All Characters are property of J.K Rowling and the Harry Potter Universe. Thankfully, she allows me to borrow them for a bit of fun.
Severus Snape had slept like the dead through the entirety of the night, and when he woke that morning he found himself content to discover that it was no longer raining. Beyond the gauzy curtains covering his window, a weak, washed-out sun was trying to rise through the clouds, casting his room in a faint, grey glow. A decent night of sound sleep had dramatically improved his mood, and despite not being properly awake yet, Severus made up his mind that the day was going to be decent at the very least. But first he needed a strong cup of coffee, breakfast, and the loo.
He emerged downstairs shortly thereafter, showered, freshly dressed, and with a gnawing twinge of hunger. He opted for the usual standby of baked beans atop buttered toast, as it was the only meal offered up by his cupboards. Buying food would have to happen soon, unless he was prepared to eat leftover takeaway meals for breakfast. And he was not, he decided. The question was whether it would be Muggle Cokeworth or Diagon Alley he would have to brave to run his errands.
The prospect of doing something as mundane as shopping for groceries was not enough to dim his unusually improved spirits. Severus reached for the toast rack and put two buttered slices of somewhat elderly bread in the slots before placing the rack under the broiler. He absently saw to heating the beans directly in the tin with a lazy flick of his wand, and set about to making coffee the proper way on the hob.
It was a little past nine, as he finally poured himself a fresh cup of coffee and settled down at his kitchen table to eat, when a Ministry owl arrived unannounced at his kitchen window. Severus looked very hard at the bird, as if doing so would cause it to vanish, but when it remained on the other side of the glass, glaring at him murderously while it flogged the window, he hauled himself out of his chair.
The sealed envelope carried by the winged beast bore the purple and garishly over-stylized Examinations Authority sigil, and upon seeing it, Severus felt his mood finally shift. Years of mentoring N.E.W.T. level students had made him no stranger to these types of correspondences, but he was never happy to see one addressed to him.
The notices were sent with the guise of ensuring prompt completion of the course requirements. The real purpose, however, was to confirm that mentors were actively assisting, but also and more importantly, monitoring their charges with watchful eyes to prevent experimental magic from going disastrously awry. It meant tedious form-filling and lengthy questionnaire responses that would likely never be read by anyone that held any importance or clout.
Severus took to his chair again, tucking in to what he knew would be a tedious read, and broke the seal:
Greetings, Mentor [Severus Snape],
I regret troubling you at this time, given the forthcoming deadline for final submission of N.E.W.T level practicums, but as you are aware, communication with the Examinations Authority is of the utmost importance during the final phase.
Enclosed you will find the required questionnaire, which is to be completed in full and returned to the Ministry of Magic no later than two days following delivery. Failure to comply in a prompt manner is likely to result in delay of examination of the pupil(s) in question, or more harshly, rejection of intent to sit for the required examinations altogether.
Your sachet includes written and multiple option answer questionnaires for [Hermione Jean Granger]. If you have been assigned multiple pupils from your institution, waivers have already been obtained on your behalf for extended time to complete the requirements. The alternate timeline, if issued, will be enclosed for your convenience.
Should you have any questions or need assistance providing the Examinations Authority with appropriate, meaningful correspondence with regards to your assigned pupil(s), please do not hesitate to contact the Ministry of Magic to schedule a direct appointment.
I am sure you understand the urgency of this matter, and the Ministry of Magic does look forward to receiving the required information.
Callum Wolfe, Senior Undersecretary to Governor Marchbanks
Severus sighed as he sat back in his chair, the letter now lying in his lap. He picked up his toast and took a bite without really tasting it and thought of what to do next. There was suddenly a lot to do. He skimmed over the packet of questions as he sipped his coffee and finished off the toast, his eyes finally settling on one of the questions on the last page.
Please summarize your thoughts on the overall progress of the pupil’s research.
The question was followed by four inches of blank parchment that he was expected to fill with a simple summation of his thoughts Hermione Granger’s research. The problem with that proposition, however, was that the research she had chosen to undertake was anything but simple. Compared to other students pursuing their N.E.W.T., Severus was sure her progress had been slower going than nearly all of them. How much closer she was to finding a solution to her problem than when she began was debatable, but Severus suspected the honest answer was not much. On the other hand, the task she had burdened herself with was much more advanced than anything any of the other pupils had bothered to do, Severus had no doubt. Most of them were probably content to brew a strong specimen of Polyjuice, a task he was quite sure, given the empty spaces in the ingredients cupboard, she had done during her second year at Hogwarts.
Severus drained the remainder of his coffee as he set the parchment aside, deciding against making any attempt at answering this unassumingly complicated question while the equally unwanted chore of venturing to the grocer still hovered over his head. Besides, his pupil was due at his home for another trial later in the day, and there was always the chance of a breakthrough, he convinced himself.
The act of shopping for what he needed, and of simply resigning himself to the task, had lulled Severus back into the familiar, obedient state of doing what needed to be done, without question or complaint. Rather than Apparating to London, he had gone instead to the closer Birmingham with the hope of blending in with the throng of patrons that frequented the famed Muggle wholesale market. It had been easy to slip through the stalls of the bustling hive of noise and colour. It was a desperately needed change of pace, he realised, after he made his way down the aisles completely anonymous and undisturbed.
Despite the lingering large crowd and looming closing time, Severus had been able to gather what he needed from the various vendors, and was back to Cokeworth, stocking the enchanted pantry in under an hour. Six months prior a similar trip would not have been possible, even on one his best days. It was difficult to dismiss the small flicker of pride he felt at such an achievement, no matter how ordinary it was.
