A/N. After years, the story ends. I did manage to finish a story! Here's a nod to Jane Austen (love springing from gratitude, and all that). Also, as someone who lives in a tropical country, I apologize if I fudge anything about seasons; it's one thing we can't fake knowledge of.
The MA in Oxford is not a research degree, to my knowledge. In most other universities—my own, for one—the degree is supposed to be a mark of postgraduate work or thesis rather than residency in the college. Also, it is possible to pursue a DPhil as a BA and in Oxford you are automatically an "MA" if you are able to attain both degrees. (Please feel free to correct me.) "The cloister" is used in the context of the life of a boarding-school academic, not a vow of celibacy.
- - -
September came, as it had for so many years, with an influx of students and the advent of the autumnal cold that set his bones to chilling. He watched, with something akin to regret, the look of wonder on the faces of the children in single file walking beside him; their expressions when they saw the floating candles, the hypnotic beauty of the sky inside the Great Hall. For him there was no joy in his memories of this castle, and as he guided the students into the hall and read their names out loud, he thought of how many autumns and winters had passed in this manner—how many students had passed into and out of his tutelage, and left with nary a kind word nor a backward glance.
He watched with indifference as students were sorted into other houses and his own. It was now long since the lives of his students had ceased to become of personal interest to him.
And it was with a brutal clarity that he remembered those short, turbulent years of the last war—those last students he had defended with his life, and who had now made their way in the world; and it was as though he had given so much of himself for their protection that he now had little, or nothing, to offer for those shining faces who looked at him expectantly each new September. He tried to shrug off the reminder as he returned to his seat and as the banquet began… but he was powerless to mask his surprise when a corporeal reminder of those years was sitting a few seats from his own, calmly eating dinner as though five years had not taken place—five years since her shadow had darkened a doorway in this castle.
Having stopped in his tracks, he made no sound as Minerva, the Headmistress, called him to her chair and whispered in his ear,
"I'm sure you remember Hermione Granger."
- - -
The story was so simple and mundane that he wondered that he had not expected something of the kind. He asked no questions of the Headmistress, careful as he had always been of betraying any sign of interest; but even given his tight-lipped expression Minerva was generous with information both relevant and irrelevant.
Her voice was smooth and gently boastful, and warm with her peculiar pride for her favorite student as she spoke of Miss Granger's achievements in Oxford and her most recently published paper. Ever the swot, Snape wanted to say, but somehow the words got lodged somewhere in his throat and never made it past his mouth.
It had never been in any doubt that Hermione Granger would leave Hogwarts to conquer the world. Over a snifter of brandy in Minerva's office he listened quietly to the details of her life that he had not bothered to find out in the intervening years. He had had no idea until now about the string of romances she (Miss Granger) had kindled and abandoned, and if Minerva found these things uncharacteristic she said nothing; she was more loquacious on the subject of the great strides her favorite had made in the world of Arithmancy, and her more minor—but nonetheless significant—contributions to Charms (two papers) and the rights of Beasts and Beings (one bill for werewolf rights closed to being passed).
Her close friendship with the Minister of Magic and with the even more public figure of Harry Potter fed speculation that she would run for office. However, she disappointed these expectations by denouncing politics for the cloister, as she decided to continue her studies in Arithmancy and supplement her BA with a DPhil.
Snape managed to ask what she was doing in Hogwarts, and was met with the reply that her DPhil required her to be present in Oxford for only a few days a week. The rest she would spend here teaching the lower forms and working on her thesis with Professor Vector, and wasn't that impressive? Had she not fulfilled all of the promise of her younger self?
With a last swig of amber drink the color of Hermione Granger's eyes, Snape excused himself and left.
- - -
Snape stood at the doorway to Professor Granger's rooms, fighting the urge to run away like a frightened child. He was more composed now than he had been the day before, in Minerva's office, but in some ways her (Granger's) appointment had caused him more surprised than was easily recovered from. As Deputy Headmaster he ought to have been better prepared, ought to have been informed earlier. Ought to be more indifferent.
The suite of rooms on the fourth floor bore little resemblance to his own, and it suited her very well; he could tell that its colors would be warm and inviting even as the sitting room was strewn with boxes, notes, and the lingering hairs of Professor Granger's cat. The owner herself was sitting, cross-legged, on the floor, with her back to the doorway where Snape stood in his indecision. He started when she spoke.
"How long are you going to stand there, Professor Snape? I must ask you to close the door. You're letting in quite a draft."
They spent the rest of the evening unpacking her books and extending the dimensions of her rooms as necessary. There were things he wanted to say. He wanted to say that were it not for his position as Deputy—for he could not have given her a bigger bathroom or a smaller fireplace if Hogwarts did not recognize his magic as well as the Headmistress'—he would not be here. And then he wanted to apologize for saying so. He wanted also to say that he was glad that she had come, wanted to pretend nonchalance as though nothing of interest had happened between them. He wanted to ask if she had forgotten it already, if that was why she was able to sit here softly chatting with him even has he gave her nothing but monosyllabic replies.
He wanted to ask if she still felt the same.
