Chapter 1: Take the Road Less Travelled
"Are you taking the bloody mick out of me?”
Hermione’s eyes went to the cigar in Sirius’s hand as he gaped at her. A pale wisp of smoke wafted from the end of his half-smoked cheroot as it wavered between his lax fingers. It looked in imminent danger of overbalancing and falling onto the rug, but in the next moment, he’d raised it back to his mouth and clamped it between two rows of white teeth, now bared at her in a wide grin. “You’re fucking with me, aren’t you, poppet?”
“No, I’m not.” She had a seriousness in her tone that sounded almost hard. He was behaving as though this was all just a joke, and she sat up straighter in response, shaking her hair back. “Look, it’s really very simple. The law says that for the purposes of integration, all Muggleborns need to be married to a Pureblood. I’m a Muggleborn—”
He eyed her warily, puffing out smoke rings in double time. “I got that,” he cut in. His foot, encased in a brogue boot, resumed its restless tapping.
“—and you’re a Pureblood.” She shrugged with nonchalance, but her hands twisted in her lap. “And—” she added with emphasis “—you owe Harry.” With her eyes, she dared him to argue with her on how they’d rescued him from Dementors.
With anyone else, she would have led up to the point gradually, possibly with a few sad tales to soften up her audience. With Sirius, Hermione knew she was dealing with a possible ticking time bomb. Whenever she saw him, he was always on the go—his hands fiddling, his feet pacing, his eyes flitting through the room as though he were already bored and it bothered him to be physical still. He seemed ever ready to drop whatever he was doing to do something else.
She only had a few seconds to capture his attention. The knowledge made her nervous. She'd always thought him a bit of a wild card, emotional and impetuous in a way that reminded her of Harry.
Only Sirius was almost twenty years older, and even harder to predict.
He raised an eyebrow and gestured at her with the tip of his cigar. His signet ring glinted with orange light from the dancing flames, and she could see the faded black and green ink of his tattoos rippling over his knuckles. “ You’re not Harry.”
She shrugged again and gazed at him pointedly. “You owe me too, Sirius.”
Both of his eyebrows flew up at that, and his cheek bulged as his tongue swept to one side of his mouth. His other hand tapped out a rhythm on the armrest as his eyes focused on her with shrewd regard—as though he’d never seen her before. “You’re a bold one, aren’t you? And to think I always had you pegged as such a sweet young thing.”
“I am a sweet young thing…when I want to be,” she retorted with as much spirit as she dared show without launching into a rant. Lecturing about misogyny now wouldn't benefit either one of them. “I just happen to not wish to waste any time. I don’t want the Ministry-appointed divination experts to call on me to look into their crystal balls. I don’t need a prejudiced Pureblood hoping to make an example out of his wife. I want to take control of my own life.”
She leaned forward. “Besides, this isn’t going to be a real marriage. It’s only for the purposes of playing by the rules and using the rules against them. ” She gave him another look that said very clearly, “Well?”
Sirius let out a breath of air and stubbed out his cigar in the ashtray on the coffee table. He pushed to his feet with impatience and passed her as he prowled over to the liquor cabinet. “I need a drink if I’m really going to be blackmailed into this by my godson’s ‘good friend'.”
The dark look he sent her under his brows as he emphasised the last words showed that he wasn’t going to acquiesce easily to her request. Well, she’d been prepared for that.
“Pour me one too, thanks,” she said to his back.
By the way his shoulders froze briefly, she’d surprised him again. He’d have to get used to it. He hadn’t even sat through Part One of her plan.
When he turned around, she’d risen to her feet to meet him. By the look of the colour of the liquid in the glass tumbler, he’d given her Firewhiskey, the same thing he was drinking. His eyebrows were raised as he walked over to her. He stood so close that the toe of his boots tapped her on the side of her shoes. She didn’t move as he passed over the glass. Her heart was beating double time, but she didn’t back down.
She’d never been alone with him before for so long. Grimmauld Place was currently empty of even the movement of Kreacher. It was usually filled to the brim with people, as Sirius seemed possessed with a fervour to live every day up to his neck with company and gaiety. She couldn’t really blame him for that, but it’d taken a bit of effort to set up this private meeting.
She had only half an hour to convince him, and she’d bet that he’d take pains to avoid being around her after this.
“Cheers,” he said in a deep, low voice, and his mouth curled upwards at one end to reveal a dimple that had surprisingly survived the worst of his many trials. He was looking at her without blinking, and there was an intimacy in his expression that made her blink in surprise.
His head was tilted to one side, and he was gazing at her in such a way that made her think he was going to kiss her.
That was crazy, wasn’t it? She’d already said this would be strictly impersonal.
Hermione almost took a step backwards before another thought struck her. This was a test. Combined with the Firewhiskey he was giving her—when he’d never seen her take so much as a drop of the foul drink—he was certainly up to something.
“Cheers,” she replied. She watched him take a sip, pretending to be engrossed with the sight while her hand behind her back waved a small loop. There was a faint shimmer that passed over the surface of her drink before it stilled, and she drank from the amber-coloured water.
She was certain he hadn’t seen her cast the spell. He’d been too intent on using his physical presence to make her back down. Her elbow almost bumped his shoulder as she lifted the glass up to drink, and still he didn’t move away. She drank deeply, watching him closely as his smirk faded and his eyes widened slightly.
When she lifted the glass away, it was half-empty, and he wasn’t looking so smug anymore. He had that speculative look in his eyes again, as though his brain was moving at twice the speed of its usual indolence.
Her voice was low and persuasive when she spoke. “I need this to be you, and I can make it worth your while.”
His eyes flickered down briefly, to glance at her body in that instinctive perusal men gave all women. A host of expressions flashed across his face: suspicion, cynicism, conjecture, and amidst it all, curiosity. “What exactly does that mean?” he asked, and each word was measured and careful.
He hadn’t moved backwards, and Hermione wondered if he knew just how much he was invading her personal space. She had to tilt her head back to look him full in the face, and she could smell the cigar and Firewhiskey on him, as well as his personal cologne that made her think of leather and velvet.
He hadn’t smelled like leather and velvet when she'd first met him.
Back when she’d rescued him with Harry, they’d all been crammed on top of Buckbeak. She’d taken the middle seat because she’d been scared to death of falling off. Harry, who’d been the most used to riding Buckbeak, had ridden in front. The rancid smell of Sirius Black with his arms tight around them had been stamped into her brain forever. She’d been too polite to speak of it then, but he’d smelled of sour meat and piss, and his breath above her head as he’d yelled out his elation with Harry had reeked of bad dental hygiene.
He was a far cry from that man now.
For the first time, Hermione could finally understand why Ginny had claimed Harry’s godfather was “fucking fit.”
She’d been aghast at Ginny’s honest crudeness at the time. “Ginny! How can you go from thinking Cedric was fit to—to— him?”
Hermione truly didn’t understand it. Cedric had been the ideal man; polite, intelligent, hardworking, and it just so happened that he looked like a male model. In comparison, Sirius Black was scarred and tattooed, with ratty hair and the sallow complexion of very unhealthy living habits.
“Haven’t you seen old photographs of him?” Ginny had asked. “Although, if you ask me, he’s so much fitter now.”
They’d all seen the photographs. No one could fathom the clean cut, model-like appearance of a Hogwarts Sirius, but no one had dared to bring it up given his current disfigured appearance. Every single photograph of Sirius back then had been with the deceased James Potter. The difference had been so remarkably jarring she hadn't even been certain she'd been looking at the same person.
She’d been wide-eyed with revulsion and a little admiration at Ginny’s open-minded attitude.
Now, though, she understood what Ginny was saying. She hadn’t back then, not when she was still in school and the memory of Sirius’s skeletal frame and sunken appearance had been so fresh on her mind. Four years after she’d finished her made-up year at school, she finally saw what Ginny had been extolling.
Sirius Black was handsome in a way that owed itself all to good bones and nothing whatsoever to healthy living. At forty-two, with a better haircut and a goatee to go with the return of his enviably youthful build, she could now attest to the attractiveness that still had women double back to give him another look.
She'd also noticed that he never gave them a second glance in return.
"I'm well aware you aren't interested in me in that way," she said, meeting his eyes straight on. "This isn't going to be that kind of an arrangement. This— law , such as it is, isn't going to last. And I don't want to be stuck in a binding relationship when it's inevitably repealed."
He frowned quizzically at her and took a step back. "Aren't you with someone? Ron or…" He made a loose gesture with his hand, as though he couldn’t be bothered to keep up with the details of her love life.
"We were," she said. "It didn't work out, and while I know he'd help me out, he's currently dating someone, and I don't want to put spokes in that just for something I can solve myself."
He leveled her a look. "With my help."
"Yes. And you," she said, "don't want a real marriage."
"Definitely not." His voice was crisp and certain. "But I'm also used to being on the run. I see no issue with running off to the beach for a good five years—since you've said it'll be repealed?"
She nodded. "I'm making certain of it.”
“And I’ve no doubt of your resolve, having—er, encountered it before. Then what’s compelling me to want to deal with the unbearable hassle of matrimony?”
“Well, with Harry going into the Auror program, he'll be sworn into his duties. He'll take an oath, and he’d be compelled to turn you in whether he likes it or not." She paused for a calculated moment. "You wouldn't want to put Harry in that position, would you?"
Sirius made a grimace and swirled what was left of the Firewhiskey in his glass. "Put a lot of thought into this, haven't you?"
"Of course. I always do my research beforehand. And I know that you are the last male Black. Under wizarding heredity law, you're bound by the Oath of the Sacred Twenty-Eight into resuming your duties as Head of house. It’s what will enable you to access the Black vaults—or else they’d revert back to the Ministry."
There was another grimace, this one accompanied by a sound that sounded like a low growl. "Don't remind me." He finally left her standing by herself and made his way back to lounge in his armchair. As was usual, he began to fidget—taking out a Muggle lighter, flicking the flame open with one hand, snapping it shut and then open again just as though he were Arthur Weasley encountering the device for the very first time. "Unless you have a plan to get me out of that. In which case, I'd certainly be obliged to you."
Hermione felt the first flutters of giddiness tickle her stomach. Calm, she told herself sternly. Stay very calm. Success felt so close, closer than she'd count on when she’d embarked on this mad scheme. "I do, actually. As the Black mistress, I'll be entitled to take your place in office in the event you are incapacitated…by, oh, any lingering malaise due to your stint in Azkaban," she said in a purposefully offhand manner before her tone changed and turned businesslike. "It was written into the code in 1623, and it's been largely forgotten, but it's still in effect. I’ve checked. It was last upheld in 1945 with Mistress Lament, whose husband fell off his broomstick. And after we separate, you can take an extended leave due to bereavement."
He leaned his head back against the headrest and examined her down his straight nose for a long moment. His fingers didn't pause in playing with the lighter. Click, snap, click, snap. "You've got it all planned out."
"I do. It doesn't do to leave things up to chance."
“What’s to prevent me filing for an exception due to—bereavement, I think you said— now?” He sat low in his chair, the hand not playing with his lighter obscuring his mouth as he observed her.
“You could , but it would take away the satisfaction of conforming to their misbegotten law by forcing a Muggleborn into their midst.”
That brought a lopsided smirk to his face. "You know, you've got a point there."
He launched himself out of the chair then with an agility that startled her. He was standing in front of her again before she could react.
"I don't believe in wasting time making up my mind, you see. Such a lot of wasted time in my life already. You, my dear, have got yourself a deal."
She'd known she could make it happen. She'd come here with the certain knowledge that she could make the argument of a life debt to force him into complying with her wishes. Even so, his acquiescence without her resorting to that last desperate argument made her momentarily breathless with anticipation. "I do?"
"Naturally. Wasn't this what you planned, then? Shall we pop some fizz to celebrate?"
"Then the traditional way must be what you intend."
Before she could step backwards, Sirius Black had an arm around the back of her waist and his mouth was descending on hers. It was a brief but very thorough kiss that left her more breathless than ever.
She was sure he didn't fancy her, or perhaps any woman. He'd never displayed any indication of female companionship that she knew of, and wasn't that just a bit odd if he had such an inclination?
He let her go and set her back on her slightly unsteady feet. His eyes were glinting with knowing humour. "There. Now you've got yourself a deal."
Ginny was the first person she told.
“Wow,” Ginny said. “You and—Sirius. Harry’s godfather. What’s he going to say?”
“He can’t say anything, since he’s not a Muggleborn or a Pureblood and as such has been exempted from the law. And you? What are you going to do?”
Ginny shrugged and tossed her hair over one shoulder. "I dunno. I'm kind of curious who the Ministry will assign to me if I don't do anything about it, you know? And since it didn't work out with Harry…"
Hermione glanced at Ginny for a moment until the other girl laughed and nudged Hermione on the shoulder. "Oh, don't look at me like that. I'm not still holding onto a massive crush on him. I'm glad we tried, it didn't work, and now I can get on with my life, you know?"
Hermione didn't say anything for a long time. Then she inhaled and looked up with a determined smile. "This is a shit situation, isn't it?"
Ginny returned the smile with a shrug. "It really is, isn't it? But then Harry always said to 'never trust the Ministry.'"
Hermione snorted. "And who is it who's become an Auror and is vowing to uphold all laws?"
Ginny shook her head and raised the bottle of Butterbeer up to her lips. "Boys."
She'd explained it all very carefully to him, and he'd listened with half a ear. They wouldn't even have to consummate the marriage. The way the regulation had been drafted had been full of holes. She was expecting the entire thing to be thrown out in the next five years. Sooner—if she could expedite her seat on the Wizengamot.
His attention had been elsewhere already.
Honestly, for all that he seemed like a rehabilitated person in society, he behaved exactly like an adolescent male. Or a big giant puppy.
He first took exception to the fact that they couldn't just get married "on the spot."
"Why not?" Sirius asked. He was wearing his leather jacket, and Hermione wouldn't admit it to herself, but there was something about an impatient man that was just the slightest bit intimidating. His eyes were already somewhere over her head, searching for new horizons to pursue. As far as he was concerned, he'd agreed to her request but not to all the hassle. She'd agreed to save him from hassle, remember?
She could just picture him saying that. Her lips firmed. "I'm not saying we need a large wedding in front of a thousand witnesses," she said, ignoring the look of horror that had crossed Sirius's face at that. "I'm saying that we are doing this to appease the Ministry, so it has to be at least by the book. Which means we need to at least appear in the Ministry together to file the paperwork."
He was looking at her now, and the horror hadn't abated. His eyes were wide, and he blinked several times. "You can't be serious. You're expecting me to go into the Ministry? Voluntarily?"
Hermione just about managed not to heave a sigh. "This is simpler than a large wedding, Sirius. Trust me."
"Trust you!" Sirius lifted a hand and clenched it into a fist that he brought up to his pursed lips. "This was supposed to be the easier route. In name only, remember?"
She took offense at his tone. He was acting as though he were the injured party here when she was trying to do good for the entire country. "It is in name only. But first, we need to register that bloody name! How hard is that to understand?"
His fist froze in mid-air, and his head swiveled back to her. "Well now. The kitten has claws, has she? I do believe that's the first time I've ever heard you curse, poppet."
"You'll hear a lot more than that if you don't just trust me on this. How else did you think I could legally and magically become your wife, if not through the sanctioned route?" She wanted to stomp her foot.
He shrugged. "Never thought of it, really. I imagine I thought you could wave your wand and run around with some paperwork, and that'd be that."
Hermione set her jaw. "Really, Sirius. How old are you? Most people try for a modicum of responsibility. Do you plan to drift aimlessly through your life forever?"
His head was tilted back as he regarded her with narrowed eyes. "Not forever, no, but I figure I deserve it, after being framed for the murder of my best friend and tossed into Azkaban to rot for the rest of my natural life."
Hermione sighed, her hands going up to rake through her bushy hair. "Sorry. I shouldn't have—I'm sorry. I'm on edge too. This law is ruining everyone's lives, and nobody is doing a bloody thing about it!"
There was a knot in her throat that made her think sniffles were imminent, so she cleared her throat and inhaled sharply to forestall it.
"Oh, blow me with a feather," Sirius muttered. "Come here, you."
He reached over and pulled Hermione into his arms like he had that first summer they'd all been congregated at Grimmauld Place, back when he'd been placed on lockdown and had been so happy to see them he'd run around offering them everything in sight. Rather like an overenthusiastic puppy.
He'd been skinnier then and his cheeks still hollow. It was a wonder he hadn't turned into a permanent alcoholic, although she thought he'd come rather close to it. Freedom, true freedom, had made a lot of difference on the recovering Sirius, but he was by no means completely healed of his scars, physical or otherwise. She should have been more sensitive to his issues, but she’d gone in with all the finesse of a rampaging erumpent.
"I'm really sorry, Sirius," she muttered into the shoulder of his leather jacket. It smelled of his cologne and felt soft and supple under her cheek. "I—took out my frustrations on you. Listen, I'm—I'll try to be less abrasive in the future."
"Abrasive, you?" He scoffed, as though her words had amused him. "You're so small it's like seeing a kitten trying to paw at me."
At that, she pushed away from him and scowled. "I was being serious!"
"I was too. Well, I'm always serious. The name, you know." When she rolled her eyes, he rolled his with her and pulled her into his embrace again. "You left yourself wide open for that one. Anyway, look. I'll do the Ministry thing. This once. God, I hate that place with a passion. I'd set it on fire if I could." He tilted his head to one side. "Wait. Maybe I could have Kreacher do it—"
She groaned. "You're not setting anything on fire. This whole plan was to rehabilitate your image, remember?"
He scowled as she tried to pull free of his grasp, and he hauled her back by her scruff, keeping an arm around her shoulders as he propelled her to the Floo. "I don't want to be rehabilitated. Do you know what happens then? I'll get loads of women trying to proposition me all the bloody time. It's only thanks to this dastardly reputation that they stay clear, you know. They aren't entirely convinced I didn't kill anyone." He waggled his eyebrows at her.
"Well, it's my job to keep them clear after this," she said. "After all, you'll be taken."
He squeezed her arm affectionately. "Thank bloody God. Lunch in Muggle London after this? Arthur is meeting me there."
“Are we going to the Ministry now ?” She stopped in her tracks right in front of the Floo.
“No time like the present,” he said as cheerfully as though he hadn’t been planning on arson just a moment ago. He gave her a push in the small of her back, and she had to duck to avoid hitting her head on the overhanging brick wall. “I never put things off if I can get them done now.”
He kept up a light-hearted string of chatter the entire way to the Ministry through the new Floo entrance, a reconstructed Atrium set in an entirely different part of the building. Once they'd walked out of the newer entrance hall into the main area, his speech faltered as he looked around with a nervous chuckle.
"So this is what it looks like now, is it?"
His tone was upbeat, but she could tell by the arm around her shoulder that he was tense. There was something slightly wild in his eyes, like he was being backed up into a corner by predators. She gripped his hand, afraid he planned to turn into a dog at any moment. He still did it occasionally, just as a general fuck off in the middle of conversations even amongst friends.
She'd forgotten that this was the place of many bad memories for him, many of which she'd only heard about secondhand. He'd been brought here as a runaway underage wizard. He'd lost his trial here and been pronounced guilty of betraying his friends and killing a multitude of Muggles. He'd lost his wand here and had been frozen in place to be instantly transported to Azkaban.
He'd almost been killed by his cousin here.
She snaked her other arm around his waist and gripped the side of his hip tightly. Perhaps a bit too tightly, because he jolted and glanced sideways at her in what looked like alarm. "Courage," she whispered. "Gryffindor, yes?"
His smile was lopsided but genuine as he patted her on the shoulder. "Gryffindor, yes."
"Then let's go fuck the Ministry and get married."
It wasn't like her to say something so obviously crass when she planned to be a part of the Ministry herself in another month, but it was the right thing to say just then. His smile grew, and he visibly straightened. "Lead on, kitten."
That was how Hermione and Sirius Black came to be married.
Chapter 2: Born From Just One Single Glance
It wasn't very hard being married to Sirius Black. For the most part, everything seemed to progress rather as though she were still single. One of the only differences to her pre-marriage life was that she now lived at Grimmauld Place with Sirius and Harry, though Harry managed to be gone most of the time for his job.
Or that was what she thought until she caught Harry charming a few marks off his neck while in front of the hall mirror.
"Rough night?" she said, watching him from the darkened doorway.
"Jesus!" Harry jumped into the air, his wand instantly pointed at her and then just as quickly retracted. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Sorry." She shrugged as she came forward. "Who's the lucky girl?"
Instead of responding, Harry straightened his shirt collar and lifted an eyebrow at her. "I'd forgotten you live here now."
"Well, according to the law, we do have to maintain a joint household," she said.
"Ah, right, right," Harry said, nodding. She got the impression he'd forgotten she was now married to Sirius. "And how's that going? Any chance of an appeal yet?"
"Not just yet, no. I haven't been sworn in to the Wizengamot, but they can't keep looking for excuses to hold me off."
"Actually," Harry said, his eyes meeting hers in the mirror. "They can." He looked around for a moment and pulled her wrist, tugging her with him out of the entrance way.
It was that old way he had, with his eyes gazing around shiftily, that alerted her that this was Harry off-duty. She let herself be pulled along without another word.
Once in the parlor, he cast three spells in quick succession, one of which was a listening device spell that took effect over the two of them. Another was a Muffliato, and the third sealed them into a glimmering bubble-like cube.
"New spell?" she asked, running her fingers over the iridescent walls. It was as though they were in a room of their own. He was ever so slightly distorted whenever he moved. She sighed in admiration and envy. "I should have signed up for the Auror Program if this is what they're teaching you. What was the incantation again? I only caught the last word of it. Privatus, wasn't it?"
Harry shook his head, his lips curled up on one side in amusement. "Concentrate, Hermione. I happened to overhear the Chief Ministerial Counsellor talking about background checks as potential bars to the Wizengamot. It's possible they're going to attack your character when you make your case."
Hermione rolled her eyes to the top of the ceiling. "Are they going to be that stubborn about it?"
"So the Chief MC is against it." She tapped her bottom lip with her wand. "That's not the worst news. It's not as though the Chief Warlock holds the same view."
"Weeeeell..." Harry said, drawing out the word. She looked at him with growing trepidation. "They're very close. I just discovered that they're drinking buddies."
Hermione groaned and punched Harry on the shoulder. He took the hit without murmur. "How is this fair, Harry? I should be able to hold that position as the wife of the Head of House Black!"
"Well, that's just it, isn't it? They don't really think you're husband and wife." Harry shrugged. "You're never seen together, and there is the matter of, well, the two decades of age difference. That little tiny thing."
She scoffed. "Eighteen years, Harry. I did the math. He's born in August and was the youngest in his year."
Harry looked at her for a long moment without talking, and then his hand came up to push his glasses higher on his nose. "Right. Eighteen years. Not nearly the same as two decades. The point is," he said pointedly, "that nobody's convinced you two are actually married. It's obvious that you're planning on overturning the Marriage Law—and probably a lot more laws while you're at it, aren't you?"
Hermione lifted her chin. "Yes, it just so happens I do have a list of the absentee warlocks who never put in an appearance, and I plan to—"
Harry groaned and held up a hand. "Don't tell me anymore. Please. I'd need you to Obliviate me afterwards."
She examined him narrowly. He hadn’t seemed that interested in working to repeal the law before this, other than a few rote insults against certain Ministry officials. "Hmm. You know, it's interesting how you've come around to my plan now when I distinctly remember you spouting Auror vows and the like as reasons to avoid supporting me."
It was telling how he didn't meet her eyes. "It just seems unfair that you're lobbying for freedom and equality and no one's paying you any heed, that's all." There was something diffident and even shifty about the way his shoulders lifted.
"Really, Harry Potter?" she asked. Her arms were folded across her chest, and she gazed at him until he fidgeted. "You're involved with someone, aren't you? Someone who gave you those marks on your neck that you're vanishing—at home and not in front of them, which means you care about what they think. Someone—that I would guess is either a Muggleborn or a Pureblood, because they're the ones affected by this law."
She rolled her eyes at the way he hemmed and hawed before he began to sputter. "Well, it's just silly, isn't it? They've excluded Halfbloods from the law, but we aren't, not really, because we're not allowed to be with—well, just about anyone, really, because two-thirds of the population could be forbidden to us and—"
"Half, actually. Halfbloods take up the majority of the wizarding pool."
He shot her a quelling look. "Look, the point is, I'm on your side. As far as I can be, I suppose, what with the tiny wrinkle of my job and all."
Hermione held up a hand. "Good to have you finally on board with me, Harry."
He gazed warily at her a second longer as though uncertain whether she was really not going to question him further on his secret relationship. She couldn’t possibly be bothered right now. Then he shook his head as though he could never figure her out anyway. "Listen, I don't know what you can do. More research maybe? Another line of argument? A surprise witness?"
