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Chapter 20: Darker Than Black
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With shaking hands, Nora locked the door of the bathroom that adjoined her bedroom. He would most likely come knocking when he and Hestia were…finished… She choked on the thought, sinking against the wall and covering her eyes with her hands as though that would dissolve the image of Hestia groping Sirius’s bare chest, the two of them in his bed…
“Oh, God,” she murmured. “Oh, God.”
She was too caught by surprise to start crying yet, and her heart beat violently with a sharply rising pain. Nora couldn’t let Sirius know that she was going to pieces like this – couldn’t face him again after she’d walked in on that scene. She had just gotten up to see what the noise was all about, and hadn’t expected to see anything like that.
Nora tucked her knees to her chest. Sirius was a man. Of course he was looking at other women in that way – how could she have been so naïve to not consider it? He’d spent over a decade in prison and priority number one would probably be making up for all the lost action. She wondered how many nights he’d spent with other girls in his bedroom while she slept unawares across the landing, blissfully ignorant. Did the women leave right after they were done messing around, or did he sneak them out in the morning? He probably figured Nora had a crush on him and didn’t want to hurt her sensitive feelings, probably thought she couldn’t handle knowing.
She was numb and nauseated and made all the more hysterical when Sirius’s voice spoke up right on the other side of the door. He’d broken into her room, obviously, and found it empty. The closed bathroom door would be a dead giveaway that she was hiding in there.
“Nora?” he called. “Are you in there?”
She couldn’t let him know how upset she was. Nora reached over and turned on the bath water. “I’m taking a bath,” she shouted, hoping the loud gurgling of shooting water would disguise the trembling in her voice.
“I need to talk to you,” he said.
She twisted both taps full-blast. “Can’t hear you, sorry,” she yelled. Nora stripped out of her clothes and climbed unsteadily into the bathtub, pulling the curtains all around. She tilted her head back into the bubbly hot water so that her ears were submerged. She didn’t want to hear him, didn’t want to envision his pitying face. Merlin, I am such an idiot, she thought. The temperature was scorching hot, but she was shivering and felt like she was bathing in ice. An excruciating emptiness reared inside her, swallowing any happiness in her heart. The world she’d built inside her head, where Sirius would fall for her, kiss her, love her – fell apart at the seams.
So her hopes were dashed that a man didn’t return her affections. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Nora floated in the bath for at least two hours, and tears were still steadily flowing. They trickled down her blotchy face and splashed into the water, diluting. When the water had cooled off to the point where goosebumps bristled down her arms and legs, Nora wrapped herself in a towel and went to bed, fumbling with the blankets like a person who’d forgotten how to maneuver their fingers. She wanted to fall right asleep and not feel, but feeling was inevitable.
She wasn’t numb anymore, unfortunately. She stung. Nora was ripping open from the inside-out with a pain worse than anything she’d ever felt before – worse than when she found out about her brother being kidnapped, worse than the losses of her parents and uncle. She’d curled up in Sirius’s solace and depended on him, had regarded him as the one person on Earth who mattered most above all others. He meant everything to her. And as it turned out, all along she was nothing more than a room-mate in Sirius’s eyes; a pesky girl under his roof who he had to hide relationships from so that she wouldn’t freak out like she’d just done.
At around three in the morning, she was still lying awake, entrenched in her own misery, and could hear Sirius banging around downstairs. Was he ticked off with her for intruding on his private moment? Nora had probably ruined his evening – Hestia had most likely gone home. She couldn’t say she was sorry for it, but she just felt so pathetic. He must think she was mentally unbalanced, incapable of accepting change or circumstances that made her uneasy, since he found it necessary to sneak the ladies in and out while she was asleep. He swept this secret life under the rug for Nora’s sake, because he felt sorry for her.
