She felt like a strip-witch at a meeting of the WI. When she'd dressed that morning, admittedly in a hurry as Charlie tramped dirty feet around her small lounge, leaving tracks that were hopefully mud but were probably dragon dung, and cheerfully counted down the seconds until their portkey activated, her clothes had seemed…festive. Young. Whimsical. Now, faced with a room full of clean-scrubbed redheads in very sensible jumpers and polished brogues, her candy cane striped tights and pink wool dress seemed cheap and gaudy. And her bubblegum-hued hair clashed horribly with their lovely bright red. Her hostess gifts were completely inappropriate as well. Fan-bloody-tastic idea bringing a box of Tesco's semi-edible mince pies and a bunch of sad, sad hothouse daisies to a woman who lived in acres of rambling woodland gardens and was currently managing to simultaneously welcome her guests, scold her children and - wandlessly -produce a three-course lunch, with a tea service and obviously homemade biscuits laid out for afters. The day before, Tonks had brought down a rogue zombie in a filthy Knockturn Alley bedsit. Meeting the infamous Molly Weasley was turning out to be far more disconcerting.
Her own mother was elegant and charming, the sort of unfathomable woman who could easily adapt her conversation to her society, apparently woke up in the morning with perfectly coiffed hair and full makeup, and could emerge from a stiflingly hot day with cool white skin and pressed clothing. She undoubtedly loved her daughter, but had always expressed affection in a very…polite fashion. Tonks was an only child, and had grown up in a flat in Knightsbridge full of white walls, matching furniture, and hazardous hallways lined with highly breakable objects. Her eleventh birthday and subsequent departure to Hogwarts had allowed Tonks, Andromeda and the porcelain collection to let out a collective sigh of relief.
Now, at twenty-six, she had gone from one extreme to the other: a childhood spent sitting with hands clasped and ankles locked, trying not to make a mess or embarrass Andromeda in front of 'people who mattered' – and an adult life where days were often long and bloody, punctuated with truly foul language and undeniably low company, and nights involved eating food out of plastic wrappers, falling asleep on the couch and indulging in distinctly…impolite behaviour in nightclubs.
She had reconnected with Charlie Weasley recently in one of those same clubs, having not seen him since their last day of school, when she'd caught him leaving the Room of Requirement with a look of unholy amusement on his face and he'd annoyed her by refusing to divulge the joke. Leaving the dance floor of the Quick Sickle, a complete dive in the East End and one of her favourite night spots, she'd tripped over her left foot, taken a header over a privacy screen and landed squarely in Charlie's embrace. It might have been a reunion worthy of an accompanying Celestina Warbeck warble if Charlie hadn't been one percent gentleman with functioning reflexes and ninety-nine percent walking flagon of firewhisky. Her resulting bruises had made sitting down for departmental debriefs more painful than usual the next day, but hadn't completely dispelled her pleasure in reconnecting with a good mate. Charlie had always been a laugh at school. Not perhaps the friend to whom you would go with a bigger problem than a free period and debilitating boredom, but a wicked prankster and a champion flier. She had experienced countless stomach-dropping, fantastically nauseating rides and one better than average snog on the back of Charlie Weasley's broom.
They had been meeting up casually for the past few weeks. After a trip to the muggle cinema the previous week, they had ambled into a café for coffee and Charlie had talked about the upcoming Christmas festivities at the Burrow with slightly abashed boyish enthusiasm. Tonks had shrugged in response to his query over her own plans. She generally had lunch with her parents and whatever other guests Andromeda rounded up. Disconcertingly, the past couple of years that had included various Ministry personages who wouldn't so much as hold the door for her at work and to whom she was not particularly pleased to pass the peas at home. This year, her mum and dad were taking a much-needed holiday abroad. She had planned to volunteer to be on call and hopefully spend the day in her pajamas with a box of chocolates and a sappy book.
The heart-breakingly cool Charlie Weasley, it seemed, was one of those very earnest people who couldn't fathom the idea of Christmas Day without the traditional accompaniments of stockings, carols, warring family members and glorious overindulgence. When combined with a fundamentally kind heart and a totally masculine disregard for asking permission from the cook, such people felt it their duty in life to rescue the sad sacks who intended to spend the day alone with a bar of chocolate and drag them along to Christmas lunch.
Only, in this case, it was more Christmas weekend. An entire weekend at the ramshackle, warm, cosy, gingerbread-perfect Burrow, with a bunch of conservatively dressed strangers and a woman whose domestic prowess and nagging ability was the stuff of legend.
A woman who so totally thought Tonks was boinking Charlie on a regular basis.
As she greeted them, Molly's eyes were proud and proprietary as they rested on her son, and contained a distinctly speculative gleam as she looked over Tonks. And a slight wince as they paused at her hair. Tonks knew the 'future daughter-in-law' full body scan when she was on the receiving end of it. One of her eyebrows rose fractionally and she darted a glance at Charlie, who was enthusiastically hugging a curvy young brunette and oblivious to her censure. In response to one of her many reservations at butting in on his family Christmas, he had insisted that it was both chaotic and very casual, that all of his siblings and his parents invited friends as well as relatives. Looking around the small, cluttered kitchen now, she could see only three other people who didn't have the Weasley colouring and tendency to bounce about like a Golden Retriever: the woman still smiling at Charlie, who was fairly small in stature with an hourglass figure and an explosion of wavy brown hair, an athletic-looking blonde with blue eyes, a tired face and a chubby ginger-haired baby in her arms, and a third woman who was so outrageously, depressingly beautiful that she had to be either a Veela or the love child of Gilderoy Lockhart and a page three girl. They all appeared to come complete with a tall freckled redhead and were clearly to be classified as wife or girlfriend.
As was she, given the way everybody kept giving Charlie the old 'nice one, mate!' wink and nudge before smiling at Tonks with a lot of large white teeth. If Charlie had mentioned that he was bringing his emphatically friend Tonks to Christmas, it had obviously been taken in the sense of 'for friend, read: shag buddy'. The Weasley brothers (she vaguely remembered Bill and Percy from school, and the twins had long featured on multiple lists at the Ministry; she had never met the youngest and tallest, Ron) and their significant others (Ron's girlfriend Hermione, Percy's wife Hannah and Bill's Veela Fleur) were subjecting her to a surprisingly intense scrutiny and Molly seemed about one more "It's so lovely to have Charlie's friend here for Christmas. Isn't it lovely, Charlie?" from picking out china patterns. Given Charlie's equal opportunities – and plenty of them – approach to dating, Tonks would have thought the novelty of his escorts would have worn well thin a long time ago. It was, she discovered as Molly led her up the stairs to put her things away, bloody awkward trying to inform total strangers that she hadn't been romantically interested in their prodigal son for about ten years. And even then her moon-eyed crush had only lasted until Charlie stood her up for a Hogsmeade weekend and took Mindy Malstrom, she of the big breasts and small brains, flying instead. Molly completely ignored her stammered hints as to "what a brilliant mate Charlie was, rescuing her from a holiday lunch of one-spell noodles", merely treating her to an annoyingly knowing smile, and Andromeda had never schooled her in the polite and socially acceptable version of, "Hey, we aren't shagging, nor will we be in the future."
By the time they reached the little bedroom on the landing and Tonks had stumbled twice, both times knocking a number of framed family portraits askew and causing their subjects to hiss in annoyance as they clambered back to their feet, Molly's look of familial benevolence was tinged with wariness. Tonks's cheeks flushed; she felt like a gawky child again, unsure what to do with her arms and legs. She caught sight of her reflection in the small mirror above the dresser. And her hair was definitely too…candy floss. Crinkling her nose, she watched as the colour slowly softened to a much paler pink, almost silver in tone.
"Oh, my." Molly paused in her stream of instructions as to the direction of the bathroom, her own room and the cupboard where the extra blankets were stored. She was looking at Tonks in fascination. "Charlie didn't tell me you were a metamorphmagus. That's very rare, isn't it?"
Often, that question was accompanied by an ill-concealed expression of distaste. Even in their world, where people came in all shapes and sizes, with any number of quirks, perversions and unusual appendages, a lot of people loathed and distrusted shape-shifters. Molly's body language, however, spoke of nothing but curiosity and interest. Tonks relaxed a bit.
"Reasonably rare," she agreed, putting her bag down on the free twin bed. The one by the window was slightly rumpled, a folded nightie peeking out from under the pillow. "There are supposed to be a lot more in Eastern Europe, though. I've only ever met one other metamorph and that was about ten seconds before I arrested him for Dark trading, so he wasn't really in the mood for a chat."
"Yes, Charlie did mention your work. Most impressive, dear. You must tell me all about it," said Molly brightly, in a tone of voice that would have been more appropriate had Tonks suddenly produced a crayon drawing for her inspection. She imagined that to Molly, Aurors and their unpleasant associations were a very distant, commendable social necessity, to be read about in the morning papers and then put aside. Her own mother held much the same opinion and had held out hopes for a medi-witch or trophy wife daughter to the bitter end.
"I hope you don't mind sharing with Hermione." Molly dusted a remnant of flour from her sleeve and looked around critically. "I'm afraid we're always a bit full over the holidays." And isn't it wonderful, was the unspoken sincerity of the doting mother. "This was my daughter Ginny's bedroom, but she's recently moved into a flat in Diagon Alley with her boyfriend. Unfortunately she and Harry are away for work until the New Year."
Tonks was not in general a star-struck person. It was possible, and indeed probable, that should she ever meet any member of the Weird Sisters, she would immediately dissolve into a blushing, stammering puddle, but she came across so many celebrated names and faces in her work investigations (and so often it was their darker selves on show, the tantrums and perversions usually covered by a slick, banal layer of PR) that it usually took more than an appearance on a chocolate frog card to break her professional detachment. She could admit, however, to a pang of disappointment that she wasn't going to meet Harry Potter, who had been something of an urban legend in her dormitory at school. Charlie had let slip a couple of weeks ago that his little sister was fairly heavily involved with Potter and she'd been a bit curious to see what he was really like outside of the history books.
On the other hand, the odds that she would completely and utterly humiliate herself in company this weekend were already sky high. No need to add an additional cringe factor.
