Author's Notes: This was written for sapphire_phoenix, a.k.a. phoenix_fancies, for the 2012 SSHG Exchange. Thanks for the great prompt! Many thanks are also due to my wonderful-as-ever beta, peskipiksi. The title is, of course, from the fabulous Pretenders song. Listen to it at the end, over the imaginary closing credits. Disclaimer: any recognisable characters/locations are JKR's.

Original Prompt: Meddling Employer/Superior - Albus/Kingsley/Minerva/Harry/Someone sees a need in HG/SS and the other is the obvious fit. Who's in on it? Are HG/SS ahead of the game?

Chapter 1

Hermione looked around the crowded lecture theatre with curiosity. The Friday evening presentation of 'Back to Basics: Elementary Potions Reconsidered' had certainly attracted a varied audience, and she recognised a number of Ministry colleagues as well as some of her Hogwarts contemporaries. Percy Weasley raised a hand in greeting from the far side of the room, and she was fairly sure that was Padma Patil's shimmering black hair a couple of rows in front.

"Hermione, my dear!"

Hermione turned in her seat to see Pomona Sprout making her way along the row, muttering apologies as she squeezed past people and trod on toes. Hermione shuffled along the bench to make room for the stout witch, who sank into the space with a grateful smile. She grasped Hermione's hand in both of hers and shook it in delight.

"How lovely to see you here!"

Hermione smiled back. "It's good to see you, too, Professor. Are you well?"

"Fighting fit, my dear, fighting fit. And please, call me Pomona. I've not been your teacher for what? Five years?"

"Eight, actually. Time flies!" Hermione grimaced slightly.

"Good lord, has it really been that long? So, tell me, have you found a replacement for Mr Weasley yet?"

Hermione laughed at Sprout's abrupt curiosity. "I'm happily single for the moment. It's good to be able to give all my attention to my work."

Pomona studied Hermione's face closely then. "You're looking a little peaky, dear, if you don't mind my saying so. Not enough fresh air, I'd wager. Hmm?"

Hermione shook her head a little. "I'm fine. I'll admit I may occasionally go a week at a time without setting foot outside my office or the house, but that's one of the joys of the Floo network, especially at this time of year."

Sprout snorted. "Nonsense, girl. There's nothing like a good autumn breeze to keep the mind and spirits on top form. And I always say the only substitute for a man between your thighs is a spade in your hands. Come up and visit me at Hogwarts some time – we'll have a healthy hour or two working in the gardens. That'll bring some colour back to your cheeks."

Hermione smiled. "I might take you up on that. Thank you."

Sprout nodded her head decisively, making her pointed hat wobble. Hermione noticed that it was one of her better, un-patched specimens. Must be a special occasion.

"So, is Potions one of your side interests, Pomona?" she asked.

"Well, obviously Herbology and Potions cross over in many areas. But I'm really here because of a personal interest in the lecturer." Sprout gave a conspiratorial grin.

"Really?" said Hermione, with some excitement. "Who is it? I've been trying to guess. But I don't think Horace Slughorn is likely to have given up his comfy retirement, and I'd be surprised if Blaise has been teaching long enough to have really developed any new ideas. And obviously no-one's seen or heard anything of Professor Snape for years. Nobody in the Novel Potions Unit has any idea who it might be, either."

Sprout shook her head. "Oh, no! I'm sworn to secrecy. And I'd hate to spoil the surprise." Her eyes twinkled with mischief, leaving Hermione even more intrigued.

At that moment there was a sudden stir from the front of the theatre, and silence gradually fell as all eyes turned to the podium, where a young woman with long curly hair had taken her place at the lectern. She smiled at them as the lights dimmed, leaving the podium spot-lit and the stage behind her in darkness.

"Ladies and gentlemen. My name is Penelope Clearwater, and on behalf of Pegasus Publishing I have great pleasure in welcoming you to this evening's lecture.

"As you are all no doubt aware, Arsenius Jigger's seminal work, Magical Drafts and Potions, has been the elementary Potions reference of choice for Hogwarts students and most households for the past sixty-three years. However, we at Pegasus felt that the time was ripe for the book to be revised to reflect recent developments and best practice in the field. We were incredibly lucky to secure the services of the most skilled Potioneer of our time to undertake the revision. As a result, Magical Drafts and Potions: A New Synthesis will be available exclusively to buy at Flourish and Blotts from Monday, and will be the curriculum text for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from September next year.

