Updated: 6 November 2005
disclaimer: Books, fortune and empire belong to JK Rowling. I only dally with her characters.
Sleeping alone for a night was a rude shock after having nearly two weeks to grow accustomed to the warm weight of another body beside him, and Remus had no desire to linger in bed when dawn broke through the veil of darkness on Sunday morning. A pillow was a poor substitute for a human, though it was better than nothing, and Remus was more than ready to toss the pillow aside.
The smell of cooking bacon and fresh coffee was enough to pull him downstairs to the kitchen. Molly was standing over the stove, Arthur was sitting at the table and reading the paper. An unfamiliar head was resting on plump arms at the foot of the table, soft snores issuing from the unfamiliar mouth.
"Tonks has been pushing herself a little harder than is healthy," Arthur said, apparently following Remus' gaze.
Remus eased himself into a chair beside her and smoothed back long, thick, black hair. It was the first time he'd seen her with hair that wasn't a strange color. She looked older, though that might have been part of the disguise. Or it might have been his own prejudices coming out—he had a hard time remembering that bubble-gum pink hair was on the head of an Auror.
She stirred a bit, and he nudged her arm until she turned her head and blinked owlishly at him. "Hmm?"
"Don't you think it's time to get some sleep?"
"Don't have time yet," she muttered, yawning. Molly placed a steaming cup of coffee in front of Tonks, and Tonks smiled gratefully at her. "Cheers."
"Dumbledore was here earlier," Arthur said. "He, Minerva and Severus are going to be here at eight-thirty to make a report."
Tonks was sitting up again, her feet perched on the edge of her chair, one arm wrapped around her knees, stirring her coffee with the other hand. She was shivering hard enough that her hand shook as she spooned sugar into the cup.
"Don't you think a nap would serve you better than the coffee?" Remus asked.
"Nah," Tonks said. "I'm young. I can handle it. I'll actually do better with no sleep than if I get an hour or two anyway."
Remus shook his head.
"Coffee, Remus?" Molly asked, placing a cup in front of him.
For the next two hours, they sat around the table talking, sipping their coffee, eating muffins and bacon and talking of unimportant things. Remus went upstairs to retrieve one of his long-sleeved shirts for Tonks, which she accepted gratefully and wrapped up in. One by one, the other members of the Order joined them, and a little before eight, the kitchen began to fill in earnest.
At eight-thirty on the dot, Severus, Minerva and Albus arrived, all looking serious. Severus looked as though he hadn't slept, and neither Minerva nor Albus looked much better. All three accepted coffee as Molly offered it, and they'd no more than seated themselves when Dumbledore began.
"Well, if we're all here, I suppose we'll call the meeting to order. We are protected from stray ears, I hope? Both the attached and extendable varieties?"
Molly's expression tightened, and Sirius hid a smirk by taking a sudden interest in his folded arms.
"As protected as two Aurors and a curse-breaker know how to make a room," Shacklebolt replied.
"Very well. Last night, Severus attended a celebratory dinner at the Malfoy Manor," Dumbledore said. "And he has confirmed a few things we had suspected. It would appear that we have a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. Some of you may have heard of Delores Umbridge?"
To hear Dumbledore speak of the situation, one would have thought that this was nothing more than the confirmation of a suspicion he, Severus and Minerva had long held, not one that no one knew a word of just twenty-four hours before. Dumbledore seemed a bit too calm for a man who had just found out that his authority to appoint teachers had just been usurped. Severus had a blank expression, and Remus couldn't help but wonder what he was thinking. Minerva, for her part, looked pissed off, her lips tightening into a thinner and thinner line as Dumbledore continued to explain the possibilities that presented themselves with the development.
There was a general consensus that the Minister for Magic did not give enough of a damn about Hogwarts to appoint anyone unless he thought he stood to gain something from it. "I should not be surprised in the slightest to discover that I am marked to be forcefully removed from Hogwarts," Dumbledore said. "If that happens, my sole concern shall be Harry. For the last few years, I have endeavored to staff the school with those I trusted, and while it should not be assumed that I have any reason to doubt the faculty I have in place, I must say that I have my concerns. There has never been such a shortage of Order members at Hogwarts as there will be this term. In the past, Hagrid, Minerva and Severus, at the very least, have always been there, but Hagrid, as you know, has not returned from his work with the giants and at this point it appears unlikely that he will do so before classes start.
"In the very likely event that Umbridge finds a way to remove me from the school, I will need to know that the lot of you are immediately available. I think it best that we plan for this eventuality, and that we have our plan in place before classes begin. The most critical piece of it, I believe, is for everyone to realize that if—no, let's discuss this as though it is a certainty—when I am removed from the school, there will be no notice. Therefore, as of this moment, I want it clear to everyone that both Minerva and Severus have my full blessing and authority. If one of them sends word that the Order is needed somewhere, there is to be no questioning of it—you are to move on their word as swiftly as you would move on mine."
