"I suppose so," she replied, intrigued. "Why?"
"There is something I have to give you."
This piqued her curiosity. "What is it?"
He looked a bit annoyed. "Something Dumbledore wants you to have."
"Oh." She certainly hadn't expected that. "You could give it to me now."
"I suppose it'd be better if I gave it to you tomorrow," Snape replied, seeming rather reluctant.
"And why is that?"
He hesitated, then said, "Because you won't like it."
Hermione furrowed her brow, puzzled by his evasive behaviour. "For God's sake, Severus, do you think that'll let me sleep soundly? Now I definitely want it tonight."
He held her eyes for a moment, then nodded. "It's your decision." He turned and went to the door of his room, Hermione following him with a feeling of apprehension. What could Dumbledore want to give her? And why wouldn't she like it?
Snape opened the door and switched on the light, then he went to his suitcase and got out a small box. He took his wand and enlarged it until it was about as large as a shoe box, then he put it on a low coffee table and gestured for Hermione to sit on the sofa next to it. He himself sat down on the other end of the sofa, his eyes never leaving her.
Hermione reached out and carefully opened the lid. She gasped. In the box lay Harry's invisibility cloak.
She looked up at Snape, her eyes wide with shock, her thoughts reeling. "I...I can't accept this. It's far too valuable."
His face was impassive. "I absolutely agree with you but Dumbledore insists that you take it."
"But I don't want it!" She stared down on the silvery fabric. As if on its own accord, her right hand reached out for the cloak, but stopped just inches above it.
"I know, but when did Dumbledore ever care for our wishes," Snape snarled.
Hermione hardly heard him. After a few moments of hesitation her fingers finally reached out and touched the soft and surprisingly light material. She slowly got out the cloak and held it in front of her. Feeling and smelling it brought back so many memories. It was overwhelming. Hermione stared at the cloak, she didn't know if only for seconds or for minutes, her mind whirling. Finally she put it back again. "Tell Dumbledore I'll keep it," she said, her voice hoarse. "But also tell him that I don't regard it as my own. If he finds someone who has a good use for it, I'll be happy to give it back."
Snape looked at her searchingly.
"I'm fine," Hermione said, her shaky tone betraying her. "It's just... It is so unexpected, and it brought back so many memories."
He nodded. "How about a glass of wine? I guess you could need something strengthening after this shock."
"All right," she said, giving him a slightly wobbly smile to reassure him she was well.
He stood up and went to the mini-bar, got a bottle of red wine and two glasses, poured the wine and offered it to her. After a few seconds of consideration he turned down the bright lights and instead switched on a small table lamp. Hermione looked at him gratefully. She felt less exposed in the dim light, less self-conscious about her sorrow. She took a deep sip of wine and watched Snape sit down next to her again.
"You know, I probably shouldn't drink that," she said, nevertheless taking another sip. "I've already had quite a lot tonight."
He didn't reply but eyed her over the rim of his glass.
"Actually I've never been drunk," she went on. "Yet."
"And you think tonight might be a good time to change that?"
Hermione gave a small, bitter laugh. "Perhaps." She looked down on her glass. "My boyfriend broke up with me on Wednesday. I believe it's rather customary to get drunk on such an occasion."
"I am sorry."
She looked up, meeting Snape's eyes again. "Thanks, but that's not necessary. I am fine." She grimaced. "And I'm sorry for bothering you with this. I don't even know why I'm telling you. The alcohol, probably. After all you certainly don't look like an agony aunt."
Snape's mouth twitched. "I think not. But you'd be surprised how often I had to play that role for my Slytherins."
Hermione grinned at the thought. "Indeed? I can hardly believe that."
"You'd be astonished what sensitive souls slumber under the harsh exterior," he said, a mischievous glitter in his eyes. "Pansy Parkinson especially was a frequent visitor, alternately crying her eyes out or raging about Malfoy who just didn't return her affections. And you wouldn't believe what terrible love poems Goyle came up with."
Hermione giggled. "That must have been quite daunting."
