I do not own Harry Potter, nor any of the characters from JK Rowling's fantastic books or films, I'm just borrowing and playing with them for a little while and get no monetary reward for doing so

A/N: Initially this was just a bittersweet little drabble about Snape receiving a Valentine's Day gift, but then it grew and suddenly it was a proper tale. The story is AU, as it begins in the seventh year of Harry Potter's time at school but completely ignores anything that happened in the Deathly Hallows and pretty much anything after about halfway through the Half Blood Prince. So in this story the war hasn't yet happened, although Voldemort is in the process of consolidating his grip on the Ministry of Magic, and none of the major players have died (although that doesn't mean they won't in the future as war may well be coming; but this won't be covered here) and, of course, our beloved Severus Snape is back to being the Potions Master. Enjoy! Dx

He opened the door of the classroom and walked slowly over to his desk. There in the centre, as there had been every year for the previous five years was a single perfect, blood-red rose and an envelope with the letters SS carefully etched on the front. He smiled wistfully and picked up the envelope. He knew before he even opened it what would be inside: a plain hammered cream card bearing the picture of a single red heart. The inside of the card would be empty except for one exquisite rose-pink lipstick kiss.

As he opened the flap he wondered if maybe, this year, he would finally find out the identity of his secret admirer. He checked carefully to see if there was any clue. He lifted the card to his nose. His excellent sense of smell detected something, the faint aroma of . . . what? His heart leapt, but he couldn't quite work out what the scent was although he knew he recognised it from somewhere. Soon he was feeling quite as dejected as before.

Hearing a noise, he looked up and saw that the Headmaster had entered the room. Snape picked up the rose, holding it carefully, and looked quizzically at him. Dumbledore smiled.

"Ah, Severus, I see that St Valentine has found you once again." Dumbledore's voice was light and happy.

The Potions Master scowled. "I have no idea why I am fortunate enough to have been singled out yet again, Albus."

Dumbledore smiled even more brightly. "Well, obviously, my dear boy, someone out there regards you with higher esteem than that with which you regard yourself. Surely even your heart is gladdened by the fact that someone in this big, wide world cares for you?"

Snape swallowed, then said thickly, "Albus, you know what I am, what I've done. . . ." His voice trailed off as he looked bleakly at the Headmaster.

"Yes, Severus, and I know that you deserve to be loved just as much as anyone else," Dumbledore said kindly, patting the younger man's hand.

Snape just shook his head dejectedly. "I don't feel that way, though," he said mournfully. "Whoever sends these gifts is wasting their time with me."

Dumbledore looked at him sadly. "What a shame you can't even enjoy this gift, Severus," he said quietly. "I am sure your admirer would be distraught if she knew the roses made you unhappy."

"I am not unhappy with the roses, Headmaster," Snape replied quickly.

Dumbledore smiled again. Snape looked at him, his eyes narrowing slightly. "So do you know who has been sending them to me, old man? I know that you know everything that goes on around here."

Dumbledore laughed lightly. "Severus, I have told you many times that I do not know everything; and in this instance, no, I do not know who your admirer is." He chuckled. "Of course, even if I did, do you really think I would tell you?" His blue eyes were twinkling now. "However, I am sure that if you really wanted to find out, you could. And I think maybe this year would be the right time."

Once again he had that infuriating smile on his face. With this final comment the Headmaster left, leaving Snape looking at his gifts once more before moving them quickly into his office so they wouldn't be seen by his students.

He was touched by the gifts more than he liked to admit. He knew he wasn't a popular teacher. In fact, that was something of an understatement. He was pretty much despised throughout the school. His teaching methods were strict, and although he achieved excellent results this didn't make him any more liked. He was slightly biased in favour of his own House, but he knew the other Heads of House were all biased toward their own pupils, too, so he felt no qualms about that although it didn't help his reputation. Neither did the fact that he was an ugly man, with a large, beaked nose and long hair, greasy from working with potions all day, with a countenance that favoured a scowl rather than a smile.

