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Hermione lives in a council flat in Bethnal Green, which is terrible and ridiculous, but all of Sirius's attempts to convince her of this have so far failed. She insists that it's fine, that she doesn't need anything nicer, that her limited salary at the library can't provide anything more, but Sirius knows better.

"James would sell you the West Sussex cottage in a heartbeat if you'd only ask," Sirius tried once, undeterred by the flat set of her mouth, the warning look, "he'd ask a fair price, it wouldn't be pity. Not that he would ever pity you. Not that you would ever stand for it anyway - "

"Stop it," Hermione said.

"We worry about you, all alone here," Sirius tried, weakly, and winced at the thunderous expression on her face. She kicked him out and wouldn't accept his Floo calls for weeks afterward, which was the effective and incredibly final end of that discussion.

She's dressed it up, at least. Sirius was pleased to discover curtains - actual curtains - on the windows, pale blue gauzy ones that cast a soft shade of color over the living room in the afternoon. Furniture has slowly appeared - a headboard on the bed, a shabby-but-comfortable rocking chair that she sits in while she reads, extra chairs around her work table. Whether she's transfigured them or simply bought them, Sirius doesn't care - either option implies progress. The dishes Lily bought for her still sit idle in the cupboards, collecting dust, but he's noticed her eating a bit better. Well - carrot sticks, at least, but it's still better than before. Her approach to food seems to be the same as her approach to everything: how much effort will this take? - and if the answer is more than the tiniest little bit, she simply doesn't do it. He's considered going out to the shops for her, but he dreads to think of how long he'd be exiled for something as presumptuous as that.

Sirius visits every Sunday, and spends as much of it with her as he can get away with. Hermione is visibly reluctant about letting him inside - or seeing him at all - but she endures it. Sirius likes to think he's wearing her down.

"I read that book," Sirius says, on this particular Sunday, pointing to the tome laying open on the seat of Hermione's rocking chair. It's a worn copy of Wuthering Heights.

"Hm," Hermione says, focused intently on the work before her, not altogether seeming to be listening. Sirius carries on anyway.

"I know what you're thinking," he says, stretching out in the chair across, feeling daring enough to nudge her feet with his own beneath the table. "'Sirius Black is far too handsome and daring of a man to sit around reading Muggle novels. Surely all his free time is spent riding motorcycles and having incredibly cool adventures. Why is he lying to me?!'" Sirius wags his finger at her. "Now that's just an unfair assumption, my dear Hermione."

Hermione looks up briefly, her mouth twisted in faint amusement.

"I can have cool adventures and read Muggle novels," Sirius finishes. "Humans are much more than their outward appearances, you know."

Hermione doesn't acknowledge his hilarious joke, as usual. "What did you think of it?"

"The novel? Oh," Sirius tilts his head, "kind of wordy."

"You realize it was written in the nineteenth century, don't you?" Hermione always sounds a bit prissy whenever she corrects somebody on something, which would be annoying if it weren't so encouraging. "It was quite innovative for its time."

"Unfortunately, I did not read it in the nineteenth century," Sirius replies sadly, "I read it in this century, and it took me almost a year to finish. Where's the pleasure in reading something you have to translate to yourself? Every single sentence was a bloody puzzle to solve. Terribly boring."

Hermione sniffs, turning back to her instruments with a distinct air of disdain. "I suppose it may be too...advanced, for your taste."

Sirius grins at her. "Did you read the one I gave you? Misery?"

"Of course I've read Misery," Hermione snaps, looking up at him again. The magnified spectacles she wears for her work have the unintended effect of making her eyes look comically large, which makes Sirius grin a bit wider. "When I was fifteen, that is. Sensationalist claptrap - all of King's novels are. Of course you'd like him."

"I'm quite partial to sensationalist claptrap," Sirius says. "One might say I'm known for it, in fact."

"Among other things," Hermione grumbles.

"Well then I want my book back, if you're not going to get any use out of it," Sirius says decisively.

"Help yourself," Hermione says, gesturing at the room at-large. Since half of it is covered in teetering piles of discarded books, it's a challenge as well as an invitation.

"I'll...find it later," Sirius concludes. He taps his fingers against the table restlessly. "What's this one, then? A spyglass that tells you your lover's secret fantasies? Location device for the nearest pub that serves steak and kidney pie?"

Hermione huffs. "It's for Dumbledore," she says, ludicrously, as if anything she makes is for anyone else, "it's designed to detect ill-intent in a visitor but I'm having trouble with the morality spells involved - damn," Hermione hisses, a tiny curl of smoke wafting up from her soldering gun. "You're distracting me," she accuses.

"Doesn't he already have half a dozen instruments that detect ill-intent?" Sirius asks.

"This one is for Muggles," Hermione says absently. "It's for McGonagall to take on home visits. Hand me that pair of tweezers."

Sirius slides them over carefully. Hermione's work table looks like some dystopian version of Santa's bench, covered in every inch with discarded bits of metal, Muggle tools, scraps of notepaper, and curious odds and ends that Sirius can only sometimes recognize as parts of a logical whole. He's been forbidden to touch anything from the very beginning, and has only recently been able to wrangle permission to sit down in the second chair.

"To detect...what, parents of Muggleborns who hate magic? Or - "

"Anything," Hermione interrupts. "Abuse, neglect, prejudice. Anything that would indicate something concerning a child's well-being, that would alert Minerva to investigate further. The problem is," Hermione pauses, setting down her soldering tool briefly with a soft sigh, "it's a broad definition. My spell can detect any and all of that easily, but containing it in an object that would detail something specific, a lead for her to pursue, is much more complicated. Without some kind of hint as to what the spell has found, it will have all the practical use of a Rememberall."

"What's the point of knowing you've forgotten something when you can't remember what you've forgotten?" Sirius agrees idly. "Seems too broad. 'Ill-intent' could mean anything - Mum tells racist jokes when she drinks, Dad yells at the football game on the telly. Doesn't necessarily mean the child is in danger."

"Obviously I've accounted for the level of severity," Hermione snaps.

"Hm." Sirius tilts his head, considering her. "There's the question of privacy, as well."

"Privacy?" Hermione scoffs. "Please."

"You're the one who argues that wizards and Muggles will never co-exist peacefully until we stop treating them as - what word did you use? - puppets," Sirius points out. "Isn't this exactly what you're doing - giving the Highland Charger herself the ability to intrude on these families' secrets at will - "

"Respecting a family's secrets is exactly how they're able to get away with terrorizing their children," Hermione says hotly. "I'm not about to go about selling these in Diagon Alley, anyway. This is a delicate assignment, specifically for - "

"You know I'm just taking the mickey, right," Sirius says, laughing.

" - and if you'd like to question my ethics, you may do so on the other side of that door," Hermione says pointedly. She pronounces the word 'ethics' the way most people say 'Death Eaters.' "I have work to do, Sirius."

Sirius holds up both hands in supplication. "A genius invention," he says. "A crystal ball that tells Hogwarts' angriest professor all of a family's problems. Cannot possibly think of how that might go wrong."

Hermione rolls her eyes. "Crystal balls are highly unstable," she says. "That wouldn't possibly work. Idiot."

"I was joking again." Sort of, Sirius thinks.

"News to me," Hermione says, turning pointedly back to her gadget. It looks sort of like a tuning fork, but with gears on it. Sirius wonders what it'll look like when she finishes.

"An admirable goal, though," he says, into the sullen silence. "I'm sure you'll work something out."

"Thanks," Hermione says dryly.

Sirius watches her twiddle for a few moments more. "Wouldn't it need to look like something normal?" he finally asks. "It's not going to be very subtle if she has to wave some nightmare contraption over them while sitting down for tea."

Hermione slams down her tweezers. "You're impossible," she hisses.

Sirius sits back in satisfaction, his weekly goal accomplished. "Thank you," he says warmly.

 

 

 

"So how did she look this week?" Lily is frowning at her overly full teacup, trying to stir sugar into it without spilling. Harry, the most docile, quietly sweet child on the entire continent of Great Britain, is sitting in her lap watching, one fist lodged in his mouth. He looks utterly fascinated.

"Fine," Sirius says, making a face at Harry, who releases his fist and switches his attention to Sirius, just as interested. "Did you hear about the latest gadget?"

"Ill-intent for Muggles? Yes, Minerva owled me about it," Lily says, finally withdrawing her spoon. "I think she'll figure it out. She always does, doesn't she?"

"That's sort of what I'm worried about," Sirius says. "Do you get the impression she's a bit overly involved? With this...subject? If you know what I mean."

Lily sighs. "She talks to you more than she talks to me. Why do you think I'd know?"

"You're still owling with her, aren't you? Women talk to each other about this sort of thing."

"Hermione is not the type of woman you're referring to with that statement," Lily says primly. "Besides, if she did tell me anything in confidence, I'd hardly go around blabbing it to you."

"I'm inspired and comforted by your confidence in me, as always, Lils," Sirius says.

"Lil!" exclaims Harry, clapping his hands.

Sirius laughs. "I think you call her 'Mum,' mate," he says, reaching over and tickling the boy's neck. He squirms, giggling.

Lily indulges the both of them, smiling softly. "You can call me whatever you like, lovey," she says, kissing the dark crown of Harry's head. "You, however," she says, looking up at Sirius, "may not. You know my opinion on 'Lils.'"

"James calls you 'Lils.'"

"Only when he's mad at me," Lily says with a scoff. Harry squirms in her hold, and she lowers him to the floor carefully, watching with sharp eyes as he totters away from them, towards the carpet by the fireplace where his toys are kept. "He's growing so fast. James told you he vanished his porridge last week?"

"Smart lad, your porridge tastes like glue," Sirius jokes. Lily smacks him. "Ah, I mean - oh yes, growing fast, how the time flies. Et cetera, et cetera."

"It's my own fault for getting sentimental around you," Lily says, rolling her eyes. "I'm a boring housewife now, you'll have to excuse me."

"Housewife? Boring?" Sirius scoffs. "I don't think those words mean what you think they mean."

"I was thinking about going back to work," Lily says, still watching Harry carefully. "When he's old enough for primary school."

"You and James finally found one you agreed on, then?"

"We came to a compromise," Lily says, very precisely, as if she's rehearsed it. "Anyway. That's still a year or two away. And there's the manuscript to finish, still."

Lily's neverending manuscript - a perpetually evolving, mutating, and growing document of her potions research - is a monster of a project that she will likely work on for the rest of her life, never satisfied, never finished. Ever since Harry was born, and Lily left her apprenticeship to work on it full time, James has referred to it exclusively as "the other man." Sorry mates, Lily can't come tonight after all, she's got a date with the other man, so on and so forth.

"Ah," Sirius says delicately, "yes. Of course, you should finish that, before you go back."

Lily frowns. "Yes," she says, sipping her tea. She looks, suddenly, profoundly uncomfortable. "Yes, well...almost in shape now...although there's always new developments to consider...the industry moves so quickly, you'd be amazed..."

Sirius rubs his beard, as a cover to hide his grin.

"Hermione's helped a bit, while we're on the subject," Lily says. "She's quite knowledgeable on the theory, of course, but she's got a magic touch with brewing, especially the trickier recipes. Has she told you the story about brewing Polyjuice in the toilet?"

Sirius laughs out loud. "No! A toilet?"

"You should ask her," Lily says, with a sly smile.

"She never tells me stories," Sirius complains. "I can barely get her to answer a question straight."

"Well that's your own fault," Lily says, unapologetically. "The way you antagonize her."

"If I didn't antagonize her, she'd never - " Sirius stops, cutting off his own sentence. It feels intrusive enough to discuss her like this, behind her back, like she's a wayward, troubled relative or something, but - to say it plainly feels like too much. "We get along fine."

Lily considers him, a bit too keenly for Sirius' comfort. "If you say so."

"So you do talk," Sirius says, pointing at her. "You must have some of her confidence, if she tells you juicy bits like that."

"She saved my life," Lily says simply. "Of course we talk."

A solemn silence falls, broken only by the sounds of little Harry, babbling quietly in the corner as he drags one of his toy trains along the stone edge of the fireplace. Outside, the distant sounds of the city are dampened only slightly by Lily's barrier spells. Sirius is fairly certain she leaves them thin like that on purpose. The way that magic inadvertently muffles natural sound has always unnerved her, she confessed to them once.

"She's eating better," Sirius offers, after a few thoughtful moments. "She looked a bit better, too."

"I've invited her for dinner tomorrow," Lily says. "She'll say no, of course. But I've told Remus and Alice, too - we've got to keep at it, keep badgering her until she gives in. She can't just shut herself up like - "

"If you badger her, we'll scare her off for sure," Sirius argues. "She can barely go outside without having a panic attack. It's a miracle Dumbledore found her a job she likes, otherwise she'd never leave her bloody flat."

"Two jobs," Lily corrects darkly. "Never let it be said that Dumbledore doesn't know how to leverage a situation for his own benefit."

"Now that sounded downright cynical, Lily Potter," Sirius says. "I'm shocked."

Lily rolls her eyes at him. "Come off it," she says. "James isn't here."

James, who stubbornly defends their former headmaster at any opportunity, would likely derail their current conversation as loudly and absurdly as possible. As Sirius has grown older, and more confident in disagreeing with his friends, he has come to the conclusion that James can be a bit of a twit sometimes. "Yes, well. She seems happy to do it."

"I'm just worried. You'd tell me if he asked her to do anything truly…" Lily trails off uncomfortably. "Well, you know."

"Yes, I would." Sirius is worried himself, but over the past three years he has become accustomed to being in a perpetual state of worry about one Hermione Granger. He barely notices it anymore.

"Good." Lily finishes her tea, setting the cup down with an awkward clink. "Perhaps if I tried to visit with Harry? Or do you think…"

"I think she would rather jump in the Thames then see Harry in person, Lily," Sirius says gently.

"Yes, okay. You're right," Lily says sadly. "I just...I'd hoped…"

Sirius rubs his beard again, this time to hide a frown. "You can't ask that of her," he says. "To rub what she's lost in her own face? No. That's too much."

"It just feels wrong, not to have her close," Lily confesses. "I'd wanted…"

She doesn't really need to finish. Sirius reaches out and takes her hand gently. Lily squeezes it tight, brushing her bangs out of her face with her other, blinking rapidly.

"We'll just have to keep trying," she says finally. "It's good that she lets you visit. You should try and get her out - even if it's just on a walk. A woman can't live without sunshine - true sunshine - it's not natural."

