Chapter IV: The Lost Boy
Hermione was bleeding from the lip.
Sirius was okay with the concept of blood, but after he saw her sitting beside him, swaying visibly, he decided he was specifically not okay with blood being on her. His memories of Grimmauld Place—before he'd run away—were made up of varying shades of crimson. On his calmer days where he could detach from his past and float in a numb, fugue-like state, he reasoned that he associated red with his younger years because that was the color of the floor whenever mother dearest beat his head in.
The broomstick was her favorite tool, followed by that golden candelabra that sat on the mantle of the first floor fireplace: a gift from their neighbor Mrs. Chapswick, handed out as a party favor during a Pure-blood political fundraiser. Walburga only used unforgivables when she was really, really angry. Unfortunately for Sirius, her fits of rage happened on a daily basis by the time he hightailed it out of that pit.
Prongs—who didn't know all of it, but knew enough—unironically called those years the Dark Times. He always mentioned them with a grin and a laugh, as if to say thank Merlin that's over, right mate? Sirius would laugh too, albeit a bit nervously. He would run an unsteady hand through his messy black hair and pull out a muggle cigarette and start smoking to hide the shakes, because what else could he do? Prongs doesn't know. None of them know, he would assuage that angry, snapping thing that lurked behind his teeth like a Dementor. The frequent blackouts from his childhood had nothing to do with the titular moniker of the Dark Place, and the disrespect wasn't intentional.
Potter was his best friend. He wouldn't be cruel like that.
The thing about being a witch or a wizard was that you didn't really bleed out, no matter how badly you were being beaten. Your skull could be crushed, or your veins could be opened, nails ripped out or ears sliced off, but it didn't matter in the end. So long as you had your trusty wand, everything was eventually fixed. The only things you really had to watch out for were curses and unforgivables, and Walburga had been cognizant of that. Sirius had picked up the knowledge, too. It was why he hit back with his fists.
Before Hermione had come along—and he'd gotten all twisted—there'd been the mess of his sixth year. A different sort of mess than the one Sirius currently found himself in, because it had been close to the time where he'd run away from the Blacks. His memories from that time were a little bit hazy. He did remember standing in front of a transfigured mirror in a third-floor broom closet, a good thirty minutes after he'd gotten into an ugly, snarling fight with a Slytherin prefect. This had been followed by fucking Anna Van Wezt amongst the magical mop buckets and reams of tissue paper.
The fight had been about something the Pure-blood had said—he couldn't remember the exact words—but the bloke had gotten in a good hit across his jaw just the same. Soon afterwards there'd been the drip-drip-drip of blood from his split lip onto the floor. Anna had been there, with her silky blond hair and large blue eyes. She'd tugged on his perpetually off-kilter tie as they'd traipsed down the hall, and once they'd found a suitable location he'd shoved her bodily into the storage cabinet, his lips on hers as her fingers slid through his hair.
Sirius distinctly remembered the mop bucket digging into his shin as he hoisted Anna against the wall of the closet. He remembered her gasps and the way she'd gripped the hair at the nape of his neck. Fucking got rid of the nervous energy, on the good days. So did the smokes, but McGonagall liked to confiscate the slim white sticks when she could. He just got so angry, all the time. He got angrier and angrier, until the rage spilled forth like vomit after a solid night of drinking with the rest of the boys. Sirius couldn't control his tongue, and he refused to cry.
After they'd finished fucking, Sirius had done up his slacks and transfigured a mop bucket into a wall-length mirror, to make sure he looked semi-presentable. The red marks on his neck from where Anna had scratched him could stay, but the blood would get McGonagall on his arse, so it would not. He'd been put on a warning system at the beginning of the year.
If he didn't calm down, they were shipping him off to St. Mungo's. Prong's parents—his legal guardians now, but no one talked about that in polite society—had given the school their blessings. There was no way Sirius was going down without a fight. He didn't want the nurses anywhere near him, with their potions or their pitying looks. I'm better, he'd told Prongs through his sixth smoke of the day when the judgement had come down, but he'd had an episode that summer—a really, really bad one that he didn't quite remember—and it had fucked up his chances.
Misguided, charity-case Sirius Black: roving Pure-blood prince who'd turned into a frothing mad dog and stayed like that. Merlin's beard, no wonder his animagus was a grim.
