A/N: I have no new author's notes, at this point. I'm just uploading every chapter back up.
Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.
Hermione got dressed that evening in her new Muggle jeans and jumper, tugging her new robes over it before skimming down the stairs into the common room. She grabbed a hairclip that she had left on one of the tables earlier that day, pulled her hair back so that it was swept out of her face, and then exited through the portrait hole.
"Going out for a bit, dearie?" The Fat Lady asked, swinging shut behind her. Hermione turned to smile at her, and gave a nod in reply. "Well! Have a lovely evening."
Hermione flew down the stairs in the direction of the dungeons, feeling inexplicably light-hearted. Perhaps it was because she'd been looking forward to this supper all evening, but in truth, since Hogsmeade, she had been feeling rather refreshed. For the first time in nearly a year, she wasn't being forced to walk around Hogwarts like a criminal under house arrest, under the beady eyes of Umbridge.
She entered the dungeons with her wand tucked up her sleeve, double-checked to make sure it was secure, and then trotted off in the direction of Slughorn's office. When she arrived, it was to find that the door to his office was propped open and, sometime between the hours Hermione had last been there, the office had been magically enlarged to hold a table big enough for at least twenty, and three large couches around the fireplace. Slughorn, who had been sitting near the door, immediately stood up and clapped his hands.
"Ah, Miss Granger! So good to see you're finally here! Please," he said, gesturing at the table, "do have a seat!"
Hermione scanned the table quickly, and her first thought was that there were was a disconcerting number of people wearing red and gold ties, here in this office belonging to the Head of Slytherin. But that thought was instantly banished as she recognized Lily—and then Alice, Frank, James, Sirius, and a sixth-year named Adrian who reminded Hermione of Colin Creevy due to his tendency to carry a camera about him. A sixth-year Gryffindor named Marlene McKinnon sat next to Sirius.
The next person to fall under her gaze was Severus Snape, who was sitting as far away from the cluster of Gryffindors as was possible. He sat next to another Slytherin Hermione recognized immediately as Avery, on whose right was a straw-haired fifth-year who Hermione shared Potions, Arithmancy, Ancient Runes, and Transfiguration with, but had never had a conversation. She thought him oddly familiar, but had not yet been able to place exactly who he was or where she might have seen him before. He had an odd habit of licking the side of his lips, which, combined with his overall insufferable and arrogant behavior in class, was sufficient to make Hermione avoid him where she could. Between the straw-haired boy and Avery was a handsome youth who Hermione immediately recognized, from the Black tapestry in Grimmauld Place, as Sirius's younger brother Regulus.
There were other students there, too. A fifth-year Ravenclaw named Dirk Cresswell, who was friendly and was in Hermione's Charms and Herbology class. A Hufflepuff named Dahlia Flemming, who Hermione recognized as a member of the Hogwarts Frog Choir, was seated next a seventh-year Ravenclaw Hermione immediately recognized as Hestia Jones. There were five other students whose faces Hermione knew from the halls, but whose names she either did not know or whose faces were completely unfamiliar to her.
Despite representatives from each house being present, the table was boistrous and full of chatter. Sirius and James were the life of the party at the Gryffindor end, where they had both the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws giggling with raucous laughter over their drinks. Regulus whispering excitedly to the straw-haired Slytherin next to him, who almost choked on his pumpkin juice at something the younger Black had said for his ears alone. Avery was leaning back in his chair and smugly surveying the entertainment of the room.
Snape was the only one who sat back in his chair, sulking. It looked as though he didn't want to be there, though Hermione could not figure out for the life of her why. He wasn't required to be here. Nevertheless, the only empty seat seemed to be the ones on either side of the Slytherin gang, who had apparently taken pains to put at least one seat between themselves and the others. This was probably one of the last suppers of the year, given how close they were to exams, and Hermione was a new arrival; it made sense that they were not expecting her, much less forewarned about putting out an extra chair between themselves and the undesirables cavorting at the other end of the table. Given the choices, Hermione rather decided it was best to sit between Snape and Hesita Jones, rather than between the straw-haired lip-licker and Dirk Cresswell. She pulled out her chair and sat down.
Snape's scowl, unsurprisingly, did not abate at this. His arms were crossed together as he leaned back in his seat, and he looked for all the world like petulant child forced to attend a dinner party. Hermione, however, chose to ignore him and instead turned to Hestia, introducing herself to her. The two immediately hit it right off with discussion of the upcoming exams, and Hermione—remembering that Hestia had been a part of Harry's Advance Guard—asked her what she was planning to do for her career.
"An Auror, definitely," Hestia said without preamble.
Slughorn presided over the many conversations taking place, popping in on one to ask or prod, to give advice or make suggestions about connections he might have, only to pop into the next conversation. Hermione was astounded at his ability to carry on and participate in so many different combinations at once; it was nearly ridiculous. She had a vivid image of a large spider sitting in the middle of a finely-spun web, tending to each fly and plucking at a strand or two here and there, or a jewel collector who took to polishing and cutting a gem and then moving on to another gem before returning to finish the product.
Dinner arrived roughly ten minutes after Hermione had, and she eagerly tucked into the steak and kidney pudding that appeared on the table. She chatted with Hestia in between bites, and soon learned that the girl was an enormous fan of Quidditch, who was promptly horrified upon learning that Hermione neither had any aptitude for flying nor any interest in the game. It was almost embarassing for Hermione to admit it, and she was rescued when Sirius made a wisecrack about Hermione not belonging on a broom because she was "too grounded" with books.
