Disclaimer: Anything you recognise isn't mine, but JKR's.
A/N: Written for the Halloween Jumble at Metamorfic Moon, using the prompts: centaur, day of secrets, a picture of a forest, and the genre horror. If you fancy joining us for some festive R/T fun, we've just opened sign-ups for our Winter Wonderland Advent – there's a link to the comm in my profile :).
Darkness ebbed around him, dilating around the thick trunks of the trees for a moment before drifting away into blackness. Above him, the branches rustled, and a way off, an owl hooted, calling into the mist. The air caught in his chest like the prickle of dead leaves and chilled him to his bones; but he waited.
Mars hung, bright in the sky. Just to the side of the moon it sat, and for a moment he marvelled at the irony, the juxtaposition of moon and Mars and what he knew was coming. It was as if it had been foretold.
He'd come. He knew he would.
He swallowed in anticipation and took a breath of foggy air to still the excited jitters in his stomach.
He didn't mind waiting.
He'd never been afraid of the dark.
"Now remember wha' I told ya," Hagrid said. "They don' like ta be talked down to – foolish idea this – great man, Dumbledore, but I don' know as this is such a good un – I said I'd go but 'e – "
"We'll be fine, Hagrid," Remus said. "I know this forest like – "
"The back of yerr paw?"
Remus laughed, quietly, in the wand light. "Yes," he said. "I rather think that's why Dumbledore chose me."
Hagrid's forehead knitted itself into a frown, and, illuminated by the faint blue light from Remus' wand, he looked rather more ill at ease with the idea than even his words suggested. "Well – jus' be careful, s'all I'm sayin' – an' red sparks if yerr get into trouble – I'll be up all night anyway, waiting fer the shootin' stars – so don' hesitate."
"Thank you, Hagrid."
Remus met Tonks' eye, and, reluctant as he was to leave the grounds proper and head into the unknown, jerked his head towards the trees. There was no point putting it off. "Ready when you are," Tonks said.
Remus offered her a tight-lipped smile and took a deep breath, and then slowly, with their wands lit and held out steadily in front of them, they made for the edges of the Forbidden Forrest.
The idea was fairly simple. Dumbledore wanted them to get the centaurs on side, had heard rumours that Voldemort was trying to do the same, that he coveted the knowledge of the stars the centaurs possessed and hoped to gain advantage by getting them to reveal what they knew of the forthcoming battles. The Order had theorized that Lucius Malfoy was using his influence at the Ministry and with Umbridge to sneak into the castle and potentially the forest to entreat the centaurs, that they'd be promised that under Voldemort's rule they'd be given more respect, their proper place in the order of things. Dumbledore thought the centaurs would never fall for such tactics, but it was hardly the kind of thing he wanted to leave to chance.
And so here they were. Remus had hoped the task might fall to Snape, but Dumbledore had asked him instead, saying that his talent for persuasion, coupled with his intricate knowledge of the forest, would make him the ideal candidate. He'd steadfastly not said that the fact that Remus wasn't one of those humans the centaurs mistrusted so much made him even more ideal, although it had sat thickly in the air between them as they'd discussed it, his unique perspective, and Remus knew it was a big part of why he'd been chosen. He didn't mind it, not really, and had accepted the task because – well, he couldn't not.
The trees loomed above him, and Remus glanced between the boughs up at the sky, just making out the crescent of the moon and the constellations that told him he was heading North. There was Arcturus, Lyra, and the Andromeda galaxy up ahead, and he tried to concentrate on that rather than the vehement pounding of his heart and the creeping chill on his skin.
Remus had been in here dozens – hundreds, probably – of times before, but the place had never lost its sense of eeriness entirely for him. The trees were beautiful – stunning – by day, especially at this time of year when they were a paint chart of fire colours – scarlet, ochre, bright yellow and burnt orange. All of that fell away with the sunlight that made the leaves dance, though, and in its place now was a scene where malevolent magic seemed to dwell in the air, drift over them on the breeze.
The ground was littered with dead leaves that crunched under foot, releasing their crisp, fruity smell with every step, and above, the canopy was dense enough even after a few brief moments' walk to dapple the moonlight. At night, Remus had always felt that the trees were impressive to the point of foreboding, and the creak of the woods around him had always unnerved him a little.
His friends had often teased him about his ill-ease in the forest, and he'd laughed off his nerves more times than he cared to remember; they didn't know, after all, what it was like to come face to face with one of the fabled monsters that dwelt in the darkness, that pounced out of the mist.
He did. He knew what lurked behind trees, using opaque fog as cover, and even though he might be the only werewolf in the woods tonight, that hardly made them safe when he knew what else lurked in here.
Hagrid's pep talk had, he confessed, not helped his nerves, and the knot in his stomach sat all the more heavily for it. He tried to remind himself that there was really nothing to worry about – he and Tonks were capable fighters, and if anything went wrong, half-giant-sized back-up was only a flick of his wand away.
The knot in his stomach, however, didn't seem to be mollified by logic, and as they pressed deeper into the forest, the path that had lead them in fell away a little, became tighter, more twisted, and with it, his nerves jangled so much he was surprised that Tonks couldn't hear them.
Most of it, he knew, was circumstance. He'd always been a bit ill at ease in the forest, wand light always cast an eerie glow on things, and subterfuge always upped his pulse by a dozen beats a minute. Was it any wonder that his heart pounded and his throat went dry when he was forced to deal with all three at once?
And yet this felt like more than that, too. It was almost as if he had a sense that –
"I think Hagrid might be right about this one," Tonks whispered, picking her way carefully around a hole in the ground, getting the leg of her jeans caught on a low, snaking bramble.
