They’re only books. Ink on fibre. Twenty six letters arranged this way and that, forming words that flow or stick or roll around one’s mouth and head. But each also happens to be an expression—always personal—a manifestation of the basic human need to communicate. And regardless of the author’s intention, the words give themselves away. Always.
Hermione Granger is an addict. Her fuse is lit easily. Anticipation is often enough. The promise of being opened up by the words of another she finds both cognitively thrilling and viscerally arousing. But the act of reading, itself, heightens her further. Some books she can simply absorb, her mind rendered porous by the gentle cajoling of a talented wordsmith. They take her swiftly, completely, and she returns from the literary abduction changed, often with a set of new memories, so vividly encoded that they feel like her own, new understandings to draw from without even having to engage. These are the shortcuts to experience, to life, that are sometimes, for Hermione, better than life, itself.
But when a book challenges her, as this one does. When the words grate and the meanings hide within themselves, requiring multiple attempts to unlock their secrets, she is helplessly bound. Her mind is not her own. Her body is not her own. She is both infected and incarcerated. And she welcomes it—being dragged into a world so deep and powerful, so savage that she will be left with scars. It is this evidence of suffering that she seeks. But also of healing. She needs it. She needs them both.
Pressed against her ribcage, the book’s sharp corners prodded Hermione into action, infusing her tired steps with an urgency that was well and truly founded. It was Tuesday night after all. In fact it was Wednesday morning. Her curfew of 9pm had been and gone hours before, unnoticed. The air within the café basement had been loaded, thick and electric. Time hadn’t mattered. Nor had the obvious threat. What had mattered was meaning . . . and purpose . . . and transformation.
She had been amongst Muggles. A small group. Young men and women much like herself . . . mostly. Simply exchanging, postulating, marinating in thoughts and ideas, in a shared journey through books. And now this book. She lugs it, pressing it heavily against her side. She would have shrunk it but the burden had seemed appropriate. She’d secreted it, instead, under her transfigured robe—one that would allow her to blend with them, to shed her magical status for just one evening.
Why it mattered so much, Hermione wasn’t sure. It had always been made clear to her that a witch was superior to a Muggle. But somehow she wanted both. Both worlds. Her parents’ Obliviation and her separation from her earliest friendships had disconnected her from what she now recognised to be indelible roots. And the Mudblood/Muggle derision had only served to consolidate her deep-seated indignation.
She had begun seeking out opportunities to reconnect. Muggle café’s, bookshops, libraries. There had been brief exchanges . . . gazes brushing hers over steaming coffee cups, or skimming her like the glossy magazine pages. Sometimes she breached the antisocial skin and engaged in idle chat. She liked people—even watching them. She was, in fact, the consummate observer. But she wanted more.
The fortuitous flyer had been tacked to a café notice board. ‘Books in the Basement.’ Inviting like-minded souls to unite and appreciate. Ron would have thought her sad. Harry would have encouraged her. Both had moved on—Ron to what most considered a rather hopeful career in Quidditch and Harry to Auror training.
Hermione’s return to seventh year, along with only a handful of others, had felt rather forced and hollow in the wake of so much destruction. The lessons remained engaging but there was no longer the anchor point of her friends—of their shared purpose. She was drifting. She had needed something. And she’d found it.
Her bi-monthly escape felt subversive and yet it wasn’t. It had been allowed. Professor McGonagall had sanctioned it and even negotiated a curfew with the other staff of 10pm. She had argued that Hermione’s ‘Head Girl’ status should allow her certain privileges.
But that had changed two meetings previous. She had returned at 11pm—as she had on at least three other occasions without incident. But this time she had been caught. Any reasonable person may have let her off with a warning. But this particular captor had not been so inclined. In fact, she doubted Professor Snape had been inclined to moderacy ever.
He had materialised out of the shadows, looming over her like a Dementor before spitting the time in her face. His iron grip upon her arm had not let up until he’d dragged her to Professor McGonagall’s chambers to demonstrate how misguided the older woman’s trust had been. The punishment had been a humiliating apology in front of the entire school. As headmaster, he’d stood imperiously beside her, his black eyes seeming to drink in her degradation.
