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The alleys seemed to be growing darker as they went along, but she was sure they were headed in the right direction. Harry led the way back toward the safety and comfort of their beloved Diagon Alley. A tingle crept up Hermione's spine as they went and she had the distinct impression that they were being watched. She slowed, allowing Ron to pass her. A brief glance around revealed nothing but the broken, dingy stores of Knockturn Alley. Idly she wondered if Malfoy had seen them spying on him at Borgin and Burke and followed. But he was nowhere in sight. So she turned and followed after Harry and Ron.

A moment later, she felt a wave of magic fall over her, but before she could even process that thought she had been yanked by the arm into one of the dark shops that lined the alley. Her throat burned with a silent scream as she struggled against her captor. She was quickly restrained against a wall with her arms held tight behind her back, so she stopped fighting. It was dark in the store and all she could see was the rotting wood of the wall pressed against her cheek and a shelf of grimy jars that looked as if they'd crusted to the wall. Her captor stood behind her, pressed against her frame, but he was still and made no move to hurt her further.

His hot breath hit her ears as he lowered his head to hers. She attempted to rip out of his grip only to have his hold tighten on her and his body pressed harder against her. A deep, throaty rumble of a laugh sent shockwaves through her body.

"Quite a long way from the library, aren't you Miss Granger?" drawled a familiar, silky voice. Snape. She gasped and discovered that the silencing charm had been removed. Perhaps she should have screamed, but something told her not to. Something other than her famous rationality.

"What are you doing?" she hissed. Her mind flew through the possibilities. Perhaps Harry and Ron were right after all and he was truly faithful to Voldemort. Perhaps he planned to take her to the dark lord now. Perhaps there were other death eaters with him and he had to play along. This thought made her heart jump up into her throat and she struggled to get a glimpse of their surroundings. Surprisingly, Snape released her, only to turn her around and press her shoulders once more into the biting wood of the wall.

"Foolish girl! I should be asking you the same. Do you have any idea how dangerous it is for the three of you to be strutting around Knockturn Alley unsupervised?" he drew out the last word for emphasis and she felt her cheeks grow red. If she had thought she felt foolish with her failure at Borgin and Burke she was certainly mortified now. "Well?!" he hissed. And suddenly her fear left her in a breath. She was safe. He wasn't going to hurt her.

"I'm sorry, sir. It won't happen again," she answered stupidly. Well, she wasn't about to tell him what they'd been doing down here!

"You're bloody right it won't! I have half a mind to hold you here and let them panic, but I think when you see that they still haven't noticed your absence you'll understand just how easily you could disappear forever in a place like this." He released her shoulders and flung open the shop door. The bright light blinded her, and she practically tripped outside in her hurry to escape. She glanced back to see the professor's black form barely visible in the dark doorway as he watched her run off in the direction of her friends.

When she caught up to Harry and Ron she was dismayed to find that they actually hadn't noticed her disappearance. Anger boiled up in her and she felt she might explode, but somehow found herself at a loss for words. She could not explain to them what had happened. Somehow, putting a voice to the story would make her feel even more foolish. So she kept quiet and they returned to the safety of their group.

The Hogwarts Express was safely and dutifully carrying its precious load off to their magical school as it did every year. And yet, the atmosphere aboard the train was a lot darker than it had been in a long time. The usual joyful cheer of adolescent witches and wizards snacking on their favorite magical candies and savoring the ability to use their own wands again for the first time in months was subdued several degrees by an ominous blanket of fear and anxiety. This year, more than any other year for the passengers on board, saying goodbye to family members had been difficult and there were more pressing worries than the usual anticipation of Potions class with Professor Snape.

For one Hermione Granger, however, Professor Snape was the worry at the forefront of her mind. The last time she had seen him he had had her pressed against a wall in Knockturn Alley. She had been completely humiliated and made to feel as foolish as she ever had. And the coiled knot in her stomach kept asking her how the surly, dark professor was going to act when she saw him again. Would he announce her foolishness to the classroom? She certainly hoped not, as she hadn't even told Harry or Ron about it, and also because she didn't need Draco's suspicion to worry about. Perhaps he would pretend it never happened.

Oh gods. What if he demanded answers from her about what they had been doing in such a dark and suspicious part of Wizarding London? She couldn't keep the answers from a skilled legilimens like him! She could already hear him lecturing them about being nosy, self-important Gryffindors and the little knot tightened. Oh, why did his opinion of her matter so damn much?

Damn Harry and his inability to stay put and do as he was told! Hermione was fuming as Ron pulled her along toward the entrance to the castle. Harry had gone off, presumably to spy on Malfoy, and had been nowhere to be found when the train pulled into the station. As the stepped over the threshold and into the Entrance Hall she focused on her best friend's bad habit of getting into trouble and making her life difficult instead of facing the growing knot in the pit of her stomach that reminded her who would be sitting at that high table when she walked through the doors. The crowd pushed through enthusiastically and she found herself tripping backwards to hide behind someone tall in a sort of panic. The doors were in front of her and there was no going back now. Trying to act as casual as possible she practically clung to Ron as they made their way to their usual seats and clumsily tripped over him in an effort to stay on the other side of him from the head table. Heat flared on her cheeks as if she could feel the raised eyebrow of a certain dark professor burning into the back of her head.

When everyone was seated, the Headmaster stood up to give his opening speech and she hesitantly turned to look at Professor Dumbledore. When he was finished welcoming them to another year at Hogwarts she allowed herself a brief glance toward the seat directly in front of the Slytherin table. And found it empty. She felt as if someone had taken a hammer to her chest. Where IS he??

The soft cheering of the students alerted her to the end of the Headmaster's speech and she watched as Professor McGonagall led the first years to the front. Her mind was buzzing, rather than listening, as the newcomers were sorted. Is he alright? She found herself wondering. Has he been called away?

Food was in front of her and she found herself eating. Ron left her alone, probably thinking she was worried about Harry, if he had even given her a second thought once dinner had appeared. She did not taste the chicken as she nibbled on it, and found herself practically jumping out of her seat when Harry suddenly appeared beside them covered in blood. From his confusion at Ron's surprised inquiry it was evident that Harry was not aware of his appearance. "You're covered in blood," she gasped as she made to clean him up and suddenly her heart had stopped as she caught glimpse of Professor Snape seating himself at the head table. Before she had the sense to turn away, he caught her eye and sneered. She ripped her face away and felt it heat tremendously.

Honestly. What is wrong with me? It's not as if he could possibly be more horrible to me this year than any other.

But soon Hermione had to retract that certainty as an announcement was made that would change the outlook on the year for everyone in the Great Hall. Severus Snape would not be teaching Potions. He had finally been granted the opportunity to teach the students of Hogwarts Defense Against the Dark Arts.