Hermione hadn't expected things to stay the same. You couldn't kiss your husband and then pretend it was a whim; it was serious stuff.
On the other hand, it was only when she started worrying what to wear on the morning afterwards that she realised how much things would be altered. She wasn't the sort of girl who worried about her appearance, and it seemed even sillier to care where the man she was living with her had already seen her bed hair at its worst for the last several months.
And yet it seemed right to acknowledge that things had changed by making an effort.
So she did.
She brushed out her hair, and tied it back in a loose pony tail, striking a note that fell somewhere between Pansy Parkinson trying too hard and Millicent couldn't care less slobbing around. She picked out her best jeans, and her favourite top.
And then she sat on her bed staring at the door for five minutes wondering what on earth they were going to talk about.
The weather just wasn't going to cut it as a topic of conversation.
After ten minutes of awkward silence across the table, it seemed as good a place to start as any.
"So," she said. "Do you think it's going to rain today?"
"It's Scotland," he replied. "And it's winter. I'd say it was very likely. It'd be very likely even if it were summer."
Whether her attempt to start a conversation reassured him, or, more likely, the opportunity to be sarcastic had restored his equilibrium, the exchange opened the floodgates.
"We've been invited spend Easter at Malfoy Manor," he said, spreading butter on his toast vigorously.
"Well, there may also be an element of Easter Eggs and cake, but essentially to plot, yes." Severus bit into his toast as if it had personally offended him.
"Plotting is good." Hermione snaffled the jam pot, and dipped her knife in. "Is it just going to be us and the Malfoys, or is it a more extended plotting?"
"I think, now that Minerva is on board, Narcissa is going to sound out the rest of the ladies. It's less direct than Lucius getting involved and allows negotiations to be conducted with no risks."
"So Lucius makes an offer to someone by getting his wife to talk to that someone's wife, who then brings back a reply." Hermione waved her knife round to illustrate the flow of information through a Pureblood gathering, and a blob of jam flew off and landed on Severus. "Instead of actually talking to the person in question and getting a straight answer. Figures. Anything to make life more complicated."
Severus grinned. "It's better than ending up dead by making the wrong offer to the wrong person." He put the back of his hand to his mouth to lick off the stray piece of jam.
"Did you have anything important you wanted to do this morning?" Hermione's eyes were fixed on Severus' mouth as it moved across his flesh.
"I had thought I might..." He looked up, and met her gaze. "Nothing important. Did you have something in mind?"
She nodded, mouth dry. Suddenly, it seemed very important that Severus should not leave the room without them trying out kissing again, to see if it still worked in the daylight.
She would never be able to recall how they moved to the sofa – not that the boys ever asked for the details – but the rest of it was brought into preternatural focus, so that she would always remember how he tasted of tea and marmite, the feel of the soft skin of his neck compared to the bristle of his cheek, and the deft way he insinuated his hands under her shirt.
It definitely still worked.
It worked so well that they nearly missed lunch, and when they finally emerged she felt as if her newfound experiences were written across her forehead in red letters. Her ability to sit down at the same table as Harry and Ron and make meaningless conversation about who had been seen talking to whom in Hogsmeade, and what Susan Bones had said to Hannah Abbot about Neville, was sorely tested. Her awkwardness was only eased when she looked up at Severus at the High Table, who was looking just the same as normal. He fixed her with a stare, then arched an eyebrow. She could almost hear him thinking that she was being silly - that the boys didn't notice anything, much less that their companion was well-snogged and glowing.
And so it proved. Whether it was short-sightedness, or a determined refusal to accept that Hermione might do anything of That Sort with Him, the boys continued to treat the day as if it were a day the same as any other.
She looked round at her fellow pupils all chattering away about trivia and felt as if there were a sheet of glass between them. Sound and light could pass through it, but when it came down to it they were separated by this fundamental gulf of understanding, one that had followed her throughout school. At first she had been a Muggleborn looking across the divide between those who were born to magic, and those who came to it later and she had set herself the task of knowing everything but that had only driven another wedge between her and her fellows. Supporting the rights of house elves had made that worse, so that the fight against Voldemort had merely been the cherry on the cake of Alienation.
