No, It can't be true.
I'm not that lucky.
Padfoot's mind was a mess. His brain had simply stopped working. Could everything be so... easy? No. Those words... those words were only a coincidence... They HAD to be a coincidence.
Why shouldn't she be Cassandra?
It just felt... Wrong. Cassandra had always been a happy child. She had always been cheerful, talkative, sweet. This girl... Yes, she seemed to be sweet and kind, but... Missed that "something" that made Cassie be, well... Cassie.
Maybe she just grew up. After all, it's been fifteen years since you last saw her, so now she should be..
No. This girl couldn't be Cassandra. Cassandra was a bright, cheerful teenager, not a twenty-something, depressed and lonely woman.
Padfoot's heart sank.
He hadn't found Cassandra. She was still lost, and he was still alone.
Lost in his thoughts, the dog didn't notice that the girl had fallen asleep at some point during her breakdown and the sun was slowly rising on London.
Suddenly, something shifted beside him.
Oh. She's awake.
The animagus closed his eyes, pretending to sleep. He didn't want to face her, he didn't want to look at her in the light. A small part inside him still hoped that his saviour was Cassandra, and the destruction of that hope would have meant an unbearable pain in his heart.
The girl finally moved from her lying position, grumbling and huffing like an angry wolf. Padfoot heard a thud, and a long string of half-whispered curses echoed in the small room.
Don't look. You don't want to know what happened. You are sleeping. Sleeeeping.
Sirius Black, however, was a curious man, and just couldn't resist.
The scene in front of him was... interesting. Apparently, the girl had tripped on one of the books on the floor and had fallen on the camp bed, being immediately "attacked" by dozens of colorful cushions. Now she was struggling to get up, kicking like a mad horse and throwing pillows all around the room. After a couple of minutes the young woman finally managed to reach a sitting position and dropped her head in her hands, yawning loudly. Her hair was ruffled, and this made her look more like a tired lion rather than an ethereal ghost.
She was wearing a baggy white T-shirt, which partly covered her legs. Well, her leg and a half. Truth be told, Sirius felt a bit sick at the sight of the stump of her right leg: the bandages which covered it where red with blood, and the rest of the thigh was full of long, deep gashes.
Suddenly something clicked in Padfoot's mind: those were not normal cuts. For the second time in a couple of hours the dog was reminded of his school days, but this time hope was replaced by a sense of terror and dread.
If that girl was a Muggle, how had she managed to survive a werewolf attack?
With his heart thumping painfully in his chest, Sirius raised into a sitting position, whimpering when his weight shifted on his battered paws. The sound seemed to catch the girl's attention, who lifted her head and looked at him. Despite her face being as battered as her leg, and her pallor making her look older than she probably was, there was something in her that was able to partially hide her general unattractiveness.
Her eyes are really beautiful.
They are so..green.
Not Lily's green..
They look like two leaves of frozen sage...
Oh God. Ooooh God.
Those eyes were unmistakable. Legends had been written about them. Those were Remus' eyes. Those were Cassandra's eyes.
Sirius' heart was about to explode with joy and relief. He wanted to turn back human and hug tightly the young Maraudrette, never letting her go again. He wanted to lift her and swoop her in the air as he used to do when she was only a child. He wanted to take her hands and make her dance and laugh. He wanted to tell her that everything would have been alright, that now she was safe with her Padfoot. For the second time in twelve years, Sirius Black wanted to laugh.
But he couldn't. Not yet. He was an escaped convict after all, and probably even Muggles knew about his supposed crimes: even if Cassandra remembered him, which was highly improbable, she would believe him a mass murderer. He had to be careful and gain the girl's trust before even thinking about revealing his true identity. Still, at the moment he was a really happy dog, so he couldn't help but exult in a doggish way: he literally jumped on his not-so-little-anymore Cassie and licked every inch of her face, waggling his tail madly.
