Author's Note: I've not abandoned this story, I'm just back in school and it's very intense. Now on winter break. I'm not overly happy with this chapter (it's sort of filler) so I apologize. The next chapter is almost done. Chapter sixteen should be when we get to the good stuff. I'm so sorry for my continuing absence on this site, but your reviews and follows and favourites mean the world to me. Thanks so much everyone!

Chapter Fourteen

Despite the wine, your sleep is shallow and restless. When you wake for good, it's half past five, and you are exhausted. Ron is snoring beside you, his arm wrapped around your waist. You know he won't wake for hours, when his stomach rouses him. The night floods back to you all at once and you press your fingers against your temples in an effort to keep the memories, and your headache, at bay.

You decide you should use the time to finish the reading for next month's Charms test. You slip out of Ron's grip and the bed slowly, careful not to wake him, and find your dress on the floor. You transfigure it into dark robes, your heels into trainers and, as quietly as you can, leave the room.

You try to recall if there are any professors patrolling at this hour, and can't remember conclusively. You decide there probably aren't; more than likely, any professor out of bed would be awake for the day. To be safe, you cast a Silencing charm on yourself and wards on the guest room door.

The castle is cold and dark, with only dull sconces lighting the hallway. The sun won't rise for a few hours, and as you walk through the hall, a moon, just shy of full, looks back at you through a large window. Although the Fat Lady is put off at having to wake up to accommodate your entrance to the Common Room, you are able to retrieve your Charms book (and a much-needed headache potion and toothbrush) without incident.

But on your way back to Ron, only steps past the Fat Lady, you hear it. Footsteps.

Instantly you duck into a shadow and Disillusion yourself, feeling that familiar, cold feeling run down your body. The footsteps get closer and you pray your charms will hold (although you know they will; you had enough casting-charms-under-duress practice in the Forest of Dean), and curse yourself for not thinking to nick Harry's cloak. You stay as still as you can, hidden in the dark, and listen.

The steps are slow, measured, relatively soft, although they seem loud in the quiet of the Castle. Whoever they belong to is either dumb as a stump (a student? No, no student would walk so boldly out of bed at these hours), unable to cast a Silencing charm (Filch? No, he's always talking to Mrs. Norris), or is unaware there is a student out of bed (the most likely answer). Any of those options are alright with you; all work in your favour.

"I know you're there, Miss Granger. Twenty point from Gryffindor for being out of bed at this hour."

Your heart sinks into your feet. Of course it's him. And he is neither dumb, a Squib, or unaware. He is confident.

Snape Finites your charms and rounds the corner, staring down at you over his nose. You are trembling slightly, and you pray it isn't visible. He is the last person you want to see after your behaviour the night before. You are embarrassed, for many reasons, but your drunken fantasy doesn't play into that as much as you would have thought. It was the wine. It had to be. The whole night seems a blur, in a way. Even the part before you had started drinking. Almost a dream.

Snape crosses his arms. "What are you doing out of bed, Miss Granger?"

You take a deep breath. Best to start with a half truth. "I wasn't feeling well, Sir."

He raises an eyebrow. "And that caused you to leave your dormitory... why?"

You don't want to lie (Snape is far too insightful), but you can't tell him you spent the night elsewhere. So you shrug, and keep your mouth closed, hoping he will berate you before you have to think up an answer.

He stares at you for a few moments. You know what you look like, especially compared to how you looked the night before. Your hair is a fluffy halo, you have bags under your eyes. You're wearing a poorly transfigured robe that barely reaches your ankles and trainers without socks. You begin to flush under his gaze and you look down at the ground, praying he will say something and put you out of your awkward, embarrassed misery.

And then he sighs.

It's a strange sound. You've never heard Snape sigh before. It's not a timid sound; it sounds almost as if he is exasperated, resigned. Your eyes shoot to his face and are surprised when it seems less cold, somehow.

"Go back to bed, Miss Granger," he says, and his voice sounds raspy and tired. "Just... go."

