An Evening at the Blue Badger.

She took his elbow as he turned to close the door. 'Severus, a word.' Come quietly or I'll detach the tendons, she thought as he turned to face her, wondering if he really could read minds. She was easily strong enough to carry out her threat. The Metamorphmagus was able to change more than her hair colour. He came quietly.

Tonks led Snape, through the gloomy hallway of Twelve Gimmauld Place, into the mouldering library.

'Colloportus.' Wand out, she considered him. He made no move to acknowledge the pain she had, undoubtedly, caused but gazed back calmly. 'You bastard,' she said, 'what did you do?'

'I . . . did nothing.' Snape smirked.

'Yeah, and you did nothing the last time too. Five days of speaking and writing nothing but verse.'

'You need not have touched the book. I did, in fact, warn you to touch nothing.'

Tonks and two of her colleagues had been at Howarts in order to carry out a 'Periodic Licensee Conduct Review' on Snape, and he had left them alone in his rooms. Gates had quickly found an illustrated book of erotic verse and shown it to Styles. Tonks had taken it away from them and put it back where they had found it. The worst thing about it was that they had been warned about the so-called 'Snape Shakedown'. Snape shook back. At least the iambic pentameter had stopped after a few hours. The swearing, especially her own, had been becoming monotonous.

So immaculately smug, she thought, as she circled around him. 'So, what did we do wrong this time?' she asked with deceptive calm.

'You came to Hogwarts.'

'You said that you wouldn't do anything.'

'You asked me to.'

She had indeed asked the head of Slytherin House to say that he wouldn't do anything. How the hell has he lived this long? Tonks wondered as she rubbed her arm.

'Parts of my body are covered in green fur,' she told him. 'It itches like fuck.' She was now face to face with him. 'How are you going to fix it?'

'Your . . . condition has nothing to do with me.' He was still smirking. 'Any effort on my part would have been entirely superfluous.'

'Oh? Then just who would be responsible?' she enquired carefully.

His reply took her breath away. 'The house-elves.'

'Don't be so bloody ridiculous.'

'The house-elves were specifically forbidden to harm Umbridge,' explained Snape smoothly, eyes glittering with dark amusement. 'That prohibition does not extend to other representatives of the Ministry, such as yourself.' He watched as she was forced to review, rather drastically, her opinion of house-elves. ' They were none too pleased about the Headmaster's departure,' he concluded softly.

No thought Tonks, I don't suppose, for one moment, that they were.

'And now if you will excuse me?' Turning away, Snape drew his wand.

'Wait!' She took a deep breath. 'Look, I'm sorry. Can you do anything?'

He turned back. 'I can.' There was jubilation in his eyes.

He waited.

Tonks swallowed. 'Will you?'

'No.'

She couldn't blame him: she was, after all, an Auror.

Tonks had seen the reports from Saint Mungo's as well as those from Azkaban. Some of her esteemed colleagues had done a job of work on Snape. It was only Dumbledore's insistence that they either release or replace his Potions Master that, together with Malfoy's money, had prevented them from finally killing him.

Following him down to the cavernous kitchen, she sat near the door, trying frantically to avoid scratching. She took in very little of the meeting itself, although she noticed Snape watching her occasionally. Enjoy it, you miserable bastard, she thought bitterly. After the meeting, she was the first one out. She went up to the little room on the second floor that was assigned to her use, went to bed and attempted to rest.

Tonks half awoke to a fusillade of knocking, tried to get up and promptly fell head first off the bed. She rose unsteadily and, hastily wrapping a towel around herself, she pulled open the door, to stare at Snape blearily. He was not quite the last thing that she had expected to see. Given time, she could have come up with something more unlikely. She clutched the towel around her more tightly. 'Come in,' she muttered. He did so. She shut the door behind him and stared at the vial of clear potion in his hand. 'Why?'

