He disliked music.
Perhaps dislike is too grey a word. Severus Snape despised it. He loathed the way it manipulated even his stubborn, reserved consciousness into a world not his own. It led him, resisting but helpless, to an arena where he felt vulnerable and open. His habitual defensiveness seized up in him like a physical contortion and his jaw clenched, his spine rigid as iron.
'Professor, are you alright?'
It was the Granger girl. If Snape had been a lesser man—but, then, he wasn't.
She quailed slightly beneath his gaze and turned her face aside.
Snape surveyed once more the performance directly before him, the elevated north side of the Great Hall converted into a stage for Dumbledore's invited entertainment. There was no denying the harpist possessed remarkable skill. Nonetheless, Snape's thoughts were murder towards the headmaster who had desired her play.
Especially tonight—why had he chosen a night as this, so starless and alone?
Snape started with surprise as an arm slipped through his.
'They say Miss Angelique is the most skilled harpist alive.' Hermione shifted closer. 'Do you think she charmed the harp?'
If she had, it was with a magic blacker than any he knew. Snape looked down at the mass of brown, tumbled hair leaned against him, almost electrically aware of small fingers clinging to him. His glance moved desperately over the assembled faculty and students. Thank God, their attention was fixed on Miss Angelique. They were unaware both of his discomfort and the impulsive little first-year who caused it.
'I would be impressed if she had the talent to do so,' said Snape at last. 'Considering she is a mere—muggle.'
His words were low, pronounced. Their venom disguised the agony he felt at speaking them. A prayer whispered in his mind that she would leave him now, this peculiar girl who was too free, too relaxed in his company—who herself was a muggle and not unfamiliar to the contempt many in the wizarding world felt toward her kind.
—Who reminded him of a time passed, of someone he had dearly—no, not loved but admired—and now missed desperately, keenly. And feeling in his anger a betrayal of that person's memory, Snape felt his control slip. The music, relentless, claimed a little more of his weakened, bleeding heart, captured his mind to recollections that tormented his soul.
His next in-drawn breath was forced and shuddering. It left him on a low, constrained groan, too soft for any but someone sitting close by him, with her cheek on his shoulder, to hear.
Hermione raised her head.
He could not look at her. If he had hurt her—
'Professor Snape? I—I'm sorry.'
Snape turned, startled.
Hermione was not an idiot. She recognized the pain in his eyes and in the deepened furrow between his constricted brows, his features, always pale and drawn, now a ghostly white. She didn't understand this change in his mood and color since the concert began, but likewise she did not dismiss it as unreasonable caprice, the product of an acidic temperament naturally arrogant and antisocial.
'I'm sorry,' she repeated. 'I shouldn't have bothered you. I thought—but—'
He stared at her.
Hermione shifted clumsily. 'I'll move….'
Snape held her arm. Despite his firmness, the motion was gentle.
'Professor?' Hermione looked up at him, frightened.
Overwrought, he could taste his own desperation, bitter as gall on his tongue. Snape couldn't bear to be pitied, if this child did indeed pity him, though he couldn't conjure why she should. Worse yet he couldn't bring himself to frighten her away. This moment was a familiar one, playing on weaknesses he had long endeavored to smother within himself.
He saw another's eyes in Hermione's. He saw the eyes of a young woman wounded, wronged.
'Go.' The word left him, dull as lead. 'There is an empty place there—by Potter. Go. If you must.'
Hermione studied him. Her eyes were no longer wide.
'Do you want me to go, Professor?' she asked, quietly.
Her answer perplexed and troubled him. She was clever indeed, to upset him so easily and often in the course of an hour.
Hermione leaned forward once more, her chair at a precarious tilt. She bit her lip.
'I'd like to stay,' she whispered. 'If you don't mind. I'll be quiet—I won't bother you. I'll sit, like this.'
And she turned from him, back straight and hands folded on her lap, facing the harpist as if it were the music and not the moment that engrossed her.
Snape was amused despite himself. She was a little child, small even for her age, and her persistence was charming as it was confounding in one whose appearance was anything but adult. She was a distinctive girl, an anomaly among others. Even Potter, bright as he was, did not understand her dedication and wit. Ron Weasley was entirely awed by it.
She reminded him of himself. A tenacious scholar, perceptive beyond her years, and while not entirely friendless, an odd one out all the same.
