Smudger had an honest face.
This had stood him in good stead in the Bad Old Days, when intelligence gathering had been the name of the game. There was many a Death Eater who had rued the day when they had confided some plan to Good Old Smudger, only to find that somehow it hadn't worked out quite how they had expected and that Smudger came up smelling of roses.
He wasn't sure that it was such an asset now, and was seriously considering whether it was too late to start acting a bit more like Severus, who had never been called Good Old Severus (or Snapey, not even out of earshot) in his life.
Though that might not be a good idea at the moment, since the confidences he was presently being vouchsafed over a drink were from a distraught-but-hiding-it-well Hermione Granger. It might get him out of having to listen to the details of the current state of her relationship with Severus, but it might get him into hot water of an entirely different kind.
Whatever doubts Hermione had, Smudger had no doubts that if Severus thought that Smudger was horning in on his relationship, there would be hexing and poisoning.
"I don't know what's up with him," she said. "He seems so … distant and offhand, and he always has a headache these days." She blushed.
Smudger winced. He really didn't want to think about S-E-X with respect to young Hermione, because if Severus ever found out – and a Legilimens was bound to – he'd be history.
And geography too, most likely, bearing in mind the area his body parts would be distributed over.
Severus wasn't one to wait to hear the explanation of how that thought had come to be in his mind, and how it was all innocent really; especially if young Hermione went home and said she thought they needed to spend some time apart.
This seemed to be her current plan of attack, though how that was supposed to help, he didn't know. Oh, it might bring Snapey to his senses, and make him realise just how fond of Hermione he was, but then he'd start to sulk and get on his high horse about how she should come running back to him. Before you knew it, they'd be permanently separated and he'd have to listen to months and months of whinging from Severus about how fate had it in for him.
So it was up to him, to get them sorted.
"I'm sure there's nothing wrong," said Smudger, hoping to quell the flood of Too-Much-Information. "He's just a bit tired, what with his new job and his birthday is coming up. That always makes him twitchy. It's a big one this year – 40."
Hermione looked doubtful, but was willing to be reassured. "Are you sure that's it? He hasn't said anything to you has he?"
"He might have done," Smudger allowed, and didn't add that he might not have been listening.
Severus had been bending his ear last weekend about something certainly, but The Lads weren't really equipped for the sharing of feelings. They did rough sympathy, the buying of drinks, and the turning of conversation to Quidditch until the moment of weakness had passed. They didn't do listening and offering sensible advice: that was what girls were for. Or familiars, at a pinch.
You could always rely on your familiar for a sympathetic ear, and a supportive lick (or nip, as the case may be), and had the added advantage of encouraging you in whatever it was that you'd decided to do in the first place.
In fact, familiars were better than girls, who tended to have Opinions, and would tell you to be sensible which might be Good Advice but wasn't what you wanted to hear.
"So?" asked Hermione. "What did he say?"
"You can't expect me to betray a confidence," he replied, neatly covering up the fact he had no idea. "What I will say is that, whatever is going on in that mind of his, it has nothing to do with him not being happy with you."
"So it is just his birthday, then?"
Smudger wagged a finger at her. "But don't tell him you heard it from me, all right?" Missions accomplished, split averted, Smudger could relax. Though he might have a quiet word with Snapey the next time he saw him and point out that top totty like Hermione didn't take well to being ignored and that he should pull his socks up.
Hermione nodded. "I wonder…"
Smudger's blood ran cold. Hermione wondering wasn't likely to be good news.
"I wonder if a birthday party is likely to cheer him up."
"I shouldn't think so for one minute," Smudger replied. His imagination could just about stretch to Snape in a party hat, but he wasn't a happy Severus. He looked almost as miserable as he used to do when he was still a teacher at Hogwarts. Smudger still found the new, almost-smiling Severus a bit disconcerting, but he had no wish to see the old Snapey back and glowering at him across a pint.
"I wasn't thinking of anything extravagant, I know he'd hate that - just a simple evening down the pub with The Lads. If we keep him busy, then he won't have a chance to mope. After a couple of pints of crème de menthe, he'll be back to his usual, sarcastic self."
After a couple of pints of crème de menthe, he'd be horizontal and treating them all to the rude version of 'Seven Slytherins came down from Inverness'. With all the hand actions, some of which were really rather advanced.
Smudger grinned. "I think that's a splendid idea, Hermione. It'll cheer him up a treat."
"You'd do anything for a free drink, wouldn't you?"
Smudger looked injured. "No, I wouldn't. Not anything."
"Don't worry; your secret is safe with me."
There was a companionable silence as Hermione negotiated the trimmings of her cocktail without poking her eye out. It was a better class of Muggle wateringhole than Smudger was used to. The drinks came in long glasses for the girls, with a small forest draped round the edge, and a daft umbrella that was a risk to your health. The boys had to make do with lager – lager! – in bottles with some stupid fruit thingy stuck in the top. The barman had given him a funny look when he'd asked for a glass, but he'd persisted. Smudger may pretend to be a little rough round the edges, but his mother had brought him up to behave properly.
Still, it was better to suffer the inconveniences of a poncy bar, than to risk the news of the soiree reaching Severus. He could do without two angry Slytherins on his tail in one week. It was really rather ironic that he should be placed in a position where suspicious minds – and what Slytherin had any other sort – would assume he was trying to seduce their wife or girlfriend.
If Lucius and Severus both leaped to the same conclusion, and joined forces, he would be in real difficulties.
"Hermione," he asked. "Has Severus heard anything from Lucius, or Narcissa, recently?"
"Not as far as I know. Why, should he?"
Smudger sighed, and stared thoughtfully at his lager.
Smudger hesitated. He wanted some advice, but he wasn't used to confiding in others.
"Look," she said. "You've listened to me whittling on about Severus. Spit it out, whatever it is. I owe you a friendly ear."
Smudger took a deep breath and began to spill the beans. "You can't tell Tonks about this. It's nothing like that," he said, noticing Hermione's disapproving expression. "I just don't want her to go and do something silly. If this gets out, I don't like to think what she'd do, but whatever it is, it isn't going to make things better."
"Well, it all started last week, when Narcissa asked me to meet her for tea."
He had been surprised to say the very least to hear from Mrs Malfoy. Their paths hadn't really crossed before, other than to receive a cordial invitation to the annual Death Eater picnic, which he would politely accept. They would shake hands at the door and then he'd escape to the bar as quickly as possible.
He'd accepted largely because it didn't do to annoy a Malfoy, and only very slightly because he was curious about what she was up to. Curiosity killed the cat after all, and could lead to injured Smudgers if he wasn't careful.
And Smudger was nothing if not careful.
There were old Slytherins, and there were bold Slytherins, but there were no old, bold Slytherins, that was his dictum, which was usually more briefly summed up by the simple phrase "Never Volunteer".
Things had started off pretty much as he'd expected: an invitation into the Small Drawing room, and an offer of tea and crumpets. The Small Drawing room was the one used for guests that they were trying to butter up but not awe into submission. Unlike the Large Drawing room, the chairs were comfortable and well-padded. He was a bit disappointed not to see the Large Drawing Room. Rumour had it that the enormous painted ceiling featured a nymph doing very naughty things indeed with a satyr hidden amongst the classical figures and roiling clouds.
"I don't suppose you've got something a bit stronger?" he'd replied. In all the years he'd known her, he'd never seen her with a lock of hair out of place or a slightly crumpled robe. She was all icy perfection, and about as attractive as an iceberg. It was amusing to think of ruffling that serenity by ignoring the rules of etiquette that demand he sit there sipping Darjeeling and nibbling a cucumber sandwich.
Cucumber gave him wind.
"Of course," she said, without batting an eyelid. "Beer perhaps?"
He'd nodded. It was beginning to dawn on him that, whatever Narcissa was after, it was serious if she was prepared to serve beer to a common oik like him. He'd assumed that Narcissa was after something other than the pleasure of his company when she issued the invitation. The only thing that she could be interested in was Lucius' activities, so he'd prepared his cover story well in advance. He may have an honest face, but that didn't mean it was safe to rely on that alone. He had to sound honest too. He'd practiced delivering his lines in front of the mirror, until he could deny any knowledge of Lucius' latest infidelities without the faintest flicker to indicate that they were taking bets on how many women he was seeing at once.
Currently one, apparently, but no one believed that. It just meant that he was covering his tracks well, and The Lads spent many a happy evening speculating what he was up to, and who with. Muggles had Soap Operas; Purebloods had Malfoy's private life.
