A/N: As always, a huge thank you to Auntie_L who took time out of her insanely busy schedule to beta this for me. She is splendid and marvelous. If I ever make it out to her neck of the woods, I'm totally buying her lunch. Happy belated Arxiversary.


"Well. I never," Molly huffed indignantly.

"Mum," Ron sighed.

"The cheek," Molly continued to mutter to herself.

"Mum." Ron frowned at his mother. "Harry is happy with Pansy. Why can't you be happy for him?"

"She's not the right person for him," Molly grumbled.

"Neither is Ginny," Ron countered evenly. "She needs to finish her education and we both know she wants to try out for the Holyhead Harpies. Let her be her own person, Mum. If it's meant to be, it will work out. Treating Pansy as you have been isn't going to help anything."

"I'm going to go find Ginny." Molly turned to Arthur who was working his way through a plate of tiny sandwiches. "Come, Arthur."

With an angry twitch to her skirts, Molly marched off across the floor with her husband trailing in her wake. Ron sighed heavily and slumped in defeat.

"I thought it went well," Lavender offered.

Gently, Ron leaned down and kissed Lavender's temple. "It went well. Harry and Hermione like you."

"Your mother will come around to everything eventually, I'm sure," Lavender said with an encouraging smile.

Ron slipped an arm about Lavender's waist and tucked her against his side.

"I am so lucky to have you," he told her.

"I know you are," Lavender countered with a saucy wink. She put one hand on Ron's chest and leaned up to kiss his jaw. "Do you want to leave?"

"Are you sure?" Relief flooded Ron at the idea, but he knew that Lavender had been looking forward to this ball for months. "We can stay."

"After all of that, I'm exhausted," Lavender confessed. "I just want to go home and take a bath."

"If that's what you want," Ron murmured. He glanced around with a small frown. "Where did your parents go?"

"I think they left with your mum," Lavender replied. "Let's go see if we can find them."

/\/\/\/\/\

Cold grey eyes swept the ballroom pausing only briefly before settling on their Keeper, who happened to be in Regulus' arms. Years of family dinners and social functions made Regulus an expert in reading his father's facial expressions. Orion and Cygnus were standing next to one another with almost identical expressions. It was one that Regulus knew well.

"It's time to leave, Hermione," Regulus murmured to her as he turned her about carefully on the dancefloor.

"Oh, thank Merlin," she muttered. "My feet are killing me."

"Why didn't you say anything?" Regulus asked with a small frown.

"This ball was important," Hermione reminded him. "We needed to attend for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that Harry needed to flaunt Pansy in public."

"There is no need for you to do injury to yourself to protect Potter's reputation," Regulus grumbled. Hermione snorted in amusement and smiled fondly at him.

"Remind me to never tell you about my years at Hogwarts," She retorted.

"You couldn't help yourself," Regulus countered as he steered her toward his father and Cygnus. "You are our Keeper, and Potter is Sirius' godson."

"Harry is my best friend," Hermione snapped, anxiety leaking into her voice. "You make it sound as though our friendship is a compulsion."

"You know I didn't mean it that way," Regulus protested.

"Think of him as my brother," Hermione suggested. She paused and smirked up at him. "Unless that's just as bad? You are a pureblood after all–" she trailed off and the smirk grew sharp and deadly.

Regulus rolled his eyes. "Oh, ha ha. Perhaps the bloodlines are closer bred than they ought to be, but we aren't that bad. My mother and father were second cousins."

"I know." Hermione's eyes glinted at him. "That tapestry is still on the wall at Grimmauld Place."

There was nothing that Regulus could really say to that, so he focused on dancing with Hermione. The opportunity to hold her close and have the focus of her attention centred on him was always pleasant. The weight of her in his arms, the feel of her gown under his fingers, the smell of her soap all mingled to create a presence… a signature within his memory.

It was only reluctantly that he stopped when they finally reached Orion and Cygnus.

"Regulus. Hermione." Orion nodded at each of them in turn. "Are you ready to go?"

"Are you certain?" Hermione asked. She glanced around the room and then turned to Orion. "I assumed that we would stay later."

