Author's Note: Eltea equals for teh beta goddess, as always.

My Americanisms are a thing to behold. I am unconscionably Amurrickin, y'all. Sad, I know.

And if you're not familiar with my writing, my approach to fanfiction is to ignore everything I don't like. Which is unscientific, to be sure, but requires much less explanation. So if anything doesn't make sense, which is probably the case for a lot of things, you can guiltlessly and summarily attribute it to my laziness.


DAMN

"Damn" – Matchbox Twenty, Yourself or Someone Like You – 1996

This old world, well,
Don't it make you wanna' think, "Damn"?

It was painfully quiet at 12 Grimmauld Place.

There had always been patches of serenity within once Sirius had inherited it, even when the chaos of Order business swept through it with the force and the destructive power of an ill-tempered hurricane, but now it was quieter than the back rooms had ever been.

And it was quiet everywhere.

Silent was a better word for it.

Remus had taken to wearing heavy shoes inside just to be able to hear the sound of his own footsteps. His heels rang on the ancient, treasured floorboards, mopped and polished by generations of crotchety, much-maligned House Elves, and the resonations played off of the peeling wallpaper. To his ears, it sounded like sitting in the orchestra pit during an opera, simply because it was something.

He stowed his hands in his pockets and wandered back up the hall again, dust swirling around his scuffed soles as every step bared them.

He'd lost Sirius once. He could do it again.

For the smallest, softest, and sweetest of the condensed, humming, human-shaped containers of energy that had been the Marauders, Remus Lupin was remarkably resilient. He'd been beaten up, knocked down, pushed around, and mocked to his face; and he'd thought it was all he could take. He'd seen blood splattered on autumn leaves in the forest, his blood, and paid for his childlike innocence tenfold a month later, and a month after that, and a month after that; and he'd thought it was all he could take. He had seen Sirius's life fall apart and held him up, seen James ascend to Head Boy in a blaze of glory and held him steady, weathered the triumphs and trials of adolescence and fought to keep his head level; and he'd thought it was all he could take. He had watched the others make lives for themselves as he had curled up in a dingy flat with mold on the shower curtain, mold on the ceiling, and mold on the cracked windows and tried to ignore the moonlight streaming through the ragged drapes; and he'd thought it was all he could take.

Then he'd received word, on November second, 1981, that Sirius had killed Peter and led Voldemort by the pale, claw-like hand to the Potters' door.

And he had taken it.

What was this to all those things? A twig on the bonfire.

Oh, Sirius would resent that metaphor.

"I am NOT a twig, Remus Lupin!" Remus could hear him howling. "I am a sizeable piece of kindling at the least! More accurately, I am a behemoth of firewood! I am a GOD among trees!"

That you are, Sirius, Remus thought, smiling to himself as he walked, very audibly, back to the kitchen table and tossed himself into one of the chairs. That you are.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This cold girl, well,
Don't she make you wanna' scream, "Damn"?

There was a knock on the door. It was a little bit tentative, a little bit firm, and wholly unrepentant.

Remus knew it was her before the sound had finished echoing down the empty hallway.

He sauntered over, steps ringing like church bells through stagnant air, and opened the door.

"Hello, Nymphadora," he said equably.

Tonks smiled hesitantly, running a slender hand through short, disorderly hair the color of desiccated oak leaves. "I made cookies," she reported, "but they tasted like death." She paused, winced heavily, winced a little more, and then compensated for the pause and the winces by thrusting a plastic bag emblazoned with a grocery store logo at him. "Then I went and bought some instead."

"That was very thoughtful," Remus told her, smiling back. "Come in for some tea?"

"As long as I'm not the one making it," she acquiesced.

"I'll do the honors," he offered.

"Good," Tonks decided. "I wouldn't want to poison anyone. Least of all you and myself."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

What's the matter, girl,
Well, don't you think I'm good enough?
This old heart's had a whole lot of breakin' down;
She's got all these reasons in her head…

Remus set one of the teacups down before her. They were gaudy things—the Black coat of arms was painted right on them, possibly by hand—but serviceable enough. That was what it was all about, when you got down to it, wasn't it? Serviceability?

It would have been difficult not to notice that Tonks was watching him carefully, possibly searching for signs of imbalance. She might have liked the excuse to rush him off to St. Mungo's, where she could keep an eye on him—and keep him out of this highly-allergenic dust museum of a townhouse.

Then again, if she really wanted to land him in St. Mungo's, all she had to do was make him some tea, and she had let him volunteer to do that instead.

