“It is our choices that show what we really are, far more than our abilities.”
Chapter Eighteen: Awakening
Sirius whistled as he navigated the quirky stairways down from the Gryffindor tower. A groggy James had asked his friend to take a letter to the Owlery to send to his parents, something that he was more than happy to do. Ever since he’d left his family and moved in with the Potters, he’d loved to get up in the mornings—though his mother had loved to criticize everything he did, Mrs. Black had especially liked to do it during breakfast. After sixteen years of dreading the start of a new day, Sirius now welcomed it, especially on weekends.
Though Peter, Remus, and James were all asleep after a long night, he felt energized by their adventure, and had gotten scarcely an hour or more of sleep. He knew that Professor Dumbledore would have been horrified to know that sometimes Remus exited his hideaway in the Shrieking Shack and went exploring—with three unregistered animagi, no less. Sirius felt confident that he could subdue a werewolf if need be, however. The only one of them that need worry at all was Peter, and he was so good at disappearing out of sight in times of danger that Sirius knew he could take care of himself.
The castle and grounds had a sort of a hushed quality to them, the latter being brushed lightly by a fog that had come up from the lake. It was a beautiful morning that had followed a gorgeous night—the kind filled with a canopy of stars (the clouds had lifted not long after midnight), a carpet of springy leaves, and a forest populated with interesting creatures.
The recollection made him want to run again—but not the kind of running done on two legs. The kind that made him sometimes feel as though his heart might just break with the joyous feeling of his muscles moving in concert with one another and how the earth looked different when you could race across it on four legs. Sirius considered running all the way to the Owlery, but decided that he wasn’t likely to impress any post owls if he were out of breath when he tied his letter to their leg.
Hermione didn’t think that even Ron or Harry knew that sometimes she liked to go to the Owlery and listen to the sounds of the many-feathered residents of Hogwarts. She found that the movement and noise helped clear her thoughts, especially on days before exams when she was so keyed up she could hardly sleep. Today, she felt like her mind was racing, mainly from overload, and while she could have filled her new journal with a lot of meaningless drivel, Hermione decided to try the Owlery first.
When she got there, she was pleased to see that the stone room looked much the same as it did in her time, though with different birds, of course. She patrolled the floor at a leisurely pace—it was generally a bad idea to stay still in a place like this—looking at the varied breeds of owls. Something felt wrong to her, and it took her three circuits of the round room before she remembered that Hedwig wouldn’t be here for another fourteen years or so.
Already the cacophony of sound had worked to dispel her mind of the repetitive thoughts that had been plaguing her. It was loud enough that she didn’t hear footsteps on the stone staircase leading to the tower that housed the bird habitat.
Sirius was grinning as he mounted the stairs of the tower that held the Owlery. He’d peeked at James’ letter—after all, the Potters considered him as their second son, and he figured they wouldn’t mind. Prongs had asked them for a Muggle catalogue of motorcycle parts. That in and of itself was amusing, considering that James’ elderly parents probably would have no idea what a motorbike was, but were so devoted to their son that they would undoubtedly try to comply with his request.
The other reason he was so delighted would probably have gotten him a fine and a severe talking-to from the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts division of the Ministry. He and James were attempting to modify an old Muggle motorcycle into a sort of a cross between a motorbike and a broom—without the broom. Sirius felt a rush of affection toward his friend as he rounded the stairs and approached the room at the top. He stopped at the doorway to check his pockets for the bit of cracker he kept as incentive for quick delivery, and noticed that someone was already inside.
It was Hermia James. She was pacing in a slow circle, her back to him, and he remained on the threshold for a long moment, deciding what to do.
“The ones on the northern wall go the farthest distances,” Sirius said at last, careful to speak in a low voice, as he didn’t wish to frighten her. She jumped a little, startled but saying nothing; instead she turned slowly in a full circle looking at the walls of owls as if trying to discern which one was north. He smiled, adding, “The ones around the doorway, to the south, are usually used for messages within Hogwarts’ grounds.” He was rather pleased with himself for answering her question without making her ask it; the second he’d connected ‘south’ with ‘doorway’ she’d turned away from him to examine the owls on the wall opposite. “Is your family quite far?” he asked politely. Sirius decided that she must miss them very much; she nodded with a sad sort of smile. He took a few steps into the room, as the breeze at this height was pretty chilly.
“Yours?” she asked, and then she did something that baffled him—she clamped her hand over her mouth and apologized to him in a stricken voice. Sirius felt a rush of annoyance at what she might have heard from the students in Slytherin.
Hermione could have kicked herself. Twice. First, for asking the question—she knew very well that Sirius did not get on at all well with his family. Second, for her reaction after she’d asked it…there was no rational explanation as to how she, as a new student, would know his family situation—unless she’d engaged in gossip or similar. She felt sick to think of what his opinion would be of her now. She racked her brain, trying to think of any conversation she’d had with Lily or anyone else about Sirius—and then she remembered the evergreen. James had stated that his mother packed Sirius’ trunk with evergreen, and his own with cedar—that implied that he stayed with the Potters.
