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Toil and Trouble

Chapter Text

"Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden."

Cormac McCarthy, The Road 2006

 

On the Monday of the second week of Lost Seventh Potions, the class was expected to prepare a heat-resistant salve called Flameaway.

"You should be aware, after several years of Potions lessons, that salves, balms or creams have an additional element to their design," Professor Snape lectured.  Quills scratched on parchment at the back of the classroom, and a nice ergonomic rollerball glided effortlessly across a spiral-bound A4 lined pad at the front left.  "In many cases the carrier material is as important as the magical infusion."

He turned to the blackboard, the tails of his coat spinning out theatrically.  Hermione had to bite her lip to quell the urge to smile.  A wave of Snape's wand and the left hand side of the board revealed a diagram.  It appeared to depict the larval form of an insect, not the Pompeii worm that Hermione had been expecting.  Whatever it was, it had certainly not appeared in the chapter on fire-resistant potions and salves that Hermione had read in her textbook over the weekend.

"With Flameaway," Snape went on, "the carrier material is even more important.  Most of the commonly used carriers are inherently problematic."  He moved to the front of the demonstration table and leaned back against it, arms folded, wand still to hand.  "Consider.  Vegetable and nut oils, beeswax – there is an obvious drawback when infusing these carriers with properties designed to repel heat.  Miss Bulstrode?"

Hermione glanced over her shoulder at Bulstrode, then remembered herself and settled back into her seat facing the front.  No one ever liked failing in front of an audience, but Slytherins were the worst.  They would take their sense of humiliation out on any bystander, as viciously and as sneakily as they could.

While she waited for Bulstrode's answer, Hermione assessed the rather intriguing invertebrate drawn on the blackboard.  She also considered the problem of a heat-resistant salve that required a carrier that did not alter its properties upon the application of heat.  Perhaps she allowed a secret and hidden sliver of her mind to admire the way Severus Snape's tall, wiry frame showcased the rather Edwardian outfit he had adopted in place of his teaching robes, but only a sliver.

Snape was being oddly charitable, Hermione found herself thinking.  Bulstrode's two attempts at brewing last week had resulted in one Subpar and one Unacceptable.  Even so, Snape had not yet seen fit to kick Bulstrode off the course.  The question he had just asked was hardly taxing; some might even suggest he was giving her the opportunity to gain confidence thanks to an easy answer.  (Of course, since this was Severus Snape, Hermione was assured that the man wasn't being nice for the sake of being nice.  There'd be another agenda somewhere, hidden in the murky labyrinth of his mind.)

Whatever Snape's reasons, Bulstrode failed to take the opportunity proffered.  She said instead, "I did the reading, you know.  That wasn't in it."

Snape said, "No, this is something different; it's called logic.  Think, Miss Bulstrode.  Beeswax.  Shea butter.  Castor oil.  What happens when you apply heat?"

"Um..."

He offered her a fair chance to come up with the answer before giving a small sigh.  "Might they get hot?"

"Well obviously," Bulstrode muttered.

"Perhaps, if in solid form, they might melt?"

"Oh.  Right."

"And the heat is conducted along the material.  Which is why vegetable oils are often used in cooking."

"I suppose."

Snape paused.  Hermione clutched her pen tightly.  It was one of the things she could do to stop her own arm springing into action.  (She had been reminded, the previous week, that Severus Snape never called on someone whose hand was raised.  Admittedly, this was a lesson she should have learnt seven years previously.)

The professor sighed again and said, "Summarise for us, Mr Zabini."

Zabini said, "You need a carrier that has low thermal conductivity and a high specific heat capacity.  Something with the properties of a phoenix feather, maybe?"

"Phoenix feathers tend towards magical regeneration when aflame.  This would create an imbalance, even if there were some way to turn them into an oil or cream.  You are right, however, that the carrier for our salve needs to be able to take plenty of heat, preferably without conducting that heat to the skin it is covering."  He shook his head in mock despair.  "One gets so tired of the smell of burning human flesh."

The humour was very dark and a touch self-deprecating.  Hermione pressed an arm across her abdomen to stop herself from reacting.  After an awkward moment, a couple of sniggers demonstrated that Zabini and Draco had decided Snape was joking.  The cautious delay to their reaction struck Hermione as being nearly as funny as Snape's quip.

Snape eased up from the table and went back to the blackboard.  "Mr Corner, I believe your father is in the building trade."

