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Toil and Trouble

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"I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for you so frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed...
Let us sleep now."

Wilfred Owen, Strange Meeting 1918

 

Hermione Granger arrived at St Mungo's via Floo.  She'd come from the Ministry, where she now had a part-time role in the admin office serving the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee.  After dusting herself down and looking around, she nodded hello to the Welcome Wizard on reception.  Then she walked from the Floo to the main stairs.

She was, it had to be said, annoyed with herself for being so nervous.  To combat the feeling, Hermione began to give herself one of her Patented Granger Talking-To's:

The weekend after next would see her reach her nineteenth  birthday.  She was already an adult in the eyes of the law, Muggle and magical.  She could drink, vote, have sex, smoke cigarettes and get married.  Some of those things she'd now been able to do for almost three years.  And yes, one of those things she had no intention of doing, ever, because cigarettes smelled disgusting and made your teeth go brown and she saw no sense in voluntarily increasing the likelihood of lung cancer and heart disease.  But the point was, she was an adult in charge of her own decisions.

Then there was the issue of her experience.  As in, wealth-of.  She had faced down monsters and maniacal villains.  She'd suffered torture and had come out the other side of the experience more or less intact.  (Some days more; some days less.)  She'd played at least a small part in helping Harry Potter put to rights a world that had been going horribly wrong.  Frankly, she had done and seen and achieved more in her almost-nineteen years than many people managed in sixty.  Her maturity was not a technicality based upon years spent alive.  It had been earned.

All of which led her to conclude that she was strong and she was accomplished, and that she was a very different person now to the eleven year old girl who'd arrived at Hogwarts all those years ago, desperate for a sense of belonging.  Hermione nodded to herself, drew in a deep breath and exhaled it slowly, then nodded again.

Good.  She'd convinced herself.

So.  Just because she was missing the presence of two stalwart best friends alongside her, as they'd been alongside her for most of the last seven years, that didn't mean she couldn't carry herself with dignity.  It might feel like the first day at a new school, but the situation she now faced wasn't quite the same thing.  All the cliques and the rivalries that school-life had hitherto been about could be set aside.

Couldn't they?

Perhaps it all depended on whether her fellow students were as willing to move on from such things as she was...

Hermione sighed, chewed at her lip, caught herself in the act when her eucalyptus lip balm made its presence felt, and forced herself to stop.  It was a habit she was trying to break.  (Hence the lip balm.)

Of course, it wasn't just about her classmates.  The fact that she now had a markedly different attitude towards her teacher did not help calm her nerves.

She held the handrail and watched where she placed her feet as she trotted down a flight of stairs.  It felt like the kind of day when a deficit of due care and attention would inevitably result in a mortifying tumble, and there had to be better ways to remind Severus Snape of her existence than turning up with a black eye or a fat lip.  She made it to the lower floor unscathed, at which point Hermione checked her wristwatch.  She had ten minutes' grace before the lesson was due to start.  This was good.  Of all the things she could remember about being a student in Professor Snape's class, his tolerance regarding tardiness did not feature high on the list.

She checked her clothing before exiting the stairwell.  Student robes were not required for the Lost Seventh courses, given that the students undertaking them were no longer enrolled at Hogwarts.  She had dressed neatly but comfortably in clothing suited to the brewing of potions: close-fitting enough not to accidentally catch bottles and jars with a dangling sleeve; loose enough to allow for a spot of vigorous stirring.  Beneath her jacket she wore a plain long-sleeved T-shirt and charcoal-grey denims.  Her boots were steel-capped and had been infused with a charm that would protect her feet from any accidental spillage of the more harmful ingredients she might be handling.  Her dragon-hide gloves were an early birthday gift from Harry, who'd noticed during her sixth year at Hogwarts that her hands had all but outgrown the gloves she'd been using for the past three years.

And if she looked more Muggle than witch, then so what?  Robes were cumbersome things to wear when brewing potions.  She was not ashamed of being Muggle-born – she never had been, in spite of the insults – and her priority was to learn and pass her NEWT.  Not to look all gothic and flouncy while doing it.

Her fly was done up, her hair was reasonably tamed and tied back, her bootlaces were not trailing along the floor.  She had managed to avoid spilling her latte down her top between Soho and the Ministry that morning.  Hermione was satisfied that she was presentable.  She hoisted her bag to a more comfortable position and then went through the doors.

A flutter in her stomach reminded her that she was still in danger of turning into a crush-addled cliché.  She had, over the weekend just gone, spent an unconscionable amount of time considering which of the blouses she owned might best offer a peek of cleavage to anyone interested enough to look in that direction.  (She'd managed to put aside such amateurish notions of seduction.  Mainly because she suspected that what cleavage she claimed was pathetic at best.)

