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"Do you know the best thing about this wine?" Nymphadora Tonks inspected a jam jar full of what - to the uninitiated - looked and smelled an awful lot like urine.

"That we might not get hepatitis from drinking it?" Sirius Black suggested hopefully, his face scrunched up after having taken a sip.

"That unlike real wine, you don't need a particular type of glass in which to optimally enjoy it?" Remus Lupin had a row of eggcups in front of him, each holding a mouthful of wine.

"That it is called Sauvignon Blanc-flavoured wine product on the box?"

"That it came in a box?"

"No," she slurred, leaning forward on the kitchen table while staring into the yellow depths of the wine, as though she hoped to divine truth from it. "It's that it actually cost me less to buy this than it would have cost me to buy the same amount of milk."

The two men groaned.

"Oh. Neither of you two are allergic to fish, shellfish or egg, right? Because according to the box you probably shouldn't drink this if you are."

"That's quite enough of this for tonight," Remus said, picking up the sad, deflated bladder and tossing it in the direction of the sink. "Are you sure we're out of wine?"

"Oy, don't throw that out!" Sirius lurched for the sink, grabbing the silver sac and holding it up to his mouth. "Drinking Muggle wine makes me feel like I am having an intercultural experience. Like I am an exchange student, or something. This is the closest thing to a dangerous Order mission that I will ever get."

"Where is the rest of the liquor, then?"

"Finished it all off at the beach party." The event he referred to deserved neither the appellation of 'party', nor the modifier 'beach': someone had brought a bucket of sand to cover up vomit stains after a particularly raucous meeting had got out of hand, and Sirius had worn rolled-up trousers. All in all, it had been one of their more productive and engaging meetings. "Don't suppose you're keen to nip off down to the shops and buy some real stuff, Tonksy?"

Her first reaction was primarily non-verbal, though vulgar. "It was fine. Not sure of what you're complaining about. Here I am, slaving away in the office all day to provide for you, risking life and limb, and I come back here to have my bread-winning efforts spurned by ungrateful man-children?" She leaned back in her chair, lolling her head back to stare at the ceiling. "One of these days, I'm going to go find a man who appreciates my exquisite knowledge of viticulture and you'll all be sorry."

Upstairs, someone bashed at the front door, and within seconds the piercing wail of Mrs Black's portrait shrilly filled the air. Remus and Tonks got up wordlessly, rushing up the stairs and through the corridors to put an end to the din. Remus took to the stairs two-at-a-time, fighting with the curtain while panting heavily and resounding to incorporate more aerobic fitness into his daily routine. No sooner had the house fallen silent again did he hear another loud, piercing cry: "Charlieeeeeeeeee!"

He looked back down the stairs to see Tonks clinging, like a limpet, around the waist of a bemused Charlie Weasley. "He brought Ogden's, Remus! Isn't he the most wonderful?"

"He truly is." The two men shook hands. "No beard this time around?"

"Caught fire. It was only a matter of time." Charlie ran his hand over his jaw. "Makes me look like a seventeen year old again. I don't know if I like it or not."

Tonks released him from her grip. "S'nice. I liked the beard too, though."

"And you, Remus? You ever considered facial hair?"

"Once. It was embarrassing. Come on downstairs."

He ushered Charlie and Tonks down to the kitchens, stopping only when Tonks seed a step and nearly crashed down the remainder. "Sirius! We have a saviour!"

"We love you," Sirius said, eyes firmly locked on the Ogden's. "You should taste the piss Tonks has been making us drink."

"Your palate still lousy, Dora? She once drank a bottle of preserving alcohol in sixth year. I thought Snape would actually let her die of alcohol poisoning."

She blushed. "Weirdo. Open it up!"

"Your mum and dad not home, Charlie?"

"Well," started Charlie, who twisted off the cap with stubby fingers, "Dad's still at work and Mum's on duty. And last time I was home I walked in on Bill and Fleur, and that's an experience I am not keen to repeat. If there's a spare sofa here, I'll eagerly claim it for the night."

"Study upstairs is free." Sirius tipped the dregs of his wine down the sink, and eagerly refilled it with firewhiskey. "Room and board are always provided for people who actually keep us in the lifestyle to which we are accustomed," he said, shooting a glare at Tonks for the wine transgressions.

Charlie laughed, and as Tonks passed him, he roughly pulled her into his lap. "Give us a try of this legendary plonk, then," he said, indicating to her jar.

Remus watched her reach for it, her hips twisting and grinding in his lap as she held it up to him, and he watched as Charlie's fingers brushed against hers as his own breath caught in his throat. The room suddenly suffocated him: too hot, too airless, and too claustrophobic. She was holding the bottle of Ogden's, her lips flush against the rim, and as she swallowed, tiny drops trickled out her mouth and down her chin.

