Severus had daydreamed of how he would spend his first night of freedom from the Dark Mark almost as long as he had worn the Dark Mark: sign up for world domination in haste, repent at leisure.

None of his elaborate fantasies had included being popped into bed with a cold compress and a warm Hermione to sleep off the after-effects of Crucio, but in the end it was this prosaic and unromantic coda that convinced him it was really over and that he was free.

Severus found that, although he wasn't used to being cheerful, nothing could dent his good mood. In fact, his cup was very definitely runnething over. He didn't have to get out of bed before lunchtime on Friday, as he had a sick note. Heroes, who had just been injured in the Final Showdown with His Lordship, did not have to lever themselves out of bed to face the herds of dunderheads; they got a lie in.

He hadn't dwelled long on the pleasurable thought of Albus having to teach his classes, because there were far better things to dwell on.

Such as breakfast in bed with advanced and non-breakfasty deployment of raspberry jam.

Such as a long leisurely soak in the bath to remove the raspberry seeds which seemed to get everywhere.

Such as a solid hour spent drafting his letter of resignation to ensure that the utmost contempt was conveyed in as few words as possible.

Such as reading through Hermione's resignation letter and considering whether any or all of the suggestions were anatomically feasible.

His good mood continued through lunch, which Albus was unable to attend due to a trifling difficulty involving a cauldron, a sherbet lemon, and a very nasty rash of boils. It remained unimpaired even when faced with a long and contentious meeting to go over their stories to make sure that all available fame and fortune would be parcelled out appropriately.

Mr Potter wasn't pleased that Neville had despatched His Lordship.

Potter was filling Neville's head with tales of revenge attacks from Death Eaters, and horror stories of being Crucio'ed till his brains leaked out of your ears, in the hopes of persuading him to allow Potter to show to best advantage.

Severus found he could cope with Mr Potter's disappointment, though it was difficult, but Neville was proving to be a weak straw.

'Nonsense,' Severus said when Potter stopped his lurid tales long enough to draw breath. 'Bellatrix is the only one who could ever have been called loyal – and Hermione has taken care of her. Most of the remaining Death Eaters would probably like to shake you by the hand.'

'And you'd know all about it,' Potter sneered.

'Certainly more than you,' Severus replied haughtily. 'In fact, Neville, why don't you come to the after-Coup party and meet most of them and see for yourself.'

Smudger nodded. 'After all, it's only fair that you should be invited, since you're the one that did the final deed. I expect you won't have to buy a drink all evening; I bet even Grytpype-Thynne will put his hand in his pocket.'

'I'm not sure about that,' Severus replied.

'It's the sort of thing that happens once in a lifetime,' Smudger pointed out.

'We hope,' Severus said. 'I definitely don't want to do that again.'

'He was definitely dead,' Hermione said. 'Every single one of the Aurors cast Avada on him, just to be sure. And Moody says that they're going to cremate the body, and spread the ashes over as broad an area as possible in a secret location. Even Dracula couldn't come back from that.'

They all took a moment to enjoy that prospect, before resuming hostilities.

'I still think,' Potter said, holding on to the bone of contention like a terrier, 'that Neville is taking a big risk, if he comes out into the open as having killed Voldemort, He's much better off if people assume that it was me, because I'm already a target.'

'Hero Potter,' Severus sneered.

Even Hermione, who didn't have a pin-studded wax figure of Harry in her sock drawer, thought that this was a bit rich, and said so. 'I'm not letting you take all the credit, Harry. Severus and I did all the planning, Smudger was the key to getting in, we couldn't have got Smudger in without Minerva's transfiguration skills, and Neville did the dirty deed. When you get right down to it, it was a team effort.'

'Absolutely,' said Smudger. 'We all did our bit, so we should all get some of the glory. Now, what I suggest is that we stick to the order of events as they actually happened right up to the bit where His Lordship hexed Bella by mistake. Severus is a wounded hero, narrowly escaping death in an attempt to distract His Lordship. Hermione looks nicely romantic in her dash to rescue Severus, though it might be better if she shielded him with her own body and not Bella's. That's the way that things are supposed to be done.'

'I suppose so,' Hermione said. 'Though I'm not sure I'd want to be famous for doing something as stupid as that.'

