It was August 31st, one day before the beginning of the new school term. Severus Snape was sitting in his office, immersed in thought. It had been two months since the final showdown with Voldemort, who had, to the delight of the whole wizarding world, finally been defeated once and for all by the Boy Who Lived, but Snape was somehow unable to find peace. Yes, he was now a war hero, he had killed several of his fellow Death Eaters during the battle and even saved Harry Potter's life at one point, thus proving that he had really been on the side of the Light all along, but his popularity had not increased much because of this. Not that it really bothered Snape – he did not care for people patting him on the back and then slandering him as soon as he turned around, he did not care for false friends. His only real friend had been Dumbledore, but Dumbledore was now dead, and it was he, Snape, who had killed him. True, it had happened more than a year ago, but it still came to haunt Snape in his dreams. He knew well enough that he had had no other choice at that time, it was either he or Dumbledore and Dumbledore had made it only too clear which one of them was to live on, but sometimes Snape wished that he could have been the one to die. After all, what did he have to live for? The person he had cared about the most in the world was now snoring away in a portrait in Headmistress McGonagall's office, his mission to spy on Voldemort, the only way in which he could really make himself useful, was over. What did he have left? Only his position as a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, returned to him by McGonagall after the war, but not even that seemed to satisfy him as much as it used to. With Voldemort defeated, the subject had inevitably lost its glamour. Sure there were still a few Death Eaters running about, but that was nothing the Ministry, inapt as it was, could not deal with in a year or two. And telling the students that sooner or later a new Dark wizard was bound to appear? That would be downright naïve. No student had ever feared anything that was not staring them right in the face ... perhaps that was why students seldom studied for exams in advance. In fact, the only exception he could remember was Miss Hermione Granger, but he had always thought that she was taking things a bit too far, and that, coming from him, was certainly saying something, seeing as he had been quite a know-it-all himself in his time.
As it was, however, Miss Granger now happened to be his new colleague, something Snape was still having trouble accepting. Not only could he no longer take points off her whenever he felt like it, but he was also rather disappointed by the actual subject she had chosen to teach. With her excellent N.E.W.T. results and so many teachers perishing in the war and thus leaving their positions vacant, she could have picked pretty much any subject that caught her fancy, but no, she had to go for the one subject Snape had never been particularly good at (and had therefore always scorned) – Transfiguration. What the girl saw in it he could not imagine, but the fact was that she was now McGonagall's pet and he, Snape, who had been teaching at Hogwarts longer than Miss Granger had been alive, was left feeling degraded and bearing a grudge against Miss Granger to last him at least two or three lifetimes.
Absorbed in his gloomy thoughts, he completely failed to notice an important looking barn owl landing on his windowsill, and it was only when the owl commenced a fierce attack on his window that he finally acknowledged its presence and went to let it in. There was a note tied to its leg. Untying it, Snape shooed the owl back out without bothering to give it a treat, and then went to sit back at his desk, unfolding the note along the way. He instantly recognized McGonagall's spidery handwriting.
Severus, (the note read)
Please come to my office tonight at 7 p.m., I have an important matter to discuss with you.
Snape frowned. What on earth was all this about? He had no idea what McGonagall wanted from him, but he had a strong hunch that he would not like it. And, as was usually the case with him, his hunch proved to be correct.
One minute to seven, he was just about to mount the spiral staircase leading to McGonagall's office when he was unexpectedly joined by a distinctly ruffled looking Miss Granger.
"Hello there, Professor," she wheezed as she attempted to smooth down her bushy brown hair. "Got a bit caught up by Peeves," she added, apparently mistaking Snape's disgusted expression for one of silent inquisition.
Snape's look of disgust became more pronounced. "What are you doing here?" he snarled in place of an answer.
"Well, I got a letter from McGonagall, asking me to come," said Miss Granger briskly, seemingly interpreting Snape's question as one of polite interest. "Said she wanted to discuss something with me."
"And she did not tell you what that something was?" demanded Snape. "I would have thought she keeps nothing from her precious little Transfiguration teacher," he added spitefully, doing his best to make the last two words sound like something to be ashamed of.
They had just reached the top of the spiral staircase at that moment, but Miss Granger made no attempt to step off it. Instead she turned to look Snape straight in the eye and, in a strongly determined voice, said, "Look, Professor, there's no need to act that way towards me. I can see now that it's impossible for the two of us to ever be friends, no matter how hard I try, but you could at least cut out the insults. I thought I would be all right just ignoring them, but now I've had enough. What have I ever done to you? It's not my fault McGonagall likes me; maybe she'd like you too if you just stopped acting so sour. I know you're probably still upset by Dumbledore's death, but I've lost Ron in the battle and Harry's had a close call too, they haven't even let me come and see him yet, but do you see me going around throwing insults at everybody I meet? No, you don't. Instead I'm trying to just get on with my life because that is how Ron would've-"
Her voice suddenly faltering, she quickly turned away from Snape and went to knock on McGonagall's door, inconspicuously wiping her eyes as she did so. Upon hearing a sharp "Enter," she gave a soft sniff, but by the time she marched into McGonagall's office she seemed her usual self-confident self again.
