Title: Here, where the world is quiet (6,468 words)
Warnings: Mention of all the following is made: character death (child), past child abuse
Betas: Aunty Marion, Bronze Ribbons, Islandsmoke, and Schemingreader, with additional input from the 'zine editors. Love to you all!
History: Written 7-22-2006; revised 3-12-2007; published for the first time in the Snupin 'zine Chocolate and Asphodel in November, 2007.
A/N: The title for this story is from Algernon’s The Garden of Proserpine.
Severus' fortieth birthday began in what was euphemistically called a "safe house." He had to be grateful that it was not a cell in Azkaban and that he was not, technically, a criminal, despite the fact that he was not allowed out. Harry Potter had testified to the Wizengamot about Severus' role in Voldemort's defeat, and Severus had allowed his brain to be tipped out into a Pensieve and perused by the curious. At the time, he had simply wanted to avoid execution.
Seven months later, he had taught himself to walk short distances without crutches, learnt to live without painkilling potions, and redefined his goals. He no longer wanted to be simply alive. He wanted to live. His old world was gone. He must therefore build a new one, and he had one open option.
After he made his decision, he stood in front of the mirror and surveyed his dubious assets. His robes were shabby, but clean. His hair was cut short, still as black as ever. His face was drawn and pale, which made his nose seem twice as large. He had never despaired enough to grow facial hair.
He pulled his shoulders back, conjuring an air of authority as easily as breathing. A teacher was an actor, after all, and an actor demanded an audience. He limped to the door and jerked it open. The guard outside sloshed coffee all over herself as she jumped to her feet.
He hadn't meant to sneer at the girl again, but she brought out the contempt in him.
"Send word to Shacklebolt," Severus said. "Tell him I'll accept his offer."
Two weeks later, Kingsley — now with the new Magical Education Department — Apparated Severus to the end of a narrow, cracking road, in front of a cement building with the pretentious name Scrimgeour Lycanthrope Academy. From the street the building appeared to squat, stained and ugly, on the far side of a pitted car park littered with broken glass and surrounded by a rusting chain-link fence. Inside the enchanted gate, Severus found himself on a wide strip of well-kept grass, with pots of geraniums lining the walkway. In the centre of the grass sat a slide and swing set, shiny new.
Kingsley led him through a brief tour of the school. The upstairs had baths and dormitories for boys and girls and tiny bedrooms for staff. Downstairs, Severus was shown the kitchen and modest dining hall, the cupboard-sized library, and the child-sized cell block. The rooms stank of disinfectant and the walls were uniformly painted an unattractive straw colour, but it would do. He said so to Kingsley, who clapped him on the shoulder, handed him the keys, and left with the two Aurors who had been posted there pending Severus' arrival.
The residential students sat waiting in the northern classroom, obviously trying not to stare at him. He stared back at them, trying to match their faces to the copies of Registry records he had in his trunk.
His new students were so very small, thought Severus Snape, Headmaster. Their feet swung several inches off the floor. The youngest — Liam — was probably six or seven. No one knew, exactly. The Mather brothers, Reginald and Robert, were eight and ten. Morton was pale and slight, also eight. The two girls were Geraldine and Janet: they were both nine. From September first, the ten day-students would join them for lessons, but these six were unwanted by their families and the world.
Severus sympathised with them.
"Hello," he said, not condescending to give them a false smile. "My name is Severus Snape, and I will be Head of this school." He had nothing else to say to them, and he frowned. He needed to sit down, so he Summoned a chair and sat at the head of the table.
One werewolf had been bad enough, Severus thought. Now he had six of his very own.
His mandate was simple: Provide them with Wolfsbane and daily occupation. Teach them as you see fit. Report any violent outbursts. Keep them away from regular people. Which meant Wizards, Severus supposed. The school was well-hidden, but the Muggle high street was less than a kilometre away.
Severus glared at Lupin, who had come with the children like a trading card with a chocolate frog. Remus smiled faintly and raised an eyebrow.
"Why don't you tell me about yourselves and what you've been studying?" Severus said finally.
