A/N: So this is it, the final chapter. Before I get to it, I just wanted to say that this story has always been my absolute favourite to tell, and I'm so pleased so many of you have followed and enjoyed it – thank you xx.
They stood on the pavement in front of number 12, Grimmauld Place exchanging a glance – or what would have been a glance, had Sirius not been invisible.
Their Marauder brains, they'd decided, had rather let them down that morning, and it was only when they'd Apparated to Grimmauld Place that they'd realised that with Sirius in dog form unable to speak, and Remus with no idea how to make the house appear or get inside once it did, they were rather stuck. It hadn't been their best plan ever, Remus thought.
They'd adjourned to the small park in the middle of the square, where Sirius had assumed human form once more and then Disillusioned, which they'd both hoped would be of some help.
And it had been. Marginally.
After much pacing and incessant muttering about how this was all Remus' fault for getting him drunk and muddling up his thoughts with booze, Sirius had remembered the sequence of complex spells to make the house appear on around the fifth attempt, and now they stood, staring at the door.
"So how do we get in?" Remus whispered out of the side of his mouth.
"You just need to put some blood on the doorknob."
"Blood?" Remus said, aghast at the very thought since his stomach still hadn't entirely forgiven him for the previous night's activities.
"Only a drop."
Remus sighed quietly to himself. "Why is it always blood with you people?" he said.
"These are not my people, Moony," Sirius said, rather testily, "any more than they're yours, so just cut yourself or something, flick it at the door and let's go inside before someone spots you talking to yourself and they throw you in St. Mungo's."
"Me?" Remus said. "You want me to do the blood bit?"
"Shouldn't this be – I mean it's your house."
"I believe when it comes to the noble and ancient house of Black," Sirius said, "I'm about as persona non grata as you are, so I can't see it matters."
"Of course it matters. It's always like this with you people and your blood – "
"They're not my people."
"As far as your blood's concerned, they are." Sirius drew a breath as if he was about to protest, and so Remus continued, knowing that whatever protest Sirius had in mind, he was really just trying to avoid admitting he didn't want to do it because he was squeamish. "Stop being such a baby. It's just a drop – you said so yourself. Transform again if you want and I'll nick one of your paws – "
"Nick one of my paws?" Sirius said, evidently horrified at the very thought.
"They're less sensitive than hands, aren't they?"
"What do you know about paws?" Sirius said, and Remus turned towards him slightly and raised an eyebrow in disbelief. "All right," Sirius said, in a terse but rather apologetic tone, "you might know a thing or two, but you can't really compare them – I mean you've got hardened wolfy paws and mine are more – delicate. Domestic."
"Oh for – "
Remus stopped as a passer-by eyed him – apparently talking to himself – with suspicion. He patted the pockets of his trousers, rolling his eyes in mock-exasperation, hoping to suggest that he was annoyed with himself for forgetting something.
The man frowned and quickened his pace, but even though he'd appeared to buy the act, Remus thought they should really get inside. Sirius was still a wanted man, after all, and it was only a matter of time before someone spotted him talking to himself and decided to find out what he was up to.
Remus wondered what would look more suspicious, him slicing his finger and daubing his own blood on a not-too-sanitary-looking serpent-shaped knocker, Sirius' invisible form doing the same and making blood apparently appear from nowhere, or a dog pressing a bloody paw to the door in full view.
He quickly came to the conclusion that none of the options were significantly better than the others, but as two of them involved listening to Sirius whinge in an attempt to hide his squeamishness, Remus decided he'd better do it himself, even though he really wasn't convinced that anything other than Black blood would work. He surreptitiously took out his wand, slicing the tip of his forefinger with a spell, and shuffled closer to the door, pressing his bleeding finger to the knocker. "I'm not going to have to do this every time we need to come in, am I?" he said, and Sirius sighed impatiently.
"No," he said. "It's just a – I don't know, actually."
"Marvellous," Remus said, rolling his eyes and raising his finger to his lips to suck on his wound. "You better not have forgotten anything – once we're in, we're in. I'm not doing this again."
Sirius murmured some kind of noise of agreement, and Remus frowned at the door. He'd expected something to happen – probably, if he was honest, an ominous creak and the door to swing open while a ghostly voice whispered 'welcome, master', or something – really, nothing would be too spooky for the Blacks – and so when a minute or two passed and nothing did, he couldn't deny he was a little disappointed. He tried the door, but it was unrelenting underneath his fingers and refused to budge. "I don't want to say I told you so," Remus said, "and I don't want to have to go on about the blood thing, but – "
Sirius huffed. "Fine," he said, and then sighed again for good measure. "I just thought – I mean it's so unoriginal – blood – it's stuff like this that made me leave in the first place."
Sirius took a quick breath, and then mouthed the spell to cut his finger.
They'd all learned it, Remus remembered, in their second year, to make a childhood pact of everlasting friendship, dropping their blood onto the roots of a tree in the Hogwarts grounds. The idea that, once upon a time, three boys had wanted to do that for him, with him, to prove that they didn't care what he was still warmed his insides, even though he knew that the evidence of what had transpired later in their lives suggested that the promise of everlasting friendship had meant less to one of them than to the rest.
After that pact, they'd never done it again, deciding that cutting their quill fingers on a school night was very foolish when they didn't have access to the requisite healing spells, and subsequently they'd always settled for a handshake – but it had meant a lot, at the time.
Maybe there was something in the blood thing after all, Remus thought.
Sirius let out an exaggerated gasp as the spell worked, and a drop of blood appeared in mid air, seeming to float towards the door of its own accord.
