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The Fine Art of Fine Print

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It is the fondest wish of certain Unspeakables to be transferred out of the Department of Mysteries. Few on the outside understand this, given that the Department receives a staggeringly large cut of the annual Ministry budget, and there are rumors about swankily appointed offices (not true), exorbitant expense accounts (rarely true), and a pastry chef on the payroll to prepare exquisite biscuits for afternoon tea (absolutely true). It's also true that there are those for whom the pleasure on saying, "I could tell you, but then I'd have to Obliviate you," has not worn off.

But in the few Unspeakables whose work frequently brings them into contact with the most esoteric mysteries of life, time-space, and magic, there can spring a keen desire to bring their work out of the shadows and into the light. However, the veil of secrecy within the Department is difficult to penetrate, even from within; it takes leadership with wisdom to recognize the sorts of breakthrough that will change the way people view the world, and it takes leadership with strength to foster them through their early stages. This is why the current leadership, specifically the Minister of Magic, was more than a bit anxious about his upcoming meeting with Hermione Granger.

At precisely one o'clock, she strode purposefully into his office holding a scroll at arms length, as if it smelt bad. Without preamble, she dropped it in the center of the Minister's desk, precisely on top of glass frame that contained the nameplate that his mother had undoubtedly embroidered years ago. "What is the meaning of this?"

He unrolled the parchment and read the first few sentences. "Rotten luck, that. But at least your patent was approved."

"A fat lot of good that does," she said, pointedly ignoring his gesture to sit, "when the steering committee, at the head of which you sit, I might point out, has cut my funding. You know how fundamentally important this is. What possible justification could you have for refusing to fund additional research?"

"Well, it's a difficult thing," said the Minister, shifting slightly in his chair. "Seeing as you've basically sent our understanding of magical theory arse over teakettle and have data to back it up, the consensus was, well, that it's no longer mysterious enough to be supported with Department of Mysteries funds."

"That's absurd," she declared. "I haven't solved any mysteries, merely postulated the existence of several particles that make up magic."

"But your Magi-thingummy—"

"Magispectrometer."

"Yes, that. Your test studies were very persuasive."

"But it's only the beginning," she said testily. "If Magispectrometric analysis is to have any effect on the numerous fields I outlined in my proposal, more machines must be built, and others taught to use them, and doing that requires funding."

The Minister looked distinctly unhappy. "I know. I read your proposal." He scowled at her look of surprise. "I did! It's just bad timing is all."

Hermione scowled at the Minister, who, she was viciously pleased to see, squirmed under her angry gaze. "Are you trying to tell me that you're going to let the most important discovery the Department of Mysteries has had in decades languish for a year because of a funding technicality?"

"That's not it at all," exclaimed the Minister. "Oh hell, I'm really making a pig's ear out of explaining this. You'll get funded, all right? Now sit down and have a cup while I explain. I can't think with you looming over me looking like a bloody martyr."

Hermione regarded the Minister coolly for a moment, then acquiesced.

"Milk. No sugar."

"As if I'd forget," said the Minister. "Now, you've got to understand my difficulty. You de-mystified an entire field, but in doing that you made yourself ineligible for your usual funding through the DoM Mysteries of Space and Time section."

"Catch-22," muttered Hermione.

The Minister continued. "And we effectively closed the Mysteries in Plain Sight Section four years ago, so there's no money there. And frankly, the most obvious department outside the DoM for hosting your work, Magical Weights and Measures, is already in the red after the inquest into the Bludger irregularities in the Premiere Quidditch League."

"So who's funding me?"

"Well," said the Minister, swallowing hard, "it had to be someplace to whom the Ministry gives loads of cash, and someplace where you could have privacy to work, since your magi-thing is still classified, but it also has to involve some kind of project that clearly benefits everyone involved. Fortunately, I've found just such a project."

A warning bell was starting to ring in the back of Hermione's mind. "Ron," she said in a low voice. "What have you done?"

The Minister's face fell slightly. "I'd have hoped you'd trust me a little bit. Or is that too much to ask?"

"It's not a matter of trust," she replied firmly. "It's a matter of history. Unless you forget what happened the last time you gave me a special assignment."

Ron's face darkened. "Yeah, you had to make it into something political."

"Letting your mother bully you into billing the Ministry for a research project that solely benefited George's store is something political."

Ron swore and flung his hands into the air. "It wasn't just about George's store, it was about the Ministry's over-regulation of time-altering spells."

"A subject that I'm certain hugely concerned you before George put his Re-Do Rum Balls on the market."

Ron stood and began pacing the rug in front of his fireplace. "What does it matter how I found out about it? You're the one who's trying to get more public funding for your pet project. How's what Mum wanted to do for George any different from what you're doing?"

Hermione massaged the bridge of her nose with her fingertips. "Ron, if you can't see the difference between allowing people to alter time for their own amusement and giving them the potential for unparalleled accuracy in their magic use, I don't think we have anything further to say on the subject. Now, what's this assignment you're giving me?"

Ron sat with a sigh. "The ridiculous thing is that I really think you're going to like it."

"You've a funny way of showing it."

"I'm sending you to Hogwarts."

The nascent sneer on Hermione's face faded.

He continued, encouraged by her silence. "I want you to do a survey of Hogwarts and make a comprehensive map of the entire castle and grounds, including enchanted rooms and areas protected with passwords. I want a complete catalog of everything that's hidden there, and I want to know how to access every part of the castle."

Whatever Hermione was expecting, this wasn't it. She stared at her friend for a moment before responding. "Why?"

"Well, it'll be a good test of your device, won't it?"

"Certainly, but so would a year spent measuring the magic in potions ingredients at St. Mungo's — not that I'm volunteering for that, mind." A vague suspicion was taking shape. "Why Hogwarts?"

"Come on, Hermione. Don't you remember all the scrapes we got into? All the hidden passages and secret rooms that we knew about but the teachers didn't? Don't you think that's a little, well, unsafe?"

"I seem to recall a number of lives being saved because we knew about those hidden passages and secret rooms."

"Yeah, but it's also how Draco Malfoy managed to smuggle a small army of Death Eaters into the school the night that Dumbledore died. You-Know-Who has been gone for nearly twenty years, Hermione. It's time we started thinking about the students' safety and a little less about keeping secrets."

Ah ha.

"But how would this affect the students?" Hermione asked, trying to keep her voice light. "This is essentially a test run for a top secret piece of machinery — only the Classification Review Board would have access to my findings."

Ron shifted in his chair. "Well, naturally, if you find a Manticore in a hidden room, the Ministry will have to take immediate action."

"And in order for the Ministry to take action, you'd have to inform the headmistress," finished Hermione, for whom the pieces of the puzzle were starting to form a familiar picture. "I ought to have realized she was involved."

Ron looked like a bullfrog caught in torchlight. "I— uh."

"I can't believe you sometimes, Ron, I really can't. You leaked classified information to the headmistress and then let her essentially dictate how it's to be used! That has to be the most blatant—"

Ron cut her off urgently. "Hermione, there's more to it than that."

"Oh, so you're not doing a special favor for the most meddlesome, iron-fisted headmistress Hogwarts has seen since—"

"That's what I want her to think!" cried Ron in frustration.

Hermione paused. "Sorry?"

Ron glanced over the top of Hermione's head to the Secrecy Detector above the door, and, satisfied with what he saw, leaned over his desk and lowered his voice.

"You can't know this because you haven't been back to the old place since she took over, but it's bad. I hardly recognize it anymore. Yes, I'm doing her a favor by sending you to do something she wants badly, but it's the only way I could get somebody involved who might be able to change things back. She's got to be stopped, Hermione. And if there's anything to be done about her, I want my best brain to be there to figure out how to do it."

Hermione looked at her old friend appraisingly. "That's a downright devious strategy, Ron. But I really don't think I'm your best brain; not for this sort of thing. I've been nothing but a lab-and-chalkboard researcher ever since the war ended. I don't know anything about how schools are run nowadays."

"That's exactly why you're perfect for the job." Ron looked as if he wanted to say more, but before he was able to, his fire blazed green, and the Hogwarts' headmistress's face appeared in the hearth.

"Ronald Weasley! Where have you been? I expected you for tea ten minutes ago—" She cut off abruptly when she noticed Hermione. "Well, hello there, Hermione!"

"Headmistress," said Hermione with a cool nod.

"Mum!" exclaimed Ron with even less enthusiasm.

She continued blithely. "We're so very pleased that you'll be joining us at Hogwarts! I've had the elves preparing a simply lovely room that overlooks the lake. You'll be very comfortable during your stay, and Luna's going to be thrilled when I tell her that you'll be with us for the rest of the academic year!"

"Mum!" objected Ron. "We hadn't finished discussing the details. And our tea wasn't for another half hour, anyway."

"Is that so?" Molly asked airily, stepping out of the fire into Ron's office. "Well, now that I'm here, I'll be happy to fill her in."

"Mum—" started Ron.

"Hush!" she ordered. "Pour me some tea."

Ron's face was red with humiliation, but he dutifully complied. Hermione suddenly understood with perfect clarity the position her friend was in. It simply wasn't in Ron to deny his mother anything, not after she had sacrificed so much to raise her family and fight Voldemort. She didn't have long to reflect, because the headmistress was chattering merrily at her.

"Hermione dear, I've prepared you a list of all the known rooms in Hogwarts, with all the passwords to all the rooms that I know. There are three hundred, sixty-four rooms that we know about, but I'm sure you'll find ten times more that are hidden. Two more lumps, if you wouldn't mind, Ronald dear?"

"Do any of the other teachers or staff know what I'm going to be doing?"

"I don't think that's necessary, do you?" asked Molly. "Ron did say that yours was a top-secret project, and I don't see any reason for any more people to know what we're doing than necessary."

"Good. The more boring you make me sound the better — the fewer people know about my presence, the better."

Molly laughed. "Apart from the press conference, of course."

Hermione leapt up as if stung. "PRESS CONFERENCE?"

"The press conference I've arranged to announce the Ministry's support for my new educational initiatives," said the headmistress. "You won't have to say anything of course, just having you and Ron present will make it clear to the press that the Ministry is fully behind my efforts. Oh dear, didn't Ron tell you?"

Ron quailed under the combined glares of his friend and mother. "Look, why don't you two have a nice chat and I'll get us some more tea." He scurried out of the room and closed the door behind him. Hermione knew he'd be listening at the keyhole.

Hermione was about to voice her objection to being made a symbol of in no uncertain terms, but Molly raised her hand to forestall her. "Before you say something you might regret," she said with more than a hint of steel in her tone, "I urge you to think about your position. I already know that your little project can't be funded by the Department of Mysteries, and as I understand it, Ronald has very generously given you a way to continue collecting data that could be instrumental in securing funding next cycle. This means that your work will be financed by the Educational Fund, over which I, as Hogwarts Headmistress, have discretionary control. I can, of course, divert those funds at any time if I feel you are not producing results beneficial to the school. I trust I have made myself clear?"

Hermione stared wordlessly at the witch who was now sitting in Ron's chair and helping herself to his biscuits. The face she recalled being so kindly now radiated the tenacity of a bulldog, an impression reinforced by the set of her jaw, as well as the bit of spittle that appeared at the corner of her mouth when she noticed the marzipan fancies.

As sole patent holder of the Magispectrometer, Hermione knew that she could tell Molly and Ron where they could bally well stick their Educational Fund, call Draco Malfoy, a fellow Unspeakable, for a bit of venture capital, and revolutionize whatever field she chose while becoming absurdly wealthy in the process while paying only a pittance to the Ministry for use of technology developed under its auspices. But in that moment, Hermione felt the stirrings of the long-dormant outrage that had led her to found S.P.E.W. and to destroy every last scrap of Voldemort's soul.

Ron, with his chessman's eye, had seen the opportunity that Molly's ambitions had opened and was depending on her sense of justice to do what needed to be done. After twenty years of being cloistered in her well-funded laboratory in the Department of Mysteries, who was she to refuse a friend's call to arms?

"I understand you perfectly," said Hermione, making her voice tiny.

Molly added another lump of sugar to her nearly empty cup. "I'm delighted you're starting to see things my way, dear. I'll expect you at Hogwarts the day after tomorrow."

"But that only gives me a day to move! And I'm supposed to be on holiday starting tomorrow. My parents are expecting me for Christmas."

Molly frowned. "It seems to me that you have misplaced your priorities, Hermione. Given that you have only until the end of the Christmas holidays to map the common areas and student quarters, you can't possibly expect days off. Though I suppose I could spare you for a few hours on Christmas. However, you must be back in time for Christmas Dinner. The Hogwarts family is important. Ronald, you may come back into the room."

Ron's anxious face appeared in the doorway. "All right, Hermione?"

"All right, Ron. I'm off to pack up. I'll see you at the press conference, then."

"Right," said Ron, who looked vaguely suspicious at her meekness.

"Until tomorrow, headmistress," said Hermione, walking towards the door, her shoulders hunched into what she hoped was a submissive posture.

Molly smiled beatifically. "Good day, my dear. Ron, if you'd be so good as to pour me another cup, we can finish the paperwork."

The door closed behind her with a decisive click.

Hermione squared her shoulders and set off towards the Ministry Archives. She had some studying to do.

***

The press conference was not given in the Great Hall to a large audience, as they had been after the war, but in the headmistress's office, where a handful of reporters sat in high-backed wooden chairs while the headmistress gazed down at them from her enormous desk. The overall impression was that of a teacher lecturing a group of wayward students, which was, Hermione suspected, precisely the effect Molly sought.

The woman herself had not yet arrived, and a few of the reporters in the back row were whispering quietly. Hermione and Ron stood behind the headmistress's desk, giving the appearance of complete and unanimous Ministry support. However, Hermione's eyes were meticulously taking in the changes to the room around her, and she found the combination of hominess and paranoia to be rather unsettling.

The enormous oak desk and mullioned windows were same, but the ceiling-high shelves that had once been filled with ancient tomes and delicate magical instruments were now filled with various bric-a-brac: balls of brightly colored yarn, disorderly stacks of books and magazines with glossy covers, and framed photographs of multiple generations of Weasleys, all of which alluded to Molly's humble origins, her dedication to her family, and the sacrifices she had made on the behalf of the Wizarding World.

However, the effort was completely lost on Hermione, who was doing her best not to scowl at the wall opposite her, which had once been covered with portraits of former headmasters and headmistresses but was now dominated by four enormous magical clocks that were emblazoned with the name of each house. Like the clock that had once hung in the Burrow's kitchen, there was a hand for each student, though since this was the first day of the Christmas holidays, nearly every hand was pointed at "Home." As if that weren't enough, Hermione was dismayed to see that clocks were surrounded by enchanted mirrors, in which many of the student common areas were clearly visible.

With such an effective means of tracking the students, Hermione was perplexed as to why the headmistress was so keen for her to ferret out Hogwarts' secrets. She glanced at Ron, who had been gazing at the same point on a far shelf. She followed his gaze and felt her stomach clench when she realized that Ron was staring at a picture of himself with the twins. As uncomfortable as she was with Molly's tracking the students, she conceded that perhaps Molly having lost a son and nearly a daughter on school grounds gave her some allowance to be protective.

However, the goodwill evaporated when her eye fell a life-sized painting of Molly's Great Aunt Muriel where the Sorting Hat had once been. Even Hermione, who had not paid much attention to the goings-on at Hogwarts, hadn't been able to miss the furor over Molly's decision to do away with the traditional sorting. No longer were Gryffindors defined by bravery or Ravenclaws by cleverness: Gryffindors were now males whose surnames began with A–M, and Ravenclaws girls, N–Z. The new system was designed to do away with house prejudices, and rendered the Sorting Hat obsolete. Even Harry Potter, who was notoriously shy of both the media and confrontations with his mother-in-law, had written a strongly-worded letter in protest of a system that did away with Quidditch as they knew it.

Hermione was as cynical of nostalgia as the next witch, but she had to agree. After a brief perusal of the Ministry Archives, she had concluded that Molly Weasley had dismantled more than just Quidditch — she'd systematically taken away much of what had made Hogwarts great. Certainly, Molly's years of enforced thrift had honed her skill at saving money, and indeed that uncommon quality was precisely what had inspired headmaster Flitwick to take the unprecedented step of appointing a deputy with no teaching or administrative experience. But she strongly doubted that Flitwick would have done so had he foreseen his own demise a mere two years into his tenure or Molly's insistence that Hogwarts needed her. Though nearly all the teachers protested, Molly's celebrity was such that the Board of Governors felt it was easier to let her be, provided she could keep the school staffed and running. And running it was — right into the ground.

The headmistress herself chose that moment to enter, and the reporters rose to their feet — an odd response by Hermione's reckoning, but Molly smiled welcomingly at them and began to speak. For the first time, Hermione understood where Percy had got his supercilious, dull way of speaking. From the glazed look that had come over the reporters, she was not the only person who felt that way. She rambled on about improving educational standards, but Ron was still staring at the family picture with a vaguely stricken look on his face, and Hermione felt a rush of protectiveness for her friend, and just managed to suppress a scowl. She didn't like it when her friends were used against their will.

At that point, Molly opened the floor to questions.

"Martin Toole, Daily Prophet. Headmistress, is it true that your son will be taking over the vacant Defense Against the Dark Arts position?"

Molly pretended to be flustered. "Goodness me, there are so many of them, which son do you mean?"

The reporters laughed, and Molly replied, "Yes, my eldest son, William, will be taking the reins when the students return. Our Charms teacher, as I'm sure you've gathered, is ever so pleased to be working alongside her husband. Next question?"

"Susan Pratchett, Owl Post Gazette. Headmistress Weasley, there has been unprecedented faculty and turnover since the start of your tenure eight years ago. Do you see a connection between that and Hogwarts' stagnant O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. scores?"

"I wouldn't call the turnover 'unprecedented,'" she replied with a laugh. "A number of those who left Hogwarts had simply been teaching for too many years to keep up with the changes, and younger blood has invigorated the staff. As for the so-called stagnant test scores, I prefer to think of it as successfully maintaining the historical degree of excellence that Hogwarts has always had. Next question?"

"Quentin Cooper, Magical Pedagogy Today. There has been some speculation that record-low enrollment rates are due to your separation of the sexes. Given that the amount of support Hogwarts receives from the Ministry is tied to enrollment numbers, have you considered changing back to Hogwarts' traditional co-educational format?"

Hermione blinked in surprise. Neither Ron nor Molly had said anything about Hogwarts receiving less money than in the past. And if it were true, why on earth would Molly be willing to fund research with the already squeezed Educational Fund? What was Molly expecting her to do?

"Poppycock," said Molly, flushing slightly. "Enrollment is only low compared to the years after the war. Besides, single-sex classes have been shown in numerous test schools to improve academic performance."

"If enrollment is low simply because there are fewer children, then how do you explain poor matriculate attendance at Quidditch matches?" pressed Cooper. "There are as many former students as there ever were — why aren't they coming to the see the matches? You really don't see a connection between your controversial policies and having less money in the budget?"

Hermione noticed that the headmistress's ears were turning red.

"My record speaks for itself," she said shortly, "and if you have any questions about my methods, I suggest that you take it up with the Board of Governors. Wallace, you had a question?"

"Yes ma'am," said Pennifore Wallace, whose columns in Witch Weekly were enormously popular. "Now that your eldest son is on board, the faculty and staff of Hogwarts now comprise three of your sons, your daughter, two daughters-in-law, and your husband. Have you any plans to convince the rest of your distinguished family to answer the call to education?"

"As many of my son George's products end up in drawers in my office, having him around the school could be disastrous," said Molly, to general laughter. "My other children are happier where they are, bless them, and of course, my dear Ron is fulfilling an even greater role in public service than any of us. I suppose I shall have to be content with a quorum at Hogwarts."

"Headmistress Weasley," said Cooper, not waiting to be recognized, "does it ever cause problems, having so many of your family work so closely with you?"

"No," said Molly shortly. "Quite the opposite, in fact. Thank you all for being here. I hope you will all join me and the staff for lunch in the Great Hall."

She flounced out of the room, and the reporters followed dutifully behind her. Ron looked unhappily at Hermione. "I'd better go, too. Mum'll have my head if she finds out I didn't say hello to everybody."

He held the door open for her, but Hermione paused. "Ron, do you have any idea why she's doing all this?" she asked softly.

"Dunno," said Ron sulkily. "The Change?"

Hermione cuffed him in the arm.

***

To Hermione's relief, the Great Hall was largely unchanged from when she'd seen it last. Four long house tables still stretched the length of the room, the staff table looked as impressive as ever, hundreds of candles floated above the tables, and the magically-reproduced gray sky still managed to infuse the room with winter chill.

The reporters were interspersed between staff members at the high table. Hermione wasn't surprised that Cooper, the belligerent questioner from Magical Pedagogy Today, had been seated at the far end, wedged between Madame Pince, who appeared even more wizened and disapproving than she had when Hermione had been a student, and Argus Filch.

Hermione's heart lifted when she realized how many old friends and acquaintances sat at the staff table. In fact, there were very few faces that she didn't recognize. She couldn't hold back a grin when Neville Longbottom joyously shouted out her name. Luna's face lit up like her namesake heavenly body, and even Parvati Patil, with whom she had never been close, gave her a warm smile.

"Hermione and Ronald, how good of you to join us," said Molly in an affected gracious-hostess sort of voice. "Ronald, if you will take the chair on my left? Hermione, why don't you sit on the near end with Professor Longbottom? I'm sure you have a great deal of catching up to do."

And caught up she was, in a rib-crushing Longbottom hug.

"I couldn't believe it," exclaimed Neville. "The headmistress said you were coming, and I didn't believe her. 'Get Hermione Granger out of her lab? Impossible!' I said. And here you are!" He swung her around in a circle.

Hermione, who was having trouble drawing breath, managed to make a weak coughing sort of noise, and Neville released her. "Oh! Sorry! Don't know my own strength these days," he said sheepishly. "I spend every hour that I'm not teaching pruning, potting and weeding."

Having inhaled sufficiently to banish the dancing blue spots from her vision, Hermione gave Neville a smile. "The work suits you, Neville. You look quite fit."

"And you haven't changed a bit," he said, blushing. "Now sit, you must be half starved."

"You're half right," said Hermione, enthusiastically filling her plate with roast beef and roasted potatoes.

They ate in companionable silence for a few minutes, and Hermione was disappointed to find that the roast beef, while adequate, was a far cry from melt-in-the-mouth tenderness she recalled from her school days. She glanced down the table and was dismayed to see that rather than having seven or eight different courses to choose from, there was only beef and potatoes.

Hermione ate about half of what was on her plate and lost interest, choosing instead to examine Neville, whose pale skin had tanned and whose hair now had golden highlights from hours in the sun. She wondered absently if he had a girlfriend. Not that she needed a complication like that at this point.

"I can't believe it's been so long," said Hermione.

"Six years at least since I saw you at the Alchemy Convention in Devon.'

"I haven't been to Hogwarts in even longer — it's been at least ten years," said Hermione, dismayed to realize it was so. "But I've tried to keep up. I already knew you were teaching Herbology, and Luna's teaching Care of Magical Creatures. Tell me, does she teach the Crumple-Horned Snorkack?"

"I shudder to speculate," said Neville. "She made some Nargle repellent for me that nearly killed the yew I sprayed it on, but to her credit, the mistletoe's thriving better than it ever has. You know what the others are teaching, I expect."

"Parvati must be teaching Divination."

"Got it in one. She joined about the same time Molly invited me to teach — right after she ascended to the position. Arthur's teaching Muggle Studies, Ginny took over Transfiguration when McGonagall quit, Charlie's teaching flying part-time and providing dragons for Luna's upper classes. Fleur's been at Hogwarts longer than any of us. Flitwick hired her to teach Charms when he became headmaster."

"Is Binns still around?"

"We see him every now and then lurking around the dungeons. He tendered his resignation around the time McGonagall did, so Percy's teaching History of Magic now."

"So much for hoping it's a better class than it was for us," said Hermione with a sigh. "I don't see Vector. Who's teaching Arithmancy?"

"Parvati. Arithmancy's been absorbed by Divination. Same with Astronomy."

Hermione frowned. "Two entire subjects have been cut?"

"Well, they were all sort of related, weren't they? And both were electives. At least this way they're part of a core subject."

Hermione was suddenly overcome with a very queer feeling, as if there was something important she was forgetting, but she had no idea what it was. She dismissed it with a shake of her head. "I'm beginning to see what Wallace meant. It really is one big happy Weasley family at Hogwarts these days."

"There are a few of us non-Weasley holdouts," replied Neville. "And George wouldn't leave his shop for anything, especially not teaching."

"Unless Molly decided to add Chaos Theory to the curriculum," agreed Hermione.

"So, what brings you to Hogwarts?" asked Neville. "Molly was pretty cagey with the details."

Hermione sighed. "I could tell you—"

"—but then you'd have to Obliviate me," finished Neville. "I figured. But we will be seeing you around, won't we?"

"You'll be absolutely sick of seeing me by the end of the year."

"Oh, I doubt that," said Neville.

An insistent clinking noise drew her attention, and she saw that Molly was tapping a spoon on the rim of her goblet.

"Ladies and gentlemen, friends and honored guests," said Molly. "I'm so happy you were able to join us today. When the students return from their Christmas holidays, we may all be assured that they will be receiving the very best instruction with the very latest pedagogical techniques. The Ministry have been very supportive and will be monitoring their effectiveness over the next year." Molly nodded in Hermione's direction. "I am confident of a positive outcome, and I look forward to a long and prosperous relationship with the Ministry in determining the best ways to educate our youth."

"Likes the sound of her own voice, doesn't she?" whispered Neville. Hermione covered a grin with her hand.

From her vantage point at the end of the table, she could see that few of the faculty, save Percy, were paying attention to Molly's speech. Ginny and Fleur were passing notes, and Luna and Parvati were deep in discussion. Arthur was fiddling with what looked like a battery and a length of wire, from which smoke was starting to rise.

The journalists were listening, and several were taking notes, with the exception of the belligerent Quentin Cooper, who was returning her measured gaze. He hadn't been afraid to press the headmistress on difficult subjects, and he seemed highly resistant to the headmistress's attempts to answer only the questions she wanted to answer. Hermione gave him the tiniest of nods. A journalist who was skeptical of Molly could be a useful person to know.

Molly was still blathering on, sounding for all the world as if it had been her policies, rather than nepotism and extortion, that had garnered ostensible Ministry support. Hermione was delighted to hear a snort coming from Cooper's direction and made a decision.

Hermione caught Cooper's eye again, and he nodded his head subtly in the direction of the entrance hall before dabbing his lips with a serviette and standing to leave.

"I ought to get back to my room," said Hermione. "I've still got loads of unpacking to do."

"All right then," said Neville. "I'll be seeing you, then."

She smiled at Neville and made her way to the entrance hall, where Cooper was waiting for her.

"Hermione Granger," said Cooper, with a charming smile that could have been a runner-up in Witch Weekly's contest.

"Quentin Cooper. It seems we are of a similar mind when it comes to academic reform."

"I don't know about that," replied Cooper. "I wasn't aware that the Department of Mysteries had any interest in academic reform."

Hermione gave him a polite smile. "If you knew exactly what we did, it wouldn't be at all mysterious, now would it?"

He quirked an eyebrow at her. "What do you want, Ms. Granger? Hermione. May I call you Hermione?"

"If you like. I'd like to know you, Mr. Cooper."

"In the Biblical sense?"

Hermione ignored his leer. "I think that we could help each other."

"Funny," said Cooper, "I was under the impression that the Ministry and Hogwarts were helping one another so much that there wasn't room for much else. For what possible reason would you forsake the Weasleys for me? Other than my scintillating personality and good looks, of course."

"If I wanted to be part of the Weasley clan, I've not exactly lacked for opportunities."

His smile widened in acknowledgement. "Circumstantial evidence at best. Give me something it's possible to verify objectively."

Hermione looked at him appraisingly. If she was going to secure his assistance, she'd need to be as honest with him as she could. "The Educational Fund is sponsoring classified research. Check the budget numbers she handed out at the press conference if you don't believe me. They won't add up to what the Ministry's numbers because she's left out what it's taking to pay me for the year."

"And I'm to believe you're going to bite the hand that's feeding you?"

"Force feeding me, more like," said Hermione with distaste. "The only reason I'm working for her is because she bullied the Minister into cutting my funding so I'd either do her job or nothing. I've had to uproot my office to come here, where my delicate work will be interrupted day and night. I'm not asking much. Your opinion. A bit of research, perhaps. At the very most, a face-to-face meeting or two somewhere down the road. I'll be happy to reciprocate."

"An interesting proposition," said Cooper, stroking his chin. "But the last sympathetic source I had inside Hogwarts had her fire calls intercepted and was all but forced into retirement. How do you plan to avoid the headmistress finding out?"

"Simple. Give me a Galleon."

"I didn't take you for that type, Hermione."

She gave him the look that she usually used for Ron when he was being thick, and Cooper handed her the coin without further comment. Hermione concentrated and cast a Protean Charm on his Galleon and gave him instructions for using it.

"We can't meet regularly, Molly would notice. I'll let you know when and where it's safe to meet."

"A woman after my own heart," said Cooper, examining the Galleon. "I'll see you around, Hermione Granger."

"You, too. What do you like to be called?"

"Partial as I am to 'Merlin, Merlin, give it to me hard,' you can call me Coop."

"All right, Coop. I'll be in touch."

"You'd better be," he replied, slipping the coin into his pocket and sauntering towards the door. "Otherwise, you owe me a Galleon."

***

Molly had been right about one thing — her room was lovely. The furnishings were in jewel tones, and the large fireplace kept the room delightfully warm even as the wind whistled past the frosty windowpanes. A House Elf had escorted her to her room and drawn the curtains, revealing a broad vista of frozen lake and forest, which would be stunning on a sunny day.

"Barbra is hoping Miss is liking her room," the elf said.

"It's very nice," said Hermione, opening the clasp on her carpetbag. "Barbra is a pretty name."

"Barbra is glad Miss is liking it," said the elf. "The headmistress is changing all the elf names, and we is hoping guests is not put off by it. Is there anything Barbra can bring?"

Hermione waved her wand and her belongings flew out of her bag and on to the shelves and into the drawers. "I'm all right for now, thanks, Barbra. But I didn't eat much lunch, so I'll have tea early today. In about an hour, if that's all right."

"Barbra is sorry, miss," said the elf, tugging her ear nervously, "but elves is not allowed to bring meals to private rooms."

Hermione was taken aback. "Why?"

"Headmistress is saying that allowing people to eat at any time in any place is wasteful and encourages anti-social behavior, so elves is only allowed to bring food in the Great Hall."

Hermione swallowed her annoyance. It wasn't the elf's fault the headmistress held nothing sacred. "Thanks, Barbra, I have everything I need here."

The elf bobbed a wobbling curtsy and disappeared with a pop.

Hermione clucked her tongue in disapproval and locked the door to her room. She pulled an aluminum briefcase from her ever-present beaded bag — a less conspicuous design than the original — and laid it on the bed. She slid a Disillusioned bracelet from her left wrist, unlocked the briefcase with the key that was strung on it and opened the case.

In a bed of custom-cut foam laid her Magispectrometer, which appeared none the worse for wear from the journey. It was an unassuming-looking device that she'd built from the remains of her father's old graphing calculator. She flipped the switch on the side, which caused its small screen and the green light on the side to light up. She rubbed her thumb over the words MAG-SPEC that she'd carved into the side the day she'd first tested it.

Hermione stood in the center of the room to get a general reading. The Mag-Spec's screen was crisscrossed by a dozen lines of varying size, shape, and thickness. She recognized several as being related to the spells used to defend and hide the Ministry itself, which wasn't surprising. What was surprising was the presence of two bright red slashes, which revealed the presence of two strong eavesdropping spells somewhere in the room.

The first was easy to find; Cooper had warned her that his previous co-conspirator's fire had been watched, and sure enough, the Mag-Spec's light turned red when she stood next to hers, indicating that she'd identified the locus of a spell. She left it untouched, since she didn't plan to use the fireplace for anything that would upset the headmistress.

The second spell could be anywhere. Hermione closed her eyes and let her mind relax. She had nowhere near the level of magic sense that Albus Dumbledore had, but if she focused and there was nothing distracting her she could just feel the ambient magic like an inaudible buzz, and then, she felt it — there was something odd about the mirror over the vanity.

She stepped to the side, out of the mirror's reflective field, and raised the Mag-Spec. The green light turned red, and she held it next to the locus for long enough to generate a detailed histogram on the screen, marking where the spell fell among several sets of variables.

The readout identified it as a Spy Spell that would allow the caster to visually and aurally monitor her room using the magic mirror as a conduit. Hermione frowned — she hadn't realized that the headmistress's spying extended beyond the student common areas. Hermione pursed her lips and raised her wand to dispel the enchantments, but thought better of it. As long as Molly believed her spells were working perfectly, she would make no additional efforts to spy. Hermione instead cast a complicated set of illusions in front of the mirror that would mask her real activities from anybody watching.

A final flourish tied the illusions to her wand, so that when she chose to activate the charm, all Molly would see is something dull, like Hermione reading or writing in a notebook. A dedicated spy would soon realize the images repeated themselves every thirty minutes, but they would fool the casual watcher, which is all she hoped was necessary. She figured could always add illusions to the rotation, if needed.

Having summarily dealt with the bedroom, Hermione took additional Mag-Spec readings in the bathroom. She was relieved to find no Spy Spells, and she was deeply impressed with the room's magical amenities, particularly the self-fluffing towels.

There was a soft knock at the door, and Hermione returned the Mag-Spec to its case and tucked it beneath her pillow. She nonverbally deactivated her illusion charm on the mirror, and opened the door.

To her surprise and delight, Luna, Fleur, Ginny, and Parvati stood on her doorstep bearing several bottles of champagne and a covered basket from which the most delicious smells imaginable were emanating.

"Hello, Hermione," said Luna, embracing her. "Your room isn't one of the ones that was infested with Crepuscular Dwentids, is it?"

Hermione smiled, "Why don't you come in and have a look?"

She embraced the others in turn and ushered them into her room. She summoned a sofa and chairs for her guests.

"Wow, Hermione," exclaimed Parvati. "Molly must love whatever project you're doing if she's given you a fire that large."

"Really? I thought all fires at Hogwarts were this size."

"Maybe they were once," said Ginny, "but Mum's trying to save money, and that includes on heating. Most of us just Apparate home rather than live in a room that freezes at night."

"And speaking of zee 'eadmistress's cuts," said Fleur, arraying the contents of the basket on the table with several precise flicks of her wand, "'ave a proper luncheon. Zee beef at lunch was execrable."

The other women made noises of agreement and sat around the table. Luna had ceased examining the carpet for Dwentids and conjured a set of champagne flutes, which Ginny filled with the sparkling wine.

"To Hermione!" said Ginny.

"Welcome 'ome," added Fleur.

"And good luck with your oh-so-mysterious project," said Parvati with a cheeky smile.

"May she be the first of many things to celebrate," said Luna gravely.

They all drank and then attacked the beautiful spread of warm crusty bread, ripe cheese, fresh fruit, olives, and delectable-looking meats with gusto.

Parvati spread a bit of bread with terrine, took a bite, and sighed happily. "I swear, without Fleur, we'd all starve."

"The food's not that bad," said Ginny. "It's still better than most people get at home."

Fleur snorted. "Not my home."

"Not everybody is an enormous food snob," retorted Ginny, with her mouth full of apple.

"Well," said Parvati, "when we were in school, there was Indian food at least once a week. There hasn't been as much as a samosa since I started teaching here."

"Perhaps they just did that for students to keep them from getting homesick," suggested Luna.

"Well, they certainly aren't doing it any more," said Parvati, munching sulkily on a handful of grapes.

"I always wondered what it would be like to teach," commented Hermione, "compared to what it seemed like when we were students."

"It's certainly different," said Ginny, popping an olive into her mouth. "I get the feeling that students don't respect teachers the way we used to when we were students."

"Yes and no," admitted Parvati. "I always thought I'd be a much nicer teacher than McGonagall was, but I sort of see where she was coming from now."

"Well, you're also teaching three subjects," pointed out Luna. "None of the teachers had to do that when we were students."

"It does seem like a lot has changed," said Hermione blandly, slicing into a wheel of Camembert and inwardly cheering her friends' forthrightness.

"You don't know the half of it," said Parvati darkly.

"For 'eaven's sake, zee poor woman is 'ardly settled and you are already making 'er want to leave," admonished Fleur.

"I'm not easily scared," said Hermione with a smile.

"Of course you're not," said Parvati, "but Hogwarts has most certainly changed. All of us had classes with boys, for start."

"And we were allowed to swim in the lake," added Ginny.

Hermione paused in taking a bit of cheese. "Hang on, why aren't you allowed to swim in the lake?"

"Grindylows," said Fleur, in tones of loathing. "Zee 'eadmistress thinks zee lake is unsafe. Nevair mind zat Grindylows live only in the deepest part. It is as if she did not watch the Triwizard Tournament."

"Or maybe she feels that way because her youngest son ended up at the bottom of the lake," suggested Parvati.

