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MetroVampire & Rhosymedre
Snape was still grinning inwardly at Hermione's reaction to his mother's letter when a knock sounded on the door to his rooms. For a moment, when he had seen her at the door the previous evening, he had thought she had been summoned by Voldemort; then he realised that she had bothered to knock, so it was highly unlikely that whatever she sought him for had anything to do with the Dark Lord. Not even Hermione was likely to be overly concerned with propriety or the niceties of convention at such a time.
His mother's letter was, admittedly, slightly startling. His parents generally spent the winter overseas - it only took a few hours at their house to understand why, and his father's arthritis had shown no inclination to improve, no matter what potions he was dosed with. Snape was reasonably sure he actually poured the potions away, preferring to play the martyr, but that was no longer anything to worry about. He had, eventually, told Hermione as much; it had been so long since he had seen his parents for more than the most fleeting of visits that it was highly unlikely that they would notice any difference in her portrayal of him. As long as she kept her head in a book, or took long walks, they would notice nothing amiss.
He suddenly realised that someone had knocked twice on his door; a hesitant rap, and clearly not Hermione again.
"Come in". He raised his voice just enough to make sure that whoever it was heard him. Crookshanks looked balefully at him at the unexpected sound, then rested his head back onto his paws and went to sleep again.
The door creaked open and a young girl's head poked round. Alice Lacock. Snape almost groaned; he had forgotten that she was coming to talk to him this afternoon. This was not something he wanted to have to deal with; he remembered the puppy on the card and shuddered.
"Is this alright, Hermione? You said this afternoon - should I come back later?"
Oh, the temptation to send her away ...
"No, no, this is fine - come in." He watched her enter, staring around again; it had been a while since she had last come for counselling - and that had been before. Before he had realised just what horror she represented for him.
"You can sit over there," he indicated the other armchair. "Would you like some tea?" The child nodded once she had sat down.
"Yes please," she said quietly.
As delaying tactics went, this one was useless - he had only just made some tea so it only took a matter of seconds to hand a mug to the girl.
"How are you doing? I understand things are better with your family." Snape broke the silence that had descended as they both sipped at their tea, staring at the fire crackling in the grate.
"Oh yes, much better, thank you. Everything is great! I mean, well, not perfect or I would have been able to go home for Christmas, but it's all going much better. And I like being in school over the holidays; it means I can keep people company who might be lonely otherwise."
Snape had a ghastly feeling he knew exactly who it was that she was keen to keep company with.
"I went to see if Professor Snape was in this morning, for example. But he wasn't in his rooms. Do you know if he stays for the holidays?"
The ghastly feeling was confirmed.
"I would imagine," he said carefully, "that all the teachers have their own lives which they continue with away from school. Professor Snape is no different from the other teachers."
"Yes, exactly!" That wasn't the answer he was quite expecting, but the elaboration came quickly. "Everyone thinks he's so mean and nasty but he's not; he just wants us to learn - so he's just like all the other teachers, but no-one else seems to understand that. I think he's wonderful."
Curiosity won Snape's inner battle.
"Why do you think he's wonderful? If he's just like all the other teachers?"
"Well, they are all wonderful, of course. Although I'm not quite sure about Professor Hooch. She keeps yelling at me, just because I can't fly very well, but you see I don't like the height and it makes me dizzy. I don't understand how people can play Quidditch - all that height and speed and ..."
And Snape let her ramble on over her tea, wondering whether she would ever come back to the point. Eventually - and via a very circuitous route, during which Snape mentally reviewed the experiments he and Hermione had so far conducted on Longbottom's Inadvertent Infusion, she did return to his original question.
"And so Professor Snape understands you see; he seems to know just what we need, and he's ... well ..."
At this point, Alice broke off and blushed, scarlet. Snape had an appalling presentiment, which took little time to proved entirely correct.
"Well ... you won't tell anyone?" she asked when she spoke again. Snape shook his head.
"No, I won't tell anyone; whatever you say to me is confidential." As if he was going to repeat this conversation to anyone. Anyone at all.
"Well, he's awfully good-looking, don't you think?"
Thought was about the last thing that Snape wanted, particularly that sort of thought. No, he was not awfully good-looking, and he knew it. What on earth this child saw in him, he didn't know. Didn't want to know - he was becoming increasingly convinced that she must have some sort of hormonal disorder, and he could feel fear crawl along his spine. Not particularly because of her crush; a few well placed words should deal with that. No, he was rather more concerned about what she might have been saying in the common room. If Malfoy Junior, for example, was to report to Daddy that a young girl was infatuated with him, things could get uncomfortable.
"Have you told anyone else this?" he asked eventually.
Alice shook her head, and he almost sagged with relief.
"I thought I would be laughed at. No-one else sees him like I do."
"Well ..." he picked his way carefully through his words. "I think perhaps you should make sure that you spend time with those of your friends who are staying at schoool over these holidays - the teachers are not at all lonely; they have their own lives, about which we know nothing since we only see them in school, and I'm sure that you don't need to keep any of them company. No matter whether you think you might like to. Professor Snape, in particular, will have experiments to do which need to be done in silence and quiet; you won't be helping him by interrupting him."
