Roasted herb chicken served on wild rice. It was usually Hermione's favorite, but today it was making her sick to her stomach. She poked the chicken with her fork, watching the juices run down her plate. Moving the rice around with her knife she managed to create an abstract form with her lunch. Peering at it closely, and feeling a little strange as well, she tried to distinguish what she was seeing.
"You going to eat that or just look at it?" Ron Weasley asked, his mouth, of course, filled to the brim with his own lunch.
Hermione snapped back into reality.
"What?" she asked.
"You're looking at your food like it's some sort of bloody crystal ball. Gazing into your rice," Ron snorted, swallowing the remainders of his own chicken.
"Honestly, Ron," she retorted. "Do we have to spend every meal playing 'Guess What Ron is Eating Now'? After seven years I am getting a little tired of it."
Ron looked across the table at the other third of the 'Dream Team'. Harry knew better than to get in the middle of their spats. Seven years at Hogwarts had taught him that lesson one too many times. He turned his gaze back to his food before Ron had a chance to catch his eye.
"Bloody coward," Ron muttered under his breath. "Ow!" Harry kicked him under the table.
"What's wrong with you anyway, Hermione?" Harry asked in what was without a doubt a brave move on his part.
"What?" She had slipped back into another daydream. "Oh, I'm sorry. Just have a lot on my mind."
Harry and Ron looked at each other. What could she possibly have left to think about?
"Mione, the N.E.W.T.s are over. We leave Hogwarts next week," Ron reminded her.
"If you are worrying about your scores," Harry added. "Don't."
"It's not that," she sighed, pushing her plate away from her. "I'm just…" She stopped herself from going any further. Although it was not necessary to keep it secret, she was not ready to share the true reason for her anxiety with her two best friends. Not until he says yes, she told herself, adamantly.
While he would never consider himself a true 'Seer', no, he scoffed at the very idea, Harry knew when there was something upsetting his friends. Nevertheless, he also knew in the back of his mind that perhaps pushing her for the information was not the way he should go about handling the situation. Obviously Hermione, their own Head Girl, was not in the mood to reveal her mysterious thoughts.
"Hey, Ron," he said, hoping to change the subject. Oliver Wood owled me the other day. It looks like the Cannons might be asking him to switch teams."
"What!?" Ron roared, scaring the third year girl on his left. "After their dismal season last year they want to bring in the Puddlemere United Reserve keeper? That makes no sense."
The talk about Quidditch may as well have been spoken in Chinese for all Hermione cared. Either way she understood not a word the two of them were saying. Wronski Feints and what have you were not her specialty.
"Have you been offered a spot on a team yet, Ron?" giggled the third year.
"Well, not yet, Sharon," Ron answered. "But hopefully soon. What's the use in being the Minister of Magic's son if you can't get recruited by a decent Quidditch team?"
"I heard that Montrose was looking for a new keeper. They no doubt have heard of your perfect record, Ron," Sharon giggled again.
Ron's ears began to turn red at the young girl's compliments. He had been the Gryffindor Keeper since his fifth year. There had not been a game yet that he had played in where Gryffindor did not win. Only once, when he was in the hospital wing after Voldemort's final battle, he missed a game. Dean Thomas did his best to keep the perfect record set by Ron, but to no avail. Much to his chagrin, Ron had a faithful set of followers from the younger years of his house.
"Thank you, Sharon. While Montrose would be lucky to have me on their team…."
"Ugh, please, Ron," Harry said disgustedly. "I would really like to keep down the meal I just ate."
Hermione joined Harry in his sniggers. It was no secret to either of them that their 'Ickle Ronnykins' had a bit of an ego problem. While they both thought that his breakup with Hermione in their fifth year would bring him back down to a reasonable level, the opposite had occurred. Ron only became even more full of himself than he already was. He had spent the last two years breaking the hearts of more than a couple dozen of the Hogwarts girls from all four Houses.
"Oh, and Ron," Hermione whispered, deciding she could not give up such a perfect opportunity to embarrass her friend in front of the president of his little fan club. "I ran into Millicent before lunch. She said she would be waiting for you in the usual place at the usual time. Now what in the name of Merlin does that mean exactly?"
Harry struggled, unsuccessfully, to hide his snickers. Ron narrowed his eyes to shoot daggers at the brown-haired young woman sitting across from him. Millicent Bulstrode had waited until the end of their fifth year, a mere two hours after the quite-public end of Ron and Hermione's four month long relationship, to profess her own feelings for Ron. She had been relentless in the pursuit of her own Weasley for the last two years.
