Severus was in pain. He was fairly certain that, in a long life filled with nothing but pain – good god, he'd had too much to drink if he was already in self-pitying mode – he had only once before suffered more pain. He'd changed to a button fly after that incident; there was no point risking a repeat performance.

Yet another summons to meet Voldemort; yet another evening listen to him rant about world domination; yet another evening trying to avoid notice, whilst trying to gain useful information for the Order.

Which would be followed by the inevitable invitation to the after-meeting drinks at Malfoy Manor, which involved making exceedingly dull and exceedingly polite conversation with the rest of the Inner Circle and their exceedingly dull and polite wives, before he could throw off the shackles and head off for some decent fun.

He'd joined the Death Eaters to make friends and influence people, and got it half right.

Once he managed to escape Malfoy Manor, with the excuse that he had school in the morning, he'd headed off to find his comrades in the seedy Muggle boozer near Diagon Alley that they always went to. As regulars, the landlord didn't ask too many questions, and even supplied them with free nibbles provided they kept the noise down, and kept Smudger from playing darts.

They would sit and complain about their bosses, and he'd complain about Dumbledore, and then they'd whine about the Inner Circle and how they got all the perks – they conveniently ignored that he was one of the Inner Circle for these purposes – and then they would have some more to drink and play darts (apart from Smudger).

He even allowed them to call him Snapey.

Consequently, by the time he left the pub he was so pissed he couldn't say the word, and he'd absent-mindedly put the darts in his back pocket. That this was a stupid thing to do was demonstrated when he slipped in a puddle of something he didn't wish to identify and landed splat on his arse.

He managed, with some difficulty, to extract the darts from his arse; fortunately they weren't damaged at all, or he'd have to replace them, which would have been a real bugger. They were Muggle darts; magical darts were no longer allowed after the Unfortunate Incident with Smudger.

He'd patted them happily and then carefully put them in his cloak pocket. He hadn't noticed the shooting pains at first, but as he had to walk further, and as the alcohol had worn off, they'd progressed from merely uncomfortable to sodding unbearable.

He'd managed to Apparate to Hogwarts successfully, relying solely on the usual miracle afforded by the God of Drunks - he's the little green cherub you see with the pouting cheeks at the back of many an oil painting – to his followers to be able to get home even though the brain wasn't functioning. He'd made it halfway up the path, before tripping over his own feet, falling to the floor, and deciding it was too much effort to get up.

He patted the ground in a friendly manner and decided to go to sleep.

Hermione was bored. She'd been talked into returning to Hogwarts as a teacher 'for the Good of the Order'. To date, her duties had consisted of nothing more onerous than forcing knowledge into the heads of some truly stupid children.

Surely they'd never been so monumentally fuckwitted?

She was bloody certain she hadn't been; and she was very definite that she hadn't spent her teenage years swotting to throw her career away in a dump like this.

Working here had seen the gilt wear off the gingerbread with a vengeance. Dumbledore was clearly using her as slave labour and paying her half the usual miserable pittance afforded to Hogwarts staff. Minerva was convinced that Hermione was her new best friend, and spent equal amounts of time trying to persuade her that she was destined for a career as a teacher and that the sun shone out of Dumbledore's arse. Hooch clearly had a drink problem - any more of this and she would have one too.

The only person she had any empathy with was Professor Snape. His was the only voice of sanity in what was rapidly turning into an outpost of St Mungo's.

Six months of teaching was enough to persuade her that children were stupid and annoying, and that her colleagues were stupid and annoying, and to add insult to injury she wasn't allowed to deduct points from them.

If Harry didn't kill Voldemort within the next couple of weeks, she was going to do it herself.

Or join him, if he let her kill Dumbledore.

She reminded herself firmly that she was only joking about that and looked at the clock. Midnight. Time to scour the school for miscreants. About the only pleasure left to her was a savage orgy of points deduction. Woe betide anyone found out after curfew tonight. She decided to begin her patrol with the Quidditch Pitch – favourite haunt of amorous students, particularly the more lazy ones who couldn't be bothered with the climb to the Astronomy Tower.

When she spotted the dark form slumped in the middle of the Pitch, she thought it was one of the seventh years returning from a drinking binge in Hogsmeade. She was running through a list of the offences he would have committed – it was always a boy, the girls had more sense and sent the boys off to the village to get their alcohol in return for vague promises of sexual satisfaction – and had reached an impressive total for the prospective points deduction, when she realised who it was.

