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This Dizzy Life of Mine

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From inside the photo on her desk, Hermione’s friends beamed. She—the photo version of her, slightly younger and certainly less jaded—threw her head back, laughing hard at something Harry had said just before his father had snapped the photo. Graduation. They’d been so happy, full of zest and hope, their whole lives ahead of them.

Their whole lives. Gods, how pathetic that hers now read like a series of rudimentary arithmetic problems, each more depressing than the last.

Hermione received twelve NEWTs, all O’s. She has spent the last eleven months working as a junior clerk within the Wizengamot Administration Services office. She has filed thousands of court documents, fetched hundreds of cups of tea for her superiors, and worked—on average—seventy-two hours a week. Hermione’s lack of career advancement—or even hope of such— can be attributed to:

  1. Her arse of a boss
  2. Her blood status
  3. Her gender
  4. All of the above

Unlike arithmetic, her life’s problems had no quick or easy solutions.

“Granger!”

She jumped, splashing ink across her parchment. “Fuck.”

Mr. Thacker, the Head of the office, came barreling down the hall, stopping in front of her desk just shy of bumping into it. His mustache twitched in time with his left eye and his face was a worrying shade of magenta, his flush deepening by the second. He looked like a ruddy-faced Walrus hellbent on ruining her day.

“Yes, Mr. Thacker?”

He threw a thick file down and rested his meaty fists on her desk. His cologne was overwhelmingly musky, and his breath stank of greasy breakfast sausage and bitter coffee. “What the hell do you call this?”

He poked the file, nudging it toward her.

She withdrew the topmost sheet of parchment, eyes scanning the scrawl of black ink. “I believe this is a request to reschedule the Selwyn hearing on—”

“You believe?” Mr. Thacker slammed his hand down on the file with enough force to upend her pictures, her friends all sliding out of frame. The parchment she’d been holding slipped, slicing into her thumb. Ouch. Papercut, and a deep one, too. “Can you read?”

Hermione stared down at the file, Mr. Thacker’s greasy fingerprints smearing the ink. His fingers were clubbed at the tips, a sign of cardiopulmonary disease, she’d once read. A wizard like him had probably never even heard of cholesterol, and if he had, he’d likely dismissed it, as if his magical arteries were somehow impervious to Muggle disease.

Magic was might, her arse.

“Well,” he demanded. “Can you?”

“Can I…?”

Read!” he barked.

“Oh.” She made the mistake of taking a breath through her nose and nearly choked on the cloying smell of his cologne mingled with meat-sweat. “I thought that was meant to be rhetorical.”

He leaned further forward, stabbing his finger menacingly in front of her. “You’re on thin ice, Granger. Thin ice.”

With that, Mr. Thacker turned on his heel and stalked down the hall, slamming the door to his office, rattling the plaques and portraits, much to the consternation of their subjects.

Hermione slumped down in her chair and popped her finger in her mouth to staunch the bleeding. Thacker’s threats were getting old. If she had a galleon for every time he’d threatened to sack her, she’d have enough to quit this stupid job and do something worth her time. Something meaningful.

If only she knew what that was.

“Psst,” Felicity Fawley, Mr. Thacker’s secretary, leaned over her own desk, glossed lips twisted in a smirk. “Muck up your paperwork again, Mudblood?”

How stupid. Hermione could still taste the metallic tang of copper and iron on her tongue, her blood no different than anyone else’s.

“That file never crossed my desk.” She glared. “But I bet you already knew that.”

Felicity threw her dark hair over her shoulder and tutted. “Tetchy.”

“Fuck off, Fawley,” Hermione hissed.

“Ooh,” Felicity cooed. “Language. I’m sure Mr. Thacker would just love to know what sorts of vulgarities you’re using in the office. Perhaps, I should go tell him?”

The only thing keeping Hermione from hexing the bitch silly was the sudden presence of a witness. An auror, at that.

Sirius Black stood in the doorway of the W.A.S office, his grey eyes spotting her across the small room. The left corner of his mouth tipped up, a teeny dimple appearing, his facial hair trimmed neatly.

Her traitorous heart sped, the spot beneath her belly button twisting. Bugger.

“Hermione Granger.” He sauntered up to her desk, ignoring Fawley’s little cough and simpered greeting, and casually sat against the edge of the wood, kicking one scuffed black boot—dragonhide, pricy—up onto his opposite knee. He hummed quietly, studying her face. “Lovely as ever.”

She rolled her eyes. “Sirius. Charming as ever.”

He chuckled and the sound made her insides do stupid, acrobatic things, pirouetting and twirling, leaping and twisting into pretzel-like shapes her body wasn’t flexible enough to finagle. Not even if she went to yoga like Ginny begged her to. “It’s been a while.”

“Two weeks.”

“Really?” He frowned. “Feels longer I’ve been deprived of the pleasure of your company.”

She snorted. “You’re a menace.”

He grinned. “I live to serve.”

“What can I do for you?” she asked, shooting a glance down the hall. Felicity had scurried off, disappearing into Mr. Thacker’s office shortly after Sirius’s arrival.

“Just have a case report.” He tapped the edge of the manila file in his hand against her desk. He frowned, looking thoughtful. “Has it really only been two weeks?”

“Dinner at the Potters’.” She nodded. “It was a Sunday. Not even two weeks.”

“Huh.” He cocked his head and ran the pad of his thumb along the edge of his bottom lip. Ink peeked out from his shirtsleeve, his tattoos stopping at his wrists. “Too long at any rate.”

She was flustered, starting to sweat even though Thacker kept the office an icebox. Flustered, and Sirius probably knew it. Hell, it was likely half the reason why he’d said that, knowing the effect he could have. “You are a relentless flirt, Sirius Black.”

His tongue made a slow drag against his bottom lip, priming it for his teeth. He bit down on it and smiled impishly. “Only for you.”

Her stupid heart skipped a beat, tripping all over itself. She scoffed softly, eyes rolling skyward. “Funny.”

Sirius stared, one dark, refined brow arching with impeccable control. “I don’t believe I made a joke.”

Of course, he had. A joke between almost friends. She was his godson’s best friend, one of them at any rate. He was nearly twenty years her senior; there was no way in this or any other universe that Sirius Black would be genuinely interested in her, Hermione Granger. The reasons were many and varied and too depressing to enumerate.

She cleared her throat. “Sirius, be—"

“Granger!”

She shut her eyes. “Yes, Mr. Thacker?”

Her boss stomped his way toward her and hovered menacingly over her shoulder. He was awfully good at that, menacing. It almost made her wonder if he practiced in the mirror.

Felicity, the little snitch, slipped into her chair, staring at the scene with undisguised glee.

“Auror Black, I am terribly sorry for my employee’s impudence. Granger, you’ll extend Auror Black the respect he’s owed and refer to him accordingly.”

Impudence? What utter garbage.

Hermione gritted her teeth. “Yes, Mr. Thacker.” She chose a spot just over Sirius’s ear to stare at. “My sincerest apologies, Auror Black.”

When, after a moment, Sirius said nothing, Hermione looked at him. He was frowning, his grey eyes narrowed into a glare directed at her supervisor.

Hermione,” he drew out the syllables of her name, glancing back at her once more. “Do you have plans for lunch?”

If she broke for lunch, it was only ever for ten minutes, and it was always taken at her desk.

“I don’t—”

“Perfect.” Sirius stood and straightened his robes, staring down his nose at Mr. Thacker. “You get an hour for lunch, right, Hermione?”

Now he was just being a smart-arse, saying her name over and over again. Not that she minded. Not the smart-arse bit or the way he said her name. Neither, really.

“Actually—”

Thacker coughed into his fist, his eyes widening. She could practically see the wheels working in his head, hastily backtracking, stumbling all over himself, Sirius’s reaction clearly not what he’d been expecting. “Of course, you do. Take the hour.”

Sirius gave her boss a haughty smirk and then turned, offering her a more genuine smile. “Ready?”

Felicity looked damn near apoplectic as Hermione left the office, the warmth of Sirius’s palm sinking through her robes as he pressed a hand to the small of her back, guiding her toward the lift at the end of the hall.

 

***

 

“I don’t know how you do it,” Sirius said, tapping the tines of his fork against his plate.

Hermione picked at her salad. It figured the one day she got a full lunch, she had no appetite. “How I do what?”

“How you put up with your arsehole boss. Thacker.” Sirius gagged. “For starters, the man reeks to high heaven. I thought I was going to upchuck all over my boots.”

She huffed. “That’s because he doesn’t bathe.”

He froze, fork hovering over his beans. “I beg your pardon?”

She shoved her bowl aside and rested her elbows on the table. “He doesn’t bathe. He doesn’t believe in it. Muggle hogwash, he says. Why would a wizard bathe when he could take the superior route and cleanse with charms? I’m of the personal opinion that he’s simply a hog in need of a wash.”

A slow grin spread across his face. “I like that.” His smile flattened. “I thought my mother was fucking crazy. But she’s not that far gone. Worse in plenty of ways, but… what an idiot. He really said that? When?”

“Months ago.”

“Have you reported him? The way he speaks to you…”

“Report him to whom?” She stared. “You realize there aren’t any rules prohibiting workplace discrimination against Muggleborns, don’t you? We aren’t a protected class. There’s no recourse to make a complaint.”

Even if there were, she doubted it would make a difference. If anything, making waves would just get her sacked. At least—she told herself every morning—the inimitable cow Umbridge continued to fail in her efforts to bring the petition to reinstate the Muggleborn Registration Act of 1732 to a vote in the Wizengamot. If Umbridge ever succeeded in getting enough signatures, Hermione could kiss the rights she—and the rest of the five percent of magicals who were Muggleborn did have goodbye.

His brow furrowed, his lips turning down at the corners.

“It’s fine.” She shrugged. “Or, it’s not. It’s not fine, but it is what it is.” She gave a wry laugh. “Ironically, improving rights for Muggleborns and other disenfranchised groups was the whole reason I wanted to work for the Ministry in the first place. Where better to affect change than from the inside?” She shook her head. “I should’ve known it was a lost cause when I overheard Thacker telling the Undersecretary that he only hired me on because James Potter put in a good word. Which, I had no idea he even did that, but I guess I have Harry to thank?” She shrugged. “Apparently Thacker thought it would be a good idea to curry favor with Lord Potter. I heard him say a diversity hire was worth it if it meant having a friend in the Wizengamot.”

Sirius clenched his hands into fists atop the table and swore under his breath. “Fucking hell. That son of a bitch.”

“It all feels terribly obvious now. Why they hired me. I thought it was my NEWT scores. Hell, Thacker was effusively complimentary when he offered me the position, almost overly so. He made it sound like he’d be happy to look over any proposals I might draft and that he’d do what he could to make sure they made it to the relevant committees for reading. I had this idea in my head that if I just put in the time and paid my dues, at least one of my draft bills would make it to the Wizengamot floor, at least for debate, but—” Her face warmed. “You must think I’m terribly naïve.”

She certainly felt naïve.

Sirius made a soft noise of dissent. “No. No. Idealistic, maybe—”

She snorted and blinked quickly, banishing the film of moisture from her eyes.

“Hey.” Sirius waited until she met his eyes. His stare was solemn, so solemn it put a lump in her throat. “Look at what you did with S.P.E.W. when you were in school.” She snorted. What a shitty example. Or a shining one, perhaps, of her naivety and ignorance. “Your heart was in the right place, okay? The world needs idealists, Hermione. At least the sort dogged enough to turn those ideas into action. Otherwise, why should anyone bother? Why wakeup, why do anything if it’s all just a long slog to a meaningless death?”

“That’s morbid,” she whispered.

“Sorry.” He grimaced. “Didn’t mean to get maudlin.”

“No. I—I appreciate it. I didn’t mean to bring it up.”

Sirius opened his mouth, but she hurried on, blurting “What have you been up to?”

 More than anything, she wanted to change the subject before she did something mortifying like cry in the middle of the Ministry lunchroom in front of Sirius Black.

Not that crying would be the most embarrassing thing she’d ever done in front of the man. No, that honor had gone to the summer after her second year when Harry had invited her and Ron to go camping with his father, Remus, and Sirius for a week in the middle of the Forest of Dean. She’d unexpectedly started her period and much to her supreme mortification, no one had really known how to proceed, until Sirius had taken the bull by the horns and transfigured one of his old shirts into a dozen extra-absorbent sanitary napkins.

There was no coming back from that. So, no. When Sirius Black flirted with her, it was nothing to take, well, seriously.

Sirius set his napkin beside his tray and shifted on the bench, scratching his jaw. “A little of this, a little of that. Mostly lamenting the fact that you won’t give me the time of day.”

The lump in her throat crept higher. “Funny.”

“There you go again,” Sirius said, tearing his napkin into confetti, “assuming I’m joking.”

She snatched her glass and sipped slowly, watching Sirius watching her, over the rim. “Aren’t you?”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “Am I?”

She huffed. “Maybe I’d be less inclined to assume you’re joking if you answered in something other than a riddle.”

Which would happen, never. This was what he—they—did. Sirius flirted, she rebutted, they bantered, and she always left feeling a little worse for wear, her smile flimsy as cardboard and her chest hollow and achy, her heart a bit bruised.

When she was younger, it had been flattering, Sirius’s flirtation sweet and harmless. Like when a groomsman asked the flower-girl to dance and let her stand on his loafers and told her she was the prettiest girl in the room. Over time, she’d grown a bit weary of the empty flirtation when she came to her senses and realized that’s all it would ever be. Empty. Hermione Granger was no more special than anyone else.

Sirius lifted his hands. “Well, love, what can I say? I’m a riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a devilishly handsome body. It’s a blessing and a curse, truly.”

Well, he wasn’t wrong. Certainly not about the devilishly handsome bit. “A blessing for whom, exactly?”

He grinned, all teeth. “That would depend on your answer.”

Hermione tore her eyes away from his mouth. “What was the question?”

Sirius heaved a great sigh, shoulders slumping. He shook his head, eyes darting around the cafeteria. “I fear we’re having two different conversations.”

He sounded nearly dejected, a thought so absurd she actually laughed.

It took a moment to pull herself together, her laughter petering off. Sirius was watching her across the table, lips quirked slightly. “You should do that more often.”

“Do what?” she asked.

“Laugh.” He cocked his head, studying her with a soft yet shrewd look in his eye that she didn’t have a word for. Like he was trying to make sense of something, find an answer to some unknown question on her face. “Your whole face lights up and your eyes…” He coughed and scratched his jaw. “You should laugh more often.”

Her eyes, what?

“Guess it would probably help if you had something to laugh about.” His lips twisted like he’d bitten into a lemon. “It’s bullshit. This. All of this. You shouldn’t have to put up with it. Thacker, the Ministry, none of it.” Her mouth went dry when he pinned her with a stare. “You can talk to me, you know? If Thacker gives you any more grief, tell me.”

She rolled her eyes only to gasp when his fingers curled around her wrist.

“I mean it, Hermione,” he stressed. “Tell me and I’ll have it taken care of.”

Part of her was tempted to crack a joke about Sirius making Thacker an offer he couldn’t refuse, but she wasn’t sure he’d understand. His knowledge of Muggle pop-culture was better than most, but still, the learning curve was steep.

She had to swallow before she could speak, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. “There’s no recourse—”

“I’m not talking about official DMLE channels or HR bullshit.” Sirius scoffed. “I will handle it.”

She bristled. “I can take care of myself.”

His grip on her arm tightened, not enough to hurt, but enough that she couldn’t shake him off, not with any sort of ease. “You can.” He nodded. “I have no doubt. But is it so awful to let someone do it for you? Fight your battles with you? If I’ve learned anything, it’s that it doesn’t have to be you against the world. Not just. It gets lonely after a while.”

What did Sirius Black know about battles, let alone loneliness? He was a Pureblood from an ancient and noble family—not that he had anything to do with his family, save for his cousin Andromeda and her daughter Tonks— with a Gringott’s vault large enough to fit her entire flat. He had James and Remus and Harry’s mum and the never-ending line of women ready to walk through the revolving door of his bedroom. Sirius Black, lonely? Never.

She pasted on a smile. “I appreciate the offer. Really.”

A crease formed between his brows. “Hermione—”

“Sirius!”

Sirius looked up, then shut his eyes, his jaw tensing. He groaned. “Fucking hell.” He let go of her arm, but kept his hand on the table, shooting her a contrite smile that verged on a grimace. “I apologize in advance.”

She frowned. “For—”

“There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.” A man dressed in expensive-looking robes, and beneath them, an exquisitely-tailored double-breasted suit, stopped beside the table. “Not even Potter knew where you’d wandered off.”

Sirius rolled his eyes. “Hermione, meet my brother, Regulus. Reggie, Miss Hermione Granger.”

His brother.

