Hermione was silent as she made her escape. She'd never manage to get to the main doors without being spotted, and she wasn't able to Apparate away. Staying close to the rough walls of the corridor, she pressed deep into the shadows. She heard a voice echoing behind her, calling her name - playful still, but with an edge of annoyance.
Her destination finally in sight, she ran the last few steps and knocked on a wooden door. The demanding voice drew closer, and she'd almost resigned herself to discovery when the door jerked open, and she found herself staring into the suspicious black eyes of Severus Snape, his wand levelled at her.
"You owe me a life debt," Hermione said quickly. "I'm calling it due. Let me in."
He frowned, but his gaze snapped past her, out into the corridor, searching for potential danger. When the voice echoed through the hallway once again, comprehension flashed through his eyes. With an exasperated snort, he lowered his wand and swung the door open, stepping back to grant her admittance to his rooms.
Once inside, Hermione closed the door firmly and rested her forehead against the wood with a sigh of relief. She was safe.
Well... Perhaps safe wasn't the correct word.
Squaring her shoulders, she turned to face a glowering Snape.
"An explanation, Miss Granger," he demanded. "Now."
"You're supposed to be upstairs, you know," she said. "It's the fifth anniversary of the defeat of Voldemort. Remember? There's a party."
He folded his arms over his chest and narrowed his eyes.
She sighed. "Oh, all right. Whenever Ron drinks more than two glasses of champagne, he decides we're meant to be together. He conveniently forgets that we tried dating, and we made each other miserable."
"Then why not use some of that vaunted Gryffindor courage and tell him to bugger off?"
Hermione sighed. "Because he's my friend, and I don't want to hurt his feelings. Tomorrow, he'll be sober, and everything will go back to normal."
"So you've chosen to squander the collection of a life debt -- and make no mistake, I now consider that debt paid in full -- by hiding in my rooms from Ron Weasley?" His tone indicated he thought she was a fool twice over.
"He'll never look for me here." She shrugged. "And I never thought it should be counted as a proper life debt. All I did was take you to the infirmary. Madam Pomfrey was the one who poured the potions down your throat."
"She was doing her job. You were under no obligation to come back to the Shrieking Shack to check on me. In the Wizarding world, that constitutes a life debt," Snape said, his tone grudging. He pointed to a pair of chairs by the fire. "Sit over there and be silent. I'm reading, and I have no desire to have a conversation with you."
"Oh, of course," Hermione murmured. "I wouldn't dream of disturbing you."
Severus made an exasperated gesture. "Ramon Lull was a addlepated Muggle who spent his lifetime trying to prove the existence of God. Ars Magna was nothing more than a collection of idiotic ideas. He certainly has no place in a serious discussion of potions history."
Hermione shook her head impatiently. "Lull was the first to broadly apply systematic logic to alchemical theory, predating even Nicholas Flamel. That logical approach was then transferred to potions in general."
Snape glowered. "Remind me why I opened my door to you in the first place?"
"You owed me a life debt, and I demanded entrance," she answered promptly before taking a sip of whiskey.
"And you promised not to disturb me," he snapped. "Since then you've wandered about the room, touching my things--"
"Well, that's the biggest Sneakoscope I've ever seen," she interrupted, pointing across the room.
"--rifled through my bookshelves--"
"You have some very nice books," she said with an admiring glance at the shelves.
"--helped yourself to my whiskey--"
"I poured you a glass, too." She nodded at the table between them and the glass at his elbow. "Which you're drinking, I might add."
"--argued with me over the most trivial of topics--"
"I don't consider Twitterbalm's Treatise on Tasmanian Treefern trivial at all." She smirked at the alliteration.
"--and generally made a nuisance of yourself," he finished.
Hermione looked pointedly around the neat room, at the fire crackling merrily in the hearth, and then to the man seated comfortably next to her.
"I spent a winter in a tent with two boys who alternated between whinging and passing gas," she said. "That's a nuisance; this is just having a quiet evening in. Although, I see now why you skipped the party. I'm having a much better time down here than I was up there."
"Whilst it doesn't surprise me to learn Potter and Weasley are full of hot air, it was my quiet evening in. Not yours." Severus looked at the clock. "The party must be over. Even if it's not, I'm sure by now Weasley has either rendered himself unconscious from too much alcohol or attached himself to another woman. Get out, Miss Granger."
"Are you certain you don't want another glass of whiskey?" she asked, smiling. "I saw you have a copy of Radley's Reinterpreting Runes, and there's been some recent discoveries in Egypt--"
"Out!" Severus stood and pointed to the door.
