Title: The Absinthe of Reason
Rating: R, though the ending has a very high exposition-to-nookie ratio. Darn my loose ends!
Disclaimer: As to ownership, I claim nil. As to excuses for what took me so darned long to finish this story, please see the end notes. Here we go! The last chapter!
No sooner had she drifted into wakefulness than Hermione immediately sensed that there was something odd. Her eyes flew open, taking in the conspicuously empty section of bed next to her.
She ran her hand over the sheet where he had lain. It was cold.
More curious than concerned, she slipped out of bed to examine the room more closely. The room was not quite unchanged, as she had thought upon first glance. The robe that she vaguely remembered tossing in the vicinity of the armchair was no longer there, and the bathroom door, which had been closed, was ajar.
She made her way toward the bathroom, bare feet whispering over the thick carpet, and glanced into the dark room.
Immediately, she noticed that there seemed to be a light coming from somewhere behind her. She turned to look, but saw nothing. Upon returning her glance to the pale porcelain tile, she noticed the glowing face in the mirror and stopped short.
The word 'afterglow' absurdly insinuated itself in her mind, and she stifled a giggle. She found by pivoting in front of the mirror that it wasn't just her face that was luminous. She was lighting up the bathroom like a lantern.
Well, it was better than having cat ears and whiskers.
She splashed some water on her face, and went back into the bedroom to look for signs of Severus. From the bathroom door, she could see a crack of light beneath the door that led to his study and laboratory.
She wrapped herself in a blanket that was neatly folded over the back of the chair and opened the door slowly.
The bookcase swung as silently as it had before, so she had a moment to observe him unnoticed. He sat in a chair by the fire, a small glass of amber spirits on the table next to him. From the undisturbed condensation on the glass and lack of ice, she concluded that he had not touched it after sitting. He still wore the robe that he had retrieved from the bedroom floor, and was seated on the edge of the chair, elbows on knees, chin resting on his interlaced fingers. His eyes seemed to have retreated to the shelter of his furrowed eyebrows, where they reflected the fire's dying embers. Though he, too, was emitting light, his visage and posture belied dark thoughts.
She closed the door a little more noisily than she had opened it. When he turned to face her, he straightened in his chair, and the brooding look vanished into familiar annoyance.
"What is it, Granger?"
"We appear to be glowing."
"Ten points to your house for that astute observation."
"I haven't got a house anymore, Severus," she said, crossing to wet bar and poured herself some of the heavenly-smelling Scotch he had left out.
"That is why I felt comfortable rewarding them. I learned long ago that the point-tally hourglasses have no sense of irony. Now go back to bed and leave me in peace."
"I'm not tired."
He had turned his scowl to the fire once more, but he seemed infinitesimally less tense. It was a start. She wasn't about to ask what was troubling him, since she could partially guess the reason. She also suspected that he needed time to pull his thoughts together.
She slid herself into the opposite chair and took a sip of the liquor, allowing the evaporated alcohol to swirl up through her sinuses. Lovely, fragrant, fruity head- aged in a port barrel, most likely. She sighed in satisfaction, stretching her legs closer to the fire and loosening some of the stiffness caused by the night's activities. He was watching her out of the corner of his eye, and she met his sidelong glance with slightly raised eyebrows. He returned his gaze to the fire and she to her drink.
After a minute or so of silence, he spoke.
"I suppose I ought to return to bed. I am quite cross when I lack sleep."
Hermione wondered what "quite cross" was next to his normal temper, but opted for diplomacy. "I doubt either of us will be able to sleep much. It's difficult when one's eyelids are glowing."
A nearly invisible smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "I would imagine so."
Who was this bland commentator and where was Severus?
"You're remarkably blasé about all of this," she said, holding a luminous hand aloft.
"Surprise is a useless emotion. But you'll be gratified to know that I have deduced the reason for our current state of illumination."
She couldn't resist. "Magic?"
He frowned. He might have lacked sleep, but something was definitely bothering him. "Granger, if you're depriving me of badly needed sleep just to pester me with feeble attempts at humour, then-"
"I'm sorry, Severus," she interrupted, quickly crossing to his chair. "I'm just not quite sure how to react. I am listening. Please continue." She sat on the floor at his feet, resting her free elbow next to his leg on the seat.
He looked down at her suspiciously, but relented when she set down her glass to rub his bare calf. He turned his eyes to the ceiling and sighed. "What do you know about the history of the Gryffindor Stud competition?"
"There's a history?"
He met her gaze sharply, and she found surprise, disbelief, and amusement there. "Can it be true?" he asked apostrophically. "There are aspects of Hogwarts history she hasn't studied?"
She batted his knee with her open palm.
"Claws in, you cat," he said, seizing her hand and idly tracing the tendons with his finger. Good. He was in good spirits, just preoccupied. He lapsed into thoughtful silence, his finger against her skin his only movement.
