(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
(Highlight to View) Prompt: Prompt yourself for fic!
Note: My beta did a fantastic job as per usual, turning this around in no time at all. Any remaining mistakes are my own.
Summary: Hermione is plagued by love letters. Unfortunately, they're not for her. Even more unfortunate, Severus claims he has no idea who they are from or what's in them.
I have gone to Bangor to see a man about a bug (don't ask). If that infernal cat sleeps on my best robes again I will not be held responsible for my actions.
P.S. We need milk. The feline abomination drank it all.
Hermione stared at the note she had picked up from the floor. The only place it could have come from was her desk, but it certainly wasn't meant for her.
'Dearest', indeed; Hermione would give rather a lot of money to find out who Severus Snape addressed by terms of endearment. The handwriting was unmistakable; few people wrote as if they hoped to impale the page with their consonants.
Snape's office was next to hers; without making a conscious decision she drifted across the hall, still clutching the note.
The room was empty, so she could look at his disgusting specimen jars to her heart's content. It was obvious why he had brought them from Hogwarts; Minerva would have Vanished the abominations as soon as he had stepped through the Floo to the Ministry.
Severus was as bad at letting go of material things that had outgrown their usefulness (if they ever possessed any) as he was at letting the past stay in the past.
Or maybe that was unfair. He didn't exactly tell her stories from his love-life over a quiet pint (Hermione's move from the MLE to the Department of Mysteries had drastically cut her sources of gossip; nowadays she had to rely on Harry and Ron), but evidently Snape had acquired an actual relationship at some point.
Hermione tried to imagine the object of his affections and failed. She refused to believe he would fall for a carbon copy of Lily Evans, but as Severus persistently deployed the same surly attitude towards anyone — male or female, fair or dark, young or old — she had no clues to work from.
At least there was hope for her; Hermione may be single at thirty-five, but if Severus Snape had reached a level of domestic felicity where he could complain about cat hair and buying milk she would surely be able to find a wizard who could live with her book habit.
It just seemed impossible: Severus, of all people, having a secret girlfriend (or boyfriend).
Hermione burst at laughing at the thought of his face if she ever dared to use either word, just as he walked through the door. Or stalked; old habits died hard.
"I'm glad to see my interdepartmental memos afford you such amusement."
"One has to take one's amusement where one can find it around here." Hermione congratulated herself on cobbling together a somewhat coherent response, before remembering what had brought her there. "I think this ended up in my office by mistake."
"Hm." Severus was more interested in the contents of his in-tray. She left the note on the other side of his desk and fled while the opportunity presented itself.
"Granger!" he bellowed. "Where the fuck is that memo on printing fees? We're five Galleons over budget!"
That stopped Hermione in her tracks. After more than a century of immersion into the mysteries of magic nothing much excited Perpetua Cartwright, the Department Head.
Other than budget overruns, that is.
"I'll get it!" she hollered back, speculation about what Snape got up to after hours temporarily suspended.
The next one wasn't as easily ignored.
I write this with great sadness. We are sealing the gates. We must, because They are getting so close They can be seen in daylight now, but you are still out there and I cannot bear the thought of you facing them alone. Do not return to London. Head to Hogwarts; I will slip out before the gates are sealed.
As long as I still have a spark of magic left, as long as my legs can still walk I promise I will meet you there. Be careful, my darling, and do not fear the dark.
I love you. Always.
Hermione dropped her spoon into her bowl of cornflakes, mouth hanging open.
It was the same, familiar handwriting, but this time if was written on a torn page from a Muggle notebook, desperation etched into every loop. Who were 'They'? She grabbed her wand in a firm hold, edging her back towards the wall while preparing to activate her Ministry-issued emergency Portkey, but she still couldn't resist the temptation to let her finger caress that last paragraph.
She stumbled out on the other side, temporarily blinded by the bright sunlight. Good — They didn't seem to like sunlight. Or was that zombies?
"Granger." Severus gingerly set aside something that must be a spade, however unlikely it seemed in his hands, and shook his sleeve to reveal the edge of his wand. "Please don't tell me the Dark Lord has been resurrected a third time."
"You tell me! Who the fuck are 'They'?" She thrust the letter into his hands. While she was scanning the surrounding back gardens for nefarious activity Severus read, his eyebrows travelled hitherto undiscovered heights.
"You will need to ask your correspondent."
"I am!" Hermione's breathing had calmed somewhat when she established there was no immediate danger, but she was still on high alert. A cat in the neighbouring garden had almost made her open fire.
"While a superficial similarity to my handwriting may indeed suggest I am the writer of this missive, I can assure you that is not the case."
Hermione forgot 'Them' in momentary exasperation. "It's your handwriting, signed with your name — have you ever met another Severus? Clearly, the letter has gone to the wrong recipient, but it seems fairly clear to me who wrote it!"