"I haven't seen a Hopping Hootenanny since I started teaching here," said Luna sadly. "You almost couldn't move without stepping on one when we were students. And there are no more Hogsmeade trips. It's probably easier on the teachers, but it's still rotten for the students."

"Let me guess," said Hermione, "students bought too many Zonko's products."

"You'd think that," said Parvati, "but this is the ridiculous thing — she didn't want students visiting Madam Puddifoot's!"

That startled a laugh out of Hermione. "You're joking."

"She found out about the items for sale in the back room," said Ginny insinuatingly.

"Eet is terribly unfair," declared Fleur, brandishing the end of a baguette, "zat zee boys were allowed their nose-biting teacups, yet girls exploring their own femininity are too shocking to be allowed."

"Mum's always been old-fashioned," said Ginny. "And she had to do something after all the Gryffindors were dosed with love potion. The place was a madhouse."

"Zat is still no excuse for confining all students to zee castle," said Fleur. "Filius would nevair have punished everyone that way."

"It was brilliantly done," said Luna, delicately picking the peel off a grape. "We nearly had to cancel the end-of-year exams."

The teachers bickered good-naturedly, and Hermione's list of things to ask Coop grew exponentially. They had nearly finished the second bottle of champagne when there was a loud click, and Hermione was dismayed to see her door open and the headmistress step into her room.

"Hermione, dear, I was hoping we might have a— oh." She trailed off as she saw the food and champagne. "Well, this is cozy!" she exclaimed. "A little party with the girls," she said, sitting down between Fleur and Parvati on the sofa and spreading a healthy bit of cheese onto a piece of toast. "So, ladies, how are things? Have you finished all your Christmas shopping?"

Fleur, Ginny, and Parvati exchanged glances. "Holidays have only just started, Mum," said Ginny. "And you wanted us to be here today, so we've not had much time just yet."

"Things do have a way of piling up at the holidays," said Molly with a sigh. "That's why I start my Christmas preparations in September. What about you, Parvati? Will your parents be visiting again?"

"Yes. Padma and Terry had them last Christmas, and they've been traveling, so they haven't seen Charlie and the twins since Easter."

Molly clucked her tongue sympathetically. "You must be up to your ears in preparations."

Parvati frowned. "I suppose."

"And you, Fleur?"

"You know perfectly well zat Bill and I are spending the 'olidays with Victoire and Teddy in Fiji. Zee trip has been planned for months, and we 'ave already packed."

Molly placed her hand on her cheek in distress. "Oh, didn't you hear? There's been some trouble with the government."

"It is Fiji," said Fleur, "zehr is always government trouble."

"It must be particularly bad," said Molly, "because the Ministry has suspended international Portkeys there."

"'ave they?" asked Fleur, looking at Molly suspiciously.

"My word, yes!" exclaimed Molly. "My dear, I'm so very sorry. All the time you spent planning, all for naught! I suspect you'll be very busy trying to figure out an alternate plan before Christmas, won't you?"

"If what you say is true," said Fleur, "Bill and I will 'ave much to do."

"Just remember that you're always welcome at Hogwarts," said Molly, patting Fleur's knee.

"Thank you," said Fleur coolly.

Hermione could see where Molly was steering the conversation and decided to play along. "Well, it sounds like you are all terribly busy with your families. You don't need to stay on my account."

"I'm not busy," said Luna, who was gazing fondly at the ceiling. "My father is taking the children on a field mission to Burma, but they'll be back in time for Christmas dinner."

"Your time can't be that unoccupied," replied the headmistress. "You're teaching the unit on dragons when the children return."

"Oh, I'm done with preparations," said Luna. "I even had Charlie review my plans, and he says they're fine."

"Well," said Molly, flushing a little. "Mr. Filch reported an infestation of Nargles in the mistletoe he used to decorate the entire castle. I'll be needing you to check every spray."

Luna shook her head sadly. "I told Neville to use the Nargle repellent! Oh well, nothing for it. I'll see you later, Hermione."

"I'd better go, too," said Parvati unhappily. "It was good to see you."

Hermione began to pack up the leftover food, but Fleur gestured for her to stop. "Keep it," she said. "You will be glad to 'ave it later, I think. Be sure to save the last bottle of champagne for a special occasion."

Fleur gave her a hug and the Frenchwoman kissed both her cheeks, whispering quickly. "Do not worry, we will not leave you alone for long."

Hermione smiled and bade her friends farewell. When she had closed the door, she found Molly peeling an orange.

"Now that we're alone, there are a few rules I wanted to discuss with you. As you may have gathered, some things have changed since you were a student here. I took the liberty of preparing a list of the most important rules, though I figured it might be easier to run through them face-to-face, in case you have any questions."

"Thank you, Molly. That's very thoughtful." Hermione sighed inwardly and prepared herself for a long evening.

The afternoon stretched into the evening as Molly detailed where Hermione was to be at each hour of each day for the next week. Unsurprisingly, after Molly finally departed Hermione was asleep before her head hit the pillow. The next morning, in accordance with the headmistress's instructions, she rose from her bed in the predawn dark and made her way to the Great Hall with her Mag-Spec and field notebook. She was pleased to find the hall completely empty, save for a cup of tea that a House Elf had undoubtedly brought for her. Molly had cautioned her against using her Mag-Spec in public places at times when others were to be around, but the hall was empty, and to ensure that she wouldn't violate Molly's commands, Hermione cast a spell on the far side of the main doorway to alert her to anyone's approach.

She felt a shiver of anticipation as she walked to the center of the hall and turned on the Mag-Spec. The screen immediately lit with literally hundreds of lines of different shapes, colors, and thicknesses, which she flash-copied to her notebook. Not even in the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic had she ever seen such strong and varied spellwork.

She immediately recognized a series of squiggles as the same basic protection spells that she'd seen in her room, and a faint parabola in the periphery of the viewable field was clearly part of the school's Muggle-repelling charm. There were also a handful of doors to what were probably magically created spaces — coat closets, most likely. She was particularly impressed by the brilliant silver curve that represented the ceiling charm.

She tapped her wand on the screen to more closely view the ceiling charm and paused. The silver line was more clearly visible, but the contrast was poor. She tapped the screen to turn the dark grey background white, and gasped. The dull gray background of the Mag-Spec screen was not empty as she had thought, but completely obscured by a thick scribble in an identical shade of gray. But before she had the chance to process this, the scribble faded into the white background.

Hermione stared at the screen, dumbfounded. The histogram was both larger and more random than anything she'd ever seen before, by far the strongest spell she'd attempted to analyze. If she could determine its locus, then she'd be able to map it using the Mag-Spec. Hermione shut her eyes, reaching out with her magic for the source of the spell, but it was too strong. It resonated through the whole hall, probably throughout the entire castle.

That was a pretty puzzle. If she couldn't graph the spell, then perhaps a closer look at its structure would reveal something about its purpose. She entered a command into the Mag-Spec, and all the other lines disappeared. For good measure, she turned the background purple so she could see the structure of the spell more readily. To her surprise, the histogram of the spell disappeared into the new background.

Hermione stared at the screen incredulously for a moment before she burst out laughing. The spell was adapting so as not to be discovered! Now this was a proper test!

She pressed several buttons, which set the screen to rotating through the display's two-hundred odd colors at random, which she hoped would distract the spell sufficiently to allow her to examine its structure more closely. To her satisfaction, the spell wasn't quite able to keep up with the color changes, and she flash-copied the now-visible spell into her notebook. However, the pattern was no more comprehensible than when she could barely see it. It looked like as if something had been thoroughly scribbled out in marker pen.

Hermione tapped her wand on the screen repeatedly, viewing the spell at even closer range. The flashing screen made it somewhat difficult to make out, but at about the sixteenth or so tap of her wand, the line she was examining suddenly became clearer, and she could see that each line was made up of smaller, perpendicular lines. Encouraged, she kept tapping her wand to the screen, viewing the spell at an increasingly smaller scale when suddenly she saw them. Though they were still blurry from lack of resolution, she was surprised to realize that the tiny lines were made of up words.

She had never seen anything like it. Hardly daring to believe what she'd found, Hermione tapped her wand on the Mag-Spec screen until she could read the words whose endless repetition formed the backbone of the bizarre spell.

The Potions teacher of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry is Severus Snape.

Three things suddenly became clear to Hermione at that moment. First, that the brilliant, maddening spell she'd discovered and forced to reveal its secrets was none other than the Fidelius Charm. Second, that her Mag-Spec had worked beyond her wildest expectations. Third, that she was not alone in the hall.

Severus Snape, the most despised man in the Wizarding World was sitting at the high table bent over a plate of eggs and toast.

Chapter Text

Hermione gasped loudly, and Snape's head snapped up to see what had surprised her. His eyes widened when he realized that she was staring directly at him. His mouth dropped open in amazement, but his mouth then hardened into a thin line.

"Granger," he snapped.

"Professor," she whispered, her heart fluttering wildly in her throat.

"I hope you're enjoying the show," he said. "You never could look away, even when it was in your best interests to do so. Congratulations, you've found Molly Weasley's performing monkey. If you come by later in the day, perhaps I'll have cymbals to crash together."

"I don't understand—" began Hermione.

"You never did," he spat. "What's your angle this time, Granger? The Society for the Protection of Snape's Welfare? Going to make things a thousand times worse for me than they were before you interfered? Oh, apologies, you've already done that."

His harsh words inflamed her righteous indignation, and she promptly forgot the importance of what she'd just discovered. "I hadn't realized that you fancied a stretch in Azkaban. I'd be happy to recant my testimony if that's the case."

Snape's mouth twisted into a sneer. "Did you never stop to think, Granger, about what might happen to me if you and your little friends convinced the Wizengamot not to pursue criminal charges against me?'

"I haven't the slightest idea what you—"

"Of course you haven't!" Snape was on his feet now, his face murderous. "You stayed just long enough to ease your guilty consciences — felt a bit of a twinge for leaving me to die, I expect — and just as you did then, you left me. You called me a hero and left me to the tender mercies of a world that never saw me tried, who never heard any reason that I should be freed! Is it any wonder that I cannot walk down Diagon Alley without being accosted? That Aurors have dogged my every step?"

Hermione felt as if she'd been hit with a Bludger. "But you're here," she said weakly. "You're teaching."

He seemed to deflate then and fixed her in a pitying stare. "The famed brain of Gryffindor," he said, sitting heavily his chair. "The mighty are fallen, indeed." Without another word, he bent deliberately over his plate and went back to eating.

Hermione wasn't sure whether to be offended or relieved. Her mind was spinning. Though the Wizengamot had declined to bring murder or treason charges against Snape, largely because of her, Harry's and Ron's testimony, as well as the memories he'd surrendered before his ersatz demise, the Wizarding World was less than forgiving when a Prophet exclusive revealed that he was alive and living in the outskirts of Birmingham. Twice, the undisclosed location of his dwelling had been leaked to the public. The first time, his home had been vandalized and most of its furnishings destroyed. The second time, it had been burned to the ground.

They had tried to speak on his behalf then, but Snape would have none of it. They'd heard nothing of him or his whereabouts since. And now, Snape had returned to Hogwarts. But how? And why?

There was nothing for it. If she was to find out anything, she'd have to talk to him. She slipped the Mag-Spec back into its case and tentatively approached the high table, where he sat, pointedly ignoring her.

"So, how long have you been waiting to tell me off?" she asked conversationally, pulling up a chair near, but not next to him.

"Since you were eleven," he said, still not looking at her.

"It was very effective."

"Do not patronize me, Granger."

"All right, then. What on earth are you doing here?"

"Teaching. Granger, eating breakfast is a necessity. Answering your inane questions are not. Clear off."

"I would that I could. I'm here on the headmistress's orders."

He scowled. "While I shall never underestimate that woman's capacity for sucking all pleasure out of life, foisting you upon me is far too creative a punishment for her to have conceived."

Hermione took a deep breath. "I don't think she was expecting me to be aware of your presence."

Snape went very still. "Your melodramatic pause indicates that you expect me to believe that you have discovered me of your own accord."

"In this case, I believe the headmistress's lack of imagination has worked to both of our advantages."

He snorted. "That's rather an optimistic assessment."

"Is it? Are you happy here?"

"I should think that you've seen enough of my memories to understand the absurdity of that question."

"Well, when you had a choice, you kept to yourself."

"I am keeping to myself. The Fidelius Charm ensures that nobody is aware of my presence except for the headmistress and the Secret Keeper. No one speaks to me, no one sees me, and no one hears me."

"I should think that would make teaching rather difficult," said Hermione.

"Teaching under the Fidelius requires remarkably few adjustments. It's not as if Potions students bothered listening to me, even when my presence wasn't magically obscured."

Hermione frowned. "Why go through the bother of hiding you?"

"What, finding it hard to believe that someone else had my welfare in mind?"

"Yes," said Hermione baldly.

That surprised a snort out of Snape. He gave her an appraising look. "I was a cost-cutting measure, just as all the current teachers are. I wasn't inexperienced, foolish, or part of the Weasley clan, so Molly begged me to return to teaching when Horace disappeared for good. She came to me distraught and desperate, willing to consider anything so that the school might remain open. She assured me that that I'd be released as soon as she found a suitable replacement for me, that it would only be for a short time, and that she had a foolproof plan to keep my appointment out of the papers."

"How long have you been here?"

"Eight interminable years," he said. "One would think that I would have learnt my lesson the last time I made an Unbreakable Vow to a tearful woman."

Hermione let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "This is all really quite—"

"If the word 'fascinating' escapes your lips, Granger, I cannot be held responsible for what blunt-edged cutlery may become embedded in your person."

"I was going to say 'absurd.' You do realize we're both in the same boat, don't you."

"Sadly, real justice is not nearly so poetic. Molly intimated to the staff that Hogwarts is supporting your research for a year. After your year of service to Her Weasliness, you shall return to your sinecure in the Department of Mysteries, whilst I will remain here in indefinite servitude. I hope you will pardon my skepticism that your experience gives you the slightest insight into mine."

Hermione bit back a retort. He was right. And from the smug look he was giving her, he knew it.

"I don't blame her entirely," he said, taking a sip of tea. "I'd have done the same in her place. She merely took advantage of the situation you created."

Hermione regarded him in silent scrutiny for a moment. "Bollocks," she said at last.

Snape scowled at her. "I beg your pardon."

"You're here for exactly the same reason I'm here — we both underestimated Molly Weasley. And since, as you pointed out, you're neither inexperienced nor a fool, you understand that simply by discovering your presence, I can help you. And given my past, you know I'd help you even without being coerced. I believe that attempting to make me feel guilty for your predicament serves another purpose entirely."

"Analysis from a Gryffindor. I must hear this," he said, looking up from his plate at last and regarding her with a goading smirk.

She returned his smirk. "You want to know how I broke the Fidelius."

"I've seen no evidence that you've broken it at all," he said in a bored tone. "It's far more likely that you were told by Molly the Terrible or that useless tit of a Secret Keeper."

"If that were so, I'd have seen you the moment I entered the Great Hall," she said. "And I certainly wouldn't have begun doing top-secret experiments in front of you, if that were the case."

"It might have been an act," he challenged.

"I can't act for toffee," she pointed out.

"Though I admit that the possibility is remote, you might have learned a thing or two in the decades since we last met."

"Damn it all!" exclaimed Hermione. "Why would I make this up?" She paused, glaring at him. "You're doing this on purpose," she said at last. "Why?"

"You may have forgot, but I'm not at all motivated to make things easier for you. By all means, make it clear to me why I should involve myself with you, whose misguided philanthropy forced me into obscurity, against La Weasley, whose misguided philanthropy has simply made that obscurity more impenetrable? At least she ensures that I receive three meals each day."

Hermione glanced at his plate, and was struck with an idea. "You don't take pepper on your eggs?" she asked. "Oh, that's right, the headmistress is rationing exotic spices. She briefed me on her cost-cutting measures last night. Barbra?"

The House Elf cracked into existence. "Yes, miss?"

"Would you be so kind as to prepare me some eggs. And I'd be most obliged if you could serve them with a bit of the pancetta that Fleur left in my room."

The House Elf bowed and vanished. A moment later, two fried eggs with several slices of sizzling, pepper-crusted pancetta appeared in front of her. The savory smell made her mouth water, and she could only imagine what it was doing to Snape.

He scowled at her. "It won't work."

"What won't?" she asked, taking a dainty bite of the pancetta.

"You cannot tempt me to your side with mere foodstuffs."

"You're already on my side. I don't need to tempt you," said Hermione.

Snape moistened his lips with a quick dart of his tongue. "Then what twisted part of your nature allows you to feast in front of a starving man?"

"Oh, I imagine it's somewhat like the twisted part of a teacher that made him insult a teenager's teeth," she said.

"Hit a nerve, did I?" His tone was gratified.

She took another bite of her breakfast. "It's only fair that I return the favor."

"One could argue that you owe me your very life."

"One could also argue that the debt is mutual."

"I could point out that the life you left me is far inferior to the life you've made for yourself."

Hermione took a deep breath. "Look, I'm not denying that we grossly underestimated how the public would react to your being freed without trial, but I'm offering to help. Don't cut your nose off to spite your face. Not that I'm trying to say anything about your nose," she amended hastily.

Snape pursed his lips, and he went back to eating his bland eggs. Hermione was about to try again, but her wand, which lay next to her plate, began rattling against the table.

"Someone's coming," Hermione said quickly.

"Thank heaven for small mercies," said Snape, pointedly turning away from her.

The doors opened, and the headmistress bustled into the great hall. She stopped short when she saw Hermione and Snape eating breakfast side by side at the high table. Her face drained of color.

Hermione grinned inwardly and decided that perhaps Snape was on to something about the pleasures of making things difficult for other people. "Good morning, Molly. I hadn't expected to see you this early. I've had a most productive morning with my invention. Are you well? You look a bit peaky."

Molly made a Herculean effort to compose herself. "Hermione, dear," she said with the fake smile that Hermione was beginning to despise, "I thought I emphasized the importance of keeping your project secret."

"I don't know what you mean," said Hermione, furrowing her brow for emphasis. "I cast Sentinel Charms at all the entrances. Nobody could enter the Great Hall without my knowing it."

She nearly jumped when Snape added, "Really, you stupid cow, unless you think this mindless parrot capable of breaking the Fidelius Charm, you haven't much to worry about."

Hermione bit back a guffaw, and Molly did a credible job of pretending she hadn't heard Snape. She frowned at Hermione. "You cannot depend on Sentinel Charms. What if somebody were hiding in the room?"

Hermione gestured to the room around her, deliberately swinging her hand within a hairsbreadth of Snape's face. "In the remote possibility that someone were hiding, my invention would detect them, I'd cast the counterspell and then Obliviate them. End of problem."

"I'd love to see her try," grumbled Snape. Hermione managed to ignore him, even as he speared a piece of her pancetta with his fork and ate it. Molly's face was starting to turn red.

"Still," said Molly with a strained laugh, "the walls here have ears. I'd feel much better if you would refrain from mentioning your invention in common areas."

"The only useful invention that swot could come up with would be an automatic page-turner," remarked Snape, reaching out for more pancetta. Hermione neatly blocked his attempt with her elbow and put her chin in her hand.

"I'll be careful, Molly," said Hermione, "But since it's just us the two of us now, won't you join me for a cuppa? I've been dying for some girl talk, and since we're colleagues now, I hoped you might finally tell me why Arthur calls you 'Mollywobbles' when you're alone."

Hermione's composure nearly faltered at Molly's horrified expression, and once again at the sound of tea being snorted out of Severus Snape's nose. She took a bite of her breakfast to celebrate.

"Oh my," said the headmistress, looking at her bare wrist. "I hadn't realized it was so late. Elton?"

A House Elf cracked into existence. "Yes, headmistress?"

"I'll take breakfast in my office — sausages, I think, and ham, eggs, toast, jam, muffins, butter, and tea with milk and four lumps."

"You mustn't forget your daily pound of flesh," said Snape, blowing his nose loudly into his handkerchief.

Elton the House Elf bowed, then disappeared.

"I thought elves wouldn't bring meals anywhere but the Great Hall," said Hermione in a dubious tone.

"She didn't order a meal," said Snape. "She ordered a buffet."

Molly's face hardened, and she rounded on Hermione. "Don't talk to me about rules, young lady! I will not tolerate lectures in my own school."

"That explains the declining N.E.W.T.s scores," drawled Snape.

"It's all right, Molly," said Hermione, trying desperately not to laugh. "I understand that you have loads to do. I won't mention it to anybody."

"That's right," the headmistress snapped at nobody in particular, spun on her heel, and marched out of the Great Hall.

"Mollywobbles," shot Snape.

The door's slam echoed through the hall.

Hermione waited until the headmistress had passed her Sentinel Charm before turning to Snape. "You're absolutely terrible," she said admiringly. "Do you always insult her to her face like that?"

"Only when there are other people in the room," he said. "But it's all for naught. She won't get rid of me, not unless she gains an in-law who's willing to teach Potions gratis, and even then she might keep me here simply out of spite."

Hermione's wand began buzzing again. "Someone else is coming," she said.

Snape glanced at his pocket watch. "Longbottom, most likely" he said with his habitual sneer. "This conversation is not over. Come to my chambers tonight after supper."

"I have to deliver a status report to Molly first," said Hermione, "but I'll be there. What's your password?"

Snape stood. "Surely your intriguing little box can tell you that," he said, spearing the last of her pancetta with his fork and popping it into his mouth.

"Hi, Hermione!" came a cheerful voice from the entrance. It was Neville, cheeks pink from exertion and wearing a pair of muddy robes. "I've been out in Greenhouse Six all night. It's pupping season for the Greenseal."

"Poor dear," Hermione said. "Have a seat and tell me all about it."

Snape sniffed disapprovingly and departed through the main doors in a swirl of black.

***

That evening found Hermione stomping through the dungeons, Mag-Spec in hand and murderous thoughts in mind. She pressed its buttons a bit harder than she ought to have done, and she had to stop and take a few deep breaths, lest she do damage to her prototype.

The awful woman had insisted that since she had located so many hidden rooms that day — concealed coat closets was more like it — that she locate an equal number of rooms each successive day. Hermione had tried to argue that expectations shouldn't be based on a single day's worth of data, but Molly was adamant. She suspected that it was revenge for the Mollywobbles incident, but she had no choice but to follow Molly's orders to the letter. She had to keep her wits about her for her meeting with Snape. She couldn't let her annoyance with Molly distract her.

She stopped in front of the wall that she knew concealed the entrance to Snape's office. Fortunately, it was a simple matter to open a password-protected room. She didn't need the password, she simply needed to see the graph of the spell, which would reveal the spell's weak points. The Mag-Spec's green light turned red, and the spell appeared on the screen. Hermione raised an eyebrow. Snape's door spell was as strong and multi-layered as the one that secured the Minister of Magic's door. She knew this because one of her earliest tests had been breaking into Ron's office.

Hermione focused on the image on the screen and began tapping her wand precisely on the wall. It was like breaking a combination lock, only a false tap would give her an unpleasant jolt and she'd have to start over. Fortunately, she was able to stay focused, and within minutes she was standing inside Snape's office.

It was far less creepy than she remembered. A brass chandelier suffused the room with warm yellow light, which was more than the paltry fireplace in the corner was able to do. Still, the room was cozy and warm, and the walls, which once were lined with dead things in bottles and jars now held books: potions references, but also volumes of magical history, and even a copy of "The Tales of Beedle the Bard." Hermione supposed now that no student would ever see the office, attempts to be intimidating were rather superfluous. Certainly, the crocheted afghan carefully folded over the back of the chair closest to the fire would not have fit the image he cultivated.

Hermione laid her hand on the soft wool, noting its faint cedar scent, and promptly failed at imagining Snape curled underneath it. She was amused to note that there was a comically large lock on the cabinet, which Hermione knew contained his private stores. She idly wondered if he had put it there for her benefit.

Since there was no sign of the man, she withdrew her Mag-Spec and took a quick reading of the room. Hermione felt a sudden twinge of guilt when she realized how many heating charms were required to make the room comfortable. Closer examination revealed that most of the charms were temporary, which meant that he'd cast them for her benefit, and quite possibly, to arouse her guilt when she examined the room, which he must have known she would do. Impossible man. And, judging by the twin lines in yellow and cobalt that indicated the presence of Disillusionment and Notice-Me-Not charms, he was also in the room somewhere.

Hermione raised her wand. Her magical sense was fair, but it wasn't sensitive enough to locate a Notice-Me-Not charm, but there was more than one defense against Disillusionment.

"Rosamundi," she said, sweeping her wand in an arc before her. A shower of flower petals in every color of the rainbow began to fluttering gently from the ceiling. Sure enough, a man-shaped hole appeared in the air near the Potions stores. He revealed himself with a muffled curse.

"Really, Professor, if you were that concerned about me stealing from your private stores, we could have met elsewhere."

"Foolish girl!" he snapped. "Cease these ham-handed antics at once!"

"You're one to talk, hiding in your own quarters. You could have simply asked me to show you my Mag-Spec if you wanted to see what it does." She raised her wand to Vanish the petals, but Snape laid his hand on her forearm to stop her.

"Would you have complied?" He conjured a glass jar and swept all the fallen petals into it with a wave of his wand.

Hermione frowned, at a loss to explain his actions. "That depends on why you asked me here tonight."

He set the jar of petals on the table and cast a nonverbal charm that caused the petals to shrivel and turn brown. Another nonverbal charm summoned a mortal and pestle, with which he crushed the petals into fine brown powder, and another charm transferred them to a small blue bottle, which he sealed with a cork and placed in his private potions stores.

Hermione was bewildered, but remembered his admonishment to remain silent, and watched his adept charm work without a word. He gave her a curt nod and tapped his wand on a nondescript black volume on the bookshelf. The shelf swung forward, revealing a narrow doorway.

"Come," he ordered, gesturing towards the dimly-lit passageway he'd revealed. Hermione's eyes widened. She expected Snape's quarters to be difficult to penetrate, but the dimly illuminated corridor that stretched before her fairly crackled with protective magic. She shuddered. Anybody who managed to find the secret door to the hallway would soon be in over her or her head.

She stepped past him, as he extinguished the lights and fire and dispelled the Warming Charms with dispassionate flick of his wand. He edged past her into the narrow passageway and gestured for her to follow. Hermione could see her breath in the chilly air and pulled her robes more tightly about her. She followed him down the hall past the doors to his private rooms. The walls of the passageway glowed softly, and her fingers itched to discover the spell that made it happen, but Snape gave her a quelling glare and put his finger to his lips, gesturing for her to be silent.

He led her into a tiny storeroom that contained boxes and a few larger objects whose identities were concealed by drop cloths. Though the room was clean, there was a faint acrid, smoky smell that suffused the cold air.

Snape removed a key from his pocket and locked the door behind him.

"We may speak freely here without fear of interruption," he said, "though I must insist that you not cast any additional spells, as the headmistress monitors all wand use in all rooms reserved for my private use. I was fortunate that the rather quixotic charm you chose to reveal me produced a relatively common Potions ingredient, so it will not be difficult to justify its use to the headmistress."

The irritation with Molly that had lain dormant flared back to life. "She's mad!" exclaimed Hermione.

"On the contrary, she's quite shrewd. It's a simple way to ensure that her prisoner will not have the means to escape."

"What about the charms you chose to hide yourself? Won't those be difficult to explain?"

"Not at all. I typically conceal myself in my quarters."

"Why? The only people who know you're here will know you've done it."

"True, but they won't know where I am hidden. Since my Weasley tormentors realized that, their unannounced visits have all but stopped. It seems that neither of them finds their conversations with empty rooms as diverting as I do."

Only the gravity of the situation kept Hermione from laughing at the image of Molly lecturing the chair by the fire. "Tormentors, as in plural?"

"Molly, who cast the Fidelius, and Percy, the overeager Secret Keeper."

"Why Percy?"

"Another shrewd move. Of all the Weasley children, he harbors the most guilt over his inaction in the early stages of the war. He is also the least likely to ask questions. Fortunately for me, there are numerous ways to do magic that even the headmistress's spells cannot detect."

"Activation of previously-cast spells, like passwords," said Hermione. "Apparation, if it were allowed. And Potions, of course," she added hastily.

"Of course," repeated Snape acerbically. "I may also use magical objects that were created elsewhere, which, I presume, describes that lump of plastic in your hand. This brings me to the reason that I have asked you here tonight, Granger. You claim that you've broken the Fidelius Charm and have suggested that you may be able to free me from my servitude. Before I take you any further into my confidence, I would like a demonstration. Prove to me that you are able to do what you say you can do."

Hermione took a deep breath. "Is there a place to sit?"

Snape gestured to a drop-clothed item behind her. "That's a sofa. I suggest that you keep the drop cloth in place, as it's somewhat singed."

Hermione sat, and found the sofa to be rather hard. She belated realized that this was probably the sofa that had been inside Spinner's End when the unknown arsonist had burned it to the ground. Snape remained standing, arms crossed, and regarding her with a challenging stare.

She met his gaze squarely. "How much do you know about subatomic particles, sir?"

"You don't really expect me to believe that you have brought a nuclear-powered device into a school."

"Of course not, but it's easier to explain if you understand what makes up matter."

"I know that matter is composed of elements, which are made of atoms, which are made up of different types of sub-atomic particles."

"Do you know about anti-matter as well?"

"I know enough to know that matter and anti-matter annihilate one another. For every particle, there is an anti-particle."

"Good," said Hermione, nodding. "Now, what about light? What's it made of?"

"Light is a form of energy, and it's composed of waves of particles called photons," he replied.

"Exactly. And Einstein's famous equation tells us that there's a measurable relationship between matter and energy."

"As fascinating as this refresher on secondary school science is, I trust you're going to impress me at some point?"

Hermione ignored him. "Based on what you know of matter and energy, what can we say about magic?"

"Nothing. Magic is completely different."

"Really? It has observable properties. The Protego charm shows us that magic can be reflected. When someone is hit with multiple hexes at once, the result is different than if the victim were to be hit with the hexes one after another, which suggests that magic can be refracted."

"Your examples merely illustrate that magic can affect magic, which is patently obvious from the fact that spells have counterspells."

"But based on what we know of matter and anti-matter, isn't it possible that a counterspell is simply anti-magic annihilating magic?"

"It's possible," he replied with distaste, "but there are infinite other possible explanations."

"All right then, let's take Einstein's theory that energy and matter are inextricably linked. Magic like Transfiguration clearly affects matter, and simple Heating Charms affect energy. And all magic interferes with electricity. Surely something that can affect basic types of particles is in itself made of specific particles."

"I suppose this is where you take out your little machine," said Snape dismissively, sitting down on the sofa next to her.

Hermione cheered inwardly at his unspoken acknowledgement of her argument's validity and held out her Mag-Spec so that he could see what she was doing. "The Magispectrometer functions similarly to the Muggle mass spectrometer, which determines the composition of a sample based on its mass and energy. The Mag-Spec determines the composition of spells by graphing them based on their properties."

"But what does it detect?"

"The fundamental particles that make up magic, which I've called prestons."

Snape looked down his not unimpressive nose. "Prestons?"

Hermione valiantly tried not to blush. "I saw a Muggle magician when I was six, and 'Presto!' was his magic word." She turned on the Mag-Spec and pointed to the lines that appeared. "All of these lines represent active spells in the room."

"What are the letters on the graph's axes?" asked Snape.

"It's sort of complicated," said Hermione. "You know how different types of quarks are called 'flavors?' It doesn't have anything to do with taste — it's just a simple word that's easy to work with. For simplicity's sake, I've named the four flavors of prestons for the four classic elements based on their diametric properties. So the y-axis of the graph shows you how much Earth and Air comprise the spell, and the x-axis shows Fire and Water."

"Charming," said Snape, sighing impatiently.

"So all these lines on the Earth side of the E-A axis are the basic protection and secrecy spells that are on the whole castle. Unfortunately, since the locus of the spell isn't in the room, I can't show you a detailed diagram of the spell. However, this line here," she indicated an aqua line that wavered through the water side of the F-W axis, "is strong enough that its locus is in the room. I haven't developed perfect means of finding spell loci, but I can sometimes find it just by listening."

"Or you might simply conclude that you're seeing the illumination spell I cast on the walls," said Snape.

Hermione ignored him and approached the nearest wall. "When I find the locus, I place the Mag-Spec next to it. If the light turns red — as you can see, it has — the Mag-Spec has detected enough prestons to display a full histogram of the spell."

She handed Snape the Mag-Spec, and he examined the intricate graph made by the spell, his brow furrowed.

"It may not look like anything useful," she explained, "but if you look at enough of these, you can recognize features that indicate the spell's function. For example," she said, pointing, "this structure indicates that this is a spell that you don't need to renew — it's permanent. However, since there's an overlap with this other part, which is a mechanism that allows for gradations of spell effect, I'm guessing that you can control the amount of light the walls emit."

Snape was looking at her with an unreadable expression on his face. "What else does this tell you?"

Hermione tapped her wand on the screen to examine part of the histogram more closely. "The spell takes a lot of focus to cast, but will last indefinitely. In order to make the walls glow consistently, a smooth, steady wand action is required during casting, most likely a baseboard-to-ceiling vertical flick. Oh, and this spike indicates that only the person who cast the spell can control the light. Very neat work. It's one of yours, isn't it?"

Snape went rigid beside her. "How the devil did you deduce that?"

Hermione shrugged. "I know an awful lot of light-producing charms, but this one is new to me. Add that to the fact that you used it to light the entirety of your private quarters and that you've been inventing spells since you were a teenager, it seemed a logical conclusion."

He relaxed infinitesimally at that. "What aspect of the Fidelius Charm allowed you to break it?"

"That was kind of a fluke, actually," admitted Hermione. "The spell has universal effect, thus, no locus that would allow me to view its histogram. However, its function is to hide a secret, so the secret forms the basis of the simple structure. I simply viewed the spell closely enough to read it, that's all. It doesn't work that way for most other spells. I'm sure there are other exceptions, but the technology's new, and my test cases have been few."

"And what precisely are you doing with it at present?"

"The headmistress is having me map all of Hogwarts so that we have access to all the hidden rooms."

"Sounds tedious."

"It will be, especially since she's declared that I have to discover a minimum of twenty hidden rooms every day. I'm tempted to create dozens of new hidden closets just to meet my daily quota."

"The curse of the perpetual overachiever," he said, smirking, "is that when people discover that you can make miracles happen, they expect you to walk on water to bring them tea."

"It could be worse. I could be testing the potency of potions ingredients for a year."

"Interesting." He stood and faced the wall for a moment. Presently, he turned to Hermione. "So you are telling me that Molly Weasley has bullied her way into controlling the most powerful analytic tool the Magical world has seen since the Diagnostic Spell, and she's using it to keep Hogwarts students from having places to snog?"

"I don't think it's just the snogging. I'm sure she's very concerned about other infractions of her initiatives and acts of rebellion by her family members."

Hermione had a vague suspicion that Snape was amused. "You seem remarkably blasé about wasting a year's worth of research."

"It may not be what I'd have chosen for myself, but given that I've been at work less than twenty-four hours and I've already figured out a way to break the Fidelius Charm, I'd say it's been far from a waste."

"Perhaps you ought to send the headmistress a nice pot plant," he suggested blandly.

"I considered it, but Neville says the Venomous Tentacula cuttings won't be ready for another six months."

There it was again; Snape was definitely smiling. Or whatever the Snape version of smiling was. Smirking with his eyes, perhaps. "So what precisely are you planning to do about the headmistress?"

"It's far too early to say," she said. "Admittedly, I've seen numerous weaknesses to exploit, not least of which is your presence. But there are some things about what the headmistress is doing that I don't quite understand yet, and I'd hate to act prematurely."

"And, of course, if you revealed my presence now, I'd be in the same situation I was before, and you'd be without your funding."

"Do you really think I couldn't get non-Ministry capital to support this research in a heartbeat?"

Snape regarded her curiously. "Then why don't you?"

Hermione shrugged. "Someone has to fix what Molly's done to Hogwarts."

Snape gave a snort. "I had wondered where it was."

"Where what was?"

"The Gryffindor. You have the tenacity of a Hufflepuff, your intellectual curiosity is pure Ravenclaw, and your analysis, loath as I am to admit it, is somewhat Slytherin. You've changed, Miss Granger, perhaps even grown. But you haven't left everything that you were behind."

"I'm relieved to hear it," she replied dryly. "Does this mean that you'll let me help you?"

"I should like some time to consider what you've told me this evening. Unless, of course," he added sardonically, "now that you've told me, you have to Obliviate me."

"Take all the time you need. You know where I'll be. I would ask one favor of you tonight, though."

"I will not teach you the illumination spell," said Snape, crossing his arms.

"I didn't ask," said Hermione pointedly. "Honestly, man, would it kill you to at least hear my request before refusing it?"

Snape did laugh at that. It wasn't a particularly attractive laugh — more like a cough — but it wasn't a sound she'd ever heard him make before. "All right then, Granger. I am at your disposal."

"I'd like to scan you and graph the Unbreakable Vow. I don't know that I can break it, but if there are any weaknesses, the Mag-Spec will help me find them."

He inhaled, as if to make an answer, but stopped, swallowed hard and cleared his throat. "I cannot consent to that."

