AN: This was created for the 2012 sshg_promptfest on LiveJournal following a prompt by TeddyRadiator. The very fact this story was finished on time was thanks to Heartmom88 and Desigrl. NagandSev provided the final polish to ensure that it was readable. Special thanks go to Iulia_Linnea for organising an awesome fest.

Chapter One

Severus rolled over and glanced at the clock. It was almost eleven o'clock and he was still in bed. When had that happened? When had the tightly wound, caffeine and potions driven spy become the sort of man that had lie-ins nearly every day of the week?

Since the end of the war made tightly wound spies obsolete, that's when. Since compensation, pensions and guilt money made it unnecessary to work. Since killing one former employer and betraying the other rather spectacularly had made it almost impossible to find work.

He had thought that peace would mean freedom. When he had come to in St Mungo's, surrounded by flowers and cards from well-wishers, Severus had foolishly believed he had been given a second chance at life. His Dark Mark had faded, his Dark Lord was dead. The guilt-ridden memories of Lily that had driven him for so long were missing. Even his remorse over sending Lily's son to his inevitable death had crumbled when he learned that the Boy Who Lived had survived the Killing Curse once again.

Yet freedom, or whatever this was, had its own cost.

All those who had been so glad to see him live made it clear they wanted no part in his new life. It was much easier to be grateful to someone when you weren't continually reminded of your debt. With Hogwarts closed to him, there was no place for Severus in the new world. His role in the war had already been made public knowledge and discussed. After that, he had somehow ceased to exist in any way that really mattered.

Most people would easily have accepted that he would welcome a reclusive lifestyle, but Severus wasn't made to be idle. His father might not have won any parenting awards, but he had instilled in Severus a conscientious work ethic. A large part of Tobias Snape's biggest gripe with magic was the fact that it just seemed so lazy to him, so unearned. It wasn't good people who were granted magic; it could manifest itself in anyone. A staunch socialist, it was as unfair in his opinion as inherited wealth. While Severus may not have agreed with his father, he had worked every day since he had left school. This prolonged, enforced idleness was the worst part of his retirement and compounded the loneliness that came with having outlived one's usefulness.

There had been a time, once, when the thought of a whole morning spent in bed had sounded like a ridiculous indulgence. Maybe if there had been someone to share these idle mornings with, they might have been welcome. Now they just highlighted one simple fact – he had nothing better to do.

Refusing to allow his maudlin thoughts to turn a lazy morning into an entire day under the covers, Severus pushed back the duvet and climbed to his feet.

As Hermione queued at the International Floo and Portkey Terminal, waiting to be processed, she could already feel the damp British air working its way through the careful charms controlling her hair.

International journeys always left her feeling tired and travel stained, even though the longest journey could be completed in a fraction of the time it would take by Muggle means. The queuing for 'Keys, the interminable paperwork, the invasive lights of the Sneakoscopes – it all conspired to give her a pounding headache and left her feeling like she needed a long, hot bath.

Not that she had time for such creature comforts. There had been a delay in Bali and, by the time she was finally processed, there was only time enough to freshen up in the Ministry toilets before her interview.

Hermione washed her face and hands thoroughly, chewed on a Toothflossing Stringmint for exactly one hundred and twenty seconds, and spritzed herself with her favourite perfume before taking careful stock of herself in the thankfully silent mirror.

She looked neat enough, she supposed, if ever so slightly flustered. The time away had left her with only a light tan, but her skin seemed almost olive under the bright lights. Her dark blue robes were severe in cut, but the sharp tailoring complemented the softness of her face and hair, and the overall effect was rather pleasing. She looked smart, efficient, and just a fraction exotic –a world away from the frightened school girl who had once landed on the pavement outside the Ministry on an invisible Thestral. Almost like she might belong in the Department of Mysteries these days.

She only hoped her interviewer, Agent Smith, might think so, too.

Bartleby Smith was waiting for her as she exited the lifts on Level Nine, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. Hermione checked her watch discreetly, wondering if she was late, but she was precisely five minutes early.

Smith, who had to be at least five years younger than Hermione, bounded forward the moment he saw her, hand outstretched.

"Hermione Granger? I knew it had to be you! We don't get many witches younger than sixty in these hallowed halls." He shook her hand enthusiastically. "You know, you're a lot prettier than you look in the history books," he continued, blinking. "Anyway, there's lots to see. This way!"

He led the way down the dimly lit corridor to the black door at the end, and Hermione found herself scampering to keep up. Any hope of appearing exotic and aloof vanished as she found herself trailing behind Smith like a puppy.

"Of course I know all about the previous trip here. Well, it was impossible to keep it a secret once the press got hold of the pictures." He leant against the door, opening it easily. "Messy business, that."

