By the time Sirius arrived at the door of Grimmauld Place it had been a fortnight since Scrimgeour's fall. The Ministry, now under the control of one of Voldemort's puppets, had held him for ten days. They had questioned him for hours without respite, denying him food and sleep, putting the same three questions to him over and over: where's Ruby? What are her plans? Who is with her? He had no doubt that if one of the more vicious Death Eaters, such as his cousin or her equally deranged husband, had been allowed to question him he wouldn't have left the Ministry alive. Fortunately, in order to maintain their thin veneer of legitimacy, the Death Eaters who had gained great infamy during the first war weren't yet allowed to be associated with the Ministry. No doubt that would change, and probably sooner rather than later.
Muddled and confused as his mind was by lack of sleep, he had told them nothing. Eventually they had released him, not out of mercy or because they truly believed that he knew nothing, but because he was far more useful to them as a free man. Sirius knew he was anything but free. From the moment he set foot outside the Ministry he had been shadowed by two black cloaked men watching to see if he would lead them to Ruby, or if she would come to him for help. But today they had been fooled.
This morning the two men had seen Sirius leave the house and had followed him to the Leaky Cauldron. It was not Sirius they watched, but Remus who had dipped into their stores of Polyjuice Potion. While they trailed him as he completed a long list of mundane chores, Sirius had been apparating all over the country, travelling until there was no doubt in his mind that he wasn't being followed, before finally arriving at Grimmauld Place.
Exhausted, he practically fell through the front door and staggered into the dark corridor. "Severus Snape?" a voice whispered in his ear, and his heart froze as he recognised Mad-Eye's voice. For a long moment he looked wildly around the corridor, searching for the man who had died several weeks earlier, before remembering the charms Mad-Eye had set up to prevent Snape from entering the house. Before he could speak, the Tongue-Tying Curse descended upon him, rendering his tongue a useless lump of lead, and a ghostly figure, the mocking shade of Albus Dumbledore, rose up and glided towards him.
"I didn't kill you," he managed to choke through the curse, and the figure exploded.
Footsteps clattered along the floor and the kitchen door flew open. Two figures stood illuminated in the light that flowed from the room. "Who is it?" demanded a familiar, voice, and although Sirius was blinded by the sudden glaring light in the darkness, he knew that a wand was being pointed at his face.
"It's Sirius," he croaked, the dust from the now dormant guardian tickling his throat and making his eyes water.
"How do we know that?" the voice demanded again.
"My nickname amongst friends is Padfoot, although when I was in hiding I told you to call me Snuffles. Four years ago you saved me from the Dementors with a time turner, and I escaped on the hippogriff called Buckbeak."
Even with a whole corridor separating them Sirius heard Hermione's sigh of relief. "You frightened us," she said, and the tremor she had been fighting to keep out of her voice was now clear. She lowered her wand and gestured for him to follow them back into the kitchen. Inside, the table was covered with various pieces of parchment. Sirius caught a quick glimpse of a map and something that looked like a schedule before Ron cleared his throat and looked pointedly at Hermione, who cleared the table with a flick of her wand. For the first time he realised how frustrated Ruby, Hermione and Ron must have been two summers before when they were denied any information to do with the Order.
"A guest?" a croaking voice inquired. Kreacher shuffled out of the shadows and froze when he saw Sirius. He eyed him with intense dislike before sinking into a low bow. "Welcome, Master," he said, and then in a quieter voice added to himself, "Miss Ruby likes him and so we will be nice. We will make him tea, hot and with three sugars, just how he liked it when he was a boy." With that, the ancient house elf shuffled off to fill the large copper kettle.
Sirius stared after him incredulously. "What happened to him?" he asked. "He didn't call me a blood traitor or a disgrace to the name of Black."
Hermione looked as if she would like to rebuke him but said nothing. "We… understand each other a little better now."
"How's my family?" asked Ron urgently as they settled around the table. "Have you spoken to any of them?"
"No," said Sirius. "The Ministry detained me for more than a week after the wedding, and it isn't wise for Order members to be seen together at the moment. But Remus has seen them a couple of times and, other than worried about you, they're alright."
Ron nodded gratefully as Kreacher set three mugs of tea in front of them. Sirius took a scorching gulp to wash away the remnants of the dust before asking, "Where's Ruby?"
There was a pause as Ron and Hermione shared a strained look, and Sirius knew they were wondering how much to tell him. "She's not here," said Hermione eventually.
