A/N: Huge thanks for the continued support, I love reading your reviews and feedback. That so many of you have stuck with this means the world to me. Since I can not respond directly, there have been several guest reviews lately that were concerned with the potential romantic direction I was taking things. I'm sorry some of you feel as if I've lead you on and baited you with one romance only to switch it out for another. I hope you continue on because even though we're nearing the climax and end (probably 7-ish more chapters) nothing is set in stone yet and this story isn't complete. I plotted this story in great detail nearly 5 years ago and to see the finish line approaching is exhilarating for me. If what you have read or will read upsets and disappoints you and you're unwilling to finish, then I respect that. But know that I have lots more planned and at this point, I can't reasonably change out major events to suit individual readers. I simply have too much writing already done on future chapters to drastically reshape things now. So I kindly ask you to stick with this a bit longer and reserve final judgment until it's complete. If, after it is complete, you still think it's terrible, I'm happy to hear that feedback and apologize for wasting your time. Until then, some things may happen that people don't like or agree with, but they fit into a larger plot framework, which I hope readers can, if not like, at least respect. I would hope that my writing style and plot thus far has been compelling enough to capture your attention, and I hope that's adequate enough of a reason to see this story to the end. Thanks again, as always, for the tremendous support. This story wouldn't have gotten this far without amazing, loyal readers like you.


"Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away."

⁃F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sirius held Hermione upright as they stepped out from the dingy pub into the warm, summer night. A mist now filled the air and gave the technicolor lights from the pier a softer, twinkling glow. Ducking around back of the pub and out of sight from the few tourists still wandering the street, he gently wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close.

"Hang on tight and just keep your head down," Sirius softly uttered, his hands resting against the curve of her back, his strong body molding protectively to hers.

Hermione gave a weary nod, clutching his waist with both hands as she buried her face into the crook of his neck, breathing in his deep, musky scent to try and stop her head from spinning as they apparated. The squeeze and rush of time and space felt interminable on her, her head and stomach swimming violently from all the whiskey. With a lurch, they rematerialized and landed across the street from Sirius' ancestral home, tumbling into a thorny bush. Groaning once more from the woozy landing, she looked up from the grass to feel fat water droplets hitting her square in the face. The rain had come. Growing more soaked by the second, the deluge momentarily snapped her out of her drunken stupor as Sirius pulled her up to her feet and together they rushed across the empty street as the front door magically appeared.

Soaked through to the bone, they entered the quiet, darkened front foyer to find a rather beautiful yet huffish-looking, young woman, standing at the bottom of the stairs with her thin arms crossed lightly at her chest.

"You're quite late, Mr. Black."

Sirius closed the heavy door and gave a sigh. "Ah, Claudia, uh, yeah...sorry. We, um…lost track of time," he replied, shooting Hermione a look of beleaguered anguish.

"Remus assured me you would be home to relieve me by ten," she noted with quite a bit of annoyance as she came to stand right before the pure blood. "It is now half-past eleven."

"Remus isn't home yet?" Sirius asked, looking around slightly confused at to why Remus hadn't beat them home by several hours.

"Clearly not, or I wouldn't be here," Claudia sharply replied.

Sirius' jaw tightened at this, his eyes flashing with barely-contained vitriol.

"Must've gotten our wires crossed," he evenly noted, "my mistake. Won't happen again," he deigned.

"See that it doesn't," she snapped as her eyes swept up and down Hermione with open curiosity. "I'm Claudia," she finally offered, extending a perfectly-manicured hand towards Hermione, "Teddy's new nanny. And you are?"

Hermione swallowed hard at the woman's appraising gaze. Tall and very trim, with shining, blonde tresses pulled up in a tight bun and cerulean-blue eyes, she held an air of immaculate elegance about her that made Hermione feel rather shabby by comparison. She wore a cream-colored, linen, pencil skirt, with a baby-blue cashmere sweater and knee-high suede boots. She looked as if she had just stepped off of the cover of a muggle fashion magazine rather than cared for an infant all day. Hermione felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment at her dripping-wet, tattered jeans, her filthy jumper and frizzy mane.

"I-I'm Hermione," she weakly offered, shaking Claudia's hand while also clinging desperately to the umbrella stand to keep herself upright.

"A pleasure, I'm sure," Claudia offered with a tight, condescending smile, withdrawing her hand quickly as if she had just touched something disgusting.

