Essays, essays, bloody sodding essays. Severus Snape slammed his quill to his desk and swiped a hand miserably down his face. His chin then came to perch in his other hand with a great sigh. The entire school was swarming with idiots, some of which, to his horror and disgust, belonged to Slytherin House. Two and a half hours and not one remote glimmer of intelligence or promise to be found on the towering stack of parchment to his right. Well, with the exception of Miss Granger's piece, of course. Severus sneered and rolled his eyes indignantly. He, however, despised the girl and therefore, she didn't count. His face slumped dramatically to the hard wood of his desk. No. Not one decent essay out of all six of his classes. None.

He lay there for a moment, utterly defeated, and then, mustering whatever resolve he had left, sank back into his chair with another sigh. He eyed the pot of red ink with disdain and one eyebrow came to perch high in his forehead. Bloody thing was nearly empty. And after glancing at the sea of criticism hastily scratched out in red upon the stack of graded essays, it was truly no surprise. With a barely-contained snarl, Snape seized another piece of parchment from the dwindling stack and slammed it onto the desk before him. He was ready to sneer and growl at and curse the name of the unfortunate student who had surely failed like the rest, but found that his eyebrows rose curiously instead. Margaret Wingaard, a sixth year Ravenclaw. Snape found with a profound sense of disappointment that he could not bring himself to outright hate the girl. In truth, he tolerated the girl much more easily than anticipated. She was quiet and of sweet temperament, which kept her well out of trouble in class. And although she was not one of the brightest in her House, she did well enough and usually earned fair scores. He frowned to himself. This essay of hers, however, was not one of her best. Not by a longshot.

Snape bent low over the parchment, quill at the ready, and he scanned the piece carefully with critical eyes. His frown deepened. Where was the eloquent wording? The simple wisdom that was the trademark of each of her essays? This piece was, startling, to say the very least. The Wingaard girl usually gave him better than this. Though not as book-smart as some of her other classmates, Snape was reluctant to admit to himself that he did enjoy reading her essays, even if they were not necessarily at the top of the class. The girl was smart, even he would admit that, but this essay of hers reflected no such thing. Snape felt a keen sense of guilt as he marked away at her parchment. The girl had seemed a little out of sorts lately, and though he'd heard next to nothing whispered about the girl from either his students or his colleagues, he vaguely wondered what might have caused this downward slump in her schoolwork. Seeing as it was late January and the castle held a slight chill that even warming charms could not fix, he supposed the girl was perhaps becoming ill and had been neglecting her assignments as a result. He scribbled a few sentences after the concluding paragraph with a practiced hand and surveyed her piece a final time.

Once satisfied that he had picked at her writing thoroughly, and that his remarks would not cause the girl too much emotional distress, Snape sank back into his chair and folded his arms over his broad chest. His steely gaze remained fixed upon the Wingaard girl's essay. So unlike her. Sure, the girl had been exceptionally quiet as of late, but she was always quiet. That left little room to entertain the thought of the sixth year being more than just ill with a slight cold. Snape gritted his teeth, frustrated at his lack of control. Why on Earth should he be concerned for a Ravenclaw? Flitwick was her Head of House. The man could deal with her himself. Snape snatched the girl's piece from the desktop and slammed it into the ever-growing pile of red-streaked essays in the corner with a huff. One final glance at the girl's parchment and he turned back to the remaining stack of assignments.

….

Not forty minutes later, a tentative knock sounded at his office door and Snape flicked his wand impatiently without bothering to look up from his work. The door swung open with a bang and a tall brown-haired girl stood startled in the doorway. Snape was about to bark at the student, sneer and ascertain why it was that they always needed something from him so late at night, but he simply stared at her instead.

"Miss Wingaard," he acknowledged almost politely. The girl stood quietly in the doorway, face aimed solely upon her feet and hands clenched tightly behind her back. Snape frowned a little, especially when she made no move to come in or speak. "What can I do for you, Miss Wingaard?" he asked loudly, wondering if the girl had simply not heard him the first time. She flinched a little and risked a quick look at his face, and then started forward with a few jerky steps. She came to stand before his desk, shoulders slumped and head once again staring at what Snape presumed to be one fascinating pair of shoes.

"I'm very sorry to bother you, Professor," she said in a squeak, "but I was wondering if I could take a look at my essay. If you've graded it, and have the time, that is." Snape's first instinct was to spit some excuse at the girl and order her to leave, for he rarely tolerated students asking to see their scores ahead of time, but he had an inkling that doing so might break whatever few threads were holding the girl together. He sighed and began shuffling through the stack of graded pieces, pausing momentarily when he thought he heard the Wingaard girl squeak out another trembling apology, and swiftly pulled her parchment onto his desk. He scanned it carefully, knowing full well that the shy girl was likely faint with anxiety, and made a rare decision.