It wasn't surprising that she'd ended up so peculiar that a middle-aged, slightly battered man was her best bet for some decent conversation and some fairly indecent snogging; she'd been doomed at the outset.
Ron reached across her for another bread roll, and she tsk'd. He grinned at her sheepishly, then nodded his head in the direction of Snape. "He seems chirpy. Has he found some kittens to torture?"
Hermione went pink, but said, with conscious dignity, "Don't talk about him like that."
"Don't be daft, Ron," Harry put in. "It's all the Honeyduke's chocolates she's been buying him. It was bound to sweeten him up in the end."
Ron nodded. "I thought it would take longer though - more like years than months."
"We've just had some good news," Hermione replied, determined to head the conversation off before she felt compelled to stand up for Severus, and thus reveal what had put that slight smile on his face. "We've been invited to stay at Malfoy Manor over Easter."
"That doesn't sound like good news to me." Ron split his roll as if it were Draco's head, staring at it with narrowed eyes.
"It shows that the political situation is shifting in our favour." Hermione nudged the butter towards Ron, and was rewarded with a grunt of thanks. She grinned. How unlike her own homelife that was!
"I suppose." Harry's gaze locked on the Slytherin table with a deplorable lack of subtlety. "Who else will be there?"
"I don't know, but I get the impression it's going to be almost everyone whose arm he can twist; or, at least, their wives. So I suppose Narcissa will be doing most of the twisting."
"You're getting to meet the Witches' Institute?" Ron's mouth dropped open, and then, when he was greeted with puzzled looks, he continued, "Look, everyone knows that the real power in the Wizarding World is the WI, even if it is called the Wizarding world. All it takes is one word from them and a chap's career is over, or he finds it hard to get a girlfriend, or his rent goes up. The only people who aren't scared of them, are the goblins, and that's only because they haven't let the lady goblins join. If they ever did, we'd be utterly under the thumb. We'd be fucked. Erm, no offence to the WI intended."
Ron looked as if he expected someone to tap him on the shoulder and tell him off for using bad language at any moment.
Hermione shrugged. "They can't be all that powerful; the law got passed anyway."
Ron swallowed. "Well, I'm not sure they cared about the law. They're mostly Pureblood anyway, and it's not as if it would affect them. Not really. No one would dare take out a marriage contract on one of them. Not without asking first."
"So, as usual, it's who you know not what you know, and it's the poor sodding Muggleborns who are left flapping in the breeze. I don't suppose they let Mudbloods into their select club?" Hermione asked bitterly.
"Dunno," said Ron. "And if I were you, I wouldn't ask. Not if you want them to help. Not ever, really. You do not want to cross them."
"You seem more worried about them than you ever were about Voldemort," Harry said, and Ron winced.
"Yeah, well." Ron lowered his voice. "Strictly between us, Mum wanted to join, but Gran, Dad's Mum, wouldn't put her up for membership. Mum was livid, but she's never said anything about it to anyone."
Though Hermione doubted that the WI had as much power as Ron was making out, any organisation that kept Molly Weasley quiet was clearly powerful enough for her purposes. Easter promised to be a lot of fun.
Things changed, but they stayed the same. It was a contradiction, but it was how things were. To the outside observer the school day passed as normal. There was studying, and essays, and being scowled at by Sylvia and her friends, and scowling at the Slytherins in turn. She couldn't glare at Draco, not when she knew they'd be under the same roof over the holidays, but she could glare at all his little hangers-on, and did.
Harry and Ron took care of the glaring at Draco on her behalf.
And then there was dinner, and she was always tempted to bolt it at the sort of speed that Ron at his worst managed, but she didn't want to draw attention to herself. She wasn't sure if Severus wanted the world to know about their changed circumstances, but she knew she didn't. It was the coward's way, to seek to put off the argument until they'd left school, and she could hide from them more effectively. It was also, as Severus would be sure to agree, the sensible way.
She felt nervous again, approaching their quarters after dinner. It was all too new, and too unsettled, for her to feel any confidence in Things, vague Things, unnameable Things.
And then she would open the door, and it felt like they truly were their quarters at last, and she had a place here.
