Hero Worship

By: BamfWriter

Rated: PG (scary situations)

Gen, Predominantly Snape and Hermione, set during Hermione's first year at Hogwarts.

()()()()()

"Who can tell me what ingredient may be substituted for monkshood in your basic Sleeping Draught?"

Potions master Severus Snape stood at the front of his first-year Potions class, arms crossed, hands tucked away and hidden with the folds of his enormous black cloak. Eyes the same color as his cloak scanned the blank faces of his students, and he felt a stab of disappointment. Surely one of them would have some clue.

As ever, one single hand was stretched upward, its owner fairly levitating out of her chair with eagerness. Hermione Granger knew the answer.

"Anyone besides Miss Granger?"

Snape smirked a little as she retracted her hand, looking embarrassed as the rest of the class gave her dirty looks. All but her two best friends, Potter and Weasley. She glanced up at Snape with an expression of annoyance, which he chose to ignore, for now.

"The answer is wolfsbane," Snape said loudly, slamming his hand down on the surface of his desk, making the students in the front row jump slightly. "And every single ONE of you should have known that."

His students had the intelligence to look ashamed, and the towering man in black smiled inwardly in satisfaction. Let the other teachers use kindness and nurturing to reach their pupils. His way was discipline, hard work, and punishment when his expectations were not met. He was not here to be a friend to his class, he was here to make them learn. By force, for some of them.

"Now then," he said, moving to stand in front of Potter and Granger. "Since clearly this entire class has a memory issue, take note; I want TWO essays, one roll of parchment each, on my desk first thing Wednesday morning." He ignored the groans as he moved to the chalkboard and began to write across it.

"One will be on substitution of ingredients, and one will be on memory enhancement." He finished writing with a flourish and laid the chalk back down. "Again, on my desk, the 15th of February."

A hand was raised hesitantly into the air. Snape rolled his eyes and pointed sharply at the plump boy with the freckled face and oversized front teeth. "Longbottom?"

Neville stood, shaking slightly, but he managed to squeak out a few words.

"P-professor Snape... I... I charmed my Potions book, sir. With an Invisibility Charm."

The Potion master's jet-black eyes narrowed in disbelief. "Are you telling me that your textbook is now invisible, Mr. Longbottom?" He demanded.

"Y-yes sir," Neville stuttered, going pale. "I've felt around everywhere for it, but I can't find it."

Severus glowered. "Isn't this the second one you've ruined? You blew one up a few weeks ago, did you not?" He moved slowly over to stand before the round-faced boy. Neville reluctantly nodded, looking up at him in horror.

"Yes sir. Professor Flitwick said I must have pronounced something wrong when I tried to perform the Word Search Charm." The boy's brow furrowed, and he began to recite an incantation, obviously having difficulty with the strange words.

"Allocatus anon...."

There was a sudden flurry of movement and scraping of chairs as everyone near Neville immediately moved away. He looked around at them blankly, then shut his mouth and looked imploringly up at Snape.

Severus too, had instinctively stepped backwards when Neville began to recite the spell. Now, he heaved a long-suffering sigh, folding his arms and shaking his head at the ceiling.

"I don't know which I find more unbelievable; the fact that you were foolish enough to choose something as important as your Potions book on which to practice an Invisibility Charm...," he paused, and fixed Neville with an icy stare.

"...or the fact that, for once, you successfully cast a spell."

There was a short burst of laughter from the Slytherin table, and Snape glanced mildly their way. A few of the Gryffindors tittered as well, and he looked sharply at them. Silence came instantly.

"Five points from Gryffindor," he said, "for your lack of self-control."

He continued speaking over the expected groan that followed.

"And Mr. Longbottom, your grandmother will be billed for the cost of having yet ANOTHER new textbook Next-Day-Owled to you."

Neville cast his eyes downward, and slid passively back into his seat.

"Professor?"

Snape stopped stock-still. He knew that voice so well. Granger.

"Yes?" he inquired, without turning to face her.

"Professor... I think that you are unfair."

The silence that followed was all encompassing. Nobody spoke. Nobody breathed. Even the ticking of the clock seemed to stop. Everyone just stared, disbelieving, at Hermione, then looked to Snape, waiting for his reaction.

"Bloody 'ell," Ron Weasley murmured softly.

Severus turned toward Hermione, his face completely devoid of emotion. Slowly, he stalked across the room.

"Indeed, Miss Granger?" He replied in a voice like warm honey. He folded his hands behind his back and leaned forward, towering over her. His black eyes flashed, letting the insolent girl know that she was on thin ice.

She stood her ground, not even blinking. Severus had to concede a tiny glimmer of respect for her, not backing down to his dominance.

"Sir, you discounted points from Gryffindor, when members of both my house and Slytherin transgressed in the same fashion." She glowered up at him, chin raised in defiance. "It's not fair."

"Wot's 'transgressed?'" Seamus whispered bewilderedly to Neville.

With a casual glance around the room, Snape leaned toward Granger and placed his hands on the desk, leaning over his outspoken young pupil.

"Very well," he sighed. "The five points are returned to Gryffindor."

A surprised sigh of pleasure rippled through the Gryffindors, but Snape cut them off with a sharp slice of his hand through the air.

"Instead, you will serve detention, Miss Granger," he purred, "My office, nine o'clock this evening."

A murmur of protest rustled through the other students.

"Who else wants to join her?" Severus snapped, shooting black looks around the room. Silence resumed. "You are dismissed, Miss Granger."

Hermione started to speak, but Snape cocked an eyebrow, daring her to talk back to him again. She held her tongue, nodded her assent, and then gathered her books and fled the room. A group of Slytherins near the door hooted at her as she passed, but she didn't even give them a second glance.

"Class dismissed," Snape growled. With one last sneer at his pupils, he turned on his heel and marched toward the door. A pair of small Ravenclaw girls leapt out of his way as he stormed past, leaving the room in a flurry of black cloak.

()()()()()

Later that night, Severus sat in his office, grading papers, when there was a timid knock at the door. Confused, he looked up.

"Enter!" he snapped. He blinked as Hermione came hesitantly into the room. He'd totally forgotten that he had given her detention this evening.

"Ah, miss Granger, he muttered, "Punctual, if nothing else." He rifled through his papers, trying to stall as he dreamt up some task for her to complete. Out of the corner of his eye he watched her fidget nervously, but to her credit, she did not speak.

"Ah, here it is," Snape faked, picking up an old inventory of his supply cabinet. "Miss Granger, for your detention, you will spend the evening cleaning the floors of the dungeon."

She sighed. "Yes Professor," she replied in a small voice, not meeting his eyes.

The Potions master was taken aback; he had been expecting a retort. He eyed his student suspiciously, trying to figure out if she was being smart with him, or if she was truly being submissive. Her crestfallen expression and slumped shoulders told him that she was sincere, and he gave a small nod. Keeping troublesome students in their place was the role of any good teacher.

"You'll find buckets and scrub brushes in the closet at the entrance to the dungeons," Snape said, opening a desk drawer and removing a small vial. He handed it to her.

"That is a cleansing potion. Use only a few drops per bucket. The tap is inside the closet, to the left. Report back here when you're finished, so I can inspect your work." He waved her away and turned his attention back to his papers.

Hermione walked out of the office without a word.

Snape returned to grading the latest group of disappointing test papers, sneering and stroking a slash of red through each wrong answer with a wave of his wand.

()()()()()

"Ow!"

Hermione winced as she accidentally scraped her raw knuckles against the rough cobbles that made up the dungeon floor. Her hands were red and stinging from the hard work and detergent. She paused to blow on them, looking around at her work. She had been at it for nearly two hours, but she had done what Snape had ordered; she had scrubbed every single cobblestone.

She was proud of the job she had done, and hoped that the professor would be satisfied. Like most of the students, she knew that Snape's detentions had little to do with the chore assigned. They were intended to break the person's spirit. To humiliate them, and to remind them that the Potions master had the power to make their lives extremely unpleasant if he chose to.

With an angry sigh, Hermione flung one the brushes into the bucket of soapy water. She had never encountered a professor as unfair as Professor Snape. Her other teachers were kind and patient. They recognized good work and honest efforts. When they did have to assign punishments, it was never to embarrass or belittle a student, but to help correct them. With Snape, it seemed it was never about learning, only suffering.

She wondered if the rotten man had ever had a friend in his life. Or even someone that cared about him.

()()()()()

Unbeknownst to anyone, at that moment, a person who was neither student nor staff was in the secret One-Eyed-Witch passage from Hogsmeade.

