THE LAW OF UNIVERSAL GRAVITATION

Every single point mass attracts every other point mass by a force heading along the line combining the two.

(Quote taken from Wikipedia)

These days, only very few people in the wizarding world remember more about the downfall of Lord Voldemort than that it somehow involved the resignation of a Minister of Magic nobody had ever really liked. The wedding that was held a few weeks later is more widely and more vividly remembered – less because the main participants were so popular, but certainly because nobody would ever have expected Percy Weasley to marry Narcissa Black, ex-Malfoy. Not many wizards and witches, however, know how either Voldemort's downfall or the wedding came to happen.

The events leading up to Hermione Granger, ex-Granger-Snape, marrying Lucius Malfoy some five years later, however, are known but to a very small group of people, who really wouldn't care for any of those circumstances to ever be known to a wider public.

You, dear reader, probably don't belong to that small, closed community that is the British Wizarding World. Unless I'm very much mistaken, you don't even know what happened after Severus Snape killed Albus Dumbledore. Being an omniscient author, I am of course acquainted with the details, whether sordid, interesting or boring. Or rather, modesty compels me to admit, I am a humble author in the merciless grip of a Muse who, due to her semi-divine nature, is omniscient and won't stop whispering interesting facts into my already sore ear. She is also constantly nagging me about writing them down, and since today is a rainy Saturday afternoon, the rain is beating against the windows in a constant, soothing rhythm and I don't have anything better to do, I think I'll finally cede to her constant goading, sit down and write the story she so badly wants to be written.

Why doesn't she write it herself?, the kind reader may ask. Well, you see, the problem with Muses is that, with the passing of many millennia, they have become stronger in the spirit and weaker in the flesh. They're almost immaterial by now, and hence holding a pen or using a keyboard is quite beyond them. They'd love to write their own stories, but alas they can't. Therefore, much in the way of parasites, they pounce on the first unsuspecting human being unfortunate enough to cross their path, and don't stop nagging and hassling and pleading and, at times, even threatening, until their host (in a manner of speaking) finally gives in and starts writing. Since some of the author-hosts make a good deal of money with the whisperings of their invisible semi-divine parasites, you won't hear many complaints.

As I already mentioned, you probably have no idea whatsoever concerning the events following Dumbledore's death. I'll give you a brief summary, then, because with that knowledge it is probably easier for you to understand what happened a couple of years later.

It is, I believe, common knowledge that Lucius Malfoy went to Azkaban for having participated in the rather unfortunate skirmish that took place in summer 1996 at the Ministry of Magic. He had to stay there for more than a year, until Voldemort's minions freed him in the early autumn of 1997. Not that Voldemort (or his minions, for that matter) were particularly interested in freeing a man whose less than impeccable conduct during an important mission had jeopardized their whole movement. But they had been sent out to conquer and destroy Azkaban, and freeing Lucius was commonly regarded among them as a sort of collateral damage.

So Lucius had regained his freedom and was a fugitive. That didn't mean he was helpless, though. He still had certain contacts who were more interested in preserving his life – less because of his charming personality than because the Malfoy fortune was an important factor in British Wizarding Economy – than seeing him six feet under, and who hence came to his help.

The sweet taste of freedom turned to bitterness very soon, when he learned that during his imprisonment, his son had been found and killed. He also learned that the Ministry of Magic claimed the death of his son to be one of the hitherto most successful missions of Magical Law Enforcement, but that the Aurors had had nothing to do with it. Draco had been murdered – in a rather gruesome way – by none other than Voldemort's Death Eaters, and Snape had only narrowly escaped after defending Draco almost to the death.

Snape, too, was a fugitive now, and hadn't yet been found either by the Aurors or by Voldemort's deadly troupe.

Lucius, who until the unfortunate events at the Ministry of Magic had been Voldemort's right-hand man, did of course know about the Horcruxes. Voldemort had created them in the early days of the Pureblood Supremacist movement (or that was what most Death Eaters had believed it to be back then), and although Lucius didn't know where to find them, he was fully aware that there were seven of them and that they had to be destroyed, if Voldemort was to be vanquished.

He might have hesitated to roll up is sleeves and do the job himself, had his son not been killed. As things were, he considered himself free of any commitment he might ever have had towards the Dark Lord, and set out to find the objects containing bits of Voldemort's soul. He knew that Tom Riddle's diary had already been destroyed – that memorable event had cost him a House Elf, after all – but was delighted to discover that somebody else was obviously thinking along the same lines as he and had already eliminated another three.

Never one to protest when work was delegating itself, Lucius was beginning to feel a bit twitchy, though. One could never be completely sure, after all, that this wasn't some kind of Voldemortian booby trap born from insanity and a sense of humour Lucius had ceased to understand around in 1975.

It is difficult to imagine his surprise when, just about to destroy Horcrux number five with a spell it had taken him three months to unearth, his incantation was interrupted by the sharp crack of an Apparition, and he found himself facing none other than Severus Snape. This surprise meeting was a lucky chance for them both, since – unbeknownst to them – trying to annihilate the thing alone would have cost them their lives. They blew the Horcrux into oblivion together, and then went off to a Muggle pub to get thoroughly plastered and catch up with each other's lives.

Whether it was Dumbledore's ghost pulling spectral strings or just Fate having a good laugh at Voldemort's expense is hard to determine (even the otherwise omniscient Muse has to admit she doesn't know exactly): whatever the reason, on a cold February day in 1998, Lucius Malfoy and Severus Snape approached the location of the sixth Horcrux, only to find Harry Potter and Ron Weasley standing there, heads ducked to avoid the sleet that was being driven into their faces by a biting westerly wind, but probably trying even harder to withstand Hermione Granger's lecturing them on the stupidity of having wandered off by themselves without taking her along.

And it was, indeed, a stroke of luck that Hermione had followed them, because, had they been on their own, they'd surely have turned on Snape and Malfoy, and who knows if any of the four would have survived the confrontation. But she was there and, in that brisk and bossy manner Harry and Ron had come to fear, held Snape and Malfoy at wand-point, forcing them to explain their appearance on the scene in a style less notable for its elegance than its repeated use of the sentence 'Wait! Don't fire! There's more!'

Even Ron and Harry had to admit that the two wizards' intentions were, if not honourable, at least in their favour, and so the five decided on a temporary truce and the sixth Horcrux went the way of all Horcruxes.

The seventh was a bitch to locate, but there were five of them now, working together, and it only took them two months to determine that it was hidden at Malfoy Manor. Hence the party of five set out to tackle it and hopefully free the world of Lord Voldemort.

They found the Horcrux and disposed of it, but that wasn't the only thing they found, and certainly not the most embarrassing. In a fit of nostalgia Lucius expressed the wish to walk around the Manor – everybody refused of course, but then he had the rather brilliant inspiration to mention his library. That instantly convinced Hermione that a tour of Malfoy Manor was an excellent plan, and once Hermione had been persuaded, it took her surprisingly little time to change Ron and Harry's minds in a way that made them end up quarrelling which of them had been the first to have this brilliant idea. Severus and Lucius were impressed despite themselves. The Muse claims that this was the moment when Snape began to be quite interested in Hermione, and who am I to contradict her.

So they toured the Manor, and when Ron – to do him justice, he was feeling horribly embarrassed but even more curious – asked whether they might have a look at the private rooms as well, Lucius gracefully agreed. Not that a Weasley's admiration of his sophistication and style really mattered to him, but beggars can't be choosers, and he hadn't been admired for a rather long time.

When approaching the master suite, they heard strange noises. Both worried and intrigued, Lucius spelled the door to open without a sound. The group of five entered the room, only to find Narcissa engaged in intercourse with none other than Percy Weasley.

You, dear reader, can probably imagine the heights of indignant fury Lucius was driven to, more so as his being cuckolded – by a Weasley of all possible rivals – was being witnessed by four people, at least two of whom he was sure just loved to see him humiliated.

While Narcissa looked quite pretty in nothing but a rug draped over her nudity, Percy – who'd grabbed the rug but been out-grabbed by his blonde paramour – cut a somewhat tragic figure. In the end, he swore a wizard's oath to assist both Lucius and Snape in any possible way during the aftermath of Voldemort's downfall, merely to prevent Lucius from performing a bit of highly complex and absolutely permanent transfiguration on his privates.

He was able to keep his promise very soon, and certainly not to his disadvantage.

Dumbledore, and hence the Order of the Phoenix, had always been unsure whether destroying the Horcruxes was going to kill Voldemort by proxy, or if there would have to be a final confrontation between the Dark Lord and Harry Potter. If one considered Trelawney's prophecy, a confrontation was inevitable.

But it wouldn't have been Trelawney's prophecy, had it been entirely correct.

Much to Harry's joy, Voldemort had been so terribly weakened by his soul-vessels being blown into nothingness one by one, that his not-so-loyal Death Eaters decided to do Harry's job and drew straws to determine who was going to give him the coup de grâce. Pettigrew was the unfortunate winner and tried to decline on the grounds that his silver hand was oxidizing but the others would have none of that. They stood guard until he reluctantly finished off their now useless ex-leader, and then fled. Most of them were captured by Aurors and swiftly despatched to Azkaban, a few were killed, and the rest preferred to sneak away in silence and pretend they'd never been anything but fine, upstanding members of the wizarding society.

That was the point at which Rufus Scrimgeour, who'd always been a little too convinced of his political abilities than was good for him, made a very stupid mistake. He claimed that it had been his Aurors to open the door to a better world and kick Voldemort right through it.

That ludicrous lie went down like a cup of cold sick with the Order of the Phoenix, and Percy Weasley realized – in hindsight, he almost couldn't believe how clever he'd been – that finally his time had come. The minister's Junior Undersecretary organized a huge public victory celebration and, while Scrimgeour took a deep breath before launching into a lengthy and boring speech, cast a Sonorus charm on himself and proclaimed to a completely stunned crowd of wizards and witches that the minister had made it all up, and that it had been five members of the Order of the Phoenix (he almost choked on the number) who deserved to be praised for the valiant deed.

Scrimgeour had never been very popular.

The Weasleys, on the other hand, had always been a very popular bunch (not least after Fred and George's enormous commercial success), and thus Percy Weasley was made Great Britain's youngest ever Minister of Magic by acclamation.

That caused quite a dilemma for Narcissa Malfoy. Fucking Percy had mostly been an act of desperation and loneliness. But not only was he surprisingly good at it, he was now also Minister of Magic. Three boxes of horrendously expensive pralines later, the dilemma was solved: A young and gullible Minister of Magic was better than a husband of twenty years, who'd never forgive her for cheating on him.

Having perused these pages, dear reader, you possess now all the information you need to truly understand and appreciate the events that started little more than four years after Narcissa divorced Lucius and got married to Percy Weasley.

vvvvvvvvv

I already mentioned – although in passing, but I'm sure you got the hint, dear reader – that Severus Snape came to feel a certain amount of attraction for Hermione Granger.

Maybe, so the Muse keeps telling me, it would be a good idea to mention that Severus Snape was 1) total crap at relationships and 2) quite unashamedly attracted to very young women. He'd never touched a student but come close a few times. Although people usually described him as self-assured bordering on arrogant, haughty, sarcastic and unexplainably attractive despite his ugliness, he was really quite insecure and self-conscious (although he wasn't wearing those greying underpants anymore), and not really able to hold his own against a woman closer to his own age. Severus Snape liked doormats, to put it explicitly, and he liked them young and tasty.

Hermione certainly wasn't a doormat; he'd seen her in full swing often enough to be aware of that. But, you see, the problem with Severus is that he would never have dreamed of comparing himself to Messrs. Potter and Weasley, and hence wouldn't have begun to dream that she might ever treat him like he'd seen her treat the two little miscreants. Besides she was young, pretty, clever and very devious for a Gryffindor and, or so the Muse tells me, these qualities temporarily blinded him to the fact that she was more difficult to stand up to than most witches twice her age.

Hermione, who'd always dimly felt that her bossiness and quick temper might deter most boys her age, fell for Snape because she had no idea of his insecurity. She thought that she'd finally found a man equal to both her assertiveness and intelligence.

So they married a few months after Voldemort's demise.

Severus, who had always loathed teaching, got a substantial loan from Gringott's and set up his own potions business, Snape Potions Ltd. Thanks to his spectacular invention of the Kleerskin Potion, which cured acne, removed spots and made freckles vanish in a matter of seconds, he soon found himself to be the owner of a thriving business.

His young wife, on the other hand, decided that what the wizarding world lacked were marriage counsellors, did three years' training at a Muggle institution and soon afterwards established her own practice in Diagon Alley.

They were a successful couple, they made loads of money and lived in a beautiful restored old farmhouse near Hogsmeade. Thanks to leading busy professional lives and seeing each other only sporadically during the first years of their marriage, and also thanks to their most satisfying sex life, there weren't any confrontations, discussions or rows, and hence Hermione didn't have to be assertive and Severus had no reason to think she might be. They felt they weren't only a successful but also a very happy couple.

The suspicion that this might be an illusion first entered their minds on a warm evening in June 2002. It was a Saturday, and both of them had been surprised to encounter the other at home when they Apparated back to their house near Hogsmeade. It was a truly lovely summer day, and so they were both sitting comfortably in deckchairs on the terrace at the rear side of the house, reading and sipping their drinks.

'Ginny came to see me today,' Hermione said, putting down her book.

Severus, who was engrossed in the latest issue of The Wizarding Economist, merely uttered a polite 'Hmm?'

'I said Ginny came to see me. Harry's wife. Severus, are you listening?'

'Of course I am,' he replied, reluctantly lowering his newspaper. 'Ginny Potter came to see you. So, is the Boy Who Lived not quite the ideal husband she thought he was?'

'Oh, no. No. She didn't come to see me in my professional quality, merely as a friend. And of course to tell me she's pregnant.'

'A Potter and a Weasley. The deadliest mix of genes imaginable.' He shuddered. 'Imagine those poor sods back at Hogwarts – within a mere twelve years the first of many loud-mouthed, red-haired and totally unmanageable brats will cross the threshold of Hogwarts, to be followed each year by another one. I would pity the teachers, if I didn't happen to know that they are a bunch of ignorant dunderheads.'

'Well,' Hermione said lightly, 'wouldn't it be a good idea to somewhat counteract that deadly mix of genes by sending a Granger-Snape cross-breed to Hogwarts? Brilliant, studious, courageous and cunning? The Sorting Hat would have a hard time placing that!'

Now she had his full attention. 'Don't be ridiculous,' he snapped. 'We can't have children!'

'Of course we can have children. We know how to go about making them' – she shot him a smouldering look – 'and if I stop taking my contraceptive potion-'

'You will do no such thing!'

'Excuse me?'

'I said you will do no such thing, and I mean it. Children are out of the question.'

'Oh, so you decide that children are out of the question, and that means I can't have children?'

'One hundred points to Gryffindor for oral comprehension.' Severus vanished behind his newspaper.

'This discussion isn't over, Severus! Stop reading that stupid paper and listen to me!'

'There is no discussion, my dear,' he said from behind the newspaper, 'You seem to have misjudged the situation.'

'Severus!' He was reading and therefore didn't see the colour slowly creeping up her throat and into her face. 'Severus, put that rag down instantly! You can't just declare that the discussion is over and expect me to shut up! I want to talk about this! I need to talk about this, so you'll bloody well listen to what I have to say!'

'Look.' Severus rose from his deckchair and crossed the distance between them to loom over her. 'I don't care what you have to say on this particular subject. I do not, I repeat not, want children. I have no idea how the insane idea that I might got into your head. Therefore I'm saying it once again, loudly, clearly, and for the record: I don't want to be a father, I don't want my peace to be disturbed by infants, toddlers, teenagers or indeed any children of any possible age. This is final, and I shall not discuss the topic any further.'

Hermione suddenly went very quiet. 'It's all about you, isn't it?'

'What on earth…' He raised his hands in exasperation and started pacing. 'This is not about me, it's about us. It's about this marriage, about the life we've made for ourselves. You're just at the beginning of a very promising career-'

'Don't try this one on me! In my line of work, having children isn't a problem. I'd certainly like to stay home for a few months, which we could easily afford, but after that I could handle both my work and my child without a problem.'

'Interesting,' he drawled. 'Your work and your child. I don't seem to even figure in your plans for the future.'

'Of course you…' she started but immediately caught herself. 'Oh no. Don't you dare turn the tables on me! You were the one who brought up work versus children! I merely meant to explain that they aren't mutually exclusive.'

'They might not be,' he replied, 'but I assure you that I and children are mutually exclusive.'

He turned and went into the house.

When the door shut behind him with a loud crash, she started crying silently.

vvvvvvvv

The subject of children wasn't brought up again by either of them, and they'd seemingly returned to normalcy, but a certain chill had crept into their interaction.

Hermione tried to persuade herself that this had only been her first try, that she had to give Severus some time to get acquainted to the idea of being a father, and that she'd give the topic another try in a few weeks. This wasn't something to be too insistent about, she was sure. And it was a decision that both of them had to make wholeheartedly, so she'd for once resist the temptation to steamroll her opponent into submission.

June turned into July, and she began to seriously consider the idea of a summer holiday. She could easily take two or three weeks off – many of her clients had children, after all, and had already gone away for the holidays – and maybe Severus might join her for a week. They'd have a second honeymoon, which would be the ideal time for her to attempt discussing children again.

She was just going over her diary, looking at the next four weeks, trying to determine which of the few appointments she'd already made were the easiest to postpone, when her receptionist knocked discreetly at the door.

'A Ms Weasley is here to see you,' she said, and Hermione wondered why a visit by any of the many Misses Weasley – there was quite a lot of them between the seven males of the clan – might cause the girl such visible embarrassment.

'Well, ask her to come in. I've got two hours till the next appointment,' she remarked with a sideways glance at the diary, 'so we might go out for a coffee.'

Her receptionist obviously doubted that, but merely nodded and withdrew. To Hermione's unspeakable surprise, Narcissa Weasley, former Malfoy, née Black, entered the room.

Hermione swallowed and concentrated on the need to behave professionally. 'Hello Narcissa. Nice to see you again,' she said, her voice a little too calm to sound natural, and went to shake the witch's hand. 'Why don't you sit down?'

Narcissa, who evidently didn't feel half as aloof and self-assured as she tried to look, nodded briefly and sat down.

'Would you like something to drink? It's such a hot day…'

'Thank you. Tea would be nice,' Narcissa replied in her cool, cultivated voice.

