Disclaimer: I'm not muscling in on JK's turf - just gambolling on it, like a spring lamb, having fun working out the literary and psychological puzzles which she is having fun setting us
There was another reason why he hoped that that particular morning wake-up call would not become a regular occurrence. Waking up like that next to Hermione had been one thing - a moment of spontaneous pleasure; of grace, even, however embarrassing. But discreet experiment in the shower (itself a necessity, now, since cleansing charms could not combat the sweaty stickiness brought on by enforced bed-rest) showed him that his own reaction to sexual climax was now dangerously unpredictable. At some times it was a pleasant palliative, easing the rheumatic ache which prolonged exposure to the Cruciatus had bitten into his bones; at others it brought a flood of darkness and the memory of being tossed back and forth between his attackers like a rag-doll, forced into an answering, shaming response he hated but could do nothing to prevent.
There was no predicting what would bring on that rush of darkness, which he thought of as a kind of psychological equivalent of raw sewage. Things that seemed harmless to him today might snag some trailing thread of memory tomorrow and trigger an attack. Since he could do nothing to prevent it there was, on the one hand, little point in worrying about it - on the other, the inevitability of terror, his inability to control his own emotions, fed into his sense of helplessness and bitter self-disgust.
"Of course, this is only a prototype" Filius said fussily, standing on tiptoe to adjust the straps which held the wooden arm in place. "When it's finished we should be able to dispense with the harness."
"We should be very glad to do so," Snape said sourly, "since we have no desire to go around looking like some sort of exotic pervert."
"Why, Severus," purred Minerva, whose turn it was to sit with him, "I had no idea you were planning to appear before the school bare-chested." He glared at her, and she smiled back in what he considered to be an offensively bland way. "Do let me know in advance - I could make a fortune selling tickets."
Filius Flitwick made an inelegant snorting noise, which he turned into a spluttering cough. Snape glowered at them both. "When you've quite finished amusing yourselves at my expense...."
But there was no real malice in him, not today. Most of the time, he could trick himself into not noticing the absence where his left arm should be, but seeing a thing there which was so clearly not natural flesh was horribly disturbing, and Minerva's teasing at least distracted him from feeling sick - the devious cat.
"How does that feel?" the little Charms master asked, tapping the prosthetic arm with his wand to activate it. "More to the point, does it feel?"
It took several minutes to remember how to move the wasted muscles of his shoulder as if he had an arm again, and to convince his nervous system that this wooden outgrowth was connected to it. Snape was sweating by the time he had managed to move the thing in a clumsy wave, which ended with the hand striking against the edge of the couch with a dull thunk. "Hard to tell" he said through clenched teeth, breathing hard. "I think - think I can feel something in the hand itself, not just pressure on my shoulder, but it's hard to be sure."
Minerva stood up and folded down, flowing into herself and reshaping like water, and the rangy grey tabby which was left in her place reared up and dug a pawful of claws lightly into the back of the willow-wood hand. Snape jumped slightly and jerked the hand away. "I did feel that, a little - I wouldn't say that it hurt but I did feel pressure."
"That's very good," Filius said, as the tabby flowed back into a woman, and he held up a drinking-glass in front of his patient. "Try and grasp this, now."
With an effort of will, Snape managed to move the false hand towards the glass, clumsily, jerkily, but the creamy willow-wood was heavy and he over-reached, knocking the vessel from his former colleague's hand and smashing it on the cold stone floor. He stared at the debris dumbly, feeling like weeping, but Filius patted him on the shoulder. "It's a good start, Severus," he said as he reconstituted the glass with a flick of his wand. "We just need to work on it."
"What is it? What's happened?" Luna said sharply, her usual vagueness forgotten.
Neville looked up briefly. "Oh, hello. Professor Snape - a bit of soot from the chimney got into his glass and he thought the water was - well - " He held the shuddering man in his arms, firmly but gently. "Breathe now, sir, that's it...."
"He thought it was something dirty or poisonous" she said calmly. "He's going to faint in a minute - he needs to put his head between his knees." Snape made a convulsive movement at that, trying to draw breath to say something suitably scathing, but she sat down next to him on the bed, on the other side from Neville, and put her arms round him, bracing him so that he could lean forwards without collapsing.
