It is a difficult and delicate matter to approach someone's deputy and ask them to engage in a conspiracy against their boss. In the circles Severus had moved in, a miscalculation in such a manoeuvre could have led to death, torture and dismemberment – not necessarily in that order.

Dumbledore may not have red eyes or practise the Dark Arts (though that was a matter of opinion) but he knew enough about Severus' past to make life very sticky indeed if he felt like it.

Minerva, being a direct person, was not someone who would pick up on a subtle hint – he really would have to come out in the open with the entire proposition – and was notoriously loyal to Dumbledore.

He had considered getting Lucius to raise the issue after the next Governor's meeting, but had to dismiss it regretfully. It would have been the perfect opportunity in many ways. Albus always disappeared to his rooms as quickly as possible after any meeting as he found Lucius' presence to be the rough equivalent of being flogged lightly and then having salt rubbed into the wound: the pain was insignificant at first, but after a while it became unbearable.

Severus had some sympathy for that view. Lucius had raised the art of getting up people's noses to an art form. It was often said – by others, and very, very quietly -that the only reason he hadn't got up the Dark Lord's nose was that the resurrected version had no nose to get up.

However, Severus thought it was poor tactics on Albus' part not to keeping a close eye on Lucius. But that was Albus all over – he always passed on the nasty tasks to his juniors and hoped for the best.

Not that that was a bad idea in itself, if put into effect by a superior intelligence who knew how to do that sort of thing properly. It was certainly very tempting to wash his hands of the entire business and pass the business of seducing Minerva to the Dark Side (metaphorically) on to someone more suited to the task of emissary. No one could deny that Lucius had a talent for flattery and persuasion when he chose to exercise it.

It was almost his only talent, and always worth observing for the rarity value alone. Unfortunately, it was unlikely to be effective against Minerva, who thought he was as trustworthy as a rattle snake.

This was unfair.

Lucius was far less trustworthy than a rattle snake, which would only bite when provoked and would give warning before it did so. Lucius bit because he was bored, or because he felt like it, and chiefly because he bloody well could. And he didn't believe in giving you any warning. Where would be the fun in that?

He gathered that more scrupulous persons than himself tended to think that this meant that there was no point in entering into any agreements with Lucius, but that was just defeatist nonsense. All you had to do was work out what he wanted, and make sure he got enough of what he wanted to make him stick to his side of the bargain; it was all a matter of negotiation.

This did raise the point that Hermione seemed to have the same or fewer scruples than Severus, which was rather intriguing and made her seem rather more interesting than he had previously considered. Perhaps there was more to her than frizzy hair, an insatiable appetite for learning, and a tendency to fly off the handle at the drop of a hat.

Severus had been amused by Hermione's little fracas with Sylvia. He could afford to be now that he no longer had responsibility for disciplining her, though it had been a little irritating to endure the teasing of the rest of the staff.

"Quite a little spitfire," Filius had said, and had very nearly elbowed him in the ribs. As if being a stroppy little mare, who was overly handy with her fists, was somehow transformed into some sort of sex bomb in the bedroom. It was far more likely that someone touchy like that would be constantly quarrelling and finding reasons to fall out, than spending all their time twisted in contortions of passion. Rodolphus had not worn the smile of a contented man, but a hunted expression that had only disappeared on death. He swore that his corpse had been smiling.

Draco, being a little sneak desperate to curry favour, had been only too eager to pass on all the details of the quarrel between the two girls. He seemed to think that Hermione's reaction would be of interest to him, which was peculiar. What was he supposed to deduce from her behaviour, other than the obvious? Hermione had a habit of slapping people; there was nothing more to it than that.

It did give him an idea on how to approach Minerva though: play on her loyalty to the children of her house. So he'd taken the first step in Operation Minerva (as he was now thinking of it) by taking her to one side after a staff meeting, and asked for a quiet word in private as he had something he wanted to discuss.

"Of course, Severus," she replied. "I'm sure that I can help you with whatever it is that is worrying you." She seemed to wink at him, which was odd. Perhaps she had something in her eye?