'It's not stupid,' Smudger replied. 'It's Romantic.' He ignored her muttered comment that there didn't seem to be a lot of difference between the two. 'And besides, that way you'll have a reputation to build on that might be useful when conducting future salary reviews. Not to mention the fact that Severus won't get a look in with the ladies, once they hear what happened to Bella, which leaves them all for us, doesn't it boys?'

"Not that Severus would be interested in the Young Ladies, anyway," Severus said smoothly.

Harry perked up at the thought of being besieged by adoring Young Ladies.

'What did I do then?' Ron asked, with a hint of bitterness. 'Stand around looking ornamental, whilst everyone else did something useful.'

'Nah, lad,' Smudger replied with a wide grin. 'You, Minerva and me were engaged in a hard fought battle with the other Minions. We were laying down covering hexes, and generally being heroic with a small 'h'.'

'But there were only two of them,' Ron scoffed. 'That's hardly heroic at all, whether with a small 'h' or a big one.'

'You know that. And I know that. But do the Young Ladies, or Young Men,' he added, nodding at Minerva, 'know that? I don't think that they do, and they won't find out provided we all stick to our story.'

Ron considered the point, mentally playing over conversations with admirers to see how it would all sound. 'That might work,' he said slowly.

'But what about the killing blow?' Harry asked. 'Who struck that?'

'A joint effort,' Smudger said promptly. 'You both cast at the same time, so it's impossible to say who struck the fatal blow.'

It seemed horribly unfair that Potter should be allowed to take credit for something he hadn't done, but Severus was aware that any protestations he made on the point would be dismissed as sour grapes. Besides, life wasn't fair, he knew that, so it wasn't an argument he felt comfortable making.

He sighed. Neville clearly wasn't Hero material, and would be only too grateful for the scraps that fell from Potter's table. Still, the blackmail material secreted away in his rooms would be a much more reliable basis for a bright future than shallow notoriety. In six months time, Potter would still be an Auror, and all the girls would be chasing some new celebrity.

'Never mind, dear,' Hermione said quietly. 'You still haven't resigned, you know. That should be fun.'

That was true. And tomorrow was the weekend, so he didn't have to teach for two whole days.

And he had a party to arrange.

For old time's sake, the party was to be held at their Local, but with rather better nibbles than usual, and a free bar.

Severus had been prepared to use up the last of his bribery money but, in a stroke of genius, Hermione had sold the exclusive rights to cover the party to the Daily Prophet. That august chronicle had applied its usual ethical standards to the story, and the journalist sent to cover the story was quite happy to take a couple of photos of the group, and then bugger off clutching the article that Hermione had dictated to him and several galleons to buy himself a drink.

'Right,' Smudger said. 'Now we've got rid of him, we can get the real party started.' He stuck two fingers in his mouth, and whistled, summoning the Lads from their hiding place in the Saloon Bar.

'Blimey,' said Seagoon. 'I thought he'd never go. Didn't he realise that there were people waiting for drinks in there?'

'Bastard,' said Grytpype-Thynne, with narrowed eyes, trying to keep up his position as Evil Minion by striking a threatening pose and fondling his wand meaningfully.

'Never mind lads, it's a free bar and there's plenty of ale,' Smudger said. 'Help yourselves.'

There was a stampede for the bar, as the full complement of Lads made a dash for the bar at once. There was a certain amount of jostling, and the discreet application of elbows, before some sort of order was established.

Severus waited until the last few stragglers were placing their orders before going to the bar. It wasn't as if the bar was going to run dry; he'd left very clear instructions as to how much alcohol would be required for this evening.

"Hermione, Minerva, what would you like?" he said, over his shoulder.

"Oh, I think we should try the cocktails, don't you Minerva?" Hermione said, deftly inserting herself between two stragglers to pick up the cocktail menu and peruse it.

Minerva was torn between blushing and giggling at the silly names. "I'll have a Slippery Nipple," she said. "That sounds interesting."

"It does, doesn't it? Are you going to have a Slippery Nipple too, Severus?" Hermione asked innocently.

"Do you know, I think I might," he replied. "I certainly don't feel like bitter tonight."

They settled at a table with their drinks. Minerva cast a discreet cleaning charm, and sniffed at the general state of cleanliness in the pub. "Do you come here often?" she asked Severus.

Hermione snorted into her drink. "Stop chatting up my boyfriend, Minerva."

