Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter. JK Rowling owns the Potterverse. I'm just shamelessly feeding off of her. I make no money from my writing.
Summary: Tragedy prompts Hermione to make a breakthrough discovery, and Severus Snape grudgingly agrees to assist her. Things do not progress smoothly, but sometimes, it is merely a matter of seeing things in a different light…
Author's Notes: Thank you to Snarkyroxy and La Syren for beta reading. Thank you Indigofeathers for help with a yucky sentence that I'm afraid is still yucky and which I decided to keep anyway :)
A Fan Fiction by: labrt2004
Chapter Eleven: The Right Road Lost
Hermione drained the last of her pumpkin juice, then stared into the bottom of her empty glass. The distorted images of Ron and Harry, who were sitting across the table, were mildly entertaining to her. She idly tapped her teeth against the rim as she continued to hold the glass up. She could look down it all day, she mused, her eyes slowly crossing from the effort. The disturbing truth was, she was seriously considering doing just that, as it seemed a better alternative to facing down the many predicaments currently burgeoning forth from every corner.
"Hermione!" shouted a voice, and then a foot kicked her under the table.
Abruptly, she set the glass back down, flinging small droplets of juice residue onto her own face. Ron was staring at her, eyes squinting in a baffled manner, as if trying to figure out a creature in Hagrid's class. "Yes?" she answered. Blinking the sticky moisture off her eyelashes, she realized that he was trying to figure her out.
"What's the matter with you?" Ron asked, leaning closer. "You haven't said a word this whole time we've been at lunch."
Harry nodded in agreement while handing her a napkin.
Miserably, she looked between her two friends and wondered what to tell them. How was she supposed to explain Snape, and being with him in the forest, then being hexed by him, and the new Pensieve Base she had made, and the extraordinarily Dark potion she was planning to make this very night? But mostly Snape, she thought, sneaking a side-long glance at the Potions professor seated at the high table.
She had left last night's research session not only angry, but frustrated, and she hadn't stopped thinking about it since. He had been so bloody calm. His calm infuriated her. The ease with which he had faced her, all nonchalance, reminded her that she was troubled by feelings which weren't calm at all. His reasonable, measured behavior flung her own struggles in her face, mockery of the most insidious kind, mockery so subtle that she nearly missed it.
While she labored to not give a damn, he was effortlessly civil.
She looked at him again, this time fully turning her head toward the high table. Snape ate like it was a chore, his hand mechanically conveying the food to his mouth as he slowly chewed. His gaze roamed predatorily across the Great Hall, moving from one house table to the next, no doubt scanning for detention fodder. Then, to Hermione's horror, as she was openly staring at him like a lackwit, his eyes landed squarely upon her. Heat exploded onto her cheeks as she sat, hopelessly unable to turn away, pinned in place by the piercing coldness of his regard. The clamoring of two hundred chattering students instantly dimmed and the world contracted inwards to include just the two of them as he ambushed her from all the way across the Great Hall. The agony did not end until Snape disinterestedly returned to his meal.
Glancing down at her own untouched food, Hermione worked her lower lip as a decision precipitated in her mind. Abruptly, she stood, turning to her friends again. Harry and Ron were looking entirely too patient and resigned as they waited expectantly for her to come up with a reply to their still-unanswered question. Hermione smiled wryly, struck by a flash of penitence as she realized that during their seven years together, they must have grown quite used to her mind wandering off in the middle of conversations.
"Come on," she beckoned to them. "I want to show you something."
If she hadn't had so much on her mind, the expression on Ron's face when they stepped into the Room of Requirement only to find a potions lab might have caused Hermione to stop and savor the priceless moment. He had gone whey-faced, asking in a tight voice, "Hermione? What's the bloody meaning of this?"
"What does it look like?" said Harry with a smirk. "We're going to make a potion. Though Ron does have a point there, what the devil are we doing? Polyjuice?"
"We're going to make a potion," Ron repeated faintly. "Merlin, I didn't take nearly enough Pepper-up this morning."
