Severus had spent many a sleepless night over the last twenty years, lying awake and wondering how to get out of performing acts of unspeakable brutality whilst maintaining his reputation as Evil Death Eater par excellence, fretting about the likelihood of being outed as a spy, and wondering what homework to set for the Seventh Years.
Now that his spying days were over, homework was a thing of the past, and he could relax in the arms of a good woman, he was making up for lost time. His calculations showed that he had a sleep deficit running into several years of non-stop sleep and that if he slept in an extra hour a day he would have caught up on his missing sleep by the time he was a hundred.
Of course, he wasn't factoring all the sleep lost due to his more active personal life, which he suspected would add another ten years or so to his total – but what years they would be!
He liked sleeping with Hermione. Now, there was someone he could put his cold feet on, who would grumble a bit about warming charms but would shuffle over to make sure that he was nicely warm. He liked waking up to find that her hair was tickling his nose, and that her leg had insinuated itself between his, and that you could barely get a molecule between them.
He particularly liked waking up on Saturday knowing that he didn't have to get out of bed for hours if he didn't want to, when they would Accio some croissants from the kitchen, and the paper from the doormat and spend the morning spreading crumbs all over the bed.
What he didn't like was being woken up at 3am by the sound of someone knocking hard enough to break down the door.
"Hmphshsh?" said Hermione.
"I've no idea," he replied, a touch grumpily.
"I don't see why I should go."
"Oh, very well. If you insist, but I don't see why it always has to be me that deals with these things." He threw back the covers, shrugged into his dressing gown – no need to frighten the neighbours with his nudity – and stalked off towards the front door, his performance only mildly undermined by stubbing his toe on the doorframe.
Consequently, he was in an even fouler mood by the time he reached the door, muttering a stream of obscenities under his breath, and flinging the door open in the dramatic style familiar to potions' students the Wizarding World over.
"What," he thundered, "is the meaning of this? Can't a man get some peace and quiet in the comfort of his own…"
Smudger didn't wait for him to complete his sentence. "It's Tonks," he said. "She's missing."
It was a measure of how much almost-married life had mellowed him that he was able to choke off the tirade and switch smoothly into the expression of concern and fellow feeling that was appropriate to the situation. "Fuck," he said.
"Pretty much," Smudger said, his usual jaunty air replaced by grim-eyed determination.
"You'd better come in then."
Smudger wiped his feet carefully on the doormat and stepped into the porch. Curiosity had compelled Hermione to follow Severus to see what was happening. "Sit down," she said. "I'll make a cup of tea and you can tell us all about it."
The tea was scalding hot and teak-coloured – proper crisis tea designed to ward off shock, stimulate the brain cells and remove the lining from your throat. Smudger took a couple of swallows, looked at Hermione and Severus seated across the table from him, and began his tale.
"We were supposed to be going out for a drink tonight," he said. "Nothing fancy, just a quick drink at The Leaky after work and then stopping off at the chippy on the way home. She didn't turn up. I wasn't worried at first – you know what she's like, bless her. She's not always the most organised witch in the world, and if she got caught up on a case or something it might not be possible for her to send me a message.
"Fair enough. So I had a couple of pints anyway and a bit of a chat to a bloke or two to pass the time, and then I realised that she was a couple of hours late and still no word. Now that isn't like her - half an hour, sometimes an hour, but never two. Not without getting someone to pop round and say she'll be late.
"So I thought I'd nip round to her office and see if she was there. The buggers wouldn't let me in at first," he said bitterly. "But eventually they realised that I wasn't going to go away, and it was no good threatening to arrest me because that would mean letting me into the building anyway. So they took me in to see her boss."
"So what did he have to say?" Severus asked. "I assume it wasn't very helpful or you wouldn't be here."
Smudger snorted. "You could say that. He refused to talk to me, saying that he couldn't compromise an investigation by revealing information to a, what was it he called me, a shady individual like myself. I tell you, if it wasn't for the fact that Tonks has to work for the wanker I'd have given him a piece of my mind." He took another gulp of tea. "So I thought that two fine and upstanding individuals like yourselves might be better at getting hold of the necessary information."
There was a silence, whilst Hermione and Severus thought this over. Smudger had always known Severus to be a sneaky bastard – especially when it came to getting out of hard work, though he was no slouch in that department himself – but he was coming to respect Hermione's tendency to solve problems by full-frontal assault.
This was not, Smudger thought, the time for effing about with some poncy plan and looking good. This was the time for getting straight to the heart of the matter – with a bloody big knife if necessary.
He had every faith in their abilities, and refused to contemplate the possibility that they might fail, because every time he thought about that happening he was filled with a cold fury and a burning rage alternately until the blood was thundering in his ears.
He had to stay calm until Tonks was safe. After that… his fingers clenched.
"Harry?" Hermione said, looking meaningfully at Severus.
He pulled a face but nodded. "He seems most likely to be able to help."
"I'll give him a ring then."
"Give him a ring?" Smudger asked, watching Hermione pick up an odd green lump with a curly bit of string attached to it.
"Muggle thing," Severus explained. "Like a floo call. She talks into it, he listens, and vice versa obviously."
Smudger was still looking a bit confused.
"The thing is we're not entirely sure that the Ministry isn't keeping tabs on us or Potter, but we are fairly sure that they haven't mastered beetling phones yet – listening in on the line – so Hermione thought it would be a good idea to have one put in. That way, they can have an interesting discussion without worrying about it being written down in a file somewhere and coming back to haunt them."
"Ah, it all makes sense now. Thought you were going a bit funny in your old age for a moment. The next thing you know it'll be collecting plugs and hiding them in your shed." Smudger was keeping on ear on Hermione who was talking earnestly into the contraption: surely the boy wasn't being awkward?
"I'm not in my dotage yet," Severus said. "You only have to start worrying when I start keeping a dish of sweets on my desk, and twinkling like a loon."
"How is your erstwhile employer?" Smudger asked, more for something to say than with any real interest.
Severus shrugged. "I neither know nor care. He's not really a serious player in our brave new world is he? I think Minerva was saying something about retirement, but I've always thought you'd have to pry his cold, dead fingers from the job."
"Which doesn't mean it wouldn't be fun trying," Hermione said, returning to the table. "Harry's on his way over. Ron is going to have a sniff round and see what he can find out, so he'll be along a bit later."
"Do you think they'll be able to help?" Smudger asked.
"They may not be the sharpest knives in the drawer when it comes to strategy," Severus said, "but as I know to my cost there are absolute demons at finding out anything that they aren't really supposed to know."
"I think we ought to be grateful for small mercies," Hermione murmured, one eye on the clock that showed Harry as Travelling.
"How so?" Severus replied, one eyebrow cocked in query.
"If they'd shown the slightest ability at planning and had a bit more lust for power you'd be on bended knee trying to talk the next Dark Lord out of killing you."
"You wouldn't let anything happen to me." Severus smiled at her, an almost-sweet smile bearing in mind it was Snape that was wearing it, and that Snapey would usually be too embarrassed to show in public. He really was fond of Hermione, Smudger thought, which was nice, but it made him realise just how fond he was of Tonks – he thought that love might be too grand a word for such an ordinary couple as them – and how much he would miss her if she was gone.
You mustn't think like that, he told himself. Tonks is a sensible girl who can look after herself. He didn't believe it, but if he kept saying it often enough it might become true.
The fire flared up, and a head appeared amongst the flames. "It's me," Potter said. "Can I come through?"
"Of course, Harry. What have you managed to find out?" Hermione fetched another cup from the kitchen, and poured a cup of tea for Harry.
"Not much, I'm sorry," he said, taking the cup and sitting at the table. "I didn't think there was much point asking her boss directly, if he's not being communicative, so I had a word with Shacklebolt to see what they were working on. Apparently, she was asked to take on some super-secret case that she wasn't allowed to talk about with anyone else in the department. All he knew was that she was supposed to be watching someone - someone dangerous."
He ran his fingers through his hair, which had fallen over his eyes. "Her boss doesn't seem to be too worried though, which is encouraging – she hasn't missed reporting in."
"It would be encouraging if the man wasn't a complete cretin," Smudger said, producing the same level of venom that Severus usually levelled at Neville. "She wouldn't leave me standing in the pub waiting for her. She just wouldn't. So that means that something has happened to her."
Harry shrugged. "I believe you. I just don't see us being able to convince Mordy that you're right. Shacklebolt said he'd try and see what he can find out, but I think our best hope is Ron – he's going to chat up the girl who does all the filing, and see if he can get something out of her."
"I wouldn't have cast Mr Weasley in the role of ladies' man," Severus said, getting a hard stare from Hermione in response.
"Most people wouldn't," Harry said. "But whilst most people go all pink and blushing when they talk to me, Ron makes them feel all comfortable and at ease. It's a bit like being given the choice of a date with Lucius Malfoy or Smudger – you know that Lucius is better looking and has more money, but on the whole Smudger looks to be more fun."
"I can see that working," Smudger said, smiling faintly, and wondering how he could work that analysis into a conversation with Lucius at the next Shady Revel. "I only hope you're right," he added more soberly.
