Chapter Two

Hermione frowned, looking over the calculations she had made. A near-week had passed since that disastrous Christmas party, and she still could not shake the memories of it. Or the unpleasant twisting the anger in Remus' face as he'd pushed her away set off in the pit of her stomach.

This was all only made worse by the specifics of the charm she'd been contracted by the Ministry to craft. Hush-hush until she was certain it would work.

Exhaling sharply through her nostrils, she shook her head. At least now she had clear evidence that he didn't want to be anywhere near her, and Harry would stop dragging her to social functions he was attending.

The writing before her was blurring together in her exhausted attempt to focus. It was too quiet in her flat, causing her mind to keep drifting back to it.

Why couldn't she just . . . why couldn't she just hate him the way he hated her?

It was New Years Eve, and here she was sitting at home, deliberately missing a party at the Parkinson Estate, because there was a chance he might be there. This. Was. Ridiculous. She needed noise and sound and people, but she also needed to be ruddy hell left alone to work.

Nodding to herself, she gathered up her scrolls, quill and ink, and her research materials. The unhappy witch bundled the items into her bag and made her way to her door.

She didn't start to relax, by even a hair's breadth, until she was settled in a back booth at the Leaky Cauldron. Her work spread out before her and a pitcher of pumpkin ale on the table, she let the noise and chaos of the atmosphere distract her from herself.

Sipping the admittedly strong brew, she got to work.

And that was precisely where Sirius found her an hour later. He hid a snicker as he observed the adorable way she chewed at her lower lip while she concentrated.

Oh, sweet little Hermione Granger. He thought Remus was a mad man for being so upset with him over helping orchestrate what the daft werewolf had since dubbed The Mistletoe Fiasco.

"Is this seat taken?"

Hermione jumped at the familiar voice. She couldn't help but smile as she looked up, though. Sirius Black was most certainly a sight well worth smiling at.

"Of course, not!" Though, as she watched him slide into the booth, she gave a sideways nod. "Well, I mean, it would be if it weren't you, but you are you, so it's not . . . . Of course."

His brows had crept upward as she babbled on. She seemed to notice, as well, her chestnut eyes growing wider by increments as the words tumbled from her lips.

He laughed, checking the pitcher to find it empty. "Well, that explains that."

Setting down her quill, she raked her fingers through her wild hair. She'd not even realized she'd polished off the ale. "Oh, wow. Yes, I think I'm a little drunk, and I'm sorry."

Shaking his head, he laughed, again. "A little, she says. Okay, I think you should pack this up and we'll go for a walk. You could use the fresh air."

Frowning, she checked the time. "But it's eleven forty-five now; we'll miss the toast."

Sirius got right back out of the booth and held a hand out to her. "It'll totally defeat the purpose, but we'll get bottle of champagne from the bar to go and wherever we are in fifteen minutes, we'll split a few sips, okay?"

With a heavy sigh, she looked over her notes. She'd made a surprising amount of progress, given her giddy level of inebriation. There didn't seem any reason she couldn't take a break now.

After stowing her things away in her bag, she slipped her hand into his and let him pull her from the booth.

"Me and Lily and James?" He barked out a laugh at the question she'd only been able to ask because of all that alcohol. "No! What gave you lot that idea?"

Snickering, Hermione shrugged as he handed her the champagne bottle they might've started sipping as soon as they'd stepped out of the Leaky Cauldron. "You three are sort of . . . blushingly close."

"My dear young lady, I'll have you know I'm blushingly close with most people I call my friends."

"Well, I suppose there's some comfort in that." Though, she wasn't certain if he meant he was generally free with physical signs of affection, or if he wanted to shag all his friends. However, since he didn't really have a reputation for bed-hopping, she'd have to go with the former. Then she lifted the bottle for a sip and was unpleasantly surprised.

"Sirius Black, would you look what you've done!" She demanded as they halted beneath a streetlamp.

His jet brows arched upward as he met her gaze. The faintest wisp of a grin curved his lips, but the hazy gleam in his blue-grey eyes was mirthful. "Oh, that tone would be frightening if you could walk a straight line right now! What have I done?"

Frowning, though it took more effort to hold the displeased expression than would've been the case in anyone else's presence, she held up the champagne bottle by it's neck. The now-empty champagne bottle.

"You finished it, and just before midnight, too!"

"Oh." Pursing his lips, he tapped his finger against his bearded chin. "I was . . . I was just trying to catch up to you, Little Love."

Hermione uttered a scoffing noise in the back of her throat, though it was always difficult for her to be cross with Sirius, as she always struggled with a fair amount of trying not to smile just being around him. Why couldn't she and Remus be this way?

Looking up into Sirius' beautiful eyes, always so full of the strangest blend of whimsy, flirtation, and wisdom—and now, of course, with a dash of intoxication thrown in—she wondered if, perhaps, it might be time to forget this ill-fated fascination with the werewolf. If she could let herself feel so fascinated with someone else . . . .

