This piece was written for the bigbangblackout of 2009. A tremendous thank you to my betas Christine and Tink.

~oOo~

Sirius scowled at the fireplace in passing as he paced around his living room, slowly nursing a heavy crystal tumbler of firewhisky over ice. He ignored the soft, delicate chime of the clock on the mantle, refusing to look at it, refusing to acknowledge that it was well past nine o'clock now, and she still hadn't shown.

Hermione Granger was never late. On the rare occasion when she suspected there might be a possibility of tardiness, a silvery translucent otter would appear, her voice always ringing from it to announce that she might be delayed, and was terribly sorry.

So, where the bloody fuck was she?

With a growl, Sirius shook off the last of his patience and downed the rest of the amber liquid in a long gulp, shuddering slightly at the bitter burn that slid down his throat and shot through his nerves.

The candles on the small dining room table had long since sputtered out, the dinner he'd put together now cold on the two fine china plates laid out in an elegant arrangement. He truly must be a world class fucking fool, and clearly she had figured him out. They'd been 'friends' for months now, but this time… this time he'd finally plucked up the nerve to make an actual date of their frequent dinners together. And obviously, rather than embarrass them both, the curly-haired witch had decided to let him down easy and just not show up.

He wouldn't floo. Or send a Patronus. She'd made her feelings clear, and that was perfectly fine – he'd be damned if he'd make even more a fool of himself. He'd just blow it off as nothing… whenever he saw her again.

The corners of his mouth pulled down in an unhappy curve as he strode over to the wet bar and snatched the bottle of Ogden's Finest, not bothering to pour it into his glass, but taking it with him to the wrought iron spiral staircase that led up to the roof.

~oOo~

An agonized groan rattled from his throat as the midday sun beat down on his head, assaulting his eyes even through their closed lids. Its bright warmth had baked the layer of hung-over funk and sweat on his face and body into a sick moistness.

"Sirius… Sirius…" Harry's voice called insistently from Sirius' fireplace.

With another groan, the older wizard turned his head, facing away from the vast wall of glass that was letting in the cursed rays of light. The fine leather of the large sofa on which he'd slept the night before creaked slightly with the movement.

"SIRIUS!" his godson yelled this time.

"WHAT?" Sirius snarled in response, cracking his eye open just a fraction of a centimetre to see the familiar shock of black hair and glasses in the large fireplace.

"Thank Merlin," Harry mumbled in relief before he said urgently, "Sirius, it's Hermione…"

Oh, Sirius thought, his stomach turning unpleasantly with recollection. Her.

"Yeah, what of her?" he asked, unable to completely mask the hateful bitterness in his voice.

"They got her, Sirius. She was a-attacked. Last night. I'm at St. Mungo's now…" Harry's voice was thick and on the verge of cracking.

Sirius felt his whole world plummet through the bottom of his soul. "Move," he commanded sharply as he hauled himself off the couch, ignoring the jabbing pain in his temple and the nausea that was roiling in his gut. "I'm coming through."

He stumbled slightly and swallowed hard as he emerged from the public fireplace at St. Mungo's, the spinning green flames still superimposed on his senses and disagreeing with his hangover. A hand steadied him by his elbow, and when he got his bearings, he was looking into the familiar green eyes of his godson.

"What happened – where is she?" Sirius demanded frantically, ignoring the shocked look on Harry's face. As far as everyone was concerned, Sirius and Hermione were 'friendly acquaintances' at best, but now was not the time to give a damn about appearances.

As they both walked briskly to the lifts, Harry explained.

"A staff member working the nightshift found her on the steps of the Ministry early this morning." He paused as they came to several muted silver sliding doors, and pressed the button next to one of them. He turned and looked at Sirius directly, his face tense and pale, his green eyes filled with emotion. "What they did to her, Sirius – it was meant to be seen. They wanted to use her as a public example. She… they - well, she was stripped and covered in mud when she was found. She'd lost so much blood by then, the healers said if it'd been much longer she'd be dead."

Sirius felt a lurch in his stomach and clenched his teeth so hard he felt a sharp pain in his jaw.

"They think she'll be alright," Harry continued softly, his own voice uneven. "But they expect her recovery to take a few weeks. From what I overheard of her diagnosis, it sounded like one of the curses they used was something similar to what Dolohov threw back in the Ministry battle. It took her a few weeks then, but she's strong - she'll get through. But Sirius… "

With a soft chime the door to the lifts opened and they stepped in.

"They'll be looking to finish the job," Sirius finished grimly as the doors slid shut.

Harry took a deep breath. "We're already understaffed, and I've got every Auror who's worth a damn out on this case. We're close, but now that they're publicly attacking Muggle-borns, I can't afford any of my men."

"Tell me what to do," Sirius said quietly, training his voice to be calm. He wanted nothing more than to hunt down the sick fucks who did this to his little bookworm.

Not 'yours', a little voice in his head corrected, but his rage quickly told it to fuck off.

