Part 6/6

This is my story, so I'm going to pass over the dreariness of going back upstairs with a shredded heart and meeting with Professors Dumbledore and Flitwick, discussing the position as if I actually had any intention of taking it. I had to promise to think it over, of course. I had given the Headmaster every impression that I was interested that morning, and I couldn't very well come back from a brief walk and just turn him down flat. So I said all the right things and thanked him and Professor Flitwick for their time, and then I walked to Hogsmeade and apparated home.

Home was fine, and Crookshanks was happy enough to see me, but the lone toothbrush hanging in my bathroom reminded me that I'd made a disaster of things with Peter. Now that I knew working at Hogwarts was out of the question, I suddenly remembered why office romances were a bad idea. Facing Peter at work the next day was going to be a nightmare, and the worst of it was that the rest of my staff would probably be on his side when they found out I had actually considered leaving them.

I'd managed to completely screw up two jobs in one twenty-four hour period. Surely that was some sort of a record.

I let Crookshanks out onto the balcony for his evening rendezvous and then sank onto the sofa, reaching for my wand to summon a wineglass and a bottle. I rarely use magic for things that I can do myself, but at that moment, getting up off the sofa required more effort than I felt capable of putting forth.

Two hours later, it really was beyond my capabilities, and when I awoke the next morning I was still on the sofa and still in my clothes, with nothing but a headache and an angry cat to show for it.

I dragged myself to work, somehow, and flew past Bryce and Joyce, who were already in the lab, with only the briefest of greetings. The fact that they didn't chase me into my office and find out what was wrong suggested that Peter had already told them at least that portion of the debacle in which he was personally involved.

My theory was confirmed when Amy came cringing into my doorway. "Uh, Hermione? Peter asked me to tell you that he would be doing some work down in Law Enforcement today – making some repairs to the network, I think."

"Fine." I waved my hand at her dismissively. I doubted the network needed any repairs, but hearing that he had the good sense to stay out of my sight left me feeling slightly more charitable toward Peter.

"How did your interview go yesterday?" Amy asked quietly. My annoyance with Peter flared anew – did he have to tell them everything? – but I could understand why she wanted to know. We were a tight group, and any one of us leaving would matter to all. But how to answer her question?

"The interview itself went well," I said. "But I think I'll be staying here. I just wanted to have all the facts before I made my decision."

She smiled at me, and I felt that I would be forgiven my treachery by at least ¾ of my little staff. Of course the unpleasantness with the fourth member was considerable, but maybe after a little time apart, we could at least manage to be civil. It was something to hope for, anyway.

Amy left me then, and I turned on my computer and automatically checked my mail.

Six messages, five of which were from Arthur, and none of which were from P.M. I couldn't remember the last time I had checked my e-mail in the morning and not found a message from P.M. waiting, and suddenly I felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me. It was all I could do not to put my head down on my desk and cry. I had been so focussed on our disastrous real-life meeting that I had completely forgotten how much our e-mail correspondence meant to me, and now it seemed that I had lost that too. I had somehow managed to make a disaster of virtually every aspect of my life. All I needed now was a huge row with Harry and Ron to make things absolutely perfect.

I spent at least an hour staring at that computer, checking my e-mail repeatedly, and still nothing arrived from P.M. I was getting increasingly angry – how could he treat me like that and then retreat into silence? How dare he, after all that we had shared in the last four months?

Finally, I decided that I would be the one to break the silence. It didn't sit entirely well, but if he didn't respond – and I fully expected that he wouldn't – I would at least have the satisfaction of having had the last word. It was something, anyway.

_______________________________________________________

To: pm@ministry.gov.uk

From: sparky@ministry.gov.uk

Date: April 10, 2004

Subject: Job Decision

I promised to tell you what I decided about the job, so here I am, keeping my promise. I went to the interview excited, as you know, about returning to a place where I had once been very happy, but I was also pleased because the trip would give me the opportunity to see a friend while I was there. Unfortunately, when I went to see him, it was clear that he didn't consider me in that light at all.

