Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own these characters, nor do I make any money from them, nor do I own any stock in the manufacture, promotion or distribution of Murtlap Essence.

I need to thank on bended knee and present a bottle of Zinfandel (the proper colour, of course) to the world's greatest beta, stgulik, who is

myHermione Granger. Thank you, Jules. I literally cannot do this without you. Well, I can, but why would I?

As always, for DahlraMuse, who woke me one morning with the full story in my head and wouldn't let me rest until I'd typed it out..

This story is complete and will be uploaded as quickly as allowed - and thank you to my LJ friends who got inflicted with this in almost drabble fashion. What started as a simply PWP got a little bit out of hand... This story contains explicit sexual content.

Every night my prayers I say,
And get my dinner every day;
And every day that I've been good,
I get an orange after food.

The child that is not clean and neat,
With lots of toys and things to eat,
He is a naughty child, I'm sure-
Or else his dear papa is poor.

XIX, System, A Child's Garden of Verses, RL Stevenson

It started the moment Hermione Granger rounded the corner and saw the young boy weeping. He was a first year Ravenclaw she didn't know by name, a rather weedy, thin boy with robes that looked suspiciously threadbare. He was sitting on a stone bench, holding his hand, and trying not to sniffle.

She felt her anger rise, and for a moment a fantasy popped into her head. It was so sweet and satisfying, and she could picture it clearly... striding into the DADA classroom, grabbing that toad of a woman by her fat little neck and squeezing until her beady eyes bulged...

Her violent thoughts alarmed her. She had a lot of them lately. Her sense of blatant helplessness distressed her as well. In the burgeoning days of Dumbledore's Army, it was easy to picture themselves as the new Order, the scourge of the Death Eaters. Here, faced with her present dreary reality in the halls, Hermione just felt like a silly fifth year with no more power than a midge against Grawp.

But midges can irritate the hell out of a person, Hermione thought grimly.

She walked over to the boy on the bench. He looked up at her, his dark hair falling over his pale, wan face. His soft brown eyes were red-rimmed, his thin cheeks tear-stained. "Professor Umbridge?" she said. It wasn't so much a question as an accusation. He nodded, and the tears began anew.

She sat down beside the boy and took his hand. The awkwardly scrawled, raw words, 'I must be a good boy' were etched on the back of his hand. The edges of the words looked ragged and swollen; Umbridge had made him write it many times. Hermione felt sick. The boy's miserable dark eyes brimmed with tears of pain and humiliation. "I wish I could go home, but..." He lowered his face and his shoulders shook.

Hermione's heart ached. She could not bear to see an animal hurt, a child bullied, a soul in pain. She weighed the consequences of what she knew she had to do, and found them worth it. She knew he'd flail her alive if he caught her, but at this point Hermione was a bit past worrying over the loss of House points. In fact, things like that were becoming less and less important to her as the days passed, and with none of the adults stepping in to stop her, Dolores Umbridge's special brand of sadism had become Hogwarts' new disciplinary procedure. Hermione despised the bitch.

Putting a soft hand on the boy's shoulder, she said, "Wait right here. Don't go anywhere, okay? I'll be back in two ticks." With that, she dashed toward the dungeons, praying that dinner would keep him in the Great Hall just that little while longer.

"Ta-da!" she sang cheerily when she returned. The Ravenclaw boy hadn't moved, but he looked relieved at seeing her again. Hermione sat down beside him, and held out her hand. Wordlessly, he laid his small, slim hand in hers. "Murtlap essence," she whispered, anointing the odious wound with the balm. "This will numb the pain and reduce the swelling. In a few minutes, you'll feel as good as new.

"But don't tell anyone," Hermione smiled conspiratorially. "I'll get in trouble, and then you'll be rubbing Murtlap essence on my hand."

"Okay. I won't tell," he said, quickly. Shyly, he asked, "You're Hermione Granger, aren't you?"

The young boy looked at her solemnly, with something like reverence and awe in his large, dark eyes. He had long black lashes and olive skin. Hermione thought he'd probably be a real looker when he grew up. She grinned. "Yes, but I hope you won't hold that against me."

