Note: In the following story, the events of the last book are ignored.

/ \ / \ / \

How right

I should have been to keep away, and let

You have your innocent-guilty-innocent night

Of switching partners in your own sad set:

How useless to invite

The sickening breathlessness of being young

Into my life again

- Philip Larkin, The Dance

/ \ / \ / \

"Better this way," he thought, watching her move in the reflected light of the hearth. She looked happy; it was better this way.

He moved to refill Minerva's cup, and this movement alone made him sigh quietly. He was resigned to the inconveniences of his new body, but it would take some time to accustom himself to its complete lack of agility. The curse they had cast on him had given him the body of a seventy year old. His movements were slow and with every moderate exertion his breath became labored.

And yet the curse seemed not to have aged his heart, for it felt like the heart of a boy whenever Hermione Granger was in the room. It jumped when he had first seen her, upon his release from the Infirmary, and it did gymnastics whenever she smiled.

The curse had ended his plans of courting her upon her completion of an apprenticeship under Minerva, but his heart, in the way of all hearts, would not listen. It longed to stay in Hermione Granger's company and burnt angrily and miserably at seeing her here, now, laugh quietly with Ron Weasley, who had been responsible for recovering Snape's body (useless though it was now) from where it had been left in the Forbidden forest. Weasley's red hair gleamed in the firelight and he was aware of his own, nearly completely white, lanky and uneven around his ears.

In a life spent not having the things that he desired the most, this was nothing new. He forced himself to believe that hearing her soft laughter in his sitting room for years to come—for she and Weasley, on this, his first night out of the infirmary, both promised to keep visiting him—was better than nothing; when his heart refused to listen he excused himself and went soberly to bed. He did not look her in the eye as he left the room. The audacity of hoping had always been his very greatest fault.

/ \ / \ / \

He avoided her in the weeks to come. The final term of the year was ending and it was not difficult to appear busy. He kept himself so, reading his students' essays with weary eyes and ready pen. He wondered if it was his eyesight getting worse, or the students' penmanship getting harder to read. It was difficult to tell where the effects of the curse ended and his own infirmity began. He went to the library, for it had brighter lighting, but when Hermione Granger stepped inside he stepped out.

He was no longer required to patrol the castle, and for this he was equally upset and grateful: the former because the situation robbed him of one of the few pleasures available to him, and the latter because it allowed him to avoid coming into sudden contact with Minerva's apprentice. He thought now that he would rather forgo the soothing routine of stalking the halls in the quiet of the night, rather than risk an encounter. She would smile and ask politely about his health, but there was no erasing, between them, the memory of his promise.

He wondered at times—often, in the solitary gloom of his rooms at the end of the day—if she was now with Weasley. He thought that she would have better sense. But then this smacked too much of wishful thinking.

/ \ / \ / \

The chatter around the breakfast table had been of the one subject he had been hoping most to avoid. That morning, a beaming Minerva had descended upon the High table bearing news of Hermione Granger's completion of her apprenticeship. Miss Granger had finished her final transfiguration project and was in the process of sending a draft of a journal article to a distinguished journal, which Snape had never read but of which he had often heard.

The rest of the staff, many of whom had been hoping to have Miss Granger as their own apprentice, gave Minerva half-hearted congratulations and hardly noticed as Snape excused himself from the room.

In the hallway outside the Great Hall, he paused with one foot on the ascending stairs. He thought of seeing her now, one last time before she left, perhaps catching her in the owlery while sending off her article. He imagined the scene in his mind—his farewell—but lost courage at the last moment, and turned away.

/ \ / \ / \

The library was quiet but for the scratching of his quill. His body was tired but his mind, wide awake. It was not the first time that he had stayed up for long stretches in pursuit of a cure to his condition. He understood that the activity was futile and fed a hope that might never be satisfied, but it occupied him when he was unable to sleep and allowed a break in the tedium of grading.

He did wonder how it came to be that he was so resigned to his curse.

He ignored a soft noise on the carpet, thinking it to be Mrs Norris in pursuit of a midnight snack, and almost broke his quill when someone cleared her throat at the far end of the room.

Hermione Granger's head was poking into the room, one of her lily-white hands visible and holding her wand, which was glittering with light.