In this memory tied to blood and the color red, Sirius remembered just standing there: he remembered staring at his reflection in the mop-bucket mirror, loathing everything about his crooked tie and ripped white shirt. The blood on his split bottom lip was stark. Sirius didn't like looking at himself in the mirror that much, even though he knew his looks were the only thing he had going for him. It reminded him too much of where he'd come from, and the pale skin and pale grey eyes were too similar to the set that belonged to his little brother: the one he'd left behind with Walburga.
Sirius reached up to wipe at his bloody mouth, his long fingers running across his gums. His hand came back ruddy.
"You fight so much, baby," Anna said with a crooning, self-satisfied lilt. She stood with her chest to his back and her hands sliding around his front. Her fingers scraped at his exposed skin as she kissed his throat. Her blond hair was more tousled than his.
"I love it when you fight," she continued. Sirius had stared at nothing, eyes unfocused as he'd buttoned up his shirt. "You look so wild when you're bloody."
At that, Sirius shook her off with a shrug of his shoulders, his face a blank mask. He had done up his tie. "Sod off," he said.
Anna was tall enough that he could see her expression over his shoulder. The tilt of her lips said she was upset.
Not so with Hermione, Sirius thought now—if she'd been standing behind him, he couldn't have seen her. Hermione was all he compared things to, these days. She was small enough to fold up into a suitcase. She was even smaller in person when he literally saw her shaking through her clothes. When Sirius pressed his hand to to the ridge of her spine, he could feel her bones through the thick black fabric. She wasn't eating. She really wasn't. No wonder he never caught her in the Great Hall.
Sirius had come down to the Gryffindor common room early that morning, rushing out of bed half-awake in the hopes that he'd finally catch her before class. He did a lot of that these days, even though he stayed up all night out of worry. His evening hours will consumed with watching her meander around Hogwarts on the Marauder's Map before predictably venturing into the Forbidden Forest.
There was something strange with her signature on the map that he'd noticed—an error that was popping up, completely hiding her from view for large stretches of time that had nothing to do with the woods. Sometimes the signal would flicker like she was dying, before she blinked straight out of existence, and the first time it had happened he'd nearly lost it. Sirius tried not to think too much about it now, surmising that she was using a charm. Hermione was very good at staying out of sight in general. Often Sirius couldn't corner her until Potions, and his hopes for seeing her that day before class had been minimal.
She hadn't been in the Gryffindor common room when he'd skidded out of the dormitory that morning. She hadn't been walking down the nearby staircases, and a quick look at the Marauder's Map informed she was nowhere, which meant that she was using that blasted charm again. Half-awake and feeling jittery, Sirius had headed down to the Great Hall with the rest of his mates. As they'd walked he'd tried to act normal. He smiled at whichever girl sent a friendly look his way; he slung his arm over Prong's shoulder, nudging him good-naturedly in the ribs while they loudly talked shop about their upcoming Quidditch match against the Slytherins. When they reached the Great Hall, he sat himself beside Moony, as was customary: hiding his shakes behind a pint of Butterbeer and laughing through his drink while Lily yelled at Prongs for trying to nab a kiss.
Peter was quiet that morning, pouring over his textbook in preparation for a second period test. He asked for Sirius to pass him the plate of scones and the butter dish, and Sirius complied without thought. He then buried his face in his drink and tried to ignore the stares.
There were rumors flying around, hard and fast, just like Lily had said there would be. "The purest of the Pure-blood princes had a real girlfriend" was the most prevalent one, and the loudest:
Of course he's still friendly, Patricia, but you know he's off the market. He's hitched himself to that new girl. The quiet one.
Merlin's beard, what do you think she did to enchant him?
I know, right? No way that's normal.
Part of Sirius knew that he should stop the rumors, but he pressed his lips shut and sipped on his Butterbeer, pretending not to hear. Maybe ignorance was bliss. Everyone knew that he took care of his own, and if everyone thought that Hermione was his, they wouldn't dare touch her. Hermione didn't need to know what the other students thought, or what Sirius was letting them think. The more he churned the idea over, the better it sounded in his head.
After several minutes of fantasizing about the words Hermione and his strung together in a sentence, Sirius decided the idea was the best plan he'd thought of in years. He could make it work. He'd block Hermione's ears with cotton so she wouldn't hear the rumors, and he'd keep on carrying her books and sitting next to her in class and he'd hover, hover, hover, so that when the others looked towards her small, bedraggled form, they'd wouldn't see her shakes: they'd just see Sirius' back instead. As he refilled his mug with Butterbeer, his cheeks feeling hot, Sirius told himself he wouldn't ask for more. Hermione was good and perfect and sweet, and good people didn't deserve to cry. He was going to be a good person, this time, for her. Mother dearest and her claims of perpetual disappointment could suck it.
