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Pride of Time

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Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own. Any quotes or references you see from any of the Harry Potter books belong exclusively to JKR.

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Madam Pomfrey had them both cleaned and patched up quickly, shaking her head at the multitude of scrapes and bruises made apparent once a Cleaning Charm had been cast. She frowned at the gashes on the side of Snape's head, from where he had hit and scraped it against the tunnel, but nevertheless had him fixed up in a trice. She did not insist on putting them in hospital gowns, but instead called for an elf to bring them both a spare change of clothes. Hermione took off her scrapped and torn sleepwear, which would need a Repairing Charm to be made wearable again, as well as her robes, and changed behind the curtain around another bed. She climbed in and slid under the covers, and found herself unable to sleep. She still had too much adrenaline pumping through her blood, and her heart was still fluttering in a panic at the memory of snaping and snarling jaws.

Instead, she watched Snape as the matron, having managed to spell new clothes onto him since he seemed to be in no condition to do it himself, examined his eyes, his pulse, his heartbeat, and alertness.

Hermione heard her sigh. "What have you gotten yourself into this time, Mr. Snape?"

The Slytherin's response was barely audible, but he only managed one croaked word: "Werewolf."

With another sigh, Madam Pomfrey left, only to return moments later with two gobletfuls of purple potion that Hermione recognized immediately. She set it down at Hermione's nightstand, and then went over to Snape to make sure he drank his. Hermione gulped down her potion without a second thought, set the goblet aside, and snuggled down under the covers.

Her last thought before she drifted off was that she was sure Snape was going to need it more than her.

~o~O~o~

Hermione was awoken the next morning, not from the sunlight streaming into the room, but by Snape's loud, insistent voice breaking into the rather pleasant thoughts that had been floating through her head that morning. It was followed by a female, but equally familiar voice.

"—I can't believe you did something so stupid, Sev!" Hermione's eyes flew open at this. Sev? "What Sirius did was petty and wrong, and it could have gotten you killed, but you should have known better!"

Snape's voice was bitter. "You haven't spoken to me for an entire year. You wouldn't forgive me for that slip up, wouldn't even listen to what I have to say, yet you come storming down here, ready to defend Potter's honor?"

Lily was indignant. "You should be grateful to James! From what I heard—"

"From his own mouth, no doubt," Snape sneered.

"—if it hadn't been for him, Hermione would never have known! She wouldn't have gone after you to save your miserable arse from becoming—becoming—" Lily couldn't seem to quite bring herself to admit what they all knew by now to be truth. "—Werewolf food! You could have been killed!"

Hermione slid the curtain back and threw her legs over the side of her bed, where she saw the entire scene unfolding in front of her in time to hear Snape's quite, barely-audible response.

"Why do you care?" He whispered.

Lily drew herself up, as though she'd been slapped.

"Because—because—" she said, rubbing her face. She seemed unable to formulate the right words to express herself. "Oh, damn it all."

Hermione heard the slightest edge of hope in Snape's voice. "Are you… can we… I know I completely bollocked things up last time, but can we be friends again?" Hermione was in a state of disbelief. He almost sounded pleading.

"No." Hermione watched Snape recoil, as though struck. "What you did was unforgivable. I don't wish you dead, Sev, never that—" Hermione could tell Snape wasn't listening. She'd lost him at the word 'unforgivable'. He was hunched over, knees drawn up, and his face hidden by a curtain of greasy black hair. "—but you and Avery and Mulciber… I can't, Sev. You made a choice to be a part of their gang of wannabe Death Eaters, you made the decision to lash out at me in the most hurtful way you knew possible, and I just…" she shook her head. "You're not the boy I remember any more. I can't do it."

Snape sounded almost desperate when he spoke. Hermione had never heard anything like it in his voice before. "I can change."

Lily gave him a sad, almost bitter smile. "I'm afraid that's the problem."

She saw Lily bend down to pick up her book bag, slinging it over her arm. She began striding toward the doors, stopping just as she placed her hand on the doorknob to look back at Snape.

"I just want you to remember, Severus, that it might have been Hermione who stopped you from getting yourself turned into a werewolf yourself, but it was James who sent her." She turned the handle and pulled the door open. "Remember that the next time you think about trying to hex him."

