The sky was indeed dark as they stepped out onto the stoop. It also seemed to be tinged a strange greenish gray, a result of the clouds that had taken up residence overhead since sunset.
"I hope this is to be a short stroll," Ericka said warily, her eyes cast upwards. A warm spell had recently melted the winter snow and left muddy puddles in its wake. The unseasonable warmth lingered, and she wouldn't have been surprised if a rainstorm made an appearance overnight to further inconvenience Londoners.
Sirius quirked an eyebrow and glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, a smirk playing around one side of his mouth.
"When did you become such a nancy?" he asked. "Honestly, Delian, where's your sense of adventure?"
"Adventure, is it?" she countered quickly, turning to look him straight in the eye. "It just sounds like a good way to stir up a bloody mess and send the both of us to St. Mungo's with pneumonia to me."
"With what now?" he asked, cocking his head to the side curiously.
Her years of hiding from the magical world had left her with an abundance of Muggle knowledge that he of course didn't share. Biting the inside of her cheek, she hoped he wouldn't realize her mistake which would likely result in a resurfacing of the awkwardness that was common enough between them. She waved her hand dismissively.
"Nevermind. Lead on then, where is your grand adventure taking us tonight?"
A Cheshire grin dimpled his face, and she was relieved to see that the pleasant ease remained between them.
"Thought you'd never ask, love," he said, taking her hand before turning on his heel and dragging her away from the square. The forceful tug behind her naval was familiar but unexpected, and even as they came to a spinning halt she couldn't but help be completely consumed by the feel of her hand in his. Preoccupied as she was, she stumbled upon hitting the hard earth, but his grip on her was firm and he righted her before she hit the ground. She ignored the grin that said he knew exactly what she was thinking, and instead turned to look up at the enormous wrought iron gate before them.
"Hogwarts?" she asked, confused.
"Yes," he confirmed as if it was the most natural place in the world for them to be. "Hogwarts."
"We, my dear, are going back to basics," he said, giving a wildly exaggerated mock bow while offering an arm to her. "And for us, that means Hogwarts."
She giggled, and even to her own ears she sounded like a smitten schoolgirl. A dozen girls in her class alone, (that she knew of,) had fallen quite literally to his slick charms. At the very least, she could claim that it had taken more than that to sway her. It hadn't mattered in the end. She might as well have been his from the beginning.
Taking his arm and doing her best to pull herself together, she tried to make sense of his intent. Of course, they'd had their best times at school. Hogwarts meant before the war hit their doorstep. Before James and Lily hadn't been dead. Before Sirius had been carted away. Before Regulus…
"Basics," she parroted lamely. He only nodded patiently. "But what about the charms? We can't even get in."
"Oh ye of little faith," he said, endlessly smug. "I called ahead. We have reservations."
As he spoke he walked forward, Ericka in tow, and pushed lightly on the gate. It opened easily and silently, and Sirius flung himself into another ridiculous bow, gesturing for her to go through ahead of him.
Stifling another giggle that threatened to bubble up, she crossed the threshold and waited for him to follow her.
"Do we need to…?" she gestured up at the gate after he did nothing more than pull it shut behind them.
"No," he shook his head, unconcerned. "It will only let you and I through today."
She frowned at him out of the corner of her eye as they began to amble slowly forward in no particular direction. The grounds were dark, and there was no moon to light the way, but they were both familiar enough with the area that they avoided trees and other obstacles easily.
"You set all of this up with Dumbledore?" she asked. He nodded, reaching up to break off a dead branch.
"And the students are all at dinner, though I don't think it likely that any of them would venture out at this time anyway," he said. Then, seeing her small disbelieving smile, "Is it so hard to believe that I could plan ahead?"
"I suppose it had to happen sooner or later," she said wryly, kicking through a puddle ahead of him playfully. "Not exactly a romantic setting at the moment though, is it?"
He stopped walking and watched her walk a few steps further.
"Who said it was supposed to be romantic?" he asked pointedly.
