It's really been forever, hasn't it? I appreciate your patience as I've been struggling with life, writer's block, and school. I really am going to try harder to get this finished before you all lose interest. Thanks to all who have stuck with it during my long-lasting hiatuses. You all are wonderful.

The cold sting of winter kept all of Gryffindor close to the fire and away from the window, where buckets upon buckets of snow

The cold sting of winter kept all of Gryffindor close to the fire and away from the window, where buckets upon buckets of snow were tumbling and swirling to the ground like a crowd of boisterous drunks on New Year's Eve. Hermione was wrapped up comfortably in a blanket her grandmother had crocheted for her last Christmas, the burgundy wool and white snowflakes keeping her skin warm and heart in mostly good spirits. Winter break was coming soon, which meant a well-deserved break from all the worry and stress in her life, which mostly revolved around Ginny Weasley, and what she was going to do about her.

It had been exactly four weeks since they had last spoken. Hermione felt that absence like an icy wind blowing through her heart when she least expected it. Her sleep was troubled with images of Ginny and Harry, swirling abruptly to sticky summer nights at the Burrow and soft lips – and then wakefulness. Never an apology, a word, a resolution. Hermione went to class everyday with the heavy ghost of sleep weighing down on her chest, but her eyelids stayed resolutely open at all times.

Her parents had written to her about not going anywhere for vacation this year. Skiing in France was getting old, they said, and they would much rather spend her winter holidays happy in their own home. However, they understood if she wanted to spend a bit if not all of her holidays with her best friends. No, Hermione wrote back, her quill feather pointing towards the three of them together just across the way, I miss being at home. Let's all have a happy Christmas together.

Because Ron had been introduced back into their bundled friendship with ease. Being a hot-tempered git was just part of his nature, and Harry could never abandon the first person his age who was nice to him at Hogwarts. And it wasn't necessarily that they had abandoned her; they were "giving her space to do her work without interruption", as Harry had tried to put it so tactfully. Never mind that the amount of work she was getting done was noticeably less than what she was doing before this all happened, before the earth had rumbled and broken apart, leaving her stranded on a desolate shore with only a coconut radio to communicate her feelings. How did they get that to work without electricity, anyway? Was the professor a wizard?...

Hermione's eyelids drooped slightly as her mind began to wander away from the page and back to her cozy little room at home filled with bookcases and good light and far away from Ginny Weasley. She could see herself now sitting on the window sill, the dull glow of the winter sun illuminating something from her humble library, without any care in the world… And then maybe watch reruns of "Gilligan's Island" with the sweet smell of vanilla wafting from the kitchen…

"Hermione, watch it!" called a voice from the far-off distance, growing louder and closer like a train through a tunnel. Hermione could smell the smoke, but it wasn't the same as burning coal. It reminded her more of the smell of burning parchment and ink.

Jerked awake by this thought, Hermione leapt out of her chair wild-eyed and disoriented, her blanket crumpling in a heap at her feet, and she looked towards the fireplace with a sense of dread in the pit of her stomach. Her body had taken control and let her fingers slip, sending her midterm essay for Advanced Ancient Ruins straight into the fire. Four feet of parchment – now gone.

"Aguamenti," someone chanted nearby, dousing the fireplace and a few students within close proximity with water.

The accosted students screeched and ran, teeth shattering, out of the common room, but Hermione didn't care. All she cared about was her once-crispy, now drenched essay lying in a shriveled, soggy state among the ashes, and blaming someone irrationally for the state of it.

She tasted ash in her mouth as her hair whipped violently around her head when she turned to face her supposed assailant. A hand-me-down button up shirt hung loosely on the wand-holder's petite frame, the sleeve fallen down to her elbow of the arm that she held her wand with, still extended for use. There was a panicked way in which her chest heaved and fell, each rise giving a teasing peek of pale, freckled skin, modestly swollen. Hermione's eyes traveled up to take in the bewildered way her lips were parted, the flush of her face from adrenaline. And despite all the rage and anger bubbling beneath her breast, all Hermione could think of was how beautiful and dangerous Ginny Weasley was.

Ginny must have taken notice of the scowl on Hermione's face and quickly broke into a verbal marathon of apologies. "H-Hermione, I'm so sorry, I tried to help in time," she said breathlessly, too high-pitched for her usual alto voice, "but – it was too late – I didn't know how to help…" She trailed off into nothing. There was silence in the air now, dead and heavy and thick like melted chocolate.

Hermione simply stood there, baffled by the force of the rage in her heart. She loved and hated this girl with all of her being. How could she just let her stand there and make excuses for all the torment she's caused? Help? What kind of help has she ever offered Hermione? Help to become insane? Help to become an insomniac? Help to become every single ridiculous and bleeding cliché in this stupid obsession called love?

A rational Hermione would have told Ginny that it wasn't her fault. It was sleeplessness and absent-mindedness and it wasn't Ginny's responsibility to look after her things. She should have been more responsive. She shouldn't have pulled her chair so close to the fire, or at least she should have folded up her essay as she went like she usually did. There were lots of things to be done to avoid this, Ginny, but it was okay, because nothing in this particular situation was your fault.

But Hermione was not rational. She was angry, but her heart was being torn apart in so many pieces by the way Ginny looked in the dimmed light of the room, how cute it was that her hair was pulled into twin braids, and how badly she wanted to count how many freckles were on the swells of her breasts, that she couldn't form the words that would damage that pretty little face, that reputation of being everyone's sweetheart, when she should have been hers.

"Hermione?" Ginny asked tentatively, extending a hand towards her. "Are you okay? I'm sure your professor will understand about what happened… You could get an extension on it…"

Ginny's warm hand burned Hermione's shoulder. Hermione stumbled backward in shock from the pain and threw all of the ash, all of the dark jealousy and twisted pain, into the words she had written again and again and again.

"I love you, Ginny," she spat in malice, "but you don't seem to feel the same way. And there's not much more I can take of this. So finally, finally," she choked, eyes stinking with embers, "I'm letting you go."

The common room stayed in a stunned silence for only just a minute after both this confession and backwards rejection. Ginny stared at Hermione in horror, face bloodless and hand still extended, shaking, until she slowly drew it back to herself. Hermione tore her eyes away from Ginny's stupid innocence and confusion and hurt and, leaving everything else, ran out of the common room without another word.

She practically crawled into her bed when she finally reached her room, unable to stand the current pulling her away from all that was normal and sane, back into a place that smelled like vanilla and ash and tasted like salt on her tongue. Because if this is what liberation was, why did it wound her so?