Cat and Mouse by Myrtle
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Snape couldn’t see her but he knew precisely where she was, hidden in the deep shadows of the Forbidden Forest. Even after seven years of schooling and two years of training as a fully-fledged Order member, Hermione Granger hadn’t yet learned how to best the spy-cum-Potions-Master. It had become quite a sore point for her. If she couldn’t sneak up on an ally, she certainly wouldn’t be able to surprise a bona fide enemy. So she tried and tried “ and so far, had succeeded in doing nothing more than exasperating her erstwhile professor.

For a moment, he toyed with the idea of waiting her out, testing to see how long she could hold her silence, but he didn’t have the patience to play that game tonight.

He was tired after what had been a very long day. He’d had two double Potions classes, a staff meeting, and then Filch had cornered him to whinge (yet again) over how soft the school’s punishments had become. All of that had come on the heels of last night’s lovely little soirée with the Dark Lord which was exhausting, even if it not for the reasons most imagined.

While many assumed that the Death Eater meetings involved rampant debauchery coupled with gratuitous torture of random members, the reality was much more prosaic. In fact, the Dark get-togethers were eerily similar to Order meetings: the charismatic but bizarre leader would make some general comments about the current status of the group’s goals, ask questions regarding the progress of any special projects or assignments, and then there would follow an hour or so of general “we’re better and we’re right, therefore we’re going to win” propaganda and cheerleading. There had been more than one occasion where Snape’s attention had drifted during the rhetoric and he’d realized that he was safely able to give the same response at either camp.

He steadfastly refused to think too hard about what that implied.

As with Order meetings, last night’s gathering had been unexpected and very late. He knew that covert operations planning to usurp powerful enemy forces could hardly afford to have regularly scheduled meetings at the local hall “ another uncomfortable similarity between the opposing sides “ but a peevish voice in a corner of his mind wondered why these meetings always had to be held in the middle of the night. Surely it would be no more difficult to work out espionage methods and strategy at tea time?

So here he was, tired, disillusioned and feeling particularly isolated, forced to teach an already annoying child (for that was indeed how he still thought of her) to play hide and go seek.

“Come into the light,” he said. His voice was soft but rough-edged with fatigue.

Hermione said nothing but did as he bade, moving out of the darkness to stand in the patch of moonlight near the mossy Scots pine she’d been hiding behind.

For her part, Hermione was in no better frame of mind than Snape. Being a compulsive over-achiever meant that any failure rankled. To fall so far short “ repeatedly “ in front of the one professor who’d refused to acknowledged her competence (much less her genuine talent) was beyond mortifying. Whatever grades he’d given her each year had been only grudgingly bestowed, if the caustic remarks he made on her assignments and in their few conversations were any indication.

Snape’s voice cut through her discomfiture. “Miss Granger, if lurking behind a tree has not proven successful even once during the countless times you’ve tried it in the past, why do you persist in using that approach? Surely even a mind such as yours is capable of grasping the concept of ‘futile?’”

It had been a long time coming, but the combination of long-running embarrassment, her frustration at not being able to master something that on the surface seemed so simple, and Snape’s insult finally caused a dam inside the young woman to break.

“Fine!” Hermione’s jaw clenched, and though she would deny it to anyone who wasn’t actually there to witness it, she stomped her foot. “Why don’t you try showing me, you great sodding bully, instead of standing there and criticizing me? You’ve made it abundantly clear that I’ve no idea how to do this and I am sick to bloody death of having you ridicule me. So do something. You’re supposed to teach me “ do it, damn you!”

Severus had heard tales of Miss Granger’s formidable temper but, frankly, he’d never believed the stories. She’d always been an overly solicitous, fools-rush-in, know-it-all pain in the arse every time he’d had to deal with her, even when he’d tried to provoke some sort of reaction from her.

But here she was, crackling with an energy he would have never guessed she possessed. In fact, he was willing to bet that Hermione Granger had no idea that she was literally throwing off sparks. Granted they weren’t visible, but bits of unchanneled magical power surged from her and made the hair on his neck stand up nonetheless.