"Don't worry, Ronald, you won't even have to go near a cauldron. I'll make the potion. Pensieve Base, to be exact. You two just need to help me think of an excuse to go to St. Mungo's. Or a way to sneak into in. Also, see if you can get your hands on a Pensieve, somehow." Hermione enumerated hastily, moving about the room, pulling potions ingredients off the well-stocked shelves. Harry plopped himself in a chair which had just appeared in the corner. "Okay, Hermione, we can do that, but want to tell us what you're up to, first?"
She didn't stop moving, for she needed to be active, to focus on something, anything. She could no longer bear the endless cycles of anger, despair, mortification, and desire.
"I created a new formulation of Pensieve Base during my research sessions with Professor Snape," she said, crouching down to open a cabinet which she knew would contain cauldrons. "It not only lets one view another's memories, but it also lets you listen to their thoughts, too. I think we should try it on Neville to see if we can find out anything new." Her voice reverberated into her own ears, since she was talking into the confines of the cabinet. She picked out a cauldron and hefted it onto a work bench in the middle of the room.
Selecting a knife from the array which conveniently presented itself at the side of the bench, she began slicing asphodel, the steps for creating the potion now a familiar routine. She was halfway through the second root when she paused mid-slice, overcome by an uncomfortable prickling sensation. The room had gone deathly silent. She breathed deeply and closed her eyes, willing tranquility into nervous limbs, then placed the knife down and turned.
Neither Harry nor Ron had moved from their places. Both stared at her in frank disbelief.
Ron was the first to speak. "You what?" He shook his head slightly to clear his shaggy mane from his face.
"I thought Dumbledore already tried Legilimency on him," Harry pointed out.
"Neville's mind is probably so badly destroyed that Legilimency won't work on him. Legilimency isn't mind reading, it's more like thought-interpreting," Hermione found herself lecturing in a frightfully Snape-like fashion. "And if the thoughts are damaged beyond recognition, then the Legilimens wouldn't be able to derive anything that's meaningful."
"Well, looks like someone's been hanging around the Dungeon Git," Harry grumbled.
"Sorry," she sighed, genuinely repentant.
Ron piped up, reluctantly interested. "But your potion would work on Neville's brain?"
"Yes, because the potion lets you… listen to the person's thoughts, like an audio recording." In spite of herself, she blushed with pride at the impressed looks which now crossed their faces.
"Wicked! Though that sounds kind of creepy, to be honest," said Ron thoughtfully.
"Yeah," Harry agreed, "did you let Snape listen to your thoughts?"
"Unfortunately, yes," she said, rolling her eyes. "Though I'm not sure even he found anything incriminating in my thoughts about last week's Herbology lecture. Actually, come to think of it, he did… hear me think some nasty thoughts about Malfoy."
She was rewarded with an appreciative snort from Ron.
Harry rose from the chair and joined her at the table. "Cool. I know Dumbledore has a Pensieve laying around somewhere. I'm sure we could just ask to borrow it."
Hermione shook her head. "That wouldn't work, because, um, Snape mentioned something about how this might be a Dark potion and that I was insane to want to try it on someone else." She glanced ruefully at her friends and shrugged.
"Merlin's balls, you mean he said you couldn't and you're going to do it, anyway?" Harry asked uncertainly.
Her lips stretched in a thin smile. "Something like that."
She resumed slicing, determinedly ignoring the fact that they had all reverted to silence again. "It's not like Voldemort's magic, or anything. It's just that the ethics of listening to somebody else's thoughts are slightly questionable," she rattled off to no one in particular. Why, for Merlin's sake, were they both being so difficult today? Weren't they the ones who were always bursting with ways to flout the rules?
Out of nowhere, a hand appeared, grasping her wrist gently, stilling the knife which she was wielding at furious speed. She looked up, surprised.
"Hermione, we're a little worried about you. This scheme of yours, it sounds dodgy. You've been a bit off-kilter lately, too, which we totally understand, with your mum and dad and all the endless time you spend with Snape." Ron squeezed her hand. "But we're your mates. If this is what you want to do, we're there with you. Harry's got his Invisibility Cloak…"
From her other side, Harry nodded. "And I think I've just figured out a way to get that Pensieve.
"Dobby!" he called.
