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Like a House on Fire by 800 words of heaven
Chapter 27: Bleak House
“Mrs Potter – are you absolutely sure that you don’t need our help today?” I asked anxiously, standing in front of the door, trying to stall the inevitable as Sirius struggled with his coat. He managed to look hot doing it too, the insufferable git.
She waved her hands dismissively. “Of course not dear! James and Lily are here, if I need any help, so you and Sirius just go have fun today!”
I don’t think Mrs Potter was quite grasping the idea that I didn’t want to go, least of all with Sirius. The way she was going on about it, it sounded like we were going on a date or something!
“Now, are the both of you warm enough?” she asked, helping Sirius with his coat, because he was still struggling with it.
“Yes,” we chorused.
“Good. And you remember that you have to come back before it’s too dark?”
“Yes, Mrs P!” Sirius chimed. “I’ll make sure to bring Millie home before the Ball – she’ll have heaps of time to get ready.”
I glared at him for that one.
He just winked at me.
WHAT IS UP WITH THE WINKING?
“Good, good,” she said absentmindedly. “Now look after each other, okay? And Sirius dear, try not to get into trouble?”
“Oh, Mrs Potter I assure you that even Sirius can’t get into trouble at Witherwoods,” I said. Yes, my hometown was that dead of a place.
She beamed at us and ushered us out of the door.
“So… how far is your house from here?” Sirius asked, I assumed as a way of making conversation as we made our way down the lane to a secluded copse of trees so we could apparate without any muggle noticing – even though they were all indoors and warm anyways.
“I dunno,” I shrugged. “Not far.” I wasn’t very good with distances, nor did I actually care about how far my mother’s house was from anywhere.
“That’s awfully vague.”
“Yeah, it is.”
And our conversation ended there. It would have been awkward too if it wasn’t for the fact that we were now at the clump of trees, thank Merlin.
The snow was pretty thick here so it was covering all the exposed roots of the trees. Obviously, I managed to trip over them three times in the space of five feet.
“Bloody hell!” I sighed after the third time it happened, narrowly avoiding a low-hanging branch by some miracle.
Sirius turned around to look at me over his shoulder. He had the nerve to smile and shake his head at me before taking my hand and guiding me the rest of the way.
It seems that physical contact with Sirius Black does strange things to my breathing rate and heartbeat.
I really need to get over this crush of mine. Things feel far too awkward between us otherwise.
“Are you ready?” he asked suddenly.
“For what?” Yes, that was a rather stupid question to ask, but I was still caught up in the warmth of his hand.
“To apparate! I’ll have to side-long with you, because I have no idea where we’re going.” He regarded me for a moment. “You do know where you’re going, right?”
“Yeah, of course!” Minor lie there. It had been over a year since I’d last been there, things might have changed. Then again, this was Witherwoods we were talking about. Nothing changed there.
“So… this is where you live?” Sirius asked, looking around the dismal village. James and “my” village were around the same size, but his was much cheerier. Mine looked as if there was a constant funeral going on somewhere. The snow seemed grey, even if it was supposed to be white and the naked tree branches didn’t help much with the mood of the whole place. Even the church looked like a dark and grim place to be, even at Christmas time.
Yet, now that Sirius was looking around curiously, judging it, and thus by extension, me, I felt a slight defensiveness for it rise up in me.
“Correction – this was where I lived. I haven’t lived here since I was five years old.” I said. Yeah, okay, the defensiveness thing – wasn’t that strong.
“Depressing?” I supplied as I walked down the street which would eventually lead to… my house (gee, it felt weird even thinking that).
“That’s not what I was going to say,” he said, a little too quickly for it to be completely believable.
“Yeah? What were you going to say?”
“Grim.” He grinned at me. Well, wasn’t that nice of him?
I couldn’t help it – I laughed. There was something about that grin of his that made all of this almost bearable.
“If you think this place is grim, wait until you see where I live!” I said as I headed towards my mother’s home.
“It doesn’t look that bad,” Sirius commented. We’d been standing outside my mother’s – I mean, my house for a good thirty seconds at least and neither of us had worked up the courage to even open the front gate. Actually, considering it was my house and Sirius was here for the very first time, I guess it was my responsibility to take the initiative to open the gate, but what good was it having him along if he just stood and looked around curiously?
