Rumour Has It

Chapter 6: Epilogue

Hermione walked across the floor of the large hotel room and opened the French doors onto the terrace, taking a full breath of Caribbean air as she drank in the dazzling white sand and turquoise water.

'Will that be all, Miss?'

She turned to the dark-skinned young man who had carried her bags into the room. 'Yes, thank you,' she said, reaching into her jeans pocket for the East Caribbean currency she had tucked there.

'No worries,' the bellman said. 'The gentleman took care of it.'

And those simple words sent a frisson of anticipation trembling through her like an earthquake, radiating shockwaves to every nerve ending, leaving her with her arms wrapped about her torso, a silly smile upon her face.

They had rounded up her belongings, a simple 'Accio!' sufficing to produce her handbag and her own wand, and without further ado, Severus Snape had escorted her to her flat in a squat brick building on a dingy street, four streets away from the Ministry for Magic.

He had looked so alien standing in the middle of her cramped sitting room, a place where she had frequently thought of him, but had never thought to see him. 'What do you need to do before you can depart?' he asked, obviously formulating Plan A for their Escape to Antigua.

Hermione felt grubby and bedraggled and decidedly unfeminine in the rumpled, torn clothes she had been wearing for two days. 'I'd like a shower,' she said, 'then I've just got to pack my toiletries, and I'll be ready.'

She touched his hand, and his fingers closed about hers, strong and sure. She shivered with pleasure at the gesture. 'Are you hungry?' she asked him. 'Would you prefer to have something to eat, first?'

'Tea and toast will do, until I dine with you in Antigua,' he said, and the words held such promise—posed so many questions of what else they might do in Antigua—that warmth filled her chest.

She felt the unreality of the entire situation, and unsure of what else to do, she started forward to put the kettle on, but he stopped her with a word.

'No, I don't mean for you to feed me,' he said. 'I'll go home, shower, drink tea, and pack my things, while you do the same.'

Wait! He was leaving? Without thought, she reached for him, and he accepted her readily into his arms, as if already she had a rightful place there.

'I don't want you to go,' she informed his coat, her arms twined about his narrow waist.

He tilted her chin with an imperious hand. 'I find it difficult to understand you when you speak into my clothing,' he informed her.

Her lips trembled. She knew her reaction was ridiculous, but the undeniable trauma of the last forty-eight hours weighed upon her. 'Please don't go.'

A faint frown touched his forehead. 'Are you afraid to be here alone?' he asked, his fathomless eyes searching hers.

She nodded her head, although she wondered if it were true. Was she afraid to be alone, or was she afraid he would leave and not return?

He glanced at the old carriage clock on the mantel over her tiny fireplace. 'Before I leave I will place wards on the doors and windows that only I can remove, and then I will return in exactly sixty minutes,' he said, with such absolute certainty that she felt her panic calming. 'Can you accept those terms?'

Hermione inhaled deeply, allowing the resolution of his manner to steady her. He only wanted to leave so he could duplicate her preparations for himself—so they could depart that much sooner for Antigua.

'Yes,' she said with a slightly damp smile. 'Yes, thank you.'

She had been surprised when he returned, precisely one hour later, with no visible luggage, and he had been equally surprised by her two bags.

'My reservations are—were—at a Muggle resort,' she explained. 'They tend to be quite suspicious of travellers who arrive with no luggage.'

He quirked an eyebrow. 'Unlike you, I have not been planning a holiday in the Caribbean, so I have no special holiday gear. I will procure what I need when we arrive.' His gaze warmed perceptibly as they surveyed her snugly fitting jeans, topped by a tight pink tee-shirt. 'Until then,' he continued, his voice as warm as the approving expression in his eyes, 'your excess of baggage will disguise my lack thereof.'

Hermione studied his appearance with the same frank appreciation he had shown her. He was showered and freshly shaved, dressed in an unremarkable black suit, but … she was riveted by the open collar of his customary white shirt, fascinated by the notch of his collarbone above a smattering of wiry black chest hair. Her fingers itched to explore the dip of the clavicle, sliding down to test the texture of the alluring peek of body hair …


She flushed, forcing her eyes back to his face. 'I've never seen you without a tie,' she managed.

His eyes told her that he knew precisely the sort of thoughts she had been having. But all he said was, 'It's all a part of blending in with the holiday environment.'

Hermione's mind darted wildly to what other concessions he might make to the holiday environment. Would he wear a silly print shirt, a floppy straw hat, and flip-flops? Would he wear a swim suit? Would he splash with her in the surf? Oh, the limitless possibilities!

