Chapter 6: Epilogue

To Severus and Hermione the aftermath of their first lovemaking was a revelation. They had joined so much more than just their bodies in that sweet coming together. Severus, who had experienced sex before, knew this was something other; wilder and more compelling than anything he had ever felt, he was helpless as the blissful feeling settled in his heart. It was peace. When had he ever felt that before? For Hermione the sweetness enveloping her was the most precious sensation ever and, fearful of breaking it, she lay silent and joyful in her lovers' arms, holding him tightly.

After an eternity adrift in this rare and pleasant peace Severus tried to recover his wits and pragmatic self. Reluctantly he suggested to Hermione that it was time he walked her back to her rooms. She wrapped her arms more tightly around his neck and whispered "Oh Severus, I'm so happy here, please don't make me go away tonight." Severus kissed her softly and said "I'd love for you to stay in my arms tonight and forever, my Dear One, but that's not an option while you are a student." He slid up the bed to sit against the headboard and drew her up across his lap to cradle her in his arms and look deeply into her eyes. His face was very serious and his eyes intense as he said "Hermione, I am old enough to be your Father and I'm your Professor. The world will not take kindly to a relationship between us. His velvet voice was gentle and sad "I've lived long enough to know my own mind, my own heart" he softly brushed his lips across hers but drew back before she could respond and continued "but you are so young; you have so much more to do, to see, to experience in life. Tying yourself to an old man would be a mistake. Do you remember how your school mates reacted when they heard you were drawing an Ink for some Slytherin BOY? How much worse do you think the backlash would be if they discovered it was a nasty, dungeon-dwelling Slytherin PROFESSOR and what if it got out that drawing was not all that happened down here in my rooms? You don't want that to happen, do you?

Hermione detached her arms from around his neck and his heart winced expecting the touch of ice-cold reality to have finally reached her, expecting rejection, waiting for pain.

Touching her fingers to his lips Hermione smiled ruefully at her beloved Professor and said quietly "Severus it's gone much too far for considerations like 'what will people say?' This love I feel for you is real and so deep it is wrapped right down into my soul like the roots of a forest into the earth. I know I'm young and naive but hardly inexperienced. My childhood was over at a very early age. I've fought for my life, seen horror and evil in action. I've killed, been tortured and suffered terrible loss. I think I'm ready to experience love. It has been building up in us both, I think, all these weeks we've been together. It may have been unspoken because of the constraints of our student – teacher relationship but you can't deny it's real!"

"Hermione, I don't deny our feelings are real, and not as sudden as they might seem to an outside observer. The problem is that we CAN'T do this yet. To publicly become my lover, even my girlfriend would damage your reputation beyond anything you can imagine. You'd never get a decent job, you might not even graduate. If you did graduate with the honours we all know you've worked so hard for and deserve so richly that too would be tarnished, sullied by gossip about earning 'extra credit' in bed and so on. If our love became public I could leave this job, set up a private business elsewhere, ride out the storm of public condemnation. I've a thick hide and it wouldn't hurt me. But you, my darling, are not in my position. You would be hurt and I am not willing to let that happen." His arms tightened fiercely around her as he drew her mouth to his. Even as he tried to convince her that they couldn't be together his heart was ripping apart with the pain of losing something so dear and sweet.

"Severus, don't you remember giving me good advice about disregarding the wasp stings and carrying on my chosen path despite them all? Does that not apply here; and what about me staying and becoming a teacher?"

"It is my dearest wish, Hermione, but don't underestimate what we are facing; it wouldn't be a wasp's sting, more like a dragon's flame."

"Alright, Severus, I agree to pretend this didn't happen." His pain intensified even as he forced himself to nod. This was what he wanted for her. She continued "However, even if I agree to hide our love for the moment you do realise, don't you, that nothing will make me stop loving you and I'm not giving up your friendship, your wonderful company and having amazing mind-blowing sex with you! "So" she continued after an interval "How are we going to hide it from the dunderheads? You're the best spy and the cleverest wizard there is. You're sneaky to the core and I'm sure if anyone can blow cauldron smoke in their eyes it will be you."

