As autumn faded to winter and the weather grew bitterly cold at Hogwarts, Hermione somehow managed to establish a rhythm of normalcy in her day to day life. By focusing on her studies and spending time with Harry and Ron she was able to push her problems to the back of her mind, just as she had hoped. Besides this, having now persuaded Harry to form the DA and teach their friends vital defence spells, there was little time left to dwell on things she could not change.
Since its establishment the DA had become an unmitigated, if secret, success. Though Harry had started small with relatively basic blocking spells, he had slowly built them up to more complicated charms and incantations. Harry had turned out to be an excellent instructor; he was calm and patient and was always supportive and constructive, no matter how long it took for a student to grasp a spell. Gradually, the dedicated group of students had learnt a plethora of spells that they had never thought themselves capable of before; even Neville was becoming consistently effective in basic duelling and the DA was giving him a new confidence in his own abilities.
It was a good thing too; that they were learning these spells at the DA, as Umbridge had succeeded in not teaching them a single useful spell all term. In a few short months the toad-like professor had proven herself to be a fawning sycophant who pandered to the rich, pure-blooded students and either ignored or belittled those who she considered beneath her. It had been clear early on that the stubby woman was prejudiced against muggleborns and this was reflected in her teaching and marking. It was for this reason that Hermione found herself below the top 5 students in a class for the first time in her academic life. Mostly Hermione managed to brush this off, after all, what was the point in being the top student in a class as unproductive as this one? Still, it was hard not to feel the sting every time Malfoy received an O on an essay and she was handed back a measly A. On several occasions, when the blond boy sent a gloating smirk her way, she felt her knuckles twitch as she remembered the satisfying feeling that came from punching Malfoy squarely on the jaw.
In every other lesson, however, Hermione was back to her usual position at the top of the class with her near infallible charms and perfect scores. In every other lesson, that is, except Potions. Her essays were still of a highly advanced level but her potion making was mediocre to say the least. It turned out that, despite her best efforts, it is incredibly difficult to put something to the back of your mind when it's staring you in the face. Snape's looming presence and just the thought of him scrutinising her work caused such distraction in Hermione, that she regularly found herself skipping steps of potions or putting in the wrong ingredients.
It was in such a distracted state that Hermione found herself in Potions a mere two weeks before the Christmas break, trying to brew the Alihotsy Draught but lacking any concentration whatsoever. Having already sat through an infuriating Defence Against the Dark Arts class, Snape's snarky comments about "dim-witted Gryffindors" had pushed her into an internal monologue, about the pointlessness of trying to please teachers who were already prejudiced, that had been going on inside her head for the last 20 minutes. Unfortunately for Hermione she was smart enough to realise that she was only really upset about Snape being impossible to please because she was still craving his approval, and that just upset her more.
'It's stupid.' Thought Hermione as she threw in her diced shrivelfig. 'Why should I care what some miserable old git of a teacher thinks. It's not as though he's really my dad. I already have a fa-'
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Hermione was wrenched from her thoughts by a snarl behind her and a cold grip around her wrist that jerked her hand away from where it was hovering over her bubbling cauldron.
Hermione jumped and turned to look at the Professor in confusion. As she did so, however, she caught sight of the aconite root being held by the hand that was still in Professor Snape's grasp. "Shit." She gasped and opened her fist allowing the root to drop to the floor.
For a few moments the classroom was silent, but for the sounds of the aconite root rolling across the uneven stone floor, as every student stopped in their brewing and turned to watch the drama unfurl in fear or anticipation. Meanwhile, Hermione stood in shock, not quite believing that she could have been so stupid, or that she was so close to almost certain death.
After what seemed an age, Snape finally removed his iron grip from Hermione's wrist and moved so he was now stood looming over her. "Miss Granger, tell me what happens when you add aconite root to a boiling potion." He asked in a deadly whisper.
"Th-The heat of the p-potion acts as a c-catalyst on the root hairs which spark and c-cause an - an explosion." Hermione stuttered out.