I glanced at him quickly to see if he was making fun of my house. Honestly, I wouldn’t blame him – it looked pretty bad, at least to me. It was three storeys high, with an attic and a cellar (dead scary place) and made out of dark, almost black, brick. The locals had dubbed it Bleak House many a century ago, when the first White ancestors came to settle here. The witch or wizard who built it must have been one cheery person. There was a white picket fence out the front, just like at the Potters’, but the Potters’ front fence was well looked after and probably much loved, whereas my front fence had peeling white paint and I was in danger of getting a splinter even through my glove (not as hard as it might sound).
“The garden’s a bit of a mess,” I said, more for something to say rather than any concern for it.
“Yeah, you could say that.” It looked like the Forbidden Forest’s little cousin, and if you’d ever seen the Forbidden Forest, you would understand that that was not something one joked about.
We stared at the house some more.
“Should… we go… in?” Sirius suggested after a while. I could see him out of the corner of my, trying to gauge my reaction to the question.
I sighed, rather more dramatically than the situation really called for. “Yeah, I suppose. The quicker we get this done, the quicker we can leave this horrid place.”
The door swung inwards, creaking ominously. We peered into the dark depths that was the hallway cautiously, me in search of any sort of nasty creature that may have taken up residence since the place was thoroughly vacated; Sirius, apparently, was being rather more astute than I was about the whole thing, considering the fact that he suddenly grabbed my arm, just as I was about to step inside the doorway.
“Ah!” I yelped. You would too if Sirius Black (the guy who you’re pretending to date and secretly have a crush on) suddenly touched you.
“Wait!” he cautioned.
“Okay,” I squeaked, teetering dangerously with one foot still in the air.
“You can put your leg down, Mills.”
“Oh, right.” I did as he said. “What’s wrong? Did you see something?” I asked, now feeling a little panicked. I could handle it if there were rats in there, but if he’d seen a cockroach, I was outta here.
“No. It’s just that… I was wondering… considering the current climate and all…”
What the hell does the weather have to do with things now?
“Sirius, did I almost fall over because the weather is preventing me from entering this building in some obscure manner?” I asked incredulously.
He gave me a weird look. “Not that kind of climate, darling,” he said, a little dryly for my taste. He only got like that when I was being more obtuse than I usually was.
“Then what kind?” I mean, how many different kinds of climates are there?
“What I was going to ask was that considering the current political climate, what with Voldemort on the rise and the Ministry of Magic being complete dolts and all, is it possible that your house may be booby trapped or anything like that?”
I stared at him for a moment blankly, letting his words sink in a little.
“I don’t think so…” I said.
“Really?” He seemed surprised.
“No one’s been in here since my parents died. I literally did not step foot in here after… after that… so there shouldn’t be any booby traps or anything.”
“But weren’t your parents… I dunno… careful or anything?”
“No, they weren’t paranoid like some purebloods are,” I smiled, getting what he meant by careful. It was common knowledge that the old pureblood families were secretly terrified of muggles attacking their magical abodes or something equally as ridiculous as that, so you found that often, those places were spelled well beyond a building’s capacity to withstand such powerful enchantments (therefore, many of the older homes had to be reinforced with magic quite often).
I turned around again and took a cautious step into the hallway. “The House of White is weird like that,” I commented. Little pockets of dust were being disturbed wherever I stepped. They rose into the air, like tiny mushroom-shaped clouds. If this place didn’t creep me out as much as it did, I’d think they were cute.
“Still…” Sirius said as he followed me in. “We should be –”
The door suddenly slammed shut behind us, making us both jump.
“Careful,” he finished, once we’d gathered ourselves. “We should be careful.”
I gulped and nodded.
“Maybe it would help if we opened the curtains in here,” I mused, considering the windows in the sitting room. We’d so far been exploring the house by wand light. After making our way through the hallway, we’d headed to the kitchen, finding nothing exciting there. We’d checked out the dining area and I’d been surprised to find that we had cutlery with what I presumed to be the White family crest stamped on it. Was that normal?
“Mills, how old were you in this picture?” Sirius asked, over by the mantelpiece.
I spared a glance in his direction. He was peering closely at a framed photograph. I frowned and walked over to see what he was looking at. Holding up my wand, I saw that indeed, it was a picture of me, smiling and laughing in some sandpit, most probably in a playground of some sort.