"We've done what we came to do," Cygnus replied with a casual shrug. "Everyone has seen Potter with Miss Parkinson, and they have noted that we, or rather you, approve of the match."

"They have also seen that Andromeda has been fully embraced by the family again," Orion added. Cygnus tilted his head toward Orion.

"That, too," he agreed.

"Where is Harry?" Hermione asked curiously. She glanced around the room with a small frown.

"He took Pansy home," Sirius replied from behind Hermione. When she turned to look at him, he took her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist. "Miss me, kitten?"

Hermione huffed and took her wrist from his hand. "I saw you less than half an hour ago."

"A half an hour too long," he declared. Hermione huffed at him again, but her lips twitched.

"You are ridiculous," she muttered at him.

"You love me when I'm ridiculous," Sirius countered with a naughty wink.

"Merlin help me, I do." Hermione sighed and turned back to Orion. "Let's go, then."

"Of course," Orion murmured. He took Hermione's hand and slid an arm about her waist.

They moved as a unit toward the Floo with Cygnus in the lead and Sirius and Regulus following closely behind them. Regulus noticed that Orion kept one hand on Hermione while his eyes continually scanned the room. Regulus focused on the room around him, watching and assessing anyone who happened to glance their way. No one seemed unduly interested in them, but the fact that Hermione was a Keeper, and that she was so well-known, made at least some interest a matter of course.

Out of the corner of his eye, Regulus noticed that the wizard he had spoken to earlier was dancing with the Bulstrode girl. He hoped the idiot didn't fuck it up, but he seemed far too similar to a teenage Sirius for Regulus to hope too much.

"What are you smirking about?" Sirius asked as they got ready to Floo after Orion and Hermione.

"Nothing," Regulus told him with a shake of his head.

/\/\/\/\/\

"Draco hasn't come back," Theo muttered to his father.

Anxiety had risen within him as time had passed and Draco had not returned to the ball. He's fine. I'm sure he's fine. Draco survived the Dark Lord living in his bloody house. Whatever he was doing for his grandfather couldn't be worse than that, could it? Phineas Parkinson was an idiot. Everyone knew that. Whatever Parkinson was doing, Draco could handle it.

"The Blacks have left en masse," Theron replied. He glanced around the room. "Including their extended family. Perhaps Draco returned home?"

Slowly, muscle by muscle, Theo fought to relax. He took a deep breath and nodded.

"Most likely," Theo murmured. He turned to his father. "Should we stay?"

"Just for a bit longer. Why don't you dance with one of your former schoolmates?" Theron suggested. "Miss Parkinson has left already, but both of the Greengrass girls are over by their mother."

"I'll go dance with Millie," Theo decided aloud.

"Is the Greengrass family not in good colour at the moment?" Theron asked idly.

"They tried to snub Pansy," Theo muttered.

"The Parkinson chit?" Theron's eyes widened slightly. "The witch who arrived with the Black Keeper and danced all night with Harry Potter?'

"She's also one of Draco's best friends," Theo added.

"Give my regards to Miss Bulstrode." Theron nodded towards Millicent who was currently dancing with the Zabini heir.

"Yes, Father." Theo gave his father a respectful bow and moved toward Millie.

Years of dance lessons helped Theo gauge his steps across the floor. He managed to end up by Millie just as the last dance ended. He caught her eye and bowed politely.

"May I have this dance?" He asked as he held out his hand. Zabini scowled at him behind Millie's back and Theo fought the urge to smirk at the other wizard.

"Oh, Theo." Millie blinked at him in surprise. "I… of course. Thank you."

Carefully, she placed her hand in Theo's. He put his arm about her waist and twirled her onto the dance floor.

"Blaise seems to have finally got his head out of his arse," Theo observed as he led her through a wizarding waltz.

"He's been so odd all night," Millie sighed. She shook her head and looked out over the dance floor. "I don't know what he's doing, but I'm certain it has nothing to do with me."

"So his head is still firmly lodged in his arse then," Theo muttered. A startled giggle escaped Millie.

