Tonks raised her hand in a fist, ready to knock, when the Fat Lady exclaimed, “Just what do you think you are doing?”
Tonks surveyed the enormous woman in a frilly pink dress, nostrils flared. “I think I’m trying to knock so that my friend will hurry it up!”
The Fat Lady glared at her, lips pursed. “And how would you like it if I started punching you just to get someone else’s attention?”
Tonks grumbled something about how the Fat Lady ‘couldn’t even feel it’, but was fortunately spared from more arguing when the portrait swung open, revealing a freckled face and unruly red mane. He was smiling, eyes glittering with the promise for adventure. “You ready?”
Tonks dug around in her sock and scratched her foot in a very unladylike fashion. “I’ve been ready for ten minutes, thank you very much.” She jutted her thumb at the painted guard of Gryffindor Tower. “Not a very good conversationalist, this one.”
“All right.” Charlie Weasley glanced both ways, back over his shoulder and then sweeping the staircases with a light blue gaze before stepping out. “Just remember to be quiet.”
“I’m always quiet,” she whispered loudly, promptly tripping over one of the trick steps in the staircase. She tumbled into a banister, rubbing at her knee and scowling, before righting herself before he could assist her. “You pushed me.”
“Oh, put a cork in it. It’s not my fault you’ve got the grace of a rhino.” Charlie paused at the bottom of the stairs, waving furiously at her to catch up. Tonks crossed her arms and looked away, trying to seem very much above his company, and almost tripped again. Charlie caught her just in time, his fingers latching firmly around her elbow to keep her steady. Tonks was trying to decide whether to be offended or embarrassed when he said, “Blast, it’s Filch!”
“Aghhh!” Tonks ducked behind him, knees knocking. If she got caught lurking around Hogwarts after curfew again, she was toast. Charlie, with his smooth tongue and easy manner that came from being in a large family and the need to slide out of trouble often, stood absolutely still.
“Kidding,” he said with a grin.
Tonks swatted at him and missed, earning another smirk from Charlie, before they made their way into the Entrance Hall without incident. Their footsteps echoed behind them like telltale footprints, much too loud and exaggerated at midnight. Tonks began to hop about from one foot to the other, keyed-up with anticipation.
“Let’s go! Hurry it up!”
“I would,” Charlie mused, and she turned to find that he was several feet behind her, one hand on a door. “But you’re going the wrong way.”
It took Tonks approximately one-quarter of a second to realize that she had been yanking on the door to the Great Hall, whereas the door Charlie stood in front of led outside. “Ah,” she said brightly, spinning around on the spot to join him. “Yeah, I knew that. Was just gonna…” She motioned behind her, clapping her hands together. “Was just gonna get a snack for our journey. Yeah…You should really appreciate my forethought, Weasley. What would you do without me?”
“I'd be hopeless, I'm sure.” Charlie pressed his lips together to stifle an amused smile, eyes alert as he cast all around one last time for any signs of followers. He wasn’t so much worried about getting himself into trouble as he was about getting Tonks into trouble. For the first time in years, Hufflepuff finally had a shot at winning the House Cup, and if she lost her House any more points, her peers would probably converge on her in a horde of unpleasant hexes that would leave her smelling like Dungbombs for days.
“Lumos,” Tonks muttered, throwing a sidelong glance at Charlie just to make sure that he didn’t disapprove. He imitated her, and, with both of their wands creating splashes of blue that spiraled through the murky dark, they strode forth towards the Black Lake.
Tonks’s cat, Stella, came sauntering out of the low-lying iron fog with dew on her paws, tail switching in the wet grass. Unlike most of the other cats that lived at Hogwarts, Stella was a creature of the wild and preferred to stay outdoors. She always joined Tonks and Charlie on late-night excursions around the grounds. Wrapping one tail around Charlie’s leg, she arched her back in a long stretch and rubbed her nose against Tonks’s leg to say hello.
“Here,” Charlie murmured. In the light of Lumos, his eyes were wide and pupils constricted to tiny dots, glinting with fascination.