To her surprise, the dour companion on her right snorted in amusement.
"Speaking of which," Hermione said, turning to him, "I'm waiting for my book back."
She had not anticipated the reaction this would cause. Avery, Lip-licker, and Regulus' heads all snapped to attention in the direction of their housemate. James and Sirius didn't stop laughing at their own jokes, but Hermione could see that their eyes were now locked on Snape with ill-disguised hostility. Hestia looked on with curiosity, and Lily slowly set her glass down, her eyes traveling quickly between Hermione and the hook-nosed Slytherin, as though searching for something. Snape glared at his housemates, in a silent demand for them to bugger off, and reached one hand under his chair for his bookbag. He sat up a moment later, the book clutched firmly in his hands, and held it out to her.
Hermione didn't make a production of checking it over to make sure he hadn't damaged the book or cursed it to attack her. She gave him a quick, "Thank you," and then slipped it under her seat. Slughorn, sensing a break in the cadence of the conversation, immediately jumped in.
"Advanced Transfiguration, Miss Granger?" he queried jovially.
Hermione grinned sheepishly as she returned to her pudding, actually quite grateful for his intervention and interest. "Transfiguration was one of my favorite subjects back home," she said, recalling her superb grades in Professor McGonagall's class. Her grades were similarly high-end now, but in her own timeline, her good relationship with her Head of House as well as the extra time she was able to devote to asking questions and delving deeper into the subject had made it a favorite. Boasting just a little, she added, "I was the best in my class."
"You might consider going to Albus or Minerva for some book recommendations," Slughorn said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "The Headmaster used to teach Transfiguration, you know—this was a lifetime ago when his beard was still red and I wasn't quite so bald," he added, waggling a finger for emphasis. Several of the students, including Hermione, laughed good-naturedly at this. "Have you ever done experimentation with Transfiguration, Miss Granger?"
"A little," Hermione admitted, warming up to the subject. Now that they were talking academics again, the other students' interest had waned and the buoyancy of the table conversation started up again. "Although I mostly prefer to work with charms—I did a little experiment with objects under the Protean Charm."
"You can do a Protean Charm?" Hestia interjected, looking impressed. "That's NEWT-level work!"
Before Hermione could respond, Snape, who had been irritatingly silent throughout the evening, interjected sullenly, "What were you using it for?"
"Communication," Hermione responded briskly, picking at the remains of her pudding now. She had little compunction about telling him; he either would not remember this, or he would not make the connection between Dumbledore's Army and a bunch of students carrying around illicit Galleons. And after the remark he had made to her in detention, where he had called her sincerity and devotion to her work into question, she had no trouble throwing this in his face. "I charmed coins so that they would all change if someone altered one of them. It made arranging times and places easy." Seeing the look on his face, she added, "It was for a club. We all had so many different schedules to work around and this was the easiest way to arrange our meetings."
"That would have taken more work than just a Protean Charm," Lily interjected, looking straight at Hermione. "You would have had to arrange it so that more than one coin could be used to effect change in the other coins."
"That was the tricky part," Hermione agreed.
"I don't believe it," Snape muttered.
"I do," Slughorn beamed, looking at her appraisingly. "Why, Professor Flitwick told me that you are already amazingly proficient at casting Refilling Charms, and those aren't even taught until your sixth year!"
Snape turned to look at Hermione with something akin to curiosity now, though his demeanor was still rather brooding and subdued. "You already knew the Aguamenti Charm, when we were in detention," he said, his eyes flickering in Slughorn's direction. "That isn't taught until sixth year, either."
"There you have it!" Slughorn said, beaming at the two of them before helping himself to a rather large serving of black pudding.
Hermione looked rather satisfied with herself now, and helped herself to some more steak and kidney pudding. Her mind instantly returned to that moment in detention where she had hit him, and in an attempt to extend a tiny olive branch a second time, she responded, "But you're a good deal better at Potions than I am." He raised a single eyebrow at her, in a move that reminded her so much of his older self, and she elaborated, "You're very intuitive about what does and doesn't work."
"Indeed he is, Miss Granger," Slughorn said happily, leaning back in his chair. "Do you know, the first time I had him brew me a Draught of Living Death, it came out absolutely perfect. Not even a shade off what the book asked for. In all my years of teaching, I've never had another student else brew it so remarkably well."
Snape looked rather uncomfortable now, but he didn't contest the claim.
"As for you, Miss Evans…" and just like that, Slughorn had switched from Hermione, to Snape, and then to Lily. Hermione turned, first to Hestia, and then to Snape, both of whom were looking at her.
"What?" she asked.
Hestia was giggling, doing her best to hide it behind her hand, and failing spectacularly. "You got a detention? You haven't been here for more than two weeks!"
"I got put into detention on my second day here, actually," Hermione said, grinning sheepishly.
"That must be some kind of record—actually, no," she said, rethinking it. "I actually think James and Sirius over there already beat you to that. They had detention for a month after the Welcoming Feast in their third year."
"What did they do?" Hermione demanded, looking horrified. Behind her, Snape smirked.
"They bribed Peeves into causing mayhem in the kitchens," Hestia said with a conspiratorial grin. "According to Nearly-Headless Nick, the place was swimming in soup, and the house elves haven't been the same since."
"You weren't there?"
"I was in the Hospital Wing," she said. "Got knocked over by one of the carriages. Didn't even see it coming." She actually looked disappointed. "I missed the whole thing."
