Disclaimer : Not content with ruthlessly using the great JK Rowling's characters and setting, I also borrowed the Crystal Chamber from Marion Zimmer Bradley of much-beloved memory, and I swiped a gag from Calvin&Hobbes (10 points to your house if you recognise it). So apart from the actual story, nothing in here is mine. No profit sought, just my twisted fun.

Rating : I think that one is a R (please correct me if it's not, I'm still unsure about that system). Some het sex (duh, I mean really, in a PWP ? J ), but nothing much else in the 'unsafe for kids' department.

And lastly and most importantly, a big hug to Susanna, my incredibly patient and diligent beta ;)

Taking Flight

Hermione fidgeted in anticipation, waiting for the double doors in front of her to open. She still found it a bit hard to believe that she was actually standing there, flanked by Ron and Harry, all three of them having participated in the final battle against Voldemort two months ago and yet having survived to tell the tale. And despite the war, they had also managed to complete their seventh year at Hogwarts, even Ron managing to score halfway decent N.E.W.T.s – and although Hermione had had reason to hope she'd have little trouble with hers, she had been overjoyed to find out just how well she'd done. Now they were standing here, on their very last evening in Hogwarts, high up in the castle's very core, waiting for the much whispered-about Parting Ceremony.

The thought of leaving Hogwarts tomorrow was bittersweet, though somewhere deep inside Hermione was less sad than she felt she should be, somehow confident she'd be back soon – she couldn't say why, but the feeling refused to go away. Maybe she was just compensating for having to part with what had been her home for seven years, she mused.

She focused her thoughts back on the Parting Ceremony. The rumours about it abounded, but nothing much was actually known – and those who had partaken in it already, like Ron's brothers, steadfastly refused to divulge any information, saying only they had sworn not to. If even Fred and George held true to that, it had to be something pretty serious.

The double doors suddenly swung open, allowing the throng of equally anxious and excited seventh-years to enter. Stepping inside surrounded by her fellow Gryffindors, Hermione let out a gasp of awe.

The room behind the doors was huge, though separated into niches and private areas at the edges by means of potted plants and colourful folding Screens. Doors led from it on all sides. But its truly astounding feature was the ceiling. Built entirely of a crystal-like, multifaceted substance spanning over them like a canopy, it broke the setting sun's rays into bright, sparkling, multihued colours, bathing them all in shades of reds, blues, greens - every colour imaginable. It was like stepping into the heart of a rainbow.

Only after several moments of gaping at the dancing lights around her she became aware of the entire faculty sitting opposite them, most of them smiling indulgently at the students' stunned looks. She blushed furiously, feeling for a moment like she had on her very first evening at Hogwarts when they had entered the Great Hall. That she wasn't the only one behaving like a first-year was little consolation – she was Head Girl, after all, if only for one more night, and supposed to behave more maturely.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Dumbledore getting up from his armchair, and everybody fell silent. He strode to the middle of the room, facing them with a benign smile. Hermione noticed the teachers were not really watching him, but rather the students– and she noted with surprise that her previous perception hadn't been correct; while even Trelawney was present, Professor Binns was not. But before she could ponder the reason for that, the headmaster began to speak.

"Welcome, young wizards and witches, to the Crystal Chamber. When I first saw you, you were but children, and now you are adults, ready to venture into the wizarding world, and I am so proud of you all – especially in the light of what you had to face during the last years. The Parting Ceremony, as you are going to witness it tonight, was designed centuries ago, to give young wizards a little help with their start out into the world as fully-fledged members of our community." He let his gaze sweep over them, and suddenly became serious. "While all of us assembled here will give our best to help you, this ceremony also asks something of you. I must now emphasise that participating in it is completely voluntary, and none of us will think any less of you, should you decide to leave now, when I have spelt out the rules. But, and this is the first of them, once the doors behind you close, you will not be allowed to leave again till the sun rises. There are private rooms all around us, though, accessible from this chamber, should the evening become too wearisome for you so that you want to sleep through the rest of it."

He looked at them intently. "Second, you may never speak about anything uttered or happening here to any person who has not been present. You will have to pledge secrecy by a formal oath. The reason for that is rule three."

He gestured at the teachers sitting behind them. "We will give you nothing but the truth tonight, but we expect the same of you. To this effect, all of us here will take three drops of a Veritaserum that Professor Snape has kindly concocted." He waited patiently till the shocked gasps from his student audience had subsided, then added, "As I said, your presence here is completely voluntary. There is no reason whatsoever to feel ashamed if you leave now, nor will you be dishonoured. But unless you leave, those are the rules the evening will proceed by, and that you'll have to abide by."

He waited silently, smiling again. Several students shuffled their feet, looking nervous, especially the Slytherins. But no one left. Hermione never even considered leaving, not with the promise of such information dangling before her like a particularly beautiful apple on a low branch, just within her reach.

Dumbledore finally nodded, and the double doors swung shut. "Well then, let us begin." Turning around, he added, "Severus, if you please ?"

Snape nodded and stood up, walking towards Dumbledore, his black robes billowing around him. Hermione's heart gave a start – she knew she should trust the man, especially after what had happened in the war, but the thought of drinking a Veritaserum he had brewed suddenly scared her. Well, too late to do anything about it now, she thought as she watched him take a small flask containing a clear liquid out of a pocket of his robe, his impassive face bathed in an orange glow. Wordlessly, he let three drops fall on his tongue before he handed the flask over to Dumbledore.

Dumbledore did the same, then went back to the other teachers, who all repeated the procedure silently, while Snape resumed his seat. Watching Professor Vector take the serum, Hermione suddenly realised why Professor Binns wasn't around – a ghost couldn't well ingest even those three drops.

She considered debating that theory with Harry or Ron, but the room was completely quiet and she didn't dare break the silence – not even Ron had said anything at all since Dumbledore had begun to speak, which meant that he was either awed or scared silly, or maybe both.

Dumbledore, meanwhile, took the flask from Professor Trelawney and came back to them, rainbow colours of light dancing over his robes. A nervous silence followed. Hermione, recalling her duties as Head Girl, took all her courage together and stepped forward. As she opened her mouth and sensed the drops fall on her tongue, she felt slightly dizzy, the fact that all eyes in the room were on her not really helping. Most of them were encouraging or admiring, but Professor Snape was giving her an indefinable look that made a cold shiver run down her spine. Stepping back, she savoured the taste of the Veritaserum on her tongue - it was surprisingly pleasant, like spiced wine. Harry took her place in front of Dumbledore, and soon enough all students had gotten their dose.

Dumbledore gestured to several rows of chairs to the left and right of the entrance behind them that Hermione hadn't even noticed before, and they all took their places while he returned to his armchair. When they had all settled comfortably, he spoke up.

"Now let us all swear, in the name of the Founders Four, that we will never utter anything about what is said or done here in this room tonight, except to those now present."

Hermione recalled that breaking an oath taken under the influence of Veritaserum would have serious consequences, even as her lips formed the words, "I swear", along with everybody else – she noticed the teachers pronouncing the same words as well, even the headmaster, which made her feel considerably more at ease. If she said or did anything stupid under the effect of the serum tonight, that would be bad enough, but the certainty that it was not going to be blabbed about was reassuring.

Dumbledore beamed at them again. "Very well, let us begin then. The first, formal part of the evening consists of me calling out each of you, and all the teachers giving you an honest evaluation of your talents and skills you showed during the seven years we had the pleasure to teach you. We sincerely hope it will help you to find the place that suits you best in our diverse community." Turning towards the Hufflepuffs, he said, "Hannah Abbot, would you please step forward ?"

Hannah nervously got up and stood in the centre of the room, golden light spilling over her. The headmaster smiled at her and said, "Well, Hannah, unlike most of the students in your year, I never had reason to summon you up to my office." Several guilty coughs filled the room. "What I've heard about you is rather positive, except maybe for an imagination that tends to be overly vivid from time to time."

Hermione suppressed a snort with difficulty - 'spreading wild rumours' would have been more appropriate. Obviously the Veritaserum would not let you lie, but a speaker as skilled as Dumbledore could still mince his words.

The headmaster continued, "One thing that your Head of House, Professor Sprout," he gestured towards her, "has often mentioned is how diligently and warm-heartedly you tried to make the first-years of your house feel at home. And , over the years, several Hufflepuffs have told me that they'd never have adapted to life here so quickly without 'our prefect Hannah'. So I thought that maybe you might try to take up teaching wizards' children before they are old enough to attend Hogwarts. There are plenty of wizards and witches who have neither the time to dedicate themselves to their children's early education, nor the inclination to let them attend a Muggle primary school. You seem to have both the talent and the liking for such a profession."

Hannah had listened in stunned silence. Now, however, a smile slowly crept over her face, and she nodded enthusiastically. "You know, Sir, that idea never occurred to me ... but you are right ! I'll certainly consider it." Dumbledore smiled and nodded, then looked at Professor Sprout sitting to his right.

Hannah's Head of House had little to add to that, except for thanking her for her patience with the first-years and adding that the headmaster's suggestion would surely fit Hannah, in her opinion. She added that while Hannah surely had the talent for gardening, too, it would not really suit her as she was very much a people person. Hannah absorbed all that, nodding excitedly.

Professor McGonagall came next, and while she advised Hannah better not to seek her future career in Transfiguration, she also added that her exceptional patience and diligence would aid her in any profession she'd choose. Professor Flitwick, sitting to her right, voiced his opinion that while she wasn't the greatest of charm casters, she had a certain talent for illusions that would surely help her to illustrate her teachings to her pupils. Finished, he nodded to Professor Snape. Silence fell over the room, and Hannah, who had cheered up considerably hearing the teachers point out her strengths, suddenly looked anxious again. Not only she; all the students were waiting with bated breath.

Snape looked at her, his dark eyes unreadable, his face without expression. But when he spoke, his voice was clear. "While I would not recommend that you seek your future career in the field of potions, Miss Abbot, I did notice that your handwriting is exceptionally clear and beautiful, even if the actual contents of your homework often left something to be desired. I think it would suit you well, as my colleagues said, to teach young wizard children how to write as well as you do. Or else, should you consider another career path, you might seek employment with Flourish&Blotts, to copy those highly magical tomes that refuse to be printed. Both your diligence and your handwriting would be put to best use there."

Hannah was looking at him wide-eyed, managing a small, "Thank you, Sir !"

He just nodded curtly, then looked over to Professor Sinistra, who began speaking.

But Hermione was too distracted to listen to her. She exchanged bewildered glances with Ron and Harry, who were looking as baffled as she felt. That was what Snape truly thought about Hannah ? Couldn't have been a lie, there was no known antidote to Veritaserum. Maybe just part of the truth. But why would he bother to choose the, well, nice part of the truth ?

Hannah, meanwhile, was finished being evaluated, and changed places with Susan Bones, whom Dumbledore had called forth. Hermione listened absentmindedly, still puzzling over Snape's odd behaviour, and the fact that he advised Susan that with her meticulous bookkeeping she'd make a good librarian or shopkeeper just added to her bafflement. True, they all owed him a great deal for his unflinching bravery in the war, especially Ron. And there was no denying that, despite his behaviour at school, he had proved that his students' lives meant a lot to him. But once the fighting had been done, he had reverted to his usual acid conduct in the Potions classroom, leaving her, Ron and Harry to wonder if maybe they had dreamed the whole episode. And now this ...

So deeply was she lost in her memory of the fighting and the events of the last two years that, when Seamus returned, he had to give her a small shove to make her realise it was her turn to be called forward by Dumbledore. Blushing, she got up and hurried to the centre of the room, surrounded by crimson light spilling from the ceiling.

Dumbledore looked at her with a smile. "Hermione, you were one of the most exceptional students I've ever had the honour of admitting to Hogwarts. Your intelligence, talent, bravery and diligence give you credit and should make all those who try to spread lies about pure-blooded wizards being superior stop and blush in shame." He fixed a few people behind her sternly before continuing, "Your N.E.W.T. score is the highest Hogwarts has seen in twenty years, your skills are exceptional, and you should easily succeed in any career you decide to embrace in the wizarding world ... well, maybe except for Divination." His eyes twinkled, and she heard Ron snort behind her. "But apart from trying to become a Seer, you should excel everywhere. In fact," and suddenly he fixated her with a piercing stare for a second before becoming his usual benign self again, "I believe you have fire in your eyes."

Hermione stood, dumbfounded. Faintly, she noticed Harry and Ron gasp behind her.

He's inviting me into the Order of the Phoenix !

Dumbledore waited patiently for a reaction. She swallowed hard, then, not trusting her voice, just nodded slightly.

His smile broadened, then he continued, "Splendid ! Now let us hear what you have to say about Hermione !" nodding at Professor Sprout.