The elf appeared on cue, elephantine ears quivering in delight, dressed in shrunken swimming trunks and a Hufflepuff tie. "Harry Potter calls Dobby?"
"Yeah, thanks for uh—showing up so quickly," Harry said, causing the elf to practically moan in ecstasy. "I need you to get me a Pensieve. Do you think you can do that?"
"Yes, Harry Potter, sir. Right away!" Dobby bowed gratuitously, then departed.
Ron spoke up again. "And if we need an excuse to be at St. Mungo's, I remember Mum talking about a barmy cousin that's there somewhere. I don't remember the specifics, but I bet Ginny does. She's terrifying really, the way she holds on to that kind of stuff."
Hermione looked at both of her friends and smiled gratefully, knowing words would have just been superfluous.
Neville hadn't changed much since they last saw him a little less than a week ago. He was quieter now, much to Hermione's relief, though he still gibbered to himself unceasingly, trapped in a broken world where none were able to follow. Held under his restraints in the sterile St. Mungo's room, the air hanging heavy with potion fumes, Neville looked even more alone and helpless.
"How do you reckon we'll get a memory from him?" Ron asked. "It doesn't look like he's going to be able to fish one out on his own anytime soon."
"Actually, I know a spell for that," Harry mumbled.
Hermione and Ron turned to him, startled.
"Well, if you're constantly being told that some evil bastard is going to take over your mind, you can't help but be curious about the possibilities. I've done some reading." He shrugged noncommittally.
"That's great!" Hermione complimented him.
With an ironic grin, Harry pulled out his wand and walked to the head of Neville's bed. Pointing the tip of it to Neville's temples, he whispered, "Exitus monumentum."
Luminous silver threads began emerging from Neville, clinging to Harry's wandtip. He moved it in a winding motion, spooling the memory round and round until it formed a glowing, translucent mass at the end of the wand.
As Hermione uncorked the vial of potion, Ron cleared a space on the nightstand and carefully placed the Pensieve on it. Harry was holding his wand out, but he was hesitating and not allowing it to touch the Pensieve. The pulsating memory hovered over the bowl, casting silver light onto each of their faces.
"There's so much here," he said. "The spell picks up whatever random memories are floating around when it's cast—I doubt he's able to Occlude, so we got a lot. Think it'll overflow from the Pensieve?"
"No, I don't think so," Hermione murmured, motioning for him to continue. "There's no such thing—at least I hope not!" She laughed sheepishly.
Ron paled slightly but said nothing.
She had no doubt they were both convinced that she had taken leave of her senses. In truth, Hermione wasn't so sure herself. She only knew that this brazen excursion to St. Mungo's and the willful disregard of Snape's orders felt astonishingly good. It muted the uproar which was taking place in her mind—the inability to place Snape within any of the numerous logical schemes and paradigms which her organizational brain craved. So explanations would just have to wait.
Harry looked grave, but he obligingly unloaded the memory inside the Pensieve. Anxiety nibbled at her for a split second before it was forgotten in the pleasure of seeing the liquid settle easily within the Pensieve.
She nodded in satisfaction toward the bubbling memory. "You enter it the usual way. But listen for Neville's thoughts—I'm not entirely certain how it works for someone else's memory, since I've only been inside my own."
Joining hands for comfort as much as safety, they let themselves fall into the Pensieve together. Within the swirling depths of the memory, they still held hands. Hermione looked around eagerly, waiting for the gleaming mist to resolve into something recognizable.
None of them were prepared for the assault of unearthly screeches and moans, nor for the chilling blasts of fetid cold air. Disoriented, she could only peer through watering eyes at her alien surroundings. Everything was windswept and bare and uniformly grey, and to her horrified shock, blood oozed from cracks scattered throughout the emptiness.
Frantically, they huddled closer.
"Hermione, we've got to get out of here!" Ron shouted over the terrifying din. "His mind's turned into some kind of crazy hell!"
She was indeed quite keen to leave, for the ghastly, disembodied cries were affecting her, drawing out a crushing despair which threatened to nudge out all sound thought. As her eyes scanned the nightmarish landscape one last time, however, they were arrested by the sight of a hole a little distance away from them.
