Sirius caught up with her in the corridor of the first storey and grabbed her wrist. She heard his footsteps approaching and managed to shake him off, but then he seized her by the waist and whirled her around. She gasped, and he immediately released her, holding up his hands as though someone had him at wandpoint.
"Sorry," he said, breathing hard. "I'm sorry. I just need—just don't run away, alright?"
She was breathless for other reasons as well. It’d been so long since she’d been with him. So bloody long. She could almost weep for how she still wanted him, would maybe keep on wanting him until perhaps the world burned down.
No. She could get over this. She could. She just needed to keep reminding herself of all his bad points.
If only she could believe that those mattered.
His forearm dug into the inside of her arm as he pressed her into the wall. His one knee anchored her in and kept her from moving. She struggled to get away from this torture, and his other hand came up to capture both of her wrists above her head.
Her senses were swimming. Beneath the cologne and the leather, she could smell something else—the scent of skin, of man, of Sirius . It was so quintessentially him that she wanted to bury her face in his neck. She wanted to throw both arms around him and kiss him as though her life depended on it.
Perhaps she never stood a chance resisting him.
Ridiculous, really. Hormones, that was all. The call of biology and all that, and yet Hermione twitched from the need to defy every logical inclination.
“Let me go,” she whispered. Futilely. Her hand twitched against his grasp and fell still as his fingers tightened.
Gentler now that she seemed subdued, he pulled partially away. The light from down the hall shone weakly in from the outside. It’d gone dark suddenly, and the street lamps had come on. The light lit his face into its familiar sharp angles. Good bones, the kind to look good even after he went grey. He’d recovered remarkably well from all the tragedy in his life, whereas she was suffering just from the withdrawal of his presence. She turned her face away.
“Not want you?” he murmured. “Is that what you think?”
“Who wouldn't want you, lovely?” His breath blew gently across her cheek, but his fingers that caressed a line over her jaw were even more so. “I want you so much I’m nearly out of my mind with longing.”
She finally turned her face back to look at him. “Then why?”
She didn’t even finish her question. His grip on her wrist eased little by little until he had freed her. He let out a breath so long that it seemed like the weight of the world had been suddenly exhaled. Before she could move however, he dropped his forehead onto her shoulder. “I don’t want to want you.”
How could he still have the power to hurt her so badly? She thought she already knew what it felt to be rejected, but now it was happening all over again. He'd chased her down to tell her this. Why?
Hermione stood as stiffly as she could before she dropped her shoulder down to inch away, pressing herself against the wall and away from him. She didn't need this reminder of how it'd once felt to be crushed up against him like they were lovers.
Instantly his arms were back up on either side of her to cage her in. He raised his head, his eyes shining silver pools. “I don’t want to lose you. Do you understand what that’s like? I do. Do I ever fucking know it.”
She was at a loss for words even as her heart skipped a beat. She read the despair in his eyes, and her stomach clenched with sudden understanding. “James. And Lily.”
She'd never considered it from this angle.
“And Reg. Remus, even Remus, that fucking bastard. Supposed to be fucking indestructible, and he had the nerve to die on me. And... every fucking person I ever came into contact with.” He blew out a shaky breath. “Maybe I really should have been a Death Eater. Maybe if I’d ever met Voldemort face to face, he would’ve been gone that much sooner. Snape's gone, and even he wasn't the rotter I thought he was.” Sirius laughed, but it was a bitterly self-deprecating sound that ripped at her heart. “Didn’t even have the chance to tell him that.”
“Don’t…” she said softly. “You blame yourself, but we all do. We all castigate ourselves and wonder if there were things we could have done differently. It’s just—there was so much death on either side.”
Sirius chuckled slightly against her temple. “Sympathising with Death Eaters, Hermione?” As though he almost couldn’t help himself, he kissed her gently above her eyebrow. “You have the biggest fucking heart, you foolish girl.”
She fell silent as she absorbed what he’d just told her. He gave off such an insouciant air that it was hard to believe he carried so much guilt on his shoulders. Guilt that didn’t belong solely to him. Was this the only reason they couldn’t be together? Because he was afraid for her life?
Was that why he was so angry when he first saw her tonight? Did it mean that he cared and only used his rage to cover up how he actually felt?
