All things considered, Charlie Weasley felt he deserved his first smoke in nearly two years.
Wizard tobacco is nothing like the piss-weak, acrid Muggle variety: it is chopped more coarsely and depending upon the taste of the smoker weaves just the right amount of other herbs through the mixture. It is satiating and enveloping and the taste can be savoured long after the last puff is taken. But it didn't make it any more popular with his parents, and in deference to them he cracked open the window in his fourth-storey room, opened the wine he'd brought with him from Romania, and let himself go.
He took a long drag and exhaled out the window, the smoke curling up into the night air outside. The house below was quiet: he knew his father would stay at the hospital, and Fleur would stay with him. He'd volunteered, but one look at his future sister-in-law suggested that there would be enough moral support that evening. The only sounds from below were from the two people talking in the kitchen: a soft, male voice occasionally broken off by the louder, more frantic female voice interjecting.
"Hand it over," Tonks whispered, her arm brushing against his. He relinquished it, and watched her draw in. He didn't imagine anything could make her cheek bones seem even more prominent or her face hollow and gaunt, but the action rendered her almost skeletal in the low light. "This is nice stuff."
"I brought back another couple of packets. You want to take some with you?"
She shook her head, and leaning over him, tapped the ash onto the window sill outside. "Thanks for letting me sneak in."
"You know." She handed the cigarette back to him, and stared out the window. "Everyone running around like a chook with its head cut off. No sign of Snape, or Greyback. Sorry about that."
He didn't realise when she'd snuck in earlier that afternoon that they could have been twins: aside from the beard, which had returned with vigor, both wore dark jeans and thick knitted khaki jumpers. Only his actually fit him: hers fell off bony shoulders, and she'd messily scraped whatever was left of her hair into an elastic.
They'd barely spoken when she had come in earlier that afternoon: she tried to talk, but every time she did, the words got caught in the back of her throat, and he'd pulled her into his bed, where she was asleep in minutes. He stayed with her through the afternoon, and when she woke he realised with a pang that it was just over a year since they'd slept together, and the distance created by time was only slightly too long for him.
"You know I won't be here for long," he said softly. He was trying to catch the gist of the conversation downstairs; every so often, he'd hear a laugh, and with a sense of relief was glad to recognise it as his mother's. "I'll be back for the wedding, but I can't stay."
"He's so good with women, isn't he? So comforting." Her words were venomous, and she almost spat as she reached for the wine bottle, ignoring his earlier words.
"Fuck him," she said softly, the bottle shaking in a tremulous grip. "Anyone but me." She took a sip, and he watched droplets of wine spatter on his floor. "Do you ever wonder about him and her? He's so eager to comfort her, to befriend her--"
Charlie wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and kissed her temple. "Come on. You've had enough of that stuff by now. You haven't eaten all day, and you're exhausted. You'll make yourself sick."
"Don't tell me what to do," she barked, and when he caught her gaze he almost recoiled at how anger contorted her face. She'd lost so much weight that her skin wrinkled, and the pallor of her skin only called attention to the dark circles under her eyes.
Twelve months ago she was so substantial, he thought to himself: she had muscle and curves and her hair stood up at all ends. And now she was thin enough that he could close a hand around her arm at just about any point and the fingers would touch. "I'm worried about you," he whispered, not letting her out of his grip.
Downstairs, a floorboard creaked, and he held his breath. He saw her look too, her eyes lighting up with rage. "I shouldn't have come tonight," she said.
"I'm so glad you're here," he relied, and took her hand in his. Outside, on the windowsill, the cigarette ashes and fell into dust, but he didn't care. "You can stay as long as you like."
"I don't want to go back to my parents. I don't want to have to answer their questions, or--"
"So you're keen to answer my parents' questions?"
She finally cracked a smile. "Yours have wine and mine don't. Also, Molly doesn't go off at me for my job choice, or try to convince me to chuck sickies. That's the last thing I need right now."
