Disclaimer: Nothing you recognize belongs to me. Just borrowed. Will be returned. Snape is welcome to stay, though.

A big Thank You goes to my beta-reader and brit-picker, Melusin, who still transfers my babble into language, sorts my random punctuation and is a good friend. Her patience seems endless.

A/N: I am terribly sorry that it took so long. But it's done now. It's all written. I'll post the remaining chapters as soon as we're through with the beta work.

Chapter 25 - The Magic Flight

When the boon's acquisition (or the hero's return to the world) comes against opposition, a chase or pursuit may ensue before the hero returns.

(Joseph Campbell: The Hero with a Thousand Faces).

The days went by and, apart from the training sessions with Poppy and sometimes Hermione, Severus was left alone. Everybody else seemed to be busy with something or other, and Severus felt increasingly useless and inefficient. He hadn't found anything in the old books that could have helped Potter, and no one else seemed to have made progress, either. There was an odd tension in the air as if everybody were waiting for something to happen, but Severus couldn't quite figure out what that might be. Surely they weren't waiting for Potter to wake up? Surely the Order and the Underground would be able to deal with the Ministry problem on their own? The wizarding world wouldn't always be able to rely on a Chosen One to get them out of trouble, would they? Eventually, they'd have to take matters into their own hands.

The general tension and his inability to leave his room for more than a brief trip to the bathroom was making Severus irritable. Somehow, he seemed to have forgotten how to hide his emotions. His anger and frustration wanted to get out with a violence that worried and confused him. What was happening? Was he in the process of reverting back to the angry man he had been in his youth? Surely not. Even back then, he had been able to hide his feelings better than this. Nowadays, he seemed to wear his emotions on his sleeve like some fool who had never heard of discipline. Severus felt pathetic.

Things weren't made any better by Hermione's insistence on pursuing her ill-advised quest to make him happy. He wasn't in any state to share more than a few kisses with her, but that didn't seem to faze her in the least. Unerringly, she asked him to marry her, and unerringly she received the same answer. He was convinced that a commitment to him was bound to suffocate her: he had survived enough restrictive masters to know how difficult it was to free oneself from their… affection. It didn't really matter if love or terror dictated such an attachment; he was not going to impose such a burden on Hermione. He had tried to explain his reasons to her, but she wouldn't––or couldn't––understand, insisting that an attachment between them didn't have to be restrictive. Her blind trust in him had begun to grate on his nerves and added momentum to the lingering anger deep in his gut. That anger was coming closer to the surface with each new marriage proposal, and he was afraid that some time soon it would boil over.

Therefore, it was not entirely unwelcome when finally, one day, Severus' quiet routine of brooding came to an end. Shouts and hectic comings and goings indicated that something important was about to happen outside his little bubble of self-doubt. Croaking out profanities, he grabbed one of his crutches––it had taken a lot of convincing before he'd agreed to use them––and opened the door to the landing. He saw Paulie huffing up the stairs, loaded with stacks of bed sheets and looking slightly harassed. He was headed towards the guest bedroom.

"Your highness," Paulie cried, "if it's not asking too much, I could do with a hand."

Without a word, Severus followed his cousin and helped with spreading out the sheets, airing the room, cleaning the cabinets and dusting the wardrobe.

"The least they could have done is provide you with a house-elf," Severus grumbled.

"You mean those little blokes with the big ears?"

Severus nodded and Paulie continued, "Two of them did come to help get the house ready, but they were sent away because your people don't want to use too much magic around here, to prevent being noticed, they say."

"That's wise," Severus murmured and helped to envelop a duvet with a fresh cover.

"I wouldn't have minded having them around, to be honest. They come here from time to time to pick up the laundry and bring fresh stuff, together with food," Paulie said, looking wistful. "Nice folks, those two. You want something, and they do it. D'ya think one of them might be a bass player? Can they sing?"

Severus snorted. "I haven't the slightest… Go and ask them yourself. And why haven't you asked for my help sooner?"

"You've been so busy with important stuff and with getting back on your feet again. Gandledore was very firm on that. He said I wasn't to disturb you. You weren't exactly fit for a beer and a bit of fun, either."

Severus had to smile at Paulie's name for Dumbledore. "Rubbish. I could have done with a bit of fun, you know. I almost died of boredom before I was allowed to get up on my own."

Paulie grinned. "And there's me thinking you were happily reading. You always were such a bookworm…"

Severus rolled his eyes. "As much as I feel obliged to uphold the Snape family's intellectual standing––something you wouldn't know anything about––I have to admit that reading all day, every day, does get tedious, even for me."

Paulie gave him a dirty look and then laughed. "Ah, well, enjoy being bored while it lasts. From the looks of it, your world is still in a lot of trouble, if the wild tales your friends are telling me are true…" He wrinkled his brow. "Wild really isn't the right word for this, anyway. Most likely I'm heavily drugged and fantasizing in an asylum for the insane. Gotta blame the whisky, or maybe I smoked one joint too many in our wild youth."

