Disclaimer: It's not mine; I'm just borrowing.

Chapter 7

Hermione tried to concentrate through morning classes, but the memory of Sirius' thumb stroking her palm, his warm breath in her hair, his soft lips on her cheek…well, it was quite literally driving her to distraction. Before long, it was time for lunch, and her feet were mindlessly guiding her through the maze-like castle to the Great Hall, where her friends were already waiting for her.

Taking a seat next to Ginny, she was momentarily startled when a small bouquet of little purple blossoms materialized on her plate. A piece of parchment was wrapped around the stems, tied in place with a familiar blue ribbon. Ginny stiffened at the sight, clutching Harry's arm. He turned and, seeing the flowers, cursed under his breath.

"Same guy?"

Hermione didn't answer, but Ginny nodded slowly beside her. "Has to be."

Their exchange had gradually gained the attention of the others present, most notably Sirius, who was staring at the blossoms from across the table with thinly veiled hostility. Draco, who slid in close to Hermione, looked from one grim face to the next with a bemused expression.

"Alright, what's going on? I thought girls liked getting flowers?"

Ginny reached for the bouquet, inspecting it closely before placing it back on the table before Hermione. "Hermione has a bit of a stalker. He's right creepy, honestly. He sends her a different sort of flower every so often, each one with a meaning behind it, along with a cryptic little note. Go on, Mione. See what he's written this time."

Hermione raised trembling fingers to untie the parchment, rolling it out flat where Ginny could easily read it.

Hermione, my love, my pet—

I should not have you think my devotion expired.

I am, as always, with you.

Your new friends cannot rival my affections,

And would be wise not to try.

Thinking of you in fields of fragrant heliotrope, I remain,

Yours, as you are mine.

Draco leaned across her to read the short note aloud to the group. "Charming."

Harry was staring at the table as though willing it to burst into flames, consuming the offending note. "At least there weren't any pictures this time."

Remus leaned forward, his elbows resting on the table top. "He's sent you pictures of himself?"

Harry gritted his teeth. "No, pictures of…"

"Me." Hermione spoke for the first time since her arrival. "And not out of the papers, either. Me out shopping. At the park. At my parents' house. He follows me."

"And you've never seen him?" Remus asked.

Hermione shook her head, while Draco responded. "Disillusionment charms are easy enough to learn."

Ginny took up the note, looking closely as though hoping to discover some hidden clue. "The thing I'm wondering, though, is how it got here. Isn't all of your fan mail being forwarded to a private box while you're at school?"

"Yes, but this didn't exactly come in the mail, did it? It materialized on my plate, meaning it came from the…"

"Kitchens." Sirius interjected, his arms crossed over his chest and his slate eyes flashing. "Which means he's here, at the school. Right now."

Draco turned to Hermione again. "A student?"

"Looks that way."

Remus reached across the table, lifting the small bouquet and sniffing at it cautiously. "Heliotrope. So, what's the meaning of heliotrope?"

"Faithfulness. I believe the literal translation is 'I remain true.'" Six heads turned to regard Neville with raised eyebrows. "What? You know I love Herbology!"

Ginny grinned playfully. "Sure you're not Hermione's stalker, Neville?"

He blushed furiously. "No! I mean, it's not that you're not nice and all, Hermione, but well, I sort of have eyes for one girl only." He shot a wistful look at the Ravenclaw table and a head of long, dirty blonde hair.

Hermione sighed. "Oh well. You've broken my heart, Neville Longbottom, but Luna's a lucky girl. I think you two'd be great together."

He grinned down at his plate, muttering something about 'oblivious blondes' and 'might as well be invisible'.

Having effectively lightened the mood, Hermione stuffed the note in her pocket and started filling her plate with food that suddenly looked incredibly unappetizing. She ate anyway, determined not to let this latest note get to her.

"So, boys, what did McGonagall have to say?" Sirius was still staring angrily at the flowers lying unobtrusively next to the salad bowl, so Hermione directed her question to Remus.

"She said that they're looking into methods of returning us, but that for the time being, we should attend classes with you lot. Of course, what she expects us to do without any of our things, no clothes, no books…"

Harry eagerly jumped in. "We can buy you all new things. Now that Sirius is back, I can return the money left to me in his will, as well as the house."

Sirius finally broke off from his stare, raising his head to eye Harry incredulously. "What money? I ran away more than two years ago, I haven't a penny to my name."

"I know you left home, but you still inherited the Black fortune. And Grimmauld Place."

Sirius' face contorted with disgust. "No, no way! I swore to myself I would never cross that threshold again! And besides, what about Reg? He should have gotten everything."

Harry fell silent, looking to Hermione in a silent plea for assistance. She sighed heavily. "Sirius…Regulus died when he was 18 years old. He turned against Voldemort and gave his life in an attempt to bring him down. He…he was very brave, but he's gone."