"Professor Snape?"

Frozen in place, he swallowed as she entered and closed the door behind her. He forced himself to move and turned his back to her, stuffing his notes into the pocket of his oversized dressing gown. To have been cursed in the first place was humiliating enough; to have her see him like this, holding out the smallest shred of hope that he might be cured and restored to his former self, was worse.

Before she could come near him he banished the books to the shelves and turned to face her, forcing himself to be calm, while a million thoughts flitted like hummingbirds through his mind. What is she doing here? he wondered. Can she really be wanting to talk to me, and what for? Automatically he steeled himself for rejection, when he hadn't given her anything to reject.

"Good evening," he said. Even though it was perhaps two in the morning.

"Good evening," she replied evenly. Her hands, he noticed, were shaking.

"Were you out for a stroll?" he asked. His hands were sweating, as though he were a teenaged boy in the presence of a pretty girl, rather than a middle-aged wizard in an old man's body. "Or perhaps you had difficulty sleeping. I understand that this has been an exciting day for you." He extended a pale, withered hand. "Congratulations on completing your apprenticeship."

She took the proffered hand, and he waited—one, two, three—seconds before letting go, refusing to catalogue into his memory the sensation of her hand in his. She smiled a little wistfully, and he felt keenly how he had missed her since he had begun avoiding her. He had almost forgotten the simple but lingering pleasure of a conversation with her.

He expected her to excuse herself, but before his hand could return to his side, she caught it again, in both of hers, surprising them both when she dropped her wand and it clattered to the floor. Its light sputtered out as it rolled beneath a chair, and they were left with the orange glow of Snape's reading lamp.

His disobedient heart was beating wildly.

"There's something I have to apologize for," she said slowly.

A hundred possibilities, such as I'm sorry, I'm going to marry Ron Weasley paraded through his mind but she stopped their progress and his descent into despair by pressing a piece of rolled-up parchment into his hand.

He took it, puzzled, and abruptly scowled as he recognized an ink-drawn and bespelled map of Hogwarts. In the heart of it he saw the library, with its alcoves and the passageway to the Restricted Section… and he saw a dot, and by the dot, his name in spidery handwriting. Her own dot and her name were adjacent to his.

She began to talk, very quickly and nervously, twisting the fabric of a sleeve of her robe between her fingers. "I know it's an unforgivable intrusion into your privacy, but I've been trying to see you for weeks and can never get you alone, and I've been looking for you the whole day and I have to leave tomorrow but I just had to talk to you, and it's been so difficult with you avoiding me—"

"Avoiding you?" he interrupted, bewildered that she had noticed. "Why would I be avoiding you?"

"I don't know!" she burst out, surprising both him and her with the sudden noise. She seemed to be on the verge of stamping her feet with frustration. "That's what I've been trying to figure out, but I'm not a fool; I know that when I go into a room it takes you only minutes to step out, and I wouldn't bother you now except—except—"

"Except?" he prompted, when it seemed that nothing was forthcoming.

"Except that I have to give you something important," she finished. She sounded frustrated still, but now seemed close to tears for quite another reason. He felt the ink map slip from his fingers as she pulled it away and stowed it into a pocket. From another pocket of her day robe she pulled another parchment, this time crisp and newly rolled and tied in the middle by a red ribbon. She handed it to him and he took it, still amazed at the conversation that was taking place.

He unrolled the parchment to find a letter, signed by Minerva, certifying that Miss Hermione Jean Granger had completed her Transfiguration apprenticeship program at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He held it, speechless, aware of her eyes on him. He almost said, "I believe I've already congratulated you." But there was something that she was trying to say, something she was trying to tell him, but he felt slow-witted and dull, and there was a bright, painful, cautious hope that was beginning to spread from somewhere inside his chest…

He heard her speak as though she were far away. "I received that today, and when I learned that Minerva had already told the rest of the staff… I was thinking… expecting that you would…"

He looked up, disbelief written on his face as surely as embarrassment and fear were written on hers; her cheeks were a brilliant crimson and she was staring at her slippered feet. A nervous habit that he had often observed in her—twisting a finger on her right hand between two fingers on her left—made itself known now, as she mumbled words that he heard and understood, but which had implications that he couldn't yet understand.

