A WINTER'S TALE, PART I
Obligatory Disclaimer: Nope, still not mine.
Author's Notes: This little story comes from my irritation with myself for not having a new long fic ready yet despite all the time that's passed. I left a note on my profile asking for Christmas/winter-themed prompts and around half a dozen stalkers gave me suggestions. I then promptly cheated and combined most people's requests into one story! I've spent too much time writing Slytherins, clearly. So, no particular username shout-outs, there are at least four prompts in this one; which is set some time post-canon, at Hogwarts, and doesn't fit into the timeline of any of my existing stories. It's in two parts, the second half will be up before the end of the month.
Warnings: None, really.
"The nights are colder now
maybe I should close the door
and anyway the snow has covered all your footsteps
and I can follow you no more
the fire still burns at night
my memories are warm and clear
but everybody knows it's hard to be alone at this time of year."
- David Essex, 'A Winter's Tale'.
"Severus, may I have a word with you in my office, please? Now, if possible. Thank you." The green flames died before he had a chance to respond, and he gave the fire a sour look, reflecting that nothing good ever came from the phrase 'may I have a word'. For a start, it was always a lot of words, not a word, and those words always added up to making him do something he didn't want to do. He considered just ignoring the Headmistress, but time had not mellowed Minerva McGonagall's attitude in the slightest and whatever she was going to demand would only be worse if he made her come and dig him out first.
Sighing, he put aside his book and hauled himself to his feet, stretching stiffly before leaving what passed for the comfort of his rooms and starting the long walk through the castle to the office that had briefly been his. The damp dungeon air was making his knee ache – and his back, and his neck, always his neck – which did nothing for his mood as he focused on trying not to limp while climbing the endless stairways, quietly resenting the disruption of a nice quiet evening. The new school year had only just started, with all the chaos that went with it, and free time was a valuable commodity.
"What?" he asked his employer ungraciously as he entered the office, careful to keep his dark eyes only on her desk – every time he was in this room Dumbledore's portrait started trying to attract his attention, and he refused to allow it; they hadn't spoken since his return to the school after the war, which was exactly how Severus liked it.
Minerva ignored his snappish tone, as usual. "Sit, please. We need to talk about Christmas, amongst other things."
"What about it?" he asked suspiciously, recognising the signs of an impending fight and preparing to dig his heels in as he took a seat opposite her.
"You've asked for leave again..."
"All the Slytherins are going to be absent," he interrupted, wanting to get his points in quickly before she could begin her attack. "There's no reason for me to be here." His House weren't stupid and generally tried to make themselves absent during the Christmas and Easter holidays whenever possible; things were much easier for them now than they had been, but it was still best to avoid trouble when they could.
"That's not the point, Severus. Be quiet and listen." She gave him a warning look and shook her head slightly. "I have no issue with your duties, or whether or not you're needed here. What concerns me is your continued isolation. The staff here are meant to be a team, a unit, and most of us are, but then there's you. You can't keep avoiding us all, Severus. Like it or not, you're one of us."
No, I'm not. He kept the automatic bitter retort to himself and simply watched her silently, waiting for the jaws of the trap to spring shut. Realising that he wasn't going to say anything, the Headmistress sighed and continued.
"I'm forbidding you to take a leave of absence at any point outside the summer vacation from now on, unless you can prove to my satisfaction that there is a real reason why you need to be away beyond simply avoiding the rest of us. I'm sorry to have to do this, Severus, but things haven't noticeably improved since you returned to teaching. No, don't interrupt until I've explained; I'm not doing this to spite you. I need my staff to be a team, and to be blunt most of the others still don't trust you."
"You don't say," he sneered, curling his lip. "Imagine my surprise."
"That's enough, Severus. This problem is your doing. It's been almost eight years since the war ended, six since you returned to teaching here, and you've made no attempt during that time to heal the rift that developed during the war. It took a direct order from me to make you attend meals and to show your face in the staff room at least two evenings a week, and when you are there you refuse to talk to any of your colleagues. You wouldn't talk to me if I didn't make you, either. It's not healthy for you, and it's not good for the rest of us to have such a gap in our ranks. On the few occasions someone has tried to approach you and make things right you've thrown it back in their faces."