Her chin dipped, and she bit her lip to keep from laughing—if a bit hysterically—at her over-excited imaginings. She had to stop this. She had, after all, come to a resolution in the shower, and it was now or never.

'Severus,' she said tentatively, fixating on one of his shirt buttons.

'Yes, Hermione?'

She cleared her throat, and with the air of a girl reciting a speech she had got by heart, striving to sound bright and capable, she said, 'You don't have to go with me on holiday.' She dragged in a breath and forced herself to meet his eyes.

One of his coal black eyebrows quirked up. 'Of course I don't,' he agreed equably.

Her heart sank. Oh, she knew it was the right thing to do—the proper thing to say—but she didn't want him to agree with her! Dismayed, she swallowed. 'I'm perfectly able to look after myself.'

He regarded her expressionlessly. 'Undoubtedly,' he replied.

She bit down hard on the inside of her cheek. She would not cry! 'So, we're agreed?' she said.

'Certainly.' He reached for the larger bag.

'Wait!' she squeaked.

He stood straight again, a resigned expression on his face. 'What now?' he asked.

'You're coming with me?'

'Yes,' he answered patiently.

Overcome with combined relief and delight, she launched herself at him, and he caught her with commendable aplomb, considering the fact that both her arms and her legs were wrapped about him. Her face pressed to the side of his neck, which she kissed.

He turned his face into her hair, and he spoke quietly into her ear. 'Unless you'd rather I didn't.'

Hermione allowed herself to slide down his body until her toes touched the floor again, though her arms were still clasped about his neck. 'I'd be sad if you didn't come,' she admitted, and he set her aside.

'Then we'd best get on with it,' he said.

'Well I'm ready to go,' she told him with renewed cheerfulness, shouldering one bag and reaching for a second.

But his sharp gaze had detected a carrier bag from a London shop, abandoned on an armchair amongst a litter of books, unopened junk post, and a welter of socks from the wash she had yet to match and put away. From the carrier bag, a scarlet scrap of fabric protruded.

'What's this?' he said, and although Hermione lunged for it, he was quicker than she was, and he held aloft a skimpy swimsuit for appraisal. 'Fascinating,' he commented after studying it for what seemed an interminable time, during which Hermione's cheeks flamed the colour of the swimsuit under review. 'It appears that a significant portion of this garment is … missing.'

Hermione fiddled with the strap of her handbag. 'I decided not to bring it,' she said. 'I'm taking a different one … or two.'

'I see no point in limiting your options,' he said, and lifting the larger of her bags, he slipped the swimsuit into his pocket.

The sunlight sparkled on the water, and Hermione stared out to the horizon as she replayed the morning's events in her mind. Then she heard the sound of her travelling companion as he unlocked the door and entered the room they were to share, and she hurried in from the terrace. She passed a round table with two matching chairs, situated just inside the veranda doors, the enormous bed with its tropical print counterpane, and pulled up abruptly two feet from where he stood with two sizable carrier bags at his feet, slipping the room key into his trousers.

Hermione felt suddenly shy, standing with him in this hotel room with the bed standing against the wall like an accusation of … indecency. How well did they know one another, after all? What had made her think this was a good idea?

'Did you … did you find everything you need?' she asked, hearing the stilted tone of her voice but unable to correct for it.

Severus did not answer her question but closed the space between them in one long stride and pulled her against him, bending his head to capture her lips with his. Hermione's pulse quickened at the unfamiliar … and intoxicating … pressure of his mouth on hers, and the well-ordered thoughts which had framed her plans for the day dissolved and blew away like dandelion fluff.

Hermione began by feeling awkward, one hand pressed to his chest as if to push him away and the other awkwardly trapped between them, somewhere in the vicinity of his stomach. But her unease slipped away from her with the dribs and drabs of her reasoning mind, the longer he held her to him, his lips moving against hers, as if acquainting himself with new and important research data.

When he released her and turned to retrieve the bags he had brought from the lobby shops, Hermione sagged a bit against the wall, thankful for its support. Her knees felt like jelly, and her brain refused to accommodate her wish to work out why he had stopped kissing her. Blinking owlishly, she opened her mouth to ask a coherent question, but he was walking away from her, unbuttoning his coat, which he disposed carefully on the back of a chair before seating himself, crossing one long leg over the other.

'Come here,' he said, extending a hand to her, and she crossed to him with alacrity, placing her hand in his. But rather than pulling her down onto his lap, he turned her.

'Why—' she began, but he cut across her.

'Would you fetch a pillow from the cupboard?' he asked her.

Fetch a pillow? Did he think she was a house-elf? But it was a benign request, so she walked away from him to the cupboard, feeling his eyes upon her back, and stretched on her tip-toes to reach for the requested item. The confusion visited upon her by the heated kiss they had shared began to leach away as she walked back to him with the pillow.

