(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
(Highlight to View) Prompt: "Much Ado About Nothing". Hermione and Severus in the Beatrice and Benedick roles. Whether it's AU or the school play is up to you (SS & HG that becomes SS/HG just like the play).
Summary: The war may be over, but someone is still plotting Harry Potter's downfall. In a plot worthy of Shakespeare himself, Severus and Hermione must put aside their own wishes and work to save Harry's pride.
"Have you seen this?" Rolanda waved the nearly month old copy of The Daily Prophet in Minerva's face. If she weren't already aware of the moving picture splashed across the front page, she would have missed the content at the speed the flying mistress' shook the paper. "It can't be true, can it?"
"Of course it can't be true," Filius piped up from his perch near the stacked stone fireplace. He lowered the novel he'd been perusing and looked at the group over the top of his reading glasses. "Firstly, at least one of those couples is—"
"That's what we've been told." Pomona waddled around the end of the worktable in the center of the staffroom. "But did any of us witness the event?" When she was close enough, she snatched the newsprint from Rolanda and flung it in the middle of the worn wooden surface. "This, however." She punctuated her statement with a jab of her pudgy index finger. "Was witnessed by a multitude, it seems." Crossing her arms, she turned and glared at the diminutive Charms professor. "Refute that if you can, Mr. I Know Everything."
Filius laid his book on the edge of the windowsill behind him. With all the calmness associated with the goblin part of his heredity, he withdrew his handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket, removed his spectacles, and gently wiped the lenses. And while it appeared he had not a care in the world, the slight squeak in his voice exposed his annoyance to any who knew him. "I most certainly will."
He glanced at Minerva and winked. With them both bearing witness to those events mentioned by the notorious Rita Skeeter as well as those previous and still unknown by the public at large, either could tell the tale. But as Filius was the more accomplished showman of the two, she would gladly allow him, and Hogwarts itself, to take center stage. So offering a nod of consent, she settled in to enjoy the evening's entertainment.
"Now." Filius hopped off his seat and, waddling slightly, made his way to the other side of the room. "If everyone will please take a seat." Taking his wand from his robes, he tapped a rhythm across a row of bricks just above his head. "With the help of our dear Hogwarts, I will spin a tail of a comedy of errors worthy of Mr. Shakespeare himself." He stepped back and the solid stone wall shimmered. Within seconds, it gave way to a moonlit sky as a gentle breeze cooled the room with evening's breath. "From the beginning, if you please," he whispered.
Hermione hurried toward the Great Hall, denying the traitorous pounding of her pulse was caused by anything more than her speed. That was all she could allow it to be if she wished to preserve her sanity, to preserve the plan they had so carefully constructed all those weeks ago. For surely their well-plotted scheme would dissolve like the morning mist if she allowed some wayward desire to see with her own eyes that he had returned unbruised quickened her steps.
Sidestepping one of the puddles of unidentified goo Peeves was so found of creating, she ignored the commentary of the occupants of the school's paintings in favor of the lecture of her mind. After all, to display such would invite speculation that she bore some favorable feelings for the obsidian-eyed wizard. And that would never do. At all. No one could ever know she was approaching the gathering beneath Hogwarts' enchanted ceiling at such a trot in anticipation of gaining knowledge of his wellbeing. She'd been down that road once during his recovery from Nagini's attack. And she had the scars of her friends' insults and opinions to prove it.
With the massive doors of the Great Hall in view, she slowed to the graceful, sedate pace expected of a well bred witch—a lesson learned from the same Arithmancy master she remained apprenticed to for another year complete. "Let your superior intelligence flow through you, showing in your carriage and manners as well as your formulations on parchment," Mistress Agrippa was fond of saying. "It is what sets those of us with excellent brains apart from those of lesser capabilities."
Perhaps that's why Severus is always the very picture of elegance, the rebellious voice in her head whispered.
"He is not always so put together," Hermione snapped under her breath, refusing to give in to the urge to agree threatening to undo her resolve to project indifference. "Not that I would demean myself by noticing."
Keep telling yourself that, sweetheart.
And she would. She had to. For all their sakes. If only her traitorous heart would agree.
As Hermione approached the entryway, the mighty doors swung inward, revealing those returning from the latest round of skirmishes with a ragtag group intent on sullying the hero's name along with the revelers bent on celebrating their success. And standing alongside Harry and Draco in the spotlight was none other than one Severus Snape, Potions master and spy extraordinaire.