Though she had arrived in good time, there were four students already waiting outside the door to the potions lab; all of them were Slytherins.  Hermione made sure she did not hesitate.  She kept walking, and she lifted her chin and exuded as much calm confidence as she could.

The presence of Slytherins was hardly a surprise.  There had only been three Gryffindors who'd undertaken NEWT level Potions during sixth year, and two of them had now begun their Auror apprenticeships.  Most of the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws would retake their 'lost' year at Hogwarts or Beauxbatons.  Only the Slytherins were likely to balk at those options, as Hermione had done.  And once it had been announced that Snape himself would take these extra classes...well.  It was a no-brainer.  The Slytherins would flock to him; the other Houses would steer well clear.

Except for Hermione Granger, it would seem.

So here she was.  Just her and her old friends Blaise Zabini (who despised Muggle-borns almost as much as he despised ungroomed nasal hair), Theodore Nott (whose father had been as much of a Death Eater as Death Eaters could be), Millicent Bulstrode (who had once assaulted her while working for the sadistic Dolores Umbridge) and...

And Draco Malfoy.  Whose many childish crimes against Hermione and her friends paled in comparison with the way he had, with malice aforethought, engineered entry to Hogwarts for a whole group of Death Eaters on the night Albus Dumbledore had died.  Draco Malfoy, whose aunt had inflicted more pain on Hermione than she'd thought it possible to experience.  Whose father had nearly killed her when he'd arranged for the escape of a basilisk designed to attack Muggle-born students.

Looking at Draco, Hermione could see a glimmer of Bellatrix Lestrange in his features.  The chin.  And the line of the cheekbones.  His father's image was even more obvious: that fair-haired, aquiline profile and the look of supercilious disdain.

She was still walking, but her mouth had gone dry and memories pressed.  Hermione felt as if she were a minnow swimming in a tank full of sharks.  Most disconcerting was the way the injury over her collarbone throbbed painfully.  It was as if the lingering curse from Bellatrix's blade had done something to her body, something more than slicing her open in a way that conventional healing could not repair.  Something that recognised fear and the proximity of enemies; something that revelled in them.  Something that could taunt her, hurt her, frighten her, even months after Bellatrix's death.

"Well now," Blaise Zabini drawled as she drew closer.  "If it isn't the Mudblood Princess of Gryffindor."

The others clustered around him, smirking, the very epitome of strength in numbers.  And it made sense that Zabini ruled the group now.  Nott and Malfoy had family connections that rendered them awkward acquaintances at best.  Bulstrode was forever a hanger-on.  But Zabini?  He was an arrogant, preening, bigoted tosser, there was no doubt about that, but he'd never been connected to the Death Eaters.  Quite the advantage, in the current post-war climate.

"Good afternoon, Blaise," Hermione said, having hard-swallowed her throat into a kind of steadiness.  "Kind of you to proffer titles, but I tend to go by 'Hermione' these days."

She'd chosen to use his first name deliberately.  Surnames were commonly used at Hogwarts, but Hermione and her fellow students weren't caught up in the trappings of school anymore.  And if, as it seemed, Zabini wanted to cling to the outmoded idea of a system which placed pure-bloods at the top of the social hierarchy and Muggle-borns far below, then the best counter was to assert a sense of equality.  To be on mutual first name terms seemed a good start.

Zabini's eyes flashed.  He looked annoyed and perhaps a bit impressed, but for some reason he seemed to be treating this brief reintroduction as one of those moments where the alpha has to establish his authority.  "Odd to see you on your own," he said.  "I think we were all under the impression that none of the Golden Trio could wipe their own arses.  Not without some help from each other."

The group sniggered.

Hermione rolled her eyes.  "Typical," she said.  "Muggles and magicals, all of you alike.  It's ever the wealthy in-breds who have this alarming obsession with backsides."  The sniggers faded.  She smiled sweetly at Zabini.  "I'll let Harry and Ron know you were thinking about them, though."

Zabini's annoyance ramped up.  He'd clearly considered her an easy target, and he was struggling with the notion that she was not.  "Yes," he said, trying to sound confident.  "I'd heard the Golden Trio has become more of a Duo now."  He glanced back at his friends.  "Potter and Weasley – Aurors!  We'll all sleep well at nights, eh?"

Bulstrode chortled obediently.   Draco managed a half-hearted smirk.  Nott just watched with avid eyes.