She realised that Molly was looking at her expectantly and reassured her hastily, "Oh, no. I'm well used to sharing digs. This is great," she said, looking around the cheerful, sunny room appreciatively. "You wouldn't believe some of the places I've had to catch a few winks, and the number of times I've woken up spooning Mad-Eye Moody, honestly…"
"For work! I mean, when we're on a mission," Tonks stammered, her cheeks flaming. "When we're away on a mission, quarters are sometimes pretty close, or it can be really cold and you end up…sort of…huddling…"
Stop. Just stop talking.
Her voice trailed off and she stared rather miserably at Molly, who smiled weakly back.
"I'm sure it can be very uncomfortable," she said vaguely, and Tonks wondered if it was too late to fake a debilitating case of dragon pox and do a bunk.
"Arthur will be back soon," Molly's voice was a fraction too loud as she broke the stilted silence. "He's really looking forward to… but perhaps you've already met him at work? He's very influential in the Muggle Artifacts department," she said proudly.
Tonks's mind blanked. She was pretty sure she'd never seen nor heard of Arthur Weasley at the Ministry, nor did she know the name of anyone else who worked in Muggle Artifacts, although there were a number of jokes about that department, some of them funny, none of them polite… Molly was looking at her again. As if she was going to be shunned from the house for not having noted Arthur's apparent bureaucratic prowess… Her mind continued to stumble over itself in circles. She had conjured up a vague impression of a stocky middle-aged man with mischievous eyes and a kind smile, but as her imaginary Weasley patriarch looked exactly like Charlie with a few added wrinkles and crooked pince-nez, she suspected that was bollocks… God. She was going completely bonkers. What on earth was she going to be like when she had to meet an actual boyfriend's family? Get a grip, Tonks.
"Er, I might have," she agreed warily. "It's such a big place and we don't often have much to do with the other departments. Rules and regulations, you know. Red tape."
Really, just stop talking.
Molly was nodding. "Yes, he couldn't recall your having been introduced, although we both remember your parents. We never knew them well, of course. Arthur and I were both in Gryffindor house and we were several years older. I've never forgotten how elegant I thought Andromeda. Even as a child of thirteen, she seemed quite grown. The other girls were all rather intimidated by her," she said, smiling.
"Mum's still very elegant." Tonks managed a faint genuine smile in return. "And she's still quite intimidating, I'm afraid."
"I'm sure she's very proud of you, dear," Molly said kindly. "A fully qualified Auror, at your age."
"I suppose so," Tonks said, a bit doubtfully. "I think she's saving her pride until I manage to produce a husband and grandchildren to her satisfaction."
The words were out before her brain had a chance to catch up and throw that particular conversational gambit on the "keep it to your bloody self" pile.
Molly was beaming.
Apparently the mere nebulous suggestion of grandchildren and the evidence of elegant genes hidden somewhere in Tonks's background was enough to mitigate the obvious failings of clumsy feet, a big mouth and pink hair.
Ear ache. That was the first symptom of dragon pox…
"It's really kind of you to have me to stay at such a busy time," Tonks rushed on before Molly could respond, or pull out her old veil or something. "I hope it won't be putting you out or intruding on your family time."
"Oh, nonsense," said Molly briskly, reaching to plump up Tonks's pillows and pluck a loose thread from the quilt. "It wouldn't be Christmas without a full house. Most of my recipes almost cook themselves and we always rope the men into doing the dishes at this time of year. Besides," she said, casting Tonks a twinkling glance, "I must confess, we've been dying to meet you. Ever since Charlie said he was bringing someone home for Christmas, we've been on tenterhooks. Ginny was so disappointed that she wouldn't be here. She asked me to sneak a photograph, naughty girl. Of course, I wouldn't," she added hastily, totally misinterpreting Tonks's expression of alarm. "But we're so pleased. Charlie's always been very…casual about his relationships. He's never even brought a girl home for a regular Sunday lunch."
"What?" Tonks blinked. "He's never brought a girl to the Burrow before?"
"We knew you must be very special." Molly patted her on the arm in a disturbingly motherly fashion. "I hope it won't be too overwhelming for you, meeting most of the family at once. The boys have always been a bit…exuberant around the holidays. If you need time to yourself over the weekend, please don't hesitate to take a walk or have a lie-down. Hermione often comes up here with a book. She's such a nice girl, so intelligent… We're hoping that she and Ron will announce their engagement soon. She's been coming here for the holidays since she, Ron and Harry were just children. We haven't known Hannah as long, but she's been very good for Percy and she's the most wonderful mother. Do you like children, Tonks? Our nephew Edmund…the dearest little boy. I do hope they'll have another baby next year. I don't think Bill and Fleur will be having a family any time soon. Fleur isn't very maternal… Don't mind what she says, will you? I'm afraid she can be a bit sharp. Can I help you unpack?"
Tonks barely managed to unglue her tongue from the roof of her mouth as the flood of family intel paused.
"Er…no. No, thanks, I didn't bring very much. Look, Mrs. Weasley…"
"Please, do call me Molly. I suppose you wouldn't need to bother with hair products and cosmetics, would you? So handy!" Molly cocked her head, and beamed. "That sounds like Arthur now. He and Remus have been for a walk to the village. Oh, do you know Remus Lupin? He's a very dear friend of ours. He's teaching History of Magic at Hogwarts. Unfortunately, I thought Bill and Fleur were going to be in Cairo when I invited him to stay over, so he'll have to sleep on that terrible couch, poor man."
"No, I don't think we've met," said Tonks absently. She rubbed at her nose awkwardly. "Listen, Molly, I think you may have got the wrong idea about Charlie and I. We're just good mates. There's nothing…else going on."
Given that when Tonks was uncomfortable, her voice had a distressing tendency to rise in pitch and crack mid-sentence, Molly must have heard her, but she either chose not to listen or suffered from selective deafness.
She cast Tonks another shrewd look, then smiled.
"Come down once you've unpacked, won't you?" was all she said in reply. "I hope you're hungry. I seem to have made enough for twenty."
The door closed quietly behind her. Tonks waited until she was almost certainly out of earshot before giving vent to a loud and particularly filthy curse. If Molly Weasley was as tenacious as she was verbose, she and Charlie would be together, promised, and probably expecting their first by the end of the weekend. Catching a whiff of roast beef, Tonks remembered that whatever else she was (and it would be rude to apply the words "flaming" and "nuisance" to her well-meaning host) Charlie's mother was a first-class cook, and Tonks hadn't eaten more than a piece of toast in twelve hours. She hastily performed her own idea of unpacking, which involved putting her pajamas on the bed, her sponge bag on the dresser, and throwing the suitcase with all of her other belongings into the corner. She hoped she wasn't going to get on Hermione's wick this weekend. The other girl had neatly lined up her shoes, laid out her toiletries and, Tonks noticed with some amusement, arranged the books on her bedside table in alphabetical order. It didn't bode well for their ability to cohabitate in peace.
Traipsing back downstairs, her boots suddenly seeming very loud against the worn wooden floors, she followed her nose back to the kitchen, where the usual chaos was taking place when large numbers of hungry adults gathered around a table of food. Charlie was standing talking to Bill, his baby nephew held expertly to his shoulder. Had she been in any way soft on him, the sight of large male hands holding a tiny baby might have made her go all weak at the knees. As it was, she felt more inclined to knee him in the groin.
She settled for discretion and pinched him on the arm. Hard.
"Oi." Charlie looked at her with some indignation. "What was that about?"
"You invited me to your family Christmas and you've never even brought a girlfriend home for a cup of tea," Tonks hissed, glaring at him.
Charlie gave her that incredibly irritating look that the masculine species seemed to have perfected, a mix of condescension and obliviousness.
"Of course I don't bring girls here," he said, rolling his eyes. "Jesus, have you met my mother? They'd be discussing wedding flowers and shit before the second cup."
"Then you asked me here because…" Tonks asked, exasperated, and Charlie stared at her in surprise.
"You're not a girl; you're just a mate."
Tonks's eyes flickered speculatively between Charlie's thick skull and the platter of roast beef floating toward the dinner table, wondering what the odds were that she would still get to taste Molly's cooking if she beaned him around the head with the fireplace poker.
As it wasn't entirely certain that her greed would triumph over her wounded vanity, it was fortunate for Charlie that his mother intervened at that moment by tugging Tonks towards the two newcomers in the room.
"Tonks, dear," said Molly. "This is my husband Arthur and Professor Remus Lupin. Remus, Arthur, this is Charlie's good friend Nymphadora Tonks."
Why was it that whenever Molly said the words "good friend", it sounded like a euphemism for something a bit more…burlesque?
"We're delighted you could join us, Miss Tonks," said Arthur, smiling as he shook her hand. "I hope you might be able to tell us a bit about your work, the information available in the public domain, of course. Ron, Ginny and Harry have all shown an interest in applying to the programme, but I'm afraid I don't know much about the process except that it's notoriously difficult to complete."
Tonks caught sight of Molly's scowl out of the corner of her eye, and gathered that the proposed career prospects had not gone over well with their mother.
"It's a year of hell," she told Arthur frankly, then grinned. "But I reckon it's worth it most of the time. I'd be happy to talk to the kids about it. And thank you for not calling me Nymphadora. Just 'Tonks' is fine."
Arthur looked amused. He was lanky in build, so tall and thin that he appeared to waver upwards rather like a fledgling tree. His receding hair was the pale strawberry-blonde to which redheads often greyed, and his eyes were a slightly faded but twinkling blue. He looked a good deal like Ron, actually, nothing like Charlie, whom she now realised took very much after his mother.
"I ran into Alastor Moody at the Ministry earlier today," he said cheerfully. "And was pre-warned. Utter your first name at my own peril. A hexed buttock, I believe?"
Yeah, ta, Mad-Eye.
"It was a young recruit and he was being a right little sod. It wasn't just the name thing…" she mumbled awkwardly, casting a quick guilty glance toward an openly listening Molly.
"I hope I won't be risking my posterior if I say I think it rather a pretty name," came a second, intriguingly husky voice, and Tonks turned her attention to the professor, Remus Lupin, for the first time.
