A/N: Hello, everyone. Unquestionable Love is back! :)

To my wonderful readers, I hope you are in for the long haul, because this will be quite a lengthy adventure, and considerably longer than its predecessor. It begins during Half-Blood Prince and will progress through Deathly Hallows to several years after the war, to give you an idea of the extensive timeline I'm covering. This story also takes considerable time to develop for Severus and Hermione relationship-wise, so, yes, an epically long story awaits. I hope that that excites you and that you'll stick it out. If you do, dear readers, I promise to do my damnedest to make it worth the investment.

A few important notes: I will be faithful to the timeline of the last two books in some respects and differ from them greatly in other ways. You'll get a better idea of that as things progress, but something worth noting. Nothing sexual will happen until Hermione is closer to eighteen.

Expect: Angst, Hurt/Comfort, Drama, Romance, some Fluff and, later, much-needed Smut. Rated M for later sexual and violent content.

To new readers: I strongly encourage you to read the original Unquestionable Love, which takes place many years after this prequel. This series, oddly enough, is not meant to be read in chronological order. If you start here, an important revelation that happens in the original will be for naught if you go to read that later on. So please start with Unquestionable Love and then progress to the prequel.

Please don't forget to review as you read! Feedback encourages me to keep writing. Without your thoughts, it isn't worth sharing. Special thanks to my wonderful beta reader, Brittny, for all her immeasurable help.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter is copyrighted to and belongs to JK Rowling. I'm just playing in her sandbox.

Chapter 1: Uncertain Changes

Hermione Granger fumed as she stomped out of the Great Hall and made her way towards the dungeons, well ahead of her two closest friends, Harry Potter and Ron Weasley. She didn't want to be within earshot once Ron started on about that irritable, flaky Lavender Brown. Again. Every word Ron uttered about that petty, popular, boisterous new girlfriend of his seemed to make its way to Hermione eventually, even if she wasn't around to listen to the foul git routinely sing her praises. She knew it was all meant to spite her and hurt her even more.

They had only been dating about a week—Ron and Lavender, that is—but to hear of it stung the seventeen-year-old Hermione, nevertheless. The wound was still fresh, the image of that blasted kiss playing on repeat in her mind. After years of bantering, colorful arguments, and, only in the past year or so, innocent flirtations, Ron had left her shell-shocked and devastated. How could he not know of her feelings by now? Hadn't he felt the same about her? Or had she imagined all the times he smiled peculiarly at her, eyed her with a certain warmth, or paid her a rare, endearing compliment? How could the stupid prat not see what was right in front of his freckled face?

Of course he can't see, Hermione! she reflected bitterly, huffing as she quickened her pace and lowered her face so as to not meet anyone's eyes. He doesn't want you! He never wanted you! Why would Ron even look twice at you when there's her?

Hermione whisked a few curls away from her face, not at all mindful of just how fast she was walking or of the people she was passing without a word, some of whom she knew. She ignored them. Her eyes—a warm, rich caramel, bright and flickering—dampened the further she strode. She quickly wiped at the tears threatening to fall. She wouldn't cry over him. He didn't deserve it. But then why was she so hurt?

It'll pass, Hermione! For Merlin's sake, just let it go!

As she reached the dungeons at last and entered the frigid Potions laboratory, not nearly as gloomy looking as it had been for the first five years of her schooling when the subject was taught by a very different professor, a realization befell the clever witch. She still had a good fifteen minutes to spare before class started, and she was the only student here. Even Professor Slughorn wasn't mucking about yet, and Ron and Harry wouldn't be along for several more minutes. The last thing the emotionally wrought girl wanted was for Ron to receive any satisfaction from seeing her tears. He'd know it was over him, and that was more than Hermione could bear.

The girl's loo. Go and get yourself under some level of control!

