A/N: Many thanks to the best betas ever: AnneU, chaos_reigns85, and especially Magnolia_Mama (you are an editing goddess.) You have made my first fic writing experience a very positive one. Thank you also to my good friend Psychic Serpent who has been encouraging me to write for the better part of a year, and to Portkey, whose beautifully compelling story Blood on the Moon pulled me aboard this ship in the first place. This is for you, dear.
Readers: I love these characters, and I am considering the possibility of expanding this into a multi-chaptered work - let me know if you would like to see the story continue. Thanks in advance for your reviews and comments!
"Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within." -- James Baldwin
Remus Lupin was cold, the kind of cold that made one's bones ache and numbed the mind. He drew the limp lapels of his jacket tighter beneath his chin and settled more comfortably against the back hedgerow that divided number four, Privet Drive from its neighbor. He knew it was a warm summer night and could not help but resent that his body would betray him this way. It was the first day of the waning moon, so the cold came from within him, starting at the center of his chest and radiating outward toward his limbs. His arms felt club-like and clumsy and his legs trembled as he hugged them at the knees. In the days of the waxing moon he felt the lycanthropy come on like a fever. He was restless and driven, and the "madness within" -- as Sirius called it -- would roil in his head, his chest and his belly like a gathering storm. Then, like a fever, it left more suddenly than it came on, rendering him weak and shaken, chilled and vulnerable. He had cast a Drying Charm on the grass so at least he'd be free from the settling dew, but Merlin, he was tired.
His eyes were drawn upward toward the second story window at the center of the house -- the only room with a light on. Harry's room. The Order had been watching the boy closely -- as closely as they could without intruding, looking for signs of abuse from the Muggles or attack by Voldemort's forces. He knew someone else would have been happy to take the watch, but he had already missed last night because of his transformation. He couldn't explain the strong sense of responsibility he felt for this task; Harry didn't know he was here, so it wouldn't matter if Remus took a night off to sleep away the aftereffects of the full moon. But Remus would know the difference, and it was important for some reason that he remain close to Harry. Poor lad; he'd already been through so much, but the events of three weeks ago had nearly destroyed him.
Remus closed his eyes and tried to quiet the accelerated pounding of his heart as he recalled that night at the Ministry. The look on Harry's face as he'd lunged toward the veil would forever haunt him, as would the stab of fear and horror Remus had felt when Sirius fell through, leaving them all behind. His best friend, gone -- taking the short-lived joy of their reunion with him and leaving Harry to cope with this latest tragedy. Remus knew he should speak with the boy. He had tried, but the train station had been busy, and he could only manage a few awkward words about "taking care" and "keeping in touch."
Damn -- he was no good at that sort of thing.
The nearly inaudible "pop" of a stealth Apparition startled him from his thoughts. He was instantly alert, wand at the ready, but when he heard the unmistakable sounds of limbs tangled in shrubbery and a string of hissed curses he relaxed his stance, his face melting into a grin. He cast a quick five-foot Silencing Charm.
"Tonks -- what on earth...?"
Nymphadora Tonks emerged from under Mad-Eye Moody's invisibility cloak. Her short dark hair looked damp and capped her head in its natural state for a change. Grinning sheepishly, she pulled a small parcel from her pocket and enlarged it with a flick of her wand.
"Wotcher, Remus. From Molly -- she thought you'd like a hot drink and a bite to eat, since you hardly touched your supper. I hadn't seen you in awhile, so I vol... un... teered...."
She'd been busily rummaging around in a rather large picnic hamper, but faced him now, struggling with the top of a metal Thermos. She nearly toppled over again as the lid she was grappling with gave way. She handed it to him with a flourish and poured him some tea with exaggerated formality.
Remus stifled a grin and curled his stiff fingers around the cup, sniffing in appreciation as the fragrant steam rose between them. He felt himself begin to thaw as the heat from the cup radiated up his arms.
"Thanks, Tonks. Tell Molly I appreciate it."
"No problem. Say, you mind if I join you? That looks good."
"By all means. These nights get long -- I wouldn't mind a bit of company. Aren't you going to go short on sleep, though?"
