The voices floated through the open door, out into the hallway, the unmistakable tone of girls discussing something of dire importance.
"Well, I mean to say. Look at the evidence."
"Youíd think sheíd tell us."
"Well, all right. Kingsley Shacklebolt?"
"No, somehow I donít think so. Heís not treating her a bit differently."
"Nobody is, far as I can tell. It must be someone out of the house. It must be."
"Whoís out of the house?" Ron asked, sticking his head into Hermione and Ginnyís room.
"Long story," Ginny said.
"We came to find you because weíre bored," Harry said, coming in and sitting on Ginnyís footboard. "Weíve got time for a long story."
The girls exchanged glances. "Oh. Well," Hermione said. "We were just discussing Tonks."
"What about her?"
"Havenít you noticed?"
What were they, mind-readers? "Noticed . . ." Harry prompted.
Hermione looked at him as if he were exceptionally slow. "Sheís really happy lately, Tonks."
"Well, sheís a cheery sort," Ron said.
"No, itís different now. Before it was just--you know--good nature. Now itís like . . ." Hermione trailed off, flapping her hands helplessly.
Ginny took over. "Like sheís happy for a reason." She studied her brother and Harry. "Donít tell me you havenít noticed."
"Okay. We wonít," Harry told her.
Hermione huffed. "She looks like she swallowed a star, sheís so shiny, and you havenít noticed?"
"There are a few other things going on, in case you forgot."
"And plus, weíre not girls," Ron said.
Ginny chucked a pillow at him. "Nobody ever said being male meant you couldnít have two eyes in your head."
Harry didnít want to make the girls smug by saying it aloud, but he privately thought they might--just possibly--have a point. In spite of all the dark and horrible things going on in the world, in spite of what she personally had to deal with, Tonks practically danced through the day. Mere good nature couldnít account for that.
"Now weíre trying to figure out who it is," Hermione said.
"Who? Itís Tonks." Ron chucked the pillow back at his sister.
"No, stupid," Ginny said scornfully, catching it. "Who sheís in love with."
"Hang on," Harry said. "Love? Who mentioned love?"
Ginny said, "Puh," to Hermione, who rolled her eyes.
"Ginny thinks itís someone in the Order, but Iím really leaning toward someone at work. Thereís so many possibilities!"
Harry stared at them. Love didnít interest him a lot. It seemed to consist mostly of acute embarrassment, things people didnít say that you were supposed to know anyway, and awe-inspiring foul-ups. He had no idea why girls seemed so obsessed with it. Even otherwise-sensible girls like Ginny and Hermione talked as if it were the alpha and omega of the universe. Harry didnít get it. Where was the good bit supposed to be?
Ron made an incredulous face at Harry and asked the girls, "Whatís with all the talking? Just ask." He leered. "Tonks, you nasty girl, whoíve you been snogging, eh?"
This time, Ginny gave him a thump with the pillow that would have downed a full-grown yak. Ron, being a Weasley, just grunted and yanked it away from her. "Go on," he said. "Just go ask."
"Good god, Ron, you canít just ask about something like that."
He grinned at his sister. "Dare you."
She narrowed her eyes. "You did not just say that."
"Double dare," he crooned.
"Ronnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn . . . if you say triple dog dare, Iíll--"
"Triple Fluffy dare," he finished up triumphantly. "Ha. Thatís three heads to a dare. Gíwan."
She yanked her pillow back and screamed into it. Then she plopped it down onto her lap and sighed. "Come on," she said to Hermione in resignation.
"Three heads a dare," Ginny said gloomily. "We have to, now."
"Ginny," Hermione said reasonably. "Itís just a silly dare. You donít have to."
Ron goggled. "Just a--"
Ginny held up a hand. "Ron. As hard as it is to believe, there are people in the world who werenít raised as Weasleys." She turned to Hermione. "Díyou remember me telling you about the time I put chocolate syrup in all the twinsí shoes?"
Hermione frowned. "I thought that was revenge."
"It was. But it was also a dare from Bill."
Ron pointed out, "Single, though. Now, the time I stole Charlieís broom and nearly got killed by a hang-glider--"
"Yeah, that was a double dare from Fred," Ginny put in. "And then the time Percy switched all the labels on Mumís spice rack, the same night the twins were to make beef stew for Great-Auntie Mavis, all on their own--"
Hermione and Harry gaped. "Percy?"
"Behold the power of the triple dog dare," Ron said solemnly. "íCourse, he was younger then. Not so much of a pain in the arse. But still."
"And this," Ginny said, "is a triple Fluffy dare."
"You really donít have a choice," Harry told Hermione.
Hermione sighed. "I see what you mean." She touched her chin thoughtfully. "I have to admit, Iíd like to know."
"Well then," Ron said in great satisfaction.
They made their way downstairs, checking rooms. They found Bill, stretched out with a Quidditch magazine over his face. He hadnít seen Tonks, he reported with a yawn.
