Chapter 1: Rule Number One
Relief washed over her as she stepped from the charred fireplace of Number 12, Grimmauld Place, and a sigh escaped her lips. She felt like she had been doing nothing but sighing for the past week – sighs of frustration, sighs of understanding, self-loathing, longing, regret. This sigh, however, was fully welcomed by Hermione Granger. The Burrow, lovely, warm and welcoming as it was, was not the place she wanted to be at that particular moment.
For the past week, since the day the Daily Prophet trumpeted the news that would ruin her future, all the Burrow had to offer her was sympathetic looks and comforting hands. It was getting old. When faced with such loving gestures and looks, she could not respond with the anger she felt fully justified in expressing. She wanted to yell and scream and hex something to within an inch of its life – preferably one of the moronic Ministry workers who had allowed this travesty to occur.
No, she needed a place as black as her mood, and Grimmauld Place was it.
Kreacher shuffled past, muttering insults he did not realise or care that she could hear.
"Good afternoon, Kreacher," she said politely.
The old house-elf glared at her. "It speaks to us," he muttered. "The Mudblood speaks to us."
"Who's there?" a hard, dangerous voice demanded as the door flew open and her fiancé rushed into the kitchen with his wand raised. Seeing her, Sirius dropped his hand and smiled, "That was fast. I thought you'd hold out for at least another week before they sent you running. Come on, Remus is helping clean up. Another pair of hands is always welcome."
"Oh, to be useful again," she gave a mockingly put-upon sigh. "Did you know that getting engaged means I'm incapable of doing anything? Honestly, they treat me like an invalid."
"I hadn't realised," he said, and took her hand in his, patting it gently. "Perhaps you'd better sit down and have a brandy, then."
She rolled her eyes and walked past him, fighting the smile that his behaviour brought her. Sirius had been nothing if not accommodating in all this. He had not chosen to marry her, and she did not imagine he was particularly pleased with the arrangement. Still, she never got the impression that he resented her. It was little comfort to her, though.
Following the loud banging up the stairs, she found her old professor on the third floor wrestling with a set of mouldy drapes. Remus Lupin. One week ago, he had been her first choice of fiancés, not because she loved him or harboured any secret feelings, but because he was intelligent and capable and she trusted him. Sadly, as a werewolf, his proposal would never have been approved by the Ministry.
"Redecorating?" she asked.
"Trying to," he gave the curtains a dirty look before he turned to her. "Hermione…"
"Remus Lupin, if you try to console me, I will hex you!" she warned.
"What? No, I was going to ask for help." He lied quickly and not in the least bit convincingly, but she let him get away with it after seeing how much trouble the window-hangings had been giving him. She nodded and followed him further into the room, leaving Sirius to snigger at his inept friend.
"This is your house, Sirius," Remus scowled at him. "I should make you do this."
"But you're so much better at it than I am," Sirius smirked and walked away.
"Git," Remus muttered. "Sorry, I realise that's your fiancé, but he really is a lazy prat. Fair warning: the man hates cleaning. He once went a year without washing a single piece of clothing, buying new everything whenever it got too dirty. …I suspect that was done on a dare, though."
She snorted, imagining Fred and George doing something similar. "Who would have dared him to do that?"
"James," he said, as if it were obvious.
"Anything else I should know?"
Remus paused as he approached the offending decoration. "Well, he—" The curtain whipped out and wrapped around his head, cutting off his information along with his air. After a split-second of shock, Hermione waved her wand at the curtain aiming every spell she could think of at it. One of them worked and the fabric fell lifeless from the man's face.
"Bloody curtain!" Remus gasped. Her calm and quiet professor of Defence cursed at the drapery twice more before throwing a spell at the fabric that caused it to catch fire. He wore a gratified smile as they watched the curtains burn down to ashes. "Right, what was I saying?"
"Um… about Sirius…" she said, warily.
"Yes. He smokes on the balcony when he thinks no one is watching," Remus said, his brow knitting together in consideration. "You'll catch him talking to himself, I'm afraid. I think he's carrying on a conversation with his brother or James. Even now that his name is clear and he can walk around in public, it's not easy. Not everyone believes he's innocent and others haven't been keeping up with the news. So he stays in more than is healthy."
The girl suddenly felt guilty. Sirius's present state of reclusiveness hadn't even entered her mind. She had assumed, as did everyone else, that he went off for a laugh every chance he got now that he was free. That no one believed the truth had never occurred to her.
He was still a prisoner, just in a different sense, and she was adding to his stress and unhappiness.
Some meddlesome section of her being wanted to drag him to the nearest social event and force some interaction on the poor man, but she remembered that she did not want to be the nagging sort of wife who was constantly trying to improve her husband. She also remembered that she hated social events. The Yule Ball had been unbelievably taxing. Although, she had been the Durmstrang champion's date and was the focus of quite a lot of attention. If she went with him to a Muggle social event like a play or to a museum, that might not be so bad. No one in the Muggle world knew him. His face had not been on the news for over two years, so he had likely been forgotten by all but the most avid of crime watchers.
"Don't even think about it." The deep voice of the man in question broke through her thoughts. "I know that look – I've worn it many times – and whatever you're planning: Don't."
"What?" Hermione said with far too much innocence. "I was just thinking."
"I know," he said with that familiar smirk. "Don't."
"Are you here to help?" Remus asked.
Sirius' smirk turned wicked. "No, I had a thought of my own." He grabbed Hermione's hand and pulled her down the stair to the entrance hall. "We haven't informed my mother."
