It was February thirteenth, and Remus still hadn’t bought Tonks’s gift. Well…he had bought a gift, of course. He wasn’t one to leave things until the last minute and had never taken much enjoyment in eleventh-hour shopping; unlike many of his fellow men, he found the experience stressful and tiresome. His opinion of Valentine’s Day fell in the same dismal region. Since his adolescence, when steady girlfriends had been few and far between, he had sustained barely a nodding acquaintanceship with the ridiculous holiday and would have been perfectly happy for things to remain so.
He shrugged into his heavy coat, doing up the buttons with careful fingers. The second one from the top was loose; he’d have to attend to it later. If the forecast on the wireless was to be believed, this stretch of particularly foul weather was due to last some weeks. It would be a matter of common sense to purchase a new coat, but, wretchedly shabby though it might be, he couldn’t bring himself to discard this one. It had belonged to his grandfather, he believed, and carried a sense of history. And the scent of mothballs, according to Tonks.
Smiling a little at the echo of her voice in his head, Remus picked up the small paper bag on the bed and tucked it into his pocket. It was a feeble offering, there were no two ways about it. He certainly wasn’t keeping it himself, however, so he’d have to give it to her tonight and look for something better in the morning. As if he hadn’t already scoured the shops in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. Perhaps he’d best venture into London. With the variety of stores there, surely he’d find something that would appeal to Tonks’s eclectic tastes. And hopefully satisfy what a harassed Bill Weasley had assured him were the hallmarks of an acceptable Valentine’s Day gift. Gently touching the bag once more, Remus sighed. He’d felt foolish enough purchasing it that it would probably endear itself to Tonks, but it was neither exorbitantly expensive nor sappily sentimental and obviously wouldn’t pass muster with a woman like Fleur. A faint, wistful remembrance of his bachelor days – when the only concern about the fourteenth of February had been the possibility of its marking the full moon – was abruptly replaced by a sense of deep gratitude that he was at least spared Bill’s troubles. Poor bloke. Remus might be rather dismayed by Tonks’s apparent worship of Saint Valentine, but at least she hadn’t asked for stocks in a diamond mine. He supposed he oughtn’t be surprised that she was so enthusiastic about tomorrow’s horrors. The holiday gloried in an excess of emotion and the colour pink. It suited Tonks from her candy curls to her painted toes.
Securing the warded latch on the window, Remus reached for his wand, barely holding his shudder as he scanned the room in one last surveillance check. Frankly, he couldn’t wait to leave the place. The prospect of Molly Weasley’s cooking was always enticing, but he would have accepted an invitation to tea with Dolores Umbridge if it entailed an evening away from Spinner’s End. If there was one place he’d never imagined residing, it was Severus Snape’s decaying cottage. Fortunately, he was sharing one week shifts with the other Order members, which meant he could fully escape his duty on Saturday. Every time he left, it was like a welcome gust of fresh, untainted air. He was suffocating in the cramped, dark rooms. Tonks had been no less sickened by the assignment, and they both privately considered it futile. Snape could claim many sins, more than Remus had ever imagined, but blatant stupidity was not among their number. He’d either fled to his master or had abandoned ship on all sides; he wouldn’t be coming home any time soon.
Hestia Jones had kindly offered to house-sit for an evening; he could hear her humming in the living room and silently saluted such fortitude of character. Five minutes spent watching dust settle on Snape’s moldy books usually denigrated his mood to the point where he was more likely to burst into tears than song. He stuck his head through the doorway to offer one more word of heartfelt thanks, and she waved him off cheerfully enough. He still harboured strong suspicions that Tonks had wheedled her into the job, but he wasn’t about to complain or nobly refuse. The temptation of a warm fire, wonderful cooking and even better company was too much for a simple man’s resolve. Twisting his wand, he heard the familiar pop in his eardrums before the tight, nauseating pressure squeezed his body into uncomfortable proportions. Even the unpleasantness of Apparition was a welcome discomfort tonight, however, if it meant a tighter grasp on his sanity than was permitted by hours in Spinner’s End.
When the dizzying rush of sensation stopped, his body was assailed by cozy warmth, his nostrils with the delicious smell of hot pastry. He opened his eyes to find the soothing sight of Molly, clothed in an apron and smudges of flour, with an open cookbook balanced on her arm. Several pots bubbled on the stove, wooden spoons stirring in their depths, and the aroma brought his feet an instinctive step closer. Her smile when she saw him was genuine but weary.
