"I think you've had enough, love," Rosmerta said as she retrieved the empty glass from before me.
I blinked wearily and looked at her.
"Is Leola working tonight?" I asked groggily, not caring that my voice cracked as I spoke.
"I told you already, she's not," she replied gently.
That sounded vaguely familiar. I had the hazy sense that I had been here for awhile. Surely when I arrived the pub had been full of patrons. Now it was nearly empty.
"Is it very late?" I asked when I realized Rosmerta was still standing over me.
"A bit before midnight," she answered. She moved to sit next to me and I scooted clumsily over in the booth. She studied me for a moment while I stared intently at my hands.
"Is everything alright?" she asked softly.
"Oh, not so much," I said, tracing my finger along the edge of the table. "But I don't need to bother you with all that."
"It's no bother," she said casually.
"Oh, but it is," I assured her. "I am. But no more. I'm. Not. Worth. It." I rapped my palm against the table with each word to emphasize my point.
"Where would you get such a foolish idea?" she snapped.
My eyes popped open and I stared at her. Even through my tipsy fog I realized something.
"But I'm doing it now, aren't I? I'm wallowing in my failures. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't waste your time. I'm sorry," I apologized again.
"Xaria…" she began. I cut her off.
"I'm sorry," I implored.
She smiled tightly.
"It's okay," she said, finally giving me the answer I needed. I grinned back gratefully and draped my arm over her shoulder.
"I'm glad things are good between us," I told her. "I couldn't leave knowing you were mad."
"You're leaving, then?" she asked sliding out from the bench as I tried to stand. "That's good. You should go home and sleep it off."
"You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here," I joked.
"Xaria," she said firmly, taking my hand. "Go home."
I smiled blissfully back before squeezing her hand and heading out of the pub.
The unseasonably cold air hit me like a slap in the face. A shiver ran down my spine and I hastened to pull the collar of my cloak up around my chin. Instantly, I began to feel the tinge of sobriety and cursed my low tolerance.
"I should have forced down another drink," I said aloud. "Then I would be drunk right now."
I twisted my whole body to look up at down the main drag of Hogsmeade. To my left I could begin on the lonely trek back to Hogwarts. Only I couldn't. Not yet. I spun to my right and felt the earth spin a moment behind me.
I walked all the way to the end of the long and twisted street and then took a left. I expected the path to end at any moment and was surprised when I soon had the chance to turn again. This time I chose right.
It took another twenty minutes to get to the end of this road where I chose right again. The cold air was driving itself down my cloak and every moment I felt the comforts of drink leaving me. Snape's words began to echo in my mind and I shook my head to banish them.
"Is that Xaria?" A man's voice called from behind me. I turned to see a newly opened door, casting the glow of light across the dark ground.
"Who's that?" I asked, squinting.
The guy who approached me looked only vaguely familiar.
"Oh that's nice," he said with a laugh. I was just starting to think that something about his laugh bothered me, when recognition dawned.
"Oscar!" I shouted, showing more excitement then I felt.
"There we are," he said. His eyes looked me slowly up and down. "Did you get my owls?"
Lying would have saved his feelings but I was never much for it.
"I did," I said. "I'm so sorry I didn't respond. I've been really, really, really busy…"
His eyes darkened for a second before he smiled. "Well… are you busy now?"
I glanced around until I saw the clock in town square shining over the tops of the houses. It was a little after one.
"I should go back," I pondered. Even to me, my voice sounded a little too loud.
Oscar gently grasped my elbow. "Oh come on then, just a little later's no harm."
"I have to work in the morning," I said to the longing in his face.
"One drink," he persisted. His grip tightened and I flinched.
"Hey," I snapped trying to pull my arm back. Only when I realized I couldn't, did I begin to feel afraid. Instead he leaned even closer in and breathed hotly against my ear.
"Why not?" he asked sweetly.
Angrily I thrust my foot forward until it met with his shin. He yelped and thrust me away from himself. I spun dizzily and cracked my face against a nearby lamppost. I scrambled for my wand.
Before I could get to it, I felt his fingers grasping tightly to the back of my neck. He forced my head back and muttered into my ear.
The word was both simple and terrifying and I barely had time to react before I was again thrust forward. I fell to the ground, scraping both my palms and having the wind knocked out of me. There was a sudden, blunt pain in my side. Also my wand clattered onto the pavement under me.
I quickly grabbed at it and turned on the man who was again approaching.
"Petrificus totalus," I wheezed.
Immediately he seized up and fell to the ground. I rose slowly, wincing at the pain in my ribs, and went to stand over his frozen form.
His eyes were still wide and he stared menacingly at me. I trembled slightly before breaking myself away from his glare and beginning the slow, painful walk back to Hogwarts.
For the eighth time in an hour, I crossed the hall outside her room. I paused to listen in case she had returned when I last left to make my rounds of the castle. There was only silence.
