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Of Peacocks, Poetry and Red Herrings.

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Maybe somewhere in a secret chamber, deep in the heart of the Department of Mysteries, a phoenix-feather quill dipped into a tiny pot of ink made from ground harpy's bone and inscribed the name of Severus Snape upon a parchment crafted from the skin of a sacrificial calf that died a millennium ago. Or perhaps the portraits of long-dead Headmasters and Headmistresses intoned the Parseltongue hiss of his name in an arcane ritual. Most likely, knowing Hogwarts, Peeves the poltergeist chanted, 'Snape! Snape! Severus Snape! A greasy git who wore a cape! Tee hee, another one bites the dust, tra la!', and that was the acknowledgement of his passing.

The trivia of everyday magic, however, is underpinned by something old and deep and wild, in the way that flashy chemical reactions are controlled by the vast and subtle laws of the universe. That something is Sorcery, and those who utilise it are named Unspeakables. They know of powers before whom Tom Riddle was nothing but a ripple in the stream of passing witches and wizards, and Albus Dumbledore was a boy perched upon the grassy bank, dropping stones to divert the waters for a short time in the direction of his fancy, before he, too, was swept away by the flood of passing time.

(Unspeakables are prone to the overuse of metaphor and simile; something to do with being bored out of their skulls by the tedium of interdepartmental paperwork; hence their liking for convoluted sentences and their interest in Severus Snape.)

Hardly had Snape gasped out what he assumed to be his final breath and dribbled his last drops of blood onto the floor, when some overachieving bastard popped into the shack, slapped a burningly cold poultice onto his torn neck, poured blood-replenishing potion down his throat, whispered a charm that filled his lungs with oxygen, spelled his heart to stutter back into life, and made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

oooOOOooo

'So you have no intention of looking for my wife,' Lucius Malfoy said with as much quiet menace as he could summon, being somewhat out of practice on the intimidation front.

'Correct,' Senior Auror Snelstone agreed, stoically refusing to be menaced. 'She's an adult witch with a functioning wand, capable of looking after herself. If she hasn't turned up in a week, come back and we'll open a case file.'

'She hasn't left the grounds of the manor since the war,' Lucius said, his diction growing increasingly more precise in direct proportion to his anger. 'She had no reason to leave, so I believe that she has been abducted –'

'Proof?' Snelstone asked laconically, flipping over a form on the desk and scrawling his signature on the bottom of the page. 'Have you received a ransom demand, or, come to think of it, a suicide note or writ for divorce?'

Lucius took a deep breath, turned on his heel, and marched out, gripping his cane so hard that his fingernails made dents in the silver head. Snelstone yawned, scratched his armpit, and Summoned his coffee mug.

At the back of the room, in a region far removed from the tea and coffee station, the windows, the loos, or the general public, two Aurors made eye contact, came to a silent agreement, and lowered their heads again before Snelstone noticed.

Constant vigilance was not Senior Auror Snelstone's forte.

oooOOOooo

A witch sneaked into a pub. Being a highly intelligent witch, she did not appear sneaky or guilty or even particularly dangerous. She was a pretty witch, in that brisk, windswept fashion that is peculiar to Efficient Females who Get Things Done. She had begun her Getting Things Done career very young, and she was now extremely good at it. She had also learned to say no when asked to do other people's homework for them, which was why two Aurors were preparing to bribe her with dinner and a decent bottle of wine.

‘Hello, boys,' Hermione said, sliding onto the bench beside Harry and nodding at Ron, who was holding up a wine bottle in an encouraging manner. 'What are you after now?'

'Dinner,' Ron said without missing a beat. ‘The pie of the day is steak and ale.'

'I'd better have a glass of the red, then,' she said, Summoning a fresh wineglass.

'Why should we be after anything?' Harry enquired, as Ron signalled to the barman for three plates of pie, mash and vegetables. 'Why can't we just invite our best mate out for a meal?'

'Please,' Hermione sighed, 'don't take the mickey. Tuesday is not your usual night-out-with-Hermione night; Tuesday is your duelling club night. If you're prepared to miss duelling club, something important must have come up.'

'Yeah, well, how important it is remains to be seen.' Harry leaned back in his seat as three large plates floated down onto the table, followed by knives, forks, and a jug of gravy.

'After dinner,' Ron stated, sniffing at the fragrant steam with a beatific expression. Harry and Hermione had learned the folly of coming between Ron and his food, and were not inclined to argue.

oooOOOooo

Pleasantly full of Tom's missus' excellent pie, Hermione sipped her wine as Harry described Lucius Malfoy's unproductive visit to the Auror office.

She held up a finger for quiet, as if listening to a voice inaudible to the others, then shook her head.

'Nope, sorry, not going to help. My conscience isn't even prickling. You two are the Aurors. You're paid to do this stuff, and I'm not. I can't get past the fact that the Malfoys stood by and watched while Bellatrix tortured me.'

'Narcissa saved my life,' Harry pointed out.

'But Lucius tried to end it first.'

'Draco's turned over a new leaf,' Ron remarked. 'He's on the Knockturn Alley regeneration committee, and he paid for all the repairs to Hogwarts' Great Hall.'

'He's just trying to worm his way back into high society.'

'If Lucius had been a Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, or Ravenclaw, Snelstone would have put a team of Aurors on the case right away,' Harry said. 'That's blatant discrimination against Slytherins.'

'Bastards,' she muttered. 'All right. Why me?'

'We've been asked to look into Narcissa's disappearance by an Unspeakable,' Harry told her. 'He specifically asked for your help.'

'Why?' Hermione asked, 'or rather, who? I don't know any Unspeakables.'

'We do,' Ron said morosely, 'and the trouble is, we owe the bastard.'

'That was silly of you.'

'You owe him, too,’ Harry said.

'Neither of you is making any sense at all,' Hermione complained.

'Can't explain here,' Ron told her. 'Not allowed to say anything in public. Bloody Department of Mysteries Unauthorised Disclosure Jinx.'

'I'll settle the bill,' Harry said, getting to his feet, ‘and then we'll go back to the Ministry.'

Hermione muttered, 'I'm getting a bad attack of déjà vu,' as she Summoned her cloak from the coat rack.

'Just you wait,' Ron told her with a degree of relish. 'It'll all go to hell, and there'll be Horcruxes and camping before you know it.'

oooOOOooo

Hermione Granger was at a loss for words. Harry and Ron exchanged grins while she gaped.

'No, Miss Granger,' Snape sighed, 'you don't know everything.'

'You didn't even TELL ME HE WAS ALIVE!' she bellowed at her friends, who looked unapologetic.

'We weren't allowed,' Ron said. 'Unauthorised Disclosure Jinx, and all that.’

'Hold on,' Hermione said, her brain kicking back into gear, 'UDJ's can't be cast around willy-nilly. You'd need high-level clearance to apply them to Aurors. Don't tell me Kingsley put them on you?'

