Author's Note: I'd be witty if I could. Alas, I've not the talent. Instead, I'll humble myself before the awesome might of my beta Lue'cleste, and wave wearily at all you wonderful readers out there. (All ten of you.)
Disclaimer: Not mine. They all belong to that very brilliant, very rich woman whose last name is not my own.
Warning: The line breaks—see: "horizontal rulers"—are very awkward. Please pass on my apologies to your eyes. I'm working on it.
She would be the first to admit that she was not as strong as she looked. Understanding one's flaws, she had learned, was a necessary part in growing up too quickly, and admitting to such flaws, she now knew, had the added benefit of grounding one in reality. But, in the aftermath of the Second Wizarding War, she felt that the less time she spent rooted in truth and reality, the better.
The truth was tragically simple: the war was a test, and she had failed. And not only had she failed, she had failed miserably. She had failed to keep everyone she knew—hell, everyone simply involved—alive, and more importantly, she had failed to save the world. And if the brightest witch of her age (namely, her) could not accomplish such a thing, then in her mind, she did not deserve the title at all.
She knew some might say that her believing she had let the world down smacked of self-pity and self-importance—not that she talked much now to anyone anyway, and even if she did manage to open her mouth and do more than croak out a greeting, she'd never admit to her failings aloud—but she felt that she was justified in her convictions.
She was supposed to be the one to help everyone along. She knew she wasn't the heroine in this story; she knew she likely would never be the heroine in any plot, because she was the smart one, and goodness knew that the smart ones would always be in the background, but she didn't desire the main role and the attention it received. What she desired was to live up to her moniker; to live up to that heavy burden, made up of the words "Brightest Witch of Her Age", that was placed so squarely on her shoulders at such a tender time in her life—but she hadn't been able to accomplish what she set out to do.
And thus Hermione Granger, now self-titled the Brightest Witch of Her Age No Longer, knew that it was time to reassess her magical confidence.
She was not surprised to realize she no longer possessed any.
After the final battle had been lost and won, Hogwarts had been partially rebuilt in haste. She saw it as a desperate attempt on the Ministry's part to show that the magical world was healing as rapidly as possible. But when the letter came asking whether she'd like to attend classes once again, she didn't pause to consider. She penned a quick letter of acceptance, and soon it was on its way back to the castle. She arrived weeks after the note, her mind still semi-numb.
Whenever she traveled through her old school, tracing the pathways she took as a young child from one class to another, she felt like she walked around with half a soul, her steps heavy but her body light. That intrinsic thrum she used to feel when the soles of her feet connected with the stones of the castle was gone, and whether that was due to the partial destruction of the castle or the loss of—there was no other way to describe it—the brightness of her magic, she no longer wanted to know. Either reason depressed her.
This was not the only change she had undergone. The lessons in self-taught temperance she had once learned when it came to answering questions had been forgotten, simply because she didn't raise her hand anymore. It felt too heavy to hold up, most of the time. Her professors, now relegated to the title of fellow soldiers in her eyes, were either too bound up in their own grief to notice, or had simply decided that discretion was the greater part of valor and thought it wise to keep silent.
One night, during her second week into what the teachers insultingly (in her opinion) termed "Remedial NEWT Classes", Hermione had been slogging through the massive workload she had signed herself up for—she found the late nights served as a type of penance for her military failures – and had realized something important during her third hour of work. Looking back, being now blessed with the perfect—if infuriatingly ill-timed—vision and understanding that accompanied hindsight, Hermione could fully admit that her early school years were comprised of the same student drudgery that she was experiencing currently, and served not as the period of scholarly exploration she once believed they had. And as with most things associated with retrospect and hindsight, this realization dealt her already beleaguered heart a crippling blow.
During her fourth hour of work that night, she accomplished nothing, because every time she picked up her quill to write out a hypothesis about the benefits of using Latin root words when creating charms, her parchment would be dotted with tears before she made the first stroke of ink.
Today was Monday, the beginning of an interminably long week of work. She stared blankly at the canopy of her bed, her vision blurry but her mind clear. There was no more excitement in her schedule. She knew exactly what would happen.