Panicked, babbling chaos erupted, which Remus cut through with a sharp cough. He fixed Severus with a steady, cautioning look and directed the children to answer in turns.
In the next half an hour Severus learnt that Liam did not speak or respond to most outside stimulation, and that Geraldine couldn't hear. He learnt that Robert and Reginald liked Pocket Monsters, that Janet loathed spiders and black pudding, and that Morton suffered from night terrors. He learnt that the house elf who did all the cooking wore a pink turban and sparkly toe rings and answered to Miss Tiffany, and that Remus had taught the children at least fifty fart jokes in sign language.
"Glad to see their education is in good hands," Severus said, and Remus signed something at him that must have included the word fart because the boys fell over themselves laughing.
After that, Morton wanted to see his wand, and Robert wanted to know why Severus walked with crutches and could he try. While Robert took a turn about the room, Severus told the cautionary tale of the Crumple-Horned Snorkack stampede, and the children were gratifyingly impressed, if giggly. Geraldine asked where he'd lived before, and whether he was a werewolf, and if he were married, and did he have any children. Severus rested a bit while fingers flew, sorting all this information out, and then Janet asked if he'd ever killed anyone.
"Yes," he said, and they all looked — what? Not relieved, not pleased; comforted, perhaps, that they were not alone.
"I'm deaf," Geraldine said solemnly. Her speaking voice was too loud and flat, but Severus thought perhaps she had not been deaf from birth. She pointed at Severus. "You're — "
"Crippled?" he asked dryly.
She made a gesture like the wadding up and binning of an offensive paper.
"Lame," he suggested, and watched as Remus explained.
She nodded at that, and then looked at Remus with a mischievous smile.
The smallest boy — Liam — waved his arms wildly, and Remus buried his head in his arms.
Morton — who had been taking his turn with Severus' crutches — swung over and tugged at Severus' sleeve. "He means Mr Lupin's the only one whose farts don't stink," he translated, and Severus tried very hard to look stern as the room erupted in laughter again.
Much later, after dinner and bathtime and storytime and bedtime, Severus followed Remus down the stairs to the dining hall. Remus waved his hand and Transfigured two of the folding chairs into comfortable reclining chairs.
"Strong drink?" he asked, and Severus groaned an affirmative as he sank into his chair.
"Talk to me," Severus said, sipping at the whisky that appeared on a side table next to him. "How are they academically?"
Remus leant back with a rueful smile. "I managed to teach them some simple reading and sums while I was with Greyback. We didn't have any books or writing materials," he added, and Severus wondered what he'd done: scratched lessons in the dirt with pointed sticks? He wouldn't have put it past the man. "They excel at languages. Geraldine's mother taught us all signing — the children are quite fluent. We had a Romanian and an Italian werewolf, and the kids picked up enough to be able to hold simple conversations."
"The day students arrive on Wednesday," Severus said, frowning. ""Do you have a curriculum? How will the classes be divided? Will these children — " he waved upwards with a grimace — "be able to keep up with those who have spent nearly a year recuperating with normal families?"
"It's not a fair comparison," Remus said, speaking softly but looking angry. "The children whose families took them back were the least damaged to begin with. With counselling and outreach support, the lycanthropy is easy to deal with. Easier, at least, than psychological problems or deafness or guilt. Janet and Liam are our only orphans. Sometimes the parents come to visit, but they always say the same thing when they leave. I just can't."
Remus shrugged. "You should have seen the children in the beginning. It's been an uphill job just to get them to eat with forks and to laugh and play. Things like toothbrushes and hairbrushes — they find these baffling. Baths were anathema until we discovered yellow rubber ducks and Bertie Bott's edible bubble bath."
Severus had a deplorable perverse streak; deplorable in the sense that it would make him work far harder than he was required to. The Ministry expected him to be merely a warder of the werewolf children. He therefore made his own goals high in the face of their low expectations.
"I want them all to go on to Hogwarts," Severus said, and watched Remus' eyebrows rise. "Or an equivalent Muggle school. They have nothing but their wits — it would be criminal not to make sure that they are as sharp as possible."