"Yes, Professor," said Michael.

At the back of the room Zabini muttered something about half-bloods, Muggles and 'knowing their place'.  Hermione spun around, immediately furious, but Michael caught her attention and shot her a consoling look.

"Miss Granger, please try to pay attention," Snape said.  She turned back, angrier now with Snape for failing to police the racism in his class than with Blaise Zabini for spouting it.  "Mr Corner, are you familiar with any of the materials used in Muggle construction which provide protection from fire?"

"Asbestos," Michael said.  "Although that turned out to have problems of its own.  There are silica-based fibres or, um, foams and gels, I think, that are fashioned into tiles or pumped into cavities."

"There are indeed.  And for all Mr Zabini's muttering, it was he who introduced the expression 'specific heat capacity' into the conversation."

Hermione's anger eased off nearly as quickly as it had arrived.

Zabini said, "We did it in fourth year!  When we discussed the properties of cauldrons!"

"Indeed we did, Mr Zabini.  My sincere thanks for the reminder – in my dotage I have so many problems with memory."  Oh, Snape could sound cold when he wanted to.  "The point is that these phrases – specific heat capacity, thermal conductivity – are phrases we have borrowed from the Muggle disciplines of chemistry and physics.  We have borrowed them because they are the right phrases.  If a Muggle scientist were to analyse the properties of the carrier we are about to create alongside the properties of the silica foam that Mr Corner mentioned, they would see many similarities."  He pointed with his wand at the diagram on the board.  "Of course, Muggle scientists would find it difficult to believe in the existence of the glasswing beetle.  Mainly because they rarely manage to get to those rocky plateaus of the Lut Desert that are home to such a creature.  Copy the diagram down; learn the anatomy.  You are about to skin the larval form of a glasswing beetle and then render it into a paste that will act as the Flameaway carrier."  He paused.  "Miss Granger, you are fidgeting and it is upsetting the symmetry of my classroom.  Explain yourself."

Hermione had been fidgeting because sometimes the urge to fling her arm into the air was almost too irresistible.  (In her own defence, she recognised the absurdity.  She'd wanted classes that reflected a more mature kind of learning – a sort of university vibe rather than a return to Hogwarts – and Snape was offering just that.  But still she needed to combat the urge to indulge her inner overachieving-thirteen-year-old.)

So she sighed, narrowed her eyes briefly at Snape, and said, "The process of rendering usually requires the material to be heated to melting point and then reformed, filtering out certain impurities.  But if this material is thermotolerant...?"

The very corner of Snape's mouth twitched.  "Heat does not affect the cellular structure of this animal.  Not until you reach the kind of temperatures you'd need a volcano to provide, in any case.  What would you suggest?"

Hermione thought as hard and as fast as she could.  "Absence of heat?"

"Application of cold might cause problems of its own, might it not?"

Shit.  She should have thought of that.  "Ice crystals.  Of course."  She frowned as an idea formed.  "Where does the life-cycle of this animal begin?"

Snape's mouth twitched again.  "Deep within rock fissures in the middle of a baking hot salt desert."

She exhaled happily.  "Light, then."

Snape dipped his head.  "Light indeed, Miss Granger."

She frowned.  "So how do we regulate the application of light to these larvae?"

Snape's eyebrow arched.  "Glasswing beetle larvae are an expensive commodity.  At Hogwarts, the Flameaway salve is learned using a pulp made from Pompeii worms as the carrier – the resulting salve might protect human skin from a spilled cup of tea, but little more.  Here at St Mungo's, however, we have access to a breeding colony of glasswing beetles thanks to the magically-controlled habitat in the hospital's long-term storage area."

"Cool," Terry Boot said.

