Hark! the dogs howl! the sleetwinds blow,
The church-clocks knoll: the hours haste,
I leave the dreaming world below.
Blown o'er frore heads of hills I go,
Long narrowing friths and strips of snow -
Time bears my soul into the waste.
- Alfred Lord Tennyson
Remus kicked a particularly large pebble into the lake, and winced. His big toe throbbed painfully, sticking out the end of a worn sneaker that had long since become too small.
He glared at the greying shoe. It was infinitely less complicated to be angry at a shoe than at his parents. Parents too agitated by his condition to truly welcome their only son home for the holidays. Parents who poured their dwindling gold into fruitless searches for remedies, and left nothing for what some would see as essentials.
Guilt, Remus supposed, was a stronger motivator than stubbed toes.
He supposed his parents were disgusted by him, despite their efforts, their weak smiles and cold embraces. He supposed that their lives must be much easier and less guilt-ridden when their werewolf son was safely at school during term.
He supposed he was being unfair.
As dusk settled over the smooth surface of the lake, the water's golden sunset sheen swiftly replaced with glistening darkness, Remus hung his head in the cooling air and waited for the holidays to end. He determinedly averted his eyes from the darkening sky.
It wasn't that Remus Lupin was particularly inclined to bouts of teenage angst. In fact, twenty-eight days out of thirty he was normally quite cheerful, ready to join his friends in some elaborate scheme or another with congratulatory visits to the Hogwarts kitchens afterwards. He barely even complained if some miscalculation due to the bursting enthusiasm of his friends landed him in detention. Purely and simply, his friends, or rather, their absence, were the cause of his current aggravation.
Without the daring and often explosive antics of Sirius and James, there was no distraction. Without the quiet presence of Peter, who, along with Remus, preferred to stand a little back rather than sport singed eyebrows, there was loneliness. Here, in a desolate, run-down cottage by the lake, there was nothing for Remus to do but adopt his parents' melancholy and count down the days until the first of September and the start of his third year at Hogwarts.
He watched the reflection of a waxing moon find clarity as the darkness settled, a frown knitting his brow. Finally, as it seemed that the moon had reached solidity in the lake's still surface, he kicked another rock into the shallows and felt a grim satisfaction as the moon's image distorted. He ignored his stinging toe.
Four days. Not until September, he wasn't that lucky. No, four days until his next self-mutilation session, his monthly transformation into a werewolf. Indeed, it was this aspect of Remus, so foreign to the often withdrawn, quiet schoolboy his friends knew at Hogwarts, that created the necessity for his seclusion by the lake each summer. He had been invited several times in the last few years to stay at James' house for the holidays along with Peter and Sirius, and each time had declined. No matter how much he dreaded the loneliness and boredom of summer holidays with his parents, he appreciated his friends more.
They could never know. Lycanthropy was more than a matter of confidence between friends. Remus had concealed his unsavoury monthly transformation from his fellow students at Hogwarts for two years. Sometimes he was amazed at the ease with which his flimsy excuses for disappearing every month were accepted by his friends. With a twinge in his stomach, he tried to forget that his friends' trust was flouted so regularly.
Could any of his friends possibly understand how necessary it was to keep such a condition a secret, hidden beneath shyness and the regular illness of his fictional aunt? Remus pictured the laughing, open face of Sirius Black, who had forced them all to make blood promises to never lie to each other on the last day of term in first year. Even Peter, whose face had reached unprecedented pallor in view of all that blood, had grasped the others' hands, and squeaked out his covert penchant for picking his nose.
Remus, who had felt unequivocally discomfited at the time, had muttered something about knitting socks, and was entirely relieved when James distracted the others by making a show of checking Sirius for rabies with fake terror, and laughed with Peter when cries of scourgify! left both black-haired boys frothing at the mouth.
No, Remus decided, short of discovering Sirius to be a rather tanned vampire, he didn't believe his secret could be benched in league with the blood promise they had made. He had never had friends before Hogwarts. He wasn't going to lose this vital source of happiness because of his lycanthropy.
"I'm sorry, Remus," his mother sighed as her son padded wearily into the small kitchen, unconsciously steering his uncovered big toe around potential obstacles.