"Minerva already has the three oldest," Remus said, running one hand through his hair. Severus tried not to watch him. He didn't think the silver looked distinguished at all. He certainly didn't think of how those fingers might feel running through his own hair. Why did it have to be Lupin, of all people? "They've spent the summer receiving remedial tutoring."
"Good. It's not impossible, merely difficult. You'll be in charge of the curriculum," he said. "You know them best."
"They're behind in everything," Remus said, frowning. "Even Robert can barely read."
Severus fixed him with a look. "Are they so stupid, Lupin, that we needn't bother attempting to educate them? We could just build cages."
"Liam's village kept him in a cage," Remus said, his voice stripped of all emotion, "for years, and fed him nothing but raw meat. Greyback was furious when he found out. He thought he was spreading the gift of lycanthropy, not the curse."
"So prove the ignorant bastards wrong," Severus said, and toasted Remus with the remainder of his whisky.
September was chaos. Remus evaluated all the children and placed them in groups based on ability instead of age. Insult was taken, tears were shed, and fierce rivalries took root.
Remus persuaded Severus to double Miss Tiffany's salary and put her in charge of teaching sport and Domestic Charms. Severus had thought it mad to have two to three hours of organised outdoor playtime each day: they were children, and children played naturally, or so he thought. After watching Miss Tiffany spend weeks untying her classes of incompetent rope-skippers, he decided that these were the most unnatural children he'd ever seen.
Remus, who patiently weighed and measured each child every day, was pleased as they started to show signs of growth. Severus brewed the Wolfsbane potion each month, dosages carefully calibrated to tiny body weights, and each full moon the school yard was full of small, sleepy wolves, herded by the great grey one. Severus had never thought of Remus as an alpha type, but he had to admit that Remus played the role well.
The students had a definite taste for red meat prior to the full moons, and Miss Tiffany requested that either her food budget be doubled or the school keep its own cows. She also noted that his charges would outgrow their clothes before the term was out.
Severus made several trips to the Ministry to wring more money out of Kingsley and began to consider soliciting private donations. He saw Tonks once and made the mistake of mentioning it to Remus, biting his tongue two seconds too late to hold the words back.
Remus looked stricken for a moment. He ran one hand through his hair and mustered a small smile that wrenched Severus' heart.
"How's she doing?"
"She's looking well," Severus said. He didn't want Remus to think about Tonks. "Her hair's back to normal, for her, and she's not so peaky. We didn't talk about you," he added.
"Probably best not to," Remus said. "What's she doing these days?"
"She's still at the Ministry. I think she's going into politics."
Remus grinned. "I can see that. You should cultivate her."
"She said she'd send some things for the children. Plush animals. Roller skates."
"She has a good heart," Remus said, and looked straight at Severus. "So do you, you know."
"Idiot," Severus said, and refused to allow himself to flush.
Besides learning how to behave like children and eating twice their body weights each day, Severus' residents also began to hold their own against the day students. Remus warned Severus against making it seem like a competition, of dividing the students into "us versus them," but Severus couldn't help silently cheering as Janet recited her multiplication tables or Reggie correctly named all the plants in the school's herb garden.
Liam was the only child who made no progress. He enjoyed colouring the pictures that Robbie and Reggie drew for him (Pocket Monsters, of course: Remus thought they had a natural aptitude for Care of Magical Creatures). He sang the alphabet song, the Chudley Cannons fight song, and numerous wireless jingles loudly, replacing all the words with fart. As the other children blossomed, Liam became more and more prone to temper tantrums.
It came to a head in early November. Morton had braided pink ribbons into Liam's hair, and Janet had laughed at him when he sat down to supper. The table was thrown over, chairs were kicked aside, and the dining hall window exploded outside in a surge of wild magic. Severus was on his feet and across the room in four angry strides.
He grabbed Liam and spun him around, taking the boy's chin and forcing him to look up at him. He raised his wand. He was partly aware of the other children's horrified gazes, but he was more concerned with keeping the touch of Legilimency as light as possible. He had never seen a mind so disorganised: it made him itch to tidy up, but he controlled himself.