"It's not the end of the world if he doesn't get the inside track on what Tonks was working on," Hermione said. "After all, it could be something entirely unrelated. I think we should see if we should track her down ourselves. We do have magic at our disposal after all."
"I've tried the standard searching charms to no effect," Smudger replied, a bit peeved that she thought he'd overlook something that obvious. "Even a really stupid kidnapper will think of making themselves Unplottable."
No one mentioned the possibility that the reason Smudger hadn't been able to find her was that Tonks might be dead.
"They really must be a stupid kidnapper," Harry said. "I mean, everyone knows that you're going out with Tonks, and everyone knows that you know everybody there is to know on both sides Wizarding society. It's almost as stupid as walking up to Voldemort and calling him Scaly Face when you've left your wand behind."
"There are ways of finding someone even if they are Unplottable," Hermione said thoughtfully, ignoring Harry's interruption. "They're a bit complicated, ever-so-slightly Dark, and need some obscure ingredients…"
"… that, coincidentally we happen to have lying around the lab," added Severus.
"I don't suppose you have anything personal belonging to Tonks," Hermione said. "Blood would be preferable, but hair would do or erm well hair really."
"I don't make a habit of keeping bits of pieces of my girlfriends to bring back happy memories – unlike Lucius – so I can't help you," Smudger snapped.
"I wouldn't be too sure about that," Severus said. "If Tonks is anything like Hermione, I bet she's shed hair all over you."
"Shed?" Hermione said, with a glare.
"Perhaps not the happiest of phrases," Severus admitted. "But we are rather rushed for time, so any infelicities should be forgivable. And forgiven."
Smudger had to admit that Severus had a point. Tonks' hair might not be as luxurious or as long as Hermione's, but it was almost as pervasive. Unfortunately, he was also a tidy man, and had cleaned his robes before going out that evening. He wasn't going to turn up for a date in anything less than his best clothes, no matter how informal the occasion. Girls noticed that sort of thing, and if they started to feel that they were being taken for granted then their eye could stray.
"I suppose there might be some at home," he said. "Perhaps on the pillow." He blushed bright scarlet, and Harry patted him on the shoulder.
His blushes were spared when the fire suddenly bubbled up and Ron stepped through into the room.
"Well," he said. "I've found out who Tonks was keeping an eye on. You'll never guess who – Malfoy…"
Smudger shot out of his seat with a roar. "Lucius? If he has had anything to do with Tonks' disappearance, I'll kill him. I'll rip his bleeding head off and stick it on the bloody wall."
"Don't do anything rash," Severus said. "Your name isn't Potter."
"Rash? Rash? I'll give you rash!" Smudger snarled before abruptly apparating away in search of Lucius and a pole to stick his head on.
"We'd better go after him," Hermione said. "Make sure he doesn't get into trouble."
"It comes to something when sensible Slytherins start acting like lovesick fools, instead of having a proper Plan," Severus said.
"I should hope that I was in danger that you'd come rushing to my rescue," Hermione replied, accioing her slippers from the bedroom.
"Of course," he said. "Though I'd take at least five minutes to think things through. There's no point walking into a trap if you don't have to, especially if you can sneak up on people. Then, once you were safe, I would make sure that the buggers regretted even thinking about hurting a hair on your head."
She smiled fondly at him, and then she and Severus winked out of existence in quick succession – without taking time to even change out of their dressing gowns into something more suitable for visiting Malfoy Manor – leaving Harry and Ron staring at each other in shock.
"But it's not Lucius," Ron protested weakly. "It's Narcissa. They've got the wrong person!"
"Oh bugger," said Harry.
"Oh, yes," Ron agreed. "Oh bugger."
"I suppose," Harry said slowly, "that we really ought to go and tell them."
"We should." Ron nodded. "Though there isn't really any rush, is there? I mean, it is Lucius, and it's not as if he doesn't deserve a bit of a roughing up."
Harry smiled broadly. "That is true."
"And it would be rude to visit Malfoy Manor without an invitation, especially as we're Aurors – we could get into a lot of trouble. Abuse of our powers, that sort of thing." Ron looked very serious and sober, just like Professor McGonagall when she was disappointed by her students.
"We could." Harry sighed. "The only thing is, it is Tonks who's missing, and we really ought to help find her, and no matter how much fun it would be to see Lucius with a black eye, it really isn't helping her, is it?"
"It's a bugger being a grown up sometimes," Ron observed.
"It is," Harry agreed. "Life is nowhere near as much fun as it used to be."
They both sighed heavily.
"Oh, well, we'd better go and rescue Lucius then," Harry said. "We never thought we'd be saying that, when we were at school."
"We're really going to rescue Tonks, and Smudger, and Hermione," Ron replied. "Lucius and Snape are incidental really. It's a bit like rescuing your Owl or something – you can't help rescuing its fleas as well."
"Hedwig doesn't have fleas," Harry said indignantly.
"I know she doesn't have fleas. I was being metaphorical." Ron didn't roll his eyes in a way that made it clear that he really wanted to roll his eyes but wasn't, because Harry was his friend even if he was really annoying sometimes.
"Oh. Well don't do it again. Metaphors are the thin end of the wedge – if you keep that up, the next thing you know, you'll be writing poetry."
Ron shuddered. "Ew. You wouldn't let that happen to me, would you Harry? You'd do the decent thing and tell a bloke that he was getting a bit poncy?"
"Of course I would, mate." Harry punched him gently in the arm, and Ron winced. "Hermione can talk all she likes about challenging gender stereotypes and breaking down the patriarchy, but she doesn't have to work with Shacklebolt."
"Mind you, I did like that Verlaine you loaned me last week," Ron said, rubbing his arm. "Very interesting use of language I thought."
Harry nodded. "Yeah, I thought so."
No one said anything for a couple of minutes, deep in thought about poetry.
"Do you think we've given Smudger enough time to have a bit of fun?" Ron asked.
Harry looked at his watch. "I'd say so. A couple of minutes to get past the wards, another couple of minutes to get past the House Elves, five minutes to punch him and shout at him…"
"You do think he'll be all right?" Ron asked.
Harry thought of the moment that Smudger had pressed a wand beneath his ear as part of their ruse to sneak into Voldemort's lair, and how his hair on the back of his neck had stood on end. "Oh yes," he said. "I think he's going to be just fine."
Lucius was enjoying a quiet evening at home. He'd been having rather a lot of those lately. Almost the only fun he had these days was the monthly Shady Revel, and even that was beginning to get a bit irritating as both Severus and Smudger were so obviously besotted and glowingly happy. He wasn't used to envying lesser mortals, and it made him grumpy. He didn't admit that he was feeling grumpy – Malfoys were never anything as common as grumpy, they were disconsolate or melancholic – but grumpy was what he was.
Yes, he had his freedom from Narcissa – the divorce was nearly final - but somehow it was nowhere near as much fun sneaking round with Muggles when there was no one to notice the sneaking. More and more frequently he found that, given the choice between going out and having a night of passion with a desirable young lady or staying in with a good book, he was plumping for the good book. It was all so much effort being charming and witty, and he rather missed a bit of silent companionship.
Obviously, with Narcissa, he hadn't really had silent companionship, and rather more of vicious sulking, but they'd been apart long enough for his memory to have glossed over the more unpleasant aspects of their relationship.
However, being a Malfoy did mean that you had a bob or two, and so solutions to any given problem were not fettered by vulgar considerations of cost. He was feeling a little low, and he was pining for company, so he'd purchased a little company.
This made him a trifle nervous. He'd never resorted to this sort of thing before, and he had a reputation to maintain, but the transaction had turned out to be easily and discreetly managed and the company in question was now installed on the sofa and looking at him with big, brown eyes.
He'd chosen a blonde, of course: she went with his hair so nicely. And he'd called her Cissa, which wasn't in the best of taste, but no one was here to see, so it didn't really matter.
He was just on the point of asking Cissa if there was something that she'd like from the kitchens when he felt the Malfoy wards drop with an almighty crash.
"If you'll excuse me, my dear," he muttered, urbane to the last, he reached for his wand and prepared to defend himself against the assassin determined to bring his life to a premature end. Cissa, disturbed from her comfortable position on the sofa, rose to her feet and pressed herself against him, clearly unhappy with the interruption to their evening.
"Don't worry, I won't let anything happen to you," he said, surprised at how quickly he had come to feel protective of his new companion.
The door was fairly blasted from its hinges by the force of Smudger's entry.
Smudger stood in the doorway with a House Elf attached to his leg. "You mustn't go into the room," one of them was saying. "You hasn't been introduced. 'Srude. The Master won't like it." It then made a determined effort to gnaw Smudger's kneecap off. Smudger peeled its fingers off his leg and then kicked it across the room in a way that would have upset Hermione if she had been there to see it.
The Master didn't like it at all. He couldn't understand why Smudger would be making such a precipitate visit to Malfoy Manor – or even any visit at all, since he had never been invited back to the House – but hesitated before casting. There was no reason for Smudger to attack him and he could be coming to warn him of some impending disaster: they were old friends after all. His quandary was resolved when Smudger punched him in the face, knocking him back on to the sofa, and then followed him down with a death grip on his neck.
