The liquor was coursing hotly through her veins, numbing the pain inside substantially. Hermione worked to keep her face straight and her speech clear as she discussed the Potioneer club she was running.
Snape lounged against his chair; the perfect picture of nonchalant elegance as he listened politely, twirling the amber fluid in his glass.
"I do not doubt the potential of such a club, Miss Granger," Snape purred. "I simply doubt the idiots that claim themselves members."
Hermione narrowed her eyes.
"You are capable of doing great things," he went on, ignoring the scowl Hermione was directing at him. "but to reach greatness, one must have adequate assistance."
"My members are fine." She snapped. "They're young, intelligent, and eager."
Snape shrugged and took a deep drawn from the whiskey in his hand. "I'll give you two of the three: young and eager."
"They are intelligent!" Hermione insisted, sitting forward too fast and causing the room to tilt. She closed her eyes and took a breath.
"Intelligent?" Snape repeated. "You honestly find Dillius Fletcher intelligent?"
Hermione recalled the fumbling, nervous boy who was always dropping things and smiled. "He has potential." She said slowly.
"Potential to become an even bigger idiot." Snape corrected.
Hermione cracked a small smile; Dillius really wasn't promising in the slightest. "Fine," she allowed. "But there are still good students in my club. And those that are not so promising will benefit from the extra attention."
"Perhaps." Snape murmured.
Hermione let out a sigh and sat back, touching her fingers to her temples. "You are a very frustrating man." She chuckled with a smile.
"So I've been told." Snape allowed. "Have you been successfully distracted from your problems at hand?"
"I'm quite drunk, so yes, I suppose I have been, thank you."
Snape smirked. "Would you like to return to the castle, then?"
Hermione rolled her neck slowly and felt the room tilt and slide around her. She closed her eyes and pressed against her temples. "I'm horribly intoxicated, Professor. I'd be mortified to be spotted in such a state by anyone."
Snape stood and offered his arm. "I'll ensure your safe and stealthy return to your rooms."
With a deep breath to quell the alcohol-induced queasiness, Hermione took his arm and stood on unsure legs. She stumbled a few steps and Snape chuckled.
Hermione huffed. "How can you not be drunk, Professor? You matched me drink for drink and then some."
"Some of us," he began as he led Hermione gingerly through the exit and out into the bitterly cold street. "Hold our liquor better than others."
"Hold or hide?" Hermione asked as she stumbled a few steps.
Snape chuckled darkly. "Both."
True to his word Snape helped Hermione reach the landing between their doors without being detected, though it came close when they'd almost run into Minerva in the Great Hall. Snape disillusioned them both and they'd snuck quietly past the head mistress, with Snape's hand clamped tightly over Hermione's giggling mouth. Reaching the landing, Snape released her and removed the cloaking spell with a smirk.
"You would make a terrible spy," he purred.
Hermione shrugged with a lopsided grin, then her face turned into a mask of horror when she heard footsteps on the staircase and her name being called by Minerva.
Snape rolled his eyes, reached behind Hermione and wrenched the door open to his chambers. He flicked his wand at the door against the far wall and it flung open. He shoved Hermione gently toward the opening.
"Go," he hissed under his breath and Hermione stumbled gratefully into the darkness beyond the doorway.
The door clicked shut behind her and she was engulfed in total darkness. Taking a moment to get her bearings, she waited until her bleary eyes adjusted to the darkness. She fumbled for her wand, found it, and lit the tip.
She was at the bottom of a steep staircase. Very carefully, she began to climb. The darkness became diffused with more light with every step. Finally the staircase opened into a cavernous room lit by two ornately carved fireplaces on either end of the massive space. Hermione gaped at the vaulted cathedral ceilings; gothic inspired arches reaching towards the heavens.
Toward the left, gathered around the farthest fireplace, was a sitting area adorned with rich looking antique couches, chairs, and tables. Directly across from her was a small kitchen, complete with modern conveniences, separated from the rest of the space by a long island of cherry wood and granite tops. On either side of the kitchen a door was set into the richly painted walls. To her right, beside the other fireplace, a long, dark table stood sentinel with richly upholstered chairs.
Hermione took a few uneven steps into the space and found that the right side continued around a corner past the dining area and she was met with the most awe inspiring sight yet.
Shelves upon shelves of books lined this smaller alcove. They reached nearly as high as the arches. Settled commandingly among the books was a large, austere dark wood desk, scattered with several open books and sheets of parchments.
Afraid to touch anything, she simply stood stock still, looking dumbly at the collection of books hungrily.
"Impressed?" a silky voice purred from behind her.
She whirled around too quickly and fell unceremoniously onto her bottom. She gazed up at Snape, a deep scarlet painting her cheeks.
Snape chuckled, but said nothing as he reached down to help her to her feet. He led her slowly away from the books and toward the sitting area when he settled her into the corner of a couch, then took the chair opposite of her. He conjured a glass of water and handed it to her; she drank from it gratefully.
"I informed Minerva that you'd gone to talk to Potter. Being the insufferable busy body that she is, she is waiting for your return. In your flat, of course."
