THE RULES OF PUREBLOOD COURTSHIP
'Look!' Harry said, holding up the newspaper, 'There they are. Again!'
He was half-lying on Hermione's couch, clad in jeans and a t-shirt that had seen better days. Ron was occupying the other half of the couch, similarly dressed. Each of the two young men had a can of beer within easy reach, and they were currently reading their way through a pile of newspapers – a rather unusual scene. None of the two had read a book since they'd finished school, and if they read a paper at all, it was usually the sports section of the Daily Prophet. They always shared one newspaper though – why buy two if one was enough?
Hermione suspected that the newspaper and their flat wasn't the only thing they shared. Most of their common friends thought that the two were gay, but so far they hadn't said anything to anybody, and therefore their sexual persuasion was exclusively discussed behind their backs.
'Yeah,' Ron said in the tone of a man who'd just been read his death sentence, 'They're pretty much everywhere. Look, five pages in Witch Weekly!'
Hermione, who happened to be the owner of the flat, silently wondered why they'd bothered to come to her place. Probably because they didn't want to buy their own newspapers. 'Listen, boys,' she said, 'This is getting a bit old, don't you think? I have work to do, and I'm sure I could concentrate better if I didn't have to listen to your running commentary.'
'Really, Hermione,' Ron said. 'Ginny's getting married to Malfoy, and all you have to say that this is getting old? Is that what you call friendship?'
With a sigh, Hermione put down her quill. 'We've known about this since they got engaged, and that was three months ago. The whole Weasley family has thrown more than their share of fits. Don't you think it's time to just let Ginny be and get used to the thought that Draco is going to be your brother-in-law?'
'But it's Draco!' Harry wailed.
'Yes, I know it's Draco! She fell in love with him and they're going to get married! Where's the bloody problem, Harry? It's not as if he'd abducted her and held her prisoner in a tower surrounded by… by Lethifolds! Even Ms Weasley had to admit that he courted her according to pureblood etiquette. Besides,' she added venomously, 'it's not as if you were interested in her.'
Harry merely looked miffed and took a few gulps of beer.
Ron, who still seemed to think that being Hermione's ex-boyfriend gave him some kind of authority (although she really didn't know how he'd got that idea into his head), jumped to his friend's defence. 'Of course you don't care! She's not your sister! I'll have to think day and night about ferret boy's filthy paws going all over her! My baby sister, sharing a bed with that… that arrogant bastard!'
Harry nodded sagely. 'I wouldn't be surprised if she ran off after the wedding night.'
Hermione was of course aware that not only was Ginny by no means a virgin but had also been sharing beds, tables, bathtubs and other assorted pieces of furniture with her future husband. She knew it from top secret girl conversations, and to tell the truth, Ginny's constant eulogies of Draco's prowess were beginning to frazzle her nerves as much as Harry and Draco's constant whining about the impending marriage.
Instead of contradicting the two, she therefore chose to switch topic– or rather (since Ginny's marriage seemed to be the only possible topic these days) she opted for a different aspect of the same topic. 'So,' she asked brightly, 'when are you two going to go to Malfoy Manor?'
One red and one black head shot up from their sinister brooding over last week's issue of Witch Weekly. 'What do you mean when?' Harry snapped. 'We're going to the wedding, nothing else.'
'Yeah,' Ron chimed in. 'Or did you think we'd like to stay in the same house as Creepy Lucy longer than absolutely necessary? Not that he'd invite us, the bastard.'
'I think,' Hermione said judiciously, 'that inviting Ginny's friends to stay there three days before the wedding was very generous of Mr Malfoy.'
'Oooh,' Harry said in a girly falsetto, 'It's Mr Malfoy now!' Again in his normal voice, he asked pointedly, 'Since when have you stopped calling him Creepy Lucy?'
'That was a year ago,' came the sharp reply, 'When he saved my bloody life during the battle.'
'Not during,' Ron countered, obviously piqued.
'Yes, well, it was ten minutes after, does that really matter?' Now she was beginning to be really annoyed. 'While the two of you, if I recall correctly, were already starting to celebrate. You, and all the others. If he hadn't followed me, Lestrange would've got me, and you know that very well. So kindly stop calling him that stupid name!'
'I hate it when you're defending that bastard!' Ron said heatedly. 'I mean, it's not as if he's nice, or anything!'
'And how would you know, Ronald Weasley?' She stood up and marched over to the couch to stand before him, her hands on her hips. 'You'd better admit that you're still holding a grudge against him for things he did years ago, and that you just can't accept that he changed sides!'
Harry, who'd been watching the exchange with increasing uneasiness, took advantage of Ron's indignant spluttering and asked, 'So you're going to accept the invitation?'
Instead of pouring water over the flames, he'd mistakenly uncorked the oil bottle, because Hermione merely said, 'Of course!' which made Ron's face go even redder.
'You… You…' he began but was stopped by Harry, who swiftly stood and grabbed Ron's arm to pull him upright.
'Hey, mate. Now let's not make a scene-'
'I'm not… She is…'
'It's okay. Come on, Ronniekins, let's go.'