Remus bit back a retch. Even given the myriad unpleasant things he had to compare it to, it was still a rather unnerving sight.
As Sirius' blood made contact with the doorknocker, there was an ominous creak and the door opened just slightly, and Remus would have smiled, had the ominous creak not been a touch more ominous than he'd been expecting and caused a shiver to race down his spine.
"Well," Sirius said, "shall we?"
Remus cast a quick look at the street behind them to make sure no-one was watching, and then nodded, and they both inched inside.
The hallway was gloomier than he remembered, thick with cobwebs, the air sparkling with dust from a shaft of sunlight down the corridor. The walls seemed to close in on them as they stood there, and as they advanced, slowly, down the hall, closing the door behind them with another ominous creak, the floorboards protested beneath their feet.
Somewhere above them, Remus sensed movement, although he knew he was probably imagining it, because the house had been deserted for years. He swallowed, tightening his grip on his wand regardless of what logic told him, and Sirius reversed his Disillusionment spell and peered down the corridor. "Welcome home," he muttered.
A scream rent the air, and they both jumped, sparks flying from their wands. The noise was deafening, and Remus winced, trying to shut it out, lighting his wand and casting the beam down the corridor, trying to discern the source of the commotion. Whatever it was, he thought, his blood was well and truly curdling at the sound.
A moment passed, and though the screaming continued at a truly horrendous volume, nothing else happened. They'd both expected attack, he thought, as if this was some sort of battle cry, and somehow, it unnerved Remus more that none came.
At first, there were no discernable words, only screeching, and then, as Remus tried to decide which impulse to give into, the one to cover his ears with his hands or to keep a firm grip on his wand, he thought he made out the words 'vile' and 'abomination', although really, they could have been anything. And whatever words they were, the noise certainly wasn't helping with his hangover.
He turned to Sirius. "What the – "
Sirius, however, seemed to know exactly where the noise was coming from, and, ashen-faced, he pointed down the corridor. Remus followed his gaze, throwing his wand light where Sirius was pointing, and Mrs Black's beady eyes met his, her painted face almost purple with rage.
The things she was screeching –
To say it wasn't language befitting a lady would have been a rather large understatement. Remus had met Walburga Black a couple of times in the past, and, unpleasant as their meetings had been, he was finding her all the more unpalatable in death. She'd always been snide, sneered down her nose at him for being a half-blood (although how she could tell just by looking at him Remus had never been entirely sure) but at least she'd never called him a filthy lecherous half-breed to his face.
After the initial shock of coming upon a screaming incarnation of his mother had worn off, Sirius sprang into action, trying first to wrench the painting clean off the wall with brute force, and then hurling every removal spell he could think of at it.
Remus hesitated – partly, he was still in shock and had no desire whatsoever to further damage his hearing by getting closer to the thing, but he also wasn't sure whether or not he should intervene in what was, essentially, a family matter. Sirius, however, seemed to have other ideas. "Bloody hell, Moony," he shouted, "are you going to stand there like a gormless wanker all day or come and help me?"
Much as Remus would have liked to remain where he was – or, in fact, go back outside and then home to bed – he joined Sirius in front of the painting, wincing as Mrs Black's screeches tore at his ears. He tried everything he could think of – Silencing charms, charms to remove the voice from objects like mirrors, even Muffliato – and after that, he tried things he really didn't hold out any great hope for, talking to the portrait in a soothing voice and even offering to move it to a better location away from all the nasty dust.
But nothing worked.
They were just about to attempt to blast the thing regardless of whether or not the force of their joint spell would bring the whole house down – really, they agreed, anything for a moment's peace – when, with an indignant wail, something small with pointed ears lurched itself over the banister at them. It went straight for Sirius, screaming about violations and how the ungrateful brat dared to besmirch his family home with his very presence, and it was a moment, Remus thought, until either of them realised what – who – it was.
"The filthy traitor dares to say Kreacher's name? Dares to defile his dear mother's memory with these spells? Master must not – "
There was a brief, dusty, scuffle – Remus thought at one point Kreacher had Sirius' arm in his mouth, and at another, Sirius landed a kick on Kreacher's shin – but between Kreacher's muffled epithets of Black family lore, the dust cloud the kafuffle created and Mrs Black's screeching, Remus could barely hear himself think, let alone figure out what was going on.
One thing was for certain, though – between Kreacher's vociferous defence and whatever spells had been cast on the thing either by Kreacher or one of the former occupants, that painting wasn't going anywhere. "What are we going to – "
Sirius' eyes flashed with panic for a second – or maybe it wasn't panic, just surprise that they'd been so easily bested by a painting and a house-elf – and then he grabbed Remus by the arms and shoved him down the corridor and through a door.
It closed behind them with a reassuring thunk, deadening the noise of Mrs Black's screeching, and they flattened themselves against the frame, coughing a little from the dust. Remus blinked as he tried to comprehend what had just happened, his eyes adjusting to the light. Of course they'd both expected that things wouldn't be easy here, but even so….
He took a deep breath, eyes darting around the room.
It was marginally less gloomy in here – was it the drawing room? – owing to the large window at one end, where sunlight darted in through the gaps in the curtains, revealing what had at one time been a very handsomely patterned carpet and hangings on the walls that had been the envy of nearly everyone who'd been invited to see them.
On the other side of the door, Remus could just make out Kreacher's chuntering – he was soothing the painting, he thought, calling her mistress and saying that he would deal with the filthy interlopers if they tried to defile her memory further, and after a moment, Mrs Black's screeches died down.
Remus shot Sirius a questioning glance, not wanting to speak first and set her off again. "I didn't – " Sirius whispered. "Can you believe he's still here?"
