A/N: So, here we are then. The final chapter. Thank you so much to everyone who has encouraged me and shown their love for this little tale. Special mention goes to my lovely beta peskipiksi and to the PP admins who have patiently shepherded wayward commas and been generally enthusiastic and helpful. Disclaimer: anything you recognise belongs to JKR, and no-one is paying me a penny for this.
Chapter 7 – Paradise by the Dashboard Light
Ceri appeared at the French windows. "Is everything OK, love? Sorry— Dr Singer. I heard a smash."
The question that Snape was about to ask died on his lips. That unearthly, agonised scream hadn't entered his mind via his ears. Had it been generally audible, the chirpy maid wouldn't have been enquiring after crockery. He forced a smile to his lips as he moved with studied nonchalance towards the saloon entrance. "Sorry, Ceri. The cup just slipped out of my hand. Would you mind coming with me for a moment?"
Ceri looked at him quizzically. "'Course not. What's the matter?"
They passed through the saloon. Verity, Helen, Giles, and Stacey all glanced up from the table as they passed. Snape paused briefly. "I hope you don't object, but I've asked Ceri to take a tray up to Jane."
Helen smiled kindly. "Not at all. I was about to suggest that myself. Please, carry on."
Snape led Ceri out into the entrance hall, closing the saloon door behind them. He paused then, despite every nerve in his body screaming at him to run.
"Do you trust me, Ceri?"
The girl grinned at him. "Yeah, I do, actually. You've got lovely eyes, and Uncle Huw told me what you did with Mr Price's horse. I wish I could have seen—"
"Thank you, Ceri," Snape interrupted. "Come with me." He walked swiftly over to the door of Markov's study with the chatty maid following close behind. He stopped by the door.
"I need you to make sure no-one comes in here. I don't care what excuse you make, but I'm sure you'll think of something."
Ceri looked at him with a puzzled expression, but then nodded. "OK, love. Promise you'll explain after, though?"
Snape forced a smile. "I promise. Thank you."
With a deep, nerve-calming breath, he entered the study and walked rapidly over to the far door. He extracted his wand from an inner pocket then, quickly establishing that the Muggle-Repelling Charms had been disabled. He spared a brief thought for the implications before passing through the door and into the corridor beyond. Unerringly, he ignored the side rooms, heading for the lab entrance at the far end. That was where Hermione was. He could still feel the tug of her silent scream summoning him to her side.
He paused briefly before the door, wand in hand. He planned to rush through, surprising whoever awaited him on the far side. He raised his wand and magically flung open the door. Shit, that didn't work. What the bloody hell is this door made of? Lead? Considerably less dramatically than planned, he entered the laboratory. In a split second he took in the scene in front of him. Four lab benches extended from the doorway towards the back of the large room. Midway down the far right bench stood a man, his back to Snape, and at his feet lay an unmoving, heartbreakingly familiar figure. Oh, God, please let her be alive.Snape hurled a desperate prayer to any deity that might be listening, then felt a flood of relief as he saw the body move. Relief that was tempered with pain as he witnessed what appeared to be a spasm of agony.
He aimed his wand at the man, then froze when a strong arm gripped him from behind and a cold metal object was pressed to his neck.
The figure standing over Hermione now turned to face him and Snape felt a sickening chill of recognition. Of course. Why the hell didn't I guess earlier? Russian. Potions expert.
The wizard smiled at him smugly. Verity was right. The smile doesn't reach his eyes."Dear me, Severus. You appear to have brought a wand to a gunfight."
Belatedly, Snape realised the import of the chill of metal at his neck. He registered Archie Price's voice as it muttered into his ear, "Told you not to make an enemy of me, didn't I?"
Snape chose to ignore Price's rather pressing call for his attention and instead focused on the other wizard. "So, Boris Ivanovitch. I never wondered what happened to you."
Ivanovitch walked towards him, still smiling smugly. "Circumstances at home were no longer conducive to my business dealings, so I decided to try my luck in a new sphere. Muggles have been pleasingly keen to grasp the potential of my work."
Snape shrugged. "Stupidity has never been the sole preserve of the wizarding world. Muggles are equally tragic in their attempts to subjugate others through bullying and intimidation." He risked a glance at Hermione. She was still writhing restlessly on the floor. He suspected he was witnessing the effects of the enhanced Scorpion Sting Potion.
Ivanovitch stopped moving ten paces in front of him and leaned against the lab bench, lips twisted into a sneer of contempt.
"Don't worry, Severus. I haven't killed her yet. Though she might be wishing I had. She really has been outstandingly loyal to you. Tell me, have you used a love potion on her, or are you just paying her exceptionally well? Or am I to believe you've fucked her into submission?"
Snape tensed, drawing in his anger to Crucio Ivanovitch into unconsciousness, but Price reminded him of his presence by tightening his grip and pressing the gun more firmly into his neck. Is it my imagination, or is Hermione moving more purposefully?
Snape deliberately pulled his gaze away from Hermione, focusing instead on Ivanovitch. "Some of us don't need to rely on love potions," he responded. "Tell me, has this house been worth the effort of murdering its owner and drugging your wife?"