Hermione shook her head in disbelief as she recalled the very same thing happening in her fourth year.
'Oh the usual,' said Nearly Headless Nick, shrugging. 'Wreaked havoc and mayhem. Pots and pans everywhere. Place swimming in soup. Terrified the house-elves out of their wits –'
It rather made Hermione wonder if Peeves made a tradition of following the suggestions of the more talented student pranksters. The Gryffindor House Ghost had been so nonchalant about it, she had to suspect it so.
Hermione had, naturally, never been to one of Slughorn's suppers. Thus, she had no idea how they normally went. But an hour into the meal, after everyone was leaning back in their seat with a full stomach, the food disappeared, and people started to stand up. Slughorn moved comfortably to one of the armchairs closest to the fire, and Hermione, watching the other students find comfortable seats on the couch, followed suit. Some students didn't sit at all, but rather stood around or leaned against the wall. Given that the couches went rather quickly, Hermione ended up leaning on one of the couch arms.
New topics were brought up. Conversation resumed. Slughorn was in his element, on his velvet armchair of a throne.
Snape was one of ones standing, and he did so near the mantel. In the firelight, he was both shadowed and thrown into relief, and Hermione found it oddly intriguing. He towered over everyone else, easily the tallest person in the room, and with his hands stuffed in his pockets, he looked as though he were brooding. He stood as far away from the Gryffindors as possible, but now that they were all sitting in a semi-circle, Hermione was able to observe and see if she could confirm at least some of what James and Sirius had said.
She was shocked to find that was she saw verified their statements. Snapes eyes were locked on Lily, who was sitting on the edge of the couch closest to Slughorn, and debating the latest potion assignment Slughorn had given her in an animated manner. James had managed to grab the seat right next to her, and though Lily occasionally turned to him to argue a point the clever, bespectacled boy brought up, it was blatantly obvious that Lily made sure her eyes didn't fall anywhere near the hook-nosed Slytherin. She was avoiding him. But Snape's gaze never left her.
To Hermione, it was like falling into Wonderland and then being told that the rabbit hole was the real world, and everything else was the actual fantasy—and finding it to be true. Snape's focus never left Lily, and Lily was doing her absolute best to pretend as though she didn't know he was there—although Hermione knew she certainly must.
The longer she watched, the more it was confirmed in her mind that James and Sirius had been telling the truth.
As the night wore on, everyone else had divided themselves into their own little groups, to engage in private conversation, and Hermione found herself desiring something that was akin to poking a sleeping dragon; she walked over to him, where he had not moved an inch from where he had been standing all night, and sat down on the edge of the ottoman placed in front of the fire. If she could not stand even with him on her own, there was no point in not making use of a comfortable seat.
His eyes flickered from Lily, to her, and then back to Lily before he reluctantly pulled his eyes away from her and looked down at Hermione.
"You got the notes you needed?" It was a poor conversation starter by Hermione's estimate, but she threw it out nonetheless.
He sneered at her. "Obviously." A pause, and then he turned away to stare at the fire and then back at Lily before muttering, "Thank you."
Hermione stared up at her former and future Potions professor, trying to see if she could understand the enigma presented before her. As a teacher, she'd merely looked up to him as an authority figure, and then more recently, a trusted member of the Order. But her impression of him was so cold, so removed, and in this new here and now, she was finally beginning to understand some parts of him that had been as incomprehensible as a riddle. In fact, it was not unlike the riddle he had presented to guard the Philosopher's Stone in her first year; while it had stumped and frustrated Harry at first glance, had become clear to Hermione after she'd taken the time to try and figure it out.
She was about to open her mouth to speak, when he cut in.
"You're wearing Muggle clothes."
It was such a random topic of conversation that it momently threw Hermione for a loop, but she rallied at once. "Yes."
He looked her over once, his lips curling into a sneer, and then said, "You're a Muggle-born."
Hermione lifted her chin up to look at him squarely. "And you've come to this brilliant conclusion based on the fact that I wear jeans and a jumper underneath my robes?"
She wasn't offended all that much, really. Compared to how capricious and nasty he'd been to her as a professor, this was rather tame in comparison.
"Why else would you prefer to wear Muggle clothes?"
"Perhaps I grew up in a culture that was largely Muggle," Hermione said casually, crossing her legs. "It could be that I just find Muggle clothes more comfortable—personal preference. Or perhaps you're right and I am Muggle-born. Not that it makes any difference," Hermione added, looking up at him squarely. "My merits as a witch are contingent upon my own efforts, not my heritage."
Snape was smirking down at her now, wearing a vindictive sneer.
"Yes," he said, his tone snide. "Definitely Muggle-born, I think."
Hermione chewed on the end of her quill, stealing glances up at the board every now and then before staring back down at the review work Professor Flitwick had assigned. She was already familiar with Cheering Charms—she, like everyone else, had learned them in third year. She sighed, and began scribbling down the answer to the question concerning its wand movements.
She had returned from Slughorn's supper both refreshed and intrigued—but also with a heavy feeling of disturbance.
She had spent her entire life judging people. She had judged Harry and Ron to be trustworthy friends, only faulted through vices such as rashness, temper, and typical boy obliviousness. She had judged Professor Lupin to be trustworthy enough that, in her third year, she kept his secret—though she had feared, for a long, wild moment that night in the shack, that she might have been mistaken.
