Sirius had been awake for well over an hour, perhaps two, when the brunette witch in his arms finally began stirring out of her peaceful slumber. He had watched her as the pale birth of dawn etched her features into greater detail out of the dim early morning.
In less than a week his world had suddenly but pleasantly been tilted by this exceptional creature. Sirius wondered at the distinct lack of panic he felt. That he loved her was now a certainty – he'd spent the last two hours trying to reason with himself, searching for some inner switch to flip, some kind of logic that would trigger a flight response, and had come up empty handed.
Sirius remembered his inability to comprehend James' early and unflappable love for Lily Evans when he barely knew the witch and she clearly loathed him. For years his best friend had pursued the redhead, and while Lily made it hell for him, James never once faltered in his feelings for her. The pranks and schemes and highschool drama notwithstanding, his actual affection, his love for Lily, had been a calm certainty beneath the surface of everything. Sirius never really understood it until now.
He couldn't seem to muster a fight against his feelings for her, even in the face of the most glaring question - why and how her - ? This was Hermione Granger – Up until a week ago his memory of her had been of an awkward teenager who strove so hard to gain acceptance from her peers, only managing to further intimidate them with her intelligence and talent. He had seen her as a girl interacting with Harry and the Weasley family – she always seemed to be hovering just outside the periphery of a circle that would never quite pull her completely in. He remembered how easily he spotted that in her when no one else seemed to notice. It was something he understood, although he never bothered to try to connect with her. He'd barely been able to be there for Harry, much less for his friends, and what business what it of his, anyway?
Sirius frowned, wondering how different things might have turned out had he reached out to her as a child. Chances are his words of encouragement wouldn't have made much of a difference, but it bothered him now to see how Hermione remained separated, somehow. It was obvious she still wasn't fully aware of just how remarkable or valued she was.
He recalled his conversation with his godson the previous afternoon. Harry had gone to smooth things over with Hermione after finding the two of them in the backyard snogging. When he returned downstairs, he found Sirius in the kitchen and dropped into one of the worn old wooden chairs.
"Sirius, what's wrong with you?" He asked bluntly.
While he'd braced himself for it, he had hoped the conversation wouldn't actually turn in that direction.
"Harry, Hermione and I are both adults…" he began defensively.
"That's not what I'm talking about," Harry interrupted.
Sirius blinked in confusion, "What? Then what are you - "
His godson sighed, "Sirius, you've been back for months now, and I can count on one hand the times you've left the house. Ginny and I figured you were just overwhelmed and wanted to avoid the public eye, so we tried bringing the outside world in to you." Harry mumbled with a smirk, "I'm still getting the stink eye whenever I meet George for drinks at the Three Broomsticks."
"Sorry, Harry," Sirius said remorsefully.
The familiar green eyes flicked up to his, "You've been right miserable this whole time, you know," Harry said without accusation. "But then Hermione shows up, and suddenly you're like a different person." He shook his head, "At first I thought it was that you fancied her and you were just - depressed before then. But then I hear you didn't even bother to replace your wand until last week when Hermione told me off for leaving you in whatever state you're in, and you still haven't come over to the flat or gone to see George, you're wearing sunglasses inside, and…" he drifted off helplessly, then narrowed his eyes added in a pointed tone, "she thinks you're mistaking gratitude for attraction, whatever that means."
Sirius dropped into the chair across from his godson, a stricken look on his face, "Is that what she told you?" he asked softly.
Harry looked down at the scarred table, "In not so many words, but yeah," he muttered. Looking back up at the grey eyes across from him, he continued, "I don't want to get in the middle of this, Sirius, but I think you should know she's not the most confident of witches. And you – you've got this reputation…"
"Harry, I haven't been with, much less kissed a woman in nearly a decade, and the last time I 'played the field' was when you were still in diapers – I was younger than you are now!" his voice was tight with frustration. Was he going to pay for a handful of promiscuous years for eternity, for Merlin's sake?
Harry held up his hands, "I know this, Sirius, but between your reputation and the fact that you haven't been getting out since you came back, plus whatever it is that Hermione's done to help you… I think she's convinced you're only interested because she's right here."
"And you? Is that what you think as well?"
The grin his godson gave him was a perfect replica of his best friend. "If I thought that, do you really think I'd be wasting time asking you about it before flattening you? I know you're a bit off, Sirius, but I don't believe you're stupid. I don't think you'd dare go after Hermione unless it really meant something."
After asking again what was wrong with Sirius, Harry eventually heard a simplified explanation of his godfather's heightened senses (leaving out the nightmares that had terrorized him until very recently), as well as the solutions Hermione had come up with in a matter of days.
"Well," the younger man sat back in his chair and crossed his arms in contemplation, "I guess I can see where she's getting her ideas now." He gave a quick glance to Sirius, "Not that I agree with her, but she's Hermione, Sirius – she's using her brain." Shrugging, he added, "I suppose you just have to figure out a way around that."
Sirius regarded Harry thoughtfully, "This doesn't bother you?" he asked curiously, "You're giving your godfather romantic advice on your best friend…"
"You're my family, Sirius, and you always will be." Harry continued delicately, "But it's been a long time since I've looked to you as a father figure."
Sirius felt his throat tighten, "Harry, I – I wanted to, very badly," his voice was nearly a whisper, "I'm so sorry I failed you. I should have been there, and the whole time I was stuck in that damned curtain I - "
Bright green eyes blinked at him from behind glasses, "It's alright, Sirius," he said, shaking his head, "I know. It would have been… brilliant, you would have been brilliant as a father, it just didn't turn out that way. But maybe there's a reason for everything, and if there is, maybe this is that reason."