Severus turned from his finished work and surveyed the kitchen, in one of those novel moments of reflection. So much had changed in the span of weeks. How it had happened so quickly without him even realising it still skittered through his mind like one of his scratched, hand-me-down vinyl records. In years past, when he came home to Spinner’s End after a long time away, it was always freshly horrible to see the cold and damp from the town had managed to seep in round the edges and cracks. It was gloomy, with deep shadows both literal and figurative everywhere lingering memories touched, and the timid English sun could not reach. In those distant days it was just easier to lapse into a hopeless effort not to see it and forget it once he walked back out the door.
Now things were different, weirdly so. Perhaps it was because his subconscious had finally conceded to the fact that this was all he had left—there was nowhere else left to run. Perhaps it was because the world he saw was no longer consumed with the ceaseless, repetitive battle for survival. Something Augusta had once said floated about at the back of Severus’s mind. It was about loss and acceptance and the slow-burn of self-discovery, but he could not muster the effort or interest to string the words into the exact phrasing.
The brief foray down what he privately dubbed “Recovery Lane” quickly vanished, however, when the clock in the front room chimed, laying the previous hour to rest. Severus blinked, his eyes falling on the parchment he had put aside earlier that morning which contained the questionnaire inquiring about Hermione’s research project. Finally pushing himself to the point of realising the questionnaire was equally unlikely to either vanish, spontaneously burst into flames, or complete itself, he put on a fresh kettle for tea and went to work on the tedious endeavor.
The first question in the written response section was a silly, sterile one.
Briefly describe the overall aptitude of the pupil in question.
And it should have been easy enough to answer, but it caused him to stall. Somewhere deep and murky, his initial indifference for her made itself known before it was stamped down by five words: She’s no longer your student. Although his disregard for her had been strong, and probably unfairly so, it was owed entirely to those she chose to associate herself with. Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley the epitome of mediocrity as it related to magical ability, as far as Severus was concerned, but there was no denying that Hermione Granger was one of the more gifted students that had ever stepped foot in his classroom. Her current efforts were enough to support that claim.
Severus’s mind went immediately to the defense classroom nearly three years prior; distorted flashes of her face as she non-verbally disarmed one of her faceless classmates as if it were as easy as drawing a breath. That mental foray led to another and eventually another, though each recalled event of her supposed act of prodigy was rendered more opaque than the last for whatever reason. Something heavy settled over him as he realised the extent of what he had not known he had forgotten. Severus glanced around the too-warm kitchen as if there might have been old memories stashed away in the crannies and was left feeling annoyed. He picked up his quill, ready to be done with it, and answered the question as bluntly as he could, scrawling the words “very high” in the blank space below the question.
The second question—Briefly describe the overall work ethic of pupil—was standard Ministry issue, and easier to address than the first had been. Despite the perceived air of being an incredible know-it-all, Hermione Granger hid a great deal of insecurity and an intense fear of failure. Severus had heard discussions during the 1993 school term of the form her Boggart took during a Defense lesson, and at the time thought it trivial when compared to his own (On several occasions that year he had taken to teasing Minerva about her starring in her pupil’s nightmares until she ruined all the fun and had him picturing himself in Augusta Longbottom’s tawdry clothes). The girl had naturally overcompensated for this fear by striving for perfection, and very nearly hit the mark if not for her reliance of fact and logic rather than raw intuition.
She still struggles with it, Severus thought. He touched the blank space on the parchment, thinking, and his fingers, rough from years of potions work, scratched audibly against the surface. Irritating as her regurgitation of facts could be, there was no question about her dedication or studiousness. After another moment of ushering the phrasing into place, he took up the quill again, dipping into the ink and wrote: Applicant displays impeccable integrity for written and practical application of magical ability, and holds herself to strict principles of effort as evident in her preparation of the practicum requirements. She is an example of what others should strive to achieve.
Severus stared at the words as they dried on the page, the ghost of a smile lining his eyes, and wondered how long it would take the Ministry to issue an official inquiry into the validity of the questionnaire. They would sooner believe I’ve gone insane.Looking at the words also gave him a sudden rush, something akin to freedom. Not having to analyze someone on the basis of others' deeply-rooted and closely watched biases made it much simpler when voicing his opinion—something that had been absolutely out of the question in the past considering Slytherin students and subsequently children of Death Eaters were always paired with Gryffindor house during his all of his courses. Anything less could have been an indication of his defection from the Dark Lord and his former ways, which Albus Dumbledore had cautioned against every single time the subject of Slytherin and Gryffindor students being paired together for classes was brought up.
The next question in the sachet (Is the practicum topic of choice rigorous?) was answered with three sentences: Rigorous perhaps to a fault. Applicant is attempting to create an entirely new antidote for a draught that currently has one known and uncontested antidote, which requires not only a fundamental understanding of potions, but comprehension of the even rarer alchemical processes under which potion making is governed. Never in my years of mentoring students have I had one attempt something in the span of months that would take a seasoned potioneer a year or more to perfect.
Severus leaned back in his chair and read the words on the page one more time. He had purposefully left out Hermione’s private disclosure of quiet rebellion against the Department head of the Examinations Authority but wondered what the ancient Griselda Marchbanks would have said had he included it. After he had learned the truth behind Hermione’s decision to sit for certification at N.E.W.T. level and the reason for such an absurdly difficult task, there was much he wanted to say about the Ministry of Magic’s stunted bylaws concerning qualifications of students, but none of it would have been beneficial to either of them when it came time for the Ministry and Marchbanks to issue results. In the meantime, he would just have to live vicariously through Hermione should she succeed.
