Written for the 2006 SSHG_Exchange.
Many thanks to Arsenic, Flora, and Meri for beta'ing!
To Touch The Spaces
To call the tiny Ministry office in which Severus Snape currently spent nine hours each day, six days each week a broom cupboard would have been an insult to broom cupboards everywhere. The room certainly could not have seen a broom (or any other cleaning implement, magical or not) in living memory. The floor and the walls were covered with grime and grease and mould, and would surely have looked even worse than they did if there had been anything stronger to illuminate the room than the single dusty Muggle bulb that dangled from an old fixture set in the centre of the cracked ceiling.
The scarred and splintered desk which he'd been given took up half the floor space. Its left drawer was stuck fast with something Severus could only hope was wood glue and its right drawer was home to a family of venom-spitting tarantulas. The centre drawer was missing entirely. Severus' chair sat unevenly upon the floor and seemed in greater danger each day of collapsing into a pile of kindling. Even the few office supplies he had seemed to have found their way into the room by following signs (visible only to office supplies, no doubt) directing them to The Office In Which Old, Nearly-Useless Office Supplies Go To Die.
One might think that it would have been a simple enough task for any halfway-competent wizard to make a room like this one at least slightly more habitable, but if one thought so, one would be a bloody fool. For a start, the room (like the majority of things which are suffused with magic) seemed to have a mind of its own; after a few weeks of working in that unwelcoming space, Severus considered himself lucky that the room did little more than tip over his tea cup once or twice a day and make the papers and files he was working with 'tidy themselves up' by disappearing at regular intervals.
But the second and arguably more important reason why Severus was unable to fix up the room, even a bit, was that he wasn't allowed the use of his wand. It wasn't as if his wand had been taken away from him on a permanent basis, and in fact, Severus wasn't the only person who had to surrender his wand when he showed up for work at the Ministry offices each morning. The administrative team in the Goblin Liaison Office, for example, were encouraged to leave their wands behind at the front desk as Goblins were notoriously suspicious of meeting with what they considered 'armed' witches and wizards. And it was a long-standing tradition that the custodial team all worked wandless as well (although since the custodial team was composed entirely of House-Elves and Squibs, neither of whom ever used wands in their daily tasks, this wasn't much of a surprise). In any case, the probably-not-terribly-coincidental upshot was that Severus seemed to be the only fully-qualified wizard employed by the Ministry who worked with neither volatile potions ingredients nor Dangerous Creatures and who wasn't allowed the use of a wand during working hours.
Severus was allowed to submit work orders asking for office repairs and cleaning, of course, and he had done so quite regularly at first, but there had only been one time in the past six years when there'd been a response to one of his requests, and in that instance, instead of replacing the old shelving as he'd asked them to do, the maintenance Elves had been called away on some kind of an emergency (the nature of which they neglected to tell him) when the job was half-finished. The old shelves had been taken down and binned, and the new shelves were never installed, leaving him with no shelving at all, and when he suggested facetiously that he could always bring in some lumber and build his own shelves, he was told with complete seriousness that 'the room wouldn't like it.' From that point on, it seemed more sensible for Severus to just make do with what he had.
The truth of the matter was, though, that if anybody had bothered to take the lift seven flights down below street level and visit Severus in his windowless, shelf-less, practically light-less, and occasionally airless office, and ask what he thought of having to spend each day in such abysmal surroundings, doing the sort of filing and hand-copying that could have been as easily performed by a Cornish Pixie (and not a particularly bright one, at that), the likelihood is that he would have merely shrugged and said at least it wasn't as bad as his last Ministry job.
That one - the one it had been strongly suggested he accept immediately after the end of the War - had required Severus to spend his days in an even smaller office and transcribe, by hand, the post- death pensieve records of all the witches and wizards who had lost their lives during both Voldemort eras. For four and a half years, Severus spent every working hour re-living the deaths of colleagues and relatives and friends and enemies - deaths for which he knew he'd been responsible, at least in some small measure.
At least once each fortnight, for those four and a half years, Severus would look up from his increasingly-disturbing work to find Potter standing in the doorway, watching him with a satisfied expression on his face.
