AN: FYI, I realized about halfway through this I had made an error with the length of enrollment in Iris Academy. It was four years, I thought three. So Neela is really about to be 20, and they've been married about three years. Sorry about that, here is the finale.
When Neela Peya returned to her room she was flustered and anxious. Three years, she thought absently, three years to come to this. To know a man who never wanted to be known and to love him when he didn't want to be loved. To be his wife. The truth of it all was so saddening now. Even after all this time there were rules. There were codes of conduct, things she knew would help and things she knew wouldn't.
She wondered if maybe it was all in vain. Years of getting to know someone and changing fundamentally thanks to the experience. Growing up faster, and happily at that, and finding joy in things beyond her years. Learning to play the piano again, to impress her husband. Studying, to prove herself to him as well as herself. To everyone. She had thought about it, a long time ago. Divorce. Right before begging him not to end it.
She could have been normal.
But somehow, she'd decided she didn't want normal. She wanted to stay married to her teacher, to get to know him and love him. No, she already loved him then. And even though their relationship had so many rules, it was a rewarding and happy thing for her. It took her so long to realize that she wanted to be happy, and that being with him made her happy, she had over reacted and been upset thoroughly throughout the entire situation.
Suddenly, her body began to shake and her face twisted with anger. "Ugh!" she yelled in frustration as she threw a pillow at the door right as Ellen came in. Ellen was hit by the pillow in slow motion as Neela moved to warn her, but it was too late. They both paused for a moment.
And then they laughed.
"Are you alright?" Neela stifled out between laughter. Ellen nodded. "Next time just tell the door what it did wrong! I'm sure it will understand," she smiled and teased. Neela blushed. "Sorry, you know. Just frustrated I have to act thirty years old when I'd rather act 5 and scream and stomp my way back into being married," she sighed. Ellen raised an eyebrow, "If that's what you want to do, I'm surprised you're showing so much restraint!" Neela raised an eyebrow herself. "Why's that?" Ellen chuckled and then sat down on her bed and looked at Neela. "When you really want to do something, you really do it! I never told you this but when you were in the process of trying to stay married before, you were talking in your sleep about the reasons Professor Grabiner should stay married to you."
Neela froze, and her face went white.
"What did I say?" she insisted and demanded to know. Ellen smiled, and then blushed. "Oh, some of it was rather sweet! And I'm sure you probably said it all to him too. Except the part about ...what was it? Arguing with him that you were fairly sure you were attractive and he didn't even have to be afraid to...make a move?" Neela turned away and flushed. "Oh my God! I couldn't even say that to him and you heard me say it in my sleep!" Ellen tried to stifle a laugh. "And then you asked him if you were his type, just to make sure," Neela picked up the other pillow on her bed.
"Never ever repeat that to anyone...ever! Especially not Virginia!" Ellen quickly looked away. Neela paused, horrified. "Did ...did she hear too?" Ellen blushed.
"Well...not until you started to apologize for the size of your-"
Neela threw her other pillow at Ellen. "Shut up!"
Ellen couldn't help but laugh as Neela stared at her extremely underwhelming chest area. "I would never say anything like that in person! I'm just-" Ellen interrupted her. "A self conscious teenage girl who tries way too hard to please her extremely critical ex-husband who probably doesn't mind half the stuff she worries about?" Neela looked away. "Point taken. Now, do tell, do I talk in my sleep regularly?" Ellen went white then. "Well...Virginia and I agreed not to talk to you about it until graduation, but I guess you should know..."
And then Neela was distracted by the terrible revelation that she had been far more friendly with her friends than she'd known in the past.
It helped distract her from her biggest fear that even though she'd done everything the way she knew it needed to be done, it might still not work out.
That Saturday she did what she always did. She woke up astronomically early and trudged her way through the halls until she reached the office in which all mail arrived. She was exhausted, the latent stress building in her mind was weighing her died. As she opened the door and walked into the empty room she let out a sigh and patted down her messy uncombed hair. There was a lot to deliver, as usual, and she felt more tired than she usually did when she woke up this early. So she gathered up the mail and divided it all by hall, and then stopped.
"Neela," a distinctly british voice rang out as if he'd been there the whole time she was sorting the mail. Neela turned politely around, trying not to hide her shock that he had so thoroughly snuck up on her.
What's so great about a grumbly old man? She had once asked herself. What's so great about a teacher? What's so great about him? Don't I want anything else?
But the answer had always been the same. Even when she was easily angered, even when she hated how difficult her husband could be, even when their age differences showed and even when she felt inferior to him. Other girls felt special because someone cared about them. But could it even measure to how special she felt? To have been saved by him, and then accepted by him? And she regretted so thoroughly her inability to see how childish she'd been behaving. All because it twisted that special happy feeling he gave her. All because every cup of tea they shared and every intimate detail seemed to fade away in these last few weeks.