"You've been listening to Pansy again," she chided as he twirled her about the floor.

"I listen to everyone," Theo countered with a smirk.

"That is because you aren't an idiot," Millie huffed. She shook her head at him and looked up at him through her lashes. "Blaise Zabini is not harboring some secret tendre for me. Pansy needs to stop reading those ridiculous novels."

Out of the corner of his eye, Theo spotted Blaise scowling into his champagne flute.

"Right," Theo murmured.

"Theodore," Millie sighed.

"Millicent?"

"I love that all of you are so convinced that Blaise is… that he–" Millie trailed off and bit her lip.

"That he adores you but seems determined to hex himself in the foot?" Theo suggested.

Millie rolled her eyes. "Don't be ridiculous, Theo. We're just friends."

"Mills..." Her name was a soft, defeated sigh. His arms tightened about her for a moment. "It's not ridiculous."

Carefully, Theo steered Millie toward an alcove with which he was intimately acquainted. He pulled Millie into the shadows and away from the crowd and turned to face her.

"We all have our little insecurities," Theo said in a slow, careful voice hoping to impress her with his gravity. He glanced out at the crowd and then focused on Millie's narrowed gaze. "Why is it so hard to believe that Blaise has his fair share?"

"But… he's Blaise," Millie protested weakly. "He's absolutely scrummy. Witches fall over themselves to be with him."

"Why?" Theo pressed. "Because he's pretty?"

Millie rolled her eyes. "Draco's pretty, but he's such an unbelievable arse that you are the only one who can stand to be in a room with him without wanting to smack him," she retorted. "Blaise is charming and sweet and thoughtful."

"Unless you try to take one of those little almond sesame things his grandmother sends him," Theo muttered.

"You tried to come between Blaise and his mameti's samsa?" Millie gave him a pitying look and shook her head. "I take it back. You are an idiot."

"I was a first year," Theo huffed. He touched Millie's cheek with gentle fingers. "Just give it some thought, yeah?"

"I suppose," Millie agreed reluctantly. She leaned up and kissed Theo's cheek. "Draco doesn't deserve you."

Theo rolled his eyes at her. "Salazar was fine. All the charm did was allow that furry little bastard to walk up walls and on the ceiling."

"I couldn't find him for days," Millie reminded him. "Draco saw me panicking and asking everyone if they'd seen him and laughed."

"He was 13, Millie," Theo countered.

"He was a prick," Millie retorted.

"Everyone is a prick at 13. I was a prick at 13," Theo said.

"Fine. I'm sure he rescues kneazle kits and helps old witches across the street," Millie grumbled. "Saint Draco the Virtuous."

"I wouldn't go quite that far," Theo laughed.

/\/\/\/\/\

Captivity wasn't ideal, but it was better than the alternative. Rita Skeeter wasn't stupid. She knew that if she were out from under the aegis of the House of Black her life wouldn't be worth an adulterated knut, which was why she had begged for sanctuary in the first place. Those articles that her imposter had submitted to the Daily Prophet almost guaranteed that the public would be clamoring for her blood. No doubt the least of her worries would be cursed mail.

Rita had come to view her time at one of the remoter Black estates as a sort of protective custody, but she had no illusions whatsoever about what that truly meant. She knew that Andromeda Tonks or Narcissa Malfoy would cheerfully kill her and hide the body save for the fact that it was useful to them to keep her alive and safe. It was useful to her… their Keeper.

"How many people's reputations have you dragged through the Daily Prophet," Andromeda Tonks asked with a little frown that made the hairs on the back of Rita's neck stand up.

"I beg your pardon?" Rita asked cautiously.

"This person that's been impersonating you everywhere," Mrs. Tonks explained with wave of her hand. "They don't like you. At all. It's as though they are going out of their way to destroy your journalistic reputation, such as it was."

"We could ask her to make a list," her daughter Nymphadora suggested. "That's what the Auror Department would ask her to do."

Mrs. Tonks snorted at that. "We would need to have Remus fetch a few boxes of parchment for a list that long, and he's too tired after last night."

