Chapter 41: Collateral Damage

Hermione could not remember a more awkward meal in her life. Not when her estranged Uncle Alfie came to visit; not when her father's old girlfriend from university dropped by; not even the dinner where she rather unceremoniously announced her engagement to Sirius. No, this was the hands-down winner of that ignoble prize.

Sirius, to his credit, was playing to perfection his role as good husband and respectful son-in-law, which was what made the whole things so unbearably awkward for her. She had no choice but to follow his lead, to smile when he looked at her, to laugh when he joked and offer none of the scathing remarks she so wanted to direct his way. With each laugh and glance and smile, the ache in her chest grew. She was practically in tears by the time lunch had ended, the pain was so great.

"Hermione," her mother whispered and hugged her tight, pulling her into the kitchen. "Is everything all right?"

"Yes," she lied. "It's fine. Just the exercise. I think I pulled a muscle."

"Hermione Jean Granger, don't you dare lie to me." Martha seemed to tower over her just as she had when Hermione was a child caught red-handed filching biscuits before dinner. "You can tell me the truth. Your father might be blinded by that man's smile, but I'm not."

She really did want to tell her the truth. Instead she shook her head. "It's not Sirius."

"Then where are your rings?"

Hermione looked at her hands, saw the ten naked digits. The engagement ring Sirius had commissioned was so ostentatious, it would have been impossible not to notice its absence. She had been foolish to think it would have been overlooked.

"They were missing last week, too. I didn't say anything because I thought you might have kept them in your trunk so they wouldn't be damaged on the train, but you've been back to that man's house and to your trunk. They are still gone, Hermione," the woman said sagely. "I know what it means when a married woman isn't wearing her rings."

"I-I sent them off to be cleaned," Hermione offered weakly.

"Fine, Hermione, if that's the game you want to play, then deny away. But remember that I am your mother. I love you no matter what happens," she pulled her daughter into a hug. "So when you choose to tell me that you have separated from that man, I will support you one hundred percent. Especially if you get the house."

"Mum!" Hermione couldn't help but laugh.

"What? He clearly has money," the woman said. "Far be it for me to stand between you and your equal share."

"Stop it."

Martha smiled down at her. "There, now that's the honest smile I've been missing."

"When it's time, I'll let you know," Hermione promised.

"Let her know what?" Philip questioned as he swaggered into the kitchen with his beloved son-in-law. The man wagged a disapproving finger at his daughter. "Are you keeping secrets from your old man?"

"When she lets me know what's in this parcel that's been sitting in the kitchen for the better part of the week. You remember, Philip, the parcel you said you would post to her last week?" supplied Martha with a hard look at her husband before answering her daughter's questioning glance. "A handsome, young police constable delivered it, said it was from that horrible accident at the station." The woman pushed an envelope into Hermione's hands and prodded her husband from the room until the young woman was alone in the kitchen with Sirius.

The ache, which she kept thinking could grow no more excruciating, spiked again when he looked at her. She needed to stop this, to do something to make the pain vanish. Watching at him was no help. He was too handsome, even in those ridiculous clothes. Her eyes tried to move from him, but as he pulled at the sweat-soaked neck of his shirt, she saw the blood diamond ring she had given him before Christmas. A new and different ache jointed the first as she considered what it meant that he still wore that ring; that ring that bound him to her with magic; that ring that sent a fire to her blood if another woman touched him or if he was in pain.

Terrified by the thought of what else that ring might have been communicating with her, she tore her eyes from him and looked instead at the envelope. She felt the contents through the thick paper, trying to identify them by shape alone.

"What did I leave at the station?" she wondered and tore it open, adding mentally, 'Except my marriage?'

Apparently nothing.

Inside the dull manila envelope lay her rings, as shining and ostentatious as they had ever been. They fell heavily into her hand, where she turned them over and studied them. Their loss had changed her entire world.

"I thought you'd gotten rid of them," Sirius said in a low, astonished voice, like a man rediscovering a lost treasure. "Gotten rid of me."

