Thank you, thank you, thank you to Blue Artemis for helping me get rid of OOC-ness and other inconsistencies, to Copper Moss for her incomparably sharp beta-reading eye, to Anoesis for Brit-picking, and to ccognett for helping me make sense of this story, for putting up with my Brobdingnagian e-mails, and for generally being there for me. You guys are awesome. I don't know if you consider me as your friends, but you guys are my friends whether you like it or not.
I've just been attacked by dementors and I might be expelled from Hogwarts. I want to know what's going on and when I'm going to get out of here.*
Hermione sets the scrap of parchment down on the desk with a sigh and throws herself onto her bed. Hedwig stares at her inquiringly from the windowsill with that way that she has, cocking her head as if she is looking past your eyeballs and straight into the back of your skull.
When does childhood end?
The mint-lemon scent of cleaning charms does almost nothing to disguise the odor of dust and sweetish decay exuded by the peeling walls. It is past midnight, but the faint breeze wafting in from the open window weighs muggy and oppressive.
She swipes irritably at a drop of sweat at her hairline.
They are running out of time. Time is a funny thing because you do not notice its passing until you have only seconds left, and each tick and each tock rings true and hard inside your skull.
Hermione recalls the first whispers of war back in their first year. Back when she was barely five feet tall. Back when the idea of a "Dark Lord" thrilled her, fitting perfectly into her fancies of the Wizarding world: a world of gallant warlocks and villainous sorcerers, a world where battles of good against evil are waged every day and good alwaysalwaysalways vanquishes.
Back when she thought that magic was pillows turning into puffins, and dancing kettles, and bubbling cauldrons.
But now the realities of war have them swathed in its pestilential, impermeable folds. Voices are subdued and strained, shoulders wearily sloped, eyes staring vacantly. They had their first casualty only months earlier.
Hermione places her hands on her face, her palms cool against her cheeks.
She barely knew Cedric Diggory. She presumes he was a kind boy. Once, during the World Cup, he passed her a pint of butterbeer and she smiled at him in thanks. He smiled back, and his smile was warm.
She wonders how many lives will be so effortlessly snuffed out before it ends. How many existences will be reduced to a trifling memory—perhaps a pretty bauble someone once wore, a glint of light on a faintly familiar smile, or a song someone sang all the time in the shower, and it was the most annoying thing back then, but now it is all that remains. Perhaps even a battered pair of glasses that once upon a time perched in front of earnest green eyes.
Hermione never really believed in God. Her parents were logical, practical types, always standing on the side of science on the big issues.
Why do we see in depth? Why do we enjoy sweets? Why do we have compassion?
Her parents said that it isn't because we have to be that way. Rather, it is because the mind is a product of the brain, and the brain is the product of the organizing evolutionary force of natural selection. We see in depth and enjoy sweets because our ancestors had to survive in an environment where falling from a tree meant death and ripe fruit contained precious glucose. We have compassion because, somewhere in the prefrontal cortex, we have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others' suffering.
But maybe humans have a gene that makes it so that they cannot help but hope for something higher than themselves, or then again, maybe it is just her. She thinks that if she were born to religious parents, she would have been one of those people that would devote her entire life to her idea of God. She has always been the type of person that believes too hard in things.
When does childhood end?
Hermione thinks it ends here, on her knees, her eyes screwed shut, the seconds ticking away in her head, surrendering a clumsy prayer to a God that has never been anything more to her than a smudge in the otherwise logical sequence of human evolution.
It's a very funny thing, time.
Harry is due to arrive soon. She doesn't know how to feel about it. She shouldbe excited. Normally, she would be jumping all over the place by now, counting down the seconds to his arrival. But she knows that he will blame her and Ron for being together while he was stuck alone at the Dursleys'.
Mrs. Weasley is as overbearing as always, clucking over the lot of them like they are bumbling little children. Hermione just managed to get away and rests her elbows on the banisters of the first floor landing. She spies Fred and George on the landing above, sniggering and trying to furtively lower a pair of Extendable Ears to the ground floor. Ginny and Ron are busy with a game of wizard chess somewhere in the house. Below her, the Order members file into the doorway leading to the basement kitchen. She notes that all of them adopt a solemn gait when attending Order meetings, even Tonks. Hermione humphs disapprovingly as yet another top secret meeting is held without them. Tonks hears her and turns back, grimacing sheepishly.
As Hermione turns to go to her room the front door bursts open and a tall, billowing figure strides into her line of sight. Hermione squeaks in surprise as she recognises the stringy hair, the protuberant nose, the imperious gait.
There is a sudden, excoriating howl that scrapes across her eardrums straight into her brain and shrilling along the inside of her skull. Snape curses and stalks to the portrait of Mrs. Black and it is with a tint of magic slithering across the air that Mrs. Black's shriek is swallowed in abrupt silence.
And then, quite unexpectedly, Hermione finds herself staring at a black far blacker than should be decent. A face that is all unyielding lines, and hard angles, and contempt.
She whips her shoulders back from the banister, leaning back as far as she can. Her elbows crack from the movement.
She winces. Why the hell is she acting like a twitchy little thing? She doesn't know. She has no idea why she suddenly thought to hide, but she did it, and she can't undo it, and now she has to stick it through the end if she wants to save face. A crack of Apparition tells her that Fred and George have left her to her fate.
She waits for the sound of his footsteps leaving.