Hermione forced herself to listen to Professor Sprout describing her vast knowledge and ready mind. Her thoughts were racing. He invited me. And I accepted. She wondered if her fellow students hadn't found the exchange a bit odd, since no one but Harry, Ron and herself could have understood just what that had been about. But then Dumbledore had a reputation for being slightly odd sometimes, so they shouldn't waste too much thought on it. As Dumbledore without doubt had planned. She was beginning to wonder if he hadn't built up that little reputation himself for just that purpose.

It was Professor McGonagall's turn to speak. Hermione realised with a start that there were two more Order members in the room besides Dumbledore: McGonagall – and Snape. Professor McGonagall appeared decidedly pleased, however, as she praised her great talent in Transfiguration and added that she was looking forward to seeing her develop into an Animaga, which no doubt would be within her capabilities soon. She placed ever-so-slight emphasis on the words 'seeing you develop', unobtrusively enough so that nobody else seemed to notice. Favouring Hermione with one of her rare smiles, she nodded to Flitwick, who launched into an enthusiastic description of her charm skills and wished her good luck in whatever career she would finally choose. Then he looked at Snape sitting to his right.

Hermione swallowed hard. While McGonagall obviously had been pleased with Dumbledore's offer and her acceptance, Snape's face betrayed no emotion whatsoever. His black eyes seemed to bore into her own as he spoke up in a clear voice. "Miss Granger, there is no doubt that you were the most talented student I have ever taught in my seventeen years here. I am sure you have the ability to cope with any challenges your future will bring." And with that, he nodded to Professor Sinistra, not even awaiting an answer.

Not that Hermione could have given him any. She barely managed to listen to Professor Sinistra and smile politely. His most talented student ... not, as usual, pushy know-it-all. And under the influence of Veritaserum to boot. She felt the oath they had taken was not really necessary in this case; nobody who hadn't been there would believe her if she told that anyway. Heck, she had been there and still had trouble believing what he'd said.

She concentrated hard on listening to the rest of the teachers evaluate her strengths, involuntarily beaming when Professor Vector praised her aptitude with numbers, and then, with a polite smile and phrase, she was back in her chair, her head still spinning. Ron and Harry were eagerly awaiting her as Neville walked forward nervously.

Not wanting to risk an admonition by Dumbledore, they both leaned close to her, whispering in a low voice. "Wow, congratulations, 'Mione !" came from Harry, and from Ron, "Whee, his 'most talented student' ... if only Snape had said that while Draco was still alive, I bet you Malfoy would've burst with rage !" Hermione whispered thanks to both of them, but then shushed them, her eyes on Dumbledore. Not that he had seemed to notice them talking, but she didn't want to interrupt the ceremony, and felt she needed some time to sort out her jumbled thoughts anyway. Obediently, they both fell silent, and listened as the headmaster spoke to Neville – what he said, Hermione could not tell, her concentration finally exhausted. It took her the rest of her strength to not just collapse in her chair and bury her head in her hands.

I have been invited into the Order of the Phoenix.

Now that Voldemort had finally been vanquished and they all actually had a future to speak of, she had spent hours thinking of what to do with her life once she graduated from Hogwarts. She had toyed with many possibilities, but that one had never occurred to her.

Most wizards and witches only knew the vaguest rumours of this most elusive order. She and the boys had learned a little more during the war, and the brief glimpse on its members' vast knowledge and powers had greatly fascinated her. But she'd never have dared dream that ...

Harry was called by Dumbledore, and strode forward. A thought struck her – much as she dearly loved her two friends, she had actually looked forward, in a slightly guilty way, to having a chance to live her own life after school for a change, not always tagging along in the shadow of The Boy Who Lived and his Constant Companion. Now she assumed they'd all start as novices in the Order together, and again she wouldn't be free. She swallowed a sigh, sternly admonishing herself that they were her friends after all, and listened to Dumbledore addressing Harry.

Dumbledore beamed at him, saying, "Now, Harry, I don't think I need to tell you – or anybody - anything about your bravery and talent in fighting the Dark Arts. We all know that you'll make one of the best Aurors in the history of wizardry one day. But we've just come to the end of a gruesome war, and despite your youth you've given all you could to defeat Voldemort. You really deserve a break. You are not only a great fighter – you are also a superb flier and an excellent Seeker. And so you might want to consider a career as a professional Quidditch player for a few years, before taking up an Auror's duties. The Dark Powers have robbed you of much of your adolescence – you deserve a few peaceful, fun- and excitement-filled years."

Harry gazed at Dumbledore's smiling face, stunned. Then he nodded, and when he turned to face Professor Sprout, he slowly started to look visibly relieved. Hermione and Ron exchanged surprised glances – Dumbledore had not said anything about the Order to Harry. Though he undoubtedly had the right of it: Harry did deserve a break. As she absentmindedly listened to Snape telling Harry that he had never seen anybody fly as well as him, not even Harry's father –not even that could surprise her at the moment- she didn't know whether to feel relieved or lonely, now that Harry was not going to join her in the Order. Stupid girl, she scolded herself. You're an adult now, you might consider finally finding out what you really want, not griping at every option.

So what is it that I really want ?

Well, this evening was designed to help her find out, after all, and so she would, she decided. Besides, at least there was no doubt that she very much wanted to join the Order – the knowledge she could gain there was beyond what she had dared to hope for in her wildest dreams. The rest of her wishes she would sort out tonight.

With renewed interest, she listened as Ron was called forward. Dumbledore told him that, although he would no doubt find a career in the Ministry rewarding later in his life, it would be a shame if he didn't utilise his great strategic skills and love of sports, and apply for a license as a Quidditch referee, to become a professional Quijudge for a couple of years. Ron practically glowed when he heard that, and listened to the other teachers with an absentminded smile on his face. Hermione wasn't sure if he had even realised that Dumbledore hadn't invited him either, or if he just didn't mind and really preferred becoming a referee. Incomprehensible as this mindset was to her, she suspected in Ron's case it was genuine.

Ron came back, and Blaise Zabini was the last student to receive evaluation by the faculty. Then Dumbledore stood up and said, "Now, before we continue with the informal part of the evening, let's first have dinner together !" With that, he clapped his hands, and food-laden tables suddenly appeared in the centre of the room, while torches flared up on the walls.

Students and teachers alike moved forward to the buffet to help themselves to the house-elves' excellent fare, and soon enough the mass of people had broken up into small groups, eating and chatting. Harry, Ron and Hermione had found a private spot behind some potted rubber plants, and were busy satisfying both their hunger and curiosity.

"Congratulations, I guess, 'Mione," Ron said between bites, "though I sure wouldn't want to change places with you. I'm glad that I'm finally done with studying !"

He busied himself with his food again. Hermione had to smile at that, and answered, "Congratulations as well, Ron, and trust me, I wouldn't want to swap with you, or Harry, either. Having to spend half my time on a broomstick isn't my idea of life !" Ron grinned at that, shaking his head and muttering something about her not having a life anyway, then quickly dodged her hand as she aimed a swipe at his head.

Harry shook his head at their antics, smiling. Becoming suddenly serious, he said, "So while Ron and I are off having fun, you'll remain in the thick of things, Hermione. Can't say I envy you. Please do watch the matches we'll play or referee from time to time, I'll miss you terribly !" Ron, now serious too, nodded vehemently.

Hermione felt tears pricking her eyes. Drawing the two into a fierce hug, she whispered, "But of course I will. We'll keep in contact. I don't want to lose my best friends !" The boys returned her hug, but when they broke apart again they looked slightly awkward, and Harry changed the subject quickly.

"So what do you reckon has gotten into Snape tonight ? I thought maybe he'd altered the Veritaserum so that he would be immune himself, but that would make his behaviour even more incongruous ... hard enough to believe he could truly hold a positive opinion of anybody but his Slytherins, but to think he would be lying to be nice is even more absurd !" Harry shook his head, bemused.

Ron looked thoughtful, then answered, "You remember that, back when he had saved my life from Macnair, I said nothing could surprise me anymore ? I take that back ..." He started to say more, but suddenly fixed his gaze on something behind Hermione.

Turning around, she saw Professor McGonagall approaching them. Their Head of House gave them all a small smile, and said, "Miss Granger, may I ask you to accompany me ?" Hermione nodded, her heart beating faster, and McGonagall turned towards the boys, adding, "Do enjoy yourselves, gentlemen, this may take a while !" Then she turned around and led Hermione towards one of the many doors, this one almost hidden behind a folding screen. Hermione followed her, feeling both excited and a little bit anxious – she thought she knew what this might be about, but then her teacher's face betrayed nothing. McGonagall opened the door and ushered her inside, closing it quickly behind the two of them.

The room Hermione found herself in looked like a sumptuous guest room, with a cosy fireplace and ancient, dark wood furniture - a table and chairs, a wardrobe, a book shelf and a large four-poster. Torches on the walls bathed the room in a warm golden light. She wasn't really surprised that Dumbledore and Snape were already in the room, waiting for them – but Fawkes sitting on Dumbledore's shoulder surprised her a little. She would never understand how such a big and beautiful bird could move so stealthily if he chose.

Dumbledore smiled at her warmly. "So, Hermione, is it truly your wish to join the Order of the Phoenix ?"

She took a moment to steady her voice, then answered, "It is my wish, Sir, and a great honour that you offered this to me." She felt herself blush furiously.

Dumbledore acted as if he hadn't noticed her face changing colour, and smiled, "Truly splendid, Hermione ! Then step forward to stand in our midst."

She did as she was told, nervously – she felt as if her legs were too wobbly to support her properly. The three teachers stepped up around her, Dumbledore looking his usual merry self as if nothing unusual were going on, McGonagall giving her a small, reassuring smile; Snape, however, studied her face, then said, his silky voice traced with a hint of irony, "Calm down, Miss Granger; nobody here is going to eat you, not even I."

She looked at him, unsure what to answer to that, but was interrupted by Dumbledore's amused voice. "Peace, Severus, or I shall tell Hermione about some other wizard who almost fainted with fright when Minerva, Arabella and I inducted him into the order."

Snape snorted at that. "Don't forget to mention the fact, then, that only a few minutes before you had had a row with Barty Crouch, which had ended with you telling him that he would only get his hands on said wizard if he killed you first. If having to witness that is not allowed as an excuse for nervousness, I would like to know what is." Hermione was amazed to see Snape smiling slightly, and McGonagall shaking her head in silent amusement. Were they teasing each other in front of her ?

To add to her puzzlement, the teachers now began to roll up the sleeves of their robes up to their elbows, and Dumbledore motioned her to do the same. Bewildered, she did so. Around her, the three linked their hands, forming a circle around her. She could feel the magic flowing between them, slowly increasing.

Fawkes fixed her with a piercing stare, and she felt oddly naked under his bright eyes. Nevertheless, she tried to return his gaze steadily. Then suddenly he opened his beak and sang a single, beautiful note. The sound seemed to reverberate through her entire body, then slowly concentrated on her right forearm. She felt a sudden, intense heat, gone as quickly as it had come. Fawkes stopped singing, and the circle around her broke apart. Dumbledore hugged her, saying, "Welcome to the Order of the Phoenix, Hermione !"

Still shaken, she tried to return his hug, then found herself shaking hands with McGonagall and Snape, both welcoming her, too. Only then did she notice that a vivid image of a phoenix was embedded on her right forearm, and on the others' as well.

She stared at it in surprise, and heard Dumbledore's voice, "What is it, Hermione ?"

Turning towards him, she asked, "E...excuse me, Professor ...," but he interrupted her.

"Albus, my dear. You are among equals now."

She swallowed hard, then tried again, "Albus, isn't this a bit ... conspicuous for a secret order ?"

Dumbledore chuckled at that. Before he could say anything, however, Snape spoke up. "The events of this evening seem to have clouded your usually brilliant mind a bit, Hermione. Consider this : did you see the signs on our arms before we initiated you ?"

Hermione felt incredibly stupid. "No. I'm sorry, Sir." She stared at the floor, embarrassed.

Suddenly she felt a hand gently lifting her chin, making her face them again. Her eyes widened in surprise as she looked up and realised the hand belonged to Snape. He said, his silky voice without a trace of sarcasm, "Don't be sorry, Hermione. Don't ever hesitate to ask us anything that comes to your mind. I will try hard not to bite. And – remember what Albus said; it's Severus, not 'Sir'."

Hermione swallowed, then gave a small nod, thinking that if she was forced to call Snape 'Severus' right away, she'd die of embarrassment here and now ... she was half wondering why she hadn't already, anyway. He smiled slightly and let his hand drop. Only then did she notice something else that was odd; before she could stop herself the words had already come out – was that a side effect of the Veritaserum ? "You – you don't have a Dark Mark on your left arm anymore !"

He frowned slightly. "No, I don't. But I have not been wearing the Dark Mark for more than seventeen years now – much too dangerous."