For the last year, she'd occupied every thought: day, night, appropriate, obscene, and now she was here, beside him on his bed with a bottle of wine nursed in her lap, and all he wanted to do was to take it off her and kiss him. Perhaps he hadn't been honest with her, and he hoped she had been equally dishonest with him in her confession.
"Do you think of us?"
"Hmm?" She set the bottle on his bedside table, and lowered her head onto his shoulder.
"Do you think of last year at all? The night we got together."
He felt her nod, and his heart belted against his ribs. "That was the last time I've done it."
"It was for me, too."
She kissed his shoulder, and he tightened his grip on her hand. "It was the last time I felt anything. I haven't--
He leant in, and kissed her, keeping his lips closed and his breathing light. When he pulled away, he saw her lower lip tremble, and she forced her lips closed.
He heard footsteps course along the corridor, and he pulled away from her just as she reached out to clutch at his jumper, and when the feet settled outside his door, he hoped it was his mother. He felt her heave against him, and he wrapped an arm around her. "I'm sorry," he repeated.
"Tell me I'm stupid." Her words were swallowed up by his sweater, and he felt a pang as her fingers found the belt loop at the back of his jeans and toyed with it.
"For my terrible life choices. For my awful job, and for my love for unavailable men."
"And what would me calling you stupid accomplish?"
"Dunno. Would be the truth?"
"Nah. Not even. Don't be mental."
She let out a wail at this, and he held her even more tightly, worrying that by pulling away she would finally lose all her grip.
The doorknob creaked, and the door pushed open slowly, and he involuntarily ground his teeth as Remus Lupin peered through in silence.
If Tonks knew he was in the room, she didn't show it, her head buried into Charlie's chest. Charlie let his hand rest on the back of her head, and he shook his own head silently at Remus, who stood dumbly in the doorway, hands in pockets.
For minutes, the only sound in the room came from her soft crying. Charlie's eyes never left Remus for a moment, and he let his fingers weave defensively in Tonks' hair, loosening the elastic and pulling her hair out.
Remus was the one to eventually break the silence, and he cleared his throat softly. "Tonks, I didn't--"
The speed with which she sprung away from him caught Charlie unawares, and he watched her land on her feet, wand out defensively. With her hair out, she looked wild, and Charlie pulled his own wand out cautiously. "What are you doing?"
"Don't do anything rash," Remus whispered, his eyes darting to the door. "Please. Come downstairs, we can talk--"
A shot of red light hit the skirting board as she took aim at him, Charlie's quick reflexes the only thing standing in her way of laying a blow as he grabbed at her, pinning her to his chest. "Let me fucking--"
"Stop it, Dora," Charlie said, struggling to hold her arms by her side. He'd forgotten the strength that had been so intoxicating the year before: she might've been thinner, but she was incredibly explosive, and she'd lost little strength. "Don't do anything you'll regret."
She wrenched out of his grip, her chest heaving and her face red and glistening with tears and sweat. The level wand never dropped, and her pupils fixated on her target. "I want to hurt him like he hurt me," she said through clenched teeth.
"You're exhausted, you're drunk, you need to calm down," Charlie murmured in her ear, and he reached out to her again. "Stay with me."
"No, he needs to feel--"
"And you can," Remus said, raising his hands, the soft crack in his usually calm voice betraying his terror. "Take me outside, and you can do whatever you want. You can hex me, you can curse me, you can kill me, anything-- only, not here. Not where Charlie can get hurt. Not where we might damage Molly and Arthur's home." He reached a hand to her, and Charlie felt ill when it brushed against her cheek. "Please come downstairs, Dora."
Her wand still aloft, she glanced at Charlie, and he nodded to her against all of his instincts. "Go talk with him," he said, forcing a smile. "Clear the air."
"That's right." Remus too was smiling, and he brushed hair out of Tonks' eyes. "I'll listen. Anything."
The wand arm fell, and she closed her eyes. And then she wrenched herself away tom the two men, and stole out the room and down the stairs.