While this was well and good, he had a great deal of explaining to do about the Gryffindor Stud competition.
"So are you going to tell me about it, or are you going to make me go to the library at five-thirty in the morning?"
"I'm sure Madame Pince has seen you there at odder hours, though doubtfully in such a charming state of dishabille. But I hardly think it necessary. You will find no trace of its chequered history there."
Remembering his boast about his own library, she smiled wickedly. "Does this mean you keep great tales of Gryffindor lore in your private collection?"
He snorted. "Great tales of Gryffindor? I don't own any historical fiction."
She ignored him. "So am I to conclude from your snide hinting that Neville Longbottom didn't come up with the Gryffindor Stud idea on his own?"
"If you were still a student, I'd deduct points from Gryffindor. Has Longbottom ever been that creative? I have it on good authority that his Grandmother was in the running for Gryffindor Stud during her tenure at Hogwarts, so I'm assuming that's where he got the idea."
Hermione remembered the imposing matriarch she'd encountered at St. Mungo's during her fifth year. She hardy seemed like the type who could be refused much of anything.
"She was in the running but didn't win?"
"I believe your head of house was the winner that year."
Ah. Oh dear. "How do you know all this?"
"The Headmaster keeps a record of the competition winners in his office."
She thought about this for a moment. "Why didn't he mention this to me?"
"I'm sure he thought you knew. I certainly did."
"So is that why you believe we're glowing? Something to do with the Stud of Gryffindor competition?"
He hesitated a fraction of a second and looked back into the fire. "In part, I believe."
In part? What other magic had been in play? Oh. "The alcohol."
"I believe that was another part, yes."
He closed his eyes, yet the creases between his eyebrows remained.
He sighed, a desolate sound. "That's the part I have difficulty explaining, Hermione." He took a deep breath. "For at least as long as the Gryffindor Stud competition has been in existence, so has a similar competition in the Slytherin house. Many years ago, when I was a student, I was involved with the Slytherin competition, but was unable to successfully woo my intended, because Voldemort killed her."
"Did you love her?"
"Oh for Merlin's sake, don't be so maudlin," he snapped. "I was sixteen. She wasn't even my type then. She was merely a challenge with further benefits if I succeeded."
Oh. That's friendly.
"And save your disapproval for someone capable of feeling remorse," he said, correctly interpreting the look on her face. "My motives are immaterial. All that matters is that she died, but somehow, my experiences with you have ended my obligation."
"Look over there," he said, gesturing to a plaque above the fireplace that hadn't been there a few hours ago. "The 1979 competition will be of particular interest."
It appeared to be fairly unremarkable as plaques went- dusty wood with tarnished silver plates- until she picked it up. Not only had it remarkable heft – the wood must have been oak or ironwood- it practically vibrated with magic. She nearly dropped it.
She steadied herself and rubbed away the dust on the top edge with a corner or her blanket. From that angle, she noticed that the back of the plaque was not completely flat. The wood had been carved into an undulating wave pattern that lay relatively flat when it was against the wall. Odd.
She turned the plaque over to examine the face. The words "Slytherin Sybarite" were lettered in silver at the top. She hid a smile. The plaques listed winners from 1919 to the present (Tuppy Smythe-Pilchard through Marcus Flint). She skimmed the plaque, eyes coming to rest on the competitors for 1979. Prewett, she vaguely remembered, was a late member of the Order, and she knew Lestrange, Malfoy, and the Blacks rather too well for her liking.
And now, herself and Severus. She shivered.
"How is this possible?"
Severus glared at her disapprovingly. "Didn't you hear me? I don't know why it happened, though I strongly suspect that our current state of illumination is due in no small part to it."
She gazed at the plaque a moment longer, then walked thoughtfully back to his chair but did not sit. She felt his eyes on her and lifted her gaze to meet his. He was searching her face for any kind of reaction.
She was surprised to feel tears stinging the back of her eyes. "And what does this mean to you?"
He swallowed. "One aspect of the Slytherin competition is a gaes, a sort of curse for those that don't fulfil their obligation to the great history of the house. Tonight, the curse, which has been with me for nearly twenty years, has been lifted."
She felt a tear slide down her cheek, but held his gaze. He stood, raised his hand to her cheek, and wiped the tear away with his thumb.
"The more important question, my dear, is what all of this means to you."
She gave a watery smile and leaned into him. "I've wanted this for so long; there's no question that I want to be with you. But I don't want you to be with me just because you feel obligated to me."
He sighed melodramatically. "Hermione, I'm now freer to choose than I have been in the last twenty years. If you're going to feel anxiety over what's between us, let it be over something real."
A giggle jumped improbably into her throat, and she regarded him with a wry smile. "All right, I'll worry about the fact that I've taken the place of some girl you weren't really all that interested in. A 'challenge with benefits,' you called her, I believe."
"You are most certainly challenging," he said with a scowl that fooled her no more than it fooled him.
