The night before Ruby's birthday Sirius made his way to The Burrow. He had wanted Ruby to stay with him for the summer but with Bill and Fleur's wedding just around the corner and the combined Ministry and Order protection surrounding The Burrow he had been forced to admit that it made more sense for her to stay with the Weasleys. He knew he would be forced to share her with everyone else on her birthday, but at the very least he could snatch a couple of hours alone with her the night before.
It took him longer than he expected to reach her. As usual, Molly waylaid him at the door and tried to force feed him something filling. Almost every Weasley seemed to want to talk to him about important business for the Order, and even Hermione stopped him in the corridor and demanded to be told how to perform a complex counter jinx. This wasn't unusual for Hermione, who had been scribbling frantically on pieces of parchment every time Sirius had seen her this summer, but it grated on his nerves when his time was so short.
Finally he arrived at the room Ruby shared with Hermione and Ginny. He knocked briefly, opened the door and froze. He had never been inside Ginny's bedroom before, but he was fairly certain that it shouldn't look like this. The three beds had been pushed back against the walls, creating an open space in the middle which had been filled with a small stool and a full length mirror floating in the air.
Sirius's first thought was that the woman standing on the stool couldn't possibly be Ruby. How could she be? His Ruby was a scrawny thing whose hair never quite seemed tidy. The woman before him was slender, not scrawny, beautiful in an elegant gold dress, and her black hair fell in rippling waves down her back. Spying him in the mirror, the woman turned to face Sirius and smiled brilliantly. It was her eyes that convinced him: they were Ruby's eyes. Not just the vibrant green colour, but the emotions that shone from them: bravery, determination and the grief that had been present since Dumbledore's murder.
He realised he had been silent for far too long and Ruby was beginning to look concerned, but what was he supposed to say to her? Seeing her this way had sparked a whole set of conflicting emotions. He was indescribably proud to realise that the orphaned child had emerged through all trials and sufferings as a strong, beautiful woman. And yet, he was terrified. Terrified that she would no longer need him as she once had, that she would never again run into his arms with the same enthusiasm. Terrified that she would drift away from him.
There was another emotion, less easily defined, that he found he didn't want to examine too closely. It had been lingering in the back of his mind for a couple of months now, a half formed idea that grew in clarity every time his guard was down. It lurked around the edges of his awareness in the time before sleeping, revealed itself in dreams he could never quite recall. Catching that first glimpse of Ruby, it had come rushing to the fore of his mind. Sirius was not a coward but he shied from that thought and the danger he sensed from it.
Eventually, realising that he had to say something, he forced himself to croak, "Why aren't you wearing your glasses?"
It wasn't the best greeting in the world, but at that moment in time he found himself short of words.
Ruby pulled a face. "Fleur said I had to stand in front of the mirror until I could find something nice to say about the dress."
"So you took off your glasses?"
"I'd rather be half blind than stare at myself while I look like this."
"But the dress is beautiful," protested Sirius.
"It's not the dress I have a problem with. It's what I look like wearing it."
"Don't be ridiculous," he said sharply. "You make the dress beautiful. Half the men at the wedding will fall in love with you, and then I'll have to kill them all."
"Now who's being ridiculous?" she mumbled. She turned her face away, unsuccessfully trying to hide her flaming cheeks. By the time she had jammed her glasses on her blush had faded to a pale pink and, to Sirius's immense relief, she was able to hurry to him and embrace him with every bit as much love and enthusiasm as she always had. "It's good to see you," she said into his chest, and it was impossible to doubt the sincerity in her voice.
Wrapping his arms around her, he squeezed her tightly and laid his cheek against her hair. "I'm being selfish," he informed her. "I want you to myself before having to share you with everyone tomorrow. Do you think Fleur will mind me interrupting your staring?"
Ruby pulled back and smiled conspiratorially. "What she doesn't know won't hurt her."
"I won't tell if you won't. Woe betide the man who interferes with the wedding plans."
She snorted and moved to sit on the edge of the bed. "I'm not sure who you should be more afraid of: Fleur or Mrs Weasley."
"I'd rather not take my chances with either, if it's all the same with you."
His smile faded as he looked closely at Ruby's face and saw the strain there. Most witches a couple of hours away from coming of age would be excited, raring to celebrate, but she wore an expression of weariness far beyond her years. "How are you holding up?" he asked gently.