When the ink set he procured another cup of tea and saw to the multiple answer responses next. They, too, were standard Ministry issue enquiries and mostly about himself; how long have you known the applicant; how many years of experience do you have mentoring applicants; how many previous applicants have you mentored; of those applicants, how many achieved N.E.W.T. level certification… The list went on and on, three full parchment sections worth, and by the time Severus had finished he had a crick in his neck and his writing hand was beginning to stiffen from the tedious, repetitive motion of bubbling in the tiny circles next to his intended response. More than that, he felt scoured-open, meaninglessly frustrated at having to revisit things he would rather forget.
Severus left his spot at the kitchen table, turning his head this way and then the other to loosen strained tendons and muscle, and went to look out the small window above the sink, desperate to clear his head. He prodded at his neck and felt the knotted sinew under the damaged tissue tighten. It had not begun to ache yet, just the maddening prickle of too much pressure he would have consciously work to ignore.
The new norm, he thought as the mid-day light caught just right in the shadows, revealing a vague reflection of himself in the glass. The deliberate effort of working to ignore the white-pink permanence of the scar and all it stood for faded away, and as it did he suddenly remembered everything. The thrill and danger and blind stupidity of his youth and his fear and frustration and inanity of his adult life thus far. He thought of his ill-fated career and his failures as a man…
I’m looking back again, Severus thought, pressing the heels of both hands to his eyes. Fuck me, I am. I need to look the other way.
By some small mercy, someone was suddenly at his stoop, the sound of precise Apparition reverberating throughout the empty house and his internal litany. Severus did not move for an endless dreadful moment, everything misted-over with the past. Then, when he heard the first knock, he took a deep breath and turned away all at once for the front room, like a man drawing a blade from a wound.
He could make out his guest’s silhouette from beyond the curtained window and felt himself uncoil a fraction. She was early, by nearly a quarter hour, and looked to be bobbing from foot to foot in response to the penetrating February wind. The last time they spoke, she had thanked him. Thanked him for everything, whatever that meant. And over the last week he had found himself going back to their conversation, replaying it over and over, trying to puzzle through her intentions. He had come close to bringing it up to Adelaide in passing, but decided against it in the end, choosing instead to quietly suffer through the rumination.
Severus pushed the thought far, far away, chastising himself for fixating on inconsequential nonsense yet again and opened the front door.
“Miss Granger,” he said, his tone carefully even and his expression one of controlled passiveness. “Ever expeditious, I see.”
The wind caught the hood of her jumper when she turned and pulled it off her head, releasing the tangle of hair that had been unceremoniously gathered from the elements. She pushed the wind-whipped strands out of her face and offered him a warm smile. “Good afternoon, sir.”
He slid out of the way to allow her inside and noticed for the first time that she was clutching something small and polished in one of her hands. It had the initial likeness of Zella Shrout’s Silhouette frame, which caused something spidery and cold to crawl down his back, but once he really looked at it, the proportions were thankfully all wrong.
“What is that?” he said aloud, hoping she had not noticed his unease.
They both looked down at the rectangular thing. It appeared to be a solid block of glass with the dimensions of a miniature tea tin. “I think this might be the answer to all of our problems.” Hermione held it out for him to look but did not let it go. “This is my latest attempt.”
Upon closer inspection, Severus noticed the object was a clear box of sorts, and clearly charmed with a number of enchantments to keep whatever was inside from escaping. The magic radiating off the container gave the air around it a noticeable static charge. It was difficult not to reach out to touch it. Inside, something small and greenish-grey moved but the refraction from the lighting and the box’s specifications left the unknown thing distorted, warped beyond what his mind could decipher.
Severus scowled. “I still don’t know what I’m looking at.”
Hermione bit her lip, looking somewhat apologetic. She started to say something, then stopped as if searching for how to put the words together. A few moments later she turned toward the stairs with a certain careful casualness Severus found surprising. “It’s difficult to explain,” she said at last, one foot poised on the first step. “It’s probably better if I just show you.”
He followed her slowly up to the second floor, simultaneously irritable and interested. There was no indication of what to expect, and Severus found himself wondering what kind of direction she had decided to take. This lack of information pulled at him with every step he ascended, and by the time they were standing in his study, he had grown absurdly impatient.
“Let me see if I can do this properly,” Hermione said, shedding her thick winter coat on the back of a nearby chair. “I’ll need you to hold this, Professor. I can’t manipulate the box with one hand.”
He took the box, holding it with both hands and waited to see what she would do. It was deceivingly weightless and warm to the touch.
“Try not to jostle it,” she told him, and Severus found himself tensing in response. He watched carefully as she pointed the wand at the center of the box, the other hand poised at a corner, as if she were about take an invisible sheet of parchment between her fingers. She closed her eyes, her mouth moving quickly though no words escaped. There was no way to begin to guess what she was doing.
The box went suddenly cool in his hands, and as he looked down out of reflex Severus could have sworn he saw her physically peel back a layer of enchantment covering the top, the edges of the space around his hands becoming fluid.
He was just about to ask her what she was doing, but his eyes settled on the thing inside, his initial curiosity gave way to disappointment. “A cricket?”
“Not just an ordinary cricket. It’s a female Threnodee,” Hermione clarified, looking triumphant. “It took me a while to find supplemental material for Scamander’s book—his notes on North American magical fauna are somewhat stunted compared to other places he studied.”
The unfinished communication from the Examinations Authority flashed through his mind—they were probably breaking a handful of Ministry decrees by just having a foreign creature in their possession, let alone attempting experimental magic with it. He sat the glass box down on the workbench and gave her a sharp look. “How did you come by it?”