Hermione turned on her heel and dashed out of the room. She found the bathroom with ease and stumbled into its dimly lit lair before dropping her textbooks on the floor in a heap. She didn't even make it to the sinks or to a mirror to survey her distraught reflection. She simply stood in the middle of the entryway and lost her composure, her shoulders hunched, her chest heaving uncontrollably as she cried over the redheaded boy she had known for six years and thought she had grown to love.

This is ridiculous! the rational part of her brain berated, but her heart wouldn't listen. It was just a crush, Hermione! Get over it! It would never have worked out anyway. You never had a chance against someone like her! And since when have looks ever mattered to you? You're above and beyond this, Hermione Granger!

But none of it did any good. All she could manage over the next five minutes was to let it all pour out of her and wipe at the countless tears with her sleeve. After several minutes, the weeping gradually subsided, until it was nothing but soft snivels and hitched breaths.

Hermione walked over to one of the sinks, ignoring her disorganized books for once, something she never did. She peered up at her reflection in the mirror with a look of utter self-loathing.

For all intents and purposes, Hermione had never been a 'pretty girl.' Her chestnut curls were unnaturally wild and untamed, falling to the middle of her back in what had once been tangled knots. Her teeth had long been too large for her face, and her body, well, she had never taken much pride in that either. She was teased for being too skinny, for having pathetic excuses for breasts, and for not being 'girly' enough, whatever that meant. I might as well have had the body of a young boy, she thought, snorting out loud.

This year, however, gradual changes were emerging, most of which Hermione hadn't really taken much notice of; at least, in some respects. She certainly gave more attention to her hair these days; it was the main attribute that use to bring her relentless ridicule from some of the prettier girls in Gryffindor and Slytherin Houses. She never used magic to tame it, but now, at least, she could make her spirals softer and less frizzy. Still thick and somewhat wild, they were no longer unruly or entangled. She had never worn much makeup, but now attempted to wear something on her face, such as a little lip gloss, or perhaps some foundation or blush if she felt the urge; however, she often stuck to the minimal. She saw little use in cosmetics and determined long ago that it mostly looked unnatural, especially on her.

Therein lies the problem...

Hermione hadn't paid attention to her blossoming figure that was starting to show clear signs of a young woman. She would be eighteen next year after all and enter her last year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Her maturity was starting to show. The contours of her body formed attractive curves at her shoulders, back, hips, and thighs. She certainly didn't look like 'one of the boys' anymore, and she counted that amongst the few blessings she possessed. Had anyone even noticed?

Am I that unattractive?

Hermione frowned at the reflection in the mirror and scrunched up her nose, clearly displeased with the young Gryffindor that stared back at her. It was a rather emotionless stare and devoid of much feeling, only showing silent criticism. The tears had dried, and though her cheeks were still a bit flushed, no signs of lost composure remained.

Hermione sighed and spun around, turning away from the ghastly mirror at last. She gathered up her books from the ground and made her way back to the Potions lab, more resolute than ever.

As she strolled into the room, Ron and Harry were already throwing their supplies down. Hermione diverted her eyes from both of them. She was still on speaking terms with Harry, but refused to address Ron. She wasn't ready, and just the sound of his voice set her on edge. Normally, the three of them sat together, but today she had hoped to switch seats with someone else. She scanned the room but was out of luck. Most of her classmates were already situated in their usual spots. Groaning, she hesitantly sat down at their station in the far corner, well away from Ron, and resigned herself not to making eye contact.

Harry was the most visibly uncomfortable of the three. His mates were just mad at each other, he concluded at the beginning of the week, and needed to move past the awkwardness. Until then, he wasn't involving himself in their fight. They were both his friends. End of story.

Hermione relaxed a little once Slughorn set them to work on an elixir from their textbook, Advanced Potion-Making. Harry's version was unlike anyone else's, and when he drew it out of his bag and set it on the table next to Hermione, she cringed. She had been telling him to hand that book in for months, but her friend stubbornly refused.

