Notes: Let's pretend that in the book Harry forgot to mention exactly how long Remus stayed at The Burrow for Christmas in HBP, and that it was for at least a few days.
With thanks to reviewers like Kuri333, Sarah1996, HannahAlice1991, several guests, and anyone who has left a kind comment or two on my stories over the last year or so. For everyone who has asked about Soft Falling Rain Part II: it's in progress but unsurprisingly (I may have forgotten a few original ideas) the progress is somewhat slow. ;)
What Friends Will Do
In a world of increasing uncertainty and regular bad news, Molly's double-crust apple pie is a golden pastry wonder to rely on.
But there's something more important than a slice of warm pie. Remus takes another quick glance at the Weasley family clock, perched awkwardly on top of the sideboard, with two large plates for company either side. The hand for the person he's interested in is still hovering, tantalisingly, right on the dividing line between travelling and home. It's been like this since yesterday.
Bill, who is sitting opposite, moves an eyebrow fractionally in query, and Remus shakes his head. Bill frowns, in a way which suggests that he has also recently given a lot of thought to exactly how long it takes to cross the Carpathian Mountains with a dragon in tow.
Much, Remus suspects, will depend on the mood of the dragon.
"Have you had the cream?" Arthur brings his thoughts back to apple pie slices. It doesn't really matter when the traveller in question gets here after all, whether it is tonight or tomorrow. It's just that it would have been nice if he'd been able to see it.
He wants to see Molly and Arthur's reaction. It's the only way he can think of to say thank you.
The atmosphere in The Burrow's kitchen is warm and cosy with the fire burning low in the hearth; their voices muted amongst the clink of cutlery and goblets. There's only the four of them here, with the children back at school, and Fred and George supposedly working late. (The hands on the clock, for both twins, have been hovering on pub for at least the last hour and a half. Fortunately Molly and Arthur seldom look at it since Percy's became stuck on unreachable, shortly after Christmas Day.) Remus resolves once more not to think of that other life in the werewolf camp which he must return to in the morning. The one where he's constantly torn in two: half-believing steadfastly in what he is doing, and half-longing to abandon the whole doomed, sodding mission, and not care if the world goes to hell as long as Tonks is in his arms.
Melodrama. That's what he's reduced to these days. Or is it madness?
That wasn't far off how he'd arrived. A withdrawn, distracted guest, expecting only to be here for two days at most after he'd seen his father on Boxing Day. But Mad-Eye went down with lumbago, several of the Order caught a seasonal dose of flu, and Dumbledore needed him to fill in the gaps. Somehow, he's stayed over a week, going back and forth and to wherever as required and returning here at night. Molly's fussed over him and nagged him; Arthur and he have drunk Firewhisky in the evenings, played cards, and steered away from difficult topics. And while the twins have amused him, occasionally shocked him, and asked him for advice; he and Bill have become co-conspirators in a mission to bring home another Weasley son.
In fact, there has only ever been one insurmountable drawback to being here, and he's hoping tonight, with it being his last, might be the one night Molly doesn't actually mention it.
"Have you seen Tonks yet, Remus?"
Or maybe it won't. Molly is, of course, as impractical, as romantic and as caring as ever. She means well. The problem is she has no idea how painful it is to hear her say it.
"This is a delicious pie, Molly." She's wearing the midnight blue witch's hat Arthur gave her on Christmas Day, which she has worn most nights since, and which Arthur, quite obviously, loves to see her wear. It's covered in tiny, diamond-like stars, but none of them are as clear or as searching as the look she's giving Remus now. The woman has seven children after all; she knows every avoidance tactic going.
The weariness or emptiness, which he carries inside and which had started to ease a little, is back.
"No, I haven't seen Tonks." He adds quickly, "But I'm sure she's busy watching Hogwarts now Harry's back there, as well as having her own work. She'll have little time to spare to see colleagues."
This has also been Molly's standard reply in previous, remarkably similar, exchanges. It's amazing how she can make two words contain both disbelief and disgust. Or does he imagine the latter because that's how he feels about himself?
He's braced for the inevitable follow up – "Well, why don't you go and see her then, Remus?"– while Arthur and Bill have taken to tactfully talking about a Muggle game called golf. For the thousandth time, he wonders what Tonks has told her. Tonks isn't the gossipy kind when it comes to personal feelings. But Molly isn't sticking to the agreed script any more.
"Tonks will think you don't want to see her, Remus. And I know you do."
