She kept staring at him with wide eyes, not comprehending.
"Oh, come on, Granger," he said, and her heart gave a little jump at his informal use of her surname. "You're a bright witch. I thought you had figured it out by now. Do you honestly believe being knowlegeable is a flaw? You're studious and diligent in your work, you always went beyond and above what was asked of you. You lose yourself in books, always searching for knowledge which you soak up like a sponge. Nobody really understood your fascination with learning, the drive to excel. Can't you guess who you reminded me of?"
"You..." she breathed.
"Indeed. How could I find fault with your willingness to listen and learn, when the majority of students were either totally ignorant, lazy or too conceited to take up the opportunity they were given to learn something of value? No wonder you outdid every one of them."
Hermione felt as if she had been sucked into an alternate universe. Was it really possible that Professor Snape, who never ever dished out outright compliments, not even to Slytherins, was singing her praises? Was that what he really had thought about her all those years? It was too good to be true.
"What I disliked was your lamentable insistence to flaunt your knowledge at everybody in such a painfully blatant way. Had you been more subtle about it, as I repeatedly tried to suggest, it would have put you less in the limelight and my behaviour less under scrutiny. I could hardly compliment you on your intelligence in a class full of Death Eater children, could I? Lucius Malfoy was already constantly whining in my ears because you got better marks than Draco most of the time. I had a hard time justifying it."
"You had to justify my classwork to the Malfoys?" Honestly, that idea had never crossed her mind. She probably was a way-too-straightforward Gryffindor with too little understanding for Slytherin intrigue and politics.
"As a matter of fact, yes. Apart from wishing to keep an eye on Draco's closest competition, Lucius was on the school board, and the Dark Lord expected his reports to confirm the ideology of pure-blood supremacy. Admitting that a Muggle-born was outdoing even the smartest Slytherin was something you had better not do without a credible explanation."
"What did you tell him?"
He had a strange expression on his face. "I told Lucius that you were earning your 'E's the hard way by doing extra credits in your free time." The meaningful look he gave her told her exactly what kind of extra credit he had hinted at. It made her gasp in surprise.
"You told him you were giving me better marks in exchange for sexual favours?" Hermione was shocked. Then confused. And then, strangely enough, a little excited to imagine that the object of her secret affection had for whatever nefarious reason entertained entirely inappropriate fantasies about her.
"Yes." His gaze was focussed attentively on her face, gauging her reaction. There had been utter surprise, mild consternation and some embarrassment, but none of the outrage he had expected. Despite her earlier confession of her weird and misplaced attraction to him, that should have been the natural reaction to his revelation. But if her rosy cheeks, her dilated eyes and the slight hitch in her breathing were any indication... Merlin! Snape shifted uncomfortably in his chair. The chit was a serious threat to his sobriety. "Malfoy believed I took advantage of my position with all Muggle-borns that way," he added, not quite sure if this made things better or worse. "It also served as justification for my reluctance to participate in certain entertainments."
Hermione preferred not to ponder exactly what kind of activities he was talking about, but her expression must have given her suspicions away. He rolled his eyes. "No, I'm not talking of revels, orgies and a mass raping of Muggle virgins, which, as rumour had it, were common Death Eater activities. That's utter nonsense. I guess 'the Light' was not above spreading horror stories for propaganda purposes, either. But there were a lot of social gatherings with Death Eaters of both sexes in attendance that basically served one purpose: to challenge or defend the pecking order. There was a lot of distrust and scheming among Voldemort's followers. To obtain a more favourable position in the hierarchy, they would try to form alliances through bribery, ass kissing and the exchange of sexual favours. I preferred to not attend as often as possible."
"Oh, well, I'm glad I was good for something then," she commented rather drily, but secretly relieved that the horrible things that had been whispered were not all true. Feeling quite daring after his unexpected frankness, she added mischievously: "That's assuming I was any good... Was I?"
He quirked a brow, surprised at her cheek. Teasing and sexual banter was definitively nothing he had ever expected from a student, and it was all the more surprising coming from her. "You quite exceeded my expectations, Miss Granger," he agreed, taking it a bit further than he probably should. But hell, the entire conversation had lost all sense of propriety long ago, there was no way to save it.
Her face fell in disappointment. "I should have guessed," she grumbled. "You really never give an 'outstanding' in any subject, do you?"
He had to fight hard to stifle a laugh. She really was angry with him for never granting her the mark she desired! But an 'O' he couldn't have done it. Not without giving Malfoy a detailed and believable description of each degrading act she had supposedly performed to get more than an 'E' from him. And that would have felt like soiling her. She hadn't deserved that.