Neville saw what she was doing and shifted so that his knee was almost touching hers and they supported Snape between them, so that he could lean forwards over their twin knees with his head bowed, biting back nausea and waiting for the world to stop spinning. "God," he said bitterly, when be could trust himself to speak, "what a bloody pathetic excuse for a human being you must think me."
"That's all right," Luna said, stroking his bent back. "Remember what Schmendrick the Magician said: 'Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed'." Sunny and unruffled, she caught Neville's eye and smiled.
Not only could he not predict or prevent the sudden onrush of panic; not only did he find Filius's work on the prosthesis as much disturbing as encouraging; he also didn't know how to behave around the Granger girl any more. It was - flattering to think that she still registered him as male enough to find sharing a bed with him potentially erotic despite knowing what had been done to him; but the concept was disturbing on so many levels.
The idea of anybody, but especially a student, viewing him in a potentially sexual way was disturbing in itself; terrifying and exhilarating by turns, but the last thing he wanted to do was to make a fool of himself and lay himself open to further humiliation by fixating on her; quite apart from the ethical issues it would raise. Yet his reaction to her, he knew, had not simply been because she was female - Lovegood roused no such response, but in Granger's case he had now had occasion several times to be grateful for her tact and discretion of a morning.
He was worried about the girl, anyway. Amazing though it might be, in a Gryffindor and a friend of Potter's, he had to admit that the chit had a good brain (and just because he acknowledged that fact didn't mean he had to do anything so juvenile and hopeless as "fancy" her). The only reason she had not been made Head Girl this year was to allow her time to do the extra studying needed to go for Special Merit in her NEWTs, and yet here she was, spending an inordinate amount of time looking after his worthless carcase. But at least he could return the favour by making her free of his books (well, most of them) and talking through her essays with her.
So he was polite, almost cordial towards her (at least by his standards), but always strictly professional, at least when he wasn't raving in the grip of the latest nightmare. Reading through obscure Arithmancy texts with her meant that he seldom had to meet her eye; a welcome relief, since now he was the one who flushed scarlet whenever his traitor memory reminded him of how she had looked standing in his bathroom-doorway, mother-naked except for a one-handed fistful of towel.
This time, it was Luna who had spent the night, and Neville who came to relieve her. Snape seemed calm enough, if rather strained. Neville helped him to get to the lavatory, and then the shower, and then he and Luna sat and talked quietly over the sound of running water. While they were there, Hermione came in, having made a detour on her way to breakfast.
When Snape was done Neville helped him from the shower, using a combination of brute force and Mobilicorpus. "Miss Granger" Snape said, politely, not quite smiling. Hermione brandished a parchment, looking slightly flustered.
"I was wondering - if you were up which, of course, you are - only there's one point about the use of ice-egg runes which I'm not quite clear on, and I have to hand this essay in this morning."
"Friday the thirteenth" Neville said with a grin; "that's not a very good date for it. You might only get 'Exceeds Expectations' instead of 'Outstanding'."
"Don't joke," Luna said solemnly. "Everyone knows that Friday the Thirteenth is the day when the gates of reality open - and today is a very special day, anyway."
"And why is that?" Snape said, rolling his eyes slightly in expectation of some weirdness or other. "Apart from being the day before bloody stupid Valentine's Day - at least we don't have to endure Lockhart and his yodelling dwarves any more."
"Not just that," the blond girl said seriously, "although we do need to be concerned about the Ministry's plans to contaminate Honeydukes' Sugar Roses with a love-potion targeted on Minister Scrimgeour. But today is your anniversary; it's four months since you came back to us, so now you've been free for as long as you were a prisoner."
Snape stared at her in shock, his mouth working. Neville felt almost equally disturbed; the months since Snape had been returned to them seemed so long, and the thought that he had spent a similar length of time in such relentless agony was horrifying. And now the man was shaking, folding forwards and then sideways onto the bed with his arm clutched across his stomach, white-faced and running with sweat.
Hermione knelt down on the floor in front of him and took his hand in hers, gazing anxiously at his face. "Professor - sir. What is it? Can you tell me?"
"C-cut me open," he gasped through chattering teeth, "used me and then left, left me there in the dark and I c-couldn't call for help and it hurt, it hurt so much and I couldn’t scream, they wouldn't let me scream and I can't stop remembering oh God it hurts - "
"Shhh now, hush, it was all healed, there's no cut there now, we found you, remember, and you're quite safe...." She folded him rather awkwardly in her arms, her face pressed against his still-damp hair, and stroked his back just as Luna had done; but Neville noted that she, unlike Luna, had eyes only for Snape.