There was one rule, though. He wouldn't talk to her until she'd changed out of her uniform. Once she had done that, and become Hermione not Miss Granger, then she was allowed to sit on the sofa, kick her slippers off, and put her feet on the table in front of the fire.
She didn't ask what sort of day he'd had, because it was always bad.
And he didn't ask what sort of day she'd had, because it was either good, and involved talking about Harry and Ron, or it was bad, and involved complaining about Draco or his fellow teachers.
They didn't talk about potions, or politics, or what they would do when Hermione left school. They talked about what book she'd just read, and he continued to pilfer his way through her library, though she was now allowed the same favour in return.
They talked about what music he liked to listen to, and nearly had their first row when she giggled at his preference for Pink Floyd, his scowl only fading when she pointed out how apposite a certain song about teaching was.
She didn't say they were her father's favourite group; that would have lead to more frowning.
They also talked about what play they might go and see in the holidays if they had the time, and perhaps go out to dinner, just like any normal couple who were courting.
Except he never made the first move.
There would come a point in the evening when the talk trailed to nothing, and he would look at her like the last cockroach cluster at the bottom of the bag shared between two, and he was too polite to take it.
It was considerate, it was even romantic, but as the trip to Malfoy Manor came closer, it was also beginning to irritate her – why should she have to do all the work?
Nevertheless, when she packed for their end of term trip to Malfoy Manor, she included her negligee and omitted the cardigan. She wasn't sure how far she wanted to push things but a certain amount of pushing was called for.
They floo'd to the Manor rather than Apparated. This was business to be conducted discreetly and out of the view of the Ministry, even if half of the Ministry was invited to the house party. That half that was invited didn't want the half that hadn't been invited to know about it, not even for the pleasure of gloating.
Draco was there to greet the as they stepped out of the chimney.
"Mum wanted to be here to meet you," he said. "But there's some huge crisis about seating arrangements, the spell on the ice sculptures wore off and she's a little fraught. No slight intended, I promise."
"I'm sure," Severus said, and for once there was no satirical undercurrent.
"Is there something I can do to help?" Hermione asked.
Both men looked at her in surprise.
"Don't tell me it's some breach of arcane etiquette?" she said.
"Not really," Draco replied, dry as the desert. "It's just that people in our kinds of circles wouldn't lift a hand to help a dying man unless there was something in it for them."
Draco summoned an Elf to take their bags. "You're in the family wing. It's safer."
Hermione winced. She'd never get used to their servitude. "Are we in any danger, then?"
"Not really, I hope." Draco shrugged, looking a little uneasy. "Better to be safe, though, than sorry. Dinner is in an hour, so I'll leave you to get ready."
Hermione was sure that there was some obscure reason for the seating arrangements at dinner. She was also sure that she wasn't expected to understand them, and if she asked for an explanation she would get one given in the faintly pitying manner of someone explaining the obvious to a fool and that she would still not understand it.
Therefore, she did not ask and settled for being sandwiched between a nondescript man of little conversation and Lucius, whilst her husband sat next to Narcissa at the other end of the table. Severus had kindly explained the rule to her of talking to the man on her left during the first course, and the man on her right for the second course, and so on and so forth.
He hadn't explained what she had to talk to Lucius about, other than the weather, and that had been canvassed thoroughly in the drawing room on her arrival. The English weather was infinitely changeable in theory, but in practice, near the house of a powerful wizard, that was something rarely left to chance, especially when the roses had to look their best for a house party.
Severus and Narcissa had lots to say to each other, and it was hard to stop casting anxious glances down at him.
"We're not going to eat you, you know," Lucius murmured. "There's really no need to keep looking to Severus to rescue you."
Hermione sliced the head off her prawn with a deft twist of her wrist, and bit down hard on its soft flesh.
Hermione had no idea what point she had made, but was damned if she was going to admit that.
"You will be delighted to know that the charming man to your left is the chief of the medical wizardry committee, the one that discovered our little problem with squibs."
Hermione blinked. "Did he suggest the Marriage Law?"
"No," Lucius said slowly, drawing the word out through pursed lips. "Not entirely. He laid the foundation work, as it were. It was others who raised the rest of the edifice. However, I thought it would be instructive if you were to ask all sorts of awkward questions about his research. Severus says you're very good at that."