Her first, rather uncharitable, thought was that it wasn't surprising that she had temporarily overlooked his presence. He was one of those people blessed or cursed with quiet, unremarkable looks. He was probably about forty, quite tall, but very thin – almost gaunt, really, and she wondered if he had been recently ill. His skin was pale and flickered out in small lines around his eyes and mouth. His hair was a middling shade of brown, quite thick and a bit messy, worn just ever so slightly too long, so that it appeared more the result of an overdue trim than an attempt at fashion. He'd be quite good at stealth and tracking, she thought. Not the sort of person you would be likely to notice in a crowd or remember in great detail afterward.
Then she noticed the dark, sparkling depths of his eyes and the kindness of their expression. His lips held a slightly wicked curve and there was something almost…endearing about the generous Roman nose. His fingers were callused and warm as they closed around her handshake. And he smelled really good…sandalwood…
He smelled really good?
Tonks blinked, disoriented, and rapidly pulled her hand from his. She rubbed her palm absently against her dress.
"Well, my mum thought so," she said, her tone implying that her mother was somewhat lacking in taste. "Remus – that's a bit odd too, isn't it?" She blushed suddenly. "Er, sorry, I didn't mean…"
He was chuckling, a deep and somehow comforting sound. His eyes were warm on her as he shifted his stance, tucking his hands casually into his pockets.
"My mother thought so," he agreed, echoing her own words in gently mocking tones. He grinned, and Tonks's stomach fluttered. What in the hell? "But my father was an ardent enthusiast of mythology and wouldn't be dissuaded. I tend to think myself fortunate that he didn't go with his second choice of Perseus."
"Well, it would certainly have let you in for jokes if you'd known my mother," she said. "Her name is Andromeda."
Remus stilled, his eyes intent on her face and curiously difficult to read.
"Tonks," he said slowly, after a moment. "Yes, it would be." He was still looking at her narrowly. "I did know your mother, actually. She was a prefect when I started at Hogwarts."
"Oh," said Tonks lamely. He was definitely around forty, then. She'd wondered if he'd just been a bit…ravaged by illness and might actually be about thirty and just in need of a few nights of good sleep and hearty meals. Not that forty was old, exactly…
"I met her a few times," Remus continued, his voice even. "I was good friends with her cousin…your cousin Sirius."
"Oh," said Tonks again, even more awkwardly.
It was rare that anyone mentioned her second cousin, escaped convict Sirius Black, in her presence. She had apparently met him once as a very small child, but had no recollection of the fact. They shared neither the same last name nor any family resemblance and most people were unaware of the relation. She didn't choose to enlighten them. It was more than a bit awkward covering homicide investigations with the Auror Squad when you shared great-grandparents with one of their most notorious failures. It had been, what, five-odd years since Sirius had pulled off the feat of escape from Azkaban prison. There had been a dozen daily reports of his whereabouts for the first few years, she remembered, all of them false. Enough time had passed that his case was now considered officially open, unofficially cold. The few people at work who were aware of the connection were mostly good friends who knew better than to broach the subject with her. One particular bubble-head in the Fraud Investigation unit had managed to wheedle the information out of Kingsley Shacklebolt during the brief period that they'd been bouncing over one another's sheets. She'd brightly asked Tonks if she wasn't afraid that Sirius would come after her and advised her with great seriousness to lock her doors at night. Tonks had refrained from popping her in the nose only because it would be the intellectual equivalent of whacking a toddler.
She had never been in the least concerned that Sirius would "come after her". To begin with, had he really been set on mass vengeance against any and all carriers of Black blood, he would be a very busy boy. That side of her family was not exactly known for their fidelity and high moral standards. Ironically, given the family motto and their paranoid exclusivity, the number of base-born Blacks in the wizarding world must be astronomically high. And secondly, which was yet another reason she kept her mouth shut at work, Tonks had been brought up to view Sirius as a victim of deception, not as a cold-blooded killer. Andromeda, who had known Sirius well and loved him dearly, had always maintained her belief in his innocence. Despite her wilful blindness in certain areas of life, particularly those concerning Tonks's abilities and predilections, her mother was mentally as sharp as a tack. Tonks had read the files on Sirius a number of times. She still believed Andromeda. It was a sentiment that would have her demoted to work in the Ministry owlery were she to voice it aloud.
In all this time, however, she had never met another of Sirius's closest companions. She had no idea where Remus Lupin stood on the subject. If he had been a schoolfriend of Sirius, he had probably also known James and Lily Potter. He would almost certainly have been interrogated by the Ministry after the deaths and again after the escape. It would hardly be surprising if he wasn't overly enamoured of her profession.
She opened her mouth to reply without knowing what words were forthcoming. Off-the-cuff responses rarely came out in her favour, so it was an enormous relief when Percy Weasley butted in, bearing warmed plates and advising an immediate beeline for the food before Fred and George descended on the table. Tonks offered Remus a faint smile and scuttled off in the direction of the roast beef.
They were seated at opposite ends of the table at lunch, another reprieve, but her eyes had an irritating tendency to slide in his direction even as she tried to keep her attention on Ron Weasley and his constant barrage of questions about the job. Deep in conversation with Bill, Remus ate his meal neatly and steadily, swallowing before he spoke and laying down his knife and fork between bites. Unlike Bill, who was a gesturer, his hands in constant motion as he talked, Remus was very still, his movements all seeming deliberate and considered.
Tonks stuffed a forkful of peas in her mouth, and frowned. Bizarre. Had she been shown a photograph of Remus Lupin, or seen him from a distance in a line-up, she wouldn't have thought twice about him. Having met him in person, spoken to him and touched him, however briefly, she was oddly…fascinated.
And he totally was not her type.
She glanced down at her red and white tights again and winced. And she would take a wild guess that his preference in women did not run to garishly striped legs and silvery pink hair.
"…metamorphmagus," Molly was saying, and Tonks looked up to find herself the object of multiple interested stares.
"Is she indeed?" she heard Remus respond thoughtfully, his quiet tones almost drowned out by Hermione's surprised exclamation and subsequent interrogation.
Amused, Tonks fielded her queries, inwardly hoping that Ron and Hermione did a lot of snogging when they were alone together. Otherwise the constant exchange of questions, comments and raillery must be exhausting. She'd never met such a pair of chatterboxes.
By the time the last plates had been cleared from the table (and Tonks had broken her water glass, leading to Charlie's exclamation that he'd meant to provide her with a plastic one, and his muttered curse as the heel of her boot was accidentally driven into his instep), she could hardly move and regretfully refused a cup of tea and slice of Molly's Christmas cake. Charlie hadn't exaggerated his mother's talents in the kitchen. It boggled the mind that the Weasleys weren't collectively the size of a barn.
The twins attempted to excuse themselves and retreat to the garden shed, where they were apparently experimenting with a new line of products for their joke shop. Charlie had earlier made a crack about "not blowing up the house again" and as Tonks hadn't been entirely certain it was a joke, she was rather relieved when their mother vetoed that plan and put them to work on the dishes with a few sharp words. Fred and George began to gather plates with only a brief dirty look and a token grumble, to which Molly paid no attention whatsoever as she sat down in a stuffed pink armchair by the fireplace and picked up her knitting. The needles began to weave around one another with rapid confident clicks. Something fluffy and pink began to take shape, and Tonks hid a smile. She wondered if that was a visual hint to Percy and Hannah.
"Once they've finished the dishes," Molly said, frowning pointedly at the disgruntled twins. "Fred and George are going to bring in our Christmas tree, so that we can decorate it this evening. I thought the rest of you might want to walk down to the village this afternoon, give Tonks a little tour."
Tonks, who was feeling more inclined toward a post-prandial nap and elastic-waist pants than a freezing cold hike, realised with resigned amusement that for all Molly's airy "do what you please" attitude, she had the weekend agenda planned to military precision. Fleur and Hermione looked similarly unenthusiastic, the blonde woman eyeing the grey view out the window and her mother-in-law with equal disfavour and Hermione looking longingly down at a thick book. Bill and Remus seemed agreeable enough, however, and Charlie and Ron were of the variety of male incapable of sitting still for much longer than it took to consume a meal. Hannah and Percy pleaded off with mutterings about feeding and naptime, although Percy's contribution to those tasks appeared to involve opening the morning paper.
After the cosy heat of the Burrow, stepping outside was initially much like plunging into a cold lake: wet, shivery, and difficult to breathe. As they tramped down the country lane toward the Ottery St. Catchpole and warming charms and adrenaline kicked in, Tonks started to enjoy her surroundings. The Weasleys lived in a fairly remote, not particularly affluent, but amazingly beautiful part of the country. After weeks of traffic, filth and chaos around London, the countryside seemed eerily, almost painfully quiet and still. She would go barking mad if she lived here, but to visit… Wonderful. Tucking her hands into the pockets of her winter cloak, Tonks watched the weak sunlight sparkle off the frosted grass and the dew on the bare tree branches. Her breath puffed out in silvery clouds and mud squelched, satisfyingly loudly, beneath her crimson wellies. She was so relaxed and enjoying the peculiar stillness of her thoughts that she jumped slightly when Remus spoke.
"One of my students is a metamorphmagus. Bright lad. He seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself, larking about and creating as much confusion as he can for the staff." He smiled wryly. "I think he's driven poor Filch halfway round the bend, pouncing on night wanderers only to find himself clutching a suitably outraged Severus or Minerva. The poor bloke is too intimidated to take the matter any further in case it really is a member of staff." He glanced down at her and his light words encompassed a multitude of meanings and understanding. "But I imagine it's not all fun and games."
Tonks thought briefly of the bullying at school, the distrust of other girls, the superficial demands of boys, the lechery and demeaning requests of men.
"No," she agreed simply. "It's not all fun."
"It must be a great boon to you in your profession, though," Remus commented, blowing on his cold hands. They had somehow fallen behind the others, walking side by side, his long, unhurried stride matching pace with her shorter, quicker steps. Ahead of them, a burst of laughter floated back as Hermione skipped away from Ron's pinching hands and Bill turned around to look, pulling a teasing face, his words lost over the distance.
"The Ministry must have thanked their lucky stars when a metamorphmagus applied to the Auror programme." Remus looked over, quirking a brow. "No problems passing Disguise and Concealment, I imagine?"
Conditioned by the sneers of jealous colleagues to oversensitivity on that point, Tonks came to a dead halt and glared at him.
"I didn't get a free ride, you know," she snapped, jerking her chin up. "I had to work my arse off, like everyone else."