He remembered back to the first time he had entered his classroom and seen the rose and card waiting for him. Being a naturally suspicious man he had automatically assumed they had been placed there as a joke, probably something dreamt up by that fop Gilderoy Lockhart, although surely then there would have been hearts and cupids flying around all over the place just like the travesty in the Great Hall that morning.

Having checked that they weren't charmed, he had picked them up and dumped them unceremoniously on the desk in his office. Reaching for the envelope, he was stunned to discover that it was a Valentine's card. Okay, so now he knew it had to be a joke; but somehow, against all reason, that didn't appear to be the case. A strange feeling ran through him at the thought that it appeared someone actually cared about him enough to send him a card and that beautiful rose.

His first class that day, the second year Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, had arrived shortly after. The students may have been a little surprised that their normally caustic Potions Master appeared to be in a slightly better mood than usual, although of course they couldn't have known why. This feeling of goodwill had lasted right up until his second year Slytherin/Gryffindor class later that afternoon, when "saint" Potter had managed to completely ruin his day.

Later that evening Snape had sat in front of the fire in his room with a glass of Firewhisky in one hand and the perfect rose in the other, trying to work out who had sent it. Another look at the card had revealed no hints and eventually he had given up, deciding that it was probably a hoax after all, although a tiny part of him hoped otherwise. But soon the rose and card were forgotten and life continued as normal.

Imagine his surprise, then, when the following year he found yet another perfect rose and a duplicate of the original card once again waiting on his desk. Without Lockhart's gaudy celebrations Snape had completely forgotten it was Valentine's Day, and his heart automatically skipped a beat when he saw the gifts lying on his desk.

Once again there was no clue as to the sender. Once again his mood lifted slightly and he generally had a good day, although one of his best third year Hufflepuff students had to be given detention for daydreaming and almost ruining her potion, something she had done several times of late. As she was normally a quiet and sensible girl, he was concerned about her falling standards and mellowed by the Valentine gift, he decided that rather than the usual stern lecture and further detentions, which would probably do more harm than good, he would instead have a talk with Pomona about the student when he got the chance. Once again, at the end of the evening the rose and card were taken to his quarters and he contemplated them in the firelight over a drink.

And so this had continued every year since. He was surprised once more in the third year it had occurred, but by the fourth he remembered the date and waited anxiously to see whether the gift would appear again, although he would never have admitted that, even to himself. He was still none the wiser about the sender. He couldn't tell if it was a pupil or a teacher—and if it was a pupil, what year was he or she in? Had the person left the school by now?

To his delight the rose and card were there as usual, and just as annoyingly as in the previous three years there was still nothing to give away the identity of the sender. He briefly wondered whether maybe Albus was sending them in an attempt to keep his spirits up but looking again at the kiss in the card, he knew that wasn't the case, although it was clear that the old man knew about the gifts. The previous year he had been determined to be in his classroom early to see if he could catch the sender, but the Headmaster had come to see him with an urgent summons and by the time Snape returned the culprit had been and gone. He was convinced that the Headmaster had known his intention and had foiled it. This was confirmed later in the day when Albus told him good-naturedly that had Severus been in the room, Albus was sure no gift would have been delivered. Of course that was probably true, but it didn't get Snape any closer to knowing who his admirer was, he thought grumpily. As he looked at the rose over his Firewhisky that evening he wondered what he would do if he did ever actually manage to find out who was sending them.

He heard the sound of his students arriving, so he placed this year's rose and card carefully in the drawer of his desk and made his way back into the classroom. The current class was a mixed blessing—his seventh year N.E.W.T. students. On the one hand they were supposedly the best students in the school, as he only accepted those whose O.W.L.s were Outstanding; but somehow, thanks to Horace Slughorn, who had taught the class the year before, Longbottom, the bane of Snape's life, had managed to scrape through and now couldn't be removed from the course. As had Malfoy, Potter, Weasley, and that infernally annoying Granger girl, who was admittedly brilliant but also a complete pain in the arse. Fortunately, the rest of the class was made up of generally sensible students, several of whom had the ability to become quite accomplished potion makers if they were inclined to put in the required study.