"I suppose so," Nymphadora agreed reluctantly. She tilted her head at her mother. "Are you going to be much longer? Breakfast is almost ready."

"You're not cooking, are you?" Mrs. Tonks asked with a worried frown.

"No," Nymphadora replied. She stuck out her tongue at Mrs. Tonks. "The House Elf that lived here… Tolly? He insisted on doing it."

"That's fine. I'll be finished in just a moment." Mrs. Tonks paused and glanced at Rita. "See if Tolly would be willing to bring a plate to Miss Skeeter."

"I'll check," Nymphadora murmured doubtfully and then slipped from the room.

Once her daughter left, Andromeda Tonks returned her formidable focus to Rita who tried not to squirm in her seat. Mrs. Tonks tilted her head slightly and watched Rita with an impassive expression.

"Someone is trying to destroy you." Mrs. Tonks may have been discussing the weather for all the inflection in her voice. She smiled coldly at Rita. "It might behoove you to figure out who hates you enough to ruin you."

The number of articles that Rita Skeeter had written and that the Daily Prophet had printed was intimidating. The responses, the letters to the editor, the hate mail that had poured in to her office in response to those articles was a slightly smaller number. Rita liked to think that she could spot the witches and wizards who were disturbed. She made sure that the Daily Prophet's security team had a list of names.

"It's going to be a long list," Rita muttered and avoided eye contact with Mrs. Tonks.

"Do try to be clever," Mrs. Tonks sighed. "This… this takes planning and effort. Someone is devoting considerable energy… to you. You may have any number of people who will dance at your funeral, but certainly the list of people who would care enough to actively orchestrate your downfall would be slightly smaller."

"My funeral," Rita whispered as a thought occurred to her.

"We are trying to avoid that," Mrs. Tonks reminded her.

"What if we faked my death? Would that tip their hand?" Rita suggested.

Mrs. Tonks blinked. "It might," she replied slowly. "I'll have to speak to Hermione."

Rita couldn't quite control her flinch at the mention of the Black Keeper's name. A slow, cold smile spread across Mrs. Tonks' face.

"All honour to our Keeper," she murmured as she rose to her feet and turned to leave. She glanced back over her shoulder at Rita. "Work on that list."

"Of course," Rita replied.

/\/\/\/\/\

It was after midnight when Draco finally slipped through the front door of his flat. Theo was sitting in an arm chair that he'd moved so that it was directly in front of the door. He was sprawled in the chair with careless grace, but his eyes were guarded and alert. The tip of Theo's wand raised as he pointed it at Draco.

"What is my favorite flavour of jam?" Theo's quiet voice drifted across the room.

"You don't even like jam," Draco replied. He took off his outer robes and dropped them on the floor. "You usually use that ridiculous marmalade."

Theo's wand lowered, but only slightly. "Where have you been?"

"Family business," Draco sighed. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I was fine, Theo. I promise you."

"It was like…," Theo let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding and let himself collapse back into the chair.

"I know," Draco whispered. He moved forward and took Theo's free hand in his. "I'm sorry to have worried you, but my family isn't going to let me do anything that would have endangered me. I was only trying to gather information."

"Did you get it?" Theo asked quietly. Draco winced.

"Almost."

"I'm tired." Theo stood and tugged on Draco's hand. "Let's go to bed."

"That sounds smashing," Draco agreed.

/\/\/\/\/\

For the first time, Remus woke the morning after a full moon feeling… okay. As a small child, it had been difficult to move around after the full moon; he'd always been exhausted. He had forced himself to get up and go through his daily routine, but each movement had been a slow torture, and he had felt as though he were trying to swim through treacle.

Slowly, he pulled his clothes on and marveled at his ease of movement. The shirt didn't irritate his skin or cause pain as it had on previous turnings. Dora always chose the softest possible fabrics, but before, nothing had seemed to help. Now, he was able to revel in the soft, cozy fabric that wrapped around him. With a soft rumble of pleasure he pulled on the trousers he had set out the night before. Never had Remus experienced a "morning after" such this one.

