The man at the far end of the bar wore a long grey coat. He had brown curls and wore tortoise-shell spectacles, and his cheeks were pink as if from the cold although he'd been sitting at the bar since before she came in. He looked oddly familiar.
Well, not familiar exactly; it wasn't that Hermione thought they'd met before. But something about the way he held himself reminded her of Remus Lupin, and the memory of Hogwarts rose tight in her heart. On impulse, she beckoned the barmaid over.
"I'd like to buy that fellow a drink," she said quietly. "What's he having?"
The maid shook her head. "Fizzbang water, is all. Between you and me, I'm not sure he has two knuts to rub together; he'll sit and nurse that water for another hour before going home. 's what he did last night."
Hermione thought about it for a second. "Give him a glass of the best firewhiskey you've got, then." It was an extravagance, but what was the point of working if not to be able to indulge oneself now and again? She certainly wasn't working retail for the fun of it.
The laws against hiring Muggle-borns had been rescinded after the War, but somehow none of the applications she'd submitted for decent Wizarding jobs had borne fruit. It was just the sort of unspoken prejudice that made her blood boil, but she had little taste for fighting the tide, these days. Getting on with her doctorate was a lot more pleasant, and once she had the degree and was in a position of power someplace, maybe then she'd be able to do something about it.
For now, if she were stuck wasting fifteen hours of every week telling Muggle women that boring gabardine suits were flattering, at least she could enjoy an evening out now and again, and that included buying drinks for strangers. Didn't it?
She hadn't been in the mood to go out with Tonks or Ginny again, or any of her university friends. She had begged off several invitations, claiming she just wanted a quiet study night at home, but the truth of the matter was, Hermione missed a kind of companionship she didn't know where to find, and nothing was more depressing than feeling alone in a party of friends. She was on her second pint, and there was no reason not to buy a drink for the quiet wizard with the curls. It was worth lifting one's spirits however one could, and if she'd lifted his spirits as well, so much the better.
Hermione looked back down at her book and sipped at her cider, and managed not to watch as the barmaid poured the drink and slid it down the polished cherry surface, though she overheard his sound of surprise, and her response, "from the witch at the end of the bar."
She glanced up, but the man wasn't there anymore. Before she could register disappointment, a voice came from behind her right ear.
"I understand I have you to thank for this." His voice was low and musical.
She turned; he stood behind her, holding up his highball glass. He seemed startled when he saw her face. Perhaps she looked vaguely familiar to him, too? Or maybe he was unaccustomed to women buying him drinks.
"I do appreciate it," he went on, "though I must admit I'm in no position to return the favour."
"Oh, I didn't expect you to," she said, quickly, then stifled a wince when she realized it might sound like she meant he looked poor. Though he did; up close his coat was shabby, the cuffs threadbare. Maybe he was underemployed, too. "It's just—you remind me of someone I used to know."
"Ah." There was a pause. His posture was tentative, and she wondered whether he were hiding something. He might have sided with Voldemort, back when the War was on; or he might have been oblivious to the War altogether; or he might just be terminally shy. No way to know, really.
Hermione felt compelled to fill the silence."Someone I used to fancy, actually," she said, not quite sure why she was admitting it. Though what would it matter? "A teacher I had once. I wish I knew what had become of him. Anyway, enjoy the firewhiskey."
The man looked away for a split second, and it seemed that his appearance wavered. Out of the corner of Hermione's eye the curls flickered into hair that was straight, the spectacles wavered out of sight and then solidified again, a moustache was there and then was gone.
Her mouth was open. She made herself close it. She took a long drink of her cider. "Professor Lupin? Is it you?" she asked, too quietly for anyone else in the bar to hear.
A wry smile played over the stranger's face. "It's a good glamour," he said, equally softly. "But not perfect."
Hermione felt herself beaming. "'Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,'" she said, then stopped herself. "Sorry. It's a line from—"
"Casablanca." His eyes were amused. "I'm not entirely cinematically illiterate, you know."
