Disclaimer: All familiar characters and themes belong to J.K. Rowling.

Chapter: 1 (Revised)

Cauldrons Aflame By: J.S. Sumner

Thunder roared furiously outside, while spontaneous streaks of lightning illuminated the cryptic night sky. In the distance, a solitaire shadow emerged from the Dark Forest. It staggered across the vast land of smog and dampened soil, and then up the massive stone steps that led to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Professor Snape irritably flung open the double doors and swooped inside the Entrance Hall, just in time to miss the rain.

The castle appeared to be deserted - much to his relief. He had already missed the feast, as well as the sorting ceremony. A grateful smile crawled across his lips. With the students in their dormitories and teachers in their chambers, he was free to maneuver about the castle without having to explain the large, bloody gash that spanned across his chest and abdomen. And, with the wound's mending charm rapidly wearing off, he had very little time to spare. He applied a second charm to slow the bleeding, and then ascended the steps to the infirmary.

Standing just outside the door, Severus took a moment to collect his thoughts. He remembered that an assistant had been chartered for Madam Pomfrey over the summer, and that he was to, as instructed by Dumbledore, be civil towards the new witch. Since Voldemort's second rise to power, Albus had thought it wise to employ extra help, as well as double the Defense Against the Dark Arts classes. Severus could only hope that, for the school's sake, the girl was skilled enough to fill the position; Merlin knows they hadn't much luck with new staff additions.

Wrapping his fingers around the brass door handle, he drew in a deep, pain-filled breath and then gave it a light tug.

The room was calm, quiet, save the crackling fire and the melodic sound of glass vials chiming together. Peering in further, his attention was drawn to a young woman knelt with her back towards him. He watched in silence as she fumbled with several medicine bottles in an effort to organize an old, battered cabinet that sat just feet away.

Leaning against the archway, Severus folded his arms across his chest and cleared his throat to allure her attention. "I need to see Madam Pomfrey at once."

The young woman started and dropped the vials that she held. Due to precaution and a prior charm, they did not shatter when they hit the floor. Scrambling to her feet, she spun around and greeted him with a pair of bright, blue eyes and a comely smile. Severus's gaze rose and fell from her wavy, shoulder-length brown hair to her slender, shapely body. The girl was wearing muggle attire, much to his surprise; a pair of denim-threaded jeans and snug black sweater contoured a very attractive physique indeed.

"I'm afraid Madam Pomfrey is out. She received an urgent owl and left just a few hours ago." Her voice was soft and dainty. As she spoke, Severus could not help but stare, delighted in the way her lips carefully formed each word.

"I see. You must be Miss Bell, then? I hadn't quite expected you to be so young and inexperienced. No matter, I suppose I can talk you through the procedure." With that, he swept past her.

Claira raised a steep, insulted brow at the man's prudence. Who was he to waltz in and pass judgment? For his information, she had spent six years of study at the American Institute for Medical Wizardry!

"Professor Snape, is it?" The majority of the staff had already warned her about a shrewd, discourteous wizard in black robes; she could only assume it was he. "I don't pretend to know everything, but I have learned enough to recognize that your injuries were caused by a male Graphorn." She paused to observe the abrasions on his hands. "And possibly a female as well."

It was now his turn to raise a brow. She was correct. He had incurred his injuries whilst collecting Graphorn eggs, an extremely scarce, yet very powerful ingredient.

"Now, if you'll please Professor, sit down. Those wounds require immediate attention." She retrieved a cart and headed for the medicine room.

Severus took a mental note of her smile; even as the girl was being a bossy, little know-it-all, her face remained warm and friendly.