"Then it's up to you to take full advantage of the benefits," she replied, pressing her lips to his neck.
He disengaged himself and opened the hidden bookcase door. "I had hoped to reap the benefits of more sleep," he said, with a half-quelling glance in her direction.
Undaunted, she followed him back into the bedroom. "What if I promised that deferring that particular benefit would be to your best advantage?"
"Then, Miss Granger," he said, allowing his robe to fall to the floor, "I would advise you to take the school's motto more to heart."
She unrepentantly ran her hands up his warm sides. "Draco you may be, but dormiens you are not. And since I know no proverbs about tickling conscious dragons, I will have to use my own experience to guide me."
She felt his abdominal muscles resist the tickling, but he finally gave in and seized her hands in his. He kissed her fiercely, pulling them both down on to the bed.
"You are, without a doubt, the single most provoking woman I have ever met."
She smiled, dropping kisses down his chest and stomach. She paused a moment before brushing her tongue against the head of his penis.
He inhaled sharply, and jerked against her lips. "I thought you weren't interested in an oral examination."
"It would be a real shame," she said, having run the blade of her tongue down its length, "if all that studying I did had no practical application."
Severus leaned back against the headboard and folded his arms behind his head. "I quite agree. Carry on, Miss Granger."
When Hermione finally made her way to the Great Hall for lunch, her glowing skin had faded enough that it wouldn't be noticed in daylight, but she couldn't prove that she wasn't floating. The hall buzzed with conversation, and Ginny waved at her from her usual seat. However, when she passed the Slytherin table, Millicent gave Pansy a nudge. Pansy turned around and grinned so broadly that Hermione almost didn't recognize her.
Too euphoric to do otherwise, Hermione returned the grin. The other Slytherins looked at her curiously, except Draco Malfoy, who seemed to be sitting by himself and focused completely on his bowl of mush.
No hissing, no insults, no sycophantic laughter. And did Millicent just wink at her?
She made her way to the Gryffindor table and was greeted by her housemates. She sat down between Ginny and Dennis Creevy.
"Morning, Ginny. Morning, Dennis."
"Morning, Hermione. You haven't seen Harry and Ron today, have you?"
"No, I just got out of bed."
"Really? I thought you'd be in the library."
"I had a bit of a lie in today. I was up late last night."
Ginny gave her a suspicious look. "Neville was looking for you last night when he got back from detention. He checked the library and your room and couldn't find you anywhere."
"Well that's because I was with Professor Snape."
"Honestly, Hermione," piped up Dennis, "I've never seen such a glutton for punishment as you."
Hermione smiled in a way that she hoped would appear less sphinx-like than it felt. "It's nothing like you'd expect, Colin." She turned to Ginny. "So where is Neville?"
"Funny you should ask," said Ginny. "I haven't seen any of the seventh year boys today, except for Dean."
"Where is he?"
"Meeting with Professor Sinistra. He said he'd be there until supper." She chewed thoughtfully on a bite of toast. "So, do you know what's going on with the Slytherins? They seem- well, normal today."
"You mean you haven't heard?" Dennis's eyes were enormous.
The girls turned to him.
Unlike her brother, Ginny swallowed her food before speaking. "What are you talking about, Dennis?"
"Well, I don't know that much," he said, flushing with excitement, "but I would have thought you two would know more than me, not less."
Honestly! Hermione spoke in her plummiest Head Girl tones."Out with it, Dennis!"
"Well," said Dennis, with a surreptitious look at the Slytherin table, "it all started late last night after curfew. Neville and I had snuck into the Room of Requirement to map out new beater strategy. We were nearly done when the door opened, and in walked none other than Draco Malfoy."
Ginny wrinkled her nose. "Malfoy? What did he want?"
"Well, I couldn't say exactly, but I was immediately suspicious for two reasons. First, he didn't have Crabbe and Goyle with him."
"And the second?"
Dennis grinned. "The moment he stepped into the room, the table that Neville and I had been using turned into a large bed with two pairs of manacles on one end. What's more, a rack appeared with all kinds of weird leather, rubber, and metal things that I guess you're supposed to wear."
The girls stared at him for a moment.
"That kinky little weasel!" exclaimed Ginny, at last. "Was he really trying to- well, you know- with you and Neville?
"Not me and Neville," Dennis said, trailing off suggestively.
With a start, Hermione realized that Malfoy must have been meeting with Harry and Ron. She mentally chided them for choosing such an obvious place for a rendezvous, not to mention a lover with tastes far more exotic than she suspected either of them would be comfortable with, especially for a first encounter.
She tried unsuccessfully to change the subject. "The porridge is awfully thin today, isn't it?"
Ginny ignored her. "Who were they meeting?"
"You'll never guess!"
"Dennis," said Ginny, invoking her mother's deadliest voice, "if you don't finish this story soon, I'm going to dump this oatmeal over your head!"