Remus had also stopped, and now winced. His cheeks were ruddy from the cold and there was a twig stuck in his hair.
"Of course you did," he said apologetically. "I didn't mean to imply otherwise." He reached out and touched a gentle hand to her arm, so briefly she should barely have noticed, so lightly it shouldn't have made her shiver. His eyes were steady and sincere.
Tonks flushed, looking down at his fingers as he replaced his hands in pockets. They were bare and probably chilled. Warming charms could only do so much in this temperature. It was forecast for snow that night.
"You should drop a few hints to Molly," she said, calm again and embarrassed at her overreaction. "You could do with a pair of gloves for Christmas."
Remus smiled ruefully, lifting one shoulder in a shrug.
"If I expressed a desire for knitted objects around Molly," he said, "I very much fear that I would end up with a full body-suit of industrial-strength wool, probably in a suitably professorial shade of beige, possibly with my name appliquéd on the front." His smile broadened, deepening the lines around his nose and mouth. "And because I am so very fond of her, I very much fear I would end up wearing it."
Tonks snickered, and cast him a quick glance as they resumed their easy pace.
"Sorry," she said abruptly. "I didn't mean to get on your case about it. I'm a bit…prickly about comments like that. Cop a bit of grief at work, especially from the blokes. And I'm so rubbish at Stealth and Tracking," she admitted, flushing, "that I did rely on my covert op scores to boost my final report. I just…get a bit sick of people making assumptions about my abilities based on what I am."
She ducked her head against a sudden gust of wind – which shot sleet down the back of her collar, horrible – and waited for Remus to reply. After an extended period of silence, she looked up and was slightly taken aback by the grimness of his expression. He caught her stare and forced a smile.
"Yes," he said evenly. "Yes, I can understand that."
The lane wound sharply to the right, passing alongside an overgrown hedge. Heedless of damage to his gloveless fingers, Remus absently reached up to pull the branches out of her path. Tonks slipped slightly on a patch of black ice and automatically clutched at him. His torso was lean and surprisingly warm under the too-thin coat. His arm came down to steady her and for a moment they froze, eyes locked. Something hot and golden flickered in the depths of his gaze.
Then Remus coughed, Tonks pulled away from him with a mumbled apology, and they drifted by wordless agreement to opposite sides of the lane.
"Hogwarts," she said hastily and a bit inanely, keeping her focus on her feet and where they were going. "Molly said that you teach History of Magic, that's brilliant. Great subject."
For falling asleep in, she finished silently, but thankfully for once her brain and mouth were working in sync and keeping the mortifying comments in check.
Remus snorted. His face was easy again, his eyes light and teasing.
"How very diplomatic of you," he said, reaching to nudge her slightly. Within moments of separating, they seemed to be naturally edging toward one another again. It was probably human instinct, Tonks reckoned. Body heat in the cold, or something.
"I was taught by Professor Binns too, you know," Remus continued. He chuckled. "And my fondest memory of that class was the dream I had about the Head Girl when I fell asleep during the Goblin War conspiracies in sixth year."
"Oh, the Goblin War unit," said Tonks reminiscently. "That was brilliant. I conducted an entire and short-lived relationship by passed notes with the Hufflepuff Quidditch captain that fortnight. Then we moved on to the Red Elf Supremacy and he ditched me for a Slytherin with blonde ringlets. I transfigured the note into a bat and it got stuck in his ponytail. Got four weeks of detention," she added with satisfaction.
"I do so admire innovation in a woman," Remus remarked blandly. His eyes darted up the road ahead, where the Weasley brothers were engaged in some sort of manly tussle. Fleur and Hermione looked suitably bored. "Should the situation ever arise again, may I recommend a mosquito? Small enough that it should pass unnoticed, but if you get the spell right, trust me, hours of annoyance."
"Interesting." Tonks nodded sagely. "Ex-girlfriend?"
Remus's teasing smile flickered.
"No," he said. "Just an old friend. Copied my Charms homework one too many times." He jerked his chin the direction of their companions again. "But Charlie seems like an intelligent lad. I'm sure you won't need to draw on your arsenal of hexes."
"Not you as well," she said, lacing her voice with slight amusement. She looked at him directly. "Charlie and I snogged on the back of a broom in 1988. That was beginning and end of our romance. He's a mate. And I'm here because I was going to be abandoned over Christmas and he's inherited the Weasley gene for well-intentioned interference. He's also as thick as a plank when it comes to women and that includes his mother."
Remus was looking at the frozen ground as they walked. His head had tilted slightly toward her as she spoke, but his face was hidden to her.
"Molly does seem to think that Charlie brought you here to pop the question on Christmas Day. She's been talking about it with Arthur all week," he said, his own voice difficult to read.
Tonks snorted rudely.
"Pop the question? What, like "pass the peas, please?" She's in for a rude awakening, then. However," she said dryly, "I expect once she has time to think it over, she'll be nothing but relieved. I doubt that in her imaginings of perfect daughter-in-laws, clumsiness and tacky hair are high on the list."
Concentrating on her step as she edged around a puddle (he could see the pink hair for himself; there was no need to immediately illustrate the clumsy), she was taken by surprise and jumped as a hand touched carefully above her ear. His face was serious, but his eyes smiled at her.
"I don't know," he said lightly. "I've always been quite fond of pink myself. This particular shade…" He looked at it thoughtfully then grinned. "Peppermint ice cream. My second favourite flavour."
"After?" Tonks despised herself for blushing. God, she was turning into such a girl.
"Chocolate." Obviously, said his tone. "And yours?"
"Vanilla," she replied at once, wrinkling her nose at him when he laughed in genuine surprise.
"At least with rainbow sprinkles, I hope. You're destroying my illusions here. I have a great belief in the psychology of ice cream," he teased her, and she raised her chin mock-haughtily.
"And a chocolate flake." Obviously, said her tone.
They were still exchanging utterly foolish grins when Charlie hailed them loudly.
"Oi! Slowpokes in the back! Bit chilly over here."
Tonks broke her gaze and realised that they had somehow ambled right into the main street without taking much notice. The others were standing in a small huddle, waiting for them outside a stone cottage. Ron was wrapped around Hermione for warmth and Fleur was stamping her neat little feet and looking petulantly beautiful. They hurried to catch up and Charlie threw an affectionate, oblivious arm around her. Tonks smiled at him absently and noticed that Bill was looking from her to Remus with a faintly knowing expression. She blushed again.
Tonks's tour of Ottery St. Catchpole pretty much encompassed "That's the shop and that's the post office", before her helpful hosts made a beeline for their actual destination, the village pub. The Six Feathers looked tiny from the outside, felt even smaller on the inside, and was warm, cozy and festive. Evergreen garlands draped the windows and someone in the pub had an expert hand with the fairy charm: the tiny creatures were perched on the windowpanes, hiding in the rafters, flitting around the wine bottles. Come nightfall, the walls would be aglow with their pinpoints of light. Tonks had been in many a country pub in her day and she didn't think she'd ever felt quite so charmed or at home in her surroundings. Her slightly tipsy enchantment had a little to do with the gentle acoustic holiday music, crackling fire and truly excellent mulled mead – and a lot to do with the lean male thigh pressed against her own in the snug booth.
The Weasley men appeared to be on excellent terms with the publican, the wizened and gregarious Mr. Tregarth, who stood four feet tall in his buckled shoes and look to be at least part goblin. After an initial exchange of flurried greetings, polite enquiries after the families and ribald jokes, which seemed to be a practiced and time-honoured routine, Tregarth supplied their table with a steady stream of highly potent concoctions. Within an hour, Tonks's head felt pleasantly muzzy and she had reached the benevolent stage of mild intoxication. All the world was a friend and all her friends were wonderful.
"So," she said, setting down her glass with exaggerated care and turning to look at Remus, somewhat blearily. The others had buggered off to the dartboard, where a slightly unsteady Fleur was hurling darts with alarming abandon but managing to score a perfect game of Round the Clock. Hermione had gathered up all of their empty glasses and was weaving on her feet as she returned them to the bar – and actually started them on a dishwashing spell cycle, unasked. God, the woman was going to loathe sharing a room with Tonks. Remus alone seemed relatively unaffected by the drink, although Tregarth had brought him several mugs of a dark red liquid, with the words "Stronger than a donkey's kick," and a sly wink.
"How long have you been teaching at Hogwarts?" Tonks asked him, selecting an olive from the bowl on the table and nibbling at it. Given that it was only four o'clock in the afternoon and she had to go home to the discerning eye of Molly Weasley, it seemed like a good idea to start soaking up the alcohol. Bless Merlin she wasn't on call that weekend after all. The one time she'd shown up to work the tiniest bit hungover, Moody had blasted her into next week. "Are you enjoying it?"
Remus stretched out his long legs toward the fire and cleared his throat.
"I've been teaching History of Magic for two terms now," he said, "and yes, I'm enjoying it very much." He hesitated, then went on, "I did a short stint as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor a couple of years ago, but had to leave due to…circumstances beyond my control. DADA was always my strongest subject, but the slot was filled very quickly and when Professor Binns decided to retire and the History position became available, Albus approached me to see if I would be interested to…to try again."
"I bet you're brilliant," said Tonks seriously and sincerely, but perhaps a fraction more gushingly than she would have thought advisable before three and a half glasses of Tregarth's home brew.
Remus's pensive expression lightened as he turned his head to look at her.
"Thank you," he said a bit dryly, but he did look rather pleased. "I do try not to bore my students into a complete stupor."
"I'd love to go back to Hogwarts," Tonks mused nostalgically. "Maybe I can talk Mad-Eye into booking me some sort of guest Defence practicum. Even just to have a nosy around the old haunts. Have a meal in the Great Hall, talk to Madam Pomfrey. She's brilliant, is Poppy. We used to have a right laugh."
"Yes, I imagine you saw quite a lot of her." Remus yelped as she pinched him. "May I plead rudeness under the influence?"
"That depends," said Tonks, eyeing him as she picked up his glass and raised it to her nose. "Huh. That smells… what is this?"
"Oliver Tregarth's toddy with a twist. The recipe of which is evidently to be taken to his grave." He leaned forward conspiratorially, his face close enough that Tonks could see the shadow of his beard beginning to emerge. She suddenly wanted to laugh; she just felt happy. "I taste red grape juice, mango nectar and cinnamon. Don't tell him I know."