At Sirius' small frown he sighed, "I just want to see you happy. Hermione too. If that happens because you two get together, then great. Besides – you're not that much older than me anymore, yeah? You're more like my strange older brother…" Harry grinned.
"Oi," Sirius rumbled, returning an awkward smile. He wasn't sure how he felt about Harry's changed view of him, but he didn't have time to worry over it as he heard the familiar albeit softer sound of Hermione's bedroom door closing, her footfalls approaching the top of the stairs.
Sirius stood up from the table and clasped Harry's shoulder, "Thanks, Harry." He nodded, "Now that I have sight and sound under a bit of control, I - we, won't be such strangers."
They both ascended the steps to the front hallway, finding Hermione on her way down to meet them. Armed with a clearer understanding of her hesitance, Sirius was able to observe her behaviour toward him in a better light. At the same time, he knew he'd have to take a little more care in how he approached the situation. He wanted to shake the beautiful witch, tell her how utterly ridiculous it was to think he only wanted her because she helped him and was convenient. But, like Harry said, she was using her brain, and he had to admit that was a pretty logical conclusion to surmise, if one didn't know any better.
Sirius and Hermione had then spent the day together at Diagon Alley. After catching her several times covertly watching him, Sirius came to the conclusion that he would either have to outwit the witch, or distract her to the point where she wouldn't have a chance to reason her emotions out of this. Only a fool would attempt the former, so throughout the evening, Sirius had begun devising a plan to win Hermione's heart.
That had all been tossed quite happily out the window, of course, when he came to her room in the late hours of the night. Now, as he lay on his side, studying her every detail, Sirius' only concern was how to keep her. His feelings for her raised none of the terror or sense of entrapment he'd always associated with love, but the fear that Hermione might never return the sentiment snaked around his heart, squeezing almost painfully.
He watched as her dark brown lashes fluttered against her lower lids, a tiny crease flickering between her brows. Sirius stroked a knuckle tenderly along her temple and down her cheek, smiling slightly at the tiny movement of Hermione's lips as she swallowed.
Lids slowly opened and her brown eyes held his for a long moment, her face relaxed and expressionless from sleep.
"Good morning," she finally whispered to the dark haired wizard who was smiling tenderly at her.
Sirius' lips curled into a lazy but mischievous grin, "That it is. Any morning that starts with a beautiful, intelligent dark haired witch in my arms is more than good."
Hermione raised her eyebrows skeptically, but the sarcastic quip that was on her lips was stopped by a masculine finger.
Sirius frowned slightly, "Why do you do that?" At the tiny confused shake of her head, he continued, "You cloak it in humour, Hermione, but you… you always shoot down any mention of your beauty. Do you really believe you're not attractive?" He asked quietly, his fingers traveling from her lips across her cheek. He cupped her chin gently, his grey eyes searching her face.
Hermione felt the blood rushing to her cheeks. She really did not want to have this conversation first thing in the morning, if at all. She gave a resigned sigh, "It's not as though I think I'm a troll, Sirius, I'm just not – glamourous. I never will be. I'm not perfect or polished like the kinds of witches who will probably be surrounding you every day once you get out of this house regularly."
Incredulity flickered across Sirius' face. "Hermione," he chuckled, "Glamour and polish are what people use to make up for their lack of real beauty." When she rolled her eyes slightly, he took on a sterner tone, "Would you disagree that I have the keenest eyesight of any wizard you know?"
"No," Hermione mumbled grudgingly.
"So… I suppose you think that by not being surrounded by glamourous, polished witches for the last seven years, I just have developed remarkably poor judgment, then?"
Despite her silence, Sirius could practically hear the witch's response and knew by the look on her face that was exactly what she thought.
"Or perhaps you think I'm just a dishonest cad who throws words of admiration around to any witch who will listen?" he pressed pointedly, although his voice was gentle.
Her eyes flicked to his and she opened her mouth to argue, but was interrupted again as Sirius grabbed her wrist and sat up, pulling him with her.
"Come on," he commanded, "I'm going to show you what I see."
He guided her to kneel on the bed in front of where he sat, facing an old oval, floor length mirror.
"Sirius - " Hermione protested, watching him with a pleading eye.
"Shh," he answered, resting his hands lightly on her shoulders as he climbed to his knees behind her, the mattress dipping sharply under his weight.
He slid his hands reverently down her bare back, around to her sides, and over her waist, resting them at her hips. "You have the body of a goddess, Hermione." He nodded to the mirror, "Look."
She flicked a glance at the mirror then away, blushing uncomfortably.
Sirius chuckled, "And you're so lovely when your cheeks turn pink, from any number of causes."
He slid his hands around to her stomach while planting kisses across the top of her shoulder, nuzzling into her neck. "Watch me, Hermione," he whispered, "Look at us…"
Her breathing had already grown quicker as she tilted her head, giving Sirius better access to her neck. Through heavy lidded eyes she looked at the reflection in the mirror, focusing on the wizard behind her, standing on his knees, his naked body barely touching hers. His silky black shoulder-length waves commingled with her own untamed cloud of chestnut curls. The stubble on the unshaven part of his jaw rasped gently along her sensitive skin, while his hands slowly but firmly caressed her hips and stomach, creeping up her body to the softness just below her breasts. His granite coloured eyes watched her from behind the fringe of indecent black lashes.
"Do you know what just the feel of your skin beneath my fingers does to me, little girl?" Sirius murmured roughly, his hands teasing her again as they hungrily traveled over her flesh. He sighed against her neck and mumbled, "satin… fucking satin…"
As the heavy heat began building in her again, Hermione wondered with a hint of frustration how he could have such an effect on her by doing so little. However, his body brushed against her then, the hardness bobbing against her backside informing her that she wasn't alone. She caught his knowing glance then, her breath hitching as his hands cupped her breasts, thumbs stroking over the silky flesh and teasing across her hardened nipples.