"Ah, Professor Grabiner..." she stuttered out nervously, her words slow as if to hint they were reluctant. "Good morning." She didn't feign a smile. While it was respectful, her calling him anything but Hieronymous after so long was still so foreign. To both of them. And the meaning of her saying it was not lost to him. "Good morning," Then there was a moments hesitation. But then he was the one to speak, to her surprise. "I have read the letter you left me. It is early and I know you have your responsibilities, but I thought it best I tell you in person. I don't doubt your sincerity, but if what you said in your letter is true...then I invite you to come to my room later and discuss it further. We could discuss it now, but it is far too early and-" Neela interupted abruptly. "And you wanted to give me the chance to rethink my words?" She asked bluntly.
"Yes," he answered in a matter of fact way. She smiled in response, which took him aback. Though she was young, sometimes it was difficult to predict her. "Thank you, not for that opportunity, but for answering me...when you didn't have to." He opened his mouth, and after a moment shut it. He had been about to say, that is my responsibility, but it wasn't. She was no longer his wife. He'd simply wanted to show her the kindness she had showed him. And some bitter cold part of him deep down had said that even if she decided she was a fool, like she should have all along, he had wanted to see that look in her eye again. The sweet look of his wife, even when she had been terrified of him, she had been his wife. He was old and grumpy and she countered it with being sweet and mature, and most of all by loving him. He had been alright at the thought of losing that, but seeing it one more time had been worth it. He would never admit to her how her eyes could soften his anger and bitterness, but he would never deny it if she asked.
She looked at him with that softness in her eyes.
"I will see you later, Hieronymous."
Neela felt calm.
More calm than she'd felt since she found out she was to be divorced.
She ran her hand through her long white hair, and she stared at the door she was about to knock on. And then she raised her hand slowly, and knocked twice. After a moment of silence, the voice of her ex-husband rang out. "Come in," she opened the door gently and glanced over at the man who stood before her. Usually, he was always sitting down in his cozy chair. Reading, working on something. But now he was standing. Silence swept over them.
Neela opened her mouth, but strangely she was interupted.
"Three years, and you've yet to see the benefit of being free of me?" he stated, but not in a cruel way. In a way meant to be humorous. Neela smiled, the air feeling less stiff. "Haven't we been here before? It's not that, it's merely that I..." she paused. Her eyes shifted from the floor to his eyes and she smiled. Before she could continue, he interjected with a sigh.
"Neela Peya. You have been coming to my room for three years now. You have shown me kindness and respect. You have provided humor, patience, and amusement. Primarily, you've shown wisdom beyond your years. And yet you approach me still as if you have wronged me. I believe the very first study session I provided you knew the answer and yet you stuttered? So why now after all this time, when you are approaching me with nothing but good intentions if intense naiveity, do you come with an air of apology?"
Did he just textwall her? With compliments? Alright, compliments and maybe one underhanded comment about her maturity, but still. She blinked, and then she opened her mouth. "Well, to be fair, you divorced me rather abruptly-" the look on his face suggested annoyance. "And when, Neela, did I ever suggest that this was something I did for any reason other than to satiate the insufferable cries of outraged groups?" Suddenly, Neela's face went red. "What?"
"Granted," he continued. "the lack of communication on my part was..." Neela spoke up. "Inconsiderate?" she chimed in helpfully. "Yes," he said after a moments hesitation. "To put it rather mildly. I thought I was protecting you from the whole matter. Initially, I thought it would be easily solved..." Hieronymous Grabiner paused. The truth of it all had been so convoluted. It started with complaints from students. Students turned into parents. Parents turned into Otherworld representatives. How had it even gotten that far?
"I see..." Neela hesitated. She didn't want to insult his pride. How had it gone from something he could control to a real problem he could not fix? But if she asked him that, he would be upset. She didn't want that. She stayed silent. He was, afterall, admitting he had been at fault. That must have hurt. The blush remained.
"I let things get out of hand. That is why we are here today, Neela, and I-" suddenly, his words were cut off. "No! Don't just blame yourself like that. I mean, it's true I was angry...and I was sad too. But didn't you just say you...didn't want it? If you're saying sorry for not telling me, then okay. I accept your apology, but really...because you didn't tell me beforehand...and because you and Professor Potsdam just sprung it on me...I thought...maybe you just didn't want to be married to me anymore," Neela looked at her hands shyly. That really sounded stupid now that she said it. As she observed the floor, two feet in particular came within range of her eyesight.
Then his fingers were on her chin, and he lifted her face so her gaze would meet him. As she looked into his eyes, she felt guilty. In his eyes were the usual seriousness and a deep sense of mystery. But right now, her words seemed to both confound him and hurt him. "Neela," he said simply. "Do you really picture me as someone who would go about things in such a roundabout, not to mention extremely inefficient, manner?" She looked into his eyes and felt completely exposed. How silly had she been, thinking something like that? Believing it? Avoiding him because of it?