Ivanovitch shrugged. "It was no effort. And I wanted a dwelling that reflected my status. Our family home in Russia was destroyed by enemies of the natural order of the wizarding world. Bleeding heart liberals who bled muddy blood. Daring to say that Muggle-borns could be a match for we pure-bloods."
"Perish the thought," said a new voice from behind Ivanovitch.
"Watch out, boss," cried Price, but too late, as Hermione pressed her gun to Ivanovitch's head.
"Now," she continued conversationally, "what was that you were saying about wands and gunfights?"
Hermione held her gun firmly against Markov's temple. Her legs still shook slightly with the after-effects of the Scorpion Bite, but all things considered, she felt pretty good. OK, so they were in something of a Mexican stand-off position. But that was manageable. Some distant part of her brain was shouting, Hello? Shock?, but she chose to ignore it.
She looked over at Snape, who was standing impressively nonchalantly bearing in mind the fact Price had a gun to his neck. "Am I right in thinking you two know each other?" she asked, waving her free hand vaguely between the two wizards.
Snape looked at her directly, concern in his eyes. She glared at him, hoping it conveyed I'm fine, answer the bloody question, rather than Do something suicidally brave. She was relieved when he answered mildly, "I do apologise. Where are my manners? Please allow me to present Boris Ivanovitch, former Potions Master at Durmstrang."
A memory sparked in Hermione's brain. "Merlin's pants! You're the one that looks like Dracula's younger brother! Viktor was amazingly accurate when he described you! I hadn't made the connection, but it's obvious now. Did teaching not agree with you?"
Ivanovitch made an attempt to face Hermione, but she rapped him sharply on the head with her gun and he remained where he was.
"After the Dark Lord fell, I thought it politic to take my talents elsewhere. Speaking of which, the Potion should still have another fifteen minutes to run on you."
Hermione smiled broadly. "Ah, but I have a very clever colleague who gave me a sample of antidote to keep in my bag, just in case."
Ivanovitch scowled. "Even with the antidote your muscles should suffer from spasms for several hours."
Hermione shook her head happily. "Nope, no spasms. My colleague is extremelyclever." She caught Snape's eye, beaming.
Snape raised an eyebrow. "I used a strong dose of hemp oil as an anti-spasmodic."
Ah, thought Hermione. That would explain why I feel as high as a kite.
Markov grunted. "Foolish. That will interfere with the ground hedgehog quills and cause a relapse within the hour."
"Only if I was stupid enough not to—"
"Excuse me, boys," interrupted Hermione. "Can we save the Potions pissing contest until later? Mr Price and I were wondering if we're going to have to shoot anyone today."
In fact, Archie Price was wearing an expression of slight bewilderment as he held his gun to Snape's neck, the other arm gripping him firmly around the shoulders. Hermione couldn't decide if he was Imperiused, Confunded, or just terminally stupid. Whatever, he was definitely the softest target in the room. She met Snape's steady gaze with her own, silently willing him to read her mind as she formed an image in the forefront of her brain. She saw intensity flare in his eyes as she felt a soft tugging on her thoughts, then he nodded almost imperceptibly.
Silently, by her side, she extended the fingers of her free hand one by one. One, two, three—
Quick as a flash she took her gun from Ivanovitch's head and shot Price in the shoulder as Snape raised his wand at Ivanovitch, shouting "Stupefy!"
She grabbed her wand from the work surface behind her, then ran over to Price, vaguely aware that Ivanovitch had dodged Snape's curse and ducked behind a bench. The sounds of smashing glass filled the room.
Price had collapsed onto the floor, gripping his shoulder. Blood was seeping out from beneath his fingers. He glared at her as she crouched beside him.
"Bitch. What the fucking hell is going on here?"
"You're learning a lesson in choosing your business partners more carefully. Let me see your shoulder."
Price scowled, but moved his hand. His shirt was soaked in blood, although it looked like the bullet had passed through cleanly. Hermione moved her wand over his arm. Her muttered "Tergeo!" cleaned the blood away; then she conjured a tight bandage to wrap the wound. Content now that he wasn't going to die on her, she got to her feet, gagged and bound him with a quick "Incarcerous!" and kicked his gun safely out of reach. Then she turned her attention to the two wizards duelling in the centre of the lab.
Ivanovitch had retreated behind a bench, but a "Reducto!" from Snape exploded it into splinters. Glassware flew across the room and bottles smashed on the floor. I'll have no evidence left at this rate, thought Hermione ruefully.
Ivanovitch countered with a "Stupefy!" which Snape deflected with a contemptuous flick of his wand as he strode implacably towards the other wizard. Ivanovitch backed away until his progress was halted by the bench behind him. He vaulted lightly up onto it, aiming a curse down towards Snape, but again his hex rebounded harmlessly from a Shield Charm. Snape aimed a blasting spell at a large glass bottle on the bench, then said "Incendio!" and ignited the liquid contents as they sprayed though the air. Ivanovitch leaped backwards, away from the resulting fireball, and again put the width of a bench between himself and Snape.