Scowling around the room as he waited for the class to settle down, Snape spotted Sarah Steadman. She was the quiet Muggle-born Hufflepuff who had almost blown up the school several times in her third year due to her daydreaming. He reflected that he was glad he had taken the time to point out her problems to her Head of House rather than applying his usual tactic of intimidation. After his tactful intervention, Pomona had talked to the girl and there had been no repeat problems. In fact, she had gone on to be one of his best students. He had high hopes that she, unlike her stupid, brave Gryffindor colleagues, would choose potion-making as a career, either through an apprenticeship or working in a hospital or one of the Ministry-run laboratories, rather than becoming an Auror. As he looked at the quiet girl he mused about the possibility of Hogwarts offering her an apprenticeship. His mood lightened by the card and rose, he decided he would discuss the possibility of such a position later with the Headmaster.

He waved his wand at the board and the ingredients for that day's potion appeared. In his dark, silky voice he instructed the class as to what he expected of them. Happy enough to leave them to their potion making, he sat down behind his desk and started grading first year essays on the properties of Bezoars. Gods, the pupils really were getting stupider every year, he thought as he covered yet another parchment in red ink. He looked up to check on progress, and as he glanced around at his students his mind subconsciously slipped back to the rose and card in his desk drawer. He was sure Albus knew or had a good idea who the sender was, as he had let something slip that morning. Now, what was it he had said?

Snape thought back. Well, for starters Albus had said "she" would be upset if "she" thought Snape didn't like the roses. So that ruled out a huge part of the school population. Snape had to admit he was rather pleased about this. He was not inclined "that way" and although he had no problems with those who were, he wouldn't have been flattered to find he was receiving attention from a man. Albus had hinted that he should track her down this year, which meant she was either a teacher who would be leaving at the end of the year, or—he looked at the class again with dawning realisation—or she was a student who would likely be leaving at the end of the year.

A puff of smoke drew him back to his surroundings. Of course it was Longbottom who had caused the commotion. It always was. Snape stood up and quickly walked over to the boy's table to see what he had done wrong this time. Fortunately it was nothing serious, but it gave Snape the opportunity to lose Gryffindor a few more points and humiliate Longbottom in front of the Slytherins in the class. It also had the effect of taking his mind off the problem of the rose. Eventually the lesson was finished, and once he had checked that all the cauldrons had been properly cleaned and stacked and the potions bottled and labelled he moved into his office. He had a free period now and decided to relax in his private quarters, as he was teaching the first years after lunch and knew from experience that it was likely to be a stressful lesson.

Gently removing the rose and card from his drawer, he unwarded the door to his quarters and carried them through to the lounge. He placed the items on a small table next to a large wing-backed chair and sank into it, then summoned a house-elf and requested tea.

So his admirer was almost certainly a student, probably a seventh year. This made him feel somewhat uneasy. Whilst that would make the student in question seventeen or maybe even eighteen now, when the first roses had appeared she could have been no older than thirteen. Actually, the more he thought about that the worse it seemed. He tried to imagine which of his students could possibly have had a crush on him for such a long time and was forced to admit he couldn't think of a single one. He supposed one of his Slytherin students might have been behind it, maybe Pansy Parkinson, probably hoping to get extra credit or something, but that didn't seem quite right.

The one thing it did do was convince him that when or if (he wasn't sure now that he wanted to know) he found out the identity of the sender he would give her a stern lecture on how he wasn't the right sort of man for her. He sipped at his tea, feeling somewhat depressed by the whole thing. Too quickly, his free time was gone and he had to get back to the classroom. His mood had gone downhill quickly, not helped by the first years who were every bit as bad as he had anticipated. By the time of the evening meal he was incredibly pissed off with everyone and everything.

Albus obviously noticed this and tried to draw out of him what was wrong, but Snape was in no mood for talking. He ate as quickly as he could manage and then stormed back to his rooms to get on with his marking. Of course he couldn't help turning over in his mind the subject of the female seventh year students. An image of know-it-all Granger popped into his head and he shuddered. Gods! Surely not! He grabbed a large glass of Firewhisky and followed his ritual of the previous years, once again picking up the rose and musing over its origins.