Hermione gave the necessary orders and returned to sit behind her desk. She had regained her calm and was able to project nothing but polite, professional interest. 'How are you, Narcissa? It's been ages.'

'Oh yes, it's been quite a long time.' Narcissa's tone of voice didn't suggest that she would have wished to see Hermione more often. 'I have come here to-'

The receptionist entered with the tea tray, and Narcissa didn't continue until she'd left the room, instructed not to interrupt them.

'I have come here,' Narcissa repeated and took a sip of tea, 'to seek your advice.'

Hermione sat up a little straighter. 'As a marriage counsellor?'

'We are hardly friends, if you don't mind my being so frank. Yes, I need your professional advice.'

Hermione, who'd always thought of Percy as one of the most boring specimens mankind had ever produced, chose not to express her astonishment at four years of marriage to him having gone by without the need for a marriage counsellor. Or an axe, for that matter. 'I will, as always, do my best to be of help. So maybe you would care to tell me what you think is the problem in your marriage?'

'Of course. Although there isn't any problem in or with my marriage, as far as I am aware. But I think I have had enough of being the Minister of Magic's wife. It was entertaining, for a few years, but I am – to use a rather vulgar expression – quite fed up with it.'

Used to concealing her reactions to the most startling revelations behind a mask of non-judgemental professionalism, Hermione didn't even blink. 'I see. Well, Narcissa, unlike many of my other clients, you seem to know exactly what you want. So where do you think I might help you?'

'I mean to aim for reconciliation with Lucius. But I am not absolutely sure this is the right decision, and therefore I need your professional opinion.'

To dissimulate her surprise at this somewhat unusual request, Hermione leaned back in her chair and briefly glanced out at the sky. 'I understand,' she finally said. 'Well, that's a very reasonable request. And, as I already said, I'll try to do my best. But,' she continued, leaning forward again and capturing Narcissa's eyes with her own, 'I am sure you're aware that in order to help you find the answer to that question, I would have to speak to all the parties involved, not only you.'

'Yes, I thought you might suggest it. Percy,' she remarked with a thin smile, 'won't be a problem. If I tell him that I want him to see you, he'll come to see you.'

How lucky, Hermione thought, that the Minister of Magic had such a strong and independent character. Exactly what the country needed. Aloud, she said, 'How fortunate. So that's one requirement that won't be a problem.'

'Certainly not. Lucius, on the other hand…'

'Wouldn't he be willing to sit through a couple of appointments, if that gives him the chance to win you back?'

Narcissa raised her brows and took a sip from her cup. 'Flattering as that assumption certainly is, my dear, I'm sure Lucius would do no such thing. If I want him back, I'll have to seduce him back. But before I expend a considerable amount of planning and energy on the project, I have to be absolutely sure it is worth the trouble.'

Loath as she was to admit it to herself, Hermione suddenly felt deeply envious of the woman sitting opposite her. Why wasn't she capable of playing it cool, like Narcissa did? Well, that ability probably came with a long pedigree and a large fortune. Not exactly her league, then. 'Am I correct in assuming,' she asked, 'that you want me to somehow approach your ex-husband and sound him out on his feelings for you? Is that what you mean?'

'Is it a problem?' was the cool reply.

A problem? Of course it was a problem. She was a counsellor, not a private detective. There was such a thing as professional ethics. But there also was such a thing as ambition and the inability to resist a challenge. And this was the wizarding world, where a marriage counsellor was something new and unusual. Laws or guidelines regulating professional behaviour just didn't exist. It was a legal no man's land, and therefore there weren't any consequences to a breach of professional ethics. And the task Narcissa had set her… It was new, it was exciting, and it might even be fun.

'N-no,' Hermione said slowly. 'I have to say that it is slightly unusual, but I don't think it's a problem. So, would you agree to one one-and-a-half-hour session per week for yourself, to start with? I will, of course, discuss with you the necessity and the timing for bringing your husband into this…'

Now she was on familiar territory and went through the mechanics of her first-time speech on autopilot. 'And,' she finished, 'I'll try to think of a way to contact your ex-husband. Regarding the financial aspect-'

'That is not a problem,' Narcissa cut her off.

'Well, no.' Hermione smiled. 'I hadn't thought it might be. Anyway, I charge ten galleons for a one-and-a-half hour session, and unless you cancel at least 24 hours prior to the appointment, you have to pay the full amount if you don't show up.'

Narcissa waved a disdainful hand – Hermione was forcibly reminded of the first time she'd seen the woman at the Quidditch world cup, because she'd worn an identical expression then: haughty, delicate revulsion, as if she'd just discovered dog's poo clinging to her shoe.

Ten minutes later, Narcissa was gone, and Hermione remained sitting behind her desk and seriously doubting her mental faculties.

vvvvvvvvv

The Muse reminds me (and I consider myself lucky that she's so spectral, because otherwise she'd be constantly pulling my hair or plucking at my sleeve, she's that insistent) that you, dear reader, have been largely left in the dark as to Lucius Malfoy's pursuits after Voldemort's downfall and his divorce from Narcissa.

I have to admit that she's right – I ought to have put that bit in earlier. Never mind, I'm going to tell you now, and hopefully you'll be kind enough to pretend you don't mind.

I know it beggars belief, but Lucius actually needed some time to recover after it was all over. Now do me a favour, dear reader, and try to put yourself in his shoes for a moment before you skip the next paragraphs, merely because you can't believe that I'm telling the truth. Maybe you might be tempted to do so if I tell you that they're very nice shoes – stating the obvious, I know, I know.

Until the fateful incident at the Ministry of Magic, Lucius had been the sole possessor of vast stretches of beautiful British, French and even Italian landscape. He'd been master of an economic empire it took more than a little skill to govern successfully. But more importantly – from his point of view – he'd had a family he was proud of, he'd had an heir who, despite occasional bouts of empty-headedness and idiocy, promised to become a very fine Malfoy specimen, he'd had a beautiful wife whose dowry had considerably increased the family fortune. He had accomplished everything he'd ever meant to accomplish – except for a rather unfortunate allegiance to a Dark Lord of increasing insanity, but he'd been confident that this particular problem would solve itself one way or another, and if it didn't, he had enough money to solve it by himself – and had been ready to gradually hand it all over to his son, to lean back and become a family patriarch who did some private research when he didn't happen to fondly watch his grandchildren grow up.

The fortune and the economic empire were still largely intact, but everything else had been taken away from him. He'd spent more than a year in Azkaban, where the presence of hungry Dementors hadn't really furthered his peace of mind. Occlumency had helped keep them at bay, but even so he had suffered considerably. His son was dead, and his wife was gone. At times, he felt like a huge, grumpy old dragon (this is a bit redundant, I know, since if you're a dragon, being huge and grumpy is a natural consequence of getting old, but that's how Lucius felt) sitting on his hoard of gold and jewels, and occasionally glancing at the mouth of his cave, wondering whether there might be something out there that promised to be more fun than sitting on a heap of gold.

So, as I said, it had taken Lucius a while to recover and become his old self again, minus Dark Lord (good), son and heir (bad) and wife (so-so).

The Manor was large and terribly empty. When Gringott's approached him to ask whether he'd be interested in becoming their independent political advisor, he'd jumped at the proposal with rather more eagerness than he cared to admit to himself. He had to travel a lot in this new function, he was able to use his considerable skills and enlarge his network of personal contacts, and sometimes he even had fun. But the more time passed, the more he realized that he just wasn't made for the life of a solitary if successful wizard. He needed a wife and children, planets that circled the sun that was Lucius Malfoy, in exchange for which he'd give them life and warmth.

We'll first encounter Lucius again in mid-October, when he has just returned from a rather exhausting trip to China and is relaxing in front of the fireplace in one of the smaller salons, nursing a brandy and deeply breathing the moist green scent of his native Wiltshire, when the flames turn green and spit out a roll of parchment.

A lazy Accio summons the letter, and he puts aside his drink to open and read it.

When he tosses it into the flames, a slight smile is curling his lips.

But it's still summer, and we shall therefore return, for the time being, to Hermione.

vvvvvvvvv

Narcissa had been Hermione's client for over two months, and still she hadn't come up with a viable possibility to contact Lucius. Fortunately for Hermione, Narcissa was the most undisciplined client she'd ever had. Since her first visit, she ought to have had nine sessions, and had appeared for only three of them, never less than ten minutes late. She did, of course, pay every time she didn't show up, and Hermione somehow had the impression that Narcissa took particular pleasure in having conveyed to the receptionist the exact reason why she was unable to come: manicures, social obligations and once – that had been the absolute highlight – the of course indispensable surveillance of her pet dog's fur being trimmed.

There was no doubting it, Narcissa had always and would always regard anybody she had to pay as her slave, to be treated at her whim. But Hermione had long stopped worrying about this kind of attitude. She took the money, went out to have coffee and increasingly often wracked her brain about a way to get to Narcissa's unattainable ex-husband.

A work-related encounter was out of the question. She knew of course that he was Gringott's wonder boy, the man who managed to persuade the most reluctant partners-to-be, the wizard who succeeded where everybody else had already given up any hope of concluding a deal. She was also aware that his social life was rather eclectic and limited to circles neither she nor Severus belonged to.

At the beginning of October, she was almost ready to admit defeat to herself and Narcissa when, most unexpectedly, her husband came to her rescue. The chilliness between them was gradually beginning to fade – somehow he'd been both more distant and attentive during the preceding weeks – and Hermione was seriously considering the possibility of bringing the subject of children up once again, even though they hadn't gone on a second honeymoon after all. She could have taken a holiday alone, but somehow she hadn't really felt like it, and since she wasn't much of a sun-sand-and-sea type, a few lazy afternoons in her garden at home had been enough for her.

They were having one of their rare dinners together. Severus had chosen The Magic Flute, a brand-new wizarding restaurant in Dublin, and Hermione fully appreciated the decision. The food was marvellous and the décor as unobtrusive as it was stylish. The waiters, too, were trained to perfection, always attentive but never intruding.

The main course had arrived, and Hermione was still raptly inhaling the scent of truffle rising from her Beef Wellington, when Severus said, 'I have good news.'

'Really? Tell me about it!'

'Well,' he began, 'You know that I've been planning to expand the business for a while. I wasn't quite sure where to go, but we've been doing some market research, and it seems that Eastern Europe would be the best choice.'

'That sounds exciting! What do you think makes it such a good choice?'

'For one, the separation between wizards and Muggles is far less strict and impermeable than it is over here. This means that the gradual integration of Eastern European countries in the European Union is bound to affect – if maybe with a short delay – the wizarding population as well. Romania, Bulgaria, and especially Russia and the Ukraine have large wizarding populations who are eager for all things

Western.'

'The ideal market, so to speak.'

'Absolutely. However, if I mean to do this on a large enough scale to outrun all possible competitors, I cannot rely on my own capital.'

'Oh.' Hermione's fork stopped in mid-air. 'That means a loan, doesn't it?'

'Yes, it does. The first one has been paid back already, and I have taken all the necessary steps for another, more substantial one. So substantial, in fact, that I need Gringott's executive board to agree. They only meet four times a year, and we narrowly missed the last meeting. So we'll have to wait for December.'

'Is that a bad thing?'

'I don't think so. It might even be a very good thing. Lucius's vote weighs heavily with the board, you know?'

'I'd have supposed it would.'

'Quite so. I know I can't bribe the man, but would you be willing to help me by giving a nice, quiet family dinner, just you and me and him… and maybe some pretty girl to distract him?'

'Some pretty girl? Do you have somebody in mind?'

'Well… I think I'll be able to come up with something suitable. There are some reasonably pretty young ladies on my staff.' Hermione didn't like that bit of information very much, but nodded. 'Excellent,' he said. Shall we aim for some time around Halloween? Would that be convenient?'

You have no idea, she thought.

vvvvvvvvv

They'd opted for sending out the invitation by mid-October for the evening of Halloween, because it allowed for tasteful variations of traditional food and decoration. Lucius's reply had been not only polite, but cordial.

Hermione had never seen her husband in such a state of eager anticipation. It was endearing, and she felt renewed affection for him.

Since they had a paid House Elf, there was no need for her to worry about anything but choosing the right dishes, wines and decoration. This, however, turned out to be more trouble than she'd originally thought. You didn't have Lucius Malfoy as your dinner guest every day, after all. After much fretting and hand-wringing, she finally turned to Narcissa for help, who fortunately turned up twice for her October sessions. Unless you counted her smirk upon the request, which Hermione wisely chose to ignore, she received all the assistance she needed.

'Should I wear these,' she asked Severus, holding up dress robes of burgundy silk, 'or these?' Her hand indicated a second set of robes spread out on the bed. They were golden beige and very flatteringly cut.

'Oh, it doesn't matter,' her husband said, busy fastening his cufflinks, 'Amanda will be there to distract him.'

For a moment Hermione thought she'd misheard. 'What does… I don't even know that Amanda, so what does she have to do with my dress robes?'

'I merely meant to tell you that there's no need for you to look, er, seductive or anything, because that's Amanda's job.'

'Fine.' She threw the burgundy robes on the bed. 'And would you care to explain what my job is, if Amanda's going to play temptress? Frumpy housewife or what?'

He sighed. 'Please, Hermione, don't start a fight now. It's almost eight. You look superb in the burgundy robes, so why don't you wear those?'

'Thanks,' she said with considerable venom and stormed out of the room.

vvvvvvvvv

She didn't like Amanda at all. Not even a little bit. Amanda Donahue was tall – almost as tall as Severus, although her height also owed to a pair of impossibly high-heeled sandals – thin in a voluptuous way, with breasts like ripe peaches and an arse Hermione would gladly have killed for (especially Amanda), never-ending legs and a mane of jet-black, silky curls. She had large, heavy-lidded eyes, high cheekbones and a mouth that in any other female face would have been ridiculously broad. In her face it merely looked like a promise of ecstatic moans and fabulous blow jobs.

Hermione hated her so intensely she thought the woman was going to combust under her glare. She was already mentally rehearsing the phrase, 'Libby, would you please dispose of that pile of ashes? Oh, and be a dear and put away the sandals, Mr Malfoy will be here any second now.'

But Amanda obviously wasn't the easily combustible kind of girl. She wandered about the house, cooing, ooh-ing and aaah-ing, smiling and bouncy-arsed. Severus kept close to her, explaining photos, telling anecdotes and being generally charming, which only served to intensify Hermione's already boiling hatred.

She was just casting a last anxious glance over the perfectly arranged table when the House Elf announced Lucius Malfoy.

Apart from the occasional photo in the papers, Hermione hadn't seen him in the last four years. But it had to be a while since she'd last set eyes on an up-to-date picture of him, she thought, because he looked so very different from her recollections of him. He was wearing his hair short now, that was the most obvious change. During their search for the Horcruxes, he'd been miserably thin. He'd filled out by now, though obviously more by putting on muscle than fat. He was still wearing his cane, of course, but when he stripped off his cloak and handed it to the elf, she could see the outline of his wand under his left sleeve. So he'd done away with that particularly theatrical habit, she thought smiling. Not only that, but the style of his clothes had changed as well. He'd definitely moved from late 18th century to late 19th, and she had to admit it suited him. All things considered, he looked more sober and less slippery now, and the lines that marked his face also gave him a certain grittiness – she definitely preferred that to his former smoothness.

'Hermione.' He bent over her hand and brushed it with his lips. 'I do hope,' he said, rising and looking her in the eye, 'that I may retain the privilege of calling you Hermione?'

'Of course.' She stood on tiptoes and spontaneously kissed his cheek. 'It's been a long time, Lucius.'

'Too long,' he replied, squeezing her hand, and somehow she had the impression that he meant it. 'You're still so young, so maybe I shouldn't be saying this, but time doesn't seem to have touched you at all.'

'The beneficial effects of candlelight,' she said laughing. 'You'd have trouble giving me that compliment in plain daylight.'

He smiled and was about to say something, but was interrupted by Severus stepping into the entrance hall with Amanda in tow.

'Lucius! What a pleasure to have you here!' The two men shook hands. 'May I introduce Amanda, my personal assistant? Amanda, this is Lucius Malfoy.'

'Personal assistant?' Lucius drawled. He kissed her hand. 'Delighted to meet you. Do you think,' he asked, turning to Severus, 'that you might consider employing me? My personal assistant at Gringott's is an allegedly female goblin of unspeakable ugliness.' When Amanda dissolved into a fit of giggles, he remarked, audible only to Hermione, 'But considerable intellect.'

Hermione bit her lip and shot him a glance of amused complicity. 'Dinner is in half an hour,' she said, 'May I tempt you with an aperitif?'

vvvvvvvvv

From a merely political-economical point of view, the evening was going exceedingly well. There never was a lapse in the animated conversation, no wine was spilled on expensive outfits (not even Amanda's, Hermione thought wistfully, although it would have been difficult to successfully aim at such a small amount of fabric), nobody choked on fish bones, and Lucius didn't kick the House Elf.

From Hermione's personal point of view, however, the evening was nothing short of a disaster.

Contrary to Severus's expectations, Lucius was not interested in Amanda Donahue. That wouldn't have been a problem for Hermione, since she'd hated the girl right from the beginning and was disposed to feel quite friendly towards anybody who didn't fall for her looks. What did upset her, however, was that Severus seemed to be very interested in Amanda, and vice versa.

Never would Hermione have imagined herself capable of feeling a jealous fury so strong that her hands went clammy and sweaty, her legs were shaking, and her stomach was twisting into a cold, hard lump. She allowed herself to wallow in that rage until they'd finished their starters. Then she firmly reminded herself that this was a circumstance she might not be familiar with from personal experience, but she'd listened to accounts of much the same kind of situation many times, and she'd always been able to give sound, sensible advice to the women concerned. So she pulled herself together, decided to talk the issue through with Severus when she felt she could confront him without immediately killing him, and resolved to ignore both her husband and Amanda for the rest of the evening.

There were only four of them, and hence she focused her attention on Lucius. Not that Severus would have noticed.

She caught him unaware, and it took him maybe half a second to get the mask of mere polite interest back on his face. 'I apologize,' he said, slightly inclining his head. 'A deplorable lapse, really. I must be getting old.'

'You are not the one who owes me an apology,' she replied. 'But let's talk about more pleasant things.' She cleared her throat and took a sip of wine, merely to give herself time to recover from the shock of seeing Malfoy's look of total incredulity at Severus and his personal assistant. 'You just returned from South Africa, I believe?'

'No, that was the trip before the last. I just returned from Bulgaria.'

'Oh. Sorry, I'm obviously not quite up to date. May I ask what you did in Bulgaria, or is it a secret?'