She knew that Voldemort frequently summoned Professor Snape, and she had heard the rumours about the cruelties visited on him by his Master. Poppy refused to talk about his injuries, citing medical confidence, which only added to the air of mystery and danger surrounding him

She only hoped that she was prepared to deal with the battered and wounded Professor.

Severus decided that the floor was his friend. He didn't want to be parted from it. He'd reached that stage of being drunk best referred to as maudlin, and the ground was a sympathetic listener. He'd been running through a long list of injustices, and had reached the age of fourteen and a coruscating description of the hardships he had faced at Hogwarts, when his finely honed senses detected the presence of another.

"Hello," he said, looking up into Hermione's worried face.

Hermione was shocked when she saw the state he was in. He was covered in dirt, there was blood oozing from some unseen wound, and he seemed unable to talk. What hardships had he had to endure for the sake of the Order?

"Don't worry," she said softly, patting him on the back. "I'll get Poppy and she'll sort you out."

Severus clutched at her ankle in panic, and refused to let go. The last thing he needed was Poppy to see him in this condition. She'd tell Dumbledore, and that would be the end of his boys' nights out; he'd be stuck at Malfoy Manor for the cocktail parties from then on in.

"No," he mumbled. "If you'll just help me back to my quarters, I have the necessary potions to hand. I wouldn't want to worry Poppy."

She couldn't make out all he was saying - perhaps a mouth injury – but it was clear that he didn't want to go to the Infirmary. She didn't know whether this was because he preferred to work alone, or whether there was some risk to being seen there, so she decided to err on the side of caution. She would take him back to his quarters and tend to him there. If she still wasn't happy once she'd had a look at his injuries then she could summon Poppy. That seemed like a reasonable compromise.

"Don't worry," she said. "I'll look after you." With that she levitated him, and headed off to his quarters with his body bobbing gently along behind.

Snape was mystified when the ground left him – just like everyone else – and quickly found that the movement was making him feel queasy. He was so busy concentrating on not heaving up his dinner – ten pints of bitter and two packets of crisps, and a couple of canapés courtesy of the Malfoys – that he barely noticed their entry to Hogwarts, or that their destination was his rooms.

Hermione was gritting her teeth by the time they got there; the spell was difficult to hold for such a length of time, particularly when you were trying to prevent Snape's head from bumping into the walls. She greeted the sight of his door with a sigh of relief, and carefully rotated him until he was leaning against it.

Snape recognised his door. It was his friend in a way the shallow floor had never been, and he leaned into it, stroking its pock-marked surface with affection. He'd set the wards to recognise him without a password on the basis that he was barely able to remember his own name after a night out with the boys, let alone a password, and being found slumped asleep against his own door was undignified. He wasn't getting any younger either, and that sort of thing tended to play merry hob with his joints.

Hermione followed him in; she was reluctant to leave him alone without checking that he was going to be all right. He stumbled across the living room, bumping into the sofa, swearing under his breath and disappeared into his bedroom. She followed cautiously; he wasn't likely to welcome this intrusion into his life, no matter how good her intentions were.

He lurched to the bed, collapsed onto it face down, wriggled a bit, extended a hand to snag a blue vial, downed it, and then started to snore.

Hermione looked at him in bewilderment, until her practical side asserted itself. He couldn't sleep in his boots, and he shouldn't sleep clutching that vial. She carefully removed his boots without disturbing him, then moved to take the bottle. She had to remove his fingers from the bottle one by one, and she was moved to think how important to him the contents of that little bottle were. He truly must be in a lot of pain, she thought.

Seized by an unexpected impulse she bent down to press a kiss to the forehead of a brave man, only to be greeted with the stench of beer.

He was drunk.

She sniffed at the bottle. Not pain reliever, not some obscure potion to deal with the after-effects of cruciatus, oh no: it was hangover relief.

Hermione looked at Severus coolly. Of course, it might be that he'd been forced into a drinking session as part of his spying duties, but then again, maybe it was something more sinister.

It was something she felt should be investigated further, especially if the sod was off having fun when she couldn't.

When Severus woke the next morning he felt very smug. He'd obviously managed to get himself home and into bed, and he'd remembered to take the Hangover Potion, which had alleviated the worst of the symptoms. Despite this, he was strongly tempted to stay in bed for the rest of the day, but he knew that Albus would be waiting to see him.

His first, tentative movements reminded him that he had fallen on his darts. An investigating finger found the sore spots, and he winced. That would need seeing to before he made his report. Wriggling around on his seat could only lead to unwelcome speculation as to the nature of his injuries, or give the impression that he was being evasive. Neither would be very helpful.