'I did,' Snape snapped. 'When you've quite finished waving your hand around and displaying your legal knowledge, perhaps we can get on with the purpose of this exercise?'

'You cast jinxes on two Aurors?' Hermione demanded indignantly. 'Are you allowed to do that?'

'Miss Granger,' he said in the softly poisonous voice that had haunted her dreams for years, 'Nowadays I do whatever I fucking well please.'

Hermione was stunned into silence for the second time in five minutes, which was probably a record.

'Lucius Malfoy reported the disappearance of his wife to the Aurors' office,' Harry explained, 'They refused to take him seriously. Ron looked up Narcissa's file and found a note that it'd already been signed out to an Unspeakable. I asked around the Department of Mysteries and the next thing we knew, we were seconded to the department for a’—he made quotation marks in the air—“special project”.'

'Thank you, Potter,' Snape said drily. 'Lucius asked me to help find Narcissa. The last thing I need is to trip over you three at every turn, so I'll put you where I can keep an eye on you.'

'Hold on. I'm not answerable to the Aurors' office!' Hermione exclaimed indignantly.

Snape raised an eyebrow. 'You do work for the Ministry, do you not?'

'I'm assistant clerk to the Wizengamot!'

'Exactly. For the duration of this project, you've been seconded and you work for me.'

Hermione drew herself up and folded her arms. 'You can't do that, Snape, I've got reports outstanding and an exam on international magical law in three weeks' time!'

'Miss Granger, you'll find that I can,' Snape said.

'Hermione.' Harry put a hand on her arm and something in his voice drained all the indignation out of her. 'Hermione, he can have whatever he needs, and if he needs us, he's got us.'

'Because he's Snape,' she said, resignedly, 'and you're right, we owe him.'

'He heads the Department of Mysteries,' Ron muttered, 'so he outranks everyone except Kingsley.'

Snape smirked at her.

Snape one, Hermione nil.

oooOOOooo

Narcissa Malfoy's file landed on her desk with a thud.

Hermione sighed and flipped open the cover. '”Play to your strengths,” they said. “You're so good at research,” they said. Huh!'

'So I play chess and eat stuff,' Ron mused, 'Snape swoops, smirks, and oozes sarcasm, and Harry's cornered the market in noble self-sacrifice.'

Hermione snorted. 'I heard through the grapevine that Harry still does a nice line in rants.'

Harry had made his feelings known when Snelstone accused him of going over his head and using his boy-who-lived status to get his own way. Harry responded with accusations of anti-Slytherin bias; the resulting row went all the way up the ranks until the head of MLE stepped in and threatened to suspend anyone who failed to obey direct orders without a damn good reason.

'You understand strategy and tactics,' Hermione reminded her friend.

Ron scowled. ’I don't like the feel of this,' he said, and Hermione sat up and paid attention. 'They've put the Golden Trio on the case, haven't they?'

'We've landed all the responsibility again, and we'll carry the can if we fail.'

'Yeah, Snelstone expects us to fail. Harry and I have only recently qualified, and you're a lawyer, not an investigating Auror. Our only advantage is Snape, and I'm not sure how well we can work with him. If he starts ordering us around and treating us like idiots, we can't use our strengths at all.'

'Why is he handling the case anyway?'

'Excellent point,' Harry said, striding into Hermione's office and closing the door. 'Why didn't he send it back to the Aurors' office and insist on it being done properly? He has the authority.'

'Perhaps it involves the Department of Mysteries,' Ron suggested, 'or there's something going on that he doesn't want made public.'

'It'd better not be Horcruxes,' Harry muttered. Hermione and Ron exchanged a glance and shuddered.

'It does not involve Horcruxes.' The silky voice came from behind them.

Hermione registered that Harry automatically placed himself between his friends and a perceived threat.

'Snape,' Ron snapped, 'this is a private conversation.'

'Lesson one,' Snape murmured, gliding out of the corner as if coalescing from the shadows, 'there is no such thing as a private conversation in the Ministry unless you cast heavy-duty wards. If I treat you like an idiot, Weasley, it is because you act like one.' Snape settled himself on the visitor's chair and waited.

Harry and Ron conjured a chair each and sat down with sulky expressions.

Hermione, however, felt a surge of anticipation and excitement that she resolved to analyse later. She warded the door, then glanced at Snape and cast Homenum Revelio before raising her chin and facing him.

He gave her a brief nod. Condescending bastard.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione had one of those conversations that happen with neither voice nor Legilimency, simply deep knowledge of each other. Ron nodded. Hermione saw Snape's eyes narrow.

'You heard our conversation, then,' Ron said.

'Stating the obvious, Weasley.'

'Just summarising our position,' Ron responded amiably. 'Come on, I'm the strategist but I can't plan a thing without info. You can take over and run this case but you'll be wasting your resources.'

Snape smirked. 'Point accepted, Weasley. Potter? What can you offer to our enterprise?'

'Fame and fortune,' Harry said mockingly, and Snape astonished them all with a sharp bark of laughter.

‘Oh, very good. You can open doors that the rest of us can't. Anything else?'

'I don't back down,’ Harry replied.

'A possible weakness.'

'My Protego held off Voldemort,' Harry snapped. 'How many people possess that level of power?'

'Perhaps you have learned to hold your temper,' Snape said with a shrug. 'Miss Granger, I'm sure you can regurgitate every book on law in the Ministry library.'

'Do you mind?' Hermione said frostily. 'You gave Ron and Harry the benefit of the doubt!'

'Go on, then,’ he said. ‘Astound me.'

Hermione glimpsed something glittering in his dark eyes and reined in her indignation. He was either winding them all up for his own amusement, or testing their ability to control their emotions. He was still a bastard.

'I know a lot about the law and the workings of the Wizengamot,' she said, 'and I see connections, parallels, and coincidences. I can easily negotiate the Muggle world. I cast excellent wards. My defences are strong. And I believe that Slytherins deserve as much respect as everyone else.'

'Even Slytherins who have tried to kill you?'

Hermione glared, but snapped out a 'Yes!'

'Where do you suggest that we begin?' Snape asked. He wordlessly Transfigured his seat into an armchair and sank back into it.

Hermione slapped her hand down onto the file of reports about Narcissa Malfoy.

Snape's eyebrow elevated at her.

'Why does Narcissa have such a large file?' she asked. 'It's twice the size of Lucius's file, and he was a Death Eater.'

'That's a fair question,' said Harry. 'Have you had a look at it yet, Hermione?'

'Don't bother,' Snape said laconically. 'Anything truly useful has been extracted.'

'Will you let me have it?' Hermione asked with an edge to her voice.

'No.'

They looked at him and waited. He smirked. 'I'd hand it over if I could. It was removed before I joined the department.'

'Oh shit,' Ron muttered, 'this goes deeper than the Aurors not liking Slytherins.'

'Exactly.'

'That's why you wanted us.'

'Mr. Weasley, why did you never exhibit this level of acumen when you were in school?'

'You saw what you expected to see,' Harry said, before Ron could respond.