Then a miracle happened, and Hermione did show up at the hall. Sirius, pretending to be only mildly interested, just sat there and thought finally. At last he'd outsmarted Hermione in her quest to keep herself hidden, and she'd slipped up. The witch approached with a small group of seventh year girls that he didn't know too well. Sirius glared at James, willing him to stay quiet before he said something stupid to break the ruse, but even through his anxiety there was a part of him that had been floating. Maybe he could take care of Hermione after they graduated from Hogwarts, too.
"Here!" Prongs said, waving like mad across the table. His Butterbeer spilled. Lily let out a hiss, mopping up the spill with a bright red napkin. "Here! Come join us in the pit of depravity!"
Sirius reached across the table to strangle him, because if Prongs blew his cover Merlin help him, he was going to eat it. Moony grabbed his arm in return, pulling him back.
"Just breathe, Padfoot," he said with a watery smile. It was only then that Sirius realized that his hands were visibly trembling. Prong's smile faded a bit into something that resembled concern as he caught on to the movement. "Breathe, mate. He doesn't mean anything by it."
"Padfoot, you alright?" James asked.
Then the girls had arrived. Prongs dropped the subject and grinned. Sirius covered up his own slip with a grin, too, but it quickly tumbled once Hermione got within range and he realized he hadn't outsmarted her in anything. She was just having a really, really bad day, and she wasn't all there in the head.
The witch was white as a sheet as she stood sandwiched in between two seventh years. The dark circles around her eyes that were so deep-set that Sirius immediately wondered if she'd been glamouring her face to hide them. When Prongs waved the gaggle of witches over, she walked with such a noticeable limp that the heel of her left foot clicked oddly against the floor. Merlin, he'd never seen her this bad before. He'd been so stupid. Everyone was staring, or politely pretending not to stare, and as Hermione curled in on herself and whispered apologies while she made her way forward, Sirius knew that the rumors about her would be even worse tonight. He managed to stay seated for a whole ten seconds—albeit with Remus continuing to tug on his robe, whispering "don't be stupid"—before he bolted out of his seat like a jackrabbit when she began to sway on the spot.
"Hey Luv," he heard himself say, as if through a dream. "Here, let me grab that." He reached for her too-heavy bag, trying to move between her and the others so they couldn't keep gawking. Fuck them for just watching, and for doing nothing. None of them understood.
"Thank you, Sirius," she said in that breathy, not-quite-there way, and even though she was ill Sirius once again rocketed to cloud nine. He always did when she thanked him.
But Hermione had a really hard time walking over to the table. She had an even harder time sitting down. Eventually Sirius had to grip her good elbow and put a hand to her back just to complete the motion, and by the time she was settled and the dust was cleared he was half out of his mind with worry. Had she been this thin a week ago when he'd accidentally touched her in Potions? He didn't think so, and while Sirius did have memory problems, his recollections of her were always crystal clear.
Hermione knew that people were staring. He knew that she knew, because her cheeks were flushed with shame and she kept her head tilted towards her lap, her good hand clenching and unclenching anxiously in her robes as that wild mess of honey-brown curls tumbled around her face like a lion's mane. Sirius bared his teeth and curled towards her, trying to hide her with arm and his his back. He tried not to curl too hard, because he wanted to be more like a well-worn blanket, only he knew that he wasn't. He was terrified that if he curled too hard he'd crush her.
"Given any thought to my proposal?" he asked. Hermione looked at him blearily, her line of sight going straight through him.
"What I asked, about going up on the broom."
"Oh," the witch said, turning away, but she never finished her sentence, seeming to lose her train of thought.
Sirius didn't press it. He spooned bland porridge into a bowl and soft bread onto a plate and put it in front of her, in-between stroking his hand up and down her back. When he'd had the shakes, all he could stomach was tasteless gruel, so he thought it would help. Unfortunately Hermione couldn't even reach for the plate herself, so he moved it closer.
