Nymphadora Tonks sat quietly at the old oak table, her shoulders hunched and both hands wrapped tightly around a mug of tea that had long since lost its heat. Everything about her appeared battered, an almost palpable misery surrounding her stooped frame.
With a sigh, she lifted the mug to her lips, her nose scrunching in disgust as the cooling fluid made its way down her throat. Thrusting the mug aside, she picked up a random stack of papers, ignoring the scores of other piles that covered every available surface.
Nothing, it seemed, did any good. Within a minute, her mind was wandering once more, inevitably reliving the many months since Harry Potter, boy-who-always-somehow-got-through-everything, had disappeared without a trace.
Suddenly, a blinking green light broke her concentration. With a growl, she pulled out her wand, lazily aiming at the cheery orb and shattering it into a dozen pieces. The Weasley matriarch's attempt at Christmas cheer was destroying her ability to wallow, and that, Tonks thought petulantly, simply wouldn't do.
A moment later, she burst out laughing, a rueful sound that bordered on hysterical, before a sob wrenched through her throat at the hopelessness of the situation. Sirius was dead, Harry could very well have followed in his footsteps, and Remus had all but lost it, the fledgling relationship between the two shattered by the sudden and massive downturn of events.
And Fleur. The French witch was not much more than an afterthought, though that was unfair – she certainly was a piece of this miserable puzzle, and one which that truthfully, Tonks was genuinely fond of. The two had gotten on well enough, sharing a camaraderie in their irritation at Molly Weasley, as well as Tonks' complete lack of resentment towards the French witch's monopoly of the younger males' attention. Nothing, after all, beats a Metamorphmagus between the sheets.
Such thoughts allowed a ghost of a grin to cross Tonks' face, before she let out another sigh, once again fighting to concentrate on the report in front of her. She needn't had bothered, for not a minute later she was interrupted by a group of shouting wizards, storming into the already camped parlor.
"Really Albus, you should see their faces – even the dimmest among them are beginning to realize things are not all as they seem." Professor McGonagall exclaimed with a voice oddly balanced between poised calm and terrible panic. "If we cannot maintain an atmosphere of safety on the very grounds of Hogwarts, I cannot see any hope in the future of this war."
Tonks looked up, genuinely surprised at the utterance of defeatism. Minerva had always been the most pragmatic of the Order members, and to hear such her speak of such hopelessness…
Albus Dumbledore himself appeared rattled, his eyes weary and sunken beneath his spectacles, his body radiating strength and leadership but lacking much of its normal confidence. "Minerva, I am well aware of the circumstances, and I still maintain that inciting panic is not the solution to our problems."
"Albus, y'ave gone mad! The boy is dead, or else he'd be better off that way. It's time to move forward with an alternative plan." Moody, ever the pessimist, yet steadfast in his determination to counterattack against the dark. Whether he truly believed in the good fight or simply had a personal vendetta, Tonks had no idea, and had never found anyone willing to confirm her suspicions, one way or the other.
"Ah…Miss Tonks, we did think you would be here. Might we have a word?"
'Shit!' She was more than a little behind on her reports for the Order and the Ministry, and nothing about the three elders in front of her gave the impression that she was being rewarded. 'What, my dear Tonks, have we gotten ourselves into?'
Noting her anxiety, Dumbledore let out a grim chuckle. "Nothing to fear, not at all. Rather, we believe we may have found a new assignment for you…I'm daresay you're not too fond of ever growing piles of paperwork."
If anything, her edginess increased. Dumbledore may very well be the most powerful wizard of the current age, and one of the few in recorded history to be so benevolent in that power. That being said, he was still a manipulative old bastard who had a tendency to have a viciously practical mind, and an even more dangerous habit of convincing one that the bitter pills of his creation were nothing more than candy.
"Of course sir," she responded with a grim smile. "What do you need?" Interesting, how McGonagall would not meet her eye, or the look that on anyone else may have passed for smug on Moody's face.
