Chapter 1 - Close Call

"Enter! What in Merlin's name took you so long, Madam Pomfrey? My post-Cruciatus effects are worse than ever, and that should say something." Severus Snape was lying half-naked on his large four poster bed in his own private quarters and his disgruntled voice sounded crooked and anguished.

As he was positioned on his stomach with his face towards the wall, he couldn't see the terrified look on his former student and present colleague, Hermione Granger's, pale face. She was squeezing a small vial in her trembling hands, as if she could turn it into a Portkey by her power of will, and fly far away from there.

"Uh, well… it's not exactly Madam Pomfrey…" she managed to cheep out of her mouth without stammering a lot.

Snape turned his head as fast as possible for a man in great distress, and his muscles stiffened painfully, aching and burning.

"Miss Granger! What are you doing in my private bedroom? Get out! Now! Immediately!" he bellowed, mostly to conceal his confusion and embarrassment with fury.

"But Professor Snape, I'm so sorry. I knew you would hate me coming in here, and I tried to tell them, but this seemed to be the only choice," Hermione whined desperately. "I promised to help, and otherwise you would have had to go without your Analgesic Liniment," she tried to reason.

"Where is Poppy Pomfrey? I want to see her right now!" Professor Snape hissed.

"She isn't able to come. Do you think I would be here otherwise? Madam Pomfrey is very busy with intestinal flu epidemic of the pupils. It's terribly contagious; almost everyone has had it, myself included. However, I'm now recovered from it, so she asked if I could help and come here instead of her, since I'm not allowed to help her in the infirmary."

"I see, but I highly disapprove this," Potions Master said snorting and continued lowering his voice to a level of vicious growl. "It is hard to choose which is more painful - having you here, in my private territory, or suffer from these dreadfully tearing pain cramps. It is like choosing between a devil and a demon."

Just what I said about coming in here, she thought as she twisted the cork and opened the vial.

Ointment glowed in different shades of green and gold in her palm. It seemed to be truly miraculous substance. She took a few timid steps toward her former Potions Master and placed her hands on his shoulders.

Snape had to swallow his sigh of relief as the powerful ointment was spread onto his aching muscles. Hermione's hands felt cold.

She is absolutely terrified, he thought, smiling inwardly, and allowed himself to relax little by little. This was exactly what he needed. Efficiently soothing liniment, killing pain in his muscles, not to mention the coolness of her gentle hands.

If he could only forget that the woman touching his bare skin was an insufferable young witch, who seemed to know everything except how to keep her big mouth shut. Thank God she wasn't babbling now. Her hands moved softly but hesitantly- very differently than Madame Pomfrey's warm and firm touch. It made him feel strange, as though it was somehow more intimate than before- than with Poppy.

Gods, I wish she would finish soon and leave me alone.

Hermione had spread the ointment onto his neck, back and arms, carefully avoiding to look at his dark mark, but there was still his chest and legs left.

Oh my God, I'm not going to survive this, she thought in slight panic.

"Co…could you… uhm, could you please turn on your back, please?"

"If you insist!" he snapped irascibly.

Practically keeping her eyes closed, she spread the liniment as quickly as possible over his chest and slender stomach. She tried to be as discreet and absent as she could when she started to rub the healing lotion on his thighs.

Suddenly he jumped up and startled Hermione nearly to death.

"I would prefer it to be on my stomach, if you don't mind!" he snarled, so viciously that Hermione almost started to cry.

Why was this man so mean to her? It had always been the riddle she just couldn't figure out. She had always just tried to be a good student, a nice and friendly colleague, to assist and help; she had never done anything to him, not at least that she knew of. It was so unfair.

For over twelve years now he had managed to make her feel so miserable. He really knew how to insult her, even without any words. Just one look or tone in his voice could do it. When Hermione had finished oiling his legs, she left without saying a word.

Once certain that she had left, Professor Snape put his hands over his gleaming face and burst out in low voice,

"Damn, it was close."