"You sleep well, do you, Blaise?  I'm envious," Hermione countered.  "After a year on the run from murderous psychotics – no offence, Theo – and a bout of torture at Malfoy Manor – no offence, Draco – I find it quite difficult to leave the cares of the world behind me."

"Oh, of course.  Never let it be said you aren't a hero."  Zabini glared at her, stepped closer, tried to use his height advantage to loom.  The cloying waft of his Eau de Cologne charm insinuated itself into her nostrils, the sweet citrus scent overlaid with something more chemical, something weirdly familiar.  "So now your two boyfriends have moved on, what does that make you?" he demanded.  "The Golden Leftover?  The Golden Third Wheel?"

"The Golden Fraction," Draco suggested.

"Oh, nice," Hermione said.  "Like the golden ratio.  I like it!"

Draco blinked and then frowned.  The rest of them looked just as confused.

"Mathematics," she explained.  "Also very useful in Arithmancy.  The golden ratio is when two quantities, call them x and y, have the same ratio to each other as their sum, x plus y, has to whichever is the larger."  Blank, blank looks.  She shook her head.  "It's quite important, actually.  Pops up in nature, in the pattern of leaves on plants.  Artists use it in their geometric shapes.  Like Dali.  It's supposed to be an aesthetically pleasing proportion.  So I'm flattered, Draco, honestly.  But not interested.  Thanks anyway."

Draco now looked flustered.  "I wasn't...don't think I was..."  He changed the subject.  "What the hell are you doing here anyway, Granger?"

Before she could reply, Bulstrode stepped in.

"She's only here for one reason.  Didn't get the Head Girl position, did she?  So she's thrown her teddy out the cot."

"Oh?" Draco said.  "Who's Head Girl, then?"

Hermione watched all these interactions with an odd kind of objectivity.  In the last sixty seconds she had noted that Bulstrode was desperate to get into Blaise Zabini's knickers (or whatever it was that narcissistic Slytherins tended to wear under their robes).  Draco, meanwhile, was willing to take the step back that recent history demanded, yet still wanted to assert his place in the group.  This made sense.  Draco Malfoy had always been surrounded by yes-men.  The notion of separating from them and functioning as a true individual probably scared the living daylights out of him.

Nott watched, dark eyes filled with interest.  He'd always been the loner.  He didn't want to speak.  Hermione wondered how he had managed to escape the guilt-by-association that so many children of Death Eaters had suffered.  She didn't like to make assumptions about people, but if anyone had asked her to pick out the potential serial killer from this little group then Theodore Nott had no competition at all.

Bulstrode, clearly delighted by the notion that she had information she could offer, drew breath to answer Draco's question.

Zabini got there first.  "Tracey Davis.  Shame they had to go with a half-blood."  He ignored the shuffling of Bulstrode who was a half-blood herself.  "But I wish her well," he added magnanimously.

Draco barked a laugh.  "Bit of a comedown for you, eh, Granger?  Beaten to the prize by a Slytherin."

"I'm sure I'll get over it, Draco," she said mildly.

Zabini was still on his alpha-dog kick, however.  "Don't be stupid, Malfoy," he said.  "Old McGonagall, Gryffindor to the core, gives the highest student honour to a member of our illustrious House?  Passing over the Mudblood heroine of the Battle of Hogwarts?  One of her own dear little cubs?"  Zabini's ability to sneer with his voice was well on the way to matching that of Severus Snape.  "What the fuck do you think happened?  Granger already turned it down."

Draco's eyes narrowed as he looked from Zabini to Hermione.  "Did you?" he demanded.

"I can't imagine why you'd care either way," she retorted.

"There you go," Zabini said, turning away, smirking at the watching Nott and the fawning Bulstrode.  He raised a hand to scratch at his forehead, then – with the hint of a fluster – turned the motion into a sweep over his close-cropped hair as if to check that everything was in place.

Hermione refrained from smiling, though she had just recognised the harsh, chemical smell that Zabini's scent-charm was supposed to mask: TCP.  It seemed that even ultra-groomed pure-bloods were afflicted by the hormonal trials of teenage years.  She could almost feel sympathetic.

She looked over at Draco for a moment, waiting for his attention.  When she had it, she glanced at the way the three other Slytherins were trying to close ranks.  Draco looked too.  His forehead creased into a frown.  He looked back at Hermione.  She arched a brow, just enough.  Just a suggestion.  She'd been learning from the best, all summer, when it came to communication-by-eyebrow.

"It's not just that," Draco said.  Zabini turned back, annoyed, but Draco knew what he'd been offered now and he took it.  "Granger didn't merely turn it down, leave it open for Tracey.  Granger made sure it was offered to Tracey."