His hair was black, longer than Sirius’s whose barely skimmed the tops of his shoulders, and he wore it tied off neatly at his nape with a length of ribbon just as dark. Regulus’s face was slightly softer, his cheekbones not quite as chiseled, and his jaw was cleanshaven, but he had the same dimpled chin and aristocratic nose. Though where Regulus’s was perfectly straight, the bridge of Sirius’s was ever so slightly crooked from a break he’d let heal on its own, adding to his rugged good looks.

Regulus’s eyes—the same shade of slate all the Blacks possessed— flickered to her briefly, the look too quick to even be deemed scrutinizing. He dipped his chin. “Pleasure.”

“Likew—”

“Mother would like to know if you’ll be at dinner this Sunday,” Regulus turned back to his brother, cutting her off, acting as she weren’t even there.

Sirius’s top lip curled. “Has the old bat lost the rest of her marbles?”

A muscle in Regulus’s jaw jumped. “Look, Sirius—”

“No, you look, Reggie.” He shook his head slowly. “My answer is the same as every time you’ve asked me to dinner over the past fifteen years. No.” He chuckled darkly. “Besides, last time I was in that Gods awful house it was made quite clear to me that if I walked through the front door, I wasn’t to ever come back. I’d have rather slit my throat than go through with some bullshit arranged marriage she’d been orchestrating since before I was born, and I wasn’t about to cut off contact with Andromeda, so I left. I was under the impression we were all on the same page.”

“You left through the Floo.”

Sirius scoffed. “Don’t be fucking pedantic, Reg. Stupid doesn’t suit you.”

“Mother never burned your name off the tapestry, you know,” Regulus argued. “Father wouldn’t let her.”

“As if that makes even the slightest difference to me. Although”—Sirius cocked his head— “I’m sure that made you awfully sore. Still the spare, eh?”

At his sides, Regulus’s hands clenched into fists. “And you are still the heir. When are you going to grow the fuck up and realize you have responsibilities?”

Sirius shrugged. “Never, if I can help it.” He turned, shooting her a wink.

Regulus exhaled noisily. “Father—”

“Father this, Mother that.” Sirius batted at the air between them. “Tell me, brother, did Walburga confiscate your bollocks and put them in a dusty box somewhere, or have you simply forgotten you’ve got a pair?”

“Father is sick.”

If Sirius was bothered by the news, he didn’t show it. He sniffed and shrugged. “Big fucking deal. Father’s always sick with something. Probably shouldn’t have frequented Knockturn’s brothels quite so often. Then again, with a wife like Walburga who could blame him? It’d be like sticking your cock in a fucking Bubotuber wrapped in Venomous Tentacula.” Sirius wrinkled his nose. “Who the fuck am I kidding? Father’s always been sick. Would have to be sick in the head to agree to marry your cousin.”

Regulus shook his head. “Thank you for that fine bit of vulgarity, but no. Father is ill. He’s…” Regulus tugged at his collar. “The healers don’t believe he has much time left.”

Sirius’s silent stare was interspersed with several blinks. “How long?”

Regulus hung his head. “A month, maybe two or three at the very most if he’s lucky.”

Sirius’s jaw worked, slightly forward and back. “And I’m supposed to care?”

Regulus’s head snapped up. “He’s our father, Sirius. Whether you like it or not, you need to start thinking about the future of our family. Your future. In a matter of weeks, you are going to be the Head of this family and all it entails. It’s time to focus on what that future holds.” His eyes flickered to her and back again to his brother, his upper lip curling. “And what it doesn’t.”

 

***

 

“Hermione.”

She glanced up from the memo she was in the middle of forwarding and smiled at the sight of Sirius standing in front of her desk.

“S—Auror Black,” she quickly corrected herself. “What brings you by?”

Sirius’s tongue poked against the inside of his cheek. “Another file for you.”

“Is it urgent?” She took it from him, setting it beside the inter-office memo. “Because, you know, usually the registrar sends up all the pertinent case files on Friday in preparation for the next week’s hearings.”

But he knew that. He’d been working at the Ministry as long as she’d been alive.

Maybe it was a trick of the light, but it almost appeared as if the crests of his cheeks tinged pink. He waved his hand. “I was heading this direction anyway.”

Her brow rose.

Sirius nibbled on his bottom lip, eyes darting between her and the file. “Does Harry still have the map?”

Across the room, Felicity filed her nails, watching the two of them closely.

The map?”

Sirius nodded.

She cleared her throat. “I think so?”

Sirius hummed. “Clever little spell. The three of us were quite proud of it. I still am.” His eyes dropped to her desk, staring pointedly at the file. “Anyway. Thanks for sating my curiosity.” His lips twitched as he dipped his chin. “Have a good rest of your day, Miss Granger.”

He rolled his eyes in the direction of Thacker’s open office and offered her an irreverent bow.

Felicity stared at his arse until he disappeared around the corner, then without paying Hermione so much as a second glance, reached for the issue of Witch Weekly hidden beneath her own paperwork.

As soon as she was thoroughly distracted by this week’s Who Wore it Best? Hermione opened the file, her curiosity getting the best of her.

She frowned.

It was blank, the first piece of parchment. The next sheet was business as usual, Sirius’s neat script covering the form in all the proper places.

Clever little spell

Hermione reached for her wand, tapping the end of it gently against the parchment while muttering, “I solemnly swear I am up to no good.”

“What was that?” Felicity looked up.

Hermione gestured to her throat. “I have a tickle.”

Felicity wrinkled her nose. “Don’t come near me, then. I’ll not be catching any rank Muggle diseases from the likes of you.”

She went back to her magazine, none the wiser.

Hermione glanced at the parchment on her desk, eyes going wide at the scrawl of black ink now covering the page.

Hermione,

Here’s a little drawing to hopefully brighten your Monday.

xx.

S

Beneath the message was an enchanted doodle of Mr. Thacker as an oinking pig—oh, no. He was a hog. He jumped around the parchment, fleeing the wrath of a spraying shower nozzle determined to give him a bath. Scribbled on the nozzle were the words, common sense.

Hermione bit her lip and, after looking her fill, whispered, “Mischief managed.”

 

***

 

“Another file for me?”

Sirius stared up at her through his lashes. “The last one was…legible?”

She smiled and held out a hand for it. “Yes.”

“Good.” Sirius handed it over. He lingered for a moment, fingers tracing the beveled edge of her desk. “Well. All right then. I’ll just…” He jerked his head toward the door. “Be on my way.”

She waited until he was gone to open the file.

Hermione,

I had the abhorrent thought that Thacker bares a striking resemblance to Umbridge. If I had to picture it, so do you.

xx.

S.

A doodle of Mr. Thacker dressed in garish pink robes with cartoon stink wafting off him filled the bottom half of the parchment.

Hermione covered her snort with a cough, snickering when Felicity flinched and wrinkled her nose.

 

***

 

There weren’t always doodles.

Hermione,

That color of blue you wore yesterday? It turns your eyes the color of firewhisky.

xx.

S.

P.S. I’m quite fond of firewhisky, in case that wasn’t clear.

 

***

 

She’d begun to look forward to Sirius’s impromptu visits. They were random, no rhyme or reason to which days or at what times he’d swing by the office. Every hour or so, she’d spare a glance at the door, wondering if he’d drop by with another file, another blank cover letter meant for her eyes only.

Without fail, he managed to take her by surprise, always appearing in front of her desk when she wasn’t looking.

“Hermione.”

She lifted her eyes from the court transcription she was rewriting, the Junior Undersecretary’s shorthand utterly abhorrent. Her lips quirked, stomach fluttering. “Auror Black. Another file for me?”

He winced. “Just a boring one.” He handed it to her and perched against the corner of her desk. “You’re coming to dinner tonight, though, aren’t you?”

Monthly dinners at Potter Manor were a tradition, one that James and Lily had been rather dogged about upholding. As one of Harry’s closest friends, she’d been extended a standing invitation, as had Ron, and later Ginny. Sometimes Fred and George would pop by for advice about their shop, and even Bill and Fleur would sometimes stop by. Hermione had attended when she could, the occasional Christmas and summer hols during their school years, but now that they’d all graduated and she had a flat in Magical London, her attendance was far easier to swing.

This dinner, however, had come rather out of the blue, an odd addition to the schedule at the behest of Remus.

“Oh, Hermione,” Felicity paused her conversation with Mariska Macmillan, Ernie’s snooty cousin some odd times removed who’d attended Durmstrang before moving to England last year. She worked as the Personal Assistant to the British Ambassador to Bulgaria. “Didn’t Mr. Thacker tell you?”

“Didn’t Mr. Thacker tell me what?”

Felicity smirked. “He wants the file system reordered from alphabetical defendant to year comma defendant. Still alphabetical, of course.”

Merlin. Not only did that make zero sense, but it would take days for an overhaul of that magnitude. Days.

Hermione pressed her lips together, biting back a nasty retort. “All right. I’ll get started on it first thing tomorrow morning.”

Felicity tutted. “Mr. Thacker wants you to begin today.”

Mariska covered her mouth, shoulders shaking.

Well, fuck. There went dinner. Hermione turned to Sirius, who was frowning. “Tell everyone I said hello, all right? And give Remus and Tonks my love. And let them know I said congratulations.”

Sirius’s jaw dropped. “You know?”

She winced. “Shoot. I wasn’t supposed to say anything.” His words caught up to her. “Wait. You know?”

He grinned. “Remus showed up at my place pissed last week, moaning about how he’s scared out of wits he’s going to be a bad father. He slept it off on my couch. How do you know?”

“Tonks threw up on my shoes.” She wrinkled her nose. “Apparently, the smell of Mrs. Weasley’s mutton meatballs doesn’t agree with her anymore.”

Sirius winced. “That’ll do it.” He stood. “You sure you can’t make it?”

She threw a glance at Felicity who continued to smirk. “If I do, it’ll be late.”

“I’ll save you a plate.” With that, Sirius tapped the corner of her desk and left the office, giving her one last mournful frown over his shoulder.

“Hermione,” Felicity crooned. “Can I offer you a word of advice? Woman to…well.” She bit her lip and tossed a look at Mariska over her shoulder. They both giggled, the sound as grating as nails on a chalkboard.

“Can you make it quick?” Hermione grabbed the file Sirius had placed on her desk and stood. “I have a lot of work to get done.”

And not much time to do it in, if she had any hope of catching the tail end of dinner.

Felicity drummed her fingers against her chin, the crimson of her nails splashy against the cool pallor of her skin. She tutted and offered Hermione what she was pretty sure was meant to be a sympathetic frown. “Word to the wise, Granger, Sirius Black isn’t really interested. Not in you.”

“Okay?” She shrugged. “Thank you for that enlightening bit of information, Fawley.”

Felicity dropped the frown and with it, her act. “Look. I’m sure you think it’s sweet how he’s been coming around here, but you look pathetic, the way you moon over him like a heartsick child.” Mariska covered her mouth, snickering softly. Emboldened by her friend, Felicity smirked. “He’s just trying to get into your knickers. It’s what he does. He’s sniffing around, trying to see if you’ll fall for it. And if you do spread your legs for him, afterward, he’ll move on. He always does. He’s the Black heir. He’s going to be Lord Black one day. And if the rumors are true, that day is going to come sooner than later.”

Hermione lifted her chin. Felicity had several inches on her, more thanks to the painful-looking pumps she wore, but Hermione refused to be cowed. “Thank you. I wasn’t quite sure what heir meant until you clarified. My sincerest appreciation.”

Felicity’s eyes narrowed. “Your life isn’t a fairy tale. Sirius Black is not your knight in shining armor. He’s not going to sweep you off your feet and save you from your unfortunate station in life, Mudblood.”

Hermione could’ve almost laughed because Sirius wasn’t a knight in shining armor, certainly hers, but no one’s. A gorgeous, tattooed wizard in worn leather who rode a magically souped-up Harley, maybe, but no knight.

Felicity kept blathering, “Most you’ll get is a decent shag or two before he forgets all about you and moves on to someone on his level. Someone worth his time. Someone worthy.”

“Hm.” Hermione crossed her arms. “Someone like you?”

Felicity stood up straighter. “Well, as a matter of fact—”

“I can’t help but wonder,” Hermione continued, stepping toward the records room. “Are you sour because Sirius did sleep with you, and wasn’t interested in a repeat?” She hummed. “Or is it because he was discerning enough not to sleep with you at all?”

Felicity turned a satisfying shade of crimson. “You little—”

“Mudblood?” Hermione shrugged, ready to be done. “Find a new insult, Fawley. That one’s getting almost as tired as you are.”

 

***

 

At ten to midnight, Hermione Floo’d over to the Potters, certain that she’d find a barely lit house and several Tupperware full of leftovers for her to take back to her cold, empty, lonely flat.

Instead, she found the place brightly lit and noisy as the Great Hall.

“Hermione!” Tonks shoved her chair back and flew across the room, wrapping Hermione up in a stranglehold of a hug, clinging to her a bit like a sloth. “You made it!”

“I’m sorry I’m so late. Work was—”

“Tosh!” Tonks drew back, hair flickering vibrant pink to a cheery yellow and then a grassy green before cycling back around. “Sirius warned us you’d be late.”

Over Tonks’s shoulder, Sirius lifted his half-full tumbler of firewhisky in a greeting before gesturing to the empty chair beside him. He went so far as to pull it out from beneath the table.

“Sit!” Tonks returned to her seat beside Remus, cozying up against his side as much as their separate chairs would allow. “You already know the big news, so now we can share part two.”

Harry cut his eyes playfully at her across the table. “How’s it any fair you knew before everyone else?”

Hermione settled into her seat and took a bottle of butterbeer from Sirius with a nod and a smile before turning back to Harry. “You get your feet thrown-up on and then we’ll talk.”

He wrinkled his nose and laughed. “Forget I asked.”

Lily and Tonks chuckled, James sharing a wry smile with his son across the table.

Sirius drummed his fingers against the dinner table. “Come on. I’m dying of anticipation here.”

Lily shook her head. “Oh, relax, everyone else had to wait for the first announcement. Least you can do is be patient enough to wait for the second.”

“Padfoot? Patient?” James sputtered. “In what universe, Lils?”

She tilted her head, conceding the point.

Hermione took a slow sip of her butterbeer, watching as Remus cradled Tonks’s hand in his larger ones, the look on his face so adoring that it made something ache inside of her. She wanted that, someone to hold her hand and look at her like she hung the moon.

She frowned at her bottle. On second thought, maybe she shouldn’t drink. Not until she had some food in her stomach.

Remus cleared his throat. “Sirius.”

“Moony.” A slow grin took over his face.

“Dora and I were wondering if—”

“I accept.”

Tonks clapped her hands together. “You’ll do it? Really?”

“Of course.”

“Oh good.” She turned, smiling up at Remus. “See, I told you he’d be happy to come to all my birthing classes when you can’t make it.”

Sirius’s expression flattened. “What.”

Remus chuckled. “She’s kidding.”

“You could at least let him ask.” Tonks rolled her eyes. “Don’t bloody well assume, you berk.”

Sirius held a hand up to his chest. “Berk? What would your mother say, hearing you throw about words like that?”

“Probably teach me a few more.” Tonks grinned.

Remus smiled. “Godfather. What do you say?”

“Yes, obviously.” Sirius took a long sip of his whisky. “You’re a mean one, Nymphadora. Birthing classes? Just for that, I’ll teach your sprog all sorts of pranks that would curl your hair.”

Don’t call me Nymphadora.” Tonks wrinkled her nose, her bubblegum pink strands curling into tight little corkscrews.

Remus kissed the side of her head, snickering softly.

“All right, who’s my partner in crime this time around?” Sirius leaned back, resting his arm along the back of her chair. His fingers brushed her shoulder, and even through her robes, his touch made her shiver. “Tell me you picked someone better than Dorcas, Moony. Please.”

“Hey!” Lily clucked her tongue. “Dorcas has been a perfectly lovely godmother. Hasn’t she, Harry?”

Harry looked up from his plate of cake and shrugged. “Sure? I mean, she taught me how to crochet. I guess that was pretty cool.”

“Ah.” Sirius pointed at Harry. “But who taught you about women? About sex?”

Lily shut her eyes as if that could block out the conversation.

Harry frowned. “Well, Dorcas and Marlene did give me that book on The Feminine Mystique. So…”

Sirius dropped his head into his hands with a groan, making everyone else laugh.

“It’s not Dorcas, Sirius. Calm down,” Remus said.

“Calm? Don’t tell me to be calm. I’ll be calm once you tell me who you are, effectively, tethering me to for the next eighteen years.”

“You make it sound so serious.” Lily bit her lip, smiling.

Sirius held a hand to his chest. “Excuse me? Godfather is serious business, so serious I’m not even going to make a pun.”

James ducked his head, stage-whispering in Lily’s ear. “Wow. Very serious, then.”

“Quit.” Sirius threw his fork at James making Lily squawk.

“Watch it! You could put someone’s eye out.”

He batted away her concern. “Look, no one wants to talk about it—least of all me—but if something awful were to happen, I’d be tasked with the supreme responsibility—and privilege, mind—of raising Mini-Moony with this mysterious woman.”