"I can think of more accurate words to describe a habitat that averages sixty degrees centigrade," Snape said.  "The glasswing beetle is vital in several medicinal compounds and treatments, so the colony was established here from imported larvae about thirty years ago.  We have the resource to hand, and we have been given permission to use it.  That, Miss Bulstrode, is why the reading you have done for this lesson does not cover all the elements of our brewing.  And in answer to your question, Miss Granger – given the high monetary value of our components today, we will be regulating the application of light very, very carefully."

~~~

They gathered around the demonstration table.  The overhead glow-globe gave off a minimal amount of illumination at the red end of the spectrum.  The rest of the classroom was in darkness.

"The trick is to work quickly and efficiently – this should hardly come as a surprise to students of advanced Potions," said Professor Snape.  In the semi-darkness his voice seemed to take on a physicality of its own.  Then again, perhaps Hermione was too ready to let her imagination run away with itself; she'd had a handful of delicious dreams about that voice in recent months.

Snape pulled clear the heavy black cloth that had been keeping light away from the tank of larvae.

"The larvae will already be reacting, even to this low level of illumination.  Since they are not yet mature enough to pupate, they will attempt to achieve a dormant state in which the membrane that surrounds them becomes opaque."

Hermione said, "Wow, how do they do that?"

"There is an endocrine gland which produces a pigment: a kind of melanin.  If you wish to learn more about the anatomy of magical invertebrates, Miss Granger, I'd suggest you contact Headmistress McGonagall and find out whether there are any further places available for NEWT level Care of Magical Creatures.  Perhaps I might be permitted to continue, since time is actually of the essence?"

"Pardon me, Professor," she said, as unsarcastically as she could.  Which was to say, not very.

Snape shot her a look that was probably a lot more scathing than the poor illumination revealed.  Then he reached his left hand into the tank and plucked out a larva.  He held it up so everyone could lean in and get a closer look.  It was about ten centimetres long, roughly segmented into sections, grey and purplish in colour, with tiny blue-black lines forming a kind of mesh within its jelly-like structure.

"Mr Nott, if you'd be so kind as to replace the cloth over the tank?  Thank you."  Snape placed the grub down on the obsidian plate he'd prepared.  "Note the direction it curls on itself," he said.  "The curve is not symmetrical.  Your attention should be focused on this end."  He indicated with his free hand.  "The one which curls more prominently.  The labium – the feeding aperture –  is here, though it tends not to be obvious unless the larva is actively taking on sustenance."

"Right," Draco muttered to Hermione's right.  "So it's like it's hunching its shoulders.  Got it."

Snape glanced up before he returned his attention to the larva.  "Certainly, Mr Malfoy, if we absolutely must anthropomorphise the creature we are about to kill, render into paste and then smear over our own flesh."

Hermione couldn't help herself; she snorted with laughter.  But she got lucky because Zabini, Michael and Theodore Nott did as well, so her reaction didn't seem out of place.  Snape glanced around at his students, glaring them into composure.

"Once you have identified the business end," he said, "turn the larva so – such that the curl is pulling the tail end upwards, off the plate.  Try to avoid the setae at each side – the tiny hair-like constructs.  They are so fine they're almost invisible, but they will easily pierce human skin if you pinch against them.  Three segments down, you will see where the intestinal tract begins – the thickest of the 'veins'.  You want to pierce it as close to the head as possible.  Of course, the tract itself is merely a useful visual marker – you are, in fact, piercing the invisible cluster of ganglia that make up what passes for this creature's brain.  Do this before you attempt any other incision, otherwise the larva will have time to react to what it perceives as an attack."

"How will it react?" Zabini asked.

"A gland near the head will release an odour a thousand times more noxious than a Dungbomb."  Snape looked around at his students.  "If you trigger this response and then fail to cast an immediate containment charm, I shall be looking very unfavourably on your continued presence on this course.  Am I understood?"

Hermione, along with her fellow students, murmured that yes, he was understood.

"It should also be noted that if you cause the larva to activate its osmeterium – its bad smell mechanism – you will no longer be able to use that particular specimen.  Contain the stench, and make careful use of the waste disposal behind Mr Nott's desk.  You may try again with another specimen, but I would encourage great care.  Fail a second time and you may not waste a third larva.  Your score for this exercise will simply be set to zero."