Hermione gave a micro-smile.  Just enough for her old enemy to see, then she turned her back on him and went to find a spare bit of wall to lean against.

"Is that so?" Zabini asked Hermione, trying to sound cool and collected.

"Oh, goodness.  I'm just a middle-income Muggle-born.  I'm sure I don't have nearly the amount of influence you suggest," Hermione said.

"That's not an answer."

"Do I have to answer to you, Blaise?"

Zabini hesitated.  The young man had spent his life admired and adored for his good looks, wealth and magical ability; he'd forgotten that not everyone bought into his high opinion of himself.  It was enough to give him pause.

Draco used the hesitation: in fact, he stomped all over it.  "It's hardly a taxing conundrum, is it?  McGonagall would never have dreamed of honouring a Slytherin as Head Girl or Boy.  It would take someone whose opinion McGonagall valued to make her see the advantages."

"What advantages?" Bulstrode demanded.  Then she frowned.  "Apart from the obvious, I mean.  Like how Slytherin is, you know.  Best."

Nott snorted and looked away.  Zabini rolled his eyes.

Draco's smile grew feral.  "I'm right, aren't I, Granger?"

"About?" she coaxed.  Draco needed her to make him say it.  And she wasn't sure why she was helping him in this, because logic dictated that Zabini would have been an easier ally to make.  But if she was about to undertake fifteen weeks of lessons with this motley crew, she needed to do something.  She needed leverage.  A smidgeon of support.  Draco's current social vulnerability made him malleable.

Draco threw his shoulders back.  Suddenly there he was: the thin, pale, overprivileged young man he'd been growing into for the seven years Hermione had known him.  All attitude, all entitlement.  All of it, Hermione sometimes thought, a carefully constructed façade to smother the turmoil that lay deeper within.

"You suggested Tracey," Draco surmised.  "Didn't you, Granger?  You knew Slytherin had taken a battering.  Our lot were leaving Hogwarts at a rate of knots.  Something needed to be done, else the school would be finished.  So you pointed out the unthinkable to McGonagall, didn't you?  A Slytherin Head Girl.  Someone to rally the younger students.  Someone to reassure people that not all Slytherins are evil incarnate."

She waited before replying.  All the Slytherins were looking at her now.  Behind her – though she didn't risk turning her back to look – she heard the arrival of some new students.  Two together, by the sounds they made.  More Slytherins?  Had she effectively been surrounded?

"I liked Tracey," Hermione said.  "Anyone who can share a dorm with Pansy Parkinson and her little band of hangers-on..."  She tossed a disinterested look at Millicent Bulstrode and then looked away.  "Anyone who can do that for seven years and still be a decent human being?  I'd say they're worthy of an accolade or two."

Bulstrode worked herself up, through a series of snorts and gasps, to a, "How dare y–"

Zabini spoke over her.  "I suppose you thought you were doing us a favour, do you?"

"Good heavens, no.  Why would I do that?  Slytherins have made my life difficult from the moment I first heard the word."

"Then why bother?"  Distracted by the exchange, Zabini forgot himself and scratched at his hairline.  His concealing charm was adequate, but Hermione knew what was going on underneath it now.

"Bit slow on the uptake there, aren't you, Blaise?" Hermione retorted.  "For the school, obviously – just as Draco said.  And for Professor McGonagall.  And for every member of your House whose brilliance and subtlety was never compromised by their sense of entitlement."

Zabini glared at her.  "La-di-da.  But you helped anyway."

"I suppose I did.  Even though the first thing you offered me today was a racial epithet.  Be assured, Blaise, I've no warm and fuzzy feelings for you."  She turned away, then pretended to rethink.  "Oh, unless you need some help with skincare?  TCP's a decent antiseptic but a terrible treatment for acne.  Very harsh, very drying.  And it stinks to high heaven.  Your concealing charm might hide the spots but it isn't helping with all those flaky bits you're scratching off."

Zabini's eyes grew round and outraged.  He spluttered, but struggled to come up with an immediate reply.

Hermione shrugged.  "It's difficult, I know.  You're a little late to the puberty-party, but hormones are hormones.  And there's no good charm, is there, to keep adolescent spots under control?  Pimple Vanisher's good for a couple of hours, but the dratted things come back."

"I'm not..."  Zabini's denial tailed off as he lifted a self-conscious hand to his forehead and then tried to disguise the motion with another sweep over his head.

"It's okay," Hermione said.  "Don't be embarrassed.  Muggle skincare products are incredibly useful – you just need to choose the right ones.  I can recommend an excellent cleanser and moisturiser."