Criminally insane and violent, Alex Cerran was on the run from the authorities, both Muggle and Magic. He was an ugly drifter, a banished wizard, who had been expelled from Hogwarts as a sixth-year quite a few years ago, and was grateful that he knew of this secret passage between Hogsmeade and the school. The authorities had shown up in Hogsmeade, and he'd needed a quick way out. Luckily he had remembered this passageway.

In addition, he had decided that The Ministry of Magic needed another reminder of what he was capable of. He was listed as a psychopath who saw no value in human life. Cerran wished to live up to that claim. What better location than his old hated Alma Mater....

He smiled as the pitch-black passageway began to slant upward. A few more steps, and he could see a light. After the deed was done, he would escape into the Dark Forest. Nobody would even know he had been there until long after he was gone.

()()()()()

Hermione finished rinsing the last cobble, and cooled her burning hands in the bucket of clean water. Then she gathered the buckets and brushes and carried it all back to the storage closet and put it away, speaking a small incantation to automatically evaporate the water. Closing the heavy door with a weary sigh, she brushed an arm across her brow, pushing her curly hair out of her eyes.

With one last look around, she started up the stairs, heading back to Snape's office. With any luck, he would be satisfied with her work and allow her to go to bed, now. She was utterly exhausted. It was nearly midnight; the candles lighting the corridors were nearly burned down. They would of course re-grow to burn again tomorrow, but for now, she hurried along, not wanting to be caught in the dark by herself.

()()()()()

Cerran waved his wand, and the secret panel in the One-Eyed-Witch statue popped silently open. With a grunt, he managed to squeeze his considerable bulk through the small gap. He dropped to the floor beside the statue, and watched the portal close. The hallway was quite dark. It was late, and from his past, he knew the students had a curfew of ten-thirty. But he also knew that rules were always broken, and his chance of coming across a lone student out of bed was almost guaranteed.

Starting up the hall, he kept his ears tuned for any sound that would indicate a potential victim, or a possible danger of capture. The candles were going out one by one, sending the corridor into deeper darkness with each passing second.

Being on the run at night for most of his adult life had given him exceptional night-vision, and he used it now to examine his surroundings. He was in a short hallway that, he remembered, connected two larger corridors. A small alcove on his right contained a water fountain. Along the walls were scattered a handful of portraits, the occupants of which were all silent, asleep.

Then he froze. He heard footsteps. Small, dainty footsteps, and they were coming his way. He quickly ducked out of sight into the alcove, pulled out his wand, and waited. A malicious grin curled his scarred lips as he realized he was hearing a girl's steps. It always generated more fear in the public when his victims were female.

()()()()()

Hermione yawned as she came around the corner. She stopped, raising her head; she had heard something. It sounded like shuffling footsteps, somewhere ahead of her in the darkness. Timidly, she stepped forward.

"H-hello?" she called softly, hoping that she would not get a reply.

There was another shuffle, and she drew back against the wall, bumping a picture frame.

"Watch it," a blonde-haired farmer in the portrait behind her muttered sleepily. He snuggled against his buxom wife and the two went back to sleep.

"Pardon me," Hermione replied in a whisper, still listening. There was only silence now.

Steeling her courage up, and wishing Harry and Ron were there, she crept forward. Then she stopped again and sighed in annoyance with herself. She pulled out her wand, and said, "Lumos!"

A tiny ball of light appeared at the tip of her wand. She peered beyond it into the dark hallway ahead. A few steps further on the right was an alcove, beyond that more paintings. Snape's office was at the top of the stairs just around the corner at the far end of the corridor.

Perhaps someone had been on their way up to see the Potions master. That must have been whom she heard.

As she started forward again, a large figure leapt out of the alcove, looming up before her. She gave a huge gasp as strong hands grabbed her by the shoulders and flung her to the floor.

Stunned, she tried to scream, but a hand clamped over her mouth. She raised her wand, only to have it snatched out of her hand and thrown aside, out of reach. The corridor was instantly plunged into darkness. She fought wildly, kicking and thrashing, frantically prying at the hand over her mouth.

"Mmmf!" she screeched against the thick fingers that smelled of liquor as they pressed her lips painfully against her teeth. The large figure straddled her, and a wand was raised in front of her face. She closed her eyes, fearing the worst.

"Securus," growled a dreadful voice, and at once she was bound in heavy cords from head to toe, one even replacing the hand muffling her cries.

"Lumos," the same awful voice said.

Hermione opened her eyes and stared up at the stranger in terror. He was a burly man of about thirty-five, with wild eyes and unkempt hair. She had never seen him before, but she could tell by those eyes that he was not right in the head, and realized that she was in terrible danger.

Cerran leered down at his prey. He reached down and brushed her hair back from her eyes, smiling. What a pretty little thing she was.

"This must be my lucky night," he drawled. "My escape is in the bag, and now I get you as a victim." He snickered at the look of horror that flickered over the girl's face.

"See, I always leave a little calling card before I move out of an area, just to let the higher-ups know that I am still, and always will be, one step ahead of them," Cerran continued cockily.

"What better way to prove my point than to murder a student at the famous Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, eh? And what better choice of a victim than a precious little girl?"

He leaned down and leered at her, their noses bare inches apart.

" YOU... are going to be my calling card, princess."

He laughed, and the crazed sound frightened Hermione more than anything. She tried to scream again, but her attacker had cast a solid spell; not a sound came through the gag.

As her captor left her side briefly to glance up and down the dark hallway, Hermione saw movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned her head and looked up to see the blonde farmer in the portrait gazing down at her in sadness and pity. By the faint light of the invader's wand, she could see that the buxom woman had disappeared from the picture.

"I've sent the wife," the blonde man whispered, leaning as close to his side of the canvas as he could. "Don't be frightened, child, help is on the way!"

She nodded slightly, trembling with terror, her breath hitching in her chest.

As the intruder returned to stand over her, the man in the portrait glared at him with pure loathing. He studied the frame of his portrait, as if wishing for a way to break through into the real world.

()()()()()

Severus was just putting the finishing touches on a new pop quiz for his Advanced Potions class, when he was startled by a shriek directly behind him. He jumped to his feet, knocking over his chair, and whirled, half- expecting to find a Banshee in his office.

On the wall above his chair hung a dull painting of what was usually just a dreary moor. But now, the moor was inhabited by a near-hysterical woman in a nightgown. She was chattering wildly at him, waving her arms in the air. But she was so distraught that whatever she wanted was unclear.

Snape scowled at her impatiently. "What?" he inquired, "Wha- slow down, woman! I cannot understand one word," he grumbled.

"The girl!" wailed the wench, "He's got the little girl from the dungeons, he's got her, ooohh!!!" The woman's tirade ended in a pitiful shriek of dismay.

"WHERE?" Snape barked, already halfway to the door with wand in hand.

"Northeast corridor!" the portrait-lady sobbed, "Far end! sob! Oh, hurry... that poor little lamb! SOB!"

Severus left the woman wailing in the moor and charged out the door.

()()()()()

Convinced nobody was aware of his presence in the castle, Cerran moved to sit beside his little treasure. She was staring up at him with gigantic, pleading eyes, silently begging him not to hurt her. It was a look he had seen on the faces of his victims many times before, and as always, it filled him with a mixture of excitement and disgust.

Disgust, because he despised weakness. Excitement, because he so enjoyed disposing of those he deemed weak.

He looked at his wand, and shook his head. It would be more satisfying to do it with his hands. He laid the wand aside, and moved to straddle his captive again.

"Goodbye, little princess," he murmured, brushing her hair out of her eyes, then wrapping his hands around her throat.

()()()()()

Despite his height, Severus Snape had been blessed with grace, and was able to move very fast without making a sound. His long legs carried him down the steps two at a time, cloak billowing around him like the wings of a great bat. At the mouth of the northeast corridor, he paused to listen, peering into the darkness, not wishing to give himself away by using a light.

Stealth was one of his greatest assets. People often said it was eerie, Severus' ability to silently sneak up on people. Now he put those skills to use. He glided forward, silent and ominous, like a black-shrouded night- creature, hugging the wall like a shadow. A faint light was visible from somewhere near the far end of the corridor, and he began to close in on it.

Suddenly the figures in the portraits on the wall to his back came alive. Overlapping shouts of "Over there! She's there! This way! Over here!" fluttered along the wall.

"So much for stealth," the Potions master muttered, surging forward.