The door closed behind her. Hermione watched it click shut, and then turned her attention to Snape, who was doubled-over on the bed as though in pain. She was about to open her mouth to speak when he suddenly unfurled, throwing his legs over the side of the bed, and stood up, grabbing his wand and his robes. He tugged them on, jerkily pulling on his socks and shoes, and then stumbled toward the door.

Hermione was out of her bed in a flash. "Snape—!"

The door had already closed shut behind him. Hermione hedged, torn between staying and following him to stop him from doing something stupid, before she grabbed her own robes, dressed quickly, and went after his tail.

"Idiot," she muttered under her breath, as she ran out into the corridor, looking both ways to see where he'd gone. She made a wild guess and veered straight to the left, in the direction of library. It would be deserted now, with no more studying to be done, and it was the only place she could think of. She jogged down the halls, coming to a halt at the library doors, and slipped inside.

It appeared to be empty, at first glance.

She slowly wove through the bookcases. Sunlight streamed in through the stained glass windows, causing the room to dance with gentle colors. Madam Pince was nowhere to be found; she was likely still at breakfast. Hermione was about to leave, thinking she might have better luck trying to intercept him on the way to the Slytherin common room, when she heard a muffled sob. Her ears pricked, and she halted, trying to discern where it came from. It came again—quiet and strangled. She followed it, and slowed to a stop in front of the Reference Section, where she found him curled up against the far wall, his cheek pressed against the window.

Hermione hesitated, and then gathered up her courage and came over to kneel beside him. He didn't turn to look at her, but Hermione saw the surprise in his eyes mirror off the glass.

"Go away, Granger," he choked.

Hermione placed a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

"I should never have done it, never…" he turned to look at her now, and she saw tears rolling down his cheeks. Remembering how Remus had comforted her when she had broken down crying in the middle of the common room for all and sundry to see, Hermione took out her wand and summoned a handkerchief, passing it to him. He stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, and then hesitantly took it. He blew his nose.

"What shouldn't you have done?" Hermione asked gently, sitting down next to him.

"It was an accident, I swore it was an accident…" His words came out choked, and Hermione felt as though she were watching his heart break right before her eyes. "Potter— it was fifth year, and Potter ambushed me by the lake, just after our exams—he hung me upside down in the air, humiliated me…" He blew on the handkerchief again, and then croaked, "Lily confronted him, told him to put me down—Potter started goading me, and I told Lily—I told Lily I didn't need help from a mu—a mudblood like her."

Hermione stared at him. "You called her a mudblood?"

He nodded miserably, and buried his face between his arms. He looked so desolate.

Hermione pursed her lips together, and then sidled up next to him and placed an arm around his shoulder, albeit with the hesitancy of a bowtruckle trying to comfort a smoking dragon.

"Severus, do you really believe that rubbish about Purebloods being better than Muggleborns?"

He didn't answer immediately, but Hermione waited patiently for a response.

When it came, it was a barely audible, "No."

Hermione did not leave. She sat with him, one arm around his shoulder, and waited in silence while he cried. Her gut twisted in pity and concern for him, but she also felt strangely detached; she was comforting someone who would one day do his absolute best to torture her as a student. She stuck by her decision to stay with him. No matter how nasty he had been, and no matter how cruel he would be, right now, he needed a friend.

He eventually stopped shaking; his sobs ceased. When all Hermione could hear from him was the steady rise and fall of his breath, and his slightly stuttered heartbeat, she queried, "Severus?"

"Is it true that Potter sent you?" His face was still buried in his arms, but his tone was both choked with emotion and cold.

"Yes."

The sneer in his voice was audible. It seemed that now that he was back in control of himself, his immediate instinct was to lash out at the nearest person. "So, you only came after me because Gryffindor's golden boy told you to."

Hermione grabbed his shoulders and shook him, forcing him to look up at her.

"James alerted me," she told him angrily, "but I could have refused. I could have told him to bugger off, to go after you himself, or to go find the headmaster and let me sleep."

He glared at her.

"But instead, I rushed out to find you—without even bothering to put on anything more than a robe and sneakers, mind you!" Hermione added fiercely. Her eyes narrowed at him. "I went into the tunnel under the Whomping Willow without knowing if you were there for sure, or even if you were still alive or human at that point. I went alone! And I went knowing that I could get bitten trying to save your miserable arse!"

He looked uncertain now.

"And when you left the Hospital Wing, I came after you to see if you were alright," Hermione continued. "I came because I care, Severus. Not because James Potter begged me to."