"I know how hard it is for you, Mum," he exhaled in response, chest tightening. It was the truth. He knew how much his parents had sacrificed for him, for his condition, for this run-down old cottage and their shabby clothes, and his father's regular absence. Guilt was inset into the foundations of the Lupin household.
His mother offered him a wan smile. "You know how I feel about Hogsmeade. What if someone was to connect you to the Shrieking Shack?"
"Nobody knows what I am, Mum. Dumbledore keeps his promises, you know that. The villagers are utterly convinced that they share Hogsmeade with a violent party of ghouls. It's become quite a source of gossip at school, don't you worry. The Bloody Baron's supposedly a regular in the Shack." Remus tried to smile. "Please sign the form, Mum. Dumbledore approved and everything."
His mother wearily nodded her acquiescence and returned to her study of a violet pamphlet whose cover was emblazoned with a full moon. Remus turned away. He needed no reminding.
Remus paused in the dark hallway, wondering how to fill in the hours before dinner. His mother hated to eat before his father came home, but who knew when that would be these days? Searching for a non-existent cure for lycanthropy consumed a lot of time.
As an idea struck him, his pace quickened. He leapt up the narrow stairs and entered his room, flicking on a light switch installed by the previous muggle owners of the cottage, and grabbing a sheaf of letters before flopping onto his bed. Warmth filled his entire body as he glanced over Peter's squashed scrawl and scanned James' slanted scribble. His face broke into a wide grin as he reached the pompous, embellished calligraphy of Sirius Black, whose deft lettering somewhat contradicted the disjointed, enthusiastic writing within.
What's up, Remus? Summer's no fun now that I'm back home again. James' parents are great and all, but I doubt they want me to hang around for a whole summer after last year. You know. What with the incident and all. Wish I'd had the camera back then, though… But I swear the house elves enjoyed their swimming trunks.
Write back to me, okay? There's nothing to do here. Regulus is being prepped for school, and Slytherin, and Merlin knows how much fun that is for me.
As promised, I enclose a photo of yours truly, stuffing James' head into a chocolate pudding. Believe me, it's hard to do while holding a camera.
A brief love-affair with wizarding photography in second year had inspired Remus to demand photos from his friends during the holidays as consolation for their absence. Each had promised to owl plenty of photographic evidence of their exploits during the summer. Indeed, Sirius had offered to swear another blood oath, but James had clocked him on the head, hence avoiding further blood-loss that Remus felt the pale Peter could probably not afford.
Despite Sirius' apparent fixation on blood-letting, the possibility that he could be a vampire was unfortunately low. The boy carried a mirror in his pocket. He was not, Sirius was often heard to inform a mocking James, obsessed with his insanely good looks; nor did he need to touch up his eyeliner, or whatever muggle rubbish James so clearly enjoyed. No, he was merely deathly afraid that his silken hair would begin to look like James' matted heap, and was making efforts to avoid this.
Inevitably, this conversation would end in a tussle.
Remus, however, knew better. A certain haughty conceit had been inherited by Sirius from his pureblood heritage, though the boy would go to many lengths to deny any connection to the intolerant House of Black. While Sirius had managed to shake his position as heir by somehow being sorted into Gryffindor rather than the traditional (and mandatory) Slytherin, certain habits died hard.
James, on the other hand, also the progeny of a pureblood wizarding family, had the fortune of being born to a tolerant household. Remus often admired James' open affability, his ready acceptance of others – with the notable exception of Slytherins. It was true that a traditional dislike for the serpentine House existed among Gryffindors, but James seemed to carry this sentiment to the extreme. Remus supposed that Sirius' consensus in this area did nothing to ease James' feelings.
Sometimes Remus wondered if James was converting his anxiety for his Auror parents into a stiff hatred of Dark Arts-loving Slytherins, but he would never suggest such a thing. He was hardly able to urge rationality concerning one's parents. And he felt too much loyalty for his friend.
He was joined here by Peter, who had stuck hard and fast to his three friends ever since James had adopted him into the group. As the fourth Gryffindor boy in their year level, he could hardly be left out. Although Peter's hero-worship of James was tiresome and sometimes nerve-wracking, Remus appreciated the smaller boy's company in the shadow of the great Sirius and James duo.