That answer made little sense to her. "Why too dangerous ? And if you haven't, what was that skull-and-serpent emblem we saw on your arm ?"

Dumbledore spoke up. "That, in fact, was a little charm of mine which I was rather proud of. Looked like a Dark Mark, acted like a Dark Mark, didn't actually work like a Dark Mark. Fooled Voldemort nicely, but since he's gone now I saw no need to keep the charade up any longer." Noticing Snape's scowl at that, he added, "Now don't start that again, Severus. Instead of looking daggers at me for disagreeing with you about your need of constant reminding, why don't you and Minerva explain the rest of it ? You could tell Hermione more about our order while you're at it, so I can go and rejoin the others. They'll start to miss us if we all stay away too long, but if all of us return at the same time it might look odd, too. Just remain here a little longer, then the next can come out. And you go sneak away again, Fawkes !"

The phoenix sang a short note that Hermione guessed was his way of saying farewell, then swooped out of the door, which opened for him. Dumbledore rolled down the sleeves of his robe again, then followed shortly afterwards, waving at the three of them and winking at Hermione before the door closed behind him.

Hermione watched him disappear, still stunned by the relaxed familiarity with which the three of them were interacting in private, and into which Dumble ... no, Albus had seemingly tried to include her as well, now. That would take some time getting used to. Yeah, about two or three decades.

McGonagall –no, Hermione, Minerva- spoke up, and Hermione turned around to listen to her. Minerva said, "Now Hermione, how much do you know about how a Dark Mark worked ?"

Hermione answered, "Not really much, I am afraid ... just that it changed colour according to Voldemort's power or when he willed it to, and that it was an Apparating anchor guiding the wizard or witch bearing it towards Voldemort when activated." She had tried to find out more, but since surprisingly even the existence of the Mark was almost unknown, there was next to no literature about it, not even in the Restricted Section.

Snape -no, dear me, Severus- nodded, and said, "If you had known any more than that, I would have been very interested where you got it from. Not even ...," he paused a moment, before adding with difficulty, "not even we Death Eaters knew more, Voldemort was careful not to divulge too much. Only after I had come to Albus, and he had examined it thoroughly, I learned the true extent of the thing's powers myself. It did what you described, but also served one other purpose. And that was to channel Voldemort's magic, so that the bearer had absolutely no chance to resist his curses. That is what I meant by 'too dangerous'." He shut his eyes for a moment, then continued, "Not that there was any way to resist his Avada Kedavra, should he decide to cast one, unless you happened to be Harry Potter. And while I certainly did not relish the experience of the occasional Cruciatus or other entertainment spell when he was displeased," he winced briefly, "I could stand it. But what terrified me was the possibility that, if he found out that I had turned my back on his dark cause, he might put me under Imperio instead of just torturing and killing me, and use me to spy on or otherwise harm Albus. And I would not have stood a chance to resist the Imperius curse due to the Dark Mark. I would not let that happen, so I shared my fears with Albus, and he came up with that substitute enchantment I wore for so long."

He looked at his left forearm, where the mark had once been. "Albus' enchantment acted just like a standard Dark Mark in all respects but one : had Voldemort cast Imperius on me, it would have blocked the curse and instead disapparated me directly to the Hospital Wing here at Hogwarts – the latter being Albus' idea. No need to tell you that he wouldn't be dissuaded," he scowled.

Hermione, not knowing whether to be more shocked or impressed by the detachment with which he had spoken, asked the first question that came to her mind. "But you can't apparate or disapparate at Hogwarts, can you ?"

Minerva touched her right forearm lightly. "Now you can, Hermione, at least once you've gotten your license – which might be a good holiday project, by the way. This isn't just for decoration and recognition, you see."

Seeing Hermione's astonished look, she added, "The order meets up here in the Crystal Chamber nearly every Sunday afternoon. Being able to apparate here directly is a great aid in keeping these meetings secret, since nobody expects that to be possible. I don't think I have to add that you'd better not apparate anywhere else within the grounds unless you are really sure there's no one around to see you."

Hermione just nodded, questions flying around in her head like a flock of startled birds. Minerva watched her with a slightly amused look, then said, "I'd better leave next, and rejoin the Parting – the Gryffindors will miss me. But be unafraid, Hermione, I am sure Severus will be delighted to answer all your questions once you have sorted them out – no offence, Severus, but unlike me, in you it doesn't seem unusual to have fled a party as early as possible." Rolling down her sleeves, she left with a last smile at Hermione and Severus, who shot her a slightly pained look.

Hermione stared after her, combating her rising panic. Had she really left them alone now, herself and Snape –arghh, Severus-, and expected her just to calmly ask him questions ? While she couldn't even lie should he ask anything back ? The first question she felt like asking was Could I flee from this room now, please ? If only she didn't feel that this would be a decidedly un-phoenixlike course of action, and that she had to act more mature than that now. Gritting her teeth, she turned around to face him.

He had watched her with a look halfway between amusement and irritation. Now, he went to one of the chairs, sat down and motioned towards the other. "Do sit down, Hermione," he said in his silky voice, "If I am to answer all the questions you have about the Order this is going to be a long night."

She nodded, managing a small, "Thank you !" and sat down opposite him, her heart racing furiously.

Silence settled, and he eyed her curiously. "You surprise me, Hermione. I would have thought that you'd drown me with questions – what is the matter ?"

Hermione pondered how best to answer that, but to her horror, she felt the rising urge just to burst out with the truth. Uh oh. She remembered that Veritaserum not only forced you not to lie, but also compelled you to answer a direct question if you kept silent too long. Therefore opting for a flight forward as long as she still had at least some control over her wording, she began, "Has it occurred to you that your behaviour might be a bit, well, confusing for me ? During all my years here, you've been the terror of the students. Then, when we learned about your double agent role, I assumed it was just part of the cover. And, indeed, when the open war began for real and you fought so hard to keep us safe, I thought you couldn't really detest us after all. But then, you come out of the hospital wing, Voldemort is dead once and for all, and you behave just as mean-spirited as before. So I sigh in resignation, and assume that you just are a mean git, even though you're an Order member and all. Till tonight, when the Parting Ceremony starts and you all of a sudden mutate into the teacher I always would have dreamed of having in Potions. And since I've come in here, you've teased a bit but for the most part acted surprisingly nice."

She sighed, "I just don't understand you at all. I know I am to trust you, as a fellow Order member, and I wouldn't hesitate for a second to entrust you with my life, not after what I've seen you risk for us. But I will not trust you with my questions and fears and insecurities, not until I'm reasonably sure you won't just snap back into Snape-the-bastard mode any moment."

She braced herself for the storm that she felt was about to break loose any second. Well, he should have known better than to ask a question like that, it was his Veritaserum after all. But he just studied her for a few seconds, the gaze of his black eyes uncomfortably intense, his long fingers tapping on the wooden surface of the table absentmindedly. Finally, to her astonishment, he smiled slightly, saying, "Fair enough, I guess. So what would it take to make you 'reasonably sure' ?"

She stared at him. Too stunned to think clearly, she blurted out, "Why ? Why did you behave like a bastard towards us all those years ?"

He exhaled deeply. "That is a long story, Hermione. But well, I have settled for a long night anyway. And I trust you to know that none of this, or anything else spoken in here for that matter, is meant to reach the ears of any non-member of the Order, especially not Messieurs Potter and Weasley." When she nodded, he continued, "But where to start ?"

He appeared pensive for a moment, then continued, "Best with the rainy Sunday morning, more than seventeen years ago, when I returned to Hogwarts to apply for the vacated position of Potions master. You see, the reason for my ending up here was, originally, Voldemort's plan to plant a spy at Hogwarts."

Hermione's eyes widened. Talk about a miscalculation.

He nodded, then continued, "Albus had given us no end of trouble those days, so the Dark Lord decided he needed inside information about his movements and plans. Since Albus was searching for a new Potions teacher at that time, I –the only Death Eater besides Voldemort himself who was any good at Potions- was volunteered to apply. Mulciber, at that time still a member of the Department of Mysteries in good standing –or so he thought- approached Albus about 'a young acquaintance of his, really talented with potions, needing a job', and so on ... thus I found myself back at Hogwarts, from where I had graduated only three years before, for a job interview."

He closed his eyes for a moment. "What we Death Eaters didn't know was that Mulciber was already being closely observed. Not that I think I would have had a chance to fool Albus anyway, but as it happened, he knew perfectly well what I was already. And when he greeted me, and I looked into his eyes, I knew that he knew. But all he said was, 'Good morning, Lord Snape, it is good to see you back again at Hogwarts. So tell me, why have you come here ?' And in his eyes I saw no condemnation, no anger, not even pity. Just deep concern."

Hermione had raised a questioning eyebrow at the words, 'Lord Snape'. Noticing it, he shrugged and said, "My late Muggle stepfather had been of their aristocracy. I inherited his title according to Muggle laws, and I bear it in his memory. But that is another tale for another time, I think."

She nodded quickly, not wanting to interrupt him, and he continued, "At that time, I had already begun to realise that the Death Eaters were not, as they had claimed, just out to 'liberate free-minded wizards from the dictatorship of chafing laws favouring weak, superstitious Muggles and miserly old fools who restrict knowledge for fear of losing power.' But I hadn't yet really admitted to myself just how foul and corrupted they really were, and that I had become like them. And now Albus was standing in front of me, knowing me to be a Death Eater, and still, for a memory of the student I had once been, he trusted me enough to let me talk. He didn't even have a wand on him. And, Death Eater or not, he cared enough for me to be concerned about me, in a way none of my so-called brethren ever had."

He looked into the dancing flame of a torch next to him, lost in memory. "I broke down completely. For what must have been hours, I just talked, confessed. And he heard me out without interrupting me once, just listening without even judging. Finally, I had finished, and waited for his reaction, when suddenly there was a sharp rap on the door. Albus looked alarmed, and sent me off through a door into his private quarters, warning me not to make any sound. Standing there, I heard him open the entry door to his office, and the angry voice of Bartemius Crouch, head of Magical Law Enforcement. That's when I realised that they had probably tracked Mulciber, and therefore now knew about me, too."

He shivered. "What followed was the row I mentioned earlier. I had never imagined Albus could become so angry. I tried to intervene, I felt that surely I wasn't worth his risking anything for my wretched hide. But Fawkes was in there with me, and when he saw what I was up to he flew to the door, perched on the handle and stunned me with a look, so I could do nothing but listen. Finally Crouch backed down -he knew full well that he was no match for Albus- and left, not without dire words though. Fawkes let me go, and I stormed out. I began to shout about me not being worth his, or anyone's, protection, but Albus raised a hand and silenced me. He just asked, 'Severus, is it your true wish to renounce what you did and try to make up for some of it, if possible ?' I stared at him and answered, 'Yes, it is, but I don't know how I ever could –' He silenced me again, saying, 'Desperate moves for desperate times, then.' He sent off Fawkes to fetch Arabella -Hogwarts' Arithmancy teacher back then- and Minerva, and before I even realised what was happening I had been inducted into the Order of the Phoenix."

He turned his gaze back to her. "You can probably imagine that that afternoon's Order meeting was rather lively. But in the end everyone yielded to Albus' arguments, accepting his decision and Fawkes' judgement – not that there was much of a possibility to change anything at that point. Since the Order had –and still has- several key Ministry officials among its ranks, I was pretty safe from Crouch now. That was precisely what Albus had counted on when he had inducted me into the Order. We - well rather they, I was much too shaken at that point to do much of anything besides trying not to collapse - debated on how to make best use of the Death Eaters' ignorance about my having switched sides. In the end, they asked me if I could bear to keep up the façade, and play double agent. The prospect almost scared me out of my wits. But I thought of how much Albus had risked for me that day, just on my word, and accepted without hesitation. Then there was the business about my Mark you already know about, and then that wild day was finally coming to an end."

He steepled his fingers on the table. "I am only telling you all this so that you can appreciate the state of mind I was in when I began my teaching career the next morning."

Hermione shuddered involuntarily. She understood that to keep up the illusion that Albus had suspected nothing and just hired Severus, things had to appear as normal as possible on the outside, but still that was an awful lot to ask of him after a day like that.

He watched her and remarked, "I see you do understand. And I never was much of a people person to begin with; the thought of teaching had frankly scared me when it had first been proposed, only there was no such thing as saying 'no' to Voldemort. To make matters worse, the first class I had were seventh-years, and I was a grand three years older than they. Some of them were bound to remember me as a former fellow student of theirs, the one whom the glorious Head Boy James Potter and his friends had always made fun of. That wasn't going to make things any easier." He shook his head, and continued, "The former Potions master, by whom I had been taught, and I use this word in the widest sense possible, had been a weak fool. Our double classes with the Gryffindors had been utter chaos. I had learned more by brewing antidotes to whatever substance James and Sirius had deemed funny to pour over me that time, than by his so-called lessons. I vowed to myself to do better. I owed it to Albus to actually teach the students he had entrusted me with as much as I could."