Severus, sobered, looked self-consciously at his hands. "I can assure you that all of this is very real. We owe you big time, Paulie, each and every one of us," he said softly, suddenly feeling very fortunate to have such an accepting cousin.

"Ah, get out. I'll get over it." Paulie winked. "It's a bit of excitement in my life. It's been very dull since you and your Nightshade left, you know. And that other fellow with the haughty name. What was it? Lucius, right? But anyway, it's too bad I can't tell the lads down the pub."

"Better not," Severus murmured. "Who exactly are these rooms for, by the way?"

"The spare bedroom is for the cousin of that bloke everyone is talking about. Him and his girlfriend. They're bringing all three of them here."

"Potter? They're bringing Potter to your house? What the hell is going on?"

"I'm not sure… As far as I know, the one called Harry isn't going to stay, but his cousin will. They'll be taking Harry to one of your secret hide-outs; they say it's safer there."

"But why? What's going on?"

"Apparently, there's been some kind of a threat. Your girl, Nightshade, she told me that he was supposed to be taken into your Ministry's care, and by the way she said it, that must be a bad thing. Something about the cousin's memories being altered and being forced to sign the papers, or something."

"What? I can't believe that Arthur would sink so low…" Severus grumbled, shaking his head. "Did everyone go crazy while I was sleeping? Even crazier than they already were?"

His stare seemed to want to draw the answer out of his cousin, but Paulie only shrugged.

"How would I know? That's what Nightshade told me is all I can say. That's why I'm cleaning the room…"

"Do they even realize what they are asking of you?" Severus wondered. "Don't let them treat you like a servant, you hear me? You're worth as much as the bunch of them…"

"Don't worry about me, Sev. I'm fine. It is a bit like running a hotel, sure, but they are nice people, and they're paying me."

"Oh, are they? Well, that's at least something," Severus muttered and continued more loudly, "You know, we could expand the space in your house if you feel that it's getting too crowded. I suppose we can risk that much magic. It could be concealed."

"They've done that already, right at the beginning―before any of the people here moved in. You should see the library in the basement, and the wine cellar. They've put in an extra bathroom, too, or maybe it's a swimming pool, it's that big. Great fun though; there are different foam baths from different taps… If my neighbours could see it, they'd call this Paulie Manor."

Severus snorted. "As long as you don't feel too bad about it… I still say we owe you. And what about London? Don't you have to go back to the studios?"

"Not for a while, yet." Paulie said placatingly. "I've given up freelancing and got a contract as a sound supervisor, but it's not starting before October. In any case, you can all use the house if you need it."

"Very well, then. And now I suppose I'd better find out what this business with Potter and his cousin is all about."

"Do that, Sev. There's a bunch of people in the kitchen who can fill you in. I gotta run."

Paulie slapped Severus on the back and hurried away, his mind obviously already occupied with some other task.

Swearing at his bloody weakness, Severus grabbed his crutches and dragged himself out of the room. How he hated to be restricted in his movements! He wondered if all the other rooms were still where they'd been when he had last been at the house, or if things had become unrecognizable from all the expanding and moving around. He hadn't been able to walk around much on his own yet; he'd better not start exploring just now, else he might get lost. The kitchen, at least, would still be on the ground floor, he thought while he carefully made his way down the stairs.

The scene that met his eyes when he opened the kitchen door wasn't quite what he had expected. Half the Weasley clan was sitting at the table, together with Luna Lovegood, Lola Lafolle, Rita Skeeter and Albus Dumbledore. They were arguing. Severus eyes darted around the room, but he couldn't see Hermione amongst them.

"Will someone kindly enlighten me as to what's going on here?" he drawled.

"Severus!"

Lola and Rita jumped up and threw themselves at him, and for a while he could neither think nor speak because of their hair in his face, and their lips randomly kissing his cheeks, nose, and on occasion, his lips. His arms were filled with two affectionate women who were wriggling like excited puppies. Lovegood remained seated, but she smiled at him in her usual absent-minded way and seemed to be delighted to see him.

"Ah, Severus, so good to see you up and about on your own," Dumbledore gushed and offered him a chair.

The Weasleys watched the happy reunion in silence; they looked subdued and sad. Only Ronald nodded a friendly greeting in Severus' direction and muttered, "I'm very glad to see that you're feeling better, Nundu."

Severus nodded back, sat down heavily and looked around. "Well?"

They all spoke at once. Unruly bunch, the lot of them. He sighed, filled his lungs and thundered, "Silence!"

The Weasleys shut up immediately. They were all still young enough to remember him from school. Lovegood watched him with shining eyes, and the others grinned and ceased their chatter.

"So good to see you're on the mend, Severus," Lola stage-whispered and winked at him, which elicited the giggles in Rita, who coughed and tried to suppress her laughter without much success.

"I see that the discipline in this endeavour leaves much to be desired," he growled, barely able to suppress a smile. He realized that he had missed Lola and Rita and their antics, and not only them. He had missed the Underground. Full-stop.