A House Elf was summoned, the beer procured and sampled. It wasn't half bad really – served at room temperature as was proper, and certainly better than the Leaky's Best Bitter.
"Tell me, Mr Smudger," she'd said. "How are things with you?"
"Fine. Fine." He hadn't invited her to call him 'just Smudger'; he didn't want to end up on familiar terms with Mrs Malfoy.
"I gather you and my husband are friends?"
Smudger was a bit taken aback at the suggestion of friendship. They'd barely spoken more than once or twice, and that had been for Lucius to issue orders. Maybe that was what a Malfoy thought friendship was: someone who did as they were told the first time. "We know each other," he said cautiously.
Her smile didn't reach her eyes. "Now Mr Smudger there's no need to be coy with me, I assure you I'm privy to all my husband's secrets. I am aware of your meetings." She managed to make them sound furtive and underhanded meetings of super-secret importance: an evil conspiracy. This was encouraging, if inaccurate, and a definite boost to his Slytherin reputation.
"Oh," he said.
"Do you think it's going well?"
"Lucius' attempts to subvert the Wizarding World?" she'd replied with a hint of exasperation.
"I can't really say. He doesn't really confide in me," he said, and prepared to be cross-examined to within an inch of his life on the subject. What he got was very different. Narcissa wasn't interested in Lucius' infidelities; she was interested in her own.
To be precise, she had decided that Lucius was a spent force both physically and politically and was interested in interviewing replacements.
She'd been impressed by Order of Merlin (Second class) and thought he would be easily manipulated – in so many ways – into becoming the next puppet Minister, and the future Mr Narcissa Smudger.
She'd pinned him up against the wall, and tried to put her hands in places that were reserved for Tonks, and thought his struggles for freedom were encouragement.
He'd barely made it out alive, and unscathed, and with increased respect for Lucius' ability to deal with that black widow spider. He'd been worried about what she might say to Lucius ever since. Potiphar's wife sprang to mind, and he had no wish to be accused of nicking the Malfoy silver.
"Hmmm," Hermione said, when he'd finished telling her all. "I can see why you wouldn't want Tonks to know. She'd most likely go round and punch her for messing with her boyfriend."
Smudger nodded. "I should hope so. That's only right and proper. Problem is, well, Lucius would get to hear about it, and he may not be entirely prepared to listen to reason on the topic, and may well blame the injured party."
"But surely he knows what she's like?" she replied.
"Maybe. But a man has his pride. And so does a woman, which is what is worrying me."
Hermione sucked noisily on a straw, poking round the ice cluttering the glass in an attempt to find the last of the alcohol. "Do you think she's going to take rejection badly?"
"I do. The problem is, I don't really understand women, so I can't even begin to predict what she's going to do. And if I can't work that out, then I've got no chance of coming up with some strategy to deflect her."
Hermione snorted. "It's not like we're another species you know. We are human."
Smudger didn't disagree; it would be rude, and Hermione wouldn't help him. Best to let that one slide. "Well, what would you do if you were rejected like that?"
"Sulk a bit, probably. Eat lots of chocolate for a week or so, and then go out for a girls' night out and whine about how men were bloody useless."
"That's not so bad," he said hopefully.
"I wouldn't rely in Narcissa being so reasonable. We may both be female but that's about the only thing we have in common."
"Oh." He took a swig of beer to fortify himself. "What do you think Narcissa would do then?"
"Hunt you down to the ends of the earth, and make you suffer the torments of the damned."
"Pretty much, yes."
"What am I going to do?" he asked, not expecting to get an answer but hoping for sympathy at least.
"But she'll go berserk." Smudger was amazed that after nearly a year of going out with Severus that she would suggest something so obviously stupid and lacking in cunning. No wonder the relationship was in trouble. "And then she'll confront Narcissa, which means that Lucius will get to hear about it, and I will really be up the proverbial creek without a paddle."
"Well, you tell Lucius first."
Smudger looked at her in blank astonishment. It was getting worse. He was trying to keep his internal organs precisely that, and here was Hermione suggesting that he come clean. "You can't be serious. He'll kill me."
"Hear me out," she replied. "Now, we know that Lucius has been looking for a way to get rid of Narcissa for years now, but she's sticking to him like Vitelius potion to a cauldron."
Smudger nodded. Lucius had made that very clear when they'd entered into the arrangements for The Lads continued Friday nights.
"So, it seems to me that provided you present this to Lucius as an opportunity to do just that, then you'll be fine. And once you've told him, and you've told Tonks, Narcissa is pretty much neutralised."
"I suppose that might work."
"Of course it will. Paint him a picture of a Narcissa-free life, and having to be consoled for his disappointment by lots of warm and friendly women."
"Sometimes even two at once." Smudger removed his smirk quickly. Hermione didn't seem to appreciate that sally. He had to remind himself that, although she seemed quite sensible, she was still a girl and therefore unfathomable.
"If you can think of a candidate that would interest Narcissa, you could kill two birds with one stone. Once you get Lucius plotting along those lines, he'll be too busy to even think of hexing you."
Smudger was impressed. It wasn't a tactic that he would have thought of, but honesty could work. "Another drink?"
"No thanks," she said, slipping off the stool. "I'd better go home and see what Severus is up to."
"And I'd better go and find Lucius." He looked mournfully at his glass. "I think I'll have another drink first though. It might be my last."
Hermione patted him on his arm. "There, there. You tell that nasty Mr Malfoy that if he does anything to you, I'll have to come and sort him out." Smudger watched her weave her way to the door, and admired the way she managed not to bump into anyone, despite having drunk four cocktails.
And maybe if he reminded Lucius of what had happened to Bellatrix, he might still be alive by the time of Severus' party.
Smudger was in two minds as to what was the best course of action. He had no doubts that Hermione's plan was the best choice available to him. Her idea was mad, but that was what might make it work. In the world of Death Eaters, people had a tendency to create abstruse and sophisticated plots; they didn't necessarily work but did make people look good when they failed. Hermione had a tendency to cut straight to the heart of the matter, which made her plans less stylish but a hundred times more effective. No, the issue was whether a post-coital Lucius would be less likely to hex than a Lucius who was on his way to see his girlfriend. He might be more cheerful whilst luxuriating in the afterglow, but then again, if he was in a hurry, he might not take the time and energy to get truly inventive if things turned to hexing.
In either case though his testicles could end up in a jar over the fireplace, and he didn't fancy explaining that to Tonks.
It was clear that he needed another drink to mull things over, and it was even clearer that this was not the drinking establishment in which to secure a decent pint. He decided to adjourn to the Trolls Head for proper contemplation. Only fools rushed in; Smudgers had a bit of a ponder first.
He worried about things for so long, that events overtook him, and Lucius strolled in and took a seat next to him at the Bar. Smudger had always been able to take a hint from fate, and decided to seize the moment.
"Afternoon," he said. "This isn't one of your usual haunts. I'd have thought it was a bit beneath the dignity of a Malfoy to appear in a dive like this."
"Narcissa thinks so."
Smudger blenched, and wondered whether he had time to make it to the door. He made a quick appeal to any gods watching over his life, and took the plunge. "I saw Narcissa yesterday."
Lucius was giving his pint a hard stare, and was distracted by the potential risk to life and limb. "Are you sure this is safe to drink?"
"Not safe as such, no. Anyway, as I was saying, about Narcissa…" He nearly decided to keep quiet about the whole bloody business and see if he could persuade Tonks to run away to Australia with him, but he couldn't face drinking the lager. He girded his loins. "Did you know she invited me for tea yesterday?"
"Checking up on me again, I suppose. Really, she's so unreasonable. Is it wrong for a man to want to have a bit of fun in his life every once in a while."
"Oh come off it, Lucius. It's more than once in a while; more like three times a week."
Lucius looked very pleased with himself for a moment, then resumed his more normal supercilious sneer. "I hope that you didn't tell Narcissa any of this."
"She wasn't interested in your movements at all," Smudger hinted.
"Well, why else would she be…?" Lucius broke off in mid-sentence as his brain kicked into life. "No." He surveyed Smudger in fascination. "She wouldn't. She didn't. You're not telling me that Narcissa…"
Smudger nodded. This was going quite well, all things considered. His sense of relief made him inattentive and the next thing he knew he was pinned against the wall behind him by his throat with a blond madman leaning over him.
"I do hope that you didn't accept her generous offer," Lucius hissed in his ear.
"Of course not," he managed to choke out. The death grip eased, and he added, "I wouldn't do that to a fellow Slytherin."