Hermione was half amused that Severus had admitted to someone else that she had some brains and ability, and half annoyed that it was encompassed as 'ability to ask awkward questions'.
The entrees having been despatched, the next course was brought in with all due ceremony, and a light, fragrant soup was placed before her. She took a couple of mouthfuls, careful to move the spoon away from her in the bowl according to strict etiquette.
She wanted to take her bread roll and dunk it in the soup, then bite down on it, dripping soup onto the pristine linens, just to show people how artificial all these rules were. But Severus had impressed on her the need to make a good impression, no matter how shallow her judges.
She broke a piece of bread off, nibbled it gently, then turned to her companion.
"You work for the Ministry," she said.
The man nodded.
"Is it interesting work?"
"I think so," he replied.
"Oh do tell me about it," Hermione said, damning herself as a gushing fool. "I'm sure it's fascinating."
The man looked unconvinced, but outlined the basic details of his recent research.
"So, there is an increased incidence in squibs," Hermione prompted.
"It appears so." The man pursed his lips. "The data certainly points that way."
"You used Greene's Arithmantic progression to analyse it, I suppose?"
The man blinked at her.
"Or was it Franciln's Septent?"
"I really couldn't say."
"Couldn't, or won't?" Hermione asked. "Or is that can't because you didn't do a proper analysis?"
The man gaped at her, and was only saved from more skewering by the changing of the courses, and Hermione having to return her attention to Lucius.
"You two appear to be developing an understanding," Lucius said.
"For that to occur, he would need to have some sort of understanding himself," she hissed. "Can you believe that they didn't even begin to test the figures with arithmancy?"
"Of course," Lucius replied, and nodded at someone down the table, half smile fixed in place. "If they'd analysed the results, then their actions would be limited by the results, rather than, shall we say, remaining untrammelled and unconfined?"
Hermione swore, her finger's turning white on the knife she was holding.
"Ah, yes," Lucius said. "Perhaps I was being a little facetious there. Not taking things seriously enough, and that plate is Sevres you know. I'd be grateful if you didn't break it. Or kill anyone, that does unbalance a table so half way through a meal."
Hermione muttered something rude about Purebloods and what they could do with their etiquette under her breath.
"I suppose you could," Lucius said doubtfully. "Given enough olive oil, and a shrinking spell. But Twonk's Guide to Etiquette is a very large book."
Hermione snorted, and smiled unwillingly.
"That's better. Now, remember, this is about gathering information. The revenge phase comes later. Only at that point can you ask Severus to talk you through the range of nasty potions he has access to."
"All right," she said. "I won't allow myself to be distracted again."
"Good Gir...er person," Lucius said. "Now smile at the stupid little man, and make him tell you everything he knows."
The role of Mata Hari was new to Hermione, and the results of her questioning were disappointing. This was not, Lucius was kind enough to say over brandy in the Library later, due to lack of technique on her part but due to lack of knowledge on the part of her interviewee.
"It's not my fault he's an idiot," she said defensively.
"Lucius does actually mean what he says in this instance," Severus replied. "You did well, with very poor material."
"I'd love to get my hands on the raw data." Hermione's hands twitched, as if she was running the arithmantic equations. "He hadn't gone back far enough, for one thing. You really would need to look at the last 150 years to see if it was a trend or a blip."
"Ah," said Lucius, and crossed his legs at the ankle. He stared meditatively for some while. "I am telling you this because if I don't you will pursue the point, and this will alienate people we need. From all that Severus tells me, informing you to leave something alone only drives you to greater curiosity."
"It is said that, in the past, some of the old families did not necessarily disclose the birth of squibs. Record keeping was rather more haphazard than it is currently – this is one of the reasons that record keeping isn't haphazard, after a particularly unfortunate scandal." Lucius pursed his lips. "The enlightened families would make arrangements for their accidents of birth to be passed along to suitable foster parents, provided for, and left to make their own way in the muggle world."
"Which they won't admit," Hermione said.
Lucius and Severus exchanged a long, hard look. "You'd better tell her," Severus said.
"There's worse, isn't there?" Hermione looked up at the ceiling, and took a deep breath. "Go on."
