Within the span of a week, the whole world had gone horribly awry. Sirius went from laughing and smiling with Nora to barely seeing her at all, and he couldn’t stand the way she looked at him now, the cold distance that hung between them. Often when he spoke to her, she did not even glance up at him and she answered with stiff, toneless replies. Sirius missed the way she used to dance and hum and gaze up at him through her eyelashes, biting down on her bottom lip… She used to meet his eyes often and he would wink at her, and then she would roll her eyes and laugh.
It was like a completely different person inhabited Nora’s body now. She didn’t acknowledge or notice Sirius’s presence – and it was painfully lonely. Sirius had not slept well for the past few nights, staring up at his ceiling and despairing over the death of their closeness. And as much as it hurt to admit it, Nora had pretty much told him point-blank that she didn’t have feelings for him. She actually preferred Cargan Dearborn’s company to his.
And now Cargan was standing in the entrance corridor at the foot of the staircase, his mouth hanging open as he watched Nora descend from the third landing. Sirius was leaning on the wall opposite, and sucked in a breath at the sight of her. The first thought that entered his mind was: Cargan does not deserve that.
She was wearing a flowy indigo gown with thin straps and an empire waist, and her hair was loose and tumbling freely. Sirius observed with a pang in his chest that she was not wearing the necklace he had given her for Christmas. “You look good,” Dearborn told her.
Oh, he definitely did not deserve her. Nora Prewett looked nothing short of stunning.
“Thank you, Cargan,” she responded delicately, and once she was on level ground again she accepted the arm he held out for her. Nora turned to face Sirius for the first time all day. “Happy birthday, Sirius,” she said in quiet voice. It was like rubbing salt in the wound. He didn’t answer, and Nora swiveled toward her date. Sirius felt defeated in Cargan’s presence – the boy was young, untethered, and admittedly not bad-looking. He could take Nora out on a date whenever he wanted, wherever he wanted. It was something Sirius could never have done himself.
Nora and Cargan disapparated together on the doorstep, and Sirius allowed himself a minute of deep breathing exercises before following them. Tonight, he was going to be outside and free, among friends; but he did not feel free. Everything was wrong, because Nora wasn’t going with him. Nora didn’t even hate him – that would at least be passionate in some way – she felt nothing for Sirius but a frosty indifference. It stung worse than if she were to slap him in the face and call him a cad.
He yanked his hands through his hair and then shook them, wringing his arms out to get the blood flowing. He trundled downstairs and bent over the kitchen sink, lapping cold water onto his face and feeling apprehensive. Finally, when he could stall no longer, Sirius disapparated outside Number Twelve and ended up on the wide lawn beyond his cousin Andromeda’s house.
Sirius had forgotten how beautiful Andromeda’s house was. He’d only seen it twice before his incarceration, and it looked mostly the same, all alone in the countryside. The roof was re-shingled and the trees were taller, but on the whole it remained unchanged and he felt strangely comforted by this.
Andromeda certainly must have been busy with decorating; she knew this would be Sirius’s first time in the open with all his mates, and went to great efforts to ensure everything was very special for such an ordinary occasion like a birthday. The wrap-around porch had been strung with brightly-colored lights; there were circular tables scattered all over the wide garden, decked out with streamers, magical party favors, and refreshments to please even the stingiest guest. Japanese lanterns glowing from within floated a foot overhead, bobbing in the warm breeze.
“You’ll love those,” a voice chimed, and Sirius turned to see the hostess herself. She looked regal in a silver dress. Andromeda had dictated that everyone should wear their best formal attire, and he smiled warmly at her strides to grant him a remarkable birthday party. He knew none of this had anything to do with him turning a year older – it was a festivity to embrace him, really, and bring him back into the fold of acceptance after they’d spent so many years shuddering at the mention of his name.
“They play music,” she continued, pointing at them. “And only you and your dancing partner will hear it.”
“Dancing partner?” he repeated, his mood fading rapidly.
Andromeda smiled widely. “Yes, I thought that music and dancing would be a great way for everyone to mix with each other and have fun.” Her face fell. “You don’t like it?”
Sirius backtracked. “Of course I do,” he assured her. “Everything looks amazing, Meda. Tell me how the lanterns work.”
She pursed her lips doubtfully, but then couldn’t help but become excited about her clever magic with the floating lanterns. “You simply think of a song and tap it, and it plays just for your ears only – or your partner’s too if you’re with one. This way, everyone can listen to whatever type of music they prefer. And if you’re unsure about what you want to listen to, it will just generate something random until you decide to change it manually.”
