The Last One
A/N: Written for the Over the Hill Challenge. The challenge required that someone in the story turn 40 or be nearing age 40, and the plot had to explore how they dealt with that fact.
Disclaimer: Harry Potter, Remus Lupin, Severus Snape, and all their associates are characters belonging to J.K. Rowling. I claim no rights to them, their surroundings, or their situations. (Much to my sorrow.) Any other literary works quoted herein are likewise the sole intellectual properties of their authors and/or their estates. Any resemblance between a certain tatty cardigan sweater mentioned in this story, and similar sweaters appearing in motion pictures, is absolutely intentional; however, that isn't mine either.
It wasn't as though he couldn't handle being a werewolf, Remus reflected grimly. He'd been doing it for nearly four decades now. One did adjust, to an extent.
It was being a pathetic werewolf that really got to him.
The full moon had come and gone a few days prior. Each month, the change seemed to take more out of him; and though a steady supply of Wolfsbane Potion helped, eliminating the problem of self-inflicted gashes that had grown increasingly slow to heal, his joints still complained for days afterward.
Remus shuddered to think what sort of arthritic complaints he might develop ten or twenty years down the road if he survived so long; many werewolves didn't. One day the change might well sap his strength beyond recovery. Sometimes he envied Minerva McGonagall, who, in her seventies, seemed to have no difficulty at all managing the Transfiguration from human to cat.
But then of course, a werewolf was a very different creature from an Animagus, for all their superficial similarities. An Animagus assumed an alternate form by a deliberate act of will, and barring accidents or incompetence, retained complete control of the process.
Despite years of experience and the knowledge that his transformations were essentially harmless to both himself and those around him so long as he took his potion, Remus still instinctively fought them. The sense of helplessness as his body broke free of his conscious control to twist itself into a foreign shape was terrifying...and infuriating. No amount of preparation or reassurance could change that. He had always half-suspected that the wolf's fury was no more than an amplified manifestation of the man's frustration, boiling up from within his subconscious to seize control and run wild.
As had become his custom, after returning to his proper form, he had emerged from his room to take up temporary residence in the library at Grimmauld Place. Well fed by Molly and comforted by the heat of a roaring fire and an ample supply of spirits, he alternately read, contemplated, and napped, waiting patiently for the painful stiffness and the general sense of unwellness to abate.
Ordinarily, the other members of the Order let him alone until he'd recuperated sufficiently to rejoin them. That suited him just fine for the most part. Tonight, however, his feelings on the matter were decidedly mixed.
By necessity, whatever attention Remus paid to the calendar was usually centered around the nights of the full moon. So today's date had not fully registered until he came across a reference to a birthday in the book he was reading.
"Happy birthday, Prongs," he murmured, raising his glass to the memory of his friend, who would have turned forty that day.
His own fortieth birthday was only a few months off. Without prompting, his brain spun out the dates for Lily, Sirius, and Peter Pettigrew. He didn't know the Longbottoms' birthdates, but this must be their fortieth year as well. And also, if he was not mistaken, Bellatrix LeStrange's.
What a waste of a generation, he thought with unaccustomed bitterness. Some of the best and most brilliant people I've ever known, and look what's left...one broken-down werewolf (and a charity case to boot), one cowering Death Eater, one raving psychopath, two mad Aurors, and three headstones.
There had been others, of course--close to forty of them in fact--but he had been on a first-name basis with very few of his classmates and somehow after all this time out of contact, none of them felt quite real any longer. He wondered idly just how many still lived and how many had fallen by the wayside. A depressingly large number, that second category, he suspected. It was his and his peers' misfortune to have been precisely the right age to provide cannon fodder for both sides.
In a sense--the sense in which one could sit down and have a conversation about the Old Days with someone else who remembered them in the same context--he was all that was left.
Well, not quite all, he amended a moment later, as the library door opened silently. He scented the intruder before he saw him, a strange blend of herbs and alchemical substances that disturbed him all the more for being less repugnant than it ought to be, by rights. "Hello, Severus."
Snape stepped out of the shadows of the doorway, pausing to regard him (and the collection of Firewhisky bottles that were keeping him company) with patent disdain. "Lupin. Preserving yourself for posterity? I believe the Ministry already has a werewolf specimen."
"Sod off, Snape," Remus said cheerfully, a bit too tipsy to be properly offended by the Potions Master's presence. "I'll have you know I am drinking to the memory of an old friend, in whose absence it is my duty to remind you that you are an insufferable prat, and sorely in need of a bottle of industrial degreaser." He solemnly raised his glass, then drained it at one go.
"Ah, of course. And since Potter isn't here to toast his own health, naturally you felt obligated to consume his share… and Black's as well." Snape shook his head slightly, greasy locks swinging gently in affirmation of Remus's statement. Then he moved with his customary sweeping style toward the back wall where some of the older, more esoteric volumes of the Black family library were housed. "Well, by all means, carry on. Though I daresay your liver will give out long before your supply of Firewhisky."
Remus frowned slightly, momentarily distracted by his former classmate's trademark billow. He'd always secretly wondered if Snape employed a charm to get that effect. "Hold on, now...how'd you know I was talking about James? You aren't Legi--legilimili--you aren't mind-reading me, are you?"
"'Mind-reading' you?" Snape snorted inelegantly. "Really, Lupin, how you landed the Defense position is beyond me. You know perfectly well it doesn't work that way." He traced the spines of several ancient volumes with one finger, leaning down a bit to make out the faded titles. "In any case, I can assure you I have more productive things to do than investigate the thought processes of an impoverished middle-aged lycanthrope."
Remus pulled himself up straighter in his chair, a spark of indignation sputtering soggily to life, not so much at the insult itself as at the razor-sharp accuracy thereof. "Middle-aged, is it? Well, I hardly think you're in a position to talk. You can't be far behind."
"I don't recall denying it." Snape selected a book and carefully removed it from its place, murmuring a preservative charm to protect the brittle pages.