"Clearly. It's equally clear to me that I did not write this."
The look Hermione gave him must have conveyed that this fell somewhat short of what was required, as he relented sufficiently to add:
"I give you my word."
Hermione may not even have known that he had a partner, nor many other things Severus considered private (his definition of 'privacy' being rather more generous than most people's), but she knew he would not lie about that unless Voldemort truly had risen from the grave again.
She relaxed her stance somewhat and started to use her brains instead of her reflexes. "Then who did?"
"That, I cannot presume to tell you." It wasn't quite a 'no'; one had to pay attention to those things around Severus.
"But you have an idea?"
"I would assume it is intended to be a joke." His funereal tones made clear he would not agree with the definition. "I imagine your friends may be able to clarify the matter if appealed to."
Hermione sighed; not this, again.
"My 'friends' are in their thirties and are busy raising their kids and trying to stay on top of the housework while not falling asleep in work meetings. They are no longer the juvenile delinquents you imagine them to be, if they ever were. We grew up during a war, just like you did — do you really think any of us would find that sort of message funny?"
She didn't bother looking at him again. She tucked the letter into her pocket before Apparating back home — it was worth saving, if only to see what Severus' handwriting looked like spelling out the word 'love'.
Spinning through the ether, she realised it must be an old letter, written to Lily — perhaps part of a game, even, or from before the Mudblood incident. Maybe Severus' partner had found it and thought it would be funny to send to Hermione.
Equally likely, maybe the universe had decided Hermione's life wasn't sufficiently crappy as it was, and decided to mess with her some more.
Either way, she was damned if she was going to spend more time thinking about it if Snape wasn't concerned; she had enough to worry about.
Can you bring your grimoire this afternoon? Mine is temporarily indisposed.
This was definitely a normal letter from Severus. She had greeted missives from him with misgivings lately (two weeks later, she was still looking over her shoulder for Them), but today she could hunt down her Book of Honorius with satisfaction.
It lasted for about two hours, until Severus Snape denied all knowledge about the letter, pointing to the battered book on the shelf behind him. "Since when do I call you 'Miss Granger'?"
"Whenever you make a particular effort to irritate me — so that would be every three days or so."
Hermione almost didn't have it in her to be annoyed anymore. An idea struck her.
"Are you feeling well?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" Of course Mr No Personal Questions couldn't answer a simple 'yes' or 'no'.
"I was wondering if you might be ill. Maybe you don't remember writing the letter."
The ensuing sulk was of momentous proportions; Severus was never at his best when his abilities were questioned, especially not when the after-effects of the war could be the cause.
Hermione put up with it up to a point — Merlin knew Severus wasn't the type to acknowledge his feelings unless they jumped up and hit him in the face, and she couldn't deny that she felt privileged to be allowed to see past his buttoned-up exterior. That said, she drew the line at wandless magic dimming the lights in the room until she barely could see to read.
"Snape, if you could start acting like an adult right about now I'd be grateful. I was concerned about you, that's all."
No response, but then she hadn't been expecting any.
"Suit yourself. I'll be in my office."
Another note was waiting for her there:
Can you bring Potter over tonight? I have discovered something he should read, no matter how much it pains me to voluntarily surround myself with dunderheads. My only consolation is that you also will be present (or I may strangle him by accident). Do not worry, I will not disquiet Potter with a show of affection; it will be enough to know you are under the same roof.
Severus barely ever addressed her as Hermione, she realised in a daze; it was mostly 'Granger'. No doubt he would claim this missive was from another 'S', with exactly the same handwriting.
She sighed. He was obviously playing silly buggers, in a transparent attempt to get his own back.
Well, two could play that game.
One flick of her wand and the note went on fire; the flames reached the corner with her name last. Hermione retaliated for the nonsensical pang she felt by grinding the ashes into the carpets with her heel.
To her shame, Hermione used a cleaning charm on the carpet before going home that night.
It would have been nice to be devil-may-care just for once, but every time she looked at the floor she winced slightly.
There was no use pretending: Hermione Granger was the sort of person who could not bear the thought of giving the cleaners extra work, and she was most decidedly never destined to be recipient of something that could only be described as a love letter from Severus Snape (of course, he would find a way to insult Harry even in a fake letter).
She Apparated home and went straight to bed. There didn't seem to be much point to anything, so what would she stay awake for?
You may regard this letter as my one and only attempt at emulating the Gryffindor spirit. As such, I beseech you to return the letter and never speak about it again should it fail to achieve the desired outcome.
I have sufficient faith in your generosity of spirit not to fail me in this.
Having dispensed with the preliminaries, it only remains for me to —
The familiar spiky writing got more and more drawn out, as if the author wasn't quite ready to get down to business. The same thing could not be said about Hermione — she had not drawn a breath since the first sentence, and belatedly realised this might explain part of her lightheadedness.
