Remus worked up a smile and ran his thumb around the opening of his empty bottle of butterbeer. It was disconcerting to glance up and see Sirius grinning at him like he’d been doing all afternoon – he thought to himself that he would never get used to it. I watched him die. And yet, here he sits.
Sirius’s friendly jab was not lost on him, and Remus did indeed feel like an old man. He cast a quick gaze around the room, as he couldn’t keep his eyes away from his hands or shoes or the last drops of butterbeer sliding around the cool, clear bottom of his bottle for very long; even the lines in Sirius’s face had softened, and the influence of rancid, rotten dementor’s breath from many years in Azkaban had all but erased from his appearance. Remus had already heard that Cliodna’s Clock had a funny effect on people, tending to quench the appetites of the vain. Sirius didn’t generally care much about his looks, but Remus supposed that his friend must have disliked looking so much older than his best friend. Over time, Cliodna’s Clock had managed to make certain citizens look younger if they wished, but left just as many people alone.
James was like a younger brother in comparison, despite the silver robes he wore that matched Sirius’s. And next to James, folded next to him on the sofa, Lily was almost child-like in a satin lavender thing, red hair tumbling over her shoulders as she leaned into her husband.
Tonks was silent, unable to add anything to the conversation. She went mostly unnoticed by James, but Lily’s eyes darted to her every other minute or so, curious. Sirius knew her well, being her cousin, and seemed perfectly at ease to be in her company. There were a few short weeks in Tonks’s life when she would have loved the opportunity to exchange words with Sirius again, to seek the flash of comprehension in his eyes when he saw the way she looked at Remus. He was a comrade of sorts, even going so far as to mention Tonks to Remus when she wasn’t around, talking her up. But now she was inching away from him like he was a disease, her face flushing of blood whenever he spoke.
And Lily Potter! It was almost too insane to believe that the famous Lily Potter could actually be younger than Tonks. She was somewhat taller than Tonks, and both women were quite young, but Tonks kept going back to Harry over and over in her mind. Harry, who looked every bit like James. Harry, who resembled a fraternal twin more than a son. Somehow, she’d always pictured them to be older – more like her own parents. To watch Lily smooth her dress with two pale, slender hands and then lift her attention to James, smiling sweetly with a face untainted by age – so unlike Andromeda – it was more than Tonks could stomach. Both she and Remus stared at their knees while the other three went on talking as though nothing were amiss.
James was laughing, the high echo of it ringing around the perimeter of his living room. Behind him, a framed picture of his parents, who lived in a flat above their bakery, shuddered against the wall. Paint chips showered down around it, completely ignored by the Potters, but Tonks was arrested as she watched. James’s laugh was a phenomenon that electrified the house, making things move. If he brought a fist down upon the table, complexion burning from mirth, the walls creaked and groaned and doors clicked open. Tonks could hear a bedroom door squeak as it broke away from its frame, fanning out into the hall.
And when there was a respite, a thoughtful frown with five pairs of hands clasped in their laps while the clock continued to tick, everything else was still. The elder Mr. and Mrs. Potter froze behind their frame on the blinding white wall, ceasing to move. A moment later, when Sirius or James issued words into the atmosphere, inviting darkness into the conversation as they mentioned Lord Voldemort or the impending races, a swell of wind would pour through the house. Windows would shut. Decorative rugs on the floor would curl up into themselves, rolling and rolling until they were obscured by tables. Tonks and Remus followed the spidery hands of the clock as they ticked, going forward and backward in reaction to the emotions in the room.
Sirius occupied a wooden chair angled so that he could view everyone at once. Remus remembered their years at Hogwarts and how Sirius had preferred to sit alone on the bench across from James, Peter, and himself in the Great Hall during meals. In the common room, he chose to seat himself before the fire while his friends draped themselves over various chairs, all for the advantage of facing everyone. Because of the massive volume of energy he exuded, he liked to see and talk to the whole world at once, easily registering their reactions with the sweep of his eyes, without having to crane his neck. “What d’you think, Remus?”
Tonks clutched her husband’s wrist, only halfway listening. Remus, on the other hand, wasn’t listening at all, and didn’t seem to have heard Sirius.
“All right, Moony?” James prompted.