Remus tilted his head quizzically to one side. "When is your birthday, anyway?" It had never occurred to him to ask before; certainly he couldn't remember anyone ever throwing Snape a party.
"Ninth of last month, if you must know," Snape muttered distractedly, leafing carefully through the dusty, crackling old volume. "To answer your first question, however, I knew you were referring to Potter because I distinctly recall being body bound, gift-wrapped, and suspended from a Quidditch hoop as Black's birthday present to him on this date some twenty-seven years ago."
Remus started, then hastily stifled a laugh behind his hand. "Merlin's ghost, I'd forgotten all about that..." Catching Snape's sidelong glower, he cleared his throat and said with an honest attempt at sincerity, "Well...a belated happy birthday, then."
"It was not, particularly. But thank you, I suppose," the Potions Master said stiffly, shutting his book and tucking it under his arm. "Pray don't allow me to interrupt your self-pickling any further, Mister...Moony."
Remus blinked at the Potions Master owlishly, dumbfounded, and felt his heart contract painfully in his chest. No one had called him Moony in some time--not since they'd lost Sirius--and though Snape had done his best to render the old nickname into an insult, it struck him poignantly that it was quite possibly the last time he would ever be addressed that way.
He watched silently until Snape was nearly out the door. Then, moved by an impulse he couldn't name, he said hesitantly, "Severus--"
Snape stopped and turned with a quiet sigh, raising his eyebrows impatiently.
Remus gestured awkwardly to the chair opposite his own. "Have a drink with me?"
The dark, glittery eyes narrowed, and Remus groaned inwardly. He knew that expression--it was the patented Snape "You are trying to put one over on me, and in a moment I will figure out your game and give you one better" look.
"Please?" he added softly, conjuring a second glass.
Snape's frown deepened; for a moment Remus thought he was going to impart some biting witticism and leave. Instead, he turned fully around and regarded the werewolf thoughtfully, drawing the book up to his chest in an oddly defensive gesture. "Why?"
It was such a simple question, really, but it threw Remus slightly off-balance. He found that he had no ready answer. Good lord, Severus, he thought, is it really that difficult for you to believe I might just want to talk with you? That I find your company preferable to solitude this night?
How much of that is my own fault?
A slight shift in Snape's expression told Remus that his hesitation was not going over well, and he blurted before he could quite think it through, "Because...because we're the only ones left."
"Indeed? The only what, if I might ask?" But now the Slytherin's curiosity had been piqued. He walked slowly toward the chair Remus had indicated, never taking his eyes off the other man.
Remus bit his lip. He wasn't sure he could articulate his earlier thoughts in a way that would make sense to a man like Snape, who was notoriously contemptuous of anything that resembled sentimentality.
"Well--it's just that I'd got to thinking. Out of everyone who was in our class, who we both knew--there aren't very many left now, are there?" He poured a shot of Firewhisky into the second glass and offered it to Snape, who accepted it cautiously. "Twenty-three years isn't such a long time, really, for us. Not like it is for Muggles. But the attrition rate has been absolutely appalling."
"That is true, but I fail to see how the fact should alter our association in any way." Snape set the book down on a small table and seated himself, a slight sardonic smile crossing his face. "You will have to excuse me if I fail to experience a sudden upwelling of good fellowship on the basis of a dwindling head count."
"Well, fine. Call it a celebration of beating the odds then, if you prefer. It's free booze, any road." Remus sloshed more of the stuff into his own glass and tossed it back, somewhat cross "Doesn't it bother you in the least, Severus? Honestly. I know that you--you didn't have an easy time of it, or a lot of friends. But they were our classmates, scores of them...don't you ever look around you and wonder where they all bloody went?" He gestured around them as though all those people had been there in the library and had stepped outside for a breath of fresh air, never to return.
Snape shook his head slightly, sipping appreciatively at the fine whisky. "I know where they went--all the ones who mattered, at least--most are dead." He lowered his glass, staring pensively into the fire. "The rest might as well be."
"Heartening thought," Remus muttered, sinking a bit further into the well-worn wingback chair.
The Potions Master shrugged eloquently. "It's scarcely my fault that we were born to a cursed generation." He fell briefly silent, then went on, "Though I confess I do wonder, occasionally, what might have happened if we had all come along at a different time: one in which the Dark Lord had not come to power. Or if he had never been."
This summoned up a long-neglected memory for Remus, and he shut his eyes, quoting, "'So do I. And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide'..."
To his surprise, Snape's silky voice picked up the quotation, and he opened his eyes to see the dark-eyed man regarding him thoughtfully. "'...All that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.' "
"How extraordinary." Remus smiled. "I would not have taken you for an admirer of Tolkien."
Snape smiled thinly back. "Insightful man, for a Muggle. He had a great deal to say on matters which… concern me closely."
Dark magic, temptation and redemption, you mean, Remus thought, but he did not say it aloud. "One thing has not changed in twenty years, Severus. You still manage to consistently surprise me."
Snape drained his glass. "I would hate to think I've become predictable, as that would most likely be the end of me."
Remus winced at the coolly-delivered statement. "Surely this war can't go on forever," he ventured, aware that it was a trite and pointless thing to say. But he had little else to offer.
"Oh, most certainly it can, in one form or another." Snape held out his glass and Remus refilled it. "It did not begin with Grindelwald and it will not end with the current Dark Lord. There will always be some idiot with more ambition than brains, eager to seize the reins of power." Snape settled back into his own chair, cracking his neck sharply with a grimace. "But the gods and Albus Dumbledore willing, once we've brought him down, my part in it will be concluded."
"I truly hope so." Remus did not know what, precisely, Snape's role in the Order of the Phoenix entailed, and he didn't want to. He did know that the man sometimes came to Grimmauld Place wearing the all-too-familiar look of someone whose endurance had been taxed to its very limits.