Of course, for all his seeming flirtatiousness, even inebriated she was cognizant that he probably still saw her as a child. His godson's best friend, the man before her was probably only being playful, the way he was with everyone else, when he showed that type of interest in her.

She let her arm drop to her side, turning around to look for someplace to dispose of it. "We were supposed to sip it at midnight, which is about to strike, by the way." Ducking a step away, she put the bottle into a bin and backpedaled to stand before him beneath the glow of the streetlamp, once more. "What are we going to do to ring in the New Year, now?"

Shoving his fists into his pockets, the wizard shrugged. Though he allowed his gaze to rove the night sky as he thought, when he returned his attention to her face, his expression was somewhat sheepish—how very un-Sirius of him.

She couldn't help cracking a curious half-smile. "What?"

His brows drew upward as he gave another shrug. "Some people kiss when the clock strikes twelve."

The witch felt a single, sharp breath rattle out of her. Her mouth dropped open in a small, perfect O of shock and her eyes widened a little. She was fairly certain the sudden bloom of warmth in her cheeks had little with the alcohol in her system.

So . . . perhaps he didn't still see her as a child, after all?

"You . . . ." Her eyebrows pinched together and she wasn't sure how she was managing to get the words out. "You want to kiss me?"

Sirius let out a quiet, airy chuckle. In the worst way, Little Love. "It's bad luck to not do something to ring in the New Year, Hermione. There's only two ways I know people traditionally do that, and we're out of alcohol. Well, untrue, I know three ways people might ring in the New Year, but that third one I'm rather sure we'd get in trouble for, given that we're out in public."

She choked out a scandalized gasp. Slapping his shoulder, she couldn't help but giggle. "Sirius Black, you are simply terrible."

He nodded, grinning broadly. "Oh, don't I know it?" He took both of Hermione's hands in each of his. "So, what do you say? It's nearly time."

Trying to quell a sudden giddy rippling in the pit of her stomach, she forced herself to exhale as she looked down at his fingers clasped around hers. Returning her gaze to his, she nodded. "Okay, have it your way."

"Oh!" Again, he chuckled. "You make it sound like some sort of sentence!"

A chiming rang through Diagon Alley, then, counting down the last ten seconds of the year. She didn't realize how much she was both dreading and looking forward to the clock striking twelve until she and Sirius started counting down aloud. Their voices mingling as their gazes remained locked, she thought she must be imagining that blush in his cheeks could have anything to do with the thought of kissing her.

Forcing herself to write it off as a result of the bottle of champagne he'd finished off nearly singlehandedly, she focused on the countdown.

"Five, four, three, two . . . one."

She thought she might also be imagining the gulp he forced down his throat, and the heartbeat of hesitation on both their parts. Just as much as she must be imagining that he gave himself a shake before slipping his hand around the back of her neck and pulling her close.

His lips brushed over hers in a chaste wandering, but the sensation was warm, and faintly electric in the way that it seemed to send sweet little sparks coursing through her. She was vaguely aware of leaning into him ever so slightly as she pressed her mouth just a bit tighter to his and circled his wrist with her fingers.

Such a simple kiss . . . . So then why were they both short of breath when they pulled back enough to look at one another?

After a dazed moment, he said, "Happy New Year, Hermione."

She swallowed hard, nodding in his grasp. "Happy New Year, Sirius."

Forever, and not a single second, at all, passed as they stared at one another. The witch wasn't certain if it was the alcohol, or the immediate, inexplicable warmth in the air around them, or even the way she was so strangely aware that he was forcing himself not to drop his gaze to trace over her mouth, but somehow, she found herself leaning into him, once more.

He hadn't expected how warm and perfect her lips would feel against his. He hadn't expected the sensation of her breath against his skin would cause his heart to skip a beat, or sharp warmth to thunder in his pulse.

Even less so, had he expected her to be the one to close the distance between them for a second kiss.

His fingers tangled into a fist in her hair, holding her tight to him as he parted her lips with his tongue to dart between them. At how eagerly she kissed him back—standing on her toes to get closer to him, still, and gripping her hands into the fabric of his robes—he felt another spike of warmth course though him.

She made the most delicious little pleading sound in the back of her throat as she stroked his plunging tongue with her own. Her fingers pulled and plucked at the cloth beneath them, as though she couldn't quite get close enough to him, despite how they were pressed together.

At last, they broke apart for the second time, each gasping for breath.

Licking his lips, he untangled his fingers to slide his palm forward, along the edge of her jaw. He watched the movement of his thumb as he dragged the tip of it across her mouth in a delicate sweep.

Swallowing hard, he finally forced out the words amid rushing breaths, "That was surprising."

Nodding, she could only blink up at him as she tried to find her voice. "I'll—I'll say."

Sirius held her gaze for a few stammering heartbeats more before he said, "What do we do, now?"

She stared up at him, still, as though she hadn't understood a word he'd just spoken. But of course, she had. What had just happened echoed her own thoughts, hadn't it? Her wondering if she couldn't put her hopes into someone else, since her feelings for Remus would never be returned.

