Final chapter! I'm sorry I took a bit longer to update than usual; things have been crazy-hectic the past few weeks. This is probably going to be my last HP story for awhile; at last count I'm at about a quarter of a million words regarding our dear Potions master, and I'm finding myself a bit burnt out. Thank you to everyone for your reviews -- there is an additional author's note at the end of this chapter that explains the origin of this particular piece.


VIII

As before, at first all was darkness. Then brilliant golden light flared from behind him. Hermione must have asked the house-elves to provide some illumination.

There came that same slithering noise, and the creature reared up from behind a pile of sacks. Snape paused, staring at it in shock.

But it's beautiful, was his first coherent thought.

For it was. Caught in the flare of light the house-elves had conjured, its hide rippled with a wash of warm color, gold blending into orange and shading to deepest red, the hues changing with its every movement. A feather-like golden crest topped its narrow, arrow-shaped head.

No time to think after that, for it seemed to flow toward him, its yellow eyes slitted against the glare of magical light. He backed toward the cage, holding its gaze, compelling it to follow. A sharp blow to his shoulder as he backed into the door frame, but then he was past, the creature gliding in his wake, intent on him, apparently not seeing the cage that blocked the door. Perhaps it couldn't focus properly in the almost-blinding illumination cast by the house-elves' light spell.

He cried out, "Now, Hermione!"

And she flung the cage door shut, fingers working the latch. The beast let out a high-pitched shriek that sounded halfway between the cry of a diving hawk and a rabbit caught in a snare. Then it began to batter against the bars of the cage.

The house-elves let out little shrieks of their own and backed away.

"Stun the bloody thing!" he commanded, and one of them -- the one who had held Hermione's arm while they Apparated -- apparently recovered his wits enough to cast the spell.

At once the creature subsided in a coil of riotous color at the bottom of the cage. A white-faced Hermione darted past him and into the seventh cellar.

"What are you doing?" he demanded, turning back to the room he had just exited. He'd only made a few strides in her direction when she approached him once again, now cradling something in her arms.

"We couldn't leave it behind," she said. From the bulky folds of her dark coat something glowed red-gold.

"The egg?"

She nodded. "Although I've never seen an egg like this before. Not even one of Bill's dragon eggs."

At the mention of Ronald Weasley's brother, Snape felt his lips thin a bit, but he only said, "No wonder the creature reacted with such rage."

"Poor thing."

He wasn't sure if he felt quite ready to call a ten-foot crested snake-creature "poor thing," but Hermione had a soft-hearted streak strangely at odds with her hard-headed intellect. To his surprise, she reached out and deposited the egg in his arms. It was heavy and oddly soft, the surface feeling like very fine suede. He cast a mystified look in her direction, and she smiled.

"I can't very well hold the egg and drive the lorry, now, can I?"

***

The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry had probably seen a good many odd things in its day, but Hermione guessed this was the first time within its hallowed halls that a group of house-elves had levitated a cage holding a sleeping beast into the bed of a lorry. Professor McGonagall watched the process with a bemused look on her face. Hermione wasn't sure what had flummoxed her more -- the odd crested snake, or the ancient Volvo.

"Are you sure this can't wait until morning?" the Headmistress inquired.

"It could," Hermione admitted, "but best to do it now. Besides, the clouds have blown away, and there's a wonderful moon. It will be quite safe."

Professor Snape finished his inspection of the straps that held the cage securely in the lorry's bed. "No point in delay, Minerva. We have the relocation site selected. And, as Miss Granger pointed out, we should be able to see well enough."

"I will trust your judgment, then," Professor McGonagall said.

Hermione pulled the lorry's keys out of her coat pocket and clambered into the cab. After one last tug of a strap, the Potions master opened the passenger door and climbed in. He cast a suspicious glance around the cramped compartment, and then, with an air of resignation, reached down to fasten his seat belt.

"It really is fine," Hermione said, and twisted the key in the ignition. The engine gave a raspy cough and then turned over.

"Of course it is," Professor Snape drawled.

Ignoring his comment, she shifted into low gear and carefully guided the vehicle through the castle's grounds and on out past the front gate. It really had turned into a fine night; a full moon blazed down from overhead, bathing the landscape in clear white light. It was much easier to make the return trip over the rough track that wound its way back to the main highway, and once there she accelerated to a good clip.

Her companion appeared little inclined to conversation. He stared forward through the windscreen, a frown etching a deep line between his brows. Something glinted from a fold of his robes -- the creature's egg, kept close and safe.