"Go back to sleep, Bill," Ginny said, and pulled the door closed after them.
Hermione looked at Ginny with one eyebrow raised.
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Please. It's all Fleur with that one. And anyway, I would have known."
They knocked on another door. "Sheís around somewhere," Marvo Banks said rather vaguely. He was a new Order member, recruited from the theoretical thaumology department at the Ministry. At the moment, he was elbow deep in parchment and ink. "Maybe downstairs?"
"Sorry to bother you," Hermione said brightly, and closed the door.
Ginny said, "Hermione?"
"I doubt it," Hermione said.
"He is quite young," Ginny pointed out. "And very good-looking."
Harry frowned at her. Just because a fellow had streaky golden hair and bright blue eyes and a lot of muscles was no reason to go round calling him good-looking.
Hermione said, "Yes, but if heís noticed anything but a spell diagram in the past week, Iím a Crumple-Horned Snorkack."
Downstairs, they stuck their heads into the dining room, but found only Lupin, frowning over a cutting from a Muggle newspaper. More cuttings, stacked into neat piles, surrounded him, along with a half-empty mug of tea. "You seen Tonks?" Ron asked him.
Their old teacher glanced up abstractedly. "Sheís in the kitchen," he told them, and returned to his work.
"Excellent, two birds with one stone," Ron said.
The kitchen table looked as if a library had exploded. Books sat gaping open, face-down, propped up on other books, or perched halfway off the table. At the epicenter lay a quill that looked as if it had been chewed by wolverines, an ink bottle, and a roll of parchment liberally covered in Tonksís untidy scrawl. Tonks herself was buried head and shoulders in a cupboard. "Whoís that?" she called out, starting to straighten up. Thud. "Ouch!"
"Oh!" Hermione exclaimed. "Tonks, are you all right?"
She backed out, rubbing the top of her head. She was experimenting with her hair again. At the moment, it was a sleek cap of eye-searing teal. "Just the shelf," she said. "Iím fine. I know your mum made biscuits this morning, but Iím blowed if I can find so much as a crumb."
"Try the top cupboard," Ginny said. "Mum likes that hiding place."
Tonks looked at the top cupboard, which she couldnít reach unless she stood on the counter. Sheíd done that last week, and if Lupin had been half a second slower, she probably would have broken her leg. Or somebodyís leg, at any rate.
Ron said very quickly, "Iíll get it. Itís fine."
"Thanks," she said, taking the tin he handed her. "Biscuit?"
"Like you have to ask."
"What are you researching here, Tonks?" Hermione asked, surveying the books.
Ron rolled his eyes.
"I was digging out stuff on giants, but Iím done now. My brainís going to start leaking." She hoisted herself up on the counter and looked around at them all. "Well, you lot look as if youíre after something. Whatís up?"
"We had a question," Ron said, taking his fifth biscuit.
Hermione made a sound like water hitting a hot stove.
"Well, we do," Ron said.
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Give me that tin. Pig." She plucked out several for herself, then passed it on. "You may have dared us, but you have to let us do it our way, right? So just keep your mouth shut."
Silence fell. Tonks looked from face to face. "So . . . you wanted to ask me . . . ?"
"Right." Hermione nibbled on the biscuit Ginny passed her and said in a very casual voice, "So, Tonks. You doing all right then?"
Harry gazed at her in disbelief. What kind of roundabout girlie way was that to ask a simple question?
Tonks looked puzzled and rather amused at the same time. "Fine."
"Youíve just seemed--very happy lately."
"Well, probably because I am."
"Oh. Thatís--thatís good." Hermione nodded several times, then caught herself and looked at Ginny.
Ginny took over. "So. Any . . . particular reason? I saw that, Ron," she added sharply.
"Youíre taking ten lifetimes."
"Shut up." She gave Tonks a huge smile. "Any reason? Like . . . you know. Someone new in your life."
"Oh," Tonks said in tones of dawning comprehension. "Ah. I see." She smiled to herself. "No. Nobody new."
"But . . . there is somebody?"
Her eyes twinkled. "Díyou think there is?"
"W--yes, but you know . . . weíre probably wrong."
"Oh. Yes. Utterly."
"What? You just spent half an hour telling us how certain it was that you were right!"
The girls ignored Ron. "Weíre just--curious, sort of."
"Theyíre curious," he grumped. "Weíre just here because they wouldnít stop nattering."
Tonks studied her nails, concentrated, and smiled at the shade of magenta sheíd produced. "As it happens," she said, looking up, "there is somebody."
"There is? Oh, thatís so wonderful!"
"Good for you, Tonks!"
"Yeah, yeah, spiffing. Thatís not the dare," Ron said. "If you donít ask, I will."
Tonks looked interested. "Dare, what dare?"
"Nothing," Hermione said.