"Miss Wingaard, perhaps you should pull up a chair," he suggested, unsure what had possessed him to offer extra help to a student, especially one from a different House. Snape watched from the corner of his eye as the girl immediately snatched a nearby chair and placed it four feet from the front of his desk. He studied her openly as she stared at him with wide, frightened eyes. Merlin, but the girl had gone white as a sheet. Snape's dark eyes narrowed. What on Earth was wrong with her?

"Contrary to anything you may have heard from your classmates, Miss Wingaard," Snape began in a low drawl, "I do not bite students. You may come closer if you wish. I do not mind." Some of the tension in her arms eased a little and she hesitantly pulled the chair forward another foot. Satisfied that he had at least reassured the girl that she was not about to be hexed or maimed, Snape tapped a hand over her parchment. "This particular essay of yours, Miss Wingaard, is likely the worst you've given to me this year." The girl looked away sharply and clenched her hands together in her lap until the thin knuckles blanched white. "Now I've read some rather dreadful essays tonight," he continued, noting the way she had gone nearly still in her seat, "but yours in particular stood out to me-"

"I'm sorry, sir!" Miss Wingaard blurted out with a sniffle, though she did not make any move to look her professor in the eye. Snape frowned and leaned forward to stare at her from over his desk. The girl was shaking hard now, and though he tried in vain to convince himself that he did not care in the least, Snape was annoyed to find that he did.

"Look at me!" Snape said sharply, relieved when her face immediately rose with a jerk. Her face had become an impassive mask, but her body betrayed her and she still shook with tremors. Snape leaned forward a little more and allowed his voice to drop to a near-whisper.

"What is going on here, Miss Wingaard?"

….

Now he'd done it. This had to be some sort of punishment for all the years he'd been torturing his students without abandon in class. The girl was now crying, and not just sniffling here and there into her hands, but completely sobbing into them with loud cries. Snape sat miserably, head cradled firmly in his hands, and waited for the girl to quiet. Uncomfortable as it was, Snape had to admit that he felt sorry for the girl. She was never one to cry, not that he'd seen anyway, and the fact that she cried with such force unnerved him greatly.

When she failed to quiet after several minutes, Snape conjured a handkerchief with a sigh and sent it floating lazily to her. She accepted it gratefully and hid her face in the cloth, still heaving with choking sobs. Snape rolled his eyes. Wonderful. Typically, he sent handkerchiefs to the distraught as white flag of sorts, a signal to the recipient that they were really being quite silly and that he very much wanted them to shush. It was clear that the Wingaard girl had been in sore need of a good cry however, and Snape mustered his patience to allow her the luxury.

"I-I just d-don't know what to d-do…" came the miserable words from his student, who swiped solemnly at her eyes with the handkerchief. Snape eyed her curiously and folded his hands neatly upon his desk.

"Perhaps explaining yourself would be a good start," he said dryly with one dark eyebrow raised. He was admittedly relieved when the girl didn't seem too hurt by his callous tone, and though he longed to just Legilimize her and be through with it, he knew she would benefit more from talking about it (whatever the bloody hell it was) herself. She nodded in agreement and dabbed at her eyes once more with the corner of the handkerchief.

"I haven't b-been myself lately, s-sir…" Snape resisted the urged to roll his eyes.

"That much is blatantly clear, Margaret," he replied somewhat impatiently. The brunette leapt at the bite in his voice when he spoke her given name. The professor's sallow face softened a fraction and he allowed a little concern to slip through the steely mask. "You've always given me thoughtful, well-written work, and you certainly haven't ever walked into my office distraught and trembling and sobbing for God's sake!" She flinched at his tone, and Snape made a mental note to reign in his fierce temper. Anger would only rebuild her walls now. "Please, Miss Wingaard," Snape said almost nicely, "Enlighten me." The sixth year instead began to sob openly into her hands once more, and Snape stood to move out from behind his desk. He approached the crying girl and was about to grip her shoulders and order her to stop when something she said made him freeze.

"I beg your pardon?" he said quietly, eyes wide.

"I-Ihatem'selfsir…" she whispered brokenly into her hands. There it was. Snape sucked in a silent breath and closed his eyes tightly against the familiarity of the situation. He was taken back to another time, where another student, a boy with lank black hair and few friends sat in a similar fashion, weeping openly and scratching at his thin arms in despair. Not again. Snape's hands hovered over her shoulders for a moment and then Oh, Hell with it. He swiftly pushed her slumped form up against the back of the chair and leaned back against his desk, still holding her in place with one unwavering hand.