"Funny, Hermione. Funny," he hissed.
"I just thought you would like to receive the message," Hermione said as she shot a secret wink at Harry.
The rest of the meal went by without incident. It had only taken Ron a few minutes to get over Hermione's comments. After two years he was getting used to hearing the same things about Millicent over and over. To be perfectly honest, and Ron never would be with his best friends, Millicent was not as bad as they made her out to be. Sure she was a Slytherin and had been quite scary their first few years at Hogwarts, but time will change anyone.
Ron looked across the Great Hall at the Slytherin table. Seated next to Pansy Parkinson and looking bored almost to tears, was Millicent. She has grown up to be a very beautiful young woman, Ron thought secretly to himself. It was true. After their fourth year, Millicent started to grow taller and became much more slender. Her bulky figure had turned into voluptuous curves almost overnight. The boys in their year had grown taller than her, no longer causing her to look like a giant in everyone's presence besides Crabbe and Goyle. No, Ron would never admit that he found anything in Millicent other than complete humiliation and disdain.
"Well, boys," Hermione said as she stood up from the table. "If you will excuse me, I have some important business to attend to."
"Like what?" Harry asked. "The results won't be posted until tomorrow. I am sure the professors are just finishing the marking right now."
That's what I am hoping, she thought. It would make her next task much easier if she knew that the professors in the castle were not bogged down with marking.
"Yeah, stay Mione," Ron begged, against his better judgment. "The rest of the seventh years in the House were going to go play a game of Quidditch. We want you to play too."
"What? You want me to play Quidditch with you guys?" she laughed, causing a few Gryffindors around her to laugh as well. "And just what position do you want me to play? Water girl?"
"Come on, Hermione. It'll be fun," Harry promised, shooting her his best smile.
"That smile may work with Ginny Weasley and any number of other girls, but it has no effect on me, Harry Potter. I know you too well for that," she answered. "Honestly, I must be going now."
The two boys knew better than to stop their friend when she had set her mind to something. They reluctantly nodded, and started to finish off their meal.
"If you step foot into the library, Hermione Granger, I will never forgive you," Ron threatened in his teasing manner that they all loved. "Next week we will no longer be Hogwarts students. There is no reason at all why you have to be in there. I am sure the books will understand your absence. They may even be thankful you're leaving."
Hermione tried to seem indignant, but failed miserably. She laughed.
"I am not going to the library. I just have a bit of business to discuss with one of our teachers," she explained.
"Former teachers, Hermione," Harry reminded her. "We never have to go back to their classes again."
"Especially not that greasy git's," Ron added.
Hermione rolled her eyes, excused herself a final time, and headed out the doors of the Great Hall.
"Do try to finish your detention before the term is up!" Snape roared at the second year Hufflepuff boy in his classroom. He had been caught cheating off of his friend's pop quiz that morning. Uncharacteristic of a Hufflepuff, this boy seems more like a Slytherin to me, Snape thought as he exited his classroom to his office.
He lowered himself wearily into the squashy armchair by his fireplace. The markings were all done for the year, Thank Merlin. Only a few more days until the students would leave him in the solitude and peace of an empty Hogwarts.
"Damn! Who could that be?" he said to himself.
He stood up from the chair and crossed to the door in a few quick strides. Throwing open the door he came face to face with Hermione Granger.
"What do you want, Miss Granger?" he demanded.
"I would like to have a few words with you, Professor Snape," she answered calmly, surprising both herself and her former Potions master.
"All right then," His voice was still stern. "A few words and you may leave!"
Hermione looked past the shocked look on her Professor's face as she entered his office. He had not given her an invitation into his sanctuary, but she was not about to have the conversation she wanted to in the corridor of the dungeons. Any one could have walked upon it.
"Well, what is it?" he asked again as he retreated back to his armchair.
"Sir, I have just received a letter from the Ministry of Magic. They wish me to take a position working in the Department of My… I mean they wish to give me a position." She shifted nervously. Only two days into her possible career in the Department of Mysteries and she had almost given away her secret.
"Yes, I seem to remember speaking to the Headmaster about that," He gave her a look that said he knew about the secrecy of her position, and she calmed down considerably. "I only wonder what this has anything to do with me."
"I wish to specialize in potions, sir. In order for this to be accomplished…" She felt her stomach twist and turn into knots.
"You have to first receive a
recommendation from your own Potions professor," he finished for her.
"Am I right?"
"Yes, you are."
