Five A-levels eat away at your time faster than Ron Weasley eats away at the beginning of term Hogwarts feast. And that's a terrible analogy, but what I'm trying to say is that I'm really sorry for the delay.

Eleantris. :)

Disclaimer – I don't own Harry Potter.

Chapter 52 – Friendship

He had just been about to turn the heat down under the cauldron to reduce their second experiment of the day down to a simmer when he heard her clear her throat behind him. Looking up from the swirling mix of gold, silver and platinum base, Severus turned to see Hermione hovering by a supply cupboard she had just been restocking. When she didn't speak, which he thought a little odd, though he'd realised that she had been quieter than usual that day, he sighed and said in his slow, enunciated drawl: "Yes?"

She smiled at him a little distractedly, as though only just realising she had his attention. "Sorry. I was just, err…was just wondering if it's okay for me to leave a little earlier than usual?"

"Of course it is. You're here of your own volition, not on my say so particularly. You don't need my permission to leave when you want, Hermione."

Had she been paying more attention, Hermione would have noticed the slight, suppressed note of pain to his voice, evidence of the disdain he felt at the idea that she may still see him as her formidable Potions Professor. He liked making people afraid of him; it was the best way to keep them at a distance, but he didn't want it for her. Never her.

But as it was, Hermione didn't notice, her mind hazy as it was with indefinable thoughts. She just smiled slightly at him again. "Oh, I know. I just wanted to check you didn't…need me." The anxious intonation of her last two words hung in the air and she almost winced, hoping only she could hear it.

"I'll manage for a few extra hours without you." Severus turned away from her to check on their potion. "Is everything alright?"

Hermione blinked at the back of his head in surprise. "Pardon?"

"I asked if everything was alright."

"Oh." She moved to join him by the cauldron, standing opposite him on the other side of the workbench. "Of course it is. Why wouldn't it be?"

He gave her a cursory glance upwards before returning his gaze to the delicate contents of the cauldron. "You've been uncharacteristically quiet today," he said, as though merely pointing out a fault in their research calculations.

"Oh, well I…err… I have a lot on my mind, I guess. Sorry."


For a moment, a frown flickered to life on Hermione's brow at the question. Since when did he care to know precisely what was bothering her? But, she supposed they were friends, weren't they? Sort of. She didn't really know.

"Um, it's nothing really. I've just been thinking."

There was a silent pause. Severus didn't lift his eyes from the potion, and then asked: "About?"

"Oh, well…" Hermione felt the frown make more of an impression now, and her fingers began absentmindedly fiddling with the pages of notes beside the cauldron. "It's Gina's sort-of hen party tonight – you remember Gina Scott, from the year above me? Hufflepuff? Well, she's who Ron's marrying and – "

"I do know." He glanced up at her, lips set in a straight line, but looking almost amused. "I was invited, remember? But go on."

Severus couldn't explain why he was suddenly curious to know what had been plaguing her all day, but when he looked up and noticed her blush, his curiosity only increased.

"Yeah, sorry, of course." Hermione gave him a small, almost flustered looking smile. Well she couldn't exactly refuse to carry on now that he had backed her into a corner, could she? As she spoke, she watched him carefully ladle a different cooled potion from earlier into vials for testing later.

"Um…like I said, it's nothing really. It's just all got me thinking that, well… Everyone I know is either getting married or engaged or pregnant or is in a relationship…except me." She looked up, relieved to see he was still filling vials as though she hadn't spoken at all, and gave a quiet, nervous laugh. "I said it was nothing, just being…silly, I guess. I sound ridiculous now. I didn't mean it like… I'm not whining. I do like my life as it is, I just…" She sighed, shaking her head. "Doesn't matter."

Reaching for a ladle of her own, Hermione started on helping to fill the vials as she waited for his no doubt caustic reply to come, ridiculing her for her ridiculousness and telling her to take her trivial worries elsewhere. He would tell her she was being silly. She felt silly.

However, no such remarks came. For a while, neither she nor Severus spoke, and she was beginning to think that the subject had been dropped, or rather hope that it had been, when he stopped to put down his ladle and looked up at her.

"You can hardly complain, Hermione, that you are not like your friends in that respect."

She couldn't work out if he was smiling or smirking at her, but there was a reassuringly derisive warmth to his eyes that was familiar. He did think her silly, but not in the way she had feared.

"Where, I wonder, are you supposed to find someone with whom you'd like to be in a relationship when you spend almost every waking moment with me?"

His words had their intended effect, and Hermione laughed, although deep inside her, something tugged.

For a brief moment, a heavy pain arrested Severus' heart, because it had finally started – they had reached the point where she felt comfortable enough to invite him into her confidence – and he could see it all now. One day, soon probably, she would find herself in a relationship, and he would have to stand aside, feeling terribly old, as he listened to her talk about the wizard in question, and then one day she'd turn up with a ring on her finger. He'd watch her get married, pregnant, say goodbye to her as she ended their partnership… One day, many decades into the future, she would stand at his funeral and simply refer to him as her Potions Professor. Their research together would be a short stint in her life. If he was lucky, he would perhaps become an 'old friend'.

Reality crashed into him with alarming force, and Severus was momentarily frozen as Hermione's bright gaze met his, her mouth wide and smiling as she laughed, lit up, and all he heard was a small, melancholic whisper in his ear: beautiful.

But not his. Never his.

"That's true, Severus," she said as her laughter slowly died away. "That's very true."

