She twisted around in the air that was no longer there, clutching a wand that had since slipped from her fingers. Retaliation was a second away…a lifetime away…and then forgotten.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, for years and years, Tonks always assumed that there must be some golden connection, an untouchable, unbreakable bond that entwined around aunt and niece like sacred strings that couldn’t be severed. She’d endured many threats, of course, and while on missions for the Order of the Phoenix, Tonks could recall Apparating twice to a target location just in time to see the wide eyes of Bellatrix Lestrange dissolve into smoke, her cackling laughter plaguing vacant space. She didn’t think her aunt would try so hard to kill her that she would actually achieve it – she thought her aunt meant only to taunt, to scare…
She’d been wrong. Her aunt had not been bluffing and now the young woman found herself rolling along the exterior of a lake of sorts, face-down with her back bowing, floating high enough to feel a warm breeze. She could feel the heat of the sun searing through her robes, so scorching that she instinctively spread out her arms and burrowed down deeper into the water. A stream of bubbles appeared below, toward the bottom, followed by a pair of hazel eyes Tonks knew very well.
She let out a blood-curling scream that was instantly muffled by the salty current.
“No!” she shouted, pumping her legs hard to back away from him. “No!” He was already there, however, his hands grasping her waist, pulling her up, his expression unreadable. Tonks didn’t want to be pulled up. She wanted to remain exactly where she was, allowing water to flood into her lungs. It would fill up there, heavy, and anchor her to the floor. Perhaps all she had to do was dig through the floor and she would be out. Free. For surely one of them should have been permitted to stay behind.
The blistering sunlight permeated her hair and clothing, stinging through her closed eyelids as Remus brought her to the surface. She sobbed into his shoulder, her fist pounding against his other one. He stroked her hair, saying nothing, but she could feel his heart beating rapidly, thumping away against her own chest. “Not both of us. Not both. Not you…”
And just like that, he was gone. Disappeared right out from underneath her.
Tonks slipped back underwater, eyes flying open as her hands clutched the empty air for substance. She began to tread the waves, shaking the hair out of her eyes as she did so, and curved around and around clockwise. There was a square building rising like a boulder out of the crashing waves, attached to a long dock; and from a distance she thought she spied a canoe with two figures inside of it, sailing away from her. One of them had red hair, the sun seizing it and switching it from garnet to flaming gold.
“Remus?” she called frantically, still working against the water. She’d never liked swimming and hadn’t devoted much practice to it; still, she dove underwater again, her skin relishing the cool retreat from the boiling atmosphere above. There was no flicker of brown hair, no whip of a coat. She could feel his absence as it burned inside of her, terrified tears springing to her eyes. “Remus?” Fear was rampant in her voice as the single word rippled away from her mouth in a deluge of bubbles. Each of them sparkled a brilliant white as they caught the sun, floating away from her to congeal with sky and sea and infinite space.
She shot up, lungs rising and falling with liquid screaming inside of them. “REMUS!” Tonks began to lose control of her arms and legs, thrashing in the water while hiccups made her ribs spasm. She began to think, ‘Yes, he’s gone back! Someone’s woken him up!’ But at the same time, there was a stab of aching loneliness, of being faced with the prospect that she was in the middle of open sea in a place too tangible to be imagined, all alone. When movement below made the water swirl faster around her legs, her thoughts deflected instantly to Remus, guilty for half-hoping it was him. You are not this weak, she thought forcibly. You are an Auror and Teddy needs him more than you do.
But it was not Remus, much to her relief and dismay. The hand on her ankle was thick and strong, dragging her down just far enough for her to see a scalp with short bristles of black hair. A young man was struggling to swim, tugging on her like a life preserver.
Tonks’s feelings of self-pity disintegrated involuntarily and before she could dwell for another moment on the teal-haired infant sleeping peacefully in his cradle, she had doubled over in half and extended both arms to grab the boy’s shoulders. He looked wildly up at her, probing the pockets of his robes for something he couldn’t find.
She pulled harder on him, signaling with a toss of her head to stop resisting. He continued to fight her, yanking her down to his level. Tonks had run out of air by this point, her lungs shriveling up in pain; she alternated between urging him upward and wrestling her leg out of his iron grip. Her cheeks were turning blue, veins throbbing with a rush of blood that felt close to bursting right through her skin. Tonks released the last bite of breath she’d been saving, shouting at him to let go. Sparks and stars popped around in her vision, everything narrowing like the shrinking shutter of a camera. It was getting very still and quiet, her hair fanning out around her face…
There was someone else. A shadow. The shadow passed over the boy and Tonks abruptly broke free, drifting away. Detached from her surroundings but still lucid enough to fight for survival, Tonks wafted to the surface. Seconds later, Remus joined her.