Hermione gave him a look. "Just how hard were you listening during the criminal procedure part of your training, Harry? It doesn't work like that. No, it's much simpler. And you're right, of course."
Harry paused in the middle of polishing his glasses. "I am?"
"Yes. The old guard is afraid of the young upstart Mudblood taking advantage of the poor, recovering Sirius Black, one of the last of the Sacred Twenty-Eight. It's really rather simple, actually. I just need to convince them that this is a real marriage."
She beamed at him while he gazed warily back at her. "How hard could that be?"
"This is getting more and more complicated, you know," Sirius was saying from the depths of his armchair. His legs were sprawled apart before him, and there was a smoking cigar in his hand much like how they had stood when she’d first propositioned him.
"Well, it's either this, or you take up your seats in the Wizengamot and Board of Governors."
The horror on Sirius's face was almost comical. "Alright, you she-devil. Lay it on me."
He patted his knee twice and expectantly raised an eyebrow at her. For a moment, Hermione had the strangest thought that he meant for her to perch there on his lap like—well, not unlike the kitten he always compared her to.
She simply stood there and gawked at him, in the way women usually did in his presence.
She knew he was a physical person. He had an easy way about him; a casual, familiar way that belied his background and made him who he was. He was frank and affectionate with his touches, easily cuffing Harry around the neck to rumple his hair or aiming punches at Ron to "keep him sharp." With the rest of their friends, their fake marriage was a constant running joke that they all knew about. Sirius occasionally made a point of saying that he’d done Remus one better by marrying an even younger bird, though he would only refer to Remus when his spirits were high. When Hermione would walk in on mixed company at Grimmauld Place after work, Sirius would launch to his feet and wave her over in his ever playful manner. "There's the little missus now—Hermione, my wife, my love?"
He was such a joker that Hermione was used to rolling her eyes at his antics and taking everything he said with a grain of salt.
He was Sirius Black, the last surviving male Black, and she'd always been a little exasperated with how boyish he was—encouraging Harry and Ron when they didn't need any more encouragement, preaching impetuousness and rashness without a thought for the consequences.
But now she realised he was more than that. He was, absolutely, irresponsible and rash even past the age that most men had settled down, but he was also someone who had made Harry feel that little bit less lonely. He was the uncle Harry needed and never got with Vernon. He was the father who'd been absent for Harry, and the encouraging older brother to Ron, when Ron was so used to being trod over as the youngest male in his family.
He was the one who'd married Hermione when she'd asked him.
That wasn't something just anyone would have done.
Hermione shook her head with reluctant affection and smiled at him. She walked over to perch on the armrest next to him; an action that would’ve been unthinkable in its familiarity half a year ago but now felt almost natural. Her voice was low and confiding; a soothing tone reserved for Sirius when he was at his most recalcitrant. "We have to show a united front. Put in the occasional appearance at these Ministry events—the ones you're invited to," she added. She thought of the invitations dropped off by owl and then just as quickly and cavalierly relegated to the fireplace to go up in flames by a flick of the wand from Sirius.
"Right, we can do that, I suppose. Anything for you, o light of mine," he said, giving her a squeeze on her upper arm. His hand brushed against the side of her breast, and she almost leapt up in alarm.
She almost lost track of her train of thought. "And, er—there was something else…"
"And what's that, mistress mine?" His right hand steadied her on the armrest, holding her with an open-palmed grip on her thigh.
She eyed that hand, large and warm, the knuckles of his fingers tattooed with a symbol for each of the Marauders. Moony, Padfoot, Prongs, and Wormtail.
Wormtail's symbol on his little finger was raked over with scratches that had never fully healed, as though at one point Sirius as the dog had tried to bite off part of his own hand rather than have it be dedicated to the memory of a friend who'd been a betrayer.
Involuntarily, she traced the pawprint on his middle finger, tattooed there "so I can always give people the finger and have it mean two different things," he'd explained once.
She took a deep breath and turned to face Sirius. He had the beginnings of a designer scruff, one that he absolutely delighted in. It saved him the hassle of managing his goatee. "You're not going to like this one," she said.
He made a mock frightened expression. "Oh no, what's she got planned for me now?"
"Well. Usually, newlyweds don't—well, they don’t live with their godson."
He burst into laughter. "Darling, I'm beginning to think this was all a plan from the beginning to get me alone. Is that what this is all about?"
Hermione scoffed and pulled away from the armchair with flushed cheeks. "Oh, don't be silly—"
His arm held her in place. "Only a joke, sweet, surely you know that. Well, as you say, it's for the greater good, isn't it? And Harry's so often gone to—who knows where. I think we can make the country house our secondary residence until this is all over. Or at least make a reasonable
pretense of it. Will that do?"
Hermione blinked at him. "There's a country house?"
"God, yes. A stultifying place near the Lestrange estate,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Never go there myself if I can help it. You get invited to endless rounds of garden parties and the like. But since they're all dead now, I suppose we can go there and live it up. Throw a party and enliven the old place."
"You're agreeing with me?"
"I've found it's not worth half the trouble of arguing with you. Furthermore, you're rather pleasant to live with, you know? Efficient little thing."
She flushed again at the compliment and found it hard to meet his eyes. Whatever was the matter with her? She was getting completely hot and bothered in his presence, only because he'd been so close to her and—
She took a deep breath. "Can we go there now?"
"I suppose there's no time like the present. It's a Gryffindor motto, you see. And I could do with a good laugh. Maybe I can still burn the place down."
"This is what you call the country house?" Hermione asked.
She was staring up at a boxy edifice of greyish stone that was almost completely covered with ivy. The stone pathway had been uprooted by the overgrown trees lining the drive, and she couldn't immediately see how large the place was, but it had to be immense.
Sirius gave a lazy wave of his hand, and the smoke from his cigar was carried away on the wind. "Oh, it looks larger than it is. It's a depressing old place. That's just the walled garden, by the way, to prevent anyone from stealing the vegetables." He gazed around cynically, as though he was still evaluating where to start a fire.
Like the trees, the grass was overgrown and rose to their knees. It made walking up to the house more of a hike than an easy stroll. They came upon equally wild thorny shrubbery that Sirius had to dismantle with a spell, and then she could see the entire manor in full: an imposing squarish building of two or three storeys surrounded by any number of equally impressive archways and—
"Flying buttresses," Hermione said, blinking her eyes to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. "Sirius Black's old home is a castle with flying buttresses!" She turned to him with an amazed laugh.
"Those are completely fake. Not even built in the right era. The original building is Norman, but not the additions. Grand pere got it into his head he wanted his home to look more Gothic, and my mother hated them. Called them vulgar more than once . Mind you, for once she might have a point. Nasty pointy things if you ask me. Never liked the period. Now, if we clear the buttresses away, perhaps enlarge the windows a bit?” The cigar was clamped between his teeth as his hands came up to block out the sight of the towers. “It wouldn't look so horrid. What do you think?"
She pulled down his hands. "First of all, you're not getting rid of the buttresses.” She gave him an admonishing look over her shoulder as she stamped through the grass. Then she recalled their temporary contract and felt a twinge straight through her stomach. She wasn’t even the real Mrs. Black. “Er, that is, not while I'm Mrs. Black, at any rate. I've never known anyone who's lived in a place with a buttress, much less— four? buttresses—"
"Eight.” He made a rolling motion with two fingers in the air. “More on the other side."
"And it's just fun to say. Buttress. Isn't that such a joyful word?"
He huffed a laugh in response and strolled up to her with his hands in his pocket. "My darling, burn it, keep it, I couldn't care less. Shall we just get this over with?"
Inside, the place was an even bigger mess than the outside. The floorplan had been purposely muddled with a Misdirection Spell, and none of the rooms made any sense whatsoever. The front door led straight into the kitchens, and the bedrooms were on the bottom floor where they were dark and damp. The windows were even smaller inside than from the outside, and none of the lights worked. "This place is a disgrace," Hermione said, grimacing as she vanished a cobweb she’d walked straight into..
"Well, you're not wrong. My mother preferred town. Heaven forbid the woman had to make two separate trips in order to travel to Paris when there's a direct charter in the Ministry." Sirius gazed around the place with a critical eye.
"I didn't mean that it’s bad, just rundown and sorely neglected. I think it actually shows promise. Shall I just tidy this place up for you then?"
"Have at it, my dear. I don't know how you plan to dismantle the strange layout, but you're the mistress now."
"Until the law gets repealed."
He seemed to pause at that. "Right," he said in a strange voice. "That."
They separated after that, Hermione making her way up to the first and then the second floor by herself. Her breath was coming in hard, and it wasn't just from the dust particles in the air.
Sirius wasn't thinking they could go on being married, was he? Somehow she had the strange feeling that perhaps he wouldn't be averse to the idea.
That thought surprised her, flattered her. She'd thought for the longest time that he'd been dragging his feet through their arrangement, only getting delight out of it when he was able to make fun of the way they weren't really married. As though her only asset lay in her entertainment value.
Now it seemed that he wasn't entirely irritated by her. She'd tried to make his life easier and more pleasant in certain ways, and she'd thought he hadn't even noticed. She aired out the sheets to Grimmauld Place twice a month and had fresh fruits and vegetables delivered when she couldn't manage to do the shopping. She had no idea how the boys ate when she wasn't around, but she had a feeling Sirius couldn't cook. Possibly Harry did the cooking, or they popped around to Muggle towns, since Sirius had a love of Indian takeaway and Muggle entertainment.
He enjoyed roasted vegetables, but never ate them if they came boiled or blanched. He liked his steak medium rare only, because she'd found that he hated to see the blood streaming from his meat. He loved pudding but would always turn it down in favour of a cheese platter. He actually preferred coffee to tea, and he only liked the strong Arabian blends with two sugars.
He needed to have the paper all to himself, and after seeing him and Harry squabble over the sports section, she simply put in an order for two copies instead of one. He absolutely hated it if anyone moved his chair, and once he'd even fallen on the ground onto his arse because it'd been shifted around during a party. After that, Hermione affixed the strongest sticking charm she knew to it, and he'd been effusive with his thanks.
This was all just general housemate etiquette, really. It didn't mean that he'd want to continue being married—heaven forfend! She’d been working towards the repeal of the law simply so that she could date whomever she wanted, not so she could continue to play house in this facade of a relationship.
Although the general consensus was that they never emerged in public together, Hermione and Sirius actually spent plenty of alone time together, because Harry was off seeing whomever it was he was seeing. A few times, Bill and Fleur had come over for dinner, and it'd been just like a double date except Fleur was very affectionate with her husband, to the point where Sirius yelled out, "Get a room, you two! Or be sprayed down."
Hermione lit her wand and wandered into what must have been the solar in better days. There was rubble in the center of the room where the roof had collapsed. She wandered over for a closer look, shaking her head the entire time. Honestly, you'd think with this type of building in the family, you'd take better care of it. It was a waste, that was what it was—
Her foot struck against the edge of a crumpled tile, and there was an odd little cracking sound. It was her only warning. Before she knew what was happening, the floor began to cave under her weight, which had added just the right amount of additional pressure on the weakened floor. She shrieked out in surprise as her soles slipped out from under her, and she began to slide across the slanted floor far too quickly to react, heading directly through the centre—
There was a distant yelling, and Hermione found her fall slowed. She was being levitated in the air. Rubble from the collapsed roof hung in midair like decorations, spinning when she brushed up against them. Even dust particles floated in its place all around her.
She drifted downwards, feeling a little like she was swimming. After a moment, her feet touched the ground, and she was helped to the other side of the room on the first floor. "Are you alright?" Sirius asked, an arm around her. He touched her cheek gently before brushing down her arms and back.
"I'm—I’m fine—what are you doing?" She laughed and dodged away as he squeezed her waist. "I'm very ticklish!"
"Well, your nerves are still working at any rate." He ceased patting her down and pulled her in into a one-armed hug, heaving a loud sigh. His chin dug into the top of her head. "Thank God you’re alright. I couldn't find you, and then I heard the most ominous sound, and then—"
"The roof had caved in. Only—the rubble didn't fall…"
"Ah." He let her go so suddenly she almost fell and caught herself with a hand on his arm. "Almost forgot." He took out his wand and waved at the ceiling. "Instant stasis spell. I took a giant guess that you found yourself booby-trapped. Wouldn't put it past the Blacks. You can't just go traipsing in like that. It could be very dangerous, you know. You're not a boy."
She blinked at him. "Sirius, did you just say what I thought you did?"
"What did I say? Well, you have to mind yourself. Only boys go careening off."
"That's incredibly sexist!" Hermione exclaimed, but her voice was delighted rather than annoyed. "Sirius Black, I can't believe that you of all people would be sexist!"
He shot her an amused look. "Firstly, I’m not sexist. Secondly, I'll take that as a compliment. What exactly do you mean by that?"
"Well, you just seem so—modern and determinedly Muggle. I'd imagined you to be feminist or something of that sort."
"I'm very feminist," he said, protesting with a chuckle. "I was worried for your safety!"
"Yes, but you said that girls shouldn't go careening off like boys."
"Oh, that. Well, I didn't have a sister. Our closest relatives were the sisters Black, and—not that it's an excuse—but they lived under such a regimented lifestyle you wouldn't have believed it. I've heard their mother yell out strictures once too many times." He waved a hand as though he couldn’t be bothered to be concerned with everything his relatives got up to.
She shook her head. "Fascinating. You know, Sirius, I do hope one of these days you'll put your tale down in your memoirs. What a story it'd be."
He was instantly dismissive. "Nobody would want to read it.”
"I would. And I think you're wrong. Everyone wants to know about the only Black to ever have been sorted into Gryffindor, a determined Muggle lover as well as the first ever Black to marry a Muggleborn."
"Ah, I see. Looking for your fifteen minutes of fame, are you?" There was an edge of cynicism to his amusement now.
She considered his words and the meaning behind his insinuation. While she was interested in the history behind the Blacks, especially now when Sirius was the last of one of the most influential families in wizarding Britain, people wouldn’t see his tale as that. It’d be taken out and raked over, as though it were tabloid fodder. She wouldn’t put it past Skeeter to come out with a decidedly more salacious version of it in turn. "You're right. The world isn't ready for the truth yet.”
“Of course not. It’s the Ministry. When has it ever been interested in truth and justice?”
The bitterness in his voice was unmistakable. She didn’t bother to convince him otherwise, not when they were forced together in a mission to overthrow yet another of the Ministry’s brilliant ideas. “Well, now that I've narrowly escaped death, I think it's time for us to embark on part two of my plan."
"Of course there’s a part two,” he said aloud as though to himself. He was almost crowing in delight.
"Public engagements. Starting with tonight. It’s Ministry Week.” When Sirius groaned, she kept talking over him. There was always more than one way to convince him. “And we'll be able to see if Harry dances with anyone. I'm dying to know who he's dating."
Hermione's mouth hung open. "No!"
Sirius shrugged. "Honestly don't know, really. Just a guess on my part. But now you've roused my curiosity. Make it interesting, won't you?"
She shook her head so that her curls bounced around her cheeks. “I really couldn’t tell you who he’s dating. He’s been avoiding me. Probably doesn’t want me to suss out the truth. What do I get if I win?”
He made a mock-scoffing sound. “A seat on the Wizengamot and the Board of Governors to Hogwarts aren’t enough for you? You drive a hard bargain.”
Hermione pretended to consider his words, letting herself be carried away with the non sequitur. A diverted Sirius was always easier to manage. “Well, to be fair, those belong to a previous bargain we struck. Now, if you throw in Foreign Secretary, or Financial Affairs Committee Chief, then I’d be more interested.”
He guffawed long and loud at her words, throwing an arm over her shoulder to draw her towards the staircase. “You don’t give in easily, do you? What do I get if I win?”
She stumbled along with him to keep from being strangled before she dug her elbow into his side. “The privilege of staying married to me?” She laughed at her own joke. “Only kidding.”
“Well, now, you’re certainly not pricing your value very high, are you? Surely you can do better than an old man like me.”
“You’re not old,” she said immediately and had the pleasure of seeing his eyebrows jump in genuine surprise at her honesty before he reverted to his old, joking ways and began to waggle them.
“Old enough,” he said. “ Too old for whatever we’re doing tonight.”
“It’ll be fun. Well,” she said after she thought about it a little more. “Maybe not that kind of fun. But Harry has to give a speech, and Ron as well! That’s something, isn’t it?”
“Will I have to dance?” He pulled a face, the recalcitrant one that made her feel as though she were older than he was. “I hate dancing.”
“I’ll see what I can do to keep you out of it. That’s my job now, isn’t it?”
“Too right.” He was rolling his eyes and huffing, but there was a smile playing on his lips as they Apparated away.
Chapter 3: But They Lie and They Lie and They Lie
Sirius and Hermione made the rounds arm in arm.
The Museum of Magical History and Antiquities was a massive floating barge currently in the English Channel. For formal events, the main exhibition area could be sectioned off and decorated, as it was tonight, with festive lights and flowers.
There, Ministry Week opened with a first night of formal dining, to be continued with a week-long agenda aimed at bettering the public’s relations with the Ministry. This year, international representatives had been invited to attend along with students from Durmstrang, Beauxbatons, and Hogwarts, with the Ministry hoping to attract attention towards its new official stance against blood purity.
“The Wizengamot and the Wizards Council are at odds with one another in lawmaking,” Hermione explained at a whisper next to Sirius. “The Wizards Council, of course, is the one pushing heavily for integration. As the part of the Ministry that’s elected by the people and despite the distaste for Marriage Law, everyone thinks that it’s necessary to eradicate the old Pureblood ways.”
“Of course,” Sirius said almost matter of factly. “Burn it down.”
“But the Wizengamot consists of inherited seats. Similar to the House of Lords in the Muggle Parliament. They will do everything they can to push back against changes.”
“Harry’s never been a fan of the Wizengamot,” Sirius said. “He wrote to me at great length complaining of his trial. A travesty.”
“Yes, but with your help, I should be able to get a position there. They won’t be able to openly reject every one of my proposals. And I have it on excellent authority that they barely make quorum, with so many of the warlocks absent.”
Sirius rubbed his chin with his middle finger, and the tattoo flickered under his signet ring. He was completely dressed up today, with even his brands hidden under his dress robes, but he couldn't conceal the markings he’d placed on his own hands. “Wouldn’t it be easier to overturn the law in the Wizards Council? As in, their hearts are in the right place, but their brains are up their arses?”
Hermione gave a sheepish smile. “I was rather hoping to kill two birds with one stone. It’s not just the Marriage Law I’d like to overturn. I’d also like to overturn that ridiculous Werewolf Segregation Act.”
“Where werewolves now have to be tagged to identify themselves and banned from public places on the days surrounding the full moon.”
“Yes!” Hermione shook her head. “ Even if they’re taking wolfsbane potion. It’s ridiculous! That’s the legislation that the Wizards Council passed in order to bribe the Wizengamot into accepting this Marriage Law travesty.”
They circulated together arm in arm. An hour later, they’d already talked with other members of the Wizengamot, and several members in the Department of Foreign Relations.
What they hadn’t done was spoken to the MC or the Chief Warlock. Too obvious, Hermione had decided, and Sirius had acquiesced. “Frankly, the fewer people I speak to from the old guard, the better,” he said. “It’ll make me less likely to want to bash my head into the nearest wall.”
Some of the guests were already sitting down at the tables, but the band had started playing.
Sirius turned to her with a slow smile and a quirked brow. “So, is this where we commence step two of your grand plan? Although I never dance.” He was grumbling again, but he was smiling and his hand was warm in hers as she pulled him through the room. “This would be an immense sacrifice on my part.”
“ Can you dance?” Hermione asked with a lift of one eyebrow.
“Don’t look at me like that, darling,” he said in the mock stern way he had, drawing out the endearment. He removed her wineglass from her hand and deposited it onto the tray of a circulating server. He stopped in his steps to lift her hand to his lips, kissing it on the knuckles. His lashes were extremely long and dark and thick, and it did things to her insides when he peered up through them with those incredible grey eyes.
Her heart skipped a beat, and her mind flashed back to earlier that evening, when she’d come downstairs to the parlor where Harry and Sirius were already in their dress robes.
She’d taken a moment to admire them from the depths of shadows in the hallway. She wasn’t certain if Harry knew it, but there was a certain family resemblance to the two of them in the same way that she thought there might have been between James Potter and Sirius. They were related, after all, and they all shared the same hard square jaw with thin, chiseled cheeks. With his hair cropped shorter and falling with gentle waves at the crown of his head, even their haircuts looked the same.
They stood laughing over drinks, the longer capes of their black formal wear making them look taller and leaner than ever. Her eyes lingered on Sirius, who had his usual cigar caught between his forefinger and third finger as he held onto his glass with the same hand. With his wand in the other hand, he sketched out a doodle in mid-air for Harry, who laughed and aimed a punch at Sirius’s shoulder.
Hermione cleared her throat, and the laughter in the room died off.
Harry set down his glass and gave her a cursory glance. It was one she was used to from him, the kind that they’d often given each other in that year on the run, when a quick glance was all they could afford in that split second to ascertain one another’s health and welfare. Even though that was five years ago, Harry’s job as an Auror meant that this rapid evaluation was built-in to his persona by now, even when she was dressed up to the nines and there was no danger on the premises.
“Ready to go?” Harry asked expectantly when she didn’t say a word.
At the same time, Sirius had slowly risen to his feet, his cigar and drink seemingly forgotten in his hand as his eyes raked her from head to foot. The simmering look in his eyes made her breath catch in her throat.
The wisp of a thought floated away even before she could identify it within herself.
In the privacy of her own room, her attire had not seemed particularly daring. Her silverish-blue dress had decorously long sleeves with intricate embroidery that matched its bodice and a long flowing skirt that covered her from neck to toe. The only hint of femininity was in its deep V neckline which Ginny had assured her wouldn’t be revealing in the least if she stood up straight.
That was what she did now, although it seemed to her as though she were pointing her breasts at everyone in the room.
Platonic. That was what she’d kept reminding herself the entire time she’d been getting ready. She only felt such awareness of Sirius because he’d saved her at his country house, that was all. It was a temporary saviour complex. She would get over it.
She should feel squicked even thinking about him in that way, the same way that he’d probably be disgusted by intimate thoughts of her. There was no way he’d fancy her. They didn’t have that sort of a relationship.
Besides, he was a perennial bachelor.
There was an unsettled sensation in Hermione’s stomach as she met Sirius’s eyes, and she realised it for that elusive thought drifting around in the back of her mind—she’d set out to look her fittest in order that she could find out if Sirius were indeed interested in women. If perhaps she could get him to look at her that way.
Surely that warmth in his eyes meant something—
In the next second, Sirius had broken off eye contact. Harry was looking at him oddly, and Sirius lifted his glass to his lips and drank deeply. He set his empty glass down on the side table with a clink and nodded at Harry.
Hermione suddenly wished Harry would disappear off into the woodwork. What was the expression on Harry’s face as he looked at Sirius that made Sirius evade her eyes? Was this a sort of silent male communication that she didn’t know about?
Sirius had avoided looking at her after that.
Now was the first time in the evening that Sirius had managed to meet her eyes since Harry had given him that narrowed look.
She stood there with her hand to his lips. The moment felt frozen in time. Everything else fell away for Hermione; the room and the other members of the Ministry chatting and mingling around them faded away so that only the strings of the music reached her ears. She was aware of Sirius in a way that’d been slowly building up over the past months. She saw flashes of him in front of her; of the times when he’d reached across her to grab something and came so close to her that she’d been breathless.
She saw all the different versions of his smile; there was the slow, lopsided smile as he tilted his head to one side and peered at her. His loose, wavy hair had a way of falling across his forehead in a way that made her long to be confident enough to reach over and smooth it back. Then there were the times he laughed with an easy, white flash of his teeth as he threw his head back—an open and carefree laughter so bright it invited others to join in.
He also had a small, private smile that sometimes appeared; with faint traces of self-derision and bitterness which made her ache for him and wish to hold him tight until the regrets faded into the darkness.
She’d always considered that the empathetic part of who she was—she liked being useful and working to help people. It wasn’t personal for her. She didn’t want to be that special person to Sirius Black. She only wanted to be his friend. End of story.
But the soft brush of warm, pliant lips on the skin of her hand was such a tactile sensation that a shudder began to work its way up her spine. She had to steel her knees from caving in under her.
She wanted him. She wanted him in more than just a platonic way.
For the first time since that time Ginny had first called him a “right fucking babe,” she wondered what it’d be like to fuck Sirius Black. Her thighs were unsteady with that sudden acknowledgement.
“If you must know, I happen to excel at many things,” Sirius said, completely unaware of all the lewd things Hermione was imagining. He lifted her hand high in the air and gave her a gentle, practised push on the opposite shoulder to send her spinning under their joined grasp.
Her mouth was an open O when she twirled back to face him. He stopped her movement with a warm hand at her waist, his lip quirked up at one end in a smirk at her stunned expression. “Shall we?”
