Voldemort had taken over Hogwarts. Severus Snape was headmaster. The Carrows had been installed. Tortures were being carried out daily. Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley had fled to find a way to defeat the monster. And Hermione Granger, captured before she too could flee the school grounds, tried to commit suicide.
She knew too well what they would try to do to her – she had the highest marks in her classes, and they would try to force her to work for them, or torture her for information. The Carrows were experts at it, physically and emotionally. And she knew the horrible things they did to the young girls in particular. She couldn’t bear the thought of it. So she brewed her own poison, and gulped it down in the girl’s lavatory.
When she awoke, she found herself in the hospital wing, alive, but just barely.
“It is his lordship’s will that she should live,” came that dark monotone she knew so well from her days in potions class.
“That’s all the poor little chick means to you, is it? Some more fodder for your vile scum of a…”
“Enough, Pomfrey, and do not dare to presume the freedom to talk such treason in my presence again. I am here per my knowledge of poison, and as such must look to her according to my expertise.”
Hermione heard Snape sit down next to the cot she was lying on and start fuddling with something. When she managed to turn her neck, she saw needles and scalpels.
“Thought you were getting away from us, my delightful little Gryffindor,” he hissed. “It seems your potion failed you; should have listened better in my classes, hmm?”
When he took hold of her arm, she started fighting him for all she was worth. “Puppet, you cowardly murdering puppet, let me go!” Then she scratched and spit in his face.
“Dammit, you bloody Molly-cock, I’ll teach you…” He forced her down, putting a harder pressure on her arm until she whimpered and stopped her struggle as the needle punctured her. Everything went blank after that.
Every day it went like this, the fighting and the clawing and the being overpowered. Snape had realized the necessity of purifying her blood, so he had prescribed a special type of leeches that glowed eerily in the dark. Indeed, without them, he predicted, she would most certainly be dead by the end of the week.
On the fifth day of this treatment, Pomfrey took the liberty of warning him how very weak she was, that this constant bleeding would surely be the end of her.
“And if it’s not done, it will be the end of her,” he stated. “Now leave me to my work.”
The headmaster took his usual seat beside Hermione’s cot and took her hand mechanically, as he always did before applying the leeches. But the deathly coldness of it made him pause. Her eyes were as frosty and faraway as the window glass, and she regarded him without any visible emotional reaction. Her slight shivering was practically the only thing that assured him she was still in the land of the living.
What finally did cause her eyes to take on a shade of recognition of her surroundings was when she felt him place his other hand on top of hers and massage it slightly. Then, strange thing, she felt his breath fall over it, and it started to grow warmer. Their eyes locked for a moment.
“Miss Granger, your hair is in a state of utter disrepair,” he noted in his dead-pan monotone. “The past two years of your efforts to straighten it and make it comely have utterly come undone. You have returned to being the bushy-haired, buck-teethed sight for sore eyes you always were.”
Now her eyes flashed, wide awake. “You…are evil,” she hissed.
A satisfied smirk touched his lips. “And your reflexes aren’t quite dead, after all.”
He started opening the surgical kit, pulling out the instruments for cutting and the jar of leeches for drawing. When he started to open another vein on her arm, he braced himself for her fight to pull away from him as usual. But this time, she reacted to the pain by just squeezing his hand harder. It rather unnerved him…to know that she was quite sure he was evil, and yet was still clinging to him with a desperate gleam in her gaze.
When he placed the leeches on her lanced arm to suck up the blood, her eyes blearily fixated on the eerie glow they emanated.
“Miss Granger, perhaps…focusing on worms crawling over open flesh is not best for your stomach or state of mind.”
“Where…where am I…supposed to look?” she blurted.
“There is a ceiling,” he offered.
“Designs…make me dizzy.”
“Other side of the room?”
“Anything wrong with the dark?” he snickered wryly.
She swallowed. “Scares…scares me…”
“One can get used to it,” he remarked.
“Not me,” she rasped.
Snape shifted. “Stubborn child, why don’t you just…look at me?”
“Because…you’re evil,” she spat. “You’re a murderer, and I hate you…I hate you!”