His heart soared as he hugged his stubborn loyal Gryffindor woman tightly. Honour-bound to try to protect her he tried his final shot "What about Minerva? You know Professor McGonagall loves you like a daughter and even I couldn't pull off having an affair with one of her lion cubs right under her nose. The Headmistress (or Headmaster) has ways of knowing what is going on in the castle that I can't circumvent, despite being an ex-Headmaster myself.

"Well," Hermione sighed, "Perhaps we'd better go see her in the morning and make our case."

"Are you mad?" He gasped. "I'm not suicidal even if you are!"

"It'll be OK, Severus, I'm sure we can make Professor McGonagall understand."

"Impossible" he scoffed.

"No, Severus she loves me and though you may not realise it she loves you too. If we use a Gryffindor tactic, full frontal attack, I think we can win her support. Step one will be to tell her about your research into my 'gift'. Once she grasps the idea of my 'legilimency of the soul' as you call it, then we can show her the finished tattoo. The image of my otter and your fox at play will intrigue her and perhaps help explain how we came to forge so deep a connection is such a short time. We're going to have to convince her that this isn't a crush or a passing phase; that I've found in you the one true soul that my soul loves; that this love between us, Severus, is permanent."

Severus was unable to respond in words for a very long time though his lips and arms did their best to show, once again, the depth of his love. He finally said slowly, "Well, it's a bold strategy to risk condemnation and exposure from the one person who holds both our fates in her hands; hoping we can convince her to believe in our love when it is, indeed, an unbelievable thing." He sighed and sat up "I'll floo a note to her office asking for a meeting after breakfast. We may as well face this dragon as soon as possible." Without bothering to dress Severus strode out to the sitting room and scrawled a short note to Minerva. Moments later it vanished into the green flames of the floo to reappear on the Headmistress's desk. Severus shook his head; it was surely a mad idea to think that this would work.

Walking back into the bedroom he saw Hermione just exiting the lavatory. Oh Merlin, he thought, how beautiful, how heartbreakingly lovely she is. Scooping her up into his arms he carried her back to the bed, his lips on hers and his intentions clear in his burning eyes and his hard eager body. "Severus, wait" she said. "Two things darling, did you cast an anti-pregnancy charm last night or do I need a morning-after potion?"

Severus said "I'm sorry, I totally forgot to cast the charm" but then he smirked and added "and you have only yourself to blame; you're just so beautiful and sexy that I was overwhelmed. I'll get the potion for you in the morning as soon as we're dressed. I keep a supply for the infirmary in my office store cupboard."

He began to kiss her again but she stopped him again and said "Wait, there were two things. The other one is, I need to finish your Ink"

"What? Right now?" He groaned. "Can't it wait?" He pressed kisses to her lips and it was some time before she could answer.

"Mmm... no, I have to finish it to show Professor McGonagall in the morning. It won't take long."

With another groan Severus rolled over onto his back and wandlessly lit a few lamps. Summoning her pen Hermione straddled him and bent over her work. This is pure torture Severus decided as he looked at her nakedness above him. She was tantalisingly close kneeling on top of his needy body; it was unbearable. Suddenly a wicked grin graced his face and he gripped her hip with one hand and muttered a levitation charm. Even as she let out a startled "What..." and grabbed at his shoulders to steady herself he guided his cock to her entrance and cancelled the spell. With the perfect timing of a potion master he thrust up firmly into her just as gravity and his guiding hands pulled her body down onto him. She reared up arching her back at the exquisite sensation and placed her hands over his. Quivering around him she began to move only to have him frown teasingly and say "Hermione, what are you doing? You need to get this Ink finished to show to Professor McGonagall in the morning. I'm sure it won't take too long." He grinned and added "Carry on, please." Slipping into her mind Severus watched as she squirmed and wrestled with the conflict of desire and duty. Finally she summoned her will as well as her pen and tried to marshal her thoughts.

