She looks fierce. No one thinks of contradicting her – no one knows what to say. Surprise is blatant in every expression, and Remus shoots a startled look at Hermione to find her looking back at him, equally as shocked. This is not the Molly Weasley they know.

This is not the Molly of days before.

"They're just kids," Tonks murmurs, frowning at her fingers gripping the armrest. As if drawn to look, her gaze darts up and she shrinks back at the spitting slash of Molly's eyes.

"I know that!" she snaps, clutching Bill's hand like a lifeline. "You don't think I know that? They're my kids! But I won't have them lying dead at my feet because I tried to wrap them up in cotton wool! I won't do that to them any longer! I know my kids and this is the best way I can think of to protect them!

"It's all right, Mum," Charlie says in a soft tone, rubbing her shoulder and sending Tonks a gentle smile. "She's just pointing out what everyone's thinking."

"What everyone's thinking doesn't matter, because I'm going to tell my kids what I want them to know, and no one here is going to stop me! I was hoping for some support in that!"

"You've got it," Hermione says in the ringing silence that follows Molly's outburst. She gets to her feet and walks over to take Molly's hand, her face calm and open. Some would say cheerful.

Remus would say cheerful.

She's a mother too, isn't she?

"Everything being out in the open is exactly what we need. If Harry is okay with that, then I say we do it right here and now. Harry?"

"Yes. Yes, please," Harry says, the side of his head against Molly's knee. He says it almost as if it's a relief to say, his eyes closing and his shoulders sinking. Like a weight's been lifted.

Something pings in the back of Remus's head and he sits forward in a hell of a hurry.

The next hour sends ceaseless shards of ice through his veins, chilling him until he thinks he'll never be warm again.

~0~

"Why didn't you tell me?" he asks the wall after everyone has left. They've taken refuge in the kitchen, Molly having gone up to bed to try to sleep up some energy for the upcoming wedding in a few days. They'd brought the wedding forward as a way to remind people that life goes on, but somehow the Burrow is drenched in wrongness, emptiness, a lot of the life gone with Arthur no longer present. The Weasley children have scattered to the corners of the property, taking Ella, Harry and an Ella-attached Timothy with them, and Remus's head is spinning with too much information, his stomach a snake pit of knots.

He's scared. Fuck, he's scared.

He's terrified.

His lips are numb with it.

"You weren't here, mate. We couldn't tell you, could we?"

"You don't think I would've come home once I learnt about this?" Remus asks, turning to look at Sirius, still speaking quietly, as if raising his voice even an octave would shatter him.

It would, probably.

"You don't think that I would consider this the most important thing?"

"Remus, we didn't want to burden you," Hermione says, standing on the other side of the room with her hands in front of her, fingers wringing. Her eyes shout her distress at him. "You believed so much that you had to go, that you had to do that. You needed to do that."

"Well why the fuck didn't you tell me before I left, then?!" he retorts, spitting the words at her, feeling the pieces quiver, on the verge of tumbling and crashing and breaking into the tiniest fragments. There's unbearable heat under his breastbone, the beast rumbling and raising its head, sniffing cautiously and yawning to show a jaw full of sharp and pearly menace. His hands are shaking. "Horcruxes, Hermione? Magic so fucking black, basically no one knows about it? And Harry's one?!"

He isn't aware of taking a step forward. He is, however, aware of Sirius getting to his feet, wariness in his eyes. "My cub has to fucking die for our side to win and you never fucking told me?!"

"I wasn't completely sure until just after you left," Hermione says weakly. She looks like she's going to cry any second. Remus grits his teeth.

"You couldn't have mentioned your suspicions to me before you were sure?!"

"No, because I needed to be sure!" Hermione cries, twisting her hands together so hard, Remus thinks he hears them creak. "I needed to line all the facts up, to do all the research and figure it all out! I needed something tangible to show you lot! I couldn't break everyone's heart with assumptions, Remus! I n-needed to get this r-right!"

Her voice is shrill. Her cheeks are wet. She's a mirror of his soul in that moment, her devastation a visible echo around her, sunk deep into her skin. Her voice breaks and Remus strides forward three paces to pull her into his arms, his face buried in her hair.

Hermione trembles against him. He clutches her closer.

"Why? Why does this have to happen?"

"Because destiny is a fucking cocksucker, that's why," Sirius mutters furiously. There's a loud snap, and Remus looks up to see the chair Sirius had been sitting on, on its side, one of the legs splintered inward. Sirius is glaring at it, his arms folded tightly across his chest. "Shitty, arsing prophecy. I hate it. I hate this. Fuck this. Fuck it!"

"There isn't any other way?" Remus whispers. There has to be another way. There has to be.

His cub is going to die.

His cub has to die.

The pain slices him the fuck in two.

"No," Hermione sniffs, voice waterlogged. She folds herself into Remus like he's the only thing keeping her afloat in choppy seas. "I l-looked and there isn't- there isn't… it can't be d-done any o-other w-way! I t-tore the DoM to p-pieces!"