()()()()()

Hermione's eyes went even wider as she felt the man's hands at her throat. She tried again to scream, but it was no use. The fingers tightened, and she knew she had run out of time.

As her air was cut off, Hermione's ever-sharp mind suddenly realized that the people in the portraits lining the wall were crying out now, as if trying to direct someone to her. Then as the killer's hands continued to throttle her, all her thoughts began to grow fuzzy, and she closed her eyes, saying a silent goodbye to her friends and family.

"EVERTE STATUM!!!"

An enraged voice bellowed from the darkness. There was a massive flash like a strobe, and Hermione inhaled gratefully as the hands flew away from her throat. In fact, her attacker's entire body was launched clear off of hers, and she heard him land with a thud somewhere behind her. Breathing hard and fast to replenish her starved lungs, she tried to determine what was happening.

The killer reappeared beside her for a moment, grabbing up the illuminated wand at her side. But before he could use it, another shout came from the darkness.

"EXPELLIARMUS!!!"

She saw the wand fly from the intruder's hand, the illuminated tip going out, plunging the corridor into pitch blackness. She heard her attacker give a great angry roar, and heard him take a few running steps toward his adversary. Then once again, that voice shook the hallway.

"PETRIFICUS TOTALUS!!"

There was a moment of silence, followed the dull, meaty thud of a body hitting the floor. Then more silence.

Hermione's throat ached dreadfully, and her head was swimming as she blinked into the darkness, trying to see what was happening. When she suddenly felt someone standing over her, she was struck by a wave of terror. She gave a startled yelp behind the gag, trying to squirm away. But then the person knelt, and a hand settled gently on her shoulder.

"Lumos!" The voice that had before been jagged with rage was now gentle.

A soft, blue light illuminated the area, and Hermione's eyes filled with tears of relief as Professor Snape knelt over her. For the first time in her life, she was overjoyed to see him. Also, for the first time since she had known the Potions master, an expression other than bored disdain colored his features. Now, his eyes were bright with anxiety, and his brow furrowed with concern as he gazed down at her.

Severus glowered in renewed fury at the sight of Granger, bound and gagged, with tears streaming down her cheeks. A stinging little pang of compassion tugged at his heart. He was a bit startled by it; he had not felt concerned about anyone for a very long time.

Shaking off the uncomfortable feelings, he examined Granger's bonds, shaking his head slightly. Whoever this brute was, he knew his spells. He raised his wand and applied the counter-curse, and the cords binding her vanished into thin air.

The instant she was free, she was in motion. Severus was thoroughly unprepared when she suddenly lunged at him, flinging her arms around his neck, hitting him with such force that he was knocked onto his rear. His entire body immediately went rigid, both arms flung out to the sides. He froze, at a complete loss as to how he should respond to this unprecedented display.

The Muggle phrase, 'a deer in the headlights' crossed his mind, and he realized that it probably described his current facial expression perfectly. The child was sobbing against his shoulder, her face, cold and damp against the side of his neck, his wool frock coat becoming soaked with tears. He blinked helplessly, and aborted several attempts at comforting words.

"Now, now... that will do," he snapped at last, falling back on his old tried and true method for dealing with everything. She showed no sign that she had heard him, and he growled under his breath. He was intensely uncomfortable with this unreserved display of emotion. Emotions were not his specialty. How did one cope with a situation like this?

"Miss Granger," he said sharply, running out of ideas, "I demand that you get control over yourself at once. Your attacker has been subdued, and I assure you that I will allow no more harm to come to you."

Apparently, this was the right thing to say, because the sobs tapered off. Snape stayed completely motionless, waiting, barely daring to breathe. After a few moments of sniffling and moist, hitching breaths against his neck, she pulled back and looked up at him.

"Sorry," she whimpered in a tiny, broken voice, hastily wiping her eyes.

"All right, then," the Potions master said thankfully.

There was an incredibly awkward silence, in which he watched her struggling valiantly to stop crying. Her eyes had a haunted and slightly vacant look in them as Severus studied her face. Despite her talent at witchcraft, she really was very young. At times he forgot just how young the first-years really were.

A flicker of guilt tweaked at his conscience for the harshness he had shown her a moment ago, and he gave a great sigh of resignation. In truth, Granger was still a little girl. A frightened little girl who had just come very close to being murdered. All she wanted was to be comforted. He was the only one there.

She glanced up at him. Pushing aside his distaste for emotion and vulnerability, he hesitantly reached out, and she eagerly threw herself into his arms. It didn't take long for the sobs to begin again, but he didn't say a word, he just tightened his arms around her. He could feel her tears flowing down the side of his neck and soaking his cravat, but made no complaint. Instead, he moved one hand up to gently rub the back of her head.

Soon, he felt her begin to settle down, sobs slowing. The frantic grip around his neck loosened slightly. As he continued to brush his fingers over her hair, she snuggled trustingly against him, falling quiet at last.

As he held her, he suddenly noticed she was shivering quite badly. He drew back slightly and reached down to brush his fingers over her cheek. Her skin was chilled and clammy, and he realized she was going into shock.

He released her, quickly shrugged out of his voluminous cloak, and swept it around the diminutive girl. With some measure of relief, he saw that she still had her wits about her enough to pull the garment tightly around herself. That was good; it was important that she be kept warm until she received medical attention.

That thought made him realize that he had not alerted anyone to the situation. Watching Hermione closely for further signs of shock, he pointed his wand at his throat and murmured. "Sonorous!"

"Professor Dumbledore, Nurse Pomfrey," he said, his magnified voice resonating through the corridor like a loudspeaker, "Please report to the Northeast corridor at once, this is an emergency. Quietus."

Tugging his cloak around her, Granger shifted slightly to sit huddled against the wall. Her face was puffy and streaked with tears, and her reddened eyes still had that vacant, haunted look.

Moving slowly so as not startle her, Severus moved to sit beside her, his back against the wall. When one little hand appeared from under the cloak, stretching toward him, he readily enclosed it in his own and they sat in silence together.

Just then, he heard footsteps pounding toward them. Hermione gave a frightened whimper and promptly attached herself to his side, one hand gripping the breast panel of his coat. He held her to him with one hand and with the other, raised his wand, alert toward the new potential threat.

Several candles a long the hall began to ignite themselves, brightening the hallways and revealing a familiar figure.

"Severus?"

Snape released the breath he had been holding in a relieved sigh as Dumbledore called out. "Here, Albus," he called softly.

The ancient wizard appeared before them, his kind face colored with concern. He looked down at Severus and Hermione, and his eyes widened.

"What's happened?" he demanded quietly, producing a half-dozen floating candles from thin air with a flick of his fingers. Then he knelt, and gently cupped Hermione's chin in his hand, studying the shell-shocked look on the little girl's face, and then the bruises on her throat. When his eyes met Snape's, they were darkened with uncharacteristic anger.

Snape gestured at the petrified body of the intruder where it lay a few yards further along the hall. Dumbledore quickly stood and moved to examine the man. Severus saw the usually kind face go stony, and when Albus returned to his side, he could see the Headmaster's hands trembling.

"You recognize him?" Severus asked.

Dumbledore nodded. "Alex Cerran. A pupil here once," he sat down in front of them with an unhappy sigh. "One of the few that I was not able to help, I'm afraid."

Severus waited, but the Headmaster was apparently not going to go into further specifics.

The older wizard looked into Snape's eyes, and then glanced meaningfully down at Hermione, who seemed to have fallen asleep, snuggled against the Potions master's chest.

"She's all right," Severus said quietly, unconsciously tightening his arm around the child. "Just had a very bad scare. Perhaps mild shock."

Dumbledore nodded. "Thank goodness you were here, Severus," he murmured, reaching over to pat him on the shoulder, "thank goodness, indeed."

Just then, the school nurse, Poppy Pomfrey came hurrying along the corridor in her bathrobe, curlers in her hair. She gave a brief nod of respect to the two wizards, and then knelt in front of Hermione.

"Miss Granger?" she called softly, "Hermione, wake up dear." She reached out to lift the child's chin, wincing at the sight of the bruises forming around her neck.

"Mm?" Hermione mumbled, opening her eyes and blinking sleepily. She looked around at Dumbledore and Nurse Pomfrey, but did not let go of Snape.

"Are you hurt, child?" Poppy asked quietly, holding her hand against the girl's brow.

"My throat hurts," Hermione whispered in a raspy voice. "I'm so cold, Madame Pomfrey." She sniffled a little, and snuggled against Snape, twisting her fingers nervously in the fabric of his coat.