'It would be to anybody else, but since you are closely associated with the interested party, I think I may make an exception, just this once.'

'That's very kind of you. I'm sure Severus appreciates it.'

Lucius regarded her from under half-closed eyelids. 'Oh yes, I'm sure he does.'

Why did she suddenly have the impression that he was talking in double-entendres? Never mind, she told herself. Don't think about Severus, think about yourself and enjoy the possibility of making polite conversation with an interesting wizard. 'So what was your mission?'

'Quite simply – ah, this is a '57 vintage, isn't it? Excellent! – As I was saying, I simply had to verify the dates and facts Severus had delivered to Gringott's in order to get his loan. He asked for quite a substantial sum, hence the goblins' understandable interest in finding out whether he had tweaked the figures.'

'And had he?'

'Even if he had, my dear Hermione, I would certainly not tell you.'

'You said "even if he had", so that means he didn't?'

'No, he didn't. Would you have believed him capable of doing it?'

Hermione spelled the bottle to refill all their glasses. 'I couldn't say, really. I think…' She looked askance at Severus, who was listening to something Amanda said, leaning in a little too close for Hermione's liking. 'I suppose he'd have thought of a very clever way of manipulating the facts, so that even you wouldn't have found out.'

'You think Severus would be able to out-Slytherin me?'

'Maybe. He… used to be very cunning.' She just had to look at the other two again. It was like a car crash, you knew you shouldn't stare, but the urge was overwhelming.

'Even the most cunning among us are fallible,' Lucius said lightly, and she knew exactly that he wasn't talking about forged documentation. 'Just think of Voldemort,' he added.

'I'd rather not. In hindsight, I'm still unsure how I summoned the courage to even stick my head out of no.12, Grimmauld Place. Not to mention go hunting for Horcruxes.'

'I never thought of it as courage, I have to admit. More as a mix of sheer stupidity and the instinct of a lioness protecting her cubs.'

'Thanks,' she said dryly. 'But you're right, of course. I wonder…' She fiddled with the knives until she'd arranged them in a perfect ninety-degree angle to the edge of the table. 'I wonder what was driving you at the time.'

'Nothing as honourable as your motives, I'm sure.' She felt his gaze linger on her hand and stopped aligning the knives to look at him. 'Don't give me that incredulous look, my dear. I was driven by fear, hate and revenge. There's nothing noble about those emotions.'

'You'd lost your son, you're not supposed to feel noble under such extreme circumstances.'

'Always the counsellor, I see.' His tone was decidedly mocking now.

'Yes, I suppose I can't quite switch it off. But,' she continued more vividly, for she felt this was her chance, 'I'm a marriage counsellor and you aren't married. So I'm going to be of little use to you. Unless, of course, you have plans to remarry.'

It wasn't a very subtle bait, she had to admit, but it might have worked, had not Libby the House Elf decided to vanish their empty plates and magic the next course onto the table at exactly that moment. The conversation briefly stopped and then started again when Amanda made a remark about Hogwarts. Now everybody was participating, and the private moment with Lucius was gone.

They retired to the living room for coffee, and then came the moment Hermione had been dreading the whole evening. Severus offered brandy and whisky, and the two men began to talk business. It was her duty as hostess to entertain Amanda.

It was less trying than she'd feared, because she still was something of an exotic phenomenon in the wizarding world, and hence Amanda asked her a lot of questions that were obviously meant to be insightful, while Hermione found them quite tactless and intrusive.

'But how can you resist talking about all those interesting details with Severus?' she chirped. 'That must be awfully difficult. I always have to talk about all my problems with my friends, and I know I'd burst if I had to keep it all to myself.'

If only, Hermione thought. 'There is a thing called patient confidentiality,' she replied calmly. 'It's a principle of professional ethics. Besides, may I point out that the problems my clients tell me about are their problems, not mine. One has to create a certain healthy distance between oneself and one's clients.'

Amanda nodded sagely. 'Yes, I see. But it has to be totally difficult, like, you know, creating a distance. You'd have to be real clever to do that. But they used to say at Hogwarts that you were the cleverest witch of the century, so I guess it isn't a problem for you.'

'Yes,' Hermione replied dryly, 'intelligence does tend to help.' She just barely managed to swallow the 'Not that you'd know' that desperately wanted out.

There was a commotion at the other side of the room, and both women looked at Lucius and Severus. It would have been difficult to discern whether Hermione or Amanda was more relieved at this interruption of their limping dialogue.

Both wizards had stood up, and Severus made Amanda a sign to join them. 'Mr Malfoy would like to see last year's statistics,' he said, 'Would you be so kind as to help me find them?' They wandered off in the direction of Severus's study, and the other two were left to their own devices.

Hermione suddenly felt very tired and wished she could just tell everybody – including her husband – to leave, and then go to bed and sleep forever.

'Your new haircut suits you,' Lucius said, making her jump.

'Sorry.' Hermione passed a hand over her eyes; they suddenly felt as if they'd been scrubbed with sandpaper. 'I was woolgathering. Not the perfect hostess, I'm afraid.'

'We all have our ups and downs,' Lucius said with a smile. 'I always have trouble keeping my eyes open during early-morning meetings. You have my full understanding and support. Besides' – he sat down next to her on the sofa – 'the so-called perfect hostesses usually bore me to death with their inane small talk. I assure you that it is very pleasant to make conversation instead of idle and meaningless chatter.'

'That's very kind of you. How lucky for me that you should dislike small talk, because I'm truly awful at it.'

'Oh, you seemed to acquit yourself quite admirably with Amanda.'

'I think I've had more animated conversations with bricks.'

'I'm afraid there's nothing as substantial as a brick under that admittedly gorgeous hair.'

Hermione snorted. 'Well, to be honest, I'd be very happy to have hair like that.'

'Not if the underlying vacuum were to be part of the package, I assume. But, as I said before, this haircut suits you to perfection.'

'You said that?'

'While you were out woolgathering, yes. Although I have to confess that I added "to perfection" only now, after closer inspection.'

It slowly dawned on Hermione that Lucius was flirting with her. After the evening she'd had, it was balm on her wounded heart. 'Thanks. I decided it was time to let it be bushy, if bushy is what it wants to be. But it's more manageable, now that it's short.'

'It compliments the line of your neck. And one is finally able to see your face, which is definitely an improvement.'

'You're making all these compliments to yourself, aren't you?' She'd really had one glass too many, otherwise she'd never have dreamed of saying such a thing, not to Lucius and not on an evening as important as this.

'I think I must be losing my grip,' Lucius said plaintively. 'This question is only marginally less offensive than "Is it in yet?" Although I have to point out that, up till now, I haven't been so unfortunate as to have to think of a reply to that.'

'Sometimes I really feel lucky to be a woman,' Hermione said pensively, sipping at her brandy. 'There are questions you simply don't have to dread if you're a woman. I mean, no man would ever ask me where my breasts are.'

'Certainly not,' he replied with a smirk, and Hermione suddenly felt quite hot.

'Would you like to see Crookshanks?' she asked, hating herself at the very moment the question left her lips. Of all the stupid, meaningless, totally absurd questions to ask… But she'd spoken it aloud, and hence plodded on, 'I remember he really liked you, back when…' She fell silent rather abruptly.

'You might remember that his affection was blatantly unilateral. And I'd rather stay here with you, on the sofa, watching you blush. It's really quite fetching.'

'It's bloody embarrassing, that's what it is. But it only happens when I'm drunk.'

'Do you think it would be possible for you to get drunk again, preferably in my company, so I may watch?'

'Depends on what you'd be offering me to drink.'

'Let me see… What about lunch next week, accompanied by a few bottles of Greco di Tuffo?'

'I'd like to have lunch,' she said, 'but I can't risk getting drunk at noon, even though I like that wine's name. The clients might notice.'

'Very well.' His smile told her he'd trapped her, although she wasn't quite sure how. 'Then may I suggest that we simply split the process? First we'll have lunch, and you'll get drunk another time, in the evening. How does that sound?'

'Sounds fine to me,' she agreed feebly. She could think of worse traps.

And she was doing it for The Cause, so it was okay, wasn't it?

vvvvvvvvv

It seems that we have ourselves a situation here, dear reader. Of course I told you, right at the beginning, how things were going to end – i.e. with Hermione marrying Lucius – and maybe that wasn't a very good move, because those of you who believe that Hermione belongs with Severus may have stopped reading right there. Can't say I blame them. For if I was convinced that Hermione and Severus are meant to be together, that's what I might have done.

And, to be quite honest with you, I don't think it's fair that I have to defend a story that isn't even my own. The Muse ought to do it. Then again, you know how muses are… Try throwing a vase at her, it'll go right through her and she'll make sure your best friend is standing behind her. So it's all up to me. Again. As usual. I'll have to do all the explaining and justifying.

Not that there's much to explain – Severus is behaving like a bastard, Lucius is being charming, and you tell me if you wouldn't do a bit of flirting on the side if your husband had just walked off to his study with Amanda, to spend an amount of time there which, if you think about it, can't really be justified by merely searching for last year's statistics. They're wizards, so they won't re-enter the scene with rumpled clothes and lipstick smeared all over them, but I'd be very suspicious. I bet there was something going on behind that closed door.

The problem with Severus is that he really isn't husband material, not for a girl like Hermione. They married for the wrong reasons, and this kind of mistake tends to cause trouble in a marriage. Hermione didn't really know him when they got together, she had no idea that he came from a family I'd label dysfunctional only if I was in a particularly friendly mood. He didn't tell her, of course; he just made vague allegations to a not very happy marriage and growing up in a somewhat chilly atmosphere. For someone like Hermione, whose background is upper middle class, and who is the much-beloved only daughter of two very nice dentists (the hand balks at having to write 'nice dentists' but the Muse insists they were), for Hermione, as I was saying, the somewhat blurry idea of a not-so-happy childhood was enough to make her wish she could give him warmth and love and happiness.

She didn't consider, however, that her idea of happiness might be, let us say, dramatically different from her husband's. She might have done so, had she known about the rows, the violence, the abuse and the drinking that went on in his childhood home. She might have had serious doubts, had she but been aware of Severus's allergy to strong, independent women. Not that he's to blame – if you grow up in a family where standing up to one's husband means you get a good beating that leaves you sobbing and whimpering and finally seeking comfort in the bottle, the very idea of a domestic row makes you wince.

Things aren't looking too good for this particular married couple, I'm afraid. Hermione is in for a rather bumpy ride, poor thing.

vvvvvvvvv

Severus was in an excellent mood the morning after the dinner. It was a Sunday, so they stayed in bed almost until noon, made love, had breakfast and talked about the future. Severus's future, to be exact. The expansion of his business, ongoing and oncoming research projects, the problems of hiring staff in foreign countries. Even so, Hermione was feeling almost happy, because she liked to hear about his work. He didn't usually talk much about it, and she knew him well enough to be sure that, if he wanted her to know something, he'd tell her in his own time.

In spite of hot sex and equally hot coffee and croissants, though, she couldn't get Amanda out of her mind. She knew instinctively that something was going on between that girl and her husband, although she had the good sense not to jump to conclusions based on mere suspicions. Now, however, she understood what her clients were feeling when they told her they suspected their partner of cheating on them.

A hundred times she was tempted to tell Severus about her appointment for lunch the coming week with Lucius. But she didn't, in the end, telling herself that she was keeping it secret because Severus was surely going to ask why she had accepted the invitation, and since it was all because of Narcissa, she couldn't tell him about that, and so she concluded it was better not to mention it.

Her appointments with Narcissa were scheduled for Wednesday, between 11 and 12.30. Since her lunch with Lucius was to take place on Thursday, she decided that she wasn't going to give Narcissa more than a hint for the time being (in case she didn't have to oversee her dog being groomed, and hence cancelled the session) – as there really was no telling whether she'd be able to steer the conversation towards his ex-wife, and she didn't want to raise Narcissa's hopes.

'The few times you've been here to see me, we've been talking exclusively about you and Percy,' Hermione said at the beginning of their next session, 'so I think it might be time for him to come to see me as well. If you agree, of course. In my experience the results are better if I talk to each of the partners separately before attempting joint sessions. How do you feel about that?'

'That arrangement is perfectly acceptable. Tell me when you are free, and he will be here at the appointed time.'

'Very well.' Hermione went over her diary in search for an appropriate time slot, but also to mentally formulate what she was going to say next. 'Would Monday at 10 am be fine?'

'As I said' – Narcissa pulled a small notebook and a miniature dictoquill from her purse – 'Percy for therapy on Monday morning 10 am, reminder for today 8 pm' – she put both items back in her purse – 'As I said, he will be happy to oblige.'

Hermione doubted that very much but had every faith in Narcissa's powers of persuasion. 'I think,' she said after ordering tea from the receptionist, 'that I may have a realistic possibility of talking to your ex-husband in the near future.'

'That's good news,' Narcissa remarked coolly.

'I'm glad you see it that way. Do you think you might want to start telling me a bit about you and him? That would be very helpful.'

Narcissa nodded slowly. 'Yes, I imagine that would be necessary. And…' She gave Hermione a crooked smile. 'You were there when…' The memory seemed to make her distinctly uncomfortable. 'So you won't be needing any details on the reasons of our divorce.'

'Uh, no.' She and Harry and Ron had talked about the Incident at the Manor for weeks and laughed themselves silly about the look on Narcissa's face, Percy's lily-white arse, Lucius beside himself with humiliated fury. She certainly didn't need any details. 'I'd really be more interested in getting your view of your ex-husband. The pros and cons, so to speak, so I may form a better idea of why you want to have him back.' A fascinating subject, to be sure, but that didn't quite explain the sudden eagerness she felt. Hermione resolutely put a damper on that thought and turned her full attention back towards her blonde client.

Narcissa was looking into her teacup. 'I really don't quite know how to begin.'

'That is absolutely understandable. Maybe you might start by telling me how you feel about him. Do you think you still love him?'

'Still?' Narcissa gave her a look of utter surprise. 'What, if I may ask, gave you the idea that I was, at any point in my life, in love with Lucius?'

Hermione didn't bat an eyelid. 'It is a common occurrence in marriages, or so I hear.'

'That may be true for common marriages.'

'So yours wasn't a common marriage?'

'From the point of view of the readers of Witch Weekly, it probably wasn't. From the point of view of both our families, it certainly was.'

'You mean to say it was an arranged marriage?'

'Of course.'

'How did you feel about it, back when it was arranged?'

'Since I was three months old at the time it was arranged, I suppose I might not have had any objections or, indeed, favourable opinions.'

Hermione's mind boggled, but she managed to keep a calm exterior. 'You had no say in the matter? When you were older, I mean?'

'Certainly not. No self-respecting girl would have questioned such a decision.'

Welcome to the Middle Ages, Hermione thought grimly. Aloud, she asked, 'Did you never fall in love with anybody else?'

'Not that I recall, no. There was little opportunity for that to happen, I have to say. I was sent to school at Beauxbatons, then to Switzerland for a year – there is an institute in Geneva that prepares young ladies of a certain social rank for their wifely duties - and after I had finished that, I was married.'

'Does that mean you hadn't seen your future husband since you turned eleven?'

'Oh no, no. I saw him once or twice a year when I went home for the summer holidays. He had already finished school – in fact he had finished school when I was seven years old, so you can probably imagine that he wasn't too eager to spend his time with a mere schoolgirl.'

'Considering that he was going to marry that schoolgirl, I would have assumed he might have been interested to see how you were coming along. But I have to admit that I know relatively little about the mating habits of old pureblood families.'

Narcissa laughed. 'I'm sure our mating habits must seem rather… antiquated to you, given your, er, rather different background.'

'You are being very tactful, Narcissa. I do appreciate that.'

'Being the Minister's wife does require a certain amount of tact, yes.'

Hermione smiled despite herself. 'You mean to say that otherwise you'd have called me a Mudblood?'

'Oh, I frankly don't think so.' Narcissa crossed her legs. 'I would think twice about insulting a witch who could easily put me under Imperius and then tell me I had to stay married to Percy.'

'If I considered the possibility of putting you under Imperius, dear Narcissa, I would certainly tell you to fall madly in love with Cornelius Fudge. But let's return to our original topic. So you came back to England and got married to Lucius Malfoy. What happened then?'

'I got pregnant.'

'As was expected of you.'

'As was expected of me, yes. It wasn't a very pleasant experience, though.'

'Getting pregnant or being pregnant?'

'I really couldn't say which of them was less pleasurable.'

'Oh.' Hermione glanced at the parchment filled with notes. She wrote them down by hand, somehow she'd gone off dictoquills since her less than fortuitous encounter with Rita Skeeter. 'Somehow I was under the impression-'

'That Lucius was a sex god? I suppose he was, but imagine being 19 years old and a virgin – not that I didn't know about the mechanics, they had told us all about them in Switzerland, but there's quite a difference between theory and practice, as I'm sure you are aware. Lucius was thirty at the time, and hadn't been leading a life of celibacy and chastity. Unlike myself,' she added rather venomously.

'So you wouldn't describe your sexual relationship as satisfying?'

'I would describe it as frightening. Fortunately I got pregnant immediately, which gave me a year's reprieve.'

'A year's… reprieve,' Hermione echoed flatly. 'And after that year was over?'

'I kept it to a minimum. That is to say, I couldn't very well refuse completely, or the poor man would have had to recur to fornicating with the House Elves.'

'I'm afraid I don't quite understand. Are you telling me that your ex-husband never cheated on you?'

'That was part of the marriage vows, I'm afraid. The consequences would have been terribly unpleasant.'

'But why – sorry, I just don't understand – why didn't anything happen to you when you were being unfaithful?'

Narcissa gave her a devious grin. 'The price of upholding tradition, my dear. The marriage vow was created at a time when pureblood families still were strongly matriarchal. Somehow the men seem to have overlooked that, and the vows remained unchanged… A very satisfying arrangement, at times, especially as Lucius was too much of a gentleman to insist when I said no. I did have a lot of headaches at the time…'

vvvvvvvvv

Hermione had never resented her duty to keep her clients' confessions secret. It was part of the job, and that was that.

But, she admitted to herself the evening after her session with Narcissa and before her lunch with Lucius, she'd really love to talk this through with a friend, Ginny maybe, or Padma Longbottom. For somebody who came from a purely wizarding background like Ginny, the secrets of the Malfoys' marriage bed she was now privy to might not have come as such a big surprise. Hermione would have appreciated the possibility to measure her own shocked incredulity against the reaction of a person more familiar with traditional wizarding habits.