Hermione had scanned the contents briefly when Harry wasn't looking. Elegant cursive appeared next to the margins on every single page, and she couldn't help but sense that she somehow recognized the writing; perhaps her mind was just playing tricks on her. Virtually the entire book was crossed out and written over, differing from the typed instructions to the potions they were attempting in class. There were even some spells written out by hand that Hermione had never heard of before, and they didn't sound at all pleasant. Most seemed questionable based on their descriptions alone and were probably unsuitable for teaching purposes.

Whatever the book was, Hermione concluded that it wasn't worthwhile material. Harry had literally cheated his way to the top of the class, a feat that unnerved her more than she'd ever admit to him. But more than that, she didn't trust whoever this 'Half-Blood Prince' was. He had claimed the book as his own, but she and her friends had no idea who he was, and could find no references to him anywhere.

Hermione had affirmed from her earliest days as a witch to always follow her textbooks. It was protocol, absolute, and the very best way to learn. Yet this Half-Blood Prince had written his own version of their entire textbook, and it was now in her friend's greedy hands. The fact that the book was never discarded and had managed to worm its way into Harry's possession was additionally unsettling. Harry and Ron disagreed.

"Of course they would!" she snarled under her breath, not realizing that Harry had picked up on her tone.

"You all right, 'Mione?" he whispered, while Ron was busy chatting to Neville. Neville was the fourth person at their table, and undoubtedly the most pitiful Potions student there ever was. Their former Potions instructor had attested to it enough over the years that it was now permanently engrained in everyone's minds.

"Fine, Harry," Hermione sniped. "Couldn't be better!"

Harry leaned back and eyed her over apprehensively. "No, you're not." He lowered his voice so Ron wouldn't overhear. "It's just a phase, 'Mione."

"I could care less who Ron's dating, Harry, honestly!"

"Erm, all right..." He quickly dropped the subject, but that didn't mean Hermione was through speaking.

"When are you going to turn that ruddy book in?"

"Not again, 'Mione." Harry turned away to chop a few ingredients, purposely avoiding her cold stare.

"Harry, it's wrong! You're going to get caught—"

"There's more to this book than that, and you know it. Whoever this Half-Blood Prince is, I'm intrigued, all right? I can't help myself. We need to find out who he is."

"We've looked everywhere, Harry. I'm out of ideas, and so are you. Time to turn it in."

"Hell no! And we haven't looked everywhere, 'Mione. I know you haven't exhausted all your resources yet, so don't start. You're still just as curious as I am."

"Don't you find it odd that this book just happened to slip right into your hands?"

"It's not that peculiar, 'Mione," Harry stated calmly, having fought her on this point repeatedly for the past several months. "It was the last text available. Now it's mine, and I'm not turning it in."

Hermione lapsed back into silence, heaving her shoulders in defeat. She had been mechanically stirring her cauldron for some time now, without any regard to what she was doing. She blinked hard and tried to refocus her attention as Professor Horace Slughorn, a very heavyset man with a round, wrinkled face, drew closer to inspect their progress. His criticism could be firm at times, but he was a far cry from their previous Potions professor, and much friendlier at that—an absolute peach in comparison.

"Miss Granger?" Slughorn asked in puzzlement, as he stared down at her questionable work.

"Oh! Sorry sir," she replied, making note of her silly error. "I - I'm a bit distracted today."

That got Ron's attention. He stared over at her with a less than friendly regard.

"I would imagine, my dear. You forgot three valerian roots. You need fourteen altogether."

"I'll start again."

Hermione hurriedly extinguished the fire beneath her cauldron with her wand and proceeded to empty the contents, clean her cauldron, and begin brewing the elixir again, while Slughorn meandered away to another table. She knew her teacher's befuddlement was justified. Despite Harry's knack for cheating, Hermione was still his brightest student, and not surprisingly so.

"You got off easy," Neville snickered, as he stirred his potion with his stirring rod. Hermione could see the contents were turning green, which was not a promising sign. "If Snape were here, you'd be ridiculed till the end of class."

"Oh, I'm sure I would," she grumbled back, not looking up from her cauldron.