Pointing to the oddity which was emanating a faint beam of light, she quickly made her way towards it. If there were actually any notion of up or down in this featureless, grey scene, then she supposed she was heading for the wall, but as it were, delineations of any kind were nonexistent. Harry and Ron were close behind, curiosity inevitably trumping fear for them as well.
They all glimpsed into the hole, apprehensively now, given what they had already witnessed.
"Honeydukes!" Ron gasped.
Sure enough, they were met by the sight of the Hogsmeade candy shop, bustling with patrons.
They all watched as Neville strolled to the store counter and accepted an offering of chocoball samples from the clerk. Just as they excitedly packed themselves closer before the hole to see what would happen next, everything dissolved to grey again.
"Neville's last memory," Hermione said sadly.
She had the answer. She just didn't have Snape.
After the inconclusive trip to St. Mungo's, they had returned to Hogwarts, where she had retired to the library to think over the events of the unsettling day. As she was puzzling over the wreck that was Neville's mind and examining a half-baked idea involving phoenix tears, she suddenly hit upon the solution to the problem which had driven her out of Snape's office all those weeks ago—the method for brewing Water of Styx.
Phoenix eyes, of course, were the Potion brewer's pluripotent weapon of choice. Used correctly, they could stand in for any ingredient originally derived from a living creature, though they were so exceedingly rare and powerful that they were a definite last resort.
She had run off excitedly to the Dungeons, ready to get Snape's clearance and start work on the potion, but had come upon an empty classroom, the door uncharacteristically ajar.
She had slipped in and looked around, even tried knocking on the door to his quarters, but there had been no sign of Snape anywhere. And so she had wandered to the shelves and started gathering ingredients, deciding that the preliminary steps of the potion were harmless enough and she might as well get started…
The harsh monotone utterance of Snape caused her to snap her head up, eyes flying to the doorway.
Snape stood there, an ugly sneer displayed prominently on his face.
Hermione narrowed her eyes, then forced herself to lift her chin high. She tossed her stirring rod onto the lab bench and doggedly approached him, the satisfaction of flagrant disobedience infusing her with confidence. "I'm afraid I have no idea what you're talking about, sir," she said, setting her jaw.
"You dare stoop to this impertinence?" he whispered dangerously. "Using the Room of Requirement to brew an illicit potion, employing a House-elf to pilfer from the headmaster, and now insulting my intelligence by posturing ignorance?"
"Well, I didn't do anything wrong! No one seems to have any better ideas of how to help out Neville! Or Malfoy, for that matter! Why shouldn't I try? It certainly beats doing nothing at all!" she retorted.
"Stupid girl! Your amateur scheming and your invincibility complex are no match against Dark magic you know nothing about." Snape bore down upon her, his nose close to her face. "The headmaster may have turned a blind eye, permitting you and your cretinous associates to do as you please, but rest assured that I have no intentions of doing so. Expect your expulsion proceedings to begin tonight."
"You're out of your mind!" she exclaimed. "It isn't an illicit potion any more than a Cheering Draught is. It's an altered Pensieve Base, which I put to very good use, and perhaps if you asked me what I found out, I might even tell you!"
Snape's normally pallid color had turned an even chalkier shade with his rage.
Hermione reveled as she had never before in the soundless issuance of convulsive lips, the fury of strained tendons, the scorch of unfettered spleen.
"Get out of my sight," he finally ordered in a voice ominously steady.
"No," she breathed, riding the strange euphoria. Something burned inside her, too, a volatile mix of anger and hatred, tenderness and longing. "I'm going to finish this potion first. I'm going to brew Water of Styx." She flicked her wand. "Accio phoenix eyes!"
Suddenly, too many things were happening at once.
The potion turning violet just as she unscrewed the jar and reached inside.
Snape flinching in surprise, as if he had been struck, then lunging forward.
The phoenix eye, dropping from between her fingers.
His hand flying out, grazing against hers, fingers closing around empty air.
A deafening roar, the sear of scalding potion and molten metal flying in every direction.
His black eyes, always so inscrutable, widened in alarm.
Before all went black.
