Author's Note: Written for the Tales of Whiskey and Regret challenge at the LiveJournal community Red and the Wolf . Thanks to Loup Garou for her insightful analyses and theories which inspired my choice of Remus' Patronus. My prompts were Calming Draught (potion), been vulnerable (regret), and lyrics from "At Last," by Neko Case: And if death should smell my breathing/As it pass beneath my window/Let it lead me trembling, trembling/I own every bell that tolls me.
It's the first thing I think of in the morning when I wake up. It's the last thought running through my mind at night. And during every minute in between, which are top-full of all the little details of my domestic day – from brushing my teeth as I gaze in the mirror at that same old stranger's face, to making breakfast so the house is filled with normal scents and sounds, to seeing my husband off to the same life-threatening work that used to be mine, to scouring the house and the dishes because cleanliness is habitual, to reading the names of people I know who have died and wondering why not me-him-her-us, to sending Patronuses to friends and reassuring letters to family as if I meant them, to welcoming my husband home at night with a casual kiss and a grateful and lingering embrace, to listening to him gripe and worry about his day and knowing that he's not telling me the half of it, to curling up in bed at night with arms wrapped tightly around him as if mortal strength alone could keep him here alive with me and me with him and everything as it always was – during all those never-ending minutes I try not to think of it.
What I try not to think of is the fact that we're all of us walking targets. But, specifically, my abdomen. And the child inside. Our child. Our child.
And I don't know why I think that, but I do.
So of course I have to stay home. What mother would go out in public these days, where death and disaster in the wizarding world are as common as traffic in the Muggle one? I'm not technically a mother yet, but the maternal instinct is raging inside me like no storm I've ever witnessed and I wonder how that happened. I feel … unlike myself. Unlike anyone I've ever known. Unlike the girl I was, certainly. I don't know me, or this terrible and wonderful – what is it? – intention? Surely every mother who's ever lived has felt this way, though you'd never know it from their smiling faces. But it's fierce and horrible and I wish more than anything I've ever wished for in my miserable, short little insignificant life that I actually had the power to protect him. Her. That little person. Our child. And if staying indoors can protect him, then that's where I'll stay.
But at what cost?
Well, I cry every day, at least once a day, when James isn't here, and that's normal now. More normal than cooking, or reading, or breathing.
If anything can be considered normal anymore.
And I'm lonely. I'm barely twenty and half my friends, most of them no older than forty, are dead. The other half do what James does, which is risk their lives every single goddamned day and I hate them all a little bit for it. Because they can't all die. He can't die.
Sometimes when he's away for days at a time, I feel near to losing my mind. Then I hug my pillow and make promises to any half-rate god that might be paying attention at the moment if he-she-it will only bring James home safely I'll do – I'll be – anything. Anything at all. Anything.
The only thing worse would be if I died first. I don't know what James would do. He can't carry that burden and I know it. So I never cry in front of him. Ever.
And I try not to think of these things. No one could blame me for steering clear of that vortex, could they? Now is not the time to be introspective. Now is not the time for planning for disaster.
But we do. We did. Because the worst thing of all – the worst thing by far – would be if, after we have this baby, we both were killed. I can't think that far ahead – to that most terrible of eventualities. And even if I could, would I turn back time to eight months ago? What if this baby is our only chance at a future? How dare I question the timing of this? Ungrateful as it may be, I can't help it. I know it's crossed James' mind, too, even though he'd never admit it.
And although Sirius Black isn't exactly what I would have considered godfather material, he's the most loyal friend you could hope for. But I worry. Sirius has been drinking more and more. So has everyone, even James, even Remus and Peter, and I can't blame them. Remus, especially, has cause to drink, even more cause than before; but James and I don't talk about that. There are lots of things we don't talk about. James manages to laugh when I mutter that Sirius will forget to feed the baby. But that laugh masks something dark and insistent, which is his fear, too, that it might come to that. And what if Sirius dies? How many backup godfathers and godmothers can we have?
As I said, introspection is a sorry road to travel these days, and it doesn't pay to dwell on what if, what if, what if ...
And really, that's why James can't stay at home with me, even though Albus wanted him to, for these last few months, at least. James can't stop worrying; that's why he gets to keep working. That's why I have to put the corkscrews on my imagination for eight to twenty hours every single damned day of my life, and even longer when he's away on missions with Sirius, his mission partner and protector, thanks to Albus' insistence. At least he conceded to that. Oh, the fights we've had. Have. I unfairly bring up Alice Longbottom more often than I should. She'll be having her baby soon, too, so Frank has made sure he's home more often than he's away. But I cannot argue that James isn't doing it for the right reasons. He says he wants to fix the world before our baby comes into it. As if he could do it single-handedly. As if we're not all running out of time.