A polite person would describe Minerva's office as cosy; excessively tartan would have been the honest description. Rather than settle on one particular plaid, she had decided to pay homage to all of her Scottish ancestors and pack several different colour schemes together.

It was not a happy combination.

He could just imagine the reaction would be of any Malfoy brought into contact with the room: they would be carried out on a stretcher screaming that their eyeballs were melting and begging to be crucio'ed instead. He'd often wondered whether there was some sort of genetic linkage between being sorted into Gryffindor and having no colour sense at all. What on earth was wrong with black? It went with everything, and meant you never had to decide what jacket went with what trousers. It made the scrawniest Wizard more imposing, and took pounds from the hips of any Witch.

Gryffindors were odd, and he included his wife in that, though she seemed relatively sane in comparison to the rest of them.

He settled into the comfortable arm chair by the fire, and accepted a glass of port to take his mind off the riot of colour. It was only marginally successful.

"So, what did you want to talk about?" Minerva asked, with all the subtlety of Dumbledore.

"It's about Hermione," he replied, preparing to lead up to the topic by way of painting a picture of the suffering of her favourite student being forced to live in damp dungeons for the rest of her life whilst others were free to run in the sunshine.

"Aha!" she crowed. "I thought it might be."

Severus restrained himself from sneering about her perspicuity. There was very little that they would be discussing other than Hermione. They never talked about school discipline without Dumbledore there as mediator, because she was utterly biased in favour of her House and refused to accept that they were a set of strutting bullies picking on his poor little lambs.

He sighed. He was going to spend most of this meeting biting his tongue, with only the faint consolation of whinging to Hermione about it afterwards. You didn't insult someone you were about to ask a favour, unless you were a Malfoy making the request at wand point. Besides, if she agreed, then she might become Minister, and you wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of her, not if there was the possibility of a pay rise.

"We've been married for nearly four months now," he continued. "And, whilst we get along well enough, I know that she feels unhappy with the way things are."

"Nonsense," Minerva said briskly.

"We do get on well enough," he protested, a little irritated at the implication that he hadn't done everything he could, short of bending over backwards, to make his wife comfortable if not happy.

"Don't be a bigger idiot than usual," she replied. "Anyone can see that Hermione is happy with her new life."

This was news to him. You could say that she was resigned to her fate, if you didn't know her very well. Hermione was never resigned to anything. If Hermione wasn't happy, Hermione rolled up her sleeves and bloody well changed things. It was one of her finest qualities, and probably one of her most irritating if you happened to be one of the things being changed.

"Happy? Are we talking about the same girl? I suppose that's why she feels the need to go round punching her fellow students?" he snapped. "Girlish joie de vivre?"

"She's very protective of you isn't she?"

Shock kept Severus silent, and Minerva took that as an admission of something.

"And I notice that Gryffindor's house points didn't drop as a result. You're really taken with her, aren't you? You can't fool me, Severus. You may as well come clean."

"What on earth do you mean?" he asked belligerently, horridly aware that he knew exactly what she meant.

"I think it's awfully romantic," she said dreamily. "You and Hermione brought together by forces beyond your control and realising that you are soul mates."

"You're insane!" he blurted. "Absolutely sodding insane. There's nothing like that between us; nothing at all."

"Oh?" Minerva took in his horrified expression, and leaped to another conclusion, more preposterous than the first. "Oh, I'm sorry, Severus. I had no idea." She reached over and patted his knee soothingly. "I'm sure that, given time, Hermione will come round."

"Come round? You are insane. What on earth could she see in a man like me?"

"There's no need to sell yourself short like that," she replied. "You're a man of the world, experienced and you have that bad boy charm that so many women find attractive."

This was news to Severus. Lucius might be thought of as having bad boy charm – from a safe distance – what Severus had was a big nose, unfortunate hair, and the disposition of a porcupine. "And where, may I ask, are these hordes of women who apparently find me irresistible?" he asked with biting sarcasm. "Because I haven't noticed them beating a path to my door."

Minerva was torn between huffing at his rudeness, offering consolation, and trying to raise his self esteem. "I'm sure that Hermione is very fond of you," she offered.

