Severus woke up early the next morning. A constant pounding in his head reminded him of the events of the day before as he reached for the Sobering Potion on his bedside table. The realisation that students were expected to arrive that evening made him shudder. Grimacing at the taste of the potion, he wondered why he had given in to Minerva's demand that he return to Hogwarts. He sighed as he went through his morning ablutions.

Severus eventually made his way to the Great Hall and was relieved to find a large pot of coffee and a copy of the Daily Prophet waiting for him. He poured himself a generous amount of coffee and immediately hid himself behind the paper.

A raucous laughter came from the staff entrance, and Severus glanced surreptitiously above the paper to notice Granger and Longbottom arriving for breakfast. He turned the page and buried himself in the paper as they reached the table.

"That really sounds like an interesting predicament," he heard Granger say to Longbottom as they neared the table. "What did Hannah do?"

"Oh, you know Hannah. She was hardly fazed. She handled it a lot better than I would have."

"Good morning, Severus," Hermione said, taking her seat at the table.

Severus raised an eyebrow at Hermione and grunted in return.

Hermione shook her head at him and poured herself a cup of tea.

"So when are you and Ron planning to get married?" Neville asked as he poured his own cup of tea.

"The wedding will most likely be this summer. I have several friends who I want to be in the wedding, and we'd like it to be a convenient time for everyone. How many years have you and Hannah been married?"

"Four wonderful years," Neville replied. "We were married on a beautiful August evening, and on Luna's recommendation, we spent a couple of weeks in Majorca before she returned to the Leaky and I continued my apprenticeship with Professor Sprout."

At that moment, Remus entered the Great Hall and took his seat at the staff table. "Good morning, everyone," he said pleasantly. "How is everyone this morning?"

"Fine, thank you, and you? We were just discussing weddings," Hermione said, giving him a smile.

"Is that so?” Remus asked. β€œIt's hard to believe that Tonks and I have been married for eight years now."

"It's hard to believe time moves that quickly," Neville said. "It seems like yesterday that Hannah and I were married."

Hermione looked over at Severus and tried once more to include him in the conversation. "I think it's great that you are teaching again." She didn't get an immediate response, so she looked over at Neville and Remus and shrugged.

Remus leaned over to Hermione and whispered, "I wouldn't try it. He's all wrapped up in his paper, and it's obvious he doesn't want to be disturbed."

Hermione made a noise that sounded a lot like, "Hrmph," and turned her attention to her tea. "So, what House is going to win the House Cup this year, do you think? I am quite certain that it will be Gryffindor."

Filius entered the Great Hall and glided straight over to the Gryffindors. "I highly doubt it," he said as he picked up a piece of toast. "Gryffindor hasn't fielded a decent Quidditch team since Ginevra Weasley left."

"Well, it is possible to win the House Cup without winning the Quidditch cup," Hermione said thoughtfully. "If the students are smart and they don't insist on causing a lot of trouble." The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.

Severus raised an eyebrow at Hermione as he looked over his newspaper at her. "And what makes you think this current crop of students won't reveal themselves to be troublemaking dunderheads?" he asked with a sneer.

"Maybe because I am an optimist and my opinions of dunderheads differ from your own," Hermione retorted. "Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Even the best witch or wizard has things that they can't do."

Severus made a coughing sound that sounded like, "flying," and he grunted and went back to his newspaper.

"I know mine, thank you very much," Hermione said, glaring at him. She took some eggs and sausages from the platter in front of her and started eating. She inwardly wondered if he knew what his weakness was or if he thought he was all-powerful.

Remus laid a hand on Hermione's arm as she viciously tore into her sausages. "Hermione," he said softly, "is it really worth it to pick a fight at this time?"

"No. I just don't understand why he has to be the way he is," she replied softly so that only Remus and Neville could hear her. "It seems like he makes himself this way on purpose so that no one will ever get close to him again and he doesn't have to worry about losing someone else like Lily."

"Well, that's his problem, isn't it?" Remus said. "Why don't you just drop it and leave him be? Enjoy breakfast, as this will be the last peaceful, student-free breakfast we'll have for a while."