'Because you asked politely, and did not argue when I refused,' replied Snape archly. '

And because Dumbledore has had a little chat, thought Tonks, taking the vial from him. She opened it and sniffed the contentsThere was a slight suggestion of bitter chocolate but she resisted the temptation to taste the potion. 'Ok, turn around.'

Warily, Snape complied. 'Why?' he enquired.

She slipped her knickers on and then clutched the towel to her breast.

'Because I cannot reach my back.'

He turned, and she proffered the phial.

'And you don't have a boyfriend,' he mocked.

'No, actually.'

'And you expect me to believe that,' he sneered, 'given your most unusual . . . talents.' The last word was an epithet.

She snorted. 'Oh yes. Celestina Warbeck, Marilyn Munroe, Sabrina Falkirk,' she swallowed, 'Helen of fucking Troy.' Her voice had become almost inaudible.

'Except that it wasn't ever about them?'

She stared at him. 'Except that it wasn't about them,' she confirmed. Why does it have to be Snape who understands without needing to be told? Tonks asked herself bitterly. She was unutterably weary of little boys who cared only about being seen out with the most beautiful woman in the world, and nothing about her. Again, she held out the vial.

Snape came close and studied her face. Then he touched her violently pink hair and smirked. Finally he took the vial from her hand, seized the chair from the dressing table and turned it to face the bed. 'Straddle it,' he commanded.

As she obeyed, he moved with his usual unnerving speed behind her. Springs creaked as he sat on the bed and then his cool fingers began to move over her shoulders and back, soothing the itch and burn where she had scratched until she bled: the unknown contents of the vial not only causing the fur to disappear, but the many scars to heal. Gradually, as the smell of her own blood faded, she allowed her head to slump down onto her arms, which were resting along the back of the chair. Still he continued to stroke her. 'And do you ever oblige them?' His voice was amused, almost gentle.

'Pardon?' She did not want to move: had to move . . . but not yet.

'Your "Would be Suitors of Helen of Troy".' He was working on the area under her left shoulder blade that she found so hard to reach.

'Only if they win.' The pressure of his fingers became slower.

'Oh?'

'We play a game,' she told him sleepily. 'If they win, they spend an evening with the companion of their choice. If they lose, they use Polyjuice to become the companion of my choice.' She smiled to herself. 'Strangely enough, there's been rather less interest lately.'

His fingers stopped, just touching her back, and she realised just what she had said, and to whom. She had made many mistakes, she realised through rising panic, but not one like this. Voldemort's Inquisitor: the man who could make anyone talk. It wasn't as if she hadn't known any better. After all it was Snape who had cleared her last year to join the Order of the Phoenix, but to have volunteered information . . . While encouraging people, illegally, to employ Polyjuice Potion in order to impersonate other people, without their knowledge, would not get her kicked out of the Aurors, talking about it certainly would.

Tonks felt utterly sick. She had just handed Snape her career. If he realised . . .

'Punitive?' He sought clarification.

'Usually.' She sounded indifferent but could feel the effort to suppress tension screaming in her muscles.

'And your superiors approve?'

Fuck. She closed her eyes briefly. Nothing for it but damage limitation. She raised her head and turned to look at him. 'You really are quite exceptionally good at this,' she remarked. He got up from the bed where he had been sitting, stoppered the vial, dropped it onto the bed, and then left without a word.

It took her not quite twenty minutes to finish her depilation, to shower and to put on clean clothes. There would still be plenty of time to meet up with Gates and Styles for a few pints at 'The Blue Badger': the pub, south of the river, used by Aurors. She galloped down the stairs.

'Hello Tonks, Darlin'.' Sirius sounded quite drunk. She had heard him arguing with Lupin earlier. It had ended only when Lupin went out. 'Look what I found creeping about.'

She looked.

'Let him down. Now.'

'When 'Snivellus' here tells us what he's doing creeping around my house, then I'll let him down,' declared Sirius.

Snape's face was impassive, his dark eyes closed. Tonks wondered how long he had hung there, inverted, greasy hair awry and his arms wrapped around himself. She drew her wand.