This last, he directed at Sirius, whose scowl was blacker than it had ever been before. Minerva's lips were tighter than Remus had ever seen them, and Severus looked grimly satisfied.
They spent the next two hours making plans. Tonks pointed out that if she were Fudge, she wouldn't only be trying to get rid of Dumbledore, but she'd be trying to fill the school with her own appointments. The point was well-taken, and before they adjourned, Dumbledore had plans to replace every position on staff twice, they had designated half a dozen safe places for him to retreat, and they had half a dozen plans to remove Harry from the school if the need arose.
"And, since we're all here, this is a good time to tell you that as of this morning, the Department of Magical Law Enforcement has the authority to monitor the Floo network," Shacklebolt said.
"Fudge approved that?" Bill asked.
Tonks snorted. "Bet anything it was Scrimgeour's idea, wasn't it, Shacklebolt? Does Fudge even know? Scrimgeour always said Fudge'd sign a leaf if it blew across his desk."
Shacklebolt gave her a half-reproachful look, as though he disapproved of her saying it, but agreed. "Actually, I believe this came from Fudge himself."
"Well, we've been waiting for this, too," Dumbledore said. "Thank you, Kingsley. Severus, I believe this might be an appropriate tidbit to pass on to Voldemort. The rest of you, keep this in mind."
"Why is Snape going to pass this on to Voldemort?" Sirius asked, sounding half bored and half disbelieving.
"Because," Severus replied in a tone normally reserved for the exceptionally dim-witted, "in order to earn the Dark Lord's—"
"Don't call him that," Sirius broke in.
"—trust sufficiently to gather information from him," Severus continued as though Sirius hadn't spoken, "I must, in turn, pass information to him. And it is unlikely that we will gain anything by the Ministry spying on the Death Eaters."
"After all, there are no Ministry officials who work for the Order," Sirius mumbled.
Further, the Ministry has made it abundantly clear that they don't even know who the Death Eaters are, and—"
"And they'll never find out if the Death Eaters know to be on their guard."
"—I have my doubts that this measure is meant to target a group that Fudge refuses to acknowledge exists!"
Severus folded his arms and turned his head away from Sirius. Sirius continued to scowl. Dumbledore looked as though he was searching for his patience. "Severus is correct, Sirius. He needs to pass information to Voldemort as well as to us, and this is harmless information. It is more likely that we are the group Fudge is attempting to capture, and it is an exceedingly slim chance that one of our people would be the ones monitoring the Floo connection that important information was relayed across. Voldemort and his followers are certainly no more stupid in that respect than we are, and the most we could hope to gain from it would likely be additional names. I believe Severus is figuring out loyalties far more efficiently than we ever would by using information gathered from the Floo."
Remus snorted, shaking his head. "So the only people who are really going to be affected will be innocent witches and wizards," he said. No one said anything to that. "How long before we can leak this to the Prophet so that everyone has fair warning?"
"Would the Prophet even print something like that now?" Bill asked. "Much as I hate to admit it, without Rita Skeeter feeding nonsense about the Ministry, there's no one at the Prophet to take it on."
"Why's she been so quiet, anyway?" Tonks asked, looking at Shacklebolt.
He just shook his head. "I make it a point not to question miracles," he replied. "If she were writing, I'm sure she'd be writing dreck about Harry as happily as she wrote dreck about the Ministry."
"A few well-placed words and it will be the topic of discussion in every pub and at every dinner table," Dumbledore said. "We only need to wait until the policy has been in place long enough that the leak won't be so easily traced."
"How's the search for Sirius Black going, Kingsley?" Minerva asked.
There was a general sense of smirking around the table, even from Severus.
"We have a promising lead in Cambodia," Kingsley replied, standing. "Is that everything?" If anyone had anything else to offer, they didn't say anything. "In that case, I have things I need to do. Good day to you all."
After Shacklebolt left, the others who did not plan to stay at Grimmauld Place all day—which was essentially everyone—also made their excuses and good-byes. Remus was attempting to formulate an excuse of his own, but his plans were halted when Severus told Dumbledore that he was going home and disconnecting his Floo and he didn't intend to answer the door or move a muscle until he'd had a decent amount of sleep.
"Getting a bit old for eight o'clock soirees?" Sirius jibed.
Severus' look could have frozen boiling water. He didn't say anything, though. Instead, his face twisted into a sneer, and he stalked out of the kitchen. Remus realized what Severus was doing a moment before he heard the front door open.
"No..." Sirius groaned, shoving his chair back so fast that it toppled to the floor. Upstairs, the door slammed and the portrait of Mrs. Black began its howling diatribe.
