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Innocent by MarauderLover7
Chapter 68 : Ebony's Hunt
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 8

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John Fisher had stopped most of his patrols thanks to a combination of age and corporate superiority. The majority of his time was spent behind a desk, filling out paperwork, and making sure that the younger, more impetuous members of London’s police force were kept in line.

The only time he had to patrol at all – and only for a few hours, to show that he wasn’t too high above the rest of them – was Thursday mornings. It was a nice time to do; it wasn’t a weekend morning, so he wasn’t dealing with anyone who’d overindulged at the pub, and it wasn’t a weekend afternoon, where he was dealing with the hooligans at the pub or on the roads on the way home.

Everyone that had a job was already at it by the time he hit the streets, and school had started so London’s youths were out of the way. Roads were reasonably quiet and the streets were usually empty, if he didn’t count the university students meandering the city between lectures.

There were very few car crashes on Thursday mornings, very few robberies, and never, ever, were there any murders.

Except for this Thursday.

John had just come out of the local bakery; the couple who owned it were friendly with his wife Sue, and usually offered him a small discount. He was clutching a meat pie, a sultana bun and a juicebox and was just climbing into his car when he heard an ear-splitting scream, followed shortly after by another few screams.

John got out of his car again, hiking up his trousers with one hand and fumbling with his car keys with the other. He jogged towards the screams and found himself two blocks away, in a reasonably busy shopping district. Puffing, and feeling rather like his heart might leap out of his chest if it didn’t stop hammering, he ushered spectators aside.

“Move!” he gasped, shooing a woman and her toddler out of the way. “Excuse me- Officer John Fisher of- of the City Police!” He sucked in a breath to soothe his burning lungs and then, as he was clutching his chest, found his whistle. He blew it, and the people parted at once. John staggered forward, and found himself abruptly glad he hadn’t eaten.

Lying there, beside a rubbish bin and in a pile of blood – her own blood - was a woman. Her face was deathly pale, and her eyes were open and unblinking. Her chest was stained red and bore two large, and very gruesome stab wounds. A man, crouched next to her, had his fingers on her neck – searching for a pulse – and shook his head at John.

John seized his radio and quickly dispatched a message to all or any other officers that might be in the area; he needed back-up, and he needed someone to deal with the body. John draped his jacket over her head and chest in the meantime, covering the worst of the damage, though there wasn’t much he could do about the blood.

“What happened?” John asked, finally managing to regain enough of his breath that he could talk without puffing.

“A woman stabbed her,” someone offered. “They were fighting and then- it was horrible.” Several people sobbed.

“The woman,” John said, “Where did she go?” John was able to get enough information – a description and a direction – to send out another message through the radio. John stayed with the witnesses, taking statements from each and every one of them with the help of Officer Hopkins, who’d showed up a few minutes after the initial call.

“-wearing jeans and-”

“Fisher, this is Lockett,” John’s radio said, rather fuzzily. “Jones and I-” The radio fizzed and cut out. “- woman matching the description, sir.”

“You’ve caught her?”

“We’re fairly sure,” Lockett said.

“What makes you sure?”

“Well,” Lockett said, “she’s covered in blood, sir.”

It took another hour and a half to sort out the situation at the shopping district – the body of the victim was off to the morgue, hopefully to be identified - and another half hour for John to get back to his car and then to the police department.

Julie met him in his office, looking agitated, and directed him to the department’s holding cells – which they usually used to house people arrested for theft, or for driving under the influence. Their murderer was being held there until they could identify her, and arrange for a group of officers to take her to a suitable prison.

John shook his head; first that woman, Star, a few months back, and now this one... the women of London were going mad!

He and Lockett shook hands and Jones gave him an awkward sort of wave from her seat beside the barred wall of the cell, before turning her attention back to the captive. Jones was a reasonably tough woman – all salt-and-pepper hair, pursed lips and narrowed eyes – but even she looked unusually grim and disapproving.

“Name’s Ebony Hunt, or so she says,” Lockett said, throwing a glance over his shoulder. “No form of identification on her.”

“I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for it then, won’t you?” John glanced at Lockett and stepped around him. Hunt regarded him calmly from the small bench at the back of the cell, seeming perfectly at ease, despite the cuffs on her slim wrists and the crispy patches of dried blood that stained her shirt and jeans.

