Those blasted red knickers.
The third gift was... inspiring.
Remus was still at home recovering from a particularly violent full moon. Hermione, naturally, was in a complete tizzy about him. He was taking days more to recover than usual, and she was starting to worry about his well being.
She didn't notice the little white box sitting on the checkout counter when she walked in. She was too busy fumbling to put the store keys back in her bag to see the ominous object.
She managed to walk straight past it, into the store room at the back, and start her morning without so much as a glance at the gift.
It was nearing ten o'clock when the first customer walked in – a handsome young man, with dark curly hair and brown eyes.
Hermione's head snapped up from where she was cleaning a stack of shelves in a far back corner of the shop.
"Yes?" she asked politely, a somewhat stiff smile curving her lips.
He smiled warmly at her in return. "Are you Hermione Granger?"
She nodded silently, and wiped her hands on the damp towel she was using the wash the shelves, before standing and making her way over to the young man.
As she came closer, the man gestured over the checkout counter. "This is addressed to you."
Hermione's eyes trailed over to the innocent white box sitting upon the tabletop. She stiffened, but refrained from wailing in frustration at the occurrence of yet another sordid gift.
She glanced over to the young man, before moving to the counter, and grasping the box in her hands. For a split second after she picked it up, she was overwhelmed by the horrific thought of the bottom giving way, and having the distasteful contents spill over the floor for the stranger to see.
She quickly moved her hand to cup the bottom of the box in response.
The man smiled at her, his eyes twinkling. "Secret admirer?"
Hermione's left shoulder rose in a half-hearted shrug. "I doubt it. But thank you for telling me it was here." She quickly shrunk the box down and put it in her jeans pocket. She then turned back to the young man. "Can I help you with anything?"
As he started listing titles off, his grin wide, straight, and bleach white, Hermione wondered oddly if the man ever didn't smile. It was odd, but Hermione was taken by how friendly and genuine he seemed.
Eventually, when his long list of books had been extinguished, Hermione helped the young man – Henry, his name was – carry his load to the checkout counter.
"Are these all for you?" she asked as she shrunk the books and placed them in a small shopping bag.
"Yeah," he answered – smiling, again. Surely his cheek muscles must be hurting by now? "I must confess, I'm a bit of a swot. I love my reading."
This time, Hermione gave Henry a genuine smile. She could definitely relate to that. "That's why I work in a book store." She gestured to the shelves. "Endless access to whatever books I want."
Henry chuckled and leaned on the counter, his books forgotten. "So, Hermione Granger. What's your favourite book?"
They talked for well over an hour, only pausing between customers that needed assistance. He even went so far as to help customers by himself when Hermione's attention was drawn away by another. Hermione kept a careful ear out on these occasions, in case Henry said something counter-productive.
She was pleasantly surprised when she found him well-informed, polite, and professional.
As she watched him talk to an older gentleman about a good book that instructed on how to distinguish the different breeds of garden gnomes, Hermione wondered if Henry had a job. He was young – younger than her by at least five years, she was sure – which gave her reason to believe that he might just have been fresh out of school and perhaps hadn't found part-time employment yet while he studied. If he studied, Hermione had to remind herself.
He certainly was charming and well mannered enough for the store, that much was for sure.
She was brought out of her musings by the store bell ringing. She turned in time to see Penny Sortis toddle her way into the store.
"Hello, Mrs. Sortis," Hermione smiled. "How are you?"
Penny smiled toothily in return. "I'm well, and yourself, dear?"
Hermione responded with a positive reply. "Good, good. I'm afraid Remus isn't here today."
Penny's smile turned wistful. "Oh, that's too bad. I had hoped to see him soon. You see, my husband and I are going away for a few weeks."
Hermione was curious now. "Where are you going?"
"Turkey," Penny answered with a smile. "Eustis has family over there, and it's high time we went and saw them."
Hermione's smile became a little strained. She hadn't seen her parents since she had obliviated them all those years ago. After the war had ended, she had gone looking for them, but they were long gone by the time she had arrived in Australia. Gone without a trace. Whether the Death Eater's had found them, or they had simply moved away without telling anyone, she would likely never know.
She turned to observe Henry as he now waited by the counter, holding a book in a pair of well-manicured hands and reading the blurb. "I hope you have a good trip. I'm sure your family will be thrilled to have you."
Penny, for all she was a rather eccentric old bird, was sharp as a tack. Hermione felt the older woman lay a hand on her shoulder. "You lost your family in the war, didn't you, dear?"
Hermione nodded stiffly. "Yes, though I was lucky enough to have the support of my friends in the aftermath. Not many people even had that much."
"No, I suppose not," Penny's tone turned contemplative.
Hermione dropped her eyes to her feet for a second, before sighing deeply. "Penny?"
The older woman smiled kindly at her.