Sirius raised his eyebrows, impressed. Andromeda reached up and tapped a green one, and immediately the air was filled with Celestina Warbeck’s “A Cauldron Full of Hot, Strong Love”. She grinned expectantly at him. “You’re a genius,” Sirius told her. “I always knew you were famous for your Charms, but this is really incredible.”
Andromeda beamed and hugged him. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she sniffed. Sirius returned the smile, knowing that what she really meant was, “I’m so glad you don’thate me for living my life while you were in prison, thinking you were a crazy murderer and shunning your existence.”
Everyone from the Order was there except for Snape, thank Merlin, and Dumbledore (who Sirius knew was very far away at this moment, and very preoccupied with other tasks). Rubeus Hagrid looked like he’d already been indulging in the mead. He wished Harry could have come.
Nora was standing next to that Sultan of Smarm – Dearborn – and chatting with Tonks. A man Sirius didn’t recognize was holding Tonks by the waist and he noticed Remus’s foul expression from across the lawn, watching. Sirius smiled. At least he wasn’t the only one here who came alone and had to watch the core of his existence flanked by another (extremely stupid) man. He joined his friend. “Not our day, is it?”
Remus made a “hmph” sound. “Did you catch his name?” he hissed, pointing at the bloke with Tonks. “Gaspard. How pompous is that?”
“Look at Dearborn’s clothes,” Sirius responded under his breath. “What kind of self-respecting man wears magenta? I wouldn’t be surprised if he asks Nora to hold his handbag for a moment so he can touch up his lipstick.”
Remus chortled. “It’s your party. Kick him out.”
“Wonder who invited him,” Sirius mused. He exchanged a glance with Remus, and they both grumbled, “Molly.”
“I’d like to give her a nice flogging in the punch bowl,” Sirius remarked.
“Heard she made your cake, though,” Remus replied. “Happy birthday, by the way.”
Sirius snorted. “Happy, my arse.” As if to mock him, fireworks began shooting off in the sky, spelling phrases like ‘Happy birthday, Sirius!’ and ‘The older you get, the more we love you!’ in glittering purple and red. Stars rained down after the words faded, transforming into confetti and dusting over everyone's hair. Sirius glanced overhead at the firework that cheered 'Celebrate!' and made it disappear with an irritated twitch of his wand.
They roamed around the lawn, moodily returning other people’s greetings and glancing furtively at the pair of girls with their dates. Nora’s hair shone golden in the waning sunset, rippling a little; Cargan reached out and played with one of the blowing tendrils. Nora didn’t seem to notice, or at least she ignored it. Sirius wanted to vomit. He ought to just leave; this whole event was ridiculous. He was tired of trying to smile and pretending to be cheerful when others came near, and the only one who knew how he was really feeling was Remus. Remus, somehow, seemed even gloomier than Sirius. This probably owed to the fact that he’d been the recipient of Tonks’s bold advances and flirtatious smiles for the past year and he hadn’t had the foresight to see how she might move on. While Remus was staring broodingly at her, she caught his eye.
Sirius elbowed him. “Lady love coming your way.”
With a set jaw and haughty eyes, Tonks cruised over to them. “Happy birthday,” she said curtly without looking at Sirius, and nodded at Remus. “Hello there,” she told him in a much friendlier tone. “You can come and join us over there if you like.”
“Going to invite him and not me?” Sirius interjected.
Tonks looked up at him now, her face sour and reproachful. “I can’t very well stop you, can I?”
Sirius raised his eyebrows. “What’s your bloody problem?”
Her hands flew to her hips, and he recognized a rant coming on. “What’s my bloody problem?” she shot back. “What’s your bloody problem? Merlin, you’re such a dunderhead. You don’t even appreciate…” she trailed off, shaking her head scornfully. “I’ve got to put up with idiot Cargan all night and it’s all because of your stupidity.”
Remus watched her, fascinated. She looked so pretty when she was enraged. “You’re blaming Cargan being here on me?” Sirius countered, his voice rising. “I didn’t invite him, you know.”
“No, I reckon not,” she spat. “Speaking of you being a stupid pig, where’s Hestia?”
Hestia Jones had been invited by Andromeda, of course, but looking around he saw that she wasn’t there. The woman was probably still embarrassed about her conduct toward Sirius and had taken measures to avoid him. “How should I know?” he said. “I haven’t even –” he stopped short, eyes narrowing on Nora’s profile forty feet away. “What did Nora tell you?”
Tonks scowled. “That’s none of your business. She didn’t even have to tell me anything for me to know that you’re screwed up in the head – a best friend just knows –”
“I’m not with Hestia,” Sirius interrupted. “If that’s what you’re going on about. She and I are not together.”