"Sía triple Fluffy dare," Ron said to his sister.
She scowled. "Youíre evil."
"No, Iím just your brother. Are you backing out?"
Ginny heaved a sigh. "Tonks, Iím sorry. Itís a triple Fluffy dare. Who is it?"
Tonks seemed to be smothering a smile with great difficulty. "Um . . . this is going to take a bit of explaining."
"Itís all right if youíd rather not say."
"Hey!" Harry said. "Triple Fluffy dare."
"The dare was to ask. I asked. You never said she had to answer."
"Well, we want her to answer. Donít we?" Harry asked Ron.
"Yeah, weíve spent this long on it--" The kitchen door creaked open and Ron stopped.
Lupin paused in the doorway. "Am I interrupting something?"
"Nothing," Ginny said quickly.
"Nothing at all," Hermione added fervently.
Tonks piped up, "They were just being terribly nosy."
"Were they?" He glanced at her, the grey in his hair glinting slightly. "About what?"
Tonks propped her ankle on the opposite knee, bouncing her bare foot once or twice. On her second toe, a silver ring caught the light. Her eyes twinkled wickedly. "Theyíd like to know who Iím sleeping with."
Harry choked on his biscuit.
As coolly as if Tonks had commented on the weather, Lupin crossed to the stove and poured himself more hot water. "A reasonable curiosity." He got down the tin of tea bags. "Not too many details, please. I do like to delude myself that we have some privacy."
Harryís mouth fell open, and the biscuit heíd choked on fell out. He didnít even notice.
"I wonít say anything embarrassing," she protested.
Setting his mug down by her hip, Lupin added a lump of sugar to his tea and summoned the milk pitcher to himself. "Forgive me if I remain unreassured, since the only thing under the sun that embarrasses you is--"
"--your name." He rested the very tips of his fingers on her ankle. "Nymphadora."
She made a face at him. He smiled back at her. For no reason at all, Harry began to feel distinctly uncomfortable.
Ron coughed, rather more loudly than necessary.
Lupin looked over his shoulder and smiled, a new and unexpected glint of pure mischief in his eyes. "Good evening." He left the kitchen.
Hermione found her voice first. "Tonks--"
Tonks just shook her head. "Damn him," she said. "He always manages to work that in." She hopped down off the counter. "Well, thereís nothing I can add to that, although itís tempting. Heís been poring over those cuttings all day, hasnít he? Think Iíll go distract him."
They sat in spellshocked silence for several seconds, then Harry said, "Did that just happen?"
"I saw it," Ginny said.
"So did I," Hermione added.
Ron said, "Tonks and--"
"Professor Lupin," Harry finished incredulously.
"Heís nearly your parentsí age. I didnít know they could still do it when they got that old." Harry looked up. "Hey, Ron, díyou think your parents still--"
"Thank you very much. Iím scarred for life now."
"Iím just saying."
"Iím just going to go poke out my eyes."
"Theyíre so different," Ginny said. "I mean theyíre total opposites."
"What, and total opposites canít get together ever?" Ron asked.
"She didnít say that," Hermione told him. "Itís just--them . . . together . . ." She shook her head, slowly, wonderingly. "How?"
Ron grinned widely, and was immediately pelted with bits of biscuit from the other three.
They looked into the dining room. Only the tea mug and the cuttings remained. Harry couldnít decide whether to be relieved or unnerved by the absence of the couple.
They all looked at each other.
Ginny said, "Well."
"Heís not--exactly what we pictured," Hermione said.
"You wanted to know," Harry pointed out. "So now you know."
"Well. Yeah. But we thought--" Ginny trailed off, making a face.
"Not that Professor Lupin's not nice and all--"
"He's very--er--sweet, I guess, but--"
"We thought it'd be someone a bit--well--cooler."
Ron rolled his eyes. "Someone youíd like to drool over, you mean."
They looked at him disdainfully and left.
The boys looked at the abandoned cuttings and mug another moment. At length, Ron sighed. "Well, mate," he said, "at least somebodyís getting some love around here."
Harry shuddered. "Professor Lupin," he said. "Think Iíll poke my eyes out too."
Ron laughed appreciatively, and they went to find something else to do. But for the rest of the day, Harry remembered the way Lupin had rested his fingers on Tonksí bare ankle, and that look . . . and he wondered if maybe there wasnít something more to this love stuff than teary kisses and unspeakably awkward dates in Hogsmeade.
He thought of having the right to touch a girl like that. Because she let you. Because she wanted you to.
Maybe there was a good bit after all.
Disclaimer: This has been a ridiculous bit of fluff. Had this been a real story, this text would be followed by angst, drama, much capitalized shouting from Harry along the how-dare-you-be-happy-when-the-world-is-horrible sort of lines, almost certainly a boot upside the head from Ginny, and/or a meaningful conversation with Lupin. But I didnít feel like writing it. So there. Thank you.