Brushing her hand lightly against her skirt and turning her attention back to Sirius, Claudia continued, "Teddy fell asleep around half-past eight. Should he awaken anytime during the night, do not go and comfort him."

The command and the stern manner in which she offered it immediately caught Sirius off-guard and his brow furrowed in confusion.

"Don't go and comfort him? What if he's wet or hungry?" he asked, his voice sharpening and his eyes narrowing.

"He's almost four months old, he should really be self-soothing by now," Claudia stated with immense exasperation.

"Self-soothing? What in the hell does that mean?" Sirius snapped, his temper suddenly rising.

"It's commonly known as the 'cry-it-out' method," Claudia replied with pursed lips.

A look of sheer disgust coupled with profound disbelief crossed his face.

"You want me to let my boy cry himself back to sleep when he needs me?" Sirius asked, now openly glaring at the woman.

"I informed Teddy's father," she offered pointedly, "of this method and he agreed that my approach would be best moving forward."

"Oh, did he now?" Sirius retorted, his voice dripping with venom.

"It really is best if you want him to learn healthy sleep habits," she countered.

Sirius gave a slow nod, his jaw screwed tight as a jar lid. Even in her drunken state, Hermione could tell he was trying desperately not to explode.

"You know... I really don't think your approach is best for our son," he said, his voice as sharp as a knife's edge, "so why don't you find another family to work for because you're fired."

Her thin lips curled into a dismissive sneer as she came to stand right before Sirius, her crystal-blue eyes cold and calculating.

"You didn't hire me and you don't have the authority to fire me," she challenged. "So if you'll excuse me, I would like to get home and get some rest so I can return bright and early tomorrow for Teddy."

Sirius' face was like thunder and this only caused the young blonde to smirk in response as she dipped down and collected her bag and trench coat from the umbrella stand, throwing a rather withering look at Hermione as she did so.

"See you in the morning then," Claudia offered with a tight smile as she left through the front door, slamming it shut for good measure.

Sirius glared at the door a long moment, his hand curling into a tight fist before swinging back with all his might and bringing that fist to blow against the wall, a small hole now appearing where previously there had been none.

"Unbelievable!" he shouted, his hand now bloody and scraped, his chest heaving and his body shaking.

His face contorted with fury and sorrow, he whirled around, looking for something, anything really, to further destroy. His eyes settled upon a grey, wingback chair that had been a gift to his mother from his great-aunt and he gratefully lunged for it, picking the upholstered monstrosity up and chucking it with all his might at the front door. Hermione gasped and stumbled back in surprise as the chair smashed against the heavy door and exploded into a shower of shattered wooden, torn linen and goose feathers.

His wrathful appetite still not quite satisfied, he looked around once again for more to break and that's when he finally caught sight of Hermione, staring at him, her eyes wide and her lips trembling ever so slightly.

The foreign look of fear shone in her eyes. Fear of him, to be precise. Like a vulnerable, frightened child, she stood well away from him, unsure of what he was capable of or what he might break next. It was this sad realization that finally stopped him like a cold, hard smack to the mouth.

His ire suddenly drained from him, like a vicious wind evaporating in the night sky as his heaving body finally slowed. His face reddened and his eyes glistened as he turned from her and stumbled to the stairs, falling into a heap on the bottom step.

"Fuck," he sighed angrily, gasping, tears suddenly filling his eyes. He bowed his head in shame and covered his hands over his face to avoid seeing that disappointment shine so clearly in her eyes, "I'm so fucking sorry."

Hermione slowly walked over and sat down beside him on the step, gently placing a warm hand across his back. She could feel his heart pounding like a snare drum as his body shook from the effort of it all.

"It's ok," she whispered, but he couldn't, or wouldn't, respond.

She glanced at his right hand, the knuckles bloody and raw, and she gave a soft sigh.

She pulled her wand from her sleeve and pointing at the skin, she murmured, "Curo...Clauro."

The broken skin resealed itself and the wizard beside her gave a small, reluctant nod.

"Thanks," he uttered softly, his head still hung and his eyes trained on the floor. She put her hand once more to his back and she could feel his heartbeat beginning to slow, the fight draining from his weary body.

She pulled him close, wrapping her small arms around him and kissed his temple, resting her head against his. She held him a long beat, stroking his hair and feeling his body finally lean into hers.

"I'm so sorry I scared you," he uttered dejectedly, his voice thick with emotion.

"You didn't."