"Well, it seems I have to correct one of my previous assumptions then..." Hermione said, sounding resigned. "It is only I who people think of a passionless, prudish bookworm. You obviously have a different reputation among your peers." When the words left her mouth, she already regretted them. She had meant it to be a joke at her own expense, but he probably found no amusement in Death Eaters believing him to take advantage of his students. Severus Snape, she was sure, was a man who valued his honour very much. And it must have been hard enough to maintain even shreds of it with all he was required to do in the name of the greater good.
"Yes, I was believed to be a lecherous and desperate paedophile who abuses the Muggleborn children in his care," he confirmed sarcastically. He had also been labelled a traitor and a murderer, and he had been accused of favouritism, all of which had been true. The only honour he had always managed to maintain was the responsibility towards his students. And to have it soiled even in the mind of sick perverts like Malfoy had hurt.
"I'm sorry," she apologised quickly. "I didn't mean it like that. Nobody who knows you would ever think such a thing. It's ridiculous."
Nobody who knew him? He almost gave a bitter laugh. "The last person who really knew me died at my hands on the Astronomy Tower." That had been the worst part. He had been forced to kill the only person who had ever trusted him. All the other people his colleagues, his fellow order members, his students had been quick to believe the worst of him. He couldn't blame them, though. "Nobody knows me, Miss Granger. I took too much care to push people away."
"Why did you?" she asked, her voice and expression too serious to reflect idle curiosity.
"Isn't it obvious?" he asked back. "It was safer that way." It wasn't the entire truth, though. Sure, his role had forced him to act particularly nastily towards Muggle-borns in general and Harry Potter and associates in particular. Given that he had never shared the pure blood ideology, he had covered his reluctance to show contempt towards Muggle-borns by simply being nasty to everybody, except for his Slytherins. And honestly, being nasty towards the boy who looked just like James Potter hadn't been difficult.
He had been quick to punish and had never known how to praise. He was convinced that, when teaching a potentially dangerous subject as potions, being 'nice' to students wasn't helpful. They mistook friendliness for leniency. It encouraged behaviour he could ill afford in his classroom, where the slightest insubordination could lead to disaster. He had to be strict and demanding it kept students from exploding their cauldrons and blowing up the classroom. But what had been a means to instil discipline and keep students in line had become a habit, and they had quickly learned to beware of his cruelty.
His overall nasty temper had also kept his colleagues at distance, who could not be allowed to know him differently. It had served him well with his fellow Death Eaters, too, whom he mostly despised and whose company he neither enjoyed nor wished to feign enjoyment for. His sourpuss reputation had saved him from having to socialise with them all too often. Harshness had been the armour that had protected him when his service to Dark Lord had forced him to kill, to maim and to torture.
Over the years, he had perfected his persona, forgetting that it was just that a disguise to hide behind. His constant scowl, the cutting remarks, the intimidating robes it all had become second nature. And somewhere along the line, he had simply gotten used to everybody looking at him with fear in their eyes. In Albus' greater scheme, it had proved an advantage. In reality, it had left him lonely.
"All of that can change now," she said softly. "You don't have to be like that anymore."
"I guess not. But it's hard to break a life-long habit."
"You already did," she pointed out, "by talking to me. In order to continue on that path, you could tell Harry."
He looked at her with an expression that, apart from displaying irritation, seemed forlorn and if she wasn't thoroughly mistaken held a hint of trepidation. It probably wasn't surprising. For a man like him, it must sound like she was asking him to lay his soul bare.
"And what good would it do?" he asked, avoiding her gaze by staring into his empty tea cup instead. No, she decided, it wasn't just that he hated the thought of having a heart-to-heart of any kind with Harry. It was the fear of rejection.
Her heart went out to that incredibly complex man who somehow managed to be harsh and soft, cruel and caring, strong and vulnerable at the same time. More than anything she wished she could build bridges between him and her, him and Harry. Bridges that would lead him on a new, happier path and make it possible to leave his past behind.
"Harry needs to understand..." she tried to make him see things from a different point of view. "He thought he did, but he still doesn't know the full extent of your involvement in everything, nor does he know the entire story of your relationship with Lily. If he knew that you were his godfather..."
"Then what? Do you think it would make him happy? Knowing the full truth won't erase the past. Nothing can erase that or the fact that I am indirectly responsible for all his losses. I made him a target of the Dark Lord, I made him an orphan, and I stood by when he was given into the care of his horrible aunt, who I knew had always detested wizards and witches and who I knew to have always been jealous of her sister. And when he finally he came to Hogwarts, I couldn't help but add to his torment because of the role I had to play, but also because I hated the very sight of him: A miniature copy of his father, looking at me with Lily's accusing eyes, a personification of all my guilt and all I had once desired. I protected him as well as I could, but I still detested him."
"You can't be blamed for the actions of his relatives," Hermione argued. "Harry had the best protection he could get while he was still in their care. And it's not as if you had a choice in the matter. Could you have been nicer to him when he came to Hogwarts? Only you can answer that question. But from what I understand, you promised that you would protect him which you did not to like him or to be nice to him."