Lucius looked unconvinced, so he added the clincher, "And if I had I certainly wouldn't be stupid enough to come and tell him about it, would I?"
Lucius seemed to accept that, and turned back to his drink, leaving Smudger massaging his throat in an attempt to recover some sensation.
"Cow," said Lucius.
Smudger didn't think this was the time to point out that Narcissa was merely doing to Lucius, what Lucius had – or rather hadn't – been doing to Narcissa for years.
"This is all Granger's fault," Lucius added, his fingers twisting in the beer mat in a wholly sinister matter. "She was the one who suggested encouraging Narcissa in outside interests."
"Well, young Hermione reckons that you can turn it to your advantage." The fingers tightened even more, so Smudger hurried on, "You know, so you can get rid of Narcissa for good, and without giving her half the house."
"I can't murder my wife," Lucius spluttered. "Not even if she'd bedded half the Wizarding World. It wouldn't be polite, and besides I'd be the obvious suspect."
"I think she might have been thinking of divorce," Smudger said patiently. That was the trouble with Slytherins, their first thoughts were always of poison and the Dark Arts when a perfectly good – and legal – solution may be available to you.
"I'm not washing my dirty linen in public," Lucius huffed.
"No, but if we could find someone stupid enough to take her off your hands, that would be a different matter. If you offered her a quickie divorce, she might be so grateful that she can crack on with her bid for power that she'd settle for a lot less."
"I suppose so." Lucius pursed his lips in thought. "Now who do we know who is rich enough and thick enough?"
They spent the rest of the afternoon running through the list of people that they didn't like, who were malleable enough to be attractive to Narcissa, and yet not so obviously stupid that no one would vote for them. They had to discard a couple of candidates for being all too likely to become the next Dark Lord, given half a chance. They didn't want to go through any of that again – it was strictly figurehead Ministers with good looks and very little brain who would be too busy primping and preening to get anything truly evil done.
This would leave the field open for other, shadowy figures, to run things from behind the scene.
The difficulty lay in finding someone suitable – Narcissa was notoriously choosy, and Lucius was notoriously cheap. It wasn't a happy combination – if a man were wealthy enough to suit Lucius, he wasn't pretty enough to suit Narcissa, so that almost half the male population of the Wizarding World could be discarded straight away.
"You know, Potter is the obvious choice," Lucius said. "But he's a bit too young, and, let's face, it if he's survived ten years of being manipulated by Dumbledore, he isn't going to fall for Narcissa's charms."
Smudger thought it was likely that Narcissa would have more weapons to bring to bear on young Potter than Dumbledore could have mustered, and the young man was likely to be putty in her hands. After all, she'd managed Lucius for years, and he was as sneaky as the next person – in this case, Smudger. Unfortunately, he couldn't allow the boy to be laid out like a tethered goat for a tiger. It was true that he was an obnoxious little swine who deserved all he got, but Hermione was likely to take it personally if her friend were thrown to the wolves and that made it a very bad idea indeed. Testicles in a jar would be the least of his worries if he didn't put a stop to this, and now.
Lucius had thought of a worse idea though. "Which makes me think that Severus might be the better choice: he's been friends with Narcissa for years, and he's always been eager to get on."
"That's a really good idea," Smudger replied with withering sarcasm. "Why don't you mention that to Hermione yourself? I'd really like to see her face when you do."
"I don't think I would. It might be the last thing I'd see," Lucius snorted. "And I have to admit that I wouldn't wish Narcissa on my worst enemy let alone a friend."
"There's always Weasley," Smudger said.
"Ronald? I can't see Narcissa settling for the sidekick, not when there's an actual hero to be had."
"I was thinking more of Percy. He's managed to climb a long way up the greasy pole on nothing more than blind ambition and shameless sucking up."
"He's utterly talentless though," Lucius said.
Smudger shrugged. "Never stopped anyone making Minister for Magic before."
"Very true." Lucius conceded. "But he is a redhead. I can't see Narcissa going for a ginger. He'll clash with all the furnishings."
Lucius ordered another round of drinks the better to lubricate their brains.
Smudger took a long and thoughtful swallow of his beer. The opportunity of choosing a new husband for Narcissa had appealed at first – fifteen years in the Death Eaters man and boy, did give you an unparalleled opportunity for forming grudges on both sides of the conflict – but it was proving difficult to find the perfect partner. If they could find a shortlist of three, it would be nothing short of a miracle.
"I've never liked Grytpype-Thynne," Smudger offered. "Thick as a brick. He's not very rich, but comes from a good family, mind you."
Lucius pursed his lips in thought. "I suppose that it might be worth my while slipping him a couple of quid to take her off my hands."
"Narcissa doesn't strike me as the sort of woman who'd settle for a couple of quid," Smudger replied.
Lucius sighed. "No, she isn't. Which is, of course, the problem. It's insuperable, if you ask me. I'm stuck with her for the rest of my life. It's enough to make a grown man cry."
Smudger shook his head sorrowfully. After several pints, he and Lucius were the bestest of friends ever, and he was filled with a desire to be helpful. "Why don't you come to Severus' birthday do? I'm sure that Hermione will be able to come up with a couple of good ideas. She's good like that."
Lucius looked doubtful. "She's hardly out of school – and a Gryffindor to boot – what can she come up with that two experienced men of the world such as ourselves can't?"
Smudger burped genteelly. "She's a bint. Narcissa is a bint. Bints know what other bints are thinking. Besides, I think we might be suffering from what you might call prejudice."
Lucius didn't deny the allegation. "Your point is?"
"We might be trying to be too clever – to kill two birds with one stone – when there's a simple solution staring us in the face. Hermione is bound to think of someone we've missed – after all, she has grudges of her own to pay back."
Lucius swirled the last of the beer round in the glass, then gulped it down with a wince. "Well, I don't see why she should have the fun of screwing over one of her old enemies, even if it does get shot of Narcissa. But I can't let old Snapey's birthday pass without giving him my good wishes, so I'll be there. Usual place?"
Smudger nodded. "I'm sure she'll be pleased to see you," he lied, suddenly realising he would have to explain to Hermione why he'd invited Lucius to the party.
It was a good job he was so charming, or he'd be in real trouble.
Hermione felt a little better about the future of her relationship after talking to Smudger. That is, she thought that there might be one. Facts had to be faced, in the last month or so Severus had gone off her. It had started gradually with him going out for an evening here and there, and she'd been pleased that he was making new friends and taking an interest in life. But in the last month or so it had escalated until they barely saw each other and that only in passing. Severus wasn't one to talk about his feelings, and her queries as to what was wrong seemed only to annoy him.
But if Smudger thought that he was worrying about his birthday, well, that would explain everything. He was probably fretting about getting older, and worrying about his wrinkles and grey hair. Not that he had any, but that wouldn't stop Severus worrying about it.
So when he came home, late again, she merely kissed him on the cheek and told him his dinner was in the kitchen under a warming charm.
He smiled at her, in a way she hadn't seen for some time, and even sat next to her on the sofa to eat it when usually he'd sneer at slumming it. She didn't ask where he'd been, and they managed to have a civilised conversation about the latest political manoeuvrings at the Ministry. She even managed to get him to agree to come home early on his birthday, so that they could have a quiet drink, though he did look a bit shifty at that point.
It was a pity that she didn't press the issue, as a great deal of trouble could have been avoided, but as he seemed to be in such a good mood she decided to press other issues entirely, with great success.
Later, as they lay in a contented heap, Hermione decided to raise the issue of his party. Severus didn't like surprises – so few of them had ever been happy – and it was best to lead up to things by degrees.
"Severus?" she said, and was rewarded with a sleepy, "mmmmm" in response.
"I was thinking that we ought to mark your birthday next week in some way."
"Mmmmm." His reply was more cautious than sleepy.
"Perhaps a couple of drinks with The Lads?"
"Mmmmmm." That was an mmm of cautious approval, pending hearing further details.
"Because what worries me is that Smudger will think it's a good idea to take you out and celebrate and he'll want to take you to some sleazy bar somewhere populated by young ladies of dubious virtue."
"Mmmmm." Which sounded all too enthusiastic for Hermione's taste.
"And if Lucius gets involved, well, it'll end up with you all in Azkaban, and then I'd have to break in to rescue you."
"Mmmmm." That sounded warm and appreciative.
"Only to make sure you were punished properly, of course."
"Of course," he said, richly amused.
"So the best you can hope for is some cheese and onion crisps and a couple of pints. And cake."