As she exited, she turned to face him. "I really did have a wonderful time talking with you. Would you like to do this again?"
He stared at her in disbelief. "You must be insane."
"Same time next week?" She smiled with a hopeful expression. "I'll bring dinner."
Severus slammed the door shut in her face.
"Insufferable girl," he muttered.
The next Saturday evening, Severus was surprised by a knock on his door. Holding his wand at his side, he yanked the door open.
Hermione stood there with a bright smile and a take-away bag. "Curry?" she said, lifting the bag up.
"Why are you here?" He scowled.
"I told you I'd bring dinner."
"And I refused."
"Not really, no. You slammed the door in my face, but you didn't actually refuse."
He smirked. "At the risk of repeating myself..." And once again he slammed the door shut.
She knocked on his door the next Saturday evening.
"Why are you so determined to have dinner with me, Miss Granger?" he asked.
"Because you're intelligent and interesting, and please, call me Hermione."
"Go away, Hermione."
And the next.
The following morning, Severus went to Minerva's office. Sundays were usually lazy affairs, and the staff wasn't required to have meals in the Great Hall. He knew Minerva generally ate breakfast in her office. Once inside, Severus cast a sidelong look at Dumbledore's portrait, silently sighing in relief when saw the portrait was asleep. Severus still wasn't entirely comfortable talking to Dumbledore's painted visage.
As he expected, Minerva was dining at a small table in the corner of the room.
"Good morning, Severus. Tea? Toast?" Minerva nodded at the tea tray on the table.
"No, thank you." He stood, looking down his nose at her, hands clasped behind his back. "I'm not here for breakfast."
"Then why are you here? You usually have a bit of lie-in on Sundays, don't you?"
"I want you to bar Hermione Granger from entering Hogwarts."
Minerva picked up a piece of toast and buttered it. "Why should I do that?"
"She's irritating," he snapped.
Minerva smiled faintly. "Severus, If I were to bar everyone you consider irritating, there'd be no one here. Why don't you just have dinner with her? You might find her to be pleasant company."
"You know about the situation?"
"Of course. Where do you think she goes after you've sent her away? I've enjoyed the take-away immensely, although the curry was a touch too spicy for my tastes."
Perplexed, he sat across from her. "You're allowing her to harass me?"
For an instant, Minerva's lips pinched tightly together. "Is that how you view it?"
"How else?" Despite his earlier refusal, he poured himself to a cup of tea and plucked a rasher of bacon from a serving dish.
Minerva pushed the dish closer to him. "I don't know, perhaps you should view it as someone who's trying to befriend you? She said she enjoyed talking to you immensely."
He pushed the dish back. "What else has she said about me?"
"Only that she hopes you'll change your mind about dinner. We don't gossip about you, if that's what you're implying."
"I just don't know what she wants." Frustration edged his voice.
"Company, I expect. She's lonely," Minerva answered.
"Lonely?" Severus scoffed. "She's surrounded by Weasley and Potters. She certainly doesn't lack for company."
"Yes." Minerva nodded. "She's surrounded by company whose primary topics of conversation are children, grandchildren, and Quidditch. With Teddy Lupin always about, and with Harry and Ginny's new baby, and Bill and Fleur's Victoire, there's no shortage of children to discuss, and you know how proud parents and grandparents do go on about their little darlings. Of course, when talking about the children becomes tiresome, there's always Quidditch. Such a riveting subject for someone who doesn't care one whit for the game, I can't imagine why Hermione would feel lonely."
Severus rolled his eyes. "You should leave the sarcasm to those less heavy-handed. It doesn't suit you."
Minerva set down her teacup and looked at him over her spectacles for a long moment. "Severus, in my opinion, you're too grumpy for her, and she's too cheerful for you. But you've intrigued her, and you should consider it a compliment. If you're content with your life as it is, then by all means continue to send her away. However," Minerva's gaze sharpened, "if you think you might want more from life than conversations in the staff room about students and Quidditch, and the occasional visit to Madam Frannie's House of Frivolous Frolics, then perhaps you should give Hermione a chance."
Severus' eyebrows shot up. He hadn't realised Minerva knew about Madam Frannie's or his visits to the establishment. He flushed and cleared his throat. "Hermione is too young for me."
"No," Minerva said. "You're too old for her; there is a difference. Frankly, in some ways, you're the oldest forty-five year old I've ever met. Although in others, you're by far the youngest."
