The initial skirmish was fought on the very threshold of number twelve, Grimmauld Place. Throughout history, grand campaigns such as this one were usually begun with a great deal of fanfare and pageantry on both sides, but such was not the case here; instead, she found herself quietly ambushed, barely getting the front door closed before he'd fired off the first shots.

"Ever considered just carrying an umbrella? Or do you turn yourself that particular shade of blue on purpose?"

Tiny ripples of amusement forced his baritone into a slightly higher range than usual. Not a bad voice by any means, but at the moment it rasped over a temper ill-equipped to deal with any more irritation and sent her fingers twitching toward the wand in her pocket. Really, the man was begging for it, standing there all warm and dry and smug, in stark contrast to her own sodden state, shivering while the drips from her hair and robes and boots steadily accumulated into a puddle around her feet.

It wasn't like she'd asked to get stuck at the front door while he did a fabulous job of Transfiguring himself into a complete prat.

Her body was now shivering violently, clamoring for a Drying charm or three before hypothermia set in, but she reached for her wand only to discover that he'd already undertaken the task. Within the space of a few breaths her Auror robes were back to the same condition they'd been in when she'd crawled into them this morning—more than a bit rumpled, stained here and there—but at least now they were dry. So was her hair, although one quick brush of her hand painted a clear picture of a mass of pale purple tangles.

Good manners dictated some expression of gratitude—he'd acted the gentleman, after all, going above and beyond the call of duty in the form of a Warming charm, so that now, finally, her skin was losing its chilled pallor; but the manner in which he'd flicked his wand, so offhand it was almost insulting, made her clamp a firm hand over the mouth of her nagging conscience. She'd never been one for social niceties anyway.

"Like I couldn't have done that for myself." Only the snake on the door handle heard her muttered complaint while she busied herself with resetting the heavy locks.


Her shoulder muscles tensed. Why wouldn't he just leave her alone? She took a deep breath and slowly counted to ten, just like her mum taught her to do when feeling the need to scream at someone. It was always the days best suited to hiding under the covers that people like this came crawling out of the woodwork. Well, today definitely qualified as one of those. No sleep, little food, and getting kicked around by every member of the Auror office who outranked her, followed by that lovely soaking in a summer thunderstorm, had her wound up more tightly than a pocketwatch.

Be nice and maybe he'll go away... Sound logic, she rapidly decided, and went through the necessary steps. Manufacture winning smile. Paste on. Turn around to show off handiwork.

"Well?" she echoed, trying to ignore the guilt that unaccountably began to bleed into the pit of her stomach. The false sweetness plastered across her face, oozing from her voice, was making her conscience poke at her again. When had it developed such sharp fingers?

It wasn't that she disliked him; on the contrary, she rather enjoyed the company of this tall, quiet, worrying pale man, with his bittersweet smile and wicked sense of humour, something he generally kept well hidden. A friend. Yes, she definitely saw Remus as a friend.

Why, then, did he now insist on standing there, immovable as a boulder and just as oblivious, when all she wanted was a bite of something to quiet her stomach and the sanctuary of her bed?

Slate blue eyes gave an uncertain flicker, as if he just now was sensing something wrong. "Erm...tea?"

"Tea?" Hadn't meant to copycat him a second time, but the abrupt shift in conversation left her struggling to catch up.

"Yes, you know, tea—dark liquid, hot, often seen in the company of cream and sugar..." He bit his upper lip; trying to gauge her mood, it seemed. "Come on, then. You look as if you could use some."

Wordlessly, she trailed after him through the dark, dingy hallway and creaked down the stairs to the kitchen, all the while trying to rid herself of the perverse desire to pick a fight, even now when he seemed willing to do something useful. Tea did sound good. Sitting down sounded better, so long as he stopped being a twit.

Even after she'd claimed a chair, her gaze continued to follow him while he pottered around the kitchen, softly demurring when she offered to help, even managing to make her believe that he wasn't just trying to keep her away from the china. Instead she set to working the snarls out of her hair, a tedious and rather painful process abandoned the instant the laden tea tray was deposited in front of her. He pulled up a seat across the table and regarded her with a crinkle-eyed smile. The corners of her mouth curved upward in response without her quite willing them to, and suddenly she was glad that she'd held her tongue earlier.

They poured and stirred, sipped and ate in companionable silence, tacitly settling the division of food: she could have most of the chocolate biscuits as long as he got the lion's share of Molly's jam tarts. Little children would not have enjoyed their tea more, and anyone walking into the kitchen might well have concluded that children had taken over the kitchen instead of two grown adults—she managed to break her saucer not once but twice, taking out the cream pitcher as well the second time; he ended up with a sticky purplish blot on his jumper, showing up nicely against the pale grey of the yarn, from where she had lobbed one of the tarts at him and he'd missed catching it; somehow they'd gotten into a brief but furious sugar tossing match, and tiny white grains sparkled amongst the brown and grey threads of his hair; and both had biscuit crumbs clinging here and there to cheeks and fingers. They had a mess to clean up. For now, though, she was too comfortable to move, and how could she turn down this rare opportunity to see the resident scholar with jam on his nose?

Stomach sated and eyelids beginning to droop, she drained the last drops from her cup and then stared down at the bits of leaf still clinging to the bottom. The tension had melted out of her while they'd been sitting there, only partially due to the warmth of the tea. Had he known just how much she'd needed that? She owed him something in return, she supposed.

"I could never manage to hold onto one, you know. I'd always lose them."

He looked up from his contemplation of the teapot. "Them?"

"Umbrellas. I was always leaving them places, and Mum would scold me for coming home soaking wet." The teacup clinked back down in its newly repaired saucer. "And I'm so damned clumsy—carrying around something with that many pointy bits is really just asking for trouble. And I generally like the rain, you know," she ended thoughtfully.

"Well, pair that with a liking for pneumonia and I think you're all set," he teased.

Lavender fringe dusted along her temples in time to the shaking of her head. "No, really, I mean it. I can walk along and feel the rain on my face, look around and see the clouds instead of having to hunch up and worry about whether or not the next big gust of wind will turn the whole thing inside out. It's never been a question for me. I'm just one of those people destined to go through life without an umbrella."

His chin dipped down to rest on one palm, and he regarded the tabletop, picking at a stain of food, before his eyes found hers again. A sly smile twitched across his lips. "Would you be prepared to wager on that?"

"What?" It really was getting late. Either her brain had already kipped off or he'd stopped making sense. Both distinct possibilities, now that she thought about it.

"I'd be willing to bet that I could get you to use an umbrella."

A long stare was all the answer she could manage. Her thoughts had scattered like so many sheep, and now she scrambled to corral them back together. "You're joking."

"Oh, I'm deadly serious." Twitch. "This is your health at stake here, after all."

"Since when have you been concerned about that, Remus?"

There followed the briefest of pauses, while his smile turned oddly brittle, and then the clatter of dirty china being piled back onto the tray. "Since you walked in today looking like a drowned kitten. All the Death Eaters need to do is sit back and wait for you to succumb to a nasty cold."

"Maybe we should send an owl. It'll save them a lot of effort."

"No need. Just tell Snape at the next Order meeting; he'd be delighted to deliver that message," he chuckled. "So, are you in?"

"Back up a tick. You..."


"Are willing to bet...what?"

"Hmm... A night of guard duty?"

She thought for a moment and nodded. "Right. That I'll use an umbrella by when?

His turn to consider. "Christmas? I realize I'm up against a formidable opponent."

They exchanged grins and handshakes. "Deal. Easiest wager I've ever made."

Two days later, the troll's foot stand housed a new occupant. Its black wings were tightly and carefully furled around the length of the pole, while the handsome, polished curve of wooden handle proudly bore a small tag, already inscribed.