His tone is... civil. She furrows her eyebrows in surprise, thinking, or rather, hoping (pleaseplease), that he hadn't noticed her. Or if he did, that he wouldn't bother to acknowledge her presence.
Something tautens in her throat and she clears it with a polite cough.
She brings her shoulders forward, peering over the banister and plastering a smile on her face. He is looking at her in a way that brings to mind something she can't remember at the moment.
"Er... Sorry, Professor Snape. Erm, good evening."
He raises an eyebrow at her dispassionately and stalks off to the kitchen. Lupin's voice swells out through the gloomy hallway as the kitchen door opens and shuts once again with a resounding thud.
Later, when she is alone, Hermione will remember how he looked standing there with his head tilted up toward her. And then she will think that he was looking at her like Hedwig looked at her: like she wasn't there at all, and in the place of her body was nothing but wasted faded air. And she will almost laugh because this is the silliest thought she will have all day.
And later still she will think that he seemed to fit, somehow. Professor Snape. Right there with the peeling paper and the creaking floors and the inescapable sense of ruin that contaminated the air.
Harry is being a brat and Hermione is sore at him, but they are friends and so she tries to understand. He was always cheerful, but now he is bitter and contentious and she can feel the rage building up inside of him, layer by painful layer. It scares her, and she hopes that the day will never come when she will recognise him only as a shadow of what he once was, but she doesn't let him know this. She cannot let him know this.
Ron tries to ease the tension with his jokes and his awkward gestures and they laugh for a little bit. There is something hewn between them that was never there before. None of them acknowledge it, though.
Being named prefect along with Ron hasn't helped matters. She remembers the tentative hope in Harry's face as he examined Ron's badge. He looked out of the window as if he were expecting another letter from Hogwarts informing them all of the terrible, silly little mistake they'd made. They'd mixed up the letters and Harry, not Ron, is supposed to be prefect all along.
She knows that Harry thought this because she thought it too. She feels bad for it because Ron deserves something that he can call his own, he really, really does, but she knows that if she had to pick, she would have picked Harry first.
She remembers trying not to look too happy with herself and saying something meant to be soothing, but it came out all wrong and hackneyed and stupid. Harry snapped at her and she had to look away because she'd been feeling sensitive lately, and her eyes were starting to water.
But Hermione knows that she can never really stay angry at Harry, dear Harry, so she lets her indignation ebb away until only the sputtering cinders remain.
She read somewhere that war is part of an inexorable cycle; a rising and receding that varies in players but always culminates in blood. She read that it doesn't ever end, not really, because history forever repeats itself.
But she is fifteen going on sixteen, and there is a solid knot of conviction somewhere between her lungs that they will be alright. That they are together, they are together, they are together.
And they will be alright.
It is a little unsettling to see Ministry officials she has only ever read about in the Daily Prophet and professors she has only ever seen on Hogwarts grounds convening in one place. It intimidates her, to be honest. She will never admit this to anyone because she cannot bear the thought of someone knowing just how unsure of things she really is.
But their presence here reassures Hermione in a way that their careful words never can. She enjoys the loud, unruly mealtimes after meetings that she and her friends aren't privy to. The presence of the majority of the Weasley family transforms the sepulchral gloom of Grimmauld Place into something familiar and comforting.
Mrs. Weasley can cook food like something out of a dream when she is in the mood for it, and Hermione drops her book and heads to the dining room as soon as she hears Mrs. Weasley's voice ringing through the hallway to call them for dinner.
"Watch it!" she yells as one of the Weasley twins Apparates right into the spot she was about to walk into. Harry grips the back of her shirt to steady her.
"Sorry, Hermione." Fred, or George, probably Fred, flashes her a cheeky grin.
She smiles as she notices that not even a moody Harry Potter can resist the warmth and cheer that somehow manage to subsume the undercurrent of fear that has lately crackled in the air.
Hermione wonders if this is all that it's ever going to be. She used to imagine that war has a definite beginning and end. That there will be some sort of monumental catastrophe, and at that moment they will just know. That everything will fall apart all at the same time, and there will be grand battles, and profound displays of courage and valor, and hexes flying left and right and red, blue, yellow, greengreengreen. That there will be bloodstained robes and broken wands and tragic demises.
But there is no evidence of war save for the covert glances and hurried whispers and maps being swept away from prying eyes.
She gives Lupin a pinched smile, watching him divert the conversation away from dark things as soon as he sees them walk into the room.
"The Cannons are looking good this year, eh, Harry?" Lupin says a little too excitedly. The other people seated around the table nod and murmur their assent. Harry's lips are pressed thin.
She wishes that it could be enough for her to know that the adults are looking after them as best they can, and to know that they will all have their roles to play in the war soon enough, but it isn't.
There is the feeling of being at the edge of a boundary, at the brink of long and terrible fall. But she cannot know how much of a push it will take to shove them over. Maybe it will come tomorrow, maybe in a year. Maybe it will all end before they slip off the edge, before they have a chance to be old enough, or clever enough, or brave enough.
Mrs. Weasley would like that.
She wonders if it is the Gryffindor in her that is longing for more involvement, for more excitement, for reassurance that they are more than pride misborn.
Later, years later, she will look back on this moment and laugh coldly.
Lavender and Parvati stop talking as soon as Hermione walks in. They smile at her all toothy and earnest, and she is sure that they were just talking about her. It hardly bothers her, though. She smiles back, suddenly feeling a genuine fondness for the giggling girls sitting on Lavender's bed.