Her stomach did a little flip at the sight of him standing tall and unscathed beside the other two. Placing a hand on her abdomen to quell the sudden revolt of her well-hidden emotions, she snaked her way through the crowd to stand beside Luna.
"Ah." The twinkle in Minerva McGonagall's eyes was Dumbledoreish enough to cause a shiver of deja vu down Hermione's spine. "I see young Miss Granger has finally joined us."
The shiver intensified to an aching tingle when Severus turned his dark gaze on her, his lip curled in a semblance of a sneer. Or was it actually closer to a cheeky grin? Perhaps he was the one who needed to tighten the reins of his control. "Why, my dear Lady Disdain. You are still here."
Squaring her shoulders, Hermione tilted her chin and put as much loathing in her voice as her defiant feelings would allow. "And where else would I be?" She forced a distainful smile to grow. "Yet had I known you would be in attendance, I would have found a more hospitable environment to inhabit. Antarctica, perhaps."
Severus bowed slightly as his deep baritone, untouched by the dreadful snake's venom, sent delicious but unwanted chills through her. "I'm sure the penguins would appreciate your company, Miss Granger." The warmth of his gaze washed over her, threatening them both with the sort of exposure they'd worked so hard to keep at bay. Thankfully, he shifted his dark eye to include the rest of the group. Spreading his arms in a theatrical display intent to draw attention to him and away from them, he spoke with the same condescension employed when Neville Longbottom destroyed yet another cauldron. "However, I am equally certain they would soon regret your presence and wish your mouth sealed by the ice they find so habitable."
While the others in the group gasped at his insult, Minerva glowered. "I'm sure you will find that any warm-hearted being quite pleased to be in Hermione's company." Her Scottish burr deepened. "As you would if you would allow yours to soften, lad."
The dark wizard shrugged. "I am hard-hearted, am I not? With no hope of recovery." He smiled, but Hermione noticed it didn't reach his eyes. In fact, the dark orbs reflected such dejection, such self-recrimination, she almost threw herself into his arms to refute the claim with well placed kisses. "Or so I am told."
Hermione directed a soft smile at him for only a moment—long enough for him to notice without drawing attention. When she saw the light return in him, she reverted back to the role of Beatrice to his Benedick. "As I have been named a know-it-all," she arched her brow, daring him to refute the claim he made all those years ago, "I must agree with your diagnosis of your heart. Lucky for you I prefer warm blooded companions to those of a colder bent."
"Then may the depths of hell deliver up their best, Miss Granger," Severus nodded his head in deference, though not before she caught a slight gleam in his dark eyes, "as it will certainly save some poor fool from the wickedness of your tongue when the weather turns."
"Better my tongue than your temper. For I pity any witch who attempts to love someone with as chilled a spirit as you possess." It wasn't much of an untruth. She truly pitied any witch who attempted to warm what was hers. For theirs would be a short life indeed.
"Were my slicing blades as sharp as your wit, a basilisk fang and its poison would pose no risk." He held up his hand before she could retort. "And with that, my lady, I am done."
Hermione bit her lip. The intensity of their verbal sparring had jarred him. The hold on his restraint, tenuous at best. It was retreat or have their plans crumble when he caught her up and carried her from the Great Hall to finish their debate between the sheets of his bed in the dungeons. If it were left to her in this moment, she would drag him there herself. But there was too much at stake, so she stood tall, kept quiet, and prayed the Fates smiled on them with a bit of privacy before tensions frayed.
"Well now." Professor McGonagall's voice broke into her thoughts. Amusement was clearly present in the Highlands brogue. Privy to the plot and in on the planning, the headmistress was having entirely too much fun with their discomfort. "I'm sure you gentleman would like a chance to freshen up a bit before the evening meal. Shall we allow you to adjourn to your chambers?"
Grabbing the chance to escape and plan a rendezvous in his rooms, Hermione scampered toward the exit. "I'll see the elves stock in plenty of fresh linens in the guest quarters," she called, praying none of the other witches in attendance offered assistance.
Severus continued to stare at the lovely curly-haired witch as she trotted from the room. If possible, Hermione had become even more breathtaking during the three months he and the others had been away.