She wanted, desperately, to be fascinated with someone, and Sirius Black was certainly worthy of fascination. And, she might be overstepping, but from the way he was gazing down at her, continuing to hold her tight against him, she dared to think he might be able to find himself fascinated with her, as well.

In this particular moment, staring up into his beautiful eyes as they caught their breath beneath the light of the streetlamp . . . . As she recalled the tickling scratch of his facial hair against her skin when they'd been snogged only heated seconds ago, and still clung to one another . . . .

It was not so far-fetched at all. Whatever she might feel toward Sirius was not a counterpoint to Remus inadvertently spurning her. She didn't like Sirius because Remus hated her. Watching him blink, watching the color in his face change as his cheeks flushed, she knew perfectly well what she felt toward Sirius was a separate entity.

She nodded to herself. Okay . . . okay. If she'd just lost herself in snogging Sirius as a byproduct of his friend's hatred of her, she would let this end here. But now she knew that wasn't so. Accepting that Remus hated her simply gave her the freedom to see Sirius in a new light.

"What now?" she echoed his question, just as uncertain of that answer as he was. "I . . . I don't know. A . . . a date? Maybe?"

"Well, now, Little Love, if you're going to ask me on a date, you're going to have to be a tad more sure of yourself than that."

"Oh." She'd walked right into that, hadn't she? "I don't know if it would be the best idea either of us have had. But, if you're willing to give it a try, than I suppose—"

Sirius captured her mouth with his own, pulling her into another breathless, steamy few minutes of trying to get closer to one another as he snogged her senseless.

As before, they clung to each other as they broke apart, catching their breath in huge, ragged gulps of air.

"So, Sirius," she said around rapid inhalations, "a date?"

Smirking even as he was dragging in breaths, he nodded. "Dinner Friday, and then . . . ."

Her brows shot up. "And then?"

He shrugged. "And then, I suppose we'll see where the night takes us. As for now, since we're both inebriated, I'm thinking I should walk you home, but nothing more tonight. I'll let us both keep our dignity a few more days."

She giggled, her breathing finally steadied. "Okay."

Finally relinquishing his hold on her, he stepped back. Slipping his hand into hers, he tugged her to walk along beside him.

As they neared the wall that would admit them into the Leaky Cauldron so he might escort her back to her flat in the Muggle side of London, they both looked up from their clasped hands and stopped short. There stood Remus, appearing to just be stepping through the secret entryway, but there was no true measure of how long he'd been there.

He gaped at them, the color drained from his face and his leaf-green eyes enormous.

Then, just as fast, his cheeks filled with an angry flush and his eyes narrowed. The werewolf gritted his teeth, exhaling sharply through his nostrils before he whirled on his heel. He was gone sooner than either of them could say anything.

Hermione shook her head, feeling her throat tighten painfully.

"I'm sorry. I really don't know what's gotten into him, lately."

"It's hardly your fault. He hates me, didn't you know? Obviously he'd be angry with the idea of me dating his best friend."

"Oh," Sirius said, uttering a sympathetic chuckle as he pulled her close. He dropped a kiss against her forehead. "I'll talk to him, get him to see reason."

"You think that's possible?"

He shrugged. "Of course. He hated me at first, too, you know. It'll be fine."

She forced a grin. She knew he was lying to settle her nerves—he and Remus had been friends since the moment they'd met—but if he thought he could get Remus to at least be a little less venomous toward her, she supposed that was a start.

Still she had to force away a bizarre little stab of guilt she felt as she wondered just how much Remus had seen.

Sirius tossed and turned later that night. Home, alone in his bed in the too-quiet house at 12 Grimmauld Place, he could not put the encounter out of his head.

He didn't feel remorseful for what had happened with Hermione. They were both adults, both currently free, so to speak. Remus couldn't stand her, so there was bound to be some ruffled feathers about his dating her, but no. This was something beyond that.

When he'd seen that look on his best friend's face, followed by that flash of anger . . . . He'd wanted to go after him. He'd been the gentleman and seen Hermione to her door, but his drive to soothe Remus' agitation had been at war with his desire to be around her. As much as he felt Remus was being ridiculous, he wanted to ease whatever turmoil his friend was feeling; he wanted to make sure they would get past whatever the problem was between the witch and the werewolf.

In a restless fit, he kicked off his blankets. The sensation of the cool night air against his bare skin was a welcome thing. For the quickest second, he wondered what she'd think when she learned he slept in the nude.

She'd probably emit that playfully scandalized giggle he so adored and blush as she said, Why am I not surprised?

Her interest in him might be new, but Sirius' interest in her had been something he'd harbored for some time, now. He wanted to protect whatever they could end up having, and wanted to protect his friendship with Remus . . . . He wanted to do both of these things without having to sacrifice either of them.

Most of all, he wanted to not be the person who caused Remus to make that terrible face.

"Christ, Black, go to sleep and stop worrying yourself sick. You'll figure this out," he muttered to himself.

Pulling his pillow around his head, Sirius closed his eyes tight and prayed for sleep.