“If we stand here for much longer, Harry’s going to see us like this,” she said, prodding him gently on the chest. He still didn’t move. “And I might be developing a cramp in my foot. If you want to talk, let's go to my room.”
With another sigh that was more like a soft breeze that whistles through unnoticed, he nodded and stepped away but made no move to walk to her door. She felt instantly cold without him.
“You said that the Marriage Law will be repealed soon?” he asked.
Of all the things she’d expected him to ask, that wasn’t it. “Yes,” she said warily. “Why?”
“It’s for the best, Hermione. Being stuck with me isn’t what’s best for you. You deserve so much better. You deserve the sun and the moon and all the fucking stars.” He smiled mirthlessly at the ground. “Instead you got this.” He lifted her left hand and rotated the poesy ring around her fourth finger. “The only untarnished piece of jewelry in the Black vaults. You could get so much farther in life without an old man holding you back.”
Heat suddenly began to gather in her stomach, and she had to fight to keep her voice even and unemotional when all she wanted was to yell and kick him. “Sirius Black, you are without a doubt the biggest stupid idiot in the world. What do I care about the sun and the moon and stars when I could have you? Did you think I married you for your money? Or that I care about your age when wizards live to be a hundred and fifty?” Her volume was rising heedlessly.
His smile was faint as he leaned backwards on the wall, splayed as though he had no more energy left in him. For once he was no longer fidgeting. “You married me as a means to an end. You married me because I was a Black who wasn’t interested in politics and would have done anything to get out of being on the Wizengamot and the Board of Governors.”
“That was before I fell in love with you,” she blurted out. She felt frozen after the words were out, like she was holding out a tribute of her heart and soul, a statue that only had the power to move if someone gave them the kiss of love.
Please don't reject me again.
Her heart felt raw and exposed and stuck in her throat as she waited for him to say anything, but he only stared at her as though he’d also been frozen in place. His lips moved, but nothing came out. There was a sound roaring in her head—he was going to say it; he was going to tell her to save it, that he didn’t need love, not from her.
The only thing that stopped her from running off was the unmistakable roar of the Floo downstairs. Harry. And he wasn’t alone. There was a low murmur of voices—perhaps he’d come back to check on Hermione, bringing with him the lot of people who wanted to know what had happened earlier.
“Anyone home?” Harry called out from below. Light laughter.
Sirius had gone as still as a dog that sensed an intruder. His eyes scanned her face watchfully. Hermione swallowed hard, shaking her head. She didn’t want to see anyone, not now, not like this. She wanted to run, to escape, but where could she go?
She started to back up, and Sirius reached forward, caught her, and turned on his heel.
They landed with Hermione nearly pitching forward before falling into Sirius’s arms. Her head was spinning, and she started to dry-retch, something that hadn’t happened since she’d first started to Apparate. Nothing came up. She hadn’t eaten but a slice of dry toast hours and hours ago early that morning.
“Oh God,” Sirius said, sounding horrified with himself. “ Fuck. No Apparition. I completely forgot. Are you alright? Do we need to go back to the hospital? Fuck fuckfuck.”
When she didn’t respond, he cursed a bit more before gently stooping and gathering her up in his arms. Just as gingerly he walked forward. Every bounce of his heels made her head pound harder. Her fingers dug into his shoulders in an effort to still her world, and she concentrated on not vomiting into his neck. Her stomach was roiling like she’d been free-falling for hours.
He stopped, and she felt herself being lowered. Something soft was beneath her cheeks and she curled up into a fetal position, thankful that the world had stopped whirling.
It took a few minutes, and her eyes were tightly screwed shut the entire time, but finally her muscles began to relax. The sound of footsteps came closer, and a glass was held right in front of her face. “Drink this.”
“What is it?” she asked. Her voice sounded surprisingly hoarse.
“Water. With a measure of the potion for pain from Padma.”
That explained why the clear liquid only covered a few centimetres at the bottom of the glass. She took it, relieved that her hand was steady, and took an experimental sip. When her stomach didn’t protest, she drank the entire thing down.
Sirius was kneeling in front of her on the sofa and took the glass from her before she could drop it. She gazed around myopically. “Where—” she started to say and then realised just why her surroundings looked so familiar.
The Black country estate. The library cum study on the ground floor. She’d started to decorate this place. She’d brought things out of storage and restored the upholstery, if only so she could have somewhere to sit while going through the stacks.