He stared at her for one, long moment, and then buried his head back in his arms. Hermione sat by him quietly as he curled up there on the floor, next to the library window, and tried to hide himself from the world. She sat there in silence for a long time, until she eventually broke it by gently pulling a lock of lanky hair behind his ear so that she could see the side of his face and then placed her hand on his shoulder.

"Is there anything I can do to help you?" she asked, her voice gentle.

For half a moment, she was certain he would send her away. After a long moment of hesitation, he said quietly, "Stay here. And… and don't tell anyone."

Hermione squeezed his shoulders, and pulled another lock of hair out of his face so that she could see his eyes.

"I won't," she told him. She meant it. "I promise."

~o~O~o~

When Hermione returned to Gryffindor Tower that night, she found the common room deserted except for James, Remus, and Sirius. Remus was sitting in front of the fire, wearing a stark and pained expression; he refused to look at Hermione, and she thought she detected shame in his eyes. She frowned. He was the last person in the room who should be feeling guilty. She turned her eyes on Sirius, who was twisting a scrap of parchment between his fingers and looking restless.

He looked up at her the minute she entered. "Hermione—"

"You deserve more than another slap for what you did," Hermione bit out, sitting down on one of the armchairs. "Honestly, Sirius! I know you hate him, but I didn't think you hated him enough to kill!"

"I wasn't trying to kill him!" Sirius protested, jumping out of his seat. "I just wanted him to get a good scare—I swear," he said, his expression both hurt and serious. "I never intended to kill him. It didn't even cross my mind!"

Hermione turned to look at James, who was nodding, his face white. She turned to look back at Sirius.

"You need to learn to think," she bit out. "Think about what the consequences of your actions might be. Had James not gone and fetched me last night, the best thing that might have happened would have been Severus bitten and turned into a werewolf himself. At worst, he would have been killed, and Remus exposed! This is the thing I least understand," she continued, her voice rising in fury. "I don't know how you could have done this to Remus!" She pointed her finger at the crouching werewolf—now human— in question, who was looking up at her with an expression of shock. "You used him! He would have had no control, no say in on it whatsoever! And if he had bitten or killed Severus, he would have not only been expelled, but probably locked up in Azkaban! What you did, Sirius, was not only selfish and petty, but you could have ended up ruining more than one life last night. You are goddamned lucky that James came and got me, because by the time I went out to stop Severus, he was a hair's breadth away from becoming a werewolf chew-toy!"

Her voice had risen to a shriek. Sirius had collapsed back down on the couch, his head buried in his hands. James got to his feet with his hands in the air, in an attempt to placate her.

"Hermione, I think Sirius has learned his lesson," he said, swallowing. "You've rather driven it home."

Hermione turned to glare at him. "In all honesty, I think he needs the point driven home a bit more," she said, drawing herself up, her voice shaking. "Do you know what it was like, crawling inside that tunnel and realizing Severus was just feet away from being within reach of a werewolf? I had to use a summoning spell to get him out of the way in time—and we were both terrified out of our wits when he realized that we were in the tunnel and started trying to claw his way in after us!" She did not see the look of horror on Remus's face as she spoke. Nevertheless, she took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. Biting the inside of her cheek, she continued, "How do you think Remus would have felt, had he woken up the next morning to find one, possibly two bodies bloody and mangled on the floor of the Shrieking Shack—with no recollection whatsoever?"

James and Sirius turned to look at each other, dawning looks of utter horror finally making it across their face.

Remus swallowed and finally spoke. "Hermione—"

"I don't need an explanation from you, Remus." Hermione's voice came out terse, and seeing Remus flinch from her, she instantly gentled it. "I've known from the start that you were a werewolf. The signs were unmistakable—you became ill and drawn the closer it came to the full moon, and when I first arrived, the moon had only just begun to wane. You grew healthier and happier the longer I was here, and then it began to reverse." Seeing the look on his face, she continued, "I'm not angry that you didn't tell me, either." She gave him a wry smile. "I guess I was just observant enough to notice, and James had the good luck of thinking to ask me to help him rather than someone else."

Remus let out a sigh of relief, and leaned back against the couch. He closed his eyes. "Thank Merlin."

Hermione now turned to James and Sirius, who were staring at her with wide-eyed disbelief.

"The two of you have got to stop baiting Severus," she snapped. "If he hexes you, by all means, hex him back. But next time you pull something as stupid as this, I might not be able to help you fix it."

They were both nodding quickly.