This only seemed to provoke her fury. “No, I suppose someone like you doesn’t need to be officially dating a girl to get in her knickers and you –”
“You don’t want to finish that sentence,” Sirius replied, eyes flashing dangerously. “Are you implying that I am promiscuous? You have no idea how far off the mark you are.”
“So you’re denying that whole thing with Hestia?” Tonks demanded to know. Out of her peripheral vision, she could see Nora staring, wondering why Tonks was two inches from Sirius’s face and acting like she was going to hit him. Tonks met her eyes and Nora jerked her head slightly back and forth, color flooding her cheeks. Cargan, unable to stand not having the attention on himself, led Nora away to dance.
“Of course I’m denying it!” Sirius shouted. “Nothing happened! The woman came into my bedroom whinging about Emmeline. So I said a few helpful things and she started to bloody fondle me!”
“A likely story.” Tonks rolled her eyes and stalked off, seizing a puzzled Gaspard by the wrist. Sirius turned to stare in bewilderment at Remus.
“I didn’t do anything!” he insisted.
Remus took a swallow of champagne. “I know, mate. Did you see Gaspard’s moustache? That’s the stupidest moustache I’ve ever seen.”
“Between Dearborn’s magenta dress robes and Gaspard’s absurdly thin moustache, we’ve got a sodding fruit salad over there,” Sirius quipped resentfully.
He wandered over to the gift table and sank into a chair, trying to ignore Cargan’s hands on Nora’s waist as they danced. He picked at his cake, mashing it with his fork and pretending it was Dearborn’s face. It provided a tiny bit of satisfaction. He continued abusing Dearborn in his head, repeating the word ‘stupid’ as the primary adjective because he was too much in a temper to drum up any creative vocabulary. The bloke was stupid. Everything about him was stupid – his stupid, shiny coif, his stupid clothes, his stupid too-white teeth and dragon hide shoes. He barely noticed when Andromeda approached him and tried coaxing him into opening up a few presents. He refused, and was rather cranky about it.
“My, someone’s testy tonight,” she observed, giving up and walking back to Ted. Everyone was dancing now except for Sirius and Remus.
“This is pathetic,” he muttered to Remus. “My own party and I’m sitting down, pretty much by myself since you’re busy mooning over Tonks. I didn’t sleep a wink last night and this evening I had to watch that brainless twat hanging around in my house, drooling after my woman – on my birthday. I’m going round the twist, Remus! This day couldn’t get any worse.”
“Too right you are,” Remus said. “Which means it can only get better. Communication is everything, Padfoot. Rifts over misunderstandings can’t be patched up very well if you leave them sitting for too long. It’s like…old milk.”
“Old milk? That the best you got, mate?”
Remus shrugged, his eyes still glued on Tonks and Gaspard. “My mind’s not on metaphors right now.”
Sirius raised a glass to Remus and his bad metaphors, staring at Nora with sulky eyes. Darkness fell over Andromeda’s enchantment-protected property, a sprinkling of stars lighting up the night sky. The hovering Japanese lanterns cast a vivid radiance over everyone, and butterbeers clinked softly against bottles of champagne, passing one another while gliding between guests.
He was dwelling on Remus’s words about communication, his desire to set things right with Nora warring with his anxiety that she would laugh in his face or doubt his sincerity. Sirius fiddled with a ribbon on a package, and pulling it closer to him he saw that it was from Nora.
He glanced up at her. She was still revolving with Cargan, who was lumbering on his feet and didn’t know left from right. Sirius smirked. “You going to open it?” Remus asked suddenly, following his gaze to Nora.
“Entertaining the idea.”
Remus analyzed his friend’s erratic manner with witty eyes. “Maybe it’s something that declares her eternal love for you.”
Sirius tore open the wrapping paper at once, his heart beating fast. When he unearthed his present, however, he found a tea mug with a picture of a hinkypunk on it. He could not conceal his surprise and disappointment. “This isn’t Nora,” he said to Remus, frowning. “Nora is sentimental and personal, and this…” He slammed the mug back onto the table and stood up. “I’ve had enough.”
Remus looked alarmed. “What are you doing?”
Sirius knocked over his chair and strode across the lawn, making his way purposefully toward the couple spinning under a blue lantern. Nora saw him coming over Cargan’s shoulder, and something like fear flitted over her face.
“Excuse me.” As civilized as possible, Sirius tapped Cargan’s shoulder. “May I cut in?”
Dearborn hesitated, sizing him up. He probably already knew that Sirius liked Nora, as men are generally capable of pointing out their competition almost immediately upon meeting them. “Erm – can it wait until this song is over?”