Snape thought he sounded hideously pompous, but telling the girl that she was mad would not help the situation. Much as he would like to. She looked a little mutinous at effectively being told to stay away from Snape, and he reminded himself to tell Hermione to snap at the girl if she showed her face again in the classroom before term started.
He lead the conversation round to more mundane matters, asking how homework was going - usually guaranteed to bring any conversation to a close and in this, thankfully, Alice Lacock was no different to anyone else. She was gone and he was alone again within ten minutes. Snape sank into the blissful peace with a book and a fresh mug of tea; snow fell heavily outside the window and the room was warm and quiet, the silence broken only by the rustle of pages and the occasional snore from the ginger cat on his bed.
Checking on the experiments that evening, he found out why Hermione had not been in the rooms when Alice Lacock had called that morning; a pile of wrapped presents sat on the corner of the desk in his living room and Hermione had been borrowing his jeans and sweater again. Just as well Alice hadn't seen him in those; even he had to admit that they suited him. Hermione must have noticed him look at her, and explained.
"Those are the presents you're taking to the Burrow; I went out this morning to get them so that it was all done in plenty of time - and I used your Apparation licence again to make sure I wasn't seen, and went shopping in Oxford Street." She shuddered. "I hate crowds, and today was worse than crowds, but I thought it might be difficult to explain what I was doing with this sort of shopping if anyone saw me in Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. There are a couple of things that I've ordered that should turn up by owl sometime in the next day or so - I got Harry another servicing kit for his broomstick and, believe me, that's not something you can get - not even in John Lewis."
Snape assumed John Lewis must be some type of store, but had other things on his mind.
"Two things," he said abruptly. "First, if Alice Lacock appears, tell her to go away and be sharp with her - I told her you were very busy with experiments and didn't have time to be interrupted, so please back me up. Second - what are these things? Just so that I don't look entirely surprised when people open them!"
Hermione smiled. "Good point. They're fairly straighforward. Molly and Ginny Weasley each have a velvet scarf from Libertys - pretty and vaguely practical. I've told you what I'm getting Harry. I've got Ron some Muggle sweets, since he thinks they're fun. I can't tell the difference between them and wizarding sweets but I don't have that much of a sweet tooth. I got a book for Arthur Weasley - it's a Muggle encyclopaedia, I thought it would interest him." Snape thought it would probably encourage the man more than he ought to be encouraged, but kept silent. "And I got a large Christmas cake as a general gift - it'll cover the twins, Charlie, Bill and Percy Weasley if they're home. I got Sirius a pair of gloves; he keeps losing his. I've sent my parents' presents directly to them as well, so you don't need to worry about any of it."
Snape nodded, and they turned their attention back to the work in hand; the previous evening's awareness was still there between them, and work seemed to be the best way to diffuse it - or ignore it at least.
It would have been too easy for the presents to be so readily dealt with. The day before Sirius was due to fetch them, Harry and Ron came thundering into Hermione's room. Snape looked up from his book and raised an eyebrow.
"What's happened now?" he said in a resigned tone of voice. The boys looked slightly frantic; that usually meant trouble.
"Presents - we need to get presents!" said Harry urgently.
Ron chimed in. "We've been so busy we forgot - and anyway, you're better than we are finding the right thing for people! We've got to go to Hogsmeade now. Come on!"
Snape looked at the snow outside and shuddered - not because of the snow, but simply at the thought of trying to shop for Weasleys.
The boys took his silence for reluctance - correctly - and started to plead. "Hermione, please, you're our only hope!"
"You've got to help us!"
That melodrama provoked another dubious look from Snape, and Ron had the grace to look sheepish. "Come on, Hermione, you know we're useless without you."
"Can I have that in writing?" asked Snape drily. The boys laughed, and Snape rapidly found himself trudging through the foot-deep snow to Hogsmeade, trying to keep behind Harry and Ron and out of the lightly falling flakes.
If not for the mission ahead - shopping was never a favoured pastime, unless it involved books and potions ingredients - it would have been a pleasant walk. The snow lay thick on the Scottish landscape around Hogwarts, blanketing the hills and fields so that the hedges and walls traced ethereal patterns in the blank white. Trees were silhoutted against the sky on the horizon, a sky that was patchwork white and brilliant blue as clouds eased across and down in flurries of snow. The sun broke through the clouds from time to time, scattering gold across the glittering ice of the lake.
Hogsmeade was a scurry of shoppers; much as Hermione's Oxford Street must have been, thought Snape. Harry and Ron had not underestimated their clueless-ness when it came to Christmas shopping, though, which made the rest of the afternoon unnecessarily trying. If Hermione had not discussed her presents with him first, it would have been even more trying. They, at least, gave him some clue when the boys turned to him again and again.