Lily is the only person who could say such a thing and mean it so earnestly - as sharp and witty as she can be, she is also endlessly sensitive, tuned into the slightest changes of mood and intent of those around her. It was one of the reasons why James had been so terrified of her in school, at the same time that he was enthralled by her - she is the strongest, bravest person in the world, sometimes, but she is also so capable of being hurt. So proud, but vulnerable, too. A woman of both extremes, and utterly unapologetic about both.

Hermione, by contrast, sometimes seems more like a jumble of concepts than a person. When Sirius thinks of her, he thinks of fragments of her: her hair, the sound of her voice when she gets shrill, the acrid smell of her spellwork, that terrible, obscene scar. He wonders sometimes if he really does pity her, but - no. No, he knows what pity feels like, and this is far from it.

"I'll try," Sirius promises.

"I know you will," Lily says, squeezing his hand again.

 

 

 

It isn't that they distrust Dumbledore's motives - they'd have to be blind and dumb to distrust that. His methods, however, have always been controversial - and not always in a way that Sirius is comfortable with. Three years of peace and safety have allowed him to admit some things he never could have before. And four years of Hermione's acquaintance have allowed him to get angry about it.

For example. "A walk?" Hermione repeats, looking horrified. As if he's suggested they take a day trip to Azkaban or something. "For what? To where?"

"For...fun," Sirius says. "And...anywhere. Down the street, to the park - whatever."

Hermione is rocking in her chair, looking rather terrified, clutching a great big book to her chest. Likely a magical tome, of some sort, judging by the muffled protest the book gives off when she grips it too hard. "I - I don't think that's a good idea."

Sirius takes a deep breath and pushes forward. "Come on. When's the last time you left this flat? Apparating to work doesn't count."

"That's none of your business," Hermione snaps.

"We could just pop down to the coffeeshop," Sirius says. "Get a croissant. Walk along the river. Whatever you like, Hermione. It's lovely out."

Hermione covers her mouth with one shaky hand, looking away.

"I wouldn't...let anything happen to you," Sirius says haltingly, already knowing that's not the problem. "That is, I mean that - I'd be with you the entire time. It's just...me," he finishes, frustrated with himself. He never was any good at being serious. Pun not intended, for once.

"I have work to do," Hermione says, still not looking at him. "I couldn't possibly, not today." She takes a loud breath. "Ask me next Sunday."

"Alright," Sirius says, instantly relieved at the concession. "I'll do that."

Hermione nods, looking back down her book, her mouth trembling. Sirius feels a great well of guilt in his chest, as if he's caused her distress, even though he knows he didn't. She's distressed whether he pushes her or not, and his pushing helps at the same time that it makes it worse - that's the entire crux of the conflict.

"Have you finished the ill-intent detector?" Sirius asks, sitting down on the edge of her tiny bed. "It looked like you were making good progress," he continues, because he still feels guilty.

Her expression tells him she knows very well the intent behind his question. "Not yet," she says curtly.

"You'll figure it out," Sirius says confidently.

"Not if I keep getting badgered about it," Hermione says, a bit shrill. "It's impossible to get a bit of peace and quiet to get some decent work done! Owls haranguing me all the time - visitors calling at all hours - "

"I didn't mean to disturb you, luv," Sirius says quietly.

"Disturb me?! No," Hermione shakes her head, knuckles white around the spine of her whimpering book. "No, I wouldn't call it that. Annoy, yes. Irritate and badger, fine. Disturbing? You couldn't pull that off if you tried."

Whether she's trying to comfort him or tease him or what, Sirius isn't sure. He's found that the best reaction when she stops making much sense is to just agree. "Yes, you're quite right, I'm horrible at it," he says.

It seems to appease her, or at least - cut her off, and she subsides. "Well," she says, blustery, her cheeks a bit flushed. "Fine. Yes."

Sirius frowns at his hands, regretting mentioning any of it. "I visited Lily," he says. "She said to tell you hello."

"Yes," Hermione says, one hand fluttering around her face, "yes."

Sirius' heart sinks. Her eyes are distant; he won't get anything out of her now. Idiot, he's such an idiot. "Said to ask you about a story involving Polyjuice and a toilet," he says, trying to make his voice sound upbeat, but she doesn't seem to be listening anymore, staring out the window and clenching one fist against her chin. "Sounded like quite the adventure. Don't suppose you - "

Hermione clenches her eyes shut, and the book drops to the floor with a dull thud. She's shaking her head back and forth, rocking side to side in her chair. Sirius bites his lip and watches her for a moment, feeling wretched.

"Sorry," he finally says, rising to his feet. She doesn't seem to notice, and Sirius stares at the side of her stricken, flushed face, wishing he'd never come over, for the very first time. It's a terrible feeling. "I'm sorry."

He could be a hole in the wall, for all she cares at the moment. Sirius makes sure to lock the door as he leaves, his heart and feet heavy.

 

 

 

Sirius is distracted and absent through the majority of the next week. James, of course, notices, and finally having had enough, drags him to the pub on Friday evening.

"Drink this for God's sake," James says irritably, shoving a pint in his face. "And wipe that look off your face, you're giving me a headache."

"Thanks a lot," Sirius says, but drinks it anyway. James is shoved up against him in the tiny booth, his own pint forgotten by his elbow. Their favorite pub is a small one, frequented by magic folk for the most part but run by a Muggle, the non-magical sister of a Muggleborn in their year. Nice place, good food, comfortable company: Sirius feels immune to most of it, at the moment. "Thought you and Lily were going over to Remus and Alice's tonight."

"Neville's come down with something," James says, pushing his glasses up the ridge of his nose. "Poor lad. Remus seems worried."

Remus as a father - well, stepfather, but who counts that difference - is a curious, anxious thing. Not that Remus isn't curious and anxious normally, of course. But Neville is a sensitive little boy, forever hiding behind Remus' knees and clutching at his mother's hand, and the responsibility of taking care of him seems to have made Moony's more nervous qualities even worse.

Not that Sirius would ever say that to him; for all his fretting, Remus seems happier than he's ever been. The sap, Sirius thinks fondly.

"Still, I shouldn't stay too late," James says, running one hand through his messy hair. What once was vanity is now just an afterthought, a fidgeting gesture James does when he's tired or stressed. "We're off to Surrey in the morning. Dudley's birthday party. Wouldn't do to show up hungover."

Sirius winces on James' behalf. "Sorry, mate."

"It's not as bad as it used to be," James admits. "Petunia seems to be trying, at least. Her husband's an utter git, but what else is new." Remembering his beer, James picks it up and takes a sip, setting it back down and pushing it away, surely to forget about it again. "Anyway there's not much time to talk when you've got a screaming bunch of four year olds to chase around."

Sirius winces again at the thought. "Better you than me, Prongs," he says, raising his pint in admiration.

James shrugs, fiddling with his hair again. All that energy he has is both an advantage and a hindrance in the Auror Department - Sirius has heard talk of promoting him into a desk job, just to calm old Cassius Clearwater down about the on-duty accident rate. For Lily's sake, Sirius hopes they do it. And James may not admit it out loud - especially to Sirius - but he wouldn't mind either. Sirius has known since third year that his pillock of a best friend was destined for comfortable, boring authority.

"Lily said you rowed with Hermione," James says suddenly.

"Not a row, exactly," Sirius says.

"But that's why you've been so bloody depressed," James says, pointing a finger at him. "Why didn't you just owl? Or go see her sooner? It's not a law that you can only go Sundays."

"She's got these routines," Sirius says, "and trying to get her out of them was what upset her in the first place."

"It's good for her."

"Yeah, well." Sirius shrugs, feeling morose. "It still upsets her."

James claps him in the shoulder, a gesture which turns into a more comforting pat. "You and Lily, you're doing a good thing here, trying to help. I tell her that all the time, but I don't think I've told you."

Sirius shrugs again, and James' hand falls from his shoulder. "You make her sound like some poor, discarded orphan or something."

"Well," James says, grimacing sheepishly. Isn't that what she is? goes unsaid. "Maybe it's unfair of me. I know what she's done, and even if I didn't I'd be able to figure it out, the way Dumbledore falls all over himself helping her. But it just doesn't seem…" James trails off helplessly.

"Real?"

James shrugs.

He'd never say this to Lily of course, but for once Sirius isn't all that grateful to be the one who hears James' secrets. He glances around at the other patrons, and quickly slides his wand from his sleeve to cast a silencing spell, just in case. "It is real. I saw her appear, Prongs. Out of the bloody sky, like a - an angel, or a superhero. I know it sounds mental - "

"I'm not saying I think anyone's lying, I'm just saying it's hard to...process." James pats him on the shoulder again. "I don't doubt that Dumbledore's telling the truth about what she did, and about what would've happened if she hadn't come back, but - you can understand how it's difficult to comprehend it all? Our whole lives, everyone's future - it was all saved by one girl? And she did it all on her own, without any help from us."

"The Dumbledores helped her," Sirius says. In truth, it had been Aberforth for the most part, who helped. The younger and more prominent of the two had not been clued in until it was too late for him to do anything of consequence, something that Hermione had told him about a year ago, after one of their arguments. She does that, sometimes, when they row for real: tells him a secret, in place of an apology.

James shakes his head in awe, or disbelief, or both. "Hard to believe. Not saying I don't! I'm just saying, it is. I know she saved Lily in the Hogsmeade attack, of course I saw that, but...the rest of it, it's just so…"

Sirius frowns at his pint for a long second. "Do the rest of you feel this way?" he asks. "Remus and Alice…?"

"No! Well, I dunno. I'm not trying to say anything here, I'm just talking."

He's sincere, clearly, but Sirius still feels unsettled. Dorcas Meadowes had been there too, the night Hermione walked out of a hole in the sky, in the depths of the Forbidden Forest, right where the Grim Grove met the edge of centaur territory. But Dorcas hadn't seen her appear, she'd been preoccupied with the centaurs, and had only noticed Hermione after the fact - Sirius was the only one who saw it. Sometimes he's sure that that's the only reason why she continues to be the most honest with him - she feels as if she doesn't have a choice.

When she'd told him about Aberforth, she'd also told him that she'd been lucky it had been him and Dorcas, of all the Order members that could have witnessed it. God forbid it had been James, or one of the Prewett twins, she'd said. They'd have marched me straight to Albus' office, and all my plans would've been ruined in the first five minutes.

As if she didn't have backup plans for backup plans for backup plans, for any and every contingency, Sirius had thought derisively. He hadn't called her on that, though - maybe he should have, maybe she would've told him more.

"I feel like I'm always negotiating with her," Sirius confesses. James raises his eyebrows slightly, signaling him to continue. "Not for information - to be honest I don't think I want to know the details of what her future was like - but for...concessions. To eat normal food, to wash her hair, buy a new pair of shoes. It's not her fault, of course - "

"She should be seeing a doctor," James insists, for the thousandth time, "surely we could find one that could be discreet, and if we're willing to pay they'd do a home visit - "

Sirius barks out a laugh. "She'd never speak to any of us ever again."

"But it might help. More than what we've been doing now."

Sirius sighs. "She'd never see a wizarding doctor. Madame Pomfrey, maybe, but if we get her one of those head butchers from Mungo's - I know that's what you were thinking, James - it wouldn't help."

"It does work," James insists, and he's not wrong, but Sirius can't forget how Regulus had looked, after he'd been released - exactly the same as he'd looked after being rescued from Dolohov's manor in Hertfordshire. He still won't talk about what happened there, and he won't talk about St. Mungo's either. So yes, it works, but Sirius knows 'butchers' isn't a lie, either.

"She's getting better," Sirius says.

"It's been three years," James says. "If she'd seen a doctor the day the war ended, she'd be fine now. She'd have spent this whole time...living her life, starting over. Whatever."

Sirius frowns thoughtfully. "I think," he says slowly, "the one thing she has more than enough of is time."

James waves one hand in surrender, leaning back in the booth. "Well don't let it…" he gestures again, incoherently, at Sirius. "Take you over, I guess. You're barely even twenty-five, and you act like you're fifty. Sometimes I don't even recognize you."

"Jamesy," Sirius says, cocking his head, "are you saying I'm too…serious?"

"I would never say such a thing and you should wash your mouth out for suggesting it," James says. "I'm just saying you need to get out more, you depressing tosser. Call Marlene already, would you? She's been moping around for weeks, even worse than you."

"She's not moping around because of me!" Sirius protests. "I haven't talked to her in months."

"Well." James grabs his pint again, shrugging and making a face: there you go.

Sirius rolls his eyes. "She wouldn't go out with me, anyway. Out of my league."

"She was willing to slum it with you before, wasn't she? No harm in trying."

Sirius shoves him, and James squawks, trying in vain to keep his beer from spilling. Sirius laughs at him as he glares, waving the spill away with his wand.

"Thought you had to be up early, I'm only helping," Sirius says.

"Wanker," James says.

 

 

 

James may or may not have had a point about Sirius' post-war lifestyle: most nights he goes straight home and just sleeps, forever exhausted by each day. He likes his job - loves it, in fact - but chasing manticores and baby dragons around the country isn't exactly relaxing.

Dorcas, whose meteoric rise in the executive office has been the stuff of legends, keeps offering to transfer him to Magical Accidents, which apparently is much calmer than it sounds. "Creature Control is good for the CV and all, but Sirius, when do you sleep?"

"At night, darling Dorcas," Sirius tells her, "beneath cruelty-free sheets."

The money is good, besides. The fraction of the Black vaults that the goblins had awarded him was gone not even a year out from the war, and it's not as if Reg's wages at the pub can keep Grimmauld afloat on their own. Plus, it's exciting. Dangerous, but only to a certain extent - nothing he can't handle. Sirius feels extremely lucky to have it.

"You really should move out of that wretched house," Hermione tells him that Sunday. She seems much better than the previous week, and has been oddly accommodating all afternoon - she's even made tea. Perhaps she's felt just as bad as he has, about last week. "I know how much you both hate it."

"Can't afford to until we sell it, and to do that we've got to practically rebuild it top to bottom," Sirius says. "Might as well just tear it down, honestly. Twelve generations of Blacks, adding who knows how many nasty curses and wards into the floorboards? It's a nightmare."

"Tear it down, then. Sell the land."

Sirius sighs. "There's some laws about that actually. Can't tear down a Noble and Ancient ancestral home without permission from the head of house, who just so happens to be on a permanently extended sabbatical in Azkaban." Sirius knocks his knuckles against the side of his chair restlessly. "Oh, and he also hates me. So there's that, too."

Hermione's tapping one nail against her chin, looking thoughtful. "You could make a claim for his position. Generally you'd have to go through Gringotts, but who's in charge of Ancestral Lineage nowadays? One of ours, isn't it?"

