Author's Note: Apologies for dropping the ball on this one. I may have actually punted it halfway across the field, dropped it in some mud, rolled it under some bushes, forgotten about it, and came back for it a few months later. But hey, we can play ball again, can't we? That being said, this is unbeta-ed. I also haven't been indulging in SSHG fic as often as I used to, so if character tones are off, I only have rusty writing skills to blame. The Latin is right, though. I'm an ex-Latin fanatic; I can still handle my imperatives.
Disclaimer: A long time in the making, but obviously, the characters aren't mine.
He wrote to her every day, but the postage cost him nothing because the letters went unsent. Exactly sixty-eight days had passed since graduation; he knew, because there were balls of crumpled parchment lurking under his desk, keeping score.
She had left with nary a look over her shoulder. She didn't say goodbye—not to him, not to anyone. If he had to hazard a guess, it was likely her thinking that the people she deemed worth seeing would meet her outside of school one day, because she would make it so. Thus, to her, graduation was not checkmate but rather a checkpoint.
He saw each day through a lens of apathy, and it colored everything brown, like the color of Hermione's hair. He sat at the Head Table during meals, saw his colleagues get letters every week from one student or another, filled with colorful, interesting stories and musings, and he felt like a piece of decoration, the black bat figurine at a table that had been immortalized for All Hallows' Eve, even though it was already Christmas and no one had bothered to throw the decorations out. The thought made his hands clammy.
Hermione wrote every few weeks. He knew which owl was hers; kept his ears perked up especially when he saw it winging down to McGonagall or Flitwick. Every time he saw the bird, a small part of him—the part buried somewhere under his sternum, hidden away from the world—leaped and soared to meet the owl's claws. But the bird was never interested in bridging the connection; it would perch on the back of McGonagall's chair and click its beak disinterestedly, unaware that it held a man's heart in its talons.
He gave up hoping the bird would ever come within five inches of him.
And that thought made his clammy, cold hands shake.
Hermione's apprenticeship at St. Mungo's didn't pay extravagantly well, but it gave her enough money to get by. She had begun working with McGonagall and Flitwick, through letters, on charms and spell development, so that she might impress her superiors at the hospital and earn herself a pay increase for actively adding to the medical field, instead of just learning about it. But what she truly wanted was to expand her inquiry into Potions. Her tutor from Hogwarts, however, was not a pioneer, just an instructor; it was unlikely that he had an inventive bone in his body. She needed to talk to Snape.
But she didn't know how to begin.
She spent each day mulling over the end of their relationship, and it always left her with a pounding headache. Memories of his class took on a dream-like quality, their constant repetitions in her mind making them hazy and blurred, as if the potion fumes themselves were trying to block her view of the past.
She wanted to talk to him.
She drafted a letter every week, but all of them left a bitter taste in her mouth. It tasted like burnt wood, charred and dry, and it was only when she came home after a particularly long week and sat down to cry that she realized what she was tasting was the tang of a burned bridge.
Time tumbled. Three months passed, and Hermione found herself more and more dissatisfied with her life. St. Mungo's drained her daily, her outside developments were at an absolute stand still, and she hadn't contacted a friend or a teacher in at least two weeks.
Her thoughts felt dull and stagnant, and her aspirations had congealed on the sides of her brain, crusted over with drudgery and monotony. She felt lonely, and gray, and unkempt. Days blurred again, like they had after the war, and all of a sudden, they didn't have names. It was either yesterday, today, or tomorrow, and that was about as far as she could stretch when it came to thinking about her life.
So she withdrew from it entirely, and in her mind's eye she saw herself in the same position she was in a year ago, hunched over a Charms essay with a quill in her trembling hand, tears blurring the ink into indistinct, grayish black smudges.
Her glasses were cloudy again.
Severus Snape was slightly disquieted. It wasn't a great worry, no; nothing that made him nauseous or light-headed, certainly. That was unrelated. It was just… troublesome.
Because it had been three months.
And he hadn't seen her since graduation.
And the letters had stopped coming.
Minerva McGonagall was a busy woman, undeniably so. But even juggling two hundred different things, her sharp eyes never missed the 201st item that hovered just out of her reach.
She knew Hermione Granger had made herself invisible and untouchable. And she knew that Severus Snape had stopped eating breakfast and had requested a Nausea Repressor from Madame Pomfrey.