"And these," Sirius grinned wickedly, "are beyond perfect. Every curve, Hermione…" He broke off with a sigh, "It's as if you were sculpted by the gods."
He let one hand travel over those curves demonstratively while the other remained to fondle her breasts. "You're soft and hard in all the right places," he murmured, his touch traveling around her hip, over the curve of her backside, and down the back of her thigh.
Hermione closed her eyes with a soft moan, her head falling against his shoulder as his hand slipped around her front and closer to her already wet pussy.
"The one thing I shall miss if these senses ever return completely to normal," he whispered roughly in her ear as he slid his palm over the outside of her heat, "Is your scent."
He drew in a ragged breath, dipping a finger between her folds. "And your taste," he added, bringing the wet digit up to his lips with a moan. "It's all you, love, and so fucking beautiful."
Hermione had opened her eyes again and was watching him in the mirror intently, a look of hunger and awe on her face. He was pressed intimately against her now, one hand still gently kneading her breasts and teasing her nipples as the other slid back down to her core. His hardness jutted insistently against her, but Sirius' only focus was his hands on her body.
He slipped his hand between her thighs. Pressing against the soft flesh with a gentle nudge, he murmured, "Open for me, love." She complied and inhaled sharply as he slid two fingers between her folds and across her swollen clit.
"So fucking hot and wet, Hermione. You're so bloody gorgeous like this – don't you see it?" His gaze was penetrating even as his fingers worked distractingly over her.
"Don't close your eyes, love," he warned, "I want you to watch while I make you come." His fingers proceeded to skim over her nub, eliciting a gasp, and he responded with a murmur of encouragement.
Hermione's bashfulness quickly dissipated and was replaced by a growing heat brought on by Sirius' attentions. She moaned, but was unable to tear her eyes away from the erotic sight as he slowly pushed one, then two fingers into her, his thumb pressing against her clit, disappearing slightly between the folds of slick flesh. He curled his fingers against her inner wall and started slowly sliding in and out.
Hermione reached up and curled an arm around Sirius' neck to help support her now quivering thighs, and she bit her lip hard at the tension that was increasing in her abdomen. Sirius noticed and whispered, "Don't hold back, love. I love every little whimper and cry, love the sound of my name as I'm fucking you." His fingers drove deeper, harder, forcing her lip free from her teeth with a harsh gasp, followed by a keening moan as the first wave grew and broke in her.
"That's it, angel," Sirius kissed her shoulders and neck, still pumping his fingers, his thumb working her clit as she convulsed around him. Her body was wracked with violent shudders and still he held her close, keeping her upright. "Look at how beautiful you are when you're coming, the gorgeous flush across these perfect breasts."
Hermione couldn't look, as her head was thrown back in an ecstatic groan. Sirius pushed past her first orgasm, still lightly stroking her.
"Look, Hermione," he insisted, his free hand reaching up and tangling in her hair, forcing her to face the mirror before them, "Do you see it?"
The figures in the mirror were like something from a fine work of erotic art, and in that instant, Hermione realized she almost didn't recognize the woman in the arms of this gorgeous wizard, and that said woman was, indeed, very beautiful. Her cheeks and chest were flushed with the pink of orgasm, her brown hair a wild cloud of bedroom curls. Her whole body fit perfectly against the backdrop of the stunning dark-haired male who still had his fingers plunged inside of her, and her large brown eyes were half-lidded and filled with desire.
Sirius smirked, his gaze dark at her silence. He gave her clit a squeeze and repeated, "Do you?"
Hermione gasped sharply and breathed, "Yes!" Her cheeks flushed at the admission.
Sirius chuckled and turned her head to face him, kissing her deeply. "Never be embarrassed of your own beauty, Hermione," he whispered.
She gave a soft protest as he slipped his fingers out of her, licking them thoroughly before shifting his position slightly. Her eyes widened in understanding and anticipation as he positioned himself outside of her cunt, then lowered her onto him. He slowly made love to her there in front of the tall oval mirror, holding her body to his and caressing her to another orgasm before pulling her back into the bed and taking her for himself.
They lay in silence, limbs tangled and bed sheets a lost mess. Sirius stroked his fingers contentedly over her body while Hermione worried at her bottom lip.
We have to talk. Say something! What am I supposed to say? Oh Merlin, what have I done?
Before she could summon the nerve, however, Sirius' deep voice rumbled under her head that was resting against his chest.
Here we go, she thought with dread, bracing herself for whatever kind of speech he was about to give, she didn't know for certain.
He gently eased her off of him and sat up, facing her. A small smile touched the corners of his lips but his expression was otherwise unreadable.
"Sirius…" Hermione began, but was cut off.
"I know - " He sighed with a warm smile, "I know you'll be leaving for Hogwarts in just a few weeks."
He took her hand in his, "I can't ask anything of you beyond that, but in the meantime," his expression grew serious, his eyes darkening, "be mine."
'Be mine'? Hermione thought, her eyebrows shooting upwards at the old fashioned sounding phrase.
"Look," Sirius continued, "One thing I've learned is that we never know what's going to happen in the next five seconds, much less five days… or weeks." He shrugged, "You'll have an entire month after you go back to fuss and prepare before the kids' arrival – until then, perhaps you could actually take a break, relax, make love to a devastatingly handsome wizard, be his witch… There's no reason not to enjoy being with each other for the time that we have, yeah?"
His thumb tenderly stroked the tops of her knuckles as he bit back other more premature words. His nerves tightened momentarily as Hermione merely blinked in response, a small perplexed frown in her eyes.