"I also see that the two of you are as bad as ever," he mock-growled. Both women wriggled their eyebrows at him and smirked.

"We've been very busy with Underground work, Darling. Otherwise, we'd have come to see you sooner," Lola said.

"Well…" Severus frowned. "Someone had better fill me in...Weasley." He pointed at Ron. "You tell me what's going on."

"Me?" The boy, no, young man––he was almost Hermione's age, after all––looked baffled and glanced sideways at Dumbledore, who smiled, eyes twinkling in their unmistakable and infuriating way.

"Yes, you. That way, I can expect a rational report."

"Whoa, little brother, you've got a fan," George Weasley quipped. Severus wondered where his twin brother was while he stared him into silence. George only shrugged and muttered, "Sorry…"

I really must be losing my touch, Severus thought, frowned and glared at Ronald.

"Uhm," Ron said, fidgeting in his seat. "What exactly do you want to know? You've already learned about what's been happening since the battle, or so I've heard."

"Yes. But what I don't understand is how this could have happened? How could your father change that much; why is no one questioning what he's doing, and where does that outrageous animosity towards Muggle-borns come from?"

Ron looked at him with narrowed eyes. "Those are questions I'd like to have answered, as well. The quick answer is that I don't understand it, either. I can only offer observations and speculation."

"I'm listening."

"After the final battle, there was a lot of celebrating, but there also was a lot of chaos, anarchy. Death Eaters were on the run, and then there were all those people from the Underground who everyone had believed to be dead and who came back, but were greatly changed from the way people had known them. Everyone was pretty confused, and no one knew who was in charge. There was a great need for order, a structure, guidance. People wanted a leader; they wanted a new Minister. I don't know who suggested Dad, but he got a lot of support; people know him, and no one expected… Uh… you know?" Ron looked sad and embarrassed, so did his brothers.

Severus glanced at them thoughtfully. "When and why did the Underground fall from grace?"

"Pretty soon after Dad became Minister," Ron continued. "When he learned that the Malfoys were part of the Underground and that you were one of the leaders, he became irrational. He began implying that the actual battle had been led by Aurors and the Order, and that the Underground had to have been an organization supporting the Death Eaters."

"That's insane," Severus growled.

"Tell us about it," Rita said.

"The Malfoys wanted to avoid trouble and moved to their estates in France, and Pansy went with them. She and Draco have got engaged, you know. They're helping the Underground from there as much as they can, mostly with money and with providing shelter if necessary. Everyone who wasn't too much in the spotlight moved back into the caves. Hannah Abbot bought the Three Broomsticks; her family didn't go back into hiding. They've always been respected and are now telling what really happened to everyone who wants to hear the truth. The Three Broomsticks is a good place for that."

Severus nodded. "How did she get over…?"

"She didn't. She's still miserable. Ernie's body died soon after the battle, did you know?"

Severus hadn't known, but he thought that the young man's death might have been a blessing since the presence of the empty, soulless shell of what had once been her boyfriend would have driven even the strongest witch insane.

"It helps her by being useful to the Underground again. She's working closely with Neville, who will be starting his apprenticeship with Professor Sprout this autumn."

"Good," Severus said and swallowed down a sarcastic comment about Longbottom. The young man had fought bravely, after all. "But all this doesn't explain the actions against Muggles and Muggle-borns."

"No, it doesn't. And I really don't understand it, either. There were Hermione, Colin and a few other Muggle-borns who were rather upset about the claims that the Underground was supporting Death Eaters, and they weren't silent about it. That was around the time when the Anti-Muggle-born campaign started. Hermione was furious, spoke up in every show on the wireless that would have her and called Dad a benevolent racist. That led to a lot of unrest, and the Ministry tried to make her look like a liar, extending that accusation to all Muggle-borns. Then they produced the arrest warrant for you, and Hermione went ballistic. She's been wild ever since, telling everyone about your deeds and demanding that Dad be removed from office. That's when Dad set the Aurors on her. As you can imagine, that made her even angrier."

Severus grimaced. He could indeed imagine. A righteously angry Hermione was not to be trifled with. Ron nodded sympathetically.

"Then there was the incident with Carlotta Pinkstone, who wanted to tell the Muggles all about us… but she was stopped," Ron continued. "Right after that, the Muggle Act was ratified."

"Erm," Lola Lafolle interrupted. "That's not quite the whole story. I don't think we're blameless in the matter of Carlotta and the Muggles. There were journals, you see…"

"Journals? About what?"

"Everything. The whole story. Rita was researching Harry Potter long before he was chosen for the Tri Wizard Tournament, and she'd written down everything she'd researched. But then her journals were stolen."

"What? Severus snarled. "How could you be so careless?" he growled at Rita.

Rita glared right back at him. "Your little girlfriend found it fitting to keep me in my Animagus form for a considerable stretch of time. No one looked after my possessions; I lost my job and almost my home. No one knew where I'd gone to, you see? And someone broke in, searched the house and stole the journals."