Dumbledore's head appeared in his fireplace in a flash of green light. "Can I have a word, please, Severus?" he asked politely.

Snape shrugged and soon the body of the Headmaster followed his head and he was standing in the room, dusting himself down.

"You seem rather downhearted this evening, Severus," he commented sadly.

Snape ignored the comment and took a large slug of whisky before pouring Albus one as well as another for himself. Dumbledore raised his eyebrows slightly but didn't comment.

"I assume you are focussing on the sender of the Valentine still?"

"No!" The word was spat out. Dumbledore looked surprised. Snape regarded him thoughtfully and continued, "I followed your clues, old man, and I didn't like what I found. I think it's best that I don't think about it any more."

Dumbledore looked both amused and confused. "My clues?" he said. "I'm sorry, Severus, but I distinctly remember telling you that I didn't know who had sent them." He looked intently at the Potions Master.

Snape snorted. "Of course not, Albus," he replied sarcastically.

Dumbledore gazed at him sadly, and shaking his head he stood to leave. "Well, if you wish to be alone . . ." he started.

"Actually, Albus, there is something I want to discuss with you." Snape motioned for the Headmaster to sit back down. He spent the next twenty minutes discussing with Dumbledore his idea for Sarah Steadman to become his potions apprentice. Dumbledore, he had been heartened to discover, seemed to think it was a wonderful idea as he, too, was worried about the growing number of students who were showing an interest in going into the dangerous career of being an Auror. He knew of Sarah's ability in the potions field and felt it would be an advantage to Hogwarts and a great help to Snape if she could be persuaded to take the post. He suggested that Snape draw up a detailed plan explaining exactly how the apprenticeship would work, and he would look into providing suitable accommodation for her. Knowing the mild Hufflepuff girl, both men felt quietly confident that she would accept the position and Snape finished the evening feeling much happier than he had started it.

The rose and card joined the others, and having disposed of them he put them completely out of his mind.

A few weeks later Sarah Steadman was called to the Headmaster's office. She was a little worried about why she had been asked to go. She had tried hard not to get into trouble after her run-ins with Snape during her third year when she'd had huge problems concentrating, especially in his class. After Madam Sprout, her Head of House, had sat her down for a serious and frank conversation Sarah had completely turned her life around and worked hard to get into the N.E.W.T. classes for all her favourite subjects, and she was always polite to the teachers, making sure to stay out of trouble. She had only once had a detention since then, during her fifth year, and that was because she had been a member of Dumbledore's Army. She was sure that didn't count. She knew she was no angel, but she was a hard worker, always trying to the best of her ability. She had no idea why the Headmaster wanted to see her but hoped it wasn't anything serious or anything upsetting. Once there, she was extremely pleased to discover that it wasn't bad news and she wasn't in trouble. In fact, her hard work had paid off and she was being offered an apprenticeship working with Snape, which would allow her to continue with further study of her favourite subject, Potions. Whilst it was obviously dependent upon her N.E.W.T. results, the Headmaster had explained that he and the Potions Master were confident these weren't likely to be a problem. Sarah had gratefully accepted.

Sarah was one of those students who always stayed at school during the holidays due to having parents who were busy working abroad, and always finding herself shipped off to various distant relatives during the long summer holidays. This always left her longing to be back at school and she had really had no idea what she would do once she was forced to leave Hogwarts. She didn't fancy becoming an Auror, which was the current popular job choice amongst the pupils in her year. It seemed like far too dangerous a job, better suited to people such as Harry Potter, who was always getting into scrapes. She really enjoyed the methodical nature of potions work and had briefly considered making it a career but hadn't exactly been sure how to go about it. The Hogwarts offer gave her both the opportunity to work in her chosen field and to gain experience under a first class Potions Master, with the security of being amid familiar surroundings where she could relax. She was excited to see that she was being given rooms in the dungeons, and Professor Snape had told her she could share his private laboratory once they started working together. She was also pleased as the Headmaster had given her permission to stay at school over the summer holidays in order to sort herself out, so she wouldn't have to spend yet another year with some well-meaning but not overly caring relative.