— to beg you not to move to the other side of the world. I just realised I would miss you terribly. As you may realise, this knowledge shook me deeply. The shock was sufficient to dislodge several deeply held beliefs, such as my disinterest in pursuing a romantic partner. It turns out it only applies to people other than you.
Faced with the undeniable reality of no longer being even within Floo distance, my natural inclination to refrain from ever acknowledging this in words has crumbled. I would even consider moving to the United States of America to pursue a closer relationship with you, a concession that ought to convince you how deadly in earnest I am.
Please don't leave me behind: I don't think I can bear the prospect of a country full of dunderheads without your company. However unlikely it may seem, I love you to distraction and would happily spend the rest of my life proving it to you.
Should you be able to reconcile yourself to the prospect, please put me out of my misery as soon as possible.
Yours, as always
Such a letter! For being a miserable bastard he certainly could write well; Hermione almost had to fan herself. Somewhere in this world, there were women who received love letters like this from their chosen objects of affection as if it were a matter of course. Not Hermione, of course; she had Severus Snape, who would do anything to prove he could be the pettiest person on the planet.
If anyone could write a sarcastic love letter, that would be him.
Well, fuck him and the horse he rode in on; she was done with this. Any future letters would be Incendio'd on sight.
"We have a case?"
Hermione was elbow-deep in index cards, which the Ministry had embraced as recently as the Nineties as the very latest word in archiving. As usual, they had got it wrong even before someone had decided to add insult to injury and go for the cheaper, easily combustible version.
Hermione was so fed up with the task of trying to extract any information about Mermaid sightings, she didn't even mind Snape's big nose and swishing robes announce his approach.
"Yes, we have a case," he announced with the same excitement one imagined he would greet a Flobberworm. "As you would have known, had you read any of the half dozen letters I dispatched to you."
Hermione just glared at him; he knew very well what he needed to do to get her to read his letters again. On her way to work this morning she had heard the birds singing amongst some lovely foliage, so she was quite sure Hell hadn't quite frozen over yet and no apology was about to be offered today either.
Wisely, Snape refrained from reopening the same debate again. "In Dublin, as it happens, so we need to organise a Portkey. It concerns cats, so it is likely to meet with your approval."
This was the initial reason Hermione and Snape had been assigned as partners ('team' wasn't quite appropriate, as there were only two of them). The average age at the Department of Mysteries was 134, and most of its inhabitants seemed reluctant to ever venture outside it.
Hermione had had no qualms reimagining her future when she had realised that earnest legal reform by day and Ronald Weasley by night was not all it had been cracked up to be. She had drawn the line at spending her career at a desk, however.
Once she realised this ambition came with added Snape she had been quite intrigued, a reaction he most definitely had not shared. To her surprise, Snape's unwillingness to spend the rest of his working life in the bowels of the Ministry had been sufficient to make him put up with her. The rest was history, or however one wished to term the delicate balance between cutting remarks and earnest debate they had built between them.
The letter situation was bad, admittedly, but given Hermione's history with Snape it wasn't quite as bad as what had gone before.
As long as he never, ever figured out that she wouldn't be entirely opposed to being on the receiving end of whatever missives he sent to his actual partner outside of work, they'd get through it. At least Severus was doing his part by never alluding to the fact that he addressed someone as 'Dearest' in his spare time.
"Dublin," Hermione replied when no other alternative suggested itself. "I might look up Seamus!"
"We're supposed to be incognito," Mr Kill-Joy replied.
"There's this really nifty potion called Polyjuice, have you heard about it?"
Snape's glare could have flattened small buildings.
The other visitors to the Portkey Office didn't pay much attention to the furious whispering.
It was just as well they were in disguise because Severus still attracted press attention as middens drew in flies.
Hermione's habit to use the opportunity to raise awareness about house-elves (just because she no longer worked for the MLE didn't mean she had abandoned their plight) did wonders to drive off journalists, but curiously Severus was reluctant to keep inflatable 'House-elves Have RIGHTS!' banners on his person.
"It's preposterous!" He hissed the word like he had been born to it — Hermione wondered if he tailor-made his vocabulary to the frequency of sibilants.
"No one will even recognise us! Assuming your handiwork had been brewed properly, of course."
Severus liked aspersions being cast on his special potions as much as Harry enjoyed being snuck up upon from behind by people dressed in black robes. "I will not even dignify that with an answer."
"You just did," Hermione pointed out. It was a wonder she didn't wither and die from the look he levelled at her.
"So there's no problem, then?" she continued.
"No one will believe we are a couple." It should be impossible to hiss that sentence, but Severus managed.
"If we keep arguing they'll find it all too easy, believe me."
Hermione looked ahead — the small queue had not moved at all since they had arrived.
