Chapter One: The Meeting
Tonks took a large spoonful of her vanilla ice cream, dripping with hot fudge sauce, and slurped it lustily into her waiting mouth. "Mmmm … oy! Eight and a half! Eight and a half!" she cried, while striving to keep the melting concoction from dribbling down her chin.
"Which one?" answered Cory, glancing feverishly around.
"The bloke that just came out of Flourish and Blotts," said Tonks, pointing.
"Oooh," said Cory. "Nice … but not quite an eight and a half. I think just an eight."
"Are you sure? Just look at that backside. That's got to be worth an extra half point."
"It is," said Cory. "Without it, he'd just be a seven and a half."
"You're such a harsh judge. I think you're blinded to the true attractiveness of this fine looking man because you're too damn smitten with your own personal perfect ten."
Cory giggled. "You're probably right." The old friends smiled at each other, and returned their attention to their ice cream sundaes.
Nymphadora Tonks and Cornelia Dodderidge (now Cornelia Heaton) had been friends since their first night at Hogwarts when they became dorm-mates. They had originally bonded over a mutual dislike of their Christian names, but by the end of the first term they had become best friends. To this day, six years after leaving school, they still made a point of getting together at least once a month for a girls night out. This time they had spent the evening shopping, and were wrapping things up with some of Fortescue's ice cream concoctions.
Rating the attractiveness of passing men on a ten point scale was an old girlhood game that they still indulged in during moments of excessive silliness, and tonight Tonks found it a welcome distraction. It was just what she needed to calm her nerves before going to her second appointment of the evening—the appointment that she hadn't and couldn't tell Cory about.
"So how do you think Mister Perfect Ten is handling little Geoffrey, on his own?" asked Tonks.
Cory got the same dreamy smile on her face that she always wore when she thought of her husband—even after more than four years of marriage. "Poor Danny. He's probably getting desperate for my return, right about now. Geoffrey steadfastly refuses to go to bed without his mummy there to tuck him in. You really do need to find the time to come and see him, you know. If you wait much longer, he'll forget all about his Auntie Tonks!"
Tonks felt a pang of sorrow. Cory and Danny were the only friends from school that she had stayed close to, and now, with her increasingly hectic schedule, she was drifting apart from even them. Her new, secret, commitment would only make things worse. "I promise I'll come over some time this month. I'll owl you as soon as I find a time that works," she said.
Cory smiled with sympathy, "You poor, high-powered career woman. I can't believe that I used to want your life. Now, I wouldn't trade you for anything; my boys are the only full time job I want. Don't any of you work-addict Aurors ever make time for personal lives?"
Tonks sighed. Her mother kept asking her that same question. And she'd started asking it herself. "A few of the blokes in the department have girlfriends, but only one is married. It seems that Simon was right, after all. This just isn't a family-friendly career." She had parted ways with her almost-fiancé, Simon, nearly a year ago, a few weeks after her promotion from trainee to full Auror.
"Don't give that prat more credit than he deserves."
"I'm not. But he was right about this, and I'm not too proud to admit it."
Cory eyed her in silence for a moment. "Do you ever regret it? Choosing career over family?"
Tonks shook her head. "If by family, you mean Simon, the answer is definitely no. But I do sometimes wonder if the right man came along—would I be willing to give it all up to have a family with him? I'm just not sure."
"I suppose we'll have to wait until you meet the right man, and then we'll find out."
They chatted amiably for several more minutes, while finishing their ice cream. Then Tonks glanced down at her watch. "I'm sorry to cut this short, Cory, but I've got a meeting in fifteen minutes. I really need to get going."
Cory frowned. "What kind of meeting do you have at half past nine at night? Or is it some sort of top secret Auror business?"
"Not this time. I'm meeting with Moody."
"Old Mad-Eye? I thought he was retired."
Tonks nodded. "He is, but lately he's been meeting with everyone on the Auror squad, one on one. Word is he's trying to find out who's on Fudge's side, and who's on Dumbledore's." What she failed to mention was that her first meeting with Moody had been five days ago, that her first meeting with Dumbledore had been three days ago, and that she was now, in Scrimgeour's words, "a dangerous vigilante."
Cory looked surprised. "And which side is Moody on?"
"Dumbledore's," said Tonks flatly, watching her friend's reaction closely.
Cory looked anxious. "So … Mad-Eye believes Potter's story?"
Tonks nodded. Cory asked, "Do you?"
Tonks leaned in closer to her friend. "I do." She paused, watching for her friend's reaction. Cory's face grew slightly paler, and her whole body seemed to tense. Tonks decided she better try to lighten the mood; she'd never intended to ruin the night with this sort of talk. She forced a light smile onto her face, and quietly added, "But it would be best if you keep that to yourself—it's not an opinion that's looked on favorably by my employer."
Cory smiled weakly in return, and nodded. She looked down at the table, and began to fidget with her hands. "You really think that … that You-Know-Who, is back." It was a statement, not a question.
