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A game of cards...

Settling again at Grimmauld Place didn’t take Remus long, and as the days passed it became more and more difficult for him to concentrate on what work Dumbledore had given him; he felt more like relaxing than carrying out his numerous duties for the Order of the Phoenix.

Every afternoon he trained Ron, Harry, Hermione and Ginny as he had done in Defence Against the Dark Arts in Harry’s third year. The rest of the time he simply stayed with them for as long as he could. He spent hours with Harry, Ron and Ginny having fun, discussing more important issues such as their future jobs, or simply talking or showing them the few things they didn’t know yet, like a few tricks with the wand that had much more funny applications than defence techniques.

Grimmauld Place felt like home with them around.

He snickered. Home. He had no home.

Home was the place where you could stay and be happy. Of course, he’d be staying at Grimmauld Place for longer than usual; probably two weeks─ but even two weeks meant nothing. He’d have to leave, as always: it wouldn’t be long before unexpected news would lead to Dumbledore sending him to another assignment right away.

Every day was the same. It brought news of, again, Aurors who had died, Muggles who had been assassinated, and wizards who had joined Death Eaters. That often made him wonder why all this hatred. The men dressed in black were humans. Were they so unlike?

Probably. Death Eaters shed blood. They had to shed tears.

The only thing that seemed worth it was seeing someone everyday. Hermione.

Seated in the living room, Remus shook his head. He just didn’t seem to be able to stop thinking about her. Strangely, they rarely chatted together. It seemed strange that she acted so weird lately; she never spoke to him unless he addressed her, never took part in the fun with the others in his presence.

Remus took a breath as he realized it wasn’t just her who was acting oddly when they were together. It was him too.

He laid his book down. He’d been reading for about an hour now, but his mind was truly somewhere else. Why did his heart seem to burst every time he saw her? If only he could just stop thinking about how she looked… how smart she was… he wanted to, but was incapable of shutting the door inside his mind that let such thoughts in.

These feelings felt unreal, like a dream that had become true. Or rather like a nightmare that was no longer one but that had come to live.

“Want to play?” Ron abruptly came forward to Remus, showing a game of Exploding Snap he had taken out. Harry was there in the living room too, and so was Ginny. It was already late in the afternoon; they had all trained for a couple of hours after lunch─ nothing really exciting, in truth─ and they had scattered to find some interesting activities, each on their own.

“Sure.” Remus immediately came over, gladly accepting and jumping on the occasion to think about something else. He rose from the couch and came over to the table that Harry had already cleared. It was an antique table made of solid oak wood, and it was one of the little furniture they had, saved from the Black’s old house. Most of the others had been rotten, unusable, or plain ugly.

Remus had a look around, as he often did. Even more than three years after he had entered the house for the first time, it was still gloomy when the sun went down. Lights sent ghostly shadows on the walls and he couldn’t help but wonder how Sirius had survived in such an unpleasant environment─ because with what he, Remus, had glimpsed of his parents, they had been just as horrible as the place they lived in.

“Here.” Harry dealt the cards. Remus went back to what was happening in front of him and took his cards carefully─ they could explode anytime, couldn’t they?

Soon the game became a real set of explosives, because each card laid on the table could make the one next to it blow up. Suddenly there was a detonation and one of Ginny’s card burst into flames in her hands. She leapt in shock and quickly withdrew her hands.

“Hey that’s cheating!” she exclaimed, and then she caught sight of her brother. “Ron!” She playfully punched him in the shoulder. “You can’t set fire to cards in somebody’s hands, only when they’ve been played!”

Ron put on an innocent expression, though looking really pleased with himself.

“How did you do that, by the way?” Ginny asked as Harry sniggered.

“Oh,” Ron grinned, “Fred and George’s tricks.” He shrugged, seemingly proud.

Remus shook his head. He wouldn’t have guessed they were eighteen, and Ginny seventeen, by the way they behaved.

“What are you shaking your head at?” Harry pretended to look offended.

“Grow up,” Remus replied.

Harry and Ron rolled their eyes to the ceiling.

Then Remus took out his wand. It had been too long since he had had fun─ fun without limits, that was; reckless fun. In a quick twist of the wrist, he set fire to both Ron’s and Harry’s cards.

Harry jumped from his chair. “Now, you are going to pay for this,” he said with a nasty wicked smile, taking out his wand.