“Did you…” She sat up too suddenly and then had to lie back down with a pained sigh. “You finished categorising the books?”
Sirius didn’t respond at once. He wasn’t looking at her but surveying the room with a frown, his hand lightly scraping his chin. “I did.”
He’d done more than that. There were curtains on the windows. Curtains. Surely Sirius was the last man in the world to concern himself with window hangings. “Is—is the rest of the place like this too?”
He shook his head. Instead of answering, he said, “You should rest some more. Let me send a message to Padma and ask her if you need to go back.”
She had a whole host of questions for him, but he’d left the room without looking backwards. Her eyes flew over the room and noted all the differences from the last time she’d been here with him. They’d made love on a hastily cleaned rug on the floor. Afterwards, they’d been so thirsty that he’d decried the lack of refreshments in this room. Or anywhere in the house, really.
There was a newly installed bar at one side of the room now.
It was remarkably clean and lived-in. Even if Hermione hadn’t been back here, it was clear that someone had.
Perhaps he’d brought someone with him. Why else would he have come here? He always complained so much every time she dragged him here, telling him to be proud of the ancestral house if not his antecedents.
She felt like crying again. Incredibly silly, really. She clearly needed to go back to hospital.
Sirius returned to the room before she could get to her feet to find the Floo. What she saw of the entry hall surprised her. The mirror that had refused to let itself be attached to the wall—no matter how many days she spent arguing with it—was now hung on the wall opposite the library door. As though she hadn't just given up and left it haphazardly propped on the floor. Somebody—presumably Sirius or an even more competent witch than Hermione—had managed to cajole it to hang in its rightful place.
There was a frown on Sirius’s face. “Padma said that you should stay put. No more jostling about. Rest more. Unless you pass out. Do you feel faint?”
“No. Maybe.” She shook her head, and the world spun again.
He strode quickly up to her and knelt down before her. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” She was almost amused to see that he was worrying his upper lip between his teeth. “Happens quite a bit around you, actually.”
“I should go back,” Hermione said. “The Floo—is it connected now?”
Sirius stared at her knees as though the answers of the world were written there. “Not yet, no.”
That was just her luck. “Right.”
He rushed into speech. “Are you hungry? Do you need more water?” A complete gentleman and host.
"I—want to go back,” she said in a small voice.
It somehow hurt to be here in a place where she’d felt so safe and happy and know that nothing was the same anymore. This house had always felt like such a sanctuary to her. She hadn’t understood her attachment herself. Perhaps she’d moved around so much since the war that it’d felt, for a brief moment in time, like an actual home and not a temporary nesting ground. Her parents’ house was still being rented, and she herself had moved three times since she left Hogwarts. She’d become quite good at packing up her things and travelling light.
But Sirius had encouraged her to decorate this place however she wanted. Despite its Pureblood origins, the castle had gone without upkeep for so long that much of the wards and magic were failing. For the most part, it’d been less hassle to refurbish this place than it’d been to clean Grimmauld Place.
It’d felt like they were a real couple, decorating the bare bones of a house to make it a home in which they could live together.
Now it just hurt knowing that he’d come here to work on the refurbishment alone—or with someone else. Either way, without her.
“I’m sorry,” Sirius said again. He scratched the back of his neck. “I can find a broomstick out in the stablehouse, perhaps?”
The thought of flying made her blanch. “Maybe I can stay for a bit longer.”
That brought a faint smile to his face. “You know you rode on a hippogriff before.”
“Buckbeak would have caught me if I’d fallen,” she said. “A broomstick isn’t sentient.”
“I’d catch you,” he said. “Without fail.”
It felt like a vow that he probably hadn’t meant to make. She thought of her impassioned declaration of love back in Grimmauld Place and flushed.
“You know, I...” Sirius started to say and trailed off. “I don’t think I ever told you, but I actually got my fiancée killed.”
He looked remarkably composed for having confessed that. Hermione blinked at him. She wasn’t sure which part had her more taken aback. Fiancée. Killed. “Er—I didn’t know you were that…" She was scrambling to follow the non sequitur. He was being so loquacious all of a sudden. "Did you take her flying?”