“Where did you go?” she sputtered, falling into him for support. He sank slightly lower with her weight, the creases in his forehead deepening, but he offered her a tight grimace he hoped might resemble a smile.
“I was needed elsewhere.” He let go of her with one hand to wipe the water from his eyelashes and eyebrows, squinting against the brilliant light. “Here, let’s go over this way.” He motioned toward the dock and Tonks followed suit, gaining enough of her own strength back to be independent from him. Several feet behind, the boy with bristly hair had come up as well and was looking rather disoriented.
“Hot,” he gasped. “Hot!”
Tonks didn’t have enough room inside her head to be concerned for him. She couldn’t spare a second thought for the boy, not when Remus was with her and she was with Remus and no one was with Teddy. No one was with Teddy. Tonks’s arms felt hollow without the warm little bundle cuddled there, his petal-pink lips yawning wide as his gray eyes flashed open. The baby would blink and the eyes would suddenly be brown, and while he slept his hair changed colors to reflect the people he saw and the emotions brought to him in dreams.
“Teddy,” she moaned, and instantly stopped swimming, slipping down under. Remus made to hold her upright and help her clamber over onto the dock, but she extricated herself from him. Angling her face away from him, Tonks helped herself up without his assistance. She could hear Remus’s shoes making squelching sounds as he joined her.
“He’s gone,” he told his wife dejectedly, swinging both legs over the edge and burying his face in his hands. She’d never seen him looking more defeated, despite not glancing at him. She could feel his movements rather than see them, his form so familiar that it was very nearly her own. “Or we are, rather.”
“Where did you go? Just now?”
“It was Harry. He had a Resurrection Stone and he used it to call me and Sirius and his parents to be with him.”
“Sirius?” Tonks’s face paled. “His parents? Harry called his parents back to him?”
“But it was the strangest thing,” Remus prattled on, focusing with powerful concentration on the white-capped waves. “I could see Harry and walk with him, but all around me I heard so many other voices. Molly was there. And two of her sons – Ron and Bill, I think. They were coming from above me, like I was lying down.”
He sighed. Several days seemed to pass between them before he said, “Harry’s gone into the forest. He went to seek Voldemort and end the fighting.” Tonks began to exclaim, rising to her knees as though she thought she could run back to Harry and knock some sense into him, but Remus squeezed her wrist. “It’s what needs to happen. If we want any peace for our son, it needs to happen.”
“But he can’t go into the forest, he just can’t. He’ll unravel everything we’ve just been trying to do, all of it. You and me and everyone else, everyone who’s died, it will have been for nothing. He can’t just surrender –” She was about to say more, but stopped talking when she realized that her clothing was now completely dry. The boy, who Tonks could see was quite large in breadth, rolled onto the dock with them and was staring at the couple as if he’d never seen anything quite like them in his life. His mouth dropped open, his thin lips cracked from dehydration. Stinging scarlet burn marks circled around his right ear, fading just as Tonks began to notice them.
“Well, well,” Remus said quietly. There was a sad tint to his tone; as if he’d been waiting for days for a knock at the door, and when he finally heard one, he ran down the stairs and flung it open only to find it empty. Only to find himself in bed, where he’d been dreaming all along. No door, no knocks. It was a curious sensation, and Remus still wasn’t altogether positive that he wasn’t dreaming up every drop of scenery, right down to the burn marks on the boy that were no longer discernible. “Mr. Crabbe. It is unfortunate to have you here with us.”
The boy closed his mouth and got to his feet. Something like revulsion flitted across his face as he said, “I remember you. You’re a werewolf.”
It wasn’t a question. “Yes.” Remus swallowed all of the accusation in the boy’s eyes, the ignorant prejudice projecting from him, built over time with layers and layers of chain-linked words. An aunt’s story, a father’s nasty remark, an illustration in a musty old book in his grandfather’s study. None of these hateful thoughts originated inside of the young man, but they now belonged to him and he readily claimed them.
Remus couldn’t hate him and all that he didn’t know. He understood hate very well, having spent a great deal of his life hating himself. He and his wife watched the boy enter the building, his clothes now void of water as well. Tonks leaned into Remus, closing her eyes and breathing him in, smelling the lingering cologne of wintergreen soap and flayed leather from his briefcase. He pressed his lips to her temple in what could have been a kiss. “You shouldn’t be here, either.”
Tonks’s eyebrows arched, pulling away to appraise him with critical eyes. He lifted his eyebrows, too, daring her to speak her mind, and she turned her nose toward the sun. They hadn’t even had this argument yet and already neither of them had won it. It was as easy as loving each other, this arguing. They would voice their opinions without having any effect whatsoever on the other, pretending to be open to the other person’s suggestions as they waited with folded arms to refute whatever was being said. “Next time you can stay at home while I’m out fighting for my life, and see how it feels to sit and wait while your mother’s watching you like you’re a ticking time-bomb.”