What do you want? he thought as clearly as he could, and he was caught in a wave of cold-sweet-smooth memories.
"Ice cream?" Severus asked, letting Liam go. Liam's face lit. Severus glanced at Remus, busy with the destruction caused by six bowls of curry and rice and the stony panic of five children who thought he was going to beat Liam. "Ice cream day is next week."
Liam's face clouded over again, and he grabbed Severus' hand, slapping it against his chin. Not stupid, Severus thought.
"If you help me fix that window," Severus said, "I'll take you with me to the shop to buy the ice cream."
Liam grinned and held out his hand for Severus' wand. Remus looked alarmed as Severus handed it over. Liam pointed the wand at the window, muttered fart, fart in a fairly good impersonation of Severus' voice, and handed Severus back his wand as the glass shards flew up and knitted themselves back into place.
"Thank you," Severus said.
"The boy is a natural Slytherin," Severus said that night after the children were in bed.
"Did you ever wonder how the whole farting fixation began?" Remus asked. There was a wicked glint in his eye.
"No," Severus said, and opened a book.
"Liam used to scream it for hours when he was upset. Far, far, far, far. I don't recall who made the first fart joke, but it stopped Liam, and eventually he learnt to laugh. I was just grateful that they hadn't chosen a worse bodily function." Remus stopped speaking and put a hand over the page Severus was looking at. "Farfar is Swedish for grandfather," he said, and Severus remembered the sharp insistency of Liam's gaze. He looked up at Remus, who shrugged. "It's my personal theory, of course. I'm likely wrong. But I didn't want you to feel insulted," Remus said.
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Oh, grandfather is better?"
Severus frowned. "He's got the wrong name for a Swede. He should be Leif, or Thor, or Rolf."
"Farfar," Remus said, and snickered.
"Blow it out your arse."
"The children are having a bad effect on you, Severus," Remus said, shaking his head in transparently mock sorrow.
Severus preferred to think that he was having a good effect on them — at the very least on Liam. He made the boy his official shopping assistant, in charge of the old push chair that they used to roll groceries up the hill from the high street. Twice a week Liam accompanied him, thin sharp fingers digging into his arm just above the cuff of the crutch — not unlike a date with a Grindylow, Severus thought. Liam hid behind Severus as he spoke to the shopkeepers, only emerging if they offered him sweets or biscuits.
Severus did not use Legilimency on the boy again. It was highly unethical, certainly, but it also promoted laziness. When Liam brought Severus' hand to his chin, Severus asked him to speak.
Liam, of course, said nothing, or fart. But once Severus had felt the out-questing of Liam's mind, which he promptly blocked.
Devious Slytherin devil, he thought, and wondered, with a pang, what Albus would have made of the boy.
Winter came suddenly, and with it runny noses and hacking coughs. The Itching Down Witches' Auxiliary donated several boxes of multi-coloured yarns, and Miss Tiffany taught all the students to knit sweaters and mufflers. The glee of midwinter and Christmas came and went, and grey days of rain led to drifting snow and hard ice underfoot.
Severus sneezed into his own muffler (sober black, a present from Kingsley), took one step forward, and found himself lying on his back with spots of bright pain in front of his eyes.
It took several minutes for Severus to get his breath back. "Ow," he said finally to Liam, who was staring down at him with eyes enormous in his thin face. Severus pushed himself up on his elbow to see if anything was broken. "Can you go fetch Lupin?" Severus asked. Liam coughed, spat, looked at Severus, and coughed again, swiping his sweater sleeve across his face and smearing snot up into his hair. "Go on, then," Severus said, and lay back in the snow. The cold was rather restful, actually. After a long moment, Liam turned and began walking unsteadily up the hill.
It was Miss Tiffany who came. She walked out of thin air, waved Severus up with something akin to Mobilicorpus, and carried him through a space that was far gentler than the Apparation in-between to his own room, where Remus was waiting.