“That one there is on loan,” she said. Then, when his face did not change, “Hagrid owed me a favour. And before you ask, it is here legally, I made sure to check with the licensed Magizoologist when I met with him this morning.”
“Artemis Scamander,” said Hermione. “It seems he has followed in his father’s footsteps and was quite satisfied to indulge in my request so long as I promised to keep an eye on it. Scamander fashioned this case to keep it safe for transport and us unaffected,” she added as somewhat of an afterthought.
“I take it you just casually forgot to mention the fact you intended for it to be a potions ingredient?”
Hermione gaped at him. “I’m not going to toss it into a cauldron. That’s not how it works. And besides you told me I needed to get away from synthesized antidotes, and I suppose doing nothing apart from simply finding one is as far away as I can get.”
“What do you plan to do with it?”
“Listen to it. I don’t know if you’re familiar with what this particular species does, but when it sings, or chirps rather, it does so on a frequency that has been known to cause great emotional distress to those who are close enough to hear it. They predominantly inhabit places called scatter gardens, and feed on the…remains that people spread there.” Hermione handed him a single sheet of parchment. “It’s all there, my notes and theory.”
Severus took the notes, his eyes darting over the words quickly, trying to gain some semblance of meaning. Finally, he gave her a long and searching look.
Hermione looked back at him, a grin slowly pulling at the corners of her mouth. “Is it possible, you think? Everything I’ve found says it should work.”
That was the million-Galleon question.
“I don’t know,” Severus said quietly. He picked up the glass box to examine the creature inside. “I can’t recall anything like this ever being attempted. It sounds vaguely plausible to me, but there is no way to confirm it other than to attempt it and see what happens.”
“Do you want the honour today, or shall I?”
“It’s your turn.” He stalked past her to the storing rack that held the stoppered phials of draught and selected the one with the least amount of potion. “The entire thing,” he said, coming over to press the phial into Hermione’s hand. “Bottoms up.”
Hermione looked up at him, blinking, and wrapped her fingers around the tube. “To open the box, just put your hand over it, and tell it to open, the magic will do the rest.” She did not wait for him to respond before she swallowed all the Alihotsy Draught in a single, confident swing, and then settled back onto the stool looking less sure of herself as the seconds ticked by.
“After I’ve cast the Muffliato Charm over myself, I won’t be able to hear a word you say,” Severus told her quickly. “Once the potion has taken full effect—which I expect to happen in the next forty seconds or so—I’ll remove the lid.”
She kept her expression calm, which he had to give her credit for. “What if it doesn’t work?”
“Then I’ll intervene. And do try to compose yourself. Your imminent situation won’t be improved by mental nail-biting.”
She seemed on the threshold of asking another question, but whatever she had intended to say was strangled out by a sudden explosive shriek of laughter that nearly knocked her backward. Severus started forward to steady her, but she waved him off, and lowered herself to the floor while she still had some control of function.
He retrieved the half-empty jar of treacle and the enchanted box containing the cricket, keeping the former in his hands and placing the latter on the floor in front of her. Hermione’s laughter became louder until Severus cast the charm that produced a deafening silence that enveloped him. He placed his hand over the box, as she had previously done, and willed it to open. There was a slight sensation of discharge against his palm, like static shock, and the top of the box faded away entirely.
Several seconds passed, but Hermione’s laughter did not appear to subside. Although he could not hear her, a fact he regarded with a great deal of thankfulness, it was obvious that the cricket was not doing its job as the guffaws seemed to intensify.
The damned thing isn’t doing anything at all, Severus thought to himself. “Is it chirping?” he asked, more loudly than necessary due to his dulled sense of hearing, but despite his increased volume, she did not appear to hear him over her boisterous laughter. Severus grabbed her shoulder. “Can you hear it?”
Hermione managed to nod her head, and he detected a look of disappointment bordering on sadness in her eyes, which, he thought, produced a cruel irony when paired with her uncontrollably giggling. Severus bent to close the box’s lid, but she reached forward and scooped it up into her lap and out of his grasp. The look on her face was appalling, but he remained fixed where he stood even with his inner alarm quietly hissing at him to intervene.
Then she went very still, so still in fact, that Severus found himself kneeling down to get a better look at her. When their eyes met, she stared right through him as if he were not even there and was suddenly overcome with a terrible emotional collapse. She covered her face with her hands, and dissolved into violent, irrepressible tears.
Deprived of sound, it took his brain a while to catch up with what his eyes were showing him, and by the time he realised what was happening he still could not believe it. Hermione continued to cry in the brutal and almost retching spasms of someone very near the end of their strength, but she never stopped. Just when he thought her crying was about to subside into the familiar hitching gasps, they would start anew and with almost renewed force.
The current wracking fit she was having jostled the glass box and the cricket from her lap, and the insect came tumbling out on to the floor between them. Severus scooped the creature back into the box with a careful hand and conjured the lid back into place before ending the charm protecting him. The instant the charm dissipated he became keenly aware of the sounds coming from her, stunted mumblings that sounded like take it away slipping between her fingers.
His initial reaction was one of guilt. How long had she been pleading for him to end it? Severus reasoned it had not been all that long, a matter of minutes at the most, but that did little to quell the blame. He moved closer to her, the way one might, when trying to approach an injured animal.
“Are you alright?” he said quietly, not at all surprised when he received no kind response whatsoever. “Miss Granger,” he repeated, sharper. “Hermione?”
The sound of his voice was all it took to snap her out of whatever personal nightmare she had been in. He watched as her eyes, swollen and red, attempted to refocus, and before Severus had time to react her hands fisted into his lapels as a raw sob ratcheted out of her chest.