It is a particular shame since the job suited in all other respects, but I am now tending away from sentimentality and have decided to decline the offer and remain where I am.

_______________________________________________________

To my very great surprise, I received a response almost immediately.

_______________________________________________________

To: sparky@ministry.gov.uk

From: pm@ministry.gov.uk

Date: April 10, 2004

Subject: RE: Job Decision

I am sure you have reached the proper decision, all things considered. I would suggest, however, that you might give your friend the benefit of the doubt. It is quite possible that he was so surprised by your sudden appearance that he managed to give a different impression than he might have, under other circumstances. I submit this for your consideration, anyway.

_______________________________________________________


To: pm@ministry.gov.uk

From: sparky@ministry.gov.uk

Date: April 10, 2004

Subject: RE: RE: Job Decision

Do you think that he might, with a little more warning, give an altogether different impression? I am willing to consider that possibility, despite the fact that he made it look as though I was decidedly unwelcome.

_______________________________________________________

To: sparky@ministry.gov.uk

From: pm@ministry.gov.uk

Date: April 10, 2004

Subject: RE: RE: RE: Job Decision

I doubt very much that you were unwelcome. Some people handle surprises well, while others behave like boorish idiots. I suspect your friend is in the latter group and would be grateful for your forgiveness in this unfortunate matter.

Give the situation some thought. Perhaps it would help if you got away from the office for a bit. I know when I want to clear my head, I often go to a little pub near the place where I work. I can be found there at lunchtime on most Saturdays, enjoying the change of scene.

Again, this is just something you might consider. I should hate to think that this friend influenced you away from a position you otherwise would have enjoyed.

_______________________________________________________

I went to hit "reply" and then thought the better of it. Yes, I usually like to have the last word – that's what got me into this mess to begin with – but occasionally, silence gives one the upper hand. At that moment, I rather liked the idea of him waiting at the Three Broomsticks, unsure of whether I would actually come. His third-party apologies had been nice, and I did feel an unexpected flare of hope, but I still thought a little revenge was in order.

So I would go, but I'd be a little late, making him sweat just a bit. Lunchtime at Hogwarts was at noon, so I'd go at 12:15. I thought that after the way he had treated me, fifteen minutes of uncertainty would do Severus Snape a world of good.

It was anticlimactic – and that's putting it politely – to arrive and find that he wasn't there at all. Was it possible that he had come and gone? There was really no way to be sure, other than asking Rosmerta, and that didn't really appeal. No, he'd said he would eat lunch there, and no one can eat lunch at the Three Broomsticks in 15 minutes. Perhaps he'd just been delayed. I took a seat in a corner with a view of the door, and I waited. Rosmerta came over and welcomed me back to Hogsmeade, and then she brought me a complimentary glass of wine.

"Your friend must have been delayed," she said sympathetically. "Are you sure I can't bring you something to eat?"

"No, thank you," I said. I had a hard knot in my throat that told me I was about to cry, and I decided I'd prefer not to do that in the middle of the Three Broomsticks. "I think I'm just going to go home."

She gave me a sympathetic look – I think she had an idea that this was more than just a casual lunch date – and left me to my empty table. I drained the last of my wine and decided to stop into the loo before apparating home.

I accomplished what needed to be done there, and then, in one of the more prosaic moments of my life, I walked straight out of the loo and into Severus Snape, literally bouncing off of him. I would have landed in a heap at his feet if he hadn't reached out and balanced me with strong hands.

"Once again, you manage to surprise me, Miss Granger," he said, and I think it was the first time in my life I saw the severe lines of Severus Snape's face soften into something approaching a smile.

"The feeling is quite mutual, Professor," I managed, even though at that point my surprise, not to mention embarrassment, was so profound that I hardly knew if I was speaking English. There should be a word stronger than 'blush' to describe what was happening to my face just then.

"I was just going to have some lunch." The dark eyes watched me carefully. "Would you care to join me?"

It's probably clear by now that I can be trusted to manage virtually anything except my own personal life, which should be kept as far out of my hands as possible. Instead of saying, "Yes, I would love to have lunch with you," or any number of other sensible things, I idiotically decided to exact revenge for his tardiness.