He had withdrawn from her, just a little, since That Morning. She couldn't blame him - it must have been as utterly mortifying for him as it was for her, and without the leavening pleasure which she had had of knowing he did, at least, notice she was a girl. She tried to match his dignified semi-formality but it was getting increasingly difficult - he would persist in being brilliant and approachable and oddly, wearily humorous.
She measured her Charms essay and frowned. Half an inch too short. She'd included all the relevant information, and Professor Snape had made a suggestion that had led her to what she thought was an interesting and creative conclusion on the use of Brightening Charms. But it was still too short, mostly because a not un-Snape-like little voice in the back of her mind had started voicing snide criticisms whenever she wandered off-topic or padded her essays with unnecessary information. Surely Professor Flitwick would forgive her a mere half-inch? He knew she was busy with much more important things than school-work.
Setting the Charms essay aside, she reached for her exercise book and opened it to the most recent list: "Daft Things I Find Myself Doing Because of Him".
1. Attempting to write sonnet - not very good.
2. Watching him sleep - ongoing.
3. Having dreams about him - irregular but ongoing.
4. Running out of bathroom naked except for towel - mortifying.
5. Regular Ten Minutes in Bathroom - ditto.
6. Using homework as pretext to see him even when it's not my turn - must stop, will arouse suspicion.
With a sigh, she picked up her quill again and added another point.
7. Making valentine I will never have the nerve to give him - irrational, but couldn't help myself.
Admittedly, it had been marginally more productive than either worrying about him or daydreaming over him, but only insofar as she now had a basic grasp of the art of flower-pressing. And how to steal some of Lavender's tacky silver ink without her noticing.
Hermione set down her quill and dropped her forehead to the table. "Hermione Granger, you are as silly as Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil put together," she told herself aloud. "I thought you had more sense, and I'm heartily ashamed of you."
It didn't work. It never did. Drat the man.
Although the Lovegood girl's casual comment about his "anniversary" had triggered a particularly disturbing flashback, still it made him feel that he had somehow progressed to a new stage of what he was now grudgingly prepared to think of as his recovery. He could even stand to have people look at him, now, without brooding all the time about the revulsion which they must feel.
Which, of course, was why he was now making astonishingly polite conversation with Arthur Weasley; a man whose kindness was so well known that Snape was cautiously prepared to accept his concern at face value.
"It was very good of you to come, Arthur - and now, I have something for you in return."
"Severus! There's no need, really."
"Oh, I wouldn't insult you with a material gift - even if I had the money for one, which I haven't." He gave the other man one of his oblique smirks. "No, I have something much better for you - I've found out what makes Muggle vehicles go."
"Gosh, really? What?"
"Apparently Muggles lose limbs in the things all the time."
"Good heavens! Are you sure?"
"Well - so Adrian says, and I'm nearly sure I believe him."
"So," Neville said cosily, as he helped Snape to sit up and change into his day-robes, "what about you and Hermione, then?"
"What about me and Hermione?"
"You do know she's mad about you, right?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Longbottom."
"You mean, you really haven't noticed?"
"Don't play games with me," the older man snapped, "and wipe that smug look off your face. What haven't I noticed?"
"Well, she can't take her eyes off you, can she?" Neville smiled fondly at him. "Luna's noticed, too - when you're in the room, Hermione can't pay attention to anything else even for a minute."
"And it hasn't occurred to you that she might just be - wary of me? Most people are, you know. Or - " He put his hand up, almost unconsciously, and touched the still-noticeable scar which ran from the corner of his mouth nearly to his ear. "I imagine that these exert the same kind of ghastly fascination as a bad Quidditch accident."
"Oh, no... wary is how she looks at me in Potions, I know that when I see it. She gets all sort of soft when she looks at you." Neville frowned a little. "Maybe I shouldn't've said anything... I just thought, from the way you look at her when she's not looking, and the way she looks at YOU, that you might... well... like to know."
"And exactly what way do I look at her, Longbottom?" Snape said sharply. "Think very carefully before you answer."
"As if she's beautiful," Neville said simply. "And a bit confusing, sometimes. But girls are, usually."
"I was under the impression that you found most things in life confusing, Longbottom," Snape said sourly. "Surely you must be aware that men do look at attractive girls without it - meaning anything. Other than that they are male."