Right. He was Muggle-born, too. But were his parents still alive? Maybe it was better to leave that subject alone. "I can't believe it's—I want to know—I mean—you've —" Too many questions, and she wanted to ask them all at once. And she couldn't ask any of them here. "My flat," she said. "Hang on, let me pay our tab."
"You don't have to," he began, reaching for his pocket, but she shook her head.
"I want to." I wanted to even when you were a stranger, because that stranger reminded me of you, she thought. She left it unspoken. It was embarrassing enough that she'd just admitted her schoolgirl crush; she certainly wasn't going to remind him of it. "But do drink up; that's too good to go to waste."
He saluted her with the glass and tipped it back, closing his eyes. As though he knew she would relish watching him drink it.
By the time Hermione twitched her wand and illumined the room, Professor Lupin was standing in the middle of her lounge, looking like himself now, his face a bit bemused.
She threw her arms around him; it took him a moment to respond, as though he were surprised by the embrace, or unused to the contact. But they hugged long and hard before stepping apart.
"I can't believe it's really you," she said, again.
"Alive and in the flesh," he said, making a little bow.
"I want to know everything—well, anything you'll tell me about where you've been," she amended. "Let me put on some tea."
She measured Lapsang Souchong into the pot, then tapped it twice with her wand. By the time she'd brought the teapot and two mugs into the lounge, he had spelled a fire, and was standing by it looking at the photographs on her mantel. One was of Harry with Sirius, taken at Grimmauld Place at the end of the summer before their fifth year. Harry scowled, and Sirius ruffled his hair and waved at the camera.
"I still can't believe Sirius is gone," she said, quietly.
Lupin sighed. "Nor can I. I've spent the last three years trying to find him, though, and I'm starting to—"
"Don't give up," she interrupted. "You mustn't." She remembered, so clearly, Dumbledore sending Remus off to research the veil after Voldemort's defeat. They'd all thought he'd figure it out in a flash, that Sirius would be back among them by May Day, or midsummer at the latest...
"I don't intend to. But I don't know that we'll be able to get him back." He sighed, and in that moment looked older and sadder than she could bear.
"Tea," she said, unnecessarily. He accepted the mug, and they curled into opposite corners of her sofa.
"First tell me about you," he said.
And so she did. How, after the War, she'd begun study at Cambridge; how she was working in the library. She didn't bother telling him about her idiotic second job; he might not know that the regulations against giving wizarding jobs to Muggle-borns were still in effect for all intents and purposes, and there was no point in dwelling on it. It just made her angry, and she didn't want to waste rare time with him that way. When she mentioned that the Order was still casting about for a new purpose his lips tightened slightly, so she steered the conversation away.
In return he offered a few details of his last three years. Time spent in Austria and in Tibet. Research into what precisely was on the other side of that infernal veil. A variety of spells and rituals designed to retrieve Sirius, or at least to communicate with him. On the whole, not a lot of success.
Between the lines, Hermione read that he had moved around a great deal; that he had not befriended anyone in his travels; that he wasn't sure whether he missed the Order or not.
It didn't take long for him to sum up, and she sensed that he would make his exit soon thereafter. Which she didn't want him to do. Either he would vanish again, or he would announce himself to the Order and she would have to share him with Tonks and Mrs. Weasley and the others; tonight she was the only one who knew he was here. And he was sitting in her very lounge, and she didn't want to give that up. It was too like her fantasies, having him right there trading stories with her.
So she started telling him about her dissertation. As she'd hoped, he caught her enthusiasm for alchemy in a flash. He asked good questions. The conversation seemed to animate him. For her, it was pure intellectual pleasure; how many of her friends were willing to talk about arcane alchemical texts until the wee hours of the morning? Besides, there was the low buzz of excitement at being with Professor Lupin again, this time very nearly as peers.