Suddenly, his expression changed into a more familiar smirk. "Then, as I was on my way to give my first lesson ever, shaking inwardly, suddenly I remembered something from a most interesting old Italian book I had once read in my dad's library. It is better to be feared than loved."

He shrugged his shoulders. "What more shall I say ? It worked. Students learned very quickly that Potions lessons were no longer a time to relax, but had better be taken at least as seriously as, say, Transfiguration. I know that I really overdid it sometimes, but I thought it better to err on the side of caution, especially with Gryffindors, who as a group can really be an unruly bunch of troublemakers if given free rein, trust me on that one. Besides, it galled me enough that I had to show special favour to the kids of my erstwhile brethren, to keep up the façade, and I thought I'd have a far easier time with them if they did not harbour any notion that I had gone soft or anything."

He sought her eyes with his, and held them with his dark, intense gaze. "I am aware that since now Voldemort is finally history, part of the reason for my behaviour has gone with him. Indeed, I trust you have noticed the change in my conduct towards my own house, or what is left of it." She nodded – the remaining Slytherins certainly had been surprised to find out that they were no longer specially favoured. He continued, "But as for my teaching style, why change something that has been working so well for so long ? It is not as if I could win any popularity contests round here anyway, and I would much rather be the ugly, feared git than the ugly, ridiculed git."

She opened her mouth in protest, but shut it again when she realised that he was probably right about that one. He watched her with a sad smile. "So you understand now why, even though Voldemort is dead, Snape-the-bastard did not die along with him ?" She nodded mutely. He shut his eyes briefly, and when he opened them again, they had acquired an odd sheen. He continued with obvious effort, "When I look back upon seventeen years of teaching, I only have one real regret. And that is that I had to shun my best and brightest pupil ever – you. It hurt me, from your very first lesson on, when you were the only one in that batch of idiots to actually know the first thing about potions. It hurt me never to be able to encourage you to reach your full potential in my field, and it gives great credit to you that you did anyway, despite my behaviour. But to give any support to a Muggle-born Gryffindor, who was friends with Potter to boot, would have been way too much of a dead give-away. Please understand this, Hermione – I couldn't have done it." He fixed her intently, his face having gone impassive again all of a sudden.

But by now Hermione had realised that this didn't mean he did not care about her answer, but rather the opposite. She slowly exhaled, then answered, "I understand. And I will try hard not to hold it against you any more. But please understand, too, that I can't shake off seven years of anxiety and tears about that very behaviour of yours in a matter of minutes. Your point is taken, very gladly and thankfully taken in fact, but give me time about it."

He nodded, visibly relieved. She noticed that he had pressed his fingertips against each other so hard that they had gone white. For a few moments they just sat there in silence, each musing their private thoughts.

Suddenly something occurred to Hermione. She told him, carefully watching his reaction, "I think I understand now why you behaved so uncharacteristically tonight at the Parting Ceremony. You were mean to us with a purpose during our seven school years, not just for the heck of it, and as the Dark Lord is gone and you won't be teaching us anymore, there just was no more purpose, correct ?"

A hesitant smile lit up his features, and he nodded. "Correct, Hermione. And, since you all took an oath under the influence of Veritaserum, you can't even tell the students I still have to teach about it. So I was free to act as I wanted for once, and since I felt it might help you youngsters with your start into adult life, I did my best – I might not like most of my students, but that does not mean I do not care about them. Even though," he snickered softly, "most stared at me as if I had grown fangs or something."

She snorted. "Trust me, we would have wondered a lot less in that case."

He nodded, amused. "I know. Most students who happen to see me in Hogsmeade, or outside in general, actually give a start as if they expected me to turn to dust in the sunlight."

His smile was infectious. The whole situation had a definitely surreal feeling to it – here she was, teasing Severus Snape, and he was obviously enjoying the experience. But she did not really care about the absurdity of it all – to be sure of his recognition of her capabilities was like a dream come true for her, something she only now realised how much she had been hungering for all these seven years. Yet, when she thought about it, it was surprising how little she actually reproached him for not having given it to her before, despite of what she'd said earlier, now that she knew and understood his reasons. And with a start she also realised that, sometime during their talk, she had stopped being afraid of him.

Some of her thoughts must have shown on her face, for suddenly he leaned forward, a question on his face. Hermione took a deep breath to steady herself, then said, "Thank you, Severus." His given name passed her lips more easily than she had expected.

He looked at her quizzically, and asked, "What for ?"

She met his gaze, and answered, "For your trust in me, for telling me so much about yourself. I do understand how difficult it must have been."

He broke away from her gaze, fixing the dancing flame of the torch again. Hesitantly, he said, "It was not easy. But I owed you as much. You had every right to be terrified of me, after all, I worked hard on it for seven years. It was illusory of me to assume you'd just step over that."

She nodded. "I regret I had to put you through that. If it's any consolation, I am now more than 'reasonably sure' I can trust you." He turned round to fix her again. She added with a smile, "I'll even try hard not to be too offended if you fall into the habit and snap at me again from time to time. I know old habits die hard."

He looked visibly relieved, answering, "I'll do my best not to, but it might happen, you are right about that. It will take some time to firmly remove you from the 'student' category in my mind and place you into the 'Order' category. Speaking of which, I believe you had some questions about it ?"

For a while then, she questioned him about the order. She was pretty surprised about some of the things she learned, like some of the people who were (Remus) and weren't (Moody) members, or the fact that, while its membership was surprisingly small in each country, there was an independent chapter of the Order on every continent –though Albus apparently met with the other four leaders from time to time- and that it was strongest in Asia, where it had originated. But what baffled her most was that both Severus and Remus still were considered acolytes within the order. Remus, who had only joined several years ago, was currently training with Mundungus Fletcher, and Severus himself was being trained during the holidays by Minerva and Albus. The thought intrigued her – if a wizard of his powers and knowledge was still an acolyte, it meant there was much more to be learnt from the Order than she had ever thought possible. And all that knowledge was being offered to her – that was truly another dream come true.

He snorted at her stunned look, and asked, "Why so surprised ? Did you think we teachers just sleep in coffins all summer when the students are gone ?"

She blushed and quickly cleared up the misunderstanding, and he nodded. "Yes, though both my teaching and spying duties left me with way less time than I would have liked for my own studies – and there are such incredible things you can learn here, Hermione ..." his voice trailed off, and she noticed a gleam in his eyes that strongly reminded her of herself.

Hermione also found it fascinating that he and Minerva actually seemed to be fast friends, brought together by a similar outlook on the value of discipline and an orderly education for their students, and that all that icy hostility they had shown towards each other in public had been part of the façade. She made a comment to that effect.

He smiled and nodded. "She is Albus' confidante and Head of Gryffindor House - it would have looked a bit odd to show any liking for her. But you are right – she and my other friends within the Order often were all that kept me going over the years."

Severus Snape having friends – another new concept, she thought. Though after having chatted so amicably with him for what must've been hours, it didn't seem so unimaginable any more. Chatted for hours – suddenly she noticed how parched her throat was. Severus seemed to sense her thoughts, for he produced his wand and, with a flick of his wrist, summoned a pitcher of iced pumpkin juice and two goblets. He filled the goblets, then offered her one with a gallant gesture. Taking it gratefully, she sipped the cool liquid and felt better.

Having drunk from his own goblet, he said, "Our apologies, by the way, for dragging you in here before you had had a chance to finish your dinner and chatting, but we felt that shortly after the buffet had been opened, your fellow students would be busy stuffing themselves and least likely to notice all of us were missing – well, I doubt I would have been missed much, as Minerva so charmingly pointed out, but she and Albus surely would have been. As for you, I trust that Messieurs Potter and Weasley, as experienced rule-breakers and mischief-mongers, will be able to come up with some way of explaining away your absence, even under the influence of the Veritaserum, should anybody inquire."

She nodded. Since Harry and Ron knew why she had been called away from the Parting, they were surely backing her up with some selected part of the truth, like shrugging and saying she was in one of the adjoining rooms and probably did not want to be disturbed ... then suddenly her eyes widened as she realised that between the two of them, though, they had probably realised who was still missing along with her. She fought hard to suppress a hysterical giggle, and failed.

Seeing Severus' curious look, she explained, "I just realised that, while I don't doubt Harry and Ron will hush up my absence from the ceremony, they will probably have formed Merlin only knows what theories by now, as to what we two might have been doing all that time – I don't think the idea that we might just be talking peacefully will have crossed their minds. I am half surprised that they haven't stormed this room yet, ready to the rescue !"

He chuckled softly. "Do you really think, Hermione, that we would conduct an Order meeting behind an unwarded door ? Only someone with the Phoenix sign can open it. And should they have tried anything stupidly Gryffindor like attempting to blast their way through the ward, I am sure that Albus or Minerva would have discreetly discouraged them. Though I find it amusing to think that they might simply have tried to open it, and failed – and without doubt drawn the conclusion that I had warded it myself to keep them from entering and you from escaping. That should add the proper colour to their speculations."

Hermione burst out laughing. Wiping away a tear of laughter, she commented, "Well, I'll no doubt hear all their theories in worried or reproachful tones and I'll let you know what they've come up with. Still, I think you must be rubbing off on me – it is mean to make fun of them worrying about me, after all."

He lifted an eyebrow and replied, "Hermione, they do happen to have Albus and Minerva at hand. If they are either too big a pair of fools to ask them, or too distrustful to believe their reassurances, I do not think that this is any particular fault of ours. And anyway I have never claimed not to be mean, just that I am, in fact, somewhat less mean than I usually strive hard to appear. But without ample natural predisposition towards meanness it would have been hard to keep up my façade."

She took another sip of her juice. "Ah, I don't really mind, as long as you temper it with humour like that – in fact, had your sarcasm in class been less aimed at wounding, I would have genuinely admired your sharp wit." He mumbled something unintelligible and busied himself with his drink, which brought her to smile secretly. Not wanting to embarrass him, she tried to change the subject, asking the first thing that came to her mind, " So now that we've gone through the facts pretty thoroughly, tell me, how is life in the Order ?"

Severus gratefully jumped at the non sequitur, and answered, in a serious voice, "Most of all, not boring. Do not get the impression from the way Albus, Minerva and I behave around each other that all is smiles and harmony within the Order of the Phoenix – the Bird of Fire is a most fitting symbol, believe me. When times are quiet, we sometimes have furious debates and tempers fly high. I have great friends within the Order, but the others are just colleagues with a common cause, and Remus and I still don't really hit it off. But in times of danger, we stand as one, and there is none among us who would not willingly give everything to help a fellow member or the Order as a whole. I would not hesitate for a second to trust every single one of them with my life – even Remus."

He had added that last bit with a smile, but Hermione wasn't fooled by it. If he spoke of unconditional trust, that was saying something. It worried her slightly, and she hoped there would not be any crisis due soon - not that she wouldn't trust Albus willingly, Minerva for sure, Remus too, and yes, even Severus, she thought ... but to place such trust in some half stranger just like that because he was in the Order too would take some serious work on her part. Worse yet, what if they trusted her and she let them down ? Suddenly she felt very small and incompetent – what if they had made a fatal mistake by letting her enter the Order, what if she was the weakest link ?

Severus' voice cut through her gloom, silky and uncommonly gentle. "Hermione, do you think that, when I was admitted into the Order, a frightened loner and used to the dog-eat-dog community of the Death Eaters, I just went and trusted them for the sheer pleasure of the hitherto unknown experience ? Not really - the ground I have covered during my time in the Order was hard won. So what do you suppose we expect from you ? I will tell you, since you seem to have some misconception about it : simply that you do your best. Nothing less than that, but certainly nothing more either – no miracles. And we who had the pleasure of teaching you know that you would never give anything but your best."

She looked at him uncertainly. He gave her an encouraging smile, and added, "Why do you think you have been chosen, Hermione ? An Order candidate needs two qualities – a brilliant mind, and the determination to give everything they can when necessary. That is why you and Remus have been chosen, while, for instance, Harry Potter, who lacks the former, if certainly not the latter, or Sirius, who is deficient just the other way round, have not been. These qualities are debated among the members, and the candidates chosen accordingly. The last quality, the one that decides whether a candidate becomes a member, is weighed by Fawkes himself – to quote Albus, 'whether the candidate has a good heart.' Personally, I find it highly ironic that he admitted me while refusing James Potter, but I can only assume that a phoenix has quite literally inhuman standards by which he judges."