"Oh," Hermione's eyes went round as Galleons as they turned to the dark, holey curtain that concealed the painting of his mad-eyed, fanatical mother. "Sirius, no. That is a bad idea."
"I know," he grinned and threw the curtain back. "Those are always the best kind."
"SHAME OF MY FLESH! BE GONE FROM THIS HOUSE!" the woman shrieked.
"Mother!" Sirius smiled. "I'd like to introduce my fiancée, Hermione Granger. Her parents are Muggles."
"TRAITOR! YOU DEFILE OUR LINE WITH THIS FILTH! MUDBLOOD! YOU DESECRATE THIS MOST NOBLE HOUSE—"
Sirius closed the curtain with a lazy wave of his wand. He breathed in deeply, a self-satisfied grin on his face. "That went well."
"Can you really not remove her?" Hermione asked, somewhat shaken.
"Tried every spell I know, Moony and Moody, too," he shrugged. "Even Dumbledore couldn't get her down."
"Those are all magical methods, though. She clearly never imagined a Muggle in her house. Have you not tried any Muggle ways?" She watched as the man's smile fell into a frown and he blinked slowly.
"Cut the canvas out of the frame," Hermione suggested. "Throw paint thinner on it… I don't know."
"Paint thinner?" he parroted. "What is that?"
She exhaled slowly, irritated. Purebloods… They hated the Muggle world yet they knew so little about it. "It's a chemical that will destroy the paint." He still stared at her blankly, so she thought a different approach might work better. "Are there any shops nearby? Muggle shops, I mean."
"Yeah, a few lanes over."
"I'll be back in a little while," she said and left through the front door, shaking her head and almost laughing at the look of utter confusion on her fiancé's face.
Hermione huffed through the door nearly an hour later. The plastic shopping bag in her hands weighed down by several cans of solvent from the small home improvement shop. She closed the door and stepped into the hall where Sirius still stood, waiting. Remus had joined him and they both looked rather perplexed, though Sirius had an undercurrent of expectancy to his stare. The bag crinkled as she dug into it and pulled out a metal can.
"Happy Engagement, Sirius," she said and plopped the can into his hands.
He eyed it uncertainly, reading the bold-faced brand name on the front before opening the lid. "Oh, that is minging!"
His complaint was enough to set the Walburga Black shouting again. Hermione threw a silencing charm around her before the first insult even left her mouth. Sirius smirked at her reflexes before turning his attention back to the stinking can. Ever the king of caution and subtlety, he shrugged and doused the bottom of the portrait.
"It was worth a try," he said when the paint did not immediately start to melt from the canvas. "Lunch?"
"Yeah," Hermione said, dejected. She thought for sure the wizarding world had not thought of this type of solvent. They went to the kitchen together and ate in disappointed silence.
"I'm off, then," Remus announced.
"What, are you tired? You're getting old, Moony," Sirius grinned.
"If I am, so are you."
"Ah, but I have a pretty little fiancée to keep me feeling young," he countered and took Hermione's hand in his, making a show of kissing her knuckles.
Remus turned his long-suffering gaze to her, "I did warn you that he's a git."
"And the smoking and being a bit of a hermit, I remember," she said.
"None of that talking about me behind my back stuff in my own house," Sirius waggled a disapproving finger at the pair of them. "Rule Number One: No Laughing at the Master of the House!"
Remus snorted, and Hermione shook her head. "I think you'll find," she said, "that Rule Number One is No Pranking the Wife. We established that last week, if you recall." It was true. Sirius, upfront and honest as he was, admitted that Fred had been chosen by the Order to be her husband until his twin spoke up, insisting the girl was sixteen going on seventy and that Fred would have his wedding vegetables hexed off the first time he tried to prank her. When she nodded that it was the likely outcome, Sirius had shivered and made his new Rule Number One.
"Fine, Rule Number Two, then," Sirius grumbled.
Remus snorted again. "And you made fun of James for being whipped."
The master of the house glared at him and pointed to the door. "You can just leave if all you're going to do is insult me, Messer Lupin."
"As you wish, Messer Black, Miss Granger," Remus bowed and left the room as Hermione did her best to not laugh at their foolishness. She tried to imagine what they must have been like while in Hogwarts without age and war and death mellowing them. Fred and George Weasley would have looked boring by comparison.
"SIRIUS!" Lupin bellowed from the entrance hall.
Sirius scrambled up from his chair and ran after his friend, fear evident in his face and panicked movements, but the werewolf was in no danger. He was standing in front of Walburga's painting, staring open-mouthed at it.
"What the hell?" Sirius growled.
"Sirius," Remus said again, quietly, disbelievingly. He pointed to the portrait. Hermione and Sirius looked and saw that the woman's feet were gone. The paint was bubbling and blistering away from the canvas, destroying the portrait.
"I knew it would work!" Hermione crowed and did a small victory dance.
Sirius swept her into a rib-cracking hug, kissing her cheek and refusing to let go even when she complained that she couldn't breathe. He held her so tightly that she could feel his heart beating out a triumphant rhythm and the vibrations of his laughter through his chest and into hers.
"I take back every complaint I made about having to marry you. I am the luckiest man in England, and I am going to buy you the most ostentatious engagement ring I can find. Moony, to Diagon Alley!" He dropped her back onto her feet with another kiss to the cheek before he swept past, grabbing Remus by the arm and hauling him from the house.
Hermione was left alone in the entrance hall, staring at Walburga as she spat her voiceless curses down at the girl. "Well, I wanted to get away from everyone," she commented.