Remus shook his head. "Maybe if we tried to placate him? I mean you are the rightful – "
Sirius sprang away from the door, doubling over and clutching at his ankle. "What?"
"I don't – " Sirius hopped up and down on the spot for a moment, swearing under his breath and nearly losing his balance. He scrabbled with one hand on the sideboard to stay upright, while the other clutched at his foot. "Ouch! Oh, bloody hell!"
He drew his hand away from his foot, shaking it violently, and Remus could just make out a small, black fairy clinging to his finger, its short, sharp teeth sunk smartly into Sirius' flesh. "Doxies," he said.
Remus sent a Stupefy at it and it fell to the ground, but as he looked around the room, the scale of the problem became startlingly apparent.
Dozens of malicious black eyes glinted out at them from the curtains, and Remus tightened his grip on his wand, sizing up the situation.
Maybe, he thought, if the doxies lined themselves up, they'd be able to Stun a whole load of them at once – but the chances of that happening were nigh on infinitesimally small, and, realistically, they were encroaching on territory that had belonged to the doxies for years.
And if there was one thing doxies hated, it was people encroaching on their territory.
If they stayed, they were going to get bitten, Remus thought glumly. Potentially, quite a lot.
His mind whirred, weighing the options. Outside, in the hall, there was a psychotic screaming painting and a house-elf hell-bent on protecting it, and beyond that, who knew what else. In here, they were going to have to do battle with doxies, and probably not escape without some fairly serious bites. He swallowed. They never should have got up, he thought.
"We're trapped, aren't we?" Remus said, hoping that Sirius would have thought of some kind of genius solution to their plight.
Sirius jerked his head towards the fireplace. "There might be Floo powder," he said, although his tone said he was saying it more in hope than expectation.
"On three?" Remus said, and Sirius nodded. "One, two – "
They both sprang towards the fireplace. Sirius reached for the pot on the mantle, while Remus shot flames into the grate, just in case –
"Oh balls," Sirius said.
The pot was empty.
Remus yelped as a pair of tiny, scratchy hands fastened around his wrist, and then a set of sharp fangs pierced his skin – but, much as it stung, he had a rather more pressing concern. The air hummed with anticipation of attack, and as they both turned towards the curtains, the firelight illuminated hundreds of eyes glaring back at them. "I think we startled them," Remus said, rather hollowly.
"We should have gone with slow and steady."
"This is going to hurt, isn't it?"
The doxies swarmed. Remus ducked, trying to protect his head as tiny fingers clawed at his ears, his neck – Sirius managed to Stun a couple in the first wave of attack, but as many as they Stunned and swatted away, there were more –
As Remus felt a tiny, hairy body make its way up his trouser leg, and Sirius swore loudly, batting ineffectually at the handful of doxies that had attached themselves to his chin, Remus couldn't help thinking that they were both probably thinking the same thing.
They'd have preferred the fire-breathing maggots.
They'd always been a ragged bunch, the Order of the Phoenix.
Remus remembered his first ever meeting, when two things had risen above his nerves and excitement to strike him: firstly, how few of them there were, and secondly, how some of the members' outfits made his shabby robes and James' unruly hair look like the height of sartorial elegance.
And it wasn't as if he'd expected everyone to look like they'd just stepped off the front cover of Witch Weekly, but he'd expected that at least some of them would have been a bit less eccentric looking, have a veneer of professionalism, at least.
Now, though, he found the fact that things hadn't changed much and the new Order looked every inch as ragged as the old rather comforting. He glanced around the table – it was a wonder the thing was still standing after both he and Sirius had leapt onto it in fright after they'd been rushed by some small pink creatures they'd thought might be horklumps but didn't want to take any chances with – but here it was, decked with empty mugs that had been filled with steaming tea at the start of the meeting, and empty plates where there had been piles of homemade biscuits.
Remus knew most of the people crammed into the kitchen, and some things hadn't changed – no-one wanted to be down-wind of Mundungus Fletcher, and Moody still refused to sit with his back to the door, even though these days he could see through both the back of his skull and the door itself.
It was nice to see some old faces, Remus thought, people he'd known but hadn't really kept in touch with. Mr and Mrs Weasley had both made it – they talked about Harry a lot, asked for reports on how he was doing, and Remus remembered them well from the first war, how devastated they'd been by Gideon and Fabian's deaths.
It still surprised him, as it always had, how small in number the Order was, that more people weren't willing to stand up and fight, although in truth he didn't really blame them for attempting to stay out of things, having seen first hand what the consequences of not doing so could be.
There were a couple of new members, he noted, in addition to the Weasleys, but his attention kept being drawn by one in particular.
A girl with green hair, and intriguing dark eyes.
She was here on the recommendation of Mad-Eye Moody, which was enough to pique anyone's interest, since Mad-Eye's good opinion was rarer than hen's teeth. He'd introduced her as Nymphadora Tonks, and the name had conjured images of a slightly mad, wizened old lady with purple hair, a fuzzy cardigan, and too many cats – but, evidently, this Nymphadora was nothing of the sort.
This Nymphadora was young and distinctly un-wizened, with an achingly pretty face, and the green hair falling into her eyes seemed to set it off perfectly. Rather than a fluffy cardigan, she was wearing a tight turquoise T shirt with some kind of slogan on the front – possibly the name of some band he wasn't cool enough to have heard of, and, as he took her in for the thirtieth time in as many minutes, he couldn't help but think the best word to describe her was contradiction.