"It's a perfectly innocent question," Minerva replied. "I was just wondering how Severus could bear to spend his Friday evenings in a dump like this."

Severus looked round at the pub. It was dingy though not actually dirty, with the accumulated grime that was made up by a combination of London pollution and hundreds of smokers busily puffing away, the tables were slightly sticky, and the wallpaper had probably been on the walls in the time of Victoria. It was also the place where he'd spent some of the happier moments of his life.

He sighed. "It's not much, I grant you, but at least no one ever tried to stab me in the back here."

Hermione patted his hand soothingly. "Never mind, dear, I'm sure you'll have lots of other evenings in here, and at Lucius' expense too."

"Hmmm?" queried Minerva.

"Lucius is going to be the next Dark Lord," Severus replied. "So, obviously he's going to need new Minions, and they may take a bit of persuading to join up."

"Fair enough," Minerva said. "So, have you two given any thought to what you're going to do next?"

Severus was in the middle of laying out his plans to take over the Wizarding World through a combination of blackmail, blackmail and more blackmail when Seagoon came up beside him.

'Harry's just challenged Smudger to a game of darts. You have to do something," he said.

'Oh, I don't know; after all he did finish off His Lordship.' Severus picked up his drink and smirked. After all, the whole point of Harry taking credit for despatching Voldermort was to protect Neville from the consequent dangers. Playing darts with Smudger had all the hallmarks of being a consequent danger.

'But he's been drinking depth charges!' Seagoon persisted.

'Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.' Severus shook his head sadly.

From behind him came a muffled thud, a scream, and the panicked voice of Ron Weasley saying, "Harry? Harry? Talk to me Harry. Tell me you're alright?"

"Severus, stop gloating," Minerva said sharply. "And see whether Mr Potter is still in the land of the living."

Hermione downed the last of her drink, and stood up. "Don't worry, I'll sort it out."

Harry wasn't badly hurt, but removing the dart from where it had lodged in his shoulder was a tricky manoeuvre. If she wasn't careful, the dart could get bent. Severus, peering over her shoulder and cutting down her light, supervised the whole procedure and offered a steady stream of advice.

"There you are," she said briskly, pulling the dart free and handing it to Ron. "No harm done."

"That's easy for you to say," Harry protested. "That bloody hurt."

Severus muttered something unflattering under his breath. "You should know better than to play darts, Smudger," he added, a little more loudly.

"If you can't play darts on a day like today, when can you?" Smudger said, slightly sulking. It wasn't his fault that the lad was too stupid to cast Protego before the game started, now was it?

"Why don't you have another drink?" Hermione said. "I think you've won this game anyway."

Harry nodded. "I concede. I'm not taking the risk of another go; I'd like to make it out of here in one piece."

"Oh well, if you're going to be a spoilsport," Smudger said. "Another drink it is then."

There was less of a crowd at the bar now, just a steady stream of people going up in one's and two's to collect their next round so it didn't take Smudger long to get served. Not for him the poncy drink with an umbrella in the glass; he stuck with the traditional pint.

'So,' said Smudger, watching the Lads carry on the game with a fond eye. 'How did the Old Bastard take your resignation?'

'Disappointingly well,' Severus replied. 'I think he was rather more focussed on the Soothing Ointment that Madame Pomfrey was applying to his nether regions rather than the news that Hermione and I were leaving. He didn't beg me to stay once, which is annoying.'

'I think he's expecting to be able to dump the problem of recruiting new staff on Minerva,' Hermione said. 'Once he realises that she's taking six months holiday, to catch up on all the holidays she's missed over the years, and that he's going to have to do the interviews himself, then I think the news will sink in. I expect we'll get a couple of Owls about then, begging us to come back, and laying on the emotional blackmail.'

'I don't suppose he'll go as far as giving you a pay rise, will he?' asked Smudger.

'I shouldn't think so for one moment. Not that it matters,' Severus replied. 'All the gold in Gringott's wouldn't get me to work there again.'

'Hello,' said Smudger, his attention suddenly attracted to a figure by the door. 'Who's the girl with the purple hair over there? She looks rather nice.'

'That's Tonks,' Hermione replied. 'She's here as our protection. Shacklebolt insisted that we needed some protection, and she's it.'

'She's an Auror,' Smudger asked. 'That's interesting. I've never been out with an Auror before, apart from that one time one of them pulled me out of the pub she was so keen for my company.'