"Well, I mean," she said, bending down to free her leg with an irritated tut at herself, "Dumbledore's a genius normally, but this idea of his to try and get the centaurs on side – I mean have you ever asked a centaur anything and got a straight answer? How are we even supposed to know if they've agreed? Did you bring a centaur-speak translator, or something?"
Remus sniggered. He'd picked Tonks to help him with this for a variety of reasons – they always worked well together, he knew she was an adept fighter and better at reasoning with people than most gave her credit for, and he liked her a lot; but mostly, he'd known that the easy cheerfulness she sported would be guaranteed to quell his nerves, as much as they ever could be quelled, anyway.
"As it happens," he said, his voice low and still, an echo of the quietness of the forest itself, "I have had at least one reasonable conversation with a centaur."
"Hmm. Firenze, I think his name was. When I taught here, I got a little – er – stranded after a full moon and he suggested that the forest was no place for a human without his proper accoutrements."
Tonks stumbled a little, but barely broke her stride, and in the reflected light from her wand, he could just make out her looking at him with rather wide eyes. "You mean you were – " Her eyes darted down to his chest, the jumper, coat and scarf he was wearing, and then her eyebrows inched a little in suggestion.
"Oh, stark bollock," Remus said. "He took it rather well, pointed me in the direction of Hagrid's cottage and suggested I borrow an overcoat."
"Well," Tonks said, letting out a breathy-chuckle that half-froze in the air and drifted towards him. "I can't say I ever pictured you as the kind who'd run around the forest naked but – you learn something new every day, I suppose. You can take your kit off now, if it'll make you feel more at home."
She raised an eyebrow at him, her eyes dancing flirtatiously, and Remus swallowed and looked away, biting back a smile and dampening down the flirtatious comment half-formed on his own lips about why on earth she'd want to see him naked.
He and Tonks – well there was no he and Tonks, he reminded himself, because they were just friends, nothing more than that.
He cast his eyes to the ground under the auspice of looking where he was going, watching as his feet kicked up the dead leaves and they danced in the light from his wand for a moment before settling back in new drifts.
At least, just friends was what he told himself.
During the day, it was easy to believe that he didn't want more. When the sun was shining and he had distractions, he could believe the things he told himself about why it would never work, could see the logic in them, the truth; but his objections seemed to set each day with the sun. At night, when his mind broke free of the constraints he placed upon it, it was a different story, and he'd float to a wonderful place filled with what ifs, allow things, images of them, to form.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd woken to anything other than aching disappointment that the woman he'd dreamt about wasn't beside him.
He met Tonks' eye, smiled a little, and the way she was looking at him – the way she always looked at him, so eager and friendly and blind to what he was –
As the weeks passed, it was getting harder and harder not to give in to the invitation he saw in her eyes.
"Some people," he said, just to say something, "think that if a werewolf transforms and then forgets where his clothes are, he can't change back again."
"Have you tested the theory?"
"Not intentionally," he said
"Oh well that sounds like – "
Tonks froze as, to their left, something moved in the darkness. She motioned for quiet and turned slowly to the source of the noise, leaning barely perceptibly forward and tilting her head to listen.
He was here, in the forest. He could feel it on the breeze, smell it, almost.
Of course, he'd seen it coming, predicted that it'd happen one night this week, been prepared for it, more ready than he'd been for anything, but it was nice to catch a glimpse of him, confirm that he was right.
And this was it. His stomach clenched and his mind whirred –
The girl was interesting – something he hadn't anticipated. He'd thought he'd come alone. He wetted his lips, thought about it for a moment, assessing this new twist. Conceivably, it could work in his favour. He stole another glance, then stepped back from the thicket.
They hadn't seen him.
He glanced up through the branches and saw a flicker of silver. The shooting stars were starting, and it was all falling into place.
"S'nothing," Tonks said, releasing a sigh and letting the branches fall back to where they had been. "Probably just a squirrel or something."
Remus nodded, letting out a sigh of relief of his own, although his heart continued to pound in his chest, and a bit of him refused to believe that anything as a benign as a squirrel existed in a place like this. Tonks frowned a little too, as if she was having the same difficulty believing her words that he was, and cast the light from her wand once more into the trees. It illuminated the trunks, throwing patterns of light on the bark that looked all too much like faces frozen in a scream, but just as soon as Remus had thought that, Tonks turned to him and shrugged. "Vole, maybe?" she said.
He nodded again, wanting to believe it, but looked back over his shoulder at the same time, too. Tension prickled on his spine, a feeling he couldn't quite shake but couldn't place either, as if some crucial piece of evidence he needed to make sense of what he was feeling had been miscataloged by his brain.
He checked the branches above, the tree-strewn edges of the path, between the trunks – but there was nothing there, just the staunch oaks that lined the way they'd come, and the vague rustle of the breeze. He met Tonks' eye, shrugged even though his heart still pounded, and by mutual, unspoken agreement, they moved on.
They pressed deeper and deeper into the woods, the trees becoming so densely packed on either side of the path that Remus could barely see through them. They loomed so tall and thick above, too, that he could hardly make out the sky – just the briefest twinkle of the odd star as they passed beneath. Maybe that was what had always unnerved him about the forest, that if you went in deep enough, there was no way to tell for certain where you were, no light of the stars to guide you out again, and the only time that hadn't bothered him was when he didn't have enough of his own mind to be bothered by anything.
"This place gives me the creeps."
Remus smiled. Somehow, Tonks had given voice to his thoughts, which was something she did often enough that he'd started to really like it. Sometimes, during meetings, he'd meet her eye and know without a shadow of a doubt that they were sharing the same thought, the same quip about something someone else had said. It was nice – more than nice. He hadn't had a connection like that with anyone since he'd sat at the back of the Charms classroom with his friends, and Professor Flitwick had unwittingly given them all the same beginnings of an idea for some prank or other.
