28While You Unravelled
"Of the sixty-four major planets within the
Republic, only seventeen have history
which predates the Imperium. Common
wisdom would have it that this is due to a
combination of the Imperium's aggressive
colonization efforts and its equally strident
attempts to destroy records pertaining to
the nation-states and lesser confederations
which it absorbed. As is often the case, common
wisdom gives us only part of the picture.
The Imperium, even at its height, comprised
less than thirty percent of the Republic today.
The shadows of the Emperors loom large over
our culture because we allow them to. The
Imperium was not so mighty, not so vast, as it
seems we prefer to imagine – certainly, as the
Imperium wanted itself to be imagined.
Would-be Emperors should, over the course of
this book, take note: Even a single world is
beyond a single mind, and your reach does
not so much exceed your grasp as it equals it.
The qualifier being, neither will ever match
–K. J. La Forge, Foreword to Gods of Dark Space:
The Last Epoch of the Kharadjai Imperium
Tonks considered herself an open-minded sort of woman. She made the effort to befriend people, to make them feel welcome. The world was hard enough without everyone being grumpy. If people spent more time being pleasant and less time trying to get ahead, perhaps getting ahead wouldn't be so costly.
As such, she felt that her presence had been keenly missed at Shell Cottage. She hadn't been around much like some of the other Order members had – she'd been busy on the outside. Her original plan of action had been to stay with the Ministry as long as possible, working from within as a spy. In retrospect, that had been damn optimistic considering how much the enemy knew of her background. The skirmish at Bill's wedding had put an end to all that, along with the disappearance of Arthur's two youngest. Even the dullest Death Eater could put those facts together, and after the Weasleys had been forced into hiding, the rest of the Order had decided that pretending innocence was pointless.
Tonks hadn't let the loss of her Ministry position stop her from fighting back. But whilst she had been out and about, finding Muggle-borns before the Snatchers did, other aspects of the Order's operation had been neglected. Namely, getting to know (and retaining) their allies. Or, at least, one particular ally.
Granted, retention didn't seem to be that much of a problem. Lila Kharan appeared determined to stick around, no matter how blatantly the residents of Shell Cottage ignored her. To be fair, most of that treatment had been coming from Order members other than the Weasleys. Though Molly was the only person on close terms with the enigmatic woman, Bill and Arthur had established some manner of peace with her presence.
Remus had reported that Harry had claimed Lila could be trusted, though the reasons for that faith had gone unexplained. Tonks reckoned that Harry was at least a fair judge of character. In practical terms, though, the point that had kept anyone from attempting to force Lila to leave was her relationship with Molly; that, and the fact that Lila already knew too much, and it might be safer to keep her close at hand.
Tonks thought they could do better than that. Perhaps all Lila needed was another friendly face? The woman was a fighter, and a deadly one. Tonks had seen that with her own eyes. The Order needed fighters, as many as it could gather (though mass recruitment was impossible when they didn't know whom they could trust). It was foolish to ignore an asset, especially an asset resolute enough to disregard the fact that she had been implicitly refused. And especially an asset that had already proven herself fully capable of taking life when necessary. If Tonks could get Lila to open up a little, perhaps the Order would be more willing to include the woman.
Lila was definitely disinclined to be excluded: Tonks had seen her listening unobtrusively during meetings. When Remus had gone to see Harry, Lila had more or less bullied her way into providing him with transport. Perhaps her insistence had come off as calculated to some of the others, and Tonks agreed, to an extent: she reckoned Lila didn't do much of anything without ample consideration. But Tonks had watched as Lila shot at Death Eaters, standing sentinel over Harry's friends. That had left a more positive impression, and she wasn't sure why the Order had been so reluctant to take advantage of the skills Lila obviously had to offer. Was the woman really so unapproachable? Or did the boys just resent a tough bird like Lila forcing her way into their club?
That was a bit unfair of Tonks, she knew. Remus certainly didn't think like that. But she couldn't help but wonder if Lila's buxom build and flawless features had been a mark against her. Tonks' own femininity had been an occasional handicap in the Aurors, so she could relate. Lila's help might have been more readily accepted if she looked like Kingsley.
Or perhaps that was rubbish, and it was just that no one knew what to make of Lila. Molly could be a commanding woman, but she didn't involve herself much in the Order's decisions. Tonks had more pull – or at least she had better, she was putting her arse on the line same as everyone. If Tonks said Lila was all right, they would put Lila out there once, at least, just to see what she could do.