"What have you done to her?" he was saying, as he shook Lucius warmly by the neck. "Where is she?"
Lucius, had he been able to speak, would have enquired as to the identity of the 'she' to whom Smudger was referring and then established his innocence as quickly as possible. Instead, he was forced to deploy rough and ready methods to free himself from his attacker and kneed him very hard in the testicles. Twice.
Smudger gave a high-pitched wheeze, and staggered back before whipping out his wand and pointing it at the presumed position of Lucius' heart. "Right, you bastard, what have you done with her?"
Lucius massaged his throat in the hopes of recovering his ability to speak and to buy himself more time. Cissa, however, unhappy at the irruption of some parvenu into her house and even unhappier at the threatening of her new companion, launched herself at Smudger and knocked his wand to the floor.
There was a very fraught couple of minutes in which Lucius made a successful grab for his wand, Smudger dropped to his knees to recover his wand and Cissa, emboldened by her success, sank her teeth into Smudger's arse.
"Oi," he said, trying to push her away. "What did you want to do that for?"
"I rather think," Lucius drawled, "that she took exception to the unwarranted assault on my person. There's a good girl."
Cissa wagged her tail but didn't let go of Smudger.
"Now, I am a reasonable man, so I won't kill you straight away," Lucius continued smoothly, "but that's only because we are old friends and I am marginally curious to know quite what bee you have in your bonnet." He settled himself back on the sofa and adjusted his ruffled robes to his liking, never once taking his eye or his wand from Smudger. "Well?"
"You know very well what you've done, you bastard!"
"Oddly enough, I don't. Perhaps this is because such a dyed-in-the-wool villain such as myself has been so busy running around doing evil that it has slipped my mind – why don't you enlighten me?"
"You mean you really don't know?" Smudger said, flopping gracelessly to the floor and pushing the dog away. Cissa wagged her tail, and pushed a wet nose in his ear, thinking it was all some game.
"Cissa!" Lucius said sternly, not impressed by his pet's defection.
Smudger knew that Lucius was a twisty bastard. He would lie, and lie again, but he also had a tendency to show off. There was no point doing something bad if you didn't get to tell someone about it, was his view. He was a gloater. If he had kidnapped Tonks he wouldn't have been able to resist the temptation to boast about it to Smudger, especially if Smudger was being held at wandpoint.
Which meant he was no nearer to finding out what had happened to Tonks.
Hermione and Severus had arrived at Malfoy manor close on the heels of Smudger. However, their attempts to follow him were hampered by the battered and bruised house elf that greeted them at the front door and who refused to allow them into the house.
"The Master won't want to see anyone," the elf said.
"It looks to me as if the Master already has a visitor," Severus snarled. "Now get out of the way."
"NO!" wailed the elf. "I'se been a bad elf and let a bad mans past me, but I won't let you past."
"Oh, for fu…" Severus began, drawing his wand.
"Now, now, Severus. There's no need to be so rude," Hermione said. "I'm sure that – what is your name? – is just trying to do their job."
"Dipsy, Miss," the elf said sullenly. "I is Dipsy. And I is doing my job."
"The thing is Dipsy," Hermione said. "The gentleman who just got here is a friend of ours, but he's had a bit of bad news and he isn't thinking straight. We're worried that he might do something bad to the Master and we've come to help him."
Severus smirked. That was a nicely ambiguous statement: help who exactly? Smudger or Lucius.
The elf was unmoved. "The Master will hex the bad mans."
"The Master might hex the erm bad mans," Hermione agreed. "But we both know that that could get him into trouble with the Ministry. Now, if Severus or I were to hex the bad mans, that wouldn't be a problem would it?"
The elf thought about that for a moment, and then nodded slowly. "So you is going to hex the bad mans instead of the Master. That's good, that is. I likes that. The bad mans kicked me."
"He really is a bad mans for doing that," Hermione said solemnly.
"I has to announce you properly though, or the Master will be cross," Dipsy said.
Severus hissed something rude under his breath about house elves and their infernal stupidity and was shushed firmly. "You know who Severus is, don't you Dipsy? And I'm Hermione Granger. Ms Granger."
The elf pattered along the hallway, followed closely by Hermione and Severus. He tucked his wand into the pocket of his dressing gown, well aware of how rude it was to turn up to another man's home and hold him at wandpoint. Some things simply weren't done. He was also uneasy at the thought of confronting Lucius whilst they were still in their night attire. Hermione's dressing gown, whilst suited to the privacy of their home, wasn't really appropriate for visiting. If this sort of thing was to become a regular occurrence – and he suspected it would, because his life was like that – there would have to be long, woolly dressing gowns for Hermione, preferably with tartan. Rendering his wife sexless in that way may wreak havoc with his libido – imagining that you were kissing McGonagall would do nothing to encourage friskiness – but it was a sacrifice he would have to make.
After all, the problem would easily be solved by removing the offending garment as quickly as possible.
"Mr Snape and Miss Hermione Granger," announced Dipsy from the doorway, interrupting the tableaux of Victim being held at Wandpoint.
"Evening, Lucius," Severus said airily, carefully keeping the door to his back and his hand hovering over his wand: there was a thin line between being polite and being stupid and he wasn't looking to cross it tonight. "I see Smudger has started without us."
"Indeed. Is there the faintest chance anyone is going to tell me what is going on, or do I have to guess?" Lucius replied, with a faint hint of irritation in his voice.
"Tonks has gone missing," Hermione said briskly. "We gather she was supposed to be keeping an eye on you, and Smudger naturally leaped to the conclusion you might know where she was."
"Naturally," Lucius said sourly. "And you didn't think to pop round and ask me whether I'd seen the girl, oh no. You just dived straight in there and tried to choke the information out of me."
"I take it you haven't seen her then," Hermione said. "That is a nuisance."
"No, I haven't. And I am offended – mortally offended – that you think that I would do anything permanent to a fellow Death Eater's girlfriend. I may, if they were getting too close to some nefarious plotting, be forced to Obliviate the girl, but nothing stronger than that. Really!" Lucius looked down his nose at them for several seconds, before tucking his wand away.
"Sorry, Lucius," Smudger said, not moving from his position on the floor. "I don't know what came over me. I should have known better."
Hermione, who didn't think of herself as particularly socially gifted, noticed that there was a silence that had the potential to move from Awkward to Disastrous if nothing was said. And with three Slytherins trying to save face at once, the burden of making polite conversation fell to her.
"What a lovely dog," she said, hoping that this was sufficiently uncontroversial. "What's her name?" Hermione patted her knee in invitation, and then bent down to pat the affectionate dog, who was wagging her tail enthusiastically.
Lucius peered down the front of Hermione's dressing gown, but it was mere reflex; his heart wasn't in it.
"Cissa," he replied. "Though she does have the same passion for shoes, at least this one comes to heel when called."
"You are a dreadful man." Hermione ruffled the dog's ears. "He is, isn't he? He's a dreadful man."
Lucius felt immensely cheered up by that. He didn't mind being thought of as a dreadful man – it sounded dangerous enough to attract admiring women, without having them hiding behind sofas and worrying that they were about to meet a sticky end, or their distraught boyfriends turning up in the early hours of the morning bent on revenge.
"Oh, get up from the floor Smudger. You're making the place look untidy, and I'm the one who has to listen to the house elves complaining," Lucius said, waving his hand irritably.
Smudger levered himself up from the floor very carefully. "I blame Ron," he said.
Severus smirked. "I usually prefer to blame Potter, but this time it does seem to be Weasley's fault. He was the chap who pointed the finger at you, Lucius."
"Oi, I heard that," Ron said from his vantage point by the door, having obeyed the rules of narrative that required someone to turn up in time to hear another say bad things about them behind their back. "It's not my fault if people leap to conclusions. Tonks was supposed to be watching Narcissa not Lucius."
"Narcissa?" Lucius said blankly.
"Blimey," said Smudger.
"Well that is a problem," Severus said. "You know what they say about the female of the species."
The boys nodded sagely before they remembered that Hermione was in the room.
"Erm, that they're really very clever and shouldn't be underestimated?" Ron said quickly.
"That's the one," Smudger replied. "Or words to that effect."
"Bloody hell," Lucius said. "Narcissa?"
"You've already said that once," Severus pointed out helpfully.
"Let's see how well you take the news that your soon-to-be-ex-wife is running around doing suspicious things behind the Ministry's back," Lucius replied.
"Won't happen," Severus said smugly.
"You are going to marry Hermione, aren't you?" Lucius asked dryly. "I'd say it was almost a given that she'll be running round behind the Ministry's back."
"She'll never be my ex-wife," Severus said simply.
Lucius, recognising that his friend was in the grip of insanity said no more, but shook his head sadly. He'd have to learn the hard way. "Anyway," he asked, "what precisely is Narcissa supposed to have been doing? Robbing a shoe shop?"
"She's been keeping unsavoury company, that's all I know. Tonks was supposed to keep an eye on her and see just how unsavoury these new friends of hers turned out to be." Ron hadn't moved from his position by the door, and was waiting for things to calm down before he made any sudden moves. He liked his ears where they were, even if no one else did.