And she had made mistakes. She'd been mistaken about Lockhart—he had become Hermione's first learning example that one should never be so blinded by a shiny cover that they forget to scrutinize the substance underneath. She'd been mistaken about Moody in her fourth year— who she had trusted and allowed to slip under her radar because Dumbledore clearly trusted him. But Dumbledore had made a mistake, too, and because Hermione had not thought to be suspicious, she had made the exact same error.
Professor Snape had been the one constant under her gaze throughout her school years. He was an inexplicably nasty piece of work, yet he had gone out of his way on more than one occasion to save Harry—and, when applicable, other students. The bucking broomstick incident in her first year—which she had mistaken Snape for jinxing Harry rather than trying to save him, admittedly, stood out in her mind. In her second year, Snape was the one who had brewed the Restoration Draught for the petrified students. And in her third year, he had deliberately put himself between the three of them, a man he believed to be a murderer, and a werewolf out of control. And in her fourth year, he had gone with Dumbledore and McGonagall to rescue Harry, who had been a hair's breath away from being killed by the imposter. He had supplied the Veritaserum, according to Harry. He had revealed his Dark Mark in an attempt to sway the idiot Minister.
All of those things had served to reinforce in her mind that Snape, who not only had Dumbledore's trust to credit him, was trustworthy. She sincerely believed that he was working for the Order. And she had finally pieced together exactly what his reasons for agreeing to work with Dumbledore were: Lily. His interest in Lily now, followed by her inevitable and untimely death, would give him more reason to work with the side that would destroy her killer rather than willingly serve the madman who murdered her. There was probably more to it than she was aware of now, but she had put enough of it together that she felt she had the larger picture.
But here, last Saturday night, she had met a boy of seventeen who didn't have any such motivations. Her impression of him was that he was motivated by self-interest—and it both frightened and served to pique her interest further.
She turned her musings over in her head, trying to unearth the clues that had been liberally handed to her. She had intended to stay away from him as much as possible, but now she found she wasn't really as inclined to do so. He was a snarky, capricious and caustic git; but he was also unbelievably intelligent and cunning. Hermione was fascinated by the former and wary of the latter, and in this new time where she was his equal, she struggled to understand him.
But he was such a git!
The bell rang, and she packed her stuff up and prepared to head off to Arithmancy. She passed several students in the halls on her way up, students who were now familiar to her. Dirk Cresswell waved at her in greeting just before ducking down another corridor to get to Muggle Studies. Hestia Jones walked with her part-way, and they talked excitedly until she had to take a different staircase to reach her DADA class.
When Hermione reached the Arithmancy classroom, it was to discover that the desks had all been banished to the corner of the room, stacked atop one another, and Professor Vector was standing between the two boards she used for her separate-but-together lessons, arms crossed.
She waited until everyone had arrived, where the early arrivals either milled about the room or leaned against the wall, before she began.
"We're going to do some pairing-off today for exam revision," she told them loudly, making sure she had their attention. "Find someone you sit next to and partner up." Everyone in the room hurried to comply. Hermione found Snape and, ignoring the glare he threw her way, moved to stand next to him. "I will write the problems on the board for you. The pair that finishes them all first—correctly, mind you," she added, glaring at a pair whom Hermione recalled hearing had written gibberish on their assignment and turned it in. They sniggered. "—will leave class with fifty points to their house."
Hermione and Snape looked at each other, and then back at Vector.
"Find a seat on the floor away from everybody else and get out some spare parchment—" There was audible rustling and scraping as everyone sat down and began pulling out some scrap to work on. Hermione pulled out her Arithmancy book to use as a flat surface, and pulled out her quill, poised to begin. Vector tapped the board, and ten different problems instantly began writing themselves on the board. "Begin."
"Okay, look," Hermione said, jotting down the first problem, which asked to identify the magical numerical value of dragon heartstring and how that could be used to predict it's efficiency as a magical conduit when combined with other elements. "We know that dragon heartstring is assigned a value between three and four, depending on it's quality, making it one of the most commonly used wand cores, so if we—"
"I've already got it," Snape snapped at her, jotting down his answer on a separate sheet. "If you find a corresponding element with a number that, when added, gives it a total value of seven, you'd want to find a dragon heartstring with a value that compliments the value of the other element—such as wood."
"Yes, that's right…"
They went through the next four problems in a similar fashion. Problem five, however, Snape was unable to give an immediate answer. It was a question concerning the added numerical value of transfigured objects, snake specifically, and it took them a few extra moments to chart down the possible combination. And when they moved to reference it to the problem at hand, they came up with two distinctly different answers.
"Look, the problem is dealing with the added value of a transfigured snake as opposed to that of a real snake," Snape hissed at her, endeavoring to keep his voice down. "We don't care about the actual value of the real snake!"
"Yes we do!" Hermione hissed back. "You add the transfiguration value to the real one to get the combined and total value—in this case, it's a subtracted value, so a transfigured snake is arithmantically three less than a real one, which is why it goes from being seven to four!"
"It's eleven, Granger, not four! There are no negatives in this arithmantic equation!"
"And I'm telling you you're wrong!"
Snape lost his patience, or rather whatever tenuous grip he'd had on it, and slammed his hand down on the parchment Hermione had been working out the arithmantic values on. "You are an insufferable know-it-all!"
"And you are a stubborn, incomprehensible git!" Hermione cried, sitting up. "I'm telling you that I know I'm right, and I refuse to get this wrong just because you're an obstinate arse!"