The only part of the Ink still unfinished was the ardent body of the fox as it twined around the sleek, graceful otter. Hermione had many visions of the two animals together. The current activity brought to mind the creatures copulating passionately as she had seen them that first day but when she imagined her intensely private Professor walking around with that image on his chest and having to show it to Professor McGonagall or perhaps someone else it clearly was not the right image to use. She returned to her vision of the fox and otter at play and with that picture bright and clear in her mind's eye Hermione began laying the final ink strokes onto his skin.

It took every ounce of Hermione's concentration to draw with her usual steady and careful strokes as each move she made shifted him within her and swirled lust through their bodies and their joined minds. The dual closeness was torturous bliss as her hair and breasts brushed his scarred chest and her hands traced his beloved body. They burned with rising fire as they fought for control and permitted no more than the slightest shifting and repositioning to relieve the tension. Occasional shudders passed through them as the gentle sensation of her touch had his hips rising involuntarily towards her and his almost-thrust had her starting to arch and grind in response before they regained control.

At last she whispered the spell of protection and laid her pen and wand down on the table beside the bed with trembling fingers. Dropping her head she wordlessly began to trace kisses across his mouth, jaw, throat and ear and her mind began to thrum with the message Now, please, take me now. She gasped as his hands gripped her hips once more and he thrust up hard and suddenly. Switching his grip he rolled and she barely felt her head thump onto the pillow before he was again thrusting inside of her hard and fast. It was only moments until she came shrieking his name and moving wildly beneath him. His mind filled with light as her passion exploded through it and he roared out his release in response.

They woke, still entwined, as dawn was showing over the Forbidden Forest that was visible through the dungeon's enchanted windows. Shivering in the chill morning air they dressed quickly and Hermione followed Severus through his chambers to the potions office. Opening the store cupboard he pulled out a phial of morning-after potion which Hermione swallowed with a grimace. He also withdrew a larger bottle and offered it to her.

"What's this?" she asked.

"I thought maybe you should 'go on the potion' er..., if you're still sure you want to be with me?

Carefully setting down the bottle Hermione flung her arms around him and thanked him saying "Oh, that's wonderful, I was afraid I'd have to go ask Madam Pomfrey for it and the girls say she's so nosy and stern, they hate to face her inquisition every month, and OF COURSE I want to be with you, whenever you'll have me!"

"I can be stern too" he frowned and then smiled. "It has to be taken every morning even during your monthly times. Three drops in a glass of water, starting tomorrow. It doesn't taste as bad as the morning-after potion but it's not all that nice either, I'm sorry to say."

"It'll be all right Severus" she grinned, "It's a small price to pay." Hermione tucked the bottle into her bag with her pens and books and slung it over her shoulder before lifting her face for one more kiss. "After breakfast I'll take you to the Headmistress" he whispered, "Wish us both luck."

They slipped quietly out of the potions classroom and walked hand in hand without speaking keeping a wary eye out for others. Fortunately the corridors were deserted at this cold dawn hour. As they approached the entrance of Gryffindor Tower he squeezed her hand and stepped back into the shadows of an alcove, keeping watch until she disappeared through the portrait hole. Once she was gone he stalked silently away to prepare for whatever might come on this life-changing day.

Once safely in the common room Hermione crossed to the Head's chambers and into her private room. She breathed out her relief when she was safe inside. Despite wanting to collapse on her bed and dream happy dreams she instead began to meticulously lay out her clothes for the coming day. She chose a smart black skirt, white blouse and black tights. She polished her serviceable school shoes until they shone and laid out her best school robes after charming a few of Crookshanks' orange hairs off them. She showered, used a depilatory spell (so much easier than shaving or waxing, thank Merlin) and washed her mane of hair. She applied extra sleekeasy's potion and twisted it up into a tight French plait before using a slow-drying spell that reduced the normal frizz considerably. She filed and polished her nails and finally dressed slowly and with extra care. By the time she was ready it was breakfast time and having girded her loins as best she could with the feminine armour of her best clothes; heart hammering in her chest she made her way down to the common room where her friends waited.