"The twist being that it contains no booze whatsoever?" Tonks asked, raising one brow sceptically. She took another sniff. "Something smells awfully pungent."
"While I'm loathe to concede my excuse for any previous or future objectionable remarks," said Remus solemnly, "I suspect that what you smell is a cost-effective mango that was not so much ripe as mulch."
Tonks sighed and rested her hand on her chin, levelling her brows at him severely.
"Now I know you're telling the truth," she said. "No drunk worth his salt could get that sentence out in one piece. You realise that this makes me the only slightly sozzled person at the table right now. That's very depressing."
"Yes, but you pull it off charmingly," Remus reassured her, grinning. His hair was mussed and fell over one eye, lending him a rakish appearance totally at odds with his sober state and general air of Professor. It was all quite endearing.
"You could visit Hogwarts, you know," he said suddenly, and possibly a little too casually. "Quite a few former pupils often stop by to say hello to their teachers or to have a word with Albus. I'm sure if you wanted to…say hello to anyone, you would be very welcome."
His gaze was directed slightly over her shoulder as he spoke, but his eyes were affectionate and full of laughter. Tonks pressed the palms of her hands tightly together under the table and chewed her lip, also unable to look at him directly. She was suddenly very, very grateful that Charlie had taken unwanted pity on her this Christmas.
"Mmm," she said lightly, well aware that there was a person turning excited cartwheels in her tone of voice. "Maybe I will, then, one day." She cleared her throat. "I was actually there for the afternoon a couple of years ago, but I was on duty and it turned out to be…not exactly the right occasion for a school reunion."
"A couple of years ago…" Remus looked blandly interested before realisation dawned, concern fast on its heels. "You don't mean when your aunt died? I hadn't realised that you were present at the time." His ascetic features were sharpened by anger on her behalf. "Surely, given that you were family... and you must have been very young at the time," he said slowly, looking a bit disconcerted, as if he'd only just realised that she was still, in fact, quite young.
Tonks was having none of that.
"I've always been old enough and profesh…professsh…professional enough to do the job," she retorted, and words that could have been embarrassingly pompous instead became a hilariously ironic drunken slur.
"Yes, I see that," Remus said, his serious chastened tones totally at odds with his broad grin. He sobered quickly. "I'm…sorry," he said carefully, a strange look on his face. "About your aunt."
Tonks eyed him doubtfully.
"I expect that's not an opinion shared by many, then," she said frankly. "Because she was a bitch on wheels."
Remus coughed, and quickly raised his glass to his lips. After a hasty gulp, he seemed to compose himself and looked at her questioningly.
"I understand that there was a duel?" He frowned. "I was never totally clear what they were doing at Hogwarts in the first place. There was a rumour to the effect that Bellatrix and Dolohov were trying to poison the water supply, but that seemed a bit unlikely even for that pair."
Tonks really did pride herself on being professsshional; she was usually fully capable of keeping her lips buttoned on any subject that veered near the Ministry's confidentiality seals. The combination of booze and blatant lust seemed to be making her disastrously garrulous. Dangerous stuff, Tregarth's mulled mead.
"That was just the official smokescreen," she said blithely and with a total disregard for discretion. She eyed the bowl of olives again and put three in her mouth at once. "The Ministry thought it would be salacious enough for the press without sounding so ridiculous as the truth."
And boy, had she mangled that sentence. She chewed and swallowed her mouthful before she choked and completely mortified herself.
"Which was?" asked Remus, before hesitating. "Er…should I be asking?"
"No," said Tonks, and continued. "There was a warrant out for their arrest at the time. We'd finally managed to pin them down on a killing – that Muggle couple in Eastbourne. They kept slipping the net, though, so Mad-Eye and Shacklebolt set out bait. False intelligence was passed through…certain channels that Albus Dumbledore was in possession of the Philosopher's Stone and had concealed it in a tomb beneath the lake at Hogwarts. It was school holidays at the time and Scrimgeour thought we could take advantage of the wards and safety measures already in place at the castle. He believed that Bellatrix would be unable to resist that particular lure. He was right."
Tonks paused for a moment, shuddering slightly at she remembered the afternoon in question. For all the contempt she still felt for her late, distinctly unbeloved aunt, it had all been a bit…ghastly at the time.
"We had multiple teams in place," she went on, "and it should have been a fairly straightforward snare, but at the last moment Scrimgeour put out an order to hold position. He believed that Bellatrix might have drawn in other marks to assist with the retrieval and wanted to wait to see how the operation progressed. Mad-Eye thought it was bull-shit," she said, disgusted anew at the memory of Scrimgeour's arrogant pull of rank. "We could have taken them then, easy. And Bellatrix would never share that kind of prize. She would only have involved Dolohov because of the difficulty of broaching Hogwarts's wards singlehandedly. And he was so thick that she'd have been able to give him the slip afterward anyhow."
Antonin Dolohov, one of her aunt's many lovers at the time, had been suspected of at least twelve muggle killings and countless hate crimes against seers, vampires and werewolves. He'd been more feral animal than human being and Tonks harboured not the slightest regret for his particularly apt demise.
"The wards had been slightly weakened, enough that they would be able to get onto the grounds, not so piss-poor that Bellatrix would suspect a trap. The base operation was good," Tonks recalled. "She'd have been wary, but the way it was put over – it was too tempting a prospect and too plausible an intel source to pass up. I'd wondered how they would tackle the actual retrieval. I figured gillyweed, maybe, or the bubblehead charm." For the first time, her serious recital faltered and a tiny quiver came into her voice. "They went with transfiguration."
"Transfiguration?" Remus repeated. His brow furrowed. "Gills?" he ventured.
"And the rest." Tonks snorted. "They went full fish."
Remus blinked, and she shrugged at his look of disbelief.
"Not a lot of room for smarts in Aunt Bella's head, what with all the crazy."
He conceded the point.
"You would think they would at least go for merpeople," he mused. "Given the nature of the task, I'd have thought opposable thumbs wouldn't go astray."
It would be in bad taste to snicker.
"Mad-Eye was having a shit-fit by that time," she recounted, "and Scrimgeour finally gave the order to move in. And then…"
"And then?" Remus's eyes were fixed on her face, fascinated.
"And then they were eaten by the giant squid."
Tonks leaned back in her seat and picked up a breadstick from the bowl on the table, biting into it meditatively.
"I beg your pardon?" Remus asked blankly.
"Turns out the squid had just produced squidlets and was feeling a little territorial. Or hungry. It was all over in a split second."
Remus blinked, opened his mouth, then blinked again.
"Bellatrix Lestrange and Antonin Dolohov were eaten by the giant squid."
Tonks wiped the butter from her fingers with a bar napkin.
"How…tragic." Remus's voice was slightly unsteady.
She couldn't look at him directly.
For quite some time, in fact, they each found peculiar interest in the wall opposite.
"Are you very close with the rest of your family?"
The idle question came later that night, as they sat in somewhat sleepy contentment on the Weasleys' couch. They had left the Six Feathers just before five, after the game of darts had broken up with a forceful argument between Fleur and Charlie. Bill, the poor dolt, called in to make the final judgment, had made the mistake of erring on the side of truth rather than marital solidarity. Fleur still wasn't speaking to him. The walk home had been brutally cold, but at least the shock of stepping out into budding snow had been almost as effective as a sobering charm and Tonks had felt able to face Molly with impunity. As an added bonus, the lane had become so lethal with ice that they had been forced to cut across the fields of a neighbouring farm. Tonks, who had always prided herself on scorning chivalry, had rather enjoyed being helped over a stile by Remus. She had less enjoyed slipping as he lowered her carefully to the ground. Her hurtling cannon into Bill had resulted in an accidental boob grab, a mortified Weasley and a further enraged Veela.
The kitchen had been full of delicious smells when they trooped through the door, shedding coats and scarves. Fred and George had managed to escape to the shed at some point, from whence came a series of slightly alarming pops and bangs, but a seven-foot potted Christmas tree had been set up in the corner of the lounge. The decorating process had been a combined and chaotic effect, hampered slightly by the frustrating task of untangling lights, which proved to be beyond even the abilities of magic, and the arguments among the family over ornament placement. Hermione had fascinated Arthur with stories of her own family Christmases in the muggle tradition, and Tonks had chipped in with what she could remember of spending the holidays at her Gran's. Someone had mentioned the magnificent effort that went into decking the halls at Hogwarts; Tonks impulsively offered to cast the starry ceiling enchantment that adorned the Great Hall. Her former flatmate, a swot approaching Hermione territory, had managed to work out the formulae in just a few hours several Christmases ago. Upon being urged to demonstrate, Tonks had managed to cast a perfect spell on the first try and the Weasleys' home now appeared to be situated openly under the night sky. It was one of those shining, rare moments when off-the-cuff wandwork actually paid off in her favour. Had she hesitated or thought to recall that the only other time she'd tried it, it had resulted in very expensive damage to her parents' roof, she thought it would have been a similar disaster. Still probably safer, she reckoned, to play the role of observer as much as possible for the rest of the weekend.
Dinner had been Molly's idea of 'simple', to save room for the feast at the Christmas Eve party the next night. Tonks, now full to bursting point with roast chicken, scalloped potatoes, blueberry pie and custard, wondered what was Molly's idea of 'complex'. Tonks's own idea of a simple meal involved a trip to the local chippy or sticking bread in the toaster. Everyone had subsided into quiet pursuits after dinner, expressions running the gamut from satisfied to stuffed to the point of nausea. Molly was knitting by the fire again, the unknown pink garment now stretching from her needles to fall in a heap in her lap. Arthur and Hermione were ensconced in separate armchairs, heads buried in their books, Fleur had disappeared upstairs to remove her makeup and sulk, Percy and Hannah were sitting side by side on the hearth rug, fast asleep, and Bill and Charlie had ambled off to the shed to see what the twins were up to. Tonks and Remus had claimed the couch and were sitting with untouched mugs of cocoa in hand.
