Interlude (1): Alpha
Remus woke up at dawn the morning before the full moon. He was glad to be out of a dreary series of dreams in which he was trapped at Hogwarts, going into each classroom and begging his students for gold while Dora Tonks looked on, dressed in fine robes that bore the Black family crest. The morning wasn't good--there was a sharp pain in his back where a rock had been poking him, and of course the pain of the transformation was approaching--but it was, at least, a relief.
He pushed the images away, forcing himself to think about anything but Dora or what had happened yesterday. His new companions would not take kindly to moping over humiliations. He was now meant to be outraged instead, and if he couldn't muster outrage, it was better to let it go entirely. He'd managed to find a few of the gathering werewolves last night, but no one seemed to know anything about Fortescue, or to have much interest in discussing the state of the war. Most of them were more talkative about such things in their solitary lairs; he supposed it said something about Fenrir's expectations that they policed themselves and one another so fully when they were together. After awhile, he'd left them, thinking he ought to try for some rest if he was going to make it to the Burrow for Harry's birthday the day after the full moon.
It really wasn't as difficult to sleep outside as he'd thought it might be. The forest had a clean look about it in the summer, lovely in its way. It wasn't dark and ancient, like the Forbidden Forest at Hogwarts, but it had its own secret ways and paths, and Remus knew it would be a long time before he learned them all. Had he been brought here when Greyback meant to bring him, he would have long since mastered it all, but Mum and Dad had followed him in, beaten Greyback off, and pulled him back into the world of humans. He thought the trade eminently worthwhile.
Something splashed a few inches in front of him, and he rolled further under the rock. "D'you mind?" he called up.
"Sorry, Lupin!" a teenage boy's cracked voice said. "Forgot you was sleepin' under there! It was empty before."
"Every day for two weeks, Alderman?"
The boy laughed and jumped down, fastening the tattered jeans he'd scrounged from someone's clothesline. He landed in a crouch across from Remus, his newly sharpened teeth bared in a grotesque approximation of a smile. "C'mon, it's moon day. 'Aven't you got a bit of blood in your head? I always do." Alderman bounced around, pup-like, and did a clumsy sort of roll in the bluebells, springing up with an obnoxious amount of energy. "I caught two rabbits. I'm going to cook one for breakfast. Do you want the other? You could have the other."
Remus sat up, rubbing his back. "If you don't mind," he said. "I suppose I could do with something to eat."
Alderman scrambled up to the top of the rise and brought down two bloody carcasses, badly skinned but smelling disturbingly enticing. He tossed one of them to Remus. "Can you make fire?" he asked, waving his hand. "Greyback can, but 'e won't teach us, and I didn' steal no matches."
"Greyback has a wand?"
"Sometimes. I reckon 'e broke it; 'e 'asn't done it for a while."
"Well, I don't have mine, either. Are you wizard or a Muggle, Alderman?"
"Wizard-born," Alderman said casually, scrounging for a flint in a pouch he drew from one of his pockets. That this was one of the less important distinctions in the pack always struck Remus as odd. "Never did know any of that, though. Greyback doesn't like it."
Remus let him go on talking while he got a spark going from the flint, mainly about his odd collection of misperceptions about wizards and his casual dislike for the parents who had long ago abandoned him to the wood. This took quite awhile, and was interspersed with frustrated howls as sparks refused to fly, but he undoubtedly completed the task more quickly than Remus could have done. If worse came to worse, Remus could have Conjured flames wandlessly, a skill he'd mastered long ago, but he didn't think he could trust Alderman not to pass this intelligence on to Greyback. Instead, he dressed the rabbits a bit more cleanly and spitted them on sharpened sticks, which got enthusiastic approval from the boy.
They seared the rabbits quickly, browning the meat on the outside, but leaving it cool and red on the inside. Until this month, Remus had made every effort to overcook his meat, to never develop the ever-lurking taste for fresh meat, but breaking the habit of a lifetime had taken less than three meals.
"Thank you for breakfast," he said, tipping the still-spitted rabbit in Alderman's direction.
Alderman shrugged beneficently, then tore a large chunk of meat from his rabbit. "Figured you might be hungry, and I had plenty of time," he said, the meat dangling from his mouth. He sucked it in, chewed it slightly, and swallowed it with a huge gulp. "You should learn to hunt, though. Greyback won't let us just feed you forever, you know."
"I'm quite aware of that."
Alderman laughed and ripped more meat from the animal. "You talk like the bloody Prince a'Wales," he said.
"I'm sorry. This is just the way I talk."
"No, it's funny. Talk more."
"I'm not entirely certain what to say to that."