“I think I was around four when that was taken,” I said, leaning in closer to have a better look. Thank Merlin I grew out that fringe – it looked positively outrageous.
He smiled at the photo. “You were a very cute four-year-old.”
I frowned. Compliment or not, I didn’t feel comfortable with him looking at pictures of me when I was younger for some unknown reason. It felt as if he was seeing a very deep and personal part of me, and I don’t think I was ready to reveal that to him just yet.
His gaze moved over to all the other pictures that were on the shelf. Most of them were of me, which I was surprised to note. Yeah, I was her only child and everything, but I’d never pinned my mother as someone who proudly showcased her poor excuse for a traditional pureblood daughter to all and sundry (or anyone who came into the sitting room – same thing).
“Are these your parents?” he asked, indicating with his chin which photograph he meant. It was one where both my parents were smiling at the camera, with me happily gurgling away in my father’s arms as a six-week-old newborn. I seemed to be rather more interested in the butterfly that was currently in my mother’s hair than anything else.
“Yeah, they are,” I replied shortly, surprising even myself.
Sirius looked at me in surprise. “Sorry.”
I mentally shook myself. What was wrong with me? A few minutes in my mother’s house and I turn into an emotional wreck? I’d managed to keep it together for so many months; I couldn’t begin to grieve now. I wasn’t sure if that was the way it was supposed to work – delayed grief onset. “Don’t be,” I said, attempting a smile, but it felt weak.
Sirius seemed to think so too, because he raised his eyebrows slightly, but just nodded and turned back to the mantelpiece. “They seem happy.”
“They were. They divorced five years after that was taken.”
I turned away from the shelf then, deciding that enough time had been spent gazing at frozen moments of my childhood. Besides, there were still two floors, an attic and a cellar to get through.
The second floor didn’t take long to sweep through, except my mother’s room. Sirius insisted that I should at least pack up some of the stuff that was lying around. We found a few boxes in the attic which we could use.
“What do you want to do with all the clothes?” he asked, looking way out of his depth as he stared into the vast depth that was my mother’s closet.
“Um… pack all of them up. I’ll sort through them later and see what I want to keep and what I’ll give to charity.”
“Yeah. If I don’t need them, at least someone else might find some use for them. One person’s trash is another’s treasure and all that.”
He nodded in agreement and we got to work.
No matter what else was said, it couldn’t be denied that my mother had excellent taste in jewellery. As a little girl, I used to dream of getting the chance to wear it all one day; now it felt strange realising that it was all mine.
After my mother’s room was done, we went up to the third floor, where the only two rooms of real importance were my bedroom and my father’s old study. There wasn’t much to clean up in my room, considering that I hardly spent any time in there, but Sirius and I still managed to fill a whole box and a half full of stuff. Most of it was junk, but the more time I spent in this house, the stronger my desire to not throw anything out became. Perhaps the house wasn’t booby trapped, but maybe there was still something freaky going on…
My father’s study was the hardest. There was so much stuff just lying around. We had a quick flick through his work to see what it was about.
“Exactly what did your father do?” Sirius asked, scanning the spines of the books that were jammed into the bookshelf. I’d inherited my love for reading from my dad.
“He worked at the Department of Mysteries,” I said absently, rummaging through the drawers, looking for anything of interest. All I found was a picture of mum, holding me at the hospital, presumably moments after I was born. My vision blurred, but I blinked it away. Must have got something in my eye.
“Your dad was an Unspeakable?”
“So, um… what did he do, exactly?”
“I dunno.” I shrugged, turning to look at Sirius’ profile. Merlin, how did he look so hot, even with a slight coating of dust in his hair from where all my mother’s shoeboxes fell on him? “Isn’t that kind of the point of being an Unspeakable though? You can’t talk about it?”
“Yeah, but… you lived with him.”
“Trust me, Sirius, my father was an even greater mystery to those who were close to him than any other.”
“What?” I didn’t find anything to smirk about. Then again, I rarely did, but Sirius seemed to do it often enough to suggest that it was easy enough for him to find something to smirk about in almost any situation.
“Kind of like you.”
His smirk grew wider.
“Nothing like me, Black.”