We never know what's going to happen in the next five seconds… The words pushed insistently through the insecurities that were telling her this was nothing but a nice shag to him. Hermione thought of Ron and Susan, of Remus and Tonks, of how much time was wasted before it was too late for them.
Sirius swallowed with a sheepish half-smile, "Or not…"
Hermione felt him loosen his hold on her hand, and she squeezed it. "No!" she nearly blurted. "I mean… okay," she smiled, blushing.
"Okay?" Sirius repeated hesitantly.
Her smile widened as she nodded, "Okay. But I do have to plan my lessons now, before I go back." Hermione shook her head, "It's a whole new course so I have no guidelines to follow."
He studied her and frowned, "Alright, I'll give you two hours a day."
"You'll 'give me' two hours a day?" Hermione repeated incredulously. At the sight of his determined smirk, she grimaced, "But I need at least six!"
"You do not," he gently chided, "In fact I'd bet galleons that you're already on your second draft of lesson plans."
She pressed her lips together, blushing slightly because she was actually on her third draft. "Four hours, then," she frowned.
"Three," Sirius answered with an infuriating grin.
"Fine," Hermione grumbled. Her scowl was quickly wiped away by the warmth of Sirius' mouth as he tackled her, rolling her over on top of him with a victorious chuckle.
The morning had finally arrived. Hermione had done most of her packing over the last week, leaving only her immediate essentials to stow in the final trunk headed for Hogwarts.
Sirius woke her up with close-pressed caresses and nuzzles that led to the first of many rounds of lovemaking that day; slow and deliberate, as well as hard and desperate. Very few words passed between the two until the grandfather clock in the hallway chimed its warning. Hermione had one hour left before she was expected at the first faculty meeting of the year.
She ascended the stairs of Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, for the last time that summer. With every footstep, every motion of preparing to leave for her new life, she felt her insides shutting down piece by piece. Soon she would just be Hermione the Bookworm again, or, to her students, Professor Granger. A mere handful of weeks ago that idea filled her with excitement. Now, she only felt like grieving.
In theory he would only be a handful of floo powder away, but Hermione had braced herself for this from the start. Sirius had asked her to be his, just for these few weeks until she had to leave. And she was. Only, silly girl – she had given herself to him in ways she couldn't take back. But, she knew what she was getting into from the start, and beneath the hurt and sadness, she couldn't muster a regret.
In such a short window of time Sirius had given her more than she had ever received from any of her past boyfriends or affairs. And, as much as she might wish things differently, the fact of the matter was that she had to let him go. He deserved and needed a chance to live in the sun, to carouse and womanize and do whatever it is that Sirius Black did. Hermione was just grateful she'd be cloistered away at Hogwarts and unable to bear witness to his taste of freedom.
"Can I help you with anything?" He asked gently from her doorway.
Hermione swallowed back the tightness that was growing in her throat as she stuck the last calculated hairpin in the curls that were now wound into a bun on the back of her head. She glanced at Sirius' reflection behind her in the mirror and caught his eyes, silver and sad now.
She forced a smile and looked down, fussing with her robes. "Just that last bit," she answered without looking, and motioned to the trunk that was drifting on its own toward the staircase to be floo'ed through the parlour fireplace.
Sirius just nodded, and they both stood in silence for a painful moment. Hermione took a deep breath to compose herself and turned around to face him.
"Well? How do I look?" she gave a sarcastic flourish to show off her prim Hogwarts teaching robes. They felt stifling and sexless after a summer of shorts and tank tops.
"Beautiful," Sirius replied huskily, his grey eyes sincere.
Hermione's fake smile faltered, her lips twitching downwards. She turned away from him, struggling with the rather embarrassing urge to cry. Tears? Really, Hermione. Get a grip, she mentally chided herself. Her composure crumbled when she felt Sirius' familiar strong hands grip her shoulders and turn her around, pulling her to his chest. He wrapped his arms around her tightly for several warm moments, then pulled away to look down into her face, planting little kisses on her moist eyelids, cheeks, and lips.
"I'll be right here," Sirius murmured, "Just a floo away. And there are weekends and holidays – this is nothing, really, love."
Hermione stiffened, then pulled away wordlessly. With a small frown and a little shake of her head, she began, "Sirius, I don't know…"
At those opening words, Sirius felt as though a tiny hole had torn open inside of him, draining the pleasant warmth he felt knowing Hermione was struggling with her departure from him. In its place he felt a seeping cool dread. He remained silent, watching and waiting for her to continue.
Hermione chewed her lip and swallowed hard before looking up at him. She took another deep breath, "I – I think you need to try seeing other people, Sirius."
His eyes narrowed slightly, and his voice was cool, "I need to see other people, or we need to?"
Hermione blinked, "I'm not - " her mouth worked wordlessly for a moment. The thought crossed her mind to tell him 'we,' because perhaps he'd be less likely to argue the point if he thought she wanted to see other wizards. But looking at Sirius standing before her, his hands now in the pockets of his blue jeans, his slate coloured eyes watching her expectantly from under a black fringe across his brow, she could almost see the betrayal and anger swelling in him. No, she couldn't lie to him.
"You," Hermione answered. "Just you." She shook her head and looked anywhere but directly at him. "I don't know when I'll be able to come visit, and in the meantime, it's no good for you to stay cooped up here alone without companionship. You've actually been sleeping peacefully for weeks now so we know your nightmares have to do with being alone. There are a ton of witches out there, Sirius, and - "
"None of them are you," Sirius interrupted heatedly. His tone was incredulous, "How can you even suggest this?" He grabbed her arms, "I thought we were clear on this - you're the witch I want, Hermione…"
"How can you be sure, Sirius?" she retorted, "You have absolutely no comparison to go by. I won't lie to you – I have… feelings for you. And it's hardly fair to ask me to just accept on blind faith that anything you feel in return is genuine when there's no guarantee that you're not just wrapped up in – in the newness of being with a woman again. And knowing that, how can I not doubt you?"