He gave a startled bark of laughter. His hand flew up and came to rest on her thigh. He seemed completely unaware that he was touching her so casually when he’d been so careful to stay away from her for so long. “Not flying, no. Yes, a fiancée. I told you I almost got married, didn’t I?”
Her lips didn’t move, but something inside her began to freeze over. Why was he telling her this now? He’d never wanted to speak of it before. She was tense with apprehension. “Yes.”
“Well. Silly me, I thought I could actually do it. I could marry a Muggle. I’d spent so much time in the Muggle world by then that I’d actually met someone and liked her. We were in love, or maybe it was lust. It’s been so long, and anything pleasant about her was the first thing to be sucked out of me in Azkaban. All the happy memories I'd had of the Muggle world.”
Hermione was riveted to the spot. She didn’t move as Sirius spoke. She was filled with sharp anguish and deep jealousy. Sirius had actually loved someone so much he’d stayed single for all that time. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested in women, but that his devotion had remained for so long even after the relationship was over.
What chance did she have in the face of such loyalty? Was this story how he meant to reject her again?
“You can…” The words felt stuck in her throat. She didn’t know what to say. “I’m so sorry, Sirius.”
Sirius stared down at his right hand, which had closed into a fist on her knee while his other hand was braced next to her thigh on the seat cushion. “She was one of the Muggles killed by Peter in the blast. She was with me, you see. Right there next to me, and I couldn’t even protect her.”
“Sirius…” His name was a pleading exhortation on her mouth. How could she respond to any of this? Her eyes burned with compassion and shared hurt. “It’s not your fault. You couldn't have known what would have happened.”
“I should have known. I shouldn’t have brought her anywhere near the area. So you see, my dear,” Sirius said, his lips quirked up at one side. “I’m cursed. Completely and utterly cursed. My mother cursed me, I reckon. Lovely woman. Claimed I did such a disservice to the family name that I shouldn't be allowed to be happy. Maybe she's right.”
“But she’s dead now,” Hermione said. “And you’re still alive. She struck you off from the family tree, and yet here you stand, the last Black and the proud owner of this estate. Her curse couldn’t have been very strong.”
“Anyone connected to me is bound to die,” he said. His eyes met hers, and she was stunned by the silent anguish and guilt in them. “You—”
“I’m still alive,” she cut in. “I’m alive and free to—” she shook her head with a short laugh; what she was thinking felt so absurd to speak aloud “—free to be with Harry like you wanted me to be." The notion felt sour to acknowledge. He wanted her so little he could pass her off to another man. His godson. It galled her to be so unimportant to him. Whoever said honesty could set you free had been lying. Her admission of love had curdled in midair.
She was also fairly certain that the person Harry was involved with was his partner, Theodore Nott.
Sirius's lips lifted slightly, self-deprecatingly. "I should have loved it if you were with Harry. Wished for it. He could do no better than you, I was always convinced. So what was I doing, wanting you for myself?"
She blinked. He spoke of her as though she were an exotic disease or the current fashion, a fad that people wanted just for the sake of saying they'd experienced it. "You have a funny way of showing you want me," she said, turning her face away. "You're the one who ended things, remember?" And yet his hand was still on her thigh, and he was kneeling at her feet.
Somehow he'd got hold of her hand and was playing with her fingers, holding her in place even as she tried to slip free. "I've a feeling—a guess, you might say, because I no longer know. I don't even remember her name or her face, that Muggle girl. Isn’t that terrible? Was I truly in love with her, do you think? I was a callow, rash youth at twenty. Thought I knew everything. I had my whole life mapped out."
He lifted her hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss on her knuckle almost absent-mindedly. "It shouldn't be you. It shouldn't be someone who's barely lived and has her entire promising life in front of her. Someone so full of life and verve and such damnable passion that it takes my breath away just to be near you. Did I want you for Harry? Yes. But it wasn't long after that I would have cheerfully throttled him if he'd ever looked at you in that way."
He pressed another kiss to her middle finger. "I shouldn't want you so much that I have to quarantine myself an entire continent away so that I wouldn't be tempted to follow you into the Ministry every morning you go to work. I shouldn't want to fill up every single moment of your day so that you'd have no thoughts for anyone but me. It was strictly business, remember? I kept trying to remind myself. I was so good, Hermione— so good . I ended things. I kept away. And then I heard that you almost died."
