A/N: This story was written for the Summer SSHG Exchange for Averygoodun who wanted a fun non-HBP compliant story. A big thanks to Revena for beta reading. Please leave a review, since as my name suggests, I suffer from great vanity.

Disclaimer: J.K. Rowling owns Harry Potter and characters.

A Sneaking Suspicion

Monday:

The week started out innocently enough. Only two weeks into the school year and already house rivalries raged as students kept their eyes on the hourglasses in the Great Hall for any small changes. First years started to make it to class on time now that they knew how to coax the staircases in the right directions (and which ones were easier than others; the east wing second floor landing was the easiest to control, especially if you addressed it as sweetie pie.)

Filch had collected a record number of contraband items sold by the Weasleys and Snape had made exactly six and a half students cry. (One fortuitous girl sniffed and sniffled quite a bit but there had been no sign of actual tears so the staff decided he couldn't fully count it.)

Professor Granger rounded the corner on her way to her second hour of Third Year Transfiguration, after having just deducted points from little Tommy Ellis for hexing Amelia Grass while her back was turned. She pulled him aside and suggested that hexing girls was one way to get their attention, but inviting them to Hogsmeade for a butterbeer was a better approach.

The sight that greeted her was surprising, one might even say horrible. Professor Snape stood with his wand pointed at Sybill Trelawney (Hermione always hesitated associating the word "professor" with her). His face was contorted with rage and bits of spittle flew when he spoke, and yet his words were soft, but cold enough to chill anyone standing in the room, "Don't push me any further on this matter, you talentless hag, or I will make sure that you get exactly what you deserve."

Trelawney trembled, her back pressed into the stone wall behind her, and gave out a strangled cry. She sounded almost like a dying bird. Hermione opened her mouth to protest, if not the treatment of the woman, then certainly hexing her in front of the students. But Minerva swept in before she could get out more than an indignant huff.

"Severus! Stop this immediately!" the Headmistress crowed. "And you, Sybill, calm yourself. You are both adults and I expect you to start acting like it. I want to see you both at the day's end in my office, do you understand?"

Both parties nodded, and Snape put away his wand reluctantly. "And you get to class," Minerva yelled at the small crowd that had gathered in the hallway, no one brave enough to say anything to Snape, but unable to keep their eyes off the scene playing out before them. Hermione knew there would be whispers and conjectures flying around the castle no matter what anyone did now. Waiting for the crowds to clear, she made her way towards Professor Snape.

"Just what did she say to you to set you off?" she asked, trying to hide her disdain at his impetuousness and failing.

"None of your business, Granger," he snarled and with a swoosh of robes stalked off to class. Hermione sighed. She didn't bother reminding him it was Professor Granger now. He never listened.

But she did wonder what Trelawney had done to upset him so. It must have been something spectacular to penetrate his normally iron-tight control.

When no answer presented itself, she headed to her own classroom where with comfortable predictability her students were discussing how Snape had hexed Trelawney so badly that her body had flown up in the air, turned over twice, and fallen with a sickening thud against the wall. She wondered if she might be able to get the true story out of him when he had calmed down, perhaps by dinner, or from Minerva. She didn't even consider Trelawney as an option.

Later that night, at dinner, she sat in her habitual seat at the end of the staff table next to Professor Snape. The Headmistress had explained on her first day that having no seniority meant she would be subjected to Snape during meals, although it wasn't as bad as all that in Hermione's mind. She usually found something to talk about, and he usually found the wherewithal to grunt at her to be quiet. It was as harmonious a relationship as could be expected.

But tonight she didn't try to engage him in a discussion about the recent Potions Monthly or the latest scandal gracing the front page of the Daily Prophet. What she really wanted to know was what had made him so angry.

"What did Sybill say to you this morning, Snape?" she asked as she sat down.

Snape grunted and busied himself with serving himself some ham. Hermione frowned.

"Talking about it is better than keeping it inside, you know," she said, taking the plate of ham from him when he finished. "You're less likely to blow up and kill someone that way."

"I have talked about it ad nauseum with Minerva this afternoon," he snarled. "I have no wish to repeat the ordeal with you now."

He speared the food on his plate with a burst of vengeance. Hermione just stared as he narrowed his eyes at her before shoving a very large forkful into his mouth. She decided to change tactics.

"In that case, did I tell you I received the newest Teacher's Digest in the post today?"

"I don't know why you persist in reading that tripe."

"Because it's full of helpful articles about teaching methods," she explained, taking a delicate bite of green beans. Just because Snape ate with no manners did not mean she had to. She swallowed and laid down her fork. "And I plan on telling you all about them. Every last detail and what I thought about it. Unless, of course you'd like to talk about something else."