"Enoch Whistlebaum," Sirius says, nodding. "Definitely an Order sympathizer." He pauses, considering. "You're right about Gringotts, they wouldn't even give me a meeting. But if I went through the Ministry, perhaps..." It might work, he thinks. If he rattled the right cages, in the right order.

"Stupid that they didn't forfeit your father's position after his arrest," Hermione says, shaking her head. "A head of house in Azkaban? For money laundering, no less. It's ridiculous."

"If they did that every time a family head went to prison, the Wizengamot would be run by twelve year olds," Sirius says with a laugh. "Is this your next crusade? Family Law reform? I think you could do it."

"Don't tempt me," Hermione warns. "The only thing the Wizengamot ever did for us was give us headaches. And Family Law! What a joke. They opened the door for Voldemort himself, invited him in with a bloody hero's welcome."

She's spoken before about this, how the Ministry had fallen in her future, but it still always gives SIrius a chill, to hear it described so plainly and casually. "Did you ever think about doing it? Changing things like that, I mean. Don't tell me you didn't have ideas about how."

"Oh, I had ideas," Hermione says with a sigh. "If Harry had made it back with me, maybe…" she trails off, expression sad, but not distant. A good sign, overall. "Well. On my own, I was spread a bit thin."

Sirius watches her carefully, but she doesn't seem overly distressed by the line of conversation, so he keeps going. "Structural change can't be caused by one person, anyway," he says. "Even if you, I don't know, toppled the government whole, made us all start from scratch - we haven't changed. Whatever we'd build would have the same problems, and new ones on top of those, besides."

"Yes, you're quite right of course," Hermione says, rocking gently in her chair. She bites her lip, looking as if she's working up to saying something. "Sometimes I'm glad Harry didn't make it back. He'd be stuck same as me, if he had."

The Harry she knew - the Harry that will no longer exist - is a topic that they're all obsessively curious about, but desperately terrified to ask about. Sirius knows how badly Lily wants to know, in particular - but she's also deathly afraid of what the knowledge would do to her family. What knowing too much about what could have been would do to her relationships with the people they all are now. Would they look at each other differently? Treat each other differently?

Of course they would. They wouldn't be able to help it.

"Have you ever thought about leaving?" Sirius asks lowly. He leans forward, sitting as he always does in the same spot on the end of her bed - close enough to talk, but still far enough away that she doesn't feel crowded. "Not that I want you to leave. But you could, if you wanted to. Fly away to the continent, to America. Some place completely new, with people you've never met."

"Of course I have. I think about it almost every day. But what would it help?" Hermione asks helplessly. "I'd be worse off, if anything. You can't run from grief. It follows you wherever you go."

"You sound as if you're quoting someone," Sirius comments.

"I am," Hermione says, and then surprises him by telling him: "something my father said, after my grandmother died. They were very close - she was the last of his family, really. Other than some cousins he barely knew. He was just devastated when she passed."

"Were you close to her as well?" Sirius asks gently.

"No." Hermione shakes her head. "No, I was very young. But we talked about it quite a bit when I was older...after the war started."

After people started dying, Sirius thinks gravely.

"Forgive me, Hermione," Sirius says carefully, "I don't want to upset you, but while we're on the subject...you do know that we've kept track of them, don't you? Your mother and father, I mean."

Hermione stops rocking, her face going very still. "I know," she says quietly.

"I've kept tabs on them personally," Sirius says, wanting her to know the exact context of what he's saying, "Dumbledore probably has as well, but…" He wouldn't do anything, or say anything, Sirius wants to say. Not without my permission.

"They're in Australia," Hermione says, clearing her throat. She looks a bit pale, but there's no true distress on her face. She just looks tired. "I sent them there. First thing I did, when I got here. You don't have to worry, Sirius. I know what you're trying to say."

Sirius releases the breath he's been holding. "Good."

"I wonder," Hermione says, "if simply coming here was what caused it. The other Hermione's death, I mean."

Sirius winces, just at how casually she's able to say it. "Just your presence was enough to give her cancer?"

"Terrible things happen to wizards who meddle with time," Hermione says idly. She's started rocking again, gently moving back and forth. The bundle of knitting on her lap is trailing yarn down her leg, slowly tangling up in the spokes of her chair.

Sirius doesn't reply - in fact, the lump in his throat means that he can't.

 

 

 

The weeks spill out before him one by one, and Sirius barely feels them pass. Sometimes he feels as if he only truly exists on Sunday afternoons in Bethnal Green, and the rest of his life in-between is just a quickly-moving dream.

Remus and Alice come to visit on a rainy Tuesday, with little Neville, on their way to Scotland to visit Frank's grave. Kreacher serves them all stew, while Regulus hides upstairs, as he always does when Order members come to call.

"Probably just a cold, with the weather turning and all," Alice says, a drowsy Neville nodding off in her lap. "He's been just fine the last few days, hasn't he, dear?"

"Practically energetic," Remus says, sharing a fond look with Sirius. He grins back, basking as he always does in their quiet bubble of happiness. "We even went for a broom ride the other day - his first."

"No," Sirius says, "without me?! Moony, I'm devastated."

"He hated it," Alice says with a laugh. "Absolutely loathed it. Couldn't get off the thing quick enough."

Remus is laughing too, his eyes sparkling. "Wouldn't even look at me for an hour afterwards. Like I'd betrayed him."

"Ah, well, fun and fancy aren't for everyone," Sirius says, chuckling along. "He'll come around when he's older, maybe. Or maybe he's just meant for solid ground. Wouldn't surprise me, what with your influence, my friend."

"I don't like what you're suggesting, Padfoot," Remus shoots back, still smiling. "You're one to talk, anyways. Lily told me about what happened with Harry's first broom ride."

Sirius sticks his chin out at their laughter. "I was being perfectly reasonable and responsible, I would've expected you all to be proud of me, not mock me like classless ingrates - "

"Didn't you go running after him? Lily said your face was so red she thought you were having a heart attack," Alice says, laughing that loud, shrill laugh of hers. Neville doesn't even stir from his drowse, his head bouncing against her shaking chest.

"He was headed straight for the drop off behind the pond, going ridiculously fast - you know what, I don't need this," Sirius says, shaking his head at them both. "I fed you delicious stew, I don't deserve this."

"It was delicious, which is how I know you had nothing to do with it," Remus says, nudging his arm. "Come on, let's have a smoke. That should calm your delicate sensibilities."

"Delicate what," Sirius says, and punches his arm. Alice gives another laugh-shriek, covering her mouth with one hand.

"And he calls us ingrates," Remus mumbles, rubbing his arm as he rises from the table. "Ally, you want one? You can lay him down in the living room for a minute or two."

Alice waves them off. "You boys go on, I'm trying to cut back." She runs a careful hand over Neville's slightly sweaty head. "The chaps at work have been after me about it."

"Kreacher will bring you some coffee," Sirius says. "But don't ask for tea, he's terrible at that."

Alice snorts. "He's terrible with coffee too, you just don't know what coffee's meant to taste like."

"She's got you there," Remus mumbles, chuckling.

Out in the garden, the rainfall is slowed and gentled by the wards, turning the outside storm into a gentle shower. Sirius leads them out to the silver birch by the fence, the bare spot where the wards are weakest, and casts his own drying spell, which does the rest of the trick.

Remus offers him one of his cigarettes, probably knowing that Sirius doesn't have any. He always was terrible about remembering to buy them. "Probably shouldn't have asked her," he says regretfully. "I knew she was trying to quit, but I just forgot."

"Pretty sure she'll forgive you, Moony," Sirius says, taking his first inhale. It hits him like a physical punch to the chest, and he realizes it's been months since he last smoked. He clears his throat, to cover the urge to cough. "Neville still seemed a bit sluggish - he is on the mend, isn't he?"

"Yes, yes." Remus nods, smoke curling up around his shaggy, thoughtful head. "He was up late last night, is all. Ally couldn't get him to go down until almost three in the morning. Not that you'd be able to tell, looking at her."

"She's eternal, our Alice," Sirius agrees.

"Thanks for having us. It helps, truly, when we go to visit Frank. Cheers her up."

"Anytime, day or night, my friend," Sirius says, meaning it.

The world feels eerie and far away, as it always does, during a rainstorm. Sirius watches the water change as it falls through the invisible barrier in the sky, remembering miserable afternoons when he was young, watching the same effect from his bedroom window. His mother's malevolent presence down the stairs, Reg's dreary, forlorn one down the hall. Sirius used to wish that invisible barrier was solid, so he could crawl out the window and walk straight across the sky to freedom.

"How's Hermione?" Remus asks quietly, which is the real reason he'd wanted to come out to smoke. Everyone always asks Sirius that question at some point, when he sees them.

"She's well," Sirius says honestly. "Seemed very good, last Sunday."

"James was worried he'd made you angry, the last time you talked," Remus admits. "Said he'd said some things."

"Things?" Sirius repeats with a snort. "What did he say, exactly?"

"Well, you know James. Never wants to admit what he wants you to forgive him for."

Sirius laughs. "He didn't say anything unforgivable. He was just a bit more...honest, than usual. I'm not angry."

"Good." Remus eyes him keenly, the same look he's been giving Sirius since they were eleven: skeptical and fond, all at once. Sirius grew up beneath that look. "If you wish to talk about it, might I suggest myself as a better option? Not that James isn't a sensitive, emotionally intelligent soul of discretion - "

Sirius almost doubles over, snorting with laughter.

"You seem as if you could use a more neutral ear, is all," Remus finishes, grinning widely.

"Ah, Moony," Sirius says, leaning heavily against the tree. They're letting their cigarettes burn out, mostly, uninterested in them. "I'm just so worried about making it worse. I like to think I'm helping, but that's probably just, what do you call it, my self-important ego - "

"I'm sure you're helping," Remus says firmly. "But even if you're not, you're definitely not making it worse."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"You know what I mean," Remus says, shaking his head. "You can't fix her with a spell - nobody can, no matter what James might think. What she needs is someone to do what you're doing - to keep showing up, week after week. Listen to her, leave her alone when she needs it. But to keep being there, no matter what she might say."

"There's just so much," Sirius confesses, "so much for her to grieve. Her entire world, Remus! She seems resigned to it, that she'll always be like this, for the rest of her life, and it's not always easy for me to disagree."

"Well," Remus says slowly, "she's right, I think. To a certain extent. She'll never just - get over it. It'll always be part of her - what she's lost. But it doesn't have to be...everything. And I think…" Remus is eyeing him again, more fondly than skeptically, "she's got you to remind her of that."

Sirius rubs his beard, his chest full of some unnamed emotion he couldn't possibly face, not yet. "I'm no stranger to grief or pain, but she makes me feel like a fish out of water. I can't possibly understand where she's coming from, none of us can."

"No, but you don't need to understand all of it." Remus grips Sirius' arm solidly, squeezing tight. "It's okay to feel inadequate, but don't let that stop you from trying."

"I won't," Sirius promises, looking back up at the sky.

Remus squeezes again, then lets him go. "I think she's good for you too," he says quietly. "Like Alice is good for me. You know what I mean?"

Sirius nods. Alice and Remus had been a surprise - an unwelcome one, at the time. Most of the Order had thought it inappropriate, so soon after Frank's death, but - Sirius had understood it, right from the beginning. They're very similar people, they both need very badly to feel useful in some constructive way, and there was no reason at all to deny themselves. Especially when it was also so very practical.

Not that there isn't love there, as well. Sirius regards his dearest friend, the best man Sirius has ever known, and thanks Alice silently for the millionth, billionth time. The bags beneath his eyes are gone, he's got meat on his bones for the first time in years. The lines around his mouth are from smiling, now.

"Do you think," Sirius says, daring for the first time to ask, "that I could be...the sort of man that - that you and James are? That I could be...good at that?"

"Sirius." Remus throws his cigarette away, and takes him by the shoulders, squeezing hard. He looks Sirius straight in the eye, and speaks clearly, so directly that Sirius can't help but listen. "I think you were born to be that man."

Sirius grabs onto one of Remus' wrists, and closes his eyes, letting it sink in. Letting himself start to believe, for the very first time.

 

 

 

Sirius couldn't call his relationship with Regulus 'close,' by any liberal definition of the word, but they do live together, and they do share responsibility for what remains of their family's legacy. Whatever the hell that means, anymore.

Reg spends most of his time either at his pub - The Hungry Toad, a truly depressing establishment smack dab in the worst part of Ealing - or the attic with Kreacher. The two of them have been on a spring cleaning kick, lately - either that, or they're planning something morally dubious, in which case Sirius would really rather not know about it.

"Does Master need something?" Sirius usually hears Kreacher before he sees him - he squints into the dark doorway, catching sight first of the elf's droopy ears, highlighted in the light from the dim desk lamp.

"No, I just - Reg, there you are," Sirius says. Kreacher bows out of Sirius' way, as he strides into the room, then quickly withdraws back into the elf's tunnel that leads directly down to the kitchen, the echoes of his muttering following him all the way down - Master Sirius never needs anything from Kreacher, Master Sirius is too good to need help from poor Kreacher - and Sirius grimaces. It was one of the hardest things to admit, that Hermione was right about his treatment of the elf, but he still doesn't have to like it. They've come to a sort of neutral detente, at this point.

"Did you need something," Regulus says dully, not looking up from the gigantic tome his nose is buried in. The more time he spends with Kreacher, the more he's come to sound like the elf too, which is just eerie, if you ask Sirius.

"Had a question for you," Sirius says, stopping short at the end of the desk. This used to be their father's, before it was moved up here. "About the house. Is that the marriage ledger? What in the bloody hell are you reading that thing for?"

"It's interesting," Reg says. He looks up briefly, and Sirius is struck again by how similar he looks to Andie. You'd think he'd be used to it, but for some reason, he isn't. It hurts a little every time. "Did you know Mum was trying to negotiate a marriage for you to the youngest Shafiq daughter?"

"No! Aziza Shafiq?" Sirius bends over Reg's shoulder to look. "You've got to be joking. She wouldn't have touched me with a ten foot pole."

"That was, apparently, the reason negotiations fell apart," Reg says dryly. "She tried once more with the Fawleys, but all their daughters were already spoken for by then. And then, of course, she quit trying after Father disowned you." Reg flips a few of the ancient pages, still half-absorbed in the reading. "What about the house, is there a problem?"