He pushed the thought aside, knowing that his mind was just looking for comfort, some sense of light in the darkness that enveloped them, and he trained his gaze on the trees ahead, where mist and malevolence seemed to swirl in equal measure. They were approaching a clearing, and all of a sudden, stars or not, he knew where they were. In his youth they'd called it the clearing with the bent tree, owing to a half-fallen yew that marked the edge of the tree line – it had become a meeting place for them if they became separated, somewhere they could all find, because there was a brook nearby they could detect by smell.
Remus listened for the reassuring babble that would indicate he was right, and as they passed a small cluster of pine trees which threw their branches up in horror at the sky, there it was, the faint trickle of water over rock. "I know where we are," he said quietly.
By his reckoning, they were a good half an hour or so east of the nearest major hazard, the Acromantula lair, which he and his friends had always been scrupulous about avoiding. If they kept on this path, eventually they'd come to another clearing, one marked by a lightening-struck tree at its centre, and there the thestrals might be, grazing. He'd always liked that clearing in particular – it was a great place to stop and gaze at the stars, and if he'd had the nerve to venture in without his friends he'd always thought it would be a great spot to take a girl. The grass there was speckled with sweet-smelling night-blooming flowers, and he had a momentary longing to take Tonks by the hand, abandon their task and spend the night there instead, telling her tales of the cosmos and watching the shooting stars he knew were coming.
That wasn't their path, though, he thought, and the one they were supposed to be looking for forked off just in front of them. Dumbledore had said that that was the one they should take, the one that would lead them to the last place the centaurs had been spotted. He'd said that they'd be easy enough to track, and Remus had nodded, although in truth he hadn't really shared Dumbledore's faith.
"It's this way, I think," he said, indicating the path ahead with the light from his wand. He checked behind them, not really knowing even as he was doing it why he was; he supposed the action had been dictated by that prickle up and down his spine, the one he still couldn't quite place, but couldn't shake, either.
The new path was narrower than the last had been, and it twisted away ahead of them, disappearing disconcertingly into fog and undergrowth. The trees gave off an eerie silver glow as they passed and their wand light brushed the bark, and the ivy that decked them almost whispered a warning on the breeze. Remus kept his gaze firmly trained ahead, resisting the urge to check behind them, to let his gaze dart between the trees and seek out reassurance that might not come, and they walked closer than they had, Tonks' arm brushing his on more or less every stride. They reached a copse of pine trees, and the sweet smell of crushed, fallen needles rose up to meet them every time they placed their feet, and Remus couldn't help wishing that Tonks would say something cheery to try and ease his hammering heart.
The ground beneath their feet became boggy, the pine needles disappearing into patches of mud, and Remus slipped a little on a rock greasy with silt. He reached out to take Tonks' arm to steady himself, letting out a nervous laugh when she met his eye and raised an eyebrow in some shared joke or other about her normally being the one who was less than sure-footed.
They pressed on, avoiding the mud as best they could, trying to stick to the patches where leaves had fallen over the top, and –
"Look," Tonks said, grabbing his arm and gesturing further down the path. Remus followed her gaze, the light of her wand, and eventually he saw what she did: hoof prints in the mud.
They quickened their pace a little and bent over the half-moon clefts, throwing the combined light of their wands onto the ground. "Are they definitely – " Tonks said, letting the question hang. "I mean I don't want to follow this and find out that there's actually a herd of Shetland ponies in here."
"No, they're definitely centaur tracks," Remus said. "See how the pattern is slightly irregular?"
"Oh, is that how you tell?"
"Hmm, they're very – "
A twig snapped, and the word 'distinctive' died on Remus' lips. He looked at Tonks, and she met his eye with a hopeful, questioning gaze. Remus shook his head to indicate that no, he hadn't moved, hadn't stepped on anything, raised an eyebrow to ask if she had.
She shook her head, leaned in closer – so close that he could hear that her breathing was just a little bit faster than normal.
"Do you – " Tonks whispered, then swallowed and met his eye nervously. "Do you get the feeling we're being watched?"
Compulsively, Remus swallowed too.
That was it. That was what had been bothering him.
He edged towards the trees slowly, the prickle on his spine intensifying with every step, and above the clamour of his heart, there it was.
The faint sound of breathing.
Bracken clawed at his shins, branches whipped against his face, and stones skidded out from underneath his feet as he pelted down the path. Tonks was on his heel – he could hear her ragged breathing just behind him, see the odd flash of her in his periphery.
What was it, this thing that had been watching them?
He'd felt its presence since they'd entered the forest – he just hadn't known entirely what it was – or it had been too vague a thought for him to let form. If he'd thought about it, he'd have recognised the feeling – he'd had it when he transformed and other animals looked at him through the darkness, trying to fathom if he was prey or threat.
Was it Malfoy? Another Death Eater? Voldemort himself?
Or something else – something other entirely – a spectre or phantom of some kind, some thing that lived here in the forest?
He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to find out.
They veered off the path. The grass was slippery beneath his feet, twisted with weeds – but there was no choice. Remus heard Tonks stumble a little, glanced back to check she was all right and offered her his hand, fixing her fingers in his and pulling her along.
Adrenaline coursed in Remus' veins – he didn't think about the pain in his legs, the cold air that twisted like a knife in his lungs as he fought to breathe, just tried to keep a grip on his wand in one hand, Tonks' fingers in the other, and a clear head for what might come.
He could barely make out the thing they were chasing, just the odd flash of movement as it darted through the forest. Trees flashed past so fast he couldn't tell what they were, and he tried to focus ahead, where the mist coagulated. It seemed to part, swirl, as the cloaked form entered it, and Remus hurtled – there was no other word it – after the retreating figure, pulling Tonks along beside him, even though some of the weeds grasped at their ankles and others attempted to knot around their knees.
