Finally managing to slip across the room and out of the door, glass and bottle in hand, he breathed a sigh of relief. He thought himself safe until he turned a corner close to his destination and just managed to stop in time, two witches were huddled in conversation and directly in his path. "Excuse me" he said loudly, hoping they would move. As they turned to look at him, the mouth of one dropped open while the other said with a heavy accent, "you are Severus Snape?"
"No madam, I am not" he said with every effort at politeness, though with no regard for truth.
"Yes, yes you are" she said nudging her companion who had begun to nod inanely.
He had only been free for 6 months and being recognised held no attractions for him, "you're mistaken, now if you'll excuse me..." he tried to pass.
"No wait, I must just..."
She reached out for the sleeve of his dress robes... wrenching his arm free Severus moved between them with scant regard for anyone's safety. Opening the door behind them, he made his way through and turned, catching the pushy one's eyes he forced his way into her mind, "Come through this door and you will regret it". With that he slammed it shut, crossed the room and burst out onto the balcony, gripping the railing with his free hand until his knuckles turned white. "Why on earth do people insist on touching me," he growled, "am I supposed to be some sort of anti-obeah charm? Touch the ex-death eater and ward off the evil-eye" sighing he released his hand to pour wine into his glass, "and why are the ones who want to touch me, never the one I might want to touch?"
"They might become the one you want to touch" a familiar voice washed quietly over him and he tensed for a moment, "if you let them".
Had he said that last out loud? He must have drunk more than he'd thought, then again he had thought he was alone, why wasn't she downstairs? "Nonsense" he said loudly, refusing to turn as, much to his surprise, a shadow detached itself slowly from the wall behind and came to lean on the railing next to him.
"So why haven't you got anyone?" she enquired softly and he noticed a slight slurring to her words.
"Because I am intrinsically unlovable".
Ignoring the tone in his voice she continued, "Don't you want someone?"
"That's not the same question".
Spying an empty glass in her hand he proffered her the wine, "A toast" he said filling it.
"To being alone... and oblivion in a bottle".
She sighed, "do you have to be quite so miserable?"
"It's all I have left. If you want cheerful, go back to the party".
"I was here first" she pointed out.
"Yes... and with the great and the good being merry downstairs, why exactly is that Miss Granger?" He turned and looked at her properly for the first time since his release. She had grown into a lovely young woman and despite everything she'd seen, she had retained her humanity, her goodness, her... looking into her face he noticed a slight redness to her eyes and frowned.
"I don't want to talk about it" she said moving her head and looking out over the glimmering lights of London. Quickly finishing the wine she felt the slight buzz in her head expand. She held her glass out to him and Severus was pleased he'd thought to put a refilling charm on the bottle. "Kindly drink this one a little more slowly... the obliviators are not going to be happy if they have to turn out tonight because you vomited on the head of a passer-by". She opened her mouth to tell him to get lost, but contented herself with mumbling under her breath.
"Why aren't you downstairs?" she said when the silence became too much to bare.
"I don't do merry" he said bluntly.
"Then why come to a party?" he raised a brow and she continued "... I know, it's none of my business".
They were silent again for a long time, but Hermione no longer felt constrained to break it, the night air was clear and fresh and the world seemed such a very long way off. She could hear the music playing faintly from within, a waltz, she knew she should be down there dancing, enjoying herself with people who loved her... but... she closed her eyes and shook her head slightly, a voice by her ear said, "I think you've had enough" she shuddered and was about to deny it when the music suddenly grew louder and another voice called her name. Tensing, she stumbled quickly back into the shadows by the wall and prayed he wouldn't give her away.
Somewhat curious at this turn of events, Severus turned and watched as the boy crossed the room, knowing he had not yet been spotted. Ron had almost reached the balcony door before he saw the dark figure standing against the railing. Not quite suppressing the scowl that came to his face, he stopped and greeted his ex-professor with the barest semblance of civility before saying, "I was looking for Hermione, have you seen her?"
"I would imagine Miss Granger has about as much desire to see me as you do Mr Weasley. Have you tried the Ministry Library?"
