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Pride of Time

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A/N: Cheers!

Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.

Please review. ;)


"What the bloody hell do you Gryffindors do up there?" Severus growled tiredly at her, slumping against the wall. They were hanging out in one of the corridors that gave them a nice view of the lake, rather than going to the lake themselves, because it was raining extremely hard. "We could hear you all the way down in our common room!"

Hermione grinned unrepentantly. "Sorry."

"What do you do up there? Transfigure yourselves into trolls and have at it?"

"We turn on music," Hermione said, smiling broadly now, still drunk with giddiness from last night's memory. "It all goes downhill from there."

"Fuck you." Severus turned away to lean out the window, resting his chin on his arms, looking both tired and sullen. "Fuck you Gryffindors and your loud parties."

"Did we keep you guys up all night?" Hermione asked, giggling both at his frustration and slip of ineloquency.

"Yes," Severus growled.

"Silencing Spells didn't occur to you?"

"Silencing Spells didn't work. They only held for all of five minutes before they broke."

Hermione whistled. "Wow."

Rain pattered down against the roof, and Severus drew away and shut the window as the wind redirected the rain, causing it to pound against the panes. He sighed, and then let out a groan.

"How much sleep did you guys get?" Hermione asked, leaning against the window, where she looked into Severus's tired face. He almost looked like a regular sleep-deprived teen, from this angle.

"I honestly don't know. The music stopped at around twelve, but a little bit before then, some of the upperclassmen got into an argument with their wands. We couldn't sleep while they were fighting, and it took Slughorn a ridiculous amount of time to get down here to break them up—and then we all had to pitch in to repair the damage." Severus rubbed his face tiredly. "We probably didn't get to sleep until around four in the morning."

Hermione winced. "Do you mind if I ask what you lot were fighting about?"

"Quidditch."

"Unbelievable."

"I thought so, too."

~o~O~o~

Classes were steadily getting more and more difficult. They were becoming more advanced, more complex, and with heavier homework assignments in addition to difficult classwork. Potions was a near-disaster for Hermione at one point; Golpalott's third law of potions was easy to understand, but difficult to put into action.

She went to Severus for help. He listened patiently as she described the assignment with much frustration and rambling, and then cut her short with his response: "Just shove a bezoar down their throat."

Hermione was outraged. "That is the singularly most unhelpful thing I've ever heard!"

"Really? Even a dunderhead could follow those instructions." Severus was smirking at her now. "Sounds rather helpful to me, if you've been poisoned and are trying communicate to the idiot next to you that you need assistance."

"Yes, but what about when bezoars don't work?" Hermione demanded.

"You die," he responded simply.

"Severus!"

"Fine," the Slytherin grumbled, leaning back in his chair with a sigh. "Sit down and I'll show you."

Defense Against the Dark Arts, which had come quite easily at the beginning of the year, was now well on its way to becoming harrowingly difficult. There was an uneven ratio of Slytherins to all other houses in the class, which meant that more often than not, Hermione was paired up with a Slytherin who wanted to hex her brains out. They played dirty with spells Hermione thought were rather inappropriate for a classroom—such as the Entrail-Expelling Curse—and had begun paying them back in equal measure, not with dangerous spells, but in humiliation. This was usually in the form of jinxing them bald or transfiguring them.

Barty Crouch, Jr. spent a good five minutes of one lesson flapping around the classroom frantically as a yellow budgie while Hermione tried to hit him with a De-feathering Charm. Hermione was smugly satisfied with her work by the end of class, and had an additional thirty points added to the Gryffindor hourglass to show for it. In fact, Transfiguring the lip-licking Slytherin into a canary had become such a commonplace trick for Hermione that it had become her nickname for him.

But it wasn't all entertainment and amusement to Hermione. Faulkner brought in pictures of inferi, and assigned them a two-foot essay to be turned in the next day. That had honestly been a bit of a nightmare, especially given the speedy and gruesome research that had had to be done that evening. Looking up dead and reanimated corpses was not a pleasant activity to do before going to sleep. Then there were difficult spells they had to learn, ones that focused mostly on identifying already-existing dark magic within objects, with spells that were more complicated and less intrusive than a simple 'specialis revelio' would provide. They had to practice on crystal balls Faulkner had borrowed from the current divination teacher and imbued with a hex that would cause the ball to lash out at someone if the spell was done incorrectly. Hermione was not the only student who ended up with a gash on her face for her troubles.