She drew herself closer to him the way one would reach for another in the time of great distress and Severus instinctively drew back from the unexpected contact, nearly falling backwards as a result. One arm wound around her waist and the other caught himself before they could both hit the floor. The moment he let her go Hermione’s hands relaxed a fraction and fell immediately away. She slumped on the floor in front him with her knees pulled up to her chest, arms wrapped securely around herself. There was a sense of collectively held breath between the two of them, but she was the one that finally broke through the silence:
“Oh God, I’m sorry,” she managed, breath coming in hitches. Severus could not tell if the redness in her face was from mortification or lack of proper airflow but suspected it to be a combination of the two.
He stood up, trying to salvage some dignity for the both of them. “Are you okay?”
“No,” she said, from behind her hands.
Her breathing was still irregular, which he did not like at all, but the tears and the laughter had stopped. Severus watched her carefully for any signs of distress and relaxed a little when she remained more or less the same. It still baffled him that she had yet to realise the feat she had just accomplished. He cleared his throat and said, “I thought you of all people would be a touch more enthusiastic than this.”
That got her attention. She looked up at him, the weight of what he had said finally hitting the mark. “It worked?”
“So it seems,” he said. “And you’re sitting on the floor, wasting valuable time.”
Severus held out a hand for her, which she regarded warily before finally giving in and taking it to get to her feet. She wobbled on her feet for a moment but seemed to find her footing a few steps later and he let her go.
“My throat hurts,” she said, swallowing hard. Her voice was noticeably shaken and strained.
“The Alihotsy stresses the vocal chords,” Severus told her. “Tea will help to soothe them, and there is a fresh enough pot in the kitchen.” He gestured toward the hall and watch as she slowly made her way toward the kitchen.
This discovery would be a quite a significant one in the world of Magizoology and would satisfy her N.E.W.T. requirements, despite the fact her method for countering the Alihotsy draught would likely never be used because of obvious constraints. Severus could not imagine who would ever prefer to go through what she had just endured rather than take a spoonful of treacle. He was on the verge of telling her all of this when she stopped abruptly a few paces in front of him, one hand going to the banister for support and the other to her throat.
She rubbed at her neck as if some invisible, many-legged thing was crawling across her skin, and as she did the world around them slowed down to a fraction of its normal speed and developed an unsettling, glossy clarity. He had been so stupid. Severus lunged to grab her before the inevitable happened but was not fast enough.
Hermione suddenly pitched forward, as if pushed savagely from behind, and fell with more force than her frame should have produced down to the bend of the staircase. Her head bounced off the thick trim that lined the base of the wall with an emphatic whack, and she lay squirming, quivering in such a way that he thought she would shake apart.
Severus half-ran, half-fell down the steps separating them. When he finally got to her, her complexion was faintly grey, and her eyes had gone wide and dark, the pupils swallowing up all but a fine ring of soft brown color. Severus took her face in both hands and looked at her sharply, expecting her to blink to adjust to the sudden closeness. He watched her carefully, waiting to see if her eyes would constrict back to normal, but they did not. Hermione opened her mouth to speak, but whatever she intended to say was cut short by a thin, piercing animal-like shriek that startled them both.
This was not good.
“No-air,” Hermione wheezed, and through the gasping laugh-like breathes there was a real urgency in her voice. “Can’t…b-breathe.”
Severus went cold all over, the skin on the back of his neck tingling as it crawled with gooseflesh. He wrenched one hand away from her and leaned back to extract the teaspoon from his trouser pocket, only to realise the Glumbumble treacle was still sitting on the floor of his study. It might has well have been eons away.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate on anything but her fingernails, which were digging into the meat of his arm despite the dense fabric of the jacket sleeve he wore. She clung to him like a leech, clearly and rightly panicked. With one hand still holding her upright, the other jutted out behind him stiffly as he spoke the spell that would send the jar hurdling from the first floor.
The jar smacked into his hand several heartbeats later with enough force that would lend itself to solid bruising, and he fumbled stupidly with the lid before finally prying it off. Severus spooned a hideous glob of the bitter treacle out and managed to get it into her mouth without making too much of a mess of both of them.
Hours seemed to pass before the treacle did its job and he heard the relieving sound of silence. Still shaking like a leaf, Hermione pulled the spoon from her mouth and looked at it like she was truly seeing it for the first time. A curious expression overtook her face, the recent events just beginning to penetrate her mind. She prodded at the top of her head with her free hand, and they both winced when her fingertips came back scarlet.
Hermione groaned and half-collapsed. Severus hauled her to her feet, supporting most of her weight and balance, and propelled her down the rest of the stairs. He deposited her awkwardly in his favorite chair before the hearth and conjured a dark coloured cloth out of thin air to apply to the wound. He was not sure of her constitution but would rather have not added a puddle of sick to their current problem.
“Do you think proximity has something to do with it?” she blurted. Hermione looked up at him, her pupils still dilated to cartoonish proportions from the Alihotsy, oblivious that her sudden movement had sent red droplets rolling down the side of her face and very nearly on his shoes when they dripped. She looked absurd, not to mention a trifle shell-shocked. “Reasonably that must be it, but I haven’t the foggiest idea of how to fix that issue right n—”
“Miss Granger. There is a part of me that almost feels some measure of satisfaction at your eagerness to figure out why your cricket didn’t work.” Severus tipped her head back down carefully and pushed back the limp curls slickened to her scalp by blood, revealing an angry but superficial gash where she had collided with the corner of the wall. “But most of me just wants you to hush and be still so I can fix your head.”
