bA/N/b: This is chapter two, guys. Again, taking a chance to thank two wonderful persons, who made this readable, bLariope/b and bMelusin/b.

Reviews make me smile; any feeback is much appreciated!

~o~

The night air was pleasantly abuzz with the sounds of early spring: birds cooing in search of their mates, tree branches rustling secrets to each other. Mrs. Norris, the unfortunate feline old maid, whose chastity was vigilantly guarded by Filch, was expressing her sexual frustration loudly, as she did annually each March. Occasionally, there was the pop of a Bursting Bramble: an ivy plant, which took over this rather shabby and forsaken part of the ancient castle. Each bud released a new leaf with a dainty pop followed by a hiss. Pop, hiss. Pop, hiss.

The monotonous pattern should have soothed the man striding under the dark coving. His measured steps strummed an accompanying rhythm for the popping and hissing and together created a rather odd acoustic theme. Usually, it aided in emptying his mind, just like prowling through abandoned corridors did, but not today. Severus Snape rubbed his throbbing temple and groaned as another one of Mrs. Norris's desperate howls ripped through the air and, subsequently, through his migraine-tortured head.

Suddenly, the acute senses of the Potions master caught a slight change in the drowsy air of the corridor, which for a man with a career in espionage, indubitably signified a presence of something foreign. Or someone who shouldn't be there. Making as little change to his movements as possible, he fingered the blunt end of his wand and then, as sudden and fast as an attacking viper, cast a revealing charm in the general direction of the intruder.

All his years of spying could not have prepared him for the reveal. Hiding in a small nook of the mouldy flagstone wall was Professor Granger. Her creamy-white skin, made almost translucently pale by the wan moonlight, stood out shockingly in the thick surrounding darkness. And the reason why Snape could fully appreciate the contrast was because Granger was not wearing a stitch of clothing.

Well, well.

He stood in front of her and gave her the eyebrow. She huddled closer to the shadows, trying to cover herself with her hands, but Snape's doggedly tenacious memory had already stored away her dusty-pink nipples with small areolas, and a neat triangle of curls, which her freezing fingers were now trying to hide. That particular sight was rather erotic in a very innocent, subdued way, and it took Snape some effort to tear his eyes, which begged to linger there, away from it. She shivered, still shell-shocked into silence, and he was shaken back to reality.

"I think I shall mark this day in my calendar, catching you—sweet Hecate—in flagrante delicto, Granger," he drawled, his mind suddenly a-swirl with all the devious ways this situation could be put to use.

"It's Professor Granger," she bit back, sticking her chin up in defiance, which looked utterly endearing on someone in such a pathetic situation.

"Not if I were making the decisions. You're the worst acquisition in staff this school has had to suffer since the strain of unfortunate Defence Teachers we had when you were… young." He laid a delicate stress on the word, perfectly aware that it would wound her, and especially so because, by all reckonings, she was still young. "But I digress. Usually, when I stumble upon someone… rambling the halls in the nude, there's always a counterpart."

Snape looked around in mock astonishment, as if searching for her lover.

"There's no one but me, and if you—" she started to say, but he cut her off.

"Oh my, did I happen upon a solo performance?" the Potions master purred, infusing his voice with fake excitement. "Who would have thought you were that desperate, Granger?"

As if forgetting that she had been frantically trying to hide her nudity just a moment ago, the girl placed her hands on her hips (her nipples were indeed a rather attractive shade of dark pink) and scoffed in frustration.

"Oh, do shut up and help me out, for fuck's sake, you letch!"

Snape gave her an ugly sneer and spoke in a voice that others would rather use when talking across a pillow.

"What a day. The Rose of Gryffindor asking the greasy old bat of the dungeons for a favour." He was so going to enjoy this. "Pray tell, what do you require? A helping hand?"

Fully aware of the disconcerting effect it would produce, Snape freely raked his eyes over her naked body. He found himself very excited.

"Malfoy cursed my clothes. Now, help me before a student sees me," she spat and eyed his cloak.