"No, just - " Sirius pauses, for the first time considering what Reg's opinion of Hermione's idea might be. Reg doesn't have many opinions about anything nowadays, but he's still quite attached to their mother's memory - for whatever reason. "Something to run past you, really. I have an idea about - well, about claiming head of house status for myself. So we can have flexibility on the properties."

Reg goes very still, placing his hands carefully flat on the desk. "What idea?"

"Well," he says, "I...had a chat with the man in charge of Ancestral Lineage, he's - a friend of a friend - " Reg grimaces, at the oblique reference to the Order, and probably at the idea of Sirius' friends at all - "and he thinks it'd be possible for me to claim it away from Father, given his current...status." Sirius winces. "If I bypass the Gringotts process entirely and make it legal at the Ministry first, he thinks the goblins will follow suit to save face, because it'll look like someone mussed up the paperwork, otherwise."

"Tricky," Reg comments. "Not very Gryffindor of you."

Sirius frowns. "You don't like living here anymore than I do," he says. "That's all it is. Besides, it'll fall to me anyway eventually."

"Not if you die before he does," Reg says. It doesn't sound like he intends it as a threat or an insult, but Sirius feels faintly disturbed anyway. It's just how his brother talks, really. Another thing he should be used to by now.

"I don't care about any of it, Reg," Sirius says honestly. "You know I don't. Hell, I'd give it straight to you, if I think they'd let me. You can be in charge of the antiques, the libraries, whatever - all of it - I wouldn't do anything without consulting you first."

Reg doesn't say anything, but he does lean back in his chair, crossing his arms thoughtfully. He's cut his hair recently - he looks downright respectable nowadays. But Sirius figures that's a probably a necessity, considering how close he came to Azkaban, how the Aurors still follow him around whenever he steps foot in Central London. Sirius can't bring himself to feel too bad about it.

"It's just you and me now, Reg," Sirius says. "Bella and Narcissa aren't Blacks anymore, Andie's...gone. Mum's gone. Anyone else is too distant to make a claim, and - " Sirius sighs. "I'm tired of this. Can't we just be...normal about things, for once? Instead of putting ourselves through all these bloody rituals, and traditions, and - "

"Tradition is important," Reg interrupts, but he doesn't sound all that passionate about it. "Fine. Go ahead, I won't stop you. I want to be in charge of the house, though. Sell it, tear it down, whatever you like, but - I want to decide what happens to everything inside. The portraits and books and everything."

"Fine by me," Sirius says. They shake on it. "Everything I want, I already have. Do whatever you want with the rest of it."

Reg nods, turning his attention back to the ledger, but his shoulders are still tense. "Don't suppose I need to ask where this idea came from," he mutters disdainfully.

Sirius takes a deep breath, trying to control his temper. She saved your ungrateful life, he wants to say. She broke her leg doing it, and helped you destroy that wretched locket, and still you mutter names behind her back, you rotten, bigoted bastard -

"Send her my best," Regulus says. Sirius honestly can't work out whether he's being sarcastic or not.

 

 

 

"I've given it quite a bit of thought, and I'd like to go on a walk today," Hermione announces that Sunday, not even giving Sirius a chance to take his coat off.

"Really?" Sirius grins at her. "You're not too delicate?"

Hermione slaps his arm. "Don't talk to a lady like that, it's impossibly rude."

"Well, my lady," Sirius says, taking her in: boots, and a dress he's sure is new, a Muggle coat and her hair braided neatly into a coiled bun on the back of her head. She looks like a brand new person. "If a walk is what you want, then a walk is what you'll get. Where shall we go?"

"I thought, just a ways down the street," Hermione says. She's glancing at the door nervously, but she seems determined, her shoulders straight and chin up. "There's a nice bookshop near the Tube station." She raises an eyebrow at him, as if daring him to protest.

"I love bookshops," Sirius says. "You can buy me a new copy of Misery."

Hermione scoffs, but takes his arm.

The weather is still hovering between summer and fall, but the sun is out, and this early on a Sunday, the streets aren't crowded. Hermione seems a bit nervous, as they round the corner and her building is no longer in sight, but it seems to quickly melt away, and suddenly she's just another pedestrian on a weekend morning, enjoying the weather, going out for a coffee. Sirius squeezes her elbow - impressed, grateful, a little overwhelmed himself.

"You see," Hermione says, as they wait for a light to turn, "all you have to do is give me adequate warning, and I can do practically anything."

"Anything?" Sirius asks. "How about Quidditch next Sunday then? You can be my Keeper."

"Anything within reason," Hermione says.

"Reason being 'on the ground,'" Sirius clarifies.

"Correct," Hermione says, pulling him forward across the crosswalk. "Did you know more wizards die in Quidditch accidents than any other type of accident? The only causes of death that are more frequent are splinching - which isn't technically classified as an accident according to the research, which I disagree with - deliberate attack - an obvious skewing of the numbers there - and heart disease."

"Heart disease," Sirius repeats incredulously.

"Yes," Hermione says firmly. "Fried food is terrible for magical hearts too, you know."

Sirius laughs in delight. "Hermione," he says, steering them around a trash can, "you are, without a doubt, the sternest, most charming woman I've ever met."

"I'm not altogether sure if that's a compliment, but thank you anyway," Hermione says.

They stroll down the sidewalk together, stopping every so often when Hermione lingers over a storefront of some kind. Her face is sharp and focused, and for the thousandth time Sirius wonders what her London looked like. How different was it, in that version of 1998 that no longer exists?

"Is it terribly hard to get used to?" he asks, as she lingers over a rack of dresses that have been put out on the sidewalk, on sale. "You've mentioned the clothes, before."

"The cars are very different," she murmurs, running her hands over a blue, cotton skirt. "But wizards always seem dressed strangely to me. None of you can be bothered to pay attention to how Muggles dress."

"Hey, I do alright."

Hermione concedes the point with a wry smile. "It's a bit like walking around in a magazine catalog or something," she says, looking around. "It's not so different that I didn't get used to it. But sometimes I'll catch a person wearing an obscure style of outfit, or with a particular cut of their hair that looks straight out of an old film to me, and I get taken aback by it all over again."

"Do I look like that?" Sirius looks down at himself. He's gotten used to wearing Muggle clothes, which helps him tremendously on the job. Disenchantment and glamour spells usually interfere with the tracking ones he uses, and transforming into Padfoot tends to just scare off whatever creature he's tracking anyway, so it's loads easier to just blend in the old-fashioned way.

"You look like yourself," Hermione says. "You look...like you always do."

Sirius isn't sure how to take that, to be quite honest. "Do I look like I did in your future? Was I wearing trousers like these when I died horribly?"

"Not happening," Hermione says breezily. "And you shouldn't be talking about it out in the open like this, you know better."

Sirius rolls his eyes, and casts a quick Notice-Me-Not spell with his wand, sticking out of his sleeve. "Oh come on, all these years and you still refuse to tell me even the slightest detail. You told James and Lily all the gory details of how they died."

"I don't know any gory details about that! I simply told them what they needed to know, and anyway, they don't have a sick and twisted fascination with their own deaths."

"What did you expect to happen when you told me I died 'tragically'?" Sirius asks, laughing. "That was the word you used. 'Tragic.' And then you've refused to tell me anything else, not even how old I was - "

"Because it doesn't matter anymore," Hermione says primly.

"Doesn't mean I'm not curious."

"I suppose you want me to tell you that you died fighting Voldemort himself, falling in a blaze of glory while trying to save a town full of innocent orphans."

"Well, they don't have to be orphans," Sirius says. "Just innocent would be enough." Hermione rolls her eyes, but she's biting back a smile, Sirius notices with satisfaction. "How about this, I'll guess, and you can tell me whether I'm getting close by how annoyed your face will look. Sounds like a fun game, eh?"

"And how does my face look now?" Hermione asks flatly.

"Like I'm getting very close, Hermione my dear," Sirius says, taking her arm again and gently pulling her away from the clothing shop, back down the sidewalk. They fall back into their stroll, Hermione huffing softly at his side. "I did die fighting Voldemort, didn't I?"

"No comment," Hermione says, face stoic. Bingo.

"It had to have been years after James and Lily, since you knew me," Sirius says. "Harry knew me too, didn't he? Of course I didn't raise him, since you told us about the Dursleys, but I was still there, wasn't I?"

Hermione doesn't reply, but her hand tightens ever so slightly on his arm.

Sirius had intended this to be a light, teasing conversation, but he can't help the question that's been burning in his mind, ever since she'd first let it slip. She hadn't even meant to tell him, was the thing - she couldn't help but let on that she'd known him (well, Sirius could have figured that out just by how intimately she spoke of the Potters), but the fact that she'd been present for his death was one that she had meant to keep to herself. On one hand, it speaks to how comfortable she's become in his company, but on the other -

"Was it my family?" Sirius asks. Hermione stops walking, right in the middle of the street, and the Muggles seamlessly walk around them like running water split by a stone, the Notice-Me-Not spell doing the work of keeping them oblivious. "You don't have to tell me who, or what or when. Just tell me - was it a Black?"

"Not technically," Hermione says stiffly, but her face is answer enough.

"Bella or Narcissa then," Sirius concludes. Hermione blanches. "You really are a terrible liar, Hermione."

"I wasn't lying, I was obfuscating! I'm not telling you anything more."

"I don't want to know more," Sirius says balefully. He tries to picture it - meeting one of his cousins on a battlefield. It's a miracle it never happened. Bella was a well-known member of Antonin Dolohov's raiding party, and it was only chance that Sirius never crossed paths with her. And Narcissa - well. She'd never have lowered herself to actually take the Mark, but she wouldn't have hesitated to wield her wand on its behalf. Sirius reckons he has young Draco to thank for her absence in the fight.

And they were too good to be caught. Sirius knows Hermione had intended to put both of them in Azkaban, but Narcissa was far too intelligent, too practical, to allow herself to be implicated publicly, and Bella - well, Bella simply fled the country. She and Rodolphus went into hiding when things started to look bad for their side, and haven't been heard from since. They'll come back one day, Sirius is sure of it. He isn't looking forward to that day at all.

Hermione pulls him closer and starts walking again, sliding her arm through his completely so their elbows are linked. "It doesn't matter anymore," she says firmly.

Sirius guesses that's true, in some sense. "You remember it. Doesn't it matter to you?"

"Of course it does!" Hermione snaps. "But I'm not going to let it happen! That's what I meant."

Sirius finds himself unable to come up with a reply to that. He locks their arms together against his side, matching her brisk steps with his own.

"Seriously, am I very different?" Sirius asks, trying to lighten them both up again. "I must be much more handsome now, in my youth. At the very least."

"You are always far too handsome for your own good," Hermione says, "in any timeline."

Sirius laughs. "Does it bother you, being the same age as us? It must have been strange at first, for elders to suddenly be contemporaries."

"You were never my elder," Hermione says staunchly. "And no, it doesn't." She pauses for a brief moment, head tilted thoughtfully. "Although people always did say I was very mature for my age. Perhaps I've always thought of you all as my contemporaries, for that reason."

Sirius is trying very hard not to laugh at her again, but it's a losing battle. "Except for me, of course."

"Except for you," Hermione agrees. "Your personality is quite immutable, I'm afraid."

"That's a shame," Sirius says, grinning ear to ear.

"Well, you can't change everything," Hermione replies, with a small smile. Like she's got a grand secret, and she's planning on picking the best moment to tell him.

Sirius adores that smile. He would do a lot of stupid, reckless things to see it.

"Let's get some breakfast before the bookshop," he says impulsively. "I'm starving. Are you up for it? My treat."

"No wizarding places," Hermione says.

"I would never presume to take you to a wizarding establishment, dear Hermione. What kind of insensitive lout do you think I am?"

"An insensitive lout who loves to rile me up," Hermione says, leaning affectionately into his side. "Fine. Lead on, Padfoot."

"Oh, don't call me that. It sounds so weird, coming from you."

"You should hear what Harry and I called your Grim form in the future," Hermione replies, voice tight with restrained, private laughter.

"Oh, I'm sure I don't want to know," Sirius says wryly.

 

 

 

Sirius can't believe his luck, getting Hermione out and about like this. She seems completely and utterly normal, through the bulk of their meal. She flinches every so often, at loud noises or sudden movement from other patrons, but for the most part it's as if she never had a problem at all.

Still, he doesn't want comment on it, too afraid of making her self-conscious. She quickly disabuses him of that notion, however. "I know what you're thinking," she says, leaning over her tea, her half-eaten plate of eggs pushed aside, unwanted. "And no, I haven't taken a sedative."

Sirius snorts. "I would never accuse you of such a thing."

Hermione smirks slightly. "I would have," she says, "if it were the other way around. No - I'm just saying."

"I wasn't going to say anything, truly."

Hermione shrugs, watching the stream of London traffic out the large window beside their table. "Once I'm actually out and about, I forget why I was so nervous. It's the act of leaving that's difficult."

"Makes sense." Sirius lingers over his own mug of tea, thinking of the Hermione he'd known during the war: fearless, determined, manic. She'd displayed her scar deliberately, trying to drive a point home, watching with sharp eyes as the people around her reacted. She keeps it covered now, with a special sleeve she'd fashioned herself - but everyone who knows enough to be acquainted with her already knows the word that hides beneath it, so the effect is still largely the same. The shock of grey in her beautiful mane of dark hair goes uncovered, after all - a notorious symptom of prolonged exposure to Cruciatus - so even those who aren't privy to her true identity still are sobered at the very sight of her. "Is it the same with other things? Seeing Harry, for instance. Perhaps if you forced yourself through the first part, it would get easier once you're finally there."

"I don't think so," Hermione says quietly. She picks at her sleeves restless. "I feel like such a coward sometimes. But I don't think I could bear it, Sirius. Especially not when he gets older…" she shudders.

"Were you…" Sirius feels his heart in his throat, as he tries to ask the question. "Was it romantic, between you?"

"Me and Harry?" Hermione looks surprised. "Oh, no. No," she says, shaking her head. "Perhaps it could have been, if the circumstances had ever been right. But no, it wasn't like that. He was involved with someone else, and I…" she shakes her head again, sighing.

"What, never?" Sirius asks, incredulous. "But you're so - "

"Fit?" Hermione asks wryly, a bit sharp.

"Wonderful," Sirius counters, as genuine as he can manage it. Hermione's expression goes soft, her eyes darting away.

"Well," she says, rubbing her nose self-consciously. "There was never any time for that sort of thing. I had - the normal childhood experiences, dates and crushes and such. But nothing substantial."