“She’s confessed,” Jones said, without looking away.

Another confession? John wondered, bewildered. Not that he minded at all, but usually criminals preferred to lie through their teeth.

“Officer,” she said, in a surprisingly deep voice.

“Ms Hunt,” John said coolly. “You made quite a scene today.”

“I know.” Hunt’s eyes – a sharp shade of grey – gleamed. They stared at each other – John curling his lip, Hunt looking bored – until she spoke again. “I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic.”

“So you killed someone, in broad daylight to be dramatic?” Jones snapped. Hunt regarded her without expression.

“I wouldn’t go as far as to say broad daylight,” Hunt said, in a thoughtful tone of voice. “It’s rather overcast this morning.” She smiled at the three of them, and then started to hum something under her breath and ignored them altogether.

*                    *                     *

Sirius was moved to a long-term prison within the hour, and couldn’t help but feel rather pleased with himself, though the majority of the congratulations ought to – and would, when he next saw her – go to Dora.

Sirius had made a late night trip to Diagon Alley the night before, to buy dragon’s blood, and Dora had made a pocket out of skin in which to store it. When Sirius had ‘stabbed’ her – with a dull knife he’d retrieved from the Black vault – she’d quickly reshaped her midriff to avoid being injured and also fabricated a pair of nasty looking stab wounds and released the blood.

Then – assuming she’d done what they’d practiced the night before - she’d have gone pale and hardened her neck and chest – to block her pulse and heartbeat - had shrunk her lungs – to keep them from making her exhalation obvious – and had created air holes between her shoulder blades to breathe with. Sirius had been running by then, but if her performance was even half as good as their practice, she’d have made a very convincing dead person.

And she’d made him an uncannily convincing woman – even the doctor that had looked him over before admitting him, hadn’t found fault in his disguise. Sirius found his current, transfigured body very odd – he was a lot shorter, for one, and lacked his usual broad shoulders, for another – and he’d decided it was best not to think too much about other specifics.

His new cell was a lot nicer than the one he’d used in Azkaban. It had a bunk bed with a small pile of clothes atop the higher level, a desk – which was affixed to the floor and wall - and a chair that was similarly anchored, as well as his own toilet and sink, semi-concealed behind a low wall. It was inside, like the Ministry cells had been, and, like the Ministry holding cells, there was someone else in there with him; she’d been sent to stand against the back wall by one of the guards, while Sirius was ushered in.

The barred part of his cell looked out into a hallway, which was lined with other cells; a few of the other inmates were jeering at the officers who’d escorted Sirius. The oldest officer – his badge said Fisher – gave Sirius a disdaining look.

“You’ll be informed about the dates of your trial,” he said, and then gestured to the other four and left. One officer – a guard – remained long enough to lock the cell before wandering off down the hallway, sighing.

The woman against the wall folded her arms and cleared her throat. She was forty or fifty, Sirius guessed, and very tall, but also very thin. She reminded him a bit of Harry’s Aunt Petunia, with her bony elbows and skinny neck, although Sirius found her far more intimidating; this woman had probably killed someone.

“Carol,” she said, rather primly

“Ebony,” Sirius told her, swinging himself onto the top bunk. He wasn’t going to be outrightly rude – that sort of bluff might work with blokes, but probably not with women, and particularly not one that was this tall. He’d just try to blend in with his mattress, and be forgotten about.

He settled back into the pillow – which actually wasn’t too uncomfortable – and shut his eyes, thinking; this was the part he hadn’t planned to perfection; he didn’t have his wand on him (or it would have been taken upon his arrival) and he’d intended to call Kreacher and have him bring it... only Sirius hadn’t realised that he’d be sharing a cell.

Which could complicate things, he thought, rather grumpily. I’ll-

Sirius let out a grunt as Carol grabbed his hair – which Dora had lengthened and curled for the occasion – and pulled him down to face her.

“Ow,” Sirius said, giving her hand a pointed look.

“I haven’t had a cell mate for a long time-” Sirius almost asked if that was because she didn’t play nicely with the other children, but bit his tongue.

I’m an adult and I’ll behave like one, he told himself, not go picking fights. Sirius could throw a fair punch, but he didn’t particularly want to go around punching women. Even if he did, he was a lot smaller than he was used to being, with less body-weight to throw around, and he relied so heavily on using magic to solve his problems that he suspected he’d come out second best in any sort of physical altercation with anyone here; these were muggles, and they’d fight like them.

