The Three Broomsticks is packed, and Hermione hopes the large crowd will provide her with a little bit of anonymity. That's one thing she lacks, these days. Facelessness. Blending in.
She wants it back.
Luckily, no one's noticed her thus far — or if they have, they haven't mentioned it.
She takes a sip of firewhiskey, and relishes the burn as it trails down her throat.
Nice work, Granger. She takes a careful look around the pub, searching for any lingering eyes, any indication that someone has registered the presence of The Golden Girl in their immediate vicinity, but no one seems to give a shit. The patrons elbow her for a spot at the bar, and even the barmaid is looking at her like she's an inconvenience rather than a celebrity, taking an unreasonable amount of time with all of her drinks.
Hermione sees this as a victory.
She's tipsy, now, and can't stop herself from doing a tiny, celebratory dance in her barstool. A wiggle of her hips, a bump of her fist in the air, a self-satisfied smirk.
She knocks into the man next to her by accident, and when all she gets is a vaguely dirty look, she can't help but wiggle more.
Because tonight, she's just a girl at the Three Broomsicks, wiggling in her chair like an idiot, bumping into people, and making them mad instead of starstruck.
She can't believe she's managed this once again. This outing. Can't believe no one's recognized her this time, or any of the others.
She's impressed with herself, really, and with her newfound skills of deception. She encountered three professors on her path from the Common Room down to the secret passage tonight, and none of them batted an eye when she politely insisted she was performing her Head Girl duties, the excuse rolling frighteningly easy off her tongue.
So simple. So second-nature to her now, to lie.
Every time she does this, every time she succeeds, a tiny thrill runs through her.
Always followed by a twinge of guilt.
The feelings war with each other and that war makes her feel a little bit alive.
When did she become this person, she wonders? Sneaking about, coming into Hogsmeade to… to what? To lose herself? To find herself? To drink until the swirl of dread she's been feeling so acutely lately disappears? To drink until she feels it more?
Or maybe it's to forget. To not be reminded of the battles, the death, the loss, the destruction weaved into the very foundation of Hogwarts, now. To just exist, with none of that looming over her. For just a moment. Just a night.
She's not sure exactly why. But on Fridays, without fail, she does this. She sneaks out of Hogwarts, changes out of her uniform in the tunnel on the way to Honeydukes, grabs a seat at the bar, and sits alone.
It's become routine.
Sometimes she talks, if someone manages to hold her attention. Most people don't, so most nights she doesn't.
It's fine. It's nice. She's content just sitting here, staring into her glass and thinking absolutely zero thoughts about anything except for how delicious firewhiskey is. Head empty. Head empty. Head empty. Heart on fire and torn into thousands of pointy, painful pieces, slowly tearing her apart from the inside out —
"Did it hurt?" A voice purrs from somewhere behind her, barely discernible above the din.
This isn't new. She fends off countless leering, rot-brained drunkards on the regular, ones that only see her as "breathing" and "female" and take that as a sign to shoot their shot. Men, women. She's learned that being an absolute cow isn't a feat exclusive to any gender.
"When I fell from Heaven?" She doesn't bother turning around. "What a cheap line, you must have something better than that." She takes another sip of firewhiskey.
"No," the woman hums into her ear, placing well-manicured hands on the bar on either side of her, trapping her there, and suddenly Hermione feels dizzy, "when you grossly overstepped your authority as Head Girl to sneak out of Hogwarts after hours and come drink in town."
Hermione knows that voice, those hands, that heady smell of incense and pine.
She shivers, and turns around.
Head full head full head full.
"Miss Granger. Fancy meeting you here, hmmm?"
Merlin's asshole on a fucking popsicle-stick.
"Sorry, Professor Black," Hermione wrings her hands and glances around the corridor nervously. "I was just heading to the library to get some studying done. I know it's after curfew, but Madam Pince usually lets me in after my rounds as long as I lock up afterwards."
Professor Black eyes her. She's skeptical, Hermione can tell.
"But if you would like me to go back to Gryffindor Tower I understand. I know I don't have special privileges. I only wanted to get a bit ahead — "
"It's fine." Professor Black waves her hand dismissively. "If anyone else sees you, though, I never said that," she grins, and it's forced, but Hermione's belly still does a flip at the sight.
"Of course. Thank you, B…" Professor Black's eyes flash at the near slip-up, and Hermione feels the air thicken around them. "Professor. I appreciate it."
Professor Black looks at her for a long, hard moment, and Hermione's throat goes dry.
"Right," the dark witch finally says, looking anywhere but at Hermione, now. She nods curtly. "Off you go, then."
"Right. Goodnight, Professor." Hermione doesn't look back. Not when her cheeks are bright red and her feet are threatening to fall out from under her.