"If I understand you correctly," he began in a dangerously quiet voice, "and pray, forgive me if I'm wrong, it sounded to me like said that you hate yourself." The raw agony in her eyes as she looked up at him with a nod told him all he needed to know, and Snape lowered his gaze close to hers. Close enough to peer into her pained, bloodshot eyes.

"Now I expect you to listen to me, Margaret," he growled ferociously. "Is that clear?" She nodded quickly, and the fear was evident in her pale face. Snape kept his gaze hard and angry, but gave her shoulder a small reassuring squeeze. "I don't know who gave you cause to feel this way, or if it is your own doing, but it is entirely unacceptable. This is not a road you wish to travel on, let me assure you." He allowed his eyes to flash momentarily with long-buried regret, and continued on. "Ravenclaw or Slytherin or anything else, I will not let a young, capable, intelligent student make the same mistake that…..someone I knew once made long ago." He averted his gaze, worried that she might have caught the hesitation in his words, but her eyes still watched him raptly and, encouraged, he fixed her with a careful stare.

"You haven't hurt yourself, have you?" He sighed inaudibly in relief when she shook her head. "Thank God. Have you…entertained thoughts of doing so?" Margaret hitched one shoulder up and let it drop, and once again, her eyes found those all-interesting shoes. Snape grimaced and Accio'ed a chair from across the room and sat in it before her, one steady hand still resting on her shoulder.

"That is," he said wearily, "yet another road I wish not to see you take, Margaret. It solves nothing. The feelings do not fade with the physical pain." The shy girl nodded her understanding and swiped a hand under her eyes. Snape leaned back with a critical gaze and noted her defeated posture. The girl bore a remarkable resemblance to a slave, all hunched over and hopeless as she was.

"Sit up, girl," he ordered, though not unkindly. She immediately obeyed, though the fight had yet to return to her eyes, and folded her hands in a tight grip in her lap. "Good," Snape said with a small twitch of his lip, "Take some pride in yourself." She nodded, and for a moment Snape thought she looked a little less burdened. He watched Margaret carefully for another moment or two, noting that she was doing her best to avoid his eyes. "Why?" he asked finally as he removed the steady weight of his hand from her shoulder. Margaret raised a hesitant face to her professor.

"Why what, sir?" came the soft reply, though it was not garbled with tears this time.

"Why did all of this start?" Snape asked firmly. Margaret pressed her hands together tightly and rubbed at the back of one hand as she stared down at her lap yet again. The girl was obviously ashamed, and though Snape was usually the first to induce guilt into someone who deserved it, he saw no reason for the girl to feel in such a way. In fact, the faint blush of embarrassment on her cheeks reminded him of a similar guilty ache that had haunted him at her age. He waited a few moments for her to gather her words, but when she only managed a few syllables spoken through trembling lips, he intervened.

"You needn't feel ashamed," he offered in a rare conversational tone, "I can't say it's normal to hold such contempt for yourself, but I can tell you that there's certainly no shame in admitting it or asking for help." Her eyes met his then, and he knew she was listening. "Was this triggered by something, or has this built up over time?" He leaned forward a little to rest his elbows upon his knees, and watched as a little more of the tension melted from the brunette's tight shoulders.

"It's been…off and on," she replied softly, though she still avoided his gaze. "My family is rather strict with me, sir, and although I know they're trying to push me to do my best, I feel very…." She trailed off then, seemingly searching for the right word.

"Inadequate?" he offered, concerned when her blue eyes clouded with tears again. They failed to spill onto her flushed cheeks, however, and that was truly a relief. She nodded her agreement and swiped at her eyes.

"Yes, completely. They're always looking for something more or something better from me. Truthfully, I'm exhausted." Snape nodded his understanding, impressed that she had revealed as much him, the widely-feared 'Dungeon Bat'. It was silent then for a little while, but Snape felt compelled to offer her a lifeline of sorts. This was the sort of conversation he wished he had had with a professor at her age, and there was something Snape knew he had always longed to hear, but thanks to barmy old Albus and a certain brat-who-lived, it was nearly impossible.

"This is when you have to decide to go out and be your own person, Margaret," he drawled wearily. "Others will expect things of you, demand things of you, yes, but you must live for yourself. Not for them. They are not the masters of your life. That is your territory." She nodded her understanding and again, looked a little less burdened. "That being said, there is no reason to let the disappointment of others determine your self worth." He leaned forward to stare her firmly in the eyes. She met his gaze readily, though he sensed she was a little unnerved. "If a few mistakes or disappointments is enough to undo everything that is good about a person, it is a tragic existence that we lead, Margaret. A tragic one, indeed."