Hermione moaned and flopped back against the couch.
Snape shrugged. "I informed her that you may be quite some time; she took no heed. You are, of course, welcome to sober yourself here for the time being."
Hermione grinned. "I won't touch a single thing." She hiccupped loudly at the end then giggled.
Snape sighed and shook his head. "I shall hold you to that. Tea?"
"Please," Hermione managed, working very hard to control her facial expressions.
He rose and moved toward the kitchen area. Hermione could hear his quiet ministrations.
"A lesser man would have had enough and kicked me out by now." She called, glancing over her shoulder. He smirked but remained silent.
"Or tried to take advantage of the drunk girl in his home." She added as an afterthought.
Snape's slender fingers paused momentarily in his preparations and his dark eyes flicked up to meet hers.
"I should hope that you do not think so lowly of me,"
"No, of course not. That's why I said a lesser man." Hermione amended.
He nodded curtly, picked up two mugs and brought one over to her.
"Professor," she asked after taking a gulp of tea and burning her mouth; earning a snicker from Snape. "A few months ago, you couldn't stand to be in the same room with me. Now, you seem to enjoy my company,"
"Yes. And?" he prompted, taking a small sip from his steaming mug.
"Well, I was just wondering why, I suppose. I was under the impression that you hated me. Or did at one time"
"Hate is a strong word," he began, eyeing her over the rim of his mug. "One I reserve for a select few people."
"Like Harry," she laughed lightly.
"No," Snape said slowly. "I don't hate Potter. Dislike strongly? Yes. Find infuriatingly irritating? Absolutely. But hate? Not currently." Snape smirked.
"Voldemort?" Hermione whispered.
Snape thought a moment. "No," he responded finally. "Not even him."
Hermione knit her brows together. "Who, then, professor?"
Snape's eyes seemed to focus somewhere beyond Hermione. "Dumbledore, for one,"
Hermione's jaw dropped with an audible pop and Snape smirked.
"Didn't see that one coming, hmm?"
Hermione shook her head, waiting for him to continue.
"When I joined the Dark Lord's ranks," Snape began slowly, his eyes once again focusing far way. "I knew what I was doing. I was making a conscious decision. My decision. I understood what was going to happen to me. But," he paused before continuing with an edge to his voice. "When I took Albus' life – that was not my choice. Albus, the bumbling idiot, happened to be one of the only other wizards in the world I considered a friend. He placed me into a position that was unbearably painful. I'll never forgive him for that. I'll always hate him for that."
Hermione remained silent, his words acting like a bucket of ice water dumped over her head – instantly sobering her.
"And myself, I suppose," he went on, taking no notice of Hermione's unnatural stillness. "after all the lives I've taken, all the horrible things I've done – it wouldn't be fair not to hate myself."
"I don't hate you," Hermione said quietly. "And I would consider you my friend."
Snape raised an eyebrow and gazed at the young witch before him.
She smiled. "I know you think I'm touting drunken nonsense, but I'm more or less sober at this point, Professor. Besides," she went on, drawing her knees up to her chin and leveling her gaze at Snape earnestly. "Despite your absolute atrocious reputation, you have been nothing but kind and considerate toward me. That is something I look for in a friend."
Snape looked away briefly before looking back at her balled up form and snorting. "Friends, hmm?"
Hermione nodded slowly.
"There won't be any blathering gossip sessions or bloody tea parties," he warned.
Hermione eyed the steaming mug in his fingers pointedly and smiled. "Of course not,"
Snape scowled and set the mug aside hurriedly. "I'm a very private and moody person. I prefer staying in and reading to going out on the town," he cautioned testily.
Hermione smiled wider. "A man after my own heart."
Snape narrowed his eyes dramatically and Hermione laughed.
"I don't do hugs," he snapped. "I don't share feelings, and I won't coddle you – not personally nor professionally." He muttered.
"Understood." Hermione said seriously. "I don't expect special treatment inside or outside the classroom. I may, however," she went on with a smile. "Expect drunken forays to a tavern every now and again."
Snape met her playful gaze and a hint of a smirk tugged at his lips. "I can handle drunken forays," he allowed.
"Fine." Hermione said very seriously, sticking her hand out. "Friends?"
Snape hesitated briefly, before taking her hand and shaking it firmly, once. "Friends," he growled.
The winter seemed harsher that year to Hermione, whether it was the loss of Harry or the actual weather – she didn't know. But the cold seemed to creep into the marrow of her bones and settle there. She was extremely thankful that her flat was so high in the castle since the heat rose, and even more thankful for the crackling fires that the castle's house elves kept roaring for her.
It was an exceptionally blustery Friday evening and Hermione was tugging on a heavy sweater to keep the chill from her skin. She had a huge mound of third and fourth year quizzes waiting for her on her desk that was not looking forward to in the least.
Resigned, she settled at her desk with a hot cup of tea. It was only moments before her mind began drifting away.
She missed Harry fiercely. Even though it had been only three weeks since she'd last seen him that day at the Burrow, Hermione was longing for him with such a profound need it was painful. She missed the way he laughed and the smell of his cologne. Her arms ached to encircle his waist and she wanted so badly to feel the whisper of his lips in her hair.