She straightened up. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm rather tired from last night. I'm going to go take a nap." She gave James a direct look. "Unless it's another emergency, please don't disturb me."

James coughed, looking as though he would rather be anyone else right now. "Actually, the thing is—Professor Dumbledore wants you in his office." Hermione blinked at him owlishly. "Now, actually."

She sighed. She should have expected this. "Lovely."

~o~O~o~

Hermione leaned back in the cozy armchair in the Headmaster's circular office. His desk was as cluttered and full of whirling and spindly eccentricities as Hermione remembered in her time. She couldn't help staring at the dish under Fawkes' perch; right now, he sat in a pile of sooty ashes, looking rather ridiculous with black and pale pink and orange fluff on his body.

Burning Day must've just come and gone, Hermione thought, as the Phoenix let out a faint, chirping trill.

Severus was sitting in the armchair next to her, staring rather disinterestedly at an odd, three-legged contraption that was making faint whirring noises on the Headmaster's desk. The door quietly closed behind them, and they both turned around in time to see Professor Dumbledore appear.

"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting," he said pleasantly, circling around to his desk. "I had to reassure Madam Pomfrey that the two of you were quite all right—you both apparently took off without so much as a by-your-leave, according to her." He looked at them sternly over his half-moon glasses. Hermione had a sneaking suspicion he somehow knew exactly what had gone on in the library. He gave a heavy sigh, and sat down in his chair. "I wish to discuss the events of last night with you."

Hermione swallowed and glanced at Severus. She remembered last night only too well; it was still fresh in her mind. The darkness of the tunnel closing in on her; the gut-clenching fear she felt as Remus tried to claw his way inside, snapping and snarling savagely in a manner that was so polarly opposed to the gentle soul he was as a person; the shocked, wide-eyed terror that had overtaken Severus so completely that she had to practically half-drag half-carry him back to the castle because his legs couldn't do it for him. Last night was an experience that would affect him for the rest of his life—and her, too, come to that.

Severus shifted uncomfortably in his chair at this, and Dumbledore continued; "What happened last night cannot be allowed to be discussed with anyone who was not directly involved in it." Seeing Severus's outraged look at this, Dumbledore continued; "Remus's position at this school is precarious. If word got out that a student was placed at risk of being bitten by him, I would have no choice but to expel him."

"Surely you're not going to let Black get away with this…!"

"All detentions are recorded in detail at this school," Dumbledore said heavily. "There can be no trace of what happened last night. My concern for Remus's position, as well as the fact that you are quite luckily still here in one piece, means that I cannot justify putting him at further risk of exposure." Hermione swallowed at this. She understood the Headmaster's logic, but she still felt that Sirius should have faced some rather serious consequences for his actions. "I have spoken to the three of them. Sirius understands that if he ever pulls off another prank of this magnitude, I will have no recourse but to expel him, and he will have put one of his best friends at risk of being expelled as well. I rather think he has become quite subdued."

"Pardon me, Headmaster," Severus bit out. "You're telling me that out of concern for the werewolf, Sirius Black gets off nearly killing me scot free?"

Dumbledore sighed heavily, and Hermione felt inclined to speak up in his defense.

"This isn't Remus's fault, but if Sirius is punished, he's the one who will suffer the most," Hermione pointed out. "Sirius won't be expelled for this, and giving him detentions this late in the year—or even into next year—doesn't fix what happened, and it will only hurt Remus. He doesn't deserve that."

She saw Severus's nails dig into the arms of his chair. He looked ready to tear the fabric off. A moment of indecision, and he stood up.

"I can see where your priorities are, Headmaster," he sneered.

"You will not speak of this to anyone who has not already been made privy to it," Dumbledore said, eyeing him sternly.

"You have my word, Headmaster," Severus replied, giving him a sardonic half-bow. He cast one final glare at Dumbledore, and then left. Hermione waited until the door had closed behind him before she stood up.

"You have my word on that as well, sir," she said, giving Fawkes one final glance before she prepared to leave. "Although I would think, with a man of your intellect and skills, that assigning one boy a much-deserved detention without anyone else finding out wouldn't be entirely beyond your ability."

Dumbledore looked weary. "Miss Granger, what I am about to tell you, should you choose to listen, is in the strictest confidence."

Hermione nodded.