Zabini raised his wand.  He was livid.  Draco, meanwhile, was all but grinning with glee.  Bulstrode was looking at Zabini's forehead with a new sense of distaste.  Nott still hung back, but he was intrigued.

Hermione ignored Zabini's wand and turned her back on him, though she cast a wandless shield charm between herself and the Slytherin.  It lacked potency, since decent shield charms needed the heft of a wand.  But it would deflect most low-level hexes.

Further back along the corridor, staring with a mixture of alarm and interest at this confrontation, were a pair of Ravenclaws.

"Michael Corner and Terry Boot," Hermione said, smiling widely, already feeling better about the fifteen week stretch ahead.  "How brilliant to see you both!"

They looked as pleased to see her.  And thinking about it, Hermione remembered someone telling her that these two had suffered badly under the cruelty of the Carrows during her year away.  So it made sense that Hogwarts had become a place of terrible memories for them, too.

As she stepped up to greet them, she heard a mutter behind her and then felt a magical spell bounce off her shield: just a small tickle of energy discharge.  She did not bother to look around, or to renew her shield.

Draco said, loudly, "Oh grow up, Blaise."

Hermione swapped a hello-hug with Michael for a hello-hug with Terry.

And behind everyone else, a deep, sonorous voice said, "Wise advice, Mr Malfoy.  Miss Granger, if you are finished manhandling Mr Boot perhaps we can make a start?"

She gasped and spun around.  Fortunately Severus Snape tended to prompt such reactions in most of his students, so no one considered her behaviour odd.  Blaise still looked angry, but cowed.  Millicent Bulstrode gazed up at the professor as though she desperately wanted Snape to collar-and-leash her.  Draco looked uncertain.

Nott was still quietly interested.

Snape sighed long and hard.  "Foolish, I realise, to have thought that a select group of students who had managed a reasonable qualification at OWL level Potions..."  He paused and glanced at the all-but-dribbling Bulstrode.  "Most of you, anyway."  Another sigh.  "Foolish to think that, a few months on from your school careers, you might actually behave like young adults.  It was clearly a vain hope.  Enter the laboratory – all except Mr Zabini, Mr Malfoy and Miss Granger."

Everyone else trooped inside.  Hermione wondered how she'd managed to place herself on the naughty step before her first lesson had even begun.  Still, what could she do?  She'd needed to position herself such that the next fifteen weeks were not spent constantly fighting off the collective attentions of the Slytherins.  And she was almost nineteen; she refused to be treated like a child just because it suited Severus Snape to do so.  She drew her shoulders back, lifted her chin and waited as calmly as she could.

Snape looked at her, at Draco, then at Zabini.  He drew his wand.  In the space of time it took the rest of them to wonder what the hell was going on he had already cast a Muffliato.  At least, that was what the wand pattern looked like, and Draco winced and shook his head, as if it was filled with Muffliato's trademark buzzing.

But Hermione's ears were entirely clear.

She looked at Snape.  He glanced at Draco, then at her.  She worked it out.  Hoping she wasn't overacting, she gave an annoyed grunt and pressed her hand to her ear.

Snape turned his attention to Zabini.  "You get this one for free, Mr Zabini," he said quietly, "since I came upon the incident too late to work out whether Miss Granger's usual capacity for annoyance warranted a rather shoddily cast Furnunculus."

Furnunculus?  Zabini had tried to hit her with a pimple jinx?  She almost snorted at the complete absence of imagination, remembering in time that she was not supposed to be able to hear any of it.

"Her annoyance was at maximum levels, sir," Zabini assured his former Headmaster.

"Even so, I cannot condone this behaviour.  If my students begin to fall prey to random acts of dark magic then my startling new status as heroic double-agent will be called into question.  I will not allow this to happen.  Do we understand each other, Mr Zabini?"

Zabini looked chagrined.  "Yes, sir."

"Excellent.  If you lose your temper again, especially to the extent that you wave your wand around in my presence, be aware that the consequences will not be a cordial little chat like this one."

"Understood, sir."  Zabini hesitated, then a glimmer came into his eye.  "We've got the numbers, though, now, Professor.  Anyone wants to point fingers at us, we stand together."

Snape narrowed his eyes.  "I am no longer in any position to protect those former Slytherin students who might look to me for support."

"I'm still a Slytherin, sir," Zabini insisted.  "Nothing 'former' about it."

"Then you're a fool.  The world does not work along the same simplified lines as Hogwarts.  Now I suggest you give serious consideration to the advice proffered by Mr Malfoy and attempt to grow up.  Enter the classroom and find a desk."