Fuck. Okay. SO.
Caught sneaking out of school, by the very Professor she lied to only an hour ago.
This is… not ideal.
Hermione doesn't get in trouble, she doesn't do bad things, she doesn't do anything wrong, ever! (And if she does, well, she certainly does not get caught).
"I — I didn't mean to — " she stammers. "I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have — "
"Save it." Professor Black holds up a hand. "I feel the same way about excuses as I feel about how slow the service is in this damn place. Do you mind, darling?" And without waiting for permission, she takes Hermione's drink and downs it.
"Don't gape," Professor Black scowls when Hermione's jaw drops. "It's unbecoming."
Hermione snaps her mouth shut. This is going all sorts of ways she didn't expect, and as her brain tries to process it all, she finds that she can't tear her eyes away from her Professor's mouth and the way her tongue darts out to lick a drop of firewhiskey from the corner of her lip.
One second. Two seconds. Five, maybe.
Hermione's still transfixed. And Professor Black has that look on her face, the one that says I know your secret, the one that's terrifying in class when she catches a student with a self-spelling quill, but so much more potent, so much more devastating here, now, when those clear roles are gone and the divide is not so pronounced.
Hermione's eyes flicker back-and-forth, from lips to eyes to lips to eyes to lips… to eyes.
As black as their namesake.
Hermione knows all too well the power they hold over her.
She looks away. Finally.
"That was my drink," she mumbles and pouts, and Professor Black barks a laugh at that. Hermione turns back to her and narrows her eyes. "It's not funny. What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same question, you cheeky little thing."
Hermione ignores the fire that ignites within her and bites her lip in worry. "Am I in trouble?"
A lethal smirk. Professor Black's eyes sharpen in a way Hermione knows means nothing good for her.
"Depends," the woman coos. "Would you like to be?" She chuckles deep and sultry like, and leans in to whisper in Hermione's ear, her breath tickling Hermione's neck and her hair brushing against Hermione's collarbone. "Is that why you've been acting out lately? Trying to secure detention with me?"
You know what? Fuck it. Hermione’s had some booze, and she feels brave, and confident, and she’s tired of backing down. Professor Black wants to play dirty? Fine. Hermione will give as good as she gets.
"You're bold tonight, Bellatrix." She whispers right back, and lets the words ghost the pale ear that's oh so close to her lips.
"Oh?” Professor Black hums, and Hermione can hear her wicked smile. “Says the girl breaking the rules." She inches closer.
"Do you have names for all of your multiple personalities?"
The dark witch stiffens. But Hermione keeps her there, grabbing her shoulders and making her listen for once.
"The one in class — what's her name? The one with ice for blood, who's not satisfied with anything I do?"
Professor Black pulls back, a sour expression maligning her features.
"Granger, I don't know what you're on about — "
"And the one in the hallway? Who clearly had something to say but was too scared to say it?"
"Scared?" The woman scoffs, affronted, but Hermione barrels on.
"And who's here now?" She stabs a finger into Professor Black's chest, unconcerned with consequences, now, since she's already been caught. "The you that's so forward, what's her deal? Where has she been? Why did she decide to show up all of the sudden, and what the hell does she want?"
Professor Black doesn't have a response to that, it seems, beyond a perturbed furrow of her brow and a twitch of her wand hand.
"That's what I thought," Hermione glares, putting everything she has behind it.
The dark witch's nostrils flare and her eyes grow flinty. She bites the inside of her cheek. "You're no fun."
Hermione snorts and turns back to the bar. "Either take me to McGonagall or stop interrupting my evening."
The barmaid trudges over in her direction, a miserable scowl on her face, and Hermione is about to wave her down when she feels Professor Black press against her back and lean over her shoulder.
"Two more, please," the dark witch requests, and Hermione's eyes widen at that.
"Ruining your night means ruining my own," Professor Black supplies, throwing her an unreadable sideways glance. "I'm not supposed to be off-grounds, either. You are of age. And you certainly have a lot to drink about. I would do the same if I were you."
"Is that why you're here?"
The barmaid sets the drinks down with a sloppy thunk, and liquid splashes out onto the bar. Professor Black throws down a few galleons and picks up the whiskeys, handing one to Hermione and forcibly clanging their glasses together in salute.
"None of your business," she smirks over the rim of her glass, and then she throws back the firewhiskey in one gulp.
Hermione sighs, and before she can think the better of it, she does the same.
"Good girl." Professor Black pats her on the head. Hermione rolls her eyes, but doesn't put up a fight anymore. The dark witch grabs Hermione's empty glass and sets it down on the bar next to her own.
"Come along. You don't want anyone else to see you.”
And the next thing Hermione knows, she's being pulled through the crowd, out the door, and onto the moonlit streets of Hogsmeade.