This story follows Then Face To Face in the Transfigured Hearts series, and is set between chapters twenty-nine and thirty of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Many thanks to Godricgal for her unflagging support, and for her incredibly thoughtful, thorough beta work.
He had walked these darkened halls alone so many times.
A quarter of an hour ago, he'd expected to be walking them with her, sorting out the mess he'd made of their relationship. Between the Hospital Wing and Gryffindor Tower, however, they had encountered Rufus Scrimgeour and his delegation. The Minister requested Tonks to accompany them to the Headmaster's -- Headmistress' now, Remus reminded himself -- office to fill him in on the sketchy details of the battle. Remus had seen Hermione, Neville, Ron, Ginny, and Luna to their dormitories, and now he made his way through the corridors to descend the great marble staircase.
Alone, the quiet drowned out the last lingering notes of phoenix song; the shadows quenched the hope Tonks had sparked inside of him. Bereavement wrapped around him like a heavy cloak, reminding him of the burden that the Order -- that he -- must bear now. Without the one who had always believed, always trusted, even when Remus had given him no reason to do either.
The darkness was suffocating. Remus opened his palm and muttered the words to make the flame flicker to life in his curled hand. Its glow did not extend more than a few feet, but it was enough to allow him to breathe again. There was a clear path before him, albeit a short one.
It was enough to drive the Dementors of despair from his mind and allow him to vividly recall his first patrol of the Gryffindor Tower corridors as a prefect. How painfully conscious of the badge pinned to his robes he'd been -- he'd tried so hard for the first four years not to stand out among the students, and it terrified him to be suddenly singled out, and put into plain view of everyone. (Even being best mates with the most popular boys in school had not thrust Remus into the limelight; no one outshone Sirius Black.) Wouldn't people notice a prefect's monthly disappearances? At the very least, Lily surely would notice the pattern and suss the truth…
Reaching a landing, Remus stopped and peered down at the levels of stairs winding down below, sadness weighing heavily on his shoulders as he looked down at the destruction that had been caused just a few short hours ago.
Fear had not been his only feeling upon being made prefect. Pride had burned warmly in his chest, as well. His mother's eyes had shone with tears when the owl delivered the badge, and cooked a celebratory dinner that rivalled one of Molly Weasley's meals; his father's face had not seemed so lined and grey and guilty.
Of course, as Sirius has pointed out, as he and James were always in detention, and Peter would get bullied out of giving them, Remus was just the lesser of four evil prospects.
Which, for a Dark Creature, was still something.
Continuing his descent toward the ground floor, Remus' reflections turned more melancholy. His name would never go down in revised editions of Hogwarts, A History as a great prefect. Great prefects did not hide from the Headmaster that their mates were secretly studying dangerous, illegal magic; they did not disregard the guidelines that had been so carefully arranged to allow him, to attend school. No -- great prefects upheld the truth, and accepted the consequences. But prefect Remus Lupin had kept silent. For those few years, he was happy, and liked, and nothing else mattered.
Remus stopped again as he alit on the second floor landing, and peered for a moment down the shadowy corridor that led to the Defence Against the Dark Arts office. He considered having a look inside, to see if any trace of his tenure lingered in a legacy, but decided against it. If Barty Crouch, Jr. had truly played the role of Mad-Eye, he would have cleaned out the place in a fit of constant vigilance; Dolores Umbridge and Snape certainly would have made absolutely certain there was no evidence that a werewolf had preceded them in the post.
But, as he turned to continue down the last flight of stairs, Remus could not deny that he'd not been the professor he should have. There should not have been nights of pacing the corridors, agonising over his betrayal of Dumbledore's trust. He'd known the position's curse, if not his own, made the post temporary. Why had he lied to keep it? Things might have turned out differently for Sirius, had the truth come out sooner.
Things might have turned out differently for him.
As it was, the truth had come out too late, and without a word exchanged between Remus and Dumbledore on the matter.
If they had spoken, would Remus have questioned why Dumbledore had sent him underground? Might Remus have seen himself as emissary, and not exile, as Dumbledore had intended?
Would Tonks' heart have been spared?
His own heart constricting, leaden in his chest, Remus leant heavily on the banister, head bowed, too-long hair falling in his face.
He was a fool. Such a fool to have doubted.
Dumbledore's actions -- his unwavering trust -- had spoken louder than any words.
As Tonks' had.
And her words. A million times.
A million times: I don't care.