This brought a howl of laughter, and Alderman fell onto his back, rolling side to side on the forest floor. He sat back upon his haunches, dusted off what was left of his rabbit, and started to eat again. "'S my firs' time changing with the pack," he confided. "Reckon I'll be the runt, unless you are, as you've never hunted."
"I haven't been a runt for several years."
"Yeah, but you're new. I bet the others try to put you in your place. You change up big, then?"
"I seem to be an average sized werewolf, according to the Registry."
"You're registered?" Alderman repeated, scandalized. "That's that bit where they lock you in a cage and pull your hair out and put your scats in a box?"
"More or less. You also bite a clay tablet for measurements."
"What'd you let them do that for?"
"It seemed reasonable at the time."
Alderman reached across the fire and shoved him lightly. "Didn't work for you though, did it? Still put you out, didn't they?"
I am here of my own accord, Remus reminded himself. I am here because I am needed. "Yes," he said, not needing to feign much of the expected bitterness on the subject of the Ministry of Magic. "They did."
"Bastards," Alderman said, sitting back. "You should've been here anyway. You ever change with a pack?"
"Not exactly." Remus picked at his rabbit. "Where... er... where do the females transform?"
Alderman leered at him. "I 'eard you had a taste for the ladies."
"No. I just wondered."
"Don't know. They've got their own business to tend, don't they?"
"We'll see a few before moon, but then they go off on their own. Greyback's the only one allowed to go where they are."
"I hear they fight over him. There was this one who always won, but he caught her with this other bloke, Garrison, at April-moon. He tore Garrison's throat. And he bit her face. Not so pretty any more, that one, and he won't touch her. So don't go near what's Greyback's. Friendly-like lesson." He jabbed his now empty spit into the dirt. "Don't know why Garrison got torn. Wasn't his fault that Greyback's bit of tail went wandering into our place."
"Well, I imagine Garrison had some input in the matter."
Alderman looked at him like he was out of his mind. "Have you been near them at moon? The females? Ever?" He shook his head. "Reckon old Garrison was gone the second she decided on him. Probably had something against him."
Remus's rabbit was less than half gone, but he found that he'd lost what appetite he had for it. "Where did you transform before? If this is your first time with the pack, I mean."
"With the boy pups at the cave," Alderman said, his eyes narrowing, all of his friendliness dissipating in an instant. "I don't reckon I should tell you where it is, if Greyback didn't." He looked at Remus suspiciously, then leaned forward. "He said you'd try to find out. He said you might try to kidnap us."
"You've already been kidnapped."
"Yeah. But we're home now, aren't we? Home with our own." He stood abruptly. "And we don't want to leave." He took the remains of Remus's rabbit, and stalked off into the tree shadows.
Remus put out the fire and buried the embers.
He had dreaded full moon days since he was six years old, spent them thinking of nothing but the oncoming pain, but in the two weeks he'd spent speaking to the scattered werewolves in Greyback's pack, he had the sense that the day was to be something of a holiday, and when he reached a rocky hill beside a stream and found several of the bitter men and women he'd met laughing and playing, he was unsurprised. Most of them looked tired, and some of them seemed to be forcing the carefree attitude, but they did, for the most part, look glad of company, and he supposed he must look that way as well. Alderman was crouched at the stream's edge, watching for fish. He didn't look up when Remus greeted him.
"Are you new?"
He turned. A girl of perhaps twelve years was sitting on a rock at the base of the hill, picking at the wildflowers. Half of her face had a kind of ethereal prettiness to it; the other half was a wreck of bite scars, the eye permanently closed and a deep furrow torn from her cheek.
She smiled. "Are you new?" she asked again. "You don't look like you're fresh-bit, but I don't think I know you."
"I'm not a new wolf," he said. "I'm Remus."
"Like from Rome, with Romulus!" she said happily. "And the wolf-mother. I remember a wolf-mother. My daddy used to read me stories. Did you change it to that?"
"No. Just a coincidence. What's your name?"
She looked at her toes. "I don't remember, really. I was very small when Greyback brought me here. Daddy called me Sweetheart. Greyback calls me Sweets." She ran a finger absently over her scars.
Remus recoiled. "What do you call yourself?"
She shrugged. "Just Sweet. I can't think of anything else."
"Sweet it is, then." He held out his hand.
She looked at it curiously, then sniffed his fingertips. "It's nice to meet you," she said, then looked back at her toes and shut him out.
Remus moved on into the clearing. Several of the men were huddled together, complaining bitterly about the hit wizards who had been hunting werewolves since Dolores Umbridge's legislation had gone through. They ignored him entirely when he tried to join them. Five or six women seemed to be rounding up a group of little girls who were running up and down the stream, sending up flashes of sunlight in sheets of water. Small boys--some as small as Remus himself had been when he was bitten--were playing a rough game of tag in the bluebells.