"It has been brought to my attention that certain…events can no longer be contained by the present course of actions. As Minerva points out…" Dumbledore paused, interrupted by McGonagall's glare and a wheezy laugh from Moody.
"As Minerva points out, many of the students have found things…not quite right… about Harry's disappearance, the demeanor of his friends and his total absence putting a rather dark stain on the official stance that he is 'at an undisclosed location receiving auror level training.'
'Aha! We're going to step up the search and rescue! Unless… he's thought of something…a little more subtle planned…' The maddening twinkle in the old man's eye was now reminiscent of the former floating Christmas decoration. 'Oh…Bollocks.'
Seeing Tonk's dawning horror and comprehension, Dumbledore let out a sour chuckle. "A point to you, Miss Tonks, I believe you see what needs to be done. If you are willing, we'd like you to return to Hogwarts after Christmas break, in Harry's stead. Mr. Weasley and Ms. Granger will be brought to speed, and will no doubt aid in this rather unique situation."
If not for the quiet urgency and subtle hint of desperation that hovered just beneath the headmaster' s persona, Tonks may very well have laughed in his face, a belly splitting roar at the absurdity of the plan. How she was supposed to in a single week, become a near perfect clone of the wizarding world's most scrutinized individual, was all but impossible. As things were, she could only stand motionless, slack-jawed, staring back at the three uneasy wizards before her.
Almost mercifully, a harsh crack came from the end of the hallway. Her first instinct was an apparition, though a moment later she ruled it out as an impossibility as her senses returned and she recalled the vast protections on the ancient home. As the four instantly turned towards the sound – Moody, Tonks and McGonagall pulling out their wands, Dumbledore absurdly calm – a muffled curse could be heard, followed by a loud crash. Grimacing at her natural reaction to flinch, Tonks followed the three out the door, their bulk hiding the intruder from view.
"Who is – POTTER! What in Merlin's balls is going on!" Moody gasped, before scowling at his own sign of surprise. Tonks, however, missed the opportunity to gloat, the shock of what he had said dominating her thoughts.
A wheezing laugh, a dark cackle filled the air. "Good evening professor…professor, Moody. I guess you won't need Tonks after all." As Tonks wormed into a space between Dumbledore and Moody, she caught sight of the elusive charge and found herself paralyzed between laughing and crying. With a slight wave as a greeting, he hunched over, and with a grimace, collapsed to the ground, for all appearances unconscious.
Tonks ignored the sudden furor that erupted all around her. Moody had suddenly disappeared, presumably to call a meeting or Pomphrey, possibly both. She herself could do nothing but gape at the bruised and broken mass before her.
Harry was hunched over, his legs curled into his belly. He looked painfully thin, far beyond anything she'd ever seen him before. His hair was matted, a mess filled with dirt and sweat, more than likely blood as well. His face was covered in bruises, his glasses almost absurdly were still intact, though lopsided, allowing a swelling eye to protrude from above the lens.
The rest of him was mercifully covered in a robe, though its condition did nothing to allow hope that his body had been spared the brutality taken against his face. Streaks of brown marred with dark red ran down the grey cloth, patches missing revealed bruises underneath. The robe was frayed and far too short, even if it hung loosely on his boney form.
It was only then that Tonks noticed the second figure, kneeling in the corner of the room, soft sobs emitting from an obviously female figure. Her robes were free of any obvious signs of bloodletting, though they too were covered with patches of grime. Her head was down, her face hidden between her arms, and truly the only sign of any physical damage was the obvious hack job that had been done to her hair. Nonetheless, the girl had obviously endured much, and perhaps she could provide some answers as to Harry's condition.
Moving with slow, careful steps, Tonks approached the sobbing woman. Softly, almost whispering, she asked, "Miss, can you talk to me? I'm here to help you."
Tonks had to fight the instinct to jump back, such was her shock when the woman raised her head. Even in the grimy clothes and dirty, hacked hair, the face held an unparalleled beauty, shining blue eyes resting above an elegant nose, high cheekbones that were reminiscent of the golden days of aristocracy – only one person had that face that Tonks knew – Fleur.
