|The Thickened Light
Author: Mundungus42 PM
Hermione finds signs of a health threat to the wizarding world near a hidden chateau in Avignon, but is she prepared for what she'll find inside? SSHG possible LM , VERY ADULT CONCEPTS.Rated: Fiction M - English - Mystery/Romance - Severus S. & Hermione G. - Chapters: 3 - Words: 22,711 - Reviews: 24 - Favs: 62 - Follows: 9 - Published: 03-05-12 - Status: Complete - id: 7897847
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
© 2012 Mundungus42 All rights reserved. This work may not be archived, reproduced, or distributed in any format without prior written permission from the author. This is an amateur non-profit work, and is not intended to infringe on copyrights held by JK Rowling or any other lawful holder. Permission may be obtained by e-mailing the author at mundungus42 at yahoo dot com
Hermione stands at the precipice where the ancient bridge ceases to be, as if searching the water below for answers. Ominous clouds overhead promise rain, and the riverbanks are deserted, despite it being just after seven in the morning. The cool, damp air makes her fingers ache, and she gathers her left hand to her chest, gently massaging the skin against bones that, once crushed, not even magic could fix completely. The old injury troubles her little — she only notices it when her mind isn't otherwise occupied.
And yet, facing the edge of the broken bridge, she can think of nothing to distract her. She is afraid of the unknown but knows there is nothing here but what lies ahead. Squaring her shoulders, she steps forward into empty air.
Eighteen years and sixty-seven days prior, Hermione, now in her sixth year at Hogwarts, prepares to take a similar step into the dimly-lit Potions classroom, entering it not as a student, but as something different.
The tools she needs are laid out on the workbench, and the cauldrons that Professor Slughorn piles artistically on his desk have been hastily shoved into the corner. Professor Snape stands at his former desk and flicks his wand at the door, fastening it behind her. She stands, waiting for instructions, but he crosses his arms and looks down his nose at her.
'Well?' he asks querulously.
'I'm here to brew Wolfsbane Potion, sir.'
'Obviously. I would be in my quarters, else. Is there any particular reason you're standing there as if Confunded?'
'Are in the supply cupboard. Surely I needn't list them on the board.'
Not trusting herself to say anything that won't annoy him further, she ducks into the cupboard and gathers what she needs: aconite harvested during the full moon, silver, brimstone, ginger, and Acromantula venom, a few botanicals as stabilisers — it doesn't matter which ones. When she returns to the room, she is surprised to see that Professor Snape's upper body is encased in a Bubble-Head Charm.
It is only the Half-Blood Prince's copy of Advanced Potion-Makingin her bag that stops her from asking him about it — the last thing she wants to do is draw attention to herself. He is bent over his book ignoring her — a sure sign that he expects her to fail. However, this potion is not for class. It's for the Order, and she knows that means Professor Lupin. It's for his sake that she has swallowed her pride and stolen the book from Harry's trunk. He won't miss it — he's meeting with Dumbledore tonight, or so says the note she wasn't supposed to read.
She glances at Professor Snape one last time to ensure that he's still engrossed by his book and lays the precious textbook on the workbench. The Prince's comments for the first stage of brewing are copious, recommending four anticlockwise stirs where none are mentioned in the text and adding the ginger while the potion is still thin, among other heresies. But she can't argue with Harry's results, and she is willing to trust the Prince, just this once, for the greater good.
Three hours later, Hermione is breathing hard, assiduously trying not to let sweat drip into her cauldron. The ingredients for this stage may be few, but they are added in different combinations at different times in different preparations, and Hermione's hands ache from all the grinding and chopping. However, there is only an infusion of crushed ginger in Acromantula venom left to add, and then the potion must simmer for a day.
Since she has committed the final instructions to memory, Hermione casually returns the book to her bag and sets to crushing the ginger root with her mortar and pestle. The task is relatively mindless, and Hermione glances at the front of the classroom, where Professor Snape sits, absorbed in his book. Something about the light displeases him, and he lifts the book and sets the top on another book so as to render it a more comfortable angle for reading.