The continual use of Occlumency against a skilled Legilimens could produce that kind of fatigue, he knew. So could repeated exposure to the Cruciatus Curse. And the long term-effects, from what he'd read, were more than a little debilitating.
"What will you do then?" he asked, just to fill the silence.
"Do?" Snape seemed a bit taken aback by the question, and he mulled it over for a few long moments.
"I may retire," he said at last, swirling the whisky in his glass. "Or perhaps seek a research position within the Ministry, if the political climate permits."
Remus very much doubted that it would for a former Death Eater, even if he did turn out to be a war hero. But Snape surely knew that, so he did not remark on it. "You won't keep trying for the Defense Against the Dark Arts position?"
Snape snorted. "Albus will never give me that job. And I must reluctantly admit that he is probably correct." He ignored Remus's frankly shocked expression. "Ever since your tenure in the position, I've found myself wondering how on earth I would have managed to teach Neville Longbottom to fend off a boggart."
He delivered the line with a perfectly straight face, but with a certain conspiratorial gleam in his eye that Remus had rarely, if ever, seen before. He laughed out loud. "Severus, was that a joke?"
"A product of the Firewhisky, no doubt. Don't get used to it." Snape finished what remained in his glass, and Remus refilled it again without waiting to be asked.
"At any rate, teaching has never much agreed with me," Snape added. Understatement, Remus acknowledged silently. "And what of you, Lupin? I trust your life's ambition is not to remain eternally holed up in this dismal excuse for a house?"
Remus shifted uncomfortably. He had not forgotten that Snape was, in large part, the reason why he no longer taught at Hogwarts. But he couldn't, in all fairness, blame the man for outing him to the students; his own careless and irresponsible behavior had reinforced his old schoolmate's fear which was not entirely unjustified to begin with. He was glad that Snape seemed to have finally overcome that fear, at least enough to engage in civil conversation.
"Well, holed up in it, no. I am designated trustee of the Black estate, and that provision has taken effect now that Sirius is...has been missing for so long. He specifically granted me the right to live here as long as I choose, until Harry reaches a certain age. And Harry has already said he'd extend that right indefinitely." He knew he was talking too much and felt himself redden slightly. He hated being forced to rely on the kindness of others, though he would always be grateful to his friends for their generosity.
"But when the Order's work is done, I want to find a real job," he went on, with as much optimism as he could muster. "Something challenging, but… flexible." Flexible enough that a monthly absence of two or three days and another few days of poor health would not get him sacked in short order.
He feared Snape would take the opportunity to cut him down, but the other man merely observed, staring into his glass, "It's ironic, is it not, that we two should be the last, as you say, and find ourselves in such strangely parallel situations."
Remus hadn't thought of it in quite that way, but it was true. Both he and Snape were essentially stuck where they were, barred by circumstances beyond their control from the greater contributions they could surely make, given the chance. A surly little voice in the back of Remus's head remarked that Snape had at least had a choice about becoming a Death Eater, but he squelched it at once.
Voldemort might not spread his disease via a bite, but he was no less a monster and far more treacherous than any werewolf. A lonely and embittered teenager would have been too easy a target.
"Tell me something," Snape said abruptly. "Honestly."
Remus started to say, All right, if I can, but then he caught himself. Snape was a Slytherin, through and through, for all he was the only reasonably decent one Remus had ever met. So, prompted by long-standing curiosity, he replied as he thought a Slytherin might, just to see what would happen. "I'll answer your question if you'll answer mine."
Snape shot him a measuring look, some of his customary wariness rising to the surface; but after a moment he nodded sharply. "Fair enough. But you first."
"Right, then. Ask away."
"Were you in on it?"
There was no need to ask what he was talking about. "No, I was not," Remus said firmly. "And I all but twisted Padfoot's tail off when I heard. The trouble it could have brought to all of us does not bear thinking of. The last thing I wanted was for you or anyone else to find out, or to be hurt, gods forbid."
Snape nodded slowly, and it seemed to Remus that a subtle tension that had been there for as long as he could remember began to ease, just slightly. "And Potter?"
"That's two questions, but I'll throw in the second for free. I am certain that he had no idea until Sirius told him." Remus shook his head at the other man's dubious look. "James did have a streak of cruelty in him, Severus, especially when he was younger; I won't try to deny it. But he wouldn't have intentionally put you in real danger, especially not just so he could stage a rescue. He wasn't that arrogant."
"You almost make me believe it," the Potions Master said softly, almost wistfully.
"You should. It's the truth. Why did you wait so long to ask?"
"Is that your question?" Snape shot back, smirking maliciously.
"No, actually. But I gave you one."
"You always were excessively generous, Lupin. But very well, quid pro quo: I had no idea, until fairly recently, whether you'd give me an honest answer."
Remus frowned, puzzled. He opened his mouth to ask Snape what had changed his mind, but then grinned. "Ha. You almost caught me there."
"Damn." Snape leaned over and snagged the Firewhisky bottle, emptying the last of it into his glass. Without missing a beat, Remus reached down next to his chair and picked up a fresh bottle which he unstopped, topping off both their glasses.
"I'll get that one out of you later," Remus assured him. "But what I really want to know--and please don't hex me, it's an honest question--"
Snape tensed, and Remus dropped his voice slightly, asking in as matter-of-fact and neutral a tone as he could manage, "Did you fancy Lily Evans?"
He thought, for a few tense heartbeats, that he had gone too far. Snape stared at him expressionless for a moment, then jumped up out of his chair and turned away. But he went only as far as the hearth, to stand gazing moodily into the fire, hands clasped behind his back.
"I thought," he said after a time, just as Remus was about to apologize, "that no one knew."
"No one else did, most likely," Remus hastened to assure him. I knew it, he thought, immensely pleased (if slightly guilty) at having finally had his suspicions confirmed. It explained so much, and cast Snape's burning rivalry with James and his difficulties with Harry--as well as, perhaps, certain other puzzling choices--in an entirely different light.