"Tonks, it is you, vraiment?" Fleur whispered.
Tonks nodded, fighting to keep her own hands from shaking. Suddenly, she was holding a trembling Fleur, sobbing every more hysterically in her embrace. "Mon Deiu, Tonks, c'etait horrible. Tu… you cannot imagine. The things they did to him…against him… Suddenly Fleur raised her eyes to Tonk's own, the fear in them suddenly being forced out by renewed determination. " 'e beat them Tonks. It was…I have never seen anyzing like it. 'Arry, he truly is a champion, non?"
Swallowing hard, Tonks nodded, "He certainly is…" Loud noises were coming again down the hall, followed by the imposing figure of Madam Pomphrey. "He's going to be all right, gonna get you two looked at." Tonks replied dumbly. Fleur nodded, before falling limply to the floor, exhausted. As she was brushed out of the room, Tonks marched grimfaced into the living room of Grimmauld Place, and just after she sat down, the fireplace flashed, and all hell broke loose…
Albus Dumbledore looked around the room, taking in every detail of those around him. His own chair faced the fireplace, allowing him to maintain a commanding presence in the room without being interrupted by any unexpected visitor. To his right, Minerva sat, birdlike, perched on the edge of the overstuffed couch. Next to her were Emmeline Vance and Hestia Jones, both with baggy eyes that spoke of too many nights of covert operations and not nearly enough sleep. Remus' favorite chair was abandoned; the werewolf was brooding, walking in impatient circles and every so often stealing a glance towards the door, searching in vain for a sign of Harry. Severus was doing his best to appear nonchalant; the only outward sign of his general unease was the complete lack of snark directed toward the other inhabitants of the room.
To his left, the other half of the present Order were bunched together, all roused from the wee hours of the morning from the pandemonium that had gripped headquarters. Hermione was standing to the side with Tonks, attempting every so often to discover what that older witch had seen, who in turn seemed to be very tightlipped on the subject. The Weasley's – all save the two eldest sons, were huddled together, Ginerva and Ronald both fighting fatigue with their concern for Harry. Molly was speaking in hushed tones, attempting in vain to maintain a sense of calm within her domain.
Bill stood off to the side, half hidden by the shadows of the room, his body radiating terror and relief in the recovery of his fiancée, and whatever ordeal she had just survived. In a perverse sense, Dumbledore mused, the scene was almost warm – a perfect family gathering at Christmas, if not for the strong current of horror that permeated the room.
"Remus, I am sure Poppy will be with us shortly, and I have no doubts that Harry will come through this ordeal." Remus turned sharply towards the headmaster, anger flaring in his eyes before calming down and giving the headmaster a short nod. "Everyone, as you have no doubt ascertained, young Harry and Ms. Delacour have been returned to us this evening. This, I fear", his tight smile turning grim, "is the extent of tonight's good news."
Ignoring the rising tensions in the room, Dumbledore continued. "Both Mr. Potter and Ms. Delacour endured severe injuries, and we know nothing of where they have been, nor how long their recovery will take." Dumbledore turned slowly, turning to face the now openly weeping children. "I trust you will all be a great aid to both Mr. Potter and Ms. Delacour and that you will show them the gentleness and friendship that they can depend on you for, as well as to be considerate to their desire for privacy. We must all, I fear, tread gently in the coming days and weeks."
Hermione managed to nod in response; the others were far too gone to make a coherent reply. Returning her nod, Dumbledore turned to the rest of the Order. "Madam Pomphrey will be down soon, and while all of you no doubt are concerned about the well being of our patients, perhaps it would be more efficient if there were fewer of us when Poppy brings her diagnosis."
The unspoken order was quickly followed – Hestia Jones and Emmeline Vance took their leave after hasty goodbyes, and Mrs. Weasley ushered the children upstairs, despite the protestations from all of them. Only assurances to be allowed to see Harry at the soonest possible time mollified them at all, but within five minutes the room was slightly less crowded.