She feels a flare of irritation. Professor Dumbledore gave him explicit instructions to supervise her brewing, and he's been buried in his book all evening and hasn't looked up once. She glances at the ginger and notes that it's stringier than it should be. Perhaps the ginger root is too old? Unfortunately, the Prince has no suggestions for dealing with ginger — perhaps he assumes it's obvious.
Hermione squares her shoulders. Professor Snape is going to advise her, whether he likes it or not.
She continues crushing the ginger as she approaches his desk.
'Sir? I think there may be something wrong with the ginger.'
He looks up with a frown and sets his book aside. The gold leaf stamped on the peacock blue cover catches the firelight.
The 120 Days of Sodomby Marquis de Sade.
In her surprise, her hands lose their customary dexterity, and she cries out in pain as her pestle crushes two unlucky fingers.
Professor Snape is at her side in an instant.
'Clumsy fool.' He seizes the mortar and pestle and crushes the ginger to the correct consistency by adding a clockwise grind as he pounds. He flies to her workbench in a flutter of black robes, adds four drops of Acromantula venom, and scrapes the mixture into the cauldron, which obligingly lets out a puff of purple steam. It's finished, for now.
Despite the agonizing pain in her fingers, Hermione is in awe of his swift, sure movements.
'You are excused from cleaning up the mess you made. To Madam Pomfrey, before you damage yourself further.'
He grabs a handful of sparkling powder from an ornamental pot on the desk, which he tosses on the fire. The fire blazes green, and she gives him a pitifully grateful look as she steps into the flames.
'Hospital Wing!' she says, and she feels herself snuffed out of the Potions classroom only to burst into being three floors above.
Madam Pomfrey looks up from decanting Pepper-Up when Hermione appears in her fire. 'Gracious, child, whatever is the matter?'
She holds out her hand, and the matron springs into action, ushering her to a bed and producing a phial of creamy blue potion that makes her drowsy. As Madam Pomfrey points her wand at Hermione's mutilated digits, she knows there is something she must remember, but everything is muddled. She closes her eyes.
In the present day, Hermione steps into nothingness, and it bears her up.
She lets out a shaky breath. She hadn't really fancied a morning dip in the Rhône.
Where the medieval bridge ostensibly stopped is an impressive array of charms intended to discourage magical and Muggle visitors. Beyond it, the bridge stretches to the Île de la Barthelasse, but standing between her and the island is a handsome, comically narrow house. She strongly suspects that, like Grimmauld Place, the house is much larger on the inside.
An eerie cry pierces the silence, and Hermione spies a white peacock eyeing her suspiciously from atop an ancient hitching post. Up close, the bird is quite ugly, with scaly skin visible in places, and its tail feathers are grey with dust. But the bird is beautifully shaped, and it holds itself with great dignity.
As she approaches the front door, she tries not to think what the presence of the bird portends. She raises her hand and knocks.
On the second night of brewing the Wolfsbane, Hermione's tentative knock reveals her scowling teacher, his head already enclosed in an orb of fresh air. He seizes her left hand to inspect Madam Pomfrey's work. Her fingers, though healed, are black and blue, and he frowns.
'Can you brew?'
'It aches a bit, but I can work through it.'
'Overconfidence will not serve you today,' he says, releasing her hand and stalking over to the desk. 'The brewing you do today will make yesterday's seem like a cure for boils. You must be painstaking, precise, and above all, aware of where your body is at all times. The slightest mistake could prove fatal to the drinker. If at any point you find yourself unable to complete a step in time, you will Vanish the contents of your cauldron and begin again when you are fully healed. Have I made myself clear?'
'But the next full moon is in a week! Professor Lupin—'
'Lupin survived his childhood and adolescence without the luxury of Wolfsbane. I daresay he can go without for a month, especially when he has no-one to blame for the lack but himself.'
'I don't understand.'
'It is not necessary that you understand,' he says sharply. 'It is, however, necessary that you begin brewing immediately. You recall where the Boomslang skin is, I trust?'
The reference to her illicit second year Polyjuice causes her cheeks to redden, but she suppresses the urge to flee and opens the cupboard with what she hopes is convincing nonchalance. Her fingers throb as they close around the bottles and jars she needs, but she grits her teeth, sets the bottles on her work bench, and commences chopping.