"The greasy git," Ron snorted, not really wanting to enter any conversation that included Hermione, but unable to help himself. Snape was a frequent topic of conversation in Gryffindor House, and particularly in their circle. Harry and Neville willingly joined in.

"I feel like I'm actually learning for a change," said Harry with a twinge of bitterness in his mocking tone. "At least Slughorn's instructive and doesn't just degrade everyone."

Ron nodded. "Why do you suppose Snape wasn't in class yesterday? The bat never misses class. He's been wanting to teach D.A.D.A. for ages. You'd think he'd never miss the opportunity to demonstrate a hex on the Gryffindors when the opportunity presents itself!"

"Probably running off to converse with his old war buddies," Harry offered back with a clenched jaw.

Hermione piped up very quietly from her spot in the corner, "Harry, you don't know that."

Everyone paused what they were doing and glanced over at her in surprise. Even Neville seemed relatively shocked by her remark.

"He was a Death Eater, 'Mione," Harry shot back rather prickly, making Hermione stir the contents of her cauldron faster, "and regardless of what Dumbledore believes, he's still a Death Eater! Just look at him! I don't trust him at all, and I never will. You shouldn't either."

"I never said I trusted him, Harry, and, as a matter of fact, I don't. Not entirely anyway, but I don't mistrust him as much as you. I don't think anyone does. I know he's a miserable louse and treats you badly, but he did save your life, remember? You two have never gotten along—"

"That's because Snape never took a liking to Harry from the beginning," Ron interjected, raising his voice at her. "He was never even given the chance! Snape hates everyone but those in his own house, and he's a bastard of a teacher! He doesn't teach us, he just gripes and insults us every chance he gets. Even you're doing better in Potions now that Snape's not teaching the subject, 'Mione. Admit it!"

"That's not the point, Ron!" Hermione reacted less collectedly than she wanted and threw down her stirring rod, narrowing her eyes. "I think you both sound completely deranged for claiming that Snape's a less than qualified teacher! If either of you had paid any attention in Potions the past five years, you might have learned a thing or two from the man and gotten better marks!"

"Yeah, like that would ever happen," Ron grumbled irritably, egging her on.

"Snape may very well be a bastard, Ron, and I don't like him either, but he's brilliant at the subject, and you both sound like idiots for constantly trying to belittle an instructor who's far more skilled at it than any of us will ever be. Let it go!"

How had they even gotten on to this topic of conversation? Arguing over Snape, of all people, and Hermione defending him? What the bloody hell?

The troubling thought seemed to cross everyone's mind at the same time, and the four of them quickly returned to their individual cauldrons, not wanting to bring up the wizard in question again. Having a regular class with that dark, snarky man was unnerving enough. Discussing him further, outside of the subject, felt like a ridiculous waste of time to them all.

When class was dismissed, Hermione still wasn't feeling any better. In fact, if anything, she felt worse. She was worn out from the private crying spell she'd had, and even managed to get into another heated argument with her friends. And over Professor Snape, at that.

Ugh! Of all the topics to have an argument about! Good grief!

Harry, Ron and Neville recommenced their conversation about the unpopular Slytherin once class was over, taking bets over why he was absent the previous day; Hermione pressed ahead, not wanting to linger and listen anymore. She may not have liked the professor much, but even she wasn't willing to stoop so low and call him a dunce.

Anyone who was anyone at Hogwarts knew just how skilled Severus Snape was, no matter how universally disliked he may be amongst the students and staff. The wizard was a genius at Potions, there was no mistaking that, and proved equally brilliant as their new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher this year. Hermione and her friends had been on the receiving end of the wizard's magic on more than one occasion, and the result was terrifying.

Severus Snape had, without a doubt, the quickest reflexes Hermione had ever seen and, though Ron and Harry might willfully challenge him to a duel out of pure spite, Hermione wasn't that thick. Not even Neville, who received some of the most brutal verbal instruction under Snape's teaching tactics, would dare attempt such a crazy idea. No one wanted to challenge Severus Snape. If they were dense enough to try, they'd wind up as an inanimate object...or dead.