She vowed that he would never learn exactly how destroyed she really was. She would look like a pathetic coward if she moved back to Muriel’s. She had too much pride for that; she was Nora Prewett, strength extraordinaire, and would suck it up and pretend like this meant nothing, that she wasn’t bothered by it in the least. Maybe Sirius would be so convinced by her indifference that he’d start bringing the women out in the open. Nora’s eyes darkened at the thought of cooking dinner for Sirius’s girlfriends.
And Hestia Jones, of all people!
Not that Nora was perfect in any right, but Hestia was notoriously soft. She cried about everything and fussed over the most miniscule details; the only one who’d ever been able to stand her presence was Emmeline Vance. Sirius himself once confided to Nora that he thought Hestia was like a giant, leaky faucet and it was amazing her tear ducts hadn’t dried out by now. This recollection only made Nora feel worse, however, because it meant Sirius didn’t even require his sexual partners to be women he really liked. Sirius Black was shallow. She never would have believed it, not of him. Nora supposed it went to show how very little she actually knew the man. The hollowness of these thoughts were bitter and enveloping.
She finally fell into a dreadful nightmare at about four, dreaming about searching for some stupid thing she had no knowledge about while the horrid other version of herself supervised. She hated those dreams, but at least she wasn’t watching her father’s murder again.
Morning approached all too soon. Usually she went down into the kitchen to start making breakfast at about nine, but she wanted to compensate for her reaction last night by throwing herself back out into the world with full force. At six o’clock, Nora pulled on some clothes and tried running a comb through her hair – it was no use, her hair would never untangle all the way – and dashed down the steps like a kid on Christmas morning. She plastered a good-natured smile on her face as she entered the kitchen, and out of the corner of her eye she noticed Sirius sitting quietly at the table. From here on out, she would just be going through the motions.
“Morning,” she announced, and started cracking eggs for omelets. Sirius said nothing.
She rummaged in a cabinet for a decent pan and when she emerged, Sirius was standing right over her. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t see you there.”
“About last night,” he began, and she noticed his voice sounded hoarse. “I’d like to explain…”
Nora waved her hand and grinned foolishly, focusing all her energy into making sure her fingers didn’t shake as she poured a few drops of milk from the jug into a mixing bowl. “You’re not obligated to explain yourself,” she told him in a friendly tone. “What you do in your bedroom is your own business.”
He followed her as she moved around, and his attentions made her flustered on the inside. It was all she could do to keep from exploding into tears – with him so close and so beautiful, and knowing he didn’t want her and never did – it was killing her. On the exterior, however, her poker face was impeccable.
“Yes, but I’d like to,” he continued. “You may be under the impression that I –”
“Sirius,” she interrupted, finally turning to face him and adopting a cordial smile. It was awful, gazing into those tortured eyes and acting like nothing was wrong and sunshine shone out of her arse. He must really feel sorry for her, judging by the state of his expression. “Forget about it. Next time, though, you could close the door. I’m sorry, but I don’t really fancy seeing all that.”
“But we weren’t –”
“Why should I be bothered about you having women over, Sirius? This is your house; do whatever you like. It makes no difference to me and I really don’t care about what you do in private.” She said this lightly as she poured the ingredients into a skillet. After a few moments of silence, she chanced a sideways glance at him.
He was staring at her, looking like she’d just punched him in the stomach. Nora couldn’t make sense of the way he was acting. He wasn’t a child, for Merlin’s sake. It’s not like she was going to punish him for having a romp in the sheets. Why were those pale grey eyes so full of…what was it? Hurt?
“Well, if that’s how you feel…” he muttered, finally ripping his gaze away from her.
Nora shoved a couple of plates into his hands. “That’s how I feel,” she replied brusquely. “Set the table, will you? Breakfast is almost done.”
Zombie-like, Sirius made his way over to the table and sat down, arranging the dishes with glazed eyes. Nora brought the food over and settled into a chair across from him. Not at all hungry, Nora spooned huge forkfuls of omelet into her mouth. It was too hot and she burned her tongue, but she had to keep shoveling in food or else she might just start screaming. Sirius didn’t touch the food. He was staring at his empty plate as though he didn’t know what he was looking at. Nora really didn’t know what to make of his behavior. She guessed he must have expected her to stay shut up in her room all day, hiding and embarrassed.