Being Tonks, she had probably collected (and sorted, color-coded, and alphabetized) a whole list of reasons why he needed to get the hell out of Dodge—or, rather, Grimmauld Place. He could almost see the note-cards. No. 65: You'll go insane. No. 24: You'll turn into a vampire on top of being a werewolf. No. 2: This wallowing-in-grief-thing can't be healthy. No. 702: Spend that much time with dust bunnies, and they'll crown you their leader. No. 9,021: Are you still reading these stupid things? Go outside and take a walk or something! Honestly!

Remus sipped his tea. Steam wafted up into his face. He wondered if condensation would settle in all the lines—laugh lines, frown lines, sob lines, grin lines, tripping-over-his-shoelaces-and-falling-flat-on-his-face lines. They were more intricate and interconnected than the largest subterranean train system or the phone lines of the most populous city in the world.

In putting her hand down, Tonks managed to set her wrist on the edge of the saucer and launch it into the air. It flipped once… twice…. three times, slowly and deliberately like a figure skater suspended for a breathtaking moment in the chilly air. Then, with somewhat less grace than its metaphorical counterpart, it collided bodily with the linoleum and smashed into innumerable pieces.

"Damn," Tonks said.

Well-put, Remus thought.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Well, all that time, she knew if I lied,
You can bet she will—
She's takin' her time, 'til I thought I would die,
And I can't sit still…

When the saucer had been repaired and the frustratingly regular ticking of the wall clock reigned unchallenged once again, Tonks lifted her teacup, a dainty pinky finger pointing outward like a beacon, and took a sip. She set it down on the newly-whole dish, set two disconcertingly beautiful eyes on Remus Lupin, set her jaw, and pursed her lips.

"How are you?" she inquired in the tone of one asking where the bodies were hidden.

"Fine," he said.

A thin eyebrow arched, but otherwise, she didn't move. Her gaze was unrelenting, and, unconsciously, Remus began to fidget under it. He jogged his right foot up and down a little, trying to steady the innocence on his face so that she would believe it.

After a fifteen-second eternity, the other eyebrow joined its predecessor. "Right," Tonks replied.

Remus tried his best I'm-Telling-the-Truth-REALLY! smile, and both eyebrows abruptly came down to roost low over Tonks's eyes in an expression of pure, deeply sardonic exasperation.

The smile ran off screaming.

"Sirius was always better at that," Remus noted, not without some embarrassment.

Given that Nymphadora Tonks was a Metamorphmagus, it shouldn't have been surprising how quickly her facial expressions could change, but, somehow, it always caught Remus off-guard. Now, she transitioned quite abruptly from the "I am not amused" face to one that seemed to say instead, "I can't believe you just acknowledged that your best friend is dead."

As Remus had realized over and over and over again, unpleasant truths tended to persist in existing whether you acknowledged them or not.

From the plastic box with the supermarket's white sticker seal, he retrieved a cookie. He then took a tremendous bite, most of which attempted to escape his mouth in the form of spraying crumbs.

"Not bad," he concluded.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Things got turned around,
Don't know where I started from, damn.
I can't eat, can't sleep,
Could have been a bigger man, damn.

There were good days, and there were bad days.

Today was a bad day.

Remus was lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling.

It was all Mrs. Black's fault, really.

From the way she'd complimented his mediocre tea, he'd gotten the impression that Tonks was planning to reprise her visit—perhaps even going so far as to return daily, forcing cookies upon him and drawing from him the will to boil water and imbue it with some semblance of flavor. If she was going to do that—which, knowing her, he strongly suspected—he needed to give the impression that he was faring quite well, thank you; appreciate the asking. He wasn't quite sure if it was true. He didn't know just how he was faring. But the impression needed to be given, and that was why he had been dusting.

There was something inherently ridiculous about a werewolf making a circuit about the house, gingerly wielding a decrepit feather duster as if it might at any minute grow fangs and commence gnawing on his hand.

In the Black household, you never knew.

All had been going as well as such an activity could be expected to go until he'd accidentally disturbed Sirius's mother's portrait.

"AUGH!"

Remus hadn't realized that there were people in the world who actually said 'Augh.' It just went to show that you learned something new every day.

"You're that hideous Half-Blood werewolf, aren't you?" Walburga was managing to sneer at him and recoil away at once. It was a considerable achievement.

"Actually," Remus corrected, "I'm the strikingly handsome Half-Blood werewolf."

Walburga Black was not amused.

