THIS MUST BE THE END
Since the unforgettable dinner at her house in Tinworth, when they'd finally found out that Narcissa had been the one who brought Severus back, Hermione had been puzzling over the identity of the person who'd informed Rita Skeeter of Kingsley's plans of retirement and thus thrown the snowball which, quite unexpectedly, had become an avalanche of truly astounding proportions.
In the end, she'd settled for Percy Weasley.
It was nothing but a hunch – Hermione was objective enough to recognize that her not overly charitable feelings towards her brother-in-law might have influenced her – but it wasn't too far-fetched. In spite of everything he'd done during the Battle of Hogwarts, Percy hadn't really changed. He still was a pompous, self-important, boring twerp, who silently envied his more flamboyant brothers.
To be the keeper of so important a secret as Kingsley's imminent retirement and choice of successor had probably made his meagre chest swell with pride. But where was the fun in being important, if nobody but yourself knew that you were?
Hermione was pretty sure he hadn't meant any harm. As it turned out, he hadn't done much harm, either, because Skeeter's story hadn't stirred up half as much trouble as the vindictive journalist had expected.
There wasn't much Hermione could do, either – she had no evidence to corroborate her theory and knew better than to cast unfounded aspersions on the Minister's private secretary.
Today's meeting with Kingsley, however, didn't allow for a witness as potentially indiscreet as Percy Weasley.
They entered the Minister's office, where Kingsley was just having his morning tea, with Percy hovering in the background and going through the list of appointments for the day.
'Ah, there you are,' Kingsley said, heaving his bulky six-feet-three out of his armchair. 'So what's this mysterious matter you wanted to talk about?'
They shook hands, and Kingsley gestured for them to sit down. Fresh tea was served.
'Kingsley,' Hermione said, casting a meaningful look at the hovering Percy, 'I'd like this to be a private conversation.'
The Minister frowned. 'Well, it is.'
'I mean really private. Just the three of us.'
Harry looked at her in bewilderment, but she merely shook her head. He shrugged and remained silent.
Percy obviously wasn't prepared to be so unceremoniously removed. He stepped closer to Kingsley's chair, holding his clipboard tightly to his chest, and glared at Hermione. She merely gave him a bland smile.
'If you think it's necessary,' Kingsley said, looking up at his secretary. His lips were twitching.
'I think it is. The fewer people know about it, the better. And' – she bared her teeth at Percy, who seemed about to protest – 'everything's in here.' She patted the file. 'There won't be any need for taking notes.'
'Very well then.'
Kingsley looked intrigued. Hermione thought that he also looked a little relieved.
'Percy, if you'd be so kind…'
'But Minister!' Percy had gone scarlet. 'I must insist-'
'You heard me, Percy. Kindly leave the room.'
As soon as the door had closed behind the enraged private secretary, Hermione drew her wand and cast a strong privacy charm.
Harry suddenly sat up straight. 'You think it was him?'
She shrugged. 'Nothing I could prove, but I wouldn't want to read in the iProphet /ithat I was right.'
'Erm…' Kingsley looked from Harry to Hermione. 'I may be a bit slow on the uptake today – never drink with a Russian ambassador, is all I'm going to say on the matter – but what the hell are you talking about?'
An hour later, the Minister for Magic was sure he could never stop shaking his head. Which wasn't a good thing, because he was still badly hung-over. Even six-feet three and twenty-eight stones of solid muscle could only absorb so much alcohol.
Besides, his mind had trouble absorbing the truly unbelievable story he'd just been told. Not that he doubted it – impossible to doubt something so solidly supported by hard facts – but he was feeling quite overwhelmed.
Harry grinned at him. 'If you get this through the Wizengamot, you could leave with a bang. Not bad, is it?'
'Not to mention that, if anything goes wrong, you wouldn't have to start with a splat,' the Minister observed dryly.
Hermione was biting her lip. 'I think I covered every eventuality. What could go wrong, in your opinion?'
'I have no idea.' Kingsley shrugged. 'But experience has taught me that things never go quite the way you expect them to.' He tapped the file with his index finger. 'What if they get it into their minds that Snape has to be tried for Dumbledore's murder? There is no limitation for murder, you know?'
'That wouldn't be a problem,' Harry said. 'I have proof that he did it on Dumbledore's orders.'
'So you said.' Kingsely rubbed his bald head. 'And it was sufficient for a dead man to be declared innocent. But is it going to be enough for the Wizengamot to acquit a living man?'
'I have Snape's memories, which he gave me when he died. Besides, there's Dumbledore's portrait – a crafty defence lawyer could call it as a witness.'
'Mmh. Yes, that doesn't sound too bad.' The Minister punched his palm with his fist. 'All right, let's see what happens. I'd love to see that bunch of ossified arseholes thoroughly shaken.'
'Bad metaphor, Minister,' Hermione said, beaming. 'I don't think an arsehole can possibly ossify.'
'Oh, shut up,' Kingsley said good-naturedly. 'By the way' – his dark face became serious – 'I was very sorry to hear about you and Ron.'