Today is the third day that he and Sirius have been on a mission for the Order. He can't even tell me where he's going. One Patronus a day is not enough. It's never enough. We used to have our missions together, but now … now …
Now I sit on a wobbly stool in the dusty attic unpacking all our old family things from their boxes and putting all the things back in their boxes again in the same order and I realize that's a little bit crazy but there's nothing I can do about it because I've got to do something.
I sneeze, and when I do a Patronus shimmers in my peripheral vision outside the scrubbed attic window, waiting there out of politeness although it could enter easily without my opening it.
Remus, Remus, Remus.
I rush to the window and fling it wide, grateful that another friend lives another day, and I start crying suddenly and fully, as if it were a mere continuation of an ongoing wail, which I suppose it probably is. My shoulders shake uncontrollably as I lean with one hand on the window frame, feeling that my whirring brain is somehow outside of my fragile body.
The silvery lion enters gracefully, soundlessly.
I crouch underneath the window and watch the large cat settle on the old wooden floorboards, letting the last of June's breezes caress my hair as I cry a little bit more. I watch the lion's muscular legs flex and stretch, and I wish I had half its strength. The attic dust sparkles golden in the afternoon sunlight and settles lazily around this elegant feline messenger, and he shakes his mane to pass the time while I cry. Angrily, I wipe the tears away and breathe heavily for a few moments, gathering myself, or trying to. Eventually I'm able to listen to what the Patronus has to tell me.
"Speak," I croak, and it does, in its strange, hollow voice that's like and not like Remus, that's like and not like a little bit of heaven.
Hello, Lily. Back from parts unknown. Guessing that you are bored stiff with everyone gone. Suggest an outing to a safe place. If you feel adventurous, send your Patronus and we'll go.
The lion dissipates in a mercurial cloudiness, leaving me alone once more; and I cry again for a few minutes from relief and gratitude. When I've collected myself, I close up the box I'd been re-packing and descend the stairs. I wash my face and stare into the bathroom mirror. Same old me. Total stranger. My mental greeting has become tiresome even to myself.
I send my bear Patronus to Remus saying yes, yes, yes, yes, yes …
My growing belly makes me front-heavy and broom travel isn't the easiest thing anymore, but it's the safest; so I don't argue when Remus hands me mine from the umbrella stand by the front door. I try not to stare when he's facing me, but once his back is turned I can see his thin shoulders and the way the bones of his spine make ridges down his tee shirt when he hunches over his old broomstick. My heart twists, but I don't say anything. He's doing his best. We all are. I'll make sure he stays for dinner, at least.
He's cloaked us with several spells I don't recognize, and we fly as high as I comfortably can. He keeps close and slightly below me, wand gripped tightly in case of a mishap. Luckily, I've always been good on a broom, so I'm not worried. I can see that he is, though, so I grin down at him; and it feels good to reassure someone else and to know that I won't be breaking my word. He grimaces back. His brow seems permanently furrowed these days, and it breaks my heart. I wonder what's happened to my face that other people can see.
Remus takes us to a field on a hill overlooking the village, and I'm not surprised that I never knew this place existed because I never leave home by myself anymore. The grasses are getting taller in the long days of summer.
"Chairs?" he asks, raising his wand and glancing at my abdomen.
"No," I answer immediately. "Ground." I need the earth underneath me. I've had enough of hardwood floors and comfy chairs.
He smiles and Conjures a blanket, and I sit cross-legged next to him as a small picnic appears in front of us. We eat silently for several minutes, knees touching. Affection between us is easy now – essential, even. None of us knows when – if – we'll see each other again. So we touch as often as we can. I've spent more nights than I can count bundled up in pajamas and under quilts in bed with Molly, and sometimes several of her boys, when both James and Arthur were away. Sirius fell asleep after dinner with his head on my shoulder last week, and there was nothing strange about it. James and I make love as often as we can. Men and women clasp each other's arms and hands and embrace much more often now. It's simple contact. Only Peter seems hesitant; perhaps he doesn't know what to do with my ever-increasing waistline.
Remus and I finish eating our modest snack of bread and cheese and fruit, washed down with pumpkin juice, both of us preferring not to speak until afterwards because there's no such thing as small talk anymore. Remus wipes his mouth with a napkin, purses his lips, and sighs. His hair rustles in the welcome breeze. It's gotten long, and it hangs almost to his shoulders and past his eyes. He hasn't cut it in six months, since Astrid was killed.