The spotty teenager at the top was rooting through his backpack, flinging items on the floor around him. "I swear to God, Ma —"
"Francis!" His harassed mother glanced around the room, but as expected she paid absolutely no attention to the couple at the back when they obligingly looked away from Francis' pile of socks.
They were a blander version of their normal selves; Hermione's hair was flat but not sleek, and Severus' nose was an unremarkable potato-shape.
Hermione knew very well what the problem was. Her wand was creaking alarmingly with the effort of keeping her temper in check.
"I take it this yet again comes back to the fact that I was your student twenty years ago. More time has in fact passed since then than my age the last time you were my teacher, so even by Minerva's standards you I cannot see what the objection is. Especially as we are in fact only pretending. Surely you possess a modicum of acting ability, given your past?"
She was grateful no one could hear their conversation — that would have been a fairly obvious giveaway.
"The spectacle of a young woman with a significantly older man will invite comments and speculation, which is the opposite of our objective." He pressed his lips together in a narrow ribbon of disapproval.
Hermione sighed. "You don't get out much, do you? The world is full of men older than you shacked up with young beautiful women. Your alias wasn't quite able to stretch to a trophy wife, so he had to settle with me."
"That may be the custom among Muggles —"
"Don't kid yourself — you clearly haven't spent much time on the dating circuit lately." Of course he hadn't, the smug prick, not with his 'dearest' partner at home. "It's overrun by wizards my age looking for a witch between seventeen and twenty-five — 'no old hags need apply'."
Severus' face was a study in mingled disgust and fascination. "Do you actually arrange encounters with these dunderheads?"
"If by that you're asking if I actually meet up with them, no. The wizards who fall on my lot are the ones your age, plus a few decades. A witch should count herself lucky if a wizard deems her worthy of her interest, didn't you know?"
Misogyny was just as present in the wizarding world as the Muggle, which just went to show that all the guff about patriarchy only being natural as men were physically stronger was a lot of bollocks.
Severus was appalled. It was easy to tell from his expression; he looked exactly the same when confronted with grammatical errors or poorly brewed potions. "But you are Hermione Granger."
Hermione shrugged. It stung to expand on her failures on the relationship front, especially to him. Especially as Severus had no similar difficulties himself. On the bright side, at least his love interest wasn't a teenager.
"In my experience, the war thing only makes things difficult. Plus you risk ending up in the Daily Prophet, which in my experience only attracts the weirdos."
"That would suggest the general population of the Wizarding world does not fall under that designation, which in my experience would be a wildly optimistic estimate."
That earned him a small smile, which grew when Hermione noticed they were almost alone in the Portkey Office.
"Ready, darling?" she asked meaningfully.
"As ready as I'll ever be," Severus muttered under his breath.
It struck Hermione as a slightly incongruous utterance for someone who took such care to be as precise as possible.
Most Esteemed Lady Hermione,
The time draws near — I know not the hour, but soon your reign will be undisputed. He who once was the Dark Lord will not linger (he certainly won't, if I have anything to do with it). The remainder of his followers will quickly disintegrate under attack from your forces, and Britain will be yours.
I, for one, consider this the best outcome under the circumstances — I can only hope your sex will insulate you from the pitfalls of your predecessor. During my rather chequered career, I have noticed women rarely succumb to megalomania. Use your brain, and remember those who predeceased you. When in doubt, consider what Potter would have done and do the opposite.
As I expect to join him in the great hereafter shortly, I will avail of this last opportunity to tell you that I have been in love with you for years. My impending demise will save us from any attending embarrassment, and to my surprise I find that Albus Dumbledore was right about one thing at least: there isn't enough love in the world. What can be found should be cherished. A fool may admire the queen, may he not?
As the biggest fool to ever have graced these isles, I have the honour to remain your most humble servant,
Hermione rubbed her eyes, in the vain hope the letter wouldn't be there when she opened them again, and stifled a yawn.
The cheap B&B that had been booked for them (woe betide any Unspeakables who had the temerity to suggest a proper hotel, or — even worse — separate rooms) smelled of mould, and the room was so small to start with that the wall she had Transfigured to divide it into two left it looking more like a cupboard.
Ever the gentleman, Severus had hogged the pillow and duvet so she had been stuck with a musty blanket that looked like it last had been clean circa 1953.
They were supposed to be tackling their case this morning; Hermione didn't have the emotional energy to even consider the bloody letter. She would make sure she got the comfortable bedding tonight, though — if he had time to compose missives on fancy-looking parchment, he could damn well spend some time Scourgifying ancient blankets.
"Snape!" She knocked on the wall for good measure; it was still robust enough to bear it, just like her features were still the not-quite-Hermione of her disguise.
They made a good team.
An owl pecked on her half of the window. Hermione tried to open the ancient spring to get the owl inside before anyone in the distinctly Muggle neighbourhood noticed, but the wall had wedged the window closed.