She glances at him before pulling the Half-Blood Prince's text from her bag and upsets a bottle of powdered ergot when she recognises the blue and gold cover of his book. She shakes herself mentally. No matter how vile, disgusting, and horrific Professor Snape's reading matter, these are exactly the sorts of distractions she cannot afford tonight.
She sets aside the book, takes a deep breath, and allows herself a moment to contemplate what sort of person would read such a book, in a school of all places. Not that she's read it, of course. But what decent person has?
Scowling, she brushes up the spilled ergot and resumes laying out her ingredients. Better to ignore the man completely than to let herself contemplate the implications of his leisure reading.
Hours later, she is breathlessly triumphant. The Prince has guided her through another evening, and the Wolfsbane is a perfect shade of chartreuse and emits bubbles every three seconds, just as it ought. She nearly jumps out of her skin when she realises Professor Snape is standing behind her, staring at the contents of her cauldron. She steps aside in what she hopes is an appropriately deferential manner to stand between him and the precious textbook.
He gazes at the potion but can find no fault in its appearance. 'What does it smell like?'
The Prince says that it should smell like cooking beets, and it does, but she instinctively knows not to appear too knowledgeable, lest she arouse his suspicions. She wafts the wisps rising from the surface of the cauldron gently toward her face.
'It smells sweet, like roasted vegetables,' she says, kicking herself for not coming up with a better description.
After interminably long seconds, he nods, and she nearly faints with relief.
'Lupin may yet live to be killed another day. Now, clean up this mess and return to your dormitory.'
In her relief, Hermione's hands are clumsy as she cleans her tools, and she is positive that she feels his eyes on the back of her neck as she works. The knife she washes slips from her aching fingers and clatters noisily in the sink. She glances behind her just in time to see his head snap up from his book and glare at her.
When the bench is so clean that not even Professor Snape can find fault with it, she bolts from the room, determined to leave the Prince's book safely in Harry's trunk for the final day of brewing. She will need her wits about her tomorrow, and the fewer things she has to worry about, the better.
Hermione hears her knock echo down what she imagines are endless corridors of stone, but a house-elf opens the door immediately, revealing a warmly lit entryway with a grand staircase curving upward toward a massive iron chandelier. The elf scrutinises the St. Mungo's badge she holds out to him, by way of explaining her presence. They both know it has no real meaning, but he courteously stands aside and gestures for her to enter.
'If Miss will wait here, Batty will be informing the Master.'
'Thank you, Batty.'
'Would Miss like tea?'
Batty disappears with a pop rather than a crack, which is, she supposes, the mark of a posh house-elf. The entry hall is largely empty, but for a large embroidered tapestry hanging on the wall. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the famous one from Bayeux except that its combatants move and brandish wands, and the Latin inscription reads, 'Here is Guillaume Malfoy making it rain fire.'
Her fingers tighten around her wand, and she momentarily considers fleeing, but another elf appears with a steaming cup of tea that smells like heaven. Rumour had it that all the Malfoys have resided in France since the end of the war, but suspecting something is entirely different from encountering it in reality. The tea is, thankfully, as English as it is strong.
Hermione is surprised that she feels as calm as she does standing in the foyer of her mortal enemy's home, and is even more surprised when Batty reappears, announcing that Master Lucius has invited her to breakfast. She takes a fortifying mouthful of tea and follows Batty down the corridor.
On the third and final night of brewing the Wolfsbane, Hermione finds the door to the Potions classroom wide open. Professor Snape glowers at her from inside his protective bubble, but instead of ignoring her, he watches her every move as she lights the fire, sets her cauldron atop it, and disappears into the store cupboard.
His close attention can only mean that he knows something is amiss. Hermione stifles a wry snort. Only Professor Snape would consider a student's success at brewing a fiendishly difficult potion to be a sign that something is wrong. Fortunately, she has brought only her brewing notebook. The Prince's instructions are of course integrated, which was quite easy because each annotation corresponds to an instance of the potion deviating from what's described in the book. She's learned a great deal from the Prince already: that a potion that appears too dark in colour can be corrected by anticlockwise stirring, and that feverfew can safely be used to thicken any potion containing snake bile.