He had only seen a very few wizards or witches with this kind of fundamental ability. And as much as he might want to pretend otherwise, he knew he would never look at Granger in quite the same way. It was as if she had transfigured before his eyes: the child he had known was now unquestionably and irretrievably gone, replaced by an unusually powerful witch. If this rare ability was cultivated appropriately, and if it were judiciously combined with her intelligence and uncommon drive, she would be a fearsome weapon in the fight against the Dark Lord. To be honest, Snape thought to himself, she was going to be phenomenal, regardless of the circumstances. But if her gifts were to be honed by someone who was well-acquainted with both the workings and the weaknesses of the opposition “ someone inconveniently just like Severus Snape “ she might just prove to be the secret weapon the Order had long wished it possessed.

However, Snape would damn himself to seven different levels of hell before he’d let her know what he had realized in these moments. It wasn’t a matter of jealousy that made him want to guard this information; Snape had occasionally been able to command the elemental magic himself. That was the problem. The secret Severus Snape vowed to keep was that Hermione Granger was “ for all intents and purposes “ his peer.

This meant that he would have to act quickly to keep Granger from discovering “ and exploiting “ the fundamental change in the way Snape saw her.

“Very well,” he allowed, his voice soft but unforgiving. “You have not had any risk in these pathetic games the Headmaster has set up. Here is the wager I offer you: I will hide from you. If you are able to discover my hiding place before I make myself known to you, I will grant you a favour. If, however, I am able to come upon you without your knowledge, you must agree to whatever boon I request. I warn you, I am tired and not anxious to spend hours waiting for you to figure out how to not hide behind a tree. This little game of ours will move quickly. Understand?”

Hermione knew that the odds were against her. Severus Snape had lived the life of a double agent for nearly as long as she’d been alive. The fact that she wasn’t quite certain whether Professor Snape was completely on the side of the Light made his talents in duplicity that much more obvious.

“You will grant me any favour?” Hermione asked.

Snape nodded. “Any favour you ask, provided I am able to grant it.”

“Agreed,” Hermione breathed. Before she had even finished saying the word, Severus Snape morphed from erudite professor to consummate predator “ nothing about his appearance had changed, yet he looked completely different. He was hungry. Hungry and dangerous and he was hunting her, even though she was supposed to be the pursuer.

Hermione was frozen in place as Snape stalked toward her. If ever there was a moment when she truly appreciated the beauty and danger of Severus Snape, then this was that time. His movements were sure but stealthy; his gaze never wavered from hers. She couldn’t have felt more like ensnared prey than if she’d been a rabbit caught in a trap.

As she stared at him, he vanished.

He didn’t apparate, he didn’t disappear like some cheap Muggle trick “ he simply … vanished. Became part of the forest.

Hermione’s initial reaction was to panic. He could be anywhere “ including right in front of her, ready to grab her “ and she couldn’t stand the ignominy of failing and losing a wager to Snape. She started to run, but before she could take a second step, some part of her mind seemed to detach itself from her usual consciousness, waiting calmly. It was a most peculiar sensation, but something about the peacefulness of the detachment attracted her. She knew “ with absolutely no logical support “ that somehow, this serenity would be the solution to her predicament.

Hermione tried to analyze the situation, but her usual habit of picking at a problem seemed at odds with the stillness that marked this new part of her mind. So Hermione simply calmed herself, slowed her breathing, and waited. No sooner did she relax than she felt … different.

It wasn’t quite like being drunk, but the feeling of being separated from her thoughts and to some degree, her body, did remind her of having had a bit too much wine.

Some fundamental energy was flowing through her. It wasn’t hers to command, but she recognized the power. She could feel a spark, an undeniable and relentless pulse of pure magic, beating through all the living things around her and she was somehow in the middle of it. Using a wand to direct this power, though, would be like using a straw to direct the ocean “ a tiny bit might be channeled, but the true strength was so much larger.

She’d nearly forgotten that she had an assignment. Still feeling distant from the actions and thoughts of her normal self, Hermione slowly looked around the forest until her awareness was inexplicably drawn to a stand of silver birches. She knew he must be there.

Rather than walk toward it, though, she stepped into a tangle of low-growing junipers and bent to pick a handful of the berries hidden by the plants’ needles. She stood slowly and turned back toward the birches. Looking into the thickest part of the trees, she took a deep breath, went completely still … and vanished.