"No broken bones," Miss Tiffany said in her well-rehearsed BBC 1 English. She handed Severus a frothy glass full of potion, lemony and hot. "Just a nasty tumble." She removed Severus' boots, absently shining them to a high gloss as she crossed to set them in a wardrobe that rustled itself into neatly-pressed splendour the instant she opened the door. "There now — must run, the children are making the supper." She winked out with a cheeky grin.
"Are you in pain?" Remus asked, with an indefinable look.
"What do you think?" Severus said, fighting the urge to shift. If he didn't move for the next eight hours, everything would be fine.
Remus crossed the room and perched on the edge of the bed. He pressed his hands to either side of Severus' knee, and Severus hissed.
"Does that hurt, or help?"
"A little more up and — yes, there," Severus said. Remus was always freezing — the children teased him about it — but the cold of his hands counteracted the painfully hot swelling. Severus relaxed into the touch. "I see you are useful for some things."
Remus snorted and moved his hands slowly, carefully. Severus watched him with half-lidded eyes.
He had been used to seeing Remus under the dual stresses of war and poverty. Remus' face had been lined with worry, with dark shadows under his eyes, and his mouth had been tight with all the things he couldn't say. He had been whip-thin, his bones too obvious.
Remus seemed almost like a stranger these days. He was relaxed, easy-going and quick to laugh. He looked ten years younger, healthy and strong, enough that it made Severus' heart ache to see him.
Right now he could see both Remuses, the new, handsome one frowning down at his hands with a single-minded concentration reminiscent of the old Remus' intensity during the war.
Severus' body hummed to life in response to being the centre of Remus' attention. His skin prickled, sensitive to Remus' touch, and he missed a breath as Remus' fingers slid up ever so slightly.
No, he thought at his body with fierce futility. No, this is not fair.
He tried to think of Tonks, of how everyone still avoided saying Remus' name around her. Tears and awkward silences, that's what thinking of Remus Lupin lead to, and he would not follow the same path. He would not — could not — think of those hands gliding higher across his bare skin, or of the way Remus' hair would fall if he were to bend to relieve the tension in Severus' cock.
He tried to push Remus away, but Remus stepped back the moment he raised his hands, watching him. No, Severus would not read desire in that intense gaze. Self-delusion was an ugly thing.
"Get out," Severus said. "I don't appreciate being pawed, Lupin." His throat burned as he saw hurt and bitter understanding flash over Remus' face.
Bitter misunderstanding, more likely, but he'd be damned if he would expose himself any further to Remus' repugnant pity.
"Let me know if there's anything I can do," Remus said, his voice hoarser than usual.
"Go away now," Severus clarified. "Lock the door on your way out."
The moment the door shut behind Remus Severus ripped his trousers — damnable garment — open and began fisting his cock desperately. Shutting his eyes, he let the fantasy take over: Remus' mouth on his nipples, the brush of his hair across Severus' stomach, the warm weight arching over him. He imagined what he would do to Remus, how Remus would beg for his touch, his hair dark with sweat and mouth kiss-swollen.
Severus shouted his orgasm into the pillow. Then, to his horror, through the blissful buzz he heard Remus' voice:
"Severus — are you — oh."
"Fuck," Severus said, grabbing the edge of the duvet and pulling it over to cover his crotch.
"You called me," Remus said, accusatory. "Twice."
Severus narrowed his eyes to glare. "I imagine I did. Out, and this time stay out."
Remus' chin rose slightly. "I'll bring you up your supper. While I'm gone you can make yourself decent. We — we need to talk." He was gone before Severus could even protest his lack of appetite.
Severus waited a moment to see if it were possible to die of shame; apparently not. He fumbled his wand off the nightstand and cast a cleaning charm so strong that the whole room whiffed of roses. He pushed his pillow up against the headboard and slid, careful of his leg, to a sitting position. He Summoned a book and stared down at letters that swirled and danced like the snow.
He was conscious of having screwed up, again, and of the sacrifice that would need to be made. The fixation with Lupin was no longer harmless. He would have to let it go. He wondered which talk Remus planned on giving: the you sick bastard one or the I'm flattered that you see me that way, but it really wouldn't work one.