"May I ask how you learned of it?"
Remus shrugged. "Werewolves have exceptionally keen senses, as you know. And there's a distinct change in the way a man smells when he's around a woman he finds attractive. James used to reek of it whenever Lily was near. So did you." And practically all of their male classmates, at one time or another, for that matter. But for most of them, it had been a passing fancy (and a good thing, too, once James had set his sights on the girl); with Severus it had been unrelenting, from the time Remus had grown old enough to recognize such signs for what they were.
"Of course." Snape bowed his head slightly. "I might have guessed. You... did not tell James?"
Remus nearly had, in fact; it was the sort of thing one was expected to tell one's best mate. But at least in that instance, good sense had won out over Marauder loyalty. "Give me some credit, Severus. He'd have torn you limb from limb."
"Thank you for that, then." Snape's shoulders were slumped a bit, and he spoke more quietly than usual.
"Think nothing of it." Now almost sorry he'd brought it up, Remus abandoned that line of discussion and backtracked to an earlier thread instead. "Why'd you change your mind?"
Snape looked around at him, confused. "Excuse me?"
"You said that you weren't sure until recently that I would tell you the truth. What convinced you?"
"Ah." Snape nodded, returning to his chair. He was weaving just slightly, now.
The whisky was strong and they were both drinking too much of it much too quickly, Remus thought, knowing he would pay for it later; but right now he was feeling pleasantly buzzed and not in the least contrite. His joints had stopped hurting, or nearly.
"After the battle at the Department of Mysteries, Potter was rather vocal in his assertions that I was to blame for what happened to Black--"
"Sirius," Remus corrected firmly.
"--yes, quite. Due to the...ah, abrupt end of the Occlumency lessons. Some of the Order were inclined to agree with the boy." Snape eyed him speculatively. "I noticed that you were not among them."
"Well, no," Remus acknowledged. "If there's any blame to be assigned for that, I'd have to say it falls on Professor Dumbledore. He knows perfectly well that you and Harry have... issues."
Snape waved that matter away with an impatient gesture. "I prefer not to dwell on it. But to return to my point, given how close you and Bl-Sirius--were, I was very much surprised that you weren't leading the charge. It occasioned some re-evaluation on my part." He enunciated his words slowly and with care. Remus wondered how often the Death-Eater-turned-spy, subject to Voldemort's summons at any time, permitted himself the luxury of an extra drink (or two).
"What would be the point?" He shook his head wearily. "Sirius made his own choices. And even if that weren't so, no amount of blame will bring him back."
"I would think that was obvious. Unfortunate that the boy can't see the truth of it." Much to Remus's surprise, Snape spoke with what sounded like genuine regret. Carefully hiding a smile, he said solemnly, "Why, Severus. If I didn't know better, I would think you just admitted to caring what Harry Potter thinks."
"Preposterous. It's those who listen to Harry Potter who concern me." Severus emptied his glass yet again, eyed it as though weighing the pros and cons of refilling it, and then set it regretfully aside. "It's a great pity that so many of our allies consistently mistake luck and an overdeveloped backbone for competency, or assume that such qualities impart good judgement as a matter of course."
Remus shook his head, seeing no need to dignify that statement with a reply, but he was too accustomed to Snape's grousing to take offense on Harry's behalf. He half-suspected that Severus talked that way simply out of habit, or to keep people at arm’s length. The Founders knew: the man had reasons enough and then some to stay on the defensive.
He was going to ask another question, but before he had it properly framed, Severus abruptly sat up straight in his chair, his eyes focusing on something Remus couldn't see. "What is it?"
"Remus, do you know any quick sobriety charms?" Snape asked, an undercurrent of urgency to the question.
Only then did the werewolf notice that Snape's right hand had found its way to his left forearm, unconsciously massaging a particular spot through the heavy black cloth of his sleeve as though it suddenly pained him.
He drew his wand, guessing what had just happened. "Half a moment--ah, Finite Vinolentia." It wasn't a perfect remedy--no such charm existed--but it would clear the head substantially; enough, he hoped, to permit the effective use of Occlumency. "Waste of a perfectly good drunk," he added ruefully, as Snape blinked and shook his head violently, banishing the remaining fuzziness.
"Agreed." Severus ran a hand over his face and sighed. "Lupin, I wonder if you would be good enough to pass along to Albus--"
"I'll tell him. Go on." Remus waved his hand vaguely. "I'd hate to think what would happen if you were late."
"As would I," Snape said darkly, tugging the front of his robes a bit straighter and flicking dust off his sleeve. "Good evening, Lupin."
With that, he Disapparated. Remus sank back in his chair, studying the bottom of his glass through the dark amber liquid within. The thought of what awaited Snape on the other end of that trip was always unsettling, but before now it had been mostly a matter of what secrets the man might inadvertently let slip, to the detriment of the Order. He had always carefully avoided considering the possible consequences to Severus himself.
It occurred to him now that this was a rather arse-about-face way of looking at it. The Order had recovered from setbacks before; but rare indeed was the wizard who had betrayed Voldemort, been found out, and walked away alive.
"Good luck," he said quietly to the empty air, then drained the glass and slowly levered himself upright, going to the fireplace to Floo Dumbledore. It was a brief and cryptic conversation, spoken in code; once the word had been passed along, there was little to be done about it except to wait and hope for the best.
He'd fallen into an uneasy doze, plagued by whisky-sodden dreams in which the Morsmordre hanging over the little house at Godric's Hollow took on a horrible semblance of life, chasing down and devouring everyone he'd ever known. He, trapped in wolf-form, could do nothing but howl and scrabble at the window of the Shrieking Shack, as outside James and Lily fell, then the Longbottoms, then Sirius...
Then Harry appeared, and Remus wailed with impotent frustration as the boy crouched weeping over Sirius' body, heedless of the great blazing skull that bore down upon him.
