2. THE PACT

„What are we doing here?" wailed Serene when Laurel dragged her down the main street of Hogsmeade.

"Ah Serene, stop behaving like a child!" Laurel looked at the slip of paper in her hand. "Winterstorm House", she muttered. "No street name."

"If you'd tell me what we are looking for, I might help. I might even stop wailing."

"We'll visit Sirius' fiancée." Laurel frowned and gaped through the hawthorn hedges along the street.

"His WHAT?" Serene's mouth fell open. She grabbed Laurel's sleeve and jerked her back. "His fiancée? This is a sick joke, isn't it?"

"No, he is getting married. Tomorrow, to be precise. Minerva asked me to visit Claire and see if I can help her with the preparations for the wedding. You know, the feast, the dress …"

Serene laughed out loud despite her shock at the announcement. "With her dress? You? No offence, Laurel, but …"

"That's where you come in," replied Laurel with a smug smile.

"So this is really true?"

"Obviously, since Minerva is going to be one of the witnesses."

"But who would marry Black of all wizards?"

Laurel shrugged. "Claire Winterstorm, I guess." She pointed at a beautifully crafted cast iron door. "And this is where she lives."

The door opened and admitted them to a garden full of flowering bushes. No gardener's hand seemed to have touched the roses and the trees for years. They bloomed in abundance and had taken over the grounds in a rage of colour and scent.

"Wow. She may be mad, but she is a rich mad-woman. Very rich. Just look at the house!" gasped Serene.

Winterstorm Manor was a lovely rambling old building with many chimneys and additions to the various wings of the house. A porch with white lattice work surrounded the first floor. French windows gave the house a friendly face and let in the warm breeze.

"What makes you think she is mad?" Laurel shook her head disapprovingly, silently scolding herself because she had asked Severus the very same question an hour ago.

"Did I say mad? Sorry, I meant suicidal." Serene shook her glorious mane back and rolled her eyes. "Sirius Black is tactless, mean and so full of it I want to kick him every time I see him."

"Come on, Serene. He is not the most pleasant wizard around, but …"

"But?"

Laurel scratched her head in despair to think up anything good. „Remus loves him like a brother. He is his best friend."

"Remus?" The red-haired witch rose both hands impatiently. "You know Remus. He is always so kind, so ready to forgive. Remus likes everybody. Even …" Her voice cracked suddenly.

"Even you, "Laurel finished the sentence for her. "Although you do your very best to make him stop liking you. Loving you."

Serene narrowed her eyes defiantly. "This is not going to be another counselling session, Laurel, is it? What is between me and Remus is nobody's business but ours."

"Fine." Laurel shrugged and started walking up to the mansion. "But keep your opinion about Sirius to yourself. Maybe this woman sees something in him we just can't."

"Yeah, sure." Serene knocked at the door. „Let me tell you something." She looked at Laurel and her eyes turned dark green with sincerity. "The Dementors got to him in Azkaban. They got him and ate him up or whatever it is they do. He is all empty, and what Remus loves is nothing but a memory, the empty shell of the man Black may have been long ago."

Laurel sighed. But before she could answer, the door opened and a house-elf beamed up at them.

"We'd like to see Miss Winterstorm," said Laurel and nudged Serene to stop gaping at the grand hall with its ancient tapestries and antique furniture.

"Visitors! You is visitors! Yes? Peagreen can tell." The elf's voice almost toppled over. He wore a lovely blue striped tea towel. Taking in the blue ribbon in the little creature's soft green hair, Laurel concluded that Peagreen actually was a 'she'.

The elf nodded eagerly. "Miss Claire are working in the salon. Peagreen will announce the lady-witches." She took their coats and hurried away, ears flapping excitedly. The Winterstorm household obviously did not see too many visitors.

Claire kept her hands behind her back when the two witches entered the salon, so they would not notice how she dug her nails into the palm of her hand. She tried to appear calm. Her mother had always told her that calmness was a virtue in a woman.

One of the witches was beautiful. Claire felt a stab of envy when she took in the sweep of copper curls, the large green eyes, the lovely dress. Her companion was rather plain, with brown hair and brown eyes. But then her smile was so warm, it gave her a beauty of her own right.

"I am Laurel Hunter," said the smiling witch. "This is Serene Kennedy. We both teach at Hogwarts. I … we," she rose her hands apologising, "I really don't know how to put it. But Minerva said you might need some help. With the wedding and all."