He felt a soft kick from under the table, and his eyes locked on Sirius, who was looking at him pointedly. "Er -- don't you have work in the morning?"

"Shit!" She set the bottle down on the table. "I don't want to go."

"Come on," Charlie said, jiggling his leg with her still sitting in his lap, "you better head off."

"Do you want me to walk you to the apparition spot?" Remus said, pushing his chair back.

"No, no, it's all fine, you stay where you are, you've already got comfortable," Charlie said in what Remus found to be an intensely affable yet annoying tone. "I'll go for a walk. Up you get."

She pulled herself to her feet unsteadily. "I reckon I might be sick unless I head soon. Night, you rabble," she said, walking backwards towards the stairs while staring at the two seated men.

As the front door closed quietly behind them, Remus settled back into his chair, staring miserably at the eggcups of wine in front of him. He knew Sirius was staring at him. He didn't need to look up to be able to tell that. The room was still uncomfortably warm, and he didn't know if it was the wine or recently departed company, but a wave of nausea started licking against his feet.

"Eighty proof, this stuff. It'll put hairs on your chest," Sirius said, holding the bottle in his hand, eyes still firmly glued to Remus.

"Mm."

"Generous offer, that. Like that kid a lot."

"Kid?"

"That stuff has hit you hard. Old mate what's gone to walk her down the road."

"Right." He picked up an eggcup, and with the grim determination of a man who knows yet does not care that he is soon to die, he downed the wine in a flash. "I don't know. This stuff grows on you."

"You're lying." Sirius refilled his teacup. "You were always terrible at lying. Why do you think the Potters never made you their secret keeper?"

"Because you were too sexy to overlook."

Sirius snatched the remaining eggcups from a weakly protesting Remus. "He seems to quite like her, I think."

"That's nice."

"And she seems to like him too."

"Delightful. Oh, to be young again."

"You've never been young."

"I have had extensive second hand experience in it, and apparently it is great."

Remus reached for the Ogden's, but Sirius's hand snatched it from his grasp. "No jealousy?"

"Pardon?"

"The look you were giving her. It was hardly subtle."

"I drifted off for a moment. Do you never drift off?"

"I never have attractive young women I'm not related to in my presence." Sirius uncapped the bottle and took a swig. "Why do you even bother lying when you're just plain no good at it?"

"If you're not going to share the drink, then I think I might head off to bed. Your infinite wisdom will be perfectly good company for you."

"That is some good giving up, right there," Sirius sneered as his friend passed him on the way out. "We should put you in charge of the Order. Look, Lord Voldemort, you have made a really convincing argument about just rolling over. We might just do that. Fancy a chosen child or two to seal the deal? Rub your shoulders for you while I'm at it?"

It took Remus until halfway up the stairs to the second floor to think of a decent rejoinder, but by this point he was too tired and uncoordinated to make the round trip back to the kitchen. When he reached Regulus's room, he tried in vain to pull open the jammed window, to no avail (adding, to his lengthy mental list of self-improvement projects, enough strengthening exercises to assist him with basic daily tasks like opening windows, tricky jars, and over-tightened taps).

The evening was excessively humid and stifling for mid-May, and he felt his clothing cling to him with the static electricity in the air. It felt overdue for a late spring thunderstorm, and he wished for even the smallest bit of circulating air in the room. He shucked his shirt, the night air no cooler now he stood bare-chested. He fell back onto the sheets, hoping that they would be cooler, but sadly not.

His mind turned to Charlie, and he clutched at his pillow as a shot of pain rang through his temples. Stocky, muscular Charlie, who could certainly open his own windows, and buy his own top-shelf liquor, and grow a beard without it looking wispy and stupid.

His mind turned to Tonks. Tonks who, tonight, wore her hair in an offensively bright shade of turquoise to her shoulders (which went better with her dark eyes than it had any right to). Tonks, who did not once make eye contact with him that evening. Tonks, whose legs were wrapped around Charlie Weasley's torso in the open doorway, her head nestled into the crook of his neck, her waist encircled by his hands at the table.

He slept fitfully, woken every few hours when his body twitched violently after an extremely vivid series of dreams about falling off broomsticks, no doubt brought on by a third of a bladder of inappropriately cheap Muggle wine product.

***

"So," Tonks said, pulling the invisibility cloak over her briefly exposed sneakers. "Say you had the choice of dying by one extremely painful stab to the heart, or a hundred mildly painful paper cuts."

That night saw them waiting outside a garage in Islington. The heat had not abated: if anything, it had only become steamier and muggier.

"I don't feel well enough to answer that question."

"I reckon you and Sirius were right on that wine," she murmured. "I reckon I would have been sick about twenty times when I got home. Thank goodness Charlie decided to walk me back home, I think I'd have splinched myself if I'd tried to Apparate."

Remus frowned. "Wouldn't that have taken ages?"