The Property of Nymphadora Tonks

She snorted softly in amusement. Let him find out the hard way that he'd begun with a step in the wrong direction entirely. A few decisive flicks of her wand erased the hated first name, leaving only her standard moniker, larger now and printed out in bold red lettering. Much better. Not that it made her any more likely to use the thing, but it sent a clear message to Remus: know thine enemy. If the idea had been to soften her up somehow, he hadn't been wise in his first choices.

The growl of her stomach set her feet toward the kitchen again in search of some breakfast, now wearing, in addition to pajamas and slippers, a decided smirk. Too easy.

Even with the Levitating spell, she'd managed to take a chunk out of her shin before they had maneuvered the trunk up the steps. Remus had his own end to manage, plus the owl's cage, and yet his legs somehow got through unscathed . Unfair that someone so tall could be so coordinated of limb. And damn it, she was freezing! Should it really take this long to get one door open and everyone inside? The two of them carried their burden over the threshold and into the inky darkness of the hallway, crowding in with the others while Moody lifted the Disillusionment spell from Harry and lit the lamps.

I need a hot drink and another pair of socks on and about twelve hours of sleep and oh, crap, here comes Molly... Tonks slumped against the wall, rubbing her arms for warmth, and tried not to think longingly of the bottle of Firewhiskey Sirius had stashed in one of the cupboards. To her surprise, Molly simply directed everyone but Harry down to the kitchen, and the throng of Order members began shuffling quietly toward the far end of the hall.

"Cold?" A slightly hoarse whisper sounded just behind her. After that bone-chilling flight, the warmth of his breath felt good as it stirred the short blue hairs on her neck.

"Hell yes. Mad-Eye's gone round the bend, I swear, trying to fly us through a bloody cloud. I mean, really..."

"You know what helps in a situation like that?"

"A Stunning spell in the back when he's not looking?" A glance back over her shoulder caught his grin.

"When is Moody ever not looking?"

"Shut up, you. Let a girl dream." She sighed. "Fine, what helps?"

"An umbrella."

Walked right into that one. She rolled her eyes. "Git. You'll have to try harder than..." Her softly spoken words trailed off as they passed by the troll's foot stand where the black umbrella stood. It was rattling slightly. She turned and glared at him. "Alright, that's just creepy, and you're going to get the thing blasted if Moody sees it."

"Good point." The rattling subsided. "So you think I'm not trying hard enough? It's only been a week, you know."

"Considering that the hardest thing I've had to do for this bet is to stop myself from laughing over your first half-arsed attempt, then yes." The open mockery in her voice was as good as a gauntlet cast to the floor. "Give us a challenge."

Mischief sparkled in his eyes, evident even in the dim light. "All right. Just remember that you asked for it."

Fool me once...

The first time, it was natural to blame her own lack of grace.

Fool me twice...

The second time was rather more confusing—she'd been on her guard, but then Molly had been trying to hurry everyone down to dinner...

I swear, I'm going to beat him to death with my bare hands...

The third time, she had him cornered in the library within five minutes, nostrils flaring in breathless anger from the race through the house.

"Just what the hell are you trying to do?" She planted herself solidly in front of his chair, bridging the gap between the heat of the fire and his cool look of inquiry.

"Pardon?" His tone held little more than polite interest, as if she had brought up the weather and state of the roads instead of a subject capable, taking into account current volume and colouring, of pitching her into a state of apoplexy.

"I said I wanted a challenge, not a broken neck!"

"You know, Tonks, I find it much easier to take part in an argument when I have some idea what the topic is."

"You know exactly what I'm talking about!" She took a menacing step toward his chair. "That thing has humiliated me in front of almost everyone—three times now, flat on my arse! What did you do to it?"

"Really, I don't know what—"

She darted forward and grabbed hold of his hand, completely disregarding his slight yelp of alarm, and physically dragged him out of the chair.

The book on his lap spilled to the floor, but when he tried to reach for it, she tightened her vise grip and charged out the door with him in tow. They were all the way down the stairs and in the front hallway before he quite knew what was happening.

"There, now, what did you do to it?" She pointed accusingly at the troll's leg.

"I think you bruised my fingers," he complained, massaging his hand.

"Bugger your fingers! Just make it stop!"

His glance skewed sideways toward her. "Have you used that umbrella yet?"

"What do you think?"

"I think I have no idea what you're talking about."

So blatantly false was his look of wide-eyed innocence that she found herself caught in an emotional tug-of-war, torn between rage and laughter. She settled for a small choking noise instead.

"Most things in this house are intent on killing the lot of us, so why should the umbrella stand be any different?" Hands in pockets, he began strolling toward the kitchen stairs. "Sorry, can't help you."

The smirk was what did it; self-satisfied, gloating, infuriating. It set her feet in motion before her brain could protest, impetuous strides that closed the distance between them quickly, but at the cost of letting her guard down. Her foot caught, leaving her mere seconds to prepare for a hard, cold meeting with the floor—again—but it never came. Instead, her face and chest met with a hard, warm, vertical surface, one that rose and fell softly and sounded suspiciously like it was laughing at her. She unscrewed one eye and peered upward. "You're a complete git."

Definite laughter. "So I've heard." The safety net of his arms tightened around her. "You all right to stand by yourself?"

"That depends—are you going to sic that thing on me again?" She pulled gently away, conscious of a sudden awkwardness between them as they stood there, pressed closely together from the force of her fall. There was a peculiar look on his face, almost like...

She took a step back and shook her head, wanting to get back to the familiar feel of her own body, to banish the disquiet that arose from the sensation of his hands on her hips, hearts beating together in quicktime. When she was able to meet his gaze again, the look was gone; perhaps it had just been a trick of the light.

"So." Her tone was deliberately carefree. "Will you call off your little watchdog, or not?"

He hummed in consideration, and then shook his head. "You can always just..." One hand gestured toward the umbrella.

"I don't give up that easily."

"No, I didn't think so," was his smiling reply. "I think I'd be disappointed if you did."

Both found their spare time increasingly limited as Order business demanded more and more from them. Remus was called away from Grimmauld Place so frequently that at first she didn't think he'd be able to stage any major offenses in this little war that had sprung up between them. He proved her all too wrong.

It took several hours, during which time she was late for work, to figure out a spell that would detach the umbrella's handle from around her wrist. Then there was the day she found it barring the way to her bedroom. And the day when she'd received no fewer than forty Owl posts, each bearing a piece of paper which contained a picture of an umbrella with a sad face drawn on it. And the little cocktail umbrellas that somehow wound up in every single cup she drank from, no matter where she was; Sirius found this particular prank so amusing that he made a point of congratulating Remus for it at dinner one night. Bloody pillocks, they'd laughed themselves silly that evening. It didn't help that she hadn't found a counterspell to that one yet.

She awoke one dreary November morning to the rhythmic plunk of raindrops on the windowpanes. Mmmmm, came the drowsy thought, nothing like getting to sleep in on a day like this. Blankets were hitched a little more firmly over her shoulders, and she rolled over to her other side.

Something tickled her nose.

Her eyes shot open, and she found herself confronted by five large, grey, slightly shriveled, unquestionably hairy toes.

An ear-splitting shriek tore through the ancient house, rattling the dusty chandeliers and waking the portrait downstairs. Immediately followed the sounds of a lamp breaking and several ominous thumps.

Sirius came crashing through the door, wand out and ashen face intense, taking in the chaos of her bedroom as revealed in the early light filtering through the window. Abruptly he began to laugh.

"Get that thing the hell out of my bed, you bloody useless idiot!" Tonks was still struggling to extricate herself from the tangle of blankets in which she'd gone over the side of the bed. Strewn around the floor were the victims of her fall: the remains of an oil lamp and what used to be a rather spindly bedside table. "I'm going to kill him… He… I'll…" She raged at the ceiling, the bed, the broken bits of things on the floor. Sirius quietly Levitated the troll's foot, complete with umbrella, out of her room and down the stairs before she decided to start throwing around Reductor curses and inadvertently set the whole bed ablaze.