All in all, it was not a picnic. Not by a long shot. But there were enjoyable moments to be had, whether it was Hermione playing Gobstones or Exploding Snap with her housemates, or spending time with Severus.

By early December, however, more disturbing reports had begun to leak into the papers. The Daily Prophet was reporting at least one death or disappearance a week, and Hermione was getting edgy and worried. Severus swore he didn't know a thing about it, but Hermione honestly was not sure if she could—or should—believe him. Professor Dumbledore was also missing from the High Table fairly often, which put Hremione into a state of unease. Hogwarts, at least, felt safe as long as the Headmaster was there. Without him, it felt vulnerable.

The day before Christmas break, she stopped Severus on the way to lunch and pulled him aside, shoving a copy of the Daily Prophet into his chest. Tears were rolling down her cheeks as Severus slowly opened the paper to the headlines, where it described the most gruesome and disturbing news yet: an entire wizarding family had been found dead in their home, two parents with four children. The bodies all showed signs of torture that had occurred before death and post-mortem desecration. The father had been a Ministry worker, and the mother a Muggle.

The article had disturbed Hermione enough that she finally broke.

"Is this really the madman you want to serve?" she cried.

Severus's face had been impassive, but his eyes were frightened. Knowing that there was no possible way the chasm-like divide between them could be resolved now, Hermione left Severus clutching the article and stormed off to Gryffindor Tower to be alone.

Hermione stayed at Hogwarts over the Yule holidays; Severus did not. She holed herself up in Gryffindor Tower or the library, and declined to attend the Slughorn's Christmas supper, telling the Potions Professor that she was feeling unwell. Slughorn, naturally, was very sympathetic and suggested she might see Madam Pomfrey if her bout of flu continued. It was probably for the best that Severus was not there, since Hermione was not feeling too charitable toward him at the moment. It was not that she was truly angry with him; it was the fact that she knew he was selfish enough to join the Death Eaters if it meant gaining protection for one person. Even if she knew he would come to regret and repent it later, right now, he apparently did not. At least not enough to back out. There was a part of Hermione's mind that recognized that despite the lack of a Dark Mark on his arm, Severus was already a part of the fold.

Well, you don't just hand in your resignation to Voldemort. It's a lifetime of service or death. That was part of a conversation between Harry and his godfather that her bespectacled friend had later relayed to her. Severus could not simply tell Voldemort or whoever was sponsoring him that he wanted to back out. He would be killed.

Thus, Hermione's main frustration was not truly at Severus, but the man he would soon work for who was behind this senseless cruelty and madness.

Hermione had bought several gifts for her friends over the holidays. Alice got a new chess set. Frank received a package of chocolate cauldrons, which Hermione saw him sharing with Alice in front of the Gryffindor fire later. Mary received an Appleby Arrow's poster, since she was so fond of the team. She got Lily a pair of lion-shaped earrings that really roared, and gave James a copy of Quidditch Through the Ages. Sirius received a pair of thick, woolen mittens Hermione had knitted herself that were charmed to keep snow from seeping through, and Remus received a newspaper clipping from Potions Monthly that described a miraculous and promising new potion called Wolfsbane attached to a copy of Dracula. Remus had grinned broadly at the irony, and given her an enormous bear hug before presenting her with her gift.

When Severus returned over the holidays, he seemed wary of approaching her. Hermione was feeling rather depressed at the moment and had thrown herself back into her books; Severus didn't seem to dare approach her until later that evening, after dinner, when she headed back to their usual spot at the library. He had watched her the entire time during meals, trying to gauge whether or not it was safe to talk to her, and had apparently made up his mind and decided to show up for their usual evening study session.