Ninety days. He sighed, his skin tingling with the desire to touch her. To hold her. Kiss her. Two thousand one hundred sixty hours since…
Rolling his shoulders, he refocused on the rest of the group before the evidence of his desires presented itself beneath the folds of his robes. Weariness left him to susceptible to thoughts of her. To his weakness for her intelligence and poise and the softness of her body. The fullness of the love she had for him and he for her.
A slight twinge near his left scapula reminded him he was not completely recovered from the latest skirmish. While he'd endured much more brutal engagements during the last war, the ragtag groups of insurrectionists they encountered lacked experience and training. They were clumsy, inept, and incapable of controlling the power from their wands. This made them dangerous, and the spells they managed to land more apt to damage. Luckily, the wounds inflicted were easily mended. He simply needed to take a few hours to let the last of the healing magic, and, perchance, feminine touch, complete the task. Then, he would be able to face the world without succumbing to the desire to confess—
"Can you believe how changed Luna seems, Professor?"
Severus turned, shocked to find one Harry Potter looking at him with all the expectancy of a newly weaned puppy. "Are you in earnest, Mr. Potter?"
The poor boy all but bounced as he smiled and nodded. "Indeed I am. Didn't you notice how she never mention Nargles? Or Moon Frogs? Or any other unseen creature she swears exist?" His eyes brightened. "In fact, she was quite sensible. Almost as sensible as Hermione, don't you think?"
No one is as sensible as my bel—He silenced his seditious heart, concentrating on forming a reply that would not insult the young wizard he'd grudgingly grown to respect. Or hint at the relationship he shared with the boy's best friend. "I agree she was much less…Lovegood-like at this meeting." He arched an eyebrow. "And you find this appealing?"
Like the rapidly changing color of perfectly brewed potion, Potter's face went from slightly tanned to the deep crimson of his former house's Quidditch robes. "Well." He scuffed the floor with the toe of his trainer. "Wouldn't you—"
"Harry!" Draco rushed up, nearly colliding with the Gryffindor golden boy. "Are you seriously asking Uncle Severus for dating advice?"
The poor dark-haired wizard's blushed deepened. "Well…"
"I think you will find, Mr. Malfoy, that young Harry was requesting my opinion on a witch, not forming an attachment to the girl."
Draco sniggered. "Really?" He nudged his embarrassed friend. "You thought he could provide you answers? Mr. No Lady Shall Ever Inhabit My Dungeon?" He nearly doubled over in his mirth.
Rather miffed, Severus straightened to his full height and crossed his arms. Oh how he would love to wipe the smirk from the young Slytherin's face by exposing the profound delight he gathered from being in the arms of his witch. And while he was sure the blond wizard was not a part of the rogue group bent on Potter's downfall, he could let nothing slip. I am Benedick, he reminded himself, puffing out his chest. "Just because I have choosen to remain a bachelor—"
"Chosen?" Draco chuckled. "There is no choice when it comes to cupid's arrow, Uncle." His grin turned cheeky. "In fact," he winked at Harry, "I would wager you will be pale with love before another month complete passes."
Severus snorted. How close the boy was to the mark! For even in his wildest dreams he'd never—Clearing his throat, he shoved those dangerous thoughts behind one of his strongest mental shields. "Pale with anger, perhaps. Possibly with sickness. Mayhap hunger. But never love." He bowed slightly to the younger wizards. "Now if you will excuse me, I have an appointment with a lovely, hot shower in my chambers." And perhaps an even lovelier witch. Without a backwards glance, he glided out of the room praying Hermione was already below stairs.
It was a rather refreshed group that gathered along the high table a few hours later. From her perch in the centermost chair, Minerva easily observed the happenings around her. And it was amusing to say the least.
From the conversations drifting up around her, it seemed there was much plotting afoot. On her right, young Misters Malfoy and Potter were planning some mischief to relieve Severus of his bachelor status. To the left, it was Misses Lovegood and Bones conspiring to pair Hermione with the dour Potions master. If only they knew, she chuckled.
Of course she didn't miss the surreptitious glances young Potter directed toward Miss Lovegood. And, if she was not mistaken, the young lady returned as many as she received. What a blessing it would be to them both should they come to an understanding! Perhaps a little conference with Filius was in order. After all, they'd managed the feat once before.
"Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps." Miss Bones' giggled response to her companion's innocent inquiry could not have been more truthful. Especially where one certain couple was concerned.