"What, even if we redo the salve with ingredients we buy ourselves?" Draco said indignantly.

"If I were to permit that," Snape said, "I would be offering the more wealthy students an advantage.  Speaking as someone who might euphemistically have been referred to as 'less wealthy' during my own Hogwarts career, you'll understand that such bias offends me greatly."

There was a pause.  Entitlement crackled in the air around Draco, and Zabini, and possibly Bulstrode as well.  But they didn't argue.

Snape took a narrow-bladed scalpel in a pencil grip and spread the larva against the cutting surface.

"A single incision, made at right angles to the larva when it is in this position."  He demonstrated with a firm stab of his blade.  Hermione managed not to wince.  "The tissue you are cutting is no more resistant than cooled custard, so force is not necessary.  However, use speed rather than caution.  A broken scalpel can be replaced for a few Sickles.  Each replacement larva would cost twenty-three Galleons."

"Or it would, if we didn't have a breeding colony," Zabini pointed out.

"It is St Mungo's that has the breeding colony, Mr Zabini.  They are allowing us to use it, free and gratis, just as they are loaning us these facilities.  While I have yet to meet a Healer who does not grate on my nerves like fingernails on a blackboard, a little respectful gratitude seems in order.  Wouldn't you say?"

Zabini hesitated.  Hermione supposed you couldn't just shrug off such a profound belief in your own privilege in a few brief moments.  "Yes, Professor," Zabini eventually said.  He was a self-centred prick, but he wasn't stupid.

"Is everyone watching?"  Snape looked around.  The very dead larva had relaxed its curl as soon as the blade had pierced its body.  Snape withdrew the blade and then stretched the creature out lengthwise.  "Head to tail, a central cut no more than half a centimetre deep."  He sliced.  "Set down your scalpel because you will need two hands."  He did so.  "Pinch at the tail end, where there are no setae.  Turn it over.  Pressure on the meaty part of the body.  Pull."

Within a second, a gossamer-like membrane had been pulled from the creature, and its gelatinous innards lay in a gloopy heap on the obsidian.

Millicent Bulstrode said, "Oh, that's disgusting."

Hermione leaned closer, looking at the odd refraction of red-tinged light through the substance, already seeing how this was the start of a remarkable magical process.  "It so totally is not," she breathed.

She glanced up.  Snape was watching her.  He blinked.  In any other individual, this would not have been worth noting: just another involuntary motion of the eyelids made several thousand times a day.  But somehow Hermione knew that her reaction had been met with approval.

"If you've quite finished, ladies?" Snape said, his armour of disdain back in place.  "The next stage is the specialised Lumos charm we have already covered."  He cast, then held his glowing wand over the obsidian plate.  The grey-ish jelly began to collapse into a puddle.  "Observe how the minute black lines which were apparent within the body of the larva are effectively being burnt away by light of this specific wavelength."  Snape waited until the jelly was almost completely liquid, then he murmured another charm and his wand flared brighter, tending towards the violet end of the spectrum.  The puddle thickened and then grew opaque, as if it had developed a cataract.

Snape cancelled the charm, sleeved his wand and then took up twin bamboo spatulas.  He began to work the puddle, which now looked as if it had the consistency of petroleum jelly.  "The heat-resistant element to this animal is conferred by a magical protein, which we have just preserved within the pulp of the body."  He pulled the goo into a neat pile, and with every passing second the paste hardened like cooling wax.  Satisfied, he stood back.  "There.  Not difficult, so long as you have the technique.  Since you all learned how to skin a blind-worm for your OWL, this should not be too much of a departure.  Questions?"

Hermione drew breath to speak, then remembered that time was of the essence as far as the tank of larvae on the table went.  She let the breath out and firmly clamped shut her lips.

Snape sighed and said, "Hoppleberry's study on magical invertebrates has an excellent chapter on glasswing beetles, Miss Granger.  Enjoy at your leisure."

"Thank you," she said.

"Swot," said Draco.

She wasn't sure if she was hearing things, but there seemed to be less scorn in Draco's voice than she'd come to expect.  Still, given that he'd presumably been allowed to keep his wand for this particular lesson, perhaps he was just in a better-than-normal mood.

They all made their careful way back to their work stations.  Time to make some Flameaway.