"'Not here'," repeated Sirius slowly. "Then where is she? I thought you three were sticking together." There was a note of accusation in his voice as he tried not to panic. The thought of Ruby fighting Voldemort with only the help of Ron and Hermione was bad enough, but imagining her trying to do it on her own made him feel sick.
"We are," said Ron defensively, "and she is here most of the time. But at the moment she's… out."
"And you're not going to tell me where."
Before either of them could answer, the front door slammed shut. There was a pause as the apparition of Dumbledore rose, then footsteps hurrying towards them and Ruby's voice floating down the corridor. "It was a good one!" she called. "I think I've found a place to hide the-" She stopped abruptly as she threw open the door and saw Sirius. She was carrying a crumpled, ink stained piece of parchment in one hand and the invisibility cloak in the other, both of which she hastened to hide behind her back.
Now that she stood before him and he could see that she was unharmed, he didn't know what to say. Remembering how they had parted, Sirius felt acutely embarrassed. True that she had responded to his embrace, that in fact she had kissed him, but she might have thought better of it since then. Perhaps their forced parting had even been a relief, as it meant she hadn't had to deal with the consequences of the kiss they had shared on the dance floor. Torn between his desire to run forwards and pull her into his arms and his fear that she would reject him, he waited silently for her to speak.
She must have been feeling something similar to Sirius's trepidation because for one of the longest moments of his life she said nothing. Then a brilliant smile broke over her face and he felt some of his nervousness disappear, because that smile, with its mixture of tenderness, laughter and something like exasperation, was the one he privately thought of as his alone. But behind the simple happiness at seeing him, there was something akin to fear hidden in her eyes.
"It's good to see you," she said quietly. "Remus couldn't give us any news of you when he visited." Pain flickered briefly over her face before she schooled her features into a neutral expression, and not for the first time Sirius thought that something unpleasant had passed between Ruby and Remus that he hadn't witnessed. Remus had been unusually reluctant to share the details of his visit to Grimmauld Place, saying only that Ruby and her friends were safe and intent on carrying out their mission.
Sirius opened his mouth to say that it was good to see her too, but quickly clamped it shut again. He didn't know how to speak without revealing how he had ached for her and constantly worried about her safety, and he didn't know how much of what had happened at the wedding Ruby had told her friends. Perhaps she saw the struggle for words in his face, because she suggested that they speak privately in the living room and he nodded gratefully.
Ron frowned at them as they left, perhaps confused by Ruby's desire for privacy. She had never had anything to say to Sirius that she couldn't say in front of them. They had been with her when she visited him in Hogsmeade, had knelt side by side with her as she talked to him through the fireplace while the rest of Gryffindor tower was sleeping. Hermione's expression, however, was knowing, and Sirius realised that Evie must have told her at least something of what had happened. He half expected her to forbid him to be alone with Ruby, but instead she swiftly distracted Ron by asking him what he wanted for dinner.
The living room windows were covered by thick velvet curtains and when Ruby shut the door they were plunged into almost total darkness. Sirius groped for his wand to give them some light, but suddenly found his hands otherwise occupied as Ruby's body collided with his. She pulled his head down none too gently and sought his lips, while the strength of his embrace almost lifted her off her feet. In the darkness there was only the familiar scent of her hair, the soft caress of her fingers against his chest and a kiss that was almost painfully sweet in its intensity.
He couldn't remember why he had been so anxious. Of course Ruby's side was the right place – the only place – for him. He would be a fool to think otherwise.
When they finally broke apart she nuzzled her face into the crook of his neck, exhaling softly. His flesh tingled and broke out into goosepimples at the sensation of her warm breath on his skin. "You're too thin," she admonished him in a murmur.
This startled a laugh out of him. "And I thought you couldn't keep your hands off me," he admitted sheepishly, stroking her hair.
He felt her lips curve against his neck. "That, too, but I wanted to make sure you're okay and I knew if it was bad you'd try to spare me the details."
"But you'd be completely honest with me, of course."
She let out a small sigh that admitted defeat and pulled away. A few seconds later the candles flared into life. Sirius shivered as his eyes adjusted to the light and Ruby's face came into focus: her lips were swollen from their kiss, her hair tousled where he had run his fingers through it. He held out his arms in invitation and she walked into them readily. Their second kiss was calmer now the initial desperate desire to touch and be touched was sated, but it was still several long minutes before they parted.
"What happened to you after the wedding?" asked Ruby when she had regained her breath.