"And where are they now?"

"I got them back, and together with Lola, who also kept her own journals––she's been chronicling what the Underground was doing during the war––we've almost completed the series. When we found out that we both kept journals, we decided to combine and publish them after the war. That's how we got together." Rita took Lola's hand and tenderly kissed her fingers.

"You needn't look so alarmed. No one outside the Underground could have read my journals because of the secrecy contract," Lola continued the tale, giving him a indignant look. "I thought it was important to write the war's history and the chronicle of the Boy-Who-Lived from someone who wasn't in the Ministry, or associated with Voldemort. Whoever stole Rita's journals, sold them to a Muggle writer, who found the stories entertaining and decided to write a series of children's books based on them. The first one got published last year, if I'm not mistaken. In any case, the story in that book was pretty accurate, although that woman invented a bit of nonsense to make our world seem more colourful, more interesting for children. If can you believe that."

Severus stared at her blankly.

"Carlotta has a network of Muggle friends, some of whom know about the wizarding world, and they heard about the book and got her a copy. From what I can gather, the book is quite popular among Muggle children. But anyway, Carlotta went to see Arthur, told him about our journals and showed him the book. She thought that Muggles were ready to learn all about us and wanted to convince Arthur to lift the Statute of Secrecy in Britain. But Arthur went completely mental when he saw the book. He went on and on about Muggle spies, that nothing was safe, that they were acting like children, but had the power to destroy everything, that they were stealing the wizarding world's secrets and that the pure-blood slander about Muggles stealing magic might be true after all. Then he sent the Aurors after us to get the rest of our journals. Luckily, Kingsley was able to tip us off, and so we were able to get everything back to the Underground for safe-keeping."

"So how much of our world has been revealed, and how are the Muggles reacting to it?" Severus asked, not quite certain what to make of this tale. He felt sick.

"As I said, the first book is pretty accurate. But Rita hunted down the Muggle woman and had a few, uh, talks with her. She got her journals back, and the stories that woman remembers now are quite a bit different from the truth."

Severus eyes widened in alarm. "You used Memory Charms?" he asked Rita.

She nodded. "Yes. And I'm good with them. You know that. My, uh, work for the Prophet required them on more than one occasion."

"And the woman hasn't been otherwise afflicted?"

"No, she is as sane as she was before. It's only her memory of the contents of the journals that was changed. And the Muggles… I don't think they believe it to be a true story; they probably think it's some kind of fairy tale."

"Why weren't all the Muggles Obliviated, and the manuscripts destroyed as is usually done?" Severus asked.

"Arthur forbade it. He would have thrown away all of our work. He said that the Muggles could have it for all he cared and that it was a work of lies and fiction, anyway―all that to-do with you as the hero of the war and the Underground. So we tried to set things straight as best we could."

"Somebody had better get me a copy of that book," Severus whispered, shocked. "We should know what's in it, just in case it backfires. Memory Charms aren't foolproof."

"Mine are," Rita said.

"I hope you are right. This is not good."

"I didn't know about all that," Ron whispered. "So that's why Dad…?"

"It certainly isn't reason enough to go topsy-turvy in his attitude towards Muggles," Rita said. "I think this was an excuse for his actions rather than the real reason. I think he was planning the Muggle Act long before he learned about that Muggle writer."

"This is… It's… I don't know. He's not the same person he used to be. I frankly have no idea what's got into Dad." Ron hung his head.

"Don't you talk to him?" Severus asked, puzzled about Arthur's madness, for madness it had to be.

"He's so… It's unbelievable. I couldn't… We couldn't stay. We left him after he announced the warrant on Hermione. Fred and Charlie stayed with him, and they keep us up-to-date. They swear that Dad isn't under the Imperius Curse, but I'm not so sure. You can't really tell, can you?"

Ron's hopeful look made Severus wince; he shook his head. There was no certain way, otherwise so many Death Eaters wouldn't have been able to use the Imperius Curse as an excuse for their actions in the past.

Disappointed, Ron continued, "Dad's actions have a mad kind of logic; maybe that's why people are once again willing to blindly believe in what the Ministry says. He tells them that Muggle-borns are the reason for the divide and unrest in the wizarding world. He seems to have forgotten everything he's ever said and thought. He wants magical folk to be united; he insists that it would be less likely for a new Voldemort-type to come to power if Muggles and magical folk were strictly kept apart. These days, it's all or nothing for him: there's no moderation, no compromise. He doesn't blame Voldemort: he blames Muggles and Muggle-borns for Mum's death."

"That's not a mad kind of logic; that's no logic at all," Severus interrupted, frowning.

Ron shrugged and cast a sideways glance at Severus.