When Hermione looked up from her work at the sound of footsteps, she didn't get up and leave, nor did she tell him to. She didn't even glare at him. Instead, she merely looked resigned and tired as he came to stand beside her.

"How was your Christmas?" she asked dully.

"Hermione," Severus said quietly.

Hermione shook her head. "Look, just forget it," she said, indicating he should sit. "It's fine. I mean, it's not fine, but it's not your fault, and I—"

He placed a finger over her lips, effectively silencing her in a manner of surprise. He paused, and then withdrew his hand and spoke.

"I've known for a long time that you were right," he said softly, his voice barely audible even in the tangible silence of the library. "I've known for a long time that the Dark Lord is evil and mad, but there is very little I can do about it at this point. I have so much to lose if I try to run and hide."

Hermione nodded miserably.

"Hermione, I'm sorry."

Hermione stood up and swallowed thickly, trying to make her voice work, so that she could tell him she understood.

Instead, to her horror, she burst into tears. She tried to wipe them away with the back of her hand, miserable and upset at the weakness she was displaying, the fact that he probably thought her ridiculous for crying, that this shite was evening happening in the first place and why couldn't Voldemort just do them all a favor and choke on a piece of Christmas turkey and drop dead, and why couldn't she just return to her own time with Harry and Ron—

She was surprised when strong arms wrapped around her, holding her tight. She stiffened for a moment, and then capitulated and buried her face in his chest, registering his warm, comforting presence, and cried quietly.

"I want to go home," she choked, her voice reduced to a whimper.

She half-expected him to tell her that she was being silly and childish, or for him to push her away as soon as he had brought her close, but nothing of the sort came. As Hermione cried quietly, she couldn't help coming to the realization that she was being neither childish nor silly; she was nearing adulthood in a world where darkness was rising, and nothing about their situation was the least bit funny or frivolous. She was under an exorbitant amount of academic stress, afraid of the strange new world she had been thrust in, and Severus was a significant part of the terror she felt. She trusted him as a person, but feared the position he had trapped himself in. He could be killed. He could kill her. He could kill or be complicit in the murders of any number of people she knew, not because he wished them dead, but simply because there was one person who he did not feel he could afford to lose.

Severus spoke quietly. "There's always something we wish we had after we've lost it, and we never appreciated it until after it was gone."

"I always thought I'd have my friends with me," Hermione hiccuped, her voice bitter. "I was so sure that no matter what we faced, I'd always have them to count on—and just like that, one day, they're gone. Not even a chance to say goodbye." Harry and Ron were technically not dead, but they might as well have been to her; Hermione had little hope of ever seeing them again. "How long until that happens to someone else I know? To James? To Sirius or Remus? To you?"

Severus didn't respond. Hermione didn't blame him. No words were adequate.

~o~O~o~

After that, Hermione kept her back straight and her head high. The pain, guilt, and heaviness that had taken residence in her heart once more continued to weigh her down, but she masked it on the outside and bottled everything else up inside. Whenever she turned to Sirius, she couldn't help seeing him, gaunt and stir-crazy, as he would be in Hermione's time. It would be a momentary flash of memory overlapping the person she was seeing in front of her, but it was there. She saw Remus, careworn and tired. She saw Alice and Frank in St. Mungo's, unable to recognize their son. And she saw Harry whenever she turned to talk to James or Lily, and with a sinking feeling in her gut, realized that they had less than three years left to live.

She forced herself to come to terms with this. She could not save James and Lily. She could not stop Sirius from spending twelve long years in Azkaban. She had a chance of helping Remus, but really, what was there to be done? And Alice and Frank…

She was only able to turn to Severus for comfort. He was a bitter, caustic man in her time, but she rarely saw that in him anymore. Perhaps it was because she already saw traces of bitterness and anger in him as a teenager, but he was nearing manhood—though he was already eighteen, an adult by wizarding standards—and the separation between the two distinct impressions she had of him were less stark. He was as snarky, dictatorial, and exasperating as Hermione ever remembered him, but it was toned down around her. He had fewer of his defenses up around her. With Hermione, he was actually quite reasonable.