"How're you doing?" I ask as gently as I can, because it's been a month since I've seen him, a month since I've asked. He and Astrid had been together for nearly a year, and it seemed serious, though Remus never talked much about her, with us at least. But he seemed happy with her – happier than I'd seen him in a long time. A tough and straightforward young witch, she worked for the underground. I liked her. And although she hadn't been asked to join the Order yet, it was common knowledge that Albus was going to invite her in.
Remus closes his eyes and shrugs with raised eyebrows, like he always does when he doesn't want to face something. He chews on his lip and stares down at the town, not looking at me or speaking for several moments. "I'm all right," he finally lies.
I sit closer to him so our shoulders are touching, and he leans into me briefly, then relaxes again. We listen to the birds chirping in the distant trees, and I almost start crying again because of how normal this scene could be if everything weren't so completely –
"How's the bun?" The one in my oven, he means.
"Seems fine." My hand instinctively caresses my belly.
Remus turns his face toward me and grins. "You're glowing. I always thought that was a cliché, but it's true."
"Ah," I vocalize, waving a hand dismissively.
"Your disbelief doesn't make my observation false."
And he's got me laughing already, bless him, Remus and his odd little turns of phrase. I never think he can make me laugh anymore; but he always does, without even half trying.
He grins again, looking somehow innocent and self-satisfied at once. There are more lines around his eyes, and the effect is unusual. He's young, so young. So was Astrid. So are we all.
My hand is still on my belly and I feel the baby stirring, as he often does after I've eaten. "He's moving. Want to feel?"
"Please," he says eagerly, his hand already poised and waiting for permission.
I hike up my blouse to expose my substantial abdomen and pull his hand to my skin. To Remus' credit, he doesn't blush, but merely stares at the bulge with a little smile pulling the corners of his lips. He's watching my belly and his hand over it with an odd expression on his face; it's almost sadness, if you look at his eyebrows and take away the smile. And, as if on cue, the baby shifts, dragging one tiny, powerful foot right across my belly underneath Remus' hand. He exhales in awe, a puff of involuntary air that my flesh feels; and he places his other hand on my skin to follow the foot as it completes its journey. I'm smiling; I can't help it. As if I had anything to do with the little miracle inside me.
"Wow," Remus breathes, blinking rapidly. I laugh. He lowers his mouth close to my belly and speaks into it, loudly. "COMFY NOW?"
"Yes, fanks very much," I respond between pursed lips, using a comic baby voice.
Remus feigns shock, staring at my navel. "He spoke!"
"Yes! You have a brilliant baby in there. Didn't you know?"
"Well, I thought since he was half James' I might not set my hopes too high – "
" – but he might be good at sports. Maybe we'd be lucky enough to have a professional athlete in the family."
"At the very least he should have a knack for cheating off his mates." I glare. "Oops, shouldn't have said that." But he grins anyway.
We smile at each other, but soon our smiles fade; because even though he's got us talking about normal things, it can never last. Now we merely watch each other. Like affection, eye contact has become like food for all of us. We've got to know that someone else understands what we're going through. And somehow I know that Remus knows. That's why he asked me here, to save me – for a few hours, at least – from my own psyche.
"Remus," I say, shifting to face him knees-to-knees. He adjusts so I don't have to move as far. "I want to talk to you about the baby."
Strangely, he starts a little, a look of panic crossing his features for a split second. But I've seen it, even though he quickly glances down at my belly. "Oh, yes, of course. Anything."
But now I hesitate. I feel my mouth open and shut again. I look at Remus and sense tears behind my eyes, but I won't let them come.
"Anything, Lily," he says again, looking warmly into my face and smiling. If he's reticent, he doesn't want me to know it. He places both hands on my abdomen again. "Just ask."
I inhale and exhale slowly, settling my hands over Remus'. "If anything happens to me and James – " Remus' brow furrows more deeply, but he doesn't try to contradict me. " – there's Sirius. But if anything happens to Sirius …" I cannot finish.
"I – " Remus can't seem to speak, either. He swallows. "I'll do my best, Lily. That's all I can promise."
"That's all I want to hear," I reply.
"Okay," he says, and he leans into me and kisses my cheek, and when he pulls away his eyes are brilliant and sad and full of love and burdens, and suddenly, for a split second, that's all, I wonder what if. I think somehow our life together would have been more … ordinary. Fewer fights. Less money, but more harmony. For twenty-seven days of the month, anyhow. But then again, who am I kidding? No one's life is ordinary. I smile at him and the moment passes, as it always does. "Thanks," I breathe.