Zabini looked outraged for a moment, before his anger backed off and he nodded assent.  He went into the classroom.

Alongside Hermione, Draco stirred and shook his head.  It seemed his Muffliato had been released.

"Mr Malfoy," said Snape.

"Professor?"

Snape glanced at Hermione, which made Draco do the same.  Hermione wasn't an idiot.  She glared at the both of them before turning away and fiddling once again with her ear.

"It seems to me," Snape said in that same low tone, "that Miss Granger just did you a favour."

"I'm guessing she'll want something in return," Draco grumbled.  "Though she did punch me in the face, once.  Maybe I can assume this is a debt repaid."  At Snape's snort, Draco added, "Didn't think so."  Then, as if on a double-take, "How much of that did you hear, anyway?"

"I've had an amplification charm on this patch of corridor for the last half hour."

(Hermione, a little frantically, began to review everything she might have said since she'd arrived here, this time in the context of Severus Snape listening in.)

"You always were prepared," Draco acknowledged. 

"As far as I can be."  Snape sighed.  "Zabini wants to be in charge."

"He's just a pretty-boy with attitude."

"He is not.  He is intelligent and ambitious.  Keep him in line."

"How am I supposed to do that?"

"The obvious way," Snape replied.  "Give him enough attention to appease his ego.  Do not offer so much that he loses sight of his boundaries."

"Easier said than done," Draco protested.

Hermione turned back to look at the pair of them with as much casual disinterest as she could.

"You have until Christmas to work things out," Snape told Draco, "after which the problem will resolve itself.  Surely you have faced greater dilemmas."

"Fine."  Draco went to move past Snape into the classroom, but Snape blocked him.  "What?"

A frosty moment, during which Snape raised a brow and Draco got to feel three inches tall.  Then Snape said, very gently, "I think you meant to say, 'What, Professor?'"

"Sorry.  Professor."

Snape nodded acceptance of the apology.  "You have been informed of the conditions of your attendance here."

"Y-es."

"I was surprised to see your name on my student list, given those conditions.  You and your mother have no intention of returning to Malfoy Manor, as I understand it."

"Oh, she's pretty much written the Manor off.  Says it'll be the price we pay for some poorly thought out decisions."  Draco shrugged.  "Fortunately we're not short of houses."

"But to return here to complete your education?  There must have been better options."

"Mother didn't want me at Durmstrang.  Beauxbatons wouldn't have me.  And the thought of a permanent move to what she calls 'the New World'?  That sent her into palpitations.  Apparating over the Channel each day was easier than trying to find a school that would actually take a-a pariah like me."

"Self-pity is not an attractive quality.  I'd suggest you refrain from indulging."

"Oh, I'm not expecting sympathy," Draco bit.  "Not from the man who wouldn't even keep my father out of Azkaban."

Snape's shoulders went rigid.  There was an awkward pause, then he seemed to relax.  "Draco," he murmured, startling Hermione because she hadn't heard him use the first name of any student other than herself before, "what do you expect me to say?"

In a voice that sounded too emotional for Draco Malfoy, he said, "He saved your life."

"He did.  Though I hardly thanked him for it."  Snape must have been aware that Hermione was listening to this conversation, but he didn't so much as glance in her direction.  "Do you think he did so because he couldn't stand the thought of me dying?  Or did he do it because he saw which way the battle was going and decided to claim some...moral leverage?"

"You once told me people never do things for a single reason."

"Of course.  You acknowledge, however, that your father's actions back in May were driven by what was good for him rather than what was good for me?"

Draco gave a grudging nod.

"Do you believe it was in my power to influence the outcome of your father's trial?"

"I don't...I don't know."  Draco stood straighter.  "I know I didn't see much evidence of you trying."

Snape nodded thoughtfully.  "Do you wish for me to beg your forgiveness?"  Without giving Draco the time to respond to this comment he leaned closer and said, "Or is it your father's apology you truly crave?"

Draco looked at Snape, and for a moment Hermione wondered if he was going to break down.  Then Draco inhaled, quite abruptly, and said, "My father makes a habit of never apologising for anything."

"Indeed.  He sees this as a measure of his power and strength.  He's mistaken."  Snape sighed.  "Is it my fault your father is in prison, or is it his?"

"You don't have to patronise me," Draco grumbled.  "I'm not six years old anymore."

"You understand.  And yet you lash out at me.  Does it make you feel better?"

"Not really."

Snape's expression seemed commiserative.  "Then if my advice still means anything to you, I would suggest that you guard your emotions.  There are few people left who wish to offer Lucius Malfoy the benefit of the doubt."