They danced three songs together without stopping.
Hermione should have expected that Sirius Black was excellent at dancing. She knew that he was naturally athletic, and he demonstrated his vigour in a variety of ways. He often played Quidditch with the boys, and he gave no regard as to his safety when he rode on a broomstick. If anything, he played even harder than those younger than him, as though he had years of caged inactivity to make up for and something to prove. Many was the time that she’d seen him dangling upside-down from his broomstick, shouting like a schoolboy. She’d seen him fly upside-down, and that was something that even amazed Ron, who she was sure had seen just about everything in Quidditch.
Even though Quidditch was the national sport in Wizarding England, there were other pastimes. If it involved going outside and moving at high speeds, he was all in. He was fond of flying in the same way that all wizards seemed to be, and he made arrangements to fly Aethonan winged horses on the odd weekend. That sport seemed to be even more mad and dangerous than Quidditch. Then there was hippocampus racing, which was a strange magical form of water polo on swimming horses.
In any event, she’d also seen him duel masterfully in the classical style. The old ways of wand dueling involved flourishes with the other hand held behind one’s back in a manner that reminded Hermione of fencing. Sirius didn’t duel like Harry, who’d learned magic by instinct. No, Sirius Black had been trained to it in the classical art form of the born and bred Purebloods, and he moved like a dancer.
He danced in the same way he dueled. He knew all the right steps, and he managed to push and turn her in just the right way to make her feel as though she’d been dancing all her life. When the music changed, he reacted instinctively, pulling her in for a closer, slower movement. Her torso was pressed up against his in a way that made her senses light up. She’d never considered herself a particularly hormonal person, but she wanted to climb him like a tree and suckle on those perfect lips of his.
She was breathless, and her cheeks were aching from the smiling when they stepped off the dance floor for a breather.
“You two dance wonderfully together,” a voice said behind her. Hermione turned around with a ready smile only to freeze slightly when she saw the lined face of the Chief Warlock.
“Oh, thank you, Warlock Guiffart,” she said.
“Ready to go again, m’dear?” Sirius said.
A drink was passed over to her, and she reached for it automatically. Hermione looked from Warlock to Sirius, who clearly had no idea who was even speaking to her. His brow furrowed slightly when he took in the appearance of the other wizard, but Sirius apparently saw no qualms in directly cutting across conversations that he thought were useless.
“Pardon me,” Sirius said with a brief nod, reaching out for Hermione's hand. “Just trying to dance with my wife here.”
Guiffart’s sharp eyes lingered on the signet ring on Sirius's hand before his thin lips stretched up into a smile. “Sirius Black. I’m glad to see you out and about in society. Am I to take it that this miraculous recovery of yours is due to your lovely wife?”
“Who are you?” Sirius asked bluntly. He looked defensive and annoyed, as he often did when hailed by people he didn’t recognise on sight.
“Galorian Guiffart,” the Warlock said. “The Chief Warlock at your service.” He bowed and flourished his wand, wielding the hilt of it outwards. Hermione immediately recognised the custom as the traditional old way of Pureblood greeting.
Sirius, raised as he was couldn't help but recognise it as well, but as always when in such surroundings, he turned recalcitrant. As Hermione watched, he tilted his head back and waved his hand in a careless gesture, making it look rather as though he were waving off a pest.
He did it without his wand, with only his empty hand. Not the old wizarding ways, but a deliberate mockery of the custom.
The Warlock’s lips tightened, and his fingers flicked, curtly dropping his wand back down. “Mrs Black has submitted an application on your behalf of temporary incapacitation, but I see before me a fully recovered man. Perhaps one who wishes to evade his duties?”
Wonderful. Hermione could have stomped on Sirius’s foot for the way he was purposely antagonising the man. She knew he had a disregard for all things Ministerial, and she didn’t blame him, but now was not the time for an eye roll.
“He suffers from nightmares and insomnia at times,” Hermione cut in before Sirius could say anything further. She snaked an arm around his waist and pressed her body into his.
His abdomen against hers rippled with movement, and she glanced up to see him looking down at her with an indefinable expression in his eyes.
She didn’t miss the way Guiffart’s eyes flickered to their public show of affection, which she was sure was frowned upon in the usual Sacred Twenty-Eight circles. It was the only way she could think of at that moment to jolt Sirius from his intractable expression and dispel any doubts as to their relationship.
Certainly the Chief Warlock had taken note of the way they’d spent the entire evening dancing together as though they’d been doing it for years.
Hermione also didn’t miss Guiffart’s insinuation—that the prowess with which Sirius had demonstrated his dancing ability meant that he was not incapacitated in the way that would prevent him from taking on his familial duties.
She was suddenly so on edge her senses were jangling.
“Yeah,” Sirius drawled out insouciantly. “She helps me in other ways too.” His hand at her hip tightened. The breath escaped from her lungs at the intimate contact. He leered at the Warlock in a manner that left no room for misunderstanding in his meaning.
This felt so right.
When Guiffart retreated with a wary expression on his face, Sirius turned to Hermione and released her with a loud guffaw. His cheeks were stretched up in a wide smile. “Didja see the look on his face, poppet? Worth every second of this excruciating night.”
Like she was a child.
She was suddenly jolted back to herself. She was an absolute idiot. Of course it was excruciating for him. He hated dancing. He’d complained of it on multiple occasions; all the times that he’d been commanded to trot for company like a trained Thestral.
It was all a front to help her —and of course people like Remus. Possibly also Harry, who’d been enlisted into their plan because of his own personal relationship woes.
It didn’t mean anything at all.
Hermione didn’t mean anything to him. Why should she? She was the one to proposition him in the first place. There was no way on earth he would have proposed to her of his own accord. He’d never even tried to deliberately seek her out before the marriage law was enacted. The two of them were about as alike as fire and ice.
The sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach made her almost nauseous.
Focus , she resolutely told herself. Stop making this so personal. From across the room, she could see Harry and Ron talking with Andromeda Tonks. Hermione straightened her spine. She wasn’t here to wallow. She wasn’t here to lust after her pretend husband. She was here for a purpose, and that was to get several laws repealed.
“Well, fun as that might be,” she said. Her voice came out sharper than she’d intended, and the smile died from Sirius’s face. “We’ve a new problem. Guiffart believes we’re a real couple, so that part of the evening was a success. But unfortunately he now has doubts about your supposed incapacitated state.”
Sirius lifted one shoulder in a lazy shrug. “So? He hasn’t seen me go off yet. He’ll learn.”
Hurt at his cavalier carelessness sent a ripple of irritation running through her. She felt antsy somehow. She wanted to provoke a reaction from him. “You can’t just go off , Sirius. We’re not primary school students anymore.”
She’d reverted back to Muggleisms. Wizards and witches didn’t have primary schools. They went to crèche, but she saw the implication sink in all the same. Sirius’s eyes turned flinty, and his head tilted back slightly. “He was a fucking blood purist, and you could tell by just one look at him. Pardon me for wanting to help.”
Hermione scoffed loudly. This was just like him. With every rash, unpremeditated action, he was jeopardising them further. “Well, that didn’t help!”
That was when Horace Slughorn hailed her.
"My dear, my dear," he said, waving at Hermione. Her former professor seemed completely unaware of the tension in the air. "How wonderful to see you. I've heard about your meteoric rise in the Ministry. Wizengamot, my dear? How very wonderful.”
The comforting and vague presence of her former professor worked to ground her. Ever since they'd left Grimmauld Place, Hermione had felt so off-balance. Why was she suddenly caring so much about this? Perhaps she was still suffering from the shock of plummeting through the ceiling at his country house? That must be why she was feeling so inexplicably aware of Sirius at her side, as though she’d never walked anywhere with him before.
That was probably why she kept thinking about him in ways that were completely inappropriate.
Or maybe she just couldn’t get the look in his eyes when he saw her appear in her dress robes out of her mind. Or all the infinestimal moments in which he’d made her heart beat faster.
She snapped back to the present when Slughorn glanced at Sirius with the slightly narrowed eyes of someone trying to place an acquaintance’s name. “You look familiar,” Slughorn said.
Perhaps it was too much to hope that Sirius wouldn’t tilt back his head and look down his nose in that way he had. He’d already been raring to go, and now he looked positively delighted at the sight of a new quarry. “You look familiar too,” Sirius said in a dangerously benign manner. He’d adopted a thoughtful pose, with a finger held up in the air as though he were thinking of just why the other man looked familiar. “You look like a Slytherin.”
It was clearly meant as an insult. Hermione saw the avuncular expression vanish from Slughorn’s face and a glimpse of shrewdness crossed his features. “Ah, I remember now. No forgetting that attitude. Sirius Black. Regulus’s younger brother, isn’t it?”
Hermione drew in a breath at the casual reference to Regulus, a topic that always left Sirius morose and withdrawn. The fact that Slughorn hadn’t remembered enough of his “acquisition” to know that Regulus was the younger one also didn’t pass her.
Slughorn hadn’t noticed Hermione’s stiffness. A hand gesturing loosely around, he continued, “You look very different from the last time we met. It’s a very good change, of course.” His faded eyes drifted over to Hermione, and his smile froze when he saw their intertwined hands. “And—not married, are we?” His eyebrows were lifted halfway up his forehead as he swivelled his head back and forth between them.
There were times in which Hermione was surprised herself at the thought of actually being legally married to Sirius Black. Horace Slughorn, who’d always seemed slightly vague and off in his own world, couldn’t be expected to keep abreast of news that didn’t pertain to the world of accomplishments. Her wedding had hardly been advertised and publicised. They’d kept it quiet, to account for the lack of an actual courtship. The low-key quality of their marriage meant that the relationship appeared more believable, as though they could have grown closer together at any time in the past few years and not just as a deception to overturn the Ministry.
Now that Hermione thought of it, the last time Slughorn had an opportunity to meet the extremely reclusive Sirius Black was during the Battle of Hogwarts. Undoubtedly all the professor saw at that time was Kingsley Shacklebolt hauling Sirius back when Harry stepped forward to duel alone with Voldemort. Sirius had cried out, had punched Kingsley across the face, and then been subdued by Professor McGonagall with a sharp twist of her wand. He'd only been unsilenced when Harry had disappeared into the woods.
“Traitor!” Sirius bellowed in a voice that could be heard across the courtyard. The word had been wracked with anguish as he twisted and flailed against the bonds holding him in place. “It’s Harry , you bloody traitor! How could you?”
Kingsley had hauled Sirius into a tight hold despite the latter’s struggle to pummel him. “It’s Harry’s choice, Sirius. It’s his choice.”
They’d disappeared off the premises with a crack of Apparition. When Kingsley reappeared, he’d been alone. Nobody had asked any questions about Sirius. A tied-up, gagged Sirius had been found in Grimmauld Place after the fighting had concluded and they’d eventually all remembered his absence. His anger at all of them had only been slightly abated at the sight of a living and breathing Harry.
Sirius hadn’t looked like a sane man then. Still secluded and his presence kept largely a secret from the Ministry, he’d looked not much better than the man Hermione had rescued from Flitwick’s office in third year. His tied-up hair had been long and mussed from his tussle with Kingsley, he’d been unshaven, and his eyes were decidedly crazed.
Hermione wasn’t surprised that Slughorn couldn’t place the two men together, but the irritated look on Sirius’s face didn’t bode well for either party.
Before Sirius could open his mouth and launch into a string of vitriol, she leapt in. “Yes, actually,” she said in response to Slughorn’s question. “We’re married. And it’s so good that Sirius has me to take care of him. He’s been beleaguered with flashes of blinding pain, and it makes it hard for him to sit still for long.” She gazed up at Sirius with an expression that she hoped would be taken for concern and adoration as planned.
She wasn’t prepared for the way his jaw worked.
“Ah, oh yes, the Marriage Law. Nasty business, isn’t it? It’s to be hoped that it gets repealed. Naturally they’re having a lot of trouble actually enforcing it. I imagine it was never really feasible for long, and so I told my students. There’s no need to rush into anything. Play by the rules, by all means, but delay!” Slughorn chuckled at his own joke, completely missing the way Hermione and Sirius were both frozen. “But of course if one feels compelled to marry, well then…” He drifted off, one hand on his massive belly and the other waving airily.
The arm under Hermione’s was tense corded muscle, as though Sirius planned to jump to the offensive. He could be very offensive when he wanted to be. She began to pull him away before he could speak. “Wonderful seeing you too, Professor Slughorn. See you around.”
Even before they were out of earshot, Sirius said curtly, “Pretentious blowhard.”
“Yes, well he does have his uses,” Hermione whispered. She turned back to make sure Slughorn was preoccupied before continuing. “He’s a gambler , you know—I feel like he likes to bet on people—”
“He’s a bloody nuisance. You should've seen the way he fawned all over Reggie.” Sirius’s eyebrows were heavily drawn over his eyes in a heavy scowl.
Ah. That. Hermione could remember a time when she and Ron had fought over Slughorn’s parties. It was horrible to be excluded; she knew this intimately, but age had brought wisdom into the mix. Such people were meant to be utilised to their full potential. Slughorn knew so many influential people that she would have liked to have discussed politics further with him. Preferably without Sirius at her side, steaming like a boiling cauldron.
She wanted distance from him, just to clear her head. Reset her priorities. Erase the longing and desire for him from her veins.
“And his insinuation that we weren’t really married.” Sirius looked like he wanted to punch a wall, and Hermione stared at him in bemusement.
They weren’t really married, so why would Sirius feel so offended by Slughorn’s implication? After all, they knew that was why they had to combat the rumours.
Unless Sirius wanted them to be more. Hermione craned her neck so she could peer up at him. Hope began to bloom inside her chest.
Sirius muttered under his breath at her side. “If Remus could bloody marry a girl thirteen years younger, I don’t see why I can’t.”
He couldn’t have said anything more likely to make her shrivel up and shrink back into herself. This was all a pissing contest for him, wasn’t it? All the times he’d joked about having one up on Remus slammed into her mind. She didn’t actually matter to him on a personal level.
She pulled her arm out of his grasp. “No one said you couldn’t.” She pitched her voice at just the right tone of uncaring neutrality, tamping down on her own surge of rising anger. Opt for a patronising tone, and Sirius’s response could obliterate one, and she felt raw enough that she didn’t think she could take it.
“And you.” Sirius turned to Hermione. She was astounded to see the way a muscle leaped in his jaw. His grey eyes were narrowed into slits, and he looked quietly incensed. “Did you have to make me sound like such a decrepit fool?”
Hermione gaped at him. “I... what?”
Sirius was now looking down the length of his nose at her in that cold way. She couldn’t believe it. What had he to be angry about?
“‘He can’t sit still for long,’” Sirius said in a high-pitched mocking way that made her eyes widen with its derision. “‘He’s so beleaguered that it’s good I can take care of his bloody, useless arse'.”
“I—I never said that!” Hermione spread her hands helplessly.
“I’m fairly certain I heard the word ‘beleaguered’ accompanied with a condescending pat on the arm as though I were a fucking mess of a shitbag.”
“Sirius, wait. Just—” Hermione only wanted to make him calm down so they could talk about it elsewhere. She stretched out a hand to touch his arm, but he jerked away from her as though she meant to burn him.
It was like a slap in the face.
“Save it.” He cut her off with a short swipe of his hand, his tone hard and clipped as though he wanted to cut her in some way too.
She felt raw and bleeding in a way that she didn’t understand. She couldn’t even put her confusion into words. Why? Her mind cried out. Why was he being this way? No answers sprung to mind as she blinked up at him. She was the one who was hurt, and now he was lashing at her in the same place she was injured.
“We all know why you married me. Probably hoped you could bump me off along the way and really get into your role as the Mistress Black. My mother would have been proud to have you as a daughter-in-law, for all that she hated Muggleborns.”
Her breath was coming in hard through her mouth as she sought for equilibrium. He didn’t really mean these words. He couldn’t. She knew exactly how much he hated his mother, and the fact that he was equating her with Walburga Black was nothing short of a stinging insult in the only way Sirius was capable of giving. First, he’d equated her as no more than a standard sidepiece to one-up his fellow man, and now he was striking out, disparaging her in the worst way he knew how.
Her emotions felt raked over with hurt, and she wanted nothing more than to run from the room.
why why why
He sneered at her. “I’m heading back. Enjoy your position, madam.”
The way in which he flatly refused to meet her eyes before turning his back on her cut her to the quick. The words burst out of her before she could stop herself. “I’m sorry, Sirius! I’m sorry , alright?”
He paused, and she could see a sliver of his profile as he half-turned over his shoulder. “And why are you sorry, Hermione?”
He never used her name. The sound of it now jarred her out of her senses, and she was gaping like an idiot again. Deep down, she wasn’t sorry at all. She felt full to the brimming with resentment that she was unable to voice. Warring with that was her desire to placate the man she’d come to like, to want, to maybe even need. “I—er, you’re so angry, and I didn’t mean anything by it—we were supposed to mingle and sell our story—and…”
She didn’t miss the way his hand clenched at his side. Hysterically she thought of the story she’d told Professor Slughorn, of the blinding flashes of pain that “beleaguered” Sirius Black. She wasn’t that far off base, was she? Why had he become so angry like that? Would she never understand him?
Why was he being so vicious?
“Right.” His voice was flat and leached of all emotion. “You’re on your own. Have a pleasant evening.”
All she could do was watch him stalk away.
Chapter 4: Take the Words for What They Are
here. we. go.
He didn’t leave.
Hermione watched him from the other side of the room as he laughed with Harry and Ron. She felt resentfully like the odd man out, and it was ridiculous. She was the other third of the group, not Sirius. Why was she the one standing on the side feeling hurt and angry and bewildered?
The notion of being ill-used sat wrongly on her, and she got angrier and angrier. They were supposed to be working together to overturn the stupid law; didn’t he realise that? What was he doing? They’d come to Ministry Week together for the purpose of presenting a united front, and yet he’d flounced off for no reason. The only thing she could see that had set him off was the mere mention of his brother’s name. He’d had no good reason to completely rip into her.
And what was she doing? She could do this all without him. She didn’t need him; she never needed him. She only needed his status.
Just like he said.
Hermione lifted her chin and set off to work her charms with a drink in hand. An hour later, she’d circulated around the barge and spoken with two other people on the Wizards Council, as well as a witch who would be a new Governor on the Hogwarts Board in the autumn. She was brimming with confidence again. She’d been right; she could do this without him. She’d been in this same boat before—she’d forged on without anyone.
She couldn’t help remembering how it’d felt in her first year at Hogwarts. She’d been completely alone. Volunteering with factoids on the wizarding world had earned her nothing but annoyed, pitying looks, but the absolute kicker was when she’d overheard Ron say that she was a nightmare.
Back then, Hermione had wondered why her attempts at making conversation hadn’t worked. She wanted to know everything about the wizarding world. Surely bringing up what the books said would encourage others to chime in with their own experiences? Only it had earned her nothing but eye rolls and the other kids shifting away like she had plague. They'd turn to their friends and change the conversation topic. She hadn't understood why and had told herself she was imagining things.
She hadn't been. She'd been labeled the worst. Everyone apparently knew it.
She didn’t hold that against Ron. He was a boy, and Mum had always maintained that boys could be oblivious at the best of times. Always learn from your mistakes, Mum had said, and she wasn’t there, so Hermione had to make do the best she could.
She wasn’t a child anymore, but the same concept applied.
The fact that Sirius had compared her to his nightmare of a mother meant nothing. She was a grown woman, not a weakling to be knocked down by mere words.
Sirius had said that she’d been hoping to find herself as the Mistress Black. That she probably wanted to—what was the phrase he used?—to bump him off and hold onto her role forever.
She wasn’t, and she didn’t. She’d prove it to him when the law was repealed. She’d hand it to him like a prize. There you go, you incredible arse, she imagined herself saying. Now you can keep that Mistress Black role open and live by yourself as you’ve always wanted.
She glanced across the room again. Harry and Ron had been joined by a few witches. That in itself was nothing to be surprised about. They were often besieged by women, which was why Hermione had no idea who Harry’s latest was.
Seeing Sirius leer at a woman was new and made her freeze in her steps.
It was new enough to make her stomach lurch. She’d thought he wasn’t interested in anyone , be they male or female. That was alright. That didn’t make his disinterest in her personal. She’d considered that maybe he was harbouring a dying passion for James. That was alright too.
But now she saw him lead one of the women out to dance.
He hated dancing.
He’d danced with Hermione out of a sense of duty. They’d discussed it; planned it.
Now he was dancing of his own accord with someone else that he apparently just met and liked the looks of. Of course he did. He was so reclusive he usually avoided places where he’d be surrounded by people. In his usual daily routine, he had absolutely no chance to meet anyone new.
Hermione hadn’t taken that into consideration at all. He’d been recovering from his imprisonment trauma, and she had simply expected him to be normal and not act as though he were twenty-two years old—the age at which he’d been shunted off to the worst prison known to mankind for a crime he didn’t commit.
She was racked with guilt and resignation. Why had she assumed she’d be the person best suited for Sirius Black? She was such a stupid, silly girl who only thought she knew what was best.
She turned her back on the sight of Sirius with that woman. She wouldn’t even look closely at the sight, because there was no point. She wasn’t the one for him, and that was alright. She’d do her duty by him and get this law repealed.
When the waiter passed by, Hermione helped herself to another drink.
By the time the evening rolled to a close, Hermione had spoken to nearly every person in the room and felt like the life of the party.
She'd wanted to slink home and sulk, but she hadn't. She'd behaved like the bigger person, which Sirius clearly was not. She'd been angry earlier, but now it seemed ludicrously funny how immature he was being. So immature. Men were the worst. It was funny, actually. She wanted to laugh about it. In his face.
Sirius had stopped dancing with that other woman, whoever she was. She seemed a bit familiar actually, but trying to see out of the corner of her eyes made her nauseous—especially when she had another drink—so she pretended they didn't exist. When she caught sight of him again, Sirius was by himself, glaring across the room at her, brows drawn down to hood his glittering eyes. He gave her the impression of an angry werewolf.
She didn't see Harry or Ron anywhere, so presumably they had left after the waves they'd given her from across the hall. She supposed they were used to doing that. At such functions, she always stayed longer than they did, until they were foaming at the bit to go.
Though it did feel a bit humbling to leave by yourself. She wasn't feeling all that steady on her feet. Sirius was her husband after all, and they'd arrived here together.
Not that it was a real marriage.
It'd just started to feel that way. She'd gotten used to seeing that handsome, smiling face at the breakfast table. Flipping down his newspaper to say, "Morning, love." Had she come to want his little kisses, those pecks on the cheek?
Once he was free of their fake marriage, he'd have all kinds of women after him. At forty-two, he was still a specimen worth a second and third look. He'd been merely a pretty face when younger, with petulance and boredom marring his classic good looks, setting his visage with discontentment in photographs. Now, that churlish curl of his mouth had been tempered by life and war. In the last five years alone, he'd changed from the man who'd escaped from prison; he wasn't the same recluse who was sequestered in the house and prevented from leaving or participating in any meaningful activity.
On top of that, he was Sirius Black , with all the pomp and circumstance that name dictated in the wizarding world . It was only the fact that he eschewed all Pureblood customs that made her relate to him in any way. He was otherwise completely out of her league in a world that still adhered to old-fashioned class systems.
Hermione had never seen him at any formal functions. She'd never even seen him in dress robes. Dressed as he was tonight, he was to the manner born. He walked and danced as though he belonged here, which of course he did. She didn't.
She wasn't exactly belonging now, even here as she was as Mrs Black.
Somehow she had mixed up the doorways that looked the same and had to double back because she walked to the wrong one. It was this one that led to the stairs and the main deck. She sighed in relief. The Floo wouldn't be far now.
She nearly tripped over someone's feet just outside in the passageway. They'd turned off the main lights, so now only dim candles lit up the sides. She could have fallen flat on her face.
She didn't though. She was caught by someone's arms. Her delayed reflexes meant she didn't realise right away who it was. "Oh, pardon me—"
And then smelled fragrant cigar smoke.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," came a low growl, and the arms that supported Hermione tightened. "How much alcohol have you had?"
"I didn't—I didn't have that much…" Her tongue untied itself. "I thought you left!"
"Couldn't." The word was laced with irritation. "Someone had to see you home after you made a bloody fool of yourself."
The unfairness of that—the attack on her behaviour when she'd been resolutely thinking nothing but good, positive thoughts about him made her jaw drop open. "I… what? How dare you? Where do you get off—"
Her disjointed tirade was broken off as he dragged her by the crook of the elbow down to the Floos located in the pump room. He was treating her like he'd treated Harry when younger, tossing in the powder and pushing her head down into the Floo when the fire changed colours.
They reappeared in Grimmauld Place almost in tandem. He was so close behind her that he had to throw an arm around her waist and a hand against the lintel to prevent the two of them from braining themselves against the brickwork of the fireplace.