All Remus could tell was that this thing was wearing a cloak, long and dark – that was it, the odd flash of black as it whipped around trees, darted left or right and became visible for a fleeting second. Not paying enough attention to his feet, Remus stumbled on some bracken – Tonks bore him up – and with his heart hammering in his throat and his chest aching with white-hot effort, they reached –
He could scarcely believe it.
The clearing with the lightening-struck tree.
Rather than darting quickly through the clearing, seeking out the cover of the trees, the mist, the cloaked figure slowed, and he and Tonks thundered onto the grass beneath the starlight, eventually stopping when the cloaked figure did.
It didn't turn, didn't let them see what they were up against, just laughed –
Remus dropped Tonks' hand and tightened his grip on his wand with a sudden sense of palpable foreboding.
The word 'trapped' resonated through his head.
He stopped, his breath heavy in his chest after the chase. He could have gone on, but there didn't seem any point in prolonging things. The grass sparkled with the early prickling of frost, and above, the shooting stars cascaded.
He drew his wand from the inside pocket of his robes, and slowly, he turned.
Remus closed his eyes briefly, his breath hard and rasping as it drifted away from him. "I should have known," he whispered.
It wasn't Malfoy, or even any of the other things he'd imagined.
It was worse.
It was Wormtail.
"Who – who knows the forest like we do, eh, R-Remus?" he said.
Remus trained his wand squarely on Peter's chest, scanning the trees that surrounded them for any signs that they were about to come under substantial attack. He couldn't see a glint off any masks, something that indicated other Death Eaters hidden behind the trees, but what did that mean? He couldn't see much past the edge of the clearing before the darkness and mist consumed everything beyond – that was no guarantee that Peter had come alone.
A moment passed accompanied by nothing but the sound of Tonks' heavy breathing ringing in his ears, and no attack came, although Remus couldn't help but find that almost more disconcerting.
One spell, he thought, one spell – two, if he didn't quite mean it enough on the first try – and this man, this pathetic, snivelling creature who was no use to anyone, had caused harm so exponentially larger than anything he had the talent to wreak with magic – would be gone forever. He took a step around the tree and towards Peter, only to find him respond in kind, moving the other way, his eyebrows twitching with something that Remus knew better than to assume was apprehension.
"I knew they'd send you," Peter said, his lips forming into a nervous sneer that seemed so incongruous with the boy Remus had shared his dreams and promises with he could barely believe they were the same person.
He edged closer, aware that Tonks was right behind him, but for every step they took, Peter moved away. "Did you?" Remus said, struggling not to give away his own apprehension with a quaver of his voice. "Picking up a gift for prophecy from the centaurs, Peter?"
Peter's fingers twitched on his wand as he pointed it more firmly in Remus' direction, belying the aggression and conviction of his stance just slightly. "I knew Dumbledore would send the h-half-breed."
"Half-breed?" Remus said. "You used to call me friend, Peter – I suppose you've forgotten what that feels like?"
Peter's eyes narrowed, and he took another step, then another, until they were circling around the dead tree as if these ashen branches, forever frozen in their spliced form, were some kind of totem. The sweet scent of the night-blooming flowers rose around them like incense, and above, Remus could just make out that the shooting stars had started. It was like some twisted version of the romantic moment he'd pictured with Tonks – they were here with all the elements, but instead of doing anything else he'd dreamed about, they were probably going to have to fight for their lives.
Remus knew he had to be careful. For all they'd underestimated him at school, Peter had allowed bitterness and jealousy to turn him into something almost unimaginably horrible – and that, whether Remus liked it or not, made him a force to be reckoned with.
They circled the tree slowly in the darkness, wands trained on each other as if they were doing some kind of absurd dance. Peter's eyes darted to Tonks, and Remus felt anger flare in his chest. He didn't want him even looking at her. If anything happened to her, if he so much fired half a spell in her direction –
Realisation settled in his stomach. He had to finish this.
Fleetingly, he thought about the Shrieking Shack. He wouldn't make the same mistake twice – if he had a straight shot at Peter, he'd take it. He tried to surreptitiously ease in front of Tonks, and his mind whirled.
Another realisation: he couldn't afford to be rash, either. He needed to know what they were up against, if Peter was the bait for something else, if beyond the trees there were more Death Eaters, or not.
He needed to think, not to give in to the desires that lurked inside to harm regardless of the consequences. Remus took a small breath, fixing his gaze solidly on Peter's, ignoring the part of himself that didn't care about consequences any more than it cared about right or wrong. "I hear you've got new allies," Remus said, eyeing Peter through the jagged slice in the tree. "Tell me, do they share their secrets with you? Do they trust you like we did? Or has your reputation preceded you and left you out in the cold?"
Peter frowned, his jaw set almost defiantly – and that was it – the tell Remus had been looking for, there, as plain on his face as it had been when at fourteen, Sirius had challenged him, asked if anyone had sent him a Valentine and he'd tried to lie.
Remus thought fast. In truth, he hadn't expected it to be so easy, but this Peter was no different from the Peter of old – he wanted nothing more or less than to be included by people bigger and stronger than he was. And even after everything he'd done, he was out in the cold.
It made perfect sense. Peter had wormed his way in with Voldemort selling his friends, and whilst they appreciated the information, no-one, not even Death Eaters, wanted to share their innermost secrets with a man known to have betrayed his comrades.
Maybe that was what this was about – maybe Peter had concocted the whole thing about the centaurs, fed the information to Snape, who would have passed it to Dumbledore – for some other purpose. Perhaps he'd thought to capture Remus, torture him, maybe, for information, to curry favour with the other Death Eaters – or to nudge himself up one notch closer to Voldemort for the extra protection and favour.
Remus nearly smiled at the thought. Yes, that was very much the kind of thing Peter would do.