"Do you blame me?" he retorted bitterly, barely stopping himself from reaching up to touch the scars on his neck. The period after the war had ended had been very short on apologies from anyone, and he'd spent most of the eighteen months following his release from St Mungo's completely on his own with no contact from anyone; he imagined he'd still be in that situation now, if a combination of his lack of funds and an article in the Daily Prophet concerning staff shortages at Hogwarts hadn't led to him reluctantly contacting Minerva to ask for his old job back. He'd been on the verge of starvation, unable to even afford food and unwilling to risk the wrath of the Ministry if caught using magic to steal, before he'd swallowed his pride enough.
"Not completely, no," Minerva replied now, "but I have apologised years ago for the way you were treated, and I will not do so again. I didn't want to do this, Severus; I don't like interfering in my staff's personal lives, but I can't let things continue as they are. You need to become part of the team, one way or another. So; no more sloping off to hide during the holidays, starting now. You also need to spend at least three evenings and one weekend afternoon per week in the staff room unless your Slytherins need you – don't even think of trying to schedule talks with them or assigning detentions to other students in order to get out of it. I'm not going to insist that you talk to people or join in with anything, but you will not be rude to anyone without genuine cause, and you'll answer politely if one of your colleagues tries to talk to you. You managed well enough between wars, you can do it again now. In addition, I am running the Christmas gift exchange again this year – you've wriggled out of it for three years, but this time you are going to take part, and you're going to put some effort in. Whoever's name you draw, you're going to get them a decent present that's had a bit of thought put into it. Harry's also asked me to persuade you to attend the summer Order gatherings."
Damnit. This was worse than he'd thought. Especially since he couldn't say she was wrong – his mere presence in the staff room cast a noticeable pall over the room, a little pocket of silence surrounding whichever corner he was skulking in, and although Hell would freeze over before he admitted it aloud, Severus knew that after this many years it really was probably his fault. Flitwick, Sprout, Pomfrey, Granger, Sinistra, one or two of the yearly Defence teachers who'd known him before – all of them had come to him at some point since his return to teaching, trying to offer apologies, and had been repaid with all the eloquence and anger at his disposal. He'd reduced Sprout, Pomfrey and Granger to tears, and none of the others had been that far off. Nobody had made a second attempt.
He'd reduced Minerva to tears as well, but she hadn't let that stop her; she'd sealed this office and refused to let him leave until she'd finished shouting at him and apologised properly and sincerely. Now she dealt with his temper and his nasty comments by ignoring them and doing her best to treat him as she had done before the second war, when they had been – not precisely friends, there was too much history there, but at least on mostly friendly terms; and he'd found he didn't have the energy to continue the feud any more. She was right, she was the only other staff member he spoke to in more than monosyllables. He was more than accustomed to being hated, but he had to admit that at this point he was the only real enemy he had left.
"I'm not going to the Order thing," he said mostly automatically, buying himself more time to think. "Tell Potter to sod off." That was one point he wasn't surrendering on – he hadn't seen Potter since the Shrieking Shack, and that was precisely how he liked it. He'd sent all the young man's letters back unopened until he'd got the hint and stopped writing; there was nothing either of them could say to fix that particular situation and he wasn't interested in trying. The same went for most of the Order, too.
"I've told him we'll discuss that nearer the time. Hopefully by then we'll have made some progress here."
"You can't possibly expect this to make any difference," he said flatly. "They don't like me, and I don't like them. There's no point trying to change that. Some wounds go too deep to heal."
"Don't resort to clichés, Severus," Minerva retorted. "I don't know if this is going to work or not, after all this time, but I've spoken to most of our colleagues about you over the past couple of years. They've forgiven you, and they want you to forgive them."
"I can't," he replied quietly after a long pause, reluctantly lifting his head to look at her as the familiar coolness of his Occlumency defences spread through his mind and emptied his expression. "Not after... everything. I understand why you all made the assumptions you did, but that year on my own was a nightmare beyond imagining and I can't forget it. Besides, nobody tried to make amends until I'd been back here for most of a year and they couldn't stand the awkwardness any more – Potter's the only one outside the school who's contacted me, and that was only a couple of years ago. If I hadn't come back here none of you would ever have tried to make things right; that tells me just how much you all care."