After she'd calmed down enough to come out of her room, Sirius gave her the news that Remus had pulled off this little feat of pranking genius on the morning he left to go on a week-long mission. No further outburst of temper was forthcoming, although from the way Sirius subtly maneuvered himself behind the safety of the kitchen table, he was clearly expecting one. The first wave of anger had subsided. Now was the time to hunker down and plan a counterstrike.

Thus far she'd been content to wage a purely defensive campaign, but bringing the conflict into her own bed was an act that demanded swift and decisive retaliation. Sirius offered to help when she voiced her resolve, but if this came off well, she wanted all the credit to herself.

It needed to be simple, but direct. Something foolproof.


How long did it take a man to pick up a bar of soap, anyway? She shifted, impatient, trying to find a more comfortable position on the floor outside the bathroom door. Suddenly—she couldn't help it, just the anticipation was making her giggle—came the sounds her ears had been straining to hear.

A masculine yell, hoarse and slightly drowned out by the water of the shower, indistinct thumping, a crash like someone falling through a shower curtain, swearing (Remus swearing? That was one for the record books…), and then—


She buried her face in her knees to stifle the noise of her laughter, far too late.

"Tonks." Even through the door, that tone was unmistakable, something he usually reserved for arguments with Sirius at his most drunkenly obstinate. He was sooo ticked off.

"Mmmph?" she managed.

"Are you alone?"

Somehow she choked out an affirmative.

The door opened slowly. Her adversary stood in front of her with lowering brows that knit themselves into one solid line; water sluiced down his arms and chest, soaking into the towel clutched around his waist.

"Do you have any idea where that bar of soap was when it Transfigured into this?" He thrust the roughly closed umbrella out toward her.

The angry words inspired several moments of laughter-killing, jaw-dropping, eye-widening shock. Her mind tumbled the idea around, finally producing an image so wonderful that it dissolved her into an uncontrollable fit of hysteria. "Was…was it…?"

"No, but it could have been!"

In a removed corner of her mind, the observation was made that his glare would be far more effective if there weren't dripping twists of silvery hair falling into his eyes. The tiny voice further commented that perhaps he'd make a more imposing figure if there weren't still rivulets of water snaking their way down his skin. If there was more to his attire than a damp bit of cloth. If his breathing wasn't so heavy.

He wasn't glaring at her anymore…

Laughter fled, stealing with it not only the very air in her lungs but her composure as well. Her back connected with something solid. She hadn't remembered the wall being so close.

She hadn't remembered him being so close.

"You—" Painfully audible swallow. "You put that troll's foot in my bed…"

Muscles in his jaw tightened against some inner emotion, and she noticed how his eyes had gone several shades darker, drowning out the blue, turning into the grey of a summer storm. "Yes, well, I compliment you on your choice of revenge. Not much I can do at this moment, is there?"

Funny. He didn't sound all that helpless.

He stepped forward again, leaned in toward her. Droplets of sweet-scented water fell from his hair, and her eye was transfixed by the damp sheen along the curve of his shoulder.

Sirius needed to do something about the temperature in this place. It had to be the cold that was making her shiver like that.

"How about we make a deal?" Heated breath. Drips on her neck. He stood less than a pace away. Far less.

"What's that?" The question barely registered above a whisper. He'd neatly turned her act of reprisal on its ear, and she found herself besieged from all sides.

His lips almost brushed her ear. "I'll stay out of your bed if you stay out of my shower."

Dizzy. Gasping. He was too close. She battled an almost overwhelming urge to flee back to her room, away from this man and the feel of water on her skin and slick brush of wet hair on her cheek and the tingling warmth that spread through her, despite the chill of the hallway.

And then his looming presence was gone. The devil was in the grin he flashed back at her just before the door clicked shut. A gentle shushing of water once again became the only sound in the hallway.

Her umbrella had been propped against the wall, and staring down at it, she was struck by the realization that he was undoubtedly the uncontested victor in this encounter, and that her loss went far deeper than simply having her revenge taken away.

Nothing stopped her this time from beating a shaky retreat to her room, where she huddled on her bed, fervently wishing that they'd never agreed to the wager. It seemed the stakes were higher than she had thought, or was willing to pay.

A case at work kept her so busy for the next two weeks that she barely saw him, and a truce of sorts was granted on both sides. His light, teasing manner set her once more at ease when things settled down again, and it was simplicity to slip back into accustomed roles, to pretend that nothing had happened.

When she returned from a trip late in the month sneezing and coughing, he told Molly that Tonks never would have gotten sick in the first place if only she'd learn to take an umbrella out with her. The older woman was perhaps the worst thing he'd used against Tonks to date, since Molly couldn't be gotten rid of with a simple spell, couldn't be ignored or shoved away or tossed out. It was a horrible trick. She was incensed with him for doing it. And immeasurably relieved to know that things were back to normal.

"Glad to see you've come to your senses," she teased, walking into the library and dropping down beside him on the couch. "I like to see a man admit to his mistakes. Good for the soul."

He didn't seem at all averse to the interruption, to judge from the broad smile and the way he immediately closed his book, not even bothering to mark the page. Unusual for him, but she was too tired to give it any thought.

"Come to my senses?"

The low table in front of them groaned under the weight of her boots thumping onto the top. "Uh huh. Ooh, sitting down...nice..." She sighed and slumped back into the cushions, both arms wrapped around her waist while her body tipped slowly sideways, farther and farther until her candy red curls came to rest in the crook of the sofa. "I am so looking forward to a night off. Is Thursday alright?"

Her eyes had begun to drift shut when suddenly his weight shifted beside her, and she sleepily blinked them open again. He was staring down at her, the last vestiges of his smile falling away. She struggled to sit upright. "What? Is that not okay?"

"What makes you think I've called off the bet?"

"Well, I just thought since I haven't seen the umbrella since yesterday, that you—"

It was like watching clouds cover the face of the sun. "Yesterday?"

Being on the receiving end of that particular frown, she quickly decided, was an experience never to be repeated. It was far too like getting called into Dumbledore's office, possibly worse, since this time she didn't have a clue as to what she'd done wrong, and the not-knowing was twisting her stomach into knots. What had she said? "Remus?"

He was already out of the room. She went after him, clutching her shoulder in pain—she'd collided with the doorjamb in her haste—while thumping down the stairs. Damn bootlaces, she was going to kill herself chasing after the man...

No Remus in the hallway; a quick check in the drawing room ruled that out as well. Kitchen? No, that was empty too. Several long minutes passed while she simply stood there, completely and utterly bewildered, staring around the dismal room as if it had the power to answer her questions.

And then she decided there was really only one thing to do.

Sirius found her at the table three hours later, roaring drunk, a cocktail umbrella clutched in one fist and an almost empty bottle in the other. At first he tried to quiet her ravings about disappearing werewolves and troll's feet, but another careful look at her tearstained face had him uncharacteristically shutting his mouth. She was promptly put to bed.

It wasn't Sirius who checked on her the next morning, though, for which reason she had cause to be grateful; he didn't seem able to resist tormenting anyone with a hangover when he wasn't suffering from the same indisposition himself. Instead, the reason behind her attempt to drown herself in alcohol presented himself at her door, linen-covered tray in hand.