"What do you want with me?" Remus said evenly. "Are you going to try and torture me for information? Or do you just want to reminisce about old times? If it's the latter, I feel bound to tell you that I rather think I'd prefer the torture."
Peter's face hardened, and the urge to smile – to smirk, actually, to let Peter know that he was glad he'd hurt him, tore at Remus' insides. "Or are you just going to sell me to Voldemort?" he continued, bile rising in his chest. "After all, old habits die hard."
"I suppose you think you're better than me?" Peter said. "That y–you wouldn't have done what I-I did – "
"I wouldn't have."
Peter's eyes narrowed further as if he was trying to read Remus' mind, but Remus didn't look away, didn't flinch, much as he felt like it. He didn't want to give him the satisfaction. "You would," Peter said. "You don't know what you're capable of until that moment, that moment when he looks you in the eye and t-tells you to choose – the life of your friends or someone else you care about, someone you l-love."
Remus glared at him across the clearing. Just one shot –
"Don't try and justify what you did Peter, because there's no justification – "
"Really, R-Remus?" Peter said. "If it was James and Lily or watch her die – " His eyes darted to Tonks and then back again. " – what would you have done?"
Remus' heart stopped for a second, and though he, Tonks and Peter continued to pace, it was if the world stood perfectly still. How had Peter..? How did he know?
Silence thumped at his ears, cold clawed at his skin, and even though Remus knew he was giving Peter exactly what he wanted, he couldn't help it. His gaze flickered to Tonks' –
"What about Sirius? Your last, your d-dearest friend? If you had to, you'd trade his life for hers in an instant, wouldn't you? You wouldn't even have to think about it."
Peter smirked, laughed almost nervously and yet not nervously at all, and Remus' heart thundered in his chest. He should deny it –
But it was too late. Tonks had already seen the answer in his eyes. He'd do anything to save her – had already thought –
And with a sickening thud he realised that he was no better than the short, balding creature standing in front of him.
Worse still, Tonks knew it.
"What's the matter, Remus?" Peter said. "R-rat got your tongue?"
Remus' heart screamed, and for the first time ever, he wanted to just obliterate Peter, wipe him completely from existence – not in the name of justice, not for James and Lily, not even for Harry, but for himself, in retribution for forcing this thing he kept hidden inside, his weakness, his true nature, out into the open. Remus stepped closer, watched as Peter eyed him with a wavering smirk, peered at him around the twisted dead boughs of the lightening-struck tree.
This was it, then.
One clear shot. It was all either of them would need.
He could afford to.
Initial blow was his, anyway.
Remus struck first, but he struck harder, sending him sprawling back across the grass. He'd learned a lot these past few years, tricks and spells his friends would never have given him the credit to be able to pick up, and he intended to use them, all of them.
His stomach contracted with excitement at the thought.
The girl was quick to respond, anger on Remus' behalf flashing, touchingly, in her eyes as she sliced at his arm with a spell, and then Remus scrambled to his feet, and in the next instant, the clearing was ablaze with spells, an echo of the shooting stars above.
It wouldn't take long, he thought. They'd wear themselves out with righteous indignation, and he'd prevail, would take what he needed and go home, back to his Lord, victorious.
He'd hoped for just a moment with his old friend, information, perhaps, on where he and his precious Order of The Phoenix congregated, how they planned to attempt to thwart the Dark Lord – but this, this was so much better.
He stepped closer, dodged round the tree, ignored the spells Remus was casting, and aimed for the girl. She was the key. They always were.
Remus hadn't meant to do it.
They'd been fighting fiercely – Peter had lunged for Tonks, caught her with some kind of twist on an Incarcerous spell, binding her with ropes that dug into her skin and made her face turn white with pain. He'd laughed, loomed over her muttering how much he'd enjoy making Remus' nightmares come true – and the next second, Remus had him by the throat pinned against the tree.
His skin was clammy beneath his fingers, and Remus pressed closer, pushing Peter back against the dead, grey trunk, his breath angry, frosted clouds in the darkness. He glanced at Tonks, pleading in his head for her to be all right. She struggled against the ropes that bound her, tightened all the time, but she had her wand, and though her hands were forced into an unnatural position at her side, she was slicing through them all the same.
She was fine. Still –
Remus' fingers closed a little entirely of their own accord, and Peter half-coughed, half-laughed, meeting his eye in a way that Remus knew he'd never entirely be able to banish from his memory, as if he saw exactly what Remus meant to do, and wasn't in the least surprised.
The look sickened him, but Remus couldn't let go, couldn't find it within himself to offer Peter the mercy he'd denied to so many. Peter gagged beneath his fingers, his pallor changing, turning red. All he'd have to do was keep squeezing –
He deserved it, deserved it more, perhaps, than any man who'd ever lived – and Remus glared down at him, let him see the intent in his eyes, his only regret that Tonks would be here to witness it.
He squeezed, deaf to Peter's gurgled protests, immune to the pleading clutch of his silver fingers on his sleeve –
Suddenly, there was a sound like thunder – distant at first, and then closer, louder, more insistent, and Remus' gaze darted from Peter's face to the trees. Had this been a trap after all? Had the Death Eaters found some way to transport themselves directly into the forest?
The trees yielded no clues – the mist was like a barrier to anything that lay beyond the clearing, and Remus looked to Tonks. She was on her feet again, the ropes Peter had caught her with falling in pieces at her feet, her eyes alive as she looked from tree to tree for a sign of what was happening, twisting quickly to look this way and that.
The sound grew louder still, and she glanced at Remus, shaking her head desperately, the breath that formed a fog at her lips coming in increasingly small snatches.
Remus let Peter go, trained his wand on him as he sank, coughing, onto the grass at the base of the tree, clutching his throat and scrabbling at the neck of his robes. "Is this you?" Remus said. "Some trap?"