When silence came, it came in gradual installments. Remus noted in the back of his mind that the women had managed to catch the girls, and were headed solemnly back to the clearing, but he attached no importance to it. He noticed more prominently when the men stopped talking and got to their feet, and when little Sweet slithered down from her rock and wiped her hands on her dirty skirt. But he didn't turn around until he noticed that the boys had stopped playing.
And by then, he didn't need to.
By then, he knew what he would find.
Fenrir Greyback had returned.
Greyback waited for all eyes to turn to him, then stepped further into the clearing. "Lupin," he said, stopping a few feet in front of Remus and leaning forward aggressively. "Did you enjoy your visit to Diagon Alley yesterday?"
Several of the gathered werewolves took a few steps back, but looked on with guarded interest.
Remus later supposed he could have taken any of several approaches, but it didn't occur to him at that moment to say anything other than, "Did you?" He dropped his head to mirror Greyback's antagonistic stance.
Greyback froze, his eyes narrowing, his lip curling over his sharp teeth. Then he slapped Remus on the arm and laughed. "Glad to see Dumbledore hasn't got you totally tame." He turned around and waved his arm expansively. "I think you've all met Lupin? Been making the rounds as I understand it. He's one of your oldest brothers. Let's welcome him back proper, shall we?"
A few adolescents dropped out of the trees and crouched in front of Remus, peering at him suspiciously. Sweet waved from her rock, and one of the women batted her hand down.
Greyback looked them all, amused. "What? Hasn't he been a good brother? Has he been saying anything funny to you?"
Dead silence--Remus had been very careful to conceal his own political views with the werewolves he'd encountered so far--finally broken by Alderman's cracked voice: "He doesn't get his own food."
"Well, he'll have to learn then, won't he? Take him back to the pups for tonight. I got 'em a few rabbits and such to practice on." He pointed to a wooden crate at the treelike. It was rocking back and forth. Sounds of terrified squeaking and scratching came from it. Greyback offered this with the attitude of a grandfather bearing a particularly fine gift.
Alderman wasn't convinced. "But you said-- About kidnapping and such--"
"You'll take him blindfolded," Greyback said, closing on Alderman. "Am I going to have trouble with you, boy?"
Alderman immediately dropped to his knees and bared his neck, shaking his head violently.
Greyback tipped him back by tapping his shoulder with one extended foot. "You'll do as you're told, Alderman."
Alderman switched to nodding, and backed away into the circle.
"Good lad, Alderman," Greyback said to Remus. "His mother's in the Capture Unit. Used to be, anyway; reckon they've moved her now. She took one of my girls. So I took one of her boys."
Remus tried not to let his voice betray him. "How long have you had him here?"
"Ten years, give or take. Brought him when he was six. Same as you were." Greyback smiled with misty nostalgia. "Pity you didn't stay. It's a better life here."
"I'll remember that the next time I wake up with a rock sticking into my spine."
"You're soft. But we'll cure that fast enough." Greyback looked at Remus again, and shook his head. "Walk with me. Now."
Remus didn't have any desire to go anywhere with Fenrir Greyback, but he knew better than to refuse. The first refusal--when he'd first arranged an "accidental" run in two weeks ago, and had needed to pretend to resist the idea, or Greyback wouldn't have believed him--had met with a beating, and that had been nowhere near a full moon. He nodded and followed Fenrir into the woods.
They stopped at the top of a rise, were a stream cascaded down in a pretty, narrow waterfall. A large boulder sat on the ground nearby, and Greyback sat down on it. "You might be the scholar-sort, Lupin," he said, "but you're not the only one who can do some research."
"What do you mean?"
"That little twist I saw you with in London--she's an Auror."
"I know," Remus said. "She was questioning people about the Fortescue disappearance."
"And she just happened to talk to you?"
"You know... we're always suspects."
"A lady of my acquaintance says you've known her since she was born."
Remus didn't answer.
"She always have a--what'd you call it?--werewolf fixation?"
"I-- I don't know."
"Her parents leave her alone with you? Did she ask for stories?"
"Not that I blame you. She's pretty child, really."
"She's nearly twenty-four."
"You act so high and mighty, but you're no different than me. You and your bloody Little Red Riding Hood." Greyback sneered, then laughed. "I love that story."
"The woodcutter comes in and chops the wolf into pieces at the end."
"That's because he was stupid. Should've got the woodcutter first. That was my mistake with your parents. Damned clever, both of 'em. I should've known they'd find a way to fetch you. Should've lamed them first. Or maybe brought your mum in as well. She was a right fine looker, that one, and--"
"Don't push me, Greyback."
Greyback stood and shoved Remus back a foot. "I'll push what I choose to push. And if you think they'll follow you, think again--they think you're nothing but a hungry mouth that doesn't even know how to feed itself."
