A/N: This was written for the Winter 2008 SS/HG Exchange as a gift for leni_jess who wanted post-war, Severus rescuing Hermione from a wizarding world complication she hasn't mastered, Hermione being not too grateful, and Severus realising he's attracted to her, free to develop attachments, and coping with the need for courtship. (Wow!)
Chapter 1: A Hard Day's Night
In retrospect, she should have known better.
She never should have accepted the invitation—never should have dared foster the faint hope that her luck was about to change. None of the women in the Beast Division had been particularly friendly to Hermione Granger before. The few men seemed to give her a wide berth. Come to think of it, she'd spent the entirety of her past two years being systematically ignored by the many employees of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures (the DRCMC to all who worked within). So when the fashionable clique of females from the Centaur Liaison Office specifically asked her to join them at the Ministry offsite meeting, she really should have questioned their motivation a bit more.
"When will I learn?" she asked.
No one replied, of course, because she was completely alone, standing in a well-trodden clearing. The meeting was over, the many attendees had long since departed the magical tent in small groups, grabbing Portkeys back to the Ministry. Hermione tried not to think about how gullible she'd been when the leader of her group—the last group to leave, by no small coincidence—had sweetly asked her to pack away the tent and meet them at the Portkey. She shouldn't have been surprised when she'd entered the clearing to find the women gone. She shouldn't have been hurt that they'd stranded her in the middle of nowhere, knowing full well the Ministry had placed Anti-Apparition charms around the meeting spot, stretching for several kilometres. And she certainly shouldn't be feeling that prickle of tears at the back of her eyes over the realisation that no matter how hard she tried, she would never fit in.
"Bugger," she said. Anger began to creep ever-so-slowly into her mind, effectively squeezing out the surprise and the hurt and the unshed tears.
With hands fisted on hips, she considered her options. She could start walking, but it would take hours before she'd be able to Apparate. Surely someone would miss her in that time.
"Not likely," she said with a snort.
No one at the office would notice her absence. She'd never been one to form shallow friendships, although she'd noticed her peers seemed almost rabid in their quest to collect friends, like a child hoarding chocolate frog cards. In school, there'd been Harry, Ron, and then Ginny, and that had always been more than enough. Even now, four years after Voldemort's defeat, she was still very close to Harry and Ginny, although she hadn't spoken to Ron in several months. Their unsurprising break-up had turned ugly and alarmingly public when Ron had drunk too much one night and whinged about their failed relationship to a reporter. The fact that Ron's story had been greatly distorted by copious amounts of alcohol and years of insecurities hadn't mattered to the sleazy journalist from Celestial Beings, the sensationalistic gossip magazine of the wizarding world. The resulting article had been immensely unflattering and had arrived at a time when very little was happening in their world, news-wise. People had been hungry for a juicy story, and the press had been happy to oblige with an almost-laughable account of the former sweetheart heroine's downfall.
Shaking her head in frustration, she gazed around the clearing and thought that being stranded in the middle of nowhere was hardly apt punishment for perceived slights against Ron Weasley. Then again, one of the women in the group just happened to be Lavender Brown, who had never been able to extinguish that torch she'd carried for Ron. This, in hindsight, should have been yet another clue that evil was afoot.
Something purple fluttered on the ground, several metres away. She approached it warily and found a piece of lavender-coloured paper beneath a rock. Picking it up, she read a note obviously intended for her.
The brightest witch of her age
Needs a ride to the Ministry
Their is a way for her to leave
Just find the hidden Portkey
"Excellent spelling, Lavender," she said aloud, snorting at the mistaken use of 'their' instead of 'there'. Couldn't they make her the butt of their jokes without insulting the English language in the process?
A quick glance at the time reminded her all Portkeys would be deactivated in less than five minutes. She slipped the note into her pocket and got to work. Suspecting her co-workers had performed a simple Disillusionment charm, she knew she could find the Portkey by revealing their spell. Selecting an enormous puffball mushroom as a starting point, she began walking in ever-widening circles, searching for that elusive trace of magic to indicate a hidden object.
"Bugger, bugger, bugger." She chanted the words as she walked, wand held aloft, the cadence of her voice matching her steps. Her feet carried her faster. Her curses became more rapid. Minutes ticked down quickly, and still the size of the circle increased.
She peered at her watch with a sinking feeling. Half past four: she was too late. Her eyes rose from her wrist, and not more than three metres in front of her, a ratty old broom began to appear. It shimmered like a desert mirage, then formed itself solid. She walked to the broom and saw yet another lavender-coloured note on the handle. Pulling it free, she read with a scowl:
Safe travels, Hermione. We know how much you love flying!
She turned her back on the broom and walked towards the centre of the imaginary circle, head down. Disappointment turned to frustration, and frustration turned to ire within two brief strides. Her anger built steadily now, pulsing through her like a living thing, clawing to get out.
"Damn it!" she shouted, slicing her wand towards the giant puffball mushroom. She watched in satisfaction as her spell sent the football-sized fungus soaring through into the air, careening across the clearing. Then her eyes widened when she realised a wizard had been walking into the clearing, also with his head down. The trajectory of her missile was perfectly aligned with the unknown man.
Her hand flew to her mouth as the fungus hit the newcomer squarely in the chest. An enormous brown cloud of spores enveloped the black robes and obscured his face, as if he'd been attempting some ill-conceived Muggle magic trick. She rushed forward as the cloud began to settle. The man stood still as a statue as she approached.
"I'm sorry… I'm so sorry!" The mantra of apology repeated into the silence as she waved her wand over his robes and silently cast a Scouring charm. "I thought I was alone."
"Obviously," came the wizard's terse reply, causing her hand to freeze.
She knew that voice, that snide tone. There was only one wizard who could relay so much contempt with the utterance of one simple word. Dread choked her, but she forced her wand to his face. The heavy layer of fungus spores was removed with one quick flick.
A tiny squeak accompanied her voice when she stammered, "Pr-Professor Snape."
Thank you to my beloved beta, Karelia, for super-fast turnaround on this story.