Snape went utterly still for a moment, and Hermione's hand tightened on her wand. Then something in his posture softened, as if the tension drained out of him, and he tipped back his head to meet Harry's defiant stare.

'Yes, I did,' Snape acknowledged, and Hermione snorted. His attention switched to her; a scrutiny as intense as a searchlight. 'Something amuses you, Miss Granger?'

'Who are you and what've you done with Severus Snape?'

'No doubt he's in the same place as the prim, polite, and respectful Hermione Granger.'

'I'm starting to think we could work together,' Harry remarked. ‘Albeit with a lot of effort.'

'I'll give it a go,' Ron agreed. 'Anyone else fancy a cup of tea and a bun while we plan?'

Harry wandered over to get out the mugs and charm the kettle into heating itself. 'Tea, anyone?'

'White, two sugars,' Snape said. 'You work best by doing things, don't you, Potter, rather than sitting around?'

'Yes, I do.' He Summoned a plate and Hermione's stash of cakes. 'A slice of ginger flapjack or a currant bun, Unspeakable Snape?'

Hermione was unaccountably delighted by the grace with which Snape rose to Harry's subtle challenge.

'Currant bun,' he said, 'Auror Potter.'

oooOOOooo

When in doubt, Hermione made lists. If Harry did his thinking on the move, she did hers with a quill, a pot of ink and a roll of parchment. She drew a family tree: Narcissa and her sisters, Lucius and Draco, the Black cousins. She flicked through the files, starting with Narcissa's Hogwarts exam results (outstanding at Transfiguration and Charms, proficient at everything else,) her marriage, her friends, and the birth of her only child.

'Why were the Aurors so interested in her?' she asked, thumbing through a bundle of reports. The office of Magical Law Enforcement reported on her elves, her shopping habits, her friends, her interests (fashion, playing chess, reading and antique books, gardening and flower arranging).

'Attempts were made during the first war to recruit her as a spy,' Snape said. He shrugged. 'You won't find that in the files, I only know because she told me. She refused, of course.'

'She could hardly be expected to spy on her own husband,' Hermione agreed, albeit reluctantly.

'Indeed. However, once the Dark Lord took over the Ministry, the fact that she had been considered as a potential spy against him would mean that she was under suspicion. It was fortunate for her that the relevant pages had already been removed.'

'When she lied to Voldemort, it was because her family was more important to her than anything,' Harry said. 'The only person who mattered to her was Draco. She wouldn't just walk out on her family without a word.'

'Absolutely not. Even if she and Lucius had fallen out—which he assures me, they haven't—she would keep in contact with Draco.'

'We're agreed. She didn't leave voluntarily.' Hermione scratched a note on her parchment.

'If she left at all,' Ron said with a shrug. 'We've only got Lucius's word for it.'

Snape scowled. 'What're you suggesting, Weasley?'

'I'm thinking like an Auror,' Ron told him, rather sharply. 'Isn't that what you want us to do?'

Snape leaned back in his seat and folded his hands over his narrow waist. 'Very well, Auror Weasley, what is your next move?'

Ron took out his pocket watch, examined it and replaced it in his robes.

'Dinner,' he said. 'D'you know a decent pub in North Wiltshire?'

oooOOOooo

The White Horse served basic, pub food. Hermione opted for scampi and chips, on the principle that they came out of a freezer and were hard to mess up.

'The ale's drinkable, but don't trust the cider,' Snape warned his companions.

'Is that the voice of experience?' Ron asked, earning a scornfully lifted eyebrow.

'I'll have a gin and tonic,' Hermione said quickly, scooting along the bench into the corner. She, Harry, and Ron had all Transfigured their robes into casual Muggle clothes before Apparating to the location provided by Snape, in a little village near Cirencester.

She had assumed that Snape would turn up in a suit, and was having difficulty coming to terms with seeing him in black jeans and a leather jacket with the scuffed, softened appearance of a favourite much-used garment. Snape seemed smaller without his billowing robes. His face appeared more open and vulnerable, Hermione realised that his hair had been trimmed into a deliberately casual style rather than left to grow into a greasy curtain. She also realised that she was watching him, and that he had noticed, and she looked away, trying not to blush.

Ron devoured a large steak while Harry and Snape had the special of the day, chicken korma.

'We could have gone straight to Malfoy Manor,' Harry remarked.

'But then I couldn't tell you about my little chat with Gloria,' Ron said smugly. Ron's relationship with the Aurors' office archivist was the source of some amusement in the force, as she seemed to think that he missed Molly and needed mothering.

'I reckon she wants you as her toy-boy,' Harry muttered.

'You're just jealous. Apparently, our pal Tullius Snelstone authorised continued raids on Malfoy Manor.'

Harry's posture straightened subtly. 'I didn't know that.'

'Obviously we weren't meant to know, mate.'

'Because they knew we'd object!'

‘Well, you would, anyway,' Ron muttered. 'I don't feel terribly sorry for Lucius.'

'Narcissa didn't deserve constant harassment, Ron, and neither did Draco,’ Harry replied. ‘Even you must admit that.'

Ron gave a shrug of acquiescence.

Hermione took out the notepad and pencil that substituted for her parchment and quill in the Muggle world. 'So we know the Aurors raided the Manor recently. Did she give you any dates, Ron?'

He shook his head. 'She didn't have them on hand, and I didn't want word to get back to Snelstone that I was nosing around.'

'Lucius will tell us anyway,' Snape said. 'I've indulged you this far, Weasley, so perhaps you'd care to enlighten us. Why are we here?'

'I want to look ‘round the place,' Ron said.

'Really?' There was a world of scepticism in Snape's scowl. 'Do you wish to wait until after dark?'

'No, now'll do.'

As they exited the pub, Hermione wondered when her friend had transformed from a gangling diffident teen, into a competent and confident Auror, and why she had only just noticed.

oooOOOooo

Malfoy Manor had only the most perfunctory of wards, a condition of Lucius's parole. The golden limestone mansion was set like a pearl amid the lush green of lawns and trees. Two white peacocks screamed at one another, flapping back and forth across a lake that reflected the setting sun.

'Very pretty,' Harry said dubiously. 'It's your call, Ron.'

'Let's have a wander around the back,' Ron said. It was hard to imagine that five years ago, this aristocratic abode had been under the command of one of the most evil wizards who had ever lived.

The rear of the manor appeared as immaculate as the front. A wide terrace holding rattan furniture, an ornate conservatory, and sweeping flowerbeds all contributed to the display of opulence.

'It's all so bloody pretentious,' Ron sighed. 'Go on, Harry, do the honours.'

Harry nodded, took out his wand and sighted along it, whispering what sounded like a very complex charm. He then held out his hand completely flat, placed the wand on it and said 'Point me.' The wand spun wildly.

'Hm,' Harry said. 'I'll try shrinking the time parameter down to a single day.'