"The Wizarding World is on the cusp of war," Dumbledore told her. "The world is not safe right now, Miss Granger, and it is not kind. It is particularly difficult for those who are like Remus Lupin; afflicted, feared, and more often than not, alone and friendless. They are alienated and ostracized by society, and this is the unfortunate existence in which Remus will find himself when he graduates." He looked weary as he continued, "I do not wish to end what little happiness and security he has found here prematurely by putting him at risk of being sent away or having Sirius expelled. He has a future if he can remain here and complete his education, a future that relies heavily on his friends."

Hermione opened her mouth to speak, but Dumbledore cut her short. "I will, however, take your words into account. I agree; Sirius should not walk away from this unpunished, although I quite feel he has learned his lesson. But it will not happen right now."

Hermione bowed her head. "I understand, sir."

Dumbledore stood up and came around his desk, stopping by the large window that allowed him to peer out over the grounds of Hogwarts. "There is another topic of concern that I must discuss with you. Do you have plans for this summer?"

Hermione shook her head. "Not specifically, no. I thought I might find a job in Hogsmeade and stay there, but I haven't worked out anything solid."

"The Board of Governors have finally reviewed your transfer papers and registered your status as an orphan," Dumbledore informed her, gazing out the window. "You are now officially a ward of the school, and are free to stay here if you wish."

Hermione had not realized she'd been holding her breath until she let it all out in a sigh of relief. "I would appreciate that very much, sir, although I would still like to get a job in Hogsmeade to earn a little money."

"That sounds like an excellent idea," Dumbledore said, "although I have something else to add to that. You are aware of the existence of the Order of the Phoenix, I presume?"

"Of course," Hermione said, thinking of the hours she, Harry, and Ron had spent waging war against the age-old clutter and dust at Grimmauld Place, all in the name of cleaning.

"I had planned to send you to visit some of our members for training," Dumbledore told her seriously. "You are in possession of a great many secrets, Miss Granger, and you must learn to guard them."

Hermione simply stared at him.

"Tell me, Miss Granger, what do you know about Occlumency and Unforgivables?"

~o~O~o~

Hermione watched as everyone else boarded the Hogwarts Express, while she stood off to the side of the platform with Professor McGonagall, who was supervising their departure. She had already said good bye to the Marauders, promising that she'd see them at the start of term. The train gave a warning whistle, and at that moment, James leaned out of the compartment window and waved her over.

"Hey," he said with a grin, when she came to stand next to the window. "Look, I know you're going to be busy this summer, but when the owls come by with our school lists, what do you say we meet up at the Leaky Cauldron and we all get our stuff together?"

Hermione smiled. "I'd like that," she agreed. Behind him, she saw Remus and Peter peering over his shoulder, trying to listen in on their conversation. Sirius was with them, but Hermione could not see him through the window.

"Excellent," James said, leaning back into the compartment as the train gave a warning lurch before it started to move. "Have a good summer, Hermione!"

Hermione waved at them until the train disappeared around the corner, and then joined McGonagall in walking back to the castle.

She had not seen Severus since their meeting with the Headmaster in his office until the very last day. Hermione had predicted he was rather upset on many different levels right now, and she simply had not seen head nor hide of him for the remainder of their stay at Hogwarts until the Leaving Feast, when he intercepted her on her way out.

"I'm heading for a walk around the lake," he told her cordially, his tone neutral and expression disinterested. "Would you care to join me?"

Hermione had only glanced back into the Great Hall for a moment, where the Marauders were still eating and chattering away quite happily. Lily was with them, laughing with James over something he'd said while Sirius entertained the table by balancing a fork across his nose. She saw Remus's eyes lift up from his plate to look at her, his eyebrows raised in question. Hermione shook her head at him and smiled, and his eyes lowered again to his plate, satisfied. Hermione turned back to Severus.

"Let's go," she agreed.

They had walked down to the lake together, Hermione breathing in the fresh summer air that still had a slight taste of spring to it. Severus waited until they were quite a distance away from the castle before he spoke.

"Are you planning on coming back next year?" he asked casually, kicking a pebble out of his way.

"I plan to," Hermione responded honestly, picking up the pebble he'd kicked and tossing it over the water. It skipped once, twice, and then sank. She picked up another, flatter one and turned it over in her palm. "Do you realize we won't be sharing any classes anymore? You being a seventh year and all, I mean."

Severus sneered at her. "I should be relieved. I won't have you trying to climb me like a frightened monkey."

Hermione turned red. "I wasn't— I just wanted to double-check our answers!"