He made a noise, a convulsion, like he meant to chuckle but didn’t have the will to. “There won’t be a next time, Dora.”
“It didn’t have to be both of us,” she went on. “If you hadn’t been constantly turning around to look at me, you would have been fine. It’s why I left the courtyard, so that you could concentrate better. My aunt found me, you know.” She shook her head, imagining what her mother would think when she heard, how she would react with one hand over her heart and the other over her mouth.
Andromeda carried distant, rose-colored memories with her that Tonks didn’t have, and knew the girl with shining black hair and a love for foxes that used to be Bellatrix before she strayed into a disease so vast that it consumed her. Tonk’s mother couldn’t help but harbor shallow optimism that her sister would do the right thing in the end, and that she would find her mercy at last – especially regarding her own family. Andromeda’s rage would be tempered with disappointment for what would surely happen to Bellatrix’s soul. Such unnecessary loss. Such waste. “She always said she would get rid of me.”
Remus didn’t have to ask which aunt his wife was referring to. “If you’d just stayed at home like we’d agreed, I never would have had concentration issues,” he said flatly. “But it doesn’t matter anymore. You’re here now, and wherever you are is where I need to be. If you hadn’t died, I would have managed to stay alive somehow. I’m sure of it. I made up my mind when I saw you at the battle that I was taking all of my cues from you.”
She stared at him, dumbfounded. “How can you say such foolish things?”
“Did you really think I wouldn’t follow you?” he returned softly.
She wanted to be angry with him for dying and leaving their son all alone, but of course she’d done the same thing. She permitted Remus to hold her for just a little while longer while she racked her mind for people who could potentially care for Teddy, if there would even be a world left for him to live in when everything was said and done. Harry in the forest! Harry with You-Know-Who! It was too astonishing to be real. There was too much destruction, too many people to worry about. So many children who didn’t need to put themselves in harm’s way, who should have been sleeping in their beds with worries no greater than exams, and they were dying and losing loved ones – right under the noses of their parents and teachers. It was complete madness.
Students should not have had to throw themselves into a war just to level out the playing field against trained Death Eaters. Tonks could perfectly envision the mass of young bodies with their wands aloft, casting spells they hadn’t yet mastered, the colors of their jinxes echoing against desperate shouts and painting the walls with flares like torchlight. Children sacrificing their lives when they didn’t even realize what it was truly like to live yet.
The sound of his tiny cry, the image of his fists flailing as he kicked a yellow fleece blanket off of him, was branded into her brain. She could think of nothing else. Could Andromeda look after him? She would be so distraught to lose her daughter, her son-in-law, and her husband in such a short space of time. Tonks wasn’t sure if her mother would be emotionally stable enough to care for an infant.
She trusted Kingsley, she supposed, but it would be such a burden on him and his job would be all the more dangerous if their side lost. For all Tonks knew, he was already dead. There was Molly, too, but she had so many children already. Teddy was just one of many children who would be made into orphans by the time the sun rose, after all. He was so impossibly small, so easily looked over that it was easy to fear he might be lost in the shuffle…
What was she thinking, bringing a child into the world amidst all this chaos? The chaos felt so far from them now, years away from her peaceful perch by the sea, and Tonks hated it. She was separated from her son, on the flip-side of the universe, and it was all because her reflexes weren’t quick enough. It was all because she’d tripped. Thwarted by Bellatrix, who’d been silently studying all of her weaknesses.
Next to her, Remus was inwardly lamenting that if Harry lost, and if Voldemort crowned himself with the power he’d spent decades searching for, then it was a tragedy Teddy hadn’t passed on, as well. Here they were, safe from the Dark Lord, and their infant son was left vulnerable to the bloody claws of a crumbling society. This situation was exactly like what had happened to Lily and James all those years ago, all over again – and just like then, it all came down to Harry. A seventeen-year-old boy was their son's only hope.
When Tonks and Remus finally made their way into the building, the boy Remus referred to as ‘Mr. Crabbe’ was arguing heatedly with a girl who looked to be around thirteen years of age. She was wearing a waterproof and a bucket hat and her green eyes were narrowed piercingly, gazing down the bridge of her freckled nose at him.
“It’s very clear where you’re supposed to go,” she said, scratching out something in an open book lying on the desk. “It’s already been decided for you.”
“But I want to go where my father is!” the boy hollered, bringing his fat hands down upon the table. “You said he’s somewhere else, at that Grotta thing. If this Clock place isn't where my father’s at, then I don’t want to go there.” The girl didn’t flinch, but her voice was cool when she spoke.
