I'm not really sure of etiquette, after an eight year break. It feels a bit trite to apologise for nearly a decade's delay in posting. Rereading this story, I decided it would be a shame to let it go to waste. I have some new ideas, so we'll see where they take me. I hope you enjoy.
They took an hour to prepare, double- and triple-checking their glamours, dress robes, wedding rings, and going over everything they had already told the Malfoys to make sure they didn't contradict themselves. After Severus's distraction tactics of the evening, Hermione found that her nerves had settled a little, although she still could not get rid of the butterflies in her stomach. Severus's physical presence helped a great deal, and she felt a quiet sense of resolution settle over her, anxiety all but gone.
They arrived outside the main gates for a second time and, hand in hand, began the walk up the driveway in silence. Narcissa Malfoy greeted them in person at the door, a courtesy that surprised Hermione and, judging by the nearly imperceptible straightening of his posture, surprised Severus as well.
"Welcome," Narcissa said, if not warmly then at least genially, "Do come in! It's a pleasure to have you here with us again."
"The pleasure is ours," Severus replied politely. And the lying starts already, Hermione thought. This is going to be a long evening.
There were no other guests there that evening, and Hermione noticed that the dynamic that changed quite significantly since their last encounter. There was no separating of the sexes, as there had been with the larger group, and the conversation, while light, felt realer somehow, still inconsequential but somehow less vapid.
Over after dinner drinks, Lucius seemed to come to a decision.
"You picked an odd time to return to England. Given the current political climate – and your apparent preference to remain neutral," he observed. His body language was relaxed, casual, but next to him Narcissa stiffened almost imperceptibly. She covered the movement by reaching to refill their glasses, but it wasn't lost on Hermione.
"My personal circumstances left me with little choice," Severus replied, his posture mimicking Lucius', casually toying with his glass.
"I have connections," Lucius volunteered, his tone still light, "should you wish to become a bit more involved in the politics of your new home."
Hermione's heart was in her throat. Was this some kind of test? Was Lucius actually openly recruiting Severus to Voldemort's cause? Worse, would he be expected to actually meet the megalomaniac?
Beside her, Severus' posture stiffened. "I thank you for your considerate offer. While I believe we agree on certain shared values, I have no intention of abandoning my wife for an early grave." He reached for her hand and she squeezed back, the show of reassurance comforting.
He and Hermione had discussed the possibility of Lucius approaching them overtly, and agreed the best course of action was refusal. The alternative – that they might be brought before Voldemort, that Severus' dark mark might be revealed or their Fidelius charm discovered – posed too great a risk. It was dangerous, openly declaring a neutrality that could be read as opposition to Voldemort, but they had agreed it was their best option if their hand was forced.
Surprisingly, Lucius relaxed, almost as if he had been hoping for precisely that response.
"Understandable," he commented, "I have been considering the same prospect. I couldn't agree more with the Dark Lord's politics, of course, but their delivery is somewhat… unsettling." He took a deep breath, exchanged a searching look with his wife, and seemed to come to a decision.
"I'll be frank. The war is not going well for the Dark Lord. We are losing ground. My son has been… recruited… for the cause, and I am concerned he will fail in the task he has been given. Should that happen," he took a deep breath, "it would not be healthy to remain in England."
"You want us to help you hide in Australia," Hermione said flatly, shocked out of the façade of a polite, reserved pureblood wife.
Narcissa reached a hand out toward her, before appearing to think better of it and withdrew back into her seat. "You're only a little older than my son," she said softly. "But he's still just a child. He doesn't deserve to be caught up in a war of our making. I can't – won't – let him suffer for our choices. If he can't get the death eaters into Hogwarts…" she trailed off at the sharp look from her husband. Clearly, despite Lucius' promise of frankness, the Malfoys hadn't intended to reveal too much.
Lucius continued where his wife had finished. "We've lost faith in the Dark Lord's methods. And we will not lose our son."
Severus took a deep breath. "My Australian contacts believe me to be dead," he reminded them gently. "How do you think I can help you?"
"I'm sure you need them to continue to believe in your death." The threat wasn't lost on Hermione. Neither was it lost on Severus, by the tightening of his jaw.
Narcissa shot a warning look at her husband, and spoke up. "You can tell us how to access the magical community in Australia. How to integrate ourselves without suspicion. The level of scrutiny we can expect from the Australian ministry, what kind of documentation we're likely to require. Any familial connections we might want to capitalise on."
Severus sighed. "I see. I will need to think this over. You must understand there are risks – to me as well as you. If I help you leave, I'm effectively declaring my allegiance. I had hoped to avoid that."
"Your involvement need never be known," Narcissa replied. "We would be – very – grateful." Hermione reflected on the irony of Narcissa playing good cop to her husband's bad cop, and repressed a nervous giggle. She had not expected the evening to take such a turn. It was disquieting to have misread the situation so dramatically. So much for being a useful spy… although, she supposed, despite entirely misconstruing the Malfoys' intentions, they had ultimately learned some valuable information. If the Malfoys were prepared to defect from Voldemort in return for sanctuary… it raised some interesting possibilities.