"I didn't know she--"
"Nothing was happening then," Charlie said, reaching for his packet of tobacco and sitting back down on his bed. He pushed the window open more, and looked up at Remus.
"Not that it would ha--"
"Would you shut the fuck up and go down to her?" Charlie packed the leaves down into the roller paper, tamping the fag with so much fury the delicate paper tore in his fingers. "I am feeling pretty keen to see you get hexed."
"I never wanted to hurt her."
"Are you going to let me enjoy my wine and smoke in peace?" Charlie resisted the urge to reach for his own wand, and forced himself to stare at his handiwork. "If she uses the Avada Kedavra on you, I'll say I saw nothing, by the way."
"So much for the understanding."
He watched Remus dash out in Tonks' wake, and with violently trembling fingers, lit the cigarette on his fifth attempt, eyes fixated out the window at the two figures on the grass.
The grass was wet underfoot, and there was little to cast light save for a waxing moon and a light from Charlie's room. The kitchen was dark - Molly having gone to bed in the ensuing crisis - and Tonks regretted not having brought a cigarette down with her to calm her nerves.
She startled as the back door closed softly, and watched the tall, slender figure approach her slowly, arms out as if to show that he was holding nothing. "I've left mine in the parlour," Remus whispered, and indeed, his hands were empty, fingers splayed open. "It's just me."
"Did you think you were going to duel me? Is that what you thought?"
"I'll honour my word." He stood in front of her, and she watched him roll the sleeves of his shirt up. "Aurors have been granted permission to use Unforgivable curses. I am a suspect, a half-breed who--"
"Shut up," she whispered tremulously.
"Do it," he called to her. "I embarrassed you in front of everyone in the hospital wing, I have done nothing but--"
It wasn't a spell that caught Remus, but her fist, balled up tightly and striking him with enough force to cleave cheek muscle in two. The downward force with which she struck him surprised even her. She pulled back, clutching at her hand and watching him stumble for a step or two before he righted himself, a hand coming up to soothe his face.
"That was a good hit. Do you want me to look at your hand?"
The softness and gentleness in his voice had the opposite effect to what he likely intended, and she felt her nostrils flare. "Don't patronise me."
"I'm not patronising you. I have never been able to land a clean hit. I'd tell you to ask my mates, but... you know."
"Do you want sympathy? Is that what you're here for? You want to go back inside the kitchen tomorrow covered in bruises and blood and have Molly kiss it better?"
He took off his robes, and lay them on the ground. "I've had enough sympathy for a lifetime."
"Yeah, right. You feed off it. You're pathetic."
A dull ache in her hand at the point of impact grew, but she ignored it. "Was it me? Was it me personally? Or would you have done this to anyone who showed an interest in you?"
"So I'm not special, then--"
"That's not what I meant, and you know--"
He fell quiet, and in the dim light she caught a desperate, pleading look in his face. He raised a hand - perhaps in longing, or perhaps in defence - but when she raised her wand again she watched him bring it rapidly to his chest, as if to brace himself.
"You're right about the Unforgivables," she said softly, casting a glance back at the house to see if anyone was watching. "I could do whatever I wanted and be excused - nay, rewarded. I could make you walk a hundred paces into that field, far away enough so I couldn't see you, and then I'd kill you. I'd transfigured your body into something so small that even I wouldn't be able to find your burial place in the morning, just like Barty Crouch did. I could put a bucket of water in front of you and use the Imperius curse on you, and watch the last of your breath force its way out of your lungs as I make you hold your own head under."
Remus lowered his hand. The breeze played at his thinning hair, and she watched him careful step backwards away from her. He was breathing slowly and calmly, but the trembling fingers betrayed his fear. He made to talk, forgetting the silencing spell, but no sound came out.
"Do I need to immobilise you to make you listen?"
He shook his head, and raising his hands in surrender, knelt on the grass in front of her.
"You're actually going to listen to me?"
A nod. His eyes were lowered to the ground, and he was breathing more heavily.