"I was actually just leaving."

Again, those small, tightly managed responses that only the very attentive would ever see. His jaw tightened slightly, and he gave a small nod. "Good day, then, Miss Granger."

He turned to go, and I was torn between collapsing in a sobbing heap in front of the loo and apparating directly home to magically remove my tongue. It's no wonder, really, that the only successful relationship of my life had been conducted via computer. The minute I let myself start talking, the explosions began and I spent the rest of the day putting out fires.

"Professor." Time to start swallowing some pride, Hermione.

"Yes?" He stopped and looked at me, his face unreadable.

"I'm sorry," I said. "That was petty of me."

It was the first open acknowledgement of this game we were both playing, and I was unsure of how he would respond. We had taken refuge in our anonymity, and now it was time to strip it away, to see if there was any chance that Hermione Granger and Severus Snape could be to each other what our e-mail counterparts had been. I held my breath.

"There was an accident this morning," he said softly. "One of my Slytherins was hurt at Quidditch practice. She'll be fine, of course, but I had to go to the infirmary, fill out the paperwork, notify the parents – all of that."

I smiled. "Is your lunch invitation still open, Professor?"

"Of course." He smiled slightly – just a little turning up of the corners of his mouth – but it left me feeling warmed through and practically giddy with relief. Unfortunately, when I get giddy, I have those same old problems with my mouth. Things just fall out without being filtered through my brain.

"You look good," I blurted, and then I blushed again and put my face in my hands.

I was relieved to hear a chuckle, and when I dared a peek at him he was still smiling. "Thank you, I think," he said. "I might be more flattered if you didn't sound so surprised."

"It's just…when I saw you last, at the end of the war…"

"I understand," he said, and I knew that he really did. "I'm glad to have that time behind me, as I know you are. How is your friend Potter, by the way?"

"He's doing well. He and Ron are both in the Department of Mysteries now – two of the Aurors Arthur reassigned. They still act like idiotic boys around me, but apparently they're good at what they do, whatever it is. I think Harry likes the fact that his work is top secret now – it can't ever make the papers."

He nodded and seemed about to say something more, and then he changed his mind when a middle-aged witch pushed past us on her way to the loo. "Let's sit down, shall we?"

We found a table and Rosmerta hurried over to take our order, knowing that neither of us would require a menu. She gave me a look of screaming curiosity, and I knew it took every bit of tact she possessed for her not to ask me point blank if Professor Snape was actually the "friend" I had been waiting for.

Once she was gone, we seemed to have lost the thread of our previous conversation, and for several moments we both devoted rather more attention than was actually necessary to sipping our water and arranging our silverware.

"So," he said finally. "Tell me about your job at the Ministry."

I did so, relieved to be handed a subject I could usually discuss without making an idiot of myself. I began with the formation of my department and ended with the recent computer project and the challenges of establishing the network and training witches and wizards to use the equipment. "Peter has handled the network, of course - you may have met him when he was working at Hogwarts. The rest of the staff and I have done the training and handled the thousand other details. The worst is over now though, and we've begun moving on to other projects. Only Peter is still working with the computers full-time."

"This Peter…out of curiosity…what's his last name?"

"Marsh."

"Ah." He looked away then, obviously embarrassed. "So he's the…uh…"

"He was," I said, emphasizing the second word.

He met my eyes again then. "What happened? Or shouldn't I ask?"

I smiled and shrugged slightly. "It just wasn't right," I said. "I think I'd known that all along, but when he heard I was considering the job at Hogwarts, we had a row and it all just ended there. I can't say I've been very sorry about it, except for the mess it's made of things at the office."

"Are you still considering the position at Hogwarts?" He seemed to hold his breath.

"It's looking more appealing every moment, actually."

He exhaled. "Albus is very hopeful that you'll accept."

"Albus is?" I almost laughed out loud but managed to restrain myself. I was allowed to laugh at him via e-mail, but I wasn't sure if that rule applied in person yet.