When the door had closed behind the pair, Hermione heaved a sigh of relief. She probably shouldn't have defended Malfoy, she thought. Ron always overreacted when the conversation steered anywhere near the Malfoy family. Maybe, she mused, he also had some lingering suspicion concerning the crush she'd had on Lucius since the day of the battle. She and Ron had broken up shortly afterwards, and she had to admit – though only to herself, in the dark – that her infatuation with the blond wizard had been the final straw in her decision to end the relationship.
It was unfair, and she knew it, to draw any kind of comparison between Ron and Lucius. But when he'd appeared seemingly out of nowhere, to push her out of Rodolphus Lestrange's line of fire and in the same fluid movement kill his former fellow Death Eater, he'd become her knight in shining armour – that his robes were torn and dirty and his hair filthy and tangled only added to his flair, as did the nasty gush on his left cheek and the fact that the arm holding his wand was actually broken.
She'd seen him only once since the battle, at the Ministry reception where they'd all got their orders of Merlin. Lucius had greeted her politely and asked about her studies, and after that had disappeared into the crowd.
The invitation to stay at the manor, together with a handful of Ginny's friends, before the wedding had been a godsend. Or rather a Ginnysend. Neither Draco nor Lucius had been too happy with the media's interest in the young couple's every move, and hence Lucius had insisted on a private wedding. He hadn't reckoned with Ginny, though, who threw a tantrum of epic proportions when confronted with the idea. Lucius, although he'd had every intention of remaining adamant, had finally settled for a compromise: A big wedding, but only for selected guests (including a few hand-picked journalists), and it was to be held at Malfoy Manor. The Manor was both a splendid location and a fortress, which would allow access only to those the family wanted there.
When Ginny had continued wailing about being isolated from her friends during the last preparations (she'd called herself 'motherless' and fortunately hadn't seen Draco grin), Lucius threw in an invitation to five of her closest friends, to come to the Manor three days prior to the ceremony. Only Draco knew that his father had retired to his study after the confrontation, and drawn up a document that made his son the owner of a slightly smaller but very pretty house down in Cornwall. Lucius would gladly have parted with a bigger portion of his fortune, merely to ensure that the red-haired termagant didn't live under his roof, as had originally been planned.
Ginny had chosen to invite not five but three people: Hermione, Fleur, and her mother.
Hermione wondered whether this decision had been born from tactlessness, stupidity or a malignity so diabolic it would have made Voldemort smile. The combination of host and female guests would have been worse only if Narcissa Malfoy were still mistress of the house. But she had divorced Lucius a few months before the battle, while he was still in prison, and vanished to whereabouts unknown. So Lucius was their sole host – not that Hermione expected there was going to be less tension because of that.
Molly hated Lucius, that was a given. She was maybe going to try and be nice to him, for her daughter's sake, but knowing Molly Weasley and her disastrous attempts at being nice, Hermione knew that she'd better brace herself.
Molly disliked her daughter-in-law Fleur, whom she never stopped criticizing and poking and admonishing.
Molly disliked Hermione because she had dumped her precious Ronniekins.
Hermione disliked Fleur because she was beautiful and spoke French, and was probably going to flirt outrageously with Lucius.
Fleur hated Molly but was wily enough not to let it show. But the room temperature usually dropped below zero when the two failed to avoid each other.
Fleur thought that Hermione was a boring know-it-all and a bookworm and always treated her like a child.
These were the dire speculations occupying Hermione's head while she packed her bag. Maybe accepting the invitation hadn't been one of her best ideas. But she was going to see Lucius again, and that thought overrode all her misgivings.
She'd flooed Ginny in the morning to ask whether it was all right to bring Crookshanks along, and Ginny – whose I'm-the-mistress-of-the-manor allures were beginning to get on her nerves – had told her that it wasn't a problem and no, she didn't have to ask Lucius's permission.
The guests were expected between six and seven that evening. After one last round through her flat Hermione looked at her watch for the umpteenth time, just to be sure that it was really half past six and not an hour earlier, patted her pocket to make sure her luggage, shrunk to miniature format, was really there, grabbed Crookshanks' carrier basket and activated the portkey she'd received together with the invitation.
Hermione didn't have enough money to afford a dozen sets of haute couture robes, but she possessed considerable transfiguration skills. She'd also invented a little charm of her own that protected her transfigured clothes from being restored to their original shape by a random Finite Incantatem. So she'd merely packed two sets of her everyday robes and five wizarding fashion magazines. She'd also read up on pureblood etiquette, so as not to embarrass herself in her Knight's presence.
Dinner was at eight, as the House Elf had told her (so far, Hermione had kept the promise she'd made to herself and not foisted any pieces of clothing on members of Lucius's household staff).
She was ready shortly after half past seven, and since the Elf had also informed her that You is free to go wherever you want, Master Lucius says, Ma'am, she gave Crookshanks a last scratch and set out to explore the house. Since her room was on the second floor, she was more or less sure that the family's private rooms were situated in the first, and the representation rooms in the ground floor. Hermione fervently hoped that the famed Malfoy library was considered a representation room, for she had no intention to venture anywhere near anybody's private quarters.
The library was indeed on the ground floor.