"Shock," Pomfrey murmured to Albus and Snape. She moved to stand, and Dumbledore quickly assisted her. "I need her in the hospital wing," she added softly, looking hopefully at Severus.

He glanced up at her, and then nodded. Turning, he carefully slid his hands under the little cloak-shrouded figure, and scooped her into his arms. She weighed nearly nothing, and as he got fluidly to his feet, she wound one arm around his neck. Her other hand was still securely snarled in the fabric of his coat, and as he turned to follow Poppy he felt one of the buttons actually pop off from the force of her grip.

"I shall take care of our uninvited guest," Dumbledore said softly, "And I suspect I will be having a long discussion with members of the Ministry of Magic." He sighed, and shook his snowy head. "This is going to be a long night."

The Headmaster turned and went back down the corridor toward Cerran, while Snape followed Nurse Pomfrey the other way, toward the hospital wing.

He walked purposefully along the dim corridor, glancing now and then in irritation at the portraits on either side, whose inhabitants were now quietly praising him.

"Good on yer, lad.... Well done, Professor Snape.... Bless you, sir...."

He closed his eyes, and shook his head slightly with a sigh of exasperation. If he knew those oil-painted busybodies, this tale would be spread all over the castle by morning. Any hopes he might have had of keeping his heroism a secret were dashed.

Severus happened to glance down at his silent charge, and found himself under scrutiny by a pair of red-rimmed eyes. Hermione was gazing quietly up at him, her cheek pressed again his shoulder, the skin becoming red and chapped from where it had rubbed against the damp wool of his frock coat.

She suddenly leaned up toward him, and he lowered his face to listen, expecting her to speak. Instead, he was flabbergasted when she kissed his cheek.

A quiet chorus of "Awww," came at him from either side of the hall, and he flashed the portrait-dwellers a positively scathing look. They had the sense to quickly fall silent and motionless again.

When he turned his attention back to Hermione, she had closed her eyes, and was now nestled contentedly against his shoulder once more.

He sighed again, rolling his eyes. As if in reply, the girl also gave a soft little sigh, twisting her fingers briefly in the cloth of his coat front. Another button fell away, much to his annoyance. Still, Severus couldn't deny a little feeling of pride. She was totally relaxed, as if certain she was safe in his arms.

It was an odd and somewhat unsettling feeling, to be trusted so completely. Snape wasn't sure he wanted that kind of responsibility.

()()()()()

As they entered the hospital wing, Nurse Pomfrey led Severus over to an isolated, empty bed in the corner. She pulled the blankets down, and he carefully lowered Hermione onto the mattress. He tried to straighten, but found she still had hold of his coat. He looked to Poppy for assistance, and the kindly nurse smiled, and then gently disentangled the little fingers.

Snape stepped back and let the nurse check over Granger, wandering over to look out the window at the spectacular full moon illuminating the grounds. He mused over the night's events, wondering what would happen tomorrow when the entire school learned that he was not the terrifying, heartless being they perceived him to be.

"Professor?"

He turned. Poppy was walking over to him, carrying something black in her arms. She held it out to him, and it took him a moment to realize it was his cloak. He'd forgotten he wasn't wearing it. The nurse helped him back into it, and he felt a sense of security being enveloped in its folds once more.

How strange that, even with every inch of him but his hands and face covered by his clothing, he still felt naked without his cloak.

"If there's nothing else you need from me, Poppy," he said, taking a step toward the door. He stopped as a look of regret came over the woman's face. "Well?"

The nurse sighed. "She's asking for you," she said softly, inclining her head toward the bed, hidden now behind a curtain.

"Why?" Severus asked. He was tired. He wanted to go to bed.

Poppy shrugged. "I don't know, Professor. But she wants to see you."

Shoulders slumping, Severus dutifully followed Madame Pomfrey across the hospital, and through the curtains surrounding the bed. As he stepped through, Hermione looked up at him, and smiled. She reached out her hand toward him, and he moved to sit on the edge of the bed, where he allowed her to clasp his long fingers in hers once again.

"I've given her a dose of Anti-Nightmare Draught to help her sleep," Poppy whispered into his ear. "She should be asleep in less than a minute, then you can escape." She smiled, and ducked out of the enclosure.

He gave a wry smirk, and glanced down at his little charge. She was still gazing up at him, but her eyelids were drooping. Each time she blinked, it seemed her eyes stayed closed longer, and she had to struggle harder to open them again. Nurse Pomfrey was right; she would be asleep at any moment.

Severus looked down and studied the tiny fingers clamped around his own. He frowned when he saw that they were red and sore looking, and wondered how that had happened. The answer came a millisecond later, when he remembered that he'd had Miss Granger scrubbing the dungeon all night.

That was ironic. Hermione was attacked because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Snape had rescued her, but then it was he who had PUT her there in the first place.

"Professor Snape?"

The tiny voice was unexpected, and he blinked, coming out of his reflection. "Go to sleep, Miss Granger," he said softly, but sternly, "You've caused me quite enough trouble for one night, don't you agree?" He cocked an eyebrow at her.

She just smiled up at him, beaming through half-closed eyes.

"I did a good job on the floors, Professor," she mumbled, yawning. "But I'll do it again if you don't like it." She yawned again. "I'll do whatever you want me to do." She closed her eyes, settled into the pillow, and drifted off to sleep.

He waited for a minute to make sure she was soundly asleep, and then carefully slipped his hand out of hers. Pausing just long enough to tug the blankets up under her chin, he then turned and crept silently out of the enclosure. Poppy met him at the door.

"She's asleep," Severus whispered, "If there's nothing more you need from me...?"

She shook her head. "No, dear, I can manage now." She reached out and gently took hold of his sleeve as he tried to walk away. When he turned to her, questioningly, she added, "Thank you Professor, for being so kind to her. I know it's out of character for you."

He just blinked, not knowing what to say. He wasn't sure if that had been intended as a compliment or not.

She reached up and patted him on the cheek. "I just want you to know that I think you are a very good person, Severus. Whether you choose to hear me or not." Before he could reply, she turned on her heel and walked away across the ward.

Severus gave one more deep, long-suffering sigh, then glided out of the hospital wing in with a rustle of black cloth.

()()()()()

The next morning he banged into his Potions class with the usual bluster, marched to the head of the room, and began writing on the chalkboard without glancing at his students.

"Today," he began briskly, "we will be brewing an all-purpose Anti- Inflammation Draught." He listed the ingredients, then tossed the chalk down and turned, anxious to see if his reputation had been tarnished as badly as he had imagined it would be last night.

To his surprise, he didn't see any difference in the faces that looked expectantly up at him. There was no whispering, no knowing looks, no indication whatsoever that anyone had any idea what had transpired last night. It appeared that the portraits had kept their mouths shut for a change, or at least had kept the story among themselves.

An empty seat caught his sharp eye, and he noted that Granger was not present. Not surprising, given her ordeal of the previous evening. No doubt the Nurse had prescribed a day of bed rest. He nodded briefly to himself and began his routine of making the rounds among his students.

Just as he was berating Longbottom for using too much powdered ametrine in his mix, the door suddenly banged open. Snape, along with the entire class turned to see who had the nerve to show up tardy for one of his classes.

Hermione stood in the doorway, and to say she looked different would be an understatement. She was wearing makeup; so much of it that, from the opposite end of the dimly-lit classroom, Severus could tell what color eye shadow she had used. In addition, her hair was plaited and coiffed, piled on top of her head in a style more suitable for a gala ball than a Potions class.

The most notable change was her wardrobe. She was not wearing her uniform, or her robes. She was wearing a party dress. A pink, frilly, ridiculous party dress. Snape just stared, not quite able to process what he was seeing. He watched her walk through the room, teetering on heels that were far too high for her, oblivious to the snickers and stares of her classmates. She bypassed her usual seat beside Potter, and instead sat in an empty chair right smack in front of the Potion master's desk.

Severus quickly shifted his eyes, seeing what the class's reaction to this infraction would be. Most of them were whispering and pointing at Hermione, and judging by their sneers, what they were saying was not complimentary. Those who were not staring at her were staring at him, as if waiting to see what he would do.

Taking a deep breath, Snape walked past Neville's now-smoking cauldron, and approached Hermione. It was then that he noticed another change; she hadn't even taken out her book or her quill. She was making no effort to copy the notes from the chalkboard, nor to prepare her potion. Instead, she was staring up at him in an expression that only be described as... shameless adoration.