Dennis spoke very quickly. "Neville and I saw Pansy Parkinson and Milicent Bulstrode in the hallway outside!"
"Malfoy, Parkinson and Bulstrode? I'm going to be sick!"
"No, no, no," protested Dennis. "That's what Neville thought at first, but then Millicent pulled out a camera, a quill, and some ink and winked at us. They weren't meeting him, they were ambushing him."
Ginny and Hermione started at Dennis with identical looks of unadulterated shock.
"But Malfoy is the Slytherin poster boy," protested Ginny. "Why on earth would two girls from his own house- oh."Ginny nodded slowly.
"Exactly, said Dennis, grinning. "Draco's treated Pansy like a lapdog for the past four years, and he smeared Millicent for pinning him when they tried to form a Grappling Club to take on the D.A. I guess they finally got a bit of their own back."
"I'll say," said Ginny. "Looks like everyone in Slytherin got a bit of their own back."
Hermione was looking thoughtfully at the Slytherin table. "Makes you wonder how many of the Slytherins only tolerated Malfoy because he had something on them."
Ginny burst out laughing. "Imagine if Pansy and Millicent's foremost thoughts were to catch Draco Malfoy in an awkward position when they entered the Room of Requirement..." she trailed off in giggles.
"Hoist with his own petard," said Dennis, clearly savouring the story. "And maybe the Slytherin lot aren't all bad if they shunned Malfoy rather than be tarred with the same brush."
Ginny continued to question Dennis, but Hermione's mind was whirling.
Obviously, Malfoy thought he was meeting Harry and Ron. Even Malfoy wasn't narcissistic enough to think Parkinson and Bulstrode would honestly be interested in him, after the way he treated them. But how did Pansy and Mil find out the location of their intended rendezvous, unless the boys had tipped them off? And why on earth would Harry and Ron sabotage their own Gryffindor Stud efforts?
Hermione finished her meal in thoughtful silence, or as thoughtful as she could be, considering the rapidity with which Dennis's story was making its way down the Gryffindor table. Food was flying out of people's faces with the force of one of Ginny's bat bogey curses.
First order of business: find the boys. They had some explaining to do.
They weren't in the library, the Great Hall, or the common room, and Hermione was beginning to get worried. She made her way up to the seventh year boys' dormitory at the top of the staircase.
She put her ear to the door and sighed with relief and annoyance. She could make out the boys' voices, but not distinct words. She raised a hand and knocked. They stopped speaking abruptly. She knocked again.
"Who is it?" Ron's voice was oddly hesitant.
"Finally!" exclaimed Ron with obvious relief. "What took you so long?" He released several locking spells on the inside of the door and threw it open.
Hermione choked. A large scarlet V was emblazoned on Ron's forehead.
"Nice to see you too," he snapped, locking the door behind her.
The boys were all sitting on Harry's bed, all sporting identical Vs.
"We've been waiting for you for ages," said Seamus. "Didn't you get the note I pushed under your door?"
"-Er, no. I haven't been to my room since yesterday evening."
Ron wrinkled his nose. "Promise never to tell me anything about it."
"Fair enough." She took her place in the circle, glancing at each of the boys in turn. She savagely stifled a giggle. "Well, what happened?"
The boys looked to Harry, who seemed to have been elected speaker. He gestured awkwardly at the mark on his forehead, which rendered his scar nearly invisible. "Well, we hoped that you might be able to help us figure that out. But first things first: you're claiming the Stud of Gryffindor title, right?"
"So that's why we're marked and you're not."
"We don't know that for sure," she protested. "It could have been a prank on all of the Seventh Year boys. I didn't see Dean at lunch. Did he have the virgin mark on his forehead, too?"
Ron's ears turned as scarlet as the mark on his forehead. "Virgin mark?"
Seamus looked furious. "So that's why that big bollix was laughing!"
"Well," said Hermione reasonably, "what else would a big V stand for?"
"Very handsome?" Harry suggested hopefully.
"We thought it was supposed to be a five," said Neville.
Seamus frowned. "Dean said something about a Rocky Pitcher Show. Did any of you lot know what the flying arse he was talking about?"
The other boys shrugged.
"It's all right, Seamus. Dean probably thought it was some great lads' night lark. He was probably with Ginny all night anyway. Speaking of which, you can't stay in here forever. She's already noticed that you're all in hiding."
"Well bully for Ginny," said Harry sarcastically. "All we have to do get rid of the marks, which, incidentally, are immune to every spell we've tried."
"You've tried vanishing them?"
"We're not first years anymore, Hermione. Of course we tried."
"I know you're no longer first years, Ron. You would have vanished your own heads back then. I supposed you tried all the cleansing and restoration spells, then?"
"Every one we could find," said Neville glumly. "Harry even used his invisibility cloak to look in the library for books on the subject, and none of the spells worked."
"Well, then, what we need is an expert on this sort of thing."
The boys looked at her with varying degrees of exasperation.