As things were, she had to cope by herself – that wasn't a problem in and of itself, since she was sure she'd find enough literature covering the subject. What she did, however, perceive as a problem was that she'd be having lunch with Lucius the next day, before she could read up on the subject. Hermione wasn't even sure she'd be able to put some order to the chaos of Malfoy-related information that was currently in her head, and hence she felt somewhat apprehensive. It really wouldn't do to sit opposite a man whose ex-wife had just told you that he probably was a sex god. The fact that Narcissa hadn't been too eager to find out didn't really help. Neither did the rather detailed description of how Lucius used to go about having sex with his ex-wife. Narcissa's account of walking in on him while he was wanking in the bathtub was downright disturbing, as were the mental images Hermione was unsuccessfully trying to suppress. Not that Hermione had any problems with her own or anybody else's sexual fantasies, but she felt that having them about your client's ex-husband, with whom you had quite openly flirted some days ago, and with whom you were supposed to have lunch the following day, might not be easily reconcilable with professional ethics.

She considered cancelling their lunch, but told herself that this would be the coward's way out. No, she was going to do this the right way. She'd meet Lucius and then sort out the chaos in her head, do a bit of reading up on pureblood habits and spend the weekend analyzing her feelings. That was how it was done, at least when you were the only marriage counsellor in the wizarding world and unable to recur to supervision as her Muggle colleagues did.

They had agreed to meet directly at the restaurant; Hermione had politely refused his offer of picking her up at the office. Emily, her receptionist, was discretion incarnate, but her discretion might not be up to Malfoy standards of perception. And the last thing Hermione needed was for Lucius to start asking questions.

He rose from the chair in the restaurant's lobby when she entered, and bent to kiss her hand. 'Hermione. How good of you to come. May I?' He tucked her arm into his, and they entered the restaurant side by side.

It was a small but very exclusive place, Hermione thought. There were only ten tables, carefully separated by plants, screens and strategically placed low walls. The patrons of La Torre del Mago obviously liked their privacy, and the restaurant catered to that need to perfection.

A waiter led them to a table set for two. Hermione had been five minutes early and walked around the block – it was November, but the sun was shining and keeping the chill at bay – and so she knew that the people outside could see nothing but a nondescript brick wall. From inside, though, they had a marvellous view of the surrounding park.

She let herself be persuaded to have a glass of champagne as aperitif. 'I'll make sure you eat enough to counteract its effect,' Lucius said when the waiter had left.

'You may be in for a surprise. I can eat a lot, if I feel like it.'

'That would be quite pleasant, I assure you. I don't really care for sitting at a table with a woman who nibbles on a salad leaf and complains that it has too many calories.'

Hermione laughed. 'No, I'm not that kind of woman. I quite enjoy eating, I have to admit.'

'I hope you don't harbour a particular dislike for Italian food?'

'On the contrary. Really, I'm not very picky. Give me Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Russian – I'll be perfectly happy to oblige.'

The waiter brought their menus, and the next minutes were spent discussing the dishes to be chosen. 'We could share, if you like,' Lucius said, smiling at her inability to decide between two starters and two main courses.

'Oh, that would be nice! Are you sure you won't mind?'

'Not at all. Does your resolution not to have wine still stand?'

'I'm afraid it does. Even if I don't get drunk, it makes me tired, and I have two appointments scheduled for the afternoon. Falling asleep on one's clients isn't acceptable behaviour, you know. They tend to get very tetchy if they feel you aren't taking them seriously.'

'I can see your point, yes. How long have you been working as a counsellor?'

'Almost one and a half years. The first months were… well, rather stressful.'

'You had difficulties living up to your own standards, I presume.'

Hermione took a piece of ciabatta and dunked it into the small dish of olive oil next to her plate. 'You already used to tease me about my perfectionism when we were researching the spell for the last Horcrux.'

'Yes. I distinctly remember teasing you. You took it well, though.'

'Coming from you, I suppose I did. But rest assured that Ron or Harry didn't get away with it so easily.'

'And why would that be?'

'Well, that's obvious, isn't it?' She smiled at the waiter who'd brought their starters. 'Oh, this looks fabulous!'

'Are you sure you still want to share?'

'Well, you look fabulous… I mean, yours looks fabulous too. So I'll have to.' She mentally kicked herself for her Freudian lapse. She was feeling too relaxed, and the champagne had made her ever so slightly tipsy. Really, she had to get a grip on herself.

'I hope you don't mind my being so obtuse, but why didn't you mind being teased by me as much as you resented Potter's or Weasley's taunts?'

'Because I thought of it mainly as indirect self-mockery. You aren't exactly devoid of ambition, you know?'

'This is the second time,' he pointed out, 'that you accuse me of speaking to myself when I am speaking to you. Do I give the impression of being that self-centred?'

'I'm sorry. No, I mean it,' she said when he raised his hand. 'That was out of line, just like what I said last Saturday. I don't know you that well, you see, and sometimes the memories of the Lucius who despised me-'

'Not to mention who tried to kill you.'

'Er, yes. I mean, sometimes those prior memories override the more recent ones. And as I said, it's not as if I really knew you. That was meant to be an apology wrapped in a rather inadequate explanation, in case you didn't notice.'

'Thank you. That comes as a relief, you see, because I like to think of myself as a somewhat, well, reformed character. Not only as far as my former political beliefs are concerned, I mean to say.'

'I don't doubt that you are. You wouldn't be having lunch with me if you weren't.' She nodded when he offered that they swap plates. 'Experiences like the ones you went through will do that to people. You'd have to be exceptionally stupid or, indeed, deranged if you came out unchanged.' She paused briefly, then asked, 'Have you ever thought of remarrying?'

'Oh yes, I certainly have. More than once, actually.'

'So why didn't you? Sorry, I don't mean to be indiscreet.'

'Not in the least. It is quite refreshing to talk about it, really. But the answer is rather obvious: the right witch isn't easy to come by.'

'Wasn't Narcissa the right witch?'

'In a purely social sense, she was. Yes. But I'm free to make my own choices now, and I certainly wouldn't choose her anymore.'

'I'm sure she has changed, too.'

'You mean she discovered sex with Percy Weasley?'

'No, I… Really, Lucius, I'd never dream of – was it that bad?'

'It was worse.'

'Is it in yet?' she said pensively, blushing furiously when she realized she'd said it aloud. 'Oh god, sorry, Lucius, I didn't mean to…'

'Quite the contrary, actually, if you get my point,' he replied lightly. 'And you'll have to apologize again, because you lied to me: you do blush when you're sober.'

'I stand corrected,' she admitted. 'But I don't usually commit gaffes this atrocious. You seem to bring out the worst in me.'

'Oh, so this is all my fault, then.'

'Being a gentleman, I thought that you'd be eager to take the blame off my fragile shoulders.'

'I'd be delighted. Consider me your personal scapegoat. It's a part I have seldom played, though, so it might need some getting used to. We obviously have to meet again, for a bit of light training. What about dinner? I'll be away for a few weeks, but we could meet after I get back, and you could start by blaming me for the weather?'

'What if it's nice and warm?'

'That would make it unusual for the time of year, and you could try and blame me for global warming.'

'Excellent point,' she conceded.

The main course was served, and she asked Lucius about his work for Gringott's. He smiled at the change of topic but replied willingly enough. Hermione found that discussing wizarding economics and politics with him was more fun than she'd expected. Quite predictably, the conversation soon turned to Severus's plans.

'He'll have to go on a lot of business trips during the next few months, he told me. Not that we've been seeing each other a lot, so I almost won't feel any change, I guess.'

'Interesting,' Lucius remarked while cutting a piece off his lamb fillet. 'Knowing him, I would have thought he'd be happy to spend more time at home with his family.'

Hermione felt her throat narrow. 'There is no family,' she said, trying to dissimulate the tremor in her voice.

'You are still very young,' Lucius said. 'You'll be able to have children in twenty years' time if you so wish.'

'It seems that my wishes don't really matter.' It sounded very bitter. She was quite surprised at how bitter it sounded.

'You would like to have children?'

'Yes, I would. I told Severus, but…' Why on earth was she talking about her grief to Lucius Malfoy? She hadn't discussed it with anybody, not even with her closest female friends. Hermione realized that she'd been carrying this burden alone for much too long. Worse, she'd been denying that it even was a burden. And now she was sitting here with Lucius, dumping it all on him. As incongruous choices went, this one was a true masterpiece.

He didn't seem to mind, though. 'That doesn't surprise me in the least. He would never want to share you with anybody, much less a child.'

'Do you think that's the problem?'

'You are the expert here, Hermione. Although I suppose that counselling oneself might be a little difficult.'

'I don't seem to have had much success in my attempts, that's for sure.'

He nodded. 'I can imagine. But you surely have friends, Hermione. Why don't you talk to them?'

'None of my friends like Severus very much. They were none too happy when we got married – actually I'm sure they made bets on how long we were going to last. They knew they had to accept him unless they wanted to lose my friendship, but telling them about our problems would merely convince them that they were right and I was wrong.'

'Were you wrong?'

Hermione felt as if he had punched her in the stomach. 'I think I'd like a glass of wine now. Do you mind if I smoke a cigarette?'

'I wasn't aware that you smoke.'

'Filthy habit.' She grinned and fished in her handbag for the cigarettes and lighter. 'I acquired it during my stay at Grimmauld Place, and still experience the occasional relapse in times of distress. And don't give me that look – they just taste better if I light them the Muggle way.' She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. 'Was I wrong? To tell you the truth, I have no idea. I wish I were able to say no, or even yes, but I just don't know. A fine thing for a marriage counsellor to say, isn't it? I'm really advertising my skills here. Besides, I'm spoiling an otherwise lovely lunch.'

'If you don't mind my saying so,' Lucius said after a while, 'I've missed being able to talk to a friend more than I realized. I am aware that we aren't intimately acquainted with one another, but we seem to share some common ground. It really would be a pleasure to see you on a regular basis.'

Her mission was over now. She had gathered the information she had meant to find out, and there was no reason whatsoever why she should date Lucius Malfoy. 'I think I'd like that very much,' Hermione said.

vvvvvvvvv

Severus was away the following weekend, and Hermione decided to keep the promise she'd made to herself. After breakfast on Sunday morning, she told Libby that she was not to be disturbed, retired to her study and began to write a list. It was entitled 'REASONS WHY I GOT MARRIED TO SEVERUS'.

It was embarrassingly short. 'Love' had been written down and crossed out again five times. That was almost enough to make her stop. But she continued, doggedly determined to go through with it. 'Because he understood me' was replaced with 'Because I thought he understood me'. 'Sex' remained, and so did 'good conversation', 'common interests' and, to her surprise, 'loneliness'.

Two hours later she had difficulties keeping herself from alternately crying and banging her head against the wall. Had she really married because she was lonely, the conversation was good and the sex even better? It seemed she had.

The list entitled 'REASONS TO STAY MARRIED TO SEVERUS' didn't even make it from blank parchment to list.

Hermione decided that maybe lists were the wrong way to go about it, grabbed her cloak and put on a pair of solid shoes, and set out for a walk. The sky looked as torn and stormy as she was feeling. But the realization that her heart and mind were in upheaval was only the starting point; she'd have to find a possibility to cope with her inner turmoil.

She had to walk two miles before she was finally able to face the most terrible of her realizations: She was in danger of seriously compromising her professional integrity. And if she was totally honest with herself, she had to admit that it had already been compromised. It didn't matter that nobody was ever going to find out, and even if they did, there wouldn't be any consequences. It was in her own eyes that she had failed, and it hurt terribly. She ought never to have accepted Lucius's invitation to lunch – not that the fact of having accepted it was unexplainable to herself, no, on the contrary, but being able to explain didn't mean being able to justify. There was no way she could justify it.

On Wednesday she would have to tell Narcissa that reconciliation with Lucius was out of the question. Knowing Narcissa, she wasn't likely to dissolve in tears at the news. That knowledge didn't make things any easier for Hermione, though. Had Narcissa told her that she was still deeply in love with Lucius, it would have been easier to do the heroic thing and beat a magnanimous retreat. As things were, Hermione could easily continue seeing Lucius without hurting anybody's feelings. Well, maybe Severus's feelings, but that thought didn't provoke pangs of regret.

Which, Hermione thought, led directly to thoughts about Severus. She mentally went over the last couple of months, replaying events in her mind. Had his behaviour towards her undergone any changes? Yes, it definitely had. He'd grown noticeably more distant. Hermione realized that she'd failed to detect that change, because the difference between spending little time together and growing increasingly distant wasn't easy to spot. Now that she'd spotted it however, it became easier to track the changes that had taken place. She was now able to see that it had all started towards the end of July, almost four months ago. When had he hired Amanda? She was sure he'd told her about it in passing, but she couldn't pin it to a date. Had it been before or after their row about having children? She was increasingly sure it had been shortly after that. Yes, it had to be, for he'd hired the girl straight out of Hogwarts, she'd come recommended by one of the new teachers Hermione didn't know.

So it all fit together, in a rather depressing way, she thought. He was having trouble at home, and instead of trying to mend the break, he'd taken the opposite way out and started an affair with his assistant. It was a story as old as mankind, but that thought didn't seem very comforting.

vvvvvvvvv

'The, uh, Minister of Magic,' Emily announced. Her slim silhouette was being partly obscured by the looming shapes of two Aurors who had positioned themselves left and right of the door.

Percy entered the room, the Aurors following on his heels. He was obviously either coming from, or on his way to some kind of important event, because he was wearing full minister's regalia. Somebody seemed to have recently polished his Order of Merlin, First Class, which shone and sparkled as he moved.

'Good day, Madam Snape,' he said, shaking her hand three times and bowing slightly.

Hermione, who'd slept rather badly after her weekend of soul-searching, had expected him to be his usual pompous self and thus not been looking forward to that day's first session. Seeing him like this, decked out in robes of red velvet that clashed horribly with his hair, and followed by the two hulking Aurors, her grumpiness gave way to a wave of hilarity so strong that she had trouble keeping a straight face.

'Minister,' she replied, voice quavering, 'thank you for coming.' Emily had long vanished, and somehow Hermione had expected the Aurors to do the same, but they stayed, glued to their places and staring at some point lost in nirvana. 'About your two, uh, bodyguards,' Hermione said, 'don't you think they ought to leave?'

'I have cast a temporary Sordus charm on them, to safeguard my privacy,' Percy answered in a tone of voice that spoke of supreme statesmanship and resulting omniscience.

'Excellent idea, minister. Although deaf bodyguards might not be as effective as those who can actually hear, but I'm sure you factored that into your security plans. Well then, shall we start? Have a seat, please.' She was unsure how to survive the session with the two unhearing trolls constantly in her line of view, because the urge to laugh became stronger every time she looked at them, but she'd have to get through it, one way or another.

Hermione was just about to open her mouth and ask a few preliminary questions, when Percy inhaled deeply and began, 'Madam Snape, let me thank you for giving me the opportunity to visit this interesting locale, where you, as I have been informed by various sources, are indefatigably working to bring peace and harmony into the wizarding world.' He smiled benignly and began to fiddle with the ribbon of the Order of Merlin.

Barely able to contain herself anymore, Hermione said, 'Thank you Minister, that's very kind of you, but-'

'I believe,' Percy continued unperturbed, 'and I have always expressed that belief publicly, whenever the occasion warranted it, that the family is the very core of our British wizarding society. The family is the garden in which qualities such as honesty, loyalty and dignity are carefully brought to bloom by-'

'For heaven's sake, Percy!' Hermione interrupted him. 'I'm a marriage counsellor, not the Average British Wizard. Would you kindly stop that drivel and listen to me? You're here to talk to me about your marriage, not to present your political programme, provided you have one'

'I say.' Percy frowned and slowly shook his head. 'The attitude you are showing here, Madam Snape, does seem to be one of profound disinterest in the welfare of this country. Many British wizards and witches used to show the same indifference at the time I became minister. Changing their attitude has been one of my-'

Hermione interrupted him again – never mind that he was the Minister for Magic, he was also the same boring, self-important stick in the mud he'd been back at Hogwarts. 'I'm aware that you're paying me for listening to you, Percy, but that doesn't mean I have to listen to your boring political speeches. I'm only going to repeat it this once: you're here to talk to me about your marriage. You're supposed to tell me how things are going with Narcissa, if you're happy together, or if you feel there might be any problems in your life together. You're not supposed to criticize my political awareness, which by the way was obviously strong enough to make me fight Voldemort, and not from a comfy chair in the minister's antechamber!'

Percy's eyebrows went up. 'I hope you are aware that you are speaking to the Minister of Magic.'

'The colour of your robes makes mistaking you for the janitor quite difficult.'

Percy blushed and cleared his throat. 'Yes, er, well, that's… That's settled, then. Your, er, you are also aware, I hope, that whatever I tell you must under no circumstances leave this room?'

Hermione sighed. 'Yes, Percy, I'm perfectly aware of my duties. And I'd suggest you get started, because you've already wasted thirty minutes of your allotted time.'

'Hmm.' Percy took a pair of horn-rimmed glasses from his pocket and started cleaning them on a crisp white handkerchief. 'Problems, hm. So you want me to tell you about problems with my wife, do you?'

'If there are any. And, just to make that clear, it's Narcissa's wish that you talk to me, not mine. So, how do you feel about those four years you've been together?'

'Feel?' Percy gave her an uncomprehending look.

'Yes. Feel. I asked you how you feel about your marriage, your wife, your life with your wife. Are you happy? Unhappy? Bori-, er, bored? Is she everything you ever dreamed of?'

'How do I feel about Narcissa…' Percy stared out of the window with an expression of intense concentration. 'I really couldn't say. I mean, she's my wife.'

Suppressing with difficulty the urge to scream, Hermione counted to ten and said, 'Yes. I am aware that she's your wife. And so, evidently, are you. I think we may regard this topic as sufficiently clear.' She paused, counted to twenty, and asked, 'So tell me, why did you marry her?'

'Well… She was there, I suppose, and she really wanted to marry me, so I, well…'

'Married her,' Hermione finished the sentence for him. 'What I meant to ask was, were you maybe in love with her? Attracted to her? Was the sex that good?'

Percy flushed scarlet. 'That is a very, er, intimate question, really.'

'Yes, I realize that. But I'm a marriage counsellor, which means that I have to deal with one of the most intimate relationships people can possibly have. Therefore talking about private matters is part of the whole process.'