"If we keep arguing over this, we're going to run out of time, you stupid girl—"
"I hardly see how I qualify as stupid when you're the one who nearly mixed up the values for maple and birch on the last problem!"
Snape's face turned purple with anger. Hermione's hair had begun to frizz around her face as her own frustration grew. They were pressed nose to nose now, and it was difficult to predict who would snap first. They were both so immovably determined that they were right that bickering alone would not allow one to win over the other.
Hermione was the first one to withdraw. Gritting her teeth, she stated as calmly as she could muster, "Snape, a transfigured snake has the original value of seven subtracted by three—and when you add it to the original value, which is seven…" she suddenly broke off. "Oh, shite."
Snape stared at her, his face contorted between incomprehension and bubbling fury. She continued, "We were both wrong. I got it mixed up. The snake's new value would be four, so when you subtract four from the original seven… I mixed it up. It's three, not four. That makes it a total of ten."
He leaned back, and stared down at the equation, and then up at her, before quickly moving to write down the correct number on the parchment they were using as their answer sheet.
She suddenly started laughing. It was near-hysterical, and she was surprised the rest of the class didn't stop to stare at her for it. Seeing the look on her partner's face, she choked out, "This is ridiculous. We almost got this wrong because of a little subtraction error, and we were both so bloody convinced we were right."
Snape wrote down the next problem and began lining up the required values. "If there's anything I've learned from this, it's that you are an insufferable know-it-all."
"Be grateful for it," Hermione snapped, reading the numbers he'd written upside-down and double-checking it. "At least half of being an insufferable know-it-all makes me useful. Being a stubborn arse is not."
"Granger, do you ever shut up?" Snape wrote down the answer, and then pulled out the final question.
"Do you ever wash your hair?" Hermione countered, eyeing his greasy black locks.
Snape looked up at her with a glare. "Yes. Not that it's any of your business." In a bid to distract her from replying, he turned his sheet around and shoved it under her nose. "Do those numbers look correct to you, or do you have a swotty complaint to add to it?"
Hermione's eyes skimmed through the numbers. "Albino animals are always given negative values. The porcupine should be a negative ten—"
"—so if you were to use an albino instead of a brown porcupine's quills in a Boil Cure Potion, you can count on either running for your life or ending up as a stain on the wall when it finally reacts to the crushed snake fangs. Thank you, Granger." Snape sat back on his haunches to write the answer down, and then stood up. "I believe we're finished."
"Hold on, I need to check them—" Hermione stood up with him and reached for the sheet, but he lifted it up out of her reach.
"Granger, we're almost out of time—"
"There is no way anyone else in the room is past problem eight by now, just let me double-check!" Hermione was struggling to grab the parchment from him, but he was simply too tall.
"Granger, no—get off me!"
"But if we've made a careless mistake like the one we almost did with problem five—!" Hermione had one hand on his shoulder and was straining to grab the answer sheet from him. She jumped, trying to reach it, and nearly choked him when she pulled down on his tie in an effort to bring him closer to her height.
"You are insane!"
"That is quite enough!" Hermione and Snape turned around in time for Professor Vector to reach up and yank the answer sheet out of Snape's hand, and Snape had to grab Hermione by the elbow to keep her from launching herself at the Arithmancy teacher. "Miss Granger, control yourself! Mr. Snape, stop tormenting your partner! If you've made a mistake, it's not the end of the world." Judging by the look on Hermione's face, however, it was clear she didn't believer her. Vector quickly skimmed down the sheet, flipped it over to the other side where the last two problems had been worked out, and then handed it back to Snape.
"Excellent work. You both just made one mistake," she said, smiling grimly at the pair.
"No!" Hermione wailed.
"What was it?" Snape demanded, glaring down at the near-hysterical Gryffindor.
"You forgot to put your name on your work." Hermione's jaw dropped. Snape glared at the Arithmancy professor, who merely grinned back at him. "Fifty points to Slytherin and Gryffindor."
She returned to her desk, and Snape glanced down at Hermione again, who looked as though she were about to faint. He sighed. Bending down to pick up the parchment they'd used to work their problems out on, he glanced up at Hermione, who had still not moved a muscle.
"Breathe, Granger." Hermione obeyed and took in a huge gulp of air, gasping. Exasperated, he snapped, "And for Merlin's sake, stop hyperventilating!"
In the final week leading up to exams, Hermione could be found sequestered in the library. Snape had taken up residence at her table, and the two mostly ignored each other unless they needed to borrow materials. Hermione was forever wheedling for him to let her look at his potions book to cross-reference something or explain, in his own terms, the reasons for certain quantities and qualities in potions; she, in return, helped him understand some of the finer, more subtle points of Transfiguration that were not explicitly taught in class. Arithmancy was a point of contention between them; they shared their review work and argued over the answers loudly enough that the first time it happened they had had to be shushed by Madam Pince.
The second time, Snape cast a spell that seemed to do rather well at preventing others from overhearing their conversation. When he refused to share it with her, they ended up getting into another shouting match until Snape grudgingly taught her Muffliato with the caveat that she would teach him how to cast a Protean Charm. When they both left the library that night, they both felt rather satisfied with their new gains, and felt that they had gotten the better deal than the other.
In the course of that week, Hermione was set upon—twice—on her way to Potions. Getting to class required going through the dungeons, which was inarguably Slytherin territory, and it was clear that as friendly and well-liked she was in the other three houses, the Slytherins seemed to hold a particular antipathy toward her. Perhaps it was because they thought she was a Muggleborn who needed to be taken down a peg. Perhaps it was simply because she was a Gryffindor. And perhaps it was because they felt she was encroaching upon their territory by associating with Snape.