"You're running out of places to hide," drawled Snape. With a circular motion of his wand, he drew the remaining flames in a ring around Ivanovitch, who spun quickly, shooting water out of his wand to extinguish the flames as he went. As he completed his spin, he was smacked sharply on the side of the head by a cauldron that Snape had Summoned at high speed from the opposite end of the lab. He fell sideways, disappearing behind the bench.
Hermione picked up her bag and ran over to join Snape as he moved carefully around to check on the Russian. He was out cold on the floor, wand still in his hand. Snape put his foot firmly on Ivanovitch's arm before bending down and taking the wand from him. Hermione crouched down to lock her handcuffs firmly onto the captured wizard's wrists.
She grinned at Snape as they both stood again.
"Nice shot," she complimented him. "I've never seen a cauldron used as a weapon before."
"You have no idea how many times I've fantasised about doing that to some of my more irritating pupils. I admit I was rather pleased with how well it turned out. Good shot from you earlier, too."
They looked at each other for a moment; then Snape pulled Hermione into a tight hug. She wrapped her arms around him, relaxing into a wonderful feeling of security. She felt him kiss the top of her head.
"Are you sure you're all right?" he asked quietly.
She pulled away slightly and looked into his dark eyes with a smile. "I am absolutely fine. Great, even. That antidote's wonderful – I may ask you for some more later."
Snape shook his head with a quirk of his lips. "Much as it grieves me to admit it, I think I may have been somewhat heavy-handed with the hemp oil."
Hermione put her head to one side. "You? Get a potion wrong? I think we'll give you the benefit of the doubt and say it's the effects of adrenaline and low blood sugar. Some of us haven't had breakfast yet. I'm starting to sober up a bit now, anyway. Fortunately, as I've still got work to do." She reluctantly stepped back out of Snape's embrace. "Would you mind securing Ivanovitch while I sort out Price?"
Snape inclined his head. "My pleasure. Bound and silenced?"
Hermione shook her head slightly. "Just bound. The Muggle police will be seeing him, and it'll be hard to explain if he wakes and can't talk. I'd suggest gagging him, but they get a bit funny about that as well."
Snape turned to deal with his captive while Hermione walked over to where Price was still lying on his side, struggling against his bindings. She met his glare with a sweet smile. "Now, Archie. You don't mind if I call you that, do you? You're going to have a little sleep, and when you wake up you're going to feel much better, and you're not going to remember any of this." Price's eyes widened in fear, but Hermione murmured, "Morpheus obliviato!" and he instantly relaxed and slept.
"What was that?" asked Snape as he left the now-bound Ivanovitch to join her. "I don't think I've heard it before."
Hermione tried to keep the satisfaction out of her smile as she replied. "No, you wouldn't have done. I invented it, actually, for our work in the unit. It's a modified Obliviate – it sends the recipient to sleep for around fifteen minutes, wiping their memory of the previous hour. It leaves rather less disorientation when they wake than the standard charm."
Snape nodded, and Hermione was quietly thrilled to see he actually looked slightly impressed. "Good idea. You're moderately talented, you know."
Hermione raised her wand at him warningly. "Can I try that trick with the cauldron?"
"Haven't you got minions to summon?" he responded drily, pushing himself up to sit on the edge of the bench behind him.
"I'll have you know the unit is very much a partnership of mutually-respecting colleagues—"
"As long as they remember who's boss," interrupted Snape.
Hermione grinned. "Exactly. You're right, though – I do need to call them." She rummaged briefly in her bag before pulling out her phone. She pressed the first number on the speed dial and wandered over to stand by the still-unconscious Ivanovitch while she waited for an answer. It only took a couple of rings before the call was picked up.
"Dennis Creevey," responded the voice on the other end.
"Hi, Dennis. It's me. I've got one for you to pick up and one for the Muggles, too."
She listened to his brief congratulations, then continued. "Tell the police it's a firearms charge for the moment, but we should have more on him later. They'll need an ambulance – he's been shot in the shoulder, but he'll be fine. Full Muggle cover when you come up, please."
"OK, no problem. See you in five," came the reply.
"Cheers, Dennis." She ended the call and turned back to Snape, who was watching her with a slight smile.
"What?" she asked.
He jumped down from his perch on the bench. "Just seeing you in professional mode."
"You ain't seen nothing yet," she quipped. "Let's get these two out into the study. I don't want the Muggle police trampling through the lab."
They proceeded out through the connecting corridor and into the study, Hermione floating Price in front of her while Snape transported Ivanovitch. They dropped them none-too-elegantly into armchairs. Ivanovitch stirred slightly, then drifted back into unconsciousness.
Hermione turned to look at the previously Muggle-Concealed door, an idea occurring to her. She pushed it closed, then Transfigured the surface of it so it matched the surrounding wall-covering. "There," she said. "It just looks like it was papered over now. That should save us a couple of questions later."
She became aware of voices in the entrance hall outside. Damn. I really didn't want any witnesses.Snape went to open the door, holding up his hand before she could object. "It's all right. I'll deal with this. I take it you want the hall cleared?"
Hermione nodded gratefully.
She sank down into a chair as he left the room. The combined effects of hemp oil and adrenaline were wearing off now, and last night's dinner seemed a very long time ago. Note to self: don't go investigating until after breakfast next time.
