AN: Well, this is it! This was written to a strict deadline, so it was only ever going to be short, but I hope you've enjoyed this little offering. Thanks to those of you who've been involved along the way! I wouldn't still be writing without all your love and support.
(and a half)
Severus was deep in thought when he heard someone call his name. He turned to find Hermione hurrying to catch him, a smile of greeting on her lips. She was dressed in expensive looking robes, her hair neatly pinned. She looked nothing like the soggy girl in the anorak who had stolen a kiss from him in the middle of a summer storm.
But she still looked beautiful.
Severus stopped to wait for her and was surprised and rather pleased when she leant in to kiss him on the cheek.
"Were we supposed to meet?" he asked.
"No, I've got an appointment today." She fell in beside him. "I'll walk to the lifts with you, if you're going that way?"
"Are you alright?" he pressed.
"Not really," she replied. "In fact I think I might be sick. I'm due in the Department of Mysteries in exactly twenty minutes to complete my trial. Oh!" She laughed. "And I hoped I'd be able to tell you that! So you do work for the Mysteries?"
Severus took her hand in his, ignoring the dampness of her skin and focussing instead on the way her fingers twined themselves with his.
"Yes," he answered simply. "Apparently I do."
Hermione felt a lot less apprehensive entering the Mysteries for the third time. Having Severus by her side made it far easier to be unconcerned about the spinning walls or the numerous doorways. When Unspeakable Smith simply reached out and opened the nearest door, something clicked inside her head.
"They're a bit like the staircases at Hogwarts, aren't they?" Only far, far more showy and capable of luring trespassers into odd areas of the department.
"I rather suppose they are," Smith agreed. "They have a more developed sense of humour, mind."
Severus, who hadn't spoken since they had entered the lift together, merely grunted, and Hermione realised that he was as nervous as she. She hadn't missed his comment upstairs and was becoming increasingly certain that he was about to complete a trial, too.
She looked around the room in interest. She'd been a bit too distracted to pay attention to anything other than the Device during her first visit, and she was surprised at how much it resembled a doctor's waiting room. The glamorous woman from before was still there, and Hermione realised that she hadn't the least idea what her name might be. Bartleby had probably introduced them before, but she had been in such a tizz that it could have been anything.
The Device loomed large above them, all polished brass, oversized glass valves and twitching dials. As she watched there was a loud whistle, and a jet of steam hissed from a spout near the top.
Hermione had the rather unpleasant feeling that it was showing off.
"So," asked Smith. "Who wants to go first?"
"Me!" squeaked Hermione before she'd even considered the question. It was the waiting around before an exam she had always hated the most. "Do I need to demonstrate?"
"No thanks," he replied. "Just the thought of flying like that is enough to give me the willies. Just pop your hand back in the receptacle and the Device will do the rest. Are we all ready, Hilary?"
Hermione would have been interested to know how he knew about her flying lessons, but before she could form the question, Hilary had taken her arm and was placing her hand back in the Device with the practical efficiency of the women who used to operate the foot measuring machine in Clarks. Her hand was laid out just so, her fingers stretched precisely until Hilary deemed their positioning to be suitable.
"Just try not to flinch," she advised kindly.
Severus watched as Hermione was led to the Device, his mind whirring.
"Miss Granger was able to tell me that she was coming here today to complete her trial. That would suggest that we had both already been accepted into the Department." He let his eyes flick to where Smith stood grinning. "That would suggest that any further involvement of the Device is purely arbitrary."
"Perhaps," Smith conceded. "But only if the Device was purely useful in the determining of the nature of the trials and their fulfilment."
Both men turned to face Hermione, who had just yanked her arm from the receptacle and was staring at her palm.
"It's a splinter wand," Hilary explained. "Very limited capability, but it functions as an all-purpose Alohamora. Mostly it will allow you to enter the Department without Bartleby here having to open the door for you each morning. We used to have enchanted rings, but they're a bit easy to steal once you know what you're looking for."
"Whereas this way someone would need to cut open your hand," Severus concluded. "Much better."
"I can't see anything," Hermione commented, holding her hand up to the light. "Even the redness is fading. A bit of warning might have been nice, though. There was a chance I might not have wanted an enchanted twig embedded in my flesh."
"That's generally why we don't tell people in advance," Smith agreed happily. "Your turn now, Professor."
Severus hesitated. The thought of momentary discomfort didn't bother him, but the idea of allowing an item of unknown magical power to be buried in his skin made him distinctly uncomfortable. Although a numbing charm and an Accio would be enough to remove the thing should it prove to be an annoyance.
He reached for Hermione's hand and cast a few revealing spells, just to ascertain that there was nothing immediately suspicious about the splinter. It was simply a clever unlocking spell anchored to a sliver of yew. It would probably make it possible to track who gained access to which rooms and when, but then Muggles had been doing the same thing for years. It probably tied in with the runes over the lintels.
"Severus?" Hilary prompted. "If you're ready?"
"Don't worry, it's not that bad," Hermione assured him. "Trust me."
"Oh," Severus replied, allowing Hilary to press his palm flat against the cool brass of the receptacle. "I do."