"Nobody knew what to say to you, Severus, that's all. And word has spread of your response to the first attempts at repair; people are too scared to try now. I'm not asking you to forgive anyone – Merlin knows I'm aware you haven't forgiven me – only that you try to move past it. For the good of Hogwarts, if nothing else. This isn't a negotiation," she added firmly, her Scottish accent thickening a little. "I don't give a damn if you're sincere or not, frankly; you can pretend civility if you try, and I'm telling you to do so. I will see you in the staff room tomorrow evening, and next month you're going to draw your name for the staff gift exchange. No more arguments. I know backing you into a corner never works well but I don't see another option at this point. You may go."
Seething, he stood and left without another word, barely resisting the urge to slam the door behind him.
A month crawled past, extremely agonisingly as far as Severus was concerned. He had never liked being social, and since the war he had developed a real and deep-rooted dislike of being in a crowded room. The classroom wasn't so bad, everyone else in the room was clearly subordinate to him and until around NEWT level they were all shorter than him as well; it still made him a little uncomfortable, but the irritation of not liking his job covered that up.
The staff room was different. He didn't need Legilimency to pick up on the low-key hostility that was directed at him every time he was in there – oh, it wasn't personal, or intentional, but almost all of them had suffered from trying to teach under him as Headmaster, and the memories produced a silent undercurrent of negative emotions. Even without that, he'd never been good at social interactions, and although he could get through one-on-one conversations he hated attempting it with a group; but even that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was that everyone present knew too much. Potter had not had the basic human decency to keep his damned mouth shut about the contents of those final memories that had been intended to be a death-bed testimony. The little bastard had at least kept it from becoming complete public knowledge – otherwise Severus would have killed himself, frankly, unable to bear that sort of exposure – but the entire bloody Order knew, and he had no idea how many of them had seen the memories for themselves before he'd got them back, nor did he know how much the non-Order staff members knew. He felt physically ill whenever he was in the room with more than two or three of the others, a nausea and tension that was based in stress and fear rather than actual illness.
Despite that, he supposed Minerva would consider this a success so far. It was all false, of course, but to all outward appearances Severus was slightly more one of the crowd than he had been. At least he blended into the background now, not quite so obviously apart from everyone else. He still felt varying degrees of bitter hurt and rage when someone spoke to him, depending on who it was, but he needed this crappy job too much to risk disobeying Minerva completely, so he bit his tongue and replied in monosyllables, falling back into the cold distant politeness he had used after the first war so many years ago. His fellow teachers had all been surprised and suspicious at first, but by now he was sure they had all worked out that he'd been ordered to join in with them, and he was mostly left alone without being blatantly ignored.
And now he was being made to take part in the stupid gift exchange. Severus disliked Christmas anyway because everything about the holiday seemed designed to drive home just how alone he was – suicide rates spiked sharply at this time of year for a reason – and he was dreading this simply because he wouldn't have a clue what to buy for any of his colleagues. Minerva had made it clear that he wouldn't get away with the typical alcohol or chocolate, that he'd have to put some genuine thought into it. It was pointless anyway; whoever drew his name probably wouldn't get him anything, or it would be some sort of nasty joke gift designed to either injure or humiliate him.
To make matters worse, he could tell as soon as he put his hand into the bag that she'd rigged one of the slips of parchment to make sure he only drew the name she wanted him to draw. Severus looked up at his employer with a venomous expression, debating whether or not to break the charm she'd used, and she returned a look that was one part innocence and one part warning. With bad grace he picked up the folded name she wanted him to take, wondering what she hoped to gain by this – she'd probably picked the name he would most hate, or possibly the name of the person she felt he owed the most to.
Or both, as it turned out.
He stared resignedly down at the little slip and the neat writing, familiar from years of essays. Hermione Granger.