His hand tightened so hard on her fingers that she almost cried out, but she kept silent, afraid he'd stop talking. "I couldn't wait for a Portkey. I Apparated seven times before I could get to France to catch the direct Floo across the Channel. Why was I so far away from you when you needed me? Why did I keep away?"
He absently rubbed the skin on her hand before turning her palm to face upwards. He lowered his head and pressed a kiss at the base of her thumb, lifting his eyes to stare at her as he did so. "If I kept you locked up, do you think I could keep you safe? These are all thoughts that went through my head. I've a suspicion that whatever I felt for that poor Muggle girl in my youth is nothing to what I feel for you. How could I have felt any of this at that age, when I fully believed I was nearly immortal and impervious to injury? I had no regard for her safety. Now I’m constantly on edge, filled with doubts that I'll never be good enough to deserve you and overwhelmed with the terror that I'll lose you at any time. I’m so fucking old, and it’s unfair of me to take away your youth. You should be with someone who’s a hero—someone like Harry, that fucker, or even Longbottom—not someone who’s wasted most of his life hating everything in the world.
“I don't even know what love is anymore—I'm just so tired of fighting myself all the time, wanting you and not having you. I vowed to be good, to stay away until you got your wish and the law got repealed and we could go our separate ways. But I can't just let you go. Hermione, my darling, my love, my heart—I don't even know where I end and you begin, because it feels like you've always had a piece of me with you. You probably don't even know to what heights I soared when you told me you loved me. To that I say, sod off, Dumbledore, I've managed to become a damnably good liar, haven't I? I’ve never been half good at lying, but I managed it this time, didn’t I? No one even knew of my secret passion for you. It was something I'd vowed to take to the grave with me. And then you spoke up for your would-be murderer—my darling, you need me, don't you?"
His voice was hushed, and there was a note of diffidence that she'd never heard from him before. His hands were hesitant and cautious as they reached for her and gathered her forward into his arms. "I'm not the only one in need of you. I'd hoped—possibly prayed—that there was an iota of good left in me, something that would make you need me just as deeply, and maybe there is, only you'd have to dig deep to find it—"
"Sirius," she cut in. "You're rambling."
He blinked and swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing. He looked slightly discombobulated. "Yes, you're right—"
"For the love of Merlin, would you just kiss me?" she said, but her demand was tempered by fond exasperation. "Don't think I don't have plans up my sleeve to keep you locked to my side."
His lips were shaped into a laugh as he rose to his full height and leaned over her, his hands bracing on the back of the couch. There was nothing hard or confident about his mouth as it closed over hers, gently kissing her as though he were uncertain of his welcome. It was a soft, exploratory touch and felt like a first kiss, closed-mouth and interspersed with pecks to reassure each other that they were with each other. He drew away to smile at her. "Plans to keep me at your side? Do tell; I'm all ears."
Her hand slid up his chest, and she delighted in the feel of his muscles so long absent to her. She felt slightly woozy with elation; what if she should wake up to find that this was all a dream? "A collar to keep you in your Animagus form and locked to my side." She gave a tug on his shirt front and pulled him down.
He managed to land on the seat next to her, and she clumsily climbed astride him. His hands slid over her arse and squeezed even as he groaned and turned his head away. “Hermione, darling, you’re hurt. You should be recovering."
Even as he said this, his hands were dancing lower until his fingers brushed against the seam of her sex through her clothes. “Does this feel like I’m hurt?” She gyrated against his touch, and he exhaled harshly against her neck.
“You’re positively diabolical,” he muttered, sucking on the column of her throat. His hand found the back waistband of her trousers and delved in under her knickers. She shivered at the touch of his hard, warm fingers. “For the record, a collar is nothing to all the fantasies I've had of you. I'll never let you out of my sight. I'm keeping you chained to my bed. The room silenced. Harry knows not to come around."
Hermione laughed, and her breasts rubbed against his chest. "Stop going on about Harry. I'm almost certain he's with Nott."
Sirius's hands stopped exploring. "Nott as in Theo Nott? His partner?"
"The very same."
"Diabolical," Sirius repeated at a murmur, and his hands continued its rubbing. "I approve. So long as Nott continues to keep Harry away from you, I wholeheartedly approve."