"And now explain to me why, despite me giving several warnings and explicitly writing not to do so next to the instructions, I have just found you about to drop aconite root into a boiling potion with the fire still lit beneath."
"I – I - I didn't – I wasn't – I'm so sorry…"
"Enough." He snapped, clearing her cauldron with a sweep of his wand through the air. "In the last 5 minutes, you have proven yourself to be more of a danger than either Longbottom or Finnegan have in the last 5 years. Go and wait in my office." He growled. "And don't touch anything."
Severus watched in silence as Granger walked unsteadily through his office door. "Back to work!" He barked once the door had closed behind her, and then proceeded to sweep back up to his desk.
Sitting down, Snape found that his heart rate was still racing, as it had been since he first glimpsed Granger holding the root above a bubbling cauldron. He'd been prowling around the class as usual and had almost had a heart attack when he saw her about to blow up, not only herself, but Longbottom, Potter and quite possibly Weasley too. His reaction had been instinctive at the time but he was still now trying to work out how they had come so close to disaster. Snape had been so explicitly clear on that part of the instructions that even Longbottom could not have failed to understand and follow through correctly. And yet, Hermione Granger, the brightest girl in the class, who would normally know exactly what to do without even being told by her Potions Master, had just made the biggest mistake she had ever made in his classroom. It was unfathomable.
As lunch time came around, Snape called an end to the lesson, "Bottle your potions, place them on my desk and get out." Snape continued to mark essays as the students quietly filed past. Eventually he looked up to see Potter and Weasley hovering about his desk.
"What?" He snapped.
Potter hesitated awkwardly, "Professor – Hermione – "
"Will join you at lunch when I'm through with her." Snape interrupted in a soft threatening tone.
"Yes, Sir." Potter acknowledged and placed his bottled potion on the desk with slightly too much force before he exited with the red-head in toe.
Taking a deep breath, Snape got up and stormed into his office, allowing the door to slam shut behind him. Inside Hermione jumped at his sudden entrance and looked up at him with watery eyes and a tear-stained face. Her reddened eyes followed his movements as he walked around the room to sit at his desk.
"Well Miss Granger, given how blatantly clear I was that adding the aconite root to a boiling cauldron would result in a deadly explosion, I can think of only two reasons that I would find you about to do so. Firstly, you are a complete idiot with an IQ so low you can barely read, let alone follow a simple instruction. Or, option two; you knew exactly what you were doing and purposely tried to blow up both yourself and several of your classmates."
For the first time since entering the office, the girl's expression showed outrage. "I – " She started to object but was swiftly interrupted.
"Now, as we have established over the last 5 years that you are not a complete idiot, I can only conclude that this was a deliberate attempt to kill your friends, and yourself in the process." He finished with a quirked eyebrow and a smirk.
"I did not deliberately try to blow anyone up." Hermione growled.
"Miss Granger," Snape scoffed, "You are not seriously trying to tell me that you were not clever enough to know that you don't put aconite in a hot cauldron?"
"Well obviously I know that. I was just…distracted." Hermione head drooped in shame.
Her statement, however, had riled Snape's anger again. "Distracted? Your distraction nearly killed 3 people!" He hissed.
"I know," Hermione whispered, tears welling in her eyes again. "I really am sorry."
"Your apologies aren't good enough. 30 points shall be taken from Gryffindor." Hermione nodded in acceptance. "You will also serve detention with me every Saturday afternoon until Easter."
At this Hermione looked up at him in despair, though the look on his face was enough to make her keep quiet. Inside, however, she was in turmoil; the last thing she wanted was to be spending more time with Snape.
"And," Snape continued, "You will not be brewing any more potions until further notice."
This time Hermione couldn't stop her outburst, "What?"
"You will not brew another potion until I say so." Snape repeated calmly.
"But I have to practise brewing potions. It's OWL year for God's sake!"