"To launch this landmark publication, we are honoured that the author has consented to give a practical demonstration of some of the more noteworthy improvements he has made to our best-loved and most-used basic potions recipes.

"With no further ado, I present the former Professor of Potions at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – Severus Snape."

The theatre was filled with a sudden buzz of whispered surprise at this announcement, but the sound stopped as instantly as it had started when the lights on the stage rose slightly to reveal an extremely distinctive shape silhouetted against the backdrop. Hermione glanced at Sprout, who was sitting very upright, hands clasped in her lap and an expression of pure delight on her face. Catching Hermione's eye, Sprout muttered, "I am so pleased he's done this. Just what he needs."

Wondering exactly what Sprout meant by that, Hermione returned her attention to the figure at the front of the room. The lights on the stage were now fully up, and she nearly laughed at the incongruous familiarity of the scene. Severus Snape stood behind a wooden laboratory bench, a cauldron gently steaming in front of him. He wore his usual black robes, and his shoulder length hair hung in curtains, framing his angular, unsmiling face. He fixed the audience with a chilly glare, and Hermione suspected that fully three-quarters of the gathered throng had suddenly regressed to feel like terrified eleven-year-olds.

"Good evening ... class." He spoke quietly, as ever, his voice still needing no great volume to hold his listeners.

"It was brought to my attention recently that, despite spending more years than I care to remember tenderly nurturing young minds at Hogwarts, I was always rather reluctant to share much of my knowledge of the subtle art of potion-making. It is true that I was content simply to allow my pupils to follow the instructions as laid out in the various prescribed textbooks and syllabi, and not encourage them to implement improvements that I may have developed for my own use. This was due to my assessment that the extreme majority of students were rarely capable of following the simplest directions from the book and that introducing any sort of improvisation or complication would have been likely to cause even more explosions and cauldron meltdowns than usual.

"However, I have been persuaded that rewriting and improving the textbook instructions would provide a new generation with an enhanced grounding in the basic recipes. As I am no longer teaching, it is not my problem if this venture causes the Hogwarts dungeons to disappear in a titanic explosion, and in that event will simply confine myself to saying 'I told you so'."

At this point there were a couple of muffled laughs from the audience, and Snape gave a slight smile.

"On the other hand, I would hope that those of you present tonight have more than an average level of interest in and competence with potions, or you would not be here. So before I begin my demonstration I will simply say that what you are about to see are refinements and adaptations that work perfectly for me, but you choose to follow them in the privacy of your own laboratory entirely at your own risk.

"I shall begin with something you should all have learned to brew at the age of eleven – a Forgetfulness Potion. The cauldron in front of me is at the half-way stage, where, as I am sure you will recall, the rosemary, beetle eyes and agave extract have been simmering together for an hour. Now, the standard recipe calls for the addition of ten drops of adder venom before simmering for a further hour, stirring intermittently, until the steam turns lilac. However, if at the same time as the venom we add a laurel leaf..."

At this point he paused as he dropped the ingredients into the cauldron and stirred twice with a glass rod. A soft gasp went up from the audience as the steam from the simmering liquid instantly shimmered into a lilac colour.

"As you can see, the laurel acts as a catalyst, halving the time taken for the brewing process. The potion is now ready for use. So, if any of you have anything you need to forget, please see me at the end of the lecture."

This time there were more chuckles from the audience, which Snape acknowledged with a slight incline of his head. "And now I will move on to a basic Swelling Solution."

By Hermione's estimation, over the next ninety minutes Snape demonstrated refinements to at least half of the processes from Magical Drafts and Potions. Some of the modifications were simple adjustments to component ratios, while others included extra ingredients or changes to temperatures or stirring techniques. The consequences ranged from removal of side effects and better efficacy to faster brewing. Throughout, Snape worked with his usual deftness and economy of movement. But he also gave a running commentary more humorous and informative than anything Hermione had heard from him in school. She could feel the whole audience responding to this lighter touch; the atmosphere became more relaxed, with both laughter and applause increasingly forthcoming.

The lecture ended with a standing ovation from the audience and an ironic bow from Snape. Penelope resumed her place at the lectern briefly to invite them all to stay for "drinks, nibbles and maybe a chat with our elusive author!".

Hermione turned to face Sprout, who clasped both of Hermione's hands in hers, grinning broadly.