They might have been especially incensed at the latter. Tension between the Slytherins and Gryffindors were at an all-time high with the onslaught of exams, and it was a well-known fact that Severus Snape was mercilessly targeted by the Marauders. Indeed, it was difficult not to see; whenever Hermione turned around, it seemed they were always fighting. They fought in the corridors, and they fought in the courtyards. They fought on the lawn on the way from Care of Magical Creatures, and they fought between the Herbology greenhouses. It was always two to one, much to Hermione's disgust, and sometimes three if Peter jumped in. The Marauders would catch him when his back was turned if they could, and now Hermione understood why Snape was occasionally absent from Arithmancy. She went to visit him one afternoon in the Hospital Wing, where he was boasting a spectacular pair of bright-red devil horns, thanks to James.
"Why on earth can't you three just call a truce?" She'd all but yanked on her hair as she said this.
Snape had merely crossed his arms across his chest and scowled at her, which only served to make him look more mephistophelian with the added effects of the horns.
The next day, Sirius missed Charms, because he spent the entire period in the Hospital Wing as a penguin while Madam Pomfrey tried to undo Snape's handiwork. Hermione had the impression that the Marauders and Snape were rather familiar sights at the ward, and Madam Pomfrey had long since lost the will to try and chastise them each and every time they arrived with some new jinx for her to take care of.
From Hermione's perspective, it wasn't that Snape enjoyed the war he was waging against the Marauders. He certainly enjoyed hexing them in revenge, but he rarely seemed to be the instigator; the Marauders, on the other hand, went out of their way to seek him out and gleefully give him hell. Hermione rather suspected that if James and Sirius were to back off, Snape would eventually pretend they simply didn't exist. He wasn't interested in their quarrel, and he twitched with paranoia every time she saw him, but there was little he could do to stop it.
And the Marauders never seemed to let him go about peacefully unless he was with Hermione, seemingly as a favor to her, which only served to make him try to find routes between classes where he could walk part of the way with her.
When Hermione complained to Lily about it one night, while the Head Girl played chess with Alice, she didn't give Snape one lick of sympathy.
"They do it to each other," she said, capturing Alice's queen. There were boos and a hiss from the black pieces as Lily's white knight bodily dragged the kicking and struggling piece off the board. "James and Sirius never lay off him, but Severus gives just as good as he gets."
Nevertheless, Slytherin house was not happy, and they went out of their way to make it known.
The first time, her two would-be attackers ended up unconscious on the floor of the dungeons as two ducks. To add insult to injury, they had been charmed bright purple. The second time, three disoriented sixth-year Slytherins stumbled into the Hospital Wing wearing pumpkins for heads. James and Sirius roared with laughter at this, having passed by Hermione's handiwork on the way to class; Peter was visibly delighted at the humiliation dealt out, and even Remus cracked a broad smile when he heard about what James and Sirius dubbed, "The Pumpkinheads."
Remus had started growing paler as the month went on. Circles appeared under his eyes, and his face looked drawn. Hermione recognized these as signs of the impending full moon, and couldn't help but look on with pity and concern. He wasn't in the best condition to take his exams, yet he was studying and slogging through it anyway. He didn't have a choice. Hermione wished there were something she could do for him, something that would help alleviate his pain, but it was out of her hands.
At mealtimes, he would pick at his food, and Hermione would try to encourage him to eat.
"You need to keep up your strength for exams," she told him on Thursday, after he turned to her with weary, disinterested eyes. "I know you're working hard, but you can't run on an empty stomach."
Remus's condition had not gone unnoticed by Snape, and though he didn't say a word about it to her, Hermione could see his eyes following Remus with stubborn dislike.
Hermione went into her exams brimming to burst with nerves, and throughout the entire week, she was an utter wreck. Every single waking moment available to her was devoted to studying and review. Even Snape, who stayed late hours at night with her in the library, left one night with a snide remark about how she should have been put into Hufflepuff, given that the bags under her eyes made her look like a bushy-haired badger.
Hermione had whacked him on the arm with her planner. When he returned the next morning to get some more review done before his first exam, he found her passed out at the table, using her arms as a pillow. Snape was normally not inclined to be selfless, but he cornered Remus after their morning exam and after making a requisite remark about Remus's state of sleep deprivation, sneered at him to do something about Hermione's.
"Either recruit your cronies and make her get some sleep, or watch her self-destruct and start randomly hexing people," he told the werewolf, his voice snide. "I personally wouldn't mind witnessing the latter, but there's always the risk that she could go after me instead of you. And I must say, she's quite good with a wand."
James and Sirius forced Hermione to get to bed before ten o'clock that night. She went kicking, screaming, and cursing at them every step of the way. They stripped her of her wand and frog-marched her up to Gryffindor Tower, where they recruited Mary and Lily to make sure she didn't try to stay up later to study.
Hermione was nearly furious enough to hex them until she woke up the next morning for the first time in two weeks without feeling like she was going to fall dead asleep at the breakfast table. Nevertheless, they gave her wand back only after they'd fled the Great Hall and gotten a head-start.
When she found out it had been Snape's idea, she confronted him at lunchtime in the library.
"I don't recruit your housemates to bodily drag you away and forcefully shampoo your hair!" she fumed at him.