Do you? Do you really? How can you possibly know that, Molly, when I barely know myself? No, I don't want to see her, because it's impossible. Anything between us is absolutely impossible. And yes, of course I want to see her. I wish above all else she'd come here at Christmas and taken the decision out of my hands. Made it easy for me; given me an excuse to see her once more. Can you not try and understand, for one single second, instead of driving me mad like this?
He doesn't say it. He's ashamed to think such things. There is no mistaking the kindness and the concern in her plump face, flushed from the cooking and the rushing around she's done tonight. Her eyes are still puffy from the tears that have spilled since Percy's disastrous visit with the Minister. "I need to keep busy," she'd said to Remus afterwards, and that's been a common ground for them to share. It's been balm for his soul here; it's been a timely reminder of why he's doing this and how it's the only thing he has left. Having friends makes you feel like you're standing with an army at your back.
He wants to laugh at that one, at how pathetic he is these days. Like a child scared of going back to school. Frightened of seeing the woman he loves. What about those who had no family or friends to go home to at Christmas? How many opportunities has he had that are denied to others?
He can only shake his head at Molly, hoping she'll understand.
Perhaps she does, because she purses her lips, glances at her watch and starts to collect the dishes. "My job," he says, because he likes to clear up so that she can relax, but Arthur is already on his feet. A hand is on Remus' shoulder pushing him gently back down in his chair.
"My turn," Arthur says. "Your night off."
"Yes, let him help. It's nearly eight o'clock." Molly glances at her husband, who nods silently and follows her into the kitchen. "I'll make some sandwiches for you to take with you tomorrow, Remus," she calls back, over her shoulder.
"That's very good of you but—"
"I've kept back some old bread and cheese. Some bruised apples. So they won't wonder too hard how you got it all. If I make up a rough bundle in a cloth, you can share them with your—your friends."
Remus sits and marvels. He must try again to tell those at the camp that there are people out here who are willing to try. He wishes that Charlie Weasley will come home soon.
As though in answer to that silent prayer, there's the faintest of noises outside. So faint, he thinks he imagined it. Then another, and it's louder, so there's no mistake. Someone is coming up the path in boots. Someone who knows how to get through the security spells, disable the anti-intruder jinxes, and avoid disturbing the chickens in the shed.
Someone who has been to The Burrow many times before.
He glances at the clock and the hand is almost right on home. It's such perfect timing he can't believe it.
Bill's on his feet, a grin breaking out across his freckled features and his earring glinting in the light. It looks as though he's going to the door, to get there first, with Remus aiming to stay in the background, out of the way of the family reunion. Then he can go and pack the few items there are to pack and be ready to leave at dawn. But Molly must have seen someone coming out the window as she's already going quickly to the door. Arthur's close behind.
"Mum! Mum! Don't forget the security question!"
Bill's laughing, probably at the thought of Charlie answering it, and at the surprise his parents are going to get. Remus wants to laugh as well. "Who are you?" "Why, it's your son, Mum. Popped over from Romania for a cup of tea."
There's a murmur of voices coming from the hallway. Excited and pleased voices, rising in volume. Arthur saying, "How long is it since we saw you? Oh, never mind about that, it was a daft place to leave that old cauldron. Asking for trouble." While Molly's louder, "I can't believe you're here! It's wonderful! Oh come in, come in, for goodness sake. It's freezing out there!" is full of joy.
The visitor walks into the kitchen, shaking the cold and damp from their cloak, and stuffing gloves into pockets before coming to the most abrupt of halts by the sink. Molly is smiling widely, as if she's going to explode with delight. Arthur's lingering in the doorway, looking as if he's not entirely sure how to look, apart from slightly anxious.
The visitor has big dark eyes, unfamiliar brown hair, and not a freckle in sight.
Remus, watching in disbelief, finds himself looking directly into the shocked face of Nymphadora Tonks.
"I didn't know," Tonks says, because she wants to make it absolutely clear that he's not the only gob-smacked one around here. Especially if he's shortly going to find some excuse to disappear. "I had no idea whatsoever about this. Molly's been on and on at me to come over ever since Christmas and then she practically insisted on tonight."
"It's all right, I realize—"
"I thought you'd left ages ago. Back to the werewolf camp, I mean. Nobody told me you were still here. Nobody said anything!"
"In fact, I'm sure Molly…" But she stops there, because what exactly have Molly's recent and frequent owl messages been saying? Apart from how much she wants to see Tonks, has she actually mentioned Remus since Christmas? She thought back, as to who'd said what and when. As to how much she's assumed and how much Molly has been very, very vague on…
"Bloody hell," she says at last, sitting up a little straighter in the armchair and aware that a note of admiration had crept into her voice. "We've been set up."
