The small word pulsated in his numb brain, making his temples throb and his eyes sting. His chest hitched. He contracted his palms into fists and relaxed them again and again. He closed his eyes tight and turned away from the window he had been looking through for minutes that felt like ages. He stifled the sob that was fighting to get out of his throat.
Four letters. Just four letters of the English alphabet. Four letters that shattered his world. He didn't know what to do with himself now. He was alone. He never felt so alone in his life, even when, sixteen years ago, he lost all his friends at once. The realization that one of them could return was one of the happiest moments in his life, just as the night when a stag, a dog and a rat joined him in his transformation, or the day of James' and Lily' marriage, or Harry's birth had been, so long ago, so far away.
He had had Sirius back for far too little a time to make up for the lost thirteen years, those years of heavy doubt and hazy incredulity that seemed to stretch on for an eternity.
After his return, as well as before his spell in Azkaban, Sirius has been his crutch, one of the pillars on which his life rested. He was the one to give support and distract him from the wolf when the moon was close, he was the one to relive school memories with, when despair welled up.
And now... He is gone. Remus shuddered at the sound of the word. He opened his eyes, realizing that they were closed. He felt that something changed in the room, but was yet unable to process what exactly had changed. He turned around, blinked, and then it hit him – the empty portrait frame hanging on the wall right opposite him was no longer empty.
"He really is gone, then"
Phineas Nigellus' voice was hollow, and his painted eyes were strangely void and empty.
"Dead. My great-great grandson. The last of the Black."
Remus flinched at the sound of his own voice when he said: "Yes"
"I suppose you, as his friend, could ... tell me ... how he ... died?"
The last few words were barely distinguishable, but Remus didn't need to hear them – he knew exactly what Phineas would ask. Though, however anticipated, the words didn't lose their impact. Remus held a long pause. He was not sure if he could tackle the subject just yet. Thoughts were one thing, and putting them into words was another. He remembered what a shock it was when his lips formed the word 'dead' and his voice uttered it. He remembered Harry's face and the look in his eyes when he said it. There still was a frantic hope in them, shining unnaturally, yet underneath, unfelt and unnoticed for a time, there swirled grief and despair. He had to fight away a new sob. Nothing in the world was as hard as watching Harry lose one by one the last remains of his childhood, his hopes, the things that helped him to hold fast to life...
Remus nearly got lost in the whirlwind of his own thoughts, but there was hollowness and grief too intense in the portrait's eyes to leave the question unanswered. However, when Remus had finally steeled himself enough to answer, and already opened his mouth to do so, another voice cut across him.
"Your grandson brought it upon himself, Nigellus. I specifically requested for him to remain behind, and he still went away, regardless of my words. Black's death is purely the result of insubordination and filthy temper combined."
Remus turned around so quickly he cricked his neck. He couldn't care less. He always wondered, how Severus Snape managed to walk soundlessly enough to sneak up on him, especially now that the moon was close, and his senses became painfully acute.
He was looking at the pale face with the hooked nose and black eyes, curtained by greasy hair, and suddenly felt an upsurge of hatred towards the man, something he didn't feel even in the school days. Probably, the wolf was already taking control, and it would have been safer to go to the hiding place Dumbledore graciously provided for him to transform.
"What do you mean to say by this, Snape?" Phineas' voice now sounded as haughty as ever, and cold as ice.
Unexpectedly even for himself, Remus replied, not turning around, but looking into the fathomless black eyes of the man in front of him.
"Why don't you tell him, Snape? Why not tell Phineas why Sirius left, and what you have done to stop him? Or, should I say, what you haven't done..?"
Snape's eyes narrowed. His hand was gripping his wand.
"Did you take the potion, Lupin?"
"Yes, I bloody well drank the bloody potion!!" Remus almost shouted, advancing on the man. "On second thought, though, I probably shouldn't have."
A sneer curled Snape's lip, but his hold on the wand wasn't slacking.
"Well well well, finally we get to see the real Professor Lupin, don't we? No more of this quiet voice, no more of those kind looks, no more understanding you provided in such quantities to the load of little impertinents we both have to teach, hmm? What happened to the professor, Lupin? Wolf nature taking over? I..."
He was not given a chance to say more. Remus crossed the distance between them in one bound, and pinned the taller man to the wall, gripping his throat.
"You know nothing about me! You have no idea how it is, having a wolf inside you, that wants to get out!! And you know hell of a nothing how it is, losing friends, Snape, because that is something you never had, as is love and trust!!!"
Snape's face was slowly turning a shade of blue. Remus released him with a snarl, and paced the room, fuming, feeling a strength he never felt before, his anger and frustration taking the better of his rational mind. He turned back to the man, who staggered upright, massaging his throat with one hand, the other still holding his wand.