"I've tried everywhere" Ron replied somewhat sulkily, before he remembered to whom he was speaking. He forced a smile and said, "I'll probably find her back downstairs wondering where I've got to".
"Yes" Snape replied, allowing himself to sound a little dubious, "I'm sure you will... well don't let me keep you".
He heard the boy mumble, "she should have let you rot" and resisted the urge to let his gaze find her as he turned back and looked out in to the night. He was quite sure that most of the wizarding world agreed with Weasley and was at a loss to know why she had campaigned so hard for him, especially given... he clamped down on the thought, he would not think of that now, it could haunt him later.
"Thank you" she said quietly a long time after they'd both heard the door shut and the music recede again, he said nothing. "I suppose you know we're engaged?" she continued somewhat hesitantly. He rolled his eyes, he may have been in Azkaban at the time but he doubted it was possible for anyone to be unaware of that. Since his release he had been reading everything he could lay his hands on, not wishing to make himself appear as if he'd just spent over 5 years in the company of the dementors. Their engagement had been the only subject in the Daily Prophet for days. Of course it had been several years ago now, Weasley had proposed to her at the 1st Victory Ball. So this was the 4th anniversary of her engagement, wondering briefly if someone did cards for that, he dragged his attention back as she continued to speak. "Molly told me earlier that she was so happy we'd finally set a date..." she trailed off.
He turned and proffered the bottle again, she shook her head, "no, you were right, I have had enough".
Given her current confessional state, he was sure he hadn't and poured himself another, "My felicitations" he said raising his glass to her, she flinched. "Am I to assume that you are not ecstatic about it?"
"Until she mentioned it I didn't even know..." he frowned, "Now everything has... settled down, Ron wants to as well".
"I believe it is usual for a wedding to follow an engagement", she said nothing, he tried again, "you must have agreed to marry him?"
Hermione sighed, "You were in Azkaban... you don't know what it was like when the war ended, if I'd thought... he asked... it was an easy way to become unavailable, Harry had Ginny, I thought it was convenient for us both".
"I love Molly... I don't want to become her".
"I'm sure he'd understand".
"You know he wouldn't, besides there's..." she stopped again and toyed with her glass for a moment before holding it out to him. "I've changed my mind".
"Don't you think you should keep a clear head?"
"Why? I've always been the one with the clear head, the sensible one, the one that does what's right... don't I deserve a night off?"
He shrugged and took the glass, "I don't have to deal with the consequences" he filled it before turning away and putting the bottle on the ground away from him.
"No, you never..." her retort died on her lips, what was the point?
He turned back, "you were saying?"
She frowned slightly, then realised he was talking about her forthcoming marriage, "it's not important".
"Of course it is, it's the rest of your life". She shivered slightly, the night air had become colder and she had not thought to bring her cloak. "Here" he said without thinking, removing his dress robes before taking off his frock coat and placing it around her shoulders. She walked to the railings again, lifting her hands to pull it tightly around her. Catching the scent of herbs that she remembered so well, she nuzzled her head into the collar and breathed deeply. Putting his dress robes back on Severus looked at the woman who haunted him; her eyes were closed and the expression on her face was, he searched for the word, wistful. Noticing that his arm had reached out of it's own accord, he snatched it back a moment before it touched her. He rubbed his face instead, this was madness, why would she be out here with him? He could not... why did he have this fantasy for Merlin's sake, this constant need to... why was she sniffing his coat? "Hermione? I mean Miss Granger..."
Turning her head she said softly, "You can call me Hermione you know... you have before now".
He frowned, "I have?" she nodded, "I never really thanked you for getting me released" he said quietly. Hermione smiled and Severus was surprised to find it tinged with sadness, did she regret what she had done? He could not blame her.
"It must have been terrible in there".
"Yes" he replied not sure if it had been a question, why was she looking so sad?
"To lose all your good memories and relive the worst, I don't think I could bear it..."
"I doubt I had many good ones to lose..." he saw her flinch again and frowned, "what is it?"
"Nothing... I should go back down", she turned around. "I'm glad you're free... I hope in time you do find someone you..." she trailed off and bit her lip.