Hours later, Severus was still furious, pacing up and down in his office and wasting glares on the various things floating in their jars on the shelves. Minerva had ducked out of the staff room as soon as the last name was drawn and had barred her office and Floo to him so he couldn't object; he could technically have overturned her restriction, but not without revealing his ability to do so, which he wasn't prepared to do. There was absolutely nothing he could do, and that frustration was only adding to his anger. Why her, damnit?
He had not been pleased to learn when he'd come back to teaching that one of his new colleagues was the insufferable know-it-all herself, taking over Charity Burbage's old job as Muggle Studies teacher. Not that he'd particularly disliked the girl when he'd taught her, at least no more than any other student – her intelligence offset her lamentable taste in friends, helping to compensate for the times she'd acted against him directly – but now... Most of his problems with the other teachers came from his not being sure just how much they knew, but with Granger he was acutely aware that she knew absolutely everything and had seen it all personally. The look on her face when she'd come to him to apologise had shouted that loud and clear, no need for Legilimency. That was one mark against her. The fact that every time he laid eyes on her he remembered dying on the floor of the Shack was another – he could block that memory most of the time, but her mere presence was sometimes enough to trigger traumatic flashbacks. And the final mark against her, fairly or unfairly, was that she was one of the three who'd left him in a pool of his own blood like so much discarded rubbish. Most of a day had passed before anyone had bothered to go back for him and found out that he was actually still alive. Those three points had been the reason why he'd rejected her apology as harshly and viciously as only he could manage, sending her fleeing from him in tears for the second time in her life.
Thinking about it in those terms, Severus could admit that perhaps he owed her a little for that. Stopping his pacing, he scowled at the wall, rubbing his neck absently. His trauma wasn't her fault, it wasn't as if she'd set out to be a trigger. Equally he couldn't really blame any of them for leaving him in the Shack, since they had been rather busy at the time and since he was pretty sure he had been clinically dead – that didn't stop him hating the three of them for it, naturally, but he could admit if only to himself that it wasn't really justified.
Sighing as some of his anger faded, he turned and walked to his personal chambers, temper fading to weariness; he couldn't really object. Besides, this stupid gift exchange was meant to be anonymous; she'd never know it was him, there wouldn't be an embarrassing scene and he wouldn't have to apologise to someone he did still have a few reasons to resent. It would get Minerva off his back and ease his conscience a little and he could go back to disliking them all in peace. That didn't mean he had to like it, of course, but he could grudgingly accept it. At least until he worked out how to pay Minerva back for doing this to him.
He approached Minerva at breakfast the next morning, still in a bad mood since he hadn't slept well – not that he ever did, but last night had been worse than usual – and hadn't even opened his mouth before she said firmly, "You're not getting out of it, Severus."
Choosing not to respond to that, since he didn't want to admit he knew he had no choice, he asked icily, "Why her?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Do you really think I can't tell when you're lying? Me? Don't mess me about. Why her?" he repeated.
The Headmistress smiled rather nastily at him. "Because she'll be the most challenging for you, since you've only worked with her for a couple of years, all of which you've spent avoiding her, so you have no past experience to guide you. And because she's the only one who's had to suffer through being taught by you, so you almost certainly owe her more than a Christmas present. Remember what I said, Severus – put some effort into it. Pick something suited to her, something she'll like. If you can," she added challengingly.
He gave her a withering look, refusing to rise to the bait. "I'm not a Gryffindor, Minerva. You can't goad me into doing something just by saying you don't think me capable of it."
"No, but I can order you to do it, and I just have."
Resisting the urge to swear, he asked, "And did you rig my name?"
"No. I have no idea who picked you, but frankly I pity them," she replied airily, and he knew that despite his words he couldn't be sure whether she was lying or not, not in the mood he was in. "Off you go."
After so many years of teaching, Severus could almost literally do his job in his sleep. Unfortunately this left entirely too much free time for him to end up thinking about what on earth he was going to get the annoying witch for Christmas; despite what he'd said to the Headmistress, she had stung his pride and part of him did want to prove her wrong, much to his irritation. It should have been a very simple task, one managed successfully by most of the human race every year, and yet he had no idea where to even begin.