'Thank you, Hermione,' he said, inclining his head, almost as if to hide his eyes from her. 'Do you suppose there are extra blankets in the lower dresser drawer? I believe the desk clerk said there would be.'

Hermione put her hands on her hips. 'Why would anyone need a blanket when it's so warm?' she asked suspiciously.

'If it wouldn't be too much trouble,' he said smoothly.

Huffing, she spun away from him again and walked to the dresser, bending low to the bottom drawer, all the while feeling his eyes upon her, as if he were staring at …

She marched back to him and hurled the blanket. 'You're eyeing me up!' she accused.

He grasped her wrist and tugged, and she landed awkwardly across his legs. 'How am I to make an assessment of your bum without eyeing you up, pray tell?' he asked, his manner at once languid and disquietingly intent.

Disturbed and challenged, Hermione struggled to rise, but he constrained her with a hand upon her hip, using the other hand to help her sit straighter upon his knee. 'I prefer the word appraisal,' she said, tossing her hair a bit. There, that felt good! Flirtatious and girly. 'It contains praise.'

He watched her with unguarded admiration. 'And I prefer the word assessment,' he responded, the hand at her hip tightening slightly in emphasis, 'because it contains ass.'

Emboldened by his manner, she kissed him this time, her lips soft upon his, until a knock at the door made her jerk away from him guiltily. He watched her with half-lidded eyes, a smouldering quality in their ebony depths. 'That will be our brunch,' he said. 'Shall I send them away again?'

Fully aware of her empty stomach, Hermione scrambled to her feet. 'I'm sure we need to eat,' she said, self-consciously adjusting her tee-shirt.

'That is … unfortunately true,' he agreed, making no effort to rise. 'Perhaps you could open the door?'

He neither hid nor drew attention to his physical reaction to her presence in his lap, but Hermione had been … aware of it, as she kissed him. Perhaps he needed a moment to … collect himself. She nodded her acquiescence and hurried to admit the server with the tray of delicious aromas.

Brunch upon the terrace was leisurely and strangely exotic. Hermione found conversation with him easy. At the Archives, she had always spoken with him about his research, and he had been perfectly civil in his responses—but now she dared to broach more personal topics, and she found him receptive. Ice in their glasses melted in the warmth of the late morning sun while they sat beneath the covered part of the terrace, eating and talking, and when their hunger and a part of their curiosity had been satisfied, they drowsed on the loungers, their recent lack of sleep catching up with them.

Hermione awoke from her doze as the sun reached its zenith, making the transition from morning to afternoon. She stretched lazily in the warmth, absorbing the sight of her companion as he slept on his chaise … within arm's reach of her unruly hands. These she clasped determinedly in her lap as she allowed herself to eye him up properly.

He seemed younger, in repose, his mouth relaxed, the lines of strain he had worn all the years she had known him eased with the forgetfulness of sleep. His inky black hair was lightly ruffled by the breeze, and she was tempted to smooth it back from his forehead. He was not beautiful; there was very little to recommend Severus Snape's face to the uninformed eye. But Hermione's blood was stirred by him, by the complexity of his personality and the undoubted courage with which he had lived his life, and in his hawkish countenance, she saw everything she wanted in her wizard.

As if feeling the force of her scrutiny, his eyes fluttered open, irises so dark they were all but indistinguishable from his pupils, and Hermione was made breathless by the unspoken intensity of his gaze. A welcoming smile touched his face, less a curving of his lips than a crinkling at the corners of his eyes, and then he reached that small distance between their respective chairs, and his fingers closed loosely about her wrist.

'Are you glad to be here?' he asked her, a heart-rending, tentative tone in the voice she had ever and always known to be as firm as the earth beneath her feet.

'Oh, yes,' she assured him warmly, her hand turning in his so that her fingertips stroked the back of his hand, at which provocation it seemed to her that sparks flew from his eyes.

His eyelids fell to half-mast, and she could feel the path his gaze travelled, from her eyes, to her lips, to her throat, to her breasts, to her hips, down her legs to her bare feet—and then he was looking into her eyes.

'Then I am … entirely at your disposal,' he purred, and Hermione was assailed with a trio of sensations: the swooping of her tummy, gooseflesh pebbling the surface of her skin, up to and including her suddenly aching nipples, and a heavy warmth which settled in the area of her pelvis.

He leaned toward her, raising her hand to his thin, cool lips. 'How would you care to spend your first day in paradise?' he asked.