Tonks reached out to take Cory's hand. "Don't be too frightened. But promise me that you'll be careful? And promise me that you won't ever take anything you read in the Daily Prophet at face value? Please? "
Cory looked into Tonks's eyes, and nodded. "I promise," she whispered.
Tonks shifted around the table to give Cory a hug. "I'm sorry to end our girls-night-out like this."
"It's okay," said Cory. "It's better that we know—so we can be on our guard. I just wish…"
"I just wish that Geoffrey didn't have to grow up with the same fear that we did. It doesn't seem fair, somehow."
"It never is," said Tonks. She hugged her friend even harder, as if her affection could make the world a safer place. "I love you and Danny—you know that, don't you?"
Cory nodded, with a warm smile. "Of course I know! And you know that we love you too. That's not going to change, Tonks, no matter what."
"Thank-you, Cory. I don't know what I'd do without you."
A few minutes later they bid farewell, and Tonks watched Cory walk away down a street that now seemed darker than it ever had before. In the past few weeks their world had changed, and no one else seemed to know it. Everyone else on Diagon Alley seemed carefree and happy, completely oblivious to the danger that lurked just out of sight.
Tonks shook her head. You shouldn't have to bear this burden, Cory, she thought. You shouldn't have to raise your son in a world full of fear. And I'm going to do my best to make sure that you don't have to.
Ten minutes later, Tonks stood by herself in a dim and dirty alley a few streets away from the Leaky Cauldron. She watched as two figures popped into existence in front of her with the sharp crack of Apparation.
"Right on time, boys," she said, forcing her face into a grin, in spite of the nervous butterflies in her stomach. "It's nice to see you don't keep a girl waiting."
Moody huffed, as his magical eye spun wildly in its socket. "You should speak to your elders with more respect, girl."
"Oh, come on, Mad-Eye. You know you love me," said Tonks. Moody's only reply was a snort of disgust.
Kingsley Shacklebolt stepped forward, a light smile on his face. "So, Tonks. Are you ready?"
Her heart was already beating faster, but she nodded firmly. "I'm ready. Let's go meet Sirius Black."
The wadded up old shirt glanced off the rim of the center of three rubbish bins lined up at the end of the hall, and then toppled gracelessly in. "Yes!" shouted Sirius Black, raising his fists in the air. "Ten points! This gives me an eighty point lead, you know."
Remus Lupin nodded, with a defiant grin on his face. "You haven't beaten me yet, Padfoot. We have three more rooms to clear out tonight, and that gives me plenty of time for a spectacular comeback."
The two old friends, charged with making Sirius' ancestral home habitable again, were in the process of clearing out the dressers and wardrobes in the third floor bedrooms. When Sirius had complained violently of his boredom, Remus had had to think quickly—after all, he didn't want to be saddled with all the work himself. So he had improvised the game of Rubbish-Quidditch. Much to his delight, Sirius had taken to the game enthusiastically. Apparently, banishing the last traces of his dear departed family to the rubbish bins was much more exciting when there were points involved.
While Sirius waved his wand to move the detritus of their various missed shots from the floor into the rubbish bins, Remus flicked his wand, and summoned the contents of the next dresser drawer. A pile of old socks settled to the ground in front of them.
"Now this is more like it," said Remus. "Socks will stay in a ball much more effectively than shirts. I can certainly stage a comeback with socks."
"Comeback my arse," said Sirius. "You're going down, Moony."
"We'll see about that," countered Remus, taking careful aim with his first musty sock. It landed cleanly in the center of the left-hand rubbish bin. Remus smiled broadly, and took a deep bow.
He was still amazed at how natural it felt to be horsing around with Sirius again, after all these years. They had shared a short visit when Sirius returned to England to look after Harry during the Tri-Wizard Tournament, but it had been hurried and tense. The first few days after the end of the tournament, and the return of Voldemort, had been equally tense. But in the past week they had found time to catch up—spending several long nights drinking and talking, and reliving their past together without much thought for the long dark years that had separated them. Sirius was now acting like the very same man he had been before the tragic events that had interrupted his life. It was almost as if he were pretending that his time in Azkaban had never happened. Remus wasn't certain if Sirius's attitude was entirely healthy, but Merlin knew that after his ordeal of the past fourteen years, he deserved some happiness. And if pretending that he was twenty again made him happy, so be it.
"Hah," said Sirius. "One lucky shot is hardly a comeback." He bent to retrieve a sock for his own turn. He spent a long time carefully rolling the sock into a tight ball, and then took a shot. It sailed neatly into the center bin. "Apparently," he said, "socks are equally favorable for my style of play."
The old friends continued their game amiably for several minutes. Just as Remus was getting ready for another shot, Sirius spoke. "Kingsly is bringing my cousin by tonight," he said. Remus's shot went wide, knocking into the wall beside the right-hand bin.
"Your cousin?" asked Remus. "He's bringing your cousin here tonight?" Sirius had mentioned nothing of the sort to him after Kingsly's visit yesterday.
