I'm so SO sorry that I kept you waiting this long! I blame the fact that Georgia JUST got pretty weather and I'm trying to write Christmas… haha. This chapter has given me a pretty hard time and I'm also going through some stressful stuff right now, switching jobs (and allegiances of a sort) from one Mexican restaurant to another, haha. Actually tomorrow is my first day at the new place (SO NERVOUS), but it will be good to say goodbye to some of the venomous people I was working for. Anyway, I want to say thank you SO MUCH to all of you who reviewed and favorited and followed this story and my others because every little email that I get really brightens my day and I can DEFINITELY use some of that right now, haha. But an ESPECIAL thanks to Stella, Severus forever, lyndaflpn, severus-rickman-lover, FatalStarshine, Garnet, nightkitty555, Belle2611, Mel, MissFine1997, Mystical G Panther, Petite Mule, Lana, LoveInTheBattlefield, Folkvangr, mama123, Hannoie, articcat621, RhodaBush, bluefirefly5 and several Guestsfor reviewing my last chapter! I love you guys! You are what gets me through the day, so thank you so much for that.
Alright, here's Chapter 52! I hope you like it and if you do, Please Review!
Hermione threw the catalogue onto her bed and leapt up to pace the room angrily, once more. It was Christmas Eve and she still hadn't found anything for Severus. Growling aloud, she kicked the dresser that still shelved the simmering cauldron of Wolfsbane. Perhaps she could convince the twins to sneak her out of the house with them for a bit of shopping in Diagon Alley, but she had a feeling there wouldn't be anything for him there, either.
Why does he have to be so difficult?! She had gone through the catalogue at least a dozen times. Already, the pages were crinkled and several were earmarked for later perusal. None of the 'maybe's were even vaguely good enough, however.
Frustration simmered in her blood and Hermione suddenly felt the need to escape the confines of her bedroom. Stomping down the stairs, her anger was lost on the inhabitants of 12 Grimmauld, all of whom seemed to be preparing for Christmas. Ron and Harry were in the study, playing a game of Exploding Snap, Ginny was helping her mother with some last minute decorations, the twins seemed to have disappeared, and Severus had yet to make an appearance. There was to be an Order meeting soon, but for the moment no one was in the kitchen, so Hermione chose to make herself a cup of tea.
She was glaring down into the steaming mug when a voice startled her out of her reverie. "Why so serious?" Sirius laughed. It was all Hermione could do to hide her irritation. "Come on, Hermione, you have such a pretty smile. It should be a sin to keep it hidden away."
Hermione bristled. "My emotions are not dictated by how well they look on me."
Sirius was understandably taken aback, throwing his hands up in front of him in a gesture of surrender. "Woah," he responded, laughing lightly, "Take it easy. I didn't mean anything by it."
Hermione sighed deeply; her anger deflating with his easy manner. She had been wrong to snap at him. "I'm sorry, Sirius. I'm just… frustrated."
"Clearly." He smiled and took the seat across from her at the table. "I don't suppose it's anything I could help with?" His concern inched in behind the smile she knew was genuine and Hermione was disarmed by his sincerity. He really did care. No matter how misguided and selfish he could be sometimes, in the end he really did care about them.
"I… don't know," she confessed, taking a sip of her cooling black tea.
Sirius lazily lifted his wand and silently Summoned a tray of sweets and a glass of milk. He took a bite of a gingerbread wand before meeting her eyes knowingly. "Is it about a boy?"
Hermione practically snorted her tea. Well, might as well admit it, now. There was no way he'd believe her with a guilty, red face. "Sort of," she whispered. "But before you even ask, I can't tell you who it is."
Sirius lifted a brow. Well, now she'd done it. Obviously, if she couldn't tell him who it was, it had to be somebody scandalous. "And… I suppose he's giving you a hard time?"
Well, she thought, at least he's taking this news gracefully. "Not exactly." She hesitated, and then sighed. In for a penny, in for a pound. "I just can't think of anything to get him for Christmas."
"Ah." Sirius's apologetic smile communicated his inability to contribute ideas. "Well… I'm sure whoever it is will be happy just knowing that you thought about him."
"I suppose," she muttered.
There was a long silence. Then he lowered his eyes to the table and Hermione watched his brow furrow in thought before he met her gaze again, earnestly. "He's a very lucky guy."