Remus gazed at Sirius' photo and felt his tension ebb. What could be better for the soul than friends and chocolate? Friends in chocolate? He owed each of them so much, though they hardly knew what a difference they had made to his life. He supposed he owed them the truth; but in the end, they were probably better off not knowing. His parents showed him that much, at least.
"Merlin, were you run over by the Knight Bus on the way to the station?"
A brash voice interrupted Remus' weary reverie as he sat gingerly on his battered trunk on Platform 9 ¾, waiting for his friends to make their ever-colourful appearances. Here was no exception.
Remus grinned up at Sirius, who had arrived in his own unmistakeable fashion, as strident and haughty as ever. At the sight of Remus' smile, Sirius' own face broke into a wide grin and he pulled the smaller boy into a rough hug. Remus attempted not to cringe as he felt fresh wounds pull and muscles ache at the contact. Full moon had been particularly rough the week before.
Remus tried valiantly to hide all fatigue and pain around his friends, particularly Sirius, who seemed to notice it more.
"Actually, it was less the Knight Bus, and more a rampaging herd of Hippogriffs," he replied, hitting Sirius on the shoulder affectionately and managing not to whimper as his bruised knuckles took the brunt of the blow.
"As long as you get written off in style," Sirius smirked, but ran his eyes over the visible bruising on Remus' face worriedly. Remus hoped he was just bemused, and frantically sought a distracting topic of conversation.
"Well, you've grown," he commented dryly, stepping back and feigning amazement at the towering height of his smug friend. "Looks like someone's been in to Mother's growth potions."
"You bet I've grown," Sirius replied, and then, as if verifying his statement, lifted two fingers to his mouth and wolf-whistled loudly, peering over the heads of jostling students to someone the shorter Remus couldn't hope to see. "Oi! Jamesie! Love of my life!"
Remus felt a wide grin form on his face as he watched Sirius gesticulating madly to (apparently) James, beginning to feel that comfortable, indescribable sense of belonging and happiness that his friends' company provoked. It was so easy to ignore his hurts in their loud, exhilarating presence. Or so it felt, until the four Gryffindor boys had regrouped at last in an empty compartment near the back of the train, and dove into an eager conversation about Hogsmeade.
"It'll be so great to ditch the castle for a few weekends, won't it? I mean, my mother told me all about the village, what with Zonko's Joke Shop, and Honeydukes, and all that," James gushed, his hazel eyes wide with thoughts of the damage he could wreak on an unassuming Hogsmeade- or so a wry Remus suspected.
"Ah yes, Zonko's, haven of all mischief makers, or so I've been told," Sirius grinned, then winked at Peter, lowering his voice mysteriously. "But you know what I'm really looking forward to visiting? Britain's most haunted location, the Shrieking Shack, home to ghouls and ghosties-" he leaned in to a frightened Peter "- and banshees!"
Peter squeaked, then looked at Sirius reproachfully as James snorted with laughter. Remus, however, felt far from laughter. In fact, he felt distinctly ill at the thought of Sirius having any actual interest in the Shack. If there was one place Remus would avoid at all costs on a weekend outing, it was his monthly haunt.
"You alright, Remus?" James asked, looking concerned at his friend's sudden silence and overcast expression. Remus nodded, and made an effort to lighten his appearance, but James took the cue to change the direction of conversation, and rummaged around in his trunk for something, commanding the others to wait. Remus hoped James had suspected him of some secret fear of banshees and of nothing else.
"Gotcha!" James cried triumphantly, pulling what Remus recognised with dread as a Pocket Sneakoscope from somewhere in the depths of his trunk.
He had seen these before. He had seen how they reacted around unsavoury persons, not to mention dark creatures like himself. Remus thought for a moment at how Sirius would laugh if Remus pronounced himself a dark creature, but was distracted by a tinny whistle, and an exclamation from James.
"Hold on, why's it going off? Must be broken or something."
Sirius looked with interest at the Sneakoscope, but spared a withering glance at James. "Maybe you shouldn't have nicked it from your parents, eh? Maybe it's reacting to your general thieving nature."