The hope he hadn't been feeling slides away into nothingness, leaving a hole inside him, blank and empty and so, so cold. His eyes find the book sitting on the table that had made its way into the Department of Mysteries and eventually into Hermione's hands. A book that should look innocent but doesn't, a hole reminiscent of the one in his belly in its centre, a black, tar-like substance solidified around the edges.

Riddle's diary.

A Horcrux.

An ex-Horcrux.

And Harry's one, too.

"How is he still okay?" Remus asks in a rough voice. Finding out that Harry already knew about Horcruxes, the prophecy, and that he was a Horcrux himself, had been just as debilitating, if not more, than finding out about it all in the first place. How is the boy still functioning?

"He used the thing with Malfoy as a distraction," Sirius says in a tone so soft, it has Remus lifting his head. "So he didn't have to think about it. The kid obsesses when his mind gets caught on something. Lily used to do that, remember?"

"What thing with Malfoy?"

It takes a moment, but Sirius shrugs. He's face is still as he stares at the opposite wall Remus had found fascinating earlier, too clear, like glass; body careful. There was no energy there now, just a hidden helplessness that stronger than Remus has ever seen it, and Remus wonders just how much it'll take for that type of glass to fracture.

He knows he's not sure if wants to find out.

"Dunno. He never actually said anything, really. Malfoy was his potions partner."

"So they're friends?" Remus asks, the intensity of the look Draco and Harry had shared when the Malfoy heir had fled the school swimming in his mind's eye. Whatever they were, they weren't friends.

"They're something, dunno what."

"Draco's just as much a victim in this as Harry is," Hermione says, stepping back out of Remus's arms and swiping her hand under her nose. "There's no choices here for anyone. Dumbledore made sure of that."

"Fucking prick," Sirius mutters, a scowl creeping along the glass, anger firing through his eyes for a second. "Wish that fucking wall had killed the cunt."

"No, you don't," Remus says quietly, walking over to his mate and poking him in the side. Sirius's scowl deepens. Remus wants to poke him again, just to see that emotion. "Then where would we be?"

"Dumble-fucking-dore-less is where we'd be!"

"We're that now. No need to wish more death on the world, Padfoot, yeah?"

Sirius bares his teeth. "Shit-stain's in a fucking coma, Moony. Something you can wake from?"

"You know the healers said that that isn't likely to happen anytime soon, if at all," Remus says, wincing in his head at Sirius's terminology. But agitated is much better than still, isn't it? Agitated is Sirius.

Still isn't.

Still is uncommon, unhealthy, and something to avoid when it comes to his best mate.

"We need to focus on finding a way to get Harry out of this situation. Find a solution that death, any type, anybody's, isn't a part of. Let's try to keep death in the past, not think of it as an undeniable part of our present and future, all right? At least I think we should."

The look of incredibility on Sirius's face shatters the glass so effectively, it makes Remus blink. "Well, look at the fucking professor stepping up!" he laughs, not sounding amused at all. Rounding fully on Remus, he pushed close into his space, fury rolling off him in waves. "You think we should, Remus? You think we should? Where the fuck have you been these last few months? What gives you the right to have any type of opinion at all, huh? You weren't here!"

Remus's spine straightens, newly restored anger beginning to hum through his chest once more. "I love him just as much as you do, Padfoot," he says quietly, steel in his tone as he meets Sirius's eyes head on and holds them for a long, heavy moment. He can feel the rage and despair churning through Sirius; taste it, like the anticipation. He can also understand the violent reaction.

But he won't be used as a punching bag for no reason.

He's had enough of that.

The moment practically trembles with tension, so much so that Remus is sure Sirius is going to turn him into a physical punching bag, his eyes screaming. But then he stops.

He stops. And he sags.

And when he looks up, he's still again.

"I need a drink," he says, much too quiet. Remus watches him leave, snagging a bottle on his way out, and his own shoulders sag.

Broken. They're all broken.

He hates it.

"He loves you."

Turning to Hermione, Remus's smile flickers with exhaustion. It's draining, flipping through emotions as if they're a switch. "I know he does, love. Which is why I piss him off so much."

Hermione purses her lips, crossing her arms and giving him a considering look. Her eyes are red from crying, her hair a mess of static and frizz. She's so beautiful, it hurts to look at her. "So the wolfsbane finally dug out the wisdom in you, did it?"

Remus shakes his head. "No. It let me see things far too clearly," he says in a tone that echoes a still Sirius. Hermione's eyes widen. "Can we just… can we sit? I need to… I need… you."

She's in his arms before he finishes reaching. Her lips take his, and she kisses him with a desperation that tastes like salt, feels like terror. So much terror. Remus wraps his arms around her and clings, sinking to the floor.

They stay like that until a half-cut Sirius finds them an hour later and joins them without saying a word.

~0~

"You're not going back to school!"

"Yes, I am!"

