Disclaimer: I don't own anything in the Harry Potter universe.

By Firelight

"Is all of Hufflepuff this illiterate?" Snape muttered scathingly out loud to his workroom. "I swear to Merlin, they're getting worse." He sighed heavily and dropped the quill onto the latest bunch of incomprehensible essays, blearily rubbing his eyes. He loathed marking essays, but the satisfaction of seeing his student's faces fill with despair heavily outweighed the inconvenience of assigning them as homework.

The knock at his door proposed a tantalising distraction from unintelligible papers full of unrelated tangents.

He opened the door with a flourish, his black robe billowing around his legs. "What?" he snapped.

Hermione shifted uncomfortably. "I'm so sorry to bother you, sir. I was hoping I might be able to borrow a volume for some research."

Snape narrowed his eyes dangerously. "What makes you think that you are entitled borrow from my personal collection?"

"I overheard you extend the offer to Malfoy, sir. As Head Girl, I thought that maybe…" She trailed off, clutching at the bag slung over her shoulders.

"Eavesdropping, Miss Granger?" His mouth twisted unpleasantly around the words. "Five points from Gryffindor." He slammed the door with a tight smirk.

Snape had barely settled into his chair when the knock sounded again. He raised his eyebrow, legitimately surprised at the girl's tenacity. He flung the door open once more, glowering darkly as he waited for Hermione to explain herself.

"Professor Snape, I think it is highly unfair that you offer such an opportunity to the Head Boy and not to me." Her cheeks were flushed, and Snape suspected that she was reciting her spiel from memory. "As Head Girl, I have certain responsibilities to uphold. Maintaining a high grade in my subjects is one of them, and I can't complete this essay without your help because the books in the library are practically useless!"

"Are you going to keep interrupting me until I let you borrow this book?" He drawled, ignoring her little speech.

Hermione shuffled slightly. "I was thinking about it, sir," She admitted truthfully.

Snape rolled his eyes. "You have ten minutes, and then get out."

He strode back to his desk, hiding his smirk. He pulled the top essay towards him, watching the brown-haired girl in his peripheral vision. She had quietly followed him in and stood, open-mouthed, in front of his expansive collection. Books, manuscripts and scrolls of varying size were crammed into every available space. Hermione bewilderedly searched for some semblance of organisational method before admitting that she was out of her depth.

"Professor Snape…"

Snape barely glanced up from the scribble he was attempting to decipher. "You wanted access to my collection, and now you have it. Eight minutes, Miss Granger."

Hermione swallowed her frustration, turning her mind to the puzzle before her. The wall encompassing bookshelf clearly wasn't organised alphabetically by title, otherwise Asiatic Anti-Venoms and Sixteen Uses for Powdered Wartcap wouldn't be near each other. She tilted her head, dismissing the idea of arrangement by author. It wouldn't be that obvious. Her eyes widened as the solution flashed into her mind.

"Oh," she said quietly. Hermione stifled a giggle, allowing herself a satisfied smirk as she reached towards a battered volume. She cradled the book in the crook of her arm and turned towards her Potions professor.

Snape met her eyes, a peculiar look blinking fleetingly across his features. Hermione suspected that it might have been surprise.

"It's clever," she smiled. "Organising the bookshelf by main ingredient, I mean."

"I'm a Potions Master, Granger. Frankly, I'm surprised it took you so long." He snarled. "What book have you got?"

Hermione shrugged off the insult, showing him the tome she'd picked.

"What do you need that for?" His voice was vaguely accusatory.

She frowned, confused. "I need it for the essay you set us."

"I'm well aware of the essay, Miss Granger. You are supposed to be researching substitute ingredients for an Exploding Potion."

"Yes, sir. I was going to use this to discuss the proper techniques of distilling Exploding liquid from an Erumpent horn."

Snape gave her a withering glare. "Of course you are. Presumably, there are no useful books in the library because it is such an obscure and volatile ingredient."

"Exactly, Professor. When do you want me to return it?" Hermione asked, tucking the book into her bag.

"That book will not leave this workroom, Miss Granger. You can make space on the table over there, if you insist on using it." Snape gestured to the bench closest to the roaring fire. "That book is worth more than all of your possessions. If you damage it at all, you will replace it." He warned.

Hermione carefully moved the mountain of books to one side of the table before settling into the hard-backed chair. She rummaged in her bag for a few moments, much to Snape's ire.

Snape shook his head and returned to the forgotten essays in front of him, his eyes skimming over the scribbled nonsense without reading it. He was far too distracted by the unwelcome presence in his workroom. He had only just strengthened his resolve to ignore her when she sniffed. Snape felt his spine stiffen.

"Are you ill, Miss Granger?" He asked curtly.

"Pardon, sir?"