With a worried feeling growing in the pit of his stomach, Severus ignored her and went back to teaching. He conducted the rest of the lesson as well as he could, but it was difficult to concentrate. Every time he turned to face the class, he found Granger making doe-eyes at him.

She still had not made any effort to concoct her potion. She just sat there, resting an elbow on the desk, with her chin in her hand, gazing sappily up at him. Every time he walked past her, she gave a dreamy little sigh.

Finally, he could stand it no longer.

"Miss Granger," he growled.

"Yes, Severus?" she replied eagerly, immediately sitting up.

"I would....." He stopped short. He turned his head, very slowly, and stared down at her as if she had grown a second pair of ears. "What... did you just call me?"

"Severus," she sighed, speaking his name as if it were a prayer. Again with the damned doe-eyes.

He was dumbfounded, and just stood there with his mouth open. He made it clear on the first day of his classes that he was to be addressed as 'sir' or 'professor' at all times, even outside the classroom. It was one of the few of his rules that nobody, not even Longbottom, ever seemed to forget. Even the most laid-back of the professors did not approve of their students calling them by their given names. It was the height of impropriety and disrespect.

Someone dropped a book, and he jumped slightly as the dead silence was broken. He glanced around and found wide eyes, all fixed on him. It was happening, just as he'd feared. His control, his reign of terror, his reputation for demanding absolute obedience; they were all going down the drain.

"Miss Granger," he ground out, face darkening as he struggled with his temper, "You are never... I repeat... NEVER to address me by my first name again." He marched over to her and slammed his hands down on the table, on either side of her. "Do I make that PERFECTLY clear?" he practically snarled.

"Mm-hm," Hermione replied dizzily, winding a lock of hair around her finger and wrinkling her nose playfully at him.

"In ADDITION," he went on, flustered, "you will immediately return to your dormitory and change into your school uniform. 20 points from Gryffindor for disobeying school dress code." Banging his fist once more on the desk, Severus stomped toward the door. He could feel every pair of eyes in the room on his back.

"Label your samples and put them on my desk!" he bellowed, without looking back. "Class dismissed!"

He banged the door shut behind him and stalked toward his office. Everyone he met in the corridors gave him a wider berth than usual when they saw the expression on his face. A little Hufflepuff first-year actually whimpered in terror when he glanced at her briefly. It gave him a small measure of comfort.

Just then, a rotund monk in a painting to his left greeted him cheerfully, waving a wine jug. "Professor Snape, just heard about last night! Well done, sir, we're all so....,"

Snape froze in mid-step. Then without looking, shot one arm out, gripped the edge of the monk's frame, and abruptly flipped it around to face the wall. He ignored the muffled objections as he stormed onward.

()()()()()

It was a very long day. While Granger had done as he had demanded and changed back into her uniform, that was the only change. During lunch, he could not look at her without finding himself on the receiving end of yearning, lovesick stares. And it seemed that she was turning up everywhere he went.

Late in the afternoon, Severus finally decided to go to Albus Dumbledore for help. He glided around the corner, and as he approached the gargoyle statue at the end of the hall, the inhabitants of the portraits on either side of the hall burst into applause and cheers.

"Oh, DO shut up!" he snapped irritably, "Ice Mice!" he snapped as he stepped into the alcove.

()()()()()

"Every time I turn around, she's there," Snape complained. I come out of the library... she's there. I go into the storage vault... she's there."

He dropped wearily into the extra chair in front of Dumbledore's desk, just shaking his head in helpless disbelief. "I haven't had the courage to use the public men's lavatory," he continued, "For fear of her showing up in there, too."

A low chuckle issued from the white-bearded Headmaster where he sat behind his desk, calmly stroking his phoenix, Fawkes as the bird cuddled in his arms. Snape glared slightly.

"This isn't funny, Albus. Her behavior has seriously impeded my ability to teach my lessons," he complained.

"Severus," replied the older man, "You have faced multitudes of horrors in your lifetime, not the least of which was to be in league with Lord Voldemort." He smiled, and reached up to adjust his glasses. "And yet, the harmless attentions of a sweet little first-year girl unnerve you completely?"

The Potions master shook his head. "Sir, you don't understand. I have an image to uphold... I...,"

Just then there was a knock at the door. Both Snape and Dumbledore turned to look, the Headmaster's brow furrowing.

"I'm not expecting anyone," he said. "Come in!" he called, letting Fawkes hop back onto his perch.

The door swung open a little, and Hermione stuck her head in, looking with searching eyes around the office. When her gaze settled on Snape, her face blossomed into a beatific smile, and she came into the room.

"There you are!" she said excitedly, coming over to him. "I've been looking all over for you, Professor!" She looked adoringly at him.

Severus groaned and flopped back into the chair, with a helpless look at Dumbledore. To his annoyance, the ancient wizard's eyes were twinkling with merriment as he studied their young guest.

"Well, Miss Granger," the wizened old man said, "I'm glad to see that you're feeling better."

"Oh I feel wonderful, Headmaster," she said sweetly, but never taking her eyes off Snape, who was now looking anyplace but at her. "I've never felt so wonderful in my life."

She moved even closer to Severus, who seemed to be fighting the urge to flee, and held out her hands. The Potions master begrudgingly looked at her, then down at her offering. It was a large envelope, with his name scrawled in pink, loopy letters. He took it, reluctantly, and gave her a forced smile.

"Thank you," he muttered. The moment he turned back to Dumbledore, the smile was replace by a scowl. Albus promptly cleared his throat to keep from laughing.

"Well, Miss Granger," the old man said kindly, "We do appreciate you coming to see us, but I believe it's getting rather close to curfew, isn't it?"

She didn't answer, she was busy looking at Snape and sighing happily. Snape was glaring at his feet.

Dumbledore glanced at his Potions master thoughtfully, and then back at the girl. "Miss Granger," he said, bit more loudly.

With obvious reluctance, she tore her eyes off Severus and looked mildly at the Headmaster. "Mm?" she inquired rather giddily.

Albus smiled indulgently. "I said, I believe we are fast approaching curfew, my dear. You need to go back to your house." He made a small waving motion, hoping she would take the hint.

Giving the Potions master one last gaze of worship, Hermione waved a little at Dumbledore, and walked back out the door, closing it behind her. Once she was gone, Severus slowly raised his eyes to the headmaster again.

"Albus," he began, leaning in conspiratorially, his face serious "There's a risk that I could be discovered as a spy in the near future, and kidnapped by the Death Eaters."

Dumbledore looked concerned and leaned forward, placing his hands on the desk, wondering why the conversation had suddenly taken this dark turn.

"If that happens," Snape continued, maintaining the dead-serious tone, "you will have no problem locating me." He angled his head in the direction of Hermione's exit.

"Just follow her."

Albus gave a relieved chuckle. "So it would seem," he replied, slightly shaking his head, "How adorable."

"Adorable?" the Potions master demanded, standing up to angrily pace the office. "This is intolerable!" He waved one arm to punctuate, swirling his cloak around his body. "I knew this would happen."

Albus shook his head slowly. "But Severus, you must consider the circumstances," he said gently. "I think Miss Granger is just grateful. You did save her life, after all."

"I did my job, Albus," the ebony-eyed professor replied, exasperated. "As a teacher, one of my duties is protect our students. I am not some kind of hero to be fawned over and honored, I am a sensible man who did what anybody would do." He looked up to see if the older man understood him.

"That's all," he continued, "There's nothing more to it than that, I just don't see why Miss Granger cannot understand that." He folded him arms and looked rather petulantly at his fellow professor.

Forming a steeple with his fingers, the Headmaster just looked at him for a long time. When he spoke, his voice was soft, but still carried easily across the room to the fuming Potions master.

"Eleven-year-old girls see things very differently than you and I do, Severus," he said patiently, "Even, apparently, those as mature as Miss Granger." He smiled again, and stood up, moving to stand beside the younger man and laying a hand on his back.

"I urge you to have patience with her, my friend," he said, patting the taller man between his shoulder blades. "Take comfort in the fact that everything passes in time. This is no different."

Severus rolled his eyes, and needing to work off some nervous energy, slit the envelope Hermione had given him. Cautiously, he pulled the edge of something pink out of the envelope, paused, squinting, then pulled it out a bit further.

The Headmaster watched, curiously, as Snape read the front of what looked like a greeting card. The younger man's onyx eyes suddenly widened, and Dumbledore was intrigued.

"What does it say?" he asked jovially, leaning closer.