Neville nodded in agreement. "And believe me, meals here can get rather boisterous at times."

Hermione took a few more bites of food, choosing to ignore the side of the table where Severus sat. "How are you doing this morning, Filius?" she asked, including the small man in the conversation. "I still remember the lesson where you taught us Wingardium Leviosa."

Filius chuckled. "That is my most favourite lesson," he said. "It's always a pleasure to see all the feathers float up to the ceiling when the students are successful. Although," he added with a twinkle in his eye, "I do remember one student from your year who had a tendency to explode things with his wand."

Neville and Hermione laughed as they remembered some of Seamus Finnigan's more memorable spells-gone-awry.

"And I'll never forget the night that you stood up to Ron, Harry, and me in our first year., Neville. It was thanks to you that we won the House Cup that year," Hermione said with a fond smile at Neville.

Neville blushed. "Yeah, well, I was afraid that we were going to lose more points."

"And who could forget our first flying lesson?" Hermione asked with a small shudder.

Neville also shuddered. "That was scary," he said. "But you'll have to admit that my Remembrall did play a role in getting Harry on the Gryffindor Quidditch team."

"Oh?" Remus asked as he swallowed his eggs. "Is that how it

"Yes," Filius said. "Minerva kept going on and on about how he caught that thing. Mr Potter was the youngest Quidditch player in at least a century."

"I often wondered if Harry might try out for professional Quidditch. But he wanted to be an Auror, and that is what he and Ron became." She smiled proudly as she remembered them becoming Aurors.

"Good thing they did, too. We lost a lot of Aurors during the war and retirement," Remus added.

"Well, Merlin willing, none of us will have to go through anything like that again anytime soon. Once in a lifetime is enough for me."

"Me too," Neville added.


Severus headed to the library to check if the latest copy of Helvetica Alchimica Acta had arrived. He was not looking forward to dealing with young students again and was particularly dreading facing the first years, as some of the most spectacular accidents had generally involved them. The Gryffindor/Slytherin classes had historically been the most difficult to teach, and he was expecting history to repeat itself, as it had in previous years when he had taught Potions.

He left the library with journal in hand and was looking forward to returning to his office to read it over a nice cup of tea. His musing was interrupted when he felt someone physically run into him. He dropped the journal as he caught an armful of a very flustered, red-faced Hermione Granger.

"Miss Granger," he hissed as he abruptly let her go, "what is the meaning of this?"

"I want to know why you insist on isolating yourself from everyone," Hermione blurted out. "You know, I was attempting to include you in the conversation at breakfast, and all you did was either ignore me or try to reply with snide answers."

Severus arched an eyebrow at Hermione. "I fail to see why this should concern you," he said softly.

"Why? Because believe it or not, I enjoyed your class. Yes, you tried to alienate me with all of the other students you had. Yes, you did your darndest to make me hate you. But you taught me a lot, and because of you, I can brew my own potions for my needs."

Severus was taken aback by her words. His momentary astonishment was replaced by his usual expressionless mask. He grabbed Hermione's arm and led her rather ungracefully to an unused classroom. He threw her into the room, and as the torches came to life with a non-verbal spell, he sealed the door and cast a Silencing Charm. He turned around to face Hermione and folded his arms across his chest.

"What do you want, Miss Granger?" he asked.

"What do I want? I want, first of all, for you to start treating me like a colleague instead of one of your students. I am almost twenty-six-years old, and I am not a child." Hermione's anger was building up in her chest. "I rather doubt you would have thrown another one of your colleagues into a classroom like you just threw me."

Severus narrowed his eyes and scowled at her. "First of all," he said in a voice of deadly calm, "respect must be earned. Secondly, I treat everyone as I have always done. Do not assume anything about me, as you have no idea how I would act or react under any situation."

"I know more than you think I know," Hermione said, mimicking his stance. "I know what you went through for so many years. I know what you had to endure. Harry told me about what he saw in the Pensieve. He told Ron and me everything." She felt some pain in her chest but ignored it. "I can't imagine what it had to have been like for you all those years. But you were given a second chance, damn it. Why can't you let yourself enjoy life instead of making everyone shy away from you?"