She returns to her work bench with the final ingredients: aconite root, ingredients for an anti-emetic potion, grains of paradise, and Quintaped liver — an ingredient she's never worked with before. She's soon grateful to the Prince for suggesting dragon-hide gloves while preparing it, since the liquid that seeps out eats fissures in the wooden workbench and reeks of alcohol. She glances at her teacher, who is still glaring down at her like a giant vulture and wishes he could, for once, be as helpful as the Prince.
After preparing the ingredients and laying them out in sequential order, Hermione tosses chopped hawthorn blossoms into the cauldron and begins to stir the runny potion. She methodically adds ingredients, stirs until the delicate pink petals have turned purple, and lays her stirring rod aside. She has fifteen minutes before the next ingredient can be added. She makes a note that next time she can save time at the beginning by using the intervals for preparing the next set of ingredients. When she finishes recording this observation, she looks up and sees that Snape is reading the book again, having clearly given up on catching her in the act of doing anything suspicious.
Hermione has not been idle between brewing sessions and has corroborated that de Sade was every bit as vile and disgusting as she had supposed. In fact, he's even worse. He hadn't simply been a powerful man who took pleasure in exploiting and humiliating people, he had also been a wizard who did unspeakable things to Muggles with magic. Les 120 journées de Sodomeis his encyclopaedia of perversions, humiliations, and tortures. An edition of the book that contains only the nonmagical sections is widely available in the Muggle world, but the full version that describes all four months of horror written in loving detail isn't available in the Hogwarts Library, not even in the restricted section.
It's true, the atrocities in the book are being committed against fictional characters by other fictional characters, but after being freed from the Bastille after the Revolution, de Sade made it his life's quest to achieve ultimate sexual freedom, going so far as to enslave and murder to satisfy his desires. The floating bodies of the Muggles at the Quidditch World Cup drift into her mind's eye, and she shudders.
Professor Snape continues to read, unaware of or ignoring her scrutiny. She can't draw her eyes away from his face. The corners of his mouth are drawn downwards, his lips compressed, and she catches a dart of his tongue as he licks his finger to turn the page. There is an intensity is his eyes as they travel back and forth over the lines of text that frightens her. He shifts perceptibly in his chair, and a horrifying thought occurs to her. Is he aroused by what he's reading?
The thought hits her stomach like a Bludger. She has always considered Dumbledore's unshakeable faith in Professor Snape to be sufficient reason to trust him. But now, far from Dumbledore's gaze, she is acutely aware that she is alone in a room with a confirmed Death Eater who, by all appearances, is finding pleasure in fictional accounts of women and children being forced into sexual slavery and tortured. She is not afraid for herself at present, since she has an important task to do. But it does raise the question of what this man, who is clever enough to satisfy two masters, truly wants. Dumbledore can grant his freedom if their side ultimately triumphs, but Voldemort, who views Muggles and Muggle-borns as sub-human, could give him the power to do as de Sade had once done. What does he desire more: freedom or power?
Her musings abruptly cease as Professor Snape raises his head and glares at her. Her cheeks redden, and she is immediately ashamed of her sordid musings.
'How long has the potion been sitting?' His voice sounds slightly tinny through the membrane of the Bubble-Head Charm.
Hermione consults her timer and wills her voice to remain steady. 'Seven minutes.'
'Make sure the steam rising from the surface is no darker than cobalt before adding the grains of paradise.'
This instruction runs counter to both the book, which suggests cornflower blue, and the Prince's advice to wait until the steam is navy. However, Professor Snape will know if she disregards his advice, so she nods. Better the devil you know, as the old saying goes. He gives her another scowl and returns to reading.
The timer is agonisingly slow, but it finally chimes. Hermione picks up the dish containing the grains and when the pale steam rising from the potion's surface darkens to cobalt, she sprinkles the shrivelled seeds evenly over the surface. She raises her wand and draws spirals in the steam, and the bubbling liquid darkens to silver, its surface taking on an iridescent sheen. It's another seven minutes before the liver goes in, and she sets the timer for six minutes so she has the opportunity to pound the diced liver with a mallet immediately before adding it.