"Not all families were enlightened," Lucius said. "There were... accidents, shall we say."
"But I don't see what that has to do with anything," Hermione said. "It explains the sudden rise in squibs. There may be no sudden rise at all!"
"And you imagine that any of the pureblood families would admit this went on, or that if it went on, their family had anything to do with it?" Lucius snapped.
"If you've got nothing to hide," Hermione said firmly, "why should you care? Surely you're not that worried about your precious bloodlines that you'd be ashamed to admit to a squib here and there, one that was long gone, in a time long past." She paused, and looked hard at Lucius. "Unless you do have something to hide?"
Hermione had forgotten they were enemies.
She'd become accustomed to the almost-cosy relationship with the Malfoys, the subtle compliments, the pretending to give a shit about what she wanted. All that was gone in an instant, and she was confronted with the Lucius of old, the one who'd threatened Harry, who'd tried to kill them at the Ministry, who thought she was less than the mud beneath his feet. Lucius was livid with rage, something she supposed few people had seen and not regretted shortly thereafter.
"I see," she said, eyes locked to his, her hand itching to stray to her wand. "Oh yes, I see very clearly. We mustn't upset the poor Purebloods, must we? Not even if they've done something nasty. Especially if they've done something nasty, because we must protect their delicate little feelings. Sod the fact that the Muggleborns are the ones paying the price for this!"
"You must see..." began Lucius.
"No, no I don't have to see anything," Hermione said. "I will concede the need not to say anything, but I am not going to see it your way. Not ever. There are some things that are too important to compromise over."
"You sound just like my father," Lucius said blandly.
Hermione didn't get the impression it was a compliment.
By the time Hermione reached her room later that night, she wouldn't have cared whether the connecting door between her room and Severus' was open and she'd issued an engraved invitation to shag like crups. It wouldn't have mattered if Severus had stripped naked, rubbed himself all over with body oil, and sprayed the room with Amortentia.
She was decidedly Not In the Mood.
Fortunately, Severus had never supposed that she would be. He was Slytherin to the core, and could not be distracted from serious matters like plotting by lingerie.
Though his eye did linger a little on the attractive nightie she had slipped into, and she felt a little more cheerful about life.
"I don't know how you put up with that man," she snapped. "I know he's your friend, but he's the most irritating, nasty, shifty piece of work…."
"We're not going to have that conversation are we?"
"The one where you tell me you don't like any of my friends and tell me I'm not allowed to see them anymore?"
Hermione blinked at him. "You actually like Lucius?"
"Despite the casual racism, the lying, cheating and backstabbing?"
"You like Potter," Severus replied, looking slightly surly.
"He's never tried to kill me! It's perfectly acceptable to like Harry."
Severus shrugged, indicating that there were many faults that could be laid at the feet of Harry Potter but that he was too polite to mention them all. "I don't say you can't be friends with him though."
"I haven't said you can't be friends with Lucius either!" Hermione protested.
"Good, that's settled then," Severus replied, and smirked.
"What? Hang on, what just happened here?"
"We had a silly argument to distract you from your full and frank discussion of Lucius' faults which would have kept us up all night, and prevented you from talking yourself into not working with him just because he's an arse."
"Oh," Hermione said. "He is an arse, though."
"He is that, but the thing is he's not a wrong arse. This is annoying, but it is true."
Hermione sat on the bed. "Right. So does he have any big ideas for what we're going to do tomorrow?"
"You're going to be invited to take tea with representatives from the Witches Institute. Narcissa is Treasurer."
Hermione correctly interpreted that to mean that bribes had been offered to induce the WI to meet her and consider her plea for…. "What am I supposed to tell them?"
"Just be yourself," Severus replied.
"That's not a plan. I need a plan. I need some paper to write down a plan once I've thought of one."
"Just be yourself," Severus said again, and put his hand on her arm.
She looked down at his long fingers and the way they curved round her wrist, and wondered whether skill in potions translated into other areas.
"I think that I could do with some sort of distraction," she said. "To keep from panicking."
"You could read a book," Severus said, but his voice was rich and dark in her ear, full of promise as to what the other options could be.