"The wedding." Claire blushed. Of course Minerva McGonagall had not kept silent. But how much had she told them about the … arrangement? "Of course. How very nice of you to visit."

She beckoned Kikki to her side, bowed down and whispered in his ear. The elf nodded and skipped out of the room.

"You must be exhausted." Claire did her best to play the hostess. She had read about this of course, and she had watched her mother a few times from the top of the stairs when Phyllis Winterstorm entertained guests. "Why don't you have a glass of iced tea or cold butterbeer or whatever. We can sit on the porch, it is lovely out there right now."

They followed her to the porch where the elves had set a table with all kinds of refreshments. Claire heard the red-haired witch mutter: "Exhausted? Does she think we walked all the way from Hogwarts?"

Claire winced silently and offered them drinks. Of course they had taken a broom - or had even Apparated ... Of course she was the only person who had no other means of transportation than her legs.

"So," Serene smiled at her as Claire sat down cautiously, "How did you meet dear Sirius?"

Laurel nudged her rather hard and made her shut up. "I am sorry. I had no time yet to inform Serene about ... the plan."

"I am not sure how much Headmaster Dumbledore has told you, " Claire made no more effort to hide her embarrassment.

"You marry Sirius and by that arrangement you can spy out the Inner Circle."

Serene's mouth fell open. She looked at the small witch and shook her head. "You are going to be Snape's replacement? You must be nuts."

"Serene!" hissed Laurel.

Claire avoided Laurel's eyes and filled up her glass with iced tea. Her hands shook slightly but she kept her back straight.

A flock of owls suddenly appeared and encircled the house, soaring in risky manoeuvres through the porch.

"Business owls," explained Claire and shooed the cooing birds to the owlery. "It must be three o'clock."

"You keep business owls?" Laurel took a sip of tea and looked at Claire quizzically. "That must be ... about a hundred?"

The young woman straightened her napkin. "My father started a successful chain of bookstores. Wizard stuff, but also," she smiled shyly, "books about magic for Muggles. Carefully toned down, of course," she added. "My father felt it would make it easier for them to accept our existence one day."

Laurel nodded. So Claire Winterstorm was a business-woman. How interesting.

Claire tried desperately to think of something to make conversation about. She felt black panic creep from her throat to her heart. How could she have been so idiotic to believe she would be able to fool Voldemort's Death Eaters if she couldn't even talk to two harmless witches for more than two minutes?

Eventually Laurel threw up both hands in defeat and admitted: "I really find it hard to talk to people I don't know." She laughed, and Claire felt dizzy with relief.

"I … my conversational skills are a bit rusty," she said. Or non-existent, she added silently. "And there is so much on my mind right now, with the wedding and all."

"The wedding. Right." Serene jumped up, quite relived that they had found a common interest after all. "The dress. We are supposed to help you with the dress. Or rather, I am." She smirked at Claire. "Laurel can tell you everything you never wanted to know about the Goblin Revolution of 1546. But she is a fashion disaster."

If Serene had marvelled at the Hall, she was awe-struck by Claire's dressing room. Or rather, as Claire tried to explain shyly, her late mother's dressing room.

"I don't own that many dresses. And none of them is good enough for … a special occasion. Of course I …," she smiled at Serene who had already begun to pick out robes, "we … could go to see what they have at Gladrags." As if she'd ever been there ... It was really exhausting to keep up the appearance of being normal. But she had to practise anyway. A mistake in the presence of a dozen Death Eaters would surely kill her. A mistake with the two young teachers from Hogwarts would at the worst embarrass her. And if she was good anything, it was being embarrassed.

"Gladrags!" Serene rolled her eyes. "The stuff you got here is so much better! This is vintage, very fashionable right now."

Laurel sat at the bed and obviously had a great time watching.

"This is just perfect!" Serene beamed at Claire and held up a robe in light green silk. "Laurel, concentrate! It will bring out her eyes and go wonderfully with her hair, if she does something to keep it out of her face." She frowned. "But the sleeves are too long."

"I can fix that," said Claire intimidated by her determination.

Serene put the robe carefully on a chair. "I go and get my wand from my coat. We only need to shorten them an inch or two."

She ran out of the room, and Claire sighed.

"She can be really scary, can't she?" Laurel smiled sympathetically.