An hour later she went to make more tea. "You'd make a brilliant advisor, Professor," she called from the kitchen. She was measuring mint and chammomile this time; clearly they didn't need the stimulants in another pot of proper tea.
"I'm glad you think so," he said, a moment late. "And do call me Remus." That sizzled pleasantly along her spine, but she schooled herself to ignore it. Given his absent tone, she expected to find him gazing at the photographs again, but when she returned to the room with steaming kettle in hand, he was looking into the distance.
"What's on your mind?"
"At this precise moment? Surprise that you used to fancy me, actually."
"One of the hazards of teaching, I imagine," Hermione said. "Young witches and wizards mooning over one all the time."
He laughed, but it didn't seem to be at her pun. "That wasn't really a hazard that I had to deal with."
"More fools they, then," she said. A little archly.
"It's flattery, but I'll take it," he said, reaching for the teapot.
The flirtation warmed her more than the fire, and more than the tea. Even if it meant nothing.
After a while Remus yawned. Then Hermione did. She wondered, for the zillionth time, what made yawns contagious. Neither Muggle science nor wizarding knowledge had an explanation for that.
Eventually he shifted in his seat, preparing to rise. "I appreciate your hospitality, Hermione, but it's getting late."
"Where are you staying?"
"Oh, here and there," Remus said, his tone airy, but he didn't meet her eyes. He didn't have anywhere to stay: she was sure of it. Half the Order would have been delighted to put him up—indeed, even to know that he was back in town, even if he hadn't succeeded in bringing Sirius home—but she didn't want to push him on why he hadn't made his presence known.
"Right then. You're spending the night here," she said, firmly.
"I wouldn't want to inconvenience you," he began.
"Remus," she said. She tried to sound as resolute as possible.
He smiled, looking down at his hands spread on his thighs. "If you insist. But I'll kip on the sofa; I wouldn't put you out of your bed."
Hermione bit her lip. She knew she shouldn't say it. She knew she'd be opening up a Pandora's box if she did. She knew it was a bad idea. But it seemed that having mentioned Sirius at the start of the evening had brought his presence into the room, and he was urging her to be reckless for once in her life, to let the words through. "You wouldn't have to."
"It's big enough for two," she said. She felt giddy.
There was a pause.
"Hermione, I—I'm flattered." His tone said, but I can't.
She had told herself that her hopes weren't high, but the implied refusal made her heart sink anyway. "You prefer men. It's all right; hardly the first time someone's turned me down on that account."
"It's just that I—hardly the first time?"
She quirked a half-smile, remembering. "Harry and Ron."
"Oh dear," Remus said. She could see sympathy and amusement warring in his face.
"It was fairly traumatic at the time. Wouldn't be sixteen again if you paid me. But once I realized they weren't rejecting me, exactly, it got much easier to bear. And they deserve each other, honestly."
Remus laughed. "Are they still...?"
"Oh, yes. Living outside of Liverpool. Ron's with the Ministry, Harry's Seeker for Puddlemere United. I see them pretty often."
"That's good, then—but —" He took a deep breath. "It's not that I don't fancy women, Hermione. I've always been inclined in both directions. I just —"
"Don't fancy me, then." She didn't mean to sound quite so upset, but it slipped out anyway.
"Would you stop finishing my sentences? You're wrong, by the by."
That shut her up, as it was intended to. Remus sighed. "I'm still in love with Sirius," he said, finally.
"And it means I don't have much heart left over to give."
"I'm not asking for your heart."
He raised an eyebrow.
"All right, I am, but only for a tiny piece," she acknowledged, and he laughed, rueful.
I want to bring you comfort, she thought. I want to remind you what it's like to be touched. I want to welcome you home in my body.
"I care about you a great deal," she said, finally. "I'm not asking for anything you can't give."
"I'm not a great catch."
"Remus Lupin, if you honestly think your lycanthropy matters one whit—"
"It does matter, Hermione. You haven't seen—"
"I have," she reminded him. "When I was thirteen. Remember? It didn't put me off you then, and it doesn't scare me now."