There was a knock at the door. Severus said, "Come," and then could have bitten his tongue. He really was becoming a dirty old man. Pathetic.
Remus waved his hand and a tray appeared on the nightstand, soup and toast.
"Is it poisoned?" Severus asked.
"No such luck." Remus crossed his arms and leant back against the door. "I'll assume you forgot the Silencing Charm."
"Just as you forgot to knock before coming through the door."
"I thought you were in pain, you berk," Remus said. Severus felt a small stab of pleasure for Remus' concern, and a matching stab of pain because it didn't — couldn't — mean anything anymore.
"How long have you thought of me that way?" Remus asked, and Severus lowered the mug of soup he'd been thinking of sipping.
"Oh, years. Since you taught at Hogwarts," he said, looking up into Remus' face finally, the disgust he felt for himself leaching into the words. "It was purely physical, I assure you. I'm sure you find it repulsive — "
"I don't," Remus said, and Severus stared at him in disbelief. "I find it frustrating, but not disturbing. If you'd asked me — anything — back then, I'd have said yes, you know."
Severus could feel his own heart race. "You're not — what about Tonks, then?"
Remus laughed, raking his hands through his hair in a familiar gesture of frustration. "Apples and oranges, Severus. Some of us like both."
"Ah. Black, then?"
Remus glared. Severus couldn’t help thinking that Remus was really quite incandescent when he was incensed. "We're talking about you. When were you planning on telling me? Were you planning on telling me? Or do you find the fantasies fulfilment enough?" Remus crossed his arms and ducked his head. "I hope so. Because it's too late now."
"It doesn't have to be," Severus said; one of the stupidest things he had ever said in his life. Remus' eyes, snapping up to his, were wounded. "Why would I have told you? I might have lusted for you, but I hated you."
Remus looked even more pained. "You don't hate me now?"
Severus set the mug of soup down with a sigh. "I don't. It's taken us over twenty years to reach the point of friendship. That's more valuable to me than any infatuation." He shrugged. "Sex — sex can be got anywhere."
"Speak for yourself," Remus muttered.
"I'm not Tonks. You don't need to send me packing just because you're — If you can forgive my… lack of judgement, we can put it behind us."
Remus nodded and slid down the door to sit with his arms wrapped around his legs. He looked like a teenager in the pose, so very young. "You deserve better."
"If you ever try and set me up on a date with some man I will hex you stupid." Severus caught Remus' eye. "This is not common knowledge. I am a teacher."
"A damned good one, at that." Remus smiled. "Don't worry — wild dogs couldn't drag it from me." He sighed and deftly changed the subject to Liam's dramatic arrival at the school and the three-ring circus which had ensued as the students were put in charge of the kitchen. Severus let the awkward conversation be buried under the gossip, but he couldn't help but notice that Remus hadn't put him off firmly. Hadn't put him off at all, really. Had said that he wouldn't have said no.
He finished his supper, said good night to Remus, and lay in the dark of his room wondering if it were a good idea — whether it would even be possible — to seduce Remus.
Remus woke him up at half four, rapping sharply on the door and calling his name. Severus stared at the clock, confused. Had Remus given him a sleeping draught? Was it tea-time? But outside the curtains it was icy black.
"Why are you haunting me?" Severus asked, opening his door and yawning at Remus who — damn him — looked as wide-awake as ever. "Begone."
"Have you had Mage Fire?" Remus asked. "Or the potion for immunisation?"
Severus summoned his robe. "Who's got it?"
Remus held out his arm and stood firm. "It can be deadly. Are you immune?"
"All the Hogwarts teachers are. I brewed the potion for those who needed it myself." Severus summoned his box of emergency potions and his copy of Mother Merrilee's Grimoire of Kids' Complaints.
Remus relaxed. "I've Floo'ed St Mungo's. They're sending over a mediwitch as soon as they can. But it seems to be every child save Geraldine. Her mother may have given her the potion."