The all-too-familiar acid that had crept back into his tone, although –or maybe because– it was directed against himself this time, greatly rankled her. She sharply said, "Don't." He looked at her, puzzled. She continued, her eyes boring into his, "Don't you say you don't have a good heart, 'cause you do." She shook her head as he started to protest, silencing him. "You need not tell me about all the mistakes you've ever made. So you've made some mistakes, one bloody awful mistake, in fact, when you were young– nothing is going to change that fact. Which doesn't make you any kind of monster, just human – humans make mistakes, small ones, big ones, huge ones. So do monsters. But what makes the difference between the two is that humans eventually recognise the fact, and try to make up for it as best they can. Monsters either conveniently forget about it or pretend, even convince themselves, that the mistake was really the right thing to do. I know all about not allowing yourself to fail, ever, trust me on that one. But if there's one thing I learned from Harry, it's the fact that you need not be perfect, no, that you cannot be perfect, and still you can succeed. You told me about not expecting more from myself than my best just before. How about telling that to yourself instead ?"

The look of intense fury on Severus' face made her wonder dimly if she hadn't gone too far. But she stood her ground – once she had talked herself into such a rage, backing down was not an option anymore ... not that anyone but Ron and Malfoy had ever managed to get her to that point. You're in exclusive company there, Severus. She held fast under the gaze of his dark eyes, oddly feeling as if she was looking into the heart of a thundercloud.

Then suddenly he controlled himself with obvious effort, and leant back in his chair, his features calming. His tone still somewhat smouldering, he said, "Well that at least answers a question I've had for quite a few years – how someone ordinarily appearing as calm, composed and hesitant as you could ever manage to convince someone like Harry Potter to occasionally listen to you and not to his overly inflated ego."

She looked at him, unsure how to react to that. He sighed, and added, "Come on, girl, I promised I'd try my best not to bite, and even though the temptation is great right now I'll keep to my promise. Ah, heck," he suddenly spat, "I'd like nothing more than to tell you that what you said is complete rubbish, but I find the Veritaserum won't let me. You bloody remind me of Albus, do you know that ? Will make for interesting Sunday afternoons, to have two of your kind around now." To her utter astonishment a wry smile suddenly lit his face as he said that.

Her surprise must have shown plainly on her face. He shook his head slightly, saying, "If I have to spell it out for you, I just admitted that there might be some wisdom in what you said – might, mind you. But then, Albus tells me much the same about twice a month, and I've yet to believe him either. Really, I think you and he will get on splendidly. Whether the rest of us will find that just as splendid remains to be seen, but somehow I doubt it." His smile was genuine now, the storm apparently having weathered just as quickly as it had broken.

Hermione tentatively smiled back. Now that the adrenaline had flooded out of her system, she actually felt the delayed effect of her fear. She had only once before seen him as angry as that, and that had been after Sirius' escape on Buckbeak – and that time, Albus had been there as well. Back then she had had a rather long night and not really paid him too much attention, wanting only to collapse and sleep ... but now that she had seen him in full fury, up close, she realised for the first time how controlled he actually behaved in his classes. Neville had been so frightened by Severus' venomous sarcasm that for him the Boggart had taken on the teacher's form – she supposed that if Neville had ever been subjected to Severus' real rage he'd probably have died of fright.

The silence between them had stretched uncomfortably; he broke it by saying, "I suppose flying off the handle like that was not the wisest move in getting you to trust me more, was it ?" Again the wry smile. "I am sorry, Hermione, but my vicious temper is something you must probably learn to live with – if that is any help, the others usually just let me rage for a while. I have learned to get myself together again after I have let off some steam."

She shook her head, saying, "It is okay, really. I guess I asked for that. And at least I now know the border I should only cross when I really mean it, and what happens if I do." She returned his smile a lot more sincerely.

He relaxed visibly when he saw that, and poured them another round of pumpkin juice, then sat back and swirled his goblet, lost in thought for a moment. She waited him out, and finally he said, "I do hope that now, since the pressure on my life has lessened considerably in the last two months, my outbursts will become less frequent. I just need time to adapt to my new freedom, I guess." A pensive smile flitted over his lips when he said, "But the fact that I have not really gotten used to it yet does not mean I cherish it any less."

She just nodded mutely. Then suddenly she blurted out, "I know you do. Harry, Ron and I were so worried about you when you were in the hospital wing, on the edge of death. When we heard you would probably soon come to, at last, we were overjoyed – it would have been so sad if you had worked so long and hard towards Voldemort's eventual downfall, only to follow him into the grave when he finally was defeated. And of course we were deeply in your debt, Ron especially. When –", she swallowed hard, then continued, "when you first came round, we were there, huddled together in a corner under Harry's invisibility cloak." She ignored his sudden alarmed stare, and continued before her courage left her again. "You did not say much, just looked up at Albus and croaked, 'Is he ... ?' Albus nodded, and said, 'Dead and gone, for good this time.' When you heard that, you just closed your eyes, and drifted off to unconsciousness again. But some of those hard lines around your eyes were smoothed away, and didn't return. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, you lying there and looking at peace for the first time in the seven years I had known you. I don't think the boys even noticed, they were too busy being relieved that you were alive." She exhaled deeply, then added, "But I did. And when you were back in class a week later, and behaving just as vitriolic as before, it hurt a lot. But I looked at your eyes, and the bitter lines still hadn't returned, they were gone for good just like Voldemort. And, even though that day you convinced me that you obviously were a true bastard after all, I still was happy for you. I felt you had earned it so very much."

Her courage finally spent, she stared into her goblet, trembling inwardly. Now what on earth has possessed you to say that, girl ? Probably some side effect of the thrice-damned serum, to even volunteer truths that hadn't been asked for – the next time anyone attempted to get her to drink some, she'd tell them firmly where they could stuff it and flee the room, she swore to herself.

She didn't dare look up when she heard Severus' voice, sounding oddly unsure, "Well, I think congratulations are in order, Hermione, you have just written a piece of Hogwarts History. For the first time ever since I began teaching here, I find I have no idea what to say."

She murmured, still staring into her drink, "Anything, as long as it does not include biting my head off for invading your privacy like that ..."

She heard him take a deep breath, before he answered, "No, it is not that, Hermione. You obviously meant well, though I shall have a little word with Albus, for not either shooing you out or at least telling me about it later. It is that ... that you say you cared about me, even though I had shown you nothing but scorn and derision for seven years. And," he tried to make his tone sound light, "the fact that over the years I have been called many, often colourful things, but I don't believe that anybody has ever used the word 'beautiful' to describe any aspect of me."

She looked up at him then. He was obviously trying to appear nonchalant, wearing a smile that did not reach his eyes. But her new-found knowledge about her former teacher told her she would have to tread very carefully now. Hesitantly, she said, "During seven years of Potions classes, you gave me countless reasons for grudges. But don't you tell me that you even believed for a second that I ever held anything so trivial as matters of appearance against you."

He just raised an eyebrow, and stated a single word. "Lockhart."

Hermione felt herself going a deep crimson hue. "I was frigging twelve at that time ! And he was the first male teacher who was neither ancient nor actually dead and who gave me any credit for my performance in class. Of course I fell hard for that - everyone wants to be appreciated. And it wasn't as if I were getting any from you – I'm not accusing here, just stating facts," she added hastily as she saw him tense. Sighing heavily, she said, "I do understand, now, why you couldn't do it. But I want you to understand that my having had a schoolgirl's crush on him and not you had less to do with looks and more with behaviour."

Slowly, he nodded. "Not that I would have been particularly happy if you had had it on me. Helpless would have been a better word. But thank you for explaining to me something I never comprehended – how such a clever young witch like you could act so foolishly. It just didn't square with the rest of your behaviour."

Suddenly she had to grin. "You're sounding just like Ron there, do you know that ?" That provoked a derisive snort from him. She added, more thoughtfully, "Although he never asked me why, just assumed I had a bout of stupidity or something. Which was a bit rich coming from him, considering he never even noticed me as a female before I got my teeth into shape, with a little help from you," she added with a mischievous glint in her eyes.

He had the good grace to look sheepish as he answered, "Guilty as charged. If it is any consolation to you, though, it did help to convince Malfoy I was still on the 'right' side after I had failed to take vengeance on 'Alastor' for doing that ferret stunt to his son."

She shrugged. "Ah, never you mind. It did work out well in the end, and it gave me an interesting perspective on who changed their behaviour towards me and who didn't. Anyway," she became serious again, "I don't care how you look or don't, and I never did. I did and do care about your being a brave fighter, an honourable member of the 'good side' and a brilliant Potions master. I just never understood how such a person could be such a bastard on the other hand. And when I saw you lying there, for the first time ever you were neither angry nor mean nor worried – just yourself. And that's what I meant by beautiful. Your appearance might not be, by most people's standards. But your soul is, and then you let me see it for the first time ever, if involuntarily."

Hermione silently waited for his reaction, carefully fighting to keep her face neutral and not to tremble. I've never known I could be a gambler. If what she thought she had learned of him tonight proved to be incorrect and he'd give her a harsh rebuke now, she didn't know what she would do – probably run out of the room and try never to come near him again, which might become difficult on Sundays though.

Severus was silent for a while, and she had a hard time not to fidget under his gaze, which had become dark and unreadable again. When he finally spoke up, he said, "And I, blissfully unaware of that episode in the hospital wing and still disoriented from both my long recovery and the unaccustomed fact that, for the first time in years, I could get up every morning without having to wonder whether I would live to see the evening, I just waltz into my classroom and do business as usual, too preoccupied to give it a second thought. Merlin's beard, I am so sorry, Hermione."

She let out a breath she hadn't even realised she'd held. That wasn't what she had expected, but he had been sincere and not pushed her away. Shaking her head, she answered, "It is okay – as you said, you did not know." Suddenly she felt more words coming to her lips. Panic flaring up, she struggled to contain them, but it was no use as she helplessly spilled forth, "But had you known, what would you have done ?"

Ouch – that was a mean question. So the malicious concoction not only forced you to tell the truth, but from time to time made you seek it as well if you really cared ? They should have quite the nice party out there, she thought dimly, and tried to apologise, "I am sorry, Severus, I should not have ..." but he raised his hand to stop her.

"You need not be, Hermione ... first-time reaction to Veritaserum, it is I who should have been aware of the possibility of this happening. But anyway," he continued hastily, and she realised that he, too, was fighting for control over his words since she had asked him a direct question, after all, "what would I have done ? It is a good thing I did not know, come to think of it now, for I would probably have done something that would have made Albus skin me alive, with you still being my student at that time ..." He let the words hang in the air between them, just watching her intently, his face apparently calm but his hands gripping the armrests of his chair a little too tightly.

She drew in a shocked breath, and without thinking wanted to blurt out that he had obviously misunderstood her. Opening her mouth, she found that no sound came forth, however.

The Veritaserum. I cannot say it. That means it is not the truth. It means he has not misunderstood me, after all.


The implications of this made her mind reel. She felt the world spin out of control around her, then go dark.

When she came to again, she was lying on her back upon what from the softness of it she assumed had to be the four-poster . She felt rather than saw a movement in front of her eyes and heard his voice muttering, "Enervate !"

Slowly opening her eyes fully, she looked up to see Severus' concerned face hovering over her. Seeing her regain her senses, he visibly relaxed, and let himself fall back into a chair next to the bed. For a few seconds, all that could be heard in the room was the slight hissing of the burning torches.

Then he started, quietly, "I am sorry to have shocked you so, Hermione. I did not ..." his voice trailed off helplessly.

She propped herself up on her elbows carefully so she could look at him at eye level. Trying to keep her voice gentle, she said, "I see nothing you should be sorry for. Neither is it your fault that I asked in the first place, nor that I do not seem to know my own mind. Which, in fact, was what shocked me so, not what you said. That was ... I ... just give me a little time, please, to think this over. This has been a most intense evening."

Amusement flickered up briefly in his dark eyes, but was quickly replaced by seriousness again. "You can say that again, Hermione. And here I thought that I had a rough time being inducted into the order ... I do recall, now, Minerva once telling me that it is always a rebirth of sorts to become a Phoenix member. I really must coax the story of her own induction out of her some day ... but I am rambling. I will leave you in peace now. Take these, they allegedly help females sort things out."

Getting up, he conjured up a small bowl of chocolate candies next to her on the bed, then went to his former place at the table again, hidden from her view by one of the posts and the voluminous curtains tied to it.

Hermione watched him go, absentmindedly nibbling on a piece of chocolate. Another quality she would never have thought him capable of : tact. And she highly appreciated his willingness to give her a little time to sort her thoughts out – the unresolved situation she had so neatly managed to place the two of them in must be just as hard on him. Oh dear, what a mess. She had as good as told him she had fallen in love with him that night in the hospital, without even realising it. While he had recognised what she'd said, and, in a quaint way, told her he reciprocated her feelings. Probably had done so for a while too, now that she went through parts of their earlier conversation again in her head, and just written it off as impossible. And there she came, blithely unaware, and told him about her own feelings, just as unaware of those as well.

Girl, you're supposed to be an adult now. How about actually starting to act like one ?