It was far earlier than she was willing to deal with either food or conversation, and the temptation was to just tell him off; she would have done, too, had the unanswered questions left by his absence the night before not pounded through her skull even more violently than the effects of too much drinking. Even so, his second tentative knock on the open door made her curl into a tighter ball and whimper at the pain produced by such a movement. She heard him cross the room, felt the mattress sink beneath his weight as he sat down on the edge of the bed next to her, smelled toast and tea, underlaid with something bitter and herbal. One eye consented to open and blearily focus on a small vial being held in front of her nose, which her brain finally identified as a hangover remedy. God, she hated that stuff, but the voice of experience pointed out that it was best to take it as quickly as possible. The whole process, she had found in the past, could be accomplished in under ten seconds, if one was determined: sit up, wince, grab vial, tip back, swallow, grimace, fling vial away, collapse back onto pillow, huddle back into ball, wait until world stops spinning. Simple.

She felt the covers being tucked gently around her shoulders once more, felt the whisper-light touch of a hand across her forehead, smoothing the damp red locks back.

"I talked with Sirius this morning. He said you'd had a rough night. I'm sorry." Another pass of his hand, this time running over the crown of her head and down toward her neck, again and again, calling to mind memories of being sick as a child, her mother using just such soothing motions as these. Easy, far too easy to just give in and enjoy this simple comfort, to forget how angry she was with him…

Finally, though, the hangover potion worked its way through her system, restoring both physical comfort and clarity of mind. The comforting hand was pushed away and she sat up.

"Remus, where the hell did you go?"

His eyes, the set of his shoulders, the very manner in which he turned to fully face her, all of it betrayed a tension and a weariness that had her wondering what he'd been doing with himself since pulling that little disappearing act. "I went to find Dung."

Given a hundred guesses, perhaps even a thousand, she was certain that the possibility of Remus dashing out of the house to find Mundungus Fletcher would never have occurred to her. "Sorry…what?"

"Dung took your umbrella, so I went to find him and ask for it back."

Nothing more to it, his tone implied, but there was a hint of something else lurking in his gaze that prompted her to ask, "You knew he took it, just from what I said?"

"Who else could it have been? Pretty much the entire Order knows about this whole bet thing by now, and your name is on it, for crying out loud."

"So, how did you know somebody didn't borrow it? Or maybe Kreacher ran off with it."

"The weather's been fine for the last two days, and Kreacher already tried to take it once, at which point Sirius specifically ordered him not to, so…

"So you went to find Dung. At eleven at night. For an umbrella."

"Not an umbrella. Your umbrella."

"My umbrella, the Minister's umbrella, who cares? You just left! I thought…" She stared down at the blanket, picked at a worn spot in the weave. Last night was still hazy, but she remembered enough to know that it hadn't been a happy bit of drunken revelry. "I don't know what I thought."

"I'm sorry," he repeated. One hand strayed off his lap again but stopped before it reached anywhere that made sense. "Sirius also told me you'd been crying."

The worn spot abruptly became a hole as her finger stabbed through it. He was looking at her, she could feel it, but she couldn't look up. Meeting that smoky stare had suddenly become difficult. "Yeah, well, I had a bit to drink, and I guess it got…messy."

"Messy. Because I left?"

Everything about last night was a blur. There was a prickle of something, the ghost of a memory whispering in the back of her mind. It was important, she was sure of that, and could explain where the tears had stemmed from.

"I can't remember." One hand scrubbed upward over her cheeks, splayed across her eyes and massaged the ache in her temples. Something was important…bugger, why couldn't she call it to mind now? "You left… I thought you were upset."

"I was a little upset."

She shook her head. "I thought you were upset with me."

A pregnant pause. "And me being upset with you…made you cry?"

Why, oh why was the look on his face bringing back all the sadness of last night? "No. Well, sort of. I'm sure the alcohol had something to do with it."

"Well, drinking a whole bottle of sherry would make me cry." The hint of a smile hovered over his mouth and eyes.

"Augh, what was I thinking?" Her head flopped down into her hands. "I don't even like the stuff, but it was the first thing I could find."

"Tonks, look," he began speaking more quickly, as if there was something he needed to say, and saying it in a rush would make things easier. "If you want to call this thing off, I won't object. I mean, it's only a silly bet, right?" Nothing about his expression or voice suggested that he thought it silly.

Neither did she. His desire to go after Dung made sense to her now, though she couldn't have explained why. The mere suggestion of taking away this little piece of silliness they shared between them, just the two of them, opened a wound somewhere inside her, and oh, it hurt.

It was just an umbrella.

Wasn't it?

"No!" She startled both of them with the vehemence behind the one tiny word. "I mean…I don't want that." Her lungs hurt, and she remembered to breathe. Raising her head, she saw that a smile, sweet and sudden, had wiped away all traces of tension from his face. Her own features may have been wearing the same look. The sad feeling was more of a dull ache now.

Deep breath.

A knock on the door sliced through the connection their smiles had established. She thought she glimpsed a rare flash of irritation in Remus' eyes at the interruption, but it was almost with a feeling of relief that she turned to see Sirius.

"How's my girl? Better now?" He looked like he'd had almost as rough a night as she had.

She grimaced. "Sorry about that. Hope I didn't do anything too humiliatingly awful."

"Well, let's see." He leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms. "You managed to plow through an entire bottle of my mother's old sherry, waxed poetic about Moony here for a bit before declaring that he deserved to be strung up by the short hairs for leaving the way he did, and then forced me under pain of death to agree that he was mean and nasty and hateful and terribly good-looking—sorry, old man, she made me do it—"

"Better to get these things out in the open, I always say," Remus nodded sagely, and then broke into a grin again.

"Oh God," came the despairing moan from under her pillow, where she'd retreated to about halfway through the recitation. "You utter, utter bastard." She yanked the pillow away from her face and threw it at her cousin, hoping to wipe the evil smirk off his face. "I think you're making that up."

He caught the feather-filled missile and heaved it back at her. "I most certainly am not. I'd come up with something much more embarrassing than that. So, I got you upstairs, where you proceeded to throw up on my shoes, ask for your Mum and fall asleep on my arm. A sharp lesson in the dangers of getting drunk on twenty-year-old sherry."

Once Remus had stopped laughing into her pillow, which he'd borrowed for the purpose, and which took a while, given that she kept hitting him on the back of the head with her palm, he was able to say, "Well, since I've now acquired a reputation for being mean and nasty and hateful—"

"And good-looking," Sirius added quickly.

"Right, and good-looking, I'm going to handsomely insist that you go downstairs for a proper breakfast, and, if you're good, I'll tell you all about my trip to Dung's flat. A tale that horrifying demands something in the stomach first."

The glare both men were fixed with could have peeled the paint off the walls, but finally she consented to being pulled upright, one hand given to each of them, and then stalked out of the room while pointedly ignoring the sniggers behind her.

She came across Dung at the bottom of the stairs, who, looking up and seeing Remus close behind her, shuffled uncomfortably backward and mumbled a request to speak to Tonks privately. Sirius gave the three of them a questioning glance but silently consented to go along with Remus toward the kitchen, leaving her in the darkened hallway with Dung. Her umbrella was clutched in his nervous grip.

The icy cold of her stare chilled the already cool air around them. "Well?"

He ducked his head, avoiding the piercing gaze. "Talked with Remus. 'E said you need this 'ere brolly back. I never seen you with one a them things, so I just thought…well… 'Ere it is, good as new." He thrust it at her and then shoved his hands into his pockets; she could hear muted clinks as his hands shifted the contents around. "'M sorry, if that's worth anything."

She looked the umbrella over, but other than reeking of Dung's foul choice of tobacco, it seemed to be fine.

"Yeah, well, next time, don't nick my stuff, or I'm coming after you myself. I'm not as nice as Remus." Her smile was decidedly menacing. Amazing, really, how little had to be said when one's teeth could be lengthened at will.