Her clothes, her hair, spoke of rebellion, but here she was, giving up a Friday night to sit in a gloomy kitchen and sign herself up for duty, tying her life to the fate of people she'd never met. Her foot jiggled against the leg of her chair, but when she spoke, her voice was steady and confident, and even though she seemed so young to be an Auror, her ideas were sound, and inventive, and she'd definitely inherited Mad-Eye's talent for spotting holes in things Dark wizards could exploit, if not his paranoia.
And she was –
He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but he found her inexplicably intriguing.
Or maybe it wasn't particularly inexplicable at all – maybe it was just because, as he'd said to Sirius, attractive women didn't cross his path every day, and she was certainly –
She met his eye across the table, and slowly raised her eyebrows at him, half-smiling in question as to what he was doing staring at her. He smiled back, shook his head and looked away, reminded for a moment of another girl who wore bright colours in wartime, and had intrigued him when his mind wandered at a meeting.
And with that comparison resonating, and nothing but Mad-Eye's chair scraping as he got to his feet to address them about constant vigilance to distract him, Remus couldn't resist glancing back at her, even though she'd already caught him looking once.
To his surprise, those dark eyes hadn't wavered from his face, though, and this time, when he met her eye, she raised one eyebrow slightly higher, the corners of her lips twitching in amusement.
He held her gaze, raising his own eyebrow in return as if asking what she was looking at, and she pursed her lips in an effort not to smile, and stuck her chin out at him indignantly, the message clear: you looked first.
Remus rested his elbow on the table and hid a quiet snigger behind his fingers. He was tempted to look away again – after all, what good could possibly come of him eyebrow flirting with a girl with green hair – but Moody was getting exceptionally vociferous about the importance of maintaining basic security procedures, which, according to him, included not accepting food even from people you considered to be good friends. Molly Weasley bristled in her seat and eyed the empty plates on the table with something approaching panic, as if she thought Mad-Eye was accusing her personally, but even that wasn't enough to really hold Remus' attention because, besides anything else, he remembered the lecture from the first war.
It had been a while since he'd done anything even approaching flirting with a girl, but Remus fancied that he hadn't forgotten how to do it, and so this time, when he met her eye, he held her gaze for just a moment before letting his dart down to the slogan on her T shirt, raising an eyebrow in inquiry –
He realised a second too late the inherent error in his move, and as her eyes widened in what he hoped was amused shock at what he was apparently looking at, panic seared through him. He tried to gesture surreptitiously to the front of his own shirt, indicating that he was just interested in the slogan and not anything – beneath, but Nymphadora offered him a mocking nod of disbelief, and for a full minute and a half, Remus wished the horklumps would come back and devour him.
Even for him, he thought, blowing it with a girl before actually getting the chance to speak to her was very good going.
He pressed his fingertips into his forehead and cursed himself for being a moron, and she looked away, smiling slightly – although whether it was an actual smile, or a smirk of some kind, or if it was some gesture of abject embarrassment, Remus couldn't say.
After a moment that felt at least a hundred times as long as that, she looked back again, though, meeting his eye with amused caution, and he grimaced in apology and made her snigger.
Heartened by the sound, he grimaced harder, collapsing in anguish on his hand, and this time she actually laughed, attempting to turn it into a cough at the last minute, albeit rather unsuccessfully. Moody glared down the table at her, and she shot him an apologetic look, indicating her throat with a vague wave and coughing again for effect, and then her eyes returned to Remus', and she rolled them and sighed in a manner that suggested she wasn't entirely unused to being caught.
They shared a knowing glance, a tacit agreement passing between them to be good for the rest of the meeting, and Remus studied the table, smiling to himself at the thought that he was very glad this Nymphadora had decided to give up her Friday night to sit in a potentially horklump-infested kitchen, and listen to a lecture on the dangers of talking to strangers. He was even more glad that she apparently wasn't going to hold a grudge about the T shirt thing, and he hoped she'd stay after the meeting so he could actually talk to her, because girls who were forgiving about that kind of thing were very few and far between, and since he was bound to do something stupider at some point, an attitude like that could come in handy.
"Thank you Alastor," Dumbledore said.
Remus looked up – he was certain Moody had simply paused for breath and was nowhere near finished – he hadn't mentioned the dangers of becoming inebriated in company or given his horrifying speech on pillow talk yet – but Moody sank back in his seat and Dumbledore took his place at the head of the table, leaning on it gently and looking down at them all with a smile. "We will all look forward to the next instalment," he said.
There was a general murmur of dissent, but Dumbledore ignored it, his eyebrows just belying a little amusement with a slight twitch. "That is all, for now," he said, "although I fear that in the weeks and months to come, we will be seeing entirely too much of each other. Those of you who have been given tasks will, I hope, accomplish them both safely and expediently." Dumbledore paused for a moment as if considering something, and then stood a little straighter, spreading his hands in front of him. "Alas, I have a pressing matter to attend to, and so for now, I must bid you goodnight. Molly has generously offered to provide refreshment for anyone who cares to linger and get re-, or better, acquainted, and I can heartily recommend the pineapple upside-down cake."
With a brief smile, and a nod of thanks to both Molly and Sirius, Dumbledore was gone, and Remus watched as a handful of people filtered out too, shushing themselves and each other as they passed the portrait of Mrs Black, which had effectively established its reputation as each and every person arrived.
To Remus' delight, Nymphadora remained, and he watched as she spoke to Mad-Eye, made him laugh, of all things, and then helped herself to a cup of tea, tossing a lump of sugar into it and splashing some on her fingers, then wiping them on her jeans as she glanced up to see if anyone had noticed. She saw him looking at her, rolled her eyes and blushed a little, and he stepped closer, having decided that he really couldn't not speak to her for any longer.