“No─ wait─ that’s not fair!” Remus said, laughing, seeing Ron getting up too. “That outnumbers me!”

“Oh really?”

Remus eyed both their wands carefully. He could probably take them out, but he’d rather not take risks. Even though they were allowed to use magic now that they were legally adults, he’d rather not play too many games outside of their training sessions every afternoon. He knew it might be fun─ but wands could make some nasty tricks.

“All right,” Harry put his wand away, “but then everything’s allowed.” He and Ron both grabbed Remus’s arms to make him fall off his chair. As Ginny came over too and sided with them─ she wasn’t truly upset at Ron, and after all it was much more fun to all be against Remus, wasn’t it?─ it became a real game of who would nail who to the floor, and Exploding Snap was totally forgotten.

“Ouch─ hey, Harry, that was my arm!” Ron grunted.

“Ginny, grab his legs!” Harry managed to get back on his knees.

Trying to reach him so that he didn’t rise, Lupin seized one of Harry’s hands and pulled so that he fell to the floor. Remus looked around as he realized he was near the couch now. His first idea had been to find something to throw at them─ a cushion or something─ but his eyes fell on a person standing against the wall, staring at them. He immediately realized who it was─ and felt foolish for having not seen her arrive.

Hermione felt her cheeks burn as she became conscious of the fact that he was looking back at her, and she averted her glance. She was feeling a pang of jealousy at the sight of Harry, Ron and Ginny having fun with him. Ron was coming back to grab his arms, and even Ginny was running her fingers along his skin to tickle him, not feeling any kind of embarrassment.

Why would she have? He was like an older brother to them all.

To them all but for her. Hermione looked at her feet and then turned away. She had made a mistake coming in the living room; because now she couldn’t help but wonder, again, why every time she saw him she felt like she was on the edge of an abyss, unable to jump over it and at the same time unable to turn back. There was no solution, no running away, no pretending she didn’t feel anything.

Suddenly Remus felt a lot less like laughing, and his smile vanished like a tree leaf in a gust of wind. As the fun washed away instantly, he quickly grabbed Ron by the waist, and, using all his strength, lifted him. Taking the boy by surprise enabled him to get to Harry and stop him from pinning him to the floor. Ginny let him go of his arm when Harry and Ron did.

Rapidly Lupin excused himself, saying he needed to talk to Ron’s mother, leaving the boys and Ginny alone to a game of their own, and then he went look around for Hermione.

Walking out to find her surprised even him. What exactly was he doing?

Somehow he already knew the answer, but he couldn’t admit it. She was just a young girl, nothing more. There was no way she should puzzle him, no way he should feel drawn to her like that. He shouldn’t be so embarrassed and awkward in her presence. He shouldn’t care so much for Hermione.

And he shouldn’t think so much about her.

Yet despite himself he kept checking room after room─ until he found her in the kitchen, staring outside through the window, alone, an image of beauty in a world that darkened more and more as the hours passed. He realized it was already late in the afternoon; soon it would be time to eat dinner, and then the night would be there. Another day would have gone by, just slid past him and passed his grasp without him being able to control any of it.

His footsteps echoed strangely on the tiled floor as he entered the kitchen but she didn’t turn to look at him, keeping her face hidden from his view.

He walked to her slowly, stopped as soon as he was level with her, and leaned against the wall. Instead of staring at Hermione he imitated her and looked outside the window.

And so they both stood there quietly, gazing at the sunset and at the last rays of light that gradually went down across the horizon, lighting the roofs of the houses nearby and sending golden colours over the edges of the trees.

Seconds ticked by insignificantly. They were both absorbed in their own thoughts─ and they both knew that eventually they would have to break this moment of tranquillity by saying something.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Remus said softly after several minutes. She was beautiful, too.

So hauntingly beautiful.

Now the remaining sunrays faded away, disappearing as though they had never existed, and still she didn’t react. Was she so absorbed by the dusk she didn’t care that he was here? Or was she in pain, totally ignorant to what she saw outside and yet also incapable of looking at him? Would she eventually say something or should he leave her alone?

As he hesitated to depart she gave a nod, one that was barely perceptible, so small he thought for an instant it was an illusion.

“Hermione…” Remus came a little closer, though keeping a reasonable distance between them. “Can I help you with anything? Is─ is anything wrong?”

He saw her stiffening. And then abruptly she wheeled around, looking quite mortified. She didn’t dare look at him─ he didn’t deserve this. He had just come here to help her, she knew it, and now she was really acting stupidly. What game was she playing?

