DISCLAIMER: I don't own the characters or setting – those belong to JK Rowling, to whom I am eternally grateful for creating the Potterverse. I'm just taking a couple of her characters out for a spin, but promise to return them, only slightly the worse for wear.

A/N: This story is AU in that Severus Snape did not die. A rather brainy brunette saved him after Nagini's attack in DH. As much as is possible, I'll make this canon-compliant, though I'm ignoring the epilogue.

A/N II: Special Thanks to Felena1971, who is part co-author, part Beta-reader, and all wonderful. We brainstorm together, I write up a draft, she helps tweak the draft, and then up it goes for your reading pleasure.

Chapter 1: Birthday Blues

Part one: Hermione

Ever since I woke up this morning, I have had a vague sensation that something is deeply wrong. I can't quite place the source of my malaise. I know some people suffer from the "Birthday Blues," but that's never been my style. I have always loved my birthday.

I am sitting at the staff table, between Poppy Pomfrey and Severus Snape, sipping my coffee and perusing the Daily Prophet, when one post owl drops a package onto my freshly buttered toast, and a second lands in front of the sugar bowl and hoots impatiently for me to remove the small note card tied to her extended leg. I tend to the second delivery first, so I can relieve the owl of her burden. She flies away without a backward glance as I open the card.

Dear Hermione,

Happy 23rd birthday.

We are looking forward to your visit next weekend.

Until then,

Mum and Dad

My parents' formal and distant tone makes my eyes prick with tears, but I blink them back, hoping no one has noticed. Poppy would be kind and motherly – which might just make me feel worse – but Severus would certainly see tears as evidence of weakness. People ARE looking at me, of course. People can't help but look in your direction when you have a package in your breakfast.

Chin up, Hermione! Mum and Dad are trying, after all. I don't have any right to expect their old enthusiastic, news- and love-filled letters anymore after what I did. Still, it has been five years. How long will they hold it against me? They finally conceded a couple of years ago that my intentions were noble, but I don't know if they'll ever be able to fully forgive me for the means I employed. Four years after I removed the Memory Charm, the people I love most in the world are still hurting.

At least the package in my toast should make me feel better – I'm sure it is from Harry and Ron. Underneath the buttery wrapping, I find a box of my favorite chocolates (an assortment of truffles from Godiva) and two cards. Harry must have done the shopping, as he has more knowledge of muggle sweets. Ron's card is predictable: funny, but with an earnest sentiment hand-written inside: "Just think, by this time next year, you'll be done with your training and we can get married!" He's been proposing at fairly regular intervals for the past four years.

Mmmm, Godiva. The world's most heavenly chocolate. The dark chocolate and raspberry ones are so good they're dangerous. You have to sit down to eat them: if you're standing (or worse, walking), your knees buckle, and you could fall. I find the dark chocolate and raspberry truffle and bite off half of it. I don't chew or even suck – I just let it melt in my mouth, so that it lasts as long as possible.

Oops. I must have moaned out loud. Severus just gave me a very odd look, and Poppy is now eyeing my chocolates. Oh, fine. I suppose I should share – I do have an embarrassment of riches here.

"Poppy, would you like to try one?"

"Ooh, I thought you'd never ask!"

She picks the dark chocolate and cappuccino truffle. Damn. I love that one.

"Ohhhhhhhhh," she sighs. I think she's having a chocolate orgasm. Severus raises an eyebrow skeptically.

"Severus?" I ask, as I offer him the box.

"Hmph," he snorts. "Muggle food." He turns up his considerable nose.

I locate the extra-dark chocolate truffle and hold it out to him. "Come on, Severus, look how dark it is. Try it – you'll love it. It's one of my all-time favorite sweets."

He gives me the strangest look, as though he can't decide whether or not to be offended. Was it my suggestion that he likes dark things, or just my insistence that he put something muggle-made into his mouth? And suddenly, he pushes back his chair and rises to leave, his breakfast only half-eaten. He looks down at me, black curtains of hair hanging around his face.

"I don't do sweet," he says, and he turns dramatically and swoops off, back to the dungeon to prepare to torture the students in his first hour class.

"You don't know what you're missing," I say to his retreating back, and pop the second half of my truffle into my mouth, licking my fingers clean.

If Ron had only known that chocolates can make Professor Snape disappear so effectively, he'd have saved up Chocolate Frogs and shoved them at Snape before every Potions class. Poor Ron always hated Snape. I can't wait to tell him the effect his birthday gift to me had on his former nemesis.

Honestly, I don't know why I haven't accepted Ron's marriage proposal yet. I love him. I have loved him forever, it seems. I love his family, and they love me. We are obviously meant to be together. I have forgiven him for leaving Harry and me while we were hunting Voldemort's horcruxes. I know it was the locket that made him behave like such an arse. (Though neither Harry nor I acted so cruelly when it was our turn to wear the damned thing.) But he came back, he saved Harry's life, he was frantic to save me from being tortured, he figured out how to get the basilisk fangs and destroy the horcruxes, and he has shown more respect for house elves in recent years than any other human I know, except perhaps Harry. Of course I love him.