It is a scene she's been part of for four years now. Her dormitory is exactly as she remembers, and she isn't sure how to feel about the fact that this is more familiar to her than the perfect pale blue organization of her bedroom back home.
Lavender and Parvati resume their hushed conversation as she starts putting her books away. She changes into her night things, then sits on her bed with her copy of Advanced Arithmancy. She is in a capital mood, the weight of the welcoming feast in her stomach imbuing her limbs with a pleasant torpor. She stretches herself out over the covers as the tug of an impending yawn makes itself known in the back of her jaw. Lavender and Parvati fall uncharacteristically silent once again, and she can feel their eyes boring into the top of her head.
"So, Hermione, have a good summer?" Lavender asks.
"Oh, yes, quite good, thanks. You?" Hermione turns to the first chapter, skimming over words she has long since committed to memory.
The term 'Arithmancy' is derived from the Greek 'arithmos,' meaning number, and 'manteia,' meaning divination. Hence, Arithmancy is the discipline that involves the study of the magical properties of numbers and the use of numerology to organize what appear to be disjointed facets of existence such that they provide insight into a problem at hand...
"Have you been with Harry and Ron all summer?" Parvati interjects eagerly, her hands fluttering in her lap.
"Part of it, but mostly with Ron. Harry's been stuck at his aunt and uncle's place for a while," Hermione replies more cautiously, wondering where the conversation is going.
"Well, that was probably for the better," Lavender says with a sage nod.
"Excuse me?" Her eyes falter at the end of a sentence.
"Oh, you know what I mean. Harry's been going on about You-Know-Who and personally—" Lavender widens her eyes and tilts her chin down for emphasis; Hermione has always hated this particular habit of hers— "I think he's just trying to get a rise out of everyone. So it's better that he was shut up in the Muggle world. Is he always like that?"
Hermione feels her back go rigid. She closes her eyes, willing herself to remain calm. The lines around her mouth tighten. The horrid... The stupidcow—
"Come off it, Hermione," Parvati simpers at her. "We know you're clever—" a strangled noise makes its way through Hermione's clenched teeth—"I know you can see through it. My mum reckons he has some sort of attention thing, like that chemical imbalance or whatever in your brain that makes you crave attention, what do you thin—"
"I think you should keep your fat mouth shut," Hermione sneers acidly.
She yanks the hangings shut around her bed and breathes heavily through her nose.
Hermione's never been one for poetry, but there was a time when she was younger and she had a big 'Poetry Phase,' as her mum had called it. It seemed the proper next step for an intelligent and insatiably curious young lady.
It was, in the end, nothing more than a phase, soon walled up in the mausoleum of forgotten childhood relics.
She decided that she didn't like poetry. She didn't like how there were entire worlds that she could not access, could not see, nestled in the in-between spaces of the words, concealed in the intermingling of the technical and the lyrical.
But—and Hermione would never dream of talking about this to anyone—if there is such a thing as poetry come alive, it would be Hogwarts at night.
There is a certain security in the walls of Hogwarts that is more than just stalwart walls and powerful wards. It is silent and subterranean, beating and rising in a wild wavering horde beneath the stone. It is in the soft hiss-sputter-hiss of torchlight, in the taptaptap of her shoes. It is a calming turbulence that she feels permeating the air. It saturates the foundations of the castle, climbing up the soles of her shoes, through thick socks, through her bones, right into the split ends of her frizzy hair.
It's magic, is what it is. A pure, palpable magic, devoid of wand-waving and incantations and restraint. It is primitive. Potent. Electric. And she can't help but feel that so long as these walls stand, as they have for centuries, nothing can touch them.
She wonders how many people before her have walked this hallway and felt the exact same thing. It is one of those things that feel familiar, but it really isn't hers to be familiar about. It's very hard to describe, and if she were asked to she will probably just change the subject into something she can spread out and dissect with her precise vocabulary.
It makes her feel… clean, somehow, the magic of the hallway. Clean and so very insolently young, like she can be sure of things because the life she feels in her bones will never lead her astray.
Patrolling is her favorite out of all the prefects' duties.
They are supposed to patrol in pairs, but it wasn't too difficult to convince Ron that he had better things to do than shamble about the empty corridors. At first he was reluctant to leave her alone, but eventually he bounded off with an exuberant Cheers, Hermione! like it was his idea all along.
The hallway is illuminated by moonlight. The dense, almost painfully bright kind that seeps into cracks and crevices.
And she isn't one for poetry, but she runs her fingers along the stone walls as she walks, and she feels as though she were part of some secret world in a secret time where everything is bathed and preserved in a numinous silver ether.
Keats has nothing on Hogwarts at nighttime.
During the day there is the Ministry and Umbridge, and a very paranoid Harry, and an obtuse Ron, and revising for the O.W.L.s.
But at night there are only the tendrils of gossamer magic winding through the air, and she pretends to forget how much everything is changing around her. It is enough, for now, just to know that peace can exist in places like this even in a world sickening with war.
She is well aware of her horrid habit of picking on her fingernails when agitated. She has a tendency of pulling at uneven edges until her nail bed is torn and beads of blood well on her fingertips.
Her wince is audible as she feels the sting of suddenly exposed flesh under ripped fingernail.
Her voice is rarefied by black stone into something irresolute and childlike. It infuriates her.