The proximity of him did something to her. She wanted to get away just as much as she wanted to stay right where she was. They'd arrived, and his position blocking the exit of the fireplace decided it for her—she couldn't move an inch.
Strangely enough, he wasn't moving away from her either.
"If you aren't drunk, then why'd you flirt with half the men in the room?" he asked abruptly, volume pitched suitably low for their small space.
She half-turned to face him in the narrow confines and stumbled. His arm tightened around her, bringing her so close to him that her breasts bumped up against his torso. She could see the stubble on his cheeks.
"I wasn't," she said quietly. Somehow the small space called for it. Even her swallow sounded as loud as an actual spoken word. "I was trying to—get things done. To—to get support for the repeal and… things."
She could smell the smoke and Firewhiskey on his breath and the heady scent of his cologne. Every breath he took pulsed against her chest. The stimulation was almost unbearable.
Desperation forced her to speak. "I—er—saw you dancing."
She turned fully to face him, and he let her rotate, keeping his hands low on her hips. His thumbs rubbed small circles in the hollows of her hip bones. Her mouth ran dry.
"W—were you smoking at the assembly?" she asked when the silence stretched out. Shadows were cast across the both of them, with dim, bluish light illuminating only the bottom of his face. There was only the faint glitter of his eyes to let her know his eyes were still open.
"You know everyone thinks it's a filthy Muggle habit."
His thumbs paused, traced the line of her pelvis. Anticipation began to bloom within her. His other fingers were lightly indenting the tops of her buttocks. She swayed closer, in a daze.
"Does it bother you?" His voice sounded incredibly low; so low she felt it vibrating against her abdomen.
Her hips angled forward. Was it her imagination or was she feeling him shift against her? She had the incredibly potent desire to peel down the collar of his shirt and suck on his neck tattoo. "No, I—I like it."
His face lowered an iota, and her breath held. But he didn't come any closer. His breath danced over her eyelids. "How drunk are you?"
"I might be—I might be a little tipsy."
She felt his withdrawal in increments. His chest concaved slightly as he exhaled. His fingers left her hips. "We shouldn't stand here in this hearth. Someone might try to come through and trample us." There was a note of finality in his voice. The rasping, guttural quality was gone.
This time, there was nothing seductive or suggestive about the way his hand nudged her in the back to push her out of the Floo.
Even when she turned back to look at him, he didn’t face her. He had a hand on the mantelpiece and was raking the ashes in the firebox with his booted foot.
He still didn't glance her way as he said, "Get some sleep. It's been a long day."
Hermione had been poring over old magical law codices for the past few months. There was a collection of them stacked next to her bed. They made for exciting reading at times, and she’d chortled in delight to herself at various points in her solo nighttime reading. The books stacked on the ground were the ones she’d finished already. The ones on her bedside table were new. There was another stack next to the table that was earmarked for review, with references to other books that she had yet to procure. It was an entire process.
It failed to absorb her tonight.
Her eyes glazed over at the indented paragraphs, and she kept rereading the same sentence over and over again, losing track of where the comma had gone.
She kept replaying the evening in her head, just as she had in the shower. The warm water sluicing off her body hadn’t helped; it’d only tantalised those senses that had been inflamed by Sirius earlier. That absolute tease. He knew what he was doing, didn’t he? He'd ranted at her for whatever reason and then gone off to smirk down into the cleavage of that woman. Who was she? She wished now she'd taken a better look. Sized up the competition a bit.
After stepping out of the shower, Hermione wiped down the fogged up mirror and stared at herself. She looked very different from the woman who had stepped out earlier that evening, glammed up in dress robes and with her hair expertly blown out. It was starting to frizz up around her face again, and her eyes were now shadowed by exhaustion and insecurity rather than smokey eyeshadow. Her lips were pink from being bitten on, not from a shiny coating of red lipstick.
Still. She had her youth, didn’t she? She had her brazen, Gryffindor spirit. She was the one currently married to Sirius, real or not. Not that other woman , who had no right simpering at someone else's husband in that way.
Back in her room, Hermione's eyes stared blankly at the wall opposite her bed. She wanted him, and in that moment in the Floo he’d seemed to want her too. She wasn’t completely certain of it, but she thought he might have done. The problem was that he wasn’t like the other men she’d dated. The other ones had made the first move. They’d leaned in for more when she’d tried to push away.
Sirius hadn’t. He blew hot and cold on her with such startling frequency that she wasn't sure how to read him.
But perhaps this case was different. Maybe he needed a bit more encouragement.
She was thoroughly sick of debating it in her head. Just ask him, Hermione. Get it over with. Clear the air. Stop this wondering, and you can get back to your research.
That seemed like a sound plan. The worst he could do was reject her.
She threw aside the bedclothes and swung her legs over the side of the mattress. She marched over and yanked open her door with a force that made the curtains at one end of the hallway billow. The loose closet door at the other end creaked against the doorjamb and fell silent. Across from the hallway, Harry’s door was closed, and no lights were on underneath. He was out. Again.
Overhead, there was the heavy tread of Sirius’s feet on the floorboards. Still awake.
Hermione’s lips firmed. Now or never, Hermione. Just ask. The worst he could do was say no.
She marched up the stairs, determination carrying her up with no issues. She knocked twice before turning the doorknob, fully expecting the door to be open like Harry's often was. Instead she crashed into the wood panel.
Her resolve died on the spot.
Before she could beat a hasty retreat, the door opened, and she fell through.
Hermione caught herself with a hand around the edge of the door.
Sirius was in the middle of unbuttoning his shirt, his wand clamped between his teeth. He looked mildly astonished at her dramatic arrival.
Her mouth opened and closed. "I—er…"
The brand over his left pectoral stared at her from a lightly furred chest. The thorny A for Azkaban encased in a cage glared like an accusing third eye.
He finished unbuttoning his shirt before calmly taking his wand from his mouth. His eyes raked her from frizzy head to bared feet, lingering on her attire as though trying to work something out in his head. She was wearing a robe over a camisole and shorts, and she knew her face was flushed. He seemed to be studying her.
The moment was endlessly stretched out. “Couldn’t sleep?” His voice was mild as he ambled forward and removed her hand from where it gripped the door with white knuckles. A flick of his wrist with the wand closed the door behind her with a soft click.
It sounded ominous and final, like a decision had somehow been made without her knowledge, and she jumped in reaction before rushing into speech.
“Here’s the thing,” she began and stopped. She was huffing a little from overexerting herself on nerves and stomping too hard on the stairs.
“Are you still drunk?” he asked. Still mild. A lot closer now. How was the man so incredibly fit? She was certain Percy Weasley had a slight paunch now, but this man still had abs like an absolute washboard. She wanted to lick him all over.
She tried to focus. “No! I mean, I was never that drunk—”
His fingers trailed the side of her face before cupping the side of her neck. He dipped his head and nuzzled her jaw, inhaling with a long intake of breath that puzzled her for about a minute. Then he kissed the corner of her mouth once, gently, before lifting away and gazing at her with lowered lashes. Checking her reaction, she supposed. He must have been satisfied with what he saw, because the second kiss was a lot more forceful, a lot less tentative.
Her back thudded against the door as he kissed her, a hot, open-mouthed assault that set her senses aflame. Her fingers were threading into his hair before she knew what had happened, and her other hand dug into his shoulder. Her robe fell open, and one knee came up to hook over his hip. All logical thought had vanished from her head.
He groaned into her mouth and then pulled back so that only their foreheads touched. “Fuck. You hellcat. I knew it’d be like this.” There was a clatter that sounded like a wand dropping to the ground. Then he swept in for a deeper kiss, holding her cheeks between his palms, his pelvis angling deep against her so that she could feel him hard and urgent beneath the fabric of his trousers.
This time she was the one who broke it off by pushing at his shoulder. “Did you—did you think about this? About me?” Somehow it was urgent to know this—that she wasn't just a warm body in the dark of the night. That she meant something more than a quick shag.
Sirius hesitated before responding. His eyes were closed, and he gave a short shake of his head as he dropped her down to her feet. “Yes.” He suddenly looked tired, and he shook his head again. His hand clenched into a fist that he lightly rapped against the doorjamb. “I shouldn’t. You’re so young. You’re so fucking young , Hermione. I’m twice your age.”
“What does that even matter?” She placed both hands on his chest, and they had a mind of their own, fingers curling over that rough and smooth tawny skin. She exalted when she brushed against his nipples and he inhaled sharply. “Aren’t wizards supposed to live to, oh I don’t know—a hundred and fifty?”
He disengaged her hands by the wrists and took another step backwards before letting go of her. He flexed his fingers in midair for a moment, and then he turned away, a hand on his hip. Almost as an afterthought, he crouched down to pick up his wand. “If they haven’t been touched by Dark magic, it's possible, yes.” He gazed up at her, a lock of dark hair waving over his forehead, mussed by his hand in it. He made a helpless gesture with the same hand. “I’ve been branded with Dark magic. I can’t make a promise of longevity.”
“Well, who even bloody said anything about forever?" Hermione was so exasperated she felt like tearing at her hair. Perhaps a bit deprived of his touch as well. Her response was more hormonally driven than it should otherwise have been. “Why can’t this just be what it is—a good lay?”
She’d surprised him. “That’s what you want?” His eyebrows were high on his forehead.
Yes. No. Whatever, really. Why couldn’t they just keep things simple? She felt reckless tonight.
“Why not?” she said with a prosaic shrug.
Change my mind , a desperate voice inside her head whispered. Of course that wasn’t what she wanted.
It was what she’d settle for, though.
He gave a short laugh. The hand not holding the wand raked through his thick dark hair again. “Why not indeed.” He didn’t sound amused, but she didn’t have time to dwell on that. His eyes stared fixedly at the floor as though it would yield answers.
Hermione fidgeted. There was her answer, really. The worst thing he could do was reject her, right? She should just leave. She exhaled and backed up, her hand going to the doorknob, the rattle of it sounding as loud as a thunderclap in the silent room.
His eyes came up, molten silver. He looked like he'd reached a decision. His mouth was twisted into a strange smile as he began to prowl towards her. “Well, I’m not one of your schoolboys, pet. Prepare to be well and truly fucked.”
Her eyes widened at the sudden intent in his eyes. That sounded ominous, like a threat, no, she’d changed her mind—
He came in again, caging her against the door, kissing her deeply like a ravenous man. She was breathless when he left her lips, but it was only to nip her lightly on her neck. She shivered in reaction. The stretchy neckline of her camisole was unceremoniously pulled down so he could palm her breast, his thumb rolling her nipple so that her knees nearly caved under her. "Change your mind yet?" he asked against her jaw.
She emitted a small squeak before he stooped to carry her in his arms, bridal-style. He walked her towards the bed and threw her square in the middle of it without preamble. She bounced once, twice, and then he was on top of her. His broad shoulders blocked out the rest of the room as he straddled her, locking her in place with his knees. “Wait,” she said. Her eyes were wide with alarm. Maybe they should talk about it first... “This is—”
Her robes fell open with a flick of his wand. He supported himself with one hand as he surveyed her scantily clad body as though he were studying for a test. Memorising the sight of her like this. Her nipples tightened under his attention. She wanted this. Yes, she did. She also wanted to find somewhere to hide.
It was just—he seemed so experienced. What if she disappointed him? Already she wasn’t much to look at. Why couldn’t she have propositioned him before she took off her dress robes and makeup?
He paused in the middle of pulling both her arms up over her head to be anchored at the wrist with one large hand. He glanced down at her, undoubtedly seeing the conflicting emotions on her face. “No regrets, yeah?"
“Yes. I mean, no.” She nodded and then shook her head. "I… want this."
She might not get a second chance at this. He was so hard to pin down.
His pupils dilated, and he closely watched her face as he trailed a hand down to gently squeeze her breast. "I'll make this so good for you, pet. Despite my advanced age and beleaguered state."
Something in the back of her vaguely registered that he'd really been bothered by that phrase. But all thought was swept away when he moved.
Keeping her hands up above her head, he lowered his head and closed his mouth over the tip of her breast, camisole and all. It sent a jolt of sensation straight through to her core. She was clenching her inner muscles already, and he had barely done a thing to her.
"You're so fucking beautiful," he murmured. A hard knee still encased in trousers insinuated itself between her thighs, and her legs fell apart for him.
He turned to lavish the same wet-mouthed attention to her other breast, gazing up at her from under those thick lashes. A hand delved under the waistband of her shorts and knickers, and she twitched in reaction.
He shushed her. His signet ring felt cold contrasted with the warmth of those fingers. He traced her slit with his middle finger, and she inhaled sharply. "Beautiful girl. Can I kiss you here?"
Her eyes were wide as she wet her lips. She'd never had someone do that before. She nodded silently.
He let go of her hands and peeled her shorts and knickers down to mid-thigh. As her mound was revealed, she instinctively sought to hide herself from him —he was still dressed from the waist down. He lifted up onto his knees and kissed her on the lips. "Never be ashamed of yourself. You're fucking gorgeous. Has anyone ever told you that?"
It seemed too coy to answer that with the truth that—no, no one had, so she didn't say a word, only blinked at him. Her reaction made his lips quirk up at one side. He leaned down and closed his mouth over her breast again. "Well, you are." There was a loud sucking sound as his cheeks hollowed, and he popped off her nipple. He reached down to adjust himself through his trousers. It was dark in the room, but her eyes widened further when she saw the thick line of him tenting one side of the inseam. She swallowed hard, and he winked at her. "All in good time."
He sank back onto his haunches and lifted her legs up over his head. Her thighs were still bound in place by her pants. In one smooth motion, he pressed her knees to her chest, and he held onto her ankles with one large hand next to his temple. He sank down onto his elbows, his hands sliding up to grip the sides of her thighs. A long, wet lick of his tongue swept over her lower lips, and she cried out at that unexpectedly intimate caress; a lewd moan that echoed in the room.
He paused and parted her thighs to look up at her through the gap afforded by her knickers. "More?"
She could only nod repeatedly.
His mouth was sin. Hermione didn't know if it came from his Animagus self being a dog, but he seemed to delight in licking her from front to back, lapping at her as though he had to drink up all her juices. What had started off feeling strange and shameful became something decadent and worshipful, as though he were a supplicant who couldn’t even meet her eyes in his intent on serving her.
His tongue was wicked. It dove into her crevices, wiggled at her most sensitive nubbin, and then sank into her moist heat. She was trickling with slick, and she could hear the wetness of tongue against skin sounding in the room.
Her hips bucked up off the bed, and his arm came up to clasp her thighs in place.
It was torture of the best and worst kind. Her walls were convulsing against nothing but air as he ate at her and nuzzled her with his nose. All she could do then was whimper out his name. At one point, she reached down to grip his hair, trying to pull him up so that she could get his trousers off him. She tried to loosen his fingers from her knickers so she could kick them off, but his hand swatted her away, keeping her thighs together and shaking, bound by her clothes. Her thighs shivered and twitched as he lapped and sucked on her cunt, and her buttocks came up so high off the bed that it disengaged his mouth and made him laugh.
"Slow down, darling," he said, giving her a wicked smile. His hand came up to swipe the wetness from his mouth, and then he was back at it again, torturing her with that talented, vigorous tongue until she crested. She cried out, one foot pointed and arched over his muscular shoulder, and her walls clenched and she spasmed against his face.
He lifted off and climbed up her body. She tore off her own knickers and shorts. It should have felt funny to still be wearing a camisole while she was naked and dripping below the waist, but she was so far gone with wanting him she was tearing at the waistband of his trousers.
"Off," she said, and managed to get one button free before he twisted away.
"Patience, my love," he said, laughing. He cupped her cheeks and kissed her. It should have felt strange to taste herself on his mouth, but she was in a frenzy. She wanted more. She needed more.
"Sirius!" she whined as he pulled her hands away from his trousers again. She could feel the hard line of him throbbing beneath the seam of his trousers. He wanted her too. Why wasn't he taking them off?
He kissed her again, his hand at her breast, teasing her nipple and pinching it to a hardened point.
"You bastard," she cried, bucking up against him. "Stop playing with me!"
He pulled away then. His eyes were dancing with genuine amusement. "God, I fucking love to hear that dirty mouth of yours."
She wanted him; hard and throbbing inside her. Why wasn't he accommodating her? "Just do it already!" She bared her teeth at him as he hummed his pleasure.
"I do love a woman who gives orders in bed." He was on his knees with her feet over one shoulder. With one hand to keep her legs in place, he reached down to rub the swollen lines of her cunt. When she wriggled and tried to find purchase on his fingers, his mouth lifted into that lopsided smile. "You have the most gorgeous pussy in all of Christendom. Did you know that?"
"Please." The word was racked and torn out of her.
He smiled faintly at her, tracing two fingers over her mouth. She tried to bite him, and the fingers fell away, pulled at the neckline of her camisole to reveal one pert nipple. He groaned at the sight and his hips canted forward. She felt his erection grind up against her buttocks and she wriggled furiously. "Fuck. I wanted to make this last longer."
"I don't need longer. I just want you ," she said. She gazed up at him, holding his hand flat on her breast.
He gave a short laugh that also seemed to be painted. "Right then. You asked for it."
She lifted herself slightly onto her elbows to watch him as he unbuttoned his trousers and shifted the waistband down over his hips. His cock sprang out after a hitch in the fabric, and she inhaled with apprehension. He was huge. She didn't think he'd fit.
He arched an eyebrow at her when she didn't speak and leaned forward onto one hand. He licked his other hand and stroked himself leisurely a few times before laying the tip against her entrance. She inhaled at the first touch of that warm, velvety soft steel.
She fell back down onto her back as he pressed down on her to kiss her, still keeping his weight supported. She'd half expected him to simply thrust into her, but he didn't. He shifted his hips against hers so that the head of his cock slipped and slid against her lower lips in an imitation of his earlier worship with his mouth.
His mouth slid to her jaw and then nibbled at her earlobe. He cupped the back of her head. "Are you quite sure about this?"
That time, she gripped the back of his neck and pressed their forehead together. She angled her hips forward and hissed as he slid into place. "Don't ask any more stupid questions, alright?"
She felt his smile against her skin as he gently pushed himself all the way in until he bottomed out.
There was a loud keening sound in the room, and he hushed her with silent laughter. "We don't want Harry to come up here to check on us," he said, thrusting into her again with a force this time that jolted her entire body.
"N-no, don't want that," she said.
They lay pressed up against one another chest to hip as he angled and pumped into her. He kissed her deeply as his movements sped up.
When she crested, she looked up at him into those sparkling grey eyes partially obscured by the strands of his dark hair and saw on his face a gentle, almost tender smile.
She felt a different sort of jolt then; a different kind of fullness.
It was the kind where she thought she might be right where she belonged.
Chapter 5: Hood Over Your Head, Keep Your Eyes Down
Hermione woke up alone.
Her clothes had been cleaned, folded, and placed on a chair by the bed. Weak light shone in through the thin curtains. A new day had begun.
She dressed quickly in her camisole and shorts. Her knickers were tucked into the pocket of her robe, and she belted it tightly around her waist before creeping down from the top floor. All was still and quiet. She could hear faint chatter from the kitchens below, and she moved silently to let herself into her own room, closing the door gently behind her.
She was breathing heavily.
Well. That happened.
In the light of day, the events of last evening seemed fantastical. It had to have been the late hour on top of the high from drinking and socialising. Logical, book smart Hermione didn’t do things like barge into a man’s room to proposition them. She might think it, but she didn’t act on such impulses.
Where did they go from here?
Hermione wasn’t certain. Perhaps they would pretend it'd never happened. She was beginning to wish it never had. What had she been thinking? Answer: she obviously hadn't been.
She brought a shaking hand to touch her face. This was why she didn’t have one-night stands. She didn’t let hormones dictate her movements. She thought things out carefully and planned accordingly. This—was not planned.
She took a deep breath and pushed the hair out of her face. Right. She still had to go about her day. Maybe it'd be better if she just stopped thinking altogether.
After a shower, she felt steadier. Things in the dark of the night retreated to the background of her head as though they had never happened. She heard the clinking of glassware and the rattling of kitchen drawers. Prosaic, daytime sounds. There was an aroma of coffee and bacon and toast. Everything seemed exceedingly normal.
She felt a little better and made her way downstairs to the kitchen.
“Morning,” Harry said, half-turning from where he was rinsing out his cup in the sink. “Can you believe this guy actually made breakfast?” He tilted his head to indicate Sirius. “Had a good night, did you?”
Hermione's tongue felt stuck to the roof of her mouth. All of a sudden, she wished she were still hiding in her bedroom. What must he think of her? She was afraid to find out.
She steadfastly did not look over to where Sirius was sitting. She sat down at her chair, which faced the sink and Harry. She could focus on him.
Out of the periphery of her eyes, she saw Sirius rise with the coffee pot. She gazed down at the table, where a few rashers of bacon lay on one plate, some of them looking rather raw and others charred on the edges. A pile of toast was haphazardly stacked on another. Unevenly cut tomatoes sat on a small dish next to a bowl of steaming baked beans from a tin. There was a serving bowl heaped with uncooked eggs in their shells, which confused her for a moment until she saw the remnants of cracked eggshells lying next to Harry's plate.
Now she remembered that she was the one assigned to make breakfast this morning. She'd overslept, due to a combination of drink, overexertion—and her mind shied away from exactly how she'd overexerted herself.
Also, there must have been ten boiled eggs. She would've felt like laughing except she was still feeling too on edge.
“It was—eventful,” Sirius said to Harry, and then to Hermione, “Coffee?”
Hermione glanced up only halfway up his Muggle shirt, which was from a band he’d seen in concert with Harry. He was holding the shirt taut against his abdomen to prevent it from dangling across the table. He was behaving perfectly normally, as if nothing had even happened. He'd covered for her—which meant—
Well, she didn't know what that meant. She pushed her mug sideways across the table without looking up. “Please.” The mug was filled with steaming coffee, and she pulled it back to herself.
“So what compelled you to cook breakfast today?” Harry was saying to Sirius. “Such as it is, I mean. Boiled eggs?" He pushed his glasses up his nose and raised his eyebrows. “Did you have an especially stimulating night? That doesn’t seem likely, not with your track record. ”
There was a short pause in the conversation that made Hermione look up, but before she could interpret the canny expression on Harry’s face, Sirius had given a bark of laughter. “Listen to the kid. Trying to deflect the attention away from your late nights. Come on, spill. Hermione here and I have a bet going.”
Harry glanced over at Hermione, who shrugged and shook her head almost urgently to try to avoid being drawn in.
“Traitor,” Sirius said across the table. To her surprise, he sounded almost affectionate. He gestured at her with his mug. “Just for that, I’m not telling you if I’m right.”
“Mhm.” Harry set his dishes to drain and turned around. “Don’t avoid the subject just because you were dancing with someone nearly half your age. You never dance.”
Oh God. Harry knew.
Sirius spread his arms. “That’s just because I’m simply too dazzling when I dance. Tell him, Hermione.”
Hermione cleared her throat and managed a smile to no one in particular. She tried to match the levity in Sirius's voice. “He dances very well.”
“You see?” Sirius gave a pointed look at Harry. “Besides, I’m married to her, aren’t I?” He winked at Hermione over the edge of his mug. It was a dashing and irresistible gesture and somehow exactly like Sirius, but it also left in its bold wake questions and indecision.
She froze in response before she bent her head over a hard-boiled egg, tapping on it with her spoon. Her pulse had picked up. What was he doing?
He couldn’t really mean to reveal to Harry what they’d done, could he? Or had he already before Hermione came downstairs? It was so new, so fresh that she’d hadn’t even dealt with it herself. She was struck dumb with the implications of last night being out in the open. What would Harry even say? What would it mean for their recent actions to be revealed, the knowledge they had made the relationship real and not just pretend? Knowing Sirius, it probably wouldn’t mean anything for it to be told to Harry—a pissing contest between mates, possibly, and the thought sent a hot flush up the back of her neck.
She was attempting to pick up clues to the current status quo and coming up empty. Was she meant to act just as unconcerned and airy, as though nothing momentous had happened the evening before, or was this light-hearted banter a sign from Sirius that their relationship—such as it was—was moving forward—and did she even want that? Her brain hadn’t stopped spinning since the moment she woke up. She'd had a momentary reprieve when she'd given herself a hard mental slap, but now her mind was whirling merrily away, suppositions occupying every single instinct within her; she was used to constant motion and instant decision-making, but now that portion of her brain had been replaced by a whirlwind of theories and what-ifs.
She moved like a slug trapped in a water jug. Her mind was reeling and wheeling, and she’d stopped tapping on the egg to stare at it in silence instead.
Harry scoffed, Hermione's distraction flying right over his head. “Right. You know very well I was talking about Penny. Though I did like the show you two—" he nodded at Sirius and Hermione "—put on last night. Another staged fight like that, along with angry glares at each other across the ballroom, and they’ll have bought the act.”