"I don't see what's so interesting about that," Harry said. "She's been keeping unsavoury company for years."
"If by that you are referring to my good self," Lucius replied. "I will have you know that I am a pillar of the community."
Harry snorted and muttered something about a pillar in Azkaban. Everyone ignored him.
"Does anyone have any idea where Narcissa is?" Smudger demanded. "We need some sort of clue. It's traditional to have a clue that leads us to where the damsel in distress is, so that we can get on with rescuing her. And I'd really like to move on to that part of the evening as quickly as possible, thank you."
"He does have a point," Severus said.
"Well we'd better get back to the cottage then." Hermione gave Cissa one last pat, and stood up, her knees cracking.
"What on earth for?" Lucius asked.
"We've got all the ingredients there for the Quaere Locus charm. I thought we might give it a try," Hermione replied.
"Desolated as I am to call a halt to your burgeoning career in the Dark Arts," Lucius said. "If Narcissa is involved, she will certainly have warded against that spell. I remember when we were first married, she tried sneaking off behind my back, and I used that very charm to find her. As it turned out, she was only spending her allowance on a new pair of shoes, but she was rather embarrassed to be caught out like that. She never forgot to take the most elaborate precautions thereafter, and I don't think that will have changed merely because it's the trivial matter of kidnapping as opposed to the serious matter of shopping for shoes." He smiled, almost fondly, at the memory. "No, what I propose using is the Quaere Argentus. It's much more effective in these circumstances."
"Quaere Argentus?" asked Ron. Hermione was relieved that she didn't have to ask, and admit that she didn't have a clue what Lucius was talking about.
"Gold, boy," he said. "Gold. If we can find out where my charming soon-to-be-ex-wife has been spending her money, we can find out where she is. It's much simpler than magic, though obviously less fun."
Hermione sighed. She'd been looking forward to trying the spell out.
"Never mind, Hermione," Lucius said sympathetically. "I'm sure we can find another chance for you to practice the Dark Arts at a later date. You seem to attract trouble – perhaps it's because you are always being helpful to people."
"Not that you'd know anything about that," muttered Harry, completely ignoring the fact that Lucius was indeed being very helpful, especially once you considered that barely ten minutes ago he had been repelling an attack on his person, if not his life.
"Will the goblins help?" Smudger asked. "You know what they're like, and it is the middle of the night."
"There's an old superstition that if the Malfoys ever take their money out of the bank, that it will bring about the fall of the Wizarding World." Lucius smirked. "It's not so much a tradition, as a hard truth. They can't afford to pay me all that money at once. So I do find that this tends to ameliorate the usual goblin tendency to be a pain in the arse about out of hours business." Lucius sat at his desk and drew a piece of paper towards him. Taking a quill in his hand, he began writing the note he intended to send to the Bank Manager. "Besides, until the divorce is final, technically it is still my money she's spending."
"Indeed," said Severus. "I've never had that advantage in my dealings with them, but I have found the offer to use their hide for book leather to be quite efficacious."
"We could always get a Ministry warrant," Harry offered, eager not to be left out.
Smudger snorted. "I want to rescue Tonks before she turns forty and not later, thanks all the same."
"I've always found saying please works quite well," Hermione said primly. "Good manners cost nothing."
"And if that doesn't work?" Lucius asked, as he folded the note and slipped it into a tasteful cream envelope surmounted with the Malfoy crest.
"Then I get Severus to glare at them. That's very effective."
Lucius snapped his fingers, and one of the Elves appeared by his side to take the letter. "This is urgent, Dipsy. Deliver it personally and wait for a reply."
"Yes sir," the Elf replied, giving Hermione a filthy look before apparating away: Hermione had broken her promise to hex the bads man.
"And if Severus fearsome stare fails to bring the desired effects?" Lucius asked.
"Then she slaps them, don't you Hermione," Ron said.
"Just ask Draco," Harry muttered under his breath. "He'll tell you all about it."
Hermione grinned, before she remembered that this wasn't tactful, and pretended that she hadn't heard him. Harry was so used to being ignored that sometimes he had to check to make sure he hadn't left his Invisibility Cloak on by mistake.
"Perhaps everyone would like a little tea while we are waiting, and possibly a little something to eat?" Lucius summoned another house elf with a click of his fingers.
"I'd like to be bloody doing something," Smudger snarled.
"If Narcissa is involved, we know two things. Firstly, she isn't going to hurt Tonks, because even though she's a halfblood she is still family." Smudger bristled to hear his beloved dismissed in such a way, but subsided when he realised that Lucius had a point. It wasn't a nice point, but it was a good point. "And the second thing we know, is that my darling soon-to-be-ex-wife has the brains of a flobberworm. Good grief, we've taken down Dark Lords; I hardly think Narcissa is going to trouble us."
No one pointed out that at the time of the Dark Lord's demise Lucius had been in bed with three Mudblood pets, ensuring that he had an absolutely cast iron alibi, and that his sole contribution had been a lock of hair. But several persons were thinking it so loudly that it was almost audible.
"We'll take tea for six, some crumpets, toast, and anything else that cook can rustle up at short notice," Lucius ordered the Elf. "It'll be quite like old times, Severus. Do you remember how we used to have a Midnight Feast on the first day of term?"
"I remember bloody Rosier trying to nick all the biscuits," Severus grumbled.
"Right up to the point you added the lust potion, and he ended up spending a whole term chasing after Bertram Bulstrode," Smudger said.
"Well, he always took the custard creams and they were my favourite." Severus shrugged.
"Quite right too," Hermione said, patting him on the arm. "He was being rude, and deserved all he got."
Smudger smiled faintly. He was still worried about Tonks, but when you thought about it, the six most dangerous people in the Wizarding World were in this room, and on his side. No one else stood a chance against them.
Tonks wasn't counting on being rescued.
The room she had woken up in was, like most hideouts, filthy. Wizards never mastered the finer details of housekeeping spells, and thought that brooms were for playing Quidditch with and not sweeping. The walls were a particularly virulent yellow that brought to mind regurgitated curry after a hard night's drinking. The ceiling had a large crack running from the right hand corner to the central light fitting that would have been called a chandelier if it wasn't so grubby, and looked to be in imminent danger of collapse. The bed she was lying on had a thin mattress that did nothing to stop the springs poking into her back, and gave off an unpleasant smell that she devoutly hoped was nothing worse than mustiness.
It reminded her of the digs that she'd shared with three others when they were training to be Aurors.
She knew that Smudger would eventually miss her if she didn't turn up by breakfast, and she expected him to raise the alarm. By her reckoning this meant that they would manage to track her down in three or four days time; she had little faith that her boss would actually get his finger out before the end of the weekend, as he had tickets for a Quidditch match.
If it had happened last weekend, no force on earth would have been enough to stop him from launching a search for one of his best Aurors; last weekend, he had been ordered to redecorate the front lounge.
This meant that she had Plan A – escape now, and Plan B – don't get killed before Wednesday. So far things were looking good on the Plan B front. They hadn't killed her yet, and there seemed to be no rush to visit indignities on her person. Plan A was looking a little less realistic. Both her wands were gone. There wasn't much use in carrying a spare wand when everyone in the Wizarding World knew that Aurors did so, but you never knew when you were going to come across a truly stupid villain who would overlook the spare.
But you couldn't always rely on being abducted by a Crabbe or a Goyle.
She had a back-up portkey that was in a secret pocket of her long coat – the coat that was nowhere to be seen in the scruffy room - and was now wishing that she'd taken more of an interest in the Muggleborn Unspeakable who'd been telling her all about some Muggle or other who kept spare keys and … and things in his shoes. It had sounded silly at the time, but now she'd give someone else's right arm for anything that might help her out of this predicament.
She didn't want to be rescued, that would be embarrassing. There were people enough who thought of her as clumsy without this to add to things. Moody had lost an eye, a leg and half a nose, and yet no one said he was clumsy did they? Oh no, he was brave and determined – and a little bit psychotic, let's be reasonable, but that was fine if you were a bloke – and a credit to the force.
Not for the first time, Tonks thought that life was rather unfair.
She swung her legs off the bed, and went to investigate the locked door. She knew it would be locked; it was only in stories that the heroine ever found that someone had been stupid enough to forget to lock it.
Nope. Locked all right, and probably with rather more than a simple muggle lock, though that was enough to defeat her without her wand.
And she needed the loo.
She settled back down on the bed and tried to ignore the pressure of her bladder. How was she going to get out of this?
Lucius was right about the attitude of the goblins.
Hermione and Severus had taken the chance to pop back home for a change of clothing, and had barely had time to settle down for a cup of tea and in, Hermione's case, a sneaky look at some of Lucius' more advanced books - which didn't mean the ones with the moving pictures at all – before an owl arrived with a rather tetchy response that the duty goblin was checking the account and would be along shortly with the information required.
"Blimey," said Ron. "Normally we have to get a warrant, and still the buggers won't let us in. They keep claiming that the Goblin Treaty of 1267 gives them immunity from the Ministry."
"Well, they're right," Hermione said absently, still reading a book on Advanced Searching Charms for Absent-minded Wizards and being very careful not to drop biscuit crumbs on it.