Peter laughed, coughing up something that looked a bit like blood against the roots of the dead tree. He looked up, sneered, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand –
But Remus didn't have time to think, to imagine, even, what Peter could have planned because in the next instant, the mist broke, and he saw a dozen centaurs, faces contorted in anger, cantering towards them through the trees.
Suddenly, the idea of being trapped in the clearing with Peter and a hoard of Death Eaters seemed like the lesser of two evils.
Tonks backed towards the tree, to where he stood, Peter at his feet. She held her wand would-be steadily in front of her as the centaurs approached, her eyes moving rapidly from one to the other. "Hell," she said. "What are we going to – ?"
Before she could finish the sentence, Wormtail did what he always did: he turned his wand on himself, and disappeared across the leaves, into the dark.
Tonks pressed herself back against the bark of a fir tree, panting hard.
Remus followed, ducking down into a crouch at her feet and looking back the way they'd come, squinting into the darkness to see if they were safe. They'd tried to explain what had happened, that they'd come here at the behest of Albus Dumbledore, that they'd believed Voldemort was going to try and use their ancient knowledge for his own ends, but the centaurs hadn't listened.
Humans encroaching on their territory – worse – doing it out of some sense that they could offer assistance to them, was apparently not a winning idea and one of them had whinnied and raised himself up on his back legs in protest at the very notion.
Another – black haired and sneering – had railed about how dare the humans bring their fight into the forest, that they needed to be taught a lesson, and after that Remus and Tonks hadn't seen fit to wait, had just made a run for it through the trees, a flurry of arrows in their wake.
Remus eyed the darkness. He could still hear the thunder of hooves, angry shouts, and for a second, he thought of sending up red sparks. Hagrid would come, and if anyone could talk sense into the centaurs, it was him. But it was too risky, wasn't it, to give away their position when they were so deep in the forest? The best they could hope for, he thought, was to rest a minute and then keep running, hope the centaurs didn't catch up with them – maybe find a spot where theywould be able to signal for help.
They'd been lucky so far –
He glanced about, trying to figure out where they were, listening for the babble of the brook, hoping that his eyes would alight on a familiar landmark, a tree or cluster of rocks that he recognised, but it was no use. They'd run too far, and the mist was too disconcerting for him to chance upon a recognition. He'd just need a minute, maybe, to get his bearings.
He hoped they had that.
"Anything?" Tonks whispered, jerking her head in the direction that they'd come from, then training her gaze on the trees ahead, her eyes darting with a piercing, assessing look.
"Not yet," he said quietly, his breath hot and jagged in his chest.
Tonks nodded, swallowed heavily, and he watched her chest convulse with a series of rapid breaths. "Well," she said, "at least they were unequivocal. And there I was, worried we wouldn't understand a word they said."
Remus sniggered lightly, covering his nerves, as always, with laughter. "Always a bright side," he said. "Are you all right? That spell – "
"Just cuts and bruises," she said, "bigger things to worry about at the moment, I think."
He smiled, unconvinced, because when the light from his wand had flashed over her as they ran, he'd seen angry welts on her wrists where she'd struggled, and he suspected there'd be more, worse, but she was right – the noise of hooves colliding with the ground in the distance hadn't abated, and healing spells could wait until they were safe.
For a moment, there was nothing but the sound of their struggling breaths and the distant pound of hooves, and Remus peered into the darkness, looking for a sign that they needed to move, hoping against hope that it wouldn't come, because his legs felt like hot lead and every time he blinked there were stars behind his eyes.
"Anyway," Tonks said. She sighed breathily, and he looked up at her. Her forehead was lined with an uncertain frown, and though she smiled, it was forced, and her eyes danced with something he was so unaccustomed to seeing in them it took him a moment to be certain what it was.
She was scared.
His chest constricted –
"I'm only going to say this," she said quickly, "because there's a good chance we might die, but –"
"I just – in case we get trampled to death here – I wanted you to know – "
Tonks paused, and, in spite of the fear he saw drawn in her gaze, looked at him the same way she always looked at him, eager and hopeful and blind to what he was, even now she'd seen it with her own two eyes. Remus studied the ground, his blood rushing in his head in a veritable cacophony of fear and thought and swirling images because he was near certain what she was going to say.
And he couldn't let her say it.
"We're not going to die here," he said firmly.
"I like your confidence, Remus, but just in case – "
"No, see, it's all in the stars," he said. He straightened up, just peeking around the trunk of the tree she was flattened against to make sure they weren't about to be stamped into the ground and prove him wrong, before giving her his full attention. "Tonight," he continued, glancing up at the branches above, "the sky is full of lucky stars."
He'd thought that perhaps Tonks would think him daft for suggesting any such thing – especially at a moment like this, when he himself had been a nervous wreck all night. He hadn't cared if she did because at least that would take her mind off her fear – but instead, she looked rather captivated. "Is it?"
Remus swallowed nervously. The noise from the centaurs was getting closer, louder, but in spite of that, in spite of everything, it was this, a simple conversation with Tonks, that frightened him the most. "There's Sadalbari – it's the leg of Pegasus, and a very lucky star, and then there's Nashira, in Capricorn – that means bringer of good news. And there's all the stars in Aquarius – Sadalmelik, the lucky star of the king – "
The hooves pounded, and the ground beneath their feet trembled. "I don't see any royalty," Tonks said, forcing her lips into a grim, determined smile.
"Sadachbia, then – lucky star of the tents," he said, biting back a grin.
"I didn't bring a – "
"Oh well if you will be picky," he said, lowering his voice a little and speaking quickly, wanting to say it all in case – "Sadalsuud – that means luck of lucks – you can't quibble with that."