His friends—for once—said nothing. Sirius kept his customary jokes short and terse. When Lily reached across the table to shake Hermione's hand, he almost bit her head off, and he refused to let anyone sit near her. They wouldn't be gentle enough, and if they bumped her bad arm he was going to whip out his wand and use a curse to strip their skin. Hermione kept her gaze down, her hair falling in giant, unruly waves around her shoulders in such a way that Sirius desperately wanted to bury his face in it. He wasn't doing too well either, because his memory was blanking out in spots and he couldn't recall everything that had been said. In between fits of anxiety, he tried to smile and laugh with the others, because Hermione didn't want any more attention on herself and him being out of sorts would definitely do it. Then she started swaying so hard in her seat he could no longer ignore it, so he turned to her, asking for something. He couldn't remember what, exactly, but it might have been about pain potions.
Hermione shuddered real hard—just once—and looked up at him, meeting her gaze.
Black circles were around her eyes, and her eyes were black too. Her mouth was an inky pit, like she had swallowed oil and it had eaten up her insides: no teeth, and no tongue. Black was seeping out of the pit like tendrils, to stain her lips.
Merlin, was that a curse?
Sirius shook his head, trying to clear it. The vision disappeared, but the shadows beneath her eyes did not. Hermione smelt like pine needles, and from those partially opened, dry, cracking lips came the unmistakable scent of pain potions. Had her lips been this dry the last time he'd been this close? He didn't think so. She was bleeding on the bottom one, where the skin had split. Instantly, he knew he hated it.
Hermione toppled to the side as if all her energy had simply left her. She fell in such a way that the others couldn't miss it.
Prongs let out a loud "woah!" Lily gasped and reached across the table to grab her before she fell, knocking over the pot of beans with her sleeve. Sirius caught her first. He had to scramble a bit, his arm clumsily fumbling around his back, but once she was secure she fit into the crook of his arm like she'd always meant to be there: her head lolling against his shoulder, her body sagging bonelessly against his as he called her name. She was tiny, and not in a good way. It wasn't like he'd touched her a lot, but she hadn't been this frail before.
"Hermione?" he said. His hand was in her hair before he could help himself, sweeping it away from that pale, feverish face. "Luv, are you okay?" He tucked a thick brown lock behind the curve of his ear, curling around her further so that he could bring his face down to her level, speaking low. When he allowed himself to run a thumb back and forth across her cheek, next to her ear, she didn't move from his grasp.
"Padfoot, she doesn't look too good," James said. Across the table, one of the girls that arrived with Hermione began speaking to him too.
"She hasn't been sleeping well," said the girl—a blond one with a cool expression that he vaguely remembered as Abigail. "She fell off the bed this morning."
He rubbed a hand up and down Hermione's shoulder as he tried to bring some feeling back to it. She was so cold. Her skin was smooth in that dry, papery way when someone hadn't drunk enough water and they were a bit dehydrated. Her lip was still bleeding from where it had split open, and her eyes were closed—perhaps to deal with the vertigo.
"Luv, are you alright?" His head was almost touching hers. Hermione reached up, rubbing with her good hand at her eyes. Her fingers quavered terribly.
"I'm—" she began.
Lily leaned towards them, reaching out and gesturing towards Hermione with her hands, as if she wanted Sirius to give the witch up.
"Sirius," she said, calm and tight. "She's sick. Give her to me, or take her to Madame Pomfrey."
"No," Hermione said. She was so weak she stayed slumped against her shoulder, and Sirius pulled her closer. "No, Abi... Abigail's right. I have been sleeping well. It's just the flu, I think."
"Sirius," Lily said. He finally turned to glare at her murderously. "She's sick. Take her to Pomfrey's."
"She already said no. Sod the fuck off."
Prongs slammed his hands down on the table, his face going peakish. He pointed a finger in Sirius's direction even as Lily went very still.
"Alright, you Pure-blood git," he declared. Remus groaned in frustration, throwing his own hands towards the air. "Listen. That's my future queen you're talking to there, so watch your filthy—"
"Merlin take me, you are both Pure-blood gits," Moony declared. Sirius bared his teeth at Potter and tried to remind himself it was a very, very stupid idea to switch into a grim at the table. "What is it with you two and fighting, first thing in the morning? I'm about to lose it, because you've been doing this for weeks."
"Sirius," Lily insisted like a broken muggle record. "Take her to Pomfrey's."
"No," Hermione said, a little bit louder than before. Sirius immediately turned back. The witch's eyes were open, and sleepy. She seemed like she was on the verge of tears. Sirius tucked another lock of hair behind her ear. When he did the witch's lips trembled, as she pressed them together. She quickly looked down, her expression fragile and distressed.