Hadn't he always protected her?
"I...wrote my father," he stated plainly.
In a moment, she felt her stomach lurch and her heart ache. That had been all he needed to say. He hadn't even needed to say that much. It must have been humiliating. Not to mention if it had gone so far a noble couldn't fix it, it was most certainly a big deal. And he'd done it...for her? She looked into his dark eyes couldn't look away. She could see the signs of his age all over his face, but she couldn't help but find him handsome, in some strange way.
Boldly, she moved her hand to the side of his face. "You...always protect me. Even when I don't know it," surprise was clearly evident on his face. And tears began to spring in her eyes. "Will you...ever forgive me?" she choked out. "Why are you apologizing?" And she smiled. "Well, it just feels wrong for only one of us to say we're sorry, doesn't it?" Hieronymous pulled away from her.
"You have grown so much. In every way. Taller, wiser, stronger, and with more and more desire to succeed and the skill to do it with. You have become...important to me. At first, you were just my pupil. Then you were my wife...and now you're not. Somehow, I'm not happy with that arrangement. In fact, after all this time...there is only one person I can really stand the company of. There is only one person I can claim to 'love'."
Neela wasn't sure what to think. What was he saying? He had never...never ever been so sweet. Or considerate. And sure, it was not something you'd read in books. No, it was better because of that. These were words only Hieronymous Grabiner could say to her. Her heart swelled.
"In a matter of months, you will be a graduate of Iris Academy. You will no longer be a pupil, and you will instead be free to pursue whatever endeavors you so choose. And if you so choose...I would be most..." Hieronymous Grabiner was almost at a loss for words. He had never done this with anyone. Not ever. He had declared his love before, but never had he asked for someone to marry him.
"If you would have me, I would gladly welcome you back into my house and ...once again assume the role as your...husband. Assuming of course you would once again like to be my wife," Neela Peya's heart stopped. Was he really doing this? Really saying, oh yes, by the way – I actually do want to be married to you. Really...saying he wanted to be with her? "You have a good amount of time to think about it, howeve-" "Yes!"
Neela Peya had stopped crying. She was now filled with determination and glee. "Of course I would! I..I don't need any time to think about it at all! I...I've loved you for so long now, you have to have known that..and...the thought I'd never get to be with you again...that was the worst part!"
It only took a moment after she finished saying the words that her new fiance had pulled her close to him. Such an intimate thing. Most people wouldn't think much of it. But to her, it was so momentous she wanted to cry again. Cry...because it had not all been in vain. She would get to be with the one person she loved most. And so she started to cry again, because she didn't know what else to do. Within a moment, he was not just holding her. He was kissing her. Calming her down with a simple action and both making the feelings worse while making her world stop spinning.
It was not as plain a kiss as the first one. It was longer, more momentous, and a celebration of something happy. But it was not so long as to be uncharacteristic of her extremely unpassionate... fiance. There was quiet for a long time.
"Hieronymous?" she said eventually, parting from him. He looked at her, with a look that suggested he had only moments before regained his composure. "Yes?" Neela shuffled her feet. "I was wondering, if there were two things I could ask from you...about getting married, I mean," and then she looked at him. One of his eyebrows were raised, but he did not seem bothered. "Go on," he stated simply.
Neela looked around hesitantly. "Well...can we not get married in a dungeon this time? I don't know about fancy dresses or anything, but at the very least I would like very much not to be married in a place that reminds me of getting teleported upside down...among...more unpleasant things..." Suddenly, a smirk formed on his face. "And here I thought you would like the company of a hodag as the witness," Neela, shocked by the joke, laughed very audibly.
"You...I really love you," she said with a bright smile. It took a moment, but his gaze softened. "And I..love you," her heart felt like it would explode. "I...I better get going before I make a fool of myself. I...I'll see you soon. Very soon, I mean, you can even write me...and I'd come...I just..." his young wife started spouting nonesence from the sheer excitement of the moment, but as she reached for the doorknob he stopped her. "Neela," he said abruptly. She turned to meet his gaze.
"Wasn't there another request you had?" Neela, hoping he had forgotten, blushed as she looked at the door. "Maybe this time, we could...you know, talk about actually consumatingourmarriage but that's for a later time, goodnight Hieronymous!" she said abruptly and left the room before he could decipher her words.
He was slightly grateful she left, as he made the flustered face of a teenaged boy. If only for a split second. Then he coughed to himself, and returned to reading.
But truthfully, he hadn't realized just how happy it made him. After several failed reading attempts, he instead turned to simple planning. Afterall, how on earth was he going to prevent his father and Petunia Potsdam from attending, anyway? Fake addresses? Excuses? After a moment, he simply smiled.
Because if she was there...maybe he could tolerate their presence. At least, as long as she was looking at him with her sweet smile.