Sirius chuckled; his chair was tilted back to be kept balanced on its back two legs. He rubbed his chin with a thumb and forefinger. He looked like a man at his leisure, completely indifferent to the maelstrom inside Hermione. He was unemotional and strangely calm in stark contrast to that manic giddiness he sometimes was capable of; while Hermione was holding her breath, he was grinning at Harry. Penny, she thought wildly. Who’s Penny? “You’ve discovered what a good actor I can be.”
“Don’t take it too far.” Harry had turned away. “I’ve a feeling that Galorian Guiffart doesn’t approve of public displays of affection.”
They remained in place after Harry left the kitchens. He’d been dressed to go out, and a moment later, they heard the sound of the fireplace flickering to life. Hermione concentrated on peeling every single piece of shell from her egg; it was imperative that she peeled it cleanly and without magic, and it was the only thing that prevented her from bolting from the room. Her pulse began to slow with Harry’s departure.
Someone half Sirius's age. Harry hadn't meant Hermione after all; it was this mysterious Penny . The person Sirius danced with. She’d been too nervous for nothing. Harry didn’t know anything.
He didn’t know that Sirius hadn't done anything with Penny. Hermione had been the person with Sirius last night. Surely Harry would have brought it up if he knew?
Hermione jumped a little when she heard the front legs of Sirius’s chair drop to the ground, but she still didn’t look up.
A moment later, his chair made a harsh scraping sound across the tile. She sensed him leaning forward. "You alright?" he asked, his voice pitched low.
Hermione cast a furtive glance towards the doorway. Just at that second, the Floo in the other room whooshed. The townhouse went silent; Harry had left, and they were alone.
"Yes, of course," she said with a nonchalant shrug that took every bit of her acting skills. "Why shouldn't I be?"
There was a pause before he spoke. "Oh, I don't know," he drawled. His fingers were drumming on top of the table by his plate. "Could be the fact you haven't looked at me since you came downstairs."
Before Hermione could think up a suitable response, he stretched out the hand that had been drumming, palm facing up. "I didn't hurt you last night, did I?"
Her eyes flew up at that and met his.
Grey eyes should look cold and remote. His weren't; not with the ray of concerned lines fanning out on the edges. Something twisted in the pit of her stomach; softened, expanded into an unfamiliar longing.
"No! No, of course not," she was startled into saying.
"Good. I thought not, but then one never knows." His chair scraped back further and he stood, stretching. His shirt lifted, revealing the bottom edge of a runic tattoo nestled in the line of hair leading down to his pelvis. She turned hot and jerked her face away. She’d satiated her curiosity about him, roused in the first place all because of Ginny’s lewdness, and now she knew Ginny had been right—Sirius Black was a bloody good lay.
She wouldn't mind going back for more.
"Although now that I'm thinking about it, perhaps it shouldn't happen again." He'd walked over to the sink with his dishes. Instead of washing up, he stopped, turning his head to the side so that she could see his profile. His hands were braced on the edge of the counter on either side of him.
She gaped at his back.
"It's just that—I don't want to hurt you, and I don't see how this wouldn't end up hurting one or both of us."
He couldn't have said anything more guaranteed to completely break through her stupor. Hermione had gone from shyness and embarrassment to annoyance and pique within seconds, rounding "who does he think he is?" without stopping for breath.
Her tone was tart when she spoke. "Oh really? I wasn't the one who led in with 'no regrets.'"
If she’d taken a moment to think, she supposed she would have been expecting this if she had taken a moment to think. Instead, she’d used all of her focus on the slew of mad thoughts racing through her head. Under his laissez-faire attitude towards life, there was a strong vein of gallantry running deep in Sirius, one which made him adhere to the adolescent concept of “Marauders before udders” to the detriment of any other healthy relationship he might have had. It was that gallantry towards his friends she’d been afraid of, but of course he wouldn’t have revealed what they did to Harry. She’d forgotten that he was raised as a bloody gentleman; he rose when she entered the room, and he made sure she came before he did. He was sexist in a way that amused her, but maybe it shouldn’t have.
He was telling her, in as gentle a manner as possible, that it was for her benefit that they couldn’t do it again. Without first talking about it or discussing it with her. She’d previously marked off his decidedly dominant air as due to their age difference, but that wasn’t it, was it? She’d forgotten to take into consideration the era in which they were respectively raised, and he still belonged to that age in which men knew better. It was his decision that they couldn’t do this anymore, and it rankled. She didn’t want to be just another one-off, a notch on the belt of handsome, devil-may-care Sirius Black, even though she undoubtedly was. The rote it’s not you, it’s me speech was particularly ranking.
Hermione didn’t even know if she expected more—or even wanted more from him, really, but in any event, she didn’t want to be the one being shunted off to the side. She’d do the shunting, thank you.
She tossed back her hair and lifted her chin. "I wasn't the one who mentioned possibly throwing out his back last night. I think I handled myself just fine."
He froze before slowly turning to face her. He studied her for a long moment, a regard she returned with an insouciant and almost defiant bite of her peeled egg.
When he spoke, he spoke slowly, as though carefully choosing his words. "So are you calling me an old man, or saying you'd like more?"
She looked at her half eaten egg as though she'd never seen anything like it before. "I said what I said."
His hands were braced on either side of his hip on the edge of the sink. His tattooed fingers tapped out a rhythm. "I'm trying to be the mature person here. What happened yesterday shouldn't have happened. I don't know what I was thinking, but it shouldn't happen again. I'm thinking of your welfare, Hermione."
She polished off the rest of her egg and chewed as though her life depended on it. It felt dry enough to set her throat on fire. She swallowed anyway. "I love it when other people make decisions for me. Especially when they're running scared. It used to happen all the time when I was still a student, but it's interesting how it's still happening. Even though I'm of age and support myself."
She had no idea what she was even saying anymore. Her tongue was running away from her, fueled by hurt and desperation and a certain niggling thought that whispered maybe if you dared him, he'd change his mind. It was ridiculous, really. She didn't want more.
More of his fucking, more of his cock, more of his tongue.
Besides all of that, what was particularly prominent in her mind was a certain resentment due to the fact that he was choosing to be the logical person in all this. He was hardly a voice of reason. In history and in everyday life, he lived life by the seat of his pants. He hadn’t taken two seconds to consider her marriage proposal before he’d accepted.
His eyebrows flew up. "Well, now, darling, are you daring me to fuck you?"
She huffed in annoyance, avoiding his eyes, and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I'm not daring anyone to do anything." She sounded about as mature as a five year old, but at the sound of that familiar drawl that’d entered his voice, she was also somehow squeezing her thighs together as memories of the night before began to trickle past her defenses.
… Sirius kissing a line up the inside of her thigh as he held her leg in place over his shoulder.
… Sirius bracketing her head with an arm supported on an elbow as he hitched her knee higher over his hip.
...Sirius rotating his hips as he bottomed out inside her, chuckling when she urged him to go faster.
She washed down the dry egg with a gulp of coffee. She preferred tea actually, which just went to show how well he knew her and her wants. She rose from the table, stalking over to the sink with her dish of eggshells and her half-filled mug of coffee. "A dozen boiled eggs just for the three of us, Sirius?" She began to pour out her mug. "Were you expecting guests? A hippogriff?"
Hermione was about to rinse out her mug and flounce off when the cup was lifted out of her hand and set down gently into the sink. A hand slipped around her middle and pulled her off balance so that she fell sideways into Sirius. Steel-hard arms clasped her around her back, preventing her escape. “By God, I never know what to expect from you."
He sounded both impressed and exasperated. "And here I was, so determined to do the right thing."
Hermione wet her lips and shifted so that she faced him, angling her hips forward to feel him nestled snugly at the base of her stomach. She watched with satisfaction as his eyelids drifted down and he groaned. "What are you doing to me?" he muttered and lowered his head to kiss her upturned mouth.
The kiss deepened, and his hand wandered up to the edge of her shirt, seeking and finding her bare midriff. She whimpered into his mouth as his searching hand moved up her ribcage to caress her breast. "And why the bloody hell aren't you wearing undergarments, sweet? I could see your nipples through your shirt."
She braced a palm against his hard, warm chest. She was breathless with anticipation. "I forgot."
His other hand delved into the back of her jeans, gripping a warm handful of her buttocks, before growing bolder—his third finger traced her seeping slit. He winced as he felt her wetness. "Fuck. You're so wet."
He widened his stance so that she didn't have to arch so high on her toes. "I hope," he said, dipping his head so he could unbutton her jeans and pull down the zipper. He hissed when she shimmied to help him and her black knickers peeped through the opening. "—that this is for my benefit, and not Harry's."
She paused in the middle of shucking off her jeans to stare at him. "Why would it be for Harry's benefit?"
He reached up a hand to rake back the hair from his face before crouching to yank down her jeans. "Off," he ordered.
She obediently stepped out, her mind whirling. “Anyone could walk in here,” she said, but it was a weak protest.
The jeans were tossed off to the side, and he licked three of his fingers before he stroked her on her cunt. She gripped a fistful of his shirt, her eyes rolling back in her head as he rubbed her nubbin and her slit. Over and over his fingers danced over her, his middle finger nudging her at her entrance while his other fingers pulsed on either side of her lower lips. She gyrated with his movements until she wanted to impale herself on his fingers.
She was breathing hard, but she recalled the trail end of the conversation. "Why—" she said, and swallowed hard as he seemed to read her mind and his finger slipped inside her. "Oh God."
"What, baby?" He sounded absent-minded, his other hand caressing her abdomen before going to his belt buckle.
Coolness from the clasp brushed against her skin as he pulled his cock free of his jeans. His finger was still pumping in and out of her, and the sound of the wet slide was lewd and loud.
"Sirius, I—" Hermione broke off on a gasp as he gripped her hip.
He slid even lower down against the kitchen sink so that she was straddling him. His thick cock replaced his fingers, and she bit her bottom lip hard as he pushed upward into her.
She had both hands on his shoulders and only one foot on tiptoes on the floor. He bore the brunt of both their weights, gripping her tightly by the hips to steady her on top of him. He dipped his head into her chest and nipped at her breast through her shirt. "Alright there, love?"
This was mad; this was ludicrously risky, and yet she wouldn't have stopped for all the world. What was she doing to him, he'd asked aloud. The question should have been, what was he doing to her? She whimpered as he pulled out almost all the way and then thrust back into her. "God, this feels so good."
"Mmm," he said, and rolled his hips, pushing even deeper into her.
This felt, if anything, even more intimate than the night before. She was nude from the bottom down, he was fully clothed with his trousers around his thighs, and yet it felt even more personal in the daylight. What if someone were to walk in here to find them in such a compromising position? She should care, but all such logical thoughts were driven out of her head by the pounding need to have him.
He snaked a hand up her shirt and palmed her breast, rubbing her hard, aching nipple with his thumb until she squirmed on top of him, skewered by his cock as he slid down lower against the cabinets. "Ride me, love."
And she did.
Outwardly nothing changed.
Hermione carried on with Sirius much as she had before. They emerged from separate rooms in the morning, and when they met Harry at the breakfast table, they spoke of nonsensical things; the news and historical relevance (Hermione and Sirius), Ministry personnel changes (Harry and Hermione), sports (Harry and Sirius). They behaved as though nothing had happened.
Hermione stared at herself in the mirror every morning. Did she look any different? Who was this person who was having sex for the sake of having sex? It was unbelievably good sex, but she’d never considered herself particularly interested in that aspect of life. Just—averagely interested.
Now he was like a fever in her blood. It was so mind-blowingly good. How was he that good at it? Lots of practice, she’d imagine.
She’d managed to capture the attention of Sirius Black. It seemed incredible to believe, and she still had a hard time processing it. He was notoriously hard to pin down. With the exception of Harry (who she imagined was the replacement Marauder) and sometimes Arthur, with whom Sirius had seemingly formed a bond over a love of all things Muggle, Sirius never made set plans with anyone. He only did with her because she knew about this aspect of him, planned for it. She knew just when his schedule was open, she’d ask in that moment during sex when his defenses were down, and she’d cajole him with a light touch on his nape—just as though he were his Animagus counterpart and needed the rub behind the ears to make him compliant.
She wouldn’t admit it to herself, but it kept her on her toes. She liked the challenge of him and how he behaved in completely unexpected ways. He was like an antsy purebred, ready to storm and rage when conditions were adverse.
They were fucking everywhere and anywhere, but sometimes it seemed to be more than just sex. There were times when he’d lie next to her, his head tucked under her arms as she tried to read and he perused one of her Muggle novels. She’d comb her hand through his thick hair and feel a sense of utter satisfaction and contentment. It was freeing because she was completely in control. She could be more open with sex in a way that she’d never allowed herself to be because she knew the stakes involved. There was no worrying about where this was heading; she knew the future, she’d planned it, and he was simply going along with her plans.
There were moments when she had her doubts—moments when her heart would skip a beat, and she’d wonder to herself if she’d overestimated her rational capacity. Moments when he’d look at her, and the expression in his eyes was simultaneously admiring and fond, as though he couldn’t imagine what they were doing together, but he liked it just as well as she did.
It didn’t mean anything. This wasn’t what she’d planned for her future. She would be with a law-abiding, politically-inclined husband who’d stand by her side doing whatever high-ranking position he also held at the Ministry. They’d grace political events and speak about diplomacy and rise to insane heights. She was ambitious for many things, and those things didn’t include a man almost twice her age with ghosts of the past that still haunted him in his sleep. He was high-maintenance, but so was she . She didn’t want to babysit a grown man for the rest of her life.
As for the present, it wasn’t as though they could see anyone else. They’d embarked on this plan to overturn the law, and it was taking all her political acumen to not antagonise the other Warlocks, most of whom considered her an usurper amongst them. She’d been too optimistic in her goal. People weren’t paying attention to the legal dictate as she’d thought they would. She hadn’t realised it before, but wizarding culture wasn’t like Muggle culture. People took the Ministry dictates as guidelines rather than punishable mandates. They were behaving as Professor Slughorn had recommended and how Ginny was reacting—with curiosity and general indifference.
There were very few cases in which people had actually stepped up to marry according to the requirements. Marriage rates had fallen after the war. Rather than promoting legal bonding ceremonies, the law was inadvertently causing an increase in cohabitation.
More than a few Aurors were actually turning a blind eye when it came to enforcing the law. No charges had been passed, and as a result, no cases had been turned in to the Wizengamot. She was simply biding time.
She was always so proactive that she’d had a plan mapped out from the time the law was first rumoured to be passed. It was even easier when she knew that so many Warlocks were extremely conservative and wary of new changes. When she took into consideration that she’d lived through an era in which the Ministry had seemed like a hovering giant with the ability to pass and dictate multiple laws, her fervour had seemed proportionate and rational.
Now she realised that her fear of the Ministry’s dictates stemmed from her blood status and her history with them. During her lifetime, she’d seen a turnover of four Ministers and had almost been required to register with them to be monitored like an animal. She’d gone on the run from them. It’d been almost logical that she’d sought out employment with them, since they’d represented the biggest power in the Wizarding world for her.
And it was happening. It was all going completely according to her plans. The twinges of panic and terror that she sometimes felt didn’t mean anything; they were only the vestiges of having lived through the war. Just her senses being doubly heightened.
She couldn’t imagine a scenario in which she and Sirius didn’t leave this marriage equally satisfied, especially considering just how mutually beneficial their current arrangement was.
Chapter 6: Tell Yourself You Can Always Stop
Strangely enough this relationship, such as it was, was enough to propel Sirius into the Ministry—that most hated place for him. He'd found Hermione for elevenses and leaned over her desk to ask about something completely inappropriate.
Hermione was the clerk for one of the only progressive Warlocks on the Wizengamot, but even she didn't think Hildred Pippery would appreciate her shagging her husband at her desk. She told him so, but Sirius merely smiled; a devious, calculating smile that made her narrow her eyes in alarm.
"You can't spare time for a cuppa with your husband?" he asked, his voice raised a little. "What kind of God-awful place is this?"
She shushed him hurriedly, rising to her feet to usher him to the break room. Hildred Pippery was her boss, and Sirius was a complete pillock if he managed to arse it up for her. Yes, she was planning on becoming Hildred's equal, but she would need allies on the Wizengamot, and Hildred was one of the best. Just what was so imperative that he had to interrupt her work like this?
"Mmm," was all he said in response. He was too busy looking around the room, his brows drawn together critically. For whatever reason, this well-lit room with a small round table wasn’t private enough for whatever conversation he wanted to hold. He hustled her from the room and into a very convenient broom closet that she'd never seen before.
"Has that always been there?" she asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. "Unlocked?"
He cast a series of spells that made the small space sizzle. The cramped area expanded by a handful of metres, and the cleaning supplies jumped and transfigured into sheets and a rug on the floor. She paused for a moment to stare. It really was very good spell work.
He shrugged at the expression on her face. "Always was a dab hand at transfiguration."
"What did you want to talk to me about—” she said and was cut off when he prowled towards her, caging her against the wall with his arms and nuzzling her under her jaw. "I have a busy day. The petition for me to take your place on the Wizengamot went through, and now I have to train my replacement and umph—!"
He lightly held her by the throat, his thumb teasing her bottom lip before he leaned in to kiss her. Having effectively silenced her, he licked her right on her mouth. "Since it went through so successfully, don't you think I deserve a reward? I haven't seen you in three days."
"Whose fault is that?" she asked with more than a little attitude. She'd become used to seeing him every day, although seeing was clearly a euphemism for other activities that didn't require eyesight.
He hummed against her lips, his hand rucking up the hem of her skirt, his fingers lightly scraping against the strip of bare skin right above her stockings. "I know. That's why I'm back early."
He'd been away on an amateur racing tournament; the hobby of a complete dilettante. She would have felt more understanding and magnanimous if he hadn’t just taken off at the drop of a bat like he had.
"I rather like you in a skirt," he said. His fingernail scraped against the top of her thighs, and she shivered as he snapped the top of her stockings. "Very accessible. This had better be for my benefit."
A sharp retort was at the tip of her tongue, but she bit it back. Who else did he think she was seeing? There was nobody else for her. He filled her nights, and the recent absence made her realise that he was occupying a good portion of her daytime hours too.
Why would he think she was seeing someone besides him?What if he were seeing someone else? He was exceedingly proficient at disappearing, something she'd never been involved enough to notice before they were married, but now it niggled at her. Like with every subject that caught her interest, she was becoming fully invested and absorbed in knowing everything about him. He was starting to be an obsession, but it was manageable, if only just barely, and the fact that he'd sought her out at the Ministry directly after his trip meant something, didn't it?
The hope inside her made her apprehensive. It didn't matter, she told herself. Just a fling. A shag of convenience. That was all. A bloody good lay, she'd decided, and it was enough for her, right here, right now. She'd never even envisioned the possibility of a forever with someone like Sirius Black. He was someone untameable, someone who visibly scrabbled at the edges of any confines, and ties of any kind constituted just that for him; a prison to be endured until escape was possible. That wasn't for her. She'd nearly lost her parents to the war; sometimes they still forgot everything that had happened, and it pained her deeply to see that she'd been ready to toss all that aside. She wanted the security that'd haunted her with its absence in that terrifying year on the run, and she needed commitment too; neither of which Ron had been able to give her. Sirius, who was so dismissive of marriage in general, was not someone who could promise her that.
She stayed silent for far too long. He pulled away to gaze at her, and his lips stretched slightly outward at one side into something that wasn't quite a smile; an expression that was almost resigned and rueful. "Well, I'm here now, love."
He pushed her gently up against the wall and got down onto his knees. The sight of him there combined with his words made her heart skip a beat, but it was only so he could push her skirt up to her waist and tug down her knickers. She stepped out of them numbly, her brain flashing. What had that meant?
His thumbs dug into the inside of her thighs as he suckled on the line of her pelvis. "I've missed the taste of you, sweet. Open your legs for me, and let me see what I've missed."
She'd missed him too. His tongue flicked at the apex of her slit, and her legs sagged apart.
He had her riding on his shoulders, her fingers anchored in his hair for balance as he tongued her to oblivion. She bit on a knuckle as her legs shuddered under her. This was not what elevenses was meant for, but she'd completely lit up at his arrival. Just look at him, this absolutely gorgeous man with his mouth on her bits. Time and a hard life hadn't diminished his virility; if anything, they'd carved character into his pretty face. Sometimes she was still in awe that he'd go down onto his knees for her.
He gazed up at her from under those thick lashes, and she couldn't help the hitch in her breath. Longing. That was what had kept her awake these past few nights and made her as cantankerous as a scorned hippogriff. She wanted all his nights and all his tomorrows—
She gasped as his tongue probed an exceedingly sensitive spot, and he lapped at her, drinking from her as though he were thirsty and she was an unending source of fresh water. He groaned when her hips rolled with his movements and her walls convulsed against him, squirting out wetness against his mouth. "Baby," he murmured, and she could see him reaching down to release his thick shaft from the confines of his trousers.
He let her down one leg at a time, chuckling as her knees buckled under her and steadying her with a hand on her waist.
"My turn," she said, turning and pushing him against the wall.
He caught her hand in his grasp, his eyebrows raised. When she would go down to her knees, he stopped her and pulled her back up to fall against him. His hard cock jutted painfully into her side before she regained her balance. "No need for that. I just need your warm pussy, love."
When she started to straddle him, he stopped her and turned her to face the wall. It was a different kind of sensation being mounted from behind in a broom closet, with her arse arched high into the air like he was getting ready to examine her.
"Beautiful." His warm hand traced the curve of her buttocks, and she shifted from one leg to the other as he slotted himself into her hole.
She was so wet from his earlier ministrations that he slipped out again. "Fuck, you're so wet," he said, readjusting his position. He slid into her with a low groan and slowly pulled halfway out. The friction of his member pulled at her inner walls, and she clenched down as she began to convulse involuntarily around him again.
He held her with one arm around her waist and his other hand braced on the wall over her head as she came again. She was dripping down the insides of her thighs.
He let her ride it out before he tucked a stray curl behind her ear and kissed her lightly on her nape. His cock pulsed slightly inside her. "Can you handle another?" he asked, like a gentleman.
She could only nod dumbly in response.
He sped up, his hips snapping quickly, jostling her buttocks with every thrust; his balls a rhythmic slapping against her clit. She was being forced to the very tip of her toes, and yet it wasn't enough for her. She wanted more of him; she wanted all of him.
When had he become so all-encompassing a passion and need for her?
Her cry intermingled in the air with his low growl as he came, spurting his seed inside her until it overflowed and ran down her legs.
She was panting from the exertion. All she wanted was to bury her head into his chest and not go back to work.
He extricated himself gently and cleaned her off with his wand before he turned to himself. Ever the gentleman.
"See you at dinner?" he asked, completely unaware of the turmoil within her as he refastened his trousers.
She was not a cuddler, she reminded herself. She wasn’t.
But as they walked out of the broom closet in opposite directions, she wished with all her might that he'd taken her into his arms.
The days turned into weeks, and there weren’t any viable cases to challenge the marriage law. The only one that even touched on the subject had been thrown out in summary proceedings for procedural issues. The Half-blood petitioner brought a case against the Wizards Council for violating "basic wizarding rights."
The problem was that he was bringing a case on behalf of his daughter, who wanted to marry her Pureblood boyfriend. They were newly graduated from Hogwarts and had been dating for a number of years.
Blood purity was defined by the blood of the parents over a time frame of ten generations in one's genealogy, with increasing weight and importance given to the recency of the forebears. If over half of one’s progeny was Muggle, then one was deemed Muggleborn. The girl in this case was cited, according to the complicated formula, to be Half-blood.
The case was thrown out on multiple counts—lack of standing on the part of the father to sue for his daughter among the reasons. In essence, his daughter could only have filed the suit after she'd been caused irreparable damage by the law. It hadn't even made it in front of the full panel.
She heard the other Warlocks talking about it later and knew that the sentiment for using it to strike down the law was favourable, but it simply hadn’t passed the barrier to becoming a trial.
Hildred called her into her office to chat about the case. “There’s bound to be more cases, dear.” She leaned back in her chair and surveyed Hermione with frank, curious eyes; a good-looking woman, well-preserved widow of sixty-odd years. “Odd that you should be such a proponent of overturning that particular law. Especially with such a—what’s that the young people say nowadays?—a fittie as your husband.”
A month ago, she might have reacted the way she had when Ginny had waxed poetic on the subject of Sirius’s charms. Now all she could do was blush in silence.
She was silent for so long that Hildred waved her hand as though to cancel the last thing she’d said. Fittie. As though Hermione didn’t know it already. “Well, ignore me. People have different agendas. They don’t all need to be personal. It’s certainly not personal for the Wizards Council! They’re simply riding this anti-Pureblood sentiment that’s rampant after the war. As though they could actually penalise people for not marrying! It’s completely laughable.”