Sirius swallowed reflexively, wondering if he was making it worse. Had he made it worse? Had he made a mistake calling her Luv? What was he doing wrong?
"You okay?" he asked again, dreading the answer. He knew that she wasn't. Smile, Sirius. Just keep smiling.
Very carefully Hermione reached up, gently curling her fingers around his to remove his hand from her face. Sirius nearly died on the spot with despair.
"I'm just a bit tired," she said, but all Sirius heard was she doesn't want me. She doesn't want me, no one wants me. Hermione was trembling like a leaf in a windstorm, but even though Sirius knew that was just what happened when you had the shakes, a nasty little voice in the back of his brain told him that it was because he was holding her.
She doesn't want you.
"Need to lie down for a bit?" he asked. "Or help getting up?" He was trying so hard not to throw himself out a window, because she was physically shrinking away from him even as she said it. Hermione nodded yes, and Sirius barely managed to talk himself back from the edge.
She still needs me. She needs help. I can do this.
Not trusting himself to speak without his voice cracking harder, Sirius leaned to the side and grabbed her bag from where it sat between their feet on the floor, slinging it over his shoulder before reaching down again and grabbing his. Once settled, he adjusted his hold on Hermione, shuffling her from their seats on the bench while he tried not to drop her.
"Sirius, I'm serious. You need to take her to Madame Pomfrey—"
"Shut up, Lil'." His hair fell into his eyes, making it hard to see. Sirius reached up, running his fingers through the messy black waves to push it back from his forehead.
"Alright, that's it," Prongs declared, standing in a rush as he slammed his hands down for a second time. Lily turned to him, shushing him loudly to try to calm him. Hermione stumbled onto her feet, and Sirius tried not to bump her bad arm in the process. He needed to take a look at it the moment they were alone.
Keeping one arm wrapped around her waist—the other gripping her good hand—he led her towards the exit.
"Want me to tell Professor Lungroot that you won't make it to First Period?" Remus shouted after him, leaning away from the bench to watch them walk towards the big double doors at the end of the Great Hall.
"Tell him whatever you want!" Sirius shouted back, aiming for nonchalance to draw as little attention as possible, but it didn't work. Hermione's gait was rubbery to point where he was all but dragging her, and people were staring. He pressed his lips shut and said nothing more until he finally got them out of the hall.
Sirius didn't really know where he was going with Hermione, except for away. Not to Madame Pomfrey's, that was for sure, but her shakes were so bad she definitely needed to lie down and take a breather. He had to stick her somewhere safe—a place that only he knew. If he hid her away, no one could hurt her; no one could bash her head in with a broomstick or shout unforgivables at her because they'd decided they were in a bad mood. Operation: Hide the Witch was in motion.
"Where to?" he said, continuing to keep his tone light—act normal, you fool, it helps when people act normal. He couldn't forget how she'd pushed his hand away from her face. Hermione wet her lips. She kept her eyes mostly closed and her gaze turned to the floor, her grip on his hand just a bit too desperate. Her fingers were thin.
"Moaning Myrtle," she mumbled. He didn't quite get it at first.
"What?" Sirius said, leaning in. A bed, probably. A bed in the attic, where she could sleep for the rest of the day and no one would look. He didn't really think she was up for climbing the stairs though, and what if she took it the wrong way when he showed her the chamber? He adored her to pieces, but he couldn't stand that.
"Moaning Myrtle," Hermione said again, a little bit louder. She coughed suddenly—a very light cough, but one that made her double over all the same. While Hermione lurched forward, her hand clapping to her mouth to contain the soft huff, Sirius struggled to keep his hold on her. It would have been easier to straight-up carry her, but they were already well on their way down the corridor.
Hermione drew her hand back, her sleepy eyes widening in horror. She tried to quickly wipe her palm across the front of her robe, but Sirius saw the red nonetheless.
Merlin, no. He tried not to think about the blood, but it was impossible.
"There's a first floor lavatory—the girl's," Hermione said breathlessly, still scrubbing her hand against her front. "A ghost is there. No one uses it. I just—I need to refresh myself. Wash my face."
"Alright," he said. Sirius couldn't keep the misery from his voice.
Hermione flinched, looking up at him for the first time since the table. Sirius blinked rapidly to stop himself from crying and looked straight ahead, following the witch's half-coherent instructions to the lavatory. His brain remained sluggish like taffy.
*slinks in like a dirty little thief with a cryptid update*