Tonks yawned widely as she pulled another cup from the hamper and poured herself some tea. She reached for a sandwich, gave him half and joined him on the ground. "Eh. I'll catch up -- I go a long time without sleeping much, then I just sort of hit a wall. I'll know when it's time to crash." She looked up from her mug and her heart-shaped face softened into a weary smile. "Won't be long, I reckon. Tomorrow's my day off -- I'll have a nice lie-in then."
Remus nodded and wondered vaguely why she wasn't at least a little cold. She was dressed in a worn T-shirt and cut-off denim shorts with a pair of sturdy walking boots. It made him shiver just to look at her.
"Remus." Her voice was softer than usual. "You look like nine kinds of hell. Why don't you let me take the watch tonight?"
So that was why she was here. He should have known.
"This is Molly's doing, isn't it?" His voice had taken on a hard edge, and his body had stiffened. "You needn't bother. I'm fine."
"Molly's --" She looked at him, confused, then came to her feet as sudden comprehension emerged on her face. "Now wait just a damn minute, Lupin." Her eyes flashed with anger, and she looked rather hurt. "You should know me better than that by now. I don't play head games. Is it so hard to believe that I might genuinely like to be with you? Besides, you do look like crap, and I was wor- er... I thought you could use a bit more... well... rest." She turned to awkwardly examine the shrubbery.
Remus sighed wearily, his momentary anger giving way to fatigue and embarrassment. "Sorry. I-I'm not really myself when -- well -- at the moment...." he finished lamely, uncomfortable with this sudden tension between them.
Up until now, they had never been anything but courteous and friendly with one another. This little kerfuffle seemed to imply a familiarity beyond acquaintances or co-workers.... Were they... friends? This thought surprised him. They had drawn closer during this last year, their passion for the Order and their mutual affection for Sirius frequently bringing them together. She was a good kid -- and a damn fine Auror, if a little on the clumsy side. He liked her. She had an easy way with people and a vibrant nature that drew him to her just as he'd been drawn to Sirius.
With sudden clarity, he realized why he was so taken aback. She had just bawled him out exactly as Sirius would have done. In fact, with her face scrubbed and her hair in its natural state, the resemblance to her cousin was uncanny. She was looking at him now with the exact same mixture of exasperation and affection Sirius had always worn when he'd take Remus to task for refusing support. Maybe she was his friend, after all. How in hell could he have missed that?
He must have looked awfully stricken, because her expression had changed yet again to a look of wry amusement. She rejoined him on the ground next to the picnic hamper and playfully bumped his shoulder with hers.
"Oh lighten up, Remus. You look like you walked through a ghost or something. I'm just annoyed at you. Here I am just trying to do the nice thing, and you go and get all shirty with me."
He looked down at the uneaten sandwich in his hand and sighed again. "I know. Sorry." He couldn't seem to stop apologizing. He needed to pull himself together. Right now. He pulled a deep breath in through his nose and slipped the well-used mask of friendly courtesy carefully back in place. "I'm fine -- really. And I don't mind looking after Harry."
He hoped she'd take that as the dismissal it was, but he noted with dismay that she was looking at him intently. Remus wasn't sure what she thought she saw, but her expression had softened.
"You're worried about him...." She shook her head with a sad little smile. "Well, that's stupid, of course you're worried about him -- we all are. Blimey! The kid ought to just wear a dirty great target around his neck. What I mean is, you're... hurting... for him -- aren't you?"
He was silent for a moment as he stared unseeingly at the wet grass. Hurting for him? Hell yes, he was hurting for Harry. How much pain was one person supposed to endure? And Harry was just a kid. He should be lurking after girls, sneaking Firewhiskey into house parties, inventing pranks to hack off that little Malfoy ferret, not fending off an army of Death Eaters, or being forced to play Voldemort's unwilling host, and certainly not watching his friends be injured -- or his beloved godfather be killed. Remus lifted his eyes to the lighted window again, the mask gone, replaced by grief, raw and stark in its intensity.
