nevers and maybes
When she was eleven, Hermione Granger received a letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The paper was rolled and yellow, as if it had been sitting on someone's shelf for centuries, waiting for this exact moment, as if from the second it left the store its giant page was just itching for the word Hermione to be scrawled across the top.
The handwriting was large, loopy, a sort of calligraphy she'd never seen before, and when she showed it to her parents, her mother said, "You see, Dennis? That's penmanship."
Then they both told her to stop playing games, because magic was not real, and four days later a very tall man in exceedingly black robes appeared on her doorstep and flatly informed her that school started in four weeks and she was to accompany him to some diagonal place if she wanted to be prepared.
Her father tried to explain to the gentleman that magic wasn't real, but he simply whipped out his wand and transfigured the sofa into a turtle and the dining table into a vase of potted lilies and that was that.
Her parents urged her into her sneakers and pressed money into her hand; then they both stepped back, holding one another's arms for support as their sensible world crumbled beneath the boot of the terribly angry man, and he swept out of their living room.
"You're supposed to follow," Jean Granger whispered. "Go on, Hermione. It's all right."
Hermione went outside and closed the door. The man was waiting impatiently at the crosswalk, brushing his sleeves across his face. He had a spectacularly large, hooked nose, and his greasy black hair tumbled over his forehead in what looked like accidental bangs. Hermione held out her hand and he stared at it.
"What do you want?" he snapped, frowning. "Didn't your parents give you money?"
"We're crossing the street," Hermione told him, speaking slowly because he clearly was slow on the uptake.
He blinked at her. "Your powers of observation are so sharp that they may cut you," he said.
She glared at him. "We're crossing the street," she repeated, and since he obviously knew nothing about the world, elaborated: "You have to hold my hand."
The man choked, his eyes going very very big and his mouth very very small as he contemplated the figure before him. Hermione struck out her hand once more, determinedly, as the light flashed white and the people around them began to cross.
"I'm not going until you take my hand," she told him calmly. "Mum says you shouldn't ever cross the street without holding a grown-up's hand and since you're the only grown-up who isn't a stranger, I can't cross without you."
The man turned a faint shade of green. He jerked to face straight forward and didn't once look down at her as he reached down to take her hand.
It was warm, not clammy like she'd expected, and for the first time she wasn't afraid of oncoming cars.
This is what Hermione remembers, the summer after her second year: two large yellow eyes blinking at her from the mirror's reflection, slanted and dumb but strong enough to make her bones lock in place, one by one. Then nothing.
This is what Severus remembers, the summer after her second year: months locked in the dungeons, the smell of mandrake and steam sinking into every article of clothing, hair greasier than usual, students walking slowly to class, afraid to turn corners.
He remembers the slow walk to the hospital wing, his legs dragging and eyelids heavy with exhaustion; remembers stumbling almost blindly into the infirmary and collapsing on one of the beds, three vials of mandrake potion clutched in his arms. And then waking, slowly, early in the morning, to Poppy shaking him.
She had hurried back to her office, face lit, and he sat up. The three students were all in a row, neatly, covered awkwardly with blankets as if to somehow make it all seem medical.
There was the pint-sized Gryffindor child, the one with the camera that made Severus want to hang him upside down until he apologized for every single flash of the thrice-damned contraption; the pretty Ravenclaw with exactly four freckles on her nose; and last, the know-it-all, with too-bushy hair and too-big teeth, her socks bunched down at her ankles and her tie loose, unkempt, ink staining her fingers.
He remembers looking at her, in the dark, justthismuch moonlight spilling across her bed, imagining the year before, that face scrunched into a frown of disapproval as she demanded: you have to hold my hand. There had been relief, that she had been so clever and the others so lucky.
He remembers how suddenly her stillness overwhelmed him and he had dipped the potion into her mouth without thinking, how he had watched the color flood back into her and her eyes blink, slowly, sleepily, how she had sat up and mumbled, confused, "Professor Snape?"
He had been at loss for words, so he had simply said, "A mirror. Very clever. Ten points for Gryffindor," and then spun on his heel and left without another word.
For one, horrifying week the year she was thirteen, Hermione fancied herself in love with Professor Snape. Perhaps it was the manner he had, that always made her strive to be better; perhaps the was he (very, very occasionally) gave her backhanded compliments on the quality of her work; perhaps it was the vaguely sexy way that he hated everyone and everything, a depression undoubtedly born of a life of pain.
Then, three days into the her second period ever, he remarked that her hair was too bushy and her teeth too big and that she would never be loved by anyone, ever, so it was a good thing she wasn't completely brain dead—although, he hastened to add, her choice of company more or less negated any intelligence she might have been born with.
After that, she decided she wasn't in love with him, after all; it must have been the fumes.
None of the Champions, save Fleur Delacour, were particularly fine dancers. Potter was exceptionally bad, stepping on his date's toes and barely able to lift her from the floor. Diggory seemed to manage all right, although that may have been because his date was nimble enough to avoid his feet. And Krum simply moved Granger to where she was supposed to be, physically adjusting her position whenever she missed a beat.
