PROLOGUE



Hermione Granger was disgusted.

The scrolls in front of her, 30 feet in all, were a load of - what was that American phrase? Oh, yes - a load of hooey. Her Potions Mistress thesis paper, two years of research, three months of organization and a final week of nonstop writing, not to mention last nights all-nighter - and it was a load of hooey on parchment. She miserably thought of a few more words that would also colorfully describe the poop, crap and shit that was her thesis - but she did rather enjoy the way the word "hooey" was rolling off her tongue.

Her paper was hooey.

And it was due today.

Hermione buried her head in her arms and slumped against the table dejectedly. Minutes later, she heard the swish of robes and the creak of a chair and knew that someone had joined her at the library table. Sniffing, she caught a whiff of a familiar scent - expensive Muggle cologne, rosemary, asphodel and cedar.

Snape.

Shit.

She groaned and was annoyed to hear a distinct chuckle coming from the other side of the table. Raising her head slightly, she met her former professor and current mentor's gaze. Oh, and don't forget, former lover.

Ugh. This is going to be a bad day, she mused. Very, very bad.

"What do you want, Snape?" she said, finally sitting up. She glared at him blearily and brought one inkstained hand up to rub her sore neck.

"Up late, my favorite Gryffindor?" he said, cracking a superior grin.

"You know I was," she said grumpily. "I had better get moving, I have to get this piece of shit turned in before noon, then come back to Hogwarts and pack up. Will you thank Madam Pince for letting me take over her library for a week?"

He nodded.

She began to clean up her workspace and gather her materials. Potions Master Severus Snape studied at his protégé and chuckled for the second time that morning. Hermione shot him a look that clearly communicated she thought that might just be a record. He just shook his head and moved to stand behind her and began to rub her tense neck and shoulders.

"Hermione, you don't have to hurry. I'm the initial reader of your thesis. I will take it, make the copies and forward it to Dumbledore and the other Masters in the UK. You'll probably know by Easter if you have been awarded Master status," he said. "I have no doubt that you will."

Hermione had immediately relaxed under his familiar ministrations. She leaned back a bit and smiled at him.

"Thanks for saying that," she began. "And thanks for all of your help. The fact of the matter is, that I didn't find Chaucer's potion for purity. Yes, my thesis proves conclusively that he was a wizard. Yes, my thesis proves that the Canterbury Tales were partially metaphor for wizarding relationships in his day. Yes, my thesis proves that there were potions hidden in code in the lines of his work. But that's it!"

Snape looked at the back of Hermione's head in shock. He stopped his massage and moved to sit on the table. After a few moments, she looked up from rolling her parchments to meet his gaze.

"Hermione, it has been theorized for years that Geoffery Chaucer was a wizard and that he had hidden potions in his work, but no one could ever prove it. You did," he said. "Just because you couldn't find the entire recipe, doesn't mean that you were a failure. You need to stop being so hard on yourself."

"That's rich, coming from you, you overgrown, sadistic bat," she snorted.

"Thank you. I'll take that as a compliment." He stood and resumed her backrub, this time working her spine. "I suppose you were up all night doing a final edit."

She nodded. He sighed.

"Someday, Hermione, you will realize there is more to life than grades," he said.

"Not very damn soon," she replied. "As soon as you read the load of hooey I wrote, you're all going to recommend that I go dig ditches for a living or sling popcorn at a movie theatre. Either that or I'll have to go back to school for another specialization."

"Somehow I doubt that." A gentle hand pushed her forward until she was leaning on the arms again and the massage continued. He was pleased when he felt her muscles relax under his hands and resisted the temptation to lift her shirt to caress the skin of her back.

"Gods, you're good at that," she sighed. "I'd forgotten how good you were at backrubs."

"Well, it has been nearly two years since I've had the opportunity to give you one," he chided. "I don't think you would have gotten through NEWTS without them."

"Has it really been that long?" asked the now-boneless lump drooped over the table.

"Yes, you finished school almost two years ago," he replied stiffly. He was surprised when Hermione suddenly chuckled.

"No one would ever have believed that you and I had an affair during my seventh year," she said, softly laughing. "I was Head Girl, the smart one of the Dream Team, the good girl that kept Harry and Ron from too much trouble, studious and rather quiet. Who would have guessed?"

"No one ever did," he said. "And I never told anyone, did you?"

"No."

"I believe Dumbledore knew, but decided to overlook it. After Voldemort's defeat that fall -"

"We all needed a bit of fun?" Hermione interrupted, turning to him with a grin. He shook his head.

"It was more than just 'fun,' Hermione," he protested. "At least it was for me."

He stopped the massage, dropped a kiss on the curly rats nest that was her hair, and held out his hand for the bulky roll of parchment. She handed it to him with a wary look.

"I'm sure it will be fine, Hermione," he reassured her. "I wouldn't have let you continue with this line of thought if it hadn't been a good idea. You'll get your title and then I'll have to watch my back - you'll be after my job."

"Somehow, I just don't think Hogwarts would be the same without the 'bat of the dungeons,'" said Hermione. "Besides, I don't think I could be mean enough to keep the students on task and prevent explosions. You are a master at that."

"Thank you," he said and gave her a small bow. She shouldered her heavy book bag and forced her gaze up to meet Snape's. "Well."

"Well," she echoed. "Professor Snape, thank you for all of the help you have given me over the years. If I never said so, I think you are a brilliant teacher and mentor. Thank you."

"That sounds suspiciously like 'goodbye,' Hermione," he said, softly.

"Well, we split up -"

"You left me, Hermione," he interjected.

"Okay, the relationship ended?" she asked. He sighed and nodded. "And not three months later you get saddled with me and my thesis project. If it weren't for the owl post, we probably would have killed each other that first year. I would think that I am nothing but a nasty reminder of a failed relationship and that you would be happy to be free of me."

"Hermione -"

"Besides," she said, attempting to tease. "Don't you have some cute seventh year to seduce?"

The joke may have been funny while they were together, but it was totally inappropriate now. Snape's open expression suddenly snapped closed. His icy 'git' mask firmly in place, he glared at her and quickly backed her into a corner.

"You of all people should know I am NOT that type of man, Hermione," he spat. "I loved you. I wasn't just in it for the sex. I am not interested in chasing teenagers and I do not appreciate your insinuations."

He glowered over her for a moment - a moment that she thought he would kiss her. Unbidden, thoughts of their first time together, the afternoon after Voldemort's fall, came to mind. His rough, desperate kisses on her lips and body with the grass of the Quidditch pitch soft against her back. Her eyes fluttered closed and she felt his breath on her lips.

Abruptly, he stepped back.

"I assure you that our previous relationship will have no bearing on my decision," he said, formally.

"I never expected it would," she said.

"Good day, Miss Granger."

"Good day, Professor."