"I didn't mean that sort of look." Neville shook his head. "It's the same sort of look she gives you - as if you're a sort of marvellous surprise that she can't quite take in all at once, so she has to keep looking." He paused and grinned suddenly. "And you find Hermione attractive, then? How long has that been going on?"
Snape resisted the urge to say "Since I saw her nearly naked." Amusing as it might be to toy with Longbottom's hormones, it would be dishonourable to betray Hermione's embarrassing little secret, especially as she had only been trying to protect him. "Since she ceased to be my pupil, I suppose, and I was free to see her as a - as a young woman rather than an old child." And he was marvellously surprized that she - that any of them - would give up so much time and energy just to care for him; but he wasn't about to admit to such a sentimental emotion in front of another male, in the cold sober light of day.
Neville nodded. "Well, I think she really likes you - and you like her, too, or you'd never put up with her fussing over you like a hen with one chick." He smiled, giving Snape's shoulder a little pat. "And you're lucky, she's really picky. I think she's only dated about twice all the time we've been at school."
"You're the only mother hen here" Snape said irritably, twitching away from the pat. "I'm amazed you don't actually cluck." He had to admit, though (even if only to himself) that if Hermione - if Granger had patted him he probably wouldn't have shied away. And it was true that her past romantic history, insofar as he was aware of it, did suggest a predilection for sullen, gangling youths with big noses.
Snape looked at the girl sideways and cleared his throat; a mild, tentative noise, like an anxious sheep. "Um, Granger - I wanted to ask you - "
She looked up from her essay, her frown of concentration loosening as he watched, and for a moment he couldn't think how to continue. He was accustomed to people's frowns getting deeper when they looked at him, not relaxing into this open pleasantness. "Sir?"
"Ah, well...." There was nothing for it: he'd started, now, and saying "Oh, nothing" would make him look like a fool. "Ah, Longbottom seems to think... ridiculous, I know, but he seems to think you might be... interested in me? I mean... I know you did say - what you said - about needing, ah, ten minutes of privacy but I assumed you just meant that I was... well, male, and in bed with you. I didn't think that it was... personal?"
Hermione blinked. "Why does Neville think that?" she asked, trying to sound casual. But a terrible, betraying blush rose in her cheeks, making her face feel hot, and she couldn't look him in the eye at all. Neville was going to regret opening his big, observant mouth if it was the very last thing she did before walling herself up in her bedroom so she could die of embarrassment in peace!
"He, um, seemed to think that you, ah - 'couldn't take your eyes off me' was one of the phrases he used, and he insisted that it wasn't just horrified fascination. 'Hen with one chick' was another."
"I... er...." The blush intensified. "Well, I do... uhm.... worry about you, of course." She still couldn't look him in the face, and found herself fiddling nervously with the edge of the sheet. "And we're friends, of course, and... er...."
He blinked for a moment at that. He counted several of his colleagues as friends, of a sort, so why did having a student think of him as a friend feel so damned odd - both sweet and bitter? Perhaps because, when he was a student himself, he would have sold his soul to have somebody call him friend in that natural way, as if it was a statement of fact and not just a ploy to get something out of him - especially after Lils had thrown him over. "I'm not sure whether to be flattered or offended," he said lightly, "since it puts me in the same category as Potter and Weasley, the Gryffindor Brains Truss." Come to think of it, he had sold his soul to have friends, or at least allies. Unconsciously, his hand moved through empty space, trying to rub at the mark which was no longer there - the one good thing which could be said for losing his limbs. "So, I presume I can tell Longbottom that you only watch me because you're afraid that if you take your eyes off me for an instant I'll do something stupid - like your other male friends?"
"Oh, no.... I mean, I don't worry about that. You're nothing like Harry and Ron." Hermione managed to look at him properly, still blushing very hard. He looked vaguely puzzled by the whole thing, and it was weirdly adorable. "And... er...." Before she could stop herself, the betraying words popped out. "Would it be, uhm, bad if Neville was... not completely wrong?"
Snape eyed her cautiously, feeling slightly stunned. "Merlin's teeth," he said quietly, "do you mean to tell me that you really do...?"
"Well, I didn't mean to tell you," she mumbled, looking down at her hands. "And Neville's in big trouble for telling you. But... uh... yes, I really do."