Logic dictated correlation did not imply causation, but then again, Gryffindors knew better than to listen solely to logic.
Severus' hands had begun the letter before he even realized it. He only caught up to the traitorous things when they had penned his signature at the bottom of the parchment. It read:
Careful with the accompanying vial; it was acceptable to spill its contents when it was in its brewing stage in the classroom's cauldron, but to do so when it's a final product would be most disheartening.
And if you're going to shut your mouth, you might as well open your eyes.
His hands weren't the only body parts rebelling against his mind. His legs, too, took him places without consulting him, forcing him all the way to the Owlery. His hands hadn't stopped their insubordination, either—they were packaging the potion vial with considerable delicacy and caution, tying it lovingly in durable paper and twine. The letter went into an owl's mouth, and his traitorous arm, holding the owl upright, gently propelled the bird through the open window.
His eyes, turncoats that they were, watched the owl speed away, and his hands, once clammy and cold with the slick of desperation and depression, clasped themselves behind his back determinedly and fiercely. Not for the entire journey back down to the dungeons did they tremble or shake—not once.
The letter arrived later that same day. The handwriting of the address made her heart flip upside down.
She had been so sure that she'd never hear from him again; she had felt, in the very depths of her mind, the severing of their relationship and assumed the remaining connection too untenable to sustain. And if she, the Gryffindor, had not the bravery to reach out, then she assumed there would be no hope of him, a Slytherin, taking the leap instead. But she had misjudged him, and for that, she was fervently glad.
Almost unaware that she was doing it, she brushed the pad of her thumb over his signature, the oils of her hand slightly smudging the final 'e'. Then, caressingly, she folded the letter back, using the already made creases as her guide, so that if anyone were to look, it would seem as if she hadn't touched the letter at all. Only the black streak on her thumb and the warmth in her heart could tell anyone otherwise.
Her hands, of their own accord, moved to cradle the package between her palms. It felt light and unsubstantial, though the packaging itself was bulky and roughly done. The twine's lopsided knot scratched under her fingers, but in an endearing way—prickly, but heartfelt, rather like the man whom she suspected had tied it himself. It nearly did her in to unravel it, but her curiosity was too great.
In the center of the brown packaging, like the hidden heart of a flower, rested a vial so delicate it seemed ready to shatter at the slightest breath. Gingerly, tenderly, Hermione picked it up by the ridge of its corked mouth, holding it up to the light.
It looked like molten rose gold. Even while the scientist in her demanded that she swirl the liquid inside to assess its viscosity, the little girl in her marveled at the sheer brilliance of its shine, the glimmering flecks of ruby red that peeked out playfully through the copper sheen of the potion.
Hermione brought her hands together, as if in prayer, over the thin length of the vial. Her eyes were shut, her mouth was pursed, her air one of silent meditation. And then her mouth broke into a smile so wide it looked almost awkward on such a thin, weary face.
Because Hermione had just formulated another plan, and this time, it wasn't about revenge.
She should have realized, however, that it wouldn't be easy. The conversation she needed to have with Severus—Snape? Professor? Mister? No, Severus.—had to be face to face, or she wouldn't be able to follow through. Gryffindorish confrontations and confessions were her specialty; she'd become resigned to that long ago.
But she couldn't find him. It was the winter holiday break, and he was nowhere to be seen. Surely he must leave the castle just once before Christmas? She checked bookstores, both seedy and reputable. She checked pubs, and cafés, and places known for potion ingredients, both cheap and expensive. Not one sight of him. Grimly, she set off for home, knowing what had to be done.
At her desk, out came a quill and some parchment—
I'm sorry I've been out of touch for so long; I was wondering…
And so she found herself, three days later, trudging up the snowy steps to Hogwarts. The castle, always perfect and pristine, looked even more magical—she snorted—in the swirling drifts of snowflakes.
Minerva McGonagall was waiting for her outside the heavy doors, wrapped up in fleece. The older woman bundled her inside and towards the Great Hall with nary a word, her fussing and clucking and warm eyes the remedy for Hermione's slight onset of panic.
"Molly, is that you?" Hermione teased through chattering teeth.
Minerva's sharp upsweep of an eyebrow sent Hermione into nearly hysterical giggles.