Snape rose from his chair and exited out through a door behind his desk. Hermione recognized it as the storeroom that she had snuck into a few times in her years at Hogwarts. The noise of ingredients and equipment being shifted around rose to meet her ears.
"Miss Granger!" Snape bellowed from inside. "If you wish to receive a recommendation, you will join me!"
Fearing what might lurk inside, but also fearing what would happen if she did not enter, Hermione hesitantly walked into the storeroom. To her surprise, Snape had already set out a cauldron and was cutting up what looked to be caterpillars.
"You will properly brew for me a health restorative potion. One that will cause even the most dire of conditions to cease," he informed her brusquely.
"All right," she answered in a confident voice that hid her true anxiety.
"I will not help you," he said. "Working in your department as a Potions specialist will require the making of these kinds of potions, but will mostly deal with those that are less challenging to brew. If you can prove to me that you can successfully brew this one, I believe you will then be able to accomplish any task the Minister might set before you."
"Thank you, sir." She blushed, but tried to hide it when she saw his trademark sneer.
"Don't thank me yet. You have to prove that you can brew it first!" He turned on his heel to exit. "I give you one hour!"
Hermione turned back to the cauldron, and let out a long, deep exhale. She knew it was not going to be easy to get Snape's recommendation. Even before she descended the stone steps into the cool of the dungeons she knew that.
"I suppose the only thing you can do is make the best damn potion he has ever seen," she cheered herself on. "Now where does he keep nightshade?"
Severus Snape returned to the fireplace. Smirking to himself, he knew for certain he had done the right thing. Yes, he was going to give Hermione her sought after recommendation. He would have done it even without her brewing the potion he asked. Being the cool, manipulative bastard that he had worked hard to become, simply handing out recommendations was impossible.
"She has to feel she deserves this for working, not for just being an insufferable Know-It-All," Severus said quietly.
He lowered himself for the third time into his armchair. After only a minute or two, his curiosity got the better of him. Slowly, cautiously, he turned his gaze to the storeroom. From his angle he had a perfect line of sight to the lovely Miss Granger standing over the cauldron. She had without a doubt grown into an exquisite young woman. Severus had never had respect for those professors who had thought such things about their students, but seeing as the N.E.W.T.s were indeed over, he allowed himself a swift look. Not an obvious look though. He was, after all, almost twenty years her senior. It had always been her mind, her astounding magical ability that had caught his eye before.
Hermione added the last bit of caterpillar to the already bubbling cauldron. This was no doubt a difficult potion to brew, but she was quite certain she would have no trouble with it. As she crossed the room to find the needed bezoar, she could not stop herself from peering out the door into the office of Professor Severus Snape. He was seated in his oversized black armchair with his head bent over a large book.
She would have by no means admitted it to anyone she knew, but there had always been something about her curmudgeon of a potions professor. Something that made him stand out. From the first day she stepped into the dungeons for her first potions lesson, she got the feeling that she knew him from somewhere. Convinced that they had not met before Hogwarts and never being one to believe in past lives, she dismissed the thought. But today standing so close to him she felt that tug again. There was something about him, something that seven years had yet to reveal.
"If you will kindly return to your potion, Miss Granger," Severus said, his eyes not leaving the book once. "I will only give you one chance."
Embarrassed at being caught staring, Hermione crossed back to the cauldron. When he was certain she could not see him, Severus turned around again to watch her work. Hermione's hands shook as she added nightshade to the fumes.
"Don't put too much in there, Hermione," Severus said silently to himself, shocking himself by referring to his student by her first name.
"Two leaves of nightshade… done," Hermione dropped the leaves into the whistling cauldron. "Hawthorn blossom…"
Severus watched her actions intently. Determined that she would not make a mistake he was about to bring her attention to the fact that she had picked up orpine instead of hawthorn blossom. The effect of that mistake could be deadly.
His words had no time to be said. Because her mind was off on another plane, the usually perfect potions student dropped the wrong ingredient to the potion. She had no time at all to run from the explosion. Standing in front of the cauldron gave her a full blast of the deadly potion.
"Hermione!" Severus ran into the storeroom to pull her away.
He was too late. She was lying on the cold, stone floor only moments from death.
"Hermione!" He pulled her tiny, motionless body into his strong arms. All other thoughts flew out of his head. His one purpose at that moment was to do everything in his power to make sure his precious Hermione was saved.
A/N: I hope that didn't go by too quickly or too slowly. This is of course only the beginning. The real action should start in the next few chapters. Please let me know what you think!