Hermione found the door open and wandered in, unable to suppress a squeal of pure joy when she turned once around herself and saw the thousands of books aligned in bookcases that went from floor to ceiling. As the room was about fifteen feet high, the impression it gave was one of bibliophile grandeur.
Still feeling as if she were trespassing, Hermione tiptoed further into the room, unsure whether there might be some kind of librarian (Elf? Human?) or if it was all right to just take a book. But there was an open book on one of the many tables, and she thought she might have a peek at it – there really was no such thing as a book Hermione wasn't interested in, and so she could simply read this one, whatever it was.
She made a beeline for the table but stopped when she saw that the chair next to it was occupied. 'Oooh,' she cooed, kneeling down on the thick carpet, 'Aren't you a beauty?' It was a Kneazle, the most beautiful specimen she'd ever seen. The fur was a very light beige with a hint of yellow, long, silky and luxurious to the touch. The eyes that opened lazily when Hermione started stroking the shiny coat were a deep orange. The Kneazle began to purr loudly and butted its head against Hermione's hand.
'Such a pretty, pretty boy,' Hermione murmured, continuing to stroke the animal. The book was forgotten. 'Somebody just brushed your lovely coat, huh? And what a cuddly fellow you are…'
'I beg to differ,' a voice said from behind her.
Hermione had to grab the armrest with her free hand, otherwise she'd have lost her balance and landed on her bum. Not the kind of first impression she wanted to make when meeting the master of the house. Unsure whether to rise or stay on her knees, she finally opted for the former. Not that she could look him in the eye when standing on her feet – he was almost a foot taller than her – but kneeling before him really would be the wrong signal to give.
'Mr Malfoy…' Hermione felt herself blush against her will. Very much against her will, because she didn't want to look like a shy maiden. Not that she had to worry about the maiden bit, since Ron had taken care of that – not a moment she remembered fondly – and she wasn't shy either. Not usually, at least. Right now she did feel a bit embarrassed, because she'd imagined her first encounter with Lucius to be a little different.
'Miss Granger.' He bowed slightly.
'Is this your Kneazle?' she asked, mentally kicking herself for her lack of originality.
'Yes. She's female, by the way.'
'Oh. Erm, sorry. Her tail is in the way, so I couldn't see her…' She felt her face going hotter and hotter. How on earth did one refer to a Kneazle's privates in polite society? She opted for leaving the sentence unfinished, and instead asked, 'What's her name?'
'Oh.' The conversation ground to a halt, mainly because Hermione was trying to think of something witty but found herself unable to come up with anything beyond 'You have a very nice library'. She had the distinct impression that he was watching her growing discomfort with sardonic amusement.
Then the dinner bell rang, to her immense relief.
'May I,' Lucius said, offering her his arm.
She took it, and they wandered out of the library and across the corridor, into the dining room where Molly, Ginny, Fleur and Draco were already waiting.
Dinner started awkwardly. There were two men and four women, which made seating them a bit of a problem, not least because there simply was no way to separate people who disliked each other by strategically placing them as far apart from each other as possible. They ended up with Lucius at the head of the table – that was a given – with Molly Weasley at his right and Hermione at his left, and Draco facing him at the other end, with Fleur to his right and Ginny to his left.
Starters were served, and Hermione was just about to open her mouth and say something about the library (it just didn't feel so trite once you weren't actually there anymore), when Fleur chirped, 'Zeez iz such a fantastic house, Lucius, but zo big! Living 'ere on your own must be quite lonely at timez.'
Three gaffes in two sentences, Hermione thought. Not bad for a beginning. Not only had Fleur alluded to the divorce Lucius had had no choice but to agree to. She had also touched the somewhat sore spot of his social isolation, which was only just beginning to become a little less marked (due to the impending wedding), and Hermione was quite sure that Fleur wasn't on a first name basis with their host.
A blond brow slowly rose, and Lucius's narrow lips curved into a smile so icy that Hermione half-expected the water in her glass to freeze. 'How very kind of you, Ms Weasley,' he said, bowing his head slightly. 'Nothing could make me happier than my ancestral home being appreciated by a true connoisseur.'
Since Fleur and her husband Bill still lived at the Burrow (a temporary solution that was now two years old and threatening to become permanent, as Bill was out of the country most of the time and just didn't see the necessity of spending money on a place of their own), this was indeed a poisoned arrow. Hermione noticed the slight stiffening of Fleur's back and mentally applauded Lucius. If the evening was to continue like this, and if she avoided making a gaffe of her own, it had the potential to be quite amusing.
She shot a furtive glance at Draco, who was visibly uncomfortable. They'd met a few weeks ago by chance, at Flourish and Blott's, and gone for a drink at the Leaky Cauldron, where Draco, obviously relieved at finally being with someone who wasn't on either Lucius's or the Weasleys' side, had confessed to her how sick he was of the constant tension between his father and his bride's family. The situations he'd depicted had sounded funny at the time, but Hermione certainly didn't envy him his delicate position.
'Well,' Molly Weasley said with blatantly false cheerfulness, 'I'm sure that Mr Malfoy will enjoy living with his little family.' Lucius's mien suggested that he'd rather live in a badly insulated tent on the North Pole, but he didn't comment. 'And just imagine,' Molly continued, unaware that her dreams of Malfoy Manor being turned into a more splendid version of the Burrow were not shared by any of her dining companions, 'Just imagine the sound of little feet running along those corridors…' She smiled raptly at Lucius. 'I'm sure you'll be happy to have grandchildren.'