"I know that it was months ago that you… promised… that you would… on the day that my apprenticeship ended, but… but I know that you would never have said anything like that if you hadn't meant it, so I was... I was waiting, the whole day, for you to…"

She seemed unable to finish the sentence, and when he said nothing, she looked up swiftly, looking as though she had been slapped.

"Unless—unless you've changed your mind?"

"No!" The look of rejection on her face spurred him to action and he stepped forward, forgetting for the moment how he must look and what the curse had done to him. Longing to reassure her, he lifted a hand to touch her shoulder but his courage failed him at the last moment, and he dropped it to his side, his heart beating, beating, beating. "No," he repeated. "Never that."

"Then why?" she said. "How could I believe anything else? You've been avoiding me since Ron found you near the forest, you've stopped patrolling, you've skipped every staff meeting in the last two months and you no longer come to tea with me and Pomona, and…"

As she babbled herself into silence, he could do nothing but stare. Could she really not know? Could she really not care that she was a very young woman, bursting with potential, and he was a wizard who had never been a prize to begin with and who was now unable to referee a Quidditch match without wheezing from exhaustion?

She stepped forward, nearly closing the distance between them. Her eyes were hopeful and she took his hand; neither of them had noticed when Minerva's scroll had fallen to the floor.

"So if you haven't changed your mind," she began softly, "would dinner be all right? This weekend?" She squeezed his hand, and his heart—his disobedient heart—threatened to beat its way out of his chest. "I have to leave tomorrow but I'll be in London this Saturday, so if you're free, maybe you and I can… or if you want, I could floo here, and maybe…"

He closed his eyes, because an unfamiliar and warm feeling, simultaneously aching and soaring, overwhelmed him. Perhaps this was what happiness was like.

"—or if you want to meet in Hogsmeade, that would be all right, too; I can catch the 4.15 train, and—"

He took her hand in both of his. "Yes," he said, swallowing, closing his eyes. "Yes. Whichever you like. This weekend. Now."

Her relieved laughter was the only sound in the library.

"Do you mean that?" she said, and she pressed a kiss to his cheek—shortly, sweetly, giddily.

Amazed and caught up in this violent feeling, he lifted the hand that was still encased in his, and kissed each knuckle; he felt the fear that had paralyzed him from the start begin to ebb away. He trusted her too much to believe that she could be telling anything but the truth, however inconceivable it was that she could want him in this way.

She continued to speak, in short whispers: "I was terrified, and I thought that you'd never…"

"Always," he said; and he smiled, and could not find it in himself to let her go when she stepped into his arms and embraced him. Disobedient heart or not, he knew that it could only belong to her.

/ \ / \ / \

A/N. This is a short, rather undeveloped little story that came to me in the middle of work in a molecular biology lab, which is rather an unlikely place for inspiration. I might add to it in the future; I had had in mind a rather darker, more detailed and definitely sadder story, and if I find the time in the summer, I will probably edit the story to suit that idea. As it is, I wanted Snape to have a little bit of Christmas cheer.

A few notes:

- On stamp vs stomp: "To stamp may be a trifle less heavy than to stomp: dainty princesses stamp their feet when angry; professional wrestlers appear to stomp (on) their opponents" (The Columbia guide to Standard American English, 1993).

- It can be argued that having the body of a seventy year old man, if you're a wizard, is hardly a cause for concern. However, it can also be argued that Half-bloods don't have the advantage of looking spry at even an advanced age; we don't really know.

- The title of the story is self-explanatory, but I was also thinking of "The story of Catherine and her Fate," which is a fairy tale of a girl who is cursed to suffer while young but to be happy in old age. Reading it made me think of this Snape. Something from the movie "Penelope" kept occurring to me while typing the story, as too: "It's not the power of the curse; it's the power you give the curse." Snape's unhappiness stem from his fears rather than directly from the curse itself.

- If you are one of the unfortunate few waiting for updates of "Strong Poison," "Carrefour," and "Perdition," I'm sorry to say that my laptop broke down months ago and there is some data that I wasn't able to recover, including some fic chapters. I'll try to rewrite them very soon, and thank you for waiting patiently.