"Yeah, reckon it took about an hour or two. Probably would've been shorter if I didn't need to sit down every hundred yards or so."

"You friends with Charlie at school?"

"Yeah... Not really, no. Kind of."

"Kind of?"

"Well," she said, pulling herself in closer to him in order to fit under the cloak, "it was weird. He was more a friend of a friend. Nice enough to me. Most people thought I was a bit of a loud mouthed loser, though. I wasn't really popular at school."

He felt her head brush against his shoulder. "I find that quite hard to believe. Almost as hard to believe as me being popular."

"You peaked in high school," she said, laughing. "You're such a stereotype."

"Speak for yourself!"

"What," she pressed, a little too loudly. "How am I a stereotype? What am I a stereotype of?"

He paused to think for a moment. "Middle class nerdy girls who are having their moment of respectable and predictable rebellion once they leave school."

"I am not!"

"The pink hair? I am surprised you don't have a tattoo and a nose ring."

"I do have a tattoo," she mumbled in reply, crossing her arms in faux indignation.

"My point proven."

She rolled back the sleeves of her shirt, and with her wand tip lit, she held her forearm up to him. "Fine. The cap fits."

He leaned in to read. "Toujours Crasseux. I like it."

"I thought Mum would have liked it more than she did, you know. Dad reckoned it was smashing. Mum just got mad."

He leaned his head back on the crumbled bricks behind him. Despite the heat and the ergonomics, there was something intensely comfortable about the moment. It was probably the most he could ever expect, and as he looked at her pale skin with the black, spidery lettering, he saw her head cradled in Charlie Weasley's neck again, and he felt the moment sour.

"When did Charlie say he was going back to Romania?"

"Friday. He's on duty tonight, then seeing other friends on Wednesday. He's taking me out Thursday."

He clenched his jaw, hoping she couldn't feel his body tense. "Oh?"

"I don't think anything too fancy, knowing him."

He watched her fingers twirling a shoelace around them, her fingernails bitten off, and he had to fight the impulse to reach for her hand and hold it still. She was avoiding his gaze now, her head held low and her breathing shallow. From outside the alley, he could hear pedestrians bustling along the footpath after having been deposited by a bus. "This is a bit of a bust tonight," he said aloud. "If Yaxley was going to come, he'd have been here hours ago. I reckon he'll leave it for tonight."

"You sure? It's only ten thirty."

"Ages ago. I'm sure of it. I can check in again tomorrow night." As he pulled himself upright, he felt a dull ache in his knees. You sad shit, Lupin, he thought to himself, you can't even sit cross-legged without getting pains. This is why she wants Charlie over you. Gallantly, though secretly doubting his ability to provide any real help, he held out his hand to her. She accepted, and as she stood, she clung to his hand softly.

Wishful thinking. Nothing but wishful thinking. He held his breath, waiting for her to release his hand, which she did only after a spell. "Wasted night?"

"Not entirely," he said, a weak smile on his face which she hoped he couldn't see in the dark. "Your company is always slightly better than I think mine is."

"You didn't answer my question earlier," she said, walking beside him to an empty squash can at the far end of the alley. "Knife to the chest, or paper cuts to the webbing of your toes?"

Despite his fear of all things sharp and certainty that he would not come out the better in a knife fight with anyone, he thought of the tiny little wounds inflicted each day watching her brush Floo Powder off her front, or when she borrowed his jumpers and returned them smelling of her, or when she laughed and snorted a bit at the end.

He realised his would be a death by a thousand little cuts, and the thought was worse to him than anything else.

"The stab to the chest. I'd prefer that any day."

****

After apparating into what smelled like a puddle of brake fluid that had leaked onto the bitumen, Nymphadora Tonks swore she would never buy another pair of cheap, glued Muggle sneakers.

The evening had not gone well. A no-show from wannabe Death Eater number seven. Obvious attempts at flirting not detected. And - she realised with disgust - she had likely been sitting in cat wee for the better part of four hours.

Present personal hygiene aside, she was starting to have serious doubts about her own market value. Her appearance was the least of her problems: she reckoned that she looked all right, and nobody had said anything to her face that she'd ever heard, so it couldn't be that, right? (The hair issue was another matter altogether: she reckoned it was a useful filtration system to protect against the sort of blokes who might make fun of her for being too butch, too indecisive or too prissy, and on that front, it was doing a marvellous job at quality control.) But when the chronically unemployed and socially ostracised didn't even rise to the bait, surely something would have to give.

She would scheme more in the bath, with better wine than she'd had the night before.

She turned the corner, and her ugly red-brick block of flats jutted out in the streetscape of dingy garages and shopfronts, like one crooked tooth in an all-but gummy mouth. And, sitting on the curb, red hair glinting in the fluorescent light cast from her block's foyer, was Charlie.

She paused for a moment, hand on wand. "Duty over?"