You could cut the tension with a knife.
Two owls swooped in through the open window – a brown barn owl and a tiny screech one – and landed right in front of Sirius. He didn’t move, so Nora leaned across and untied the parcels from their legs. One was today’s copy of the Daily Prophet, and the other was a letter for Nora. She frowned when she read the return address. Slitting the wax seal and pulling out a thin sheet of lilac parchment, she read:
Dear Miss Prewett,
I hope you are well. Your aunt told me about Mr. Black’s birthday party on the twelfth, and informed me that most people are bringing dates. Since you’re likely to be there, anyway, would you like to go with me? Owl back with your reply. If it’s a yes, I’ll be there on Monday at six to escort you to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Tonks. Wishing you a pleasant day,
Nora resisted the impulse to laugh out loud. Dearborn was so pretentious. She thought about his offer for a moment, reminded of the fact that most people were indeed going in pairs – even Tonks had a date; she was bringing Madam Malkin’s newphew, Gaspard. Sirius would probably be taking Hestia, especially now that there was no reason to hide his relationship anymore, and Nora didn’t want to be the only one pitiful enough to come alone. Sighing internally, she penned a short response – agreeing to go with him – and tied it to the screech owl’s leg. The bird glared at her.
“I know,” she told him, patting his head. “And you thought the job was over, didn’t you? Better you than me, though, mate.”
Very aware of Sirius’s eyes on her, she watched the owl fly back through the window and then finished her juice, keen to get out of there. Sirius had not uttered a word, and his plate and glass were still untouched. “Well, I’ve got some things to do today,” she replied jovially. She hoped it sound jovial, at any rate – she felt rather psychotic. “I’m off to London. Suppose I’ll see you later.” She whisked her dishes into the sink with her wand and jumped up, ordering herself to take slower, more natural movements. Sirius did not respond and she left the room. Once gone, she ran as quickly as possible out the front door. It was warm enough to leave the green coat, and she just wanted to be gone from the place.
It was Saturday, and Diagon Alley was packed with moving bodies. She was free to duck into a pub and cry her eyes out, but she would not allow herself to. Nora hypothesized that a full agenda would take her mind off of Sirius, so the first thing to do was find something to wear to that stupid, bloody birthday party. She tried not to dwell too much on the fact that she also needed to buy Sirius a present, as that would inevitably worsen the heartache.
She wove in and out of the crowd, wishing she owned an invisibility cloak. Back when she was a Hogwarts student, whenever she would get rejected by boys or see the ones she liked with other girls, Nora would be able to skive off classes to hide in her dormitory and cry it out. She couldn’t do that now, because she lived alone with the person who was the very source of her grief. It was so cruel that the universe had thrown them together – made him so alluring, so perfect for her – and then made it impossible for them to be really together. Nora never comprehended just how deep she had gotten until now, and it struck her that she might not ever get over it if she had to see his face every day.
She was going to have to move out.
There would be no healing if she stayed in that house. She wanted more and Sirius didn’t feel the same way, and it was time to stop living off his charity.
“Wotcher, Nora!” a familiar voice piped up. It was Tonks, her eyes bright under tousled bubblegum pink curls. “I was just over at Grimmauld Place looking for you and that git told me you were in London. What are you in London for?”
“Avoiding that git, of course,” Nora answered. Tonks placed her hands on Nora’s shoulders and studied her friend, a crease developing between her eyes.
“What’s happened to you?” she asked seriously.
It was too much – Nora could feel her eyes burning again. “Oh, let’s not,” Nora replied, attempting a laugh. “If I start crying again, I might not be able to stop. Damned tears…”
Tonks frowned and grabbed Nora’s hand, pulling her through a narrow alley. She beat her fist on a wooden door, and a short boy with flaming red hair opened it. “Right, Nate,” she said. “Let us in.” He cocked an eyebrow and let them pass through, and Tonks led Nora inside the back entrance of Magical Menagerie. They climbed the rickety wooden stairs and pushed between cages filled with lizards and black rabbits. She turned to face Nora, looking quite concerned.