Minerva turned her attention to the far end of the table where Severus and Hermione sat, each studiously ignoring the other. She and the Charms master had certainly laid a fine one for those two. She chuckled softly. In a plot worthy sure to become a Hogwarts legend, and with little help from the castle, the resident ghosts, and the portraits, they'd lured the bickering duo into an empty apartment in the guest tower and locked the door. Hours later, the door swung open to reveal two very contented people. They'd all but skipped from the room, fingers entwined, and rushed to the nearest Floo. Without a so much as a by-your-leave, they stepped in and Severus' rich baritone called out—
"Not if you were the last wizard on this planet!"
The sound of Hermione's chair legs scraping against the ancient flagstones brought a twinge of guilt to Minerva's mirth. Watching the young witch storm from the dais and flee through the staff door made her heart twist. Then she caught the barely disguised flash of despair in Severus' eyes, and tears prickled her eyes. What she wouldn't do to make things right for her lad and lass. Yet she mustn't. They were too far in to scrap the plans now. She could only pray this was well-practiced playacting and not frustrations boiling over into a real break between the pair.
When they first learned of the scheme to bring about Harry Potter's downfall, she'd enlisted the aid of those she trusted most: Filius, Severus, and Hermione. With intrigue, jealously, and sinister motives worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy, they planned to use one of the Bard's comedies to uncover the participants and minimize the emotional fallout surrounding the betrayal of one brother in all but blood by another. With Severus the perfect Benedick and Hermione Beatrice embodied, they agreed to separate after only six weeks together and pretend indifference. The idea was to put on such a display of repressed desire disguised as utter revulsion that their friends would be tempted to intervene. With this distraction, the villains would relax enough to slip up. Or so they'd hoped, making the ruse worth the effort. Now, she wasn't sure it merited the cost. Not if—
A flash of red hair toward the back of the Great Hall caught her eye. Watching as the youngest set of Weasleys slinked away with Misters Zabini and McLaggen, a chill swept through Minerva. She glanced at the young witches and wizards gathered on either side and wondered, not for the first time, if any would survive this treachery unscathed.
Ron Weasley slumped in one of the squashy armchairs near the guest common room's hearth. The bitter taste of defeat lingered on his tongue. After months of playing both sides against the middle, they'd failed. He'd failed. Harry Potter was still the conquering hero. And Draco bloody Malfoy was now the one standing in his spotlight. The plot to discredit and embarrass mucked up by those stupid low-ranking Death Eaters they'd recruited for the dirty work. Bunch of worthless ruddy cowards they were.
And now they were right back where they started. Harry was the hero. The same bastard that had turned his back on him. Forced him out of the Golden Trio just because he'd come back from the Ministry's victory tour a little tarnished. Was it really so back to use a connection to the Golden Boy to bed the local witches? Was it his fault the pub owners pushed the free ale into his hands? And who in their right mind would pass up a little coin just for supplying Rita Skeeter and her friends with a few secrets learned by sharing dorm rooms and camping tents?
That was all he'd done really. He hadn't really hurt anyone. Bloody hell, Hermione wasn't even interested in anything more than that one snog. But little orphan Harry got his knickers in a twist when he caught Ron with Pansy Parkinson's underage sister, mid-shag, in one of Grimmauld Place's broom cupboards. He'd been tossed on his arse in the middle of the street with his pants still 'round his ankles. Who knew the Savior of the Wizarding World was such a prude? And who knew wizarding photographers could appear so quickly and snap so many pictures?
"Bloody embarrassing it was," he muttered to the empty room. "And well worth returning the favor."
"Which I can help you do, mate."
Startled, Ron nearly over his own feet when he stood and whirled toward the door. He glowered at Blaise Zabini's smirk. "And just how do you plan on doing that?" He nodded at Cormac McLaggen as he slipped in the door behind the Slytherin, then he flopped back in the chair and folded his arms. "There aren't any more stooges to do the dirty work, remember?"
"Ah, but there is." The handsome wizard glided towards the sofa while their co-conspirator shuffled to a chair opposite. "It seems young Cormac here has gathered some intelligence."
"Indeed I have." The brash Gryffindor rubbed his hands together with glee. "It seems Harry has a thing for Looney Lovegood."
Ron rolled his eyes. "So? He's had a thing for several witches. Including my sister." He slumped further in the chair and frowned. "Not that he knew what to do with them."