Remus’s head snapped up, his focus locking on the smirking boy. Man, he corrected to himself. When he was twenty-one himself, he never regarded his mates as ‘boys’. He was a man and they were men – strong and confident and self-assured. But now, sitting beside a woman who was born when he and his friends were thirteen and James was breezily calling him by his childhood nickname, the world felt slightly tilted, logic sliding far away from them. He could feel in the way Lily glanced from him to Tonks that she was scrutinizing their age gap. He could feel in the way Tonks gazed steadily back at her that she was scrutinizing the age gap between her husband and his friends, waiting for Remus to revert to being an adolescent himself. Maybe if she peered closely enough, he would slip back into his past life, the one he shared with these people before she was around.
All Remus could think about was the fact that he couldn’t stop looking down on James in the same way he often looked down at Harry, a former student, and how much James would resent it if he knew. They would never know how young they really were, because they wouldn’t be able to look back at themselves in hindsight like Remus could. But then again, they’d never stopped living, had they? Even though they were dead, they still continued to be, however far away from their friends, and had been around in one way or another just as long as Remus. Perhaps their physical appearances were too misleading and he would have to find a way to see what he wanted to see.
“I’m fine,” he said, and a lamp bolted to the floor began to rattle.
White noise started to dissipate from where it had been buzzing within his ears, making the voices much louder and harder to ignore. Sirius had already forgotten the strange glazed blankness in Remus’s half-lidded eyes. “Wouldn’t it be fun if we all went for it this year? Now that we’ve got old Remus back?” He winked at Remus as though reminding him of a hilarious joke they shared.
“This would not be a good year for it,” Lily replied quietly. “Too many new people.”
“Oh, come on.” Sirius scooted to the very edge of his chair, focusing wholly on Lily now. “Surely you of all people haven’t gotten scared.” He smiled widely, eyes narrowed to taunt. “Nervous, Lily?”
“Of course she isn’t nervous,” James cut in, applying Lily with a crooked smile. “You don’t win the races thirteen times by second-guessing yourself.”
Lily looked like she wanted to sigh.
Or maybe everyone already sees what they want to see, Remus was thinking to himself, still tangled in his internal troubles. Maybe what I see isn’t what Dora sees, or what Sirius sees, or what James sees. He tried to wrap his head around it, seemingly thousands and thousands of miles away from where his wife sat next to him. In her own head, she dwelled on Teddy and wondered if it was better or worse that she hadn’t had as much time with him as Lily and James had gotten with Harry. They’d been able to store up a year’s worth of memories with their son before being ripped away from him.
Lily, ironically, was thinking the exact same thing.
“How about it?” Sirius went on, pushing a lock of black hair away from his face. “Me, Lily, James, and Remus, all competing in the Devil’s Duel. Or maybe just the three of us men. It’ll be an escapade like the old days!” No one mentioned the hole in that memory, the missing person no one dared speak of.
“I hate competing against Lily,” James remarked. “It means I always have to make myself an easy target in the first four rounds. I won’t go against her head-to-head.”
“You don’t make yourself an easy target,” Lily scoffed. “It’s not by chance that I always throw you out.”
Sirius looked ready to object on James’s behalf, but James shook his head. “It’s true. In June, nothing comes between Lily and that Portkey. I just have to remember to stay well out of her way.”
“To be honest, I don’t think I like you much in June,” Sirius said to Lily with a yawn, stretching his arms behind his head. “You get all pinched and uptight and the house shakes too much.”
Lily’s eyes were dark, the corners of her mouth turning down. “You’d be on-edge, too, if you had a son at home and winning was the only way to see him.”
The lamp next to Tonks flickered to life, blown-glass bulbs glowing radiantly. She stared hard at Lily, who suddenly couldn’t look at her anymore, and the two of them became aware of something instant and painfully obvious that was spread thickly between them. The tension between the two women was invisible to everyone else, especially Sirius.
“Well, you’ve seen him plenty more times than James has. Maybe it’s your turn to sit out, let us have a go. I’m sure James and Remus would like to see Harry again, too. I know I would.”
Tonks and Remus fixed Sirius with icy glares, but he didn’t take notice. He was bright-eyed and rigid with excitement, one hand gripping the armrest while his other was caught between currents in the air, pointing at nothing. “It could be like an Order reunion, you know? We’ve got the Prewetts, the McKinnons, and most everyone else. We’ve even got Mad-Eye now.”