"Thank you." Her voice was barely a whisper, for suddenly the air seemed to buzz with tension. It made her feel strangely sad. She wished that there were something else she could say; some way of apologizing to him for not reciprocating the feelings he so clearly retained.
He seemed to sense her discomfort. "It's alright, you know," he murmured, softly. Their eyes connected and she could see his understanding in those haunted depths. Had he finally accepted the truth? He reached a hand across the table and she took it in her own, squeezing his prison-roughened fingers in a gesture of friendship. It lifted a weight from her soul.
Sirius gave her hand one last squeeze before letting her go. Then he smirked, successfully breaking the tension and allowing the tenderness of the moment to seep away. "Besides," he cut into the silence, leaning back in his chair and grinning at her, "I'm too old for you, anyway."
The ugly, orange cat with a face like it had run into too many walls as a kitten was playing with something in the hallway when Severus finally slipped out of his room. Ordinarily, he would have ignored the thing and continued on his way, but something about the object on the floor caught his eye. Upon closer inspection, he was baffled to find that the creature's prey was actually a Shrivelfig. Curious. He was certain he hadn't brought any with him, but Shrivelfigs had very little use outside of potion brewing.
Ah. And the door closest to the discarded ingredient was that of the Weasley twins. Suspicion prickled at the back of his neck as he stooped to steal back the fig, and the disgruntled feline seemed to pout as he knocked on the door. There was a long pause and Severus was reluctantly proud to see that his ex-students had thought to throw up a Silencing spell.
Just as he was beginning to doubt that the twins were actually inside, the door cracked open and George's face appeared. Yes, Severus could tell them apart. He wasn't a spy for two opposing magical madmen for nothing.
"Er, hullo Professor," the boy began, peering through the narrow slit and attempting to act casual.
Severus merely showed him the Shrivelfig and sneered.
George laughed. "Is that mine?" he asked. "Hmmmm, I don't think I recognize it. But if I find someone who's missing a… large… purple… prune… I will let you know. Good day." He attempted to close the door, but Severus was too quick. With one blast of wandless magic, the door flew open and George stumbled backwards, landing on his arse in the middle of the floor. "Well, Freddie," the boy told his twin, sounding serious, "looks like the jig is up."
Fred was arranging porcupine quills, sopophorous beans, and a few other ingredients on a tall, wooden table that had been awkwardly placed in the center of the room. He tsked disappointedly, but continued with his work as if nothing were amiss. "Sleeping next door to the Potions Master," he shook his head. "What were we thinking?"
"You're not going to spoil the fun, though, are you Professor? It's bound to be a jolly, good time."
Severus narrowed his eyes. There were many potions that called for Shrivelfigs, but the other ingredients could only add up to one thing. "Brewing Elixir to Induce Euphoria is likely one of your most innocuous schemes yet. But aren't you aware of the side-effects of said potion? When the entire Weasley clan begins to sing uncontrollably, I assure you, I will not stick around to enjoy the humor of it."
The twins shared a grin before George took a conspiratorial step toward him. "But see, we've added ragweed to the recipe to counteract the singing."
Severus shook his head. "Ragweed will reduce the singing to a hum; that is true. But it will also make them drowsy. As I imagine there will also be alcohol served tonight, the guests will be asleep before the festivities even begin."
Fred scowled and threw down his quill, turning on his brother. "I told you!"
"Well I thought it was worth a try…"
Severus sighed. What was he doing? Oh, hell. "A sprig of peppermint will counteract the effect."
The twins' frowns melted and they blinked at him. "Genius."
Severus smirked. "Just before you add the sopophorous beans. But tell me… what precisely are you planning to do with this? Spike the pumpkin juice?"
The twins grinned at each other before turning to him. "Better," George told him.
"The sweets," Fred confessed.
"And it won't just be Euphoria."
"That's the least of 'em."
"We've got all sorts of mischief planned."
"All harmless, of course."
"If a bit humiliating."
"Shame you've caught on, really."
"Would've been a treat to catch you unawares."
Severus scoffed at their arrogance. "You cannot be foolish enough to believe that I would not notice. I know the scent of a potion like you know the taste of a tart. A sweet with a strong enough flavor to mask that from me could not possibly be palatable."