He seemed aware that I was teasing him, though, and cocked an eyebrow at me. "The entire staff would be pleased to see you back, of course."

"The staff." I did laugh then, at the sheer absurdity of it all. "Well thank you, Professor. That's nice to know."

"You are no longer my student…Hermione." He stumbled a bit over my name but then rallied and went on. "Inasmuch as we may be colleagues soon, you are welcome to call me Severus."

"Severus," I said, tasting it. "That may take some getting used to, but thank you."

"There is much about this…situation that may take some getting used to," he said, giving me that small smile again. I was in danger of becoming addicted to that smile. "My behaviour in the dungeon the other day…"

"You've already explained," I said softly. "I'm sorry for springing myself on you like that. I should have known better than to think that would be a welcome approach."

"No," he shook his head. "How could you have known?"

"You know how," I said. "The same way I know that you've hated broccoli since you were a child. The same way I know that you dislike cats and exclamation points and disapprove of Arthur's defence policies. I, uh…"

There was that silly blush again, but having come this far, I was determined to go on. "I know you," I said finally, "and I think you know me better than anyone else. You certainly know me better than Peter did, and we saw one another every day."

He nodded, seeming to acknowledge the truth of my statement. "When did you know it was me?"

"Not until you answered my message about the job interview. What you said just didn't make sense in the context of a Ministry employee, and suddenly all the pieces just fell into place."

"I should think you were horrified," he said wryly. "Your despised potions master…"

"I never despised you," I said. "I won't lie and say you were my favourite teacher, but any tendency I had to dislike you was more than overcome by your actions during the war. I admit that there was a period of…reconciliation…with the idea, but once I got through that I wrote to Professor Dumbledore immediately and made plans to come to Hogwarts."

"Reconciliation…that's a good way of putting it," he said wryly.

"I wasn't your favourite either, I take it."

He shrugged. "I think it would have been the same with anyone…particularly any of my former students. I had known all along that you would turn out to be one of my students, of course, given your apparent age, but I had avoided thinking along those lines as much as possible."

"Does that…bother you?" I asked, and this time it was my turn to hold my breath as I waited for his answer. Because of course, we were no longer talking about just an e-mail correspondence. It was more than that for me, and I hoped – oh, how I hoped! – he felt the same.

"Does it bother you?" he countered. "I'm a good bit older than you are…"

"It doesn't bother me at all," I said firmly – perhaps a little too firmly because he chuckled.

"Thank you, Hermione," he said dryly. "Your vehemence on that point is most reassuring."

I blushed again. "Does it strike you that this is much easier via e-mail?"

"It does," he said. "And yet I'm not sure we can go back to that now. I don't think it would be the same."

"No." I shook my head. "It wouldn't. It wouldn't…well, be enough, would it?"

"No." He smiled at me again, and this time it was a real smile that reached every part of his face, and I felt the awkwardness between us fall away. I almost collapsed with relief. We sat there like that, smiling at each other like two absolute fools, and then he reached for my hand and clasped it in his own.

With that simple gesture came a sense of completion – a sense that our two histories were not mutually exclusive but had instead intertwined. The conversation had brought about the gradual convergence of what had once seemed to be two very different realities. There was the one that we had shared as teacher and student, and the one that for four months had existed only on a computer screen. Everything I had learned about him during that time suddenly made perfect sense, now that it had been placed in the context of this flesh-and-blood man who held my hand in his.

"There's a Quidditch match this afternoon," he said finally. "Would you like to go with me?"

"I'd like that," I answered, giving his hand a slight squeeze. "Perhaps I'll have the chance to speak with Professor Dumbledore. I need to find out when he wants me to start my new job."

§ § § §

One Year Later

To: sparky@ministry.gov.uk

From: pm@ministry.gov.uk

Date: April 5, 2005

Subject: RE: How is your day?

I'm glad to hear that you're having a decent day. I, however, plan to tender my resignation at the first possible opportunity. Three exploding cauldrons this morning! (Sweet Merlin, I've just used an exclamation point. They are clearly driving me mad.) By "they" I of course mean the third-year Hufflepuffs, who wouldn't know dragon's blood from their own…well, I know you dislike it when I am crass, so I will refrain from completing that particular thought.