Hermione let a somewhat naughty smirk take over her features. Best to move away from such depressing subjects, and what better way than to let penny have a sticky-beak into the potential new employee. "Remus and I both value your opinion. That young man by the counter there looks like he has potential to be trustworthy enough to be a part-time employee. Would you mind talking to him? You somehow seem to get information out of people before they even know what they're saying."
Penny's answering smile was almost shark-like. "Of course. Of course. Let me see here..." she quickly made her way over to Henry. "Excuse me young man, but would you-"
Mrs. Sortis quickly managed to corner Henry, successfully causing the young man to grow pale and stammer uncertainly through their conversation. Hermione watched their interaction with a curious tilt to her head. For such a small, homely woman, Penny had an alarming ability to make people (men in particular) incredibly uncomfortable.
Five minutes later, and Penny finally withdrew, causing the frightened young man the visibly slump against the bookcase behind him and exhale heavily. Penny turned and moved toward the exit, but not before giving Hermione a thumbs up and a naughty wink. Hermione smiled to the older woman in turn and gave a grateful nod.
As the door bell gave Mrs. Sortis' departure a final ring, Hermione turned back to Henry, who stood from the bookshelf, straightened his shirt – had it been untucked at the back before...? – and gave Hermione yet another smile, though this one lacked the wattage of its brothers.
"You wouldn't happen to be looking for a job, would you, Henry?"
Hermione poked her head around the open doorway leading into Remus' bedroom. Surprisingly, he wasn't asleep, and was instead slumped limply in the armchair by his window as he read. He didn't greet her, and Hermione immediately took the opportunity to admire the way his glasses seemed to add another level of bookish charisma to his person before he realised she was there.
She bit her lip for a moment, feeling her cheeks burn pink at the way he licked his thumb before turning a page. Oh, the things she wanted to do to that thumb alone...
Well, that thought certainly got the blood rushing straight to her face. She was certain that she looked like a frizzy haired tomato as she whispered to him, "Remus?"
He looked up at her and smiled tiredly. "Hello. Good day at the store?"
Hermione nodded silently, smiling as she stepped further into the room. She sat opposite him, on the edge of his bed, sandwiching her hands between her knees as she leaned forward to speak to him. "Very good, actually. I think I've found that part time employee you've been mumbling about getting these past few months."
His eyebrows rose in inquiry. She understood he was too tired to speak unnecessarily.
"His name's Henry," she continued. "Fresh out of Hogwarts, but very mature for his age and will need the money if he goes through with his plans to do a mastery in curse breaking. Very smart. Very polite."
Remus gave her a considering look. "Sounds perfect. Did you get his contact details?"
Hermione nodded silently, pulling out a folded square of parchment and handing it to him.
"Thank you," he smiled again, this time a little more animatedly. "I'll contact him in the next few days."
"Don't rush yourself," Hermione reminded gently, leaning forward to grasp his forearm. "The last full moon has taken more out of you than normal."
"Yes, well," Remus looked down into his lap and cleared his throat. "Blue moons will do that to a person."
Hermione tilted her head in curiosity. "Blue moons are worse?"
Remus nodded, and with a soft grunt, pushed himself gingerly out of his armchair. "Not sure why, but they always seem to put me out of commission for far longer than the normal full moon."
Hermione stayed close to him as he slowly made his way towards the door, wary of his lack of strength, but all too aware that he didn't want help. "I wonder why that is..."
Remus shot her a sideways glance, his blue eyes shrewd. "You're going to research it, aren't you?"
Hermione smiled at him, blushing part way in pride, the other in embarrassment. "Of course."
Remus chuckled then, grasping at the doorframe for support as he passed through into the kitchen. "Tea? I won't be particularly lively company, but you're welcome to stay for dinner as well, if you'd like."
Hermione shared a secretive smile with her feet as she tucked her curls behind her ear. "I'd like that."
Dinner was absolutely fabulous - Hermione ended up cooking for the both of them - and very much like he had warned, Remus wasn't at all the life of the party, but Hermione hung onto every word he had said, quiet and self-assured as always, and found herself giving him a doe-eyed expression as he had stood to put their empty plates away.
By that time, it was nearly midnight, so Remus had offered her the bed in his spare room, stating that appirition and fatigue were a bad combination. The fact that he owned a floo hadn't occurred to Hermione at all.
When she woke the next morning, it was nearly seven. She had glanced at the clock next to her bed and all but launched herself out of it the second her eyes had trained on the ticking hands.
As Hermione walked into the kitchen, she spotted Remus on his knees in front of the fireplace. She was about to tell him good morning, when she spotted the box she had received the day before crumpled in his hand. In the other lay a jar of what looked like some sort of chocolate syrup.
"-stop these gifts right now, Sirius," Remus said in a harsh whisper. "What if she had opened this yesterday?"
Hermione felt her jaw pop open at Remus' words. It was Sirius that had been sending her gifts? But then... did that mean that he was interested in...? She quickly dropped to her hands and knees, crawling behind the kitchen island so that she could continue to listen to their conversation.