At Hogwarts, the Marauders had helped a bit. The fact that they were able to distract Moony and play with him until he wore out rather than attacking himself in fits of rage had been hugely beneficial to the young werewolf. The fatigue was still there, but it was muted.

This was nothing like having Padfoot. He was tired, but it was so much less than the crushing exhaustion that usually dogged him after a full moon. He stretched cautiously and froze in shock. The muscle pain that was a constant for him was gone. The relief of not being in constant pain was almost euphoric. Remus flexed his hands and feet carefully. The tingling that normally plagued his extremities around the full moon was absent. He stared at his hands and laughed, flexing them because he could.

"It's better, isn't it," a small voice asked eagerly.

Carefully, Remus turned to look at Poppy Parkinson who had already pulled on the worn flannel pyjamas that her sister had sent with her. The cub was almost vibrating with excitement. Her small face was upturned toward him and Remus stared for a moment at the bright happiness on her face. It was a stark difference from the solemn, quiet little witch from the night before.

"Yeah," Remus agreed after a moment. "It's… it's much better."

"Is it because we're a pack now?" Poppy asked curiously.

Once again, Remus froze in shock. Were they a pack now? Moony snorted in disgust at Remus' doubt. Was that the difference? Was a pack really so very important? Remus realized that he could sense Poppy in a way similar to the way he could sense his son. Pack. Moony whuffed in agreement. Poppy Parkinson was pack.

"Alpha?" Poppy tugged on his sleeve.

Remus shook himself and turned back to the cub. "Yes, Poppy?"

"Is it because we're a pack now?" She asked again.

"I… maybe?" Remus offered helplessly. "Most of what is written about werewolves is dragon—erm, it isn't true."

"I'm glad for it, whatever it is," Poppy decided. She turned back to Remus. "Can we eat now?"

"Yes, of course," Remus agreed. "Come on, let's see what we can find in the kitchen."

When the two werewolves reached the kitchen, they saw a House Elf perched on a stool near the stove making eggy bread. Neat slices of bread floated through the air, dipped themselves in a bowl and then settled themselves with a sizzle on the hot griddle. With a snap of the House Elf's fingers, the slices of eggy bread flipped themselves on the griddle, and if they were done, floated to a waiting plate already piled high. The House Elf turned to frown at the both of them.

"Sit," the House Elf commanded and pointed at the kitchen table. "Tolly is making breakfast for Tolly's family."

Meekly, Remus and Poppy sat at the table.

"Pansy says you should never antagonize a House Elf," Poppy whispered to Remus.

"Pansy is a smart witch," Remus replied.

Soon matching towers of eggy bread, fried potatoes, and rashers of bacon were floated in front of each of them. Tolly snapped his fingers and two steaming mugs of hot chocolate appeared next to each plate.

"Eat," Tolly commanded. "Tolly's family is not going to get ill on Tolly's watch," he warned them both sternly.

"Yes, sir," Poppy said meekly. She grabbed her fork and began to eat.

Remus cradled his hot chocolate between his hands and sipped at it slowly to savor it. Thick velvety cocoa slid over his tongue with hints of cinnamon teasing his palate. Remus sighed happily.

"Eat," Tolly repeated. He frowned at Remus and shook a slender finger in his direction. "Hot chocolate is not a meal."

"Yes, sir," Remus murmured, echoing Poppy. He picked up his fork and dug into his eggy bread.

/\/\/\/\/\

When Hermione woke her pillow was on her head, covering her eyes and blocking the sun that usually came through the windows in her room. There was a solid warmth pressed against her side and she could feel someone playing with her curls.

"How do you feel about picnics," Orion asked in a sleep-roughened voice.

Hermione lifted her pillow and peeked out at Orion who was watching her with a slight smile.

"In January?" Hermione demanded.

The smile grew.

"It's technically February now," he reminded her. Hermione attempted to swat him with her pillow and he dodged her easily.

"Yes and that's so much better." Hermione propped herself up on her elbow and shoved her hair out of her face with her free hand. "What are you up to?"