Harry always had a way of making her feel needed and loved. And now, she sat alone – the biting wind screaming viciously outside to match the keening of her own heart.
Tomorrow was February 14th – Valentine's Day. Harry had always – always - gotten Hermione roses for Valentine's day, but she had a feeling that there would be no flowers this year.
Hermione was shocked to discover that she was crying, her fat teardrops splashing against the parchment before her. Groaning, she used her wand to clean up the smeared ink and pushed away from the desk – disgusted with herself.
She spent the rest of the evening trying to find something to distract herself and finally gave up in frustration, pulling out a bottle of red wine. She curled herself tightly onto her couch and successfully drank her pain away.
Hermione jumped at her name, dropping the wine glass from her hand where it shattered on the floor.
"Damnit!" she hissed, squinting the early morning sunlight and flicking her eyes up to see Harry standing there with a bouquet of multi colored roses and a bewildered expression on his face.
"Oh," she whispered. "Sorry."
"It's ok," he said quietly, lifting the empty bottle on wine and gazing at it thoughtfully. "Are you alright, Hermione?"
"Um, yeah, fine," she muttered as she vanished the glass shards. "Why?"
"You don't drink,"
"I do now. What's up, Harry?" she asked, feigning nonchalance.
Harry set the bottle down carefully and smiled, offering the wildly colorful bouquet to Hermione. She took it with a smile and buried her nose into it. "You remembered," she breathed.
"Of course," he laughed. "I'd never forget."
"It's a rainbow," she commented gazing at the multitude of different colored roses.
Harry nodded and produced a small card from his pocket. "I did my homework this year," he laughed. "I found out what the colors of roses mean and picked accordingly."
"Oh?" Hermione glanced at his face in interest. "Enlighten me," she teased, sinking back to the couch.
"Ok." Harry said with pride and clearing his throat. "So, red means passion and love, obviously. There are two of those in there. Um, the two yellow ones are for our friendship and the familiar love we share. Then the two orange stand for pride and amazement. You know, because I'm proud of you and in awe of you," he flashed Hermione a grin before continuing. "The pink one is for the sweet thoughts I have about you. The peachy one is for how much I appreciate you. The two purple ones are majesty and eternal love."
Hermione smiled softly.
"And," Harry went on. "The two white one signify unity, sincerity, loyalty, and a love that is stronger than death."
Hermione's eyes glassed over with tears as Harry stuffed the card back into his pocket and grinned at her.
"Oh, Harry," she sighed, wiping away her tears and allowing him to wrap his long arms around her.
She stood for a long time, savoring the feeling of his arms around her and his lips in her hair before the sobs came. Her body began to quake against his and he held her tighter against himself.
"I'm sorry, Hermione," he whispered into her curls.
"I know," she whimpered. "I am too."
When her sobs quieted and she was able to regain some of her composure, Harry loosened his grip and pulled away slightly to look down into her face. She stared up at him, hating the pain she saw in his eyes. She hid nothing though – letting all her anger and sadness and betrayal show on her face, damning him. Damning him for the years he spent making her love him and for the mere hours in which he ripped it away.
"Hermione," he choked out. "I'm sorry, I am so sorry. But if it were the other,"
"I know," she cut him off with a sad smile. "If it were the other way around and it were Ron, I'd have walked away from you. I know, Harry. It's just hard."
"If I could make it any easier," Harry sighed deeply.
Hermione rubbed her forehead and stepped away from him. "It'll get easier for me with time." She promised, moving toward the kitchen in search of a vase.
Harry followed her and stood in the doorway. "I loved you, Hermione. Honest."
"I know you did Harry," Hermione murmured, filling a vase with tap water.
"I still do, of course," he said quietly.
"I know you do Harry, it's just a different kind of love."
"No," he said slowly. "I'm still in love with you. I still want forever."
Hermione turned to face him and leaned back against the counter, crossing her arms over her chest. "What about Ginny?"
Harry shrugged. "I'm not sure,"
"You can't have it both ways, Harry." Hermione said gently. Harry scrubbed his face and remained silent.
"I promised you that I would always love you, and I will. But I can't be both, Harry. I can't be your best friend and your girlfriend when it's convenient for you. I can't be a second choice. I can't wait around on the back burner until you figure out whether or not it's going to work with Ginny. I can be your best friend or I can be your girlfriend, Harry, I'm not strong enough to be both anymore."
Harry's face looked like he was in agony. "'Mione," he moaned.
"It's ok, Harry." Hermione whispered, forcing herself to smile softly. "You have a family that needs you,"
"It's not, I mean, I can't, er…,I don't know if," he babbled, his eyes darting around the room madly.
"I'm not angry." She whispered, coming towards him and gathering his hands into hers. "I understand, honestly, I do. I'll just need a little bit of time and a little bit of space to sort it all out and I'll be as good as new."
Harry looked at her as if were burning alive. She squeezed his hands gently.
"Go home Harry," she whispered.
Her heart nearly broke, when he stumbled into her grate and instead of calling out his address, he gave that of The Burrow.