In a way she knew perfectly what she wanted─ yes, he could help with something. Maybe he could take her in his arms and─

She closed her eyes.

No. He should walk out, shouldn’t he? That was the only thing that would be right.

But… why did the barrier between right and wrong suddenly feel so blurred and indistinct?

Remus stared at her for a moment, and then he started stretching out a hand. Just to put it on her shoulder, to reassure her… to tell her she wasn’t alone, that he would always be here for her if she needed something. But he stopped halfway, rapidly withdrew his arm and let it fall back to his side, feeling weak and unable to help.

Hermione didn’t look at him. She desperately cast around for something to say─ perhaps he was worried because he didn’t understand why she had stared at him in the living room? Or perhaps he had sensed something wasn’t right with her since he had come back?

He must have noticed something was wrong in the way she behaved. She rarely laughed along with Ron, Harry and Ginny anymore. The truth was that she sometimes did. But when he wasn’t there─ because in his presence, she just couldn’t.

She remembered when he had announced to them that he’d be staying for longer than usual at Grimmauld place. The news had made her strangely happy, though it puzzled her that her reaction was so out of proportion. Harry had seemed delighted, Ron really thrilled and Ginny had beamed, but it was nothing compared to how she had felt.

“Everything’s fine,” she declared, pretending to look surprised but failing at it miserably.

She knew she needed to sound convincing, so she summoned some courage and looked at him. He was wearing a white pullover that was tight, at least enough to reveal his muscled arms. Her eyes lingered on him, but quickly she caught herself and glanced at her shoes, fearing that her eyes betray her and wishing that she could stop being overwhelmed by emotions she had no control onto.

“Look, I─” Lupin started breathlessly, seeing her blush slightly. Somehow he couldn’t find the right words. He knew she was staring at him, and it felt frustrating that she could be judging him like that. On the other hand─ why was he suddenly so pleased? Was it just because he was the one she had been staring at? Because he so wanted, deep inside, to draw her attention?

Remus attempted to speak again. “I just─”

But there was a scream in a room nearby─ instantly followed by the sound of someone dropping something on the floor. It was like a glass had just broken into a thousand pieces.

“Stay here,” Remus muttered quickly to Hermione. He gave one last look at the dusk and left hurriedly in the direction from where the noise had emanated, looking for the source of the commotion.

Hermione remained alone, still beside the window. Whatever was going on didn’t immediately shake her out of her secondary state of lethargy. She turned to watch the darkening sky again.

“It is beautiful,” she whispered to herself once he had left the room.

Meanwhile Remus ran to the living room. As soon as he entered he realized something was wrong. Molly was holding a piece of parchment in her hand, very pale and seemingly shaken by some piece of news. A vase lay broken on the floor, flowers scattered all around.

“Reparo,” Remus said by reflex, pointing his wand at the mess. The flowers flew back inside the vase that had magically repaired itself. He seized it mechanically and set it on the table.

“What’s wrong?” He came forward to Molly with a frown as Ron and Harry arrived into the living room.

Molly opened her mouth to answer, still frozen on the spot, but she closed it back when she glimpsed the boys.

“Ron, Harry,” Remus said harshly but distinctly. “Out.”

Harry looked hurt, and Remus wished he hadn’t been so unsympathetic; but on the other hand something was obviously wrong and he didn’t have time to explain to them patiently that it was most likely secret Order business.

As soon as the door closed Molly feverishly handed him the parchment she had been holding and Remus read it in silence.

Severus Snape hurt─ send someone over to St Mungo's immediately for protection.

The short message was signed by Albus Dumbledore.

There was a silence, the time needed for the message to sink into Remus’s mind. It didn’t take him long to make a decision─ Arthur was out, and Molly was the only person besides him in the house who could do anything. He didn’t want to expose her to danger─ so that left only him.

“I’ll go,” he said shortly. “Stay here with the kids─”

He didn’t finish because every second was precious. Death Eaters not only attempted to kill their enemies when nobody was watching; they also managed to leave no witnesses of whatever they had done. Which meant they didn’t care if it was in Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade or St Mungo's that they finished off their prey. Snape was in danger even in a hospital bed, and as much as he still despised the man, he couldn’t not go.

In a swoosh of Floo Powder Remus was gone.

A/N Well... obviously still hoping you're enjoying this!

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