The summer after a boy almost dies, Remus spends his time in the barn behind his parents' house, staring at his hands and wondering why he can't see the claws springing up from the dirty fingernails. It's been three weeks since he almost tore the Snape boy to shreds—since his bones and neurons had shifted and he had become so completely and entirely wolf that he'd spent hours afterwards inspecting his body for any overgrown tawny hairs that the transformation might have left behind.
It isn't enough to keep the wolf curled up in the back of his mind after that. He spends most of July running in ragged circles in the barn's interior, screaming himself hoarse. His mother, who he knows sometimes flinches after touching him after a full moon has passed, slips letters from James and Sirius and Peter underneath the red door and murmurs that she loves him. His father, who is more used to gruffly scrubbing the top of his head with a scarred hand and peering at him over the newspaper, says nothing at all.
He doesn't let himself read the letters. Sometimes, when it's been a worse moon (and the moons range mostly from bad to horrendous these days, but he tells himself it's just as well, because he ought to deal with the guilt in the right way), he allows himself to crawl towards the stack of them and peer at his friends' messy, impatient scrawls. Remus feels affection then; full, and overwhelming before he bites down onto his lip and tells himself not to be stupid.
In the end, he knows they'll all leave him. If not because he has a tendency to curb their harsher jokes and become irritated when they deliberate bait Severus, it will be because their fear will fill their mouths so much that they won't be able to wind an arm around his shoulders, or to seat him snugly in their little troublesome threesome of mischief.
Remus has the summer to savor it, at least. He knows that even if eventually they'll stop writing him and refuse to make eye contact with him in the corridors, he has a summer to try to redeem himself. He could better himself, really—he knows that Remus John Lupin, the human, is not nearly as bad as Remus John Lupin, the beast. He's just got to keep the snarling wolf at bay, and then the separation won't be as quick and as cutting as it could be.
And if he remembers James remarking that he's both, and he's still a rather good lad, he digs his nails into his palm until it aches and tries to forget.
August greets him and the moon is as bloody as the oranges Sirius's mother sends him to remind him just what his family is. The total isolation hadn't helped, and the day he emerges from the barn, his parents are ecstatic. Remus's father, who is less inclined towards demonstrative means of affection, positively beams at him over the crinkled pages of the Daily Prophet and suggests that he invites "those ragamuffins of yours" over for the week before they're due to report back to Hogwarts. There's a moment where Remus almost says no thanks and quietly slips back into the warm safety of the barn, but there's his mother, washing dishes in the sink and quietly singing along to The Turtles playing on their record player, and he can't remember in time just what he is now—something foul and rotting, far from the pristine brightness that are his friends, who leap over the wooden gate surrounding his house and grin so widely that their teeth might fall out.
"MOONY!" Sirius howls, and twines his arms around him. For a second, Remus allows himself to relax, and to be hugged (not that he can avoid it, really). Sirius looks almost obscenely beautiful, all dark hair that's slightly damp with sweat and a slightly smaller shirt of James's that rides up in the back. The summer has been good to him—and to James, who is perhaps two inches taller than he was when they'd said their goodbyes at the train station and is broader and tanned. Even Peter glows with a quieter sort of health.
Remus, because he's been trying to tame the wolf, been spending a month beating into submission that no one will ever suspect by looking at him (as he feels everyone can, now), knows he pales in comparison to his golden friends. He's grown, as his mother remarked when she placed his back to the wall and marked his height with the thin stub of a pencil, but in a way that makes him look frightening and unbalanced when paired with the smudges of violet beneath his brown eyes and the terrifying jut of his collarbone. Remus sends a quick prayer to every deity he can think of that he doesn't appear too disgusting when he gently pushes away from Sirius and smiles.
Sirius takes one good look at him and frowns. "Moony," he says again; it's fretful this time. He reaches behind Remus's back and smoothes a hand over the fragile knob of his spine, and Remus has to count to ten before he can put more space between them and gleefully greet the other boys, full of nervous energy and the desire to go unnoticed.
He's heard of starving beasts into submission, he thinks. Maybe in one of the papers, when Fenrir Greyback's spawn were more unchecked, easily falling afoul of the Ministry and having to be euthanized for the good of the public. The officials whittled them down to fur and bone, and then they died, half out of their minds. It wasn't necessarily humane, but
-well, Remus wasn't exactly human, was he?
So he doesn't eat for a day, maybe. He sleeps the entirety of the way to Hogwarts to avoid the kindly stare of the witch with the trolley, and attends the Sorting with the sort of reluctance that makes Peter squint at him. He smiles lightly to rid himself of any uncomfortable questions and talks incessantly, steadily jerking his fork over the plate so that the peas will separate and seem less cluttered together.