Snape returned within moments, shaking his head with a wry smile as he closed the door behind him. "That girl Ceri will go far. I asked her to make sure no-one followed me in, so she's told Helen that part of the roof of this wing has collapsed, and I was helping some of the ground-staff with it. I've been able to send Helen off to make an appointment with her architect for tomorrow, which should take her a while as it's Sunday. The others have gone up to their rooms, and Ceri will be back in a few minutes with tea and toast for you."
Hermione let out a long sigh. "You are an angel. I was just thinking I needed food."
Snape looked slightly pained. "Calling me 'darling' all weekend has been bad enough. I can't find the words to express how inappropriate 'angel' is. I do have a reputation to maintain, you know."
Hermione jumped up out of the chair and flung her arms round his neck. He wrapped his arms loosely round her waist as she smiled up at him. "It's OK," she said. "I won't tell anyone what a wonderful man is hiding under that disguise of yours. Not unless you want me to."
He snorted. "Hardly wonderful."
"How about 'not as much of a bastard as you pretend to be'?"
He put his head on one side, considering. "Maybe. I'd appreciate you not spreading that malicious rumour too widely, though."
"Fair enough. You can bribe me with a kiss if you want."
"Is that all it will take?"
"It's all you're getting in front of two unconscious suspects with Ceri about to burst in. Call it a down-payment."
Snape's arms tightened around her waist, and he pulled her firmly towards him, lowering his head to kiss her on the lips, gently at first, then more forcefully as she responded. She caressed the nape of his neck as she returned the kiss enthusiastically. Oh, yes, I could get used to this.
There was a sudden crash from the other side of the room. They sprang out of their embrace and spun round to see Ivanovitch trying to pull himself up from where he had fallen from his chair to the floor. He was still bound, but there was murderous rage in his eyes as he screamed, "Crucio!"
Simultaneously, Snape and Hermione raised their wands. "Stupefy!" they said in unison, and the Dark wizard fell back to the floor, senseless.
"That wasn't strictly necessary," said Snape drily as they hauled him back into the chair. "He couldn't have done anything with those handcuffs on."
Hermione shrugged. "I owed him one. What's your excuse?"
"He hurt you."
Hermione heard the sudden, flat anger in his voice, and when she looked into his eyes she could see the fury reflected there as well. She raised her hand to his face and caressed his cheek briefly. "I'm fine now," she said reassuringly. "Thanks to you."
There was a knock at the door. Hermione went over to open it, to be met by a beaming Ceri bearing a tray. Hermione gestured for her to enter and was impressed that she put the tray safely down onto a table before looking round the room. The girl's eyes opened wide at the sight of Ivanovitch and Price; then they narrowed as she looked from Hermione to Snape.
"I'm guessing you two aren't quite who you say you are? What are you? Police? MI5?"
"Something like that," replied Snape smoothly. "These two gentlemen will be taken away shortly, and Jane will explain the situation then. I need you to keep quiet for a little longer though."
"OK, no problem. Can't say I'm surprised that pair were up to no good." She jerked her head towards the unconscious men dismissively. "I'm not sorry, either, except for the fact Mrs Markov is going to be really upset."
"Well," said Snape. "I may be able to help a little with that. Would you do me one last favour?"
Ceri nodded her assent and Snape continued. "In the bottom of the wardrobe in our bedroom, you'll find a black bag. There's a small pill bottle in there marked 'Valerian'. Would you bring it down for me?"
"Okey dokey," said Ceri, grinning. "Back in a sec." And she bustled off, positively brimming with self-importance.
Hermione looked at Snape quizzically. "Valerian?"
"Calming Draught in tablet form, actually. It occurred to me it might be a useful thing to have with us."
Snape shrugged. "In my experience wives don't always take their husbands' arrests very well. On one memorable occasion Narcissa Malfoy actually turned an arresting Auror into a frog. A horrible cliché, but she did it with such style."
"Have you never wondered where 'Hopper' Hargreaves got his nickname from?"
Hermione laughed and helped herself to toast and jam.
Snape watched with amused respect as Hermione took command of the combined body of Muggle and wizarding law-enforcement personnel when they arrived a short time later. Orders were swiftly issued, and within minutes Price, who was starting to stir groggily, had been transferred to an ambulance, accompanied by two Muggle police officers.
The still unconscious Ivanovitch was bundled unceremoniously into the rear of a waiting van by two burly members of Hermione's unit. Hermione informed Snape in a low voice that the van was just for show, and that the wizard would in fact be Apparated directly to Azkaban from the back of it.
The two remaining police officers were briefed speedily by Hermione, who assured them that she would join them later with more details. Once they had departed, she turned to the three members of her team who were left.
"OK, I think we've probably only got a couple of minutes before the other members of the household work out there's something going on, so I need you to head straight down to the lab and start collecting evidence. There's a load of paperwork, a computer, and audio equipment, and I need an inventory of the potions paraphernalia and ingredients. What hasn't been smashed, anyway." She directed a mock glare at Snape at that point, but he just looked back steadily, unashamed. Hermione continued. "Anything we're not transferring back to the office needs to be Vanished, and that wing of the house needs to be totally Muggle-safe before you leave. Any questions?"