He doesn't look at her, doesn't move save for one violently contained red slash on an essay before him. It is an abrupt and deliberately cruel flick of his wrist. He places it aside without bothering to read past the first damning paragraph. Or maybe he just reads fast, like she does. She doesn't really care. All she can see is the slash he made on her own essay, and the big, red P that glinted at her with quiet disdain from the top corner of her parchment.
"Sir—please—you must understand..." She trails off.
His eyes remain fixed on parchment. She feels her ears grow warm as she stills her tongue, trying to convince herself that she is as articulate as everyone says she is. Her nail-picking has become very audible and the sound distracts her, so she imprisons the fingers of one hand in the other. Her palms are unpleasantly clammy. On the wall to her right, an unwholesome green light dances a delirious dance, a frantic, savage carousing of shadows that looks to her like the winking eyes of some unappeased creature. She shivers before she realises that it is merely the firelight reflected by the specimen jars on a shelf.
He continues to ignore her, his quill dripping with wordless red contumely as he impassively proceeds with the butchery of second-year essays. She is exquisitely aware of her heartbeat now, and she is sure that she has never heard anything louder. She would have preferred a verbal flaying to this—to whatever this new tactic is.
She wonders if Harry and Ron were right; maybe she should have just shut her trap and remained in the common room, instead of marching down to the dungeons with all her purposeful, undaunted indignation and refusing to be told what to do. She stomped her foot and tossed her hair like a bloody child. They laughed at her, thinking she wouldn't dare confront Snape.
She wonders if she shouldn't have.
And she stops this train of thought right here, because Professor Snape was entirely unfair with her, and she intends to correct it.
She takes a deep breath. The kind of breath one takes before leaping off the edge of a precipice one has fallen down before.
"I apologise for taking up your evening, sir, but I refuse to accept the grade you gave me on the essay you assigned last Monday."
He stops mid-slash (finally, finally, finally). The red ink bleeds into a perfect circle where he poises the nib of his quill.
It's strange because she never knew how regret can have a taste to it, but it really does, and it is there in the back of her throat, wooden and acrid and entirely bothersome. She wiggles her throat in her schoolgirl socks and tries not to be too obvious about wiping her sweaty hands on the back of her skirt. She forgets about her finger and winces again as the jagged edge of her torn nail catches on the fabric.
He straightens. There is a graceful economy to his movements, a sinuous tightening and sliding of muscles over bone. She knows now that it is too late to back out. He raises his eyes to hers, top lip curling with distaste, as she calls forth all her stores of so-called Gryffindor courage to look right back.
She tries not to blink. She tries desperately not to blink. She schools her expression into the appropriate mixture of apologetic defiance.
"Is that so?" he says. Slowly. Hermione almost takes a step back.
"Yes, sir," she manages to reply in a steady voice.
"And why is that?" It registers vaguely in the back of her head that everything is careful and deliberate with him, every word weighed.
"My essay was rather adequate, sir, and it completely answered the research question you posed. Not to mention the additional research..." She spent four hours in the library, lurking in its dustiest corners.
"Ah, yes, the additional research..." He lets his voice trail off, tracing a long finger around his mouth. She is unable to keep herself from following its path with her eyes. "Remind me how many feet of parchment I assigned for that essay, Miss Granger."
She swallows the lump of trepidation in her throat.
"One foot, sir."
"Correct. And being the insufferable know-it-all that you are, you submitted what length of parchment?"
"Er... two and a half, but if you'd—"
"Two and a half feet," he repeats quietly. "Your other professors may confuse your pedantic affectations with intelligence, but rest assured that I will not. If you wanted a decent mark, you ought to have proven yourself competent at something other than being Harry Potter's... clever friend. "
She has never felt so disparaged when someone other than Professor Snape called her clever. She grits her teeth, and fidgets, and huffs, and exhales slowly (slowly, Hermione), and tries again.
"But sir, I had to include Lucretia Dample's thesis on the dephlogistication of—"
"Tell me, Miss Granger, do you believe that regurgitating research tangential to the subject I assigned means you are possessed of exceptional acumen?"
"What? I—you—no!" she sputters, indignant.
Cold derision radiates in waves from his measured, caustic smile.
"Does it make you feel special, Miss Granger, when you toss around obscure Potions references and your dithering little friends gape at you in confusion? Perhaps you enjoy lording all your useless facts over everyone in your immediate vicinity. Did you think that I would be seized with delight upon beholding your two and a half feet of utterly useless information?"
She is breathing hard now. He takes a moment to relish in her discomfiture. His tone loses its gently sarcastic lilt when he speaks again, compacting into a hard and jagged edge as he digs the knife in without mercy.
"Indeed, I am surprised at you, Miss Granger. For all your vaunted intellect, it seems that four years in my classroom has not been sufficient to get into your woolly head that I haven't the time for your supercilious delusions."
Her jaw clenches. She was particularly pleased when she found Lucretia Dample's slim volume in the library, thinking that no one else in her Potions class would think to reference her thesis. She thought beyond a doubt that he would have no choice but to award her an Outstanding for her efforts. She tugs on a disordered curl that reaches the small of her back, feeling like a criminal, like an idiot, like an obstinate pigeon-toed fool.
And for one fleeting moment she despises herself for being such a bloody champion of justice.