He glared, and Minerva's expression softened. "The past is gone, Severus. If you're truly not interested in Hermione, I'll make sure she never darkens your doorway again. But I recommend you think long and hard before you make that decision. Be certain it's Hermione you're rejecting rather than the idea of giving up on someone who's long gone."
He went white. When he spoke, it was in a strained whisper. "Tread carefully, Minerva."
Minerva's answering smile was sad. "I don't wish to cause you pain, but Albus used Lily's memory to control you for years. He may have had his reasons at the time, but I won't further that nonsense. You did your duty to Lily; it's time to let it go. When you came back to Hogwarts after being released from St. Mungo's, I promised myself I'd do whatever possible to help you live rather than mourn the past. Admittedly, I've not had much success with that endeavour, but Hermione represents a brand new opportunity. She isn't asking you to marry her, Severus, she's asking to be your friend. But if you're certain you're content with your life as it is, then I promise I'll tell her to stop visiting you. Just don't mistake being content for being in a rut."
On Friday afternoon, he attended the weekly staff meeting, shifting unobtrusively in his chair when his arse threatened to go numb. He only half-listened as Flitwick droned on about the need for an expanded N.E.W.T. curriculum. To distract himself from the relentless tedium, Severus contemplated which Unforgivable to cast on which colleague.
Avada Kedavra for Flitwick, certainly. He'd never shut up, otherwise. A short bout of Cruciatus for Hooch; he was tired of her loudly barked complaints about the Slytherin Quidditch team, but she was a decent flying instructor, so she'd be allowed to live.
Imperius would serve for the rest of them. He glanced at Sprout. He'd order her to sow Devil's Snare amongst the rose bushes. That would give the students a surprise the next time they slipped into the gardens to grope each other. Then he whiled away a few moments with the mental image of Minerva standing at the front gates, ordering Hermione Granger away at wandpoint.
At the thought of Hermione, he frowned. She worked for the Department of Mysteries in some capacity; he'd never bothered to find out exactly what she did for them. She was undeniably intelligent and held her own in a conversation. He certainly hadn't intimidated her; rather she merely waved away the worst of his barbs and snide comments with an amused expression.
When had that know-it-all girl he remembered grown into a woman?
In the days following his conversation with Minerva, he'd done his best to ignore her warnings. He was content with his life.
He looked around the room at his co-workers and stopped at the sight of Binns hovering in the corner. The ghostly professor rarely contributed to the meetings, but he invariably attended. Even in death, Binns never shirked his duty. Suddenly, Severus' collar felt too tight, and he couldn't catch his breath. Was that what he'd become? A shadow of a man still holding on to a duty that was dead and gone? The room tilted, and for a blinding instant, time stretched out before him in an incessant stream of grey. Endless students, endless staff meetings, with the occasional prostitute to provide physical release, and cold memories his only source of comfort... Was that all there would ever be?
He shot to his feet, tugging hard at his collar. That ghostly grey lingered in his vision, blurring the concerned faces of his colleagues and casting everything with a silvery hue.
"I have to do something," he said in a choked voice. He wasn't certain if he was speaking to them or to himself, but he had to get out of that room.
"Severus, are you ill?" Minerva asked, worried.
"No, I'm fine." He didn't meet her eyes. "I've just remembered there's something I have to do."
"All right," Minerva said, nodding, her brow still creased. "We're almost finished here, anyway."
Severus nodded and forced himself to walk rather than bolt from the room.
When he reached his chambers, he took a pinch of Floo power from the bowl on the mantel and leant down, tossing it into the flames. As they flared high, he called out, "Hermione Granger, Department of Mysteries."
After a short time, Hermione's face appeared in the flames. She was wearing a lab coat with her name embroidered on the pocket. She blinked for a moment, then said, "Professor Snape?"
"I prefer fish and chips," he blurted out. "And mushy peas."
Her mouth first rounded into an O of surprise, then she slowly smiled. "Fish and chips it is, then. With mushy peas."
He nodded once and flicked his wand at the fire, severing the Floo connection.
By the time he straightened, his breath came easily and that awful grey was fading, the colour returning to his vision.
"Damn," he murmured to himself. "I'll have to Floo her again and tell her to bring her own whiskey. I can't have her constantly nicking mine."
Author's Note: The title is an affectionate tip of the hat to one of my favourite HP stories, "In the Grey" by sethnakht. Special thanks to my betas, GinnyWeasley31 and Whitemunin. Written as a gift for Deemichelle and Laiksmarei for the sshgexchange LJ community.