You are so grateful to not be chewed up and spit out you grin like a fool and can't help the cheerful "thank you Sir!" that comes out of your mouth. You are about to head to the Fat Lady, assuming Snape will follow to ensure you return to your dorm, but he abruptly turns on his heel and walks the other way, moving quicker than he was before, disappearing down the stairs.

After a few minutes, his footsteps fade away completely and you run back to Ron's room, your heart pounding, your head wondering what made Snape sound so tired, so resigned.

You wake with a start to the sound of Ron moaning. You are back in the bed in the guest room, your face plastered against your Charms textbook, your neck aching. You must have fallen asleep reading. You check the clock. It's 9:30. Ron is beside you, cursing Firewhiskey, Hogwarts, the Ministry, and various other institutions and liquors.

"Merlin's left nut, I feel like shite," he grumbles. "Hermione? Hermione... are you awake?"

You peel your cheek off the book, hoping none of the text transferred onto your face. "I am now."

"Can you grab the hangover potion in my bag?"

You get up slowly. You feel all right, really, except for your neck. You find Ron's bag and hand him a vial of the potion. He drinks it laying down, his arm over his eyes, blocking out the sunlight.

While he waits for it to kick in, you use the loo and take a quick shower. By the time you are finished, Ron is dressed. He knocks on a door across from the bed and yells "Oi! Harry! You ready for breakfast?" After some shouting, Harry and Ginny enter the room, looking freshly showered and only slightly worse for wear. Making sure the coast is clear, the four of you leave the room and walk to the Great Hall for breakfast.

The second you enter, it goes quiet. Everyone is staring at Ron and Harry with open mouths (except the Slytherins, you notice with amusement). You look at the Head Table and just happen to catch Snape, and the Headmistress, to his left, both rolling their eyes. You suppress your smile.

As your boyfriend and friend are mobbed, you and Ginny take a seat at the Gryffindor table and begin to eat.

"I don't know how they can handle that," Ginny mutters. "Especially after all they drank last night."

"Hangover potion, I'm sure," you say, as you nibble a piece of toast.

"That only gets rid of the hangover. Not the inane questions."

You smile. "Oh come, it's harmless. They're only first years."

Ginny raises her eyebrows and looks pointedly at the crowd. "Are they?"

You follow her eyes and realize you're wrong. It's not only first years talking to your boyfriend. It's also older students. Older female students.

"Ah, I see," you say quietly. You feel an acute stab of jealousy as you watch Ron laughing with a group of very pretty sixth years.

"Harry tells me it's worse at the Ministry. They've hired a lot of young graduates to help with the influx of paperwork since the war, and most of them are female. So you can imagine the attention they get from their 'groupies,'" Ginny rolls her eyes. "Harry even got a marriage proposal once!" she laughs and turns her attention back to her breakfast.

You smile at your friend but you are slightly concerned. Ron never mentioned anything of the sort in his letters to you... although now that you think of it, he mentioned very little about anything in his letters. It was all small talk; all light-hearted, all frivolous now that you think about it.

Harry and Ron finally break away from the crowd when the Headmistress shoos the other students away, telling them to leave the boys alone or they will be escorted from the Hall. "Sorry about that," Harry says sheepishly as they both sit down. He seems uncomfortable and embarrassed. Ginny smiles at him warmly and pats him on the back consolingly.

Ron, on the other hand, is beaming. "Right annoying," he says, but you can tell he doesn't mean it. Suddenly you feel like you did in your sixth year, when Ron was the Quidditch hero, and, basking in his victory, snogged Lavender Brown as if his life depended on it. Right in front of you.

After breakfast, Ron asks you to go for a walk with him by the lake. They are leaving before lunch and have tea scheduled with the Headmistress before they go, so you have less than an hour left with him.

You walk through the chilly autumn air and find a large rock to sit on. You cast a warming charm on it and on both of your clothes, and Ron holds your hand as you sit and stare at the lake. It's peaceful; not even the Giant Squid is disturbing the calm waters and still morning.

"So," you say, breaking the companionable silence, "Ginny says you and Harry are mobbed quite a bit at work. I guess you can't get away from it, can you?" You keep your tone light and smile, hoping he won't think you're upset.