"Were you planning on making the cake?"
"I thought I'd ask Mum to make something. She likes you. Maybe in the shape of a cauldron? Or a castle, so you can stick a knife into Hogwarts."
"That'd be nice." There was a long silence, and Hermione thought he had dropped off to sleep. "Erm, about those loose women?"
A soft sigh ruffled her hair. "Well, it's just a shame I never got to meet any. When I was younger obviously. Not now. But couldn't I just look at them. From a distance."
"Severus, as we aren't married, I'm sure that there are stuffier members of the Wizarding World who consider that I am a loose woman for shacking up with you. So you could consider this as making up for lost time."
"Still," he said plaintively.
Hermione, rather surprisingly, had a certain sympathy for his point of view. She too had been deprived of a childhood. When she should have been worrying about nothing more complicated than her exams, and her future career, and yes, perhaps a little about boys, she'd been worrying about keeping Harry alive.
She'd never kicked over the traces, never been reckless, never done anything even remotely naughty. She'd trampled all over the rules on many an occasion, but that didn't count – it had always been for life or death situations and never simply for a giggle.
"Severus, if you want loose women, you can have loose women – well, just one, and provided it's me."
"I'm not having you disport yourself in front of The Lads," he protested.
"No, but later, in private, we could see just how badly behaved I can be."
"That sounds intriguing." He kissed her shoulder, and then yawned. "Maybe this birthday won't be so bad after all."
Hermione made a mental note to find some books on the subject of bad behaviour – she was a competitive girl, and determined to be the best loose woman possible – and then slipped into sleep.
The next morning, he brought her a cup of tea in bed, and kissed her on the cheek before going to work, and Hermione felt an enormous sense of relief. Things may not be quite back on track, but they were getting there.
The next few days were spent sneaking around behind Severus' back organising his party. She was too busy congratulating herself on her success to notice that Severus was doing some sneaking around of his own.
She had a lot to sort out. Smudger could be relied upon to let The Lads know that their presence was required, but he certainly couldn't be relied upon to organise the entertainment. Not for mixed company anyway not even when it was pointed out that Minerva had been invited and was likely to strongly disapprove of young ladies in a state of undress.
Hermione had booked the usual pub, and had spent all morning decorating the room with silver and green bunting. It had taken her ages to charm the little snakes onto them, and make them hiss at anyone who got too close.
She was quite pleased with the final effect, and stood back with her hands on her hips to admire her work.
"Not bad," she said to herself. "Not bad at all."
"I think old Snapey is going to like it," Smudger said from behind her, making her jump.
"I wish you wouldn't creep up on people," Hermione said. "One day you'll get the wrong end of a hex."
"Nah," he said, patting her arm. "You like me too much to do that." He surveyed the room, taking in the decorations and the bowls of snacks on the table at the back. "You've done him proud, you know. If this doesn't cheer him up, I don't know what will."
"If this doesn't work, I'm dosing his morning tea with cheering potions." She tweaked the tablecloth into place a little more precisely. "Are you all set at your end?"
"Absolutely. I've rounded up The Lads, and they're all going to turn up on time, sober and freshly laundered. Erm, there was just one problem. You know you told me to have a word with Lucius, well, during the course of our little chat I let slip about Severus' party, and he really rather twisted my arm until he got an invitation."
"Not literally I hope?"
"No, although I wouldn't put it past him."
"So, how did it go?"
"Surprisingly well. He didn't even threaten me. Though he might want to have a word with you about the topic of Narcissa. He erm seemed to think you might be able to come up with some ideas. You don't mind do you?" he asked, well aware that it was too late if she did, and hoping that the puppy dog eyes that worked so well on Tonks would also work on less-suggestible young ladies. "I had just told him that this wife was trying to cheat on him, which is always a bit of a blow to a bloke. I felt a bit sorry for him really, so I said we'd help him out. That is alright, isn't it?"
"It'll have to be. We'll just have to see if we can get him to put his hand in his pocket this time. I'm sure a couple of rounds of free drinks will make us all like him a lot more."
"It's always possible," Smudger said doubtfully. "I'm willing to give it a try."
"Right, well you're in charge until I get back. Don't do anything I wouldn't," Hermione said, putting on her cloak to leave.
Once she'd gone, Smudger looked sadly at the crisps. He had a feeling that crisp-eating wouldn't be considered appropriate, and he was fairly certain that she'd counted them all, even if she hadn't given each individual crisp names. Ah well, he'd just have to play darts to pass the time.
Severus was a bundle of nerves. He'd very nearly worn a path in the carpet, pacing backwards and forwards, and periodically would stop to extract a small box from his pocket, open it, examine the contents, look worried, close it, put it away again, then start pacing again.
He was going to propose to Hermione.
That late night conversation had got him thinking. Obviously his first thoughts had been devoted to the subject of Hermione's likely bad behaviour, but after that distraction had been put to bed – so to speak – he was free to concentrate on the important topic of marriage.
She wasn't hinting that she thought that was the next step they should be taking. Hermione didn't do hints much; just straight out asking. He liked that about her. Mostly. It's just that he would have felt a lot better about asking her to marry him if she had have been hinting: then he would have known where he stood and what her likely answer was going to be. As it was, his question was likely to be a shot in the dark.
He had wondered whether it was possible to wait and let her do the asking, but that ran the risk that she might get tired of waiting and decide that someone else would make better husband material, and that was unacceptable. He'd been living with Hermione for a year or so, and now he was anxious to put things on a proper footing. He wasn't getting any younger, and he was ready to settle down. Hence he had decided to propose.
He couldn't think of anything that had made him quite so nervous in the past. Taking the Dark Mark had been a breeze in comparison, because he'd been young and stupid and thought that nothing could possibly go wrong, but now he was older and wiser and a damned sight more apprehensive about life in general.
That was half the problem, as he saw it – he wasn't getting any younger. He resented the thought of being cheated of any time that he could spend with Hermione now that he had his life going the way he wanted, and he was sure he'd found a grey hair the other day. Soon he would be facing the constant battle against rampant nose and ear hair, creaky knees, and impotence.
He was too old for her, but he was too selfish to let her go, so he'd turned to potions expertise for an answer.
It was his concoction that had brought Voldemort back from the brink of death, though that was something he tended to keep quiet, so it ought to be possible to take a couple of years off his age. He'd worked long and hard adapting the potion – he hadn't liked his father very much, but he wasn't prepared to dig him up for ingredients – and had come up with something that could take about ten years off him.
A thirty year old Snape was a much better marriage prospect than a forty year old Snape, though he was slightly worried that neither of them were that much of a good deal.
He looked at the clock. Hermione was due home soon. It was time. He took the potion bottle down from the mantelpiece and moved it restlessly from hand to hand. Deep breath, Severus. Down in one, and then you'll be fine.
It tasted horrible, as potions should. It was bitter and acrid and he imagined that he could feel all those wasted years burning away from him. The first sign that he might have miscalculated was the excruciating pain in his joints, that reminded him all too well of Cruciatus, then his throat began to swell choking off his breathing. His last, faint thought before he hit the floor was that life was still out to get him.
He was very grateful to be still alive when he regained consciousness, though that feeling of relief didn't last long. Everything ached, in a deep, rooted in his bones way – he hadn't felt this bad since Bellatrix got the hump about no one remembering her birthday.
He staggered to his feet, and lurched over to the mirror to inspect the results.
He certainly looked younger. The faint beginnings of frown lines had been erased, his hair was even greasier than usual, and he was growing a fine crop of pimples. Life was being her usual casually bitchy self, and had kicked him in the knackers.
As far as he could tell he was seventeen. Not thirty, not even twenty, but seventeen. He was supposed to be going out for a drink with Hermione tonight, and he wouldn't be old enough to get into the sodding pub.
What on earth was he going to do?
And wasn't that just perfect – not only was he physically seventeen, but he seemed to have lurched back to that age mentally as well, because panic was coursing through his veins and he just wanted to storm off into his room and slam the door against the world.
He couldn't even think of anything sarcastic to say. The one great weapon he had against the world, his sense of ironic detachment, had deserted him.
He had to do something. He had to. And he couldn't think what. So he did what he had always done in his teenaged years – and which had led him into so much trouble in the past – and turned to Lucius.
There was some part of his mind that thought that the letter he wrote to Lucius was unnecessarily dramatic, but the teenaged portion of him that was in control told the older Severus to bugger off, because this was his body, and his problem, and ohshitohshitohshit.