Tonks definitely wouldn't mind having another girl on board. She got along with most of the blokes just fine, but sometimes all the testosterone got a bit stifling.
She found Lila out behind the cottage, near the sea. The statuesque blonde was contemplating an object in her hand – it looked like a Muggle mobile. Tonks had never been obsessed with technology the way that Arthur was, but she had been curious, on occasion. The 'firearm' Lila had used at Hogwarts had been loud, messy, and deadly effective. Prior to that, Tonks had never seen Muggle weapons at work. It had been sobering to realise that the Muggles were quite a bit more dangerous than common wisdom held.
But if the Order could have a dangerous Muggle of their own (or something close to it; Lila was obviously a witch to some degree), that would be something, wouldn't it?
"Lovely day," Tonks said in greeting. She strode over to Lila and stuck out her hand. "Tonks. I know we've met, but let's make it proper."
Lila was slow to respond. She studied Tonks with cool composure, her eyes a dove grey that would have been soothing were they not so unreadable. Tonks began to feel a bit silly, standing there with her hand out, but didn't want to back down.
After a long moment, Lila tucked her Muggle device back into a pocket and took Tonks' hand. "Lila."
"That's a pretty name," Tonks commented. "Do you spell it with two Ls, or is there an H on the end, as well?"
"Neither. It's spelled the same as 'Lyle-lah', just pronounced differently."
"Is that how they say it in America?"
"It's how I say it," Lila said shortly.
Tonks had assumed that Lila's exclusion had been primarily the work of suspicious, overprotective men, but it seemed as if the alienation might not be quite so one-sided. Lila was a bit guarded, to say the least.
"Well, I like it," Tonks told her. They lapsed into a short silence, punctuated by the ocean's constant swells. "…It must be dreadful to be trapped here all the time, I don't know how you do it. I'd go mental in about a day, full stop. Do you like to read?"
"I do, myself. Bit partial to the sorts of books that you don't read in polite company, if you catch my meaning. Bloody awful writing, half the time, but it's not the prose I'm after. Oh, but don't tell Remus. I reckon he thinks I'm a bit scholarly, if you can believe that."
The corners of Lila's mouth twitched upward, and Tonks thought they might be making progress. "We're entitled to our little vices."
"That's what I say! I ran into Sirius once when he was leafing through one of those old porn magazines he was so proud of, the great prat. I think he expected me to be appalled, but I was just narked 'bout all the shite he'd given me for my choice of reading material, and there he was with bloody big tits splashed across the page, one of those bints what looks like they're about to tip over – oh, no offence–"
"Anyway, after that I told him I didn't want to hear a bloody peep out of him even if he saw me flipping through an issue of Huge Fat Cocks. He gave his word of honour, though he was laughing hard enough to near wet himself. He always liked a good laugh, even if it were on him…" Tonks trailed off, the memory hitting her harder than she had expected.
"You miss him."
"Yeah. I just hadn't thought about that in awhile." Tonks took a short breath, steadying herself and getting back on topic. "I wanted to come out and say that I know things haven't been too friendly 'round here, save for Molly. But I hope you can look at it from our view. We're trying to survive, and we don't know who we can trust. You want to help and that's brilliant, we need it. But, it would be even better if you could tell me more than just, your brother is friends with Harry and
you fight the Muggle way."
"What would you accept?" Lila asked, her expression unchanged.
"Well, you snuffed out some Death Eaters, so that's a pretty brilliant start," Tonks said with a congratulatory smile. "Could tell me why you're so keen to hang about?"
"My brother and I have divided our mission. As I told Bill, we're soldiers. My job is to protect the Weasley family. The spell on the cottage takes care of that, so I'm free to assist the Order."
It was more than a bit strange for a young woman to claim that she and her teen brother were soldiers. Tonks decided to focus on the second part of Lila's statement for the time being. "Is that why you helped Remus?"
"He needed a ride, and I can drive."
"What else can you do?"
Lila's bearing became more rigid. "I'm trained in the use of a variety of Muggle small arms. My primary combat role is fire support, I'm a first-tier support gunner with expert-level training and veteran-level combat experience. I'm also qualified as a second-tier combat medic."
"That's all quite impressive," Tonks said dutifully, trying not to let her confusion offend the other woman. Lila clearly took pride in her qualifications, even if they didn't mean much to Tonks. "But, what does that mean, more… practically?"
Lila leaned back against the wall. "It means I know how to fight, and I'm good at it."