She would sit up. She would search haphazardly for her glasses on the small table, pick them up with a sigh and put them on, readjusting them brusquely with her index finger so that they rested on the bridge of her nose. She'd have to do that frequently during the day, but that was all fine, because it kept her hands busy. She would look sadly at the tangle of curls on her head in one of the communal mirrors in the girls' dormitory, but decide that nothing could be done. She would pull on her uniform with steady hands, but do nothing to adjust the way it hung on her frame. Then she would make her way slowly to the Great Hall, with its flickering ceiling charm that sometimes showed the sky, sometimes not, and eat a small breakfast. She'd take a piece of fruit and wrap it up for a snack if she got hungry midday. She would then make her way to class, her bulging messenger bag thumping her leg as she trekked onwards. And in class, she would sit, her hand never up, her wide eyes behind her unflattering frames blinking somewhat owlishly, her spirit a testament to her intelligence, once brilliant, now rusted with insecurity and doubt.
And no one would ask her any questions. She might get some casual greetings in the hallways, or mayhap not.
And Professor Snape's eyes would pass over her, a sneer on his face and a challenge in his expression.
And she would do nothing to prove herself to him, because she wasn't a know-it-all. Not anymore.
She had lost count of the weeks she had spent at Hogwarts. She no longer remembered the days by their name, but by what work she would have to complete by the end of the night. She found this an existence befitting someone who had made such a poor showing during times of crisis.
Tonight is Advanced Potions night. This night is for you, Remus, because you died still suffering from lycanthropy. You should have been free from that curse before you passed away. I should have searched for a cure, something better than Wolfsbane. I should've done more.
On Advanced Potions night, the work would keep her up for two hours. Sometimes her hand would cramp. She had healing balms for such things, but she couldn't bring herself to open them.
Remus didn't have an immediate cure for his pain, so why should I have the right that was denied him?
The jars, with their untouched contents, stayed in their drawer.
This morning was different, because today Ron and Harry actually spoke more than five words to her during breakfast. There had been no official falling out, but there was a tacit understanding between the three that things were not the same. While Hermione had withdrawn inside herself as a method of comfort, the two boys had sought solace outside, under the sun on the Quidditch pitch. Two such incompatible methods of personal healing did not a good friendship make, and while Hermione understood that she had done nothing to earn scorn or disapproval from her friends, she still felt somewhat betrayed by their willingness to move on without her.
The interaction had gone well. They had bid her good morning, and she softly returned the sentiment. They had asked her how her work was going. She had replied that it was hard, but manageable. Then, apropos of nothing, Ron had asked her why she insisted on wearing glasses when there were corrective potions on the market that fixed such things instantly. She had looked into Harry's bespectacled eyes, as if looking into the eyes of someone with as bad eyesight as hers might provide an answer, but all she saw in his green irises was father worship and a desire to look like James. Her reason was not as simple. So she replied cheerily that the glasses only reinforced her intellectual aura and turned back to her meal.
Later that night, she held the vial of Eye Restoration potion in shaky hands, but she couldn't bring herself to drink it down. She thought of Remus. She thought of Tonks. She thought of Dumbledore, of Moody, and even of Hedwig; she thought of how they had all died, and she hadn't been able to do anything to save them.
No, the glasses stayed, because if the war saw fit to bequeath her with spell-damaged eyes and not something worse, then she didn't feel she had to right to change it. In fact, she rather felt like she deserved it.
The potion, like her healing balms, stayed in its drawer.
She figured a month or two had passed by now. Harry and Ron talked to her most mornings, and she was slowly learning to speak more than thirty words a day. This morning she had Potions class, and after a somewhat halting conversation with the Gryffindor student next to her, she made her way almost cheerily to the dungeons, proud at her personal progress.
Class was halfway through before she realized that the urgent press on the back of her mind was a question waiting to be asked. The epiphany made her eyes widen. It was a question—she was curious again—and the experience was so novel to her now that she nearly gasped. In her haste to cling to that once-lost, now-found feeling of inquisitiveness, she rushed up to the front of the class. She hadn't been paying attention, so she hadn't noted the small simmering cauldron that stood sentry near Snape's desk as he sat grading essays. Her question was on the tip of her tongue when the clattering and splashing of the tipped-over vessel reached her ears. She narrowly missed the cauldron's spray as it rolled on the floor. The question—that glorious, beautiful thing—had died in her mouth, and before she could formulate an apology, she was face-to-face with a very angry Snape.