The man in black abruptly shoved the unopened card back into the envelope, then the whole thing into one of the spacious pockets of his cloak. "Excuse me, Headmaster," he murmured, reaching up to rub a hand over his brow, "But I think I need to go lie down for a bit."

Without waiting for permission, Snape turned on his heel, cloak billowing out around him, and hurried out the door. Behind him, Dumbledore just sighed, and tossed Fawkes a Pepper Imp. The phoenix twittered in delight as smoke poured out of its nostrils.

()()()()()

The next morning Minerva McGonagall was teaching her beginning Transfiguration class full of first-years. She had given Hermione a long look when the girl walked in wearing makeup for the first time she could remember.

In addition, it seemed the young lady was taking considerably more pride in her appearance. Her hair was beautifully styled and held in place with little glittering barrettes shaped like butterflies. She had enchanted them to actually flutter every now and then.

Minerva didn't give much thought to pondering over the sudden change in her pupil. She had assigned an essay the day before, and it was time to collect them. Now she moved around the classroom, gathering up the pieces of parchment and tucking them under her arm. She ended the circuit beside Hermione's desk, and was surprised that the brown-haired girl was not eagerly holding out her paper, as expected.

"Miss Granger, your essay please?" the professor asked brightly, with outstretched hand. Her pupil reached absently into her schoolbag and produced a piece of parchment with every visible square inch covered in writing.

"Thank you, Miss Granger," Minerva said, with a sigh. Reading Hermione's essays were always time-consuming. The girl was brilliant, but so long- winded.

She walked back to her desk, glancing at the document in her hand, "Now class, I...,"

Then she broke off, staring at the essay Hermione had just submitted. Rather than the expected eloquence, in perfect penmanship, on the subject of transforming birds, the page was filled with a loopy scroll.

Hermione Snape.... Mrs. Snape.... Mrs. Severus Snape.... Mrs. Hermione Snape-Granger.... Mrs. Hermione S. Granger....

It went on and on, all the way down the page. She flipped the paper over, and found more of the same covering the back side of the parchment. Minerva eyed her student warily, and was astounded to see her doodling the same phrases in the margin of her Transfiguration textbook.

"Miss Granger," she began, with no idea of what to say.

"Mm?" Hermione murmured hazily, looking up at her with a faraway, dreamy look in her eyes.

McGonagall started to speak, then thought better of it. "Nothing, dear," she said quickly. She turned on her heel and moved back to the head of the classroom, slipping the bizarre essay into her robe. She sat down and scribbled off a short note:

Severus... we must talk about Miss Granger. I will come to you after my class.

She folded and sealed the paper, and motioned to Seamus. When he came to stand before her, nervous and uncertain, she gave him a kind smile and handed him the note.

"Mr. Finnigan, you are excused from the remainder of the lesson. Please take that to Professor Snape right away."

The boy nodded, gathered his things, and jogged out the door. Minerva turned her attention back to the rest of her class.

"Now, then," she began, "Who can tell me the seven properties of Thadwhistle's Theory of Transmogrification?" To her amazement, Hermione did not even look up, let alone raise her hand. Minerva shook her head a little in bewilderment.

()()()()()

Later, Professor McGonagall arrived at Snape's office, to find the door closed and locked. Knowing the Potions master was expecting her, she knocked. Sure enough, she heard a small click as the door unlocked itself, followed by a monosyllabic, baritone grunt from within. Taking it as approval to enter, she opened the door and went in, then turned to close it behind her.

"Severus," she began, turning to him. Then she stopped short.

Snape was hunched in his chair. She blinked. Snape didn't hunch. Usually the man sat, stood, and walked so rigidly upright it made other people's bones hurt. But now he was hunched forward, elbows resting on the enormous desk, fingers massaging his temples as an enchanted icepack gently dabbed its way across his brow and scalp.

"Do you have a moment to talk about Granger?" Minerva asked, forcing down a grin as the obsidian eyes, usually showing no emotion but disdain, turned beseechingly up to meet her own.

"Help me, Minerva," he muttered, moving one hand to rub his brow.

Professor McGonagall shook her head slightly, not certain she had heard right. "Excuse me?" she asked, stepping closer.

Snape groaned and leaned back in the chair, lifting the icepack by its cap and dropping it with a wet plop onto his upturned face. When he spoke, his voice was muffled.

"Melp me.... Meez mriving me hrazy."

Seriously fighting a smile now, Minerva took a moment to clear her throat. "Do take that off your face so I can hear you properly."

The icepack was flung aside, and an expression that could only be described as petulant adorned the pale face of the Potions master.

"She's... driving... me... CRAZY." Each word was bit off shortly, as if Snape were struggling not to shout. Never taking his eyes off Minerva's, he reached across his desk and plucked up a large pink greeting card, obviously hand-made and adorned with glittery red hearts. He held it out, and thrust it at her a couple of times when she hesitated, before taking it.

"Just read the cover," he said, putting both hands over his face once more. "DON'T open it."

Minerva nodded curtly and perused the loopy, girly scrawl that decorated the cover of the card, the same as Hermione's Transfiguration 'essay.' Several times she coughed to cover up a laugh. On that card was printed the most sugary, silliest love poem she had ever read. Suddenly the strange essay began to make more sense.

She finished reading, and instinctively opened the card. At once, the sound of Hermione's voice, singing badly off-key, filled the room.

"Augh, no, close it! Close it!" Snape shouted, frantically waving a hand at her.

Minerva choked back a belly laugh and hastily slammed the card shut. She laid it gently back on the desk. When Snape squashed the card under an absolutely massive hard covered tome, she finally could resist no longer. She laughed.

He just glared at her, tapping his fingers on the desk, brows knitting and creasing his forehead.

"When you've quite finished...," he growled.

The older professor took a deep breath and wiped the mirth from her eyes. The expression on her comrade's face nearly set her off again, though, and so she quickly turned from him.

"I suspect this has to do with Miss Granger's incident with Cerran?" Minerva asked, conversationally.

A wordless growl was the only reply.

The Scottish woman smiled. "Oh Severus, I think it's sweet," she said warmly. "I mean, all professors deal with students developing crushes on them from time to time, little tokens of love arriving on their desks each day...."

"That card is not a token of love, that is assault with a deadly weapon...."

Minerva went on, ignoring him. "....And I'm sure you've been through this before." She shrugged. "How do you usually cope with lovesick female students?" She looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to confirm.

Snape's left eyebrow went up.

McGonagall snorted. "You mean to tell me that none of your students have ever fancied you?" she asked.

He just drummed his fingers on the desk.

The older professor gaped at him. "Never? Not once?" she asked, dumbfounded.

"You ARE the same Professor McGonagall that has been teaching beside ME for the last twelve years, are you not?" Snape asked, dryly.

The Transfiguration master blinked. "That's incredible," she said, "I mean even now, at my age, I still get flowers once in awhile." The corner of the pink card sticking out from under the book caught her eye, and she grinned.

"Well, I suppose there's a first time for everything. Miss Granger certainly seems to fancy you," she chuckled, "I seem to recall the word 'cute' coming up a number of times in her love poem...."

Snape's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I am Professor Severus L. Snape, I have been the Potions master for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry twelve years running, and I am known to be the strictest professor in the school's history." He glowered.

"I was once in the ranks of Voldemort. I am not a nice man. For Merlin's sake, I am a former Death Eater. I am not... CUTE, damn it."

Minerva shrugged. "Eye of the beholder."

Snape sighed, becoming frustrated. "You don't understand, because you've always coddled your students." He raised a hand as she began to protest, cutting her off. "I mean, you use kindness," he continued, "But I'm different from you." He paused to take a deep breath.

"My students fear me. They obey me, and strive to do their very best in my classes out of FEAR." He watched her, seeing if she understood.

She was just staring at him, shaking her head slightly as if in incomprehension. He pounded his fist on the desk, frustrated that he couldn't express himself clearly.

"I NEED that image!" he growled, "I NEED to be the school terror, I rely on it. It's the way I've taught for twelve years, and now...," He ran a hand through his hair, pushing the errant tendrils off his face, and stood up, leaning forward on the desk.

"Don't you see, Minerva? This incident with Granger... it's ruined everything."

McGonagall's eyes narrowed angrily. "Do you think she got herself attacked on purpose?" she demanded, "Just so that she could ruin your 'image'?"

Snape shook his head, "No, that's not what I'm saying. But it would have been better if I hadn't been around that night."

Minerva's eyes widened, and she inhaled very slowly, "You actually REGRET saving her?" she snapped, losing her temper.

