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Stalking the corridors in the third month of the year following Harry's transformation, Severus felt compelled to inspect the halls near Gryffindor Tower. It was quiet there, save for the whisper of a shadow that he thought was Mrs. Norris, also on patrol. He decided to try the kitchens for students in search of mischief, and, in lieu of finding any, a cup of tea. He was walking away when it happened.

A shriek rent the air, and he turned to see three bodies come tumbling out from behind the Fat Lady's portrait. Severus drew back into the shadows out of instinct.

"Give a lady her dignity! Her beauty sleep! Some warning!" yelled the subject of the painting, which remained askew to afford a better view of the disturbance to its owner.

"It's all you worry about--Harry this, and Harry that--I hate you! I knew it!" Hermione Granger screamed at the top of her lungs, her hands full of bright red hair--some of it still attached to its owner's head.

Ronald Weasley, for his part, was trying to disentangle himself from the girl without harming either himself or her, or allowing her to harm Harry, who was squashed between them.

"Please, Hermione, it's not Ron's fault! I asked him to kiss me. He didn't want to! Why would anyone want to? I was just trying to figure it out. I swear!"

Severus thought that Miss Granger certainly had a facility for inspiring fear, and he would have found the scene comical had it not been for what he could perceive of Harry's face. Tear-stained, though she was not crying now, it held sincerity, terror . . . and angry looking red and purple blotches. To his irritation, he found that he could not take pleasure in the brat's predicament. He moved to interfere, but paused as he felt a hand on his arm. It was Minerva.

"Best let them sort it out for themselves," she whispered in a tone that carried with it both maternal anguish and resolve.

"You're right, you freak. No one would want to kiss you; you're the Girl-Who-Lived-to-Steal-Everybody's-Boyfriend. If Ron didn't pity you, he'd never--"

"That's the outside of enough, Hermione!" that young man yelled, suddenly seizing Miss Granger's wrists and rolling hard on his right side to separate the two of them from Harry. "You should be ashamed!"

"I should be ashamed? I should be? She's the slut--visiting boys in their rooms with nothing decent on!"

That, at least, was true, for Harry was wearing a short red cotton nightgown--no slippers, no robe. Snape felt uncomfortable having his attention drawn to so much of his least-favorite student, especially as his least-favorite student had become a preternaturally well-developed, charismatic young woman. He tried not to follow this line of thought, for he had always avoided fantasizing about the students. Fantasizing about this student would render his nights entirely too complicated . . . .

"I'll bet she liked you before the Change!" Granger yelled, pulling free of Weasley and standing up.

The boy flew up after her. "He--she--I--we--never--agh!" He squeezed his hands into fists and pumped them at his sides as if to anchor himself. "Look at her, damn you," he demanded when at last he could speak coherently. "Look at your friend."

Severus heard Minerva's swift intake of breath as she apparently did what Mr. Weasley had ordered.

Harry had crumpled into a ball underneath a window, attempting to shield herself from the other girl's gaze. Her state of undress wasn't the issue; she was wearing more bruises than most players sported after a Quidditch match.

"You did that to her, Hermione. You attacked her, not someone bad, and she didn't defend herself. If we were really doing something wrong, Harry wouldn't care what you thought. She would have fought you."

This adolescent logic seemed to turn an emotional switch inside Miss Granger, who squeaked out in distress, "Oh, Merlin . . . oh, Harry . . . oh . . . I'm sorry--"

"Yeah, I should say you are," Weasley spat, with uncharacteristic viciousness.

Granger, overcome with guilt and beginning to cry, fled back through the open portrait hole.

"Ah, Hermione," Weasley called, his own mood far from fixed. "I've got to go after her, mate," he said without even bothering to look at his friend before disappearing.

"Coming, dear?" asked the Fat Lady after a moment, only to close when Harry said nothing.

Harry was left crouched on the cold stone floor of the corridor, injured and abandoned.

The two teachers looked at each other at a loss as to how to proceed.

"I'm sorry," Harry whispered brokenly, and then great, racking sobs tore through her body.

Severus moved before Minerva could even react, sweeping toward the girl and removing his cloak at the same time. He knelt to cover Harry, and then drew her up into his arms to cradle her inside of them. He was perversely gratified when she did not pull away.

"That's all right, then. That's all right. Do not favor the unworthy with the gift of your tears," he whispered into her short, disheveled hair, rocking the girl against himself in an attempt to still her.

After a moment, when Harry began to realize in whose arms she was, she lifted her head and attempted to explain herself.

"That's all right, Harry. Truly," Severus assured her, pressing his lips to her scar for emphasis--only to pull away with a gasp as an arc of green-black energy pulsed between her mark . . . and his own.

He was not permitted time to process the meaning of this connection, for suddenly Minerva was there crooning comforting nothings into Harry's ear as she lifted the girl into a standing position. She made certain to keep the cloak firmly wrapped around her young charge.

"Thank you, Severus," Minerva said. "I shall take it from here. . . . Good night."


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