Hermione tutted impatiently. "How am I supposed to find a way to free you if I can't study the spell?"

"I haven't the foggiest notion, but I am unable to give you my permission."

Hermione stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment. "But—"

"Listen, Hermione." She nearly jumped at his use of her given name. "I cannot willingly allow you to scan me. However, I am going to cover my ears and close my eyes for the next thirty seconds. I hope that you will find some way to keep yourself occupied while I do so."

Of course. Given that Molly had essentially stripped Severus of all of his rights through the Unbreakable Vow, it made sense, in her Machiavellian way, that she would try to prevent him from probing it for weaknesses. Not that it was likely that the Unbreakable Vow had much in the way of weaknesses, but paranoia was paranoia. And given that the person being bound by it was Severus Snape, she had to admit that Molly was wise to be concerned.

Hermione's thoughts were interrupted by Snape's tuneless humming, which was probably made even more tuneless by having his ears covered. She quickly scanned him when the light turned green, and an impossibly complex graph appeared on the screen. She saved it and returned the Mag-Spec to its carrying case before Snape opened his eyes.

"We are finished tonight, I trust?" asked Snape with far more dignity than someone who had been humming Celestina Warbeck's reggae-fusion cover of "Makin' Whoopee" a moment ago ought to have had.

"I believe so. Do let me know your decision either way."

He nodded, and unlocked the door. "I'll see you out."

"That's not necessary," she said, stepping out of the door and into the hallway.

He gestured for her to walk back towards his office. "It is if I wish to keep all the contents of my private stores."

She scowled at him. "That was twenty years ago, Professor."

"Yet you still call me Professor," he said smugly.

"I haven't met a magical lock that I couldn't crack with the Mag-Spec, Severus," she added defiantly.

"Then I shall have to rely on your innate sense of fair play," he said without noticeable inflection.

"At least I have one," she grumbled, all but certain she was being teased.

"I am glad of it," he said, holding open the door to his office. "You'd be dreadfully difficult to manipulate otherwise. Good night, Miss Granger."

"Sweet dreams, sir," she replied, relieved to have quit while she was not so far behind.

***

By the time the next day dawned, Hermione was hard at work and doing her best not to allow her irritation to get the better of her. She had awoken to Barbra the House Elf delivering a note from Molly. The missive strongly suggested that Hermione map the student common rooms as soon as possible. Hermione had a sneaking suspicion that Molly's reason for doing so was because the student quarters were the best-protected and well-explored areas of the school. It would be nearly impossible for Hermione to find twenty new rooms if she followed Molly's exact orders.

The Fat Lady was none too pleased to have been awoken at such an indecent hour during the holidays, and was even less pleased when Hermione scanned her portrait. Hermione was glad she'd thought to do so, because now that Gryffindor was an all-male house, there were Caterwauling Charms that were set to go off whenever a non-staff female passed through the portrait. Hermione had no wish to force Gryffindor's Head of House out of bed so early, so she disabled the charm with a wave of her wand. With an air of mixed annoyance and trepidation, Hermione stepped into Gryffindor common room.

It had certainly changed. The chairs and tapestries were new, or at least, new to the room, and it had none of the warmth she remembered, though that could be partially credited to the fact that the fireplace was unlit. A sour odor suffused the air, and Hermione was positive that it hadn't smelled that disgusting when she'd been a student. Of course, Gryffindor hadn't been an all-male house then, either.

A Mag-Spec scan of the room revealed numerous spells of interest, including a Spy Spell similar to the one that was on the mirror in her room. Hermione suspected its locus was the floor-length mirror by the wall leading up to the dormitories, but she would need to be out of its range before testing the theory, since she suspected that Molly was watching. She saw a telltale Earth line, which indicated that there was at least one secret door on one of the walls, probably a cloak closet, and, seeing nothing else of note on the rest of the scan, went in search of it.

She found a hidden door on the easternmost wall. According to the blueprint of the castle that Molly had given her, the wall surrounding the common room was eight inches of solid stone. The room was clearly a magical construct, just like the myriad closets she'd found the day before off the Great Hall. She opened the door with a tap of her wand and discovered it to be a cloak closet, and one that, given the style of cloaks inside it, nobody had used it for at least a hundred years.

Hermione dutifully marked the coordinates of the closet in her notebook. One hidden room found, only nineteen to go.

She raised the Mag-Spec and walked the perimeter of the room, watching to see if the lights indicated the presence of a spell locus. She was near a recreation of the Bayeux Tapestry — with the naughty bits removed, of course — when the green light flashed red. The histogram appeared nearly identical to the hidden closet she'd already found, and she raised her wand to open the door but received a sharp magical jolt.

Odd. The door was password protected. Fortunately, between the histogram and her skill at cracking magical locks, a few taps of her wand revealed a plain wooden door in the wall. Hermione turned the handle and opened the door, revealing a dark room. She lit her wand and entered.

It was visibly indistinguishable from the other closets she'd found, but the air inside fairly crackled with magic. Oddly, the room was completely empty but for a small armchair of indeterminate age.

Hermione released the illumination spell from her wand, and it hovered overhead, suffusing the room with cold blue light. She raised the Mag-Spec and took a reading of the room. The screen was immediately crisscrossed with a number of lines, several of which were surprisingly erratic and elaborate. This was no ordinary closet.

She first turned her attention to the door through which she had come and was surprised to realize that it was all but transparent. The Mag-Spec confirmed the present of a One-Way Charm, which meant that anybody sitting in the room could spy on the Gryffindor Common Room without fear of being noticed.

An observation room like this was far superior to any Spy Spell, provided was patient enough to hide in it for long stretches of time. Clearly, this was exactly the sort of hidden room that Molly would sell her Christmas pudding recipe to know about. However, the password spell and One-Way Charm didn't account for the complicated spells she'd seen on the Mag-Spec.

After making sure there were no spells on the chair, Hermione walked the circumference of the room slowly, Mag-Spec raised and senses primed to pick up the faintest prick of magic. When she had reached the back corner of the room, the green light turned red and a bizarrely complicated graph appeared on the screen. For the first time in months, Hermione had no idea what kind of spell she was looking at. She tapped her wand on the screen to get a closer look, and she realized that the complicated part of the graph had to do with its casting rather than its function.

She tapped her wand on the screen several more times to get past the casting noise and was stunned to realize that she was looking at another hidden door. Hermione felt her breath catch in her throat. The reason that magical rooms weren't usually used to spy is because entirely magical spaces like this could only be anchored to a single place in the physical world, so secondary entrances were fiendishly difficult to create. In fact, standard magical theory said it was impossible.

However, the existence of the Room of Requirement, which Neville had coaxed into providing a tunnel into the Hog's Head, belied the impossibility, and it was one of many things that Hermione looked forward to studying in more detail. And now, she found herself in a magical room that contained two doors.

Hermione turned off the Mag-Spec and returned it to her pocket. There was simply too much visual noise on her Mag-Spec graph to be helpful. She'd have to open this one the old-fashioned way. She'd feel around with her wand, and if that didn't work, she'd consider the Reductor Curse.

Fortunately, it didn't come to that. While Hermione ran her wand over the door in search of a weak spot in the spell, her hand knocked into something unseen. The creator of the impossible second door had equipped it with an invisible doorknob.

Hermione bit back a laugh, extinguished her illumination spell, and opened the door.

The room she entered was about the size of the Gryffindor Common Room, but it seemed much smaller because she was surrounded by doors. Doors lined the walls and formed narrow corridors that wound about the room. Hermione swallowed a gulp. There were hundreds of them. She took a Mag-Spec reading and was surprised to find that the door room was not a magical construct. It was a physical room located somewhere inside Hogwarts. Hermione's stomach clenched. If her own entrance to the room was any indication, then each of these doors led to other rooms in the school.

It was simultaneously fascinating and horrifying to think that some previous headmaster or headmistress had been as keen on spying as Molly. Hermione shivered at the thought of someone being able to watch what was happening at any moment anywhere in the castle. She examined the door through which she had come and noticed that its doorknob was embossed with a G. The room next to it was marked with an H, and to test her theory, she opened the door and peered through. As she had feared, the room led to a small observation room with a transparent window into the Hufflepuff common room. Grimly, she came back through the door into the room, which she was beginning to think of as Door Central and began examining the other doors around her.

The doors nearest her had an S and an R on their respective handles, which she assumed meant that they led to the other houses' common rooms. She wandered down the aisle of doors, taking stock of those doors that featured clues as to their destinations. One door had been carved with a cauldron over flames, which she suspected led to an observation room adjacent to one of the Potions classrooms. Another featured a telescope, which was probably the Astronomy Tower. She came to a stop before the largest door, which was gilt-framed and featured enormously tacky golden fixtures.

With a sense of trepidation, Hermione opened the door a crack and peered through. It was a bedroom, but presumably the bedroom of a narcissist, since the wall across from her vantage place was covered with mirrors from floor to ceiling. However, they did not reflect what was in front of them - each mirror displayed a different room. There was also a large clock opposite her, which, she was surprised to see, contained a hand with her name on it, which was currently pointed at "exploring."

Hermione froze when she realized she was not alone in the room. At the far end of the room stood Molly Weasley, who was peering intently into one of the magic mirrors. She'd found the headmistress's sanctum sanctorum. However, this was not the time for observation; this was the time to disappear, and very quickly. Praying that her luck would hold, Hermione closed the door as quietly as she could, inwardly cursing herself for not realizing where the door would lead.

Hermione closed the door behind her, and she immediately cast Colloportus and several unpleasant wards on the ornate door. They would not be impossible to break, but they would certainly discourage all but the most curious. It was only then that she paused to catch her breath. Her throat was tight with anger as she realized the lengths to which Molly was willing to go to know everything that was going on in the castle. However, she was relieved to know that since Molly was relying on mirrors and magical clocks to keep track of the castle's occupants, she couldn't possibly know about Door Central. The golden fixtures were probably the work of the headmaster or headmistress who had created Door Central.

If she was going to keep Door Central secret from Molly, she was going to have to appear to be characteristically thorough in her explorations, and that meant that there was still much to do in Gryffindor Tower. She would need to find or create nineteen hidden rooms. She also realized that Molly was probably watching the Gryffindor Common Room and growing more suspicious every minute she was gone.

Judging by the number of doors in the room, she was confident that she would have plenty of opportunities to explore the network of doors and hopefully find a less observed way of entering it. As tempting as it was to stay and explore, maintaining her cover was more important.

Hermione hurried back to observation room off the Gryffindor Common Room and conjured a layer of dust on herself to make it appear as if she had been doing dirty work inside the closet. She staggered theatrically into the common room and collapsed into one of the chairs with a sigh.

Satisfied that Molly would see what she wanted to see, Hermione studied the Mag-Spec's screen, which displayed the complex spell that had allowed her to move between magically-created spaces. Just a few more minutes of study. Then she'd get back to work.

***

At that evening's debriefing session, Hermione decided she was getting better at hiding her glee at Molly's frustration. At present, the headmistress's face was a particularly amusing shade of red, but Hermione had succeeded in maintaining her façade of tired acquiescence.

"Do you mean to tell me," said the headmistress, carefully enunciating, "that you found eighteen hidden closets in Gryffindor Tower alone?"

"It's not really that surprising, given how much easier it is to make a hidden closet than to find and break into one," said Hermione with a touch of apology.

"I must say, I'm very disappointed with your progress. Given the amount of area you covered yesterday, I expected you to get through at least two houses today."

"If you include the area of the hidden closets, the amount of space covered is roughly equal," said Hermione reasonably. "And considering how much time the students spend in Gryffindor Tower, it makes perfect sense that there would be more hidden spaces than in a public corridor or classroom."

"But eighteen? The spell to make hidden closets isn't even taught at Hogwarts," said Molly peevishly.

"Neither are hexes and curses, yet students certainly know them."

"I'd expect it of the Slytherins," Molly complained, "but what do Gryffindors have to hide?"

"According to my detailed inventory, which you'll find on the attached sheets, mostly dirty laundry, broken equipment, and assorted rubbish," said Hermione helpfully. "I'm sorry you're disappointed with my progress, Molly, but it's only been two days. Perhaps it's a bit early to set expectation for how much can be done in a single day. You know that doing a thorough job of things benefits us both, but it's simply going to take time."

"Well," said the headmistress, scowling, "time isn't something we have a great deal of. What if you aren't able to finish the houses before the students return?"

"Then I'll take care of them over Easter hols or over the summer, or after curfew" said Hermione. "You've secured my services through the end of the funding cycle. We don't need to do everything at once."

"You will do as I say when I say it, young lady," said Molly, whose scowl had deepened. "Now, you will do more than a house tomorrow, or there will be no Christmas pudding for you. If I were you, I'd get cracking tonight."

Hermione was glad that previous conversations with Molly had accustomed her to the woman's frustrating and often quixotic orders. She merely nodded. "Will that be all tonight, Mollly? My day starts early tomorrow, and I'd better start now if you want me to get through Ravenclaw."

"Yes, go," said Molly, and again Hermione was struck with the impression that there was something important that the headmistress wasn't telling her. Well, that suited Hermione down to the ground. Eventually, the headmistress would tell her what she was supposed to be looking for, and until then, she would explore Door Central in what time she could devote to it.

Hermione beat a hasty retreat before Molly could add anything more to her list of orders.

Chapter Text

Having made short work of exploring Ravenclaw Tower, whose number of existing hidden closets Hermione had augmented threefold in record time, she was sitting cross-legged on one of the students' beds studying the complex charm that the creator of Door Central used to tie magical spaces to more than one physical location. She had nicknamed it SMAC, for "secondary magical aperture charm," or "sodding manky arse of a charm," depending on how frustrated she was feeling.

She had painstakingly decoded the complicated preston patterns into what she believed were the wand movements required for casting, but she still hadn't the faintest idea of how to cast it. Her first efforts produced little more than a ripple in her test closet's wall, and the second time the ripple was accompanied by some rather rude sounds. She was missing some necessary component.

Those failed experiments had led her to seek out the spy room off Ravenclaw's Common Room, which she found, amusingly enough, inside the pedestal of Rowena Ravenclaw's statue. However, her hopes that comparing the Ravenclaw graph to the Gryffindor one would point her in the correct direction were dashed. There was nothing in the graphs to indicate how the apertures were tied to different outside locations.

Hermione yawned hugely. The early mornings were beginning to wear on her. As amusing as it was to infuriate Molly, she knew she'd have to at least attempt to make her happy, otherwise, Molly would keep issuing arbitrary orders that would make her exhausted and miserable. Already she knew that her analytical faculties were less than they would be if she hadn't been up since dawn.

And even though she wanted nothing more than to crack the mystery of the SMAC, she knew that she'd be more likely to make progress on it after a cup of cocoa and some sleep. She stood and stretched, her back popping noisily, and made her way out of Ravenclaw Tower and to the Great Hall.

"Barbra?"

A House Elf cracked into existence, but it wasn't Barbra. "Sorry, miss, but Barbra is cooking. She has sent Judy to help miss."

"All, right. Judy, may I please have some cocoa?"

"Of course, miss."

Judy disappeared, and a moment later a steaming mug appeared. Hermione breathed in the fragrant steam and smiled. At least the headmistress hadn't managed to ruin Hogwarts' rich, creamy cocoa, even though Molly's orders confined her enjoyment to a single location.

Hermione stopped mid-sip. A single location — that was it!

She took a hurried sip of her cocoa, then pulled out her Mag-Spec. Several taps of her wand displayed the Gryffindor and Ravenclaw SMACs side-by-side, and Hermione could have whooped in triumph. It wasn't her imagination — the spells were absolutely identical. That meant that it was the incantation that allowed the caster to enter the coordinates of both real world entrances. Hermione shook her head. For her to miss something so elementary was unlike her. However, even this evidence that the lack of sleep was affecting her brain, she was too excited by her breakthrough to stop now.

Hermione consulted her notes from the previous day and found precisely what she was looking for: a hidden closet whose entrance was all but invisible from the high table and whose coordinates she had already mapped. She scanned the Great Hall with her Mag-Spec to ensure that she was truly alone and stepped into the closet.

She cast a Lumos spell overhead and displayed the Mag-Spec scan of her bedroom. She quickly ruled out using one of its walls, given Molly's surveillance of the room. Instead, she copied down the coordinates of the bit of wall beneath her bathroom's towel rack.

And now, the moment of truth: Hermione took a fortifying sip of cocoa and raised her wand. This wasn't one of the old spells that involved repeating an incantation or reciting a litany, this spell required surgical precision and a great deal of focus. Not for the first time, she marveled at the powers of the witch or wizard who had invented the spell without the benefit of the Mag-Spec.

Tap, swish, flick, swirl, flourish, all in precise rhythm with the words. She felt the magic course through her wand arm and into the wall. In her mind's eye, she could see the beautifully chaotic graph, and she felt as if she was painting it in rich pigments on the stone canvas before her.

Presently, she came back to herself, and was surprised to find that she was perspiring. But where there had been bare rock there was now a tiny wooden door. Feeling rather like Alice, she squatted down and turned the doorknob.

Hermione laughed in delight when she saw that she was indeed looking into her bathroom. If she wished, she could have the house elves bring tea while she was soaking in the bath. However, connecting such a private place to the Great Hall meant that precautions would need to be taken.

She jumped when a voice from behind her commented, "Dabbling in masonry?"

Severus was standing in the closet doorway with his arms crossed and a smug expression on his face.

She scowled at him. "You frightened the daylights out of me, Severus. How did you find me?"

"I saw you disappear into the closet with a determined look on your face, which I know from past experience means nothing but trouble. And as gratifying as it is to know that my exile has not dulled my catlike stealth and instinct for finding troublemakers, I would appreciate an answer to my question. What is this?"

"This?" she said, gesturing at the door. "Just an experiment in inter-spatial apertures."

He gestured at the door. "May I?"

"Of course."

Severus bent low and peered through the door. He turned to face her, one eyebrow cocked quizzically at her. "Bit of an exhibitionist, are we?"

Hermione's cheeks were burning, but she managed to keep her tone haughty. "I had to put the door in the bathroom because Molly put a Spy Spell on the bedroom."

"I'm surprised that you still wish to oppose the headmistress given that her voyeurism and your newly revealed proclivities are rather complimentary."

Hermione's dislike of being teased won out over her embarrassment. "You're just annoyed because I found a way to circumvent the 'meals in the Great Hall only' rule before you did. The elves won't technically have to leave the Great Hall. All they'll need to do is place meals on the other side of the door."

"On the contrary, I'm feeling quite gratified."

"Because now you see a material advantage to taking me into your confidence?"

"No, because you've added another item to the list of things that must be accomplished in order to secure my assistance in your crusade against La Weasley."

Hermione smiled, in spite of herself. "May I request a copy of the list?"

"I should be quite happy to arrange the items for you in order of priority," offered Snape with a smirk. "This fits somewhere below 'chart the structure of the Unbreakable Vow' and above 'measure potency of all private stores ingredients.'"

"I suppose I ought to be grateful that you're not making me remove beetle eyes."

"Now, if I did that, the poor students would have no way to entertain themselves during detention — not that I'm allowed to oversee them anymore, for obvious reasons."

"All right," she said, following him out of the closet and casting several camouflaging and cloaking charms on the door, "I'll make you a door of your own. But not tonight; I'm absolutely knackered, and Molly's making me work tomorrow. And that reminds me," she said, putting a hand into her beaded bag. "I got you a present."

"Really, Miss Granger, that's quite unnecess—" He cut off as he realized that the hand she had thrust toward him was empty.

"I'm afraid I'm out of invisible thank-you cards."

Hermione tutted, seized his hand and placed an invisible object in it. His brows drew together in consternation for a moment as he attempted to feel what the device was. It was mostly cylindrical in shape, and there was some sort of crank on the top. He could feel the teeth of the gears move when he turned the crank, but no sound escaped.

However, there was no mistaking the spicy odor that emanated from the object. Pepper. It was an invisible pepper mill. And, he noted, it released invisible pepper.

He was surprised to find how difficult it was to maintain a scowl in the face of receiving a thoughtful, useful gift.

***

Christmas morning dawned bright a clear, and Hermione allowed herself the luxury of remaining in bed until the prismatic sunrise illuminated her curtains. She managed to keep from ripping into the pile of presents that the elves had left at the foot of her bed before slipping into the bathroom, where she washed her face and called for Barbra, who appeared in the bathroom a moment later.

The elf narrowed her eyes suspiciously when Hermione showed her the door that she'd created and was skeptical that it would work the way Hermione described it, but disappeared with a pop as requested. Several moments later, the door opened to reveal a very surprised-looking Barbra with an enormous breakfast tray. Taking extreme care not to accidentally step into the bathroom, she placed the tray on the floor. It worked perfectly, except for a bit of egg that got on Hermione's bath towel.

When Hermione had finished her breakfast and cleaned her teeth, she opened her presents, which ranged from the imminently practical — a new self-coding encrypted notebook from Harry — to a nondescript vegetable that had grown into a rather obscene shape from Luna.

There was a sleek new electronic gadget from her parents, accompanied by a newsy note to let her know which other members of the Granger clan would be joining them for Christmas. Her father's postscript warning her to prepare herself for her nosy aunt Dorothy was much appreciated.

Hermione pulled on an ancient but serviceable Weasley jumper and her thickest socks and made her way to the Slytherin common room. She was glad she'd dressed warmly; the dungeons were frigid. She gave the password, disabled the Caterwauling Charms, and entered, doing her best to ignore the frisson of excitement that she felt upon entering a room to which she'd always been denied access. Fortunately, it didn't smell quite as bad as its Gryffindor counterpart, but it was a near thing.

The initial Mag-Spec scan revealed two Spy Spells, as well as a number of hidden rooms. Hermione was mildly disappointed that Molly's offhand comment about the Slytherins having things to hide had proved correct, but she was heartened when her circuit of the room revealed hidden entrances to several private study chambers that were filled with lavishly illustrated manuscripts, a room containing a large piano, and a hidden closet with a mirror along one side. Hermione smirked. Apparently, the Slytherins had nothing to hide but their artistic sensitivity.

She was, however, surprised not to have uncovered the entrance to Door Central in her circuit of the common room. It wasn't proof positive that the person who created the vast surveillance system was a Slytherin, but it was certainly telling. However, as she climbed the stairs, the Mag-Spec's light turned red, and she found what she'd been looking for.

This surveillance room was quite different than the one off the Gryffindor common room. Instead of having a One-Way charm on the door, there was one on the entire wall that it shared with the common room, which made the room an unmatched vantage point. Instead of an armchair, there was a chaise, the sort that would make a long vigil much more bearable. She quickly located the door leading to Door Central, and, not wishing to draw any particular attention to the closet in case Molly was watching, stepped back into the stairway and climbed up to the students' quarters.

Again, Hermione was surprised by the contents of the many hidden rooms that she found. Unlike the secret closets in Gryffindor, the Slytherin rooms appeared to be in active use, and most of them were password protected. One room contained a bed and had numerous sound-dampening charms on the door. Other closets held stuffed animals and pictures of families. Hermione only had to create one additional closet to meet Molly's quota, without leaving Slytherin with the same number of hidden rooms as Gryffindor, which would arouse suspicions.

Hermione glanced at her watch and was surprised by how much less time-consuming it was to open the doors using the Mag-Spec data than it was to create an entirely new rooms and conjure the detritus necessary to make them appear genuine. Even though Molly had ordered her to cover more ground in less time, unlocking Slytherin's secrets had only taken her about forty minutes, and she had no desire to set that sort of efficiency precedent. There would be time to explore Hufflepuff that evening. Her Christmas present to herself was to spend an hour or two in Door Central.

***

In Door Central, Hermione was relieved to find that the spells she'd cast on the door that led to the headmistress's quarters were intact. She hadn't really believed that Molly was aware of the system of rooms, but concrete evidence of this was certainly welcome. Hermione sat down on the floor of the room and sketched a diagram of the areas she'd explored in the self-coding encrypted notebook that Harry had given her.

She first opened the doors to the other common rooms, noting that the Hufflepuff's hidden room was above the fireplace and partially obscured by a painting. Next, she explored the classrooms. She was amused to note that Arthur had decorated the Muggle Studies classroom with eye-catching collages of rubbish like empty crisps packets and soda cans. Parvati had made much more efficient, not to mention tasteful, use of the Divination classroom than Trelawney ever had. However, Hermione was surprised to find that the Charms classroom was filled with boxes and battered furniture. After frowning in confusion for a moment, she realized that the room had become a store room sometime since Door Central was created, and that Charms was now being taught elsewhere. Hermione frowned. The fact that the door markings could not be relied upon entirely changed her strategy somewhat- she would have to be more cautious.

Fortunately, the next door, which was marked with a cauldron, did indeed lead to an observation room off of a Potions classroom. The room was unchanged from when she'd been a student, down to the Chudley Cannons logo that Ron had carved into the leg of a table decades ago.

Back in Door Central, she continued down the row of doors, locating hidden rooms off the library, the other primary teaching classrooms, several unused classrooms, some sort of hall of armaments, a gallery of statues, the dungeons, the staff room, three greenhouses, a shed near the Quidditch pitch, and numerous store rooms. It didn't take her long to reach the end of the aisle, but around the corner, there was a row of unmarked doors.

Hermione stood in front of the first plain door and rested her hand on the handle. It was quite cool to the touch. These were uncharted and potentially dangerous waters. Still, Hermione had time before she needed to be at her parents' house, and she was terribly curious what lay behind the unmarked door.

She opened the door and blinked in surprised as a frigid air poured from the door. Hermione pulled her robes more tightly about her and stepped into the cold darkness.

The observation room was tiny and bitterly cold, but the breeze's bite was lessened once she had closed the door from Door Central behind her. But the chilly air still swirled around her, blowing her hair gently, and she wished she'd thought to bring a hat.

The transparent door that led into the mystery room was easy to spot, and she stepped towards it to examine the room that lay beyond. Soft light that emanated from the wall in which she was concealed, indicating that there were probably curtained windows on the wall. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light and her ears adjusted to the silence, she became aware of an odd sound coming from the room.

Hermione inched forward towards the transparent door to get a better look at the room. Wooden bookshelves, which appeared black in the dim light, lined the walls, and there were a few blocky articles of furniture looming in the shadows. As the seconds passed and her eyes adjusted, the room and its contents became clearer. There was a low, dark shape in the far corner.

Hermione pressed her hand against her mouth to muffle her gasp.

The low, dark shape was a bed.

An occupied bed that contained a nude male lying atop his sheets.

A nude male whose head was thrown back amid the pillows, his chin jutting towards the ceiling, and his left hand frantically pumping at an erection.

His extraordinary sounds were becoming progressively more varied and intense, the breathing more rapid, and the moans more guttural. The dim light from the windows threw the pale planes of his torso, shoulders, and legs into sharp relief against the room's shadows. His pale hand slid rapidly up and down the darkened flesh of his cock, and Hermione's mouth went dry.

She'd never given much thought to the fact that men masturbated, and she hadn't realized that a man in the throes of a morning wank would be such a fascinating sight. She hadn't considered that he would need to alter his rhythm, or pause in his pumping and thumb the head of his cock to spread around the liquid that gathered there, or massage his bollocks with his off hand, or tease the sensitive skin behind it with his fingernails, or — oh God — bring his hand to his face to smell the scent of himself. His face— sweet Circe, it was Severus.

Hermione suddenly realized that in spite of the cold air that swirled unrelentingly about the observation room, she was burning up. She impatiently pushed up the sleeves of her heavy jumper and pulled its hem out from her body, allowing the breeze to cool her hot skin. She leaned her shoulder against the doorjamb, anxious to see and hear more.

His rough breathing penetrated the chilly air, but Hermione was focused on his hands, which pinched his own nipples and stroked his chest and stomach before returning to his cock and fisting it quickly. She felt tension coiling in her belly as it occurred to her what was about to happen. She knew academically what ejaculation involved, but her previous experiences with it had never afforded her the opportunity to watch it happening.

She was quite unprepared for the visceral response she had to hearing him groan, at seeing his strokes become more erratic, and she bit back a moan of her own at the sharp groan that signaled his climax. She stared, transfixed by the shimmering liquid burst forth from the head of his cock, shooting in an arc upon his chest.

He shuddered, his breath hitching, and his hand slowed, gently massaging his testicles, and several more smaller spurts came, which ran down his fingers and glistened against his pale skin. He lay there, panting, his right hand drawing lazy circles through the seed spattered on his chest, and finally coming to a rest as his breathing slowed into a contented sigh. He reached out his hand for his wand, with which he cast a lazy cleansing charm. His features were uncharacteristically soft, and his normally sharp eyes were unfocused. He slid languorously from his sheets and slipped into the washroom, closing the door behind him.

Hermione blinked hard, suddenly aware that she had been staring so intently that the cool air had dried her eyes. Her entire body was tingling, her legs were clenched together, and she could feel her heart pounding in both her chest and her intimate places.

The shoulder that had been pressed with the weight of her body into the door frame was beginning to protest, so Hermione shifted her weight to lean her other shoulder against the transparent door. To her great surprise, however, there was no door there, and she fell forward into the room. She felt as if she were falling in slow motion, and she even had the opportunity to realize that the lack of door was likely the reason for the constant draft she had felt. Then she sprawled gracelessly on the carpet of the bedroom with a loud "oof."

Hermione sat there on his floor, frozen, terrified that the bathroom door would open. However, the sound of rushing water emanated from within, and the door remained closed. She let out the breath she had been holding and scrambled back into the observation room, noting that someone had cast a powerful illusion of a bookcase over the doorless opening. Her mind was whirling. Severus couldn't have cast the illusion anytime in the past eight years — Molly certainly would have noticed a spell of that magnitude being cast in Severus's quarters. Nobody other than Molly and Percy knew of Severus's presence here, and both were oblivious to Door Central.

Her heart was still pounding, and she looked about the tiny observation room for a seat, but to her surprise, there wasn't one. She cast a final look into the empty bedroom to make sure that her exit would not be noticed, and fled into Door Central. The breeze whistled as she closed the door.

She scrambled down the corridor of doors, threw open the door to the Slytherin common room, sank gratefully into the observation room's chaise lounge, and wiped the perspiration from her brow with the sleeve of her robe. That had been entirely too close. If she had fallen through the opening when he had still been in the room — well, it would have made Harry's final Occlumency lesson seem like high tea. She shuddered to think of how the highly private man would react to being interrupted in such a intimate moment. However, the warm feeling in the pit of her stomach alerted her to the fact that her shudder was not due entirely to fear.

She shook her head, as if attempting to dislodge the thought. That way lay madness, and quite possibly physical violence. Clearly, the lack of sleep was affecting her in ways she hadn't anticipated. She rose to her feet and forced herself to focus on the situation at hand. Given the man's thoroughness, Severus had to know about the secret observation room, and given the man's intelligence and tenacity, he almost certainly knew about Door Central. Surely he wasn't responsible for Door Central, was he? Regardless, she supposed she couldn't blame him for not telling her about it last night, before he'd had the opportunity to consider her offer of help, but it did raise a number of important questions.

There was nothing for it. She would need to discuss things with Severus. However, if she didn't leave now, she would be late for Christmas dinner. As much as she really didn't care to be subjected to her Aunt Dorothy's well-meaning but intrusive questions about her love life, she was very much looking forward to spending some time with her parents.

***

Christmas with her family was a decidedly mixed bag. While the food was wonderful and her parents as warm and supportive as they had ever been, her other relatives seemed determined to ask awkward questions on every topic from her work, which she couldn't really discuss, to her man situation, as Aunt Dorothy insisted on calling it. Hermione was almost grateful to Molly for giving her an excuse to leave the gathering early, but not quite.

Even though Hermione was fully prepared to have a horrid time at Molly's enforced Christmas dinner, the scent of fresh pine and mulling spices that filled her nose made her heart swell with excitement, exactly how it had on the Hogwarts Christmases of her childhood. The head table had been lengthened and broadened to allow more people to sit at it, and it was already nearly full.

All the Weasleys were there, of course. Charlie, Parvati, their twins, and her parents sat near George, who was up to no good with the salt shaker, and his girlfriend, a leggy brunette that Hermione didn't know. Fleur, Bill, Victoire, and Teddy seemed to be making the best of their ruined holiday and were all wearing tropical flowers in their hair. Victoire's younger siblings were playing with their cousins, despite Ron and Luna's attempts to keep them in their seats. Ginny and Harry were failing similarly with their brood, who were arguing loudly about Quidditch and finding great amusement in squashing dinner rolls into doughy discs.

The Delacours and Xenophilius Lovegood were there, as were some other red-haired Weasley relatives that Hermione didn't know and a few Ministry officials that she did. Argus Filch and Madam Pince appeared much out of their element amid the children and noise, but were bearing it with all the grace they could muster, which wasn't much. Neville was seated between Luna, whose attempts to reason with her toddler were clearly amusing him, and Percy Weasley, who was trying, with little success, to prevent George from tampering with the salt.

The wave of nostalgia faded the moment her eye fell upon Molly, who sat in the center of the noise and chaos with a childlike grin and sparkling eyes that made her appear slightly deranged. The look on the headmistress's face made Hermione shudder for reasons she couldn't articulate, but she was soon distracted by Harry and Ginny hailing her and pulling up a seat for her between Neville and Percy, who seemed relieved to be further separated from his rambunctious niece and nephews.

Minutes passed slowly in a blur of superficial talk, shouting children, and food, all of which were beginning to give Hermione a headache. Hermione never thought she would actually long for the invasive questions of her nosy but well-meaning relatives or Uncle Reggie's coarse humor, but something felt off about this family gathering, for all its traditional trappings. She glanced down the table at her friends, and all of them showed signs of exhaustion, strain, and the desire to be anywhere else.

The headmistress tapped her goblet with her spoon, and all the guests turned to look at her.

"Dear friends," said Molly, whose eyes were brimming with tears, "it warms my heart to see you all, who are so dear to me, together on this joyful day."

Arthur stifled a yawn and continued to listen indulgently to his wife.

"It means so very much to me that you've taken time out of your busy schedules to be here at Hogwarts."

Fleur sniffed disdainfully, and Bill squeezed his wife's hand.

"What's got her knickers in a twist?" whispered Luna to Ron.

"Mum told MacFarlane that he'd be personally responsible if anything happened to Bill and Fleur in Fiji, and he was so nervous that he cancelled all the Portkeys there," he replied. "I didn't find out until after they were supposed to have left."

"That wasn't very nice," said Luna. "They'd been planning the trip for months."

"They shouldn't have planned to be away," said Ron. "Christmas is for family."

"Yes," said Luna sensibly, "but Fleur, Bill, Victoire and Teddy are a family, too."

Percy shushed them, and Hermione frowned, wondering how many other people at the gathering were there against their will. Her own family gathered together year after year because they made the time to do so, not because of some megalomaniacal matriarch's machinations. This was a parody of a holiday gathering. It was all as artificial as the quivering cranberry jelly.

Molly rambled on about togetherness and the bonds of friendship and blood, but Hermione's attention was drawn to a small movement behind Molly. She nearly jumped when she realized that Severus was standing in a dimly-lit recess behind the high table. Not wishing to draw Molly or Percy's attention to his presence, she cast sideways glances at him. He was listening to Molly with a poisonous sneer on his face.

It was then that Hermione understood.

Seizing control of Hogwarts had been a strategic move to bring members of her family closer to her. Every unpopular decision she had made, every cut she had made to make Hogwarts untenable for career academics, all of it had been calculated to leave Hogwarts in need of people who would teach in spite of the unpleasant conditions, which, as Severus had pointed out previously, limited the applicant pool to the inexperienced, like Neville, the foolish, or the fooled, in Severus's case, and Weasleys. Inexperience would cure itself, and eventually the fooled would eventually find a way out, but short of messy divorce, something that none of the Weasleys seemed inclined towards, there was no way out of family. Molly would stop at nothing to bring her family under her direct control, even at the expense of wrecking Hogwarts and everything it stood for.

The perversity of the headmistress's actions hit Hermione like a slap in the face. Molly didn't care how many people she inconvenienced, how many dreams she forced others to delay, or how many students she left unprepared for life after Hogwarts, provided she was able to scheme and bully everybody into traditional family tableaux, and she would do anything to keep it that way. Hermione realized she was clutching her fork so tightly that her knuckles were white. She wanted to hurl it tines-first into Molly's deliriously happy face.

She glanced at Severus and was surprised to find that his sneer was gone and that he was looking at her with a calculating expression on his face. Hermione sighed and put her fork down. She took a roll from the basket in front of her but couldn't bring herself to eat it. She satisfied herself with tearing it apart and rolling it into little balls — anything to distract her from the headmistress's speech.

She picked up a ball of dough and rolled it in her fingers, and inspiration struck. She caught Severus's eye, jerked her head toward the ball of dough she held. His eyes narrowed, and he nodded imperceptibly. Taking care to remain out of the headmistress's and Percy's range of vision, he bent over James Potter's shoulder and made a curious motion. Hermione nearly laughed aloud when she realized that Severus was covering James's plate with the invisible pepper she'd given him. Severus surreptitiously seized several rolls from the table before returning to his hidden spot in the alcove behind the headmistress. She could see his long fingers working away at the dough.