With a mild feeling of revenge, Snape raised his hand. Hermione looked slightly shocked, then laughed. "I'm getting reverse déjà-vu. Yes, Professor Snape?"
"Would you object to me using the lab for a short time? There's something I'd like to work on."
Hermione's expression became one of curiosity, but she just replied, "No, that's fine. I'd be grateful if you would let Dennis here know what ingredients and so on you're using, though, so he can keep a record of it."
Snape looked properly now at the young wizard in front of him. He was slightly built, with sandy hair and an open, friendly face. Something in his eyes indicated a hidden hardness, though. Snape had only a very vague recollection of him at school, but of course remembered his older brother rather better. After all, he saw his name every day when he passed the memorial plaque in the Great Hall.
Creevey held out his hand to Snape with a smile. "Professor. It's good to see you again. Though you probably don't remember me from school – you only taught me for my first few years. I'd left by the time you returned to teaching."
Snape shook his hand and considered the young man's face again. "No, I'm afraid I don't remember you very well, but that probably indicates you were quietly competent in my classes. After all these years of teaching, the only pupils who stick in my memory are the very few who were exceedingly gifted or the regrettably larger number who were spectacularly irritating."
Creevey grinned at that. "You remember Hermione, then."
Snape glanced over at her to check she was listening. "Ye-es," he replied, lengthening the syllable significantly. "She was definitely one of the second group."
Hermione stuck her tongue out at him, while Creevey looked between the two of them uncertainly, obviously not quite sure what to make of the exchange.
"Go on, then," said Hermione. "Off to the lab with you all. I've got some explaining to do to Helen and Mrs Price."
Snape brushed Hermione's hand gently with his as he followed Creevey through the study. He didn't envy her the conversations to come. "Would you prefer me to stay with you?" he asked softly.
She shook her head with a reassuring smile. "No, I think it'll probably be easier for Helen with as few witnesses as possible. And I'm not sure Mrs Price is even going to regret the loss of her husband. Once that's done I need to head down to the police station to sort out some paperwork, so I'll meet you back here later."
Taken by a sudden, mischievous impulse, Snape raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. "Take care, wife."
Hermione smiled sweetly. "I will, darling."
Hermione had sent Ceri to get Helen and Verity and now sat waiting apprehensively in the library. She felt a twinge of regret that she'd never get the chance to explore the extensive shelves of leather-bound books; then she mentally shook herself as the door opened. Helen and Verity came in, both wearing puzzled but friendly smiles that made Hermione feel even more guilty about the relationships she was about to destroy.
"This is all very mysterious," said Helen, approaching Hermione where she stood by the fireplace. "Shall we sit?"
Hermione noted with admiration the way that Helen subtly re-asserted her position as hostess. Perhaps there was a little more steel in her character than she'd been given credit for.
Once they were seated, Hermione cleared her throat nervously. "I'm very sorry to tell you this, Helen, especially as you've been so kind this weekend, but your husband has just been arrested on charges of illegal arms trading."
Verity's hand flew to her mouth as she suppressed a gasp. Helen remained motionless, the colour draining from her now unsmiling face. She drew her eyebrows together in an expression of mild confusion as she studied Hermione's face.
"I can tell you're not joking, but I can assure you there has been some mistake. Who told you this? Who made the arrest? Where is my husband?" Helen's voice started off calm, but by the last question a tremor had entered it. Verity took her hand.
"I'm afraid there has been no mistake," responded Hermione. "I made the arrest myself, and your husband has been taken to a secure location. I work with the police and have been investigating your husband's business activities for some time. I came to your house this weekend in the hope of collecting enough evidence to arrest him, and I have been able to do so."
Helen raised her chin slightly, an expression of defiance on her face. "So am I to understand that you have lied to us this whole weekend, abusing my hospitality in order to fabricate some trumped up charges against my husband?"
Hermione winced inwardly. "My name is not Jane Eastwood, and I was never planning on entering a business partnership with Mr Markov, but I can assure you that the charges levelled against your husband are utterly genuine. Mr Price has also been arrested." She held out a small card to Helen. "If you have any questions, you can call this number."
Helen snatched the proffered card, then got to her feet, shaking off Verity's restraining hand impatiently. "I have many questions, and I shall phone my lawyer immediately. I would be grateful if you and your husbandcould leave my house as soon as possible. Good day."
She walked out swiftly, head held high. Hermione and Verity exchanged glances.
"Do you think she'll be all right?" asked Hermione.
Verity gave a brief smile. "She'll be fine until the anger wears off; then she'll be devastated, of course. She adores Yuri. I suppose there is no chance there has been a mistake?"
Hermione shook her head. "None at all."
"Well," said Verity, "I can't say I'm surprised he turned out to be a wrong 'un, as they say. And Archie Price's arrest is the best news I've had all month." She narrowed her eyes at Hermione. "I am surprised about you, though. And Steven. Does he work with you, or did you genuinely bring your husband along for the weekend?"
"He works with me, that's all," responded Hermione.
Verity smiled then. "That's most definitely not all. I've seen the way you two look at each other, never mind the fact you can't keep your hands to yourselves. You may have been lying about your identities, but there are some things you can't fake. Or disguise."