'Ecstatic,' Lucius said. The knuckles of his right hand holding his wine glass were white.
'Maybe,' Draco ventured with an imploring look at his father, 'we won't stay to live here after all.'
'Not stay…' Molly frowned and shook her head. 'Well I'm sure I've never heard anything so absurd. Of course you're going to stay here! Where else would you live? This is your house-'
'Actually it's Mr Malfoy's,' Hermione said. She could have sworn she'd heard Lucius snort.
'Oh nonsense!' Molly waved a plump hand, as if Hermione's comment was a buzzing insect to be batted away. 'A family has to live under the same roof, that's obvious, isn't it?'
'If you zay zo,' Fleur said sweetly, giving her a look of intense hatred.
'Well of course,' Molly insisted. 'Such a big house, wasted on one single person living there? Honestly! Don't you agree, Mr Malfoy?'
Lucius delicately put down his wine glass and cleared his throat. 'What a refreshingly novel point of view, Ms Weasley. Thinking of my own house as being, er, wasted on me would never have occurred to me.'
'Well, there you are,' Molly said triumphantly, 'Sometimes you really can't see the wood for all the trees. As I always say, there's nothing like an independent opinion to make you realize what's what.'
'As I am sure you know from personal experience,' Lucius said smoothly.
Hermione choked on her wine. 'Sorry,' she panted when she'd finished coughing, 'I must have swallowed a fish bone.'
'A most shocking thought,' Lucius said, eyes alight with laughter, 'since I was under the impression that we were eating pâté de foie gras. I shall have a word with the kitchen staff.'
Hermione's eyes met his, and for a moment she felt something sparkle between them. 'Please, don't bother, Mr Malfoy.' She grinned at him. 'I guess it might have been a goose bone.'
'Devilish things, goose bones,' he agreed with a smile playing around his lips. 'But you must call me Lucius.'
Hermione felt her ears go a little hotter than she was comfortable with. She saw the looks ranging from incredulous (Fleur) to murderous (Molly) the other three women shot him, and almost choked on another imaginary goose bone. 'I'd be delighted,' she replied once she was sure her voice was steady enough. 'And I hope you'll call me Hermione, since Miss Granger sounds a little… impersonal. Considering that you saved my life, there really is no need for such distance.'
'Mr Malfoy zaved your life?' Fleur interrupted their private moment, leaning forward to look past Hermione at Lucius. 'I 'ad no idea!'
'Oh yes, he did,' Draco said. 'Otherwise Granger would be nothing more than a small pile of ashes with a bit of frizzy hair sticking out.'
Hermione was tempted to blow him a raspberry, but wisely opted to merely roll her eyes. She hadn't spent three Galleons on The Modern Wizard's Manual of Etiquette for nothing.
'A mere matter of being in the right place at the right time,' Lucius said. 'Anybody could have done it.'
'I'm sure,' Molly Weasley said sententiously, glaring at Hermione, 'that Ron would have done the same, wouldn't he?
Hermione smiled sweetly. 'Maybe, if he hadn't been too busy celebrating. And I doubt,' she added, 'whether he'd have had the necessary reflexes and, indeed, power to take up somebody of Rodolphus Lestrange's calibre.'
Hackles raising, Molly jumped to the defence of her precious son. 'He didn't receive his Order of Merlin, First Class, for nothing, you know?'
'An Order of Merlin, First Class, in your sock drawer doth not a powerful wizard make,' Hermione countered calmly. Molly-baiting might become her second favourite hobby, she realized. She also realized that Fleur was giving her a fond smile. It seemed they did have something in common, after all.
Molly's face flushed an unbecoming shade of purple. She was about to retort, but Ginny was quicker. She'd been feeling rather unfairly excluded from the ongoing conversation for a while and thought that her role as soon-to-be Ms Malfoy warranted a good deal more attention than she was getting at the moment. She went about it the wrong way, though, for her poisonous 'Why don't you just tell them that you dumped my brother because you had a crush on Mr Malfoy?' only made everybody look at the mortified victim of her attack.
Since the gods were turning a deaf ear to her fervent prayer for the floor to open or, failing that, spontaneous self-combustion, Hermione chose the next best way out of the most horribly embarrassing experience of her life, and fled from the table, tears of humiliation already burning in her eyes.
Hermione was still sprawled face down on her bed, her head buried under two pillows with Crookshanks sitting on top of them – the idea of suffocation was becoming more attractive in direct proportion to the number of times Hermione replayed the disastrous evening in her mind – when something that was definitely not Crookshanks touched her shoulder. Wand at the ready, in case it was one of the Weasley bitches – Hermione had already worked out her defence strategy for the Wizengamot, where she'd plead temporary insanity caused by post-traumatic stress disorder – she shot out from under her protective layers of finest down and silk, only to meet the panicked stare of a House Elf.
'Oh, sorry,' she said. 'I didn't mean to frighten you.'