“So… we’ve done all three floors and the attic… what’s left?” Sirius asked brightly. How on earth did he still have so much energy? I hadn’t slept too well the night before, worrying about my trip into the English countryside’s version of hell and a few hours in Bleak House had drained me, both physically and emotionally. I hadn’t thought that I had so much emotion invested in any place, let alone here. What kind of wreck would I be when it came time to leave Hogwarts at the end of the year?
“The cellar,” I replied tiredly.
Sirius must have noticed something was wrong, because when he glanced in my direction, his face grew worried.
“Are you okay?” he asked me quietly.
“Fine,” I muttered, gritting my teeth, trying to get it back together again. Now was not the time to start exploring my feelings!
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” I snapped.
For once, I must have sounded dangerous, because he backed off. “Okay. Do you want to go see the cellar now?”
I sighed. I didn’t really want to. Cellars were damp and dark, home to all sorts of moulds, fungi, rats and creepy crawlies. I highly doubted there was anything of interest to see down there, but it was the last place left. “Let’s go,” I said.
“Maybe… I should go first,” Sirius suggested as both of stared down the steep and narrow flight of stairs that led into the dark void.
“What? I’m not scared of the dark Black!” I snapped. Make no mistake, Millie White was not the type of girl who let a man handle her problems!
“I know. But the stairs are steep and with your propensity for tripping over thin air…” I frowned at that, no matter if it was true. “If I go first, I’ll be able to guide you down safely,” he reasoned.
I considered it. His logic seemed sound, so I agreed. “Fine.”
No one said I had to be gracious about it.
He, at least, had the good grace to just grin and shake his head.
The combined light from our wands only managed to illuminate the way a few steps ahead, the dark was that absolute. Halfway down, I stumbled, but before I could fall to my death, Sirius grabbed my arm to steady me. After he’d ensured that I wasn’t going anywhere, his hand slipped into mine.
He didn’t let go the rest of the way down.
We stood shoulder to shoulder, our wands held high to let as much light as possible penetrate the darkness. As our eyes adjusted to the gloom, vague shapes came out. The cellar was incredibly small. I felt the breath catch at the back of my throat and terror stir in the pit of my stomach. Sirius gave my hand a squeeze. I’d forgotten he was still holding on.
“Mills, you okay?” he asked quietly. If this place was big, the sound should have echoed, but it didn’t.
“Yeah,” I managed to get out, even though there was barely any air in my lungs. “I’m – I’m fine.”
He turned to look at me. Now he was standing in front of me, meaning that he was no longer holding my hand, which was rather unfortunate.
“Millie,” he said clearly and quietly.
I looked into is cool, calm eyes with my own terror-filled ones.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said slowly, placing his hands on my shoulders.
Even through my panic, I felt the truth in his words. Rationally, I knew that walls didn’t move in and small spaces couldn’t kill me unless I was buried alive in a coffin or something (that has never happened to me before, by the way), but I guess that’s the thing about phobias – they tend to be rather irrational.
Yet, all I could do was silently nod in reply.
He regarded me for a moment more, then turned back around to stand beside me, his hand slipping into mine once again. It was really warm.
He lifted his wand high into the air again and took a step forward, dragging me along as well. We made a round of the room and discovered that it wasn’t as small as I first thought it was.
“See? That wasn’t so bad –”
“What? What is it?” Sirius asked, sounding a little panicked, swinging his wand around looking for some sort of serial killer who’d been lurking in my cellar.
“There are cockroaches in here!” I whispered hoarsely. Merlin, that scream took what little energy I had left.
Sirius stopped his crazy serial-killer searching and stared at me. “Cockroaches,” he deadpanned.
“Yes!” My voice was still hoarse.
“You just screamed like a banshee, giving me a heart attack in the process, because you saw a cockroach?”
“I didn’t see a cockroach!” My voice was now more indignant than hoarse. “I saw three cockroaches!”
“They all had six legs each!”
“They’re insects! The all have six legs each!”
“Exactly! It’s downright unnatural!”
He looked at me incredulously. At least he had the smarts not to call me insane to my face.
“What? I don’t like cockroaches, okay!”
“Claustrophobic and a fear of cockroaches? What next?” He was smirking at me, I could tell even in the dim light, the annoying little prick. What kind of person smirks at someone’s discomfort? I’ll tell you – psychopaths, that’s who!
“I do not have a fear of cockroaches! I just don’t like them much! There’s a difference!” I crossed my arms over my chest defensively.