"Yes, I did. I scare everyone with my temper. Usually scare them off for good. Don't know why you still stick around," he sadly admitted.

"You can't scare me off."

He sighed in her arms at this, not moving an inch.

"Besides, it's me who should be asking your forgiveness," she softly uttered.

"Whatever for?" he asked.

"For questioning you like I did this morning," she offered. "You were right to not like that wretched woman. She's an absolute bitch."

Sirius gave a small, reluctant chuckle at this as he pulled away slightly, straightened up and finally looked at Hermione, his own eyes red-rimmed and wet. She placed a warm hand on his cheek, her own heart clenching tight at the sight.

"Sometimes it feels impossible to just put one foot in front of the other," he admitted with a small, sad smile. "Feels like everything I touch just turns to shit."

"I know," she whispered tearfully, "I know."

He shook his head slightly, seemingly baffled at how hard life could be, as he glanced down the hallway at Teddy's closed door. No noise came from the small room, which was no doubt due to the muffling charm they always kept cast upon the hallway, but this did little to lessen his apparent anguish. A defeated sigh escaped his lips.

"C'mon," Hermione cajoled, "we need some sleep."

But as she tried to clumsily stand, she found her equilibrium absent and she wobbled before falling backwards and landing on her bottom.

"Here," Sirius gently offered as he stood in a single, fluid movement and tucked his strong hands beneath her arms and lifted her upright.

"Tell me," she asked, finally standing, "how is it I'm completely pissed but you seem perfectly sober?" she noted with immense confusion.

He smiled slightly, as he helped her up the steps, "Drink as long as I have and you get a bit more of a tolerance, love. These things don't affect you as much."

"Tolerance, you say? That sounds positively lovely," she said wistfully.

Her head swaying with each step, the flights seemingly endless, Hermione held on tight to him, and together they climbed the stairs in heavy silence.

~~~~000~~~~

The room felt warmer now, the fire roaring and the scotch flooding his veins. Severus was grateful for the warmth, for at the very least it was a distraction from the pain in his chest. A sharp, painful throbbing pounded hard against his ribs, reverberating through him like a hollow drum, without mercy or end. Usually alcohol numbed him completely, but not tonight. His heart, it still ached, and beat painfully against his ribs as a reminder that some things can't be swept aside or forgotten or ignored no matter how ardently we wish them away. But he was in no mood for a lesson tonight. He swallowed more scotch and rubbed hard at his chest, hoping to cease the blasted feeling but still the pounding persisted.

Narcissa, still perched on her end of the sofa, drink in hand, sat and watched him.

"Feeling a bit better now?" she asked.

"Yes," he lied, pointedly avoiding her gaze.

"You can't lie to me, Severus. I've known you too long," she noted. "Care to tell me what got you so worked up in the first place?"

"No, I don't."

"Wouldn't have anything to do with that Granger girl now would it?"

His jaw clenched tight and she gave a small smirk, knowing she had hit upon the exact reason for his foul mood.

"I see," she uttered, setting her drink down and eyeing him with a mixture of pity and understanding, "A bit of a lovers' tiff."

"We are not romantically involved, Narcissa," he angrily bit out.

Narcissa merely snorted at this.

"Severus, you're as subtle as a stampeding hippogriff. You care for the girl, don't you? You wouldn't have done this much damage if you didn't," she wryly noted.

"I will not repeat myself, so listen carefully," he retorted, finally looking her in the eye, "I do not now nor will I ever fancy that woman, do you hear me? I would never do something so foolish," he spat.

Narcissa met his gaze evenly, not the least but impressed or intimidated by his theatrics.

"Well, that's good," she finally said, "wouldn't want you pining away for another muggle-born, Gryffindor. We all know how that ends," she offered blithely as she polished off yet another glass.

His gut clenched tight as a vice at her words but he tried hard not to show it.

If he had any energy left in him at all, he would have thrown her out. But he was tired. Tired of fighting, of pretending, of living this shitty, lonely existence full of tediums and demands and so very empty of real joy. So he bit his tongue, swallowed his scotch and sunk deeper into the abyss of his own making, for there wasn't anything else left to do but suffer the consequences of his own making.

She sat forward and poured the very last of the scotch into their glasses and set the empty bottle down with a thud. She drained it yet again, abandoned her tumbler and stood from the sofa. Stepping gingerly over the shattered glass and ruined papers, she slowly approached his half-filled bookshelves.

"Not one for knickknacks," she noted with little surprise, as her eyes glided down the shelves, noting the many tomes but few personal items.

She smiled slightly as she walked the length of the wall and came across a framed picture of Severus as a young man, dressed in black, formal robes. She picked the frame up and noted he was frowning.

"Do you ever smile?" she asked in a gentle, teasing tone, eyeing him with a small smile.

"Not often, no," he admitted, draining the last of his scotch.

"Well, you look quite dapper here. When was this taken?" she asked, her voice now tender.

"My fifth-year ball, I believe. Minerva gave me that picture."

She gently returned the photo to its perch and caught sight of an old, magical radio, set atop the highest shelf. She reached up on tippy toes and brought it down.

"This thing work?" she asked, setting it down to examine it.

"Don't know. I've never turned it on," he replied. It had been a Christmas present from Albus years ago.

"I think a bit of music might do your soul some good, young man," he had cheerfully inscribed on a garishly-decorated, holiday card.

Snape had scoffed at the old man's mawkishness and had intended to chuck the blasted gift into the nearest bin but for some reason never found the nerve to. And so it had sat upon the highest shelf, untouched. Looking at it now, gleaming in the firelight, he idly wondered why it wasn't covered in dust and then he remembered. Hermione had unpacked all his things when she had set his rooms up.

She must've dusted it, he thought with a heavy sigh. His heart thudded powerfully against his ribs, so hard he could barely breathe. How he wished he had more scotch.

Narcissa pulled at the various knobs with a concentrated look upon her face until finally a soft tune began to play. She smiled yet again as she looked over her shoulder at Severus. She walked back to the sofa and held out a single hand, "Come, dance with me."

Severus looked up at her incredulously. Even through the thickening fog of an alcohol-induced haze, the idea sounded downright preposterous. "No, thank you," he scoffed.

"Got something better to do?" she challenged.

"Yes, wallow in self-pity."

"I'd say we've both done enough of that for one lifetime, wouldn't you?" she noted, her graceful hand still extended.

His heart still pounded and he hated it. He wanted to feel nothing at all. Or at the very least something different. So he reluctantly took her hand and let her pull him upright, hoping the music and the company could distract him from his wretched heart and all of the impossible things it seemed to yearn for.

