Author's Note: This story was written as a gift for my 500th reviewer on this site. She picked five criteria and a genre, which will be revealed at the conclusion. This is fic is completed and I will upload a chapter every few days. It is finished in five parts. I hope you enjoy, and thanks to Anubis Ankh for such a fun plot bunny.

What shall I do for 1000?

The Challenge

by Cybrokat

Chapter One

Crookshanks' tail swished back and forth in an agitated manner as his mum's strokes on his back became increasingly frustrated. At first, she softly stroked his silky fur as she made notes here or scratched out something there on the syllabus she was reworking for next year's first years. But as the man kept speaking to her, her strokes became rubs, which morphed into Crooks slowly losing fur. Finally giving up, he jumped down from the chair beside her and took up residence on the sofa.

He watched the couple as they continued to converse in the otherwise empty staff room. It wasn't uncommon to find them talking. Well, arguing was a more apt description. On occasion, the feline would even see the man enter his mum's classroom to antagonize her about some trivial point in her instruction before stalking from the room, robes in full swish behind him.

"I wouldn't introduce such a spell to first years if I were you," said the man.

Hermione's fingers just clutched her quill a little tighter, and she continued with the revision.

The dark-haired man walked to the other side of her and peered over her shoulder to continue reading her parchment. Hermione intentionally wrote in tiny script, knowing his proud nature kept him from wearing the glasses he so desperately needed.

"And such creatures, at this age? Really, Miss Granger, you might as well just introduce the Unforgivables."

"Professor Granger," Hermione said.

"No, I believe I'm Professor Snape. Are you confused, Miss Granger? Perhaps you should hand off such a difficult position to those who are better than yourself if the stress is too much."

Hermione laid down her quill for a moment and turned to face him, her nose only inches from the black-clad chest hovering behind her. "As the man who used to be the youngest teacher hired, Mister Snape, you should be intelligent enough to realize that age doesn't equate to wisdom, regardless of the vast separation between us."

Picking up her quill once again, she knew this argument would never be over as long as she held the position he most coveted.

Five years previous, when Hermione was only twenty – one year younger than Snape himself was when first hired – she was offered the job of professor for Defense Against the Dark Arts. She took the job without hesitation.

University had been a breeze for the overly intelligent witch, and she had obtained proficiency in both Defense and Potions, wishing to do work crossing the two disciplines rather than focusing on one exclusively as so many did. Encouraged by her instructors, she thrived in the academic environment and knew she would want to work somewhere that allowed her to flex her research and development muscles.

Minerva's plea, therefore, had come as a godsend. The curse was broken, she had assured the younger girl. The staff was certain that the departures of both of the DADA professors since Hermione's graduation had been mere coincidence. Magical or not, one couldn't predict pregnancy, and honestly, the second really should have known better than to mix magnesium and sulfur in an experimental potion. One simply didn't tamper outside of their expertise without consultation.

Hermione's addition to the staff had mostly been flawless, the ease of becoming peers with her professors apparent.

Mostly.

Hermione still didn't sit on the same side of the table as Professor Trelawney. Unfortunately, that meant she sat on the same side as Professor Snape. Naturally, the only chair available was the one right next to him. Chairs would be free flanking him if he didn't have the sense to sit at the end of the table.

The man had made himself a menace since the moment she had stepped foot into the hallowed halls. Not content to leave his haranguing to her childhood, he felt it was his responsibility to remind her on a daily basis that he could have her position in a blink if he so desired.

She was kind enough not to rub in that she knew he had asked Minerva every year. And every year, she had told him no. Hermione half wondered if the woman did it now for the sake of tradition rather than opinion.

Crookshanks was correct that even her classroom was not sacred. The young professor had been mortified, as were her students, the first time he had walked into the middle of her lecture to question her inclusion of a potion in her requirements. A heated argument had ensued over whether she had crossed the line. Just because he taught Potions, she told him, didn't mean he was the only one who could, nor was his class the only time a potion was relevant. He could either include it himself on the syllabus or kindly remove himself from her classroom so that she could proceed with her lecture.

Students, suitably impressed at both the temerity of their DADA professor and the look of pure hate on the face of their Potions professor, no longer viewed future interruptions with the shock they once had.

The cat alone watched their every movement.

He saw what others did not see. He saw the man as he stood outside his mum's door, clutching papers in his hands, debating whether or not to enter. He also saw the little smirk on the man's face as he was chased out time and time again after riling up the fiery witch.

He saw the man as his eyes scanned the Great Hall from the High Table, waiting for her bushy head to appear. Occasionally he would even push out the chair next to him a little before she arrived, her head so buried in her papers that she didn't notice. His first comment was always planned in advance, some barb to make her lift her head from her papers and focus solely on him, even if it was in irritation.