So why had she done it again?
There wasn’t an easy answer. And this admission Hermione found mortifying. She could provide little explanation beyond the desire to indulge her nebulous needs. Professor McGonagall had argued for her to be given a second chance, a tightened curfew, and she’d betrayed her trust . . . again.
Hermione’s heart knocked against her chest wall, as though attempting to alert her to her obvious shortcomings, reminding her of how much trouble she could be in, or perhaps it just wanted to escape while it still could. The castle, shrouded in a collar of mist, seemed more ominous as a result. Hermione took the front steps two at a time, her hand resting upon the cold brass handle as she drew a steadying breath.
Her hope was that the extent of her curfew breach would ensure that everyone but Filch was asleep. She had been given her own room at the start of the year and could navigate there quickly and quietly. It had seemed like a reasonably sane plan. Until now.
Hermione cracked the door open, peering into the gloom, before nudging her body slowly through the gap. She had mastered the art of creeping with Harry and Ron. Even Ron had become quite adept. Casting a silencing incantation was always an option but the way that it hollowed out the air around objects could be identifiable to a practised ear. She preferred to creep.
Soundlessly, Hermione tiptoed up the stairs. She’d worked out how to cushion her footfalls to prevent scuffing against the stone such that it was muffled against even her own ear. Reaching the top, she congratulated herself on her efforts before being struck in the throat.
She would have cried out if not for the shock of trying to swallow as her throat rattled like a drainpipe.
“Miss Granger,” a voice hissed in her ear. “You have one chance to explain yourself.”
What felt like a wand continued to constrict her airway. Twisting her head, she felt his breath on her face, but she could see nothing.
“I . . . I’m sorry, headmaster” she rasped. “I didn’t—”
The side of his hand pressed roughly against her mouth.
“You clearly consider yourself beyond reproach . . . above rules and regulations, no matter how much they have been distorted to accommodate you. Your flagrant disregard for this school, its staff and the students for whom you are supposed to be a mentor is reprehensible. I am therefore left with no option but to impose . . . the heaviest of sanctions.”
A bright light suddenly blinded her. She lifted her hands to shield her eyes but he grasped her wrists and slammed them against the wall.
“Give me your wand.” His words buffeted her face.
“I can’t . . . I need to reach—”
“Where is it?”
“Which . . . one.”
She stiffened as he suddenly released one wrist to slip his hand behind her. He could have asked her to turn, or simply to retrieve it herself, but he didn’t, seemingly determined to execute the confiscation himself. The sensation of him leaning over her, his malevolent black eyes roving her features as his fingers trailed across the denim of her buttocks, felt disturbingly claustrophobic but she didn’t dare object.
Suddenly he withdrew, her wand now in his hand.
“What are you carrying?”
Her breath caught.
“It’s . . . nothing.”
He pursed his lips with derision. “Even you are above that, Miss Granger.”
Using his wand, he lifted her robe aside to reveal the book clamped against her ribs.
“Give it to me.”
He quickly relocated the wand to her throat. “You mistake me for someone who wishes to . . . negotiate.”
Swallowing with difficulty, Hermione reluctantly handed over the book. He didn’t look at it, focusing on keeping his wand trained against her jugular.
“From now on you will not be permitted to leave the school grounds for any reason. You will not be permitted correspondence with anyone outside of Hogwarts. And . . . I will be subtracting five hundred house points from Gryffindor.”
“Perhaps you will look beyond your own selfish desires in the future,” he sneered.
“But . . . that’s insane! I have returned late twice! I’m nineteen for Merlin’s sake, I’m not a child!”
“You suppose I haven’t noticed?”
Noticed? Hermione squirmed self-consciously as his gaze drifted lazily down her.
He leaned in closer. “I have noticed that you have returned late five times. Not two. You fail to realise, Miss Granger. That I . . . know . . . everything.”
Hermione’s chest ached with despair. “But you’re punishing the whole of Gryffindor for my mistakes. That isn’t fair.”