Which Tonks had already seen, if briefly. At least Lila was actually answering questions; the woman didn't seem quite as unfriendly as some of the Order members seemed to think she was. "How did Dumbledore recruit you?"
"My brother approached him. Scott offered support to Harry, and Dumbledore agreed to make that possible. I was part of the package."
"So you just up and volunteered?" Tonks said a bit sceptically.
Lila fixed Tonks with a look of mild condescension. "If you think Riddle is only a threat to wizarding England, you need to think again."
"Well, I won't try to argue with that!" Tonks said, readily conceding the point. "Who gave you all that training, though?"
"No one you would be familiar with."
"It's a secret, eh?"
"There are a number of things I'm not at liberty to tell," Lila stated.
Tonks had been an Auror long enough to have given similar answers to people, and she felt that she had hit upon something that Lila was never going to explain no matter how hard she was pushed. She also had the notion that Lila's disclosures had little to do with Tonks' questions or manner – Lila seemed ready to talk for her own reasons.
"I won't ask you to break an oath, but I'm sure you know that's going to make it harder to trust you," Tonks said.
"You don't have to trust me. You just have to use me."
Tonks intended to do just that. "We might get a chance to. I popped in for a meeting tonight, we just got word that the Snatchers are about to go after some poor sod. We've got someone who might be able to tell us who it is."
"Have you confronted them directly before?" Lila asked.
"No, we've been lucky so far. Always one step ahead, usually gone by the time they show up. They aren't exactly punctual: load of old wankers wearing costumes and playing soldier. 'Course, they get a lot more than we save. We can't be everywhere."
"You can make them worried that you might be."
"Easier said than done. If we weren't so bloody outnumbered…"
"I think I could make an impression on them, given the opportunity."
That was what Tonks wanted to hear. "Come on, then! We're supposed to meet in about an hour. The others'll give you a chance, I'd wager, if you attend."
"We'll see," Lila said, not sounding all that convinced.
For the next half hour or so, Tonks continued trying to coax whatever information she could out of Lila. It wasn't easy; Lila immediately shut down any attempt to discuss her origins beyond the flat in Ottery St. Catchpole, and never forgot herself no matter how convoluted the conversation became. It could be frustrating, at times, but Lila never became hostile, even when Tonks strayed towards more restricted topics. She seemed to be willing to meet Tonks halfway in gestures of friendship, becoming less aloof with every passing minute. Tonks was pleased to see her assumption proving true: Lila's reserve was difficult to crack, but not impossible.
"–and he had all of them, every last one. For a guy who disparages my decorating, he sure as hell made use of my throw pillows. All I could see were his feet sticking out," Lila said.
"What did you do?" Tonks asked.
"I jumped on him."
"Yes!" Tonks cackled. "Did he scream?"
"He goes, 'Lil, you fat lard, get offa me!'. I'm like, 'I'll lay on my pillows whenever I want.'"
"He sounds like quite the–" Tonks broke off when the door to the cottage opened, and Remus came hurrying out. He was breathing hard, and his wand was clenched in one hand. "Oi, luv! Did you just pop in?" she said.
"We found the target, and there's not much time," Remus said quickly. "We've a Portkey inside, Alastor and Bill are already there."
"Then why don't they grab them and go?" Tonks said, confused.
"The Snatchers arrived first," Remus said grimly. "This relocation just became rescue."
Bad news, indeed. The Order preferred to avoid direct confrontation by necessity; if Alastor and Bill hadn't already left, they must have thought it possible to win the fight.
"Who else?" Tonks said, following Remus back inside.
"Just us and Charlie. And there's no time to wait for more."
"Well, lucky for us, I thought ahead." She nodded in Lila's direction. "Just us and Charlie, plus one."
Remus cast a concerned glance in Lila's direction, though he did not protest. "You're coming, as well?" he said to Lila.
"Where's the Portkey?" she asked.
"Charlie has it in the sitting room."
"I'll meet you there," Lila said, heading towards the stairs.
Remus spoke quietly to Tonks as they hurried towards the front rooms of Shell Cottage. "You believe she can be trusted?"
"You really think she can't, after all that's happened?" Tonks shrugged. "Her brother is with Harry right now, we all know that. If they wanted to sell us out, I think we'd bloody well be sold."
"No, I agree," Remus said with a faint smile. "But no one else has been allowed to join without revealing more of themselves."
"I know, luv. Extreme circumstances, and all that."
Charlie was waiting for them, a large, half-melted candle on the table nearby. Tonks assumed that it was the Portkey.