Sirius' face was a mask of anger and shock, "So what – you want me to go out and shag a bunch of witches to prove my love for you, is that it?"
The words fell like a Silencing spell between them.
Love? Hermione thought, her heart pounding.
Fuck, Sirius thought, way to stick your foot in it, Padfoot.
Just then the clock in the hallway struck it's three-quarter hour chime, cracking open the thinly frozen moment.
Hermione shook her head, "I have to go…" she mumbled, running out of the bedroom and down the stairs.
She had just reached the fireplace in the parlour and grabbed a handful of floo powder when Sirius grabbed her wrist.
"Don't do this, Hermione – not like this," he growled.
"I have to go," she repeated, her eyes clenched shut.
"Let me go, Sirius!" She demanded, jerking her hand from his clasp. She refused to look at him, but threw the powder into the fireplace and allowed the brilliant green flames to envelope her as she called out her destination.
"Still not over your little lovers' quarrel?" a bored voice taunted from the shadows. Phineas Nigellus sneered from his vantage point in a very old portrait hung in the corner of the parlour. The original occupant had long since dozed off in another painting in the hallway, leaving the great, great grandfather of Sirius Black to lounge arrogantly in his place.
"Fuck off," Sirius muttered half-heartedly, a hint of a slur to his consonants. He had nearly reached the bottom of a bottle of aged Kentucky bourbon Hermione had given him weeks ago. It was a going away gift from one of her American friends and she had no taste for it. Sirius found its effects far more useful and dulling than Firewhiskey, and the little know-it-all had explained to him that Firewhiskey had originally been a soldier's drink, given to troupes because it lowered their fears and inhibitions, but the "fire" part roused the emotions or 'inner fire.'
He gave a sickly sigh. Why did everything have to remind him of her?
Harry had offered to talk to Hermione on his behalf, but Sirius wouldn't have it. His plans had failed and only managed to create a raw gaping wound in his heart. He clearly hadn't managed to win the witch over enough to make a difference before she left for Hogwarts. In fact, at the mere suggestion of 'love' she had fled, refusing to even look at him.
Sirius threw back the remains of his tumbler and dragged himself up to the fourth floor, nausea roiling in his gut for another night he had to face alone. The nightmares were back tenfold, complete with images of the object of his affection, torturing, being tortured, unforgiving, taunting.
He stopped by the library for something to read, anything to put off sleep a little longer.
It was nearly three in the morning and Hermione had just started to drop off into another night of fitful slumber, when the sound of someone rapping on her door made her bolt upright.
"Professor Granger?" came the familiar but urgent voice of Headmistress McGonagall.
Hermione quickly threw on her night robe and opened the door.
"Quickly, Hermione – you must return to Grimmauld Place." Minerva's voice was soft but insistent.
Alarm washed over Hermione as she grabbed her wand. Sirius, she thought, and made to put on her regular clothes.
"No time! You must go now," McGonagall insisted, hurrying Hermione to the small fireplace in her room.
Without questioning, the younger witch grabbed a handful of floo powder from the small white bowl on the mantle, and vanished in a whirl of green flames.
When she stepped out of the fireplace into the darkened parlour, the sound that met her ears turned her blood to icewater. She wasn't even certain it was a human sound until a voice came from the painting nearest to the fireplace, "The fourth floor, girl," he urged.
Hermione bolted up the stairs, heedless of her loud footfalls. She threw open the bedroom door in a panic, her wand illuminating the room before her, and rushed to the figure writhing in the bed.
"Sirius," she began, then gasped at the violent reaction her voice had on him – Sirius' entire body jolted as if in terror, and then scurried across the bed far from the source. Hermione felt her heart crack. What had happened in the couple of weeks she'd been gone?
A tight grimace pulled at the handsome wizard's countenance, distorting his face into an expression of terror and pain. His lips were bloodless pale, and the veins in his neck and temples were sticking out from the intensity of stress that racked his body.
"No…" a deep snarl came from his lips, "not that. Not her."
Hermione swallowed back the panic that was quickly building into hysteria. She gently reached her hand out to stroke Sirius' tortured face, finding it ice cold. "It's me, love, I promise. I'm here…"
The muscles in his face and neck relaxed for but a second, then another growl escaped him and he roughly batted her hand away, backing up to the head of the bed and sitting upright. Sirius curled his knees to his chest and his eyes flickered open, narrowly assessing her through the black fringe of lashes.
The cold and unbalanced wheeze of laughter that choked out of the wizard doused the flicker of hope Hermione had. Silver glinted at her unseeingly. His mouth curled into a hateful sneer, "Stop it. You. Are not. Her," he insisted.
Hermione watched in horror as Sirius' hollowed features worked themselves into a menacing grin. His shoulders shook silently until he hacked a cough and then called out to his unseen tormentors, "You're supposed to use my loved ones against, me you foul fuckers, get it right!"
She reeled back slightly, feeling very much as if she'd been kicked in the stomach. Fighting back the lurch of nausea at his hurtful words, Hermione instead focused it into determination.
"Stop it, Sirius," Hermione spoke clearly, unable to keep the note of anger out of her voice. "It's not real. Just come back…"
His answer was another wave of laughter as he wrapped his arms around himself and swayed slightly.
"Damnit, Sirius!" she gritted out. She reached for his shoulders but was again deflected as he violently wrenched himself away from her.
Hermione felt her throat tighten in fear, tears threatening the backs of her eyes. She couldn't think straight enough to logic a solution for this – why wasn't anything working?