And then, she is livid. Her vision dangerously clear, her right hand straying to its familiar position on her hip. How dare you? she wants to shout. She wants to accuse him of nepotism, of impossible contumacy, of being a right royal bastard. She wants to march over and yank the quill out of his hand and off the essay, where the perfect ink circle is still hemorrhaging. She wants to throw his quill into the fireplace and run away with maniacal glee.
I am Hermione bloody Granger! she wants to insist, and you have wronged me!
Then she notices how the shadows seem to have clotted underneath his eyes, how the unearthly light imbues his skin with a tubercular pallor, how the hand that was tracing the lines of his mouth now rubs unconsciously at his left forearm like how Harry takes his glasses off and pinches the bridge of his nose sometimes, when he got quiet. She notices how there is a slight tremor in his grip. She wonders how long it's been since he's seen sunlight. She wonders if he's ever really seen the sunlight, like she and her friends do on the days when the weather is perfect and even she cannot bear to hole herself inside the castle to study. She looks away.
He is her professor, but he is a stranger to her. But he is a spy, she knows, and she wonders what that means, and if that is why he looks to her like something cast off and displaced and graceless. She wonders what it is like for him, coming back to Hogwarts after being summoned by his other Master. She imagines it is something like getting out of the car after a long trip, and your legs feel like jelly. Maybe it is disorienting for him like that, because there is a big black line that divides their world, but spies aren't allowed to act like they know the line is there. Maybe they don't know the line is there, or maybe the line for him is not big nor black, but pitifully atrophied, seeping shades of grey into everything it touches.
And then, after everything. After the grey.
He returns to sub-par essays and bloody-minded know-it-alls.
It is odd just thinking about it, this stranger sitting in front of her, and she wonders if this is what he sees in front of him too. This huffy little girl. His student, yes, but a stranger, too. A stranger he is obligated to protect.
And the regret returns like a punch to the gut and devours all the audacity and conviction and self-righteous fury that she is about to fling in his face.
She feels the sanctimonious tension melt away from her shoulders with every breath. She forces her fists to unclench. She wiggles her toes again, and suddenly, she hates her socks, her stupid white socks that slouch about her ankles.
Unwilling to meet his eyes, she trains her own on the ink pot next to his hand. It looks cold and heavy as it catches and distills the sinister light within its depths.
She feels wrong-footed and foolish. So foolish. But no longer angry. All her frustration and resolution recedes into a tiny, bleeding thing.
"I—you... you're right, I'm sorry. For bothering you, Professor," she offers with a timidity that sickens her.
One and a half seconds. And time is such a funny thing because it only makes itself known in moments that are painful, or strange, or endless. Just one and a half seconds, and there is a subtle shift from disdain to curiosity, and he looks at her with an expression that she has never seen before. One and a half seconds, and it is gone. Dissolved into the severe planes and angles that she is accustomed to.
She stands there waiting.
For a sneer, an acerbic comment, a month's worth of detention.
He completes the slash on some poor sod's essay, and once again all she can hear is the ripping sound of quill on parchment and her own hesitating heartbeat. She has an urge to crawl into the floor, into a fissure in the black stone floor, away from his black stone gaze.
She loses count.
"Perhaps an addition of two points wouldn't be undeserved."
Her head whips up so promptly that the bones of her neck crack. Two points will bring her up from a Poor to an Acceptable.
But he is gone. She catches a glimpse of a pained scowl, a hand clamped viciously around a left forearm, and robes sweeping into a doorway before the door shuts silently and then vanishes. He is summoned by the grey, and all traces of his work are disappeared from his desk. She is alone in his office with the vile sickly green light. She and her heartbeat and the gruesome, green light in its unspeakable, melancholy madness.
She glances up from Ron's essay, tugging at her cramped fingers with her other hand and sighing. Ron is loads behind on homework, and it's only been two and a half weeks since term started. As if in response to her unvoiced remonstrances, Ron splutters on his spit for a few moments before calming down to a steady snoring once again.
She exchanges an exasperated yet entirely too amused glance with Harry. He rubs his eyes and stares back at the fireplace, a slightly vacant slackness to his features. His temper, lately simmering too close to the surface, daunts her. But it is when he is silent that she is the most wary.
His Adam's apple bobs once, twice as he swallows. He looks older, but not quite old enough. His dishevelled hair and boyish grin are in stark contrast against his broadening shoulders and the angular cut of his jaw. His limbs are longer, but he carries himself with the air of someone unaccustomed to the strength of his own body. She feels a surge of affection for Harry, dear Harry, and smiles at the three inches of wrist sticking out from the too-short sleeves of his robes.
They are together, and they will be alright. And maybe it is faith, or maybe it is youth, but she knows that it is real, and this is enough for her.
She lovingly places an assortment of rubbish on top of a woolly hat, grinning with pleasure. Harry and Ron's conversation stutters to a halt as they gape at her.
"What? They're for the house-elves."
She convinces herself that it isn't fraud, not really, not if she intends well.
"Alright, Hermione?" a sleep-rasped voice greets her as she clambers into her dormitory.
"Just go back to sleep, Lavender," she whispers brusquely.
There is an affronted silence and a rustling of sheets. Hermione bites her lip.
"I—sorry, Lav, I've just had a rough day, that's all."
Lavender mutters under her breath and yanks the hangings around her bed.