"Wotcher, Charlie," Tonks said, giving him a quick hug. "Been awhile, yeah?"
"I thought I wasn't going to get to see you again before I went back to Romania," Charlie said with a smile. "Ready to show the Snatchers how things really work around here?
"I wouldn't miss it."
Lila came back downstairs with a baggy black jacket pulled over her green t-shirt, carrying an enormous rucksack in one hand. She joined them, glancing down at the candle with an odd look on her face. "What is that?" she said.
"The Portkey," Remus told her. "Have you travelled by one before?"
"No. What do I need to know?"
"The first time can be a bit disorienting. Here, I should probably carry that for you," Remus offered. Lila nodded and handed him the rucksack; Tonks watched Remus' eyes widen comically as his arm stretched downwards to a painful final jolt when he took the full burden of Lila's items. He caught himself before he fell over, leaning back against the weight.
Lila put her hand back out. "Do you need me to–"
"No, I've got it," Remus said, embarrassed. "Everyone touch the Portkey, we've little time to waste."
Tonks had never liked travelling by Portkey – always made her a trifle nauseous, not that she had ever told anyone. The Portkey activated and she felt the familiar tug somewhere deep in her midsection. When she landed – managing to stay on her feet and even look slightly dignified, to her delight – she looked up just in time to see Lila hopping back up after rolling neatly across the ground. Not a bad solution for the impact, considering she was a first-timer. Tonks vividly remembered ending up face down after her first jaunt through a Portkey.
She didn't know where they'd ended up, but it was somewhere in the country. They were in the middle of grazing land, old stone walls zigzagging across the hills and valleys like grey lines across crumpled green paper. Several shaggy cows on the other side of a nearby wall watched, incurious, as the Order party collected itself. Down the hill was an animal pen with a collapsed roof, and past that stood a lovely little cottage just off a narrow road, surrounded by hedges.
Bill and Moody were huddled behind one of the stone walls along the edge of the cottage's back garden. Tonks crouched to stay out of line of sight, letting the wall shield her as she made her way over to them. She didn't see any Snatchers or Death Eaters, but they must have been there, somewhere. Probably already inside.
Moody didn't waste any time with greetings. "There's four inside; could be five, if we missed one. Two more in the front, watching the road."
So at least they weren't outnumbered too badly, considering how lopsided the numbers usually were. Tonks peered over the top of the wall, but the reflecting light off the window made it impossible to see inside the cottage. She thought she could hear a raised voice, however; it sounded like a man.
"We'd better get in there before they decide they've learned enough," Remus said.
"Before they run out of things to steal, more like," Moody growled. "We're going to do this proper, with an Anti-Disapparation Jinx. No one leaves."
flank around the right. When you hit the back, I'll take care of the sentries and rush the front door. Watch your fire in that direction," Lila said with casual authority. From her rucksack she removed a metal construction with a dull finish, long and angular and covered with strange ridges and patterns. With a sharp click, she attached to it a translucent curved box filled with what looked like tiny spears, and then unfolded one end of the machine with another snap, lengthening it.
Moody eyed the device with a wary combination of suspicion and respect. "All right. But make it quick."
"Of course. Tonks, on me."
Charlie was looking at the narrow door into the back of the cottage. "Think I'll just be in the way. I'll slip around the side, see if there's a window I can use."
"Should be good at that, all the times you popped out for a twilight snog," Bill said mockingly.
"Hark who's talking, brother. We've both been out a window or two," Charlie retorted with a grin. "Try not to start without me."
"No, move in teams," Lila instructed. "Someone go with him."
"She's right," Moody said tersely. He might have been snappish because the new girl was giving orders, but it was hard to tell with Mad-Eye. 'Terse' was just about the only way he said anything. Tonks had spent a considerable amount of time thinking he virulently disliked her before she twigged on.
Bill sighed. "And I'd thought my window climbing days were over."
"Come on, old man: one more for the memories," Charlie told him, and together they went down the wall towards the side of the house that was in shadow.
"On me," Lila said again to Tonks.
The stone wall ran to the right, where it was bisected by another wall running perpendicularly, creating four corners. Lila swiftly traversed the obstacle, vaulting over in a low position that kept her weapon pointed towards the cottage. Tonks would have liked to imitate the motion, but didn't trust herself not to muck it up with her unpredictable clumsiness.
Lila paused for a short moment halfway along the second wall, looking towards the sky. "What is it?" Tonks whispered.