"Am I close with the rest of my family?" she repeated now, keeping her voice low so as not to wake the new parents. Her hushed laugh was dry and unamused. "Sunday lunch at the Malfoys', you mean? Or trips to the seaside with the Blacks?" She shook her head. "No, it's mostly just me and my parents. My dad is brilliant; we've always had loads in common. My mum is…well, she's Andromeda," she said, not without affection. "And we spent a lot of time with my Gran, Dad's mum, when I was growing up. She died just after I started at school though." She took one cautious sip from her cocoa then thought better of it as her stomach threatened to rebel. "How about you? Do you have a lot of family?"
"Hmm, no, unfortunately." Remus lazily swirled his mug, watching as the stars above reflected across its surface. "I was only an only child of only children and my parents have been dead for some years." He hesitated. "I suppose I formed my own family among my friends when I was young."
Tonks set her mug carefully down on her lap and looked him straight in the eye.
"You mean Sirius? And James Potter?"
"Yes. And another boy. Peter Pettigrew," he said, and the cold sneer in his voice was vaguely shocking after his usual warm tones. He shifted his shoulders slightly and managed a smile for her. "A subject for another day, perhaps."
Tonks knew she ought to follow his lead and cut and run on that particular topic of conversation, which was highly sketchy territory for both of them. Most especially where her job was concerned. Some inner voice pushed her on.
She asked the question that had been pushing at the back of her mind all day.
"Remus," she said. "Do you believe that Sirius Black was guilty?"
There was a long, strangely still silence.
Finally, just as Tonks was starting to shift in her seat, Remus spoke.
"At the time, yes. I did," he said flatly. His eyes were fixed on the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree. "That period of time was…the bleakest of my existence. I made a number of…dire mistakes and a series of errors in judgment."
He looked at her.
"I imagine this is a rather…verboten topic for a talented Auror wishing to continue in her current line of employment."
"If she doesn't fancy an extended tour of desk duties in the mailroom, yes," said Tonks bluntly.
For a moment, she watched the expanding line of Molly's knitting and listened to the gentle sound of Hannah's snores. Then she took a deep breath, flicked a quick glance at Remus's gentle face, and declared her allegiance.
"Mum always believed in him," she said. "All the time I was growing up, she talked of what happened as a miscarriage of justice."
"And…you?" Remus's voice was so quiet that she barely heard him.
"I believe...that a smart woman listens to her mother."
They said nothing further, but some indefinable period of time later, as Tonks drifted in a sleepy haze in the dim room, the lights from the fire and the stars above flickering over her face, his left hand shifted to where her right hand rested on the couch and his little finger hooked around hers.
"Oh, for God's sake."
Tonks sat up in bed the next morning, ghastly natural brown hair falling haphazardly into her sleep-filled eyes, pulled the neckline of her t-shirt back to a modest position, and looked at Charlie with total loathing.
"Is it even morning?" she asked rudely, her words distorted by a yawn. "What time is it?"
She peered blearily in the direction of the window and shivered as the first stream of cold air from the open door hit her slumber-warmed skin.
"It's almost eight o'clock," Charlie informed her, resting one knee on the edge of the bed and performing a series of warm-up exercises on his arms. "C'mon Tonks, Weasley tradition. First snowfall of the season kicks off the Burrow season of Snow Quidditch. And I need a Keeper."
"Do you seriously expect me to go outside in the middle of a blizzard and let Fred and George chuck bludgers at me?" Tonks demanded, lowering her voice to a hiss as Hermione stirred briefly in the other bed before mumbling and rolling over to bury her bushy head in the pillow. It was an enviable state of unconsciousness. "And I don't see anyone waking Hermione up at the crack of dawn to freeze her tits off playing Quidditch."
"Please," he said. "First of all, I want to win, and secondly, even Ron knows better by now. The woman has an encyclopaedic knowledge of hexes and a serious mean streak."
Tonks eyed him with dislike.
"And I'm a total pushover, apparently?"
"Apparently," agreed Charlie, grinning. "Back paddock, ten minutes. I need to go and round up Hannah and Percy. Mum's said she'll keep an eye on the squirt, and Hannah's a brilliant chaser. One twin for each team, so you, me, Fred and Hannah against Bill, Percy, Ron and George."
"What about Remus and Fleur?" Tonks asked. She couldn't believe she was actually getting out of bed for this.
Charlie's second snort was even louder and more disparaging than the first.
"As if her Majesty would risk her perfect nose," he said scornfully, and cast Tonks a wicked glance. "And Remus gets a reprieve with the rest of the old folks."
"That's it." Tonks grabbed for her boots. "Outside. And I'm swapping places with Percy. I feel a sudden and overwhelming desire to kick your arse, Weasley."
She still thought Snow Quidditch was the sort of bloody mental idea that a Weasley would have, but as she swooped high above the trees an hour later, she had to admit that it was a more exhilarating way to start the day than her usual headfirst dive into a pot of coffee. It was also, she thought, taking a breather and leaning forward on her hands on the borrowed Cleansweep, really amazingly pretty. Overnight, the countryside had experienced a massive snowfall. Blinding white fields as far as the eye could see.
Unfortunately, the sunlight glittering off the frozen fields was not only beautiful, it was also absolutely fucking lethal. As she discovered when a cloud passed, baring the sun in full, the glare temporarily blinded her, and an errant bludger wielded by George (her own teammate – insult to impending injury) hit her forearm with an ominous crack. Charlie had insisted that Snow Quidditch had many perks over the everyday garden variety, that being for pansies who couldn't take it to the next level, one of which was that snow made a softer landing cushion should one take a tumble. Bollocks to that, was her only thought as she fell the last few feet from her broom, George's hasty spell not quite halting her descent, and landed on her broken arm.
She lay, winded, her cheek pressed against the cold ground, snow melting and soaking into her hair and clothes, her arm sickeningly numb. She vaguely heard the concerned shouts and thuds as brooms hurriedly came into land around her. Pain, worried her brain, there's pain coming. Careful hands turned her over and she found herself looking up into Hannah's sympathetic eyes.
"Can you hear me, Tonks?" she asked in her pretty, girlish voice. "Did you hit your head?"
Tonks blinked her eyes a few times and tried to focus. Head… no.
"No," she managed, and gathered herself together. "No, just my arm. Bugger." She tried to struggle to a sitting position, and Hannah held her down with firm gentle hands.
"Just hold tight there for a moment," she said, patting Tonks's shoulder. "I'll have a quick look and then we'll get you inside into the warm."
Pulling out her wand, she began to run it over Tonks's body, the fingers of her left hand taking Tonks's wrist in a professional hold and pressing against her pulse.
A Healer, Tonks remembered. She was a Healer, on maternity leave from St. Mungo's. Well, that was fucking convenient, wasn't it. She was shaking with cold, shock and mortification. Perhaps she should warn everyone who invited her to stay that she would require a medi-witch on-site, just in case.
"Tonks, are you okay?"
"Merlin, Tonks, I'm really sorry. The bloody sun hit me right in the eyes…"
She slowly became aware of her surroundings and realised that the others were gathered around her, a cluster of white anxious faces and snow-flecked red heads.
Charlie and George looked equally horrified, and strangely, as the numbness began to retreat from her arm, her natural good humour began to reassert itself. Arm hurting like a son of a bitch, she grinned at them.
"Bloody hell, George," she said. "You're supposed to be nobble the other team."
The tension eased fractionally from his face, but he still looked fairly nauseated with guilt. Charlie clapped her on the back in a vigorous gesture that was probably supposed to be comforting, but only made her cough.
"Good God, Nymphadora." Remus's appalled voice cut through the still air, and she looked up to find that Ron had summoned the rest of the household. Arthur was still in his pajamas and slippers, a nightcap askew on his scanty hair; Molly was almost in tears; and Fleur and Hermione had come out without coats and looked anxious. Remus was wrapped up in his coat and muffler, had ruddy cheeks and snow-dampened hair, and appeared to have just returned from a morning walk. He dropped to his knees at her side with no thought for the cold and took her hand in his. His eyes were almost black with concern as they scanned her face and fixed on her arm. "What the hell happened?" he asked roughly.
"Slight miscalculation on the landing," she said breezily before George could reply. She gave Remus's fingers a quick squeeze. "Happens all the time. Quick healing spell and I'll be right as rain. Right?" she asked Hannah, a trifle anxiously. She was scheduled for January training ops in a couple of weeks with the new recruits.
Hannah sat back and returned her wand to her hip-holster.
"I'm afraid not quite," she said briskly. "The bone has splintered quite badly, probably from the secondary impact. I don't think a simple spell would remove all of the fragments of bone and I don't want to risk an infection. You're going to need a modified dose of Skele-Gro."
"Unfortunately I don't have any Skele-Gro stocks with me," Hannah said apologetically. "I tend to just carry the basics. It's too dangerous to fly in this weather and I can't send you to St. Mungo's by Floo with a broken bone. The risk of splinching is too high with Apparition. I can splint the arm for you and set it with numbing spells though, which will keep it immobilised and should keep you comfortable for a day or two."
"Fine. Good." Tonks looked down at her arm. At least it wasn't sticking out at any horrendous angles. She'd dislocated her shoulder a few months ago during a mission with Dawlish and had turned around to find her arm looped backward and sticking up behind her neck. She'd almost hurled. "Thanks, Hannah."
"Right," said Hannah, standing up and dusting off her knees. "Let's get you inside. Molly, she could probably do with a hot drink," she added, eyeing her mother-in-law's quivering lip with a knowledgeable eye.
"Oh!" The hint landed directly where it was intended, on the red button for Molly's maternal instincts. The tears retreated behind a surge of determined clucking. "Of course she could. Charlie, carry Tonks into the house. We'll set you up a nice bed in front of the fire, dear."
Everyone reacted simultaneously. Tonks immediately protested that it was her arm that was broken, not both of her legs, and she could walk herself into the house, ta very much. Charlie obeyed without hesitation and bent down to pick her up. Remus calmly ignored both of them, slipped achingly gentle arms under Tonks's thighs and around her back, and got to his feet.
"Oh," she said stupidly, clutching automatically around his neck as he picked his way carefully through the snow and headed toward the house. Despite his thin frame, he carried her easily, never faltering in his stride or shifting her weight. Shock was shivering at her joints and lightly clattering her teeth, and she let her head fall to rest against his. His unshaven chin rasped against her skin as he briefly turned to nuzzle his nose against her cheek.
"Okay?" he asked quietly as he waited for Arthur to hold the door for them.