~~~

In the murky red-tinged classroom, Hermione took a few moments to examine her larva.  Close to, it was a magnificent thing.  Its potential was awe-inspiring, both in terms of its ability to pupate into a creature like the glasswing beetle, and its ability to lend its properties to a wide range of magical medicine.

"Got it!" Draco muttered behind her.  He'd obviously taken the 'quickly and efficiently' advice to heart.

It was a fair reminder, though.  Even these low levels of light would eventually prompt the increase in pigmentation.  There was, however, something she could do to make things easier for herself.

Voicelessly, and as discreetly as possible, she cast Aspectu-Tenebris.  She'd designed the spell herself.  It was based on Insono-Chiroptus, the charm that provided vision in darkness, in the same way bats navigated using sonar.  She'd combined it with the super-sensory charm.  This was the result: her very own night-vision spell.  (It had been invaluable on moonless nights in the New Forest, sitting up on watch, nerves shredded by the presence of the Horcrux.)

She blinked as her brain began to process the new information it was receiving.  Though she could not see as well as she might have been able to in normal illumination, she was no longer restricted to a small dome of weak red light from the glow-globe above her station.  She could see everyone present, including Severus Snape who was at the front of the classroom and covering up the tank containing the spare larvae.  As if he sensed her scrutiny, he lifted his head and looked right at her.  She wondered if he had his own night-vision spell, and in the semi-security of the darkness she risked a smile.

He didn't return it.  But that didn't mean anything.  He didn't tend to return smiles even on bright sunny days when they had complete privacy.

Back to work.  Hermione set the grub on her cutting surface, her hands carefully mirroring everything she'd watched Snape's hands do.  She found the black line she needed to sever.  All was as it should be.

"Ow!" cried Terry Boot.  "Bastard bastard bastard."

Scalpel accident or setae, Hermione diagnosed.  She took the time to glance across, just in case Terry needed help, but Snape was already there, dropping a spare black cloth over Terry's wriggling grub and directing Terry out of the classroom to go and get the small slice in his fingers cleaned and closed.  At least they were in the right place for emergency medical attention.

Hermione took up her scalpel, aimed the blade–

It trembled briefly in her hand.

She stood straight and tried not to sigh.  After six years of Potions lessons in a classroom filled with Slytherins who hated her living guts, Hermione had long since learned to ensure that all her gear was immune to a remote summoning charm.  In those earliest Hogwarts years, dishes of ingredients, knives, once even a jar of virulent lobalug venom had gone flying across the room when Snape's attention was elsewhere, to be hoarded ready for when they might be chucked back at her.  She'd been blamed several times for the 'clumsy' way she had supposedly swept vessels on to the dungeon's stone floor.  It had become something of a game, trying to catch the stolen items hurled her way with a well-aimed Accio or Leviosa before breakages occurred.

And then, at some point in her third year, Hermione had discovered a charm buried in an obscure text Professor Flitwick had lent her.  You could use it to prevent any inanimate object from responding to a standard Accio.  It was apparently the original source of the highly-guarded anti-theft charms that shops used to protect their goods.

So at the beginning of every subsequent Potions lesson, she had taken to casting this counter-spell on her equipment.  Then she'd taught it to Harry and Ron, since Draco and his Slytherin cohorts had started to pick on them when they'd realised the know-it-all's equipment was no longer fair game.

And here they were again: herself and some hostile Slytherins, all together in a Potions class.  It had been automatic, the way she'd gone back to protecting her equipment.  These days she could cast the charm without the need for wand or voice, and she did so as a matter of course.  She barely thought about doing it.

This was, however, the first time someone had tried to Accio an item from her brewing station in several years.  And to try to pull her scalpel out of her hand while she was about to make a crucial incision was pretty specific timing.  Come to think of it, it also suggested she was not the only student present who might be using a night-vision charm.

Another tremor of her scalpel.  Whoever was trying to summon it was persistent.

Hermione breathed to steady herself.  She did not look around; she would not give whoever was trying to disrupt her work the satisfaction.  Instead, she took a firm hold of her scalpel, checked the larva she had pinned down on her cutting surface, and made the stab that ended the creature's life.  With a fluid efficiency, she stretched out the dead grub and drew a fine line down its length with the tip of the blade.  Then she set the scalpel aside and she skinned the larva just as Snape had shown her.

Unsurprisingly, the scalpel twitched again on the worktop.  She kept her satisfied smile to herself and refused to look around to identify the caster.  (Her money was on Zabini.)  She unsleeved her wand and got on with her casting.  The light from her wand began to turn the goop into a puddle.

Perhaps inevitably, from Bulstrode's work station on the other side of the room a voice complained, "Merlin, that is just rank..."  This was followed by the suggestion of foulness in the air, before Snape's voice swiftly intoned a containment charm, cordoning off the worst of the noxious fumes now being emitted from Bulstrode's hapless larva.  Hermione listened with half an ear as Snape tried to get Bulstrode's attention from inside the air-tight barrier he had created around her work station.  He was struggling with this; she was throwing quite the wobbler as she breathed the pungent results of her carelessness.  Snape finally managed to encourage Bulstrode to cast a Bubble-Head Charm, and then directed her to dispose of the larva.

While Hermione's focus was on the timing of the specialised Lumos charm, and Snape's attention was taken up with Bulstrode's mishap, something moved in the corner of her eye.  She glanced, then returned her attention to her larva; if she messed up the light application now, the grub would be wasted.