"Well, my dear, what did you think? Wasn't he wonderful? I knew it was the right thing for him to do. Minerva said we'd never get him out in front of an audience, but I told her, 'He'll do it just to shut me up, and he'll be great,' and he did, and he was, wasn't he?" She looked at the younger witch expectantly and Hermione laughed helplessly, totally bemused.

"Yes, Pomona, he was great. It's a shame he never taught us like that years ago, but it can't have been the easiest time for him, to say the least. Now, please, will you explain what's been going on? Am I right in thinking this whole textbook thing was an idea of yours and Professor McGonagall's?"

Pomona nodded vigorously. "Well, of course it was. The silly man has just been hiding away all these years, which is no good for anyone. So I went and dug him out from under his rock and gave him a job to do, which incidentally is paying him very well and will make a nice profit for Pegasus, especially as Minerva's promised the book will be the new set text for the juniors. And hopefully this will be just the push he needs to get him back out into society again. Talking of which, we must go along and congratulate him."

She stood up then and started pushing her way through the crowd, which was slowly making its way towards the refreshments now set out at the front of the theatre. Hermione, one hand still clutched by Sprout, had no choice but to follow.

"I don't think Professor Snape will really want to talk to me," she protested weakly.

"Nonsense!" cried Sprout. "You were one of his best students."

"That never meant he liked me," responded Hermione.

"Oh, he didn't like anyone, then, my dear. You mustn't take it personally. I never did. And now we're the best of friends."

They paused in their squashed progress through the crowd as they bumped up against the drinks table. Sprout Summoned two glasses of wine, passed one to Hermione, then knocked hers back in one gulp.

"Ugh!" she complained with a shudder. "Bloody publishers never buy decent wine."

Hermione sipped hers in a rather more ladylike manner, but had to agree as to the quality. Or lack of it. She shrugged and followed Sprout's example, swallowing the remainder in one go. If she was to be forced to confront Severus Snape for the first time since she'd left him for dead nine years ago she needed all the courage she could get.

"Severus!" boomed Sprout, and Hermione spun round to see the man in question standing just behind her. Sprout stepped forward and enveloped him in a hug, her head barely coming up to his chest. Hermione wasn't sure whether she was more surprised by the fact that Snape returned Sprout's embrace, or by the brief, wry smile he gave her over the little witch's hat. He glanced down.

"Pomona," he said drily. "Delightful as it is to see you, please would you remove your hands from my arse."

Sprout stepped back and looked up at him with a mock pout. "But, my darling boy, groping you is one of the few pleasures I have left in the twilight of my years." She turned and gave Hermione a wicked grin.

"You really should feel this man's buttocks, dear. Two plums in a hanky, that's all I'm saying."

Hermione felt herself flush scarlet. How the hell was she going to respond to that one? Come on then, Professor Snape, let's have a feel?

Fortunately, she was spared from answering by Snape himself, who held out a hand to shake hers briefly, saying, "Miss Granger. It's good to see you again. Kindly ignore any inappropriate comments from my erstwhile colleague here. I would put it down to incipient senility, but I have it on good authority she's always been, what were Minerva's words? Ah, yes. 'A shameless old baggage who wouldn't recognise decorum if it appeared in front of her waving a flag and dancing the rumba'."

Sprout smiled serenely. "You love me really, Severus. And if I hadn't been so happy to stand at your front door naked you wouldn't be here earning lots of nice Galleons, so fewer of your complaints. Anyway, pub? After you've satisfied your adoring public, of course. "

"Pub," replied Severus. "And I think my public have adored me quite enough for one day. I promised Miss Clearwater I would stay for drinks afterwards, but I never agreed for how long. She's over on the other side of the room at the moment, so I think now would be a good time to beat a subtle retreat. Lead on."

"Well," began Hermione, utterly disconcerted now (Pomona naked? With Snape?), "I'll say goodnight, then."

"Oh no, you don't!" protested Sprout. "You're coming with us, isn't she, Severus?"

Severus raised an eyebrow at Hermione. "I think that's rather up to Miss Granger. Obviously she's very welcome to join us, but it would be a little unfair to insist on her company. She may have something more interesting to do on a Friday night than spend it in the company of two of her old teachers."

Hermione laughed. Oh, why not?"The fact I've chosen to spend tonight at a Potions lecture should allow you to reach your own conclusions about the current state of my social life. This evening's been full of surprises so far, so I may as well continue what I've started."

"Splendid!" Sprout clapped her hands briefly. "Now, where are we going? Leaky? Hog's Head?"