"I'm rather keyed up at the moment, forgive me," Hermione gasped out between laughs.
"That wasn't immediately evident to me," Minerva said dryly, though a small smile belied any sarcastic sting. "And while it is lovely to see you, Hermione, I question the motivation behind visiting on such a stormy day."
"The trip up was nothing," Hermione lied, warmth leeching away her shivers.
McGonagall tilted her head and raised her eyes to the ceiling, which was an ominous-looking gray. Her expression clearly said, Nice try.
"I wasn't all that bad," Hermione insisted. Her palms had begun to sweat. "I missed the castle, you see, and it's always so lovely in the snow—"
"You always were an appallingly bad liar," a voice from behind them drawled.
The air went out of Hermione's lungs as she spun around to face him. There, in all his black, sweeping glory, stood a very haughty-looking Professor Snape.
"I see you've yet to lose the habit of slackening your jaw when surprised. How delightful." And if there was a red tinge to his cheeks, Hermione was too nonplussed to answer. Minerva, in the meantime, had made her way silently out of the hall, pulling the door shut behind her.
"And you haven't lost the habit of starting conversations with shockingly rude rejoinders," Hermione snapped.
The Potion professor's face looked momentarily panicked, but then smoothed into his norm of apathetic discontent. "Haven't you heard the adage about teaching an old spy new tricks?"
Hermione gave a warm smile and extended her hand. "Professor. Quips aside, it's good to see you."
"Careful, Hermione," he said, and cursed how easily the name slipped from his mouth. "You're reneging on those barbs you sallied so perfectly last school year."
Hermione's face went red. "I… I… I didn't mean those—"
"I tell her she's appalling at it, and yet she insists on continuing." A self-deprecating smile quirked his lips, blurring the harsh angles of his face. "Do stop lying, Miss Granger. It's embarrassing how bad you are at it."
"Foolish girl, don't thank me for my—"
Hermione's expression was warm, open, and very serious. "For the potion. Apericulos, if I'm not mistaken. Very distinctive."
Snape's face went ashen. It was evident he hadn't expected any form of gratitude to come in person. "Please, don't trouble yourself to—"
"I'm not. I'm giving thanks where thanks are due, you stubborn man. Now take it with a grimace and stop complaining."
He made an exaggerated show of gritting his teeth, and through them he pushed out a hasty, "You're welcome."
"That hurt, didn't it?" Her eyes belied the airiness of the statement, brought him back to that time in the hallway, with a paper at their feet and a girl with her heart on her sleeve.
Snape's eyes refocused sharply on her face. "It did," he said quietly.
Hermione let out a small sigh, but no words came.
"But it doesn't anymore," he added. He took one tentative step, then two, then three, until they were a mere two feet apart. To him, the distance between them felt hair-thin. "Will you come?"
The taste of déjà-vu burst sweetly onto her tongue. "Of course," she said, and followed him from the hall.
This trek down to the dungeons was tension-filled, but lacked the blade-like sharpness of its predecessor. This time, Hermione was jittery for another reason entirely, and it had nothing to do with the adrenaline that came from anger.
Much like it had been before, the door came upon them too quickly, and the room he led her into was still warm and surprisingly neutral.
"You always look so surprised to see this place devoid of manacles," he said dryly. "Part of me wonders if I played my part too well."
Hermione gave a small smile. "I'm a creature of habit. The know-it-all part of me still expects a verbal lashing."
Snape winced. "I see."
She was quick to backtrack. "It was a joke, sir, really." Not that the 'sir' moniker helps my case any.
"Sit," he said, he voice tightly controlled.
This time, she welcomed the feel of the soft armchair with a small huff of happiness. "You have the comfiest armchairs."
Snape's expression told her what he thought of that inanity.
"Right," she muttered. "You asked me down. There's a reason for that, right?"
Snape took a seat himself, looking uncomfortable. "I confess to being confused by my own actions."
Hermione's eyebrows rose of their own accord.
"Yes, well," he huffed. "If you'd be so kind as to say something?"
"Why the potion?" She asked. "Your letter indicated that this was the potion inside the cauldron I knocked down last year, which means… Oh." Her eyes widened. She hadn't thought about the implications of— "Oh! You were making this for me? Last year?"