Snape scowled sourly and inhaled with his mouth slightly open so that he could taste the air on the back of his tongue. There was definitely no smell of sex or even arousal. She was telling the truth, and if that were so…

Even if he gave her the cloak, she wouldn't be able to put it on. Snape spared an awed thought for Draco's creative streak. Why, but in some ways, the supercilious arse was talented.

"What, you want me to give you clothes? I will, if that frees you… of your self-imposed servitude to this castle and sends you packing," Snape lilted disdainfully, hinting at her SPEW debacle, which had been a staffroom joke for over a decade now. "Would, say, a sock… suffice?"

She recoiled slightly and flushed bright pink.

On a peripheral level, Snape couldn't help but acknowledge that his enjoyment was tinted with arousal. The little bint had heavenly skin.

"If I could put clothes on, I'd conjure some, thank you very much," Granger replied tartly, and her hands twitched as if they were fighting modesty for their right to sit in indignant fists against her hips. Nicely rounded hips. Snape imagined his finger marks on their unblemished surface and swallowed.

"How very unfortunate for you," Snape replied with mock pity, clearly implying that his true sentiment was quite the contrary. And how very fortunate for me, a little gleeful voice, which had suddenly come from Merlin knew where, added in his head.

"Snape, do save your long preambles for your Potions classes. I can't undo the spell for some reason," she huffed defensively, and he felt a very unwelcome pang of pity for her. If he squinted just so, a strange, puerile, wide-eyed innocence still lingered behind her eyes, and it unnerved him slightly on a level he refused to contemplate.

"Of course you can't," he snapped. "However, I find myself surprised, Granger, that you are so unversed in matters of spellwork as to not know the reason why."

He'd lied, of course. She wouldn't know the spell. It was crafted in Slytherin, and what was born in Slytherin, stayed in Slytherin. In this case, it could also only be undone by a Slytherin. He knew that she no longer cared about insults to her appearance or vile traits of character or even teaching failures. But her shell still cracked when her ability to hoard knowledge was targeted.

Hurt flashed through her eyes, and Snape instantly knew that she was already filing the episode away for future plans of retribution. Why, who would have thought that time would choose vindictiveness as a character trait to change and fester in Hermione Granger? He smirked. Let her. He was no Draco Malfoy, and thus, she was no match for him.

"Obviously, you know more about this wondrous spell, Professor," she cooed, her voice dulcetly malicious. "Perhaps you could demonstrate your impeccable spellwork and undo this for me? I'll commend this moment to my memory as one of exemplary craftsmanship."

"Your cheek would only make you stray from your goal, girl," Snape noted casually. Not as if he were planning to help her along, anyway.

"I am no girl to you," she seethed. He gave her another once-over. No girl, indeed.

The chit's fingers twitched characteristically, and the Potions master gave her another reptilian grin.

"Ah, but there's the drawback of keeping your wand in your sleeve, girl." Tired with the preliminaries, Snape thought it was about time to storm the main gate and, grabbing her cheeks, pulled her mouth close for a kiss. She moaned, deep. She always did.

~o~

Passing by a tall lancet window, Severus Snape stopped and heaved a heavy, contented sigh. Today was a good one. Nice touch with the spell.

The wall next to the window had collapsed in on itself on one side. He looked out into the nippy spring night. The moonlit courtyard was a picture of perfect serenity–something Severus would give his arm for at the moment. Reaching into his pockets, he produced a small phial and gulped down the contents. His own version of Sober Up—altered for his particular cause—never failed, but he could tell it had a weaker effect with each usage. Taking a break, he wondered for the hundredth time if giving up his post as the head of Slytherin to Draco Malfoy in vain hopes of devoting more time to research and quiet solitude of reading had been one of the most unwise moves in his teaching career. It seemed all he had been doing of late was clear up his godson's messes, like an unfortunate dog owner with a shit-bag, following his diarrhea-stricken spaniel.