Cormac leaned forward slightly, the light dancing in his eyes brighter than the flames on the hearth. "But it is more than just a passing fancy." He sneered at the other two. "He's asked for a courtship."
"So." Ron shrugged. "He was engaged to Ginny. Until he caught her in bed with Dean Thomas during their engagement party."
Blaise grinned. "But they never had an official wizarding courtship."
Sitting straighter, Ron's eyes widened. "He wants a wizarding courtship?" The rules of such a relationship rolled through his head. One in particular all but shouted in his brain. "So that means…"
Blaise and Cormac both nodded. "His mortification would be unfathomable," Blaise crowed. "And if the barmy blonde witch is sacrificed in the process…"
Excitement beat against Ron's chest like a thousand butterfly wings. It was perfect. It was absolutely—a thought flashed through his mind and he deflated—too perfect. "Luna Lovegood is many things," he sighed, "but easy isn't one of them"
His companions exchanged glances. Smirking, Blaise reached into his robes and pulled out an elegant silver flask. Giving it a little shake, he looked towards the stairs leading to the entrance to the women's corridor. "But your sister is."
Furious, Ron reached for his wand. Until the implications settled in his head. Leaning back, he smiled. "And aren't we glad she is."
There was a heard of horses galloping in Hermione's chest as she scanned the corridor for any stragglers from the evening meal. Seeing no one, she scurried across to the portrait of Paracelsus. Barely brushing the crystal vials in his left hand with her fingertips, the wall melted away. She quickly stepped into the hidden passageway. Without slowing, she waved her hand and the portal closed in behind her. Just a few seconds more and she would be in his arms.
Picking up speed, she was close to a dead run when she collided with the solidness of Severus' chest. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her tightly to him. She breathed deeply; the smell of sandalwood, herbs, and parchment welcomed her home.
"God, I've missed you." His voice rumbled through her, shaking loose the webs of loneliness and melancholy. "Three months—"
She stood on her tiptoes stilled his mouth with hers. Spearmint and toffee and rich, dark coffee mingled on her tongue as she stroked his. Flames ignited in her belly, spreading heat outward in all directions. Her knees weakened, and she leaned more strongly into his embrace. Seconds or minutes or hours could have passed in one breath.
Still, it wasn't enough. There were too many layers between them. Wool and cotton and silk hid too much skin. She needed more. She needed him. All of him.
Breathless, she eased away. Giving him a shy smile, she slid her hands along his chest. Up over his shoulders. Down his arms until she found his hands. Entwining her fingers with his, she turned toward door leading to the bedchamber and tugged. "Then I think it's high time we get reacquainted. Don't you?"
If it were up to Harry, he'd be twirling through the garden like some intoxicated Baryshnikov instead of walking sedately with Draco sporting a lopsided grin. Luna had agreed to a courtship. A traditional wizarding courtship. Not that he was sure what that entailed. But it sounded good. Sounded safe. And after the fiasco that was his engagement to Ginny Weasley, he needed safe. He needed to be sure.
Not that he wasn't sure of his witch's integrity. She'd proven her loyalty over and over again. Even in the most desperate of circumstances. She'd stood by him. Supported his decisions. Followed him without question. She trusted him. And he trusted her.
Or at least he thought he did. Of course he'd been wrong before.
"Luna's not Ginny, Harry."
Harry gaped at his friend. "How did you—"
Draco shrugged, his smile a little too smug. "You've all but become engaged to the witch. It's only natural, given what happen with Weasel-Bee's sister."
"She's not Ginny," Harry whispered. "She's not." A cold knot formed in his stomach. "But how can I be sure?"
Another shrug from the blond wizard. "You can never be certain, Potter. All you can do is—"
Harsh pants and long, low moans caught Harry's attention. Scanning the area, he caught sight of Blaise Zabini barely hidden in the shadows of a nearby archway. Sandwiched between him and one of the supporting columns with her legs hitched over his hips was…
Stomach churning, Harry looked at his companion. The disbelief in Draco's blue eyes was all the confirmation he needed. He'd been played the fool. Again.
Harry marched into the formal gardens near Professor Sprout's greenhouses, Draco at his side. Although he had not slept, he was determined to end the farce immediately. Regardless of the dire consequences.
And the consequences were dire. Draco spent most of the night lecturing him on the outcome. On how the guilt would become too heavy to bear. The blond wizard tried to convince him to wait. That there was a more reasonable answer despite what they'd witnessed.