His bluntness had the bracing effect he had intended, and she fell silent as he tended to her injury. As with most head wounds, it looked far worse than it was. At this point, his biggest concern for her was the concussion she would develop as a result. The blood that coursed slowly down the side of her face was siphoned away with a wordless charm. The gash itself was still oozing red.
“This will need to be closed,” Severus told her, thinly. “Dittany would be ideal, but all I have on hand at the moment is Murtlap Essence. It won’t be instantaneous, but it will speed the process along enough to stop—”
“I’ve bled all over your floor,” interrupted Hermione, thoroughly chastened and oblivious to the conversation.
“Full marks for observation.” He was acutely aware that his voice had a strained, shallow tone to it. His arm hurt where she had clawed at him and his adrenaline had evaporated, leaving him feeling unsteady and faintly nauseated. Severus retreated to the cabinet along the adjacent wall that housed his liquors and bitters and splashed some well-seasoned Firewhisky in to two tumblers. “I’ll be back,” he said. He downed the contents of his own glass and held the other toward her. “Drink this. Slowly.”
Hermione accepted the offering, but he did not stay long enough to see if she followed through with the directions. Severus took to the stairs, covering them two at a time and did not stop until he was leaning against the interior side of his bathroom door. He needed a second to escape, and at the very least, a chance to breathe.
Except he could not breathe. His throat had all but closed, constricted by the realization of what had almost happened. Severus was suddenly furious. Furious that this latest attempt was disastrous bordering on deadly. Furious at himself for not seeing the signs sooner. Furious that the severity of the situation had not dawned on Hermione; she was far too calm to have almost asphyxiated on her own laughter. His hands tightened into fists. What if they had stayed in the room with the cricket longer, oblivious to what was growing out of control just under the surface…
Severus pushed himself toward the sink and stared down into the white basin while his own heart hammered in his ears. He needed to think. Clearly. He turned on the cold tap and let water run over his hands in a desperate effort to get the edges of his thoughts to sharpen. You will focus, he thought at his reflection. A familiar cleansing pain sang through his hands, brittle and intense, the stifling cold water rushing over flesh and bone triggering the hair on his forearms to stand on end in a useless attempt to trap and conserve heat. You will handle this, and you. Will. Get. On. With. It. He grabbed a towel from the hook on the wall to dry his hands and came very close to a fully-blown cardiac episode when a knock resounded through the door.
The words he had been about to say died half-formed as soon as he saw her standing on the other side of the door. In the light streaming through the bathroom window the new blood on her hand covering the cut was shockingly bright, and there seemed to be too much of it, much more than had been there before. He could not have possibly left her alone that long.
“I am sorry about all of this, really.” She was pale, but with an unhealthy tinge high on her cheekbones. “I should go.”
That was so patently absurd that Severus did not feel it merited a response. Instead he ushered her into the loo and sat her down on the ledge of the bathtub. “I need to close this.”
She flinched away when he touched her, and Severus stepped back, eyeing her cautiously. “What?”
“Your hands are freezing,” Hermione said. When their eyes met, something heavy constricted inside his chest, a sickening feeling of being caught out. Of being discovered. Was he really that transparent?
Severus turned for the medicine cabinet, telling himself there was no possible way she would make the connection between his hands and that…temporary onslaught of panic. It felt ridiculous, hiding amongst the various toiletries and tonics while he raged an insidious mental battle with himself, but the alternative was to wage that same battle with an actively bleeding audience.
“There is a good chance you’ve concussed yourself.” Severus handed her a stoppered bottle of Murtlap and a container of extra strength Muggle Paracetamol and began parting her hair to reach the gash. “Minerva would have my head if I let you out of my sight so soon after.”
Hermione swallowed two of the bone-dry capsules and cleared her throat, as if to force them down. “I won’t tell, if you won’t.”
She sounded unhappy, but the innocently spoken phrase eased some of the tightness in his chest. Severus tried not to let his relief show and quickly changed the subject.
“That is an interesting thing,” he said. “Your cuff, there. I don’t think I’ve seen you without it.”
“It’s for whenever I forget what I’m capable of,” Hermione answered. Severus glanced down to see her tracing the etched lion’s mane with her fingers. “It’s stupid, I know. What sort of person needs a trinket to keep themselves grounded.”
It’s not stupid if it works, he thought, his consciousness coughing up the image of his own trinket and the black-haired girl it contained. Severus poured a generous portion of the Murtlap Essence down over the cut, expecting her to tense away again, but she just sat there slumped on the edge of his bathtub, idly running her fingers over the leather and the brass.
“This should stop the bleeding, but you’ll need to reapply the solution.”
“Thank you, Professor Snape.” Hermione handed him back the tablet bottle and released a shaky sigh. “I know playing matron wasn’t what you signed up for.”
“No,” Severus agreed, returning the items to the cabinet, “but potions work will go badly from time to time.”
“Have you ever seen it go that badly?”
Severus leaned against the sink, arms folded across his chest. “I have seen countless cauldrons explode due to mishandled ingredients and people faint dead away from breathing things they were told not to breath. And there was one instance, some years ago, when a former of student of mine partially transformed herself into a cat.”
She said nothing to that, but at least had the good grace to look somewhat sheepish. The corner of his mouth twitched in the beginning of a smile, and Severus inclined his head toward the opened door. “You and I both have work to do, and I don’t feel particularly comfortable with the idea of you traipsing back to Hogsmeade unsupervised with a traumatic head injury. You can use the extra space in the study.”
“I don’t want to impose any more than I already have today,” Hermione said, but there was no conviction that he could hear behind it.
“You are in no position to dictate, Miss Granger,” said Severus, leaving her where she sat in the loo. “Come on, and don’t complain.”