“It’s the same thing,” he waved his hand dismissively. “But seriously, cockroaches?”
“They have too many legs,” I muttered, turning around in a huff towards the stairs. I stalked over to them and would have made my exit with at least some of my dignity still left intact if I hadn’t tripped over the stupid stair.
Sirius let out a bark (literally) of his strange laughter.
I turned around and glared at him.
He laughed harder.
I glared at him some more.
He kept on laughing.
My lips twitched upwards. I couldn’t help it – his madness was infectious!
Soon, both of us were bent over double, tears in our eyes, barely able to breathe, we were laughing so hard.
“We –” Sirius wheezed. “We – need – to get – out – of – here!”
I couldn’t say anything, what with the lack of air and everything, so I just nodded (I hoped) in agreement.
Like I said, there was something strange about Bleak House.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Sirius asked quietly. We’d had a very late lunch at my local bakery. Thank Merlin no one recognised me, not that I expected them too.
“Yeah. I mean, I’ve come this far, it would seem rather stupid not to do this.”
“But… I dunno…”
“What? Scared that the graveyard’s haunted?” I teased. Yes, we were standing outside the entrance to the village cemetery, arguing.
“No! It’s just that… well, you’ve had a long day… and everything…”
“Honestly Sirius, I’ll be fine.” I rolled my eyes and stepped in.
It was beginning to get dark, so it took me a moment to find the two graves I was looking for. After a little meandering, I located them, side by side. Someone had removed the decaying flowers that had been placed in front of the headstones at the time of the funeral, all those months ago.
I felt Sirius walk up to stand beside me.
We stood there for a while, without saying a word, just looking at my parents’ graves.
And all I felt was… empty.
That was it. I was expecting some sort of grief, anger, shock, something!
But no, all I felt was empty.
“Mills…” Sirius said after a really long time, breaking the heavy silence that blanketed us. We had the cemetery all to ourselves at this time of day and year. I suppose more people would come tomorrow or whatever.
“I didn’t bring anything,” I said, blatantly ignoring his next question about how I was feeling. I didn’t really want to go into how I was feeling, least of all with him. Sirius Black could be all too perceptive in matters of the heart at times when you wanted him to be the exact opposite.
“What?” At least that managed to throw him off his rather dangerous previous train of thought.
“I didn’t bring anything. Look –” I pointed at other graves around us. “They’ve all got flowers and stuff around them. They look well cared for. I don’t want –” My words got caught in my throat. Okay, maybe the empty feeling was only because I wasn’t talking about it or something. “I want – I should’ve –” I looked desperately around me, as if the answer to my problem (not sure exactly what it was) would magically appear.
And in a sense – it did.
Except he’d been standing next to me the entire time.
Sirius smiled at me in understanding. It wasn’t his usual arrogant smile, or one of those pity smiles you reserve for the moments when you’re feeling especially condescending, but one of his genuine, make-your-insides-melt, girls-swooning-twenty-miles-away smile. Holy Merlin, and its full force was focused all on me. Not the best idea when I felt so confused and unstable inside.
He took my hand in his again and pointed his wand at the headstones in front of us with the other.
“What –?” I began to ask.
He squeezed my hand to silence me. I watched as his arm made a slow circle in the air, two wreaths of red roses appearing on the stone.
I stared in surprise at what he’d just done for a moment or two, trying to let it sink in. Sirius Black had done something nice – for me. And it wasn’t just nice – it was thoughtful, and considerate, and something I’d expect from an actual boyfriend who actually cared about me.
“I – thank you,” I managed to splutter out. I looked at him, the surprise at his thoughtful gesture still evident on my face. “That was –”
He shrugged. “Don’t mention it.” Did he sound a little – embarrassed?
“No, really. That was –” Words cannot even begin to describe what that was. And what I was now feeling as a result. “Very nice… of you.” Lame, but hopefully, he’d understand.
And you know what? Judging by the absolute stunner of a smile he threw at me – I think he did.
AN: GASP! Longest chapter yet! Aren't y'all so proud? I almost died from Sirius-being-too-cute-for-sanity in this chapter. Please tell me I wasn't alone. I had fun developing their relationship though. It's about time these two got a little bit serious. Sorry that this wasn't as funny a chapter, but then again, let's face it, they rarely are that humourous are they? Anyways, hope you guys enjoy!