Sirius wonders about the injuries that have created this mix of insecurity and defensiveness in her, when it comes to her appearance: she is beautiful, of course, in the way that most confident witches are beautiful, now that Sirius is old enough and smart enough to appreciate it. A woman of intelligence who demands a high standard from those around her, and from Sirius himself - talented, a strong will, unapologetic about her shortcomings. If there are spots on her face, gaps in her teeth, other flaws that would prompt whispers or snide comments from gossips and bullies, Sirius doesn't notice them anymore. Or - he doesn't think of them as flaws, certainly.

There was a time when Sirius was one of those that made those comments, but he doesn't like to dwell on it. He likes to think that he's better than that, now. "I wonder if that's why we get along so well," he says. "I've never had anything substantial, either. In school it was because I was too much of a berk to get anyone to stick around long enough."

"And now?" Hermione asks, one eyebrow raised.

"Now, I'm - waiting for an opportunity, I suppose," Sirius says, flustered. He avoids her gaze, looking instead over her shoulder at the older couple, sharing a plate of crepes in the corner. "It's hard to meet people."

"You want to marry a witch, don't you?" Hermione asks briskly. Sirius sputters, a little, at the bluntness - you'd think he'd be used to it by now. "There aren't that many of us in London, Sirius. Unless you're willing to branch out a little, you'll probably end up with someone you already know."

"I could find one in the country," Sirius argues. "A nice girl from the North."

"Please," Hermione says, grinning wickedly. "A nice Northern girl would never tolerate a posh snakecharmer like you."

"Posh?" Sirius says, incredulous. "Snakecharmer?"

Hermione waves away his offense with one graceful hand, still grinning in victory to herself. "So unless you want to die a bachelor, you're going to have to man up and try your luck on someone who already knows better."

"I'll marry a Muggle, then," Sirius says. "We'll have separate houses, and she'll sit at the window and knit while I'm away, like Penelope weaving her tapestry. She won't know anything about me, which means she'll always think I'm perfect. The ideal relationship."

"You're such a pig," Hermione says, but she's laughing in delight, her cheeks warmed by the mood.

"Maybe Helen and Paris is a more apt comparison," Sirius says.

"Hermione was the daughter of Helen and Menelaus," Hermione says archly, still smiling. "I appreciate the effort, though."

"You're welcome," Sirius says proudly.

 

 

 

A long, leisurely breakfast and an afternoon lazing about at a bookshop: it turns out to be one of the most memorable and successful Sundays they've ever had, Hermione's refusal to entertain his Stephen King jokes notwithstanding. It carries him through the entire week and, more unfortunately, turns him into a cheerful nuisance to practically everyone he knows. Regulus retreats fully into the attic in the face of it, and even James seems a little freaked out by Sirius' stubborn good mood.

"Padfoot, you haven't been drinking, have you?" he hisses, in line at Ministry's coffee cart, on Tuesday afternoon.

"What? No," Sirius hisses back.

James eyes him warily. "You were humming," he says accusingly.

"No I wasn't."

"Yes you were!"

"No, I - "

"You were, mate," cuts in Gideon Prewett, in line behind them. "Also shut it, the both of you. That's the undersecretary to the Minister over there eavesdropping."

Sure enough, the great arse-snogger himself Corny Fudge is lingering with his takeaway tea by the statue of Hephaestus the Brave, conspicuously close. When Sirius catches his eye, he sniffs and starts scurrying away toward the lifts, his cloak tails flapping up behind him ludicrously.

"Prat," James mutters, pushing his spectacles up his nose.

So Sirius decides to tone it down. He spends the following three days plodding through the Highlands, chasing a rogue hyter sprite, which helps.

He runs into Dorcas in the lobby, on his way to file his report, and she takes one look at him and tuts. "You need a drink, and a long weekend, in that order," she tells him. "Come out with me and Bonnie tonight."

"I'm not third wheeling with you lot again," Sirius complains. "I left halfway through dinner last time and I swear neither of you noticed until the check came."

"It was our honeymoon period!" Dorcas protests, shoving at his arm. "Come on. Bonnie hasn't seen you in ages - she asked about you, the other day."

"I've got loads of work to do at Grimmauld," Sirius protests weakly, "Reg wants me to help with the library - sorting out which ones to sell, which ones to destroy…"

"Are you saying no?" she demands, imperiously.

"No," Sirius replies, resigned.

Bonnie, Dorcas' intimidatingly beautiful girl, has never liked Sirius much, probably under the impression that he and Dorcas used to be involved, or that he wanted to be, or something. She seems to have lightened up a bit though in the time since Sirius has last seen her, and grandly offers to cover the bar tab.

"On account of those bags under your eyes, Black," Bonnie says. She's Scottish, which puts Sirius in mind of the sharp-tongued Ministry worker at the office in Inverness, who also had a less than favorable opinion of his character, for whatever reason. Sirius resigned himself long ago to the reality that there is, unfortunately, something inherently annoying about his personality. He doesn't lose sleep over it anymore. "You look like shite, mate. Have some whiskey."

Sirius snorts, but accepts the offered glass with grace. Or something close to it, anyway. "Kind words, Bonny Lass. You look as devastating as always, by contrast."

She snorts. "Don't pull a muscle; I already agreed to pay."

"Claws down, please, you two," Dorcas says mildly, sipping on a mug of Butterbeer. "Poor Sirius here has had quite the week, Bonnie. The sprite he was tracking ended up chasing him, by the end, so I hear."

"Oi, it was a real nasty one," Sirius protests. "Took three of us to contain it."

"I thought hyter sprites were benevolent?" Bonnie asks. "Don't they protect children?"

"The tame ones are, that have been trained to do so by their owners," Sirius explains, "the ones that grow in the wild are practically rabid, and especially those that spring up in the wilderness, who don't cross paths with people much...this one killed a Muggle farmer, it's why I was sent after it."

"This is the one that turns into a bird, right," Dorcas says, "not the little mushroom ones, that live in trees - "

"Druantias," Sirius supplies. "No, those are harmless. Actually - they're quite helpful. They keep the ecosystem healthy."

Bonnie rolls her eyes at both of them. "Let's leave work at work, shall we?" she says.

"You're just annoyed at any conversation you can't contribute to," Dorcas teases.

"Not all of us were Care of Magical Creature fanatics," Bonnie teases back, flicking Dorcas' ponytail. "And you're the one who says the Creature department is a career dead-end."

"It is! Don't you'd think I'd be there too, if it wasn't?" Dorcas looks a little wistful, turning to Sirius. "You really should try and transfer out, Sirius, but I understand why you don't want to, honest. Though I do think a promotion to a field office wouldn't be out of order - you're not getting any younger, you know."

Sirius winces. "I'm not even thirty yet, Christ, Dorcas."

"Of course not, but most thirty-year-olds didn't spend their twenties fighting evil wizards," Dorcas quips. "Your leg's bothering you again, innit? I noticed you were favoring it earlier, at the office."

"This is fun," Sirius says gaily, "being disowned and all, I never got the chance to truly experience being mothered. Truly a kindness on your part, Dorcas, to help me out in this way."

"Notice he didn't answer my question about his leg," Dorcas says to Bonnie, archly. "Now picture us having this conversation while Polyjuiced to look like Death Eaters, crouching in some dank alleyway in Knockturn, following some low-level knob around and writing down everything he buys. That's what fighting for the Order was like."

Sirius takes a swallow of his whiskey to hide a smile. Bonnie makes no such effort. "I can see I hardly missed out," she says, grinning.

"Bonnie's under the impression that you and I stopped Voldemort personally," Dorcas explains to Sirius. "She refuses to believe me when I tell her that I saw no action whatsoever and was never in the slightest hint of danger - "

"Lie," Bonnie says casually, knocking back the rest of her drink.

" - and that honestly, the war was rather boring, all in all, so there's no reason at all for her to be concerned." Dorcas winks at Sirius. "Of course Sirius here was reckless and stupid, so action followed him around. But me, I was quite smart. Hid in the castle at every opportunity, like any reasonable person would."

Sirius shares a look at Bonnie, who is rolling her eyes in exasperation. "Yes," he says, "Dorcas is...reasonable. I'll agree with her on that."

"There are literally pictures of you fighting in the Battle of Hogsmeade," Bonnie says. "They ran in the Prophet, doll."

"A slanderous publication," Dorcas says mildly.

"Well, no need to worry yourself too much Bonnie," Sirius says, "as Dorcas and I rarely partnered up, she was spared the worst of my reckless, stupid action chasing. Mostly, I think she did paperwork."

"Yer bums're out the window, both of ya," Bonnie says, laughing.

"Probably," Sirius agrees. Dorcas finally breaks, giggling into her beer. "What's got you worked up about it, anyway? The war's been over for years."

"Nothing," Bonnie says starkly, shooting Dorcas a dirty look. "We were just - talking about it the other night - Dorcas never lets anything go - "

"I told her about Hermione," Dorcas interrupts, laughter still lingering in her voice. "I hope you don't mind."

Sirius is taken aback. Having spent the war abroad with her family and therefore a firm outsider to the Order, Bonnie technically isn't cleared to know, but - Hermione would hardly mind, considering how long she and Dorcas have been together. Anyway, most of the secrecy is to avoid publicity, rather than danger, nowadays. "Why would I mind?"

Dorcas nudges him. "You know," she says leadingly. Sirius stares at her blankly. "Oh come off it, Sirius, everyone knows you're courting her. Lily told us at the last get together - you know, the one you skipped? Because you were with Hermione instead?"

"I'm - courting her? Easy there, Matron Meadowes," Sirius sputters, shooting a look at a dodgy-looking Bonnie. So that's why she's lightened up. "Lily said that?!"

"She said you were 'seeing her,'" Dorcas says carefully. "The rest of us drew our own conclusions."

A few lingering oddities click into place: no wonder everyone always asks after Hermione, every time Sirius sees them anymore. And the way James had been so worried about offending him, the last time they'd spoken about it - Sirius groans out loud.

"Not going well?" Bonnie asks lightly. "Need advice? That's why she invited you out, you know."

"I just thought," Dorcas says, blushing lightly, "that you might like a friendly ear, is all. A friendly ear," she repeats, eyeing Bonnie, who grins unrepentantly.

"It's none of your business," Sirius grouses.

"Don't tell me you hadn't noticed," Dorcas says, shaking her head. "Sirius."

Well of course he's noticed, but Sirius was quite content ignoring the information and living intensely in the moment, thank you very much. "She's got enough problems already without having to deal with me talking her into something she may not even want - "

Dorcas snorts loudly. "Alright now," she says, "despite any claims I made earlier in this conversation, I actually was present at Hogsmeade, Sirius, and she's hardly a delicate, wilting flower."

"I don't want to pressure her," Sirius insists. He grimaces; he hates talking about this sort of thing, especially when it's with two women like Dorcas and Bonnie, who have very little patience with his rubbish. "She's not delicate, no, but she's in a delicate place. I won't push her."

"You said to me once that if you didn't push her, she'd never move at all," Dorcas points out gently. "Isn't that why you started visiting her in the first place? And God knows she needed it. If you hadn't, who knows where she'd be now."

"We owe her more, don't we," Bonnie comments somberly. "We all could do better, I reckon."

"She wouldn't welcome it," Sirius warns. "You're free to try, but - wait, Dorcas, you told her about everything?"

"Of course," Dorcas says, like it's a stupid question.

"And you believe it?" Sirius presses Bonnie. "It's not...hard to accept?"

Bonnie frowns, leaning forward. Their little table is private enough, and Dorcas had cast silencing charms as soon as they'd sat down, but - you never know. "What's harder to believe is that the war went as well as it did without any outside influence at all - which is what Dumbledore's been saying all along. Every good turn was just 'luck,' or 'the kindness of fate'..." Bonnie rolls her eyes. "We all saw the writing on the wall, didn't we? We knew where it was headed. That's why my da got us out when he did. It looked very bad, right up until it didn't. Honestly, learning about this bird has helped me make sense of it, for the first time."

Dorcas goes quiet, drinking her beer, her eyes faraway. She's probably thinking of that night in the Forbidden Forest - the way Hermione had just...burst into being. Tumbled out of a rip in the sky, bleeding and vengeful, like an angry goddess who had been kicked off Olympus face first.

"Maybe it's that I've never met the girl, so it's easier to imagine," Bonnie continues, shrugging. "Without context, it's easier to believe that she could pull it off, maybe. But the way they caught Snape redhanded like that...the pictures of Karkaroff and the Lestranges in the Prophet - it was too detailed, too swift to have come from Abe Dumbledore's 'spy.'" She raises one hand, air quoting the word. "All those Death Eaters going to prison, exposed publicly, with hard evidence - Ministry officials - Hogwarts teachers, for God's sake! It didn't make any sense, at the time. But of course - " she looks over at Dorcas, who is biting her lip, watching Sirius worriedly. "Of course, now it does."

Sirius takes a deep breath, shrugging to hide his discomfort. "None of us were privy to all of it," he says. "In a war between wizards - the most important battles could be anywhere. You don't always have the privilege of an audience."

Bonnie spears him with a hard look. "Half his forces were wiped out, either in Azkaban or dead, in a matter of months. Months, Black. Nobody's that lucky." Bonnie shakes her head. "The raiding parties, the attacks. The Muggle terrorizing - all of it stopped. The money leaks, too...listen. I ain't asking you," Bonnie says. "Reckon I don't wanna know." Dorcas reaches out and touches Sirius' arm lightly, and he realizes suddenly that he's squeezing his empty glass in one fist, knuckles white. "Reckon we owe her more than we'll ever know, actually. More than some of us deserve, I should say." She shrugs. "But she should know, that some of us...think of her, when we make our toasts at the beginning of the night. You should tell her that much, at least."

Sirius has to consciously relax his fists, avoiding both their gazes. This certainly wasn't what he expected, when Dorcas invited him out. But he should have known - she's a politician, after all. She never does anything without a second goal hiding behind the first.

"She's quite a woman," Dorcas says. "Quite a woman indeed, Sirius."

Doesn't he know it. "You can imagine then," he says slowly, "how she might take issue with me slobbering all over her like a dog in heat."

"You are a dog in heat," Dorcas says, and the tension snaps loose like a wire being cut. Sirius guffaws, shoving her shoulder. "Well, you are!"

"It's still rude to point it out!"

Bonnie's grinning again, watching them over the rim of her glass. "Wouldn't it be a bit awkward though, considering she put your da in prison and all?"

Sirius scoffs. "If anything that makes me like her more."

Bonnie laughs. "Fair enough," she says.