Snape's shoulders stiffened. "I—"
She barreled over him, refusing the let the thought go until she'd finished it. "You were! You saw how miserable I was, and you were trying to help me!" A huge smile bloomed over her face. "You cared."
Snape's harsh swallow made Hermione want to do something silly, like stand up and twirl in place.
"You weren't mad at me, truly, were you," she said. "You were upset that your work was destroyed, yes, but I've seen that type of anger. What happened between us wasn't that. You were," she searched for the word, "embarrassed, probably. Because you were doing something kind for me, and I'd stumbled upon it, in the most literal way. Why did you brew it out in the open?"
Snape's voice was whip-sharp. "Think, Miss Granger. Use the brain I know you have."
She had nothing to go on but the title—Apericulos wasn't a well-known brew. It had Latin roots, of course; most things in the magical world did. Apericulos, aperi… what's the word for it, I know it, I must have seen it somewhere… Oculos. She gave a smirk.
"Apericulos, a bastardization of aperi oculos. Literally meaning 'open eyes,' from the Latin. So you," she had to furrow her brow in thought for a moment, then reached out a tentative guess, "had to brew it in plain sight?"
Snape huffed out a breath. "Will there ever be a trivial detail that you don't know?"
Hermione's smile was luminous. "Doubtful."
Snape's answering quirk of the lips made something cold and hard in her chest unfurl.
"So all of last year was," she started, and then her face blanched. "Merlin," she breathed, and shut her eyes.
"Miss Granger?" Snape asked.
"All that anger. All that fury, for nothing." Her eyes were open again, their gleam dulled and muted. "I've been such an idiot."
"Well, I wouldn't put it exactly like that—"
"Oh, I hated you," she said, her voice shaky. "I loathed you, thought that your personal vendetta was the cruelest thing. And there you were, the only person who actually gave a damn." A bitter laugh. "Yes, well done, Miss Know-It-All. Everything's lovely until you start assuming things."
"Hermione, look at me."
Her head, which had become progressively bowed during her soliloquy, raised itself slowly.
"I was cruel," he said. Then, as if steeling himself, he took a deep breath. "I said things I should have never said, and it was unfair of me." The grimace on his face spoke of the difficulty he was having with his thoughts. "It pains me to see you punish yourself for something that is clearly my fault. And I, so many years your senior…" It was his turn to give a sharp chuckle. "Making mistakes that belong solely to teenage boys."
"Teenage boys?" Hermione asked, her breath catching in her throat.
"Misdirecting anger towards the object of one's affection is a common trait among the pubescent, wouldn't you say?" His raised eyebrow painted a stark contrast with the clenching of his jaw, as if only his teeth acknowledged the depth of his confession. "I was angry at you, Hermione, because I expected something from you that you were too young to give."
She blushed scarlet.
"No!" He barked out, then gentled his voice. "No, not that." He let out a gusty breath through his nose. "I wanted stability."
Hermione's brow furrowed. "I don't follow."
"I barely understand it myself," he replied, his tone wry. Then, jerkily, he took himself out of his chair and strode over to the mantelpiece. He stroked three long fingers over its surface, his back turned to her. "After the war, this world was torn to shreds—people were happy, people were grieving, people were mad. I wasn't part of the first group," he said, his voice sounding thread-thin. "But neither was I wholly part of the others. I was isolated, yes, a fallen man with no hope of redemption." He gave a harsh chuckle. "There is not much else to do but think and regret when you are recovering in a hospital bed alone."
"It sounds awful," she said sincerely.
"It was no more than I deserved," he replied.
"It is kind of you to say."
"No, it's merely true," she said, her voice a sharp blade of warm steel.
"Always the kindhearted lioness," he breathed, almost to himself. Then, as if remembering where he was: "In brief—when I came back, I looked for anything, anyone, who was familiar. It… helped." The last part was spit out like bitter bile. "And you, you were supposed to be yourself. You were supposed to be strong, curious, always bright." The words rung hollow, but lacked the tang of condemnation. "I did not consider that you, too, might be as affected as everyone else. I had placed you on an academic pedestal, and when you toppled off because," and he grinned, "how shocking, the Know-It-All is human, I was infuriated."
He turned to face her, leaning back to support himself on the mantelpiece. "And for that, I must…" His characteristic grimace reappeared. "Apologize."