Hermione remained in a foul mood the rest of the afternoon and went to bed earlier than usual that night, not lounging or doing her homework in the Gryffindor common room as she normally would have done. Ron and Lavender would be there anyhow, and those were the very last two individuals she cared to encounter.

Hermione curled up underneath her covers and cried noiselessly into her pillow, berating herself yet again for sobbing like a pathetic tart over something so trivial. Ron wasn't hers and, as his recent actions proved, he had never really had an interest in her in the first place. Not in the bushy-haired, buck-toothed 'know-it-all' who could hardly be considered the equivalent of sexiness...

Tomorrow, she and her friends had Defense Against the Dark Arts with Professor Snape and, secretly, Hermione hoped their wicked instructor would be present, just so she might chance the man demonstrating a curse or two on the ginger that was causing her so much pain. At the least, she could get some satisfaction out of seeing Ron blasted against the wall or flipped upside down. As the devilish image danced in her head, a faint smile drew across Hermione's mouth, and she drifted off to sleep with a purring Crookshanks at her side.

Master Severus Snape, the man so many feared and loathed unequivocally, stumbled along the shadowed corridors, every so often gripping the cold, stone walls for balance. He had no idea what time it was, but he suspected the Headmaster would still be up and about, or, at the very least, sense his approach.

Severus was a prideful man, but tonight he could barely walk straight, let alone draw his shoulders back or keep his head held high. He hitched several painful breaths but kept going, catching view of the unsightly gargoyle at the end of the hallway as he rounded the corner; it was the entrance to the Headmaster's office. Albus Dumbledore.

"Damn him!" the dark wizard cursed like a snake under his breath. "Damn the man!"

Severus advanced down the passageway, his billowing black robes rippling softly along the floor. Everything about him was somber, reserved, unyielding, and intimidatingly strong, and yet, tonight he was obviously in some measure of pain. With the chilly November night on his side and no students or staff members mucking about, Severus could let down his guard, if only a little, before convening with Dumbledore.

It had been another night of 'torture and be tortured.' One night had poured into the next for the last several months. This winter evening hadn't been as excruciating as the past two nights, which had left Severus entirely unfit to teach, without all his obnoxious students ogling at him like a fish. He never missed a day of instruction, but he simply couldn't take the risk after the sheer amount of agony he had endured from the Dark Lord.

By now, however, it was relatively all the same. Severus endured torment, as he had virtually all his life, and took it with a grain of salt. Pain was his company; his constant companion. He hardly questioned when it would end anymore, for it never had since he was a child. One terrible misfortune led to another, stringing together the tattered contents of a most unhappy life that left Severus Snape bitter, and with a very sour taste in his mouth.

Severus clutched his left arm as he halted before the gargoyle. Why the old man wouldn't let him pass without uttering the password tonight was more unnerving to him than usual, inflaming his already angry temper. He drew up straight, wincing from the lingering trembles resulting from the curses he received several times that night, and held his head so that his long locks—straggly, black and less greasy than usual—could no longer conceal his pale face.

"Pineapple strudel," he muttered under his breath, and the gargoyle made of stone sprouted to life and stepped aside. A staircase presented itself, and Severus made his way up the steps as swift and silent as a panther, his personal injuries no longer perceivable.

When he saw Dumbledore's closed door, he let out an exasperated hiss. Even though Severus himself could sense that the aged wizard knew he was coming, the man still had the audacity to make him wait.

After everything I've done, open the bloody door!

Severus was clearly in no mood to play these trivial games that his Headmaster, he suspected, rather enjoyed. He was tired, irritated, and in a great deal of pain.

He sighed wearily and knocked on the door, waiting to be let in like a whimpering dog with his tail between his legs. Severus cursed for allowing himself to be degraded to such a lowly level of existence, something he lamented quite often when he was alone.

