A/N: Okay, folks, I've gone and screwed up the timeline. That's what I get for picking this up years after I started it. The last posted chapter (Awake) takes place the day after this chapter, a small detail I overlooked when I wrote it, so it's been deleted. I'll repost 'Awake' next week as chapter 11; please don't be confused when you see familiar content. The following chapter is also finished and will be posted shortly after that, to make up for such a lame mistake on my part.
Walburga Black's room stank of animal, underlaid by faint odors of blood and Firewhiskey. Lupin silently questioned again why Sirius kept the hippogriff. However unhealthy it was for a man to be holed up in this place, it could only be worse for a wild creature, gentled though it had become under Sirius' influence. The excuse that Buckbeak would be killed if caught grew weaker and weaker as time went by. No one was hunting it anymore. It seemed more likely that Sirius couldn't bear to let it go when he himself was still trapped here.
Both man and creature looked up from where they sat on the floor when Kingsley walked in, Lupin on his heels. Buckbeak quickly dismissed the two men, turning to nudge Sirius' forearm for another rat from the bloodstained bag lying between them.
"Gentlemen," Sirius nodded graciously, "please, sit down. I regret that the meal is somewhat informal, but that hardly matters among friends. Rat?" he offered gravely to Kingsley, who had squatted down next to him. The Auror made a face and batted Sirius' hand away. The rat flew out his grip toward Buckbeak, who caught it neatly and swallowed it down. "Not hungry, then? Moony, surely you'll partake. These are the finest rats my house has to offer, bar the ones that Kreacher steals from the traps, of course."
"Rat disagrees with me," Lupin smiled tightly and leaned against the wall just inside the doorway. The straw dust from Buckbeak's bedding caught in his throat and he was glad of the excuse not to go further into the room.
"Suit yourself," Sirius shrugged. "More for us."
Lupin caught Kingsley's look and wished he could reassure him. It was true that Sirius was probably joking, but Azkaban had done stranger things to men than give them a taste for rat.
Sirius slanted his eyes toward them. "Was there something you wanted, then, or are you just here to catch the circus act?"
Kingsley cleared his throat into the strained silence. "Moody says that Tonks should be out of St. Mungo's in two or three days. They're still trying to assess how much her injuries have weakened her, but we're figuring that she'll need to stay off her feet for a while. She either goes back to her flat and someone stays with her there, or she comes here. Neither one of us are crazy about the first plan. We're already stretched thin as it is, between guarding Harry and the Ministry."
"Here, no question," Sirius said immediately, perking up. "We'll fix up a room, away from the twins, of course, or she'll never get any rest. What do you think, Remus, first or second floor?"
"Second floor," Lupin answered after some thought. "Ron will leave her alone, Hermione probably wouldn't. We just won't put her in the room right under the twins. The loo might pose a problem, depending on how much help she needs."
"We can always have Kreacher unearth one of the old self-emptying chamber pots," Sirius grinned.
"Just so long as she knows it was your idea. I want it to be your head she throws it at, not mine." Lupin turned to Kingsley. "If she needs that much help getting around, should we ask Molly to stay with her the first few days?"
Kingsley shook his head. "Tonks likes her privacy, Molly's hovering would drive her spare. That's assuming she doesn't throw a fit when she finds out that we're arranging all this without consulting her first. The healers are waking her up tomorrow, so plan on having her room ready by Wednesday. I don't think she'll be out by then, but it won't hurt to be prepared. When she wakes up I'll see what she wants from her flat and bring it over."
Lupin shifted. Tonks and Kingsley were colleagues and presumably friends, it made sense that she'd feel comfortable with him going through her personal things.
"We'll have her room done tomorrow," he said, a little too loudly.
Sirius and Kingsley both turned to look at him.
He crossed his arms, forcing himself not to sound defensive. "Like you said, better to be prepared. Although I'd be surprised if they let her out as early as Wednesday. Don't you think they'll come up with excuses to keep her there longer?"
"You've met Tonks?" Kingsley raised an eyebrow. "I'd like to see them try. Between her and Moody, it'd be an interesting case of 'Healer, heal thyself.'"