"Oh, for Merlin's sake!" She decided enough was enough, and vanished the wall to reveal a half-dressed Severus Snape sitting on the bed with his mouth hanging open in surprise.
Hermione was too annoyed to savour the sight — why had she ever thought he was unhealthily skinny? — or properly treasure his dumbfounded expression.
She pulled in the surprised owl and detached the letter that came with it. Entirely unsurprisingly, it was addressed to her in Severus' unmistakeable scrawl.
"We are on a bloody case! Whatever petty vendetta you may be pursuing because you somehow figured out I'm in lo — have feelings for — whatever about you, I would have thought you'd be too professional to send me an owl when I'm in the room next door! What is wrong with you?"
Her chest was heaving with righteous anger, and she could feel the tips of her hair rising in the air.
"Let's see what's so bloody important, shall we?"
Snape was too busy pulling his duvet up to his shoulder to defend himself, or else he knew a futile cause when he saw it (unlikely, based on past performance).
Hermione read out.
I fear I have deceived you. I was not in need of dried Lacewing flies (or, indeed, any other potion ingredients- it would be a poor Potions Master not to check his stocks before brewing). I merely did not wish the evening to end without hearing your voice, or indeed stealing a kiss. As it turned out, I was successful beyond my wildest dreams.
Tomorrow night I plan to run out of Armadillo Bile. Would seven o'clock be a convenient time?
"You have time to write this, and you've been too bloody busy to brief me properly on the case! I never thought you, of all people, would be so unprofessional!"
He had closed his mouth at last and recovered the ability to speak, albeit with a voice made gritty by sleep. "I did not write this letter, and I would have assumed its content would be sufficient to make that clear."
Words failed Hermione. She pointed to the signature.
"It's easy to falsify —"
"Why? Why would anyone even bother? Don't you think they would employ their considerable skills to deplete your bank account rather than tormenting your colleague?"
He didn't seem to have any more answers than she did, which rather proved the point.
Hermione remembered the subject of her latest non-work-related research. At least she would be able to shut him up about not being the letter writer. "Redderno mittentis!"
Severus flinched slightly at having her wand pointed at him, while the offending letter fluttered uncertainly before settling back in her hand.
"Happy?" he asked.
"No." Hermione frowned. "I know I have the spell right, because I tested it on a letter from Ron. I don't understand why it's not working..."
"An uninformed observer may jump to the conclusion that it is not the spell but its object that is at fault." He had found a jumper somewhere, and emerged from under the duvet as it made its way down his chest.
"Read this. And this." She picked up the first letter of the day from the floor. "Then tell me that it doesn't sound like something you may write in — in a different world."
Severus stiffened as he read the first letter, but turned the page over to continue to the very end. Wordlessly, he reached out his hand for the second one.
Hermione watched him read it with an undecipherable quirk to his mouth, until he reached the scrawled signature.
His eyes seemed glued to the page, as he dwelled on it far longer than the brief paragraphs merited.
Hermione felt her cheeks turn red, as she remembered that he had not been the author of the last few months' missiles. The prospect of writing love letters to her, of all people, clearly did not sit easily with him.
"Like something you would write to a different woman," she hastened to add.
"I think you are the only potential Dark Lady among my acquaintance." He was clearly not intending to discuss the second letter, then.
"We're not discussing the recipient. I have received a number of letters, all of which could plausibly have been written by you. In earnest, not just to annoy me."
Severus' finally looked up from his scrutiny of the second letter. "Why would I write a letter to annoy you?"
"When you can do it so much more efficiently in person, you mean?"
"You are my colleague. I flatter myself that I do not make a habit of aggravating the people I work with." There was a certain dignity to his statement. Someone who did not know him as well as Hermione may well have been fooled.
She coughed meaningfully. "The ginger incident? Also, I seem to recall a few incidents with Gilderoy Lockhart and Dolores Umbridge..."
"Competent colleagues. And you can hardly blame me for retaliating." His cheeks turned disconcertingly pink as he admitted that she met the barest minimum of his exacting standards, and Hermione wondered again how he had ended up with his mysterious partner.
"That's what I thought you were doing," she explained, still caught up in her musings. "When I read the note to your partner that was delivered to my office —"
"You must remember — that was the day Cartwright made us sit through a three-hour meeting, accounting for every last Galleon spent year to date."
He groaned. "It was almost on par with a Hogwarts staff meeting in the bad old days."
Hermione didn't dare ask which days that had been — there were so many to choose between.
"I just gave the note to you, but when the letters started coming I thought you —" She searched for a polite way to put 'being a curmudgeonly bastard'? "— had taken offence at me reading your private correspondence."
"What private correspondence?"
Oh, for Merlin's sake. "To your partner. I think you were complaining about a cat — it was a very short note."
She didn't remind him he had called her — or him — 'Dearest'. Despite being hardened by the subsequent letters, she would always remember the shock of seeing Severus' heart boldly opened on a piece of parchment.