"And where do you suggest we find such an expert?" asked Seamus sarcastically.
"Leave it to me," she said, remembering the plaque in Dumbledore's office. "I think I've also got a quick fix for your V problem."
Ron sniggered. Hermione hit him.
"Seriously, I think it'll work for the short term."
"What kind of fix is it?"
"Fair play to you," said Seamus, grinning.
"Right," said Ron. "Hermione's taking care of the Vs, and we aren't bound to do anything else, right?"
The pathetic image of Draco Malfoy slumped over his lunch sprang into Hermione's mind. "Why wouldn't you?"
"Well, we went after our loves, didn't we? That's all we had to do." Ron's eyes were averted. "Harry and I decided we weren't interested in Malfoy anymore."
""Honestly, Ron, you were completely lovesick. What on earth could have possibly changed your mind?"
All eyes were turned to Ron, who squared his shoulders. "I think it was two things, really. First, when Harry and I asked Malfoy to meet us at the room of requirement, he wasn't happy about it."
"But he agreed to meet you, didn't he?"
"It's not that he was reluctant, he was too excited, and not in good way. I don't reckon he could be with us us in a way that didn't involve humiliating us- and Harry agreed," he tacked on belatedly.
Introspection from Ron? Would wonders never ceace? "And the second reason?"
"Well," said Ron flushing darker, "after a week of not speaking, we simultaneously came to the conclusion that maybe it wasn't Malfoy we fancied, itwaseachother" Ron trailed off, but his words were unmistakable.
The sudden silence was broken by a loud cackle from Neville.
"HA!" he cried, "I knew it! As soon as I saw Mil and Pansy last night, I knew you'd set them up! I mean, sorry, it's not you that's funny. It was dead brilliant the way you set him up."
"And I knew it from the sounds coming from Harry's bed last night," commented Seamus. "I had to transfigure my slippers into earplugs."
Harry looked outraged. "I cast the silencing charm myself! How could you have possibly heard-"he cut off abruptly when Seamus burst out laughing.
"I was fast asleep. I didn't know you'd done anything until now."
"You're a bastard, Finnegan," pronounced Ron solemnly. "Why weren't you out with Padma last night instead of eavesdropping on a fellow?"
Seamus shrugged. "Padma's nice and all, but she reminds me a bit too much of Parvati. Giggling and all that."
Hermione threw her hands in the air. "I honestly don't understand you people."
"Well, it's just like studying, in a way," said Neville, thoughtfully. "Some people thrive on it, some don't need it, and some," he glanced at Seamus, "could care less, really, as long as they're enjoying themselves."
"But, to extend your questionably relevant metaphor, when one is in school, isn't learning as much as possible the whole point?"
Neville stared off into space, Ron and Harry looked at each other with palpable heat, and Seamus shrugged.
She tutted. Boys.
When the boys' foreheads were suitably covered with foundation, Hermione made her way to the gargoyle outside the Headmaster's door. Before she had even started guessing the password, the door swung open, and Dumbledore ushered her into his office.
"Come in my dear, and congratulations!" He offered her a handsome set of Cronk's Candy Marbles ("Don't take them for granite!").
She took an aggie and stuck it in her cheek, but cut straight the point. "How did you know?"
Dumbledore beamed at her somewhat lopsidedly on account of the shooter on which he was sucking. "My plaque, of course. It lit up like a clabbert's forehead last night around midnight, and as you can see," he gestured to a grimy-looking plaque in the corner. "Your name and Severus's have been preserved for future Gryffindor Studs.'
Feeling an unshakeable sense of deja vu, she walked over to the tarnished plaque in the corner. It bore an unmistakable resemblance to the Slytherin plaque, only with the words "Bum gall unwaith-hynny oedd "in small gold letters at the bottom. Bum, indeed. Gryffindor must have had more in common with today's students than just bravery.
She saw more names she recognized on the Gryffindor plaque, like Kingsley Shacklebolt's, though there were also a number she preferred not to think of in those terms, like Alastor Moody's. But inevitably her eyes came to rest on her own name, linked to Severus's in proud letters.
Impulsively, she pulled the plaque from the wall. It had the same aura of old magic as the Slytherin plaque, though the plates were tarnished brass. While rubbing absently at the brass plates, she nearly missed the familiar waved pattern on the back of the plaque. But there it was.
Dumbledore came to stand beside her, radiating avuncular pride. "In accordance with tradition, the plaque is now yours to keep, Miss Granger. Percival Weasley, the most recent recipient, was kind enough to leave it for me, but you are permitted to display it wherever you wish."
"I don't have any desire to move it, sir, though I would like to borrow it for a day or so, if you don't mind." She pressed her fingers into the waved back, to reassure herself that she hadn't invented them.
"Very generous of you, Miss Granger," Dumbledore replied. "But on to business matters."
Hermione took a deep breath and was about to ask the Headmaster about the boys' marks, but he continued.