Snape flinched. If she had slapped him, he could not have looked more stunned. He swallowed, and then opened his mouth as if to speak. But then his face went blank and he just looked away, refusing to meet her eyes. He moved away from his desk, turning his back on her, and stood as rigidly as a statue.

The silence was horrible. Tense, heavy, and horrible, and it went on and on.

The Transfiguration Professor paled slightly, raising one hand to her mouth as if she could not quite believe what she had said. She looked helplessly at her fellow teacher's back, noting the rock-steady, cramp-inducing tension in his shoulders.

She had seen this before; he was going into lock-down mode, trying to do his best impression of an unfeeling pillar of onyx. But she could see the faintest tremor in his long fingers as he held his arms firmly at his sides.

She took a deep breath, wincing at the unpleasant burning sensation in her throat, and stepped forward. He didn't turn as she came to stand behind him. Slowly, she reached up and put a hand on his shoulder. The muscles flinched at her touch, and she swallowed the lump that was trying its best to block her throat.

"Severus...," she began shakily, then stopped, not knowing what she could possibly say.

He didn't speak, and didn't turn. But he also did not make any obvious objections to her hand on his shoulder.

She waited a moment, then took the initiative and moved around to stand before him. Her woe lightened a little when he glanced down at her. They just stood there, facing each other for long minutes, their breathing the only sound.

Minerva suddenly realized that she'd never noticed how much taller he was than she. He stood a good head taller. It added to his character of the imposing, no-nonsense, hard-hearted swine as which the students knew him. But she had seen him vulnerable, and even weak at times. They had been through some very bad times together.

"I don't regret saving her."

His voice was soft, but it still pulled her out of her reverie, as they had both been silent for so long. She looked up at his face, and saw lines of pain around his black eyes, and tension in the set of his jaw.

"I just wish... I wish that it hadn't been me." Only someone who knew him well would have been able to hear the slightest hint of a tremor in his voice.

Feeling tears threatening behind her eyes, Minerva reached up and laid one hand on his chest. He bowed his head.

Taking a chance, she stepped closer, slipped her arms around his slim waist, and hugged him. He tensed for just a moment, then relaxed. She could feel him trembling slightly, and silently cursed herself again for her thoughtless words.

"Severus," she murmured, resting her cheek against his chest, "Oh my friend, I'm sorry." She sighed and looked up at him. "Can you forgive me?"

As a reply, his arms came around her, and squeezed gently. Then he looked down at her, and after a brief pause, gave a small, curt nod. He even managed a tight, thin little smile.

Minerva smiled back, and chuckled. "Good," she said, resting her head on his chest once more, "I wouldn't want to have to send you one of those cards." She smiled as he chuckled, his chest rumbling against her cheek.

They gave each other one last squeeze, and then stood apart. Snape sat down at his desk and picked up the melted icepack, which was now essentially a bag of water, and dabbed it up and down on his forehead.

"You know it will pass, Severus," McGonagall said supportively, coming to stand beside him. He shrugged a little, not looking especially convinced. Minerva tried again.

"This sort of thing always causes a lot of commotion for a short time," she added, "and then eventually everything always goes back to normal." She pulled a slight face, then added, "Or as normal as it gets at Hogwarts."

She was rewarded by another small chuckle, and it warmed her heart. Noticing her friend's ongoing difficulties with the melted icepack, McGonagall raised her wand and muttered a small incantation. The icepack promptly refroze.

"Thanks," Severus mumbled, eyes closed, head tilted back.

"Don't mention it," she replied with a grin. She walked around, examining some of the bottles and flasks lined up on the many shelves lining the walls of Snape's office.

"You know," she said, suddenly remembering something she'd read in a Muggle psychology text once, "I think that what you are going through with Miss Granger is called 'Hero Worship.'"

"Oh?" Snape answered blandly.

McGonagall ignored the tone and went on. "You see, it's been documented that individuals who have been rescued from some sort of peril will very often develop an unnatural attachment to the one who rescues them. I think I have the book in my office someplace, if you'd care to read about it."

Snape just groaned in reply.

She sighed. "Well, if you want her to stop this behavior that badly, why not talk to her about it? She's a very mature young lady, most of the time." She put her hands on her hips and looked encouragingly at him.

He groaned, but this time it had an affirmative tone to it. "Very well," he said, rubbing his face. "I'll arrange to meet with her tonight after dinner." He winced, moving his fingers to his temples again.

"Are you all right?" Minerva asked, stepping toward him in concern.

"My head is killing me," he grumbled. "That damned card...."

The other professor nodded, and pulled out her wand again. "Craniumus," she said loudly, pointing it at Snape's head.

The raven-haired man was silent for a moment, and then shook his head. "No better."

Minerva thought for a moment. Then her face brightened, and she waved her wand again. "Cerbellius!"

There was a short pause.

"Nope," muttered Snape.

"Migrainifore!"

Snape sighed. "I think I must resort to aspirin."

She waved the wand again. "Aspirin!"

The Potions master lifted his head and just looked at her.

McGonagall blinked, then snickered in embarrassment. Meanwhile Snape had turned and stretched one hand toward the cabinet against the back wall.

"Accio aspirin," he said loudly. The cabinet door flew open and a tiny white bottle shot across the room and into his hand. He took hold of the cap and twisted, but it didn't come off. With an irritated sigh, he waggled the bottle at Minerva.

"Has anyone come up with a spell to open these bloody Muggle child-proof caps?"

()()()()()

That evening, he sat in his office, preparing a lesson plan as he waited for Granger. He had sent word that he wanted to meet with her via one of her housemates, and had bypassed dinner to think out how he was going to handle his talk with her.

Behind him, the door creaked open, and a breathy voice called to him.

"You wanted to see me Severus?"

He had a sharp urge to berate Hermione for addressing him by his first name again. But he had decided to try kindness, rather than coldness, to rectify this situation. Best to start off on the right foot.

"Please close the door and sit down," he said, pointing to the chair opposite his desk. She did as he asked, and watched him raptly, hands folded neatly in her lap.

He pretended to be focused on the papers on his desk, but was in reality sneaking glances at her. She had that look in her eyes again. That look of unashamed worship, directed at him. He closed his eyes, gathering strength, determined to put a stop to it all.

"Miss Granger," he began, looking steadily across at her, "You can no longer behave toward me the way you have been."

The look of adoration changed to one of mild confusion. He pressed on.

"I understand that you are grateful," he said with uncharacteristic gentleness, "But that gratefulness has manifested itself in an improper way. You are making me most uncomfortable with all this attention, and in addition, you are making it difficult for me to teach." He studied her expectantly. "Do you understand me?"

She nodded slowly. He gave a relieved sigh, but then Hermione's lower lip began to tremble, and tears welled up in her eyes.

Snape groaned inwardly. He'd dealt with her tears far more than he wanted to already. "Miss Granger, please, you have to understand what I am saying...."

She burst into tears, looking up at him with an expression of woeful incomprehension. "You don't love me!" she said accusingly. "Why not? I love you so much... why don't you love me?"

Severus collapsed against the back of his chair, and pressed his hands over his face. Things were going spectacularly so far.

Hermione stood and stepped forward, still crying. "Why don't you love me?" she asked again, tearfully, moving around the desk, "Is it because I'm not pretty?"

He looked up, irritation warring with pity. In the end, pity won out, and he leaned forward, beckoning her closer, with kindness in his black eyes.

"Come here," he said softly. She walked to him, sniffling pathetically, tears streaming down her face. Severus reached out and took her little hands in his, brushing his thumbs across them.

"You are very pretty," he said quietly. "You're one of the prettiest in your class." He cocked an eyebrow at her. "And you may NOT tell anyone I said that, understood?"

She beamed at him through her tears, nodding. He took a deep breath for courage, and swallowed before going on.

"You are also," he continued, "Eleven years old." He waited to see if she would object. When she remained silent, he continued. "You're eleven, and I am... considerably older... old enough to be your father."

"But I don't care that you're older," she began, tears starting afresh, "I love you!"

Snape released her hands and stood up then, motioning for her to sit down in his chair. She did, dabbing at her eyes with her sleeve. He sighed, and began pace around the small room, trying to choose the right words.

"No," he began, shaking his head slightly, "You don't love me. You just think you do, because your feelings are confused right now."

"No, I do, I truly do!" she cried.

He held up a hand, and went on. "What you are feeling is infatuation, perhaps, but not love. You're just a child, you don't understand love, yet." He heard the tone of his voice turning to frustration and anger, and he paused and took a deep breath, turning away from her to regain control. When he spoke again, his voice was softer, and calmer.