Remus spent most of the morning alone in his room, going over in his mind all the lies he needed to remember. After lunch, Sirius dragged him downstairs and they spent the remainder of the day crawling around on the hall floor, ducking from flying bolts and retrieving them from unpleasant places. It might have been less enjoyable a way to pass an afternoon had it not been for the company. Sirius was in a better mood, laughing as they battled the ill-tempered grandfather clock, and having Harry there was almost as good as having James back. Almost, if he didn't think about it at all.
Nonetheless, the twins maintained a constant string of jabs at Ron, who never quite had the wit to come back with anything more effective than "Oh yeah? Shut up." Ginny, on the other hand challenged Remus' ability to keep a straight face. He couldn't quite manage to look stern when she called Fred a foul name that Molly wouldn't have approved of and that Fred deserved; Remus decided that since he was no longer a professor, he didn't have any business scolding the kids for their language.
They finished repairing the clock just in time to hear it strike four, and Remus felt his nervousness return before he'd even gotten up from the floor. The girls went off to find Molly and see if she needed help with dinner; the twins disappeared up the stairs, their heads bent together as they spoke in low voices. Ron and Harry drifted into the lounge, and from the look on Harry's face, Remus suspected that he was worrying about the trial. Remus couldn't say he blamed him. It seemed everyone had their concerns for the evening.
"Want to talk about it?" Sirius asked, clamping a hand onto Remus' shoulder.
Remus smiled and shook his head. "Not really," he replied.
"Want me to go with you tomorrow?"
Remus cast a final glance at the lounge, then jerked his head towards the dining room. Molly hadn't gotten her hands on it yet, but the cobwebs and decay fit his mood a bit better than the freshly scrubbed spaces. "We shouldn't be talking about it at all," Remus said. "Especially not in front of the children."
Sirius shrugged. "Do you want me to go with you? I can, you know."
"Somehow, I don't think Dumbledore would approve of that idea."
"I'm not asking Dumbledore, am I? I'm asking you. You've been acting strange all week, and I'm not blind. You're scared."
"I can be there for you. Just like always. I'll have your back, and—"
"No," Remus said. "Thank you for offering, but no. It's going to be dangerous enough for me—"
"I'm not afraid. They won't hurt a dog."
"I know you're not afraid." That was one of the reasons Remus was afraid on Sirius' behalf in general—Sirius didn’t have the sense to fear for himself.
"I want to do something for the Order," Sirius said. "I want to be part of it again."
"I know you do. And that time will come, but right now, you need to keep yourself safe. There aren't enough of us for any of us to be taking unnecessary risks."
Sirius looked defeated, which was worse than the sulking and arguing and irrationality. "I hate this," he muttered. "I fucking hate it."
Remus patted his shoulder, letting his hand rest on Sirius' arm for a moment while he chose his words carefully. "After Harry's trial, you and I will talk to Dumbledore," he said at last. "Surely he'll see the reasoning—we don't have enough members for unnecessary risks, but we don't have enough members for any of us to be spending lazy days doing housework."
Sirius snorted. "You call that housework?"
"Well, if you become a casualty to an oriental rug, you won't be doing the Order much good, will you?"
Later that night, after the dinner dishes were cleared away and Tonks was the only person still lingering in the house who did not live there at least for the duration of the summer, Remus found a quiet corner in an upstairs room, hoping that he'd finally have a few minutes alone to organize his thoughts. He flicked his wand at a sheet-covered chair, sending plumes of dust into the air. Giving the seat several solid pokes to make sure that the sheet concealed nothing but upholstery, he settled cautiously into it, relaxing as he discovered it was nothing more than a comfortable chair.
He leaned his head back, closing his eyes and sighing. Over the years, he'd learned to still his hands and not to fidget and not to bounce his leg or crack his knuckles, but to sit calmly and quietly. As the full moon approached, though, he always felt more restless and anxious, this month more so than ever. He'd always said that he didn't know if the restlessness was a result of the month or of knowing what was going to happen, but whatever the cause, he had always felt it was justified.
In some ways, he wished Severus were there with him; he could have used someone to talk to. In other ways, he was glad he was not. Despite offers of support and sympathetic smiles, he knew that the moon was a battle he faced alone, and no one could face it with him. Not even Sirius, with his offer to accompany him.
He heard footsteps in the hall and looked at the door, cursing himself for lighting a lamp. Of course the light seeping out from under the door would draw attention, and he knew that. Perhaps he didn't really want to be left alone after all. There was a soft rapping on the door, and he didn't say anything. The door opened a crack, then a little wider, and a heart-shaped face under a shock of pink hair popped into the room.
"Remus!" Tonks sounded surprised. "I thought maybe someone had just left a lamp burning this afternoon when they were cleaning or something."
"No," Remus replied. "No one's cleaned this room yet."