"Good God." After all that his captors had done to him last summer, if he had thought about it in advance he would have found the idea of somebody taking a sexual interest in him again terrifying; but the girl was being so obviously diffident and unsure that it was hard to feel seriously threatened. And yet - how could it possibly be true? "Is this a joke, Granger? Because if it is...."
If it is, his treacherous mind reminded him, that means that Longbottom is in on it - and he found himself curiously reluctant to believe that the boy would be so cruel. "I mean - just look at me. You've never actually struck me as insane."
"It's not a joke!" she said hastily. "I mean, it'd be a particularly dreadful one even if you were well. And I have looked at you and... well...." She fiddled with the edge of the sheet again, twisting it around her fingertips. "I didn't decide to feel this way, it just sort of... happened. And the more time I spend with you, the more it keeps on happening."
"You must have unusual tastes," he said lightly. "Generally speaking, the longer people know me, the less attractive they find me." He sighed and looked at her, frowning. "Look at me, Granger. Now - what did you think would or could be the outcome of this - eccentric fancy? I can assure you I am not in the habit of - indulging in dalliances with students."
Hermione took a deep breath, and looked down at her hands again. "I don't want..." Her voice cracked embarrassingly, and she gulped and tried again. "I don't want you to think that I... that I expect anything from you," she said falteringly. "I don't. I know you don't.... I mean, I always knew you wouldn't ever... er... feel about me the way I feel about you. I'm a student, and a kid, a-and an insufferable know-it-all, and I just... I didn't want you to feel as if I expect anything because I've been looking after you, and all, because I'd have done that anyway, it's just that I happen to... to care about you, a lot, and I didn't ever intend to tell you because... well, after everything you've been through, the last thing you need is an over-emotional teenager throwing herself at you."
She swallowed hard, knowing her face was unbecomingly crimson, her eyes probably almost as red from trying not to cry, and... well, all in all, not exactly a sight to stir a man's blood. She sniffed. "And we don't ever need to mention it again, if you don't want to, that's perfectly all right."
He reached out tentatively and brushed a tear from her cheek. "Don't cry, Granger, there's a good girl."
"You're not - angry with me?"
"Oh, no, I.... And I know all about hopeless teenage passion for an unobtainable object, believe me - but I never expected to be the object. I'll need to - think about that. A lot."
"You're not an object. You're an unobtainable person. And I don't see why not... loads of students have had crushes on you. You should read some of the graffiti in the fourth-floor girls' toilets." She gave him a lopsided, unhappy smile. "Although I don't think it is a crush, for me. I've had those, and this feels rather different."
"But - how? Why? I have never been anybody's idea of attractive, even before I was - maimed. Are you certain these - graffiti artistes aren't just having a joke at my expense? That would be the norm for teenage girls, in my experience. I mean - I don't mean that you.... At least, you don't give me that impression."
Hermione grinned suddenly. He was being so human, and his bewilderment was almost... cute. "Well, there's the obvious," she pointed out. "Aside from the odd temporary DADA teacher, you're the only male under sixty-five on the grounds who isn't a student. You may not ever earn 'Witch Weekly's Most Charming Smile', but given that you're competing with Hagrid and Professor Flitwick...." She shuddered. "And then, of course, there's your voice. You may not be aware of it, but you have a very sexy voice." She blushed a bit at that, but he obviously needed to know. "And the... well... aura of danger. You swoop around in those black robes, you purr menacingly, you smite egotistical DADA teachers with a single flip of your wand... a lot of girls are attracted to dangerous smouldering, you know." She paused. There was more, of course, but he was looking at her as if she'd lost her mind already.
"And there I thought I was keeping people at arms' length by, um, 'smouldering' - not attracting them. But the comparison is scarcely flattering - even I will admit to probably being a more appealing sexual prospect than Hagrid. To women less than eight feet tall, anyway."
She giggled suddenly, at the sheer silliness of that particular image. "This is very true. But it's true, and I wouldn't... belittle how important this is by lying to you. You are, in and of yourself, very attractive, but lack of choice is a factor too." She blushed, but forged ahead. "Aside from appearances... uh... well, any girl who's dealt with the amateur fumblings of adolescent boys, and then, say, watched you peel a shrivelfig.... There's a lot of appeal in the idea of someone with that kind of absolute precision of touch."
Snape turned suddenly and exceedingly pink. "It would never do" he said studiously to the corner of the ceiling, "to be clumsy in matters which require... delicate handling. As it were."