Snape followed her inside, perforce feeling slightly angry with himself. He really should try being a bit more civil towards Miss Granger, for she had obviously been through a lot too. The problem was that he just could not help insulting her every time they met, seeing as the mere sight of her made his blood boil. Insolent little Gryffindor, what was it that made her so popular among the other teachers? There was nothing special about her, after all, besides being an annoying know-it-all.
Know-it-all or not, however, Snape still had to obediently sit down next to her in front of McGonagall's table, while McGonagall herself surveyed them both thoughtfully from behind her spectacles, making them feel as though they were being X-rayed.
(Must have taken that over from Dumbledore, thought Snape).
"You must be wondering why I have summoned you here today," she began finally. "Well, I shall not beat about the bush – a party will be held this Saturday at Malfoy Manor to celebrate the long awaited downfall of the Dark Lord, as Mr Malfoy himself had put it. The Ministry, however, seems to believe that the party is only an excuse for all the Death Eaters who are still running free to get together and hatch a plot most probably aimed to cause damage to the Ministry. That is why the Minister for Magic has asked me for help, and that is why I am now turning to you. I would like the pair of you to attend the party and find out what this plot is. I cannot force you to, of course, but you are the Ministry's only hope."
"Really?" said Miss Granger doubtfully. "And why can't they put some of their own people onto the job? Why us? They haven't been exactly helpful in our battle against Voldemort, so what makes them think we will help them now?"
McGonagall sighed. "I'm afraid they have no other option, Hermione. The party can only be attended by those who have received a special invitation from Lucius Malfoy himself, and I don't think I need to say that he hasn't included any Ministry officials on his guest list. However, there is one person among the invited whom we can actually trust, and that is Severus here. So-"
"So that's why he has to go, that's obvious, but where do I come in?" urged Miss Granger. "I'm sure Professor Snape would manage perfectly well on his own." She accompanied this statement by a dark look in his direction.
"No doubt he would," agreed McGonagall, looking slightly amused. "But the trouble is that Severus has always refused to attend Mr Malfoy's parties, and would therefore look highly suspicious were he to suddenly change this habit. If, however, he arrived at the party with a partner..."
"If I understand correctly, you are asking Miss Granger and myself to act as a couple." It was Snape who had spoken this time, looking as though he was having trouble believing his ears. "Well, in that case it should not come as a surprise when I tell you that you are asking for a miracle. I am sure you must have noticed that Miss Granger and I have never exactly ... warmed to each other, to put it mildly."
"Then why not use this opportunity to overcome your old differences and start afresh?" McGonagall pressed on. "Perhaps after spending an evening together you will see each other in a new light."
"I seriously doubt that," muttered Snape, throwing Miss Granger a disdainful look.
"So do I," retorted Miss Granger, endowing Snape with an equally unpleasant stare.
"Does that mean I cannot count on you, then?" inquired McGonagall, looking crestfallen. "Here you are, with a unique opportunity to catch those few remaining Death Eaters in the act and send them all to Azkaban for the rest of their lives, but what do you do? You throw this opportunity out of the window, all because of a silly grudge. You will let those Death Eaters run around and perhaps kill more innocent people before the Ministry finds another way of disposing of them. Really, I thought you two were old enough to have more sense than that. But obviously I was mistaken, so you may go, I'm sure you have some important work to do."
Having said that, she rose from her desk and made to see them to the door, but both Snape and Miss Granger remained seated.
"I ... I'll do it," said Miss Granger slowly, staring at her hands and looking ashamed of herself.
Snape, however, remained silent. How dare McGonagall bully him like that? Miss Granger may be obedient enough to raise to her bait without hesitation, but he, Snape, was not about to give in so easily. Of course he knew that McGonagall was, in essence, right, but she would have to work harder than that to win him over for her cause. Consequently, he took to staring sullenly at a smudge on the floor, waiting what she would come up with.
"Thank you, Hermione," he heard her voice say. "I knew I could rely on you." Then he felt her gaze shift to him as she asked, "And what about you, Severus? There is really no point in Hermione agreeing to take up the quest if you don't go with her, I'm sure you understand that."
Snape continued to stare determinedly at the floor.