A guarded look entered her eyes that made Sirius's stomach twist painfully. What was she feeling that she couldn't share with him? There had been a time when she had told him everything, confided in him when she couldn't talk to Ron and Hermione, her closest friends.
"Fine," she said stiffly. Then, in a much smaller voice, "I miss Hedwig. It's terrible to say that when Mad Eye is dead, and I miss him too, but I never thought she would die. She never hurt anyone; it was just her rotten luck that she ended up with me."
Sirius sat next to her on the bed, squeezing her shoulder gently. "There's no sense in what happened to Hedwig. The Death Eaters are ruthless. They will kill anyone – animals, children, whole families – that stand in the way of what they want."
"Yes," she said bitterly. "But no one else will be murdered for standing between me and Voldemort."
The determination in her voice frightened him. She couldn't possibly be thinking of going off on her own, could she? It was true that she, Hermione and Ron weren't returning to Hogwarts for their final year, but with Dumbledore gone it wasn't a safe place for them. Molly had told him of her fears that the three friends would disappear to hunt down Voldemort, and at the time he had dismissed the idea as typical of her tendency to over react. Now he wasn't so sure. He opened his mouth to question her but before he could she laughed shakily and said, "Ignore me. I don't want to mope while you're here. What has Kingsley had you doing?"
He wasn't completely willing to let the subject drop but knew pursuing it would make her tentative smile disappear. The last thing he wanted so close to her birthday was to upset her. "The usual," he sighed. "I've spent most of my time reinforcing the protective enchantments surrounding houses linked to the Order, and in my free time I've been sorting through some of Dumbledore's papers. But," he grinned and drew a long, thin package from his pocket, "I still managed to find enough time to shop for your present. It's traditional to give a watch when a witch comes of age, but someone beat me to the punch. I hope you like this as much."
Ruby took the present and shook it lightly next to her ear, like a child on Christmas morning. "Do I have to wait until tomorrow to open it?" she asked.
"Well, considering the bridesmaid trauma you've been through tonight-"
"Very traumatic," she agreed gravely.
"- We can make an exception. Open it."
Grinning, she tore off the paper and opened the box. A necklace nestled inside, the pendant a gleaming emerald set in silver. Sirius had been unsure about buying it – he usually bought her far more practical gifts – but when he glimpsed it in a shop window in Diagon Alley it had reminded him so strongly of Ruby's eyes that he'd had to buy it. Besides which, coming of age presents weren't supposed to be practical; they were supposed to be keepsakes. Now, seeing her eyes frozen wide with shock, he wondered if he should have bought polish for her Firebolt instead.
"Do you like it?" he asked self consciously. "I thought it matched your eyes."
"Of course I like it! I love it. But…"
"Do I want to know how much this cost? You're supposed to be saving up for a new house."
Sirius threw back his head and laughed at the reproach in her voice. "Don't be ridiculous!" The necklace, an antique, had set him back more than a few galleons but he had no intention of sharing that information with her. "Would you like help putting it on?"
They rose and moved to the mirror, Sirius carefully removing the necklace from its box. He pushed her hair to one side and slid the thin chain around her neck, fastening it. "There," he said, resting his hands on her shoulders. "Beautiful."
Ruby, her cheeks pink again, smiled and raised her eyes to meet his in the mirror.
Standing there, staring into the mirror, Sirius realised. It wasn't that Ruby was beautiful, her smile as she looked at him radiant. He already knew that she was beautiful and she had always reserved that particular smile for him alone. In fact, his epiphany had very little to do with Ruby. It was the expression on his own face as he gazed down at her, the mingled love and tenderness in his eyes. It was how Remus looked at Tonks; it was how James had looked at Lily.
Despite his screaming protests, the half formed thought he had been trying desperately to ignore clarified itself. Somehow, at some point, his innocent love for Ruby had changed. He didn't love her as Remus and Molly loved her; he was in love with her.
Sirius had no idea how he got from The Burrow to the house he shared with Remus and Tonks. Later he only remembered the hurt and confusion on Ruby's face as he muttered an excuse and made a hasty escape. He spent that night and the next day drinking far too much and questioning every touch and embrace, wondering whether he had held her too tightly or allowed a kiss on the cheek to linger for too long. In his mind's eye he could see James's horrified face, Lily reaching for her wand with murder in her eyes and wondered whether they were cursing him in the afterlife.