Hermione smiled back a little awkwardly. "I don't know about that, but... well, we're only just getting to know each other properly. It's too early to say what'sgoing on between us."
"You'll work it out. You strike me as an intelligent pair, though that doesn't necessarily make for the easiest of relationships." Verity stood then, smoothing her skirt. "I should go to Helen."
Hermione remembered something and stood as well, pulling the bottle marked 'Valerian' out of her pocket. She held it out to Verity. "These might help to soothe her nerves later."
Verity took the bottle and studied it. "Valerian?"
"Amongst other things. Steven may not be quite what he says he is, but he hasn't been lying about being an expert in herbal medicine. He thought these might come in useful. I hope you trust us enough to use them."
Verity nodded with a satisfied smile. "You two have done a good thing here this weekend, so yes, I trust you. Helen will thank you eventually, too." She held out a hand. "I expect this is goodbye."
Hermione took her hand to shake it. "Probably. It has been a genuine pleasure to meet you."
"You, too, whatever your name really is. Don't worry – I don't expect you to tell me," Verity continued with a slight laugh. "And give Steven – whoever – a kiss from me."
"With pleasure," responded Hermione. "Take care of yourself, and of Helen."
"I will," agreed Verity. "Goodbye." And she left the room, closing the door softly behind her.
Hermione rolled the tension out of her neck. One down; one to go.
"What!" shrieked Stacey Price at the top of her not inconsiderable voice. "What the fuck has the stupid sod done to get himself arrested?" Then she held up a hand. "No. You know what? I don't actually care. I've never asked where all his money comes from, and I'm not about to start now. And if he thinks I'm going to wait for him to get out of prison, he's got another think coming."
She frowned as she looked at Hermione assessingly. "What happens to the money, anyway?"
Hermione thought briefly. She really wasn't fond of Stacey, the avaricious little cow, but on the other hand... "Your husband's assets will be frozen as soon as the banks open tomorrow, but we can't touch anything in your name. So, I can't suggest you do this, but if, for example, you happened to transfer the cash from your joint accounts into your own account today ..." She saw realisation dawn in the other woman's eyes. Stacey may not have been the most academically gifted girl in the house, but she was certainly quick on the uptake where money was concerned.
Stacey gave a sly grin. "I can do better than that. I know where he hides all his online banking stuff. It'll piss him off no end if I clear him out." My thoughts exactly, agreed Hermione silently. It couldn't happen to a nicer man.
By the time Hermione returned to Penbryn early that afternoon, she had come to the conclusion that the worst part of her job wasn't dealing with distraught wives. It wasn't even being cursed and poisoned by Dark wizards. It was the bloody Muggle police paperwork. It wasn't enough to promise them a report later. Oh, no. At least half a dozen separate forms had to be filled in; then there were the details to be entered onto the computer. And there were even more forms today because she'd had the temerity to shoot someone. That was worth it, though. She grinned savagely as she closed the door of the Jaguar behind her.
As she approached the house, Ceri hurried down the steps to greet her. "Dr Singer asked me to keep an eye out for you. He's waiting in your bedroom."
Hermione smiled at her gratefully. "Thanks, Ceri. You've been an absolute star this weekend, you know."
Ceri beamed proudly. "Just glad to help. And don't worry about Mrs Markov – you've done her a huge favour, and she'll realise that soon."
Hermione walked across the entrance hall, looking around her one last time. Gorgeous as this house was, she couldn't wait to leave. She ran lightly up the stairs, suddenly energised again. She went into the bedroom, finding Snape looking out of the window once more. She was delighted to notice he was back in his black jeans. He turned to greet her with a quirk of his lips. "All done, wife?"
She sat heavily on the edge of the bed. "Yes, finally. Helen's devastated, Stacey's delighted to be independently wealthy, and the Muggle police are satisfied because all of their pieces of paper are correctly filled in. Did you finish your mysterious project?"
Snape came to sit next to her on the bed. "Hardly mysterious, but I wasn't sure all the ingredients would be in the lab, so I didn't want to promise anything I couldn't deliver. In the event, they were, so yes, I'm finished. Your colleagues are all done downstairs as well. They left about fifteen minutes ago."
"And? Your project was?" prompted Hermione.
"I've formulated Helen's migraine medication without the love potion ingredients. The new pills look and taste virtually identical to the originals, so the only difference she'll notice is a gradual lessening of her passion for Ivanovitch. I've entrusted Ceri with the task of switching the bottles."
Hermione leaned back on her hands and grinned at him. "You know, you're in danger of being called 'less of a bastard than you pretend to be' again."
Snape raised an eyebrow.
Hermione continued. "Seriously, though, thank you. That will really help her. I'm sure there'll be some residual affection – after all, they've been married for a few years, and at the very least she's used to having him around. But hopefully that will wane quite quickly."
"Yes," drawled Snape. "It's surprising how you get used to having the most unlikely people around." He looked at her meaningfully. Hermione smacked him lightly on the arm.
Talking of getting used to having people around...
"So," she began casually. "What are your plans for the rest of the day? Do you need to get straight back to Hogwarts?"