Tonks looked around, her dark eyes taking in the sheet-draped furniture and delicate curtains of cobwebs. "I can see that." She lowered herself onto the footstool in front of him, her face upturned to look up at him. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
"What would you be interrupting?" he asked. "I'm just sitting here alone and—" He broke off suddenly, chuckling as he let his mind take a side-trip into the gutter. Their eyes met for a moment, and she pressed her hand over her mouth, covering a giggle. "No," he said. "You're not interrupting anything."
"Well, that's disappointing," she said.
"Voyeuristic tendencies?" he asked.
This time, she didn't try to hide her laughter. "No," she said in a mock harsh tone. "But if you were using this room for a good wank, I wouldn't be sitting here trying to decide how rude it would be to ask what you're doing hiding in here."
He'd never considered himself reserved, but he had the stray thought that he must be getting old—if this passed for casual conversation now, he'd missed a few steps somewhere. "Hiding," he replied, attempting to divert the topic back to more neutral ground. What had ever happened to the subtle art of innuendo?
"Well, if you were hiding from me, I found you, so I guess that means you're it."
He smiled again. "I guess so."
They fell quiet for a moment, and aside from the house creaking and the occasional thump or bang from elsewhere, there was nothing to break the silence between them. After a few minutes, she stood and walked to the window, pushing aside the tattered curtain to peer out into the night. Silhouetted against the golden glow of street lamps, she didn't seem as shocking. She was petite and slender, and when she moved, her baggy tee-shirt molded against her thin body for a moment and Remus had the faint impression of slender curves.
"There's a full moon tomorrow, you know," she said.
He stiffened. "I know."
"I know a great spot to watch the moonrise. On the edge of a lake, no one around for miles and miles. It's made for a midnight picnic. Probably won't have too many more warm nights, really."
"Sounds very romantic," he said cautiously.
She turned around, letting the curtain fall shut again, and only the lamplight fell on her now. "Only if there are two people there," she said, pulling the stool closer and sitting on it again. She was barely an inch from his legs. He stared at her as she folded her arms atop his knees. "That was supposed to be your cue to ask if I'd like some company," she whispered, flicking a finger against his knee.
He chuckled, and picked up both her hands, removing them from his legs in the guise of freeing himself to stand. "I hope you find someone to share it with," he said.
"I was hoping I'd talk you into sharing it with me."
Remus smiled into the darkness, glad his back was to her so that she couldn't see it. It had been a long time since any woman had shown interest in him, and as far as young women went, Tonks was the sort of girl who would have held him captivated when he was younger.
"All right," Tonks said, her voice close behind him. "Forget subtlety. Remus, would you like to come to the lake with me tomorrow for a midnight picnic and watch the moon come up?"
He exhaled slowly and turned around. She was close enough that he could see a light smattering of freckles across her nose. "I'm flattered," he said. "Truly I am, but I don't think it's a good idea."
"Why not?" she asked.
Why not? He stared at her for a moment. Because I'm a werewolf and full moons are inconvenient for me, was the simplest answer that came nearest to the reason he'd said no. Faced with the question, though, he had half a dozen more answers suddenly, which was a relief considering how awkward it always was to confess the nature of his condition to other people. "Time and circumstances aren't on our side," he replied at last, hoping the answer was vague enough for her to fill it in with whatever would be most effective.
"Don't use the war as an excuse. I know we're at war. All the more reason not to shy away from what we want. Any of us could be killed tomorrow."
Remus sighed. "I really am flattered," he repeated with a sympathetic smile. He'd been on the receiving end of too many rejections not to know how it stung. "I'm also old enough to be your father—"
"You are not."
He was tempted to argue with her—he was, as a matter of fact, though he'd have been a young father if it were the case. It wasn't the point, though. "I have nothing to offer you. I'm no great catch. I'm unemployed, haven't had a job in over a year and am not likely to have one any time soon, I—"
"I'm not asking you to marry me, Remus," she said.
He laughed a bit. "I know you're not."
"What's the real reason, then?" she asked.
He considered another excuse, but decided that anything he could come up with would be brushed off fairly easily. She seemed to have answers for everything. Besides, she'd find out sooner or later. "There's a reason I'm old enough to be your father and unmarried and unemployed with no prospects," he said at last. "I'm a werewolf." He was pleased at how casually he said it; perhaps he was finally learning.
"Oh," she said, a flicker of doubt crossing her face.
He smiled again, though his heart wasn't in it. He didn't know why he ever thought the reaction would be different than it was. Head down, he took a step away from her and headed for the door, but she surprised him with a small hand on his arm. He turned around to face her again, and she was grinning.
"So what you're telling me is that tomorrow is inconvenient," she said. "You know, I always thought the full moon was a bit overrated anyway. I think a crescent moon is much prettier."
Some things never changed at all. He could have hugged her for saying that—most women would have been as far away from him as they could manage as quickly as they could find an excuse. She took a step closer again, and dropped her hand to his.