Then I had a run-in with Minerva over some points I took from one of her beloved Gryffindors this morning. It was one of the Collier twins – whichever one broke his leg at Quidditch practice yesterday. According to Minerva, I should have just overlooked the fact that the little sod was five minutes late to my class. It was a most unpleasant encounter. I swear, that woman is bound to have some flying monkeys hidden away somewhere.

And then I stopped back by our rooms and found Crookshanks nesting on my dressing gown. Refresh my memory…what, exactly, do you see in that cat? As much as I dislike having him around, we must be sure to keep him in nights. The thought of he and Mrs. Norris procreating is simply too hideous to bear.

So that is what my day has been like. I'm glad that yours has been somewhat better, if only because someone will need to support us once I've resigned.

_______________________________________________________

To: pm@ministry.gov.uk

From: sparky@ministry.gov.uk

Date: April 5, 2005

Subject: Ranting husbands

I am truly sorry to hear about the day's explosions. As you know, I am pleased to be out of the explosion business myself, but I did have several rather interesting botched hexes this morning in my fourth-year class. Three of your Slytherins were quite bald for the better part of an hour.

As for Dalton Collier…Severus, the boy broke his LEG! Yes, Poppy worked on him, but it's bound to be a little sore. I side with Minerva on this one. It sounds like a clear case of Gryffindor persecution to me.

And, as I think I've mentioned before, it is a physical impossibility for a cat to sleep on a dressing gown that has been properly hung up. It simply cannot be done. Your point about Crookshanks and Mrs. Norris is well taken, but I have every hope that his good taste would prevent him forming such a potentially disastrous liaison. His last affair was with a gorgeous Siamese in the flat next to mine. I rather doubt he would go from her to Mrs. Norris, no matter how cold the nights get here at Hogwarts.

Hold off on the resignation, please. It's not that I wouldn't want to support you, but I can't bear the thought of leaving you and Crookshanks alone in our rooms for hours on end. I have no desire to see my cat used for potions ingredients, no matter how often he sleeps on your dressing gown.

_______________________________________________________

To: sparky@ministry.gov.uk

From: pm@ministry.gov.uk

Date: April 5, 2005

Subject: Disloyal wives

Apparently the days when a man could turn to his wife for support and comfort are gone. You let my Slytherins stay bald for an hour, and you dare to accuse ME of persecution? I may not be a Charms instructor, but I happen to know that you could have reversed that particular hex when you were a fourth-year pupil here. If Mr. Collier is so much as one second late to my next class, the Gryffindors will need to find some way to get Potter back in school if they want to have any hope of winning the House Cup this year.

It is a physical impossibility for a cat which has been used for potions ingredients to sleep on a dressing gown. Thank you very much for providing me with such a tidy solution to the Crookshanks problem.

I will hold off on the resignation, if only because I'm learning how very little I can depend on my wife for support. It is a sign of my weakness, I'm sure, that I am looking forward to seeing her at dinner tonight all the same.

_______________________________________________________

Oooh! The man STILL made my blood boil! If he thought that one sweet line out of ten was going to let him off the hook…

I hit "reply."

_______________________________________________________

To: pm@ministry.gov.uk

From: sparky@ministry.gov.uk

Date: April 5, 2002

Subject: RE: Disloyal wives

Apparently we suffer from the same weakness, for I'm looking forward to seeing you too. Inexplicable, but there you have it.

Assuming I find Crookshanks in good health when we return to our rooms tonight, I promise to do what I can to make sure your day improves.

_______________________________________________________

OK, so I let him off too easily…but at least I didn't let him have the last word.

The End

A/N: Thanks to all who have taken the time to offer feedback on this one. It was quite fun to write, and I'm delighted that others seem to have had fun with it as well.

Special thanks, as always, to my friend and beta reader who was good enough to make a pass over this one for me and make some very helpful suggestions. I'm not telling you who she is because I'm not about to share her!