Another jolt of tension seized Sirius' body, and Hermione was reminded of the Crutiatus curse. He gave a struggled gasp and she realized with terror that whatever was happening to him, he could barely breathe. She lunged at him, summoning a strength she didn't realize she possessed, and forced Sirius to lay back, tilting his head back over the cradle of her arm.
"Come on, Sirius, don't do this – you're stronger than this," she muttered, casting a respiratory charm over him, to no avail. She could tell it wasn't a physical breakdown causing this, but a deep psychological unwillingness to let his lungs function properly.
"Fight it, Sirius! Breathe, damn it - Don't you leave me here!" Hermione sobbed frantically, feeling herself losing the battle against her own hysterics.
"A suggestion…" a cool voice called from over her shoulder.
She turned with a startled gasp to the painting over the mantle of the bedroom fireplace. Usually a blank landscape of swaying trees and a quietly ripping lake, it now housed the old headmaster Hermione had once blindfolded and kidnapped when she was on the run with Harry and Ron.
"The images he struggles with are already facades of those closest to him, girl. Perhaps he needs to hear the truth." The emphasis he placed on the last word brought a confused frown to Hermione's face.
Phineas Nigellus sighed in exasperation. "Tell him how you feel, child." He smirked and rolled his eyes in distaste at having to discuss matters of the heart with anyone, much less the impertinent young witch who once bested him.
A wheezing gasp from the wizard on the bed drew Hermione's attention again.
"Sirius," she whispered, tenderly stroking his face despite his struggles. She took a calming breath and started again, her voice soft but clear, "Sirius, listen to me. Whatever you're fighting – it's not real. I'm real, though. And I'm right here."
Sirius shook his head with a strangled snarl, his teeth clenched, his black hair soaked with sweat.
Hermione cringed and struggled for calmness. She dropped her free hand down to where his were balled into fists at his side, and coaxed her fingers into his. "This. This is real, Sirius. Please believe me. I – I'm sorry I left you." She sniffled pathetically as the truth came tumbling out in desperate gasps, "I don't even care if you were mistaking gratitude for…" she shook her head, "Just, please don't leave me like this. You have to come back. I – I love you, Sirius," she whispered.
She felt his hand relax ever so slightly and it encouraged her to continue. "Can you hear me now? I love you," she spoke softly but intently, her confidence growing as she noticed the small gasps of air that were increasing in frequency in Sirius.
"And people don't torture those they truly love, so – so whatever you've been seeing, it wasn't me. This is me, Sirius, I'm Hermione, and I love you and I need you so you can't leave, do you understand?" She swiped her wet face against her shoulder angrily. "You have fought this for so long, and if you give up now, so help me Merlin I will find a way to hunt your pathetic arse down. Do you understand me, Sirius? You need to wake up now, damn it!"
"Bossy," the weakly indignant rasp that came from his lips startled Hermione.
"Sirius?" Her eyes scanned his face, now bearing a tired grimace. Her heart thudded with hope as she watched him slowly lick his lips. When his eyes opened again into two narrow slits, they bore exhaustion but also clear recognition.
"Hemione," he answered in a hoarse whisper, his throat raw from strain.
Hermione took a great shuddering breath and threw herself over him.
"Oh dear Merlin thank gods," she mumbled into his neck, tears springing to her eyes again when she felt his arms slowly encircle her.
Sirius gave a heavy sigh of relief, running his hands through the mass of brown curls and down her arms and back.
She raised her head to look at him again, a sob gasping from her. "I thought I'd lost you, Sirius," she choked.
"So did I, love," Sirius replied quietly, brushing her moist cheeks with his thumb. "I'm still not completely certain I'm not hallucinating you," he admitted with a weak chuckle.
Hermione traced her own fingers lightly over his face, noting the shadows under his eyes. He looked slightly thinner, and had several days' beard stubble on his neck and jaw.
"Why you didn't tell me?" She frowned. "When did this start again?"
Sirius' lips quirked tiredly. "Definitely not hallucinating then," he rasped with a wry smile. He closed his eyes at her tender touch and inhaled the scent of her, feeling the tension draining from him. "Talk later, love," he mumbled, pulling Hermione close to him. The peace that washed over him from her presence was too calming to resist.
Sirius was already slipping into a relaxed slumber by the time Hermione pulled the covers over them and doused the lights.
Hermione was awakened by a presence at Sirius' bedside. She opened her eyes to the sight of a silvery translucent cat, staring patiently at her. After giving Hermione a chance to blink a few times, the voice of Minerva McGonagall spoke in a hushed tone, "Professor Granger, the portrait of Albus Dumbledore requests your presence at your earliest convenience." The cat then vanished in a whiff of silver light.
She turned as gently as possible so as not to awaken the dark haired wizard whose arm was cradling her neck. Thankfully, he didn't stir. Her eyes lingered on Sirius' sleeping form before she kissed him tenderly. Then, slipping quietly from his bed, Hermione silently crept downstairs to the parlour, grabbed a handful of floo powder, and stepped into the large fireplace.
When she stepped out of the smaller fireplace of her private quarters, Hermione was startled to find the Hogwarts headmistress anxiously waiting for her, still in her nightdress and robe, her silver hair in a long plait draped over her shoulder.
"Oh, thank heavens," Minerva exclaimed with a quiet urgency. "Is he alright?"
Hermione gave a weary nod, "Yes, Professor, for now."
"I'm sorry dear, but Albus' portrait wishes to see you immediately." Minerva motioned for Hermione to accompany her as she opened the door of her suite, not giving her a chance to even change into day robes.
They hurried along the corridors, past the old stone gargoyle, and up the spiral stairs to the familiar office of McGonagall and her predecessors. Upon opening the old wooden door, they were immediately greeted by the familiar voice of Albus Dumbledore.