"Why didn't we think of it?" Severus said
"How could anyone not protect their children?" Remus said bitterly, and Severus wanted to say, It's not your fault. You kept them from the wolves, the dogs, the Ministry, hunger, cold, and madness — who would have thought?
Who, indeed. The blame, to be fair, was his. All the early warning signs had been there: the cold-like symptoms, the rosy slapped-cheeks glow, the hyperactivity. A deadly secret, hiding in plain sight.
The door to the boys' dorm was labelled Quarantine, and Janet's bed had been moved in. The windows stood open; even so, the children burned as the flame-like rash spread from torsos out to extremities and up to cover their faces.
Robbie was wide-eyed with delirium, and Remus went straight to him, saying soothing things, stroking his forehead, and holding his hands when they flailed up at invisible assailants. Miss Tiffany cradled Liam's head as he vomited up thin yellow fluid. Morton slept with his mouth open to pant for breath, and Janet and Reggie shifted irritably; thin hands and feet, laced with red, struck out against the air. Severus backed out into the hallway. He took a deep breath for fortitude and went to Floo the parents of the day students and Kingsley and open the door for the mediwitch, who had arrived via broombulance.
Taking the mediwitch's advice on dosages and the tolerances of small children, Severus brewed a potion that brought the fever down from dangerous to merely enervating. There were other potions that could be used once the fever was down ("No Pepperup," the mediwitch cautioned, "as it can lead to brain inflation." Severus wondered if she realised she was quoting his own lecture back at him). Geraldine had refused to leave the school, and she proved very clever in the lab, with a good grasp of potions theory and a refreshing lack of cheery babble. Remus and Miss Tiffany forced Severus to sleep, insisting that all would still be well five hours later.
Which was why, on the fourth morning, his heart sank like lead when Remus woke him up in the predawn grey.
"It's Liam," Remus said, and Severus was by the boy's bedside before he'd even properly opened his eyes. Liam's breathing was laboured; he coughed in his sleep and turned an alarming blue before Remus could get him settled. His eyes were sunken, his skin the colour of old parchment, and he was nearly as thin as he'd been when he was rescued.
Severus shook his head. "Was it the potion? Was the dosage wrong? He's so small." He reached out without thinking and set his hand on Liam's head, the shining brown curls looking inappropriate on a body so still.
"Don't blame yourself," Remus said sharply. "Blame Greyback, if you must blame someone."
"Oh, there's not a day goes by that I don't wish a slow and painful death on that monster," Severus said, and then looked at Remus in chagrin. Remus raised one eyebrow. Is it good or bad that he's so familiar with me putting my foot in my mouth that he takes it in his stride? Severus thought.
"Slow and painful deaths are overrated," Remus said, and smiled, baring his canines. "Trust me. But he is going to suffer in the afterlife for what he did to the children."
"It won't help."
"No. It won't." Remus reached out in apology. "I know you love him, Severus. But it may be too little, too late."
Severus let his lip curl and blinked hard, batting away Remus' hand. "Are you going to tell me he'll be better off? Going to a better place?"
"That would be hypocritical of me, don’t you think? I believe in fighting to survive, you know that. But — all we can do is make the best of what we are given. You were given sixteen tragedies. No one knows better than I how hard you've worked to overcome the children’s pasts.” Remus caught Severus’ gaze and held it. “Liam loved it here, Severus. He smiled and laughed, he had friends — almost family. He'd never been happy before. You gave him refuge and freedom. You gave him his childhood back. He loved you. I won't hear you say you did anything wrong."
"Do not," Severus said, cutting each word off viciously, "talk about him as if he's dead."
They fell into silence at that. Severus sat in the hard chair by Liam's bed and held his hand. Remus stood close by, occasionally wandering off to check on the other students. Severus must have dozed off at some point. He woke when a rush of cold passed through him and didn't even need to open his eyes to know that Liam had died.
"I'm so sorry," Remus said, voice hoarse and low. "I'll go wake the others."
The children gathered around, sleepy faces pinched and bare feet curled on the icy floorboards. Slippers, Severus thought. Who thought we'd be good at this?