"Oh, sarcasm becomes you," she jeered. "Almost as much as those scars on your face." Remus's hand leapt to them without his permission; his fingertips traced the gaping canyons carved into his jaw; he bit his lip as if advertising his unique brand of self-consciousness. "Yes," Mrs. Black went on, cloyingly pleasant, "those are the ones. Trying to tear your face off so the world won't see your shame? Keep trying; I think you've almost got it."

The blood pounding in his ears addled his brain. His tongue was too twisted around itself to shut her up, and he needed the surefire remedy. Dry edging on desperate, he called, half over his shoulder, "Sirius, your—"

And then he remembered.

Hands shaking faintly, he jerked the curtains shut on Walburga's fiendish laughter. He knew it was a poor way to end the argument. He knew it was, in fact, as good as relinquishing. But there wasn't much to be done for that.

There were still muffled malignant chuckles (and the occasional deeply unnerving girlish titter) emanating from the hallway as Remus guided his collapse onto the settee, which exhaled a stream of dust in protest.

Good thing it was a pretty nice ceiling.

As ceilings went.

It was the best of times, Remus mused, it was the worst of times…

He wondered if normal people thought in Dickens quotes. He kind of doubted it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Oh, what's the matter, girl,
Well, don't you think I'm bright enough?
This old man had a hard time gettin' here;
You can leave your number at the door.

Tonks did not come for tea. In fact, the slightly sinister iron hands on the looming grandfather clock were creeping towards six when her utterly identifiable knock assaulted the defenseless door.

Remus got up for the first time in hours to admit her.

She looked at him, her cheerful greeting hanging halfway between her tongue and the air, for about seven seconds before she crossed the threshold. She had a bit of a tendency to do that—to root around in his eyes until he got uncomfortable and tried to find an excuse to glance away.

He wondered if she ever found anything in there.

"Have you had dinner?" she asked.

He shook his head.

"Good," she decided. She slammed a hefty paper bag—the top was rolled over three times, and it was vaguely warm—against his chest. "I brought sandwiches."

Soon enough, they were sitting at the kitchen table. In silence.

Remus wondered when he'd mentioned that he hated mayonnaise, because it was conspicuously absent from his sandwich. That was nice.

Being with Tonks was always nice. There was something about her. If Remus had believed in auras, he might have attributed it to hers; as it was, he merely noted the way that the ambience shifted slowly to fit her, rather than the other way around. She was a foreground.

"How are you holding up?" she asked.

"Fine," Remus said.

She sipped at her ice-water, which was in a wineglass, and admired the wallpaper. "Do you need anything?"

"I'm taking care of myself all right, I think, but thank you."

"Are you sure?" she pressed.

He smiled. Her concern tended to kindle a quiet warmth in the pit of his stomach, and its tendrils made forays into his extremities. His fingers tingled. "I'm sure," he replied.

She squinted at him. "Are you eating enough?"

"Yes."

"Sleeping?"

"More than I ought to."

"Exercising?"

He paced a lot and wandered the empty halls like a specter on a fairly regular basis. He supposed that counted. "Well enough," he answered.

At that moment, a breeze like a fairy's sigh swept through the kitchen, and on its heels bounded a translucent silver lynx. The creature leapt up onto the kitchen table and sat. Sentient full moon eyes appraised Remus, and then the lynx nodded to him politely before turning to his companion.

"Tonks," the elegant animal told her in Kingsley Shacklebolt's voice, "Dawlish is down with a bad curse, and he was supposed to look into the Cornwall affair. Are you available?"

Tonks wrinkled her nose. "Do I have a choice?"

The lynx's ears flicked, and its eyes glimmered with something like amusement. "Only nominally."

Tonks sighed. "Be there in five, Kingsley."

"We need more like you," the lynx responded, one part proud, one part fond, and one part sympathetic. "Report to me when you get in."

Immediately following a long, graceful stretch, the silver cat streaked down from the table and started out of the room, its form giving way to amorphous mist. Just past the doorway, it disappeared.

Tonks stood, knocked her chair over, and righted it, all without ceasing to watch Remus with the usual unsettling perceptiveness.

"Do you have a hammer and a nail?" she inquired.

It was such a non sequitur that he retrieved the items without a word and handed them over. Tonks thanked him, wrangled a piece of paper out of the canvas shoulder bag that doubled as her briefcase and her purse, scribbled something on the sheet with a felt-tipped marker, collected her sundry items, and trooped over to the front door. There, without so much as a "Sorry, Mrs. Black," she nailed the newly-made note summarily to the inside of the door.

"It's the phone number for my flat," she explained at his bewilderment. "Figured you wouldn't be able to miss it this way." She paused, smiled a bit sheepishly, and offered him the formidable tool that she had wielded so unperturbedly just moments before. "Plus it was fun."