"I have no doubt that you will someday fall in love with a fine man, Miss Granger," he said gently. "And it will be someone who loves you in return." He turned to her again, and slowly shook his head.

"But that man... is not me," he added, softly but firmly, "No matter how much you wish it to be so."

Her face crumpled, and she sobbed into her hands. Snape was lost. He had tried everything he could think of. What more could he say to the girl?

"It will all pass," he said finally, falling back on the philosophy that both Dumbledore and McGonagall had tried to impress upon him. "A month from now, the sun will still be moving across the sky, just like always. You'll have forgotten all about this."

She shook her head, face buried in her hands. The Potions master decided to try another route.

"You know," he said, somewhat brightly, "Midterms are coming up, and I know how you love to study for them." He looked at her hopefully, wondering if he was getting through to her at all.

She shook her head, and smiled sadly up at him. "I don't care about those silly exams," she said, "All I care about is you."

He gaped at her. "What about your grades? Your classes? Your goal was to be Head Girl one day, was it not?" This was starting to go from strange to just plain surreal.

She shrugged. "I don't care about classes anymore, I don't care about grades."

Snape froze, eyeing her warily, suspicion building up inside his head. This wasn't right. He knew Granger's study habits and desire for perfection in all things related to her schoolwork. For her to suddenly not care about anything she once held at utmost importance was too much to write off as a simple schoolgirl crush or hero worship.

He walked slowly in a circle around her, a theory beginning to take shape. "So," he said, trying carefully to ask the right questions. "So, if I asked you to, you would drop out of Hogwarts?"

She looked at him with a slight hint of distrust. "Well yes... but only if I can still be with you."

Making a rather radical decision, he moved to the cabinet and pulled out a sharp knife that he used for slicing ingredients for his potions. Bringing it back with him, he laid it on the desk.

"All right, Miss Granger," he said. "You claim that you love me, but I want proof." He pointed to the knife. "I want you to cut off your hand."

She looked up at him curiously. "You mean, you'll love me if I cut off my hand?" she asked uncertainly.

Snape clenched his jaw, then replied, simply, "Yes."

Hermione smiled up at him, and eagerly moved to the desk. She cheerfully rolled up her left sleeve, picked up the knife. But as she touched the blade to her skin, Severus lunged at her with a sharp cry of alarm. He snatched the knife away and flung it aside, then knelt and grabbed her by the shoulders.

"What do you think you're DOING?!" he roared, shaking her slightly for emphasis. "How could you even consider...?" He broke off when he realized she had gone limp, and was staring blankly through him. His heart lurched for a moment; he hadn't shaken her hard enough to hurt her.

"Hermione? Hermione!" He waved a hand before her face. There was no response. Snape muttered a curse, and for the second time in three days, scooped her up in his arms and headed for the hospital wing.

()()()()()

"We're really sorry."

"We thought it would be funny."

"We would have never done it if we had known...,"

"Something like this would happen."

Fred and George Weasley were seated in Dumbledore's office. The Headmaster was watching them from across his desk, eyes showing not hint of their usual amused glimmer. The ancient wizard turned toward Professor Snape, who also looked spectacularly un-amused.

"So, gentlemen," Albus murmured, "to liven up Saint Valentines Day, you snuck into the hospital wing, and replaced Madame Pomfrey's Anti-Nightmare Draught with... what did you call it?"

"Weasleys' Own Super-Strength Elixir d'Amour," the twins replied in stereo.

"We thought the French would make it sound more exotic-like," added Fred.

Dumbledore nodded a little and waved for them to be quiet. He sat silently for a long moment, thinking. When he looked up, he directed his gaze at Severus.

"Professor Snape, do you have anything you'd like to say?" he asked politely.

The man in black glowered at the red-headed twins. "Nothing suitable for children's ears, sir," he replied in a low growl.

Fred and George went pale. Fred looked pleadingly from the Potions master to Dumbledore.

"Please believe us, Headmaster," he said, "we would never do anything to hurt somebody on purpose."

"No way," George added enthusiastically.

The ancient wizard stood up, and came around the desk to stand before the two boys, his hands clasped behind his back. He studied the two of them for a while, glancing from them to Snape, and then back.

"Well, Misters Weasley," he said at last, "I believe that you had no intention of causing anything more than minor inconveniences with your prank. In addition, the fact that you came forward and confessed counts highly in your favor. Therefore, you will NOT be expelled."

The two boys both let out great sighs of relief.

"Instead, I will send word to your parents...," Dumbledore continued.

"Howler city for us, mate," Fred muttered to George.

The Headmaster went on, ignoring the comment. "Plus you will both serve a month of detention for Professor Snape, as it was he who suffered the biggest brunt of your shenanigans." He turned to the towering dark-haired wizard and spread his hands.

"They are yours to do with as you see fit, Professor," Albus said solemnly. But Severus saw the glint of humor in his eye.

The Potions master fixed his two newest victims with his most evil leer, his obsidian eyes glittering with devilish glee. What he was plotting would most likely be the stuff of new students' nightmares for years to come.

The twins looked nervously at Snape, then back at Dumbledore.

"Headmaster," Fred began, "Are you sure we can't just be expelled?"

"Please?" added George, with wide eyes.

()()()()()

It had been very easy to brew an antidote to the Weasley twins' rather- amateurish love potion. Hermione had been one of only three students who had been dosed with the tainted draught, but it had affected her more strongly than the other two, both Ravenclaw boys. Nurse Pomfrey suggested that the incredible amount of stress on her system when she took the potion was probably to blame.

Poppy reported to Dumbledore and Severus that neither Hermione nor the other two students had any recollection of their behavior while under the potion's influence. That was grand news for Snape. He wanted nothing more to forget the whole incident, and it would be that much easier if Granger had already forgotten it. It had been a most disagreeable few days.

But now everyone affected had been given the antidote, and things were more or less back to normal for all parties affected. It was a new day, and time once more for Potions with Professor Severus Snape.

As he had done for twelve years, Snape slammed through the door into his classroom, startling all the students to attention with the bang of the door against the wall. He moved to the head of the class, and took a brief look around at his pupils. He saw absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. It was as if it had never happened. With a relieved sigh, he began the lesson.

"Since midterm exams are right on top of us, today we will learn to prepare the Draught of Wakefulness, a potion useful for maintaining alertness during late-night study sessions." He turned and moved to the blackboard.

As he picked up the chalk to list the instructions, he found himself mentally going over the past few days. It brought a sneer of distaste to his face. What an unbearable thing it was, to be loved. How inconvenient, to have another human being care for you to the point of making themselves ridiculous. An utter embarrassment to all parties involved, affection was an emotional security blanket for the needy.

The students were writing intently, every face down as they fastidiously copied his notes, trying to keep up with his hand as it flew across the chalkboard.

"Attention here," he ordered, turning from the board. Every face turned to him. He scanned them all, looking for any hint of vacancy in their eyes, any shred of evidence that one of them was not giving him their undivided attention. His gaze settled on Granger, and he had to stop himself from instinctively averting his gaze from the adoring doe-eyes that had been the norm for the last couple of days.

But now... No. She was just looking at him expectantly. No differently than any of the other students. Her quill in hand, she waited patiently for him to continue. She no longer watched him with rapt, adoring attention. She was simply one more student.

Turning back to the board, Snape fought down a satisfied smile. Everything was back to normal here, and now that the Weasley twins had begun to tell of the impending terrors of their detentions with him, his reputation was firmly back in place.

"And then you will add...,"

Once more, he was the horror of Hogwarts.

"Two units of dried walrus tusk, crushed...,"

Once more, no one found him the least bit appealing.

"Then a dram of peahen quills...,"

Once more, he was unloved.

CRACK!

The class jumped ever so slightly as the piece of chalk suddenly broke in two in Snape's hand. There was a pause, just barely, before the tall professor quickly tossed the broken chalk aside, swept another piece up in his long fingers, and continued to list ingredients.

"And eight grains of Pescotto sand."

Hermione jotted down the final ingredient with a small grin of satisfaction at her usual impeccable penmanship. This potion would be easy. And she was certainly eager to try it out. It was so annoying when the need for sleep interrupted her studies.

She glanced up, and quickly schooled the grin off her face as she made eye contact with Professor Snape. He didn't seem to notice, luckily, just turned back to the chalkboard.

Outside, the sun moved slowly across the sky.

THE END