"Mmm." She closed her eyes and breathed in the sandalwood scent of his hair, taking shameless advantage of the few stolen moments before he laid her carefully on the couch and people began to bustle about with blankets and hot water bottles.
He sat with her and held her hand through the entire teeth-gritting process of having her arm set and splinted. His fingers were firm around hers, his eyes intent and sympathetic on her white, pinched face, only the grim line of his mouth revealing his tension.
Hannah's 'basic' medical kit lacked Skele-Gro but did include some truly ace pain potions. As a dose of a syrupy pink concoction sent her soaring into a hazy, drugged nap, Tonks was vaguely aware of a callused thumb stroking her cheek and warm lips against her bandaged fingers.
Thanks to the glorious benefits of wizarding medicine, by evening Tonks was back to feeling like a sober, conscious human being, albeit one with slightly impaired motor skills. And although breaking a limb was slightly more dramatic than her usual means of avoiding household spells, she could admit that she had no objections to remaining ensconced before the fire while the rest of the family prepared for the Christmas Eve party under Molly's critical eye. Given the gathering thunderclouds on the twins' faces as their mother had them reset the dining table at least four times, Tonks had feared mutiny at one stage, but by seven o'clock the Burrow had been spick, span and generously bedecked with tinsel. The guests had started arriving soon after and now, late in the evening, Tonks was curled up cosily against her cushions, enjoying both the spectacle of other people getting drunk and happy for the holidays, and the fact that she'd been allowed to come to the party in lounge pants and socks while everybody else looked fancy and in varying degrees of discomfort. Charlie, talking to an attractive middle-aged brunette with a predatory eye, was going to lose his tie if he tugged at it much longer, Tonks thought.
Molly whisked by with a tray of canapés, pausing to offer Tonks a miniature quiche and pat her on the shoulder. Mouth full of egg and cheese, Tonks watched as Bill coaxed Fleur onto the makeshift little dance floor. They were smiling soppily at one another, so the latest exchange of temper had obviously fizzled out. Percy was over by the dessert table, filling a plate for Hannah, who had her hands full upstairs with an outraged Edmund. The twins had passed out through the kitchen door earlier with vague excuses about Christmas gifts, and Ron and Hermione were blatantly snogging under the mistletoe. Tonks leaned her head against the back of the couch and rubbed absently at her bound-up arm. It didn't hurt at all; Hannah was a skilled Healer. She knew that it should hurt, however, which always gave her a strange sense of phantom discomfort. She wrapped her good arm around her knees and finally let her eyes slide back to the other side of the room, where they'd been tempted to remain fixed all night. Remus had been sitting with her for a good part of the evening, enjoying the soft music and talking quietly, but had finally been dragged off by Molly to mingle. He had been warmly greeted by a number of people, although Tonks noticed that he seemed to steer clear of the few faces that she herself recognised, mostly people from the Ministry. For the past hour, he had been caught up with one woman in particular: a friend of Molly's to whom Tonks had been introduced earlier. Hestia Jones was a thirty-something curvy brunette, with pink cheeks, sparkling blue eyes and a determined chin, and she was making an absolute dead set at Remus. Which would have been extremely irritating if the hunted look on his face hadn't made it hilarious instead.
As she watched, he looked over and his eyes met hers. They crinkled at the corners. He spoke to Hestia, who also glanced over at Tonks in vague annoyance. She started to protest, but was at that moment drawn into conversation with a tall portly man with spectacles and an air of importance. A few moments later, Remus appeared at Tonks's side, two glasses of pumpkin juice in hand.
"I come prepared to barter," he said, holding up one of the goblets. "One dull non-alcoholic beverage in exchange for a very engrossing conversation that couldn't possibly be interrupted in any polite manner."
"I'm not sure she's going to let good manners get in her way," said Tonks, grinning at him. She peeped around his back. "There are some very hungry glances being cast your way as we speak."
Remus set the pumpkin juices down on a side table and looked her over speculatively.
"Then there's nothing for it. Drastic measures are going to be necessary. How are you feeling?"
"No, just numb." Tonks gave her arm a reassuring stroke. "Bit weird, actually. I have to keep checking to make sure it's still attached."
"No." Tonks raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Why, do you want me to go over and hex her or something?"
"Not just at the moment," he said, smiling at her. "Although I appreciate the offer. Do you think you're up to a dance?"
"I don't think I'm up to a dance at the best of times," said Tonks frankly.
But she didn't resist overly much as Remus tugged her gently to her feet and led her to the dance floor. Arthur had rolled the rugs back from the polished floorboards and holiday music tinkled from an ancient gramophone.
"Just hold on to me and I'll do all the work," Remus assured her, his voice a touch husky.
"Well, that is what every woman wants to hear," said Tonks, winding her intact arm around his neck, and heard him snort with laughter.
He was a good deal taller than her and his warm body felt solid against hers, despite his thinness. His dark grey jumper was slightly scratchy against her cheek as she rested her head against his chest. He held her tightly and carefully, one arm around her waist, his palm resting against her hip, and the other, achingly gentle, supporting her injured arm. His fingers lightly stroked her skin where the bandages ended. Warm breath skated over her neck and she shivered. The room was fairly dark now, illuminated only by candle and starlight. Standing in Remus's arms, barely swaying as Christmas music played, was both sexy and soporific. Time passed in unknown quantities and she was starting to feel rather sleepy when Fred cut in on them with an unapologetically wicked grin. Remus rolled his eyes, but obediently, if reluctantly, released Tonks – who burst out laughing at his shocked expression when Fred waltzed off with him instead.
Yawning and shaking her head to clear it, she realised she was quite thirsty. Their abandoned pumpkin juices had been efficiently cleared away, so she made her way into the kitchen to get a glass of water. Turning away from the tap, shaking her fingers free of excess drips, she almost bumped into a man standing directly behind her.
"Oh! Sorry," she said automatically, jumping. Geez, the bloke needed a bell or something. She could have sworn the kitchen was empty. She looked at him more closely. She knew him, didn't she? He was tiny, with fluffy white hair and an old-fashioned set of robes. His lips were pursed and his rather small black eyes were fixed on her with unmistakable disapproval. She automatically glanced down at her informal clothing and shuffled, tucking one foot under the other and tugging at her shirt.
Pidgeon! His name was Walter Pidgeon and he was a senior clerk in Fudge's office. And he was the total prick, she suddenly remembered, who'd dobbed her into Scrimgeour last autumn when he'd seen her sneaking in to a departmental meeting eighty seconds late. She gave up fidgeting and scowled back.
"Auror Tonks," he said stiffly, nodding once.
"Mr. Pidgeon," she said with equal hauteur. "Merry Christmas. If you'll excuse me…"
"As a representative of the Ministry and the Department of Law Enforcement, it is imperative that one holds oneself to the highest moral standards," he said suddenly, his voice severe.
Tonks came to a halt, turning to stare at him.
"Excuse me?" she said blankly.
They were lounge pants, for God's sake. There were women out there with their tits hanging halfway out of their dresses.
"I feel it incumbent upon me," Pidgeon continued, his eyes cold, "to warn you that you that I intend to file a report with the Minister. I find it both inappropriate and disgusting that a practicing Auror, sworn to the office of safeguarding the public, would consort with a Dark creature."
"What are you on about?" Tonks was completely at a loss. "Dark creature?"
"I find it reprehensible enough that Weasley would invite the werewolf Lupin into his home, putting the security of his guests and his family at risk, but to see that creature not only sanctioned but…close to a member of our Auror Squad…" The words were almost acidic in their disgust.
The werewolf Lupin.
Tonks shook her head dumbly. The sound she made was almost a laugh, part shock and part…revulsion. For the rest of her life, she would find it unforgivable that her first reaction, for one isolated moment, born out of shock, was revulsion.
"Remus isn't a werewolf," she said, and then, unbelievably inanely: "He's a teacher."
Pidgeon bridled all over at that, quivering like a bird drying its damp feathers.
"Yes, and that's a travesty that will be amended in the very near future," he intoned grimly. "I can tell you that there is already proposed legislation to remove the werewolf from his post and prevent the future appointment of any unnatural creature to a post where it might be in contact with children or vulnerable members of the public."
Sanity was replacing shock, and with it came complete fury.
"You foul little pipsqueak," she began, and it was only a barely audible sound from the doorway that curtailed her in venting her outrage and probably systematically destroying her career.
Spinning around, she met Remus's gaze and her stomach dropped. Plummeted, sickeningly, to her feet. He had stopped half in and half out the door, one white-knuckled hand gripping the door, eyes fixed on her face, black and blank. It was his expression that had her reaching out a helpless hand to him. Shame. Bone-deep shame. She felt it reflected in every part of her own self.
Before she could speak, he had turned and was gone.
Pidgeon was still talking, his voice a high, distant, meaningless irritant. She impatiently shook off his hand when he clawed at her arm, barely noticing the twinge as he knocked against her splint. Pushing rudely past, she entered the living room almost at a run and looked around. The room was a bit less crowded now; a few people had departed to relieve their babysitters and still more had begun to drift to the seats around the perimeter of the room, tired as the clock edged toward midnight.
Feeling her heart thumping loudly in her chest, her legs a bit weak, Tonks proceeded to search the house from top to bottom. She tugged a coat over her head and braved the cold to check the garden, which was quiet, silent and pristinely white from a recent snowfall. Nobody could have walked through it in search of solitude. Slowly, she trudged back inside and dropped the damp coat back on the stand by the door.
He was gone, and she suspected he wasn't coming back.
The door from the lounge opened, and Molly came in with a tray of empty glasses. She gave Tonks a tired smile.
"I think things are finally winding down," she said, setting her burden down with a clatter. She covered a yawn with her hand. "Every year I wonder why I do this to myself with a full Christmas lunch to cook tomorrow." She chuckled. "And every year I forget the hard work and just remember how much I enjoy the party." Her attention suddenly sharpened as she focused properly on Tonks. "Tonks, dear? Aren't you feeling well? Goodness, it's almost midnight; you ought to have had that arm in bed hours ago."
"Have you seen Remus?" Tonks asked abruptly and without much hope.
"Remus?" Molly looked surprised. "No, not for some time. The last time I saw him he was dancing with you."