Harry repeated the process. The wand failed to move at all. He tried again. This time, it jerked and quivered, as if straining to take off on its own. 'Bingo,' he said softly. 'You're right, Ron.'

'Well?' Snape snapped, 'Potter, do explain.'

'I've done a search on the last magic that Narcissa cast within the wards.'

'It wouldn't have worked for me,' Ron said, 'but Harry's powerful enough to force the charm through all the residual traces that she left around the place.'

'It's a useful charm at crime scenes, although it only works if you know who to tune it to.' Harry set off in the direction indicated by his wand, the others trailing behind. 'It's related to Priori Incantatem, of course.'

The wand led them to a dahlia bush bearing huge, shaggy mauve flowers. Harry gave an exclamation of surprise and stepped back, Levitating something out of the shadows. Hermione recognised an old-fashioned wooden gardener's trug. In the light of their wands, she saw that it contained a pair of dragon-hide gardening gloves and a bunch of wilted chrysanthemums.

'So she was gardening immediately before she disappeared,' Ron remarked. One of the peafowl called suddenly, a strange, honking dual-note cry, as harsh as the bray of a donkey.

Harry peered down into the trug, and his expression hardened. 'Ah-ha,' he said, and lifted out a pale, slender wand.

oooOOOooo

'Master Lucius asks that Master Snape and his friends join him in the library.' An elf intercepted them as Snape led the way towards one of the doors into the manor.

'Thank you, Doopy,' Snape replied. The elf bowed and vanished. White peafowl strutted along the terrace in the dusk. One of the smaller birds that Hermione assumed was a female, approached warily then darted away, chased by a dominant male, his extravagant plumage flickering and billowing behind him. 'Ridiculous birds,' Snape muttered, 'I don't know what Lucius sees in them.'

'He eats them?' Ron wondered aloud, and Snape snorted, possibly with amusement.

As they entered the house, Harry reached out and drew Hermione's hand through his arm, in a silent and much appreciated gesture of support. Ron, who was not invariably oblivious, moved to bring up the rear. Snape raised an eyebrow at them, but made no comment, and Hermione wondered if Malfoy had told him what had happened to her here. Snape led the way along a panelled corridor where blond portraits whispered and pointed.

The library was—well, it was a library, and a large, old, well-maintained one—and had it been anywhere else, Hermione would have been fascinated. Here she felt edgy and unnerved, anticipating bad memories, if not worse.

Lucius Malfoy got to his feet, all suave elegance in his expensive robes and gleaming hair, and she decided that he desperately wanted to be rude, but because that was out of the question, he would settle for displaying sufficient wealth and refinement to make them feel inadequate. She was damned if she would let him succeed.

'Good evening,' he said. 'Welcome to Malfoy Manor.'

'Thank you, Mr. Malfoy,' she said, releasing Harry's arm, 'although, sadly, under unfortunate circumstances.' There, let him top that for icy civility.

'Severus,' Malfoy turned to his friend, 'how good of you to come, and with such illustrious assistants.'

Snape and Malfoy faced each other across a priceless Persian carpet. Clad in his opulent robes, Malfoy seemed like a big plush cat with his claws carefully sheathed, a predator ready to pounce. Snape was smaller, sleek in his form-fitting black, and as unashamedly deadly as a cobra. He smirked.

'Is that what you think they are? Move with the times, Lucius.'

Malfoy went utterly still for a moment, then sighed theatrically. 'So Draco says. Take a seat, everyone, and allow me to offer you a night-cap. Dipsy!' A small elf popped into the room and bowed. 'Do tell her whatever drinks you'd prefer. Will you join me in a brandy, Severus?'

Snape nodded, seating himself on one of the chairs clustered around a table to one side of the vast fireplace. Hermione was pleased to hear Harry echo her request for tea, and Ron asked for hot chocolate.

'Well,' Malfoy remarked, sitting down and rearranging his robes fussily around his legs, 'I was startled to detect your presence here tonight. I thought that I was in for yet another unannounced visit from our esteemed Department of Magical Law Enforcement.' He treated Harry to a humourless little smile.

Harry blinked at him, green eyes guileless behind his spectacles. 'Not a raid, as such, Mr. Malfoy, although I do have a question for you.' He reached inside his jacket. 'Do you recognise this?'

Hermione doubted if Malfoy's reaction could be faked. His grey eyes darkened as the pupils dilated in shock, and he paled visibly.

'That is my wife's wand,' he said. 'Where did you get it?'

'It was here in the garden,’ Harry replied, ‘with a pair of dragon-hide gloves in a wooden basket thing.'

'A trug,' Malfoy said distantly, his gaze unfocused. 'She must have been gardening…'

'She was gathering chrysanthemums. Did you question the elves after you realised that she was missing?'

'Of course.' Malfoy's attention snapped back from elsewhere. 'They know nothing. They were nowhere near her at the time. She preferred to do her gardening by hand, alone. She said it allowed her time to think.' His lip lifted into a sneer. 'We've a limited number of elves now, since many accompanied Draco and his wife to their new abode. Our few elves were busy inside the house.'

'Your idea of "few" might not tally with most people's,' Snape remarked. 'Did she say anything, give any indication of anything out of the ordinary?'

'She was planning a new composition…' he sighed, and his tone changed, sounding heavy and tired. 'My wife's passion is for poetry. She likes to work in the garden while she muses; the gardening gets her out into the fresh air and sunlight, the poetry gives her an outlet for her emotions and her creativity. She had been reading Roman poetry—in the original Latin, of course—and she said that it struck a chord with her, so she felt inspired to try something new.'

'I see,' Harry said. 'The wand was tucked in among the flowers in the trug. Did she usually keep it there?'

'Yes, she has done that ever since the time that it fell from her pocket as she was digging years ago.'

'We looked around the area and there was no sign of a struggle. Would you object if we cast Priori Incantatem on the wand?'

'I suppose not,' Malfoy muttered.

'Shall I?' Snape said, taking the wand between thumb and forefinger. He cast the spell.

The wand divulged a delicate severing charm for cutting flowers, spells for levitation, composting, digging, and planting.

'Nothing of any help,' Ron muttered.

'Didn't you notice the wards give the alarm, Mr. Malfoy?' Harry asked.

'I am allowed to leave my property, Auror Potter. I run businesses in London and Hogsmeade, and I spent much of that day meeting with clients and with my solicitor. I will tell them to confirm the times if you wish.'

Harry shook his head.

'Did she have personal enemies?' Ron asked. 'Rival poets, perhaps?'

Malfoy's sneer could have rivalled Snape's. 'Don't be ridiculous, Weasley!'

Hermione saw Ron's freckled skin darken slightly, but all he said was, 'Just investigating every angle, Mr. Malfoy.' Hermione felt proud of him. If anything, Ron's failure to react left Malfoy looking slightly wrong-footed.

'Do you have any ideas, Lucius?' Snape asked his friend. 'Anything at all that might help?'

'Disaffected Death Eaters consider her a traitor,' Malfoy stated, 'and so do the Aurors. I would not care to hazard a guess as to which faction took her or whether they were working in tandem.'