“Then why are you clutching my hand like there’s no tomorrow?”
“So if the Dark Lord were sitting where I am right now, you’d be holding his hand instead?”
“I’m afraid you’re being most inconsistent,” he sighed, and then made an effort to pry her hand off of his.
But she just squeezed it tighter, and then started to sob. “I…I don’t know…I’m just…so…scared…”
“Miss Granger…pull yourself together,” he ordered flatly. “This gush of emotion is helping nothing and no one.”
She was shivering worse now. “I…I don’t want to die…I don’t want anyone to die…”
“I know,” he confirmed, a softer edge creeping into his voice.
“I just want to go home…” she whispered.
“Everyone…wants to go home in the end,” he conceded lowly. “But sometimes…there’s nowhere left to go, and you pine away yearning for a place nigh impossible to return to. That would be a waste, Miss Granger.” He started to dab the tears off of her face with a napkin. “In times such as these, each one of us must simply shift as best we can.”
“You’re shifting well enough, it seems,” she growled. “You…you killed for your precious position. Are you really happy with it, even with blood on your hands?”
He looked down for a moment. “What’s done is done. But do you really think it will protect me from the winds now blowing? No…the end is in clearer sight for me than it is for you, my motley little Gryffindor.”
“Want me to pity you?” she snapped.
“All I want from you now is for you to go to sleep,” he answered, starting to remove the leeches from her arm and staunch the blood flow.
“I…I don’t want to,” she retorted. “I dream horrible things…”
“Not an uncommon malady,” he assured. “But one can adjust to it. They are only dreams, after all.”
“But I can’t even think of anything…nice anymore,” she whispered, and there was immeasurable dejection in her voice.
“‘Nice’ is an overrated word,” he scoffed. “Why don’t you go down the middle? Think of something…strange, surreal, haunting…but not…terrible.”
“What…what do you mean?”
He exhaled, placing his other hand back on top of hers. “Close your eyes, girl.”
“Just…do as I say.”
Reluctantly, she complied. For a long time, nothing happened at all. He was still letting her hold his hand, and she could hear his breaths falling in and out in a rhythm that made her a little drowsy, in spite of herself. And then…she heard him speak:
“O what can ail thee, knight at arms, alone and palely loitering, though the sedge is withered from the lake, and no birds sing?”
What on earth was he doing, in that deep, dark voice of his? Why was it making her heart thump slowly, slowly, and then swell?
“O what can ail thee, knight at arms, so haggard and so woe-become, when the squirrel’s granary is full and the harvest’s done?”
She thought she could hear the frost forming on the ground, and the icicles hardening on the trees, but something deep inside her started to thaw…it was a strange feeling…
“I see a lily on thy brow with anguish moist, and fever-dew, and on thy cheeks a fading rose fast withereth too…”
She felt the cloth of the napkin touch her forehead, and wipe away the perspiration. It was soft…
“I met a lady in the meads, full beautiful, a faery’s child, her hair was long, her foot was light, and her eyes were wild…”
His voice seemed to crack at the end, and then he fell silent. There was a heaviness in that silence, and Hermione opened her eyes again.
“Keep going,” she whispered, seeming to have reached past all that stood between them in the pursuit of this single moment that enabled her to feel safe in the company of his humanity.
“I should…be leaving,” he informed her.
“No…no, I…” On instinct, she pulled his hand closer to her until it brushed against her cheek. “I’m hurting…help me…”
His eyes were closed, and she felt his grasp tightening around her hand.
“There she lulled me asleep, and there I dreamed, ah, woe betide, the latest dream I ever dreamt on the cold hillside…”
Oh, oh, that was it…his voice was heavy…with the loss of love…as winter is heavy…with the loss of the summer…
“And this is why I sojourn here, alone and palely loitering, though the sedge is withered from the lake, and no birds sing…and no birds sing…”
And she squeezed his hand back, once more, and fell into a deep, deep sleep.
When Hermione awoke in the morning, Snape was still sitting in the same chair, but the medical material on the table had been replaced by mugs of some hot drink, her turquoise sweater, and a book…she could not make out the title.