If he was honest, he was as keen to see if she'd live up to his rather glowing first impression as he was to see if he could make up for the confusion regarding her T shirt. "Just the fella," Mad-Eye said. "Tonks wants in on the mission to rescue Potter. Told her you're the one to speak to, but she'd be an asset in my opinion. Never can have too many Aurors on a job like that."
Remus smiled at Nymphadora in what he hoped was an encouraging, yet sorry-about-earlier, kind of fashion, although he supposed that if she'd really taken offence, she would have hexed him, or stood up and asked Dumbledore if the Order was harbouring perverts now as well as petty thieves and alleged mass-murderers.
"Glad to hear it," he said, with what he hoped was a winning and not-at-all-pervert-y smile. "I've not exactly been short of volunteers, but I'm sure your expertise will be invaluable."
"All set?" Mad-Eye said.
"Almost," Remus said. "Actually, there is an aspect that's been giving me some trouble," he added, frowning a little for effect and meeting Nymphadora's eye. "I need to get the Dursleys – that's Harry's family – out of the way, but at the moment I'm stalling on how to do it without an unnecessary amount of violence."
"Needs must, Lupin," Mad-Eye growled. "If they need clobbering, I say clobber."
"You always say clobber," Nymphadora said, chuckling a little as Mad-Eye rolled his non-magical eye and muttered something about some people just needing clobbering and there being no point pussy-footing around. She paused, her forehead creased in thought for a moment, and then she turned towards Remus slightly, raising her mug of tea to her lips. "There's a couple of things we could do," she said. "I'll put my thinking hat on, shall I?"
Remus nodded, trying not to get ahead of himself and think that her putting her thinking hat on would probably require a meeting where they discussed what she'd come up with –
Which was, of course, entirely why he'd mentioned it.
Mad-Eye glanced between them for a second, muttered something like 'probably got enough brains between you not to get us all killed', and then gestured to Mundungus and stomped off for a word about cut-price cauldrons.
In his wake, Nymphadora rolled her eyes. "Just clobber them," she said under her breath, but just loud enough so he could hear her. "Half the world'd be unconscious if he had his way. He tried to hex someone on the way here for looking at him funny."
"Were they looking at him funny?"
"A bit," she said, shrugging, "but I mean, he probably does look quite odd to a five year old."
Remus sniggered, and she laughed softly, too, glancing down at the floor and then back up again, meeting his eye. "I know Mad-Eye already said, but I'm Tonks," she said, biting her lip and extending her hand. "Just Tonks, unless you want your organs rearranging."
"I'm fairly fond of them where they are, actually, Tonks," he said, smiling a little as he took her hand, trying not to give in to the shivers racing through his body as she squeezed his fingers. "Remus," he said. "Remus Lupin."
Her eyes widened a little in recognition, and Remus' heart sank. "Oh, you're the – "
"I was going to say teacher," Tonks said. She winced slightly, and then smiled in what he thought was a rather startled, yet sympathetic fashion. "But Mad-Eye told me about that, too."
The word had been out of Remus' mouth before he'd even had time to think about it. He hadn't meant to say it, but he'd thought she was going to and his heart had sunk, and had apparently taken his brain with it –
Remus wanted to crawl underneath the table and hide, regardless of what might be lurking down there, thinking that even by his own standards, almost blowing it with a girl before speaking to her, and then definitely blowing it within a handful of words after he'd gone to all the effort of coming up with a ploy to see her again was really quite something.
Why on earth had he just blurted that out? He'd never told a girl he liked what he was before, let alone minutes after meeting her. He wondered what on earth his brain had been thinking, if it had even been switched on.
Remus spent the next few moments wishing he had something to bang his head on, and then stared steadfastly at the wall, desperately trying to think of something to say next, some way to retract, or counteract, his careless admission, but his heart was pounding too loudly for him to come up with even the most rudimentary conversational gambit. What had he been thinking?
A voice in his head called him all the names under the sun – but then, out of nowhere, two thoughts seemed to occur almost simultaneously, and the more he thought about them, the more important they seemed. The first was that he'd apparently decided that he liked her (and he did, he thought, but when had that happened?), and the second was that, well, not telling girls he liked hadn't exactly worked out for him in the past, had it?
And she hadn't run away screaming, had she?
Or if she had, she'd done it very quietly and out of his peripheral vision.
That was a glimmer, wasn't it, of hope?
At least this way, he supposed, he'd saved himself dozens of sleepless nights wondering when was the right time to bring the subject up – although, on reflection, there was every chance that he'd just traded those for dozens of nights lying awake wondering if the reason she didn't return his feelings – which she of course wouldn't – was down to what he'd said or just him in general.
Silence seemed to stretch between them, made all the more palpable by the sound of Sirius and Kingsley's mingled laughter drifting over from the other side of the room, but after a moment, Remus heard what he thought was Tonks shifting her stance a little, although he was still too nervous to look and check.
"Actually," Tonks said, quietly, "Mad-Eye's exact words were, I believe, 'might seem a bit wet, but he's a canny fighter' – and then there was some stuff about not letting stupid prejudices cloud my judgement about you." Remus abandoned the in-depth study of the mould on the kitchen wall he was making and chanced a glance in her direction. "And then there was a whole lecture on how an Auror should always make her own mind up about people, based on evidence she's seen with her own two eyes, not on reputations, hearsay, folklore, or preconceived notions, good or bad." She smiled at him and then wrinkled her nose. "Wasn't really listening," she added, although there was a kindness in her eyes that rather belied her words.