He wrestled aside the part of him that was eternally grateful whenever he let someone in on the secret and that person accepted him for what he was. It had been rare that anyone had ever done that. James, Sirius and Peter had, Dumbledore had, Minerva and Poppy had. Harry and Hermione both did, and so did the Weasleys after a few awkward days. He thought perhaps Severus had, but he wasn't sure. That Tonks took it so well would have been reason enough if he was looking for an excuse to return her interest.
"It's one of several reasons it isn't a good idea," he said. "It wouldn't be right."
She squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back before he thought better of it. "Tell me you've no interest in me," she said. "I'll never bother you again with it."
If he'd been stronger, he might have said it, but he didn't want to lose the tender beginnings of a friendship with such a lively, caring young woman as Tonks.
She squeezed his hand again, then let go. "If you change your mind, let me know," she said as she headed for the door. "I didn't mean to interrupt your solitude."
"Where are you going?" he asked.
She shrugged. "I don't know," she replied. "Out. A club or something." She winked at him and grinned. "Somewhere I can find a hot bloke and reaffirm that I've still got it."
He laughed, a genuine laugh this time. "Don't worry, dear," he said. "You've still got it."
"Just remember that if you decide you want it," she said, giving him a mock salute as she walked out.
Not quite twenty-four hours later, Remus did something he had never done in his life. He positioned himself on the edge of Dark Forest and found a tree to sit under while he waited for moonrise. He'd left his wand at Hogwarts an hour before, and by mutual agreement, he would return to Hogwarts as soon as he was able, but the prospect of facing two days, or perhaps more, without his wand and in the presence of enemies was a grim prospect indeed.
As the sun went down, the mood peeked up over the eastern horizon, and Remus felt himself go rigid. Pain ripped through him as the wolf within struggled to overcome the human. He knew that if he would just let go, just surrender to the violent manifestation, that the transformation would be over with, but he struggled, as ever, to hold onto the last of his human self as long as he could. When he could fight it no longer, the wolf burst out in an explosion of energy, and stood panting for a moment while he adjusted to the world through canine eyes.
Everything was darker, blurrier, less distinct and yet, at the same time, more so. He could see movement as though the world had slowed down, and at first, it was disconcerting. Every quivering leaf, every blade of grass, every scampering bug caught his eye, and it was dizzying to the human mind that existed alongside his wolf's mind.
At length, the wolf grew impatient, and the dizzying world that wouldn't stay still became even more dizzying as he added his own motion to it. He ran into the forest, his thick fur protecting him from the snags of brambles and briars, his four feet carrying him with a speed that he couldn't even dream of when he had only two legs to propel him forward. At last, he reached the lake, and he sat at the water's edge, panting slightly as he watched a bird on a high branch of a nearby tree.
You don't need a bird, his human mind informed his wolf mind. You need to find Greyback.
The wolf did not know words, and on many a lonely night, the human had considered it likely that human words were nothing more than a distraction; too often, the wolf had put itself to a task before the human had finished suggesting it, and it was like that this time as well. His ears twitched, and he looked around, turning his head slowly. Perhaps 'listened around' would have been a more accurate description, but the part of Remus' mind that registered what he was doing in terms of what a human would understand was not so interested in the technical difference between looking and listening. Whatever he was doing, and however he was doing it, he was turning his senses towards a search.
He hadn't needed to put so much effort into it. Presently, there was a howl in the distance, and another responding one, then another and another. He'd heard the howls of werewolves before, and his wolf's mind could not only distinguish between wolf and werewolf, but knew what the difference was. The human had no words for the difference, even though he understood it.
He set off towards the sound, ducking through undergrowth as though it didn't exist, following the baying of his own kind. After a few minutes, he had the scent of another werewolf, then another; their scents were not familiar to him, but were as distinguishable as unfamiliar voices in a crowded room.
At last, he reached a clearing and lingered on the edge of it, watching as, one by one, the werewolves gathered. Remus had seen himself as a werewolf once, and he'd had the impression of a smallish, unhealthy-looking animal. He looked half-starved, with his ribcage clearly visible even beneath the fullest wiry winter's coat. The wolves gathering in the clearing were fearsome-looking, big and strong with glowing eyes and snarling mouths. They were not overgrown dogs, and they were not playful pups who had grown up with a friendly dog, an adventurous stag and a cunning rat; they were wild animals who looked like they belonged in the forest, and they sat regally, looking warily at each other, casting the occasional glance at one who sat further away.
The human knew who the large, shaggy brown one must be, even though the last time he'd seen that wolf, he'd been a child of six. A streak of silver ran from the top of the wolf's head to the base of his tail, and there was an evil gleam in his eyes. Even at a distance of several hundred meters, the wolf part of Remus' mind could smell the bloodlust. He crouched in the cover of a bush, wondering what he was doing here.