"Ah! Good morning Headmistress, Professor Granger," he nodded to each of them, giving Hermione a warm but wry smile over the top of his half-moon spectacles.
Hermione felt a pang – the last time she had heard her old headmaster's voice and seen his sharp blue gaze, had been at the end of the final battle, as Harry mended his own wand with the legendary Elder Wand. What was she to call him now – 'Headmaster'? 'Professor'? She didn't think she could ever call him 'Albus'… Finally Hermione just settled with a quiet "Good morning" in return. It was impossible not to feel like a child again in his presence, especially being called in now with such urgency.
"Minerva, if you would be so kind as to check on our Mister Black please, I'd like to have a few words with your newest professor if I may."
"Of course," Minerva replied softly, leaving the office with a quiet click of the large old door.
"Have a seat, Professor Granger," Dumbledore motioned to a large wingbacked chair upholstered in red and gold. "I am afraid Minerva doesn't share my penchant for sweets, however I believe you'll find a tin of cherry cordials on the side table there, if you'd like."
"Oh, uhm, no thank you," Hermione smiled politely, "It's still a bit early…"
"Of course," Dumbledore quirked a smile, "Well then, do you know why I've asked you here?"
"Not exactly, sir, although I assume it has to do with Sirius," she answered, nerves beginning to gnaw at her for no understandable reason.
His blue eyes peered down at her through his glasses. He frowned curiously, "Did Sirius not explain to you the nature of his nightmares?"
Hermione swallowed and nodded, "They're not technically nightmares, but an imprint left by the dementors…"
"Then why, dear girl, did you not inform Headmistress McGonagall of your relationship with him?"
Hermione blinked in confusion. What business was it of theirs that she'd been with Sirius? She struggled to keep the indignant tone out of her reply. "I didn't think it was relevant to my position at Hogwarts, sir. It's not as if we are married or - " she felt her stomach twist unhappily, "committed to each other…"
"But it is my understanding that when you were with him, the nightmares diminished significantly – is that correct?" Dumbledore asked pointedly.
A deep flush coloured Hermione's cheeks and she squared her shoulders defensively, "Sirius Black can have any witch he wants, and I made it perfectly clear when I left that he was under no obligation to me. There is no need whatsoever for him to be alone in my absence."
Dumbledore held up a hand in appeasement. "Miss Granger," he began delicately, "I understand this topic of conversation may seem somewhat inappropriate. But if you'll allow me to explain what Sirius has evidently failed to mention, perhaps you'll appreciate the gravity of the situation."
He frowned, a distant look of remorse in his eyes, "I'm afraid my own carelessness contributed to too much of Sirius' suffering in the past, so I hope you'll forgive me if my concern seems intrusive. I rather feel I owe it to him to prevent yet another oversight at his expense."
Before Hermione could open her mouth to ask what he meant, the old wizard turned his gaze to her again, "How much do you know of the dementors' magic?" he asked.
"There isn't much to be found of them in even the darker texts," she answered, loathe to admit she knew very little about something so powerful. "'Very ancient and very dark magic' is what Sirius told me, and he explained about the imprint, the effects on the subconscious mind. But beyond that…" Hermione shook her head.
"Very ancient, and very dark, indeed," Dumbledore nodded. "Darker than any magic ever used by a human witch or wizard. Ever," he emphasized, looking meaningfully at her over the tops of his glasses.
Settling back in his chair, Dumbledore continued, "Of course, it is only so because it is in their nature – dementors are a creature of pure darkness. Tom Riddle had to mutilate his very soul to achieve the level of dark power he had. But, for every dark magic, there is always its stronger counterpart in lightness. Do you recall the magic that protected Harry from Voldemort's attack?"
Love, thought Hermione. But a sacrifice of love…
As if in answer to her thoughts, Dumbledore explained, "Just as there are different kinds of love, Miss Granger, there are different kinds of darkness. Riddle's power was borne from murder, death, the stealing of life... The opposite of which is life-giving love, that of a mother protecting her child, or a warrior sacrificing his life for the rest of the wizarding world.
"The dementors' power is in the destruction and theft of the soul. It is why the Patronus charm, borne of happiness, is its only deterrent."
"But an indelible imprint on the subconscious…" Hermione shook her head. Sirius himself had said there was no counter-spell for it, no cure.
She looked up at Dumbledore's portrait, and he continued for her, "…can only be touched, weakened, by a deeper force, a soul-deep level of joy that can only come from - "
"Love," She finished softly, remembering what was finally able to pull Sirius from the grips of his terror just hours prior.
"Not just any kind of love," Dumbledore gave her a gentle smile, reminding her more of a grandfather than her former headmaster. "Or we could deduce that Harry, or, when they were still with us, Remus or even Sirius' younger cousin Nymphadora would have had the ability to ease Sirius' suffering."
No, Hermione shook her head miserably in silent agreement, not just any kind of love, but the love of a heartsick fool. It made perfect sense to her now. The kind of elation required to summon a full-bodied Patronus had to be pure and strong, stronger than the feeling of getting the highest marks in your year, or finding out you're a witch. And if that was what it took to defend oneself against a dementor's physical presence, then the kind of magic required to fight their dark mark on a human's psyche would have to be stronger than that in lightness. Love. But the kind of love that made a person dizzy with need and fulfillment at the same time, the kind of love that Muggles wrote sappy songs and romantic comedy films about.
"True love," Dumbledore said softly. "You do love him, do you not, Hermione?"
With a heavy sigh, she nodded her head, her eyes stinging. "Yes," she whispered, almost shamefully.