"I'm sure she isn't," he bit out. "What she is, is grateful. But that's hardly the basis for any kind of relationship, much less a marriage. At the end of this year she will be leaving Hogwarts, and that is as it should be."

"Oh, Severus," she said, patting him on his knee. "There's no need to be so brave about things. You can't fool me."

Severus thought that fooling Minerva wasn't necessary when she was clearly insane, and had bolted for the door mumbling something about not realising what time it was, and that he had marking to do and had to go. Minerva would doubtless take that as some sort of admission, but it couldn't be helped – his nerves were shot. There was no point raising the issue of Minerva standing for Minister until she had recovered whatever malaise had afflicted her.

When he arrived at his rooms, Hermione was sat on the sofa reading a book. He glared at her – this was all her fault – and disappeared into his bedroom for a long soak in the bath and an early night away from her chatter.

The bath was warm, but even the addition of his special mixture of herbs did little to soothe his temper. It was bad enough that he'd failed in the first steps of Operation Minerva, but now he was marked down as some sort of Romantic figure he could expect to have his life made hell. Minerva wouldn't be able to keep gossip as tasty as that to herself, and it was only a matter of time before she would confide in Hooch. God alone knew what the two of them would cook up between them, but at the very least he could expect more tactful gifts of shampoo, and some wizarding self help books designed to help you catch the witch of your dreams.

As if he needed nonsense like that: if he really wanted Hermione Granger to fall desperately in love with him, he was perfectly capable of brewing his own love potions and make damned sure that she worshipped the ground he walked on.

What he found most mind boggling about the situation was not the suggestion that he was sufficiently lonely and unattractive that he would leap at the first opportunity for a shag that presented itself, but the suggestion that Hermione could, would, or even should be eager for a relationship with him. It would take rather more than saving her from Lucius – or Lucius from her, he wasn't quite sure which was the case now – to turn him into a knight in shining armour.

Hermione had been properly grateful to him for a couple of weeks, and then settled down to taking advantage of his admittedly limited good nature.

Quite right, too.

He knew how irritating it was, how exasperating, to be expected to be grateful to someone for doing something that they ought to have done simply by virtue of being members of the human race.

First, he'd been expected to be grateful to his father for not leaving his family when he found out about magic. Then he'd been expected to be grateful to Potter for saving him from the jaws of a werewolf who should never have been allowed in the school. Then it was gratitude to Lucius for introducing him to the Death Eaters – and it was a sad fact, that of all of them, it was Lucius he had most cause to be grateful to.

Certainly becoming a Death Eater had been the biggest mistake of his life, but at least Lucius had stuck to his end of the bargain. He hadn't expected Severus to spend the rest of his life on bended knee thanking him for his patronage. Or, more accurately, that was precisely what he had expected, but it was no different to the way he treated everyone else, and at least he repaid a favour with a favour.

Unlike Dumbledore and his protection, which had turned out to be anything but….

He realised he was strangling the soap, and placed it carefully on the side of the bath.

The Christmas holidays had changed things between them. He'd seen her as less of a student and more of a…

She was …

It wasn't that they were friends, because you didn't call someone a friend until you'd known them for twenty years and had a reasonable idea of how they thought and felt, and he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to work that out with Hermione… but she was something more than a giver of cockroach clusters.

She was a "had-potential-to-be-a-friend-in-twenty-years-time-provided-she-didn't-do-anything-stupid-or-disloyal". There was probably a word, in some semi-feudal country somewhere, that summed it all up but that was the closest he could come to describing their relationship given the deficiencies of the English language.

She was also expecting him to do something about Minerva, and her expectation was communicated on a daily basis by glance if not by word.

It was only a matter of time before she started asking pointed questions, and he had no wish to become a henpecked husband. He had to think of an excuse for his inaction that didn't involve telling Hermione that her head of house was deranged. Although, come to think of it, there was actually no reason why he couldn't tell the truth for once.

If the Gryffindor motto was something asinine like "Never Surrender", the Slytherin one ran something like "The Buck Stops Elsewhere". Obviously they would dress it up a bit, and translate it into Latin, but that was the essential philosophy of his House and one that had served him well through the years.