“I knew something was off between you two,” she said at last. “I could just tell by his face. And look at you, Nora – you’re a ruddy mess. You never call Sirius a git. Tell me what happened.”
Nora ran a hand through her hair, a nervous habit she’d picked up from Sirius. “I walked in on him and Hestia Jones in his bedroom last night.”
Tonks’s jaw dropped. “What?”
Nora nodded dazedly. “They saw me catch them…it was humiliating.”
“Sirius and Hestia? In his bedroom?” Tonks squeaked, and then dropped her voice to a whisper. “Were they…you know…?”
Nora shook her head. “Hadn’t gotten to that part yet. But I reacted badly; I locked myself in the loo. Sirius sent her home, I think.”
“He looked dead depressed,” Tonks said knowingly. “I was there only a minute ago and I asked him where you were. He was just sitting at the kitchen table with an empty plate in front of him. It was bizarre, he didn’t even tease me. Didn’t talk much, really.”
Nora put her face in her hands. “This is a nightmare,” she moaned. “I can’t recover from this. It will be so awkward now…”
“Sirius and Hestia,” Tonks marveled incredulously. “I can’t believe it. That just blows my mind.”
“Tell me about it,” Nora muttered.
“Come and stay with me,” Tonks encouraged, wrapping an arm around her friend. “I’ve got enough room. We can stay up late badmouthing Sirius and Remus.”
Nora gave a hollow laugh. “No reason to complain about Remus. He’s a good bloke. Not that Sirius is a bad bloke…it’s just that I’m not feeling all that jazzed about the thought of him right now.”
“Remus is worse,” Tonks claimed, “because I know he likes me, and he still runs from me like the plague. I have to go to the party with Gaspard, if you recall. If you ask me, people just use parties as an occasion to rub their successful love lives in to us poor singletons. Everyone there will be misfits, of course, but still…Gaspard. It’s a shame I’m not head over heels about him anymore, or this might’ve actually been fun.”
“Better than Cargan.”
Tonks’s eyes danced. “You’re going with Cargan? Oh, my. Yes, that will most definitely piss Sirius off. He’s really fit, though, so I can’t say I feel sorrier for you than I do for myself.”
“I’m not doing it to piss Sirius off,” Nora shrugged. “I just don’t want to go alone if no one else is.”
“I know it.” Nora sighed. “And I’ve got to buy the man a wretched gift. How pitiful is that?”
Tonks grinned. “Get him a joint gift from you and Cargan both. That will be sure to boil his blood.”
“Why should he care?” Nora scoffed. “Sirius doesn’t like me. He thinks Cargan’s ridiculous, of course, but he’s right on that note. It’s not going to make him mad or anything if I’m with Dearborn. He’d probably just think I was desperate.”
“So are you going to come and live with me?” Tonks questioned.
Nora thought about it. “I’ll probably wait a couple of weeks, and then move in with you. If I do it now, he’ll know it was because of what just happened, and that’s mortifying. We can work up a good excuse between now and then to get me out of there.” She blinked her eyes rapidly, trying to stem off the waterworks. “I’m really going to miss him.”
“Better for you, though, in the long run,” Tonks responded wisely. “It’ll help you move on a lot easier. Can you imagine trying to be with other men while you’re living with Sirius Black?” Nora shoved her hands into her trousers pockets and circled around, heading downstairs.
“That’s about as likely as me ever being with Sirius Black himself.”
Nora did not return to Grimmauld Place until midnight, so that she wouldn’t have to talk to Sirius. He wasn’t asleep yet, but she managed to creep upstairs after calling out a quick, “I’m home!” and shut the bedroom door before he could reply. She reckoned that if Hestia hadn’t come over while she was gone, Sirius had probably felt pretty lonely. Nora found it difficult to care. She tried this method again on Sunday night – the night before Sirius’s birthday party – but he was waiting for her this time.