"We will consider it," Severus said.
"You must realise we cannot let you leave without a wand oath that you will help us," Lucius said, his guard up. "You are welcome to stay the night while you consider. We will obliviate you in the morning if you choose not to assist."
Severus looked searchingly at Hermione for a moment, before replying. "I would prefer to sleep in my own bed tonight. But I am prepared to swear an oath that I will not act against your interests in this matter. Whether and how we might be of assistance," and here he looked at Hermione again, "requires a little more thought."
In the end, they both took the oath. Hermione appreciated that the oath itself – not to act against the Malfoys' interest in respect of the information they had learned that night – was not quite the same as an oath to act in the Malfoys' interest. She wondered what, if anything, Severus had in mind as their course of action. They could quietly disappear, she supposed. But without any actual contacts in Australia – or even any real knowledge of the Australian magical community – helping the Malfoys in the way they wanted was clearly out of the question. Though it would surely be a blow to Voldemort to lose one of his most trusted death eaters.
Back in their house, comfortably ensconced in the living room with cups of tea, Hermione did her best to mimic Severus' trademark raised eyebrow. He smirked at her, and raised his cup of tea in a silent salute before taking a sip. She huffed.
"Tell me what you're thinking!" she demanded, rather more shrilly than she'd intended. He was infuriating when he smirked at her like that, and he knew precisely what she wanted from him.
He smirked at her again, but sobered quickly. "I'm thinking it's time we paid a visit to Hogwarts," he told her.
Professor Dumbledore received them at ten o'clock the next morning. Hermione had no idea just what Severus had written in his letter to guarantee them such a quick response, but it had certainly been effective.
They had stayed up late the previous night – talking through different scenarios and potential courses of action until they were thoroughly exhausted. But they had agreed it was best to bring the information to Dumbledore as soon as possible.
"And what may I do for you, Mr Pane, Miss Green?" the headmaster asked briskly, with none of his usual airy manner, as soon as they had taken their seats.
"Miss Green and I are under the protection of the Fidelius charm," Severus began their rehearsed explanation. "We are members of the Order-" at that, Professor Dumbledore startled, "-and for a number of reasons it became impossible for us to continue our usual lives. We went into hiding and placed each other under the Fidelius – at your suggestion, Headmaster – to protect each other but more importantly to protect Hogwarts. There was a risk that Voldemort would make a concerted effort to breach Hogwarts' wards in order to obtain Miss Gr- Green. You arranged for us to stay quietly hidden away until the end of the war, but we have recently discovered there may a plan for the Death Eaters to break into Hogwarts regardless."
Severus paused to let the headmaster process everything he had said. Then he said, "I recognise this is difficult to absorb, and you can't trust us without some evidence. But we've agreed," and here he looked at Hermione, "that it's still too dangerous to remove the Fidelius. Once it comes down, even for an instant, Voldemort could realise what has happened and take steps to discover our safe house. I think the best way to convince you that we are who we say we are is to show you some memories. Do you still have your Pensieve?"
Dumbledore nodded his head slowly. "I believe that would be best." Turning his head to Hermione he asked "And you, Miss Green? Do you have anything to add?"
She smiled nervously at him. "Not just yet. Pr- I mean, Alexander and I have some suggestions for the way forward, but I think we're going to need you to trust us before we can start down that path."
Professor Dumbledore nodded again. "Let us proceed, then."
It took Severus the better part of two hours to take the headmaster through his memories. They had decided ahead of time which memories would have the most impact – beginning with Severus turning spy for the Order and sharing key pieces of information over the years. Then glimpses of Hermione's friendship with Harry Potter, her patented discoveries, Voldemort instructing Severus to abduct Hermione, and finally Albus's decision to have them place each other under the Fidelius.
Then, instead of explaining what the Malfoys had shared with them, they took the headmaster through more memories – Hermione telling Severus she had seen the Malfoys at the restaurant, their decision to spy on the Malfoys to see what they could learn, their last dinner party where Narcissa had revealed that Draco's task was to help the death eaters break into Hogwarts, and the Malfoys' desire to flee the country. They finished with the memory of the oath they had taken not to act against the Malfoys' interests in respect of the Malfoys' desire to escape from Voldemort's reach.
"So you see headmaster," Hermione said earnestly, once they had finished viewing the last of the memories, "we're not trying to hurt the Malfoys by giving you this information. We're hoping you'll take them into the Order's protection in exchange for their information and help bringing down Lord Voldemort."
Severus shot an amused look at Hermione, and added, "If Draco could be helped along in his task of opening up the school to the death eaters, we could lay a trap for them. We could catch the best part of Voldemort's fighting force – possibly even Voldemort himself if we can find a way of luring him along with his men."
Hermione looked at Dumbledore expectantly. He looked at Severus, then at her, then away, frowning for an interminable moment. Finally, just when she thought she would burst if he didn't say something soon, he sighed and met her eyes again.
"It seems we have some planning to do."