“The Ministry would have been forbidden from employing members of the public who decided to flaunt the Marriage Law,” Hermione said.
Hildred laughed, a light tinkling sound as she threw back her head. “Oh that old gambit. It’s threatened as a penalty for every law they can’t enforce by simply throwing people into Azkaban. Dear, dear. Sometimes I wonder who exactly they have on the Council. It’s ludicrous.” She waved her hand airily. “Well, it’ll be nice to have a new face on the Wizengamot, dear, even though I would miss having you as a clerk.”
Hermione sat at her desk still as a stone statue after she’d exited the inner office. She stared into space, remembering the first time the Marriage Law had been thrown around in conversation. Details of the law had been leaked to the public via the papers, and it’d been sensationalised and discussed everywhere. Wizarding law was not often made. The Wizards Council met every two years, which would have been a laughably ingenious timeline in the Muggle parliament.
She remembered her last few years in Hogwarts, when the Ministry had been in such a state of flux that edicts had been handed down every other day. They’d even sent someone to Hogwarts to manage the school, but nobody thought to file petitions on behalf of the students.
Her generation, she realised, was one in which no one had sought out employment within the Ministry. Strangely enough, of her class, she and Harry and Theodore Nott were the only ones. No one else had been particularly bothered by the thought of not being employed by the government. She’d spoken at great length with Percy Weasley on the issue and he’d said, with pompous self-righteousness, that it was just as easy to fall in love and marry a Muggleborn as it was a Pureblood, and that was the aim of such a law. She hadn’t wanted to discuss the matter with him anymore after that.
She had a sinking feeling in her stomach that she, who'd always decried her friends as being too rash and impetuous, was guilty of being just that.
Odd that you should be such a proponent of overturning that particular law.
A year ago, Hermione would have replied, I don’t think anyone should be forced into marriage.
Now she was looking back at that girl who’d bearded the lion in his den; who’d made alternate plans so that his house would be empty of all people and distractions and laid out her plan for him. He’d acquiesced because who was Sirius Black who’d say no to a dare? Her very last resort would have been to dare him into it.
There was an entire country of people who took the Marriage Law as a joke. There were Aurors who had no guidance as to how to behave towards people who hadn't arranged for their Divination consultation. Polite reminders were dispatched by owl, followed by a stern warning for the Wizarding citizens to do their duty. Yet it wasn’t entirely plausible, nor was it ethical, to throw people in Azkaban for simply not wedding. It was completely nonsensical.
The only person who’d behaved with intense paranoia and, she’d thought at the time, foresight was Hermione. She’d been the one to force someone into marrying her. She’d browbeaten him into it. How could she expect anything real after that?
She was beginning to think that was all she wanted now; something real , not this pretend arrangement, and she wanted it with Sirius. She didn’t want to say that she’d fallen for him; that had always seemed like such a silly thing to say about relationships and emotions, as though you would trip over it in the middle of the street. She hadn’t fallen ; that implied she was on her knees and couldn’t get back up. She was still in full control of the situation. Wasn’t she?
That night, she found Harry making spaghetti in the kitchen. The fragrant aroma of garlic and onions wafted in the air as he stirred the sauce on the stove. With a flick of his wand, the diced tomatoes flew through the air from the cutting board to the sauce pan without dripping onto the ground. Hermione stood watching for a moment at the doorway before she came in all the way and made her way over to the sink to wash her hands.
"Staying in tonight?" Harry asked, sliding a glance at her.
She drained the lettuce from the sieve and arranged them in a serving bowl. "That's a question I need to ask you. I haven't seen you in ages."
"Well, you and Sirius have been rather busy at that country house, right? Remodeling it so that we can use it to throw parties?" Harry tossed her a grin over his shoulder. “How’s that going?”
Hermione couldn’t help the smile that came to her face just thinking about the place, flying buttresses and pointy fleches and all. "It’s going to be gorgeous. You haven’t seen it, right?”
“No, I’ve never been. He’s mentioned it before though. Hates the place.”
Hermione paused momentarily before she began to slice the cucumbers by hand. Harry didn't mean what it'd sounded like. Sirius couldn’t really hate the place anymore, could he? Not when he seemed perfectly happy visiting the place with her close to a daily basis before—well, before everything else cropped up. “Well, he won’t hate it after it’s spruced up. Though I haven’t been out there in a week. We’ve been too busy.”
They worked in silence for a moment before Hermione broke the silence. She dumped the cucumbers on the lettuce and set down the knife, bracing herself over the sink and addressing the tap. "Harry, I think I've made a terrible mistake."
There was a sizzle as Harry lifted the cover to check on the bubbling sauce. "How so? Sirius isn’t going to mind if the place isn’t perfect. I mean, look at this place. He lived here for years, screaming portraits and all."
"No! It’s not the house. It’s...I shouldn't have forced Sirius into marrying me," she said. The words spilled out of her. "I thought I was being clever by circumventing the law, all for the purpose of that Wizengamot position. I—wanted to be the first to think of it and—I don't know— shock them with my brilliance, I suppose. But it's just turned out horribly. I've just had a talk with Hildred on the Marriage Law, and she's of the opinion that it was never something that could be easily enforced. There are just too many ways around it. I've simply been wasting Sirius's and my time and—I just thought I had it all figured out and—"
"Hold on there," Harry said. She glanced up to find him gazing at her with that familiar wide-eyed look whenever she turned to him for comfort. Hero complex he had in full, but he did not deal well with emotions thrown at him out of the blue. "I need to get the spaghetti out of the water and, er—you're holding onto the strainer."
Hermione broke off and looked down at her hand, where she'd begun rinsing off the sieve and was shaking it rather more emphatically than necessary. She turned and handed it to Harry, who pushed his glasses higher on his nose and gave her a searching look.
"So what's the problem? Sirius's a decent bloke. I imagine that if you told him, he'd be understanding about it all."
"Understanding about what?"
Hermione jumped at the sound of Sirius's voice from the doorway. He was expressionless, one eyebrow lifted in question as his eyes first met hers and then to Harry at the stove.
"Oh hey Sirius," Harry said, waving at him with the spaghetti spoon. "Calm Hermione down, would you? She's got it in her head that she didn't need to marry you in the first place, and she's freaking out about it."
"That's not what I said!" Hermione cut in. "Sirius—"
He lazily strolled further into the room and peered over Hermione's shoulder before ambling over to the freeze box, where the food was kept in stasis. "I do pride myself on my decency. What's the problem exactly, other than my apparently objectionable personality as a husband?"
Harry chortled at the joke. "Maybe you could turn into a dog permanently."
She couldn't read Sirius's expression at all. He'd adopted a bland, deadpan demeanour that could have suggested any emotion from offense to good humour. "Very funny, Harry. No," she said, "it's—this new case before the Wizengamot."
Sirius removed a tray of grapes from the freeze box and waved a wand over it before popping one into his mouth. He leaned a hip against the edge of the kitchen table to listen to her.
His unwavering, expressionless attention was nerve-wracking. She took a deep breath, her fingers tight on the tongs that she'd picked up to toss the salad. "It's just—I've realised that nobody's taking the law that seriously. It's—rather a joke, and it seems we've been too hasty about it all."
This was terrible. It was a conversation she'd rather have with Sirius alone. She wanted to discuss first with Harry how exactly she could broach it with Sirius, but now it was out in the open.
She stared pleadingly at Sirius, tilting her head slightly to Harry, whose back was turned to them.
"Don't you like being a Warlock, Hermione?" Sirius asked. He wasn't looking at her now. Instead he tossed a grape in the air and caught it neatly between his teeth, which he then bared into a grin at her.
Was it her imagination that it didn't reach his eyes?
"I just—it's not—" she broke off with another sigh. Was she about to do this now? Here? Confess to feelings and wishes so dark and secret she hadn't even come to complete terms with them herself? With Harry here?
When she paused for too long, Harry turned to glance at her curiously. Her mouth dried; her nerve shrivelled. "It's complicated. At the time I thought it was a means to an end."
"It still is,” Sirius said. His eyes were cool and steady as he stared back at her. “Things haven’t changed at all, not for me. I’m still as determined as ever to help you fuck over the Ministry.”
His grey eyes were both cool and dark as he turned to help Harry with his task. Hermione stared helplessly at his back, feeling the last dredges of hope float away, like she'd been standing on a beach on a bright sunny day right as a wave crashed into her. Her hands tried desperately to grab onto the sand, only to have it melt to nothingness in her grasp.
She hadn't realised until just then what she'd even wanted from Sirius. The problem was that things had changed for her. Overturning the law wasn’t all that she wanted now. It wasn’t even her priority anymore.
But it seemed that she was the only one who felt this way.
Something had changed between them as well.
Hermione wasn't sure what, or how, but she increasingly got the feeling Sirius was withdrawing from her. For what purpose, she didn't even understand. She hadn't revealed her feelings at all, for fear of losing what little they did have together.
He'd always been unpredictable and moody, susceptible to mercurial flashes of emotion. It used to be a simple thing to navigate his different moods, but now trying to anticipate his temperament was like treading on a high-wire. She was afraid to risk his displeasure and chance a row that might cause her to say things she'd regret.
Their time together felt even more fragile and precarious, and it didn't help that they had less time together because of her new position.
and she'd thought the worst of it had
She didn't want to admit it to herself, but his unsettled her, made her nervous and skittish. She went out of her way to cajole him, but he'd sunk into one of his moods, the kinds he got occasionally. Had she been too clingy? Had she indicated she wanted more than he was willing to give? She was making every effort to be the perfect wife, even if she sometimes had no idea what that even entailed anymore, what with their strange arrangement, but it seemed to make him draw away even more.
The disaster happened when they went out to eat by themselves.
It was a mistake from beginning to end. Rita Skeeter’s new book had come out; a sensational piece entitled The Riddle of the Dark Lord. Hermione didn’t know how Rita had obtained information for it, but it was immediately referenced in the Prophet and sold out before noon on the day it was released. There was supposedly an entire section on “the Chosen Trio.”
“I’d completely forgotten it was released today of all days,” Hermione said in a hushed voice when they Apparated into Diagon Alley.
The marketplace was in a state of suppressed gaiety from students getting ready for a new school year. Skeeter had taken the opportunity of a full crowd and hired newsboys to litter fliers throughout the streets. The Truth Behind the War! stared back at Hermione from a torn paper on the ground. There was an image of Voldemort and Harry dueling in the Hogwarts courtyard; Harry’s smudged face looking tired and determined, his scar standing out like a white brand on his forehead.
Hermione dragged her eyes away. “Should we go back?”
Sirius’s hand tightened over her fingers. “No, we made plans, and we’re sticking to them.” He spoke with his usual easy drawl, but a sideways glance at him revealed his tight jaw.
Hermione didn’t want to argue, but she didn’t have a good feeling about this. There seemed to be at least six variations of fliers for the new book. The very last one whipped through the air as a breeze sent a whirl of debris flying. Hermione caught it with her wand to send it safely to the side. The flier was right side up for a moment before it tumbled over to the side of the sidewalk. She stood frozen where she was; the image of the flier flashing before her eyes.
She remembered that photograph. It’d been snapped by Skeeter’s photographer during the Triwizard Tournament, outside the tent of the champions who’d been getting ready to go up against a dragon. She’d been so worried about Harry, who seemed to be more focused on his fight with Ron than on the tasks ahead of him. The picture had been the bane of her existence forever after; always trotted out to demonstrate how close she was with Harry.
The photograph now was emblazoned with the words “Lover or Betrayer? Schemer or Gold-digger?”
Her breath became shallow as she took in the words. Skeeter , she thought, her hand clenching tight around her wand. The reporter had lost her fear of Hermione once she registered with the Animagus Registry. In retrospect, Hermione had always known that the threat wouldn’t hold forever, but this completely sensationalised version of the truth still stunned her. That logic didn’t stop Hermione from wanting to blast the woman off her feet if she’d appeared right then and there.
“—really, the most fascinating bits were about Harry Potter,” said a passerby to her friend, hugging the book to her chest. “He’s dreamy, isn’t he?”
“Can you believe that his childhood sweetheart threw him over for that old man? His godfather , even. Obviously he’s richer than Harry Potter could ever be, but—he’s so much older.”
“And a convict,” the first woman said, shuddering. “He was never acquitted of his crimes, was he? They were never able to prove that he wasn’t a Death Eater—”
A fervent nod. “He didn’t have the Dark Mark according to the sources, but not all of them did. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named certainly didn’t, and—”
They were abruptly cut off when they caught sight of Hermione and Sirius Black. Eyes wide as she connected Hermione’s appearance with the flier she was clutching along with the book, the first woman elbowed her friend, and both smiled weakly.
Sirius clamped his teeth around the end of a cigar and pulled Hermione away with an arm around her shoulder. His derision was immediate and loud. “Let’s go, love. Otherwise I’d be inclined to demonstrate my Dark magic capabilities and rid the world of a few witless cows.”
There was a sharp intake of breath that made Hermione wish that Sirius were more inclined to turn the other cheek rather than make purposely antagonistic comments. At the same time, she was also fiercely glad that he’d said it. They said that eavesdroppers never heard anything good about themselves, but how infuriating to be spoken about in such a way on the main thoroughfare, as though her entire life and deeds were up for open debate?
“This is why I prefer the Muggle world,” Sirius said. He ushered her into an increased pace through the roundabout until Hermione was almost skipping along to keep up with his longer legs. “It’s far easier to be incognito there.” There was a dark glower on his face as he inhaled heavily on his cigar before chucking it away, vanishing it away before it had even sailed a full arc. “Here, I’m bound forever by the events in my past. I can’t ever run away.”
There was a bitter intensity in his face as Sirius turned to look down at her. In that moment, Hermione thought she finally understood some of the demons that still haunted him. She’d thought it stemmed from Peter Pettigrew’s betrayal, something that he still believed was his fault, but it was so much more than that. It was this world that wouldn’t allow him to forget, even if he’d been inclined to do so.
It was the harsh, haunted glitter of his silver eyes that stayed with her as he spun on his heel and sent them spinning through space.
They landed back in Grimmauld Place, and Hermione looked around in confusion. They’d been planning on eating somewhere by themselves, hadn’t they? They hadn’t done so in a while, not since she’d become officially sworn into the Wizengamot.
She laid a hand on his arm to stop him with a pleading look on her face. “Here? Perhaps we could go to the country house?” Her suggestion was tentative; he hadn’t taken her there in two weeks. She was dying to see how it looked—it was their own little oasis from everything else that was expected of them from the public and even their friends—their secret behind the facade.
“I’ve a better idea than that.” Sirius was smiling again, calm and joking. The glimpse of that other, darker, tortured Sirius had disappeared as though she’d never seen it, but Hermione couldn’t help but wonder at it. Surely they should at least talk about what happened?
It didn’t come up, and they didn’t go to the country house. They went out to eat in Muggle London at a trendy, upscale pub, where music boomed too loudly around them to hold any sort of serious conversation. Sirius was the charming, easygoing man that he could be when he wanted, as though the persona were a suit he donned as it pleased him.
What did she really know about him? She’d been cavalier and dismissive, assuming he was nothing more than a spoiled dilettante, the inevitable product of excessively good genes and overly privileged upbringing. She wished now that she hadn’t been so judgemental, that she’d asked more questions. What on earth did she know of Sirius Black? He'd lived through two wars and been wrongfully imprisoned for a third of his life.
She wondered, though, from his previous comments, whether he was apprehensive of how close she was to Harry, if perhaps he was jealous. She was no stranger to how dangerous such an emotion was to a budding relationship.
Over drinks at the end of dinner when there was a lull in the conversation and the music was softer, Hermione blurted out, "There's nothing between Harry and me, you know?"
Instead of joking about it or being surprised, Sirius was silent for a moment. She suddenly wished she’d said nothing at all when he lost that levity that’d entertained her for the past hour and a half. Without looking up at her, he drained his drink and set the empty glass back down on the table. "I know," he said heavily.
Just when she thought she couldn't feel more off balance and uncertain of herself around him, he muttered to himself, "I only wish there were."
It left her speechless. She didn't know what to say in response. Just last night they’d lain in bed together. He’d stared right into her eyes in that way she'd come to associate with him, with a look that told her this was more than just sex, more than just physical, more than a good fuck, and now he'd completely knocked her over with his comment.
Sirius wished that she were with Harry instead of with him.
Oh, how wrong she’d been! She’d been labouring under the misconception that he was jealous, when the truth was so far from that as to be completely laughable.
Only she wasn’t laughing. Hurt bubbled in her stomach, but more than that was a certain numbness, because hadn't she been expecting this?
He hadn't kicked her out of his bed before, but then why would he? She went to his room night after night and offered herself up on a platter. They played it off as being more discreet than her room, which was right across the hall from Harry's, but that wasn't the reason, was it? The simple fact of the matter was that she was doing all the chasing, and he all the running. She'd never thought she'd be the kind of girl who would sacrifice her pride just for a few scraps of affection, but here they were, and she couldn't even storm out without appearing utterly juvenile.
Perhaps he was just that proficient at masking his emotions. She fumbled for another reason for his coolness, although all she wanted to do was scream why why why.
“You shouldn’t let—you shouldn’t let what that woman said affect you,” she said, stumbling over her words. “About being a convict and a Death Eater.” Her tongue felt abnormally thick and sluggish in her mouth.
“It has nothing to do with that woman, Hermione,” he said. There was a wry smile playing at the edges of his mouth, as though the conversation topic was something slightly embarrassing, if only because he had to explain the concept to her. “And you know it. This was never meant to last.”
She sought for equilibrium and flashed a smile back at him, hoping that it seemed just as nonchalant as his was. “Are you breaking up with me, Sirius?”
“I think it’s time, don’t you?” His voice was low and controlled, so quiet that she had to strain to hear him. “This has gone on much longer than it should have. And it should never have even got to this stage.”
She was having trouble digesting his words, so she put on a brave face and made a joke. "Well, luckily for you, this is strictly an arranged marriage. We're not really married."
It broke something in her to say that out loud, but she forced herself to mouth the words with something like a certain sanguine lightheartedness, as though it meant nothing at all to her. She almost convinced herself with her tone of voice. Strictly an arrangement, that was what this all was. Like a complete idiot, she’d forgotten.
Deny it, say something, say anything, something inside her pleaded.
For the second time that night, he surprised her with his response. "I know it isn't real. I've had the real thing before."
His parents, she knew, had been terrible parents with a bad arranged marriage between them.
But then—he couldn't have been referring to them, could he? He meant he had had the real thing.
She was smiling through the hurt when she said, "What do you mean? What’s the real thing?"
It was something supposed to bring him out of this dark funk she could tell was still simmering beneath the surface. He was supposed to revert back to the joking, light-hearted Sirius, the one who reassured her when she needed it, the one who was always inadvertently there for her.
Only he didn't smile. He wasn't even looking at her, but at something in the distance; something in his past that only he could see, something much more important than what was sitting there right now beside him.
"I was almost married," he said quietly. "Once."
Chapter 7: A Dwindling, Mercurial High
Just shy of one year as Mrs Black, Hermione’s approval into the Wizengamot went through. She packed up her things from her desk in the reception area outside Hildred’s office, where she’d shared space with her assistant and the intern.
She’d already been to her new offices down the hall, the reserved space for the Black seat. Maintenance had already come and gone, and the place was empty of everything, even curtains. There was the smell of new paintwork, and her name was emblazoned on a plaque on the heavy door. Hermione Black . There was no hyphenating in the Wizengamot.
Her stomach gave an odd little lurch as she saw her name. She should have felt like gloating, but instead she felt strangely ill at ease, her hands twitching at her side. She wanted to tear off the plaque. It shouldn’t be her name up there. It wasn’t a real marriage.
He’d made that perfectly clear to her.
She knew that it wasn’t. She’d always known that. But somehow she’d started to forget; she’d been pulled in by his charm. It was a dangerous charm, something that Remus had joked about back in the days before the war. She hadn’t believed it then, but there it was; she’d succumbed, and she missed him so much that it hurt. Worse than that, the plaque was proof that this marriage was meant to be nothing but a facade. She’d used Sirius, and he’d let himself be used. How could he want anything more from her in such a case? The short answer was, he didn’t. There was no more them, at least not the kind she’d become so accustomed to in such a short time.
She’d gone so long assuming that he was a confirmed bachelor because, well, because there were other factors. He was in Azkaban for such a long time, after all, and then there was the myriad of Dark curses he’d been subject to. Who knew the depth of the side effects he was experiencing?
Hermione was blown away by Sirius's confession that he’d almost been married before. This wasn’t news that Remus had ever revealed to them during the limited time that they'd had with him. It'd never been a subject to come up in the backdrop of the resurrected threat of a regenerated Voldemort. Then again, Remus certainly wasn’t a man with loose lips, even if he’d known about the engagement.
When pressed about this mystery woman, Sirius only gave a rough laugh and said, “I shouldn’t have brought it up. What’s in the past should stay in the past, right? The main thing is, love, that I think we’ve run the course. I’m certain you’ve noticed that I’ve been gone more and more. I don’t want to leave you wondering.”
And that was that. No one could be as closed off and uncommunicative as Sirius when he wanted to be.
Even his casual endearment felt pointed and purposefully cruel.
It was fine. She’d never planned on getting so involved with him. It’d been only sex, and from his casual attitude towards the idea of them , that was exactly all that it’d been for him as well. He never made any promises to her beyond that. It was just that—
She wasn’t fine with it. Not at all.
She didn’t know when she’d become so irrevocably attached to Sirius that the thought of him would make her tear up at the oddest times during the day. She’d gone this entire time thinking that she had her life together when—she didn’t. She ached for him and pined for him as desperately as any infatuated girl on a love potion, while he was actually dealing with an entire array of human emotions that she probably had never experienced before. He’d dealt with losses and tragedy she couldn’t even imagine. She hadn’t tried to imagine them. Perhaps that was why he’d wanted to get away from her as far as he could.
What would happen when her goals were accomplished? When the law was repealed? Would they just go their separate ways? She’d considered everything from a strictly business standpoint and neglected to ponder the emotional aspect. She’d assumed that she’d end up with more than she’d lost, but then—she hadn’t reckoned on all the losses to mean something so much to her. She’d lose her position in the Wizengamot—the position she’d so cavalierly assumed would be a stepping stone to her next inevitable career path, she’d lose her home—not only Grimmauld Place that she shared with Sirius and Harry, but also the summer property.
She'd have to find new lodgings—something she’d thought was completely fine before she’d embarked on this mad scheme, but that was before she'd spent so much time with Sirius at the Black country estate. She never imagined that she would take to a Pureblood house the way she’d taken to that strange castle—collapsing floorboards, buttresses, and all—but she'd taken relish in fixing it up to be somewhere she'd want to live. Unlike Grimmauld Place, which was populated not only by Harry, but any of Harry and Sirius's friends who might need a place to crash, the country estate was empty, abandoned. Sirius had given her free rein to change anything she wanted, and she'd taken his words literally. In the time that they'd spent together as a couple—a true couple, even despite the fiction—she had remodeled the rooms, widened the old-fashioned arrow slits into large bay windows, cleaned up the overgrown gardens. It hadn't been hard to imagine herself living there with Sirius, since he'd been the only person to visit there with her.
She hadn't gone back since they ended things. How could she, when he'd as much told her that her presence was unwanted in his life? She wondered now if the gardens needed weeding again, if the rooms were reverting back to their original spaces without her spells to keep them in check.
She'd never know now.
Worst of all the losses—worse than the lost job and lost houses and lost benefits—the very worst devastation was that she’d lose... him. Even the very little she saw of him now.
Although perhaps that would be preferable to living in this strange limbo she seemed to be in. He was never around, so either he'd started to live on the Continent permanently, or he was seeing someone else. The thought hurt so much she had to set down the papers in her hands to get hold of herself.
In her quiet new office, empty of any staff, Hermione stared at the blank wall opposite her desk, twisting her ring around and around her finger. She should be reviewing applications for a clerk and an assistant, but she couldn’t help but think about her anniversary and the empty meaning behind her engagement ring.
It was one that doubled for her wedding ring, another symbol of how easy and simple this marriage was supposed to be. It’d been tossed to her across the kitchen table when others had been present. An antique gold poesy ring with flowers and a dove, there were remnants of faded enamel to suggest that once it had been painted. Inside, an inscription read amor vincit omnia. Love conquers all. It was a strange inscription for something belonging to a family whose motto was purity conquers all.
“Really not sure where that came from,” Sirius had said at the time. He’d leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. “Probably an old fool who tried to marry against the edicts of the family.” He shrugged carelessly. “Either way, it’s the only thing I could find from the vault that doesn’t appear to be cursed.”
“Really now, Sirius,” Molly cut in at the time, looking disapproving. “Surely you can afford to give Hermione a nicer one. Something new perhaps?”