Snape raised his eyebrow at that. Hermione held her breath, waiting for his response. Had she really just bribed him to talk by promising to be quiet?

But he disappointed her. "I think there was an interesting letter to the editor this month about how their soft approaches lead to a lack of discipline and a dangerous classroom environment."

"You read it?"

"I wrote it," he admitted with a creeping smile.

"I should have known it was you. Dangerous classroom environment indeed! More like a gaggle of dunderheads more likely to blow themselves up than learn a simple potion," she said, quoting the article from memory.

"I do have a way with words," Snape said with that same sinister smile. Hermione shook her head and let herself be drawn into yet another debate about different teaching styles.

It wasn't until later that she realized he had never told her what she really wanted to know. He always had been a sneaky bastard.

Tuesday:

Years later when asked to recount the story, Professor Hermione Granger would assert that by Tuesday she had forgotten the events of Monday, that in truth she was just looking for Professor Sprout in greenhouse ten where a fifth year claimed she had seen the portly professor last.

But rather than Sprout, Hermione found, or stumbled onto rather, the Potions master. Dressed in his habitual black with his lanky hair hanging down like a curtain in his face, he stood with his sleeves pushed back and his hands buried in dirt.

Hermione nearly asked him if he had seen Pomona, but stopped herself when she heard him muttering. It had never occurred to her that Severus Snape, one-time spy, feared teacher, and prickly colleague actually talked to himself. Ducking behind a rather large potted plant, she watched him unobserved.

He was repotting a lovely specimen of flower, its golden orange streaked with red reminding her of a summer sunset.

"Now I expect you to take to this new arrangement without any fuss, certainly not like last time. I need you looking your best by the end of the week, do you hear?" he said, addressing the plants.

Hermione stifled a giggle at his stern seriousness. She had been wrong. Severus Snape did not talk to himself, but he did talk to his plants. Briefly, she wondered if there was some way to tease him about it without letting on that she had spied on him. She didn't think so. But this stolen moment did afford her a chance to steal a real look at him, something she really hadn't done before now.

He was the same sarcastic and stern man she had always known. And yet, here by himself, with his posture relaxed, his sleeves rolled up, and talking to his plants, he seemed much more at ease than any other time in Hermione's memory. Almost, dare she think it, nice?

He muttered some more as he scooped dirt from a large bin into the pots holding the flowers, patting it down carefully, almost lovingly, with his hands. She couldn't catch it all but she did manage to hear: "finally get what she deserves."

Hadn't she just heard those same words from him the day before? Suddenly the previous day's events were not so forgotten, and she wondered what he meant exactly. He had refused to talk to her about it at dinner the night before and Minerva had scoffed when she asked, telling her "to mind her own business."

When Snape finished, he stood up straight and wiped his dirty hands on his robes. "Five points from Hufflepuff for getting my robes dirty," he said, frowning at the greenery before him.

She frowned. Never before in her life had she met someone so determined to be unfair. No wonder the Slytherins led in house points with Snape for their head of house. She reminded herself to make sure to award the next Hufflepuff she knew five points for breathing quietly. With him looking ready to leave, Hermione decided that now was the best time to approach him.

"Professor Snape, I didn't expect to see you in here," Hermione said, coming out of her hiding place and trying to act nonchalant.

"Granger," he grunted, looking slightly surprised. He frowned at her in the same manner he always did, as if someone had shoved something foul smelling under his overly large nose. "Pomona is kind enough to provide me with some space to grow different plants I can use in my potions work."

"Why can you call her Pomona but can't manage my first name?" Hermione asked; it bordered closely on a whine. She took a step closer to further the challenge.

But Snape just rolled his eyes. They had this conversation frequently. "Because Pomona offers something that helps me with my job, while you continue to detract from it by being irritating," he said in a bored tone.

"That's not true," Hermione argued. "I partner you at Euchre each week. Surely that must count for something."

In her second week as a professor and Head of House five years ago, Flitwick had approached her about their weekly card game. He even gave her first pick of partner. She immediately picked Severus, thinking of the many advantages he could bring to the table. It wasn't until later that they informed her that Legilimency was considered table talk and was therefore banned.

"And we've lost each week for over a month now," Snape countered. Hermione blushed. She hated to admit that she had a competitive streak, but losing to Filius and Pomona again and again took its toll.

"That's a lovely flower. What's its name?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Iocanus," he answered, narrowing his eyes. "What are you doing in here? Don't you have a curriculum meeting with Minerva this afternoon?"

Hermione straightened her spine and looked him in the eye. "I'm looking for Pomona. And not that it's any of your business but, yes, I have a meeting. However, it isn't until three."