"Muggle," replied Severus. "I'll get stared at in the Leaky, and in the Hog's Head you'll just spend the entire evening chatting up Aberforth. I'm sure there's a nice quiet Muggle pub close by we can go to instead."

"Don't look at me," said Sprout. "No idea about Muggle pubs. Hermione?"

"Actually, the Duke of York's just round the corner," she said. "It's where Ministry staff go when they feel like a change. The beer's great. And the seats are comfy. And there's an excellent chip shop down the road if you're hungry later."

"Sounds perfect," said Severus, gifting her with a genuine smile.

"Fine by me," agreed Sprout. "You two are buying, though, because I've got no Muggle money on me at all."

"I warn you now, Miss Granger, it may be an expensive night," observed Severus as they began to make their way to the back of the theatre. "Sprout drinks like a Grindylow."

"I do, indeed," agreed Pomona cheerfully.

Their progress was interrupted repeatedly by people who wanted to greet Severus. Hermione watched him as he exchanged pleasantries. His manner was cordial enough, but his body language was stiff and unwelcoming. Pomona Sprout was evidently a special case.

Eventually they managed to exit the theatre into the small atrium beyond. They paused by the front door.

"Time to change if we're going Muggle," said Sprout, sweeping her wand down her body to Transfigure her robes into a long, red winter coat, with her pointed hat becoming the hood. Hermione performed a similar transformation on her outer robe, though she already had Muggle clothing on underneath.

Severus aimed his wand at his head first, and his hair pulled itself back to be secured by a leather tie at the nape of his neck. "That's better," he sighed. "I'd forgotten how bloody difficult it is to see with my hair down. I lose all my peripheral vision."

He shook his arms briskly into what was now a long black overcoat, under which Hermione could glimpse a black shirt.

"And," he continued, "I'd forgotten how hard it is to brew in those ridiculous robes. They may look dramatic, but the sleeves do have a tendency to fall into the cauldron. I don't think anyone spotted me nearly igniting my cuffs earlier, did they?" He threw an enquiring glance at the two women.

"Didn't notice a thing, dear," Sprout reassured him. She grinned at Hermione. "He's gone quite native, you know, living in a Muggle village."

Snape scowled at her as he opened the front door and ushered them out into the chilly October night.

"Come along then!" cried Sprout gaily. "Lead on to the beer!" She linked arms with Hermione, bustling along to keep up with the younger woman's longer stride. Hermione glanced back to see Severus following just behind, hands thrust deep into his pockets and shoulders hunched. He put her in mind of a reluctant teenage trailing behind an embarrassing parent. She smiled slightly to herself.

The Duke of York was quiet for a Friday night, and they easily found seats in a cosy corner near the bar. Sprout looked around eagerly as she sipped her gin and tonic. A large one, naturally. Hermione sank back into a soft armchair with a sigh of relief. Nine hours at her desk followed by an evening on a hard lecture theatre bench had left her sciatic nerves protesting. She glanced across the table to meet Severus's slightly sardonic smile.

"Long day, Miss Granger?"

"Long week, actually."

"So you thought attending a lecture would round it off nicely?"

She took a sip of her pint. "Do you know, I thought it would. There's been speculation for the last couple of weeks at work about who the mystery lecturer was going to be. And you know me – I never pass up the opportunity to learn something." She paused then, head on one side as she considered whether to continue. "You always did say I was a know-it-all."

Snape gave a brief, humourless laugh but didn't look remotely apologetic. "Did I call you that? Every pupil irritated me in some way. The ideal class, to my mind, would just have sat down, shut up, got on with their work without asking questions or exploding anything, and left in silence. Unfortunately, that ideal class did not exist; consequently, I spent my entire teaching career in a state of at least low-level annoyance. My leaving Hogwarts was not a loss to the profession."

"But your lecture this evening was excellent," protested Hermione. "You explained everything so clearly – which you've got a real gift for – and you must have sensed how much everyone enjoyed it."

"I rest my case. This evening's audience approached my ideal in that they sat and listened quietly. Had I allowed them to take part in any sort of practical activity, I would no doubt have reverted to my usual cantankerous self."

He looked at her steadily, as if daring her to argue, then swiftly drank half of his pint.

"You're right about the beer, Miss Granger. Very well kept. So, tell me, what is it you do at the Ministry?"