"Doggie! Agh!... Good morning to you too... Agh! Stop!". Cassandra laughed and tried to get free from the overjoyed Animagus. Her giggles, however, resulted only in making Padfoot's heart dance tip-tap in his chest, and the dog continued spreading his drool all over the poor girl's face.
They went on like this for almost half an hour, Sirius drooling and jumping up and down the bed and Cassandra laughing her strange, adult, raucous laugh. Eventually, Padfoot's heart calmed down a bit and the ex-soldier was able to get ready for the day.
"My Lord, doggie... I'm covered in drool! Well, that means you'll have to wait a bit for your breakfast. I'm going to have a shower, just... don't destroy everything, ok?". Wiping her cheeks in fake disgust, Cassandra turned and looked at the dog warily, as if expecting him to "assault" her again. She didn't need to worry: Padfoot was hanging off her words, his bright grey eyes filled with joy and love. Being the obedient puppy he had never been, the dog animagus sat down on the bed, observing intently every movement she made but refraining from doing moving anything about his tail.
Shooting him a crooked, slightly surprised grin, the girl reached for a strange black thing, which had the shape of a leg.
Despite the happy look on her face, it was clear that the girl was in pain. She was pale as death, with dark circles under her eyes and bluish, chapped lips. Padfoot could see her chest rising and falling with clear effort, and her limbs shaking slightly. She gingerly touched the drenched bandages which covered her stump, and soon even her white hands were red with blood. Sighing, the girl took a small metallic box from under her bed, she opened it and placed it beside her. Then, she proceeded removing the dirty bandages.
Sirius wanted to look away, but his muscles were frozen and his mind confused. So he watched. He watched her long hands gently lift the gauze, revealing a swollen bloody piece of flesh which once had been a leg. He watched the muscles of her right thigh clenching painfully while blood slowly drew complicated patterns on the pale skin. He watched Cassandra as she took a big bottle out of the box. She leaned against the wall and took a huge breath. Then, she poured the content of the bottle on her wounds, grinding her teeth in order not to scream.
Padfoot wanted to look away, he really did, but all the strength seemed to have left him, so he watched. He watched as his Mauradrette let the bottle fall on the ground, her limbs too weak to hold such a light object anymore. He watched as she shakily took a needle and a string from the box and started stitching her own flesh. She didn't cry, or scream, or whimper. She worked rapidly, almost mechanically, her brows furrowed in concentration. Padfoot, on the other hand, wanted to scream and cry and kill the bastard who had dared to touch his Cassie. But he knew that wasn't his job. Those scars, those gashes... They were an offense to the Alpha of the Pack, and it had to be the Alpha to deal with the one who had provoked them
Cassandra finished stitching and took new bandages from the box. Finally, the stump was covered again, ready to be trapped in that black thing. She rummaged with strings and screws for a while, then took the crutch and got up.
She was tall, like her father. She was skinny. The lack of fat made her look a bit lanky, and the fact that she had to lean heavily on support in order to walk did nothing but worsen her unproportioned appearance.
Still, she hadn't lost the fierceness of the wolf.
Padfoot watched her as she picked up some clothes from a carton box in the corner of that "house" and limped towards what seemed to be the bathroom.
She was humming an old Muggle song that Sirius had heard long before.
There is a house in New Orleans
they call the Rising Sun
It's been the ruin of many a poor girl
and me, Oh God, I'm one *
The cheerful tone with which she sang made Sirius' blood run cold. He knew how the song ended.
What happened to you, Cassie?
Minerva McGonagall wasn't happy. At all. She could have been at home, sitting on her favourite armchair and reading that new essay about Trasfiguration Filius gave her for her birthday. But NO. Of course, Dumbledore had to get in the way.
"Please, Minerva. I have an important meeting with the Wizengamot to attend ... You know that if I could I would have done this myself."