"Definitely." Hermione winced a bit. "Careless grabbing has caused many a teenaged boy to be murdered in his girlfriend's thoughts, believe me."
"I suspect I am nothing like as, um, experienced as you seem to assume, but I think I can safely say I've never caused a girl actually to contemplate murder. Not for that, anyway."
She blushed. "I... well, I didn't think you were hugely experienced, or anything, given how long it's just taken me to convince you that you're really quite fanciable," she pointed out. "But I can't imagine you ever being... inconsiderate, or too rough with the more delicate bits. And I'm sure you at least did the reading first." She couldn't help grinning at that. "I mean, nobody expects a brilliant first attempt, but if someone's not even going to consult a picture or a diagram indicating where you find what beforehand, they're just not even trying."
"And I'm sure you could draw us a full diagram complete with numbered parts, Granger" he said waspishly. "It wasn't easy to consult a book on anything - like that, with Sirius Black and James Bloody Potter and their parasites stalking me every moment of every bloody day. I got enough snide comments about my reading habits as it was. Though I did, um, sometimes have access to a Muggle public library during the holidays...."
Hermione blushed furiously. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply that... uhm... I mean, I just...." She trailed off, biting her lip. Very clever, Hermione. Try to refer to your shared obsessive reading habit and wind up insulting him. "It was a joke, mostly. Uhm. You've always commented on my tendency to rely on the textbook."
He snorted delicately. "A textbook is generally a good starting-point, Granger, but there are certain areas where there is really no substitute for... hands-on experience."
She blinked uncertainly, unsure how to respond. She ran hastily through the possibilities. He snarled when people cowered, snapped defensively when they were rude or dismissive... but he seemed to like honesty. Right. She could do honesty. "And when an opportunity to acquire hands-on experience presents itself, I'll certainly consider it," she said, quirking an eyebrow at him. "Until then, a knowledge of the theory is better than no knowledge at all... I mean, at least the rather peculiar-looking male anatomy isn't going to come as a shock. And when the opportunity to practise does... ah... arise, I assure you, I have every intention of excelling as much in that respect as I tried to in class." She paused, and then snickered quietly. "Although I don't think that whoever I'm practising on would take kindly to me stopping in the middle to make notes. Maybe a Dictaquill...."
Snape stared at her in some alarm. "Good grief. One of the things you're going to learn when you progress to the, um, practical instead of the theory is that men - as opposed to teenage boys - are quite easily unnerved. Under certain circumstances. It might be less - unnerving, under those particular circumstances, if you just stuck to using a Pensieve afterwards. I'm sure Albus would lend you his. If you explained what you wanted it for."
Hermione blushed and giggled at THAT thought. "Oh, I wouldn't have to," she said cheerfully. "I'm such a bookworm that teachers never suspect me of doing anything underhanded. Really, you're the only one who didn't blithely hand me anything I requested for 'a project' without a second thought." She started ticking things off on her fingers. "I got hold of Most Potente Potions in my second year... learned how to work a Protean Charm by the fifth despite it being restricted... Hagrid, bless him, will hand over a handful of unicorn hair or any other creature-based goodies without a second thought.... Honestly, if he'd had boomslang skin and bicorn horn, back in second year, I wouldn't have had to steal yours."
"Good God - I always thought that that was Potter... although I did think at the time that it was a more efficient bit of business than his usual blatant idiocies."
"No, Harry just did the diversion - he disrupted the class, I ducked in and out of your store-room, and you never even noticed that I'd gone." Hermione smiled wryly. "Did I ever thank you for helping Madam Pomfrey change me back from being a cat-girl? Because I was terrified that I'd be stuck that way for ever, and I'd honestly never been so glad to see you, at that point, as I was when you showed up in the infirmary with those potions."
"It was an impressive effect, but I have to say I prefer you with your own face. Not that I'm in a position to criticize anyone else's appearance at the moment - or ever, if it comes to that."
Hermione smiled ruefully. "I prefer my own face as well, believe me... and when it comes to carelessness-induced hilarious spell-damage, you may criticize as much as you like - one's own face is one thing, a furry whiskery one with a pink nose is something else altogether. You, I'm sure, would have made sure the hair you nicked off Millicent Bulstrode's robes was hers, and not her cat's. Even if she did have you in a headlock at the time."