 

 

 

He has half a mind to march straight over to Godric's Hollow and ask Lily just what the bloody hell she was thinking, telling a group of the most prominent light wizards in all of British magical society that Sirius was arse over tits for everyone's favorite intimidating time traveller - but he stops himself just in time. Lily was probably trying to help. The bloody busybody.

It's a testament to his maturity, he decides, and congratulates himself by casting a color-changing spell on the showerhead in their master bath. Plus a cascading freezing charm, for good measure. (That one's just for fun.)

Hermione has good Sundays and bad Sundays. It's always been so, but lately Sirius has noticed more good ones than bad ones - or maybe he's just hopeful. At any rate, she finally makes it to an in-person lunch with Lily and James (sans Harry, but still), which went very well, by all accounts.

"I get so frustrated with myself, you know," Hermione tells him the following week. "It's so silly. It wasn't that long ago that I was fighting a war almost single handedly, and now it's a huge success just to pop over to Cornwall for supper."

"Well who could blame you, it's a dreadfully boring place," Sirius says. Hermione snorts, shaking her head. "Don't get in your head about it, darling. It's nobody's business, anyway."

"I suppose you're right." Hermione's at her work table again - this time for Aberforth, who has requested a music box that plays the greatest hits of the Monkees for his one hundredth birthday present. Hermione's fashioning him one that will roll out a flashing dance floor and a disco ball, as well. She's leaning over the innards of it, trying to work in some miniature dancers, to tie the whole thing together. "Hm. What do you think - should I model it after Abe and some young maiden? Or should it be someone else - Charles and Diana in disco outfits, perhaps?"

"Make it Abe and a goat," Sirius says. Hermione smacks his arm, laughing. "What?! He'd think it was hilarious."

"He started that rumor himself, you know," Hermione tells him, "just to annoy Albus, which is why I refuse to encourage it. No - " she snaps her fingers in epiphany. "I'll make it Abe and Princess Di, in disco outfits. With an angry Charles off to the side."

"Steam pouring out of his elephant ears," Sirius says.

Hermione chuckles to herself, grabbing a wand and twirling it over an abandoned pair of scissors. The two prongs immediately separate and start twirling and dancing around, red and blue lights flashing around them. Sirius barks out a laugh, clapping. "I've condensed the spell," Hermione says proudly, flicking her wand again to let the scissors rest. "Just one charm for both the movement and the lights. I'd like to get the music contained within the same enchantment, but I can't keep the melody straight, and it doesn't last quite as long."

"No, you can't combine music and lights in the same spell, it never works," Sirius says, shaking his head. "Honestly I'm surprised you managed to get the dancing in there. Something about lights specifically doesn't combine well with kinetic or audible charms. We tried to do it for years, in school, and our pranks kept going wrong because of it - Flitwick finally clued us in when he caught us trying to make the chairs in the Great Hall yell and flash insults at the Slytherins at the same time."

"I had to limit the colors," Hermione admits. "Well, if I must split them up, I'll do a separate charm for the lights then, and combine the music and the dancing - it complicates the conjuring charms of course, but it's not the end of the world." Another wave of her wand sends the half-finished music box back into a small trunk, where the rest of Hermione's in-progress gadgets live. "Enough work, though. My eyes are crossing. Are you hungry?"

"Always," Sirius says, surprised. "Are you going to cook for me, my dove? Finally I get to experience the wonder that is your rabbit stew - "

Hermione glares at him. "I'm an adequate cook," she says. "You shouldn't believe everything Abe tells you."

"I don't," Sirius says, chuckling, "but he was so effusive about your culinary skills I knew he had to be lying."

Hermione gives a long-suffering sigh. "I have leftover curry," she says tartly. "Takeaway curry, mind you."

"Perfect," Sirius declares.

Hermione's flat has been slowly lightening up, in a parallel track with its owner, and she's actually even added onto it with a few household charms, which Sirius has taken pains not to show surprise at. The kitchen's been expanded, and more furniture has appeared in the small living room, which is now separated from the bed area by a wooden screen. She's also added a balcony, though how she's managed to keep the Muggles from noticing it, Sirius doesn't know.

They eat out there in a pair of rickety chairs that Hermione tells him she took home from the library - complete with an endearing story about the elderly security guard who insisted on helping her carry them home, thus preventing her from shrinking them into her pocket and making the job more difficult, in the long run. Sirius eats the rest of her naan while she talks, grinning at how involved she is in the story.

Hermione huffs when she notices all the bread is gone. "Honestly, you're worse than Ron," she says, shaking her head fondly. "And believe me, that's really saying something."

"Who's Ron?" Sirius asks curiously. He watches as she freezes momentarily, then shakes her head again.

"Oh," she says, "Ron Weasley. Molly and Arthur's youngest. The three of us were friends."

Sirius chews slowly, re-adjusting his mental picture of her future-that-no-longer-is once again. Sometimes he wonders if he'll ever be able to stop doing that. "You were close?"

"Until he died, yes." Hermione says it casually, but there's strain underneath, as always. "That's why Harry and I started looking into the Time Turner theory in the first place - we thought maybe we could have…" she trails off wistfully. "Well. Didn't quite work out how we first imagined it."

Sirius sets his bowl down on the wooden ledge of the balcony, leaning forward. "Arthur and Molly Weasley, of the ten thousand children," Sirius says wryly. "I didn't know they'd had a boy Harry's age."

"They have a girl, too," Hermione says, "their last. Unless I changed more than I thought. I haven't exactly looked them up."

"Blimey." Sirius chuckles. "What's that make, six?"

"Seven."

"Now that's a family tree," Sirius says. "My parents would have blown their loads with jealousy."

"Did they want more children?" Hermione asks. "Oh - of course they did. The family line."

Sirius nods. "The Weasleys were named as one of the Sacred Twenty-Eight, you know," he says. "Who knows why - their political affiliations have always been well-known. My parents thought it was because Cantankerous Nott - that's the bloke who wrote it - was in love with one of the Weasley daughters, and had hoped to bring them around."

"Molly and Arthur hated that," Hermione comments idly. "You rarely saw them get angry, you know. Just - in times of - of great stress." She stumbles a little, pressing her fingers against her mouth. "But Mr. Weasley - he went on this great rant about it one night, after Ginny - that's their youngest girl - asked him about it at dinner. I'd never heard such language from him before." She chuckles, eyes shiny with unshed tears. "He was such a gentle man, normally. I was so scandalized - but in a good way, I think. The memory was...comforting, somehow."

Sirius reaches out and takes her hand silently, pressing it gently between both of his. Hermione takes a deep, great breath, squeezing with her fingers.

"They're good people," Sirius says quietly. "They must have been great allies to you both."

Hermione nods, blinking her tears away. "Yes," she says, clearing her throat. "Yes."

Sirius keeps her hand in his grip, but relaxes his stance, turning the conversation again. "My mother - she was already in her forties, when she had me and Reg," Sirius says. "Who knows why they didn't start younger. Probably too busy off wreaking havoc, sowing evil in the hearts of minds of others, you know. The normal youthful adventures."

Hermione doesn't say anything, but she does smile, a bit sadly, and squeeze his hand. Sirius stumbles a little, taken aback by it.

"They - er, tried," Sirius explains, "for more children, I mean. But it never happened. My mother's bitterness was endless, especially after I turned out to be such a disappointment."

"One woman's disappointment is another's greatest love," Hermione says.

Sirius finds himself unable to breathe, for one long, frozen moment. "Are you quoting again?" he finally manages.

Hermione just smiles again, shaking her head.

"Well," he says, flustered for perhaps the first time in his entire life - or the first time he can remember, anyway - "at any rate. Just me and Reg now." He's still holding her hand, holding it with both of his own. He turns it over and rubs their palms together, feeling the scratch of their matching wand calluses.

"You're the last hope for the Black line then," Hermione says lightly, sounding amused by the concept. "Probably one of your father's most persistent, depressing thoughts, sitting in that cell of his."

"Narcissa's son could make a claim for it," Sirius says, "that is, of course, if I hadn't already disowned her legally, when I took over the head of house. Isn't that something?"

"I hope you disowned the Lestranges too," Hermione says.

"Please, Hermione, what do you take me for?"

She laughs. "Not a fool," she says. "Just...distracted, sometimes. Too focused on the immediate problem, to the detriment of the long term plan."

"The word you're looking for is 'impulsive,'" Sirius says, lacing their fingers together. Hermione tugs, just a little, so that their hands swing in the air between their chairs, the rings on his fingers clicking pleasantly against the single, gold band - her mother's wedding ring - that she wears on her right hand.

"Not in and of itself a bad thing," Hermione says. "Just best in moderation, like everything else."

"I'm no good with moderation, I'm afraid," Sirius says.

Hermione squeezes his hand again. "I know," she says fondly.

 

 

 

"'Greatest love'?" Lily squeaks. "That's what she said - specifically? 'Greatest love.'"

"I know right," Sirius says, almost drowned out by the sudden, loud shouting from the living room. James is only marginally quieter than Harry and Neville, who are doing their best to bring the walls down.

"She could've meant it hypothetically," Alice says, but she sounds skeptical.

Lily is practically jittering in her seat. "Are you kidding? No. Not a chance. Sirius, what did you do?"

"Nothing!" he yelps. Another loud crash - that lamp again, probably - from the living room. Neither mother even wavers in their laser focus on Sirius' face. "Nothing, I didn't do anything!"

"We're not interrogating you for God's sake," Lily says. A great yell from - maybe Harry? Could easily be Neville - and an answering whoop from James. "We're just talking. This is a friendly talk. Between friends - oh, for the love of - JAMES! WOULD YOU KEEP IT DOWN, WE'RE TRYING TO HAVE A CONVERSATION IN HERE, YOU BERK!"

"WE'RE PLAYING PIRATES, LILY," James yells back indignantly. "TELL SIRIUS TO COME JOIN US WHEN HE'S DONE WITH GIRL TALK."

"BUGGER OFF JAMES, THEY'RE GIVING ME ADVICE," Sirius yells. Alice rolls her eyes, and Lily nods at him approvingly. "Well, you are, aren't you? Please tell me what to do, Lily dear, Alice darling - I'm bereft, a complete knobhead, lost in the castle with no Marauder's Map - "

"Calm down," Alice says, laughing. "She's just a girl, Padfoot. Isn't she? For all she's done, she's still just a bird!"

"Not just any bird," Lily says proudly. "A singular bird of great charm and intelligence, who has obliquely told Sirius that he is her greatest love." Lily slaps her open palm on the table. "And he did nothing! This woman saved my entire family, you prat, you couldn't even muster up an 'I love you too'?"

Sirius shrinks back, alarmed. "I - what?!"

"Maybe he doesn't love her," Alice says, eyeing him critically. "Sirius, you don't love her? You haven't been leading her on, have you?"

"No! What? Of course not - "

"Well of course he wouldn't do it intentionally, but perhaps he's in over his head because he was being thoughtless," Lily says, narrowing her eyes at Sirius. "You have been thinking this through, haven't you? By which I mean actually thinking through your words, before you say them to a vulnerable and traumatized woman who saved all of our lives in an act of profound and unspeakable personal sacrifice - "

"Holy fucking Christ, Lily," Sirius squawks.

"'Greatest. Love.'" Lily says, pointing at him. "You're an idiot."

"Well, I'm not denying that!" Sirius says, holding up both hands. Alice and Lily look completely and utterly unmoved. "What was I supposed to do? She didn't actually say it. She just...I dunno, what does something like that mean, anyway? Did you want me to just jump on her right then and there?!"

"Ugh," Alice says, shaking her head at Lily in disgust. "Men."

"Oi," Sirius protests weakly.

"Well it's not one or the other, is it?" Alice replies impatiently. "There are other options between 'nothing' and 'shagging against the wall,' Sirius."

"Oi," Sirius says again, wincing. "That's not what I...er - "

"What?" Lily demands, eyes sharp. "She's not just another Ravenclaw you can ditch at the Yule Ball, Padfoot. This is serious. So - what? Do you, or don't you?"

"Well - I - "

"Come on then, spit it out, man," Alice goads.

"Yes, I bloody love her, you bloody harpies," Sirius finally exclaims, loud with frustration. This is, of course, the very moment that James shuffles through the doorway, with a giggling Neville clinging to one leg, and a red-faced, grinning Harry attached firmly to the other.

"Wow, Paddy," James says, his own face flushed with exertion. Sirius sighs in resignation. "Blimey, you leave a bloke alone with your wife for ten minutes and he starts talking like a Witch Weekly serial."

"Go away, Prongsie, we're still talking," Lily snaps. James grins cheekily, salutes, and shuffles back out, wobbling side to side as both boys do their best to slow his progress.

"Well," Sirius says, "thanks, ladies. I feel much better."

"We're very proud of you, Sirius," Alice says, grinning at both of them. "Now your next step is to actually say that to her."

"Oh, so it's simple then," Sirius says, throwing up his hands.

"Very much so," says Lily, reaching forward and grabbing his wrist. Sirius sobers beneath the weight of her gaze, kind as always, but stern as well. "You must be honest with her, Sirius. Not only for her sake, but for yours. Do you understand?"

"I think so," Sirius says honestly.

"Good." Lily squeezes his wrist, then lets go. "It's scary, isn't it? Meeting the rest of your life. I think he'll be fine, though." She directs this last part to Alice, who is reclining in her chair, ankles crossed, smiling lazily at both of them. "If he sorts himself out, that is."

"A tall order for any man, let alone our dear, overinflated Padfoot," Alice says, shaking her head in dismay.

"I feel as if I should go play pirates now," Sirius says.

"If you think it'll make you feel better," Lily replies sympathetically.

 

 

 

Sorting himself out: a tall order indeed. Sirius counts the days down until Sunday nervously, dreading it and nearly flying apart with anticipation, all at the same time. When he finally arrives at the moment, a little earlier than usual on Sunday morning, he nearly loses it when he realizes she's not there.

His first instinctive reaction is to panic, but he clamps down on that, transforms into Padfoot, and waits. Maybe she's popped out somewhere - he is earlier than usual - but he spends nearly an hour (he thinks, time is sort of a relative concept to a dog) curled up on her doorstep, and there's not even a hint of noise from inside the flat - no Floo fire, no footsteps, no soft humming beneath her breath as she hangs her laundry. Sirius' distress comes out as a whine, and he flinches as a sharp-eyed older woman gives him a funny look, ambling down the corridor toward the lifts.

Well - there are only so many places she could be. It's not like her, to simply not be there - it's not as if Sirius shows up any time! They have a set day, and it hasn't changed for months! He slips through to the stairs, and leaves the building, still as Padfoot, and aims himself in the general direction of her library. He can't think of anywhere else she might go, honestly. Unless there was an emergency of some kind, and she's gone to Hogwarts, or to Wales, to see Aberforth - but no. Surely he'd have heard from someone about it by now, if that were the case.