She stepped outside and Apparated, tossing him one last bright, encouraging grin over her shoulder as she did.

Remus looked at the hammer in his hand. He considered applying it vigorously to his forehead and therein avoiding everything else that would and might come. Then he went into the kitchen and put it back in the appropriate drawer.

And locked it, in case Kreacher was entertaining any particularly homicidal thoughts in that misshapen head of his today.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Well, all that time, she knew if I lied,
You can bet she will—
She's takin' her time, 'til I thought I would die,
And I can't sit still…

Remus awoke to the melodious sound of Mrs. Black throwing a hissy fit.

The incidence of hissy fits wasn't all too rare in and of itself, but it did border on unusual for her to work up the anger to scream like that by—Remus glanced at the green neon numbers of his wristwatch where it lay, its band sprawled out behind it, looking abandoned and forlorn, on the nightstand—seven-thirty in the morning. Remus stifled a yawn, rolled out of the bed, and strapped his watch on. (It looked much happier there, snuggling up with his wrist affectionately, and he felt like he'd done a good thing.) Then, rubbing his eyes, he padded down the stairs in bare feet, considering what he might use to bribe Mrs. Black into shutting her prodigious mouth. He was expecting that it would require more wheedling even than usual, or perhaps more brute force.

What he was not expecting was to see Tonks sitting on the floor, swathed in what looked like a nest of displaced curtains that had clearly been ripped right from their place hanging over the portrait.

"I was going to leave you some bagels," Tonks reported over the din that Mrs. Black was steadfastly maintaining. Indeed, there were circular objects strewn all over the floor, their blast radius centered around an upside-down cardboard box. "Only I tripped. And I tried to grab something." Rose-petal red leapt to her cheeks. "Evidently, it didn't work out too well."

It was times like this that Remus was glad he was a wizard. One spell lifted the fallen baked goods off of the rug; another repaired the box and set them in it; a third disinfected them instantaneously. Even as the unforgivably ostentatious little sparkles of the lattermost spell were fading away, he offered Tonks a hand up. Smiling faintly, she took it, and her soft palm against his made him want to shiver happily.

He had just turned to address the issue of the curtains when Walburga Black's general explosion of overzealous rage found a more specific target.

"You," she snarled at Tonks, scrabbling at the frame as if she thought she could claw her way out of the portrait. Remus very much hoped that that was impossible. "I've got theories about you. Wouldn't it make sense if too much tainted blood is what made you such a freak?"

Tonks's eyes widened and then narrowed. Then they flashed a vibrant ruby-red.

Walburga was too busy theorizing to notice. "Considering," she drawled unpleasantly, "the fact that both the—" Her lip curled. "—Half-Bloods that have invaded this household are monsters of one sort or another, that sounds pretty logical, wouldn't you say?"

"I would say you're dead, you miserable harpy!" Tonks screamed. She launched herself at the portrait, wand—not to mention sanity—forgotten, teeth bared, fists raised, the glint of destructive glee in her wild eyes.

Remus barely managed to restrain her from shredding the portrait beyond hope of repair using little more than her fingernails. He didn't have time to think about how remarkably awkward it was to have thrown his arms around her waist to hold her back.

"She already is dead!" he protested weakly. "She's been dead for years!"

"Clearly," Tonks gritted out, writhing in his grip, "she needs to die one more time."

"Andromeda should have smothered you in the cradle!" Walburga shrieked, jabbing a bony accusatory finger.

"I'll—show—you—smothered—Remus, get off!"

With much heaving and levering, Remus managed to drag her, fighting like a wildcat, into the kitchen. He Summoned the bagels, set them on the table, and poured her a glass of orange juice. Tonks took a break from muttering vituperatively long enough to thank him.

Shortly, he was arranging the repaired curtains around Mrs. Black's portrait. "That was a very cruel thing to say," he rebuked her sternly. "You really hurt her feelings."

Walburga snorted. "She was taking it very well until I mentioned you."

Remus frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked warily.

"'What's that supposed to mean?'" Walburga mocked. She snorted again, even more hyperbolically this time. "Men. If you didn't have such roving eyes, I'd think you were all blind."

Puzzled now, Remus swished the curtains shut and returned to the kitchen, where Tonks was now placidly sipping at her orange juice. He sat down across from her.

"Why are you still here, Remus?" she inquired calmly.

"Free rent," he said.

As usual, as any fool might have predicted by now, one of her eyebrows promptly rose. Remus crossed his legs, un-crossed them, and re-crossed them. He also had time to tap a finger on his knee before she spoke.