Slowly, the others came, but the wolf was aware that not everyone who came stepped forward. For every ten scents he could distinguish, there was but one wolf he could see, and there was a mass of scents to the east so mingled that not even the wolf could separate them, and another mass to the north.
Finally, the silver-backed wolf stood and turned a slow circle. When his yellow eyes passed over Remus, Remus shivered and the wolf took a step back. At last, Greyback lowered his head, sniffed at the ground and barked a muffled bark. He shot off through the wood, and a split-second later, there was a deafening howl. The others in the clearing answered the howl, and set off in the direction Greyback had gone, howling over their shoulders as they went.
The wolf recognized the call as an invitation, and before the human had the chance to consider it, the wolf was leaping out of the brush. A number of other wolves did the same, and as he fell into a lope somewhere in the middle of a large pack, the human attempted to overcome the wolf for long enough to discern where they were going. It was no use, though. If the wolf cooperated and gave the human time to assign words and definitions to the stimuli around them, he lost his connection with the pack. Twice, he almost ran into another wolf, and once he nearly missed it when the lot of them turned suddenly. After that, the human reluctantly gave over to the wolf.
The next time the human was entirely in control, dawn was breaking over the eastern horizon and Remus rolled over to stare up at an oak tree. It took him a moment to reorient himself, and it was going to take much more than a moment for him to sift through the memories of the night and know what had happened, but he took a quick stock of the situation and affirmed a few critical facts. He had transformed and was human once more. He didn't seem to be badly injured, but his hands and feet were sore and tender, most likely from the running—the wolf didn't mind, but the human did. He was exhausted and hungry, and there was no metallic taste in his mouth, for which he was quite grateful. Five times in his life, he'd woken with the taste of blood, and it was always a sickening feeling.
He was naked, and if his luck held, his clothes were where he'd left them, though where that was in relation to where he was was anyone's guess at the moment. He pushed himself up slowly, and blinked in the bright sunlight until a silhouette came into focus. An older man with several teeth missing sat a few feet away from him, gnawing on a bone of some sort.
"Hungry?" the man asked, his voice rough and harsh.
Despite himself, Remus stared at the man and his bone. He was unkempt and filthy, with tangles of hair to his shoulders and a jagged scar across his jaw. He wore a tattered shirt that almost covered his knees, but the way that he was sitting left no doubt that he wore nothing else. His legs looked powerful, like he could kick down a tree with them, and his arms were thick and muscular as well. He scratched his head with long, yellowed fingernails, and squinted at something he pulled from his hair before tossing it aside.
"Eat," he said, tossing something into Remus' lap.
Remus felt his stomach turn over as he stared at a broken-necked bird with glassy eyes. The revulsion must have shown on his face, because the man laughed a harsh bark of a laugh.
"You're a little older than most of our new inductees," he said, dropping his bone on the ground. "How long you had a wolf?"
Remus' eyes drifted past the man and he caught his lower lip between his teeth. They weren't alone. Other men, all as filthy and unkempt as the one talking to him, were sprawled around the small clearing, some partially clothed, some properly robed, some completely naked. Some were only children, he realized with a start.
"What? Can't talk?"
"Thirty years," Remus said absently, distracted by the sight of one of the other men pissing against a tree trunk a few feet away.
"Thirty years?" the man repeated.
"He's been passing himself off as a wizard," said another voice. Remus looked up and squinted at the source of the sound. Another muscular man, this one with skin that looked tough as leather and wearing a pair of trousers that looked as though they might fall apart any minute. "Can't you tell by looking at him?"
Remus felt that he should be defending himself against the charge, but he didn't know what to say. Besides, it was the truth.
"What's a good, respectable wizard doing loitering around in the woods the morning after a full moon?" The new arrival folded his arms across his bare chest, looking down at Remus with such intensity that Remus diverted his eyes.
"This is where I belong," he said. "I'm one of you."
"Hear that, mate? He thinks he's one of us." The leather-skinned man crouched in front of him, his eyes mocking as he reached out with gnarled fingers to tug at a strand of Remus' hair. "Did you pack your comb and toothbrush when you decided to come play with the doggies?" he asked.
Remus didn't answer.
"You sure don't have very good manners, do you? Look at me when I'm talking to you, and you better fucking pretend like you're paying attention. Got that?"
Remus looked at him and nodded.
"Who are you?"
Second direct question. He didn't see any immediate consequences to telling the truth, but he could see any number of immediate consequences to not answering. "Lupin," he replied. "Remus Lupin."
"Greyback!" the man barked. Remus felt a spike of cold dread jolt down his spine. He swallowed it as a shadow fell onto the ground beside him. "Got a new one."
Slowly, Greyback crouched, his great, hulking form sinking to the ground until he was a boulder at eye-level with Remus. He looked at Remus with the same intensity the other man had looked at him with, and the only reason Remus didn't squirm under the gaze was that he was too terrified to move. He'd never realized he was capable of such fear.