"I'm not after followers."
"This Auror... your Little Red. You lied to me about her. The person what talked to me said the pair of you were regular mates last year."
"Well, that was last year, wasn't it?" Remus said bitterly. "Now she's questioning me about crimes you committed."
"Ah, but see, that's not what's got me thinking," Greyback said, not even acknowledging the accusation. "D'you think I care that you had yourself a regular bounce, as long as she's not mine? No, what keeps sticking in my brain is, why did you lie about her?"
Remus felt that his mind was moving both too quickly and too slowly, grasping frantically for purchase as it was drawn down into a cold swamp. "It was none of your damned business," he said.
"That you're entertaining yourself with an Auror is none of my business, when I take you in and feed you?"
"I'm not." Remus reached for a lie, examined and discarded it, reached for another. Greyback was deep inside if he was getting information on Dora. Deep enough to have spoken to Dora's aunt, he supposed. "She..." He looked away. "She left me, all right? She thought I was going to get some of her family's money--thought Sirius would be perverse enough to leave the Black home with a half-blood werewolf--and when I didn't, she turned tail and ran."
Greyback nodded wisely, much as he had when Remus had told him the first lie. If Remus had any advantage here, it was that Greyback was not one of the world's great analytical thinkers. "Right," he said. "Of course. I should've guessed that right off. You probably waited for her to grow up, too, didn't you? Figured you could make yourself look normal. Just a fellow with his little woman. Showed you, though, didn't she?"
"That's why you should've just brought her in when she was young." He waited for a response which Remus didn't give, then shrugged. "Live and learn," he said. "You'll know better next time. We should get back to the pack. I take the little ones hunting on moon-days. They bring back lunch. Makes 'em feel like they're doing something. Reckon you'd best come along. Can't eat off Alderman's catches forever, can you?"
"I don't suppose I can."
Remus followed Greyback to the clearing, and there was a great deal of commotion as the younger children--who Greyback addressed collectively as "Pups!"--organized themselves into their own arcane system of priority. Sweet tried to move forward in line and was pushed back by a dark-haired girl, who was herself shoved aside by a boy who wore a rabbit's skull on a string around his neck.
"Lupin's going to come with us today," Greyback announced.
The children looked at him suspiciously, and moved closer together.
"I've never hunted before," Remus told them. "I'm sure you'll all be able to teach me a lot."
They relaxed a bit, though Greyback glared at him over their heads.
Sweet bit her lip. "I... I could show you where the foxes hunt."
The boy with the skull necklace pushed her aside. "The rest of us don't go for what foxes leave behind."
Greyback patted her head, never lowering his glare away from Remus. "There now, Sweets. I think you're a fine hunter, and you always bring back more than Blondin."
The boy, chastised, fell back into the group.
They spent the afternoon together, following the secret paths of the forest, crouching to sniff the ground. Greyback held them back from a fawn, as he saw hoof prints suggesting that adults were nearby, and he didn't judge them ready to take on and adult deer, "Leastwise, not until your teeth are in tonight, and then you'll be off safe in the caves."
Some of the children hunted with knives that they'd fashioned from bone; most simply used rocks. Rabbits were clearly the favorite prey among the pups, and they found at least four of them. Sweet casually grabbed one by its ears when it tried to rush by her and crushed its skull. Blondin, who had knife, cornered another in a depression under a rock.
Late in the afternoon, two of the girls (neither of whom had shared her name with Remus) found a nest of hedgehogs. They took four of them and would have gone back for the fifth, but Greyback stopped them. He reached out his hand and said, "Knife, Blondin."
Blondin handed over the knife without any hesitation.
Greyback handed it to Remus. "Make yourself useful," he said.
Remus crouched down, as the children had done, blocking the way out of the hollow where the animals had made their den. The last hedgehog was running in circles, terrified. All of his lessons in Care of Magical Creatures told him to calm it down, feed it, get it comfortable.
He reached down and grabbed it, ignoring the cutting spines. His blood dripped down his wrist.
He cut its throat.
The children cheered, and Blondin took his knife back. The dead hedgehog hung limply from Remus's bloody hand.
"They don't mind," Sweet said, taking it from him. "They expect to be eaten, you know."
"Very good," Greyback said. "Glad to see you're not afraid of a little blood."
They all tromped back to the clearing, the children repeatedly congratulating Remus on his first successful hunt (which made him feel obscurely proud of the dead hedgehog, although it disgusted him), and the children presented the day's kills to the adults, who began to dress them. Remus watched the whole process, dazed.
The blow came out of nowhere.
He was simply standing near a woman who introduced herself as Mag, watching her butcher his catch, when pain exploded in the side of his head, and he fell to the ground. He caught a glimpse of Greyback hunching over him, a childhood nightmare that had never entirely gone away, and then there was sharp, tearing pain where his shoulder joined his neck.