"I find that somewhat hard to believe," she declared calmly. She paused. "I think you're hiding."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Oh, and there's nothing at all,
Yeah, there's nothing at all,
Well, there's nothing at all,
To make her change her mind;
To make her change her mind,
To make her change her…

Remus made a show of considering and followed it up with a show of shrugging. "Hiding from what?"

Tonks placed an elbow on the table and propped her chin up on it. "People," she replied. "Life. The world."

Slightly bewildered, Remus leaned back in his chair. "I… don't think…"

Her mouth set in a firm line, Tonks sat forward, refusing to let him get away. "Think again, Remus. Look at yourself." Resolutely, she stood, the chair teetering behind her as if unsure whether or not it dared to fall. "Are you trying to hide your grief, Remus? Or the shame of not being able to deal with it?"

Cowed now, he stared up at her. "What…?"

She folded her arms across her chest severely. "When's the last time you stepped outside?"

"I… don't… kn—"

An eyebrow flicking up again, she closed the space between them and grabbed his arm. "We're going out. Now."

"What? No!" The vehement objection burst out of his mouth without his consent. He wanted to snatch the words out of the air and stuff them back down his throat, renege and reverse them, erase the shock on Tonks's face.

The pressure of her hand lifted suddenly from his arm, and she took a step back.

"All right, then," she said quietly, a dark shield rising before her eyes as she steadied her voice. "Never mind." Her tone hardened, fossilizing in fast motion. "Stay."

She turned on her heel and strode out. The door slammed behind her, and the note fluttered.

Remus looked at the displaced chair, at the half-empty glass of orange juice planted in the middle of a field of bagel crumbs, and wanted to cry.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This old house been quiet since
You went away, damn.
Mixed up, fixed out,
Don't forget who got you here, damn.

The silence was oppressive. Remus tried to figure out how it was that one went about doing a jig so that he could perform one in the hallway, simply to conquer that impregnable quiet. That would foil its nefarious plans.

He couldn't believe he had been reduced to personifying silence as his melodramatic foe.

He lay splayed out on the bed in his plainclothes, his head turned to watch the bars of neon light on his watch face move, measuring the gradual trickling away of his existence in one-second increments.

How was it possible that Sirius could be gone? He wasn't a man; he was a force of nature. Could the wind be gone? Could the winter? Sirius was every bit as integral to the function of the world as they were—fickler than a breeze; frozen in his convictions; vivid and viable and all too real.

It was that realness that made his absence so unbearable. It was inconceivable that someone so present could disappear. That someone so alive could die.

Remus almost wanted to roll over, but he didn't have the energy.

Drawing in a deep breath, he made a concerted effort to put things in perspective. Sirius, being the man he was and had been, would have wanted Remus to live—to live it up, no less. To live dangerously. To live like a king.

But how could you pretend to live when part of your soul was dead?

They hadn't had long. Sirius had been on the run after the Post-Azkaban Hogwarts Incident (or the P.A.H.I., as they had dotingly termed it), and the time they'd scrounged up together after he had settled in Grimmauld Place had been limited. But with Sirius, limited had been enough. When they talked, sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, the clock hands edging surreptitiously towards midnight, a morning of glorious, frivolous absurdity and a day of acute sleep deprivation spread before them like an empty highway, they talked like the old friends they were. Everything had changed, and therefore nothing had. They could be—and were—stupid boys again, boys who denied the future and devalued the past, boys who thought they were brilliant if they could pack a bunch of big words into a small sentence.

"I'm always disappointed by the insipidity of modern artistic culture. I feel like there's no permanence to contemporary endeavors."

"That's because there isn't, Moony. There is a thin veneer of self-importance superimposed upon an inherent and ineluctable evanescence."

"I feel as though the quintessential human spirit of it is lacking, you see? Like the absence of staying power is a direct result of the obsolescent emphasis on infusing art with genuine emotion. As if it's about monetary gain instead of making a genuine and irresistible appeal to the fundamental fabric of human beings."

"Well, now you're just being pretentious, Moony. And pedantic. Really pedantic."

"I'm a teacher, Sirius. I'm allowed a bit of pedantry from time to time."

"Oh, like that's any excuse."

"It is an ex—"

"Like it's a good one."

If there was one thing to bring him quiet joy, it was how much he had treasured those dialogues even as they had been taking place.

"So." Sirius's grin had been indomitable, every bit as unstoppable as the hands of the clock, which were creeping towards four. "Tonks."

Remus had rolled his eyes, inadvertently coordinating the movement with the comparable acrobatics in his stomach.