She stopped walking abruptly, appalled at what she'd insinuated. Of course he hadn't meant it to be romantic, she cursed herself. Just a nice walk through the school ground they both loved so much. Turning back but not quite meeting his eyes, she tried to think of a way to backpeddle.
"Nothing…not…I didn't mean that's what you'd intended," she stuttered. "I just meant…in general, you know. It's not the best weather. For other people. You know, if that's what they had in mind."
His smile grew with her discomfort, though she didn't realize since she couldn't bear to meet his gaze. Finally after another moment of scrutiny, he relented.
"I suppose you're right," he said, offering his arm to her again. She breathed a relieved sigh as quietly as she could.
"Where are we going then?" she asked, keen to change the topic.
He just smiled knowingly, and Ericka tried in vain to keep from rolling her eyes. They continued to walk slowly and the silence stretched between them, though somehow it wasn't as uncomfortable as it might have been. Sirius seemed to have their destination in mind, though he was in no hurry to reach it and he didn't seem at all inclined to let her in on the secret.
Perhaps she should have realized sooner, but it wasn't until they topped the hill and she gazed out at the lake stretched out before her that it all came together. The frozen surface glittered back at her as if throwing her a cheeky wink. Two pairs of skates lay by the water's edge.
"You really did have a plan," she breathed.
"Mmmm," he hummed in response, and even then she could hear the self-satisfaction in his voice.
"Is it safe?" she asked, thinking of the recent bout of warm weather. It was true, neither of them would be in danger one way or the other. Should any mishap befall them they could easily escape the lake and dry off with a couple of simple spells. However, she didn't particularly fancy a dip in what was still sure to be fiercely cold water. But there was a glint in his eye as he turned to her.
"Are you scared?"
Her heart skipped a beat as she gazed back at him and she couldn't help her mind wandering a bit.
The man that she had fallen in love with all those years ago had been making an appearance more and more often, replacing the obsessive, cold and often unreasonable man that seemed to have taken over in her absence. Sirius's charm and confidence had steadily been coming back, and both were in full force tonight. She couldn't have refused him anything if she'd tried.
Lifting her chin defiantly, she didn't answer but merely strolled over to the skates and sat down to put them on. Her breath caught slightly when he sat down much too close to her, their shoulders sliding against each other. She hoped he didn't notice.
She remembered very clearly the day that Sirius was apparently recreating with this little outing. Unlike now, that day had been the picture of romance. A blanket of pristine white had covered the grounds and the school, serene and picture perfect, hovered over them in the distance like a protective parent. She couldn't now remember the circumstances that had brought them outside without the rest of their friends. It had been unusual, if not extraordinary, for the two of them to spend time together alone, but after that day it became a common enough occurrence. It had been a weekend perhaps, with light schoolwork, or the beginning of a holiday, but surely they hadn't been the only ones outside? A day like that would have tempted all of the students out for a snowball fight, but for the life of her she couldn't remember seeing or hearing another soul apart from Sirius the whole day.
"Ready?" he asked, snapping her out her out of her daydream. He was smiling at her, all sarcasm and smugness gone, replaced with a gentle wistfulness that she felt sure was reflected in her own visage. She didn't enjoy this persistent feeling that he could read her mind.
Nodding, she stood and hesitantly pushed out onto the ice. She certainly wasn't an experienced skater. In fact, that day with Sirius had been the first and last for her until this point. They'd both been garbage at first, but Sirius, more of an athlete than she, had picked it up quickly. He'd spent the next half hour skating circles around her and teasing her mercilessly as she struggled just to remain upright. Eventually he'd taken pity on her and attempted to help her learn to control the disobedient skates.
Now they wobbled slightly underneath her, but she was pleased to find that she could at least keep her balance. She would likely never find the grace that Sirius was so proud of, but she thought it a good start. She felt a pang of resentment as she noticed that he looked like an old pro, skating as easily backwards as he did forwards, smug grin back firmly in place. Bitterly, she wondered if it was possible that Azkaban had a skating rink that she wasn't aware of.