Crookshanks walked the castle as silently as the dark man himself and saw the man in his most private moments. The moments when he would stand at the tall window overlooking the grounds on a clear night, watching and waiting for something that never came. Crooks saw the man taking meals in the solitude of the staffroom when it was known that Hermione would not be dining in the Great Hall; sitting alone in the crowd was no longer tolerable after having her companionship.

Also known to Crookshanks was his mum.

He was her confidante in the castle, the one friend who was always readily available. It was true that she still had Glasses and Ginger and even Miss Ginger (who was now Mrs. Glasses, but you are always the same to a cat), but they had their own lives to lead outside the castle, and the life of a professor was akin to being a monk or a nun. One had one's covenant, and contact with the outside world was fleeting through most of the year.

So when Hermione needed to bare her soul, it was to her faithful feline friend that she turned. He knew the ache of her heart after things had dissolved between her and Ginger. It saddened Crookshanks to see his mum so upset, but at least she had finally realized he was no good for her. That had been her first year teaching. Ginger had understood her unavailability when she was away for university but not when she was so close at Hogwarts. He hadn't understood or cared to understand and accept the demands put on a teacher. Soon enough, his attentions had turned elsewhere.

Hermione regularly asked Crookshanks about the dark man. Whether he really meant all those horrid things he said (no), whether he sat around and made a list of things with which to irritate her (yes), and was he just looking for a friend but didn't have the skills with which to recommend himself (also yes).

Crookshanks, however, could actually tell her none of these things. They had to be figured out on her own. And while he knew his mum was brilliant, five years was a bit too long to not have made much progress. Surely by now she should have realized a little bit of the dark man's motivation. Surely she should have been able to break through his shields enough to learn a little more about him.

Surely by now she should have realized the reason she cared so much.

But alas, this was not the case. They were still at square one, still dancing around each other, spitting like cats in heat, not realizing or acknowledging what happens to cats in heat after they are done with the angry mewling.

That was when the real fun began.

Crookshanks released a huff from his perch as he watched the two continue their dance.

"It's obvious you lack a certain flair for this subject. You know, I'm sure Filius will be retiring soon. Certainly a little foolish wand-waving is much more your skill-set."

"Just because you lack the skill, Snape, doesn't mean that it's beneath you."

"Is that so, Miss Granger? Yes, you would definitely know about things that are beneath me. Perhaps someday you will reach the height of a truly great professor."

"I'm already a full foot taller than Filius, thank you, Severus, and few men are lucky enough to find me beneath them."

The man growled at her double entendre and sat himself on the sofa next to the cat. This game was a familiar part of their pre-mating ritual. The conversation would start off between Professors Snape and Granger. It would slowly deteriorate into Severus and Miss Granger, one emphasizing that she was just a child, the other that they were now peers.

Professor Snape watched the back of his sparring partner with his little grin on his face as she once again deflected everything he threw at her. That was one of the reasons he loved talking to her and sought out her company.

Hermione turned her attention back to her work with the same small grin, knowing that once again he had not gotten the upper hand. That wasn't always the case, but generally she could at least break even, and there were a few times she knew she had caught him off guard with the speed and skill of her retort.

After a few moments of silence – long enough that when he took his leave, it would not appear that he was leaving solely because he had lost this round, even though they both knew that was the case – Snape moved to exit.

"When you need some expert advice, Miss Granger, you know where my office is."

"Of course, Severus. When I need to know how to infuse black into all corners of my wardrobe, I'll come knocking," Hermione answered, without ever looking up from the table.

His departure left the headmistress in his wake. Minerva didn't even have to ask to know what had caused the man's hasty retreat. Once again, her youngest two colleagues were in contention.

"There are days, Minerva, when the back of him is the most welcome sight in the world." And not because of those trousers. Well, not just because of the trousers, Hermione reluctantly allowed.

"I know it's hard to believe, Hermione, but he means no harm."

Hermione snorted as Minerva took the warm spot Snape had left next to Crookshanks. The cat head-butted the woman in greeting, and her hand automatically moved to scratch behind his ear.

"He wonders what you have that he doesn't. He also wonders why he is still teaching Potions after all this time. Simply put, he's jealous."

"Jealous? Of a teacher who has just barely achieved tenure? I know he wants this position, Minerva, but has he ever explained why? Or for that matter, has anyone explained to him why he doesn't have it? Make no mistake, I was in his Defense class. He taught it well, but I know I'm a better instructor than he is for this class. My students learn respect, fear, and awe of the Dark Arts, not just of their professor and the subject by proxy. I just wish we could determine the winner of this pissing contest and be done with it once and for all!"

Crookshanks' ears perked up. Was there to be a resolution to the mating ritual at last?

"My dear girl, these things have a way of resolving themselves," Minerva told her gently as she poured them both a fresh cup of tea.