Disclaimer: If Harry Potter belongs to J.K. Rowling, and I am not J.K. Rowling, then one can assume that Harry Potter does not belong to me.
A/N: I just wanted to mention, in case anyone is confused - this is not intended to be AU to Half-Blood Prince. It takes place about four years later, and so you can kind of just figure that somewhere in that frame of time, Snape got all the details regarding Dumbledore cleared up and was found to still be one of the goodies, and whatnot. :)
Also, just a note, the song Ron is singing (yes, Ron is singing x.x) is a traditional Irish folk song, so no, I didn't make it up, but I really don't know who to credit it to. I have several versions of it on my iPod (my favorites are by the Brobdingnagion Bards and The Empty Hats), and it was pretty much the inspiration for this whole fic.
Lastly, thanks to Hudly for beta-reading this for me!
So without further ado...
The basement-level kitchen of Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place had withered into a shell of the haven it formerly had been.
In the course of one long, lingering evening, the room had all but dissolved into a place of darkness and of half-light, of full glasses and of rapidly draining kegs, of silence and of noise that sounded harsh and forced to everyone's ears. Green smoke coiled through the room, trailing from the end of Mundungus Fletcher's pipe, mingling with strands of laughter that were alternately shrill and false or loud and drunken. The flickering of the fire in the hearth vied with the golden sparks exploding from the end of Neville Longbottom's wand; both failed miserably to allay the shadows that hid the lined faces of every member of the Order of the Phoenix.
Minerva McGonagall and Molly Weasley were talking quietly at the kitchen table, their hands wrapped tightly around flutes of champagne; Bill and Fleur sat nearby, deep in discussion with Remus and Tonks. Harry Potter and Ron Weasley were taking turns tossing back ponies of brandy while Fred kept count and George egged them on; Charlie and Hagrid were roaring loudly about dragons; Ginny and Mad-Eye were throwing rapid-fire hexes across the room at one another, more to create racket and distraction than anything else. Countless others gossiped, argued, cried and filled their snifters up again for another round – anything to forget, just for a little while.
They all knew it – that this was their last night, like this, all together. Years of excuses and escapes and explanations, years of practice and of preparation, of fighting, of resistance – all of it had culminated through the destruction of six Horcruxes, and now all of it balanced on one single, defining moment. Tomorrow, they knew, would be the day of truth, the last stand, the final battle – the fulcrum on which the future of their world would turn.
Hermione Granger stood alone near the steps leading up to the main floor of the house, reluctant to leave but just as reluctant to stay, caught up in this horrible parody of cheer. Her gaze swept the room, memorizing every face, even as their grim eyes and fractured smiles caused her gut to churn.
"Kind friends and companions, come join me in rhyme..." Hermione looked up as the words drifted across the kitchen; she blanched. A very red-faced and teetering Ron had managed to scramble up on top of the kitchen table, and was now gesturing broadly about the room, tumbler in hand, his face a beaming mask of a smile as he belted out the song. "Come lift up your voices..." – his own voice cracked on the high note; the assembled onlookers laughed – "...in chorus with mine. Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain..."
A wobbling Harry jumped up on the table to accompany his best mate. Wincing as one or two of the other boys proceeded to pitch in with their own off-key singing, Hermione turned away. She cast desperately about the room, looking for anyone else to talk to – anyone who would see it her way, anyone at all – anyone who would understand that this was just cruel, this witless mockery of mirth –
She found him in a dark, hidden corner of the room, as she had well expected to. He was lounging rather carelessly in a straight-backed wooden chair, rocking backwards onto its two rear legs, with his feet propped up on a corner of the kitchen counter. Hermione chose to attribute this breach in his normally rigid comportment to the bottle of Firewhiskey sitting easily within his reach.
"Is the company in this place really so wanting?" Severus Snape asked silkily, as Hermione slid into a vacant chair at his side. His voice was as smooth and poisonous as always, seemingly unaffected by the liquor that must surely be flooding his veins. "Charming though I'm sure my pretenses at conversation must be, Miss Granger, I would have thought that someone like yourself would be soaking up the limelight with her gallant little friends, not lurking away out of sight."
Hermione snorted in distaste. "Ron's taken to singing," she said blandly. "And he sings rather awfully enough as it is, without half a dozen shots in his belly."
"Yes, I've quite noticed. And there's no one else you can bother with your ever-irritating presence?"
"Of course there is. Just no one even remotely sober."
He smirked. "I'm hardly better than the rest on that account." But his black eyes were clear and sharp despite his claim, and when he reached for his bottle he brought it, not to his own mouth, but to the brim of the empty wine glass Hermione held forgotten in her hand. "You'll need something a bit stiffer than that if you intend to have a chat with me," he jeered, filling the glass high with the dark amber liquid. Hermione obligingly lifted the drink to her lips, and Severus tossed down a long sip of his own.