He made a show of pulling his pocket watch out and informing her it was five past three. She ignored his smirk as she hurried from the greenhouse, hoping the Headmistress wasn't too displeased by her tardiness. If anything, she could always blame Snape for making her late.

Wednesday:

Professor Hermione Granger had an insatiable curiosity for most things. This extended to surly Potions professors and their plants. She could mark third year essays, or she could stop by the library and look up the flower she had seen the day before. It took less than a second to decide to pay a visit to her favorite place.

She found the book she needed easily enough in the Herbology section, dusty from disuse and with browning edges. However, on a page halfway through, with a "Hazel loves Howard" scribbled in the corner, she found what she was looking for:

The roots of the Iocanus flower are most often used as a base for one of the most insidious poisons, Iocane powder. It has no discernable taste, making it an easy weapon for assassins to use in their victims' drinks. Humbert the Haughty d. 578 employed several wine tasters in fear of this dangerous poison.

Hermione gasped, slamming the book shut. The bang echoed through the dusty library, and she cast an apologetic look to the nearby students who had jumped at the sudden noise.

If Snape was growing that flower….

And he was angry enough with Trelawney to hex her front of the students…

There was only one conclusion. Actually, there was more than one, but the most obvious, the most sinister was staring her in the face. She had to do something. She grabbed up the book and stood up only to find herself face to face with the very man she suspected as an assassin.

"Snape!" she cried in surprise. She could feel her cheeks flushing and her breathing increased.

Madame Pince glared at her for the outburst and hissed at her to be quiet.

"Granger," he replied smoothly, cocking one inky eyebrow at her.

"I need to speak to you. Now," Hermione said. He furrowed his brow, but he followed her when she motioned for him to follow her into the stacks.

"Are you looking for a liaison in the library, Granger? I realize that books turn you—"

"Please," she said desperately, cutting his sarcastic tirade off. "Whatever it is you're thinking about doing, you must reconsider."

He looked at her sternly then. "And just what do you know about what I'm thinking?"

Hermione tried to speak her mind without letting him know that she had spied on him in the greenhouse the day before. She didn't want him to think she was a busybody. "I know there's someone who's making you think about doing something reckless. And all I'm saying is that you should be careful. Think it through."

Snape clenched his fists. "Think it through?" he asked. "You don't agree that it would be welcome?"

Hermione smiled at the thought of no more Sybill Trelawney making bogus predictions at dinner or at staff meetings and laid her hand on his arm. Ignoring the way both his eyebrows reached his scalp at her casual touch, she told him, "Of course it would be welcome, but there is the law to think about. I don't want to see you in Azkaban."

"The law?" He looked at her baffled.

"Hermione Granger!" Madame Pince exclaimed, coming around the corner. "I would think that you out of anybody would know how to behave in a library. You've had your warning, now get out!" She pointed her long spindly finger towards the door.

Hermione turned to Snape. "I'll see you later." He nodded and she heard Irma issue him one more warning before she expelled him too.

Thursday:

Hermione had gone to bed Wednesday night with a sense that perhaps she had changed Snape's mind. He had heard her out, which was more than he usually did. But just to be sure, she resolved to keep a close eye on him just in case.

She woke the next morning to a jet-black owl on her windowsill, hooting to announce its arrival. Hermione crawled out of bed and took the letter from its beak, petting its head absently as she did so. There was no name on the outside of the envelope, but the bird had delivered it to her, so she must be the recipient. And if she wasn't then there would be no way to tell unless she opened it. Without another thought she tore it open.

It began with "Dear Severus,"

She should have stopped then. Legally, ethically, morally…but she couldn't help it. She read on despite herself.

Thank you for your letter. I'm doing fine. Not that you inquired, but I thought you might like to know all the same.

As to the content of your note, I suggest you proceed. Why wait? Seize the day. Merlin knows I remember her as an irritating self righteous swot who acted as though she knew things no one else did, but then so did you. With the right potion, I'm sure you can reach an amicable (or not so amicable) solution. Malfoys have always believed you can have your cake and eat it too.

I wish you happiness and success. It is good to hear you are plotting again. Life is too dull without some sort of intrigue with which to occupy oneself.

Hermione should have felt guilty about reading Professor Snape's mail, but the rising panic that she held in her hand definitive proof that he was planning something drastic overwhelmed any sense of propriety regarding his right to privacy. Murderers were not entitled to privacy.

She had to stop him. And she had to stop him now. Quickly she got dressed and hurried down to breakfast.