"No, but I wish I'd been there," Snape had smirked, unrepentant. "That would have been worth seeing."
"You," Hermione ground at him, "are a git!"
"And you are a bushy-haired, insufferable know-it-all," he jeered, and then drawled, "Now, are you going to rant and rage for the next hour or do you have a Transfiguration practical to study for?"
Hermione was diving for her book, notes flying around her head in a flurry of panic before he'd even finished speaking.
The second week of exams finally came and passed, and when she was faced with her final practical on Thursday morning, she was quite relieved. She left, and upon receiving commentary from her Marauder friends about the unholy mating of Medusa and a bird's nest that was her hair, she promptly departed from lunch to shower and take a nap.
She slept through the afternoon and late into the evening. She didn't wake up until someone was frantically shaking her awake, muttering, "Hermione, Hermione!"
Hermione's eyes opened, and she turned around to find herself staring into the worried hazel eyes of James Potter.
"How did you get in here?" she asked, sitting up quickly.
"Nevermind that!" James said quickly, grabbing her arm and dragging her out of bed. He looked frantic, and Hermione stumbled for a moment, landing on the floor before she got to her feet. "I need your help, and you're the only one here who can probably convince him—"
"Snape!" James hissed, eyes wild with panic. "Sirius told him how to get into the Whomping Willow—I can't explain it all now, but there's a werewolf under there, and if Snape goes there—!"
Hermione's blood ran cold.
"It was just a prank, a stupid prank, Sirius swore it was a prank—!" James was pleading, trying to keep his voice down to stop Hermione's dormmates from waking up to their conversation. "Please, Hermione, you have to go out and stop him. If he manages to get into the Shrieking Shack, he'll be killed, and I can't stop him!"
Hermione was already moving, grabbing her wand and pulling one of her robes on over her sleepwear, not even bothering to button it, and was rushing to pull her sneakers on.
"James, go get the Headmaster!" she ordered, rushing for the door. "I'll go find Snape!"
She heard James's footsteps follow her down the stairs, and she ran for the portrait hole, not even stopping to answer the Fat Lady's startled cry of, "Wait! Where are you going at this time of night?"
She flew down the stairs, her robe flapping wildly behind her, and shoved open the doors to the Entrance Hall. She dashed out into the courtyard, where the light of the full moon hung overhead, reflecting clearly in the water fountain, and she ran toward the direction of the Whomping Willow.
Please let me be there on time… please let me get there on time… Snape, you idiot!
She watched the long, sweeping, club-like branches of the Whomping Willow come into view. Panting, she realized that Snape wasn't there—and that given how much longer it would have taken for James to find and alert her, Snape was probably already inside—
She pointed her wand at the knot at the base of the tree, and shouted, "Stupefy!"
A bolt of red light shot out toward it, and the tree shook in surprise and then grew still. Hermione ran out underneath the lightly-swaying branches, and without a second thought, ducked inside. It was dark, pitch black, and she didn't even take a moment to light her wand, shuffling through as quickly as her hands and knees would let her scoot. Time passed, though Hermione could not have judged how much, but what felt like an eventuality to her later, she saw a faint glow up ahead, and a little bit farther, the dim moon-lit entrance.
The bright light bobbed slowly, and Hermione quickened her pace. The light was nearing the end of the tunnel, which seemed to be disturbingly peaceful, but Hermione knew that at the end, there would be a werewolf, waiting, waiting…
There wasn't any way for her to reach the bobbing light on time. Pulling out her wand from her mouth, where she'd kept it while she crawled, she pointed it at the wandlight ahead of her.
"Accio Snape! "
There was a startled yelp, the audible sound of something scraping painfully against the claustrophobic tunnels of the wall, and a pair of legs kicked Hermione's arms out from underneath her, causing her to hit the ground in an undignified heap on top of Snape. His wand, still lit, lay twenty feet ahead and he rubbed the side of his head painfully.
"Ow—what the—who's there?" he demanded, trying to turn around, but unable to do so.
"Shh!" Hermione hissed. "It's me, you bloody idiot!"
"What the hell are you doing here, Gra—ow!"
"I've come to save your miserable arse!" Hermione snapped, reaching forward and grabbing his hair. He let out another yelp of pain as she yanked his head back. "There's a werewolf in there, you sod! This path leads directly to the Shrieking Shack—that's where Remus goes once a month for his werewolf transformations!"
"Let go of my hair—how do you know—ow!"
"Ask me later," Hermione growled. She smacked his shoulder, and pointed toward his lit wand. "Go grab your wand, and come back—be careful!"
Snape didn't protest. He crawled forward slowly, his movements awkward given the size of the tunnel, and reached for his wand. He was about to start crawling backwards when the moon-lit glow at the end of the tunnel suddenly disappeared; there was a whine, followed by a scratching noise, and Hermione's eyes widened as Snape scrambled backwards in time for a pair of yellow eyes to appear, glaring down at them from the gloom above.
A moment later, Hermione was backing away quickly as Snape let out a scream of terror that made her hair stand on end; there was a sudden snarl, and Hermione watched in horror as Remus began clawing his way in, too big to fit, but able to reach in half-way, scratching and snarling. He was able to scrape the spot Snape had been kneeling in just moments before, and Hermione gulped at the realization that had she not arrived when she did—no, had she not pulled Snape backwards with her spell—he would have been within reach of the werewolf. And he would have been dragged out like a dog pulling a rabbit from its warren and mauled to within an inch of his life.