"The next time I see you, you'll be married".
"Yes, I suppose I will" taking a step passed him she reached the balcony doors and gripped the frame even as she bowed her head, she couldn't leave it like this, not tonight... "Severus... Professor, will you dance with me before I go?"
He turned, his name seemed so natural on her lips and she looked back at him before he could turn away. "Yes" he said, unable to stop himself falling into her gaze. It was curious he thought, almost like seeing a different version of himself reflected back. He offered her his arm, it was only a dance, why should he deny himself this one, small thing, if she too desired it? Leading her to the middle of the room, he took her in his arms, the faint, almost ghostly strains of music giving it an otherworldly feel. They began to move and it was not long before he had a sense of déjà vu, his body remembered this even if his mind didn't. "We've danced before?" he asked bemused.
Hermione did not open her eyes, "Mmm" she said, dropping her head.
"Does it matter?"
He supposed not, he could not imagine dancing with her being anything other than a pleasurable experience, but... pulling back slightly he looked down as she reluctantly opened her eyes, "It matters to me".
"We danced during the war... it sounds silly doesn't it, dancing while so many were dying... you don't remember any of it, do you?" He shook his head and they continued to dance. She should she thought, take some comfort in the fact that his memories of her had been pleasant enough for the dementors to feed on, but in reality it pained her all the more. She stopped moving, perhaps it was the alcohol that was making her bold, or the fact that she no longer had anything to lose, "am I in any of your memories?" she asked.
He looked away, suddenly wishing the subject had not come up. "No".
She closed her eyes for a moment, perhaps she should marry Ron, at least he loved her. Sighing she left his side and walked back out to the balcony, picking up their glasses and the bottle. Curious, he followed. She turned and gave him the glasses to hold as she poured, putting the bottle down she took hers and raised it, "A toast".
"To finding courage at the bottom of the glass" she replied.
"Yours or mine?"
She shrugged and raised hers to her lips, in seconds the wine was gone. Turning she put a hand on the railing to steady herself and took one last look into the night sky, blinking furiously. She swallowed hard as she turned back, "Thank you for this" she said removing his coat and giving it back to him. She looked at him for a long moment before saying, "goodbye Professor, I hope someday you find the one you want to touch".
She had almost reached the door when he called out her name. Turning, she found him paused in the act of stepping back into the room. "That is my only memory of you" he said hoarsely, "tears streaming down your face... ". Seeing her legs buckle under her he ran across the room, failing to stop her hitting the floor. Cursing he reached down and lifted her up, transfiguring the nearest chair into a sofa. Laying her on it, he retrieved a glass and pointing his wand, filled it with water. Noticing she was coming round, he waited a moment and then handed it to her before retreating slightly. "Do you wish me to find Mr. Weasley?" he asked, she shook her head and groaned and he released the breath he had not known he was holding.
Sitting up, Hermione drank the water gratefully, unsure if it had been his revelation or the speed with which she'd drunk her wine that had made her feel light headed. She glanced up at him, he looked paler than usual although his expression was blank. "You don't remember why?"
He shook his head, "that look was my constant companion the last year I was in that place. I cannot imagine what I did to put it there, or why you fought for my release..."
"You fought and almost died for us, you shouldn't have been in there for a moment". Her head hurt from where it had hit the ground, wincing she reached up, the skin wasn't broken but a lump was forming. She closed her eyes, "I always thought your worst memory would be of Dumbledore". He said nothing, reading about these things did not produce the same emotional response as actually doing them, though it was definitely an event he would not choose to relive.
"Given the things you've done... what kind of emotional response would I have to produce in you, to make, me crying, your worst nightmare?"
It was a question he had asked himself many times, it was the reason she haunted his dreams as well as his nightmares. "You would have to be the love of my life" he said softly.
She smiled sadly again, "the love of your life... I thought I was once... but then you left, you said it was just the war and you left".
"I was lying" he replied.
"How do you know?" She whispered, "you can't remember".
Severus moved back to the sofa and knelt down reverently, "because this is my only memory" he said, as he reached out and touched a tear on her face.