"Oh, good," George said evenly, "then we won't be missing anything."
Fred lifted a knife to the first Shrivelfig and chopped it in half in one quick stroke, causing Severus to wince and step toward him instinctively. "Not like that!" he scolded, reaching for the knife. "Do you see how you've bruised it? A serrated edge is better for this sort of work." He ran his finger along the blade, muttering the incantation as he might breathe air.
"You just serrated the knife!" George exclaimed, gaping in awe. The expression did not flatter his features.
"Yes, Mr. Weasley, it is a simple Transfiguration. I find it much easier to simply change the instrument, as opposed to searching for another mid-brew." He took Fred's place beside the table and began to demonstrate the proper way to slice the Shrivelfigs. "See how a sawing motion keeps the fig from bruising? That will make for a smoother Euphoria."
"Ahhh. You're good, Mr. Snape," Fred told him, all seriousness. "Georgie, show him the list."
"Right," George said, pulling some parchment from beneath a pile of alihotsy leaves, "see what you make of these."
"Some of them haven't been tested, yet."
"But they're flawless… in theory."
"We'll see about that," Severus answered with a smirk. In truth, he was quite excited by the prospect of reviewing the twins' infamous inventions. They would have done well in his class if only they had been academically inclined. Well… and not Gryffindors. Although, to be perfectly honest, they would have done well in Slytherin. "It seems we are in for an interesting evening," he remarked, reading over their notes. "Are you employing anything to slow the metabolism?"
George's brow furrowed in confusion. "What for?"
"To delay the effects until after they've ingested more than one of the sweets."
The twins grinned mischievously back at him and Fred rubbed his hands together in excitement. "I like the way you think, Professor."
"What do you suggest?"
"Burdock root would be the most effective, and I happen to have some here, as it is also used in the Wolfsbane potion. But you will need to add dried coriander seeds, as well, to counteract the mild aphrodisiacal properties." The twins shared a glance at that. "You will have to procure them some other way, however, as I do not have them in stock, here."
"That's alright, Professor," Fred told him, grinning mischievously, "we won't be needing them."
A voice echoed up the stairwell and the three of them glanced out into the hall, pausing momentarily. "Better close the door," Fred said. "So, Professor, how much do you know about Volubilis Potions?"
"Remus!" Harry shouted, leaping up from their game to greet the newest arrival. Ron and Hermione were close behind him. It had been like this all day; the house slowly filling with Weasleys and Order members, though the celebration wouldn't really begin until dinner that night.
Tonks popped in behind Remus, shrugging out of her winter coat and carelessly tossing it over the back of the couch. "Wotcher?" She caught each of them in a tight embrace before turning to Hermione. "I've a letter from your mum," she said, withdrawing a crinkled envelope from the front of her robes. "Where's Ginny?"
"In the kitchen with Mum," Fred answered from behind her as he slipped into the room with his brother.
"Baking up all sorts of Christmas treats," George elaborated.
"We were able to filch these," Fred conspired, opening a napkin full of chocolates.
Ron immediately reached for one, but Fred pulled them away at the last second. "But… they're not for you."
"Like hell they're not," Ron pouted, his face turning red with anger. "Hand them over."
"If we give them to you…" George began.
"…we won't have enough for ourselves."
"We estimate another half hour before the Order meeting…"
"…an hour before it's over…"
"…a good twenty minutes before everyone clears out…"
"…thirty for Mum to have dinner ready…"
"…maybe another hour for dinner itself…"
"…and then, and only then, will we get the sweets."
"So, you see, these'll have to last us a while."
"More than three hours, by our calculations."
Ron bristled, balling his hands into fists. "Then you shouldn't have shown them to us," he complained.
"Ah, Georgie, he has a point, there."
"Remarkably cruel of us…"
"Taunting him like that."
"S'pose we let him have one of the littler ones?"
"No, then we'd have an odd number."
"S'pose we let him have two?"
"Not bloody likely. He can have one of yours, then, if you're so keen on being selfless this season."
"Alright, Ronikins, you can have one of mine. But mind you, take one of the littler ones."
Ron nodded, smiling as he reached into the proffered napkin. "That's all I ask."
"Well, we best be off," Fred announced.
"Yep. Mischief to plan," George agreed, hurrying out of the room. His brother was close behind.