"Enter," came Dumbledore's alert voice within.

Wasting no time, Severus burst into the circular room, displaying his usual mask that camouflaged the man underneath. The hard, severe outlines of his face could make even the jolliest person cower in fear and those eyes... Black, and, unlike in most cases, they were not 'the window to a man's soul.' They were so far gone and devoid of emotion most of the time, his feelings shrunk and beaten and sucked away, as if by a vacuum. His demeanor was always frigid and unpardonable to those unfortunate enough to cross his path, and tonight was no exception as he glared solemnly at the Headmaster, the man who seemed to forever hold Severus's puppet strings in the palm of his hands.

In contrast, Professor Dumbledore was Severus's opposite in every manner of speaking. There were the more obvious physical differences: the long, silver beard that fell below his waist; the whimsical robes he wore, such as tonight's crimson-red and matching hat that towered several feet in the air; and the moon-shaped spectacles at the bridge of his crooked nose that, behind their glass, featured a pair of bright blue eyes. He was ethereal when he moved, tall and thin in stature but slightly shorter than Severus, and, at present, he was standing in the middle of his office and stroking his phoenix, Fawkes, seated on a high perch next to his desk.

"Severus," he offered pleasantly, chancing a peculiar glance at the dark wizard; Severus was standing at a considerable distance with his hands latched behind his back.


"I trust I don't need to inquire where you have been this evening."

Severus became informal, showcasing a glimpse of the closeness and long-standing relationship the two shared. "No, Albus."

"Very well then."

Dumbledore finished brushing Fawkes' chest. The illustrious bird let out a satisfied squawk and ruffled its feathers as a form of thanking its master. Dumbledore gave Severus his full attention, not at all unsettled by the man in black's piercing glare. Instead, he smiled almost mischievously.

"You are hurt."

A flicker of something strange passed through Severus's eyes, before he recovered, a muscle in his jaw protruding at the old wizard's discovery. "It's nothing."

Professor Dumbledore shook his head slowly, still eying the professor up and down. His blue eyes narrowed and his mouth remained slightly curled. "What news do you bring?"

"Nothing particularly of importance. Matters you already know. The Dark Lord's forces are moving. They have already secured the help of more giants, and it won't be long before the Dark Lord employs other creatures to his side. He wouldn't elaborate on his plans this evening. Tonight was another more casual affair."

Severus' elongated fingers unconsciously withdrew and coiled, but he quickly drew them into fists at his back, determined not to let them shake. It was difficult for anything to pass by Dumbledore's notice, but if he had witnessed the slight shift in Severus's arms, the old man chose not to acknowledge it.

"Then you did not get any more information yet on Voldemort's plans?"

Severus instantly flinched at the name, but another person wouldn't have picked up on it. Severus loathed the name. It didn't cause him any physical pain to hear, but, mentally, that was another matter. He clenched his jaw and blinked hard. "No, I have not."

Dumbledore sighed and turned away, lost in his thoughts as his luminous eyes scanned the room. The walls on the lower level of his office contained hundreds of books. The upper level, visible from where Severus stood, had towering glass windows that looked out onto pitch darkness. Severus took note of the clock just off to his right. A quarter past two.

The awareness of the time seemed to cause a reaction in Severus's body. A brutal wave of exhaustion overtook his senses, and his eyelids became heavy. He had been up now for well over twenty-four hours and had only managed a few hours of uninterrupted sleep the night before. He was never able to sleep long and could go days without the practice, if necessary. Yet after so many nights this week of being summoned, thereby keeping him awake to avoid the nightmares that would surely follow, Severus's body was finally caving in to what it so desperately craved. Without so much as a 'goodnight,' the Potions Master turned to leave, his cloak sweeping the air as he made his way to the door.

"Is that all, then?"

Severus's shoulders stiffened. The question was candid enough, but the undertone wasn't. After nearly two decades of dedicated service to Dumbledore and to the school that, for so many years, had been his sanctuary, after the countless strides he had made to ensure the safety of Lily Potter's son, he still wasn't trusted...