Remus pinched the bridge of his nose. “You are not calling my child Mini-Moony.”

Sirius rolled his eyes and turned to face her. “Honestly? The one time I try to have an adult conversation and he chooses to focus on the smallest detail? Why do I bother?”

Remus dropped his hand. “Hermione?”

“Yes?”

He ducked his chin, laughing quietly. “No, I mean. Will you be godmother?”

“Me?” She pointed at herself with her bottle. “You want me to be godmother?”

In a move that left her dizzy, Sirius swept her up and out of her chair, his arms wrapping around her waist, twirling her in a circle.

“Yes!” Sirius set her on her feet, one arm wrapped snug around her, his hand curled around her hip, almost intimately so. Familiar, at least. How much exactly had he had to drink? “You’ll make a much better godmother than Dorcas.”

“Thank you?” She laughed.

“Oh, well, good. Now that we know my cousin finds our choice of godmother agreeable, we can proceed. Hermione?” Tonks arched a brow.

“I’d—Gods.” She laughed. “I’d be honored.”

Sirius smiled down at her, grey eyes hazy from his drink. He dipped his head, lips grazing her ear. “This is going to be so much fun, love. Just you wait.”

 

***

 

Hermione,

I think it would be in our best interest to discuss our mutual stake in the rearing of Mini-Moony.

Dinner? Tonight? 7 work for you? Perfect.

xx.

S.

It was a good thing seven o’clock did, in fact, work for her because he’d given her no way to respond, save for an inter-office memo, but those were, on occasion, monitored. Someone like Felicity could abuse the system without fear of repercussions, but the same rules didn’t apply for her. Mary Cattermole, a Muggleborn witch who worked in the Portkey Office had been issued a citation for abuse of the memo system after she’d sent a quick note to her husband asking him to pick up their son from preschool.

At two minutes to the hour, Sirius sauntered through the door, looking unfairly handsome. He’d ditched his auror robes, leaving him in a pair of black trousers that clung to the muscles of his thighs, and a dark button-down mostly obscured by his leather motorcycle jacket. In a word, delicious.

Hermione glanced down at the boring navy pencil skirt and cream-colored blouse she’d tossed on that morning, noting that she’d spilled tea on her sleeve.

So, while he looked as if he’d stepped out of a Harrods catalog, she looked fit for the sales rack at Marks and Spencer. Perfect.

“You ready?”

It spoke volumes that Sirius didn’t even pay her outfit a second look, bruising volumes she’d best not waste time thinking about. This was just dinner between two almost friends shoved together through common acquaintances and now both godparents to the same child. Just dinner. Definitely nothing more. No cause for butterflies.

Choking down her disappointment, Hermione stood and reached for the coat slung across the back of her chair.

“Here, let me help you with that.” Sirius rounded her desk and took her coat, holding it open for her to slide her arms into. Once she had, he rested his hands on her shoulders. “You ready?” His breath ruffled her curls.

“Where are we going? The Leaky?”

Sirius’s hand slid down her arm, his fingers curling around hers with the sort of nonchalance she could only dream of emulating. How he could just touch her and not die a little inside, or at the very least, not choke on panic and break out into a sweat when he reached for her. How he could just do it. Just touch her like it was nothing. Because it was. It was nothing.

“The Leaky? Gods, no.” He pulled a face. “I’ve got somewhere much better in mind. You’ll see.”

He led her down the hall, into the lift, through the atrium, and out a set of doors she’d never used before.

For a wizard, Sirius seemed to know his way around Muggle London, navigating the streets with ease and familiarity. “Almost there,” he said, tugging her along as he quickened his steps, her legs aching a little as she hurried to keep up. “It’s just around the corner.”

He stopped in front of a brick building with smudgy windows mostly covered by colorful gig announcements, grungy band posters, and ads for guitar lessons. Through the gaps in the paper, dim amber light glowed, giving the place a warm ambiance. A neon green open sign hung above the door, and below it, another sign proclaimed beer, although the r flickered in and out, the bulb buzzing noisily, adding to the blasé vibe.

“What is this place?”

Sirius squeezed her fingers. “Flannigan’s. Good beer, decent chips. The barkeep’s a surly bastard, but it’s all part of the charm.” Sirius reached for the door handle and paused. “We can go somewhere else if you’d rather. I just figured—”

“No.” She gestured toward the door. “I like this.”

“Yeah? You’re sure?”

She smiled. “I’m starving. Beer and chips sound perfect.”

Sirius grinned. “I knew I liked you for a reason.”

After placing their order at the bar, they settled into a booth at the back of the pub, tucked out of the way. A cover of a classic rock ballad played over the speakers, but not so loudly they couldn’t converse comfortably.

“All right.” Sirius shucked his jacket and tossed it beside him on the bench. He shoved up his shirtsleeves, baring his forearms. His skin was pale where it wasn’t covered in ink, and it bore a dusting of black hair and a smattering of silver scars, little nicks and scrapes from stray hexes. The tendons at his wrists flexed beneath the cross of dark blue veins as he rested his elbows on the table. “Down to business.”

She tore her eyes from his skin, her pulse skipping in her throat. “Business?”

“Business.” He dipped his chin. “Godparenting business.”

She hummed. “As I’ve never had the pleasure of serving as godparent until now, I’m afraid I don’t exactly know what we’re supposed to discuss.”

“Loads of things.” He ticked points off on his fingers. “Who’s going to buy him—or her—their first broom?”

“You can have the honor.” She pressed her lips together to keep from laughing.

Sirius smiled. “I’m pretty sure you get first swear word, then. Fair’s fair.”

She snickered. “Really? That’s how it works?”

“Eh.” He lifted a shoulder. “I bought Harry his first training broom and Dorcas accidentally taught him the word cunt, so in my experience? Absolutely.”

“Guess that means I ought to get to brainstorming which word to teach. Unless it’s meant to be more organic? I stub my toe and shout fuck?”

Sirius thanked the barkeep when he dropped off their beer and chips. “Well, it ought to be a bit more inventive than that, but you’ve got time to figure it out.”

“At least seven months,” she teased. “Come to think of it, none of this is urgent.”

His lips twitched behind the rim of his pint glass. “I’ve been found out.”

“Found out?”

“My ulterior motive.” He wagged his brows. “Why I asked you to dinner.”

She took a long swallow of beer, fortifying her nerves. “Which was?”

Sirius rolled his lips together, eyes dancing. “You’ve got a little…”

He reached across the table, fingers curling around the hinge of her jaw, his hand cradling her cheek in his palm as his thumb swept against her upper lip, wiping away foam from her beer. His hand lingered, his thumb tracing the bow of her lip making her breath quicken to the point that she had little doubt he could feel each exhalation through her nose gusting against his skin.

“There.” He dropped his hand, but not his eyes.

“You were saying?” She cursed the fact that her voice had gone breathy.

“I was?” His voice came out rough as sandpaper. Sirius shook his head, looking as unfocused and off-kilter as she felt. “Right. My ulterior motive. It’s obvious, isn’t it?”

Hermione looked around the bar. “Erm, no?”

Sirius sighed deeply. “I can’t tell if you’re being deliberately obtuse or if you really don’t get it.”

She bristled. “Maybe you aren’t being clear.”

Much to her increasing frustration, Sirius smiled. “Perhaps.”

She huffed. “You’re a bit infuriating, you know that?”

“Welcome to my world.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Believe it or not”—Sirius leaned his head back against the wall behind the booth— “not everything I say is a riddle. To be honest, despite all my joking, very little of what I say is meant to be taken as anything but at face value. I’m a rather honest, say what I mean, mean what I say type. It’s one of my few character flaws.”

Hermione nibbled on a chip. Honest. What honest, direct reason would Sirius Black have for inviting her out to a pub if it wasn’t to discuss godparenting?

As if reading her mind, Sirius arched a brow.

Oh. Oh.

She dropped her half-eaten chip into her basket and reached for her beer.

“Am I making you uncomfortable?” Sirius frowned.

She shook her head.

“No?” Both his brows rose.

No. She was just…processing this—this revelation.

A reel of all the moments and interactions she’d brushed off, chocked up to Sirius being Sirius but not serious flashed through her mind. His flirtation had been genuine. He had invited her to dinner because he—

The tape in her brain skipped.

He what? Liked her? Wanted her?

He’d invited her to a hole-in-the-wall pub for beer and bar food. Was this a date or was it—

“You look like you’re thinking entirely too much.” Sirius grimaced. “And not good thoughts.”

“No! I’m just…” She frowned. “Processing nine years’ worth of interactions.”

Sirius pulled a face, recoiling. “Merlin. Give me some credit, love. Nine years. Gods. No. No. It’s not been that long.”

Her lips twitched. “One year? Two?”

He scratched his jaw. “Look, let’s ignore the specifics otherwise you’re going to make me want to go into the alley behind the pub and avada myself for a dream I maybe might’ve had once.” He shut one eye. “Okay, twice. See? I’m honest to a fault.”

His confession toed the line of indecency. Maybe that it made her clench her thighs together made her a little wicked, but she wasn’t going to waste the time arguing with herself. Not if it wasn’t wrong now, and definitely not if the idea of it felt so damn right.

She shifted, the vinyl bench squeaking beneath her bum. “Well, in the spirit of honesty, I should probably make a confession.”

He leaned forward, looking intrigued. “Yeah? I like confessions.”

“I had a crush on you,” she said. Hopefully, her face wasn’t too red.

He grinned. “A crush? Wait.” Sirius winced. “Had? Ouch.”

She bit her lip, flushing deeper when his eyes dropped to her mouth. “Oh, please. Are you really asking for me to stroke your ego right now? Tell you how I thought you looked fit in your leather jacket?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say no to a little stroking.” His foot knocked into hers beneath the table. “Come on. Had? Give me something. Anything.”

She supposed there was another confession she could make. If she wanted. If she—

There came a time when asking if became a form of dithering disguised as discernment.

“I—” She breathed deep and rested her hands atop the table. “Do you remember the summer after my sixth year? When Lily and James went on holiday to Spain and Harry stayed with you?”

Sirius nodded slowly and leaned forward, reaching for her hands, moving slowly, overly cautious as if one wrong move might send her running. How little he knew.

His hands were large, their span so wide that with one palm he could cover both of hers. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he turned her hands palm side up atop the table and with gentle fingers he held her hands in his, his slightly callused thumbs stroking the insides of her wrists over the trellis of blue and green veins in a move that made her shiver even though the bar was warm and she’d never bothered to take off her coat.

Her tongue darted out, wetting her lips. “Remember how I stayed over? For a week?”

He nodded.

Enough stalling. “Remember the girl you brought home?” His brow knit, making her laugh. “No? You don’t remember?”

He cringed, his hold on her hands tightening infinitesimally. “Honestly? No.”

She wasn’t sure whether to find that encouraging or not, how he’d managed to forget all about a woman he’d once slept with. The part of her that was a little possessive and naturally jealous liked his lapse in memory, but a large part of her worried that if he’d forgotten that woman, he might forget her, too.

She shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. You did. I remember.”

Sirius gnawed on the corner of his lip. “Is this a thing I’m supposed to apologize for?”

She snorted. “No. Don’t be ridiculous.”

He chuckled. “All right. Well, I’m not too proud to admit I’m utterly lost.”

“Patience,” she chided jokingly.

He screwed up his face. “Oof. Patience is not a virtue I possess.”

“Seeing as you stuck to one—sorry, two dreams. I’d beg to differ.”

A soft noise came from his throat. “Slight correction. It was two dreams before”—he grimaced— “I should’ve. I never said anything about the dreams I had after I gave myself permission.”

“Permission?”

He smirked, thumb dragging against the thin skin of her wrist. “To want you.”

Fuck. There it was. He’d actually said it, said the words, leaving no room for confusion.

She coughed. “As I was saying. You brought a girl home.”

“I brought a girl home.” He nodded. “All right.”

“And I”—Heat crept up her chest, inching its way up her neck, kissing her jaw— “I heard you.”

Sirius stared. “You heard me.”

She cleared her throat. “Hard not to. I was staying in the room next door.”

“Ah. You really heard me.”

Her flush spread to her face, making her dizzy. Or maybe that was thanks to how Sirius kept stroking her wrists, a place she’d never considered erogenous until now. “I did.”

“And I take it, you’re still not asking me to apologize?”

She shook her head. “No. I—” Just say it. She’d spent her whole life warring against the natural inclination to be reckless and a little impulsive, taming herself into submission with forethought and preparedness. No more. “I thought about it. I imagined what it would be like. If—if it were me.”

His fingers spasmed against her hands, his eyes flaring. “Yeah?” he whispered.

She nodded.

Sirius’s shoulders rose on a breath. As he exhaled, he hung his head.

Her stomach twisted. Was that the wrong thing to say? Did he not…like that?

After a moment, Sirius lifted his head, staring at her with dark eyes, the black of his pupils hugged by a thin ring of stormy grey.

His Adam’s apple jerked and his tongue swept against his bottom lip, followed by his front teeth. They scraped against his flesh, turning his mouth red. She wanted to lean across the table and press her mouth to his so badly she ached, her toes curling inside her flats to keep from stretching across the basket of chips that lay between them, covering her blouse in grease.

“Did you touch yourself?” he asked, voice gravelly, making her throb.

Her lips parted, breath quickening. “I did.”

“Tell me.”

She wasn’t sure if that was meant to be a request or an order, but she didn’t care.

Face on fire, the rest of her, too, she shifted, knickers already damp. “I—I got myself off picturing it. Wondering what sorts of things you were doing to make her make those noises and what it would be like, what it would feel like, for you to do those things to me. How you’d touch me. What it would be like to touch you.” She rubbed her thighs together. “Taste you.”

“Fuck.” Sirius lifted a hand, scrubbing his mouth. “Now I’m thinking about it. You with your hand buried in your knickers, coming all over your fingers.” His thumb stroked the back of her knuckles, making her shiver. “Touching yourself while thinking of me.”

His eyes fluttered briefly, his breath whooshing out in a tremulous exhale.

Good. She wanted him to think about it. Wanted him to want her, wanted him to ache for her. It wasn’t new, but he’d said it best—permission. She hadn’t given herself permission to want this, want him, want to make the farfetched fantasies inside her head a reality.

“I came so hard I had to bite my lip to keep from making noise,” she confessed.

The sound he made, half growl and half groan, one hundred percent desperate completely flooded her knickers, her cunt clenching on nothingness. Her head went a little dizzy, the control she had over him at that moment with just her words leaving heady beyond belief.

Sirius dropped his hand beneath the table, adjusting himself and not even bothering to hide it. “You’re killing me, love.”

“You asked,” she reminded.

“I did, didn’t I?” He smiled wryly. “So. Had.”

“Had?”

“You said you had a crush on me. Had. Past tense.”

She hummed.

“Is it?” he pressed. “Is it had?”

Could she really call this, whatever this was, a crush? The word felt juvenile, didn’t do the magnitude nor multitude of her feelings justice. Attraction. Admiration. Lust. Others, too, feelings she either had no name for or refused to name on principle.

But now wasn’t the time to split hairs.

“Does it matter?”

He stroked the empty spaces between her fingers and gave her a solemn nod. “It matters.”

She was at a crossroads. She could say no, back away, and it would, for a time, be undoubtedly awkward, but there’d be no risk of heartache, of diving in and winding up too deep, in over her head. Safe. Routine. A life of wanting. Everything she was used to and nothing more.

Or she could say yes. Take that leap. She’d never have everything she wanted, but for a time, she could at least have a taste.

“If it were has?” she whispered.

Sirius slotted his fingers between hers, a smile flirting at the corners of his mouth. “I’d ask you to come home with me.”

 

***

 

Half of the faux-pearl buttons from her blouse lay scattered about the foyer of Sirius’s flat along with her shoes and wand, and her pencil skirt was functioning more like a belt, rucked up around her waist. Sirius’s hands gripped her bottom, fingers biting into her skin and squeezing as he ground his trouser-covered cock against her, pinning her between his body and the door.

His teeth grazed her throat and the coarse hair of his stubble rasped against her. She dropped her head back, nails raking against his scalp, and gasped when his teeth pressed into her neck, his lips closing around a spot just beneath her jaw, sucking a bruise into her skin.

Sirius.”

Slowly, he lifted his head. His lips were swollen, the same as hers, and his grey eyes looked molten as he leaned in, capturing her mouth. Her lips parted and his tongue swept inside, sliding against her tongue and coaxing it to tangle with his.

His kiss was hard, urgent, possessive and it made her dizzy, how much he wanted her, each brush of his lips and nip of his teeth a claim she surrendered to eagerly.

“Fuck.” He growled into her mouth, his chest rumbling against hers, the vibration making her toes curl and heels press harder into the small of his back. His hands gripped her tighter, his fingers skimming the crack of her arse. “I need more hands.”

What she needed was his hands on her, all over.