Dung blanched and nodded, swaying slightly as he rubbed a grimy hand over his jaw. "Right." His face sank into sullen lines even as she watched, so it wasn't all that surprising when he went off on a string of mumbled complaints as he started toward the door. It wasn't until he let fly the ill-judged words, "Damn werewolf, don't know 'is own place," that she reacted. He found himself in a Body Bind and pinned against the wall with her forearm to his throat before he could get another word out.

"Look, Dung," she forced her voice to sound pleasant, "you seem to be under the impression that a lot of us in the Order don't want you around. Well, stealing stuff doesn't help. Stealing our stuff pretty much guarantees that we're all going to trust you about as far as we can throw you without magic. And badmouthing a man who's worth a thousand of you is just going to get you hurt." She pulled away and released the spell.

Dung sagged against the wall, wheezing slightly and rubbing his throat.

"Thanks for my umbrella back." She turned her back on him and walked down the hall, spotting Remus and Sirius standing in the doorway of the kitchen stairs, two grim sentinels blocking her passage to the underworld.

Sirius' eyes glittered. "Dung's lucky he said that to you instead of me."

"You heard what he said?" she asked, looking in dismay from one man to the other.

Remus was staring down the hall at the retreating back of the smelly little thief, so Sirius answered instead, his voice velvet covering steel. "I convinced him to stay on the stairs. My mistake."

"Stupid son of a bitch." One weary hand rubbed across her forehead. "He's got no business being that drunk so early in the day. I should have put him through the wall."

"Remind me never to get on your bad side."

She grinned and turned to Remus, touched his arm. "Hey, you alright?"

He blinked, startled out of his abstraction, and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. "Fine. Nothing I haven't heard before. Just hadn't expected to hear it from Dung, I guess."

"You shouldn't have to hear it at all!" Her hand slashed through the air as if to underscore the words. "What did you say to him last night?"

"Nothing much. Getting him to let me into his flat was the hardest part. After that, I basically told him that he'd taken something of yours, and I wanted him to give it back to you and apologize. I was very polite about the whole thing, but after this morning, I think it's pretty apparent that he's afraid of me."

"Yeah, but for all the wrong reasons." Sigh. "Showing him a mouthful of sharp teeth was probably a bad idea, then."

Both men had seen her do that trick before, so all the reaction she got was groans, even from Sirius. "Why the hell would you have done that? I don't need to be cleaning Dung's piss off the carpet."

"What was that you just said about not wanting to get on my bad side?"

He threw his eyes upward. "When did you turn into such an evil little witch?"

A question like that didn't really merit an answer. "Thank you, for this," she instead directed at Remus. The umbrella was still cradled in one of her arms.

"You're welcome. You're sure you don't want to—"

The rest of his sentence was forestalled by a raised hand. "I already told you no. See, I'm going right over here to put it back in its proper spot, so that it's ready for whatever evil, maniacal, ingenious, Marauder-inspired plot you have up your sleeve. Which, of course, won't work, because I'm going to win."

While making this little speech, she'd strolled over to the troll's foot and deposited the umbrella in its home. One step toward the kitchen later and she was tangled on the floor with the troll's foot and three umbrellas, while her great aunt rained down curses on her head. The men yanked the curtains shut, leaving her to pick up the scattered items and redeposit them in the umbrella stand, and then the three of them beat a hasty retreat down to the kitchen.

Still laughing, Sirius ran down to the basement to check the rat traps while Tonks limped over to the table. Her chair grated across the stone floor as she plunked herself down to nurse her wounded foot.

"You okay?" Another chair was pulled close by and Remus sat down, stretching out his long legs. The encounter with Dung had restored that bittersweet quality to his smile; it wasn't until now that she realized it had been missing…she couldn't even remember when it had gone. Seeing it again felt like she'd been punched in the stomach.

"Remus." Her hand sought out his shoulder and clung. "Dung's an idiot, you know."

"And you're not. If the world had more people like you and less like Dung, things would be better, but hey, what can you do?"

"Well, stick by the ones who know a good thing when they see one, for starters."

He shot her an odd, sideways glance and seemed on the verge of replying when Sirius reappeared, a burlap sack over one shoulder.

He looked altogether too amused. "It's good to see that my genius lives on."

"Your genius?" she asked irritably. "How was any of that due to you?"

"The charm on the troll's foot. I wasn't sure until I saw it for myself, but there's no mistaking it. I guess Moony couldn't handle this thing on his own and had to borrow tricks from the master."

Remus rolled his eyes. "Oh, please. You came up with the original charm, but I was the one who got it to work properly. Those suits of armour would fall on anyone until I got it to specifically target Filch."

Sirius winked at her. "Tetchy. I think I've hit a nerve there. Be back in a tick." His footsteps receded up the kitchen stairs.

She looked back at Remus. "Were you about to say something?"

He gave a brief shake of his head, tossing shaggy forelocks of brown and grey into his eyes which were absentmindedly pushed back into place. "Nothing important. So, putting up a tree this year?"

"A tree? It's only the beginning of December! And I'll be lucky if I can throw something together before Christmas itself; last year I think I managed to steal a wreath from the office, and I hung some lights around a window in my flat, but that was about it. Too busy, and I never have anyone over anyway." She twisted her hands in her lap, looking wistful. "I love Christmas, though. Mum always does a lot for it. I'd love to have a tree, but…" Her voice trailed off and she shrugged. "Maybe Sirius will put one up here."

"I'll ask him. How's your foot now?"

She wiggled her toes experimentally. "I'd have a lot fewer bruises if it weren't for the blasted genius of certain Marauders I know."

"I really should take that spell off. It's not fair if you're getting hurt."

"Don't you dare! A bet's a bet. It's only another three weeks, and then...victory!" One fist shot into the air. "Or at least a night off from guard duty."

"So sure of yourself?"

"What, do you have some cunning new strategy? Because your current one isn't working."

"Really? How about upping the ante, then?" His mouth curled into the oddest smile. Definitely up to something.

"You look like you already have something in mind."

"Well, I thought, since you're so confident, that we could just say the prize is the winner's choice."

That raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Uh, doesn't that put the loser at a distinct disadvantage?"

"Worried you'll lose?"

"No!" She poked him in the stomach. "Fine, winner chooses. You're going to regret this."

He poked her side. "Only because seeing you crushed in defeat will cause my tender heart pain. I'll try to be brave about it, though."

The poking match continued until Sirius came back down, demanding to know why they hadn't started breakfast yet.

Two days later, her umbrella was green. With sparkles. He happened to be passing through the hallway on his way out the door when she first saw the changes.

"Green?" Both eyebrows were creeping toward her hairline, which today happened to match the umbrella, minus the sparkles.

"Cunning new strategy. You'll see." He grinned, tapped the side of his nose and continued on his way.

She didn't see him again until after the full moon, but he'd already fiddled with her umbrella again in the meantime. There was a delicate garland of miniature holly and ivy, wrapped about with thin gold twine, that spiraled its leafy way around the outside, starting at the wooden peg at the top and ending at the bottom edge where it wrapped around the rim. The effect was rather striking, and she found herself wanting to take it to work and show it around.

"Like it?" he asked when he saw her that afternoon. He was a shade paler, a tiny bit thinner, just like he always was after a transformation, but his smile settled around her like sunlight and seemed to make the kitchen light up.

"Yes," she admitted ruefully, "but that doesn't mean you're winning!" she called after him. He had left the room visibly gloating.

She fretted for the next few days, out on an Auror assignment and unable to get over to Grimmauld Place. Oh, excuses could be found for the unease, to be sure: she simply wanted to see what he'd done to the umbrella in her absence, to tease him some more over his certain defeat; but that didn't really account for the leaden weight of disappointment that settled in her stomach when she found him gone upon her return. He had added more, though, and she eagerly examined the miniscule fairy lights and the details of three fine little ornaments: a tiny music box, a Victorian doll's boot, complete with buttons up the side, and the most delicate little porcelain cup and saucer she'd ever seen.