He stripped, and shuffled into the bathroom, trying to see the extent of the damage over his shoulder. At first glance the damage seemed extensive, although the view was somewhat restricted. He decided to have a shower and then assess the situation; hopefully some of those streaks were mud not blood.

He was feeling a lot better by the time he'd washed himself down; the colour of the water suggested that most of the discolouration was indeed mud. He realised that it was silly to try and work out what was wrong by peering at himself over his shoulder; what he needed to do was find a mirror. The mirror in the bathroom was misted over so he couldn't get a decent view. He could cast a spell to clear it, but his wand was still in his bedroom. He padded into his bedroom to fetch it, realised that he might as well use the mirror in there, and dropped the towel for a better look.

Hermione woke, and for a second wondered why her bed was so uncomfortable, why her neck ached, and who had redecorated her room in the night.

Oh. She was on Snape's sofa, determined to find out what on earth he'd been up to the night before, which explained why her neck felt as stiff as a board. She levered herself off the couch, and stretched, cautiously working out all the kinks.

Now for Snape.

The door to the bedroom was still open, and she couldn't hear any noise, so she assumed he was still asleep. She realised her mistake almost immediately. Snape was naked. Snape was very naked. Snape was extremely naked. Snape had a very nice bum, which he seemed to be admiring in the mirror. Which was odd. Obviously it was a bottom worth admiring, but surely it was only people like Gilderoy who would spend time admiring their own bottom in the mirror.

She was so busy wondering why he was looking at his bottom, and so busy admiring it herself, that her only thought when Snape began to turn in her direction was disappointment that the bottom was going away, followed by the immediate realisation that … good grief he was enormous! … rather than the more sensible decision to disappear back into the living room and cough very loudly.

It took several seconds for the fact that he could see her to filter through her preoccupation, and several seconds further to raise her eyes to his face. She was relieved to see that he wasn't angry, and then confused. Shouldn't he be grabbing his towel and covering himself up, shouldn't he be flustered or blushing or something, instead of advancing on her with a very funny look in his eyes.

Hermione did what any sensible girl would do under the circumstances and bolted.

Severus, for his part, was also confused. He'd been quietly pondering his injuries, when he'd become aware of his audience. An admiring audience, no less, and, whilst he was obviously interested to find out quite what the hell she was doing in his private quarters, he rather thought that there were more interesting questions to be asked. Such as: why on earth did she run off?

She was obviously interested in what he had to offer; she just needed a little encouragement. He turned his mind to what sort of encouragement he could offer, whilst dressing himself. His interesting reverie, which had reached some fairly advanced methods of persuasion, was suddenly brought to a clattering halt.

He had vague memories of last night, and the more he sifted through them, the more he realised that he was in trouble. He hadn't precisely told Albus that he came back from these Revels in a bad way, but he'd certainly hadn't corrected the impression that they could be difficult. And if Hermione spoke to Dumbledore it could all go seriously pear-shaped; he might never have another boys' night out again.

Barely taking time to button his shirt, let alone put on his waistcoat and jacket, he headed off in search of Hermione.

Hermione had fled for the safety of her room. Once there she'd taken one look at her rumpled clothes and flyaway hair and flinched. Snape would want an explanation of why she'd been in his rooms, and he'd never been a patient man. She could therefore expect a visitation in fairly short order, and it was vital that she should look her best for it. To boost her confidence, obviously, and make sure she looked neat and tidy and as grown-up as possible. Which would mean putting on her nice maroon robes with the slightly daring neckline, and getting her hair sorted out, and maybe those nice shoes…..

She managed to tidy her hair, perform cleaning spells and slip on the fresh robe in less than ten minutes, all the while blessing fate for making her a witch.

She arranged herself artistically on the sofa, and picked up a book to be read with ostentatious indifference when he finally arrived.

He took four and a half minutes longer to get there than she expected, but his entrance was all she could have hoped for. The door slammed open, and he came stalking into her room. She was a little disappointed that he hadn't taken the time to dress properly, because he wasn't able to swirl seductively, but it did mean she got to see him looking all rumpled and sexy.

Swings and roundabouts really.

Having arrived so dramatically, he seemed uncertain where to begin, which wasn't surprising. There weren't many easy ways of enquiring why someone was in your bedroom, not if you actually wanted them to visit again anyway, and Severus was clearly unused to conducting a conversation that didn't involve a simple demand for a explanation coupled with sneering at the reply.