"I know they're right, but that's not the point," replied Ron. "How are we supposed to keep order in the Wizarding World if we can't bloody well get into people's accounts?"
"You're not," said Lucius. "Which is why the Treaty was signed in the first place."
Ron looked puzzled.
"Look, if the Goblins weren't neutral then the Ministry would be able to control everyone's lives, and we don't want that. Power changes hands every twenty years or so as Dark Lords rise and fall, but at least our money is safe. Property is sacred," Lucius said.
Smudger and Severus nodded approvingly.
"But then we could get rid of all the Dark Wizards," protested Ron, forgetting that he was in the presence of one Dark, and two Not-quite-white Wizards and a Witch who wouldn't mind dabbling if the chance presented itself, provided it was all for a good cause.
"And you think this would be a good idea?" Smudger asked.
"Erm, yes?" offered Ron hesitantly.
"And you think if that were happen, we would all end up living in peace and harmony, swords would be turned to ploughshares and the lion would lay down with the lamb – that sort of thing?" Smudger persisted, with a faint air of incredulity.
"Well, wouldn't we?" Ron asked, looking bewildered. Smudger was trying to overturn all his fondly held beliefs about Right triumphing, and this being a Good Idea.
"If the Ministry wasn't running round sorting out Dark Wizards it'd want to sort out Grey Wizards, and then the Slightly Shady Wizards and before you know it we'll all be locked up," Severus said.
"But… but… no that can't be right," Ron replied, troubled. "Anyway, even if that is true, that doesn't mean that we should let the Dark Wizards get away with things. We should be able to confiscate their stuff and make them suffer a bit."
"If old Lucius here thought that the Ministry would be able to take his house if he was caught doing something a little bit naughty, then he wouldn't change sides at the last minute would he?" Smudger said.
"Well…" Ron replied, who obviously had definite ideas that this wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but wasn't prepared to come right out and say it in present company.
"Which would mean that he'd carry on supporting the Dark Lord in question until the bitter end. He couldn't afford not to. This way, at least once it's clear that one side is losing, then we can all quietly desert thus cutting the death toll, shortening the agony and generally allowing people to get on with their lives undisturbed," Smudger continued. "You see, Voldemort, well, he's temporary; the Ministry is eternal. Someone can – and usually does – bump off a Dark Lord at any moment. Sometimes it's the good guys; sometimes it's the bad guys, but eventually someone stabs him in the back – or drops a dancing wardrobe on him as the case may be. Being a Dark Lord is a bit precarious you see."
"Well, yeah, but erm the Ministry isn't evil," persisted Ron. "Erm, is it?"
"'Innit sweet?" Smudger asked rhetorically. "It takes you back to when you were young and innocent, doesn't it?"
"None of you were ever young and innocent," Hermione said firmly, looking up from her book. "I expect you were using rusks as bargaining chips in the cradle."
Smudger grinned. "You've been spending far too much time with The Lads you know, and judging everyone else by their low standards."
"The Ministry," Lucius replied, "is as good as the people in it; which is not very. It's comprised of fools, charlatans and people who would like to be Dark Lords but haven't passed the entry requirements. Instead, they pass asinine regulations on matters of trivial importance and slake their blood lust by taking away your cauldron licence."
"Oh yes," said Severus. "I'd rather spend ten minutes explaining to Voldemort why I couldn't deliver Potter to him with an apple in his mouth, than another minute dealing with the Health and Safety officer from the Ministry going over my lesson plans. At least Voldemort would listen to reason after a couple of rounds of Crucio; not the Ministry. You won't believe the difficulty I've had with the bastards – aconite is dangerous, they kept saying, you can't use it with 11 year olds. Of course it's bloody dangerous. Potions is supposed to be dangerous." He jabbed a finger in the air to punctuate the argument.
"Now, now dear," said Hermione. "You don't have to deal with the nasty officer again."
"Oh, don't I? The silly mare was back last week wanting to check the inventory for the shop, and it's not as if I can threaten her children with detention any more." Severus took a vicious bite from his crumpet.
"Paf!" Lucius said. "I still have the Ministry checking for Dark Artefacts every month. As if I'm going to be stupid enough to leave them lying around."
"Quite right too," Ron said, trying to break up the Slytherin bonding session. "We ought to be keeping an eye on people like you."
"And such silly things they think are Dark," Lucius continued, ignoring the interruption. "It's only a matter of time before they ban wands."
"Nasty things, wands," agreed Smudger. "You can have someone's eye out with one."
"Especially if you know the right hex," Lucius replied, and smiled at what was presumably a happy memory.
Ron didn't look happy. He thought there was a flaw in their lesson in comparative ethics; he just couldn't work out what it was, and wasn't happy at the thought that he might be on the wrong side.
Fortunately, before his forehead became permanently corrugated with the effort of thinking about the issue, a Goblin head appeared in the Floo and asked for permission to enter the Manor.
Ron had dealt with the Goblins before, in varying stages of irritation from mildly annoyed at seeing a couple of galleons being withdrawn to incandescent with fury when serving a warrant on them. Therefore, his trained eye could tell that the Goblin in question was close to the incandescent end of the spectrum, but was having to bite his lip.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue, Ron couldn't deny that he felt a great deal of satisfaction at watching the swine squirm. He supposed this was the first step to being a Dark Wizard himself. First you got a taste for power and then, before you knew it, you were dabbling in the Dark Arts and reading forbidden Grimoires.
He felt fairly sure that he would be able to resist the lure: all that extra reading sounded rather dull, even if it did get you a pay rise.
"Mr Malfoy, I have the information you require," it said through gritted teeth. "Your wife is renting a house at this address."
Lucius took the proffered piece of paper between finger and thumb, and read it carefully, dismissing the goblin with an airy wave of the hand that did nothing to improve its temper. Hermione wondered whether his snooty expression owed more to old age and failing eyesight than disdain, as he appeared to be having difficulty reading the scrawl.
"I see my dear wife has been slumming it. Tsk. She really ought to have more taste when choosing a lair. What will the Aurors think?" Lucius fell silent, lost in thought.
"Well, where is it?" Smudger asked impatiently.
"Hmmm. That is the question isn't it?" Lucius replied, absently. "I think we might need to come to some sort of agreement before I tell you."
"What?" Smudger shouted. "What sort of deal?"
Lucius abruptly focussed on him. "Narcissa is, at this precise moment, still my wife," he said slowly.
Smudger nodded. "Agreed."
"Either she's taken leave of her senses and done something truly stupid, in which case it can only reflect badly on me with the Ministry; or, she's in over her head with someone rather more dangerous that she was expecting."
Smudger glared at Lucius. "If anything has happened to Tonks…"
"… then I agree that Narcissa will have to take what's coming to her, but otherwise?" Lucius left the sentence dangling.
"Otherwise, well, then we don't have to bring it to the attention of the Ministry. Not unless Tonks wants to," Smudger conceded.
Lucius sighed, and held out the address. "I do hope I'm not going to regret this."
Malfoys were generally strangers to regret, particularly if they had alibis – and they usually did.
Therefore, it took Narcissa several hours to work out what the irritating sensation at the back of her mind was. At first she thought it was nothing more than a headache brought on by the stress of dealing with inadequate minions – how had her husband put up with such inefficiency over the years? It was no wonder he was a little tetchy and quick to resort to Imperio. It did save an awful lot of trouble.
Then she wondered whether it was something to do with the appalling wallpaper. It was green, which should have been soothing, but which made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up in revulsion at the clash with the carpet. She missed Malfoy Manor. She felt like Eve, expelled from paradise, and with even less justification – she wasn't the one who had been nibbling at forbidden fruit.
Eventually it dawned on her that what she was feeling was guilt.
It was such a novel experience, she kept poking at it in the way you pick at a scab or poke your tongue in a bad tooth. It was a peculiar feeling – she'd never felt close to Tonks in anyway, and couldn't understand why she should suddenly start worrying about Tonks' welfare.
She'd never wasted a moment worrying about the galleons she had spent on shoes. She'd never fretted about Lucius poisoning any of the more irritating guests. She hadn't blinked when he'd kicked the house elves.
But now, all of a sudden, she was feeling guilty about locking up an Auror who had been spying on her.
She was turning into a Hufflepuff.
Her co-conspirator had been very insistent on the need to apprehend whoever it was that had been watching them, and she could see that it made sense tactically. It was unfortunate that this had resulted in a relative being bopped over the head and deposited in the bedroom. Murchison had been very insistent that Narcissa didn't have any contact with Tonks – he'd pointed out that if Tonks saw her face more permanent measures might be called for – locked the door firmly, and then Apparated away to check on the finer details of their Evil Plan.
It took Narcissa fully five minutes to get the nerve up to go down there. Permanent measures sounded so ominous, and just the sort of thing Lucius would have said before smiling meaningfully and using the consequent terror to pry all sorts of useful information out of the prisoner before Obliviating them and leaving them in a gutter somewhere. If Lucius didn't think it was necessary to eliminate people, then that was probably a good indication that it wasn't the sensible thing to do; he was nothing if not ruthless.