'Expelliamus! Accio wand!'Drunk or not, Sirius Black was fast. He might, however, have had more sense than to take an Auror's wand.

Tonks spun and thrust her knee into Sirius' groin. When he doubled over, she pushed him down. She then bent over him, steel toed boots inches from his nose, and took all three wands. Tonks looked up to find Snape watching, still impassive. She went and stood beneath him. 'I'm sorry,' she said, returning Snape's wand to him. Then placing herself behind him, she reached up and put her left hand underneath his right shoulder. 'Finite incantatum.'

Tonks' support of his shoulder, as his feet came down, allowed Snape to right himself, and so to land fairly neatly. He rose and turned to face her silently. 'I love Sirius dearly, but he can be a complete prat at times,' she told him.

Tonks turned toward Sirius. After dropping his wand into the depths of the Troll's Leg umbrella stand, where he would struggle to reach it, she came to crouch down beside him. 'I was fifteen the last time you did that,' she told him gently. 'Don't ever try to do it again.' She helped him to his feet, not even looking at Snape. 'Goodnight,' she murmured. Head bowed, she left the house quietly. For a mercy, Mrs. Black had kept silent throughout.

Snape caught up with her by the entrance of the back alley that was her choice of disapparition point. 'I owe you a drink,' he said.

'You don't, but if you feel like buying one, I'm going to the Blue Badger.' She started to walk towards the far, dead end of the alley. Snape kept step with her.

'What I am definitely not feeling is suicidal,' he stated.

'Oh, they're probably expecting you.'

Tonks found herself staring into shrewd black eyes.

'Do I visit the Blue Badger often?' he asked very quietly.

'Never.'

'The shakedown?'

'The shakedown,' she confirmed, wondering at his choice of terminology. Would either Moody or Shackleton have discussed it? She thought not, but . . . he was beginning to smile. It wasn't an awfully nice smile but, given what she had told him, it was sufficiently strange that he was smiling at all.

'Very well then, Ms. Tonks, the Blue Badger.' He disapparated. After a puzzled moment she followed.

She found Snape inside the pub surrounded, and totally ignored, by Aurors and consequently, she thought, looking somewhat miffed. She laid her hand on his arm and, smiling brightly, escorted him to the bar. 'I'll have a pint of the 'Dark', please,' she said.

Snape scowled. 'Two pints of Dark Ale, please,' he told the man behind the bar.

'You must really have upset her,' commented the barman. Who did you want her to be?'

'I believe her choice to have been opportunistic.' Snape paid for the beer.

'Oh yes,' said the barman, returning Snape's change, 'the shakedown. I've got two green Yetis out in the courtyard. So who are you really?'

'Severus Snape.'

'No, I wouldn't let on either, if I was impersonating Snape. Nasty piece of work. About fifteen years ago some unutterable bastard sneaked into my pub and adulterated my beer with a 'Babbling Beverage' combined with a really powerful and long-lasting laxative.' Snape looked interested. 'Do you realise that there wasn't a public toilet in magical London without its own quota of Aurors . . .'

'Spouting crap from both ends?' continued Snape smoothly, turning away.

'It was Snape,' insisted the barman. Tonks eyed her beer uncertainly.

'Don't be silly.' Snape put his hand on Tonks' shoulder and steered her towards the courtyard. 'I would be interested in seeing your friends.'

'Yetis' might just have been an understatement. Gates and Styles were having problems. 'Oy, your fur's drinking my beer!' Flint protested. After leaving Hogwarts he had chosen to continue his career of genial thuggery by becoming an Auror.

'Well bugger off then,' chorused the hirsute pair. All that could be seen of them, apart from long green fur, were their eyes.

'What happened?' asked Tonks, her own eyes wide.

'Ministry Vets,' supplied Mehitabel Fortinbras, who had clearly been soaking up all the juicy details, 'but at least it's stopped itching.' She grinned. 'So how come you're normal?'

'They won't touch me: Metamorphmagus.'