The stage was set. Now all they had to do was wait for James to grow weary of Molly's blathering and take a bite of his food. It happened even sooner than they had hoped, and the results were spectacular. James's face turned red, and he began sputtering loudly.

Ginny put her hand on her son's back. "Are you all right, James?"

James's eyes were watering, and he grabbed every goblet in sight and drained it. "Pepper—" he managed to choke out. "Albus—"

"I did not!" exclaimed Albus automatically. Clearly, he was long accustomed to being his brother's scapegoat.

"Albus Severus, this is not the time for—" began Harry.

It was at that moment that Severus let fly with his first dough ball. It landed in Louis's potatoes, which were runny enough to spatter.

"Hey!" yelled Louis. Louis elbowed Victoire, who elbowed him back, which made him knock over his goblet of pumpkin juice.

"Louis, Victoire, you are behaving like infants!" scolded Fleur. "Stop this at once."

Hermione cast a silent Wingardium Leviosa on a roll from the basket and sent it flying into a gravy boat, which upset noisily and spectacularly.

Molly leapt to her feet, eyes scanning the table for guilty expression. "Which one of you—"

But her query was short lived, as a spoonful of cranberry jelly, courtesy Severus, flew across the table and hit the headmistress in the face with a satisfying splat.

"GEORGE!" yelled Molly.

"It wasn't me, mum," said George. "I've been working on the salt shaker."

Emboldened, Hermione shot four more balls of dough into the youngest Weasleys' heads. They all reacted spectacularly and with great vehemence at the sibling they thought was responsible.

George, who was quick to realize that someone was stealing his thunder, cast a handful of salt across the table, which began to crackle, sizzle, and give off a cloud of foul-smelling smoke. Goblets were knocked over right and left. Shrill accusations rang out, and more dough balls rained down from above.

Molly was roaring for everybody to stop, but by then, spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and cooked carrots had joined the volley, and several of the adults had joined in. Neville shrieked as a spoonful of cranberry jelly slid down the back of his neck — Severus looked entirely too pleased with himself — and Hermione took a greasy bit of goose to the forehead with a laugh before sending it in the direction of a horrified Ministry official.

George's smoke continued to fill the room, which made it hard to see where the next blitz was coming from, but by now, nearly every adult at the table was throwing defensive handfuls of food at those across the table. Everybody was yelling, some in dismay at having been hit with something particularly juicy, some for the fight to stop, and some encouraging their siblings to fight back. Hermione could have sworn that she heard Fleur cry, "Vive la France!" at one point.

Amid the flying food, Hermione spotted Severus leaning over the table to press something into the massive Christmas pudding. Hermione was surprised that he would make such a risky move when either Molly or Percy could have spotted him, but if Hermione knew Severus, it was going to be worth it.

She pushed back her chair and crouched at her place, hoping to minimize the amount of collateral damage she would receive before it became clear what Severus had done. A moment later, the pudding burst into flame. Hermione was only slightly disappointed to see that the flames were typical purple brandy flames, but she stayed low, just in case. In the lingering salt smoke, the gentle flames around the dark sphere were eerily beautiful.

When the pudding caught fire, the volleys ceased. Even Molly had stopped bellowing to gaze in wonderment at the pudding as the flames faded and died, and the room descended into silence.

An unseen breeze blew the last of the smoke away, revealing a table in chaos. No guest was untouched by the massacre. Spatters of food covered robes and faces, and Percy was trying unsuccessfully to rub grease from his spectacles. Molly seemed to have been particularly hard hit, and some unidentified liquid was dripping from her sodden hair to her shoulders. Her face was red, and her jaw worked up and down as she surveyed the expanse of ruined food.

"You should all be ashamed of yourselves," she hissed. "Never in my life have I seen such behavior, and on Christmas of all days! I hope that whomever is responsible for this waste, this utter disrespect for everything that this holiday stands for, knows that I will stop at nothing to—"

There was a soft "phut' from the center of the table, and a split-second later, the Christmas pudding exploded, spattering everyone at the table with fruit and steaming dough. Hermione had moved a bit too slowly, and the exposed part of her face was caked with pudding. She wiped the worst of the mess from her eyebrows.

All eyes were now on Molly, who was entirely plastered with pudding. The headmistress picked a prune off of her cheek with all the dignity she could muster. She was shaking with fury. "You have all ruined Christmas," she cried before stomping angrily out of the hall.

There was an awkward silence until Neville opened up the serviette with which he had been wiping his face.

"Look!" he exclaimed, holding out the pudding-smeared cloth to display a small piece of silver. "I got the Sickle!"

***

That night, Hermione treated herself to a soak in the decadent bathtub that she'd neglected in order to meet Molly's absurdly high daily room quota. She scrubbed off the bits of food she'd collected during Christmas dinner and now that the tub was filled with jasmine-scented bubbles, she began to regret that Molly had spoiled her appetite.

She called for Barbra, who tutted disapproving at Hermione for not eating her Christmas dinner, but delivered via the secret door some leftover goose and stuffing that had miraculously survived the onslaught unscathed. After eating her fill, Hermione tapped the rim of the tub with her wand to warm the water again, and sat back with a sigh. She rubbed the flannel lazily over her stomach and arms as she pondered the day's discoveries.

In the plus column, she now understood the unconscious impetus behind Molly's changes to the school. However, one large obstacle to moving forward remained: she still had no idea what compelled Molly to bring her here, and what, if anything, she was expected to find. The more she thought about it, the less satisfying she found Severus's suggestion — that Molly was solely concerned with student behavior. There had to be something else.

She doubted that Molly still bore her ill feeling for turning down Ron's spur-of-the-moment proposal all those years ago. Luna had been a far better wife to Ron than she could have been, and a far better daughter-in-law, having produced grandchildren. Given that Molly hadn't even mentioned her remaining bachelor sons to Hermione, she doubted that Molly considered her to be an eligible prospect anymore. While this was something of a relief, it brought her no closer to discovering the real reason Molly had brought her to explore the castle.

Hermione sighed, refusing to entertain any further thoughts about Molly Weasley. The fragrant steam that rose from the surface of the water swirled about her face, and she let less than pleasant thoughts drain from her mind, and she relaxed into the hot water.

Hermione seized a bar of soap, which she scrubbed methodically with the flannel to work up a creamy lather. She lifted a foot out of the bath, placed it on the rim of the tub, and began to scrub with the soapy flannel. The rough texture of the cloth felt gloriously refreshing against her tired skin, and the pressure against her calf muscle was delicious. She continued up her leg, scrubbing the knee thoroughly and massaging circles into the flesh of her thigh.

She sighed in contentment and lifted her other leg for similar treatment. When she had scrubbed her left leg, she massaged her upper arms, her shoulders, and the tight muscles in her shoulders. Hermione dipped the flannel into the bath again and brought the dripping cloth up to her neck, which she rubbed gently before working her way downwards between her breasts. She rubbed the underside of each breast and carefully worked her way around her nipples, which were beginning to perk up from the attention.

Idly, she scraped her fingernails gently over the tips of her nipples, while her mind wandered, envying the simplicity of the male body, with its flat surfaces and simple needs. In order to bring herself to climax, she needed much more than a firm grip and bicep endurance. In fact, she hadn't had the time or energy to see to herself since coming to Hogwarts, which was a terrible shame.

Smiling to herself, she tapped her wand on a peculiarly colored tile on the rim of the tub, which caused the water to circulate. Hermione inched her way around the tub until she located one of the hidden jets and positioned herself near enough that the water eddied gently between her legs.

She lazily drew the flannel between her legs, applying gentle pressure to the tendons between her thigh and hip as she circled the thatch of brown curls one, twice, thrice, and then trailed it up across her stomach and began massaging her breasts. Her eyes fluttered shut, and she began to tease herself with her other hand.

In her mind's eye, she lay nude on a plush chaise in front of the door that led to his bed, where he lay pleasuring himself with abandon. His head was thrown back, and the long fingers of his left hand were massaging his own testicles.

Slowly, gently, she began rubbing herself in time with him, taking moments to slide her index finger around the edge of her opening, teasing the sensitive skin until she unconsciously leaned into her own touch, bringing herself tantalizingly close to the rushing jet of water.

Hermione draped one leg over the side of the chaise, reveling in the warmth that enveloped her, and then began to rub the edges of her opening gently, but with growing pressure. She let out a soft moan, and his black eyes snapped up to meet hers with nearly tangible force. Gooseflesh rippled across her flesh as she felt his eyes travel across her body, lingering on her breasts and the shadow between her parted legs.

She braced for him to yell, but instead, an insouciant smirk spread slowly across his face. He slid from the bed and walked towards her, erect cock bobbing, and stood before her in the doorway with his arms crossed, watching her.

He cocked an eyebrow, as if to tell her to get on with it, if she dared.

She seized both of her breasts, squeezing them together and massaging her nipples between her thumbs and forefingers, then massaging her warm flesh a circular motion, squeezing and relaxing, enjoying the warm pressure on the undersides of her breasts and the way that the tingles in her nipples were echoed below. She moaned softly, and was pleased to see his penis twitch enthusiastically, for all that his smug expression did not falter.

While Hermione continued to massage her left breast, she let her other leg slide over the side of the chaise. He inhaled sharply through his nose at the view that she afforded him, her white thighs and rosy cleft, and she gave him an answering smirk as she lowered her right hand between her legs and began to rub the sides of her opening with two fingers.

Seemingly of their own accord, his hands sprang between his legs, one cupping his testicles and the other seizing the base of his cock and giving a quick, hard stroke. She grinned, imagining the look of mingled irritation and desire that graced his face, and to reward him, parted her lips with her fingers and began to rub in earnest.

A guttural groan was her reward, and soon his hand was flying up and down his shaft. Already, the head of his cock was darkening, and he was standing so close to her that she couldn't help reaching out her hand to stroke the tip. He hissed, but did not push her hand away. Instead, he sat down nest to her. He seized her hand, wrapped it tightly around his penis, and guided her through several firm strokes before reaching his hand between her legs and placing his index finger directly on her clitoris.

Hermione's body jerked as the fingers that she imagined were his bore down mercilessly on the bundle of nerves, and she moaned in pleasure, wiggling her hips to vary the unrelenting contact. She imagined that she squeezed his cock spastically, and he understood what she needed.

Hermione was now directly over the water jet, and she began to rock back and forth, allowing the powerful stream of water to hit her clitoris and her outer lips, and back again and imagining his long fingers there in its place, dipping inside her and sliding out again. His brow furrowed as if in concentration, and Hermione decided that he needed to be distracted. She cupped her breasts once more and leaned forward, offering them to him.

He let out a shuddering breath, wrapped his other arm around her waist, and buried his face in her breasts, kissing the tips, laving her pale skin with his tongue and sucking her nipples between his lips. She seized his penis once again, and he let out a guttural moan, returning his attention to the sensitive nub between her legs.

The warmth of the water surrounded her, as if his hands were everywhere on her body.

She redoubled her strokes on his cock and cupped his testicles with her other hand, her manipulations as gentle as her other hand's was vigorous.

He had an oddly expectant look on his face which was so unfamiliar to her that it nearly stopped her short, but he noticed her scrutiny, and the expression turned into a scowl that was so very much his that she felt her breath hitch. To her surprise, he gasped, and warm semen erupted from the head of his cock, flowing down over her fingers and into the coarse hair at the base of his cock.

'Ten points from Gryffindor," he growled, and the combination of hot breath in her ear, clever fingers between her legs, and the voice that had fascinated and terrified her as a child sent her over the edge, gasping and groaning, her body convulsing helplessly against the pressure between her legs.

Hermione opened her eyes and sank back into the water with a shuddering sigh, rubbing herself gently, as the throbbing in her cunt slowly subsided and the blood gradually returned to her brain.

Grueling, top secret work and a department packed with elderly eccentrics all but guaranteed her few opportunities for lovers over the years, but thanks to her selectivity and innate intellectual curiosity, she had never lacked for imaginative sex, even when she had only herself to rely upon. She was pleased that her mind had always been able to keep up with her body's demands for new and effective ways to achieve satisfaction.

Still, even as she vibrated with aftershocks of her delightfully intense climax, she felt a nagging feeling that she had crossed a line of some sort. She supposed it wasn't entirely fair to Severus that she had so thoroughly enjoyed invading his privacy, but it really was far simpler to keep work and pleasure as separate as possible. After all, it was the idea that she found appealing, certainly not the man himself.

When her heart rate had returned to normal, she turned off the water jets, leaned her head back to wet her hair once more, and stepped shakily out of the tub.

She seized one of the sumptuous self-fluffing bath towels and dried herself with it before donning her dressing gown and wrapping the towel around her wet hair. She figured that since Molly was going to be watching her more closely than usual that she ought to give her something twice as dull as usual to watch, so she sat in front of the vanity and its Spy Spelled mirror and removed the towel. She conjured a tiny comb with which she began to remove the snarls from her wet hair.

She was so focused on her task that she did not hear the sound of the small door in the bathroom wall click quietly shut.

Chapter Text

After the Christmas dinner fiasco, Molly was in a truly foul mood. Any person unfortunate enough to cross her path was treated to a series of invasive questions about their activities and whereabouts, and usually resulted in Molly assigning an arbitrary and often unpleasant task. This was how Neville and Filch found themselves testing every flagstone in the Great Hall for structural integrity and how Ginny and Fleur ended up casting mending charms on all the bed linens that the house elves had deemed too worn for student use. Even New Year's Eve had been so full of busy work that everybody was asleep by ten o'clock.

For her part, Hermione had been given an absurdly large amount of ground to cover before the students returned, which kept her too busy for the next week to even think about plotting to remove the headmistress or researching Severus's Unbreakable Vow. She hadn't seen the woman this single-minded of purpose since Bill and Fleur's wedding, and she knew better than to attempt to skive off. She also suspected that's why she had seen neither hide nor hair of Severus since Christmas.

Fortunately, the castle came to her aid in unexpected ways. She was delighted to discover that word of what she was doing had spread through the paintings and that a number of them, especially those that concealed long-forgotten rooms, were dying to give away their passwords. She discovered so many interesting rooms that even the headmistress, who was fascinated by the room that housed several centuries-worth of fruitcake, couldn't find fault.

By the time classes resumed, the worst of the headmistress's ire faded, or at least went into remission. Hermione still felt as though Molly suspected her of complicity in the Christmas massacre, but she was less openly hostile and accusatory during Hermione's daily reports. The night before the students returned, Molly had grudgingly granted Hermione more hours of the day to spend studying the construction of the rooms she'd discovered. Hermione fled her office before she had the opportunity to change her mind.

The students' return was as noisy and distracting as she had expected, but per the headmistress's orders, they left her alone for the most part during the few hours of her day that coincided with hers. A few of the boldest students approached her in the library to ask her about killing Voldemort, to which she'd tersely responded that they ought to ask Harry Potter. Not for the first time, she was hugely grateful that she had chosen the Department of Mysteries over teaching at Hogwarts.

Research on the Unbreakable Vow was not going well — even the most technical monographs on the subject were disappointingly incomplete and took the vow's inability to be broken as a given, rather than simply a name. As she had proved to Harry's undying gratitude, Permanent Sticking charms could be unstuck with combination of magic directed at structural irregularities on the stuck object and destructive intent. Sadly, the Mag-Spec data was mysterious and oddly inconclusive. She didn't have any knowledge to speak of on the structure of compulsive magic, which was proving to be a hindrance. She made a note in her self-encrypting notebook to ask Severus for a bit of Veritaserum to test, hoping that she'd soon have the opportunity to speak with him.

She stacked the books she'd been reading neatly at the corner of the table, and raised her arms in a bone-cracking stretch. She'd spent too much time on the problem — it was time to think about something else until inspiration struck.

It was still two hours until dinner. A walk might do her a world of good. The halls were relatively empty, since the final class of the day was still in session. Fleur's classroom door was open. She was teaching Warming Charms to the second years, and she was doing a good job of it, judging by the heat pouring out into the hallway. She gave Hermione a smile as she walked by.

Ginny was overseeing a largely unsuccessful sixth year class attempting to change rabbits into carriage clocks, Arthur's Muggle Studies class seemed mildly amused by his inability to put an antique telephone that he'd taken apart back together again. Hermione shook her head. Ginny and Arthur were both competent, intelligent people, but clearly, teaching did not number among their talents.

Hermione was suddenly seized with the desire to see how being under the Fidelius Charm affected Severus's ability to teach. She walked quickly to the nearest unused classroom, shut the door behind her, and broke into the observation room that she knew was concealed next to the window. She made her way to Door Central and slid through the door with the cauldron on it.

To her surprise, Severus's class looked the same as it ever had — scrolls of homework lay in a neat pile on his desk, the next day's homework and instructions were written on the board in his spiky script, and the man himself was stalking the aisles, as usual. However, instead of watching him with fearful, furtive looks the way her classmates had, the first years were all focused on their brewing, save for a few who were still slicing sassafras roots. Hermione was perplexed for a moment, since none of the first year potions she'd brewed used the plant. However, she recognized the other ingredients as a comprising a cure for nausea that the Hospital Wing always kept on hand. Perhaps Severus had altered the recipe, since students occasionally preferred the nausea they already had to the nausea induced by the potion's awful taste.

The other students were watching their cauldrons and stirring occasionally as the sweet, earthy aroma of sassafras pervaded the classroom, imbuing it with an aura of peace. That was what was so disconcerting — Potions was never a relaxing class. Stimulating, yes, and occasionally life-threatening, but never with the quiet confidence of these first years.

Severus paced up and down the rows, but since none of the students were aware of his presence, he observed them with much less swooping and looming over shoulders. When unobserved, she was surprised to find that he watched his students with a kind of quiet pride. Hermione wondered how long it would last once a student made a mistake.

She hadn't long to wait — one first year didn't look closely enough at the bottles in his potions kit and was about to add Flobberworm skin instead of Murtlap skin. However, instead of shouting as Severus would have done when she was a student, he raised his wand and sealed the lid of the cauldron so that the ingredient slid into the fire. The student frowned, stared at the instructions on the board. He rooted around in his potions kit for a moment before procuring the correct ingredient, which he added without Severus's interference.

Severus continued about the room, correcting a few more students with minor spells to prevent accidents, until every student had a dark, treacle-like potion bubbling merrily in his or her cauldron. He checked the last of the cauldrons, and flicked his wand in a broad arc. Glass flasks appeared on each desk, and several students grinned broadly. The quietness evaporated immediately, as all the students began talking as they filled their flasks with their potion and began cleaning up. One student was even so bold as to taste the potion that she'd just completed, and she seemed quite relieved when nothing in particular happened. The students appeared to be having fun, something that the Professor Snape she'd known would never have tolerated.

However, Severus stood in the corner watching the students file out with a bemused expression on his face. When the last of the giggling first years had left, he locked the classroom door with a wave of his wand and went from workbench to workbench evaluating the potion samples.

Awkwardly, Hermione knocked on the hidden door. His head snapped up from his work, but his expression was far from surprised. "Granger," he said in a resigned voice.

So he did did know about Door Central and wasn't bothering to hide it. Hermione opened the hidden door and stepped into the room. "I'm sorry for interrupting your work. I had hoped to speak with you before supper."

"I'll be with you once I've seen to the last of these. It's easiest to judge their efficacy when the potion is still warm."

Hermione raised an eyebrow. "You can tell how effective they are just by looking at them?"

He held a flask up to the light. "I can judge clarity just by looking at them. I judge efficacy by smell."

Hermione pulled the Mag-Spec out of her handbag. "May I?"

Severus grunted his assent, and Hermione held the machine over the top of a sample flask. The green light turned red, and the potion's histogram appeared on the screen. Like most medicinal potions, the graph was very active in the earth quadrant of the graph. She didn't know enough about the potion itself to judge whether it had been made correctly, since she'd only done three sets of experiments on potions and potions ingredients, but the histogram from a second student sample was nearly identical, which meant that either both students had made the same error or that both students had succeeded.

She sat down at a desk and watched him move from desk to desk, assessing each potion methodically and marking the students' grades in his ledger, she was struck again by the difference between the Professor Snape who'd taunted and terrorized her and her friends and the man who oversaw the focused, well-disciplined class she'd just observed, especially since this was the first time that she'd ever seen Severus Snape practically humming with satisfaction.

All right, the second time, but she quickly squelched the traitorous thought as soon as she recognized it. But like most traitorous thoughts, it had brought friends.

She found herself listing all the things she'd never considered about Severus Snape before watching his most intimate moments, such as whether his skin smelt of cedar, what he imagined when he pleasured himself, and if his skin was as smooth as it had been in her mind.

There was a loud popping sound, startling Hermione out of her ruminations. Having finished examining his students' potions, Severus had Vanished the sample bottles and was gathering the first year's homework scrolls from his desk.

While she was intensely grateful that he didn't seem to have been eavesdropping on her thoughts, she was also kicking herself for not anticipating this. She knew that sexual gratification was one of the strongest positive stimuli in existence. By allowing herself to indulge in thoroughly unprofessional fantasies, she'd essentially conditioned herself to respond to his presence. She scowled and pressed her legs firmly together and banished all erotic thoughts. If anybody was going to behave inappropriately, it certainly wouldn't be her.

Severus walked towards her, laid the homework scrolls on the bench, and crossed his arms across his chest.

"Hermione," he said, drawing her name out in a way that made her want to purr. "To what do I owe the honor?"

The acerbic tone of his query was sufficient to keep her from slipping back into her daydream. "I should think that obvious from my mode of entry," she replied, pleased that her voice sounded crisp and confident.

"You've finally found the Aperterium, then," he said, affecting boredom. "I'm surprised it took you this long."

Hermione was impressed. "Aperterium" was a much better name than "Door Central," though she'd renounce research for Divination before she'd admit it. "Is that what it's called?" she asked mildly. "I found it before Christmas. It's a rather interesting relic of bygone paranoid days, don't you think?"

"Clearly, you think it's something more than a relic if you're speaking with me about it," he replied, seating himself at the desk at the front of the room. "I also notice that you've yet to alert the headmistress to its presence. I congratulate you on a fair attempt at nonchalance, but if you don't begin asking questions, I fear that you may explode all over my classroom. Out with it."

"If you insist," said Hermione, no longer bothering to conceal her excitement. "How long have you known about the Aperterium?"

"Albus showed it to me in what would have been your sixth year at Hogwarts," he said. "We both knew at that point that I was likely to succeed him in the event of a Ministry collapse, and he wanted to ensure that I would have all the tools necessary to protect the little blighters from getting themselves gutted by Death Eaters."

Hermione shuddered imagined the amount of energy it must have taken for Snape to effectively make use of Albus's gift while attempting to fulfill his obligations as headmaster. "It's Dumbledore's work, then?"

"Almost entirely," said Severus. "It took him nearly two decades to create it, including developing magic that allowed him to anchor magical rooms to two locations. I strongly suspect that Flamel helped. He was always haranguing Albus to be more active in suppressing budding supporters of the Dark Lord."

Hermione looked sharply at him. "You mean that Dumbledore created it to spy on the students?"

"Did you think that the Dark Lord only recruited adults?" He sneered. "Of course he created it to spy on students! Most nights, the house elves were under orders to watch and listen, then report to him. Didn't you ever wonder how he knew everything going on at Hogwarts?"

"We always thought it was the portraits," murmured Hermione.

"That is what you were meant to think. In reality, very little was entrusted to the portraits because they are simply too unreliable. However, it was an enormous advantage for the portrait subjects to be seen traveling from painting to painting because the students believed that's how teachers kept track of them. You won't find Aperterium gateways on corridors containing paintings because they would have been useless. No conspirator with any sense would say anything of importance in an area that was likely to be spied on. That's why the common rooms themselves contain no paintings — to encourage private discussion within eavesdropping distance."

"So what did you and Dumbledore plan to do with the Aperterium afterwards?"

"You mean after both of us were dead? Nothing."

"Nothing? You would leave such a powerful tool simply lying around Hogwarts for anybody to find?"

"Not just anybody," said Snape, with heavy irony. "It would take a stunningly perceptive wizard to notice the miniscule amounts of magic given off by the presence of the gateways, and one of particular skill to break through the spells hiding the door. It would take astounding wisdom to recognize the gateway as anything other than another hidden closet and a huge amount of dumb luck to locate the doorknob leading to the Aperterium. Or, as we've discovered, a nosy witch with a Magispectrometer."

Hermione smiled in spite of herself. "It's quite understandable that you didn't foresee that particular eventuality."

"How magnanimous of you," he said blandly.

Hermione ignored him. "Now what?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, what are you using the Aperterium for now? Surely you're not simply keeping it around for the next time a megalomaniac takes over the Ministry?"

"One already has taken over the Ministry using her son as a proxy, and the Aperterium has been a most useful and entertaining tool against her."

"So that's why she's having me map the castle!" Hermione exclaimed, relieved that the pieces were falling into place. "She knows somebody is opposing her with means beyond her control, and she wants me to find who and how."

"Got there finally, did you?" he drawled.

"You realize that she's giving up a good chunk of school funds to support my work. Whatever you did to her must have put a real bee in her bonnet."

"I believe the final straw was when she woke to find that the spy mirrors in her private quarters had been spelled to show live, in-color, pictures of the inside of her own toilet, complete with stereophonic sound. I fancy it occurred during her husband's morning constitutional."

Hermione's entire body jerked with the effort of containing an undignified guffaw. "That might do it," she conceded, lips quirking into a smile.

"Now," said Severus, "one question remains: how did you connect the Aperterium to me?"

Hermione shrugged. "Simple deduction. You'd have discovered the bookshelf illusion in your quarters the moment you tried to put a book on it. It only stands to reason that you'd be aware of what it was hiding."

Severus's eyes narrowed suspiciously, clearly wanting to ask when she'd been in his quarters but not wishing to give her the upper hand. Not wishing to leave herself vulnerable to Legilimency, Hermione thought very hard about liquorice allsorts instead of the circumstances under which she'd discovered the illusion in Severus's quarters.

He finally gave up with an irritated sigh and crossed his arms. "Very well," he said. "It seems as though the only way I may retain a modicum of privacy is to give you what you so obviously want. If you are willing to negotiate, I can offer you a complete and up-to-date map of the Aperterium."

Hermione didn't bounce in her seat, but it was a near thing. "That would be helpful," she said, "but you mentioned negotiation. What is it that you want in exchange?"

"Nothing that won't benefit you directly."

"I'm not so dim that I'll agree without knowing what it is."

"Teach me to use the Mag-Spec."

Hermione was so surprised that she said the first thing that came to mind. "You're joking."

"I am perfectly serious. What possible objections could you have?"

"For starters, it's a Top Secret project. I'm bound by my contract with the Ministry—"

"Which doesn't apply because you are currently in the employ of Hogwarts, not the Ministry," finished Severus smoothly.

Hermione blinked in surprise. He'd clearly given this quite a bit of thought. "All right, then. I'm the patent holder. It's not in my interest to give anybody inside knowledge of the technology."

"The Muggle world I was raised in didn't have home electronics. The inner workings of your device are far beyond my understanding of the technology. Besides, I'm not asking you to show me how to build the bloody thing. I just want to know how to take readings and interpret the data."

Hermione wanted to believe him, but the intense desire for privacy that had aided her meteoric rise in the Department of Mysteries was stronger. "And I'm just to take your word for that? What's to stop you taking it apart and doing just that?"

"Put a Protection Charm on it. Wrap the wretched thing in tamper-proof plastic, I don't care. I'm offering to do work for you that you can use to obtain funding during the next cycle in exchange for only the time it takes to train me. Only an idiot would refuse such an offer."

"This 'idiot' idly wonders what's in it for you."

"You mean beyond the ability to assess the efficacy of ingredients before they go into potions, thus allowing myself never-imagined levels of accuracy?"

"Yes," she said, crossing her arms. "I want to know why you're so keen to help me now when, as you pointed out when we first met in the Great Hall, you have no motivation to make things easy for me."

"I'm not helping you," he snapped. "I am helping myself — something that you seem unwilling or unable to do."

"That was a terribly effective slur against my ability and motivation, but I don't buy it. You don't like me. Yet you're volunteering to spend a great deal of time in my presence — in fact, you're offering to help me so much that I would, indeed, be an idiot to refuse. But it does make me wonder why you're offering me such a good deal. I want to know exactly what to expect."

"And that, Miss Granger, is why you could never be a Slytherin."

"Thank heaven for small mercies," she shot back. "It must be exhausting."

He gave her a sour look. "If it will make you feel better, I am willing to say that the past weeks have afforded me the opportunity to re-evaluate certain aspects of my situation."

Hermione raised an eyebrow. "Such as?"

He seized a scroll from the pile in front of her and unrolled it fiercely. "The details are irrelevant."

"On the contrary, the details are essential. If you can for once in your life forego the double-talk and insinuation, I'll start teaching you immediately."

"I could lie," he pointed out.

"If it were a good enough lie to stand up under scrutiny, I'd be willing to accept it."

"In that case, I wish to use our time together gauging your interest in me with the eventual goal of ravishing you across one of the student benches."

"That's not a very good lie," said Hermione, ignoring the rather athletic dance that her stomach was doing.

"No, it isn't. Terrible, in fact."

"And it's not at all practical. The benches are in wretched condition. I'd get splinters."

"True," he agreed. There was a ghost of a twinkle in his eye as he took a seat next to her on the bench. "Then perhaps this explanation will be more amenable to you. In addition to developing a clearer way to determine the efficacy of potions ingredients, I hope to stimulate your interest in a potions project of mine. I think you'll find that its aims are not incompatible with your own side project."

Hermione's lungs joined her stomach in a fast two-step. "You have been working on a way out of your Unbreakable Vow," she accused him.

"Not directly — the vow precludes that, but there are similar forms of compulsive magic that I have been interested in, such as the Imperius Curse—"

"—or Veritaserum," Hermione finished giddily. "Of course, they must be related somehow."

He smirked at her. "I take it that you accept my explanation, then? In that case, I believe you requested from me a list of tasks that you must complete before gaining my material assistance in removing Molly Weasley from Hogwarts."

"But if we're to be collaborating on the Mag-Spec—" began Hermione, but Severus cut her off with a wave of his hand.

"Those terms have been settled. Quid pro quo: Mag-Spec training in exchange for Mag-Spec potions data and access to compulsive magic. Consider yourself fortunate that our agreement has removed every item from the list, save one. Now, I'm willing to postpone the start of our agreement to give you sufficient time to make for me a door that will allow me to take meals in the privacy of my classroom."

She sighed. "You know, asking me nicely would have worked far better than extortion."

His snort was eloquent.

"Yes, yes, I could never be a Slytherin," she grumbled.

"I think the wall behind my desk would suffice," he said silkily, producing a grading quill and unrolling a piece of first year homework.

She was torn between scowling and laughing. "I feel precisely as if I've been had."

"Dear girl," said Severus, "I promise you that should that particular eventuality arise, you will most certainly be aware of it. Now, if you don't begin immediately, you'll be late for supper. And be sure that you don't make the door too close to the blackboard. I detest the taste of chalk dust."

Hermione huffed loudly, irritated that he could sarcastically flirt and then order her about like a first year in the same breath, and produced the Mag-Spec to find the locational data she'd need for the SMAC. The annoying man himself was bent over the pile of homework, his quill scratching comments in the essay margins.

She was nearly finished with her calculations when his instructions hit her full force. Make for me a door that will allow me to take meals in the privacy of my classroom. She nearly cackled aloud when she realized that he'd failed to specify something very important. Bending over her notebook to shield her calculations from his sharp gaze, she consulted a map that she'd saved to the Mag-Spec and located the correct coordinates. If this worked as well as she suspected it would, it would also provide a solution for a logistical problem she'd been pondering for several days.

She created a magical closet in the wall per Severus's specifications and closed herself inside so prevent him from realizing what she was doing. She was relieved to find that SMAC spell was easier to cast the second time, though she was still panting and sweaty by the time the door had appeared on the wall. She knew that the room to which she'd connected the closet was unlikely to be occupied, but she was still cautious when she opened the new door. As expected, the room was dark and silent, and a Lumos spell revealed, to her relief, that it was the room she had targeted. She grinned and cast an illusion on the far side of the door she'd created and returned to the closet in Severus's classroom.

When she emerged from the closet, Severus glanced up from his marking to examine her handiwork. "I'd have put it a few inches to the left, but I suppose it'll do. Now, you're not going to leave it like that, are you?"

"I should, just to serve you right," she said, somewhat breathless from exertion, "but I hate to leave a job unfinished."

He shot her a suspicious look. "If I find that you've cast a faulty illusion on either door—"

"I wouldn't do that," Hermione protested. "I said I'll conceal it for you, and I'll do it properly. Don't you have any more essays to deface?"

He muttered something in which she clearly heard the word "impertinent," but he returned to the pile of parchment.

She was fairly exhausted by the time she finished the second illusion, and stepped back into the classroom, where Severus was still marking homework.

"It's finished," she said, sinking down in the comfortable chair that sat behind his desk and opening her beaded bag.

"Finally," said Severus. "Celine!" he barked.

A House Elf appeared and bowed. "What can Celine be doing for sir?"

"I would like supper," he said. "You may deliver it through the hidden door that Miss Granger is about to show you."

Hermione temporarily lifted the illusion and showed the closet and hidden door to the elf, who stepped through it with trepidation.

Hermione looked disapprovingly at Severus and returned to rummaging through her bag. "I thought you said that Molly and Percy were the only ones who knew about you."

"Molly got tired of my complaints and revealed my secret to the least experienced House Elf. The tea she makes is better used for polishing first year cauldrons, but you could bounce a Galleon off the bed after she's had her way with it."

The elf appeared in the doorway, tugging nervously on her ear. "Celine is sorry," she said, "but elves is only allowed to serve food in the Great Hall."

"You needn't leave the Great Hall," said Severus, rising impatiently. "Simply give it to me through the door."

"Celine cannot do that," said the distraught elf, giving her ear a half twist, "The door is not leading to the Great Hall."

Hermione, who had located the item in her handbag that she'd been seeking, looked up just in time to appreciate the thunderous look that appeared on Severus's face.

"What is the meaning of this, Granger?" he hissed.

"I followed your instructions precisely," she retorted, tapping her wand on the small golden object she'd removed from her bag.

"You heard the elf. That door does not go to the Great Hall," he said.

"You said you wished to take meals in your room," said Hermione with ill-concealed glee. "You didn't specify that those meals should originate in the Great Hall."

"Blasted girl!" he growled. He opened the door himself and peered through. "Where precisely is this?"

"It's a private room at Madam Puddifoot's," said Hermione with satisfaction. "Her tea is quite drinkable, and you could bounce a Galleon off her fish and chips."

"You seem to have forgot that I am under the influence of the Fidelius Charm," said Severus, whose expression had darkened further.

"Nothing simpler," said Hermione. "Send Celine for take-away. And now that that problem is solved, I'll expect you in that private room at seven o'clock tomorrow evening."

Outrage warred with curiosity on his face before curiosity won out. "What happens tomorrow at seven o'clock?"

Hermione returned the enchanted Galleon to her handbag. "We're meeting with a reporter."

He scowled. "I haven't the pleasure of understanding you."

"Creating a door through which you may take meals fulfills my side of the bargain. Making sure that it opens into the last place Molly Weasley would look for either of us makes it easier for you to fulfill yours. Have you ever heard of a publication called Magical Pedagogy Today?"

"No."

"Why am I not surprised? Have you ever heard of a reporter named Quentin Cooper?"

"No. Wait. He's the reporter to whom Molly assigns my usual seat of dishonor in the Great Hall when there are press conferences."

"The same," said Hermione. "Did you ever wonder what he did to deserve such treatment?"

"No," he sighed. "But I don't suppose you'll make a door that leads to the Great Hall for me unless I allow you to tell me."

"True," she said with a smile. "And I really must insist that the word 'please' be involved."

***

The next evening found Hermione sitting in the small, private room that was decorated with dozens of tiny gilt statues of wizards and witches in various sexual positions. The door opened, and the proprietress stuck her gray-streaked head into the room.

"Care for anything while you're waiting, m'dear? Fish and chips are on today," she said in a kindly voice.

"I'll just have a spot of tea, thanks."

"Biscuits? If your gentleman is running late, you might be glad of them."

"All right," said Hermione. "Dark chocolate, if you have them."

"Naturally. Also, there's a list of specials by the wall. You're free to take it with you," she added helpfully.

"Thanks, Madam Puddifoot" said Hermione. "I think I'll be all right."

"Suit yourself, luv," she replied with a wink. "I recommend number sixteen. Good for relieving tension, that." She bustled out of the room, humming tunelessly.

Hermione absently began flipping through the "menu" of various implements offered by Madam Puddifoot's for the "relaxation and pleasure of its varied clients." Slightly interested, Hermione located number sixteen, which was a "discreet, completely silent personal massager" available in an array of colors and textures.

She was distracted from her perusal by the sound of a throat being cleared. "Your reporter friend is late."

"He had an important interview today," she replied. "We'll give him another half hour before assuming he's not coming."

"Wonderful, another half hour of waiting in this Parisian cat house masquerading as a tea shop for a professional snitch who will probably put me on the front page of tomorrow's paper rather than help us."