"You sniffed. Don't do it again. It's a deplorable habit."

"Oh, that. Its spring, sir, and I always get hay fever around this time of year."

"It's appalling. If you do it again, you can get out of my workroom." He snarled.

Hermione didn't move.

Snape deepened his glower.

Viciously scrawling an 'F' on the essay he'd been trying to read for what felt like hours, he pulled the next essay towards him. With any luck, she would leave soon.

"Professor?" Hermione asked a short while later.

Snape groaned internally. Of course she wouldn't be quiet; it was too much to hope for. "What is it, Granger?"

"How long did it take you to collect all these books? Some look practically ancient,"

"It took a long time." He drawled.

"How did you find all of them?"

He rolled his eyes. "I'm a collector. It's what I do."

"It's just… there's so many books I haven't even heard of!" She enthused happily, cheeks flushed.

"Because obviously, Miss Granger, in your seventeen years of life you would have heard of every single book in existence." He said sarcastically, allowing the venom to seep into his words.

Hermione looked a little stunned. "Sorry…" She muttered.

Snape almost regretted being so caustic towards his student. How odd.

"Can I ask you a question, Professor?" She said abruptly.

"I have a feeling you're about too, whether I allow it or not." He sighed, putting down his quill and giving up the pretence of attempting to concentrate.

"Why do you show Malfoy so much favouritism?"

"Be careful where you're stepping, Granger." Snape cautioned softly.

"Alright, I'll rephrase it. Why do you hate me so much?" The steel behind her eyes glinted.

"Don't be sensitive, Granger. I don't hate you."

"I beg to differ, sir. You're always so severe towards me, even when I do better work than Malfoy."

"Oh, for Merlin's sake!" Snape threw his hands in the air. "I give Draco preferential treatment because the boy cannot function without his ego being stroked on a daily basis. If he feels that he is not progressing, or is merely average, he stops trying. Believe it or not, Granger, the boy has potential."

"Well… what about me?"

"If it will shut you up, I merely want to encourage you."

"By insulting everything I do?" She tried not to let it show how much it affected her.

Snape sighed almost gently. "I'm harder on you because I know you can be better than you think you can be. You're smarter than any of my current students. You don't waste my time, and… I appreciate it."

"Then why are you so horrid to me?" Hermione asked softly, as if afraid of what he was going to say.

"Because with the exception of Draco, I don't believe in over-inflated egos. You have your other Professors to tell you how brilliant you are, you don't need me to do it too."

Hermione processed what he had just said. "Thanks," she managed eventually. "I think."

Snape didn't reply.

They worked in silence for a while longer. Snape was internally berating himself for revealing so much when he had the sudden realisation that he was watching the firelight play across her features. He hurriedly fixed his gaze on the monotonous Hufflepuff essays.

As usual, Hermione was the first to break the silence. "Sir, can you please check my interpretation is right?"

Deciding it was not worth the trouble of refusing, Snape sighed heavily as he leant over to look at her parchment. He scanned the tidy writing briefly before scoffing lightly.

"You most definitely have not got it right. The book is convoluted, so I'll forgive your mistakes. Firstly, it's saying that you have to take the horn and turn it clockwise twice to loosen the liquid inside. Then you turn it upside down and make a small incision on the tip, no bigger than half a Knut. You don't want to introduce oxygen too quickly or it might explode prematurely." Snape leant closer, pointing to the book as he explained. "The next part is time-reliant, so you need to be prepared for it. The horn is partly submerged in a cauldron of fluorescent aqueous solution. After two minutes, you need to stir three times, then once every thirty seconds for another two minutes. You remove the horn, and raise the solution to boiling point. If it turns a burnt orange, it's distilled properly and is safe to handle."

He suddenly realised how close he had gotten to his student. A whiff of sweet perfume drifted towards him before he was able to take a large step backwards.

"And, um, the exposure to oxygen is what makes it volatile? As long as it is kept in a mostly anaerobic environment, the solution is safe?" Hermione struggled slightly to keep her voice steady.

"Correct," Snape snapped as he returned to his desk.

He attempted vainly to concentrate on the pile of dismal Hufflepuff essays that he had yet to read. His eyes made this inherently difficult, as they kept straying towards the student diligently taking notes in front of the fire that threw patterns over her face.

Snape abruptly noticed that she had loosened her tie. He tried his hardest not to follow the curve of her neck with his eyes, repeating to himself that she was his student. Briefly thanking Merlin that the school shirts had so many buttons and that most of her's were all done up, Snape strained to busy himself with the unread essays one last time. He gave up when he found himself staring at the gentle swell of Hermione's collar-bone that was barely uncovered by the shirt.

He swallowed roughly. "Miss Granger, either fix your shirt or get out of my workroom."

Hermione smiled to herself and kept reading.