"Nah, I took it ages ago, it shouldn't react to that. Maybe it's reacting to your disguise."
"What disguise?" Sirius snorted.
"Well, with all that makeup cloaking your true appearance, you could be anyone."
As the two boys scuffled on the floor, and Peter cheered them on, Remus reached for the abandoned Sneakoscope, which lay on the empty seat, still spinning and whistling. He knew he shouldn't feel affronted by its detection devices, but he kept wondering at the prejudice of the wizarding world, and-
Sirius and James stopped fighting abruptly, each with a tuft of the other's hair in a fist, their mouths open in surprise. Peter had snapped his head to stare at Remus in shock. Remus tried to laugh, shaking his hand out like it was nothing, like it was a joke that the Sneakoscope, nothing more than a stupid Auror invention that didn't work half the time, had burned his palm.
With his free hand, James grabbed for the spinning Sneakoscope that had been dropped to the floor, and held it, unharmed, staring from it to the crimson patch burnt into Remus' palm in confusion. "It shouldn't do that," he said vaguely.
"Ha, I guess it- it didn't like me," Remus laughed shakily, hiding his injured hand behind his back and staring at the floor.
"We ought to drop that down Snape's pants," Sirius joked weakly, but he looked as shocked as James. "You okay, Remus?"
"I'm fine," Remus said shortly, and stepped over his friends to the compartment door, sliding it open abruptly and escaping with a mumbled explanation about needing the bathroom, hearing a muffled, "Merlin," as he shut the door. He stood there for a moment, staring down in shock at his blistering palm, hoping vainly that the others would dismiss it as an accident, the result of a faulty Sneakoscope, and nothing more.
"Had a good summer, Remus?"
Remus snapped his head up at the sound of the greeting, and thrust his hand behind his back as a fellow Gryffindor, Lily Evans, stepped down the passage towards him with a smile.
"Oh hi, Lily, yeah, it was okay," he mumbled, trying to gather himself, making a valiant effort to produce a smile.
Lily gave him a strange look. "Are you feeling okay?"
Remus wondered if he was setting some record for the number of times he'd be asked that question today, and nodded to Lily, who stopped beside him outside the compartment.
"They're not giving you any trouble, are they?" she asked seriously, and Remus managed to produce a real grin at Lily's attitude. She sounded as if she would actually take on both Sirius and James if they had indeed been bothering Remus.
"Course not. How were your holidays?"
Lily sighed. "Interesting, I suppose you could call them. Or maybe just plain painful for the whole family. My sister is extremely- she's an extreme muggle, you could say. I think she truly hates me." Lily seemed to suddenly remember who she was talking too, and broke off with a forced laugh. "But, you know, apart from that bit of sunshine, it was brilliant."
"It's okay," Remus said uncomfortably. It was strange to be privy to somebody else's problems, and some selfish part of him always seemed to whisper that nothing could compete with his own rather lofty problem. However, here he found himself able to relate to Lily. He knew about difficult families all too well, after all. "Really, I mean it. My… my holidays weren't so great either."
Remus watched, somehow disconcerted, as a small smile crept onto Lily's face. Tentatively, he smiled back.
"You know what always makes me feel better?" she said lightly, digging in her coat pocket for something, smiling as Remus shook his head in confusion. She drew out a bar of muggle chocolate, wrapped in bright purple, and Remus felt himself break into a reluctant grin. He held out a hand as she broke off a few squares.
"Thanks," he said appreciatively, but dropped his hand as soon as he saw the shocked look on Lily's face. He had completely forgotten the Sneakoscope burn. Weakly, he offered an explanation of his terrible cooking skills, and tried to grin as he turned to walk off down the passage.
"Wait," Lily said suddenly. Remus turned back, worried. "You forgot your chocolate, silly."
She grabbed Remus' uninjured hand, placing the chocolate in his palm, and they both smiled uneasily.
As Remus plodded back towards the compartment he had just vacated, hoping that the others had lost interest in the 'defective' Sneakoscope, he could feel Lily's eyes stapled to his back. He needed sleep. He needed some form of salve for his burnt hand. He needed the casual banter between Sirius and James to distract him from his problem, and make him feel normal again.