"Sick, Moony?" James says feelingly, devouring a portion of treacle tart. Remus shrugs.
"Got a bit of a cramp."
"Need the Hospital Wing?"
Remus rolls his eyes. "Rather gallant of you to offer to walk me to the infirmary, James—however, I do suppose that I might not faint as prettily as Lily Evans. Isn't it nearly time to harass her in the spirit of House togetherness?"
James eyes light when he sees her walk determinedly past them and nearly launches himself into Peter's lap trying to get her attention. Their House laughs on cue, and no one sees Remus expertly Vanish the napkin full of potatoes and meat that he had held in his shaking lap.
He almost ruins it, once. He's running down the hall after they've landed an utterly brilliant prank that may or may not include the use of someone's pants and the Gryffindor colors, and Filch is snarling after them, swearing up and down that he'll hang them from the ceiling, he'll use their skins as parchment—when Remus nearly falls flat onto his face. He's been using the Filling charm that he'd found in the back of his Charms textbook to keep his body from growling in hunger during classes, and though it gives the illusion of having just eaten a satisfactory meal, he supposes it isn't enough, not really. Or perhaps it only works if the caster is stationary afterwards, instead of dashing up and down the castle like a bloody animal.
Peter, who is beside him, grips his elbow and shakes him lightly. "You alright mate?" he asks out of the side of his mouth while tugging them into a small alcove as so to escape from Filch's wrath. He flinches a bit when Remus stares at him and continues weakly, "It's just, you look a bit peaky. Did you get lunch?"
"I wasn't aware that you were monitoring my meals, Wormtail," Remus says scathingly—and he hates himself a bit for doing so, but he can't have Peter (who, despite his other blunders, can be rather observant) finding out. It'll just make things fall apart faster between them; he knows this somehow, he is more sure of this than he is of his own name, than he is when he was snarling at himself in the sticky heat of the barn in July, despising himself and the animal magic that ran in his veins. "Do you look at all your friends this closely, or am I just special?"
Peter blushes and mutters something incoherently. Remus smiles nastily and digs his fingernails hard enough into his trembling arm to leave a bruise.
Instead of going to the Halloween feast, he fakes being sick and retreats to the bathroom of their dormitory. Through the genius of Cloth Thickening charms, he doesn't seem that worn down. The jumpers hide that effectively, and if he sometimes shivers while rising in the morning, he just puts on longer socks.
But he nearly winces at the mirror when he peels the sweater off of him and sees the prominent ribcage, the way his skin clutches at the bone and hugs it like his mother did to him mere moments before he boarded the train. Beating back the wolf doesn't yield any pleasant results, and Remus knows he looks worse than sickly; he looks like he's bloody dying. He looks entirely spent, which is a bit aggravating as he knows he's nowhere near finished beating the baser side of himself into submission.
He wishes, for a split second, that he was done with this whole self-flagellation thing, but then he remembers Severus Snape, half of his mind with fear and screaming incomprehensibly at the sight of him.
James bangs into the bathroom loudly, cawing to whomever cares to listen that he's a damn good friend and deserves a medal for carrying as many chocolate éclairs as he did for his precious Moony, who he loves like a particularly hairy brother, and Remus jerks the jumper down and mutters something inane about the possibility of him doing "private things" and being "interrupted". Sirius, who is waiting directly outside, has cloudy eyes and stares at him when he peels off his shoes and gets into bed; Remus worries briefly about his thin ankles, which look like they might snap under his weight, and tries to ignore him.
It's getting impossible. He's becoming increasingly more short-tempered, enough so that Peter has taken to avoiding to have to sit next to him during breakfast, where he is most likely to behave foully, and James looks at him out of the corner of his eye, as if preparing himself to leap backwards at any hint of violence.
Sirius, for his part, stares at him. He fastens his eyes on Remus's wrists, the bone of which rivals doorknobs now, and on the off days where his shirt is unbuttoned enough so that the painful gulley of his collarbone can be seen. Remus, as for himself, cannot bring himself to care as much now. It's December now, and he works himself into frenzy, shutting himself up in the library to practice spells and dotting his hands with enough ink from his quill to leave faint smudges on the wooden tables.
It has to pay off, he thinks. He'll know this moon, if it works. If he's human enough now. If the goal has been met and he can return to laughing shrilly with his friends and eating fit to burst.
When the moon looms, deathly white and seemingly innocent, he nearly dies.