"I …I'm afraid that my memory of last night isn't very clear; I presume you helped me back to my quarters." There, he thought, that was nice and vague, and should allow for maximum fishing for information whilst giving as little away as possible.

"Yes, I found you semi-conscious out on the Quidditch Pitch; you didn't want to go to Madam Pomfrey, so I took you back to your rooms." Hermione's tone was a little snippy, obviously because she was dealing with a man who had a lot of explaining to do. It was not, she assured herself, because he hadn't asked why she had run away or even what she was doing in his room in the first place, but rather opened the discussion on the topic of what had happened that night.

"Oh." He inspected the mantelpiece with interest. "I suppose I should thank you for your help."

"I'm sure you would have managed to find your way back to your own rooms eventually. When the drink wore off," she said with some asperity.

Severus turned to look at her. He didn't look shamefaced or guilty, as she had half-expected, but merely exasperated. "Do you like working here?"

"Are you threatening me?" she asked indignantly.

"Don't be silly," he snapped. "It's a serious question."

"Not much," she sighed. "Not much at all. I hate the children, I hate most of my colleagues, I hate the weather and I hate the way Albus is using me as a skivvy under the cover of working for the Order."

Severus sat in the armchair by the side of the fire, without being asked, and said, "I hate it too."

Their eyes met in a long moment of common feeling.

Hermione worked through the implications of his half-confession; he wasn't going to admit more than was strictly necessary, but if she could put the pieces together for herself, that was a different matter. The answer seemed reasonably clear; she was impressed, and envious, that he'd been pulling the wool over their eyes for so long. Poor Severus and the terrible effects of bouts of Crucio was nothing more than a foul hangover and alcohol withdrawal. "So, you nip off every once in a while for a night out and tell Albus you're on Order business," she asked, relatively sympathetically whilst wondering if there was any way she could put the same tactics to good use.

He smiled faintly; he could hear the note of envy in her voice. "Something like that; I did go to a meeting last night. I just didn't … hurry back, shall we say. You can imagine how Albus would have reacted if I'd said, oh, by the way, it's been a hell of a week, I'd like to nip off and see my mates for a swift half after risking life and limb for you spying."

"Not well." Not after he'd recovered from the shock of finding out that Snape actually had friends, anyway. "He kicked up an awful fuss when I wanted to see my parents during the holidays. Kept making all sorts of dire warnings about Death Eater attacks. He just couldn't find anyone to cover for Minerva, so he could go for two weeks in Spain. He backed down quickly enough when I pointed out that if there was a risk of attack on my parents I really ought to be there to protect them, unless he was going to arrange round-the-clock Auror protection for them. The Bastard."

Severus nodded. "He tried that same trick on me last year, only that time it was a fortnight in Italy whilst he did important research for the Order. The only research he was doing was whether Minerva liked it better on top."

They both faltered at that mental image, and tried very hard not to think about it.

"So," continued Severus, "I don't have much of a conscience about letting Albus think that my job as a spy is more physically demanding than it is."

"And Albus doesn't ask too many questions about what goes on at these meetings, because he's a bit squeamish and doesn't want to hear about unpleasantness, particularly if it's unpleasantness he's responsible for."

"It's not my fault Albus is an idiot; I mean, how long do you think any evil overlord would last if he were regularly submitting his followers to Crucio? Not bloody long, I can tell you. Particularly when the followers in question are Slytherins: we joined up for world conquest and unlimited power, not personal discomfort. If You-know-who was as daft as all that, we wouldn't be still waiting for Potter to do his duty; Malfoy would have stabbed him in the back long before this." Severus looked a little wistful at this thought, though he supposed that Malfoy as evil overlord wasn't much of an improvement on You-know-who.

Six months ago, before she started working at Hogwarts, she would have been horrified by his duplicity. Having sat through nearly twenty staff-meetings, and watched as the teachers lied and cheated to get out of doing any extra-curricular duties, she was impressed. "So, you keep quiet, and he thinks you've been up to something dreadfully dangerous, but you're being terribly stiff-upper lipped about it all. Bloody brilliant."

"Well that's not a lie; it is dangerous, bloody dangerous. I walk into a meeting of Death Eaters and spy on them. If they ever suspected what I was doing, I don't think they're going to say, never mind, no hard feelings, off you go to Dumbledore, are they? It'll be a long bout with Madam Crucio, Avada Kedavra and returned to Hogwarts in several pieces. And that's if I'm lucky. I may just have exaggerated the level of difficulty I've faced on a practical level, but that doesn't mean that it's bloody easy."