He shuddered delicately. "I don't even want to think about the words 'Millicent Bulstrode' and 'headlock' in the same sentence. You're lucky you still have both ears."
"You're the one who paired us up, in that wretched duelling club exercise," Hermione pointed out, and then she smirked. "She only grabbed me because I knocked her wand out of her hand. She may be big, but I could flatten her in a magical duel... and then, as you say, get my ears handed to me." She paused. "And, you know, you were awfully dashing that day... flattening Lockhart and all, with just a wand-flick and a sneer. I was very impressed." He was never, EVER going to find out she'd had a crush on Lockhart at the time. She'd been thirteen. Anyone could make an error of judgement at that age. And she HAD been impressed.
"And there I was thinking you would have been rooting for the other side in that little encounter" he said lightly. "Considering your... predilection for dear Gilded-Boy."
Hermione blushed scarlet. "I was thirteen! Nobody has good judgement when they're thirteen! And, OK, I WAS worried that you'd hurt him, but that didn't mean you didn't impress me as well. And I'd ask you how you know, but I think even Ron noticed. And Ron's about as perceptive as a Flobberworm, most of the time... when it comes to girls, anyway."
"Oh, I think eight out of every ten Flobberworms would have more sense than to prefer Lavender Brown over the Brain of Gryffindor...."
"How did you...?"
"Longbottom - I get all the gossip." He smiled at her obliquely. "When I was thirteen I had a crush on the Quidditch mistress. She had thighs that could crack a Brazil nut and she made Hooch look girly, but I thought she was wonderful."
She smiled back, rather wistfully. "I... is it strange that I find that rather encouraging? I mean, I can't crack a Brazil nut, but if you fancied tough, bossy women at thirteen, there's at least a chance you will now. And... it did hurt at the time, that Ron just... went for Lavender so easily, but it's sort of a relief now. He moved on from her so easily too that when things weren't working out for us, I knew the signs and could call things off without worrying about hurting him - or having him do something very stupid in an attempt to make me ditch him, because he doesn't have the nerve to do it himself. And thank heavens I did, because he and I had been dancing around this... thing we had for so long, and I have no idea how I would have told him that somehow you had eclipsed him as utterly as the sun blots out the stars...."
She blushed at the odd expression on his face. "Well, I wouldn't have put it like that," she mumbled; "it would have hurt his feelings. But it's true. And... thank you, for saying that any sensible Flobberworm would have preferred me."
"Anybody with any taste would, I think - although perhaps not someone who thinks that a maroon jumper goes with red hair. But your taste is - surprizing. Flattering, but surprizing. Are a smooth voice that's been ruined by screaming my bloody guts out now anyway and a sinister manner I can hardly bloody practise lying down really enough to make up for this - grotesque - I was ugly to begin with, but now...."
"I like your face" she said seriously. "I always have, and a few scars aren't going to change that. It has strength and character and it's amazingly expressive, when you let it be. And let's face it, if I wanted boyish good looks, it's not like Harry's quick enough on the uptake around girls to get away. Or Ron, either, if I'd really tried. I like YOUR face. It never gets that 'duuuh, what did she just say' expression when I use long words."
"Which would, I can see, be a serious problem where Wonder-Boy and the Ginger Gorilla are concerned."
Hermione snickered. A tiny bit disloyal, perhaps, but she was glad he was at least up to continuing his tradition of insulting Harry and Ron. "Oh, God, yes. Did you know, despite everything we've gone through, they still haven't read Hogwarts: A History? They just make a wild supposition then wait for me to dredge up the appropriate information for them. Which is actually very much their approach to research in general." She shook her head, smiling down at him. "You have no... actually, you probably do have a fairly good idea how good it is to find someone you can just talk to, without having to edit out the long words and difficult ideas. And...." She shrugged and smiled a little. "You know how I hit on the idea of calming you down after a nightmare by discussing Arithmancy? That's what I do. I read the textbook if I wake up after a bad dream, it helps me get back to sleep. It's so... definite. So real. Facts are comforting. And having something like that in common matters a lot more than what either of us looks like."
"A meeting of minds?" he said rather bitterly. "There've been so few people in my life who cared to talk to me at all that I could hardly afford to be choosy. But yes, it's - refreshing, I think, to have someone to talk to who isn't playing mind-games all the time, and with whom I don't have to keep on translating my thought-processes into some sort of watered-down layman's version." He smiled one of his tight, there-and-gone smiles. "The really astonishing thing was finding out how - academically-minded, and even gifted, Longbottom is, under all that fluff and twittering. I always knew that you were brilliant, if you'd only get your nose out of a book and think for yourself occasionally - but I never expected to find Longbottom so intellectually bracing."