When the last book had been shoved in place and Crookshanks the half-kneazle retreated into Professor Granger's bedroom for the night, an awkward silence descended. There were so many things he wanted to say and could hardly decide which of them was most important, but there was no denying the fact that before anything else, something vital had to be said, something that had taken him five years…
"Professor Granger." He cleared his throat, opened his mouth—stopped, and tried again. "Professor Granger, there is something I would… That is to say, I would like to apologize…"
He watched as Professor Granger froze, then relaxed and laughed softly. He was unable to continue. He watched her face anxiously—watched the changes of expression there, looked at all of the places where her face and hair and figure were different. He wished that he could read her now as easily as he could have all those years ago. She waved her hand dismissively and said,
"Water under the bridge, Professor. Give it no further thought."
And she smiled, and whatever her words had been, her smile was sincere.
- - -
His footsteps echoed in the halls leading down to the dungeons. He scattered students in his wake, and he was oblivious to them all.
Sooner than it should have come, those five years ago, graduation had arrived—and with it a multitude of tasks that kept him distracted for the better part of a month. Settling accounts for broken flasks and melted cauldrons kept Professor Snape occupied enough so that he could ignore the nagging thought that there was something that needed doing, something he needed to say.
He had watched silently as Hermione Granger—for she was no Professor back then, only a simple girl with a blossoming promise that made her radiant on her very last day on the grounds—turned and left the castle and its inhabitants, perhaps forever. It was an anticlimax, and he told himself that it was no better than what she deserved. He was grateful to have been spared the horror of her coming to seek him out and thank him, as she did with all of her other professors. He was glad not to have been given a gift, as they all had been, for the one gift that he had received from her—that apple with a red so vivid that it was impossible to forget its shade—had been unwelcome in the extreme.
And yet he was unable to put from his mind the specter of Hermione Granger's eyes as she sat crying in the library while he took the simplicity of her affection and crushed it underfoot.
He had been unable for many years now to procure the admiration and desire of any woman. Some days, it seemed even to himself that his persona was something cultivated, something too contrived to be wholly real. He could not forget that even given this, the exaggerated version of everything that was unpleasant about himself, someone had cut herself open to ridicule for the sake of being close to him.
He listened intently at the staff table for any word about her, and he was able to gather from the newspapers enough to let him know the work she was doing, the ripples that her movements caused in their society. If his colleagues were surprised that he had acquired a personal subscription for The Daily Prophet, they said nothing, and he was content to listen to them as they talked about the affairs of former students, picking out her name among the tangle of their discussions. He stored those thoughts away, to be pondered later at night in the interval between lying down and falling asleep.
In sleep she could not be escaped. He found himself ridiculous and understood his dreams and his growing preoccupation to be the hallmarks of an ugly man grateful for any sort of attention, no matter how undesired it was at first. He told himself that he could not have done things any differently, that even if he had been unscrupulous and deluded enough to want to entertain her affections, the consequences would have made him regret his actions almost immediately.
It was the almost that bothered him. Surely it could not be pure folly to wonder what it would have been like, to have her for himself. He pondered the similarities in their dispositions and thought that had things been different—had she been older and had his position been different—he would have liked to read with her in his sitting room. Their discussions in the dungeons, when he had allowed himself to indulge her pretensions to working there for extra credit, had been a facsimile of this domestic comfort. He imagined her hair in the firelight—imagined telling her about all of those things he had admired about her, and had never been able to verbalize.
He looked for her everywhere, digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole from which he might never climb out again; because there was no solution to his problem, and all of those questions he wanted to ask—had she really wanted him, could she want him now, was he merely blowing things out of proportion and giving her feelings more importance than they merited—would never be answered. Would never even be asked, for he had not the courage to find her and pursue her, to see if the reality of her could be as wonderful as the dreams he had manufactured for himself.
The last five years were a study in how love could take root from gratitude, even when its recipient was nowhere to be found.
- - -
He knocked on the door to her office, cursing himself for a fool.
It was only the uttermost presumption to think that such a visit could bear fruit. But he could not rest until he had tried. He forced himself to think, Coward, and the word straightened his spine and made him act with a bravery he did not really possess.
It was five years now, five long years of loneliness and the unfulfilled hope that he would see her when he turned a corner or opened a shop door. It was only fitting that their positions be reversed.
She looked up when he entered; she was seated at her desk, taking notes from a book levitated in front of her. When her eyes met his the book fell to the desk with a harsh sound, startling them both. It was now or never.
He crossed the room, feeling the uncertainty in his very knees. The seconds stretched out before him, and she said nothing as he stopped inches in front of her desk; the serious expression on his face must have been a fearsome thing to behold.
It was perhaps the most courageous thing he had ever done. He lifted a shaking hand, searched in a pocket of his frock coat, and pulled out something that he set gingerly on her desk, on top of the fallen book. He searched her face, his hope and dread clear on his own; and he was not disappointed. There was only pleased gratitude and a blossoming hope in the polished amber of her eyes.
For when she saw the shiny, red, perfect apple on her desk, she knew what to do.