But he'd have none of it. Played the fool only months ago by a witch he thought loved him completely, he refused to take on the role again. And if Luna suffered for it, so be it.
Sneering at the group gathered around the bridal arch erected for the formalization of the courtship, he scanned the faces until he settled on hers. She looked so innocent. So sincere. His chest burned. Prickles of anger crawled across his skin. Yet she was oh so anything but. Today, he would reveal the true soul behind the mask.
"Ah, Mister Potter."
Harry glared at the headmistress. "Good morning," he managed. She was all smiles and subtle excitement. Had she been part of the subterfuge? Or was she as taken in as he had been? He glanced at the others gathered at her side. Professor Flitwick would wish the best for a fellow Ravenclaw. What could be better than a formal courtship with the Savior of the Wizarding World? Could Hermione be bitter enough about the trap they'd set for her and Professor Snape? Perhaps. After all, her temper was legendary and her hexes more than intimidating. But would she promote such a liar too if it meant he would be hurt? Then there was Professor Snape. Of all the ones gathered, the dour wizard was the only one Harry trusted. He would understand. Because of another pair of emerald green eyes, he was the only one who would.
The former Transfiguration professor waved toward a spot under the flowered archway. "Then shall we begin?"
"No," Harry snarled, holding his ground beside Draco. Ignoring the gasp from those around him, he turned to Luna. "It seems Professor Snape has the right of it." His wand hand twitched. "Love is for fools. And I am no one's fool."
"Now, Mister Potter—"
"No, Professor," Harry interrupted. "You were right. No witch is worth the effort." He pointed at the wide-eyed girl by Hermione's side. "Especially not one who swears love to one wizard while fu—"
"Harry!" Hermione stepped forward. "What are you—"
"Leave it, Mione," he growled. "You weren't there. You didn't see."
"Didn't see what, Mister Potter?" Professor McGonagall peered over her glasses as if he were some wayward student caught out after curfew. "Be very careful of your accusations," she warned. "While not formalized, the outcomes will be the same."
He jabbed his finger at Luna. "You didn't see her and…" Bile rose in his throat and he turned away.
"We saw Miss Lovegood and Blaise Zabini in the courtyard last evening," Draco supplied. He laid a comforting hand on Harry's shoulder. "They were engaging in… intimacies best reserved for the marriage bond."
"No," Luna protested. Harry turned back in time to see desperate wildness in her blue eyes. The chilly fingers of guilt inched upward from the depths of his gut, urging him to take her in his arms. Comfort her. Love her. But the last night's scene swirled in his mind, keeping his compassion at bay. "I didn't… I couldn't…"
The poor witch dropped to the floor in a heap as the last syllable left her lips. While the others rushed to her aid, Harry gave the one woman he thought would be his a last glare, turned on his heels, and stalked toward the castle.
Hermione shuffled out of the infirmary, wiping her eyes. She'd barely taken two steps when familiar arms wrapped her in an embrace so strong and secure, her knees almost buckled. The aroma of sandalwood and old books loosened the tears she'd held at bay for the last few hours. Once started, they came in a torrent of strangled sobs and apologies whispered against his firm chest.
"Shhh, witch," Severus hummed. "This is not your fault. None of it." He eased her toward a secluded alcove and the padded bench hidden there. She didn't resisted when he settled there and tugged her into his lap. "It is not your fault."
"But it is," she sniffled. "If I had only—"
"No!" He lifted her chin, forcing her to look him in the eyes. There, in the dark depths, she found fierce assurance mixed with such love she almost forgot to breathe. "Potter's arrogance is to blame for this. Weasley's jealousy is to blame for this. Not you. Not us. Not our need for reunion."
His lips were soft but demanding against hers. The leisurely movement of his tongue and teeth slowly dulled the ache in her chest. Reassured and affirmed until all doubt was washed away. She relaxed against him, taking what he offered and giving all she could in return. When he gently released her from the kiss, she offered a tiny smile of acquiescence. "Now tell me, what did Poppy say?"
Sighing, Hermione settled against her beloved's shoulder. "Luna is well. She collapsed from the strain of the situation and nothing more."
"Meaning Potter's accusations were false."
She nodded, nestling closer. "Of course convincing him is an entirely different matter." She yawned, her eyes fluttering closed. "Poppy is more than happy to provide confirmation, but Minerva insists we all rest first. Give Harry a chance to stew a little and Filius to gather a little more information."