Hermione did not realize it was Severus's birthday until he did not arrive at the library at the usual time on Monday, in early January. Twenty minutes later than his usual arrival time, Bellatrix Black made an appearance, giving her a smug, twisted smile as she placed both hands on Hermione's desk, ensuring she had the Gryffindor's full attention.

"Snape won't be taking care of you this evening," she said, gesturing dismissively at the papers scattered around the table. "Pack up and crawl back to your tower where you belong, Mudblood."

Hermione gave her a glare worthy of Medusa. "Why not?"

"We're having a bit of a birthday celebration for him, you know," Bellatrix said, tracing her nails on the table, leaving faint scratches in the wood. Seeing the look of surprise on Hermione's face, her own lit up in delight. "Oh, I'm so sorry. Did he forget to tell you that?"

"It slipped my mind," Hermione lied coolly.

Bellatrix gave her a cruel little smile, and she leaned over until her mouth was level with Hermione's ear:

"Snape is one of the Dark Lord's most promising recruits, you see," she whispered. Hermione gave no indication that she had heard, and Bellatrix continued, "It's only fitting that his eighteenth birthday be celebrated properly with his brothers-in-arms. You know what that means, don't you?"

Hermione made no response. Her wand was up her sleeve, and she was more than prepared to hex Bellatrix if she gave any indication of being ready to harm her. But otherwise, she had nothing to say to the witch. Bellatrix answered her silence:

"It means that next summer, he'll take the Dark Mark," she whispered viciously, displeased with the lack of reaction she was getting out of Hermione. "There's only one thing he wants in exchange for his loyalty, and I'm afraid that as his pet Mudblood, you simply don't qualify."

"I have nothing to say to you," Hermione responded evenly, her fingernails digging into the table.

"You uppity—"

Bang!

Hermione flew out of her seat and was on her feet in a flash, wand out, and directed between the two bookcases where the spell had originated from. Bellatrix had been thrown off the table and crashed into the side of the bookcase behind her. She stood up a moment later, wand ready and raised, and Severus Snape stepped out of the gloom.

"You shouldn't be here, Bellatrix." His voice was dangerous and silky.

"You should be in the common room!" Bellatrix hissed. "I agreed to deliver your message to the Mudblood—" she spat the word at Hermione with as much disgust as she could muster, "—that you wouldn't be here this evening!"

"I changed my mind," Severus drawled. He looked bored with the proceedings and utterly unphased, but his wand was clenched tightly at his side. "I arrived at the common room and decided I had better things to do with my night than the debauchery that would surely occur in my honor."

"But—"

"It's Monday, Bellatrix. I know you haven't learned the inherent meaning of the word, but it implies that the following day is a working one," Severus snapped. "I have two tests tomorrow which need studying for and are, I think, a better use of my time."

Bellatrix threw Hermione a murderous glare, and then turned back to Severus.

"Have the night with your Gryffindor pet," she spat, adjusting her robes before turning away. "I will inform Avery of your insubordination."

"By all means," Severus said with false courtesy, gesturing at the library exit. "Complain to Avery. I have already made my excuses to him."

"Excuses, excuses," Bellatrix repeated, her voice pitched into a mocking coo. She cast them both a final glare, and then left. "You can't get away with making them forever, Snape."

Hermione waited until she was absolutely certain that the Slytherin witch was gone, and then turned to Severus.

"You didn't tell me that today was your birthday," she said.

"It slipped my mind."

"That's exactly the same thing I told her," Hermione said, cracking a faint smile. "You don't really have two tests tomorrow, do you?"

"I do, actually, but I am well prepared for them," Severus replied coolly, but he was smirking faintly. "What are you working on?"

"Homework due Friday," Hermione said decisively, flicking her wand at the mess on the table and sending everything back into her bag. She stood up. "It's your birthday. What do you want to do?"

Severus's smirk suddenly turned michievous and cunning. "Hogsmeade."

"Hogsmeade?" Hermione nearly shrieked, but given that she was trying to keep her voice down in the library, it came out as a kind of strangled squeak. "Now? At this time of night? It's not even a Hogsmeade Weekend—we'll be caught—you're mad!"