It wasn't as if he had much experience to draw on. He'd known about Christmas growing up, in a vague sort of way, bits of knowledge picked up from the other children on the estate – he remembered asking his mother if Father Christmas was real at one point, since it was perfectly logical to him that anyone flying around the world in one night getting into supposedly secure houses must be a wizard, and she'd told him impatiently not to ask stupid questions; he'd got a thrashing from his father for asking the same thing about Jesus – but they'd never celebrated it. There hadn't been enough money for presents or decorations or fancy food, and the Muggle side of his family seemed to be completely non-religious. It had just been another day for him, often slightly worse than usual since his father would be at home.
As with just about everything in his early life, it had been meeting Lily that had changed things. Come December of the first year he'd known her, she'd become very excited over the approaching holiday, to Severus' private bewilderment – then again he'd already become quite used to not understanding half the things his new friend got excited over. Then she'd asked him casually what he wanted for Christmas, and even better than thirty years later he still remembered the sudden panic of realising that he was expected to reciprocate. He'd got away with it that first year – at the time Lily had been in the middle of the normal young girl's obsession with horses, so he'd stolen some pencils from school and spent most of two weeks working on a drawing of a pony that she'd been thrilled to bits with; she'd kept it pinned to her bedroom wall for almost a year before Petunia had destroyed it during a sisterly battle. Later years had been harder; even now he was relieved that she'd never known how many of her Christmas and birthday presents had been shoplifted simply because he couldn't afford anything nice.
Aside from Lily, though, he'd never really had to buy gifts for anyone. He'd never had any friends at school close enough to bother, and he'd certainly never bought anything for any of his colleagues, although Dumbledore had usually given him something tasteless and useless. He would have bought gifts for the Malfoys, his only real friends, except that they were rich enough to buy themselves anything they wanted so it was rather redundant; instead he brewed potions for them if any of them ever asked him, and left it at that.
Frankly Severus didn't see the point of Christmas or birthday presents. It was always nice to get free stuff, but when you had to pay for stuff for other people it wasn't really free. As far as he was aware the tradition behind Christmas presents had started with bribing various gods on the winter solstice to bring the sun back, and birthday presents seemed a complicated way to tell someone you were glad they hadn't died for another year. Still, he was clearly very much in the minority, so much so that he was prepared to concede he might just be biased due to receiving perhaps half a dozen gifts in his entire life, none of them remotely memorable. So Minerva had been right that this was going to be a challenge for him, he reflected sourly. Half of November had already trickled past in a flurry of snow and he was none the wiser.
What did he actually know about Granger, beyond the various childhood misdeeds that had either injured or inconvenienced him? Most obviously, she was intelligent and enjoyed learning, and although she wasn't anywhere near as much of a show-off these days was clearly still almost offensively enthusiastic about things. He suspected that the best present he could possibly give her was a book token, in all honesty, but there was no way Minerva would let him get away with that even if it was exactly what the woman wanted. A specific book then, something on a topic she was particularly interested in, or something rare? Still cheating, really, and very predictable – doubtless most of her friends tended to give her books; it was the first thing most people must think of.
Severus was a little ashamed to realise he actually didn't know anything else about her. Minerva had been right in other respects too – he knew far more about his other colleagues from years of exposure to them, from overheard conversations and simple observation. Granger was a nonentity who'd never really been on his radar; searching his memory, all he could really remember was how she took her tea in staff meetings and that she had a cat. He seemed to remember her wearing purple quite often as well, so that might be her favourite colour, but that was it.
Well, he'd just have to pay a bit more attention for a couple of weeks, that was all. But there was a fine line between observation and stalking; he'd have to be careful. Assuming he even went through with this, because frankly it was pathetic and he couldn't believe Minerva would really fire him over it – though he didn't particularly want to test that theory.
November slowly gave way to December, meaning that the castle was transformed into a glittery wonderland that Severus thought looked hideously tacky, not that anyone had asked him. The weather had turned truly appalling, blizzards sweeping across the moors to such an extent that Herbology lessons were cancelled since it was almost impossible to get to the greenhouses and back, and Quidditch practices were called off since flying was too hazardous when nobody could see through the swirling snow.