Just once, Potter was accompanied by someone else: Hermione Granger, to be precise. Three days later, Severus was transferred to the Requisitions Department, where his job (still copying and filing by hand) was no less tedious, but was far less likely to give him nightmares.
After Severus' transfer to the new department, Potter never showed up at the door to his office again, and neither did anyone else for at least a year, unless you counted Alastor Moody. Mad- Eye had never officially come out of retirement, but he seemed to consider it his personal duty to keep his remaining eye on the only former Death Eater still at liberty in Britain.
Then Moody, too, disappeared.
Oh, there was nothing particularly suspicious about Moody's disappearance, at least not on the surface. However, when Severus overheard somebody say that the former Auror had been invited to the United States to serve in an advisory capacity to the oversight committee for international wizarding security issues, it took very little effort to discover that the person who'd arranged for Moody's fortuitously-timed invitation to America was Hermione Granger.
If anybody had asked (which of course nobody had), Severus might - if administered enough Veritaserum - have been forced to admit that his transfer out of Pensieve Record Recovery had been a relief, and that no longer seeing either Potter or Moody skulking about every time he happened to glance over his shoulder was very welcome, as well. However, he couldn't help but find himself more than a little disturbed by Granger's likely involvement in all these events, particularly since upon careful reflection, he realized that these weren't the only times when she had made it her business to subtly interfere (as subtly as Gryffindors seemed able to do) with his business.
Even the recent unfreezing of his Gringotts account, now that he'd finally had a chance to think about it, had taken place only after his request had been approved by somebody whose initials were HJG. Severus hadn't considered that the unseen initialer might have been anybody other than one of the officers of the bank, all of whom he believed to be Goblins, but of course Goblins didn't have three names, and the truth was, Severus didn't have any idea what line of work Granger had gone into after the war. He supposed it could have been banking, although he couldn't see why she would have had anything to do with his account.
Except...if she had gone into banking, there really wouldn't have been any reason for her to be spending as much time at the Ministry offices as she seemed to be spending these days. Over the past month, in fact, it seemed that no matter where he went, there she was, almost as if she were using a tracking spell to keep track of him.
Which...could be, of course. Just because Moody had been sent to the U.S., it didn't mean that somebody wasn't still keeping watch over him. What if Granger hadn't gone into banking, but instead had become an Auror or an Unspeakable? And what if he was her new assignment?
Severus frowned, then put the file he was working on to one side and pulled a fresh piece of parchment out of the little box he'd placed at the edge of the desk. He dipped his slightly-broken quill into the slightly dusty bottle of ink and - with the help of the department pensieve - started to jot down all the instances when Granger had been unexpectedly close over the past year.
The list, when he finally finished three hours later, was alarmingly long.
Most noticeable were the times when Granger had initiated some sort of physical contact, any one of which - if she were in fact working as an Unspeakable - would have afforded her with the perfect opportunity to place some sort of invisible charmed surveillance device on his person (something he would have to investigate thoroughly when he returned to his flat). Twice, she had even brushed up against him (although, to be fair, those incidents both took place when they were in a crowded lift, and Severus hadn't exactly made any effort to get out of her way when they had reached her floor).
However, there had also been seventeen occasions upon which she had touched his arm while speaking to him in the corridor, and there had even been one instance when she had actually touched his hair. At the time, he had naturally assumed the hair-touching incident had been nothing but an accident, for he'd never once in his life known anybody to willingly touch his hair. Even his late mother had generally restricted herself to patting him on the shoulder when she was in one of her rare affectionate moods.
Next came the sub-sections which Severus placed under the blanket heading: Cafeteria-Related Issues.
At Hogwarts, Severus hadn't been given a choice regarding his dining arrangements; his contract clearly stated that during term time, barring illness or injury (or an unexpected summons from the Dark Lord, in his case), no more than three (non-consecutive) meals per week could be taken somewhere other than the head table. Once he was no longer a Hogwarts professor, Severus no longer had to abide by any such regulations, and dining became a solitary activity. This was as he wished it to be, of course.
However, something odd had been happening concerning the meals he took at the Ministry. If Severus' calculations were correct, he had eaten lunch in the company of Hermione Granger a minimum of four times each month for the past year, and he couldn't for the life of him fathom how such a thing had come to pass.