"Or we could try sex again," she said brightly, trying to remember how to do that thing that Ginny was always talking about that would squeeze her breasts together and make them look bigger that always worked on Harry. "If you'd like."
Severus shifted against her, and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. "Your place or mine?"
"Which one do you think is safe from Lucius' prying eyes?"
Severus flicked his hand out lazily in an impressive display of wandless magic. "Both of them. Now."
"Well, as we're already here…."
It was nothing like the first time.
They took their time, both being thorough and determined people. They'd had enough practice at kissing to know how to fit their faces together without bumping noses. Severus knew that Hermione melted when he ran a thumb along her neck to trace her collar bone. Hermione knew that Severus had sensitive ear lobes, that there was a spot between his shoulder blades that made him sigh if she clutched at it, and it turned out that he reacted even more strongly when she tried the same thing when his shirt was on the floor not his back.
They found out new things about each other: that Severus liked it when Hermione ran her fingers through his hair, even when her fingers tightened round his head to pull him closer; that Severus had impressive breath control; that Hermione was brave and adventurous in bed to Severus' evident satisfaction; and that when it was all over they preferred to stay wrapped round each other in a tight embrace.
"Mmmm," Hermione said. "I think we've found something you like more than cockroach clusters."
Severus smiled into her shoulder, and kissed her neck. "Of course, the ideal would be to find a way to combine the two. Perhaps you should balance a cluster on each nipple."
"I think melted chocolate would be better for that sort of thing," she replied.
"I suppose so." There was a pause before Severus added, tentatively, "Does that mean you'd like to try that?"
"It doesn't have to be chocolate, but I'd like to try other things."
"Ah," he said. "Good."
"About the chocolate?"
"Well, and the other things too."
"I have a book," she said, sounding equally tentative as he had before.
He snorted. "I thought you might."
She elbowed him in the ribs, but less sharply than she might have done. She was feeling mellow.
"I might have a book or two of my own," he said.
"We could swap notes."
"Colour co-ordinated notes."
"No timetable, though," she said. "That wouldn't be romantic."
"Are we going to be romantic?"
"Yes, we are," she said firmly.
"I'm not sure I'm very good at romantic."
"You're doing just fine so far, Severus. Just fine."
Breakfast was awkward. She wanted to sit next to Severus on the one hand, because she was feeling fond of him. But on the other hand, she didn't want anyone to know what they had been up to the night before, and in this nest of vipers even the slightest of hints would be enough to betray them.
Matters were taken out of her hand by Narcissa directing Severus to sit by her and Hermione to sit by Lucius who courteously offered her a series of chafing dishes filled with all the vital elements of a cooked breakfast: bacon, eggs both scrambled and poached, sausages, black pudding, and toast kept warm in a charmed toast rack.
"You have a hearty appetite," Lucius observed. "Unlike so many modern witches who think there is something wrong with eating more than a teaspoon of rabbit food for breakfast."
"Er, yes," said Hermione. "I am quite hungry."
She went pink.
"Indeed?" Lucius said. "How interesting."
Lucius cool glance assessed Hermione's flushed face, then flicked down to Severus at the other end of the table.
"I didn't say anything," she said.
"You really didn't need to. Sits the wind in that quarter, eh? I hope this isn't going to dampen your desire to bring down the Law," he said, chasing a mushroom out from the piece of toast it had sequestered itself under. "You may be rather less keen, now that you have an incentive to stay married, and I was rather counting on you."
"The Law doesn't just affect me," she said.
"Ah, altruism. Such a useful quality. In others."
"Besides," she said. "I'd want a divorce from Severus anyway."
Lucius' gaze hardened. "Indeed," he said, his tone arctic. "And does Severus know this?"
"I should think so," she replied slowly, wondering quite what her husband expected from the future. They'd never really discussed it.
Lucius didn't say another word to her for the rest of breakfast.
At first this was rather soothing, saving her from having to pay attention to all the subtleties of a conversation with a Slytherin, all whilst trying to work out which knife and fork to use to tackle the grapefruit, but eventually the silence was just as unnerving as any conversation would have been.
"What are the plans for today?" she asked eventually, when the quiet became too much for her. Her voice was loud against the hush.
"The Witches Institute will be joining us for morning coffee in an hour or so," Narcissa said. "You might want to think about changing your robes into something more traditional."