She arrived just in time. As soon as she walked into the Great Hall, she noticed Trelawney lifting her glass to her lips. Hermione pulled out her wand and pointed it at Trelawney. A bright red light burst out her wand and blasted the cup the Divination professor held in her hand. It exploded quite dramatically with a loud boom that echoed throughout the Great Hall and sprayed everyone within ten feet.

The effects of such a display were immediate and dramatic in nature. The students quieted as every eye turned towards the teacher's table and then they burst into a roar of cacophonous speculation. Trelawney screamed and dove under the table while Snape tackled Hermione to the ground in an attempt to keep her from further attacks.

"Are you insane?" he hissed in her ear.

Hermione tried to shift away from him, but he held her tightly, his heavy weight pressing her spine painfully into the hard stone floor.

"Are you?" she retorted. "Now let me up." She wiggled to no avail.

"I'm not the one who just attacked another professor."

"No, that was earlier in the week," she said, giving up on getting away.

Minerva stood gracefully, with a slight roll of her eyes, and quieted the crowd. With peace restored, she beckoned Sybill from under the table and motioned for Snape to release Hermione.

"I am, perhaps, not the best example to follow," Snape said, getting up and then offering his hands to aid her. She took them and let him pull her to standing.

"I just don't want to see you hurt or in trouble," Hermione murmured, looking intently on her now dusty robes. She didn't want him to see the rapidly spreading blush in her cheeks as the embarrassment of what had finally hit her.

"What did you say?" Snape asked. He hadn't let go of her hands, and she felt his grip tighten for a moment.

"Nothing," she said. "I feel a little woozy."

He handed her off to Flitwick with instructions to escort her to the infirmary.

"Keep an eye on her," he murmured to the Ravenclaw Head of House. Hermione frowned. Wasn't it supposed to the other way around? And how could she keep an eye on him while in the infirmary?

After some time spent in a bed, gazing out the window, Hermione decided she had acted rashly. There was little to no evidence that Severus had planned anything devious today. He had asked his plants to be in good condition by the end of the week, the memory of which still made her giggle, which in turn convinced Madame Pomfrey she really had gone mad. And since it was only Thursday, she could only suppose that anything dastardly would take place either tomorrow or Saturday.

That gave her twenty-four hours to come up with a plan. Eight of which she spent in hospital since Pomfrey decided that she had gone round the bend and prescribed a day in bed. Finally, after dinner, Snape came to escort her back to her room.

"I've convinced the Headmistress that you are merely stressed and overworked, which led to the lamentable display this morning," Snape told her when they reached her rooms. Hermione nodded. "Since I've been lying for you, it would be nice to know what caused your outburst."

"What caused yours?" she asked. She hadn't attacked Trelawney outright like had had, just the cup of pumpkin juice in her hand.

Snape glared. "Are you coming to Euchre tonight?" he asked, avoiding her question.

"I can't play tonight," she lied. "I have…I have a headache."

Snape actually looked concerned. So much so that Hermione felt a prickle of guilt. A prickle that only got worse when he offered to bring her a headache potion.

"No thank you," she said quickly as he turned to fetch it. "There's no need. You're right. I'm just overtired and need to go to bed early."

"Are you sure?" he asked. Hermione nodded. "I can send a house elf with some tea if you would prefer."

"I don't…I mean…that would be nice, thank you," she finally managed to say.

"I'll send Dobby up to you. And get some rest. I won't tolerate another week lost, especially due to forfeiting." He said the last with a sneer, prompting Hermione to roll her eyes.

"We might win if you would stop picking the opposite of what I have in my hand as trump," she argued.

"I would know what you had in your hand if you would just use your feet to tell me," he retorted. The familiar argument seemed to perk him up a bit and if Hermione didn't know any better she might even say he looked liked he was enjoying himself.

"I will not cheat, especially not by playing footsie with you under the table. Now go away, you miserable man, so I can sleep."

He bowed and left her, though she swore she heard him mutter "ungrateful harpy" under his breath as he did so.

Friday:

Professor Granger felt energized and ready to take on the world Friday morning or, if not the world, then surly Potions masters bent on murdering desperate Divination professors. But her optimism was very short-lived. Shortly after breakfast, in keeping with her intent to stay close to Snape in case he tried anything, she overheard a very disturbing conversation.

"It's not a good idea, it's a bloody horrible idea!" she heard Filch say.

"Of course it's a good idea," Severus said.

Hermione slid behind a suit of armor in hopes of getting a better view of the argument. "Hello, there," the metal man said in a flirtatious tone.

"Shhhh, I can't hear," she said, putting her index finger to her mouth.

"I just need her out of here--," Severus continued on, but Hermione couldn't hear the rest over the indignant protests of the armor next to her. She pointed her wand at it and threatened it with a charm that would cover it in rust.

"Hussy!" it said, covering up most of Filch's response.