"Why porcelain?" she asked when they finally saw each other the next morning. "You know I'm going to break it."

"That's why I put an Unbreakable charm on it."

She looked up from studying it and grinned. "I don't know if I should be happy about that, or just insulted. But it's beautiful. I love it."

He stepped closer, reached out a careful finger to touch the rim of the tiny cup, just barely not brushing the skin of her palm where it lay. "I hope you're more happy than insulted." The words were soft and warm, just like his eyes, and the finger that had now abandoned the cup for her hand…

She pulled back abruptly. "Thank you. For these." The cup and saucer were carefully hung back on the umbrella before looking up again. "I feel bad, not having anything for you yet."

"Well, remember, this is all bribery anyway, right? I'm trying to win a bet here."

There was a faint but recognizable note of self-mockery in his voice, accompanied by the dreaded smile, far more bitter than sweet just now. She closed her eyes against it, not wanting to see; each time it made an appearance these days, it cut into her a little more deeply, unaccountably making her want to fling her arms round him and whisper, over and over, that nothing would get through her to hurt him ever again. Only now, she was the one hurting him.

Don't give in! You can't! cried a little voice inside her, pitiful, cowardly. Too many things will change...

That little voice had been whispering its poison for weeks now, playing on her fears, urging her to hide away from feelings that were demanding attention ever more insistently as time went by.

Somehow in this friendship, he'd led her step by step to the edge of an abyss, and soon, she knew, soon he'd ask her to jump. Fear, though, was still proving itself stronger than the fledgling desires he stirred within her.

Not yet, she begged with her eyes. Don't put me in a position where I might say no. I can't take that smile.

He drew back, read in her gaze that pleading fear. It was hard, so hard to ignore the subtle hurt reflected back at her, a pleading of his own for something only she could give.

She couldn't jump. Not yet.

Ornaments and decorations continued to appear, beautiful and bizarre, until the umbrella bore, along with its original burden, a paper chain (each link bearing the holiday wish of a Happy Christmas); a pewter snail; an intricately cut snowflake made of paper (spelled within an inch of its life not to tear, seemingly, since nothing seemed to harm the delicate thing); a Snitch; a prism; and a little book simply titled "Fairy Tales" which fastened with a tiny clasp. All of them were scaled down to fit the size of the "tree" to which they were attached. It was no longer housed in the troll's foot; instead, she'd taken to propping it, handle down, in a corner of the drawing room, where it wouldn't be in danger of getting jostled or broken (or stolen) in the hallway.

After that horrible exchange with Remus, something had changed between them, there was no getting away from that. She would have been angry with him for pushing things so far, had she not been almost sick from the distance now between them. Why had he forced her hand like that?

She hated being separated from him like this, but in a way, being with him was far worse. Their friendship had become everything she'd wanted to prevent: strained, awkward, silent. It was tempting to just use the damned umbrella, deliberately lose the bet so that everything could go back to the way it was before.

Sirius tried to reassure her that things would work out, but given that he spent most of his nights (and sometimes days) drinking himself stupid, it was hard to put much faith in what he had to say.

One night, just a week before Christmas, she went to find the source of her heartache. He was in the study, a book in his lap as usual, but staring into the fire instead of at the words on the page in front of him.

Her attempt to walk over quietly was brought to a crashing halt by the rug beside his chair. He jumped.

"Sorry. Hi."


His smile made her turn toward the fire. "Mind if I join you?" she asked the flames.

"Only if you tell me something." His voice held a warning—this wasn't going to be a "What's your favourite flavour of ice cream?" sort of question.

Her gaze was wary as she glanced back toward him. "Alright."

"Why have you stopped looking at me when I smile?"

Ouch. No pulling punches tonight apparently, on either side. Well, she'd come prepared for a difficult conversation, anyway. Why not start now?

"It hurts." So did admitting that.

"Looking at me hurts?"

She forced the reluctant words out, slowly, carefully, not wanting to misstep now when their friendship balanced on a knife's edge. "Your smile hurts. Do you know how sad you look sometimes? I can't…" Shuddering, she drew in a breath. "There are times when it's too much for me. To see you like that." The fire flickered bluely, drawing her attention again.

Confusion lent his voice an atypical uncertainty. "I don't understand."

The flames in the fireplace twined upward, mesmerizing. "Have I ever told you about what growing up was like for me?"

"No," he whispered, standing and coming up beside her.

"It was...chaos. Trying to control this magic inside me, trying to find a piece of myself that wasn't always shifting. My parents didn't know how to handle it sometimes. Not many people trusted me. I never had many close friends. When I got older, people tried to use me for their own ends. And men…" Her face twisted miserably. "You've been one of the best friends I've ever had, and never once have you asked a thing from me, until recently."


She overrode him. "And part of me wants to give you what you're asking. But…" her voice caught. "You know there are some days when I'm not even sure what I should look like? I don't want things to change. Too many things about me change."

One of his hands came to rest gently against her back. "That's strange, because I've always thought you remarkably stable. Your face and form change, but you—the inner you," his other hand turned her about to face him, "the you I care about—she doesn't change."

Tears rose, only to be blinked furiously away. She desperately wanted to believe him.

There was a brush of his hand down her arm, tender, comforting. "I'm sorry, this isn't why you came in here. What did you want to talk about?"

"I…um…" The tears were rising too quickly now. "I just want things to be alright between us." Her voice cracked, and as the first sob shook her small frame, he enfolded her in his arms, holding tight until the storm passed.

"I'm sorry, Tonks." Warm, callused fingers dried her cheeks. "I'm so sorry."

Her dark eyes opened wide, locking onto his. "Why? You couldn't have known."

It was hard to tell in the red light of the fire, but she thought he flushed. "I thought you might be pulling away because of what I am, not what you are."

"What you—Remus, why would I give a damn about that?"

"Every time I got too near you, you pulled away." Now he was the one who couldn't meet her eyes. "And lately you wouldn't even look at me."

Despite her fear, she clung closer to him, burrowing her face into his jumper. "It's got nothing to do with that. Please, please don't think that I'm frightened of you. Or that I don't want you to be near me. God, I don't know what I'd do if I lost you now." It was the closest thing to admitting the truth to him, to herself, that she could handle right now.

He cradled her against his chest, rested his cheek on her hair, whispering, "I'm not going anywhere."

Strange, how safe she felt standing there enveloped within his embrace, and how unafraid.

Her usual high spirits returned after the encounter, just in time to deal with the aftermath of the attack on Arthur Weasley. Nothing more had passed between herself and Remus that night, but it was enough. An understanding of sorts had sprung up between them, and she was laboring as hard as she could to sort through her own thoughts and emotions. He deserved to know where she stood. Where he stood.

In the meantime, three more ornaments were carefully attached on her umbrella, finely crafted as the others were, and just as arbitrary. The snow globe with the nymph sitting amidst a little grove of trees was lovely, and reminded her of one that her Muggle grandmother had let her play with as a child. The nameless prefect's badge was a little odd, though, as was the photo frame with nothing in it. Maybe they would show themselves on Christmas? With all the running around the Order was doing now that Harry and the other children were in London for the holidays, there just wasn't time to figure it out.

Of course it would be Hermione who solved that little riddle. Two days before Christmas, coming off a double shift at the Ministry, Tonks stumbled into Grimmauld Place early in the morning and was greeted by the sound of distant giggling. She hadn't seen Remus in over a day and so, feeling that a little cheer was in order, went searching for the source.

Ginny and Hermione were sitting on the floor of the drawing room with the umbrella between them. The tiny fairy lights were glowing. Hermione had her wand out, pointed toward one of the ornaments, but she gave a guilty start when she noticed Tonks staring at them from the doorway. Ginny was quickly elbowed in the ribs.