Tonks lowered the tip of her wand to the shallow shore, seeing nothing but cloudy water and bits of dirt and leaves stewing beneath. “How can you be sure?”
Charlie bit his cheek, taking just a moment too long to respond, and Tonks’s hands flew to her hips. “You didn’t.”
His cornered expression betrayed his guilt, and he dug one toe into the mud to avoid her hot gaze.
“Charlie!” she reprimanded, her loud voice making him wince. “I can’t believe you! Cheating…” She folded her arms over her chest again, shaking her head in disapproval, and accidentally dropped her wand. Charlie picked it up and handed it to her, offering a hopeful smile, but she merely snatched her wand back from him and continued to lift her nose in his direction.
“I wasn’t really cheating!” he insisted. “It was right there, lying open. I just…looked at it a little. I didn’t even mean to.” He poked his wand into her collarbone, eyes narrowing shrewdly. “Just because you fancy Hajari doesn’t mean that I have to fall all over myself whenever I see him, too. Not that you wouldn't be falling all over yourself, anyway...”
Tonks groaned in exasperation, grazing her fingers through a crop of short, pixie-like blonde hair. The gesture was so familiar that Charlie almost thought it was cute by now, and resisted another smile. “I do not fancy Hajari.”
“Then why have you got a picture of him in your Transfiguration textbook?”
Tonks’s mouth dropped open. “I – well – what’re you doing in my textbooks?” She poked him in the side with her wand like it was a sword, ready to duel. “Stay out of my stuff, Weasley, if you know what’s good for you.”
Charlie chuckled and knelt to the ground. It all came back to when their intellectual rival, Hajari Rai, first discovered a map of the Black Lake back in their second year. Charlie, who was crazy about beasts of all kinds and was steaming at the fact that Hajari had a compiled list of magical creatures right there in his possession and obviously didn’t deserve it, did everything he could to get his hands on it. He dispatched his young friend Tonks to try to woo it out of him with her feminine charm, but all that succeeded in doing was make Tonks develop a dreamy infatuation for the boy.
But still, the map evaded Charlie.
In their third year, while Tonks was waiting behind a statue of a winged boar and sighing to herself about Hajari’s lovely hair, Charlie tried to use Accio on the map to get it out of his back pocket. Hajari’s friends (who were rather tall), did not take kindly to it and there was a lot of resulting bruises and fifty collective points taken from Slytherin and Gryffindor.
In fourth year, after getting wind that the secretive map contained hints about water dragons in the Black Lake, Charlie went out of his mind. He followed poor Hajari around all over the place until Tonks finally bullied him into letting it go, saying that if they were to discover any water dragons, it should be because of their invention and wits, not because of theft.
Now in their sixth year, Tonks and Charlie spent a great deal of whatever time they could spare picking their way around the lake. Charlie had relayed to her earlier that day, in hyperactive words that ran together so fast that it sounded like, “CometoGryffindorToweratmidnight,I’vegotbignews,” vowing that their breakthrough was nigh. Really, Tonks didn’t care much about the water dragons. She just wanted to get her face in the Daily Prophet for something.
Now, everything was coming together – Hajari’s Quidditch injuries and subsequent stay in the Hospital Wing, and Charlie’s recent sleuthing about the Hospital Wing, coincidentally right next to Hajari’s schoolbag. He’d snuck in there and had a quick look at Hajari’s map, and that’s why they were poking around the edges of the lake at half twelve.
“Well, he was never going to tell us!” Charlie defended indignantly. “He was just sitting on a mound of gold, not doing a thing.”
“He doesn’t want to disturb the wildlife,” Tonks scoffed. “Some people have respect for nature.”
“And some people are gits who sit on mounds of gold for no other reason than to make sure I can’t get at it!” When Tonks only snorted again, wounded on the good-looking Hajari’s behalf, he said, “Oh, come on. You wouldn’t be this way if it was Wesley or Ruth or that stupid blond one in Ravenclaw who blows hot air at the back of your head at dinner. It’s because it’s Hajari.” He said that last word in a sickening sing-song voice meant to taunt her.