Lila shook her head in reply, and kept moving. At the front of the cottage the road wound off in either direction, over the hillocks. Two men in shabby robes stood watch in front of a faded door set in weathered stone. From where she was, Tonks couldn't see inside, but she could hear the raised voice and what sounded like a woman pleading.
Crouching down below the lip of the wall, Lila took off her jacket and placed it over her hair. There was a crumbling gap that sunk about a foot into the uneven stone; she braced her weapon in the opening and peered through. The men standing sentry appeared bored, leaning against the wall and paying attention to their surroundings only peripherally. It was clear they had been in similar situations before, and had probably been in their current one for some time.
Tonks felt the tension course through her, taut, unbearable. She was an instrument strung too tightly, strings thrumming with the slightest vibration. Waiting wasn't her strong suit – she preferred action, immediately if at all possible. She didn't handle anticipation all that well, but did have experience with it. She was able to keep herself from fidgeting well enough. She didn't want to spoil her aim.
She glanced at Lila, who was adjusting her own aim with calm intent. "…I'm ready," Lila murmured after a moment. "I'm going to fire four to six times. Don't let the sound freeze you up."
Tonks remembered how loud the Muggle weapon had been at Hogwarts, even a hallway away. Lila had been using a much smaller one, then. Tonks didn't know if bigger meant louder, but it seemed logical.
They crouched there for what felt like forever, measured in what was actually about ten or so seconds. The sound of the signal popping over the house was overridden by the immediate report of Lila's weapon. Tonks had been expecting it, but that didn't help all that much. The sound jabbed deep into her ear, overloading it.
She actually saw the projectile; or, well, she supposed that might be impossible, but the path of it was so clear that it was if she could actually see it carve through the dusty sunlight. The Snatcher closest to the wall reacted a bit like someone might when struck unconscious, with a jolt and a wobble, toppling over. He actually put out a hand to stop himself, which was odd considering how much of his brain must have been pudding at that point – the hand brushed limply against the door as he collapsed on the step. The second man didn't have much time to react, not doing much more than turning his head to look. Tonks saw him bend his shoulders forward a bit, folding in around the two shots that hit his chest. The last shot hit him in the head, or at least Tonks thought it did; Lila fired a fourth time, but it was hard to say where it went. The Snatcher fell onto his back, unmoving.
Tonks vaulted over the wall as the second man was still coming to rest. The ringing in her ears drowned out the details, but there were spells being shouted inside the cottage. She sprinted the short distance across the garden, grass flattening beneath her feet. The window nearest the door shattered outward in a flash of purple light. Remus and the other blokes must not have had quite the advantage in surprise they had hoped for.
She burst through the front door, eager to turn the tide. She nearly ran right into a Snatcher on the other side. He shoved at her, trying to push her back out the door. She caught him by the wrist and put her wand right up to his ribs, blasting him with a non-verbal curse at point-blank range. He sank to the floor, twitching.
She hopped over his shuddering form and took cover in the doorway to the loo, ascertaining that the fighting was raging between the small room at the front (where the window had been broken) and whatever rooms were at the rear. It seemed as if Remus' collective team had advanced until meeting the main force of Snatchers in the kitchen, who had reacted swiftly enough to lock down both entryways. Tonks ducked back into the loo as a hex splintered the jamb, threatening her eyes. She cursed colourfully as wooden shards cut into her cheeks and the bridge of her nose.
A sharper cacophony rose above the rest, shattering through the spells. Tonks looked cautiously around the edge of the pitted door and saw the tip of Lila's smallest weapon poking through the broken window. Of the three remaining Snatchers, two had been bombarding the back of the cottage whilst the third had spotted Tonks' entry and removal of his comrade – it was he who had hit the doorway. Lila, unopposed, had gone to the window and fired into their unguarded backs.
Two of them were dead or incapacitated before they realised they had been flanked. The third, the one closest to Tonks, fell to the floor, but then reached underneath the hanging cloth covering the nearby table. Through the curtain of the tablecloth he pulled a wriggling, shrieking form. Tonks at first thought it was one person. Then, she realised it was actually two people: a young boy, probably a first- or second-year, and a woman who was most likely his mother. The woman had wrapped herself around the boy, shielding him from the violence, and had refused to let go even as he'd been pulled out from their shelter.
"Stop!" the Snatcher wheezed. He yanked the two civilians close to himself and wrapped an arm around them, using the other to press his wand to the boy's throat.