"I know how to sneak into Hogsmeade," Severus said, grinning broadly now. He was wearing a sneaky, self-satisfied look. "We won't get caught."

"But it's not safe!" Hermione said, feeling slightly frantic. "Death Eaters—"

"There are no Death Eaters in Hogsmeade tonight."

Well. He would know.

"Don't tell me you've never put a toe out of line," Severus said silkily.

Hermione couldn't help being reminded of when Harry had decided to sneak down into Hogsmeade in third year. The whole idea had the words bad idea scrawled all over it. And yet, Hermione couldn't help wondering if it was actually possible…

"Come on," he said, grabbing her wrist and leading her toward the library exit. Hermione dug her feet in, still undecided, and he sighed in exasperation and turned around to face her.

"Look, it's my birthday," he said. He was practically begging her except for the fact that he was using a soft, authoritative tone intermixed with one of boyish excitement, rather than the pleading one Hermione had heard him use with Lily. "I don't want to spend it studying, and there's no way I'm going down to the Slytherin Common Room to celebrate. I want to do something different than we usually do, so the lake is out."

"Go alone," Hermione said, swallowing. "You don't need me for this."

"I don't want to do it alone," Severus said. "Come on, Hermione. Indulge me."

Hermione wibbled for a moment, unsure, but Severus tugged on her arm once more—and made up her mind.

"Alright," she said, swayed but still rather unconvinced. "Let's go."

Severus led her out of the library, up two flights of stairs, through several corridors, until they halted at the third floor corridor; realization dawned on Hermione as he stopped them in front of the statue of the One-Eyed Witch. She knew this passageway, thanks to Harry, but she had no idea that Severus had known about it—or Professor Snape, for that matter. She had known that he had caught Harry after he was seen sneaking into Hogsmeade by Malfoy, but she had no idea that he was actually aware that the statue was a secret entrance.

He tapped it once with his wand, and muttered, "Dissendium."

The One-Eyed Witch's hump slowly slid to the side, and Severus prodded Hermione in the back.

"You first," he declared, looking as though he were getting far too much enjoyment out of this.

Without another word until she had gotten her footing, Hermione climbed into the hole and slid herself half-way in, feet first. "Severus, if this kills me, I'll—"

She never got a chance to finish her sentence. He pushed her, and Hermione let out a squeal of surprise as she lost her grip and started the long slide down. Severus gave her a full minute's head start, and then climbed in himself.

Hermione reached the end of the slide and hit the ground with an uncomfortable thump. She scrambled out of the way quickly, readjusting her robes, and her Slytherin partner-in-crime appeared a moment later. He had the good fortune to land on his feet and stood up nonchalantly, lighting his wand with a careless flick. He took in her disheveled appearance, grinned unrepentantly, and began walking. Hermione scrambled to catch up.

"I can't believe you pushed me!"

"You had it coming," he said, looking not the least bit sorry.

"You prat!"

"I've been called worse," Severus responded with a smirk.

Hermione huffed at him, but merely pulled out her wand to add an extra light to the tunnel and then followed without another word.

She simply could not understand how he had managed to talk her into doing this. This was absolutely insane. She could not believe she was being talked into juvenile delinquency by her Potions professor. This was something along the lines of what Harry and Ron would have done, or Fred and George. Probably even the Marauders. But she had never thought that the one person who would be capable of convincing her to sneak out into Hogsmeade in the dead of night for anything less than an emergency would be Severus.

Hermione had no idea how long they were in the tunnel, but when they reached the end, she checked her watch and saw that it was a quarter to eight. Curfew would be in effect in roughly an hour. There was no way she was going to get back to school without breaking curfew. Resigned to this fact, Hermione wordlessly followed Severus up the ladder leading to the cellar of Honeydukes. They left their school bags underneath the trap door, and Hermione fetched her gloves, winter cloak, and hat from her bag, and was ready to offer to spell a temporary duplicate for her companion, only to turn around and discover that he had done the exact same thing. He clearly had this planned out before ever leaving the Slytherin common room.