Claire rubbed her aching temples. "It is only that she is so beautiful. I wish I had her height and her self-assurance."

"And I sometimes wish I had her hair. It looks amazing, doesn't it?"

Both women looked at each other and smiled sheepishly.

Laurel shrugged. "Have you got a needle-cushion? You know, one of these Muggle devices for sewing?"

Claire took a deep breath. Minerva must have told Laurel about her inability to do any magic. A heavy weight lifted from her heart. For so many years her parents had drilled her to never ever let anybody know she was a squib - not that she'd had any opportunities to blow her cover, since no strangers were admitted to Winterstorm Manor, ever. Nobody knew how she longed to tell the truth to somebody, to have one friend she could be honest with. But as she opened her mouth to confess, Laurel shattered all hopes.

"Of course you'll want to do it magically. But let me sew a few stitches, just to infuriate Serene."

Claire's bottom lip trembled but she dug her fingernails into her palm again - being with people definitely was painful - and stood up. "Of course I could do it magically. I'll get the needle case."

When Serene returned with her wand, Claire and Laurel sat on the floor and stitched away on the sleeves.

"Laurel! What are you doing?"

Laurel smiled. "We are sewing. You decreed the sleeves too short, and here we are, two busy seamstresses, following your advice."

"But …. you are … with a needle?" Serene shook her head unbelievingly. "Laurel, you must come to terms with the magical world! How can you live here and just pretend half of the time you don't need any magic?"

"For heaven's sake!" Laurel stuck the needle into the thin fabric and promptly pricked her finger. Wincing she put it into her mouth. "I can get by absolutely magicless most of the time." She turned to Claire who was watching them in awe. "I grew up a Muggle. Often magic seems to be more effort than doing things the way I am used to."

"I understand." Claire reached for her hand. "Let me see that."

She took Laurel's hand in hers and held it for a moment. Then she blushed and let go of it, avoiding Laurel's speculative look. She held up the silk garment to Serene.

"I am sorry we started without you."

Serene kneeled next to her and studied the perfectly stitched seam. "No, this is very good. Couldn't do it any better with the wand."

Laurel smirked. "Take that literally, Claire. Our Serene is not any better than I am, Muggle born and bred. We both got admitted to Hogwarts only three years ago. Although I must admit that Serene takes the whole magic thing much more seriously than I do."

Claire gazed at her and then at Serene. "But you are … you are witches."

"But we never got the letter," Serene explained with barely suppressed outrage in her voice. "Somebody screwed up big time."

"You must have been very happy when they found out."

"Oh, I was ecstatic. But I remember Laurel whining and hating it."

"Really?"

Laurel gave her a sheepish smile. "I … came to love it. It just took some time." She cleared her throat. "Of course you are a witch and had a proper education, so you can't know how it feels to be suddenly exposed to all the magic. I really thought I'd never come to grips with all the spells and charms and whatnots. And I am still proud every time I succeed in conjuring a tea tray that doesn't come up as a guinea pig or a toboggan."

"But you like it well enough to stay in Hogwarts?" Claire wondered. "You even teach."

"Let's say, while Serene is where she always wanted to be, I am where somebody is I want to be with." She started to pick up the robes Serene had declared unfit for Claire's fair complexion.

"Maybe we should fashion something for you as well, Laurel," said Serene and looked disapprovingly at the plain robe Laurel wore.

The brown-haired witch smiled, and Claire noticed a mischievous gleam in her eyes. Slowly she got the rhythm of their good-natured skirmish. They seemed to be friends and gain a lot of fun from these verbal fights.

"What is wrong with the dress I am wearing?"

"You got lovely eyes and a warm colour would accentuate that."

"Severus wouldn't notice the difference," Laurel chuckled. "He'd only notice if I wore nothing at all."

"Ah Laurel, you are hopeless. You two really deserve each other."

Laurel's eyes lit up and Claire could almost feel warmth radiate from her. "That's what I always say."

Serene cleared her throat and shrugged, apologising to Claire. "She is madly in love. She can't think clearly."

Claire smiled shyly. "But being in love is something very precious, isn't it?"

"It is." Laurel nodded. She carefully folded the silk robe and put it on the bed. "I hope you and Sirius will be as happy as Severus and I."

"Snape? Severus Snape?" Claire frowned. "There was a Severus Snape in Slytherin when I went to school. Very nasty."