If Snape hadn’t had a lifetime of practice keeping his cover, he would have cried out when he saw Hermione disappear. As it was, he nearly lost his concentration which would have put an immediate end to their little contest. He was aware of her moving in front of him, heading toward that same damned Scots pine she’d been hiding behind earlier and he smirked to himself.

He let his mind relax, feeling the current of magic flow through him. He would give her a few minutes to settle behind her silly tree then end this mockery of a wager. The evening might have been a waste of time, but at least he would have the pleasure of knowing that Granger would be correcting the stack of third year essays sitting on his desk. Of course, knowing her, she would probably enjoy granting him this “favour.” He would have to make sure she didn’t grade the work; given her nature, she would likely give every single parchment top marks. The girl was too earnest by half.

As much as he was loath to admit it, he was impressed that Granger had been able to magically blend with forest. Maybe he’d been wrong in thinking that she didn’t know about her own gifts. Perhaps Albus had been coaching her “ though the look of wonder on her face led him to doubt she’d had much experience letting her magic flow so naturally. Still, for someone to “

His thoughts were interrupted by the feeling of something cold and wet on his forehead. Granger!

Startled, embarrassed and furious, Snape grabbed the very surprised “ and now very visible “ Hermione by the throat and dragged her from the stand of trees.

Snape’s fingers were curled around Hermione’s windpipe, not quite crushing the fragile cartilage but cutting her air supply to nearly nothing. Her eyes were bulging with fear and lack of oxygen.

“Miss Granger, you may have won our little contest but you might also have just lost your life.” He hissed. “What possessed you to come within arms’ length of your enemy? Unless you are prepared to kill, don’t risk coming in close. Ever.”

He threw her to the ground and paced away from her, working to control his temper. It wasn’t her fault that he’d been so tired that he’d let his attention waver like that, but the realization that he’d been caught so easily unnerved him.

Hermione was gulping in air, trying to catch her breath but still she panted out a question: “Will you grant me my favour?”

Staring at her in disbelief, Snape snorted. “That’s the first thing to come to your mind after nearly being strangled? One more reason that I find the female mind to be a mystery I hope never to have to understand. As to whether I will honour my promise, I may be many unsavoury things, Miss Granger, but I am a man of my word. I promised you a favour and if it is within my power to grant it, then it shall be done.”

Hermione’s breathing had settled somewhat and she gingerly felt her throat, her fingers tracing the spots that were already darkening into finger-shaped bruises. Snape turned toward her and raised an eyebrow at her when she flinched at his movement. “A bit late to be skittish, isn’t it? Never mind, if you’ve learned to be more cautious, then I shall consider it worthwhile “ twitch away. If you will permit me, I can heal the bruises that have begun to form on your neck.” Before he moved, though, he waited for Hermione’s acceptance of his offer.

She nodded and he silently pointed his wand at her throat. A momentary flush of warmth, following by a cooling and she knew the marks were gone “ as was the dull ache from where her trachea had been squeezed.

“Now what is this request that has so consumed your thoughts?”

There was a brief moment when Hermione considered changing her request. After all, the man had nearly strangled her. Still, she suspected that she had truly caught him off-guard and even though his advice about staying beyond arms-length was given in an unnecessarily rough manner, he was right. Besides, there was no way she could not ask for this. Screwing up her courage, she said, “I want to be your Secret Keeper.”

While he hadn’t really given any thought to what she might ask “ frankly, he’d never expected her to be successful at finding him “ he would have never imagined that she would ask for that.

“That is not within my power to grant, Miss Granger. It would be up to Albus as Head of the Order to approve it and to cast the charm. Ask for something else.”

“All right, then I ask that you agree to meet with the Headmaster “ and me “ and formally request that I be made your Secret Keeper.”

Snape was stunned by her request, and not a little suspicious. “Don’t waste your request on some pretense of noble concern, Miss Granger; it is wasted on me. Unless “ God forbid “ you’re hoping your apparent distress on my behalf will somehow change me “ melt my icy persona, pierce the façade I hide behind, show me that someone cares.” This last was said with such venomous distaste that Hermione shivered in response. “I’m not some tragic hero in one of your silly novels. I don’t wish to be changed, I am a ‘sodding bully,’ as you called me, and I don’t need to be loved.”

Hermione’s straightened her spine, her eyes flashing with indignation and fury.