"Security here is too weak," Harry answered carefully. "I know you probably won't like this, but I need you to understand – you're the only one I trust to protect her, and once word gets out that she's being kept here…"

Sirius looked at the dingy floor of the lift, feeling suddenly awkward and shamefully dishonest. Hermione was precious to everyone in their circle – it was her intelligence and initiative that got Harry through the war, her quick-thinking that saved Ron and Harry from disaster a number of times, and yet they all regarded her as this innocent and sometimes helpless little flower. He couldn't fault them for their protectiveness – he felt much the same. But if it ever came to light that big, bad Sirius Black had his eyes on their girl… and here Harry was asking him to protect her. The irony was almost laughable.

"Please, Sirius," Harry continued when his godfather didn't answer. "I'll come and relieve you when I can, but you know I wouldn't even trust Ron with this. I'm asking as a personal favour – the Ministry will post guards outside of her room, but it's not much – not enough, anyway. This is far more important to me than having you run off to hunt down wannabe Death Eaters."

Sirius looked up then, meeting Harry's gaze. The once-gangly son of his best friend now stood eye-to-eye with him in height, so much like James but a bit broader in the shoulders. The worry and pleading look he found in those eyes, always so eerily identical to Lily's, made him feel like a heel. Did Harry really think he'd even consider saying 'No'?

He frowned incredulously. "Of course I'll do it, Harry," he answered softly. "Think nothing of it."

"Thanks," Harry said, relaxing visibly and smiling with relief. His tone was filled with far more meaning than the word could convey.

~oOo~

Sirius gazed unhappily at the unconscious figure surrounded in sterile white. From the bed linens, to the pillow, to the floors and walls, everything around her was completely devoid of colour, making her dark brown curls stand out in stark contrast.

She was pale, too pale in his opinion, even after two weeks of Blood Replenishing Potions and nutrient treatments. Even the light dusting of tiny freckles across her pert nose was faded, nearly unnoticeable except to him. He'd of course long since memorized those little specks, could practically count each one in his mind's eye.

Once the healers had made the official declaration that "it was only a matter of time" before Hermione Granger would regain consciousness, everyone had relaxed quite a bit, affording him more time alone with her prone form, which in turn gave him more than enough time to brood over his feelings for the witch.

It was only a handful of weeks ago that he'd finally admitted to himself he actually hadfeelings for her, aside from just a healthy male appreciation for beauty. Before that, he'd done a fairly decent job of staying in denial, even as their friendship unfurled like a sweet, exotic wildflower.

At first it was just the amused realization that the swotty little teenager who played mother hen to Harry and Ron had grown into quite a lovely looking young witch. Of course, this realization came at wand-point on the day of his return, with the brunette's eyes blazing and demanding who in the hell he really was and why was he impersonating a dead man.

He'd quietly watched her since then, over the better part of a year, really, convinced it was harmless voyeurism, nothing more. The fact that she was still Hermione Granger and he was still Sirius Black served as a safeguard against his covert admiration developing into anything more. They had a mutual respect for each other, but otherwise there was a thick and vast wall between them. He was the flippant and arrogant womanizer and she was the cool professional - still a know-it-all and still responsible almost to a fault. They had so little in common that it was easy enough to keep his interest in her under wraps. He'd be blind not to notice her, but it wasn't as if he'd ever pursue her.

Harmless voyeurism.

Until that one particular summer night a few months ago... Apparently it was to be 'girls night out' after the Order meeting adjourned that evening, and Hermione had arrived dressed in leather and silk, the usual business-like bun she wore abandoned for a loose, wild mane of bedroom curls, her sleeveless blouse dipping down just low enough to entice his imagination with a glimpse of creamy smooth softness. Everything down to the way her lips pursed around the lip of a bottle of butterbeer hit him like a ton of bricks, and his memories of her as a child skittered away like marbles across the floor. That was when he truly noticed her as a woman - gorgeous, intelligent, empowered, and absolutely fucking sexy. That was when it hit him that he wanted her.

Of course, she'd been even more off-limits then, as she was still with that bumbling redheaded twit. Sirius liked Ron Weasley well enough on his own, but he never really understood what Hermione was doing with him, and was secretly relieved when she finally broke it off with him.

Relief had quickly turned into a deep-seated pleasure however, when she surprised him by appearing on his doorstep the night she dumped Ron. For whatever reason, she'd sought out Sirius as a confidante - not exactly as a shoulder to cry on, but certainly as someone to bitch to and pour the alcohol. It was unexpected to say the least, but Sirius was never one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

From that point forward, the walls between them seemed a lot thinner. They actually had conversations, ones that often ran late into the night. He discovered that she had a depth and soul to her far beyond schooling and tomes, and while her sense of humour had caught him off guard initially, once he started paying attention it became a whole other layer to enjoy. Little offhand remarks the others attributed to her quirky intelligence went right over everyone's heads, but Sirius had to fight back his own laughter many times as he caught the secretive twinkle in her eye sharing her tiny unspoken jokes with him.