"Weren't satisfied when you almost landed him in a Dementor's Kiss, were you, Snape? Did a silly schooltime joke cost a man's life?!! Damn you to the deepest circle of Hell, Severus, because his death is entirely your doing!!!"
Remus sucked in an unsteady, shuddering breath – being angry suddenly proved a very tiring experience. Snape used the momentary pause to get in an acid replique:
"Have you ever thought, that, had Potter junior acted maturely for once, Black might very well be still alive, Lupin?"
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he raised his wand – Remus took a giant step towards him. Snape's eyes glinted ominously in the semi-darkness, but there was also in them a flash of something Remus couldn't quite identify. But that was quickly lost in a fresh wave of hatred and frustration. Worse – he knew Snape had a point saying what he said.
"What right do you have to judge him? Just because you don't have a heart it doesn't mean everyone else doesn't!!"
"Oh, yes, and a lot of good it did to all of us – Harry Potter having a heart, filled to the brim with feelings" - Snape's voice dripped with sarcasm.
Remus took another step forward, and, ignoring the threateningly poised wand, he took a swing at the sneering face. The next second, his fist collided with something hard. When his eyes cleared from the odd fog obscuring his vision, he saw that Snape, his face paler than ever, was leaning on to a wall, wiping a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth.
Suddenly horror-struck, Remus was looking at him mutely. His brain tried to process what had just happened. After a few second's hard thinking, the impact of what he had said and done hit him, and his eyes opened wide. He never lost his self-control like that, ever. Not even in the worst days before the moon. He recalled how much of a wolf he felt back then, and the realization scared the hell out of him. He could have hurt a fellow human being. There was no comfort in the fact of this human being Severus Snape.
"Remus, Severus... W-what happened here?"
Remus was so lost in his horrified thoughts that the familiar soft voice made him jump badly. He was too jumped-up to answer, though, so he just stood there and stared at Tonks' worried face. She went on, looking from one man to the other:
"Phineas came into his downstairs portrait and called me, he said it was urgent... What... Is it blood on your face, Severus?"
In their fight, both men did not notice Phineas leaving, but he obviously did and came back, and now was glaring at them out of the portrait frame. Remus jumped again, but not so badly this time, when Snape said:
"Nothing, it's nothing, Tonks. Just two old schoolmates' conversation"
And he swept past them, with no backward glance.
"I take it, you have already dealt between yourselves. I see no further reason in staying here, then."
Phineas Nigellus was gone, too.
Remus was left in the room with Tonks, who was still looking at him, her eyes full of concern. Finally, she broke the awkward silence, her voice sounding strangely young ("Then again, she is young",- Remus had to remind himself. "Younger than me, anyway",- he thought with sudden bitterness)
"If it was Snape who started the row, you shouldn't have risen to it, Remus – you know how much of a bastard he can be, when he wants to."
Remus had to suppress a wince – despite the fact that swear words sometimes found their way out of his mouth, he thought that women shouldn't use that kind of language. On the other hand – the things he heard Lily say at times of frustration, with no word of protest from James, really...
Oddly enough, thinking of Lily and James suddenly didn't seem as painful as usual now. Maybe it was because he loosened some of the weight he carried inside his soul for years. Or, maybe, there was a different cause to it – the one standing just at the other end of the room.
Tonks looked at him for a moment, and then she seemed to make a decision.
"Come on, let's get you down for a shot of Firewhiskey – you look dreadful"- she said, taking a few purposeful steps towards him and tripping over something. Remus caught her in mid-fall and set her on her feet, now trying hard to suppress a grin - she was all blunder, from bright pink hair to leather-booted toes, but a very sweet blunder at that.
"Thanks", she muttered, flushing.
"Don't mention it",- Remus replied, ducking to pick up the thing she tripped over – it was his own wand, though he couldn't for the life of him figure how it could fall out of his pocket. Evidently, scuffles were a bad thing for keeping a wand safe... a second later, he found out that Tonks, too tried to get his wand and bumped her forehead to his in earnest.
"Damn! I mean, sorry!" – she said a bit sheepishly.
Remus just chuckled and shook his head. He gently took hold of her shoulders and steered her out of Harry's old room, to avoid further accidents.
"Now to that Firewhisky. I know someone who could use a cup of tea down in the kitchen, to keep an old werewolf company."
Tonks, still a bit pink in the face, turned around and punched him: "I'll give you old! You're not even forty!"
Remus laughed out loud now.
After the horrible outburst, Remus felt the professor coming about again, and was glad at the welcome change. The sense of loss was still there, and it had sharp angles, like broken glass, but the dead weight that settled on his heart seemed to lift a precious little. And that was an encouraging thing.