The elf nodded spasmodically and pointed to a tray she had deposited on a table near the balcony door. 'Master Lucius says to brings you some dinner, Miss,' she squeaked and was gone with a pop.
That, Hermione mused, was a very nice gesture. Although the mere thought of Lucius made her stomach contract in protest, she wandered over to see what was on the tray. Her attention, though, wasn't attracted by the exquisite china and silverware, nor did the delicate wineglass and matching carafe make her heart beat faster. No, her eyes were hypnotically drawn to an envelope tucked under the cutlery. Reminding herself that she was, after all, a Gryffindor and thus supposed to thumb her nose at impending disaster, Hermione took a deep breath, pulled the envelope out from under the heavy fork and knife, and opened it. After counting to ten, she forced herself to open her eyes and read what was written on the card.
'If what Miss Weasley obviously meant to accuse you of is more than a mere fabrication of her surprisingly vivid imagination,' it read, 'maybe you might care to join me for a nightcap at eleven, in the library.' It was signed with a florid L.
Hermione gasped and looked at her watch. It was five minutes past ten. Shedding her robes on her way to the bathroom, she mentally went over her repertoire of cosmetic charms. She didn't want Lucius to see her swollen, bloodshot eyes, after all, and she had no intention of going down to the library with pillow creases still gracing her cheeks.
While the bathtub was filling with hot, rose-scented water, Hermione firmly told herself to calm down, because fifty minutes were more than enough for her to restore herself to prime condition.
At five minutes to eleven, she walked down the stairs clad in a beautiful cerulean negligee that managed to be chaste and seductive at the same time, with matching ostrich-garnished mules and her hair in carefully arranged disarray. In her nervous anticipation she'd forgotten to close the door to her room, and a few minutes after she'd disappeared, Crookshanks leisurely strolled out into the corridor, in search of adventure.
'Well,' Lucius said, rising from his armchair and crossing the room to meet her, 'This is a very pleasant surprise indeed.'
Hermione had half-expected him to sweep her up in his arms and carry her off to his bedroom, but he merely bowed over her hand and brushed it with his lips. 'What would you like to drink, Hermione?'
Trying not to shiver under his appreciative glance that travelled from the crown of her head to the tips of her toes, lingering a few seconds on her silk-covered breasts, Hermione said, 'I'm not sure. Not much of a drinker, I'm afraid. What are you having?'
'A very good brandy, if I say so myself. Not one of the bottles I'd ever dream of wasting on Molly Weasley's poorly educated palate, I'm sure.'
'Well, my palate isn't too educated either,' Hermione said reasonably. 'But I'm always willing to learn something new.'
'Are you indeed.' His eyes wandered again to her breasts and then to a table in the corner, on which bottles and various other drinking paraphernalia were arranged. 'Well, let us start with the first lesson, then. How to appreciate brandy.' He waved her to the large sofa facing the fireplace. 'Please have a seat, my dear. I shall join you presently.'
And so he did. He sat down next to her – maybe not as close as she'd have liked – and handed her a tumbler. Fascinated, Hermione watched his hand as it spread to accommodate the bottom of the glass and started swirling the brandy. She imitated his movements, secretly relieved that having to watch her own hand was providing a handy pretext for avoiding his eyes.
'So,' he said after a moment of silence. 'Miss Weasley seems to have justified her otherwise expendable existence by giving me a most useful piece of information.'
'Uh,' Hermione said. The brandy was becoming more fascinating by the second. But she'd come here for a reason, hadn't she? 'Yes, well, I'd told her in the strictest confidence, of course.'
'I thought,' Lucius said, 'that you were not much of a drinker. However' – he eyed her doubtfully – 'intoxication seems to be the only possible explanation for a clever witch like you to have trusted the discretion of a Weasley female. Their obsession with gossip is rivalled only by their tactlessness.'
'I only told her after she'd told me that she'd had sex with Draco,' Hermione defended herself. 'I'm not that stupid, you know?'
'Blackmail…' Lucius said dreamily. 'Contrary to popular opinion, it is indeed a form of art.' He threw his hair back over his shoulder with a quick motion of his head. 'But let us return to the far more interesting topic of your, ah, crush, my dear Hermione. Do tell me about it.'
'There's nothing much to tell, really. It started when you saved me from Lestrange…' She took a first sip of her brandy, pleasantly surprised that it neither burned nor made her cough. 'You ought to have seen yourself,' she said dreamily, 'Half-dead with exhaustion, and I suppose in considerable pain, but the power and the precision of that curse…' She sipped again and began to feel a bit warm. But that sensation may also have been due to Lucius's grey eyes focussed on her with an almost frightening intensity. 'It was an Unforgivable, of course,' she continued matter-of-factly, 'but you did what was necessary. Your technique really is superb.'
'You have no idea,' he purred.
Hermione felt herself blush again. She'd been fantasizing about the body hidden under those robes a little too often. 'Well, that's how it happened, really,' she concluded, careful to avoid his eyes.
'I am intrigued.' Lucius stretched out his legs and crossed them at the ankles. 'We met at the ministry reception, if I remember correctly. I do not, however, recall any signs of a blossoming, er, affection on your side. It would have been most graciously welcomed.'