“Are you suggesting that Mad-Eye and all of your old friends fight against each other in a tournament where one person will end up dead?” Tonks snapped before she could bite back her tongue.
Sirius was momentarily annoyed, but it passed. “What else is there to do here, Tonks?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Her tone dripped with sarcasm. “Maybe grow up?”
“Dora,” Remus murmured, trying to make his voice sound soothing rather than stern. He tried to capture her hand with his fingers, but she sensed his allegiance to his friends and pulled away. Sirius, James, and Lily fell quiet. Remus was still annoyed with Sirius, but he was also embarrassed that Tonks hadn’t been able to control her temper. What would James and Lily think of her now? What would she think of them? Before he could try to peel away the damage with a joke and a laugh and a tweak of her chin, she was standing up. She turned her face away from him, the muscles in her jaw visibly taut.
“I’m going for a walk.”
Lily pursed her lips, flitting between disapproval and sympathy. James watched Tonks go, surprised and confused, but Sirius waved his hand at Remus as though to signify that it was no big deal. The latter blushed with shame as Tonks walked briskly to the door, accidentally tripping over one of the rolled-up rugs in her haste to leave. She gave it a solid kick before flinging the door open and slamming it shut behind her.
“Let her tire herself out,” Sirius advised lazily, flicking his wand at the window. The curtain shifted aside, allowing him to see his cousin as she stormed down the garden pathway and down to the main road. Dark splotches splattered against the pavement, a warm rain stripping through the ends of Tonks’s hair and shoulders until she had marched out of view. “She needs a few minutes to hate everyone. Sometimes all’s you want to do is feel sorry for yourself while no one’s looking.”
Remus glared sharply at him, and Sirius had the good sense to shut up. James, however, said, “I think you should go to her.” Lily nodded in agreement.
Remus was going to do it anyway, of course. He gave them all an apologetic smile, not quite sure if he truly felt apologetic at all. He waved and turned to follow in Tonks’s footsteps. “Thanks for tea, Lily.”
The rotund, squat little man held one hand on top of his head to keep his bowler hat from flying away, hurrying quickly out the back door of Merlin’s cabin just as Albus Dumbledore popped into the parlor.
“Who was that?” the inquisitive voice drifted.
“Ah. I’m sorry that I missed him.”
Peter shivered, his nervous system going up in anxious flames from the prospect of almost being in the same room as Dumbledore. For some reason, he always worried to himself while he was busy fleeing building after building as the old wizard approached that if Dumbledore were to lay eyes on him, and speak to him, that he would lose the small sort of protection he’d been able to scrape up. That he would be sent in shackles over to the Grotta, where he would surely be killed within hours.
He could hear his name sometimes. It was in the rise and fall of Gibbon’s breathing, in the hoots and howls of Evan Rosier, Walden Macnair, Mulciber, Wilkes, and Bellatrix Lestrange. It whistled through tree branches and the cracks in the door of a cellar where Peter slept at night. He was supposedly permitted to find somewhere more respectable to live, or so he’d heard, but he wasn’t quite convinced. He’d been told many times that no one could kill him here. As long as he stayed away from the Devil’s Duel – and of course he had zero interest in doing such a thing – then he was safe. Free.
But he wasn’t, really.
By day, he haunted the abandoned warehouse in the small stretch of woods Cliodna’s Clock offered. This was the destination he escaped to after the near-miss with Dumbledore. Through the dirty windows smeared with greenish grime, he could squint his eyes and view the tail end of Winter Walk. Snow always fell thickly here, sparkling white grit rolling in sheets along the avenue. As long as the warehouse itself didn’t move, it provided a decent cover from prying eyes. In his mind, there were always prying eyes – judging him and following him wherever his back turned, waiting for him to fall asleep so that they could reach out and –
The face appeared after the voice, one of his eyes disfigured from a streak of mud on the window. He was cupping his elbows with his hands, shaking from cold. If Peter had been in a mood to notice, he might have wondered how Igor Karkaroff hadn’t become immune to cold after all of his years in the far north.