She allows her gaze to wander back to the man reading at the desk he had occupied until this year, and she marvels that she's been obsessing over his reading matter rather than contemplating the circumstances under which she currently labours. Belatedly, she wonders if that isn't the reason he chose to read that particular book — to distract her from the numerous curiosities about the situation.
Curiosity 1: Professor Snape is no longer teaching Potions. Harry insists it's because Snape's always wanted the Dark Arts post, but she isn't convinced. Frankly, he seems no happier teaching Defence than he did teaching Potions.
Curiosity 2: Professor Dumbledore said that Professor Snape is no longer 'able' to brew the potion, though she can see no physical limitations.
Curiosity 3: He casts a Bubble-Head Charm when the potion emits any kind of fumes.
Conclusion: Breathing in whatever vapours the potion releases is detrimental to Professor Snape's health. Given that many of the same ingredients are used in sixth-year Potions, Professor Snape's sudden promotion to Defence makes a bit more sense.
Curiosity 4: He looks unwell. He always looks ill-rested, but his skin is paler than usual, and the dark circles under his eyes are more pronounced than they were even a week ago.
Curiosity 5: Professor Snape said that Professor Lupin was at fault for the situation.
The pieces begin to fall into place.
Curiosity 6: Professor Snape has not covered werewolves in depth in Defence Against the Dark Arts, despite Fenrir Greyback's numerous attacks at Voldemort's behest.
Conclusion: At some point in the past year, Professor Snape has been bitten by a werewolf, possibly Professor Lupin. Therefore, he is more invested in seeing the potion completed correctly than he lets on.
Hermione is giddy with discovery and lets out a huff of satisfaction. Professor Snape looks up from his reading sharply, and she turns toward the potion, not trusting herself not to give herself away. She can even admire his cunning distraction — of course the Insufferable Know-It-All would become obsessed with a book and miss the obvious.
The evening passes in cycles of bubbles and steam. When she is finished, he examines her cauldron's contents with an unreadable look on his face. When he speaks, his voice is soft.
'Unless I misread Professor Slughorn's syllabus, you have not studied Wolfsbane, nor have you ever had the opportunity to brew it before. One wonders who taught you to brew it.'
Hermione manages to keep her features neutral as the perfect response springs from her lips. 'You did, sir.'
She will not grasp the ironic truth of her statement for many months.
Malfoy's dining room has a bank of windows looking out on the Rhône and is empty but for two house-elves laying out breakfast on the sideboard and her host, who is seated at the head of the table in a pewter silk morning robe.
Perhaps the years of quiet life have improved him, or perhaps she's simply able to appreciate it now that she's not in mortal peril, but she is momentarily taken aback by the striking figure he cuts, simply sitting there regarding her with curiosity rather than hostility. The colourless light from outside flatters his impossibly pale hair.
'Lucius Malfoy.' It's a challenge to keep calm as her heart begins to pound. 'Thank you for your kind invitation to breakfast.'
'Not at all,' he says, crossing his legs. 'Anything I can do to assist you. This is an official investigation, is it not?'
'Nothing so formal. Just a friendly visit.'
As soon as the words are spoken, she knows she's made a mistake. Lucius's indifferent expression does not waver, but it's as though the air around him freezes.
'To what do I owe the honour?' he asks, fingering the lapel of his robe in such a way as to suggest the wand hidden beneath.
'Magical allergies,' she says, hoping forthrightness will win her points. She is rewarded with seeing Lucius momentarily at a loss for words.
Not wishing to stay any longer than necessary, she doesn't let Lucius flounder for long. 'I observed something curious on the Pont Saint-Bénezet and I followed it to your door — nothing untoward, of course. If you can spare a few moments now, I'll be happy to explain.'
His wand hand relaxes and he brushes away a piece of non-existent lint before returning his hand to his lap. 'Moments I can spare. Even minutes, if you desire breakfast.' He gestures at the buffet.
The breakfast betrays Malfoy's long residence in France. In addition to eggs, bacon, toast, and tea, there is pain au chocolateand a pot of strong coffee. Though she doubts her stomach is settled enough to eat much, she fills her plate and sits in the chair indicated by her host. He allows her a few bites of toast before beginning the interrogation.
'At your leisure, Hermione.'