Hermione panted. “Take me to bed.”

Sirius lifted his head and nodded. “Brilliant.”

The trip down the hall to his bedroom was brief, Sirius only pausing once to press her up against the wall, his lips searing against hers as he adjusted his grip.

She couldn’t have said whether the light in his room had been left on, or if he managed to flip the switch without setting her down, wandless perhaps, only that the room was lit and then that the bed was soft as he set her down atop the duvet.

Sirius stood, staring down at her from the foot of the bed. His hands were on his head, his fingers buried in his hair. He groaned, low and desperate, sounding pained, the expression on his face that of agony. “Fuck.”

She leaned up on her elbows and tried not to panic. “What is it?”

He pressed the heels of his palms against his forehead and shook his head. “You’re in my bed.”

Astute. “I am.”

“You are in my bed.” He repeated, gesturing to her with his hand. “And I—fuck.” Sirius crawled on top of her, boxing her in with a hand on either side of her head, his hips held disappointingly aloft. He leaned in, pressing his forehead to hers, his breath gusting across her face, warm and sweet. “Tell me you’re okay with this.”

She blinked up at him. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

He sighed. “I need to hear you say it.” His tongue slipped out, wetting his lips. “The things I want to do to you…fuck, love. I need to know you want it.”

It was impossible to tear her eyes from his, the look in his eyes captivating and serious. “I want it,” she whispered.

His gaze flickered to her mouth, then lower, eyeing the gaps in her blouse left gaping by her missing buttons. His eyes darkened, lids dropping, growing heavy. “Yeah?”

She nodded.

Sirius sat up, kneeling between her thighs, his eyes raking over her body. He sucked his bottom lip into his mouth and hummed. “What do you want?”

Everything.

His hands skimmed down her sides, over her ribs and along her waist. When he encountered the hem of her skirt, rucked up at her hips, his fingers slipped beneath the fabric, teasing her bare skin, his callused fingertips leaving gooseflesh in their wake.

“What did you think about?” His thumbs made circles atop the front of her thighs, his hands inching higher, closer to where she wanted him most. “When you laid in bed and touched yourself thinking about me? What was I doing to you?” His thumbs grazed the sensitive skin of her inner thighs, her body jerking as his fingers met the lace of her knickers across the front of her hips. “Touching you? Tasting you?” The tip of his tongue poked out from between his lips. “Fucking you?”

“All of it,” she murmured. “I thought about all of it.”

And not just the once. No, he’d been the face she pictured behind her lids when she touched herself ever since.

“Greedy.” A slow smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth. “You want to know what I think about?”

“Yes.”

Sirius’s thumbs stroked the crease of her thigh, where her legs met her body. Slow, measured strokes, maddeningly consistent and so close to where she ached. But not close enough. Just a little higher…she arched her back and lifted her hips, urging him on, trying to get him to touch her where she wanted most.

His hand came down hard, palm cracking against her inner thigh. She choked on a gasp, the air in her throat catching, a moan slipping from between her lips at the immediate sting followed by heat. So much fucking heat. Inside her bra, her nipples brushed against the cotton, sensitive, and she could feel herself grow slicker between her thighs, wetness sliding from between her lips and soaking into her knickers.

A flicker of uncertainty passed over his eyes. His lips parted. “I’m—”

“It’s—it’s good. I’m good.” She nodded. “I liked it. Don’t stop.”

Sirius exhaled sharply and hung his head. “Fuck. Where have you been my whole life?” He lifted his head, lips twisted to the side in a smirk. “Don’t answer that.”

He reached down, fingers curling around the waist of her skirt. Realizing it wasn’t elastic enough to simply be tugged down, Sirius frowned. “Where the fuck’s the zipper?”

“On the—” Rip. “Side.”

He grinned. “Sorry.” He didn’t sound it.

Her zipper now shredded, Sirius yanked at her skirt, sliding it down her thighs and over her calves, flinging it behind him blindly. It hit the top of his dresser, ultimately falling to the floor.

“In for a penny, in for a pound, eh?” he asked, reaching for her blouse. He tore the rest of her buttons, shredding it down the middle.

Her skin prickled, the air cool against her stomach as she sat up, what remained of her blouse sliding down her arms.

Sirius ran a finger from the notch at the top of her breastbone down between her breasts all the way to the center of her bra. His eyes tracked the movement, darkening. “I like this.”

“Don’t rip it, then,” she breathed.

He chuckled, fingers expertly freeing the center closure. His jaw clenched, a growl rumbling in his chest. “Fuck. I like these better.”

His fingers brushed the bottom of her breasts, squeezing gently, weighing her in his hands. His teeth sunk into his bottom lip as his thumbs brushed across her nipples, making her suck in a stuttered breath. Sirius hummed softly and rolled each bud between his thumb and forefinger, hard enough to make her gasp at the sting.

“Shit.” Sirius leaned close and dropped his head. He swirled his tongue around her left nipple until it pebbled, then he wrapped his lips around it and sucked hard, his teeth grazing the sensitive bud. A shock of pleasure shot from her chest to her core, her cunt clenching and her clit throbbing. A little whimper tumbled off her tongue, making him groan against her.

“Fuck.” He lifted his head, staring up at from beneath his inky black lashes. “The sounds you make could make a man come in his pants, love.”

“You want me to be quiet?” She cradled the back of his head and arched her back, silently begging, wanting his mouth back on her.

Sirius grinned. “I want to make you scream.”

His tongue laved her other nipple, then worried it between his teeth. She bit down on her lip, whimpering and clutched his head tighter, her nails scratching his scalp.

Sirius shivered and drew back, nuzzling her nipple with the tip of her nose. “I bet you’re wet, aren’t you?”

She ran her fingers through the silk of his strands, his hair cooler the further she got from his head. “My knickers are soaked.”

“Fuck,” Sirius croaked, looking like he’d just been punched in the gut, the expression on his face verging on agony. Gently, he pressed against her shoulders, urging her to lay back against the bed. “I should probably take them off you, then.”

Kneeling between her thighs, Sirius ran the back of his knuckles up the inside of her leg starting at her knee. He hooked his fingers around the top of her knickers and tugged, inching them over her arse and down her thighs, baring her to the cool air of the bedroom.

Stark naked, Hermione flushed. He was staring, his lower lip captured between his teeth, and it didn’t help that he was still dressed. Far too dressed.

“Could you”—his eyes snapped to hers— “maybe take your clothes off?”

Sirius smirked, but obliged, stripping down quickly, taking mercy on her. He stopped at his undershorts, leaving those on, the heather grey color doing nothing to disguise the way his cock strained against the cotton. A wet spot darkened the fabric just over the head of his cock, precome soaking into his shorts.

“Better?” he asked.

No, it was worse, the ache between her thighs growing more insistent.

Forcing herself to quit imagining what his cock looked like uncovered, Hermione lifted her eyes, jaw dropping a little at the rest of him. Broad shoulders tapered into a trim waist, the muscles of his thighs and calves carved from stone. Black ink covered the skin of his chest and arms, extending down his ribs and the sides of his abdomen, ending where his deeply chiseled Adonis lines began before disappearing into his shorts.

Hermione whimpered.

His smile broadened. “Like what you see?”

She swallowed, her mouth so dry she could scarcely speak. “Quit preening and make me come.”

Sirius’s tongue poked against the inside of his cheek, sweeping down and making his bottom lip jut outward. “You’ll come when I want you to.” His lips twitched. “Lucky for you that’ll be often.”

“I’m hearing a lot of promises.”

He dropped to his knees between her legs, his hands sweeping up the front of her thighs and back down in a circuit that made her quiver. “I always keep my promises.”

Sirius shifted atop the mattress, lowering himself between her thighs, wiggling until he was laid out on the mattress, his head pillowed on her thigh. He ran his fingers through the sodden curls between her legs. She held her breath, chest growing tight, as his touch finally dipped lower, his fingers brushing her clit and sliding between her folds, circling her entrance.

He swore beneath his breath. “Fuck. You’re dripping, love.”

“Please,” she muttered, rocking her hips. “Sirius, please.”

He grunted softly and turned his cheek, stubble scraping her skin as he kissed the inside of her thigh sweetly. She bent the knee of her opposite leg and drew it up, spreading herself wide.

“So fucking wet,” he murmured, watching as he sunk two thick fingers inside her. He hissed, the sound devolving into a groan. “Hell. You’ve got the tightest little cunt, love.”

The way Sirius fucked her with his fingers was almost lazy, his pace slow, his fingers dragging nearly all the way out before sliding back in. Every now and then he’d curl his fingers and graze a spot inside of that made her vision spot, but he always let up, driving her mad with desire.

Sirius.” Her head thrashed against the pillow. “Fuck. More.”

His teeth grazed the inside of her thigh, his breath ghosting against her skin. He curled his fingers a little harder and the slick sound of his fingers pumping into her grew louder, in competition with the gasps and whimpers she tried to swallow, but couldn’t. “Circe, your pussy smells like heaven, you know that?” She shut her eyes, a wicked flush creeping up her jaw. “Bet it tastes as sweet.”

Her eyes flew open at the first sweep of Sirius’s tongue through her folds. His fingers continued to fuck her slowly as he sucked her clit between his lips and flicked it with tongue, his pace fast and his pressure firm.

Her back arched and she gasped, lifting one hand to rest against the back of his head. Without meaning to, she rocked against his face, and when his fingers curled hard against her front wall, she fisted his hair, tugging harder than she meant. Her fingers twitched and she dropped her hand.

“S—sorry,” she stuttered, the word trailing off into a gasp that verged on a sob as he sucked hard at her clit, making her tummy tense and her cunt clench around his fingers.

He dropped a kiss to her clit before lifting his head. Everything from the skin above his upper lip to his chin was damp, covered in her arousal. His tongue swept out, licking his lips, a devilish smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“You can pull my hair,” he said. “I like it.”

The hand not buried between her legs reached up, grabbing her hand and placing it on the back of his head. “Go on. Do it. You won’t hurt me.”

Hermione swallowed and carded her fingers through his hair. The sound between her thighs grew louder as she grew wetter, the pressure inside her close to reaching a tipping point as Sirius wrapped his free arm around her thigh and lowered his mouth back to her clit.

So fucking close. Her lips trembled, wordless gasps spilling out from between them. Any second now, she was going to fall apart.

The blunt, hard edges of his front teeth scraped against her clit, sending her flying. Heat spread through her veins, her lungs aching, the muscles in her stomach burning as she curled forward, hand buried in Sirius’s hair. She couldn’t make up her mind whether to hold him there or shove him off, the pulsing pleasure sharp and good and too much.

He gave her clit one last lick that made her muscles jerk, then lifted his head, smiling up at her, looking pleased with himself.

She sighed, sinking into the mattress, boneless and spent, and tried to catch her breath.

Sirius eased his fingers from her cunt, leaving her empty, her walls clenching down, wanting him back inside her, filling her up.

“Hmm.” He prowled up her spent body, hovering over her. “Good?”

She couldn’t make her mouth work.

That good, huh?” He smirked.

She jerked her head. “Mhm.”

Sirius lifted his hand and brushed his damp fingers against her mouth, covering her lips in her own arousal. “Open up.”

She parted her lips and Sirius slipped his fingers into her mouth. She breathed shallowly through her nose as his fingertips tickled the back of her throat. When he withdrew them, she gasped, air flooding her lungs as her tongue swept out against her lips, tasting herself on them, musky and sweet.

His eyes were dark, a thin ring of grey hugging his pupil. He grabbed her face in on hand, fingers spreading spit and her come against her cheek. His shoulders rose and fell, panting as he leaned down, covering her mouth with his.

The taste of her was sharper on his tongue, and the smell of her mixed with his aftershave, spicy and warm, made her shiver, her back arching, the tips of her breasts brushing against the soft hair on his chest.

Lifting her feet, Hermione tried to use her toes to tug at his undershorts, wanting them off and wanting him inside her more than she’d wanted anything in recent memory.

Sirius drew back and pressed a quick kiss to her bottom lip. “Need help with something?”

“Yes,” she said, reaching for the band of his shorts. “Take these off.”

He slapped her hand aside, chuckling darkly. “If you wrap your hot little hand around me, I swear on all that’s holy, it’ll be your tits I come on.” His grin was rueful. “I thought I was going to blow when you pulled my hair. Fucking hell, anyone ever tell you you’ve got a grip to rival a Grindylow?”

No sooner had she opened her mouth did Sirius press a finger to her lips. “Shh. Relax. I liked it.” He dropped his hand, palming his cock through his shorts. “Promise.”

Sirius hooked his fingers around the waistband of his boxers, shucking them and hurling them across the room. Where they landed, she couldn’t have cared less. Not when his hand was wrapped around his thick length, guiding himself to her entrance, the reddish-purple head of his weeping cock sliding through her slippery folds, coating himself with her arousal.

“Yes?” he asked.

She lifted her hands to his chest, fingernails lightly scratching his skin. “Yes.”

Lowering himself on top of her until their chests brushed and his forehead pressed into hers, his breath ghosting across her face, Sirius grabbed her right thigh, hiking it up onto his hip. She had nowhere to look but into his eyes as he nudged her nose with his and slowly sank into her, inch by inch, stretching her, pressing deep, so deep, stopping only when his hips were flush with hers, his bollocks snug against her arse.

His jaw was clenched, a muscle just beneath his ear jumping as he held still. His breath stuttered through his nose, tickling her cheek. “I’m dying. You’re killing me. Fuck. You’ve got no idea how perfect you feel.”

She tilted her hips, gasping when he sunk a little deeper. “More.”

Sirius shifted, resting his weight on one forearm beside her head. His other hand clutched her hip, fingers biting into the meat of her thigh as he arched his hips and began to move in slow, measured thrusts that punched the air from her lungs each time his cock bottomed out inside of her.

A desperate mewl escaped her mouth and then another, little whimpers falling off her tongue until Sirius covered her mouth with his, swallowing her cries, his tongue sliding up against hers, his teeth biting and bruising and leaving her lips swollen and hot to match the rest of her.

“Fuck,” he growled into her mouth, the hand on her thigh twitching, his fingers trembling as he slid it up her body, his palm wrapping around the front of her throat. His fingers squeezed, pressing into her skin.

Her eyes rolled back, vision growing soft and a little blurry around the edges as the pleasure between her thighs grew sharper, more distinct with each roll of his hips.

“Look at me,” he grunted, hips grinding into her each time he bottomed out, his pelvis swiveling against her aching clit. A sharp tug of her curls made her scalp tingle, the pleasant sting sending shivers skittering down her spine as Sirius drew her head back, forcing her to look at him, to stare into his eyes as his cock filled her over and over again, as deep as her body would allow.

Through hazy eyes, she looked at him. A bead of sweat dripped down his temple and along the side of his jaw. Hermione licked her lips.

“You gonna come for me, love? You’re close, aren’t you? That tight little cunt of yours is milking my cock.”

She was close, her heart beating furiously against her sternum, her pulse pounding in her head, her temples, her ears ringing, and her toes curling, the muscles in her calves burning, aching. “I—”

Sirius panted into her mouth, sharing her air, making her dizzy, dizzier still when the hand wrapped around her throat squeezed, the other tugging at her hair and pulling it taut as he fucked her into the mattress with slow, deep, unyielding thrusts that nudged her closer to the edge.

His teeth closed around her bottom lip, biting down, frying her brain.

She cried out, voice hoarse as she clenched around his cock, vision spotting until it went entirely black, pleasure rushing over her and pulling her under.

Distantly, she heard him swear, the hand wrapped around her throat sliding up her neck and joining the other, tangling in her hair. His kiss was frantic, the press of his lips bruising as she trembled, pleasure continuing to zip through her until she wasn’t sure she could take much more of it, her muscles spent and sore from clutching and clenching and curving into him, around him, trying to pull him deeper inside her, as deep as possible.

Drunk. She almost felt drunk, certainly a little lightheaded as Sirius’s kiss lost its fervor, but not its intensity, his hips slowing to a stop, his cock throbbing inside her. His mouth brushed hers, her lips tingling, his tongue and teeth less trying to devour her and take her apart as they were trying to coax her back to the land of the living.

Her eyes fluttered open when Sirius drew back, lips leaving hers after one last chaste press. Eyes dark at night, Sirius shifted, kneeling between her splayed legs, and wrapped a hand around her knee, lifting her calf onto his shoulder. He slid deeper inside of her and her cunt gave a weak flutter, her body distantly interested in where this was going.

Eyes locked on hers, his teeth biting at his bottom lip, Sirius withdrew until just the head of his cock was inside her, then snapped his hips, driving her up the bed.

Her hands scrambled against the mattress, her fingers knotting in the duvet as a choked whimper fell from her lips.

His brow knit, his lips pulling back from his teeth, the look on his face that of exquisite agony as he thrust inside of her, hard and quick, rougher than before.

The hand he wasn’t using to grip her thigh for leverage slithered down her body, his palm settling on her mound, his thumb strumming her clit.