With that, he rose swiftly from his chair and departed to the back room of his office, only to return later with a steaming teapot and two teacups in hand. He did not ask if she would like tea. It was more of a silent insistence on his part, and she accepted willingly. They sipped their tea together in a companionable silence for several long moments, and then, the girl found her voice.

"Do you real think there's hope for me then, Professor?" A glance at the sixth year told him she had given what little of her bold confidence remained, and he regarded her with a contemplative stare. He could easily crush her to dust, tear her apart with a scathing reply like he typically did with his students, but a moment's thought told him that such treatment would be horribly uncalled for. Margaret was broken, that much could be seen, but she was far from beyond repair. He sipped silently at his tea. No. She was not like him at that age. Not at all.

"I don't see any reason to think otherwise, Margaret," he offered in reply. There. A straight answer without the sickly-sweet spattering of unwarranted praise that Albus surely would have offered the girl. He supposed for a moment that she had been hoping for such nonsense, but the soft smile and gleaming of her eyes told him his careful words had been more than enough. He even gave a soft half-smile in approval, though a small part of him prayed she did not see it, lest she expect partial treatment in class. She was not the sort entertain such notions, however, and for that he was glad. One sensible student among the bunch. The brunette set her empty teacup aside and peered over her shoulder at the window above Snape's desk. Snow swirled in lazy torrents outside against the dark charcoal grey of the evening sky. She reluctantly cleared her throat and clasped her hands together in her lap.

"I suppose I should be going, Professor," she began tentatively, "It's getting rather late…" Snape set aside his own cup and nodded briskly in her direction. She took the hint and rose to her feet in a flash, though she still lingered hesitantly beside his desk.

"I…Well that is…." she said softly, and though Snape was tempted to bark something to hurry her along, he supposed she had endured enough stress for one day, and opted for patience instead.

"What I mean is….thank you, sir," she finally muttered in a shy squeak of a voice. "I really do appreciate everything you've done." Snape nodded his acceptance and moved to take a seat behind the desk.

"Think nothing of it, Miss Wingaard," was his response. "My door is nearly always unlocked if you should ever need anything, but not another word of this to another student. Am I clear?" She nodded quickly. "Good." His stare then turned steely and he jabbed a finger sharply in her direction. "You. Will. Not. Harm yourself. Are we understood? If I hear anything, anything at all, from Madam Pomfrey, you will be spending your free time in here scrubbing cauldrons."

"Yes sir," she nodded in agreement. He smirked his approval and snatched the abandoned quill pen from the corner of his desk, but he paused just before he dipped it into the inkwell. The girl was almost to the door, but he glanced at her red-marked essay off to his left and gritted his teeth against the rash decision he was about to make.

"Miss Wingaard?" he called from his desk. She whirled to face him, eyebrows raised in curiosity, and clasped her hands before her. He regarded her carefully for a moment and then, deciding that one more shred of compassion couldn't hurt, spoke softly into the silence.

"This essay of yours is atrocious. I expect a full rewrite on my desk by Monday morning. Is that clear?" The girl looked positively stricken for a moment, especially when he quirked his mouth at her, but then, slowly, understanding blossomed in her face to smooth out the worried lines that creased it, and she smiled gratefully. Snape allowed himself to smile back at her for a beat and then the steely mask slid right back into place. He was thankful she had seen past the bite in his words to the truth of them, something he recalled with a heavy sigh, that others often neglected to do. He peered upward through a lock of black hair. Margaret was still beaming at him gleefully and though he appreciated her gratitude, seeing it manifested so strongly made him ill.

"Yes, yes, you're quite welcome. Now out," he half-snarled, though the words were almost meant to tease. She laughed softly in reply, a rare sound that Snape hoped would make itself known more regularly, and disappeared through the door. Snape stared at the empty space in the doorway for a long while before turning back to the remainder of the essays with a shake of his head. He wasn't quite sure what had just transpired over the past forty minutes, but he did know that the nasty, evil Dungeon Bat had just effectively consoled a distraught student and had refrained from tearing her to pieces with his usual scathing words. Albus wouldn't believe it. Minerva either. Not that he'd ever tell them, of course. He didn't quite believe it himself, and why should he tarnish his legendary reputation? Still though, he thought with a soft smile, it did the old wounds some good to see a young person relieved after such inner turmoil.

He rose from his seat and carefully stepped across the room to the office door. One long-fingered hand brushed the doorknob and lingered for a moment. The images of a dark-haired Ravenclaw girl and another of a familiar scrawny black-haired boy flashed behind his eyes then, and after a moment's consideration, Snape returned to his desk. He'd leave the door open for tonight.