"What about her?"

"Fancy her, mate? Eh, eh, eh?"

"Sirius, that is a base, tawdry, and offensive assumption to make." He had paused. "And untrue."

"You fancy her!" The inevitable conclusion had rung with pure delight. "You do! And you'll have a million little children with rainbow hair who get all twitchy at the full moon, and every Christmas you'll tell me not to spoil them all rotten, and I'll do it anyway!"

"Sirius."

"And you'll try to stop me by putting on Anti-Apparition wards, but I'll climb down the chimney—"

"Sirius."

"—and you'll try to take the scads and scads of candies away in the interests of their dental well-being, but I'll tell them where to hide them—"

"Sirius."

"—and they'll love me for leading them so far astray, because they'll probably be adorable little do-gooders like you—"

"SIRIUS."

"Yes?"

"I do not fancy Nymphadora."

Sirius had stared at him. "You actually remember her first name. You're farther gone than I thought."

Back in real time, in the real world, in the aim and very flash of it, Remus finally managed to roll over, the better to bury his face in the pillow and groan. He did not fancy Nymphadora. He did not fancy Nymphadora. He didn't; he didn't; he didn't. He hadn't then, and he didn't now, and he never would, because… because…

Because she had never done anything to deserve getting stuck with a fool like him, that was why.

He tried to remember when the balance had shifted—when the feeling had swelled and surged, feeding on itself, and become heavier than his staunch denial. With a resigned sort of certainty thoroughly commingled with rueful joy, he realized that the epiphany had come last Christmas.

She'd come in—no, burst in—beaming, wearing a bright green sweater and a wreath around her neck, and she had borne something of a resemblance to a tulip.

"Remus!" she had cried upon seeing him attempting to hang tinsel in the hallway. Without giving him a chance to respond, she had barreled at him and captured him in a rib-cracking, shoulder blade-shattering, spinal cord-deforming hug. "You know how you were telling me all about grindylows?" she prompted, her body pressed against his so tightly that he thought she would leave a Tonks-shaped impression.

"Um, yes," he got out. "Yes, I remember." It had come up in conversation somehow, and, bags packed, cloak flung jauntily over one shoulder, Remus had ventured out on a splendid grindylow tangent the likes of which the world had never seen.

"Well, we had to bust a fellow today, and he had a million grindylows in his swimming pool!" Tonks told him, doing the impossible and hugging him harder. She was so close—far too close. The faint redolence of her hair coiled around them, further encouraging the flower comparison that Remus was developing extensively in his head. "And if you hadn't told me all about them, I'd've been doomed! But I remembered what you said, and everyone was ridiculously impressed, and it was wonderful!" She had drawn back, freeing him to breathe normally, and she was panting a little, her cheeks flushed, her eyes bright, the color of her hair somehow encapsulating all the sickly-sweet hopelessness and helpless wonder of the last sunset of summer. The pressure of the passion and the joy and the life bubbling within her core would have made her explode in an instant if it hadn't been able to escape through the safety valve of her lighthouse grin.

"I… I'm glad I could help," Remus replied through his enduring surprise.

"You're amazing," she said happily, holding his eyes with hers. There, for that moment, he believed that it was true.

"Happy Christmas!" she concluded then, overflowing with emotions, before skipping off into the kitchen, singing carols—blissfully nescient of the lyrics and slightly off-key.

The kidney punch that had come to crush his dazed, warm reverie had been the realization that it was the most beautiful sound in the world.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Oh, what's the matter, world,
Well, don't you see I opened up?
And this whole part's been played by another man;
I pulled out the reason card instead.

He could almost hear Sirius—solemn, for once.

"You can't let this one go, Remus. I know what you're thinking, but it's just too important this time."

Remus might have protested if he hadn't known for a fact that it was true. It was time to bite the silver bullet and take the plunge.

Nonetheless, it was only warily that he slunk out of the safety of his den and emerged into the house proper again. The box of bagels on the kitchen counter almost made him lose his nerve.

"You're a Marauder," Sirius reprimanded sharply. "No, not even that. You're a Marauder, BITCH."

You're not helping, Remus muttered back.

He picked up the phone, bit his lip, swallowed his pride, and dialed the number he had memorized the moment he had seen it attached to the door.

The phone rang. It rang again. And again.

Desperately Remus raised his gaze to the ceiling. The universe bested even Sirius when it came to cruel pranks on unsuspecting victims—this topped even the sheets-full-of-whipped-cream episode.

Why now? he demanded silently. Why pull the rug out from under the one time I work up the courage to try? The one time I waltz out of my comfort zone and put all my cards on the table?