She shook her head, curls frizzing around her face, damp with sweat and mussed beyond belief. “I can’t. Not again.”

It was too much. The last time, she’d nearly lost consciousness. If he made her come again, she worried she’d never get up, either expire once and for all, or she’d be so addicted to him that she wouldn’t want to leave his bed, his touch ruining her for anyone else.

She reached down, but Sirius smacked her hand in warning.

She couldn’t, it was going to wreck her, send her splintering into a million little pieces she’d never be able to put back together. “Sirius—”

He jerked back, pulling out of her, and brought down his hand, slapping her cunt.

Hermione yelped, back arching, and eyes rolling back into her skull. Close.

“You can,” Sirius grunted, the muscles of his abdomen rippled and danced beneath his sweat-slick skin as he thrust his hips, burying his cock inside of her again. “You can, love, and you will.”

Once again stroking her clit, Sirius pressed her knee toward her chest, and with the next stroke of his cock, he shoved her over the edge, her back arching and her eyes squeezing shut. She choked out a sob of pleasure as her toes curled and her cunt clamped down around him, so tight he hissed through his teeth.

“Hermione, love. Look at me.”

Her lids fluttered open, peering up at him from beneath her lashes. He looked like a tattooed Greek god, his muscles chiseled, his skin covered in a sheen of sweat, and his dark, wavy hair kissing his shoulders. Beautiful barely did him justice. “Hm?”

His jaw clenched, the tendons in his neck stark. Had she a little more energy, she’d have liked to have pulled him down so she could press her lips to his throat, taste his skin, his sweat.

“Can I come inside you?” He grunted, nostrils flaring as he gritted his teeth.

Her eyes dipped down to where his cock, shiny from her arousal, disappeared inside of her. “Yes.” She jerked her head, transfixed by the sight, unable to tear her eyes away. “Come inside me.”

Thank Merlin for contraceptive potions.

Sirius’s head lolled back against his shoulders as he snapped his hips, her name falling off his tongue in a desperate, choked off groan as his fingers bit into her waist so hard she’d probably bruise, his cock buried deep inside of her as he came.

“Sweet fuck.” Sirius just barely managed to fall to the side of her, collapsing against the pillows with a heavy sigh. “Wow. That was…” He chuckled. “Fuck.”

Dazed and a little doped up on endorphins and adrenaline, Hermione chuckled, still catching her breath.

A minute passed in relative silence, save for the sound of their breathing. The sweat on her skin began to cool, making her shiver. Also making her aware of how she was laid out naked atop the covers, not even a sheet available for her to cover herself with.

She turned her head to the side, hair falling in her face. She tucked a curl behind her ear and looked at Sirius.

His eyes were closed, his chest rising and falling with deep, even breaths.

Sirius was asleep.

Hermione shifted, rolling to her back and drawing her arms up over her chest.

He’s just trying to get into your knickers. It’s what he does. He’s just sniffing around, trying to see if you’ll fall for it. And if you do, afterward, he’ll move on. He always does.

Your life isn’t a fairy tale.

Hermione bit the side of her tongue and glared up at the coffered ceiling. What she was not going to do was let fucking Felicity Fawley get inside her head. No. Absolutely not.

Still, she’d known good and well to manage her expectations. Not that she’d had expectations. This entire thing had been unexpected, beyond her wildest fantasies. Had someone told her that morning that Sirius was going to confess to wanting her, she’d have fallen over laughing.

Even so, she’d agreed to come home with knowing what this was, or, at least having a vague enough idea.

Sex, great sex. He’d never said anything about wanting her for anything more. Which was…fine. It was fine. Expected. Who was she to think this would ever, could ever, be something else? She didn’t.

And yet, a tiny voice inside her head whispered what if. What if there was something more to this, to the way he looked at her, the way he smiled, how he kept leaving her notes and stopping by her office and—

Enough.

Her teeth gnawed on the edge of her lip, trying to name the unfamiliar sensation stirring inside of her. It wasn’t regret. She didn’t regret this.

Vulnerable. That was it. She wasn’t used to feeling this intensely vulnerable, not often, and certainly not with someone in this context. Casual. The two were usually diametrically opposed in her book. If she made herself vulnerable, it was because she felt safe enough to do so. And if she felt safe enough to do so, there was a certain degree of intimacy required. Not just the sort of textbook intimate in that you knew the other person had a mole on their arse or that you’d let them inside you or what face they made when they came. Those all were sorts of intimacy but not what she meant. She meant something more. An emotion to prop it all up.

Not that she was opposed to casual sex—not that she had much experience with it, either—but when the sex she’d had had been casual, it hadn’t left her vulnerable because she hadn’t let it. When she’d had her brief fling with Cormac during seventh year, she’d seldom even taken her clothes off. Cormac didn’t know about the stretch marks on her hips or the birthmark above her hipbone. Merlin, he didn’t even know her middle name. There certainly weren’t any feelings at play.

This, though, this was vulnerable. Lying there naked, sweat cooling on her skin, hers, his, a slick trickle of come running down the crack of her arse and pooling beneath on the comforter, her heart beating too quickly beneath her breastbone.

Sirius might not have been her closest friend but he knew her, knew how she took her tea and that her favorite food was Rad Na—same as his. He knew that Quidditch bored her to tears but she put up with because she loved her friends and would support them until her dying breath even if it meant dying of boredom. He knew her hopes and far too many of her fears and now he knew the sounds she made when she came apart, he knew—he knew too much. And she felt too much.

She felt naked in a way that had nothing to do with bare skin and she didn’t like it. Not. One. Bit.

Hermione eased herself off the bed and padded across the room on bare feet, hunting down her clothes. She bit back a sigh, her only regret being that she’d let Sirius literally tear her clothes off in the heat of the moment. Her mending charm-work was excellent, but still, the fact that she’d need to was—

“What’re you doing?”

She spun on her heel, clutching her ripped blouse to her chest. Sirius was propped up on his elbows, a sleepy frown marring his forehead, his lips turned down at the corners.

Hermione cleared her throat. “I’m getting dressed.”

Sirius sat up straighter. “Are you cold?”

A little, but that wasn’t why. “Not really.”

His frown deepened. “Then why are you putting on your clothes?”

She forced a laugh. “I can’t Floo home in the buff, Sirius.”

He was quiet as she slid her knickers up her legs, but she could feel his eyes on her, following her as she moved around the room, gathering up the clothing he’d tossed haphazardly about.

“Is the bed too firm?” he asked after she’d gotten on her bra.

She shook her head.

“Too soft? I can transfigure it. I’d be glad to.”

“Your bed is fine.” Better than fine. His duvet alone had been just about the softest thing she’d ever felt; she could only imagine how fantastically she’d sleep after a night in that bed as opposed to the lumpy twin-sized mattress inside her flat.

From the corner of her eye, she saw Sirius rake his fingers through his hair as he sighed. “I promise I won't hog the covers.”

He was being sweet and he wasn’t supposed to be. He was supposed to smile caddishly and peck her on the cheek, maybe offer her a glass of water, and then walk her to the Floo. Somehow his being sweet made this so much worse, made her chest throb, because it was a near facsimile of what she wanted—what she’d only begun to let herself want—but not quite. Close, but no cigar.

She clenched her back teeth together and gave him a smile that felt wrong on her lips, waxy and fake. “Look, it’s sweet, but you don’t need to do this.”

Sirius swung his legs over the side of the bed. “This?”

She crossed her arms over her bare stomach, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She picked a spot over his shoulder to stare at. “Yes. This. Acting like this is more than what it is.” She shrugged. “I’m a big girl. I can handle—” Bad. Backup. “You don’t need to coddle me or something. I promise.”

He said nothing for so long that she had no choice but to look at him. Sirius managed to look almost expressionless, his face blank. His eyes, though, those were piercing, his gaze sharp and flinty as he stared at her across the room.

“More than what it is,” he repeated. “What exactly is it, Hermione?”

She huffed. “Isn’t it obvious?”

Sirius stood. “Spell it out for me.”

Jesus, was he being deliberately obtuse? If so, his behavior verged on cruelty, making her say it.

She rolled back her shoulders. “A—a tryst.”

“A tryst?” Sirius crossed the room, footsteps slow, his stride measured, stark naked and unashamed.

Hermione stepped back, recouping the distance, keeping him at arms-length. She needed the space or—or else. She dipped her chin. “Yes. A tryst. A one-nighter.”

The words tasted like ash on her tongue.

He continued to stalk the length of the room; each step he took in her direction, she took one backwards until he had her successfully cornered. Her back hit the wall, his hands following on either side of her head, boxing her in. Her pulse stuttered. Trapped.

“Is that what you want?” he asked, voice low and gravelly. “Or is that what you think I want?”

Hermione turned her head to the side, staring at the tendon bulging in his forearm. “That’s hardly a fair question.”

Sirius gripped her chin, yanking her head forward and up, forcing her to look him in the eye. Her heart thudded a violent tattoo against her sternum.

His thumb brushed the swell of her bottom lip, his eyes grave and hard. “Almost as fair as assuming what I want, I’d say.”

She dropped her eyes, his words cutting her off at the knees, sweeping her feet out from underneath her.

Assuming. Her thoughts stuck on that word, her brain turning it over and over and over again until the word itself didn’t seem like much of a word at all.

Hermione blinked hard and fast and slowly lifted her eyes from where she’d been staring at his bare feet.

Never would she have thought of Sirius Black, brash and bold with ink scrawled across his skin and a wicked glint in his eye to match the sinful curve of his sensual mouth, as being vulnerable.

But when she looked at him, really looked at him, looked past the ink and the scars, what she saw was his cock, flaccid against his thigh, and a bruise in the shape of her mouth blooming against his throat. The absence of his usual smirk, not even the ghost of it. A muscle in his jaw jumped, his eyes beseeching and serious as he stared at her.

Sirius looked vulnerable, too.

He sighed, the corners of his mouth furrowing as he lowered his hand, resting it on her shoulder. “Look, if you want to go home, just say the word and I’ll walk you downstairs to the Floo.” Sirius’s jaw worked silently for a moment. “But I’d like you to come back to bed.”

Her eyes flitted across his face, weighing his sincerity before giving herself a mental slap. Sirius was many things, but he’d never given her any reason to call him a liar. If he said he wanted her to come back to bed…he meant it.

“Yeah?” she asked.

His thumb swept against her clavicle, soothing. He nodded. “Yeah.”

Something about her face must’ve looked uncertain because he huffed and said, “Yes, Hermione. I want you to come back to bed. I would’ve preferred you to have never left it in the first place, but here we are.” He cleared his throat, lips twisting wryly. “So, here. If it were up to me, we’d crawl back into bed”—he pointed a finger at her bra and knickers— “none of that, obviously, and we’d cuddle. I like cuddling, for the record. Maybe we’d sleep for a little while and later, I’d wake you up with my head between your thighs.” He frowned thoughtfully. “Somewhere in there I’d probably put you over my knee for putting words in my mouth, but maybe I’d let you off easy for a first-time offense.” His lips twitched. “And in the morning, I’d make you pancakes because I make excellent pancakes.”

His hand slid higher, cupping her jaw as his expression went achingly tender, making her chest pang. “Then, maybe you’d be in the mood to tell me what it is you want. Because I won’t assume.” He shook his head. “But so you know where I stand, leaving is the last thing I want you to do. I wouldn’t have asked you to come home with me if I thought—” He blew out his breath. “That’s not—fuck.” He laughed. “No pressure.”

She didn’t know how to do justice to the feeling of relief and nervousness and anticipation and fear and joy and chagrin tangled up inside her. She was a mess, but something told her Sirius wouldn’t judge her too harshly for it. That maybe, sometimes, he himself was a bit of a mess, too.

Her hands shook as she reached for the center clasp of her bra. She slid the straps down her arms and let the fabric fall to the floor. Then, she pushed against Sirius’s chest, making him take a step back so she could bend and slide her knickers down her legs where they pooled at her feet.

She stood there, naked, her cheeks warm, waiting.

The corner of Sirius’s mouth lifted. His eyes didn’t stray from her face as he swept a hand out toward the bed. “Do you prefer the left or the right?”

She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. “No preference.”

Sirius hummed and rounded the bed, choosing the left side of the bed, the one closest to the window. He drew back the covers and crawled in.

Hermione slid in between the sheets, limbs a little stiff until Sirius threw an arm around her waist, his hand drawing her back into his chest. She shifted, rolling to her side, and his knees tucked up behind hers.

Sometimes I prefer being the little spoon.” Sirius pressed a kiss against the hinge of her jaw. “For future reference.”

 

***

 

Felicity was in the middle of filing her nails into sharp, stiletto-like points when Mr. Thacker came storming down the hall. She tossed her emery board across her desk and reached for the closest file, studying it upside down.

Not that Thacker noticed. He stopped in front of Hermione’s desk and dropped a stack of papers down in front of her with a bang so loud, even Felicity jumped, her desk chair sliding back into the wall.

“Granger.” He took a deep breath, pasting on a poor attempt at a smile. “What, may I ask, is this?”

Beneath her desk, she clutched the hem of her skirt in her fingers, so tight her knuckles cracked. “A draft, sir. For a proposed amendment to the Fiscal Liberties Act of 1972. As I’m sure you know, it granted Muggleborn witches the right to file for divorce, initiate legal contracts, and retain possession of their inheritances and assets, but the language is vague regarding the division of those assets in the event of a divorce. There’s only a rather antiquated mention of dowries and—”

“I am aware of the law.” Thacker cut his eyes. “But what the hell is it doing on my desk?”

She sat up straighter. “It’s a proposal that the language be ratified to eliminate the loophole that leaves witches vulnerable to forfeiture of the marital assets they’re owed, and liable to loss of the monies and assets they owned prior to entering the marriage. It’s also rather vague in terms of custody of children and there’s no mention of alimony or child support. I was hoping you would consider sending it to a committee for review.”

Thacker blinked twice, then leaned forward and chortled, sending a spray of spittle across her desk. “You’re—” he caught his breath, wiping his brow with his shirtsleeve— “you’re joking.”

She wasn’t laughing and she certainly wasn’t about to start any time soon. “No. I’m not. You said you’d consider—”

“You thought that I would consider sending this to a committee for review? This drivel? It’s damn near heretical.” Thacker snorted. “I’m going to give you a bit of advice, so listen up and listening closely.”

Thacker leaned in, the stench of his breath and body odor so foul her throat convulsed. “You’ve got another think coming if you honestly believe a proposal like this will ever pass a committee review, let alone make it in front of the eyes of a single Lord in the Wizengamot.” He rested his palm across the file, getting closer, so close she could see the shot veins in his eyes and the length of wiry hair curling from his nostrils. Too close. “It’s time you figure it out, Granger, that things for you are as good as they’re ever going to get. Better than most of your lot, and with your uppity little attitude, far better than you deserve. I’m doing you a favor, not embarrassing you in front of the whole of England, you understand? A favor, so you’d best be grateful and learn your place before someone decides to show it to you. Forcefully.”

Surprise flickered across Thacker’s face as he was yanked up by the back of his collar, Sirius suddenly there, hauling him away from the desk. When he’d even entered the office, she hadn’t the fuzziest idea, her focus pretty damn well snared by Thacker’s spitting and none too subtle threats.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Sirius growled, fist still clenching Thacker by the back of his robes. He was taller than her boss by several inches and his grip had lifted Thacker up until he was standing on his toes, his face reddening, his collar cutting into his throat just beneath his chin.

Felicity gasped loudly from across the room.

“Unhand me!” Thacker slapped futilely at Sirius’s arms, anywhere he could reach. “Or I’ll—I’ll—”

“Call an auror?” Sirius shoved him off, Thacker stumbling and clutching as his throat as he gasped. “You’re looking at one. Now answer the fucking question.”

Hand still holding his neck, Thacker exhaled, glare flickering to Hermione then back to Sirius. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I was reprimanding an employee. I’m well within my right.”

Reprimanding. As if she’d done something wrong. She’d written that proposal on her time outside of office hours using exactly zero Ministry resources. Not that it mattered because Thacker was a lying arse.

Sirius glowered, the look in his eyes verging on crazed, his fingers twitching at his side where his wand was holstered. “It sounded to me as if you were threatening to use force against a lady.”

Thacker adjusted his robes and lifted his chin, his ruddy complexion redder than normal. “I—I was doing no such thing. Was I, Miss Fawley?”

Across the room, Felicity stood gaping at the scene. Slowly, she shook her head. “No. No, er, Mr. Thacker was only giving Hermione some much-needed career advice.”

Thacker lifted his hands as if to say, see? “There. A misunderstanding.” His rheumy blue eyes met Hermione’s, one of his brows ticking higher. “Though, if Miss Granger disagrees, she’s welcome to file a complaint with HR.”

If that wasn’t a taunt, she didn’t know what was.