Hermione had shaken her head and gripped the ring in her fist. She was already putting Sirius to more trouble than he probably deemed worthy. Going out of his way to spend more money when this scheme was supposed to rehabilitate his image in a way that his inheritance would be smoothly transferred over to him was not part of the plan. “No. This will do quite well for our purposes.”
She had no intention of making Sirius pay for a betrothal ring that didn’t mean anything. They weren’t going to be married forever. She hadn’t even expected a ring.
Once she had it, however, she began to wear the ring to public functions, and she’d even taken it off to show the inscription within—it proved her point that theirs was a real marriage , that Sirius had given her a token of his affection; something that bore words to mock the family motto.
It’d only served to make her resolve stronger. Love conquered all, not purity of blood.
Love as it seemed then had only been the stuff of stories and legends; the parental sort of all-encompassing, self-sacrificing devotion that seemed almost saintlike in how it was always presented.
Hermione didn't know how she felt towards Sirius, but it couldn't be love; not if it made her want to do crazy things like search him out and drug him with a love potion. It shouldn't make her want to scream in his face and slap any woman who dared to look at him.
Now the inscription on the ring seemed a personal mockery directed at Hermione, taunting her with the fact that she felt such baseness of passions, especially when she knew she’d be spending her anniversary alone, wondering where her husband was.
Hermione sat in her office, in that moment grateful for that very little thing—the fact she had her own office so that nobody could disturb her—and she cried.
It wasn’t until her third month in her new position that Hildred appeared at her office, holding up a case file with a triumphant expression on her face.
"Now don't get excited," Hildred said after she knocked on Hermione’s open door and waved the file in her hand. "But this might be the case we've been waiting for."
The petition she was holding was a thin sheet of parchment tucked into a dark brown folder, with the edge of the paper glowing blue to indicate it was a civil case. Hermione stared at it for a moment before she slowly closed the file she'd been reading.
"Are you sure?" Hermione gazed up at Hildred, analyzing the other woman’s face for information and clues. “How do you know?”
Hildred was wearing the broad smile of a Cheshire cat as she carefully set the file on top of the other papers on the desk. She spread her hands and came to sit in the chair in front of Hermione, leaning back with an air of satisfaction. "Well, at least the petitioner has grounds to sue, unlike the last case."
Hermione cast another look at Hildred before glancing down at the label of the file in front of her. The words blurred into faint lines before her eyes.
“I think this is it, Warlock. Prepare yourself for the repeal of the law.” Hildred smirked. Her elbows perched on the armrests, and her hands were steepled in front of her face. “They couldn’t come up with a better way to protect Muggleborns than this silly law? They couldn’t have penalised crime against Muggleborns, or prohibited slurs based on blood purity? Instead they're forcing them to be with the ones who're bullying them, and in addition to that, they're suppressing other species into the bargain?”
Hermione hadn't realised at the time just how against the Marriage Law the Warlocks were. It simply wasn’t a workable law, in any shape or form. It'd been passed in tandem with the Werewolf Reform, yet another objectionable law that made even people like Bill Weasley subject to taking Wolfsbane as a precaution.
“Watch this, Hermione. After this law has passed, it’ll turn into a veritable goldmine for private practitioners.” Hildred leaned her head back and sighed. “Did I ever tell you I wanted to go into private practice? And then there’s the current law that requires us to do our duty.” She laughed towards the ceiling. “More than half of the registered Warlocks don’t even make an appearance per their duty.”
The urge to unburden herself was unbearably strong. Hermione sat there in her plush new office as a newly sworn in Warlock in the Wizengamot, enmeshed in the culmination of all her goals, and yet all she wanted was to tear up the documents in front of her.
“I didn’t know you wanted to practice,” Hermione said instead, in a reasonably calm voice. “Would you be a Wizard’s Defender?”
Hildred waved her hand. “I’ve been on the Wizengamot for so long now that if I had been in private practice, I could apply to take the silk and become a Merlin’s Counsel.” Without lifting her head from the back of the chair, she shook her head so that her hair flopped about against her cheeks. “It’s an antiquated, broken system. When was the last time a Merlin’s Counsel was appointed? Thirty years ago. The power has all been gathered in the Ministry and away from the rest of the people, and that’s just the Wizengamot. We won’t talk about the Wizards Council and its pocket seats.”
Hermione managed a small laugh and a reasonably intelligent exchange before Hildred stood up and left her office. Then Hermione bent her head over and pored over the new case that would start the wheels spinning on the end of her arrangement with Sirius Black.
The new case was simple. A Pureblood girl was suing for dissolution of her marriage, and her Muggleborn husband was contesting the grounds based on the Marriage Law. It was exactly the right sort of circumstances that would appeal to the Wizengamot. In thirty days, there would be a response to the original petition.
Already Hermione knew what the general opinion would be in the Wizengamot. It was a shit law, and the fact that nobody had sought to use it in any arrests or cases was indicative of just how shitty it was. But now here was the perfect case before them to make an example of the Wizards Council. She was certain that all ten of the oldest Warlocks planned on writing a separate opinion on just how utterly shitty they found the law, even separate from the ruling on the issue itself.
Hildred was right—but then Hermione had found that she usually was. This case so far managed to pass all the procedural hurdles to a civil case at a time when most of the Warlocks had been looking for a reason to poke the Wizarding Council for overstepping their lawmaking directives.
During lunch, Ron appeared for the first time to tour her new offices. Hermione introduced him to her new assistant and intern, and they returned to her office to chat.
Ron whistled when the door closed behind him. "Very nice, Madame Warlock. This office is even larger than Marlowe's."
Howard Marlowe was the current Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Hermione smiled wryly. "Well it's only mine until this case is over."
"Oh yeah?" Ron swept a finger over the feathers in her quillbox. "Is that why you don't seem too happy about it all?"
Hermione blinked. "I'm happy!" She sounded defensive, even for her.
Ron didn't argue the point with her. "I'm just saying, 'Mione, that these people are lucky to have you. You don't need to feel guilty you didn't come into the position by rightful means." He held up a hand when she would speak. "You know what I mean. By your own merits. Sometimes merit doesn't mean anything but a load of bollocks when the person is perfect for the job."
She sighed and scraped a fingernail along one of the legal treatises on her desk. "Where's Harry? He's late."
"Probably not coming." Ron shrugged.
Hermione's head jerked up, and she felt interest pervade the gloom that'd enveloped her for the past few months. "He's seeing someone, isn't he? Is it Angelina?" Her mind leapt to Sirius again.
"What? No!" Ron looked surprised and then amused. "You really don't know, do you? Well, I can't tell you anything because he'd have my head for it, but let's just say that none of us would be surprised."
She wracked her brain for anyone Harry could be seeing, but as usual, she couldn’t think of anyone. To her knowledge, he was usually involved at work, as she was. What were off hours when one was "You have to tell me!" She leaned forward and grabbed the edge of Ron’s sleeve.
"Oi, that's not fair, Hermione." Ron was laughing. "You know I can't hex you, and you’d have no problem hitting me, especially in this room."
"You actually want to tell me," she said, tugging at his robes. "It's why you'd even let that information slip. Come on, give!"
"Am I going to regret coming all the way over here to eat lunch with a friend?"
She pretended to give his question some thought. "Probably.”
Ron groaned. "This is why Sirius looks so grim and abused."
He was still laughing when Hermione froze in her tracks. "Grim and abused?"
"Yeah, have you been torturing the man in some way? He looks terrible."
Something felt stuck in her throat for a brief moment. She looked down at her desk and began to shuffle papers around. Her desk was so messy. "I'll have you know, I've been nothing but extremely pleasant to him. He's the one who's been avoiding me. He's been treating me like I have the plague, and I've done nothing to deserve it!"
Hermione hadn't brought up Sirius out loud in weeks, and now that the topic was introduced, she found she couldn't stop herself from talking about him. "Has he—have you seen him recently?"
"Well, of course. I see him with Ginny all the time."
Scarcely had Ron stopped talking when Hermione felt a shaft of pain strike directly through her chest. Sirius. With Ginny. Who thought he’d been fit as fuck back when he hadn't cleaned up so well. Back when Ginny had been young and less certain of herself—oh, who was Hermione kidding? Ginny had never been uncertain of herself, even as a young girl. Now Sirius was seeing her. And here she’d been jealous of Penny, whoever she was.
Hermione wanted to laugh, but she had a feeling it was going to sound mildly hysterical.
"Because of his job, of course. He's one of the organisers for SAG."
Hermione stared blankly at Ron. "Sag?"
Ron rolled his eyes. "It's the International Coalition of Sports and Games. That's his job. He's one of the lead organisers, so he's often down in the Sports department."
It seemed the blows weren't stopping. He was often in the Ministry, but she hadn't seen him in weeks. He was definitely trying to avoid her. This was irrefutable proof.
"What kind of wife did you say you were again?" Ron said, raising an eyebrow. "Seems to me that a good wife would know these things."
Ron didn’t know anything about what had happened, Hermione reminded herself. Her fingers were holding the papers so tightly that there were moist indentations in the parchment. She forced herself to relax. "It's just a stupid arrangement. And I'm married to the most idiotic man alive."
This time both of Ron's eyebrows jumped to his hairline. "Whoa there. If you're not careful, you'll seem like an actual married couple."
"Of course we aren't anything like that. At all. He wants nothing to do with me. Clearly he hates me."
Ron blinked at her. "Hates you? Oh now you're just exaggerating. Sirius speaks of you all the time. Everyone knows just how highly he thinks of you. Thinks of you as the perfect package."
That was when she burst into tears. She hardly saw Ron's eyes widen and his arms fly hastily out before she began to scrub furiously at her eyes. "Then why doesn't he want me?" She wailed.
"Oh Merlin," was all Ron said for a moment before he wrapped her up in his large arms. "Er, there, there. You'll ruin your looks if you cry anymore," he said, which earned him a fulminating, red-rimmed glare. "Well, geez, 'Mione, you tend to give a bloke very mixed signals, y'know? I had no idea that—just, er, Sirius Black?” He ended on a note of incredulity as he continued to pat Hermione on the back. “He’s one of the most brilliant people alive, by my reckoning, but also he’s old— not that I would ever say that to his face. He’d probably hex my nose off. But—”
“Ron,” Hermione interrupted. “That’s not helping.”
Ron cleared his throat. “Er, right. Well, you could—” His arms dropped from around her, and he reached up a hand to rub the back of his head. “I dunno. You’re putting me on the spot here!”
She rolled her eyes. “Never mind, Ron.” She couldn’t believe she’d been about to look to Ron for advice on her love life. The thought brought a giggle to her face, but the sound was so strange that he must have thought she was ready to burst into tears again. His eyes went wide with apprehension, and when she giggled and laughed, he blinked owlishly.
“You’re laughing—right?” he asked slowly, as though he weren’t certain of her reaction. His shoulders were angled a little away from her in tactical defense.
“Yes, Ron, I’m laughing.” Answering made her laugh some more. It was the first time she’d laughed in genuine humour in a long time. She’d sunk into the same deep funk that had apparently overtaken Sirius. It was ridiculous how melodramatic she’d been acting. As though she were the only person in the world to ever have loved and lost.
Love. Did she love Sirius? Or was that just another temporary emotion because she hadn’t felt that close to anyone in so long?
“Ron, how did you know you wanted to marry Celine?” Hermione asked curiously.
It was the first time she’d asked him that question. When he’d first returned from France with the news that he was engaged, she and Harry had been shocked, certain that it was a temporary fling. He was so young, after all, and had vacationed with Bill and Fleur at her parents’ estate. When he’d returned with the news that he was about to be married, Hermione hadn’t even known what to say. If she’d asked him how or why, it would come out sounding like sour grapes, and that was the last thing that she wanted, especially when they’d ended things on such a tenuous note.
Four years later, Ron and Celine were still married, and Celine had taken to being a housewife with an ease that Hermione knew she herself never would have done. Celine seemed satisfied to keep house, and she was a master homemaker—she searched out exotic recipes and even made her own clothes. She was unfailingly sweet and positive, and, Hermione had to admit, Ron treated her with equal adoration.
It wasn’t the type of relationship that she herself would have wanted, but now she realised that it worked for them.
Ron shrugged. “I don't know, really. It was just easy, you know? She was easy to get along with. She didn't argue with me, and—alright, don't look at me like that. You're right intimidating, you are."
"I didn't say anything!" Hermione protested. "I like her. She's—nice."
"Yeah?" Ron peered at her again, an uncertain expression on his face. "I thought you didn't like her. You two don't have much in common."
"I do like her. Why would you say I don’t like her?"
"Because—well, she isn't interested in the same things you are, I guess."
"Well, she knew what she wanted and went after it. I suppose that's what we have in common." Hermione gave the file on top of her desk a savage poke.
Ron looked down with a frown on his face. "What do you mean?"
She huffed out an exasperated breath. "I mean you, you big lug. She wanted you, clearly!"
Ron laughed, the sound happy and self-conscious. Relieved. "Well, it's worked out alright, I guess. And you with this office—wait, is this anything to do with a Benjamin Thacker?"
As an Auror in the Law Enforcement, Ron had been placed on routine calls for the past year. Hermione looked down at where Ron’s finger stabbed at the label of the file on her desk. Thacker v. Thacker. "It's probably a different person. It's a simple divorce case; shouldn’t have anything to do with you.”
“Benjamin Thacker, married to one of the Brickendens, if I ‘member correctly.” Ron grimaced and made a face. “If it’s him, he’s a right nasty piece of work. Wife-beater.”
Hermione’s face jerked up. “Wife-beater? No, you must have the wrong person. She filed for separation based on irreconcilable differences.”
Even as she cited it, her heart was starting to pound. Ron had an instinctive memory for names and faces. A people person, he never failed to connect the right person to their names.
“Muggleborn, right?” Ron said. “Wife’s a blonde named Mel. Pureblood, if I remember correctly.”
“This identifying people by their blood purity is one of the things I’m seeking to correct, you know,” Hermione said, but her chastisement was absent-minded as she flipped back open to peruse the page containing biographical information. Benjamin Thacker. Melanie Bickenden. Ron wasn’t wrong. She looked up. “Wife-beater. Are you sure?”
“Rather. She smelled of bruise paste when she came in to speak to one of the girls in Reception. Had a stinging hex on her arm that hadn’t faded. She was crying; said she’d finally had enough of his hate, and that she had to protect the baby.” Ron shook his head, rubbing a hand over his jaw. “All I could think of was what if it’d been Ginny, you know?”
Hermione flipped open the case file, her eyes skimming the page. “Melanie Thacker nee Brickenden. No mention was made of any children. I haven’t seen her but…” She was thinking of the traditional top tier Wizengamot Warlocks. “If she’s pregnant, they won’t grant her petition. The whole point of the new Ministry’s stance is to emphasise family unity.” Her eyes sharpened. “When did she come in to speak with your department?”
“Ages ago,” Ron said. Where he had a memory for people, the same didn’t apply to concepts of time. He looked thoughtful. “I’d say Easter maybe? I remember Percy was back for the hols.”
“That was six months ago.” Hermione shook her head as she glanced towards a calendar on her wall. “I need to find out more.”
“She was barely showing then,” Ron said. “Could she have had it already?”
“Either way, I need to find out more on this case. Maybe dispatch an Amicus Divinus to find out more.”
“I must be going mad, but did I actually hear Hermione Granger—er, Black—say the words ‘dispatch a Divinus to find out more’?” Ron was grinning now, completely unaware that his usage of her marital surname had sent a ringing note of awareness jolting through her again. She’d been doing so well and hadn’t thought of Sirius in the last half hour, and now she was right back there again.
She managed a smile. “Don’t be cheeky. It’s only the name of the position. It doesn’t mean that the advisor we send is actually a diviner. They’ll find out more, at any rate, and then we’ll see for ourselves just what’s behind this case.”
Hermione sent an owl to Sirius before she left the Ministry, and she was surprised to see it take off from one of the windows when she returned to Grimmauld Place. Her heart began to pound at the thought of seeing him again. She hadn’t seen him in so long. If she hadn’t believed he was ignoring her before, she now understood that he was.
A small spark of defiance flickered to life within her. Something in Ron’s visit had roused some of her old spirit again. She’d never been this depressed and weak before. Ron was right; she could be right intimidating when she wanted to be. If he didn’t want to talk to her, she would just have to force the issue.
It wasn’t as though Sirius was expecting her to jump him, was he?
The thought made her flush hot then cold. Strictly business, she thought.
She pushed through the front door and made her way into the parlor—and found Sirius at the Floo.
Somehow she’d forgotten just how imposing and handsome he was. Someone who instantly drew second looks wherever he went. And yet, he’d been hers, for however brief that had lasted.
“Hallo, Sirius,” she said.
He half-turned in her direction and cast a cursory glance over her without meeting her eyes. “How are you?”
“Well, actually. Have you been receiving my owls?”
There was a ghost of a smile that flickered over his lips. “Yes, you’ve kept me reasonably apprised of all the licenses you’ve taken in my name, though I do assure you that you’re at liberty to take more.”
Just like that, the ice was broken. “Can I have one of those?” she asked, nodding at the glass in his hand.
He lifted his crystal higher, raising his eyebrows at her. She was reminded of that time over a year ago when this had happened; when she’d propositioned him as brazenly as anything. When he passed over another glass, she fully expected it to be Firewhiskey.
It was, instead, apple juice on the rocks.
Her eyebrows jumped. “Not what I was expecting.”
“I can make you something stronger if you like,” he said, politely, distantly. Certainly not with the warmth that he was capable of showing her.
“No, it’s—perfect, actually.” She hadn’t had apple juice in so long that the sweet tartness tasted like balm on her tongue. “As I said in the owl, we do have a new case that seems quite favourable in the Wizengamot. Please don’t let it get out, but it’s quite possible that the Warlocks are banding together to strike down this law. Chances are very good it’ll succeed.”
He seemed to be absorbed with how the light made the amber colour of the apple juice shimmer. “Your owl said that there might be a slight snag?”
Her chest constricted. He’d certainly read her note very closely then, but he’d focused on the one thing that couldn’t possibly give her any hope. It was clear that he was anxious to finish their charade. Anxious to end this marriage.
She couldn’t help but think that he was already seeing someone else. What else could it be?
Hermione swallowed the knot in her throat and gave a rueful smile. “Well, Ron seemed to think that the respondent—the husband—was reported for domestic violence. I’ve submitted a request for the Amicus Divinus to investigate on behalf of the Wizengamot—in case there are any children not named in the petition. I’ll also find out more when I get a copy of Ron’s file. Shouldn’t be a problem though.”
“He’s not the Pureblood? The husband, I mean.” There was something slightly strangled in his voice.
“No, she is. The wife.” She hesitated and then decided to just speak her thoughts out loud. “I can’t help but think that there’s something else at play here. Ever since I heard about the domestic violence, I just have a bad feeling—the Marriage Law defense was raised by him, so it’s yet another reason for them to strike down the law, despite their continued stance on family unity. But…” she trailed off.
Sirius smiled faintly at her. “You’re brilliant, you know that?”
“W-what?” Caught off guard, she could only flush and blink up at him.
He gestured at her with his glass. “You. This. You’re the youngest Warlock in half a century, and you’ve taken to the position like fish to water. You’re still adamant about taking down the law then, even though you’d lose your place on the Wizengamot?”
Her jaw gaped. Put like that, it seemed as though she were the one who’d wanted them to split up, even though it was completely his idea.
That was another thing—despite his proclamation of how brilliant she was, he always had the ability to shut her up.
“I…” She set her glass down on the side table so that she wouldn’t accidentally fling it across the room. “Are you saying that you’d want to stay together?”
His eyes had been warm and admiring, but now he looked away at the Floo. “Of course not.” His voice was once again affably distant. “You know you could do even better than an inherited position on the Wizengamot. Why limit yourself?”
She’d never felt so confused in her life. “Right.” How could one man blow so hot and cold? Was he flattering her in one moment, only to reject her in the next? Would she ever understand him?
She cleared her throat. “Odds are, if there’s no motion for a retrial, the Warlocks’ ruling will stand, and the law will be declared null and void—possibly at the end of next year. I’m optimistic it’ll be even sooner, if the full panel isn’t called up to decide.”
“I’ll miss you.”
There he went again. What was he doing? He was just saying that he wouldn’t want to stay together, heaven forbid, and now he was pulling this trick on her, using that dangerous charm of his to maddeningly good effect. Hermione flattened her lips and pulled back her shoulders. “I’ve also spoken with Hildred about the bloodright to a Wizengamot seat, and she’s prepared to introduce me to several of the larger private practices. After I’m no longer a Warlock, I’m prepared to fight that requirement as well.”
He seemed to smile then, almost to himself as he was looking at his hands rather than at her. “Brava. I’d expect no less.”
“Right. So.” Hermione inhaled and exhaled. Where was Harry when you needed him? He was always popping up in the middle of conversations, and when she’d been heavily involved with Sirius, they seemed to always have to dodge him, so much so that they’d actually taken to staying over at the country manor, roughing it in its half-finished condition. Now Harry was nowhere to be seen when she really needed him.
“Hermione,” began Sirius, and there was a note in his voice that brought up her short. “It wasn’t all bad, was it?”
As with everything he’d said tonight, his tone carried with it a note of intimacy that she was hard-pressed to face. He’d been so cold to her for so long, and yet he was speaking to her like this, looking at her like that, and just how was she supposed to resist? She didn’t want the heartbreak again; she didn’t.
“It’s been grand,” she said, smiling blindly at him, at the room, at nobody and nothing in particular. “If you’ll excuse me—”
She turned and fled from the room.
With her back pressed up against her closed door, she wondered if it was her imagination, or she’d seen his hand outstretched to her.
What on earth did that mean?
Half an hour later, she decided to stop hiding in her room and confront him. She went back down to the parlour, but he wasn’t there. She climbed the stairs to his room and knocked on his door, but he didn’t answer.
He was nowhere in the house. Again.
Apparently he hadn’t stayed for his gestures and words to mean anything.
Chapter 8: Don't Call me "Kid," Don't Call me "Baby"
*Warning: Non-explicit mentions of miscarriage and domestic violence.*
Hermione met with the Amicus Divinus for the briefing on the Thacker case. She'd already received the file from Ron, and it was exactly as he had told her.
A shaken Mel Thacker had come forward to seek protection from her husband. She hadn't known what to do, because she'd claimed that her family would "kill him" for what he'd done to her. She didn't want them to have to be taken to Azkaban if there were other options open to her. She was still in love with him, but she'd been prompted by fear for her unborn child.
She miscarried mid-term when he'd drunkenly assaulted her by unleashing a hex that sent her careening into a wall.
There was little love left between them now.
"She's asking that the case be sealed—in order that her family never finds out," Penelope Clearwater said. "I've informed her of the correct papers to file, so you should be receiving that paperwork soon."
"And the husband?"
"Uncommunicative," Penelope said with a little laugh. "When I asked about the hexing, he said he lost control, and that it wouldn't happen again." She shook her head as though to indicate just how likely she thought that was. "Accidental magic? I don’t know. But the consequences of what happened are simply terrible."
Hermione nodded. "Understood. Thanks for the briefing, Penelope."
"Call me Penny," the other woman said with a friendly smile, and Hermione suddenly realised when she'd seen her before.
She'd instantly recognised her name on the business card, and they'd spoken a bit of Hogwarts and being prefects and surviving in a post-War country. Now, Hermione realised that Penelope Clearwater had been the Penny flirting with Sirius that opening night of Ministry Week.
Penny looked very different from how she looked in school, which was par for the course for most people she hadn't seen in years. Penny was slim and curvy in all the right places; a brown-eyed blonde that any man would have looked twice at. Compared to how fashionably Penny was dressed, with robes that swept down and revealed just a hint of her cleavage and earrings and a necklace to brighten up her features, Hermione felt like mumsy next to her.
Not that she was in competition with her for anything.
Hermione rose to her feet. "Well, thanks for coming by.”
"It's grand having someone like you on the Wizengamot.” Penny was enthusiastic. “They could really use new blood around here."
Hermione felt even worse as Penny continued to gush lyrical about Hermione's record.
"I've heard that the Marriage Law is up for debate," Penny went on. "Though of course it won't make a difference to you personally, will it?"
Was Hermione being paranoid, or was that a prurient note underlying Penny's comment?
"No, it wouldn't," Hermione said. She surprised herself by how cold she sounded.
Penny hadn’t finished. "It's just that—well, Sirius Black was such an infamous figure in my youth that when I actually met him—you know, at Ministry Week—I was pleasantly surprised. But then they do say that Blacks were doing something right for all their intermarrying." She laughed at her own joke, her expression inviting Hermione to share in her humour.
"Quite." Hermione’s voice was very clipped now.
Penny started, eyes flickering to Hermione’s face before she looked abashed and uncomfortable.
Perhaps a little offended.
Right intimidating she was, Ron had told Hermione. He wasn’t even the only person to have told her so; that she was so focused on her goals that she would run roughshod over people without a care for their feelings.