"I wish I could do more," he says, dropping his hands to his lap and staring down at them.
"You always do more than you probably should," I soothe him.
His eyebrows offer that shrug again as he continues to study his hands.
"You'd make a wonderful father," I say impulsively, because it's true. He would.
This time he actually winces and looks away; but he recovers quickly from that reflexive response, because he's good at recovery, and an expert at covering.
My heart plummets sickeningly. "I'm sorry," I offer. Because of the transformations most werewolves are sterile, and everyone knows it. Damn it, I wasn't thinking. I place a hand on his knee. "I'm sorry. That was stupid of me."
"S'all right," he says, of course. He smiles with that furrow between his eyebrows, as if he can't decide whether to laugh or cry; and though I know him better than anyone except James, I honestly cannot tell which emotion is closer to the surface.
We're quiet now, and I watch him watching the streetlamps light up, one by one, down in the village. He shifts to settle next to me again and his face becomes a study in serenity as he gazes at the town, the muscles around his eyes somehow relaxing. Everything looks so peaceful from up here, as if every household weren't filled with worry and grief.
"I want to give you something," says Remus. I don't protest, although I hope he hasn't spent money on it. But he reaches into the back pocket of his jeans and pulls out a flask. I stare at it quizzically. "I know you're not allowed to brew potions because of the fumes, and I thought you might be able to use this one when James is away." He looks at me expectantly as he passes it to me.
I take the flask, unscrew the cap, and sniff. "Calming Draught?" He nods seriously, and I laugh a little. "Oh, Remus, you have no idea how badly I could use this." Fortunately, although it's unsafe to brew during pregnancy, it's safe to drink. "Thank you."
"How did you get this?" The potion is tough to brew, and it's a lengthy process. I'm sure Remus didn't make it himself.
"I bought some after – " He stops and turns his face slightly away from me, jaw working.
We're silent for several seconds, and I stare at the flask in my hands, worried. I speak carefully. "Are you sure you don't need it anymore?"
Remus flushes and he measures his words slowly, the way he does when he's emotional and trying to put a stopper on it. "I'm positive. It – it doesn't really help me anymore."
That means his body has habituated to it. He's taken too much for too long, and it no longer affects him. "Oh, Remus," I say, nestling closer to him and blinking back tears again. He lets me lean there, and we sit side by side with my head on his shoulder, watching the lights of the town twinkling in the distance as dusk begins to blanket the town. We're silent again for several minutes.
"This is the worst time to have a baby," I say softly, more to myself than to him.
"That's what I thought, too." His voice is so quiet that I'm not even sure I heard him correctly.
Is he talking about James and me? Rather a callous comment to a woman eight months pregnant. Shocked, I look up into his face; but his eyes are distracted and far away, and I know at once he's not talking about me. Of course he wouldn't say something like that to me. "What do you mean?" I ask.
He laughs, a wry exhalation, rendered completely unreliable by that shrug.
"Remus, what do you mean?"
"Nothing." He avoids my eyes. "I'm sorry, that was rude of me to say." He's lying now, because he can't look at me, and because he knows I can read him.
"Remus – "
"We should get you back home before it's too late – " He shifts his weight as if he's going to stand, but I grasp both of his shoulders to keep him seated, and I move around to face him.
Now we're staring into each other's eyes, and he can't lie to me. "What. Do. You. Mean."
And I watch as his eyebrows contort into a shape I've never seen before on him, and he looks away. I take his face gently in my hands and bring his gaze back to me. How much worse can this get? Bad as it was, I'd thought it was just Astrid. I speak as gently as I can over my pounding heart. "Remus." And there's every chance he won't answer this question. "Was Astrid pregnant?"
He looks positively afraid of me as his eyes dart back and forth between mine. And he exhales quickly, but it's not a sob because he won't cry. As I stare into his eyes I suddenly know where the furrow came from. And still he doesn't answer me, because he doesn't have to.
"Oh …" I pull him to me and kiss his cheek over and over again, and he wraps his arms around my considerable girth, holding me not too tightly, but with intention; and I know he won't let go until he's able to. And we clasp one another, trying to press the fear and grief out of each other, faces buried in each other's necks, because there's not a damned thing else we can do about it. This embrace is different than the ones we shared six months ago over Astrid because this embrace includes, at last, the child. His child. Oh Merlin. But there's tension in his body that I can't squeeze away, and there's despair in mine that Remus' presence will only salve while we're here together.
After several minutes, he slowly starts pulling away. I see tears in his eyes that won't fall. Taking his face in my hands, I kiss him briefly on the mouth and breathe, "I'm sorry."