"Up to?" Orion shook his head and reached out to tweak a stray curl. "I just want to spend some time with you, Hermione."

"Oh."

Being the sole focus of Orion Black's attention was always a heady thing. He rubbed his knuckles along her cheek and down the side of her neck. The pad of his thumb stroked along her collarbone.

"A picnic would be lovely," Hermione heard herself say. She wrinkled her nose at him. "Even if it is in February."

"Trust me, Hermione," he said with another slight smile.

"I do," Hermione replied. Then she paused and frowned up at him. "With some things."

"Such a clever witch," he murmured approvingly. He leaned down and kissed her on the tip of the nose. "Let me go make some arrangements. Dress… warmly."

Once Orion left her rooms, Jinx bustled in.

"What is Missy Keeper doing today?" Jinx asked.

"Apparently I'm going on a picnic with Orion," Hermione replied.

Jinx paused in front of Hermione's wardrobe and turned to look at her. She blinked her great green eyes slowly and shook her head making her ears flap.

"Minny was telling Jinx that the Black wizards is being crazy, but Jinx was not believing her," Jinx muttered as she turned back to the closet. There was a little huff of irritation and Jinx's shoulders slumped. "Minny is always being right."

"It's my understanding that Minny's family has a long association with the Black family," Hermione ventured tentatively.

"The line of Rollo is being very old," Jinx agreed.

"What about your family?" Hermione asked. "Is that okay? Can I ask about your family, or is that rude?"

"It is not being rude," Jinx replied. She tugged on one ear. "Jinx is of the line of Gazu."

"Oh." Hermione had no idea what that meant, but she wasn't certain how to ask without being rude. "Erm, is it… is it rude to ask to what wizard or witch Gazu bonded?"

"Gazu was being the House Elf of Barat Shafiq," Jinx said after a moment. "Missy Barat was being new to England, and Gazu agreed to help her learn the ways of wizarding Britain."

"Barat Shafiq?" Hermione repeated slowly.

"Missy Barat was coming here with her father, Warid Shafiq, and her brother, Jaleb Shafiq, in what wizards is calling the 8th century. Warid Shafiq was being the court astrologer for King Offa of Mercia," Jinx explained.

"Merlin," Hermione whispered.

Jinx shook her head at Hermione. "No, that is being Tuppy's family."

Suddenly, Hermione felt rather weak in the knees. She stumbled over to her bed and sat down heavily.

"Do all of you come from such renowned families?" Hermione asked quietly. She felt rather silly for not having asked before.

When Andromeda and Narcissa had helped her get ready to meet the House Elf delegation, they had likened it to a meeting of ambassadors. In her naïveté, Hermione had assumed that was an analogy. It had simply never occurred to her what that might mean as far as the House Elves were concerned.

"Gussy is being from the line of Fionúir who was being bound to Alice Kyteler," Jinx observed. "Fionúir was helping her Missy Alice flee to England."

"I… I'm honoured that all of you were willing to come here and bind yourselves to the House of Black," Hermione said as humbly as she could.

Jinx waved a small hand in her direction. "It was being an adventure," Jinx said. She gave Hermione a small smile. "House Elves was being curious as to what Hermione Granger would do as a Keeper. Jinx be thinking that Missy Keeper will add good memories to the line of Gazu."

"I'll do my best," Hermione promised. Jinx nodded.

"Now, let's be finding Missy Keeper something warm to wear if Master Orion plans on dragging his Keeper outside into the snow," Jinx muttered half to herself.

/\/\/\/\/\

The cold air stung Hermione's cheeks and nose. She pulled her cloak more tightly about her. She glanced about at the fresh layer of snow that covered the ground and turned to look at Orion.

"Are you certain about this?" Hermione asked.

Instead of answering her, Orion slipped an arm about her waist and tugged her toward the gardens. The feel of Orion's arm around her was quite nice and Hermione allowed herself to relax and simply feel. Warmth seeped into her where Orion's body was pressed snugly against hers.