'And it just wore off?' Gates swore loudly, Styles looked thoughtful and Flint began to laugh.

'It'll be your turn soon,' predicted Gates. Flint stopped laughing. Tonks and Snape sat down at the table. 'I still don't see why we got stuck with Snape a second time,' said Gates in offended tones.

'Because no-one got mutilated last year?' suggested Flint. 'Maybe they think he likes you.'

'Right then, secure the doors and windows.' The amplified voice came from the bar behind them. Tonks threw herself across Snape and prevented him from drawing his wand. 'Can't have the audience escaping now, can we?' continued the voice gleefully. Apparently the band had arrived.

Some time later while the band was taking a break, and the bar was loud with conversation, the uproar became suddenly louder.

As they turned towards the noise a figure was defenestrated into the courtyard. It was soon followed, via the more usual route, by the defenestrator, now wiping his hands on his apron. 'Tonks,' said the barman reprovingly, 'you are going to have to stop doing this. I've got a bunch of people back there, crying into their beer. They really thought they'd caught Sirius Black. It was only when he said he was here with you . . .' He shook his head.

'Mine's a pint of bitter,' wheezed Sirius from the ground. Tonks stood frozen. Just how drunk had Sirius been? The barman awaited her reply. Horrified, she nodded her agreement to the demanded beer.

'I'll bring it out,' said the barman.' In fact I'll bring it all out. You can pay for it then.' She nodded again. While Tonks stood her round, she was rarely required to carry it.

Sirius picked himself up and brought over a chair. Tonks moved her own chair toward Snape, giving Sirius room to sit on her other side. At least she could try to keep them apart. Sirius sat down. 'Moody said I'd find you here,' he said. 'Nice place.'

'It was,' growled Snape. Flint and Styles grinned.

Fortinbras smiled. 'You know they used to fight all the time at school,' she reminisced fondly. 'Damn, but did I have a crush on Black?'

Sirius stared at her. 'You never said anything!' He sounded, and looked, quite put out.

'Well of course not,' said Fortinbras reasonably. 'Not with the crowds of girls always surrounding the "Dream Team".' She grimaced. 'Not to mention their attitude towards anyone and anything that wasn't Gryffindor, let alone Slytherin.' She sighed. 'A seriously beautiful boy, though.' Sitting nearly opposite Sirius, at the table, she openly appraised him over the empty glasses. 'Not that bad now, either,' she concluded.

Sirius returned the appraisal, and then leant forward. 'So, d'you think he did it?' he asked lazily, showing a shadow of his old, devil may care smile. 'Mehitabel Fortinbras, do you believe in the Ministry line?'

'Given what I know about the Ministry?' She gave a short laugh. 'No, I don't. Young Potter's telling the truth. Sirius Black was an arse, but there is no way he'd have sold James Potter, or Lily.' She paused 'Pettigrew though . . .' As the music began again, she looked at Sirius questioningly. 'Dance with me?' she said.

Tonks tried to prevent Sirius from rising but she was too late. Snape threw an arm around her shoulders and drew her close. 'Don't make a fuss,' he murmured. 'He's rarely as drunk as he makes out.' He remained holding her as Flint began an argument with Gates about Quiddich, Styles listening appreciatively. Sirius and Bel Fortinbras also appeared to be enjoying themselves.

When the barman returned with the drinks Tonks rose to her feet and paid him, but when she sat down again, Snape's arm settled back about her. She considered inflicting minor damage, but then, the thought that the man had, almost, been behaving like a reasonable human being was dissuasive. Even if he was only doing it in order to unsettle her and to piss off Sirius. And she could always hurt him later on.On a cool evening, he felt pleasantly warm and, after a while, she began to relax. It had never occurred to her that Snape could smell good.