Peter disappeared from the window, shrinking back into the corner with silent, watchful steps. He could hear Igor’s hand trying at the door and knew it wouldn’t be long before he found a way in. No matter how many defensive spells he cast, or how many barriers he tried to place between the rest of the world and himself, they were flimsy and easily penetrated. This wasn’t due to a lack of skill; Cliodna’s Clock was unrelenting in its punishments, always keeping him on the run. He still couldn’t believe he’d ended up here instead of the Grotta.
“Go away,” he called. “I – I was here first!”
“There’s enough room for two people in there,” Igor sputtered. Peter could hear him muttering incantations.
Peter finally opened up the door, taking care to search the surrounding trees for any signs of movement before conversing. “This place is mine. I see you’ve been here while I was out, leaving wrappers and rubbish all over the floor.”
“Please.” Igor looked older than ever, his silvery-black hair sticking to his forehead from sweat and melting snow. “Let me in, I’m freezing.”
“If you’re freezing, then get away from Winter Walk,” Peter hissed, the gap between them closing rapidly as he made to shut the door. “Summer is only two minutes from here. Follow the train tracks.”
“You know I can’t go there.” He was desperate, pushing against the door now. His weight could easily topple Peter to the ground, and after a strong shove he was inside at last. “You and I, we are alike. We are in the same ship, as they say.”
Igor looked puzzled. “Boat,” Peter repeated, lips curling with impatience. “The phrase is ‘in the same boat’. Listen, Igor, you can’t be following me around. If people see us together, they’re going to think we’re trying to – to resurrect something. We’ll get sent over to the Grotta.”
Igor’s eyes were wide and fearful. Despite knowing that all of their friends were either alive or decaying in the Grotta, neither man wanted to be there. They would not have been greeted with open arms, especially Igor. Igor had been killed by several of his closest friends, all because he’d been afraid and had tried to protect himself with secrets he leaked to the Ministry. He could try to lie, maybe, or hope that Rosier had been killed already, but he knew better than to hope. And what if Dolohov and Travers had come to the Grotta? They would surely want to get their claws on him, as well.
“I cannot afford to be associated with you,” Peter pressed. For a man with very little reputation, he was not afraid to sever his acquaintance with the only person he could identify with. It was all a part of a master design in which he could stop hiding under porches and in the attics of the unsuspecting, stealing food from clueless dolts like Bertha Jorkins and Xavier Rastrick. They were so batty that they would never notice a few missing morsels. “Get away, quickly, before someone sees us.”
Igor’s face grew hard. “You’ve already had your turn here.”
Both men withdrew their wands at the same time, poised to strike, but then a colossal wall of cloud fell across their shoulders and they became statues. Peter edged sideways to see that the warehouse had relocated, switching places with Gregorovitch’s wand shop. A black shadow swam out of the mouth of a house next door, coming to a pause in the middle of the street. Igor and Peter remained frozen, unable to do more than stare.
The clouds clustered over Severus Snape in a gravitational pull, drowning him in rain, but he seemed unaware of it. There was a sort of voltage emitting from him, a determination. He turned on his heel and walked quickly down the road while door after door from shops along both sides of the pavement clattered against their wooden frames. His black robes were as glossy as raven feathers from the wash of rain, his hands pallid against the grays and blacks that colored the air.
Perfect, Peter thought. A feral grin distorted his usually-fretful features. Before he knew what he was doing, he was out the door.
Remus held one arm over his eyes against the rain, moving quickly. Where had Tonks gone? After crossing the street, she’d vanished right into the blend of low-lying clouds and doorways that rumbled with thunder. He was hopelessly unfamiliar with the setting, and it didn’t help that he seemed to come upon the same exact shop that he’d just seen on a different street; almost like the buildings had picked up their feet and traveled in circles to confuse him. When he passed a cherry tree he was certain he’d seen somewhere else, he snapped off one of its branches and kept walking.
She wasn’t at the boardinghouse, which was where they were staying until they decided on something more permanent. She wasn’t in the pub, whose lights streamed through the windows and cast shimmering orange squares onto the wet road. Where else would she go? Who would she want to see?
And then he knew. Mad-Eye.