"I use a combination of Arithmancy and Muggle computing power to pre-test new charms and potions, thus reducing the need for hazardous experiments." She grinned. "And that's the point at which people's eyes usually glaze over slightly and they say something like 'How interesting' and change the subject rapidly. Feel free to do the same."

Snape gave an impatient shake of his head. "Not at all. That genuinely does sound interesting. How does the combination with computers work? I always thought there were conflicts between Muggle technology and magic."

"Tell me about it. My computer is in what is basically a store cupboard at the Ministry, with Shielding Charms around the room to protect it from the magical field outside. But all it takes is for some idiot to wander in and Accio a pen or something, and I can lose an entire day's work."

"I'm guessing from your tone of voice that this is not an infrequent occurrence?"

"Oh, it happens at least once a week. I've banned Ron and Harry from coming within a twenty metre radius of my computer room, on pain of, well, pain. Even Kingsley came in last month and conjured himself a chair, which fried an extremely complex calculation I'd spent the last four hours working on. I threatened him with a Castration Charm, which in retrospect might not have been the most sensible approach to the Minister for Magic."

"You may have damaged your promotion prospects somewhat. Though it sounds like he had a narrow escape from more severe damage. I didn't even know such a charm existed."

"It's experimental," responded Hermione darkly. "That was part of the threat. But he was sweetly apologetic and sent me a bottle of very nice wine to say sorry."

"And that is why he is Minister for Magic. So, when this computer of yours is actually functional, what do you use it for?"

"Are you really interested, or are you just being polite?"

"Since when has the adjective 'polite' been used to describe me?"

"Fair point. Well, in the past the use of Arithmancy to predict the outcomes of new charms or potions has been limited by the fact that there are often just too many unknown variables. The preferred method has always been trial and error practical testing with diagnostic spells to analyse the outcomes. But by using a computer, I'm able to conduct hundreds of Arithmantic calculations simultaneously, which can cut out the more dangerous early practical testing stages. So, for a new potion I could calculate the combination of ingredients, temperature and methodology with the highest likelihood of success. Empirical tests will still be necessary at the final stages, but I can at least give the practitioner a probability of, say, ninety-five percent that he's not going to lose the floor of his lab in the process."

"Fascinating. Do you undertake private work as well, or is it purely for the Ministry?"

"I do a bit of ad hoc consultancy for Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes. And St Mungo's approached me recently about advising on some medical applications. Why, is it something you're interested in?"

"It could well be. I've been carrying out some research of my own, and I'd certainly welcome the chance to cut out some of the more tedious and possibly hazardous early processes."

"I'd be happy to help."

"For a reasonable fee, of course."

"Of course." Hermione smiled warmly at Severus and took a long drink from her beer. He gave her a half-smile back, then a frown crossed his face. Hermione realised it was aimed at Sprout. She glanced at the beaming witch.

"And why are you smiling like the village idiot, Pomona?" asked Severus. "You have been sat there unnaturally silently for the past, what—"

"—Twenty minutes!" supplied Pomona, triumphantly. "You've been talking to a woman for twenty minutes without her slapping you in the face or telling you you're an unattractive bastard."

"Miss Granger's not a woman, she's an ex-pupil," protested Severus. Then he looked at Hermione with an expression of resignation. "Oh, bollocks. I didn't mean— Same again?" He downed the last of his pint and stalked off towards the bar.

Hermione didn't know whether to feel insulted by his dismissal of her femininity or amused by his discomfiture. She looked slightly sternly at Pomona.

"Would you care to tell me what that was about?" she asked.

Pomona sighed. "I've been trying to persuade the stubborn boy that he needs to get out of that house of his more, to make friends, even find a good woman. But he's been absolutely insistent that he's content with his own company. I nagged him and nagged him until he made a minimal effort to make the best of himself, but he keeps telling me that even if a woman manages to get past his looks, his personality will scare them off. Tonight being a case in point, I'm afraid. And he was doing so well talking to you – I haven't seen him so animated in, well, ever." She sighed again, more heavily.

Hermione wasn't quite sure how to respond to that. Surely Pomona wasn't implying that Hermione was the sort of woman Snape would be trying to chat up?

There was silence for a few moments, then Severus returned, three glasses in his hands. He placed them carefully on the table and resumed his seat. He looked at Hermione, opened his mouth to say something, then seemed to think the better of it and took a large swallow of his beer instead, his eyes still focused on her.

"I was just about to explain to Pomona that I wasn't remotely offended by what you said because I knew what you meant," began Hermione. "You were talking to me as an ex-pupil, maybe even as a potential friend, not as a woman you wanted to attract. Am I right?"