To his shame, he couldn't face seeing Ruby on her birthday and sent her a brief note explaining that he was needed on Order business. Her reply reassured him that she understood work for the Order had to come first, but he could clearly imagine the hurt in her eyes when she read his letter.
There was no way he could possibly avoid attending Bill and Fleur's wedding, and so two mornings after his realisation he dressed in his best robes and apparated to The Burrow. It was easier than he thought to avoid Ruby. She was an essential part of the preparations, helping put up last minute decorations and arrange chairs. Every few minutes Fleur's musical voice floated from the house demanding Ruby's presence, and, with a sigh and a grumble, she was forced to run back to the room where the bride was dressing.
Keeping his eyes off her during the ceremony was an entirely different matter. Now that he knew he loved her he seemed to be constantly finding new things to adore. The way she stood so proudly next to Fleur and Ginny, and the exasperated look she shared with Ron when Hermione began to bawl. He even loved her almost masculine stride, so different from the way Fleur and her sister seemed to float down the aisle.
Despite his best efforts to hide from her after the ceremony, Ruby found him sitting in a dark corner of the marquee. "Help me!" she said desperately, and before Sirius even had a chance to ask what was wrong she had grabbed his hand and dragged him onto the dance floor. Seconds later a hopeful young man appeared by her shoulder, but his smile faded when he saw Sirius. He slunk away, keeping one eye on Ruby in case another opportunity presented itself.
"Who's he?" asked Sirius, glowering at the young man and drawing Ruby closer.
"No idea, but he's very persistent." She rolled her eyes. "I've been very popular since last summer."
They continued to sway together awkwardly. Sirius hadn't danced since James and Lily's wedding and, as far as he could tell, no one had ever taught Ruby how to. "Have you had a good day?" he asked.
"Yes," she said quietly. "I'm glad that I could see everyone again before – Well, you know."
He froze. "No, I don't know. Before what?"
She drew away from him slightly, looking up into his eyes. "Before I leave."
"Leave? Where are - ?" He broke off, realising. How could he have been so blind? Molly had told him a hundred times that Ruby was leaving to fight Voldemort, and he had dismissed her. He had closed his ears when Remus and Kingsley spoke about Dumbledore's belief that Ruby was the wizarding world's best hope. Even if that wasn't the case, if Dumbledore hadn't given Ruby information or a task he had told no one else about, Ruby wouldn't rest until Voldemort was gone. She had tried to Crucio Bellatrix when she had nearly blasted him off the platform at the Ministry, why would she allow the monster who had been responsible for the deaths of her parents and Dumbledore to escape?
But she couldn't go. James and Lily's murders had broken his heart and Azkaban had almost broken his sanity, but somehow he had survived. He knew with utter certainty that if Ruby followed her parents – and his chest tightened at the thought – he wouldn't be able to live. There would be nothing left. That's why his mouth opened and, without his mind's consent, words began to tumble out. "You can't go," he said in a low, desperate voice. "It'll kill me if you die. I love you, Ruby."
Her face softened. "I love you, Sirius, but-"
"No, you don't understand." And he could think of only one way of making her see. Taking her face between his hands, he lowered his mouth to hers. Blank shock showed in her eyes as she realised what he was about to do and then, to his immense surprise, she was moving forwards, closing the gap between them, and they were kissing. It was as intoxicating as Amortentia, incredible that someone so young could convey so much in a kiss. It was the first time he had felt like a whole person in sixteen years, and warmth spread from his lips through the rest of his body. Her arms snaked around his neck, pulling him closer, and he smiled elatedly into the kiss.
A crash of glass and they broke apart. Remus stood feet away, his eyes wide and disbelieving. His mouth moved, framing a question, but before Sirius had a chance to worry about his oldest friend a silver lynx streaked into the marquee and proclaimed that the Ministry had fallen and they were on their way. All hell broke loose. Screams of terror rose up around them and in every direction people were shouting shield charms. Somehow, despite his tight grip on her hand, Ruby was pulled away from him. He ran through the crowd, screaming her name, and for a second a gap appeared in the crush of people and he glimpsed her. She was gripping Hermione's hand, who was holding onto Ron. Despite the terror of the people all around her, there was only cold determination on Ruby's face. Still holding onto each other, the three friends turned on the spot and disappeared. She was gone.