She gave a small sigh, but then resolutely sat up on the edge of the bed, still too wobbly to try and stand up but at least determined to be able to face him. Knowing that putting this off any longer would only needlessly hurt him and weaken her resolve, she calmly called out, "Severus ? Could you come back to me for a moment ?"

She heard him get up, and a moment later he returned to view, his face carefully kept neutral, only his rigid shoulders betraying his inner tension. He came round the bed, then sat down again on the chair next to her, watching her intently.

She swallowed hard, then, fighting to keep her voice calm, said, "In the whole history of human relations, this has got to be the most awkward way of finding out what we just discovered, don't you think so ? But it has happened like that, for better or worse, and at least now we both know that," she mustered up all her courage here for a moment, "that I love you, Severus. And that you love me."

His dark eyes were searching hers. "Yes, I do, Hermione. I have done so for quite a while now. Circumstances being what they were, though, I pushed it back so hard that I almost managed to subdue it."

A small part of her brain registered she had been right about that, as she added, "And with me being so inexperienced in noticing anything not written in a book, including my own emotions, and you a masterly actor, the two of us might just have gone on like that and never found out. I am not yet sure whether I want to strangle or hug Albus and Minerva for this now-obvious set-up they've so skilfully manoeuvred us into."

He nodded emphatically to that, adding with a growl, "I am rather more inclined to strangle them both, though."

That hurt. She asked, in a quiet voice, "So you'd rather not know ?"

His expression quickly softened, and he answered, "No ... no, of course not. It is just that I do not like to be manipulated by him –and this has Albus' handwriting all over it, you are right about that- and yet he does it on a regular basis. Even though I understand it is for the my own good this time, and for yours, I still resent it. I want control over my own life."

Now that she could relate to, she thought as she nodded in understanding. But she felt that with her emotions a-tumble like that, control was all too fragile an illusion.

She felt very unsure about how to go on now. In the Muggle novels she had read during the holidays, after some couple had pledged their love, everything usually seemed to fall into place on its own. When that effect had failed to occur after Viktor had told her how he felt about her, she had blamed it on their youth and on the fact that she didn't really feel anything for him but a deep liking. But even now, knowing that love was there on both sides, she didn't feel anything of that effect either. She began to think that it all was nothing but a fabled myth, as she was sitting there, embarrassed, looking at the equally embarrassed-looking man next to her.

It was Severus who finally broke the silence, his voice sounding ragged, not silky as usual. "Hermione, I want you to understand that, from my side, there is no ... compulsion ... whatsoever on you. You have just finished school, and come out of the worst wizarding war in four hundred years, you have every right to enjoy yourself as much as and in every way you want. To feel an emotion is not the same as acting on it, I understand that better than most. I ... I cannot say that this will not be hard on me, but I will be there for you, always, whether you decide to come to me now, or later, or never at all." His voice broke, but his dark gaze held hers, steadily.

Hermione's heart went out to him as he sat there, so still, awaiting her reaction. '... every way you want' – that brought her back to the question she had asked herself back at the Parting ceremony.

What do I want ? The answer came to her mind with startling alacrity.

A life in the Order. But not without you.

A rebirth, he said, as a Phoenix member. Time to take flight then, girl.

She held out her hand to him, palm upturned. "Severus, I ... I cannot make a commitment for always, as you did. This is ... still too new for me, on many levels. But I know that, after tonight, I do not want to go on without you any more. And that is all I want, now – you." She took a deep breath, firmly telling the small part of her brain that was screaming how absurd this situation was to go hang. She didn't care what had been before she had really known him – or herself, for that matter. Now was now.

He eyed her uncertainly. "Hermione, are you sure ... ?"

She bit back a sigh, and gave him a shy smile as she said, "Of course I am. I do not think you have forgotten that I cannot lie right now, or have you ?"

He shook his head, eyes clouded. "Of course not. But still I find it hard to believe that you could want ... me."

But at least he took her outstretched hand. She sighed in relief, and gently brought his hand to her lips. Putting a kiss on the tips of his long, delicate fingers, she said, "I do. Trust me."

The sensation of his skin, warm and soft and not rough -she had expected it as a legacy of his craft- on her lips sent little bolts of tingling sensation spreading slowly through her. The feeling was both relaxing and creating a new, unfamiliar kind of tension at once. Carefully, she brought her other hand up to run her fingertips over the back of his hand, felt the smoothness, traced the veins shimmering through his sallow skin. Every touch brought more of the little sparks, moving through her like things alive. The sensation was as intense as it was unexpected – certainly, it had never been like that with Viktor, just youthful urgency and awkwardness. But, she thought fiercely, who cared about what had been then - this was now, and she felt she could not get enough of it. She raised her eyes to Severus, begging him mutely to come closer, trying to hold back the question why he was so ... so passive, so seemingly uninterested, though the way his breathing had accelerated betrayed the contrary.

He got up slowly, careful not to dislodge his hand from her grasp. Then, coming closer, he studied her face and said, quietly, "Hermione, it is not that I do not want you. It is just that, even though my history with women is short and consists of nothing but casual affairs, I suppose I am still the more experienced of us, apart from the fact that I am twice your age. The very last thing I want is to rush you in any way, to push you somewhere you are not prepared to go yet. Therefore the direction of this night is entirely yours." Suddenly he straightened himself, and with an elegant bow he somehow seemed to have taken directly out of some Victorian play he sat down next to her -without even robbing her of his hand- and said, with an undertone in his voice that was halfway between a growl and a purr and flared the sparks within her to new life again, "You said you wanted me, so me you shall get. I am yours to command, my lady. Do with me as you please."

Hermione was stunned for a moment. She had learned a lot of things this evening, but the most amazing and unexpected among them, which she would never have believed her former Potions master to be capable of, was this Lord Henry impersonation. Suddenly she remembered something he had mentioned in passing, what now seemed half a lifetime ago, about his stepfather. Shaking her head in wonderment, she mused that whatever they would be sharing in the future, it was not likely to become dull if he had more surprises like that up his sleeve. Not that she would have described him as dull in the first place.

Severus was sitting within her grasp now, and he had expressly offered himself to her. On the one hand, the thought of having to take full initiative discomforted her a bit. On the other hand, she reflected, it was a very gentlemanly offer, for he was older and more experienced - which wasn't saying much though, she thought ruefully. Having seen him enraged only a short while ago, she knew how high his emotions could run and wasn't sure how well she could cope with unguarded passion from him - yet. And this delicious growl in his voice had made it clear that he definitely felt passion for her. Suddenly she felt thankful for his yielding full control to her.

Diligently putting his hand she was still holding over her chest, so that he could feel her heartbeat, she stretched out hers and gently brushed his cheeks with her fingertips, felt his features under her fingers, so familiar and yet so completely new tonight, and the sparks began to flow again, pulsing through her arm and spreading warmth throughout her body. Cupping his face, she said, "Call me your lady again, please."

The faintest of smiles touched his lips as he bent down slightly so he could place a gentle kiss on her palm, saying, "Whatever my lady love commands." The way he could lower his voice so that it touched her deep inside was amazing. In classes, he had always used his voice control to bring forth obedience and fear, with a low whisper here and a vicious snarl there, but now she saw that his repertoire went much farther than that. Considering that he was sitting there quietly, it was astonishing how much he could play on her inner cords just with his silky voice, his intense gaze, small delicate gestures. She felt the tension inside her increase slowly, but it was not an unpleasant feeling, more like the air vibrating before a thunderstorm on a hot summer day.

Slowly she let her hand trail over his neck down to the base of his throat, feeling the deep vibrations there as he answered her touch with a low, pleased sound like of a big cat. If only the high collar of his black robes were not in the way like that ... unsure for a moment, she finally, cautiously began to unbutton it. His dark eyes studied her intently, and he whispered, "My lady wishes to see more of me ?" She nodded, managing a shy smile. He smiled in answer, and laid his head back, closing his eyes, offering her his throat. She bent forward and placed a gentle kiss on his Adam's apple, which evoked a deep purr of pleasure from him, before she continued to open button after button of both the robes and the shirt he wore beneath, covering the newly-exposed skin with kisses. It felt incredibly soft under her lips, and she could feel his rapid heartbeat when she reached the base of his throat, tracing the small hollow there with kisses, its skin deliciously fine and supple. She wondered how soft his lips would feel on hers. Well, there was a way to find out, she decided in a flash of daring.

Slowly trailing upwards with her kisses again, she reached his chin, felt the roughness of his skin there, stubble not yet visible but perceptible by her sensitised lips. He raised his head again to meet hers as she passed the curve of his chin with her kisses, and they locked eyes when their lips met.

A small part of her mind registered that his lips were thin and firm and tasted faintly like the Veritaserum had - sweet and yet slightly spicy. But the greater part was just overwhelmed with the sensation. It felt good and right and sent hot and cold shivers down her spine. His eyes closed for a moment, and then for once he did not stay passive, but kissed her back, gently, then ever so carefully wrapped his arms around her, waiting, a question plainly in his eyes. She opened her lips slightly so that she could breathe "Yes" into his mouth, then willingly let herself be drawn into his embrace, hugging him tightly in return.

Being snuggled up against the front of his robes, encircled by his arms, their lips still pressed together, moving, teasing, playing, set a new army of little sparks flaring up all inside her, the feeling so intense that she felt momentarily dizzy. Please don't let this stop, ever, she thought dimly, as she felt his lips part slightly under hers, offering an invitation. She stopped for a moment, then slowly opened her own mouth a bit so she could gently probe at his with her tongue.

The play of their tongues was clumsy at first, searching, but then slowly they matched their rhythm and began circling, dancing around each other, like partners in a graceful minuet, as she explored his mouth and then drew back, inviting him to come forth and enter hers. When their lips drew apart again, they were both breathless and flushed, and Hermione clung onto him both for closeness and support, almost overwhelmed by the sensation. If that was how real kissing felt, she wondered how intense sex would be – the thought both excited and scared her at once.

Some of it must have shown on her face, for Severus brought up his right hand and gently caressed her cheek with his long, delicate fingers. "You know you have nothing to fear from me, my lady," he said, "I will go where you go, but not a iota further. Take your time, love." His quiet air of self-possession both reassured and amazed her – after their first kiss, Viktor had hardly been able to talk coherently. Not that she was feeling entirely coherent herself, though. And having chosen her most formal, heavy school robes for tonight did not help the matter either – they were becoming unbearably hot. For a second she hesitated, but then her confidence in him won the day. Taking his hand in hers, she planted a soft kiss on his palm, then guided it down to the buttons of her robes. When he looked at her wonderingly, she nodded, smiling.

Severus slowly but deftly unbuttoned her robes, pausing at each button before sliding it through its hole. When he was finished with them, he let the black fabric glide off her shoulders and fall on the bed, pooling around her. He smiled slightly when he saw what she was wearing underneath – a loose Muggle T-shirt, baggy jeans and trainers. Seeing his reaction, she blushed and said, "Er ... I did not realise my robes would actually come off tonight," giving him an embarrassed smile. But he gently put a finger on her lips, stopping her attempts to apologise, and replied, "No need to feel embarrassed about your garb, my lady. It is straightforward and honest like you, and thus, it fits you better than any fancy evening dress. Pure beauty has no need of being enhanced."

Hermione felt her cheeks go crimson, and could not think of anything to answer. In the gentlemanly manner that still amazed her, Severus pretended not to notice, and instead nonchalantly remarked that the air was indeed rather warm tonight. Gladly taking the cue, she set out to relieve him of his robes in turn. She tried to be as collected about it as he had been, but both her excitement and her curiosity about what he actually wore beneath them –she had but had a partial glimpse of his shirt so far- were hard to fight. Fumbling with the obstinate buttons, she was glad when she had reached the last one and could get him out of the heavy fabric.

The robes fell away and revealed that he was wearing a white linen shirt and black trousers, expertly tailored. Their fit complimented his figure well, and for the first time she realised that he was actually of more wiry than scrawny build. It had been hard to determine with those heavy robes of his, but the thin linen let her guess at the firm musculature that lay beneath – with a start she realised she was checking him out. Worse, he seemed to have noticed, and was following her gaze with a mixture of embarrassment and amusement. She sent him an apologetic smile, trying to tear her look from where his half-opened shirt revealed a fine dusting of black hair. But he just drew her into another embrace, and before their lips met, he murmured, "If my lady likes what is hers, I guess I should be glad ..." She managed a small, "Oh yes, I do ..." before their tongues once again began their dance.

Being so close once more, and this time separated by far less cloth, was incredible, and the sparks' dance inside Hermione increased her tension till she felt she was almost humming with it. But even through her excitement she felt her back beginning to send a faint note of protest – sitting side-to-side wasn't the most comfortable position for necking. Too dizzy with emotion to think clearly about it, she got halfway up and, putting her hands on Severus' shoulders both for hold and for reassuring him –he was looking at her in surprise- she sat down again on his lap, straddling him.