Severus scrambled to his feet, hissing in pain and not remembering how he had ended up upon the floor. His wand had somehow found its way into his hand. The caustic scent of potion permeated the room, and broken fragments of glass and metal, some still smoldering, lay everywhere.
The phoenix eyes, not properly shielded.
A noise, gurgling and choking, sounded from somewhere, and with his heart pounding painfully against his ribs, he frantically looked about him.
He spotted her beneath a lab bench on all fours; she attempted to crawl forward, but instead collided headlong into a table leg and was thrown backwards to the ground. Now she sat on her haunches, tears streaming down her cheeks as she sucked in one wheezing breath after another.
"Granger!" he called, going to her at once and kneeling before her.
She turned searching, glazed eyes in his direction, cowering. "I can't see! I can't see!"
It took a moment for the words to register. Severus blinked, then took a closer look at the sightless, panicked eyes, the dilated, directionless pupils.
A chill came over him.
Merlin. She was blind.
A heavy dread of his own threatened to overtake him, but he swiftly smothered the impulse, inhaling shakily. "Granger," he called again, in much softer tones.
She did not appear to hear him, sobbing uncontrollably as she tried to rise again without success.
Quickly, he reached beneath the table and grasped her arm.
"No!" she screamed, wrenching herself out of his hold like a terrified animal. "Stay away from me, you bastard!"
Something inside him broke as he listened to her gasping cries.
"Grange—Hermione," he said, haltingly, desperately, the name falling awkwardly from his lips like a foreign language.
She was startled into a brief moment of silence.
"Listen to me. Let me… help you. I am going to take both your hands in mine now." Slowly this time, he reached for her hands. He was relieved that she did not attempt to fight him again. "Come," he said, enclosing her cold, clammy palms in his and pulling her up to her feet.
Her head swung around in bewildered circles at the movement and the positional change, and she resumed her distressed sobbing, fingers immediately attaching themselves to him, locked in claw-like grips around the material of his robe.
Severus knew that he needed to take her to Poppy straight away, that he needed to summon Albus. But as he fought his own panic, watching her cling to him in helpless terror, he sighed in defeat. He reached down to his chest, where her fingers had knotted themselves into his robes, gently prised them apart, and took her fully in his arms, shuddering from the torment of long self-denial. He felt her tremble, felt the wetness of her tears. "It will be well, Granger," he whispered.
"I've already mentioned that my knowledge of the events leading up to this incident is very limited," Severus snapped in frustration when Albus once again requested his recountal. He, Albus, and Minerva were holed up in the headmaster's office, their efforts to get to the bottom of Granger's injury so far unsuccessful. "I had just learned what she had done at St. Mungo's. She was already in the Potions lab when I arrived, and she was most of the way through with brewing a variation of Water of Styx. She was… overexcited, intractable to guidance. She summoned a jar of phoenix eyes—an entire jar, mere inches away from a volatile Nodal Potion—and before I could intervene, she had reached in without any precautionary measures in place."
Minerva treaded anxious circles about the room. "Water of Styx? I am still in disbelief! What were the both of you thinking? I never approved of this in the first place… that kind of potion being brewed within Hogwarts?"
"I'm afraid my opinions on the subject were rather disregarded as well," Severus replied stiffly.
He was in his usual location whenever these gatherings occurred, the shadowed space by the bookshelf, but at this moment, he wondered whether he ought to take a chair, instead. His limbs were leaden from potion burns he belatedly discovered upon himself—and his mind was still in the Hospital wing, where he had left Granger, crying wretchedly, begging not to be left alone, though Severus suspected she was beyond remembering who it was she clung to. He had hovered uncertainly by her bedside as Poppy rushed around and Granger lay hysterical in the bed, and he had reached out to still a blindly groping hand because it had somehow seemed reasonable—and as she desolately repeated that she couldn't see, he remembered murmuring to her—what exactly, he wasn't sure—but again, it had just seemed right.
Albus sighed and removed his glasses wearily, placing them upon his desk with a thump which echoed throughout the room. "Those of us who have fought this war the longest are the ones who make the gravest mistakes, Severus. It was my understanding that this was beneficial to both Miss Granger and to us," he pronounced softly. "It is of course, too late, now that I see how far I have misjudged. But come, let us focus—phoenix eyes, you said? Potent, yes, but they should not have induced blindness."