Hermione knew he was nervous about letting her reveal his presence to someone else, a reporter in particular, but knew there was little she could say that would calm him. "I think you'll be pleasantly surprised, Severus. Now, you probably shouldn't hover in the doorway like that. You might get stuck," she said, as she became more engrossed in Madam Puddifoot's more unusual offerings. "It could be awkward explaining how your top half came to be in Hogsmeade when your bottom half is in a closet off the potions classroom. Now either come through or go back to marking homework."

Grumbling, he climbed through the portrait and sat beneath the hidden door, scowling at her. "Granger—" he began.

"It's not Hermione any longer? I'm hurt."

"Would you put that ridiculous thing down?" he asked querulously.

"It's not ridiculous," said Hermione. "I'm finding it quite educational — the illustrations move."

He crossed his arms. "Shut up, Granger."

At that point, the door opened, and Coop, wearing a trenchcoat and fedora, sidled into the room.

"A flasher," commented Severus. "My day is complete."

Hermione took one look at Coop's outlandish ensemble and burst out laughing.

Coop looked slightly hurt. "What?"

"You look like something from a Raymond Chandler novel."

"Is that good?"

"It might be if this were Los Angeles in 1940. What on earth are you wearing?"

"Muggle reporters wear this sort of thing, don't they?"

"Not outside lively imaginations of many years ago. Why are you trying to dress as Muggle reporter?"

"I'm trying to arrange an interview with someone at a Muggle school," said Coop. "In her last interview, the headmistress cited studies about single-sex classes, but it turns out that the only studies that have been done about their effectiveness were done by Muggles."

Hermione blinked in surprise. "That's rather brilliant."

Coop preened. "One doesn't get on the headmistress's naughty list without having something to back it up."

Severus snorted.

"I can make you a convincing press pass and advise you on slightly more credible clothing," said Hermione, "but I'm going to need something in return."

"I'm afraid I don't have any evenings free for at least two months, but in addition to an inimitable plate of fish and chips, Madam Puddifoot offers an excellent selection of consolation prizes. My investigational skills are, of course, at your disposal."

"You're too kind," said Hermione sarcastically. "Now sit down, I have something important to tell you."

Coop removed his trench coat and gave Madam Puddifoot, who was delivering the tea and biscuits, a smile that made her giggle. "I am at the lady's disposal."

Once the proprietress had closed the door firmly behind her, Hermione leaned forward and said in a low but clear voice, "The Potions teacher of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry is Severus Snape."

Coop's eyes widened, but his jaw went slightly slack for a moment before he shook his head. "Sorry, I must be more tired than I thought. What was that?"

Hermione shot Severus a look of surprise. He shrugged, and she tried again. "Severus Snape is teaching at Hogwarts. Molly Weasley's basically made him a servant."

Again, a blank look crossed Coop's face. "I think some tea will do me good," he said, pouring himself a cup and adding a dash of milk. "I swear, I can see your mouth moving, but I can't understand a word. Could it be that her lips have bewitched me?" he asked apostrophically.

Hermione sat back with a frown. Clearly, her discovering the secret that the Fidelius was hiding did not give her the same ability to spread the word as somebody to whom the Secret Keeper had revealed the secret. She was dismayed by the limitation, but she still had plenty to tell Coop.

"Right, so here's my plan: I'm trying to devise a strategy to make Hogwarts great again."

Coop stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, and Hermione's heart sank, fearing some sort of miscommunication curse at play, when she realized that Coop had heard her, he was just unsure of how to respond. "I think I'm missing something," he said at last. "I thought we were trying to get rid of Molly Weasley."

"No, you have the particulars. What you're missing is the reason that restoring Hogwarts to its former glory will make Molly more likely to leave."

He looked at her for a moment, puzzled, and then his jaw dropped. "Of course!" he exclaimed. "I'm an idiot."

"You being an idiot will make Molly want to leave?" came a voice from the doorway.

To Hermione's shock, Neville Longbottom stepped through the door.

"If that's all it took, she'd have been gone long ago," said Coop cheerfully. "You're Longbottom, right? I didn't know you were in on our little conspiracy."

Neville reached into his robe and pulled out the Galleon that Hermione had given him their fifth year. "My lucky charm has never steered me wrong. I'm just glad you're still here. I looked everywhere but I couldn't find Luna. She's probably still trying to rid the castle of Crepuscular Dwentids."

Hermione nearly kicked herself for not anticipating that Neville might still have his Galleon. "I'm glad you were able to make it, Neville," she lied glibly. "This is Quentin Cooper from Magical Pedagogy Today."

"And you're going to help us?" asked Neville doubtfully.

"For you, gorgeous, anything," said Coop, batting his eyelashes outrageously at Neville.

Neville turned scarlet.

"Right," she said, "here's the crux of the situation: in a misguided attempt to bring all of her family under her control, Molly has been systematically dismantling Hogwarts in hopes that her relatives will help out of a sense of familial obligation."

"So the worse things get at Hogwarts, the more Weasleys are required to keep it running," added Coop. "Hermione here thinks that making Hogwarts a better school will allow those for whom teaching is not their first choice to make their own way in the world, thus foiling Molly's plans."

Neville's ears were still pink, but his eyes were shining with excitement. "How can we do that?"

"That's what Coop is here to tell us," said Hermione. "We need to know what sorts of things headmasters and headmistresses have done to raise the profile of the school, or at least attract more students and raise money."

"Well, there were all sorts of Quidditch tie-ins," said Coop. "But there's no talking to her on the subject because it would mean having mixed classes again."

"There was the Triwizard Tournament," offered Neville. "We were able to install double-paned enchanted glass in all the greenhouses with the public admission fees from the First Task alone."

"Given that a kid died during the last tournament, it'd take some serious diplomacy to make the Tournament happen again," commented Coop. "Besides, it took years to plan, and I think we'd all be much happier with Molly gone as soon as humanly possible. Since we're in the middle of a school year, it's a good time to start ingratiating ourselves to parents. I think our best bet is to get our hands on enough filthy lucre to convince those teachers who are here for Molly that the school can get on without them."

Hermione was gratified that no derisive snort from Severus was forthcoming. "Any ideas off the top of your head, Coop?"

"McGonagall held a public ball as a fund-raiser in ought two," said Coop after a thoughtful pause, "but I'm sure I can find something grander if you give me a few days."

"If you like, I can bring up the subject at tonight's staff meeting," said Neville. "I could pitch it in terms of getting funds to buy the platinum-plated flower pots required to grow a Variegated Blingerer."

Hermione frowned. "What's a Variegated Blingerer?"

"No idea," said Neville with a smile, "but I'm sure Luna will have my back when I describe its myriad and important uses."

Both Snape and Coop snorted appreciatively, and Coop gave Neville an appraising look.

"Are there any other teachers who might be willing to incur the headmistress's wrath if it means that they'll be able to afford better teaching materials?"

"Parvati," answered Neville immediately. "She's been complaining for years that she's teaching three subjects with the funding for one. And Fleur would do anything if she thought it'd annoy Molly. Bill, Luna, and Ginny are always looking for new ways to engage their students, and Arthur will be in favor of anything that Muggles have tried. Pince and Filch will most certainly join in if the others do."

Hermione was impressed with Neville's incisive appraisal of his colleagues. "Percy?"

"He won't do anything that Molly doesn't approve, but he might surprise us if the others get permission first."

"All right then, Longbottom," said Coop, "do you have anything in mind for yourself?"

Nevillle frowned. "Gran used to organize garden shows to benefit St. Mungo's. There are loads of useful plants in the student greenhouses that people might find interesting."

"Armando Dippet threw a garden gala in fifty-seven," said Coop. "I seem to recall that they made all sorts of improvements to the Quidditch pitch with the proceeds. Do you think you could have something show-worthy by spring?"

A mischievous smile spread across Neville's face. "That wouldn't take me until the spring," he scoffed. "But I will need to recruit enough students, and the others will have my head if anybody's homework suffers," he said, subverting his otherwise impeccable bravado.

"Perhaps I ought to rephrase," said Coop. "Would you have sufficient time to design and execute the sorts of gardens that people would pay to see? As nice as the greenhouses are, they don't have much in the way of ambience."

"There are a number of private gardens at Hogwarts that you will have no doubt discovered by then," added Snape, to Hermione's surprise. She repeated his comment, which elicited a thoughtful look from Coop and a vague nod from Neville.

"So that's your top-secret project?" asked Neville. "Finding hidden rooms?"

"That's what the headmistress wants," said Hermione noncommittally.

"Then will you be allowed to tell me if you find any hidden gardens?"

"I don't need anything special to find hidden gardens," said Hermione. "In fact, I can already tell you the locations of two just from reading Hogwarts: A History."

"The public does love a secret," agreed Coop. "I think it's a great idea. Tell me what you have in mind, Longbottom."

The reporter and the herbologist then put their heads together.

Hermione was still slightly discomfited by Neville's presence, but she forced herself to relax. Clearly, they were on the same page as far as the headmistress was concerned, and Neville's discretion and motives were beyond reproach. Furthermore, she'd been somewhat concerned that there would be problems getting the headmistress to go along with plans to spruce up the school, so there was a definite advantage in having a teacher on their side who could actually argue their cause to the other teachers.

As if reading her thoughts, which she supposed he might have been, Severus chose that moment to whisper in her ear, "He's not what I would have chosen in an ally, but I suppose he'll do."

"Such extravagant praise," she whispered back.

"What was that, Hermione?" asked Neville.

"Just thinking aloud," she said with a shrug. "I think I need to get back to the castle. Just to sum up: Neville is going to drum up support for external fundraisers at the staff meeting, Coop is going to see if there's anything more lucrative Hogwarts can do than a garden show, and I'm going to do some research to see if I can locate any hidden gardens."

"Sounds like a plan," said Coop. "Would you like an escort back to the castle?"

"There's no need to trouble yourself," said Neville. "I live there, too."

"Then it's settled," said Coop. "Someone has to keep you lovebirds from tarnishing Hogwarts' sterling reputation with your antics. I'll walk you both."

"That man would flirt with a lamppost if it provided him with a flattering light," remarked Severus.

"You will do no such thing," said Hermione, scowling at Coop. "A fat lot of good our meeting in secret would do if Molly saw you."

"You have absolutely no sense of adventure," sniffed Coop. "Since more pleasant company has been denied me, I have no recourse but to speak with Madam Puddifoot."

"If you find anything stimulating, do send it via anonymous owl," said Hermione, pulling on her overcoat, "unless it has to do with the conspiracy, of course. Otherwise, we'll meet here at the same time next week."

"All right," said Cooper, standing. "See you next week at the latest, then."

"It was a pleasure meeting you," said Neville, suddenly shy.

Coop leaned over and brushed his lips against the knuckles of Neville's right hand. "The pleasure was all mine," he said in a voice that made even Hermione shiver.

An unsubtle cough from Severus warned her to get on with it, and Hermione allowed Coop to escort her and Neville to the door of the tea shop. Neville offered her his arm, and Hermione took it, grateful for the additional warmth in the chill of the late afternoon.

"Wow," said Neville. "I have to admit, I feared the worst when the Galleon said to meet you in a back room at Madam Puddifoot's, but I should have known you were up to something clever."

"What do you mean 'the worst?'" asked Hermione. "Did you think I was trying to compromise your virtue?"

"You're an amazing girl, Hermione. Beautiful, brilliant, fun, any bloke'd be lucky to have you. But, well, I'm looking for something a bit different. Something that has to shave every day, if you take my meaning." Neville's voice was light, but she could feel his body tense for her reaction.

"So you're into girls with hormone problems? Kinky," said Hermione.

Neville's earnest nervousness faded into a smile. "I've become something of a herbologist stereotype, I'm afraid."

"Neville, you could never be a stereotype. Besides, you'd look wretched in pink."

This time he did laugh. "So, tell me about Quentin Cooper."

"Ha!" exclaimed Hermione gleefully.

"I don't know what you mean," said Neville primly. "I just want to know how he came to be involved. I don't get the impression that you know each other particularly well."

"We don't, but he does seem genuinely concerned with the subject of teaching, which, your excellent self excepted, of course, has deteriorated significantly since we were students. I thought his expertise would be helpful."

"Certainly," said Neville, whose thoughts were clearly elsewhere.

The nearing lights of Hogwarts illuminated the dense clouds overhead, and a fine mist swirled around their feet.

"There's something else going on, isn't there?" asked Neville abruptly.

"Sort of," said Hermione carefully. "What have you seen, Neville?"

"Nothing specific," he said. "It's just an odd feeling that I've had since I started teaching here."

"What do you think it is?" asked Hermione.

"I haven't any idea," said Neville with a calculating expression on his face, "but I think you do. As soon as I brought it up, you shut yourself tighter than a moleskin purse. Don't worry, I'm not trying to pry, but I wanted to make sure you knew."

Hermione sighed. Sometimes she wondered if she'd have more friends if she didn't have to be constantly concerned with spilling Ministry secrets when she talked about her work. "You're right," she said. "I do know what's going on, and it'd blow the roof off Molly's tenure as headmistress if it were to be discovered."

"Then why not just get it on the front page of the paper instead of mucking about with flowers and fundraisers?" asked Neville.

"Because as satisfying as it might be for Molly to receive hundreds of Howlers, I'm not trying to cause a scandal. I'm trying to make Hogwarts a better place for everybody."

"Like it was when Dumbledore was headmaster?" asked Neville.

Hermione nearly scowled when she thought of the man who twinkled so benevolently but made House Elves spy on students, but the urge faded at the memory of all the garishly decorated holidays and the warm feeling that Dumbledore's welcome speeches always gave her. Whatever Dumbledore's faults had been, he had mastered the art of teaching students both academic and life skills. "More like it was under Dumbledore, anyway," she said quietly.

"It's odd," said Neville. "In some ways, I think Molly's an awful lot like Dumbledore was, but I can't say I like the direction she's taken the school."

Hermione grimaced. "That's for sure."

Neville sighed. "It makes me wonder what the old place would be like if it were run by somebody whose primary focus was simply running the school, rather than fighting a war, bringing the school under Ministry control, maintaining the appearance of loyalty to Voldemort, or trying to get every Weasley in Christendom to work here."

Hermione regarded Neville appreciatively. "I think to some extent, bigger concerns go with the office, especially since it seems that teaching experience or service to the school isn't enough to be appointed. It's as if the board is looking for celebrity and politics rather than the potential to be a good administrator."

"Would you ever consider it?" asked Neville hopefully. "You've run your own section in the Department of Mysteries and you're a bigger hero than Molly ever was. If you said you were interested, they'd throw Molly over in a heartbeat."

"I really couldn't," said Hermione. "I know it sounds kind of conceited, but I'm convinced I can do more good with my research than I can at Hogwarts."

"I figured," said Neville, shrugging. "But it couldn't hurt to ask."

"If it makes you feel any better, I'll tell you as soon as I'm able.'

They walked, immersed in thoughtful silence until they reached the winged boars that flanked the castle gate. Hermione ran a hand over her hair and found that it was damp from the mist.

"Wonderful," she grumbled. "As if I weren't disheveled enough already."

Neville smiled fondly at her and impulsively drew her into a tight embrace. He kissed the top of her head. "I wouldn't have you any other way," he said.

"I thought you wouldn't have me at all," she replied cheekily.

"Uh oh," said Neville. "Don't look now, but we have an audience."

Hermione glanced at the castle and saw that a veritable gaggle of students was staring at them from a window.

"Might as well give them something to talk about," said Neville, bending her over backwards in what would look, from the window, like a passionate kiss.

"Neville!" she scolded. "As nice as it is to have a reason to have been with you at Madam Puddifoot's, Molly will have my head for this."

"Don't be silly," he said lightly, righting them both once more. "If your theory is correct, then our being together would bring you under her control by proxy. She'll probably offer you a job. Besides, while I'm not ashamed of being a broom-polisher, Molly looks down on that sort of thing."

"If she didn't have so many children, you'd think the woman had never had sex," said Hermione.

"Oh, she has no problem with sex — it's how children and grandchildren are made," said Neville. "I think it's people having fun that she resents."

"So in order to stay on her good side, I should act like I'm shagging you but not having any fun doing so?"

"No need to go that far," said Neville, holding open the door for her. "I have a reputation to uphold."

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, Hermione was reminded why people who longed for their glory days at Hogwarts were either forgetful or extremely stupid. As Neville's new "love interest," her research in the library was constantly being disrupted by gigglers and gawkers, all of whom whispered loudly enough to be heard two rooms away, much less two shelves of books.

In spite of the interruptions, she was making excellent progress on the hidden gardens. The forty-odd editions of Hogwarts, a History and its even more numerous, less successful spin-offs, like Hogwarts and the Historical Romances it Inspired and Everything I Need To Know in Life I Learned at Hogwarts, contained numerous references to gardens that grew everything from potatoes to tropical potions ingredients.

The only project that wasn't going well was her work on Severus's Unbreakable Vow. She had stared at the spell's histogram until her eyes were crossed, but nothing new had occurred to her. She had hoped to talk to Severus, but she hadn't seen him since their meeting in Hogsmeade. She supposed she shouldn't be surprised that a man with encyclopedic knowledge of the Aperterium was difficult to find, but she was surprised that he hadn't shown up at her door insisting on being taught to use the Mag-Spec. It was almost as if he were sulking.

She didn't allow her annoyance with him to interfere with her work, so by the time the curious students left for supper, she had collected no less than ninety-three separate citations, several of which gave fairly detailed information about the locations of the gardens. Satisfied that she'd done good work for the day, she began to collect the volumes she'd examined.

"Why, Miss Granger," came a familiar sneer from behind her. "What a surprise to find you without your toy in tow."

Hermione turned to face her interlocutor with a bemused expression on her face. "You're not still angry that I made you say 'please,' are you?"

"Longbottom is as bent as the Burrow's chimney," Severus retorted, scowling. "What are you playing at?"

"I'm not playing at anything, I'm attempting to fulfill my obligations. Now, you're not going to run away again, are you?"

"Since it seems that you can't be left alone without causing a major scandal, no."

Hermione checked over her shoulder for stragglers and lowered her voice. "Neville doesn't want Molly to know he fancies men, and I'm a convenient cover."

"And what are you getting out of this?"

"Besides the obvious advantage of giving us both an unassailable reason to go to Madam Puddifoot's establishment on a regular basis? It's also rather fun, except for the giggling schoolgirls who follow me, as if Neville would show up at any moment and ravish me across my research."

"So you're determined to keep up this charade?"

"Well, the only other person who's expressed an interest in ravishing me lately admitted that it was a terrible lie, so I see no reason not to. Do you foresee it causing a problem?"

He blinked uncomprehendingly at her before narrowing his gaze. "This may be a game for you, Granger, but it isn't for me. My liberty is at stake, and if you can't be bothered to take it seriously, then you needn't bother helping."

She was surprised by his vehemence. "I can only do so many things at a time, Severus," she retorted. "And when you waste time avoiding me rather than providing the samples of compulsive magic you owe me, you have only yourself to blame for the delay."

He glared at her. "Someone had to pay attention to your tattered reputation, since you clearly can't be bothered."

"If I lost sleep worrying what people thought of me, I'd never accomplish anything," said Hermione. "A single woman in a situation where there are eligible men is always a curiosity, particularly amongst people who have nothing more exciting in their lives to think about. At least this way, Neville and I can keep the rumors about us under control."

Severus snorted. "Under control? This morning, I overheard Miss Pringleton of Hufflepuff telling Miss York of Gryffindor that you are trifling with Longbottom because you're trying to hide that you're bearing Arthur Weasley's love child."

Hermione nearly dropped the stack of books that she was adding to the reshelving cart. "What?"

"Had you not heard?" asked Severus silkily. "My personal favorite rumor is that you worked your way down to Longbottom after going through all the male Ministry department heads and married staff members. Filch is supposedly next on your list," he added with relish.

Hermione began to laugh. "You're making this up."

"I'm afraid not. You see, the best way to keep people from speculating about your love interests is not to make a public show with a favorite teacher whose wizard-fancying proclivities are widely rumored. It only makes people think you're trying to hide something. No, my dear, the best way avoid rumors about your sex life is to make people believe you have none."

"It doesn't really matter. The rumors will die out in time, provided I don't get any rounder in the middle, have lovers' tiffs in the Great Hall, or get caught snogging in a closet. Now, if you're done avoiding me for the sake of my honor, I'd really like to talk to you. This way," she said, gesturing toward the back wall of the library, where she pulled forward a bust of Agrippa to reveal a long, narrow room filled with racks of ancient weapons. "I found this room earlier today. We'll be able to speak freely here."

She gestured for him to sit at a small table in the corner, and she pulled out her notebook and a quill.

"I'm running into problems with the vow's histogram for two reasons. Firstly, I haven't studied any types of compulsive magic, so I don't have any histograms for comparison. Secondly, I don't know exactly what the spell does to someone under its influence. I think you can help me with both problems."

"I've already offered my help with the first, and I don't know what you expect me to do about the second," said Severus, crossing his arms.

"I'd like you to tell me exactly what it's like being under an Unbreakable Vow."

"I daresay you know the basics," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Three people are involved: the Initiator, the Vower, and the Bonder. The Initiator of the vow recites the terms, the Vower agrees to them, and the Bonder serves to witness the vow and provides the magic that seals the vow. The Bonder's magical contribution is the reason that an Unbreakable Vow remains in effect even if both the Initiator and the Bonder are killed."

"That explains why Molly and Percy are still alive."

An infinitesimal smirk curled the corner of his mouth. "I've considered killing them for the pleasure of it."

"Heaven only knows who they'd make headmaster after that," sighed Hermione. "Now, I know that this isn't the first time you've been under an Unbreakable Vow. Does it feel any different now that you're also under the Fidelius Charm?"

"No. I've never been able to feel the influence of the Fidelius Charm. You said that the Mag-Spec indicated that it's a spell without a locus, which is likely the reason I don't notice it. The Unbreakable Vow is as unpleasant as it ever was."

"Really? How does it feel?"

"It is… always present," he said thoughtfully. "It's not as all-controlling as being under the Imperius Curse, but it's all the more difficult to fight because of it. It's always there in the background of your thoughts. Activity and focus can make you less aware of it, even to the point of forgetting about it for a time, but the minute you near any of the vow's strictures, it's as if there's a hand at your throat that squeezes until you have no voice."

"That's how it kills you?" asked Hermione, horrified and fascinated.

"No, that's how it warns you. For vows contingent upon specific activities, there can be no warning. Once the opportunity to fulfill the vow has passed, either the Vower is alive or the Vower is dead. I once saw a man fail to fulfill an Unbreakable Vow, and his death was immediate, though it seemed to be painless, rather like the Killing Curse. However, since none of the Unbreakable Vows I've taken have resulted in my death, I cannot verify this with absolute certainty."

"Thank goodness for that," said Hermione, suppressing a shudder. "How do you know when the vow has been fulfilled?"

"It is unmistakable. It's the difference between winter and summer. It's as if the vow whispers to you whenever your mind isn't otherwise occupied."

"So you can tell me the precise wording of the vow that you made to Molly?"

"The vow never lets me forget." He narrowed his eyes and said in a mocking voice, "I, Severus Snape, do solemnly swear to fill the position of Potions Master at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry until such a time as a new instructor is hired to replace me, in exchange for room, board, and reasonable incidental expenses. While serving as Potions Master at Hogwarts, I consent to having my presence hidden beneath the Fidelius Charm."

Hermione frowned. "Is that all? What about the clause that prevents you from helping me help you out of it?"

"The clause isn't in the vow," he said grudgingly. "It's in the job description of 'Potions Master' that Molly wrote up beforehand specifically for me."

Hermione's jaw worked wordlessly for a moment, torn between admiration of Molly's cunning and abhorrence of the treatment she'd given Severus.

"And now you understand the importance of reading the fine print on any vow. I didn't even know that there was a job description until I had the temerity to ask for a pay rise after teaching for six months. She never even showed me the damned thing. I broke into her office once and read it, but until I did that, everything I knew came either from Molly's infernal gloating or that ever-present hand at my throat."

"I cannot believe the unmitigated gall of the woman treating you this way! It's unconscionable! It's criminal! If I weren't already actively opposing her, I'd—"

He cut her off with a dismissive gesture wave of his hand. "I've had eight years to foam at the mouth over it. Now, I sit ready to answer your other questions in order to find a way out of the situation, unless you'd rather rant uselessly for a few minutes?"

Hermione shut her mouth and cleared her throat. "Well, I've certainly never heard of an Unbreakable Vow being tied to a document before. That could be a weakness. Was there anything unusual about the document when you saw it?"

"I see where this is heading, Miss Granger, and yes, when I broke into the headmistress's office, I found the offending document and reduced it to ashes, which I then Vanished. However, the vow still remains in effect."

Hermione tried not to let her disappointment show. "Let's get back to the Imperius Curse. You mentioned that the compulsion you feel from the Unbreakable Vow is different from it. Are they similar in any way?"

Severus thought for a moment. "When they're first cast, it's the difference between being asked nicely, or perhaps even bribed to do something, and being constantly nagged to do something. However, if you try to resist the Imperius or do something that the vow forbids, both will forcibly take control of your body."

The tip of Hermione's quill was moving in a blur over her notebook. "Is the forcible control anything like what it's like to be under Veritaserum?"

He sighed impatiently. "I have tried the antidote to Veritaserum to gauge its effect on the vow. I wasn't able to speak for nearly a week afterward, so you might say it was an unsuccessful test."

"What else have you tried?"

"Everything short of killing them."

"Protection Potion?"

"Of course."

"Felix Felicis?"

"Lucky days are relative, especially when one is also under the Fidelius Charm."

"Have you tried dosing Molly with Amortentia?"

Severus glared at her. "When I said I'd tried everything, I did, in fact, mean everything. I've been working on this problem for eight years, so I think it's fair to say that unless the solution involves that contraption of yours, I've exhausted every option."

"Is there anything that you weren't able to try because of the strictures Molly placed against actively opposing the vow?"

"Apart from killing people, which isn't an option I ever seriously contemplated, mind, all the vow prevents me doing is knowingly asking others for help. However, the Fidelius prevented that more effectively than the vow ever did, until your arrival, at least. Naturally, there was a clause in the job description that was meant to prevent me from working to break the vow, but Occlumency makes it possible to convince the vow that I'm working on something other than breaking it."

"So if I said that I were going to cast a charm on you that would allow you to resist the Imperius Curse, you'd let me, but you'd have to fight me if it were in the forefront of your mind that the charm would temporarily release you from the Unbreakable Vow."

"If there were such a charm, yes, that's how it would work. Creating charms that might work against—" he raised his hand to his neck and cleared his throat "—compulsive magic has been complicated, but hardly impossible."

"But there are some charms that it's impossible to cast on yourself," said Hermione. "I think that might be a good place for me to start. That, and scanning a vial of Veritaserum, and possibly a subject under the Imperius Curse, if you'd be so kind as to oblige me, say, at eight o'clock this evening."

"Provided you show me how to take readings and interpret the Mag-Spec data, I will be delighted."

Hermione held out her hand. "I believe we have a deal."

He shook it. "We already had a deal, Miss Granger. I believe we now have a date."

"We have a date tonight, but he still calls me 'Miss Granger,'" remarked Hermione, peering through the peephole in the hidden door to ensure that their return to the library would be unnoticed.

"I should hate for Longbottom to get the wrong idea about us," he replied dryly, stepping through the door she held open for him.

He held out his hand and helped her up the step into the softly-lit aisle of books. Hermione caught a whiff of cedar as she stepped towards him, and her stomach fluttered distractingly. His fingers were warm and dry around hers, and Hermione forced herself once again to think of licorice allsorts instead of her dreams about those strong fingers. It might have fooled a casual glance from an Occlumens, but it didn't fool her adrenal glands. Her fight-or-flight response kicked in, and she stumbled through the doorway.

She caught herself before she had truly lost her balance, but his arm was already around her, steadying her. He released her as soon as it was clear that she wasn't going to fall. She managed to thank him without stuttering, though a flush sprang up on her cheeks, and she felt as if her entire head had caught fire.

He nodded. "Until this evening, Hermione."

The way his voice caressed the second syllable of her name made her shiver.

This was very, very bad. If she got nervous and fluttery every time her thoughts got away from her, teaching the man would be outright torture.

However, skiving off was out of the question. She would just have to monitor her thoughts more effectively, starting by refusing to look at his fingers and never again teasing him about calling her "Miss Granger."

***

The following weeks were a flurry of activity. Though the world outside the castle remained frozen and gray, the climate inside Hogwarts had lightened considerably, and there was a sense of cautious optimism, at least among the staff.

Frequent meetings in the back room at Madam Puddifoot's had resulted in dozens of possibilities for raising money, all with historical precedent, and Neville had succeeded beyond Hermione's wildest dreams at getting the rest of the staff behind his proposals. Through it all, Molly had discouraged them, insisting that such efforts were tacky and unbecoming of the school, but the other teachers were so strongly in favor of Neville's ideas that she had little choice but to go along with them.

By the end of January, Molly had been forced grudgingly to approve not only Neville's garden show for the spring, but also a fortune-telling fair to fund the construction of a bridge connecting the Divination classroom to the Astronomy Tower, donor solicitations for endowed chairs of Transfiguration and Charms, an animal show featuring Luna's awe-inspiringly odd menagerie, a Defence Against the Dark Arts career day, and a series of trivia nights at the Three Broomsticks to fund the purchase of supplemental History of Magic textbooks.

Percy was unspeakably proud of having wheedled Madam Rosmerta into donating a percentage of all Butterbeer sales during his trivia nights, and he had started a campaign to make Gryffindor the house to beat. To Hermione's great surprise, he was quite successful. Observing one of his classes revealed that this was due largely to the fact that when Percy felt pressure, he tended to produce memorable spoonerisms, and his students were far more likely to remember the "stunning magical cunts" that led to "bitch wurnings" than Percy's usual droning lectures.

The other teachers were similarly affected. The ever-present dark circles under Parvati's eyes faded, and she, Ginny, and Fleur resumed their girls' nights in, to which Hermione was also invited and contributed several nice bottles of port. The sisters-in-law also had a friendly competition to see who could line up the most distinguished lists of donors for their respective endowed chairs.

However, the most dramatic change was in Severus. His laconic cynicism had been replaced with an urgent and earnest work ethic that Hermione would have found endearing if interpreting his results and answering his questions hadn't used up so much of what little spare time she had. She reflected that perhaps this was a good thing; she hadn't had the opportunity to soak in her tub or the temptation to repeat her experience of Christmas night. Not that it made her regular meetings with Severus any easier. Even when he was cooperating with her, the man was impossible.

Her first mistake was underestimating how much data he could produce. In his first week of using the Mag-Spec, he graphed every item in his student and private stores, including several stocks of the same ingredient for comparative purposes. In his second week, he created a working theory for optimizing Pepper-Up potion based on his analysis of its active ingredients.

Her second mistake was failing to take into consideration how his passion for the subject would affect her. She nearly had to excuse herself after he explained that the poblano chiles had to be sliced precisely along their clefts, to allow more of their precious juices to seep into the concoction. If he noticed that she took longer than usual to wash her hands and used extremely cold water, he didn't say anything about it.

For all that she frequently had to think of licorice allsorts in order to retain a professional demeanor, she was coming to enjoy his reports on his activities as much as she disliked giving her daily reports to Molly. It was exciting to have more data to work with, and already she had precisely quantified the effect of desiccation on several plants commonly used in potions and found that certain changes were conserved across species lines. Severus had downplayed the importance of the discovery, but she caught him with what only could have been a smile on his face when he thought she wasn't looking.

For her own part, the combined resources of the Hogwarts library, Severus's detailed map of the Aperterium, and her excursions with the Mag-Spec had allowed her to uncover no fewer than two dozen hidden gardens, ranging from dead, snow-covered courtyards to a subterranean hothouse filled to the ceiling with glowing purple orchids. Each hidden garden had been dutifully reported to both Neville and Molly, who were respectively delighted and annoyed by her success.

As Hermione mapped increasingly larger sections of the castle and ferreted out more illicit hiding places, the number of students receiving detention skyrocketed. Filch was delighted by this increase in collared miscreants, and he presided over crowded detentions filled with such deviously mind-numbing activities that Molly awarded him with a silver-plated, ever-inked "DETENTION SERVED" stamp. This he wore proudly on a chain around his neck at all times.

By the time Valentine's Day rolled around, the headmistress had put so many amorous pairs into detention that Neville was having a difficult time finding help for his garden show. In fact, Molly was so disgruntled by finding out exactly how much snogging her students had been doing on her watch that she cancelled all Valentine's festivities altogether. Hermione privately suspected that Molly would have significantly scaled back the holiday anyway, given the current market price of chocolate.

Valentine's Day dawned gray and frigid, with a threatening sky overhead. After an early morning spent poking around the Astronomy Tower with her Mag-Spec, Hermione took her breakfast in the Great Hall. While she was certainly no proponent of pink and other hackneyed sentimental symbols, there was something undeniably gloomy about finding the Great Hall unadorned, as if this Saturday were no different from any other. In fact, breakfast was an even bleaker affair than usual, since Molly had forbidden serving any pink or red food, such as apples or bacon, so as not to tacitly approve of any underage student tomfoolery.

Neville took his customary seat next to Hermione and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He was wearing a bow tie with red hearts on it that earned him a baleful glare from Molly, but he cheerfully ignored it as he told them about his progress on the plants for the garden show. The post arrived then, and Molly's scowl disappeared. In fact, she was looking rather disgustingly pleased with herself.

"That's odd," commented Neville. "I'd have expected the owls to have much heavier loads today."

"I'm sure they did," said Molly. "However, Mr. Filch has done a wonderful job of confiscating everything having to do with a certain holiday which shall remain nameless."

Neville looked scandalized. "Confiscating valentines? I never heard of such a thing!"

"The students have been warned on multiple occasions that unbecoming or lewd behavior will not be tolerated," said Molly. "I will not reward them for unseemly behavior by giving them an excuse for more of it."

"It just seems so heartless," commented Neville. "Don't you agree, dearest?"

Hermione kicked him under the table as she swallowed a bite of plain toast, as strawberry jam was forbidden. "I figured our gifts would be exchanged in private," she said in what she hoped was a passable simper.

He kicked her back. "That they will, my little sugar lump," he said, more than loud enough for Molly to overhear, "but don't you feel the least bit sorry for all these poor students who must keep their hands visible and one foot on the floor at all times and can't even go to Madam Puddifoot's?"

"You're entirely too soft-hearted," sniffed Molly, "and that's why you could never be headmaster."

Neville playfully kicked Hermione under the table again. "And you said it was because of my baby face," he scolded.

But Hermione didn't respond, not even to return Neville's kick. She was sitting stock still, her mouth slack. She returned to herself a moment later with a quiet exclamation of "Oh!"

"Are you well, Hermione?" asked Molly.

"I am," she said, giving a weak laugh. "I just realized that there's a message I need to send. If you'll both excuse me?"

Neville was looking at her with a worried expression on his face, but Molly nodded. "I'll expect you at two for your report."

"Two," repeated Hermione absently. "Right, see you."

She strode quickly out of the Great Hall, her thoughts in a whirl, and made a beeline for the nearest girls' toilet. After assuring herself that it was indeed empty, she locked herself in a stall and pulled out her charmed Galleon.

She ran her wand around the milled edge of the coin so that her message would only be sent to Coop and Severus. The message consisted of two words: Headmaster Longbottom?

Her heart was racing. It would be a brilliant coup if they could convince Neville to do it. Judging by his ability to convince the staff to join the fund-raising efforts, the staff respected him, and it was clear that the students adored him. And most importantly, Neville understood, perhaps better than any of them, the importance of giving all young things the space they needed to grow and flourish.

She stared at the surface of her Galleon, anxiously waiting for responses from her co-conspirators. Severus was, to her surprise, first: God help us all. She sighed in relief. It was a positively glowing commendation, by Severus's standards.

Coop's reply came moments later, its letters spiraling several times around the circumference of the coin. I humbly volunteer my persuasive skills in service of a greater goal. I'll bring it up so subtly he'll think it was his idea. And I should be able to talk him into taking the job, too. Enjoy your pressies.

Hermione raised an eyebrow. Presents? She made a mental note to ask the headmistress to check her stacks of confiscated Valentine's gifts for something gaudy.

As it turned out, she didn't have to ask. When Hermione arrived at the headmistress's office to deliver her daily report, there were two brightly-colored boxes sitting on Molly's desk. The headmistress regarded her with a look of poorly-concealed disapproval.

"These," she said gesturing at the boxes, "arrived for you and Professor Longbottom. As no notes arrived with them, I was hoping you might be able to explain."

Hermione opened the box with her name on it and just managed to hold back a guffaw. Inside her box was a very large and realistic-looking dildo of the sort she had been admiring at Madam Puddifoot's. Molly cleared her throat and gestured to the box that was addressed to Neville, which, unsurprisingly, contained the same thing. For the second time that day, she wasn't sure whether to kiss Quentin Cooper or beat him soundly.