'She was arresting you at the time,' Severus said dryly. 'For being drunk and disorderly, as I recall, and lewd behaviour.'

'That was just a ruse,' Smudger replied. 'So she could pat down my robes.'

'It cost you a ten galleon fine,' Severus said.

'It was worth it, I tell you. Very nice hands she had; she even warmed them up before she searched me. Now that's what I call considerate.'

'If you'd like to meet her, just say the word,' Hermione offered. 'I think you might get on. She likes Quidditch, for a start.'

'Does she play darts?'

'Probably not.' Hermione winced at the thought of Tonks and sharp implements; it was bound to be trouble.

'Never mind, eh? No one's perfect. Maybe she'd like to learn?' Smudger said hopefully.

'Maybe.' Hermione smiled at Tonks, and invited her over with a wave of her hand. 'Tonks, I'd like you to meet a good friend of mine – Smudger. Smudger, this is Tonks.'

''Ow do,' said Smudger and promptly became tongue-tied.

'He's just a bit shy,' Hermione said. 'But he's been admiring you from across the room, and was wondering if you'd like to go out with him on a date some time?'

Smudger shuffled his feet like a schoolboy. Hermione didn't believe it for a moment. It appeared that Tonks didn't either.

'Just a date?' asked Tonks. She was an Auror, skilled in the art of interrogation, and was determined to pin down exactly what 'just a date' meant.

Smudger blushed at the implication. 'I can assure you that my intentions are perfectly honourable.'

'Rather defeats the purpose of the date then, doesn't it?' Tonks asked, grinning widely.

'Alright then, my intentions are perfectly dishonourable, but I can recognise that you're a witch of character and determination who won't give an inch. That's alright, I like a challenge.'

'Right-o, then. Since we understand each other perfectly well, I agree to go out with you.'

'I don't suppose you know how to play darts, do you?' Smudger asked.

'I know the rules,' she said. 'But they won't let me play; I'm not really good enough.'

'Funny you should say that,' Smudger replied, taking Tonks by the elbow. 'But for some odd reason, the Lads won't let me play darts either. What do you say we give it a go and show them how it's done?'

The pair of them drifted off towards the darts board, leaving Severus and Hermione to watch them indulgently.

'Perhaps we ought to move away,' Severus said.

'You're right; we should give them some privacy,' Hermione replied.

'I was thinking that we could do with taking cover. I'd be happier with something thick and wooden between me and Smudger when he's got darts in his hand. You saw what happened to Potter.'

'He can't be that bad?' Hermione said, ignoring Severus' smirk. 'Can he?' That was a one off, surely?"

Severus shook his head. Hermione flicked a nervous glance at the pair, where Smudger was preparing to take his shot, and wondered whether it would be tactless to move.

'Ah,' Severus said, sounding very pleased with himself. 'Look who we have here – the next Dark Lord himself.'

Hermione followed his gaze to see Lucius Malfoy, who was standing by the door looking supercilious, though saying Lucius looked supercilious was like saying Lucius looked like Lucius. It was a permanent condition, and nothing short of a decent hexing was going to wipe that expression off his face.

How she itched to test that hypothesis personally.

Lucius sauntered over to join them, managing to convey his unease at being seen with so many common people with every step. 'Severus. Mu-Miss Granger.'

'Lucius, we were just talking about you,' Severus returned smoothly, turning slightly so that he was interposed between him and the dartboard. 'Come to inspect the troops have we?'

'Something like that,' he replied. 'Narcissa was getting a bit twitchy about our place in the new order, so I thought I could kill two birds with one stone. If I popped in here, it looks like I'm doing something to improve our position, and at least I wouldn't have to listen to her whine for a couple of hours."

"Oh, I am sorry," Severus said with patent insincerity. "Narcissa was always a little shrill when she didn't get her own way, as I recall."

Lucius winced. "It's enough to drive a man to drink," he said. "Only I can't drink too much. The last thing in the world a man needs the morning after the night before is Narcissa laying into him about how she never gets to have any fun, and she never gets to go anywhere, and it's just not fair the way the boys get to have all the excitement."

"I can see her point," said Hermione.

"You would," Lucius said bitterly. "Women – you're all the same."

"I think you'll find that we are not," she replied, with ice in her voice. "However, if you were quite as bright as you thought you were, you would be able to turn Narcissa's disappointment to good effect."