Hermione wondered why she didn’t just run up to Dumbledore’s office and demand that he sequester her for the remainder of her time here. Even when she thought she was being incredibly careful, she still ended up making slips—and who could tell how badly she would slip up next time? Now, however, she needed to stop standing there looking ashamed of herself and come up with a rational explanation for her behavior.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, acting as though there hadn’t been about three minutes of strained silence since she’d last spoken. “It’s just that James mentioned his mother packing your trunk, and since your last names aren’t the same…” she trailed off, hoping that would be sufficient, which it appeared to be, as Sirius had visibly relaxed during her explanation. On impulse she walked up to him and placed her hand on his arm, shocked to feel an almost electric connection between them as she did so. “I’m really sorry if I reminded you of anything unhappy,” she said earnestly.
When Hermia came to stand next to him he felt as if he could feel his own heartbeat—but when she touched him, his arm felt almost as if she were made of fire. Just a normal attraction, he told himself, not that it felt normal in any way whatsoever. Exciting, yes—normal, no. Her apology was heartfelt, and he felt like a complete cad for his earlier assumptions. Hermia’s small hand squeezed his arm with a force that emphasized her intensity but also told him that she was a strong person in character, if not in body.
“They took me in, after I left home,” he found himself saying. “My ‘real’ family couldn’t care less,” he said harshly, turning his head away from her so that she couldn’t see the bitterness on his face. Instead of speaking, the girl at his side simply waited for him to endure the course of his emotions with a patience and dignity that impressed him. When he turned back to her, his eyes were moist but his cheeks were dry.
“If they didn’t care that you left, then they weren’t your real family,” she observed in a quiet voice. He looked down at her then, and she looked back gravely, an expression of compassionate honesty in her deep brown eyes. “I’m sorry that your life brought you to that point,” she said softly, “but I’m glad you did it.” She looked almost as if she wanted to touch his face, but instead she flashed him a quick smile and turned away without another word.
Sirius barely heard her footsteps receding down the stone stairs; he was too busy trying to breathe as gasping sobs racked his body. He slid down the rough wall and rested his head on his arms, unable and unwilling to fight the tears. He realized as he wept that he’d never really mourned for himself, for the knowledge that his family didn’t care for him, nor would they ever. Somehow, Hermia’s quiet words and silent encouragement had broken the dam, and as his tears subsided he understood that this was something he had desperately needed.
Right there in the Owlery was the first time Sirius had ever shed tears without worrying about what anyone might think, or being ridiculed by someone—Mrs. Black had abhorred tears, and had beat him as young as three years old for crying. He’d only even spoken about the subject once, with James in Sixth Year. James had told him what his father had always said about crying—‘do it once a year, whether you need to or not,’ the elder Potter espoused. Sirius had remarked that the saying was supposed to be ‘take a bath.’ James had looked at him in a way that Sirius was sure had been the way Harold Potter had looked during the exact same conversation with his son, and said, ‘what’s the difference?’
That had been the night Sirius had decided once and for all to leave his own family and see if he could live with James.
Hermione hoped that Sirius didn’t mind how quickly she fled the Owlery. The connection she had felt when she’d touched him had frankly frightened her. Hermione had never felt anything like it before, and something told her that the way they reacted to each other meant something, something more than just a new friendship being created.
She wondered what it was that seemed to take over her sometimes, make her react so protectively about and with her friends. She’d known that Sirius had run away from home at sixteen and gone to live with James, but seeing his reaction to the situation less than a year after it happened had made it so much more real to her. She was reminded of something Harry had said the day before her adventure began in Dumbledore’s office, something about not realizing that Sirius had had a life before the tragic events that sent him to prison. As soon as she’d seen how deeply hurt he had been by his family’s rejection, she’d felt like marching straight up to Mrs. Walburga Black and decking her in the face.
She thought she would have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, too.
Considering the fact that most of her Gryffindor friends would be sleeping for a long time yet (she had no idea how Sirius managed to look so awake; she knew that he must have been out all night with the rest of the Marauders), Hermione decided to do her studies outdoors, like the week before. If and when James woke up, he might start holding Quidditch tryouts, and she wanted to watch those, as well.
Hours later, she was very glad of her decision. The weather had turned out to be fabulous, bright and sunny with hardly any wind—which was exactly how she liked it, considering all the loose pieces of parchment she had with her just itching to blow away. Hermione stretched out on her stomach with an array of books, parchment, notes, and quills in front of her, and as the sun came out behind a cloud to bestow warm rays on her back, she laid her head down to enjoy the feeling.
“That’s a very interesting method of studying,” an acid voice woke her by saying. “Would you term that as ‘osmosis?’” She rolled to her side and off of the open book she’d fallen asleep on, having to shield her eyes from the brightness until a black-clad figure blocked the sun for her. It was Severus Snape.