Taking off his glasses and polishing them again, Percy nodded thoughtfully. 'That sounds quite convincing, Madam, I mean Hermione. But still… I'm the Minister of Magic, you understand, and I can't just talk about having sex with my wife to a complete stranger.'

'I'm not a complete stranger, as far as I'm aware. We were at school together, remember? I spent my holidays at your house, in case you'd forgotten.'

'Yes… Yes, that's true but… I honestly don't want to talk about this with you. You're a woman.'

'And that's a problem because?'

'It makes me feel uncomfortable.'

Hermione decided that reminding him that she'd seen him in full frontal nudity before the fireplace in Lucius and Narcissa's bedroom was probably not a good idea. 'All right,' she said brightly, What would you like to talk to me about then, Percy?'

'I really couldn't say.'

'Does that mean everything's all right? No rows, no arguments, no doors slammed shut, no silence over breakfast?'

'Narcissa is very, well, she's very discreet,' Percy offered. 'She doesn't slam doors or scream, you know?'

'I see. Well, but if Narcissa is really angry, there must be some kind of sign. How else would you be able to know when she's angry?'

'I wouldn't. You never know when Narcissa is angry – you merely realize that in hindsight. Usually she tells me,' he continued, a little more animatedly, 'I mean, a week later or so she tells me that I really ought to have realized how angry she was this or that day. So I apologize, and everything's fine again. Was that what you wanted to know?'

'Yes, Percy,' she sighed, 'That was exactly what I wanted to know.'

When the minister had left and the floor had stopped vibrating under his two bodyguards' heavily booted steps, Hermione buried her head in her hands and prayed that he may never, ever set foot in her practice again.

vvvvvvvvv

Severus had gone on one of his now frequent trips and wasn't due back until a few days later. When Lucius had contacted her about four weeks after their lunch, and proposed dinner, Hermione agreed to his suggestion that he pick her up at home on Tuesday night. They'd have a drink there, and would then choose a restaurant together, depending on what they felt like eating.

He knocked on the door at half past six. Hermione went to let him in herself and was almost blown off her feet by a gust of icy wind that showered her with snowflakes. 'Good heavens,' she said after she'd managed to close the door, 'I've been home for two hours – when did it start?'

'About half an hour ago.' He shed his heavy cloak and shook his head, showering her with chilly droplets. 'Oh, sorry. I didn't mean to spray all over you.' Two spells later his hair was dry and impeccably groomed.

'Come in,' Hermione said, 'you're looking cold.'

'I am, as a matter of fact. I wouldn't mind the cold, but this gale…' He shuddered.

'Would you maybe like a brandy? That should warm you in no time.'

'Only if you're having one as well. You have to get drunk, remember?'

'I'll do my best. Oh, and I hereby officially blame you for the bad weather.'

'How kind of you to have thought of it. Please accept my bottomless contrition.'

'Ashes on your head?' she asked while pouring brandy into two tumblers.

'If you insist. But my hair is already turning a little too grey for my taste, so I'd rather skip the ashes.'

'I'll see if I can find you a hair shirt, then.' He had sat down, and she was standing next to him, handing him his brandy. 'I can't detect any grey hairs, though.'

'The beneficial effect of candlelight, to quote your own words.' He raised his glass to her and took a sip. 'Ah, that's better. Do you think we might sit over there, before the fireplace?'

'Theoretically yes. But I'm afraid Crookshanks has taken up residence on the sofa, and since you don't like him…'

'You could move him.'

'Oh no, I'd never do that. He's rather old, you know, and I'd like him to spend his old age in comfort.'

Lucius snorted. 'What about my old age?'

'I'll tell you in fifty years' time. But' – she glanced over to the sofa – 'he's sleeping in the corner, so I'll sit next to him and you won't have to worry about, how did you put it? His unilateral affections.'

They ended up sitting on the sofa, maybe a little too close together for Hermione's peace of mind, because Crookshanks was a rather substantial Kneazle who took up one third of the available space.

'Ah, yes.' Lucius sighed and stretched his legs. 'So, how are you, Hermione? We haven't seen each other for so long - did you have a good time?'

Good was definitely not the way she'd describe it. 'It was… a difficult couple of weeks. I had lots to think about, and…' She stared into the flames. 'I didn't make any progress, unfortunately. That's quite daunting – I'm not used to getting stuck in my own mental labyrinth.'

'Is there a Minotaur lurking in that labyrinth?'

'I'd rather describe it as some kind of hydra. The more heads you cut off, the more she sprouts.'

'Oh dear. That sounds positively frightening.' His tone was light, but she could feel the warmth of his hand, which was draped over the couch's backrest and barely touching her shoulder.

'It is, in a way. I've never felt like this. At my wit's end, really. I guess I'm just not used to it, because I always used to be able to solve all my problems merely by rationalising them and getting to work on them. Lists used to play an important part.'

He chuckled and took a sip of brandy. 'Lists. I see. That's very much… you. Did you make any lists this time?'

'I tried. But it was too frustrating, so I gave up and went for a walk instead.'

'Hermione,' he said, and his tone was suddenly so serious that she turned to look at him. 'Is there anything I can do to help you?'

She felt tears well up in her eyes. 'That's… that's really kind of you, Lucius. But I think I'll have to help myself.'

His arm slid a little lower and was now half resting on her shoulder. 'If there is one thing life has taught me, it is that you seldom are as alone, or as lonely, as you think. Why don't you tell me about it?'

She'd been fighting the urge for some time now, and finally she told herself that she'd already so thoroughly made every mistake she possibly could make, that one more mistake scarcely counted. So she gave in and let her head fall back to lean against Lucius's forearm. 'I'd really like to. But I can't tell you all of it, because there's a client involved, and…' She exhaled deeply. 'It's all such a sorry mess. And I'm afraid I caused most of it.'

'Oh. I see.' He crossed his legs and shifted slightly, so he was now leaning towards her. 'I thought it was about you and Severus and having children, and about that empty-headed doll – what's her name?'

'Amanda,' Hermione growled. She couldn't even get herself to feel very angry, because she was inhaling Lucius's scent and his cologne, and feeling the muscles of his forearm through his sleeve, and that was having a surprisingly soothing effect on her.

'Amanda. The one that must be loved.' He summoned the bottle and refilled both their tumblers. 'How very fitting.'

'She's very beautiful,' Hermione said ruefully. 'And – I mean, it's such a ridiculous thing for me to say at age twenty-three, but she's younger than I.'

'Do you think he's having an affair with her?'

'You tell me! You're the man here, you should be able to recognize the telltale signs!' She turned her head to look up at him. 'Well?'

'It is really not my place…'

'Oh, bollocks!' She sat up straight. 'I wouldn't have asked you if I didn't want your opinion. And I know it's only an opinion, not hard facts.'

He looked at her over the rim of his glass. 'Yes, I think he does. Although I don't understand why.'

'Oh, I understand all right,' she said bitterly, emptying her glass in one gulp and refilling it. 'Look at her, and look at me! And if you still don't understand, consider that I made the outrageous suggestion to have children.'

'I still don't understand,' he said, and the way he looked at her made her feel all hot and bewildered.

She couldn't move away, because if she did she'd sit on Crookshanks, and she also realized that she didn't really want to move away. On the contrary, she wanted to move closer to him. 'I… really…' she stammered, 'That's a very nice thing to say, and I do feel very flattered, believe me…' But his eyes wouldn't leave her face, and so she fell silent and tried to steady her hand holding the glass.

'I am not trying to flatter you, Hermione.' He put down his glass, and her heart leaped in her throat when he leaned a little closer. 'I know I shouldn't be saying this, but you are everything a man could desire.'

'I…' She giggled nervously, which was something she hated, and so she immediately stopped. 'I'm just Hermione,' she said, her voice rather small.

'That is merely a different way of expressing the same thing.'

And then he kissed her.

The part of her brain that wasn't soaked in wildly shrieking hormones thought that she really shouldn't be doing this, because she was a married woman, yes, a married woman being cheated upon by her husband with an eighteen-year old chit, and she shouldn't be doing this, because the man currently kissing her was Lucius Malfoy, who'd probably had no sex for three days and felt he needed some and thought she was easy prey, but the problem was that she was easy prey, because Severus had preferred that stupid girl to her, and because Lucius had said she was everything a man could desire, and what was a girl to do when a man told her such things in such a voice and when he smelled so delicious and when he was such a good kisser…

That was the moment when Hermione's brain decided to go into tilt, because bathing in hormones was a lot more fun than fighting them. She gave a little sigh of pleasure and relaxed into the kiss, and she felt Lucius smile into her mouth and let him take her glass. Her hands were free now, but the position on the sofa was rather awkward – she couldn't simply let herself fall back, because Crookshanks was still snoozing behind her, blissfully unaware of the events unfolding next to him.

Hermione was wearing a full skirt, so it was easy to throw one leg across Lucius's thighs to regain her balance. A soft groan and the tightening of his grip at her waist told her that he appreciated the move. He didn't break the kiss when he pulled himself upright and hoisted her up with him, so that she was now sitting astride him. Kissing was much easier that way, and since her brain had given up any attempt at rational, or even irrational, thought, she was able to fully concentrate on touching and being touched in return.

She'd never been that hungry for physical contact. Sex with Severus had always felt like being devoured by something elemental, and she'd found that highly arousing. Now, however, her arousal stemmed from being on top of Lucius and doing her very own bit of devouring. Her hands were in his hair, and she just couldn't get enough of his mouth, his ears and the part of his neck that wasn't covered by clothing. She returned to his mouth and started unbuttoning his shirt, to get more of his skin, more of his scent. Lucius charmed off her top and bra, and before she could say 'cheat!' he was already licking and sucking her breasts.

Hermione cried out in pleasure.

Crookshanks was woken up by the sudden noise and stretched luxuriously, sinking the claws of his right forepaw deep into her thigh.

Hermione cried out again, this time in pain. Physical pain does have a way of sobering people, and suddenly Hermione saw herself, as if she were standing outside her body, draped all over Lucius, topless, wild-haired and scarlet-cheeked, grinding against his erection and only inches away from committing adultery. She froze. Her hands flew up to cover her face.

Lucius summoned her clothes and wordlessly helped her button her top. 'It seems that this was not one of my best ideas,' he said, his expression strangely rigid. 'I do apologize. I won't go as far as saying that I don't know what came over me, because I happen to know exactly what came over me, but I am truly sorry if I increased your already considerable distress.' He shifted a little and gently deposited her on the sofa. 'I suppose you'd like me to leave now.'

She was unable to speak, so she merely nodded. Not that she really wanted him to go, but she knew it was for the best. Or was it? But when she started doubting her decision, he had already left.

vvvvvvvvv

Stopping at this point, dear reader, is commonly called a cliff-hanger. One hundred years after Sigmund Freud, anybody would be able to explain to you that this is merely the author's way of overcompensating for his or her absolute powerlessness vis à vis the Muse. It's not a bad explanation, I have to admit. It makes sense, if you picture the relationship between Muse, author and reader as a kind of power hierarchy with the muse on top and the reader at the bottom, with the author sandwiched between them.

But the story is to be continued soon, I assure you.

I merely needed to take a break, pour myself a glass of whisky and think about the main characters of this tale.

The question I'm asking myself – and it is one of the many questions currently occupying Hermione's not inconsiderable mental faculties – is whether Lucius is merely using his highly developed technique of seduction in order to get laid and then dump the lady in question, or if there's more to it. Being the incurable romantic I am, I do of course tend to believe that he's serious. Why? Well, firstly because I'm a romantic at heart, and secondly because he's good-looking, rich and powerful – men like that don't usually have problems getting laid whenever they want to and with whomever they choose. They don't normally bother with women like Hermione, who is reasonably pretty but nowhere near Amanda's league. She does, of course, have other qualities which more than make up for her lack of stunning beauty, but that's what I meant when I said that rich, powerful philanderers don't usually waste their time with women like Hermione. They want trophy women, and since intelligence and a generous and loving heart are not generally considered trophies worth collecting, that can't be the reason why he did what he did.

And he said that Hermione was all a man could desire – yes, I liked that too! – and it did have a ring of truth to it.

That's what Hermione, too, would like to believe. But even if she brings herself to believe it, where does that leave her? She's unfortunate enough to have a strong sense of honesty, and hence would never feel justified in cheating on Severus merely because he's shagging Amanda. (Yes, he really is, by the way, as you will soon find out.) Although she has long ago understood that the world isn't divided into black and white but consists mostly of shades of grey, she still wants to know exactly where she's standing. She wants clarity, and unfortunately that's what her life is really lacking at the moment.

So she's still sitting on the sofa, her fourth glass of brandy in one hand while the other is scratching Crookshanks (the fact that she isn't cross with him does speak in her favour, doesn't it), and she's feeling very small and lonely. And when she's not feeling small and lonely, she's cursing herself for letting Lucius go, because she couldn't be more miserable if she'd had sex with him, but at least she would have something to show for her misery.

And Lucius? Well, he has returned to Malfoy Manor and – since he's a far more accomplished drinker than Hermione – is currently nursing his sixth brandy. It doesn't make him feel better, though, only more drunk. He feels like a stupid seventeen-year old boy and, merely to distract himself, is trying to come up with 101 ways to kill a cat for having interrupted what promised to be the best sex he's had in a long time.

vvvvvvvvv

Narcissa – who hadn't shown up for a single session since Percy had been to see Hermione –received the news about Lucius's unwillingness to take her back with equanimity, and since Hermione was in no shape to stop her, immediately proceeded to telling her about all the things she hated about Lucius. Not that Hermione didn't understand Narcissa's motives for doing so – being rejected, even if you didn't love the man in question, was sufficient reason to vomit corrosive truths all over him – but she really didn't want to hear anything about Lucius. Not after the night she'd had. Especially not after the dreams she'd had.

But there was no stopping Narcissa. And so, Hermione was told that

Lucius went to brush his teeth before suggesting sex in the morning (Hermione quite liked the idea, because morning breath isn't exactly an aphrodisiac)

Lucius used to be really grumpy upon returning from Death Eater meetings (although he'd had to lie in the bed he'd made for himself, Hermione thought that he'd shown admirable restraint by being merely grumpy)

Lucius spent hours grooming his hair (well, that was a thing of the past now)

Lucius complained when she ran off to have a bath immediately after sex (quite understandable, Hermione thought)

Lucius had been totally infatuated with his son (Hermione found that very endearing and immediately berated herself for being a soppy cow)

Lucius's cock was too big (that really didn't bear thinking about)

Lucius always wanted to hold her close after they'd had sex (that was even worse than thinking about his cock)

Lucius had had the impertinence to suggest she give him a blow job (Oh please god, make her stop!)

Lucius refused to eat anything that began with an F (Now that, Hermione thought, was a bit strange)

Lucius had been fascinated with her body when she was pregnant and had had the impertinence to suggest sex, with her on top (OhmygodOhmygodOhmygod, he'd like to fuck me even if I was pregnant)

Lucius scarcely ever missed an A-league Quidditch match (I knew he wasn't perfect, I just knew)

Lucius had treated the House Elves far too kindly (Hermione almost fell off her chair)

Lucius told rude jokes when he was drunk (How interesting. Hermione would never have suspected)

Lucius was orderly to the point of being compulsive-obsessive, and had always berated her for leaving her possessions strewn all over the place (quite understandable, Hermione thought)

Lucius had always insisted on foreplay when she just wanted to get it over with (Oh no. Please god, please don't let her say anything else about sex with Lucius)

Lucius was an oversexed brute (I knew you weren't listening)

Lucius, that perverted swine, had once – but only once – sucked on her toes (All right. That's it. I have to stop her, and if I hit her on the head with a brick)

The quill stopped moving over the parchment, and Hermione looked up, giving Narcissa a smile that looked even more fake than the smiles Narcissa usually gave Hermione. 'Thank you, Narcissa. That was very thorough and informative. Is there anything positive you would like to say about Mr Malfoy? So as not to close the session on a negative note, I mean.'

Narcissa's icy blue eyes fluttered shut for a moment. She reopened them and studied the curtains for a while. 'Not really,' she said slowly. 'I don't suppose that the fact that I've never seen anybody do a better impersonation of Cornelius Fudge counts as positive, does it?'

'It means that he was able to make you laugh,' Hermione said through gritted teeth, 'That's a good thing I'd say. So' – she rolled up the parchment and put the quill into its holder – 'how do you feel about continuing our sessions, Narcissa? I think we have closed a chapter today – a reconciliation with your ex-husband is obviously not a realistic aim, and you are not exactly happy with Percy. That's what we've established so far. Do you think I might be able to help you any further? Would you like to continue, or stop, or maybe take a break?'

Had Narcissa suddenly hopped on the desk and started dancing the Cancan, Hermione couldn't have been more surprised. Because Narcissa neither wanted help, nor a break, nor to stop. 'I still want Lucius back,' she said with venomous stubbornness.' I want him back, and I want you to help me get him back.'

This time, Hermione didn't manage to keep her calm, professional exterior. 'What?'

'You heard me. I want him back, and I want you to help me with it.'

'This is a marriage counsellor's practice, Narcissa, not the lonely hearts club. And I'm not a go-between for stuck-up aristocrats. The answer is no.'

'But…' Narcissa looked at her, the very image of hurt innocence. 'But I'm paying you.'

'There's a difference between paying me and buying me. You'd do well to remember that, it might be very helpful from time to time. No,' she repeated when Narcissa opened her mouth. 'This conversation is over, as is this session. If you need my help for any marriage you may have entered into, you know where to find me. As for the rest, forget it.'

vvvvvvvv

Almost everybody sooner or later comes to a point in their life where they recognize, with absolute clarity, that if they don't somehow get away from it all, they're either going to kill somebody or have a nervous breakdown.

Hermione arrived at exactly that point when, upon returning home, she found two envelopes resting on a small table in the entrance hall. One was from Lucius; the card inside read: "Dear Hermione, if you can forgive me for last night's events, I trust you will do so, in your own time. I hope I did not destroy what might have developed into a close friendship. Yours, Lucius"

Already crying, she read it five times. Then she carefully pocketed the card and opened the second envelope. While she was perusing its contents, a vein started to throb in her temple. She read the letter once more, dropped it, picked up a heavy vase from the floor and shattered it against the wall with all the strength she possessed. 'You bastard!' she screamed. 'You absolutely lousy, fucking pig! How dare you!'

A mere fifteen minutes later, she had packed a bag, levitated a growling Crookshanks into his carrier basket, sent off a note to Emily and left one for Severus. It merely told him, in barren words, that she'd been called away on urgent business, which might take her up to two weeks, or maybe even more.