"You should have seen him, Tonks. He tried to follow Sirius through the veil -- and when I stopped him, he fought as though his life was at stake."
He stopped, unable to continue and thrown off balance by a prickling behind his eyes. He hadn't cried yet -- there had been too much to do in the aftermath of that night -- and then the full moon had come 'round. He hadn't yet allowed himself the luxury of mourning. Oh, he could feel the grief -- a vast abyss waiting to swallow him as soon as he gave in to it -- but something told him it would break him in half if he did. He blinked and cleared his throat, but his voice still rasped with the jagged edge of a sorrow barely contained.
"In a way, I reckon it was. Both he and Sirius had pinned all of their hopes on each other. Merlin knows they deserved some happiness. The kid is so damned brave -- but I don't know if he has the courage to face this."
He turned to look at her. Her elfin features reflected the moon's light, and her dark eyes sparkled with tears. As if on impulse, she reached out to gently rub his arm. Her eyes never left his.
"And you, Remus -- are you able to face this?"
There was the grief again, and this time there was no holding it at bay. Like a desolate wind it swept in to claim him. He dropped the sandwich and took great gulps of the night air, but couldn't seem to breathe correctly. Her face became unfocused as he fought the pain in his chest. The prickling behind his eyes had become a burning, and he shook his head in mute appeal as he struggled to bring himself back under control. This was neither the time nor the place for a display of emotion, but the quiet of the evening, the silvery moonlight bathing everything in its ethereal glow, the gentleness of Tonks' voice and the tears in her eyes as she acknowledged his pain had unhinged him. She was his friend. She'd understand. He closed his eyes and, helpless to control them, felt hot tears slide down his cold face.
"I miss him, Tonks." His voice caught on the words as they began to pour out of him. "It's like a part of me went with him. We'd just found each other again after all that wasted time, and what did we get? A few miserable months of hiding like rodents while the world went to hell around us!" He was shut up in that damned mausoleum of a house, as much a prisoner as he'd been in Azkaban -- maybe more -- because people who supposedly cared about him put him there. He used to be so full of life, y'know? But all that was left was a shadow of the man I'd called 'friend.' The only thing that kept him going was Harry. Sirius never stopped grieving for James, and Harry is so much like his dad...."
He couldn't go on. The pain was relentless, and he clutched fistfuls of prematurely gray hair as he shuddered with the torment of it: Sirius, James and Lily, James' parents who were good people... all gone. His thoughts strayed to his own dad and mum, tortured to death because they wouldn't -- couldn't -- reveal his whereabouts to Voldemort.... No. No! That was too much to bear; he wouldn't think about that now. So he wept for Harry, whose childhood had been stolen, and he wept for himself because his best friend -- the last link to his own childhood was gone -- and he was too damn tired to cope with it all.
Dimly he became aware of a face next to his own and a sweetly feminine scent in his nostrils, a gentle strength that encircled him from behind and rocked him while he sat on the manicured grass. Gradually he stilled, taking an occasional shaky breath as he drew on Tonks's warmth. She was indeed his friend, young as she was, and he was grateful for her even as he cringed with embarrassment.
"Sorry...." he mumbled, then cleared his aching throat. "I'm sorry, Tonks. I shouldn't have...."
She was still kneeling behind him, holding him in her arms. "Don't even mention it, Remus." She gave a shaky little laugh, then sniffled loudly. "Don't you think I could have used a good cry myself? I miss him too."
She gave his shoulders a little shake before she released him and sat back down beside him. "Maybe we need to do something for him... you know... to... I don't know... finish things. Say good-bye. When Harry comes back to headquarters we can arrange a memorial of some sort. It doesn't seem proper not to pay tribute in some way."
Remus nodded wearily. "I'd like that. And it might do Harry some good, too." Then, in a voice thick with despair and more than a little fear, he made himself a promise and spoke it aloud to Tonks, who was now his friend.
"I think I'll talk to Dumbledore about spending some time with Harry. He should know he's not alone in all of this."
With a dull ache in the region of his heart, but a steady and comforting warmth along his right side where Tonks sat, he cast a look up toward the boy's window and saw that the light within had gone out.