He was as solemn as a little judge. "I'm Norton Filcher." He straightened and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, then remembered his manners and held it out to her. Hermione shook the proffered hand with the same gravity as it was offered. He gave her a watery little smile. Something in his impressive dignity broke Hermione's heart a little more, and she drew him into her arms. Her compassion was his undoing; he clung to her like a limpet and cried again. She rocked and soothed him with gentle murmurs and shushes, thinking angrily that he ought to be in his Common Room doing homework and talking about Quidditch, instead of being mutilated by that bitch...

She was holding him when something caught her eye, and she stiffened as she looked up into the eyes of Professor Severus Snape. He was glaring at her and Norton with a combination of fury and something Hermione couldn't quite identify. It could have been contempt or hatred; she wasn't sure. Norton sensed the change and looked up, cowering visibly under their dreaded Potions professor's angry gaze.

Professor Snape silently approached the two students, and Hermione felt the younger boy tremble. She looked down at him and protectively pulled him closer. Then she glanced up at the wizard, daring him to say something, anything.

As he drew near, his black eyes flicked down at the boy's hand, placed so trustingly in Hermione's. She watched him read the message carved into the boy's skin. Finally, he raised his eyes to hers. They were unfathomable. In his glossiest, quietest voice, he drawled, "Miss Granger, there is a small matter of some Murtlap essence that has been... liberated from the potions stores. Without permission. I can only assume you are a secret Slytherin, seeing as you so blatantly lost a rather large amount of points for your own House as well as earned a detention in obtaining said item." Each word fell on her ears like a hammer striking a dulcimer.

Norton shook harder, and Hermione looked from his bowed, dark head, to the bowed, dark head of her Professor. Her anger seethed. "You – all of you, are allowing this!" She hissed. "You, and McGonagall, and Flitwick and Sprout and Dumbledore and all the authority figures are letting her get away with this!" She raised Norton's hand toward her professor. "Do you think detention means anything to me, when the torture of children is sanctioned at Hogwarts? It's not fair!"

Through clenched teeth, he retorted, "It's been my experience that life rarely is, Miss Granger. However, that does not override the fact that you have stolen from the school."

"How dare you stand there and preach to me about theft! This," she said, holding up Norton's injured hand again, "is theft! You are allowing her to steal his self-worth, his confidence, his innocence-"

"That is quite enough, Miss Granger! You are frightening the boy," he replied, his eyes fixed on the joined hands.

Hermione looked at Norton, who pressed against her with a little whimper. She looked back at Snape, mutely pleading. Help us, Professor! You're part of the Order, protect us! Suddenly she felt a helpless, frustrated exhaustion steal over her, borne of the feeling of being too young to fix this. If I were in your place, Professor, I'd fight this tooth and nail, instead of letting her tell you all what to do. Why are adults always afraid of doing the right thing?

She slumped. "I'm sorry, sir, but we're all frightened." She tried not to cry. She would not cry in front of Professor Snape!

She lost track of how long the three of them remained frozen in this little tableau. Finally, Snape said in a colourless voice, "Mr. Filcher, return to your House. I will have a word with Professor Flitwick."

Norton looked up at Hermione, and she nodded. "Thank you," he whispered, his dark eyes warm and grateful. She smiled at him, lifting a hand to tuck his messy hair behind his ears.

"You are a good boy, Norton. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise," she said, and watched the young Ravenclaw as he slid off the bench and walked away. He turned back twice, as if to make sure she was still there.

Hermione and Snape watched his progress down the hall, and simultaneously turned back to one another. "Miss Granger –" Snape began.

"I'm not sorry, sir, for taking the Murtlap. I am sorry I had to steal it from you, though."

"If you had gone through proper channels, Madam Pomfrey would have been only too happy to provide treatment to Mr. Filcher."

Hermione snorted. "Any medical treatment must now be reported to Umbridge for approval. She would have made sure that next time, Norton would not only have to write more lines, but longer sentences." She raised her chin defiantly. "It doesn't pay to go through the 'proper channels' anymore. With all due respect, Professor, I'd rather take my chances and face your wrath, sir."

He looked at her searchingly. He was breathing through his large nose, hard, like a bull. "Sometimes the reasons for our actions aren't easy to ascertain, Miss Granger. Sometimes it only looks as though nothing is being done, when in fact, little vials of Murtlap essence are disappearing at a rate of knots."

Hermione looked at him carefully, trying to decipher his baffling statement. Was he saying that they knew about the D.A.? Was he trying to tell her that the other professors were trying to find ways to circumvent Umbridge's authority?