'Are you saying that you don't trust us to find her? Would you prefer me to find someone else to help?'

'I trust you, Severus,' Malfoy muttered, 'I trust you.'

oooOOOooo

'He's changed,' Hermione said, throwing herself down onto the sofa and accepting a glass of wine from Ginny.

'Who, Malfoy?'

'No, he's the same snide old snake he ever was, hugely resentful of us. I meant Snape.'

'Snape?' Ginny frowned in puzzlement, 'd'you mean old Professor Snape? Dead-by-snake-attack Snape?'

'Ah.' Hermione stared at her friend. 'No UDJ.'

'What?'

'How odd. Severus Snape's alive and kicking—thriving, in fact, working in the Department of Mysteries. Ron and Harry knew he survived, but they're not allowed to tell anyone due to an Unauthorised Disclosure Jinx. Obviously he hasn't cast one on me; I wonder why not?'

Ginny sat next to her and sipped her own wine.

'Perhaps he forgot?'

'Snape? Really?'

'Probably not. Perhaps he fancies you?'

'Ha ha.'

'How's he changed?'

'Had a bath and a decent hair-cut, wears jeans and a leather jacket.'

'You're kidding!' Ginny bounced up onto her feet. 'I've got to see this! Come on, show me, I'll get Harry's Pensieve.'

Hermione humoured her, extracting the memory of Snape drinking his pint in the Wiltshire pub, that moment in which he watched her, watching him. Ginny dived in, emerging a couple of minutes later looking astounded.

'Oh my god,' she said, 'wow.'

'What?'

'Just wow. You remember Sirius Black, and his cool bad-boy act?'

'Ye-es…'

‘Well, Snape's sort of got it, too.'

'What d'you mean, sort of?' For some reason, Hermione felt rather defensive on Snape's behalf.

'Sirius postured in his biker's outfit to impress people—Mum thought he was a terrible influence on Harry! Snape's different. He's not posturing, he's for real.'

Hermione stared at her, turned, leaned into the Pensieve and relived the memory, except that this time, she was able to put aside her embarrassment. She saw Snape watching her as a woman, not as a teacher or as her boss, but as a man, covertly, but with more than a little interest.

He was a smallish wizard, no matter how he had loomed over her childhood. He was shorter than Ron, no broader than Harry, but he was indisputably masculine in the square width of his shoulders, his tapered torso, and the strength in his jaw. In his innate elegance, she could sense both his power and his self-discipline.

She emerged to find Ginny grinning at her.

'Well? Just realised he's a bloke, have you?'

'Fuck, yes,' Hermione whispered.

‘Oh, yeah,' Ginny whispered back, 'indeed. For an ageing rocker, he's sex on legs. Who'd have thought it?'

oooOOOooo

Now she had to face Snape and try not to reveal her awareness that he was not only male, but disturbingly sexy.

How humiliating.

She tried not to look at him, but caught herself darting little glances when his attention was elsewhere. Why was he still in jeans and a casual shirt, with that soft leather jacket slung over his shoulder? Why couldn't he revert to bastard Professor Snape, so she could turn back into polite sensible Miss Granger, who admired him from afar for his intelligence and his courage? Why did she have to keep noticing the fit of his jeans over his narrow hips and the wicked velvet rasp underlying his smooth baritone? The scars on his throat were silvery-pale, only visible from certain angles. She wondered if they felt smooth. If she licked them, would they taste salty? Damn.

'What's the matter, Hermione?' Damn Harry, too, for having grown up into an intelligent and empathetic man.

'I'm going to kill your wife,' she muttered, because she'd end up telling him anyway.

'Don't do that. I'll miss her. What's she done?'

'Pointed out something that I can't stop thinking about.'

'Ah.' Harry glanced to where Snape and Ron were bending over a map of Wiltshire. He turned around, so that his back was to Snape, and leaned against her desk and folded his arms. 'He fancies you, you know.'

'Don't joke about it,' she groaned.

'I'm serious. He can't stop looking at you when you have your back to him.' His eyes crinkled in amusement. 'Your bum, I mean.'

'Shut up, Harry,' she said between gritted teeth, 'I'll never be able to look him in the face again. He's a bloody Legilimens!'

'If I were you,' he whispered leaning close, 'I'd look him straight in the eye and imagine yourself naked in bed with him.'

'Harry!' She gave him a shove and he laughed, making Ron look round.

'Oy, you two, we think we're onto something. Stop messing around and come here.'

Hermione and Harry joined them at Snape's desk.

'Ley lines,' Ron said, using his wand to trace out faint lines on the map. 'This one runs through Avebury, another through Stonehenge, centres of magical regeneration and all that. Look where they cross.'

'Malfoy Manor,' Harry breathed. 'Is that why Voldemort made his base there?'

'One of his many motives, yes,' Snape said.

'Rituals are usually in Latin, and Narcissa was into Latin poetry,' Harry said. 'Could she have used an old ritual that tapped into the Ley lines' node? Something that might have got out of control?'

'We need to ask Lucius,' Snape said, folding the map and tucking it into his jeans back pocket, which pulled the fabric tight for a moment. Hermione tried not to peek, she really did. 'However, I know a spell to ascertain whether a node has recently been disturbed.'

'That's dangerous,' Hermione protested, recalling Flitwick's lessons on earth magic charms.

'The risk is negligible if one has sufficient control,' Snape said, 'plus a very powerful anchor. I've done this before.'

'With Voldemort?' Ron asked and Snape glared.

'Albus,' he snapped. 'There is a node beneath Hogwarts. We checked it for the Dark Lord's influence; I did the casting and the Headmaster anchored me.'

'So you want Harry as the anchor,' Ron said, and Snape nodded.

'You two will cast protective wards in case the Dark Lord left a parting gift and Narcissa has fallen foul of it.'

'Let's go, then,' Harry said.

oooOOOooo

Two peacocks were chasing a female, pecking at her flapping wings as she scuttled across the lawn.

'For Merlin's sake, I don't know what's got into them!' Lucius said irritably, sending an elf to chivvy the males away from the bedraggled hen. 'It isn't even the mating season.'

'Have they been upset since your wife disappeared?' Hermione asked and he cocked his head.

'Yes, I suppose they have.'

'So something happened to unsettle the peacocks,' she said, conjuring her notes and adding to them. 'What might do that?'

Possibly for the first time ever, Lucius Malfoy looked at her with something approaching respect. It made her scalp tingle.

'They were very disturbed by the presence of the Dark Lord's familiar,' he said quietly.

'Could Narcissa have accidentally called up something nasty when tinkering with the Ley lines?' Harry asked.

'She is not an idiot, Potter!' Malfoy snapped, instantly negating the sympathy that Hermione had begun to feel for the man.

'Didn't say she was,' Harry said airily, 'but accidents happen, don't they? You know, old diaries turn up, basilisks escape and terrorise people…'

Fortunately Snape arrived with Draco, distracting both Lucius and Harry.