His smile was sad. "There's also the matter of my being in love with a man who's probably dead."
"We're all wounded," Hermione said. Thinking of her own losses: the life she had thought she'd have with Harry, or with Ron. Bill Weasley, who they'd lost in the first battle of her seventh year. Luna, who'd gone not a month after. The unshakeable faith she'd once had in Dumbledore, which had turned into something probably more mature but far less satisfying. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't take comfort where we can."
His gaze was intent on her face.
"And besides," she added, feeling her face heating but ploughing on anyway, "I still fancy you."
That earned a laugh. Somehow over the course of the conversation they had moved slightly closer together on the sofa, and her right knee was touching his left. Funny how such an insignificant touch could matter so much. Anticipation prickled at Hermione's skin.
"Are you sure, Hermione?"
She put every ounce of certainty and pleasure she could into "yes."
The kiss was slow and sweet. Remus tasted of tea and honey.
After an indeterminate while she led him to the bedroom. She tugged her jumper off and unzipped her skirt, pushing it to the floor. When she looked over Remus was sitting on the edge of the bed, unfastening his waistcoat, but there was a wildness in his eyes that she hadn't seen before.
"Want help with that?" she asked, standing in front of him and reaching to undo a button on his shirt. He reached up and cupped her breast, thumb stroking over the nipple, and she couldn't help a sigh.
She used both hands to work her way down the row of buttons on his shirt, finally pulling it free. His hands learned the contours of her breasts, ribcage, collarbones. As she placed one palm over his heart he inhaled, hard, and she realized he was scenting her. That he could smell her arousal. The thought made her weak in the knees.
She urged him onto the bed and climbed over him, and when they returned to kissing again she swallowed his small gasps. Her face tingled from the rub of his moustache, the imprint of his lips.
His mouth on her breasts was incredibly good, almost too good; she jerked under him, and when he grinned at her she wanted to melt. Happiness looked good on Remus. Turn about was fair play, so she rolled him beneath her and breathed warm air through his trousers, mouthing him through the cloth. His voice was hoarse when he sighed her name.
When they were both naked at last he braced himself over her, one hand at the base of his erection and the other pressing into the mattress over her shoulder. He looked like he was about to ask again whether this was really what she wanted, so Hermione answered before he could ask. "Please," she murmured.
His hair was mussed, his lips were reddened, his body was lean and wiry over hers. His pace was maddeningly slow and grindingly perfect. And as impossibly good as it felt to feel him inside her, Hermione forced her eyes to stay open, wanting to look into his eyes. Wanting to see the pleasure play across his features. Wanting to show him with her gaze all of the things she could not, and would not, say aloud.
This, too, was a kind of magic. The oldest kind.
He waited until she had come, squirming and sighing, before he withdrew entirely and then slid back home, his back stiffening as he pulsed inside her. The feel of it made her moan; her clenching made him gasp, a quiet "oh" that sent her over the edge again.
Afterwards they spooned together under the covers. Remus' body blanketed her from behind, his knees bent with hers, his arms around her. Some part of Hermione's brain wondered how long it had been since he'd slept with a woman, how she'd measured up to Sirius, but she pushed the thoughts away.
"See? I told you this was a good idea," she murmured. Convincing herself as well as him.
He pressed a kiss into the back of her neck. "You always were bright." The feel of his lips elicited a quiver, and the compliment warmed her. Remus sounded like he was smiling. Perhaps he didn't need convincing afterall.
There was no telling what tomorrow would bring. How long this would last. Whether it would last at all. Whether Remus would tell the Order he was here, or whether he would disappear again. Everything was uncertain.
But her body tingled pleasantly, and her brain was still astir with their conversation. And she would sleep warm and contented, and maybe Remus would too. Even if it were all they could offer each other, at least for tonight, it would be enough.