She ignores the little hiccup from her insides at the way he says her name. 'In the past twenty years, we've noticed a marked increase in patients seeking treatment for severe sensitivity to things like potion ingredients and magical creatures. And I don't mean simply sneezing or watery eyes. We believe that the wizard or witch's internal power attacks a magical source outside the body, like potions or charmed objects, and with enough exposure to the allergen, we've seen cases of severe magical depletion, and even death.'
'Interesting,' says Lucius, clearly meaning the opposite.
'One patient had to give up his wand because his own magic attacked the dragon heartstring core.'
'My own granddaughter developed a sensitivity to the winged pony her father bought for her fifth birthday. Terribly sad.'
'Quite,' says Hermione flatly, trying not to sound annoyed by his frivolity. She almost prefers the quieter, more dangerous version she knew before. 'We haven't yet determined why a witch or wizard's magic would become so damagingly fixated on another magical source, but we've found a way to diagnose it.'
Lucius merely raises an eyebrow.
'When the body's magic directly attacks an external source, the magic is broken down into components. We've developed a test to detect the residue and track where allergic reactions are occurring.' She says this very fast.
'You are to be congratulated, I'm sure,' he says, not bothering to disguise the irony in his voice. 'And this has brought you to my doorstep?'
'I'm in Avignon on holiday. When I visited the Pont Saint-Bénezet, I noticed unusual levels of the residue, and the closer I got to your home, the stronger the readings.'
'Do you frequently bring your work on holiday?'
She holds out her arm. 'The meter is in the face of my wristwatch,' she says. 'It's normally blue but gets redder when the particles are around.'
Lucius examines the face of her watch, which is bright purple. 'I see. And what do you suppose it means?'
'I haven't a clue. But don't you think it's worth looking into?'
He gives an elegant shrug. 'Perhaps. But you, dear girl, are on holiday, and I have guests who will be arriving for breakfast very soon.'
She hesitates. This isn't going to be easy. 'I don't know that this can wait,' she says quietly. 'As far as we've been able to determine, the residue only exists in the presence of someone suffering from a severe magical allergy. Whatever the source is, it's far better if we identify it straight away, since there's no guarantee that it'll be here when I get back.'
'And if I regretfully decline to have my home searched?'
'Then I leave,' she says. 'However, these readings indicate unheard-of levels of allergic response. If one or more of your guests is in distress, I might be able to help him or her.'
He looks at her appraisingly. She knows she's been bold, but he must understand the facts before making a decision.
'I suppose I'd be a bad host if I allowed a guest to expire without explicit permission to do so. You may stay until you've satisfied yourself that none of my guests is dying.'
His words make her inexplicably nervous. 'Thank you, Mr Malfoy.'
He gives her a cool smile and rises to refresh his cup of coffee. She deliberately relaxes the hand that's been gripping the handle of her wand since she saw the tapestry.
When Hermione returns to the Potions classroom to brew the Wolfsbane the following month, she finds Professor Snape even more peevish than usual. This is not surprising, given that the moon is waxing and will be full in a few days, and his temper was a sight to behold at the same time in the last lunar cycle. Because that full moon fell on a Saturday, she had no opportunity to observe him the morning after. This month, the moon will be full on Monday, so she will be able to observe the after-effects of his transformation and to what degree her potion helps. She is determined to make this month's batch even better than last month's.
Wordlessly, she gathers the ingredients from the cupboard and starts chopping, slicing, and crushing. She recalls Professor Lupin's complaint about the potion's disgusting flavour, so this month she's decided to use fresh mint as a stabiliser. She doubts it will affect the final taste much, but at least she feels as though she's doing something to address the problem.
When she adds the aconite, Professor Snape casts the Bubble-Head Charm, which satisfies her not only because it means he's paying attention to her, but also because it supports her werewolf theory, since aconite is the potion's namesake. Her motions are surer tonight, and the first stage takes her twenty minutes fewer than last time, and her fingers survive the ordeal intact. When she finishes, she sees that he is still bent over the offending volume, but she musters her courage and approaches his desk.
'I'm finished for tonight, sir,' she says.