As the fangs of its serpent-tongue darted in for the kill, a tall figure in a dark cloak that billowed surreally about him rose up protectively over the boy, hurling curses at the demonic sign with a distinctive resonant voice that Remus knew too well.
Suddenly he had his own voice back; his wand was in his hands. He shattered the window and flung himself through with a shout of denial, ignoring the razor-like glass that bit deep into his arms, chest and shoulders...knowing with a terrible certainty that he was too late, too late again, but he had to try because he wasn't even forty yet, and it wasn't fair, dammit--they were already so few, he didn't want to be the last one--
There were Death Eaters all around him, and they caught his arms and dragged him back, thrashing wildly. The great green skull was right on top of him now; the head of the glittering serpent reared back, its jaws stretched obscenely wide, poison dripping in great shining globules from the dagger-like fangs.
For the first time in his life, filled with hate, he wished with all his heart for the change--to forget, to rend and to kill, as only the impervious wolf could do--
He jerked violently awake, another shout caught in his throat, and nearly choked with the effort of swallowing it.
Snape held both his wrists in an iron grip. He couldn't fathom why until he followed the gaze of those unnerving eyes and realized he'd been tearing at his own clothing, trying to shred it about the shoulders with his fingernails. He'd succeeded somewhat, too.
"If this is what alcohol does to you," Snape observed (rather hoarsely, Remus thought), "then I am astonished that you ever touch the stuff." He let go, taking an unsteady step backward.
"It doesn't, usually." Remus scrubbed at his face. "Alcohol and morbid thoughts: bad combination..." He squinted blearily at the other man, who looked positively haggard. "Merlin's blood, man. Sit down. You're nearly transparent."
Snape was already sinking into the opposite chair, not entirely by choice, it appeared.
"Why'd you come back here?--Not that you aren't welcome, of course." Remus removed and folded his ripped cardigan, which had been much the worse for wear even before he'd tried to shred it. Perhaps Molly would be kind enough to fix it for him; her darning was so much neater than his own. "But I'd have expected you to head straight home after--" he took in the Slytherin's wan, disheveled appearance with a gesture, "--whatever put you in such a state."
"I had intended to do exactly that." Slouching uncharacteristically, Severus managed a weak parody of a smile. "But then I remembered that I'd run out of Ogden’s...." He was staring at his hands, and Remus saw that they were shaking. He fought perceptibly to still them, failed, and resorted to folding his arms close across his chest.
Without another word, Remus handed him a nearly-full bottle and tried not to wince at the volume that disappeared in a single long pull. "Nothing better to drive the chill from your bones," he observed.
"The chill I can live with." Snape coughed, his voice coarse from the powerful spirits. "Though mind you, I sometimes think the Dark Lord intentionally chooses the most godforsaken places and the worst weather to hold his meetings…."
He was evading a direct answer; Remus said as dispassionately as he could, "Cruciatus?"
At first he got only a long, shuddering exhalation in response. Then, very quietly, "He doesn't even bother to pretend it's a punishment any longer. It's entertainment, pure and simple."
"My god. Does he single you out or...?"
Snape shook his head. He'd fallen back on his old habit of letting his hair fall forward, concealing his face. In their youth, it had always been a dead giveaway that he was nearing a breaking point. "I'm among the more fortunate, actually. He knows he has to send me back relatively intact. Some of his favorite playthings are often bedridden for days, but he takes care that none of us come to feel… neglected."
"He's insane," Lupin said quietly, wishing a piece of chocolate could wipe away the aftereffects of the Cruciatus as easily as it did the Dementor-chill. He had a drawer full of the stuff up in his room. But there was no remedy for that Unforgivable curse except time. The Firewhisky was liable to do more harm than good in the long run, but Remus didn't have the heart to deny it to a man so sorely in need of respite.
Snape let his head fall back against the chair and set the bottle on the end table beside him, needing a couple of tries to put it down safely. "Yes," he said dully, "he's losing what little hold on reality he possessed to begin with. Hardly surprising, really, with everything he's done to himself. Immortality: who in his right mind would want to live forever looking like that?" He made a slight wheezing sound that might have been intended for a laugh. "But it only makes him more dangerous... sometimes I think he loses track of the line between ally and enemy. Or has ceased to care."
Remus had no answer to that, and Severus was at the end of his strength. And so silence descended, broken only by the soft crackle of the fire and the breathing of the two worn-out men, which gradually lengthened into the slow, deep rhythm of slumber.
When Molly came in quietly to check on Remus, she was astonished to find both of them slumped there in their chairs. About bloody time they settled their differences, she thought. They looked like a mismatched but strangely complementary set of bookends.
It was the expressions, she thought sadly as she backed noiselessly out of the room and let the door latch with the softest of clicks. Every death, every loss, every failure was indelibly etched onto both careworn faces. They were too young to have seen and suffered so much; there was more to come, and worse.
But for this night, at least, they would have peace.
Though neither remarked upon that unusual evening afterward, Severus became a more frequent visitor at Grimmauld Place, even accepting--on a few occasions--the standing dinner invitation that had been extended to every member of the Order. And Remus found himself wandering into the library more often of an evening as the Potions Master had embarked on a more thorough exploration of the stacks, and found a number of rare and intriguing works which he would sit reading with his usual single-minded intensity, sometimes far into the night.
Remus concluded eventually that Snape must be an insomniac and left him alone, by and large; his company was oddly restful, though they rarely spoke and never drank together after that first night.
Severus was summoned twice more that month; the first time he came to the library afterward, shaking, and sat staring into the darkness between the shelves without a word. Remus could offer no comfort beyond his presence, but he gave that willingly enough, knowing that Snape would not have come to Grimmauld Place if he didn't want the werewolf around. This time the spy rose and departed after a few hours, leaving Remus to hope forlornly that he'd find some rest before morning called him to his duties at the school.