A look of relief passed across Severus' face. "Exactly. Thank you Miss Granger. Talking to an ex-pupil, and yes, indeed, possibly a friend," here he gave Hermione a slight smile, "is rather different from talking to a woman I want a relationship with."

Pomona shook her head. "I don't see why. Surely when you want a romantic relationship, the best basis for it is friendship?"

Hermione snorted. "With all due respect, Pomona, that's Hippogriff shit. I've done the whole 'falling in love with my best friend' thing, and it doesn't work."

"You're not the only one," muttered Severus gloomily into his glass.

"Friendship is fantastic," continued Hermione, warming to her theme, "But if you don't even have those 'Oh, my god, he's wonderful, I need to shag him on the table right now' sort of fireworks at the beginning of a relationship, there's absolutely no hope of any sort of sustained passion. And without that, well, quite frankly it would have been better to just remain friends from the beginning."

"Which is precisely the point I've been trying to make to you, Pomona," contributed Severus. "My looks are certainly never going to provoke the fireworks so eloquently described by Miss Granger, and neither is my personality. I may develop a select few friendships, but that is the extent of my ambition."

"What about love that grows over time?" asked Pomona, gesticulating with her gin glass.

"That concept is rather botanical, which I would expect from you. And, on that topic, what news of the Snargaluffs that you promised me?"

Pomona accepted the change of subject with good grace and a brief roll of her eyes. Hermione relaxed back into her chair as her companions began a lengthy discussion of activities in the Hogwarts greenhouses. She savoured her beer and watched the two of them. The Herbology Professor was certainly entertaining company. And Severus – she shocked herself slightly, calling him that, even in her thoughts – well, it was the first time anyone had shown such an interest in her work. Perhaps they might indeed end up as friends. Stranger things had happened.

She studied him closely, then. Sprout was right when she said he was making more of an effort with his appearance. His tied-back hair was no longer greasy, and although his teeth were still crooked, they were much whiter. His skin had lost its unhealthy pallor – in fact, he looked like he spent a lot of time outside. But he was right – his looks were never going to provoke any fireworks. That nose, for a start, was hardly appealing. With his hair tied back, his profile was even more forbidding. And in repose his face still took on a rather grim aspect.

Her eyes idly moved down his body. He was as thin as ever. She supposed wiry was the best that could be hoped for in terms of his physique, though if Sprout was to be believed his arse was well toned. Shame he was sitting on it. Perhaps she'd have a look for herself later. Oh, yes, the alcohol's kicking in already. I can tell I haven't eaten since breakfast. She shook herself mentally.

He was making some point about the soil in his garden now, and Hermione found herself watching his hands as he gestured. Over how many years had she seen him use those hands to chop ingredients and stir potions? She'd never really looked at them before, though. Long, elegant fingers, nails cut neatly short (thank goodness – I hate long nails on a man). The skin bore a few stains, presumably from his brewing, and there were a couple of small scars. Burns maybe? Nice hands, though. Capable. She could imagine how they'd feel on her body. His touch would be deft and firm, but still sensitive and—what in the name of all that is charmed am I thinking of? Two pints and I'm imagining Severus Snape's hands on my naked... I need to eat something. Now.

She stood up abruptly. "I'm getting some crisps. Anyone else?"

Two bags of salt and vinegar crisps and another pint later, Hermione was feeling much better. So much better, in fact, that she plucked up the courage to ask the question that had been bothering her for the past hour and a half.

"Pomona. Excuse me if this is none of my business, but I've got to ask. What the hell did you mean earlier when you said something about standing at his door naked?" She pointed towards Severus with her pint glass.

Pomona let out a peal of laughter, while Severus put his head in his hands, shaking it slowly.

"Please don't make me relive all that again," he groaned.

"Now I really am intrigued," said Hermione with a giggle.

"Well," began Pomona, clasping her hands together in front of her, "about two years ago Minerva and I finally found out where Severus had been hiding himself away. She owled him several times, to no avail, so I decided to just turn up on his doorstep. To get to which I had to pass through the wards he's set around his garden. Wards that are designed to Vanish the clothing of any witch or wizard that passes though."

"Severus Snape!" said Hermione, in a tone of exaggerated shock.