"No, you're damn well not!" Hermione growls, glaring at her daughter. Ella's glowering right back at her, her face red with frustration, eyes spitting. "It's too dangerous! You're a halfblood, for Merlin's sake! How can you even possibly think I'd let you go back to school?!"

"I'm a Black, I have to be there!" Ella snaps. "You read the letter! It's compulsory!"

"You're a Granger, a muggle-born! You're not going back to school!"

"Mum! I'm not you!"

"I know that!" Hermione barks back, throwing up her hands. "You're a damn sight stronger and sneakier than I ever could be, and that's why I'm not sending you back there! You'll get yourself hurt, or worse! You're going to Australia for this year at least, and that's my final word on the matter!"

"But Timmy's staying here, and Harry, too! Why can't I stay?!"

"Ella!"

"But-"

"I mean it, Elizabeth! Not another word!"

"Ugh, you're impossible!" the young witch shrieks, turning and storming from the kitchen, a tornado of anger and upset that slams the door in her wake. Remus watches the commotion from the safety of the other end of the table with not a little shock, having never seen Hermione's daughter lose her temper quite so dramatically. Ella is an intelligent little thing who thinks every situation through, sees all the angles and exploits them to her own and the people she loves advantages. The only time he'd ever seen her come close to exploding like she just had had been during the aftermath of the first time she'd met her father.

Speaking of. His eyes cut to Sirius, who's sitting at the table and who'd barely said a word since Hermione had asked their daughter to sit with them. Sirius's face is blank.

It'd been like that too often lately.

Remus is beginning to think that the glass fracturing would be the best thing for everyone.

"I could've done with your bloody backup at some point there, you know!" Hermione snaps, rounding on Sirius as well. They'd agreed on their approach before they'd called Ella downstairs, then asked Remus to sit in, who was big enough to admit that he'd been ridiculously fucking grateful they'd asked. Having been back at Order headquarters for the past week with just the three of them and the children, he'd been beginning to feel like he and Timothy were interlopers, trespassing on matters best left to family.

They were his family. He'd been second-guessing his surety that he was theirs.

His thoughts confuse him a lot more than he likes.

Bill and Fleur's wedding had been a disaster. Remus had been constantly on edge, flinching at every loud noise and then doing his best to cover up the tell-tale reaction. For whatever reason, Bathilda Bagshot had decided she'd taken a liking to him as well, so he'd had to sit there and pretend he was interested in her stories about Dumbledore and Grindewald, as well as watch for potential danger and keep an eye on a polyjuiced Harry, who'd encouraged her for reasons Remus wasn't entirely sure of. Getting a patronus in the middle of the reception telling them that the ministry had fallen and that they were now being hunted had caused uproar, with Death Eaters arriving and people panicking, and a stampede had ensued. The air had been full of a crackling ozone, magic residue seeping into his pores, horror a scent he'd breathed in more than anyone ever should have to, and his heart had been slamming, lungs squeezed too tight to function by the time he'd rounded Hermione and the others up. They'd escaped to Headquarters by the skin of their teeth, and had been there ever since.

No one else had shown up.

The quiet held an ill-omen that felt horrificly deathly.

"You were handling your own," Sirius says, staring into his still steaming tea. Remus can smell the whiskey at its base. His lips pinch.

He's Padfoot in human flesh.

For the thousandth time, Remus wishes that this war, this sickness, wasn't a part of their reality.

"Holding my own? Did it really look like I was holding my own?!" Hermione retorts, planting her hands on the table and leaning towards him, eyes narrowed. "Damn it, Sirius, she's your daughter too! Or have you forgotten that?"

Sirius's head springs up. "'Course I haven't," he says indignantly, fingers tightening around his mug. "I just didn't want to get in your way-"

The wards blare through their heads, and all three of them are on their feet, wands in hand and eyes snapping towards the front of the house. There's a scuffle from upstairs and Harry and Ella appear on the landing as they reach the front door, both resembling ghosts in their paleness, and both looking far too determined for their own good.

"Get back upstairs!" Hermione hisses at them. Harry shakes his head furiously.

"No. We can help."

"You bloody well can not! Now get back upstairs!"

"It's Andie."

Sirius's quiet statement shuts everyone up, Harry's mouth closing with a snap, confusion in the pull of his brow. Sirius is peering through the net curtains, his own face white. His eyes look washed-out with the colour. "What? Your cousin?" Hermione frowns, turning back to the window and squinting through it herself.

"Yeah, Andromeda, Tonks's mum. She's got someone with her, look."

"Who?" Remus asks, moving in closer and trying to see through both the curtains and the two bodies standing in the way. "Is it Dora?"

"No, Tonks's welcome here so it can't be her… well fuck me."

"What?" Remus, Harry and Ella all say at once, impatience making Remus push closer still. Sirius shifts a little to let him see.

What he does see sends an astonished jolt racing through him.

Ah, bloody hell.

"Padfoot?"

"Yes, Moony?"

"Why the hell has your cousin, who isn't a part of the Order as far as I know, so shouldn't know how to get to us, brought Draco fucking Malfoy to Order headquarters?"