“-and I’ve liked it like that,” Carol finished. “So you, girlie, can keep the hell out of my way.”

“I won’t be here long,” Sirius said, and Carol laughed. It wasn’t a nice sound.

“Everyone says that,” she said, tugging on Sirius’ hair again. He winced, and then, abruptly, she patted his head. It was one of the most condescending gestures anyone had ever made toward him, and even his dog-side disapproved. “Don’t bother me, okay?”

“Sure, cow,” he muttered, and she gave him an odd look, but then obviously decided that he’d said her name and not insulted her. Then, she looked smug. Sirius wanted to hex the expression off her face. Thankfully, she disappeared onto the bottom bunk and Sirius didn’t hear anything more from her until dinner time.

Sirius had formed the loosest of plans by the time he walked into the dining room. There was a bench with food (Sirius eyed the muggle contraption for keeping things warm, with undisguised interest) and people to serve it on one side of the room, while the rest of the space had been used for tables.

A few people were already sitting – Sirius got the impression that there was a very strict social hierarchy at play here – in groups. He spotted quite a few young girls – probably not even in their twenties yet – all clustered together, and as soon as they’d received their food (roast beef, with chocolate icecream for pudding), Carol immediately left Sirius’ side to join a table of older ladies.

Sirius adjusted his hold on his dinner and looked around for anyone blond; he knew from Robards, that the last charm to be performed by Marlene’s wand had been to change her hair colour. There were, unfortunately, rather a lot of blond women around. Sirius sniffed a bit, but he couldn’t really get a fix on her scent because of the overwhelming odour of food, and because of the sheer number of people in the room. He’d have given anything to transform into Padfoot and have a good search, but he’d turn into himself as soon as he changed back, and that would ruin everything.

So, Sirius did the logical thing. He sat down at the table closest to the door, and kept an eye on everyone coming in, and everyone that left.

Sirius was just scraping the last of his icecream out of his bowl when he spotted her. She was alone, making her way toward the exit. Her hair was a lot longer than he remembered, and blond and straggly, and she was thinner, but she also looked oddly peaceful; she didn’t, at least, look like she was about to burst into tears, as she had when he’d last seen her.

Sirius left his plate and bowl where they were and followed her out.

*                        *                         *

“Why’d you do it?” Mundungus asked.

Peter barely heard him; instead, he clutched more tightly at his blanket, and attempted to press himself into the corner of his cell. ‘Summer’ was a term to be used sparingly in Azkaban because it was never really warm, but it wasn’t as cold. And, Peter knew Christmas was approaching – he’d overheard two of the guards talking about it – and it was bringing the freezing weather with it. It was awful. He wondered if Azkaban would actually freeze over, and half hoped it would so that he might die of frostbite.

Death would be kinder, Sirius’ voice told him quietly, and Peter nodded his head in frantic agreement. The Sirius in his head snorted in disgust. Come on, Wormtail, he said, and it was that that reminded Peter that Sirius wasn’t really in his head; the real Sirius would never call him Wormtail. Don’t you think it’s only fair that you get to live the life you sold everything to keep?

“No,” Peter whispered, through chattering teeth.

“Come on, Pettigrew,” Mundungus said, shuffling closer to the edge of his cell. “Neither of us’re going anywhere. All we can do is talk to each other... stay sane, y’know?”

“You’re going, though,” Peter mumbled. “Eventually. What is it – five years?” Mundgungus squinted at the overcast sky and then nodded tentatively. “And then I’ll still be here. Life sentence,” Peter added bitterly.

“And griping ain’t the way to get through it,” Mundungus told him. “I did two years before and I made it. You ain’t even a year through, so I don’t know what you’re so miserable about.”

“It’s Azkaban,” Peter snapped, wishing he’d go away. Mundungus had been around for about a month now, and Peter’s state of mind had disintegrated drastically since then. He hated the incessant questions; was it too much to just endure in miserable solitude? Someone sobbed a few cells over and Peter shuddered and adjusted his blanket again.

“So why-”

“Why’d you do it?” Peter asked grumpily, figuring that, if they had to talk, it might as well be on his terms.