"Elphias is the best person the Order ever could have recruited. Always turns up ten minutes early, never complains if you're late. What a gent."

"That's what he wants you to think," she said, closing the gap. "Blokes like him are the ones you want to watch for. You know, the polite and quiet ones."

He looked her up and down. "You want to come for a drink?"

In the low light, Charlie's blond eyelashes and brows disappeared into his face. She had had friends who were very vocally in the anti-blond-eyelash camp. Secretly, she was very firmly in the pro-camp. "I've just worked a seventeen hour day. And I think I sat in cat wee. You're welcome to come upstairs to mine if you are keen to carry on conversation through a bathroom door."

She only remembered the miserable state of her housekeeping upon unlocking her door and turning off her wards. Dirty clothes trailed on the floor between her bedroom and bathroom, and ants sipped at a saucer full of sugary, milky tea. "Sorry about the state of things."

"You don't have dragon blood on anything. Instant improvement on my place. More importantly, you don't have any of my blood on your countertops."

"There is a nice bottle of red under the sink. I need it. Help yourself to some." She closed the bathroom door behind her, peeling wet jeans down her legs. "There might be clean glasses on the sink."

"Sorry?" Though she could tell he was yelling, his voice was extremely muffled. Annoyed, she opened the door and left it ajar.

"Glasses. Sink. We drink from real glasses in my place. Not like in that hovel on Grimmauld Place."

She unhooked her bra and let it hang on the door handle. Washing would have to wait for the weekend. Flicking her wand at the taps, she watched as hot jets of water spurted into her tub.

"Am I right to just pass this through?"

She reached out, and accepted the glass gladly. "I really need this."

"This is way nicer than that shit you lot were drinking last night."

"Mum and Dad got it for me when I finished my training and got commissioned. It's meant to be really good. I don't know, though, I think you have to have reached a certain age before you can tell if wine is good or not. I don't think I'll be there for a couple of years yet."

"I would concur with that."

"Shut up."

The bath, by now, had filled three quarters of the way. She turned the taps off, and gingerly lowered a foot in, wincing at the heat initially before stepping all the way in. "You all right out there?"

"Once I pulled those coat hangers out from between the cushions on your sofa, I have been really comfy, actually."

"Don't you go messing up my carefully curated hanger storage, there," she said, smiling as she settled into the bath. "It took me countless minutes to deposit those there haphazardly, in the event that handsome visitors would want to sit down."

"Such a wonderful hostess."

"If I can be completely honest, typically when I entertain, I do it face-to-face, while clothed. And preferably, not here."

"Surely this is not the first time you've entertained visitors naked?"

She exhaled, flexing her toes while sipping slowly. "Well, it's the first time I've been naked that they haven't been able to enjoy it."

"In that case, I revise my initial assessment of your hostess skills."

"For the better or the worse?"

"Well, that would depend," she heard him say with a deep sign. "On the one hand, your commitment to the comfort and entertainment of others is admirable. On the other, I am not presently a beneficiary of this largesse, so I feel somewhat left out."

"You're not missing much tonight," she said, peering down at her legs, propped up on the enamel edge of her bath - shapely, yes, on account of a commitment to stairs over lifts, but covered in scrapes and bruises and at least a week of spiky regrowth. "I'm like the Wreck of the Hesperus tonight. Not fit for human consumption."

"What does that even mean, anyway? What's a 'hesperus'."

"Dunno. Dad used to say it a lot. Mainly about the state of my room. Then Mum used to say it. Also about the state of my room."

Outside the bathroom, she could hear the sound of feet hitting the floorboards, and she heard him cross the room to her tiny kitchenette. "Do you mind if I have another glass?"

"Only if you pour me some."

"Right, -accio gl--"

"Oh, just come in here and pour some." She pulled herself up into a sitting position, and wrapped her arms around her knees. "You won't see anything."

He tentatively pushed the door open, his eyes scrunched closed while brandishing the bottle in front of him as though it was his last defence against her. "Am I close?"

"If you don't open your eyes, you'll hit something." She realised that this was said bitingly, almost as though she was trying to smack him with her words, and instantly her voice softened. "Sit down with me. It's fine."

He did so, easing himself down and leaning against the cupboard under her sink. His eyes made pointed contact with hers, as though daring to look elsewhere would be rude. "How much do you want?"

"Please, fill it up." She leaned forward, and watched as his callused hands tremble while he poured wine into her glass. His hands were much like the rest of him: thick, muscular, covered in a multitude of little burns, scrapes and discolouration. His nails were very short - too short - and the top of his hand was covered in a fine layer of vibrant orange hairs, contrasting against the yellowish tint of his freckled hand.

"I feel you've only let me come in here because you felt guilty that I was missing the full hospitality experience."