I keep telling him that I need to finish my training before I can get married – so he really got his hopes up last year when I completed the St. Mungo's Healer Training program. Then I signed on for this extra year of study to get a specialty in Dark Arts Damage Reversal. He was not pleased, even after I explained that with it, I would be better able to heal him, Harry, and the other Aurors when they get injured in the line of duty. He thinks I'm just stalling. How ridiculous.

At least Harry's card shouldn't make me feel guilty, the way Mum and Dad's and Ron's cards did. "I can't believe we're not there to celebrate with you," it says. "Do you realize this is the first time in 12 years that we're not together on September 19th?" And then it hits me – that's why I woke up feeling that something was seriously amiss! Ever since my twelfth birthday, a couple of weeks into our first year, Harry and Ron have been part of my celebrations. Not that we were best friends yet that first year – it wasn't until Halloween that we really got close – but they were there in the common room, smiling and wishing me many happy returns of the day. Even after Hogwarts, while they were in their Auror training program, we still managed to spend at least part of the day together on my birthday every year. But this year they are on some secret Auror mission, and I won't see them for a couple of weeks.

I try to wipe my eyes on my napkin without calling attention to my tears. What am I sniffling about, anyway? So my best friends aren't here. I have other friends! I smile bravely and wave down the table to Neville – the youngest member of the staff. I'm so proud of him. He's thrilled to be teaching at Hogwarts, and I hear that his Herbology students all love him. I wonder if Neville would have a drink with me this evening. I'll have to ask him if he's free to head over to the Three Broomsticks after supper.

Part two: Severus

Insufferable witch. All afternoon while we were supposed to be working together, she was distracted. Now and then she would sigh deeply and loudly, as if she expected me to ask what was wrong, and start a conversation about her Feelings. As if I'd ever want to open that door. I'd never hear the end of it – day after day of her angst over that idiot Weasley. I overhear enough of it as things are already. You'd think the staff had nothing better to do than to discuss the love lives of former students. Idle gossip – it infuriates me.

I didn't want to work with her in the first place, of course. I know how irritating she is. I had thought I was done with her after she graduated, but here she is, back at Hogwarts – and worse: in my lab. Working with me three afternoons every week. As if I had all those hours with nothing better to do! But Hermione Granger tends to get what she wants. She's as stubborn as a centaur, and she's rather well connected, being best friends with Harry the Conqueror. So when she insisted upon working with me for this year of specialty training in Dark Arts Damage Reversal, I couldn't refuse.

Literally – I couldn't refuse. I have been in her debt since she saved my life. Why the hell couldn't it have been someone else that rescued me after that bloody snake nearly killed me? Anybody else! But it was Granger, of course: the witch who interferes in everyone else's affairs. I gave Harry the memories he needed, and thought I would be allowed to die. But no – Little Miss Must-Save-Everyone comes along and works her clumsy amateur healing on me, stabilizing me until qualified care could arrive. Just what I needed – a muggle-born know-it-all with just enough knowledge of healing to be dangerous. I was too weakened from loss of blood to be my usual forceful self, and had to just lie there while she worked over me and – how humiliating – even cried over me. Only someone as overly sentimental as a Gryffindor would cry over a dying enemy. I was the Death Eater who killed Albus! I was the despised and feared Potions Master! "Don't leave me, Professor," she sobbed. I should have died anyway, to be spared the indignity of being indebted to Hermione Granger, and to make sure that for once in her life she didn't get everything she wanted.

And now… Now! Unless something can be done to vastly improve her mood, I will have to suffer more of the heavy sighs and weepy eyes while we are supposed to be working. Today was unbearable. I can't take any more of it. So here I am, sneaking around the castle at night, while she is out having a drink with Longbottom, of all people. Her door is locked, but not warded. She is so trusting – a trait common among foolhardy Gryffindors. A simple Alohomora gets me in. I retrieve two items from the pockets of my robes, and leave them on her nightstand. I cannot help but look around, though I know I must leave – it would ruin me to be caught here. She has pictures of Weasley and Potter – no surprises there. An overloaded bookshelf – again, no surprise. I want to read the spines of the books in her personal library, but her accursed feline is watching me too closely.

An anonymous gift should take her mind off of Potter and Weasley, and with any luck, she will quit whining about not being with them. I do it as a service to the entire school. She must never know it was my doing. She would certainly read all kinds of Deep Meaning into it, which would, of course, be completely off the mark. I don't care whether she is happy or not. My motives are entirely selfish: all I want is some peace and professionalism in my lab when I am forced to work with her. The ends justify these ridiculous means.

As I step out of her rooms, locking the door behind me, I hear them coming. Are they not aware of the hour? They are talking – and with slurred words, I notice – and laughing loudly, as they stumble up the hallway. Inconsiderate drunkards. People are trying to sleep.

I slip around a corner, and watch, unseen, as they stop in front of her door. They are standing very close together, arms around each other. She giggles like a schoolgirl as she unlocks the door. Ugh – she's not inviting the Witless Wonder into her bed, is she? I thought she had a thing for Weasley, the little slut! Oh, relief – she's not. They're saying goodnight, but they're still standing too close. Disgusting – it looked for a moment as if they might kiss. I cannot watch this repulsive display. I turn, and move stealthily toward the stairs, a lone dark figure, merging into the night.

