The unmistakable flapping of Hermione Granger's dress robes announced her appearance at the top of the Astronomy tower and stirred Snape from his reverie. Willing himself to keep a civil tone despite her intrusion, he did not turn around but said, "Miss Granger, surely you are wanted back in the ballroom? I cannot imagine Minerva would allow you to slip away from the festivities so early in the evening."

"You don't understand. Really. You see - "

"And I refuse to go back in your stead. I have had the misfortunate of chaperoning over three dozen of Albus's little Yule Ball soirées and Halloween parties and Merlin-help me, Valentine's dances, and with your addition to the staff I have finally been allowed a reprieve." His slouch deepened a few degrees to emphasize his avowal.

"Please hear me out, Sir, for I fear you misunderstand why I am here and - "

"Two decades," he continued as though she'd said nothing, "of watching those brave Gryffindor boys stammer and stumble about while trying to appear charming and suave. And of Slytherin boys attempting hasty cleansing charms once they spill punch on their companion's dress? No, no, I'm not - "

Hermione wrung her hands a bit as she entreated further. "If you would but listen, Professor, for I have no intention of inflicting such burdens on you this evening. I only ask that you let me hide myself here a little longer." She shot another desperate glace over her shoulder at the doorway.

"You are adeptly skilled, Miss Granger, at concealment charms, disillusionment spells, transfiguration even? Certainly you can take care of yourself? They are just students after all."

"Miss Granger!!! Oh, Miss Granger, where've you gotten to, girl?" An Irish brogue, so lazy-sounding it could be described as slurred, grew closer.

"Students, Sir, would not accost me in the dark corners of this castle so as to... Complicate me."

"Miss Granger!" The familiar voice echoed up the stairwell and Hermione groaned.

"Moreover, an Auror so skilled as Mad-Eye Moody should have little difficulty overcoming my concealment charms, regardless of how much he's had to drink, don't you agree?" Her frustration turned to desperation as Snape turned to face her, his stone cold features remaining impartial. "Oh, please, please let me hide away with you here. I beg of you. Please, there is nothing I desire less than to return to that ballroom. Your asylum will buy my silence after this moment if only you will consent?"

Snape met her beseeching eyes - for it was difficult not to as she'd grabbed him by the collar - and nodded his agreement. Not a moment too soon as Alastor Moody, preceded by his shadow, appeared at the doorway, a large mug of something frothy clutched in one hand.

"Ah! Miss Granger, there you are... Ah... I see." His bright blue magical eye flicked from Snape to Hermione, then back again. The smile he wore so boldly diminished.

"You'll excuse us, Alastor?" Snape said in a low throaty voice that made Hermione involuntarily inch a bit closer. "We've spent all evening trying to find two minutes peace alone together? Surely you understand?"

He tuned his attention back to Hermione and his face was suddenly very close to hers. His right arm had somehow snaked around her waist and his left hand - "Oh!" she thought. "Oh, so that's where his other hand went…"

The older man nodded sulkily and retreated down the stairwell muttering something about his damn leg slowing him down. Hermione turned back to Snape and sighed, "Thank you, you have no idea -- -"

"Miss Granger, you may release me now." He had completely relinquished his hold on her and his arms were hanging lank at his sides.

"Oh. Of course." Hermione loosened her death grip on his collar, stepped back and smoothed the front of her skirt. "I can't even begin to thank you, Professor, I -- "

He put up a hand and looked down at her. "I beg you. Do not begin. You're welcome to share my sanctuary... For the time being. But you're paying for your board with that silence you offered me earlier. Understood?"

Hermione, thinking better of risking her refuge with cheek, gave the slightest gentlewomanly curtsey and retreated to her side of the tower as Snape resumed his silent countenance several feet away. The stone floor beneath her feet vibrated with the thump-thump-thump of what was passing for music downstairs. It was late December and snow had fallen that morning. But it seemed that Snape, or possibly the house elves, had gone about the task of clearing the tower's balcony.

She had not planned on running into Snape up here. She'd only been looking for someplace too awkward for Moody and his false leg to reach. Although she had suspected as she made her way up the stairs that she might find him here. For this was the crime scene, the very place where Snape went from misanthropic potions master to murdering traitor -- Or so they had all thought for several weeks. And though his name was cleared to friends and co-workers and even the Ministry of Magic once Dumbledore awoke from his portrait and testified, the act was still the same, the curse he'd spoke still uttered. And while the rest of the school and its inhabitants danced and celebrated several flights below, one man set himself apart, as so it seemed his lot in life, and hid away from it all.

But then again, as seemed his other raison d'ete, he did take one for the team a few moments ago. No doubt it had cost him dearly to strike down Dumbledore, the one he had called friend. But to embrace her, the one he had called enemy? Well, that was certainly a Christmas miracle if ever there was one.

He spoke so suddenly that Hermione jumped. "I rather thought Lupin would be defending your honor tonight?"

Hermione was not sure if she was being bated into an argument or lured into a conversation. She played it neutral. "Um… Remus was busy returning some party-crashing second years to their dorms."

"I see. Well, I for one would not have left you alone for two minutes with Moody. I'll have to speak with Lupin about his serious lapse of judgment."

Hermione smiled to herself but did not turn around. "Remus was not my escort for the evening, Professor. One could hardly oblige him to defend my honor all night."

"If you are suggesting that Lupin and I take turns, Miss Granger…"

Turning to counter his sarcasm with reason, she interjected, "Really, Professor Snape, I'm nearly twenty-five years old, twice divorced, and an instructor of Arithmancy at the same school at which you teach. Surely you can think of a dozen other things to call me besides 'Miss.' Come now, they don't even have to be nice things."

This solicited from him the briefest of smiles but it faded as quickly as it had come on. Hermione knew when her reprieve was at an end. She made for the stairs.

"I appreciate your assistance, Professor Snape. I shall endeavor to keep better company tonight."

"I suggest you do, Miss… Professor Granger."

She paused at the door and turned back. "And if you desire any company at all, of any sort, better or worse, you'll know where to find me."