"I don't think so," Hermione said. "They know I'm Muggleborn, no need to pretend otherwise."
"But you want to make a good impression," Narcissa said.
"And dressing like a pureblood will do that?"
Both Malfoys looked at her as if she was speaking a foreign language.
"Are you by any chance suggesting that being pureblood is somehow superior to being Muggleborn?" Hermione added to clarify the issue.
"Of course not," Narcissa said, exchanging a long look with her husband. "We were just suggesting it would be polite, tactful even, to respect the culture of the people you are seeking a favour from."
"What do you think, Severus?" Hermione asked.
"I think you should be yourself," Severus replied. "You are not a supplicant, no matter what the WI thinks."
"Severus!" Narcissa looked at him with wide eyes, then remembered she was beyond being shocked and schooled her face into smooth blandness. "I don't think you have the experience with the WI that I have, and I would suggest that you would be better guided by me."
"And I've spent a lifetime dealing with people obsessed with power," Severus replied.
"They're not death eaters." Lucius smirked.
"I was referring to Minerva McGonagall and her little cabal. You can't afford to show them a moment of weakness." Severus smiled at Hermione, almost sweetly. "You'll be fine."
Narcissa threw her hands in the air. "I accept no responsibility for this. I think this is a bad idea in a series of bad ideas, but I can see you won't change your mind. You two go off and find something to do that will keep you out of the trouble – I am not adding another log to the conflagration by taking men into the meeting."
"I need to talk to Severus first," Hermione said.
"You'll be fine," Severus said. "I'll talk to you afterwards."
Hermione wanted to press the point. She didn't want Lucius talking to Severus about their divorce before she had a chance to clear up a few points, but it was obvious that the Malfoys were getting a bit twitchy about the meeting and there just wasn't going to be time.
"All right," she said. "I'll see you later. And don't smoke too many cigars."
"No, Mrs Snape," Severus said mockingly, and then allowed himself to be escorted off towards the library.
Hermione watched him go, wishing she could go with him.
"You'll get a chance to see the library yourself," Narcissa said. "I know how much of a bookworm you are. There's no need to worry that you're missing out."
"I'm rather more worried about what your husband is going to be telling my husband," Hermione replied. "But there's nothing for it now."
Narcissa gave her a long look. "I suggest you pay more attention to what you're going to say to the WI. You only have one chance, and if you make a mistake, there will be no other opportunity to persuade them to back Minerva."
The Witches Institute did not look frightening.
She realised that although teenage years filled with terror and the risk of death hadn't been especially fun to live through, they did give you an advantage over others when it came to dealing with pressured situations. They wore dark robes, but without hoods, and there were no masks. Nor, despite the gimlet gaze, were they actively trying to kill her. On the whole, Hermione had met scarier people, and hexed them comprehensively.
Her wand hand twitched.
"So," Mrs Nott said, once tea and cake had been distributed. "You married Severus Snape. I can understand why you might wish to be free of him, but surely you've considered more direct methods."
"The second most dangerous man in the country?" Hermione replied.
"Not the first?" put in Mrs Zabini.
"I think Harry can lay claim to that title." Hermione's smile was arctic.
Mrs Nott and Mrs Zabini leaned back in their chairs and sipped at their tea. This was clearly the signal for the other women to start their line of questioning, turning the whole meeting into some sort of bizarre relay interrogation as to her background, her plans, where she bought her shoes, what her husband thought about it all.
Hermione snorted. And no one who had sat through Potions with her husband would be moved by this feeble attempt at intimidation.
She had sense enough not to mention that to them, so the Malfoy injunction to be tactful had been honoured though it was hard to keep her tongue in the face of such inanity.
Some signal passed between the ladies, somewhere between the second cup of tea and the last piece of cake, and all but Mrs Zabini leaned back in their chairs, content for her to take the lead.
"You come to us as a supplicant," she said.
Hermione put her cup down with a decided clink. "I do not."
"You want a favour, do you not?" Narcissa put in.
"No," Hermione replied. "I would like us to work together to a common aim, but it is one that gives you as much advantage as me."