“What isn’t fair,” he jabbed his large nose at her, “is the fact that the student who should be most trusted in this school, who has been awarded the position of highest regard for that very reason, who should be modelling the behaviours that we expect from not only a final year, but an ‘adult’ in her very own words, and whom should be looking out for the best interests of both her house and her fellow students, has chosen to pursue her own interests on multiple occasions, and resulted in the largest point deduction in Hogwarts history.” His voice that had been gradually swelling suddenly dropped to a whisper. “They have every reason to despise you.”
With a final spiteful twist of his lips, he extinguished his wand and swept away into the darkness.
Hermione slid down the wall. And wept.
The next day Hermione lay low. Door locked, she read, completed assignments and took a few miserable bites of the stale cauldron cakes that Mrs Weasley had sent her a week or two before. There were a few knocks on her door but she didn’t answer them. She’d nearly opened it for Ginny until her friend had mentioned the point deduction and cried ‘What the hell happened?’ through the keyhole.
She would have sought out Professor McGonagall but it had been clear that the Gryffindor house mistress had done everything she was prepared to do after Hermione’s previous transgression.
Whichever way she looked at it, Hermione couldn’t see a solution beyond approaching Snape and begging for an opportunity to redeem herself. She couldn’t allow the deduction to stand. It was an impossibility. She would never be able to show her face again in the Great Hall and she certainly couldn’t look the younger students in the eye—those who had achieved, those who had strived to do their best for Gryffindor, only to have her squander it all. The thought made her physically ill.
She waited for an hour after dinner had finished, then dressed in her school uniform. He was already questioning her loyalty to the school, so she hoped that it would amount to a small appeasement. Wrapping a robe around her shoulders, she appraised herself in the mirror, searching for her most contrite expression. Despite her inherent dislike and distrust of him, she would have to swallow her pride and do as she was told.
He might even surprise her. Harry had forgiven him . . . there must be some good in the man.
“Who is it?” His voice rang out clearly from behind the door.
“Hermione Granger.” She attempted to make even her name sound repentant.
“What do you want?”
“I . . . uh . . . may I speak with you please?”
Hearing an audible sigh, Hermione bit her lip, waiting for the rejection. Instead the lock popped and the door creaked open. Pausing, Hermione leaned forward a fraction, wondering if she was supposed to enter.
“Hurry up,” he snapped. “Unless you wish to converse from out there.”
Hermione quickly slipped inside and closed the door behind her.
He was sitting at his desk, scribing on a piece of parchment with a black quill. He didn’t look up.
When he didn’t acknowledge her, she quietly cleared her throat.
After another full minute, he stopped writing to spear his quill into its holder and cross his arms. Finally he regarded her, his countenance one of unmitigated disdain.
“Well?” The upward jerk of his eyebrows punched home the question.
“Oh . . . um.” Hermione averted her eyes, blinking to compose herself. “I just wanted to tell you that I’m truthfully extremely—”
“I’m not interested in your apology. It changes nothing.”
Hermione’s mouth hovered open, trying to reform into other words that she hadn’t prepared.
“If that’s all?” He uncrossed his arms, reaching for his quill.
“No, I . . .” Hermione scrambled. “I hoped you might afford me an opportunity . . . to earn the points back.”
He halted, his outstretched fingers twitching slightly before returning to tuck under his bicep.
“In what manner?”
“Well, I thought perhaps I could do some extra tuition? Or additional assignments? I could even clean—perhaps the potions storeroom needs rearranging or . . . something else? I could help staff to prepare for classes or—”
“Has it escaped your notice that this is supposed to constitute a punishment?”
Hermione looked taken aback. “I don’t—”
“No doubt extra assignments would set you in the pit of despair, Miss Granger,” he sniped sarcastically. “Extra tuition would have you delirious with remorse.”
Hermione opened her mouth to respond but nothing came out.
“Why are you dressed like that?”
Her brow creased as she regarded her clothing in confusion. “This is my uniform.”