The battle ceased, falling silent with eerie rapidity. In the sudden cessation, Tonks could see dark blood soaking through the Snatcher's robes. Lila hadn't missed: the man had been shot through the neck, and was losing blood at a rate that guaranteed he wouldn't be a threat for much longer.
"Let me Disapparate," the Snatcher said weakly, becoming paler by the second.
"You haven't got long," Moody growled from somewhere in the back of the cottage.
Remus' voice came then, reasonable and calm. "We can help you, but only if you let us."
The Snatcher did not respond, though Tonks wasn't certain if he could respond. He had ignored Remus and Mad-Eye, instead staring at Lila with mute terror and rage. Her aim had not wavered, fixed on the top portion of his head. His hand was beginning to shake so badly that Tonks wasn't sure he could cast properly. She wasn't willing to bet the boy's life on it, though.
"If you let them go, I promise you won't be harmed any further," Remus said evenly, having also witnessed the Snatcher's fixation on Lila. As he spoke, Tonks edged out of the loo and moved silently closer, waiting for someone to speak again.
Moody's harsh voice was just loud enough to be perfect. "Don't be an idiot–"
"Expelliarmus," Tonks hissed.
At such a low volume the spell lacked power, but the Snatcher also didn't have much of a grip. When the spell struck him, his wand flipped out of his loose hand and clattered onto the floor. He whipped around in Tonks' direction and put his hand out to retrieve it. The motion proved too much for his drained body to handle, and he fell over with a soft sound of dismay. Tonks quickly Summoned his wand out of his reach, though he made no more attempts to recover it.
The woman let out a shuddering sigh of relief and restrained horror, clasping the boy even more tightly to herself. Lila stepped away from the window to enter through the door, and in the sunlight streaming through the broken glass Tonks could see the boy staring down over his mother's shoulder, eyes wide. He was watching a thin stream of blood course over the tile floor, snaking out from the Snatcher's neck.
suddenly stood and clapped a hand over the boy's eyes. "We should go," she said with an undertone of hysteria, steering him towards the back. She flinched as her toe caught on the dying man.
Tonks had dealt with a few people in a similar state. She gently took the woman by the shoulders and led her out to the back garden. Charlie followed, making sure the door was shut behind them. The woman slumped onto the grass, legs unable to support her. She looked dazed, in shock. The boy was subdued, but kept glancing towards Tonks and Charlie with an expression of unselfconscious awe.
"You all right?" Charlie said quietly, drawing Tonks aside.
Tonks looked blankly back at him for a moment before she realised he must have been referring to the state of her face. "Bloody hell, is it that bad? Don't tell me I look like Mad-Eye. I'll never have another snog." She ran her fingers over the cuts, wincing at the sting.
"It's not that," Charlie assured her. "Worst scratch is right here, on your nose, and it's not deep. I just wondered if everything went well at the front."
Tonks gave him a mocking smile. "Lila's fine and fit, don't worry yourself, you big sod."
"Stuff it," Charlie said, stepping back with a grin. "Last time I show concern for you."
"Don't need it, do I, I've got – Remus!" Tonks said as her significant other emerged from the cottage. She quickly examined him, making certain he wasn't injured. "We got a prisoner, or…?"
"They're all dead," Remus said, looking weary. He was a gentle person at heart, more prone to the scholarly pursuits than Auror's work. She loved him for it, but the demands of the Order weighed on him more than they did her, at times. "Lila and Bill are watching the front, Moody's searching for whatever information he can find." Which, in the present situation, meant searching the bodies. Not a pleasant task, but one for which Mad-Eye was better suited than many in the Order.
"Better him than–" Tonks started to say, only to stop when Remus grasped her chin, tilting her face upwards.
"Are you hurt anywhere else?" he said with concern. "These aren't deep, but…"
"It's fine, luv, just a few scratches. Makes me look tough, real experienced. I'm like Mad-Eye, now, but still wicked hot." She winked at him.
Remus' mouth titled slightly upwards. "You won't get any argument from me," he said fondly. "Have Molly clean you up when we get back, there won't be any scarring. It's all from debris." He turned and crouched down next to the traumatised woman, who was staring at nothing. "Is there anything inside you need to take with you?" he asked.
"What?" she said distantly, jolted out of her stupor. It took a bit of coaxing on Remus' part to get her to focus, but she directed them towards a few irreplaceable heirlooms and a small stash of money. Remus hurried inside to retrieve the items whilst Tonks kept the woman company. Charlie had approached the boy and they were discussing Quidditch, neatly diverting the child's attention from his mother's ragged state.