"If you never loved me - if I truly misread your intent and projected something on
you, then I am sorry," she whispered. "If that is the case, I let you go, and I hope you find it in yourself to forgive a tired, grieving friend who has made a simple misunderstanding." She knelt in front of him, wand in her hand, and rested the tip gently against his heart. "Was this the case?"
It took a minute for him to respond: a minute in which the clouds covered the moon, the chickens in the coop nearby clucked, and her wand hand started to hurt, so tight was the grip. But finally, with the most imperceptible of movements, she watched him shake his head before burying it in his hands.
For nearly a year she wondered how she would feel upon hearing him confess the truth and in honesty she never visualised that she would feel so enraged - at both the sad, cowardly, pitiful man in front of her, and at herself for falling for him. Her arm jerked, and he twitched in fright at the wand pointed at his chest.
"How much force will I need to use to find out how long you've felt like this?"
He looked up at her, his eyes fearful as he shook his head violently.
"No to the force? No to telling me what I want to know?"
Gingerly, he grasped at the tip of her wand, and angled it towards his mouth, raising an eyebrow. She whispered the incantation, and as his voice flooded back to him he sighed loudly. "Whatever you want from me, I'll tell you." His hand reached for hers, but she pushed it back roughly.
"Perhaps a year and a half, maybe two years."
"Even when Charlie and I..."
He nodded again, refusing to make eye contact. "I don't care about that, I truly don't. I wish you chose him. I wish you'd chosen any other man--"
The stunning spell hit him in the gut, and he was thrown forcefully into the the ground behind him. She felt a knot in her wand bite painfully into her knuckle but she didn't care: standing over him, she felt a loathing she'd never experienced in her life, and she advanced over him, readying herself to serve another blow.
Above her, Charlie's light flicked off, and the yard fell pitch black and silent, save for soft groaning and heavy breathing. The tiny red light in the window told her she had an audience, but she didn't care anymore. "Then why treat me like dirt? Why ignore me, and close up, and pretend I didn't exist after you heard us?"
Remus seemed to weigh up his choices in his mind before, defeatedly, he sighed. "I never meant to hurt you, or make you feel bad. It was honestly for the best, what happened."
"You listened to me with Charlie. You... you imagined you were him."
"You forced me to overhear you." His voice was now loud, and he spat the words out bitterly.
"You're pathetic," she whispered.
"I seem to get that a lot."
"You never would have told me, would you. You'd have kept it quiet because regardless of what I thought or felt of you, you wouldn't have been able to stomach the fallout, would you?"
"You would be very correct." By now he'd pulled himself upright, and was back to kneeling in front of her.
"And you would have rather me curse your bones into the ground tonight - to hurt you, to even kill you - than to have to run that risk. You would have rather hear me fuck another man than to make that move yourself. Because you could still feel something, and it was better than feeling nothing."
"And I did. Mea culpa."
She collapsed onto the grass, and dropped her wand by her side, her sides aching and her hands numb. "I hate you so much."
"I am so sorry." He reached his hand out and let it rest on her shoulder, and he leaned in close. With his other hand, he reached for her wand, and placed it back into her hands. "Please. I deserve so much worse than what you've given me."
She met his gaze. He finally looked calm, and he nodded to her gently. "Please."
"I don't care how much it hurts. I cannot give you what you want in the long term, but in the short term: that I urge you to take."
"I've never done it before."
"What was all that talk about grinding my bones into the dust and drowning me in a bucket?"
"All talk, only talk, I couldn't--"
"Do you feel hatred? Do you feel anger?"
"Then raise your wand." He took two steps backward, and looked her dead on. "You will need to focus for this."
"Please, don't make me do this."
"It is only right."
"Do it, for heaven's sake."
Remus took a step toward her, arm raised, and for a moment her heart raced and she thought she would be sick. It was only upon hearing a voice cry cruciatus and seeing Remus spasm and convulse on the grass in front of her that time seemed to play at normal speed.