"Then I suggest you do just that, love." Severus' voice rumbled through her in the most delightful way, urging her eyes closed. "And while you do, I will finish this once and for all."
He left Hermione asleep in their quarters and made his way to the Gryffindor common room, guided by the reports from the portraits. Although he'd promised his witch he would wait for the others, his conscience wouldn't allow him. Not when the arrogant Potter needed to be taught a lesson. "So much like his father," he muttered as he climbed the final staircase.
He crossed the threshold behind the portrait without breaking stride. Once inside, he saw Potter and Malfoy sprawled on opposite ends of the sofa laughing at some unknown joke.
Anger boiled and Severus called his wand to his hand. Before either boy noticed him, he hauled the Savior of the Wizarding World to his feet, slammed him against the nearest wall, and shoved the tip of his wand into a spot under the younger wizard's jaw.
"You have maligned a sweet, innocent witch," he growled through gritted teeth. A glimmer of satisfaction shimmied through him when Potter swallowed hard, eyes wide.
Severus twisted, moving his wand away from his prey just long enough to warn his godson off. "And you are no better, Mister Malfoy." He pivoted back to his enemy's son. "Such arrogance. Just like your fathers. Only this time, I will make you pay." He let go of his foe and sneered when the wizard collided with the floor. "For the insult on a young maiden's name, I demand satisfaction. Tomorrow. Near the Whomping Willow." He bowed to Potter then to Malfoy. "Until then, gentleman."
Feeling slightly avenged, Severus turned and stalked from the room. Perhaps he'd need to grovel to regain Hermione's good opinion once she found out, but in this moment, it would be worth it.
Once the Potions master left, Harry lifted himself to lean against the wall. Rubbing the spot where the wizard's wand tip dug into his flesh, he looked at Draco. "I believe he is in earnest."
"Indeed," the blond intoned. He reached to help Harry to his feet. "The question is why."
"Because he is right. You have maligned an innocent."
Harry started at the sound of Dumbledore's voice. Turning, he saw the old wizard sharing the frame with the Fat Lady. The former headmaster looked as solemn as Harry had ever seen. The twinkle totally gone from his painted eyes. Dread landed like lead in his belly. "But—"
"No, dear boy." The former mentor shook his head and sighed, his shoulders rising and falling as if under a heavy burden. "Miss Lovegood was not with Mister Zabini last night. Instead it was a Polyjuiced Miss Weasley. Just another part of the plot young Mister Weasley devised to embarrass you."
"Ron." Harry slid down the wall, his heart thudding against his ribs. "Why?"
Dumbledore shrugged. "Jealousy. A desire for the spotlight he felt you denied him. It is an emotion that stirs much contempt. And he foolishly thought if he quietly rallied support and proved your victory was nothing more than a little luck, he could garner the notoriety he craved."
Devastated, Harry buried his face in his hands. "I'm a fool. An absolute fool."
"What of Luna, Professor?" Draco asked. His voice betrayed the deep sadness Harry felt. "Is there anything we can do? A way to reverse the consequences?"
Harry lifted his head at the new voice to find Professor McGonagall standing in the door way.
"I'll provide you with the incantation you need, Mister Potter. And tonight, you will read it before the entire assembly under the archway that was to celebrate your courtship." Her face was stern, a deep frown furrowing her brow. "Then you will accept another witch. One Hogwarts chooses. Do you understand?"
Harry nodded. What else could he do? Once again, he'd let his temper rule his head. And his heart. "What about Ron?"
The headmistress sighed. "He fled just hours ago. We've sent Molly and Arthur to retrieve him. We will decide his punishment once Miss Lovegood's good name is restored.
Underneath a clear, starlit sky, Harry Potter entered the formal garden once more. Again, Draco was at his side. But this time, uncertainty and melancholy accompanied him. His tread was labored, his knees shaking with dread. He was a man headed to gallows of his own making.
When he reached the arch, the headmistress handed him a scroll. Unrolling it slowly, he began to read, his voice shaky and hollow to his own ears. "Done to death by slanderous tongues was Luna Lovegood. Here where she fell, we mourn her life and rejoice in the death that cleared her name. Pure of soul she was. Innocent she remains. Always."