"Then why on earth didn't you tell Minerva?" he asked again. "Arrangements could have been made…"
Hermione looked up at the portrait of Dumbledore with a hint of annoyance, "Because he doesn't love me," she answered, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "I'm the first and only witch he's spent any time with after being exiled for seven years. He deserves more than that. Sirius hasn't had a chance to even figure out what he - "
"True love, Miss Granger," Dumbledore repeated sternly, before his eyes softened sympathetically. "Not just some crush or infatuation. True love is never one-sided. Wouldn't you agree, Mister Black?" His eyes traveled to the door behind Hermione, now open and framing the dark haired wizard in question.
Hermione leapt up and whirled around to find Sirius staring at her, his eyes shining with an expression she had seen on his face before, but in fleeting glimpses. "Yes, I do agree," he whispered before striding over to her.
He took both her hands in his and kissed her knuckles tenderly before shaking his head slightly with a smile. "Hermione Jean Granger," he said in a tone of soft admonishment, "I think I've been in love with you from the moment you came barreling at me that night in my front hallway."
When Hermione opened her mouth to protest, he stopped her, touching his fingers lightly against her lips.
"I am grateful, love – so very grateful," he pressed his forehead against hers, "for everything you've done for me. But I doubt I would have even given you a chance to help me in the first place had I not already been falling for you." He shrugged and pulled back with a sheepish grin, "I suppose I might still be bitterly skulking in the shadows otherwise."
Hermione looked up at him with a small concerned frown, "You knew about this – about why the nightmares were fading?"
Sirius nodded, "Dumbledore told me, long ago, when I was stuck at Grimmauld Place. I'm afraid it served as little more than something else to brood over."
"If you had just told me…" she shook her head, "It wouldn't have mattered to me whether or not you felt the same way, I would have stayed, or found some way… Sirius, I've never seen it as bad as it was this morning. You weren't breathing." Hermione's voice grew tight, "You could have died if – if someone hadn't come."
Her frown deepened and she turned questioningly to the portrait of Dumbledore but was interrupted by the arrogant, somewhat nasally voice from another portrait.
"I've already born witness to the royal family line dying off once, child, it is in my own personal interest to see that it doesn't happen again." Phineas Nigellus smirked dispassionately. "Even if the last remaining heir is a lazy, spoiled, worthless excuse of a wizard."
"Thanks," Sirius smirked and tipped his head at his great, great grandfather's portrait before turning back to Hermione.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you, love," he tenderly stroked her cheek with his thumb, "I thought - " Sirius glanced at Dumbledore's portrait and back to her, "I thought the nightmares were fading, only because of my feelings for you. I thought, if I told you what it meant, you would either run away scared, or you'd stay out of pity."
Hermione gave a wry chuckle, "We're pathetic. You thought I'd stay out of pity, and I thought you were just confusing gratitude for something more…" She shook her head again.
Sirius raised an eyebrow and tilted his head questioningly, "Does that mean you no longer believe that? You're ready to accept that I love you?"
Hermione's breath caught in her throat. She blinked and looked at Sirius, "I don't know," she answered softly, "You still haven't even said it to me yet."
Sirius cupped her chin with his large hand, fingers callused from the weeks he had spent making up for lost time, working on his motorcycle, helping Harry with his new home and also making repairs to Grimmauld Place. His other hand found hers and placed it against his chest, where she could almost feel his heart beating beneath the thin material of the tee shirt he had thrown on before floo'ing over with Minerva.
"Hermione Granger," he spoke softly but clearly, "I love you. With every fiber of my being, and every beat of my heart." His storm grey eyes drifted adoringly over her face, "You are my light," he added in a whisper.
Hermione felt as though her heart would burst. She didn't bother to fight back the tears that now welled in her large brown eyes. "Oh, Sirius," she whispered hopelessly with a small shake of her head, "I love you too."
There were no more poetic words to add, as they were all smothered in the crush of his warm lips against hers, the stubble of his unshaven chin scratching against hers, his arms winding tightly around her frame and hands plunging into her unkempt curls as he deepened their kiss.
A soft clearing of a throat at the doorway drew them slowly apart.
"I'm terribly sorry to interrupt," Minerva McGonagall raised an eyebrow at them, "but I do have a meeting here in fifteen minutes, and Professor Granger will be expected at this morning's faculty brunch. Sirius, you are more than welcome to join us if you'd like."
Hermione blushed furiously, "I'm so sorry, Professor - " she began.
"Nonsense, Hermione," McGonagall replied warmly, "But I would like to meet with you later this afternoon to discuss arrangements that will accommodate these – new developments." Her lips twitched slightly, "I suppose if there was any way to make 'love' a life or death requirement, you would be the wizard to discover it, Sirius Black."
Sirius gave the older witch a mischievous grin in reply and ushered Hermione out of the office, casting a look over his shoulder at the portrait of Albus Dumbledore. 'Thank you' seemed like such a feeble expression for the gratitude he felt, but the old headmaster seemed to understand his hesitant smile well enough and simply nodded knowingly in return.
Again, a million and one thanks to my lovely and wonderful beta, ceredwensirius, who was such a huge huge HUGE help particularly with the sex scenes in this story. She really deserves co-author credit for some spots of the "smut" and has been so very patient good with the feedback and hand-holding while I pull out my hair in writers' angst.
Also, this is technically the end of this story. It was written for a Valentine's Day challenge for the livejournal community "hermionesirius." I am leaving it marked as incomplete for now, however, as there will eventually be at least an Epilogue. That will probably be a ways off, though, as I am currently working on multiple large fanfics, at least one one-shot, and a boat-load of drabbles to catch up on, all Hermione/Sirius, plus a couple of original fics that I may or may not ever put out there publicly.
Thank you so very much to all of the lovely reviewers - it is a huge encouragement to receive such lovely feedback.