“I am aware . . . My question is, why are you wearing it? No senior student would wear their uniform at this time of night.”
It was true. It had been a mistake. “I’m not sure. I just thought—”
“Did you want to show me something?”
It took a moment for his words to sink in. Her eyes flickered up to his face which betrayed nothing before she looked away. “No, sir.”
“Are you . . . positive?”
Her mouth was desert dry. Her heart thrashed wildly. Had she tried to appeal to him in that way? Subconsciously? It didn’t seem likely.
But perhaps this was it. The compromise. The punishment.
“I don’t think so. But . . .”
“But?” He shifted slightly in his seat.
“Is there something . . . you would wish to see?” She forced herself to look at him.
His jaw rolled subtly, as though he was sucking a boiled sweet. “Lift your skirt.”
Hermione’s eyes widened at his directness. Her hands hung limply by her sides, unsure of how to move, where to move. This was so far from what she had ever expected—a level of intimacy that made no sense to her at all. It was like flirting with a shark. Could she do it? Was it worth it?
She was well aware that once she did it, she couldn’t undo it. They would be indelibly bound by that moment. Could she ever face him again?
But then she thought about the students—all the others she would have to face if she did nothing. At least if they saw the points returning, knowing she was earning them back, they might start to forgive her. And it wasn’t as though he would tell anyone. It would stay between them. Their dirty little secret. Until she got her N.E.W.Ts and she could tell him in no uncertain terms to go screw himself.
Hands trembling slightly, Hermione grasped the front of her skirt and scrunched it in her fists before lifting. The woollen fabric grazed against her bare legs as she slowly brought it up, stopping just before she reached her knickers. She felt herself swaying with the labour of her breathing.
His eyes were down there. Staring. Her cheeks burned.
Then the fingers hooked around his arm flexed slightly and he lifted his chin. “Higher.”
She closed her eyes momentarily before continuing to expose herself. She couldn’t even remember what knickers she’d put on that morning. It could be any pair.
As she lifted, he watched her like a hawk, lips pressing together almost imperceptibly as her knickers—black when she glanced down—were revealed. She stopped at her waist, holding her skirt with white-knuckled fists, her legs jellified as he continued to stare. She didn’t imagine it could be particularly fascinating but he kept her like that for an excruciatingly long time before his gaze finally dragged up to rest upon her face.
“Five points to Gryffindor.”
She exhaled shakily as she dropped her skirt. “Thankyou.”
“Another twenty five if you . . . touch yourself.”
“Touch?” She tried to read his face.
Her second ‘Oh’ was high pitched and strangled. Masturbate over him? She could barely tolerate speaking to him. What made him think she would be that desperate? And shouldn’t he be concerned that she would tell someone? He could be totally disgraced, lose his position at Hogwarts. He might even face prosecution. Why would he take such a risk?
But, then again, who would believe her? After receiving one of Hogwarts’ most extreme punishments the previous day, it may simply appear as an attempt to discredit him. No doubt that’s what he would claim.
“I could scrub cauldrons?”
“I don’t mind working hard.”
“I expect you to work hard.”
She stared at him. Surely there was something else she could do. Anything.
“Can’t I do something else?” She could hear the note of pleading in her voice.
“No. Traditional punishments are either easy or enjoyable for you,” he stated simply.
She was desperate to object but unfortunately his appraisal was accurate. She enjoyed working hard, physically and mentally. She enjoyed helping people. She didn’t even mind writing out lines—it had become rather meditative in the end.
But he was offering her twenty five points for what?—the most improper and personal exchange she had ever endured? What would she have to do for the entire five hundred? Did she even want to know?
Hermione felt the agony playing out on her face and he clearly seemed to be enjoying it, black eyes shining as he reclined in his seat to watch her. If she declined the offer, she would be stuck with a four hundred and ninety five point deficit, attracting uniform hatred from her housemates for the remainder of her time at Hogwarts. If she accepted, she would have to endure something excruciating but of limited duration.
Releasing a shuddering sigh, she reached for the clasp to her robe.
“Where do you want me?”