"I was in Hufflepuff. I thought we were safe," the woman said tearfully as they waited.
Tonks had questions, but they would have to wait for a safer locale. Remus emerged and set several laden pillowcases next to the woman, apparently the only thing he could find for quick carrying. "Are we ready?" Tonks asked.
"Moody and Bill are locking up. They're just fixing the window," he said. The Order had learned it could be advantageous to hide their actions from brief scrutiny. If one of the Dark Lord's people stopped by, it would look as if the Snatchers had already left.
Lila trotted out the door and brushed past Remus, her long weapon still at the ready. "Are they wounded?" she asked Tonks.
"These two are all right," Tonks said, surveying the mother and son they had rescued. "You?"
"Fine. Is that all superficial?" Lila waved a hand towards Tonks' face.
"Only my pride that's hurting," Tonks told her with a jaunty smile, ignoring how much the expression stung.
"'Lo, Lila," the boy said.
"Hi, Trevor," Lila said casually, as if they'd run into each other on the street.
"Where's Scott?" Trevor curiously inquired.
"Off somewhere with Harry, per usual."
"Do you know, like, has he said anything about Kylie? She never wrote me back," Trevor said solemnly.
"Kylie's fine, she's with Scott."
Trevor grinned with relief. "Oh, that's good. Did you use that gun on those gits? It was wicked loud!"
"Trevor!" his mother gasped. "Come over here!"
"Mum! I'm talking to Lila, she's Scott's sister, she was at the party like I told you," Trevor protested. He turned back to Lila. "What'd you do with the other gun, the smaller one? You had it at school, I saw."
"I still have it," Lila said.
"Trevor! Now!" his mother ordered.
"Listen to your mom," Lila advised.
"All right…" Trevor sighed, walking very reluctantly to his mother's side. He seemed a resilient little bloke, that was for sure.
Bill and Mad-Eye left the cottage, magically locking the door behind them. Remus wrote down the information needed to access the safehouse they were going to, and then burned the parchment once Trevor, his mother and Lila had all read it.
Tonks remembered how excited she had been to get her Apparition license. The process had since lost its charm, especially now that she was so often using it to flee instead of for simple convenience. She gripped Lila's hand tightly and stepped sideways through the void.
Their destination was an old warehouse somewhere in Exeter, Tonks wasn't exactly sure of its location. It had once belonged to an associate of Mundungus who had since passed away. Dung had acquired it cheaply (and presumably illegally, though no one had asked him for the particulars) and had been using it to store goods for his 'business'. It was far more space than he actually needed, considering the small valuables he usually trafficked in, so he had given most of the place over to the Order's needs.
It was an enormous, musty old structure of faded, water-damaged brick and puddled concrete beneath a crumbling roof, mounds of industrial rubbish piled everywhere. The dirty tiled windows were cracked, often missing panes, and the entire place smelled strongly of damp. The most habitable areas were within an upstairs area adjoining the warehouse proper, what had once been offices. The Order had cleaned up and quickly converted it into a makeshift living area, installing a few temporary walls and getting the water running again. Trevor and his mother would be the first to inhabit the repurposed offices, though they would not be the last.
"What is this place?" the woman asked, appearing more exhausted by the second. Fatigue followed shortly on the heels of adrenaline.
"A safe house for people like yourself, those persecuted by the Ministry," Remus said, leading the woman over to a rather hideous lime-green settee. "As I'm sure you've gathered, we strongly disagree with current government policy."
"But I'm a half-blood! So is my son, and I haven't seen his father in more than seven years…" she faltered, pressing a pale hand to her face. "I'd thought we were safe…"
"So what did they want with you?" Moody said, stumping over to her. She quailed beneath his mismatched gaze.
Remus wisely stepped forward, placing himself between the woman and Moody. "It would be helpful to know why those men attacked you. Anything you can recall could be of great use to us."
"They… asked after the Andersons," she said delicately. "Neighbours of mine."
"Muggle-born?" Remus put forward.
"Yes. They went away on holiday when things took a turn. I told those men that I didn't know where they'd gone." She shuddered. "I lied. But if you hadn't arrived when you did, I don't know what I might have done…"
"But you didn't. That was very brave of you," Remus commended her. His demeanour was firm yet calming, a soothing authority. It was such an irony, his way with distraught people, when knowledge of his condition would often make people distraught.
"Trevor's the brave one," the woman said with a tremulous, watery smile, running a hand over her son's tousled hair. "He tried to fight before they grabbed me. Don't know how I raised a Gryffindor, but here we are."