"Of course, your name has already been added to the books of the Lion and Lioness Society, which is made up entirely of Gryffindor Studs. I'm sure Minverva will be pleased as a plimpy at high tide to have another female on board."
"The timing is really quite fortuitous, you know. We are set to have a vote next week for the theme for our annual fundraising ball. We had planned to give the proceeds to St. Mungo's, but this year the board decided that the House Elf Relocation Project and Elysian Sanctuary is a far needier cause."
HERPES? This was getting ridiculous. "Headmaster, I really don't think-"
"There's no need to thank me, Miss Granger. You've become part of a long and glorious tradition- one as nearly as old as the school itself. It has survived where other ancient forms of competition have fallen by the wayside. I credit its hardiness to the fact that this competition, though seemingly a bit rude on the surface, requires of its participants the kind of bravery and determination that Godric Gryffindor prized in his students. And if I may say so, I was not at all surprised to find that you were this year's winner. You are a most welcome addition to our little club."
Ridiculous as it sounded, she was curious. "What does being a member of the Lion and Lioness Society entail? Is it like being in the Order of the Phoenix?"
Dumbledore cleared his throat. "Not exactly. The Order functions as a branch of vigilante intelligence in times of need. The Society, on the other hand, exists mostly for more for the pleasure of its members. Though we do host philanthropic events, our meetings are more of a chance for us to let our hair down a bit, so to speak."
Hermione really didn't want to picture Percy Weasley letting his hair down. "That's all?"
The Headmaster twinkled insinuatingly. "I find that being able to truly enjoy leisure time makes me able to work all the harder when necessary. For example, to celebrate the completion of the Mundungus Fletcher Memorial High Security Ward for the Terminally Lightfingered at St. Mungo's, the Society took all of its members on holiday to Club Med-"
"Headmaster," she exclaimed, exasperated, "I couldn't care less about fundraising balls or holidays at Club Med. The only thing that I want take from this fiasco is my relationship with Professor Snape."
"Oh," said the Headmaster, deflating a little.
She regretted her words instantly, though she did mean them. Any society whose members were admitted solely for seducing someone faster than anyone else seemed inherently frivolous and arbitrary. But she certainly didn't want to offend any institution that included two of her favourite professors.
"I don't mean to be rude, sir, but I've got the rest of my higher education ahead of me, and I don't know that I'll have spare time to commit to the Society at this point in time. Besides, since I stumbled into the competition without really grasping what it meant, it doesn't feel right to reap all of these benefits from it until I've earned them somehow."
Dumbledore looked slightly confused. "If you aren't interested in the Lion and Lioness Society, then to what do I owe the honour of your visit?"
She blinked in surprise. "Well, Headmaster," she drawled, borrowing Severus's intonation, "I see your name on this plaque as well. I'm sure you can guess the reason."
Dumbeldore looked at the plaque for a moment, then laughed merrily. "On behalf of your housemates, I shouldn't wonder."
"How did your fellow entrants take care of their scarlet letters?"
"The same as most- the marks will fade in a day or so. Your housemates are fortunate to have been stricken over a weekend. I believe the unsuccessful Gryffindor Stud entrants of 1925 were sporting their Vs on graduation day."
"They didn't cover them with Muggle makeup?"
"Those were somewhat less enlightened times, Miss Granger. Not only were there no female participants that year, all of the boys were from old pureblooded families. A lesson about diversity was learned that year, to be sure."
"Well, that's a relief. I'm sorry to have troubled you for nothing, Headmaster."
"Not nothing, Miss Granger. It seems that your housemates are not the only one to have marks from their experiences."
Her hand flew self-consciously to her neck before she realized that he probably meant the glow.
Dumbledore smiled shrewdly, but did not comment on her lapse. "I have studied the Gryffindor Stud competition far more than the average entrant-" Hermione guessed this was her way of telling her he was the foremost authority, "-but I can honestly say I've never heard of a winner who was so lit from within."
Not wishing to betray Severus's confidence, she answered somewhat evasively. "I imagine there were other factors in play."
"Perhaps," said the Headmaster thoughtfully, "though I hope you do not assume yours was the only group of Gryffindor Stud hopefuls to be bound by an alcohol vow."
"But perhaps my group were the only one in recent memory," she commented blandly, calling his bluff.
The Headmaster smiled, somewhat ruefully – so far as she could tell, since the large candy marble was still in his cheek. "Perhaps. And perhaps one day you will be able to tell me how you managed to pull it off."
"I can tell you that now, sir. Inter-house alliances and exciting underwear."
Dumbledore's craggy brows were in danger of merging with his hairline. "You're not serious."
She stared demurely at her hands but felt the lascivious grin that had been with her since the previous evening grow dangerously close to the surface. Her headmaster let out a distinctly undignified guffaw.