"That's probably the same wizard. He is teaching Potions now."

"Oh."

"He wasn't exactly what you'd call a nice guy then. I am aware of that," Laurel said gently when she saw the other woman's embarrassment.

"He never did me any harm." At least that was true, Claire thought. Snape had not even noticed her and Merlin, had she been glad about it! Even as a seventh year he had scared her. She had been sure he'd look through her disguise at once. Ygor had always tried to assure her that nobody knew but the Professors. But Claire had spent every day in fear. The Death Eaters had started to attack and kill Squibs as well as Mudbloods when she started her second year in Hogwarts.

"Is there anybody else in the staff, you remember from your schooldays?" Serene's question let her snap out of her memories.

"I don't think so," she said carefully. "Nobody but Snape. And of course Sirius."

Professor Flitwick conjured another pillow for his chair and finally settled comfortably next to Dumbledore. The fire in the staff-room burned bright to keep away the chill of a late may evening.

"Albus, do you really think it is a good idea to put Sirius under that kind of stress?"

The Headmaster sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I keep asking myself the very same question. But honestly, I do not have a choice. There is nobody but Claire."

"But she is a squib. If the Death Eaters find out, she is dead." The tiny wizard shuddered. "If she is lucky."

"Sirius will make sure she gets through this adventure unharmed. You know him. And he desperately needs a purpose, something besides Harry. After all the boy is almost sixteen. In the near future he will start his own family."

"Well, time will tell," Flitwick took a piece of pumpkin pie. "What is it about the charm that worries you so?"

"Wasn't it to disguise Black's face to anybody outside the staff-room?" Dumbledore raised a white eyebrow and fixed the charms Professor who squirmed in his seat. "How come it shows no effect with a mere squib?"

"Is that what you were suspecting? That being a squib made the girl unsusceptible to the Incognito-charm?" Flitwick beamed. "Interesting idea, but no. After all, Mr Filch is a squib as well and has not recognised Black so far."

"Well, what is it then?" Dumbledore frowned. He narrowed his eyes. "Theodore! You built in a trapdoor!"

The tiny wizard nodded slowly. "I like to see it as a window, not a trapdoor. Sirius Black has a large family, hasn't he?"

The Headmaster shook his head. "Two of his brothers died in the war, only weeks before the Potters were killed. But the youngest, Castor, is still alive."

"Ah, I remember Castor," said Flitwick. "A gifted musician."

"Their mother was devastated when Sirius was sent to Azkaban. She died a few years later. So his family is not so large after all. Really it is only Harry right now."

"That's why I built the window into the charm," sighed the Professor. "I did not know they were all dead. I thought they should recognise him when they met by chance."

"You have a heart that is certainly bigger than your body, Theodore," smiled Dumbledore. "But that still does not answer the question. Claire is not Black's sister. If they were related, this crazy cousin of hers, Valerius, would have found out by now."

Flitwick stared at him intently. "When I built the charm, I did not specify 'family'. Not family by blood."

They remained silent for a moment, each pondering his own thoughts.

"So Lupin probably sees his true face as well," concluded Dumbledore and gave the Professor a cheerful smile.

Flitwick nodded and made the flames in the fireplace burn brighter with a flick of his wrist. "Each of us got two families. The one we were born into. And the one we choose."

* * *

The Registry Office was located in a whitewashed house next to the Three Broomsticks - a practical and gainful solution for both establishments. Most wedding parties celebrated in the pub after the ceremony. And more than once a couple had, after a merry night at the Hogsmeade pub, decided to tie the knot right then. Rosmerta had been witness to more marriages than she cared to remember.

Right now she watched with barely veiled interest the small group of Hogwarts Professors that had Apparated in front of the small office. "And there I was, thinking they were all sworn to celibacy," she muttered when she went inside to set the table.

Isidor Gumble, the mayor of Hogsmeade, shook Dumbledore's hand and seemed determined to not let go again. "Great honour, " he repeated and beamed at the famous wizard, "great honour, Sir!"

Dumbledore freed his hand gently. "Of course you know Miss Winterstorm, don't you?"

The mayor bowed and kissed Claire's hand. "To be honest, I never had the pleasure. Your parents were great patrons of the local library though."