Soon, it turned out, was roughly three hours later, when a thoroughly worn out Madame Pomphrey emerged into the living room, immediately bombarded with questions from the anxious gathering. "Silence!" Dumbledore shouted, his calm voice nonetheless carrying a sense of volume. "Poppy, if you will…"
"Yes, quite." She took a deep breath. "Let me first assure you all that neither patient is grievously wounded, and while both have sustained quite an attack, particularly Mr. Potter, both should fully recover physically within a week with ample medical treatment. The damage is not extensive, and mostly superficial – though unquestionably painful. Psychologically, they may take more time, though we won't know until they are conscious enough to give us some idea of their experience."
A low growl from Remus led to a glare by the solemn healer, though she merely nodded and continued her diagnosis. "Mr. Potter has borne the brunt of the assault, and appears to have been starved or kept near starvation for some time – that will be by far the most damaging part of his treatment. His body is covered in bruises and scars – a cursory test dating many of them to the beginning of the summer break, since his disappearance."
She took a deep breath, bracing herself before continuing. "On a positive note, the older scars are no longer a problem, and it appears that throughout the summer, he has been subject to a number of rudimentary healing charms – only the recent damage is troubling, and we can cure that, no question. Ms. Delacour, despite the state of her appearance appears to be doing fine. There will be no long term physical damage, and she retained consciousness up until I gave her a sleeping draught.
"Bollocks!" Tonks blurted, ignoring the shocked stares suddenly aimed in her direction. Flushing as the realization of what she had said and in front of whom, she nonetheless continued. "I saw the pair of them, there's no way Harry will be right as rain in a week's time."
Ignoring the less than formal word choice, Madame Pomphrey let out a sigh, "No, Miss Tonks, he will not be, as you say, 'right as rain'. He will need a strong dose of nutritional supplement potions for a long time into the foreseeable future, and may very well need significant aid overcoming any mental trauma he has faced in the past months. Physically however, the majority of his physical wounds can be healed quickly, and given the state of affairs in the past few months, I'll take comfort wherever I can."
Tonks nodded, suitably mollified for the time being, and Remus excused himself, bolting up the stairs towards Harry's room. Madame Pomphrey made no attempt to stop him, and with a final exhale, Dumbledore bid everyone a night, the room slowly filtering out as all attempted to salvage a night's sleep.
It was a very hectic three days for the inhabitants of 12 Grimmauld. Harry had been in and out of consciousness, stealing quick comforts from his friends between bouts of restless sleep. Everyone it seemed was walking on eggshells, both around Harry and one another. Tensions were obviously high when, three days later Dumbledore summoned a condensed Order meeting, the children included. The whispers and rumors hadn't died down a second before Harry, leaning heavily upon Dumbledore but nonetheless standing, moved into the room. A collective hush settled upon the occupants, heads turning towards the shuffling boy.
Hiding a pained grimace behind a ghostly grin, Harry responded with a weak hello, before falling into the couch beside an already seated Fleur. While the others waited with baited breath, it did not go unnoticed by Dumbledore how the two sat, knees turned slightly towards the other, a fraction closer than normal personal space would have dictated. 'Most Interesting'
"So", Harry began, his voice weak yet full of a tired mirth. "I suppose you're all wondering what we've been up to." Immediately the room was filled with questions, a chaotic roar of inquiry. Again, Dumbledore quieted the masses, before once again turning to Harry. "Thank you headmaster. The noise…I think it's a bit much for both of us."
Suddenly, the room was filled with guilt-stricken looks of sympathy towards Harry, and apology for the once again looked over French witch. Suddenly, the was a slight sense of unease in the room, and again, Dumbledore noticed the subtle signs coming from Harry, and wondered if perhaps unsettling the room before his narrative had been his deliberate intention."
When the room quieted down, Harry began his story. "As the Headmaster is so fond of pointing out, the best place to begin a story is from the beginning…"