'We've had that coming for quite some time. And I think we've sorted it out as amicably as possible – the children took it surprisingly well. We both talked to them before they left for Hogwarts, it's been almost a week, and I haven't heard back from Minerva – I asked her to inform me if she got the impression anything was wrong with them.'
'What about you? How are you coping?'
'Better than I thought,' she said, having trouble to suppress a smile.
Hermione yawned hugely and plucked a long, blond hair from her chest.
'Dark green suits you,' she said, smiling at Severus. 'Lucky you – just imagine the Unspeakables wearing yellow or, god forbid, pink.'
Lucius snorted into her shoulder.
'I thought you had a headache,' Severus snapped, glaring daggers at the two occupants of Hermione's bed.
'I did, but then Lucius was so kind to offer one of his wonderful massages. One thing led to another…' She made a vague gesture.
Lucius propped himself up on his elbows. 'Don't be so petty, Severus. You had her all to yourself last week, while I was staying at Hogwarts.'
'So I did.' A grin spread across Severus's face. 'And let me tell you, she didn't mention you once!'
'She didn't?' Lucius turned to face Hermione. 'You didn't? I must say I'm deeply hurt.'
'Poor lamb.' She kissed his throat. 'Is there anything I can do to make it better?'
'Hmm…' A finger tapping against his lower lip, Lucius regarded her thoughtfully. 'You ihave /ibeen a very, very bad girl.'
'Have I?' She stretched, cat-like, and gave him an insolent smile.
'Oh yes, definitely. Exceedingly bad. I'm afraid you'll have to be punished, my dear.'
Severus's eyes went wide. 'This is – you can't do that! Today is my first day of work, I can't be late!'
Curls bobbing wildly, Hermione shook her head. 'Men – you're absolutely helpless, unless there's a witch to do your thinking for you.'
She jumped out of bed and put on a dressing gown, the transparency of which left nothing to imagination. The two wizards stared.
'What are you waiting for?' Hermione tied the sash, loosely enough so her cleavage was on enticing display, and reached for a small box on the dresser. 'Come on, let's go to Lucius's bedroom!'
Exchanging bewildered looks, the two wizards nevertheless docilely followed her down the corridor, up a flight of stairs and down another corridor.
'What with Severus and me working regular office hours,' she said, when they'd closed the door, 'I was afraid that morning sex – I mean real, satisfying morning sex, the kind that makes you reluctant to leave the bed – might become a bit difficult to manage. So I got a present for the three of us.'
The two men stepped closer as she opened the box and pulled out a small golden object fixed to a long golden chain.
'How many hours do you think we're going to need?'
'Three,' Lucius said.
'Four,' Severus corrected him. 'I want to have breakfast with you afterwards.'
'Four it is, then.' She motioned for them to come closer. 'I hope the chain is long enough.'
Lucius and Severus each put an arm around her waist and the other around each other.
'It's a bit awkward, with the height difference,' Hermione said, rising on tiptoes to slip the chain over their heads. 'But it's only for a few seconds.'
She carefully turned the dial four times, and darkness encompassed them.
Lucius lit the candles with a flick of his wand and made a sweeping gesture towards the empty bed. 'I have to admit that getting the Time Turner was a brilliant idea, my dear, but it still doesn't quite make up for your callous and unloving attitude last week. Your punishment is still due, I'm afraid.'
Hermione shimmied out of her dressing gown and crept to the centre of the large four poster on her hands and knees.
'An act of brazen provocation,' Lucius said to Severus, shaking his head.
Severus looked his friend up and down. 'Considering a ten-man crew of explorers could sleep in that tent, I'd say it is.' He drew his wand and pointed it at the bed. 'Silk or fur?'
'Silk, I think.'
Black ribbons unfurled from the bedposts and twined around Hermione's wrists and ankles.
'And a blindfold,' Lucius said.
A black silk scarf wrapped itself around Hermione's head.
'What was that for?' she asked, craning her head.
'I said punishment, didn't I?' Lucius sat down on the edge of the bed and caressed her belly with his fingertips. 'Now what could be worse than having to listen, bound and blind, while Severus and I are having…' He smiled. 'A bit of a cuddle? And if you're a good girl, we might then be persuaded to take off the blindfold…'
Hermione gasped. 'You wouldn't! I thought you'd… you bastard!'
'The secret of a successful relationship,' Lucius said, matter-of-factly, and rose from the bed. 'Never cease to surprise her. And now, my darling, I'm going to take off Severus's robes. Oh Mr Snape! Is that a wand you've got in your pocket?'
Hermione giggled and lay still, listening to her two wizards and to the sound of the blood pounding in her ears.
They were in for a surprise, both of them. It was four days before Christmas, and she hadn't taken her contraceptive potion.
The sky was clear.
The Milky Way was a luminous river beckoning for her to dive into it, let herself be carried away, arms and legs spread wide.
When she'd read that bit about the birth mark, she'd immediately cast a strong glamour on hers.
Tonight, she'd taken it off.
The star-shaped birth mark next to her navel really didn't need any cosmetic surgery.