Lucius looked blank. He was more adept than the boys at looking intelligent whilst wondering what on earth was going on, but he was still clueless.

"Naricssa is bored," she said patiently. "So give her something to do. Surely there are people you need persuading to do things - and I mean real persuading and not the sort that happens at the end of a wand – where an attractive woman could be useful. I'm sure any number of wives would be grateful for an invitation to Malfoy Manor, just so they can boast to their friends that they've been there."

Lucius still looked blank, but this was the blankness of someone who'd just had a series of truly brilliant ideas, and was wondering which of them to try first. Hermione knew that the first steps had been taken whereby her idea would become his, unless it all went horribly wrong, when he would suddenly recall that it had been her suggestion in the first place.

Once she had been young and innocent and trusting, but that had been stripped away by her first staff meeting.

"Lucius, old boy," Severus said with the faintest of stress on the old. "I thought you said you were dying for a drink?"

"Hmmm. What? Oh yes, yes I did," Lucius replied, coming back from whatever dark place his mind had been dwelling in. "Does this mean that you're actually offering to buy me a drink?"

"Of course, Lucius," he replied smoothly, putting an arm round him to direct him to the bar. "Feel free to order anything you like. Anything at all."

The fact that Lucius couldn't work out what the catch was didn't prevent him from ordering a triple brandy. If he was going to get stiffed in some way, it would be best to make sure that he was stiffed whilst mildly squiffy to take away the pain and provide him with some sort of alibi.

Besides, no true Slytherin would refuse the chance to take advantage of any opportunity that was presented to him

Once he had secured his drink – no ice, and how he resisted the urge to hex the philistine of a barman when he suggested that, he would never know – he faced the tricky issue of who to grace with his company. Hermione was deep in some private conversation with Severus, who was smiling fondly down at her. It would be rude to interrupt them, and he had to admit that Hermione made him nervous. He'd heard about her treatment of Bellatrix and, whilst you could discount the story as told to the Daily Prophet as just so much rubbish, he'd heard eyewitness reports from Perkins and he knew just how dangerous she could be.

Nor was he natural fellow traveller with The Lads. Smudger wasn't that bad, but Grytpype-Thynne would be all over Lucius like a rash, determined to make the most of his chance to talk to a Malfoy. Lucius didn't usually object to obsequiousness, but for once he fancied a quiet drink.

His gaze fell in Minerva, sat alone at a table, watching Smudger playing darts.

He'd spoken to her at Governor's meetings, and she'd seemed like a sensible witch; someone with whom he could have a bit of a natter, and who might be wheedled into letting slip a little information about Dumbledore's future plans whilst under the influence of alcohol.

"Professor McGonagall," he said politely. "Would you mind if I joined you?"

"Certainly, Mr Malfoy," she replied, equally politely.

"No Dumbledore?" he asked, reasonably enough; everyone had heard the rumours about those two, and it was odd that he wasn't here with the rest of the winning side.

She winced; he'd hit a nerve there. "I'm afraid Albus was unavoidably detained: lots of paperwork, that sort of thing."

Aware that he had dropped a clanger of monumental proportions, and that this wasn't conducive to persuading people into confidences, he changed the subject with immense tact. "What is that vile Muggle concoction you're drinking? I assume it's a Muggle concoction, because it's certainly nothing I've ever seen before."

"It's a Slippery Nipple," she replied. "It's something called a cocktail. All I can say is, it slips down very nicely, but goes straight to your feet. My feet are very, very drunk."

"That sounds…intriguing." Lucius considered the matter carefully. There was no one here who would care that he had abandoned the Muggle-hating habits of a lifetime, and it was a free bar after all. He downed his simple brandy with barely a flinch, and said, "Would you care for another?"

She looked at her glass, then looked round at the party, and her lips firmed. "Why not? If you can't have a drink when you bring down a Dark Lord, when can you? Why not bring back the cocktail list, and we can work our way down it?"

It was a recipe for disaster, but he couldn't back down from a challenge like that.

Several luridly coloured cocktails later, he'd been treated to a brief summary of Albus's perfidy, and the room was whirling round him. Now he understood what Minervaverva meant about having drunk feet. It was as if the alcohol went straight to your feet, and numbed you from the toes up. At this stage of the evening his legs were full, and the liquid was rising up his torso and had reached his nipples. Every once in a while, when Minervaverva looked away, he would surreptitiously sneak a hand to his chest and give his nipples an experimental tweak; yes, they were definitely losing sensation.