Hermione was flushed with conflicting emotions, and once again, the spectre of the large, empty bed in the next room loomed in her mind. Did he mean … did he want …?

She swallowed, wondering what he was thinking, searching his face for some hint of his thoughts. After a moment, he relinquished the hand he had kissed and sat back again, allowing his eyes to close as he lifted his pale face to the sun.

'Come, you don't mean to tell me that Hermione Granger planned a holiday without drawing up an extensive itinerary?'

He did not open his eyes, but Hermione felt sure that she detected a faint smirk about his mouth.

'Of course I did!' she cried, pulling a folded parchment from the pocket of her jeans. 'I didn't bring the schedule for day one, since I spent it in the Archives storage room, but I have the day two plan, right here!'

The speed with which he plucked the parchment for her fingers was faintly daunting. She attempted to take it back from him, somewhat fearful of his mockery, but he gave her no opportunity. Foiled, she stood and paced to the veranda railing, staring somewhat unhappily out to sea. She heard his movement, then he was behind her as he said, 'We can easily make the boat tour at one.'

She turned to him, a smile touching her lips. 'You'll come with me?'

He touched her cheek with a careless flick of his fingers before turning away. 'Indeed.'

Severus summoned his nerve and escaped into the bathroom with the carrier bag of newly procured holiday gear. In deference to the weather, he donned the lightweight trousers, which were a light shade the tag proclaimed as 'khaki'. The shirt was, to his mind, a huge concession to both the location and the occasion—and, at the same time, a Snapely sartorial coup. The shop had demonstrated that men's holiday fashions called for ridiculously coloured shirts in garish, flowered prints. Amongst the crimsons, magentas, and chartreuses, he had discovered a black shirt adorned with tropical flowers in rust and cream. He was inordinately proud of his find. With the judicious use of his wand, he adjusted the garment to a perfect fit, and swept out into the main room, coming upon Hermione just as she slipped her feet into frivolous pink sandals.

Her legs were bare and quite pale, but slender, shapely, and lovely. The white sundress she wore fell only to mid-thigh, and it was with an effort of will that he forced his eyes up to her face. Her hair had been plaited down her back, and on her head she wore a large straw hat.

'Fetching,' he murmured, and she uttered a small giggle as she placed dark glasses upon her nose.

'Do you have sunglasses?' she asked, pausing with her hand upon the door.

He did not answer, but pulled the 'Ray Bans' most strongly recommended by the shop clerk from his shirt pocket and placed them on his face.

'Fetching,' she said, smiling sweetly.

Merlin but he wanted to kiss her—and she seemed fully receptive to his kisses, going so far as initiating some of her own. She had even seemed to be disappointed to be interrupted by the room service waiter. Yet she had been reluctant, after dozing with him in the sun, to continue from the point of interruption …

'Shall we go?' he asked, striving to mask his impatience to further explore her charms.

'Of course,' she agreed, walking out the door.

He paused to ascertain that the lock was engaged, taking the opportunity to admire the sway of her hips as she moved down the corridor. The bum assessment was progressing nicely, to be sure, and he had every hope of furthering his studies in that area.

After all, the itinerary offered sunbathing after the boat tour—there was much to anticipate.

Being with her out on the boat tour was a surprisingly pleasant hour. If he had been asked to make a conjecture, he would have guessed that Hermione would pepper the tour conductor with questions to show off the knowledge she had gained from her research. The reality proved to be, by his lights, far more interesting. She stayed by his side, largely ignoring the American tourists, and somewhat shyly engaged him in conversation. He found her alternation between flirtatiousness and shyness to be intriguing in the extreme, and he made a game of drawing her out, alternating between reserve and playfulness of his own, to see what worked best.

By the end of the short boat trip, she seemed fully at ease with him, achieving a level of comfort unprovoked by Slughorn's hallucinogenic potion, and he was gratified. Perhaps that daft assistant of hers had the right of it after all. Perhaps he honestly had a woman—an intelligent, desirable witch—interested in him as a … romantic partner? No, that seemed unlikely. But as a bed partner? That was within the realm of possibility. Even middle-aged ex-Death Eaters occasionally got lucky in that regard.

In the hotel room again, he said, 'Would you prefer the bathroom or the bedroom to change into your swimsuit?'

Hermione lifted a small bag—cosmetics, perhaps?—from her larger bag. 'The bathroom, I think,' she said.

She moved toward the bathroom door, and Severus intercepted her. 'I … picked up something for you in the shop this morning,' he said, hoping she would not be offended. 'I would be pleased if you wore it—unless you find it not to your taste.' He proffered a very small bag emblazoned with the logo of the lobby shop.