"People are hypocrites."

"Many are.  As are you, if you have decided that your father was not guilty of the crimes for which he was imprisoned."

"My father had very little actual blood on his hands!"

"And yet he celebrated the death of every Muggle, every Muggle-born, and every witch and wizard who opposed the regime of Voldemort."

Draco flinched.  "Don't.  I just...I can't get used to that."

"The name?  Or the fact that I am not the man you always thought I was?"

"Both!"

"Then I suggest you take some time to review.  Harry Potter did you an enormous service, Draco – because of him, you have the freedom to work out where your loyalties lie.  Perhaps for the first time in your life."

Draco didn't appear moved by this.  "Since when do you have good things to say about Potter?"

"I believe I spoke of your newfound freedom as a good thing.  Not Potter."

Draco opened his mouth to reply, then closed it.  He looked confused, perhaps torn.  Then he shook his head.  "Potter didn't do anything for me.  Why would he?"

"Why indeed?  But I didn't say he did it for you, just that it happened.  So – embrace this opportunity and think things through.  In the meantime, work hard at these classes.  Earn your NEWT.  Keep Zabini in line.  And please try to rein in any childish stupidity among your ex-Slytherin cohorts that might bring undue attention to me, to yourself and to these classes.  I cannot stress sufficiently how we really, really do not need it."

"Okay, I get it.  I'll do my best."  Draco tried to move past Snape, but Snape again moved to stop him.  "What?  Um, Professor."

Snape's posture had grown formal again: this odd Slytherin heart-to-heart was over.  "The conditions of your attendance, Mr Malfoy."

A stand-off for a moment.  Then Draco's shoulders slumped and he unsheathed his wand from his sleeve.  The wand was passed to Snape, who secreted it on his person with discreet efficiency.

"Go on in."

Draco may have glanced behind himself at that point, but as soon as Hermione had watched him surrender his wand to Snape she had done the sensible thing and turned her back on the whole conversation.  It would not put Draco – currently her very half-hearted ally – in a better frame of mind towards her if he knew she had witnessed this humiliation.

She waited.  Her breath was a little quick.  It was just her and Severus now...

Not Severus.  Professor Snape.  For the time being, they were back to student and teacher.  And there were lines he did not cross.  He'd been very clear about that.

"Miss Granger," his voice said.

She turned around and saw him watching her.  He did not move towards her, so she went back to the open doorway.  She understood why he stayed in sight of the other students.  Snape would not interact with her in a way that seemed secretive.  The last thing either of them needed was a class full of Slytherins getting wind of a special relationship between a deeply disliked Gryffindor and their own former Head of House.

They looked at each other for a few brief seconds.

"Professor," she said, as formally as he had spoken.

He nodded a kind of acceptance; perhaps even approval.  Then: "I would recommend you do not goad Mr Zabini further."

"I'll take that advice."

"Though I must congratulate you on your choice of insult."

"I've been taking lessons," she said, careful not to smile.

A few breaths.

"I take it you didn't mean for me to hear all that," she said, of his conversation with Draco.

"I see no harm."  Snape lifted his chin.  "You have chosen to pursue an alliance.  Your choice makes sense.  It is, however, useful to be fully informed regarding the attitudes and opinions of your allies."

Hermione thought about this.  "You did it on purpose," she realised.

"I rarely do things accidentally," Snape countered.

She nodded.  She wasn't sure whether to thank him or bristle at his tactical manoeuvring.

Another few breaths.

"I will not be able to protect you in there," he said.  "Not overtly, anyway."

"I would not expect you to."  And, risking a little, "I'm all grown up now."

"Almost," he conceded.  "Have you healed your injury?"

"Nope."  She shrugged a shoulder and felt how the scar over her collarbone pulled.  "It's the position of the thing.  I tried to practise the counter-curse, wand reversed and pointing at myself, but I'd need to be double-jointed to pull it off.  And casting into a reflective medium is nowhere near precise enough."

"Can your friends not be persuaded to assist?"

"Ron's casting is slapdash at best.  Harry tried, but the spell fizzed.  He's brilliant at offensive casting.  Less brilliant at other stuff."

"Hmm."

"Neither of them believe the charm will work, though.  They say if it did then the hospital would use it already."

"Ah, yes.  The delightfully straightforward worldview of Gryffindors."

"Says the man who just told someone off for clinging to the Hogwarts House system."  Snape narrowed his eyes at the comment and Hermione gave a half-smile.  "Oops.  Sorry.  Want me to tag a 'Professor' on the end of that?"