~~~~000~~~~

Reaching her room on the third floor, Sirius opened the door with one hand and held onto Hermione with the other. He walked her to her freshly-made bed and gently set her down. Sinking into the downy-soft comforter, she let her body go slack as she flopped gracelessly on her back. It felt heavenly to finally be lying down, her exhaustion settling atop her like a stone weight. She rolled onto her stomach and drew a deep breath, the rest she yearned for swiftly drifting across her. But as her eyes closed she noticed it.

The scent of lemon, ink and juniper.

Severus

Her clothes still smelled of him, she now realized, and being in the small room only heightened and concentrated it. Her stomach dropped violently at the thought of smelling him all night. No, what little tolerance she did possess was long gone, this was a pain she could not bear.

She rolled onto her back, trying to catch a cleansing breath, but still it lingered.

"I...I think I need...a shower and some clean clothes," she breathed as she struggled to sit upright.

"Of course, love," Sirius tenderly replied, as he disappeared into her adjoining bath and turned the tap on full blast to heat up. He ducked out of her bedroom door and returned a few minutes later holding a stack of clothes.

"Don't think you left any cloths here, you can use mine," he said as he dropped the pile onto the bed and smiled gently at her. "The shower should be ready," he noted as he sat down beside her and noted her drawn face. "You alright? You need some help?"

"Yeah," she sighed, her eyes closed as the wooziness took hold, "my shoes, are giving me trouble tonight."

He slipped from the bed and knelt before her, carefully untying them, his usual nimble fingers fumbling slightly with the long, muggle laces.

She smiled down at him. The whiskey flowing through her made everything more difficult it seemed and fuzzy around the edges as if she were floating. As he untied her trainers and pulled off each shoe, she tried twice to get her arm up and out of her jumper but she couldn't seem to accomplish the simple task.

"Can you...help me?" she asked with hooded eyes.

He straightened up, scooting forward to come right between her legs and he carefully slipped his hands beneath her jumper. He slowly pulled it up and over her head before realizing he had also took hold of her thin t-shirt, and as he pulled the garments free of her curls she now sat in only her pale blue bra and jeans.