“I don’t even want to hear it, you blooming hypocrite!” Tonks retorted. “What about that time I was covered in boils after Potions and you didn’t stay behind to help me; you practically ran to catch up with Octavia Bobstopper to ask her if she was all right because some of my potion touched her shoes.”
Tonks spat on the ground and scrunched up her face, her hair beginning to grow long and brown like Octavia’s. She batted her eyelashes at Charlie. “Oh, Charles, you handsome, handsome man. How I wish you would whisk me off to Hogsmeade and we could be together forever and ever.” She made kissy faces with rather loud sound-effects, which Charlie did not find at all funny.
“Her voice isn’t that high,” he grumbled. “And will you shut your yap for two seconds? I’m trying to do something important here. Magizoology preparation isn’t all fun and games, you know…”
“Right, right,” Tonks replied with a grin, knowing she’d struck a nerve. “What d’you need, Professor?”
Ignoring the jibe, Charlie grabbed her wand and aimed it at an angle so that the light penetrated several inches of water rather than just the surface. “Keep it right there. Don’t move.”
“Yes, sir. Anything you say, sir.”
“Right around here somewhere…” Charlie dug around in the muddy shallows.
“You really think you’re going to find dragons in the mud? I failed Care of Magical Creatures and even I know that those things aren’t going to just be lying here out of the water.”
“Not the dragons, you nit,” he said, glancing over his shoulder out of paranoia that someone (perhaps Hajari) was watching and waiting to jump out at them, claiming triumph over Charlie’s coveted discovery. His name would be in all the naturalist journals, his black-and-white picture grinning down at them from the upper-left corner, captioned Charles Weasley.
His voice was soft, softer than his blue eyes and the glow from Tonks’s wand ricocheting off the waves, lapping onto his skin. He cradled a small oval object in one hand, the bottom half of it crusted with wet, black earth. The visible portion was a creamy pea-green, with tiny mother-of-pearl scales scalloped all over its surface.
A water dragon egg.
“They bury them here, like turtles do,” he went on, barely audible. Tonk’s mouth fell open with a dull snapping sound, and she crouched to nose-level with the thing, just inches from Charlie’s rapt features. “This is it. They really do exist.”
“Let me see,” Tonks urged. Charlie drew back, protecting it like a precious treasure.
“No, way. You drop everything.”
“I won’t this time, though. I promise.”
“If you’re going to start keeping a grip on things, I won’t have this being your guinea pig. Start practicing with your own stuff and work your way up to mythical eggs on the brink of extinction.”
“I helped find it!”
“Shh,” he told her, stroking the shell with one finger. “You’ll scare it.”
Tonks rolled her eyes. “It can’t hear me. Those shells are sound-proof.” Charlie was about to refute this when Tonks reached for the egg and he almost dropped it –
And then it exploded.
They both stared at the place where an egg had been, their faces covered with thick gray soot and their hair fried and sticking straight out as though electrocuted.
“That prat!” Charlie yelled shrilly. “It’s a cracker! He made it look like a bloody egg and bloody planted it here, and I’ll kill him – I’ll do it –”
Tonks was already on her back, laughing. Charlie looked up at her, frozen in mid-yell, and after forming a funny expression that signified he might punch something, he smiled.
“I suppose I should have expected something like this to happen.”
Tonks pointed at his face. “Oh, you should have seen yourself!” She mimicked what he’d looked like with his wide, glowing eyes and mouth quivering in awe. “I was beginning to think you were going to start snogging it.”
“Shut up,” he muttered, but helped pull her to her feet. “This doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, you know.”
“It just means that maybe you should stay out of other people’s schoolbags.”
“Yeah. Should’ve tried his dormitory instead.”
As the pair of them continued to bicker good-naturedly, a tiny, salamander-like creature wiggled out of the smoldering gray ashes that had been left behind by the exploding egg. Moonlight shone silver on its scaly back, and it spewed a metallic white fire from its miniscule snout.
It wriggled around in the mud before locating a source of water; and then like a splash of needles hitting the waves, it disappeared beneath. Stella watched it go with a small smile of satisfaction before darting off between the two students, leading the way back to the castle with her tail pointed high in the sky.