"I think he's gone," said Tonks hollowly. She rubbed a hand against her front, smoothing her shirt against her belly. "He was…upset, and now I can't find him."
"Upset?" Molly was looking squarely at Tonks now, a frown between her brows. "Surely not. He seemed so happy earlier. I haven't seen him so happy for a long time." Her voice was difficult to read, but her face softened as Tonks winced. "I gather that I was a little premature in my expectations for Charlie?"
She didn't sound angry, but Tonks lifted her eyes in miserable apology.
"Oh, Tonks." Molly crossed to her and took her hands. Her smile was affectionate and amused. "We're not going to throw you out of the house because you have the poor taste to prefer another man to one of my sons. I must confess, it wouldn't have occurred to me until I saw you together tonight. I'm sure whatever you argued about, it's soon mended. Remus is the most generous and forgiving of men."
"He's a werewolf." She hadn't intended to say it, least of all so horridly bluntly, but the bald statement slipped out before she could check it.
Molly's grip loosened for a moment, then she held Tonks more firmly than ever.
"Yes, he is," she said simply. "Does that change your feelings about him?"
There was no hesitation now. There was pain. There was sorrow, a little bit of fear, a tinge of disappointment, but certainly no revulsion of feeling.
"No." Tonks's voice was clear. "But he didn't tell me. Nobody told me."
It wasn't an accusation, but a regret.
Molly let out her breath in a sigh.
"No. I'm sorry, Tonks. If I'd realised that you were becoming…interested in him, I might have done, although I agree it was his place to tell you. When I first met Remus, I was frightened of him," she admitted, not without shame. "I was frightened for my children. But now – I don't look at Remus and see a werewolf. I just see a dear man, a good friend. If there had been any danger at all – but the full moon was over a week ago. Remus's condition is his own business. I certainly don't keep my guests informed of one another's most private secrets."
"I just wish…I hadn't found out that way." Tonks closed her eyes as she remembered her instinctive reaction. The sight of Remus's mortified eyes was burned into her lids.
"He probably just needs some time to think, to recover himself," said Molly reassuringly. "I'm sure he'll be back shortly." She released Tonks's hands and gave her shoulder a reassuring pat. "I should go back in there and start to drop sleepy hints," she said, smiling. "Why don't you go up to bed?"
"I think I'll wait up for a little longer."
Molly nodded and turned back at the doorway.
"I hadn't realised," she said. "I hadn't realised how alone he is until I saw him with you and realised how much he keeps back."
Tears clogged the back of Tonks's throat.
Molly's gentle gaze flicked over to the clock.
"One minute past twelve," she said. "Merry Christmas, Tonks."
The door closed, leaving Tonks standing alone in the quiet kitchen. The Burrow was well soundproofed, probably a necessity with seven children, and not even a hum of sound escaped from the party rooms. Tonks blew out a shaky breath, and sat down at the table. She watched the snow begin to fall again outside the window.
Yeah. Merry bloody Christmas.
Tonks kicked the door of her flat closed behind her and stood still for a moment, staring at her Christmas tree, a quick makeshift job out of a fallen evergreen branch. Sighing, she carefully set her bags on the floor and crossed to her familiar threadbare old couch. She dropped into its comfortable depths and raised her tired feet to the cushions. Her arm throbbed again and she rubbed it absently. She'd have to go to St. Mungo's first thing in the morning. Hannah was right; she should never have risk Apparition. She'd escaped a splinching by the skin of her teeth and it seemed to have dislodged the bone-set. She hadn't even technically been on call, but when the summons had come from Mad-Eye shortly after Christmas dinner, she'd ceased on a legitimate excuse to leave the Burrow.
After staying awake well into the night, Tonks had finally been driven to her bed by cold and resignation. When she awoke the next morning to the sounds of Ron bouncing excitedly on Hermione's bed, flinging his stocking about like a six-year-old, she'd gone downstairs to discover that Remus was still missing. It hadn't put her in the most festive mood to watch the Weasleys open their presents, although she couldn't keep from smiling when she unwrapped a box with her name on it and discovered that Molly's mysterious knitting project had turned into a fluffy pink sweater appliquéd with a turquoise "T". She had sat restlessly through lunch, picking at turkey and cranberry sauce, thanked Molly and Arthur politely, and damn near cried with gratitude when Mad-Eye's typically rude summons had arrived by owl. Hannah had tried to dissuade her from Apparating, but she'd been itching for action, unable to sit and bloody pine, and had pulled the "have to do my duty" card.
Of course, when she'd reached the scene, a thwarted robbery in Diagon Alley, Mad-Eye had taken one look at her bum arm and packed her off home with a flea in her ear. She'd still been smarting from the tongue-lashing (as if she smashed up her limbs on purpose), when, walking home to avoid any further transportation disasters, she'd discovered a badly wrapped present stowed in her bag. Knowing Mad-Eye as well as she did, she'd opened it rather warily and was astonished to discover that the bottle within was not disillusionment powder, or blackout dust, or even pepper spray, but simply perfume. An actual bottle of genuine "girly rubbish", as he'd once gruffly described it. Tears had sprung to her eyes. It smelled uncannily like burnt toast. It was still the new most favourite thing she owned.
Despite everything, this wasn't the worst Christmas she'd ever had. In fact, taking every moment into account, it might still rank up there as one of the best.
A quiet knock at the door startled her and she looked up sharply, her breath catching in her throat. Warily, hopefully, and probably foolishly, she got to her feet and walked over to peer through the peephole.
Her hand tightened around the doorknob.
Pulling the door open, she leaned against it and looked out at Remus. His face was pale and exhausted, his arms held tensely at his sides.
For a moment, they stared at one another in silence.
Eventually, Tonks spoke.
"Merry Christmas," Remus said evenly. He ducked his head, then jerked his chin slightly and looked into her eyes again. "May I come in?"
Wordlessly, she stepped back and let him pass through into the flat. She felt a momentary embarrassment for her shabby furnishings and untidy belongings, but shook it off. He wasn't here to judge her housekeeping standards.
Please Merlin that he was here for the reasons she wanted him to be.
"Charlie joked that you have some sort of Father Christmas gig going," she said, sitting gingerly on the edge of her rocking chair. "You know, disappearing on Christmas Eve."
"I'm sorry," said Remus. He was still standing, staring at her. His voice was deep and sincere. "God, Tonks, I'm sorry."
"I wish you'd talked to me about it," Tonks said. She picked restlessly at her nails. "Not just after… I wish you'd told me."
"It was unforgivable." Remus's face was white and strained. "It was unforgivable to have acted the way I did without full disclosure."
Tonks looked at him sharply.
"Because had you given full disclosure, nothing would have happened? I wouldn't have wanted anything to happen?" His mouth twisted and his shoulders moved in a bare shrug. Precisely, was the unspoken implication. She scowled at him. "Bullshit." He jerked a little in surprise, and she said, more emphatically, "I was… I wasn't expecting it. And I bloody well wasn't expecting it in such a hateful way, from a person like that. And I'm sorry, Remus, I'm sorry as well. Most of all, I'm sorry that this happened to you."
She got to her feet and walked to stand in front of him, close but not touching in any way.
"And then what I felt most was hurt. I felt embarrassed that you hadn't trusted me enough to tell me."
Remus stared down at her, his face twisted.
"I hadn't expected…" He blew out an unsteady breath, then tried again: "You were such a…surprise. A wonderful surprise. I've never felt so instantly…at home with someone. Comfortable and terrified at the same time," he said, with a wry, brief smile. "I didn't want to tell you." He shrugged slightly. "It's as simple and selfish as that. I didn't want to think about it. I didn't want to be that part of me. I didn't want to…be lost to you. People find out what you are," he said simply, horribly, "and you disappear. They look at you and all they see is the wolf."
I don't look at Remus and see a werewolf. I just see a dear man, a good friend.
Tonks kept her eyes steady on his.
"Remus," she said. "I look at you and my knees feel weak."
For an endless moment, his tortured gaze didn't falter, then, in the space of a blink, some of the terrible tension drained away from his expression and a flicker of warmth sparked in his eyes, somehow returning their familiarity to her.
He lowered his head and hesitated, his breath fanning against her parted lips. A fraction of guarded reserve seemed to hold him back from that last step.
Tonks reached up with her good hand, clutched his ear and pulled his mouth down to hers.
When he raised his head a good amount of time later, they were both flushed and breathless.
"Well," said Remus, and huffed out a laugh.
Smile lines were deep around his eyes and mouth. He brought his arms down and took both of her hands in his. Raising her bandaged arm to his lips, he pressed a gentle kiss to her fingers.
"How's your arm?"
"And your knees?"
He kissed her again.
When they eventually stood quietly, arms around one another, his forehead resting on hers, Remus seemed to gather himself and spoke slowly and carefully.
"In the interests of openness and honesty from now on," he said, and paused.
Tonks pulled back to look at him.
"Yes?" she said warily. She stiffened. "I should warn you that if you suddenly produce a wife and kids, there are going to be two of us with broken limbs."
His serious expression slipped into a grin, and she yelped as he pinched her hip.
"No wife and no children," he said. "But one very large dog."
"A dog?" Tonks repeated. "I like dogs."
"I'm pleased to hear it," Remus replied, slipping his arms back around her. "I'm afraid we come as a bit of a package deal at the moment." He regarded her with a curiously intent expression. "Perhaps in a couple of days, once you've had your arm seen to, you might like to come over for dinner and I can introduce you."
"Yes," said Tonks at once, trying to maintain some sense of dignity, but damn near bouncing up and down on the spot. "Yes, I would. What's his name?"
"Snuffles?" she repeated, brows shooting up. "Oh. Uh…cute."
"I'll tell him you said so," Remus said, chuckling against her neck as he began to drop light kisses along her jawline. His chest moved against her as he inhaled the scent of her hair. He coughed.
"Tonks," he murmured, mouth moving to her ear and nipping gently. "I realise that it might be a bit early in our relationship to ask you this question…"
"Mmm?" She closed her eyes and moved her hands around his back.
"…but…" His lips skated across hers, his cheek rasping her skin.
"Hmm?" Impatiently, she pulled him tighter against her.
His fingers slipped into her hair, cupping around her head, and his mouth lowered fully to hers.
"…why do you smell like burnt toast?"