Before she could reply, he continued, "However, there is the matter of this particular theft. Stealing is a serious crime, Miss Granger – "

"So is that," Hermione seethed, and they both knew what she meant.

Professor Snape sighed. In a new, diffident tone, he said, "I have inventoried the stores. It appears I am short one vial of Murtlap essence."

Hermione looked at him. Looked straight into those black, black eyes. "I happen to have one right here if you need it, sir." She held up the vial. "Vial 183, Batch 10. Will this do?"

"Yes, I believe it will do nicely." His large, pale hand reached for it, and it was gone, vanished within the folds of his outer robe like a conjurer's trick. He stared at her for another heartbeat, then spun on his heel and was gone.

He made her serve detention with Hagrid the following Thursday. Two hours. Because he uncharacteristically forgot to assign any tasks to go along with the detention, she and Hagrid made rock cakes. She anonymously left two of them on Professor Snape's desk.

A week later, and Hermione was leading Dolores Umbridge into the Forbidden Forest to show her Dumbledore's secret weapon. Hogwarts' most hated Headmistress and her special quills would score no more tender, innocent hands.

When she and Ron ran back into the Shrieking Shack, it was only to retrieve his body. Hermione insisted. Tom Riddle was now dead. Whatever else Professor Snape had done in his life, the memories he'd given Harry in his dying moments had been enough to save Wizarding Britain. It was the least they could do, Hermione said. They would bring a hero's body to rest with dignity and honour.

When they approached his body and found him holding tenuously on to life, Hermione frantically searched Professor Snape's pockets for anything to keep him stable until they could get him to help. She found anti-venon, a bezoar and a special Blood Replenishing Potion that she assumed he'd created especially for a situation like this. She and Ron treated him as best they could, and he survived being transported to the Infirmary.

While Hermione eased Professor Snape out of his outer robe to help prepare him for treatment, a small vial fell out of his pocket and rolled across the floor. Hermione hurried to retrieve it. She frowned. Murtlap essence. Vial 183, Batch 10. It was a year out of date and obviously useless. Hermione was muzzy and exhausted from the battle, but she was compos mentis enough to remember the healing properties of Murtlap, and that vial in particular.

She sat by his side for days, assisting Madam Pomfrey and the Healers by checking his vital signs and making sure he was comfortable. From time to time, she would look at the little bottle of expired Murtlap and wonder. As Professor Snape shuddered and whimpered through nightmare after nightmare, she moistened his lips with ice cubes and soothed him. In his delirium, he would grasp her hand in a crushing grip and hold it for hours. It was while she sat with him, looking at his pale, slender hand clasped trustingly in hers, that she thought about another hand. I must be a good boy...

She found Norton in the Infirmary. Brave little Norton, cut down by a Death Eater in the final, desperate moments of the battle. Hermione felt another burden added to her already wounded heart: Norton, who would always be a good little boy, never again having the chance to be otherwise. In the nights when exhaustion and trauma made her waking moments surreal and dream-like, Hermione grieved over the young Ravenclaw.

Holding the hand of Severus Snape, looking at the vial of Murtlap, Hermione did not have an inkling why he had carried it into what he thought would be his final moments on earth. Beyond the obvious symbolism, she didn't want to guess any further. At least, she didn't then and there, not with his hand tucked securely in hers.

When the fever finally broke and he regained consciousness, she got out of his sight as quickly as possible. He would hate knowing that, in his greatest moment of weakness, he'd held onto her like a frightened child. He had to heal now, for the war trials would be coming up soon. Hermione also had decisions to make; her world felt like she was permanently caught in a Portkey trip, being constantly sucked through a giant straw until she didn't know who she was, why she was there, where she was going and what she would do when she arrived.

She furtively attended his trial, tucked away in the back, listening, embarrassed for him as his past and his secrets were laid bare to Wizarding Britain. A parade of the just and the unjust passed through the courtroom, declaring Severus Snape's vices and his virtues. Through it all, he sat like a statue. And when he was at last acquitted, there was none of the sneering defiance so reminiscent of the Professor Snape of her youth, nor was there any profound show of relief at being a free man. He merely rose, shook Harry's hand, then the Minister's, and left the courtroom, silently sweeping past the screaming newshounds and photographers.