Come quickly. In dreadful trouble. Need your help.
PS Don't tell Hermione OR Narcissa.
He could have sobbed with gratitude when the fire turned green barely half an hour later, and Malfoy's head appeared among the flames.
"I'm looking for Severus Snape, young man, I wonder if you could tell me where he is?" he said, and then did a double take. "Oh, Severus what have you done to yourself?"
"I should think that's bloody obvious," he replied.
Lucius bridled, prepared to take offence at being spoken to so rudely, and then relented as he realised that Severus was in a state of pure blind panic, and that there was no one else there to notice the lapse from Death Eater etiquette. "Never mind. I'm coming over. Open the Floo network, will you?"
Severus wanted to burst into tears of gratitude, but settled for wiping his eyes on his sleeve. Fortunately, his wand was still responding to him, if a little sluggish, and it was a simple matter to open the Floo as requested.
Lucius stepped through the fire, and then calmly removed any stray ash from his clothes.
"Now, Severus, tell me all about it."
It took Lucius some time to work out precisely what Severus was babbling about. Natural reticence about his private life, coupled with an inability to string a coherent thought together, meant that he wasn't making a lot of sense.
"Let me see if I've understood you correctly. You decide you want to propose marriage. That's sensible enough; you wouldn't want Hermione to get away from you. Despite the fact that your paramour regards you with the kind of affection more normally reserved for the last pair of shoes in the shop, you decide that your age is an insuperable barrier to securing her agreement. Consequently, you decide to wipe ten years off your age.
"So far so good.
"Then you, Mr I-can-bring-people-back-from-the-dead, Potions Master to both sides during the war, then proceed to bugger it up comprehensively by reducing yourself to a spotty teenager."
Severus glowered. "That's not fair. I didn't mean to get it wrong." Not only was he glowering, but his lower lip was extending in a way that called be called a pout if it were done by someone more blond and patrician. On Severus it was, and would always be, a wobbly lip.
"Well," said Lucius, "I can understand the appeal of an older woman to a mere youth such as yourself, but what would she see in you? She doesn't strike me as the type to enjoy cradle-robbing. And we all know how erratic teenagers can be. Erratic, and not particularly longlasting as I recall."
"From conversations I had with my peers," Lucius continued loftily. "I had no such difficulties, I assure you."
"That's not what Narcissa said." Being seventeen wasn't all bad; he'd never have been allowed to live if he'd said that as a forty year old.
"That was just the once," Lucius protested. "Once. And it was our wedding night. And I'd had a lot to drink. Besides, Narcissa isn't the most inviting of women, if you know what I mean. It's enough to put any man off."
This was all news to Severus, who greeted these confidences with wide-eyed interest. Narcissa had never given him the time of day, let alone inside information on her private life. He'd always assumed that Lucius was the strutting sex god that he claimed to be. He felt immeasurably reassured by the knowledge that even Lucius had a gnawing worm of uncertainty about his abilities.
That would explain the cane.
Severus didn't look at the cane – occlumency was no good against someone like Lucius who could guess your thoughts from the faintest flicker in your eyes, though no one needed that much insight to guess why you'd be staring at the cane - but now he wondered quite what Lucius was compensating for.
Or should that be over-compensating.
Unfortunately, a younger Severus didn't have the same control as a more mature Severus hardened by years of Death Eater tea parties, and his body language – which was screaming "I'm not looking at your cane, because I'm thinking about the size of your wand" – gave him away.
Fortunately, Lucius was entirely satisfied with the size of his wand, and knew himself to be a skilled wand wielder – hundreds of Muggle girls couldn't be wrong and had no reason to lie – so he contented himself with the casual aside, "Not that you'd know, of course. You were, what, twenty, before your first girlfriend?"
Severus' glower deepened.
"Don't pull that expression at me," Lucius said. "I find it more than a little disturbing when you regress to sulky adolescent. It brings back memories of our first days in the Death Eaters, and I'm not entirely certain they can be called happy."
Severus' irritation at being called adolescent faded when he mentioned the Death Eaters. It had seemed like fun at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight it was possible to discern the chasm gaping before their feet. "If we'd known then what we know now, where do you think we'd be?"
"Dead probably. We'd have decided to do something stupid like stand up to Voldemort and been tortured into a squealing, bloody mass."
"That doesn't sound very likely. I'm sure we'd have been brighter than that. I'd certainly never have ended up working for Albus."
Lucius shrugged. "I'd be single, I know that much. I'd never have married Narcissa. I'd have settled for someone a little less beautiful and a lot more cheerful. Beauty fades, but a pleasant disposition lasts for years and is much more welcome across the breakfast table, even when the breakfast table in question is twenty feet in length."
Narcissa thought it was bad taste to keep three epergnes on the table at all times, even during breakfast. He thought it was the only way he'd be able to face his scrambled eggs – they obscured her face nicely.
It also had the benefit of allowing Narcissa to feel smug and superior – the venerable House of Black, as she was fond of saying, would never commit such a solecism. Narcissa considered the Blacks more Pureblood than the Malfoys, who were ever so slightly nouveaux riche at only three hundred years standing in the Wizarding World. The Blacks claimed descent from Nimue, which seemed to Lucius to be no great claim: a bit of fluff who brought down one of the greatest wizards of all time because she was in a huff. (And didn't that sound like Narcissa to a 't'; heaven knew what heights he would have achieved without her hanging round his neck, and he would have had a lot more fun too.)
"Are you sure you want to get married?" Lucius asked, giving his friend one last chance to come to his senses.
Severus nodded. He may be young and stupid, but he was still holding on to that thought: Hermione could not be allowed to get away.
"Then we'd better get you sorted out then. Much as it pains me to see you throwing your life away on a mere woman. Though I reserve the right to tell you 'I told you so' the first time you have a quarrel and you're relegated to the spare wing."
"Hermione won't do that to me. Not even if we had a spare wing."
"You say that now," Lucius replied, shaking his head sadly.
And that summed it up in a nutshell. Hermione was nice, and she probably wouldn't behave like that. Lucius was visited with a sudden urge to nip back in time and give himself a stern talking to – there were better criteria for choosing a wife than matching coiffures, no matter how pretty.
Narcissa had to go. And if he helped Severus, and then casually mentioned that fact to Hermione, well, then she might be persuaded to help out. He liked Severus, he wanted to help Severus, but there was no reason why there shouldn't be something in it for him.
His widening smirk – though he wouldn't have called it anything as bourgeois as a smirk – was aborted as he heard the rattle of a key in the lock.
"Hermione!" Severus said.
"Floo!" replied Lucius, bundling the teenager towards the fireplace.
"For gods' sake Severus, come on! We need time to get this sorted out. Thank god she still hangs on to those quaint Muggle ways and doesn't Apparate in."
Severus threw one last anguished glance at the doorway and his Hermione, and then allowed himself to be dragged away.
Lucius threw the Floo powder onto the fire, said, "Honeysuckle cottage" firmly and pushed Severus through, giving him no time to have second thoughts.
Severus looked round with wide eyes, looking at the room they had arrived in. It was nothing like Malfoy Manor: there was no gilt, no ornate furniture, and no family portraits glowering down at you. It was homely – an airy room with big, soft sofas covered in flowery cushions, and a rag rug on the floor.
"This isn't where you bring your girlfriends, is it?" he asked.
"Hardly," Lucius said dryly. "It's a little bolthole I keep free of feminine influence. You never know when you're going to have to make a run for it, and you don't want anyone to be able to track you down."
"It's nice. Homely."
Lucius sighed. "It does. It's nice to be able to sit down sometimes without worrying about whether your robes go with the furniture."
Severus looked at the cushions and blinked. "I'm not sure whether any robes or no robes would go with that lot. They're a bit bright."
"That's House Elves for you – no grasp of colour theory. You should hear Narcissa on the subject – you can't trust them to do the flower arrangements, she says, because they always put yellow and pink together and then put that vase in a room with lots of purple. Personally, I've always thought it was the nearest they could get to being disobedient. I suspect most of the Malfoy Elves have been conducting a guerrilla campaign against her ever since I brought her home. Can't say I blame them. Playing dumb is a technique I've used myself from time to time, though with rather less success. I suppose she expects me to be a bit brighter than a house elf."
Severus briefly considered saying something clever at that point, but even a seventeen year old knows that there are some occasions when it's better to keep your mouth shut, especially if you want someone to help you. Lucius acknowledged his restraint with a faint smile.