The only effect Severus noticed was that the dungeons were even colder than usual, and the Potions classroom remained bitterly cold no matter how high the children pushed the fires under their cauldrons. It made him wish even more strongly that Minerva would let him go home for the holidays – the snow never settled for very long around Spinner's End, which stayed defiantly grey and bleak and wet no matter what time of year it was. Yes, he'd be depressed, miserable and lonely there; but he was depressed, miserable and lonely here too, and also bloody freezing.
It was almost impossible to sleep when his rooms were so cold, no matter how many warming charms he used; the chill seemed to have crawled into his bones, and it made the scars on his neck hurt with a deep, throbbing pain far beyond the usual faint background ache that he'd grown used to over the years. He put up with it for another week, until the holidays started; getting the children to the station was tricky, but in the end everyone going home for Christmas had gone and the castle was much more peaceful, especially since he was freed of his obligation to be social outside mealtimes. Severus promptly reverted to his old wartime habits, cat-napping throughout the day and spending most of the night wandering around the castle, though he couldn't avoid everyone completely – he made sure to spend at least an hour or two every couple of days in the staff room or somewhere else public, still attempting to continue his careful surveillance of a certain former Gryffindor.
He was thinking about her now, as he prowled silently through the familiar hallways. In almost a month of careful daily observations, he had discovered... nothing. Oh, Granger was social enough, always present in the staff room chatting as she did her paperwork or reading, but there was no real substance to it, as if she was going through the motions – now that he thought about it, he wasn't sure he'd ever overheard her taking part in an actual serious conversation that wasn't work-related. And he was certain it was deliberate; she was holding back, hiding almost. That was interesting enough on its own to stir his curiosity, but Severus found it equally fascinating that nobody seemed to have noticed – she was popular with all her colleagues, except him, and yet he doubted any of them knew her any better than he did.
An impulse led Severus higher through the castle, away from his usual haunts and up to the Owlery, which had been carefully screened against the weather with something like an airlock set up for the birds to come and go without letting any of the warmth escape. He touched an area of the wall off-limits to anyone except Minerva – and himself, unofficially now – and removed the scroll tucked into the space behind it, lighting his wand to read it and causing a few drowsy hoots of complaint from the owls too smart to go out in such a strong wintry storm; this was the record of incoming and outgoing mail, magically tracked somehow in a way he'd never managed to puzzle out.
Interesting. The scroll only showed the past month or so; presumably there was an archive somewhere, but if so he'd never found it – one of the downsides of never having been trained for the post of Headmaster; he imagined there were a lot of things about the castle he still didn't know. According to this, Granger's only received mail had been a redirected Muggle letter, presumably from her parents; she had sent four letters, one to a Muggle address and therefore presumably the reply, and three others – one to Weasley and two to Potter and his wife. Severus eyed the dates; none of them had replied in three weeks.
Replacing the little scroll, he put his wand back inside his coat and headed back downstairs, drifting through the familiar corridors and thinking hard. He was starting to see the shape of the problem now; in every memory he could call to mind of the Golden Trio, it was always Potter and Weasley who stood out, and Granger standing behind them. Every fight he'd ever witnessed between the dream team seemed to have been Potter and Weasley on one side and Granger on the other. They did seem to have been fair-weather friends to some extent, and now they didn't need her to do their homework for them any more they appeared to have lost interest a little. She'd never had many other friends that he could recall, straining his excellent memory since he hadn't paid much attention at the time; Longbottom, perhaps, though they had never seemed close.
So, limited contact with her family while she was at school, and friends who didn't seem particularly committed to the friendship – all right, he conceded to himself, a slight delay in responding to her letters was hardly evidence and he admitted he just wanted to think the worst of Potter and his sidekick, but that didn't mean he was wrong. As for within Hogwarts itself – he realised with a start that he was the youngest staff member currently except for Granger herself, by quite a significant margin; no wonder she didn't seem to have formed any deep friendships, especially since most of her colleagues had taught her not so many years ago. The fiery-tempered young girl he remembered had become a rather withdrawn and overly cautious young woman who kept to herself.