"—thought about the bookshop?" the caretaker asked.

"Even better," Snape answered. "I'll do it tomorrow morning."

"Best do it tonight, if you want to make it to the party on time," Filch said.

"Now there's an idea," Snape said.

He said something else to Filch, but the two began walking down the hallway away from her and she couldn't hear the rest. Hermione bit her lip. She had to do something before tonight. Before Snape had time to get to the bookshop. Or lure Trelawney to the bookshop. She wasn't sure how the bookshop fit, actually, but she would figure it out --just not at the moment. At the moment, she had a class to teach.

Immediately following the last class of the day, in which Amelia Hardaway had succeeded in turning her hedgehog into a tea kettle, but unfortunately one that spewed hot liquid (that smelled very suspicious, but Hermione tried not to think about it) over anyone within ten feet, she went in search of Professor Snape.

She found him in his lab, and very much like she had found him days earlier, with his sleeves rolled up, his posture relaxed, and with a look of intense concentration on his face.

He even talked to his potions, she learned. "One more fig and you should be just a shade lighter than lavender," he told the liquid in his cauldron. Hermione couldn't resist saying something this time. She walked up beside him and peered down.

"At least your potions listen to you," she said with a grin as the potion faded from a midnight blue to the right shade of light purple. He glanced down to glare at her.

"What do you want, Granger?" he asked, sounding annoyed. But then again he always sounded annoyed, so Hermione supposed she might call it sounding normal.

"Peace on earth and a million Galleons so I can retire early to a tropical island," she told him with an exaggerated sigh.

"I heard a rumor that you have a birthday tomorrow, perhaps you should wish for that when you blow out all of your candles," he said, looking back down at his potion. He took up a spoon and she could hear him counting the revolutions under his breath.

Hermione sighed a real sigh this time and sat on the stool next to him. "It's not a big deal, really," she told him. She had plans to sleep in, eat cake for breakfast, and then forget about it.

"But you're turning thirty?" He wore a wicked smile now.

"And what of it?" she asked, becoming defensive. "Aren't you nearing seventy by now?"

"Fifty," he corrected her. "And that's hardly middle-aged for a wizard. You're hardly past adolescence at thirty." Hermione opened her mouth to retort but stopped at his suddenly reflective demeanor. "Although you were always more mature than your classmates."

"Thank you," she said, genuinely surprised to hear a compliment coming from him. She pretended not to see him roll his eyes.

"Although your taste in friends has always been deplorable," he said, ruining the earlier compliment.

"That explains why I'm down here with you then and not upstairs nattering away with Minerva," Hermione retorted.

He stopped short and glanced over at her. "You consider us friends?"

"Of course I do, you silly man. What else would you call this?" She waved her hand between the two of them to emphasize her point.

He returned to his stirring, not saying anything for a long moment. "I suppose you mean other than a nuisance," he said finally.

"Admit it, you would miss me if I ever left."

"Severely."

Or at least that what it sounded like to Hermione. But she couldn't be sure. It didn't sound like something Severus Snape would say, certainly not to her at any rate.

"What was that?" she asked, just to be sure.

"What was what?" He gave her a blank look and she knew right then that he wouldn't be repeating anything.

"What are you brewing?" she asked instead.

"Something deadly and dangerous," he said. Hermione blanched. Surely, he wouldn't brew a poison in broad daylight where anyone might catch him at it.

She tried to remain nonchalant. "Isn't something that's deadly inherently dangerous?"

"Depends on how you view death," he quipped. He looked up and saw her look of dismay. "Seriously, Granger, it's a headache potion."

"I knew that," she said quickly. He looked at her suspiciously. She looked nervously about the room in an effort to avoid his dark and discerning eyes, tapping her fingers against the smooth wooden workbench.

"Besides, I keep the deadly poisons locked up in my quarters," he said, finally turning away from her and back to his cauldron. "Until I need them, of course."

"And when is that?" she asked.

"I don't know. How long were you planning on hanging about this afternoon?"

"Seriously, Severus," she said, placing her hand on his wrist. She heard his sharp intake of breath, but she didn't withdraw. He would hear her out. "You can't do this."

"I've been doing it for many years," he said sternly, finally shaking her off. "Quite well too. Are you sure you're alright? You've been acting very strangely lately. Have you been anywhere near the Weasley twins recently?"

"No, no, I've just learned some things recently that lead me to believe that you—that you…" she trailed off.

She couldn't bring herself to say the words. She hardly believed it of him herself. In her mind, she knew he had been a Death Eater. She knew that at one time he must have committed some horrible atrocities, but she also believed that people could change. And even if Severus Snape might never be called a "good man" he might at least be called a "new man." And she liked him just the way he was – sarcastic, witty, occasionally caring, and most importantly, not in Azkaban.