The group had barely gotten resettled on the various sofas and chairs before Ron leapt up, grabbing an old vase off a side table and retching horribly into it. Hermione rolled her eyes. Ron needed to learn not to be so trusting of his older brothers.
"I can't believe you fell for that," Harry told him, deadpan, as he spilled his guts into the vase.
Suddenly, Molly Weasley came rushing in with Ginny on her heels. "Oh! Ron, dear, are you alright? Fred told us you were sick. Bad luck and it's almost Christmas."
Ron tried to say something, presumably implicating the twins in his sudden illness, but all he could do was bend over the vase and retch again.
"Pathetic," Ginny murmured, shaking her head. The youngest—and only girl—of the Weasley siblings never would have fallen for Fred and George's trick.
Suddenly, a dark shadow slipped past Mrs. Weasley and Severus Snape was there. Hermione's breath caught. How did he manage to affect her so, after all this time? She would never know. "Here," the man growled in an irritated tone, "I have something you can take, if you can manage to choke it down." He reached into his robes and withdrew a tiny vial, handing it to Ron who drained it immediately.
Ron looked up at his professor with new respect. "Thank you, Professor."
Severus merely sneered. "Yes, well, you ought to be more careful. Those brothers of yours are always up to something."
"Oh Severus!" Molly exclaimed, wrapping her arms around the stunned professor, "what would we do without you?" She released the man and Evanescoed the mess. "So glad we got that taken care of. I was just about to put the tarts in the oven."
Hermione knew a moment's suspicion, but before she could analyze the sudden emotion, Madeye Moody burst through the door. "Enough chitchat," he growled, "let's get this meeting started."
The Order meeting quickly became a game of 'Let's blame Severus for not having knowledge of any evil Christmas plots.' Clearly he was lying to them, as there must be something planned for the holiday. Or else, he had not been entrusted with that information, because he was suspect in the other camp and therefore useless in theirs. The only thing that kept him from throttling the old Auror, ironically enough, was the promise of an eventful evening to come. He hoped Moody stuck around long enough to taste some of the Christmas treats that were currently cooling on the counter. Molly had batted away many a reaching hand, so far, and Severus hoped no one had opportunity to ruin their plotting before the festivities even began.
It was with great relief, after an hour and a half of futile bickering, that Severus swept from the basement kitchen and went to find Hermione. She was in the study, watching her idiot friends play Exploding Snap. As Remus and Nymphadora had settled themselves on one of the couches, Severus felt it would not seem odd for him to do so, as well. He chose the place beside Hermione, albeit two cushions away, and she smiled at no one in particular, making his heart warm strangely in his chest. He fought the impulse to pull her up against him and hold her tight for the world to see. This holiday sure was having an odd effect on him.
Passing the time with the Golden Trio and company was actually quite peaceful, and soon enough, dinner was served. Molly had certainly outdone herself, piling the table and counters with savory meats, spiced potatoes, and breaded vegetable dishes sweetened with cinnamon or sautéed with lemon and garlic. An enormous roast took the central position on the table, garnished with carrots and dark radishes. Baskets of freshly baked bread were placed at strategic intervals along the length (which had been magically increased to support the larger group). And through the air, gingerbread reindeer raced, dancing with gleeful enthusiasm and emanating holiday spirit. Severus found that his mouth was watering.
There was quite a scrabble to obtain goblets of the hot, mulled cider and claim seats beside favorite friends or family members. Remus gave Severus a bit of a scare when he almost took the place beside Hermione. The faces of those who knew better turned instinctively to catch his reaction, horror evident in their eyes. But then Nymphadora beckoned her beau over to her usual place and stuck him in beside the twins. Severus let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Ridiculous, he thought. But it was true that this Christmas Eve dinner would not be the same if he was isolated from her.
When the generous fare had filled their bellies and the cider had warmed their blood, the laughter and careless merriment of his company lulled Severus into a state of bleary serenity that was remarkably unfamiliar to him. He felt as if he were being given a glimpse of the life he could have, if he wanted it badly enough. The idea was terrifying. And yet, if he squinted his eyes and focused on the feel of Hermione's hand in his beneath the table, it wasn't really so bad.