The space beyond the door was just as Hermione remembered: a round room with doors leading off like the markers on a sundial.

"Creepy, isn't it?" Bartleby smiled, allowing the door to swing closed behind him.

In that moment, Hermione was fifteen again, plunged into a world far darker than she had ever imagined. "No!" She held out a hand to grab at the door, but her fingers met the whirring rush as the doors began to spin. The torches flared, dimmed, then flared again, reflecting off the shiny floor and leaving her purblind.

Refusing to embarrass herself by clinging to her interviewer and bursting into tears, Hermione breathed carefully through her nose, hands clenched into tight fists by her sides, until her vision cleared

When it did, Bartleby was still smiling happily, apparently oblivious to the panic he had just caused.

"Care to pick?" He gestured to the handleless doors surrounding them. "No? Oh well, we'll try this one."

The space beyond was dark, but it had none of the grandeur that had marked the rooms that she had visited as a child. Loose gravel crunched underfoot and the walls were lit by torches. The ceiling was low and the air damp. Hermione had the feeling that she was deep underground.

"The Department of Mysteries is older than the Ministry building itself." Bartleby explained as he led her down into the dark. "The Ministry used to be based in Winchester until it became apparent that London was going to become the financial centre. They followed the gold – well, they followed the Goblins, but they followed the gold, and the main building was created. This was originally catacombs. The Ministry building doesn't quite align with this one – sometimes you can feel the shift when you step through the door. It makes it easy to close access between the two – stops any disruptive magic from spilling over into the rest of the Ministry."

Bartleby, Hermione decided, was very much a more loquacious version of Percy Weasley. Perhaps what Dennis Creavy might have become had he been allowed to live to adulthood. He led her through the catacombs into a more modern area with whitewashed brick walls and stark lighting, his endless chatter as dizzying as the twisted path they followed.

The catacombs seemed almost endless. At times, even Hermione was forced to bend almost double as they made their way

"Much of what visitors are allowed to see is just for show. As if we'd keep all our research in an area that was easily accessible by someone without the proper clearance! However, there are still some fascinating things to see. For example, this is where some of our more esoteric experiments take place. Let's see if anyone is free for a chat…"

Ducking through a low door, Hermione found herself in a very bland looking office crammed with nineteen-sixties looking furniture. There were several low desks littered with yoghurt pots of various sizes. A tired old gramophone was blasting out something that sounded – to Hermione's untutored ear – suspiciously like Barry White. An old man in nondescript black robes was poking at the pots with his wand and scribbling notes in a floating notepad.

"Bob? This is Hermione. I'm just showing her the ropes. Can you tell us what you're working on?"

Bob frowned at the interruption, but seemed happy enough to talk about his research for a man who worked behind seventeen layers of warding – Hermione had counted them as Bartleby had waved each of them aside. "We're currently trying to determine why ordinary Muggle custard becomes animate when subjected to low frequency sound," he announced, gesturing to the pots around him. Looking closely, Hermione could see that the ones nearer the 'phone were already waggling little yellow fingers in time with the beat.

"Oh," Hermione answered when she realised that Bob was expecting a response, then tried to think of something intelligent to say. "Just custard or non-Newtonian liquids in general?"

Bob froze. "There are other liquids like this?"

"Um… I think it depends on starch levels or something. Proper custard made with eggs won't react in the same way."

Bob stared at her levelly for ten long seconds.

"Hmm," he stated finally. "Of course, we'd have to check that theory. Smith, get me everything she knows on non-newt-only-one liquids before she's assigned." He pursed his lips. "Just in case."

"Just in case?" Hermione repeated, but Bartleby was already rushing from the room, talking happily over his shoulder.

By the time they made it to the upper levels – back through another fifteen layers of warding – Hermione was exhausted, both from hurrying to keep up with her guide's long-legged strides and from trying to follow the almost endless stream of highly confidential chatter was subjected to throughout.

The last room he showed her was fairly small, with a curved desk, empty book shelves and a squidgy looking office chair that just begged to be curled up in.

"This will be your office. I can't yet tell you what you'll be doing, but you won't get the chance to do fieldwork until you've got a couple of months under your belt. Once you start, you'll soon find out that many of the Mysteries aren't really that mysterious." He considered. "Well, there may be about five topics that may cause your brain to go a bit squishy, but for the most part it's custard, alternate realities and unicorn blood." He looked up. "I was kidding about the unicorn blood. Most of the useful experiments concerning that were exhausted back in the sixties."

Hermione paused. "You're offering me the job? But I thought there would be a selection process? Rigorous interviews?"