He took the phone away from his ear and stared at it. Unperturbedly, it rang again, distantly, sounding almost lonely. This was madness, and Remus knew it. This wasn't the way he was—this wasn't the way he operated, pun not intended in the slightest. This was the way he felt, and that wasn't the kind of thing that you based decisions on. It wasn't logical; it didn't make sense; it wasn't sound. He was acting like a teenager, infatuated with some pretty popular girl who valued him only for his ability to help her with her calculus homework—he was pleading for the disappointment, waiting for the wound he knew would come, standing on the precipice, his toes over the edge, attending the gentle push.

It was time to hang up that phone, right now, before Tonks set aside her sanity and answered. It was time to back away, to shy away, to let her move right along and find someone better-suited to the purpose of completing her. She wouldn't want a man like him, a man who was quiet, reticent, tentative, indecisive, unconfident—everything she wasn't. How could two people so different ever understand each other?

There were a thousand reasons he had to stay away from her—not even a thousand; a million, a billion, an infinity. There was a veritably endless supply, and all he had to do was select one at random. He couldn't love her, shouldn't, didn't, would steadfastly ignore it until it went away. She was too much—too young, too lovely, too talented, too vital and vivacious and…

…perfect.

There was an audible click.

"Hullo?" she said.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

But all that time, she knew if I lied,
You can bet she will—
She's takin' her time, 'til I thought I would die,
And I can't sit still.

Remus cleared his throat. Then he cleared it again. Then he said, "Good afternoon." He checked the clock to ensure that his assessment of the hour was correct; it was; he released a quiet sigh of relief. "I… was wondering how you were."

There was a pause.

"I'm all right. How are you?"

"Excellent, excellent… You know, there are… an awful lot of bagels left." He had glanced around the room for inspiration; it was weak, but he'd have taken just about anything.

"I would imagine so," she noted dryly.

"Would you be remotely interested in helping to thin their ranks?" He came about ninety percent of the way to slapping himself in the forehead for saying such a thing.

Tonks laughed, and something in him melted. It was a rather unpleasant experience, as it left globs of melted whatever-it-was all over everything.

"You know, Remus, I think I am remotely interested. Shall I see you in ten minutes, then?"

"Should you come in ten minutes," he responded, "I think you shall."

Eleven minutes later, he heard her knock at the door. When he admitted her, she was wearing a cumulous cloud-white sweater, and she looked like a goddess.

Presuming, that was, that goddesses also donned ripped jeans, socks bedecked with a yellow duck motif, and sneakers when said goddesses wanted to go into battle against a plethora of uneaten bagels.

Remus meticulously considered his flavor options before selecting cinnamon-raisin. Tonks delved her hand into the box, rummaged around blindly, and grabbed one at random.

It just made sense.

They drank apple cider and slathered the cream cheese on with abandon. The impromptu meal was largely finished—excepting the persistent cream cheese smudges that Remus was fastidiously licking from his fingertips—when Tonks deemed it meet to drop an atomic bomb on his defenseless Hiroshima.

"Remus, do you love me?"

"No," he said. His heart pounded in his chest, hard enough, he thought, to betray him—hard enough for her to hear the poison of the lie being squeezed through every vein. He expected it to break free at any moment and betray him, like Poe's Tell-Tale Heart, like the confessions it would have made during the Weighing of the Heart in the Egyptian afterlife, like a thousand worryingly morbid nightmares conjured by the brain of an exhausted twenty-something Remus Lupin who'd been up reading much too late.

She tilted her head to one side, and then, slightly unsteadily, she announced, "I don't believe you."

"Oh," Remus managed. He knitted the fingers of his folded hands together and laid them on the table. He looked at the arrangement, decided he didn't like it, undid it, and twined his fingers a different way. When it still looked wrong, he tried again. "Well," he said.

"Well," she agreed, uncharacteristically mildly.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

She says she can find
The things that make up life,
I can bet she will.

Remus examined his hands. The orientation still didn't look right.

"So," Tonks remarked.

"So?" Remus asked—tentatively, it had to be admitted.

"The storm is in your eyes again. What's putting it there?"

He looked at her. How did she know? How did she always know?

"I… just…" He fiddled with his hands again, helplessly. "You and me… it's mad."

Her eyebrows rose, disappearing beneath feathery brown bangs. "Love is, Remus," she responded.

It never ceased to amaze him how brave she was—how daring in all things, and in using that word. Either she didn't realize that words like that had power beyond imagining, or she didn't care.

"Nymphadora—"

"You know that you're the only person I allow to say that and live."