She had shown him what he needed to know. Why had he placed such importance on words? No doubt Tonks would have told him what he needed to hear, if only she had known what.
If only he had told her what.
Or given her the chance to say it.
Clomping footfalls from the flight above echoed through the still castle. As they descended nearer, Remus knew without looking that it was Tonks. When she was nearing the landing just before the last set of steps, he turned.
Tonks stopped dead at the top of the stairs.
Remus' gaze locked with hers, acknowledging what he had come so close to admitting earlier (Merlin, it seemed an age ago that they'd walked to the school, and Bill, cheerful and handsome, had interrupted them), before the battle, and what his heart had always known, but his mind had been unable to accept till now: he and Tonks belonged together, were meant to be.
Fathomless black eyes were trained unblinkingly on him, reflecting the flame, regarding Remus with the same wisdom he'd seen in twinkling blue eyes behind half-moon spectacles.
"I have the utmost confidence, Remus," he heard Dumbledore's voice echo in his memory as he continued looking into Tonks' eyes, reading the same message in them, "that you are more than adequate for this responsibility."
Hope once again flared to life, stronger than it had in the hospital wing; more brilliant, more illuminating, than the magical flame he held in the palm of his hand; so warm that it melted the barriers of lonely isolation sent a surge of overwhelming responsibility searing through his very marrows and veins.
If ever he were to live up to Dumbledore's expectations, or even to prove himself merely adequate, it could only begin here.
With this witch, who never wavered in her belief or trust, even when he failed her utterly, to whom he was, incredible as it seemed, so perfectly suited to and suitable for...
Oh Merlin, how could he ever express to her how much she meant to him, and everything he was feeling?
"I love you," Remus blurted.
Tonks clutched at the banister, her feet shuffling to support her.
The inner fire burned more intensely, hotter and hotter with every second that Remus looked up into her eyes.
Here was Nymphadora, in the flesh, in the place he had always held her: above. But not on a pedestal, not out of reach; between them were stairs, steps leading up to her, and she was here, waiting for him to say the words that would bring them together, as they were meant to be.
Hand on the rail, Remus ascended -- one step. "You know I love you."
"It…" Tonks' voice cracked. She shook her head, and Remus could only imagine she was dispelling disbelief that he had finally, really changed. "It was never a question."
"That's why your Patronus became…"
Grasping the gilt handrail, Remus forced his eyes off of his fidgeting fingers and on to Tonks' face.
Her lips were parted; she was holding her breath.
So was Remus.
He released it with, "Me."
Tonks' posture was absolutely rigid, as if she'd been hit by a Petrificus Totalis that rooted her to her floor. Remus realised that in order to reach her, he must ascend to her. There was no bringing her down, only him lifted up.
It had always been so.
How had he been so foolish as to believe anything else?
Remus mounted the second stair. "It changed because you knew I hadn't stopped, that I'll always love you."
Tonks remained so still -- face revealing nothing -- that Remus stopped again and hung his head. "Of all the things you need to hear from me right now, that is, ironically, the one thing you don't."
Through his eyelashes and fringe, Remus saw her boots step down. "I never get tired of hearing it," said Tonks. "I certainly didn't hear it enough this year."
Even as his heart constricted with a shock of guilt, Remus advanced up onto another step, meeting her eyes as she continued, "And if the alternative's our million and first argument about—"
One step below her now, but at equal height, Remus reached his hand out and pressed his fingertips to her lips. They were chapped.
"I do have close to a million things to say to you," Remus told her, "but none of them are arguments."
Tonks' eyes softened as she caught her breath. "You don't have to say them right now."
Remus wanted to say them right now, wanted to make everything right again. He tried think of what they were...
...but he found that he had only one, singular thought. The one he'd already given voice to. It insisted upon being voiced again.
"I love you," he repeated. "And I promise you, Nymphadora, I will make up for all the times I should have said it." He slid his fingers from her lips to her cheek and, quickly murmuring the words to put out the magical flame, brought his other hand up to cup her face in his palms. "A million times. I love you."
Her dark eyes glittered, and Remus just saw the haggard lines vanish before she leant forward, caught him tightly around the waist, and buried her face in shoulder. Remus returned her embrace.
Not an hour before, he had resisted the impulse to fall into her arms, and lean against her strong shoulder; now he was the one doing the holding as she trembled against him. All year he'd kept away from this, feeling too weak to be what she needed. If only he'd known he would feel he solid and sure as he held her, as though made strong enough by the very act of trying to give what she sought -- if only he had not been too stubborn, too fearful to try.