He could see the hesitancy in her expression as she accepted the bag, and her warm brown eyes searched his face. 'You bought clothing for me?' she asked.

He gave a self-deprecating shrug. 'Just a trifle,' he said. 'An impulse buy, as they say. If you don't care for it, don't give it another thought.'

And with a murmur of thanks, she disappeared into the loo.

Hermione stared at her reflection, her mind awhirl. He had chosen for her a two-piece suit—a bikini, really, though by modern standards, it scarcely merited the name—in matte black, with a halter top and bottoms which fully covered her derriere and began no more than an inch below her navel. Included in the bag was a gorgeous sarong, a mad coil of turquoise and fuchsia and crimson and tangerine, swirled about with and bordered by black. It was far less daring than the suit he had stuffed in his coat pocket, which was a one-shouldered affair with the belly and back bared, only a thin strip of fabric attaching the top to the bottom. Severus' choice scarcely even necessitated the painful bikini wax she had endured at Saxy Wax in Diagon Alley—had it only been three days before?

She shook her head and took up a lipstick to colour her mouth. He seemed interested in her—interested in the way she wanted him to be, she thought—but what did this suit say about his thoughts and feelings on the matter? Did it say he didn't think she had the figure to wear the crimson suit, which would show far more of her body than the one he had chosen for her?

She put down the lipstick and smoothed the strands of hair which had escaped her plait. Arms raised, her torso looked good—better than usual—and she turned to admire the graceful silhouette she presented. The top of the suit was structured in such a way that her breasts, slightly larger than average, were well supported and subtly shaped. Had he known it would flatter her?

What did it mean? Did he desire her?


His voice came to her from just outside the door.

'If you wanted to visit the beach before the sun sets …' he said, a hint of teasing in his tone.

She sighed and turned from the mirror. Taking a deep breath, she went out to him.

Though his manner remained as it ever was, calm and impassive, Severus found it difficult to tear his eyes away from the sight of Hermione in the swimsuit he had given her. Her body was beautiful, curvaceous and womanly, and he hungered to caress—to possess—every centimetre of exposed flesh.

Other holidaymakers peopled the beach, and Severus was aware of the appreciative glances Hermione drew from the men they passed as they chose their resting place on the expanse of white sand. Severus was eager to see Hermione—to see all of her—but he wasn't eager to share that experience with random strangers. That had been his rationale as he chose the swimsuit he had purchased for her. There were other garments for sale, many which were, in his opinion, better suited to an adult wizard's magazine than a public beach, but the one he had chosen had satisfied his requirements: to show him her charms without sharing them too blatantly with every passer-by.

They relaxed into low-set blue canvas chairs beneath a matching umbrella, and the impossibly clear water undulated to the horizon, the irrepressible tide washing to the shore mere metres from where they sat. A hotel employee delivered drinks to them, and Severus sipped his gin with lime as Hermione drank a pina colada. She seemed entirely relaxed, almost like a cat lazing in the sun, and the notion of stroking her to see if she would purr reminded him of the tube in his pocket.

'Sit forward,' he said, causing her to open her eyes and turn an inquisitive glance to him. He displayed the sunblock cream for her inspection.

She pushed her sunglasses atop her head, her pretty mouth curling up. 'Didn't you buy a sunscreen potion in the wizard shop at the Portkey Authority?' she asked, nevertheless sitting up and turning her mostly bare back to him.

'No,' he lied. 'If two English tourists disport themselves upon the beach without sunblock and without sunburns, it will give rise to questions from the Muggles.'

'I see,' she murmured, but to Severus, who had been alert all of his life to the many nuances of mockery, she sounded as if she were humouring him.

A peculiar certainty settled over him. She was teasing with him—this was another example of her sweet flirtation. She wanted him to massage her with the oily sunblock. He squeezed out a glob of the coconut-scented lotion and rubbed it between his palms to warm it before he touched her pale, bare skin.

Exquisitely attuned to her, to the sound and sight and smell of her, he heard the sharp intake of her breath as his fingers slid along the satin flesh above the strap bisecting her torso, and it was with an extreme exercise of his will that he refrained from drawing her body to his—sweet Circe, but he wanted her.

He smoothed the cream into her exposed skin, marvelling at its softness, forcing himself to experience this wonder without wishing for more. Here and now, he had his hands on Hermione's naked flesh, and here and now, it was sufficient. It was, in fact, a taste of heaven.

When he could no longer pretend that he had not covered her back completely, he shifted around to face her, squeezing more cream from the tube. Her eyes were closed, her lips parted, and on her features there existed an expression of such open, sensuous pleasure that his mouth went dry at the sight. Would she look thus when he made love to her? Would he have the opportunity to find out?