"I don't like to leave people out," she said. She sipped slowly, her body warming from the alcohol. She knew she flushed when she drank, and she knew he was seeing it too - and maybe it was the terrible lighting in her flat, but she could have sworn that his face was also growing redder. "I'm not like this because of the company," she said, lying somewhat.

"I think I am." Charlie shifted uncomfortably on her bath mat. "Sorry. Used to far more masculine company."

"I wish you could stay longer," she murmured, setting her wine glass down on the tiles beside her.

"You have me until Friday. I mean, not uninterrupted, but--"

"Right. I mean, there are other people you probably want to see. I mean, you've got friends from--"

"You're my friend, too."

"Friends you've had for longer, though. I am sure you want to see people you were mates with at school."

"Once again," he said softly, now averting his eyes and looking at his bare feet, "aren't I doing that now?"

"I didn't know you even really liked me back then," she said, her typically blunt self made even more so by the addition of alcohol.

"Well... yeah."

Neither spoke for several minutes. She sat, her skin now uncomfortably warm, and watched him drain his glass slowly. His cheeks were flushed, and she watched a rivulet of sweat course down his neck and dampen his shirt collar.

It is a powerful thing, to know a person wants you: often, she found it enough to turn her own tide. She watched him awkwardly try to set his now empty glass down on a solid surface, and failing to find a spare patch of floor, he turned to reach up and place it on the sink bench.

Everything about him was compact and heavy: the feet shorter than average, yet the high arches made them look even shorter. She guessed that under the shirt and jeans was a body that probably tended to cling to weight, both wanted and unwanted, yet he still seemed firm and substantial. Even his hair - this time clipped short on the sides and back - was heavy and dense on top. The only thing that seemed light were the eyes: beautiful turquoise green, framed with blond eyelashes. And when they met with hers again, she had to take a moment to inhale deeply.

Wordlessly, she reached for his hand, knowing that the movement was probably more revealing than appropriate. Her finger brushed against the fine red hairs on his wrist and forearm, and she gently (or as gently as she was able to manage) took his hand in hers and raised it to her lips.

She watched his eyes shut slowly and his head lean back against a closed drawer. She felt the blemishes on his skin under her fingertips, and she brought her lips to meet with a particularly long, jagged scar on his hand, she heard him softly breathe in deeply.

"Are there girls in Romania?"

"I'm pretty sure that in a country of roughly four million that there are, yeah," he stammered, eyes still firmly shut.

"Where you are."

He shook his head. She kissed the tip of his thumb, and she felt his fingers curl and hold hers. The room felt far, far smaller than it was - and as it was, it was already only a refurbished walk-in pantry that the original landlords had built in to get more flats.

His mouth fell open, and when she let the tip of her tongue press against the coarseness of his thumbprint, she heard a soft groan, and for a moment she felt intensely guilty and filthy, but enjoying the moment too much to stop. Sweat stained the neck of his shirt, and she realised too that she was sweating herself, beads trickling down her back and over her sternum. She reached forward, and her fingers brushed over a scar that jutted out from the top of shirt.

"You liked me like this?"

He nodded feverishly. "Sorry. I didn't want to say anything unless it weirded you out."

"Help me out, please."

He finally opened his eyes, and she saw his pupils dilated, staring at her. Reaching for her glass, he pulled himself out, and offered up his free hand.

Standing, he was only a few inches taller than her at the most, and their eyes were almost level with each other. And when she closed the distance by standing on the balls of her feet and leaning in to kiss his cheek, she realised she wouldn't be able to rest her head against his chest or his shoulder while standing or lying face to face, much as she'd imagined so many times before.

"Charlie, please."

He nodded, and leaned forward to kiss her, his tongue pressing into her mouth eagerly. Her hands clumsily attacked the buttons of his shirt, failing on their first attempt before finally guiding the buttons out of their holes. His own hands were everywhere - one moment, softly against her cheek, and then in an instant brushing over the swell of her breasts and lower as he turned her around to press her against the basin, lifting her to sit her on the counter. The taps dug into the small of her back uncomfortably, but she said nothing as she grabbed one of the errant hands to kiss again.

If she had to choose a favourite, it would be that heavy, slightly nauseous feeling at the onset of arousal, when blood rushes from the brain and the extremities became electrified and jumpy to any stimulus. It was often too good to ruin with relief. Now, though, she just let it build greedily, her eyes darkly wandering over his chest, her own fingers kneading her breasts softly, and she felt damp stickiness cling to the delicate skin of her inner thighs.

"Are you sure you want--" he said, struggling with the simple task of getting the shirt off. A long, pale, crinkled burn ran over his chest, and she felt herself squirm as she note the pleading note in his voice and his gaze.

"Just fucking... what do you think? Obviously!"

"Sorry," he said, stepping back as if scalded. "I didn't want to--"

"I've had my life's worth of men not wanting to," she whispered, kissing the hand and pulling him close into her. "Charlie, I very much want you to."