“I suppose that part of your punishment is that you don’t get to reunite with your family.” Her eyes were dead as she sorted through a stack of papers, and Remus thought to himself that she carried herself quite remarkably for someone so young. “Can’t have everything, Vincent.”
Remus was still observing the girl as Tonks stepped forward, clearing her throat. “I might not be real, and you might not be real, but I’m going to ask you a question, anyway.”
“You are exceedingly real and so is this,” the girl replied. “As for myself and whether or not I’m real, it wouldn’t matter if I told you I was or if I wasn’t, or if this is real or isn’t. I really couldn’t say what’s real, to tell you the truth, but I do know that I didn’t make you up in my head. And if I didn’t make you up in my head, then clearly this is all you. So you tell me, then. How much of this is real?” She paused, drumming her quill against the desk and ignoring Vincent’s left shoe tapping against the floor in frustration. “You were just about to ask how it’s possible that you’re dead and yet you nearly drowned a few minutes ago, am I correct?”
Tonks’s jaw went slack, her fingers that had previously been grasping the table loosening and falling to her sides.
“You would not have drowned,” the girl told her with a small smile, pushing a pad of paper at them. “And that’s the truth. Sign here, please, all of you. And legibly, or my boss is going to have a fit. But as to what you were thinking, Mrs. Lupin, I will say that there is only one way to die on Cliodna’s Clock, and that is if you come in last place in the races.”
“But I thought we were already dead?” Remus stepped forward now, head tilted to the side in confusion. He strongly disliked being so far inside of things that he wasn’t able to see his way out. While puzzles were sources of delight to Tonks, and her readiness to accept the unknown was something he often admired, he could not be so easily satisfied with indistinct answers. “Am I wrong? Are we still alive?”
“We can’t be,” Vincent interrupted, his bitterness cutting the air. “I asked her where I’d just Apparated and she told me…” He hesitated, glowering, before turning to sulk in silence. His fingers continued to curl and knot in agitation, the machinery beneath his skull consumed with the memory of fire. Fire across his arms, blazing a trail over his tongue and all the way down his throat. He still felt the unbearable temperature settling in a tattoo under his skin.
“I told you that you hadn’t Apparated anywhere, and that obviously you are a dunderhead since everyone knows you can’t Apparate inside the grounds of Hogwarts.”
“What’s going on?” Tonks demanded at last. “Just tell us. Are we dead?”
“You are, by earth’s standards. But for Cliodna’s Clock’s standards, you are very much alive. Only one person dies here every year, on July first.” The girl straightened herself up importantly, eyeing them each in turn with the air of one about to reveal a marvelous secret. “The person who dies is the person who finishes the races in last place. Your timing is just awful if you’re planning on signing up, you’ll only have a month to prepare before it begins.” She didn’t seem at all sorry about this.
“What’s the races?” Remus questioned, just as Tonks said, “What happens after they die?”
“Nothing,” the girl replied simply, scrutinizing the signatures they’d given her. She slid the sleeve of her waterproof down to her elbow and glanced at her watch, lips thinning into a straight line. “And I mean that literally. They cease to exist. It’s essentially how we purge, you see. Even the afterlife gets crowded, and someone must be eliminated to make room for the next person.”
Remus and Tonks said nothing, exchanging troubled looks. It was quite a lot to wrap their heads around, and secretly they were both still waiting to wake up.
“Look,” the girl snapped impatiently, ushering all three of them outside into bright sunshine. “This is the second-chance place. You get a little extra time that you didn’t get to have before you died; because let’s face it, a lifespan of a hundred or so years isn’t really a fair shake. Play your cards right and you’re basically immortal. Be the one who cares the least when it counts the most, and you’re gone for good. That’s just how it goes.” She nodded her head at a canoe that was slithering quickly toward the dock, its interior unoccupied. “Your carriage awaits.”
“Wait!” Vincent said quickly, his voice trembling. “What are we supposed to do?”
The girl regarded him shrewdly. “You want some advice?”
He didn’t answer her, still processing her question. Behind them, Remus heard the boat clink against the pier with a frenzy of wind. Tonks’s stomach felt like someone had twisted it up into knots; she was going to be sick, she could feel it. Remus alone stood utterly still save for his fluttering stands of hair, head tilted to the side as he always did when he was listening very carefully, very intently.
“Don’t make any friends.”
The girl’s lips coiled into a smirk, eyes as sharp as a lion springing to strike. The ghost of a laugh hung between the three of them long after she vanished from the dock and the building and everywhere else, the last four words she spoke glimmering in a web of sunshine.
Thank you for reading! If you have time, please leave a review. I apologize for the redundancy of this chapter. Unfortunately I had to explain to the Lupins that they were dead before the plot could proceed. Things should pick up in the next chapter. ^ ^