"Well," said Hermione in her driest professorial tones, "the human body contains a number of areas called 'erogenous zones' that can be stimulated to bring pleasure. The nipples and clitoris for women are the best known, and the glans and prostate for men are equally—"

"That's quite enough!" exclaimed the headmistress, red-faced. "I know what the filthy things are for, I want to know why someone has sent them to you and Neville!"

"Well, you see, headmistress, when a man and a woman love one another very much, they—"

"Hermione Granger!" bellowed the headmistress. "Cease these games at once and tell me who has sullied my school's reputation by filling it with these monstrosities!"

"I thought it was obvious. Neville and I bought them for one another."

"You—" began Molly, whose face had gone quite purple. "I don't believe it."

"We had no idea you were confiscating Valentine's gifts intended for staff members," said Hermione. "Otherwise, we would have been far more discreet."

"But how do — that is, where — ah…" The headmistress floundered for a moment, scowling. "While I think that it's well past time for you and Neville to have found someone, I cannot approve of those things in my school. I trust I needn't tell you that this sort of thing would not be tolerated from students, and indeed, if I didn't cling so dearly to my principles about the sanctity of personal space, it would not be tolerated from the staff."

Hermione managed not to snort derisively and stacked the boxes neatly in her lap. "I'm grateful for your forbearance. I'll just deliver this to Neville; he'll be so glad to know they've arrived safely."

"Just one moment, young lady," said Molly. "I said I would allow it of the staff. You, however, are not staff. You are merely a visiting researcher."

Hermione was about to deliver a sharp retort when she noticed the mulish set of the headmistress's jaw. She was clearly angry about something and was taking it out on Hermione because she could. In that moment, she felt a pang of sympathy for Severus, who had been Molly's only whipping boy prior to her arrival.

"As you wish, Molly," said Hermione, without inflection. She set the box with her name on it on Molly's desk and left the room with Neville's box before Molly realized that she hadn't delivered her daily report.

As she fled in the direction of her room, wondering where she would find Neville, a familiar-looking wooden door appeared in the stone. Even more surprising was the fact that it was adorned with hearts roughly cut out of red paper.

She pushed open the door and found the Room of Requirement filled with tables and dozens of laughing students. To her surprise and delight, Neville was holding open the very door whose existence had led her to discover the SMAC: the door that had so long ago allowed her, Harry, and Ron to enter Hogwarts from the Hog's Head tavern.

"Now," he said to a couple, who were making a bee-line for the door, "make sure you're back by sundown, otherwise you'll have to find your own way back. Hullo, my shining sunrise!" he called to her in jovial tones.

The hush that had spread across the room when she had appeared in the doorway quickly evaporated in a chorus of whispers and giggles. Hermione couldn't decide which she liked less, inspiring terror or knowing giggles.

"All right, you lot," said Neville. "Get gone and have a lovely time, or it's detention with Filch for you."

The students did as he requested, albeit with a few loud kissy noises and shrill giggling. Had her giggles been that awful and piercing when she'd been a student?

"You realize that the headmistress will be suspicious if they come back covered in dust and reeking of goats," said Hermione, when the last of the students had disappeared through the door.

Neville wrinkled his nose. "The Hog's Head is no sort of place to spend Valentine's Day," he declared. "I sent them to Madam Puddifoot's."

Hermione's fingers itched to pull out the Mag-Spec and scan the room and door, but she stayed her hand. "I thought the Room of Requirement only connected to the portrait of Dumbledore's sister."

"Who can say for certain?" asked Neville with a shrug. "The room provided for our needs that year. Perhaps the room knew back then that we needed a way to contact an ally more than we needed sex toys and tea."

"And speaking of sex toys," said Hermione, handing him the box. "Coop nearly blew our cover by sending us a matched set that Molly confiscated. She allowed yours in, but invented an excuse to keep mine."

Neville looked inside and promptly burst out laughing. "I wish I had seen her face when she opened the boxes!"

"Really, you don't. Purple and grayed ginger don't go together very well at all."

"Well, you're welcome to keep mine," he said. "I think you'll have more use for it than I will."

"As much as it pains me to admit it, you're probably right," she said with a sigh, taking the box and sinking down into the overstuffed chair that appeared opposite Neville's.

"Cheer up," said Neville, pouring her a cup of tea — milk, no sugar. "You can always pop over to Madam Puddifoot's to get me something more discreet as a thank-you."

A thought occurred to Hermione. "Neville, where in Madam Puddifoot's tea house does the door deposit the students?"

"That's where the room has outdone itself. They'd be noticed coming out of the wall of the tearoom, but it drops them in one of the private rooms in back. You know, the one where we meet with Coop. I hope the first couple to go had the sense to realize that others would follow. Madam P. has rules, even for the back rooms."

Hermione leapt to her feet. "May I have a look?"

He responded in the affirmative, and Hermione opened the door. There were several couples sharing a pot of tea in the back room, and all of them stared at her when she stuck her head out of the door to examine its design and position.

The vague suspicion she had harbored earlier became a near-certainty. The door in Madam Puddifoot's was the one she had conjured to connect to Severus's classroom. Somehow, the Room of Requirement had forged a connection to the SMAC. Whether it was permanent or temporary remained to be seen. She knew now that she had to scan it. She might never have the opportunity to do so again, and she certainly didn't know enough about the room to bend it to her will the way Neville did.

"Neville, I'm really sorry to ask this of you, but would you mind turning around for a couple of minutes?"

Neville eyed the box in her hand and gave her a rakish smile. "I appreciate the thought, Hermione, but I'd rather wait for the real thing, all the same."

She swatted his arm. "You've been spending too much time with Coop. Be serious."

"Oh, I am," he said, walking to the corner of the room, where a high-backed armchair facing the corner had just winked into existence. "If it makes you feel any better, I'd much rather have you and Coop's present than the other male in the castle who is similarly inclined."

"Really?" asked Hermione, pulling the Mag-Spec from her bag and taking a reading of the Room. "I thought you were the only one."

Neville settled into the chair, effectively blocking his view of Hermione. "He hides it pretty well, but when a grown man hasn't had a girlfriend since Hogwarts and collects quills as a hobby, it's pretty obvious. Not that I blame him for hiding. We both know his mother's views on the subject."

Hermione was searching the door frame for the spell's locus and froze when the light turned red. "Percy," she murmured. She hardly noticed the complex graph that appeared on the screen. "The poor man must be miserable," she said.

"I think he just likes being miserable, but Coop thinks the reason he's still around is because he hasn't figured himself out yet. Plenty of the staff suspect. Parvati used to drive me spare trying to fix things so that Percy and I would be alone together. For all that, he's never shown the slightest interest in me, or in anybody else, for that matter."

"Well, you can lead a knarl to milk, but you can't make him drink," she said as she took a few more readings from various points in the Room. She returned the Mag-Spec to her bag. "I'm done now," she said. "Thanks for being so patient."

He rose from the chair, which disappeared obligingly. "That was one of those I-could-tell-you-but-then-I'd-have-to-Obliviate-you things, wasn't it?"

"Unfortunately, yes," she said with a wry smile. "And I really need to go now."

He looked at her with interest. "Hot date?"

"Not exactly," said Hermione with a half smile. "See you later?"

"Actually, if I could ask a favor?"

"Of course."

"Could you come back in about an hour and a half? I was hoping you could hold the room while I go to Madam P.'s to herd the stragglers back here."

"Easier done than said." She gave him a quick hug before making her way quickly out of the room and tearing down the enchanted stairs towards Severus's classroom, where he preferred to do his marking. She couldn't wait to see if his little door still led to Madam Puddifoot's. Or to see what he'd make of her Mag-Spec data. Or to find out what he'd been working on that day. Or if he'd had a bath that morning and smelled of balsam. No. Not basalm. Liquorice allsorts.

Her heart was beating quickly as she raised her hand to his classroom door and knocked.

"Bugger off," came his voice from within.

"That's the best offer I've had all day," she said, opening the door and locking it securely behind her.

He was sitting at his desk surrounded by neat piles of essays, and he glared at her as she slid behind his chair. "I'm rather busy at the moment."

"You won't even know I'm here, Severus," she said, opening the hidden door to the closet and standing before the door that should take her to Madam Puddifoot's. She turned the knob and opened the door a tiny crack, not quite knowing what to expect.

There was nothing. She opened the door wider and found that where there had previously been an entrance to their meeting place, there was now a blank wall.

Severus had abandoned his marking and was peering over her shoulder. "What is this?"

"It's the Room of Requirement," she explained hastily. She closed the door and pulled several items out of her bag. "Somehow, it's been able to take over the connection I made to Madam Puddifoot's using the SMAC spell. I don't think this is the first time it's happened, either." She unfolded the map of the Aperterium that Severus had given her and pointed at a door in the far corner of the room. "Dumbledore used the SMAC to make a door that led to his sister's portrait in the Hog's Head. The night that Voldemort attacked Hogwarts, Neville led us from the Hog's Head to the Room of Requirement using what we thought was a secret tunnel, but the Room must have co-opted the connection."

She tapped her wand on the screen and pulled, which caused the image on the screen to appear in midair, suspended and glowing. She repeated the action with a second graph and placed it on top of the first. "The first is a scan of the magical door in the Room of Requirement, and this is the spell that I used to create the door on your wall. As you can see, it's exactly the same spell."

"Do you mean to tell me that the Room of Requirement can access any of the connections that make up the Aperterium?"

"It looks that way."

"Absurd. I would have seen it."

"Are you quite sure? The Room of Requirement would have appeared to you as something you needed at the moment."

Severus stared wordlessly at the spells for a moment. "Albus couldn't have understood the room entirely," he said at last. "A sentient but controllable room with this sort of learning capability would have precluded the need for the Aperterium."

"Unless, of course, he created a SMAC door in the Room of Requirement, thinking it was a normal sort of room, and the room has been using the connections he made to help provide things needed by whoever enters the room."

Severus stood and paced between the rows of desks. "You realize what this means, Hermione. Hogwarts is vulnerable. Should knowledge of the spell fall into the hand of someone who also knew about the Room of Requirement, it could be used to bring anything into and out of the school."

"What should we do?"

"At present? Nothing. Longbottom is in there now, but sometime very soon we must go to the Room of Requirement and figure out a way to detach it from the Aperterium."

Hermione thought for a moment. "Mightn't it be better to leave the connection in the Room of Requirement and dismantle the Aperterium?"

"Absolutely not," he said, drawing himself up to his full height. "I rely on the Aperterium for many things, not least of which is resisting the current regime."

"We don't have to do it all at once," said Hermione, "but we could start by removing the connections to places like teachers' private quarters, leaving yours intact, of course," she amended hastily, "to allow you to access it rapidly."

"I refuse to entertain the notion," said Severus. "Whoever is in charge of the school must have some way to keep track of the pupils, whether it be the Aperterium or Molly's hall of mirrors. Who knows, perhaps the Room of Requirement itself was built with spying in mind. It is not a matter of privacy, it's a matter of student safety."

"You sound exactly like Molly," said Hermione, angrily. "I don't accept that argument. For all his spying, did Dumbledore ever catch Sirius Black when he broke into the school? Did he ever catch Peter Pettigrew, who lived in Gryffindor Tower for nearly three years?"

Severus's face was dark. "Don't speak about things that you cannot possibly understand. If I hadn't had the Aperterium at my disposal during my tenure as headmaster, you would have far fewer friends than you do now."

"You used the Aperterium to spy on the teachers, not the students," she shot back. "And that was nearly twenty years ago. We can't live our lives as if we were still at war, and even if we did, your own map shows that there are multiple SMAC connections to the outside world. There are tunnels. Unauthorized Portkeys still occur. No matter what we do, Hogwarts will never be completely safe."

"We will agree to disagree on this subject," said Severus, turning his back on her to examine the graphs on the Mag-Spec.

"No, we won't!" exclaimed Hermione. "The Aperterium may be useful for us now, but how would you feel if someone else were using it to spy on you? In your bedroom?"

"Privacy is immaterial. It is only the impression of privacy that matters."

"How can you say that?"

"How can you believe otherwise? You placed a SMAC portal in your bathroom, Hermione. Will you take every bath looking over your shoulder to see if you're being spied on? Of course not. What harm will it do you to ignore the door on your wall for the sake of enjoying a hot bath?"

"And what if instead of spying, someone attacks me while I'm in the bathtub? There is no justification for invading a person's privacy like that." An image of him in the throes of pleasure leapt unbidden into her mind, and she immediately replaced it with pink and yellow allsorts. Her cheeks were flushed, but she met his eye. "The Aperterium, by its very existence, is a temptation that even the best of people would be hard-pressed to resist. We intend to leave Hogwarts to a kind and well-intentioned soul, but what about his successor? Or his successor's successor?"

"That's enough," said Severus coldly. "As long as I remain at Hogwarts, I will not let you dismantle the only means of fighting that is available to me."

"The Aperterium is your only means of fighting?" sputtered Hermione incredulously. "And just what is my Mag-Spec to you, then? A sodding hobby?"

He whirled to face her, his upper lip contorted in anger. "Do not put words into my mouth, you sharp-tongued harpy," he snarled. "If I had a choice—" he cut off, narrowing his eyes in suspicion. "Are you being deliberately difficult again?"

The suspicion and annoyance in his voice surprised a laugh out of Hermione. "Not deliberately. Are you?"

"No," he said. The worst of his ire seemed to have evaporated, taking hers with it.

"Then perhaps you're right," she said. "We ought to agree to disagree."

"We'll say no more on the subject," he said in a tone of finality.

"All right."

He nodded at her, as if to drive home the point, and in the awkward silence that followed, he reached out for the colored box that she had removed from her bag while searching for the map of the Aperterium.

"What have we here?" he asked, looking at the tag. "A Valentine's gift for your ersatz lover? How sweet!"

"No, don't open that!" she exclaimed, reaching for the box, but it was too late.

To Hermione's horror, not only was Severus not disgusted by the gift, he seemed mildly interested. He lifted it out by the handle and tapped it with his wand to see what it could do. "A most thoughtful gift, given his preferences," he said at last. "If Longbottom looks particularly happy about having trouble sitting on Monday, I shall know who to thank."

"It's not from me, it's from Coop," said Hermione, snatching the dildo from Snape and returning it to its box. "Neville and I aren't so intimate with one another to be buying that sort of gift."

"And he and Coop are?" said Severus, leaning forward with his chin in his hand. Hermione realized then that he was teasing her, and she tried to cover her embarrassment with an arch look.

"Coop is simply Coop," she said, returning the box to her bag with as much nonchalance as she could muster. "I would have chosen something more discreet. As it is, there was an identical present for me, but the headmistress confiscated it."

"Dear me, taking a glass of water from one dying of thirst seems unnecessarily cruel, even for Molly."

Hermione glared at him. "I'm perfectly capable of getting my own water, thank you very much."

"No doubt you could fill an entire bathtub."

"I'll thank you to keep that between you and your left hand."

He gave his funny barking laugh. "My left hand is the very soul of discretion," he assured. "As pleasant as this subject has been, I do wish to get your opinion on something before you go gallivanting off to experiment with the Room of Requirement."

"Provided it's a new topic, I can pontificate until the gnomes come home."

"Very well. If you would be so kind as to turn your attention to the board?" He waved his wand, and two complex histograms appeared side-by-side. "The diagram on the right is the one you made of the Unbreakable Vow. The one on the left is the Imperius Curse, which you were kind enough to capture as I cast it on one of the rabbits from the Transfiguration Classroom."

"Yes, I noticed that the Imperius has a number of structures in common with the vow, but is there something more specific that you were curious about?"

"Yes. I noticed that the overall structure of the vow is something akin to a triangle."

"That makes a fair amount of sense, given that three people are involved in its creation."

"There are also three separate components," pointed out Severus. "The requirements of the vow, the acceptance of the Vower, and the sealing power of the Bonder."

Hermione nodded, and he continued.

"If we accept these three components, the graph becomes much clearer. Here," he said, gesturing to one point of the triangle, "the shapes that attach to this vertex bear a great deal of similarity to these parts of the Imperius curse, which leads me to believe that this is the part that impels the vower upon his or her acceptance of the vow.

"Next," he said, gesturing at another point, "we see the source of these structures, which wind around the other parts of the spell like strands of rope. I suspect that this vertex represents the Bonder and the power that holds the vow together, even in the event of the Bonder's death.

"Now, this is the part that I desire your thoughts on. The third vertex, by elimination, must represent the requirements of the vow, and indeed, they are inextricably linked with the Imperius-like compulsive aspects and Bonder's binding magic. However, it is here," he said, pointing to a small area near the vertex, "that I wish to draw your attention."

Hermione leaned in close, and sure enough, where the other vertices were strongly connected to the structures that emanated from them with strong, twisting structures, this vertex had what appeared to be a knot sticking out of the side of the graph. While the knot was made up of the same sorts of structures as the rest of the diagram, the knot itself was only held to the rest of the diagram by two strings.

"I've seen this before, Severus," she said. "I even suggested that perhaps this part of the spell was weak because of the document that Molly tied to your vow. What do you think it is?"

"I think that perhaps I was too hasty."

Hermione could hardly believe her ears. "Pardon? I thought I just heard Severus Snape admit that he was wrong."

"I admit nothing, I merely posit the possibility," he said with entirely too much patience for it to be genuine. "Now, if you've had your fun at my expense, I'd be most grateful if you would be so good as to hear the reason I'm discussing it at all."

"Of course, I'm sorry," she said with a partially repentant smile. "Do go on."

"It occurred to me that if Molly tied an Unbreakable Vow to a piece of paper, it would behoove her to keep it safe. The paper that I destroyed was in her office in a heavily-protected cabinet inside a file marked 'Pictures of Grandchildren,' and I previously believed it to have been genuine. But this diagram suggests that this area is still the mostly likely weakness."

"To be fair to you, it could be an entirely different structural weakness, such as the tenet that says you consent to have your presence hidden under the Fidelius Charm. Perhaps if we convinced Percy to reveal your secret to others, it would break the vow."

"If that were the case, the vow would have disappeared the moment you discovered me," he replied.

"Not necessarily. The Secret Keeper has not revealed the secret to me. Perhaps that technicality is the last frayed cord that holds the vow together."

"Percy or Molly revealed the secret to the House Elf, and the vow was unaffected," he pointed out.

"Perhaps House Elf magic is different?" asked Hermione doubtfully.

"I will admit that there is a very slim possibility that you're right."

"How magnanimous of you," she said, lips quirking.

He ignored her. "This leaves the question of where the headmistress would have hidden something very precious to her."

"Her room?"

"Unlikely. I've used the Aperterium to cause enough mischief in all her private rooms that I doubt she would leave it anywhere in the open."

"Perhaps she's enchanted it to look like something else?"

"That is what I hope to discover when I break into her rooms this evening with the Mag-Spec."

"But what if the object that she's enchanted isn't in the room? If I were in her shoes, I wouldn't take any chances. I would keep the object on me at all times, even when asleep."

"That's a possibility I've considered," he said, "which is why I plan to drug her with Dreamless Sleep before breaking in and searching thoroughly."

Hermione shuddered at thinking what Severus would consider a thorough search. "And how, precisely do you plan to do that?"

"I have already instructed my House Elf to add it to her evening tea."

"But the elves have an oath to the school! She won't drug the headmistress!"

"Believe it or not, Hermione, I can be quite persuasive when it is required of me. Even so, other elves might have refused, but Molly was certain to give me the youngest and least experienced elf. It was the least I could do to pay her back for the kindness."

"It sounds like you have things well in hand," said Hermione. "I wonder that you need me at all."

"I don't," he replied, smirking. "But it's been so long since I had anybody to tell my clever plans to that I couldn't resist."

"I suppose you'll be wanting the Mag-Spec," she said with a long-suffering sigh.

"Please." His tone was slightly mocking, but she couldn't argue with his politeness. She handed him the machine.

"Stop by my room to return it tonight, no matter how late it is. I'll need it first thing in the morning. Now if you'll excuse me, I promised Neville I'd help him herd students back from Hogsmeade."

"Hogsmeade? What in the Ninth Circle do they think they're doing there?"

"Oh, did I forget to mention that the reason the Room of Requirement is connected to Madam Puddifoot's is because Neville wanted the children to have a proper Valentine's Day?"

"Yes, you did," he said, crossing his arms. "Heaven help us, holidays during Longbottom's tenure will be even more intolerable than Dumbledore's."

"On the bright side, I imagine you could bully him into letting you out of any holiday-related duties."

"Oh, joy," he said sourly. "It makes a lifetime of indentured servitude look so much brighter."

"Don't be so glum, Severus. We'll get rid of Molly, we'll free you from the vow, and the world will be your oyster."

"Oysters make me come out in a rash."

"That may be so, but they can turn even the most irritating things into pearls."

"Then I shall strive to be as irritating as possible," he said, returning to his marking.

Chapter Text

Neville beamed at her when she entered the Room of Requirement once more. Several couples had already returned and were milling about the room, chatting amiably.

"You're just in time. I'll pop through to Madam P's and chase down the stragglers. By my count, there are still five missing."

"Five? I'd have thought that all numbers would be divisible by two."

"Not when the Poppington-Sykes twins are involved," said Neville. "I'm told they share everything. See you, Hermione!" he said, disappearing through the door.

The students were eyeing her with undisguised interest, and she did her best to radiate the sort of frosty professionalism that she'd needed to cultivate in Department of Mysteries, where single men were common and single women rare. The room kindly provided her with a rack of current scholarly journals. She selected the dullest-looking of the bunch, Analytical and Numerical Approaches to Problems in Arithmantic Analysis, and sat at a table in the corner, far away from her admirers.

Fortunately, the students appeared to have better things to do, and she soon found herself alone in the room. She returned the journal to the rack and stood, addressing the room.

"I'm Hermione Granger," she said, "and I'm here to uncover some of the school's secrets. You might remember me from a few years ago, when I helped start Dumbledore's Army."

She fancied that the room became stiller than it had been, but it was probably her imagination. "I've invented something that lets me see how spells are made," she continued. "I'd really like to understand how this room works, particularly how it connects to other areas of the castle. So if it's all right with you, I'd like to run some tests."

No objection was forthcoming, and Hermione stepped in front of the SMAC portal. "I know Neville will need this door to get back to Hogwarts, but at the very worst, he'll end up in the potions classroom. I'm going to focus on a room and will it to appear. If this isn't how the room works, then please find some way of letting me know."

She closed her eyes and thought about the SMAC she'd created in the wall of her bathroom. She pictured the self-fluffing towels and the decadent bathtub, and she smelled the lilac-scented bubbles that she'd added to the hot water that pulsed so deliciously around her. Bearing these images firmly in mind, she opened the door a crack.

To her chagrin, it was not her bathroom. However, it allowed her an excellent view of the subject that had occupied her thoughts while in the bathtub. As if on cue, Severus laid his quill down beside the parchment he was marking, released his hair from the elastic that he used to tie it back, and raised his arms to the ceiling, his shoulders admonishing him with loud pops. He lay his head back, which allowed his long hair to trail uninterrupted down his back. She couldn't pull her eyes away from the shining river of his hair, which was shot through with occasional strands of silver.

Hermione pursed her lips, and forced herself to close the door. As arresting as the sight had been, it was hardly a success in terms of controlling the Room of Requirement. She suspected her failure was due to choosing a location so closely tied to her distracting thoughts. Something more neutral would be required.

This time when she closed her eyes, she pictured the back room at Madam Puddifoot's, from the ancient wooden floor to the golden figures that filled every nook. She imagined the students there, laughing, and kissing one another, their fingers and mouths made warm by fragrant tea served by the pot. She let out a sigh and raised her hand to the doorknob once more.

She was startled and somewhat annoyed to find that the door still connected her to the door she'd connected to Severus's classroom. He had tied his hair back into its neat queue and was still bent over his desk. But to Hermione's surprise, while his right hand was busy scrawling vituperative comments on the essay that topped the stack, his left hand was scratching- no, rubbing- his left thigh. To her surprise, his hand dipped between his legs, and he let out a contented sigh.

Alarmed, Hermione closed the door as quickly and quietly as possible. She scowled at the room around her, which had surreptitiously generated a plush-looking chaise lounge nearly identical to the one she had found off the Slytherin common room.

"That's enough of that," she informed the room sternly.

The lights dimmed in response, and a large, impossibly soft-looking fur rug of some sort appeared on the floor.

Hermione once again forced herself to think of liquorice allsorts instead of the delicious combination of images that her imagination conjured for her. Her face was red with frustration. "Why are you doing this to me?" she whispered. "It's difficult enough for me to feign indifference as it is."

The room made no response, other than to raise the lights enough that she was able to return to Analytical and Numerical Approaches to Arithmantic Problems in Analysis. Grateful for at least that small return to normalcy, she sat down in the chaise, which was even more comfortable than she remembered. On an impulse, she kicked off her shoes and peeled off her socks and sat back with a contented sigh. However, she found upon opening the journal that the room had replaced the figures in the journal with highly erotic content, all of which featured dark-haired, sylph-like men with long, shapely legs.

She threw the journal across the room, where it hit the door with a loud crack. There was a loud exclamation of surprise from behind the door, and the door opened wide enough to admit Neville's face, which wore an expression of trepidation. Hermione was immediately sorry she'd let her temper get the better of her.

"All right, Hermione?" he asked, stepping quickly into the room. "What happened? We thought we were under attack for a moment."

"It's all right," she said, picking up the journal from the floor. "I just vehemently disagreed with the findings of an article, that's all."

Neville held open the door for the five missing students, including the Poppington-Sykes twins, who sported mirror-image love bites on their necks. Neville watched them go, glowing with avuncular pleasure.

"Young love's a wonderful thing, isn't it?" he asked with a pleased sigh. He sat down to a cup of tea that the room had obligingly set out for him.

"I wouldn't know," said Hermione crossly. She wouldn't have accepted a cup of the room's tea if it had offered it to her, as it would probably contain some sort of aphrodisiac.

"Being surrounded by it makes me feel young again," said Neville in a dreamy voice, as if he hadn't heard her.

"You're hardly old, Neville."

"Yes, yes, I'm in my prime, so they tell me," he said. "But I envy these children all the same. They've never known war. They haven't lost parents to Voldemort or had to scramble for their lives before they turn seventeen."

"But that's how it should be," said Hermione with a sigh.

"I know," said Neville, smiling softly. "Maybe that's why I enjoy making things lovely for them so much."

"Or perhaps it's because you're a better person than any of us."

Neville's cheeks turned pink. "Now you're being silly."

She squeezed his hand. "No, I'm not."

They sat in comfortable silence while Neville finished his tea.

At last he stood, a plate of chocolate biscuits appeared on the table, as if the room were inviting him to stay longer. He smiled at the plate, but shook his head, and the plated winked out of existence.

Hermione's jaw dropped at the casual display of Neville's mastery. "How on earth do you get the room to do what you want?"

"That's easy. I don't."

"But you managed to make it unassailable for months!" she exclaimed. "We couldn't even hold it against the Inquisitorial Squad when we were holding D.A. meetings."

"The room must have known that it was important to be discovered," said Neville, walking towards the door to the outside hallway. "And in retrospect, it was right. You managed to put Umbridge out of commission for nearly a year with that stunt you pulled. I guess the room is nice to me because I don't try to control it. I just let it have its way."

Hermione glanced at the cover of the journal in front of her and quickly turned it over, because the illustration on the cover had transformed into a nude picture of a pale and dark-eyed man. "I can't tell you how sorry I am to hear that," she said.

"Well, I'm off to change," said Neville. "Do you have any special plans for the evening?" asked Neville. "Molly hasn't given you anything awful to do, has she?"

"Thankfully, no," she replied. "I get the feeling that she would have if she weren't so invested in the success of our supposed relationship."

"Unless the relationship involves toys," added Nevile wryly. "In that case, I'll stay out of sight so you can say you're meeting me if she tries to make things difficult for you."

"Thanks, Neville," she said with a wry smile. 'I think this is a Valentine's Day that I'll remember as the night I had a hot soak in the tub and went to bed early."

"That sounds wonderful," said Neville opening the door for her. "Besides, if you can't love yourself, how can you hope to love anybody else? Oh, don't forget your journal."

Rather than call undue attention to the offending publication, Hermione rolled it into a tight cylinder and shoved it under her arm. "I believe you may be right about that, Neville."

"Don't worry," he said, strolling down the hall. "I won't let it go to my head."

***

The bottle of wine that Fleur had given her was chilling in an ice bucket that Barbra had been delighted to provide. The bathroom was lit with Flourish and Blott's Extra-Brite Reading Candles, the tub was full of gardenia-scented water. Hermione had discovered an ancient Victrola in a storeroom, and the music of Billie Holiday suffused the air with warmth as much as the steam that rose from the water. The altered publication from the Room of Requirement lay atop the pile of books that she'd placed next to the tub.

It would have been absolutely perfect had the Galleon in her pocket not chosen that moment to heat up, indicating that a message had arrived. Cursing, she held the coin next to one of the candles.

Vital that you come to Mme. P's at once. - N.

She sighed. A conspirator's work was never done. She put out the candles with a bit more force than was necessary and nearly put away the wine. Then she thought better of it; she could probably use a drink after whatever it was that Neville had to tell them. In protest of having her private time cut short, she took an unusually long time to put on her shoes, socks, and outer robes, and, since she'd be back for her bath eventually, forewent trousers and knickers for expedience's sake.

The quickest way to Madam Puddifoot's as the phoenix flew would be the Room of Requirement, but she quickly decided that she'd rather depend on the SMAC she had cast rather than the quixotic room that seemed determined to make a fool of her. Thus, she found herself knocking at Severus's door for the second time that evening. He took nearly a minute to answer the door, which made her both savagely glad and slightly remorseful that hers wasn't the only private time Neville had scuttled.

"I'm sorry to bother you, Severus, but Neville asked us to meet him at Madam Puddifoot's as soon as possible."

He examined the Galleon that she held out for his perusal and nodded curtly. "Allow me a moment to sort my marking. I've only just now finished." If he had been indulging in anything more strenuous than marking, his face gave nothing away.

"Of course. Don't let me bother you."

"I try not to," he said, bending over his desk to leaf through the piles of parchment.

She refused to let herself admire the view and stared at the wall behind her. She smiled at this small victory over her baser impulses. Take that, you meddling old room! she thought.

The sound of a throat being cleared drew her attention, and she found herself looking into his dark eyes. Her moment of triumph was over. Out of habit, Hermione thought of liquorice allsorts. "Are you ready to go, then?" she asked him.

In lieu of answer, he groped for the invisible doorknob and opened the door, gesturing for her to pass in a way that was both mocking and gallant.

Hermione was about halfway through the door when she realized that the darkened room ahead of her was neither the magical closet she had made nor Madam Puddifoot's. She lost her balance in surprise and fell back against Severus, and to her dismay, the Galleon that had been in her hand went flying. She seized the doorjamb before she fell backwards into Severus and kicked out her foot towards the falling coin. To her surprise it landed on the toe of her shoe and stayed there.

"Wha-" she started to say, but Severus's hand clamped over her mouth before she could articulate the final consonant. She froze, her foot still in the air, and stared slack-jawed at what lay beyond the door.

She was staring at what she deduced must be the Room of Requirement, for all that there was an enormous fire blazing in the hearth, filling the room with flickering light and the smell of burning pine and hot iron. Her eyes fell upon the thick white pelt on the floor, and on the two figures kneeling on it.

It was Neville and Coop. They had shed their shirts and were kissing one another passionately, chest against chest, gripping one another as if being separated would have spelled their end. A fine sheen of perspiration shone on their backs.

Hermione swallowed hard and attempted to lower her foot to the floor, but the Galleon slid alarmingly to the right and would have fallen to the wooden floor if she hadn't raised her foot again.

Severus's arm tightened around her when the coin moved, and they did not relax once it became clear that the Galleon would stay in place for the moment. "Lean against me as slowly and gently as you can," he said in a whisper so faint that she wasn't sure she'd heard it at first. "I will carry you."

Hermione gave a tiny nod in acknowledgement and began to loosen her iron grip on the doorjamb. Her eyes, however, were still focused on the two men by the fire.

Neville's eyes were closed, and Hermione could hear his deep hum of satisfaction between rasping breaths. Coop's fingertips caressed Neville's lips, his cheek, and his neck. The touches were punctuated by small kisses, with which he seemed content to cover every inch of Neville's skin. His other hand was down the front of Neville's trousers, and she could clearly see Coop pleasuring Neville with long, firm strokes.

Coop let out a groan of his own, and Hermione belatedly realized that Neville was doing the same thing for Coop. The moment passed in seconds, and before she knew it, both men were fumbling with their belts and trousers. She would have gasped at the sight of Coop's nude silhouette, and Neville's exceptional qualities, which were even finer when he was unclothed, but Severus's hand had tightened over her mouth in warning.

Both men hissed in pleasure as the heads of their cocks brushed together, and they held one another tightly once more. Coop's hands danced over Neville's body, his hand squeezed and fingers teased beautiful sounds out of his partner, and Neville threw his arms around the other man, moaning loudly as they ground their hips and mouths together.

"Put all your weight on me," whispered Severus, his impatience evident, even while practically inaudible.

She gritted her teeth. Her muscles ached from being held in such an awkward position, and her biceps were burning with the effort of lowering herself slowly back against Severus. However, she was compensated for her labor by the sight of a smooth-chested Herbologist with a satisfyingly thick cock, and a slender reporter, the length of whose member could get him an interview with anybody, should he choose to approach the subject in that way. Her full weight now rested against Severus's chest, and she felt herself rise and fall slightly with his warm breath, which puffed lightly against her cheek.

Severus's arms tightened around her, and she realized that he was going to lift her. His exhalation was warm and soft in her hair. Her back was pressed against his chest, and she noted that he did indeed smell of cedar — juniper, too. She tore her attention away from the glistening, undulating backs before her and focused on keeping her leg and foot completely immobile.

Slowly, inexorably, and with unexpected power and control, Hermione felt herself being moved backwards from the lip of the Room of Requirement. She caught a sweet puff of cool dungeon air, which made her belatedly realize that the fire in the room made it uncomfortably hot. Sweat was beading on her brow, and Severus's hands slipped, which nearly made her lose the Galleon. They both breathed a sign of relief when Hermione twisted her ankle slightly to compensate for the jostling.

However, before she cleared the doorway, Neville gave a fierce growl and seized Coop, forcing him onto his back on the rug and kissing him fiercely and protectively. Coop let out a startled laugh before returning Neville's kisses with equal fervor. They were both perspiring heavily, bodies nearly blinding from the dancing flames reflecting off their moist skin. Hermione was surprised that both men not only had their wands, but that they both seemed to know exactly what to do. Hermione couldn't decide whether she wanted Severus to move more quickly or more slowly.

Coop conjured several pillows for himself, and Neville did something with his wand that made his cock glisten. Then, with a rakish grin, Coop lifted his legs and rested them on Neville's shoulders, and Neville positioned himself with a look of extreme concentration.

Hermione nearly struggled with Severus, but she realized that he had stopped moving backwards. His breathing was shallow, and his arms were trembling slightly from the effort of holding her aloft.

Neville took a deep breath and breached the opening to Coop's body slowly, but with calm deliberation.

Hermione knew that the sight of naked men was arousing, but as she watched Neville slide into his lover with a guttural moan, she felt as if she were the fire, hot and greedy. She squirmed uncontrollably against Severus's iron grip, desperate for some kind of stimulation. Her movements seemed to bring him back to himself, and moment later, they were both back in the Potions classroom. Severus leaned against the door, breathing heavily, and Hermione leaned against Severus. She let her leg go slack, and the Galleon on her shoe hit the floor with a loud plink, but neither of them made a move to retrieve it.

The room felt cold by comparison and was silent but for their rapid breathing. Severus seemed to realize that he was still holding her, and he set her abruptly back on her feet. As he righted her, something unmistakable brushed the curve of her buttock that nearly made her jump. Severus had an erection, and judging from the way the rest of his body stiffened from the unintentional contact, he was all too aware of it.

He unconsciously yanked on his robes to straighten them and swept to the far side of the desk and gazed balefully at her. "I trust you have some explanation for that," he said at last.

"I thought—"

"You thought simply because it's Valentine's Day you would give poor old Severus a bit of a treat, did you?"

Hermione stared at him in confusion. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"Your young accomplices. Did you think I would want to join them, Hermione, is that it?"

"Why would— no! What? No!" she exclaimed, thinking as quickly as her arousal-fogged brain would allow. "You think I set this up?"

"Didn't you?"

"I jolly well didn't!"

He crossed his arms. "I am waiting for your explanation. It had better be a good one."

Hermione felt tears of frustration spring to her eyes. She didn't understand what was happening. What had Neville been thinking? Or had he been thinking at all?

"Oh."

"Oh?" repeated Severus.

"I think there was a misunderstanding.'

"That's something of an understatement."

"Neville must have intended that message to go only to Coop. I don't think I ever explained the finer points of using the Galleon to communicate to him. Coop probably met Neville there at Madam Puddifoot's and then they went straight into the Room of Requirement."

"You expect me to believe that Longbottom thought you'd fail to notice an urgent message sent by your own method of communication?"