He held his breath for a moment, then seemed to pull himself together and drew her into a hug that, while their position was undoubtedly better suited for it now, felt oddly tense. She hugged him back and gave him a concerned kiss, unsure if –and how- she might have gone too far and made him react like that. He kissed her back and caressed her hair with his free hand, but would not meet her gaze.

She was just about to ask him what was wrong when she suddenly noticed that, even through the fabric of his and her trousers, she could clearly feel that the spot she was resting on had become increasingly hard, and considerably hotter.

So that was why he ... oh dear, she had not thought of that. Silly girl, she scolded herself inwardly. What did you expect ? But the knowledge that he was a fully functioning adult male was not even remotely the same as actually feeling it beneath her. That feeling was in fact both very exciting and quite unsettling at the same time. She felt embarrassingly virgin and unsure all of a sudden, and had the man in her arms been any other, she probably would have bolted out of the room now. But their newly forged base of trust held firm. She knew she could rely on his promise that he would not do anything she did not want him to – and he was hardly to blame for a physical reaction she herself had caused in her innocence.

She lifted his chin with her hand, so that he had to look into her eyes again, and asked him, "Am I making things too hard for you, love ?" then inwardly cursed herself for the unintended pun. He answered that with a weak smile. "Demonstrably."

A surprised chuckle escaped her lips. Leave it to him to find humour in this embarrassing situation. She corrected herself, "That's not what I meant, and you know it. I just wanted you to tell me whether", she chose her words more carefully this time, "this is too awkward for you."

He cleared his throat. "The problem here would rather be that I enjoy it entirely too much. But, if you meant to ask whether I am harmed by it in any way, the answer would be no, except for maybe my dignity." He took a deep breath, then continued, "Which in fact I greatly value, but not as much as your trust in me. Am I right in taking your continued presence as a sign that you are still gracing me with it ?" She nodded enthusiastically, and felt the tension in his shoulders diminish a bit. His smile became more genuine, and he said, "Well then, there is no harm to speak of." Suddenly he straightened again, and added in that low, growling voice of his, "Now, I believe that my lady was in the middle of some serious business when I so inexcusably interrupted her. Please do continue."

Hermione could not resist such an alluring invitation –not that she would have wanted to- and so she clung to him once more, exploring his mouth with her tongue and his body with her hands, being caressed by him in turn and feeling so happy and excited that she thought she was going to burst. When she realised that between her legs there was heat building up to match the one she felt coming from his hardness below her, and that her knickers were beginning to feel sticky, she found to her surprise that the thought of being aroused by him like that stirred more excitement and only a little anxiousness. Severus' gentlemanly composure had already brought her further than she'd ever dared go before, and she was unafraid to take yet another step. And while she was not at all sure if her mind would be ready to follow, sometime tonight, where her body so obviously was prepared to go, she was willing to find out one step at a time. Time for the next one, then.

Drawing away from him just far enough to get her hands between them, she moved them to where she had stopped unbuttoning his shirt and set out to finish her work. Severus' breath quickened, but he just watched her with his dark eyes as she opened the remaining buttons, then relieved him of his shirt. He offered no resistance, either, as she gently put a hand on his now naked chest and exerted slight pressure, but obediently lay down flat on his back, as she had hoped. She was curious to see more of him, after all.

His skin was sallow and almost translucent, but the muscles below it were clearly defined, if not overly prominent. Delighted at what she saw, she started to trace their contours with her fingers, which prompted him to close his eyes and give a low contented hum, which increased considerably in volume once she reached his nipples and ran her fingertips over them. Encouraged by this, she leant forward and tried the same with her tongue. A shudder went through his whole body, and when she gently took first the one, then the other nipple into her mouth and suckled tentatively, he answered with a low, pleased moan. That prompted her to repeat her caresses more determinedly, and he rewarded them by completely relaxing under her mouth and hands, wholly giving himself over to her touch.

When she finally straightened again to catch her breath, still kneeling astride him, he opened his eyes and let his gaze wander to her T-shirt in a silent question. She hesitated just for a second, then decided that it was only fair after all, nodded and held out her hand to help him sit up. He took it and, sitting again, gave her a long, passionate kiss before his hands wandered down to the hem of her T-shirt and he carefully pulled it over her head, then let it fall down on his own shirt, next to the bed. His gaze wandered surreptitiously over her naked chest in admiration, but then she saw his eyes widen in surprise at the sight of her bra. Startled, she asked, "Don't pureblood witches wear bras as well ?" She realised that, when Parvati had dressed, she had never watched that attentively enough to be able to tell.

He shook his head and answered, "Of course they do, but their bras don't look like that – for starters, while I certainly like that lace, I fail to see any laces," pointing to the space between her breasts. That finally made her understand his problem, and she answered, smiling, "It's not laced, but closed by a clasp on my back."

He embraced her, then carefully felt his way to the bra's band, murmuring something about fiendish Muggle contraptions while his long fingers were analysing the unfamiliar clasp. She had the distinct feeling that her breasts' touch on his chest was not really helping him concentrate, and fought hard to suppress a wicked grin. Nevertheless, he had the band unhooked in surprisingly short time, and deftly relieved her of her bra.

Sitting there half naked, Hermione suddenly felt oddly unsure, unsafe somehow. Severus, who had been watching her expression carefully, caught her in a gentle embrace, holding her tight to his own bared chest with one hand while the other stroked her hair. Grateful for his understanding, she just let herself be held like that for a while, getting used to the feeling of his naked skin on hers, feeling his heartbeat so close to her own. Finally, when she had been calmed by his comforting presence, she gently disentangled herself. She got up from his lap, steadying herself with one hand on his shoulder. Then she moved next to him, lying down flat on her back, offering herself to his gaze and caresses as he had done for her before.

She felt his eyes wander over her like a physical touch, and her nervousness welled up again – would he find her beautiful ? She tried to tell herself that he was not so shallow a man that it would matter much to him whether he liked or did not like her breasts – but certainly they were not half as voluptuous as Parvati's, the irrational part of her mind whispered. She closed her eyes, too afraid to search his and of what she might find there.

"Hermione," a mere whisper. She turned her head in the direction of his voice, but did not dare open her eyes.

Suddenly, she felt the feather-light touch of his hand on her stomach, gently caressing her. "Hermione," he repeated, his voice as soft as his touch, "Love, has no one ever told you how beautiful you are ? The more fools, all of them." A slight growl had crept back into his voice. "How your schoolmates failed to take note of you all these years, even after they had a Seeker point you out to them, I will never understand."

Her eyes flew open at his attempt at defusing, once more, a tight situation by his wry humour. Severus was looking down at her, his eyes full of affection. His hand slowly began to wander upwards, as he murmured, "What got me to fall in love with you was your warm-heartedness, your brilliance, your courage. The fact that I also find your beauty taking my breath away is mere coincidence. But that does not mean," he added with a slight smile, "that I do not cherish what I see." With that, he brought his hand slightly to the left, touching her breast.

Hermione involuntarily tensed at his touch, but as the soft dance of his fingers over her sensitive skin made it tingle and the sparks inside her swirl madly, the tension was quickly replaced by a different kind of tautness. When he circled her nipples first, then brushed over them ever so slightly, she felt them harden in response, prompting him to gently pinch one of them. The sensation was like a jolt that raced throughout her body, and she reflexively arched her back towards him, closing her eyes again, but not from anxiousness this time.

She felt his weight shifting on the mattress, and realised he was lying down beside her. Puzzled, she was just about to open her eyes and see what he was up to, when she felt his lips carefully closing over her other nipple.

That sensation quickly banished all coherent thought from her mind for a while. His lips and tongue caressed each of her nipples in turn, while his free hand stroked and pinched the other, and she found herself reduced to small movements to help him reach her better, and low moans which even she herself was a little surprised to hear. When touching herself, she had always been the silent type (unlike Lavender, as the small part of her brain still capable of thinking reminded her wryly), but the sensation had not been anywhere near this intense. And he hadn't even touched her there ... she felt a deep flush spread over her face, but the thought steadfastly refused to be banished.

Do I want him to touch me there ?

That brought a jumble of thoughts and emotions, most of them flat-out contradicting each other. And Severus' deft caresses were not really helping her concentrate either. Her inner tension had mounted to something almost like an ache, and every part in her body screamed yes. But her mind was bringing forth all kinds of reasons for an equally fierce no. Fighting for a tiny bit of control, she pondered a few and dismissed most of them, especially those belonging to the 'what would _ say ?' category. But one of them remained, and was not so easily shushed. She decided there was only one real way to get rid of it, and summoned all of her supposed Gryffindor-courage for the attempt.

Opening her eyes and stopping him with a touch of her hand, which brought him to search her face quizzically, she asked, "Severus, would you ... think lowly of me if I asked you to ... touch me a bit further down ?" Hermione felt her face burn, but the question had demanded to be asked. And for the first time she was glad that this evening had required them both to take Veritaserum – this was something she absolutely had to know the truth about.

Her heart skipped a beat when his eyes widened slightly. But before she could panic, she noticed that they were also touched by a smile that slowly spread across his features. He shook his head slightly as if to clear it, then answered, "I cannot deny that I am ... astonished. But to think lowly of you – why, Hermione ? You do not shock me, you amaze me."

Amaze him ? Her puzzlement must have shown on her face. He reached up to cup her face, and said, "You amaze me by honouring me with such trust. I am fairly sure I do not earn any of it. Especially since it seems," he was visibly groping for words there, "that you have never before placed so much trust in anyone." Severus' gaze held hers, but his face had gone carefully impassive again.

She had to smile at how he did not dare ask her these two questions directly, preferring to hide them in a statement. Taking his hand into her own and squeezing it lightly, she answered, "Since I entered this room, everything you did has made me want to trust you. Before tonight was ... before we knew. My mind keeps nagging me about it, but my heart finds it does not care much anymore." She took a deep breath before she continued, "And you are right – this is completely new territory for me. But so was pretty much everything else that happened in here, so I'm slowly getting used to the experience. And with you by my side, I am ..." no sound came forth. Stupid serum again. "Okay, so I am somewhat afraid too. But that does not stop me from wanting you."

He chuckled softly at her last statement, and said, "I could not have put my own feelings into better words, Hermione. I ..., " he composed himself for a moment, "truth for truth now. I have never been with an untouched woman before, and I am scared of making a crucial mistake that will ruin your first experience. But that does not stop me from wanting you so much it almost makes my head spin out of control."

Hermione looked at him in surprise at that, and he smiled almost ruefully. "No reason to be afraid, love; I would rather stun myself than let my control slip and hurt you in any way. But I thought it would be easier for you if you knew that I am not at all indifferent to your presence, nor your touch – not that you have not felt that already, anyway." She smiled involuntarily as she nodded.

Severus straightened, and, lowering his voice, said, "So be it then, my lady – but allow me to make you more comfortable." He moved upwards on the sheets until his shoulder was level with her head, then stretched out his left arm and invited her with a gesture to rest her head on it. She gladly obliged, and snuggled up to his side as his left hand embraced her and his right resumed its caresses.

He let his hand wander over her naked chest and breasts for a while, then down to her trousers. She noticed that he was looking at her for confirmation, and tilted her head to give him a long kiss in answer. He kissed her back tenderly, then deftly opened her jeans – in contrast to her bra, he seemed to have no trouble with the Muggle zip. She kicked her trainers and socks off as he slowly eased her out of her trousers and knickers.

Lying there stark naked made her shiver a bit, and she cuddled up tighter to him. As he held her close, burying his head in her hair, she noticed his hardness again, pressing against her right thigh, stretching the linen of his trousers. For a moment she contemplated. No, she was not quite ready to go there yet - she just hoped that it did not hurt him, but he did not give the impression. Then all thoughts were momentarily banished by the touch of his hand on her pubic curls.

Her hips were rising almost of their own accord to meet his hand as it trailed further downward, and his fingers gingerly entered her moist folds. When he began to stroke her, she felt his deft movements so intensely it bordered on aching, and when his thumb found her clitoris and began to rub it she arched her back sharply, a small cry escaping her lips. How come I never managed to make it feel like that, she thought dimly, her heart thumping and the sparks racing through her in a mad flurry of excitement. His strokes were increasing in frequency, and the tension inside her building up until she thought she could bear it no longer. Vaguely she wondered what he was up to – didn't he want to ... ? She fought with her concentration to get a question out, murmuring, "I ... can't ... much longer ... you ...?" Another dextrous stroke made her arch again, losing her thread.

His whisper was barely audible over her own low moans. "You are too tense now, love, too overexcited ... I do not want to hurt you. Later, if you still want me to, I will gladly enter, but for now, let me relax you a bit." He kissed the beads of sweat off her forehead as he continued to pick up his pace.