"It was indeed."
Hermione looked at him, at his face subtly transformed by the smile, and suddenly felt a strange tenderness. She quickly averted her eyes and looked back on her glass again. "I suppose we shouldn't laugh," she said. "Loving someone who doesn't love you in return is not a nice thing."
"No, it isn't."
There was a strange tone in Snape's voice and Hermione threw him a quick glance, but he didn't look at her. She turned away from him again, looked out into the night and took another sip of wine. The sadness and pain that had been brought back by the invisibility cloak were still there, but attenuated by a pleasant lightness, as if her sorrows somehow didn't touch her anymore.
"I'm sure there are enough other men in your life." Snape suddenly said.
Hermione gave him a questioning look, surprised at this remark and not sure what to make of it.
"What about your friend John?" he went on.
Hermione giggled. "I'm afraid John is more interested in you than in me." She grinned at Snape's blank face. "He's gay. And he thought you quite fit."
Snape's expression was priceless and Hermione laughed out loud.
"Well, I'm honoured...I suppose," he said slowly, a smile tucking at his mouth. "That's probably the most unusual compliment I've ever got."
Hermione grinned mischievously. "You should be proud. John has good taste."
Their eyes locked for a few seconds, then Snape broke the contact to pour him and her more wine.
Hermione slowly twirled her glass between her fingers, staring at the dark red liquid before she took another sip. "But no, there is no one else," she said. A strand of hair which had escaped from the pins fell into her eyes. As she gingerly touched her hair she noticed that it was slowly unravelling, and so she put away her glass and started taking out the pins, placing them on top of the box which held the cloak. When she had finished she absentmindedly ran her fingers through her hair which was now falling down on her bare shoulders.
"You know, he was right," she said after a while, looking up again to find Snape's eyes fixed on her, a strange expression in them which vanished as soon as she met his gaze. "My boyfriend, I mean. He was right to break up with me."
Snape didn't say anything, just held her gaze.
"He said that I didn't love him enough. That I kept secrets from him, that I was too afraid to open up, to trust in love, fate, life, whatever. And he was right, I was too afraid. And I feel sorry because I never wanted to hurt him. And sorry for myself because now I'm alone again. It was nice to have someone again. Just...to be there, to lean on. And I'm afraid that perhaps I'll never be able to risk it again. To really love someone. Because I'd always be afraid to lose him." Hermione suddenly had a great lump in her throat and looked away, out of the window into the dark night.
Snape felt a deep sadness. She looked terribly young and vulnerable and somehow he wanted to comfort her, but he had no idea how he could do that. And yet, when she had told him that her boyfriend had broken up with her, he had felt…uplifted. How could that be? He didn't want her to be unhappy, certainly not. And the young man had seemed adequate, if nothing special.
Hermione jerked him out of his thoughts. "You know, defeating Voldemort wasn't what it was cracked up to be," she said, still looking out into the night.
"No, I suppose it was not," he replied, studying her face.
Hermione took another sip of wine. "I never really thought they'd die," she finally went on. "I mean of course I knew they could. And that I could die as well. But somehow it didn't seem a real possibility. Harry had survived so much, he just wouldn't die now. But then he did, and Ron did, and I was left alone." Her voice was hoarse and her eyes very bright. She took another long sip of wine, staring out into the night. After a while she turned towards Snape again. "But it wasn't much better for you, was it?"
Snape raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
She scrutinized him intently and he felt suddenly uncomfortable under her steady gaze. "You lost your friends as well. At the end you betrayed all those you might ever have had among the Death Eaters. And all your friends among the Order thought you were a traitor because you had killed Dumbledore." Something like pain flitted across her face. "The year you were Headmaster must have been terrible for you," she said softly. "Never being able to let down your guard. Constantly being in the presence of those who thought you'd betrayed them. To feel their contempt and their disappointment."
Snape looked away, not able to meet the pity in her eyes. "It wasn't pleasant," he said, trying to sound dispassionate.