He had agreed to chaperone, but he would not dance. Not all of the Imperius curses in the world could make him dance. Instead, he camped out by the punch, which he prayed to whoever was listening the Weasley twins would spike, and had downed six glasses of terrible cherry liquid when Lovegood appeared.
"You're red beneath your nose," she told him dreamily, and his face twitched, desperately wanting to sneer at her.
"Yes," he said flatly. "That's called a mouth."
She shook her head and hummed, clearly not understanding the implication in his words (go away, I hate you). "Well," she continued cheerfully, as if he had not made obvious his displeasure at his company, "Everyone looks so beautiful, don't they? I think they all look beautiful."
Severus's eyes drifted once more to the dancing Champions; Granger had soothed her curls into some sort of submission, pulled back in a twisted, knotted, ribbon-y sort of nonsense that gave him a headache just looking at.
But the shade of her dress and the color of the light made her hair seem just a little red, and he found himself saying, "Yes. Beautiful."
When he focused again, he realized that Lovegood had gone, and he dipped his cup back into the punch.
The first time Hermione entered Number 12 Grimmauld Place, she was greeted not by Ron or Mrs. Weasley, but instead a set of very familiar black robes. For a moment she felt eleven again, and flushed red at the memory of her hand swallowed by his, neither of them looking at the other.
He turned, his hand wrapped around the handle of a teakettle, and image was so absurd that she released a surprised laugh. His expression didn't change. "Granger," he said distastefully.
"Hello, Professor Snape," she greeted, setting her trunk at the door. "Have you seen Mrs. Weasley?"
"They've all gone to town," he replied tonelessly. "Black is upstairs. The time of your arrival was unclear."
It was said with a trace of disapproval, and she found herself explaining, "Yes, I know, I'm sorry; it was my Mum, she didn't know how long her scheduled root canal was going to take, and I had to wait for her to come home so that we could all say goodbye, and of course there were delays because root canals are never easy, and—"
"Did I ask for an explanation?" He interrupted, at last changing his expression by arching an eyebrow.
She looked at her shoes. "No, sir." But she didn't apologize.
They stood, Hermione awkward, Snape uninterested in anything but his tea, and she fussed with her trunk, glancing at her watch every four seconds and desperately praying for the Weasleys return.
After a minute of silence, he let out a disgruntled sigh and snapped, "Oh, for pity's sake, Granger, sit."
"Oh, I'm perfectly—"
He didn't pour her tea, which she would have liked, but after another painful handful of minutes Ron tumbled through the front door and enveloped her in his large arms in a tight hug that lasted just a second too long.
A month later, she found Snape in the living room, reading. She didn't ask what book it was, but when he left it was still on the table: Knowing your Bicuspids: Fundamentals of Dentistry. The page on root canals was marked.
He hadn't had an easy life. He had been born to disappointments and from there had accumulated them like trophies; had his life been a potion, it would have stunk and caused death.
And yet, there were small joys, like watching Potter enter his classroom and immediately stop smiling; or tormenting him for failure to succeed at even the easiest of spells; or even grading his papers and writing that deliciously large D at the top.
He had chosen silent casting as the primary lesson because he felt confident that Potter couldn't master it; if such a man as Severus Snape would be tickled, then it tickled him to watch the boy struggle.
But of course Granger never disappointed. The first months of term were almost painful to watch, even for him. Her frustration was palpable, and when at last she waltzed into his classroom, glared at Neville Longbottom, and silently Petrified him, even Snape was tempted to congratulate her, for pure precociousness alone.
Of course, what he did instead was take off two points for casting without permission, but it was less than five and the closest anyone would get to approval, and the dazzling smile she gave him let everyone know that she knew it.
She stayed after class, twiddling with her wand and biting her lower lip like it was snack time. He ignored her for as long as possible, and when at last she could not contain herself any longer he drawled, slowly, "Do you need something, Miss Granger?"
In a long breath that she had been holding, she said, "ThishasbeenmyfavoritelessonatHogwarts," and then turned on her heels and fled.
He told himself he was smiling at her lack of poise.
His last thought was not of Lily. It was not of Harry, or Voldemort, or Dumbledore, or even death. His last thought was of a bush of hair with a miniature person beneath it, like some disproportioned cupcake, extending her hand to him and saying, gently, soothingly, take my hand.
He clenched his fists. He wouldn't. He would stay. He would stay and see it all through. He had never trusted children, anyway.
And then the bush grew, as did the person beneath it, and soon he was looking at a familiar face, smiling at him, her hand cupping his cheek as she leaned toward him. "Professor," she whispered, and ran her hand down his arm until their fingers were entwined, "Will you come?"
He closed his eyes. There was peace coming towards him, in the form of this young woman that was Lily and was not Lily. He squeezed her hand and followed her.