After a long while, Hermione lifted her head from Sirius's chest to look at him. "Does this mean I'll have to stay on the Wizengamot in your stead?"
His finger stopped its idling touch on her arm. "Why?" The word sounded alert and careful. "Do you no longer wish to be on the Wizengamot?"
"I don't know," Hermione said thoughtfully. "I just think I might do more good elsewhere."
He was silent for a long time. "Does that mean I won't even have those positions to offer you?"
She stretched up against him and kissed him full on the mouth, luxuriating in the feel of his hard, naked body against hers. "You're obsessed with giving me things. I don't need it. All I need is you. Shouldn't that make you feel more secure? That I want you and only you?"
Sirius shifted, curling his arm around her and tugging her closer. "You'd think so, but I've been subliminally trained to provide. It irks me not to give you a settlement. It's thoroughly old-fashioned, I know, but—" he said, giving her a gentle shake when she laughed "—I'd prefer to think of myself as a gentleman."
"Well, after I discuss with Hildred how exactly to do away with hereditary seats in the Ministry, we might go into practice together. It's all very tentative, of course. Until then, you'll just have to keep me on your new salary. What was it—something about working for the sporting goods store?" she asked innocently.
"Harry's been spilling my secrets," he said with a sigh.
"Ron, actually. I was convinced you'd started seeing someone else."
His laugh was a short breath of air against her hair. "No," he said. "Not that. Never that." His quiet words were a sort of vow in its brevity and gravity, as was the way his arm pulled her in so that she laid almost on top of him. “I’ve been—well, here mostly.” He waved a hand to indicate their surroundings.
“In this house?” she asked, lifting her head up.
He pushed her head back down. “Yes. Helped keep me busy and away from you, didn’t it? You also left such detailed instructions on what you planned to do with everything that—well, I had a lot to occupy myself.”
“I thought for certain you’d brought someone else here with you. Ginny. Or Penny.”
“Who’s Penny?” he asked. “Ginny, I know of course. Smart girl. She’s already planning for her retirement from Quidditch.”
“You do have rather a lot in common with her,” Hermione said. Again she felt that prickling of unease and insecurity, of being left out of his world. “And she thinks you’re ‘fucking fit,’ to quote her.”
When he laughed, she pulled her arm away in a fit of pique. He tussled with her and when she wouldn’t look him in the face, he rolled her over so that he was above her, his hands locking her hands down, and his knees caging her thighs together. A lock of hair fell over his eyes, and he impatiently shook it back. “I fucking love it when you’re jealous.” He leaned down to kiss her on the lips, but she turned her head so that it landed on the side of her mouth.
He released one of her hands to curve a palm around her jaw so that he could capture her lips. “Frankly, I was tired of being the only one.” His head dipped and he laid a kiss on her clavicle. “You’re so good at seeming competent that I never could tell whether I was just a side benefit of this plan you’ve got laid out for the rest of your life.” Another kiss on the tip of her breast that made her breath catch. “You know you could have argued with me when I broke up with you. I was expecting you to. I wanted you to. But you never did, and so I just assumed I’d run the course for you.” He took her nipple into his mouth and lightly suckled. “I’ve been cleaning up my act for you, have you noticed?”
“Yes,” she said faintly. “I did notice.” She’d thought he’d found some other motivation, another lease on life that had nothing to do with her. "I thought it was all one-sided.”
He looked up at her through heavy-lidded eyes. “But you managed to surprise me again. You yelled at me. Called me an idiot and told me you’re in love with me. Hermione Granger doesn’t spare time for idiots. It must really be love.”
“Of course it is,” she whispered. “You idiot.”
She felt his lips curve up into a smile against her sternum. He palmed her thigh before lifting it over his shoulder, giving it a squeeze that made her squeal. “And luckily, thanks to a brilliant wife, I’ve my inheritance back, so I think I could manage to keep you.”
She half lifted up on one elbow to watch his progress down her body. "I've expensive tastes."
"You mean clothes for all the elves in the world?" He was still smiling. "Or appeals for every murderer in Azkaban?"
"Only your devotion for eternity."
He pulled himself back up, his eyes never leaving hers. With her knee over his shoulder, he reached up a hand to cup her cheek before he smoothed a strand of hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ear before he kissed her, hard and possessive on the lips. "That's already yours. Completely yours."