The second time, Remus heard of the incident through Dumbledore via the Floo. Severus had returned to Hogwarts more dead than alive in the grip of violent seizures, his nerves flayed by the Cruciatus Curse to the point that he might never fully recover. Remus visited a few days later, and found Snape up and going about his business--but only with the help of a cane, and twitching noticeably at every sudden movement, sound, or touch.
"Don't say it," he growled the moment Remus opened his mouth, pushing past brusquely on his way to sixth-year Potions. "I knew when Albus offered me his deal what the price would be."
"I wonder if he did," Remus replied, falling in beside him and taking great care to direct his gaze elsewhere. "How long do you intend to keep paying? Until it kills you?"
"If need be. Albus isn't the only one I owe, as you are well aware." The bitterness was unmistakable now. Remus wasn't sure which was worse: that, or the callous resignation with which the man spoke of his own end.
He suppressed a sudden desire to grab Snape by the shoulders and shake him, hard. "James wouldn't have asked you to go to that length, and you know it. You always made more of that Life Debt than he did."
"No doubt, as he was surrounded by a veritable legion of allies who would have been all too happy to throw their lives away for him, and vice versa," the other man snapped. "Those of us who were not so fortunate tend to attach a greater importance to such things, I suppose." He paused to scowl at a passing group of curious third-years, who squeaked and hurried away with alacrity. "Don't trouble yourself about it, Lupin. I can assure you that I have earned every misfortune that has befallen me, in one way or another. The Dark Lord is no more than an unwitting agent of justice when he turns his wand on me."
"I don't call that justice," Remus muttered. "Two wrongs don't make a right. Nobody deserves that kind of torture."
"Not even me?" Severus glanced at him slyly, and Remus flushed. The thought had crossed his mind briefly, an old reflex he had yet to squelch as effectively as he wished. "It's all right, Lupin, you can say it. Things change, but not that much."
"As much as we want them to," he countered firmly. "Stop trying to change the subject. Severus, I promise you I'll shut up and stay out of your business, but first I have got to say this: you're going to get yourself killed if you don't walk away from this thing. And that would be an unconscionable waste."
They'd reached the Potions classroom, and Snape, paler than usual, paused for a long moment with his hand on the door. "It's good of you to say so," he said finally. "And you're correct, as it happens. My next rendezvous with the Death Eaters will likely be my last." He favored Remus with a rare, genuine smile, and Remus thought with a pang that life could have been so different for Severus if only he'd shared that smile more often with more people. "Oddly enough, I believe that thought troubles you more than it does me. For that, you have my gratitude." He shook his head slightly, bemusedly, and opened the door; the dour mask of the Dungeon Bat dropped over his features with startling abruptness. "Good day to you, Lupin."
"But yo--right. Good day," Remus sighed as the door swung shut.
It had been a particularly vicious change, and despite staying in bed a full day longer than usual, Remus had serious doubts that he would make it to the library before he collapsed. But though several members of the Order were about, the small flicker of pride he retained precluded calling out for help. He'd bloody well make it down one flight of stairs and a short hallway on his own, or break his neck trying.
After many pauses and much wall-leaning, and a few alarming moments on the stairs where it seemed that he might, indeed, wind up in a neck brace, he triumphantly pushed open the library door and staggered into the warm, stuffy room where he'd spent so many days in convalescence.
He was pleased, though not especially surprised, to note that Severus was there, calmly turning the pages of a large leather-bound volume that looked vaguely familiar, though Remus couldn't place it. He glanced up momentarily and nodded in greeting, then returned his attention to the book without comment.
Making his way laboriously to the chair opposite the Potions Master, Remus sank into it with a small groan of relief, and chuckled when he saw the open bottle of Firewhisky and the glass beside it on the small table to his left patiently awaiting his arrival.
"Do you mind?" Snape grumbled, not looking up. "I am trying to read."
"So I see. Sorry." Remus poured himself a shot and sipped it, more cautiously than the last time. The hangover the next day had been murder. "Find something engrossing, did you?"
With an annoyed look, Severus tipped the book up slightly, bringing the title into view. The Silmarillion.
"Ah, of course. His master work. Pity he didn't live to finish it," Remus mused. "'In the beginning there was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought--' "
"Yes, yes, I'm aware that you've got the entire collected works memorized, Lupin," Severus interrupted peevishly.
Remus flinched slightly. "Sorry," he muttered again. "It's such beautiful prose, I always want to hear it spoken aloud. But no one else I know is familiar with it."
"Well, it's beautiful if it's spoken aloud correctly, I'll grant you that. Your pronunciation of the Quenya is, however, shockingly inaccurate, for a self-styled scholar of the mythos."
"Oh really? And I suppose you think you can do better? Spent a few years immersing yourself in the culture on the Lonely Isle, have you?" Remus began to wonder if perhaps he would have been better off staying in bed.
"I could wish," Snape retorted with unexpected sincerity. "You, on the other hand, have obviously never studied Tolkien's notations regarding the pronunciation of vowels and diphthongs. Now be silent, if you please, and listen." He paged back to the beginning of the book, and began to read aloud:
"In the beginning there was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, who were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly."
Like us, Remus thought dreamily. Split into our little groups, intent on our own goals...slow to grow, and slower to understand. Snape's voice had lost its initial stridency as he read; now it slid over the beautiful poetic words like a lover's caress, rising and falling in an almost hypnotic cadence. Remus finally understood why so many female students had rhapsodized over the man's rather pompous first-year introductory speech. He possessed a rare gift, one that was sadly wasted in his current profession, Remus thought regretfully.
It almost came as a shock when Snape reached the end of the paragraph and ceased reading.
"Oh, don't stop," Remus said plaintively, against his better judgement.
Snape frowned at him slightly, one hand poised to turn back to the page he'd been reading when Remus came in. "You surely own a copy. You could read it for yourself," he noted, more puzzled than annoyed (or so Remus hoped).