He considered turning back to find Sirius – as it was somewhat easier to look at him than James – and ask where he might find Alastor Moody. The thought of it made his stomach slosh with nausea. It was unfair, he knew. He was dead as well. It was just as odd for others to see him as it was for him to see others, in this world where the dead roamed. It was unfair for his hands to be shaking and coated with gooseflesh, for his lips to quiver with sickness when he imagined Lily’s unnerving green eyes and James’s messy hair.
They belonged somewhere else, didn’t they? Somewhere unreachable, where Remus could fondly recall their memories. But not in Remus’s physical world, where he could touch them, see them, speak to them. He’d been thrust into their company much too fast and now his head was spinning with dizziness…
Lily and James. Smiling and chatting like it’s okay that they’re twenty-one, like they don’t even notice the gray in Remus’s hair or the creases in his forehead and around his eyes. Like they don’t notice how eager Sirius is to pretend he’s been here for years and years and years; like this is the perfect place to be and there’s nothing left on earth that he should miss.
Someone should be held accountable for this. Maybe Sirius wasn’t bitter and maybe Lily and James preferred to pretend that the person responsible for their deaths had evaporated into thin air. What none of them knew was that when Remus formed a grudge, it was extremely difficult for him to overcome it. He could feel the weight of rage and sadness, but they strangely didn’t make him heavier. They made him lighter, made his steps swifter.
It took a few minutes for him to realize that he wasn’t looking for Tonks anymore.
Among the torrents of rain, there was a black shadow floating down an alley, his shoulder-length hair familiar… Remus’s spine went stiff, his veins and skin and bones all clenching with stress. It can’t be. And right behind him, a shadow in his own way, someone Remus would recognize with his eyes closed was darting along after. A rat paddling through the sewers, looking for something sturdy to latch onto. Nearby, a cherry tree waved its branches against the windows of an apothecary, making rat-a-tat-tat noises. One of its branches had been snapped off, and a sparrow landed on the splintered flesh with two tiny feet.
It was as though the sky had opened up and dropped this person right into the palm of Remus’s hand, granting him exactly what he wanted. His heart was racing, his brain working in overdrive to process the flow of information it received. He couldn’t think, couldn’t rehearse. What would he have said if he’d been given the chance to think it through thoroughly beforehand? He didn’t know. All he knew was the weak chin, the pink-tinged eyes, the large front teeth curving over wasted, chapped lips. All for him.
“Excuse me, sir.” His voice was much lighter than he would have thought. It almost impressed him. “I’m looking for someone.”
The paddling rat froze with one foot hovering just inches from the ground, daylight dawning over him as he placed the voice at once. The two of them, always thrown together because Sirius and James often left them out while they were off being uproarious geniuses. Two boys playing Exploding Snap in their dormitory, helping each other with revisions, passing along the platter of breakfast toast. Exchanging glances when they were alternately teased by James and Sirius, innocently intended the teasing might be, and discussing it in whispers later. They were resentful and yet so grateful, the pair of them. They loved their friends like brothers, but it was a silent agreement that Remus would never laugh when James cracked a remark about Peter’s poor marks in O.W.L.s and Peter would never pretend to agree when Sirius treated Remus’s lycanthropy like it was some kind of grand adventure.
When he discovered Peter’s betrayal, it was worse than when he’d thought Sirius was guilty. It was worse than James and Lily’s deaths. There was no denying that they were supposed to be best friends, and when he had simultaneously lost all four of his closest friends on Halloween of 1981, Peter’s loss had hit him the hardest. He had gone for years feeling so unbearably alone, so full of grief that he hadn’t been able to save poor Peter. What could he have done differently? How could he have missed the symptoms that Sirius had switched sides? How could he have saved Pettigrew?
Peter slid against the brick exterior of a dilapidated tavern, trapped. His irises were swallowed up with pupil, fingers knotting together, tongue dry as a bone. When he spoke, he almost sounded relieved.
“Are you going to kill me, Remus?”
Remus pondered this, head cocked to the side as he surveyed his old friend. Pettigrew was much the worse for wear, his hair falling out in so many places that he was mostly bald with only a few sparse patches left. The lapels of his jacket were chewed – Remus suspected Peter had done it himself, probably from anxiety – and his long, fang-like teeth were severely yellowed.
“You know I can’t do that, Peter. But come with me, I have some friends who would love to try. Between the five of us, I’m sure we can manage something.”