On the other side of the courtyard, Sirius and Fortinbras had stopped dancing and were standing close together, talking. Tonks had not forgotten how charming Sirius could be when he chose, and Fortinbras was certainly listening attentively. Forget it Sirius, she thought. Even Bel isn't that crazy. They both glanced over towards Tonks and Snape, looking amused and Tonks wondered what was so funny. Perhaps she had been a little too restrained earlier . . . Sirius never seemed to think things through.

The dancers returned to the table. Sirius took in Snape's arm about her shoulders but failed to react. As he picked up his glass, Tonks tensed, but then, when he simply sat down and continued drinking his beer, she became worried. 'Rarely as drunk as he makes out,' Snape had said. She would have to be careful.

The Quiddich argument resumed in a desultory manner with Tonks and Sirius joining in. Bel Fortinbras, however, simply leaned back and listened, watching Sirius, Snape and Tonks the while. Eventually she leaned toward Tonks and asked, in an interested manner 'So is it true then, Tonks, what they say about men with big noses?'

Tonks could feel herself blushing. Snape fixed Fortinbras with a particularly filthy glare. 'Would you like me to inform Professor Snape of your interest?' he enquired nastily.

'Oh, I think he already knows,' replied Fortinbras, getting up from the table and swallowing what was left of her drink. ''Night boys. Tonks.' She took her leave.

The arm around Tonks had been withdrawn. She could hear Sirius snickering. Avoiding glancing at Snape, Tonks continued to drink her beer. She missed the body warmth. When they got back to Number Twelve, she would drop Sirius into the umbrella stand. She sat and fulminated as the Quiddich argument became livelier, Sirius becoming increasingly outspoken in his opinions, even rude. He always had enjoyed an argument. Time to break this up, she decided. She leaned across to the Quiddich fanatics and smiled. 'Listen, fellers, love you, can't stand your hours. I'm going after this one.'

Styles grinned straight back at her. At least, she could see his teeth. 'Right. Who are these guys, really?'

Tonks examined the tabletop for a moment. 'Can't tell you, but I can trust them both. Don't worry.' A tentative twitch of her mouth accompanied this. They did worry though. She could see it in their eyes. Her disappearances, never properly explained, on 'Old Crowd' business, increasingly bothered them. She would have to talk to Dumbledore. Snape finished his drink and got up from the table. She put down her own empty glass.

'Call us,' instructed Gates. She couldn't resent it: they had all been watching each other's backs for years.

Sirius, however, showed no inclination to leave. Snape glared at him. 'You, outside,' he demanded, striding out of the courtyard.

'Oh shit.' Tonks got up to follow Snape. 'I'll call you tomorrow,' she told her partners. She seized Sirius' ear and pulled him to his feet. 'Trouble-maker.'

Holding onto Sirius' arm and ignoring the catcalls, she made her way across the crowded bar. The door of the Blue Badger opened onto a car-park stairwell where Snape was waiting. 'Black, you stupid . . . what did you tell her?' he hissed.

'The truth,' replied Sirius, then he disapparated.

They caught up with him on the scruffy patch of ground in front of Number Twelve Grimmauld Place. Ominously, the streetlamps were unlit.

'What truth?' demanded Tonks.

'The truth about the Order,' replied Sirius. 'She went to see Moody.'

So that was why she made that remark about Snape's nose thought Tonks, to see how we'd react, check that it really was Snape. Not just someone playing a practical joke.

'Goodnight.' Snape turned back towards the alleyway.

Tonks grabbed hold of his arm. 'This has nothing to do with me,' said Snape. 'Professor Dumbledore is unaware that I ever left the castle.' He tried to pull free and then simply glared at her. As the Potions Master himself had pointedly remarked after an incident at school, any person sufficiently unwise, physically to challenge a metamorphmagus, was perhaps better off in a hospital bed than a classroom.

So Dumbledore didn't tell him to do it, thought Tonks wonderingly

'That's OK. We can tell him,' said Sirius with satisfaction.

'And I can tell him that you assaulted a member of the Order,' Snape responded.

'So why did you help me, if Dumbledore didn't . . .'

'Because I am not that kind of sadist,' Snape interrupted sharply.