The guilt coils tightly in her stomach. With a sigh, Hermione makes her way to her bed, tiptoeing around Parvati's shoes (black patent leather, not sensible at all) and Lavender's copies of Witch Weekly ("Pixie Dust to Enhance Your Bust: Does it REALLY Work?") strewn carelessly across the floor. They are pathologically untidy, frivolous gossips, the pair of them. And they treat Harry like he is some barmy, attention-seeking prat. But Hermione is not the kind of person that can be so callous to someone without feeling terrible afterwards.
She throws herself on top of the covers. Crookshanks purrs and arranges himself into a heavy ball of warmth on her stomach. She pushes her hair into a bushy pile on top of her head and secures it with an elastic. Her hair can be a choking hazard when she lies down and she hates waking up with hanks of it in her mouth. The herbal, slightly mustard-y scent of essence of murtlap is strong on her hands.
The scent brings her desultory thoughts back to Harry, then to the words permanently etched onto the back of his hand, then to that vile, perfidious toad of a woman, Umbridge.
She gets so angry just picturing her stupid little bow, her bloated face, and her nauseating smile in her mind, and the image draws a fresh wave of fury into her spine. Crookshanks raises one bleary eye to look at her, disturbed by her quickened breathing.
"Sorry, Crooks..." she whispers, rubbing a finger into the coarse fur behind Crookshanks' ear.
The stupid hag jeopardizes not only their chances at getting O.W.L.s in Defense, but also their ability to actually defend themselves from the Dark Arts when Voldemort openly attacks.
She looks around the room, expecting looks of incredulity and discomfort at the mention of his name.
His name is cumbersome even in the privacy of her mind. Maybe if she uses his name more in her thoughts, she can speak it with the same sort of mutinous nonchalance that Harry does.
She does not know how his name holds such power over so many. It is a series of syllables, nothing more. A brief opening and closing of lips, a rolling of the tongue.
When she first heard of him, his name was inconsequential to her. She doesn't know when this changed. Perhaps it was when she learned of her own blood, and of how his life's ambition is to see it seeping into the dirt where it belongs. It made it personal, somehow, his name and his hate and his violence.
"Voldemort," she tests the sound of it on her tongue, and it tastes like a smudge of tar.
An unnatural quiet seems to shroud the room, and the darkness suddenly seems far too solid and unforgiving.
She shivers, then shakes her head, releasing the breath she didn't realize she was holding.
Maybe Harry can teach her how to say it like he does. Harry can teach them a lot of things.
You think it's just memorizing a bunch of spells*, he said, like you can think straight when you know you're about a second from being murdered, or tortured, or watching your friends die*.
But what do they have, apart from their cleverness, and their research, and their spells? What can she do but prepare in the only way she knows how?
One day, she tells herself. One day there will come a time when they will stop waiting with their hands in their pockets wishing through windows glued shut for a place in this war that nobody wanted.
She doesn't feel any different at all. She examines her face in the mirror. The soft purple shadows of early morning lend her features a slight somberness that she doesn't like on herself because it reminds her of how her mum looks when she is angry.
But, apart from the shadows, Hermione doesn't look any different.
She angles her head to the right, bringing one finger up to trace the line of her jaw, her chin, her chapped lower lip.
Of course, she didn't expect to wake up this morning suddenly looking like an older version of herself. But she does this every year, every time the nineteenth of September comes around. She scrutinizes her face in the mirror, squinting her eyes, searching for proof that an entire year has been pulled out from under her feet.
Neville, with his earnest, round face and tentative smile. Dean and Lavender bickering and bumping shoulders. The Patil twins, Parvati with her hair cascading down her back and Padma with hers in a thick plait. Cho Chang and a russet-headed Ravenclaw tittering into the hollow of her palm. The entirety of the Gryffindor Quidditch team. Luna Lovegood looking vaguely perturbed. The Creevey brothers, Macmillan, Finch-Fletchley, Abbott, and even more people that she doesn't know by name whose faces she's seen almost every day at the Great Hall for four years.
All of them are staring at Harry with bated breath as he speaks. A few look doubtful, and one in particular voices his objections quite obnoxiously, but they all end up signing her parchment anyway. Her hair has been whipped into a hopeless mass of snarls by the wind outside, her butterbeer is tepid, and her senses are thoroughly offended by the general griminess and goat-tinged musk of the Hog's Head. But she is grinning widely, her cheeks aching as a triumphant pride threatens to bubble over in her chest. This might be her best idea yet.
Hermione has a lot of big dreams for herself. Some days, though, when they are all together like this, she thinks that the most you can ever really hope for in life is a cold drink and good friends. And maybe, this is enough.
Later, much later, she will fondly remember the Hog's Head as a much cleaner, much brighter place.
What is this word, loyalty?
It's easy enough to define, especially for a Gryffindor. But it's never that simple, is it? 'Loyalty' is one of those words that you can't just point to something and say here's loyalty like you could with, say, the word 'quill' or 'chair.' And yet, loyalty is far more solid than either of those. People die for things like loyalty. As far as she knows, no one has ever waged a war for a quill or a chair.
If loyalty is that thing she feels, that tug deep inside of her that tells her she belongs with her friends, then what do you call that thing inside of other people that tells them to stand with Death Eaters? What do you call that conviction that moves them to stand where they belong?
Cowardice, is what Sirius would likely say.
Her wand twirls in her loose grip. She told Ron earlier tonight that she would take his patrol shift. He eagerly complied, lavishing her with extravagant praise that she barely noticed as she clambered out of the common room. She needed to be alone after their conversation with Sirius in the Floo.