He waits a few seconds before insouciantly looking up. He doesn't meet her eyes. He simply gazes at the potion. He gives an inarticulate grunt and waves his hand dismissively towards the door.
Hermione truly doesn't expect any words of encouragement or, Merlin forbid, congratulation, but this brusque brush-off sets her teeth on edge.
'I used fresh peppermint this month. I thought it might improve the taste.'
He looks up from his book and scowls at her. 'It won't. Now remove yourself from my presence so I can get some actual work done tonight.'
Only the least bit abashed, she returns to her workstation, scribbles a few notes in her Wolfsbane journal, and puts her belongings into her bag.
'Still,' she says, hoping the brightness in her voice sounds less affected to his ears than to hers, 'at least you have the chance to read.'
His face flushes, giving him a feral aspect. 'Five points from Gryffindor for utter inanity.'
She is simultaneously elated at having got his full attention and thrilled by his anger. Clearly she was mistaken — he is not reading the book just to distract her. He seems genuinely disconcerted, and his anger is suddenly intoxicating. She can't help meeting his eyes. 'Is it a good book, sir?'
As quickly as his ire flares, it ebbs, and his face is the empty mask she is accustomed to seeing. 'Twenty points, Miss Granger. Care to make it fifty?'
She flees, immediately regretful that she has lost twenty-five house points for Gryffindor. It's not only because Harry is earning more points in Potions than she is, which rankles, but also because N.E.W.T.S. classes are full of the very best students, and it is more difficult to distinguish herself. Still, she can't help but feel she's gained something more valuable than house points.
Hermione can't decide whether it would be a good or a bad thing to see any other former Death Eaters at Malfoy's. On the one hand, it would be terrifying and traumatic. On the other hand, she'd know what she was dealing with. However, it turns out to be a pointless line of thought, since Hermione doesn't know any of the dozen or so people who trickle in to breakfast.
Several of them look at her curiously, the unknown witch sitting at their host's right hand, but say nothing to her as they fill their plates and eat. Hermione can't understand why she feels increasingly unsettled, but she continues to monitor her wristwatch, which remains stubbornly grape, never growing redder or bluer. To her relief, none of Malfoy's guests appear ill in the least.
For his part, Lucius says little until the guests finish eating, at which point he begins to discuss the day's activities. Hermione takes this as her cue to leave and gives her host a quick nod, puts her serviette on the table, and rises.
'I trust you're satisfied, Hermione?'
There is a strangled sound from the end of the table, and Hermione sees that an older gentleman with snow-white whiskers is turning red in the face. She rushes to his side.
'Are you all right, sir?' she asks. When he fails to answer, she wraps her arms around him and pulls in sharply just below his sternum. A piece of croissant pops out of his mouth on to the table. A few of the guests make disgusted sounds, but Hermione only cares about the man with the whiskers, who takes an enormous, shuddering breath and begins to cough.
She Vanishes the croissant and casts Aguamenti into his empty teacup. He drinks, nodding gratefully, and continues to cough into his handkerchief. He rises, squeezing Hermione's hand gratefully, and gives Lucius an apologetic bow as he excuses himself from the table.
Hermione envies him the grace of his exit, even as the guests murmur. She gives Lucius a curt nod, which he returns, and she makes a beeline for the corridor that leads to the entrance hall.
She manages to find her way to the door after only a few wrong turns and is a few steps from the broken edge of the bridge when Batty the house elf appears.
'Master Lucius asks if Miss will stay.'
Hermione trips on the edge of a stone, and it's only her proximity to the hitching post that keeps her from falling on her face. 'I don't understand.'
'Master Lucius is grateful to Miss for saving his friend and would like to make up for past misunderstandings.'
'I really don't think—' says Hermione.
'Master Lucius is most eager for Miss to stay the night,' says Batty, twisting his ear with a plaintive look on his face.
It's the ear-twisting that does it. Hermione sighs. 'I'm staying at the Gateau du Fromage,' she says.
'Batty will ensure that Miss's things are seen to,' says the elf, bowing gratefully. 'Now, if Miss would like to finish breakfast in the kitchen, Master Lucius would like to see Miss in the library afterwards.'
Hermione tries to ignore the excitement that sparks to life at the mention of the word 'library.'