Sirius grinned. "She's her mother's daughter."
"Good thing she's on our side."
Lupin found he couldn't join in their amusement. He didn't know the Tonks they did. He'd seen her at her most vulnerable and, more than likely, at her most daring and courageous, but if they passed each other on the street he wouldn't have any idea who she was. It was like reading someone's diary before being introduced. What he knew of her personality was so fundamental to who she was that she may not have known it of herself. She may still not know, or realize the significance. If he were being honest, too much of what he felt towards her was awe, and a fascination he wasn't at all comfortable with.
A rat bounced off his shoe. "Hey," Sirius said. "Conversation. We're having one."
It didn't take long to wrap up the minor details of what she would need, and Kingsley went on his way, leaving the other two staring at one another, Lupin in obvious discomfort and Sirius well aware of the fact.
"I'll go get started," Lupin muttered, turning to go.
"She really got under your skin, didn't she?"
He whirled back around, furious. "I watched a man I'd happily see dead torture a little girl that I was helpless to protect! Please tell me why this continues to be so hard to understand!"
Sirius shrugged. "I don't think that's what's really bothering you."
"I'm not interested in what you think."
"Not many people are these days," Sirius said darkly, rising and walking toward the door. He brushed past Lupin. "Doesn't mean that I'm wrong."
Lupin stood poised in the centre of the small, stuffy bedroom, his wand trained on a hole in the ceiling in the far corner. Another wave of the galleon-sized, brown-striped spiders nesting there erupted from the hole, swarming down along the wall toward him. His arm slashed a vicious arc, the spell sending a rain of spiders down on the ancient carpet to join their dead brethren. Two more slashes and the wall was empty again. Another minute passed with no sign of more spiders. He sent a directed Lumos into the hole. Nothing. A second Lumos, and a mild blasting curse which thudded into the ceiling hard enough to widen the hole and bring plaster raining down in that corner of the room, and still nothing.
"Come on, I know you're in there," he said. He edged closer, directing a long, thin rope of flame from the tip of his wand up toward the hole, careful to avoid the edges. Grimmauld Place was probably too damp to burn, but no point in taking chances. He sent a few sparks up, listening hard, and was rewarded for his persistence with a faint clicking, barely audible. Gotcha. Another quick burst of sparks brought his quarry raging through the ragged edges of the hole, the bulbous mass of it barely squeezing through.
An enraged queen umber spider was something to see, but not necessarily when one was facing it down alone. Lupin skipped backward toward the door, thankful that he'd had the foresight to prepare the trap first. She moved faster than her bulk suggested, chittering, all six of her red-black eyes catching the dim light as she scuttled toward him.
A sudden fit of coughing caught him by surprise. He fought it back as well as he could, but the noise made the queen veer from her beeline toward him and off to his left, away from an odd patch of carpet between them. He dodged right, hoping to bring her back on course, but she was still circling, down on the floor now and coming fast. In desperation he leaped over the odd patch of carpet, once again bringing it between them. She was only a few feet away now...
He cast a small ball of flame at the floor. There was a final, blinding burst of light, a crackling, a brief, horrifying sound akin to metal scraping across metal, and then silence. Lupin took a step forward and gingerly toed the charred exoskeleton of the dead queen.
"My apologies, your majesty," he rasped, still fighting back coughs. "You were in the wrong place at the wrong time." It was true. Umber spiders didn't usually nest in inhabited dwellings, but then, he supposed, nothing they found in this place should surprise him anymore. The nest had to be destroyed. One bite from a soldier, or even three or four, wouldn't seriously harm a person, although it would hurt like hell, but umbers were extremely territorial and swarmed like bees when they felt threatened.
His imagination cast up an image of a golden-haired girl, asleep and defenseless as hundreds of spiders crawled toward her, and suddenly he found himself repressing the urge to stamp the dead queen into a pile of ash on the floor.
"What's all the noise?" Sirius pounded on the door. "Moony, you okay in there?"
Lupin dissolved the wards and let Sirius in.
"I'm the only one allowed to knock down walls in this place, you know," Sirius said as he looked around, taking in the hole in the ceiling first. "What were you-" He recoiled. "What in the nine circles of hell is that?" he demanded, pointing at the queen, whose carcass was still faintly smoking.