And Lucius was the perfect candidate for being the person with whom the buck would stop.

Hermione wouldn't be pleased at the thought of Lucius being brought into the situation so early in the game. She didn't trust Lucius (which was perfectly reasonable), and she did trust him (again, perfectly reasonable) and wouldn't want to expose Minerva to the evil machinations of Malfoy.

However, all that would change once he told Hermione about Minerva's comments and drastic action would not only be possible but eagerly sought.

Hermione was reassuringly ruthless about people who were in her bad books.

The water needed several heating charms before he finished thinking his way through all the angles. This would need careful management, but would almost certainly involve Lucius having to do some work for a change.

He found that prospect cheered him up immensely.

Hermione was annoyed to find that she had little chance to talk to Severus over the first couple of weeks of term, which passed in a blur of activity. There was more homework than usual, due to the Newts looming ever closer, and Hermione wished she could have the timeturner again. She barely had time to keep her own head above water, much less sort out the boys' homework timetable, and no time at all to further their plans for taking over the Wizarding World.

Severus hadn't said anything about talking to Professor McGonagall, so she presumed that he hadn't done so, and that if pressed would simply say that he was waiting for the right moment, after a great deal of grumbling that she didn't trust him to carry out a simple task.

Severus seemed to be almost as busy as her, and they barely managed to exchange a word in passing. He'd made the mistake of giving one of his classes extra homework for breathing too noisily on a Monday morning, and was reaping the whirlwind he'd sown in the guise of an extra 210 feet of essays to mark.

It did little to improve his temper, and it was only as they entered the third week of term that either of them had time to spare to catch up.

Hermione had returned to their quarters immediately after dinner instead of going to the Gryffindor common room, and found Severus sitting on the sofa, his jacket off, and his shirt unbuttoned with a glass of wine in his hand. It was the most relaxed she had ever seen him.

"You're early," he said.

"Mmmm. I'm having the night off," she replied.

"Care to join me?"

Hermione dropped her satchel on the floor, flopped gracelessly onto the sofa next to him, and kicked off her shoes. Severus summoned another glass, poured out half a glass, and passed it to her. "That's nice," she said. "I do miss having a glass of wine with dinner."

"It's the only bright spot of a horrid day." He took a long sip. "If the words 'additional essay' ever pass my lips again, please Stupefy me so that I can be taken to the Infirmary where I clearly belong."

"I promise, though it seems selfish to keep that pleasure for myself."

He smiled.

"I wish someone would do the same to Professor Flitwick," she said. "Do you know he set an extra three feet on Invisibility Charms last week, and another four feet on Dillusionment charms this week? Isn't there some sort of rule against that?" Hermione finished her glass, and wondered whether another one would be forthcoming.

"And the bitter irony is that I set additional essays as a punishment, and everyone thinks I'm a complete bastard, and he sets them for fun and do we hear a word against him?" Severus said.

He wiggled the bottle suggestively at her, and she held out her glass to be refilled.

"Don't worry – they think Flitwick is a bastard as well," she said. "I certainly do."

"Now if that were to get out in the Staff Room…"

"I'd have to tell Gryffindor that you snore."

"I don't snore!"

Hermione shrugged. "You say that, and I have no way of knowing otherwise, but they don't know that."

"You're utterly heartless."

"I was taught by the best," she replied. "So you've only yourself to blame."

"This is true," he nodded, and prepared to drop Minerva in it from a great height. "And I have been delightfully sneaky this week, all on your behalf."

"That sounds fun."

"Moderately so." He prepared to drop Minerva in it from a great height. It was his duty to pass on the details of her lapse from reason, in case Hermione thought that they ought to select another Minister; that it would ensure any complaints about the lack of progress was directed at someone other than himself was nothing more than a fortuitous coincidence. "You will be pleased to hear that there has been some movement at last. However, Minerva is proving… a little difficult."


"Apparently she thinks we are soul mates, brought together by the unfathomable workings of fate, and destined to be together for all time. She thinks that your very natural gratitude at being rescued has matured into something more … tender." He'd deliberately waited until she'd been about to take another sip of wine, and was amused to see her splutter it back into her face. "She's been spending far too much time with Trelawney, if you ask me."