The pack was watching.
"Challenge me in front of them again," Greyback said, "it'll be your face." He leaned closer, and Remus could smell his own blood dripping from the other man's mouth. His voice dropped to a whisper. "And if I catch you telling tales to your Little Red, it'll be your throat. And hers."
Lunch was unexpectedly pleasant, despite the fact that his shoulder throbbed and burned all afternoon.
Fenrir distributed all the food, and they were subjected to a disjointed speech about rights to blood and the "new power rising" that would give the Muggle world into their claws, but other than that, a passer-by would likely mistake it for a large family picnic. Remus had never been in a group of more than five werewolves before; unchained, he couldn't recall having been in a group of more than two.
The men and women he'd visited over the past two weeks in their solitary squatters' lairs had been surly and suspicious, questioning him harshly and removing him bodily on occasion. But here, they behaved with an odd courtesy, a rough code of manners that everyone seemed to recognize. Sweet, who was becoming a good deal more talkative and outgoing as moonrise approached, appointed herself his guide. Alderman laid aside his earlier mistrust and sat with them, telling epic tales of his own hunting prowess.
"He's lying," Sweet chided after a particularly adventurous tale of deerslaying. "He can't take a grown doe by himself."
"Can so!" Alderman flicked a bit of rabbit grease at her, and she put her hand up to block it. "Just ask Blondin; he ate part of it." He turned to Remus. "I think Sweet's sweet on Blondin. All the little girls are."
"I am not! That's not allowed. And I'm not little. Greyback says I'm nearly full grown."
Alderman leaned forward and sniffed. "You don't smell grown yet."
"Is that right? Wait for moonrise then. You can't smell proper yet, anyway. You'll see."
"You stay in your own place when the moon's round," Alderman said, backing away. "I don't fancy breathing through some new hole."
Sweet blanched abruptly and left their group.
"Girls. They don't understand." Alderman rolled his eyes. "You should eat the rest of that rabbit, Lupin, or you won't be able to do much more than sleep tonight."
"I haven't made a habit of eating heavy meals before transformations."
"And you don't eat during?"
Alderman shook his head in disbelief. "Don't that make you tired? Greyback says we'll be ill afterward if we don't eat hearty around the moon. So eat... it's good!" He gestured with a handful of greasy rabbit.
The meal went on all afternoon, and Remus ate until he felt sick (and obscurely drunk, though there had been no spirits involved). The others continued long after that point. The boys started some kind of game together--it seemed to involve stalking one another and dropping out of trees--but Alderman refused it self-importantly, reminding them that he was going off with the men this month. Sweet had come back and started picking leaves out of his hair, and when this was spotted, a woman ushered her away and swept her into a group of smaller girls, who were affectionately tugging one another's hair. Remus looked around and noticed that the clearing had become very clearly divided between men and women. Fenrir Greyback, who had been sitting silently atop the rocky rise for an hour, stood and came down. He went to the girls, looked at them, examining the older ones, then shrugged and left them as they were. He gestured to a woman of indeterminate age and she went to him and caressed his arms.
"Evvie, get 'em off to the caves." He pinched her bottom.
Evvie pinched him back flirtatiously, then went and corralled the girls, leading them off into the lengthening shadows.
Remus felt something warm on his thigh, and looked to see a small white hand resting there. A woman with sharpened teeth was beside him, looking at him with an unmistakable invitation. He touched her hand to move it away, but it seemed to remain in his own hand, and he thought of Dora, but it was somehow fuzzy and unreal.
"I told you to blindfold him, Mina, not rub him down." Greyback pulled her away and glared at Remus. He took a strip of cloth from her and wrapped it tightly around Remus's eyes, then shoved him off in a different direction. "Alderman, take him off with the little boys where he belongs."
There was some tugging and pushing, but Alderman was careful not to let him walk into any trees or rocks, and eventually he said, "Duck," and the smell of the forest changed into the smell of wet rocks.
The blindfold was removed. He blinked in the new dimness. It was a low-ceilinged cave, sloping down toward what looked from here like a large cavern. Boys were running in around them. A pair of them carrying Fenrir's crate nudged him aside. The animals inside the crate were utterly frantic.
His head was starting to clear from the strange drunken feeling. He looked at Alderman. "What...?"
Alderman nodded in a knowing way. "Told you, didn't I? Females. They'll stir your brains. You'll get a bit more used to them, but they'll always stir your brains this close."
"Remind me to listen to you next time."
"I will." He pointed down the slope. "You go on down there. I'm going with Greyback." He smiled nervously. "Reckon I'll be the runt," he said again.
"Be careful," Remus said.
"Are you careful when the moon's up?"