"Why didn't you return?" she asked softly. "They know the truth now. I'm sure they'd be happy to have you back as their friend. They probably feel rather bad about their behaviour towards you."
He snorted, looking at her again. "I don't need their excuses or their forgiveness. And neither do I need their friendship."
Now it was Hermione's turn to ironically raise an eyebrow. "Because you have so many other friends?"
The wry tone in her voice stung surprisingly much. "I'm the dark bat of the dungeon," Snape replied in a slightly forced joking tone. "What makes you think I want friends?"
She looked at him with a strange expression in her eyes. "You are sitting here with me, aren't you?" she said softly. "Perhaps you like being with me just as much as I like being with you?"
Snape suddenly felt rather odd. Somehow he wasn't able to break the gaze in which her serious brown eyes held his, and found it hard to keep control over his facial features. "Perhaps," he said quietly before he could stop himself.
Hermione's eyes lit up for a moment and suddenly Snape's breath caught in his throat. He quickly looked down on his hands, angry with himself, strangely aware of the young woman beside him.
She was silent for a while, then asked, "Do you think we'll ever be able to leave the past behind?"
His eyes jerked up at her use of the 'we'. "Do you really want that?"
Her mouth twitched in a sad little smile. "I suppose not. Although sometimes… So you think ' 'Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all'?"
"Yes," he said, surprised at his answer and the huskiness of his voice.
Hermione's eyes widened with realization. Although some voice at the back of his mind told Snape to look away he couldn't, but was held by the deep sympathy in her eyes. Suddenly she leant closer towards him, reached out with her right hand and very softly touched his cheek. She took it away immediately, and so light and swift had the touch been that he was not sure he hadn't imagined it.
Hermione looked at him with a strange mixture of tenderness and fear, then she leant even closer and kissed him.
It was a cautious kiss at first, but after a few moments she got bolder and more passionate, her hand now tangled in his hair, pressing his head towards hers. To say that Snape was surprised would be an understatement. He was utterly shocked, and a voice in his mind yelled to pull away, to push her from him. But somehow he didn't do it. Even worse, he found himself wrapping his right arm around her, placing his hand on the soft warm skin of her bare back, and pressing her closer to him while leaning into her kiss. His lips had parted almost instantly, meeting hers with a fierceness that shocked him, and his tongue hungrily tasted the sweetness of her mouth, the slight bitterness of the wine she had drunk.
Abruptly he pulled back and held her away from him. He was panting with the sudden passion cursing through his body and had difficulty not drawing her close again immediately, kissing her, touching her. But the voice in his head screamed that he couldn't do this.
Hermione looked at him in wonder, her eyes still shining with passion but now also expressing surprise and disappointment. Her wild hair was floating around her head and down her bare shoulders, and Snape thought with a painful stab that she was truly beautiful.
"You don't want to do this," he said, his voice hoarse.
She shook her head a little, looking at him intently. "Why shouldn't I want to kiss you?" she said, trying to pry away his right hand with which he was holding her away from him.
Deep inside his chest it felt as if something cramped. He gulped, but held on fast to her shoulder, careful not to hurt her. "You're drunk," he said, trying to sound as cold and dispassionate as possible. "And you don't want to kiss me. You want to kiss your boyfriend. Or Weasley. Or whomever. But certainly not me."
She was still looking at him intently but had stopped prying at his hand. "Oh Severus," she replied quietly. When she said his name it nearly took his breath away. It was a great effort not to touch her face, stroke her hair, draw her closer. They were silent for a few moments, staring at each other. Finally Hermione drew back on her own accord, still holding his gaze and looking at him with something like defiance. "Tell me, if you're so sure I didn't want to kiss you, why then did you kiss me back?"
Snape looked away quickly. There was no answer he could give her. "I… I have to go," he said, stood up and hurried to the door, storming outside in a rather undignified way. He rushed down the corridor, down the steps, through the lobby and out of the hotel. The only thing he could think of was to get as far away from her as possible. He only hoped she wouldn't follow him. And she didn't.