She looked at Sirius and jerked her chin. His jaw slid forward, his hands clenching into fists at his sides. Something passed across his eyes, an emotion she couldn’t name.

“It was all just a misunderstanding,” Hermione said. The words tasted bitter on her tongue, all kinds of wrong, against her very nature.

“Well.” Thacker cleared his throat. “Good. Now that you’re no longer confused as to what it was I was saying, why don’t you take your lunch?”

She didn’t even have the chance to grab her purse before Sirius was tugging her out of the office and down the hall, then down another in the opposite direction of the lifts. He turned left, then right, and right again, leading her in a dizzying maze until she had no idea where they were only that the corridor was entirely unfamiliar. Unfamiliar and deserted.

“Where are we—”

He drew to an abrupt stop, his arms wrapping her up and clutching her to his chest in a hug so fierce she could scarcely breathe. His heart pounded, beating so hard she could feel it against her cheek.

“I wanted to kill him,” he murmured, his chin resting atop her head. “I want to gut that bastard for threatening you.”

She pushed against his chest until he stepped back, staring down at her, his jaw tight and his eyes flickering with undisguised rage. “I’m glad you didn’t. Thacker isn’t worth it. He’s—he’s a mean son of a bitch, Sirius, but he isn’t worth it. He’s all bark, okay?”

“All bark.” Sirius shook his head. “He was threatening you, Hermione. He was in your face. He can’t get away with that.”

In a perfect world, he wouldn’t be able to get away with it. He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. But this was no perfect world and Thacker, as loathsome as he was, might’ve been right.

Her proposal would never have passed a committee read, never made it before the Lords, never been passed even if by some miracle, it did make it that far. There were those who were in support of equal rights—Lords Potter, Greengrass, Abbott, and Lady Longbottom—and those staunchly opposed—Lords Malfoy, Lestrange, Nott, Rosier, Black, and Selwyn—with very few straddling the fence, their opinions changing in favor of whoever had most recently lined their pockets like Lords Ogden and Macmillan. The odds were not in her favor, not in the Wizengamot. Even if those undecideds voted in favor of her proposal, it wouldn’t be enough to pass, one vote shy of the requisite majority.

Her world was not perfect.

“There’s no recourse,” she whispered. “You know that. I’ll be lucky if Thacker doesn’t fire me after what happened. If not now, he’ll probably make up some bullshit reason to let me go in the next few weeks. Department cutbacks.”

Sirius rested his hands on her shoulders, his thumbs stroking the sides of her neck. “Why don’t you just quit, love? This job is—it’s not doing anything for you and your talents are being wasted filing papers and fetching tea.”

Quit. Hermione gave a dry, humorless laugh. “You think I haven’t thought about it? I think about it every morning, have done for the past six months.” She bit her lip, shaking her head. “I can’t, Sirius. I need this job. It’s awful and I hate it and—this was my last stupid attempt at actually trying to make a difference doing it, but I can’t just quit.”

His brow drew together. “Why? If it’s making you that unhappy—”

“Some of us have to work for a living.” Oh, that came out harsher than she’d intended. She shut her eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t mean—I just.” Gods. “As much as I hate this, what else would I do? Work for less doing a retail job in the Alley? Here, at least, I’ll get retirement benefits if they don’t eventually take those away from us, too.”

His thumbs brushed her jaw, his forehead resting gently against hers. “You deserve to do something that makes you happy,” he said. “The sorts of things you dreamed about doing. Making a difference in this Gods awful world.” He lifted his head, his eyes boring into hers. “There’s no shame in shifting course. I’m not suggesting you get a job working in a bookshop, not unless you want to, in which case, do it. But there are so many people that would be clamoring for your intelligence, your drive, your persistence, your ingenuity. With NEWTs like yours, they’d snap you up in a heartbeat, love.”

“Like who?” she whispered.

“Loads of people. Nonprofits, creature sanctuaries, reserves.” Sirius shook his head. “I want you to be happy.”

There was a lump in her throat making it difficult for her to breathe, let alone speak. It had only been two weeks since Sirius had taken her home, two weeks since they’d started this, whatever this was. And yet, sometimes the way he looked at her and the way he said things, things like that, made it feel like it had been much longer, or that he wanted this to last for a long time.

The feeling was mutual, but she was only now getting used to the idea that this was real, that she wasn’t going to wake up one morning and find the last two weeks had been a cruel and beautiful dream. Allowing herself to hope for something more…that was going to take some time.

But it didn’t mean she didn’t want it, just like it didn’t mean she didn’t want for Sirius all the things he wanted for her.

She lifted a hand, brushing his hair behind his ear. “What about you? Are you happy?”

He nodded. “I like my job, yes.”

That wasn’t what she was talking about. “I don’t mean being an auror.”

Sirius frowned, his grey eyes searching her face. “With you? Merlin, Hermione, these have been the best two weeks of my—”

She pressed her fingers to his lips, chuckling softly when he nipped at her fingertips. “Not with me. Although, I can’t say I’m not pleased to hear it.”

“Yeah?” His hands dropped to her hips as he walked her back a step, her shoulders hitting the wall softly. He pressed himself against her, rolling his hips into her slowly, showing her exactly how happy with her he was.

Merlin, the man made it hard to think straight, let alone string sentences together and carry out a conversation. Not when the feel of him, growing harder by the minute against her hip made her desperate, needy. Why was he doing to this her?

“That’s not—” His lips closed around the lobe of her ear, sucking. Fuck. “That’s not what I meant, either.”

The desire to let him keep going, keep assaulting her neck with kisses, driving her insane with lust, maybe even letting him ruck her skirt up and do really deliciously dirty things to her inside this abandoned corridor was strong, but somehow she found it in her to shove his shoulders gently.

As always, as soon as she hinted at a no be it spoken or not, Sirius backed off, just like that.

She took a moment to study his face, to really look at him now that he wasn’t threatening to kill her arsehole of a boss.

There were faint bruises beneath his eyes that she’d been almost certain she’d first seen two days ago when he spent the night at her flat. He hadn’t slept much that night, tossing and turning beside her until the light through her window turned a hazy shade of purple then grey, the day dreary and misty cold.

There’d been something on his mind, something plaguing him and each time she’d asked, he’d grinned or smirked or some variation and kissed her quiet.

But she knew, was too perceptive and now too stubborn to simply let it go and drop it.

“Sirius.” She reached out, cupping his jaw, his coarse facial hair prickling her palm. “What is it?”

“It’s nothing.”

She waited.

“It really n—” He sighed. “Fuck. I wish it were nothing. It should be nothing. It’s just—family shit. It shouldn’t even be my problem.”

She knew enough that when it came to his family, it was best to tread carefully. His relationship with his mother was nonexistent, and with his father, too. When it came to Regulus, Sirius seemed to bounce between being outright hostile to oddly playful to gloomy and distant.

But she had to say something. “Do you—do you want to talk about it?”

Sirius’s laugh was dry. “Not particularly.” He took a step to the left and leaned his shoulder against the wall. “It’s just a bunch of bull shit. Reggie keeps hounding me about my familial responsibility and I keep telling him I couldn’t care less about my so-called duty.”

“But?”

Sirius took a deep breath, quickly looking over his shoulder. “Regulus is just about the most self-sacrificing Slytherin I’ve ever met. For him, family ranks above all else, even his own happiness. He’s disgustingly loyal to the family, to the extent where, if I don’t step up, he will, and in doing so he’s going to wind up miserable for the rest of his life.”

That didn’t make any sense. “If he’s so keen on family and tradition, why would it make him miserable?”

Sirius wet his bottom lip and dropped his voice. “For the past six years, Regulus has been seeing someone.”

“And?”

Sirius sighed. “His name is Edwin. Edwin Selwyn. He’s Peter Selwyn’s younger brother.”

All right? And that was a problem, why, exactly?

“Are your parents homophobes in addition to being blood purists?” She wouldn’t have been surprised.

“No, they couldn’t care less who Regulus sees as long as they’re from one of the twenty-eight sacred families.” He rolled his eyes. “In fact, they’d love a marriage alliance with the Selwyns.”

She was still failing to see the problem.

“Only problem is, Reggie and Edwin wouldn’t produce any heirs. Which is all right, seeing as they’re both spares…

The pieces of the puzzle slowly began to rearrange inside her mind.

“If I don’t step up, Reggie will. He’ll put the family first and he’ll wind up miserable and married to someone like Priscilla Parkinson and he’ll be forced to bed the woman until she pops out a son. It would tear him apart but he’d do it. That’s how much my brother cares about familial duty.”

“And you don’t want that.”

Sirius shook his head. “Of course, I don’t. Reggie…” He scrubbed a hand over the lower half of his face. “He’s my brother, and for all we fight and hardly ever see eye to eye, I love him, Hermione. He’s—he’s the best of the lot. I can’t just let him throw his life away. Not because of me.”

Hermione traced his jaw with her fingers, his stubble rough against her fingertips. She wasn’t sure how to help, or even if she could, but she was desperate to try. “You shouldn’t have to throw your life away, either. It’s not fair.”

Life wasn’t fair, but that didn’t mean she didn’t desperately wish it could be. Just a little. Just for him and maybe, maybe, maybe if there was a bit of spare luck left over, for her, too.

Sirius stared down at her with dark, solemn eyes and reached for her hand, pressing his lips to the inside of her wrist. “I have no intention of doing that. None, whatsoever. I’m trying to convince him to tell our parents to fuck off. Cissa’s boy, Draco, he’s engaged to one of the Greengrass girls. Let him have two sons, and the second can be heir if the continuity of the Black line matters so much. If they try to argue it’s too distant a stretch, I’d be happy to remind them about all the inbreeding.”

Sirius laughed dryly.

“Honestly? If I had my way? I’d burn the whole thing down, set the whole damn family and everything it stands for on fire. Maybe if we’re lucky something decent might come from the ashes.”

 

***

 

Hermione was engrossed in Bathilda Bagshot’s The Decline of Pagan Magic when her Floo roared to life and Sirius stumbled from the hearth.

Correction—a drunk Sirius stumbled from the hearth. It figured—between work and wives and families, he, Remus, and James weren’t able to get together for what they liked to call their Marauder Meetings nearly as frequently as they had when they were younger. Apparently, they couldn’t handle their liquor as well as they could when they were younger, either. Not that she minded a drunk Sirius, but even if she did, she couldn’t complain seeing as she’d told him he could come over if he wanted.

“Hermione!” He spotted her on the sofa, his face lighting up. Distracted, he tripped on the edge of her rug and stumbled, landing against the sofa with an oof.

“Careful.” She smiled and marked her spot, setting her book aside. “I’m assuming you had a good time?”

She wrinkled her nose and bit her lip. He certainly smelled as if he’d had a good time, the cinnamon alcohol of his firewhisky clinging to his breath.

Sirius tugged off his boots and threw his socked feet up on the arm of the couch, curling up with his head on her lap. He reached for her hand and set it on top of his head in an unspoken request for her to play with his hair.

“A grand time was had by all.” He yawned. “Hermione?”

“Yes?”

“Hi.” He smiled at her.

She laughed. “You’re very drunk.”

He grinned and turned his head, kissing the inside of her wrist. “I am not sober, no.” He shut his eyes and hummed, the sound rattling around in his chest, close to a purr. “Hermione?”

She bit her cheek. “Yes, Sirius?”

“Hermione,” he repeated. “Daughter of Helen.”

She smiled. “Yes, my parents thought they were clever, didn’t they?”

Sirius stared up at her with bleary eyes. “When am I going to meet your parents?”

That was—not what she was expecting. “You want to meet my parents?”

Sirius reached up and patted her hand, urging her to keep touching his head. “I’ve never met anyone’s parents before. But I think I probably should.”

She understood what he hadn’t quite said—he’d never met a girl’s parents before. Not someone’s whom he was seeing.

She gnawed on her lip.

“Do you not want me to?” He frowned.

“No! That’s not it. I just…” She struggled for the right words. “I didn’t think you wanted to.”

“’m not saying it’ll be a walk in the park. But in the wise words of Ringo Starr, it don’t come easy. You got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues.” He smiled. “Your parents matter to you. You matter to me. Ipso facto ergo something else in Latin, I should meet them.” He shut one eye. “I arrived at that conclusion on my own, but it was confirmed by Prongs and Moony, so I feel pretty confident in my judgment.”

Her breath stuttered in her chest. “Remus and James? You—you told them? About me?”

Sirius opened both his eyes and blinked up at her. “They asked if I had met someone.”

“And you told them you were seeing me?”

Telling their friends hadn’t been expressly forbidden, but they had agreed to wait until they knew where this was going, or if it was going anywhere at all. No reason to drag anyone else into it if they didn’t need to. Maybe after two or three months, but it had only been one month. Four weeks and three days, but who was counting?

“Well, I told them I was quite sure I’d met my soulmate. And then they did a lot of asking questions until I told them who. You.”

She wasn’t sure whether to laugh at that or—or—or—

Soulmate,” she croaked. Those were right up there beside divining fate and predicting death via tea leaves and cow entrails. Though, maybe, just maybe, a tiny part of her had always found the idea romantic. That alone was probably a strike against it. “That’s—there’s no such thing as soulmates, Sirius.”

His lips twitched into a frown. “You’re too young to be a cynic.”

Soulmate. Holy shit.

“You’re drunk,” she said, heart pounding.

That was the only explanation that made any sense.

“I am,” he said. “But riffing off the wise words of…I don’t know, what’s his face, tomorrow I will be sober and you will still be a cynic.”

“I’m not a cynic,” she argued.

For a moment, Sirius simply stared up at her, eyes narrowed. Slowly, he smiled, his expression softening into something tender. “You’re not. You’re an idealist. It’s one of the reasons I love you.”

Her heart climbed into her throat. “You’re—”

“Drunk?” Sirius grinned. “I know what I’m saying, Hermione. I am in love with you.” He reached up, grabbing her hand. He held it to his chest, his heartbeat steady against her palm. “I’m not asking you to say it back. I just want you to know.” He squeezed her hand. “You, Hermione, you want to make the world a better place. Well, congratulations, love. You’ve gone and done it. My life would be far worse without you in it.”

 

***

 

Hermione received twelve NEWTs, all O’s. She has spent the last eleven twelve months working as a junior clerk within the Wizengamot Administration Services office. She has filed thousands of court documents, fetched hundreds of cups of tea for her superiors, and worked—on average—seventy-two eight-six hours a week. For choosing to stick it out, Hermione was:

  1. A masochist
  2. Delusional
  3. A moron
  4. All of the—

“Granger!”

Hermione shut her eyes. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six—

“Granger, I am talking to you! Have you gone bloody deaf?”

--five, four, three, two, one.

“I’m sorry. You were saying, Mr. Thacker?” she smiled.

He harrumphed. “Are you deaf? Why didn’t you answer me the first time?”

She had been trying not to commit homicide. She’d heard Azkaban was extra chilly this time of year.

“I was—” She shook her head. “It won’t happen again.”

Thacker studied her closely. “I need you to fix the files. I can’t find a damn thing.”

“Fix the files? I just reorganized them last month.”

“Well put them back,” Thacker said as if doing so wouldn’t take her hours. Or, if he knew, he certainly didn’t care.

This was what her life had become. Filing papers, most of them regarding cases that slowly chipped away at her freedoms and liberties bit by bit until one day she and all the other Muggleborn witches and wizards would wonder how things had gotten so awful. Discrimination and injustice were insidious like that, disguised as bureaucratic nonsense, sinister acts folded into otherwise innocuous bills. A slow erosion until one day, it might be perfectly legal to toss her in Azkaban for sneezing. Legally sanctioned, not even malfeasant. She refused to have a hand in it for any longer.

Hermione stood. “No.”

Thacker frowned. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said no,” she said, a little louder, her voice a little firmer.

No?” Thacker cackled. “Funny. Get to it.”

You deserve to do something that makes you happy. The sorts of things you dreamed about doing. Making a difference in this Gods awful world.

“I said no.” Her heart raced, climbing up inside her throat, her vision tunneling as her fists curled. “I quit.”

Thacker guppied like a fish on land. “You can’t just—”

“I can.” Hands trembling, she scooped up the three photo frames on her desk and her favorite quill, the one Sirius had given her for her birthday last year before she’d had the slightest dream they’d ever be together, and juggled all of it in her hands. “And I just did.”

The man sputtered. “But you—you—two weeks’ notice!”

Strongly suggested, sure, but she wasn’t delusional. She wasn’t going to get a reference from Thacker, certainly not a decent one, so why stand on formalities or what was professional? Thacker wouldn’t know the definition of the word if it bit him in the arse. So, no. Fuck that noise.

“Consider my resignation tendered effective immediately.” She turned to Felicity who was smirking. “You will need to file that seeing as my job here? It’s done.”

The smile slipped from Fawley’s face as Hermione shouldered past her toward the door.