Well, better expelled and able to defend yourselves than sitting safely in school without a clue*, Sirius said, clearly approving of the initiative they've taken in forming a secret defense group.
Hermione likes him enough, but she is well aware of his penchant for reckless heroics. Sirius Black isn't exactly the paragon of pragmatic, well-thought-out courses of action. Maybe his approval is a sign that they should go in the opposite direction. And then there's the matter of Umbridge's dumpy little arm clawing at Sirius' head in the fireplace. She evidently knows that someone in the castle is in communication with a wanted man, and it won't take her long to reach the right conclusion. Maybe it's just too much of a risk. Maybe—
She opens her mouth in a silent gasp as the floor vanishes from under her foot, throwing out her arms for balance. There is a nasty swoop in the pit of her stomach. For one vertiginous, uncertain second, she can almost feel the synapses in her brain desperately firing electrochemical impulses as her hands find no purchase. She braces herself for the inevitable thud of her cheek against the hard floor.
But her left hand catches hold of the railing, and she pulls herself up automatically, her gasp finally escaping from her lips in a hot rush of air. She takes one moment, two, before straightening and pulling herself together. The knuckles on her left hand are red and raw from scraping against the uneven stone wall.
It's funny how you can just find yourself in one place without knowing how you got there. She used to think it was impossible, because how bloody out of it would you have to be to not know where you are going?
She finds herself at the threshold of a windowless corridor, a long stretch that brims with a cloying darkness. This isn't her usual route; the dungeons are patrolled by the sixth-year prefects. She quickly calculates the distance to the Gryffindor common room and determines that it will take her less time to go forward than to turn back. If she takes this corridor, there will be a passageway at the end that contains a staircase going all the way up to the seventh floor, and from there she can head off to the tower.
She sighs in annoyance.
She tugs her robes tighter about herself and shuffles forward.
It's… creepy, almost as if the darkness is amplifying the hesitant crackling of the fire on the brackets. There is a hint of primordial must in the air, a tenuous silken strand of a scent, and she feels as though she is walking through the castle's most ancient artery.
In all her years at Hogwarts, she has never walked this corridor at night. She tries to imagine it filled with the bobbing heads and raucous voices that populate the hallways in between classes. The torches are farther and farther apart as she reaches the middle of the corridor, and she eventually walks past the last one, its fire quivering feebly behind her before the corridor is plunged into complete black.
She isn't afraid of the dark, but she isn't sure what time of night it is. And one never knows what might be lurking in the dungeons of Hogwarts. The bleak, bluish light of her spell illuminates only about a meter of corridor in front of her. She trains her eyes on the floor, not keen on having another flailing incident. The smell of decaying earth is much heavier here.
A movement from the corner of her eye catches her attention.
She turns and sees nothing. Her blood congeals into an unctuous sludge in her veins, and her heart, powered by the adrenaline from her earlier misstep, sputters furiously in her chest.
She knows, rationally (rational, Hermione, be rational), that it is probably a trick of the scant light. A shadow caught up in an ecstatic dance on the wall. An aberration caused by her own tired eyes. At the worst, it is a rule-breaking student prowling about the corridors. And she is perfectly capable of handling errant students.
"Nox," she whispers. By now she is properly indignant, and she intends to give the wandering delinquent a fright to teach whomever it is a lesson.
She creeps down the corridor with as much stealth as she can. She doesn't like sneaking around, but being friends with Harry Potter and Ron Weasley means that she is rather good at it.
She reaches the end of the corridor, squinting accusingly at pools of shadow. It is even darker here, if that is possible. Darker and colder.
There is that moment when she feels someone breathing behind her, which is ridiculous because you cannot feel someone breathing. Somewhere in her mind, in the recesses of her skull, there is a sense of impending danger.
And in her skeptical terror she hears a slipping sound and dimly registers that it is her wand soaring out of her grip. She twitches and jumps after it instinctively, briefly imagining how ridiculous she must look. She feels as though she is regarding herself from a distance, wondering why her limbs aren't moving fast enough, wondering when the panic will finally seize her.
There is the soft thud of flesh hitting unyielding stone, then a hand circling the back of her neck, a wand digging a hole into her temple, and her face angled painfully against the wall.
There is a hoarse whining sound, and she blinks as she realizes that it is issuing from her throat.
Her teeth are pressed against the flesh inside her cheek, and a familiar metallic tang touches her tongue.
The stone is cold, damp, rough.
The smell of earth clogs her nose.
She squirms, but still the hand tightens around the muscles of her neck.
The wand digs deeper, and she wonders if it will leave a permanent depression in her skull.
"What are you doing here?" a voice hisses hotly in her ear.
She can recognize that voice anywhere, and she does not know whether to be more or less afraid.
"Pr-Professor Snape?" she chokes out, deciding on less, and hoping (praying) that she isn't wrong.
The hand releases her neck and tugs at her upper arm, swiveling her body around. She twists her arm away from the vice-like grip and attempts to take a step back, but the wall behind her halts her retreat. A burst of light burns her retinas. She raises one hand to shield her eyes, another to rub at the back of her neck.
"Again, what are you doing here?" She can just make out the tall figure in front of her, a blurry accumulation of abyssal black, his illuminated wand shining in her face. His tone is the same vaguely mocking one that he uses in class, as if he hadn't just throttled her seconds ago.