Carefully rolling the parchment around the spindles, he handed it back to McGonagall. Turning, he faced the group and raised his eyes to the great stone walls of the castle. "Guilty of slaying an innocent," he intoned, "I hereby accept your choice of mates." Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply. "Send her forth."
From the shadows of the tower, a veiled witch approached. Flanked by Hermione and Susan Bones, she glided slowly forward. Sweat pooled on Harry's palms as the trio approached. He wiped them on his robes, praying Hogwarts would be kind.
Then, before he could blink, she was beside him. Without thinking, he reached for the edge of the veil. He wanted to see her. Wanted to look in her eyes and find his cruelness would not be repaid ten-fold. But arthritic fingers closed over his wrist before he could even brushed the fine fabric. "Not until you take her hand and formalize this courtship," the Transfiguration mistress warned. "Then you may see."
Swallowing, Harry did as instructed. He clasped the girl's cool fingers and spoke slowly. "Before this assembly, I swear to enter into this courtship with you." A shimmering blue ribbon of magic swirled around them. "May this bond grow stronger until it is replaced by the holier one of marriage."
The blue light closed in as the witch spoke the same words. Once she finished, the magic sank into their skin. An otherworldly breeze blew around them, lifting the veil and tossing it aside. Harry gasped when he looked into familiar blue eyes. "Luna," he breathed. She simply squeezed his hand and smiled.
"Indeed," Severus intoned. "If you wanted proof your accusations were false, you have it in front of you."
Blinking against the sting of tears, Harry started and stopped several times before he managed, "How?"
Luna's smile was soft and filled with the kind of love Harry dreamed of. "Because evil cannot triumph where love lives." His cheek tingled when she brushed her fingers against it. "And I do love you, Harry James Potter."
"I love you," he whispered, his voice breaking. "I love you so much."
Hermione whooped when her best friend swept his maiden fair up in his arms and kissed her soundly. Finally. Finally everything was as it should be.
She squealed again when Severus twirled her around and wrapped her in an embrace that left little doubt to his affections. Before any words of caution could escape her mouth, he claimed it with such unbridled desire all sense of propriety fled. Not that she truly cared. After months of separation and concealment, they were free. Free to express—
Susan Bones' shrill shout lifted the fog of passion enough to recall them to their surroundings. Blushing, Hermione started to disentangle herself from Severus' arms.
"Are those wedding bands?" Draco squawked. He blinked owlishly as he looked between the two. "Really? How long?"
"Why?" Harry shouted.
"Because she loves me." Severus smirked, claiming her waist. "Don't you witch?"
Mischief sparked. "Why, no. No more than reason."
She watched the same spark dance in her husband's eyes. "Then surely Filius was deceived before we wed. For he assured you were almost sick with the feeling."
Hermione placed her hands on her hips and glared. "And what of you? Did you not marry me cause you were in a consumption of love for me?"
"Indeed not." Severus sniffed and crossed his arms. "I took you out of pity only."
"Then Minerva was fooled. For she said your were nigh near-dead for me."
"Too ill to eat," Severus returned.
"Too frail to stand," Hermione answered. "So when Poppy came to plead your case—"
"Peace." Severus chuckled and pressed his fingers against her lips. "I will stop your mouth." And he swept her into a kiss that made the one prior appear nothing more than a peck.
On and on it went as she buried her fingers in his hair and he pulled her so tightly against him no sliver of light could be seen between them. On and on until no one doubted their protests were nothing more than playful banter. That their love was so profound and deep, the earth must have trembled on the day they wed. On and on until—
The crack of apparition reverberated like thunder around them. The whole assembly jumped at the sound. When the smoke cleared, a very disgruntled Ron Weasley stood between his angry parents. Harry started to step forward, but Severus stopped him. "Don't think on it until tomorrow, Potter. Then I will devise brave punishments for the miscreant."
"So you see." Filius tapped the wall again and the scene went black. "You can't believe everything you read."
"Married?" Rolanda sputtered. "Severus and Hermione?"
Minerva nodded, glee threatening to explode in her chest. "For nearly six weeks before the campaign began."
"Was full of her normal hot air." Filius patted Pomona on the shoulder. "But she did get the story on Mister Potter and Miss Lovegood correct."
The Herbology professor blinked. "But—"
"Now if you will excuse us," Minerva interrupted. "Filius and I have a baby shower to attend."
And before the others could react, she and the Charms master stepped into the Floo and called out "Snape Residence. Pembroke Cottage. Derbyshire."