“It’s my birthday,” Sirius replied smoothly, looking straight into Nora’s eyes. They were apprehensive, wary. “I’m entitled to interrupt whenever I please. So if you don’t mind…” He took Nora’s hands, shunting Cargan out of the way. “There’s a good chap.”
Nora didn’t know what to do. She stood rooted to the spot, very much on her guard. Why was Sirius doing this? She had hoped he wouldn’t approach her at all tonight.
“Hello,” he said carefully, removing one of his hands from hers and sliding it around her waist. Nora wished he wouldn’t hold her like that; it made it very difficult to keep a steady countenance. “Fancy seeing you here.”
Nora couldn’t look at him. Her movements were mechanical, prompted by Sirius’s, and she stared dazedly at a scarlet lantern glowing just above Molly Weasley’s irritated face. “Having fun?” she asked respectfully.
“Not at all,” he said, rotating slowly with her. “You see, it would be brilliant if it weren’t for the fact that my favorite person here is barely speaking to me.”
Nora lowered her face.
“And just so that we’re clear on that, I’m talking about you,” He cocked his head to meet her eyes, and they were glistening and dubious. “I’m going to talk to you whether you like it or not, and although you claim you don’t need to hear me explain myself, I think you do.”
She bit her lip, and he interpreted it as a sign that she was at least listening. “Right then,” he murmured in her ear. “No running away, now.” He paused for a moment, relishing the feel of her skin. “When you happened upon my bedroom on Friday night, you may have noticed that I had a guest.” Nora went rigid in his arms, and he held her closer still. “She was looking for your bedroom because she missed having someone to talk to, but obviously found me instead. I told her that you were sleeping, and she looked very upset. So I said I could listen to her problems just as well as any other, and she sat down and began to tell me about how much she missed Emmeline Vance.”
Nora stared at the ground, eyes wide and frozen. Why was he telling her this? She didn’t want to know the details about why he came to be underneath Hestia Jones with his shirt off. This was a complete nightmare.
“Hestia wasn’t herself,” Sirius went on. “She was overwhelmed by the death of her best friend and sometimes people who are grieving don’t make the best judgment calls. I believe that she just wanted to feel wanted and loved, and she mistook my sympathy for something more. When you saw us, Nora, she was trying to get busy with me because she was looking for a transfer of emotions – lust is easier to deal with than grief – and I was attempting to gently reject her.”
Nora couldn’t resist rolling her eyes. “You had your shirt off, Sirius.”
He gave a bark-like laugh. “Yes I did, and it was very embarrassing.” Detecting Nora’s confusion, he added, “I was starting to undress for the night when she came bursting through the door. Scared the doxies out of me.”
Nora still looked skeptical. He tilted her chin up, and she nearly buckled to her knees. His eyes were smoldering – she was surprised she hadn’t been reduced to a pile of ashes by now. “I don’t want you to think I’m that type of man,” he said. “Whatever else I may be, I’m not loose with women.” He raised an eyebrow. “If you don’t believe me, I implore you to ask Hestia herself, whenever you see her next as she is obviously not here. It would probably humiliate her to talk about it, of course, but I’d rather have Hestia embarrassed than you thinking I’m a whore.”
Nora released a strangled laugh. She felt her angst purging into the night air, because she really believed him. Looking back, it was all so ludicrous but she knew he was telling the truth. “I believe you,” she said, allowing herself to melt into him a little. “Even though, once again, explanations are completely unnecessary.”
He shook his head, eyes sparkling mischievously. “Whatever you say.”
She pressed her cheek to his shoulder and they gradually revolved around to where Cargan was in full view. He looked like he wanted to step in, clearly having assumed that they’d only last one dance. As if Sirius knew this, he leaned down and whispered, “It’s my birthday. He’s not getting you back.”
Nora smiled. “Good. He’s not much fun, anyway.”
Sirius tried not to look pleased. “Oh?”
She rolled her eyes, and he reveled in the normalcy, absolutely ecstatic that she was looking at him without distaste and that she was back to her regular self. “He’s kind of insufferable, actually. The man’s obsessed with having good manners because he thinks it’s going to make me forget how much of a pain he was on Christmas Eve – probably Molly’s advice. Every time I turn around he’s saying ‘Pardon me’ and ‘Alright, Nora?’ and just being too polite in general. It’s a bit like socializing with Cornelius Fudge.”
“Oh, just admit it,” Sirius teased. “You don’t mind ditching him because I’m a better dancer.”
“That, too,” she admitted freely. “At least you know how to lead.”