It took her a further ten minutes to check that there were no nasty surprises waiting for her if she did open the door – there was no honour among thieves – and another three minutes to break the charms holding the door closed.
As co-conspirators went, he wasn't all that experienced in the Dark Arts, certainly compared to a middle-aged witch who had spent twenty years trying to hide things from her husband or trying to find out what he was hiding from her. It did tend to keep the mind sharp.
She was horrified to find that Tonks was lying on the bed making faint whimpering noises.
The faint stirring of Narcissa's conscience burst into full bloom. "Nymphadora! Are you all right?" It wasn't the most sensible question – it was obvious she was not – but it did invite further confidences.
Tonks said nothing, but whimpered faintly.
"What is it? What have they done to you?" Narcissa moved closer, afraid of what she might see. What tortures had been inflicted on her poor niece?
"…eeee, " said Tonks, between gritted teeth.
"…eee?" queried Narcissa.
"I need a wee!" Tonks said, all in a rush. "I need a wee, and there's nowhere to go."
"Oh. Erm. Right." Narcissa had never been in this situation before. Presumably captors the world over were faced with prisoners who needed the loo on a daily basis. There had to be some sort of etiquette that applied in these circumstances. Whatever it was, it had never been covered in the deportment classes her mother had been so keen to send her to. Presumably Lucius had been given the education to be able to cope with this type of situation, which was just typical of the discrimination that witches faced in trying to make their way in the world.
"Come on then," Narcissa said. "We'd better find you a toilet."
"Aren't you going to warn me not to try anything funny?" asked Tonks as she levered herself up from the bed, whilst trying to keep her knees together.
Narcissa sighed. Obviously she'd made a mistake already. "We'll just take that as read, shall we, together with all the usual gruesome threats?"
Not for the first time, Narcissa reflected that life really wasn't fair.
Lucius had always known that life was unfair. He lived in a big house, with lots of house elves, and had never knowingly done a stroke of work in his life.
That was unfair, from the utterly irrelevant viewpoint of others at least.
He'd spent a couple of years in Azkaban, which he had always thought was more than a bit off, and now he was trying to persuade two former Death Eaters, two Aurors, and a Death Eaters Moll – he thought that was the appropriate term for Hermione, at least until the wedding – to agree to a plan.
He didn't have his heart set on any particular plan; any plan would do, just as long as they were all pointed in the same direction with more or less the same aim in mind. You'd have thought it was easy enough to persuade them all that they wanted to (a) rescue Tonks without (b) injuring Narcissa or (c) involving the Ministry, and that this would involve (d) going to the address thoughtfully provided by the goblins.
That was, apparently, far too easy.
Everyone agreed with (a), and had been forced to concede on (b), though he was fairly sure that Smudger had his fingers crossed when he did so. If Tonks wasn't in one piece when the rescue was effected – something that seemed increasingly likely – Narcissa would be in serious difficulties. Lucius could understand the sentiment, applaud it even; it wouldn't stop him putting Smudger hors de combat - permanently if necessary.
Nobody was going to kill his soon-to-be-ex-wife. If he'd managed to make it through twenty years of marriage without so much as a stray hex, he was damned if anyone else was going to get that privilege. Besides, Draco would never forgive him, and he had a tendency to whine when unhappy.
Mr Weasley wanted to involve the Ministry – or at the very least ask along some more of his friends who coincidentally all worked there – and had no grasp of the concept of secrecy at all.
Mr Potter's contribution to the proceedings was to disagree with anything that Severus said, no matter how sensible it was, and to be roundly ignored. It reminded him of the reason he had abandoned the desire to rule the world – if you couldn't hex people into a smoking pile of ash, it was too much like hard work.
"If I might suggest," he said, in the tone that said it wasn't a suggestion. "Perhaps we could Apparate to the locale in question and determine whether Tonks is in fact there, and then reconsider the issue of tactics in the light of the conditions prevailing?"
Hermione nodded. "That makes a lot of sense. After all, if it's Narcissa and a couple of henchmen there's no need to get anyone else involved. Obviously if there's hordes of minions, then we'll reconsider."
"I disagree," said Severus.
"Then I think we should do that," Harry said, almost as quickly and entirely missed Severus' resulting smirk.
"Good," said Smudger, with only the faintest hint of impatience. "I'll Apparate first."
"Indeed," said Lucius. "And I'll be right behind you."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," replied Smudger.
"And I'll be right behind you," added Severus. "Because in situations like these it's really important to have someone you can trust backing you up, isn't it?"
"Oh yes," said Smudger.
If Tonks had been any less desperate for a wee she couldn't have brought herself to use the facilities. As it was, she opened the door to the loo and visibly recoiled from the smell, very nearly getting hexed by an increasingly twitchy Narcissa.
"Good god," Narcissa said. "Has something died in there?"
"No," Tonks replied through clenched teeth. "But something might if it had to go in there for very long."
"Men are loathsome," Narcissa said. "I swear that they'd spend their entire lives in a pig sty given half a chance." She sighed, then cast a cleansing charm over Tonks' shoulder. She really missed the Malfoy elves.
Tonks hurried in, and pulled the door to, and prepared to relieve the pressure on her bladder. Acutely aware of Narcissa on the other side of the door, she couldn't relax enough to perform. "So," she said, more in an attempt to break the silence than anything else, "I don't suppose Uncle Lucius is that messy."
"You'd be surprised," Narcissa said darkly. "At least half of the house elves spend all their time picking up after him, and he has this really nasty habit of taking his socks off and throwing them across the room and then sulking when the elves can't find his favourite pair with the green snakes on."
Tonks giggled. It was hard to think of the remote, vicious Lucius Malfoy she knew as bothering over something as trivial as a pair of socks. "I have a hard time persuading Smudger to change his socks more than once a week," she said. "Perhaps if I told him he could get a Slytherin pair, he'd be more amenable."
The chatter worked, and she was able to empty her bladder. Under the cover of the ensuing noises, Tonks took the opportunity to look round. The room had no window opening to the outside, so there was no way of escaping from the toilet, and nothing that she could use as a weapon. There wasn't even a towel with which to perform her ablutions. She washed her hands anyway, and wiped them as best she could on her shirt.
"Do you ever think that they're a bit silly about this Slytherin nonsense?" Narcissa asked. "It's all "look at me, I'm evil and Macchiavellan because I've got green socks" when they should be concentrating on some actual plotting, and some actual rising to power and not following scaly failures for twenty years with nothing to show for it."
"Well, that's boys for you, isn't it? They aren't quite as clever as they think they are," Tonks snorted. "I'm coming out now."
When Tonks opened the door, Narcissa was still pointing a wand at her but was looking slightly embarrassed about the whole business. "I suppose I ought to put you back in the room," she said. "It's only for a bit longer."
"I hope that isn't because your minions are outside digging a trench," Tonks replied.
"You know, for the body."
Narcissa looked horrified. "I wouldn't… good god, that's not necessary. All we have to do is keep you locked up for a couple of days until we've sorted out Lucius."
"Sorted him out?"
"Look, it's nothing bad," Narcissa said. "Well, not that bad. It doesn't involve poison or Unforgivables, and it's certainly nothing he doesn't richly deserve."
"I'm sure," Tonks said - she couldn't think of anything that the miserable bastard didn't deserve. Unfortunately, it didn't mean that she wouldn't do all she could to put a stop to it. It was a bugger having a conscience. "Well, as I'm not going anywhere, why don't you tell me all about it? And is there any chance of a cup of tea; I'm parched."
Narcissa smiled; she had rubbed shoulders with enough demented Dark Lords and assorted Evil Doers to know that boasting about your plans was de rigeur. She wasn't quite clear whether you were allowed to do this over a snack, but her mother hd always impressed on her the need to be polite in all circumstances. "If you can work out how to use the things in the kitchen, you can make us both a cup of tea, though I don't hold out much hope for a biscuit, and then we can talk. I wouldn't mind a second opinion on my scheme from someone competent; it is my first solo project, after all."
Tonks was mildly flattered to think that someone would actually value her input on something rather than dismissing her as a bit clumsy and not very bright. It was almost a shame that she would have to disarm Narcissa at some point and take her into custody.
It didn't take Tonks long to work out how to light the gas cooker, and put the kettle on to boil. By the time it whistled to show that the water was boiling, she had managed to find two chipped cups, and some tea that looked to have been in the cupboard since the fall of Grindlewald.
She added an extra teaspoon to the pot to compensate, and left it to brew for five minutes. The resulting liquid was still a bit weak for her taste, but probably just right for Narcissa's refined palate.
"Is there any milk?" she asked.
Narcissa shrugged. "Probably not, and if there is, I'm not sure I'd like to risk drinking it."
"Yeah," said Tonks, opening the cupboards in turn, until she found some milk held under a cooling charm. "Most blokes'll be happy to drink milk until it turns green." She sniffed at it cautiously. "Seems fine." She slopped a generous amount in both cups, and added two sugars to hers. Narcissa didn't seem like the sort of woman who took sugar in her tea.
"We'll take tea in the sitting room," Narcissa said. "If you'll just take the cups through? After you, dear."