"Umber spider. I had to lure it out, otherwise that hole would be smaller. Warn Molly not to let the children go near any holes in the wall when they're cleaning out unused rooms, we can't be sure there aren't more nests. Probably not, though. I'm surprised these were in here."
Sirius was eyeing the drifts of spiders along the wall with a look of revulsion. "What is it with this place? It's like some bizarre...evil magnet."
"Umbers aren't evil," Lupin objected.
"Oh, really, they're just misunderstood?"
"Just...nevermind," Lupin sighed. Sirius' dislike of spiders was nearly as strong as what he felt toward his family. Arguing was pointless; Lupin turned to clean up the mess instead. A quick Evanesco took care of the smaller spiders; the queen he left alone for the moment.
"Do not leave that thing in my house," Sirius said.
"I'm taking it to Hagrid, he might be able to figure out from the size how long the colony has been here."
Sirius made a face. "He's welcome to it, and any more you find around here. How'd you kill it, anyway?"
"Phosphor netting." Lupin pried up a corner of the now-blackened wire mesh with his shoe.
"I'm the only one allowed to burn this place down, you know."
"That carpet wouldn't catch fire if you tossed it in a volcano."
"Point," Sirius conceded. "You've been at this for over an hour. Take a break, we can both work on the room after dinner."
"Let me finish this up." Lupin bent down and started to roll up the length of netting along the floor.
"And leave you here so you can find something else that needs taking care of? I don't think so. Clean that...thing up later. Out. Go take a nap. Don't make me sic Molly on you."
"I don't need more sleep."
"Says the man who sounds like he's about to hack up a lung. You won't be much use to her if you keel over."
No question who "her" was. Lupin badly wanted to wipe the sly look off the other man's face, but it would only prolong the misery. If Sirius' plan was to force a tactical retreat, then it was working. Lupin left without another word, but his tormentor followed him out the door, keeping up a stream of cutting commentary all the way down to Lupin's room on the first floor. The only comfort Lupin could derive was that the content of what Sirius was saying, especially as regards to Tonks, was designed to force Lupin into doing exactly what he was doing―namely, get the hell away from Sirius as quickly as possible―rather than because Sirius put any stock into what he was saying.
Once back in his own room, though, Lupin couldn't escape the fact that Sirius had him well and truly pegged, even if he didn't realise the full extent of it. Dread and anticipation of seeing Tonks again made for an unpleasant mixture in the pit of his stomach, churning around with the humiliating knowledge that he was overthinking all of this and would probably make a complete ass of himself because of it. He needed to know the woman she was in order to banish the nightmares surrounding the girl she'd pretended to be, but there wasn't a rule of social behaviour anywhere in the world that covered their particular situation. He could almost wish that he'd never have to see her again, but that was a dangerous sort of wish to make, and it would be just his luck to get run down in the street tomorrow by a Muggle cabbie in answer.
It occurred to him as he was dropping off to sleep that there was another option. Avoiding her while living in the same house would be nearly impossible, but there was always work to be done for the Order that required travel. He would talk to Dumbledore tomorrow. It wasn't running away, he told himself, so much as another tactical retreat. The nightmares would fade, and they'd both be spared any potential pain and awkwardness. Better for both of them in the long run.
A/N, Part Two: Thank you to everyone who reviewed! As many other writers have said before now, reviews are like crack, and I'm not about to argue.
On to business. The fact that I did a bang-up job of not only screwing up the chapter order but also contradicting the established storyline in several places (the main reason this chapter was posted later than I'd wanted, since I had to track those bits down, check everything against previous chapters, and rewrite them again. Oh, how I hate rewriting...) has made me nervous. So consider this a general shout-out to my fellow nitpickers and grammar bitches. Represent, ladies (and gentlemen, if there are any). Glaring plot holes, redundancies, timeline blips, and typographical errors are all fair game. I'm open to suggestions for incentives, to make this a bit more sporting. Like fox hunting, only not nearly so inhumane (although possibly just as bloodthirsty).