Severus's scowl deepened, a look his elder couldn't see, but then he thrashed his robes around—all rather elegantly despite his ugly temper—and stared the Headmaster down with everything he had. As was usually Dumbledore's response, Severus didn't receive so much as a flinch.

"That is all," Severus replied, drawling out the three words very slowly for the aged wizard to grasp. This conversation is over.

Dumbledore conceded, as if reading the tired man's mind, but surveyed Severus carefully first, before nodding to him as a form of dismissal. Severus lingered another few seconds, staring hard at his master before taking his leave, exiting as briskly as he had come.

Severus's mind was mangled and distracted by many disturbing thoughts as he descended the staircase and made his way towards his private quarters. They were now on the first floor of the castle instead of in the dungeons, an unpopular dwelling that had been both his private and teaching grounds for a decade and a half. His personal quarters weren't far, and he could sense his aching limbs propelling him faster towards the welcoming relief of his bed.

Then Severus heard something, and his inattentive mind went into action mode like a switch. He blinked and listened for the sound again. He could detect soft noises not far from where he had ceased walking. As he drew closer, the sounds became more pronounced. Lots of sniffling and heavy breathing and, was that crying?

Insolent twit!

Severus sneered as he rounded the corner, prepared to confront whatever student was out of bed at this hour, wandering the halls like a sniveling idiot. The corridor was dark and deserted except for a lone figure curled up on a stone bench beneath one of the stained glass windows.

At first, the professor couldn't make out who the person was, until he stepped closer, hanging back enough so as not to be noticed. Severus rather enjoyed the element of surprise when sneaking up on his blasted students, catching them off their guard when they broke school rules. At least it was one particular enjoyment he could partake in throughout his otherwise miserable days at Hogwarts.

The veiled Potions Master progressed further, and by the time he reached whoever was in his grasp, he stopped. Traces of long, thick curls were illuminated by the light of the windows, falling down to the top of her head. Female. Older. Not a fourth or fifth year student. She had her head buried between her knees, which were propped up on the bench, and her arms were wound tightly around her legs for support. She was wearing matching blue robes and slippers and was sobbing quietly as she clung to the only thing she had for solace: herself.

"Miss...Granger?" Severus whispered, eying her silhouette through narrowed irises.

Hermione's head shot up and an alarmed gasp escaped her lips. She didn't move for several seconds as she tried to process the voice on the edge of the shadows. She could see only an extremely pallid face and cross expression. Very cross.

"Professor!" she peeped when she came to the realization of who was there. She leaned back against the stone wall, an act that forced Severus to roll his eyes.

He stepped forward into the moonlight. The faint, bluish glow seeping in through the windows painted his skin but barely touched his robes. For a moment, he didn't appear human to the distrustful Gryffindor. Then she saw glimpses of those dark, unsettling eyes that held no color, and the equally stark hair that fell in curtains around his cheeks, as well as the long, hooked nose that defined his visage. And then there was that infamously fierce stare he projected to everyone, personifying without words that he neither cared for anyone, nor wished for their company.

Hermione hardened at that foreboding look and dared not move. She could only stare back, waiting for whatever harsh sentence would be her punishment.

"What are you doing out of bed at this hour?" Severus growled, his voice both low and somewhat dangerous.

"I - Well..."

His baritone vocals did not soften, nor did his penetrable stare. "Yes, Granger?"

"I - I was hungry... I never ate dinner, so I thought—"

"You thought you'd wander down to the kitchens in search of a late night snack?"

Hermione tensed her shoulders at the mockery in his insinuation, even though it was true, and her reaction became visible to Severus as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Her cheeks were red and wet, and she was biting her lip, a trait she often displayed when she was nervous or even guilty. Severus had taken notice in her first year, and, apparently, it had never stopped. He willed himself not to roll his eyes again.

"Yes, sir. Like I said, I was hungry."

"Then, pray, how did you come here?"