He nodded slowly, fiddling with his belt buckle one-handed. He tried to pull his other hand from her grip, but she shook her head, and keeping her eyes locked on his, she pulled it down between her legs. He raised his eyebrow, as if asking permission, and she granted it by shifting her hips and opening her legs wider to meet him.

Objectively, she knew she wasn't at her best that night: her skin was pale from far too many late office starts and too many cancelled holidays; even a neaten-up with scissors had been neglected for a couple of weeks. But tonight she couldn't care, aching so much she thought that the sound of her pulse could be heard on the other side of the city, and neither did he, his middle finger delving inside her roughly. She bit her lower lip. "Careful," she hissed, the ache intensifying.

He nodded, and letting his other hand slowly stroke her muscular legs, he tempered his pace, turning his hand palm-up and crooking his finger, the movements mimicking a beckon. He kissed her again, groaning into her mouth as he did so.

She thought the roughness of his hands and fingers might scrape at her painfully, but fortunately it provided just enough friction and firmness to give her something to work with. He'd found a better rhythm now, and when he broke off his kiss he looked at her desperately. "Anything you want and I'll do it."

"Slower."

He complied, and his free hand pushed loose strands of hair from her eyes as he leaned in to kiss her at the juncture of her clavicles. "Tell me what you want, please, I'll do--"

She opened her legs wider, and saw his hand working hard, grinding against her, covered in her own juices. She could smell herself, and let her hips bear down harder against him. "You're doing all right so far, Weasley. Just... keep that pace. you're killing me." She arched her back, and felt her clammy skin rest against the coldness of her mirror.

She felt hardness, encased in denim, press against her leg, and she sat up, her hands no more steady or competent than his at the job. Eventually, she felt the top button shift, and fumbling with the zip she gasped as his other hand made its way up the inside of her thigh.

Then, he was out of her grip, kneeling on the bath mat in front of her, hand now pressing her knee out wide, and when his lips made contact with her, she knocked both glasses to the floor as she desperately clutched at the sides of the basin, her back killing her but not enough to change positions. Not now.

"Leave them," she groaned, and this time he didn't even look up or nod.

He clearly hadn't done this much before, she thought, somewhat ungratefully, as her hands stroked the back of his neck and the top of his shoulders, but the keenness - the keenness is always so very welcome. She felt wetness on her inner thighs, and gently taking his wrist in her hand, encouraged him to keep up his ministrations. She heard the rustle of fabric and the soft chinking of metal hitting a cheap bathroom cabinet, and soon she felt his pace change. She peered down, and saw his elbow jerking back hastily as - from just out of her line of sight - he stroked himself, his hips thrusting forward as he moaned pathetically against her.

The thought of him almost ripping his own cock from his body in lust forced a groan from her, finally, and she shut her eyes, one hand playing with the spiky hair at his nape while her other slid between her and his mouth to hold herself more open to him. Everything about her was on the brink: her labia puffy, her breathing ragged and halting, her back aching and her hips bearing down, grinding down on his hands, pressing into his mouth more.

He almost whimpered now, his voice hoarse and strained, and in just one moment, the hoarseness and the scars merged and she realised she was being eaten out by two men, one not there in the room, but the thought of him rapidly colonising the other. In her mind, short, iridescent ginger faded to muted brown and grey, long enough to really wrap around her fingers.

"Please, fuck me," she cried. He pulled away and stood in front of her. His cock was so like the rest of him - thick, pale, the head almost violet in his closeness.

He nodded. "Guide me. Please."

She leaned forward, kissing him on the tip of his nose, his smell her smell. As her hand wrapped around the base of his cock, she heard him exhale so fully she worried his lungs would come up his throat. Slowly, agonisingly slowly, she pulled him from his base and rubbed the head of him against her slickness, pressing his head against her clit. "Fuck," he whispered in an unseemly tone.

"You liked me like this?"

"Uh huh."

"Say you want me." Almost all of the blood in her body was pooling between her legs now: her head felt so light, and her fingertips tingled from the anticipation. He tried to jerk forward to press against her, but her hand held firm, and she felt his cock twitch in her hand.

"Dora, yes, I fucking wanted you, I fucking want you so much now I'm about to lose myself all over you pussy and thighs, now please." His panting was almost embarrassing in his craving, and by now all of his body had flushed pink.

Now she pulled him closer, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he pressed against her entrance. He lowered his head to rest on her shoulders, and she gently cradled his head in her arms, shifting her hips so the head pressed almost fully into her.

And had it not been for the wisp of silver appearing in the open doorway of her bathroom, she might've impaled herself on him fully, rather than screaming and making Charlie jump back in surprise, only to land on a shard of broken wine glass.

"Fuck," Charlie shouted, almost falling back onto the closed toilet as blood gushed from the bottom of his foot, the toilet roll unspooling rapidly as he rushed to stem the flow.