At first, it hadn't been so bad. As the new Defence Professor, Draco had been doing remarkably well for the first few months. Surprising his colleagues and most of all, his godfather, the Malfoy heir had shown that he had a way with children. He lectured with flair, assigned and docked points fairly—well, most of the time—had coached the Slytherin Quidditch team into snatching the cup from Gryffindor the previous year in an extremely satisfying match, and managed to beat Lockhart, hands down, in setting female (and some of the male) hearts aflame. At first, when the members of the staff had gushed about how unexpectedly well Draco was doing as a teacher, Severus, of course, had rolled his eyes, but in a good way. He had even been somewhat proud of his godson. He still believed that Draco was nowhere even near Lucius in things that counted, but had to admit that the little ferret was further ahead in his way than Severus would have expected.

It had all gone downhill from the moment Draco was found with his cock all the way down a sixth-year Gryffindor girl's throat in one of the abandoned classrooms after hours in November.

Of course, Lucius's way of having his fingers in all the important pies and an unspeakable amount of Galleons helped Draco's case, especially since the girl (a Prefect, no less) didn't press any charges and even went out of her way in cooking up an explanation, which Lucius's money then transformed into a plausible excuse with no magical help. Apparently, Hogwarts might have been contaminated with one, or even multiple, sprouts of Dracena Delirii, the most recent case having been registered exactly ten years ago. There was simply no stopping the reaction, as both had said. The culprit herbologist, of course, was never found, Draco received a severe talking to from the Headmistress, and the girl lost her Prefect's Badge, and that was all.

Fools, all of them: they didn't even bother to check whether Dracena Delirii was even capable of enabling others to see the fantasies of the afflicted. Severus was all too aware of the fact that money could buy only so many opinions, but in this case, all the important ones were bought over.

The entire situation would have blown up and passed like the latest fashion trend, disappearing from the minds of the wizarding world's biggest gossips, including the Prophet, and making Draco simply more approachable in the minds of those who wanted to approach him, if not for one thing.

The thing was, Draco and his unfortunate (though many witches and some wizards would argue this point) lover were busted by none other than Hermione Granger, Hogwarts' Transfiguration Professor and new head of Gryffindor House. Less than a few days after she had arrived at Howarts to take up her position. And Merlin knew, if Hermione Granger had a pet project in mind, she went at it with a vengeance.

This time, it was finding the source of the rumours about Dracena Delirii. Which meant his own little project was being seriously compromised, especially since Granger had a sort of a… personal interest in the subject.

~o~

Most people can pinpoint either the moment they fell in love or the moment they realized that they had fallen in love.

Severus Snape, never one to choose conventional ways, could pinpoint both. The first took place during a wet dream, based vaguely on what he had seen in Hermione Granger's mind that fateful November evening. The second one came exactly ten years later—an anniversary of sorts—as soon as said Hermione Granger appeared at the High Table for breakfast as the new head of Gryffindor and Transfiguration Professor.

She had managed to look simultaneously the same as he had remembered, as his mind conjured up during his… trips, and yet, there were a few details that had changed. Her hips were fuller, and her face looked sharper. She moved about cautiously and dressed almost primly. Snape doubted anyone would ever be able to see Hermione Granger with forgotten quills sticking out of her messy hair and with knee socks, one of which had fallen down her calf and bunched childishly there.

And yet, when he watched her covertly as she hid in the library at weekends—as she was making notes, and the tip of her tongue was touching the corner of her mouth from time to time—he still could see the reckless, passionate youngster shining through the buttoned-up woman who looked at the world with narrowed eyes. He found that he was rather fascinated by the combination.

She also made no conscious effort at acknowledging him beyond what was the absolute minimum of politeness the school ethics required.

Snape even tried to pick on her teaching methods for the sake of a twisted communicative effort, all the more so because she was a complete failure as a teacher—arrogant, demanding, too easily carried away, poor at recognizing the gap between her knowledge and the knowledge of the reluctant dunderheads she had to teach. Admitting her flaws, she still always managed to skillfully avoid not only a confrontation, but even a conversation as such.

He knew that the offered post had been a gesture of goodwill from Minerva's side and wasn't exactly her dream job. He felt reluctantly responsible for her situation. Few employers these days wanted to deal with a worker who was too willful and wanting to change many things too quickly and too radically. Especially if that worker had had a very unfortunate incident in her youth which involved extensive damage from a very addictive drug. And hadn't you heard, Dracena Delirii alters one's mind irrevocably? The kind of chimaeras populating Hermione Granger's brain had been the fodder of gossip columns for a few months.