"You're not a newly bitten werewolf," Greyback said.
Remus wet his lips with the end of his tongue. "No," he said, not elaborating for fear that his voice would show some of his fear.
"He says he's had a wolf for thirty years," the other man said.
"Thirty years?" Greyback repeated. "You were just a kid when you got bit, then, weren't you?"
"So," Greyback said, settling on the forest floor, his eyes still pinning Remus in place, "what's a Ministry-approved werewolf doing out here in the forest with the wild beasts of the night?"
Even if he hadn't been trying to lie his way into their company, Remus would have thought that was a trick question. He grunted as a fist connected with his jaw.
"I told you to answer when someone asks a question!"
"Easy, Ralph," Fenrir said, catching the other man's wrist. "He's still just a pup."
Ralph dropped his hand, but he continued to glare at Remus.
"A pup that's smart enough to know when to keep his mouth shut, though, aren't you? What'd you say your name was?"
"Remus Lupin," he said, waiting half-expectantly for a sign of recognition. None came.
"Well, Remus Lupin, what made you think you want to give up civilization for our gracious company?"
"I got tired of playing by their rules," Remus muttered.
Greyback and Ralph exchanged glances, and Greyback raised an eyebrow. "That so?" he asked.
"Go get the kids," Greyback said to Ralph. "I want them to hear this."
A few minutes later, two dozen children, the youngest of whom couldn't have been more than five or six years old and the eldest of whom appeared to be in their late teens. Remus scanned faces quickly, praying that none were former students of his. He didn't think he had the strength for that.
"Now, Remus Lupin, you were telling us about how you got tired of playing by the Ministry's rules."
Remus forced himself to look away from the children. "Yes," he said after a moment. "I've spent my entire life living with their rules, and it's not getting me anywhere. I decided it was time to stop fighting what I am."
"That's very wise. Don't you think so, Ralph?"
"Oh, yes," Ralph said, nodding solemnly. "Very wise indeed."
Greyback looked at the children and nodded, and several of them began nodding too.
"You just can't trust the Ministry," one of the older children said.
"Very true," Greyback replied, sounding almost genuinely sorrowful. "Very, very true. Go on, Remus. Tell us more."
So, Remus continued. He told them about how the Ministry continued to pass laws that made it impossible for a werewolf to find a job and to work to support himself. He told them about the restrictions placed on them, and how the Ministry forbade the sale of wands to werewolves. He told them about Werewolf Support Services, and how the monthly allotment was barely enough to buy food with. He told them about the rows of barracks that the Ministry offered as public housing for werewolves. He told them damn near everything he knew about the Ministry and the services it offered and expected werewolves to gratefully accept and live off of. He did not tell them that in thirty years of being a werewolf, he'd only accepted three Ministry handouts, and he'd lived in the barracks exactly four days before he decided he'd rather sleep in a tree, but he told them everything else.
His tale was punctuated by sympathetic noises from Greyback, which the younger children imitated. One of the youngest, a charming little boy named Teddy, went so far as to slip his hand into Remus' hand, looking up at him with big, blue, tearful eyes. The older children just shook their heads, as though what Remus said merely confirmed a grave injustice they already knew existed.
"Well, Remus," Greyback said at last, "it sounds as though you've had a lot of experience with the Ministry. Now, some of us are naturally distrustful of those who come to join us after living among the wizards for so long, but me? I'm a trusting sort of bloke. Don't like to have my trust misplaced, you know? I'll give anyone the chance, you see, even the ones who always thought the Ministry was working for them. I want the ones like you to see what's going on. I want you to step back from it and see what kinds of rules and regulations they're putting on you. I want you to open your eyes and see the world for what it is."
Remus nodded. "I think I've done that," he muttered.
"And it ain't pretty, is it?"
"No," Remus said, his eyes drifting to Teddy's round, filthy, upturned face. "It's not pretty at all."
"Don't you kids think Remus is very clever to have figured that out all on his own?" Greyback asked. The younger children nodded, a couple of them even offering shy smiles to Remus. Greyback looked at the older ones, who had apparently decided either that manners dictate that they keep their mouths shut if they disagreed, or else that the question had not been meant for them. Greyback seemed to assume the latter. "And don't you lot get too uppity about it, neither," he said firmly. "I see what you're thinking. You look at Remus and all you see is that he's—how old are you, Remus?"
"You see that he's thirty-five and just now figuring out what you already know at half his age. But remember what I said—he figured all this out for himself, where you learned it from those who came before you. We're not going to fault Remus for not being properly instructed, are we?"
"No," one of the older ones said; the others just shook their heads.
"All right, then. What do you all think? Should we let Remus here be a part of our family?"