"Oh, shit, I'm sorry!" he gasped, handing the rumpled shirt and jumper back to her to cover herself while he looked away blushing.

She had never once seen him blush before and the thought of her body eliciting such a reaction amused her.

"It's alright," she chuckled, tossing the shirt and jumper towards a corner and sitting before him, without shame. "Not like you haven't seen a woman in a bra before," she mused, smiling gently at him, reaching forward to tenderly cup his scruffy cheek.

For some reason she couldn't pin down, she felt at ease before him, not the least bit embarrassed or awkward.

Must be the whiskey, she thought.

Still kneeling between her legs, he finally looked up at her and when he did she found his dark, mahogany eyes glittering and the intensity of his gaze sent a sharp snap of desire right to her core with such a surprising intensity she nearly gasped from the shock of it.

"It's been a while," he admitted, his lips quirking up ever so slightly and his voice suddenly deeper, softer.

She watched in silence as his eyes began to drift down her body, her skin suddenly warming under his gaze, but before they could travel very far, he stopped, swallowed and looked away.

"Let's get you in that shower," he offered lightly, quickly standing.

He hooked an arm around her, his hand holding onto her jeans rather than clutch at her bare skin, and helped walk her to the bathroom, gently setting her down upon the tub's edge.

"Thank you," she uttered as he stepped back to leave.

"Of course," he bashfully replied, his cheeks still stained a bit red.

"Can you stay...until I'm done? I'm not feeling all that well," she noted.

"Of course...I'll be right out here if you need me."

He left and shut the door. She felt woozy as she slowly stood, but just managed to pull her jeans off without falling over. She kicked them into the corner along with her bra and panties. Stepping under the powerful blast of the hot water, she let out a deep sigh. She let the water pound against her, rinsing her body, but the memories couldn't be washed away so easily.

The feeling of his gaze upon her when they were alone.

The touch of his hand against her skin.

That moment her magic flowed across them like water.

The hatred in his eyes.

It all lingered right beneath her skin, like a fever burning her up from within.