"No," Severus agreed. "I have reviewed the protocol several times—as loathsome a substance it is, it has nothing in it that would cause one to go blind. And phoenix eyes are reactive but generally restorative, so they certainly would not have caused it."
"She has fully recovered from the injury to her magical core?" Albus asked absently.
Minerva, who was gazing in silence out a window, turned and said, "Miss Granger was not very conventional in her study habits. The house-elves sometimes talk to me about her, but I don't pay them much attention, one can get so absorbed in all the business around the school. But they always mention something about her sitting up late into the night…" Minerva left the window and walked to the center of the office. "Winky!" she called.
The elf materialized into existence. "Mistress Professor!" The creature looked nervously around the room.
"Winky, I want you to tell us about Miss Granger," Minerva instructed. "You remember what you have told me about her, correct?"
"Oh yes, Harry Potter's friend," Winky nodded sadly. "Poor her! Winky needs punishment for bad job stopping her! Winky punishes self now!" she howled before throwing herself repeatedly against the nearest wall.
Severus growled impatiently as Albus stood up and commanded, "Stop, Winky! You are to delay your punishment until you finish informing us of what you have seen."
The distraught elf ceased her antics and finally spoke. "Hermininny, she becomes sad after her Mum and Dad is killed by the bad wizard. When Winky and other elfs go clean the Gryffindor room, she is never sleeping like other children, she stays up late! Winky does not think this is good thing, too much books is bad. I tells Mistress Professor, but Mistress Professor says Hermininny likes books!" Winky stated indignantly.
Minerva rolled her eyes. "Yes, yes, go on."
"But then bad things starts happening," Winky muttered, wringing her misshapen hands. "Hermininny likes magic. She is up late, and she drinks too much magic into her, Winky knows this, Winky sometimes has too much to drink, too."
Severus and Minerva glanced at one another in confusion at the elf's nonsensical babble, but Albus tipped his head back in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment before nodding to the elf. "I understand now. Thank you, that will do, Winky, you may go."
After the elf left them, Albus had an odd, repressed expression upon his face before he suddenly broke into a chuckle. "Please do excuse my poor manners, my friends," he said as Minerva looked at him aghast. "This is no time for humor, I realize. But when you live to be my age, the world will start mocking you in the most confounding ways, and you have no alternative but to laugh. You see, Miss Granger has tripped over the same stumbling block I did as a Hogwarts student. I should have known, she is very much like myself when I was younger. She has discovered Founders' Meditation."
"I beg your pardon?" Minerva asked. Severus merely shook his head.
"It is not well-known—the obscure trivia which is the providence of old wizards and aging headmasters, I'm afraid." Albus rose from his chair and went to stroke his phoenix. "As you are aware, this castle is the collective magical creation of four visionary minds, Ravenclaw, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor. What the inhabitants of this place experience on a day-to-day basis is the result of their combining, reinforcing, and inventing so many spells that the magic ceased to be the discrete charms and incantations we know, but rather, an organic, self-sustaining force that is part of the castle itself. It renews itself daily—in the dead of night."
"When Granger was studying," Severus observed.
"What does this have to do with her blindness?" said Minerva.
"Well, you see, when the spells reset themselves every night, if one were perceptive and skilled enough, then one could become part of it by allowing one's own magical core to interact with the concentrated magical presence of the castle."
"It's not Dark, however," Severus stated.
"No, the castle wouldn't permit anyone with impure intentions to leech its magic—however, there are attractive benefits, since it has a way of enhancing one's own magic."
"The core intervention," said Severus, starting to understand. "I had difficulty believing even she was capable of that."
"Quite right. Founders' Meditation, or what our elven friend more aptly describes as 'drinking' magic. One could very easily overdo it, unfortunately, and render oneself susceptible to sudden magical imbalances. Especially after the magical core has recently undergone stress, as in the case of Miss Granger."
"Only a Gryffindor could get intoxicated on magic," Severus muttered, ignoring Minerva's glower.
"Is it treatable?" she inquired.