Of course he would have. Still, she was the one who was currently standing in front of the gates of an old battered cottage in the middle of nowhere, trying to find the courage to go in and face the biggest failure in her life.
Sighing deeply, Minerva made her way towards the forest surrounding the house. She knew he wasn't inside. He hated that cottage, he had told her long ago during one of those rare moments when he had been lucid enough to hold a semi-logical conversation.
The forest was dark and quiet, even if it was eleven in the morning. No bird was singing on the trees, no squirrel could be spot running between the bushes. Even the spiders had left that place. Minerva, however, wasn't one to mind the odd athmosphere: the silence was comfortable, and the shadow made it easy to stand August hot temperatures.
She walked, and walked and walked, thinking about the bad memories she would soon have to revive with the man she had tried to forget. She had felt sympathy for him, even pity at some point. She had tried to help him, talking to him, holding him while he cried. She didn't remember why at some point she had got fed up and had left him in his misery. Maybe had just got tired of being the strong one, the rock which couldn't be touched by the tragedies of life. Maybe her good intentions had not been strong enough to stand against her natural impatience and win.
She had regretted her decision so much, of course she had. She always did, and the wall in her office was a clear proof of that. She had felt the guilt, the shame for her weakness, burning her skin day after day, consuming the last shreds of her heart and slowly making her old, ancient, dead. She had felt that way every time she had let a young soul descend into darkness, she had felt that way almost every day during the War.
The War. They said it had ended thirteen years before, but everyone who had lived it knew how far from the truth those words were. The War was still raging, and would never stop, not until the last soul who had fought in it, the last person who had lost someone dear during those dark times or had stood in front their house in ruins would finally leave that world of sorrows.
Minerva was one of those people. She had fought savagely, she had seen her students, her children, walk out of her classroom with a smile and a carefree goodbye and greet her again from their grave, pale, cold and dead. With every step she took in that forsaken forest, with every breath she took of that humid, fresh air of summer, the Professor remembered how blood felt under her feet, how dust felt inside her lungs.
But she kept walking. After thirteen years, she was still standing, despite the guilt, the nightmares, the painful memories. That, maybe, was the reason why at some point she had stopped trying to support the owner of the leaves she was currently walking on. She was still walking, he was still refusing to get up.
He had been presented with so many possibilities. Nobody had never asked him to forget or to forgive. He just had to stand up. To face the future like everyone had done.
He had refused. Repeatedly. Stubbornly. Showing a foolishness Minerva would have never expected from him. Yes, that had been the reason why she had given up on him, that was the reason why, years after her decision, the idea of meeting him again rose a fresh wave of annoyance into her old heart. Annoyance and anger.
He had refused to get up again. Fine. He had refused to start behaving like a human being again. Fine.
But this. This was.... unacceptable.
How could he, after all the things she had done for him, forget to mention this to her? HER? Minerva wasn't happy. No, she wasn't even angry. She was simply outraged, and Dumbledore's office was the proof of her wrath. Magic still radiated from her skin as she stomped her feet on the ground, jumping roots and broken branches with an almost feline grace.
She had helped him. She had helped her. She had cared for them more than she should have done.
And now... And now she was...
Wait until I get my hands on you. Just wait. Then we'll see which animal has the sharpest claws.
Just as she was about to transform and hiss all her anger to the silence of the forest, she saw him. Well, she saw his back. He was sitting on a rock, shoulders slumped and head bowed miserably. How could Dumbledore affirm that he had changed? He looked the same brooding man she had left on the same rock eleven years before.
She wanted to yell. To grab his shoulders and shake him out of his stupor.
But she was Minerva McGonagall. She was a cat.
She knew attacking him in that way wouldn't have given her answers. It would have been enjoyablle but useless.
So she waited. Patiently, silently, like a lioness hidden in the tall grass. She stood there, perfectly still, for minutes or hours, a couple of feet behind him . She knew he had heard her coming, she knew it had to be him to start the conversation. He only had to gather the strength to acknowledge her presence.