"Don't you think there have been enough deaths already, Professor?" Miss Granger chimed in. "I'm sure that if Dumbledore were alive he would-"
"-he would tell you to stop being so unreasonably stubborn and simply do as you are asked," said a sudden, familiar voice that made Snape flinch and glance around in alarm.
"Headmaster?" he said uncertainly, his gaze finally landing on one of the portraits on the wall from which Albus Dumbledore was beaming down at him, his eyes twinkling merrily.
"Yes, Severus," he confirmed with an amused smile. "I do not often wake up, since I feel that I have a lot of sleep to catch up on from my long and adventurous life during which I rarely stayed in bed for as long as I would have liked, but this time I felt that Minerva could use a little help. Severus, I have always considered you a gentleman, but now I hear that you would let a lady go to a party unaccompanied? How am I to understand this? And unless I have been greatly misinformed, I may as well add that Lucius Malfoy usually serves his guests the best wine in the country. Would you really care to miss out on that?"
"I ... no," muttered Snape, looking resigned.
"Well, that's settled, then," said Dumbledore cheerfully. "Now, if you will excuse me, I shall once again pursue the temptation of peaceful slumber. Good night." And with that, his eyelids drooped and a moment or two later he already looked as though he had never even woken up. Snape, however, had a distinct feeling that no matter how fast asleep the former Headmaster appeared, the moment he put a toe out of line again all pretence of sleep would be gone and another carefully chosen remark would follow, one which Snape had absolutely no inclination to endure, being already shaken enough by Dumbledore's previous speech. It had been the first time since the portrait had spoken to him since the Headmaster's death and the experience was indisputably far from pleasant – it was as if all of Snape's nightmares suddenly came to haunt him into the light of day. That is why he apathetically agreed to do everything that McGonagall now asked of him, which basically meant that during the few days remaining until Saturday he and Miss Granger should learn how to act as a couple, or at least "try not to wince when the other touches you," to quote McGonagall's words after she noticed Snape's disgusted expression.
Finally leaving the Headmistress's office, Snape inevitably felt a desperate urge to run – run away from the Headmaster, now again sleeping so peacefully in his portrait, run away from Miss Granger, whose eyes he felt boring into his back, run away from his thoughts. If only he could hide away somewhere where there would be no one to disturb him, maybe he could push the memory of the past twenty minutes so deep into his subconsciousness that he would eventually make himself believe that it had never happened. It was not as if this would be the first time for him to do something like that – in fact, having done so many errands for the Dark Lord, he could hardly have lived with himself had he not mastered this ability to its finest points. Unfortunately, in this case he knew it would be useless even to try. He had never been able to fully forget the incident at the Astronomy Tower, owing to the fact that as long as he stayed at Hogwarts he would always be reminded of it wherever he turned, and as for Miss Granger, well, he would have to face her sooner or later anyway, though he fervently wished it would be the latter. Miss Granger, however, was of a different opinion.
"Um, Professor?" she addressed him meekly after they had dismounted the spiral staircase and Snape was just on the verge of making an inconspicuous disappearance to his office. "What are we going to do about our ... erm ... task? I know you're probably about as happy about it as I am, so maybe if we could just get it out of the way, we'd both sleep much more peacefully tonight."
Snape stopped dead in his tracks, then turned slowly around, his eyes narrowed.
"And what exactly is it that you propose we do, Miss Granger?" he snapped. "Practise holding hands?"
Miss Granger turned slightly pink. "Well, I don't know," she said uncertainly. "I suppose we could do something like that, couldn't we? To get used to it, I mean."
Snape gave her a murderous stare. "Do you really think me as immature as that, Miss Granger? Do you really think I would not be able to hold your hand without wincing?"
"Professor McGonagall seems to think so," said Miss Granger defiantly.
"What the Headmistress thinks is not relevant. What is your own opinion?"
Miss Granger shrugged. "Well, to tell the truth," she said slowly, looking as though she could not quite decide whether to continue or not, "I wouldn't put it past you," she finished quickly, as if hoping it would diminish the effect of her words.
Snape closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to compose himself. Insolent girl! How dare she speak to him like that! Him, who had managed to fool even the Dark Lord himself! And now this ... this child was suggesting that he could have trouble with something as simple as holding somebody's hand? Well, he would show her yet!
"All right, Miss Granger," he said pleasantly. "Come to my office tomorrow morning. Eight o'clock. We shall see which one of us will be the one to wince."
Miss Granger looked slightly taken aback by this sudden change of attitude, but she quickly regained her composure and asked, "OK, but why tomorrow? Why don't we get it over and done with tonight? It's not even eight o'clock yet, so there's still time..."
"Good night, Miss Granger," said Snape uncompromisingly, and with a swirl of his black cloak he vanished, leaving Miss Granger standing in the middle of a deserted corridor, looking positively perplexed.