"That's just the beginning. Dad wants… He wants to take magical children away from Muggles and give them to wizarding foster-parents…." He swallowed and blinked a few times before he continued in a raspy voice, "Which makes a bit more sense now, with these journals… But there's more… Dad tried to get hold of Harry. I suppose he wanted to know when and if Harry'd wake up. From what I've seen of Dad's decisions and behaviour, I… I'm afraid that he would not have allowed Harry to stand up for the Underground and tell the truth about it to the people out there. Uh…, I find it more likely that Dad wanted to have control over what Harry says… and not just by reminding him how well― He closed his eyes and seemed to force himself to continue, "I don't want to believe that Dad wanted to have the power to decide whether Harry could be allowed to wake up at all, but…" Ron cleared his throat and looked very unhappy.

Severus frowned. He was still having a hard time believing that the formerly so gentle Arthur could act like that, mad or not. He had always treated Harry like a son.

"Go on."

"We told Hermione what Dad had got planned, and she contacted Dudley and Sabrina. Sabrina had to be told who we really are, of course, but they agreed to take care of Harry. Harry was in a Muggle hospital for some time; we thought that maybe they had some means to wake him up from his coma that we didn't, but of course, they were as helpless as the healers at St. Mungo's. Eventually, Harry was released, but he was considered unfit to see to his own affairs. As next of kin, his aunt was officially made his guardian in the Muggle world. This was something the Ministry couldn't very well oppose; it would have taken a tremendous effort and needed a lot of Ministry staff for the Memory Charms for all those Muggle civil servants, hospital staff and for forged documents. It might have caused more suspicion than what they've come up with now, I suppose. But anyway, now Dudley is of age, he's become the official guardian. Harry had been staying at his place, anyway. His aunt had only agreed to the official guardianship. She didn't want to have Harry in her house."

Severus nodded. He knew Petunia Dursley. He was surprised that she'd been willing to help at all.

Ron closed his eyes and took a few calming breaths. "Now Dad has come up with... with… this. I can't believe that he would stoop to the level of the Death Eaters and steal Harry from his cousin, modify their memories––it's only two insignificant, unknown Muggles, after all––and who knows what else he's planned."

"This course of action isn't untypical for the Ministry and would require far less effort than the other option," Severus said. "They've always operated like that, more or less. At least where Muggles were concerned."

"That's true," Ron concurred. "And it's one more reason why we cannot just leave Harry and his relatives to the Ministry's mercy. That's why we'll be bringing them here. Hermione has gone to get them."

"Who's with her?"

"Ginny and Mad-Eye." Ron's lips twitched into a slight smile. "Mad-Eye's involvement with the Underground was never made public, as you know. If there was any trouble, he could always say that he was carrying out Dad's orders, and that he's out to arrest Hermione. We've worked out an emergency routine if something like this should happen."

Severus raised an eyebrow and stared at Ron. "An acceptable plan. Your sister, of course, wouldn't want to leave Potter's side."

Ron blushed, delighted by the unexpected praise. "Exactly. And we've picked up a few tricks from the Underground. Hermione wouldn't rest before she'd taught us, and since you've trained her yourself, you'll know..."

"Yes. Well, that doesn't sound as bad as it could have been." Severus nodded, and Ron's smile widened into a grin.

"Very well, then," Severus continued. "What exactly is to be done once Potter is hidden, and his relatives are here? There aren't many leads for a cure, are there?"

Dumbledore shook his head. "We're none the wiser than we were. We must continue with our search. And you need to get the Underground organized again. Arthur must be stopped. It is a bit difficult to see him as the enemy, though."

"Dad is not an enemy!"

"Arthur is not an enemy!"

Severus and Ron spoke simultaneously. They stopped and smirked at each other. "Sorry," Ron mouthed, and Severus proceeded. "Arthur's not acting like himself. Whether he is cursed or mad doesn't really matter; he needs to be removed from office. If he is cursed, we must find out who did it, and if it is madness, he needs St. Mungo's, not a battle,"

Severus nodded at the Weasleys and continued, "We don't want to fight Arthur; there has been enough of that. People will never trust us fully if we try to change things through more violence. The Underground can co-ordinate the resistance again, though. There have been efforts at turning public opinion, I understand? That's what's keeping you so busy?" He glanced at Rita, who nodded.

"Yes, Lola has started a new series of commentaries in Witch Weekly where Arthur's actions are questioned, and I'm freelancing with The Quibbler. It hasn't been easy since we directly contradict what the Prophet writes, but we're making progress. Some of our colleagues at the Prophet are beginning to openly question the Minister's actions, and we can use this to our advantage. It makes people pay attention. They still recognize my name, especially since I'm part of the mysterious Underground."

"Wouldn't that rather hamper our efforts? Won't they distrust you because of that?"

"Don't underestimate the mystery. Despite the nasty rumours, a decent number of people find the Underground romantic. They want to know more about it and are inclined to see us

kind of like honourable outlaws." She smirked when she saw Severus' grimace of disgust. "They could be useful in changing the general view on us."