Claire blushed and smiled. Her parents hadn't even been aware that such a thing as a public library existed in Hogsmeade. The Winterstorms owned a chain of bookstores amongst other businesses, and for them books were to be sold, not lent. So the only patron in the family had been Claire, but she was not going to tell this red-faced man who was to marry her to Sirius.

"And where is the lucky guy?"

She blinked.

"The groom."

Dumbledore came to her help. „Professor White will be here any minute."

"I remember her. Wasn't she the girl who had this huge ugly troll as a servant?" Snape asked Professor McGonagall.

"Severus!" Laurel tugged at his sleeve to make him keep his voice down. Instinctively he drew her close to him. His shoulder still hurt from the injury he had suffered two weeks ago. But it didn't matter. To fall asleep next to her and to know he'd wake up next to her …

"But he was remarkably ugly," he whispered into her ear and smiled when she pretended to kick his shin.

McGonagall rose an eyebrow. Who would have thought that Severus Snape, the loner, the misantropist, could ever form such a close relationship with a woman? Well, of course, she, Minerva, had seen it from the beginning, she congratulated herself with a smug smile.

"Claire is taking a great risk by taking up your role as a spy, Severus," she reminded the Potions master. "She'll need your help and all the information she can get."

He bowed his head. "I'll do my best. But let me deposit once more, that I think this plan is utter nonsense. Just look at her. If the Death Eaters don't tear her apart, Black will."

Minerva's mouth twitched in sudden sorrow. "It is not that we have much of a choice, do we? There is no way we can allow you to ever answer a summons again."

"But why Black? She seems to be a nice girl. There is no way she can stand up against Sirius. You know his mood swings."

"Severus, one could almost think you were worried about Claire." Remus Lupin and Serene had entered the office. The DADA teacher smiled at Snape's obvious gall and raised both hands in defence. "But we all know you aren't."

"I worry only about what is going to happen when Voldemort get hold of her and squeezes her brain for information."

"But he was right," said Serene. "Remus, even you as Black's friend must admit that something is wrong with him. He is ... empty."

Laurel felt Snape tighten. Her hand slipped into his.

"No, you are not, Severus," she murmured so softly nobody but him could hear it.

Lupin frowned defiantly. "Sirius spent almost twelve years in Azkaban, and he has been on the run since he escaped. Most wizards don't even survive a month in that abominable place. Of course he is … hurt. Cut him some slack, by Gryffindor."

"And Claire may look fragile, but she seems to be stronger than she appears. After all she lives all alone in that big house, and she told me she manages all the businesses of the Winterstorm family." Laurel watched Claire, who stood next to Dumbledore and the mayor, her hands folded, a picture of calmness. Only her eyes that wandered to the door every now and then betrayed her inner turmoil.

"She got quite a stubborn streak."

"Great," Remus sighed. "Just great. They'll kill each other."

Sirius entered the registry office and stood in the door without being noticed by anybody but Claire. The walls of the small offices seemed to approach, close around him. He was trapped. He heard a faint voice, a pleading, crying. Coldness seeped through his body to the very core of him. A sudden bout of panic threatened to suffocate him.

The woman he was to marry in a few minutes looked at him with an unreadable expression. There was nothing to hold on to but Claire Winterstorm's cool grey eyes. Slowly his breath slowed down to normal.

Then the mayor noticed the tall wizard in the door. "Ah Professor White, I assume!"

Sirius gritted his teeth and shook hands, while avoiding to look at the warrant with his face that graced the pinboard behind the mayor's desk.

"Well, I assume we are all set and ready to start," beamed Mr Gumble.

"No," said Sirius.

Eventually he had everybody's attention.

"I need to have a word with … my fiancée." The word seemed to burn his tongue.

Claire paled.

Sirius opened the door. "Everybody out."

Remus cleared his throat and slightly shook his head. "Where is Harry?"

"He won't come."

Their eyes met and Remus winced when he saw the pain.

"Please. Give us a moment."

The wizards and Professors jostled out of the office and gathered in front of the building. Black shut the door behind them.

"We need to talk." His voice was rough.

Claire clenched her fists to keep herself from pulling a strand of her hair out of the complicated braid Coco had created hours ago. She was nervous enough among so many strangers without Black looking at her as if he was about to kill her any minute. Taking a deep breath she tried to overcome her shyness.

"What do you want to talk about?"

"This … marriage." His hand raked through the dark hair.