Years of vigilance in spying would not be swept away with one drunken evening, however, and Severus noticed the first hand that reached for a pie. He suppressed a smirk and a surge of youthful excitement. Oh, yes. It was going to be quite an eventful night.
The party spilled over into the study when dinner was over and treats were brought up to augment the Christmas games. The older guests sipped glasses of brandy and Firewhiskey while the younger ones gorged themselves on sweets. Ron was particularly greedy, reaching for every different type of dessert on offer, but was that really a surprise? Hermione just rolled her eyes and smiled. When he came to her with a Christmas popper, she pulled the other end and out burst a great, green snow bunny that dashed around the room before vanishing with a pop.
"I best be off," Madeye told them as they set up a game of Exploding Snap. "We each have our orders for tomorrow. Here's hoping we won't be needing them." He began to leave before turning back to them. "Oh, and Happy Christmas, I suppose."
"Wait!" George shouted, leaping up to catch the man before he left. "Take some dessert with you." Madeye accepted the proffered sweets, and then he was gone.
Hermione reached for the plate of apple tarts and offered one to Severus. He declined with a casual gesture of his hand and almost seemed to smirk about something. She broke through the flaky pastry with her teeth and sighed in contentment. It was still warm. Gods, sometimes, she really loved magic. The tangy sweet apple concoction within was hot on her tongue as she savored every crispy, gooey, spicy bite. It was so good that she felt she had to have another. Maybe cherry this time.
"Ron, are you alright?" Ginny's voice was heavy with concern and Hermione turned to see that the boy in question was growing redder by the second.
"'M fine," Ron told her, his calm voice at odds with his complexion. "Why?"
"You're turning red," Ginny informed him. In truth, the color had far surpassed any natural hue. Ron was the color of St. Nicholas's robes.
"Am I?" Ron looked confused. "I suppose it is a bit warm, but that's no reason blah gadoodle."
A few more heads turned toward the boy at that. "Come again?" Ginny choked back a laugh.
Ron, himself, looked quite a bit taken aback. "Bah madeedle blurg cafurtle." His eyes grew wide, and he must have felt the need to try again. "Blurg cobble tah wah teedle beetle."
Fred and George suddenly burst into laughter, apparently unable to contain themselves another moment. Mrs. Weasley was less than impressed. "Boys," she began in a scolding tone, "I would hate to think that you batoodle claw." The Weasley matriarch gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth, astonished. Then her hand dropped and indignant rage swelled in her expression as she, too, began to turn red, but not from any spell. "BLAH COODLE TER DABA BOO!" Every word only seemed to make her angrier as the twins' laughter grew to uncontrollable hysterics and they fell on the floor in tears. "KER BLUDGE BAH PERDA FABA CHEE!"
Mr. Weasley reached for his wife in an attempt to comfort her as he grinned in apparent pride at his sons. His own complexion was quickly turning green. "I don't know what you've done," he told the boys, "but it's so nice just having everyone together."
"Bee may toodle kerchaw be ruff," Mrs. Weasley reasoned, angrily, "ker babble tahdy ray me rot!"
Ginny's mouth fell open in amusement and a stream of bubbles poured out, floating away in all different directions. Seeing this, the girl began to laugh uncontrollably, emitting multicolored bubbles with every gale.
Hermione turned to look at Severus, finding him unaffected, but with a definite smirk on his face. If she didn't know better, she would think he had known this was going to happen. "Slytherin colors suit you," he murmured only loud enough for her to hear. Hermione's eyes grew wide and she glanced down at her hands to find that they had, indeed, turned green. She gaped back up at the man before her, but he only sneered.
Mrs. Weasley was having a fit, waving her arms in the air and shouting at the twins. "BLER JABA TEE JICKLE TRAW!" The words may not have been there, but everyone could guess what she was saying. "JURTLE BEE KABBA BOO!"
Chaos seemed to break out in the study as Harry and Ginny collapsed back against the couch, tickling each other so that continuous streams of bubbles poured out of each of their mouths.
"You know," Mr. Weasley continued over the noise to no one in particular, "these are the sorts of moments that matter most. I hope every one of you knows how much you mean to me…"
"You're right, Arthur," Remus agreed, clapping the older man on the shoulder, "I don't know what I would do without the lot of you. I didn't have much of anyone in my life until a few short years ago. And now… I just feel like I have a family, again."