Hermione's job is at the Tower Hamlets Library, which is why she lives in Bethnal Green in the first place - so she can walk. Dumbledore had found her a position as an archivist, and she's been spending ten to twenty content hours a week sorting through maps and financial records and old letters in a dusty office on the third floor. Sirius has asked her a dozen times how on earth she doesn't find it boring, to sort through the records of a Muggle neighborhood - and not even a very interesting one! - but all she's ever said was that it was 'refreshing.'

It's a short walk, at any rate, Padfoot makes fast time on the London sidewalks. The front door is a no go - too many Muggles ambling around - but there's a side door around back that Sirius has seen before, and he's able to slip inside without attracting much attention.

He hasn't done this in ages - sneaking around as Padfoot, trying to sneak in and out somewhere - and it's actually quite fun, slipping between the shelves, avoiding the few patrons and employees milling around the stacks. Hermione's office is up two flights of stairs and down a dark corridor - child's play - and to his great relief, the light is on, the door propped halfway open, and he can hear her moving around inside. His relief quickly turns to indignation - is she seriously standing him up?

Wrapped up in a pile of what looks like old photographs, Hermione jumps in her seat when he appears in her office, barking once to get her attention. Her hair is loose, flying wild around her shoulders, and she's got one hand pressed to her heart. "Sirius!" she hisses, rising to her feet. "What are you - change back! Quickly! You'll get me in trouble!"

Padfoot snorts at her, coming around the desk to sit at her feet. He nudges at her leg, swiping at the hem of her skirt with one paw. Hermione huffs, sitting back down in her chair.

"I can't believe you came in here like this," she mutters. He paws at her leg again and she finally relents, scratching his ears with an indulgent look on her face. "You overgrown puppy," she says accusingly, "didn't you get my note? Of course you didn't."

Note? Padfoot whines plaintively.

"Yes, I owled you late last night. They needed me this morning to help with an exhibition - they had an entire box of photos set aside for a display at the Town Hall and someone left them in a taxi, can you believe it? Thank God they were copies and not originals - but it was somewhat of an emergency. As dire as emergencies ever get around here, that is." Hermione keeps rubbing his ears as she talks, and Padfoot leans his head against her knee, momentarily lost to doggy ecstacy. "I did owl you, maybe Regulus intercepted it. Or were you away at work?"

Padfoot barks once in reply - he's been in East Anglia for two days, on the track of a baby centaur that's been separated from her parents. He'd stopped by Grimmauld to shower and change this morning, but he hadn't even gone into the kitchen, which is where the owls usually drop off letters.

"I suppose you can stay for awhile," Hermione says, giving him one long, satisfying scratch down his snout. "Of course if you changed back, you could meet my colleagues, but - "

Padfoot snuffles at that, folding himself into the space beneath her desk, curling up at her feet in contentment. He hasn't transformed in ages - so he's going to enjoy it, thank you very much.

"Oh, you're not sulking, are you?" Hermione nudges him with one foot, laughing when he starts licking her ankle. "Stop, stop - oh alright, just be quiet. They'll definitely sack me for bringing a dog in here. This is a library, you know."

Sirius would bet the entirety of his Gringotts vault that Hermione could punch her boss right in the face and they'd still find a way not to sack her, actually. But being Padfoot, at the moment, Sirius has no choice but to let that comment slide.

"No barking," Hermione warns him, and turns back to her work. Padfoot huffs slightly, and settles in for a nap. It's been a bloody long week. They seem to be getting longer and longer, lately.

He dozes away most of the morning, stirred only slightly by Hermione's coming and going as she retrieves box after box from the mysterious depths of the archives. At one point one of the Muggle librarians pops in and stammers his way through a lunch invitation - poor chap, Sirius doesn't even have the heart to feel jealous - and Hermione gently turns him down with effortless grace. She even makes him laugh as he leaves, and she doesn't even need to get up from her desk to do it. Sirius rests his head against her crossed ankles, his heart full and heavy with affection.

It's scary meeting the rest of your life, Lily had said. Sirius has done that a few times, now. It never really stops being scary, unfortunately.

Eventually, he notices the signs that she's finishing up - papers are being shuffled into files, boxes being closed and put away - and he emerges from beneath the desk, stretching out and yawning. Hermione, filing away some papers into the cabinet by the door, shakes her head at him.

"Ready to be human again?" she asks, smiling at him with the corner of her mouth.

Sirius figures it's about that time. He shakes out his coat, and snaps himself back to human, moving seamlessly into a more human stretch, his arms linked behind his head, still halfway through a yawn. "Hello, luv," he greets, moving to perch on the edge of her desk. Hermione pushes the filing drawer closed and turns around, one eyebrow raised. "I went to your flat first, you know. I was worried when you weren't there."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Hermione says breezily, "I did send you a note, though. Get your bum off my files, would you?" She swats at him, and Sirius obediently scoots over, putting his bum on a stack of folded maps, instead. "I suppose it worked out - needed a nap, did you?"

"Long weekend," Sirius says. "Did you know adolescent centaurs often run away from home? It's actually sort of a rite of passage. I don't think getting lost in the countryside is part of it, however."

"Did you bring them home safely?" Hermione asks, smiling. "And yes, I did know that, actually. It's called the aibíocht. It's very similar to the dwarves' rumspringa, or the 'walkabout' in Australian Aboriginal culture. A physical journey or exile that mirrors your spiritual transition into adulthood."

"Ten points to Gryffindor, Miss Granger," Sirius teases. He reaches out and grabs her hand, pulling her a bit closer. It would be so easy to kiss her hello, he thinks. Just the most natural thing in the world. "Yes, she's back safe and sound. Her name was Lehlas - very charming young girl. Didn't talk like a centaur at all, really - didn't mention the stars even once."

"Ah, I see," Hermione says, mouth crooked with amusement. "Branching out from witches, are we? A logical move. You'll have a much better chance to find a decent wife if you widen your pool of candidates."

Sirius pinches her side, and she doubles over, laughing. "Shut it, you," he says, sweeping her back up with one arm around her waist. She leans into him, still chuckling. "Come on, you're done now, aren't you? Let's go do something fun."

"Fun like what?" Hermione elbows him playfully, darting away and back to her desk to grab her satchel. "I was headed home after this. I have leftover spaghetti to eat."

She seems to be in such a cheerful mood today, Sirius decides to take a chance. "Come with me to Grimmauld instead," he says. "I've been putting Reg off about the library for weeks now, but I haven't the slightest clue what I'm doing with those books. I was going to offer to let you take a look anyway so you could take whatever you like. But I've got to get it done this week if we're going to get the Ministry inspectors in before the holidays, and I figured…"

"You want me to help sort the Black library?" Hermione's face goes distant, almost hungry. Sirius stifles a grin. "Regulus wouldn't mind? I don't want to impose on a family matter."

"He's already taken whatever he wants." Sirius shrugs. "He's at work, anyway. Hasn't been home much. I think there might be a bloke involved." He wrinkles his nose. "I saw him actually smile the other day. Just walking down the corridor, smiling to himself. I thought for a brief moment he'd been Imperio'd."

"Well," Hermione pronounces, "good for him."

"So you'll come?"

"Yes." She tilts her head, slipping her satchel over her shoulder. "Yes, alright. Let's go the Muggle way, though. I haven't been on the Tube for ages."

"Oh, just like that?" Sirius asks. "You don't need adequate warning?"

"I'm doing much better with that nonsense, thank you very much," Hermione says, looping her arm through his offered elbow. "Haven't you noticed?"

"Of course I have," Sirius tells her. "I just didn't want to give you a complex by congratulating you."

"I give myself complexes just fine, all on my own," Hermione says wryly. "Thank you, by the way. I assume you were working your way towards an actual compliment."

"See, this is why we get on so well darling, I don't even have to say things out loud for you to understand them."

"You only get one of those a week," Hermione warns him. "Use them wisely."

"Oh, I will," Sirius says emphatically.

 

 

 

Sirius is oddly nervous, leading Hermione up the steps of Number Twelve Grimmauld Place - she's never been here before. Well - she has, but only in her future, and by the way she'd spoken about it, it had been in a far more advanced state of disrepair.

"Oh, how lovely," Hermione says, taking in the foyer. Kreacher's been hard at work, certainly, redoing the wallpaper and carpets at Regulus' request. Most of the house has been redecorated, at this point, with only the attic and library maintaining the signs of their parents' tastes. "Why, Mrs. Black's portrait is gone! However did you manage that?"

"Met her, did you?" Sirius asks wryly, taking her satchel and coat and hanging them up for her. "Regulus and Kreacher did it. Without prompting from me, even - I think it was intended to be a peace offering."

"It's like a completely different house," Hermione marvels. She sounds rather relieved.

"Did you spend a lot of time here, then? In your future?"

"Christmas once," Hermione says, smiling to herself. "And off and on, throughout the war. I told you we used it as Headquarters, didn't I?"

"Yes, but I didn't think you stayed here."

"Well, you lived here," Hermione says simply, and ventures off, deeper into the house. Sirius shakes his head at her, and follows.

She clearly doesn't need directions, and heads straight for the library. Regulus has done the bulk of the work up to this point, weeding out the truly dangerous books and disposing of them - well, he probably sold them, actually, but Sirius knows to pick his battles with Reg, at this point - and the leftovers are simply the mundane, obscure, and whichever valuable ones Reg didn't judge worth the effort. Hermione heads straight for the nearest pile and sinks to her knees, face already set with concentration.

"You stare at photographs all morning, and now here you are ready to stare at books all afternoon," Sirius says, joining her on the floor. "Where shall we start? I'm at your disposal."

"Three piles," Hermione says decisively, already working her way through the first pile, squinting at the spines and blowing dust off the cover of the book on top. "Keep, sell, and destroy. Anything to do with Herbology and gardening, magical history, and family history we should automatically keep. Spell reference, we'll have to go title by title - the darker magical tomes should be destroyed, probably. But perhaps we could go tome by tome, rip out the pages with the truly dangerous spells and keep the rest intact…" she trails off, cracking open the great book on her lap. "Ah! See? Here's Silas Muckrack's Complete Compendium of Dimensional and and Temporal Magicks. Fairly rare, although not as valuable as his third volume, which was cut off in the middle of its print run by the Censorship Laws in the late 1910s. What a coincidence, that this is the first one in the pile!"

Sirius snorts. Coincidence, his arse. "Reg probably left that out on purpose. Either to poke at me, or - perhaps he was actually reading it."

"You think he's finally worked it out, then?" Hermione asks, setting the book aside on an empty spot on the floor, the start of a 'keep' pile. She doesn't sound particularly concerned.

"It's not as if you worked very hard on a cover story," Sirius says. It had been just Hermione, Aberforth, and himself in Hertfordshire, getting Regulus away from the Dolohovs. Reg's recovery afterwards was spent in the little cottage in Wales where Abe and Hermione were staying, and they hadn't taken much care to censor themselves. Sirius has never openly talked to him about it, but his brother is far from stupid.

"No use. He would've found out eventually." Hermione shrugs. "What's the danger anymore? Anyone who found out during the war already knows all there is to know. Anyone else would never believe me. As long as I avoid getting myself in the Prophet, there's hardly a reason for true secrecy, anymore."

"You're not afraid of the Ministry?" Sirius is. He thinks about it quite often, every time he goes down to the MLE offices to find Alice or James.

"What on earth could they do to me? Lock me up in the Department of Mysteries, do experiments on me? There's nothing they could discover that the Order doesn't already know." Hermione laughs, shaking her head. "Anyway, I'd like to see them try."

"Quite confident," Sirius marvels, reaching out for the next book in the pile. "Not that you don't have reason to be, I'm just surprised."

Hermione sighs. "The worst has already happened to me," she says matter-of-factly, picking up a new book of her own. "And I survived it, didn't I? I'm here now, still kicking." She shakes her head. "I became so used to worrying about what may happen that I've circled around to not caring at all. It's rather freeing, actually."

"Is that not why you had trouble leaving?" Sirius asks, reaching out to touch her arm. "I thought…"

"No. That was because of...of crowds," Hermione says uncomfortable. She blinks away the distress easily, however. "I suppose it'll always make me a bit uneasy, being around strangers. But you were right - before. Once I get past the first part, it gets much easier."

"Well, I'm glad you made it here," Sirius says decisively. "Maybe after we finish with this, I'll show you the rest of the house. It looks quite different from how you remember it, I'm sure."

"I'd like that," Hermione says, smiling quietly down at her book.

 

 

 

Sirius' stamina gets them through about half of the books, but by late afternoon both their stomachs are grumbling. Sirius calls on Kreacher for evening tea, and Hermione reluctantly agrees to a break - if for no other reason than not to let Kreacher's efforts go to waste.

"I know you disagree with me about elvish rights but I do appreciate your change in behavior towards Kreacher, you know," Hermione says, leading the way again down to the kitchen. Sirius follows her confident steps through his own house, bemused. "It has made a difference, hasn't it?"

"I don't disagree with you," Sirius says. "I just think it's much more complicated than you think."

"So we shouldn't try?" Hermione demands, a bit heatedly. "Just allow a system of slavery and subjugation to continue, because it's too hard to change it?"

"No," Sirius says, poking her shoulder. "But structural change comes from within, darling. Remember? House elves will never be free until they decide they want to be."

"They only want what they have because they've been brainwashed and terrorized into it."

"Which is why you need to start with cultural reform, not legal," Sirius argues. "The first step is mutual respect. You won't get anywhere, practically speaking, until you achieve that, at a minimum. Labor laws, Hermione. Methods for reporting abuse, rules on reasonable reasons for dismissal, standards of treatment and pay. That's your way in, I'm telling you."

Hermione sighs. "Well, you have a far nicer way of saying it than Ron and Harry ever did, I'll give you that," she says, pushing her way into the kitchen.

A modest spread is ready and waiting on the table, with Kreacher nowhere to be found, of course. He finds Hermione extremely off-putting - most house elves do, Sirius has noticed with amusement - but Kreacher's reasons probably have more to do with her blood status and relationship to Sirius than any of her clumsy efforts to be friendly. "They teased you about it, did they?"

"No, they wouldn't have dared," Hermione says, taking a seat at the end of the table. "They were just...a bit condescending."

Sirius can imagine a younger Hermione, all that passion and knowledge with very few outlets, unleashed in force on two teenage boys. "Yes," he says, chuckling, "I imagine they were a bit overwhelmed."