'Really? Well, that's too bad. But I'd just dumped Ron the night before. So I didn't think it would be the honourable thing to do,' she admitted.
'And what,' he inquired with raised eyebrows, 'if my future daughter-in-law hadn't invited you here?'
'Well, there would have been the wedding anyway. I suppose I'd have tried to approach you during the celebration. But that's a moot point now, fortunately.'
'Indeed.' Lucius refilled his glass, made sure that hers still contained an appropriate amount of brandy and banished the bottle back on the table. 'You are of course aware that I'm being generally considered bad company?'
'That's probably part of the attraction,' she said, and laughed. 'Come on, Lucius, that bait was almost unworthy of you.'
'I wasn't baiting you. I merely meant to point out that being courted by my good self might make your life a little difficult at times.'
'Courted?' Hermione wasn't sure she'd heard correctly. 'I'd rather thought that we… you know, might have a torrid affair.'
'Ah.' Lucius gave her a crooked smile. 'You mean to lure me into your bed, have your way with me and then dump me?'
'That's a rather strange way of looking at it. Coming from you, I mean. But who said I was going to dump you?'
'So you are rather aiming at a permanent relationship?'
Used as she was to pummelling her opponents into submission, watching them club themselves over the head before she'd even got out the heavy weapons was a novel experience for Hermione. One she quite liked, actually. 'Well,' she admitted, 'I really hadn't been thinking much further than, uh, being carried off to your bedroom under the scandalized eyes of the wedding guests.'
'Not even beyond the bedroom door?' he asked lightly.
'Yes and no. I mean, I had sex a couple of times with Ron, and I even managed to fake an orgasm – to get it over with, you know,' she explained when his brows threatened to merge with his hairline. 'I'd told him, of course, that I'd hex off his balls in case he dared to be finished before me, but that kind of backfired… He told me afterwards that he'd been thinking about chasing garden gnomes to prevent premature ejaculation, and I assure you that was exactly how it felt. So,' she continued, holding out her glass for a refill, 'my fantasies did go beyond the bedroom door, but usually stopped at "It's going to be better than with Ron". It is going to be better, isn't it?'
'I think I can safely promise that,' Lucius said gravely.
'Good.' Hermione nodded in satisfaction. 'As for the courtship thing, would that come before or after we have sex?'
'Usually,' Lucius said pensively, 'the sex is supposed to be happening afterwards, beginning with the wedding night.'
'That's not how Draco and Ginny went – wait a moment, did you say wedding night?'
'I distinctly remember saying that, yes.'
'But I didn't ask you to marry me!'
'That particular question would be mine to ask, at some point during the courtship,' Lucius replied. 'In case we discover that the attraction is mutual, which somehow seems to lie within the realm of possibility.'
Hermione beamed at him. 'Really? That seduction business is a lot easier than I thought.' She took a sip from her glass and frowned. 'But… I mean, what if the wedding night turns out to be total crap? Weddings are rather stressful, I've been told, and some men don't react well to stress. Speaking for myself, I guess I'd feel rather stressed out after having to make small talk with all the guests,' she added, seeing his piqued expression. 'Wouldn't it be better somehow to try out the sex in a stress-free environment first, and then proceed to the courting?'
'Excellent point, if a trifle unorthodox.' Lucius cocked his head to look at her. 'But the idea has merit. Do you need another glass, or would you describe your stress level as acceptably low?'
'I'm a bit nervous, but that's okay. Your place or mine?'
'Mine, I think.' He rose and offered her his hand. 'Much though I like the idea of disturbing Molly Weasley's sleep, we wouldn't want your cries of ecstasy to attract her attention, now would we? Not to mention that seeing the woman in her nightwear might seriously put me off sex, and we can't have that.'
Vanilla, who'd been listening to their conversation, hadn't understood a single word, but the subtle pheromones of arousal radiating off her wizard and his mate informed her that things weren't going too badly. She stretched and yawned hugely, and slunk out of the library door in their wake, to roam the Manor. She'd caught a rather attractive scent clinging to the female human, and went to investigate its source.
'That was much better than with Ron,' Hermione said, snuggling close to Lucius.
'If you dare mention that red-headed oaf again in my bed, you might be in for some serious spanking, my dear.'
'Don't tempt me.' She giggled. 'Listen, while you're recovering, why don't you tell me what courting involves, exactly?'
'I can only assume that you are unaware of the complexity of the rules for pureblood courtship,' Lucius drawled, 'because telling you about them would certainly take me more than five minutes.'
'Excellent boasting, nine point five out of ten.' Hermione propped herself up one elbow, bent down and kissed him very thoroughly. 'But I'd really like to know what I'm in for, before allowing you to court me. Otherwise I'd just go for the sex. And I want to stay on top next time,' she added. 'It's really very unfair to rely on brute strength when dealing with someone half your weight.'
'I didn't hear you object, my dear. Unless "Yes, please, fuck me hard" is some mysterious female way of expressing the wish to stay on top. You do have very nice breasts,' he said appreciatively, before she could protest. Since he chose to express his admiration non-verbally as well, she decided to let him get away with it. 'Courtship,' Lucius murmured against her belly, 'is all about getting to know each other, in as many different situations as possible.' His tongue snaked out to tease her navel. 'That means,' he continued, moving a little lower, 'that the prospective couple spends a certain amount of time together, every few days, in private as well as in public, basically to observe each other.'