"I never had time to think for myself. I had Harry and Ron to think for." Hermione grinned ruefully. "And Neville surprised me too... he's quite bright when he's not all nervous, and he actually seems almost embarrassed about it, sometimes. It's not what is expected of him, after all, and Neville tries so hard to live down to other people's expectations."
"Oh. I - never thought of it like that. I thought if I pushed him, told him he was useless at Potions, he'd get better at it in order to prove me wrong. It's what I'd do! It never occurred to me that he might think it was his duty to prove me right."
"Neville is very sweet-natured, and very used to doing what he's told... his grandmother is a terrifying old lady, you know. She makes you look positively cuddly and approachable. And Neville always does his best to do what he's told and not fail people's expectations of him, because he's what my mum calls a Good Boy... so yes, you telling him he was dreadful might well have made him worse. Of course, he's dreadfully accident-prone all by himself, that part had nothing to do with you. Some wizards are, Madam Pomfrey says. If their magic itself is disordered or misaligned in some way, physically, emotionally or on the basic power level, they'll just attract small misfortunes as a matter of course. Like poor Tonks... Metamorphmagi are internally disorganized by definition - it's what gives them the ability to change themselves - but it does have a down-side." She paused and grinned suddenly. "And I would have lost Harry and Ron at 'misaligned'. I do like talking to you."
"Hah! - thanks. So why, in your opinion, is Longbottom misaligned - and what can be done to straighten him out?"
"I think it's already happening... he's losing some of that self-doubt and feeling less like he's a disappointment and a failure. You're helping, with that... talking to him, and letting him help, instead of chasing him away or refusing to tell him anything. A lot of people do that."
"I'm not being unselfish by 'letting him help,' believe me. He's amazingly.... I hate saying that he is 'good with me' - it makes me sound like a dog that bites although I suppose some people would say that that was appropriate - but he is very good at talking me through the worst of the nightmares and calming me without making me feel weak and stupid for needing to be calmed."
"I suspect it's because he knows so well himself, how it is to be made to feel weak and stupid and vulnerable, that he knows how not to do it to other people. He's so... humble about it, as if he expects to be treated that way, and it always startles him when someone stands up for him... but he would never, EVER do it to someone else." She gave him a small, almost hopeful smile. "And speaking of Neville, I've already taken up about half an hour of his turn. So... I suppose I should go, and let you... think about everything."
"'Everything' including Longbottom, it seems - but if I start being nice to him, he's going to think I'm sickening for something."
PLEASE NOTE: Lost and Found is currently up for an award in the Tears (Best Darkfic) and Courage (Best Extreme Fic) categories of Round Six of The Multifaceted Fanfiction Awards.
Dyce's solo story Survivors is also in the Rapture (Best Het Fic rated G to PG-13) section, and whitehound's solo story Mood Music is in the Identity (Best Original Character) category.
If you liked any of them enough to vote for them, please go to The Multifaceted Fanfiction Awards and cast your vote before 22nd July.
Luna is of course quoting from The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle again.
Ice-egg runes are a variant of the standard Norse or Futhark runes. Futhark runes are so called because F, U, Th, A, R, K are the first six letters of the Norse runic alphabet - in the same way that the word "alphabet" itself is derived from "Alpha, Beta", the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. Futhark runes are constructed entirely from straight lines which could easily be cut into wood or stone.
In the case of ice-egg runes, you take a hexagon and draw three lines across it, each running from one corner to its opposite and passing through the centre, until you have a hexagonal grid which is divided into six touching triangles. This grid is called an ice-egg, possibly because it resembles a snowflake. Then you distort the proportions of the standard Futhark runes in such a way that all the lines of which they are made up, vertical, horizontal and slanting, can now be mapped onto one of the lines of the ice-egg. The effect is rather like the simplified, geometric-looking font you get on the sort of calculator or digital clock screen which turns all letters and numbers into an arrangement of short horizontal and vertical lines.
This chapter has been slightly edited in accordance with the new backstory in Deathly Hallows, to show that Snape did have some friends at school, although mostly they were exploiting him.
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