"He might have thought I was in the bath," said Hermione. "If I hadn't taken so long to get everything ready, I would have been."

"Feeble, Granger, even for you."

"It's not feeble, it's the truth!" she exclaimed, her irritation finally breaking through the mist. "What could I possibly stand to gain from your discomfiture?"

"Discomfiture?" he looked at her as if she were a particularly dim first-year before his expression cleared slightly. "You don't think that I'm—" his expression clouded over again, and he gave her a piercing look.

Hermione scowled. Since when did he give a toss about what she thought of him sexually? He was behaving absurdly. "Aren't you?" she asked tartly. "I notice that a large part of you didn't seem to mind the proceedings at all."

Severus drew himself up to his full height, red-faced and frowning. "You stupid girl, do you really think that the sight of two obnoxious men sweating like hag-ridden horses would be more likely to bring about an involuntary response than proximity to the lush body of a not unattractive woman?"

They glared at one another for a moment before Hermione noticed a tiny twitch at the corner of Severus's mouth. She attempted to cover the giggle that rose in her throat, but it came out as an undignified snort.

"Not unattractive?" she asked.

"Large part?" he retorted, snorting. "We really are too old for this sort of thing."

"Speak for yourself," said Hermione, walking around his desk and sitting on the edge next to him.

"I'd rather not," he said lightly. "Though I think I shall speak rhetorically."

"Be my guest," said Hermione, who was tired from both their adventure and argument.

"Very well, Hermione. I find it quite interesting that in the past few days, you've made correct suppositions in regards to my anatomy and extremely personal habits, namely, my relative size and knowing that I do a number of tasks with my left hand, in spite of the fact that I write with my right."

Hermione schooled her features in an attempt not to react, but she knew her face had gone pale as a sheet. "Is that a rhetorical question?"

"It wasn't a question at all," replied Severus smoothly, "though it is undoubtedly related to how I know that your body, which you insist on draping in shapeless robes, is lush."

"If this is all rhetorical, is any response from me needed?" asked Hermione, who was feeling so light-headed that she couldn't make herself think of liquorice allsorts.

"Not as such," he replied. "But in light of this evening's licentious comedy of errors, I hope that neither of us will feel any rancor towards the other for knowing perhaps a bit more than we ought."

Hermione's shoulders slumped in relief. "That's fair," she said.

He cleared his throat. "I do have one question."

"Rhetorical or otherwise?"

"That depends on you, my dear," he said in a tone of voice that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and not from abject terror. "Would you consider—"

His question was loudly interrupted by a House Elf popping into the room.

"Professor, sir!" she exclaimed excitedly. "The potion you is making for the headmistress is working very well. She is asleep now!"

Severus was clearly torn between wishing to finish his sentence and wanting to ransack the headmistress's office.

"It's all right," she told him. "I know Dreamless Sleep only works for a few full REM cycles, so you'd better get going."

Severus pulled the Mag-Spec from the drawer in his desk and looked at Hermione in such a way as to make her wish her robes were slightly less shapeless. Perhaps his interest wasn't such a terrible lie after all.

"Come to my room afterwards," she said softly.

He reached out towards her face but stopped just short of her cheek. "Are you quite sure?"

She gave him an impish smile. "Of course! How else would I get any work done tomorrow morning if you forgot to return my Mag-Spec?"

His look was unreadable as he crossed the room to the far wall. "Enjoy your bath," he said, allowing the smirk in his voice to spread across his face just as he disappeared through the invisible door that led to the Aperterium's observation room.

Hermione rather thought she would.

***

It was past eleven when a soft knock pulled Hermione from Analytical and Numerical Approaches to Problems in Arithmantic Analysis. She felt a tendril of anticipation curl about her belly, and she shoved the magazine beneath the mattress and quickly cast an illusion of herself sleeping on Molly's spy mirror. For good measure, she cast Muffliato before opening the door.

A vaguely Severus-shaped blob of translucence slid inside. "Are we safe?" he whispered.

She tapped her wand on the top of his head, removing the Disillusionment charm.

"We are," she said. "Did you find it?"

His expression was sour. "No. The old woman's trickier than I thought."

"It's easy to underestimate her," Hermione said, trying not to sound too disappointed. "That's what got us both here, after all. Did you find anything that might be able to help?"

"Doubtful," he said reaching into his pocket and pulling out a small, dusty, thoroughly squashed roll of cloth bound tightly with string. "But this will make for an amusing Mag-Spec scan at the very least."

Hermione severed the strings with her wand and unrolled the cloth, dismayed that it was patched, frayed, and not just dusty, but filthy. She nearly jumped when it twitched and popped into a very familiar shape. It was the ancient, battered Sorting Hat. The rip along its brim flapped a few times, as if making sure that it still retained the ability to do so before speaking in an impressive voice. "It is time."

"Good lord," said Hermione weakly, sitting down on the foot of the bed. "Severus, where did you find it?"

"The old bat was using it to prop up a corner of her vanity table."

"Oh!" exclaimed Hermione, her hand flying involuntarily towards the hat's sagging peak. "Are you all right? Is there anything I can do for you?"

If the hat had had eyes, she would have sworn that it was sizing the two of them up. "I haven't had a head to sit on in years," it said. "Put me on so that I may read the workings of the outside world inside your mind. And do not Occlude me this time, Professor. It's for everyone's good."

"I've heard that one before," grumbled Severus, but he set the hat on his head without hesitation.

"Hmm," said the hat after a protracted silence. "Things are as bad as expected. You're next, young lady!"

She set the hat down on her head, half expecting the intrusive feeling of Legilimency, but all she felt was the pleasant weight and warmth of the hat on her head and its small voice in her ear. "Hmm," it said again. "This is really quite fascinating. Really, you two won't need my help in this at all. Everything you need to know is right there in your heads."

"But we don't know what we need to do," exclaimed Hermione.

"Of course you do," said the hat. "You might not quite know why, but all that will become clear. I suggest that you both start by getting some rest. And then, once you've done that, I'd be most appreciative if you could take me to the Room of Requirement tomorrow. Then we may begin our work in earnest. My dear, if you would be so good as to draw me a bath, I'd be much obliged. I'm rather in need of a soak."

"Erm, sure," she said, gingerly lifting the hat. "Do you want any bubbles?"

"Bubbles? Oh yes!" exclaimed the hat. "Rosemary scented, I think, for remembrance. So kind of you to ask."

Hermione privately worried that the years' worth of dirt and stains might be the only things holding the old hat together, but she gave it the benefit of the doubt and filled the tub as it had requested. When the hat was submerged in the hot water and bubbling merrily to itself, Hermione returned to her room, where Severus was waiting for her.

The room fairly hummed from the combined power of their Muffliatos; even the hat's song couldn't penetrate. Hermione felt a keen rush of warmth at the sight of him sitting on her bed, looking intently at the flames in her fireplace.

He rose as she approached. "It must be somewhere," he said, eyes glittering dangerously. Hermione was exceptionally glad not to be a Weasley at that moment.

"It might not even exist," she said. "You might have destroyed the real contract already."

"But you don't believe that," he accused.

"I think that the contract is, or was, the weakness in the spell. Perhaps the reason the graph is so fragile-looking is because you've already weakened it. Perhaps the spell held in spite of the contract's destruction. We can't know for certain. The only thing we can do is decide whether or not we should continue in this direction, and if so, what path to take."

"Are you always like this in the face of setbacks?" complained Severus.

"Like what?"

"Irritatingly rational and correct?"

She smiled. "I'm afraid so. It comes from years of managing temperamental bureaucrats. Not that I'm calling you a bureaucrat, mind."

"And what of your own disappointments and frustrations?"

She thought for a moment. "I usually take it out on Ron. Or immediately start plotting revenge."

"Those are not the most useful of suggestions, Miss Granger. Mr. Weasley wouldn't be able to hear my complaints, and I have been plotting revenge for over seven and a half years."

"The other option is a bottle of wine and very hot bath," said Hermione.

"My bath is inadequate, and yours is being permanently stained by a bit of talking haberdashery."

"Wine is something I may provide, at least," said Hermione, slipping into the bathroom and grabbing the ice bucket.

Severus gave her a quizzical look. "Were you expecting company?"

"None but my left hand," she said ruefully.

He smiled at this, and put his hand into his pocket. "I nearly forgot. I failed to get you a present for Christmas. I hope you will accept this with my compliments."

He held out a crumpled paper bag stamped with the Honeydukes logo. Already knowing what she would find, she opened the bag to find it filled with Honeydukes's finest liquorice allsorts. She felt a flush spreading across her cheeks.

"How did you know?" she asked at last.

He gave her a smirk that made her toes curl. "Potions are not the only thing I evaluate by sight and smell," he said. "I don't claim to understand the reason why images of these candies bring about such a powerful response in you, but—"

"They're a very thoughtful gift, Severus. Thank you," she said quickly, hoping to keep him from deducing that the allsorts were not the source of her arousal and her subsequent humiliation.

She turned to set the bag of candy down on the vanity near the bottle of wine, but he placed his hand on her arm.

"I had hoped," he said, looking intently into her eyes, "that we might enjoy them together."

In that moment, competing sets of data appeared side by side in her mind's eye, and refused to reconcile. Then, the analytical part of her brain began sorting through, one by one, the sources of the data, and immediately brought to mind a snippet of past conversation.

"I wish to use our time together to gauge your interest in me, with the eventual goal of ravishing you across one of the student benches."

"That's not a very good lie."

"No, it isn't. Terrible, in fact."

The truth, of course, is the most terrible lie of all. The realization brought with it wonder, but close at its heels was extreme irritation with herself.

"I am the dimmest, thickest, most absurdly pathetic plonker to have ever walked the earth," she declared.

"I haven't the pleasure of understanding you," he said, frowning, "or rather, I understand you, I simply can make no sense—"

And then her arms were around his neck and her mouth was pressed resolutely to his. She withdrew to ascertain his response. He was staring at her with a shocked expression on his face. He held out his hand to her face, and Hermione seized it and brought it to her lips.

"It's been weeks now that I've been trying to fool your Occlumency by imagining liquorice allsorts every time I had inappropriate thoughts about you," she said, kissing each of his knuckles. "It's all because I misunderstood the hints you dropped about being interested in me."

"Hints?" he asked, his scoffing tone in direct opposition to the tenderness of his fingertips as he brushed them along her jaw and buried them in her hair. "I was explicit, if not crude!"

"You were," she agreed. "I simply wasn't equipped to believe a Slytherin capable of forthrightness. Forgive me?"

"You are an idiot, Miss Granger," he said. "Consider yourself fortunate that years of exposure to idiocy have inured me somewhat to the trait."

"I suppose it is better to be liked in spite of one's idiocy and not because of it," she said, sliding her hand around his waist. "Honestly, knowing I could have kissed you weeks ago is infuriating. I could kick myself."

"There will be time enough for self-recrimination later," he said authoritatively. "As it is, I think the most important thing is that we waste no more time. Don't you agree?"

Hermione got a great deal of enjoyment from showing Severus precisely how much she agreed. Before she knew it, their kissing had gone from desperate and vertical to languorous and horizontal. The bedclothes were in disarray from their vigorous attempts to press their bodies so close to one another as to melt into one another, which, Hermione realized was doomed to fail by virtue of their being too impatient to remove any articles of clothing. However, they soon remedied this, and soon their hot kisses were interspersed with mild swearing, due largely to the fact that both wore traditional robes with huge numbers of buttons.

Slowly, articles of clothing came off, and soon, Severus's forehead was pressed to her sternum and her right nipple was in his mouth. Goosebumps rippled across her flesh, and Severus pulled the bed sheet up over her lower half to keep her from getting too cold. Hermione was quickly losing higher brain function. The demanding area between her legs was clamoring for attention of some sort, and she let out a shuddering moan as he kissed her breasts tenderly and began to kiss his way down her side.

This would have been the beginning of something truly unforgettable for both parties had not Molly Weasley chosen that moment to pound on the door with all of her physical and magical strength.

"HERMIONE GRANGER!" came Molly's furious howl. "OPEN THIS DOOR AT ONCE!"

Severus froze, and Hermione shot him an apologetic look before pulling the sheet over him, banishing the Muffliatos and the illegal hexes on her front door with one Finite Incantatem.

Molly was not to be deterred. Moments later, the door was blasted off its hinges, and the furious headmistress swept into the room, reeking of brimstone. She froze when she saw Hermione in bed with the sheet pulled up to her chest and a man-shaped lump beneath her sheets.

Hermione did not have to feign fury. "What is wrong with you, woman?" she cried.

The anger in her voice only served to rekindle the headmistress's ire. "What's wrong with me?" she asked in a mock-pleasant voice. "Could it be perhaps that someone has broken into my private quarters?"

"I've never been in your private quarters," exclaimed Hermione, pulling the sheet up under her chin, "or did it slip your mind that you won't let me do an analysis of the spells in your room?"

"As the resident expert on opening protected and hidden spaces, you are one of very few people in the castle who have the means. You're probably still bitter about the Ministry failing to fund you, so you have motive. And," she said, gesturing at the mirror that was still covered with Hermione's illusion, "you maliciously disabled my monitoring spell, in order to give you the opportunity to do it."

At this moment, a very male arm, thankfully not the one that still bore a faint imprint of the Dark Mark, snaked out from beneath the sheet and waved at Molly.

"I should think it obvious that I had no malice in mind when I disabled your monitoring spell, merely a desire for intimate company without your interference. Furthermore," she said, grabbing the hand and sticking the index finger between her lips, "I have a witness who will be more than happy to state that I have been occupied since early this afternoon. I'm sorry that your privacy has been violated, but it wasn't by me or Neville. Now," she said, allowing some of her anger to show, "stop violating mine and get the hell out of my room."

"How dare you talk to me like this in my own school!"

"Molly, you know that I am the only person in the school with the ability to find out who broke into your room. You've forced me to cover so much ground since I've been here that I have more than enough convincing data to secure funding from nearly any agency, so I don't particularly care if you threaten to take away my funding if I don't do what you want. If you wish me to apprehend the miscreant and finish mapping the school, some things are going to have to change, starting with removing yourself from this room, apologizing for spoiling what was turning out to be a wonderful evening, and never again attempting to spy on me as I do my work."

Molly's face had gone purple. "This isn't the end," she hissed, stomping out of the room and slamming the door noisily back into place.

"No, it isn't," said Hermione, shaking from a surge of adrenaline and the heady feeling of triumph. "This is only the beginning."

Sarcastic applause began beneath the sheets, and Hermione kicked at Severus. He pulled neatly out of range and emerged from beneath the sheets.

"Now you've done it," he said, not sounding particularly displeased. "It's to be open warfare now. And you do realize that she's going to go back to kicking me around now that you're no longer standing for it."

"Then it would behoove you to spend as much time as possible among other people so she can't do anything to you. And speaking of spending time in the company of others, now that Neville and Coop have found one another, I do have an opening for ersatz boyfriend."

"The fact that I'm under the Fidelius Charm rather precludes the social benefits of such an arrangement."

Hermione smiled. "It is my hope that the private benefits will far outweigh the social ones."

Severus planted a warm kiss on her forehead and slid his arms around her. "As pleasant as it sounds, I really must decline until I'm better able to devote my full attention to you."

Hermione stiffened. "Are you saying that after tonight I'm going to have to go back to thinking of liquorice allsorts?"

"I said nothing of the kind. I'm merely pointing out that while one of us is still under the headmistress's thumb, we endanger our work and plotting by thinking only of our own pleasure. What if we'd been on the floor with no convenient sheets to shield my identity? As long as Molly Weasley has power over me, Hogwarts isn't a safe place for us to be together."

Hermione sighed noisily, knowing he was probably right. "On the bright side, at least both of us have plenty of practice putting aside our own pleasure for the sake of a greater goal."

"Yes," he said, "and look where it's got us."

She laid her head on his chest. "I haven't any complaints."

"Really?" he asked, with heavy irony.

"Well, no, not really. I wouldn't have had the headmistress interrupt us, neither of us would have been held here against our will, there would be much better food, and someone with more qualifications than being a suspicious parent would be in charge of the place, but this was pleasant enough to make me forget about that."

"Until I asked, that is?"

"Yes," she said, smiling and pressing a goodnight kiss to the warm skin of his neck. "That'll teach you."

Chapter Text

By the time Hermione rose the next morning, the sun was up and she could hear a blackbird warbling somewhere near her window. She rolled out of bed, and for the first time in many years, she was really looking forward to the day. She immediately noticed that the floor was colder than usual and discovered that Molly had chosen to show her disapproval of last night's turn of events by shrinking her fireplace to the size of a narrow broom cupboard. Hermione smirked. She'd heard of people being frozen out before, but never by this method. Fortunately, the day was unseasonably warm and sunny, so the smaller fire kept the room warm enough for her purposes.

The first thing she did was to fish the Sorting Hat out of the half-empty tub. She was pleased to note that the soak had not dissolved the hat completely, and had instead revealed the hat to be a faded red-brown instead of the dirty black she had always known it to be. At its cheerful request, she cast a drying charm on it and set it on the vanity. Though her illusion charm was still in force, she dispelled both the illusion and Molly's Spy Spell from the vanity mirror, just because she could.

After she finished her own morning ablutions, she dismantled the Monitoring Spell that Molly had put on her fireplace and Floo called Ron to celebrate her new status as persona non grata. She found him in his office, fumbling with his cravat in front of the mirror and attempting to dictate a letter to the French Minster of Magic, but he invited her for tea later that afternoon, and she accepted with a smile.

Since it was Sunday and there were no classes, she sent a quick message via Galleon to Neville, asking him to meet her in the Room of Requirement in an hour. That would give her sufficient time to eat breakfast and review her notes and Mag-Spec data from the previous day. She might have burned the bridges between herself and the headmistress socially, but she still planned to make the most of her time at Hogwarts, especially if it meant learning more about how the Room of Requirement worked.

After a breakfast of rubbery sausage, she returned the Galleon to her bag and noticed the box from Coop sitting innocently next to it on the vanity. Neville had been kind enough to give it to her believing that she'd need it more than he would. However, now that the real thing was looking like a definite possibility, Hermione couldn't muster much enthusiasm about quality time with her left hand, even if a sophisticated handheld device was involved.

But wait: there was still one occupant of the castle with fewer prospects than she had, and that was Percy. She fully expected him to be scandalized by the anonymous gift, but she hoped that his curiosity would outweigh his prudish tendencies. She slipped the Sorting Hat into her bag and slid into the nearest opening to the Aperterium, which was in the nearby sculpture gallery, and followed her map to Percy's quarters. Fortunately, he was not in his room, so leaving the package with a tag reading "From a Friend," at the foot of his bed was an easy task.

Feeling quite pleased with herself, she slid out of the secret room into the Charms classroom, which was only a stairway and a hallway from the Room of Requirement. The door appeared and swung open for her solicitously. She thanked it and entered.

Thankfully, the room was restored to a far more neutral configuration than when she had last seen it. The furry white pelt was gone, and there were comfortable chairs in front of the reasonably-sized fire. There was even a three-legged stool, upon which Hermione perched the Sorting Hat.

Belatedly, she realized that her detour to Percy's quarters had distracted her from fetching Severus, and Neville would be there any moment. It wouldn't do Neville any harm to wait, but she had hoped not to draw any undue attention to Severus's entry.

"I'm terribly sorry to ask," she said to the room, "but I'd be most grateful if you could connect the door to Severus Snape's private quarters. He really ought to be present for this meeting, and I rather stupidly forgot to tell him."

Given her abject failure at getting the room to do as she asked, she was delighted that the door appeared in the wall at all, and she was nearly bouncing with glee when she realized that the room had actually connected her to Severus's quarters. He wasn't in bed, thankfully, but she noticed a whiff of steam coming from underneath his door.

"Severus!" she called.

There was a loud splash from the bathroom and a muffled curse. "Am I never to have privacy again?" he complained loudly.

"The hat and I are in the Room of Requirement waiting for Neville. The room has been good enough to cooperate with me this time, so come through your entrance to the Aperterium. It'll bring you here. When you're done, of course."

There was no reply other than a faint bubbling, but Hermione knew he'd heard. Her work was done.
She had just extricated herself from the doorway when the other door opened to admit Neville. He regarded her with a look that was half delight and half exasperation.

"What did you do?" he burst out. "Molly was in a fit state, and breakfast was dreadful! She wouldn't stop glaring at me!"

"Someone broke into her quarters last night. She thought it was me, but I had a convenient man in my bed that I led her to believe was you."

Neville goggled at her. "So who was in your bed last night?"

"A lady never kisses and tells," she said primly. "Besides, we have more important things to discuss. You may remember the Sorting Hat?" she said, gesturing to the stool, where it sat.

"Longbottom!" exclaimed the hat with pleasure. "I told you I was never wrong!"

"Once," said Neville, smiling tightly. "I proved to be a brave leader once. The rest of the time I've been the quivering jellyfish that Professor Snape always said I was."

The hat hadn't much of a mouth, but Hermione could have sworn that it was grinning. "A wizard's life is long," it said cryptically. "Perhaps another opportunity will come along."

Neville laughed. "I sincerely hope there will be no more dark lords in my lifetime!"

As if on cue, Hermione saw the door on the wall behind Neville open to admit Severus, whose hair was still dripping from the bath. He scowled at her, as if he hadn't been nibbling on her nipples a mere ten hours previously, and she smiled back.

"Ah ha," said the hat. "It is time. Won't you have a seat and listen to my tale?"

Hermione couldn't help but feel a frisson of interest to notice that the room had conjured three human-sized chairs and not just two. However, the hat chose that moment to begin to sing.

The founders blessed me with a brain,
And memory as long as time.
My keen discrimination's something
You might call sublime.

All this you know from student days
From my sweet sorting airs
And while my gifts are vast, there's one
To whom I can't compare.

You see, I'm not the only thing
Made sentient by the four,
Indeed, there's much more to this room
Than changeable décor.

The Come and Go Room it was called
By founders and the elves.
Its purpose was to do a task
They couldn't do themselves.

The room was fashioned to give aid
To headmistress and master.
To be a ready blade to wield
In any near disaster.

Into the room the founding four
Poured all their arcane lore.
From hopes and dreams and minds they built
The ceiling, walls, and floor.

And far beyond these magic walls,
The room exerts control:
The moving stairs and shifting rooms,
And Hogwarts as a whole.

The Come and Go Room was to be
The center of command
From whence one accessed any room,
And stored all contraband.

Hermione stared at the hat, scarcely believing her ears. If the Room of Requirement, or the Come and Go Room as the hat named it, was the work of the founders, it clearly possessed magic heretofore never seen.

And while the four succeeded
In enchanting something great,
There were some aspects that the four
Did not anticipate.

The trouble with bestowing minds
On things like rooms and hats
Is that monotony sets in
And rather drives us bats.

At this point, Hermione had to bite her tongue to keep from asking questions. This was not only the earliest instance of animating the inanimate she'd heard of, it was also the most elaborate. The room and the hat were clearly more than just aware, they had the ability to think independently from their creators.

So when the four were satisfied
Their room could act and think,
They let it sit for far too long,
And so it caused a stink.

At first, the founder's didn't know
Just where the hijinx started
Until Rowena saw the spells
Were recently imparted.

It still took all of ninety days
Before they found the source
Of all the horrid hexes
That students used in force.

It seems the Room had opened wide
Its doors for certain youths
And to them had provided books
That held forbidden truths.

For in these books were hidden spells
That Godric wouldn't teach
And Salazar remarked that he
Should practice what he preached.

Then Godric flushed an angry red,
And slandered Slytherin,
With epithets so vulgar
They would pierce the thickest skin.

The rest, they say, is history,
But who would dare assume
That what made Slytherin depart
Was Godric and the Room?

And once old Salazar was gone,
The three had to contend
With their creation sans their fourth —
It might have been the end.

However, wily Slytherin
Foresaw this coup d'etat,
And all attempts to close the room
Would earn a battered jaw.

At last, the three gave up and left
The room to rot alone.
Misuse of gifts and magic skills
They never would condone.

The Room continued baiting all
The teachers, heads, and staff,
At first it seemed its raison d'etre
Was just to have a laugh.

But all these years have taught the room
The powers that we wield
Can be great force for good or ill —
Achilles' heel or shield.

It only took six hundred years
To heed that higher call,
But by that time, the gifted Room
Was quite forgot by all.

And so its goal in recent years
Has been to build up ties
To students and to teachers whom
We feel both kind and wise.

And through the years we saw a lot
Of heads of either sex.
Some were great, and how some got
To be head we're perplexed.

And even when the school was led
By those considered strangers,
In secret we allied ourselves
To fight off any dangers.

Alas, the heads that we admired
Were few and far between.
For martinets these recent years
Have surely not been lean.

And now at last the Room has made
Its choice for whom to lead
The school from recent troubled times
Of selfishness and greed.

We need a man of bravery
To face old Molly's ire.
We need a man of moral strength
To pull us from her mire.

We need a man with wit and smarts,
Both wise and humble, too.
A nurturer, and also kind:
Neville- that man, is you.

I've known you were special, lad,
Since first I touched your head.
You've always been the sort of man,
Who learned more than was said.

So cast aside your doubt of self
And be not overwhelmed,
For Hogwarts will again be great
With Neville at her helm.

The hat's final note echoed through the empty room, and all fell silent.

Neville sat as if frozen, his eyes wide, gripping the arms of his chair so tightly that his knuckles were white. "You must be joking," he said at last.

"Why do you say that?" asked Hermione. "From what I've seen, you'd be a fantastic headmaster."

"But I don't know enough!"

"That didn't stop Molly," said Hermione, "and unlike Molly, you know enough to ask people with experience for help."

"I'm too young," he said.

"The youngest in three hundred years," said the hat, "and that was Everard Hoggington, one of the most distinguished Headmasters of all time."

"I'm a broom polisher! Wouldn't some parents pull their children out of school?" he asked pleadingly.

The hat laughed. "My dear Longbottom, homosexuality and this high office have been all but mandatory since the founder's time. Or did you never wonder why Helga Hufflepuff never had an heir?"

Hermione couldn't help but laugh at the forlorn expression on her friend's face. "Neville, the fact that you're so concerned about what sort of headmaster you'd make is a clear sign that you are just the sort of person who should be in charge. If it makes you feel any better, Coop thinks you'll be a wonderful leader."

"But me? Headmaster? Who would teach Herbology?"

"I think you'll find a great number of people who would never work for Molly will be queuing up to work for you," said the hat. "The Come and Go Room and I certainly number among those."

"So that's why you made those horrid predictions right after Molly became headmistress," said Neville, looking accusingly at the hat. "You were trying to get Molly to get rid of you."

"Not exactly," said the hat. "I was hoping she'd see reason, but that was overly optimistic of me. I know this is more work than you signed on for, Longbottom, but we really do believe you should be headmaster. You'd be very difficult to replace, so please consider the school if you plan to refuse."

Neville sniffed, and Hermione was shocked to realize that there were tears in his eyes. "Refuse? How on earth could I refuse? Of course I'll serve as headmaster. But," he said, frowning, "I won't do anything horrid to Molly. She hired me, and while I don't like many of the things she's done as headmistress, I won't see her humiliated."

"Quite decent of you," said the hat. "I wonder if you'd be so decent if you knew how many hopes and dreams she's squashed since becoming headmistress."

"I won't do it if it means ruining her," said Neville. "Take it or leave it."

"That woman doesn't deserve a friend like you," murmured Severus.

The hat made a nodding gesture and repeated Severus's words to Neville, who shrugged. "I didn't deserve friends like Harry and Ron and Hermione, but I'm grateful for them all the same. Out of curiosity, is there anything else I need to do to pledge my allegiance to the school? A vow or anything like that?"

Hermione felt a rumble go through the room that she feared would materialize into yet another Unbreakable Vow or something equally horrid. However, her eyes widened when she realized that the Sorting Hat was laughing, and the room was doing the same.

"Helga bless you, Neville Longbottom," exclaimed the hat. "No vow is required, and you've proved once again how right you are for the job. Farewell, for now. The moment of your ascendance will be clear."

"Do you mean clear to Longbottom or clear to anybody who doesn't have feathers for brains?" asked Severus, unable to help himself.

All who heard his remark chose to ignore him.

Neville raised his chin and nodded. "I will do everything I can to maintain a good relationship with you and the room."

"We know you will, Longbottom," said the hat. "Now go make ready."

Neville did as he was bid and left the room with his head held high.

"Now that had all the trappings of ceremony," remarked Severus. "Was that all you wanted me here to see?"

"Yes," said Hermione, "though I wonder if you're taking from it what I expect."

"That Hogwarts is doomed?"

"From your perspective, perhaps. But surely you'll agree that Neville as headmaster will have no need of the Aperterium, given his relationship with the Room of Requirement. Sorry, Come and Go Room."

"Still on about that, are you?" he said with a sigh.

"Yes," she said, "but I promise not to push you on it until you're free of the vow. Magnanimous of me, I know."

"You're insufferable when you get your way."

"Don't denigrate me so. You know I'm insufferable at all times."

"You make it very difficult not to kiss you, even if just to get you to shut your infernal mouth."

"You're a terrible tease. It was your idea to cool our ardor until we're both unencumbered by Molly, you know."

"Yes, and I was quite right to do so. It should give me ample opportunity to say goodbye to my freedom, my privacy, and any shred of sanity that survived my indentured servitude."

Hermione made her way to the outside door. "I'll let Mr. De Mille know that you're ready for your close-up."

"Shut up, Granger," he said, eyes frowning but lips curving up into what was nearly a smile.

Hermione blew him a kiss.

***

As Hermione went through her day locating hidden rooms along the stairway that led to the owlery, including the rather horrid room that was filled with the owls' dinner mice, she couldn't resist humming tunelessly to herself. She found herself counting the hours until she would have the opportunity to report her progress to Ron. Soon, she would be free of Molly and the school's ancient glory would be restored. However, two thoughts were keeping her from floating away. First, she still hadn't been able to free Severus from his vow, and she knew that an ignominious departure would do nothing to sweeten Molly's attitude towards Severus. She could simply leave him there in indefinite service to the school.

The other less-than-delightful prospect was that of returning to her old job at the Ministry. Even if she got the funding she needed, much of her research time would be wasted breaking up squabbles between the resident geniuses and explaining to Mr. Peabody, their resident Chronomage, that though he was a master of time, and time and space were one, there were still certain spaces, like the women's toilet, where he was not allowed. There were always interns to intimidate and upstarts to ridicule — lord, now she was beginning to sound like Severus. But it all boiled down to the same thing: in spite of Molly, the work she was doing at Hogwarts was the sort of thing she'd like to continue doing.

Still, she missed her weekly teas with Ron, so when the clock chimed quarter to three, Hermione was more than happy to leave her work. Who knew? Perhaps he might have inside information on where Molly could have hidden Severus's contract.

When Hermione arrived in Ron's office, she was amazed at how simultaneously foreign and familiar it felt, having not visited since late December. Everything looked the same, from the portraits of former Minister down to the Chudley Cannons orange carpet Ron had installed on the first day of his term. But the room felt different somehow. Perhaps it was simply because their weekly teas had been cut short by his mother's draconian scheduling.

Ron was out, but sitting on his desk were the tea things and a beautiful plate of biscuits that looked as if they had been created by the Department of Mysteries' pastry chef. Hermione's favorite cream-filled ones were given a place of prominence, and she couldn't help stealing one.

"You haven't started in on the cream biscuits, have you?" said Ron, who had entered the room so quietly that Hermione jumped.

"When did you get so stealthy?" she asked, wiping a spot of cream from her nose. "You could have given me a heart attack."

Ron gestured to the lumpy but warm-looking knitted slippers he was wearing. "Well, I'm not going to wear wingtips on a Sunday, am I?"

"No, I suppose not, especially when nobody can see your feet when you make Floo Calls. What's going on that you had to actually do work during the weekend?"

"Just the usual housekeeping. Nothing of particular interest," grumbled Ron, pouring them both cups of tea. "That and it's Horned Helisper season, and Luna's fumigating the place.'

"Milk, no sugar.'

"Honestly, woman, we've had tea hundreds of times. You think I'd just forget how you take your tea?"

"One can never be too careful with tea," she said, accepting the steaming cup with a smile.

They exchanged pleasantries and asked after one another's families, and Ron regaled her with Harry's latest exploits in parenting and brushes with paparazzi. Before she knew it, she was laughing so hard she had tears running down her cheeks. She took another cream biscuit and sat back, smiling fondly at her friend.

Ron followed suit, also choosing a cream biscuit. "So, what's new at Hogwarts, then?"

"Not much. I figured out how to break the Fidelius Charm, and I founded a conspiracy devoted to removing your mother from the headmistress's office and installing Neville Longbottom, which we're well on our way towards doing."

Ron didn't spit out his tea, but it was a close thing. "That didn't take you long," he said with a slight cough. "Anything else of note?"

"Sort of. Mostly gossip."

"I heard the one about you and Filch," said Ron with a grin. "They say you showed him a new use for the shackles in his office."

Hermione tutted in disapproval. "It's not as if I'm the first person who has dated out of convenience."

Ron gave her a shrewd look. "There's a lot more that you aren't telling me."

"Naturally," said Hermione, "and in this case it's not just 'I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.'"

"What would you call it?"

"I could tell you, but even if it weren't hidden under strong protective magic, you wouldn't believe me anyway."

"Like what?"

"Percy's a poof."

"Tell me something I haven't known since I caught him snogging Penelope Clearwater's older brother."

Hermione felt a pang of sympathy for Penelope Clearwater before deciding to try an experiment on Ron. "The potions teacher at Hogwarts is Severus Snape."

Ron shook his head. "Sorry? I was trying to decide what biscuit to have next."

"Never mind, it's not important," she said, not feeling particularly surprised or disappointed.

"Fine," said Ron with a shrug. "Now, you look like you're fair bursting to tell me something, so you'd better do it."

"I don't think I'll be coming back to the DoM," she said, looking closely at his face.

He surprised her by grinning. "That's fantastic," he said. "See, aren't you glad you didn't get funded last cycle after all? It would be hell trying to justify to the Classification Board why I was letting you license currently funded research for the usual pittance. This way, they won't think it's anything important. You'll have to sign a non-disclosure form when you leave officially, of course, but that's so you don't start manufacturing the damn things. And when you have time to examine the changes to the tax code I sponsored last year, you'll notice that analytical services aren't taxable. Don't say I never did anything for you."

Hermione stared at him open-mouthed for a moment before collecting herself. "You don't seem at all surprised."

"I'm not. Well, that's not true, I am surprised. I just thought it'd take much longer for you to realize that you'd much rather work for yourself and not for what can be justified to the proper committee."

She continued to gape until his words had the opportunity to penetrate her surprise. "You changed the tax code for me?" she asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously.

"Yeah," he said casually. "But St. Mungo's and four potions manufacturers have been asking me to make the change for years, so it's not as if I wasn't considering it already."

Ron's self-satisfied smile indicated that he knew he had the upper hand in the conversation. He propped his slippered feet up on the desk with an insouciant air. However, one foot collided with the nameplate on his desk and sent it crashing to the floor, where the glass shattered all over the bit of embroidery inside that read "Ronald Bilius Weasley, Minister of Magic".

Ron swore and came to the far side of the desk. "Think you can fix it? You're loads better with Reparo than I am."

Hermione raised her wand, but paused. She'd seen the strip of embroidered linen adorning Ron's desk, for many years, but she'd never really noticed how exquisitely it was done, with tiny flowers and exotic birds entwined expertly through the letters. Now, as it lay at her friend's lumpy slippered feet, she couldn't help but notice how much it contrasted with the rest of his other belongings and decorations. It also showed much more skill than any of Molly's other handicrafts that she'd seen.

"Ron, did your mum make this for you?"

He snorted. "Who else? She did it not long after she started as headmistress. She laid it on a bit thick, too, about how she feared that this would be the last thing she'd ever have time to make for me, as if she hadn't been Deputy Headmistress for two years already."

And then she knew.

"Ron, would you mind terribly if I cast something other than Reparo on this?"

"As long as I can have it back when you're done. Mum's bad enough if you don't wear her jumpers when you visit. She'd never forgive me if anything happened to it."

Hermione flicked her wand at the bit of embroidered linen. "Finite Incantatem!

It was as if the change happened in slow motion. First, the brightly colored embroidery floss faded into loopy handwriting in faded black ink. Then, the white linen dulled into crumpled parchment. And there it was: Severus's job description.

She picked it up from the broken glass reverently and shook it to remove any lingering shards.

Ron peered over her shoulder, squinting. "What in the name of Dumbledore's socks is that?"

"Exactly what it says: it's a job description for the position of Potion's teacher."

"Say what?" asked Ron. "I can't read it. Is it in Gobbledygook or something?"

Belatedly, Hermione realized that the Fidelius Charm was affecting Ron's ability to read it. Even if destroying the contract released Severus from the Unbreakable Vow, there was still the Fidelius Charm to contend with, though of course that was a lesser issue. "I can't explain right now," she said, "but I really need to take this. Here," she said, repairing the glass nameplate and casting an illusion to make it appear as if the linen was still in the faceplate. "This way, when your mum gets mad, you can claim that I stole the real one when you left the room."