"We only say that to discourage those who aren't certain about applying and to add to the general air of mystery. No, we've already got a good idea of who you are, what you can do and the sort of results we can expect from you. You've been a Person of Interest since you were twelve. Hardworking, bright, at your best when working towards a cause. Bit of a follower, but able to take risks when the situation demands it. There's just the matter of the trial."

Hermione, still shrivelling inside at the thought of being classed as a bit of a follower, almost missed the last bit. "The trial?"

"Hmm? Yes, it's customary for anyone wishing to obtain the freedom of the catacombs to pass some sort of test. Years ago it would be killing a dragon or something like that, but we're much more modern about it these days. Might be wrestling a troll, subduing a Boggart; it depends on the applicant. If you follow me through here…"

"Wait!" she called, following. "I didn't know I had to prepare for a trial! What if I fail?"

"Then we start the recruitment process again. Oh, and we'd have to Obliviate the bits I've mentioned about catacombs, dragons and whatnots." He frowned. "Bob might be upset if he can't ask you about the custard. Still, Clarence from the archives is Muggle born… maybe he knows about it."

Again, Hermione was forced to hurry to keep up with him. The floor evened out until they were walking on what felt like industrial issue concrete, and the walls were the uniform magnolia of civil service the world over. The doors they passed here were unadorned wood, their slit windows filled with wire-meshed safety glass, the like of which Hermione hadn't seen since primary school. It was incredibly ordinary, right down – or should that be up – to the strip lighting overhead.

The last door on the left opened into what felt like a waiting room-cum-reception. There was a long wooden counter running down one side and a few metal framed low chairs sat against the opposite wall. A rather glamorous looking woman with an eighties perm was rummaging in a filing cabinet as they entered; seeing Bartleby and his companion, she closed the drawer and came forward to shake hands.

"Ah, Hilary! This is Miss Granger. She might be joining us shortly, but we just need to get her set up for the entrance exam – running gag, I'm afraid. We used to have something similar to the Sorting Hat, but it turned out to be teensiest bit prejudiced, so we've moved with the times and invested in the Device here instead." He led her past the desk to the large thing that dominated the far wall.

Hermione only had the vaguest idea of what Steampunk was meant to be, but she had a feeling that the Device would be any aficionado's wet dream. Caught somewhere between a nineteen forties computer, the contents of an old lady's handbag, and a Russian samovar, it towered above her, making a soft huffing noise reminiscent of the Hogwart's Express.

"She's a beauty, isn't she?" Smith sighed. "Magic and technology in close alignment. We're hoping she'll help us make massive inroads into Quadrithmancy." He paused. "But that's something else I can't tell you about until you pass the test. Hilary?"

"It's nothing to worry about," Hilary explained as she opened a small hatch, about the size of a letter box, just below a row of dials. "Put your hand in here, please."

Hermione hesitated then thrust her hand through the narrow slit, expecting something horrible, and determined not to scream when she found out what.

Nothing happened.

After another five seconds of nothing happening, there was a distant ping, making Hermione jump.

"That's lovely, thanks." Hilary smiled, gesturing for her to remove her hand. There was a whirring, clacking noise from somewhere within the Device, then a small piece of paper dropped into a little brass tray by her elbow. "Ah yes, your personal challenge is to learn how to fly."

"Oh, jolly good!" Smith exclaimed. "Thank you as always, Hilary. We'll see you back here this time next week, shall we, Miss Granger? There's no strict timeframe for completing a trial, but we don't want that office getting dusty now, do we?"

And, just like that, her interview was over. Hermione was hustled out of the door and into the round room with its spinning walls. She'd been expecting the ugly corridor from before, but she was a little too overwhelmed to be thinking objectively.

Hermione reached out and pushed at the first door she reached. It opened at the lightest touch, spilling her out onto a dim corridor. Her ears popped as she looked up and saw the brightly lit lift at the far end, beckoning her back to the comparative normality of the Ministry of Magic.

Hilary waited until the slightly clammy looking applicant had staggered from the room before turning to the Interviewer and offering a cup of tea. "She seems nice," she murmured, retrieving the Rich Teas from the biscuit drawer.

"Very nice," Smith agreed. "Bit quiet seeming, for a war heroine. She noticed all the wards, though, even if she did miss the runes on the lintels."

Hilary arranged the biscuits on a plate then, in a sudden fit of generosity, added a couple of Pink Wafers. Interviewing was as tough on the Interviewer as it was on the applicant, and poor Smith would have been burning through magic like it was Butterbeer since the girl had arrived.

They sat in companionable silence, broken only by the occasional slurp of tea. Hilary was just about to reach for the pot for a refill when a thought occurred to her. "Don't they teach flying at Hogwarts?"

Smith shrugged. "There'll be a story there somewhere." He reached for the last biscuit and dunked it absently in his tea. "There always is."

to be continued...