She thought she had gotten lucky and he’d already gone to sleep. The house was pitch black and quiet, and she tiptoed up the staircase. She slipped inside her dark bedroom and breathed a sigh of relief at having not encountered him. “Thank Merlin,” she muttered. And then she turned around and saw that Sirius was sitting on the edge of her bed.
Even in the shadows, she could see that his face was drawn and disturbed. “Haven’t seen you lately,” he replied in a soft voice. “I was wondering why that might be.”
“Been busy,” she quipped, going over to hang her hat up on the bedpost and then taking a few steps back. She needed to keep a healthy distance from him, for sanity’s sake.
“Is that so?” he mused so quietly that it was barely audible. She hesitated and glanced at him. Sirius’s eyes watched her fathomlessly. “You never used to stay out this late.”
“I didn’t think you’d mind having some privacy and the house to yourself,” she replied without thinking.
Sirius stood to his feet. “I don’t want the house to myself,” he told her. “I don’t need privacy.” He took a step forward, and she took a step back. “I think we need to talk, Nora. It’s a conversation that’s been a long time coming.”
Dread filled her. He was about to tell her that he knew how she felt about him, and that it could never happen and he wanted her to leave because she made him feel weird. Knowing she couldn’t bear the pain of hearing those words, she said, “About the other night? I already told you that you don’t have to explain yourself. You do what you want and I’ll do what I want. Sound fair?”
He moved closer. “But what if we both wanted the same thing?”
Oh, Merlin. He was going to toss her out into the streets right now. She wasn’t ready to leave quite yet! “I bought your birthday present today in Diagon Alley,” she said in a shaky voice. “Tonks says her mother’s already preparing for the party, and it’s supposed to look really nice.”
He shook his head, still moving towards her while she retreated. “I don’t care about that wretched party,” he said. Nora was backed up against the wall now, and he reached out and placed both hands on the wall on either side of her. “I’ll call it off. Let’s just stay here.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You’d be disappointing people,” she said meaningfully, Hestia’s face swimming in her mind. “And Cargan is taking me, so he’d probably be kind of ticked if I stood him up.”
Sirius’s eyes flashed. He was so close at this point that only an inch or so separated them, and Nora could scarcely breathe. “Cargan? You’re going with Dearborn to my birthday party?”
“You don’t even like him.”
She bit her lip. “He’s not that bad, actually. He’s starting to grow on me.”
He looked disbelieving. “I can’t help but think that you’re only going with him because you’ve been under some false misconceptions about me lately. And I wish you would allow me to explain myself.”
“You would be a prat to assume that my going with Cargan has anything to do with you,” she said, her words mocking.
“Oh, yeah? So you’re saying you like him, then?”
Nora glared at Sirius. “And what if I do?”
He studied her, unflinching. “Rubbish.”
She turned away from him, casting her eyes down so that they didn’t have to meet his lovely grey ones. “Whatever you want to believe, then.”
With his hand, Sirius gently tilted her chin up to meet his gaze. “Do you really like him?” he whispered.
She was lost for words. Nora’s heart pounded frantically, staring up into his radiant features, his jaw shadowed where he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days. His dark hair swung forward as he leaned in, and abruptly she said, “He’s as good as I’m going to get.”
Sirius reeled back. “Are you kidding?”
Nora was numb from the waist down, her legs as wobbly as a newborn calves’, but she stood her ground. “I don’t see why you’re so bothered by it, Sirius. I don’t tell you which girls to like, no matter how questionable I may find your taste.”
He ran his fingers roughly through his hair, aggravated now. “Well, it’s ironic you should say that. And I still think you’re lying about liking Dearborn.”
She crossed her arms. “What difference does it make to you which men I want to be with?”
He looked like she’d hit him, and he swiftly backed away. “You’re absurd if you think Cargan deserves you.” Nora closed her eyes and when she opened them again, he was gone.