Mrs. Weasley began to tear up with emotion, reaching for the two sentimental men and pulling them into a big bear hug. "Ma doodle," she sobbed, "kertle bah teraimy loo."
Tonks leapt up, grabbing some of the pastries and tackling the twins with fistfuls of sweets. "You laced the tarts! I know it was you! And I know it was the tarts, or why else would you have sent them with Madeye!? You sneaky buggers! Come here and taste them, yourself!"
"Now Tonks," Sirius murmured from the comfort of his armchair, "my sweet cousin, there's no need for that. Two wrong's don't make a right, and all that. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, don't you know. 'Tis the Season. We should just be happy to have each other."
Harry shouted out at that, as if attempting to agree. "Cha me fa boorang talooba!" He laughed happily, filling the room with more bubbles as Ginny wrestled him to the couch. Her red skin made her look like some sort of Christmas demon. Ron jumped into the mix and together the two boys overpowered poor Ginny. Well, she couldn't let that happen, could she? Hermione leapt up and darted over to the couch where her friends were tickle-fighting, intent on teaching those boys a thing or two. But her gleeful dash toward them was abruptly halted in the center of the floor for no apparent reason at all. For one long, confused moment, Hermione just stood there, wondering what potion could have made her motionless so suddenly. And then she realized… it wasn't a potion at all.
It was with dread that she tilted her face up to see the mistletoe hanging straight above her. Those sneaky, good-for-nothing imbeciles! What was she to do, now? Luckily, for the moment, everyone was far too preoccupied with the effects of the twins' treats to notice her predicament.
She stalled, glancing around the room for inspiration. Surely there must be some way out of this! And then her stomach dropped painfully as she met eyes with none other than Sirius Black. He immediately understood her dilemma and was on his feet in one swift motion, heading her way, as if to rescue her.
The carelessness of Christmas merriment fled in an instant when he caught sight of Hermione beneath the mistletoe. He hadn't even considered the likelihood that such banal methods of mischief would be called upon this evening, and therefore had no strategy for avoidance. And why, oh why… Of all the people present, did it have to be Hermione who was caught in its devious snare? He was sure no one else had noticed, yet. But then, without warning, the mutt was up and headed toward her. Severus panicked. Had it been Potter… or even Weasley… Or… well… anyone else present… but Black?! The man had been his nemesis since childhood; had thwarted his progress with Lily every step of the way; had taunted him in his weakest moments. Was he to watch this man kiss his Hermione? Kiss her as he had that time before, in her own bed? When he had done unspeakable things to her? Things that had almost led to his own obliteration at Severus's hands… Hermione would not welcome that man's touch.
Before he had even reached a conclusion in his logical, pragmatic mind, Severus was on his feet and sweeping toward the girl beneath the mistletoe. Without taking the time to decide what was best, he knew what he had to do. There was no way around it. He could not allow Sirius Black to touch his Hermione ever again.
So he stepped beneath the mistletoe.
For one long moment, nothing happened. The world seemed to freeze. Black was beside them, frozen mid-stride, gaping at him as if he'd just admitted to being a vampire. And Hermione was staring at him too, her eyes wide with alarm and something else. Could that be hope? Then the laughter on the couch died away, leaving only the reminiscent murmurings of the Euphoric men on the other side of the room and the sound of Nymphadora attempting to wrestle the twins into submission. But those, too, faded into silence as he continued to hesitate. Had he been less afraid, they might not have noticed at all. But his preoccupation cost him whatever discretion he might have had and Severus quickly became aware of the eyes now locked onto their figures beneath the mistletoe. Maybe this was a mistake.
He was beginning to panic internally when her little hand reached out for his in a gesture of unity. He released the breath he'd been holding and caught her other hand in his as well. When she stepped toward him, his worries seemed to flee. Their movement was simultaneous as she rose up onto her tiptoes and Severus lowered his face to hers. Just a gentle brush of tender flesh set them free of the spell that bound them together, and yet they lingered. Hermione melted into his touch, opening her mouth and sighing happily as she leaned against him without warning. He realized, rather belatedly, that she must have gotten a dose of the Euphoria. Reluctantly pulling away, he met her eyes for one last gesture of support before they broke apart and turned back to the other occupants of the room.
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