"That I what?" he asked.

"Nothing," she mumbled. "I'll see you at dinner."

He furrowed his brow but didn't say anything else. Hermione slunk out of his office, leaning against the cool stone of the dungeon wall in the hallway.

She paced back and forth in the hallway for over thirty minutes before making up her mind. Peering around the corner of the doorway, she spotted Severus heading into his supply closet. He took out a heavy metal skeleton key from his pocket – to unlock his deadly potions, Hermione realized with a gasp.

She took out her wand and with a swoosh closed the closet door and locked Snape in. She cringed when she heard his shouts of anger through the thick wooden doors, but she steeled herself and hurried upstairs.

Even harder than locking Severus in with his own supplies was talking to Professor Trelawney.

"Don't come near me!" she shrieked when she saw Hermione climbing up the rope ladder to her classroom.

"If you were half as talented as you claim to be, you would realize I've been trying to help you," Hermione snapped, standing to her feet and smoothing down her robes.

"You call hexing me in the Great Hall helping me?"

"I think you're in danger from being poi—" Hermione hesitated. Snape hadn't committed a crime…yet. So she didn't want to implicate him in anything. The point was to keep him out of Azkaban, not help put him there. "From someone hurting you," she finished lamely. "I'm surprised you haven't seen anything ominous in your tea."

Trelawney narrowed her eyes. "I have as a matter of fact. And I was right too, first with Severus in the hallway and then you yesterday at breakfast."

"These things always come in threes," Hermione said, remembering something her grandmother had told her once. "I'm sure Firenze could cover your classes if you wanted to take an early vacation. Have you ever been to the Bahamas this time of year?"

"The Grim did show up in my morning tea," Trelawney said, wringing her hands. Her hands trembled slightly and Hermione wondered once again what it was she had said to Snape that had made him snap earlier in the week.

"I can talk to Minerva for you if you'd like," Hermione offered. She considered it a job well done when the Divination professor agreed and let her escort her downstairs to the Headmistress' office.

Saturday:

Snape showed up late to breakfast the next morning looking like he might murder someone. So it was a good thing Hermione had removed the immediate target of his ill temper.

"Good morning, Severus," she chirped, trying to ignore the deadly glare he shot her way. "Did you sleep well?"

"As a matter of fact I didn't," he hissed. "I didn't get to bed until almost three o'clock this morning after some miscreant locked me in my supply room. It took me hours to undo whatever charm they cast and get out."

"That's horrible!" Hermione gasped. She hoped she sounded genuine and not over the top. Acting had never been her strong suit.

"When I find out whoever did this, I promise I am going to strangle them with my own two hands. A wand wouldn't do it justice."

She was taken aback by his vehemence. "O—oh," she stuttered. "I'm sure they didn't mean it to be malevolent."

"What reason would anyone have for locking a professor in a closet? I wonder what misdeed the little buggers were committing while I was in there? Whatever it turns out to be, believe me, they will pay." He laid special emphasis on "will pay."

Hermione gulped and bit her lip.

"You didn't notice anything yesterday evening, did you?" he asked. Hermione shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. He pushed back his chair, the sound of it scraping echoed through the Great Hall. "I'm going to have a little talk with Filch. Please excuse me."

She gave a weak wave and shoved another bite of toast in her mouth. Maybe removing Trelawney from the immediate area hadn't been enough. After breakfast, she made her way back to her rooms and took out some parchment and her favorite quill.

Tears slid down her cheeks and dripped off her nose onto the parchment. The ink on the page began to swirl in an iridescent pattern. Hermione sniffed and wiped her nose on the sleeve of her robe, something she normally would yell at Ron or Harry for doing, but right now, she was much too distraught to search out a tissue.

How could he? She thought again. After all the times she had defended him and now he had finally proven her wrong. Hermione hated being wrong. She sat there for hours trying to compose herself and the letter to board of governors with her concerns regarding Snape.

A knock came at the door. She coughed out a response and wiped her eyes quickly, just in time to see the object of her thoughts enter.

"Professor Snape! Severus…I—"

"Granger, I'm here to—Hermione," he corrected himself. It was the first time he had called her by her first name, but she was too distraught to enjoy the moment. His earlier anger seemed to be forgotten as well. "I wanted to say Happy Birthday. You mentioned liking rare and beautiful flowers once, so I thought…" He looked about awkwardly as though trying to decide something, and then with a flick of his hand produced a bouquet of flowers.