"Oh no, please, are you--"

"I'm fine," he gritted, "really. Go check out what they want."

She ripped an old brown towel from the rack beside the basin, and stepped outside to see the patronus seating itself in the middle of her carpet - the vague, indistinct tail curling around its legs.

"Charlie - you need to get back to Headquarters. Urgently."

And then it vanished, the sound of a soft, polite, raspy voice hanging in the air awkwardly. From inside the bathroom, she could hear the sound of broken glass being pushed over tiles, and soft swearing.

Guilt formed as a little pebble in the base of her stomach, and she let the towel fall to the floor as she realised, with no small amount of disappointment, that the evening had come to a halt. And when Charlie emerged, shirt incorrectly buttoned and water splashed over his face and hair, she could only smile weakly. "Typically," she mumbled, starting to feel that it might have been a wiser move to keep the towel on, "people don't tend to lose much blood when they come over to see me."

"I put it right," he said, lifting his foot to show her a bloodied - yet unbroken - sole. "Don't you worry about me."

"Charlie, I'm sorry. I promise to make it up to you on Thursday."

He shoved his feet into his boots, not even bothering to pull out the scrunched up socks from the ends. "I know you will," he said, not looking up, a smile forming.

She knelt in front of him. "Please, I feel things were so one-sided tonight," she whispered, her hand running along the inner seam of his trousers. She watched his eyes roll back into his head, and the bulge in front grow before her eyes, but after a few seconds he stopped her hands gently with his own.

"I have something to look forward to now." He kissed her, this time with a closed mouth and soft, dry lips. "Thursday. Um... maybe we should try and find a safer spot."

She nodded. "Not unreasonable."

"Erm... patronuses-- they don't... they can't see, right?"

"I bloody well hope not."

He stood, and pulling her to her feet, kissed her again. She remembered the night before as he stood before her in the doorway, her legs wrapped around his waist and the ache - now fully fledged - merely embryonic.

"Night," he said, and let himself out.

She stared after him, the sweat and water on her skin drying. By now her situation was untenable: not even pausing to shut her curtains or to pick up her towel, she fell back onto her couch. She didn't let her hands get a reprieve until she was coming loudly and hopelessly, the image of two eager men fighting to imprint another tattoo on her skin not nearly vivid enough as her toes gripped and curled against the upholstery of her cushions.

***

The rain had started to bucket down just as Charlie landed a hundred yards from the front step of Headquarters. Without the downpour, he'd be uncomfortable enough as it was: all he wanted was to pull his trousers down far enough for him to wank himself into oblivion. He strode quickly to the door, watching steam rising from the asphalt under the street light. The door soon slid into view, and he wrenched it open angrily, shaking in the hallway.

Voices came from the kitchen - as it was, there was always someone down there, regardless of the day or not. Not caring one bit about the trail of mud and water left behind on the carpet, he took to the stairs three at a time to find Remus Lupin and Alastor Moody awaiting him impatiently.

"F'crying out loud, you could have checked in in a more timely manner than this," Moody grunted, hoisting himself noisily out of his chair.

"I got caught up," he admitted, his eyes meeting with Remus's. "I'm sorry, I really am, it won't happen again, I promise--"

"It's fine, Charlie," Remus said gently. "It's Elphias - did he make it to the Ministry on time?"

"Course he did. Eleven minutes early."

The two older men looked to each other, and Moody nodded. "I'll send word if there are problems," he said, "but I'm sure it's nothing more sinister than him not having an opportunity to send a patronus."

He stomped up the stairs, every second step an unnecessarily loud thunk, until it faded into the carpet on the ground floor landing. Charlie exhaled, a little annoyed at being made to rush back. "We are sorry about that," Remus said, his eyebrows furrowed, "but he's normally so reliable about checkpoints."

"It's fine. I'm not used to duties, is all."

"No harm done."

"Your mate?"

"Sirius?" Remus indicated to the empty bottle of Ogden's in the sink. "He will not be in a good mood tomorrow."

"Sorry, once again."

Remus stood from the table, looking Charlie up and down. "Did you meet up with friends?"

"Dor-- Tonks. Ran into her as she was coming home from her shift."

If Remus thought anything of this, he made now show of it. Instead, he'd turned to rinse a teacup in the sink. "I don't think tonight's watch was very entertaining for her. Alleyways are never the most exciting or romantic of places to spend one's time in."

"Romantic?"

"Figure of speech." Remus turned, and saw the momentary flash of jealousy on Charlie's face. "You obviously have nothing to worry about from me. If that's your thinking, that is, it's none of my business."

Something dwelling in Charlie's memory fluttered against the wall of his mind, and the intent eyes locked on him the night before suggested otherwise. He wondered if, indeed, patronuses worked as a two way message system, because Remus was so polite, and so calm, and so agreeable, that he almost seemed rattled. "It's nice to be able to catch up with people again," he said, his voice quavering somewhat.