In spite of everything, Tonks laughed quietly, and he did too, because when she did, he could rarely help it. "See?" he said. "Too many lucky stars for us to die in here tonight."
Tonks nodded, pressed her lips together, and the hooves drew closer. Remus weighed the options. "Any ideas for getting out of this alive?" he said.
"I thought we had the lucky stars on our side?"
"As a back up," he said, "in case my astronomy's off."
Tonks bit back a grin, looked away, then back again quickly, her eyes alive still, but not nearly as frightened as they had been. "We could fight," she said. "They've got bows and arrows, but if we're clever – pick them off a couple at a time?"
"I can just see Dumbledore's face," he said quickly, "the good news is, Voldemort's not after the centaurs, the bad new is we killed a couple of them and now they're on his side anyway."
"Good point," Tonks said. Her eyes searched his, roving his face as she shook her head, thinking fast.
"I thought we might be able to make a run for it," he said, "but I don't know where we are, and they're fast – "
"Disillusion?" she said. "Huddle against the tree and hope they don't see us and go away?"
Remus nodded. He didn't see any other option, and so he quickly rapped Tonks lightly on the head with his wand, and after a second, she all but disappeared against the trunk of the tree. He felt her tap him lightly in return, and as the cool sensation of the spell trickled over him, he took a deep breath, hoping this would work.
"Nox," he muttered and pressed closer, covering her body with his and flattening them both as much as he could against the trunk.
Almost immediately, the hooves became a thunderstorm around them, and Remus ducked closer into the tree, pressing his forehead into the bark and wondering at the sensation of Tonks' body caught beneath his. Her fingers found his waist, pulling him closer, and he could hear her breath, feel it, rapid and hot against his ear. His heart thundered like the hooves around them, and he glanced back as best he could, seeing the centaurs course through the mist, their bows and arrows held aloft, shouting to each other about which way was best to go. The air felt humid with their presence, blue with spent breath, and the scent of sweat swirled with the mist towards them and around them.
There was nothing they could do but huddle together, and wait.
"Remus?" Tonks' voice was a whisper against his skin, and he shivered in a way that had absolutely nothing to do with the cold that had seeped into his bones as they'd stood, pressed against the tree. "I think they've gone."
She was right. The sound of hooves had disappeared entirely, and though Remus had told himself that they should remain still for a while in case they came back, a significantly longer period had passed than was strictly necessary for that. He'd been frozen, he supposed, in fear, not wanting to move in case they came back, not daring to hope it was over. Something else had kept him there too, some sense –
But it didn't matter.
He eased away, dispelling the Disillusionment charm, and watching as Tonks did the same, slowly materialising again in front of him. "I suppose we'd better – "
The crackle of a twig and a muffled clip-clop made her words falter, and they both turned, wands out and ready, lighting up the trees once more.
Remus' heart leapt in his chest and he peered between the trunks of two birches, trying to make out the shape of what was moving in the darkness. Tonks' beam hit upon the source of the noise first – it was definitely a centaur, and she shifted her wand and illuminated his face.
Remus exchanged a worried glance with Tonks. Would he shout for the others?
But this centaur hadn't been with them, and his face wasn't twisted by indignation and rage as the others' had been. He stepped closer, and Remus recognised him, half let out the breath he had been holding.
"Remus Lupin," Firenze said. "You do not normally venture into the forest without the influence of the moon."
"No," Remus said. "Other business brought me here tonight. Firenze, this is Tonks."
"Wotcher," Tonks said, and Firenze offered her a nod of acknowledgement.
"So it was the influence of the moon in part," Firenze said.
"Erm – "
"Mars was particularly ardent tonight," Firenze said slowly, cutting off the question about what he meant that Remus had half-formed on his lips. "You were responsible for the skirmish."
It didn't seem like a question, and so Remus didn't bother to answer. Firenze's gaze drifted up to the sky, where Remus could just make out the outline of what he thought was Pegasus' leg between the leaves. Lucky stars indeed.
A breeze rustled the branches above, and Firenze's gaze fluttered slowly back to them. "An interesting night you picked for it," he said, considering them for a moment with his head tilted to one side. "The Hunter's shower."
"Rather a coincidence, I'm afraid," Remus said. "We got wind of Dark wizards who would try and make envoy to you tonight, and – "
"Remus Lupin," Firenze said, "there is no such thing as coincidence, only purpose that, at the time, you are unable to see."
Remus smiled and looked down at the ground, trying not to ponder what hidden purpose there might have been in the woods tonight: Tonks, Peter –
For the second time that night, his heart felt as if it had stopped. This.
Peter had never intended to entreat the centaurs, but did that mean that he shouldn't? So much had happened – but this seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
"It turned out to not be true," Remus said, "what we thought, but it's not completely beyond the realm of possibility that Voldemort and his followers will try at some point to contact you – coerce, even."
"What you know about the stars," Tonks said, "what's coming – it could be invaluable."
"You know that centaurs rarely interfere in human events," Firenze said.
"I do," Remus replied, and Firenze smiled, spreading his hands in front of him as if gesturing that he was unconvinced, but he may continue if he wanted to. "I'm sure you are aware of the growing darkness in our world," he said. "Dumbledore wishes for you to perhaps share what you know with him, rather than the other side, in the hope of an expedient end to the matter."
"And he sent you to speak for him, in the belief that we will see you at his side and be persuaded?"
"Perhaps," Remus said. "The darkness will spread. I don't believe a desire not to be involved will be enough to keep you safe – although I can understand how you might not find the word of a Dark creature all that persuasive."
Firenze pawed the ground lightly, and then looked up at the sky again. "This dark presence, this bringer of Mars," he said, "he is human, is he not? Or was, once upon a time."