But the glance was enough thanks to her night-vision.  Somebody's careful Mobili charm had sent an item gliding through the air towards her work station.  It seemed that if Zabini could not pull her equipment away with a summoning charm, he was going to try to knock things about another way.

She couldn't use her wand to repel the incoming mini-wrecking-ball – which, on second glance, proved to be a small granite pestle – so she'd have to rely on wandless casting.  She swapped her wand into her left hand to free up her right: it was stronger for wandless casting and closer to the missile.  Thank goodness her Lumos had already reached its second stage; she just needed to hold it steady.  A few more seconds and she'd be done.

Wandlessly, she cast Arresto Momentum.  The charm was successful and the velocity of the flying pestle slowed almost to a full stop; just as well, as it was close now.  There was a judder to its flight-path.  Zabini was fighting her charm, trying to move it on again.  Hermione cast another Arresto, but the pestle dropped suddenly and she missed.

The pestle bounced on to her work surface with a clatter that ought to have been obvious, except for the fact that Bulstrode was still causing a commotion at the back of the classroom.  The pestle played skittles with her neatly lined up selection of stirring rods, and then its handle spun and knocked against the jar of powdered dragon horn that stood ready for the next part of the Flameaway process.  There wasn't much dragon horn in there, of course, since it was another expensive ingredient, but if she lost it then she'd have to ask for more – which would be humiliating – and then she'd have to make sure that her second go was not also sabotaged.  Snape had made it clear that they would have no more than two chances to prepare the salve correctly before losing marks.

So she moved fast.  Even as the jar of dragon horn tipped over, Hermione wandlessly Accio'ed the rogue pestle.  First things first: remove the item that could do further damage.  It was not protected and leapt into her right hand.  She dropped it to the floor and stood on it, already turning her attention back to the puddle of jelly that was absorbing light on her obsidian plate.  Not quite, but nearly.  She heard the roll of that jar, darted a look at it, saw it almost at the edge of her worktop.  Shit!  She could not reach across to right the thing physically: not without disturbing the light charm over her larva gloop.  Beneath her boot the pestle twitched.  She stamped on it harder.  She couldn't summon the jar with Accio because she'd protected it against summoning spells.  She frantically tried a wandless Leviosa instead, to lift it off the table–

She was too late.  Even as her fingers finished the final curl and stretch and her muttered instruction left her lips, she knew she hadn't managed to do it in time.  Her spell flew through the place where, a fraction of a second earlier, the jar had rolled off the very edge of the table.  She was already cringing in anticipation of the inevitable smash of glass on tile...

It didn't come.

Okay, she didn't know why that was, but her attention was back on her larva.  The Lumos charm was done, she judged.  She cancelled the light, checked her slightly-opaque paste was okay for a second or two, then glanced around the corner of her work station at the floor.  The jar of powdered dragon horn lay on its side, lid firmly closed and glass intact.  She narrowed her eyes, seeing more than the dimness would normally have allowed.  The jar was actually floating a few millimetres off the surface of the floor.

"Credit where it's due, Granger," Draco said loudly from two work stations back.  "That was an impressively fast Cushioning Charm."

She looked back.  Draco was perched on his stool, his glow-globe brighter than everyone else's because he was already warming the Flameaway infusion in his pewter cauldron.  His wand was almost out of arm's reach: possibly because Snape had allowed him to keep it for today's lesson only if he pledged that he would not use if for anything other than the necessary Lumos.

Draco raised an eyebrow at her: the minutest of gestures.  And she worked it out.

"I've been practising," she said casually, and went to retrieve her jar.  She then picked up the pestle and put it on her worktop.

"What is all this chatter about?" Snape's voice broke in, as he came from the back of the classroom.

Hermione took up her bamboo spatulas and began to work her paste.  It was already beginning to harden.  She'd left it a few seconds too long and had to work swiftly.

"Nothing much, Professor," she said, even as most of her focus was on her task.  "Nearly lost my jar of dragon horn, but no harm done."

"A shame," Snape said after a moment.  "I was under the impression you had shed that childish clumsiness you used to display."

She glanced up at him.  His word choice made her momentarily furious, but her anger bounced off his sneer.

"Oh, I shed it, Professor," she assured him.  "Third year.  Oddly enough, it seemed to happen at the exact same time I learned the counter-spell to Accio."