"If they knew that the Robin Hood cave is one of our hide-outs, they'd go mad," Lola quipped, and Severus hid his face in his hands, but before he could come up with an appropriate counter, there were sounds in the corridor. The team had returned, and each of them had brought someone with them through Side-Along Apparition. Hermione was holding on to Dudley, who looked terrified. Ginny held on to Sabrina, who looked delighted, and Mad-Eye with Harry in his arms, who looked–lifeless.

"Here we are," Hermione said cheerfully and let go of Dudley. She went over to Severus, squeezed his arm and nodded a greeting at the others.

"You're up," she whispered.

Severus' heart skipped a beat, which was usual when she was near.

"Have you been seen?" Ron asked.

"No, everything went well. We used several Portkeys to get us out of their house and through another part of the country, and then we Apparated the rest of the way, just as planned."

Severus was impressed. Ron Weasley really had come into his own. It was clear that he had been the one planning Potter's escape coup, and he had planned it well. Severus suddenly felt very proud. It wasn't often that a former student made him proud, but this was one of these rare moments.

Lola's voice brought him back to the present.

"Come over here, have some tea and then I'll show you two around." Lola had taken pity on Dudley and Sabrina, who were standing in the middle of the room like lost children. Looking relieved, they followed her.

"I shall put the Anti-Apparition spells up again in a moment," Dumbledore muttered. He had gone to help Mad-Eye, who was still holding Harry in his arms.

Severus couldn't believe how much his heart hurt, seeing Potter unconscious like this. He still didn't like the boy, but Potter had fought bravely, braver than many a man or woman twice his age, and he hadn't once flinched away from his impossible task. Severus admired the young man's tenacity and didn't want to see him incapacitated. A living, talking Potter might be a nuisance, but at least he was smart enough not to be taken advantage of. That was more than could be said for his unconscious shell.

Hermione glanced at him sideways. "Not a pretty sight," she murmured.

"No," Severus agreed with sadness in his voice. "There's nothing pretty about this."

The group had broken up without coming to a decision or agreeing on a course of action, but maybe that hadn't been the purpose of the meeting in the first place. Severus thought that the real reason for the gathering had been to reassure each other.

Lola and Rita helped to acclimatise the two Muggles. Dumbledore, Lovegood and the Weasleys went with Mad-Eye and Potter, and before Severus knew what was happening, the kitchen was empty, except for Hermione and himself.

"Mind if I take advantage of the situation?" Hermione asked and kissed him.

"Insufferable girl," he mumbled, trying to breathe in every molecule of her scent while he buried his face in her hair.

"The spells aren't up yet." She grinned, took his hand and Apparated with him to his room.

"Alone at last!" Hermione locked the door, crushed her lips to his again and keenly started to explore his mouth with her tongue while her hands wandered to his chest and started to work on the buttons of his shirt.

Severus held still, enjoying the moment. "Have you quite finished?" he hissed when she finally stopped, but the hiss sounded heated, even to his own ears, and so he wasn't surprised to hear her whisper, "Not for a while, yet."

"Have mercy on a tired old man, will you?" He stretched out on his bed, giving her better access to his clothes. He'd been waiting for this moment; it had been too long since they had made love. The anticipation made him short of breath.

"You'll get mercy when you deserve it," she whispered between kisses, her fingers being occupied with pulling his shirt open urgently.

"Doesn't look as if you'll be in need of mercy anytime soon." She kissed his chest and gently stroked the bulge in his trousers.

He couldn't stand it any longer. Rolling over, he sat up, growling, "Get out of these clothes, woman, before I tear them off you."

"Patience is a virtue," she murmured, smiling as she stood up and shimmied out of her robes. His breath hitched, and for a moment he worried about his heart.

"We'll have to take it slow, I'm afraid," he rasped, rubbing his chest and taking in the sight of her longingly.

"Why don't you let me take care of you?" she asked, and when he didn't object, she did just that.

Several long moments later, Severus lay on his back again, breathing heavily. His heart was racing, as it was supposed to do after the kind of activity they had been engaged in, but he neither felt too strained nor overly exhausted. In fact, he felt wonderful.

"Well?" Hermione asked smugly, licking her lips.

"I think we have something to work with." He grabbed her shoulders and pushed her on her back, enjoying her squeals and giggles. "We'll have to build up my stamina, otherwise there won't be any improvement," he murmured and started to kiss every inch of her, marvelling, as always, at the silky texture of her skin and the heat she emanated. How he loved to slowly move his hands over her body and feel how the soft swell of her graceful curves moulded into his hands and perfectly complemented his own lanky frame. He didn't think he'd ever tire of exploring the fascinating land that was Hermione's body.

Severus had been with other women before. It wasn't as if he was a novice in the art of lovemaking, but somehow, with Hermione, everything was new and different. Was this what love was all about? he wondered. He hadn't really loved any of the women he had been with in the past, although those relationships had usually been friendly and sometimes even affectionate. The encounters had been based on friendship, desire and mutual attraction, but he'd never allowed himself to fall in love, and he'd only chosen women who weren't intent on romantic love, but wanted a bit of fun or comfort, nothing more.