"Isn't that what I just said?" said Sirius nonchalantly, taking another shot with an old belt that he had tied into a knot. It clattered clumsily into the center bin.
"But," said Remus, "why didn't you tell me that Andromeda was joining the Order? What about Ted? Is he coming too?" All thought of taking another turn had fled Remus's mind. Andromeda and Ted Tonks were well-respected members of the community, and held a great deal of influence over a wide circle of acquaintances —bringing them into the Order was a great triumph from a public relations standpoint.
"I didn't say it was Andromeda," replied Sirius, picking up an old hair brush and taking aim. He loosed it, but his shot was too powerful, and the brush thunked noisily against the far wall.
"You can't possibly mean Narcissa?" said Remus. Lucius Malfoy's wife would be an asset to the Order, but the likelihood of her betraying her husband seemed extremely low.
"Hardly," said Sirius, successfully making a shot into the left-hand bin with an old perfume bottle. Sirius smiled at the sound of it shattering. "Guess again, Moony."
"Well," said Remus, "what other cousins do you have?"
Sirius stooped to sort through the pile of Black family heirlooms at his feet, and finally selected a pendant that seemed to be a lock of human hair intertwined with a twisting serpent. "You've forgotten little Nymphadora," said Sirius as he took aim, and sent the pendant flying. It glanced of off the rim of the center bin, and fell to the floor.
"Nymphadora? Isn't that Andromeda's daughter?" It had taken just a moment for Remus to recollect the name of Andromeda's only child.
"So you do remember," said Sirius, hurling a statuette into the center bin.
"Is she really old enough to join the Order?" Remus could hardly believe it.
"Not only is she old enough to join the Order," said Sirius, once more rooting through the pile of knick-knacks, "but she also happens to be the newest member of the Auror Squad."
"Great Merlin, I feel old," said Remus. The two times he'd seen Nymphadora, she'd been a tiny little girl scampering underfoot. And now, she was an Auror. The years had gone by faster than he thought.
"Speak for yourself, grey-hair," replied Sirius, tossing a candlestick into the left-hand bin. "I'm ahead by a hundred-and-forty, by the way. If you're still planning on that comeback, you'd best get started."
Remus tightened his jaw. He had to admit that the most petty part of himself felt a twinge of envy that even after more than twelve years in Azkaban, Sirius's hair didn't show the slightest trace of grey. Resolutely, he stooped, took up a dingy black-covered diary, and expertly launched it toward the left-hand bin. As it smoothly entered the bin, he shot Sirius a smug look. "Why didn't you tell me about this earlier?" he asked, stooping to retrieve another projectile.
Sirius shrugged non-committaly. "Dunno. Didn't know what to say, I guess," he said, as Remus scored another ten points with a serpentine quill-stand.
"Well," said Remus, once more reaching for the pile of knick-knacks, "I think it will be a great thing for the Order to have another Auror in our ranks. We need all the help inside the Ministry that we can get." A gilt quill now followed the quill-stand, but ricocheted off of the bin and clattered to the floor.
"I confess I'm rather curious as to what sort of a Black would grow up to be an Auror." Sirius sent an ink-pot flying, and it landed in the right-hand bin.
"You always wanted to be an Auror," said Remus, lobbing a monogrammed notepad into the center bin.
"I know," replied Sirius. "That's why I'm so curious. Perhaps another Black has finally followed in my illustrious footsteps."
"Infamous footsteps is more like it," said Remus.
He watched as Sirius chucked a small mirror into the left-hand bin. It cracked on the rim and, improbably, the pieces managed to fall both inside and outside of the bin.
The two men stood silently, pondering the phenomenon. "What do you think, Moony?"
Remus shook his head. "No score. The rubbish has to fall entirely into the bin."
"Oh come on! At least give me halvsies—five points."
Remus raised an eyebrow at Sirius. "This, from the man who is still more than a hundred points in the lead?"
"Fine," snarled Sirius, stooping to grab another item from the pile at their feet. "Wanker," he muttered.
"You'd best watch your language around your little cousin. You wouldn't want her to think poorly of you."
"Hah," said Sirius as he scored again. "She'll probably think I'm a bloody hero, for escaping Azkaban like I did."
Remus sniggered. "Keep telling that to yourself—maybe you'll eventually believe it."
Sirius snorted wordlessly in reply. The two spent the next few minutes quietly taking turns, until the pile of knick-knacks at their feet was gone.
Remus sighed. "So, when are they supposed to get here?"
"What time is it?"
Remus glanced at his wristwatch. "Ten past nine."
"They should be here in less than a half-an-hour."
"Up for one more round before they get here?"
"Nah. I've kicked your arse enough for one night. I need a drink."
Remus nodded quietly, prudently choosing to reserve his discussion with Sirius about his excessive drinking for another day. The two men abandoned their game, and made their way down to the kitchen to await the arrival of Nymphadora Tonks.