She grabbed the bar of soap and she scrubbed and scrubbed until her skin was positively raw. His scent was soon washed away, the last remaining part of him she had, and she wasn't sure if she was happy about it. The water was beginning to have a restorative effect upon her, renewing her whiskey-addled brain, ever so slightly, as her equilibrium slowly returned. But as the booze wore off, the heartache she had been pushing down for hours returned with a vengeance and the tears came, sharp and sudden, and she wondered how in the hell she'd ever learn to live with this ache.

~~~~000~~~~

Holding his hand, Narcissa brandished her wand and magically swept away the broken glass and torn books from the living room rug, allowing the pair some small space to dance. Pocketing her wand, she smiled gently at Severus as she slipped her hand around his shoulder, clasped his free hand and pulled him close, their bodies touching ever so slightly as Severus' hand rested against her waist. Slowly they began to move to the music.

She smiled as she looked down at his feet and gave a small laugh, "Look at you, still remember the lesson I gave you."

He gave a small nod, his feet moving of their own accord without any thought at all. It was true, Narcissa had been the one to teach him how to dance. He was but sixteen, and she only twenty-one.

It had been the winter gala at the Malfoy Manner and it was the very first time Severus had been invited to the stately home as Lucius courted the young man in earnest to join their ranks. Every witch and wizard of importance in Britain was there and Severus could remember how terrified he was, walking into their grand foyer in his shabby, dress robes and being formally introduced to Narcissa. He had seen her at school but being five years her junior, he had never really had the chance to socialize with her. Meeting her now in her opulent home, clad in elegant, silver robes that cost more than his parents' home and surrounded by the wizarding world's most rich and powerful families, he remembered being near a full-blown panic attack at the rather illustrious surroundings he suddenly found himself in. But sensing his nerves, Narcissa stepped forward and gently took his hand and said kindly, "You must be Severus, Lucius has told me so much about you. You've an exceptional aptitude for potions, as I understand it."

And with that, she slipped her arm into his and whisked him off, entertaining him all evening, asking him questions about his studies and rescuing him from several painful conversations. She put him at ease, making him feel not only tolerated but genuinely welcome, plying him with not only his first taste of champagne but also his first taste of feeling wanted. He remembered being struck by her graciousness and wit, not to mention her considerable beauty. Gliding from guest to guest, equally charming and demure, entertaining well over two hundred strangers, all the while looking completely at ease. She was, simply put, mesmerizing to behold.

When the time came to dance, and gentlemen across the crowded ballroom lead their dates to the polished floor, Narcissa appeared by Severus' side and asked, "Might I have this dance?"

Severus' face turned beet-red at the question and he shook his head. "I-I don't know how to dance," he shamefully admitted, feeling so very out of place.

But Narcissa merely smiled and gently took hold of his pale hand, whispering into his ear, "Trust me, it's easier than it seems."

He wanted more than anything to disappear but he let her lead him onto the crowded floor instead. She smiled as she gently guided his hand to her waist, "Just hold on here, and take my hand, and follow me."

And true to her word, she slowly and carefully taught him, patiently pulling him this way and that, offering him encouragement each time he misstepped and smiling brightly each time he improved. After a handful of songs, he was waltzing and twirling his partner with a good bit of confidence.

"You see? I told you it was easy," she smiled as she offered him a small peck on his flushed cheek and joined Lucius at the front of the ballroom to greet the owner of Gringotts.

He found himself smiling at the memory.

"I stepped on your toes, twice I believe," he offered, his body still swaying to the soft tune.

She laughed and bowed her head, resting it against his chest. "No, you weren't that bad."

"No, indeed I was worse. But you insisted on teaching me, said it was a 'necessity of life for a young man to know how to properly dance with a lady'."

"Well...I wasn't wrong. It's a good skill to have, and look at you now. You dance wonderfully," she softly praised, the glow from the fire dancing in her clear, blue eyes.

"Thanks to you," he noted with sincerity.

"Oh, I did nothing. You would've learned somehow I'm sure," she demurred.

"You were always kind to me, not many were and I always appreciated your gestures. Even if it was just courtesy on behalf of your husband," he noted a bit sadly.

"I hope you know, it was more than that Severus," she countered. "I've always been fond of you. So smart, quiet, brooding...it's always been a good look on you," she murmured, causing him to blush ever so slightly. "And you were always kind to me, as well. I didn't understand just how important that is in a man, kindness and consideration...loyalty. So very important," she uttered.

"Sometimes I wondered what life would be like now, if I had been a bit younger, if we had been friends at school. Maybe everything could be completely different," she offered with a sad smile.

"You never could have associated with me. You came from the finest of families and I was trash," he softly uttered, looking away.

"You were never trash, Severus," she countered, cupping his cheek to catch his gaze once more, "never. You're one of the very best men I have ever had the privilege of knowing. If it weren't for you, your bravery, I don't know what would've become of my sweet Draco or me for that matter..." she murmured, her eyes growing misty as she laid a gentle hand to his chest, her head bowing against him.

He sighed, gently resting his weary head atop hers.

"I worry about you, you know," she whispered, her voice growing softer, tender even.

"I know, but you needn't. I'm fine," he lied.

She frowned at this, lifting her head to look at him. "What are you going to do with yourself?"

"Stay here, like I always do. Not like I have many other options," he answered simply.

Her eyes held his, sorrow lacing the edges as she sadly shook her head at her old friend.

"This castle is coming apart at the seams, Severus."

"I made a promise to stay and fix it," he countered.

"To the girl you don't love?" she softly asked.

His feet slowed then and he swallowed, looking away, too ashamed to hold her gaze.

"You don't owe her or Minerva anything," she adamantly declared. "You've given your whole life away and for what? What has anyone ever done for you? You need to finally do exactly what you want, Severus. Make yourself happy for a change."

"What if I don't know how? To be happy, that is," he asked.

"Maybe let me show you. It's easier than it seems."

He nodded because in truth he didn't know what to do anymore. She began to slowly sway against him and once more, he followed along.

~~~~000~~~~

Shutting off the tap and hauling her body from the shower, Hermione grabbed a soft, thick towel and held it to her face a long beat, willing the tidal wave of grief away. Only when she could breathe again did she lift her weary head and wrap the towel around herself, sitting down heavily upon the tub's edge, exhausted. She saw Sirius' clothes perched atop the sink and gratefully reached for them. An old t-shirt and soft, red, flannel pajama pants. Bringing them to her face, she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.

Orange, spices and the scent of his cologne lingered there.

Clean, warm, rich, inviting, but most importantly, completely different from the man she was trying desperately to forget.

She slowly toweled off and pulled the soft garments on, the sensation of his clothes against her bare skin so very soothing.