Of course, Severus Snape was well aware of how bloated up the whole mythology surrounding Dracena Delirii was. By now, he knew it firsthand.

~o~

Over the ten years, he had gone through every single stage of denial, acceptance and dealing.

It had all started with engulfing shame as soon as the door closed behind Hermione Granger and her utmost mortification. A large part of this feeling was second-hand: there was always an emotional residue after one plunged like that into another's mind. But it was the nature of his own shame that was puzzling. Snape didn't feel guilty for intruding into the girl's most hidden secrets, her deepest fantasies. He'd done things like that times enough to know that regret would not be constructive in this case.

It was her view of him that shamed him. How on earth did the idiot child get that image? Whoever was responsible for giving her the most lame-brained idea that Severus Snape was some kind of a depraved, sexually dominant bastard who liked to make the women he fucked feel used? All right, the language kink he could understand; he liked it himself when his bedmates were talkative, but the rest of it? Snape was appalled at the most profound of levels.

He could even understand the glorified, romanticized Death-Eater stereotype: it had become a sort of a sexual fashion of late among some women. Those who knew of the events of the most recent war only from Prophet headlines often thought of Voldemort's followers as a well-organized cadre of dark, crafty wizards when in reality they were nothing but a bunch of petty, vicious wankers. Women who fawned over the handsome Dolohov had no idea that he preferred little girls, and Avery, whose ever-boyish charm broke quite a few hearts, was into barbaric pillaging—he wouldn't be capable of finding a clit with a Lumos.

But Hermione Granger's mind nourishing the same idiotic fantasies? Of him, above all? This he could not understand.

Another thing above his comprehension level was his morbid fascination with these fantasies despite their sheer ridiculousness. At first, he was righteously infuriated and repulsed. He was nothing like the man she had imagined and—such lascivious whims in a mere child of nineteen! He had even considered removing the blasted memories and placing them into a Pensieve. But then he remembered the time when he had been a mere child of nineteen and suddenly discovered a whole well of tolerance towards one Hermione Granger.

After the images of her pert little breasts jiggling as he slid in and out of her with measured detachment had plagued his dreams for days, he did remove the memories—only to dive head first into the damn basin each time he was conflicted, tired, annoyed, frustrated or just had a bloody hard-on for seemingly no apparent reason. After all, a Pensive allowed watching from all the possible angles.

And very soon, watching only was not enough. One fine evening, a few years after the real Hermione Granger had left Hogwarts in haste, Severus Snape dived out of her drug-induced delusions at the moment when the Pensieve Severus (who had broader shoulders and fluffier hair) said, "Pop," into Pensieve Hermione's ear as he entered her bottom. He carefully preserved the Pensieve and decided that he needed more.

~o~

Surprisingly enough, for all its danger, a young sapling of Dracena Delirii was an outrageously easy find. All Severus had to do was go behind the abandoned greenhouse 2/7 and look for it in full protective gear. The Ministry's Magical Decontamination crew should have had their salaries reduced by half for not getting rid of the roots.

The sapling was weak and young, but Severus hadn't got an O in his Herbology N.E.W.T. for nothing.

His strategy was that of an overconfident scientist: he did this because he could and was fully aware of his doings. It took about a month to find a remote corner within the outer reaches of Hogwarts, so old and neglected that the walls had fallen in, and ivy plants had taken over the place. Another two weeks were spent raising repellent and protective charms that would even keep the ghosts of the founders, if they chose to make themselves known, out of the place. Three days were spent altering the Sober Up potion to eradicate the effects of the spores, and Snape was all set.

The first "conscious," if the word could be applied to it, trip proved to be a disappointment. It turned out that his deepest wish was to converse with the dead, not to make love with the living, and he'd spent a good two hours listening to Dumbledore commending him on his actions and Lily thanking him for looking out for her son. After a very moving goodbye, they left, and he put the sapling under a bell-glass and a long-keeping Stasis charm, concealed it, and didn't go back for over a year.