She didn't say anything for a moment, concentrating on wiping off her wine moustache and catching her breath. "Soul mates?" she gasped, torn between outrage and laughter. "Minerva thinks we are soul mates? I'm certainly surprised at how well we're getting on, all things considered. You've barely deducted house points from me for months."

"I have feelings for you that transcend the mere taking of house points," he replied. "I worship the ground that you walk upon, and, though I'm not certain about this, we may well be conducting a passionate affair. Or perhaps I lie awake at night in my lonely bed and dream of a future with you; I'm not sure which one Minerva considers to be most likely. Whichever it is, I can assure you that we are in love. Our marriage is Romantic."

She didn't laugh, which was both worrying and gratifying. "I can sort of see that," she replied, stopping his heart cold. "You did rescue me, after all. If you'd heard about someone else doing it, you might think it was romantic."

"I am not romantic," he spluttered.

"Well, I know you're not; which is where the whole thing falls down. But considered in the abstract, saving someone from Lucius Malfoy is romantic."

"More like bloody stupid," he muttered.

"Well, isn't that the same thing?" she asked.

Severus, who had been worried that Hermione's brains were showing the same signs of softening as Minerva's, was relieved by that comment.

"Besides," she added, "Imagining that this is some great romance allows Minerva to stop feeling guilty about the fact she's doing nothing to stop the Ministry."

Severus considered that. It made sense, of a sort. He wasn't experienced in the realms of guilt, being rather more inclined to feeling that he was being taken advantage of, and anyone who crossed him deserved what happened to them for being stupid or breathing too loudly or being Gryffindor in the wrong place. There were things he felt guilty about, but they weren't the sort of things that you could wriggle out of by means of a flexible conscience and some dodgy logic.

He had done bad things; he ought to feel guilty about them, and there was no way out of that. The idea that someone could opt out of responsibility by inventing an entirely new and deranged world view was wholly new to him.

Though it had to be said that Lucius had been living in another universe for years. As far as he was concerned the sun shone out of his arse and the world rotated round him – presumably because of the location of the sun – and any evidence to the contrary could be disregarded but that hadn't got anything to do with feeling guilty.

The nearest Lucius got to guilt, was the chairs in the dining room.

"The world's gone mad," Hermione breathed, almost to herself.

"Not the world; just Minerva," Severus replied. "Are you really sure we want her to be Minister?"

Hermione pursed her lips. "Well, even if she has lost the plot entirely, I still say she's a better choice than Lucius. Even Dumbledore is a better choice than Lucius. Bugger it, the Giant Squid is a better choice than Lucius."

"Not by much."

"What did she say, when you asked her about going into politics?"

"Erm, well, I didn't actually ask her about that as such." Severus said, trying to convey that he was reluctant to talk about the conversation for some mysterious reason, and tempt her into asking more questions. She was the very devil for getting to the bottom of things. If the Ministry didn't snap her up to be an Unspeakable when she graduated, he would be very surprised.

"And you're going to tell me why that is, aren't you? Because I'm sure there was a good reason." Her voice was level, but not questioning. It was probably a very effective technique when applied to Harry and Ron, but it took rather more than a sharp tone of voice to impress him. If you hadn't been crucioed several times and forcefed Veritaserum, it didn't count as a pointed question.

He wasn't going to mention that to Hermione, in case it gave her ideas.

"Every time I tried to discuss it with her, she started talking about how I had to be open with you about my feelings and try to be positive. She was one step away from giving me advice on how to woo you; there was no way I could persuade her to listen to me. At the very least I thought I'd leave it until next week before trying again."

"The very least?"

"I thought it might be sensible to hand the matter over to Lucius. He can paint a nasty picture for her of poor innocent Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors being coerced into marriage by eilv plotting Slytherins. She's bound to think the worst of Lucius – who doesn't? – but for once this would work to our advantage."

"Sounds sensible," she said approvingly. "The difficulty is arranging the meeting. I can't see Professor McGonagall accepting an invitation to dinner from Lucius Malfy."