"Forgive me," Mrs Zabini said. "I hadn't thought the Marriage Law affected anyone but Muggleborns."
It was amazing, Hermione thought, how obnoxious Muggleborn sounded in these circumstances.
"And you think that it will stop with Muggleborns?" Hermione asked. "Do you not see what the natural conclusion of this will be?"
Mrs Zabini arched an eyebrow.
"The Marriage Act will not improve the birth rate because the historical birth rate records are inaccurate." Hermione hoped that would be vague enough. "So what happens when birth rates do not rise? They have to widen the reach. No woman will be allowed contraception, abortion will be illegal, and women – all women – will be reduced to nothing more than baby machines. And it won't stop at two children; it'll be three, then four."
Mrs Zabini showed no reaction.
"You look young enough to have another couple of children," Hermione said. "After all, it's your duty to the Wizarding World to do the right thing. So what if you have a career, or a life of your own. There'll be none of that in five years' time. You'll be at home with a squalling baby, wiping up poo."
"I have house elves," Mrs Zabini said with a smile. "They can look after the children."
"So you think that a Ministry that thinks it has a right to decide the most fundamental issues for you – who you can marry, how many children you can have – is going to stop there. House elves will be banned from looking after children. After all, everyone knows that a mother's love is sacred and paramount in securing the wellbeing of a child. We wouldn't want anyone turning into another Dark Lord would we?"
"And how do you know all this?" Mrs Nott asked. "Do you have well placed spies?"
Hermione smiled sweetly, but made no reply. It was far better for them to think she was concealing her sources than for them to realise she had no idea if that was what the Ministry planned. If it was a lie, it was a convincing one.
The members of the WI were glancing at each other uneasily, wondering if the Ministry would go that far, and calculating how many years would be taken up looking after a second batch of children long after the first ones had left home.
They did not like the answers. No one had difficulty believing the Ministry could be that stupid and that oppressive.
"They wouldn't dare," said one matron from the rear. "Er, would they?"
"We have wands, and power," Mrs Zabini replied without turning round. "They could not."
"Oh, yeah?" Hermione said, aware she was sounding like someone arguing in the playground about whose dad was bigger than whose. "I've got a wand, but they threatened to take it away from me. I brought down a Dark Lord, but I was still going to be subject to the stupid law. The more powerful you are, the more likely you are to be a rallying point for resistance, and the more likely you are to be singled out."
Mrs Zabini pursed her lips. "We will consider your points."
Hermione nodded. "I look forward to hearing from you."
It was probably expected that she sit there for another hour or so gossiping about who said what to whom at the last party but the sooner she left the sooner they could start discussing her news, so she made her excuses and left them to it.
She wanted to find her husband but thought that he wouldn't appreciate him interrupting prime plotting with Lucius just so she could set out her views on the state of their marriage, so she went to her room to find a book to read.
She couldn't settle with any of the eight books she'd brought. She regretted being persuaded to cut back her reading matter to the bare minimum, and regretted even more that she'd brought sensible books to do with arithmantic equations and not a light read.
She'd picked up and discarded all eight books at least twice before a knock on the door heralded the arrival of Severus.
"Come in," she said.
Severus looked grave and serious when he came through the door, and Hermione felt her stomach lurch.
"What have you and Lucius been talking about all this time?" She patted the bed by her side, inviting him to sit by her.
He sat on the bed and toed his boots off, resting his long legs on the coverlet nearly – but not quite – touching her own legs. "Plotting," he said. "And more plotting. Names. Contacts. Working out who to use, who to flatter, and who to bully."
"I don't know how the WI took to me," Hermione said with a sigh. "I hope I frightened them enough to take our side, but …."
"Narcissa seemed content," Severus said.
"I'm surprised she had anything good to say," Hermione replied with a snort.
"She didn't." Severus smirked. "But she didn't paint you as a complete failure either. I think we must take that as faint praise, but praise nonetheless."
"I suppose." Hermione flicked a glance at him. "Did Lucius mention anything else? Something about us?"
Hermione reflected on the likelihood of Lucius keeping his patrician nose out of their affairs, and concluded that she wouldn't be able to find anyone to bet against it.
"Oh, the necessity of our divorcing once the law is repealed? Something like that?"