"Wotcher, girls…"

"Hey, Tonks! These are the coolest ornaments! Where did you get them?" asked Ginny excitedly.

Tonks felt oddly reluctant to answer the question truthfully. "Oh, here and there…gifts, mostly. Why, what have you been doing?"

"Hermione figured out how to make them work—sorry if we didn't ask first, though."

Shaking her head, she hastened to reassure them. "No, no, I don't mind, but…erm, can you show me what you've gotten them to do?" She crossed the floor and knelt down beside Hermione, almost oversetting both of them when she lost her balance. Finally, arms and legs and feet were situated, and she looked expectantly at her companions. "So?"

"Well," explained Hermione, "we've only gone through the lights, the holly and three of the ornaments. I really wish you knew who made them...some of the charms seem quite complex. I'd love to know how—"

"Hermione! You can pick her brain later!" Ginny bounced impatiently on her hands and knees.

The older girl looked about to argue, so Tonks forestalled her by asking, "What did you do first?"

"The fairy lights. I thought, why put lights on if they don't work? So we tried a few things and finally just found that you have to tap everything twice with your wa—"

Ginny rolled her eyes at the ceiling and gave her friend's shoulder a nudge. "She knows all that! Shut up and get on with it!"

Tonks felt a sudden urge to smack the red-headed girl sitting in front of her.

"The snowflake, do the snowflake!" pressed Ginny.

Hermione nodded and reached out to tap the ornament gently with the tip of her wand. It folded itself up carefully, then unfolded again in a different pattern. "It's amazing—we've been doing this for fifteen minutes and it hasn't repeated itself yet. I wonder how it does that?"

Tonks stared at the snowflake. How much care he had put into it. What else had he done? "You said you tried three?"

Another wand tap, and the music box began playing a tinkling little melody, high and sweet. Tonks felt a lump rising in her throat.

"Do you know that song?" Ginny asked.

"Oh…um, yes, it was one that my mum used to sing to me when I was little." Had she told him that?

"Where's the other one we tried…oh, here it is." Hermione tapped the Snitch, and all three watched, fascinated, as it Transfigured into a tiny bird whose golden wings flapped so quickly that they were nothing but a bright blur. "It's a Snidget! They're really rare, almost extinct, but now that Wizards use Snitches in Quidditch matches instead of—"

"Hermione, give it a rest! I'm sure Tonks knows what it is, and you already made me sit through the entire explanation earlier."

Tonks did know, in fact. She'd had a wild desire as a girl to see one, and had thrown a fit when her mother told her that she probably would never see one in her lifetime.

Ginny twirled the umbrella slowly, looking at the other ornaments. "Why a snail?" Her nose wrinkled in confusion.

Tonks didn't understand either. "Try it."

Immediately after being tapped, the pewter shell began to change colours, shimmering from one rainbow hue to another.

"It's a Streeler," Tonks whispered in wonder. "I've always loved these."

"That makes sense." Hermione tossed her curls over her shoulder and leaned in closer. "Colour-changing snails would appeal to a Metamorphmagus." She tapped the tiny Victorian boot next. It began stretching and darkening, until what lay in her palm was not a delicate piece of footwear, but a black leather combat boot, an exact replica of one that Tonks was currently wearing.

The girls began arguing over what to try next but never reached a decision, since Molly popped her head in the door and called them all down to the kitchen for breakfast.

"You go ahead," Tonks shook her head when they offered to help her up. "I'll be down in a bit."

The moment the door clicked shut, she turned her full attention to the umbrella, annoyed as hell that a girl almost ten years her junior had figured out the secret when Tonks herself hadn't even tried.

The fragile little cup and saucer turned to plastic, with the word "Unbreakable" written across it. Git. A grin stretched across her face.

The room was filled with multicoloured sparkles of light as the prism began to spin on its string.

The clasp on the little Fairy Tale book sprang open and the words on the cover flowed together to form the title of one of her favourite stories, one she'd read over and over again, even into her adult years. She flipped quickly through the pages, marveling. The entire text of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" was in there.

The nymph in the snow globe laughed amidst a swirl of sparkling white flakes, but when tapped, suddenly she was laughing in a shower of spring flowers; another tap and it was summer butterflies, then autumn leaves, and finally back to the snowflakes.

When she tapped the prefect's badge, printed lettering slowly swam into focus. "Necessary qualities?" it asked, bringing to mind the quip she'd made to Harry and Ginny at the party before they'd left for school. She recalled that Remus had been standing there next to her. Suddenly the entire thing began to shift, and she was staring at a replica of her Auror certification. He must have had Kingsley get a copy of this.

This was all getting a little overwhelming. How had he known about all of this? A multitude of conversations ran through her mind, nights of sitting around with him and Sirius in the drawing room or the kitchen or the library, odd little moments during breakfast or after Order meetings, whispered exchanges to pass the time on the handful of assignments they'd had together. He'd sifted through them, to judge from the evidence in front of her, plucking out the treasures of her life and handing them back to her piecemeal in the form of these ornaments. No one had ever done such a thing for her before. How the hell had he done it?

One left.

The picture frame was a beautiful one, polished wood, and painted with an intricate border of knotwork. Her fingers trembled as she held out the wand.

Tap tap.

Her face appeared. It was a photo from a dinner at Molly and Arthur's a month before. She couldn't remember who'd taken the picture, but she looked happy and smiling in her blue ringlets and pixie features, laughing at someone off to the side. Then the whole scene faded.

Her face appeared. This time from the summer, just after she'd joined the Order. Sirius had taken this one, complaining that he had twelve years of pictures to make up for and threatening to ambush her every day with the camera. Pale yellow hair, nearly white, looking almost Icelandic. She'd been playing with eye shapes and settled on almond, with high flat cheekbones. Fingers making a rude gesture toward the photographer, tongue sticking out. Again, the picture faded.

Her face appeared. She had no idea when this was taken, but it was here in the drawing room. Her sleeping form was curled up on the couch, fast asleep. Blue-black waves spilled over the edge of the cushion her head rested on. Sunlight sparkled in the dust motes that lazily floated in the air around her. Fade.

Her face appeared. This…this was from her Auror training days. It must have been on one of the days they were testing her disguises. Mahogany skin, a wealth of ebony curls, and, oh Lord, she'd forgotten about that dress, the one that made every man in the room clear his throat. Did he get this from Kingsley or Moody?

Again and again she saw herself, face after face, some alike, many bearing no resemblance to her real features. Even a few of her as a child. She had no idea there were so many photos of herself floating around. How long had he been collecting them?

She let go of the frame, almost in shock, and the small flat square twisted on its hanger, showing her a glimpse of writing on the back. Flipping it over completely and squinting down at words, she immediately recognized the neat, even handwriting.

No matter what face you wear, I will always see the same woman within. R.

It was the strangest feeling. Like a dam had burst somewhere inside her. She knew a flood had been loosed, could feel it rushing through and over her, and any moment now her heart would be completely awash. The only feeling she could muster before it swept her away was one of intense relief. No more fighting.

Tears flowed freely, silently, for many long minutes, but instead of leaving her drained and weary, she looked up once they had passed to find that everything seemed sharper, brighter, cleansed. For the first time in many, many years, perhaps for the first time in her life, the inner turmoil that defined her was stilled and peaceful. He couldn't have known, could not possibly have guessed, just how much more than simple trinkets he had gifted her with today. And what he himself had gained.

Sitting there, gazing inward, she looked around the inner landscape of her mind, all the way to its center, and found something startling. Or rather, didn't find. The fear that had lived inside her since childhood was gone, washed away; in its place was a tranquility of spirit and purpose of mind that had never existed there before. And, to her astonishment, Remus was there as well, standing at the very heart of the stillness, waiting. He'd been there, and all the while she'd turned her head and denied his existence, his love. Her own.