"Hermione" Ginny cried, "Merlin you must have been up late in the library! I was here in the common room, er... studying until after 1am and you didn't come in." By the shifty glances they cast at each other and their identical rosy cheeks Hermione guessed that Harry had been Ginny's 'study partner' and it probably wasn't just schoolwork that had got 'done' last night. She smiled and agreed that she had indeed stayed up a bit too late.

Harry seemed just then to notice Hermione's unusually neat appearance and elegant hair. "Wow Hermione" he said. "If I'd pulled an all-nighter in the library I'd not have been looking my best this morning. Why are you fixed up?"

She allowed the smile to fall from her face and said solemnly "I've got to meet with the Headmistress and Professor Snape after breakfast" she sighed and added "I think Professor Snape is going to be reporting back about his findings on my Ink thing, you remember he's been researching it?"

Oh, I hope he's not going to land you in trouble, that would be awful" Harry said. Hermione mumbled a heart-felt "So do I." Ginny, Harry and Hermione had made up after the Parvati fiasco and they'd tried to be more supportive of her hobby. It had helped that she hadn't been drawing on any of her friends or classmates lately and that the unknown 'Slytherin Boy' hadn't come out of the woodwork to cause any renewed friction. Ginny hugged her and wished her luck while Harry put a hand on her shoulder in unspoken fellowship.

Hermione sighed and said "We'd better get to the Great Hall then. I'll let you know how it goes afterwards I guess." Thinking how much the support of her friends meant to her and how likely it was that they'd never speak to her again if things went badly at this meeting, Hermione was nervous and frowning as they exited the common room and made their way to breakfast. Ginny and Harry walked with her, shoulder to shoulder and sat beside her at the table but it was a silent meal and Hermione didn't have much appetite.

Glancing up at the head table she saw that Headmistress McGonagall had finished eating and left the hall. As he caught her eye Severus folded his napkin and rose, coming down the aisle to where she sat. "Good morning Miss Weasley, Mr Potter" he nodded his head in their direction. "Miss Granger, it's time to go, the Headmistress is waiting."

Swallowing to moisten a suddenly dry throat Hermione looked up at him for a moment and rasped "Yes Sir" before forcing herself to her feet and accompanying him out of the hall.

Seeing her looking pale with nerves and stiff with anxiety he slowed his usual stride a bit and walked close beside her, not touching, as the halls were thronging with students, but close enough for her to hear his soft words. "It'll be alright Dear One, I'm beside you and I'll stay right here no matter what the outcome of this meeting. I may even have thought of a plan, if we can get Minerva on our side."

She looked up flushing with hope and smiling tremulously "Oh Se..sir, I'm so glad... I felt very brave before but now I'm absolutely terrified!"

Eventually they arrived at the Headmistress's Office and Severus spoke the password. He allowed his hand to rest briefly on the small of Hermione's back for their mutual comfort before she preceded him up the moving stair and into McGonagall's office.

Taking seats across the desk from the Headmistress Severus and Hermione exchanged a quick glance before Severus spoke first. "Minerva, I have completed my research into Miss Granger's unusual gift. Here is my formal report for the Board of Governors." He laid a thick scroll of parchment on the desk. "To summarise for your benefit, what Miss Granger is doing appears to be a new form of legilimency, one that I've never seen or even read about; one, in fact, that I believe to be an unheard of form, completely unique to her."

Eyes wide McGonagall listened in amazement as Severus continued. "Miss Granger is able, through the medium of her Ink tattoos, to read not the mind but the soul of her subject." The Headmistress looked shocked and opened her mouth but Severus carried on before she could speak.