Finally, just as she was about to lose her feline patience, a deep, calm yet hoarse voice filled the silent forest.
"Good morning Minerva. It's nice to see you after all this years."
He didn't turn. He never did.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
He stiffened visibly, but still didn't move.
"I reckon Albus told you about our last meeting."
Now Minerva was literally trembling with rage, but still managed to sound calm.
"You didn't answer my question."
This time, the man shifted slightly. Minerva was able to see his pointed ears poking from his messy light brown hair.
"You can come here, you know. I swear I don't smell that bad. I had a shower... A couple of days ago."
He smiled slightly at his own bad humour, but Minerva didn't return his hilarity.
It felt like going back in time. It felt like all those funerals had just ended.
He had smiled even then. After the last graves had been sealed. He had smiled, making her angry and forcing her to go and stand right in front of him. He had kept smiling, then he had snorted, he had laughed and he had cried.
Would it be like that again? Would she be forced to assist to a similar breakdown?
No, of course not.
As she made her way to the spot she had occupied all those years before, Minerva saw that the smile had already disappeared, followed by nothing but emptiness.
Albus was right: he had changed.
He had gotten old.
He had gotten worse.
He had let his hair and beard grow freely, and now only a small part of his face was still visible. A long scar ran from the top of his forehead down to somewhere in his cheek, almost cutting his left eyebrow in half.
His lips were chapped and drew a perfectly horizontal line. His entire set of facial muscles was perfectly still, deprived of any kind of expression.
His eyes, however, were still the same. Huge, ice-green eyes were fixed on her face, filled with every negative emotion she knew. Sadness, anger, melancholy, worry, fear... guilt. Differently from the last time she had seen him, however, those eyes were not glazed and unfocused, but bright and wary.
It wasn't the past. It was the present, and she was looking at a breathing fossile.
It was even worse than the past, and everything she wanted to do was to run away and forget about that nonesense.
But she was Minerva Mcgonagall, she was a teacher, and teachers must not show their distress to the students.
So she did what she always did: she huffed, placed her hands on her hips, and answered with the sternest voice she could muster.
"Happy, now, Mr. Lupin?"
"Simply giddy, Minerva." This time, he didn't smile.
"Answer. My. Question."
"You didn't have to know. Nobody had to know. Albus sort of.. forced me to spill the truth. I made him promise not to tell anyone, but apparently he didn't listen." His was tone bitter and full of regret. He was still looking at her, not blinking once.
He wanted to appear intimidating. How could he be, wrecked and broken as he was?
He wasn't intimidating. But he didn't even make Minerva's soul bask in sudden pity.
He only made her angrier.
"It was the best thing to do."
Silence filled the forest again.
Remus Lupin stared at Minerva McGonagall.
Minerva stared at Remus.
. It wasn't the best thing to do. You had to tell Dumbledore. You had to tell me
. You can't play God
, Remus! You can't decide what is best for other people, no matter how rational your idea may seem!"
She ended up screaming. Minerva McGonagall never screamed. She never needed to.
But this time was different.
Minerva had never been so angry before. A few trees even caught fire behind her. Remus, however, didn't seem disturbed the least by her sudden outburst. He simply kept watching her.
"She was happy."
Minerva stared at him. How could he? How could he even think something like that? But then again, he was Remus. He lived with the deep belief that nobody could be happy with him because of his condition. In his mind, the tragedies of his life could only confirm his thoughts.
"How do you know that, Remus? Did you talk to her? Did you ask her if she was happy?"
Remus didn't answer, but still didn't lower his gaze to the ground. He blinked, though. Twice.
"That's what I thought. You didn't even try to approach her, didn't you? That's why you didn't tell anyone! Not because it was the right thing to do, but because you are a coward!" Minerva thundered, trying to gain some sort of reaction.
And a reaction she gained.