Severus raised a protesting hand. "I would like to point out at this juncture that my strategy was not developed though any spirit of lasciviousness. I wanted to deter visitors, but didn't want to cause them any harm. Some sort of impenetrable wall would just be seen as a challenge. I assumed that the first thought of anyone who entered my garden and found themselves naked would just be to Apparate back as rapidly as possible to whence they came. Giving me my desired privacy. I hadn't, however, bargained on Pomona Sprout and her combination of Hufflepuff determination and a total lack of propriety."

"Oh, you were pleased to see me, really," protested Sprout, waggling her eyebrows.

"So, let me get this straight," said Hermione, suppressing her giggles. "You appeared on his doorstep naked, so he surrendered and let you in?"

"Oh, no, dear," responded Pomona cheerfully with a shake of her head. "The first time he wouldn't even open the door."

"I have a spy hole in it. I was in shock," contributed Severus.

"The second time, a week later, he opened the door for as long as it took to tell me to go away. The third time he actually added a 'please'."

Hermione was giggling uncontrollably now at the visuals her brain was supplying. Severus' head was in his hands once more.

Sprout continued her tale. "The fourth time, he invited me in, gave me a spare cloak, and subjected me to a ten-minute lecture on the subject of why I should leave him alone. The fifth time, he repeated the cloak loan, and the lecture – only on that occasion it was more of a diatribe – lasted somewhat longer and involved a considerable amount of imaginatively ripe language. And on my sixth visit I arrived in his garden to find my clothing miraculously intact, and we've been friends ever since."

"I think 'friends' is a little generous," responded Snape, raising his head from his hands. "That's rather like describing a seagull as being friends with the sea when he's merely been swept away on the tide." But the expression in his eyes as he looked at Pomona was one of affection, noted Hermione, wiping away tears of laughter.

"I'm sorry, you may be 'the most skilled Potioneer of our age' but I have to disagree. Anything that violent a shade of green can't be good for you, and there is no way drowning the whole lot in acetic acid is going to improve matters." Hermione waved a chip in Severus' general direction to emphasise her point.

Severus shook his head sorrowfully. "I thought you never passed up the opportunity to learn something. Mushy peas and vinegar is a classic combination and a far better complement to a bag of chips than that fluorescent orange insult you call curry sauce."

"Now, now, children," interjected Sprout from her seat next to them on a low wall. "The world would be a very boring place if we all liked the same things. Are you sure I can't tempt either of you to a pickled egg?"

"Just the sight of those things floating in a jar like eyeballs turns my stomach," replied Hermione with a shudder.

"I'm with you on that one, Miss Granger," agreed Severus, dipping another chip into his peas. "There is something inherently unpleasant about them."

"Any chance you could call me Hermione? Miss Granger makes me feel twelve again. Or like I'm in a job interview."

"I'll try. And you could try calling me Severus."

"That will feel weird. Though possibly no weirder than the fact I've spent the evening getting drunk with you."

"And me!" piped up Pomona cheerily.

Hermione laughed. "Actually, even when you were my teacher I imagined you as a pub regular, so that's less odd."

"What about me?" asked Severus. "Did you speculate as to my drinking habits at all?"

"Alone in your rooms with a bottle of Firewhisky," responded Hermione promptly, softening her words with a smile.

"Over-proof rum, generally, but otherwise accurate. Merlin, I was depressingly clichéd." Severus speared another chip with his wooden fork and considered it dolefully.

Hermione nudged her shoulder against his. "Cheer up. A lot of women consider you quite the brooding, romantic hero."

Severus looked down at her, eyes narrowed. "Yes, I've come across that strange conceit. It only takes a couple of minutes of my actual company to dispel their illusions."

"Oh, don't start that again, Eeyore," interrupted Pomona briskly. "There are plenty of us who find your company perfectly amenable. Anyway, are we all agreed about next Saturday? Two o'clock at yours, Severus, to get those Snargaluffs sorted out?"

"Fine by me," he agreed, "but I think you've steamrollered Hermione somewhat."

"No," Hermione protested, "It's OK. Pomona's right – I could do with some fresh air and a bit of physical labour."

Sprout pushed herself off the wall and clapped her hands. "Excellent! Well, if that's all arranged, I really must be heading back to Hogwarts, before Minerva sends out a search party. She'll be very eager to know how tonight went."

Severus stood as well, holding his hand out to take Hermione's empty chip tray from her before dropping it with his own into a nearby bin. She smiled at him in thanks then jumped up from the wall herself. She could still feel the effects of the beer on her knees, which were slightly numb.