"Now, how are you going to reverse this wretched potion and get yourself into shape for proposing?" Lucius asked.
Severus slumped onto one of the sofas, without waiting to be asked, and stuck his feet on the low coffee table. "Dunno."
Lucius spared a brief moment to thank all available deities for the bright spark who decided that the Wizarding World needed a boarding school, and that he had been spared the worst of Draco's teenage angst, before asking, "Dunno? What do you mean you dunno." You could almost hear the quotation marks as he sullied his lips with Muggle Slang. "You must be able to reverse the effects."
Severus kept his eyes fixed on his boots, and looked sulkier. Lucius hadn't thought it was possible for him to look any sulkier, but apparently it was. If there was a World Championship for sulking, Severus would be disqualified, and then spend all his time sulking about it.
"Might be able to," he offered eventually.
"All right then, I can reverse the potion entirely, but that means I'll be 40 again. I can't reverse it a little bit and take ten years off."
"So, reverse it and then have another go at the anti-aging potion."
"Can't or won't?"
"Can't." Severus sighed. "It only works once, according to rumour."
"What happens if you try it twice then?"
"No one knows. There's never been enough of them left to ask. Whatever it was, it didn't look pleasant."
Lucius shrugged. "Then there's nothing else to be done. You take the antidote, and then you ask the question and prepare to surrender your freedom."
"But she might not say yes."
If Lucius had been a Gryffindor he would have said something about having courage in the face of adversity, and putting his best foot forward. He wasn't, so he didn't. His life had been devoted to avoiding adversity as much as possible, either by complex plotting or, at a pinch, brute force and ignorance as supplied by minions. Certainly not by getting one's own hands dirty. It was a view that Smudger would have heartily endorsed, apart from the role that minions played; he was, after all, a minion himself and rather fed up of being dropped in the clarts by aristocratic ponces.
"I'm sure she could be persuaded," Lucius said thoughtfully, considering the options.
"Nothing drastic," Severus protested. "I know what you're like."
"Don't be silly." Imperio was out of the question. It was simply impractical – given a couple of hours it would have worn off and they would be back to square one. Less than square one, really - square zero – because Hermione was likely to get a bit upset about being forced into marriage, even if it was something that she'd wanted all along.
Women were odd like that.
"All I had in mind was a discreet conversation where I happened to mention in passing that you might be considering a spot of matrimony, and see which way the wind lies."
"I suppose that would work. You would be tactful?"
"Of course. Tact is my middle name."
Severus looked unconvinced.
"You're supposed to be having your party tonight aren't you?"
"I've been invited as well, so we can kill two birds with one stone. Not like that, for heaven's sake," he snapped in response to Severus concerned look. "I can tell her that you've been delayed by some potions accident, and, if she looks suitably worried, I shall then enquire whether her intentions are honourable. After all, I'm sure that we're related somewhere on the family tree, which makes it practically my responsibility to see that you are properly settled in life."
"Don't be stupid," Severus scoffed.
"She's a Muggle. They have some very funny ideas about what we Purebloods get up to, believe me. You can have hours of fun by telling them that standing in a corner with a fern on their head is some sort of important ritual, and that they aren't a proper member of the Magical World until they do it, and then see how long it takes before they give up. Odd people."
"Hermione isn't odd," Severus replied, suddenly struck by how much he wanted to see her. "She's pretty, and kind, and funny, and I want to marry her."
"Then leave it all to Uncle Lucius."
"That's what you said last time, and look where it got me."
"Where it got you, Severus, is several years of unadulterated fun, a group of friends to watch your back and stand you a round of drinks, followed by a couple of years repentance at the foot of Dumbledore, a decent job, an Order of Merlin First Class and your choice of attractive witches with whom to pass an hour or two, which opportunity you've decided to fritter away by getting married. So stop complaining."
Severus blinked in surprise. He'd never thought of himself as being particularly fortunate, but when you put it like that, well, he hadn't done too badly.
"I presume you've got that antidote with you?"
"As if I'd take a potion without having the antidote to hand?" Severus replied.
"Good. You stay here. Don't do anything until I get back. Once I've had a little word with Hermione, we'll be in a better position to work out what to do next."
Lucius picked up the Floo powder and was gone, before Severus had a chance to say anything. He settled down on the sofa to wait for news. He couldn't help but worry. Lucius and Muggleborns was potential trouble. Lucius and Hermione was a recipe for disaster.
Lucius was normally a very cautious man. He also had a deep-seated belief in the superiority of Purebloods.
This was unfortunate.
He also had a tendency to underestimate the cynicism of the general public, and to assume that they took his rehabilitation at face value.
This was doubly unfortunate.
He further assumed that Hermione, being prepared to overlook Severus' (and Smudger's) transgressions as a Death Eater, would also be prepared to view him with the same fond eye. He failed to factor in, probably because he couldn't quite grasp the point, that Hermione liked Severus (and Smudger) rather more than him.
This was extremely unfortunate.
He'd certainly never taken Draco seriously when he had complained of the unmitigated brutality and viciousness of Granger.
And that was fatal.
Lucius flooed to Malfoy Manor, and stepped out of the flames into his bedroom, which was almost the only room in the Manor which gave him any privacy. He had been in such a hurry to deal with Severus that he hadn't even dressed properly, and now he was determined to remedy that error. If all went well, there would be a celebration that evening, and it wouldn't do to look less than his best.
He took the time to choose a set of robes that would be suitable for a relatively informal gathering – the wizarding equivalent of smart casual – but still managed to convey that the wearer was a man of wealth, power and above all, taste. He bathed in fragrant (but not poncy) waters, had a house elf trimmed his nails, and his hair was artfully arranged. A queue would be too formal, and yet the freefalling cascade would be too inviting, so he had decided on the loosely-tied pony tail which might incite an attractive lady to free it later in the evening.
He admired his reflection: he did look rather splendid. He tugged his cuffs into place, smoothed out one last wrinkled, and headed off to do battle on behalf of his friend. He didn't anticipate any trouble: five minutes with him and she'd be begging to marry Severus.
Hermione had undertaken a similar, but less elaborate process.
She too had bathed, and was freshly perfumed. She too had chosen her robes carefully – nothing too outrageous, or The Lads would become over-excited, but subtly suggestive. She had selected some racy underwear, which she could mention casually to Severus at the beginning of the evening, to make sure that he was kept simmering nicely during the rest of the party.
And she'd prepared some Sobrietas Potion, so he could get cheerfully blotto and still be able to ahem celebrate later.
She had had less success with her hair.
Up? Down? Should she have a braid, or was that too severe? In the end she'd settled for leaving it loose. Severus said he liked it like that because then he could stroke it. That wasn't the same as running his fingers through her hair, only someone who could afford to lose a finger or two would risk that, but he did like to wind a curl round his finger or sometimes bury his nose in it whilst he wrapped his arms round her.
So, down it was then.
So there she was, dressed up to the nines, well maybe eight and a half; where was the love of her life?
She made herself a cup of tea to pass the time. Severus had a tendency to be late. Harry said that it was a hangover from all those dramatic entrances into the classroom. Hermione knew better – Severus was never going to put himself in a situation where he would have to face that gnawing anxiety about whether he'd been stood up or set up in some way. Perhaps, after a decade or so, he might come to believe that she would be there, but in the meantime she simply had to tell him that they were leaving ten minutes earlier than they really were.
Usually this was enough to keep them on track, but he seemed to be running even later than usual.
Once the ten minutes were up, her irritation got the better of her. There was an audible click when she put her cup down. Ten minutes later she was drumming her fingers on arm of the chair. Another ten minutes and she was pacing before the fireplace and fulminating on the rudeness of men. By the time another half an hour had passed, she was beginning to worry.
Severus had his annoying little habits, but he was rarely rude – not to her anyway.
If he was late then something was up. Hermione had read a lot of books and had a rich imagination, which was working overtime on offering suggestions for his absence.
Perhaps he'd been attacked? Except most of the remaining Death Eaters outside of Azkaban had already been invited to his party. Perhaps he'd had a potions' accident? That was more likely, but then why hadn't he Owled or Flooed? Perhaps it was a serious accident, perhaps he'd been rushed to St Mungo's unconsciouis or too busy screaming in agony to mention that he had a date that night.
Surely they'd let her know something had happened to him? It was hardly a secret that they were shacked up – the Daily Prophet had an unnatural interest in their relationship and regularly kept their readers informed of their movements.
A knock at the door made her heart leap. This was it then – the Aurors or someone from St Mungo's to tell her the bad news.