"You foolish girl, have you any idea what your ineptitude has just ruined? I have been brewing that potion for months. The ingredients I have utilized in that potion are hideously expensive, but the monetary cost means nothing in comparison to the amount of time I have personally dedicated to the its overall creation," he hissed through clenched teeth, still somehow managing to make his words clear, cutting, and easily heard by all. "And they call you the brightest witch of your age? Sweet Circe; no one should think you even magical, let alone bright, with those slow reflexes and that clumsiness. No one has ever quite so utterly and thoroughly destroyed my work."
His voice, previously sibilant and menacing, now dropped lower, acquiring a gravelly quality that made her innards quake in dread. "Sit back down, Miss Granger, before I do something I might regret."
She could not follow his command. Hermione's feet, traitorous things that they were, were rooted to the spot. She made no sound as she withstood his tirade, and after he had let the wind out of his sails, the room fell, if possible, even more deadly silent.
She didn't know what to do. Her eyes shifted wildly behind her glasses, her lips quivered slightly, and yet her feet still refused to move. It was as if they demanded she hold her ground, regardless of whether body wanted otherwise. Snape, too, seemed frozen in place, his face stoic and unmoving.
Her eyes refocused slowly on his figure. They started at his feet, then made their way up to his eyes, the gleam in them redolent of indolence. (Ron later told her she looked like she was sizing him up, to her great embarrassment.) Surprisingly, the challenge that she expected to see reflected in his irises was no longer present.
And suddenly, it angered her. She didn't know what it was, but by Merlin, it made her absolutely furious. It would be cliché to say that something within her snapped, because in all honestly, she felt no physical sensation—merely the chill associated with the dungeons and the itch of her uniform's fabric. But something within Hermione did seem to click into place within her mind, and all at once, nothing else seemed to matter besides devoting all her energy towards loathing Snape.
Her cheeks flamed red. Her shoulders squared themselves and her chin lifted itself. She swore she felt better than she had in months.
"Are you daft as well?" Snape snapped at her brusquely, his feet having inconspicuously taken a step back at the determined elevation of Hermione's chin.
Hermione smirked, and she relished the feeling. Contempt felt good. "No sir. Of course not."
His eyes narrowed. "Then why do you have such trouble following a simple directive? I told you to sit, yet…" He trailed off, his eyes implying the unspoken "you're still standing, you twit".
Hermione suppressed a chuckle, but as evinced by the glower on Snape's face, she hadn't done all that good a job of it. "I apologize, sir. It took a second for me to internalize all that you'd said. I'll take my seat." She made an about-face on her heel, its sharp turn seeming as disrespectful a gesture as could be attained in the circumstances. She thrilled with the small victory of having denied him the last word, and not even the scorching eyes she knew were trained on her retreating figure could diminish her joy.
When class ended and Snape gave his customary dismissal, Hermione slowly and carefully made her way towards the door, refusing to taint her victory with any display of childish insolence. When the door shut behind her, she nearly had to physically restrain herself from punching her fist into the air and giving a jubilant whoop.
This was so new a feeling that it exhilarated her. She was sure that this was what it was like to have the blinders taken off. For too long, she had paid blind respect to her professors, seeing them as the almighty adjudicators of her success and education. From her early days in school, she learned immediately that teachers were always to be respected. They were mature. They were intelligent. They knew all the information that she so desperately wanted for her own.
But now, thanks to Snape and his utterly misdirected heartlessness, she knew that professors were human. If this was disenchantment, she felt like she never wanted it to end.
But along with her jubilation came rage, directed solely towards Snape. He had no right to criticize her, had no right to question her magical abilities. How dare he vocalize those cruel thoughts aloud? How dare he air his opinion of her in so public a forum?
No matter if the words he had said aligned perfectly with the image she now held of herself. She was the only one allowed to think such things. She was the only one aloud to lambaste herself for her failures, and he had no right to be so wretchedly cruel!
She stalked down the hallway angrily, her steps heavy with the vehement emotion of self-righteousness. For the first time in a long while, she felt the thunder in her mind and soul that signified the meeting of her magic with the castle's magic, and even though her glasses were slipping down her nose with the jerkiness of her pace, she felt like she had no need to push them up again.
She saw everything newly, and everything clearly.
No one questioned her magical talent except her, and if Snape thought he could have that privilege free of charge, then she felt it was high time Snape was taught a lesson in respect.