She opened the bathroom door to find Sirius laying down on the bed, looking out the window and deep in thought. He turned his head to see her, his eyes now unabashedly drifting down her body slowly. After a long beat he looked up, caught her gaze and smiled.

"That shirt looks good on you, kitten," he softly uttered, his voice deep yet gentle.

She gave a small smile as she walked to the bed, suddenly aware of his eyes upon her and her very full breasts bouncing slightly under the thin t-shirt. She climbed into the downy-soft bed and laid down beside him. She slipped her hand into his, their fingers effortlessly threading together.

"Thanks for lending it to me...and for staying."

He offered a nod and began to stand up. "Get some good sleep. We'll all feel better in the morning."

But as he made to depart, the thought of being completely alone suddenly felt too great a burden to bear.

"Wait," she offered, reaching out for his hand again. He stopped and looked at her, his face now cloaked in soft shadows. "Do you have to go?"

He seemed to hesitate at the request and she released his hand.

"It's alright, you should get going. I've ruined your night as it is," she guiltily noted.

But he only shook his head and gave her a warm smile, "You didn't ruin anything. Most fun I've had in ages," he teased as he kicked off his boots and shucked off his leather jacket, the sight of him stripping away his coat an oddly pleasurable thing to watch.

"I'm happy to stay," he noted with sincerity as he laid down once more, now clad in only a gray t-shirt and dark slacks.

"You're sure you don't mind? I don't want to keep you," she noted with worry. "I know you've got to listen for Teddy," she said, knowing damn well that he'd sooner swallow his own tongue than knowingly let his boy suffer.

"Yeah," he bitterly chuckled. "Despite what Mary Poppins ordered earlier," he scoffed, "I cast a listening charm on his room, so I'll hear him if he wakes up. Besides, Remus will be home soon and my services are clearly not preferred. So," he noted, recovering his usual, easy smile, "you've got me all night, if you wish. I've got nowhere to be but right here with you."

~~~~000~~~~

Narcissa was closer to him now, her body molded to his, as they slowly swayed to the music. The longer she held him, and the longer the melancholy tune played, the fainter the pounding in his chest grew, almost to the point he could no longer feel it.

Her long, lithe body clutching his felt, if not right, at least comfortable, soothing. For that's what Narcissa was: a comfort, a person who had known him since he was young, knew all his faults and failures, had seen him at his lowest and still deigned to befriend him.

She wasn't some young, pure soul but rather a grown woman, just as damaged and broken and hardened as he was. An equal in so many ways.

But as Severus glanced down he didn't see the broken woman full of pain and regret, instead he saw the young, gracious woman who taught him to waltz and who never expected perfection from him.

She smiled up at him, her hand cupping his cheek once more.

"There's nothing here for you now. This place is dying, Severus, but you're still very much alive. Don't die with it. Find some joy and hold on to it."

"But how?" he asked, his voice deep and pleading.

"I can help you start over, find some peace," she offered simply, as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

Looking into her delicate, blue eyes, her promises of joy and ease seemed so very tempting. The pounding slowed to a soft, distant thump.

"Come with Draco and I, leave this horrid place," she finally said, sincerity and concern clear upon her face.

"Come with you?" he asked disbelieving.

She nodded, holding him tight.

"You deserve some happiness, Severus...more than anyone I've ever known. But you'll never find it if you keep chasing these silly, young girls, they'll only break your heart," she declared with such authority that he couldn't help but silently agree.

"Did it ever cross your mind, that maybe...just maybe... I'm the one who could make you happy?" she asked.

His heart and head ached far too much to argue. Perhaps she was right, maybe it was time to stick with his own kind and stop longing for a woman far too different from him.

Forget her. Forget her. It's the only way.

She leaned forward, her eyes molten and warm and as she pressed her thin lips to his, he closed his eyes and simply let her.

She pulled back slightly and looked at him. His eyes still closed, he simply gave a small nod, relenting. She smiled, diving in once more, her long elegant fingers splayed against his chest, her body curling into his as she passionately claimed his lips.

~~~~000~~~~

Like magnets, the pair scooted closer to one another, with Sirius wrapping an arm around Hermione, bringing her warm body to rest nestled close to his, her breasts pressed against his side, her legs draped across his. She let out a deep sigh of relief as their bodies settled as one. It felt so comforting to not only be with him, but to know he actually wanted to stay with her. To be wanted was a foreign feeling for her as of late, one that felt too lovely to willingly give up.