"You want to call it off." Her heart sank. There went her last chance to win her freedom. Her last chance to put an end to Valerius' never-ending sermons about pure bloodlines and noble heritage.

"No."

Her head jerked up.

Again Black noticed the clarity and calmness of her gaze. Oh, she obviously was afraid of him, but she kept an inner poise that seemed to shield her. Just by looking at her, some of his anger evaporated.

"Mayor Gumble will have us swear we shall love, honour and obey each other. But we both know that this marriage is nothing but a farce. Still it is in our mutual interest to stay married, at least for a while." He sighed. Lately he seemed to have trouble talking, somehow the words evaded him when he really needed them. They surely had when he tried to explain the situation to Harry an hour ago.

"I offer you a pact."

Claire's knees buckled and she swayed for a moment. Holding on to the mayor's desk, she nodded slowly. She understood pacts. Conditions, sanctions, dates - that she could deal with.

"A pact. That's fine with me."

"I got conditions, and I am sure you got some as well. If we can agree upon them, this will be a successful … arrangement."

"You will not interfere with my plan to get access to Voldemort's inner circle," Claire said quickly. She blushed but stood her ground. Luckily a strand had escaped the braided crown and had wrapped around her finger.

"This is your condition."

"Yes."

He shrugged. „As long as you don't endanger your life. Or mine."

"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked suspiciously.

"Dumbledore appointed me not only your husband but your bodyguard. You won't go there alone."

Claire exhaled slowly. She would have to change her plan but she was sure she'd be able to adapt it.

"Agreed."

"Anything else?"

She felt her own heart beat as if somebody was beating a drum in her head.

„The Headmaster told you about ... what I am .."

"A squib. Yes, he did."

"You will never punish me for being what I am."

Silence fell like a heavy blanket. Black stared at her. His dark blue eyes bore into hers and she noticed worriedly how his mouth paled.

"You really think I would … punish you for that?" His voice was that of a stranger.

"I shall not be locked up ever again."

The hair strand had wrapped around her fingers so tightly the fingertips turned blue.

Black took a step towards Claire and saw in shock how she recoiled. Carefully he reached out and unwrapped the strand. "No crime," he said softly. "No punishment."

He had big hands, marvelled Claire. Beautiful hands, made to repair things, to build, to form. Her own hand almost vanished in his.

"Your conditions," she croaked.

"I have a godson, Harry. He is in Gryffindor."

She nodded. Harry Potter, the hero of all elves.

"I want him to be welcome to your house if he ever decides he wants to live with me."

"It will be your house as well when we are married."

He scowled at her. "No, it won't. Your house. And there is not much danger of Harry showing up anyway. He told me so in no uncertain terms."

Claire looked up at him, and saw something in his eyes that she knew only to well. Utter loneliness.

"I had two demands," she said softly. "Harry will be welcome at Winterstorm Manor. You may have another one."

"Don't worry. I have another one."

"Yes?"

"This will not be a marriage only in name."

There was a soft growl in his voice, just enough to send a shiver down her skin. She clenched her fists. She would not be intimidated by him. She owed him nothing.

"What do you mean … not only in name?"

He crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at her, his face void of any emotion.

"If I marry you, we'll share a bed."

"Share a bed!"

"Have sex. Sleep with each other. Fuck. Whatever you want to call it." He shrugged. "I lost almost half of my life to Azkaban. I can agree upon a marriage without love. But not without sex."

"No."

Claire turned and faced the pinboard behind the mayor's desk.

"Then there will be no wedding."

The tension was almost palpable and when Black touched her shoulder, Claire jumped. She made a small sound that sounded almost like a sob.

"I can't. I simply can't just sleep with you. I don't even know you."

He laughed but there was no humour in the sound. "But you can marry me without knowing me?"

Her eyes filled with unwanted tears and she blinked them away. "Would you force me to ...?"

"I may be a suspected murderer but I don't force women." Sirius' face went blank and he stared at the warrant behind her.

"Then we shall never share a bed."

"Only when you come out of free will."

"As I said, we'll never share a bed then."

"So you accept my condition?"

"If you accept my clause?"

He offered her his hand and after a moment of reconsideration she laid her hand into his palm.

"I really think you should let these poor people come back in," she suggested. "They'll be afraid you strangled me in the meantime."

Black snorted. "Great to be surrounded by trusting friends on your wedding- day, isn't it?"

* * *