'But,' Hermione objected, obediently spreading her legs when he gave her thigh a gentle nudge, 'doesn't that – oh yes, right there, you're so much better at finding your way than' – a playful slap on her arse made her stop in mid-sentence – 'ouch, I meant to say than everybody else! Lucius, I can't talk when you're doing that!'
He raised his head to smirk at her. 'Try to think of it as an exercise in self-discipline,' he said and went back to his self-appointed task of demonstrating that faking orgasms when in bed with him was really a rather unnecessary skill.
But he let her stay on top this time, and while they were slowly moving together (although Hermione wouldn't have objected to a bit of light spanking, she didn't tell him how awkward that had been when she'd tried it with Ron) she observed, 'As I was saying before-'
'Before you became somewhat inarticulate,' he put in smoothly, moving in a way that threatened to make her lose the ability to speak yet again.
She contracted her pelvic muscles and grinned when he drew a sharp breath. 'Exactly. I was going to ask whether all that mutual observation really makes any sense. I mean, both partners would be on their best behaviour during courtship, wouldn't they?'
'And being on one's best behaviour is a problem because?' He pulled her in for a kiss, and the next minutes were spent in blissful non-verbality.
'Sorry,' Hermione said when she had regained her powers of speech, and gently brushed her finger over the scratches marring the skin of his shoulder.
Lucius was lying on his back, still out of breath. He turned his head and gave her a lazy smile. 'I regard it as a seal of approval,' he said. 'And it has the advantage of being less visible' – his index finger circled a spot on her throat – 'than love bites. Dare I presume the pleasure was genuine?'
She was so tired that all she could manage was a sleepy smile and a 'Mm-hmmm!' which she hoped sounded as enthusiastic as she was feeling. It obviously did, because Lucius chuckled and drew her closer to him while grabbing for the duvet with his free hand.
'Sleep, I think,' he murmured and put out the lights.
Down in the kitchen, Crookshanks was lying on his side in deep feline exhaustion. He'd just had a fabulous shag and then gorged himself on the remains of pâté de foie gras.
Life was good, he thought before drifting off to sleep.
The next days went by in a blur, mostly because Hermione was so impatient for them to end, so she could sneak back to Lucius's chambers. She couldn't concentrate properly when Lucius was in the same room. Her eyes would follow him, and while she watched his attempts at being civil to Molly Weasley, she was unable to stop smiling a secret little smile, because she, and she alone, knew what he looked like naked, with his hair dishevelled and pearls of sweat forming on his upper lip. Then he would turn to look at her, and the line of his mouth would relax a fraction, and her smile would broaden because she knew that he was playful as well as passionate, and that he could drive her mad with pleasure only minutes after they'd both snorted with laughter.
It was the night before the wedding, and Hermione, dressed in a rather kinky nightgown, was kneeling behind Lucius, who was sitting on the edge of the bed, and brushing out his hair. He was so relaxed that he practically purred. 'I'd ask you to marry me for this alone,' he said.
Hermione, who saw herself reflected in the mirror, realized that she was grinning like an idiot, but decided that she couldn't care less. 'What about my astonishing sexual technique?'
'That will come with time,' he shot back, ducking to avoid being hit with the hairbrush.
'If I were you,' she whispered into his ear while she continued working the brush through the mass of platinum hair, 'I'd think twice about accepting the offer of a blow job tonight.'
'Pity,' he said, 'considering that you're so very good at it.'
'Flattery will get you nowhere,' she remarked, smiling at him in the mirror.
'Not even' – he reached back to brush a finger over her belly – 'here?'
'Hmm.' She picked a few blond hairs from the brush. 'Maybe, if you ask nicely.' She crawled out of the bed to put the brush back on the dressing table.
Suddenly he was standing behind her, circling her waist with his arms. 'We don't look too bad together,' he stated, kissing her hair. 'Will you grant me the first dance, tomorrow at the wedding?'
'What exactly would that signify in courtship-speak?' she asked while watching his hands brush the straps of her nightgown aside and down over her shoulders.
'That I'm laying claim to you, my dear. Which means that any man who dares to touch you ought to be prepared to finish his days as an unemployed eunuch, since seraglios have sadly gone out of fashion.'
'You're being quite possessive, you know?' she said, leaning back into him. 'What about me? I know some very creative hexes, in case a woman should try to flirt with you. And I'm rather quick-tempered.'
'Feel free to do your worst. I almost regret that Molly Weasley probably won't flirt with me.' His hands cupped her breasts. 'By the way, didn't I hear you mention blow jobs?'
'Just one. And you'll have to make up for that nasty quip about my sexual technique.'
Down in the kitchen, Vanilla was successfully staring a House Elf into submission. She had to eat for five now, and chasing mice was really beneath her. She purred contentedly when the elf put a large bowl of fish in front of her.