'Squeamish, Snivellus?'

Sirius really could not leave it alone, thought Tonks with sadness.

'Unlike you, as I recall.' Snape's words might have been carved in ice.

'Stop it, you two.' Tonks had had quite enough. 'Thank you,' she told Snape, 'I really appreciate . . . ' and then, very gently, she kissed him.

She regretted it almost at once. 'What did you give her?' demanded Kingsley Shacklebolt, whom she had not seen approaching. His wand was pressing into Snape's throat.

'Nothing,' protested Tonks, appalled, pulling the wand away. 'Sirius, tell him,' she demanded.

'I think, perhaps, that Professor Snape should come with us,' said Sirius.

A few minutes later Tonks was sitting to the right of Snape, on one side of the table in the kitchen of Number Twelve. Sirius sat to his left. Opposite were Hestia Jones, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Alastor Moody and, of course, Professor Dumbledore. Remus Lupin sat at the far end of the table.

'Well, Professor Snape?' enquired Dumbledore magisterially.

'I wanted to give something to Ms. Tonks,' said Snape simply. 'I had not expected to be more than a few minutes.' Sirius smothered a laugh. Snape just stared at the table in front of him.

Suddenly Tonks could imagine this happening before. Dumbledore enquiring, the Marauders suppressing laughter and Snape . . . Snape simply staring at the table, unwilling, or unable, to defend himself. She placed a hand on his arm and, for a moment, she was astonished when he went rigid, and then she was horrified. Azkaban . . .

She turned to the Headmaster, who inclined his head gravely. After a moment she collected herself and took a deep breath, 'You know about the shakedown . . . ' she began, but they didn't, so she explained. 'A shakedown is what it sounds like. We find whoever it is, and we get whatever information we can, while making them as uncomfortable as we can. Usually, anyway. As Professor Snape is on License from Azkaban he gets 'shaken down' regularly. Or rather he doesn't, and it's bloody embarrassing for us, when it's not actually painful. So anyone with any seniority avoids it like the plague. Bastards claim it's 'Educational'. '

'Well now, isn't it?' Kingsley was trying to swallow a smile.

'Actually it's a bloody wonder that it's not on the official curriculum.' Tonks scowled. 'This time we ended up covered in itchy green fur, courtesy of Hogwarts' house-elves,' she gave Dumbledore an injured look, 'so I asked Professor Snape for help.'

By the time that she had finished her account of the evening, Dumbledore had, apparently, regained his good humour. He smiled at her. 'Well,' he said, 'it seems that we must consider a new candidate for admission to the Order of the Phoenix. What can you tell us about Mehitabel Fortinbras?'

You mean apart from the Partial Sanity Bypass? thought Tonks. 'She's a really excellent Auror. She's fearless, intelligent, always really helpful . . .' Moody nodded agreement.

'She's good,' put in Shackleton.

'And she knows all about the Ministry,' said Sirius. Of course, Bel Fortinbras was his candidate. 'She's straight.'

'No.' Snape had finally spoken.

'Severus?' enquired Dumbledore.

'Mehitabel Fortinbras is far from straight. She is Slytherin to the core.' There were a few moments silence, and then Snape continued. 'Two years ago she turned up outside my chambers, at about three in the morning, with a bottle of single malt whisky.'

He had their attention.

'It seemed that she was concerned about a trainee Auror whose 'Assessment' was ongoing. She had had doubts about the young man's suitability as an Auror for various reasons, but most particularly as a result of his treatment of some of his junior colleagues. She believed that, were he to become an Auror, he would then see to it that certain others did not. Fortinbras had observed him, in the Library, furtively removing a textbook from its proper place, and replacing it elsewhere.'

Some of the faces around the table looked confused.

'Difficult to do required reading without a book,' explained Tonks scowling, obviously putting two and two together.