The next foray into the self-supervised substance abuse happened when Severus realized that he was on the mental mend from the horrors of the war and craved some company, maybe even of the female persuasion, but wasn't yet ready to go out to seek it.

It was more successful, but this time around, he was horrified to find that apparently his deepest fantasies shifted towards wanting to be hero-worshipped. This time, he did meet Hermione Granger, complete with her school garb and a knee-sock bunched around her ankle. There was nothing desire-inspiring about her appearance, and it appeared that she wished to discuss how great he was. She'd bragged on and on, among other things, about how she'd loved his classes and wished he hadn't had to act the part of a mean head of Slytherin all the time. Then she said she wasn't angry at all at his disparaging remarks and instances of being a general arsehole, including that disaster with him reading her mind. She understood. And she, too, commended him on his heroic deeds and even confessed that she had a thing for big noses. No attempt at having sex with him, whatsoever. Severus was as frustrated as a rain-drenched Kneazle, but somehow, this little show of admiration left a spot deep within him that was both a profound satisfaction and a longing for it to be real.

Third time worked like it should—that is, like a charm. When he stumbled upon her, tripping (in both senses) through the ivy-infested part of the castle, she was no longer a child. He surmised it was his accidental reading of a society column in the Prophet that provided the new image. That week's report was of some annual Victory Ball, and one of the pictures was a snapshot of an obviously reluctant Granger in a rather attractive gown. A strange, but fetching creature.

When he rounded a corner and saw her staring out of the window, she started and turned, just like in that photo. She was wearing the same dress and the same 'oh-leave-me-the-fuck-alone' expression. It faded away as soon as she'd registered his presence, and in the next moment, she was snaking her arms around him and sighing wonderfully.

"I've been waiting for you for so long," she said.

And "You smell so good" as her nose burrowed into his neck. And later "I love you" as she came, clutching his shoulders and fluttering one ecstatic exhale after another into his willing ears.

The quiet frankness of the encounter shook him to the core. It shook him so badly that the day after (actually, it was three days, since this particular trip took place in the summer, and Severus Snape had taken the liberty of drowning his impressions in a battery of Ogden's products) he destroyed the sapling.

However, the taste of requited love, of a woman who found him attractive and desirable, no matter how twisted and unreal, was hard to wash away even with the entire contents of the famous Malfoy wine cellar.

And less than a year later, Severus procured another sapling and planted it in the same spot, his 'visits to the pot' soon acquiring a pattern.

~o~

The tone of his quite, as some would say, romantic monthly or bimonthly trips into the sweet oblivion, courtesy of the Dracena Delirii spores' effect, shifted dramatically as soon as reality had asserted itself in the form of Hermione Granger, unloading her bags from a Thestral carriage.

She was different. Slightly subdued, but at the same time, turmoil was evident in her every move. The corners of her mouth were stretched thin with constant dissatisfaction, and she wore prim, dark colours, which looked unexpectedly flattering on her. Her hair was now almost always pulled up, baring a slender neck with a few wisps of curls at the nape. That fateful morning at breakfast, when she had appeared and had taken a seat three chairs away from Snape, Minerva, who sat right next to her, had asked him to pass the salt and…

And when his hand had been outstretched, it still lingered there for a few seconds, which later had been a cause of his shame and self-castigation. And all because Granger had chosen the only moment during the entire breakfast to tilt her head slightly, so that a tendon curved delicately in that blasted neck of hers, and then she had fingered those thrice-damned wisps of hair.

Immediately, Severus had wanted to fit that neck into the arched expanse between his thumb and his forefinger.

And maybe even snap it—for the sake of his own peace.

That night, when he had practically run to his spot, her alter ego was different. She was slightly pathetic, and annoying, and even clingy. He explained it by his desire to be angry with the real Granger, and the Hermione of his delusions did make him angry. Their encounter resulted in a fight, and Severus felt extremely satisfied to have had it.

From then on, a sense of being constantly discomfited settled in Severus. It resulted from the clash of the real-but-unapproachable Hermione Granger with her so-pleasing-but-unreal counterpart. And it was maddening.