"I could, but not like that." He shook his head, smiling a bit sheepishly. "Surely you must be aware of the quality of your own voice, Severus. You use it effectively enough when it serves your purposes."
That earned him another long, unreadable stare, and Remus felt an uncomfortable heat creep up the back of his neck. Again, he feared he had overstepped some nebulous boundary, and this time the thought was more than troublesome; it inspired real anxiety. He did not want to overturn the fragile truce that had grown up between them over the past few weeks, and certainly not over a careless remark made in passing.
And again, Snape made him wait until he was on the brink of apologizing. But this time he broke the impasse with the faintest suggestion of a smirk, and turned back to the beginning, picking up where he had left off. "And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed..."
Feeling that something truly wonderful had just been revealed to him as well, Remus let himself be lulled by the smooth rich tones of Severus' voice. It was not long before he was nodding in his chair, the exhaustion of his recent change pulling him toward fanciful dreams of luminous beings whose voices shaped the very Earth and everything it contained.
Glancing up a little while later, Snape saw that his companion was sleeping soundly, the Firewhisky at his elbow almost untouched. Good. That is one vice he can well do without, he thought with satisfaction.
Making to shut the book, he paused as another line caught his eye, and read it slowly aloud, more to himself than the oblivious werewolf: "And thou, Melkor, shall see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined."
He wondered, as he closed the book and rose wearily to go, what twisted theme could have produced the likes of Voldemort, or the dread curse of lycanthropy, and what possible good could come of such things. Yet there was a small comfort to be had in the notion, foolishly romantic though it sounded, that it was all working toward something better: that benighted creatures such as he and Remus had a place and a purpose in the greater scheme of things, even if it was unseen by them.
Perhaps that purpose would become clear to him soon enough. The gift of the One to Men was death; and soon, very soon now, he would claim his gift.
The end had come suddenly, violently, and without warning. Voldemort must have discovered somehow that his "spy" was a double agent; Severus never heard a word about the coming attack until it was already under way.
Dozens of lives were snuffed out in the course of the battle, which was brutal but mercifully brief. Many a debt was settled on the field; Neville Longbottom killed Bellatrix Lestrange, only to fall to Lucius Malfoy, who in turn was brought down with extreme prejudice by the combined efforts of the Weasley family, minus Percy, who fell fighting for the other side.
Remus had sought out Peter Pettigrew in the fighting, and sustained severe injuries from the treacherous rat's silver hand, giving nearly as good in return. But they had been swept apart in the confusion before they could settle the issue.
Remus learned afterward that Wormtail had finally found his Gryffindor courage, and had died as his rat-self in Voldemort's fist, providing the distraction Harry needed to cast the spell that finished the Dark Lord once and for all.
The list of casualties was heartbreaking. Minerva McGonagall, who was frozen in cat-form by an enemy spell and set upon by Death Eaters transfigured into coyotes. Argus Filch, who--devoid of magic and completely vulnerable to it--had nonetheless managed to take several Death Eaters with him, using brute force and the same uncanny senses that had told him when a student was out of bed or out of bounds. The centaur, Firenze, who had calmly predicted beforehand that he would not survive the battle, but had insisted on fighting alongside his human friends. Nymphadora Tonks, whose body almost went unrecognized in its natural, rather nondescript form. Poppy Pomfrey, killed while ministering to the wounded. Hagrid had survived, but wept openly for the old boarhound, Fang, who had proved not such a coward after all.
Draco Malfoy--branded with the Morsmordre not a fortnight before--had astounded attacker and defender alike by breaking ranks and tearing into his fellow Death Eaters. Both Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle had been among his victims, and he might have done a great deal more damage, had his own father not decided the matter swiftly and mercilessly. No one could say why he had done it; it seemed likely that they would never know.
And Severus? He, too, had fulfilled his debt.
Remus found him after a long and dismal search, and his heart sank as he caught sight of the familiar mass of greasy hair, gummed with blood and the vile products of unthinkable curses.
No fewer than ten Death Eaters lay scattered in a rough circle around him, all dead; all marked with the signs of terrible spells for which Remus had no name. Dark spells, perhaps. Better not to know.
Kneeling beside the man he had come, too late, to think of as a friend, Remus gently turned him face-up. His sensitive nose told him that it was all over, even before his eyes had catalogued the appalling damage that had been done to every part of Severus' body; any one of a dozen gaping wounds should have proven fatal, but there was no way they could all have been inflicted simultaneously.
The relentless force of will that had sustained Snape through more than three years of perilous undercover work, the Cruciatus Curse, sleepless nights, a job that he hated, and who-knew-what private demons, had driven him to almost superhuman feats before he'd fallen.
But he had still fallen.
He was only forty years old.
At least he died fighting, Remus thought wretchedly, and not writhing on the ground at Voldemort's feet. That was something. But it was cold comfort; with a terrible sense of selfish guilt, Remus found himself thinking as he gathered up the cold, still form and made his halting way back to the others, That's it, then. They're gone now, all of them.
I really am the last one.
As it happened, Remus's fortieth birthday fell on the night of a full moon. And for the first time since he could remember, he got to see it rise.
Standing not far from the Whomping Willow, just beyond the reach of its branches, he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up and experienced a moment's cold, sweaty panic as the great silvery disk edged over the horizon...
...followed by a euphoric sense of elation when nothing happened.
"It worked," he breathed, and threw his arms out, laughing madly as he spun in wild circles. "Thanks be to Merlin, Harry, it worked!" It was the first time he'd really laughed since before the battle. It felt marvelous.
"Of course it worked," Harry said with a chuckle. "You knew it would. You didn't transform last month, either."
"Yes, but I couldn't be sure, you know--not until I'd actually stood outside, under the moonlight. Not until I'd seen her for myself." He blew the moon a kiss, and marveled at how beautiful she was: not really a frightening thing at all, he thought, only big and bright and impossibly far away. He could almost fancy that she smiled benignly down on him, now that he no longer shrank from her in fear.
