January came, though not soon enough in Hermione's opinion. Christmas was over and she could finally have some peace of mind again. Boxing Day at the Burrow proved to be a challenge, and it took all of Hermione's restraint not to slice Molly into perfect portions with the carving knife she'd only just plucked from Arthur's hands and serve her up as a garnish for the holiday goose. Ron didn't fare nearly as well and received a cuff from Bill and a stern look from his father when he told his mum to quit flapping her gums where he and Hermione were concerned.
While reflecting on her holiday and other events in the weeks since her return, Hermione was coming from an Arithmancy N.E.W.T. revision session when Neville very nearly crashed into her in the corridor.
"I've been looking all over for you, Hermione. I desperately need your help, and I haven't much time. Come with me, and I'll explain," he insisted urgently and yanked her through the halls, giving her no time to object.
She listened intently while trying to catch her breath, their vigorous pace making it difficult. Neville quickly told her of an accident in greenhouse one with a first-year Hufflepuff as he dragged her along. He needed to attend to his charge straight away and could not predict how long it would take, but that was not the problem at hand. He had promised Professor Snape's portrait long ago that he would take him somewhere today, and if Neville could not make it happen, a tram ride to hell would seem like a picnic. Could Hermione please do him this one tiny favour? When she looked into his desperate eyes, she remembered all he had done for her and could not say no. Relieved and wholly grateful, Neville hastily kissed and thanked her in one fell swoop before rattling off the latest password to his chambers and bolting for the Hospital Wing.
Hermione grudgingly made her way to Neville's quarters, dragging her feet on the stone floor with every dreaded step. She fully expected Professor Snape's portrait to throw a wobbly when he discovered it would be she who ushered him to his destination, but that did not make her any more prepared. Things between the two of them had been perpetually awkward ever since the night they'd quarrelled, which had left her feeling like a right arse.
For the life of her, Hermione could not remember anything significant about January 30th, so it puzzled her as to why this trip absolutely must be made today. It was frigid outside, and the snow was falling steadily, the howling winds ready to cut through warm flesh and shatter bone. She would need her heaviest cloak and a plethora of charms to protect her from the elements. Hermione was not exactly sure what to do for Professor Snape, as she knew so little about portraits, most of her knowledge acquired from Hogwarts: A History. Perhaps a strong Impervius would do the trick.
Reaching Neville's apartments, Hermione quickly spoke the password to gain entry. Closing the door quietly behind her, she forced herself not to dally any longer and made her way to into his bedchamber. As it was half one, Hermione expected to find the professor drowsing just as many of the portraits did when the students were in class. Luck was, unfortunately, not on her side today.
"Granger," he hissed snidely.
Hermione stiffened her posture and prepared for the eminent war of words, her voice respectful but cool. "Professor."
Severus Snape's ebony eyes were filled with bitter malice. "And to what dubious honour do I owe this visit? Longbottom is in class, as I'm sure you are well aware," he growled, his nostrils flaring.
"Yes, sir, and he sent me to tell you he must beg your pardon as he will not be able to keep his appointment with you. One of his students was seriously injured today."
The professor was rigid with rage—shoulders broad and tightly drawn, teeth clenched together—an angry statue of Romanesque descent. "I see. How very convenient for him."
Hermione pressed forward with caution. "It just so happens, I am free for the rest of the day and am more than willing—"
He didn't give her a chance to complete her sentence. "Absolutely not!"
"Sir, if you'll just allow me to finish—"
"I have no desire to listen to your and Longbottom's schemes to make it possible for you to nose in my affairs. Do you believe me to be so thick? For once in your life, mind your own business."
Hermione's mood was instantly recognisable: she was not to be trifled with. "Listen, you ungrateful tosser, I don't give a bloody fuck whether we make it to wherever it is you think you need to be today. I'd be perfectly happy to walk out the door without a backward glance and let you wallow in your own misery."
Professor Snape's face was hard, his jaw set. "I find this situation highly unorthodox, and I strongly object to your being a part of it in any fashion," he snarled.
"Duly noted. I take it we're going then?"
He glared at her for an inordinate amount of time but resignedly nodded in assent.
"Now, are we going to do this the easy way with no more fuss, or are you going to force me to take drastic measures?"
Hermione watched abject horror cross his face. No doubt he was imagining scenarios that involved shrinking and silencing spells gone awry.
"The easy way I suppose," he grumbled before adding a bloody chit under his breath.
Hermione stepped to where his portrait hung and removed it from the wall as carefully as possible. As she lowered him to the ground, she averted her eyes from his intense scrutiny the second their faces became level. What was it about his gaze that made her feel so naked and utterly unravelled?
"Do you know where we're going?" he questioned in clipped accents.
She cleared her throat to answer but still avoided direct eye contact with him. "Yes, sir. While I am not familiar with the place, having never visited there, Neville was very specific."
"If you've ever wanted to do something right, Granger, and I've never known you to make a cock-up of anything deliberately, just don't Splinch us."
Hermione did not dignify his backhanded compliment with a response, focussing instead on getting him situated. She pulled her fragile-looking bottomless beaded bag from the pocket of her robes and drew it open. "This might be a little awkward, but I'll try to make it as comfortable as possible."