"I pity whoever has you for a partner next year."

"Oh, shut up." Hermione chucked her stone into the lake, where it skipped three times and sank with a ripple. She waited until it disappeared from view, before she reached down to search out another stone. "Severus, why do you hang out with Avery and Mulciber? I'm sorry to bring this up, but Lily had a point when she said that they're a part of a gang of Slytherins who are budding Death Eaters. It just doesn't make sense." She threw the rock into the water, where it sank instantly like the stone it was. "You're too good for that."

She turned around in time to see Severus draw himself up. His face was contorted into a sneer.

"The Dark Lord is powerful, Hermione." His eyes glittered strangely at this. "Intelligence isn't everything. There are some things you can only get when you have the ear of the most powerful wizard in the world."

Hermione couldn't help the mixture of horror and defiance that took up residence on her face. "Albus Dumbledore is the most powerful wizard in the world," she said, the stone she had been about to throw dropping heavily out of her hand. "What is it that Vol—You-know-who can offer you don't have?"

She saw him purse his lips, as though debating whether he should tell her, and then he turned away.

"It doesn't matter," he said sulkily.

"It does matter," Hermione said, following him. She grabbed his sleeve, and he whipped around, expression furious, and she spoke angrily, "You-Know-Who is a sick, twisted, sadistic bastard. He doesn't understand what's really important to people—love, family, friendship. Those are things he does not have, and cannot offer, and since material wealth can be amassed without having to sell your soul short to the devil, then tell me— try to make me understand—why do you want to serve him? What do you want so badly?"

Severus bared his teeth at her and pulled away. "I cannot tell you."

Hermione felt as though she had just found the person underneath the cold, hard exterior he presented to the world, just in time to see him start slipping away. She wanted to understand—gods, he was sixteen, no, seventeen now, and about to make the biggest mistake of his life and she wanted to know why.

"Cannot tell me or will not tell me?" she countered.

He glared balefully at her, and then turned away. Hermione sighed, and stared at the ground miserably, and then looked up at his retreating back.

"I don't understand how someone like you can be so eager to shackle yourself," she said quietly.

"I have my reasons," Severus responded, walking away from her. "You may understand them one day, but for now—they are my own."

"Then you should know," Hermione said bitterly, "that I am a Muggle-born, and if you follow Lord Voldemort—" she saw him flinch at the use of the Dark Lord's name. "—you consign yourself to helping him try to kill me—and Lily." She found herself choking on a near-hysterical laugh that was threatening to escape. "Is this some twisted idea of revenge?"

"This has nothing to do with revenge!" Severus bit out, stalking over to her now. He grabbed her shoulders and shook her. "This has absolutely nothing—nothing!—to do with getting any kind of payback on Lily. Not even close." Hermione looked up at him, eyes wide, and his expression grew thoughtful. "I'm doing this for Lily. For her. Everything I've ever done—whether it was when we were children and I nicked my mother's spellbooks for us to read or now, while I'm contemplating joining the Dark Lord—has always been for her. Always!"

"If you think Lily will be impressed by—"

"She doesn't—she won't know," Severus ground out. "She will never know. I'm doing this to protect her! I will ask the Dark Lord to spare her in return for my loyalty. He will not target her. That," he said, laughing bitterly, "is what only power can buy."

Hermione stared up at him, eyes wide in disbelief. His grip on her shoulder suddenly tightened painfully.

"And you will not tell her. Or anyone else, for that matter."

Hermione swallowed. "No," she said, "I won't. But I still think you're making the wrong choice."

"But you understand," he said, loosening his grip.

"Unfortunately, I do," Hermione said, looking up at him squarely. "There are some people in this world for whom I would do anything within my power to save them, help them, raise them. I know where you're coming from. But I also know you're going about it the wrong way."

"We both simply have different methodology," he sneered, releasing her shoulders entirely. "Besides, given that you are an orphan, I rather imagine your tactics, whatever they were, failed spectacularly."

Hermione closed her eyes and ground down on her back teeth, resisting the urge to lash out at him. When she opened her eyes, he was still standing there, wearing an infernal, offensive smirk that she wanted nothing more than to wipe off his face. He thought he had won. Only she knew what a horrible mistake he was making.

"Fine," she said bitterly. "Do it your way."

She saw a flicker of indecision in Severus's eyes, and his tone became bitter to match hers. "Would you turn your back on me if I became a Death Eater?"