"Then I do not see why your word would mean less than that of a full human. Men talk of Dark creatures as if they were somehow different from themselves," he said. "But look at what man has done. They are the Darkest creatures of them all, for they have choice, and choose to do abominable things."
Remus nodded vaguely, unsure what he should say, but before he could come up with anything, Firenze continued. "I make no promises, Remus Lupin," he said, "but I will see what support there may be for the idea amongst my fellows."
"Thank you," Tonks said. Firenze smiled.
"And now," he said, "I bid you goodnight. Should you be lost, the path to your right will lead you out by the most direct route."
Remus trudged along the path, his legs heavy and his pacing laboured, listening to the hooting of the owls overhead, the rustle of the trees, the crunching of leaves beneath their feet.
Firenze had been right – it was a more direct path, but it still felt like an age before they could start to make out the Hogwarts grounds beyond the trees, illuminated by the light of the crescent moon and the show the stars were putting on. They'd peppered the journey with hushed, nervous conversation, still twitchy and eyeing the trees in case the centaurs chanced upon them or anything else sprang out of the mist, but as they approached the edge of the forest, Remus felt the knot in his stomach loosen a little. "We should call in at Hagrid's," Tonks said. "Tell him the centaurs might be a bit frisky and to leave them alone for a day or two."
Remus murmured his agreement, eying the trees and the piles of leaves that strewed the path intently, even though he knew that Wormtail would be long gone by now. His and Tonks' wand lights danced, mingled, on the leaves in front of them as they walked, and his heartbeat was as normal as he thought it ever would be in the forest.
Now he could see the edge of the trees, something else played on his mind, captured his thoughts as much as the idea of monsters in the mist had done earlier. And like that sense he'd had but couldn't place, this prickled somewhere inside him, something he knew was there, yet couldn't quite give fully-formed thought to.
Before he really had chance to consider it, make sense of it, Tonks slowed, put her hand on his elbow, her fingers urging him to stop. He did, looked down at her, and she bit her lip, uncertain, yet everything else she always was, too.
Remus was suddenly hit by the thought that her affection for him hadn't wavered – she looked at him now as she always had, open and friendly and utterly blind to what he was, even though she'd seen the worst of him with her own two eyes. "About what I said earlier," she said, "or what I would have said if – "
"Tonks – "
"You do know, don't you," she said, "what I was going to say?"
The forest seemed to still around them, the trees freezing in place and holding their breath, the owls quietening, and Remus glanced down, studying the leaves beneath his feet, shifting a little just so they'd crinkle and assure him that time wasn't really standing still in the wake of her expectant, hopeful gaze. "I think I have an idea, yes."
He glanced at her, and she rolled her eyes. "Figures," she said. "I don't really have a centaur's knack for vagueness."
Remus bit back a smile, desperate to tell her that that was on the things he liked most about her, her forthrightness, how much he admired her for having the nerve to say what he did not –
But at the same time, he couldn't let her go on, because if tonight had taught him anything, it was that he'd been right all along to shut his mind to the possibility that they could ever be – should ever be – more than friends.
"I just – " she said. "I don't mean to be pushy, but if you fancied getting a drink or something – I mean, I think we could both do with a brandy after tonight, couldn't we?"
"Tonks," he said quietly.
"If you don't like me like that," she said, "that's fine. Lots of people don't – I'm not exactly Playwitch of the month – so just say and – "
"It's not that," he said, and she smiled hopefully, then frowned.
Remus ran a hand over his face, closed his eyes for a second as he pictured how he'd make the hope in her eyes dwindle – but however much he wanted not to say it, he had to.
He looked around at the trees, the mist that still swirled malevolently, thinking how out of place she looked here. Her optimism, her hope, her eagerness, had always been an ill-fit with places like this. He met her eye slowly, reluctantly, but –
"There's darkness in me, Tonks," he said quietly.
"Remus, don't be ridiculous," she said. "Being a werewolf doesn't make you dark – you heard what Firenze said, and he's right."
"I didn't mean the werewolf part of me," he said, stilling the protest she opened her mouth to utter with a look. "I meant the man. You saw what I did tonight – what I could have done. I'd have killed him – and more than that, I'd have done it without for a second really thinking it was wrong."
"Remus – "
"You don't deserve someone like that," he said, "someone capable of that."
"No-one would blame you if you had," she said, her fingers tightening on his arm, "not after what he's done."
"That's not the point," he said.
For a moment, he searched for the right word, the one that would make her see what she couldn't, even though she'd been in the clearing with him. "I'm tainted," he said, "tainted by the past and what I might do in the future. There's darkness in me – there has been for a long time, and there's nothing I can do but stop it from spreading."
He paused, glanced at her to find her lips slightly parted as if she was truly appalled by his words, but –
He cleared his throat, glancing towards the grounds. "I'll go to Hagrid's," he said. "You should go home – "
His words fell away. He'd intended to say more, perhaps, but what else was there?
She'd seen what he was capable of, and though she'd been prepared to justify it, to explain it away, he couldn't let her.
He smiled wanly, but even that faltered on his lips, and so he turned and made for the edge of the forest, for the cosy lights of Hagrid's cottage beyond.
As he walked, the forest sprang back into life around him, creaking its displeasure at his actions, and with every step that crunched leaves beneath his feet, his heart felt trampled by his actions.
He emerged onto the grass under the lights cast by the tails of the shooting stars, glad to be free of the place, glancing back only once to see that Tonks was safe – not happy, perhaps, but safe –
And that was what was important.
That was why he'd never given in to the invitation in her eyes, pursued her beyond friendship when he knew that was what she wanted, why he'd never dwelt on the dreams his unconstrained mind poured into him at night.
He'd always been just a little bit too afraid of the dark.
A/N: Thanks for reading. Reviewers get a handsome hand-holding werewolf to see them through their personal nightmares ;).