Hermione nodded. He had a point.

"Not to mention that I have to listen to Lucius Malfoy witter on about the state of the Ministry and the pernicious influence of Mudbloods – no offence – and the sanctity of the cause, just in case he says anything important. Though that is still an improvement on the vacuous conversation of Narcissa which seems to revolve around shoes, interior design, and trying to identify Lucius's latest mistress. After all that I need a bloody drink!"

"It sounds like hell," said Hermione.

She wasn't being entirely sympathetic, but Severus was so absorbed in contemplating the injustices in his life that he took the words at face value. He examined his fingernails, and spent a couple of seconds worrying at a fingernail. "I was just … wondering though, what do you intend to tell Dumbledore?"

Hermione considered the point. His story was so bizarre that she believed him much more than if he had constructed a tale of being overcome with remorse at the actions forced on him in his role as spy and having to drink himself into a stupor to deal with the mental torture. He was bored and he had a chance of a bit of fun. For one second she contemplated asking to go with him on his next trip, but common sense, coupled with the fact that she rather thought he ought to ask her out, restrained her.

"Don't worry. If I didn't tell on Harry and Ron, I won't tell on you. If he asks, I'll tell him I found you semi-conscious on the Quidditch pitch and I helped you back to your rooms. It has all the advantages of being True, and none of the disadvantages of being The Truth."

She was rewarded with the first genuine smile she had even seen grace his features, which caused an unfortunate lurching sensation in her stomach, and a powerful sense of anti-climax when he left without raising the matter of her perving at his arse.

Really, the man was most annoying.

Her opinion didn't change much over the coming weeks. The subject of his arse wasn't raised at all, nor indeed was any mention made of a glass of wine in his quarters to 'thank her properly for her help' or even 'to discuss the arrangements for the Hallowe'en Ball'. Occasionally she found him looking at her a little wistfully, and more than occasionally she found her eyes following him along a corridor and imagining that those billowing robes were a little more form-fitting. Or even absent.

She supposed it would be difficult to bring up the matter of a … a date after the way she had fled from his rooms. Perhaps he thought she wasn't interested? After all, someone who was keen on furthering an intimate relationship with another someone didn't turn tail and run when that other someone advanced on them with a funny look in his eye. Prolonged speculation had resulted in the conclusion that if Severus had been offended by her presence, he would have said so. Very loudly. Therefore the only logical conclusion was that he was also keen on furthering a relationship and had been dissuaded from doing so by her precipitate exit.

After waking for the fourth morning running in the middle of an interesting dream involving Severus, she decided that the only solution to their impasse was for her to make a move and thus convince him that her disappearance had been due to embarrassment rather than revulsion.

So she did. Admittedly breakfast wasn't an ideal time to ask someone out, but it was the ideal time to ask someone out so that you could pretend that you weren't asking them out just in case they said no.

"I was wondering whether you'd be available this evening to discuss …" she couldn't think of a single thing she wanted to discuss with him. Other then the removal of his clothes, and perhaps issuing the odd instruction here and there.

Fortunately, he interrupted before she could complete the sentence. "I'm afraid I have another engagement this evening." He tapped his left arm meaningfully.

"Oh. Erm." she floundered.

"Some other time perhaps?" he continued softly.

She felt a sharp spike of relief, which faded when she thought about where he was going this evening. "Business or pleasure?" She hoped that was vague enough to confuse Dumbledore who was sitting to her left.

"A little of both, I think."

"Just… just be careful," she said, covering her anxiety in the same way she would with the boys – bossiness. "And for heaven's sake, try and make it back to your rooms without falling face down on the Quidditch Pitch."

She felt Dumbledore twitch beside her and continued in a slightly louder voice. "And next time, I won't hear any arguments; it'll be straight off to Madam Pomfrey whether you want to or not. I'm not a Mediwitch and you can't expect me to look after injuries like that."

"No, Hermione," he said with a chastened air, and a sideways glance at the Headmaster to see how her comments had gone down. As he left he could hear Albus begin digging for more information, and Hermione replying in stifled tones that she didn't want to talk about it, it was too painful, whilst she dabbed at her mouth with a napkin.

Maybe all that time spent breaking the rules with the boys had made her more devious than he expected, and, of course, as a Gryffindor no one would expect her of being anything less than honest.

Hmmm. That gave him an idea.