"Tea?"

"It's after midnight, I really need to get to bed."

"Of course." Remus stopped in his place, and looked to Charlie apologetically. "I'm afraid where we had you last night has been snapped up. Mundungus Fletcher. I'll take the love seat in Regulus's room, I've put clean sheets on the bed for you--"

"Really, that will be totally unnecessary--"

"Please," Remus said, smiling. "I am used to sleeping on the ground most nights. It is absolutely no trouble." And without allowing Charlie a second to respond, Remus placed his hand on the small of Charlie's back and guided him up the stairs.

Charlie's annoyance grew with every single step. Annoyance at his thwarted evening, annoyance at the disingenuous politeness from Remus Lupin, and the greatest amount of annoyance of all was reserved for what would no doubt be a complete lack of privacy for his feverish, obscene state of mind.

He followed Remus into a stuffy, stale room. "Sorry about the lack of airflow. I think Walburga has put a sticking charm on the windows to stop the boys open--"

Remus's voice had been cut off at a loud, cracking sound, as Charlie heaved the window open, a shard of rotten wood cracking and pulling up as the window edged open a crack. Though only a space of a few inches, the cold air from the storm outside swirled in, lifting the curtains and blowing them halfway across the room.

"Well," said Remus, bashfully, "I'm glad one of us could get it open." And with that, he disappeared quietly to a bathroom down the corridor.

Charlie wished he'd kept his bag somewhere more central - the thought of walking in on Mundungus was not a particularly enticing one - and frustratedly, he tucked himself naked under the sheets, the covers only just pulling over him as Remus walked silently back into the room.

And with barely a good night, the two men turned away from each other, and the light flicked off.

Charlie was used to sleeping in close confines: lodgings at the compound typically entailed at least five or six men sharing a room, and over time he'd learned to filter out the sounds of other people - snoring, talking in their sleep, stomachs settling - to his desire. He knew, instinctively, what a man falling asleep sounded like: the breathing becoming heavier, and louder, and slower, occasionally punctuated by a twitch or jerk.

And he knew the sound of a man who couldn't sleep.

He shucked the sheet, the room pitch black and the rain lashing against his window, as he felt his cock stiffen in the cool air. He hoped desperately that the sound of the rain and wind would be enough to cover, and without wasting a second, he grasped himself, almost gasping aloud as the coarseness of his palm brushed over his sensitive, overstimulated head.

He heard the springs of the love seat squeak as Remus rolled further to his side, and hesitated for a second. Nothing: then the softest, barely noticeable sounds of cloth being rubbed against.

Charlie had done it with others around before, no doubt, and he had been mainly successful in avoiding detection. Growing up with a large family in a reasonably acoustically-poor house and a stint in boarding school had aided in this, obviously. But it felt so different now, with only one other man in the room: one so old, and proper, and locked away from almost any sign of warmth or affection.

He forced back a grunt as his hand pumped harder, his balls clinging closer to him now, and his free hand clutched at the pillow under his head. From across the room, he could hear a soft sigh - tired, lonely and achingly needful - and he realised grimly that his own actions were being repeated on the love seat.

He stopped, his heart racing, the sweat from his palms trickling down his length and dripping, and listened. He was seconds away, and he gritted his teeth, half angry and half aroused.

Instead of the deep, slow breathing of the newly asleep, he could only hear short, rasping breaths, increasing in pace. He knew that breathing and in his mind's eye glimpsed Remus curled on his side, furiously pulling at himself, long gangly legs tensing and flexing involuntarily, and before he knew it he was pulling at himself, the tip of his cock burning, almost seared by the moment brushing against Dora, so keen to push deeper into her pussy, and - without a second of self control - he came, grunting louder than he meant to, come hitting his belly and thighs hotly.

He held his breath, almost wishing that he could suck the sound back inside himself, fear and shame hitting him square in the chest as he listened vainly to the man on the other side of the room. He heard a few more rustles of the bed sheet, a soft, sharp intake of air -- and then nothing.

He exhaled silently. For a moment, he heard nothing, and then the springs twanged again as he heard Remus shift onto his back, his breathing becoming slower, though still soft.

It was an odd moment: he'd heard other men before, but not like this. Not when the proximity and intimacy was so that their sounds could almost encourage and drive the other further into madness. He thought to the man on the other side of the room: tired, pallid skin, bare bones sticking out at the top of his shoulders pitifully, lines etched into skin through self-neglect and starvation. He didn't do as Charlie had done because he'd been overstimulated, or had had a moment interrupted: he touched himself because that was all there ever was, and would be.

Charlie felt pity long enough to remember Tonks's words about quiet, polite men who would murder you in your sleep, and wondered if this description fit his roommate of the night.