"You are my partner."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "At work. Your — your spouse, then. Girlfriend. Or boyfriend, of course," she hastened to add.
"I do not have a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend, for that matter," Severus replied, enunciating each word as if he dared it to sully his tongue ever again.
Hermione had been so preoccupied with her need to show there was nothing amiss with either option that she had not stopped to consider Severus rather would cut his left arm off than use the same terms as his erstwhile students to refer to his beloved.
"Whatever you call them, then. Perhaps we can get back to the problem at hand —"
"I do not have a significant other, which makes this note the first letter of doubtful provenance. How was it delivered?"
She bit her lip, trying to remember. "I found it on the floor in my office — I thought you had dropped it there. Do you still have it?"
"A note about a cat? I doubt it."
They looked at each other.
"Do you think it's a coincidence?" Hermione asked. "Perhaps you had better tell me about the case now."
"Perhaps we ought to get dressed first," Severus said, looking pointedly at Hermione's dressing gown. She belatedly remembered it happened to be made of pink fleece with kittens printed at the hem.
The wall reappeared so fast he barely had time to step backwards before it hit his nose.
"Severus? Are you decent?"
"I am not wearing any nightwear embroidered with snakes, if that's what you're asking."
There was something different about him when Hermione removed the dividing wall again (her wand-arm was getting sore at this stage). He was vibrating with intent, like a bird of prey having sighted an unwary mouse.
"Do you know where I can find a Pensieve in Dublin?"
Hermione was usually in charge of reconnoitring before their trips — her parents' internet connection was infinitely more useful than the Department's ancient travel guides — but this was a bit more involved than finding the most convenient bus route.
"No. What do you need a Pensieve for?"
"I just found I missed a crucial piece of information, so I would like to revisit my memory." He paced around the room, now that it was possible again.
"Does it have anything to do with the case? Or the letters?"
"No." He pressed his lips tightly together; she was clearly not meant to find out.
"Then I guess it will have to wait. Will you finally brief me on this case, or will we wait until I retire?"
The case turned out to be exclusively concerned with cats. While this was a welcome development (previous field excursions had mainly concerned the gruesome after-effects of curses), it did not make for a very interesting problem.
Hermione listened to Severus' description of the peculiar behaviour of the cats at Trinity College in Dublin city centre, and promptly arranged a return Portkey home.
When she returned, Severus groaned (he seemed to be doing that a lot lately). "This is the invaluable contributor to our investigation you were speaking about?"
"I believe you have met many times, so I will not introduce you," Hermione said brightly. "Crookshanks, I know it's not ideal, but you will have to travel in my bag on the bus. Once we get there, Severus and I will pretend to be tourists and you can reconnoitre."
Severus still seemed to struggle with the basics of the operation. "A cat is going undercover for us?"
"To find out why the cats are conducting a parade across Ireland's oldest university every day at dusk? Yes — do you have a problem with that?" She raised both her eyebrows, hoping the expression of scorn on her face would make up for the lack of single eyebrow action.
Crookshanks duly delivered his debriefing, and it didn't take Severus and Hermione long to come up with a plan. In an ideal world, it would not have involved either stilts or an impromptu rat hunt, but beggars couldn't be choosers.
"I cannot believe you made me go on the stilts!" Severus wiped the white paint off his face as soon as they had escaped down an alleyway. "I'm over sixty!"
"That's hardly any age for a wizard! Besides, I had to carry the rats — I didn't hear you clamouring for that job."
"Yes, yes, you did execute your mission satisfactorily," Severus said.
"Exemplary, I would say. Trinity has a new King of Cats —"
Crookshanks meowed again.
" — I'm sorry, Queen of Cats, and tourists and students will no longer be distracted by cats behaving like guardians of an ancient secret."
Severus voiced her one remaining niggle with the case. "I still think we ought to have been told what the secret is, though."
"Then it wouldn't be a secret anymore, would it?" Hermione asked, just to get a rise out of him; Crookshanks had been adamant, so she knew they never would find out what the cats of Dublin were guarding so zealously it required a monarch.
"I put us on stand-by for a Portkey in two hours." Severus had already started rounding up the few possessions he had left in their room at the B&B.
Hermione blushed when she recognised the jumper from that morning. "Great. You need a Pensieve and I have an idea."
Severus raised his eyebrow.
"Wait and see. One of us can keep a secret, at least." That bit of deliberate effrontery got her a prize-winning glower, and Hermione felt a bit more cheerful. Teasing Severus was one of her favourite parts of their partnership.
Severus had stalked off on his mission to peruse his memories — Hermione didn't waste her breath asking which — while she devoted herself to research.
She was weighing up the relative advantages of tracking charms versus Peruvian Darkness Powder when Severus reappeared. "Find one?"
"No. I need to go to Hogwarts."