Snape shook his head equally casually. "Not at all. I assume you need to go back to the office with your colleagues, though."
"Oh, no. They can manage perfectly well without me for the moment. They know what needs to be done and can give me a shout at home if anything urgent comes up. No, I need to get the car back to London, then I'm planning on going to my cottage. You're welcome to join me if you can bear another car journey. You've still got some of your things at the cottage, so you can come and get them. Or I can just owl them to you if you prefer. Or you could just Apparate yourself straight to there – you don't have to wait for me..." Stop babbling, woman.
Snape looked at her, a slight smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "I'm not sure the hemp oil has totally worked its way out of your system yet. I think it would be a good idea if I kept you company for a little while longer, even if that does mean suffering your driving again."
Hermione felt sudden butterflies in her stomach as Snape looked at her. There was amusement in his eyes, but desire as well. Sweet Merlin, is he actually going to come home with me? Are we really going to do this?The anticipation was going to kill her. She stood up and smiled down at him.
"That's settled, then. Give me five minutes to change and pack my bag, then we'll be off."
In the car half an hour later, Snape was beginning to get nervous. Surprisingly, it wasn't due to the fact she kept taking her eyes off the sharply winding road to glance in his direction. No, it was because of the way her glance would skitter away again as soon as he tried to meet it. He'd pushed her too far – he knew it. He should have just Apparated straight back to Hogwarts and left her to think about what, if anything, she wanted from him. Yes, they had got very close that weekend, but it had been an intense situation, and perhaps she was having second thoughts.
He knew he wanted her absolutely, body and mind, but that didn't mean she felt the same way. Yet. If ever. Although if that desire wasn't really there, he mused, how had she silently called him that morning? He was as far from being a romantic teenage girl as it was possible to get, but he would stake his wand on it being the Vocant Amoris spell she'd used. She hadn't just silently screamed his name – she'd summoned his soul. He couldn't have resisted, even if he'd wanted to. But did she know she'd done it? He suspected not. She'd been barely conscious when he'd arrived, and surely she'd have made some reference to the spell since if she'd been aware of what she'd done.
As he studied her face, she looked over in his direction once more. This time, though, their eyes met.
"Oh, for goodness sake!" she muttered savagely, and she swung the car abruptly off the road and into a layby. She switched off the engine and flung her head back briefly against the headrest before sitting back upright, twisting slightly in her seat to face Snape.
"I can't do this," she began. Snape felt a chill in the pit of his stomach. Despite his efforts, something must have showed in his expression, for Hermione's eyes opened wide and she shook her head vigorously. "No, I don't mean that! I mean, we've been really close to something happening this weekend, and now I think something is going to happen, but I'm not totally sure, and I can't wait until we get to London to find out, and I'm usually much more articulate than this but... Can I just kiss you?"
With a leap of relief from his heart, Snape allowed a deep chuckle to escape as he leaned towards her, murmuring, "You didn't actually have to ask, you know." Then their lips met, and any doubts about what she wanted fled in that instant. She deepened the kiss with a sigh of contentment. He wrapped his arms around her to pull her closer, only to be met with an "Ouch!" of protest. He pulled back, searching her face anxiously.
"I've still got my seatbelt on! You nearly garrotted me." She grinned at him as she fumbled with the fastenings, and he felt his loosen as well. "There," she continued. "That's better. Now, where were we?"
He reached for her again, firmly pulling her until, with a little manoeuvring past gear stick and handbrake, she was (finally!) seated astride his lap. "You were about to be here," he said softly, before kissing her again, exploring her mouth, then dropping a trail of kisses down her neck, swirling his tongue on the sensitive spot beneath her ear. He remembered that one from the taxi. He heard her moan of pleasure with a feeling of satisfaction; then coherent thought fled briefly as he felt her teeth nipping at his neck and her fingers scratching lightly down the bare skin of his back under his shirt. He groaned and slid his hands from her waist and down until he found the hem of her short dress, then up under the skirt until he could caress her lace-clad arse. Am I being unreasonable to think she wore this get-up for my benefit?
Their mouths returned to explore each other urgently while their hands did the same. Hermione shifted a little, rotating her hips and pushing herself against his groin before moving back as her hands stroked down his body and began to fumble with his belt.
He moved his hands up to her shoulders then, and firmly pushed her slightly away from him, removing his mouth from hers.
"What?" she asked, rather breathlessly.
He kissed her briefly on the lips. "Much as I want you, and as you can no doubt feel, I reallywant you, our first time is definitely not going to be in the front of your car."
She grinned at him. "Well, the back seat is more traditional, but this one really doesn't offer much space. Minor design flaw."
He shook his head. "I have a much better idea. Go on; out you get."
He leaned to open the car door, and she scrambled out with him following close behind. He shut the door and muttered an incantation, then put his arms tightly around Hermione again. She looked dubiously at the wooded embankment as it plunged steeply towards the river. "I'm not sure this is a hugeimprovement."
He bent to kiss her, murmuring softly, "Have you forgotten you're a witch?" as he spun them into darkness.
I've never kissed while Apparating before, thought Hermione absently. They landed, and she continued to enjoy the kiss and the sensation of Snape's body pressed firmly against hers for a long moment before it occurred to her to wonder where they were. The light was dim, and it took a second for her to realise they were in the basement of her cottage.