"Did you find any notes that read I was leaving you? They fell off, and I couldn't find them. I looked, but they were gone. I thought someone had stolen them; I guess they had just been buried." As they stared at one another, she felt the heart-crushing pain in her chest ebb until it was little more than a dull twinge.

Snapping free of his reverie, Sirius cleared his throat. "They haven't repealed the Bloody Law yet. Some renegade Death Eater might still try his luck."

A noncommittal 'hm' was all she could manage, too distrusting of her own voice after hearing what sounded like a very strange marriage proposal from the man she was certain, until that moment, wanted nothing more than the dissolution of their union.

"But it doesn't change anything, finding those," he informed her hastily. "You're still free to marry whoever you want."

"I guess I am," she agreed, studying the rings and all they symbolised.

Sirius was right about the Bloody Law and about the Death Eaters; she had been keeping up with the Daily Prophet, saw that there were innumerable supporters of the fallen Dark Lord causing trouble throughout the country. One such rabid follower would be more than happy to make an example of her – Harry Potter's friend and confidant; she would need to remarry and soon. Sirius, it seemed, was willing to take the job on again, but was that what she wanted? So far as husbands went, Sirius was quite possibly one of the better ones. He might not have loved her, but he had treated her well, respected her in all the ways she would wish.

A glance at Sirius left her no less conflicted about what to do; he looked no more disappointed or eager than he had before the rings were returned to her. Had the words been a mere encouragement for her to get out and find someone new? Someone else. Anyone else. Anyone but him.

A moment passed.

Then another as she debated the pros and cons of remaining Hermione Jean Black.

Sirius broke into her thoughts with a chuckle. It was the first laugh she had heard from him in nearly three weeks, but she was certain it was direct at her. He was laughing at her.

She glared at him. "What's so bloody funny?"

"You," he admitted with a genuine smile. "I can always tell when you're making a list in your head. I don't know if it matters at all, but I have one more item for your 'pro' column."

"Which is what?" she sniffed, annoyed that he had known precisely what was in her thoughts.

"That I love you."

She blinked at him in disbelief, quite sure she had misheard him. "What?"

"You heard me. Do you think I stepped in front of a Killing Curse because Dumbledore told me to? I did that for you because I love you. Do you think I would drink myself sick every night because I escaped a marriage I didn't want to be in? No, I was desperate to get you back, Hermione. Every time I looked at you, it felt like my heart was breaking. Every time I heard you laugh with someone else, saw you smile at someone who wasn't me, I died inside."

"That was you?" Her hand flew to her chest, rubbing at the memory of the pain that no longer plagued her.

He held up the hand still carrying the ring she had given him. "I know all the things a ring like this can share," he admitted. "I kept it on, knowing you would feel everything I felt, hoping it would tell you all the things I was too cowardly to say. I should have said it sooner, Hermione. I love you."

Her voice failed her as she stared at him.

"And this is the point where you're meant to tell me you love me, too," he prompted with a charming grin.

She hesitated, "I… I don't know."

Impossibly, his grin grew larger.

"Why are you smiling?" she demanded. "I just said I don't love you."

"No, I think you'll find you said you didn't know if you loved me." He took the rings from her fidgeting hands and slid them without pause onto her finger, where they settled back into place as if they had found their home. "Give me a little more time and you'll love me as much as I do you."

Her heart was light for the first time since leaving King's Cross. Regardless, she was annoyed that he had not allowed her to finish her list; she knew the results would have been the same, but she would have liked to make her own decision. "What makes you so confident?"

"I'm Sirius Fucking Black," he said, his assured smile slipping effortlessly into a smirk.

She waited, expecting him to say more, to offer verifiable proof for his declaration and self-confidence, but no more came.


"Swot," he smiled. "Brilliant, beautiful swot. I love you. Now kiss me, it'll annoy that mother of yours."