She didn't say where or why, and she didn't give a damn whether Severus might see through the transparent lie. His lie about having encountered more complex problems than he'd been expecting in Belarus, and about having ordered Amanda to join him there in order to solve those problems more efficiently was ludicrous. More than by his infidelity, of which she was now sure, she felt insulted and humiliated for not having been deemed worthy of a better lie.

She turned a crumpled packet of chewing gum she'd found in her pocket into a portkey – illegal, but she wasn't going to bother with rules right now – and was gone five minutes later.

Libby the House Elf shook her head – but her ears wouldn't flap as usual because she was sad to see her mistress in such a state – and started cleaning up the mess Hermione had left behind in the entrance hall.

vvvvvvvvv

Lucius sat through the meeting of Gringott's executive board, which took place three days after his unfortunate visit to the Snapes' house, in grim silence. When called upon, he delivered his speech without his usual verve but expressing himself in favour of Severus's project and thus the loan.

He'd only gone to the meeting because he felt he owed it to Severus, otherwise he'd have preferred to stay at the Manor, buried in his library in the company of his books and a few bottles of brandy. He had already cancelled the next two trips, because he really didn't feel like convincing a bunch of moronic Australian wizards that allowing Gringott's to establish a branch at the antipodes was going to have a beneficial effect on their economy. Neither did he fell like cajoling the Egyptian Minister of Magic into considering the possibilities a merger between Gringott's and Memnon's Mammon might offer for Anglo-Egyptian cooperation.

He was feeling tired, and old, and thoroughly stupid. His increasing nervousness at Hermione's silence certainly didn't do anything to alleviate his discomfort.

Things were made worse by constantly questioning his own feelings. That trembling void in his stomach – was it love, indigestion from drinking too much alcohol, regret or hunger? Number one and three would be new territory, because even though he'd loved his mother and son, he knew of course that loving a woman was likely to feel different, and because regret was totally alien to him. Lucius dealt with what might eventually have turned into regret by transforming it into hate or anger directed against a third party. Regret would have meant to doubt himself, and he certainly wasn't that kind of person.

Like Hermione had done some time ago, Lucius too spent Saturday and Sunday deep in thought. To do him justice, he was trying to be honest with himself, but not nearly as skilled at it as Hermione. Love, or being in love, was to him the equivalent of being weak. Weak, because not in control. He'd made that painful experience when Voldemort had used Draco as a means to punish him, and he'd lived through weeks of grief after his son's death. He was not exactly eager go to through anything even remotely like it again.

But… There always was a but, he stated sombrely, and this one was a big one. Hermione was intriguing. Hermione wasn't exactly beautiful, but she was clever, and vivid, she was fearless and therefore not easily subdued. The fifteen minutes or so they'd spent snogging on the couch had allowed him a rather tantalizing peek at how their sexual relations might be, if ever there were to be any. If he had to forswear any possibility of extramarital adventure – and he was absolutely sure that marriage was the only possibility to bind Hermione to himself permanently – at least he wanted to be sure this time that his right hand wasn't to become his concubine.

The question it all boiled down to was whether he could imagine a future with Hermione. Not that distilling the whole mess into a single question made things much easier. And even if he were able to answer it with yes, there still was the not inconsiderable difficulty of getting her to agree. It was the ability to identify possible weak points that made the good strategist. Hermione's willingness to leave her husband and remarry was… Well, calling it a weak point might be a little, uh, rash. It was the pivotal point of the whole problem. That, and his willingness to make her his wife.

By Sunday night, Lucius had made a decision.

He had to see her as soon as possible, in order to test the waters. If her reaction to him was positive, he would have to find a final answer to his own question concerning marriage. And if that was positive, he'd try to win her for himself, if necessary by getting incriminating material on Severus and his personal assistant. With his connections, that was a piece of cake.

Lucius had a plan. That night, he went to sleep with a smile on his face.

vvvvvvvvv

The smile was still there when he got up on Monday. Since he'd cancelled his impending trips, he was free to spend a lazy morning and afternoon.

Every six months or so, Lucius wandered through his home, inspecting this drapery and that tapestry, casting an age-revealing charm on a painting, looking into cupboards – it was a leisurely inspection tour, although the leisure was exclusively on Lucius's side. The House Elves were terrified and on edge for days, but that was of course the purpose of the whole enterprise. The last inspection tour had taken place in October, and therefore one can easily imagine the bottomless horror spreading among the elfish staff when Lucius set out to tour his home immediately after breakfast.

Reformed character or not, Lucius Malfoy still appreciated the sight of squeaking, trembling creatures who took off at top speed and with flapping ears and ran into walls head first in disoriented panic. It somehow reinforced the sensation of being master in his own house.

Knowing that Severus usually worked late – or so he said, though Lucius doubted if work was the appropriate name for the activities going on at after six in that office – and seldom returned home before 8.30 pm, Lucius decided to try his luck with Hermione by dropping in around 6.30. If she had already calmed down enough to ask him in, he'd refuse anyway, and was merely going to express once again how sorry he was. Given his finely honed observation skills – being a Death Eater was all about finely honed observation skills, honed mostly by keeping an eye on one's peers, if one didn't want to spend a fortune on replacing robes with dagger holes in their backs – he was sure that two minutes of talking to her would be enough for him to determine whether he might be accepted back into her good graces.

Therefore he Apparated to Hogsmeade shortly before that time, and slowly walked up towards the Snapes' home.

The windows were lit both in the ground and first floor – although Lucius didn't like the idea of Severus being already home, he'd thought of a pretext for his visit in case the Master of the House was insolent enough to actually be there. He was simply going to pretend he'd come to congratulate his friend of old on the successful transaction with Gringott's.

Thus well prepared, he knocked on the door that was opened by a visibly embarrassed House Elf. Knowing that the creature was one of the paid variety, he even made an effort to show it the amount of politeness he could scrape together for such a lowly being. 'I am here to see Mrs Snape,' he said, looking past Libby into the entrance hall.

'The mistress is not at home, sir.'

Since he'd been expecting a servile 'yes, sir' he was somewhat taken aback and let his glance wander down until it encountered two quivering ears. 'I see. When do you expect her to be back?'

Libby, who'd already been on the receiving end of one of Severus's more impressive fits of temper for not being able to tell him Hermione's whereabouts, merely trembled. Lucius's feet – he was ambidextrous when it came to elf-kicking – were already twitching in anticipation, but he controlled himself with the iron discipline acquired through telling Voldemort, more than once, that scaly skin was so much nicer than the ugly stuff covering the limbs of lesser wizards. 'Answer me!' he bellowed. 'When will Mrs Snape be returning home?'

'Libby… doesn't know, Sir.'

Lucius was just about to give in to the incessant demand of his legs when he heard voices from above. One male and one female. So Hermione was home, but had told her House Elf to send him off? That was certainly more than he was willing to accept, no matter what plans of marriage might be budding in his bosom. He stormed past Libby and up the stairs, oblivious to the fact that an entrance of this kind might lend little plausibility to his congratulations.

Not that he had to deliver them – or, if he had, he might have chosen to applaud Severus for another achievement. He might, for instance, have congratulated Severus on having his head buried between the admirably long thighs of one Amanda, who was currently writhing on the bed, in immediate danger of falling off.

Without feeling voyeuristic in the slightest, Lucius leaned against the doorframe and eyed the spectacle in front of him with a connoisseur's eye. Connoisseur enough to exactly gauge the second before Amanda went over the edge and clear his throat just then. What followed was a bit of a déjà vu. Only this time he played the gloater's part and had to admit it suited him a lot better.

'I do hope I'm not interrupting anything important?' he drawled, unashamedly eyeing Amanda who was busy wrapping herself in a sheet.

Whatever may justly be said on Severus's conduct or morals, he certainly didn't lack presence of mind. 'Certainly not as important as what brought you here,' he replied, inclining his head. He accioed his shirt and trousers, waved to Amanda to stay where she was, and ushered Lucius out of the bedroom and down the stairs. 'Lucius,' he said after they'd closed the living room door behind them, 'This is a somewhat, er, inconvenient moment. Is there anything I can do for you? If there isn't, I'd rather return to… Well, you know.'

'Severus,' Lucius said, feeling – rather incongruously – like an archangel presiding over the Supreme Judgment – 'You are, I mean you were just fucking another woman!'

Severus poured himself a brandy, offering the bottle to Lucius, who shook his head. 'So?' he said.

'What about Hermione?'

'She's not here, obviously.'

'Well, where is she?'

'She left me a note informing me that some urgent business required her immediate presence. Nothing else.'

'And that justifies shagging your secretary in the bed you share with your wife?'

'Justifies might be too strong a term. Facilitate is the word that comes to y mind.'

Lucius shook his head. 'Your style is deplorable, Severus. Relations of this kind are called extramarital for a reason, and rule one is to never conduct them in the marital bed. Or kneeling next to it, for that matter. But, shocking breach of etiquette aside – have you gone mad?'

Frowning, Severus shook his head. 'Not that I'm aware, no. And what on earth, if I may ask – but this is my house, so I suppose I'm entitled to – what do you think you're doing, coming here, intruding upon my privacy at a time when that intrusion was particularly unwelcome, and lecturing me, on top of everything?'

The pretext Lucius had so cunningly thought up was crumbling away like a house under a heavy termite attack. 'The reason why I came here seems to be a moot point now,' he replied smoothly.

'Maybe, but a very interesting moot point. What are you doing here?'

Once Severus had got his teeth into a weak point, trying to detract him was like trying to detract a tiger from a lamb by showing it a bowl of fruit yoghurt. 'Since I happened to be in Hogsmeade,' Lucius replied without missing a beat, 'I thought I might personally convey an invitation to spend Christmas at the Manor. To you and your wife, to be precise. Certainly not to you and that little slut. Given the current state of things, though, I doubt you are going to accept.'

'Thank you very much for the invitation. But it seems that Hermione won't even be back in time for Christmas.'

Lucius stared. 'Not back for Christmas? Has she left you?'

'I don't think so. If she had she would have told me. No, I suppose she merely needed a break.'

'Are you saying she has no idea what's going on between you and that girl?'

'No, why should she? I am rather good at covering my tracks you know? I even sent her a letter from Minsk, to tell her I had to summon Amanda there, in order to help me settle some problems – you never know when your wife gets it in her head to call at work, and she might have put two and two together if anybody had told her Amanda had gone to Belarus.'

As far as Lucius was aware, that letter had probably been what made Hermione storm off. But he kept this knowledge to himself and merely said, 'Well, I shall have to invite somebody else, then, since you seem to have your own little present to unwrap on that particular day.'

He took his leave of a somewhat bewildered Severus and walked down towards Hogsmeade, the cogwheels in his brain already turning feverishly. If Hermione didn't mean to be found, finding her wasn't going to be easy. But he had to track her anyway, and sooner rather than later.

vvvvvvvvv

Severus, Severus, Severus. One can't really bring oneself to feel much sympathy for him right now. I mean, what does the man think he's doing? Besides the obvious, of course.

The problem, dear reader, is that not only does he know very well what he's doing, he isn't even feeling the least bit of regret. Do I hear you utter sounds of surprise? Incredulity even? Well, dear reader, let me assure you that I like Severus Snape as much as the next girl. But let's be honest. There are Muses – and hence authors – who tend to have a somewhat romanticized view of the man.

I've already mentioned his not-so-happy childhood and upbringing. But a childhood spent with a pair of violent alcoholics is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to spending the years of one's early manhood in the company of Death Eaters. They were a violent, backstabbing and rather nasty set of assorted lunatics, led by a madman whose twisted perception of the world as it should be put him in the same league as the worst Muggle tyrants and dictators history teaches us about. There was a lot of drinking and drug-taking going on, too, and if Severus knew enough of the destructive effect of alcohol, he certainly wasn't immune to the lure of violence, especially if committed by and not against him.

That doesn't mean he was a monster or even a bad man – he did spy for Dumbledore after all – but one may safely assume that he wasn't nice, or easy to be with. Almost twenty years of leading a double life are impossible to survive unless one suppresses, and in the end even forgets, the emotions that are generally considered to make us human.

Of course Severus was glad when it was all over, and the Muse confirms my suspicion that he wished nothing more than to live the life of a normal human being. But he went about it the wrong way. That certainly wasn't his fault – after all, the wizarding world isn't renowned for its skills at dealing with psychical trauma. They have Dreamless Sleep Potion, and they have Obliviate, but that's like putting a piece of sticking plaster on a gangrenous limb. If the plaster is big enough, it might cover up the whole limb, but sooner or later it has to be amputated anyway.

The plaster was doing its job quite well until the day, about six months ago in our story, when Hermione told him she'd like to have children. That was the point when he felt things were going very wrong. Now, Severus may be a master at disguising or dissimulating his emotions, but that's the exact opposite of what he should have done, namely analyze them and try to determine what was wrong. Instead, he started an affair with his new secretary whom he'd been coveting since he'd hired her a few weeks before.

He doesn't feel justified in what he's doing – he said so to Lucius – but he doesn't feel he's doing anything wrong either. Severus Snape is a man of dubious morals, I'm afraid. Dubious morals might help you survive a war, but they're not what you need to have a successful marriage.

He has returned to the bedroom, to continue what he started before Lucius arrived on the scene, and they'll stay in that bedroom for some days – of course they'll have to go to work, but since their main focus is the bedroom, I'll take the poetic liberty to tell you that's where they stayed.

Lucius returns to the Manor and starts activating all his contacts, in order to find Hermione. He knows she'll be hard to find, and probably even harder to find by magical means like tracking spells and the like, because she's a clever witch and will probably anticipate Severus's efforts to locate her by any magical means at his disposal (and believe me, that's a lot). But between his own contacts and Gringott's human – well, in a way of speaking – resources, he's quite sure he'll be able to hunt her down. He means to go after her and find out whether she's forgiven him, and then take it from there. A sensible plan, almost simplistic. But when dealing with Gryffindors, Slytherin cunning is of little use. He knows that and plans to act accordingly.

And now, dear reader, let's see what Hermione is doing.

vvvvvvvvv

It was her first Christmas alone. Hermione was rather surprised at how little regret or nostalgia that fact was causing her.

Cyprus was lovely at this time of year, with the evergreen cypresses and the sea in sombre contrast that wasn't softened by grass or flowers, but merely accentuated by the stark white of the houses. The air was mild and cool, and if the sea was much too cold for swimming, one could wander along the shore for hours, watching ships crawling up over the horizon, collecting shells and just being free.

The Aphrodite Resort was a luxury establishment – Muggle of course – with only a few guests. Muggles preferred warmer climates for their winter holidays if they didn't opt for skiing in much colder environments. Hence Hermione was left to her own devices, and after some ten days of delicious isolation she would have seriously considered staying here for months, had she been able to afford it. But three weeks were easily within her financial reach, and she was determined to make the most of them.

She was also determined not to think about Severus, and Amanda, and neither about Lucius or Narcissa. Not thinking about Lucius was a bit difficult but she managed, most of the time. She did of course know that the mess she'd left behind wasn't going to sort itself out miraculously, but she was confident that after three weeks on her own she would have regained her strength sufficiently to deal with it all.

The sun was slowly setting, and it was getting cool, so she called Crookshanks back to the suite they were sharing. It had a nice little garden, around which she'd created wards that didn't allow Crookshanks to stray any further. He was a very intelligent half-Kneazle, but this was an alien environment, and so she preferred to be on the safe side. He had been her loyal companion for nigh on ten years, and she was looking forward to at least the same amount of time in his company.

There had been a feast the other night, on Christmas Eve, and since the establishment catered to both those who celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, that night's culinary delights promised to be no less festive. Hermione took a long bath, noting with satisfaction that the massage she'd had in the afternoon had really relaxed her, washed her hair and then got ready to have dinner. She didn't mind eating alone, since she always had a book to read, and the other guests provided enough observation material for her to be kept entertained.

So she entered the dining room clad in a knee-length black, sleeveless dress, with a stole of orange silk wrapped loosely around her shoulders, and holding a small purse that contained a book and her cigarettes. Konstantinos, the maître d', beamed at her when he spotted her, and came to meet her. 'Happy Christmas, Ms Granger,' he said, and for a moment she was a bit taken aback by his smile that was broader than usual and, she thought, somewhat secretive.

'A happy Christmas to you too, Konstantinos.' She smiled back at him.

When he led her towards the small smoking section of the room, she put a hand on his elbow. 'That's very nice of you, Konstantinos, but you know I only smoke out on the terrace, after dinner. There's no need to give me a smoking table, I wouldn't like to deprive anybody…'

He merely shook his head. His smile, Hermione thought, was now more devious than secretive. 'No problem, Ms Granger. Today is Christmas Day, a day of surprises…'

Now she was feeling positively uneasy. She didn't like surprises, and since nobody knew her current whereabouts, this could only be some misguided attempt at seating her together with some lonely soul… She stopped, unable to walk any further when she saw who exactly the lonely soul was.

'Surprise!' Konstantinos cooed, spreading his arms. 'Here is your husband, Ms Granger, and a very happy Christmas again! The champagne will be served immediately,' he said, bowing to Lucius and vanishing in the discreet way of very highly trained staff.

'What the…' Hermione choked out.

Lucius smoothly rose from his chair – a part of her brain noticed that he was clad in an impeccable Muggle tuxedo – and went to kiss her hand. 'Surprise?' he said, guiding her to their table. 'I have to admit I'm not absolutely sure of my welcome, but I do hope you won't object to having dinner with me.'

His physical presence – his scent, his hand holding hers – hit her like a ton of very fuzzy bricks. They were pink and clashed horribly with her stole. 'I… no, not at all, but…' She took a deep, steadying breath. 'How did you find me?'

He pulled a chair out for her. 'Well,' he said, briefly putting a hand on her shoulder when she was seated, and then sitting down himself, 'let me put it like this: Gringott's is a rather widespread organisation with excellent connections to the Muggle world.'

'I see.' She put her purse on the table and tried to rid herself of the feeling that she was having a very pleasant dream. 'You blend in perfectly with the Muggles here.'

'I suppose that is meant to be a compliment.' He smiled at her. 'Thank you. My line of work – and I'm afraid I'll have to thank Gringott's for that as well – makes frequent contacts with Muggles a necessity. And I'm a quick learner.'

And you like to cuddle after sex, and you'd suck my toes, and I –unlike that prissy bitch Narcissa – would love to give you a blow job – oh nonono, I have to stop that train of thought before it runs me over! 'Obviously,' she said, smiling back. 'The style suits you.'