"I am well aware of that fact, Miss Granger." Snape bit out sternly. "However, while I cannot be sure that you will not once again be distracted, you are not safe to be brewing potions amongst your peers.
"After all," he continued with a smirk. "It would be an awful shame if you managed to do what the Dark Lord himself has failed to do on no less than four occasions."
"Professor?" Hermione questioned.
"Kill Harry Potter." Snape concluded, his smirk widening.
Hermione choked slightly at the suggestion that she might inadvertently kill her best friend. "Fine," she bit. "Anything else?"
Snape frowned at her attitude. "You will be here at 2pm on Saturday. Now get out and go to lunch."
10 minutes later and Severus was making his own way to the Great Hall. Entering the enchanted room, he headed straight for the staff table where he took his seat between Minerva and Septima Vector. Seating at the head table may have appeared to be random but was in fact highly strategic and carefully thought through. It started with Dumbledore in the centre, who would then discreetly arrange it so that he had not only the most interesting company but also his most trusted colleagues close by. As a result, he was always flanked by Flitwick on his left and McGonagall on his right. Most students assumed that the four Heads of House were the closest to the centre because they were the most senior, but, while this was a good reason in itself, it just so happened that Filius' and Pomona's mutually jovial dispositions made them good company for each other. Severus, on the other hand, Albus knew, was rather difficult to place. His sour mood disgruntled some members of staff and frightened others. For this reason he was placed next to Minerva, who was neither frightened nor insulted by his often rude remarks. In return, Severus respected Minerva's intellect and good sense – even if she was a Gryffindor.
Now Minerva, having been gazing down at the Gryffindor table, turned to Severus in concern. "Severus, do you know why Miss Granger isn't at lunch? They had potions last didn't they?"
Severus too looked down at the Gryffindor table and confirmed that the know-it-all wasn't with her usual cohorts. Instead Potter and Weasley were muttering with looks of concern on their faces and glancing surreptitiously up at the staff table.
Severus sighed as Dumbledore discreetly turned to listen to their conversation. "Clearly Miss Granger finds herself unable to follow the simplest of instructions."
"Severus?" McGonagall only looked more confused.
"After I removed 30 house points and informed her of the detentions that she had earned until Easter, I told her to go to lunch." Severus drawled.
Minerva looked aghast but Albus jumped in before her, "Severus, what could Miss Granger possibly have done to earn such wrath from you?"
"Damn witch nearly gave me a heart attack that's what." Snape growled in response.
"Whatever do you mean?" Asked Minerva.
"I have just prevented Miss Granger from putting aconite root in a boiling cauldron."
The headmaster looked confused. "Miss Granger?"
"Yes." Severus was becoming exasperated. "Miss Granger. Which is exactly why she earned such a severe punishment. Idiocy is one thing. Idiocy from a student who has the brains to know better is another."
"I see." Said Dumbledore thoughtfully before consuming another mouthful of beef stew.
"But surely the girl would know how dangerous it is, she's a first class student for Merlin's sake!" The bewildered witch exclaimed.
"If she ever was a first class student, she certainly isn't anymore." Was Severus' only reply.
"Do you mean to say," asked Albus, "That you have noticed a decline in Miss Granger's work?"
"A considerable decline. These days her potions are barely passable."
"But in her other classes she is still performing exceptionally. In fact, recently, her transfiguration work has become even more advanced than usual, and I have been given similar reports by other teachers." McGonagall commented.
"Perhaps then," Albus pondered. "It is simply a case of Miss Granger spending too much time on other subjects and not enough on potions."
"No." Snape disagreed. "That doesn't explain why her potions essays are still of a high standard. In fact, like Minerva, I have noted her written work to be of a considerably advanced standard of late."
"Then she's probably just struggling with the practical application and is therefore working extra hard in theory to compensate."
Snape seemed unsatisfied with this explanation. "Perhaps. Either way, it is something I plan to address in one of her many detentions." And with that he turned determinedly back to his stew.