Two hours later they were still in his study, a symphony of hushed sounds coming together with harmonious purpose. The quiet, constant hissing of the cauldron over open flame was supported by regular clinking of the glass stirring rod against the pewter side. Occasionally the rhythmic turning of a page or the soft, subtle sound of the nib of a quill passing across a sheet of parchment could be separated with a practiced ear. The sounds of careful potions work and tedious research were the beat by which Severus Snape and Hermione Granger marched steadily, albeit blindly toward her goal of a successful N.E.W.T. project.
After the disastrous experiment, the two had relaxed into a sort of mutual silence, each engrossed in their own individual tasks, but acutely aware of the other. He could not have said how she felt about being holed up with him in a precautionary means, but he was coming to find the presence of someone oddly consolatory. Several times he had stopped himself just shy of initiating a conversation not pertaining to her N.E.W.T. project, realising at the last moment who she was not. He chose instead to only speak to her when spoken to, resigning himself to the familiar, mind-numbing rotation of chopping and stirring and chopping and stirring.
“I hate this,” she said to herself, all at once and without a hint of explanation. In the quietness her voice carried.
Severus cast a quick glance from his work to where she sat in the corner surrounded by her books. “Mm?”
Hermione shook her head as if to dislodge whatever train of thought had found its way to her mind. “It’s nothing.”
This time he put down the stirring rod and turned to look at her more closely, peculiarly intent. She had the increasingly familiar look on her face as if she were on the verge of tears, sitting rigid on the stool, looking down at the book on the table.
“It isn’t nothing,” he said. “And before you try to tell me it’s nothing again, know that I am very deliberately choosing not to read your mind for courtesy’s sake, so unless you’d prefer that option, you had best tell me what’s the matter and save us both the trouble.”
Severus waited to see if that old tactic would work as it had done several times during his tenure as Head of House at Hogwarts when an emotional and equally unforthcoming Slytherin student found themselves in front of him and his limited patience. He had never actually had to do it, and would have most likely been lectured for it had he tried it, but threat alone was usually enough to open the flood gates without invading someone’s mind.
Hermione flipped through her book. “You wouldn’t do that,” she said at last, though an undercurrent in her tone clearly implied that she knew it was not entirely impossible either.
He said nothing, but made a small adjustment to his stance so that he was facing her directly. She glanced up from her book, but looked away instantly when their eyes met.
Severus sighed. “Fine. I don’t have time for this and—”
“It’s just—I am terrible at not being able to figure things out,” Hermione blurted, and the floodgates burst open. “Figuring things out is what I do. I don’t always know how to fix or solve every problem I come across from the start, but I can always find some kind of solution if I dig hard enough. With this,” she said gesturing to her notebooks, which contained every single failure she had had to date, “I can’t figure this out no matter how deep I go, and I don’t know what to do, and it bothers me, and I hate it. On top of that, I received a notice today from the Examinations Authority. They want an update on my progress, and I have nothing at all to show for it.”
Severus nodded toward the work table. “You have all of that.”
Hermione buried her face in her hands and emerged several seconds later looking miserable. “Not to be rude, but what good will that do?”
“It shows that you are trying, which is a great deal more impressive than ignoring official correspondence out of irrational fear of looking like a fool.” Severus waved a hand in the irritable gesture of someone trying to explain a rather multifaceted idea in a language foreign them. “Success and failure are not mutually exclusive, but rather two sides of the same coin.”
Hermione gave him a long-suffering look and pointed silently toward the top of her head.
“Yes, I’m fully aware of your most recent blunder, but you are missing the point.” He turned his attention back to the cauldron behind him, as if trying to buy himself time to figure out how to aptly convey the coming words. “The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions, and you have yet to dig yourself that deep. There was nuanced potential with your cricket, ingenious really. I was certain you’d figured it out, until you almost bashed your head in,” he said over his shoulder. “Regardless of whether you choose to see it for yourself, you are going in the right direction.”
Severus watched her face go through a series of expressions before it finally settled on one of satisfied surprise. “That…I believe that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
It was such an uncharacteristic thing for him to hear—to have someone acknowledge, even a little, that he was anything other than his usual caustic self—that he felt an embarrassed heat rise up his neck. Severus leaned forward, allowing his hair to curtain his face and kept his focus on his work. Something familiar.
As he stirred, Severus thought, very privately, of the similarities he shared with his former student. Small successes held paramount importance in the early stages of experimental potions work, both for the success of the project and the sanity of the wizard. Severus was no stranger to this or the effect it had on a potioneer’s confidence. Gifted as he had been in his youth, he was also no stranger to the feeling of having that confidence break down with each failed attempt or debunked theory and finally give way to disappointment. The simple fact remained that Hermione Granger, despite her intelligence, did not have the experience needed to understand the depth of the waters in which she swam.
“Perhaps I could spin this as a temporary fix until the Glumbumble Treacle can be administered. Granted you would have to know a registered Magizoologist to obtain it, but it still works for whatever reason.”
“While that assumption seems accurate it is technically wrong in almost every sense,” he told her flatly. “The Threnodee gives the impression that it works, but it doesn’t. Not in the way you need it to. My guess is that, for whatever reason, it overrides the side effects of the Alithotsy temporarily, but the Alithotsy is still at work behind the scenes, you just don’t see it.”
“How did you figure it out?”
“I didn’t notice it at first,” Severus admitted, “but your eyes gave it away. The pupil dilation was extreme, which is a sign of the hysteria.”
She cocked her head to the side, as if trying to reason through that logic, then said, “Why do you think it worked for a time then stopped?”