Sirius stared blankly at her, the tightening of his jaw the only indication of the silent battle raging beneath his calm exterior. Pinching his eyes closed, he drew in a great, shuddering breath. "Tell me, is bloody anyone—anyone at all still alive?! How can they—excuse me, we all be dead? Just what the fuck has happened to the world over the past twenty years?! Reg, fucking Reg--"

Remus placed a hand on Sirius's heaving shoulder, but Sirius batted it away, pushing up from the table and storming out of the hall. Remus cast an apologetic look at the others before following his raven haired friend into the entrance hall and out the front doors, Hermione close behind him.

Sirius broke into a sprint the moment his feet touched soil. He ran towards the forest, desperation fueling his long strides, determination setting the path beneath his pounding feet. The second he flitted beneath the shadowy cover of the ancient trees he shifted, dropping down to four padded feet, shifting through the confusion and the chaos to a place of primal simplicity. And he ran.

Remus reached the forest moments after, Hermione crashing through the low underbrush behind him. He stopped, reaching an arm out to catch her as she hurtled past, pulling her back against his chest as he worked to slow his breathing.

"Hermione, no! He's fine, he'll be fine." It took him a moment to register her great heaving breaths as sobs, and then he turned her to face him. She looked ragged, torn and anguished as she gasped her broken sobs into the stillness of the forest.

"I shouldn't—I didn't—I'm sorry!"

"Hey, no, Hermione. You've done nothing wrong." He pulled her against him where she collapsed, clinging pitifully to his robes.

"I never wanted to—oh god, Remus, I can't stand this! I remember, I remember him so clearly…how hurt, how lost and hurt he was. He shouldn't have to hurt like that again—it's not bloody fair! He's right…so many people, so many good, brave, kind people just gone. And now, to have you two back, it felt like a miracle, but not if you're going to keep hurting this way!"

Remus held tight to the sobbing girl, feeling a clawing in his chest as her words dredged up images of friends he hadn't even had the chance to mourn yet. He pushed them down, compacting his hurt into a tight knot in the pit of his stomach, and straightened his shoulders, steeled himself to face this horrifying reality head-on.

"Hermione, listen to me. Sirius, he's strong. He's strong enough for this. We-we both are. Maybe not alone, but we're not alone, are we? We have each other, and you, and the others, and we can do this, together. Because Sirius is the most stubborn bastard I've ever met, and he doesn't give up. Ever."

He tilted her head back so he could look into her red-rimmed eyes, brushing a wayward curl from her face. "It'll be alright."

She took a deep breath, while much calmer tears escaped her bristly lashes. "I'm starting to think it was horribly selfish of me to want to keep you both here—to make you go through all of this."

Remus shook his head, drying her cheeks with calloused thumbs. "This isn't your fault, Hermione. Whether you wanted us or not, we're here, and we may never go back."

She smiled sadly up at him. "I'll always want you here, both of you. I just want you to have a chance at happiness. You were both dealt far too much misery, too much pain. I want to believe this is the universe's way of creating balance."

Remus smiled wanly. "An equilibrium of fortune."

"Exactly."

"I don't think it works that way, Hermione."

She just shook her head. "You're here, aren't you? Against all odds, against all logic, you're here. That has to mean something. It could have been anyone in that classroom, or no one at all. The sand could have spun back two years instead of twenty-one. But it was you, you and Sirius, transported not into a room full of strangers, but to people who know and care about you. The odds of that happening the way it did must have been astronomical, but it did happen, and you are here."

Remus quirked an amused eyebrow at her impassioned rant. "Sounds like you're talking about fate. I'm sorry, Hermione, but I'm much too practical a bloke to believe in that."

"I used to be, too. But I've seen things, hell I've done things, that have made a believer out of me. And this, well this takes the cake." She used her shirtsleeves to dry her cheeks, still sniffling pitifully.

Remus smiled tiredly at her, wiping away a missed tear near her chin. "Maybe you're right. But, fate or no fate, the forbidden forest is not an appropriate place for lovely young ladies such as yourself to spend their time. Sirius knows these woods well; I'm sure he'll come in when he's ready."

Hermione rolled her eyes fondly. "It's not as though I've never been inside the forest before. But you go on. I'm just going to go sit by the lake a while. Tell the others I'll be in shortly?"

Remus nodded and, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear, he turned and headed for the castle. Hermione watched him go a moment before turning and winding her way through the dim outskirts of the forest until she found the small cove where Harry had rescued Sirius from the dementors third year. She sat herself down on a patch of dried leaves, her back resting against the wide trunk of a towering oak tree, and looked out over the calm, dark water.

It was some time later, she had no real idea how long, when she heard a soft rustling in the brush behind her. Tensing, her hand tightly gripping her wand, she watched as a large black dog pushed its way through the undergrowth. Releasing her grip, she smiled warmly at him as he picked his way to her side, lowering himself to lie beside her, his muzzle resting on her lap.

She ran her fingers through his glossy coat, silently noting the subtle differences in the hair and build of this much younger Padfoot. He huffed once, nudging her leg gently with his nose while she scratched behind his ears.

"I'm sorry." Her voice was barely more than a whisper, and no more than was needed as he licked her hand once before settling against her quietly.