This time he doesn't shrug, but merely nods, his downward gaze watching his hands wrapped around my wrists. He leans his forehead into mine as our clasped hands drop to our knees. We sit that way for a time, breathing, blinking. We could be husband and wife to any onlooker right now. But when the baby kicks this time, I don't tell Remus.
"We were careless," he says finally. We sit back a little, still holding hands with our knees touching. "I didn't think it was possible. I shouldn't have – "
"James and I were careless, too," I remind him. "And we had more reason to be careful than you thought you did."
We're silent again. "I would have said something. To you," Remus says quietly. "But with what's happening, we weren't sure what we were – " He stops and breathes heavily, his throat working. "We'd just decided – " He stops again and can't go on.
I speak for him, so that he doesn't have to. "You were going to have the baby." They'd just decided to go through with it, and then Astrid was killed in the snow outside the door of her flat. Merry Christmas.
There's a second of hesitation, then he nods. It's a minute before he can continue. "We were going to move in together." He's very still for a very long time. "I loved her." His voice sounds small and naked; and I wonder if I'm the first person, other than Astrid, who's heard that confession.
I bring one of his hands to my lips and kiss that back of it, then rest it against my cheek. I feel so helpless. Every gesture seems pointless in the face of this news.
But there's a nugget of goodness in all this. "Remus," I say softly, as I try to smile. "You can be a father."
And suddenly he sobs once, violently, and it startles me, though it's over as quickly as it happened. He swallows and nods, quiet once more. "Lily Evans Potter," he says miserably. "Always looking for the silver lining." He smiles into my face, though it's the most wan smile I think I've ever beheld in my life. I wonder how happy he was starting to allow himself to be. How normal and ordinary he might have become. What a price to pay for a small bit of hope.
And I'm reminded again that we all have something to cry about. Every last one of us. I'm not special.
I lie down on my side to take some of the pressure off my bladder, and Remus lies down with me, still holding my hand. "I'm sorry," he says.
"I meant to bring you here to cheer you up."
My face twists in disbelief, and I punch him on the shoulder. "Ow!"
"Shut up, Remus," I say in a low voice. "We're friends. We take care of each other."
"Yeah, I know, but – "
"Each other." I rub the spot on his arm that I just hit. "It's not one-sided. It can't be."
He sighs heavily, but he doesn't argue. "May I at least ask how you're faring?"
Borrowing Remus' habit, I shrug. My anxiety almost doesn't bear talking about after his news. But I try to be honest. "I'm lonely. Terrified. Same old thing."
He nods. "I wish you weren't there alone. Especially at night."
"I sleep at Molly's sometimes. Or now and then with Alice, if Frank is gone."
"Your kids can play together," he says with a smile.
"I hope so," I say dismally.
This time he punches me gently on the arm.
"Okay, okay," I relent. "Our kids can play together, are you happy?"
"Exceedingly," he says. But his face is serious. "Lily, everything's going to work out."
I stare into his face, trying to discern some sense of certainty there. "How can you be sure?" I whisper. In the waning light, his cheek glows green. Green. We realize at the same moment and look up.
The Dark Mark in the east.
Without a word, Remus helps me up and we mount our brooms and he deposits me at home, lingering in the doorway after helping me check the house for intruders or Dark magic. Though it's irrational, I never quite trust the protections James and I have placed. We embrace again and my heart beats a terrible rhythm in my chest, over the baby's head. I thank him for the potion and say automatically, "Safe home."
"Afterwards," he replies. He's going to help, of course, and he's going there without a proper dinner because he's refused my offer of a quick sandwich. He kisses me on the cheek and smiles a thank you at me, and then he's gone.
Alone once more, I lock the door and set the protections and peek through the curtains of the front window. Soon a phoenix Patronus flies past, headed swiftly in the direction Remus went. Hand over my heart, I appeal to all my half-rate gods again, this time for the safety of my friend, and for some sort of happy future for him. I stand there for twenty minutes, looking at nothing, my fingers on the glass.
Eventually I shut the curtains and turn away, finding first the bathroom because the baby is pressing hard on my bladder now. The potion goes into the medicine cabinet. And then, instead of going back to the attic to unpack and repack all the things we don't need into their dusty old boxes, I head into the kitchen. I'm still hungry, which means so is the baby. I make myself a normal sandwich and eat it alone at the scrubbed table and remind myself how unspecial I really am.
A/N: Thanks for reading! Since the Calming Draught no longer works, reviewers get to come up with a way to help Remus forget his troubles ...