For years, Severus Snape had been content with having a substitute for love. Something he could time, pace, control and get rid of painlessly when needed. It was safe, and it was harmless, and it had a real feeling to it. It was perfect.

And now she was here, making him instantly realize the scale and the profundity of his own self-delusion and being sweetly ignorant of it at the same time. Snape wanted more and more for the real Granger to bear the brunt of his self-inflicted suffering. After all, she was involved as well. She started it, a petulant part of his brain, which had obviously had too much of dealing with children, kept repeating on and on.

But it was the Hermione in his delusions who suffered, in fact. Severus's brain kept inventing elaborate situations in which she was humiliated, in which she found herself in awkward situations, in which they got into verbal sparring that never ended in her favour, so that he could mock her to his heart's content. Usually, such encounters resulted in angry sex, which was still satisfying, except for one thing. If before he only had had to resort to 'visiting the pot,' as he had started referring to his trips in his head, once a month or so, after the Real Hermione Granger arrived, the number of encounters began to increase exponentially. As if he needed another addition to his ever growing pile of troubles, which had started with Draco Malfoy, new head of Slytherin and ended with the recent piece of news about the first of the next generation of Potters arriving at Hogwarts to plague his existence as early as the following year.

~o~

"Uncle Severus, can I come in?" Draco's voice called out through the Floo.

Snape turned his weary head. He had just come back from his recent 'trip to the pot' and was pondering whether he still could rely on Sober Up or needed a deep body purging. Draco's head with a slightly receding hairline (not many people knew that the Floo had the drawback of not reflecting all Glamours and Concealment Charms) floated in the green flames expectantly.

He was only called "Uncle" when the scrawny peacock needed covering for his feathery arse.

"What have you done this time? Or not done," Severus asked in a flat tone.

"It's Granger. She insists I'm smuggling drugs into school and is threatening me with inspections," Draco said with irritation, stumbling out of the hearth.

"And are you?"

"No, but—"

"Then lodge a complaint for calumny." He was so not inclined to mollycoddle a stupid boy, whose only acquaintance within the Muggle world consisted of a marijuana dealer.

"Fine, I'll deal with her on my own." Draco turned to leave.

"And what, pray tell, do you intend to do?"

Draco didn't deign to answer and left with a smug sneer. Which probably meant that he was going to try to seduce Hermione Granger and shag her into silence. Snape sighed and added strengthening Headache-Be-Gone to the list of things to do.

Next week, the news of Granger's blatant dismissal of the perfect Draco Malfoy invaded the Hogwarts grapevine. Snape only rolled his eyes when he heard the conversation in the staff room. What a dimwit Malfoy was, forgetting to silence the portraits before propositioning Granger.

Both fools had acquired quite a few haters overnight: Granger, for being the one Draco Malfoy wanted, and the idiot himself, for not choosing them.

While most of the school's female population was aghast with surprise at how anyone could turn down the amorous advances of Draco Malfoy, Severus experienced a sort of malicious glee.

Which most certainly called for an out-of-schedule trip to the pot.

~o~

When he rounded the corner that led to the secret location, Granger was already waiting for him. Usually, she appeared a bit later, a bit closer to the pot, but this time he smelled her indiscreetly 'loud', seasoned apple shampoo immediately after the turn. No doubt, his mind had added that little detail to help him keep up with the anger. Usually, during their delirious encounters, she smelled of… something he never really bothered to recall.

She was there, waiting for him, in full protective gear: dragon-hide gloves, a mask and a barrage of repellent spells.

"This is not sexually appealing at all, Granger. Even if my perverse proclivities included dressing-up games, I am positive my mind would conjure you wearing silk stockings and a collar rather than this get-up," he said and, in a rather mellow manner, reached out to grab a breast.

Only to be blasted into the wall by a mild Stupefy.

A few seconds passed in complete silence, in which the sound of his body's impact echoed through the halls like an intruder. So, the little ferret had thought of ratting on him and accidentally hit the mark.

"Am I right in assuming that it is me you are seeing in your hallucinations, Professor?" Granger asked, her voice squeaky with shock and indignation.