Well, he could certainly understand her situation, he reflected. It seemed as though she was in similar circumstances to his own at the start of his teaching career, minus the psychological issues – though perhaps not even that, given what she'd been through. The shock of empathy made Severus stop dead, staring blankly out of the window at the falling snow with unseeing eyes; he certainly hadn't expected that, not concerning the fellow teacher he most resented, but her situation was very similar to some of his own experiences and he remembered how much it had hurt.
Frowning, he started walking again, very slowly now as his thoughts wandered. Irrationally, he felt a little annoyed; he'd been much happier just hating her for being an interfering irritating little swot who knew far too much for her own good. Still, she wouldn't be the first person he'd had to re-examine his attitude to, and doubtless she wouldn't be the last – and interesting though all this was, he reminded himself sternly that it didn't help him with his actual goal, which was to find something for her Christmas present that would get his employer to leave him alone. Nothing more.
Turning and heading for his own rooms, he wished he didn't feel as though he was lying to himself.
With only a few days to go, Severus was thoroughly fed up and even more sleep-deprived than usual. A nagging part of him wanted to help the woman; apparently some part of his brain was arrogant enough and deluded enough to think there was something he could obtain as a Christmas gift that would solve all her problems. Chalking that up to lack of sleep, and possibly a few brain cells having died off in the cold, Severus had engaged old instincts he hadn't used in years and spent a couple of days studying Granger as intently as he'd ever spied on a war target. He was determined to get this right, even if just to shut Minerva up and teach her not to try playing with him again.
Only there was still so little to go on. He'd spotted a fair amount of cat hair on her robes; either the cat slept on them or was subjected to frequent cuddles, but either way it indicated that she spoiled the animal. His fallback option if he couldn't come up with anything else would be a sketch of her cat, then, since his drawing skills had improved quite a bit since he was nine. But that would require the cat being present, or at least a photograph, if he was to get it right, and he wasn't comfortable with paralleling the first present he'd ever given Lily either even if this was a totally different scenario. It wasn't a bad option despite that, though; the blizzards hadn't noticeably abated, and Severus was in no hurry to fight his way down the drive through the deep snow in order to Apparate anywhere and try to buy something in the mad rush of last-minute shoppers. Besides, it seemed logical to him that hand-made gifts showed more thought than something you'd picked up in a shop.
He had gone so far as to attempt a couple of quick doodles to see if it would work. It had occurred to him that breaking into Granger's rooms to get a look at the cat, whose name he had finally remembered was Crookshanks, was the most logical way to make sure he'd get it right; he felt that would have definitely crossed the line into stalking, though, so he was relying on his memories – he'd seen the animal before. In the Shack during the confrontation with Lupin and Black, not that his memory of that night was particularly clear, and getting in everyone's way in Grimmauld Place, and more recently occasional glimpses of him wandering the corridors on his mysterious feline business.
Having a plan was good, it meant he wouldn't be totally stuck, but he wanted to find something else if at all possible. The problem was that except for the cat he hadn't seen anything else personal enough – simple observation was giving him an idea of favoured foods and drinks and clothing, as well as noting preferred reading material, but those were all superficial; he hadn't seen anything deeper. No more mail had been received, though she'd sent out quite a few Christmas cards that didn't appear to have been reciprocated. Without breaking into either her office or her personal quarters, Severus didn't see a way of discovering anything else, and he refused to cross that line.
Talking to her wouldn't work; even if he had the social skills to pull it off, she'd never reveal anything remotely personal – she hadn't when talking to anyone else, after all, since he'd made a point of eavesdropping on his colleagues' conversations for decades just on general principles. There was a wall up around Granger, much as there was around him, but where his barrier was made of silence, cold sarcasm and occasional spiteful anger, hers was constructed from polite interest and bland smiles; he wondered if anyone else had realised how isolated she was and how much she held back from them.
Even without that, though, she'd never talk to him, of all people. She hated him, and for damned good reason. While Severus would lie until his tongue dried up to anyone else, he did try to be honest with himself, and although his reasons for disliking her were perfectly valid and understandable, her reasons for disliking him were just as much, if not more so. Damn her withered hide, Minerva had been right about that too. He was genuinely angry about the realisation; he'd hoped he was done with guilt. It just made this charade more futile, too, because one gift wasn't going to fix things no matter how brilliant it was. He would never be that sort of person.