He nodded, and seemed lost in thought while a waiter uncorked their champagne and filled the flutes. 'Happy Christmas,' he said when the waiter had left. They raised their glasses. 'Hermione,' he continued after the first sip, 'I just want you to know that, if I am not welcome here, you may ask me to leave, and I will. I'm better at long-term planning than at being spontaneous, and therefore… As I said. If you don't wish me to stay, I shall leave.'

Hermione studied him over the rim of her glass. Was this a ploy, or was he being honest – as honest at least as one could reasonably expect a Malfoy to be? But that wasn't really the point, was it? Whether he was being honest or not, she had to be. Not for him but for herself and to herself. She'd regretted a hundred times sending him away the other night, and she didn't have any intention to regret the same thing twice. If she absolutely had to have regrets, she wanted them to be about something she'd done, not about something she'd not done. Again. 'No,' she said slowly, 'I don't think I want you to go. Finding you here was a surprise, yes, and I generally don't like surprises. But I think I'm going to make an exception for this one.'

Lucius's eyes lit up, and she felt a pang of something very strange. 'I am delighted to hear it,' he said.

vvvvvvvvv

The food was lovely, the wine was excellent, the conversation lively. None of them mentioned what had happened between them ten days ago, and both were careful not to steer anywhere near the subject of marriage whether former or current. He told her about some changes he was planning at the Manor, she told him about family Christmases gone wrong because of her grandmother's fascination with fire in general and burning Christmas trees in particular (the story about the charcoaled plum pudding made him laugh so hard that tears were running down his cheeks), he told her about the difficulties he'd had taking over the Malfoy fortune, estates and various enterprises from his father, he told her about vineyards in France and Italy, about centennial manors and treasures still buried therein.

Apart from the bottle of champagne, they had three bottles of excellent red wine between the two of them. There was a sheltered corner outside, on the terrace, and they decided to take their coffee and brandy there, and Hermione lit a cigarette.

'Does that mean you are distressed?' Lucius asked, casting a discreet warming charm over them both.

'No. No, what makes you think I'm distressed?'

'You told me that you only smoke in times of distress. That's why I opted for a smoking table – I was sure my unannounced appearance would cause you to smoke at least a whole packet.'

Hermione leaned back in her chair, which was made for sitting upright, and frowned at the discomfort this position was causing her. 'I think,' she said, 'that I smoke whenever I don't know how to cope with strong emotions.'

Lucius drew a sharp breath. This was it then, the moment of truth. 'Christmas can be a difficult time…' he ventured.

'Maybe. Not for me, it isn't. It wouldn't have been, had you not shown up, and it certainly isn't now.' She smiled at him, visibly searching for a comfortable position.

'May I?' Lucius moved his chair nearer to hers, bent down to take her ankles, and put her legs across his knees. 'Better?'

Mental images of toe-sucking were hard to fight off now. She inhaled deeply, trying to control her suddenly racing heartbeat. 'Y-yes.'

'So,' he said, taking off first one of her shoes and then the other, 'what are these strong emotions you seem to have such a hard time coping with?' She was wearing black stockings – he could see the lacy rim peeking out from under the seam of her dress. Very gently, he began to massage her left foot.

Hermione took a rather large gulp of brandy and drew deeply on her cigarette. The crescent moon and stars were beginning to blur, but she knew it wasn't merely from having consumed too much alcohol. His closeness and the sensation of his fingers digging into her instep almost but not quite to the point of pain were mainly responsible for the optical phenomenon. 'I think,' she said slowly, 'that this was a very superfluous question.'

'Superfluous? I think you've lost me, my dear.'

'A redundant question, then.'

'It would be redundant only if I had asked it before, or' – he turned his attention to her right foot – 'if I knew the answer. Since neither one is true, I'm afraid I do not quite understand you.'

'What do you want, Lucius?'

'Oh, many things, sweet Hermione. Would you care to be a little more precise?'

'You're being a bastard, you know that?'

'I hope not,' Lucius replied, smiling. 'But… Let me put it like this. I seldom make the same mistake twice.'

'And if I told you that you're not in any danger of repeating any mistake you might possibly have committed?'

'That would sound very promising indeed.' His hand strayed a little upwards, stroking her calf. 'Are you sure?'

'I'm absolutely sure.' She had to bite her lip to prevent herself from moaning.

'Hm.' He bent down to kiss the tip of one toe. 'That leaves the somewhat trite question, your place or mine?'

Hermione gave him a broad smile. 'Crookshanks,' was all she said.

'Oh. I see. Well, maybe "mine" would be the appropriate answer then?'

'Appropriate…' She looked at him from under half-closed lids, trying to read his face for some sign of insecurity. There was none, of course. If he was feeling any, he knew how to hide it. 'Lucius, how many times have you done this?'

'Seducing the wife of a man to whom I owe my life? This is a first, I'm afraid.'

'That's not what I mean, and I think you know it. No, I mean… seducing in general. When you weren't quite sure of your welcome.'

'Conceited as that may sound, I have always been sure of my welcome. A horrible thing to say, isn't it?'

'I'd even believe you're embarrassed, if you didn't sound quite so smug.' She kicked his thigh, though not very hard. 'You're making this difficult for me, you know?'

'I hope not,' he said, sounding rather alarmed. Then, back to his usual honeyed drawl, 'It doesn't have to be tonight, you know? I may be impatient, but never to the point of forcing or even trying to persuade you.'

'I don't think I'd feel any less insecure tomorrow. Rather the contrary.'

'Insecure?' he echoed. 'I don't think I understand – why would you feel insecure?'

'Oh, come on!' she said, withdrawing her feet quite abruptly and standing up. 'Honestly, you can't be that obtuse!'

She was standing before him barefoot, without her shoes. Lucius got hold of her hands and drew her down to sit on his lap. 'Tell me,' he whispered in her ear, making her shudder.

'Mmmmh,' she said, relishing the sensations his breath on her ear caused in her lower belly. She sat up a little straighter and turned her head to look at him. 'Look, I have trouble adjusting to a new mouse – imagine what it means to adjust to another man!' The look of total incomprehension on his face made her laugh so hard she had to cling to him, so as not to fall off his lap.

'Mouse?' Lucius said, 'What exactly does this have to do with a mouse? Although I am glad to see,' he added, slightly piqued, 'that at least it makes you laugh.'

'Priceless,' Hermione panted, 'The look on your face was priceless! But seriously – forget the mouse, that's too complicated – what I meant was, I've had sex with only one man, in all my twenty-three years, so I really don't know how… You know, how I'm going to adjust to you.'

She'd somehow expected him to laugh or joke away her concerns. But he didn't. 'I felt you that night, Hermione,' he murmured, 'I felt your lust and your passion and your wantonness when you were on top of me. It may have been the wrong moment, but everything else was absolutely right. You don't have to adjust. I want Hermione, not Hermione adjusting to any imaginary needs. Or do you think I was lying when I said you are everything a man could possibly desire?'

Hermione meant to tell him that, yes, she'd had a suspicion or two. But then she thought, why spoil by talking what promises to be a perfectly enjoyable one-night stand? So she kissed him instead, and obviously he didn't mind that she tasted of cigarette smoke. 'Your place, then?' she said huskily.

vvvvvvvvv

Sex with Lucius was indeed something new, something she had to adjust to, but, she thought, certainly not in a bad way. She'd already felt it when they were kissing on the sofa back home – he didn't make her feel as if she was being devoured by some force of nature. They spent a long time on the bed, kissing and stroking each other with their clothes still on.

She was the one who started undressing him, undoing his tie, unbuttoning his shirt. He was hairless and muscled, and quite solid to the touch. He encouraged her to explore with her hands and mouth, and he didn't guide her hands anywhere else when they wanted to linger on a particular spot. She did linger – there were many sensitive spots for her to discover that made him moan or suck in the air through his teeth. Only when she started unbuttoning the fly of his trousers did he stop her, and unzipped her dress, leaving her in her underwear and stockings.

After a long and thorough exploration of her lace-covered breasts and upper body, he finally – finally! – went downwards, kissing and licking and stroking the skin of her thighs above the lace of her stockings. She couldn't wait anymore then, she just had to undo his trousers and caress him through the silk of his boxer shorts. She teased his cock through the soft material with hands and lips and teeth, gently grazing down his length, cupping his balls.

Then they were kissing again, holding each other closer this time, skin touching skin. She longed to have his mouth on her breasts again and told him so. His smug grin when he undid her bra was almost infuriating, but there was no time for her to say anything, because his mouth was already where she wanted it, and his hand inserted itself between her legs, to begin a dance of teasing, light touches, always through the fabric of her panties, always elusive and never quite giving her what she wanted. She begged and moaned, but he merely smirked and continued those tantalizing movements of his fingertips.

Finally she had enough and stripped off his boxers. 'I want…' she said, taking his cock in her hand.

'It's yours to take,' he replied. How he still managed to grin was beyond her. But he had offered her that lovely cock, and so she guided his hands to help her take off her panties and then sat astride his legs.

He motioned for her to move up until her cunt was over his face, and then at last she felt his tongue where his fingers had been before, licking and circling and dipping while his hands stroked her thighs and her bum. When she was almost there, only seconds away from coming, he pressed an affectionate kiss into her pubic hair and let his head sink back into the pillow.

'You bastard,' she said, wondering at the sound of her own voice that was deeper and huskier than usual. 'You can't just stop now!'

He merely grinned and let his hands wander over her arse. 'Can't I?'

'I was that close, you son of a bitch!' It didn't come out very angry, though.

'I know.'

'You smug, conceited-' she started but couldn't go any further because he flipped her off him and onto her back, and immediately pounced on her, trapping her wrists with his hands.

She cried out as he entered her. She'd expected him to thrust deeply and forcefully, as she was used to from her experience with Severus, who most of the time was finished before she was even near her orgasm. He did make up for that, of course, but this was something new and completely unexpected. Because Lucius just stayed still, buried within her, and began to kiss her. Hermione slowly opened her eyes and looked right into his. 'That's better,' he said, putting a little more weight onto her but still not moving. 'Look at me, sweet.' He pulled back for a few slow, shallow thrusts, then stopped again. 'You are' – he kissed her deeply – 'everything a man could possibly desire.'

'A man,' she said and moaned because he was moving again, 'or you?'

'I,' was the reply, whispered in her ear.

And then he began to move in earnest. She came before he did, shuddering and moaning, and relished the feel of holding him close when he joined her. They fell asleep still embracing, their limbs tangled into the sheets.

vvvvvvvvv

Oh for a muse of fire… Well this one isn't of fire, which is quite fortunate because I still haven't had the time to insure my flat – must remember to do that first thing next Monday (although I'm not sure whether the insurance company would actually pay if my place was set on fire by a Muse – insurance companies have a way of not paying even when it seems blatantly obvious they'd have to, but getting out of this one would probably be relatively easy).

Sorry, I got a little distracted by mundane matters.

As I was saying, this particular Muse isn't remarkable for her fiery nature, but for her curiosity, euphemistically speaking – if she were, say, a human acquaintance of mine, I wouldn't hesitate to call her a nosy bitch. Since a certain amount of politeness is essential when dealing with Muses, I'll settle for calling her indiscreet.

What I mean to say is, it's bad enough watching two people having sex, but one may still pretend that one did so for the readers' sake – don't look shifty, I mean you, and I happen to know you like the juicy bits. Nothing to be ashamed of, I assure you.

But I can't quite agree with her when she insists on staying afterwards, sifting through their dreams while they sleep and poking into their minds during their wakeful moments. Yes, I know it's interesting, of course it is. Yes, I admit it, I'm quite curious too. All right, so let's have a peek and afterwards we can still pretend we didn't look.

Back in Hogsmeade, it's two hours earlier due to the time difference between Great Britain and Cyprus. It's almost 11 pm, and Severus and Amanda… Well yes. Obviously. They're having sex again. Unlike Lucius and Hermione, though, they're able to think while having sex. This probably has something to do with both being Slytherins – yes, I know, Lucius is a Slytherin too, a prime example of Slytherin-hood, but it seems he's falling in love with Hermione, and thus not to be held entirely accountable for the temporary loss of his mental faculties while having Very Good Sex Indeed.

Severus and Amanda, too, are having very good sex (but you'll notice the lack of capitals), and they're enjoying it a lot. Nevertheless, they're not in love with each other. Contrary to what this story may have led you to believe, Amanda is nothing less than a mindless little twerp who happens to inhabit the body of a goddess. She's evidently playing the part to perfection – even Lucius believed her act (although he was too struck by Hermione to pay much attention) – which already shows that she can't be as stupid as she makes people believe. She's nowhere near Hermione's brilliance, but what intelligence she possesses is enough to make her realize that 1) her family isn't very rich, 2) people readily believe that somebody that beautiful has to be stupid, 3) lots of men go for beautiful stupid women, and 4) that 2) plus 3) equal the possibility to get herself a wealthy man, which consequently makes 1) a rather moot point. The fact that Severus is married doesn't bother her too much. She's seen Hermione and judged her – correctly, as it happens – to be fond of but not totally infatuated with her husband, and perfectly capable of finding herself another one in case Severus divorces her.

Severus's brain has temporarily moved into his cock and is telling him that above all he should continue fucking Amanda, and that sex with Amanda is lots better than sex with Hermione. (His brain is right on that one, simply because the two are better suited to one another)

The Muse smiles and nods – the characters' thoughts are fitting perfectly into the story she's been spinning – and turns her head to look down at a luxury resort three thousand kilometres(give or take a few hundred) to the east. It's past one a.m. there, and a small crescent moon is already vanishing behind the cypress trees. A lone figure is standing on one of the balconies – from his point of view, the moon is sitting right on top of a cypress, turning a tree of mourning into a Christmas tree. He's clad in a dressing gown and slippers and leaning on the stone balustrade of the balcony, staring into the night and thinking.

That's exactly where I would stop, leaving him in peace and giving you, dear reader, the possibility to imagine the thoughts wandering through his head. Not so the Muse. She silently glides through the night, to perch on the balustrade next to him – she actually touches him, and he shivers, but thinks it is a reaction to the nightly chill – and gently invades his mind.

Lucius is actually feeling happy, and he acknowledges that he hasn't been happy in a long, long time. He also acknowledges that he's falling in love with Hermione and that this might not be a good thing, because who knows how she's going to react when she wakes up in the morning. Right now, she's fast asleep, and it was the feeling of tenderness overwhelming him when he watched her sleeping form that made him escape to the balcony, so as to try and do a bit of rational thinking. Quite an unsuccessful attempt, the Muse states with satisfaction (of course she's smug, because she needs Lucius to fall in love in order for the story to work out properly). Instead of thinking rationally, Lucius is replaying the evening in his mind and quite unashamedly dreaming of a future with a young wife who'd actually like to have sex with him (he's quite sure of that by now) and who wants to have a family. He's sufficiently self-assured to know that he may occasionally give in to her bossiness and let her have her way, and he's dreaming of a herd of blonde, brown-eyed children… well, you get my drift.

He sternly tells himself to stop being an idiot, because these really are dreams and nothing else, and returns to the warmth of the bedroom. Quietly, so as not to disturb Hermione's slumber, he slips back under the covers and lightly kisses her shoulder. She stirs in her sleep, and he presses another kiss on her shoulder. She murmurs 'Lucius…' and turns, half-wakening, to nestle close to him. He closes his eyes and, within a few seconds, falls asleep as well.

vvvvvvvvv

The sun rose late so shortly after the winter solstice. Its first rays needling through the curtains woke Hermione, who stretched and yawned and slowly remembered where she was. When she moved she felt the stickiness between her legs, and when she moved a little more, her arms and legs touched Lucius's body.

He opened his eyes and smiled at her. His hair was a bit mussed – she found that immensely reassuring, especially when she tried to imagine how her own hair must be looking. Like a snake charmer's nightmare, probably.

Lucius excused himself and went off to the bathroom. Remembering Narcissa's account of things she hated about Lucius, Hermione grabbed her wand and applied a teeth-cleaning charm. And then a mouth-freshening charm for good measure.

She rolled over and waited for Lucius to come back. Hopefully, she thought, he was having as few regrets as herself, i.e. absolutely none.

He didn't look regretful in the least when he exited the bathroom. The room was rather large, and so she had a few seconds to admire his body before he crept back under the covers and grabbed her to hold her close. 'Did you sleep well?' he asked, nuzzling her throat.

'Mmmm, yes. Deep, dreamless sleep, just as I like it. You?' The caresses of his hands and mouth began to arouse her again.

'Excellent. Although I did dream.'

Hermione's hands went to check the state of his cock, which was satisfyingly erect. 'Good or bad dreams?' she inquired.

'Good – yes, keep doing that, please. I dreamed about having sex with you…'

'Now that's a big surprise,' she purred, emphasizing the double entendre by slightly squeezing his cock.

Lucius kissed her and smiled. 'Isn't it indeed. I dreamed you were being your usual bossy self, riding me like a daemon.'

'You'd like that, wouldn't you?'

'Oh yes, absolutely.' They kissed again, more deeply this time.

'I'm slightly sore,' Hermione whispered. 'But,' she said, getting up on her knees and straddling him, 'not too sore I think. Move!' She indicated for him to scoot back until he was sitting upright, leaning against the headboard. 'Yes, that's it. Feel free to make any adjustments' – she positioned herself over his cock – 'to make it more like your dream.'

She slid down, and they started moving together, looking at each other in plain daylight. They both felt they were seeing the other for real the first time. Hermione finally noticed a few strands of grey at his temples, she saw the slight stubble on his cheeks and chin accentuated by the morning light, and she saw that there was an imperceptible hue of blue in his icy grey eyes which looked darker now, since his pupils were dilated.

Lucius smiled at the almost invisible lines that had begun to appear on her face, the still barely perceptible crow feet and the slightly deeper lines running from her nostrils to the corners of her mouth, he discovered the smattering of light brown freckles on her forehead and wondered how the line of her neck and shoulders managed to look so strong and so fragile at the same time.

They took their time, both of them trembling with need but equally desirous to make it last as long as possible. This time they came together, holding each other tight and kissing. Spooned close, they sank into a light doze afterwards.

But it was only a doze, not deep sleep, and thus Hermione's brain just started thinking on its own, and when she finally caught up with it, Hermione realized that things had changed quite a lot. Regardless of whether this was a one-night stand or the beginning of something more, she had to tell him. About Narcissa – as little as possible of course – and about Severus and herself. Especially about herself. Just like last night, she felt the need to be honest with him for her own sake, no matter what his feelings or intentions might be. She was of course aware that she'd have to betray her professional ethics again, but this time it felt different. Not that she had any illusions about that betrayal in and of itself, but her war experience had told her that sometimes you had to do wrong in order to do the right thing.