“Money,” Mundungus said, looking pleased that Peter’d answered. Peter scowled at him. “See, I know I’m innocent, so it’s no problem for me. I didn’t do nothing – this time. I mean, it’s nasty; Dementors are the biggest gits around, right? But they can’t make me mad, just upset and uncomfortable.” Peter privately thought that Mundungus had an opinion of self-worth so inflated that that was why Dementors couldn’t bring him down.

Peter, on the other hand, had a very realistic perception of his own worth and the Dementors had been quick to destroy what little value Peter had thought he’d had.

Death would be so, so much kinder, he thought sulkily.

“-just got to put up with it, you know?”

“No,” Peter said, because he didn’t; he wasn’t coping. He suspected Sirius had been the same; knowing he was innocent must have helped. Peter didn’t have such luxuries, and Azkaban saw through any delusions he’d attempted to conjure.

“You’ll be all right,” Mundungus said sagely. Peter glared at him.

“You’re not very helpful, y-you-” Peter cut off, coughing.

“Sorry,” Mundungus said, genuinely appearing to be. He paused, and Peter thought he might be thinking; Mundungus was a Slytherin, but he hadn’t been sorted there for cunning, only ambition. Anything involving too much thought was generally outside of Mundungus’ realm of capability, and Peter’d heard he’d only just scraped A’s for his N.E.W.T.s, though Dumbledore’d once said he wrote good essays.

Dumbledore has something nice to say about everyone, though, Peter thought nastily, and then slumped. Except about me. He hates me.

Everyone hated him these days. Even Mundungus had taken a few weeks to even be willing to talk to Peter, and that was probably because it was either talk, or go insane. Peter sniffled and let his head fall back against the cold stone.

Sirius hated him for... well, everything, and Remus was probably much the same. All of his old Order friends hated him for what he’d done to James, Lily and Sirius, and the fact that he’d lied to them for years, and all of his old Death Eater... acquaintances – the ones he knew, anyway – hated him for bringing about the downfall of the Dark Lord. Several of them – Bellatrix amongst them, the crazy bitch – had told him so while the guards walked him to his cell on the first day.

Peter had no one. No one in Azkaban – he wasn’t counting Mundungus, because Mundungus was weak, and would leave Peter at the first opportunity, he was sure of it, so Peter wasn’t going to depend on him – and no one on the outside. He was alive – he’d managed that much – but he wasn’t living, and he wasn’t sharing his life with any friends.

I miss the war, he thought miserably.

For a moment, Peter was able to remember everyone’s laughing faces – he decided to overlook the stress lines, and the way that sudden movement made everyone go for their wands – but then a Dementor drifted past on its second patrol for the day and the memory faded into the grey of the cell around him.

*                           *                            *

Marlene sat down at the desk in her cell and pulled the book she’d been reading – The Human Brain And Its Functions – towards her. She’d just settled into the spindly chair when there was a metallic tap behind her.

Marlene frowned – her cellmate Kathleen usually stayed with her friends until the guards started to enforce the return to the cells – and glanced over her shoulder. Then she stiffened. She didn’t recognise the woman standing just inside her open cell, and Marlene didn’t think that was a good thing.

“Can I help you?” she asked, getting to her feet. She was far taller than the stranger, and not as thin, which was reassuring – if it came to a fight, Marlene probably had a fair chance, unless the woman had a weapon somewhere. Marlene let her book drop back onto the desk.

“Mona?” the woman asked, with a rather odd expression.

“Can I help you?” Marlene repeated, her tone a little sharper. The woman looked exasperated and thrilled all at once, and took a tentative step forward. “Who are you?” Marlene demanded.

“I’m-” The woman hesitated, and when she didn’t offer a name, Marlene realised she was trying to think of a title to give herself. “A friend,” she decided, rather tentatively. “Or at least, I consider you one. Sort of.”

“Well, sort-of-friend,” Marlene said, rather coolly, “what do you want?”

“You,” the woman replied, looking sure, at least, of this. She came further into the cell – taking a curious look at the desk - and Marlene retreated to the cell door, trying to decide whether to run, or whether to stay. “Please don’t run again,” the woman said quietly.

“Again?” Marlene asked, arching an eyebrow.  “What-"

“Walk with me?” the woman asked abruptly.

“Walk?” Marlene asked, dumbly. “Where-”

“Dunno,” the woman said. “Around. Somewhere quieter.” She strode past Marlene and out into the hallway. “Coming?”