"Umboo be thpell an uh thell you," he mumbled furiously through a thick, numb tongue.

She cast a quick Finite and stood in front of him, hands in a belligerent stance on her hips, face hidden by the mask.

"I'm listening," she said and thumped her foot impatiently. Almost endearingly.

"Get the hell out of here, Granger. I don't have to explain anything to you."

"And I think you do. And it's Professor Granger." The thumping foot increased its tempo.

"Not if I have had a say in it. And Stupefies don't exactly pave the way for frank discussions."

He was visited by a self-mocking sense of déjà vu, saying that.

"You wanted to paw me!" she said and huffed.

"Ten years ago, you would have given your right arm for me to paw you, Professor," Snape noted maliciously. "Now, scram, or you will be seriously testing my limits."

"Don't treat me like I'm a besotted numbskull," Granger answered coolly.

Ouch. It hurt slightly because part of him desperately hoped that there was some of that puerile, mesmerizing, wrong passion left in her. Another part of him admired the change in her grudgingly. Where was that shaking, humiliated girl, and what had this cocky woman done to her?

Snape sighed. He'd been, after all, caught red-handed.

"Ironic, how our roles have reversed ten years later, isn't it?" she asked, and there was a definite offer of peace in her voice. Or at least Severus decided he had heard one.

"What do you want?" he demanded, unexpectedly irritated with her self-assurance and with a suddenly striking desire to wrap that wisp of hair at her nape around his finger. In reality, this time.

"You have to destroy the plant. It's… you know how dangerous it is."

"Do refrain from talking to me like I'm one of your idiot Gryffindors in a revolting state of hormonal adolescence," he barked viperously.

Her complacent posture softened, and she jolted slightly, proving that his barb about 'idiotic Gryffindors,' directed at her, rather than her charges, had hit the sore spot.

"If you keep standing there, the spores will start affecting you soon. You're very close," she said in a hollow voice.

Angrily, he downed the entire bottle of his own Sober Up and cast a Bubble Charm around his head, filtering out everything malignant.

"Happy now?" his face said.

"We have to destroy the plant."

"Go right ahead, and you might want to take a little nostalgic trip to that abandoned greenhouse while you're at it: the decontamination crew forgot all about the roots."

She looked at him for a long time, then cast a Bubble Charm of her own and removed the mask.

"Why are you doing this? I know you don't hate me, Snape. Probably quite the contrary. I find it hard to believe you've made this little corner of the castle a hotbed of illegal activity simply to humiliate me in your fantasies time after time?"

With that she took a step closer, and the sails of Snape's anger instantly lost almost all of their wind. He sighed and hung his head in defeat.

"Did Malfoy drop you a hint about this?" Snape asked poutily, trying to steer the conversation back into the realm of vitriol.

"The answer would be teetering dangerously on the verge of kissing and telling," she said and smiled a little, just a small lift in one corner of her mouth. A pretty little mouth.

She took another step closer, and already he was inhaling ridiculously seasoned apple with each intake of breath. Though it was clearly the sign of reality, he still felt obliged to ask.

"I'm not so sure you aren't a figment of my imagination, Granger."

"I think I might provide some factual proof," she replied, taking him by the hand.

"I'm not like you'd imagined," he said hoarsely.

"I should hope not." Her quiet laughter filled his sails with an entirely different wind. "I daresay, I'm probably not what you've imagined, either."

She proved her words immediately by planting an inquiring little kiss to his chin, of all places. His mind's Granger was never fond of chins.

Still, Severus tensed. His brain had been playing all sorts of tricks on him, depending on his mood, mindset or even time of day.

"I still should like to verify your reality—"

"How about in my rooms, half an hour from now? It's Saturday, and we don't have to… We don't have classes tomorrow. There are so many things I would like to—"

"That would be acceptable."

Three hours later found them still talking. Severus was surprised to discover that Dracena Delirii was remarkably one-sided since talking to the real Hermione Granger was oddly and vastly satisfying. So was the sex, of course, but he didn't find that out until much later into the night. Some people would call them ungodly hours of morning, but Snape preferred 'best time of his life' as a descriptor.

FIN.