'Thank Merlin for that,' Ron muttered to Hermione. 'Thought we were going to have to separate them. Ah, hello, Ferret,' he said, at which Snape spun around and glared with full professorial force.

'Weasel,' Draco acknowledged coolly.

'Sorry about your Mum. We're doing everything we can.'

Draco nodded, looking glum and anxious. 'I still don't understand it. Why haven't we even had a ransom note?'

'Is there anything you can think of…?' Ron asked kindly.

Snape's bewilderment was almost endearing.

'Between them, they run an international Magical chess tournament,' Hermione explained, 'Ron manages the Ministry's squad, Draco heads the Diagon Alley team. They bonded over a chess board.'

'Draco never mentioned it,' Snape said. 'He plays very well. Narcissa taught him.'

Hermione glanced around. Lucius strode ahead, swiping angrily at fallen leaves with his cane. Harry slouched along keeping his distance from their host, while Ron and Draco walked together, talking quietly.

A peacock gave its high-pitched scream, echoed by another nearby, then a hen responded with her two-toned honking cry.

'What's upsetting the birds?' she wondered, 'Lucius says that they've been agitated since Narcissa vanished. It feels important for some reason.'

She was rather pleased that he did not dismiss her comment, but nodded, his dark gaze pensive.

'If the Ley lines have been seriously disordered, the birds might be picking up on the magical flux. We need to cast that charm.'

oooOOOooo

Snape identified the node at the centre of the intersecting Ley lines.

'To the east of the house,' he muttered, 'In the middle of Narcissa's rose bed. Miss Granger, Weasley, ward us now. Potter, cast when you're ready.'

Harry nodded, shuffling his feet into the soil and scowling, then his expression cleared. Snape faced him, nodded, and waited as Harry whirled his wand around above his head. A golden noose of spell-light flared out, dropping down over Snape's head to settle around his narrow torso, sinking into his clothing until it vanished. He gave a little shudder, then seemed to collect himself and began his casting.

Harry stood braced, clasping his wand with both hands, pointing unerringly at Snape, as if anchoring him on an invisible rope. Hermione and Ron watched as Snape cast the charm that would dive down into the current of magic flowing through the Ley lines, taking its measure by pushing into it, risking a violent reaction if Voldemort had introduced instability by tinkering with it.

The earth beneath Snape's feet seemed to ripple, as if undergoing a localised earthquake, and then a gout of brilliant green flame erupted less than a yard from his back. Harry immediately flung out his free hand and a howling wind blasted the flame sideways, away from Snape, who ignored it, intent upon his complex charm. Harry’s wand rose and there was a boom like thunder, and Hermione felt the ground shake.

Snape staggered, but the link with Harry held.

For five seconds, Snape steadied himself as the ground writhed around his feet. Then he slashed his wand downwards, creating a hollow grating roar, and everything settled. The green flame sank back into the earth, and Harry made a sharp upwards flick to disconnect his magic from Snape's.

'Well,' Ron said, letting his part of the protective wards drop, 'that was dramatic.'

'The Dark Lord tried to bleed off power from the node. He left a gash that is healing slowly,' Snape said, his voice as smooth and impassive if he had done nothing out of the ordinary, 'A shame that he didn't blow his own head off and save us all a great deal of effort. There has been no attempt to interfere with it since then.'

'That's eliminated one line of enquiry,' Harry said.

'Narcissa will be horrified when she sees what you've done to her roses,' Lucius snapped, indicating the scorched and uprooted bushes that marked where the flame had emerged. He marched off back to the house.

'I suspect we won't get much in the way of gratitude when we do find her,' Ron remarked.

'If,' Harry said quietly.

oooOOOooo

Ron placed a sheet of parchment in the centre of Snape's desk, on top of the notes from Narcissa's file.

'The dates of the Auror raids on the manor, courtesy of Gloria.'

'Damn,' Harry muttered, leaning over and reading the list, 'none on the day she vanished.'

'Were you hoping to blame the Aurors, Potter?' Snape asked.

'If there'd been a properly reported raid, it'd be a place to start. We'd have names. As it is, all we can say is that there was no official raid.'

'You suspect an unofficial visit.'

'They happen,' Harry said. 'We all know that. I don't like it, but I'm not in a position to do anything about it.' The 'yet' remained unspoken. 'If I ask around, I'll meet a blank wall of denial. Boy Who Lived, remember? Goody-Two-Shoes Potter, they're not going to tell me what they get up to when they go visiting Slytherins in an unofficial capacity.'

'Cynical, Potter?'

'Pragmatic, Snape.'

Snape gave him a look that, from anyone else, might have been sympathetic.

'I suggest a visit to the Aurors' section of the Ministry canteen,' he said. 'No doubt Weasley will be ready for lunch?'

'You know me well,' Ron said cheerfully. 'It's liver and onions day.'

'Ugh,' Hermione said.

'They do a salad option,' Ron assured her, 'and there's jam roly-poly for pudding.'

Snape paused to cast a Notice-Me-Not charm upon himself, then followed them to the Ministry's staff dining hall. A group of trainee Aurors smiled and waved. Ron went to join them and talk about Quidditch while Harry and Hermione sat down at a long table, near to where Snelstone sat with two other Senior Aurors.

Hermione ordered a ham salad from the waitress elf, and she and Harry chatted in a desultory manner as they waited for their food.

'Talk about Malfoy,' murmured a silky voice in her ear, 'stir up thoughts about the family.'

Hermione felt the air shift subtly as Snape brushed past her. She suppressed a little shiver.

'Did Draco have anything useful to say about his mother?' she asked Harry.

'Not really. He's already checked the obvious places: the chateau in France; all the Black cousins and aunts; Andromeda, of course—did you know Narcissa and Andromeda are communicating regularly now?'

Hermione was aware that Snelstone could hear them, and that he had given her and Harry a quick, resentful once-over before going back to his own conversation. She knew that the use of Legilimency on unsuspecting members of the public was illegal, but consoled herself that Snelstone was not, strictly speaking, a member of the public.

Kingsley was doing his best to stamp out corruption, but there were a lot of dodgy practices remaining from the time of Fudge's rule, never mind Voldemort's. Harry and Ron were not yet in positions of authority, however much they wanted to change things, while Hermione hoped to do her bit from the direction of the Wizengamot. Having Snape, the head of the Department of Mysteries, on their side was a big boost in many ways.

And now she was thinking of Snape again, and while he was nearby in full mind-reading mode. Bad Hermione!

'What?' Harry asked as she shook her head sharply to rid her mind of extremely impure thoughts regarding Snape's tight black jeans.

'Sorry, distracted for a moment. Where d'you think we should go next with the Narcissa Malfoy case?'

'Death Eaters with a grudge? I still think they're the most likely culprits. What are your thoughts?'

'Those damned peacocks are niggling me. Now that we've eliminated the Ley lines theory, I can't understand why they're so agitated, and Lucius seems flummoxed.'