His love for Hermione had surprised him. It had grown slowly out of respect and admiration for the young woman who so bravely had tackled every task he had given her, and who had so steadfastly stood by her friends. He thought that the day when she had stood up to him and persuaded him in helping her help Potter with his quest might have been the day when he'd lost his heart. He certainly hadn't had any such feelings for her while she had still been his student at Hogwarts. He had always seen her potential, but apart from that, to him, she had been a girl like any other, only more annoying in her constant effort to impress her teachers. By the time Bee had told him about her own love for Florean Fortescue, however, Severus had known that he'd fallen head over heels for young Nightshade, and he was now completely defenceless where she was concerned. He thought that Bee must have sensed something from the way she'd smiled whenever she saw the two of them interact.

The realization that Hermione returned his feelings had been one of the happiest moments of his life. Holding her in his arms, feeling the warmth of her skin under his searching fingers, feeling the soft vibration of her heartbeat under his caressing lips aroused all his senses in a way nothing else ever had.

The wonder didn't end there. Hermione was enjoying what he was doing and was encouraging him with words, glances and sighs. She seemed to want him just as much as he wanted her, and when he watched her abandon herself to her pleasure under his hands and lips, he felt more accomplished than after mastering a difficult feat of magic.

Another long while later, he had accomplished his goal, and they both fell asleep: comforted, relaxed and sated.

In the morning, Hermione woke him up with a tender, lingering kiss. "As much as I would like to stay with you all day, I'll have to go soon. There's going to be another meeting tonight. We'll have to come up with a plan, either with or without Harry being awake."

"Right," he murmured, totally dazzled by her presence in his bed. He had forgotten how good that felt. His lips wandered from her cheeks to her collarbone and further down. Feeling her skin under his lips ignited his passion again, and he would have liked nothing more than to begin the morning as they had ended the night.

"Maybe I have a bit more time before I go, after all," she sighed softly, which fuelled his desire even more. With persistent enthusiasm, he went about his task of getting her undone, and from the languid, satisfied look on her face much, much later, he concluded that he must have succeeded. He hadn't felt so alive in a long time.

While he was still grinning like a loon and basking in the afterglow of their lovemaking, she lifted her head and studied his face with a serious expression.

"Will you marry me?"

That gave him a start. He hadn't expected that question right now. Dazedly, he blinked.

"I think not," he mumbled, feeling half-drunk from all the passion and half-shocked from the jolt of possessiveness that shot through him each time she asked. "You can do better."

"Idiot," she said affectionately. "I'm just trying to secure my claim, don't you know that?"

"Uh?" Now that was eloquent.

"You're a hero. You're the dark, mysterious type, and once we've found a solution for this mess, all the witches from far and wide will find you irresistible and romantic, and they will be all over you––don't snort––I've seen hints of it already in the Underground, but there was too much discipline for things to get out of hand. Once we have our freedom back, there won't be any hesitation."

"Codswallop," he muttered. "One glare from me, and I'll have my peace and quiet. Besides, many wizards will be pursuing you as well." That thought made him uncomfortable, but if he didn't want to burden her with his miserable self, he had to face unpleasant facts.

"Perhaps, and perhaps not. But if you think so, then why don't you stake your claim?" She glanced at him and winked.

Severus didn't react to her flirting, but grabbed her arms none too gently.

"Don't tempt me," he hissed. "I want you to have a choice," he ground out, fighting the urge to drag her away, to claim her for his own, to never let her leave him... "I want you to have a choice that isn't enforced by dire circumstances. A choice that doesn't constrict you," he continued hoarsely.

His worst fears seemed to be confirmed by the look she gave him. She just stared, her eyes very dark, almost as black as his, her pupils fully dilated. Finally, she bit her lip and lowered her lids. Her long lashes cast shadows on her cheekbones, and Severus noticed how hollow-eyed she looked. She looked tired, and incredibly young. Far too young to be burdened with someone like him…

"I've made my choice," she replied after a moment of hesitation. Her voice sounded strangled. "But I realise now that cajoling you into a commitment isn't fair to you. You should be free to make a choice, too. As you said, back in the Underground, we helped each other through difficult times, but of course that doesn't mean that…" Her chin trembled. And there were tears in her eyes. What was she saying? Merlin help him.

"Don't be silly," he growled, still not quite certain what she was getting at. He felt stupid: insecure and immature like a teenager. "I've explained my reasons for not wanting to burden you with a commitment again and again. If we look at it objectively, it becomes clear that all of this is mostly a matter of maturity…"

"Oh!"

Hermione's eyes widened. She stared at him, and he could literally see how she was clamming up. Suddenly, he very much wished that he'd opened himself up for mutual Legilimency. Trying to explain himself with words was so much more difficult than just conveying his thoughts through their mental connection. But that would be unfair to her. If she saw how desperately he wanted to be with her, to claim her, make her his own, to possess her… she'd be moved by his need in the best case; in the worst, she'd be afraid and repulsed. In any case, she wouldn't feel free to make her choice. He just couldn't live with the idea that she'd rush into an attachment they both might not be ready for. He definitely didn't feel very mature at the moment.