So many questions, and so few answers. The creature had had only the one egg, so their theory that these beasts were not particularly fecund seemed to be at least somewhat accurate. Why this one had come to Hogwarts Hermione had no idea, and the sleeping, snake-like being in the bed of the lorry didn't seem inclined to be giving up any of its secrets any time soon.

Hermione wished she could think of something clever and lighthearted to say, but somehow sitting so close to the Potions master in a confined space had effectively tied her tongue. A draft coming in through one of the windows ruffled the edges of his sooty hair, so different from Ron's bright carrot-top.

Finally Snape spoke. "You're certain of the direction."

Thank God. Something concrete she could discuss. "Yes. As much of a thieving scoundrel as the agency owner was, he did throw in some very good maps. We'll cut off from the main highway in approximately twenty kilometers, then wind along a secondary road for another fifteen. There's a valley where the road ends. I double-checked it against one of the library's maps, and there are supposed to be some deep caves there. It seems as good a place as any."

He gave a brief, abstracted nod and resumed staring out the window.

At that point the highway began to curve as it moved up through the hills. Hermione was grateful for the increased concentration the roadway required. It was much easier not to think about Severus Snape when she had to focus on their route, which was proving tricky, bright moonlight or no. She dropped her speed by about twenty-five kilometers per hour just to be on the safe side.

Good thing that she did, for she saw a patch of ice gleaming on the road a few meters ahead. She slowed even further and crossed it with no problem save a slight jerk as the tires slipped, and then caught. She gave a fleeting, sideways glance at Professor Snape. A narrowing of the eyes seemed to indicate \he had registered the stretch of treacherous road, but otherwise he remained still.

Well, what did you expect? she thought. For him to turn around and congratulate you on your driving skill?

That was ridiculous, of course, so she tried her best from there on out to keep her gaze on the road and to ignore his presence. Easier said than done -- every time he shifted on the bench seat, she thought again of how close he was, and how alone they were together.

Alone, except for approximately twenty stone of stunned beast in the lorry's bed. The house-elves had sworn the creature would remain in a stupor for a good two hours or more, but Hermione had no desire to push the outer limits of that time frame.

She saw the small sign marking the turn-off for the next leg of the journey, and slowed even further to take the tight corner. Then it was more slow going as they bounced along a poorly maintained road that seemed barely wide enough to accommodate the lorry. She prayed they wouldn't encounter another vehicle coming in the opposite direction.

But no one else apparently was mad enough to venture out on this icy, moonlit night. They crested a hill and then began to descend into a small valley dotted with yew trees and gorse bushes, where a narrow stream glinted beneath the pale moon.

"Over there," she said. The lorry's high beams had picked out a series of dark openings in the hillside opposite: the caves that were their destination.

Professor Snape sat up a little straighter. "Try to get as close as you can."

No easy task, as the road dead-ended at the valley floor. They had to ford the little stream, but the water wouldn't have been more than calf-high even if she'd stood directly in it, and the Volvo chugged its way across without any fuss. But she worried about the sharp stones on either side of the stream bed, and what they might do to the tires. She had no choice, though -- they had to get in a position where the cage would be as close to the cave as possible. The two of them could probably carry it a few feet, but any more than that would tax their strength to the limit.

Odd how even she, who hadn't grown up in wizarding society, had begun to take her powers so very much for granted. No easy way out through levitating the cage as long as the beast was around. Too bad the house-elves couldn't have come along to help out, but they'd been vehemently opposed to that idea.

"Miles away, in Muggle territory?" one of them had exclaimed in horror. "Oh, no, you couldn't ask that of us."

The fear in his eyes had been enough to prevent her from making any further arguments. True, it appeared that house-elves were immune to the creature's magic-dispelling properties, but she'd realized that testing such a theory miles away from Hogwarts and from a safe haven for the elves wasn't very wise.

Hermione slowed almost to a halt, then carefully backed the lorry up until it could go no further -- there was a rocky outcropping right in the way.

"I'm not sure we're close enough," she began, but Severus shook his head.

"It's good enough." Then he pulled at the door handle and slid out of the cab, one hand still wrapped protectively around the egg he carried.

He did not go immediately to the cage, but instead picked his way across the rocky ground to the mouth of the cave. After a brief hesitation, Hermione unbuckled her own seatbelt and followed him. The ground shifted treacherously beneath her feet, and she felt her ankle twinge. But the sturdy shoes she'd put on helped her to avoid any mishaps, and soon enough she was standing next to Severus in the cave.