His eyebrow arched, less subtly than Draco's had a moment ago.  "Indeed.  Then it would seem some revision is in order."

"Yes it would."

Their eyes held.  She was still angry, but even more annoying was the knowledge that being angry with him and having him challenge that anger was – damn it – the most thrilling sensation she'd known in a while.

So she looked away.

"You appear to have a spare pestle at your work station, Miss Granger," Snape said, his tone lower.

"Yes, I do," she said.  "I'm sorry, Professor, but I can't account for where that came from.  It seemed to arrive out of thin air."

She looked up again.  His expression didn't shift, not a single tremor of a single muscle, but Hermione could see in his dark, percipient eyes that he was all up to speed at this point.

Snape looked away, as if disinterested in her.  He reached across her worktop and took up the rogue pestle that had so nearly cost her today's first attempt.

"Perhaps its owner will claim it, then," Snape said, and put it in his waistcoat pocket.  He marched off to the front of the classroom.

Hermione finished with her spatulas and tested the consistency of her carrier.  Satisfied, she set it aside and lit the flame beneath her readied cauldron.  Once this was done, she adjusted the illumination from her work station's glow-globe and then finally took the time to stand up straight and look casually behind her at the rest of the class.

Zabini was glaring at her furiously.  Michael met her eyes, still busy with his spatulas, worried but helpless in this particular battle.  Draco ignored her.  Behind him, Theodore Nott shot her a brief look filled with amused awareness.

Millicent Bulstrode finally finished at the waste disposal and turned to walk glumly back to her work station to begin the whole process again.  Her face was even pastier than usual, and covered with the residue of a cold sweat; glasswing larvae had quite the protection mechanism going for them, it seemed.  Bulstrode had to be dangerously close to dismissal from the course.  Not perhaps surprising for someone who was only here because of Slughorn's assistance during year six as she re-took her Potions OWL.

Motion distracted Hermione.  Blaise Zabini had Accio-ed Bulstrode's pestle and mortar from her work station.  He then levitated his own pestle-less mortar on to her worktop.  Hermione rolled her eyes and turned back to her cauldron.  She needed to get the dragon horn simmering in a solution of salamander blood.

Slytherins, she thought to herself as she worked: they were sly, sneaky and ruthless.  But you had to give them credit for covering their bases.  Indeed, Hermione decided that today's incident should probably be considered a lesson.