"I'm sure Mr. Potter will appreciate the distinction!" he said sarcastically. "No, Miss Granger telling him now that I was the person into whose hands his mother had entrusted his well-being would only be adding insult to injury. He might hold some grudging respect for me, given his Gryffindor nature and the concomitant penchant for hero worship, but why on Earth would he want a godfather who never even liked him or paid him any sympathy, much less any kindness?"
"With all due respect, Sir, I think you are misjudging Harry again. He would understand. He might be a bit emotional sometimes and have a tendency to act before thinking, but he also has an instuitive understanding for people and a capacity of forgiveness. And as to showing kindness well, I guess that's entirely up to you, isn't it? Getting along with family isn't always easy, nor is it instinctive. It often requires effort and good will. I'm a hundred percent sure that Harry would make an effort, if you only gave him a chance. He would be overjoyed to learn that he still has family and he will be especially proud that it's you."
He obviously couldn't believe that. Stubborn man. She had never met a man who judged himself so harshly and as unjustly as he was judging himself. No wonder nobody could live up to his expectations, if he couldn't even do it himself. She tried a different approach.
"Don't you realise that your are the only person left who really knew his parents and could tell him about them? That you are the only remaining link to his childhood, to their past?"
He didn't answer, but she had the feeling that he was seriously pondering her arguments. Which was a vast achievement in itself. Somehow, she had at least managed to earn his respect. It was quite an exhilarating thought.
"If we're going to continue this conversation, I need a Firewhisky," he finally sighed. He got up and walked to a cabinet in a corner of his office, retrieving a bottle of Odgen's Finest and two glasses. "You too?"
"You're offering me Firewhisky?" Hermione asked, flabbergasted.
"Obviously!" he stated drily, then added: "You're of age, are you not? Besides, we spent the last two hours overstepping boundaries, so we might as well go the whole way."
She sincerely wished he'd go the whole way with her, but most likely, it was not what he had meant. "Firewhisky sounds like a good idea," she agreed. "But I'll only have a small glass."
"I'm not giving you more than a small glass. You're audacious enough when sober, I fear to consider what you might do when inebriated."
She grinned, pleased that he was taking such a relaxed tone with her. "Are you afraid I might endanger your virtue?" she dared to tease back.
He scowled. Given that she was not far off the point with her question, he preferred not to actually give an answer. Setting the glass in front of her, he settled back into his chair. "Behave, Miss Granger!" he just admonished.
"Well, since we're sharing a drink and have been discussing fairly intimate matters, I think you might as well call me by my given name. At least while we're here. I think we have an unspoken agreement that what happens in this office, stays in this office."
"Very well. If you insist Hermione." She liked how her name sounded from his lips.
"How shall I address you?"
He fixed her with a stern gaze. "Professor Snape," he answered. "I will not give you permission to address me by my given name. You've taken far too many liberties with me as is."
She probably had. And part of her still couldn't believe that he hadn't ripped her head off for blatantly displaying each and every typical Gryffindor characteristic he despised, including a show of foolish bravery, painful bluntness and prying curiosity. She knew it was more than enough to make him grind his teeth, even without adding overbearing familiarity to the list.
"Yes, Sir." She seemed contrite. "I apologise."
He sighed. The girl was causing him vexation in places he'd thought had long since ceased to care. "There's no need to apologise. You may, however, stop calling me 'Sir' every other sentence. It's not exactly furthering your cause, you know..."
"I... well, I guess it has become a habit. You have been my teacher for six years, after all."
"I am still your teacher now," he pointed out solemnly. "Which is why this entire conversation and the fact that we're drinking Firewhisky in my office is disconcerting. Do you see how that might be an issue?"
"As you pointed out, I'm not a minor anymore. I reached maturity in the wizarding world over a year ago, and with my last birthday, I'm also considered an adult in the Muggle world. And that's not even taking into account my altered age due to the use of the Time-turner in my third year, which, after my calculations, has added about 10 months to my real age."
He quickly did the math. So she must be about 19 not that much younger than he had been when he had started teaching at Hogwarts. In fact, he had not been much older than his seventh year students back then. "It still doesn't change the fact that, until the end of term, you are my student." And it also didn't change the fact that he was still almost 20 years her senior.
She merely shrugged. "I don't believe age and status matter that much. My parents were 15 years apart, and had a great marriage. And my aunt ended up happily married to the master optician she had apprenticed under."
He didn't point out that a student-teacher relationship was not quite the same thing. If she were his apprentice, things might be different.
Hermione didn't notice his wistful expression as he turned his head away. "I often feel that I don't really belong with people of my own age," she said dejectedly. "I can't talk to them. Not like I can talk to Minerva, or Lupin, or you."