"Answer me, girl!" Now he sounds as if he is trying very hard not to throttle her again.
"I—patrolling, sir." She hasn't done anything wrong, and yet her voice is meek and placatory.
"I seem to recall this hallway being assigned to Daphne Greengrass. Furthermore, it is well past curfew, and prefect patrols are to end fifteen minutes before then. I will ask you one last time, what are you doing here?" His voice sends a frisson of cold dread down her spine.
He brings his face closer to hers, lips contorted into an ugly sneer. She tilts her head back, the back of her head resting against the wall. His eyes are red rimmed and hideous, and they somehow capture all of the black in the hallway and make the previously stifling darkness seem anemic and innocuous. She is afraid because he is looking at her in the way that he looks at Harry, like he hates every single particle of her, when she knew she was always just the yippy little sidekick to him. He smells horrible, a sweet-sour clinging stench that she can't quite place.
He raises his left hand as if to grab her arm again, but he doesn't touch her. His fist hovers by her shoulder, clenching and unclenching. He has awful teeth.
"I just lost track of time, I swear! I was on my way back to the Gryffindor tower, I—" She swallows, and his eyes flicker down to her throat. "I didn't realize where I was going, and I thought I saw someone, so—"
"Do not. Trifle. With me. Granger," he bites out.
Then he moves back slightly, eyes narrow and calculating.
"Perhaps your circumspect behaviour is to do with your illegal... Defense Against the Dark Arts group?"
"No, of co—" she catches herself just in time— "What secret group?"
But it is too late. His eyes glint with triumphant malice.
"Did you really think you could keep it a secret? That a large group of students, the majority of whom are Gryffindors, milling about in the Hog's Head like imbeciles wouldn't be found suspicious?" He fixes her with a look of supreme contempt.
Slowly, his words penetrate the squall in her mind, and she bristles. All her earlier misgivings about forming the group disappear in the face of his taunting sneer.
"It was…" She takes a moment to gather all her words and all her willpower in her mouth.
"It was all my idea," she announces with an insolence that she's never shown her professors before. "I forced my friends to sign a contract. Are you going to expel me?"
She is surprised at the calm tone of her voice, a heedless bravado hurtling through her veins. She takes a step forward with an impudence she doesn't feel and tilts her head back further to look him in the eye. His eyebrows rise slightly. She is close enough now to feel the warmth of his body radiating through his robes.
"Was it really?" His tone is normal again, with just a hint of aspersion simmering below the surface. "I had thought that the self-righteous heroics were more Potter's specialty."
He takes a full step back from her. She feels the warmth of him recede and shoves her hands in her pockets.
"Heroics are a Gryffindor specialty in general, Professor," she says airily, ignoring the self-righteous part. "And it isn't right, whatever Professor Umbridge is attempting. I have no intention of sitting at the sidelines unable to defend myself when Volde—"
It is a moment of stupendous pressure sucked in and suddenly exploding outward like shards of glass. The speed with which his demeanor switches back to a spittling rage is astounding. His lips are white, his nostrils flare, and the muscles of his throat are thick cords straining against skin. She barely keeps her feet from stepping back. She expects him to scream at her, but when he speaks it is in a frighteningly low whisper. An almost depraved light ignites in wells of black.
"Do not speak his name, you stupid fucking girl."
She gasps softly. His eyes once again flicker to her throat before returning to bore into her eye sockets, glaring holes into the back of her skull. She feels her heart throbbing in her throat, her blood pounding in her brain. He stares at her for two more heartbeats before stepping back altogether, regarding her coldly from a distance. There is a stoic rigidity to his stance. He is a tempest fitted to a frame, a fury bottled and corked.
"Do you think anything you do will make a difference, Miss Granger? Do you think memorizing spells from a book will save you when the Dark Lord returns to claim what is his?"
She opens her mouth and a strangled sound claws its way out of her throat. His features are impassive, but his eyes retain an echo of manic light. She thinks, somewhere in the shuddering mass that is her brain, that this scenario is all wrong, because he is angrier than he needs to be and she is more scared than she should be.
"Do not confuse your puerile attempts at rebellion with feats of valor. You know nothing of what it is to truly fight," he whispers through a nasty smile, his voice phlegm-cracked into something ugly.
And... just like that.
In one perfectly crafted sentence, honed and tapered and drawn and slung into the pulpy heart of her insecurity.
Contained in one abrasive curl of the lip.
All her anger toward Umbridge and Fudge, her fear for her friends' safety, her determination to abide by her own principles, all her loyalty is dismissed. Reduced to a callow, impotent fancy in the head of a barely sixteen-year-old girl. Reduced to stupid little words, as harmless as 'quill.'
Something brackish and disgusting swirls in the back of her throat and it feels like she just failed a test. A thousand tests. It feels exactly like that, but so, so much worse.
His voice swirls perniciously in her head. His words wind themselves around her own churning thoughts, tearing and strangling, until they are all she can hear like some disgusting, eviscerating mantra throbbing beneath her skull.
Know-nothing. Know-Nothing. Nothing-Know-Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
She cannot stand the midnight of his eyes. She screws hers shut.
"Return to your common room at once, Miss Granger. Ten points from Gryffindor."
*Taken directly from canon.
You know what would make me really, and I mean really happy? A review!
Go on. Click on it.
Click. On. It.