"Haven't we just."
Greatly to her relief, he's smiling. Flight or anger doesn't appear to be on the immediate agenda. He looks awful: tired, and drawn, and thin; if he's been here over a week she dreads to think what he looked like before. His hair seems greyer, too. But he's still Remus, and he still has that achingly kind, understanding smile that turns her heart over.
"Bill's played me too," Remus says, which she doesn't understand, though she'd seen him saying something low-voiced to a grinning Bill in the kitchen. Something about having a hand in both games?
They've found themselves alone in the sitting room, ushered in by Molly who gave them little chance to argue. They were placed in armchairs, no doubt strategically arranged beforehand, complete with a plate of biscuits on the table in front of them. She doesn't know about Remus, but the sudden maelstrom of emotion, and the sheer unexpectedness of it all, rendered speech well-nigh impossible for a couple of minutes anyway. Arthur brought in coffee, along with a quick, apologetic smile, and then Molly was retreating backwards, promising that "We'll leave you two alone for a bit!"
Even that new hat of hers had looked triumphant. After the initial wave of annoyance and fear, because this could make things worse (if that was even possible), Tonks wanted to hug her. Hug them both.
"I'll see you later, Molly Weasley," she did manage to say, feebly, to Molly's fast retreating back. Molly waved a farewell hand. Jauntily.
And here they were. Alone for the first time in ages. Trying not to think about their last conversation, and the sheer unbearableness of it; the anguish and desolation which they'd both been left with. People in books who loved each other always found ways to be together, despite overwhelming difficulties; they didn't end up going round and round in endless, soul-destroying circles. The months she's spent since then not knowing what was happening. Existing on scraps of news, bits of gossip, and imagining all sorts of horrors. And she'd only get to know afterwards if something did happen – she isn't his wife, or his girlfriend, or his anything.
She tries to think what to say, to keep her hand from self-consciously touching her hair. She's seen him look at her, and look quickly away, and wants to make a joke about how their current state of mind is so well-reflected in their appearance these days. Only it doesn't seem like the best of jokes. She picks what seems like the most harmless subject instead.
"Bill played you? What do you mean?"
"Oh… Simply that he and I have been trying to find Charlie. We thought a visit might help cheer up Molly and Arthur, but what we didn't know was that Charlie's cover for recruiting foreign wizards involved training Norbert in the Carpathian Mountains. Even using Dumbledore's contacts it's taken a while to track him down. Norbert's a dragon," he adds, seeing her frown. "A bad-tempered one that Hagrid raised."
"'Course, it would be." Tonks grins.
"Unfortunately, what Hagrid failed to spot is that Norbert should have been christened Norberta. A realization which, I understand, " Remus is grave and straight-faced here, "has caused a few issues. We've been expecting Charlie to get here for the last couple of days, but apparently Norberta, even now she's being treated in an appropriately ladylike manner, refuses to move very fast. And he can't leave a stroppy dragon to her own devices."
Tonks bursts out laughing and, miraculously, Remus is laughing with her. It's not even that funny, but it's a mixture of relief and something else. Suddenly, she knows this is going to be OK.
They're talking to each other again. They were always good at that. Merlin, she's missed this.
"Tonks. Please. I—I can't talk about what we talked about last time. I haven't changed how I feel. About how unfair it would be to you. I can't change." He's looking at his hands now, clenched together in his lap.
"I know you can't."
And he can't right now, she can see that. He's going away again to face Merlin knows what in the morning. She only has to look at his face to see what it's doing to him; how he's coping with being not just himself, but with being a werewolf, and probably seeing the absolute worst that can mean on a daily basis. How selfish would she be to badger him now?
Besides, she's not sure it would do her any good. Her job requires her full attention, as does protecting Hogwarts. Another head-banging, nerve-shredding session with Remus might destroy what little peace of mind she has left. And they're in someone else's house, for crying out loud, with other people close by. There's got to be a better time, another chance. She's still got the memory of when she last saw him. She knows what happened, what they did and what they said. It's because I love you that I can't let you do this, Tonks. She'll hold onto that.
"And," he hesitates, "that's all right?"
"Yeah. That's all right."
"Good. Because it really is very nice to see you, Tonks."
She'd never thought the words 'very nice' could almost reduce her to complete mush. It's the way he said them, so softly. As though he shouldn't be saying them, but they just slipped out.
She takes a breath. "Not being rude or anything, but why are you still here?"
"You didn't know Mad-Eye has lumbago? I've been filling in for him, coming back here at night."