Merlin, her body seemed so small in his arms. And yet she was everything to him in this moment.
They made each other strong.
And safe -- how else could her Patronus have taken his form?
She had always been such a silent crier that Remus could not be sure whether she was doing now, or if she was shaking because her muscles were strained with holding to him with all her strength. If she was crying, Remus, for the first time in a year did not feel like a monster for making her do. It was the embrace that would have been so very normal for them under normal circumstances, upon the end of battle and the realisation that they had both made it through.
Tonks was relieved.
Remus bent and nuzzled her cheek and her neck, while his fingers stroked her lank hair. He whispered that he loved her -- a million times were miles away, but little by little the tension she carried in her shoulders relaxed.
He was a comforter.
How much time elapsed as they embraced, Remus had no idea. When Tonks drew back, smiling slightly, Remus exhaled deeply to see her eyes holding him so softly as her fingers traced patterns on his back. Yet there was something dazed, too, about the way she was looking at him, a little wide-eyed, as though she were trying to work out whether this were really happening.
She might not need him to say everything now, but he had to say something.
"I'm sorry," Remus said.
"I know that, too."
"I don't know how you can ever forgive me for the way I've--"
"You know that I have," Tonks gently interrupted, "and why I have. Because I…" She stopped. She pressed her lips together, looked steadily at him.
In the silence, Remus searched her eyes. Why did she hesitate? Her hands squeezed him.
She was prodding him.
Understanding dawned. Tonks needed him to acknowledge what she'd been saying to him all year, a million times.
She needed to hear the words.
"Because you love me," said Remus with a shuddering breath, holding her more closely to him, very glad for her arms circling him. "After everything…I don't understand why or how."
"Do you need to understand?" Tonks asked, and Remus looked down and saw tiny lines furrowing the corners of her mouth and eyes as she frowned. "It's enough for me just to know I do."
Did he need to understand? That had been the problem this year, had it not? Everything he'd thought he understood, he truly had not comprehended at all.
"I think…" He shook his head and tightened his embrace. "I know it can be enough for me. I don't want to care about the whys and hows anymore."
Tears pooled at the corners of Tonks' eyes, then she tucked her head under his chin, cheek pressed to his chest. Her breath shuddered against his chest, and even through their layers of robes and clothes he could feel her heart pounding erratically against his. Instinctively, Remus kissed the top of her head; Tonks raised it again.
There was so much hope in her expression that Remus had to take her sweet, heart-shaped face in his hands again, and press his lips gently to her mouth.
The kiss was brief, and just as he pulled away, Tonks, as though she'd been waiting for him to give some indication that it was all right to do so, asked breathlessly, "Come back to the Hogshead with me? We can not care together."
Despite wanting to take her hand and run straight downstairs, out the doors, and down the road to where they could Apparate to the inn, Tonks' words, and the suggestion that he'd said enough on the matter, made Remus bristle.
Feeling it, Tonks looked up sharply.
"Our conversation cannot end there," Remus said. "I didn't mean to imply..." His mind felt sluggish. He took a moment to translate his jumble of thoughts into clear words, then said, "Not caring is not an option, for either of us, and we've got to talk things through if this...if we..."
Shoulders hunched, eyes narrowing in a guarded expression, Tonks tried to step back from him, but Remus caught her arms and held her in place. "I don't want to talk it through now. I want to stay with you."
"But if you--"
"I promise, I will not walk away from you again. Couples have to make these choices together, haven't they?"
As Tonks nodded, fearful defensiveness left her demeanour, though, relief did not wipe away the haggard lines. Her face seemed all cheekbones and dark hollows. Tonight's physical battle, and the year's emotional one, had ended -- but not without taking their toll.
She was exhausted.
Remus held out his arm to her, and she wrapped both of hers around it, leaning heavily against him.
Together, they walked the last darkened corridor, and stepped out into the night. The path was lit by a million stars, and in the horizon, the moon was on the wane.
To be continued...
A/N: Well, here we are, at the beginning of the end. This piece looks to be five chapters, and I really hope it's a satisfying end to this long series. I really appreciate everyone who's taken the time to follow the series, and especially for all the lovely encouragement you've given me with each installment.
This time, reviewers will get to invite Remus to stay the night with you at the inn of your choice, where he promises to tell you a million times the thing you most want to hear...