Hermione dropped her book. "No, you bloody well don't! That'll take a day, at least!"
"This is important." There was something unusual about him, now that the case had been closed; he was on tenterhooks, like Ron before a Quidditch match.
Skittish, if ever that word could be used about Severus Snape. He had already sat down and stood up again twice since coming into her office.
"Is it more important than finding out where the mystery letters are coming from?" Hermione glared at him, but she was willing to accept his assessment. Merlin knew Severus Snape didn't faff around about doing his duty.
"Yes. No. It's... personal."
Hermione reminded herself that he had been very clear he did not have a partner, so there was no need to feel like she had been stabbed in the back. "Fine. So it's less important, then?"
"Yes," Severus admitted, although he had to force it out.
"Let's get to work, then."
Hermione had considered involving their superiors, for all of five minutes. The Department of Mysteries was not a hierarchical organisation — as long as they steered cleared of breaking the time-space continuum or exceeded their budget, no one particularly cared what they did, as long as it tangentially advanced the body of magical knowledge.
It took the next letter two days to arrive. Severus looked positively mutinous by the time it did, having been shot down every time he suggested there was time for a short jaunt to Scotland.
Hermione felt vindicated as she plotted the letter's approach through the cloud of Peruvian Darkness Powder around her office. She had reasoned that, since the first letter had appeared at work, there may well be some connection to the Ministry.
The tracking charms pointing deep into the heart of the Department of Mysteries bore her out.
"Yes, yes, you were right all along. I bow to your superior knowledge."
"Nice try, Severus. I'm still not saying that the next time you're right about something." Squinting along her wand, she dissolved the darkness surrounding them, leaving her holding a quivering letter anxious to return where it had come from.
She noticed Severus had pulled his wand out as they advanced down the corridor.
Hermione had been tempted to do the same early in her tenure, but by now this was just a workplace. Just like Hogwarts was a school rather than a former battlefield — an unexpected advantage of returning for her final year.
The trip down memory lane was short-circuited by their arrival at the door to the Love Chamber.
They had both been inside before, but only on a tour of the department. The research team inside did not welcome visitors, and in any case most of the Unspeakables kept to their own offices, reserving collegial chit-chat for the canteen.
They gossiped like teenagers, too, which had surprised Hermione until Severus had informed her the Hogwarts staff had been much worse.
Today, there was little collegiality visible on Spencer's face. Admittedly, it might be because she had only opened the door two inches.
"What do you want? We're busy!"
"So am I, but I keep getting those mysterious letters. Do you know anything about them?'
"We research love, darling, not letters — now push off." Spencer tried to close the door, but fortunately Severus had inserted his foot in a strategic position, preventing her.
"Considering that the letters originate from within this room, we may be forgiven for doubting your assertion."
"What?" Spencer forgot to push for a second, and Severus took the opportunity to open the door a full foot. The golden thread of the tracing charm was visible all the way into the room and into a huge urn propped up on a plinth.
Hermione tried not to sound smug. "I believe the provenance of the letter is no longer a mystery. Now, will you please let us in, Madam Spencer?"
The occupiers of the Love Room insisted on tea first.
Severus and Hermione did not object; waiting for the kettle to boil gave them plenty of time to inspect the room, mainly the scuffed urn in the corner.
It didn't look very remarkable, but then few powerful objects did. Unless they had been created by a megalomaniac, of course.
"So," the elderly wizard who had introduced himself as McIlroy began.
"We are all ears," Severus assured him.
"We've been working on a little softening of borders recently, exploring the Trousers of Time, that sort of thing..." He shrugged, as if to indicate every wizard ended up taking an interest in alternative universes in the fullness of time.
"That's just a metaphor," Hermione felt compelled to point out.
"For being a metaphor, it's pretty insistent it's real. That letter you're holding in your hand, for example — do you think that's a metaphor, too?" He nodded to the by now somewhat creased envelope.
"I'm waiting for you to tell me what it is," she replied with what she felt was remarkable restraint.
"It is a letter from Unspeakable Snape to you. All of them are. The interesting thing about them is which Severus Snape wrote to which Hermione Granger."
Hermione felt quite lucky she was sitting down. She clutched the nearest thing for support, only to find it was Severus' arm.
Fortunately, he was too absorbed in McIlroy's explanation to notice. "The letters are written in an alternate reality? One in which Miss Granger returns my affections?"
"Several of them, in fact. It's extraordinary how many occurrences there are of your particular coupling — that was what interested us in the first place. The main exception appears to be where you died, of course. That accounts for quite a lot of them."
"I died?" He seemed oddly surprised for someone who had lived through two wars.
"The Shrieking Shack seems to be the most popular place." McIlroy noticed Severus' face turning even whiter than usual, and kindly provided more details. "At the Battle of Hogwarts, you know. We're not sure, but many iterations of Ms Granger seem to have been unable to obtain Anti-venom. I'm sure that's no reflection on your resourcefulness, my dear."