Swallowing, he just glanced at the clock on the wall and said, slightly stiffly: "Didn't you want to leave early?"

"Yes." She beamed at him, laughter still in her eyes as he put down her ladle. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Severus didn't turn as she gently touched his arm by way of thanks on the way out, but said just before she left: "No. Take the day off."

"What?" Hermione whirled around, not even trying to hide her surprise.

He looked over his shoulder, an empty vial still held in one hand. "Take the day off. If you have a few drinks tonight you won't be of any use to me tomorrow anyway."

"Oh. Um, okay…" She tried hard to quell the feeling of disappointment quietly simmering in her stomach. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. Have a lie-in for once, go shopping, read a book…whatever it is you used to do in your free time."

"Okay…well, um, thank you. I'll see you on Friday then."

With that she left, wondering why she felt so dejected at the prospect of having a whole day to herself in which to do…nothing.

Ginny grinned when Hermione opened the door for her a few hours later and looked her up and down appraisingly. "Wow, you look nice. Much better than me, anyway." She glanced down at her top and dark jeans, almost glaring at her bump as though begrudging it her flat pumps and the fact that she had had to forego a dress.

Hermione simply laughed at her. "Ginevra Molly Potter, don't be ridiculous. You could be carrying triplets and come out wearing the largest Weasley jumper it's possible for your mother to knit and you'd still look gorgeous."

Rolling her eyes because she'd heard it all before, Ginny moved inside and cast a look over her shoulder. "Can I use your loo before we go, Hermione?"

"Yeah, sure. You know where you're going – second door to the right of the kitchen, yeah?"

"Yep. Thanks."

Whilst Ginny was in the bathroom, Hermione took a moment to glance in the mirror as she reached for her coat. She had managed to smooth her hair into what just about passed for sleek, rather than messy, curls, and a small touch of brown eyeliner and mascara highlighted her eyes. She looked…pretty, she had to admit. Or at least as close to it as she felt she was ever going to get anyway. Not that she cared much. It had always seemed so absurd to her that anyone could base any sort of judgment of a person on their aesthetic appearance.

Hermione was just slipping on the pair of black heels she kept at the back of her wardrobe, rarely worn, when Ginny returned.

"Ready to go?" They moved toward the fireplace, Hermione picking up the jar of floo powder as they did so.

Ginny went first, disappearing in a flurry of green flame before Hermione followed, wand already at hand to perform the necessary cleaning charms once they were spat out into the living room of the Burrow. The plan was to start with a few drinks and a catch-up there, and then walk down to an Italian restaurant in the nearby Muggle village of Ottery St. Catchpole, where they had a table reserved, courtesy of Hermione, as most of the others still hadn't a clue how to use a Muggle 'fellytone', although Mr Weasley was always fascinated to hear her try to explain it to them all over Sunday lunch.

The cosy lounge of the Weasley family home was decked out in pink, Gina the centre of attention and beaming from ear to ear, the familiar diamond glistening on her finger and the warm light turning her blonde hair to gold as she welcomed and chatted with everyone.

For the first ten minutes or so, Hermione felt overwhelmed. It had been a while since she'd seen everyone all together, and it half reminded her of the old Order or DA meetings at first, only without the men or looming danger. And of course, Gina had never been a member of either organisation. She sometimes thought that perhaps that was what made her and Ron so perfect for each other; Gina hadn't been involved in the war, beyond ensuring she kept her head down and did nothing to cross anyone who might drag her into it. She didn't know every pain Ron had been through, every sacrifice and near-miss and scrape with death. Ron needed that. He wasn't like her, or Harry, to that extent. He was content, not to forget, but to gently set it aside at least. Gina helped him to do that.

After a while, Hermione managed to relax. She told herself to forget about the research for a few hours, along with the omnipresent question of her possible, unfathomable attraction to a certain ex-Potions Professor, and enjoy herself. Soon, Ginny and Harry would be busy with the new baby, Ron and Gina would be off on their honeymoon in Romania, and she would be left again, feeling a little…not unhappy or abandoned, but lost. Drifting. Looking for something she wasn't sure she'd ever find.

However, if Hermione's main aim of the night was to avoid thinking about Severus Snape, then she was preparing herself for a fall. Everyone – Hestia, Hannah, Fleur, Luna, Gina – asked how her research with him was going, and how they were getting along. And every time they asked she had to grip her wine glass tighter as she tried very hard to not 'light up' as Ginny always put it, when she answered them.

"But really, Hermione, are you sure you're enjoying it?" Hestia asked for what felt like the hundredth time as she and Hermione sat together near the fireplace, catching up and occasionally joining in the others' conversation. "He's not working you like a first year in detention?"

"No!" Hermione laughed, shaking her head. "Of course not. You know, spending time with him really isn't as bad as you all think. Severus is actually very enjoyable company when he wants to be, and we sort of complement each other." She swilled the red wine around in her glass and looked up at her former boss, a smile on her lips and a warm blush suffusing her cheeks, although later she would blame it on the alcohol.

"We're… friends," she said after a moment, then knocked back the last of her wine casually.

Hestia simply raised an amused eyebrow, though her gaze was vaguely suspicious. "Mm-hm," she hummed. "Well…I'm glad to hear it. I think."

Everything kicks off next chapter, and Luna will make a proper appearance, I promise. :P I'll try my best to get it done as soon as I can. Thank you for reading, if you're still here. :)

Eleantris :)