One side of Snape's mouth twitched slightly. 'Of course the young man had been assiduous in courting popularity with his superiors, had done well in his examinations and was strongly favoured by the Minister. She was under considerable pressure to give him a positive 'Assessment'. So Mehitabel Fortinbras chose, instead, to conspire to achieve his injury and subsequent negative report. She is not straight,' he concluded, 'but I believe her to be worthy of trust.'

'Do you mean Bush?' questioned Kingsley, 'Now works at the "Cauldron"?'

'He would have been of no further use to the Minister,' confirmed Snape.

'She was dead right, 'said Tonks, 'he was a complete . . .' She shook her head. 'Got nowhere and then claimed that I had a vagina dentata.' She could feel the colour leaving her face. Bush had regarded her as an exotic sexual opportunity, and had become unpleasant when she had declined to comply. Sirius, Remus and the other Aurors looked away but Snape merely regarded her interrogatively. 'Can't say I've ever tried,' she managed through her teeth.

'What did you do?' asked Remus, turning to Snape.

Snape glanced at the Aurors on the opposite side of the table, then turned his gaze to his own hands on the table in front of him, and said nothing.

'Bush tried to embarrass Professor Snape by going through his underwear drawers,' Tonks explained, feeling oddly abashed. 'I think you've all seen the Monster Book of Monsters. Well, Bush opened a drawer and - as Bel put it – the book leapt out and started snacking on his lunchbox.' As one, Sirius, Remus, Kingsley and even Hestia, flinched. 'Then he tried to hex it off.' There was another silence.

'No use as an Auror, if he panicked,' said Moody dismissively.

'There are potions that can produce anything from a mild unease to outright terror, and many of them are quickly absorbed through the skin,' declared Snape. For a moment Tonks was back in the Potions Classroom. 'The book was liberally treated with such a potion.'

'But you, yourself, handled the book, without gloves.' Moody wanted an explanation.

Snape sighed. 'It would seem that none of you have heard of Alchemist's Oil,' he said evenly. 'Actually an emulsion, it is tasteless, odourless and magically inert. It can be used on skin and hair as a barrier against magical substances. Useful when one is surrounded, as I am, by dunderheads intent upon causing the greatest possible destruction with the least effort.' He stood up. 'And now I think that it is past time that I returned to Hogwarts.'

Dumbledore nodded to Snape, and then turned to Moody. The familiar twinkle was definitely back in the old professor's eyes. 'Perhaps you will make the necessary arrangements?' he said.

They all rose to their feet and started moving towards the door, Sirius swiftly intercepting Moody.

'I think that I should get back to the Ministry flat,' Tonks told Dumbledore. 'Gates and Styles get worried. I wish you'd speak to them.'

'You have said, yourself, that Styles' mother is intimate with the Malfoys,' replied Dumbledore gently, 'and that you would not approach one without the other. We can only hope that the situation becomes clearer.' He placed a hand upon her shoulder. 'I am very pleased that you felt able to approach Professor Snape,' he continued, 'however, I feel that I must warn you that he is not an easy man to be friendly with.' Tonks nodded quickly and followed Snape.

He was waiting in the alley. 'Ms. Tonks, why did you kiss me?'

'To thank you?'

Snape came closer. 'For a person in my situation it is often advantageous to be owed a courtesy by those in positions of power, such as Aurors.' His voice was factual: indifferent. 'Such as yourself.' He stared at her, as she wondered that anything so cold could issue from someone who had felt so warm. 'Further, your action could have endangered me. This will not happen again.' He stepped back and disapparated.

Back at the Ministry flat she drank tea with Gates and Styles. Realising that something had gone amiss, they sat quietly, watching her. There it is, thought Tonks wryly, stupid boys who want an ornament, intelligent men who are afraid of me, even without the lies. Oh yes, and best friends I lie to. And she had been lonely enough to have given consideration to Snape. Snape who was brilliant, odd - yes, but brave, capable . . . and damaged.

In her mind's eye she saw him: clad in black with all those buttons, greasy haired and sneering - his defences, together with his razor sharp tongue. She wondered what lay within.