"Oh. Right." She looks at him. "You mean the Mad-Eye who is currently doing my shift at Hogwarts so I can be down here? Only that Mad-Eye was moving pretty well the last time I saw him. He's had lumbago on and off as far back as I can remember, but I don't recall him ever going off sick with it."
She helps herself to a biscuit as Remus appears to need a moment to absorb this information. They're nice biscuits. Molly probably keeps a supply handy in the pantry for the emotionally disturbed whenever they pop by.
Remus says something rude and un-Remus like, which makes her snort.
"Merlin, I'm slow these days." He looks at her, half-amused and half well and truly bemused. "But… why?"
"Perhaps they thought you needed a break."
She takes another bite, and wonders if she should spell out for him that by 'they' she means his friends. She's not sure how many of them are behind this. Certainly Molly, Arthur, Bill and Mad-Eye (she'll be having words with him later) have been scheming. Presumably Dumbledore must have known some of it as well. But she's glad Remus has gone quiet as it gives her time to mull over the idea that they've cared enough to set this up for both of them.
She could probably turn her hair the colours of the rainbow right this second. It's been lonely up at Hogwarts recently. Everywhere else, for that matter.
"Have a biscuit," she says, to chivvy him along, and after a bit his mouth curves into a small smile again and he reaches for the plate. "Now. What shall we talk about?"
Afterwards, she has no clear memory of what they do talk about. Everything and nothing. He tells her of seeing Harry and the kids at Christmas, of the Minister's visit, and finally he talks about the werewolf camp. Talking about them individually by name, bringing them to life for her. She gathers that some are too far gone, some are too suspicious to trust each other, let alone an outsider who has lived among wizards, and some will shut their eyes and ears to anything in return for Greyback's protection. (He says little about Greyback himself, she notices.) But a few, just a few, sound as if they might be listening. Though, as he says, this time he's spent away, when most of them have no families to see at Christmas, or none who want to see them, will be a step backwards again.
She doesn't intend to talk about the Dementors round Hogwarts, or how draining dealing with them is, but he makes a couple of suggestions and she's glad she has. She tells him about finding Harry on the train (though not about meeting Snape afterwards), how the Ministry continues to find endless ways to make a bad situation worse, and then there is the funny stuff. Like Kingsley having to work like a man possessed to make sure a trail of stolen goods didn't lead straight back to Dung, and the batty old witch who insisted a banshee was on her cottage roof and drove the neighbours mad with complaints. Investigating Auror Tonks ended up on the roof with an amorous tom cat for company. She was going to leave out the part about nearly falling off on the way down, while the cat yowled its head off and the old witch screamed at them both, but it made him laugh so she carried on.
"I'd forgotten," he says, chuckling, "just how exciting life can be with you, Tonks."
They look at each other properly then, nothing hidden any more, and she watches the smile fade slowly away.
It's time to go before she says something she'll regret. How the heck does she say goodbye?
Etiquette books don't cover parting from someone you're not with in the most intimate sense, but with whom you feel the strongest possible bond imaginable. Near lovers, who have declared love but not made it, and are now pretending to be just good friends. It's as well it's not a book as it's a rubbish plot. She tries for a hug, because that's what good friends do, and he's obviously on the same page as her as he doesn't hesitate.
She doesn't actually perceive going into Remus' arms, she's just there. He's warm, and his breath stirs her hair, and he's holding her against him. Against the roughness of his jumper. His heart is thudding loudly or is it her own?
She can feel him rest against her for a moment. Such a long moment.
Lean on me, she thinks. Let me help you. Like you help me.
His lips gently brush her forehead. Then her hair.
She doesn't breathe.
The waves of longing and need are palpable. She's not sure who sighs first, whether it's her or him. It's him who first raises his head; it's her who lets her arms fall away. They step politely back, as though by mutual agreement. His hand lingers on her arm, touches her fingers.
They stare at each other. If she doesn't go now, she never will.
"Take care of yourself, Remus."
"And you, Tonks."
Don't look back, she tells herself. Don't. She makes for the kitchen, where Molly will be sat waiting eagerly for news and the men will have been banished elsewhere. Molly will be disappointed, because nothing's been resolved and no minds have been changed, but she needn't be. Molly has done a wonderful thing, and hopefully Charlie will be home soon and then she'll understand exactly what she's done.
Tonks thinks they've drawn strength from each other. Her and Remus. Strength to go on and to face whatever is waiting. Even while she wants to cry she's thinking that and not crying. They've both been reminded that they're not alone in their battles; that there is always someone by their side and someone to fight for.
It's what friends do.
And as for people who love each other… Well, the sky's the limit.