As caves went, it was a good one -- wide and with a nice hard floor with not too many rocks. She watched as he knelt and placed the egg on the ground, then stood once more.

"Time for a reunion, I think," he said.

Something in his tone sounded a bit odd, but when she glanced up at him, his face was blank and expressionless. Or perhaps it was only the wash of white moonlight that shone through the cave opening.

By way of reply, she turned from him and made her way back to the lorry. The latch on the bed's gate was stiff, and she struggled with it for a few seconds before she felt his hands push hers away. He wore no gloves, and his fingers felt warmer than they should be, given the icy night.

But then he had the gate open. "Ready?"

She wasn't sure how much of the burden she'd be able to carry -- after all, she'd always concentrated on developing her mind, not her muscles -- but she knew she had to try. And really, it was only a few meters. Hardly anything at all.

She nodded.

"Now!"

And they slid the cage out from the bed of the lorry. The weight of cage and creature combined was enough to feel as if her arms were being yanked out of their sockets, but she hung grimly on, staggering her way up the twenty paces or so that separated them from the cave. She wouldn't think about the ache in her back and her biceps, or the way the metal of the cage was cutting into her bare fingers. None of that mattered. All that did matter was giving this strange creature its freedom in a safe place.

Then they were there, Severus guiding the cage to its resting place. He opened the door, but the creature didn't stir.

"Do you think it's all right?"

"I certainly hope so, especially after all this." He sounded almost grimly amused, as if he thought the final irony would be for them to discover the beast had perished after all their labors to get it here.

She didn't dare entertain such a notion. A sudden idea struck her, and she went to the spot where he had secured the egg, then lifted it up. Holding it before her like a sacred chalice, she went to the cage, then placed it under the creature's nose.

A sudden flash of gleaming gold. Its eyes opened, and it let out a little whine.

"You're safe," she said, in tones she hoped were reassuring. "And here is your egg." She backed away from the cage, still holding the egg before her.

With a small groan that reminded Hermione of the sort of noise Ron would make when he first dragged himself out of bed in the morning, the creature began to slither out of the cage. Although she was fairly certain it meant her no real harm, she didn't much like the idea of being between it and its egg. So she knelt and placed the egg on the floor of the cave, then sidled away.

Without a second glance in her direction, the creature moved at once toward its egg, then curled around it. The beast's glowing colors were muted by the pale moonlight, but it seemed as if it had turned a warm, rich gold all over, the odd variations in hue suddenly gone.

"Well done," said Severus. "Now all we have to do is get this blasted cage back in that sorry excuse for a vehicle you rented."

She didn't bother to reply, but came around to the side of the cage opposite from him and wrapped her hand around the bars. It was much easier to lift sans occupant, and they were able to return it to the bed of the lorry without too much trouble.

Once the cage was loaded, however, Severus seemed oddly reluctant to get back into the lorry. He hesitated outside, studiously not looking at her. Then he spoke.

"It seems you'll have your Christmas after all."

For a second she could only stare at him, wondering what he was going on about. Then she realized that they had somehow managed to solve the mystery and remove the creature from Hogwarts in enough time for her to return to London and spend the holiday with her family.

For some reason that prospect didn't seem appealing at all. She paused, wondering what she could say without sounding like a complete fool. Then Snape finally did stare down into her face. She had no idea what he saw in her own visage, but she caught a glimpse of something she'd never expected to see in his expression -- need, compounded with a sort of terrible hope.

Something inside her seemed to turn over. It wasn't possible…was it?

"I think," she said, speaking carefully and making sure her eyes never left his, "that I'd rather spend Christmas at Hogwarts with you."

He didn't move. He only stood there, still watching her with that careful black gaze.

Then, miraculously, he smiled.


AN: This story was written from a prompt by renitaleandra over at LiveJournal. Here is the original prompt: A new mystery has unfolded at Hogwarts and Hermione (a member of Magical Law Enforcement) and Snape (a dark arts expert and former headmaster) are asked to jointly investigate the matter. During the investigation they fall for one another and by the conclusion of this tale it should be clear that they both have plans on seeing one another in the future. Just thought I should include that for those of you who were wondering why this story ends on a somewhat tentative note. The requirements for the story were only that it be at least 1,500 words, and as you can see, I did go over that by about, hmm, 27,000 words. ;-)