"There's a Governor's meeting in a couple of days, which means that Lucius will be coming to Hogwarts. It's much easier to conduct negotiations when all parties are under the same roof, and it's a damned sight less suspicious if we do it under Dumbledore's nose."

Hermione frowned, considered the matter and then sighed. "All right. I s'pose we'll have to rely on Lucius. You don't think Albus would notice anything do you?"

"His attention will be entirely taken up with making sure that the Governors don't cut his budget. Voldemort may have gone but the internecine machinations of that august body still continue, largely because Lucius has somehow managed to hold onto power and is determined to cause as much trouble as possible, and in his case that's an awful lot of trouble. This does mean that Dumbledore will arrange for an urgent message to call him away at some point, so that he can go and hide in the Room of Requirement with a good book, and a nice glass of wine and leave all the hard work to Minerva and I."

Severus swung a foot backwards and forwards, which paused on the upswing so he could admire the polish on his boots.

"Which is a lesson to us all," he said sententiously. "Merely because something is a constant source of irritation does not mean that you can afford to ignore it in the hope it will go away. Particularly if it means turning your back on a dangerous enemy."

"Do you mean you or Lucius?" Hermione asked.

Severus smiled almost dreamily at the fire. "Oh I think Lucius is far more dangerous than I am."

"Hmmm," said Hermione. "I think that that's only true in this case because we are on the same side. Something for which I am extremely grateful."

Marriage had taught Hermione two things, the first being that the way to a man's heart probably was through his stomach and the second, that flattery had the power to melt the hardest heart: even the peacock likes to be told he has a fine tail.

"How kind of you to say so," he replied. "Though I have to ask myself what Herculean task you have in mind for me to perform to justify such an encomium."

"Can't someone pay you a compliment without it being about trying to get some advantage?" she asked.

"Not in my experience, no." He was only half-joking, she realised.

He settled further back on the sofa, settling himself before the fire like a cat. Without his usual jacket, she could see the line of his arm through the fine linen of his shirt, and the subtle articulation of his wrist bones shifting as his finger moved down the page. He was different like this. It wasn't just that he had shed the armour of Professor Snape with his coat, but that it was possible to see how the future Second Mrs Snape could find him attractive. He wasn't conventionally handsome, but he had a certain physical presence: a way of moving that, outside the classroom, had an altogether different effect than intimidation.

She presumed it would have a different effect on others anyway, although she was immune to it. Obviously, she was immune to it. She did not and would not think of Severus like that at all. She was merely considering the effect he might have on a putative and contingent Second Mrs Snape. It was necessary to think about things like this in a hypothetical manner so that she could meet her obligation to find him a new girlfriend.


Hermione was less experienced at lying to herself than Severus, and therefore had less chance of convincing herself that she hadn't been assessing his sexual attractiveness from an entirely personal perspective and coming up with a positive response. This was all Minerva's fault for suggesting that Severus was her soulmate.

The boys would be shocked senseless if she ever told them. They would also be horrified to realise that girls spent their evenings in the dormitories comparing and contrasting the attributes of their fellow male pupils because girls were only interested in romance and hearts and flowers and didn't look at pert bottoms at all. And they certainly didn't speculate about size of ahem equipment.

She had at various times admired the form of Draco Malfoy (though not the personality), Dean Thomas and Blaise Zabini. She may like books, but that didn't mean that she was entirely dead to the charms of the opposite sex. She was also aware that this didn't mean that she wanted to pursue a relationship with any of them, and in the case of Draco she didn't even want to talk to him more than was strictly required.

So finding Severus attractive from certain angles didn't worry her. She would only have a problem if she started seeing him as attractive from all angles. She'd seen him in his nightshirt; that wasn't very likely.

She really would have to make sure that those shirts were replaced by pyjamas before he was put on the market again; they were guaranteed passion killers. He may be able to lure some young lady into his bed after a couple of dates, but he wouldn't be able to maintain a relationship once it moved into the cosy living together stage unless she got rid of them. Perhaps the house elves could be persuaded to have an accident with the laundry?