"Oh!" Hermione was at a loss for words, no mean feat if you were to ask her friends or family. She took the proffered flowers. They were the same ones she had seen Snape talking to in the greenhouse. But he was giving them to her. Did that mean? "I—"

"Like I told you in the greenhouse, they're Iocanus flowers. Very rare and right buggers to grow, but between Pomona and myself, we were able to produce a few."

"They're used in several Dark potions," Hermione said.

"Yes," Snape said, looking at her with a suspicious eye. He took a step closer, so close that Hermione found she could hardly breathe. "You would know that – just the leaves actually. But did you also know that they're useless in any potion while flowering?"

"Th-they are?" Hermione stuttered. How did she miss that vital piece of information? If that was true then everything else…he had been growing flowers…to give to her…for her birthday. "Thank you."

Snape nodded. "You are welcome. Are you writing something?" he asked, stepping around her to glance at the parchment on her desk. Hermione grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

"No!" Snape turned and stared at her, obviously surprised at such a visceral reaction. "I mean yes. But it's nothing important. It's just that I—well I was writing to the Ministry about the possibility of a dangerous criminal here at Hogwarts, but it turns out I was mistaken. Completely mistaken. There's no one dangerous here at all, unless you count Peeves when he's in a mischievous mood. But then again, when is he not? So I suppose you might say there is—"

Hermione knew she was rambling. She tended to do that when she was nervous or upset, and at the moment, she qualified as both. Nervous because she feared Professor Snape might find out what she had suspected about him and it would ruin the tenuous working relationship she had worked years to develop and upset that she could talk herself into such nonsense, especially when she prided herself on being logical and levelheaded.

But before she could apologize for blathering complete nonsense, Snape pulled her into his arms and kissed her.

And it wasn't any normal colleague to colleague kiss, but the "I've been wanting to do this quite a long time" sort, leaving Hermione breathless and weak in the knees. She couldn't recall a time in recent memory when she had been so fully and well kissed. When he finally released her, Hermione stood back, her hand coming to her lips, and stared at him in shock.

Snape, for his part, didn't completely release her, but kept his arms close by, and tried (and failed) to look apologetic. "I thought it would shut you up," he confessed.

"You kissed me."

"I did," he said in a voice that suggested he wouldn't mind doing it again regardless of the fact that there was no need to shut her up this time, drawing closer.

"And brought me flowers." She frantically tried to put the puzzle pieces that made up Severus Snape together in order to come up with this seemingly traditional attempt at romance.

"I came here to wish you a happy birthday, and to give you the flowers along with your other gift, and then if I was lucky and brave enough to tell you that I've become accustomed to your prattling and endeared to your inquisitive mind. And if that went well, I hoped to kiss you." He frowned, his brow furrowed. "I didn't plan on going out of order."

At that, Hermione burst into tears. Snape stared at her, perplexed, especially since she didn't pull away from him in anger or disgust, but instead buried her head in his shoulder and clutched at his robes so fiercely that there was no chance of escape.

"I offer my sincerest apologies. We can start again if you'd like," he offered, patting her delicately on the back. He tried valiantly to catch some of what she sobbed into his robe, but it was hard going, until he finally sorted out that goat herder was really cold murderer.

"You thought I murdered someone?" He paused a moment and then he realized something. "You," he hissed, "it was you who locked me in the closet last night wasn't it? I should have known. No one else comes down there and it was right after you left…"

He let her go, pushing past her, and picked up the parchment on the desk.

"You won't want me now," she said in a small voice, wringing her hands. "Here." She handed back his bouquet of flowers. He stood there with arms crossed, refusing to take them back.

"This letter—" he said, his voice cold and stern. He held out the offending parchment as though it contained the plague. Hermione cringed, knowing she deserved every horrible thing he could think of to say. "It's smudged. Either your penmanship is worse than a first year or you were crying over it. I've seen you write before, so I assume it's the latter."

Hermione just nodded. She kept her head bowed like an errant student, hiding behind the curtain of curly hair.

"Why?" he asked, his voice softer now. Hermione looked up at him, meeting his warm black eyes.

"I was devastated to learn that I was wrong about you. That the wickedly funny, intelligent, graceful, kind man I had come to know as a colleague and friend was really the horrible criminal deviant that everyone once suspected."

He considered her for a moment. "There are people downstairs waiting to celebrate your birthday," he said coldly. "I suggest you join them." And then in a swirl of black robes, he left her.

With a heavy heart and yet with a nagging sense of curiosity Hermione made her way downstairs. In the Great Hall there stood a crowd of people. Flitwick held up his wand, directing some streamers towards the ceiling. Harry and Ron sat at a table wrapping a box. All the Weasleys were there, Neville and Luna, most of the teachers from Hogwarts. Even her parents had somehow made their way to the enchanted school.