There was nothing to say to this, so Remus said nothing. He nodded to Alderman and headed down toward the cavern, where he could hear the boys shouting to one another. Before he went in, he glanced up at the entrance, and saw Alderman still standing there, bracing himself against the rock with one hand, a black silhouette against the twilight. He stayed there for a long time before Blondin and one of the other boys dragged him inside, apparently excited to have an adult with them.
"Come on!" the new boy said. "You should have a good spot, with lots of room!"
"And we still have to blood the rabbits," Blondin said, drawing his knife. They came upon the crate, which was now sitting beside an underground lake. A third boy tore off the boards and reached inside, pulling a rabbit up by its ears.
Blondin raised his knife, but didn't cut the rabbit. Instead, he cut his own hand, then cut the hands of the two boys nearest him. He stood expectantly in front of Remus.
"It's to make them smell right," Blondin explained, and rubbed his bloody hands over rabbit's coat, matting it. "Can't practice catching it if it doesn't smell right, can we? C'mon, everyone has to."
Remus offered his hand, and Blondin cut a thin line in it.
The rabbits were brought out one by one, covered in human blood, and set free in the cavern. Blondin howled after the last one and capered around the crate. "Let's meet the moon!" he yelled, and ran deeper into the cave.
The others followed quickly.
Remus looked at the crate, and at his hands. The smell of their blood hung rich around him and his stomach gave a powerful twinge.
Their voices came back from further ahead, echoing, giving human howls still, but soon enough...
One of the rabbits nosed back toward the crate, and Remus touched it, running his finger over the long, velvety ears. "I'm sorry," he told it.
It didn't care for his apology, and hopped away.
He followed the boys.
A cool breeze was blowing, and he found himself at the far side of the lake, where the cavern opened up to the sky in a narrow chimney. Tattered clothes had been scattered haphazardly among the rocks; Remus removed his own robes and set them in a hollow. The boys were gathered beneath the opening now--there were only six of them, he thought--sitting on their haunches, their heads upturned, waiting.
Remus joined them.
No one spoke while they waited. It was a solemn time, full of dread.
And then there
is pain, pain, and more pain.
Fire rips through him, his claws push through tender flesh, his spine stretches. Bones break in his face, rearrange themselves, sharpen. Skin grows rough, hair itches its way to the surface, and then all things rush into the mind... the rich smells of the cave, the scents of his packmates, the sound of scuffling animals in the rocks.
The pups collapse to the rock wall, panting, the pain passing, and the large wolf among them rises, stretching, knowing and feeling that it is alpha, that all is its for the asking.
There is a deep smell, the smell, the only one that matters.
He puts his nose to the ground, tracks it.
The pups rise, capering around him, and he swipes one of them off to one side. It bites playfully at him, then rolls over and bares its belly. The wolf ignores it.
There are only flashes now.
The blood-scent. Small creature, cowering among the rocks. Ripping flesh and cracking bone.
A drink in the lake. A fish. He eats the fish, though it isn't what he craves.
He eats another rabbit.
The pups catch a third, and tear it among themselves.
Another kill. And another.
There is a narrow shaft in the cave, and the wolf can hear faraway howling. He howls back. There is another scent here, but he can't hunt it. The pups jump on him and there is a game of sorts, and he forgets the other howls.
The game goes on, and it is rough, and one ear is bleeding, but it is only pup play. The wolf rests on the rock floor, and after a bit, the pups gather around him, and they are all asleep and then there
was pain again.
It was less severe than Remus ever recalled it without Wolfsbane potion--a sense of tearing, the crushing feeling of his skull pulling inward.
The boys rose around him, howling at the rude awakening. Blondin, who had a bruise on his face from the cuffing Remus had given him early in the night, looked at him with great admiration.
"You should come every moon," he said as they finished dressing.
"That's not going to happen," Fenrir Greyback said, coming down the slope from the cave entrance. "I think Lupin will be with us next month. If he'll be back, of course."
"I've nowhere else to be."
"Well, find somewhere to be other than here now, and stop harassing people between moons. Find your own spot. And you can bloody well feed yourself." He stood aside and waited for Remus to pass him, then grabbed him at the exact spot he'd bitten. "We aren't all pups," he said.
"Be back here next moon, Lupin. If you're not, I'll be looking for you, and you won't want to see me. You won't want to see me if you come and I found out you've been doing something you oughtn't, either."
"Honestly, Greyback, most of the time I won't want to see you, anyway."
Greyback punched the injury, and Remus was driven to his knees on the rocky ground. He stood and left the cavern.
He felt considerably less ill than he usually did and wondered (somewhat grudgingly) if Greyback might not have a point about eating heavily. He couldn't find any path that looked like a likely route back to the clearing, so he stumbled further into the forest. He saw none of the others.