His answer confused her a bit, but the dance of his fingers left her little time to think, and so, deciding to trust his experience, she gave herself fully over to him. Soon enough, she felt the sparks pause for a moment, almost in anticipation, curl up together in a tight ball, then suddenly and almost violently explode into ecstasy that coursed throughout her body as she felt her tautness dissolve into waves of sweet pleasure.

As awareness of her surroundings slowly returned, she noticed that he was still holding her tight, looking down on her with a smile that could almost be called proud. "Welcome back, my lady," he whispered.

For a moment she could do nothing but stare at him. Then she gave a chuckle and pulled him into a passionate kiss. When they parted again, she playfully admonished him, "You are impossible, do you know that ?" His lips drew into a slight smile, and he answered, "I may have been told that once or twice already, indeed." She snorted at that.

But that feeling of pleasant bliss enveloping her prevented her from taking his teasing seriously – and she suspected he knew that perfectly well. So she concentrated instead on gathering her courage until she could ask him, "So does that offer of yours still stand ?" Arghh, will you never learn to pick your words better there, girl ?

But his tone was gentle as he answered, "Yes –in both senses- if you really want me to." An odd flicker passed over his features.

She laid her left hand on his chest, felt his rapid heartbeat. So much for my wondering whether he is really unsure if I want him, after all that has happened tonight. She nodded, and, searching his eyes, said, "Yes, Severus, I do. I very much want you to make love to me."

He exhaled sharply. "Please do not expect me to pretend that I understand why you want me. But I am very, very glad that you do, or I might have exploded from wanting you sooner or later. Rather sooner, I fear," he added with a wry smile. "Now may I suggest that maybe getting me out of my trousers, at your convenience of course, might be a step in the right direction ?"

Hermione chuckled and turned towards him, intent on doing just that. Only she failed to see any buttons, zipper or similar device on his trousers, just plain linen stretched rather tautly. She paused in confusion, and heard his amused voice, "So at least I am not the only one here with cross-cultural difficulties. Buttons maybe elegant and stylish, but long before Muggles invented the zipper, wizard tailors recognised that some garments occasionally need to be opened in too much of a hurry to bother with unbuttoning. Try touching here," and his finger pointed to an almost hidden piece of embroidery close to the waistband. Curious, she pressed her index finger against it, and the linen obediently split open seamlessly in the middle. Neat.

The opened trousers revealed dark boxers, bulging to meet her, of a glossy material she could not quite identify. She started to ease him out of both garments, careful not to touch him there yet, but unable not to steal a few curious looks.

Hermione had of course surreptitiously briefed through a few mediwizard reference books about male anatomy in the Restricted Section, but seeing the object of her curiosity in the flesh, so to speak, was something different altogether. The researcher in her remarked that, at least here, the theory of the correlation between hands and penises seemed to be correct – Severus' bore clear resemblance to the shape of his fingers, straight, smooth, longish and altogether dissimilar to the pictures of wrinkly, crooked or thick-veined specimens she had studied with faint revulsion. Suddenly the idea of touching him seemed to hold a lot more appeal, and she finished relieving him of his clothing and boots less languidly than she would have wished for.

Letting the garments fall atop the pile on the floor, she moved up to lie next to him again. She noticed him watching her with an odd tension in his eyes, which puzzled her – until it dawned on her that he had to be just as anxious as she had been when she had bared her breasts for him. Umm ... this is going to be embarrassing. But a prolonged silence would undoubtedly hurt him, and so she just swallowed her discomfiture and haltingly said, "I don't quite know how to say that, but you are so ... elegant. Not what I had expected, but a really nice surprise." She gave him a shy smile.

One of his eyebrows rose. "You read 'Tempering Troubles with Wizards' Wands', I presume ?"

Hermione felt her cheeks burn furiously, which, she figured, at least relieved her of having to answer that.

Severus seemed to fight a losing battle against a laughing-fit. He gasped, "I should have guessed that one. Even in the dizzying clasp of teenage hormones, you go and research the matter." She gave a small nod, avoiding his gaze in embarrassment.

Suddenly she was embraced fiercely, and he whispered into her ear, "No need to feel bad about it, love. I admire your brilliant mind and your persistent curiosity. Never try to be anyone but yourself, I love you just the way you are."

That made her feel a bit better, but as she was still feeling too embarrassed to speak, she just embraced him in return, and for a while they just clung to each other, caressing and enjoying the feeling of naked skin on naked skin. Then Hermione finally dared to bring her hand between their bodies, brushing over his chest before wandering downwards.

Tentatively, she trailed a finger down the length of him, feeling the slight pulse and skin as soft as silk. He closed his eyes at her touch, but seemed content enough with it, so, emboldened, she ran her fingertips along the underside, applying just a bit more pressure, feeling the enticing warmth and firm fullness and the softer channel in the middle where she knew she would find it –he might poke fun at the book, but it had been informative. He appeared to be enjoying the experience, and when her fingers came up to the tip, carefully pulling back the skin and circling it, spreading the fluid that had appeared, he gave a low, intense moan. That encouraged her, after a few circles, to move downwards again and gently touch his balls – the book had been rather explicit in describing men's vulnerability there. But he certainly did not seem to mind, not even as she carefully cupped them – on the contrary, it brought about more deep, growling moans. Moving to his cock again, she tried a tentative grasp here as well, which was answered by a shudder and more sounds of contentment. But as she tried to imitate the way he had stroked her before, his hand moved over hers and gently but decisively stopped her.

She looked at him in surprise. He opened his eyes, and said with an apologetic smile, "It is not that I do not wholeheartedly enjoy what you are doing. But I have been ... thoroughly stimulated by your earlier explorations as well, and so I am afraid I must ask you to desist for now, or your first time will be woefully short-lived." Then, his face taking on a decidedly wicked expression, he added, "I promise I will try my hardest to make the sacrifice of forgoing your hands-on research a worthy one."

It took Hermione a moment or two to realise what he meant. When she understood, she let go with a last gentle squeeze and asked, trying to keep the nervousness out of her voice, "So what should I do then ?"

Severus brought her hand up to his face, and, placing a kiss on its back, answered, "For now, just lie back again and trust me, Hermione."

She stroked his cheek, then obeyed. He let his hand wander over her breasts once more, then down between her legs again. As he began to stroke her, she felt herself responding, perhaps not as quickly as before, but somehow more intensely. The heat inside her built up, she felt an almost sweet aching in her genitals, and for the first time she understood why the heroines in the Muggle novels always cried out, "I need you ..." at that moment – nothing but the word 'need' could describe this urge, the sheer necessity to feel him inside her.

Severus' intense gaze was on her, and while she was still struggling for something that would not sound as clichéd as 'I need you', he just nodded, obviously understanding without words. He moved over her, his legs encircled by hers, carefully supporting the weight of his upper body on his elbows. She felt the tip of his cock pulsing against her entrance, but the little nervousness it sparked in her was quickly drowned by her need.

As he slowly began to enter, she felt her folds part for him easily, but clinging tight, felt his pulse and her own, beating as one. He carefully pushed a little further, but then stopped, at what she supposed had to be her hymen. For a brief moment, a question flickered up in his eyes, and she held his gaze, nodding. Ever so slightly, he nodded back, then took a deep breath and thrust against her barrier. She braced herself for the pain she was sure would come, but all she felt was a brief twinge, and then he was inside her, gingerly moving on, until he was filling her completely.

The bodily feeling of him touching her deep inside was wonderful, intense, right. But it almost faded against the sudden, unexpected emotional flood of closeness, intimacy, the feeling of not only two bodies becoming one, but two souls as well, as she looked up into his face and saw surprise and joy mingled there, mirroring her own feelings. For a little while they just stayed like that, their bodies and eyes locked, caught in the bliss of the sensation.

It was not until the flood of emotions gently began to ebb away again that Severus started to move once more inside her. His movements were slow at first, but he steadily increased his pace. The sparks spread through her whole body and even further, encircling them both to celebrate the absolutely glorious feeling of the friction his thrusts were causing. They spiralled upwards in a mad rush, shooting out from the centre, back again, massing to a tiny ball, which hovered a moment and then finally burst into an almost languid wave of ecstasy. Then relaxation, as she felt the muscles inside her clasp him, then relax again. Floating on a cloud of warmth and pleasure, she vaguely felt him thrust sharply one last time, then arching and spilling into her.

Her last conscious sensations were of him gently kissing her, then moving to her side again, draping some blankets over them as she cuddled against his side. Then they drifted off to sleep together, sated and at ease in each other's arms.


Hermione was woken by a golden sunray tickling her face. For a moment, she blinked in sleepy confusion – her room was facing northwards, what was it doing here ? As she tried to get her dazed brain to respond to the challenge, she gradually became aware that her room seemed to have changed a lot during the night ... Then suddenly the events of last night washed over her like a torrent, which woke her for good.

She lay very, very still, trying to sort fact from dream. Surely all this couldn't have happened ?

But then, physical evidence of her being in a strange four-poster, wearing nothing but a vivid phoenix image on her forearm, and most of all the peacefully sleeping form of Professor Severus Snape, embracing her, seemed to suggest that it very much had happened.

Hard as that was to believe in the light of the early morning sun.

Shutting her eyes again, she desperately tried to bring some order into her jumbled thoughts. She tried to go through what she remembered of yesterday chronologically, but her thoughts refused to be disciplined at first and kept hitting her all at once, out of a multitude of directions. Only through sheer willpower did she force them into some order.

The Parting Ceremony.

Being inducted into the Order of the Phoenix.

Albus and Minerva discreetly leaving them alone.

Talking to Severus, understanding him, getting to know him better.

Getting to know herself better, for that matter. Like finding out she was in love with him.

Learning that he loved her too. More talking, then moving on to body talk.

Oh dear, what a night.

She gave silent thanks to the Four Founders for one of the wards on Hogwarts and the grounds she had read about in Hogwarts, A History – the anti-pregnancy ward. The founders in their wisdom had foreseen what was inevitably bound to happen with a bunch of adolescents in the castle, but it worked just as well on supposed adults like herself who should have more brains, instead of just forgetting about such details until next morning.

Some Phoenix you are, indeed.

She suppressed the urge to shake her head, not wanting to wake Severus yet. Not until she had sorted a few more things out. Ever so carefully, she turned her head and looked at his face, lying so close to hers.

At peace, like she had seen him in the hospital. But also with a slight smile on his lips, and that had definitely not been there back then. She studied his face for a long time.

How could she ever not have realised she loved him ? When she saw him sleeping so blissfully, with a smile on his lips she knew she had caused, she felt a surge of raw emotion well up in her. Wanted to kiss him awake, caress him, be close to him. And, she admitted to herself, sleep with him again. Definitely.

The night they had shared together had had a magical, surreal quality to it. A rebirth indeed. Looking back at the girl who had entered the Crystal Chamber, she felt like she was looking at some younger sibling of hers. She was a different person now, in many ways. And she neither regretted the night of her transformation nor the act in itself, she decided upon reflection. She rather liked her new self.

She was just terribly afraid that the tender relationship that had sprung from such a special and magical night might falter in the harsh light of day.

Looking at her sleeping lover, she felt tears pricking her eyes. In the merest of whispers, she asked him, "How can I keep you, Severus ? I love you, you know. I don't want to lose you."

She sat bolt upright in shock when, without missing a beat, he whispered back, "I am yours if you still want me, my lady."

For a moment she just stared down at him as he slowly opened his eyes, unsure whether to hit him or kiss him. She finally postponed the decision until he had answered the question, "You were awake and didn't tell me ? Pretended to be asleep, you ... you Slytherin ?"

Severus rolled on his back, looking up at her. "I awoke a while ago, but decided to wait you out. What I said last night about there being no compulsion on you still stands true. I thought you had the right to wake up in peace, and reach a decision, without me influencing you. I know who I am, Hermione," he said simply. He paused for a moment, then added, "If you had woken up, stared down at me in horror, and fled the room, I would not have reproached you for it. Indeed, it would have been easier to understand than the way you actually reacted. But the fact that you still seem to want me, incomprehensible as it is, makes me far happier, of course. I do love you too, you know."

She reached for a pillow and creamed him with it. "That was still a dirty trick to pull," she said, trying to keep her voice stern.

He lowered his voice again, saying in his best purring growl, "If my lady sees fit to punish me, I will bear her ire without complaint."

She had to laugh at that. "Stop that," she complained. "You know full well that I cannot resist when you do that voice trick."

"That, my dear, was the intent behind it," he answered in his low voice as he tried to pull her down into a kiss. She didn't resist.

As she snuggled up to his side, she remarked, "It is fortuitous that I packed all my things already yesterday afternoon, isn't it ? So we still have some time till the train leaves. Any ideas how we might spend it ?" she added with a suggestive smile.

"Plenty," he said, as his lips were meeting hers again.