Earlier in the evening I had dispatched a house elf to see that she was in her room. I had no need to see the girl myself. Or rather, she wouldn't appreciate seeing me. After the third trip, when the night had grown long, the creature seemed weary and I dismissed him back to the kitchen. It was too personal a task to entrust to a house elf, anyway.
It had been hours since I had seen her from my window, stalking from the castle. Her shoulders were miserably hunched and her head drooped. Everything in her posture illustrated the vulnerability I had learned to associate with her. It was a gentleness that irritated me as often as it intrigued me.
I couldn't see her face and that itself was merciful.
The sight of her soft features, first widening in surprise and then crumpling hollowly at my words had been nearly too much to bear the first time.
Damn Creevey and the rest of the fourth years who had driven every last semblance of patience from me this afternoon. Or else damn my lack of patience in the first place.
Although, I considered, it may have been its own kindness. My harsh words may have served as the final wedge, severing her from me. From the impression she had of me.
I was no fool. I saw the way her eyes lit when she saw me, the way her forehead creased in concern at her perceptions of my suffering. I heard the bated breath when she told me she considered me a hero. I should have corrected her romantic notions then. But I was weak and had never before been admired by someone so young and pretty. When she cast her innocent, yet lively, eyes upon me I was powerless.
I never deserved her admiration in the first place, I thought angrily. A hero? What nonsense what that?
As my thoughts again began to volley sickeningly between viewpoints, I heard a noise at the end of the hall. Quickly I stepped into the shadows. I would spare her from seeing me tonight.
Unseen, I watched her step timidly forth. She too, was hidden in the shadows but I could clearly see her slight figure as she walked. And when she stumbled, I saw her tiny hand grasp at the doorway to brace herself. She cast her face upward and in the moonlight I was able to see the dark bruise painted across her cheek.
Back to Xaria
Walking back to the castle alone had been a big mistake. In the adrenaline rush I had severely underestimated my injuries and it was only after my heart stopped racing that I discovered I had at least one broken rib. My head throbbed as well, although I didn't remember hitting it. But then, my conscious memory was a bit hazy and increasingly so as I made my way home.
I was halfway tempted to heal myself. But medi-witch training taught me early that this was never a good idea. So instead I took the walk home very slowly, pausing often while the cold wind whipped around me.
From the moment I passed through the gates of the Hogwarts grounds, my memories were very spotty.
There was a glimpse of the clock in the entrance way declaring it to be nearly three in the morning. Then I remembered standing outside my door. And then voices. And then the sweet release of not having to stand on my own power anymore. Then, after a particularly long blackout, there were voices again.
"You can't go back down there just now," said someone, indistinguishable through my vague awareness.
"She could have been killed," bellowed a second voice. This was enraged and seemed to be from a man. My ears burned with the Frostbite Liniment I imagined had been put on them.
"Dumbledore's already called the Ministry Law Enforcement Office; they're sending a few men over to Hogsmeade."
"Giving him plenty of time to escape," the voice thundered.
"Calm down, Severus," the first voice replied. "And please lower your voice."
The sound of the name sparked my waning attention and I was alert once more. But even the alertness hurt and I closed my eyes against the throbbing.
"So what then?" he continued. "A fine, a written warning, a pleasant and brief incarceration in a Ministry holding cell?"
"And what would you do?" she hissed. "Attack him yourself?"
I'm nearly sure there was silence after this. But then, I was losing consciousness again anyway so I could be wrong.
The next time I awoke, my mind was blissfully clear. The sunlight shining through the windows still dragged a veil of pain across my eyes but in general, I felt okay. Madam Pomfrey was bustling around the side of my bed, pouring potion from a large jug into a smaller vial.
"I hope this counts as Hours Worked," I croaked hoarsely. "I mean, if I have to be in the Hospital Wing anyway I don't want to be using my vacation time."
Madam Pomfrey swiveled around, her eyes damp with emotion.
"You're awake," she exclaimed. She moved quickly to my side but then seemed unsure what to do next. She settled with clasping my hand tightly.
"Man what a hangover," I tenderly stretched out my arms. "I feel like I got thrown into a lamppost and then stomped on."
She chuckled obligingly at my joke but I could tell she didn't think it was at all funny.
"Take this," she said, passing me the vial she had just filled.
"Reossification Potion?" I asked, tossing it back.
"You broke three of your ribs," she said as I shuddered at the flavor.
"I didn't break my ribs," I corrected her. "The other guy did."
I kept my eyes down as I swallowed at the lump in my throat. I didn't know how to ask my next question. Mercifully, Madam Pomfrey answered my silence.
"The Magical Law Enforcement Patrol picked him up early this morning. They'll come by later to ask you some questions. Also they commend you on your Body Bind."
I smiled to myself. Madam Pomfrey cleared her throat, looking uncomfortable once more.
"Professor Snape went with them actually."