“Studies show that a fifteen minute nap often invigorates the mind and restores one’s concentration,” she said, defending her actions pertly.
“In that case, I’d say you’re about twenty-five minutes over your limit,” Snape said sardonically.
“You weren’t watching me for forty minutes,” she challenged.
“Au contraire,” he countered, gesturing to a nearby blanket and collection of books. The blanket was a very dull plaid done in greyscale—it was clear that he was telling the truth.
“Well,” she said, her confidence flagging a little, “at least you won’t claim that I snore.”
“You don’t.” Snape moved away from his position in front of her and the sudden introduction of sunlight dazzled her blind for a moment. “You wheeze,” came the delayed rejoinder from somewhere to her left.
Hermione was beginning to simultaneously respect and loathe his ability to score hits off of her so effortlessly.
“If you dislike me so much, why don’t you sit somewhere else?”
“For your information, I always sit here—and I have no intention of changing my habits for one person, no matter how much noise they make in their sleep,” he said, his tone of voice not quite matching the severity of his words—though that might have had more to do with how difficult it was to maintain correct posture when propped up against a tree.
“Well, that’s good to know,” she said, sitting up and arranging her notes in a more orderly fashion. “I’ll be sure not to bother holding back, next time.” She thought she could see him nodding his approval out of the corner of her eye, but didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of looking up as though his validation meant anything to her. They passed the next hour in relative silence, each engrossed in their own work—until a sudden breeze lifted one of Hermione’s Arithmancy equations off of her lap and onto the grass.
Hermione cursed under her breath and began to move the items she’d piled around her so she could stand up and retrieve it. Just as she’d finally gotten to her feet, the quiet voice of Severus Snape spoke a charm she’d learned in her very first year at Hogwarts and levitated the parchment onto the book in front of him.
He didn’t have to say anything to trump me that time, she thought with disgusted admiration. Thinking like a Muggle.
They were at an impasse—Hermione had no intention of attempting to take back her paper in the same manner with which Snape had taken it, doing so would only accentuate his triumph over her. By the same token, Snape clearly had no motivation other than generosity to send it back to her. She couldn’t even sit back down—doing so would acknowledge his win.
“If looks could kill…” Severus observed. “I’d wondered why the Headmaster chose to re-sort you so quickly,” he said in a thoughtful voice, surprising her. “I see now that it was most likely an issue of bloodline.”
“While I see your material point,” Hermione said through gritted teeth, “I fail to grasp your general one?”
“Oh, I sincerely doubt that,” Snape said conversationally. “You’re far too sensitive—it’s not as if I called you a—”
“Don’t,” Hermione stopped him quickly. “It’s a dirty word, and I don’t think either of us need to clarify this to that extent.”
“You know, even if you are completely Muggle-born,” the black-haired boy said to her with interest, “you should still understand the concept of words of power.”
“I thought that was exactly my point,” Hermione said, finally leaning against the tree behind her after growing tired of standing.
“I meant specifically that some words lose their power, if you lose your respect for their meaning.”
This was an extraordinary observation coming from a member of Slytherin House, Hermione thought with no small surprise. It dawned on her that most of the professors at Hogwarts were quite advanced in years, meaning that new ones were few and far between. The addition of Severus Snape to that august minority was starting to make a lot more sense.
“That is…” Hermione paused, not sure she was willing to take a step as big as complimenting her opponent, but her inner sense of fairness told her she must. “That is an extraordinary observation,” she echoed her inner thoughts. Snape seemed to understand immediately what a gift her compliment was, and bowed his head slightly in appreciation.
“I wonder how often you get to express such views, given your usual…company,” Hermione said, unable to dignify her former Housemates with much more than that.
“I expect that your disagreeable experience gives your conclusions more credence.”
“Fancy words for, ‘they treated you like rubbish, I can understand why you don’t like them,'” she said bitterly.
“Remember what we agreed to, about power,” Snape said, almost gently. Before she could become flustered with embarrassment over being lectured by one of her peers, he added, “I think we would also agree that certain members of your acquaintance in Slytherin would behave as badly no matter what house they managed to be sorted to.”
“I’m glad to see that the attitudes could have been home-grown, rather than taught,” she said, managing to keep her tone neutral. Hermione didn’t add that this problem hadn’t seemed to improve after two decades.
“Speaking of agreeing,” Severus said, lifting the Arithmancy notes he’d filched from her, “these two variables do not.”
“Are they supposed to?” Hermione’s voice was filled with mischief, hoping he would see the correlation. He started to answer and then looked back down at the parchment, his brows lifting slightly at whatever he found there.
“Not always,” he finally answered.
“Well, there’s no accounting for taste,” Hermione shrugged.
“Touché,” Snape said, granting her a rare smile as he finally restored her lost parchment to her with a flick of his wand.