“Remus, dear, hello. You’re right on time.” Her voice was infused with determined cheer and the maternal attitude that never failed to reduce him to a bashful schoolboy. The fact that she hadn’t so much as flinched at his abrupt appearance, Remus noted, was as telling a sign as any of her preoccupation. They were all worried about Harry, Ron and Hermione, who had been in patchy contact for the past few weeks, but he realized that Molly probably felt it most keenly. She was terrified for her missing children and reluctant to reveal that fear to the ones who remained behind.
“Hello, Molly, how are you? Everything smells wonderful,” he said sincerely, looking around. Crookshanks was snoring on an armchair, but the house felt almost spookily quiet. “I bumped into Arthur yesterday, so I know he’s overworked but well. Have you heard from young Ginny recently?” He carefully avoided mention of Ron and hoped that he wasn’t straying into sensitive territory.
Molly sighed heavily and slid a tray of berry tarts into the oven. “She writes now and then. Not as often as I’d like, of course. I expect she’s saving her letters for someone else. She’s…she’s safe. At Hogwarts. It’s safe.”
Nowhere was safe, not anymore, and Ginny was probably desperately unhappy in that sanctuary. Remus didn’t bother to emphasise the obvious. Deep down, Molly knew.
“Oh, heavens,” she said suddenly, closing the oven door and straightening to peer out the window. “It’s starting to rain again. You really ought to find Tonks, Remus; I meant to go out there myself, but the potatoes boiled over, and it slipped my mind. She was walking over by the pond when I last looked out.”
Remus switched his gaze from the drab view of rain-drenched trees to Molly’s disapproving frown. “Tonks is here already?” he asked in surprise. “But…what on earth is she doing out in this weather?”
“Oh, she insisted on “blowing off the cobwebs”. I warned her that it isn’t wise to linger long out of doors, especially at night, but…” Molly broke off and shrugged. She wore the expression of one well-acquainted with Nymphadora Tonks. “Don’t use any magic out there, if you can possibly help it. Bill’s updating our perimeter wards at the moment, and minor spells interfere with the Charms weave. Not seriously, but Arthur says it’s better not to test it.”
The advice followed him out the door as he tugged his collar up against the sudden rush of cold. It was a perfectly miserable night, not at all windy, but drizzling with the damp that managed to pervade all layers of clothing.
“Nymphadora,” he called sharply, searching the backyard through the gathering gloom. Shielding his face with his hand, he peered up at the sky. It was dark and heavy with clouds, any hint of stars completely obscured. Despite the distinctly unromantic dreariness, however, he took a moment to be thankful for the hidden moon in its new state. Whatever the faults of the heavens tonight, the lack of his old boggart was their saving grace. “Nymphadora!”
Where the devil was the woman?
Concern gathered in his stomach as he stood alone in the Weasleys’ garden, listening to the faint rustle of leaves and a series of muted grunts that he dearly hoped were emanating from a gnome. Just as nagging worry peaked into serious fear, a soft laugh drifted down about his ears.
“I’m glad you’re so eager to see me, love, but there’s no need to get all hot and bothered about it.” Tonks’s voice was light and teasing, and raked like jagged nails on his agitated temper. “You know I’m yours for the taking.”
Remus peered up at the border of trees by the pond. Finally, he spotted a magenta trainer, swinging airily between the boughs of a large oak. The frivolous shoe was attached to a familiar denim-clad leg and led up to Tonks’s smiling face, surrounded by a cloud of pale pink hair. The relief he felt was tremendous in its intensity and roughened his reply to a sharp edge.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“Top marks for observation there, professor.” She grinned, completely unperturbed by his angry concern. “I’m sitting in a tree, you silly man.”
Remus felt his eyebrow arching before he could stop it. Tonks often commented on what she called his “who is this dimwit before me?” look. “It’s raining, Nymphadora. And extremely cold.”
“Crikey, does the Ministry know about you?” she asked, wide-eyed. “Surveillance skills like that, you’ll make head office in a week.”
“Tonks!” His frustration was largely born out of discomfort and the remnants of a momentary but very real terror. “Get down from there at once. You’ll catch a chill.”
She regarded him silently for several seconds, unexpectedly lapsing into seriousness. “No,” she said eventually, calmly. “I’m not done up here yet.”
“And what are you doing up there? Knitting?” he asked sarcastically, shifting his feet in the muddy grass.
“It is possible to have thoughts inside, you know. By the fire. With a plate of food.” Remus sighed and unconsciously gave in. He was able to recognize by now when Tonk