I looked up while she pretended to be busy sorting bandages in a drawer beside my bed.
"Did he?" I asked, trying to imitate her casual tone. "I didn't think law enforcement was his thing."
"Oh, he has a wide range of interests and abilities," she said, moving to the second drawer. "Did you know, for example, he's one of the highest regarded Occlumens in Britain?"
I told her I didn't and she gave a sort of a laugh.
"I imagine he would have lost some credit for that last night though," she went on. Then, without changing her tone she turned and stared directly into my eyes. "I've never seen him so emotional."
She left quickly and I was again alone lost in thought.
Madam Pomfrey, always proficient at her job, had me nearly entirely healed by the end of the day. Then, for the first time, I was on the receiving end of her matron lectures and was forced to submit to another night of sleeping in the Hospital Wing.
Early the next morning, Dumbledore came by for a visit and I was overwhelmed with embarrassment at being seen in a nightgown. The headmaster hardly seemed to notice though as he perched on the edge of my bed and made me laugh until my newly healed ribs ached.
Madam Pomfrey hurried in to scold him and I chuckled again at the way he teased her.
"I suppose I should leave you to your healing," he said, finally submitting to Madam Pomfrey's glares. "I'm actually supposed to be at the Ministry just now for a hearing, anyway."
I managed not to ask but was greatly pleased when he continued on his own.
"It seems our Potions Master was involved with an, shall we say, altercation, in Hogsmeade the other day. Oh don't worry," he said to my unspoken alarm. "Evidently there were no witnesses to the alleged violence. I am confident that he will escape any and all prosecution."
With a wink and smile he departed and I was left gaping. Madam Pomfrey, for her part, didn't seem at all surprised but merely raised her eyebrows and looked pointedly at me.
While maintaining that expression she began to speak.
"After you take your last dose of potion I think you're alright to go. Dumbledore insists that you should have the rest of the week off, not that I'm protesting of course. Just take it slowly and check up with me every day or so."
She nodded the thin flask on my bed's tray. "Go on, then," she prodded.
I grinned and downed the tasteless liquid.
"Thanks Poppy," I said, using her given name for the first time. I hoped it helped convey my gratitude.
I would have gone straight to Snape's office right then if I hadn't known he was at the Ministry. Instead I was forced to bide my time, taking the longest shower I could manage, and tediously drying my hair with a hairdryer I stole from the Muggle Studies classroom. And then I paced back and forth in my room for half an hour replaying in my mind the conversations I'd had with Dumbledore and Pomfrey.
I was both terrified and desperate to talk to Professor Snape. On the one hand I needed to hear from him an explanation of his rash actions. Temperamental as he was, I had never known Snape to be impulsive and whatever action landed him in trouble with the Ministry was nothing if not impulsive.
Terror, though, threatened to overtake me as I imagined him lashing out as he had during our last conversation. What Madam Pomfrey had regarded as emotion could easily have been irritation with me. He had warned me, after all, against being out alone at night.
At four o'clock I decided it was time to face him. At the very least, I needed to be admonished once more so I could kill the bit of optimism starting to brew in me. I made my way hurriedly down to the dungeons, periodically breaking into a run, only to stop altogether and force myself to slow once more.
His door was open and I felt my stomach wrench dizzily as I neared it. My head felt light and I clasped a hand tightly to my side, willing myself not to fly apart.
He sat at his desk staring at a piece of parchment, quill posed as though ready to mark it. His hair fell over his face and he rested his forehead in his hands. As I watched him, he was very still and I soon realized he wasn't even reading it.
"Professor Snape," I called out, my voice dying even as I said the words.
He looked up and then rose quickly. Once standing though, he seemed unsure and I moved near to him.
"You're alright," he observed, his eyes racing up and down my figure.
I nodded, dumbstruck at the sight of him. He nodded and gave a very tight smile that he quickly dropped.
"Very good," he said carefully. He lowered his gaze and began to stare intently at the ground. I wondered if I were actually seeing him nervous.
"I'm sorry," he spat the words out as though they tasted bad. "I'm sorry for what I said to you. It wasn't deserved."
I continued not to speak and he went on. His tone took on a very official and impassive gait.
"I do not require your forgiveness. I don't imagine it will be the last time I say something to offend you. I certainly don't expect your patience for my social errors. I don't even know if I would respect your forgiveness, it's so unmerited."
And then his face broke. He finally looked up at me and in his eyes I saw a new innocence. I thought I had seen him vulnerable during the worst of his illness. But that was nothing to what I saw now in his pain-filled eyes.
"You thought I was a hero…" he breathed wretchedly.
He was unable to continue as I had pressed my lips to his in a deep and lasting kiss.
A/N: Although the story ends here I have written an additional chapter intended for MATURE audiences that I plan to post as its own story. Provided I don't lose my nerve. Which I may.
Thanks for everyone who read, reviewed, or plans to review. You guys are incredible!