How long had she been fooling herself? Letting fear trick her into pushing away something so incalculably precious?

She jumped to her feet, umbrella in hand, and strode out of the room with a fluid grace normally foreign to her, intent on nothing more than finding him as fast as she could. Nothing could be easier, apparently. One quick look down the hallway revealed the lean length of him cresting the top of the kitchen stairs; evidently breakfast was over.

It was as if she'd never seen him before, the way she couldn't tear her eyes away now.

His smile of greeting faltered, unsure of how to interpret the unsmiling intensity of her gaze. Her eyes must have communicated some kind of encouragement; at least he finished crossing the distance between them to stand in front of her, questioningly. "Is something wrong?"

There was so much to say, so many emotions to share with him, so great a desire to wrap her arms around him and express all she felt through the medium of her physical self, that for a moment she was paralyzed under the sheer weight of it all.

Voices on the kitchen stairs shook away her stasis. They had to talk, and the presence of others would do nothing but hamper that. Without another thought, she grabbed his hand and pulled him to the front door, quickly letting the two of them out into the cold and cloudy December morning. Destination was unimportant; she just wanted to take him any place where she could unburden herself to him. The knowledge that she would be telling him what he most wanted to hear made her all the more avid to find a quiet spot, quickly.

"Tonks, wait!" He tugged against her arm, slowing down their rapid pace along the sidewalk. "Where are we going? Please, is there something wrong?"

The little crease between his eyebrows, the plaintive worry in his eyes, even the way he asked, so deferential even as he demanded an answer, it was all so endearing she almost forgot herself and the fact that they stood in the middle of a Muggle neighborhood. Only the presence of other people, out and about on this busy morning, two days before Christmas, kept her from a rather embarrassing public display.

She did allow herself to reach up and touch a gentle forefinger along his cheek, though even such a small gesture made him draw in a sharp breath, pupils dilating in shock and confusion and need, the last of which she immediately recognized because it was coursing through her as well. "Please, Remus. I need to talk with you, somewhere away from headquarters. Do you mind?"

His hand reached up to cover hers. "No," he whispered. "There's a little park up the street." He led the way silently, casting looks down at her that contained swelling hope, and also, terrible to see, uncertainty. Where was that coming from? Had she cut him so deeply with her earlier refusals that he'd begun to doubt himself?

A few minutes walk saw them arriving at the place he'd spoken of, a quiet plot of grass and trees, devoid of any presence save their own. They instinctively chose the most secluded spot and once more turned to faced one another, while she cast about in her mind for a way to begin. There was no questioning her feelings now, but how to tell him everything? That last irrevocable step, while no longer inspiring fear, still amounted to leaping over a chasm that she remained at a loss to know how to bridge.

Her fingers clenched unconsciously around the umbrella and one of the spokes bit into her skin, reminding her of its presence, still gripped tightly in one hand. The fabric glittered dully in the murky winter light as she unfurled it, twirling it idly and making the ornaments bump gently against the other decorations.

She glanced up at him. "You put more faith in my intelligence than you should have."

"I don't understand."

"I didn't know how to make the ornaments work. Hermione was the one who figured it out." It still stung, that she'd never bothered to try, and embarrassment made her cheeks glow.

"Well, that's alright, you were busy, and I would have shown you on Christmas anyway. There was just one more thing to put on it." He reached into a pocket and pulled out a tiny little angel, beautifully dressed in robes of blood red and fir green, with long gilt hair flowing in waves down over delicate feathery wings. Carefully, he set it atop the wooden peg sticking out the top of the umbrella, surreptitiously flicking his wand and murmuring a Sticking charm to hold the decoration in place.

She stared in wonder. "Does it work like the others?"

"Well, yes and no." His eyes swept the surrounding neighborhood carefully, making certain there were no nearby witnesses to whatever the angel could do. "Go ahead and try. I think we're safe enough."

Her wand gently tapped the crown of the angel's sunny head, and a number of things happened at once. All the ornaments began to neatly perform their own individual task. The fairy lights glowed in the growing mist that was beginning to fall around them. Even the garland sprouted tiny red holly berries that nestled into the glossy leaves. It was the angel, though, that took her breath away.

It seemed to be melting and reshaping itself, Transfiguring into another form, this one with torn jeans and a mop of green and red hair. It was her.

Together they watched the angel for a few moments before she risked a glance at him, while he continued to stare at the umbrella. What she saw both broke her heart and made it want to sing in triumph.

Love. Sorrow. Desire. Frustration. Awe. Self-doubt.

It wasn't right, the way the tables had turned, sapping him of strength just when she had found hers. Well, no more of that, she decided. He wanted her, that was obvious, had been obvious for longer than she had wanted to admit before. All that remained, then, was to show him just how much she wanted in return.


Their eyes met. "Yes?"

She held out her hand, palm up, just in time to catch the first of the raindrops that were falling out of the gloomy sky overhead. "It's starting to rain."

He misunderstood, that was clear from the pained disappointment that crept over his face. "I...yes, you're right. We should go back."

She caught his sleeve as he turned to go. "You really are thick sometimes." A wand tap on the angel and everything fell still and silent.

A gust of wind blew tendrils of hair into her face; she brushed the blue threads back and looked up into the sky, watching the slow roll of clouds, enjoying the feel of drops falling thick and fast on her skin. Abruptly she pushed the umbrella fully open and raised it above her head. Her coy smile left him gaping. "We have a perfectly good umbrella right here."

Laughter bubbled up inside her, leavened by an ache brought about by his disbelief and shock. He really hadn't believed this could happen. Still didn't.

"I suppose this means you win," she teased gently, wanting to draw him out.

"I suppose it does," he replied slowly, wide-eyed and uncertain.

"So, you need to tell me what you want." One step toward him. Another. His eyes burned into hers. "But I think I already know what that is." She raised the umbrella over his head, just in time. The rain began to sheet down, curtaining them in while the rest of the world disappeared.

Her breath was coming faster now but nothing to match his. He looked as if he'd been handed a treasure and didn't know what to do with it. "Tonks... I... Are you sure?"

Her palm smoothed over his chin, his cheek, into his hair. He leaned into the touch, letting his eyes drift closed while he reached up to take gentle hold of her arm, pressed his lips into her wrist. "As sure as I am that you love me," she whispered.

"Yes," he smiled, eyes still shut while her fingers roamed softly over his face. "That was never in question. The time when I didn't love you is so far past that I can't even remember when it was." His hands slipped around to her back, pulling her against him.

Without warning she found herself confronted by his stare, as dark as the clouds above them and just as turbulent.

He was shaking, ever so slightly, both body and voice betraying inner misgivings. "I'm not asking you to change, you know that, don't you? I don't want you to be afraid of this. I don't think I could bear that."

Even before he was done speaking, she was rising up onto her toes, leaning into him, her fingers anchoring themselves in the damp hair at the nape of his neck. "I'm not afraid," she breathed just before their mouths met.

Any further protests on his part were swallowed up in their kiss. His arms tightened around her as he poured into the embrace everything that had been held in check all these months. It was almost like reliving that moment in the drawing room earlier, the way his love felt now as it flowed over her, drowning her in sweetness, filling her with the certainty that every moment spent away from him, from his touch, would be a moment she begrudged the rest of the world. She knew her own heart now, and his home was there.

The downpour continued, both outside the shelter of the umbrella and within. Every small thing that he had ever given her, every look, touch, smile, she returned with interest. Fear was gone, doubt fled. Nothing now existed but their two bodies entwined together, lips, hearts, and minds.

So it was that both sides finally laid down their arms and met on the very field of battle. Concessions had been made and losses suffered, though neither could be bothered to care. Both had emerged from the conflict victorious.

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