AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'm sorry. I know that doesn't really make up for how long it's been since the last update. But I've just had a lot going on. I find inspiration in the strangest places it seems. I hope you enjoy. Reviews = Love.

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Snape shook his head, lips curling in disgust. "This isn't right, Miss Granger. It's supposed to be thick, almost solid. This is much too watery."

"What did I do wrong? I followed all of the instructions!" Hermione groaned.

"You must have waited too long to add the Spiderflower roots. I thought you were better than this, Miss Granger," he said, staring disparagingly down his nose at her.

"I really am trying, Professor. Honest."

He sniffed and turned his gaze back to the just slightly runny potion. "I would give it an E."

Hermione's face crumpled in disappointment. "I'll try harder next time. I'll get it right."

He nodded his head. "See that you do. Start again from scratch."

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That night, Hermione lay in her bed, mentally exhausted. Never before had she been so challenged by a class. Not even Ancient Runes was this difficult. It seemed as if Snape was being even more of a perfectionist than usual. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it was just her working, instead of an entire class.

He would stand behind her, studying her every move, waiting for her to make a mistake. And because he was constantly breathing down her neck, making her tremble with paranoia, mistakes were inevitable.

Twenty minutes into her first lesson, her hands had begun to shake. Then, when Snape had criticized her stirring technique, her heart had started racing. By the end of the lesson, she had been one remark away from a full-blown panic attack. She hadn't slept much that night, too busy replaying every single thing that she had done wrong.

These lessons would be the death of her. But she would do better tomorrow. Hermione shut her eyes tightly, feeling her resolve harden. She would impress Severus Snape if it was the last thing she did.

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"I'm not impressed."

Hermione resisted the urge to scream. She stood, potion in hand, before Snape's desk in his classroom, where they had been having their lessons for the past week. Disbelief was etched across her face.

She had been so sure.

So sure that this would be the one. She had followed every instruction, prepared and added every ingredient exactly like she was supposed to. Truthfully, she thought that this was the best potion that she had ever brewed. So what was wrong with it?

"But, sir –"

"It's the wrong color, Miss Granger. An entire shade too dark." He wasn't even looking at her anymore, staring at a paper on his desk instead.

She wanted to argue. Wanted to argue so very badly. The textbook had said that it should be chartreuse, and god damn it, wasn't this chartreuse? But she held her tongue, something Hermione had become increasingly good at over the years.

Instead, she nodded stiffly. "Yes, sir. I'll start over."

And with a shattered ego, she returned to her cauldron.

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Severus stumbled into his bedroom quite late that night. He had been poring over several new books he had just received, looking for anything that even hinted of the kind of curse that they were dealing with. And, of course, he had found nothing.

He was beginning to think that there was no way to end this. What if this was someone else's Sectumsempra, a curse of their own creation and a closely guarded secret? No. He would not even allow himself to contemplate that.

With a jolt, he realized that he had not even seen the girl since dinner. The pain must have been starting to set in by now. He listened closely for a while, deep breathing and the occasional whimper. With a very put-upon sigh, he rolled out of bed and staggered towards where she slept. How could she sleep through that anyway?

"Foolish little Gryffindor."

Her face was the only thing visible among the ocean of blankets that she slept with, so he brushed his hand across her cheek. She shifted ever so slightly in her sleep, her frown slowly melting away. He watched the rapid movement behind her eyelids and wondered what it was that she was seeing. What did know-it-all Gryffindors dream about?

Severus scowled and turned away. Practically falling onto his bed, he sank into a place where the world and its troubles wouldn't matter, if only for a little while.

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That bastard!

Hermione had been trying so hard. So hard to prove that she wasn't just some stupid little Gryffindor. That she was smart and capable and worthy. But it seemed like Snape had set out to prove her wrong at every turn. Because of course she couldn't live up to his standards. Why had she ever thought – even for a second – that she could earn his approval?

Her Aging Potion had simmered for too long.

Her Memory Potion had cooked at too high a temperature.

Her Calming Draught had bubbled too much.

So, of course, it was only to be expected that one day she would crack. Really, she should have seen it coming.

"That's it! I can't do this anymore!"

Snape looked up at her from behind the piece of parchment that he held in front of his face. He did not seem the slightest bit fazed by her outburst. "What exactly are you talking about, Miss Granger?"

"This bloody potions thing! I can't do it anymore! Obviously, I'm worthless at everything I do. So what's the point in trying anymore? I give up!" She quickly blinked away the tears.

Snape snorted. "You'll go far in life with that philosophy, Granger."

Hermione rose to her full height, glaring at him from across the room. She clutched "yet another worthless potion" in her fist. "It's not as if you care. I've tried so hard to impress you. But nothing is ever good enough. And nothing ever will be. So why should I keep trying?"

It was only after he stood from his chair that she realized what she had done and that this had not been a good idea at all. She should have just gone on biting her tongue and making horrid potions like a good, little girl is supposed to.

"So is that what you do, Granger? Give up when things get just a little bit tough? You have more potential in one finger than most students have in their entire bodies, but you'll never go anywhere in life if you can't see things through to the end. Besides, I thought you were doing quite well. I didn't think I needed to tell you that," he sneered, point an accusing finger toward her.

She blinked in surprise, too dumbfounded to think of a response. Then what he was saying clicked into place and she was smiling. "You really think so, sir?"

He didn't respond. Instead, he scowled down his nose at her, silently challenging her. She was still smiling when she turned back to her cauldron, intent on making something that wasn't complete rubbish.