In the space of ten minutes, Snape had moved from someone who had to be appeased frequently for the sake of an easy life into the category of 'people who needed to be taken care of', though still with an eye to appeasement. Once you had broken bread with someone – even if that bread was crumpets – you had established a truce. The addition of chocolate and wine to the equation moved you almost imperceptibly from beyond a truce to friendship though not quite as far as soul mates.

The warm glow didn't last long.

A fire suddenly flared up, and the Headmaster's face appeared. "Professor Snape, if you could come to my office…" He noticed Hermione sat on the sofa and checked. "There is a confidential matter I need to discuss with you."

"Can't it wait until morning, Headmaster?" Snape replied.

"Indeed, not," Albus replied coldly and his head disappeared and the flames died down before Severus had a chance to respond.
He sighed, levered himself from the sofa, and put on his teaching robes with obvious reluctance. "I swear that he deliberately times these requests to ruin any chance I might have to relax."

"I wonder what it's all about? You don't think he knows about, you know, what we're up to."

"I don't think that's very likely. It's far too early to attempt a direct confrontation on that little issue – he'd want us to get ourselves much deeper into the mire before he tried to put a stop to things. It's much more likely to be some trivial matter of discipline." Severus stood up, stretched until his bones popped, and then reluctantly put on his robes. "Don't fret; I shall tell you all, though I expect Potter knows all about it already. He usually does. If there is such a thing as an anti-Secret Keeper, he's it."

Hermione grinned. It was a fairly accurate summation of Harry's career at Hogwarts, though it did seem to overlook her own contribution to the cause of Sneaking and Spying. "I'll head off to the Common Room then, and see if he knows anything."

Severus nodded. "Let me know what you find out."

"Of course," she said, and it didn't even occur to her to wonder at how far they had come in four months that she took confiding in him for granted.

The corridors seemed oddly deserted for so early in the evening, and she only bumped into a couple of groups of students on her way to the common room. They looked at her, giggled, and scurried off away from her, still gossiping. This was worrying. Hogwarts had a rhythm to its life, and whenever the gentle eddies of the students round the building were disturbed it generally meant something bad had happened to someone.

Now that Voldemort had gone, it was more likely to be something trivial like a fight or someone caught snogging the wrong person, but it still made her nervous.

Whatever was going on was clearly big, because the Gryffindor common room was in uproar. It was also clearly to do with her in some way, as everyone in the room stared at her when they noticed her standing by the portrait hole.

"Of course Hermione wouldn't do something like that," Ron was shouting, caught out by the sudden lull.

"Hermione wouldn't do what?" she asked.

"Someone made an offer for Sylvia," Ron said, glaring at everyone impartially. "This lot of morons think you had something to do with it."

"Under the Marriage Law?" she asked blankly.

"One of the Averys," Parvati added. "His younger brother, I think."

"Which makes him about forty," Hermione said. "Good god. I had no idea. When did this happen?"

"It came in the post this morning," Parvati replied. "Didn't you notice?"

Hermione shrugged. "I was going over my homework. I wouldn't have noticed the end of the world. Not unless it came with a note saying I was excused essays for the week."

Some of the Gryffindors chuckled, and a little of the tension in the room eased off.

"Yeah," said Ron and glared at everyone impartially.

"It's just you did have that fight with her," Parvati said. "And you're a bit… erm… vindictive."

"I am not vindictive," she protested. "When was I ever vindictive?"

"Well, there was Umbridge," Lavender said.

"And you did Petrificus me," added Neville, and they all nodded agreement.

Aware that she was losing the argument, and a little hurt that one or two incidents over the course of her academic career were being blown out of all proportion – you may as well say she was only sexually attracted to teachers because she'd fancied Lockhart and married Severus… and that argument wasn't helping either.

"Well, I didn't have anything to so with it," she said, sounding a little sulky. "But I know who might have some answers."

"Malfoy," Harry said.

"Malfoy," Ron confirmed.

"I think we need to make a little trip to the Slytherin common room and see if we can Have a Little Word with the ferret," Hermione said. "I happen to know that Professor Snape is with the Headmaster at the moment and can't be disturbed."

And the three of them grinned. It was just like old times.