They slipped into the front of the store, and Hermione—thankful that the shop didn't close until midnight—followed Severus out into the night.

"This is great," he breathed, wearing an unsuppressed grin on his face. He looked boyish again, despite the fact that he already had adult features that would have begged to differ. He turned to give Hermione a smug, considering look. "Have you ever done anything as wicked as this?"

"Of course!" Hermione said, trying to look offended.

"Name it," he challenged as they walked up the high street.

Hermione was indignant. "I'm not going to name all my—my academic transgressions just to prove to you that I'm capable of breaking rules!"

"Clearly, if you were not capable of breaking rules, we wouldn't be having this discussion out here—I probably wouldn't be here either, for that matter."

"Why not?"

Severus glanced up at the sky, where the full moon sailed overhead, casting the street with a pale, shadowy glow.

"I expect I'd be with Lupin right now."

"Oh," Hermione said. For some reason, her cheeks turned red at this. "Right. I saved your arse."

"You broke curfew for that."

"I have a habit of breaking rules for emergencies," Hermione amended. "Otherwise, I try not to."

Severus smirked at her, and then led her down the alley between Scrivenshaft's and Gladrags.

"Severus, what—?"

"We're going somewhere where no one knows us," Severus told her decisively. "We can't go to the Hogs Head or the Three Broomsticks, and we've already been to every store here before. I can Apparate."

"But—"

"We'll be fine in Diagon Alley," Severus persisted, determined to squeeze the most out of tonight's occasion that he could. "We can come to Hogsmeade any old time—but I'll bet you've never been to the London Underground at night."

"No," Hermione admitted. "But Severus, Hogsmeade is one thing—Diagon Alley is an Apparation away! I'm not—the farther away we are from school, the less safe we are. I'm not sure if we should take this chance."

Severus gave her a searching look. "You always have a backup plan, don't you?"

"I—what?"

"Every time you've told me about when you and your friends got in trouble, you were always the one who got them out of it," Severus recalled confidently. "Don't you have any ideas about how we'd get out of trouble in London?"

Hermione took a second to think. She didn't really consider Portkeying to the Headmaster's office at night a suitable backup plan, but it was true that she knew a number of useful spells that would get them out of harm's way, if it came to such. "I—well, yes. Yes, I do."

"So do I. Let's go."

Hermione stood up to her full height and looked him squarely in the eye, thinking. He waited impatiently, though he did not rush her into a decision as he had before, and watched the indecision flicker across her face.

And then, quite at once, her mind was made. "Yes, let's go." Then for the first time that night, she gave him a broad smile. "I want to see what the London Underground is like at night."

With a victorious, near-jubilant smirk, Severus grasped hold of her arm tightly and with a loud crack, Apparated the two of them away.

~o~O~o~

They Apparated just outside of Knockturn Alley. The ground was knee-deep in snow, and although it had been mostly cleared off to the side, Hermione and Severus had the misfortune of landing directly on top of a snow drift. They'd pulled themselves free, laughing as they kicked snow off their boots and shook it out of their clothes, and then walked to Fortescue's Ice Cream parlor, where Hermione insisted on being the one to pay for both their orders. Ice cream in the middle of winter was a wild, rather pointless idea in some respects, but Hermione couldn't help loving it.

Instead of finding a bench to sit on, Severus led her over to one of the buildings, took her around, and then began to climb. Hermione followed, and the two sat on the railing over one of the bricked-in balconies atop Flourish and Blott's. They got comfortable, and then began to eat. He braced his legs against the railing and leaned back slightly, wearing a wry smile as he glanced upwards at the sky, his demeanor relaxed and carefree.

The ice cream was decadently delicious, and despite the shivers it sent down Hermione's spine, she enjoyed it immensely.

They had not been there for more than ten minutes when Severus pointed at the sky. Hermione looked up in time to see an owl swoop down from one roof to another—and then almost as though it had been cued, a flurry of owls began to appear, and when Hermione leaned over and squinted into the distance, she realized that they were all coming from Eyelopes Owl Emporium.