“You’re joking, right?” Marlene asked, incredulous. While the wizarding world was different to the muggle world, she didn’t think it was intelligent to go off with a complete stranger – one that likely had a dangerous past – in either.

“No,” the woman said. Rather suddenly, her eyes twinkled, and a small smile flickered across her face. “I’m serious.”

Marlene stared at the woman for a long moment and then said, “All right.” She’d revoked her place in the wizarding world, but she’d been a Gryffindor once. Brave. “But nowhere too quiet.”

The pair of them walked in silence down the hallway – the other woman kept looking up at Marlene and then looking away as soon as Marlene glanced back. They passed a few other inmates and guards on their way through the prison and after the third time past Block B, the woman glanced at Marlene and didn’t look away when the glance was returned.

“I’ve got no idea where I’m going,” she admitted.

“Obviously,” Marlene snapped. “Are you new?”

“Got here this afternoon.” Marlene blinked.

“I- I was joking.”

“I’m not.”

“The laundry’s just down here,” Marlene said, thrown by the exchange. She urged her feet to move, and the woman trailed along behind her, looking amused. “No one does their washing at night even though we’re allowed to,” Marlene added, feeling compelled to make conversation, “so that should be empty.”

It was, and the woman sat down atop one of the washing machines while Marlene hovered near the door.

“Well?” she asked after a few moments. She hadn’t felt this unsettled since she’d entered the muggle world, and she hadn’t missed the feeling. At all. “What do you want?”

“I already told you.”

“Me?” Marlene asked, rolling her eyes. “You’ve got me – temporarily. But if you don’t start talking in the next few seconds, you’re going to lose me.”

“I’ll find you again,” the woman said, quietly certain.

“I’m good at hiding.”

“I found you this time, didn’t I?”

“I was sitting in my cell, in a prison,” Marlene said, trying to inject as much condescension into her voice as possible. “I wasn’t a difficult target.”

“No?” the woman asked, with something in her voice that Marlene couldn’t identify. She hopped off the washing machine and leaned against it, folding her arms. “You’re a long way from home, Mona. Some might even think you were hiding.”

“Some might be wrong,” Marlene shot back, eyes flinty, but uneasy didn’t even begin to describe her feelings anymore. This woman, whoever she was, was hinting at things that Marlene wasn’t comfortable with her hinting at. She turned on her heel, intent on returning to her cell.

“Seriously? You’re going to run again?”

“I’m going back to my cell,” Marlene said, with what dignity she could muster. “It’s almost curfew.” That was a lie; curfew was still probably an hour away, but if this woman was new, as she claimed to be, then she wouldn’t know that.

“Wait!” Marlene didn’t even pause. “Marlene, wait.” Those two words were said so calmly, but with so much authority behind them that Marlene did wait . She didn’t stop, however, and whirled around.

“Who-?” she choked. All she got in return was a sad smile, but it was enough. The number of times she’d seen it during the war, directed at her from over James Potter or Remus Lupin’s shoulder, or from behind a glass of firewhiskey... Her heart stopped. She wanted to run. She’d never wanted anything more, actually, but she knew the woman – well, man – opposite her would follow. He’d managed to already, hadn’t he?

She sat down on the floor, where she was. Sirius came to sit beside her, without hesitation.

“Dora does good work,” he said quietly, gesturing to his face. Now that she knew it was him, she recognised the colour of his eyes, although the shape was different, and the lashes framing them were thicker, and the eyebrows were thinner. His nose was longer, and thinner, and his teeth were rounder and his lips plumper. “I didn’t even recognise myself when I-”

“What do you want?” she asked thickly. “And if you say ‘You’, I swear I’ll break your stupid, unrecognisable face.” Sirius said nothing. “Answer me!”

“I don’t want you to break my face,” Sirius muttered. A sob clawed its way out of Marlene’s throat.

“W-why did you even c-come?” she asked, a little hysterically. “I’m not- I shouldn’t matter!”

“You matter,” he said quietly, and she wondered how she’d missed it; even with transfigured vocal cords, he still sounded like himself when he spoke with that tone. “Even-” He hesitated, looking at her, and then away, very quickly. There was an awkward pause and then Sirius finally said, “We- what’s left of the Order-”

“That was a long time ago,” she said instantly.