Tonks was disappointed that Narcissa wasn't daft enough to take her own cup and get in range of a hard slap, but at least she wasn't being put back in the smelly room, and there would always be other chances.
Besides, she was dying to find out what Narcissa was up to. Not literally, of course.
The Hide Out, as the boys insisted on calling it, was a run down cottage in the middle of nowhere. It could not be denied that this was a sensible choice for a Hide Out, but it was damned inconvenient.
Lucius hadn't put his best boots on, knowing that there would be countryside involved, but he was still unhappy about the amount of mud that was splattered up his robes. Some things couldn't be removed even with the strongest spells, and the smell of cow shit tended to linger.
It seemed to be special, almost magnetic cowshit, because no matter where he put his feet in the damned field some poo managed to find its way under his boots. It didn't matter how carefully he looked, or what kind of spells he cast, there would be poo.
It was really rather annoying.
The constant whittling from the support staff wasn't helping either. Harry and Ron fondly imagined that their complaints were sotto voce but, absent the careful silencing charms that Smudger had cast within ten seconds of their arrival, everyone in a five mile radius would have been able to hear them.
It was faintly depressing to realise that twenty years later he was still stuck doing the same shit – literally and metaphorically – that he had been doing when he had been starting out as a Death Eater. Creeping around in fields in the middle of the night was not his idea of a good time, and he was determined that he would never do this again. Next time Narcissa got into trouble she would be his ex-wife and could damned well look after herself.
He had to face facts; the time had come to turn over a new leaf. He was going to retire from the cut and thrust of practical politics and leave that aspect of things to his son. It was about time the lazy sod hauled his arse back from Paris and started learning the family trade, allowing Lucius to take his rightful place as an eminence grise.
Perhaps the time had come to find Draco a wife, someone to be a steadying influence on him, and stop him enjoying life.
Lucius' ruminations were brought to an abrupt halt by Hermione tugging on his sleeve, a liberty that he would usually resent, but was prepared to allow as it signalled the possibility that this horrible evening could be drawing to a conclusion.
"I think this is it," she said under her breath.
Usually Lucius would have made some sarcastic comment to the effect that she was stating the obvious, but he was aware that, with the present company, stating the obvious was only prudent. It was the only building for miles: a low, shambling building masquerading as a farm house but closer to a cowshed. His dear soon-to-be-ex-wife was clearly losing her marbles. Etiquette demanded that plotting either take place in some eldritch outdoor scene, thus encouraging arthritis and making everyone sufficiently bad-tempered that they would take over the world just for some Deep Heat rub, or, and his own personal preference, take place in swanky and sophisticated surroundings with Louis furniture, fine wines, and a nice fire.
Narcissa might not still have the use of Malfoy Manor but she was bringing shame on the Malfoy name – for however long it still remained to her – by even considering using this hovel. He wouldn't even use it to house his elves, much less kennel his dogs.
The group huddled together behind a convenient hedge and considered its options.
Lucius was disconcerted to find that that majority were in favour of a full frontal assault and saw no need to reconnoitre. Fortunately he was not a natural democrat, and had no compunction in overriding their opinion.
"You may find the idea of bursting into a room with no idea what is waiting for you in there to be exciting," he said, with awful patience. "However, once you have reached the age of maturity – which in your case will be almost fifty years hence, if you live that long – you will realise that there is almost as much fun to be had in sneaking up on people. It also allows you the best chance of actually living long enough to reach the age of maturity, not to mention saving you the embarrassment of bursting in on someone perfectly innocent in the middle of their dinner and having to Obliviate them. That sort of thing is the very devil to live down you know."
Severus didn't smirk, but Hermione had the impression that Lucius was speaking from bitter experience.
"But…" Harry protested.
"He's right, lad," Smudger said through gritted teeth. "There's no point rushing in. We could get Tonks killed."
And that point settled it – they would someone ahead to see what was what, and then form a sensible plan.
Smudger was the obvious choice for the scouting party, which meant that Lucius also had to go to keep an eye on him, which led to Severus having to go along to keep an eye on him, and Hermione wasn't going to let him out of her sight, and Harry and Ron didn't want to be left behind…
In the end, they all went, and Lucius' sole consolation was that they did at least tiptoe to the building and try and peer in at the windows before dashing in.
"I can't see anything," Ron complained.
"Shush," said Severus. "Someone's coming."
Smudger swore under his breath – there were Tonks and Narcissa and they seemed to be getting on like a house on fire. What was going on?
Hermione hissed in exasperation. "I can't hear a ruddy thing."
"You are a witch," Lucius snapped. "You have heard of listening charms."
Hermione gave him a look that would peel paint at fifty paces. "I've also heard of warding charms, Mr Malfoy. You know, ones that might be triggered by the injudicious use of listening charms."
"Fortunately," Ron said, breaking up the glaring contest before it could turn nasty, "I've brought some extendible ears, and they shouldn't be a problem."
Hermione and Lucius exchanged one last narrow-eyed look, before they all gathered round the ears to listen in to the conversation and Smudger became aware that something hard, pointy and unwelcome was pressed against his back.
"Do not," said Lucius very quietly into his ear, "make any sudden moves."
Smudger kept very still, but prepared to make a sudden move when the time was right.
Anyone watching the two women taking tea together in the sitting room would have thought they were the best of friends provided they ignored the way that Narcissa's wand was very carefully placed by her side and Tonks was being equally cautious about making any movement that hadn't been clearly signalled before hand.
"So," Tonks said, "what dreadful revenge are you about to wreak on Uncle Lucius?"
Narcissa sipped her tea, wrinkled her nose in disgust at the appalling flavour, then put the cup down with a decided click. "Lucius has decided to divorce me. I have decided that I don't want to be divorced. Therefore, he must be stopped before the final papers are signed next week."
"Go on," Tonks replied. "I'm with you so far."
"I have managed to obtain a powerful love potion from the finest potions' brewer in the country; all I need to do is persuade Lucius to drink it."
Severus snorted in disgust. "I don't know who she got to make it for her, but he most definitely isn't the finest potions' master in the country. I would never have agreed to anything so asinine."
"Or, illegal," Hermione said firmly.
"That too, dear," he said. "Obviously."
"That's all?" asked Tonks. "It doesn't sound like a lot to me."
Narcissa raised an eyebrow. "But that's just the start of it, my dear. Just imagine what a heartless woman could do to repay twenty years of misery when her husband suddenly finds himself in the grip of an overwhelming passion. I'll make the bastard crawl over broken glass for the rest of his life, and I'll make him beg for the privilege."
"She really doesn't like you very much does she, Lucius?" Severus said.
"Apparently not," he replied.
"Quite right too," Hermione murmured, still smarting over the exchange earlier.
Smudger grinned, and bided his time. Tonks appeared to be in no immediate danger, and Lucius was getting to hear what people really thought about him. The evening had the potential to be very amusing.
"Are you sure that will make you happy?" Tonks asked.
"Why shouldn't it?"
"Well, I'm sure there's supposed to be more to life than revenge."
Narcissa looked puzzled.
"Or, erm, to put it another way, living well is supposed to be the best revenge. You know, getting hold of your life and making something of it - finding yourself a new man, perhaps."
"I don't see that making Lucius crawl over broken glass necessarily prohibits me from finding a new man. It may even be part of the process. And don't look so shocked, Nymphadora. It's not as if he was ever faithful to me."
"But you didn't love him; it's different."
"Didn't love him?" Narcissa said, very calmly. "And why do you think I married him?"
Tonks winced. The last time she'd heard someone use that tone of voice had been just before Snape going absolutely frothing at the mouth berserk, and it had taken five Aurors to hold him down.
"Er, for the money?" she said. "I mean, it's not as if he's very nice, is it?"
Smudger felt Lucius' wand dip a little.
"My husband may not be 'very nice' as you so charmingly put it," Narcissa replied in that same, overly calm voice. "He is, however, a very handsome man who is capable of being incredibly charismatic when he puts his mind to it. He has his faults, I grant you. Chiefly his determination to make sure that the entire female population of the Wizarding World gets to sample his charisma at close quarters, and a tendency not to push himself forwards for preferment as he ought to. But that does not mean that I am not fond of him, or that I married him for reasons other than simple affection."
Lucius' wand dipped even lower.
"Oh dear," Tonks said. "I am sorry. I had no idea."
An awkward silence descended and both women resorted to sipping at their cold tea whilst they thought of what next to say.
"Well," said Smudger. "Are we actually going to do something, or are we going to stand here like lemons for the rest of the evening?"
"We're going to do something," Lucius said. "I rather need to have a quick word with my wife."
"You're not going to do something silly are you?" Severus said with a knowing smile.
"I rather think I am," Lucius replied and promptly blasted a hole in the wall of the building.
Tonks dropped to the floor, and tried to get under the sofa. Narcissa snatched up her wand and turned to face her attacker.
"What the hell do you think you're playing at, Narcissa?" Lucius bellowed. "Kidnapping Aurors can get you into a lot of trouble. As can playing with love potions."
"I think he's been mixing with Gryffindors too much," Severus remarked idly to Smudger as they peered through the hole. "That wasn't very subtle was it?"