The werewolf got up from the rock. He was tall, maybe even taller than eleven years before. His face was still blank, but his eyes betrayed the anger which was slowly overwhelming him. He looked dark and dangerous and, for the first time, Minerva found herself being scared by her former student.
"I don't think you understand how much courage I had to gather in order to leave her without talking to her. I don't think you understand how much courage it took to admit that she looked happy and probably didn't need my presence in her life." His voice was low, almost a growl, and Minerva backed away slightly. She knew he would never change his mind. He was too stubborn. Still, she had to try and convince him about the absurdity of that situation.
"She loved you, you know that. She loved you and trusted you from the first time she saw you. How can you say that she doesn't need you?". The professor's voice was soft and barely audible, but Remus heard her anyway.
"Did Albus tell you where I last saw her?"
His tone was so... cold. It looked like his heart was frozen.
Albus was right. He had definitely changed.
"No... he only told me that you saw her two years ago and decided to leave her for good."
She couldn't keep the disapproval out of her voice, and for a moment Minerva thought he would ask her to leave. Instead, Remus suddenly turned away from Minerva and started walking towards the cottage. The animagus followed him quickly, a bit startled. Without speaking, the werewolf entered the house, leaving the door open for the older woman.
"You can sit down if you want. I'll make some tea". With that, Remus disappeared in the kitchen, leaving a dumbfounded Professor McGonagall in the middle of the entrance hall.
Why is he acting this way? Usually when he's angry he growls for a bit then shouts until he loses his voice... This mask of indifference and coldness he has put on... it's not right.
Lost in her thoughts, Minerva sat on an old armchair near the empty fireplace. She didn't hear Remus approaching with two steaming cups of tea, and gasped loudly when he sat on the couch in front of her.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," he said, although he didn't sound sorry the least. With that, the werewolf fell again in his usual mutism, crossing his legs and playing distractedly with the mug in his hands.
Minerva didn't know what to say or do. Maybe she only had to wait for Remus to speak up and tell her the full story. Maybe the werewolf expected her to forget everything and explain the reason of her visit. Finally, after a few minutes of unbearable quietness, the man broke the awkward silence.
"As Albus told you, I saw her more than two years ago, in December. I was walking in muggle London and there she was, sitting in a small restaurant and surrounded by a dozen of people of her age, maybe just a bit older than her. She was laughing at something a boy next to her had said. Maybe he was her boyfriend, I don't know... I wanted to go in, I really did. I wanted to grab her and take away from that bunch of muggles. Before I could even think about opening the door of the restaurant, however, I managed to overhear part of the conversation. It turned out she was going to leave soon. She was going abroad to work as a doctor and help some people with some sort of Mission. A doctor, Minerva. Had she stayed with me, she probably wouldn't have had enough money to go to a Muggle University! In that moment, I understood that whoever took her away from me that day did the right thing. That person gave her a future. That person gave her the possibility of living a happy life in which the biggest problem is to decide what to wear on her graduation day. I couldn't go in and destroy everything, could I?"
Word after word Minerva felt her heart growing heavier and heavier. No matter what her instinct told her, this time Remus' logic wasn't so farfetched. If the girl was happy, nobody had the right to take her and mess up her life completely. It was probably too late to try and regain her love and trust, anyway. The Transfiguration teacher sipped slowly her tea, trying to hide the sadness which was rapidly overwhelming her. After a few minutes, the woman managed to swallow part of the lump in her throat and go on with her questions.
"How is she?"
For the first time, Remus Lupin's lips curled up in a smile that wasn't ironical or hysterical. It was sad, but authentic.
"What can I say, Minerva? She is Cassandra. The most beautiful woman the world will ever see."
The couple sat in silence for a long time, both too overwhelmed by memories to make polite small talk. After almost an hour, Remus finally found the strength to clear his throat and speak.
"So... I guess you didn't come here simply to scold me about my life decisions, did you?"