"Well, Miss Granger, appearances can certainly be deceiving. I never would have thought Severus was a closet sensualist. If I had, I would have lent you my special earmuffs. But," he said with a chuckle, "it seems that you hardly needed my help." The Headmaster absently filled his cheeks with more candy marbles and sighed contentedly. "Very well, Miss Granger," he said with deliberate enunciation, "do let me know if you change your mind about the Lion and Lioness Society."
"I will Headmaster," she said, pulling the heavy plaque from its resting place. "I'll have this back to you in a few days. Thank you for your help."
The Headmaster stuffed the last candy marble into his mouth and waved her away cordially.
She found Severus mashing agave leaves in his private laboratory.
"Do you ever knock?"
"No." She said tersely, making a beeline for the plaque on his mantle. She set the Gryffindor plaque next to the Slytherin plaque and stared at the two. They were exactly the same size and shape.
Severus had come up behind her, wiping his hands on a heavily stained rag. He snorted when he saw the Gryffindor plaque.
"Do you notice anything odd about the dates on these plaques?" Hermione asked him.
"Not really. There doesn't seem to be a pattern for how much time elapses between competitions."
"I mean, why aren't all the winners listed? There had to have been hundreds of competitions over the years, but we can only see the recent ones."
"I had assumed that other plaques with the previous winners were elsewhere in the castle."
"That's reasonable," she said with a nod. "Perhaps you can help with the other mystery. Run your fingers along the back." She held out them out.
He complied, and upon encountering the waves, his eyes turned thoughtful. "Interesting."
"Is it possible that the plaques are keys to a secret room where the full history is recorded?"
"It's possible," he responded absently as he took both plaques into his laboratory. He whisked the pulpy mess aside with a wave of his wand and lay the plaques face down on the bench. "It's also possible that these plaques were just made by someone unskilled with the plane."
He pulled a large magnifying lens from a drawer and examined the plaques.
"You don't really think that these patterns are just a coincidence?"
"No, Hermione, I don't. Look and see for yourself."
With the two laying side by side, it was easy to see how similar their patterns were. As a matter of fact, the ridges on the two plaques were exactly the same distance apart. The only difference between the patterns was-
"They fit together!"
"Take a point to your house."
She shot him a half-annoyed, half-exhilarated look and handed him the Slytherin plaque. She took the Gryffindor plaque in her hands.
"Well, shall we do the honours?"
He set down his plaque. "Miss Granger," he said testily, "if you would be so kind as to think for a moment, you'd realize that we are in a laboratory that is well-stocked with powerful and volatile potions ingredients. This is hardly the ideal location for unleashing unknown magics."
"Sorry, sir," she said, contritely.
"Patience is not just a virtue, in potions it is a necessity. Now, if you can control yourself for a few more minutes, I wish to finish the first step of this-"
He nodded. "Madam Hooch's birthday is coming up. It's her favourite day to live up to her surname. You will excuse me." He returned to mashing.
Rather than adjourning to the next room, she peered over his shoulder at the recipe. It was very simple, and it seemed that Severus had things well in hand. However, the evaporator was still in pieces on the other side of the bench. Since it seemed he had quite a bit of mashing to go, she went about setting it up the way the recipe indicated.
His head shot up at the unexpected clink of glassware. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Setting up the evaporator. It seemed like you had your hands full."
He looked down at his own hands, dripping with agave juice. There was a moment's pause before he haltingly thanked her.
When the agave pulp had been put in to distil, Severus joined her in the bedroom. He glared disapprovingly at the white circle she had made in the carpet.
"Come now, Miss Granger. Do you really think a containment vortex is necessary?"
She met his eye squarely. "Do you think it worth the risk?"
The corners of his mouth turned down even further. "You realize that my carpet will never be the same?"
Her giddiness temporarily got the better of her. "Sod the carpet! And for pity's sake, Severus, take the other plaque and let's have done with it."
He took up the Slytherin plaque with a mulish look, but held it out for her with an air of resignation. "I suppose it wouldn't do much good if I told you I didn't give a damn about the plaques, would it?"
She looked at him with surprise. "Aren't you the least bit curious?"
"Not really. What could it possibly tell us that we didn't know already?"
"I wasn't thinking in terms of us. I was thinking in terms of history."
"Well," he said with a sardonic twist of lip, "don't let me stand between you and destiny."
She ignored him and brought the back of her plaque in contact with the back of his, probably with more force than was strictly necessary. The pieces met and locked together with a hollow-sounding click.
Whatever Hermione expected, it wasn't what happened. She had expected ethereal choirs or a repetition of the light that had filled her and Severus in the wee hours of the morning. She expected something to indicate that they'd solved a millenium-old puzzle. Something more than a nearly inaudible click.
But that's all there was. A click.
Severus opened his eyes cautiously- apparently she hadn't been the only one to expect fireworks.
"Well," he said at last. "are you going to examine it, or are you going to continue standing there staring like an idiot?"
She turned the joined plaques over and paused when her fingers encountered the edges of the plaque. Tiny, cylindrical sections had risen from the plaques' edges. They looked like tiny hinges.