It was in mid-tweak that Dumbledore chose to enter the room. It didn't look good, he had to admit, sitting there, apparently playing with his nipples suggestively, in the middle of a Slightly-Shady Revel, with an inebriated Minervaverva McGonagagagalll.

Still, there was no need for him to shout like that. Nor to make suggestions as to his parentage, or any of the other insults he saw fit to hurl across the crowded pub. He was trying to decide whether being called a two-face twisty, backstabbing Slytherin was an insult or a compliment, and if it was an insult, which of his two wands he should use to make his objections known, when a large shape crossed his field of vision.

"Now, now granddad," said the shape. "There's no need for that kind of language."

"Who are you calling granddad?" Albus shouted.

That was a pretty stupid question, Lucius thought blurrily. It wasn't as if there were many white-bearded men in the pub, and he was certainly the only one who was shouting the odds.

There was only one logical response to that, and sure enough, the barman said, "You, granddad. And if you can't keep it down a bit, then I'll have to ask you to leave."

Albus was poised to hex the man into oblivion, when he realised that it was a Muggle pub, and had to content himself with a poisonous glare. "But he's stolen my girlfriend," he said, pointing at Lucius.

The Lads were fascinated. Smudger even stopped playing darts to watch the entertainment. Lucius Malfoy was a notorious seducer of women, but no one had ever suspected that he'd have the nerve to attempt Old Iron Knickers herself.

He'd gone up in their estimation.

No longer was he a dilettante and a ponce; he was a brave and determined man. Opinion was divided as to whether he'd gone over to the winning side as a result of Minerva's charms, or whether he'd been using her as a back up plan in case His Lordship fell at the last fence, but in either case he had demonstrated superior plotting skills.

"Don't make an idiot of yourself, Albus," Minerva said waspishly. "I'm not your girlfriend; you've made that very clear. So don't come crying to me if I choose to spend my time with another man."

Albus gaped at her. "What do you mean, you're not my girlfriend? We're engaged."

"Not any more."

"What's got into you, Minerva? Has that… that… Malfoy cast Imperius on you?" Albus stuttered.

"The only thing that's got into me is three Brandy Alexanders, a Slippery Nipple, a flaming Sambuca and several Crème de Menthes. Mr Malfoy has been a perfect gentleman and we were having a rather pleasant evening until you came along."

Lucius had listened to Minerva's tale of woe with surprise. He was a man of his word, as he found a reputation for reliability was important. Obviously that didn't extend to matters of sexual fidelity, but surely Narcissa realised that he didn't mean it when he promised to be faithful?

Not that that was the point. The point was that you didn't go round making promises to people and then break your word. Whether the promise was of the 'I am going to hunt you down and kill you' or the 'I agree to temporarily suspend hostilities in order that we may deal with this third party, before recommencing our rivalry at a suitable date' variety, your word was your bond.

The only occasion on which it was permissible to cross someone, was when you were sure that they wouldn't ever be in a position to take revenge. That certainly didn't apply to reneging on a proposal of marriage to your Deputy Headmistress.

Not if you wanted to ever get any work out of her in the future, anyway.

"Minerva!" wailed Dumbledore. "How can you do this to me, after all we've meant to each other?"

Minerva just sniffed, and put her nose up in the air.

"Ooh, you're in trouble there mate," Smudger said helpfully. "It's always a bad sign when they do the sniffing thing."

That married members of the Lads all nodded.

"I think I can manage this without your contribution, thank you very much," snapped Albus.

"You don't seem to be doing very well so far," Smudger replied. "If I were you, I'd consider a bit of grovelling. I was shocked to hear how you were treating a fine figure of a witch like this. You should be going down on your hands and knees and thanking the deity of your choice that someone as wonderful as Minerva is prepared to go out with you."

"I don't see what I've got to apologise for," Albus said, "if it's any of your business, which it isn't. I've yet to hear what it is that I'm supposed to have done."

The married Lads looked sympathetic. They too knew the terror of having to work out what they had done wrong on the basis of a couple of pointed comments and some meaningful silences.

"You bloody swine!" Minerva exclaimed. "How can you stand there and say that when you've been trying to wriggle out of our engagement, almost since the very moment you proposed."