He rolled his eyes and changed the subject back to her injury.  "My own magic is recovering well.  In a few weeks I will be able to help with the healing charm myself."

"I'd appreciate that.  Constant re-zips are no fun."

"Re...zips?"

"It's what I call them.  Twice a week, when they charm the damn thing closed again."

"Ah."

A few more breaths.

"Miss Granger–"

"Please don't insult me."

He was irritated by the interruption.  "By?"

"Telling me that things can't be as...free between us.  Like it was during your recovery."

"You are many things, but I have never known you to be obtuse.  It hardly needs to be said."

"Oh."  She frowned.  "Sorry.  So what were you going to say?"

He shook his head.  "Nothing," he decided.  "Please take your seat inside."

"Right."  She looked into the classroom.  Four Slytherin heads were all turned in her direction, watching avidly.  Good job they couldn't hear anything.  Turning her back on them she added, "Um – it might be good if I act cross and frustrated."

He considered, then nodded.  "As if I have chastised you."

"Yes."

"Very well."

She shot him a wicked look.  "And by the way?  In your dreams."

Snape's eyebrow lifted, proving to Hermione once and for all that no one could make that gesture as eloquent as he could.  He nodded her into the classroom, and while she was walking away he murmured, "Quite, quite possibly."

She hurried into the classroom, face flushed, past sniggering Slytherins and the sympathetic looks from her two Ravenclaw friends.  There were eight brewing stations within the laboratory, not counting the demonstration table at the front of the class.  The stations were arranged four on each side, and comprised L-shaped desks which gave a good amount of space for the preparation of ingredients and the monitoring of a cauldron.

The Slytherins had taken the rear four desks, two each side of the room.  They would not have tolerated an arrangement where they were required to turn their backs on potential enemies.  Michael and Terry had taken the two desks in front of Bulstrode and Zabini.  They had done so to try to protect Hermione.  She was grateful.

No one was surprised when she chose the frontmost desk on the other side of the room.  It gave her the buffer of one empty work station between herself and Draco Malfoy, and it put her under closer scrutiny from the front of the class if anyone tried anything.  All in all, the seating arrangements could have been worse.  She slipped her jacket off and hung it up on the hook provided, then she took a seat on her stool.

Behind her, the door to the lab closed and Snape strode from the back to the front.  It was only at this moment that Hermione recognised that he was not wearing his teaching-robes.  His frock-length coat billowed pleasingly, but beneath it he wore just a high-collared shirt and black waistcoat above tailored trousers and black leather boots.  His clothing hid all but the very edges of the bandages binding the injury at his throat; Hermione was not the only person present whose curse-riddled injury lingered.

It struck her as faintly amusing that the only robes present were the student robes worn by the Slytherins.  They were going to have the hardest time adapting to this new learning environment.

Snape turned to the class.  "You are no longer schoolchildren," he announced.  "This is not Hogwarts.  There are no Houses here.  There are no points to be given or taken.  This is a revisional class for the final year of NEWT level Potions, and we have a lot to get through in the coming weeks.  I am aware of the disruption all of you have had to your education.  Some of you have suffered more than others."  He glanced at the Ravenclaw students.  "Some of you, to my shame, have suffered because I was unable to prevent it."

Michael and Terry shuffled awkwardly.  Behind her, Hermione could hear irritated rustling.

Snape sighed.  "Treat these lessons with respect and a proper sense of application.  If you do not keep up with the work, you will be asked to leave.  If you cause problems for me or for other students, even with so much as a misplaced remark..."  He glared at Hermione.  She stared back, glad she didn't have to pretend to quail.  "...then I shall dismiss you from the course with no sense of regret.  There will be no detentions.  I am under no obligation to warn you, or punish you, if your conduct is unsatisfactory.  Behave like responsible adults, or remove yourselves from my presence.  The choice is entirely yours."

He turned his back to approach the blackboard.

Something hit Hermione on the back of her head.  She spun around to see Draco studying the ceiling nonchalantly.  A chewed ball of parchment lay on the floor beside her stool.

With his back still turned, Snape picked up chalk and began to write a page reference from the standard NEWT potions text on the board.  "Is there a problem, Miss Granger?" he asked as he did so.

Hermione rolled her eyes at Draco and turned back to face the front.  "No problem, Professor."

"Indeed.  Let us hope that Mr Malfoy's ability to shred Starthistle has improved along with his spitball aim."

She glanced back at Draco, who was staring open-mouthed at Snape.  He caught her eye and shrugged.  She shrugged back.

Snape added, "I hear little in the way of quills on parchment.  This does not bode well."

Hermione reached for her bag and got to work.

~~~