"So," he said, relinquishing the bottle again and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His eyes were fixed somewhere in the distance. "What is an aspiring war hero doing here, sulking in a corner rather than celebrating with her fellow saviors of the wizarding world?"
"The wizarding world is still far from being saved," Hermione countered bitterly, and Severus's gaze swung around abruptly to meet hers, his head nodding slightly in acknowledgment of that truth. "And, interestingly enough, who are you to talk? Or does all your work for the past Merlin-knows-how-many years not merit you the title of 'war hero' as well?"
"Don't make a martyr out of me," Snape snarled, the words a whisper. His white knuckles clenched around the bottle of Firewhiskey, thrusting it up to his lips for another vicious swig. "I have committed sins which even a lifetime of service cannot hope to atone for."
As a first year student, Hermione Granger would have cringed away from the lash of that whip-like tongue. By her seventh year, while she had lost the fear, Hermione had at least still retained the good sense to keep her mouth shut when caught beneath the man's intent sable glare.
Perhaps the alcohol was getting to her. Perhaps the hundred years that she had aged in the battle-rent four since she had left school had molded her into a woman of more solid stuff, unshakable even to one such as Severus Snape. Perhaps the looming promise of tomorrow had made her reckless – because tonight was their night, the Order's night, the last night before all hell broke loose.
Perhaps it was simply that this, right here, was familiar: the black eye glinting coldly, fiercely, the lip curled into its customary sneer. In the midst of a room teeming with drunken desperation, this moment felt oddly right on the mark.
"Funny," she snapped in return, "somehow I thought one of the chief qualifications for martyrdom was the status of being dead." She met his stare with a fervent one of her own, even as she braced herself for the explosion that was sure to follow.
Evidently the liquor had him in its grip, as well. Severus threw back his head and laughed. It was a hollow, grating laugh, grown hoarse from lack of use, the kind of sound that ought to make one's skin crawl – but for more than one reason, Hermione found it bizarrely suiting.
"Gods, girl, you don't know how many thousands of times in this war I've wished that I were dead. And how many people will have died by tomorrow's end, what about that, you foolish witch? All of our efforts have finally boiled down to a last confrontation. Harry Potter will face the Dark Lord now, as we have always known he someday must. Even if we win – how many do you think will escape unscathed?"
"You think I don't know that?" Hermione shot back. "You think I don't know what we're risking – what this war will cost?"
He was motionless, regarding her. "No. That's not what I think." His lips contorted awkwardly, and after a brief second, Hermione realized that Severus Snape was smiling. It was a worn, tired smile, and so strange and foreign on his face – but it was a smile nonetheless, and like his laugh, it became him, if in a roundabout sort of way. "You're wiser than that. You've grown up, haven't you?"
"We've all grown up," she replied, softly. "War does that to a person."
He took a deep swallow of Firewhiskey, his eyes going unfocused as he stared off absently across the room once more. "Yes. Yes, it does."
They sat for a while without speaking, each lost to his or her own respective thoughts. A relative silence had come over the kitchen, as if its occupants had finally wound down to the quiet, somber reality of it all.
Ron's tuneless singing cut obliviously through the moment's peace. "So here's a health to the company, and one to my lass! Let us drink and be merry..."He broke over the top note again; and Ron blinked, visibly startled, upon hearing that his voice was backed by three dozen others.
The redheaded young man stared dumbly around him as, all throughout the room, the members of the Order of the Phoenix began to push back their chairs and rise to their feet, glasses lifting in the air as they came to a sudden realization of the words which Ron had been saying all along. Gulping, the flustered Weasley began the verse again.
"So here's a health to the company, and one to my lass –
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass!
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain..."
At the rear of the room, Hermione turned slightly to glance at the dark man now lurching to his feet beside her, and she found her gaze swiftly locked with his. Severus Snape's eyes were hard and burning, chillingly deep, a bright and overwhelming black – and yet, as Hermione found herself caught within their deadly snare, she found herself thinking that they were not without their warmth.
Something passed between them then – awkward, uncomfortable, and strangely, painfully necessary. Were she as naïve as she once had been, Hermione might have thought to call it the forging of a friendship – but one did not inflict such a precious term on a moment like this, brought about beneath the filthy banner of war.
Hermione's eyes were pinned with his, transfixed. Together the pair's lips shaped the final words of Ron's unwitting prophecy; together their voices choked out the last line to a song that spoke of a fate to which every man and woman in the room was forever tied.
"...for we may and might never, all meet here again."