He felt himself flush. "Well—"

"It's for a reason, Remus."

"Nymphadora, listen to me. I don't think you have a concept of how much better you can do than—" He heard and hated the bitterness in his voice. "—this particular specimen of gray old man."

More fiercely than tenderly, she took his hands—or, rather, snatched them, as if to claim them for her own—in hers. His heart sank to the pit of his stomach, then, and the local acids began to eat at it with a vengeance, because, there, with her fingers just a little too tight around his, his hands finally looked undeniably right.

"I want exactly this particular specimen of gray old man," she retorted, "and I'm going to have him whether he likes it or not."

Remus blinked. "Oh," he said.

Sheepishly, Tonks attempted at a smile. "Well," she amended, "he does have some say in the matter."

"I'm glad to hear that," Remus replied, falling back on the wry tone that had always come so easily. "It was beginning to sound like I would be relegated to menial tasks while you presided over the lives of your subjects."

She grinned, and gravity reversed itself one more time. Remus wondered which of his internal organs had imploded this time; it was getting hard to keep track.

"We can be happy, too, you know," she remarked. "It's not just for regular kids. Weird kids and gray old men can have it, too, just the same as they can."

Ah. That one he could identify. That was his heart that had just detonated, splattering a Vesuvius-load of blood and lava all over his ribcage.

It was wonderfully warm.

"If you put it like that," he acquiesced, unable to keep the grin off of his face. It evaded his best efforts to efface it, ducking and weaving impressively.

"As I clearly just did," she noted crisply.

"Clearly," he replied.

She smiled, and he smiled back.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

She says "Stay behind,"
I could stay here all night,
I could stay here until—

The silver lynx darted in again; Remus tried to draw his hands away, and Tonks wouldn't let him.

"Hello, Kingsley," she said calmly.

Remus did not understand the calm. He did not know how she could be speaking normally, in a normal tone of voice, with normal words, in front of Kingsley Shacklebolt's Patronus, which had quite evidently caught them in the middle of something private. Furthermore, Remus did not understand why he had not experienced a brain aneurysm trying to process all of this information.

Remus would have been the first to admit that it wasn't one of his more brilliant moments.

"Proudfoot's down with some sort of magical sores," Kingsley reported. "All over his face; won't go away. Wretched, really. Are you free?"

Tonks squeezed his hands, and Remus forgot all the idiocy in the backwards universe for a single moment.

She released her grip, and all the idiocy came back in a flood of epic—not to mention insipid—proportions. Pity, that. It wasn't even that Tonks made things make sense so much as that she obviated sense entirely.

"Wait up for me?" Tonks asked.

Mutely Remus nodded. The word "yes" had escaped from the orderly pen of his vocabulary, as had every other word, belonging to any language, English or otherwise.

Tonks flashed her shining grin and followed the lynx out.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Until there's nothing at all,
Yeah, there's nothing at all,
Well, there's nothing at all,
To make her change her mind;
Oh, make her change her mind,
To make her change her mind.

The mischievous hands of the clock swung towards eight, independent compass needles seeking their bearings.

Remus had just put the food on the table when he heard the door slam.

"Thought I'd take the liberty of making us something," he explained as she stepped into the kitchen and set her bag down (it promptly fell over). "I didn't want us to get salmonella or E. coli or something." He took his place at the table and smiled up at her hopefully.

Eyebrows in the full upright position, Tonks sat down, scooped up a forkful of pasta, blew on it, and then placed it in her mouth. She chewed, swallowed, and glanced up at Remus.

She did not look amused.

Rather, she looked incensed.

She stood abruptly (pointedly ignoring the fact that she had knocked her chair over yet again) and moved closer to tower over him, a diminutive titan capped with that dove's down brown hair.

"Get up," she ordered.

"Wh—?" he began.

"Get up," she repeated.

He took to his feet and peeked at her face bewilderedly.

"As if I need another reason to love you," she told him severely, "you're a bloody brilliant cook."

Then she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.

Remus Lupin was wholly and completely stunned.

Furthermore, he didn't know what to do with his hands, didn't know what to do with his nose, didn't know… anything…

Except… Good Lord. That much he knew. That much was unequivocal.

When she drew away, he fumbled for words. He discovered that the fingers of his right hand were buried in her hair, which, for about an inch at the roots, was the same shade of pink as the one blooming in her cheeks.

She cleared her throat. "Well?" she prompted.

Wh… You… The… I… How… What…?

By a tremendous effort, he collected his thoughts and condensed them into a single word.

"Damn," he said.

Tonks grinned.