Come off it, she told herself, it's much more likely he's sloped off for a swift half with Smudger, been carried away, and he can't get the key in the lock. Or a Jehovah's witness.
In which case, they were really going to regret picking on this house tonight.
She pulled the door open, poised to give the person at the door the bollocking of a lifetime. She didn't expect to see Lucius Malfoy standing there like a teenager come to take his girlfriend out on their first date.
"Good evening," he said, wearing that supercilious half-smile that made Severus look damnably attractive, and Lucius look smug and annoying.
Shock rendered her immobile and silent for a moment, until she recalled her manners and invited him in. "Severus isn't here, I'm afraid, but you're welcome to wait for him until he turns up." She'd mouthed the formula in the full expectation that Lucius would decline – he'd never once crossed their threshold in all the time she'd been living with Severus – and arrange to meet her at the pub later.
She was rather taken aback when he stepped into the hallway, with every intention of making himself at home. Taken aback, and very slightly concerned; she mentally reviewed the substantial magical protections on the house – which had been erected more because of vengeful students than any fear of Death Eaters – and tried to work out what on earth Lucius was up to.
She couldn't think of a damned thing that he would want from her, other than the Obvious that he seemed to want from any Muggle, and in her case the Obvious was rather more the Unlikely, both because she wasn't his type – having a brain – and because Severus wasn't one for sharing, and had a nasty temper.
"Would you like a cup of tea?" she asked politely, gesturing for him to take a seat.
Lucius was parched, but declined the offer in favour of getting down to business as soon as possible. It was difficult to know how to approach the delicate matter of marriage. He was inclined, as a matter of habit, to take the most circuitous route possible. However, Hermione tended towards the blunt and direct, so he felt that circuitous would be wasted on her; he would have to tread a careful path between asking her outright and dropping broad hints.
"I gather you're throwing a party for Severus this evening?" he offered by way of opening gambit. It was uncontroversial, and would allow him to lead up to the topic of Severus' concern about his age by degrees.
That wasn't very encouraging, he thought. "Severus will be turning forty. It's a difficult time for a wizard in many ways."
"It's a time when he has to consider what he wants from life, what path he needs to take, if you understand me." Hermione clearly didn't understand him at all, and he was beginning to wonder whether she was as bright as rumour claimed.
He tried again. "Severus seems very fond of you, very fond indeed."
"I can certainly understand the attraction." He couldn't, but that really wasn't the right thing to say.
Hermione was astounded. Perhaps Lucius really was here for the Obvious after all. "Er, that's very flattering," she said carefully, checking for her wand.
"After all, you are an attractive and intelligent witch, with many sterling qualities." Hermione wasn't his idea of a good time, and he had a hard time envisaging her lounging around on a sofa, her body thinly veiled with silk, making subtly suggestive comments. He could just about imagine her being enthusiastic and energetic, which he would find rather wearying, but Severus would no doubt appreciate. He was a connoisseur of women; Severus had so little experience that he would be grateful for whatever crumbs came his way.
Severus would no doubt say it was because he was getting on in life that he preferred a more refined approach, and that he hadn't got the energy to deal with Hermione. Privately, he might admit that was the truth, but never publicly.
Hermione was waiting for Lucius to continue his line of thought with increasing unease. He seemed to be letching at her: his eyes were dwelling for far too long on her chest. She hoped that Severus would be home soon and rescue her before it became necessary to draw her wand in anger.
"A very fine witch," Lucius continued his mind half on pleasurable recollections of the previous evening.
"I wonder how long Severus will be?"
"Oh, I'm afraid Severus has had a bit of an accident." Lucius smiled reassuringly. "He won't be along for some time, if at all."
Hermione had seen more reassuring smiles on crocodiles. Just what was he hinting at? If he'd laid a finger on Severus' head … "What sort of accident?"
"Well that's why I'm here really. There's something I need you to do for me…" Lucius was about to add that he wanted an indication of her views on impending matrimony, but was unfortunately cut off by the appearance of a wand and the brisk casting of Petrificus Totalis.
Really! Was this any way to treat a guest? He'd always known that Mudbloods had no manners, but this was ridiculous.
"Right, you piece of scum. What have you done with Severus? Come on, speak up." Hermione waved her wand threateningly, trying to keep calm in the face of rising panic.
Lucius tried to convey by the power of thought alone that he hadn't done anything to Severus, and that he was merely acting as an ambassador, and could she please not hurt him. At the very least it was no use asking people questions when they were unable to move or speak.
Hermione glared at him.
Lucius could do nothing other than hope that this debacle would never leak out. It was his own fault, he had to admit, for trying to do good for once in his life, but his reputation would never survive the indignity. Twenty years, man and boy, dealing with evil reprobates and who was it who brought him low? A slip of a girl.
Hermione regained control of her faculties, and released the hex from the neck up. "Where is Severus," she repeated.
"What was that for?" spluttered Lucius.
"Where is Severus?"
"That is the last time I ever try and help anyone. The next time Severus wants to propose he can bloody well do it himself."
"Propose?" Hermione parroted, sitting down on the sofa again, but still keeping her wand pointed at Lucius. It could, after all, simply be a ploy.
"Propose," he confirmed shortly. "Now tell me that you're prepared to say yes, which I think we can assume from your overreaction, and then you can go and tell him yourself."
"Gosh. Is that why he's been behaving oddly?"
"Severus always behaves oddly. I'm not aware that he's been behaving any more oddly than usual, though I have to admit that taking the anti-aging potion was probably a step too far." Lucius had lost all interest in being tactful or subtle. He just wanted to get it all over and done with so he could go and find himself a long drink and a friendly bosom upon which he could unburden his soul.
"Severus does not behave oddly," she said hotly, leaping to his defence before she'd properly taken in the rest of his comments and deciding to abandon that topic as unwinnable. "Anti-aging potion? How old is he?"
"Seventeen, as far as I can tell." Lucius was inclined to sulking now. He'd told her where Severus was and he was still being held prisoner, what was wrong with the girl?
"He's not stuck like that, is he?"
Lucius had to admit that Hermione had a way of honing in on the important issues – at least from her perspective - from his perspective being free was rather more important. "Could I possibly trouble you to release me?" he asked, poison dripping from every syllable.
"Ah," said Hermione. "That's a little difficult, isn't it?"
"In what way?" Lucius' tone could have solved the problem of global warming on its own.
"Well, I have just hexed you, which is something that you may take offence at, in which case letting you go isn't really the sensible thing to do, is it?" Hermione bit her lower lip.
"Miss Granger," Lucius replied. "Today never happened. If it had have happened, I would be obliged to hunt you down and make you suffer. As it didn't happen, that won't be necessary. If, however, I find out from other sources that this did happen, then there will be trouble the like of which will make the events of the previous five years fade into insignificance. Do we understand each other?"
"Of course nothing like this would ever happen," she said. "But if it had, you could argue that it was a compliment in a way. After all, if you weren't a very dangerous and cunning man then it wouldn't be necessary for things like this to not happen to you."
Lucius conceded the point with an inclination of his head, and decided to take the proffered compliment, backhanded though it was.
"And you have agreed to help me sort out my little marital problems haven't you?" he said pointedly, leaving no room for her to deny the suggestion.
Hermione nodded, then, taking a deep breath, she removed the Petrificus. Cautiously, anxious not to provoke another assault on his person, Lucius rose from the chair. "I'll take you to Severus, shall I?" he asked.
"Please," she replied, in the over-polite way that someone uses when they have just committed a faux pas of stunning proportions.
He took a handful of Floo powder, announced the destination firmly and gestured for Hermione to precede him. There was no way that he was going to allow her to bring up the rear. He followed closely behind.
The first thing Hermione saw on leaving the chimney was the dark shape of Severus' robes where he was still sitting on the sofa with his head in his hands.
"Severus," she cried. "There you are. I've been worried sick. What's this I hear about you messing around with potions?" She gave him no time to answer, but swept forward and wrapped her arms around him as best she could.
His response, muffled as it was, was delivered into her hair, and didn't seem to make a lot of sense, though marriage was mentioned.
"You are an idiot," she replied. "Of course I want to marry you."
Reassured by these loving sentiments, he expressed his appreciation of his answer by pulling her into a more comfortable embrace and kissing her thoroughly.
Lucius watched them with disapproval and, when it became clear that they wouldn't be coming up for air soon, coughed meaningfully. "When you two have quite finished…"
They didn't break apart for another couple of minutes, but eventually lack of oxygen worked where social embarrassment didn't, and they separated to a socially acceptable distance. Severus sighed. "I suppose I'd better take the antidote then."