Harry spotted her first. "Hermione! What are you doing here? Snape was supposed to be taking you to the bookshop so we had time to decorate."

"Happy birthday, dear!" Molly said over him, kissing Hermione on the cheek.

"Thirty and flirty, right, 'Mione?" Ron said with a big smile.

"Severus has put a lot of work into keeping this secret from you. He's going to be crushed to find that you've ruined the surprise," Molly told her.

Tears pooled in her eyes. She hadn't realized she even had any tears left. Almost all of Snape's suspicious actions could be tied back to his planning this party for her – the letter from Draco, the flowers from the greenhouse, the conversation with Filch in the hallway, all of it. Trelawney probably threatened to let it slip to her. He had overreacted, but that was typical of him.

"Will you excuse me for a moment? I didn't mean to interrupt your decorating."

"You can stay, we don't mind," Harry assured her.

Hermione held up her hand. "No, no. I'll be back in a bit. I'll even try and look caught off guard when you yell surprise. You will yell surprise, right?"

Harry and Ron laughed, promising her they would. With that reassurance, she made her way to the dungeons in search of Snape. She found him in his office, hunched over essays with his red marking quill in hand. "What do you want?" he grunted.

"I wanted to say thank you for the party. It's obvious you put a lot of work into it. All of my friends and family are up there, everyone in my life that I love is upstairs celebrating, everyone but one."

He looked up and pierced her with his steely gaze. She took a breath and let it all out. "Because I do love you. I realize that now. I look forward to sitting next to you at meals and I try and think of interesting things to tell you and I'm really very sorry that we keep losing at Euchre and I'm ready to play footsie with you under the table so we can win. And you drive me absolutely batty most of the time, but you keep me from taking myself too seriously. And every day I see evidence of how much you really care for your students. And I really liked it when you kissed me…quite a lot actually. I wouldn't mind doing that again, frankly."

She knew it was quite possibly the longest sentence in the history of man, but she had come to say her peace and now she had done it.

"Are you finished?" he asked in a voice as cold as the Arctic. He was dismissing her.

Hermione sucked in a breath. Her hands trembled with emotion and she shook her head. "I'll just go then," she said in a shaky voice.

"Good day." She watched as he bent his head back over his marking. The scratching of his quill on the parchment followed her as she turned and slowly walked out the door. Closing it behind her, she leaned her forehead against the cool wood. She laid her palm flat against its surface and closed her eyes. That could have gone much better, but she didn't blame him. This entire fiasco was her own fault.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered. She took a few big breaths and willed herself not to cry again. She had a party to get back to.

Suddenly, the door flung open. Hermione fell into a heap right at Snape's feet with a yelp.

"What are you doing?" he asked, glaring down at her.

"Worshipping at your feet," she mumbled, staring at his shoes. They were black, like everything else he wore. But of course, he heard her. He had spent decades catching students mumble under their breath.

"I think I prefer you like this."

"Are you going to help me up?" she asked. To his credit, he leaned down and pulled her to standing. He didn't let her go of her hands. Hermione stared at his long tapering fingers intertwined with hers. He let go of one hand and with one finger tipped her chin up to meet his eyes.

"Did you mean what you said?" he asked in almost a whisper.

"You do drive me batty," she said.

He glared at her.

She tried again. "I love you."

And then he kissed her. It was even better than the first time. Snape left her weak in the knees and breathless as he pulled her closer, moving his hand to the nape of her neck and into her hair even as he coaxed his tongue into her mouth.

"Does this mean you can forgive and forget?" she asked when they finally parted.

"Forgive, yes. Forget never," he replied. Hermione wrinkled her nose in protest. "It would be remiss of me to not use this in every future argument we will ever have," he said with a smirk.

"Bastard," she murmured against his lips. "Then I won't be forgetting how you talk to both your plants and potions."

He pulled back from her and narrowed his eyes. "You were spying on me in the greenhouse?"

"I couldn't help myself," she said with a sparkle in her eye. She hoped by charming him, he would forget, or overlook again rather, what a colossal ass she had been through all of this week. "You mesmerize me."

"That's the right answer," Severus said and he pulled her close again. He placed soft, lingering kisses on her forehead, eyes, and cheeks, before finally reaching her mouth. "I love you," he whispered so low that Hermione almost didn't catch it. She met his lips with enthusiasm.

"Shall we go back to my party?" she asked when they pulled away from each other.

"I planned on taking you to the bookshop to let your…friends…decorate the Great Hall."

Hermione couldn't believe her luck – a bookshop with Severus? "Even better," she said with a grin.

And they Apparated into the sunset – Snarkily Ever After.