"I'm all right, Mum," Trevor said, standing up straighter. He'd been energetic and seemingly untroubled until a bit after their arrival at the warehouse. The shock of events was beginning to set in, and his posture suffered accordingly.
Bill leaned in to speak softly next to Tonks' ear. "Charlie and I are going back to the cottage to let everyone know how it went," he said, and Tonks knew that by 'everyone' he meant primarily his mum and his wife. "We'll see you there."
"I want to thank all of you," Trevor's mother was saying quietly as Tonks focussed back on her.
"Just doing our job!" Tonks said. Then she paused, considering the semantics. "I mean, sort of. Or is this a hobby?"
"I prefer to think of it as a duty," Remus said dryly.
"Right, not something for bob-a-job week, is it? 'Cept for all this cleaning. Glad I missed that."
Lila popped back into the room, which momentarily surprised Tonks as she hadn't noticed the tall woman leaving. "Trevor, I'll make sure Kylie will write to you."
"Can't I go see her?" Trevor asked.
"Trevor! Don't be rude," his mother scolded. "And I want you to stay here."
"Sorry, kiddo," Lila said with a sympathetic tilt of her head. "But she might come to you, if we can work something out later."
"Is there anyone we can contact for you, to let them know you're all right?" Remus asked. "Family,
Trevor's mother nodded. "My sister, she lives in Lisburn. I can give you the address. They won't miss me at work for another two weeks, I was on holiday. Not really by choice, either. Just as well. They've been letting a lot of people go, lately, I was probably next. New management," she said grimly.
"There's a lot of that going around," Remus said.
"I know. I work at Gringotts – or worked, I suppose, soon enough. The Ministry's taken over. Anyone who isn't the right sort is getting shown the door. You can guess what sort I am." The woman sighed deeply. "Doesn't matter much now, does it?"
Remus nodded sadly. "I'm sorry that this has happened to you and your son. If it's any consolation, you did the right thing."
"I hope so," the woman said quietly. Trevor had fallen onto the settee next to her, and looked to be near to sleep. "At least he'll be safe here."
Tonks knew that would be true for a time, and she hoped it remained as such for the duration (whatever that might be). Those trapped within the safehouses could emerge to find a world they no longer recognised, should things progress poorly. But Tonks preferred not to dwell on such things, and had always been able to brush the thoughts aside. She felt quite good about what they had accomplished, actually. Mother and son, safe and sound, and a few more Snatchers who wouldn't be bothering any Muggle-borns. Didn't want to pat herself on the back too hard, but it was a fine job. On to the next!
Whilst Remus was finishing up, Tonks took the opportunity to go after Lila, who had slipped out again and was downstairs in the warehouse proper. The self-proclaimed soldier was poking through a heap of disassembled Muggle machinery with the toe of her boot. It didn't seem as if she were looking for anything in particular.
"Find anything valuable? I'd be surprised," Tonks said, coming up next to Lila. "Dung's already been through here, I expect, squeezed it for every last Knut."
"This used to be a truck transmission," Lila said absently, looking down at the mangled shell. "Would he know what Muggle scrap is worth?"
"He had a stack of tellies in here, when we first came in. I just about nicked one; thought Remus might like it. He knows his way around Muggle things better than I ever have," Tonks said. Remus' partial estrangement from the wizarding world was not by his choice, but his status as a second-class citizen had forced upon him the knowledge necessary to navigate the Muggle world with a familiarity many Order members lacked.
"Not how to drive, apparently. Lucky for me."
"Hey, lucky for all of us. You really came through, it was bloody spectacular, especially the bloody part. Too soon? Shite, I think I've disturbed myself. Sod it, point is, we owe you one."
"I did what I had to," Lila said levelly, though she looked a bit more pleased at Tonks' praise than her words let on.
"You get it done, that's for sure. Got that whole Queen and Country, stiff upper lip thing that I do admire, really. Does it sound like I'm taking the piss? I'm not, promise. I suppose you might not have a queen, come to think of it. Well, I'm sure you can make it work."
"Bow to your Queen, worm," Lila said quietly to herself, as if remembering something.
Tonks blinked. "What's that?"
Lila looked at her with an expression of apology. "I need to make a call."
"Oh. All right, I'll just bugger off, then. See you later?"
"Next mission," Lila said, walking away.
Tonks rather thought she'd see Lila before that, though there was no telling when the Order would have to act again.