'Flummoxed is not a good look on a Malfoy,' Harry said rather smugly, 'I like it.'

'He's genuinely worried about his wife.'

'Draco is, but Lucius was more upset about his bloody garden!'

They shared a moment of mutual amusement, remembering Lucius storming off in a huff.

'God,' Hermione said suddenly, 'I used to be so terrified of that man.'

'He doesn't seem as dangerous as we thought he was.'

'No, it's us,' Hermione said, thoughtfully, 'we're dangerous now.'

'Yes,' Harry agreed, 'but you'll always be our moral compass.'

'I'll do my best.'

They ate quietly, while a dark shadow glided around at the edges of her vision.

oooOOOooo

'As I expected,' Snape said, sombrely, 'Snelstone's team have been popping in to the Manor in Lucius' absence, in the hope of seizing so-called Dark objects which will then conveniently disappear. There's smug complacency that the Malfoys got what was coming to them, and also relief that the problem has been handed over to us so that MLE doesn't even have to make a token effort. They're hoping that it is a kidnapping by minor Death Eaters, and we'll save them the trouble of dealing with them.'

'They haven't got her, then,' Harry said. 'Look, Snape, you're the head of a Department. Can't you do something about the Aurors?'

Snape scowled. 'Do you realise how weak the Aurors' office was at the end of the war? Kingsley has already worked wonders. There's no point in getting rid of inefficient Aurors like Snelstone if you don't have the fully trained and experienced people to replace them! Rome wasn't built in a day, Potter!'

'I tell you, she was taken out by a jealous rival poet!' Ron said.

'Really? Hermione asked.

'Nah, just trying to lighten the mood. Did she even get published?'

'Yes, slim pamphlets in limited edition runs, which hardly sold,' Snape said. 'I have a copy somewhere.'

'Were they any good?' Hermione asked.

'Too refined and prissy for my taste,' Snape said, 'Too much sweeping of silken skirts among pungent leaves and bereft sighing while gazing through windows.'

'Sounds like bad Victorian poetry,' Hermione remarked, wondering if he had been uncomfortably reminded of his own adolescent yearnings for the beautiful, unattainable Lily.

'The Wizarding world is stuck in the nineteenth century,' Harry said.

'Do you mind?' Ron said, elbowing him. 'We're discerning, that's all, why do we want to get blown up with ekeltricity like Muggles?'

Hermione snorted; Ron knew perfectly well what electricity was.

'What about the Death Eater angle?' she asked, sensing that Snape was irritated by the banter.

'I have already spoken to my old contacts,' Snape said rather dismissively. ‘The only Death Eaters still at large are the most junior, least committed members who are relieved to sink back into obscurity and get on with their lives.'

'Someone outside the country?' Ron suggested, 'Some old crony of Karkaroff's?'

'Unlikely,' Snape said, 'although not impossible.' He drummed his fingers on his desk for a moment. Then he glanced at Hermione. ’Are you still in contact with Krum?'

Hermione stared down at her hands. She had had a brief affair with the Bulgarian Quidditch star after leaving Hogwarts, only to discover that he had been sleeping with a number of groupies all along. The ending had involved canaries.

'I am,' Harry said, rescuing her from a painful admission, 'through the International Quidditch Federation's charities.'

'He may know what has happened to Karkaroff's associates. You'd better owl him.''

Harry nodded and left the room.

Ron scowled. 'The Death Eaters in Azkaban might know something.'

'Very well, Weasley,’ Snape said. ‘I'll leave them to you.'

Ron followed Harry, leaving Hermione alone with Snape. She leaned over her desk, trying to find comfort in her lists, drawing little arrows where she sensed tenuous associations.

'Miss Granger.’ His silky voice was as sensuous as a finger running down her back. 'Staring at your copious notes is unlikely to assist us. You are not revising for an exam.'

'On the contrary,' she said, 'it helps me to make connections. There's something I'm missing…'

'Would it help if I looked into your memories?'

'No!' she squeaked, in panic, and looked up to find him smirking at her. 'That wouldn't help at all!'

'Wouldn't it?' he purred, 'are you sure? The logical Miss Granger refusing help with collating facts?'

'It isn't the facts I'm worried about,' she mumbled, and blushed bright red.

Oh, what the hell, she thought. He wasn't her Professor any more, was he? He was just some sexy bastard she was working with on a temporary secondment. She threw back her head and stared straight into his eyes and imagined herself naked in bed with him.

His eyes widened, then his lips pressed together as he realised how he had given himself away.

'Miss Granger,' he growled, 'do not toy with me!'

She stormed to her feet, marched across the room and only halted when they were almost nose to nose.

‘Then stop flirting with me!'

'I was not flirting with you!'

'Really?' she asked leaning closer, 'why not? What's wrong with me? Too young? I'll get older! Not smart enough? Bollocks! Not attractive enough? The way you keep staring at me suggests I'm more than attractive enough! You're not a coward, Severus Snape, and neither am I.'

'That has nothing to do—'

'Don't change the subject,’ she exclaimed. ‘I'm on a roll here!'

The corners of his mouth were trying to curl up, as if against his better judgement.

'Miss Granger—‘

'Hermione. Her-mi-o-ne, it isn't that difficult.'

He stared into her eyes, and she sensed that he was refraining from reading her mind with an effort.

'What do you want, Hermione?'

'You.'

His lips were definitely curling into a smile. 'And what do you offer in return?'

She should have expected that from the ex-head of Slytherin. ‘Me?' she asked.

'You shouldn't sound so tentative,' he whispered, his breath puffing warmly against her lips. 'You've much to learn about bargaining with Slytherins.'

'Teach me?'

'Once we have found Narcissa and I'm no longer in a position of authority over you.'

‘Good,’ she replied. ‘It's a deal.'

'So, Hermione, your thoughts on finding the absent witch?’ His black eyes were laughing, not at her, but with the delicious anticipation that she shared.

She wanted to hug herself. Instead, she walked back to her desk and picked up her master-list. 'I'm missing something, I know I am.'

'Extract the obvious. See what you're left with.'

She whipped out her wand and erased the Ley lines, the Aurors and then, trusting her instincts, the Death Eaters. 'I suspect Dumbledore took the incriminating evidence. Am I right? To protect a potential spy, when Voldemort took over the Ministry. In fact, putting that terrible pressure on Draco was a ploy. What he really wanted was Narcissa. He knew she'd do anything for her son.'

'You are correct. Go on.'

'What was she reading and working on?’ Hermione asked.

Snape shrugged. ’I'll tell Lucius to send over her books.'

'The peacocks.'

'Those damned peacocks,’ Snape grumbled. ‘They don't even have sufficient brains to read. Anything else?'

'Her Hogwarts record speaks for itself. She's a very bright witch. Her family tree has no unaccounted-for relatives that we know of…’ Hermione’s voice trailed off.