She laid there a long time, perfectly still, her head resting on his shoulder, her hand draped across his firm chest, as he gently stroked her hair. She stared out at the heavy moon, its soft, pale light casting the room in a cascade of grey shadows.

"How come no one ever told me being an adult would be so hard?" she finally asked.

He laughed softly, his other arm encircling her, rubbing soft, slow circles across her bare skin.

"One of those tricky little secrets of growing up, I suppose," he answered. "I think if we knew in advance how shit it was going to be, we'd insist on staying young forever."

She smiled, feeling her body relax into his, the gentle beating of his heart a soothing rhythm.

"We should get some sleep," she softly murmured, secretly loving how tightly he held her, how her body felt against his.

"Yeah...we should," he agreed, letting out a deep sigh. "Feel like I haven't really slept in ages. I lie there and I'm bone-tired, my eyes sting and I want to sleep, so desperately...but it just doesn't come. I just lie there, thinking."

"About?" she asked.

"Everything. Harry, Remus, Teddy, you. Worry about you all. Sometimes... I think about prison. When I'm just about to doze off, I think I'm back there...in Azkaban. My warm bed disappears and I swear I can feel the cold, wet stone pressing against me, the roar of the ocean pounding against the wall. I feel so weak and powerless and...afraid. Have to open my eyes to make sure it's not real...not anymore at least."

She pulled him even closer, tears prickling her eyes once more.

"Sometimes I think of James and Lily, what they'd be like if they were still here, how different everything could've been. How much we've all lost."

"You more than anyone," she uttered, clutching him.

The very thought of him suffering seemed to rip open a wound deep within and soon she found her throat stinging with pent-up, raw emotion.

"I'm so sorry. I'm sorry for everything," she croaked, her eyes filling suddenly with tears.

"You've got nothing to apologize for," he replied.

"Yes, I do. I've been utterly horrible tonight, completely selfish and rude. Please forgive me," she whispered, her whole face crumpling, the tears coming hot and fast.

"Oh, love, you're fine," he hushed. "Please don't cry, not for me," he softly begged, his hands threading in her curls, his lips brushing against her ear, clutching her tight, "you didn't do anything wrong."

"I did," she admitted, the tears streaming down her face, "the way I spoke to you...insulted you like I did. Remus and Teddy depend upon you tremendously and I had no right saying otherwise. I'm terribly sorry."

"It's ok," he consoled.

"No, it's not. You deserve better than that," she said adamantly.

"I forgive you," he finally said, pulling back to look her square in the eye. "There's nothing you could ever do to me to make me stop loving you. You hear me? You'll always be my sweet girl...always."

He pulled her in once more, placing a tender kiss on her forehead, his lips lingering there as she bowed her head and clutched at him with both hands.

She didn't deserve him. Unlike everyone else in her life, he hadn't abandoned her. He loved her and valued her and didn't dismiss her for being human.

She lifted her head, and tenderly put her hand to his face. She could hardly breathe just looking at him. His kind, warm eyes, his gentle smile, the way his hands clutched at her so fiercely. He was perfect, in his own way. And staring at him now, she found that powerful stirring, deep in her belly, blossom once more and this time she knew it wasn't the whiskey.

Her eyes dipped to his lips; red, full, wanting. She tilted her head forward and without another thought, she carefully put her lips to his, hardly moving at all, just offering the simplest of kisses.

Neither his hands nor his lips moved an inch, but neither did he pull away. She pulled back slightly, staring up at him, her eyes full of doubt.

"We shouldn't do this," he finally uttered, his eyes shining with want as his hands lingered upon her bare skin.

"Why not?" she whispered against his lips. "Give me one good reason."

He sighed, his fingers brushing a curl behind her ear, his eyes glittering and his pulse quickening beneath her palm.

"I'm plum out of good reasons," he gently confessed, his soft fingertips slowly tracing down her jaw, causing a shiver of aching want and need to thrum through her desperate body.

She tilted her mouth forward, her eyes never leaving his, and he met her the rest of the way, gently bringing his lips to hers.

His tasted divine, like whiskey and honey and as the rush of warmth enveloped her body, goosebumps springing forth across every inch of her skin, her mind and heart finally, mercifully, quieted for the very first time that night.

A/N: Extraordinarily cliffy, my apologies. The chapter simply grew too big and a split was in order. Good news: next chapter is mostly finished and should be up this week. Thanks again for reading & take care.