She looked up into Snape's eyes with amusement. "And what exactly are we doing in my laboratory?"
A lascivious grin curled his lips as he replied, "We have an experiment to conduct. Remember?"
"Oh, yes, I remember," she responded, kissing him again enthusiastically then—
"Shit!" she exclaimed, pulling away. "Where the hell is the car? I paid no attention at all to the road and I haven't got the faintest idea where I parked!"
"About a mile outside Erwood, and the vehicle is protected by Muggle-Repelling and Concealment Charms," replied Snape airily. "Fortunately, not all of us have lost our higher brain functions."
"Not yet, maybe." She held his gaze steadily as she dropped her hands to his belt, unfastening it swiftly, then unzipping his jeans. She saw his eyes narrow slightly as she slipped her hand inside.
Well, hello. Not quite hung like a centaur, but that will do nicely.
She continued to hold his gaze as she dropped his jeans to the floor, then lowered herself in front of him.
Let's see what this does to your higher brain functions.
She heard a sharp intake of breath from him, released raggedly, then "Fuck! Have you cast a Cooling Charm on your mouth?"
"Yes – why? Don't you like it?"
"Merlin... yes... no... stop talking... put your mouth back where it was. Ah..."
Me – one: higher brain functions – nil, thought Hermione smugly.
She felt Snape's hands on her shoulders. "You'd better stop that now," he said in a slightly strangled voice, "Or I won't make it as far as the bench."
She got to her feet a little unsteadily, trailing her hands back up his body as she went. He was clad only in his shirt now.
"When did you take your boots and socks off?" she asked.
"Vanished them," he muttered, reaching for her and kissing her deeply again. He pulled her close, running his hands firmly down her back and over her buttocks as she pressed herself against him.
"You're overdressed," he said, releasing her to kiss her shoulder, then beginning to unbutton her dress. She returned the favour with his shirt. He dropped soft kisses to her breasts as he uncovered her white lace bra, pushing her dress back over her shoulders so it fell to the floor. "Much better," he murmured, before unclasping the undergarment. She slipped out of it, then pushed her knickers down and kicked them away with her shoes as he removed his shirt. Snape ran his eyes up and down her naked body unashamedly. "Beautiful" he said, with a slow smile.
"You're not so bad yourself," responded Hermione with a grin, eyeing him equally blatantly. His body was lean, but toned from exercise, and he held himself confidently under her gaze. She was briefly surprised at her own lack of embarrassment, but somehow it felt like they'd known each other intimately for a lot longer than they had.
He put one hand to the back of her neck, then paused as he leaned in to kiss her. "Contraception's taken care of," she reassured him, guessing his concern. She closed the short distance between them, pushing the full length of her body against his and raking her fingers down his back. Skin met skin everywhere, and tongues and hands caressed desperately as they both finally let their passion have full rein. He pushed her back until she felt the bench behind her, the wood pleasantly cool against her heated skin. Then he put his hands around her waist and lifted her up until she was sat on the work surface. She looked into his black eyes, slowing her breath as he gazed back. She'd never seen such adoration, or felt such heart-tugging desire.
Still with his hands round her waist, he pulled her close into him. "Now," he drawled softly. "I believe we have a hypothesis to test."
"Oh, yes," she responded as he drew her even closer. Oh, yes!
Afterwards, Hermione Apparated them up to her bedroom. Their experiment had, they both agreed, been a resounding success. Although further verification of the results would definitely be necessary.
In bed, Hermione lay with her head on Snape's chest, gently tracing circles on his abdomen in a pleasant post-coital haze. Actually, she thought, make that pre-coital. A second round would be good. Inter-coital, then. Is there such a word?
Long fingers ran idly through her hair.
"What are you thinking about now, wife?"
She was glad he was still calling her that. Generations of good feminist ancestors were spinning in their graves, but she didn't care.
"How do you know I'm thinking?"
"Well, for a start, you're conscious. And you've stopped stroking my stomach. You always go very still when you're deep in thought."
"That's extremely observant of you."
She felt him shrug slightly. "I've watched you a lot over the last couple of days. And you haven't answered my question."
She moved up so her head was next to his on the pillow and trailed her fingers softly through the sparse black hairs on his chest. "I was being silly. Semantics. I've just thought of one thing I wanted to know, though."
"This morning. Why did you come to the lab? How did you know I was in trouble?"
Bugger. I was really hoping she wouldn't ask that.
Snape's mind raced, rehearsing the explanation. Well, you remember that mythical love spell we were talking about the other day? Vocant Amoris? Apparently it's not so mythical after all. And guess what? You used it to call me earlier. So it seems that we're soul mates. Not that I'm trying to rush you into anything...
He rolled over to face her and reached out his hand to gently cup her cheek, rubbing his thumb against the soft skin. "I didn't know. I was just concerned because you'd been gone for a long time."
Hermione smiled brilliantly and mirrored his movements, caressing his face. "Well, your timing was perfect. Thank you."
And, as their lips met once more, he thought, I will tell her. One day...
(For now, at least.)