She shoved his smiling face away. "Dammit, Sirius, I'm trying to be cross with you!"

"And how is that going?"

"Not well at all, I'm far too happy right now," she admitted. And it was true. Where the debilitating ache had once threatened to crush her heart muscle, she now felt a warmth flooding her chest more wonderful than any magic she had ever known. Dumbledore had been right, but he usually was. She hadn't understood how love could have destroyed the darkest wizard ever known, but she had felt the pain of its absence; she knew she would have died if it continued.

She didn't know if she loved Sirius. However, there were, as Ginny had once said, a lot of different kinds of love, and she would find whichever one was right for her. She would love Sirius one day, probably one day very, very soon.

She smiled as she took his hand, lacing her fingers through his and tugging him from the kitchen.

"And just where are you taking me, Mrs Black?"

Hermione leaned into him. "Back to your place," she whispered. "I have a sexy little blue bodice and nobody to rip it for me."

"Why, Mrs Black, I do believe I am just the man for the job."

"Well, it's nice to see you two getting along properly for a change," Philip commented as he squeezed past them to reach the sitting room.

Hermione's mouth fell. "Dad! You knew we were having a row? Why did you let us go on pretending like it was all blissful wedlock?"

The man took his time settling himself into a chair with a newspaper before he bothered answering her question. "Oh, I assumed it was just another of your little teacup tempests again."

"I wouldn't exactly call those little," Sirius muttered, hand rubbing his stomach where the sword of Gryffindor had cut into him.

"They come and go like the tides, Sirius," the man said. "You just have to learn to wait them out. Give her time and she'll come round to your side of things."

Sirius beamed. "She already has, actually. I—" Any further comment was cut short by a hard elbow to his ribs.

"Alright, dad, we're off," Hermione kissed the man's balding pate. "Tell mum not to be too disappointed. And we'll be 'round for dinner before I leave for school, okay?" Hermione stepped into the green flames and was whisked away just as Philip summoned Sirius in a hard, demanding voice.

She landed in the kitchen fire of Grimmauld Place, face stricken and terrified by the tone her father had taken. He had called to Sirius more severely than Hermione had ever heard in her life.

"Oh, dear," Molly said. "Judging by your face, I'd gather things did not go well. Did Sirius not behave himself? I'm sorry, but a man like that…"

The woman continued to prattle on about the man and how irresponsible he was, but Hermione had no desire to listen even if she did have grey matter to spare. She was far too busy pacing before the fire, hands wringing themselves raw with worry as she tried to decipher the exact meaning of her father's words and tone.

By the time the fire sputtered and erupted in the green flames that would carry Sirius back to her, she was all but convinced that her father's show of affection toward her husband was nothing but a false front. Secretly, Philip hated him as much as her mother did, and he had called him back to warn him off, to threaten his life, to stab him mercilessly in some vital organ.

"What did he do?" she demanded, hand flying out to survey the man. There was no blood, but that didn't mean there was no damage.

"I'm fine," Sirius assured her, stilling her hands inside his own.

"Dad did not sound fine. He sounded murderous."

"And he is. He wants me back on the team next Football Sunday to kill the other side."

Hermione's head dropped. "That was about football?"

"It's a very important thing, Hermione. A battleground, if you will."

"Bloody hell, you sound just like my dad. I have married my father." She groaned and stomped away from him.

"Wait, so does this mean no bodice ripping tonight?" he shouted after her. "Damn. Hermione!"

Molly Weasley leaned back against the counter, watching as Sirius chased his wife from the kitchen with promises to never talk of football or any sport again, smile on her face and glass of whiskey in her hand. "Well, I don't think he'll be wanting this tonight. Thank Merlin that's over with."

A/N: Thanks for sticking with it till the end. I hope it's to your liking.

I have to say I'm amazed at the difference a few years will make in reader response. The reviews I got this time around were very different (not in a bad way) from the first time I posted this.

I love you for reading. I love you for reviewing. THANK YOU!