She opened her eyes, and he lifted the hand with the blob of sunblock. 'Now for the front,' he said, aware of the extreme nature of his bodily reaction to her, hoping that she would not look down and catch him out.

But Hermione's fingertips swept across his palm, gathering the lotion and smearing it into the centre of his chest, then stroking up, until she was smoothing the stuff along his collarbone, her gaze fixed upon the task with fierce concentration. He had swallowed the sunscreen potion—he had no intention of spending any part of this holiday sunburned and undesirous of her touch—but he would not inform her of this fact. He scarcely dared to breathe; he did not want to do anything that would cause her to stop what she was doing. Both of her hands were now engaged in spreading the sunblock over his pectoral muscles, and when the palms of her hands simultaneously stroked over the flat disks of his nipples, her luminous brown eyes rose to his face, and he so far forgot himself that his hands closed upon her waist.

'Fair is fair,' she said, lifting her face until her lips were a whisper from his.

A mother with two small children hurried past them at that moment, breaking the spell for Severus, who had been upon the cusp of a truly indecorous public display.

'Perhaps you could complete the job for yourself,' he said, passing the tube to her, noting the disappointment in her face. 'It would not do for you to be indisposed by sunburn during your holiday.' He moved into his chair, relieved that the interruption had served to dispel the distension in his swim trunks. 'I will procure the potion for you tomorrow,' he promised. He could not risk touching her in such a way in public—he could not be answerable for the consequences. That much was apparent.

While she completed the application of sun protection, he fortified himself with a healthy swallow of gin and was relieved with the return of comparative sanity. One thing was indisputable: the physical chemistry between them was powerful.

Hermione settled back into her chair and took up her pina colada, eyeing him playfully over the rim of her glass. 'How's the assessment coming along?' she asked.

A couple crossed in front of them, hand-in-hand, and Severus surveyed the bikini clad woman judiciously. 'Perhaps an element of comparative studies would not be a bad idea,' he mused.

She punched his upper arm, and he feigned distress. 'You needn't become violent,' he informed her.

'If I catch you staring at other women's bums, I'll go back to England!' she said querulously, and he heard a tone of something else—insecurity, perhaps? Self-doubt?

'Hermione,' he said softly, but she was looking away from him, her arms crossed protectively over her breasts. 'I was … jesting. It was in poor taste. I apologise.'

He waited a moment for her response, but there was none. No softening of the sudden muscular tension in her frame. He bethought him of the contents of his other pocket, and judging the time to be opportune, he displayed it between his thumb and forefinger.

'Perhaps you would accept this gift as apology—a token of my esteem for you and all your … parts.'

Now she turned to him, and seeing what he held, she squeaked in excitement.

'Is that Rita Skeeter?' she asked, taking the glass bottle and giving it a violent shake, watching with satisfaction as the beetle within fluttered its wings in agitation. 'When on earth did you get her?'

Severus raised an eyebrow. 'Did you truly imagine it would take me a full hour to shower and shave?'

Her jaw dropped. 'You captured her this morning?'

He shrugged. 'On my way back to your flat. She … volunteered to demonstrate her Animagus abilities after certain … inducements were provided.'

Hermione gave the bottle another rattle, watching the insect bouncing from side to side. 'What are you going to do with her?' she asked.

'That's entirely up to you, Hermione. She is my gift to you.'

Hermione watched him with narrowed eyes for a moment, then bestowed a shining smile upon him. 'This is the best present anyone ever gave me,' she pronounced.

He inclined his head in acceptance of her thanks. Then he said, 'The only bum on this beach of the least interest to me is currently residing in your chair,' he said. 'I am balked in my assessment.'

There, she was smiling again. His relief seemed ludicrously out of proportion to the event, but he was borne along on the tide of emotion flowing between them. The push and pull, give and take, had begun at the moment he found her bound and drugged in the storage room, and the more he gave in to it, the stronger the appeal of it became.

He signalled the waiter for two more drinks, and they lounged together, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the contemplation of ever more outrageous schemes for the disposition of a certain gossip columnist.

At last he rose to his feet. 'I shall leave you to enjoy the remainder of your sunbathing,' he said. 'I'll have a shower and go down for a brandy. Will you meet me in the bar when you're ready for dinner?'

She treated him to another smile. 'Yes, thank you, Severus.'

And he made his way to the hotel room with his mind full of happy, smiling Hermione, feeling an unaccustomed sensation of wholeness.

Later, in the hotel bar, his thoughts were more sombre.