A smile tugged, cautiously, on Remus' lips, his heart did some kind of almost-leap, and he found that he didn't know quite what to say.
Half of him wanted to just keep blurting things out – that Mad-Eye could clobber who he wanted if he said things like that about him – that he was sorry for not breaking what he was to her more gently – that as introductions went, this one had been rather more in-at-the-deep-end than he ideally would have liked.
He even half wanted to blurt out that he was sorry for accidentally staring at her chest earlier, that he hadn't meant to, he was just interested in the origins of the slogan, although somewhere inside he knew that nothing made it sound more like he had been staring at her chest than proclaiming, out of nowhere, that he hadn't been.
The rest of him swallowed heavily, meeting her eye with a seriousness, a weight, he would have liked to save for when he knew her a little better. "Thanks," he said, quietly. "I didn't mean to just blurt it out like that."
Tonks shrugged, and smiled a little timidly. "What's it they say?" she said. "Better out than in?"
He chuckled softly, and, for a moment, he just looked at her, not really knowing what else to say, because she'd rather made anything he could say superfluous, and he didn't want to blurt out something truly stupid, like how much he thought he might like her, given a quarter of a chance. He settled for a slight smile, hoping that would could convey some proportion of the gratitude he felt, the tingling of possibility in his stomach.
Another moment passed, although rather more easily, and Tonks glanced down at her boots, shifted her weight a little and peered back up at him through her fringe. "So here we are, then," she said, "in equal wizarding opportunities corner."
"Oh come on," she said. She eyed the other people in the room with mock furtiveness, and then leant in. "If you're the resident werewolf, and I'm the resident Metamorphmagus, it's obvious we both got in as part of some kind of quota."
"You're a Metamorph – "
Before he could finish the word, Tonks screwed her nose up, and where there had been a shaggy green bob, there were now loose, telephone box red curls. "See?" she said. "I mean it's obvious, really, when you think about it. The Order's all about wizarding correctness. There's Mad-Eye, holding up the end for the differentially-abled – Sirius is an ex-con, we've got far too many redheads – there's Kingsley, the folically-challenged, and, well, Snape's obviously here making a stand for equal rights for the shampoo-phobic."
"Well when you put it like that," Remus said, sniggering slightly, almost afraid of what her easy charm might make him blurt out next.
Tonks grinned at him and then looked away for a moment, and he ran a hand over his jaw, wondering if he should really say what he thought he was about to. But she'd been immensely sweet in her efforts to diffuse his awkwardness and embarrassment, and had responded to his blurting in a way he would only previously have imagined in his wildest dreams, and so –
"I like your T shirt."
Tonks' eyes darted back to his in an instant, and she raised an eyebrow at him. "Yes," she said, "I did notice you admiring it earlier."
"I wasn't – the slogan just caught – " He stalled as her eyebrow inched higher in blatant, mocking disbelief. "Who's the band?" he said instead, deciding on a different tack, although he couldn't help thinking that even if she did think he'd been staring at things he really shouldn't have been, she didn't appear to be holding a grudge about it.
"Weird Sisters," she said. "I love their new album, don't you?"
He winced apologetically. "Should I have heard of them?"
"Probably," she said, laughing a little into her mug of tea. "You'll be filling the quota for people with questionable taste in music as well then, will you?"
"One musically-challenged werewolf," he said, "reporting for duty."
He smiled, and she grinned at him cheekily, and as they chatted for a while about how completely out of touch he was with wizarding music, Remus couldn't help thinking that even though he'd suffered doxy bites by the dozen, his ears still rang from Mrs Black's welcome, and he had a handful of new grey hairs from Kreacher's surprise attack, it had all been worth it.
Bruises and doxy bites and frights seemed a very small a price to pay for the privilege of standing in a gloomy kitchen, being gently mocked by a girl with telephone box red hair, who knew what he was, and flirted with him anyway.
"So, Moony's in love, then?" Sirius said, settling back in his chair and smirking.
The meeting was long over, and everyone had gone home, leaving only them, a stack of washing up, and a bottle of Firewhiskey in the kitchen. It was after midnight, and despite some murmured good-intentions about keeping the place spick and span since they'd gone to so much trouble to make it fit for human habitation, the Firewhiskey had been getting a little more attention than the washing up.
After the meeting, Tonks had lingered longer than nearly everyone, until Kingsley had joked about her having, last time he checked, a perfectly good home to go to, when her cheeks had reddened to nearly the same shade as her hair and she'd bid everyone goodnight.
Before she'd gone, she'd made a point of asking what night might be convenient for her to pop round and discuss the plan to retrieve Harry, and before he'd thought it through properly, Remus had said he'd be here every night because he really didn't have anything better to do – only realising after the words had left his mouth that in his eagerness to appear available, he hadn't really cast himself in a terribly attractive light. Tonks had laughed, though, and said she might see him on Tuesday, then.
And if it was honest, it couldn't come quickly enough.
He liked her.
And at first it had just been an idle kind of like based on eyebrow flirting and the fact that when she peered at him through her green, then red, fringe, she did funny things to his insides, but the things she'd said about making her own mind up about him –
Well, the more he'd thought about it, the more he liked that she was prepared to.
They'd chatted for most of the evening, in the end.
Sirius had come up at some point and swapped their tea for Firewhiskey, but mostly they'd been alone, talking about the big clean-up the place had been through and how much there still was to do. Remus had even shown her the scar on his wrist from his first doxy bite, and she'd laughed at the story, but pouted sympathetically at the pale patch of skin beneath his watch strap.