Hermione gazed into his eyes, trying to find any trace of the man she remembered in her timeline and tried to reconcile it to the seventeen-year-old she had come to know over the last two months. A desperate, lonely boy who was now a legal adult by the Wizarding World's standards, and being pulled into making big choices before he was ready to by his peers and wizards he considered his superiors. She sighed.

"No," she said softly. She forced herself to remember that he was good enough that deep down, once he realized the Dark Lord could not—would not—give him what he wanted, that Lily would still be in danger, he would switch sides in order to protect her. "Not for the reasons you gave me."

Severus paused, and then said quietly, "You're the only person I know outside Slytherin who would have ever said such a thing to me."

"I don't agree with your choices," Hermione told him sadly, "but I don't hate you, and I don't condemn you for what you're doing, since I know I might very well have done the same if I were ever in your shoes."

Severus snorted. "Gryffindor is wasted on you, Hermione. You should have been sorted into Hufflepuff."

"I ought to slap you for that," Hermione sniffed at him, but she was smiling.

Severus gave her a tight smile. "On a completely different subject, what are you planning on doing this summer?"

"A job," Hermione told him shortly.

"No need to sound as though you're about to face a firing squad," he responded snidely. "Last I heard, a little hard work never killed anyone."

Hermione sighed and looked away, trying not to let her emotions get the best of her. "It's not that. I just... I miss my family and friends. I usually spent half my summers with my parents and then I'd stay with one of my friends and his family. Now that they're not here, and summer's literally just around the corner, I feel the loss a bit more keenly."

"You were an only child?"

"Well," Hermione said slowly, "my two best friends were like brothers to me. I suppose that must count for something."

Severus placed a cautious hand on her shoulder, and when she didn't pull away, he turned her around to face him.

"I'm sorry."

Hermione nodded, feeling a familiar, painful tightness in her throat, and tried to push it back. She wiped at her eyes with her sleeve, and then said, "Thank you." She took a moment to collect herself, and then nodded toward the castle. "We should probably head back now. The train leaves soon. You don't want to miss it." Smiling fondly, as though lost in a memory, she said, "That happened to my two best friends when they were twelve. They solved it by stealing—excuse me, borrowing— their parents' flying car and flew it to school." She laughed, and wiped at her eyes one last time. "They got into so much trouble!"

Severus snorted at this, and then, unable to contain himself, he let out a bark of laughter.

They headed back up to the castle in good spirits, and Hermione tried not to think about how different things would be when he returned. Professor Dumbledore had arranged for her to take on training with several Order members in addition to the job she was planning on taking in Hogsmeade. Just before they'd reached the doors leading to the Entrance Hall, however, Hermione grabbed Severus's sleeve and turned him around to face her.

"Promise me just one thing," she said, almost desperately. "Promise me you'll hold off on taking the Dark Mark as long as possible."

He looked down at her for one long, eternal moment, and then inclined his head.

"Fine."

Hermione quickly pulled him into a hug and whispered her goodbye, in the face of unconvincingly spluttered protests of her treatment of his person, and then stood back to let him go. She did not—could not speak to him after that. She did not see him face-to-face again that day. He had his stuff delivered to the train just like every other student, and when he left, he did so in the company of the very same housemates who set Hermione's hair on end with the sadism and cruelty they exuded. It set her teeth on edge just to see him in their company.

Bellatrix, Avery, Mulciber. And, she'd only realized recently, the boy she'd previously dubbed lip-licker was Barty Crouch, Jr. He was in the company of students who not only went out of their way to taunt and attempt to hex her in the halls between classes when Severus was not around, but would also one day cause everyone she knew much grief. Neville's poor parents—who she knew now as Alice and Frank— stuck in St. Mungo's immediately cropped up horribly in Hermione's mind.

She could not help that she'd grown so terribly fond of Severus. He was a caustic and capricious git, but he had let her in just enough that she'd begun to see the beauty underneath. As soon as they had gotten past that awkward, volatile stage where they'd fought over every little thing, she felt as though she'd finally met someone with whom she was on equal terms in regards to intelligence and ability. It was both refreshing and exhilarating.

She would be spending her summer being trained on how to defend her mind from Legilimency and on how to defend and resist against Unforgivables. The Avada Kedavra excluded, of course. She simply knew far too many secrets to justify having such training to be held off any longer.

How different would things be when she saw him again?


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~Anubis Ankh