But, delighted though he was to be free of the curse at last, inevitably his thoughts turned to the one who had made it possible, and a touch of melancholy tempered his high spirits.
Severus had had no living family, so it had fallen to Albus to go through his effects; among them had been records detailing an improved version of the Wolfsbane Potion: one that not only preserved the mind of the werewolf when the moon rose full, but prevented the change altogether. The formula had been nearly ready for testing when the Death Eaters had attacked, and by following Severus' orderly procedural notes, a team of Ministry potions experts had managed to complete the job a few weeks afterward.
Remus would still have to take the stuff every month for the rest of his life, and it tasted just as disgusting as the original. But his body would be his own, the moon no longer his mistress. He was free, and so was every other werewolf in the wizarding world.
He only wished he could have shared that triumph with his friend. Severus had been given a hero's funeral, posthumously awarded the Order of Merlin, First Class, for his valor in battle and his final sacrifice. But to Remus, his greatest achievement would always be this: the one that he had never told anyone about, hailed as a breakthrough today, but ultimately just a footnote in the annals of potion-making.
"Remus? What's the matter?" He came back to himself and smiled at Harry, who had not quite come to understand and might not for a long while. He was young, yet, and had never managed to settle his differences with his moody, cantankerous Potions instructor. But he was a bright boy. He'd work it all out, eventually.
"Nothing," he said reassuringly. "Just... remembering old friends."
"Ah." Uncomfortable with his own grief for those who had been lost, Harry quickly changed the subject. "Did you ever figure out what that paper was?"
"Actually, no." Remus reached into his battered coat and pulled out the mysterious missive. It had been found among Severus' papers--in an envelope with his own name written on it--but to all appearances, it was only a blank sheet of parchment.
"There has to be some trick to it. Like the Marauder's Map," Harry stated for the umpteenth time. "He hated that map... this is his parting shot to you, I just know it."
"I'm inclined to agree with you, about the first part, at any rate." Remus frowned at the stubbornly blank surface. He'd tried everything he could think of and smiled slightly as he recalled Harry's description of Snape's frustrated attempts to break the Map's secret. A parting shot, indeed... but he felt certain that he was meant to crack this one, and that when he did, what was revealed would be more than just a few clever insults.
He turned the problem over in his mind, feeling there had to be a connection somewhere--the potion, the parchment, their conversations in the library--
Struck by a sudden inspiration, he turned back to the rising moon and held the parchment up, letting the silvery light shine through from behind.
"I'll be damned," he breathed, a grin stealing its way across his face at what the moonlight revealed. "Of course. Of course, I should have guessed..."
"What is it?" Harry walked around behind him, looking up at the parchment with a frown. Faint, shimmering letters had appeared on the surface, growing clearer and more distinct as they watched. But the letters were not those of the English alphabet, nor of any language spoken by any people on Earth, Remus knew. They were the Tengwar, the invented runic characters of the Elves of Middle-Earth.
"Moon-letters," he explained. "Runes that can only be seen when the light of the moon shines behind them--the light of a full moon, in this case, I should say. Severus must have worked out the process based on Tolkien's description of them." He squinted at the intricate flowing script, trying to piece together what it said. "A simple enough concept, really; I'm surprised no one has done it before."
"Can you read them?" Harry blinked up at the obscure lettering, clearly not quite able to reconcile such a beautiful piece of work with the surly, snarling Dungeon Bat who'd been the bane of his existence for nearly seven years.
"Half a moment," Remus muttered, frowning thoughtfully. "They don't work quite the same way as our alphabet, much more subtle... I wish I had my books to hand..."
But he remembered enough, and with a few minutes' study the meaning came clear. He felt a lump form in his throat and had half a mind not to share the message with Harry. But he knew he'd never hear the end of it if he didn't and perhaps it would be appropriate, after all, to remind the young man that books were not to be judged by their covers.
Clearing his throat, he read gruffly:
Professor Severus Snape presents his compliments to Mr. Moony, and expresses his hope that, with regard to the matter which will have rendered this message visible, the intrusion of his abnormally large nose into said gentleman's business has not been taken amiss.
Furthermore, he begs Mr. Moony to raise a glass to the memory of the 'Greasy Git' when next he sits before the fire and contemplates mortality, and bids him a long and prosperous life.
'Behold! We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world; and beyond them is more than memory.'
For the next few heartbeats, all was silent. And then Harry said in a very small voice, "Snape wrote that?"
"Professor Snape," Remus corrected automatically, blinking rapidly several times as he folded up the parchment and tucked it carefully away. "Didn't seem the type, did he? But he always was full of surprises."
"Yeah. Yeah, that he was."
Harry glanced back up at the moon, and then turned to Remus with a smile. "So...what d'you reckon you'll be doing now?"
Good question. What do you do when the war is over, and you're the last one left, and you've just been handed a life you thought you could never have?
He draped his arm around Harry's shoulders, turning them back toward the castle. "Now? Now I expect I'm going to go out and find a job... finish fixing up Grimmauld Place in my spare time... perhaps go out on a few dates, eventually. When I've worked up the nerve." He chuckled. "And I believe I'm due for a mid-life crisis. Perhaps when I've put a bit by and updated my wardrobe, I'll buy myself a brand-new Firebolt and give you youngsters a run for your money...."
"I'd like to see you try, old man!"
Their laughter echoed off the walls of Hogwarts Academy, following them through the rooms and down the hallways of the aging castle on their way to Gryffindor Tower. Several students out past curfew paused in their mischief to wonder at it; figures in paintings shook their heads or smiled indulgently before returning to their dreams of life in three dimensions.
And somewhere, beyond the circles of the world--wrongs forgiven, old enmities left behind--a small group of friends remembers, and loves, and patiently awaits the arrival of the last one...keeper of their living dreams, until his days are ended.