For Molly and Ginny, they bought bottles - clear glass with pewter embellishments; Snape volunteered to supply some of the bath potions that he had brewed for himself (and, it seemed, half the school). The elder Weasley boys would share a bag of Zonko's finest - although finest was a relative term. Arthur Weasley proved more of a problem, until Snape remembered that there was a small shop selling Muggle curios in one of the backstreets; a suggestion met with rapturous delight from the boys.
It was an odd shop, full of the most peculiar things; Harry commented that most of them wouldn't work without electricity - the owner, obviously keen to make a sale, pointed out that they could be charmed to work in a wizarding home. The problem, as ever, lay with Ron's budget; Harry was wincing at the prices of most of the items.
Finally, though, Harry spotted a tub on one of the shelves and took it down with glee. "Ron, this is perfect - your Dad will love it. It's pure Muggle. Don't you think, Hermione?" He turned to Snape who tried not to look blank.
"Oh, I forgot - your parents are into healthfoods aren't they? You've probably never had one of these - but don't you think Arthur will think it's cool?" He handed the tub to Snape; it rattled slightly.
He looked at it curiously. "Pot Noodle" was written on the side; "Chicken'n'Mushroom flavour". Snape presumed it was some sort of food, and looked more closely at it. He found a list of ingredients and blanched - at least, he supposed this was food. The list read more like the ingredients for some Dark potion.
"I'm sure Arthur will think it's wonderful", he said as he handed the box back to Harry, trying not to shudder. "At least, as long as he doesn't try to eat it."
That last comment was a guess; he was getting more confident about trying guesses as to the right thing to say, both from experience and from listening to Hermione in the evenings as they worked together. He had guessed right, though, as Harry burst into laughter. Ron looked puzzled - nothing new there - until Harry spluttered and said he'd explain later.
The last present was Sirius', and Harry and Ron needed no help with that; a bottle of Firewhisky was readily obtained. As they walked back to school, Snape was sorely tempted to break into the whisky - it was freezing, and the sky was uniformly covered in snow-laden clouds. It was almost entirely dark by the time they got to school; only the glows set out by Hagrid kept them on the right path.
The rest of the week passed in a haze of experiments, snowball fights and reading. Hermione remarked that Alice Lacock had only put in one appearance - fortunately whilst Hermione was working on something - and had been sent away without ceremony. Snape wondered whether she would come to him again for consolation and wasn't entirely certain that he was glad when she didn't; he hoped she wasn't particularly bottling it all up. The Slytherin prefects were all away for the holidays, or he would have checked with one of them - the girl's parents had been attacked recently enough for it to still be reasonable for the Head Girl to be concerned, especially over Christmas.
All too soon, Snape found himself in the entrance to Hogwarts with Harry and Ron, facing a tall dark man. Sirius. Snape's hackles rose when Sirius leant down to kiss his cheek; it was the first kiss he had had to endure as Hermione, and frankly he prayed it was the last. A small, trecherous, voice suggested that perhaps he wouldn't object so violently if it was Hermione kissing him ... he quashed that thought ruthlessly. This was not the time to think about that.
Pulled from the entrance through a portkey - a particularly chewed looking piece of wood - into the snow outside, Snape shuddered and sneezed at the change in temperature. A round of 'bless-you's later, he looked up to find that they had arrived at The Burrow. He hadn't seen the Weasley's house in decades, but it still looked like a triumph of wards over weather; how it all stayed together was a miracle.
Molly Weasley bustled out to greet them, talking nineteen to the dozen and rounding them up and into the house. It was blessedly warm, with the fire roaring in the grate as they all sat around a table that undoubtedly stretched to accommodate them all. Snape lost count of Weasleys, even though he had taught all the younger ones, as they chattered countless cross-conversations.
Suddenly, he froze. Molly had just announced that she would add Harry and Hermione to the clock for the next week or so, so that she could keep track of them - the clock in question hung on the wall, and presently had a cluster of hands all pointing to home. If the spell tracked minds, not bodies, he was doomed. Too quickly for him to find a reasonable objection, though, Molly had flicked her wand at the clock and muttered something - he hadn't caught the words, but he heaved a sigh of relief when one of the hands that appeared said "Hermione" and pointed to "home". It looked as though it merely tracked the physical presence, not the mental presence, since "school" was an option on the clock - and he knew that Hermione hadn't gone to his parents' house yet.
No-one seemed to have noticed either that he was worried or his relief - not really surprisingly, as with this crowd he could almost be more anonymous than at school.
And so it proved; the holiday passed in a round of presents and meals - the Weasleys clearly believed in holiday meals - and snowball fights. Snape was able to keep quiet for most of the time; no-one expected Hermione to be the centre of conversation and he was able to observe from the depths of a chair, sometimes behind the cover of a book.
For all his snarled insults over the years to rile various Weasley children, he had a healthy respect for Arthur and Molly Weasley; he would not have chosen their path, but neither did he have their characters. The affection between the family members - often exasperated, but always clear - was almost tangible. The house was warm, a warmth that had nothing to do with the fires that lay lit in each grate.
In the midst of that warmth, fussed over but given space, Snape wondered how Hermione was coping in the chill of his parents' house.