The first time, of course, made a certain amount of sense. He had been reading the only known copy of M. Baldrick's Moste Fiendishly Cunninge Potions, and she, led by her insatiable curiosity, no doubt, sat directly across the table from him and asked what even he had to admit was a pertinent and insightful question about the use of comfrey in medicinal salves.
The second time...ah, well, perhaps that only made any real sense in retrospect, now that he thought about it. At the time, it had seemed to be nothing more than a bit of unexpected, but typically Gryffindorish sympathy regarding the freezing of his assets (...and he still hadn't forgiven the bloody Prophet for operating on the assumption that that constituted front page news), but it was odd how she seemed to know that he wouldn't welcome any mawkish displays of pity. Fancy her sitting down at his table and setting a shot of Ogden's Old in front of him.
"I thought you might need this," she'd said.
"Thank you," he'd replied, as if he were in the habit of bothering with inane social niceties like thanking people.
"They're bastards," she'd said, leaning across the table and placing her hand on his forearm.
"Who?" he'd muttered, just before swallowing the shot of Firewhisky.
"All of them," she'd answered.
And after that, well, he couldn't remember what other ploys she had used to ingratiate herself with him (seeking Merlin only knew what information for her damned Ministry department), but whatever they were, they'd been damned effective. When he looked back, Severus could recollect (with some horror) that on more than one occasion he seemed to have...waved her over with no prompting at all.
Severus looked at the list again, frowning at the number of Granger-related items still left under the section labeled 'Miscellany,' but which, in retrospect, might be better labeled 'Flattery and Bribery.'
For instance, she had admired the cut of his new robes. One time might have been believable since the robes in question were rather nice, but Granger had made a point of telling him she liked the way he was dressed seven times in the past three months alone.
She'd also complimented him on what she said was a lovely haircut. Of course, he never informed her that he hadn't actually had his hair cut at that time (compliments regarding his hair having always been extremely thin on the ground) . In fact, he might actually have responded with some compliment or other about her hair, for some strange reason. Granger hadn't actually changed anything about that unruly mane since her schooldays, but...no, there was absolutely nothing about it that put him in mind of a wild jungle cat, and even if there had been, nothing about that image could possibly be appealing.
No sooner had that thought crossed Severus' mind than he glanced back down at the parchment, and noticed that a sketch of some kind of odd hybrid catwoman had appeared at the very top of the page. The woman was...good Lord, she wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing, was she? She must be quite cold, judging by how erect and perky her...
Severus licked his suddenly dry lips and placed the small bag of owl treats he kept in his office over that infernally distracting image, so he could continue to review his list.
At the bottom of the page were notes on a dozen or so small items which Granger had given him over the past year, but which she had taken pains to assure him weren't gifts. Just last week, for example, she'd given Severus a photograph that she'd casually informed him was an extra print of Colin Creevey's portrait of the Head Table at Hogwarts from the afternoon before Severus had left the castle forever. He'd thought it odd at the time that Miss Know-It-All hadn't known that one couldn't make copies of wizarding photographs, but he wasn't about to tell her that and risk losing the only photo he might ever be able to possess of Albus. Now, though, it seemed as if he'd allowed sentiment to get in the way of his natural suspicion, for there most certainly must have been some hidden motive behind her non-gift. When he got home, he would have to check the photograph for evidence of a tracking spell.
Which brought him up to date, except for the incident this morning, when a collection of flowering plants were delivered to his home, along with a note from Granger, asking if he was free to meet with her that evening.
Naturally, he had assumed that she had been calling on his expertise in Herbology - perhaps she wanted him to identify the plants for some project she was working on - and that had been as far as his thoughts had taken him. The fact that he'd then changed into a more attractive robe than the one he'd originally decided to wear to work was purely coincidental. But after giving it more thought, he realized what a fool he'd been. Granger's marks in Herbology had bested his own, and in any case, he was twenty years out of the schoolroom. Besides, if she really needed some advice about Herbology, Severus was certain Granger was still in contact with any number of experts in the field, most of whom wouldn't give Severus the time of day.