He didn't know if it truly happened that slowly, or if he'd just forced a blind eye to it this whole time, but the depth of his feelings for her dawned on him in one brilliant and jarring flash. He'd invited her to accompany him to visit Teddy and Andromeda just a few Saturdays ago. Perhaps it was something about the light, or the way she smiled as she picked up the toddler, letting him pull on tiny fistfuls of her curly hair. But he'd suddenly found himself breathless with yearning of a completely new and different kind. He wanted that picture to be his, wanted that free smile of hers and warm sense of family – he wanted it like a drug, and he only wanted it with her.

Sirius sighed and glanced back down at the open book in his hands, attempting to pick up where he left off. The healers had recommended since he was keeping watch over her, that he speak or read to her fairly regularly to keep her mind stimulated while her body recovered. When he'd given a detailed list of her favourite books to Harry for him to retrieve from Hermione's flat, the younger wizard merely raised an eyebrow, which Sirius had ignored.

He told himself that he didn't care – after all he'd been through, after half his life spent shut away or fighting the war on foreign soil while the few friends and loved ones he had believed he was dead, didn't he deserve something, some kind of happiness? And he reallydidn't care – so what if she was young enough to be his daughter? So what if she was his godson's best friend? Harry was a grown man – he could and would get over it.

Of course, it was another story entirely, being faced with the entire Order, friends and surrogate family, as they crowded into that small hospital room in a panic over theirHermione. Seeing how they all fawned over her, how genuinely worried they all were, how protective and angry they were… Molly had even gone so far as to question Harry's decision in asking Sirius to keep guard over 'her girl'. He'd been surprised at the little twinge of hurt he'd felt while she wheedled and fussed as though Sirius wasn't even in the room.

He didn't give a damn about what Molly thought of him personally. But the fact that his suitability was questioned, and that question was echoed by the others – in one brief moment Sirius felt once more like an outcast. And, if he wasn't welcomed or trusted just as a fucking security guard over an unconscious witch, how would they react to his romantic interest in the young woman? How would she react? If she was even remotely interested, the fury and judgment that would rain down on them both would be enough to make her regret it, he was certain. He couldn't do that to her. If he was really honest with himself, he wasn't sure he could handle her certain rejection in that scenario, either.

And so, Sirius came to his decision as the well-worn copy of Jane Eyre fell from his fingers into his lap.

"I can't do it, kitten," he whispered, slipping his hand beneath hers and softly stroking the tops of her knuckles. "If you had any idea how much I want… and I can't. I hope you'll understand."

The soft click of the heavy door alerted Sirius to Harry's arrival, and he discreetly slid his hand away from Hermione's.

"How is she?" Harry asked softly.

"Same." Sirius tried to make his voice sound the way he thought it should – like a concerned uncle, perhaps – close enough to care and be sensitive to others' concern, but otherwise strong and detached.

Harry wasn't fooled. "You look like shite, Sirius. I'll stay with her. Go get some rest, or a shower at least."

Sirius stared in consideration at Harry's green gaze. Did he know? And what if he did? It didn't change anything, not really. He sighed and gave a wordless nod, setting the book on the bedside table and hoisting himself up out of the uncomfortable chair.

~oOo~

Despite the fact that it was mid-day, his eyes should have fallen shut before his head hit the pillow. The Auror Department had found a strong lead, which meant Sirius had been at the hospital doing guard dog duty for twenty plus hours before Harry was able to
relieve him. And yet, he could only stare at the exposed pipes and rafters of the bedroom ceiling in his warehouse flat.

Sirius was disgusted with himself. How could he have let himself fall for such an impossibility? How could he have let himself fall for anyone, period? He'd been single his whole life – even when he wasn't incarcerated by the Ministry or the Order or wrapped up in that fucking war, he never let himself get tied down by any one witch. Well, not figuratively…

He was too old for this shit. And yet – she made him feel so young, so alive in ways no easy shag or casual affair ever managed, even when he was young.

Sirius let out a frustrated exhale and closed his eyes, willing sleep to come. Instead, there was that flash of exposed back he'd once glimpsed when she was reaching for a book on an upper shelf in his library. Completely innocent, and yet ever since then he'd so often dreamt of running his tongue along that tiny indent just above her pert little arse. Then he'd wonder what kind of sounds she'd make if he did so, and he'd remember the chocolate cheesecake they'd shared one night when she'd stayed after an Order meeting to help clean up. The little moan of ecstasy she'd made around the first forkful, and those delectable lips that slid along the tines, the way her tongue darted out daintily to lick the bit that was at the corner of her mouth…

Gritting his teeth, he tried to summon the guilt and reason needed to beat back the sequence of images that had fed his fantasies for months now, but they wouldn't be deterred. Finally, rolling his eyes at himself he swung his legs over the side of the bed and loped to the bathroom. He hadn't had a decent wank in too fucking long, and he'd let himself have this one last send-off before pushing the bright little witch out of his senses and heart for good.

~oOo~