Severus clenched his teeth and gave a low growl as he loomed over Hermione. He was so close that Hermione could see a vein pulsing at his temple. It was generally a sign that Severus was close to the breaking point.

"Miss Granger," he hissed, "that is none of your damned business. I certainly do not need your pity or your concern, and I do not need anyone clucking over me like a flock of damned hens. I demand you cease your busybody nattering immediately."

"You didn't scare me when I was your student, and you don't scare me now," Hermione said, her voice rising higher. "You know, I thought I understood why you were so difficult after Harry shared your memories. Yesterday, when I found out you were alive, I thought maybe you might have changed. But now I see that working for Voldemort was just an excuse that you were using for being the way you already were!" The pain was building up in her chest, but she wasn't backing down.

Severus moved so that his face was just mere inches away from Hermione's. "Don't presume you know me based on memories that Potter whelp had no right to share with anyone else," he said with a deadly quiet tone to his voice. "I will admit was I none too pleased to see I am colleagues with you, the werewolf, and the clumsy oaf," he added. "You were nothing but a parrot, needing to impress everyone with your ability to memorise texts without truly understanding what they meant. Why Minerva thought hiring such an insufferable know-it-all was a good idea is completely beyond me."

"I was apprenticed to one of the best masters of Transfiguration around, and I earned my position on staff fairly!" Hermione yelled, angered at the fact that he refused to raise his voice. "I guess you don't know how many times I defended you to Harry and Ron. But I guess that doesn't matter to you!" She gasped, feeling the pain inside her chest burn her like a Stunner right to the heart, and felt the room spin as darkness engulfed her.

Severus noticed her wince in pain and reacted very quickly when he saw her fall face-forward towards the floor. He caught her and gently laid her on the floor. As he wordlessly unlocked the door and lifted the Silencing Charm, he conjured his Patronus and sent it to Poppy Pomfrey. He then turned his attention to Hermione and cast a diagnostic charm over her. The dark aura emanating from her chest puzzled him greatly – only Dark curses would give auras like that. He cast a few Dark-detection spells over her chest as Poppy came barrelling through the door.

"Severus," she said breathlessly, "I came as quickly as I could. What happened to Hermione?"

Severus shoook his head. "We were having a discussion when she appeared to experience sudden pain in her chest, and she fainted." He cast the diagnostic charm over Hermione again and pointed out the dark aura over her chest. "That was undoubtedly caused by some sort of Dark curse."

Poppy nodded. "I agree with that assessment," she said. "But how could this be? And who would go around hexing her like that? The war ended seven years ago."

Severus shrugged his shoulders. "I wonder if this might be a vestige of any injury she may have suffered back then," he said. "To my knowledge, the Aurors have captured most of the remaining rogue Death Eaters who could have been a danger to her."

Pomfrey nodded as she stood and conjured a stretcher. Both she and Severus levitated Hermione onto the stretcher. "Thank you, Severus," she said. "I'll take over from here. In the meantime, perhaps you can try to determine what that curse is and figure out if there are any counter-curses or potions that could help her."

Severus nodded curtly as he left the room and went down the hall, his robes billowing behind him.

When he returned to his office, he paced the floor, wondering how Hermione could have been hit with that particular curse. It appeared to be a Burning Curse that was embedded under the skin. He also wondered how many years she had suffered from it. He sat down heavily on his chair and put his head in his hands. Not only was her condition first and foremost in his mind but her words also cut through his consciousness, and it made him feel guilty for causing her the stress that might have triggered her pain. I guess you don't know how many times I defended you to Harry and Ron. But I guess that doesn't matter to you! Her words echoed in his head as he sank into despair. He couldn't understand why she had defended him, but he found it oddly comforting. He vowed to himself he would work to figure out exactly what curse had been cast on Hermione and would not rest until he found a counter-curse, a potion, or a combination of both. It was the least he could do.

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