Hermione moved from her chair, walking to him cautiously, one rabbit step at a time. "My turn, Professor."
A tick of pain flashed through his eyes. "Severus."
Her half-quirked lips were a study in hope. "Severus, then. My turn to apologize." She was three feet from him, enough to let him breathe. "I'm sorry, you see. For what I said. And for what I did, I think." She took a second, cocking her head to the side as if she were thinking it over. "Yes, definitely sorry. All the brilliant lessons I missed out on—" She shook her head sadly. "Wasted. Damn." She peeked up through the fringe of her hair at him, assessing his face. He looked bored, and slightly disgruntled. Well. "But that's not the important bit, is it?" And she took another step towards him, almost on tiptoe, the carpet beneath her seeming ready to crack like thin ice. "The important bit is that we neither of us deserved what we did to each other." She reached out a hand carefully, tentatively, letting it hover over his right shoulder before finally making contact. "So I'm sorry, Severus. I'd like it very much if we could try again."
That roused him. "Try what again?" He asked, almost gruffly. "You would like us to repeat the student teacher dynamic?"
It was Hermione's turn to be gruff. "No, you impossible man. The 'let's dance around each other but recognize deep down that we're actually quite compatible as friends and—'"
Severus's eyes narrowed. "Friends?" He pulled the word from his mouth as if he were pulling a sword from a mortal wound. "That is all?"
Hermione took a step back, and felt the loss of his body heat keenly. He looked at her wearily, the lines on his face blurring into a picture of age and dejection. "I see," he said.
"No, you don't," she replied. And her left hand, which had migrated into her coat's pocket during the discussion, held his potion up, victorious. "But then again, neither did I." And with one last look at the beauty of the brew, she popped the cork off and swallowed it down. It tasted like chilled rose petals.
"Oh, that's wonderful," she breathed, shutting her eyes.
"The brewing process was satisfactory," he said dryly. "But I say that only because my cauldron was not knocked over halfway through the proceedings."
At that, she opened her eyes, and trained them on him.
The Apericulos was not a hallucinatory potion; in fact, most brewers had given up making it after the first batch, because the effects seemed so anticlimactic as to render the effort meaningless. But having downed the potion, Hermione's—not sight, but perspective—was changed.
Nothing about Snape looked different; he did not turn blond, his nose did not shrink, the black of his eyes did not leech out and turn blue. His teeth stayed crooked, his hair stayed lank. But the things she felt—sensed—from him were so new and powerful as to almost knock her flat. There was warmth radiating from him; it was an earthy glow, a sense of blankets and warm bread. It reminded her of autumn days that were best spent curled up, napping. It reached for her, these warm tendrils; it wrapped her up cautiously, preciously, as if it recognized both her strength and fragility, wanting to nurture the former while understanding the latter. And at its source stood the Potions Master, leaning up against the mantel and looking at her as if he couldn't quite fathom who she was.
There was a brush at her mind; an urging, a voice that told her if she rushed headlong at him, he would catch her and hold her tight, and that if she said the right words, he might never let her go.
She wasn't a Gryffindor for nothing.
She all but flew to him, knocking him back with a gust of air and curls. "You stupid, irascible, utterly brilliant wizard." Her words were muffled by his chest, but the hand which came to wrap around her back urged her onward. "How did I possibly think, for all those months, that you hated me? And how could I think I hated you?" She chuckled, and the sound was choked and wet. "We're idiots, the pair of us."
"It must have been your acidic tongue that ensnared me first," he said, sounding put-upon. His arms tightened around her. "As much as it pains me to say, you are right."
She looked up at him. "Get used to saying it," she said fiercely. Then, quietly, "Can I—"
His face softened. "At this point, you need not ask."
The Apericulos made his words tangible, a swath of simmering, coppery heat on her tongue. "Oh," she whispered. "Well. I was always good at following instructions."
And she kissed him once, twice, and again, her blood rushing like glimmering rubies, flashing white bursts of light behind her shut eyes.
With a flick of his fingers, her glasses disappeared.
"You don't need them to see," he breathed against her lips.
She pulled away and looked up at him. "I know. Everything's clearer, now."
"Good," he rumbled. "Now close your eyes."
She smiled wickedly, and kissed him again.
She kept them open.
x x x