Moving on autopilot, Hermione wasn’t sure where she was going until a man dressed in dark crimson robes knocked into her shoulder. Dark crimson robes were worn by junior aurors. Without meaning to, she’d wandered down to the Auror Office. Inside, the bullpen was rowdy. Aurors moving to and fro, no one paying her any mind until a head of messy black hair snapped up, green eyes widening behind his lenses.

Harry stood from his desk and jogged across the room. “Hermione?” His smile faltered. “Is everything all right? You look a little...” He winced. Merlin, she must’ve looked a sight for him to pull a face like that. “Can I get you some tea?”

She shook her head and forced a smile. “I’m—I was actually looking for—”

“Hermione?” Sirius rounded the corner, brow pinched. “Is everything okay?” He took one look at her, eyes roving from her top to bottom. His lips pinched. “What’s wrong?”

Without meaning to, she’d gone to Sirius. It hadn’t crossed her mind to track him down and yet here she was, standing in front of the person she wanted to see most.

Harry raised a brow, backing away slowly. A sly smile toyed at the edges of his lips. “All right. I’m just gonna go”—he jerked his head behind him—“somewhere over there. Away. Far, far away. Hermione, if you want to talk, you know where to find me.”

Sirius grabbed her by the wrist, dragging her out of the Auror office and down the hall, stopping near an alcove just shy of the lift. He set his hands on her shoulders and stared down at her. “Talk to me. Who do I need to kill?”

She huffed. “No one.”

“Then how come you look like you’re about to murder someone?”

She wasn’t so much angry as holding on to tension, tension she didn’t need to carry anymore. She didn’t have to smile tightly and do all the asinine, demoralizing, slightly degrading tasks Thacker assigned to her. She didn’t have to put up with Felicity Fawley’s snide remarks and taunting slurs. She didn’t have to keep fighting the tide, trying to save a sinking ship by shoveling water as quickly as she could, the only tool at her disposal a teaspoon and her own resilience.

She could just—breathe. She could just breathe, the weight of the world no longer baring down on her.

“I quit,” she blurted.

Sirius’s brows rose. “You what?”

She cleared her throat, shifting the frames in her arms, her quill sliding into the crook of her elbow. “I quit. My job. I quit.”

“What—did something happen? Did Thacker—”

Hermione shook her head. “I’d had enough. I just—I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Sirius stared at her, a slow grin splitting his face. “Hermione.”

His smile was contagious. “Yeah?”

“You did it.” He laughed. “You fucking did it. You quit. You’re free.”

She had quit.

Quit.

Her heart thudded, tripped, faltered.

Quit.

Unemployed.

She was out of work. No paycheck. Her landlord wouldn’t accept her righteousness in place of rent money. How was she supposed to pay that or for food or—

“Hey.” Sirius grabbed her jaw, forcing her to look at him. “Breathe. Slowly.”

Her breaths came quicker.

“I—” She scratched at the robes near her neck. “How am I going to pay my bills? Afford my rent?” She was itchy. “I shouldn’t have done this. I was impulsive. I shouldn’t—”

“Hermione.” He snatched the frames from her and set them on the ground at his feet, then snagged her hands, holding them firmly between his own. He adjusted his stance, widening his legs, coming closer to her eye-level. “You need to breathe or you’re going to pass out.”

Didn’t he realize this was a disaster? How could he not see that? She’d had a plan, she always had a plan, and it was to stick out the job until she had enough money saved to pursue something else. Maybe she’d have done that in a year or two years, but not now. She’d had a plan and now she had nothing.

“It’s going to be okay.” He dropped her hands and grabbed the sides of her head, forcing her to look at him. “You are going to be okay. You’ll find a new job. I promise.”

And if she didn’t? Even still, if she did, what if it took months? She didn’t have that sort of emergency fund.

“Until then?” she whispered. “What am I supposed to do? I’ve got enough saved for—”

“Don’t worry about that,” Sirius said.

Easy for him to say. “Three months, Sirius. I have enough saved for—"

“I’ll take care of it.”

Her mouth moved, but she could find her voice, let alone the words to actually speak.

“Your rent, anything.” How his eyes managed to be so intense and yet tender at the same time defied logic. “You just focus on figuring out what you want to do next, what makes you happy. I’ll take care of everything else.”

“You’ll—you’ll take care of it?” She swallowed and her neck prickled, stomach twisting. “I don’t want your money, Sirius.”

His brow pinched. “Hermione—”

No. I’m not some charity case. I don’t need a handout because I chose to quit my job and now I’m—”

His mouth cut off her words, swallowing her argument. Of all the insufferable ways to quiet her. That man. Hermione bit his bottom lip, not so hard to draw blood but it had better bloody well hurt.

Sirius hissed against her lips, a growl rumbling up his throat. “Stubborn witch.” His fingers squeezed her hips. “You’re not a charity case and it’s not a handout.” His breath ghosted across her mouth. “You are the bravest, kindest, most fucking bullheaded woman I know, and I—dammit, Hermione, I love you. Let me help you.”

The backs of her eyes stung and her throat narrowed. “Sirius.”

The thought of accepting his offer, no matter how genuine his motivation was, wounded her pride.

He lifted his head and tucked a curl behind her ear. “Move in with me.”

Her heart stopped.

“What?” she croaked.

“Move in with me,” he repeated, cupping her jaw and staring down at her. His face was lined with tension, his expression resolute, decided. “Fuck your flat, it’s awful and no offense, but your bed is murder on my back. And your shower is too small for me to wash properly, let alone shag you in. Move in with me. It’s the logical decision.”

Logical. Logical.

“It’s—we’re—I’m—” She faltered, her excuses dying on her tongue, paling in the face of Sirius’s unwavering expression.

Too soon. They’d only been together two months, not quite even. But her flat was awful, not that that was a decent enough reason to move in together, but he loved her and she—she was there, even if she hadn’t said it yet. She’d mouthed the words once when she was sure he was asleep. But she hadn’t given voice to them, not yet, because there was still a part of her, a tiny part that was terrified this was all too good to be true. Things like this, this good, didn’t happen to her. It wasn’t logical—fear rarely was—but she worried that as soon as she said the words, it would make it real, and as soon as it was real and she acknowledged how good her life was becoming, something would happen to rip the rug out from under her.

It had happened before. When she’d gotten her letter to Hogwarts, she’d been thrilled. Over the moon because she’d finally fit somewhere, unlike her primary school where her classmates had either ignored her or teased her mercilessly. Within minutes of stepping on the Hogwarts Express, she’d been called names she’d never heard of before, had been knocked into and shoved so hard she’d stumbled and fallen onto her rear in front of an open compartment. Her only saving grace had been that that compartment had been occupied by Harry, who became her first friend.

The same thing had happened when she’d first gotten her job. The wool had been snatched from her eyes in no time at all, her understanding that fairness and justice were words not everyone knew, or if they did, they didn’t care. They certainly did live by them.

The thought of that happening with Sirius, of finally letting down her guard and letting herself love him, letting it be known and then losing it, made her stomach ache so fiercely she feared she might vomit.

“Say yes,” Sirius pleaded. “Say yes, Hermione.”

Brave. He’d called her brave, believed it.

And so did she.

It was on the tip of her tongue, tickling, persistent. “I—”

Footsteps slapped against the tile floor, coming closer, rounding the corner. Sirius’s hand spasmed against her jaw as Regulus, of all people, paused in the middle of the hall. His chest rose and fell with the rapidity of his breath. He adjusted the dark green cravat at his throat and stood a little straighter, marching the rest of the way down the hall, his eyes locked on Sirius who dropped his hand from her cheek and stepped forward, placing her behind him.

“Reggie,” Sirius greeted, voice tight. With a quick jerk of his head, he flicked his hair out of his face.

Regulus’s lips pressed together so tightly they turned white at the seams. “Father’s dead.”

Sirius blinked several times before his shoulders rose on a weighty inhale, sagging when he blew out his breath. “When—”

“Just now.” Regulus’s lips trembled when he spoke, but his voice remained steady. “Within—within the hour. I came straight here.”

At his sides, Sirius’s hands opened and closed, clenching and unclenching into fists as he grappled with the news.

She didn’t know what to do, what to say. Taking a step forward, Hermione rested her hand on his shoulder. Sirius turned his cheek, giving her a thin smile over his shoulder.

“Sirius,” Regulus repeated, this time his voice sounding strained like he was on the verge of begging. For what, exactly, she had no idea.

Ignoring his brother, Sirius turned the rest of the way, facing her. He cupped her cheek, his thumb stroking the space beneath her eye, the rough swirls of his thumbprint soothing as they brushed the thin skin. His eyes danced over her face, the look in them enigmatic and guarded in a way that put a lump in her throat.

“I have to go take care of a few things,” he murmured. His throat jerked, bobbing as he swallowed. “I’ll—I’ll be in touch, okay?”

She nodded. “Okay. I’m—I’m sorry.”

Less for the loss of his father but because whatever things he had to go take care of seemed to be weighing on him greatly. He’d made no bones about how much he hated dealing with his family.

The words felt trite, but she felt awkward saying more with Regulus in earshot.

He gave her a tight smile and leaned in, brushing his lips across her forehead. He stepped back, hand skimming her jaw before it dropped, the absence of his touch leaving her cold.

Sirius turned and without looking back over his shoulder, strode off down the hall, past Regulus, around the corner, out of sight.

Regulus stared at her for a moment, head cocking to the side, a slight crease between his brows. His mouth opened like he was going to say something to her, then shut, changing his mind. He jerked his chin in a nod, then followed Sirius, the sound of his footsteps petering off until the hall was silent and she was alone.

 

***

 

Sirius,

I’m sure you’re extremely busy, so I won’t bother you with a long note. I just wanted to write to let you know I’m thinking of you. I wish there was some way I could help.

xx.

Hermione

 

Sirius,

I’m worried about you. It’s been three days since…since. I understand you’re probably dealing with a lot, considering your brother and your mother. Your whole family, really. Or maybe you’re just processing it all. Grief is strange like that if that’s what you’re feeling. I don’t mean to presume how you feel. Maybe you don’t want to talk about your feelings at all. That’s fine. But if you could just send me a brief message letting me know you’re all right I’d appreciate it.

Yours,

Hermione

 

Sirius,

It’s been over a week and I’m out of my mind worrying about you. The Prophet reported that the funeral will be held tomorrow. I’m not sure if you’re going or if you’re holed up in your flat…I don’t know. I tried Flooing, but it’s disconnected so I couldn’t get through, not even to call. And your wards are up, so.

Please write to me. If you’re going to the funeral and you want me to be there, just say the word.

Yours,

Hermione

 

Dear Miss Granger,

Thank you for applying for our job opening. While your NEWT scores are impressive, we have decided to pursue other candidates whose qualifications more closely align with our needs at this time.

We appreciate your interest and wish you all the best.

Clarence Whitman

Head of Human Resources

Schaffer, Hopkirk, and Associates—Creatures Welfare Attorneys at Law

 

Sirius,

I saw the photos of the funeral in the Prophet. I considered just showing up, but I didn’t want to intrude or—I figured it might have made a scene. It looks like half of Wizarding Britain showed up, though. Priscilla Parkinson was certainly there. The nerve of that woman, hanging all over you when your father just died. Skeeter now believes that you’re an item. She has no shame. She wrote, speculating that you’re going to claim the Black title and that of course, you’ll be looking for a wife.

Sorry, I don’t mean to bother you with stupid Prophet drivel, but I haven’t heard from you so I don’t know anything other than what’s being reported. I asked Harry and he said he hadn’t heard from you, either, but apparently James says you’re busy fending off your family’s bullshit. Whatever that means. He didn’t seem to know, but it’s still more than me.

If you could just let me know you’re okay I’d feel much better. You can talk to me.

Yours,

Hermione

 

Dear Miss Granger,

Thank you for interest in the opening we posted. Unfortunately, the position has been filled.

We appreciate the time it took you to apply and encourage you to apply for open positions with us in the future.

We wish you all the best.

Artem Philips

Administration Services, Welsh Reserve

 

Miss Granger,

I appreciate you taking the time to write enquiring after any vacant positions here at Tomes and Scrolls. Unfortunately, we aren’t in need of any assistance at the moment, but we might require another helping hand closer to the start of the next term, in September. For stocking, perhaps.

Kinds regards,

Wilhelmina Abbott

 

Sirius,

It’s been two weeks. Please say something. Please.

H

 

***

 

Hermione crushed the newspaper in her hands.

Sirius is the New (Lord) Black

By Rita Skeeter

According to my inside sources at both the Ministry and Gringotts, Sirius Black, 38, has claimed his title—

She quit reading, fingers shaking as she hastily folded the paper. Beneath the byline was a photo of Sirius, his deep garnet robes impressive, as he stepped through the front door of Gringotts, lifting a hand to ward off the cameras being shoved in his stoic face. On his finger was a gleaming ring bearing the Black family crest and circling it, the family motto. Toujours Pur.

Always Pure.

Hermione pressed a hand to her lips, bile rising in her throat, her stomach churning, heaving.

Black heir and all it entailed. He’d told her he didn’t want it, would never accept it, and yet he had. He’d made his choice and it wasn’t her. It was family and duty, and—why? It didn’t make sense, unless he hadn’t meant the things he’d said. Telling her he loved her, asking her to move in.

It didn’t feel right, that Sirius could have been that cruel, but nothing in these past four weeks had felt right.

Four weeks, a month, of radio silence and this was why. Why he hadn’t answered her letters or opened his Floo, why she hadn’t been able to get close enough to his flat—his wards turning the building into a fortress—to even knock on his door.

She’d known it. This, all of it, had been too good to be true.

Hermione clenched her eyes shut, refusing to cry. She took several deep breaths and stood, stomach still roiling, and stumbled over to the fireplace. She grabbed a handful of Floo powder and tossed it inside, whispering the address and sticking her head through.

“Hermione?” Remus appeared in front of the fireplace, frowning softly. “Is everything all right?”

She floundered. “I—I saw the paper.”

Remus grimaced. “I did, too.”

She cleared her throat. “Did you know?”

He dipped his chin. “He strongly hinted at it in his last letter.”

A letter. Letters.

“He’s written to you?”

Remus nodded. “Not often, but he’s been in touch enough for me to get the gist of what was happening.” His brow furrowed. “Hasn’t he written to you?”

There it was, her answer. He hadn’t been avoiding the whole world, just her.

She shook her head, chest aching and stomach creeping into her throat. She hated how his hazel eyes filled with pity.

“Hermione—”

“I should go,” she blurted.

Remus’s eyes widened. “No. Come through. I’ll make you a cup of tea and—Andromeda brought her lemon pie over. We can have a slice.”

Her mouth filled with sour spit, the sound of Mrs. Tonks’s lemon pie off-putting, enough to make her nearly lose her breakfast. Not that she’d eaten much more than toast. She had no appetite. “No. Thank you. I’m just going to lie down.”

Remus sighed. “Please, come through.”

She shook her head. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t smile and pretend to be all right when she was anything but. “Bye, Remus.”

“Hermione—”

She lifted her head out of the fireplace and cut off the connection. She stood, knees trembling as she stumbled over to the couch, collapsing against the misshapen cushions.

You’re an idealist. It’s one of the reasons I love you.

An idealist. No, she was an idiot. Foolish for staying that first night, letting him hold her, play pretend. Letting herself love him, letting herself believe that Sirius Black actually loved her, or if he had, that he loved her enough to choose her, put her, put them first. Foolish for getting her hopes up and dropping her guard and forgetting that things like this, this good, could never happen to her.

That cunt Felicity was right.

Her life wasn’t a fairytale.

Instead, her life was beginning to look increasingly like a cautionary tale for people who forgot their place in the world.

A complete and total nightmare.

 

***

 

How stupidly unjust that Pepper-up cost four galleons when Sober-up cost two.

Four galleons was too much. By her math, she could afford to stay in her flat for three more months, if and only if she eliminated any and all extraneous spending. Rent, groceries—only the barest of necessities. She’d even taken to steeping her tea bags twice.

Well, so much for her trip to the store. She’d caught some sort of bug and she couldn’t afford to be sick, quite literally. Not now, not when she had nothing saved in the event of an emergency landing her in St. Mungo’s, and not when she was avidly hunting for work, any work at this point.

Hermione set the phial of Pepper-up back on the shelf and left the Apothecary. She’d just have to make do, maybe come up with some homeopathic remedy using the scant ingredients in her cupboard. She wasn’t even sure what was wrong with her. For the past week, she’d vacillated between bouts of supreme nausea and having no appetite, to lethargy so severe she could barely crawl out of bed.

Hopefully, it wasn’t something truly severe, but wouldn’t that be her luck? Everything else had gone to utter hell, why not add an illness on top of it all?

She didn’t mean to be glib or tempt fate or whatever, but it was hard to be optimistic when she was practically penniless and broken-hearted. It was true, the higher you climbed, the harder you—

“Ow, watch it,” she hissed. The woman who’d knocked into her didn’t even bother stopping to help her up, instead leaving Hermione on her arse on the cobblestone ground in the middle of the Alley.