“So were James and Lily,” Sirius countered softly, “and you were willing to kill me for them.” Marlene jerked, and would have stood and run if Sirius hadn’t predicted it and caught her arm. “Don’t tell me none of it matters.”

“I won’t a-apologise,” Marlene said.

“Why not?” Sirius asked, brow furrowed.

“Because it won’t ever be enough!” Marlene exclaimed. “I used an Unforgivable on you-”

“You didn’t mean it-”

“I meant to,” she whispered. “And that’s not- I can’t forgive- you can’t forgive me for-”

“I can’t?” Sirius drawled. “That sounds an awful lot like a rule.” Marlene frowned at him. “I’m not very good with rules.”

“You still like to think you’re funny,” she observed, rather despairingly, staring at his unfamiliar face.

“I do,” Sirius agreed, with a small smile. “So obviously there was no real harm-”

“Don’t. Don’t tell me there was no harm done.” Marlene tried to shake Sirius’ hand off her arm, but it remained there – not tight, but not going anywhere. “I tried to kill you, and you’re not allowed to just walk in without having heard an apology, or talked to me about this beforehand, and say that that doesn’t matter!”

“Are you scared to apologise because you think I won’t forgive you, or because you think I might?” he asked.

“I’m not scared at all! I’m not giving you an apology because it’s redundant, and insignificant and-”

“I’d like to hear it anyway,” Sirius said. “Alleged insignificance and all.”

“I’m sure you would,” she muttered. Sirius was quiet for a long time. His hand loosened on her arm, but didn’t retract entirely, and he made no move to stand, but he did shift into a position that would make moving easier.

“I have forgiven you, you know,” he said, and Marlene’s heart constricted painfully. “It took a while... I was angry, and disappointed at first-” Marlene’s stomach twisted at that, at disappointed, but she deserved it, and she clung to the word, storing it away for later thought. “-and then I was free, and I was busy – with Harry, and Remus, and everything really – and then I got a letter, from a friend of yours. Robards.”

“Gawain?” Marlene croaked.

“The one and only.” A ghost of a smile flickered over his face, and then faded. “He was a mess, Marly. He wasn’t sleeping, he was getting by on tea and toast, and he was so desperate that he reached out to me, the bloke you’d tried to kill, for help.”

“Why did you?” Marlene asked.

Sirius hesitated for the briefest moment and then said, “Order. We’re family.” She didn’t think that was the whole truth, but she wasn’t going to question him. She didn’t think she wanted to hear the truth. There was a short silence, and then Sirius cleared his throat, the faintest shade of pink creeping into his cheeks. Marlene pretended not to notice.

“Family don’t try to kill-”

“No, but we’ve always been dysfunctional,” Sirius said gently. He squeezed her arm in an unmistakably affectionate gesture. She yanked it away, but made no move to leave.

“This isn’t fair,” she said. “On either of us.”


“Whatever you’re here for – whatever you want – is more than I can give you. I won’t apologise, and I won’t do this-” She grabbed his arm and squeezed it, in a mockery of the gesture he’d made moments before. “-or, or-” She faltered. “And you can’t just come in and ruin everything! I’m happy here – happier than I’ve been in a long time, because everything’s simple and- and-” Marlene felt the tears break free at last, a lot later than she’d expected them too. “-and now you’ve made me cry!” She glared at him through blurry eyes.

“Why won’t you let me forgive you?”

“Because I don’t d-deserve it,” she said, wiping her cheeks. “I meant it when I cast that spell, and it didn’t work, but I meant it, Sirius!” His name tasted funny on her lips.

“Marly,” he began, and she hated the way that her name sounded so familiar.

“It’s Mona,” she said. Sirius looked stricken.

“Ebony,” he croaked, after a moment.


“Ebony. That’s the name I used to get in.” He stood, and there was something in his voice, and in the way he moved, that spoke of utter defeat. “I expect it’ll be all over the muggle papers tomorrow, alongside speculation about how I escaped.”

“You’re leaving?” Marlene asked, partially relieved, partially- She pushed those other feelings aside, and buried them. “Tonight?”

“Now,” Sirius told her. He seemed to struggle with himself, and then, in a small voice said, “It’s an open invitation.”

Marlene didn’t let herself think about the possibilities, didn’t even allow herself to examine the offer with emotion. She swallowed, and got to her feet.

“Safe travels,” she whispered, and left.

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