Snape went to the fireplace, threw in a pinch of Floo powder, and leaned down to speak into the flames. He returned to his desk, and a minute later, the flames flared green and a brown-paper package bounced out onto the hearthrug.

Snape waved it over and unwrapped it. 'There you are, Miss Granger. Her poetry.'

‘Hermione,’ she said, offering him her name.

'Hermione,' he said, his lips shaping the word with a palpitating delicacy.

She distracted herself from his mouth by taking the books from his elegant hands (Get a grip, Hermione!) 'She was reading Ovid,' she said, and then, ‘Oh, my god! I've found her.'

'Where?' There was no disbelief in his voice at all.

'Look.' She grabbed a quill and used it to circle items on her list. 'Family tree—here. Hogwarts record. Poetry. Ovid. Peacocks agitated to hell. Unauthorised Auror raids.'

'Yes,' he said, and grabbed his leather jacket. 'Floo to the Manor, and I'll follow you.'

oooOOOooo

'Miss Granger has a very interesting theory,' Snape told Malfoy, leading the way out into the rain and casting an umbrella charm. Peafowl huddled beneath a great cedar tree, a hen pecked along the base of a yew hedge that bounded a strip of woodland beyond the lawn.

'Will you please gather all the peafowl?' Hermione said crisply.

Lucius raised an eyebrow and Summoned the birds. The resulting dripping, squawking flock ran back and forth inside the fence that Snape conjured to contain them.

Hermione inspected them one by one. There was the bedraggled female, the one that the others bullied and shunned; the stranger in the flock. Hermione knew how she felt. She stepped through Snape's fence, leaned down and gently seized the muddy, drooping hen around the middle. 'Narcissa?' she whispered, and the bird froze, then twisted its head around to stare into her face. 'You tried to reach us but the cocks kept beating you up. I doubt if Lucius took any notice of your attempts to communicate, either. You didn't mean to do this, did you?'

Deliberately, the peahen shook its small, sharp head. Snape Banished the fence and the flock ran off in all directions, wet feathers flying. Hermione set the hen onto the ground, pointed her wand, and cast the spell to force an Animagus into human form.

The peahen rippled, shuddered and expanded upwards, into a tall, blonde witch.

Lucius made an inarticulate sound and seized her, crushing her to his chest, sopping robes and mud and all, and she gave a single choked sob and wrapped her arms around him.

'Job done,' Hermione said to Snape, as he was the only one paying her any measure of attention. 'Secondment completed.'

Warmth kindled in his dark eyes and she felt a delicious little frisson of anticipation run up her spine.

'Dinner?' Snape suggested.

'You sound like Ron,' she said.

He gasped. ’Merlin forbid.'

'You'd better recall our two heroes before they start a revolution,' Hermione said drily.

He snorted, and indicated that she should precede him to the Floo.

oooOOOooo

'Hogwarts results; she was outstanding at Transfiguration,' Hermione said, pointing at her list. 'Poetry; she was reading Ovid's 'The Metamorphoses', a book all about transformations. Peafowl; they were unsettled by a stranger to the flock who didn't behave in a normal peafowl manner, who was obviously scared and unpredictable. Family tree; that was what I was missing, I hadn't put Tonks on because she died, but she was a Metamorphmagus, the shape-shifting ability runs in the Black family. Add in an unauthorised, unreported raid by heavy-handed Aurors who scared the poor woman, home alone with no elf within call, her wand not to hand, and she transformed into something that the Aurors would ignore, a peahen. Except she'd only been attempting transformations into human forms, she's never done a non-human before and she got stuck, with no way to communicate who she was. Lucius is not a sensitive soul who'd notice one of his birds in distress, and when she tried to approach us, the dominant peacocks chased her off because of her unpeafowl-like behaviour.'

'Hermione, you're a bloody genius,' Ron said proudly.

'Our genius!' Harry said, cheerfully sloshing elf-made wine into conjured glasses. 'Raise your glass to Hermione, Ron!'

'Aren't you two on duty?' she asked and he shook his head.

'Nope. We have a transfer to the Hogsmeade department, with promotion to Senior Aurors. Kingsley wants us to sort out the station from the ground up. We'll be working for Dawlish for a year before he retires—he's okay, knows Auror work inside out.'

'That's brilliant,’ Hermione said, hugging her friends in turn. ‘I'm so pleased for you both!'

'And what about you?' Harry asked her. 'Going back to clerking for the Wizengamot?'

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘back to the daily grind.'

'How about working for the Department of Mysteries as a legal adviser?' Ron asked.

'I can't work for him,' she said, shaking her head.

‘Oh, go on! He isn't that bad!'

'Conflict of interest,' Harry suggested, with a smirk.

'Something like that, yes.'

'Like what?' Ron asked.

Harry nudged him. 'You're not that clueless, Weasley.'

'What? Oh.' He stared at Hermione. 'You're kidding us. Aren't you?'

'No. In fact, I have to get ready to go out, so I'll leave you to finish the wine and I'll see you both at the weekend as usual, okay?'

As she breezed out, she heard Ron remark, 'Snape had better not do a Krum on her or I'll kill him.'

'You and me, both,' Harry replied. 'Come on, George and Ginny'll be waiting in the Leaky.'

oooOOOooo

Snape was leaning against the wall of the pub, wearing black jeans, a soft roll-neck black jumper, and his leather jacket. He glanced up as she approached, and his dark eyes softened with pleasure.

'Hello,' she said, and he smiled, not a smirk, but a small, private smile all for her. Then he reached up and brushed her face, just a brief kiss of fingertips against her cheek, confirming that she was real, and that he had her permission to touch her. Hermione felt as if the heart was turning over inside her.

'Shall we go?' he said, offering his arm.

She grasped it, thrilling at the solidity of bone and muscle under her hand. 'I hope we're not reduced to the exchange of banalities all evening,' she remarked.

He gave a snort of amusement. 'I've never considered you banal.'

'Pedantic, perhaps?'

‘Hm… Shall we say, overly conscientious?'

'I'm learning to let go of the detail and look at the bigger picture.'

'So you have proved,' he said. 'Lucius is grateful, you know.'

'He just wishes that it wasn't me he has to be grateful to. I'm sure that rankles.'

'It will do him good,' Snape said with satisfaction. 'You might be amused to know that Narcissa has agreed to assist the Department of Mysteries in its research into the Metamorphmagus and Animagus transformations.'

'Really? I'd like to know more about that!'

'Is there anything that you don't want to know more about?'

'Well, since you put it like that… there is something that I do want to know.'

'Yes?'

'I want to know what the scars on your throat taste like. When I lick them.'

His eyes glittered with amusement. They were no longer cold, hiding an Occluded mind, but warm and inviting.

'No doubt I can be persuaded to further your education in that direction, Hermione.'

'Severus,' she said happily, 'I can hardly wait.'

He laughed. She tightened her grip on his arm as he spun into the darkness of Apparition, taking her with him.

In the shadows, two Aurors watched them depart, nodded to one another and went into the pub.

All was well.