"The owner lets them all out at night," Severus explained, smirking at the look of wonder on her face before he took another bite of his ice cream sundae. "If you stay here long enough, eventually, it looks like its raining feathers."

"That's amazing," Hermione breathed, as she watched two snowy owls take flight before her eyes, circling each other playfully, diving and swooping as they rode the night wind, underneath the cloudless sky and the shimmering night stars, all haloed distinctly by the full moon. More owls took flight, gliding along the buildings and around each other in a lively and spirited manner. Two tawny owls came to perch on the windowsill above where Hermione and Severus were sitting, their round, black eyes peering at them, their heads cocking curiously to the side.

Hermione and Severus watched the owls dancing in the air, grins of genuine delight spreading across their faces as they finished up their ice cream. Hermione collected the last bit of her double chocolate scoop on a spoon, and in a fit of impulse, held it out to Severus.

"Happy Birthday, Severus," she said, her eyes shining with laughter. He gave her a grin, and then leaned forward and took the proffered scoop, his eyes lighting up as the new flavor spread over his tongue.

"I'd sing 'Happy Birthday' for you, but I'm afraid you'll hex me if I do," Hermione added, smiling broadly.

"I could do without the song," Severus agreed, tapping his empty cup to vanish it. Hermione held hers out to him, and he did the same. He tried to read her watch, but upside down and in the dark, it simply wasn't possible. "Hermione, what time is it?"

She checked her watch. "A quarter past ten. Think we'd better go?"

"Honeydukes closes at eleven, and it'll take us an hour to walk back up to the castle," Severus said, swinging his legs to the side and sliding off the railing and onto the balcony. He held out a hand to her. "We should go, yes."

Hermione took his hand, and with a loud crack amidst the snow that was just starting to fall, mixed in with few owl feathers that were swirling down to the ground, they whirled away.

~o~O~o~

"That was one of the most amazing experiences in my life," Hermione said, unable to quash the grin on her face as they made their way through the secret passageway leading back to the school.

"That was one of the best birthdays I've ever had," Severus declared, raising his wand up so that he could see the ceiling and duck down when it got too low. "Although next time, I'd much rather eat ice cream in July, when it's not snowing."

"What, did it give your digestive tract frostbite?" Hermione teased.

"Very funny," Severus said, standing up to his full height once again as they neared the end of the tunnel. A few more steps, and they reached the end of the slide. "Ah, we're here."

"We should Disillusion ourselves before we go up," Hermione reminded him. "Just in case there are any teachers patrolling about."

"Naturally. Hold on." She watched Severus turn his wand on himself, and a moment later, his form melted away. He moved toward her, and Hermione had the distinct impression of a six-foot human chameleon before she felt him rap his wand atop her head, sending a cold tricking sensation down her body. When she looked down, she realized her feet were now nearly invisible to her.

"Brilliant. Alright, here we go." Hermione stepped into the foot of the slide, and then tapped her leg. "Ascendare!"

She shot up, gliding against the walls of the tunnel as the force of her spell propelled her skyward. When she reached the top, she braced herself against the side of the slide and tapped the ceiling above her, muttering the password. The hump slid open, and she pulled herself out. A moment later, Severus followed, hauling himself out, and the hump slid shut once they were clear of it.

They began making their way down to the first floor, and when they reached the door leading to the staircases, they quietly slipped it open and shut it as noiselessly as possible behind them. They walked soundlessly down the stairs, and they were about to split up when something grey and furry rubbed against their legs. They looked down, and a pair of large, lamp-like eyes looked up at them pitilessly.

"Shite!" Severus hissed. "It's Mrs. Norris— Run!"

Hermione did run. They split up, Hermione dashing up the stairs to Gryffindor Tower, not caring how much noise she made, knowing that she could be seen in the darkness despite her disillusionment, and she was about to wake the Fat Lady when a gnarled hand grabbed her shoulder, yanking her back.

There was a nasty chuckle.

"Well, well, well," said Argus Filch. "We are in trouble now, aren't we?"


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~Anubis Ankh