"There's an alley just around the corner we can Apparate from without being spotted," she said. "I need to go home as well – I'm shattered."

Pomona looked slightly disappointed. "Oh, if you're sure, dear. I thought you and Severus might like to stay out a little longer."

Severus shook his head. "It's been a busy evening for me as well – I'm ready for my bed. You know how exhausting I find your company, Pomona."

Sprout punched him, quite hard, in the arm, before linking it with hers. "Young people today – no stamina. Lead on, Hermione!"

Hermione showed them to a narrow lane, backing onto a row of shops and lined with bins. A cat watched them suspiciously from the top of one of the bins, then ambled off with a flick of its tail.

Sprout released Severus' arm before wrapping him in an enthusiastic embrace. Hermione noticed that she managed another quick fondle in the region of his arse. Severus returned the hug, an expression of amused resignation on his face.

"Goodnight, you incorrigible woman. See you next week."

Sprout released him and turned to hug Hermione. "Lovely to see you again, my dear," she said.

"You, too, Pomona. Thanks for a surprisingly entertaining evening."

Pomona stepped away, waved gaily, and Disapparated.

Severus and Hermione looked at each other slightly awkwardly.

"You go next," he said, "I don't want to leave you here alone. Have you got far to go?"

"Just to Grimmauld Place. I've got an apartment in the attic, and I sort of caretake the place – no-one else lives there permanently now, but quite a few people use it as an occasional base if they're in London."

"I see. Well, I've enjoyed talking to you this evening. Thank you."

"I've had a really good time too... Severus." She pulled a face. "That feels odd. I'm sure I'll get used to it, though."

Snape gave a half smile. "I'd like it if you did, Hermione. For what it's worth, using your given name feels strange to me as well."

Hermione grinned suddenly. "Do I get a hug?"

Snape looked at her quizzically. "That rather depends on whether you're going to use it as an excuse to test Pomona's judgement of my physique."

Hermione held up her hands with an expression of injured innocence. "I just wanted to be friendly."

"Well, in that case," murmured Snape as he stepped towards her, an amused expression on his face.

Hermione closed the gap between them and wrapped her arms around him, feeling him respond after a brief hesitation. They pulled each other close, and she found that her head fitted snugly against his shoulder. She relaxed into him and shut her eyes as she savoured the comforting contact.

"This is nice," she muttered. "You're a good hugger."

She felt rather than heard him laugh softly. "A hidden talent of mine. There's generally not much call for it."

They released each other and she smiled at him. "Goodnight then, Severus. See you next Saturday."

"Goodnight, Hermione."

"And," concluded Pomona with a triumphant wave of her forefinger, "I think I've found him a woman!"

Minerva McGonagall looked sternly at her colleague over the top of her glasses, whisky tumbler stilled in its progress to her lips.

"Pomona," she began warningly, "please don't tell me you've been matchmaking again. I'd have thought your last disastrous effort would have taught you something."

Sprout waved a hand dismissively. "Pfft! I still maintain Draco holds his wand at both ends. I was sure locking him in the greenhouse with Justin would have brought him out of the closet, so to speak. Still, no harm done. They're both walking almost normally now, and Poppy says there should be no lasting damage."

Minerva sighed. "So who is the unfortunate victim of your meddling this time?"

"Hermione Granger."

"Hermione?" Minerva's eyebrows shot up. "But she was his student! And she's – what? Twenty years younger than him?"

"Details, Minerva, details. Age is hardly relevant. I remember a wonderful summer with that under-gardener; what was his name? I don't recall him commenting on the fact that I was a quarter century his senior, though to be fair I may not have left him with enough energy to complain and..." She trailed off and gazed into the fire briefly, lost in memory. "Where was I? Oh, yes. As for the student thing – well, most British witches between the ages of twenty and forty must have been taught by Severus, so it's hardly fair to make that an exclusion. And, Minerva, you didn't see him talking to her! He was just so relaxed and interested. And I don't imagine she meets many men that can match her intellectually. Don't worry – I'm not going to lock them in a greenhouse. I'll just make sure they get plenty of chances to spend some time together, and we'll see what happens. No-one's going to get hurt."

Minerva looked at her sceptically. "Yes, well, I don't think you can guarantee that. But given the combined magical talent and temperaments of the characters involved, I'm fairly sure if anyone does get hurt, it'll be you."

Pomona just smiled serenely. "You'll see, Minerva. I'm definitely right this time."