Minerva shook out of her reverie and sat up a bit straighter.
"Of course not. To tell the truth, Albus sent me. As you know, we tend to have problems keeping a Defence Against the Dark Arts professor for more than a year..."
Remus nodded, the cold mask of indifference slowly beign replace with one of mild confusion.
"... And we can say that last year was not an exception to this.. tradition."
This time the werewolf snorted with amusement. Apparently, Gilderoy Lockhart's unfortunate time at Hogwarts had reached even the Cottage, and the idea was sufficient to make Minerva's lips curve upwards slightly.
There wasn't time to joke around, however. She still had to drop the bomb, and she wasn't sure Remus would appreciate the explosion.
" So Albus was thinking if you would be interested in getting the job."
A loud crash echoed in the room as Remus' cup fell on the cold stony floor of the cottage. The werewolf, however, didn't seem to care, since he was too busy staring open-mouthed at his former Professor.
"Are you... you are not joking, right?"
The animagus shot Remus a stern glare, immediately reminding him of his school days as a Marauder.
"Mr. Lupin, do you really think that I would abandon a good Transfiguration essay just to come here and prank you?"
"Ehr... Of course not, Minerva, sorry... It's just... I am a werewolf!"
"I am aware of this fact, Mr. Lupin".
"And... this.. this won't be a problem?"
"I am not planning to set your lessons during full-moons, and parents do not need to know about your condition, so I don't see any problem with you being part of Hogwarts staff."
"And... you're sure? I mean... apart from the werewolf thing I... I am not..ehr..."
Minerva arched an eyebrow. "Albus told me you quit alcohol years ago."
"Oh! Yes, yes, of course, I d-don't drink anymore... I smoke sometimes but... but that's not a problem, is it? What I meant is... is that maybe I am not..."
Remus stopped his rambling, apparently lost in his own words, and looked at McGonagall with pleading eyes.
God, give me strength.
"Remus... I am sure you will be a wonderful teacher, if that's what is bothering you. I mean, I think you saved a whole generation of students from failure when you were at Hogwarts. I know that at the time your life was somewhat... easier, but you cannot let your past lead your future. You are strong, Remus. You managed to survive for thirteen years. Now it's time to start living."
Remus fixed his gaze to the fireplace. Minerva could almost hear the wheels in his brain working, processing the words she had just said. Finally, the werewolf smiled. A true, wonderful, huge smile.
"Thank you, Minerva. I... I would be honoured to accept your offer."
Minerva almost cried at the sight of the sudden joy radiating from the man in front of her. Almost. She was still a bit annoyed with him, after all.
"Now, Remus, You have less than a month to prepare for the incoming term. Tomorrow you'll receive the copies of the books you'll need. Albus will contact you in the next days to tell you about the full-moons". Satisfied with her short explanation, Minerva got up and prepared herself to leave.
"..Ah.. Remus? Please, shave".
With that, she disappeared.
Remus sighed and got up from the couch, his smile gone. It had been so easy to play the "happy and grateful man" part, even if only for a few minutes. Maybe pretending to be cheerful for a whole year wouldn't be that difficult.
Truth be told, the werewolf couldn't care the least about his future. At the moment he only wanted to sleep.
Please, let me sleep.
He slowly walked towards his bedroom and crawled under the covers. He didn't care if it was noon and the sun was shining. He only wanted to sleep.
Please, let me sleep.
He wanted to sleep, but he couldn't, because every time he closed his eyes he relived the feelings he had experienced on that fateful full-moon a few months before.
Yes, that day in the restaurant Cassandra has been happy. But now, all Remus could feel when he closed his eyes was an unbearable pain and a murderous howl.
Cassandra wasn't happy anymore.
She was dead, and, again, it was all his fault.
* This song is called House of the Rising Sun. It is an old American song which has been adapted loads of times... I particularly like Lauren O'Connell's version, although it's a bit shorter than the original.