Albus was contemplative. "In my instance, I never made it quite as far, only managing to have a fainting fit during Charms class. I expect she will heal in time—though it may require some extra thinking on our part."
Severus' heart sank.
He had told himself that he wasn't going to see her, that he would not even approach the corridor that led to the Hospital wing. There was no good to come out of doing so. He had seen to it that she had gotten to Poppy. It was hardly justifiable to expect more. He had nothing further to offer her—no comfort or reassurances, no cure for her sight or salve for her despair.
It had been easy enough to keep himself occupied late into the evening. He had potions to prepare, and he had his never-ending supply of student essays; there were always rounds, staff meetings, detentions, and Head of House duties. But then when the last of the first years were herded back into bed and the seventh years from behind the rose bushes, and when the corridors were at last dimmed for the night and Argus safely removed, Severus somehow found himself casting a Silencing Spell on the Hospital door, then stalking quietly up the darkened aisles to the lone bed which had candles lit beside it—an ironic gesture.
She did not sleep. Her breaths were slow and even, and her wide, unfocused eyes lay uselessly open, reflecting the wavering light within their golden depths. Someone had taken the time to plait her hair, exposing the pale, vulnerable skin of her forehead.
The tears were gone now.
"I know you're there, whoever you are," she called out rather louder than necessary. "Are you waiting to be announced, perhaps?"
The tears were definitely gone now.
"Granger," he responded.
The color drained from her face and she suddenly appeared gaunt and tired. "What are you doing here?" she asked in a strained voice.
Severus watched her condition deteriorate, berating himself for his own foolishness.
"Routine check," he lied in miraculously calm tones. "I did not intend to disturb you."
"Rather too late," she said with a faint, sarcastic smile.
He was perversely grateful that she was unable to see him. The sight of her distress paralyzed him, as did the memory of the last terrible second, when she had directed a gaze of angry passion at him before the potion erupted in her face. He floundered in a thicket of chaotic thoughts—that it was cowardly for him to come here; that it was selfish weakness which led him to her bedside; that he had somehow brought calamity upon the life of yet another person.
"Is it true?" she said softly. "No cure?"
"Not yet," he answered.
She said nothing, only smoothed her hand over her bedclothes restlessly. In her sight-shorn eyes, he was able to observe, clear as day, a prodigious struggle to accept loss and master fear. It was too much, and he closed his own eyes.
"Tonight will be the worst," he told her quietly. "Make it through tonight."
"Of course," she said steadily, fixing her wooden stare at the ceiling. The defeated bitterness was evident in her voice, however, and it made his stomach turn.
Pacing, he racked his brain, not knowing what he was searching for. He stopped at the foot of her bed, spun toward her. "I was in pain—" he began. He broke off, unable to think of what to say next, and gritted his teeth.
Her brow furled very slightly.
He took hold of the rails at the end of her bed and bowed his head. "That night, I had undergone Cruciatus. The splinching accident. I was in a great deal of pain and needed access to my potions." He felt all his energy drain from him.
"Oh," she said. Her confusion was evident.
He himself wasn't entirely certain of the point he was trying to make.
"What were you doing?"
He studied her as he considered his reply. When her mind was occupied, she seemed to regain some of her vigor.
"Work for the headmaster. I'm frequently at odds with many people."
"A spy, then. I always thought so."
Severus raised his eyebrows, secure in the knowledge that he couldn't be observed. It had always been a matter of time before she would put everything together, he supposed. Still, he said nothing.
They were silent for a few moments, Severus standing an uneasy vigil over her. Then she whispered, "What now?"
His fist clenched at his side. The question he had been dreading. "You will find ways to carry on with your life. For most of the difficult tasks, magic will be able to compensate. There will be an inevitable learning curve." He drew in a breath, watching her closely. "We—I—will be pursuing a cure."
Her eyes slowly drifted closed. "Ah, okay then."
The twisting feeling returned to Severus. "Sleep, Granger." He discreetly waved a wand at the candles, extinguishing them.
He stayed a moment in the dark, his thoughts unsettled.
I am sorry.
Turning, he finally departed.
The chapter title may be recognized by college English students across the world: the opening lines for Dante's Inferno:
Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.
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