The bar was dark and modern, its only concession to its location the wall of windows at the far end, which looked out on an indisputably Caribbean night. Otherwise, the shining dark wood of the bar, the black tables with tasteful, square glass candle holders, and the cordovan leather of the booths could have been found in any bar in any upscale hotel in the world.

He opted for a snifter of cognac, and he nursed it slowly as he considered the night to come. His eyes wandered about the tables, where several couples sat together, romance seeming to hang about them like incense in the air. One couple held hands upon the table top, their fingers twined together; another pair stole a kiss in a darkened corner; and as Severus watched, a young man about Hermione's age approached a woman sitting alone at a table, and after an exchange of words, he seated himself across from her.

Severus sipped cognac and frowned. Was that why Hermione had come to Antigua? Had she hoped to hook up with a stranger? A younger, better-looking man, perhaps, to indulge in a holiday romance? His teeth clenched at the notion of some opportunistic stranger taking advantage of Hermione. He closed his eyes in disgust. How would an encounter with a stranger have been any worse than her consorting with a Death Eater twenty years her senior?

What was he doing here? He pulled at the knot of his necktie, and his hand slid briefly under his hair, feeling the sweat at his hairline. What had he been thinking when he pushed himself on her? Had it been the high emotions of their escape from the index and the thrill of the fight? Or was it the notion that a girl like Hermione Granger could fancy him? Did it matter? The important thing was that he had come to his senses, just in the nick of time. He would not make a fool of himself over a girl young enough to be his daughter. He would extricate himself from the situation and emerge with his dignity intact, neither of them the worse for wear.

Then she walked into the bar, and he was captivated. She was extraordinary. How could he ever have thought otherwise?

She wore a simple black dress with very high black heels. About her throat she wore a single strand of pearls, and her lips were a bold red. Her hair fell unrestrained down her back, brown, bushy, and entirely Hermione. He stood to greet her, and she walked up to him without so much as noticing the glances she received from other men in the room. She had eyes for no one else, and Severus' reaction to her was purely visceral. He could be as analytical as he liked outside of her presence, but once she was with him, reason was right out.

Hermione smiled up at him. 'I'm sorry I kept you waiting,' she said.

'It was worth the wait,' he assured her, and she blushed.

After a moment, she lowered her eyes. 'Does anything look good?'

He chuckled. 'Fishing, Miss Granger?'

She gestured to the leather folder beside his cognac glass. 'I thought you had perhaps reviewed the menu, Professor Snape.'

He gave himself a mental kick. Do try not to be a complete arse, he counselled himself. Aloud, he said, 'The menu is replete with seafood of every description. Are you ready to go to the dining room?'

'I'm famished,' she said, and with a hand at the small of her back, he directed her to the restaurant.

Over plates of blackened snapper and sautéed tilapia, they conversed. Her eyes shone in the candlelight; her smiles and ready laugh bathed him in acceptance. She was fatally easy to talk to, as he had been discovering all this enchanted day in her company; he talked with Hermione Granger as he had never spoken with anyone in all his life, and he found that he liked the experience very much.

As the moon rose higher in the sky, his desire for her trailed its ascent, but he had made himself a promise, and he had every intention of seeing it through.

When there was a lull in the conversation, he watched her as she sipped her wine and raised a spoon of crème brulée to her lips. 'Hermione,' he said, and her attention shifted back to him. 'You planned this holiday for yourself. I invited myself along, but you meant to be here alone—presumably, for a reason.'

He let his gaze wander the tables in the dining room, and it seemed to him that every one of them was occupied by a couple in the midst of a romantic dinner. He glanced back to her, and she was watching him with something like hurt. She dropped her spoon and took up her napkin to dab unnecessarily at her mouth.

'I've consulted the concierge, and there's another room available for me to sleep in tonight. Tomorrow, I'll go back home. I … never meant to gate-crash your holiday.'

He was pleased with the even, pleasant tone of his voice. He spoke with just the right amount of amused self-deprecation, an older man extricating himself from an awkward situation with a bemused younger woman.

Hermione folded her napkin neatly and placed it next to her water glass. 'I can't prevent you from changing rooms,' she said, and then she was looking directly into his eyes, and his self-satisfaction evaporated. She continued, 'I will tell you, though, that I was … enjoying our interaction so much every day at the Archives that I found myself thinking about you far more than was comfortable. I couldn't get up the nerve to ask you out, and you showed no sign of noticing me in any … significant way.'

She took a nervous sip from her water glass, and Severus was aware of the pounding of his heart. What was she saying? How could anyone have the courage to make such a confession? Didn't she realise that he could laugh at her—could stand and walk away from her? How could she risk herself in such a way?