Sirius winced, wondering how much to share with her. Deciding that Ruby had always appreciated that he didn't sugar coat things for her and that he would want to know everything, he settled on almost the entire truth. He told her about his capture and detainment, and her hands clenched fistfuls of his shirt when he reached the part about the Ministry's new interrogation techniques. "I've had a couple of Death Eaters following me ever since they let me go," he finished. "I think they're hoping I'll lead them to you."
"How did you get away from them to come here?"
"Moony helped me with that," he said, his gratitude towards his friend evident in his voice. "He took some Polyjuice potion with my hair in it and he's been leading them around Diagon Alley all day."
"Don't you think they'll figure out they've been tricked when they see two Sirius's going into Remus's house tonight? I know a lot of the Death Eaters are thugs, but I don't think they're that dim."
"I'm not going back to Remus's. I'm staying here."
Ruby pulled away just enough to look into his face. "You can't," she said softly.
Sirius gripped her shoulders. "I'm not letting you go after Voldemort on your own."
"I'm not alone." She inclined her head towards the door, indicating the kitchen where her friends were now bickering quietly. "I have Ron and Hermione."
Sirius had the greatest respect and gratitude for Ron and Hermione for their loyalty to Ruby, but that friendship would do little to protect them when they encountered wizards of far greater experience, with knowledge of dark magic they hadn't dreamed of. "It's not the same," he protested. "I've seen and done more than they have. I can help you."
"Dumbledore said I could only take them with me, no one else," she said firmly, shaking her head. Her eyes softened as she said, "And you will be helping me, even if you're not with me."
"How can I help you when I'm miles away, with no clue where you are or what you're doing?" he demanded.
"You can't expect me to stay at home and do nothing," he interrupted.
"Would you accept that, if our positions were reversed? I'm staying with you and that's-"
"Will you shut up for a second?" she burst out. "I'm trying to make a heartfelt declaration, and you're not helping."
Sirius complied and fell silent, the tight purse of his mouth suggesting that he doubted he would approve of what she was about to say.
Ruby seemed to struggle to find the right words. After a long pause, she took a deep breath and said, "After Dumbledore died, when I tried to imagine the future I couldn't. All I could see was somehow completing the task that he set for me, and at the end of that road was Voldemort. Hermione and Ron are determined to come with me but they don't have to; it was their choice, just as they can choose to leave and go home. Voldemort isn't their future. They'll have jobs and families, probably with each other if they stop being pig headed long enough to admit how they feel. I can't see past this fight. Or I couldn't until what happened at the wedding.
"When you told me you loved me and kissed me, you gave me hope of some kind of life after Voldemort. You have helped me already, more than you can guess."
Sirius brushed a stray strand of hair out of her eyes and cupped her cheek. "But that's why I need to come with you, wherever you go," he said gently. "I wasn't going to tell you how I felt, I was too ashamed, but when I realised what you were planning to do I knew I had to make you understand that I couldn't live if you died. You're my future, too, and I have to safeguard it. I have to stay with you."
Ruby smiled up at him sadly. "You're not going to leave, are you?" she whispered.
He shook his head and said firmly, "No."
"By now I know better than to argue with you when you've got an idea stuck in your head," she sighed. She stood on tiptoe to press another kiss to his lips, but when she pulled back there was a guarded look in her eyes. "I need to let Ron and Hermione know there's another one along for the ride," she said, and headed to the door.
Sirius knew that he should be happy, but he felt unsettled. Getting Ruby to agree had been far too easy. Normally when she was determined about something she was as stubborn as James had ever been. Frowning, he turned to follow her. He caught a brief glimpse of her standing, wand raised, in the doorway, before the jet of red light hit him. Then there was only the ground rushing up to meet him, and darkness.
When he next woke he was lying on the bed in what had become his room at Remus and Tonks's house, clutching a letter in his hand. Sitting up, he unrolled the parchment and was unsurprised to see Ruby's untidy scrawl.
I'm sorry for Stunning you. I knew you would never agree to leave because I would have done the same in your position. Please believe me when I say that I want you to stay with us, not just because you have twice the experience and skill as any of us but because it would be easier to do what is necessary with you by my side. But Dumbledore gave this task to me alone, and Ron and Hermione are the only people who can help me.
Please don't come back to Grimmauld Place. We won't put up any barriers against you but if you return we will have to leave, and at the moment this is the only safe haven we have.
We probably won't see each other again until this is over. Stay safe, and although I know it's pointless to ask, don't do anything risky. I love you, and while I'm doing what Dumbledore asked me to I'll be thinking of the future.
All my love,