In the kitchen of Grimmauld Place, Sirius' voice trampled over the nocturnal tranquilty which had reigned in the house until Remus, Arthur and Tonks had returned from a late stakeout and Sirius, bored silly as usual, had insisted they sit down with him for a nightcap. Two hours and a bottle of Firewhisky later, they were still there around the kitchen table; minus Arthur, whose sense of domestic responsibility carried him off after a single drink.
School days were Sirius' favourite topic - after all, Tonks reminded herself, he didn't have much in the way of happy memories besides his years at Hogwarts. She had asked him about his much-alluded to fifth year dalliance with a Miss Marshwater partly out of curiosity and partly because hearing him hold court like that reminded her of when she would sit inbetween her parents and listen to her intimidatingly grown-up cousin regale the room with anecdotes about the previous term's antics. He would have been sixteen or seventeen years old at the time and she only five or six, and yet the memory was firmly imprinted in her brain. It was, in fact, the only memory she had of him before his escape from Azkaban.
He seemed thrilled at the question, his eyes gleaming from the off. Remus leaned back in his chair, watching him with an air of quiet amusement.
""Ah, now Cecily Marshwater was a good one," Sirius enthused. "Wonderful girl. Very accommodating."
Remus spluttered slightly at that description but declined to comment. Tonks looked from one to the other impatiently. "Well?"
"In the end, Moony over there was a lot of help as far as she was concerned," Sirius took a cheerful swig from his glass. "The poor, confused girl had a bit of a thing for him. Always trying to wangle the seat next to him in History of Magic and all that. In fact, looking back, I think it's highly probable she only took the wretched, dull pig of a class to be a bit closer to you," he added, in Remus' direction.
"Doubtless. So many did, of course, that it's hard to recall specific girls," Remus replied dryly, topping up his own measure and pouring a splash into Tonks' as well. Sirius grinned the way he always did when Remus took the bait and played the game.
"But instead of capitalising on this advantage, he did me a bit of a favour. A very nice gesture - and gentlemanly, if I might say-" Sirius broke off and raised an inquiring eyebrow in Lupin's direction.
Lupin nodded solemnly. "You may."
"I thank you," answered Sirius with a gracious bow. He held out his glass and the two men clinked them together and drank with an aura of great reverence. "Anyway," he went on, "this underappreciated hero here managed to talk her round -and this is over the course of two whole terms, mind you - until the unfortunate creature was convinced that it was me she was after the whole time. I, of course, was a far more receptive paramour than Moony-"
"-At this point, I really think I should mention that Cecily was never my type," interjected Lupin. "Rather than having it sound as though I just tossed all potential love interests Sirius' way."
"Actually, I'd say that's not a bad description of what you did through most of school. Remus was very good at helping a mate out in all things romantic," Sirius informed Tonks in a tone that was obviously supposed to rouse feelings of pride in said individual. "He was sort of like the Beater to my Chaser-"
"-We'll ignore the implications of that," Lupin muttered, shooting a wry smile at Tonks.
"I mean in the sense that he was always watching my back... Cor!" he exclaimed suddenly, a faraway look coming into his eyes. "Moony, d'you remember that tremendous scrap we had with Rory Castlebright and Sunil Jadugara?"
"You were in a fight?" Tonks couldn't help but exclaim with a look at Lupin, to Sirius' evident delight and Remus' increasing discomfort.
"It was over a girl, of course," Sirius said. "Can't remember the name these days... erm...something like... well...
"It was Cordelia Epplewhite, Sirius, as you well know," Remus cut off this protracted display of forgetfulness. Distasteful as this story obviously was to him, he at least wanted to speed it up and keep it as free of Sirius' theatrical flourishes as possible.
"Ah, yeah, of course it was. Well, Tonks, there was this bird Cordelia Epplewhite I had a bit of a thing for in our last year. And she seemed to feel the same way, so naturally one evening down at the Broomstricks I tried it on..."
"Naturally," Remus repeated with the sort of mild despair usually reserved for a slow but endearing child.
"And she reacted about as well as a sixteen year-old lad can hope. And at the time she never mentioned she was seeing some sixth year chimpanzee called Rory Castlebright, so how was I to know?"