“What does this make? Our third time dancing?”
“Second. I don’t count the time you looked like Cargan. It was too weird.”
“I prefer looking like myself as well,” he remarked. “Not to be arrogant, but I am the embodiment of perfection.” He tilted his head back and made a face at the bewitched lantern. “What is this rubbish you’re listening to, anyway?” Sirius withdrew a wand from his pocket and tapped the lantern. The whiny Hobgoblins song transitioned into a familiar tune, and Sirius smiled softly. “Our song. Remember?”
Nora blushed. “How could I not? You told me I was clumsy.”
Sirius laughed. “Of course, that’s the part you would remember.” She was about to comment that she remembered a whole lot more than just being called clumsy, but thankfully kept her mouth shut. “You’re still hopeless at this, you know,” he added. “Lucky for you that I’m patient with oafs. And that’s saying something, because patience is not my forte.”
“Don’t be so nice,” she told him. “People will start to talk.”
“People have been talking for ages,” he replied amiably. Nora blushed again and he grinned at her. “Don’t try to tell me you haven’t heard them.”
“I haven’t, actually.”
“Lots of rumors,” he went on, building up his courage. “Some of them I even started myself, come to think of it.” He twirled Nora and then pulled her very intimately into his embrace, his eyes tender. “About your friendship with Snape… Is there anything in that? Or is it strictly platonic?”
Nora’s eyebrows knit in confusion. “Severus?”
“Do we know of anyone else named Snape? I certainly hope not. Having just one of them is too much, in my opinion.”
“He’s not that bad,” Nora admonished.
Sirius’s face was close; she could taste his sweet breath. His eyes lingered over her face and neck, intense and dark as pitch. “Is that a yes or a no?”
Nora opened her mouth to speak, but then spotted movement beyond them. All the blood seemed to drain from her body, horror dawning over her face. By the time Sirius turned to see what she was looking at, Nora had moved protectively in front of him.
Others began to notice the disturbance, and people started screaming and disapparating in a panicky confusion. Nora waited a second too late to try it herself – one of the party-crashers had just cast an Anti-Disapparition Jinx to prevent anyone else from escaping. Only a handful of guests remained, and half of them were making a break for the house.
Death Eaters had somehow broken through the protective spells around Andromeda’s house.
Three figures in black robes marched forward – slowly, deliberately – with their hidden eyes locked on the pair of them. Nora grabbed Sirius’s arm. “I don’t have my wand,” she whispered. Indeed, she’d left it in a small silk purse on one of the tables, way on the other end of the lawn. Sirius already had his own wand out, firing silent curses. It was genius, really – three Death Eaters came steadily toward them, deflecting Sirius’s spells with Shield Charms, while a fourth hooded Death Eater off to the side Disarmed him. Sirius’s wand was sent flying into the hand of the other Death Eater, right next to his own wand…short and stump-like…
The tallest of the group stopped in front of them and lowered his hood. “So,” he mused. It was Lucius Malfoy, his features electrified with a mad malevolence. “Just the two I wished to see.” He lazily shifted his focus to the Death Eater who had Disarmed Sirius. “The others?”
“Taken care of,” replied a high, reedy voice. Nora saw with a gasp that several of her friends – Tonks, Remus, Bill Weasley, Dedalus Diggle, and Cargan – stood defenseless in a cluster, surrounded by two Death Eaters whose wands were aimed threateningly at them. Nora couldn’t understand why no one had been killed yet. Every single person captured was Disarmed. They should all have been dead by now.
“Good,” Lucius replied.
The person behind Malfoy ripped the hood from his face, bending forward to peer eagerly at Nora. “And I can have her when you’re done?” he asked. Silver hair sprouted from his face in unusual places, his nose curved in an unnatural way. Nora knew at once that this was Fenrir Greyback. “Right?” he persisted.
“I’ve already told you, yes.” Malfoy sounded annoyed. He turned back to face Nora. “It seems someone has come back from the dead,” he said with dripping disdain. “You were spotted in London recently and I didn’t believe it…but here you are.”
“Told you,” the reedy voice spoke.
Nora couldn’t think straight. Antonin Dolohov. Antonin Dolohov had seen her in London. It was too much to bear.
“And Sirius Black, at long last,” Lucius added, smiling in a way Nora did not like. “Oh, the possibilities…” Sirius matched his gaze, and Lucius took his time pondering over thoughts in his head. He seemed in no hurry, as it was evident he found everyone’s trepidation to be highly gratifying. “It’s your lucky day, Black. You and your lot have been invited to a nice visit to my house.” He looked around to Dolohov and nodded once. “Shall we?”
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