"There's no need to rush is there… because I think I've got a better idea," Hermione said, smiling brightly. "It seems a shame to put all that brewing effort to waste. Don't you agree?"
"What did you have in mind?" Severus asked – he may be seventeen, but he hadn't lost all sense of self-preservation.
"Didn't you want to relive the misspent youth you never had?"
"Now that sounds like a truly inspired idea," Lucius said.
"And that's not the only bright idea I've had," Hermione said a little smugly.
"Hermione is full of bright ideas," Severus said fondly.
Lucius made a mental note never to allow Narcissa and Hermione into the same room if humanly possible – bright ideas and overweening ambition would not be a happy combination. In fact, young Hermione should be prevented from considering any involvement in politics at all: given ten years she would have the Wizarding World swept clean of graft and peculation, and then where would he be? There was only a finite amount of time you could spend in bed, and plotting filled up the time between bed and dinner nicely.
This decision was only confirmed when Hermione outlined her latest bright idea – how to remove Narcissa painlessly from his life; she was very clearly dangerous.
Poor old Severus.
Poor young Severus found that being seventeen was a lot more fun than he had expected. Now that Hermione had been safely secured, and he had nothing more complicated to worry about than what drink to have, it was turning out to be rather enjoyable.
Seventeen year olds thought that trying a drink from every single one of the bottles behind the bar was a good idea, even if some of them were green. Especially if some of them were green.
Seventeen year olds got to sit in the corner of their birthday party with a pretty girl and snog. His younger self was strangely content with simple snogging, even though he had a heady cocktail of hormones surging through his blood, and thought that putting a hand on someone's breast was really rather daring.
And he was snogging an older woman, which meant he was clearly suave and sophisticated.
He was aware, dimly, of the party continuing without him – there were faint screams which suggested Smudger was playing darts again – and then loud music. At some point he was separated from his Hermione as she was whisked away by Smudger to perform some bizarre dance that was nothing like the stately waltz that he had spent ages mastering for school dances.
It looked fun though, so he decided to try it, and he was good at it, he knew he was, because people were cheering him on and then he was up on the tables with Lucius and Hermione and they were still dancing and someone passed him another drink, which was nice, and they were still dancing.
And the dancing was so good that everyone joined in.
And then there was more drink, and someone was asking him some questions but all he could do was smile at them idiotically but that was alright because they went away.
And then there was cold and it was dark, and lots of whooshing and pretty lights.
And then there was his old friend the door, and he was warm again, too warm, but a nice young lady was helping him out of his clothes, so that was alright as well, though the bed was a bit wobblier than he remembered it.
And then the young lady was giving him something else to drink, and the clouds of alcohol retreated enough that he could remember her name, and his, and precisely what he was supposed to do with a friendly young lady.
The combination of the stamina of a seventeen year old and the experience of a forty year old turned out to be very, very good indeed. Several times. And, since his back didn't hurt, in many different positions.
Lucius was early to breakfast. This was no superhuman effort in the face of a hangover of epic proportions and very little sleep – he hadn't actually sobered up from the party, and nor had he found his – or anyone else's – bed that night.
He had a fry up, he had the morning paper, and his wife had yet to join him. He was feeling warm and contented in the weak winter sunshine filtering through the curtains, and was looking forward to the rest of his life which would be beginning approximately fifteen minutes after Narcissa turned up.
In the meantime, he browsed the paper, with particular emphasis on the sensationalist reporting of a riot that had taken place in Diagon Alley the night before:-
At some time around half past eight last night Aurors were called to a disturbance at a Muggle Pub near Diagon Alley. It appears that a group of youths, all dressed in black, had been disporting themselves in an unseemly manner and matters had got out of hand. Eyewitness accounts from the severely traumatised Muggle landlord, who was found wandering in the streets muttering something about people growing younger, suggest that copious amounts of alcohol had been consumed.
This intake, as is so usual with the youth of today, led to a lowering of standards. There are reports of wild dancing on tables to Muggle music, involving both men and women in a display more suited to Knockturn Alley.
There are unconfirmed rumours that they had taken a female Auror hostage, who was found wandering the streets in a confused condition, and who is presently recovering in St Mungo's from the effects of a foul and noxious brew called a Schree Mingorg Asm that she was forced to ingest.
By the time the Aurors arrived the youths had fled, leaving behind a group of respected Wizards who were doing their best to ensure that a nasty situation did not deteriorate further. Our reporter was soon on the scene and was able to secure an Interview with Miss Hermione Granger – friend of the famous Harry Potter – who was so traumatised by the evening's events that she was unable to speak, but has admitted to the Daily Prophet that she is engaged to Professor Snape.
Further details of their coming nuptials are to be found on pages 3,4 and 5.
See page 8 for our feature on the Decadence of the Youth of today. What is to be done about it? Can we learn from the Muggle world? And just what exactly is an ASBO hex?
Lucius smirked. The news report didn't come close to describing the excitement of the party last night. There was no mention of the Darts playing.
Even he had elected to revisit his misspent youth, and spend it again, more profitably and more wisely. This is what they should have spent their teenage years doing, rather than sneaking around trying to get out of doing whatever that madman Voldemort had wanted.
They had drunk more alcohol in that night than he had thought humanly possible, apart from Severus who had spent the evening in a rapidly transfigured arm chair with Hermione sitting on his knee.
Shielding charms had been cast, and Smudger and Lucius had engaged in a duel to the death at darts which had deteriorated into casting pictures Dumbledore or Fudge onto the dartboard and seeing if you could take an eye out.
Tonks, who had always seemed a trifle lacking in humour, had cheered up immensely and had been the inspiration behind the conga that had snaked out of their usual haunt and danced its way along Diagon Alley to another pub and another round of drinks.
The carouse had only come to an end when Aurors had been called by one particularly miserable old sod in the pub – Lucius had his name and would be making sure that he regretted that decision later – and they had only had fifteen minutes' warning to take the antidote.
By the time they arrived, The Lads were quietly sitting in the corner playing Dominos and tutting gently over the youth of today. Severus, still 17, and with an idiotic grin on his face, had been propped up between two Lads so he would remain vertical. The Aurors had accepted the story that he was a Snape nephew out for the evening with his Uncle's friends, and was a bit simple.
It had been a shame to break up the evening so early – a bare 4 am – but Severus didn't appear to be particularly upset at being dragged home by Hermione.
He only hoped that the poor sod was still in one piece this morning.
A sudden chill in the air heralded the arrival of his wife.
"Good morning Lucius," she said, taking a seat opposite him. A House Elf brought her usual breakfast of a thin piece of toast and a cup of strong, dark coffee. She wrinkled her nose in distaste at the remains of Lucius' breakfast.
"Narcissa my love," he replied. "How would you like me to make you the happiest woman alive?"
"Are you suggesting divorce again, Lucius?" she asked spitefully. "I'm happy to oblige, for a price."
Lucius smiled warmly – which disconcerted Narcissa – and took a vial out of his pocket. "You know how you're always telling me that if you had your time again, you would never marry me? Now is your chance to prove it. I can take twenty years off you life with this potion."
Narcissa stared at him.
"All I want in return is a divorce. You can have the French property, and say 10 of the contents of the Malfoy vault." The one she knew about, anyway.
"I'm entitled to half," she snapped.
"Indeed." He said nothing more but continued to swirl the vial in front of her.
"Very well," she said abruptly. "Have the lawyers draw up the papers and I'll sign them – once my lawyer has had a chance to check it over."
"Shall we say a week, my love?"
Narcissa nodded her agreement, before taking her toast and coffee into another room, anxious to begin plotting her new life. Lucius suspected that her easy acquiescence meant that she'd been squirreling away money on the sly, but was prepared to let that go rather than face another ten years of sheer hell.
He took a piece of parchment from the side table and penned a note to Severus:
You can tell that fiancée of yours that her plan worked, and we are all square now. Best of luck with the future – you'll need it.
The reply was delivered by Owl forty minutes later:
I have already been very, very lucky. Several times last night, and again this morning. Not all seventeen year olds have performance problems. How would you like to be best man?
And added below in another hand:-
Try to remember that, while the best man is supposed to shag a bridesmaid, that is limited to one at a time.
Now there was an idea….. Lucius adjusted his ice pack and dozed off considering who was likely to be a bridesmaid, and whether he could persuade Hermione that she really needed three.