He winds up in St. Mungo's, where his parents cry into handkerchiefs and a Healer informs him that the wolf bit directly into his leg, shattering the bone. It had been a clean break, though, and therefore easy to heal, though he'll have a few nasty scars left over.
Remus resolves to work harder.
When he returns to school, his grades are excellent, his friends are halfway to hating him, and he walks around feeling as if he might collapse within the next minute. Soon, the snow is melting and it's becoming warm enough to step outside without a Warming Charm and two scarves (it is Great Britain, after all, so instead of two scarves, they just need one now). Remus scowls darkly at everyone and scrawls diagrams of the wolf ought to be exterminated in the back of his Transfiguration notebook.
He's curled up on his bed, under nearly three duvets and staring at the papery map of veins in his forearm (strange to think that, not so long ago, he'd been bronzed and nearly as glorious as Peter and James and Sirius) when Sirius bursts into the room, plops onto his bed and says, "Brought you a sandwich, dearest!"
Fuck. Remus wants to hang himself. "Thanks, Sirius." He holds the plate in his lap and peers up at his friend, who watches him unwaveringly, even as Remus dives from topic to topic, asking if he's done that essay on Kneazles that their professor wanted, and if Evans had been enraged at James's latest display of devotion, or merely just very angry, when Sirius says politely, "Cut the shit, Lupin, and eat the goddamn sandwich."
Remus flinches. He's been shredding the sandwich as he chatted aimlessly, feverishly hoping that Sirius will forget that he's meant to be eating. It's full to the brim with meat and cheeses and little to no lettuce, the way that Remus enjoys his sandwiches, and the flavor is intoxicating to his sharpened nose.
"I'm not very hungry," he lies. He wants to devour it, and maybe ten more.
Sirius's eyes go flat and cool. "Bullshit."
Remus's eyelids flutter, just a bit. "Rude," he admonishes, "where your manners, Sirius, honestly?"
Sirius leads forward and Remus resists the urge to bare his teeth, beating down the thought with you disgusting animal, you ought to be shot. Sirius is nearly beside himself with anger, quivering like a child and whispering, "You look an absolute fright, Moony. You're upset all the time, and pale, you look like you've died already, or else goddamn close. God, I could"—and he circles Remus's limp wrist with a hand and Remus knows by the pulsing in his jaw that he wants to scream, or sob, or both.
"I'm sorry." But he says it blankly, and this is the moment where Sirius cries so hard that it almost seems like a dream.
Sirius follows him after that (or stalks him, to be more honest). He walks with a hand on Remus's back, as if he thinks the smaller boy might fall over if he doesn't. Remus is nuclear fucking winter against the crowd of golden students, who he hates a bit out of spite.
And then they see Snape, who sneers and says something that Remus can't later recall, because he's running, he's running, he's running; to the hills that surround Hogwarts, far enough from Severus so he doesn't dash at him, doesn't scream I'm trying, I honestly am, or savagely rip Snape's vocal chords from his throat. He can feel every sharp bone in his body trembling, and his vision is spotty at best and the shaking in his body must be from gratitude; he has not torn out Snape's throat, he has not snapped at James or Peter in nearly two weeks, he has not had to scrub his hands furiously until the skin breaks in three days. He must be as far from animal as he can be now (if only because he appears so alien and ethereal in his slenderness now), and it is a bursting feeling that builds in his heart and floods through his bloodstream, and he thinks Yes, Yes, Yes and embraces it and he feels good and whole and human, for once.
This is until Sirius seizes him around the middle and drives him to the ground, which will leave stony bruises afterwards, screaming in his ear about uncontrolled magic and the way he nearly felt Remus's heart break in two. James and Peter are shaking nearby, but uncertain of if it alright to touch him; Sirius, with his half-mad heritage, does not have this fear and weeps directly into his chest and touches his protruding, ugly ribcage so softly he nearly doesn't feel it at all.
"You have to go back, Moony, you have to be you," Sirius whispers, and Remus smiles, shakes his head, say he can't. "Moony, you'll die! Moony, you great prat, listen to me, you'll fucking kill yourself."
He gasps, and he feels, for once, the warmth of the burning sun. He feels Sirius's solid body against him, and James's awkwardly molded affection and Peter's worry, and the wet, sloppy kisses Sirius is pressing against his temple that feels like a baptism and his mother's love all over again.
Remus presses his thin, shaking wrists against his eyes and discounts Peter and James's sharp inhales. He kisses the inside of his own forearm and thinks Well done, and feels pride settle into him like water.