"Having fun?" she called sourly as he swept gracefully by her, knocking her shoulder lightly with his as he passed, the small contact almost enough to send her careening over.
He nodded contentedly. "Absolutely."
She huffed in annoyance as he let her struggle. She couldn't help but picture a newborn deer struggling to gain control of its limbs, though she doubted that she displayed any of the endearing sweetness of that picture.
A sudden, if light touch on her elbow startled her and she turned to see Sirius grinning at her.
"Come on then," he said, sliding his hand down to take hers.
Though he tried valiantly for a time to help her gain a little self-confidence, her hand in his was distracting enough to her that she was even worse than before. She was soon sitting on her backside next to his feet. He laughed, though not unkindly, and crouched down to look her in the eye.
"You ready to go?" he asked, smile still gracing his features.
Despite her awful performance and the shame that she knew she should feel at the moment, she couldn't deny that she'd had a good time. It was strange to think that after all that had happened and in the midst of a war, they could still find these moments of levity in each other. It was freeing somehow. However, this was also a moment that quite forcibly reminded her that she was no spring chicken, and the screaming of her knees and ankles let her know that she would pay dearly for the excursion later. The thought of a hot bath and steaming cup of tea was almost enough to make her groan.
"I'm exhausted," she confessed with a grin.
"Up we go," he said taking both of her hands and hauling her back to her feet.
Her mind continued to drift back to their first outing all those years ago. Despite the intimate environment and the excessive amount of hand-holding as Sirius tried in vain to keep her on her feet, that romantic day had not resulted in their first kiss. They'd eventually gone back to the common room and their respective dorms, sharing a pleasant if slightly awkward farewell on parting. What it did result in was Ericka's first stirring of realization that perhaps she wanted him to kiss her. The feeling intensified slowly, but for once she wasn't bold enough to make the first move. He got the hint eventually though and things progressed from there. But that day they spent on the ice had been all innocence and awkward apologies following unintentional half-embraces as Ericka slipped again and again. She smiled fondly at the memory.
She could feel his sideways glance as they changed back into their shoes and she turned to catch him staring openly at her.
"What?" she asked.
"What?" he responded with a shrug, the picture of innocence. Her brow furrowed, but she didn't comment further.
They walked back in semi-comfortable silence, though the buzzing in Ericka's head was growing steadily. She was uneasy and felt like there was something she should say or some question she should ask, but couldn't figure out where to start. She settled for walking arm in arm with him and crossing the threshold once he'd Apparated them back home.
Shrugging off his outer gear, he was the picture of ease, and maybe even a little self-satisfaction as well, as if the day had gone exactly to plan. The thought only set her more uncomfortable.
"We should order in for dinner," he said, moving into the kitchen. She could hear the shuffle of pots and pans and running water as he set about making tea. "You know that wonderful Chinese place down the street? It closed, but another one took its place. Not as good, but tolerable. You'd have to go pick it up of course, seeing as I'm still so wanted."
She hummed a response, not really hearing him. Shrugging out of her jacket took unnecessarily long, but she eventually made her way to the kitchen. She stood on the threshold, watching his back as he fussed over the tea.
"Hmmm," he muttered distractedly.
"What was all that?" she asked, trying to keep her tone even. It was enough to still him, though he didn't turn to her yet. The set of his shoulders was stiff and she almost wished she'd held her tongue, but now that she'd started she had to get it out.
"It was wonderful," she ploughed on doggedly. "Truly, but why did you plan all of that? Why take me there?"
He did turn to her now with a muttered, "Christ," yet when he looked at her she wasn't sure if she was pleased or irritated to see that he looked slightly amused. She heard him mutter something that sounded suspiciously like, "Can't just let it be…"
He gazed at her a few seconds before answering.
"What do you want it to be?" he asked simply.
She blanched. It was down to her again, was it? Somewhere the feeling rang through as unfair that she was the one to make the decision yet again., but she couldn't bring herself to feel irritated. More than anything she felt exceedingly insecure. She was sure that whatever she said would be wrong and whatever she picked wouldn't be what he wanted. She decided to stay as neutral as possible.