Remus spoke to each child, quietly, and the questions they asked made Severus tired and angry and blindingly sad.
Will we all die?
Where did Liam go?
Do we have to feed him to the dogs now?
Is he going to be a ghost?
Remus said he hoped that all of them would stay healthy, that Liam was in a better place (Severus gritted his teeth), that Liam would be buried, that Liam didn't need to haunt anyone: his work here was finished.
Janet twisted her hands in her nightgown and asked, "Will Liam get a rock?"
"A gravestone?" Remus asked, and met Severus' eyes. Severus tipped his head, and they took that for a yes.
Geraldine waved for attention, her face scrunched up to hold the tears back: We don't know the right name or birthdate to put on. How will God find him?
Remus squatted down to look her in the eyes and signed as he spoke. "God already found him, love. The gravestone's for us, so we can have a place to talk to Liam."
Reggie coughed and wiped his mouth. "All the dumb kid ever said was fart."
There was a small pause, empty of Liam's croaking voice, and then, finally, the children began to cry.
The funeral was small, as was the grave. Liam was buried near the rosebushes behind the building. Every so often Severus spotted a small form sneaking back to the play yard; later, he would find acorns, snowballs, smooth round rocks placed carefully around the gravestone.
"It's rather pagan," Remus said, examining a twig that stood like a three-legged horse by the grave, "but it's good for them. They've never really had a chance to mourn before."
When the ground softened they put in borders of flowers. Even Severus found that he could talk, sometimes, about Liam as if he'd been a boy, who died, instead of Liam, gone forever.
"You will see him again," Remus said, when in the middle of a reminiscence Severus' voice went dry. "It's what they say, isn't it? That all loves are reunited on the other side."
"Not much comfort when all your loves are dead, now is it, Lupin," Severus said.
"I suppose it wouldn't be a comfort to tell you that I've come to love you back," Remus said, his eyes sharp and bright, and Severus felt the universe swing into an alignment perfect and forever unreachable. "Cruel even to say so, considering."
"I wish — " Severus said, and stopped, biting his lip in frustration. "I would like to touch you," he said finally. Remus got up from the chair by the fire and crossed the room with his slow, careful, silent steps. He stopped in front of Severus and cocked his head, smiling wistfully.
"I wish you could, too," Remus said.
"Can you feel desire?" Severus asked, and Remus laughed.
"All I feel is desire," he said. "That's what a ghost is, a triumph of desire over death."
"Touch me," Severus said. Remus' face wavered like the illusion of water on a hot road in summer. He stretched out one hand, cupping Severus' cheek. "You're always so cold," Severus said, and reached up to cover Remus' hand with his own. His fingers slipped easily into the hungry chill of Remus' hand.
"Cold as the grave," Remus said, and pulled his hand back. "I don't want to give you frostbite."
"I wanted to visit your grave," Severus said.
Remus shrugged. "There wasn't really anything left to bury. You know what's under these robes. Or rather, what's not."
Severus shivered, and he saw Remus' hands twitch, then clench. "I saw you die," he said, and Remus' eyes snapped to his.
"I should offer my condolences, then. It was a spectacularly ugly death, I think."
"It was," Severus said. He'd only recognised Remus by the sky-blue patch on the elbow of his robes. He'd wanted to kill Remus himself when he'd realised the body the dogs were devouring was still alive.
"Don't remember that," Remus said, and this time he did reach out, pressing the tip of one finger against Severus' forehead.
"You said — " Severus whispered, and Remus leant down to catch the words. "You stayed here for the children." He swallowed. "The children are going to be fine. But — I — "
Remus looked agonised. "I can't stay for you. When I died — Merlin, I didn't even know I had died — all I could think of was keeping the children safe. When they are all safe, I think I'll fade away like an outgrown imaginary friend. I'm theirs, as much as I'd like to be yours." He cocked an eyebrow as he looked down at Severus. "I'll be glad to die completely. But until I do — "
Remus leant closer and covered Severus' mouth with his own. Severus kissed back and pretended that it wasn't like kissing the wind.