The professor eyed the bag with suspicion and swallowed nervously but wisely kept his mouth closed on the subject.
Hermione picked up his portrait and genially worked it into the bag. In no time at all, Professor Snape vanished within its depths. Closing the bag once more, Hermione returned it to her pocket. Her cloak fastened tightly and hands suitably gloved, Hermione steeled her resolve and made the trek to the school's front gates.
"It won't be long now, sir," she spoke just loud enough for her voice to hopefully penetrate the fabric of the bag.
When she received no reply, Hermione exited the gates, closed her eyes to focus on the location and Apparated to the predetermined destination.
When her feet touched the snow-covered ground, Hermione opened her eyes and came face to face with a deserted playground. The remnants of a battered chimney marred the skyline; the hiss of a train could be heard from the nearby railway head.
As Neville had instructed, she searched for a small thicket of trees with a river that lazily snaked its way through their trunks, finding it easily. Before she felt it safe to remove the bag from her robes, Hermione cast half-a-dozen protective charms to ensure their comfort so that they would not be disturbed.
Plucking the bag from her pocket, she opened it and rummaged around until she felt the lacquered frame of the professor's portrait. With deft fingers, she hefted him from its depths, leaving only the bag's frayed opening nestled at the base of the painting. He said nothing as he surveyed the serene scene, his black eyes greedily drinking in the landscape.
Hermione wondered silently what memories this obvious place of reverence held for him, but didn't dare speak of it. Asking the professor questions was akin to stabbing a snake with a sharp shiv, and she was in no mood to be verbally eviscerated. Instead, she turned away from him to give him some semblance of privacy and used the quiet time to reflect on the downward spiral that her life had become, a fact she had managed to ignore successfully until now.
Yes, there had been many positives, just as Ron had pointed out, but that did not negate the glaringly obvious: Hermione Granger, the pride of Gryffindor and the brightest witch of her age, had actually failed at something. This fact distressed the over-achiever imbedded within her more than no longer being bound for an eternity to her childhood sweetheart did. Knowing she had repeatedly aided in her own sabotage made her feel even worse.
Hermione had not realized she was crying until the professor interrupted her festival of pity and self-recrimination.
"Why are you crying, Granger?" he asked, struggling for an even tone.
"I'm sorry, sir. I did not mean to disturb you."
He gave a long-suffering sigh and pressed further. "You didn't answer my question."
Hermione turned to face him, her nose runny and her eyes wet with sadness. The look he bestowed upon her told her she should make with an explanation quickly before his unusually-obliging mood disappeared without a trace.
"I feel like a big, fat failure," she whispered, realising she most likely sounded very foolish to him.
Professor Snape studied her keenly. "It's not the end of the world."
"Do you even know why I feel this way, sir?" she asked flippantly.
The professor rolled his eyes at her dramatics. "Please! I know very well what you're on about. I've certainly heard you wail to Longbottom enough."
"Now who's the nosey one?"
"As if I could escape your incessant nattering," he griped, irritation infused within his words. "Look, Granger, I am not looking to mince words with you. I'm simply saying that getting divorced is not the worst thing that could happen to you. You're human, and like all creatures blessed with the gift of self-awareness, you will make mistakes. You aren't going to be labelled a failure just because you have one minor blemish on your perfect life's record. Trust me, I know."
Hermione was surprised by his frankness. The last thing she expected from Professor Snape was words of assurance and comfort. She inclined her head to indicate that she would indeed consider his advice and possibly take it to heart. Feeling emboldened by their newfound connection, Hermione took advantage of the chink in his armour. "You can't hide behind a hardened heart forever, Professor."
Professor Snape lapsed into a deep silence when she spoke and focussed intently on a lone leaf that fluttered on the ground in front of him.
"Sir, if I may be so bold, it's time to say goodbye to this dream you seem resolved to keep reliving and stop walking through the world half-asleep. Whatever this is about, I can only imagine you've done everything you could, torn yourself apart so many times to atone for whatever sins you might have committed. It's time for you to let go, too," she murmured.
His voice was a shaky whisper. "How do I do that, Granger, when it's all I've ever known? To no longer hang on the edge of a lie, what must that be like?"
"Believe it or not, I asked someone something very similar not too long ago. You know what he said to me? He said, 'Don't look at this as an end, Hermione. If anything, it's just the beginning. You'll march into the unknown, the next great adventure, armed with knowledge, experience, lessons learned. A second chance, what could be better?'"
Professor Snape guffawed in an attempt to conceal the few tears that had leaked from his traitorous eyes. "What a bunch of New Age nonsense! Wherever did you hear such rubbish?"
Hermione had to restrain herself from reaching to brush away his tears. He was only a portrait after all. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
His thin lips relaxed briefly only to be replaced by his usual stern guise. "I think I would like to go back now, Granger."
"Of course." With a wave of her wand, Hermione issued a "Finite Incantatem!", cancelling out her previous spells. She pulled the beaded bag the rest of the way around and over Professor Snape and tied the closure. Instead of placing the bag back in the pocket of her robes, she pressed it gently to her breast in an affectionate clench and quietly Disapparated.