She began backing away, scooting as quickly as she could, trying to silently drown out the terrible growling and snarling coming from the entrance ahead of them. She was able to move much more quickly than her companion, given her size, and she reached a junction where the tunnel allowed enough room for her to turn around. She twisted herself sideways, and pointed her wand at the ground.
"Glisseo!" The ground underneath Snape suddenly became slippery, and she snapped her wand in his direction and said, "Accio!"
He let out a stream of startled swearwords as he was dragged backwards across the now-slippery tunnel, and Hermione backed away so that he wouldn't collide with her as he had before. They were safe now, though she still saw the werewolf up ahead, scratching uselessly at the walls of the tunnel. She turned around, struggling to do so in the cramped space she was allowed, and began crawling toward the exit. Snape did the same, though she heard him utter a grunt of pain as his head scraped against the side of the tunnel.
"Let's get out of here," Hermione told him shakily, trying to calm the beating of her heart as Remus's enraged snarls echoed through the tunnel. The hair on the back of her neck—probably all over her body, in fact—was standing on end. Snape didn't say a word, but she heard him shuffling on his knees behind her as he followed.
The light at the end of the tunnel, this time at the base of the Whomping Willow, appeared. Gratefully, Hermione pulled herself out and quickly pressed the knot at the base of the tree to stop it from trying to club them to death upon their exit. She helped Snape out, pulling him up by his shoulders, and was surprised when he didn't protest. She chanced a look into his eyes, and saw that they were wide and dilated with terror. He didn't say a word, just sat there kneeling in the grass, staring at the ground, clutching it with bone-white fingers.
Hermione sat there, panting and trying to regather her wits. The tree shook in warning now, and she tugged at his sleeve to grab his attention.
"Come on," she said weakly, getting to her feet and helping him do the same. "We need to get out of here."
He opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a whimper; instead of trying to fix his voice, he merely nodded instead, and she draped his arms over her shoulder and helped him stumbled back in the direction of the castle, the both of them badly scraped and covered with dirt and grass stains.
They staggered across the grounds until they reached the stone circle, where Hermione saw Professor Dumbledore standing. Squinting in the light afforded by the moon still shining hauntingly up in the sky, she saw that he was accompanied by Professor McGonagall, James Potter, and Sirius Black. They stumbled up the steps, and then Hermione helped Snape sink to the ground on his knees.
Then she rose and strode over to Sirius Black, who, for the first time since Hermione had arrived, was wearing a look of uncertainty on his face. He finally seemed to have realized the magnitude of his actions a bit too late for Hermione's liking, for when she was within range, she struck him. He fell backwards onto the ground, clutching the side of his face.
"You idiot!" she shrieked. James leaped forward to grab her arm to stop her from hitting him again, though his efforts were only half-hearted. "You utter and complete, total idiot!" Sirius looked at her, eyes widening in fear at her wild and bedraggled appearance. "He could have been killed! And all because of a stupid, stupid prank!"
"Hermione, that is quite enough!" The Headmaster said firmly. He had come to stand next to Snape, who looked quite unresponsive, staring at the ground in wide-eyed shock. Dumbledore leaned down and gently tilted Snape's chin up, taking in the contracted pupils and the drained color of his ghostly pale face.
"Minerva, please help Miss Granger and Mr. Snape up to the Hospital Wing," he said, straightening. "Messers Potter and Black, I would like to see you in my office first thing tomorrow morning. In the meantime, you will return to your common room." He glanced at them through his half-moon spectacles, and both boys nodded quickly. James helped Sirius to his feet, and Professor McGonagall, who had been staring at Hermione and Snape with an expression akin to horror, helped Hermione bring Snape back up to his feet. Hermione draped his arm across her shoulder, and silently followed her Head of House back up to the castle, where they were followed close behind by the two Marauders.
"I cannot believe you went off like that!" Minerva told her sternly as soon as they had made it inside. Her face was pale, and she looked as though she, too, were in shock. "I expected better sense from you! You should have come and gotten me first!"
"I had to," Hermione squeaked, her throat dry. Her voice didn't seem to be working properly anymore. "I was almost too late. I sent James to find Professor Dumbledore while I went to stop him." She looked up at Professor McGonagall beseechingly. "This isn't Remus's fault, Professor. Whatever happens, please don't expel him."
McGonagall gave her a startled look, and then seemed to regather her wits. "Of course not," she agreed, opening the door to the first floor corridor. Looking audibly shaken, she said, "He probably won't even remember tonight."
She heard Snape mumble something under his breath. She craned her neck to look at him.
"What did you say?"
She heard Snape swallow, and then he croaked, "This is Black's fault."
"Oh no you don't!" Hermione growled at him, readjusting her grip on his arm. "He might have set you up, but you took the bait! And if you have anyone to thank for still being alive, it's James Potter, so don't start blaming him, either!"
"Both of you, hush," McGonagall ordered sternly as they approached the Hospital Wing door. Hermione complied, ducking her head, and the Headmistress rapped twice, loudly on the door. "Poppy! I have two students here. Open up!"
The door opened, and Madam Pomfrey peered out. Her gaze went from Minerva to Snape to Hermione, and then she gave a long sigh at their rather scrapped-up appearance and opened the door further to allow them entrance.
"What on earth have you two been up to at this hour?" she demanded, as Hermione set Snape down at the edge of the nearest bed and then collapsed next to him.
McGonagall gave her a weary look.
"It's a long story, Poppy."