McIlroy reached for her hand where it was resting on Severus' sleeve, but Hermione snatched it away before he could pat it.
"You established all this, and then you somehow rerouted our — the correspondence of our other selves to us. May I enquire what your intended objective was?" For once in his life, Severus looked thoroughly discombobulated, but he was beginning to look more irate than bewildered.
Good choice; Hermione was feeling rather aggrieved herself.
McIlroy and Spencer did not seem to have picked up on that, however.
"Well, obviously several avenues of research opened themselves once we managed to direct solid objects through the gateway," Spencer explained as if she were delivering a lecture.
"The urn, you mean?" Hermione asked, feeling she ought to make a contribution.
"Indeed. It is something of a breakthrough, to be able to direct physical objects —"
"Fantastic. You will win the annual intra-departmental award, for sure. Did it ever, at any point, occur to you that your colleagues are not to be used as objects for your experiments?" Severus could have been eviscerating hapless student mauling leeches. His tone finally brought it home to Spencer that recent events perhaps looked somewhat different when seen from Severus' and Hermione's point of view.
"Naturally we did not mean to cause any offence - "
"Rather the opposite!" There was no other word for it: McIlroy was cackling. "Maybe you just needed a little help to catch up with your alter egos!"
Severus turned his back to McIlroy. His wand made a very brief appearance outside his robes, before returning to the relative safety of his sleeve.
A crackling sound in slow motion, accompanied by dripping, alerted the rest of the room that he had not lost his marbles completely.
"What was that?" Spencer, whom Hermione was forced to nominate as the sane one, asked suspiciously.
"That was the sound of your opal cauldron breaking. An expensive sort of noise, wouldn't you agree? Madam Cartwright will not be pleased," Severus said, every syllable loaded with malicious pleasure
"You broke it!" Spencer screeched.
McIlroy was slower on the update; he was still wearing an inane smile.
There was nothing inane about Severus' smile — it could have swallowed a tiger whole. "Of course I didn't. If I did, you would have to explain to the Select Committee why you violated fundamental research ethics. It is a ministry-wide committee, incidentally — they are unlikely to be impressed by a thirst for knowledge, like our own dear colleagues."
As soon as they were finished, Hermione was going to find a Pensieve and decant this memory to be preserved for posteriority. No matter what happened next, the sight of Spencer gaping impotently, trying and failing to come up with a rebuttal, was worth savouring for decades to come.
"I believe this is where we take our leave," Severus told Hermione, who for once did not object to his attempts to direct proceedings.
"We have been played, as Draco would put it." Severus stalked out of the room so quickly Hermione had to half-run to keep up.
In one corner of her mind, she was surprised that Spencer and McIlroy had dared; an enraged Severus was hardly someone you wanted to go up against. Then again, a fundamental lack of common sense had never held anyone back in the Department of Mysteries.
The rest of her, however, had her priorities straight: "I don't care if we're being played like a bloody Stradivarius — our interfering colleagues is not what I wish to discuss at the moment!"
Severus stopped so suddenly she barrelled into him.
With unexpected courtesy, he steadied her before she stumbled backwards. They ended up in such close proximity she had to look up to see into his dark, stormy eyes.
"Then what would you like to discuss?" he asked with that voice, the one that had been completely wasted on generations of Hogwarts students and a small array of Unspeakables.
"Maybe discussion was the wrong word," Hermione said, standing on her tiptoes to reach her object.
She took care to move very slowly, telegraphing her intentions to make sure they both were expecting the same thing, despite her heart beating a rapid tattoo urging her on to take what she had wanted for so long.
Kissing Severus Snape was just as good as she had imagined, but it stopped all too soon.
Severus looked half-demented: his cheeks were red and his hands had latched on to her shoulders, refusing to let go, even as he was trying to tear himself away. "I have to find that Pensieve!"
"Maybe I can help." Hermione had spent at least some of the time waiting for a new letter to arrive thinking. "I have feelings for you, was that it? I don't think I quite admitted to being in love with you. I am, of course."
Even for someone who had spent the better part of the day in a state of confusion, Severus displayed a startling similarity to a deer in headlights.
"It's fine," Hermione reassured him. "I just figured out you — what was it? — return my affections, too. I hope you intend to be a little less Victorian expressing yourself in other areas."
"I —" Severus began. "You —"
"You'll get there," Hermione reassured him. "Perhaps not in a corridor at the Department, though."
Apparently, he was capable of kissing her like his life depended on it, however incapable of speech he may be for the moment. Maybe it would take less time than she expected.
Before they stumbled to her office and then into the Floo, Hermione could have sworn she heard someone shouting "Brava!" from a distance.
She preferred to believe it was myriad other Hermiones in other presents rather than the insufferably smug McIlroy.