“So…you survived,” the headmaster noted.
“No, I’m really dead…can’t you tell?” she jabbed in between a yawn. Then she squinted at him. “You…stayed.”
He made no reaction whatsoever, almost refusing to acknowledge that she had even made the statement. Then she started to shiver again. The hospital wing got so cold overnight…
“Here,” he offered, picking up the sweater, and leaning forward to help her put it on. “You’d better…”
“I can manage on my own…”
“Actually, you can’t,” he countered, helping her sit up and get her arms through the sleeves one at a time.
She peered over at the mug on the end table. “What is that stuff?”
“Madame Pomfrey’s doing, not mine,” he assured. “Although I do believe it to be hot chocolate with an overindulgent excess of whipped cream.”
She smiled slightly as she was handed the mug. “That…was sweet of her.”
“I’m afraid she’s grown rather fond of you over the years,” he observed. “The prospect of your dying left her rather out of sorts.”
She looked at him questioningly. “So…am I going to die?”
“It’s my professional opinion that you’re rather hard to kill, even by your own hand,” he declared, raising an eyebrow haughtily. “Last night was the last treatment; you should heal on your own from here, if you don’t do any further harm to yourself.”
“As if you don’t understand why I did it,” she mumbled, testily.
“I’m not so sure if I do. Perhaps your little friends will marvel you by crashing in for the rescue yet,” Snape suggested sarcastically.
She gave him dagger eyes as she took a deep sip of the hot chocolate. “Don’t underestimate them, sir.”
“One never knows,” he admitted with a shrug. “They may…get some help they really don’t deserve. Maybe a marsh nymph or a guardian angel or maybe…” He paused, and his tone dropped seriously. “Maybe it will be from someone…they haven’t a clue is risking his neck….who finds the methods of the Carrows just as repugnant as you do.”
“An unsung hero?” she presented.
“Maybe. You should know by now, with your claim at a keen intellect, that not all things in this world are obvious upon first glance. Some…are decidedly masked.” He finished the last swallow of his own chocolate and started to stand.
“Just so you know, your fancy poetry didn’t put some sort of spell on me,” she trumpeted. “I won’t be embracing the dark side any time soon, and you can tell your lordship I said that, too. I don’t care what they do to me; my friends will come back for me, with or without help, and I won’t have stained my hands or mind helping him, so…there.”
“You are quite mad,” he stated quietly.
“I am not,” she shot back. “I just happen to have more principle than you do.”
“I’m sorry, but nothing you say shall alter my report to his lordship,” he rambled on, packing up the surgical bag and heading for the door. “That poison has left you quite permanently addled in the head, Miss Granger. You are really only fit for…the birds. But I’m sure Pomfrey won’t mind humoring your irrational condition…might keep her company in these lonely quarters to have you around, like some chattering parrot.”
She blinked suddenly realizing what he was doing. He was…saving her. And suddenly she understood an unknown something. It was a gut instinct alone, and yet she knew…and she felt the burden that had weighed on her somehow take wing and fly away.
“Will you…come back to check up on me?” she asked meekly.
He snorted. “Glutton for punishment, aren’t you?”
“Well, that way I’ll…I’ll know you’re still…alright.”
Now Snape just stared at her, seemingly shocked that she should care at all. He shook himself out of it, and jutted his chin towards the book on the end table. “Your reading material should keep you busy for a while. When you finish with it, if you wish, I can bring another volume for you.”
“I’m a fast reader,” she noted, and a slight, sneaking smile twitched at the corner of her mouth.
He gave a brief nod of his head, then turned and was gone.
Hermione gazed over at the book and pulled it over onto her lap. It was one of those old books one finds forgotten in someone’s attic, or in an old curiosity shop, with the binding frayed and the letters in the title faded gold. It read: “A Collection of World Fairytales.”
She raised one eyebrow, and flipped it open to the place where the page was folded back.
“Beauty and the Beast,” she read the chapter title out loud. She thought for a moment. “And not all things are as they first appear…”