The idea finally came to him on Christmas Eve, as he sat in his corner of the staff room once more and pretended to read the journal he'd brought with him – taking care to actually feign reading, moving his eyes along each line of text at a reasonable pace and turning the pages at the right moments, though he wasn't taking in a word of it. His attention was on his colleagues, but he wasn't listening to their conversation any more, focusing instead on the atmosphere. The room was warm and well-lit and the wireless was playing – unfortunately; Severus had never liked the wizarding world's attempt at music – providing a background for the hum of cheerful friendly conversation and laughter. It wasn't a party, or he would have been long gone by now, but the feel of the air was similar, emphasising that this was a happy gathering. Isolated and hiding or not, Granger was still part of it, part of the group, even if only shallowly; and he wasn't.
His place in the corner was both literally and figuratively colder and darker than the rest of the room, and those warm happy currents eddied past him without touching him. A small, almost-forgotten part of him wanted to reach out and try to touch the world he could see – not to become part of it, not really; he wasn't like that any more, if he ever had been, and there was no place here for the man he had become, but to find a place on the edge. To do that, he had a hell of a lot of burned-out bridges to try and repair, he reflected dismally, and he couldn't see how it was possible – but the starting point was obvious now he thought about it.
Getting up, he tucked the journal into his robe and quietly left the room, acutely aware that nobody had noticed him leave, heading swiftly through the dark hallways and down a lot of stairs to the shadowed, cold part of the castle where he and his Slytherins lived. With none of them here for the holidays, the dungeons were almost eerily silent; the only source of noise was the faint ticking of the clock and his own breathing as he sat at the table in his living room and picked up the half-completed sketch of Crookshanks. He hadn't been happy with it anyway, and tore it up without hesitation before briskly reaching for ink, quill and parchment. Transfiguring some of the parchment into a small box complete with Gryffindor-coloured ribbon, he very carefully printed Granger's name in block capitals on the tag, so nobody looking at it would guess who had sent it, before taking a slip of parchment and pausing, staring down at it.
Finally he sighed and wrote simply, I'm sorry. Unlike the tag, he made no attempt to disguise his spiky, crooked handwriting – the gift exchange was supposed to be anonymous, but this wouldn't mean anything if she didn't know who was saying it. When the ink was dry he put the small note into the box and sealed it before he could change his mind; he'd leave it outside her rooms before morning. Severus had considered expanding the apology, but there was no one specific thing he was apologising for, unless it was for his pitiful existence; this would have to do. It was all he had to give, anyway.
This story turned out very differently than I originally intended, as always. It was going to be much fluffier and contain more points of view, but there you go. Rest assured, despite the angsty parts, there will be a happy ending (I usually don't like spoiling the ending, as regular readers know, but this is not the season for publishing angst and misery).
For those not stalking my profile regularly, I've put the fic I was working on to one side after finally realising why it was frustrating me so much, and I've started work on a different one. So it's still going to be a while before I update with a new story, sadly, but at least I know what I'm doing now, and I'll be sure to keep you all posted.
And finally some shameless advertising: both PTL and CTS have been nominated to the HP Fanfic Fan Poll Awards on Livejournal, and voting is open until December 31st. I'd appreciate it if people would stop by and vote. Their voting system is a little clunky, but if you have a few minutes to spare, that would be great (You don't need a livejournal account to leave a vote, and all votes are hidden from public view). To vote, go here:
hpfanficfanpoll dot livejournal dot com /20998 dot html
You can vote for other stuff as well if you want, there are a lot of categories, but both my fics are under the SSHG ship in the Best Legacy Fic category (Yes, I've ended up competing with myself, I was nominated in the same category by two different people). I'll be interested to see which fic gets the most votes, and very disappointed in all of you if I don't win!
(Also, for anyone watching or thinking of watching Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, Jemma Simmons is threatening to merge with my Hermione headcanon to an unhealthy extent and this can go nowhere good. I'm just saying.)
Thanks everyone, hope you're all doing well, and I'll see you all for Part II of this little tale sometime before Christmas.