"Not subtle at all," Smudger replied. "Effective though. Now, if you don't mind, I think I'll go and rescue my girlfriend. I wouldn't want her to be caught in the crossfire of a Malfoy domestic – it looks like this could turn nasty."
"Good idea," Severus said. "I think we'll just watch from the sidelines."
"If only we'd known," Harry added. "We could have brought some snacks to pass the time."
"Five knuts says she hexes him," Ron said.
"Done," Hermione said. "And another five says they end up snogging by the end of the evening."
"You bastard," Narcissa said, ignoring the watchers to concentrate on throwing a vase at Lucius, who ducked out of the way. "How many years have we been married? And I've put up with so much: your philandering, your lying, your cheating, your putting our family at risk to follow a power crazed fool, and what do I get in return? A divorce!" She threw another ornament at him. "And you thought I was going to take that lying down!"
Smudger dodged the flying crockery, slipped round the side of Lucius, and patted Tonks on the back. "I think you can come out now," he said. "It's safe enough."
Tonks raised herself up on her elbows and grinned at Smudger. "Hello," she said. "Have you come to rescue me?"
"I was, but you seemed to have things under control anyway, which is more than Lucius does." They both winced as another ornament went flying across the room.
"Ah well, it's the thought that counts," she replied.
"What about you," Lucius was shouting. "All you ever cared for was your bloody shoes!"
"I had to have some consolation for putting up with your appalling mother…"
"You leave my mother out of this," Lucius interrupted, but Narcissa was in full flow.
"Malfoys don't do this, Malfoys don't do that. Malfoys don't nag; Malfoys don't kiss their husbands in public. Malfoys aren't supposed to show any emotion. Malfoys aren't supposed to have any bloody fun, and Malfoys certainly aren't supposed to complain when their sodding husbands spend half their time shagging over the side."
"I wouldn't have had to if you'd been less like an icicle and more like the woman I thought I was marrying."
"Your mother said that was what you wanted!" Narcissa shrieked.
"Who on earth would want someone like that? I could have married the Bulstrode bint if I'd wanted a stuck up bitch with all the warmth of a statue."
Narcissa paused, arm cocked to throw another ornament. "Really?"
"Really," Lucius replied, adding rather more thoughtfully. "You know, you look damned attractive all rumpled and flushed like that."
"Told you." Hermione nudged Ron in the ribs. "That's five knuts you owe me."
"They haven't snogged yet," Ron replied.
"Oh, but they will, they will," Severus said.
Narcissa dropped the ornament, and took a couple of steps forward. Lucius tucked his wand away, and moved closer and there was no doubt of their intentions.
"Well isn't that sweet?" someone said, and it took a couple of seconds for everyone in the room to register that it was a strange voice utterly unrelated to anyone in their group.
There, posing in the doorway, wand at the ready was a tall, thin man with scruffy brown hair – Narcissa's minion had returned.
"Oh, Murchison, I won't be needing you any more," Narcissa said, not taking her eyes off Lucius. "I'll pay you, of course."
"That's generous of you," he replied. "Except…I've got a better idea."
"That doesn't sound good," Harry said.
Severus made a move for his wand, but Murchison saw him and shook his head. "I don't think that would be very wise."
"There's always one, isn't there?" Smudger observed. "One who thinks he's a clever bugger and has to muck it up for the rest of us. Now, run along, laddy, whilst you still can."
"I don't think that you're in any position to dictate matters," the minion replied loftily. "I am the one with the wand, after all."
"So far anyway," Smudger said. "That can always change."
"Oh yes," said Lucius, with a smile that didn't meet his eyes. "I can almost guarantee it."
Murchison snorted. "You've been living off your reputation for years, Lucius. You don't frighten me. Now, Narcissa, drop your wand and come over here. Slowly."
Lucius did not appear pleased to be addressed so familiarly by someone who hadn't even been introduced to him. It was just plain rude, and he wasn't the sort of man to stand for that kind of behaviour.
"I'm sorry, Lucius. I really ought to have been more sympathetic in the past when you were complaining about the minions you had to work with," Narcissa said, dropping her wand. "I hadn't realised before quite how unutterably stupid they could be."
"That's all right, dear; you weren't to know. I really ought to have made more of an effort to include you in my hobbies. The family that plots together, stays together."
Narcissa moved slowly round the edge of the sofa and approached Murchison, keeping watch for the opportunity that would allow her to make her bid for freedom. He reached out, pulled her towards him, then swung her round and pinned her against his body with a wand at her throat.
"He really is a twat, isn't he?" Hermione observed. "Fancy letting her get that close."
"Obviously no one told him about the female of the species," Severus replied. "Brace yourselves, lads. The cauldron is bubbling nicely, and someone is about to add the fluxweed."
"Those are very nice shoes, Narcissa," Lucius said. "Are they new?"
"Yes, dear." She lifted her foot as if to admire her footwear, and then brought it down sharply on Murchison's foot. He squealed like a pig being slaughtered, but didn't loosen his grip. She followed it up with a sharp elbow to the ribs, and then let her body go limp.
Lucius drew his wand faster than anyone Hermione had ever seen, Severus included, and Apparated across the room to shave seconds off the time it would take him to reach Murchison.
The first Murchison knew about it was when Lucius' fingers closed round this throat, and a voice hissed in his ear, "You dared to lay a hand on my wife." Narcissa scrambled out of the way, whilst Smudger summoned her wand, and then threw it to her in one smooth movement. She caught it, and then turned to provide back up to her husband if it should prove necessary.
"You were getting divorced!" Murchison managed to gasp out.
"Was the divorce final?" Lucius tightened his grasp and slammed his victim's head against the wall.
"So she was still my wife." Murchison's head was banged against the wall again.
"But she was plotting against you."
"So? That is a private family matter and none of your concern."
Murchison whimpered, and tensed in expectation of another onslaught.
"Lucius, do put that nasty little man down. I don't want you ending up back in Azkaban," Narcissa said. "Not when we've got so much to sort out."
Lucius gave Murchison one last shake, and then released him to leave him bent over and gasping for breath. "Well, what are we going to do with him?"
Harry and Ron, being experienced Aurors, knew that you should never leave your captive unattended and took up position either side of Murchison, giving them a good opportunity to admire the bruises forming on his throat.
"Oh, stop whimpering," Ron said in disgust. "You got off pretty lightly, if you ask me."
Lucius adjusted his cuffs and smoothed his hair into place; a little like a man preparing to go on a date. Narcissa had tucked her wand away, and was eyeing him coolly.
"Oh, Lucius, you were wonderful," she cooed, stepping closer to run a hand down the front of his robes. "Just like you used to be – all masterful."
"If you think that that sort of flannel is still going to work after all these years," Lucius said into her ear. "You'd probably be right."
She patted his collar into place, and sighed. "Maybe, but perhaps we ought to try something different this time: a little bit of honesty."
"Not too much though – the shock could be fatal," Lucius replied, kissing the palm of her hand.
Tonks rolled her eyes at Smudger, and whispered, "Promise me we won't get that soppy."
"I'm certainly not planning on trying honesty any time soon," he replied, shaking his head sadly. "I'm disappointed in him. Where's the fun in that?" and was promptly elbowed by his girlfriend.
"Right," said Tonks to the room at large. "Now that we've got the important stuff sorted out, what are we going to do with this little scrote?"
Harry and Ron grasped Murchison firmly by the arms, and frogmarched him into the centre of the room before shoving him down onto the sofa.
"Well, we could let Lucius finish him off," Ron said. "I bet there wouldn't be enough left to fill a matchbox."
"It'd make a dreadful mess though," Hermione said. "And someone would have to clear it up. And that someone usually turns out to be of the female persuasion, which really isn't fair."
"I'm certainly not volunteering," Narcissa said. "I've done enough housework over the last week or so – look at my nails! They're ruined."
"There's always poison," Severus said. "It's less messy, and I can always do with a test subject."
"Now that does give me an idea," Smudger said. "We do have that expertly brewed love potion after all. And I know any number of people whose life would be improved by a little lurve."
"I know my rights," said the minion, shrinking back into his seat. "You can't do this to me. You've got to arrest me, and then you have to take me to the Ministry and I want to floo my lawyer."
"I bet you do," Ron said. "Your sort always do. Not so keen on sticking to the law though, are you?"
Tonks grinned. "Besides, it's not as if I actually want to arrest you. There's all the paperwork involved, and Moody will never let me hear the end of it."
"So you're going to let me go?" the Minion asked, not with much hope.
"Oh no," Smudger said, and smiled. And that was the last thing the Minion saw before he lost consciousness.
The Daily Prophet took great pleasure in revealing the details of the Malfoy's reconciliation, and what they didn't know, they fabricated.
The announcement of the engagement of Dolores Umbridge and Perceval Murchison after a whirlwind romance was relegated to page 13, which Severus thought was entirely appropriate though wouldn't be drawn on who was the more unlucky of the pair.
He did comment that Harry and Ron were clearly picking up good habits from spending time with Slytherins and were developing a satisfyingly vicious nasty streak that would see them in good stead through later life.