Severus sat back in his chair and squeezed the bridge of his nose. No, there was nothing casual about Granger's note. In fact, in light of all this damning evidence, Severus was finding it hard to believe that her invitation was a prelude to anything less than a full-scale Ministry interrogation, albeit one which, if he was lucky, would be conducted without the bright lights and Veritaserum. That he hadn't actually done anything - this time - was neither here nor there.
What a complete and utter arse he'd been, Severus thought, smacking his hand down on the desktop. He'd actually believed that she might...good lord, he'd confessed to her that he enjoyed the Muggle cinema! God only knew how an Unspeakable might twist that piece of information! Well, there would be no more of that. If the Aurors or the Unspeakables or whatever damned department Granger was working for wanted to find something to pin on him, they could damned well do it without his help.
There'd be no more Mr Nice Guy for Severus Snape.
All in all, Severus thought, as he sat down alone that evening to a supper of beans on toast, it had been a fairly successful day, if one defined success as not slipping any farther down the hole one found oneself in. Five out of the ten pre-spelled duplicating-quills he'd used actually worked, which meant that for once it only took twice as long as it should have done to accomplish his daily assignments. Plus, the tea lady actually made an appearance midway through the afternoon, which made a nice change. Of course, Mrs. Periwinkle had run out of tea by the time she knocked on his door, but she'd still had a packet of Chocolate Hobnobs, so that was all right.
And as for Granger, well, Severus was going to have to ignore the look on her face when she sat down at his table at lunchtime and he pointedly rose and left the cafeteria, just as he had ignored the messages she'd sent down to his office all afternoon. He'd made his decision and he was sticking to it. He reminded himself of this decision later in the evening as he stretched out alone on the threadbare couch and read a magazine he'd already read twice before, then later, as he sat alone and drank his evening cup of cocoa, then finally, as he retired - alone, of course - to his bed.
He was still reminding himself of his decision two hours later when the banging started on his front door.
For a moment, he considered just casting a silencing charm and going to sleep. After all, it wasn't as if his flat was in Muggle London. It was a reasonable assumption that all his neighbours would, similarly, be able to cast silencing charms of their own. On the other hand, everybody would know that it was the door to his flat the person or persons unknown had been banging on, and the last thing he needed - especially now that he seemed to be persona non grata again with the Ministry - was to be at the center of a scandal. With this in mind, Severus threw back the covers, put his dressing gown on over his nightshirt, and went to give his unwelcome late-night caller a piece of his mind.
How the probable identity of the caller could possibly have failed to occur to Severus was beyond his comprehension, for when he threw the door open and found Granger there, clutching a half- empty bottle of Firewhisky and glaring at him through angry red eyes (a sight that had been familiar enough in Severus' past for part of him to wonder how long it would be until somebody cast the Cruciatus curse), he just stood there with his hands at his side and said, "Oh, of course. I should have known it would be you."
Granger's eyes widened. "You should have known it would be me? Is that all you have to say, you totally moronic...moron? You should have known it would be me."
If only he could still take points.
"Well, yes. I mean...."
Before he could complete his sentence, Granger had pushed past him into his flat and had planted herself at his kitchen table. "I see you kept the flowers, though," she said snidely, tapping his vase with her bottle.
Severus thought this might not be the best time to mention that he was planning on running a series of tests on them to see if they contained traces of psycho-tropic drugs.
"Right," Granger said, then took a drink straight from the bottle. "You didn't hate the flowers."
How was it that Granger could have had so much to drink and still be able to converse like a halfway rational person, while he - stone-cold sober - was entirely mute?
"So tell me what did you hate? The photo? The magically enhanced tea cosy? The socks? That's it, right? You hated the socks?"
"I didn't hate the damned socks," Severus said, finding his voice at last.
"Then why didn't you show up for our date?"
"Our...." Once again, Severus had lost all ability to speak. All he could do was wave his hands helplessly before him, hoping that sooner or later, Granger would fill in the missing words.
"It was...that is to say, the plans we had to meet this evening were...a date?"
Granger just stared at him for a moment, then stared at the bottle in her hand. It didn't take a Legilimens to recognize the look of somebody wondering exactly how drunk they were.
"Of course it was a date," she said.
"Not...part of an Auror investigation?"