Snape drew in the cool night air in deep breaths, trying to calm himself down. Something like this, such a complete loss of self-control, had never happened to him since Lily's death. How could he have lost it like that?
He hurried down the nearest street, his steps echoing through the lonely darkness. But try as he may, Snape couldn't escape the memory of Hermione's kiss. It had been she who had initiated it, there was no doubt about that, and she had kissed him with an intensity and passion he hadn't experienced for many many years. She had seemed so sure of herself, so sure of what she was doing. And he had responded in a way which shocked him even more than her behaviour. She is drunk, he told himself. Her boyfriend has just broken up with her, she is disappointed and angry and lonely, and probably looking for some weird kind of revenge on him. This wasn't about me at all. It is impossible that she should have any feelings for me. The thought of it! Quite impossible… No, it's quite clear that she only did it to prove to herself that she is a desirable and passionate woman. He drew in his breath again. And she is, my reaction to her was proof enough of that. But she didn't really mean me, she was thinking of her boyfriend, or of Weasley. She must have. Why should she be interested in me? There is no reason to think so, and no use, no use at all.
But the way she acted… And she was clearly disappointed when I stopped kissing her. But that wasn't because of me, it could have happened with any other man. Probably all she wanted was to forget, to numb her pain with alcohol and some quick passion. He walked down the dark and empty streets with long, hurried steps, taking no account of where he was going. But would that have been so bad, a traitorous thought rung in his head. If she wanted it, and if it would have helped her, why shouldn't I give her the comfort she sought? He suddenly stopped, staring in front of him without really seeing what was there. Because it would have been too dangerous, he told himself. Far too dangerous. His surprising reaction to her advances made clear that he had already become far too involved with her, had let her get far too close. This should never have happened. What was I thinking, kissing a former student, taking advantage of the trust she has shown me, of her pain about her friends' death? It was only natural that she should turn to me, the one who had been there with her. That she hoped to find in me someone who could understand her pain, someone who could give her some solace. And what have I done? I exploited her sorrow when she, in a weak moment and under the influence of alcohol and emotional turmoil, sought some consolation. It's disgusting.
Snape hurried on, Hermione's question hammering in his mind. Why had he kissed her back? Why hadn't he pushed her away immediately? Granted, their relationship had changed over the last years, had become closer and more personal. But there was nothing in it to explain his reaction. His feelings for her were purely professional and platonic. She had been his pupil, for Merlin's sake! She could be his daughter! Probably he, too, had had too much wine. And he had been under much emotional stress lately, with Gerold and Flora and everything. Yes, that must be it. And it was hardly surprising that his body would react to an attractive woman. After all he hadn't been with a woman for a long time. Snape cringed in embarrassment. I am a pathetic old lecher. How disgusting.
He spent over an hour outside, walking through the empty streets reasoning with himself, trying to come to terms with what Hermione had done and especially with what he had done. He dreaded meeting her again, but he knew that he couldn't stay out there all night. Finally Snape drew together his courage, repeated in his mind what he wanted to tell her – that he was very sorry and that he knew that it had been a mistake, born from alcohol and emotional turmoil – and went back to the hotel.
He found her lying on the sofa, curled up under one of the blankets from his bed. She was fast asleep. Snape stood looking down on her for several minutes, glad that he didn't have to talk to her, but also strangely disappointed. Then he leant down and tucked the blanket fast over her exposed shoulders. He hesitated for a second, then softly brushed a lock of hair which had fallen over her face out of the way. His hand lingered on her hair for a few more moments. Get yourself together, he thought angrily. Foolish man! He jerked upright and stood motionless for a while, then got out his wand and performed a memory charm on her. You are a coward, he thought. But if by this he could spare them both embarrassment and could make sure that their relationship didn't suffer from what had happened that night, he was more than willing to tamper with her brain.
Snape went to bed, but he didn't find any sleep that night. He stared into the darkness, listening to her low, steady breathing, trying in vain not to think of the feeling of her lips on his, the touch of her fingers on his face and the sensation of her warm and slender body pressed against his.