“You said it yourself earlier.” He could feel her eyes settle on his back, carefully and intently aware, and Severus was suddenly aware of having to squash the urge to fidget like an awkward schoolboy. “Proximity is essential. Something about the frequency in which that thing makes noise is enough to provoke an auditory distraction to offset the fit. That block can’t work unless you’re near it.”
“It was awful,” said Hermione, sounding tired. “It’s almost like my body was fighting with itself over the two conflicting emotions.”
Severus turned the heat off the cauldron and turned around to look at her again, leaning against the work table with his hands in his front pockets. “Is that what it felt like?” he asked, clinical interesting surfacing at last.
Hermione was still looking at him, her brown eyes narrowing in consideration. “It’s difficult to put a name to it, but it was like being bombarded with too much of everything, and all at once. And then it was just this dreadful…pain. Not like physical pain, but—” She trailed off and gestured toward her chest with an odd look on her face. “It made me weary, deep within, if that makes sense at all.”
“It does,” Severus said. He eyed the cricket in its glass case beside her, profoundly thankful that he had not been the one on the receiving end of the trial this time. In that same span of thought, he also wondered what on earth she could have experienced that would have elicited her response. “Emotional pain or distress tends to leave an impression we don’t often realise is there. You may not remember every happy event that’s ever happened to you, but it near impossible to forget the bad. Especially when it’s forced upon you, as was your case, apparently.”
She offered a meek smile in agreement, though her eyes were distant. “It was like someone had bottled up every awful thing that had ever happened to me and were slowly allowing them to slip back inside my head one at a time. I couldn’t think of anything but that.”
Severus very nearly asked her what those awful things were outright but stopped himself on the basis of general etiquette and the fact that it was absolutely none of his business. He straightened himself and reached for an empty rack of phials to begin siphoning the newly brewed Alihotsy Draught off. “How’s your head?”
She ran a hand gingerly over her scalp. “There is definitely a knot there now.”
He filled one phial and reached for another, keeping his inflection carefully neutral. “No other symptoms?”
“You needn’t worry about me, Professor Snape,” Hermione said. “I’m fine, really.”
Fair enough, Severus thought, simultaneously trying not to fret or notice that he was in fact doing so, because both were absurd.
“Are you alright?”
The question came out of nowhere, tearing through his thoughts like a rogue Bludger. Severus froze, his mind racing against the sense of dread that was there waiting to spread. “You have more pressing issues to see to than my well-being, Miss Granger,” he said, aiming for a reprimanding tone but coming nowhere close to reaching the mark. “Your research for one.”
“I’ve got a lead on something I’ll have to work through,” Hermione said, sounding agitated. “And you’ve still not answered me, Professor. I know today was not ideal for either one of us, but I don’t want it to be a detriment to moving forward.”
Severus turned and stared at her. “What exactly are you implying?”
“For one, I don’t want to be handled like I’m made of glass,” she said, pointedly. “When you looked at me today right after I fell I saw something in your face I’ve never seen before.”
A cold lump dropped into the pit of his stomach as he stood there listening to her. “Which was?”
“You looked worried,” said Hermione. “And I don’t think it was just for me, either. The point I’m trying to make is that I will only be able to finish this with you. The Headmistress can’t help me anymore, and I certainly can’t do it myself—it’s you.”
Meaning dawned on him and before Severus could catch the words they came tumbling forward in a rush. “You don’t think I believe myself capable of doing this anymore. Is that what this is?”
“I don’t think you give yourself near the credit for what you can do,” Hermione told him. “What happened today was neither of our faults, but I could see from the look on your face that you saddled yourself with the blame.”
All he could do was stand there in a stunned silence, Hermione Granger looking at him in a way she had never looked at him before. That slight head-tilt and her brown eyes which were upsettingly aware and clear and focused, while his head was utter chaos. He wanted to get angry at her but all he found was reserved for himself. Fuck it all, he thought sourly. She is exactly right, and she knows it.
Hermione turned away from him and started to silently gather her things. And Severus let her, grateful that she had taken the initiative to end the day. “I really do appreciate your help, and I mean it when I say I can’t possibly hope to do this without you now,” she said, at last, throwing her purple bag over her shoulder and coming over to where he stood. For a brief panicked moment, Severus thought she was about to reach out to touch him, but her hand went past to where the clear box and the cricket sat. “I’ve have to get this miserable thing back to Hagrid before the castle gates close for the day.”
Severus started to follow her down to the first floor, but she stopped and smiled up at him. “I can see myself out, I know you still have several things to do up here.”
Say something, you idiot! Anything. Severus cleared his throat, not really knowing what was about to slip out of his mouth. “You have enough to worry about it. I assure you I’m fine. And…and I know you’re depending on me, so I give you my word that I’ll do all I can. Go home and get some rest.”
Hermione smiled at him, and he felt something snap deep down inside. “Thank you, Professor. And I suggest you do the same at some point,” Severus nodded in affirmation. “I can’t help but feel that we’re running out of time, so I’ll let you know when I figure someone out,” she responded. “Have a good night, Professor.”
The door clicked shut behind her, and he was alone again. Severus passed a hand over his face, squeezing his eyes shut against the sudden, thick sensation radiating through his head, and thought for the first time that he was the one out of his own depth.
Hello! It’s me again, the terribly inconstant and horribly slow updater. Life continues to be life, in all its splendid glory, but summer holiday is on the horizon, which means more time to write. My goal is to finish this up by the end of the year, but considering I’m starting masters level courses in the fall we all know that might not be the case. At any rate, I do deeply appreciate every single review, every single follow, and every single favorite—those small tokens let me know I’m not the only one that enjoys my nonsense. Happy reading to all!