"I have not," Albus said indignantly. "I was just trying to keep you safe, you daft bint. It's bloody difficult to enjoy married life when you're wife is spread all over the quidditch pitch in tiny pieces."

Minerva snorted. "A likely story."

Albus took a step closer to her and put a hand on her arm. "Minerva, please… You know I love you."

"Prove it then, Albus. Do something to show me how much you love me – give up the most important thing in your life."

"What give up being Headmaster?" he said, white to his lips.

"The beard," she said. "Lose the beard. I've always hated it – it's like snogging a hedgehog."

There was a collective gasp of horror from the Lads. When Minerva struck, she went straight for the jugular. Everyone knew how fond Dumbledore was of his beard; it made him look venerable and wise. Even Lucius felt a brief moment of sympathy for his fellow wizard before it was ruthlessly crushed.

"You can't be serious?" Albus said, playing for time.

Minerva nodded, implacable.

"And then we'll go back to the way things were?" he asked.

"No, Albus. Then we'll talk about what we do next, but if you don't lose the beard, you won't even get that far."

Albus gulped.

Slowly, very slowly, he drew his wand. There was pause to allow him to enjoy to the full his last moment of beardedness, and then he said, "Barbae."

His beard came away from his face as each whisker was severed one by one.

"There," he said. "Are you satisfied now?"

Minerva softened for a moment in the face of such sacrifice, but quickly reminded herself that she was taking a strong line with him in future. "It'll do for a start," she said. "But we have a lot to discuss, Albus."

"Well can we do it somewhere else," he replied, looking meaningfully at their audience. "Come home with me, Minerva, come home."

"Very well," she replied. "But don't think that this means that everything is alright, because it isn't. Not by a long chalk."

Albus nodded, and picked up her cloak from the back of her chair to hold for her. She allowed him to help her into it, and then they made their way to the door together.

There was absolute silence for several seconds after they had left, until Lucius said, "Well, that was disappointing. I was expecting rather more hexing."

"Me too," Seveus agreed. "It would have been the perfect end to the evening."

"You can't have everything in life," Smudger said sagely. "Anyway, I'm sure that with Minerva's new determined approach to life, it's only a matter of time before she hexes his nose off or something."

Severus smirked at the thought.

"And in the meantime, there's always another drink," added Smudger.

"There is always another drink," Lucius said, nodding his head.

"Well I think we should have a toast," Hermione said. "To one of the bravest wizards I know, without whom none of this would be possible. I give you – Smudger!"

"Smudger!" the crowd chorused.

Severus smirked at Harry, who was looking very disgruntled at the plaudits being offered to Smudger.

"Of course we couldn't have done it without you either," Hermione said, reaching up to kiss his cheek. He was having none of that, and turned his face so that they could kiss properly.

"Oh, god," Harry said, from behind them. "Can I poke my eyes out with a wand now?"

Hermione dismissed him with a wave of her hand, and continued kissing Severus.

"That's not such a bad idea," Lucius said.

"What, poking your eye out with a wand?" Ron asked.

"No, finding an affectionate young lady with whom to pass a quiet moment or two. I think, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I will go in search of just such a young lady." He cautiously rose to his feet, and walked very carefully towards the door. "I'll see you all next month, I presume?"

"Sounds good to me," Smudger said. "We're always ready for a bit of evil plotting, aren't we Lads?"

"Very well then," Lucius replied, holding the door ajar. "Severus, old friend, do strive to behave with a little more decorum. I'm sure you have a perfectly comfortable bed in which to misbehave."

"Even Lucius is right sometimes," Severus murmured against Hermione's lips. "Shall we leave these reprobates to enjoy themselves without us?"

"Oh, yes," she said.

It took several minutes for them to gather their belongings, and say their farewells to the Lads, and then they were outside and Apparated away.

Later that night, lying in a state of exhaustion, with his nose comfortably buried between Hermione's breasts, he thought that he'd never been happier. What was even better, was that he expected to be happy again tomorrow, and the day after that as well.

He smiled sleepily.

Maybe he would even award points to Gryffindor on Monday. After all, they weren't all bad. Some of them were very nice indeed.

Besides, it would frighten the children witless, especially if he smiled as well.

Oh yes, there was still a certain amount of quiet fun to be managed at Hogwarts.

And after that: freedom. At last.