Hermione strained to hear the harpist's music. It was difficult, the fast beating of her heart drowning out any other sound. She could see Miss Angelique's fingers moving, each subtle motion thrilling delicate strings.
Her own boldness terrified her. If she secretly prized Snape as a source of challenge and intellect in the classroom, she had never wanted him to know. If he scorned her childish need for an adult presence, a father away from home to look up to and impress, she thought she might burst into tears.
Snape read her panic as easily as if her mind was an open book. When she could stand her own worries no more and rose, her chair's legs grating loudly and jarringly at the sudden, impulsive movement, Hermione found her progress halted by long, cold fingers curling on her wrist, and another lean hand coming 'round to turn her.
'Miss Granger,' said Snape. 'Sit down at once. You are making a spectacle of yourself.'
His words and expression betrayed nothing. His eyes, softened, undid her.
With a choked sound she went to him and buried her face in his neck.
Snape was conscious of the Great Hall's wandering interest. There were whispers and looks, some entertained, others questioning. There was no mistaking the derisive, high giggles of young Malfoy.
'Who does she think—?'
And, impressing Snape more strongly,
'Harry, that's Hermione—and she's attackin' Professor Snape!'
Snape raised one hand to the girl's tangled hair. Even through his heavy clothing, her small hands were like ice nestled on his breast. He did not doubt that she was badly overtired. A few days' holiday did nothing to alleviate the pressure of fast-approaching finals, and if any student was likely to overstrain herself, it would be Hermione Granger, the foolish child.
'Sit up, Miss Granger,' murmured Snape, not unkindly. 'Come, I did not think you so weak, nor prone to girlish upheavals.'
She sniffled and didn't move.
He held her shoulders, not forcing her away.
There was no mistaking the sharp, severe voice of Professor McGonagall.
Snape lifted his head. The motion was weary but calm. Somehow, Hermione's turmoil had soothed his own, and her acceptance of him despite himself had stirred an unexpected warmth. It was no more than the tiniest flicker of light in an otherwise still setting, not unlike a candle at the base of a black-veiled, marble statue, lighting the set, mourning features with a golden, subtle light, but it was pleasant and strong, and Snape coveted it within himself like the dearly sought recipe to a rare, almost forgotten potion.
'Severus, what is this? What has happened?'
McGonagall's voice had lowered to a loud whisper. She stood not two feet away from him, heedless of the protests of other professors and the squeaks of startled students as she blocked their view of the stage. Concerned only for the emotional state of one of her Gryffindors, she was unaffected by the inconvenience of an interrupted performance.
'Miss Granger is exhausted,' said Snape.
'Oh dear. Oh, I might have known. Let me take her to the dormitory. I will ask Poppy to bring chamomile. My apologies, Severus, how awkward for you.'
'It is nothing.' He rose from his seat, supporting Hermione easily, her arms around his neck. 'I will assist you—if you don't mind. She is in a very—delicate—state.'
'Why thank you, Severus.' McGonagall looked surprised. 'I am sorry to distract you from tonight's festivities.'
'Indeed, I think not,' said Snape, dourly. 'Considering Miss Angelique herself has ceased playing, the entire Hall is rather inappropriately transfixed by what is, dare I say—none of their business.'
McGonagall nodded curtly.
'Then follow me. Your help is most appreciated.'
Hermione had relaxed in Snape's arms. He wondered if the girl was sleeping.
As he swept down the hall, following McGonagall's swift lead, the music behind him resumed. It was no less melancholy a strain. The notes still summoned the past, shades of well-worn memories that yet visited him in the darkest hours of the night. But now a new apparition graced the bittersweet tune with charmed hope, sweet as forgiveness, tenacious as love. And hearing the song fade along turning corridors, stairs half-lit by fire and moonlight, his sorrows were paled by that same feeling, novel and strange, born the instant Hermione had embraced him.
The moody sky had cleared to strewn wisps of highlighted cloud against a midnight canvas, the moon nestled like a great dragon's egg in its vaporous nest. Snape stood a moment on the stair as McGonagall hastened on, looking through the tall gothic windowpane across the shadowed late-night world, Hermione dozing in earnest and her fragile breath tickling his throat.
However alien and twisted on his hard, stone face, Snape allowed himself a moment's reflection, and smiled.