Perfect. She could add a bruised tailbone to her growing list of maladies.

Huffing, Hermione braced herself on her palms and made to stand. Oh no. Her stomach gave a lurch, and she swallowed. She would not throw up in public. She would not throw up in public. She took a deep breath in through her nose and pressed her hands to the stone ground, ready to attempt to stand the rest of the way, when a pair of dragonhide boots stopped in front of her.

She lifted her eyes, throat narrowing, and heart freezing.

He looked good, then again, he always did. Black hair hung in a silk curtain above his shoulders, his scruff-covered jaw clenched, and his grey eyes wide as he stared down at her.

“Hermione.” He extended a hand, the one happening to bear his signet ring.

She ignored it and stood up by herself, crossing her arms over her stomach so her hands wouldn’t tremble too obviously by her sides. “Lord Black.”

Her voice didn’t quiver, a point in her favor. He might’ve broken her heart, but she would not let him see her cry. She might be on the fast-track to being penniless, but at least she’d still have her pride.

But it was a close call. Her eyes blurred and her nose stung, her throat burning as she clenched her back teeth together. Oh, no. She was going to lose it. The back of her throat thickened and a film of tears descended over her vision. It was just a matter of time before they spilled over.

Hermione plowed past him, headed in the opposite direction of the Leaky. It didn’t matter. She’d hide in a store, any store until the coast was clear and she could creep back into the street and Floo home. Her stomach couldn’t handle apparition.

A hand closed around her elbow.

She swallowed and held still the best she could when her knees were shaking and her heart galloping, her stomach churning and creeping up higher and higher.

“So that’s it, then,” Sirius murmured. His grip tightened, forcing her to look at him over her shoulder. His grey eyes were slightly bloodshot, but even that didn’t detract from how stupidly beautiful he was. Beautiful and not hers. His jaw slid forward, his eyes narrowing into slits that made her sweat. Fuck, it was too cold out to be sweating like this and yet the sweat dripping down her neck was cool, her skin clammy. “Not with a bang but with a fucking whisper.”

Hermione tore her arm from his grasp and took a deep breath, her vision blurring, tunneling, another slick trail of sweat sliding down her spine beneath her blouse. “I don’t know what you mean.”

His laugh sounded wrong. “I never took you to be cruel.” He bared his teeth in a poor attempt at a smile. Maybe it was a sneer, her vision was too blurry. “Miss Granger.”

Cruel, her? She didn’t know what any of that meant, but it didn’t matter because his words hit their mark, her heart aching and stomach roiling and—

Her stomach spasmed, hot, sour bile rushing up her throat as she crunched forward and vomited her meager lunch all over Sirius’s dragonhide boots.

Her lips and throat burned, her cheeks stinging with mortification, as she stood. Had she not been dizzy, she might’ve found the look of disgust mingled with shock and something else on his face amusing, maybe even a smidge vindicating.

But she didn’t. Not when her heart was still broken and her throat on fire and her pride, what remained of it, bruised.

Instead, she felt a sinking sense of dread in her still churning stomach, and ran.

 

***

 

Hermione stared at the wall of Ginny and Harry’s bedroom, finding shapes in the damask wallpaper.

Beside her, Ginny shifted, her head hanging off the side of the bed, her red hair flowing to the floor in a copper waterfall. How she didn’t get dizzy lying like that, Hermione had no idea. Just the thought of all that blood rushing to her head made Hermione ill. Which was the last thing she needed.

Ginny cleared her throat. “So you really threw up on his—”

“Yes.”

“And you’re absolutely certain it’s because you’re—”

Yes, Ginny.”

She’d spent the money she’d saved by not buying Pepper-up on a Muggle pregnancy test. Unless it was a false positive, Hermione was pregnant. Very pregnant. She snorted to herself. Hard to be a little pregnant. It was all or nothing.

Gods, she was losing it, barely hanging on by a thread.

Ginny rolled over, heaving herself to sitting. She set a hand on Hermione’s knee and smiled in a way that was probably meant to look encouraging or soothing but wound up making her look a little constipated. Not that she could fault Ginny. This whole thing was a clusterfuck. Of course, she didn’t know what to say. Hermione didn’t know what to say and she was the one currently unemployed, single, and pregnant.

“Have you—I mean, do you think you’ll…” Ginny coughed. “I know it’s all so…new.” It was. As soon as she’d upchucked over Sirius’s boots, her brain had done the math, and she’d scurried off to the nearest Muggle chemist before popping over to her flat. She’d immediately taken the test and all within an hour of running into him had learned that she was going to have a baby. Maybe. Which was what she figured Ginny was getting at. “Do you know what you want to do?”

What she wanted. Ha. Hermione wanted loads of things. As for the having of them…

“I don’t know,” she confessed, her voice sounding vague and little fuzzy to her own ears. “I—”

Immediately after seeing the little pink plus sign appear in the window of the plastic test, her brain had gone into overdrive.

She’d taken her contraceptive potion religiously, every month on time. The typical failure rate was seven percent, but with perfect use, the rate dropped to one failure among one hundred witches.

There was something achingly ironic that Hermione Granger— poor, unemployed Muggleborn— had become part of the one percent.

It was early, must’ve been. Her cycles had never been very regular, and she’d been under a decent amount of stress so she hadn’t thought anything of not having her period. It was early, so early she could go to a healer and have it taken care of. But for her—and any other Muggleborn witch—that would require signed permission from the—the father. Fucking archaic.

Alternatively, she could go into Muggle London and go to a clinic. That was an option. But for all that she supported that option, that access, wholeheartedly, just thinking about going through with it made her chest ache.

It was stupid, illogical, but if there was any hope left inside of her, any residual idealism, she couldn’t help but think it had gone into—what was she supposed to call it? It wasn’t a baby, not yet. But it could be.

Her lower lip wobbled. A baby. Hers and his and—

“Oh, Hermione.” Ginny’s arms wrapped around her, squeezing her tight. “It’s going to be okay.”

She choked on a laugh. “It’s not. But thanks for lying. I mean, trying.”

Ginny sighed and drew back. “Are you going to tell him?”

She didn’t want to. The thought of saying it to him made her ill, or maybe that was just going to be her life for the next three months, more maybe. Constant nausea, so far, the concept of morning sickness utter bogus. She didn’t know. She’d never been pregnant before. It was new and she wasn’t too proud to admit it was scary, scarier even because she was alone.

But as much as she loathed the idea of telling him, he deserved to know. Maybe he hadn’t really cared for her, but she’d seen him with Harry, with his friends, seen the way his eyes lit up when Remus and Tonks talked about their baby. Maybe it would be different. He didn’t have to love her to love it.

Hermione sniffled. “I should. But seeing as he never answered any of my letters…”

Ginny scoffed. “It’s as much his responsibility as it is yours. If he doesn’t reply, well, then we’ll take out a full-page advert in the Prophet. I’d like to see him try to ignore that.”

Her swollen eyelids slipped shut. Hell, the Prophet. She could already imagine the sort of field day Skeeter would have once she found out about this, not to mention the awful things everyone else would say about her.

Sirius Black’s muddy little secret.

A blight on the Black family.

Toujours pur, my arse.

“Thanks, Gin,” she murmured. “But I don’t want to do that.”

Ginny rubbed her shoulder. “What do you want?”

She opened her mouth, about to say, for none of this to have ever happened, but that wasn’t true. She wanted, desperately, for the world to be fair and if it couldn’t be, at the very least she wanted someone by her side to fight tooth and nail to make the world a little better than it was. Someone like Sirius. No. Not like Sirius. Sirius. That’s what she wanted.

“I think I’m going to head home,” she said, ignoring the question.

“You can stay here,” Ginny argued. “Harry won’t mind. You know that.”

She did. But she didn’t want to play third wheel, not tonight. “Thanks. But I think I just want to be alone right now.”

It doesn’t have to be you against the world. Not just. It gets lonely after a while.

She already was.

Ginny walked her downstairs to the Floo. “Please let me know if you need anything. I won’t say anything to Harry, not until—if—you want me to. But anything, Hermione. Just say the word.”

Hermione bit the inside of her cheek and nodded, resolve crumbling. She was sick and tired of crying but if she couldn’t stop the tears from coming, the least she wanted was to cry in the solitude of her flat where no one could see.

The green flames of the Floo roared around her. She grabbed the fireplace, steadying herself, and took a deep breath. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up.

A throat cleared. Hermione gasped and had her wand in her hand before she’d even opened her eyes, her arm extended out in front of her.

The hex died on her tongue as Sirius met her eyes across the room. Her arm dropped to her side, her shoulders slumping against the worn brick of her fireplace.

“Were you even going to tell me?” he whispered, skipping the greeting.

She took a deep breath. “Tell you what?”

He lifted his hand and her heart stopped. Clenched in his fist was the cardboard box belonging to her pregnancy test. She’d left it on her coffee table and beside it the positive test itself, in her taste to Floo over to Ginny’s.

“Were you going to tell me?” he repeated, voice hoarse.

“Would it have mattered?” she countered.

Sirius stared. “Would it—” He scoffed. “You’re a lot of things, Hermione Granger, but I swear on my life I never took you for a coward.”

Her chest burned, an angry flush working its way up her chest. “How dare you?” She clenched her wand in her fist and stepped closer, stopping on the opposite side of her coffee table.

“Me? How dare I?” Sirius stood and tapped the center of his chest. “Let’s talk about you. Be honest, were you just going to keep it a secret? Expect me not to ask any questions? Act like it wasn’t mine? Like I couldn’t put two and two together?” His voice broke, his throat working. “Or were you just going to—to take care of it? And I’d be none the wiser?”

She was shaking, her hands trembling. “Honest? You want to talk about honesty? Fine. Let’s talk about how you told me you loved me—”

“You never said it back!” Sirius shouted, hands grabbing at his hair. “You never even said it back, Hermione.”

She clenched her jaw. “You know what? I’m glad I didn’t.” His eyes shuttered, his lips parting. She steeled her resolve. “I’m glad I didn’t say it back because now I know you didn’t mean it. Don’t you dare try to lecture me about honesty or decency or bravery when you didn’t even have the balls to write me back or explain—explain anything. A month and nothing. So, no, maybe I wouldn’t have told you because how could I think it would make even a tiny bit of difference? You made your choice, Sirius. You made it perfectly clear where I stand so why would—why would this”—she dropped her hands, for the first time touching her stomach— "be any different? You don’t get to have a say in this.”

He stared at her. Above the mantle, her clock ticked, ticked, ticked, her heart offbeat, too fast.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” he whispered. “You—I didn’t—write me what?”

Her jaw ached from clenching her teeth. “Don’t play stupid, Sirius. Just own it.”

He circled the coffee table, stopping directly in front of her. She locked her legs, refusing to cede her ground. “Write. Me. What.”

Her heart thudded, jackrabbit fast. He was so close she could feel the heat of his body. She stared at his chest. “A bloody picture book. Merlin, the letters. What else would I be talking about?”

A strange choked off noise fell from his lips. He stumbled back, righting himself, his hands burying themselves in his hair and tugging hard at the strands, swearing loudly, loud enough to make her flinch. “No. No, I wrote you letters.”

Her head snapped up so quickly her neck twinged. “No, you didn’t.”

 He gave one jerky nod. “I did.” His hand dropped, palming his face. “I did.”

She shook her head. “No.”

He stepped forward, lifting a hand. Cautiously, as if he were afraid of how she’d react, he set it on her arm. When she didn’t tear it away, he squeezed gently. “I swear. I told you—it was long. I wrote you a fucking novel. It was about—about everything. What I was doing, my reason, reasons, for doing it. I never got any letters.”

Sirius’s hand slid higher and she let him rest it on the side of her neck because she was weak. So. Fucking. Weak. She hadn’t felt his touch in a month and she craved it, craved him, wanted him in a way she’d never wanted anything, not ever.

“Remus told me he’d heard from you,” she blurted. “He told me and I—” She hiccoughed. “I hadn’t, so I—I—"

Sirius made a choked noise and bared his teeth. It was frightening, the look on his face, nearly feral, vicious, but she wasn’t afraid. It wasn’t directed at her, but at something, someone else. The whole damned world, maybe.

“Walburga,” he spit. “I could fucking kill her. If I find out Regulus had any hand in—” He took a deep breath. “I never got any letters. You never got my letters.” He met her eyes, his full of fire but beneath, an intense, unwavering sincerity. “I swear on my magic, on my life, I never got your letters. I’d have answered you, love. I swear it.”

She blinked and blast it—a stupid, traitorous tear slipped down her cheek. Sirius’s thumb was there, sweeping it away. “I was worried. I was worried because your father—your family—the Prophet—”

“Fuck the Prophet,” he swore. “The only thing they got right was that I did claim the title.”

She wet her parched lips. “Why? How could you do that?”

Sirius smiled sadly. “Someone I love and respect very much once told me the best place to affect change was from the inside.” His thumb stroked the bone of her cheek. “As Lord, I now have a seat in the Wizengamot.”

A seat. A vote. A vote that could change so much. Everything.

“That’s what I’ve been doing,” he said. “I wanted, more than anything, to come tell you in person, to see you, if even for a moment, but—it was fucking mess, love. The house was full of cousins and there was constant sniping and I was being watched like a fucking hawk and I had to play along. I couldn’t let my mother catch on, I had to act like I was ready to be the son and scion she always wanted me to be, or something close enough to pass muster, all while—” Sirius sighed. “Do you know how much paperwork’s involved in—in all of it? I’ve spent more time in Gringott’s than I ever have before, signing papers, establishing trusts, and quietly making sure certain people”—he sneered—“couldn’t get control of the family vaults, even access them, not if I don’t want them to. I don’t know how—or I guess, I do now, the letters—I was found out, but Walburga and Bellatrix caught on, they tried to stage a fucking coup by using some loophole about conservatorship if I was ruled mentally unfit by a mind healer.” Sirius snorted. “Almost funny how ironic that is, my batshit cousin accusing me of being crazy.”

“You had to see a—a mind healer?”

Sirius rolled his eyes. “Three days kept under supervision in St. Mungo’s. The healers let me go with an official proclamation that I’m not mad”—his brow arched— “I’ve just got anger issues.”

Her lips twitched.

“When that didn’t work, Walburga pulled out all the stops and tried to make Reggie duel me. Duellum pater familias. It’s an arcane law that allows another son, or any male descendant really, to challenge his brother for Head of the family.” Sirius shook his head and sighed. “He refused, and so Bellatrix offered to duel me. Only, she’s not a male descendant.” He sneered. “It’s all very backwards and while I’d usually never consider cursing a woman unless push came to shove, Bella’s a fucking demon so I’d have been glad to make an exception. However, rules are rules.”

Her mind was reeling. A duel. He’d been in St. Mungo’s and there had—maybe?—been a duel. “What—what happened then?”

“Oh.” Sirius shrugged. “Bella put Rodolphus up to challenging me. Rather than have me at the helm running things my way, my mother would have rather had the Black name fall obsolete and be absorbed by the Lestranges, unless Bella reproduces”—his smile was a little mean— “which I don’t foresee happening since Dolph is currently recovering in St. Mungo’s, missing something rather critical for that endeavor.”

She sniffled and winced. “All that for the title? What about—I thought—Sirius, do you even want to sit on the Wizengamot?”

He met her eye and slowly shook his head. “Me? Not particularly. I don’t think I’m really cut out for a life of politics. But there’s someone I know who is. Someone who wants to make the world a better place. Someone, I believe who can.”

She stared at him. “Sirius.”

His lips quirked. “Hermione.”

“You want me to advise—”

He shook his head.

“Only blood can vote by proxy—”

“I don’t want you to vote by proxy.” He reached down, gathering up her hands, holding them between their chests. “I want you to take the seat. That’s why—” He wet his lips. “That’s why I did this. All of it. It’s why I took the title, accepted all this, put up with that stupid mental evaluation, and dueled Dolph. I did it for you.” He grinned. “Okay, maybe my reasons for dueling Dolph were a little selfish, but the rest…” He shrugged. “You have to believe me. If I’d have known you didn’t get my letters, I swear I’d have found some way of getting to you. I should’ve known. I’m sorry.”

Her brain whirred, gears turning, grinding to a halt. “I can’t just take your seat, Sirius, not—”

He leaned in, brushing his lips against her mouth, a quick kiss and still it curled her toes. He drew back and shrugged, smirking softly. “Marry me. Marry me, Hermione.” His gaze dropped to the space between them, his eyes softening. “Together, let’s make this world something we can be proud of.”

Honestly? If I had my way? I’d burn the whole thing down, set the whole damn family and everything it stands for on fire. Maybe if we’re lucky something decent might come from the ashes.

Hermione stared into his grey eyes.

Her life wasn’t fairytale.

No one was going to save her, fight her battles for her.

But maybe, with a little help from someone fighting her battles with her, she could save herself and others, too.

“Yes.”