"This talent allows Miss Granger to read the true nature of her subject and express it upon their skin. She cannot perceive their thoughts, as I can, but she can read their desires, instincts and experiences and recognise their good or evil just from touching their skin. It doesn't seem to be a dark gift as legilimency can be, because she cannot use her gift to change the soul of the subject or cast any kind of compulsion. It is, however, a powerful talent; she cannot be fooled by lies or blocked by occlumency, even mine. She sees beyond the brain, straight into the heart."

Severus paused here and took a drink of his tea before continuing in a quiet and sombre tone of voice. "I have played down the powerful nature of this talent for the Governors' Report: firstly because I feel we cannot be too careful about exposing Miss Granger's rare skill to the greedy notice of any dark wizard or witch who might try to exploit it. My second concern is to prevent unwanted attention, you know very well if we allow this information to get into the hands of some members of the Board it will quickly come to the attention of the ministry and the media. She can well do without the media circus and we both, I know, would prefer to keep her here with us not locked into some study in the Department of Mysteries for the next however many years." McGonagall nodded her head and looked somewhat pale while Hermione, who had never considered her talent to be newsworthy or interesting, stared at Severus with wide horrified eyes.

"To you alone I will reveal the subtle power of Miss Granger's talent" he resumed in his silky mesmerising tones. "In order to research this I asked Miss Granger to draw a full torso Ink tattoo on me." As the Headmistress blushed and spluttered in shock Severus ran his finger down his chest wandlessly opening his buttons. He turned his back and shrugged out of robes, frock coat and shirt under McGonagall's astonished gaze.

"Severus" she squeaked" I can't think this is appropriate..."

"Minerva, you need to see as well as hear this in order to understand." Holding Hermione's eyes with his he continued "I told Miss Granger nothing about myself, my history or my childhood; not even my patronus form. She knew, as everyone who survived the war knows, that I was on the side of light and worked undercover for decades but do you think that is enough to explain the vision that you see inked onto the skin before you? Come around your desk and look closely at what she has drawn on me. Every major pain, hope, heartache and betrayal of my life is included in this forest of images you see upon my back. I've not told you very much of my history, Minerva, but Albus knew more than most and he may have confided in you. Look at the depth of Hermione's knowledge of me. She knew all of that and planned this Ink within minutes of laying her hands on my back."

The Headmistress had tears in her eyes as she looked at the detailed images, symbols of a lifetime of pain that were drawn all over his skin. Knowing more of his history from Albus than she cared to admit she could clearly understand the symbolism of many of the images although many more were obscure. I'm sorry you had to re-live all that bad history Severus" she began "I know you are a very private man, it must have pained you to be so exposed."

"No, Minerva, it healed me." Severus turned and allowed Minerva to see the Ink that extended across his chest culminating in the vision over his heart. He touched the fox and otter image gently and said "I think you know that after the final battle my Patronus form abandoned the doe and became the fox? She nodded "Are you also aware that the otter is Hermione's Patronus?" She nodded again, frowning as she realised that he had dropped the formal Miss Granger and was calling his student Hermione.

"I'm not an expert in soul magic, although I know more than I want to about the dark kind" he said "but Hermione laid bare my soul, breaching the walls of a skilled occlumens and expert spy without any effort. I performed legilimency upon her throughout most of the hours of this creation and she revealed her soul in response to my pain. I cannot begin to tell you what balm that was to merge my soul with one so pure and kind." He smiled at Hermione who had tears in her eyes as she watched him standing before them. "We are soul-mates now Minerva" he finally sighed "We can never be separated again. Although, I fear, being bonded to me could prove a cruel reward to Hermione for bringing me such healing and peace." He stretched out his hand and when Hermione placed hers in it he drew her up to stand close beside him and wrapped her in his arms. "Will you help us Minerva?" he pleaded.

Headmistress McGonagall fell back to sit on her desk which was fortunately close behind her. Shock was in her face as well as pity and maybe horror but not anger as far as Hermione could see.