'Severus, I was coming on this trip in the hopes of finding a bit of romantic distraction—I won't lie about that. But I was doing it because I wanted you, and I didn't have the courage to tell you.'

She stood, and he stared up at her, his lips parted in surprise.

'I'm going up to our room now,' she said, looking fearlessly into his eyes. 'You'll pay for our meal, and you'll come up, too—either to get your things and break my heart, or to stay, and make me happier than I've ever been.'

And without another word, the little Gryffindor turned and left him where he sat, a victim of her courage.

Hermione rode up the lift in a welter of anxiety and hope, a truly nauseating mixture. Staring at the mirrors that lined the lift interior, she berated herself. What was wrong with her? How could she have thrown down the gauntlet to Severus Snape? Was she out of her mind? He couldn't be coerced—for the love of Merlin, he had stood between Dumbledore and Voldemort and still held onto himself—why had she challenged him like that? It would serve her right if he didn't come back at all. She wouldn't put it past him to leave Antigua without saying good-bye.

She probably didn't deserve any better.

The lift glided to a smooth stop and Hermione straightened from her slump against the wall. She would square her shoulders and lift her chin and walk to her room like a grown woman …

The lift doors parted, and she was unable to exit, because a tall man filled the doorway. Severus Snape stood unmoving, blocking her exit, his burning eyes sweeping over her in a manner she might categorize as proprietary ... and then he swept her up into his arms as if she weighed nothing, and spun on his heel.

'Severus!' she said in a loud whisper. 'What are you doing? Someone might see us. Put me down!'

He did not dignify her protest with an answer, so she shut her mouth. She felt the wave of magic that opened their door before he deposited her in their room and closed the door behind them with a definitive snap. Then he twisted the deadlock and applied the chain, standing unmoving with his back to her, his head bowed.

Why did he seem so angry? And why wasn't he saying anything?

She watched his rigid form and tried desperately to regulate her breathing, for she was nearly gasping, as if she'd been running, and her heart thundered in her ears. Was she afraid of him? No—no, it wasn't fear. It was something even more powerful, and she was helpless against it. She took one step towards him and pressed her trembling hands against his back.

He turned at her touch and buried his hands in her hair. His eyes seared her, and then his mouth was on hers, scorching. There was no hesitancy here, no sign of the tentative, searching quality of his earlier caress. He kissed her hard, imperiously, and his tongue demanded entrance, sliding between her lips into the heat of her mouth, hot and insistent. The intimacy of this invasion weakened her knees, but one of his arms pulled her against him like a band of iron about her waist, steadying her in his embrace.

Hermione opened to him, accepting the intense heat of his onslaught, knowing that she was experiencing the essence of Severus Snape. Here was the manifestation of the incandescence shimmering behind his public façade, the part of him she had sensed and pursued greedily. Now he was pure flame, an inferno of emotion, and she the perfect tinder, in danger of being consumed to ash.

But she had no wish to disintegrate in the conflagration. What was the good of such an end, no matter how glorious? No, she had to fight fire with fire, consume flame with flame, or she had no business provoking this response from such a wizard.

And Hermione threaded her hands through his hair and stroked his tongue with her own, drawing an audible groan from his throat. With that simple oral assault, the tables were turned, and he trembled against her, needful and receptive. After the hours they spent in the stacks of the National Wizarding Archives, he had haunted her dreams, both sleeping and waking, feeding her wild desire with every quirk of his eyebrow, every sneer of his mouth, every whisper of his intellect slithering against hers. Now she kissed him rapaciously, feeding her ardour with the fuel of her months of desperate, unrequited passion, and the very air surrounding them seemed combustible, another element of their mutual wildfire.

Then his fingers were upon the zip at the back of her dress, and she broke the kiss, her hands upon his shoulders, holding him off her. 'You're staying then?' she asked, even as the cool night air touched her flesh, quickly followed by Severus' hands.

'I have a bum assessment to complete,' he informed her, cupping her arse cheeks with his hands, 'and the next step is a thorough manual examination.'

She felt a bubble of mirth rise in her, a giddiness that she embraced, confident that the storm of passion lurked just beneath it, a flash-fire ready to flare between them at the least provocation. 'Does that mean we're going to get naked?'

'Indeed,' he confirmed, a wicked smile curving his beautifully formed lips. 'Rumour has it, you know, that you fancy me.'

Hermione was assailed then with an arc of bright feeling, an emotion which trembled through her, leaving her breathless. With infinite tenderness, she cupped his cheek and said, 'Sometimes, Severus, even rumours contain an element of truth.'

His head descended, and he kissed her again, confirming Hermione's supposition: The air ignited and they were flame, consuming the night.

§ Finite Incantatem §