Everything seemed still and quiet and every breath Hermione took caused a little puff cloud. She let Orion lead her toward the labyrinth and tried to let her brain stop buzzing.

"Next time, we'll do this in the spring and make it more of a game," Orion murmured to her. "I didn't want to risk either of us getting lost in this weather."

With a confidence that bordered on arrogance, Orion led her through the labyrinth to the centre. There, in the middle, a blanket was carefully laid out with a picnic basket set to one side. The little scene was charming, but it seemed to shimmer about the edges.

"What in Merlin's name," she whispered.

Orion turned to smirk at her. "I told you to trust me."

The little shimmer was some sort of magical field that kept everything inside of it toasty warm. Orion helped her off with her cloak and she leaned back on her hands looking out of the corner of her eyes, trying to chase the shimmer.

"Where did you learn how to do that?" Hermione asked curiously.

"It's a variant of elemental magic," Orion explained. "It's the sort of spell one would use to protect a greenhouse."

"Really?" Hermione sat up and reached out with one hand in an attempt to touch the magical field. Her fingers tingled and she pulled her hand back almost immediately. "It feels familiar."

"It should," Orion countered drily. "I did make it, and you are my Keeper."

"So my magic recognizes yours?" Hermione asked. She turned and looked up at Orion to see him watching her with an amused smirk. "What?"

"I am just happy that you are my Keeper," Orion replied with a little shrug.

Hermione frowned. "Why do all of you do that? Is it because I'm Muggleborn? Are you shocked that I'm capable?"

"Don't insult us like that," Orion retorted with a dark scowl. His lips tightened and he looked away from her for a moment. "For a House to require a Keeper… for a House to Fall… you cannot know what that was like for us—just as we cannot know what it was like for you to face down Arawn and all the trials of Annwn."

"What do you mean?" Hermione asked.

"All of us: Cygnus, Sirius, Regulus, and I watched our House fall. We were forced to stand by as our honour was subsumed and our dignity was stripped from us until we were nothing but a debased lineage," Orion replied in flat, clipped tones. He had turned to look across the centre of the labyrinth, but his eyes were unfocused. "Hope left us."

"Not all hope," Hermione reminded him and put her hand in his. "You asked for a Keeper."

Orion's fingers tightened on hers and his lips twitched slightly. "Not all hope," he agreed. "Even so, all three of us were filled with despair. Our family magic had become sour and bitter and it felt… tainted."

"Does it still?" Hermione asked with a worried frown.

"No!" Orion rushed to reassure her.

He lifted her hand to his lips and laid a gentle kiss on her palm. Hermione shivered not from the cold outside, but from the soft brush of Orion's lips against her skin. His eyes darkened and Orion watched her with an intensity that made her belly tighten. Nervously, she licked her lips and looked away from him. Fingers slid against her cheek, turning her gaze back to his.

"Hermione." His voice had deepened and he leaned toward her. Her eyelids fluttered closed and she tilted her face up expectantly.

When nothing happened she opened her eyes to scowl at Orion who was still watching her.

"Aren't you going to kiss me?" She demanded.

"Why would I do that?" Orion asked with an innocent-seeming curiosity that made her want to pinch him.

"You kissed my hand," Hermione reminded him.

"It's a lovely hand," Orion replied with a fond smile for the hand in question.

"Isn't there anything else lovely?" Hermione asked without thinking. Orion smirked at her.

"Oh yes," he breathed at her. He picked up her hand again. "This is a very lovely wrist." He pressed his lips to the sensitive skin of her wrist.

"Oh," Hermione sighed.

"This is a very lovely neck," Orion continued. He pressed a kiss to the curve of her neck and pulled back to smirk at her.

"You, Orion Black, are a dreadful tease," Hermione informed him with a haughty sniff.

"On the contrary, Hermione Black," Orion purred at her. "I have every intention of you leaving here completely satiated. That doesn't mean I'm not going to make you use that pretty mouth to ask."

"My mouth is pretty?" Hermione asked with her own little smirk.

"You have no idea," Orion muttered.

"Then kiss me," Hermione demanded.

Orion did as his Keeper asked.