When he'd gone far enough that he thought Greyback was no longer watching, he Apparated to a dingy back street in Diagon Alley, where Bill Weasley was waiting with an Invisibility Cloak.
"Lupin," he said, offering it.
"'Lo, Bill," Remus said, putting the Cloak on. "How are you?"
"I'm all right. We should wait here, make sure no one has trailed you."
Remus nodded--which he supposed was useless invisible--and sat down on a dustbin. Bill leaned against the brick wall and watched the crowd move by.
"Right, then," he said after five minutes. "No one's got an eye out for you that I can see." He paused. "Er... mate?"
"Look, I don't mean to be rude, but..." He bit his lip. "You might want to have a bath before you get in Mum's vicinity. I've a clean set of robes that will fit you as well, I think."
Remus felt his face go hot, but the Invisibility Cloak was hiding it, so he tried to keep his voice even. "Don't worry about being rude, I'd be quite grateful to have a bath. If I can borrow your wand, I can fix my own robes."
Bill didn't push it. He led Remus out on a main street, wending through the crowd toward a somewhat fashionable neighborhood near Gringotts'. He started rifling through his pockets for a key. "I'm hardly ever here," he muttered, entering a narrow hallway lined with tall plants. "I feel like I should have my own place, but I'm at Mum's most of the time anyway. Oh, here." He located his key and unlocked the door, then tapped it to undo the security wards. "Home sweet home."
He held the door open and Remus went in, shedding the cloak. Bill's flat was sunny and clean, filled with Egyptian treasures. A high wine rack stood between the windows, and a handmade wooden clock was mounted on the wall opposite the door. It had only two hands. The one which said "Bill" was just arriving at "home," and a delicate silver hand that said "Fleur" read "Mum and Dad's."
"Gift from Dad," Bill said. "When I told him Fleur and I were engaged, he made it."
"The bathroom is at the end of the hall, and there are towels in the cupboard. I'll go on ahead--the wards will set automatically after you leave, and you can just bring the key with you."
"I appreciate it."
"If you change your mind about the robes, feel free. The wardrobe's in the bedroom."
"Thank you." Remus started toward the bathroom, then turned around. "Bill, could you do something for me? Off the record."
"Greyback has maybe twenty children there--six little boys, a handful of girls, and some teenagers. I'd like to know where they came from."
"Wouldn't Tonks be in a better position--?"
"I don't want her anywhere near this. Greyback is watching her. He probably has eyes in the Ministry somewhere. As far as I know, he hasn't the faintest idea who you are."
Bill absorbed this for a moment. "Do you have their names?"
"Only a few. A boy about eight, called Blondin. A little girl who was taken so young that she doesn't remember her name; I'd peg her at about twelve now. And a boy of fifteen or so called Alderman. His mother was in the werewolf capture unit."
"That last one sounds familiar. I'll look into it."
Remus thanked him again, then retreated to the bathroom. By the time he'd finished cleaning up (being careful of the raw wounds), Bill was gone. He'd left a back-up wand on the kitchen table, and Remus did what he could with his robes. These were nearly a loss--he was down to patching the patches now--but he thought, if he was careful, they'd get him through two more months. It wasn't as though Greyback's people would be critiquing his wardrobe.
Feeling more human and further from Greyback's forest lair, he slipped the Cloak back on and went out, carefully locking Bill's door behind him. The best place to Apparate from was The Leaky Cauldron, as people Apparated in and out from there with some regularity, and no one was really noticed, so he made his way there, careful not to brush any strangers in the street. The mood was unnaturally gloomy, and he didn't think it was just the chilly fog that was still lingering on some streets. He passed Florean Fortescue's boarded-up shop, where a girl he vaguely remembered from the year he'd spent at Hogwarts was sitting on the steps, looking numb. Her dark hair fell in a dispirited, curly curtain, and her eyes listlessly scanned the street for whoever she was waiting for. An old woman was reading Witch Weekly near the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron, and Remus didn't see her turn the page at all. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused when he passed her.
The tavern was quiet as well, its tables full but its occupants engaged in quiet conversation. Remus slipped between two tables to head for the non-protected Apparition area near the fireplace, and had almost reached it when he caught sight of a small, hunched figure at a table. Her hair was still light brown, and the sunlight from the window above caught in it, making it glow.
He went to her.
One arm was stretched across a pile of papers, and her head was resting on it. Her eyes were closed lightly, her face troubled by whatever dreams were passing through her head. He crouched beside her, letting his hand hover over hers, drinking her in.
"Don't wake her up," someone growled.
Remus looked up. Mad-Eye Moody had pulled out the chair opposite from Dora, and was looking sternly at Remus, right through the Cloak.