"For all of Harry's experience with the Muggle world," Hermione says, "he still didn't truly consider himself part of it. He hated the Dursleys so much, and of course they never really treated him like part of the family…" Hermione's face darkens. "Anyway. He might as well have been a wizard all along, is my point. Neither of them truly saw where I was coming from about house elves."

Sirius had found it hard to understand as well, of course, growing up in a traditional Pureblood home as he did. But Lily had had a similar reaction to house elves, in their fifth year when she'd stumbled across the entrance to the Hogwarts kitchens, so he was somewhat more prepared for Hermione's passion on the subject. "It can't be the only thing hard to adjust to, coming from a Muggle childhood."

"No," Hermione says wryly, "no, it wasn't."

They work their way through their food slowly - just some leftover roast and mash, nothing special - as the sun sets slowly through the windows, the house settling in around them, creaking and grumbling its way into evening. Hermione blends into his kitchen like she's always been there - and perhaps she has. Both in another lifetime, and in Sirius' thoughts in this one.

They linger there at the table, over cold cups of tea. Sirius feels rather drunk on her proximity - their knees knocking together feels much more meaningful, more intimate, than any sex he's ever had before. Everything feels important, from the way she scoffs at his jokes, to the way she rests her hands on the table, just centimetres away from his own.

The subject, as it usually does, hovers on Hermione's past, but Sirius doesn't think he'll ever get tired of hearing her talk about it. It makes it easier for him to talk about his own, as well - none of his stories shock or horrify her, nothing truly surprises her. She listens with a knowing ear, and a sympathetic perspective that Sirius has never encountered before - even James never managed this kind of true, honest understanding. He hopes she feels the same - hopes he doesn't remind her of people that no longer exist, the way James and Lily remind her so painfully of her Harry. He hopes that she's not forever lost in memories of a world that will never be, tortured by deaths she prevented but cannot forget. He hopes...

"Stay the night," he says, reaching out and covering the rim of her tea mug with his hand. The only wandless magic he's ever mastered - a tiny, barely-there warming spell - sets it steaming again. "We can finish the library in the morning. You look exhausted."

"It's barely seven o'clock," Hermione protests, but she doesn't sound too passionate about it. "Regulus…"

"You won't see him," Sirius says, waving it away. "Please, Hermione - I'm not going into the office in the morning, I'm due to leave for Ireland tomorrow afternoon. An acromantula nest, near Kilkenny...I'll be gone for at least a week. I probably won't make it back by next Sunday."

"Acromantulas?" Hermione repeats, sounding worried. "You're not going alone, are you?"

"No, no, two blokes from the home office...at least three or four from the field office out there, too. It'll be fine, but it's a big one, it'll take a while to clear it out." He reaches up and tentatively touches her cheek gently with the back of his knuckles, feeling brave. "I'd like to see as much of you as I can before I leave."

"I didn't bring a change of clothes," Hermione says, sounding a bit flustered.

"Ah! Whatever shall we do about that problem, two magical folk in a magical house full of magical wardrobes?"

"Shut it," Hermione mutters, snorting softly. "I'm not wearing your mother's hand-me-downs, no matter what kind of modifying you do to them."

"I'll modify mine, then," Sirius says. Hermione eyes him, eyes dark over the rim of her tea mug. "We're not too different in size, I'd daresay. I'm sure I have something you could wear to bed."

He didn't mean for that to come out...like it did, but there it is anyway, in the air between them. Sirius stares at her flushed cheeks, feeling the silence grow heavy, weighted.

"Alright," Hermione says, slowly setting her mug down. "I suppose that would be fine." She breaks the tension by pushing back from the table, shaking her hair out of her face with a quick toss of her head. "Let's leave the library for the rest of tonight, then," she says, "it'll be easier to approach it with a clear head tomorrow. Besides, I've always wanted to see the sunset from the roof here."

"You never took the opportunity before?"

"You had a fugitive hippogriff up there before," Hermione says, startling him into a laugh. "That's not a joke! His name was Buckbeak."

"That is the first thing you've told me about my dead future self that I'm actually envious of," Sirius says honestly.

"He was a good bird," Hermione says fondly, and reaches down to take Sirius' hand. "Come on. I know the way."

 

 

 

Sirius hasn't been up on the rooftop balcony in a long time, since well before Regulus moved back in. The city looks the same as it always has from up here: beautiful, distant. Far, far away. He'd always avoided the attic altogether, when he was a child. It was his father's territory - he used to sit on the balcony and smoke his pipe for hours, just staring out at the city like a king surveying his domain.

He shakes the memory away, in favor of a much nicer present: Hermione, wrapped up in one of his spare cloaks, her hair flying wild in the breeze. Sirius conjures them a small couch and tugs her down into the cushions, with a warming charm for good measure.

"Everything you imagined?" Sirius asks.

"Beautiful," she comments, her eyes on the sky, tugging her feet up to sit cross legged next to him. "I do love London. I grew up here, you know."

"I know. So did I."

"I always meant to take them here," Hermione says, still staring out at the skyline. "Ron and Harry. Neither of them had ever seen the sights. We spent plenty of time running through the streets, hiding in hostels, meeting in shady little cafes, but - they never rode the London Eye. Walked down the brick path to Buckingham. Simple things, you know?"

Sirius reaches out and takes her hand again, pulling it over into his lap. She squeezes his gratefully, not looking over. "You could show them now," he offers, tentative. "It won't be the same, but…"

"But it'll be something new," Hermione says shakily, breathing deep. "Something...better."

"I'm sorry, my darling," Sirius says gravely. "I'm sorry it has to be this way."

"I'm not." Hermione laughs weakly. "I'd do it all over again, if I could, to save the people I missed...Frank Longbottom, for instance. I should've seen that coming, damn it." She takes a slow breath, eyes lowered. "If I had the choice a thousand times, I'd always make the same one. Just saving James and Lily alone is worth all of it, a million times over." She looks over at him, rubbing the tears on her cheek away with her shoulder. "And you - I saved you, too."

Sirius is breathless, frozen beneath the weight of that sentence.

"I never imagined you would be so…" she laughs again. "Maybe one day I'll tell you everything. For now, though - I don't want to ruin it. It went so wrong, Sirius. So very, very wrong."

"I don't expect it to be a happy story," Sirius says.

"You have no idea," Hermione says, squeezing his hand. "Truly, you don't."

Sirius lifts her hand to his mouth, kissing her knuckles. He has more of an idea than she probably thinks. He was there, at the Battle of Hogsmeade, just an arm's length away from Lily when it happened - almost happened. He'll never forget the look on Peter's face - the utter hatred there. And they'd had no idea. No idea at all, until he raised his wand to Lily's chest.

He had never, not in a million years, thought Peter capable of such malice. But he was, and Hermione stopped it. She stepped in front of his wand like she was expecting it to happen, because...it did, in her past. In another life, there was nobody there to stop him, nobody to push Lily out of the way, nobody who dropped out of the sky and saved a dozen precious, important lives. Sirius doesn't know the details, but perhaps she's right that he doesn't need to. Nothing he can imagine probably comes close.

"So you didn't have a crush on me," Sirius says. Hermione lets out a startled peal of laughter. "No hopeless yearning for the dashing older man?"

"Is that what you wish me to say?" she teases. "Yes, this was my plan all along, Sirius. To travel back in time specifically to seduce you."

"I knew it," Sirius says, and true to his nature, the reckless and stupid, daring and arrogant boy he's always been, he pulls her close and kisses her.

She melts like chocolate into his arms, kissing him back with an abandon he wouldn't have expected - but he shouldn't be surprised. As if Hermione could do anything without the force of her whole heart behind it. Sirius tangles his hands in her hair and holds on for dear life.

"Oh," she says, pulling away briefly. Sirius kisses her chin, pressing his forehead against her cheek, both of them breathing heavily. "Oh, finally. You great prat, it took you long enough."

He laughs, a bit hysterically. "Are you joking - I was waiting for you to say something, you prissy little - "

"I didn't - oh," Hermione breaks off, tilting her neck for his kiss. "Well I didn't want to unduly influence you."

"Unduly?"

"Sirius," Hermione says, her voice breaking. Their foreheads press together, noses rubbing in an Eskimo kiss. "Sirius, you know what I've done. You're probably the only one who knows all of it - not even Abe - "

Sirius kisses her again, pressing the words back down her throat. "It doesn't matter. Shh, it doesn't."

"I couldn't say anything - I couldn't ask you to - to accept certain things, things that I - "

"It doesn't matter, Hermione," Sirius says, pulling back so she can see his eyes. "Yes, I know what you've done. I know exactly what you've done. You created this world! This present, where everyone I love is alive. You think I could ever be ashamed? That I could ever have the - the arrogance to judge you?"

Hermione chokes on a sob, falling forward into his embrace.

"Thank you," he says. "I know Lily's said that to you, but has anyone else? Have I?"

"I did it for myself," she mutters, clutching tight to his cloak. "I did it because I couldn't bear not to."

"That's why it worked," he says, kissing her head. Feeling meaningful and important, for the first time since the war: knowing with sharp clarity that fate arranged him to be here, in this moment, to say these exact words. "It could have only been you."

Hermione shudders once, twice, then goes still but for her breathing, forehead pressed in the angle of his collarbone. Sirius holds on tight, and watches the sun fall below the horizon: slow but steady. Still inevitable, despite everything.

 

 

 

Sirius wakes with the sun and lies in bed for a while, watching the rise and fall of Hermione's back beneath the sheets. He looks around his familiar bedroom with new eyes: the wallpaper looks different, the canopy hanging from the bedposts is suddenly much more inviting. The piles of clothes scattered around the floor look neater, the old pin-ups on his walls - the only remnants from his youth - faded and dark in the shadows of the room. The world is new again: unexplored territory. Sirius rests his palm gently on Hermione's back, letting his arm fall and rise with its movement, and marvels at the knowledge that neither of them have ever been here before. Everything they do, from this moment on, will be new.

She stays deeply asleep - probably in great need of it. Sirius knows she has nightmares when she's alone. He slips out of bed as quietly as he can; he won't wake her until he absolutely has to.

His brother is in the kitchen, drinking coffee. Sirius stops short in the doorframe, surprised by his presence. It's been a solid few weeks since they've crossed paths.

"Sirius," Reg greets, his face smooth and neutral. He gestures at the coffee in invitation. "Morning."

"Morning, Reg," Sirius says, moving forward to the small carafe on the counter. He can't stand coffee, but he won't turn Reg down. "No work today?"

"Not until this evening." Regulus moves to the kitchen table, the very chair where Hermione had sat the night before. As if reading his thoughts, Reg breaches the subject: "Kreacher tells me we have company."

"Hermione is here," Sirius says, silently daring him to say anything. He leans against the counter, mug in hand, waiting for it.

But Regulus just nods. "Right then," he says quietly, and takes another drink.

Sirius fidgets in the silence. "Thought you'd found someone yourself, mate," he tries. "You've been spending a lot of nights away lately."

Reg just shrugs. "Didn't work out." He darts a look up at Sirius, still neutral, but - Sirius has to stop taking it personally, probably. "I would have told you if it did."

"I know, I just…" Sirius trails off helplessly. He remembers when they used to be close. It was never this difficult, when they were young. But Hogwarts changed things between them - leaving the sanctuary of this house changed everything about what they knew, what they thought of themselves. Sirius doesn't regret it, but it still feels...sad.

"Didn't think you'd approve, anyway," Reg says. "Met him in Knockturn. But - no more of that. All those White Wyvern blokes - they wouldn't know loyalty if their lives depended on it."

"You should try some more respectable pubs then," Sirius jokes. "I've seen more than a few fine lads lurking around the Cauldron. Not all of them were Order members, you know."

"I'll keep that in mind," Regulus says, with just the barest hint of a smile.

Sirius pushes off the counter, deciding to leave the rest of this coffee for Hermione - she'll appreciate it more, anyway. And be able to tell him if Kreacher truly is bad at making it. "Well," he says, "I'm off to Ireland for a bit, don't expect me to be around. Hermione will be gone by the time I leave though, don't worry. She just came over to help with the library."

"She could," Reg says, pausing in the middle to clear his throat, "if she's as good with books as you say, she could help me finish. If she...wanted."

Sirius stares at him. "You mean...while I'm gone?"

Regulus shrugs. "I won't hurt her," he snaps, defensive.

"No of course not," Sirius snaps back, rolling his eyes. "She'd kick your arse, you hopeless twat."

Reg relaxes. "Wanker."

Sirius smiles, a bit overwhelmed. He hopes it doesn't show too much on his face. "She wouldn't want to impose on you, Reg."

Reg just shrugs again. "Well," he says, "it's not as if we haven't already met. And she's going to be around a lot more now, isn't she?"

Sirius nods, his throat tight.

"Might as well get used to her," Reg grumbles. In the obscure, foreign language of Black family communication, it's a gift wrapped peace offering, complete with a singing choir and an enthusiastic bear hug.

Sirius can't contain himself; he claps Reg on the shoulder. Regulus grimaces, but he doesn't pull away. "I think she'd like that, Reg, truly."

"Well if you're too lazy to finish the job you were supposed to do a month ago," he grumbles, finally shrugging Sirius' hand off.

Sirius just grins, giving him a cheerful wave as he ambles back towards the stairs. He can hear Reg muttering to himself as he leaves - the creepy little tosser. He and Hermione are going to be at each other's throats in minutes, Sirius would put money on it.

Hermione's moved to the center of the bed in his absence, her bare shoulder peeking out from beneath the blankets and her hair a tangled mess on his pillows. Her eyes are fluttering, her legs moving restlessly, on the verge of wakefulness. Sirius sets the coffee cup on the nightstand, still steaming, and kisses her shoulder. One of her hands comes up and touches the side of his face, and when he pulls back, her eyes are open.

"Oh hello," she mumbles, still tangled in the remnants of sleep. "Where've you been?"

Sirius kisses her cheek, tugging the sheet down enough to see the scar on her breast from Peter's wand, and then he kisses that too. Hermione mumbles something else, low and unintelligible, rolling a bit closer.

"Nowhere," he says honestly, laying his head down against her chest. The sun has fully risen by now, breaking its way in through his curtains, lighting the room up in blue and white. "I didn't go anywhere at all."

Hermione sighs, sliding her fingers through his hair, and falls quiet again, her breathing evening out into sleep once more. Sirius closes his eyes and decides to join her: there's no reason at all not to. Not a single one in the whole world that matters.