"She might not have said so outright, but I think it was considered common kno-"
"That's enough, Moony," Sirius cut in cheerfully. "Either way, point is: later on, the two of us - me and Moony, not me and Cordelia - are walking back up to the castle and suddenly this Castlebright and his no less brawny mate Sunil materialise out of nowhere. Some disgusting little scrote had obviously got a message back to him about these shenanigans down the pub." Sirius' face screwed up in repulsion which had clearly not been dimmed by the passage of a quarter of a century. "Obviously, we were all still underage at this point, so they couldn't get their wands out. Which, by the way, would have been fantastic for us. Instead they charged right at us."
"Right at you," Remus corrected. "As I recall, they didn't even acknowledge my presence. Not many people did." He smiled the odd humourless smile at the left corner of his mouth that always accompanied such self-conscious truths. Under the table, Tonks nudged him gently with the toe of her shoe.
"Excuse me, Remus, I'm trying to pay tribute to your heroism here! Don't get smart, sonny," warned Sirius, raising his eyebrows haughtily. "So, there were two of them and only one of me, and I swear you could see in their eyes how much they were looking forward to giving me a good going-over. But of course," he laid a hand on Lupin shoulder with fondness that bordered on teariness, "they hadn't counted on Remus. Probably expected him to scarper - he was always good at avoiding confrontation."
"I had to be. It didn't take Hogwarts' rougher element long to learn how weak I was after a transformation." There it was again, that self-deprecating smile. But this one only lasted a second or two before the shoe stroking the inside of his calf transformed it into the genuine article. If Sirius noticed this, he didn't make any sign of it, just topped up everyone's drink and continued:
"Ah, but luckily for us this wasn't after a transformation. They more or less jumped on top of us, fists going like the clappers and all that. Castlebright got there first, and while I was fending the great hulking monster off, Sunil grabbed me round the back of the neck and started throwing his knee up into my kidneys. God, I can still feel it," he shuddered, as Tonks smiled somewhere between amusement and sympathy. "And... well, what a bloody punchup it turned out to be. I was proud of you that day, Moony," he remarked with great emotion. "Suddenly, the weight was off my back and I turn around and there he was, that quiet bloke that never even used to answer back if someone took the piss, pounding the living daylights out of Sunil Jadugara."
"I'm not proud of that," Remus said firmly. "I was a rather angry young man at the time, with no-one to take it out on. I went overboard on poor old Sunil."
"Poor old Sunil?" Sirius echoed in disbelief. "That snake would kill you soon as look at you, Tonks, don't listen to him. Anyway, all you did was dislodge a loose gnasher. Madame Pomfrey had it back in with no trouble. And a piddling little nosebleed, what's that in the great scheme of things? The point is," he waved a hand at Tonks, "Moony here was an absolute hero. When Castlebright saw him laying into his mate like that, he must have thought he had some sort of werewolf superstrength or something. As soon as Remus let go of the little rat, the pair of them practically disapparated, they scarpered so quick."
Sirius leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the table and laughed heartily. He shared out the last of the Firewhisky between the three of them, even though they had barely had a chance to touch their previous top-up. For a few minutes, Tonks thought as she looked at him, it was like Azkaban had never happened, like he was still sitting in their living room in his Gryffindor jumper and telling the family about James' latest prank. As for Remus, his expression was a mixture of many feelings - pride in his friend's warmth mingled with embarrassment over his youthful mistake, a confusion doubtless amplified by the fingers that brushed against his under the table.
"Well," she remarked after Sirius had shambled off to bed a few stories later, "I have to say, I learn far more about you from Sirius than I ever do from you."
He was clearing the table as she checked the protective charms cast over the house. He smiled sheepishly.
"Not exactly an inspiring love life, is it?" he said, putting the empty glasses on the draining board and turning to face her with his back against the rim of the sink. "Spending seven years as a wingman for Sirius."
"Not exactly the stuff of legends, no. It sort of seems..." Tonks began, thoughtfully, as she tucked away her wand and headed towards him. It did not escape her notice that he tensed just a tiny bit, the way he always did when she got very close to him; even now, when they had been an item for weeks. "It sort of seems like you're owed, really?"
"Doesn't it, indeed," he replied slowly. The twinkle in his eye was unmistakeable.
"And, you know, it was a bit of a surprise, actually," she said, twisting her fingers around his own.
"What was?" he asked, frowning slightly. She grinned wickedly and slipped her hands around his waist.
"Well, knocking that Sunil whatsisname for six. I'd always assumed you were a lover not a fighter, as they say."
An irrepressible smile crept over his face that for a minute threatened to turn into a laugh, but he simply raised an eyebrow.