"So?" Sirius' voice floated up from the fire. "It'd probably do her some good to-"
"She'd have immediately thought it was me, Sirius! Chocolate body paint? Really?"
Well, that answered any question as to whether Remus would ever have any interest in her. Hermione had to exhale audibly as her chest constricted. Still, she didn't move.
"Oh, come now," Sirius' voice rang through the room, his voice taking on a deep timbre that was deliberately provocative. "You of all people know how much fun one can have with a bit of liquid chocolate."
"Don't try to rile me, Sirius. I know what you're doing and I don't approve."
"Would it be so bad if she did think it was you? You've been mooning over her for months now, Remus, and quite frankly I'm getting a bit sick of the way you two look at each other. It's a cross between prepubescent horny teenager and virginal schoolgirl all mixed into one. Do you have any idea how nauseating it is to be around you two?"
"So you decided to sabotage our friendship in order to stop us from behaving in a manner that is completely normal? Sirius, be reasonable!"
"Me?" Sirius squawked, "I'm the unreasonable one? You two are the ones being unreasonable. Anyone with a pair of eyes can see that she's absolutely smitten with you, and you - self-depreciating, lonely, old man that you are - have some twisted sense of honour that stops you from acting on it!"
Hermione's heart was in her throat as her jaw steadily dropped closer and closer to the floor. Eyes wide, she peeked out from behind her hiding place, only to have Sirius step out of the fire at that very moment and spot her. They stared at each other for but a moment, before Hermione shook her head furiously at him, giving a silent plea that he would not draw attention to her presence in the room.
Sirius gave an almost imperceptible nod and turned back to his friend. He then spoke imperiously, "I'm not having this conversation with you through the fire, Remus. It's about time someone knocked some sense into you. This has been going on long enough."
Sirius grasped Remus' shoulder and pushed him firmly into the armchair that sat next to the fire.
Hermione heart thundered in her ears as Remus spoke pleadingly to his old friend. "This is wrong Sirius. She's twenty years younger than I am. Half the time, I feel like I should walk myself into Azkaban for even looking at her. "
"I doubt that's the real reason holding you back, Remus," Sirius, sharp as a tack and blunt as always. "You taught her when she was thirteen, and I understand why you'd have some problems with that, but you've known her far longer as an adult than you had as a child." Sirius eyes lazily slid to her hiding spot as he raised his hands and cupped an imaginary pair of breasts. "And you have to admit, no child has a pair of tits quite as fantastic as hers."
Hermione gave Sirius a dirty look from her hiding spot as Remus slowly, deliberately grasped one of Sirius' errant hands and lowered it. "I hope all you're doing is looking at her breasts, old friend." The warning was clear in his voice and judging by Sirius' sudden gaping mouth and pained expression, Remus' grip on his hand was far stronger than it looked.
"Of course it is!" Sirius shook his hand to return blood flow and gave Remus a petulant look. "Even if I did, the girl's so hopelessly in love with you that she'd sooner lick the floor of your shop than touch me, and you know it."
Hermione's face pulled down in disgust at the thought of both scenarios. The room grew silent and she watched as Remus lowered his head, clearly contemplating.
"I know you want me to go after her, Sirius," the werewolf said softly, ignoring his friends sarcastic and disbelieving, "No."
He paused, then blew out a long breath. "But I just can't. Let's leave it at that."
Remus moved to stand up, clearly having had enough of the conversation, only to voice his surprise when Sirius none too gently pressed him back into the armchair with a stern look.
"Let's not leave it at that, old friend." Had she not known Sirius better, Hermione might have called his following smile nasty. Needless to say, it was clearly an expression borne out of frustration.
"Sirius-" Remus' low warning was promptly cut off.
"No. I honestly do feel that your welfare - as well as hers - will be compromised if you don't deal with this now, Remus. If you won't deal with it, then I'm going to her and telling her everything."
"Don't you dare," Remus' voice cut through the air like a rasp, gravelled with sudden, animalistic warning.
Sirius leaned over his friend as if the verbal warning hadn't rattled him like it had Hermione. "Then tell me why."
Silence. Hermione could only see Sirius face, but his expression was enough to know that they were staring each other down in a way that was canine and utterly dominant. The tension in the room grew to the point where Hermione wondered if she should make herself known in order to dispel any blows that might arise.
But just as she was about to get up, Remus spoke softly, desperately. "She'll leave me. She'll leave me and I won't be able to pick myself back up, this time." Sirius leaned back from his friend, expression grave, silent, and let Remus continue. " Because she is the love of my life, and I'd rather keep her as a friend than risk losing her to my own selfishness."
A/N: Please don't expect another update any time soon. I practically had a haemorrhage trying to get this chapter up to standard and am still not quite happy with it.
Happy reading! J