"Amazing," she said. "The whole thing is mechanical!"
"Look!" With the soft pads of her fingers, she loosened the impossibly thin wooden edges of the plaque faces and pulled them apart gently. They slid open like book leaves to reveal a second surface of names.
"Medea's babysitter," Severus swore, awestruck.
She wordlessly handed him the Slytherin Sybarite face, and they drew the plaques gently apart. They unfolded like paper dolls on tiny wooden hinges, each new face revealing more names and competition years. Centuries of Studs and Sybarites were laid bare for their perusal, a great Jacob's Ladder of their houses' traditions. When the plaques had been opened to their fullest, Hermione and Severus were standing at opposite ends of the room. She had even taken a few steps into the bathroom.
Without speaking, they both laid down their separate ends and walked to the centre of the circle, where the two histories were fitted seamlessly together.Anno Domani 1040 Godric Gryffindor et Salazar Slytherin
Estuans interius ira vehementi in amaritudine loquor mee menti:
factus de materia, cinis elementi similis sum folio, de quo ludunt venti.
Burning inside with fervent passion, I bitterly speak to my mind:
Composed of matter, the ashes of elements, I am a leaf in the wind.
Cum sit enim proprium viro sapienti supra petram ponere sedem fundamenti,
stultus ego comparor fluvio labenti, sub eodem tramite nunquam permanenti.
While the wisest men set foundations over stone,
I emulate the flowing stream, whose path is never fixed.
Feror ego veluti sine nauta navis, ut per vias aeris vaga fertur avis;
non me tenent vincula, non me tenet clavis, quero mihi similes et adiungor pravis.
I float as boat without a sailor, through the airways as a bird in flight;
Chain may not keep me, keys cannot imprison me, I seek like-minded souls and join the perverse.
Mihi cordis gravitas res videtur gravis; iocis est amabilis dulciorque favis;
quicquid Venus imperat, labor est suavis, que nunquam in cordibus habitat ignavis.
My heavy heart is a burden; it is wonderful to joke and sweeter than honey;
Whatsoever Venus commands is pleasurable work, she never stays in a slothful heart.
Via lata gradior more iuventutis implicor et vitiis immemor virtutis,
voluptatis avidus magis quam salutis, mortuus in anima curam gero cutis.
I tread the road of life as a callow youth, heedless of virtue
Of all things, I desire pleasure , the soul is dead, so I cherish the flesh.
In retrospect, a grand Slytherin/Gryffindor romance really was the only logical answer to all of the riddles. On some level, they had to have seen it coming. But even as they wordlessly separated the plaques, they felt the weight of their discovery settle comfortably onto their shoulders. And for the first time in many years, Severus felt that he had made a very good decision. Of course, he didn't get around to telling Hermione that for several years. After thwapping him with a pillow, she found herself in perfect accord.
"You sly thing, you never said a word!" Mrs. Bennett, Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen (150 points to Subtilior for spotting that!)
"Claws in, you cat!" Prof. H. Higgins, Pygmailon, G.B. Shaw. VBG.
Nose off-centre: GoF, naturally.
"Flying Arse," from my dear friend Sam's refrain, "What the flyin' ass?"
Thin justification of RHPS lore: hey, Dean grew up believing he was a Muggle! Be glad I didn't have him conjure up some toast.
Bum gall unwaith-hynny oedd. "I was wise once, when I was born I cried." Welsh Proverb.
The Latin poem comes from Carmina Burana, written by the Goliards in the 11th century and famously set to music by Carl Orff in the 1930s. The Goliards were vagabond intellectuals who somehow managed not to avoid prosecution for heresy, in spite of their fondness for satirizing the Church. The translation is mostly my own. Part of me wishes I didn't drop out of Latin after two years, but most of me isn't ;)
Thanks: Where would I be without my betas and advice mavens, Jeff, Dana and Anna? Someplace without a final chapter, to be sure. And all of you wonderful, wonderful reviewers have really made me work to ensure that this final chapter means something (within the confines of the challenge's strictures). The response to this story has completely blown me away. Thank you all so much for all of your kind words and constructive criticism. If the last chapter lets you down, please e-mail me and tell me how I can make it better.
Excuses: After leaving one 50,000-word behemoth unfinished (I will finish it one day!), I promised myself that I'd never again post an unfinished story. Then I read this challenge and thought I could get away with it. And then my boyfriend (and alpha-beta reader) proposed (I said "yes"), I had a big audition (They said "no," but they also admitted they lost my paperwork, and put off answering my calls for a month), and I went on a trip with my future in-laws (how lucky am I to get in-laws more normal than my family?). So as you've all gathered, I'm really sorry this chapter took way too long, but life interfered in the best possible way. I hope y'all won't attack me with too many sharp instruments. At this point, I'd probably give you a big kiss and go floating off into the sunset, even if you did.