His tone was cool and aloof, not seemingly at all interested in her answer, but it still caught Hermione by surprise. She expected to be reprimanded straightaway. What did Professor Snape care that she was out of bed?

"I - Um, well..."

"Speak quickly, Granger," Severus snapped, growing more aggravated. "I haven't got all night."

Hermione's lips tightened. "I came down here to make my way to the kitchens but started thinking and, well, I just sort of ended up here. I - I'm sorry, Professor."

"The fact that your stomach is growling and that you have an urgent need to sob are not legitimate excuses for wandering the corridors at night, Granger. After six years, I would think Hogwarts' rules would be cemented into your head."

Hermione lowered her sad eyes. "I - I know, sir. I'm sorry."

"I know you know. What you and your friends seem to lack is the capacity to follow what you know. Get back to the Gryffindor common room, Granger. Now."

Hermione startled as if he had advanced on her. Her eyes searched the dark wizard's face for the wrath, the malice, the hunger to punish her on a whim. Shockingly, she couldn't find any of that, but then she had also noticed how utterly spent he was. Severus Snape always appeared worn out and unhealthy, but tonight was a greater example. Hermione could understand now why he had missed class. He looked terrible and not nearly as threatening as he normally would.

Then her stomach rumbled loudly, breaking the stillness. Hermione rubbed it gingerly and peered up at him, still half reluctant to move. Severus heard the noise but showed no sympathy.

"When you choose not to eat, you reap the consequences. To bed, Granger. I won't tell you again."

"But I— Um, yes, sir."

Hermione stumbled to her feet, wrapping her arms tightly around herself for warmth. A puff of her excited breath caught the cold night air as she spun around to take her leave.

"Granger," Severus called to her, in a frosted tone that made her stop in her tracks. Hermione turned around, but he could not make out her face in the shadows. "Fifty points from Gryffindor for your folly."

Hermione's mouth dropped, and Severus caught a glimpse of it in the bluish outline of her face. "Fifty? But sir—"

"Did you think there wouldn't be repercussions for your stupidity?" Severus snarled back with a bite that stung the atmosphere. "I suggest you run along to your dormitory quickly before I deduct further points from your house! Off with you!"

Hermione jumped, but spun on her heel and ran down the corridor. Severus listened to her slippers pattering softly along the stone floors until they died away. His powerfully acute senses told him she was headed back to Gryffindor Tower without making any detours along the way.

Minerva will have a hernia when she gets wind of this.

Satisfied, though more weary than ever, Severus made his way towards his own chambers at last. His hands were still trembling, and his body ached to a near intolerable level, but the burning sensation coursing through the pale skin beneath his frock coat was at least starting to abate. He ignored treating the curses for the time being in favor of his bed, as he slipped into the familiar privacy he so craved.

Not even bothering to shower or even undress, Severus collapsed onto his four-poster bed, his cloak spread out over the emerald silk covers as he closed his eyes and tried to block out the pain. Despite his usual bouts of insomnia, Severus drifted off to sleep with ease tonight, but not before he had a final conscious thought: Hermione Granger, that insufferable know-it-all.

He had penned that definition of her years ago. The trio, Granger, Potter, and Weasley, who had given him so much grief and headaches since they first arrived, were almost always together. So, why was she alone? And why had she been crying?

Severus let out a faint growl. It was none of his business, and he didn't really care why his student was sobbing, only that her tears were heavy. For a split second, when he stared into the miserable depths of her eyes, he saw traces of his bitterly unhappy seventeen-year-old self.

As if I could forget.

Severus groaned and willed himself not to think. He was exhausted and had no energy to ponder such matters, nor did he wish to. Hopefully, he concluded before falling asleep at last, Hermione Granger had learned her lesson. Then again, after six years of dealing with her...

Probably not.

A/N #2: If you miss the girls, you can still track the family and interact with them on Tumblr. :) There is also additional commissioned art work from Unquestionable Love worth checking out on my Profile. On we go!