Her heart twisted. If this was who Sirius preferred, she wouldn't—she shouldn’t— stand in the way.
She felt like a veritable martyr as she said, in a far more conciliatory way, "I probably won't be a Warlock if the law is repealed."
"Oh?" Again that look of curiosity that made Hermione wish she'd not said nothing. "Then—"
She never got to finish what she was asking, because the door to Hermione’s office flew open. A man stood there with the disheveled hair and ragged breathing of someone who'd just been hurrying. Hermione politely looked up in question. He was unfamiliar, perhaps a handful of years older than her, and would have been pleasant looking if not for the sneer he was wearing.
"So you're the great Hermione Granger," he said, almost spitting out the words. He wasn't very tall, but his animosity made him larger.
Hermione glanced at Penelope in confusion. The older woman had a placating hand out. "Look, Mr. Thacker—"
Hermione's eyebrows flew up as she evaluated the new arrival more closely. "Have you come for something, sir?"
"You're a Muggleborn, aren't you?" Benjamin Thacker threw at her as though it were an accusation.
Had she not known his blood status, the content would have been highly insulting. As it was, she had to take a moment to digest his ire. "Yes, but—"
"And you married one of them according to the law, didn't you? Yet another restriction they've placed on us to keep us down."
"And now my divorce has turned into a criminal case? For what purpose?"
He was yelling at the top of his lungs now, and Hermione frowned for a moment before she looked down at the tray for pending cases next to her desk. The Thacker file had just been placed there on the very top and was now edged in red. How…?
She stooped to pick up the file. In response to her silent inquiry, Penny shook her head, as if to say that she, too, had no idea when this had happened.
Thackeray lips were twisted with bitterness. "This is all because she's a Pureblood, isn't it? They still get preferential treatment no matter what, don't they?"
"Pardon?" Hermione tried to follow his hysterical logic. "Listen, I suggest you speak to your defender and figure out—"
"Isn't there ever going to be a law that protects me and people like me?" He looked like he was crying, the way the sweat rolled down the side of his temple. "You're a fucking Mudblood too, or have you sold out just to sit there in your bloody self-righteous seat while the rest of us have to deal with what the Death Eaters did to us?"
She was starting to think there was a lot more to the very simple, routine divorce. He also seemed rather unbalanced to have run here like this, without scheduling an appointment or going through his defender. "Listen, Benjamin," she started.
"I'm fucking through listening," he said with another short, choppy exhalation. This time when he raised his hand to gesticulate, Hermione saw, as though in slow motion, that he was holding his wand.
It slashed through the air, and her wide eyes flashed to his moving lips. The curse that had to be spoken no matter what. She knew—even before she heard the incantation—what it was going to be.
She was shoved roughly to the side, and Penny fell on top of her. They tumbled onto the edge of her chair before collapsing in a heap on the floor.
Papers flew into the air, and the ones that made contact with the curse immediately sizzled, shriveled, and flew up in a spray of ash.
She struck her head on the edge of the desk, but surprisingly she felt nothing at all. She heard only a sharp thud, and a twinge in her side. She was only dimly aware of Penny shouting, and then the bright sheen of a powerful Protego hummed through the air. There was an explosion that jolted the entire world, or perhaps she was only imagining it.
Not like this , she thought. Not before I have the chance to tell—
The last thing she saw as her eyes drifted closed was Penny's startled eyes growing wider and more scared as she looked down at Hermione. Her lips formed panicked shapes that seemed to move more and more slowly until Hermione was no longer aware of anything.
There was a sterile hum in the air when she first woke that alerted her to where she was. She'd woken before in the hospital, and somehow her body seemed accustomed to it; the narrowness of the hospital cot, the slight nip in the air from the invariant temperature, and the low chatter of voices and noises of people moving about.
Someone spoke up. Hermione blinked at Padma Patil, who'd been her Healer since the war, and then around the room where Harry and Ron were huddled with another Auror at the foot of her bed, speaking in low voices and looking worried. Ron was the only one in his Auror robes, while Harry and—she supposed that was Theodore Nott—were dressed in plainclothes.
"What happened?" Hermione asked Padma before looking down at herself, half afraid she’d find herself in a state of undress. Luckily she wasn't. She was somehow still wearing the last outfit she remembered putting on. A pink blouse so that the collar peeped up over the Warlock outer robes, which had seemed festive to her in the privacy of her room. She’d started to loath it after she felt matronly next to Penny.
She almost jumped out of the bed when she realised what had happened to her, her hand immediately reaching out to the side table for her wand. The sudden movement jarred her side and her head, and she winced, her hands flying to her temples.
Everyone in the room seemed to wince along with her. Someone silently slipped her wand to her, hilt-first, and she took it, her fingers closing around it with a shaky sense of relief. "I've the worst headache," she said, eyelids fluttering closed.
"I had to wait until you were awake before I could give you anything for your head," Padma said. "Look here?" She shone the tip of her lit wand in Hermione's eyes and clucked sympathetically when Hermione grimaced. "Follow my wand with your eyes. Good. That's not bad."
She continued to check Hermione's other vitals as everyone stood by and waited.
Hermione grew tired of waiting for answers. "Harry? Ron? What happened?" Belatedly she recalled Nott’s official role as Harry’s partner, though he seemed to have been adopted by Harry and Ron in various social settings. She offered him a tight smile which he returned with a nod.
Harry and Ron both rushed into speech, and then Harry stopped with a wave of his hand. "Go ahead, Ron."
"Well, Thacker's a nutter, is what happened." Ron shook his head as though still in disbelief over the whole thing. "You should never have been involved in this. He somehow got it in his head that you'd betrayed the Muggleborn cause and—" He broke off and inhaled sharply, clearly overwhelmed by the details. It seemed to hit him suddenly because he exclaimed, “You could’ve died, ‘Mione!”
"From what we could tell," Nott spoke up in his soft, clear voice. "Benjamin Thacker had a grandfather who was killed in Death Eater raids when he was a child. He only found out within the past five years or so. He was racked with guilt that he married a Pureblood with ties to purity fanaticism and began to take it out on her. He thought that punishing her would lessen his guilt. The Marriage Law made him also realise that he'd inadvertently followed the dictates of the old guard—or that's how he referred to the Pureblood traditions—and he began to see it as a sign that he should use the law to rid the world of one more Pureblood."
Hermione frowned in confusion. "But he fired the hex at me . Or maybe it was Penny, but then neither of us are Purebloods."
"He considered you a sell-out to the cause. Sent an Amicus Divinus to question him, marked up the case with tags so that it got flagged, and then got the Ministry Counsel's attention so it became a criminal case." Harry shrugged and gave Ron, still shaking his head over it all, a hearty thwack on the back before grinning at her. "Bad luck there." Harry was clearly relieved she was alright; his green eyes no longer crinkled up in worry and alarm.
"She saved me," Hermione whispered. "Penny. Penelope. She pushed me out of the way. She could have been struck."
It was how she got the bump on her head that she could feel through the bandages. The smell of medicinal paste was strong in the air. Her side was sore from landing wrong on the chair rungs. But why was she aching all over?
Padma seemed to understand her pained expression. "Your body's not used to such sudden jarring movements. It'll go away on its own in a day or so. I'll give you some potions to take for it."
Ron stepped back and glanced out the crack in the doorway. “You’ve a ton of guests waiting to see you, Madame Warlock.” He was grinning now too, and after Padma gave him the all clear, he lurched forward across the bed before freezing just before he could touch Hermione. Then he gingerly hugged her with one arm as gently though she could be broken. “Bloody hell, I’m so relieved you’re alright.”
“When we got the Patronus, we broke regulations getting to your office. It was mayhem. If Penny hadn’t been there—” Harry shook his head and lost his smile for a moment. “She knocked him out with a Reducto. Blew out half the wall along with him. Thacker’s...well, he’s under guard in another part of St Mungo’s. Your intern suffered a few scratches in the blast as well.”
Hermione's eyes flew wide as she realised she hadn't even considered the safety of her staff, sitting just outside her office. “Oh God. Are they alright? And Lucy?”
Ron waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, they’re fine. Your assistant was in the break room when it happened, and your intern was talking with someone out in the hallway, so he escaped the worst of it. Incidentally also why Thacker slipped past them. By the way, your intern clearly has never been in a war before. I mean, a foot-long scratch? That’s nothing.”
They all laughed, with Hermione groaning when her sides ached from the movement.
Harry adjusted his glasses. “We’ve got to head back and finish the paperwork." There was a groan from Ron, and Harry pinched the bridge of his nose; both customary reactions from them. Nott remained stoic as ever. "Be back later tonight to see you?”
“Actually, I think she’ll be fine to go home if one of you can take her,” Padma said, stowing her wand away in her robe pocket. “No Apparation or Portkey. Flying or Floo only. Other than that, she’s perfectly alive and healthy. Side effect of dodging an Unforgivable.” She was grinning now too, and she patted Hermione on the shoulder. “Glad you’re alright. I wouldn’t have liked to lose a patient like that.”
The Aurors trooped out of the room so that Hermione could change and freshen up in privacy. She sat on the edge of the bed for a long moment without moving. She was markedly more shaky than she’d expected. Whatever Padma had given her just now had made the pain on her head and side disappear, but her pulse had sped up exponentially.
Sirius , she thought, suddenly feeling bereft and alone. Sirius, where are you?
The urge to see him was so strong that it took her breath away. She wanted him so desperately. She’d always prided herself on being strong and independent—she’d had to be, hadn’t she? She’d entered this new world by herself, been severely ostracised from the moment she set foot in it, and then immediately plunged into a war meant to eradicate everyone like her. She’d had no time to be weak and emotional. All her tears and sympathy had been reserved for Harry alone, who she always considered got an even worse bargain than she.
Now though, she wanted to lean on someone else. Her mind kept flashing back to that moment when Thacker’s eyes widened and his arm jerked backwards to fling the hex that could have ended her life. She could almost see when the light of the Unforgivable sparked from the tip of his wand.
How could she ever go back to her office after this? She didn’t even feel steady enough to stand on her own.
Benjamin Thacker had clearly been dealing with the aftereffects of the war, which probably had probably gone unresolved for so long that he started to crack under the pressure. A nutter, Ron had called him. Nott had spoken more impartially. Thacker’s guilt had started to build up in his mind, just as it was warring with his commitment to his marriage. Accidental magical attacks, and then he tried to shift the blame to Hermione, who he’d seen as the real sell-out of Muggleborn rights. He wasn’t to blame; she was— she was the one who'd married a Pureblood for the purpose of getting access to the Wizengamot. He hadn’t known his wife was connected to such extreme cases of blood purity, after all.
But his wife wasn’t that fanatical, clearly, or else she would never have married a Muggleborn. Neither, Hermione suspected, were her parents. The crime had happened in his grandfather’s generation. Tom Riddle’s first attempt at taking control of the world.
Thacker could have talked to his wife about it all. Instead he’d kept it all bottled up inside, and now his wife refused to talk to him. A standard bottom tier divorce case, which had now been elevated into a criminal case and compounded with the attempted murder of a Warlock in the Ministry.
He would be charged and probably thrown in Azkaban. Hermione found she could spare a moment to weep for her attempted murderer after all. So much miscommunication and misdirected anger—things that could have been resolved had Thacker only spoken to his wife before things got so out of hand. From the case files, Thacker had still been in love with his wife, which had been the biggest reason for his guilt.
In Hermione’s case, Sirius wasn’t in love with her. It wasn’t the same at all.
Except for one thing. “We didn’t talk either,” she whispered to herself as she got up from the bed and began to dress. “I could have talked to him. Made him talk to me.”
Could she still? She wasn’t someone who gave up so easily. Why should pride stand in the way just because it had to do with personal relationships?
The logical answer was that it shouldn’t, of course.
Hermione took a deep breath and lifted her chin. He hadn’t come to see her in the hospital, which was irrevocable clear evidence for any lack of feelings for her, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t have her talk.
She opened the door to her room, fully expecting to see Harry or Ron waiting to take her back. Instead, she found Hildred there, talking with Galorian Guiffart, the Chief Warlock. They broke off when they saw her.
“Ah, Madame Warlock,” Guiffart said when he saw her. “Terrible business that. How are you feeling?”
He seemed a lot more affable than he’d ever seemed in speaking to her. Sirius Black’s refusal to take up his mandated seat in the Wizengamot had seemed to hit a personal chord for him, and as a result the Chief Warlock had never been friendly to Hermione.
Though he seemed to have made a special trip to St Mungo's to see her.
Hermione offered a wry smile. “I’m still alive. How are our offices? Are they still standing?”
“They should be fine in a day or so,” Guiffart said dismissively. “But more importantly is the issue of Thacker. He’ll be charged, of course, and you’ll need to stand witness.”
Hermione rocked back on her heels. "He needs to speak to an Alienist, someone to help him heal his mental scars. He needs help . And maybe there are more people like him."
Guiffart’s eyebrows went up. “In which case, your testimony is all the more imperative. We need to lock these people up before they're out in society, harming innocent bystanders." He gave her a meaningful look. "And with your help, we can push for just such a legislation."
"I'm not just going to testify in order to lock up people who are grieving!" Hermione forgot herself momentarily as to let her volume rise. More than a few nearby workers looked up from what they were doing to glance in their direction.
Guiffart's eyes had gone narrow and flinty. "I beg your pardon?”
Hildred stepped forward, and her shoulder subtly bumped against Hermione. “Chief Warlock, Ms Black has just gone through a terrible ordeal. Attacked in her own offices in the middle of the day! She narrowly escaped the Killing Curse. This is not the right time to speak of pressing charges, surely?”
Guiffart’s brows drew down into a thoughtful frown. “Perhaps you’re right. A shocking business indeed. Well, this proves that Muggleborns need more schooling to integrate themselves fully into the Wizarding world. Thacker’s case proves that. New legislation needs to be set up to provide protection in the Wizarding world for people—old, respectable families—to feel safe. It’s untenable that we should be attacked in our place of work.”
Hermione emitted a scoff. “ Muggleborns need more education? Sir, I am a Muggleborn.”
The Chief Warlock smiled briefly, a infinitesimal stretch of his lips that flashed and was gone before anyone had even registered that it was a smile. “There are exceptions to be made, of course, and I’ve heard from Ms Pippery that you’re an excellent addition to our staff.”
When Hermione glanced at Hildred, the only indication the other woman gave to acknowledge this was a slight lift of one shoulder, as though to hint to Hermione that they could talk about it later.
“In order to set up more protections in the Wizengamot, we’d need for Ms Black to testify, of course,” Guiffart said, lacing his hands behind his back and looking at each of them in turn before his his cold eyes fastened unblinkingly on Hermione’s face. “You could apply for new offices in the meantime. Perhaps in the first tier section?” Again that brief non-smile, and Chief Warlock turned his back on them to walk away.
Hildred let out a breath when he was gone. Hermione turned to her. “What was that about?”
“He couldn’t have been more clear,” Hildred said, a huge smile spreading across her face. “He wants that legislation and new wards in the Wizengamot. The way to get that is for you to testify against Thacker in criminal proceedings, and possibly again before the Wizards Council.”
“If I do that, then they’ll kill Thacker.” Hermione’s voice rose. “Aren’t they going to listen to his side of the story?”
Hildred took Hermione by the arm and led her down the hall to an alcove. “He would have killed you , Hermione." Her voice was hushed and her eyebrows raised in disbelief. "You’re not actually going to defend him, are you?”
“From what I could tell, he wasn’t even in his right mind!” Hermione shook her head. “I can’t—I can’t just send a Muggleborn to the gallows when I know exactly what he’s been through. He’s probably under even more pressure than I am.”
“Is he, Hermione? He doesn’t have a job, much less one in the Wizengamot.” Hildred tossed back her hair, and her expression turned into the one she got when on the panel as a Warlock. As an afterthought, she relented and laid a hand on Hermione's arm, her voice lowering, becoming more confidential. “Look, just think about Guiffart’s offer, won’t you? Oh, here’s your husband to talk sense into you.”
Hermione whirled around to find Sirius bearing down on them, his hair falling across his forehead in an inky wave. “You’re alright?” he said without inflexion. His grey eyes were hard and cold as it went to Hildred. “Is she set to go home?”
Hermione blinked at his icy tone and answered for herself. “I can manage to get home by myself, Sirius. And Harry or Ron was supposed—”
“Pardon us,” Sirius cut in with a brief nod to Hildred before cutting Hermione off and ushering her down the hallway.
“We’ll talk about it later!” Hildred shouted after Hermione.
All her resolutions about talking openly and calmly with Sirius flew right out of her head. She jerked her arm from his grasp as he propelled the two of them through the hospital at an accelerated pace. Why on earth was he so angry? “I can make it home by myself, thanks. I don’t want to put you off your busy schedule.”
He didn’t respond, and a sideways glance showed that his lips were compressed into a thin, flat line and his jaw was tight.
“Were...you very far away?” she asked hesitantly. She felt guilty now. Why had Harry called for Sirius to take her home? Was his paperwork really that pressing that he had to pull Sirius away from whatever fascinating thing he was currently working on somewhere on the Continent?
Sirius’s reply was clipped. “Yes.”
“Oh.” Hermione dipped her head. “I’m sorry to take you out of your way.”
He stopped walking. They’d reached the Floos, and she ducked her head to go in. He stopped her when she would have grabbed a handful of powder. "We go together." He threw down the powder and, when the flames turned colour, forced her backwards as he maneuvered into the tight space with her. She turned her head away to avoid being smashed into him, but he caught her around the waist as he called out, “Grimmauld Place.”
She detached herself immediately when she landed and stepped out of the fireplace to use her wand to clean off. He caught her around the wrist when she would have left the room, pulling her away from the door. His eyes raked her from head to toe. He still hadn’t broken into a smile. “Are you alright?”
It stung to be asked such a question when he looked so closed off and angry. “I’m perfectly fine,” Hermione said with a shrug to affect nonchalance. “But you already asked me in the hospital.”
It hurt. It hurt that even Theodore Nott, whom Hermione had only ever spoken with on the lightest of pretexts, had seemed more concerned about her than her husband de jure was.
“Harry said—” His throat bobbed, and something flickered across his eyes. “Harry said you almost died.”
“Oh, that.” She nodded. “Someone threw a Killing curse that nearly hit me.”
Sirius cursed under his breath. He released her to pace around the room, a hand on his hip and the other braced against his forehead. “A Killing curse—at you. Who was it? Why’d he do that? Did you—” He broke off and rubbed both hands over his sides of his mouth. “How do you know him? Was he a Death Eater?”
Hermione shook her head and slowly sank down into the couch to watch him stride about. Her hands were still shaky after the exertion of Floo travel. Probably not a good idea to try the stairs right now. “No, he’s a Muggleborn.”
Sirius stopped in his tracks to stare at her. “Muggleborn?” He said the word as though someone had claimed that wizards now lived on the moon. “Why?”
“It’s connected to one of the cases that crossed my desk. A divorce case.”
The word seemed to freeze Sirius even more. At any rate, the anger had melted from his face, and he blinked. “I think I need a drink.”
“Me too,” Hermione said. “Pour me a double.”
Sirius shook his head. “No, you’ll have water. You’re on medicinal potions.”
“Oh.” Hermione gave a shaky laugh. “I’d forgotten.”
“Yeah.” Sirius walked over to the cabinet and fussed around for a bit.
She watched the lines of his back as he stooped to rummage in the bottom shelf. His shirt stretched across his muscles and tightened over the lean lines of his abdomen when he stood. Ice cubes clinked in a tumbler, and Hermione looked down at her hands, one of which was still holding onto her wand in a tight-fisted grasp. She must’ve forgotten to put it away. The same thing had happened to her during the war. She would wake up with the wand in her hand even though she remembered putting it next to the bed when she went to sleep.
Sirius brought over a glass of water for her, and she thanked him, holding it in her lap. Instead of lounging in his armchair, he sat down beside her. The cushions sank in under his weight, and she shifted so that she wouldn’t slide towards him; something she’d once remembered doing with an ache in her chest.
“You’re really alright?” he asked again. The ice cubes made a jingling sound when he took a long sip from his glass.
“Yes. I’m alive, aren’t I?”
He didn’t look at her as he levitated his glass over to the table. After a moment’s pause, he did the same with her untouched cup as well. “I was in Bamberg when I received Harry’s Patronus. In a meeting.” He slid her a glance that she didn’t know how to interpret. “I’ve been—I’ve been working. I’m sorry I wasn’t around.”
She swivelled her head around to look at him. “Why should you be?” It was hard to keep the self-mockery out of her words. “Around, I mean. We haven’t…It’s not like we’ve had anything to do with one another for a while now.”
Bitterness made her tone sharp, despite her resolution to be calm and logical about it all. So much for politely talking it out. Perhaps Thacker had no other choice but to storm into the Wizengamot after all.
“Hermione...” Sirius said before breaking off. His grey eyes looked pained, and his fingers flexed in his lap. Her eyes went to the tattoos on his left hand, the hand that had caressed her intimately, lovingly. The hand that had held her hand and led her into a dance at a Ministry function. “I’m sorry that—”
She stood up. She couldn’t take another one of his talks where he told her he didn’t care for her or them. She’d been morose in the hospital, that was all. Absence had made her remember her moments with Sirius with more positivity than they’d actually contained. He’d broken up with her. Given her the “it’s not you; it’s me” speech. “You don’t need to be sorry for anything. The Chief Warlock, as it happens, was trying to bribe me to testify against Thacker. Apparently he’s willing to let me into the top tier offices. I’m quite sure he’ll jump for joy when all I ask is a repeal of the Marriage Law.”
Her pulse rate was picking up again, whether out of anger or proximity to Sirius, she couldn’t tell. She wanted to stay next to him, she wanted to burst into tears, she wanted to beat him on the chest and ask why he didn’t love her. She didn’t know what she wanted, but she had a strange suspicion that it’d be nothing he could give her. “Go back to Bamberg. I’ll be fine on my own.”
She turned to go, and again Sirius caught her around the wrist and pulled. She stood her ground, but he yanked hard, and she fell back on the couch. He bore down on her and held her pinned to the cushions with two hands on her shoulders. She should’ve felt pain from his rough manhandling, but all she felt was a tingling sense of anticipation. Without looking at her, he spoke in the direction of her elbow. “I should have been here. I thought I was keeping you safe by keeping away from you.”
“This—Thacker. He’s a Muggleborn, yes?” Sirius hadn’t looked up yet. “Does he blame me for the Muggles who died?”
“The Muggles who—” Hermione repeated dumbly. “He blames his wife’s family for the death of his grandfather, yes, but as far as I know, it doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. He was so caught up in his questioning he was pressing her almost painfully on her shoulders. “Are you sure?”
His hands dropped away from her, falling to his knees as he subsided back into his seat next to her.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “What do you mean you were keeping me safe by keeping away?”
“I had—death threats.” Finally he glanced at her from under his lashes before he heaved out a sigh and raked a hand through his hair. “There are a significant number of people who still think I’m guilty of my reputation. Of my status as an Azkaban escapee.” He flashed an ironic smile at her. “Though I thought for certain they’d come after me instead. It never occurred to me, not in a million years, that you’d be the first to be attacked.”
He ran a hand over his face and sat back on the couch, leaning his head back. His other hand was still tightly clenched on his lap, his knuckles white as he gripped his wand.
“Well, he thought I was a sell-out for marrying a Pureblood for the Wizengamot position.” She laughed without amusement. “So I imagine he thinks I’m guilty of other things that have nothing to do with you and your guilt complex.”
He slid her a sideways glance. “Guilt complex?”
“That’s why you stayed away, right?” She shrugged. For a moment when he pressed her into the sofa, she’d thought… “Not that it matters, Sirius. Let’s just leave it.”
There was a thick knot in her throat, and she thought she might start bawling if she sat here with him for a moment longer. She started to rise to her feet. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw him reach for her again. “Don’t,” she whispered. “Don’t touch me again.”
The hurt look on his face almost made her laugh. When she would have turned away, he cut her off. “You don’t know anything about it.”
“Let me guess: Am I too young to know more about it?” Her question was mocking and taunting, and there was nothing she could do to disguise the anguish hiding behind her words. “What does it even matter? You don’t even fucking want me!”
Her chest was heaving after she shouted at him. He sat motionless on the couch, completely stunned by what she’d inadvertently revealed to him. Right at that moment, she thought she might have wanted to cast a Killing curse of her own, just to alleviate some of the frustration and anger she felt inside.
Instead of acting on her impulses, she whipped her head away, and she ran off in the direction of her room.
Chapter 9: For You, I Would Ruin Myself
The last chapter—!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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."
So many thanks go to disenchantedglow for helping catch the many mistakes and elevating this fic to a coherent piece. Please check out the other fics in the collection!
Lastly, MsMerlin, I hope you're happy sending me down this total rabbit hole of a ship! As though I needed another one!