"I guess I hope it means that you don't hate me," she started. " I mean, it doesn't seem that you do, but if you do it's perfectly understandable, I'd just like to…"
Her babbling cut off abruptly when he crossed the room and came to stand in front of her, very much in her personal space. She was so shocked when he brushed his hand tenderly over her cheekbone that she felt an embarrassing threat of tears. She had to fight the urge to lean into his touch.
"I guess I'll just be as plain as possible," he said. "No more dancing around each other. We did enough of that in school. It was irritating then and if possible it's even worse now since we've been through it all before."
She couldn't respond, nor could she tear her eyes from his face. The years in Azkaban had certainly taken their toll, there was no denying it. Despite the fact that he now got plenty of sleep and there was no shortage of food with Molly anywhere near, the bruise-like circles under his eyes and the hollows under his cheekbones would probably never be completely erased. But as she gazed at him, she knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was the most beautiful man in the world. Her stomach seemed to turn over on itself as he continued to stroke her cheek.
"I love you," he said and the world stopped.
Silence rang in her ears as she was no longer aware of anything else in the world except the man in front of her. That couldn't possibly be what he'd said, surely she'd heard him wrong. How was it possible that a man like Sirius, the best man she'd ever known, the sweetest, strongest, most loyal, man to ever live, how could a man like that ever find it within himself to love her after all of it?
"I will always love you."
Her breath caught in her throat as she struggled not to choke on a sob.
"So I'm sorry, darling, but I'm afraid it's down to you as always," he said, echoing her thoughts of earlier.
But she couldn't speak. At this, perhaps the most important moment of her life, she was struck dumb. Too intense was the effort of avoiding breaking down and sobbing on the floor at his feet, that she could only stare at him mutely.
Sirius Black, however, was never one for inaction and his nerve didn't fail him now. Moving his other hand to graze softly over the back of her neck, he leaned in closer, keeping his eyes on her face, searching, and she realized that he was giving her a chance to stop him. He was truly asking her to decide.
His lips ghosted over hers and as they did she came back to herself, gained control and pulled back. They stood there, eye-to-eye, lips centimeters apart, for what felt like an eternity.
"I love you, Sirius," she said and could feel with every cell in her body that it was true. That it would always be true. Standing there with him, it was the only thing in the world that mattered. They were all that mattered, the two of them, together. The realization crashed down and overwhelmed her, yet even as one traitorous tear found its way down her cheek, she smiled. She should have known.
His grin echoed hers. He looked happy, but he didn't look surprised. Maybe he'd known all along. Hell, maybe he was the smart one in their relationship after all.
Jesus, their relationship. The word felt as foreign now as it had so long ago when they'd first begun this whole thing. Where exactly did they go from here?
But before she could let herself be troubled, he closed the distance between them and pressed his lips so gently to hers that he might have been afraid she'd break. All thought left her mind at that point and the only thing that registered was Sirius and that she loved him.
So much had happened, how could they ever go back? Losing friends, losing each other, losing themselves, was it possible that any vestiges of those kids they'd been remained? Was it possible to recover your innocence? If it was, this was definitely way to do it, she thought. Sirius's hands, for perhaps the first time ever, didn't stray anywhere inappropriate, instead ghosting over her face, down her back, through her hair and it felt so good to kiss him, feel him, that she actually felt faint. Grasping his shoulder with one hand and running her fingers through his shaggy hair with the other, she was reminded of something Sirius had said several weeks ago.
I feel like I'm seventeen again.
Well that sounded just fine, thank you very much. A little scary perhaps, but it was supposed to be, right? If it wasn't, would it really be worth it?
She smiled against his mouth, grin widening when she felt him echo it. She pulled back, looking at him and feeling something she hadn't in a very long time.
"I love you, Sirius," she said again, relishing in the feel of the words on her lips.
No more running, no more uncertainty. This was everything that mattered. This was life itself, and being in his arms, she felt like she was finally home.