She was easy company, he thought, full of amusing anecdotes to fill any gaps in the conversation, and by the time he closed the front door behind her and tip-toed back down the corridor, he felt like he'd known her for years, not hours.
Sirius raised an eyebrow at him, smirking more widely and reaching for his Firewhiskey. "I saw you, flirting with the new girl."
"I wasn't – "
"Yes you were. And she's my cousin, too – you know, I think we're going to have to have words about that," Sirius said, wagging his finger at him, but grinning at the same time and rather undoing the effect.
"Oh good," Remus said, reaching for his glass. "I'll look forward to it."
He took a sip of his drink and set the glass back on the table quietly, tracing the rim with his fingertip and smiling slightly to himself at the thought of a joke Tonks had told about two Aurors and a light bulb. "It's been a while since I saw you look like that," Sirius said.
"You've been in prison for thirteen years," Remus replied. "It's been a while since you saw me look like anything."
Sirius glowered, and Remus sniggered, running a hand over his jaw and wondering why it was that the simple act of meeting someone – a girl, who he didn't even know that well – had made everything, the world at large, what they had to face, better.
"What was it James called it?" Sirius said, frowning and gesturing vaguely to Remus' face with an airy wave. "Part hopeful puppy – " Sirius trailed off, frowning harder as he fought to remember, and Remus sighed.
"Part hopeful puppy, part romantic hero," he said, folding his arms across his chest and sinking back in his chair, "and just tinged with desperation."
"Yes," Sirius said, throwing his head back as he laughed. "That's it. That's it exactly."
Remus sulked for a moment, but he could barely contain the grin that lurked just below the surface, and so he relented, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the table. "Is it really that obvious?" he said.
"Only to me," Sirius said, "and I'm a seasoned Remus-observer. You wore exactly the same expression after you decided what's-her-face was the love of your life, and after your little indiscretion in the broom cupboard. It's a dead giveaway."
"Oh good. I'm sure the tinge of desperation is really attractive."
Remus stared at his glass, and Sirius chuckled quietly, reaching for the Firewhiskey and pouring them both a generous top-up. "Are you going to ask her out?"
"We only just met – "
"I know," Sirius said, "but there's a war on and time waits for no man."
"Maybe," Remus said, and then frowned.
"You're not, are you? You're going to brood for months and there'll be endless bloody moping, not to mention some very dodgy music."
Remus laughed. "Probably," he said. He took a long sip of his drink, smiling up at Sirius from the hand he was resting on. "I told her," he said quietly. "I told her I'm a werewolf."
Sirius' eyebrows darted up in surprise, and Remus nodded. "I didn't mean to," he said. "It just happened."
"What did she say?"
Remus let out a long, slow sigh that was half a chuckle and half nothing of the sort. "Exactly the right thing," he said, although his tone was rather more rueful than he intended.
Exactly the right thing, he thought. She had said exactly what he'd always wanted to hear, that what he was mattered less than who, that she wouldn't treat him like a werewolf so much as a man who just happened to be one – and the prospect of that, that someone he liked, had been intrigued by anyway, thought that in addition – well, it was wonderful. Almost unimaginably so.
"Why don't you ask her out, then?" Sirius said. "I mean that's always been the big hurdle, hasn't it?"
"What if she says no?" Remus said. "Then things would be awkward and difficult, and she'd feel odd around me – and I don't want that. Friends who don't mind are hard enough to come by, let alone anything – else – more than that."
Sirius rolled his eyes. "You're such a bloody pessimist. What if she doesn't say no?" he said. "You know, women have been known to say yes to you on more than one occasion – " Remus' jaw tensed of its own occurred and he frowned. " – and don't pout at me like that, Moony. I was there – I remember it."
"Still – "
"What's the worst that can happen?"
"She says no, laughs in my face – or worse – and I'm plunged into a deep pit of depression when I realise I've got nothing left to live for, and spend the rest of my days crippled by an unerring, foggy despair."
Sirius grinned. "I missed you being all melodramatic about girls," he said, and Remus glared at him, though that just made Sirius grin harder.
"And in retribution for you forcing me to ask in the first place," Remus said, tersely, "I make you to live out your days with me, and listen incessantly to Joni Mitchell."
"You wouldn't," Sirius said, sinking back in his chair, his mouth hanging slightly open.
Remus met Sirius' eye threateningly and hummed a few bars from Big Yellow Taxi, and Sirius clutched at his chest, moaning as if he was in pain until Remus stopped humming and laughed."Seriously, though," Sirius said, reaching for his glass, "you said it yourself – eligible women don't cross your path every day."
"And ones who don't mind your furry little problem are even fewer and further between."
"And I think that's worth a gamble, don't you?"
Remus sighed. He supposed Sirius was right – but what she'd said, well, it raised the stakes, and in all honesty, he wasn't so much afraid of her saying no – although obviously that would be crushing – as her saying yes, and what would happen then.
Before, the only thing he'd ever really stood to lose was his heart, but this – well, it felt like more than that.
And he knew he was getting ahead of himself – so far ahead of himself he could barely make out his own figure, dashing off into the distance, but somehow those feelings didn't seem entirely out of place, either.
"I'm really not very good with girls," Remus said. "I mean if you remember girls saying yes, you must remember the mess I'm capable of making of things when they do."
Sirius shrugged. "You only need to get it right once, though, don't you?" he said. "And not to get a reputation as a hopeless romantic, but maybe the reason you messed up with all the others was that they weren't the right girl."
"That is hopelessly romantic," Remus said, smiling a little at the thought.
"Indulge me, Moony," Sirius said. "It's been a long week."