Granger snorted, then started to laugh. "How the hell would I know what kind of investigations the Aurors have scheduled? Unless...have they started investigating people who stand up other people for dinner? Because if so, I'm giving testimony."
Severus frowned. "You're not an Auror, and...you're not an Unspeakable?"
"If I were," Granger said, sounding far more sober than she had a moment ago, "I wouldn't be able to speak about it, but no...I'm not an Unspeakable. In fact, I'm not an anything."
"I don't have a job," she said. "Didn't you know that?"
How was it possible that Hermione Granger was unemployed? The question must have been written all over his face because the look she gave him in return seemed to be daring him to say anything.
"It's not that I haven't had offers," Granger said, sounding incredibly defensive. "It's just that they all...oh, for God's sake, a monkey could do any of them!"
"Are monkeys more or less employable than Cornish Pixies?" Severus asked, but Hermione just looked confused, as he supposed he might have done if he'd been drinking Ogden's all night and then found himself in a conversation with...himself. "So...if you're not working, why have you been spending so much time at the Ministry?"
Granger's response to this question was a flush that coloured her face, neck, and arms, leading Severus to wonder just how far the flush went.
"My friends are there," she said finally. "Harry, Ron, Ginny, Oliver, Ernie...just about all my friends, Luna Lovegood aside, are working for the Ministry now. I haven't had much of anything else to do except pester them to make the sorts of changes I'd make if I had their jobs, and besides, Ginny's been letting me take her identification card to get into the Ministry library."
"But the photograph...."
"She charms it."
"And the reason you've been spending so much time with me?"
Not since Severus had been a child had anybody looked at him in such a way as left no doubt about the level of idiocy to which he'd been assigned.
"Because for some idiotic reason, I had assumed you and I had become friends," she said, exasperation plain in her voice. "Except I, fool that I am, wanted to turn our friendship into something more, so...I read a book."
Severus frowned. "A book?"
"A book. A perfectly ordinary Muggle dating guide," she said. "Surely you suspected...at least a little? I was following the damned instructions for slow seduction slavishly: compliments, talking about things you were interested in, gifts, shared meals, flowers. Tonight, after dinner, I was going to take you to the cinema, and then...well, just in case things went as I'd hoped, I was planning on wearing a rather daring black negligee."
"Are...." Severus cleared his suddenly dry throat and started again. "I don't suppose you're wearing that particular item now?"
"No such luck," she said with a snort. "Just a pair of blue cotton underpants and a sports bra."
Severus wasn't quite certain what a sports bra was, but the thought of seeing Granger in any sort of undergarments was exceptionally arousing.
How odd, he thought, watching Granger focus her inebriated attention on peeling the label off the Firewhisky bottle: she thought of them as friends. She wanted them to be something more. And all the while, the very best scenario he had been able to imagine was one in which he would be able to provide her with information about plants.
A date. She'd wanted the two of them to have a date. Was it really so hard for him to believe that somebody might have wanted to spend time with him with no particular ulterior motive (beyond the two of them having it off every now and again, he supposed)? He wasn't, as the saying went, much of a catch, but then again, he thought, looking at the top of Granger's bushy head, at least he wasn't unemployed.
"Right," she said, pushing herself up from the table. "I think I've made a big enough fool of myself for one night. Feel free to Obliviate yourself, and I'll do the same...assuming I'm ever sober enough to cast another spell."
"Just a moment...Hermione."
Swaying slightly, she narrowed her eyes and pinned Severus with her gaze. Perhaps he'd been too precipitate in changing his usual form of address.
"What is it?" she asked sharply.
"I was only wondering...would you, by any chance, care to spend the night here?" Oh, God...she was still staring at him. "Just to make sure you don't splinch of course."
Granger shook her head in disbelief, then walked across the room and immediately settled herself on the couch.
"I thought you'd never ask," she said, then flashed a rather ridiculous, if slightly charming grin. Within moments, she had fallen asleep.
Just his luck, Severus thought as he summoned a blanket from his room, that the first time a woman ever stayed over, she'd end the evening passed out on his couch. He wondered, as he tucked the blanket over her shoulders, whether there had been any mention of breakfast dates in that book of hers? He'd make sure to ask her in the morning.