The younger ones nodded immediately and enthusiastically, the older ones wore expressions that ranged from feigned disinterest to suspicion. Greyback smiled a feral smile and clapped his hands.
"It's settled, then. Remus will be part of our family. I'm assuming you don't know which family you really belong to, Remus, but maybe I should ask. Do you?"
"Family?" Remus repeated. What did his family have to do—
"The werewolf that bit you," one of the older boys supplied.
"Oh." Remus diverted his eyes.
"If you don't know, that's quite all right. The wizarding world might be cruel to orphans, but we aren't. Are we, Phillip?"
A sandy-haired boy shook his head.
"Phillip here's an orphan, too," Greyback confided. "Don't know how he got to be trapped up in the Ministry, but we got him out okay, didn't we?"
"So, we'll just say—"
"I do know who bit me," Remus interrupted. Ralph wore a scowl that suggested an adult ought to know better than to interrupt.
Greyback just turned his grin to Remus. "Who was it, then? If he's still around, we'll get you into the right family then."
Greyback's smile slipped for a moment, then he grinned again. "Well, kids, how about that? You got a new brother and we weren't even expecting it. Rick, Steve, why don't you two introduce Remus around. And find him something to eat. He's got to be hungry."
"He's got a bird," came another voice. Remus had forgotten about the man who'd been sitting near him when he first woke, but he recognized the voice immediately and he looked down at the bird on the ground beside him. Bugs were beginning to crawl over it.
Greyback looked at the bird too, then at Remus, his expression simultaneously reproachful and patient. "We don't waste food, Remus," he said. "I'm sure you don't want to eat an uncooked bird, and that's your prerogative. You want to build a fire and cook it, you do that. There's plenty of us that will eat it uncooked though, and if you're not going to, you give it to someone who will while it's still fit to eat." That said, Greyback stood, looking over the heads of children to the werewolf a few feet away. "And you don't go throwing decent food at the ones that won't eat it. Remus here will learn soon enough that it ain't worth it to make a fire, but there's no reason to waste perfectly good birds in the mean time."
"There's an apple tree over the hill," one of the boys said. "I can show you."
"That's a good idea, Andrew. You show him the apple tree, and show him where the stream is, and tell him about the rules. Don't want you getting in trouble because you don't know the way we do things," Greyback said. "Then, you get some rest. We'll talk more this afternoon."
As it turned out, there were only a handful of rules, and all of them were common sense, so Remus didn't think he would have too difficult a time remembering them. The clearing he'd been in was just the beginning of the encampment—it was nestled against a small bluff that rose, perhaps, seven feet into the air at its highest point. The entire clearing sloped down towards the tree line, and a small stream sparkled just beyond the trees. Fifty feet to the east of where the stream curved back towards the clearing, there a small copse, and that served as the latrine, well downstream from the encampment. That was the first rule.
A feet away from the latrine was a small, shallow, muddy pond, which he was informed was the only place they were allowed to bathe unless they went all the way to the lake, which was somewhere to the south. Andrew told him earnestly that the snakes liked the bathing pond, and Remus thought that might have quite a lot to do with the werewolves being so filthy in general.
A patch of springy, moss-covered ground, hidden in the thickest part of the wood, was where most of the werewolves slept, and they were sleeping there now, in pairs and trios, the occasional pile of as many as half a dozen bodies with limbs twined around each other. The stench of unwashed bodies and the heavy smell of sex were an overpowering combination that made Remus' eyes water.
When they had left the moss-covered thicket, Remus asked in a hushed voice, "How many of us are there?"
Andrew shook his head, and Remus looked to Nathan, one of the older boys who was accompanying them. "A lot," the boy replied. "Don't know how many. I can't count that high."
"Oh." It was tempting to ask how high he could count, but Remus decided not to. It really wasn't that important. From where he stood, he estimated that there were at least fifty werewolves in that clearing alone.
They wound through the nests of men—all men, Remus realized with a start. He knew that male werewolves outnumbered female seven to one for a reason no one could explain satisfactorily except with the weak excuse that females who were bitten seemed more prone to dying from the bite than their male counterparts, but there were girls who survived the bite—almost always girls; adult women invariably died from them—and it would make sense that among so many werewolves, there would be at least a few women. He couldn't see any, though. Curious though he was, he kept that question to himself.
After walking several hundred more feet, they arrived at the base of the promised apple tree, the fresh aroma of the fruit a welcome change from the less pleasant scents that had permeated the air elsewhere. Remus picked a few apples, sharing them with his two guides, and they munched as they made their way back to the thicket.
As tired as he was, Remus was grateful for the comfort of the moss and the questionable shelter of a threadbare, moldy blanket one of the boys rooted out for him. As he curled up, wrapping his arms around himself, trying to close his mind to everything he'd seen in the hour or so since he'd awoken, he wondered if he could really do this after all.