“Are you that egotistical or are you just intent on insulting me every chance you get?” The words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop them. “If you die, you’re no good to us. If you’re captured, you’re worse than no good to us, you’re a liability. I know strategy is not my strong suit, but even I can see the realities of the situation. I may be a young woman, Professor, but I have never been a foolish, lovesick girl, hoping to turn some frog or Beast into a prince by giving him a kiss. And if I were hoping for some kind of romantic entanglement, frankly, I’d pick someone who actually seemed to respect me, which you clearly don’t and never will.”

As she stopped to take a breath, she realized just what she had said “ and more to the point, to whom she had said it. Her mouth snapped shut and for a moment, all she could hear was her internal voice, berating her for losing control of her temper. Again.

Snape’s expression revealed nothing of his emotions, but the dark circles under his eyes and deepening lines in his face spoke of his weariness. Given her tirade and his fatigue, Hermione braced for what was likely to be a well-deserved dressing-down for her disrespectful attitude. She certainly didn’t expect to hear what he did say.

“Point taken, Miss Granger. My apologies for underestimating you “ your motives and your ability to handle your magic are … beyond what I expected.”

Hermione’s face was the very picture of gobsmacked. She held her breath, waiting for the penny to drop.

“You may stop staring; I have been known to apologize. Granted, I do not make a habit of it, but when I have unfairly wounded someone whom I respect,” he gave a slight bow and a quirk of the eyebrow, “I can actually be contrite.”

“Now, dawn is beginning to break and I would like to make it back to the castle for at least a bit of breakfast before facing another day full of unwilling and unwitting idiots who seem intent on learning the least amount humanly possible. As to your favour, it is not within my power to decide to use a Secret Keeper for the benefit of the Order “ that would be Albus’ realm of authority “ so I cannot grant you that part of your request. And there are other issues to consider that make your suggestion … complicated. I suggest you make a different request.”

Hermione was trying to process the fact that not only had Snape said more to her this night “ outside of a classroom lecture “ than in all the nine years she’d known him combined, but he just apologized (did he just say he respected her?), and all this with the brown juice from the juniper berries still on his forehead.

Before he could change his mind about granting her favour, Hermione decided to ask for the one thing she truly wanted.

“Will you teach me? About what happened here tonight, I mean?”

That she was asking for something that Dumbledore had apparently been planning for some time bothered Snape not in the least. She was going to get what she wanted and he was relieved that she didn’t have some far more odious request.

“Provided you don’t constantly interrupt and ask interminable questions, then yes, I will teach you.”

Rather than the distasteful puppyish enthusiasm he’d come to expect from her when given the opportunity to learn something new, Hermione simply nodded and said, “Thank you, Professor.”

“I will owl you with the time and location of our first lesson. You may expect to hear from me before the end of this week.” Even though he was surprised at Hermione’s restraint, he wasn’t about to let her see that. “I trust you can apparate yourself home?”

“Yes, Professor. Good ni...” Before Hermione could finish, he was gone.

Pausing a moment, Hermione once again let her mind go still and calm. Some part of her wanted to stay here, but it was late “ well, early, actually “ and she was tired. With a last look around the forest, Hermione apparated home.

Author’s Notes:

From the LoveDraughts challenge --
Requester: Micki
1. Something with danger/action (obviously, not the entire fic, but some of it should be in there somewhere)
2. Keeping the characters close to canon...I like my Snarky!Snape and Insecure!Hermione thank you very much :)
1. No final battle scenes
2. No SS or HG character death

Here you go, Micki. Hope you’re not too disappointed.

-- Moaning Myrtle

Juniper berries can be used to create a brown dye.
Hermione was being just a little bit vengeful, hoping to stain the good Professor as proof that she’d won the bet.

Juniper berries also provide one of the more distinctive key flavoring agents in gin. At least, that’s what I’ve heard -- goodness knows I would never touch the stuff! ;D

I can not believe I just wrote a story that didn’t include any snogging, shagging, twu wuv, or “ for crying out loud “ any food (other than the juniper berries)!

Much thanks goes to the wonderful crew of betas who helped me as I pulled this story “ painfully “ out of my head. Tifsuz, Devsgma “ you guys are such loves (and great fun to write smut with!). Barrie “ get some sleep, baby!