Next time she brewed here, she was going to have to up her game.

~~~

Her Flameaway got her an "Adequate."  It was better than she might have expected, given how distracted she'd been at the most critical moment.

Hermione used the block of infused salve – now wrapped in waxed cloth and looking remarkably like the resin Tabitha Bennett used on her violin bow before she played in Flitwick's school orchestra – on her own finger.  She made sure it was coated properly with no gaps, then she risked the candle flame that was burning on her desk.  It was hard, in psychological terms, to make her finger do more than pass through the flame as quickly as possible.  But she had faith in her salve, and she had faith in her teacher, and she forced herself to relax into the test.

After a few seconds, she realised that there was no heat anywhere on her coated finger.  The untreated parts of her hand that were closest to the flame detected the usual amount of warmth, but her finger in the flame itself was untouched.  Slowly she raised her hand.  The hottest point of a candle flame was at the tip, where there was plenty of oxygen.  She tested the limits of her salve.  If memory served, this part of the flame burned at about 1,400 degrees.

Nothing.  Not even a whisper of warmth.  Brilliant.

"God, I love Potions," she whispered to herself.

She cleared up her work station, happily scrubbed her cauldron, returned unused ingredients to the front of the class, and generally felt delighted about another good afternoon's brewing.  On Wednesday there would be a theory lesson, which meant she had until Thursday to prepare a new set of protective charms ready for whatever move Zabini was going to make next.

She was finished quite quickly, probably because she had far more experience at scrubbing cauldrons than anyone else in this room.  Michael was waiting for Terry, who had finished his salve twenty minutes later than everyone else thanks to the minor injury he'd sustained.  Bulstrode was still muttering about mortars and pestles, though she had to be pretty happy with the "Subpar, Miss Bulstrode.  But a pass nonetheless," that Snape had deemed her second attempt worthy of receiving.  Zabini was cleaning his equipment with a look on his face that suggested the work was beneath his dignity.  Draco was about done, and less unhappy about the drudgery than Hermione might have expected.

She collected her jacket and hoisted her bag on her shoulder.  She magically signed her block of salve and took it to the front desk, where she placed it on the tray that stood ready.

"Good evening, Professor," she said politely.

He didn't glance up from where he sat, reading.  He grunted.  No one would have expected anything else, but she still had to pinch her lips to keep that sense of disappointment at bay.

She turned and walked up the centre of the room, murmuring goodbyes to Michael and Terry.  Draco passed her, on his way to the front.  When she walked past Theodore Nott's work station she saw him glance up, so she risked a congenial nod.  There was no point perpetuating enemies where neutrality could be maintained, especially if he really had noticed the way Draco had saved her from the ignominy of a failed attempt today.  Theo didn't nod back, but his eyes glinted with what could – maybe at a stretch – be considered respectful acknowledgement.

Weird, that in a class of Slytherins it was the children of Death Eaters who were treating her with something that approached courtesy.

She left the classroom and turned along the corridor to make her way to the stairs.  She'd almost reached them when footsteps behind her made her pause.  Hermione weighed the options and then waited by the door into the stairwell for Draco to catch up.

"Off home?" he said, as if the last seven years had not seen various members of his family frequently trying to hurt or kill her.

"Got an appointment first," she said.  "Upstairs."

"What's that, then?"

They made their way together up the stairs, not friends, but no longer exactly enemies either.

Hermione grimaced.  "Without wanting to be pointed or anything, I kind of have this cursed-blade injury that needs medical attention twice a week."

A pause.

"Ah," said Draco.

Another pause.  A bit of an awkward one.

Hermione said, "So anyway, are we calling it quits?  Or are we acknowledging that it might be nice to have someone in our corner from time to time?  Especially someone no one else expects to be there."

Draco glanced at her.  "You can be astute.  Sometimes.  For a Gryffindor."

Hermione huffed a laugh.  "I'm not at school anymore.  Headmistress McGonagall would hate me for saying it, but I have denounced the House system in all its divisive glory."  She sniffed.  "Bollocks to it."

"Might be right," Draco said.  Then, "Um – I'll deny all knowledge if you claim I said that."

She sighed inwardly, but Draco's inability to trust was hardly breaking news.  "Fair enough," she said.  "And I'll deny all knowledge if you tell anyone I said thank you.  For helping me today."

Draco snorted.  "Thing is – why would I tell anyone that?"

"Why indeed?  About as likely as me telling my housemate I had a nice chat after my lesson with Draco Malfoy."

Draco actually snickered.  "He'd never believe you."

"He'd believe me.  He might not ever forgive me, though."

"Careful, Granger.  You're giving me information I could use against you."

"I know," she said.  She smirked a bit.  "I wonder why I'm doing that?"

She glanced at Draco.  He was frowning.  Trying to find the agenda, the double-play, the strategy, because the likes of Draco Malfoy had never been allowed to learn that human connection always had to start with a basic level of trust.

Hermione gave a small smile as she pushed open the door to reception.  Draco would either get it or he wouldn't.  He'd either keep to their ceasefire or he'd betray her.  What would be would be.

They walked across reception.  Draco turned towards the Apparition alcove, then he hesitated and turned back.

"Safe Apparition, Draco," she said affably.  "See you Wednesday."

He nodded, still frowning, but he managed half a wave before he left the hospital.

Artefact Accidents, and her injury's first re-zip of the week, awaited.  The route had become a well-trodden one for her.  She went through the door to the left of the reception desk and took a seat in the waiting area beyond.  Monday re-zips were always the worst.  Four days had passed since the last healing charm, as opposed to the three that had passed when she came here on Thursdays.  The extra day gave the wound chance to start pulling and prickling and sometimes even weeping and bleeding.  She had to keep it dressed on a Monday, just in case.

She wondered how often Snape had to get his own cursed injury seen to.  Might she run into him here sometime?  Would he allow her to cast the counter-curse he'd told her about to heal his injury for good?  They'd put that idea on hold months ago; it had made sense for Snape to stand before the Wizengamot as battered and bruised as he truly was.  But things were different now.  He could heal without it harming his public persona.

Still, there was a new kind of formality to their dealings: the inevitable consequence of this resumption of old roles.  Letting anyone other than a medical professional cast a healing spell on your body was an intensely personal thing.  It required trust, and it fomented intimacy.  Hermione knew this very well.  She had, after all, healed a cursed-blade injury inflicted on Severus Snape once already.

Yes.  For the time being, things were different.

She'd just have to be patient.

~~~