She pondered her motives once again, found that she really didn't have an alternative, sighed and turned to face her lover. 'Lucius,' she said, putting a hand on his shoulder, 'there's something I have to tell you.'

'I happen to know you're married,' came the sleepy reply.

'Yes, I'm aware of that.'

'If you mean to tell me that this was it, and you're going back to your husband, do you think you might wait till after breakfast? Receiving bad news on an empty stomach is murder on my digestive system.' His eyes were open now, and their expression betrayed his playful tone of voice.

'No. That wasn't what I meant to tell you. Although I'm glad to hear you'd regard it as bad news.'

'I would indeed.' He drew her closer, and she rested her head on his shoulder. 'So, what other news might there possibly be in store for me?' he muttered, massaging her scalp. 'If you think you'd be able to shock me by telling me you forgot to take your contraceptive potion, rest assured that I won't be shocked.'

'Well, I would be, because explaining a blonde baby to Severus might be a bit difficult.'

'No blonde grandmothers or other ascendants anywhere in the family tree?'

'Not that I know of, no.'

'Well,' he sighed, 'maybe it's better you didn't forget to take the potion then. So' – he shifted a bit to bring his cock in contact with her belly – 'what was it you intended to tell me?'

'To make it as short as possible, I wanted to inform you that I'm seriously considering leaving Severus, that I feel unexplainably attracted to you, that Narcissa came to seek my advice because she doesn't want to be Percy's wife anymore and means to get you back no matter what the cost or what means she has to employ, that I'm afraid she might succeed, and finally that I just left home in a hurry, without bothering to even try to sort out the mess I'd created.' She took a deep breath. 'That's it, in a nutshell. I feel a lot better now that it's out.'

'As nutshells go, this is a rather big and, dare I say so, a rather interesting one.'

'That's all you have to say?' Hermione propped herself up on an elbow and stared down at him menacingly.

'Certainly not, my dear, but don't you think we might discuss this over breakfast? Breakfast in bed, of course, so you may blame me for spreading crumbs everywhere in righteous indignation.'

'You,' Hermione said, 'are impossible.' She kissed the tip of his nose. 'Aren't you… outraged or something like that?'

'Being outraged, my darling, certainly makes for the dramatic flair so dear to Gryffindors,' Lucius replied, 'but it is hardly conducive to solving problems the way adults are supposed to.'

Hermione glared, but he'd called her darling, and thus she wasn't able to work up much righteous indignation at the quip about Gryffindor drama. Besides, he was right. 'I merely thought,' she said lightly, 'that the idea of Narcissa telling me about your marriage might cause you some… well, discomfort.'

'She did what?' Lucius sat up straight, heedless of Hermione being dumped in the pillows in an ungraceful heap.

She smiled up at him and batted her eyelids. 'You heard me very well, I think.'

'Of course I did, but…' He inhaled deeply and swallowed. 'What did that bitch tell you?'

'Patient confidentiality, I'm afraid.' She grinned.

'Since this regards me, you're scarcely bound by your duty to keep it a secret.'

'Hmm…' Hermione made a show of pondering this argument. 'Well, yes, I suppose you know that you have a big cock.'

'She told…' Lucius spluttered. 'She told you about the size of my cock?'

'Not in exact measurements, but yes, she did mention it was big. Too big, actually.'

'Too…' Lucius covered his eyes with his hands. 'Anything else I might care to know?'

'Well yes, but those weren't facts, they were her personal judgements, and I really can't tell you about those.'

'Whereas my having a big cock is a fact?'

'Oh yes.' She stretched languorously and smiled up at him. 'Too big was her personal judgement, though, so I probably shouldn't have mentioned it.'

'Hers, not yours?'

'Definitely not mine, no. I like it the way it is. And I would love to give you blow jobs. Lots of them. Not all the time of course, but really quite frequently.'

'I think I need some coffee now,' Lucius said faintly. 'Get dressed, woman, I'm about to call room service.' He fished for the shirt he'd been wearing the night before. 'Here, that should do. Make sure you're decently covered. I don't want any of those sleazy Turks to see what is exclusively mine.'

'Possessive bastard,' she said. 'Besides, you'd do well to remember' – she busied herself with the buttons – 'that these are sleazy Greeks. They're quite touchy about being called Turks.'

Lucius had put on his dressing gown and bent down to tuck the covers around her. 'My blatantly Malfoy-ish looks suggest that I'm not a bastard,' he whispered in her ear, 'but you might have a point concerning my possessiveness.' He kissed her briefly but deeply. 'Another family trait, I'm afraid. And I admit you are right about the Greeks. What would you like to have for breakfast?'

'It's probably a bit early for coq au vin,' Hermione said, giggling.

As it turned out, the coq was perfectly nice without the vin. And they had to magically de-crumple the shirt and dressing gown before they finally managed to call room service for a very late breakfast.

vvvvvvvvv

When they'd finally made it out of bed, Hermione insisted that Crookshanks was in dire need of company, as he'd been alone for almost twenty-four hours. Lucius, who was feeling a bit worn out and began to have serious doubts whether a woman so much younger than he might not be a ticket to smiling but premature death, was in no shape to disagree, and so they strolled through the park to Hermione's suite which was located at the other end of the resort.

After the due amount of cooing and cajoling, Crookshanks finally decided that he'd snubbed his human enough to teach her a lesson, and deigned to accept a can of tuna with a little cream. He then proceeded to shed a considerable part of his fur on Lucius's trousers and, to complete his sense of well-being, made himself comfortable on the reluctant wizard's legs.

'Unilateral, eh?' Hermione said over her shoulder, busy cleaning the litter box.

'Quite.' Lucius passed a reluctant hand over the ginger fur. 'Although I have to admit that this show of unconditional devotion to you is rather endearing.' He was about to mention something about unconditional devotion rather unexpectedly taking root in his own heart, but didn't, because he still had to get used to the thought before speaking it aloud.

Hermione had finished with the litter box, went to wash her hands and then came back to sit next to Lucius. For a while they remained in silence, listening to the Kneazle's contented purring. Reluctant to break this companionable quiet, Hermione finally spoke. 'So what do you think we're going to do?'

Lucius sighed and put an arm around her shoulders. 'I wish I were sure about what to do now. But it seems that I am not the problem here – you are the one who's married, and from what I saw at your house-'

Hermione stiffened. 'What did you see?'

He'd been unsure whether to break the news to her, but what difference did it make now? 'I went to your house maybe ten days ago, to see whether you'd, er, forgiven me. You weren't there, obviously, but Severus was, and so was Amanda. I suppose there's no need for me to go into the details…'

Hermione slowly retired from his embrace. She didn't look happy at all, which under the circumstances, Lucius thought, was quite understandable. There was a difference, after all, between being as good as sure and being told you'd been right. 'You… saw them?' she asked slowly.

'Yes. I saw them, and I assure you that there was no mistaking the situation.'

'You saw them.'

'As I believe I told you. Yes.'

'And then you left and went after me.'

Lucius had the distinct impression that things were going in the wrong direction. 'Not immediately. It took me more than a week to find you. But once I knew you'd gone to Cyprus, yes, I went after you.' He could feel her retreat into icy silence almost physically.

'You found out that my husband was cheating on me and had nothing better to do than go after me and give me a pity fuck?'

He winced. That was not what he'd intended. 'What makes you think it was a pity fuck? Did it feel like one?'

Hermione cleared her throat. 'I can't believe it,' she muttered. 'I can't believe how stupid I was. You saw Severus and that… that cheap little slut, you knew enough about me to be able to imagine how I was feeling, and so you could be sure I'd be a little more approachable than the last time we met. Poor little woman, so badly hurt, just think how a night of passion will warm her poor little heart. Oh my god.' She buried her face in her hands. 'I feel… I've never felt so… so…' She didn't finish her sentence, but got up. 'Out!' she hissed, a trembling hand pointing at the door. 'Out, and I'm not going to repeat it.'

Feeling the power radiating from her in hot, angry waves, Lucius didn't even try to make her see reason. Even a harmless spell, cast in her state of mind, could have an extremely unpleasant effect. And she didn't look as if she was about to cast a harmless spell. Hence he merely nodded, put Crookshanks down on the floor and left the room without looking back.

vvvvvvvvv

Things aren't looking too good, are they? I'm glad I know that this story will have a happy ending, otherwise I'd bet this is the end of a relationship that has scarcely even started.

This wasn't a lover's quarrel, oh no. This was serious, and both Lucius and Hermione know it. It was about trust, and since Hermione's trust in her husband has been badly undermined, she's going to need some time until she'll be able to trust again. The fact that it's Lucius she'll have to trust doesn't improve the situation – she knows more about his former dubious allegiances than about his attitude towards wife and family, and hence learning to trust him won't be easy. Then there's her wounded pride. It's hardly surprising that she's lashing out at Lucius while in reality she would like to strike Severus. Hermione is a brilliant young woman, but she is also quick-tempered, a bit irrational when it comes to interpersonal relationships and, most importantly, she's also very young. Severus is almost twice her age, and Lucius is more than thirty years her senior. Not that she'd be better off with a young man her age – she is quite right in assuming she's better suited to somebody older than her – but the age difference also means a notable difference in life experience, and sometimes she feels quite overwhelmed by it.

Now is such a time. She's feeling confused and angry and humiliated, and so she once again packs up and flees to a place where she'll be able to calm down and get things straight in her head. She goes to her parents' place.

Mr and Ms Granger, who know their daughter a great deal better than she gives them credit for, are surprised to see her. They do of course notice that something must be very wrong, but they also feel that what she needs is peace and quiet, and so they simply make her welcome and don't ask questions. Dentists do a lot of drilling and prying all day long, so maybe that's why these two have little difficulty in just letting their daughter be. Crookshanks' food and water bowls are placed in the usual corner in the kitchen, two litter boxes are filled and put into the downstairs loo and Hermione's upstairs bathroom, Hermione's old room is aired and dusted in a hurry, and then the two start preparing dinner as if nothing unusual had happened.

A week goes by, and Hermione slowly seems to return to normal. She's growing more vivid and sometimes she even smiles. At the end of the first week she finally decides to confide in her mother, who is a sensible woman and won't judge her for having slept with Lucius. She tells her mother everything and, although she ought to know better, is surprised at how things slowly drift into proportion while she's talking about them. Suddenly she isn't so sure anymore that Lucius merely took advantage of her. She remembers certain looks and gestures and words which seem to suggest the contrary. She begins to think that she might maybe, just maybe try to trust him again, given the opportunity.

But the days go by, and there is no opportunity.

vvvvvvvvv

I bet that you, dear reader, didn't know that Muses love to play cat's cradle. Their own Parnassian version, of course, which isn't that much different from the one children like to play, but for the important fact that, firstly, they play it with story threads (they are insubstantial enough even for Muses to hold) and, secondly, they take great pleasure in muddling up the threads to the point of being inextricable knots and then dumping said knots on the unsuspecting author.

In order to make the process of unravelling the knot a bit more dignified, the authors have baptized it catharsis. It sounds a lot better (although many people still think it's got something to do with a bad cough), but what it means is simply that you take the worst possible situation and try to aim for the best outcome for all characters concerned.

In our case, the worst possible situation would be –

Shit. Pardon my French. But there's his strange-looking knot on my desk, which seems to have come out of nowhere, and attached to it is a small but terrifying-looking piece of paper on which 'Grand Finale, go for Opera Buffa style' has been scribbled by a semi-divine hand.

Just what I needed. Get everybody together in one place, make them shout (if I was a composer, I'd of course make them sing) wildly at each other for various reasons, and then get the couples sorted out in a way that guarantees the BPHE (Biggest Possible Happy End, for those of you not acquainted with Muse-speak) to all the participants.

Oh god.

I mean, I'm quite sure about getting Lucius together with Hermione – it won't be that hard, since that's more or less what they both want. But what about Severus, Amanda, Narcissa and Percy? (Luckily for me, the Grangers are happily married and won't need to be paired up any more. Two down, two to go.) So I've got two males and two females, which at least makes for two couples without leaving a stray character I'd have to send off to nun- or monkhood. But how to combine them? Two gay couples are out of the question, at least as far as Severus and Percy are concerned. Narcissa and Amanda might have a go at each other, merely for the novelty value, but one lesbian couple and two monks certainly don't meet BPHE standards.

Nor does leaving them paired as they currently are, because of Percy and Narcissa. So there's only one possibility left…

I honestly don't know how to pull that one off. Believe me, I'm absolutely royally pissed off at my Muse.

vvvvvvvvv

It seemed that most of the Grangers' patients had gone to secret locations where caries was a contagious disease for their Christmas holidays. They all returned around 5 January and called their dentists to make urgent appointments. Fortunately the fifth was already a Thursday, or the Granger couple might not have lived to see the most memorable event of their lifetimes.

They were just preparing to spend a nice, quiet Saturday evening in the company of their daughter and her cat. They'd opened a bottle of excellent Bordeaux, there were nibbles on the table, and each of the three humans was peacefully reading a book, sipping wine and scratching Crookshanks who was making the rounds, switching human whenever a hand showed signs of slackening.

Then, cutting right through that placid atmosphere, there was a sudden crack, and none other than Severus Snape materialized in his in-laws' living room. He gave Mr and Ms Granger a brief nod, unheeding of their open-mouthed surprise, and marched across the room towards Hermione.

'Explain,' he bellowed in his most frightening classroom mode.

It evidently didn't impress Hermione. She didn't even put away her book or look up, but merely said 'Fuck off!' before stuffing a handful of peanuts into her mouth.

'Er,' said Mr Granger.

'Maybe you-' Ms Granger began, but was interrupted by another loud crack.

Mr Granger couldn't help staring, still open-mouthedly, at the absolutely stunning creature that had appeared in his living room.

'You promised you wouldn't go after her!' the stunning creature shrieked.

'Shut up!' Severus bellowed.

'Fuck off!' said Hermione.

'Er,' said Mr Granger.

'Maybe you-' Ms Granger began, when the next crack made the glasses tremble and the peanuts bounce in their bowl. Both dentists were looking considerably less shocked at the third repetition.

Mr Granger hadn't managed to close his mouth, which was a good thing, because it spared him the trouble of opening it again at the sight of a spectacular blonde lady suddenly standing in the peanut bowl.

'You bitch!' the spectacular blonde shrieked, stepping off the table and making a beeline for Hermione.

'Who's that?' Amanda squeaked.

'Shut up!' Severus bellowed.

'Oh dear!' said Hermione.

'Er,' said Mr Granger.

'Maybe you-' Ms Granger began, experiencing the increasingly strong desire to finish her sentence just for once, but she couldn't, because the appearance, accompanied by the obligatory crack, of a devilishly handsome blonde man in his early fifties was rendering her temporarily unable to speak.

'Enough is enough,' Lucius said, narrowly avoiding tripping over Crookshanks and marching towards Hermione.

'Lucius!' Narcissa exclaimed.

'What on earth…' Amanda said faintly.

'Shut up!' Severus bellowed.

'Oh, no!' said Hermione.

'Er,' said Mr Granger.

'Maybe you-' Ms Granger began, although she was almost sure what was going to happen next.

And it did. Percy Weasley appeared on the scene with a deafening crack to which the breaking of a bottle of perfectly good Bordeaux and three expensive wine glasses formed a tinkling counterpoint.

'Sorry,' Percy said, blushing and grabbing his wand to repair the damage.

'Your Excellency,' Lucius drawled.

'You!' Narcissa shrieked.

'Is that-' Amanda squeaked.

'Shut up!' Severus bellowed.

'Oh no!' said Hermione.

'Er,' said Mr. Granger.

'Maybe you'd all like to sit down and have a glass of wine?' Ms Granger suggested and almost fainted when she realized she'd actually said it.

Her words were followed by a full minute of deafening silence. The cogwheels in six brains were turning like mad, though.

Percy thought that he'd never, ever seen anything like Amanda.

Lucius thought that he was just going to throw Hermione over his shoulder, Apparate to the manor, fuck her senseless and to hell with the consequences.

Narcissa thought that Severus was a lot better-looking than she remembered him, and that he might be excellent husband material for a woman like her.

Amanda was doing a complicated arithmetic operation that involved Percy's age, rank, possible sexual prowess and financial status, and resulted in a blinding flash of inspiration concerning marriage. She was that good at mental calculation.

Severus was thinking about the merits of a blonde goddess his age, and coming to the conclusion that this might be fun.

Hermione stared up at Lucius and wished that he'd just throw her over his shoulder, Apparate to the Manor with her, fuck her senseless and to hell with the consequences.

Mr and Ms Granger thought that they'd never again complain about a stressful day at the surgery.

Then everybody started talking at once and gravitating towards one another, as if following a strange but by no means unwelcome choreography.

'Bye, mum, dad!' Hermione called from her slightly awkward position on Lucius's shoulder, 'I'll be in tou-'

And they were gone.

'Have you ever tried lust potions?' Severus asked a blushing Narcissa. 'No? I think you may have missed a very interesting experience. May I?'

As their living room was gradually emptying, the Grangers looked expectantly at the last remaining couple. Percy's ears were almost as red as his hair when he sank to his knees at Amanda's feet. 'Marry me!' he blurted out.

'I just might,' Amanda said.

When quiet had returned again, the Grangers sat down on the couch with Crookshanks between them.

'Very romantic,' Ms Ganger said.

'Did you see those breasts?' Mr Granger asked dreamily.

His wife merely grinned when Crookshanks' claws made a substantial tear into her husband's trousers.

vvvvvvvvv

And thus, dear reader, this story ends. The Muse is smiling, so I trust I managed a BPHE.

Since four years seem to be an appropriate time span to wait before checking on various marriages, let us see what they're doing four years later.

Lucius and Hermione are expecting their second child, and Lucius is quite happy that Hermione doesn't share Narcissa's reservations concerning sex in an advanced state of pregnancy. He'd be even happier if little Claudius hadn't discovered the fun of intruding on his parents' more intimate moments.

Severus and Narcissa didn't marry but are living together in reasonable happiness. Lust potions do play a certain part, and so does a shared healthy interest in financial gain. Severus's personal assistants are old and plain, though. Narcissa takes care of that.

And Percy and Amanda… Well, suffice it to say that 'she was there' is not the reason Percy would give if anybody asked him why he married Amanda.

FINIS