Recipients of the Cruciatus curse are never able to predict the severity or intensity before they are hit, and few - upon experiencing it - are ever willing to endure it again in lieu of acquiescing to their torturer's demands. It was only the passage of decades that permitted Remus to forget the agony, but it was only took seconds to break his resolve.
Whoever cast the curse held it longer than he anticipated, and when he was released his lungs burned upon that first breath of air. His mouth tasted of blood and he was sure one of his incisors wobbled loose in his mouth. His eyes had been clenched, lights and colours flashing and exploding behind his eyelids, and when he opened his mouth it took nearly a minute for his eyes to focus on the stocky, masculine figure standing between him and Tonks.
"You're not going to try that again, hear me?" Charlie's voice was quiet, and even though asking a question his voice was declarative and final. "You'll not push her into hurting you because you're such a sicko that you'd rather be beaten up than shagged silly."
Despite the pain and the taste of blood that seemed to start even lower than in his mouth, Remus felt himself laughing involuntarily, and clinched at his aching, likely broken jaws to stop himself doubling over in agony.
"Don't give him what he wants. This is as close as he'll get to sleeping with you in his mind."
Charlie was standing beside Tonks, and Remus felt his gut ache even more as he leaned over to kiss her on the shoulder. He couldn't tell her facial expression, and he was equally glad that his own was masked in the dark.
"Charlie, I... I can't hurt him anymore."
"Do you want me to continue for you?" His tone was almost chivalrous, and Remus regretted leaving his wand inside. "I'm sure it won't have the same satisfaction for him."
"Please, no," Remus cried, collapsing to the grass. "I-- I'll stop. Anything."
"Do you feel absolved now? Like you don't owe her - us - anything?"
"I don't," Remus whispered. "She deserves so much more."
"She does. Dora, are you all right?"
"She's too good a person to ever be able to cast an Unforgivable on an old friend. Right? Not like me. You think the worst I've dealt with are dragons? I think you and I have that in common. Not much else, but."
"Look at her," Charlie cried, so loud Remus worried that Molly would wake. "Look at what she's done to herself over you this year."
"Have you felt how small her wrists are? Have you noticed how her ribs jut out under her skin, or how you can see her veins in her temple?"
"I'm so sorry."
"Have you noticed the colour of her hair? Bit hard to forget, given it's been the same for the last twelve months."
"What else will you take from her?" Charlie loomed over him, and Remus could smell smoke and wine on his breath.
He was only vaguely aware of the body kneeling beside him, and he felt denim roughly scratch against his cheek. The absence of the pain began to feel incredible, and he reached out to grasp at the knee - regardless of who it belonged to. "Do you want a hand up?"
He accepted it, and let Tonks pull him into a seated position. He collapsed his weight against her, and she took his hand in hers. He felt the gracile bones, and his body moved with hers as she breathed.
"Tell me I'm stupid," she whispered, and Remus went to speak before he realised that she wasn't speaking to him."
"For my terrible life choices. For my love for unavailable men."
"Then you're stupid."
What Remus would have given for another time, another place, another body, and when she rested her chin on his head he clung to her tightly for what felt like hours, sensation rushing back to his beaten extremities. He looked to Charlie - his expression unknowable in the dark - standing silently over them, and wished for the millionth time that he could be him instead. But it was the five seconds of realisation in which he reminded himself who she was holding that swayed his opinion enough, and even as Charlie stormed back into the house, swearing and slamming the door shut behind him, he didn't release her.
When she'd kissed him in the kitchen of Sirius's house, he had been afraid: of being caught out by Charlie, of having his interest and arousal registered, of what would happen when she broke the kiss off and the space would need to be filled with words. And when she kissed him that night, the same amount of terror - though for different reasons - flooded him until she broke it off, and for the first time in the time he'd known her, she let the space fall silent and his fear fell away with it.
As he led her down the front garden to a place shrouded by trees and shadows, he looked back to see the little red light in Charlie's window had been extinguished, and he vowed he would one day try to make amends with him too.