"I wasn't planning to." Dora stirred in her sleep, and he lowered his voice and stood. "I should go."
Moody looked at her, then at Remus, and nodded toward a shadowy booth, picking up a newspaper for cover and heading toward it. Remus touched Dora's hair lightly--her face relaxed--then followed him.
"She should go home," he said.
"Yeah. You should try telling her that. The rest of us haven't got far," Moody muttered, his back to the room.
Remus sat on the bench against the wall. "What's happened to her?"
"From the looks of it, some fellow she fancies--for some reason--is mixed up with some dangerous business." He shrugged. "Also, she just came off a double shift. More Dementor attacks. I think she got a good dose of 'em, though she wouldn't say it."
"Make sure she gets some chocolate."
"Already done." He shook his head. "Anyway, the last one was up north, and she and her team came across Karkaroff when they finished up. Bloody idiot can't even do us any favors dead. Damned paperwork."
"They found him in a shack not far from the Forbidden Forest. Dark Mark, the whole works. I guess You-Know-Who didn't take his resignation."
Remus thought of Sirius's younger brother, Regulus, running from the Death Eaters. He'd fallen out of sight on a Friday--Sirius kept his ear to the ground, pretending that he was just "seeing what the stupid git thought he was going to pull," but he had been utterly frantic from the moment Regulus went missing--and had shown up again--in two pieces--shortly after the weekend. Karkaroff had lasted a year. He was apparently more clever than anyone had given him credit for. "What was he doing up there?"
"That's a question worth asking." Moody narrowed his normal eye (the magical one was continually scanning the room). "Dumbledore's wondering about it, too. Doesn't like it so close to the school, I think."
"And the Dementors are attacking there as well?"
"They're everywhere. Haven't been anywhere near the school, though."
"Well, that's good. Harry hates them."
"Don't think they're anyone's notion of a grand companion. Are you headed up to Molly and Arthur's?"
"Yes. It's Harry's birthday."
"Fill them in. I'll go up and report to Dumbledore."
"Stay with D... with Tonks until she wakes up, will you?"
"You're not fooling anyone, Lupin."
"Then I'd best get more practice."
With an effort, he stayed clear of Dora's table and went to the Apparition area, stepping out of the Leaky Cauldron and into the Weasleys' garden, shedding the Cloak as he approached the door. Molly was serving tea, and was less than thrilled with the turn of conversation, but once Remus had shared the information about Karkaroff, the talk naturally turned to the other disappearances. To his great alarm, Ollivander had apparently disappeared from his Diagon Alley shop without a trace yesterday.
Harry didn't appear to be having a particularly happy birthday--he was hit harder than Remus would have expected by news of Fortescue's disappearance--but he seemed centered and content to be with the Weasleys. After tea, the children went outside to play Quidditch, and Remus watched them for awhile, glad to see Harry a bit more cheerful. Before he left, Molly healed the bite wound on his shoulder without asking how he'd come by it.
"Thank you," he said. "I should get to Hogwarts. I need to report to Dumbledore. It's very, very good to be entirely human when I do it."
Molly nodded. "You know," she said carefully, "Arthur and I have been trying to get Tonks here for dinner. She's not eating enough and she's been sleeping at work. She needs some time off."
"I'm glad you're looking after her." Remus checked his shoulder. "Both of us, really. I appreciate it."
"I thought you might like to come and talk to her. She only wants to know you're all right."
"Remus, here, you're protected. No one should notice. I--"
"They'll notice, Molly. And she needs to move on. It won't help her if I come around while she's here."
"She doesn't want to move on. She loves you."
Remus looked out the window. Harry was walking along the path, his Firebolt over his shoulder. Ginny was flying overhead, diving playfully at him. Hermione was laughing. Ron was watching all of it with an odd expression on his face. Remus looked back at the table. "I shouldn't have let her."
"She didn't ask your permission." Molly smiled. "I think you should talk to her."
"I can't. I can't be with her." He stood. "I should go to Dumbledore now. I'll just say goodbye to the children."
"You should talk to her," Molly said again. "You owe her that much."
"I can't," Remus repeated. He thanked Molly again, said a brief goodbye to the children--Ginny dropped off her broomstick to give him a hug--and Apparated to Hogsmeade, letting his mind wander as he walked to the school, removing the Cloak only when he reached the shadows of the gate. Hagrid let him in, going on about his creatures, worrying about his classes, leaving him in the front hall as the sky reddened.
He tried to organize his thoughts as he went up to Dumbledore's office, but Molly's admonition kept trying to find its way into his mind. You owe her that much.
He thought of Dora in the Leaky Cauldron, her face taut and pale, the sun glinting in her brown hair, and he knew he couldn't see her again, couldn't be with her without really being with her.
But when he opened the door into Dumbledore's round office, she was already there.