He wasn't sure if she was merely stating facts, stating those facts so that he wouldn't feel quite as degenerated to even consider kissing her, or if she was actually saying that she really liked him and enjoyed his company. It was safer not to ponder that.
"Age and status might not matter to you," he said calmly, "but I assure you it very much matters to others. It matters to me. Never in my career have I abused my authority over a student in such a way. As a professor, I took an oath to protect, to foster, and to support the students in my care on their way to adulthood. Though I might have failed them in that, given that my support was biased and probably qualified as 'tough love' at best, I've never compromised my honour or that of a student. Doing what you apparently want me to do... it would be totally inappropriate, irresponsible, outrageous in the eyes of most people."
Hermione lowered her eye, feeling all the more contrite. She hadn't thought things through, apparently. Yes, she had told him everything he needed to hear, and probably more. But not in her wildest dreams would she have imagined that things would develop this far... She would never have guessed that he would open up to her like he had, that he would let her see a part of him that he so carefully kept hidden. She hadn't considered that her confession would affect him just as much as it had affected her, or that she might be putting him in a position where his honour was fighting temptation. And if she was not completely mistaken, that's exactly what had happened.
"I don't care much about what people might think," she answered just as softly. "The only opinion that counts to me in this matter is yours. But I completely understand if you feel that way you had and will always have my respect for being an honourable man. And I'm grateful to you for listening and talking to me tonight."
She put her empty glass back on his desk and reluctantly rose from her chair. "I guess I'd better head back to Gryffindor tower. It has gotten awfully late... "
Severus said nothing, neither did he agree, nor ask her to stay. He just studied her face, which once again displayed all her emotions like an open book. He needed no Legilimency to read her.
She didn't really want to leave going meant letting go of him, too. She would probably never see and speak to him like this again, and it saddened her beyond measure. At least she would have this memory to keep.
When she reached the door, she gave him a departing smile. "I honestly enjoyed talking to you, Professor. Thank you."
His voice made her turn back around. "Yes?"
He had also gotten up from his chair and stood facing her, arms crossed in front of his chest.
"If Miss Lovegood was present right now, I'm fairly sure she'd point out to you that you still have a bunch of over-excited and slightly annoyed looking Netherfairies buzzing around you..."
She gave him a puzzled glance. "Sir?"
He chuckled. "The vow... do you feel any different now compared to how you felt before you came to see me? Is the urge that drove you here quite gone?"
Was he making fun of her? How could any of her 'urges' be gone after having talked to him like this? She felt closer to him than she ever had. He had opened up to in a way she never would have thought possible. In a way, the conversation they had shared was much more intimate than a simple kiss could ever have been. It had only served to deepen her yearning to get closer, to be more than a student for him.
Before, she would have liked to kiss him because he intrigued her, because she felt attracted by his aloofness and everything she had projected onto him. Now, she was attracted because she had caught a glimpse of the man he really was, because she had gained a new understanding about him. And because she really liked what she had found. If anything, the urge to kiss him, to touch him and to be close to him had increased a hundredfold.
"No, I think not..." she said carefully, wondering why he wanted this admission from her.
He could tell by watching her carefully guarded expression that she had misunderstood the aim of his question. He even guessed into which direction his somewhat negligent choice of the word 'urge' had led her mind.
Torn between slight vexation and mild amusement, he shook his head and briefly pondered which fact he found more unsettling that she would candidly answer his certainly-not-intended question or that he was feeling compelled to voluntarily enter the land of crazy impossibleness in order to salvage her mission. This girl could easily be the death of him, but she'd probably make him die a happy man.
"I was referring to the urge to fulfil your vow which drove you down here," he corrected mildly. "Did you not realise that, throughout this lengthy talk that we shared, all the explanations you gave and the justifications you made you never actually did what you came here for?"
She frowned. "But kissing you was never part of the requirement of the vow. It shouldn't matter if we actually kissed or not."
"It's not about the kissing part," he repeated her own words to her and added almost gently: "You never asked me."
"Oh." Her eyes grew wide as understanding dawned in her. She blushed. "You're right... I hadn't realised..." She had pledged that she would ask him to kiss her. But she actually had never voiced her question. He was right she still had to actually say it to fulfil the requirements of her vow. "Well, then... Would you please be so kind... I mean, I would very much like you to..." Her blush deepened to an almost crimson shade and she winced. "Merlin, this is awkward!" she said, embarrassed by her lack of eloquence. Why should it even be awkward, now? He already knew what she wanted and he wasn't going to grant it. But why had her heart jumped to her throat all of a sudden, and why was it beating so frantically?
Having lost almost all her capability to form if not elaborate then at least coherent sentences, she raised her eyes to him and softly pleaded: "Kiss me, please?"