"I cannot sanction a liaison between a student and her Professor Severus" she began "although I can see by the resolution in your eyes and in Hermione's that I won't be able to stop you. Perhaps, as you say, it is soul magic and beyond my knowledge or understanding but what do you expect me to be able to do for you? The board would throw ME out if I gave you my blessing. I pity you both but you can't stay here, either of you, if you carry on an illegal affair."

"Can I tell you my plan, Minerva?" Severus asked gently.

"What plan could even a brilliant, slippery brain like yours come up with Severus to solve an impossible tangle like this" she snapped. "And for Merlin's sake, put your clothes back on, you must be freezing!"

Shrugging himself back into his clothes and fastening them with a wave of his hand Severus began to explain his plan. "Hermione is a brilliant student" he said as Hermione flushed and Minerva pursed her lips severely. "She is hardworking and studious and could easily sit her NEWTS exams today and achieve at least an E for Exceeds Expectations in every subject."

"I know that and when she takes them I fully expect her to achieve O for Outstanding across the board" Minerva huffed. "What's the point?"

"Well, why doesn't she sit the potions NEWT at the ministry by the end of the month and do an accelerated course to finish all the rest by Christmas. We're in October now. We could announce to the school that Hermione is to become Apprentice to the Potions Master in the New Year. You know there's no rule against fraternising between Master and Apprentice. By the end of two or three years of apprenticeship she could take up a teaching post here and... "

"Slow down Severus" Minerva interrupted "I've never seen you so excited; you're like a school boy! Although not like the school boy you were when I knew you" she added sadly. "First of all, I need Miss Granger's input on all of this." Turning her eyes to Hermione she asked "My Dear, this is all so sudden, shouldn't you wait a bit and see where life takes you? Are you ready to throw away the last year of your childhood to begin an accelerated course of study, an apprenticeship AND a serious relationship just to pursue the feelings of the moment?"

Hermione said "Headmistress"

"Call me Minerva, my Dear"

"Minerva then" she acknowledged "Severus has said all of this and more to me already. I can assure you that this is far beyond an affair or a fleeting fancy. I left my childhood behind even before the Final Battle. Severus and I are ready to join our lives together and I believe that what has already happened has created an irreversible bond between us. If you agree to Severus's proposal I'll be willing and able to do my part. Completing my Potions NEWT in under a month will be challenging but I'll put everything I have into it and I'm sure Severus will help me to prepare. I think the idea of becoming Severus's apprentice is brilliant. There's one thing I should mention though," she added, "I think I'll have to give up the Head Girl position. The additional responsibility will be just too much. Shall I move out of my room and go back into the dormitory?

"No my Dear" Minerva said. "There's no point is doing so between now and Christmas. You may as well move into your apprenticeship rooms straight away. As an apprentice you must be housed near your Master. Your food, clothing, books, materials and housing as well as your welfare are the responsibility of your Master; it's a part of the binding contract." She smiled "As soon as the contract is signed the castle will create your rooms adjoining the Potions Master's sitting room, which you will share. I hope that will be acceptable to you both?"

"That's ideal" Hermione smiled at Severus and he smiled warmly back "No one can question the propriety of our living arrangements or worry about what goes on behind closed doors. Master Severus," she said "I always knew you were a genius!"

"If you two are sure about this decision then I must acquiesce. It provides me a loophole to keep you both and make you happy while offering a respectable explanation to the Board. You really are a clever man Severus". She smiled and said "So you're sure then?"

"Quite sure Minerva" they replied so simultaneously that they all chuckled.

"Very well." the Headmistress summoned a parchment from a nearby cabinet and waved her wand over it. "Here is the apprenticeship contract; all you have to do is sign it. I'll make the announcement at dinner."

Hermione signed joyfully and hugged the Headmistress then Severus signed and kissed the blushing Minerva on the cheek. "Thank you Minerva" he said "I'll make sure that neither of you ever have cause to regret this."

"I think they are going to be as happy together as we were Minerva my love" whispered the twinkling eyed portrait of Albus Dumbledore after they had gone.

The End