Hermione had gone very pale.

"I see," she said in barely more than a whisper. Her eyes were empty.

"I apologize," she continued. "I realize that you are right. And it goes both ways. A relationship shouldn't be a burden to either of us. I still have a lot to learn, and maybe I've not given you enough room. I'm restraining you, and you've certainly had enough people restraining you in the past. You don't need another one."

"What?"

Hermione swallowed several times while Severus stared at her, slack-jawed. That wasn't at all what he had wanted to say. When he got over his surprise, he tried to cut in, but she raised a hand.

"Let me finish. I realize now that you've never told me that you loved me back. I merely assumed… people should never assume… you know how the saying goes." She swallowed again, slipped into her clothes and fled the room.

Severus blinked and took a few steps towards the door.

"Hermione, wait! That's not what I meant…" His words only reached empty air. She was gone.

With a heavy thump, he sat down again. Well done, he thought. Now you've got what you wanted, and she has second thoughts for all the wrong reasons. You can rejoice, idiot.

He buried his face in his hands and continued with his self-condemnation. How could she not know that it was his own maturity he questioned after having wrestled for weeks with his self-doubts like a hormonal teenager ? How could she doubt that he loved her? He had said as much when they had first kissed, hadn't he? Or had he? But he had let her into his mind―hadn't she seen how much she meant to him?

Idiot, he berated himself again. A woman wanted to hear it. She would need just as much reassurance as he did, wouldn't she? He was a bloody, immature, clueless idiot! This just proved his point. Now Hermione was unhappy, and that was intolerable. He'd have to explain to her what he had meant. She shouldn't be unhappy.

She thought she restrained him? That, too, was laughable. He was the one who had all the issues, who had no idea who he was or how he could go back to being someone who had never been there in the first place. Hermione didn't understand his dilemma. He'd never really had time to grow up, to come into his own. He had always played a role. He was the shadow man. Cassandra Vablatsky had given him the perfect name. He was a shadow without an idea who that person was who cast the shadow.

Severus rubbed his face and sighed, feeling very tired. Everybody else seemed to be so certain about just who he was and what he would accomplish, but what did they know? Fact was that they didn't really want to see him as he was. What they saw was what he had always intended them to see. He was afraid how they'd react when they suddenly remembered that he had a darker side. He had seen unspeakable horrors; his task as a spy had forced him to at least passively participate in unspeakable crimes, and the memories of those horrors were always looming in the shadows of his mind, barely discernible, but present nonetheless. And the worst part of it was that he had initially chosen those horrors of his own free will. Didn't that mean that there was a monstrous version of him hidden deep inside? A monster that could watch and even commit some of those crimes without being driven insane?

Severus knew that the monster within him was alive even though he had successfully subdued it for most of his adult life. It was as much a part of him as the determined and courageous warrior, and he was constantly aware of the duality.

What would happen if he turned out to be unable to suppress the dark part within him any longer, and his dark urges got the better of him? Would he lose all restraint and try to dominate everyone who came close to him, like his father had done with his mother? Would he rage and struggle until he was torn to pieces, together with those who loved him? Or would he be able to wrestle the different versions of himself into a whole, into a self that was worth keeping, of which he could be proud? If you took his thin veneer of manners and socially acceptable behaviour away, what was left? A brutal, murderous fanatic? A cowardly turncoat? An unfair, cruel teacher? An angry man who never found anything good in other people? Or someone else? How did other people find out who they really were, anyway? Was there anyone he could ask?

Severus had never expected to survive the war, and his persona had served him well in his task as Dumbledore's spy, but now things had changed. He had a future. He had found love. And he was about to push that love away. Had he made the right choice? Or should he just enjoy whatever came his way? Should he even be thinking about his own problems when the Underground and Hermione were still being prosecuted?

There was still so much work to be done, but the greatest danger was gone. A mad Arthur Weasley was to Voldemort what a toad was to a dragon. People should by rights be able to deal with Arthur themselves, conscious Potter or no conscious Potter. They had Dumbledore back; they didn't need him. What more could they want? He didn't believe for a moment that Dumbledore would really stop meddling with worldly affairs. Couldn't they just leave him alone? He was tired of being manipulated. He needed solitude, peace, quiet and time to think. Here and now, he couldn't have either.

Coward! he swore at himself. Yammering about not having the time to think things through. How pathetic can you get? How can you let yourself drift into a sea of melancholy and self-doubt when Hermione's well being is being threatened? She's had to suffer enough animosity for being a Muggle-born. You can wallow in self-pity when Hermione is safe. Focusing on cleaning up the mess, that's what you're going to do. Best idea you've had all day.

Shaking himself out of his dismal thoughts, Severus got dressed, went to his desk and continued to study the old volumes of obscure magic until it was time to leave for the meeting.