Remus laughed, hard, and then sank back in his chair.
Maybe Sirius was right, he thought, although he could barely believe he was even entertaining the notion that Sirius was right about anything, since he was the one who'd suggested Grimmauld in the first place and was therefore responsible for their subsequent injuries.
It was hopelessly romantic to think that he'd never got it right before because he wasn't meant to –
But the fact was that the instant Tonks' eyes had met his across the table, something long dormant had stirred inside him, some feeling he'd been searching for but had never quite found.
For a moment, his thoughts wandered, faces from the past drifting in and out, and the more he thought about it, the more one, single idea seemed to solidify in his mind.
He'd never expected to be, but he was glad that everything that had happened in the past had happened.
He was glad that Olivia had handed him a note and ripped his heart out, although he couldn't deny that he still bore something of a grudge towards David sodding Reynolds and he definitely had a cruciferous vegetable head hex coming if Remus ever saw him again.
He was glad that things hadn't worked out with Susan – not that they were ever likely to have done, when they'd started out on such an uneven footing, but still – and he was glad Elsa had seen through him, gone on to find someone more worthy of her affection, someone who already had all the same books she did, and dozens of ludicrous theories of his own that made perfect sense when he explained them.
He was glad that Lucidia hadn't wanted to make a go of things, although sometimes, when it was cold, he still thought he could feel a lump on the back of his head where he'd whacked it on the shelf in that broom cupboard.
He was even glad he'd met Heather Noonan, he thought, because now at least he knew that there were some people you had to deal with like a seventeen year old, whatever age they were, something that had come in achingly useful when he'd convinced himself he was in the right as he practiced a charm to make his doorknocker fire bat droppings at Dolores Umbridge. He frowned at the thought that actually, that was a bit of a lie. Mostly, when it came to Heather, he was just glad she wasn't here….
He was glad for Hattie, though, that she'd understood that he liked her a lot and the circumstances just weren't right, even if her brother hadn't understood that at all and the resulting bruise had lasted for a very long time.
He smiled at the thought that that, he supposed, brought him to Lily.
There was so much to be glad about when it came to Lily, although in the years since she'd died, he'd missed her very much. Her friendship, what they'd had, he'd always be glad about that, because she'd given him hope, and had there ever been a more precious gift than that?
He was glad for the time he'd spent with Malina, too, and though he'd regretted giving in to cowardice and not following her to Poland every day for years, he was glad that he hadn't, because she'd found someone wonderful, and had made the life she'd always wanted for herself. And Claire. His heart had never really been in that, he thought, but he couldn't say he really regretted it, if only for the amusing vase-related break-up story.
He let out a soft breath of laughter, and Sirius looked up, meeting his eye and raising an eyebrow. "What?" he said.
Remus shook his head, running his hand across his jaw and trying to ease out his giveaway smile. "Nothing," he said. "Just thinking."
" 'bout what?"
"Love," he said. "Girls. Tonks."
Sirius laughed. "Oh, well, that's where the trouble normally starts," Sirius said, "with the thinking."
"Isn't it just," Remus replied. "And then come the sleepless nights, the worrying what your hair looks like, the ache in you chest when you think they don't like you back but you can't get them out of your mind – "
"That's what makes it worth it, though, isn't it?" Sirius said. "That it's not easy."
"Hmm," Remus murmured.
That, he thought, and the possibility that one day, it might be.
He drained his Firewhiskey, but the glow that set up camp in his stomach was nothing to do with what he was drinking, and everything to do with the thought of Tuesday, and seeing Tonks, hearing her ideas for the Dursleys. Maybe, he thought, if he was feeling brave, he'd persuade her to stay for dinner, and see where that lead, test out if what he thought he felt for her was really as scary and monumental and wonderful as he thought it might be.
And in the wake of that, he thought, none of his past failings seemed to matter, because maybe this time, she'd make sure he got it right.
Remus reached for the Firewhiskey and topped up their glasses. "A toast," he said, and Sirius raised an eyebrow along with his glass.
"Is this going to be hopelessly romantic?"
"Well you started it," Remus muttered, and Sirius laughed. "Here's to – "
"Do you promise not to go all mopey and pathetic?"
"How can I possibly promise that, Padfoot?" Remus said. "It's not like I ever did it on purpose."
"But you're older now. You must have learned how to avoid some of the pitfalls?"
"I'll know to watch out for low shelves if we ever end up in a broom cupboard," Remus said, and Sirius laughed.
"That's it?" he said, nearly snorting with amusement. "In twenty years, the only thing you've learned about dealing with the opposite sex is to look out for low-flying shelves?"
"Well it hurt a lot," Remus said. "Made a big impression. Sometimes it still aches in the cold."
Sirius spluttered into his drink, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. "Oh, Moony," he said. "I do believe you're well and truly doomed."
"Well," Remus said, raising his glass, "I'll drink to that."
He clinked his glass against Sirius', and they fell into easy conversation about their time at school, all the girls they'd known and some of the particularly memorable encounters they'd had. There was a good deal of mocking on Sirius' part, although Remus didn't really mind it, because he wouldn't have changed those experiences, that life he'd chanced upon when it was what he least expected, for anything.
If nothing else, he thought, if none of that had happened, if he'd made a go of things with any one of those girls, as he might well have done, he wouldn't have met Tonks –
And that, Remus thought, would have been the biggest disaster of them all.
A/N: Many, many thanks to all of you who have reviewed the previous chapters. Anyone reviewing this last one gets a great big hug from a slightly tipsy werewolf, and possibly a slightly boozy snog, too ;).