Part three: Hermione

"Goodnight, Neville." I am holding him close.

"Goodnight, Hermione." He is holding me close.

"Thanks for coming out with me tonight. It was a pleasant way to spend my birthday." Damn, when did Neville get so tall? And… well, I have to admit he has become rather good-looking, too. All traces of baby-fat are gone. He's tall, and lean, and warm, and…currently very close to me.

"It was my pleasure, Hermione. Happy birthday." I watch his lips while he talks. They look soft. I wouldn't object to a little tiny birthday kiss – I don't like Neville that way, but I do like Neville and I do like kissing…

He leans down toward me, and my breath hitches a little in my chest. I close my eyes, tilt my head, part my lips.

Where's the kiss? I open my eyes again and we make eye contact, and both giggle. He's stopped, about an inch from my lips. It's hard to keep him in focus when he's this close.

"Hannah," he says, slightly apologetic. He's recently started seeing Hannah Abbot, I learned tonight. She's the new Transfiguration teacher, now that Minerva is busy with Headmistress duties.

"Ron," I say, and give a little shrug. Oh well, no kiss tonight. We giggle again. Whatever. It's fine. I'm too tired for kissing anyway.

He kisses me on the top of the head, instead – a very brotherly kiss. Such a gentleman. And then he weaves off down the hallway. He turns back at the corner to wave goodnight, and stumbles into a suit of armor, making a great clanging noise. I wave back and laugh before going in to my quarters.

I like Neville. He's gentle, thoughtful, funny (when he's drunk enough to relax around girls), smart (at least about plants), and… a good dancer. Madam Rosmerta had the wireless playing, and Neville and I drank a little too much of Ogden's Finest Old Firewhiskey, and he insisted that we dance in honor of my birthday. He twirled me around and around until I had to sit back down, dizzy and breathless.

When I step into my room, something seems different. What is it? I undress, and sit down on my bed. Aha – there is something different, and here it is. A journal, bound in blue jacquard silk, and a new eagle-feather quill. These things are not mine! Someone must have been in my quarters! Crookshanks, darling… Crooksie… Who was here, love? Damned cat. Why can't you speak? It would be dead useful to have a speaking cat for a pet. Wonder if there's a charm that can make cats speak. Must ask Professor Flitwick about that sometime. I mean Filius. Hard to remember which name to use, now that I'm 23 and all grown up and everything.

The journal is blue – Ravenclaw's color. And the quill is a feather from an eagle – Ravenclaw's symbol. A Ravenclaw must have been here! How very odd. Maybe Filius was here trying to make Crookshanks talk, and accidentally left his lovely blue journal… Oh – right, I haven't asked him about that yet. I'm never drinking again. I open the journal to the first page to see if there is a name inside.

Merlin – it's for me! It's a birthday gift, but I still don't know who gave it. It just says, "Happy Birthday, Hermione." Do I have a secret admirer? Damn, that's the most interesting thing that's happened in years! I'll figure out who it is. In the morning. I bet I can figure it out before lunchtime. Secret admirers always secretly want to be found out. So they leave clues. And I am really good at finding clues. Just ask that stupid basilisk! Well, except you'd need to be a parseltongue. And it's dead anyway, so never mind. But I figured out that mystery, and I'll figure out this one.

However, right now my pillow is looking very soft, and vertical isn't feeling so good. Suppose I could ask Poppy for a Sobering potion, but… she's probably sleeping and I don't want to wake her. I wonder if Severus is awake? He's probably got a Sobering potion handy. And he seems like a night person… Oh, but the dungeons are a long way from here. I'll just sleep it off, and deal with the inevitable hangover the muggle way: coffee and scrambled eggs. If I really feel awful I can ask Severus for something in the morning. As long as I don't threaten him with chocolate again, he probably wouldn't mind too much.

The room spins slightly as I shake my head to rid my thoughts of Severus. Ugh – must remember in the future that head-shaking is not a good idea after firewhiskey. But I don't want to think about Severus right now: I want to dream about my mysterious journal-giver, instead. I hope he's tall, dark, and handsome. And intelligent, of course, because that's the sexiest thing of all. Luckily, Ravenclaws do have a certain reputation in the brains department. Clasping the journal to my chest, I lie back on the bed, and close my eyes, inviting my subconscious to dream about a passionate, intellectual mystery man.

A/N: So… I promised I'd write a Snapey story next, and here it comes. This one's going to be a bit trickier to write than my other two, as the character development will be more complicated, and the first-person present-tense style is a challenge for me. Do let me know what you think! If everybody hates the first-person present-tense approach (though I sincerely hope you would say it in a far gentler way if you did), it's early enough for me to revise & go with a more traditional style. I'm hoping this style will give the story some immediacy, plus I want to be able to give you direct access, so to speak, to what's going on in the main characters' heads.

Looking forward to your reviews, and to reconnecting with my favorite readers!