He shrugs. "Yeah, it happens. Harry gets more of it than I do, really."

You nod, and again you are both quiet for a while. You see a tentacle partially emerge from the lake's murky water before submerging once again, and you watch the ripples it makes.

"When will we see each other again?" Ron asks eventually, changing the topic.

"At Christmas, I suppose. I'll spend half of it here and half at the Burrow, if that's all right."

"Why would you spend half of it here?"

"I need to study. Professor McGonagall has promised me total access to the library while everyone's away, even after hours. I'm hoping to start an extra credit project for Arithmacy in the new year. Professor Sinestra seems interested -"

Ron makes a face and interrupts you. "You're going to study during Christmas holidays?"

You feel a prick of annoyance. "Yes, Ron. I always do. You know that. If I didn't study at the Burrow I studied on holidays with my parents."

He sighs. "Right. It's just... these two days... It's hardly enough, is it?"

You hadn't really thought about it like that. Two days together seemed fine to you, for now. You love being with Ron, but being apart from him for this time, no matter how unpleasant, was part of the plan all along.

"No," you say, "I suppose it's not. But it's just for this year."

He nods. "Right." He pauses. "You know, Harry and Ginny are moving in together. After she graduates, I mean."

You shift on the rock, suddenly uncomfortable. "She said they were thinking about it..."

"No, they're doing it," he interrupts again. "Harry told me she said yes. I'll be looking for a new place in a couple of months, so she can move into Grimmauld. A flat, probably."

You don't know what to say to that. Apparently you don't have to, as Ron isn't finished.

"You'll be graduating after that, and I think you should move in with me."

Your heart sinks and you feel cold, as if your charms are wearing off. You swallow. "But... that's so soon."

He turns to you then, and grabs both your hands in his. "It's not, Hermione. I miss you. I miss sleeping next to you."

You flush, feeling frightened suddenly. "I miss that too, but... I don't know what I'm going to do after I take my N.E.W.T.s," you say. "When it's safe again, after the last Death Eaters go to trial, I have to go to Australia. I have to find my parents. And so much could go wrong, I don't know when I'd be back..." You feel your breath get shallow. You feel dizzy. "No, Ron," you say strongly, surprising yourself. "No, I can't. I can't move in with you. I can't."

His face turns red and he looks furious. "Merlin, Hermione, you don't have to sound so repulsed." He lets go of your hands so quickly you jump. He stands up and begins walking back to the castle.

You run after him. "No, Ron, that's not what I meant at all!" You manage to catch up to him and grab his arm. He turns around but he won't look at you.

"Ron, are you telling me you can't understand that I need to find my parents? That I don't know how they'll react, if the spell can be lifted successfully, when I'll be able to come back..." your voice breaks as you feel tears stinging the back of your eyes.

His face softens at that. "I know," he says. "But I'll be coming with you. And then we'll have somewhere to come back to when we come home."

You don't want to tell him that you don't want him coming to Australia with you. That you can't bear the thought of going yourself, seeing your parents, feeling the guilt, the grief, let alone having someone - anyone! - coming with you and seeing all those intimate moments. It's... private.

But you can't bring yourself to tell him that. Not yet. Your brain tells you he should understand (he's been through as much as you, after all), but the look on his face is too hopeful, and your heart won't allow you to destroy that hope.

"All right," you say. "We'll talk about it, okay? It's a while away. We have time."

He nods and kisses you, gently, on the cheek. "I just want a life with you, Hermione," he says against your skin.

You feel that sinking in your chest again. "I know, Ron," you say, and kiss him back. A chaste kiss, like the day before.

After a moment he sighs. "I have to go."

You nod. "I'll walk you to the Headmistress' office."

You walk in silence the whole way. When you reach the stone gargoyles, Ron takes your hands in his again.

"This is it," he says, smiling shyly. "The House Elves, of their own free will, will be bringing our stuff here so we can leave right away." You chuckle at his joke. "I'll see you at Christmas then," he says, leaning over and kissing you, on the mouth this time, softly.

"At Christmas," you echo. You hug him, hard, before he says the password and disappears from view.