Ron gulped. "Is she going to be mad when she finds out you've taken it?"

Hermione smiled grimly. "You have no idea."

***

Severus wasn't in his quarters, the library, or the Room of Requirement, and Hermione was starting to worry that perhaps he'd run afoul of Molly. However, she eventually found him in the Great Hall, eating supper with the students and staff. She was relieved and pleased that he'd taken her advice to hide in the crowd, counting on Molly's inability to say anything to him in the presence of the others.

"I've saved a seat for you, my turtledove!" called Neville, which made a number of the students giggle. When she joined him, her cheeks quite pink, he leaned in close to say softly in her ear, "You'll want to listen — I think Fleur and Ginny are about to throw a couple of Kneazles into the owlery."

Hermione tried to catch Severus's eye, but his eyes were focused on his plate, and he was pointedly ignoring everything around him, though she was certain that he was listening. She resigned herself to doing as Neville had suggested. She was pleased to note that Molly's ears had already turned red.

"—not discussing it any further," Ginny was saying. "We all knew that this was going to be temporary. Now that we've managed to endow the Transfiguration chair, you shouldn't have any trouble filling the position, and I certainly don't want to be teaching when the baby arrives."

"Ooh, Ginny, how exciting!" squealed Parvati. "How far along are you?"

"Seventeen weeks," said Ginny "She was a bit of a surprise, but both Harry and I think that it's been far too long since we had a baby in the house."

"Well," said Molly, whose ire was likely lessened at the prospect of having another grandchild to coddle, "It's not the most convenient time, but I suppose we'll have to make do."

"Zat is good to 'ear," said Fleur, "because Bill and I will be returning to France at zee end of zis school year and will not be returning to teach."

"WHAT?" exclaimed Molly loudly. Dozens of heads snapped in her direction, and she made a visible attempt to collect herself. "Is this true, William?"

Bill took his wife's hand. "Yes, Mum, it is. You knew that both of us were willing to help out until the school was back on its feet financially, and it looks like you're well on the way."

"But that's not the point!" exclaimed Molly. "Family is important."

"Yes, it is," said Bill, "and we haven't been able to go on holiday with ours since Fleur started teaching here."

"Of all the selfish — have you any idea how difficult it will be to replace three teachers at once?" hissed Molly.

"Well, three won't be that much easier than four," pointed out Luna. "Which is good, because I've been awarded a grant from the Ukrainian Ministry of Magic to locate their Rusalki and will need to take at least next year off."

Molly gaped at her, torn between fury and shock. "But what about your husband? Your children?"

Luna shrugged. "I'll have an International Portkey, so I can still live with them and be back each evening in time for supper. Ron's been so supportive. He even enrolled in a cooking class."

Molly looked like she was about to explode, and Ginny put a restraining hand on her forearm.

"It's not the end of the world, Mum," said Ginny. "The endowed chairs will be a piece of cake, and with the money that the various fundraisers are bound to bring in, you'll be able to spend more on the new teachers instead of paying them a pittance."

"That's easy enough for you to say, young lady," huffed Molly, rounding on her daughter. "You never had responsibilities like these!"

"That's because I never bullied or bossed my way into getting them," retorted Ginny angrily. "You wanted to be headmistress. It's not our fault you never bothered learning how to do it without depending on all of us. We want to have our own lives, Mum. We don't just want to be living yours."

Molly flushed and began whispering furiously at her daughter, and Hermione tried yet again to get Severus's attention. She managed to catch his eye, but she couldn't figure out a way to slip him the precious document without drawing attention to it. She nodded her head at her beaded bag on the table, but he narrowed his eyes at her and shook his head in confusion.

Frustrated, she pulled the wrinkled parchment from her bag in her and folded it into a paper airplane against her thigh. She then cast Wingardium Leviosa on it and flew it beneath the table to where Severus sat.

He jumped when the point of its nose poked into what she fervently hoped was his leg, and she let out a sigh of relief when his hand emerged with the airplane clutched in his fist. He scowled at her, and she nodded her head, eyebrows raised.

The look of total shock on his face when he unfolded the paper made her heart beat faster. His eyes sought hers, half disbelieving and half hopeful, and her smile sent with it her apology for taking so long to provide him with his freedom.

Hermione nearly jumped when Neville squeezed her hand. His eyes were shining in wonder. "It's working," he whispered. "It's really working."

She gave him a reassuring smile, and Molly's voice burst out again. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you planned all of this just to spite me! I could believe the mess at Christmas was the work of a few troublemakers, but I've heard reports that someone helped students sneak into Hogsmeade, and now this. I believe I'm being deliberately persecuted!"

"Now, really, Molly," exclaimed Arthur, placing a soothing hand on his wife's shoulder.

"I never heard of anything so silly," said Luna with a merry laugh. "I don't know about any of those other things, but I thought it was a good idea to tell you during supper because that way you couldn't yell at me."

This pronouncement was met with murmurs of agreement and more than a few snickers.

Molly rose angrily to her feet. "I will give each of you some time to reconsider this foolishness," she said. "I simply refuse to let four teachers go at once."

"You won't have to," came a silky voice from the end of the table. Hermione, Percy, and Molly glanced at the end of the table where Severus was standing with the piece of paper in his hand. "The number's up to five."

He laid the piece of paper on the table and cast a nonverbal Incendio on it. The document burst into flames, and Hermione could have sworn she saw a flash of red light as it was reduced to ashes.

Severus's hand rose instinctively to his neck, as if he expected the magic of the vow to choke him, and Hermione's stomach fell. Had it worked? Was he free? However, before his fingers touched the skin of his neck, he stayed his hand and let it fall to his side. His eyes were glittering in triumph. "I quit," he said simply, and Vanished the ashy remains of his enforced servitude with a wave of his wand.

Molly's florid face drained of color, and Percy looked as if he might be ill. "Impossible," she whispered weakly.

"Mum? Are you all right?" asked Ginny, who sounded somewhat alarmed at this sudden change. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

But Molly's eyes were no longer on Severus but on Hermione. Hermione belatedly realized that she was still staring at Severus and lowered her eyes to the table in front of her.

"You," said the headmistress, pointing her wand at Hermione. "You're responsible for this."

Hermione was about to deny the accusation, but Severus cleared his throat theatrically.

"You're forgetting something rather important, Weasley," said Severus, his voice soft and dangerous, "If you wish to have anybody teach Potions between now and the end of the academic year, I suggest that you stop looking for people on whom to cast blame for your inevitable fall from grace and start looking for ways to make amends to me. The rumors of my cruelty don't even begin to encompass the revenge I plan to take on you for wasting eight years of my life."

Molly gave an unintelligible gurgle of protest, but Severus held up his hand.

"At this point, you haven't any hope of escaping me, though for the sake of the students, I might be willing to postpone my satisfaction long enough to teach for the rest of the year. Provided, of course, you make it worth my while. First, I demand a lump sum comprising the difference in my salary under your eight-year tenure compared to what it was under Albus, adjusted for inflation, naturally. You will also immediately remove all monitoring charms from my quarters, and instruct all house elves that they are to bring my meals to me in my room. At that point, you may begin salary negotiations when you've had the ability to consult with the Governors about authorizing the exorbitant pay I plan to demand to teach for the rest of the year."

Molly's jaw was working soundlessly up and down.

"Mum?" Ginny was starting to sound worried.

"It's all right, Ginny," said Percy, who had risen from his seat to stand behind his mother. "Mum, come on, let's get to your office. I'll help you write up the jobs advertisements. All you'll need to do is dictate."

The headmistress seemed to deflate then, and she allowed herself to be escorted from the room. Hermione could see her hands shaking. When the door closed after them, the student tables burst into noisy speculation.

"That was interesting," remarked Neville. "Mind telling me what it was all about?"

"You'll see," said Hermione. "Rather sooner than later."

"Well, if you're going to be that way," said Neville with a sigh.

"Granger."

She turned to look at Severus, who was methodically stretching the muscles in his shoulders and neck. "I'm going to go get properly pissed on extremely expensive liquor and sleep through all my classes tomorrow. Care to join me?"

Her eyes lit up.

"I've got to get some work done," she said quietly to Neville. "You should definitely call Coop. He might have some suggestions on where to go from here."

Neville gave her a goofy smile, which he valiantly tried to cover up with a look of professionalism. Hermione understood exactly how he felt. "I suppose I could do that," said Neville with an impressive attempt at nonchalance.

Hermione gave him a kiss on the cheek, which brought another chorus of titters from the students, who were still attempting to make sense of what was going on at the high table. She found herself very much looking forward to finding out what the students would make of it.

Not wishing to arrive at Severus's room empty-handed, she returned to her room for the bottle of champagne that they'd not got around to drinking the night before. She was pleased to note that the temperamental staircases that usually made her wait were instead waiting for her. She smiled, caressed the banister affectionately, and was rewarded with a smooth, quick trip to the appropriate landing.

With bottle and ice bucket in hand, she made her way down to the dungeons, passing students who were giving her suspicious looks, but she didn't care. Severus answered her knock with his usual bad grace, but he ushered her quickly into his study, which was wonderfully cozy from the fire that blazed in the newly-enlarged fireplace. She was amused to note that there was an impressive spread of foodstuffs laid out on the sideboard, complete with golden cutlery and cut crystal stemware. Severus had already begun helping himself.

"I've taken the liberty of removing the headmistress's eavesdropping and monitoring spells," he said. "Help yourself to the first spoils. The cold pheasant is quite adequate."

Before filling her plate, Hermione removed the cork from the bottle of Fleur's wine and poured them both glasses. "I was told to save this for a special occasion," said Hermione. "I suppose I ought to be glad we didn't drink it yesterday, since there's even more to celebrate today than there was yesterday."

He accepted the glass and touched the rim of his glass to hers. "It's been quite some time since I had much to celebrate. I daresay I'm out of practice," he said. "I'm far too old to drink to new beginnings, and I don't have any friends, absent or otherwise, so I suppose the grandest toast I can think of is, here's to pleasant food and company."

"We could drink to freedom," said Hermione.

"I'd rather not. You might recall that my years of freedom have not been particularly sweet."

"In that case, confusion to Molly Weasley, and health to Neville Longbottom."

Severus snorted, but they drank. The wine was crisp and fresh, with a luscious lick of fruit before its dry finish.

Severus was good enough to wait until she had taken a few bites of food before demanding to know how and where she'd found his job description. She managed to explain between bites how cleverly Molly had concealed it, and he shook his head in amazement and disgust.

"I wasn't lying when I said I had an elaborate revenge planned."

"I believe you. Meaning no offense, you've never particularly struck me as the forgiving sort."

"I was also telling the truth that I was willing to postpone my revenge for the sake of the children."

"I saw you with them. You're quite different with them than you were with us."

He shrugged. "I have no reputation of any sort to maintain. I can simply teach how I wish to teach without deference to anybody else."

She gave him a penetrating look. "Not having them cringe at your insults made giving them less satisfying, didn't it?"

He smirked. "That, too. But I do wish to make you aware that at this point in time, my revenge may be somewhat delayed."

"Really? Why?"

"Because when I contemplate spending more time in your company, my desire to spend more time in Molly Weasley's dwindles to practically nil."

Hermione couldn't credit the warm feeling that was making her toes tingle entirely to Fleur's excellent taste in wine. "Interesting that you should say that," said Hermione, "because when I think about the work that we've done here together, the Department of Ministries sounds less and less attractive. Tell me, Severus, have you ever considered—"

She broke off suddenly as there was a soft knock at the door, which opened to reveal Percy Weasley, who winced as if expecting to be hexed. When a moment passed without being hit with anything painful, he opened his eyes and blinked owlishly at the sight of Hermione and Severus drinking wine companionably.

"It was you," he said at last, sounding more resigned than accusatory.

"I helped," said Hermione. "I couldn't sit and do nothing once I found out what your mother was doing."

Percy had the grace to appear miserable. "You must believe me that if I'd known what she planned, I never would have consented to Bond your Unbreakable Vow. I thought it was simply a precaution. Given your reputation..." he trailed off awkwardly.

"I really couldn't care less about what you thought, Weasley," sneered Severus. "Either way, it's most convenient for you to come around after the most difficult part is over, but that's always been your way, hasn't it?"

Percy looked as if he wanted to cry, but he bobbed his head in acknowledgement. "I'll leave you now. I just came to deliver Mum's offer. We didn't curse it or put binding spells on it or anything, but feel free to test it all you'd like. And if it makes you feel any better, she thinks I was the one who spilled your secret to Hermione, so it's not as if I've got anything good out of the whole experience."

"Well, at least you're free to leave Hogwarts, now, aren't you?" asked Hermione.

"I couldn't do that. Mum already has to tell the Board of Governors that she has to replace four teachers, and pay an exorbitant amount to keep the Potion's position staffed through the end of the year."

Hermione very nearly assured Percy that he should be more worried about his own prospects than his mother's, but she bit her tongue. She didn't want to tip her hand.

As if reading her mind, Percy hung his head. "There's nothing for me here, it's true," he said. "I don't particularly like teaching. It's nowhere near as satisfying as working at the Ministry, but someone has to help Mum and Dad, and it's not as if I've had any better offers."

Hermione made a mental note to suggest to Ron that he might let his brother know about any openings in International Weights and Measures. Not that she approved of nepotism, mind, but Percy was actually qualified to legislate things like cauldron bottoms, and clearly it was something he enjoyed.

"Oh, for Merlin's sake, Weasley," exclaimed Severus, exasperated. "You can't spend your entire life trying to make up for a mistake you made in your youth. You put your foot in it. You know that. Now get on with your life. If you let other people use that mistake to dictate your life, it just goes to show how little you've learned."

"Even a colossal mistake doesn't mean that you don't deserve to be happy," added Hermione.

Percy shook his head sadly. "What would make me happy would make those whom I've wronged unhappy. I couldn't do that to them, not again."

"It's true, your mum would be mad if you brought a man home to meet them. But your brothers, father, and sister would be overjoyed," said Hermione, "and there are far more of them than there are of her."

Percy looked horrified at having his most closely guarded secret spilled in front of Severus, but Severus gave him an imperious glare.

"Surely you didn't think that Pomona Sprout kept her mouth shut about the circumstances under which you and Jason Clearwater managed to lose twenty points apiece for improper use of a broom cupboard, did you?"

Percy flushed a deep red and mumbled something about having to leave, but he paused in the doorway. "Erm, did you want me to release you from the Fidelius Charm?"

Severus sighed impatiently. "I really don't think it would do the students any favors to suddenly reveal their affable invisible tutor to be a notorious Death Eater. You needn't lift it yet, but I do expect you to be prompt about it when I do ask it of you."

"Of course!" exclaimed Percy indignantly. "I'm not my mother!"

He swept out of the room but took care to close the door quietly after him.

"Surprised as I am to say it, there's hope for that one," commented Severus, setting his empty glass on the sideboard. "Now, before we were rudely interrupted, I was about to invite you to join me for a walk."

"I though we were going to get properly pissed," said Hermione, who wasn't disappointed in the least.

"There will be time for that later, my dear. As things are, I really must insist that you come with me. There's something I've wished to show you for quite some time, but there was never a right time to do so."

Intrigued, Hermione took his proffered hand, and he led her into his private quarters, and down the gently illuminated hall to its very end. There was a door made of ancient-looking boards and cast iron fixtures. He whispered a password, and he opened the door.

Chapter Text

She was overwhelmed with warm, moist air and the sweet scent of flowers.

"Oh!" she breathed, as she examined her surroundings.

She was standing in a garden, and not one that she'd discovered in her explorations. It appeared to be open to the sky above, in which the stars were coming out and a round moon was slowly rising. However, instead of feeling February chill, Hermione felt as if it were an evening in late spring.

As her eyes adjusted to the falling darkness, she began to explore the garden around her. It wasn't a rose garden, though there were roses; it wasn't an herb garden, though there were most certainly herbs; and it wasn't a malevolent garden, though there were all manner of poisonous plants and sharp leaves and thorns. There were even beautiful mushrooms curling from beneath mossy logs that had clearly been placed there to shelter them from the sunshine. A tiny brook wound through the garden, and Hermione could just make out thick plants growing on its banks, and even some wisps of water plant flowing with the water. There were dainty trees, just now beginning to swell with new fruit, and the paths that led through the plants were covered with grass so thick that Hermione removed her shoes to walk on it.

"This is your potions garden, isn't it?" she asked softly of the man who had followed her silently as she admired his work.

"It is. Not only is it unplottable and free from monitoring spells, tending it has been one of the few pleasures I've enjoyed over these eight years. If there's one thing I shall miss about Hogwarts, it's this."

"You know that Neville would cut off his right hand before neglecting a garden like this."

"I know. But I'm not quite ready to give it up to him just yet. I had hoped that by showing it to you now, you would refrain from mentioning it to Molly or Neville if you happened upon it in your exploration of the castle."

Hermione meant for her sigh to be exasperated, but she couldn't summon the necessary annoyance in such a peaceful place. "All you needed to do was ask, Severus."

"But if I'd asked without bringing you here, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to proposition you in a way that does not put you in danger of getting splinters."

Hermione found the warm glint in his eye coupled with the sardonic twist of his lips utterly irresistible, but she knew better than to tell him that. "Please tell me the mushroom log isn't involved."

He took a step closer to her and gestured at her bare feet. "Perhaps the grass would be more to your liking?"

She laughed, anticipation coiling pleasantly in her belly. "It'd be a far sight more comfortable than a bench in the Potions classroom," she agreed, sliding her arms around his neck. "I suppose I'll have to let you convince me."

He was so close to her that she could feel his warm breath on her face. His voice was at least an octave lower than it normally was. "How do you suggest I do that?"

She pretended to think for a moment. "I'll lend you the Mag-Spec. You can take some readings and use the data to optimize—"

Her suggestion was cut short by his pressing his mouth firmly to hers. And suddenly, it was all too much. The flush of their victory over the Unbreakable Vow, the sweet night air, and the lightest taste of wine on his supple lips bubbled up inside her, and she began to laugh.

She was momentarily mortified, and she prayed that Severus wouldn't be hurt that she was giggling while he was trying to kiss her, but one look at his face allayed her fears. He was smiling. Not smirking, not sneering, but a real smile, with both sides of his mouth turned upwards in pleasure. She looked up at him, laying her hand on the side of his face, and her laugh turned to one of wonder. The realization that this was the first time she'd ever really seen him smile was a somewhat melancholy one. She felt tears stinging the backs of her eyes, even as she shook with laughter, and kissed him again and again.

His arms wound around her waist, and soon all thoughts of laughter and tears had faded into the need to feel his skin against hers. She drank in his scent of juniper and cedar, the clean, crisp notes welcome after the sweetness of the flowers, and found that his skin tasted even better than it smelled. She felt the artery in his neck pulse beneath her lips, and she could feel both of their hearts hammering in tandem as they slowly undressed one another. Hermione fumbled with his buttons, Severus fumbled with her brassiere, but soon their bare chests were pressed together, and even the warm breeze felt cool against their overheated skin.

Soon, all sartorial impediments were gone, and Hermione found that the skin on the head of Severus's penis was even silkier than she had imagined. Though she'd never had the opportunity to speculate on how it would feel to take his erect cock into her mouth, she doubted she could have imagined that it tasted more coppery than the rest of his skin, or the pleasure she would derive from feeling its warm mass on her tongue, or the soft, high-pitched sound he uttered when she began to gently suckle him.

After he had emitted a glorious cacophony of noises she had never imagined him capable of making, he stilled her head with his hand, caressing her cheek and jaw before withdrawing himself from her mouth.

He fell on his knees before her, and soon Hermione was able to confirm that his fingers were even more gifted than her own at bringing her pleasure. She allowed herself to be laid upon the grass, which was soft and springy beneath her. Severus spread her legs and began a thorough, though nonverbal, explanation of why men with sharp tongues are to be sought after. She felt as if she were an instrument and he a virtuoso from the way his fingers and mouth coaxed both small and grand pleasures from her body.

His hands were warm on her hips as he raised himself above her, and his eyes sought hers. His dark eyes shone in question, and his lips were quirked upwards in the half smile that she'd grown so fond of. She spread her legs to accommodate his knees, angled her hips upward, and gently pulled his hips down to meet hers.

He slid into her slowly, the blunt head of his cock nestling gently but inexorably into her. The delicious sensation of fullness coupled with the look of intense concentration on his face made her feel like laughing for joy, but instead of laughter, her muscles surrounding him flexed, welcoming him. He had been holding his breath until he was fully ensconced within her body, but at her squeeze, he released it raggedly, and he gave an enthusiastic thrust.

Hermione moaned her approval, and her hands grasped his buttocks, pulling him more deeply into her. He lowered himself to his elbows and seized the opportunity to kiss her, his tongue teasing and caressing her tongue and lips with the same warm teasing that he had employed so effectively on the rest of her body.

She was drowning in the sensation of being made love to by Severus Snape; the feel of his firm buttocks beneath her hands, the powerful flexion of his hips as he thrust into her with increasing frequency, his hot breath in her ear, and the way he nibbled at the spot on her neck that made gooseflesh ripple across her skin. Her blood was pounding in her ears like distant thunder, and she felt as if her body would burst into flames at any moment. Despite this, she jerked in surprise as a cool breath of air caressed her skin and a droplet of moisture splashed against her face.

Her eyes flew open to discern the source of the drop, and his body stiffened. And there it was again. There really was thunder. More droplets of water began to fall, and Hermione was delighted to find that the rain and wind weren't cold, but pleasantly cool against her hot skin, rather like the warm spring storms of her childhood that made her want to jump in puddles.

Severus groaned in frustration. "It's the bloody climate control. It's part of the garden. I can't do anything about it."

He started to withdraw from her, but Hermione stayed his hips and gave his buttocks a firm squeeze. "I'm enjoying myself. You're not cold, are you?"

He snorted. "Anything but."

"Then stay," she said, pressing a kiss to his sternum.

He looked down at her with a bemused expression on his face. "The prospect of becoming muddy doesn't concern you?"

"No more than the prospect of being electrocuted concerns you, I should think."

He scoffed at this. "What purpose would that serve in a climate control spell?"

His remark was punctuated by a flash of lightning and a rumble of thunder.

The timing was entirely too amusing to be the work of chance, and since Severus had no control over the spell, she was willing to bet that she knew who did. "How kind of the Come and Go Room to provide mood lightning," she said. "Now, we can let it have its fun while we have ours or go see what else it has in store for us by continuing elsewhere. What say you?"

A warning hailstone fell from the sky and bounced on the ground next to them, and Severus sighed. "I suppose we'd better get on with it, then," he said, sounding as if he'd been asked to do a particularly tedious chore.

"Severus?"

"Yes, my dear?"

"Do shut up and make love to me."

And so he did. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, wind whistled, water flowed over their bare skin, and the scent of soil and green things was thick in the air. When the sensations surrounding her threatened to overwhelm her brain, her body did the only sensible thing and shuddered in protracted orgasm. This sent Severus over the edge, and he climaxed with a hoarse shout.

The earth moved.

Literally.

Once Severus had caught his breath, he loudly threatened to dismantle the Room stone by stone if it had disturbed the roots of his hybrid heliconia.

Hermione had to laugh again.

***

Though they never managed to get properly pissed, Severus and Hermione did continue exploring the possibilities provided by one another's bodies throughout the night. After their third round of enthusiastic lovemaking, this time in Severus's bed, they fell into an exhausted sleep.

Hermione was the first to wake, and she was gratified to see that not only had the house elves delivered breakfast for them, but there was also a salt shaker and a pepper mill next to the silver salver containing scrambled eggs as light and fluffy as she remembered from her student days. She was also pleased to see that the house elves had found and laundered the clothing that she had impetuously abandoned in the garden. She curled herself up against Severus and pressed a kiss into his bare shoulder.

He hummed in pleasure, which sounded very much like a purr, and stretched his long legs nearly past the foot of the bed. His expression was half contentment and half cat that ate the canary. "Miss Granger," he said in a gravely voice that made her look very much forward to waking up next to him again. "To what do I owe the honor?"

"I apologize for waking you," she said, shifting closer to him and sounding not in the least apologetic, "but I noticed that the elves have delivered a lovely breakfast for us, and I should hate for it to get cold."

He glanced at the platter on the nightstand. "So they did," he said in tones of wonder. "However, I must confess that I'm much more interested in devouring the rather luscious woman in my bed."

He seized her waist and drew her to him and was about to kiss her when an excited voice came from the wall of bookshelves.

"Hermione! Hermione, you must see this!"

To her shock, Neville Longbottom came tumbling from the illusion that concealed the entrance to the Aperterium. Severus let out a growl of frustration. It took Hermione a moment to realize that Severus was still under the Fidelius Charm and that Neville couldn't see him, and since he'd never been in her bedroom, he wouldn't realize that it wasn't hers. However, she wasn't wearing any clothes. She pulled the sheet up to her armpits.

"Oh!" he exclaimed, noticing her state of dishabille, "Sorry, sorry! But you have to come! You have to see!"

"Neville," she said, attempting to calm him from his distractedness. "What in the name of Merlin's blue pants are you talking about?"

"The school governors!" he exclaimed. "They're here! All of them! They arrived during breakfast! Coop must have told them about what happened yesterday, and they're on their way up to Molly's office right now! I'm sorry to burst in like this, but the Come and Go Room knew you needed to see it. I'll just pop back into the room and wait, but do hurry!"

He dashed back through the illusion, and Hermione looked at the scowling man in bed next to her.

"I suppose our breakfasts will have to wait," she said, slipping out of bed and pulling on her robes.

Severus followed suit with none of the grumbling she expected. So swift was he to don his clothes that he was ready before she had finished pulling on her socks.

"You don't look like a man who's had to skip breakfast," she commented, slipping her feet into her shoes.

"I am a man who is postponing breakfast," he corrected. "Furthermore, if what I suspect is about to happen does in fact happen, it will be nearly as satisfying what I will be devouring afterwards."

They slipped through the hidden door to find Neville in the Come and Go Room. There was a large sofa and a table filled with snacks facing a blank wall, which Hermione first mistook for a movie screen. However, as soon as the door to Severus's quarters shut behind them, the blank wall lit up with the scene in Molly's office, which Hermione realized was the view through the One-Way Charmed door.

Neville gestured for Hermione to sit, which she did, making sure to leave room for Severus, and they watched the pyrotechnics, which were already in progress. All twelve of the school's governors were seated in the chairs in which Molly had previously seated the reporters at her press conference, but instead of looking like intimidated students, Molly was the one who looked nervous. Percy stood behind her, looking even more uneasy than she did.

Hermione recognized all twelve, who were influential men and women both in the Ministry and in private industry.

Henrietta Zweibel, Deputy Secretary of Internal Affairs and head of the board of governors, was reading aloud a list of school expenses.

"Six thousand Galleons for food in the past quarter?" she exclaimed. "Helga Hufflepuff would have retired her ladle before allowing the students to eat on the cheap like this! And what's this twelve thousand listed as 'Services Rendered?' I don't recall giving approval for that."

"The twelve thousand was for a special project I took on as a favor to the Minister," said Molly. "A consultant was hired to ensure the safety of the school by uncovering all of its hidden rooms. As you can see from this list," she said, offering it to Zweibel, "it is a work in progress, but already we've neutralized a number of threats to the students."

"I don't care if the consultant was hired at the behest of Merlin himself," declared industrialist Bartholomew Suggs. "You are required to submit all non-budgeted expenses exceeding ten thousand Galleons for board approval."

"You've never enforced that rule in the past," objected Molly.

"You've never had to fill five vacancies at once," said Marjorie Wineskin, head librarian of the Ministry Archives. "The bookkeeping irregularities are only part of the problem."

"But look at the fundraising projections!" exclaimed Molly. "We've already endowed two of the chairs that need to be filled."

"We all know just how much you had to do with that," said Zweibel scoffingly.

Spots of red appeared on Molly's cheeks. "Without my leadership, none of these fundraising projects would have come to fruition."

"Poppycock," said Kingsley Shacklebolt. "You did everything you could to stop them."

Molly looked wildly about her office. "Who dared tell you such a thing?"

Wineskin let out a sharp laugh. "My dear headmistress, didn't you know that your teachers sought approval from us before starting their projects? None of them wanted to say anything against you, naturally, but why else would they have come to us but to ensure that you'd have no grounds for refusal?"

Hermione inwardly applauded Coop's planning and Neville's execution. She never would have thought of using the board of governors to trap Molly.

"All of this is beside the point," shouted Marcus Muckraker, who owned The Daily Prophet and was nearly deaf. "What I want to know is how she's going to fill so many positions when her own family is leaving in droves!"

"What I believe my learned colleague is trying to say," clarified Wineskin, "is that we've given you extraordinary leeway to lead the school as you see fit, in spite of some grave doubts about your experience and judgment. We were willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, provided the school prospered."

"And it has!" exclaimed Molly. "Never before have the students been safer and better prepared for their lives after school."

"Frankly, Molly, we've seen no sign that that's true," said Shacklebolt gravely. "And in fact, we've seen numerous signs to the contrary."

Molly spread her hands before her. "I don't know what to say to convince you that everything is under control."

"You might explain this letter from Minerva McGonagall," said Lily Cheng, the most senior member of the Wizengamot.

Molly's mouth narrowed at the mention of the former Headmistress's name. "You cannot take anything that woman says seriously," she said tightly. "She is well beyond her prime and hasn't been the same since the war, if I may be so bold."

"I had tea with her last week," said Shacklebolt mildly. "She's no more senile than I am. Furthermore, I wonder that you protest the content of a letter that you haven't even read. One might suspect you had an axe to grind."

"Oh, I'm sure it's the same nonsense she spouted when I became headmistress," said Molly.

"After seeing the results of your tenure, Minerva's protests seem more and more prescient," commented Zweibel.

"As are Pomona Sprout's," shouted Muckraker. "Both she and Minerva have stated that they would be willing to return to teaching, but only if you're removed."

"If you are all so unhappy with the job I'm doing, why don't you replace me?" asked Molly, whose nasty smile made Hermione wonder what she had up her sleeve.

The governors were clearly not expecting this change of tack. Shacklebolt cleared his throat. "In such situations, the deputy head would ascend, but Headmistress Weasley has no deputy."

"The charter says that then the job goes to the next most senior teacher," said Wineskin.

"That would be Arthur, my husband," said Molly triumphantly. "I needn't tell you that if I leave Hogwarts, he will leave with me. As will my son Percy," she said, jerking her head at the miserable-looking man over her shoulder. "I'd like to see any new head replace seven new teachers!"

Shacklebolt looked sternly at Percy. "Is this true, son?"

Percy's eyes shifted quickly from side to side, as if looking for an escape. "I— I—" he stammered. Then, to Hermione's amazement, Percy's chin rose. "I will stay as long as I am needed," he said, "though I do eventually plan to return to the Ministry."

Neville let out a loud laugh and began to clap his hands. "I didn't think he had it in him!" he crowed.

Molly's face grew stormy. "How dare you—" she began, but Percy cut her off.

"Mum, this really isn't the place for this conversation," he said. "Have some tea, answer the governors' questions, and we'll discuss this later."

"You're in on it too!" exclaimed Molly, as her face turned a deeper shade of red. "You and that woman! You're all trying to get rid of me, and I won't have it! Do you hear me?"

"Would you excuse us?" Percy asked the governors. "I fear my mother isn't herself today. She only found out about the other teachers leaving yesterday evening, so she isn't as prepared as she might otherwise be."

"I think we've heard all we need to hear," said Zweibel.

Percy nodded. "Thank you all for coming." He took his livid mother by the elbow and led her into her private quarters.

"Well!" exclaimed Cheng, clearly scandalized. "The woman is clearly unhinged. I move to immediately dismiss Headmistress Weasley."

"I would second the motion," said Shacklebolt, "but the question remains as to who will replace her."

"Well, Percy Weasley seems more stable than his mother," said Zweibel.

"Sweet Merlin, preserve us from more Weasleys!" exclaimed Muckraker.

"Well, who is the next most senior teacher?" asked Cheng.

Shacklebolt consulted a scroll. "Parvati Patil and Neville Longbottom were hired at the same time."

"Patil is already teaching three subjects," commented Wineskin. "She would need daily doses of Calming Draught if we added to her workload."

"Longbottom certainly has the leadership skills," said Cheng, "but do you think he has the experience? That is where we got into trouble the last time."

Neville was chewing his nails.

"Poppycock," bellowed Muckraker, "experience had nothing to do with Molly's failure as headmistress. It was ego, pure and simple. The woman stood by while Bellatrix slaughtered dozens during the final battle but couldn't be bothered to raise her wand in defense unless one of her own blood was threatened. By contrast, Longbottom defied You-Know-Who even when he believed that all was lost. Their characters couldn't be more different."

"I agree," said Shacklebolt. "All in favor of removing Molly Weasley and replacing her with Neville Longbottom?"

The governors were unanimous in favor of the motion.

Neville let out a squeak and promptly burst into tears. Severus sighed expressively, pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, and handed it to Hermione, who handed it to Neville.

There was a timid knock at the door to the headmistress's office, and Percy entered tentatively.

"Sorry, I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"

"Nothing that I'm sure you haven't guessed, Weasley," said Zweibel.

"Mum's out, then?" he asked, not sounding terribly surprised.

"Would you like me to tell her?" asked Shacklebolt kindly.

Percy squared his shoulders and swallowed hard. "I'll do it."

"I'll come with you," said Shacklebolt, placing a comforting arm on Percy's shoulder. Percy leaned infinitesimally into the big man's hand and they walked into the headmistress's quarters together.

The door shut behind them, and the other governors began to discuss the dramatic turn of events while Muckraker took a zizz until waking with a start.

"Longbottom!" he exclaimed. "Has anybody told Longbottom?"

This brought the conversation to a screeching halt.

"He'll probably be in one of the greenhouses," said Wineskin. "Does anybody know the names of any of the house elves?"

"There was one elf that used to serve in the kitchens when I was a N.E.W.T.s examiner," said Cheng. "Winky!"

A forlorn-looking elf appeared and looked horrified. "Celestina is sorry! Celestina is sorry! Celestina is recognizing her old name but headmistress is saying that Winky is to answer to only Celestina! Celestina must be punished," she declared, pulling out a drawer of the headmistress's desk. She was about to slam her fingers in it when Zweibel intervened.

"Headmistress Weasley has been removed," she said, "and therefore, any name that she forced you to accept is no longer your name. You will not punish yourself because we need you to search the greenhouses for Neville Longbottom and summon him to this office at once."

Winky's eyes filled with tears of gratitude. "Madam is so kind!' she squeaked. "Winky will bring Herbology Master at once!" She disappeared with a crack.

"Oh!" exclaimed Neville. "I've got to go! I have class in ten minutes and I need the governors to be able to find me. I can't thank you enough, Hermione!" He threw open the door, which now led to his office in Greenhouse Six, and clambered through with the grace of a newborn puppy. The door slammed decisively shut behind him.

Hermione let out a breath she hadn't been aware that she was holding. She was suddenly very tired. "Well, now that that's been taken care of, what next?"

"Breakfast," said Severus. "And then second breakfast. Then possibly a third, if you're feeling up to it."

"And after that?" she asked, suddenly aware that the sofa they had been sitting on had lengthened and twisted itself into a chaise lounge. She leaned back against the luxurious upholstery and smiled playfully at him.

He lowered himself next to her and put his arm around her waist. "I'll teach Potions until the end of the year," he said, kissing her neck just below her earlobe, "and you will continue compiling all the Mag-Spec data your heart desires, free of all demands by Molly Weasley."

Her eyes fluttered shut. "Sounds lovely," she said, leaning into him. "Then what?"

He pulled her more tightly against him. "That, my dear, is entirely up to you."

Hermione sighed in contentment as one of his hands found her right breast. "Well, we do need to dismantle the Aperterium," she said, wriggling her bottom against his stiffening member. "Leaving all the hidden doors in place for the Come and Go Room, of course."

"Mmm, yes," he said.

Encouraged, she turned to face him and began to rub him through his robe. "And I figured that since you already know how to use the Mag-Spec, I could formally separate from the Ministry, license the Mag-Spec technology for a trifling percentage, and we could start an analysis and consultancy firm that's so private that nobody would need to know who they're hiring."

"Oh, God yes, Hermione!"

She unfastened just enough of his buttons to allow her hand access to the silky, stiffening flesh inside his robe. "Does that sound amenable to you, Severus?"

He seized her hand abruptly and removed it from his person. He scowled at her and began unbuttoning her robes, jerking several buttons open at a time. "You are, without a doubt, the bossiest, most provoking, and most transparently manipulative woman I have ever known. And if you continue doing that, I won't be able to ravish you on this absurd piece of furniture."

She was making equally short work of his remaining buttons. "Is that a yes, then?"

He whipped his wand at her, and her brassiere popped open. "Provided you don't make me take any sort of vow, I'd say we have a deal."

"Nothing Unbreakable, certainly, but I don't think we should rule out vows entirely," she said, and then gasped as he buried his face between her breasts.

He raised his eyes to her face and she felt warmth pooling in her belly to see what was shining in their depths.

"Have it your way," he said, with a dramatic sigh.

She clambered on top of him and did just that.

***

THE END

 

***