Ron was having a worse time than he'd expected, and that was saying something. He'd been looking forward to badmouthing Creepy Lucy together with his brothers, Harry and Hermione, for he'd been sure that she was going to see things from his point of view after three days in Malfoy's house and, worse, his company. Besides he hadn't bothered to bring a date, because he'd counted on Hermione being his partner for the day.
But things weren't going quite as he had planned.
All his brothers had shown up with girls in tow, even Percy, that pompous twerp. Harry had asked Luna Lovegood to accompany him. They'd all been seated at different tables and seemed to have a good time. Ron would have been able to overlook their blatant breach of male solidarity, if at least Hermione had been her reliable, good old self and saved him from terminal boredom that made him ingest more alcohol than was good for him.
Hermione, however, did no such thing. She was sitting at Lucius's table, in the place usually reserved for the mistress of the house, and looking far too pretty and radiant in very smart dress robes that clung to her body in the most inappropriate places, considering that she was sitting next to that old perv. Creepy Lucy himself was looking far too smug for Ron's taste. At least the food was good. Ron absentmindedly munched on a forkful of caviar and washed it down with a glass of champagne.
There was something about Hermione he couldn't quite describe, not only because he was starting to get drunk. Back in their seventh year, when they'd had sex, he had of course noticed that she wasn't a girl anymore, but well on her way to being a grown woman. But now… He blinked and made an effort to focus his eyes on her. It wasn't a cosmetic charm, he was sure. It was rather as if a very talented painter had somehow managed to soften the contours of her face, to brush a voluptuous glow on her skin and add a certain languor to her otherwise brisk movements.
Although he was unable to identify the nature of that change, Ron didn't like it at all.
The dinner went on for more than three hours, and when the tables had been cleared to make room for coffee, brandy and the occasional glass of water, the bride and groom rose. Draco – and if Creepy Lucy was looking smug, there really was no word to describe the expression of supreme smugness on ferret-boy's face – smiled and nodded to the orchestra of Wood Elves that had appeared on a dais at the other side of the room. He guided a radiant Ginny to the empty space in the centre, and together they danced the first waltz of the evening.
The event seemed to have been choreographed to within an inch of its life, for Creepy Lucy and Ron's mother rose at exactly the same time. Ron had trouble refraining from burying his face in his hands when he saw his mum gliding over the parquet with Draco the Ferret, and – horror of horrors! – his baby sister smiling and inclining her head at some whispered comment from her father-in-law.
He was in for a worse shock, though. For among a murmur of surprise from the assembled guests that for a moment drowned out the next piece the Elves had just begun, Lucius kissed Ginny's hand and walked back to his table, only to bow to a blushing but visibly happy Hermione, who took his proffered hand, curtseyed as if she'd never done anything else, and followed him to the dance floor.
'Well,' the middle-aged witch sitting next to him said, with a benign smile Ron thought was totally out of place, 'we're looking at the next Ms Malfoy here, make no mistake. A wedding in two months' time, and another miraculously short pregnancy, mind my words.'
Ron stared, momentarily forgetting to breathe. 'Wha…' He gulped down a large sip of brandy. 'You're joking, right?'
'We haven't even met,' the witch said sharply, eyeing him with disapproval. 'It is not my habit to randomly throw jokes at total strangers. Even if,' she added in a more conciliatory tone, 'they are young and handsome.'
'Sorry, er, sorry,' Ron stammered, unsure whether to faint from shock or embarrassment. 'I'm Ron Weasley, pleased to meet you.' He carefully wiped his sweaty hand on his robes before extending it for her to shake.
She took and squeezed it with surprising strength. 'Melinda Hopscotch. What made you think I was having you on?' she asked, still ogling him with more interest than he cared for.
'Well, that's Hermione Granger, you know, she's my friend and…'
Even if she hadn't interrupted him, he wouldn't have known how to continue. 'Hermione Granger?' she cooed. 'Well, I never…' She craned her neck to have a more thorough look at the couple. 'Yes, now I recognize her of course,' she said, turning back to Ron. 'It's always the same with those young girls. Plain as unbuttered toast while they're still virgins – deflower them, and they'll blossom like roses.'
The feeble impulse to protest that he'd been the one who deflowered Hermione was overridden by the dreadful realization that Malfoy… Another miraculously short pregnancy… Ron's jaw went slack.
'Really Ron, this isn't a good time!' Hermione hissed. She didn't want to make a scene, but being dragged away from a very enjoyable dance by her ex-boyfriend, who was grabbing her arm so hard that she was sure there'd be bruises the next day was a bit much. 'Let go of me!' she said sharply, batting at his hand.
They were standing at the door of one of the smaller salons. Ron opened it and pushed her into the room. 'Are you mad?' he shouted.
'No, Ron, I'm not mad. But you are obviously drunk. And there's lipstick on your cheek. Listen, I don't care if you want to get plastered, but I'd be much obliged if you left me out of it.'
'You're already talking like him!' Ron said accusingly.
'I'm not talking like anybody. So kindly stop insulting me and get back to wherever you came from.'
Ron had known her for almost ten years and was familiar with her somewhat dangerous fits of temper. But he ploughed on regardless – a trait he'd obviously inherited from his mother. 'You slept with him, didn't you?'
Hermione's hand twitched towards her wand. 'Care to elaborate?' she said, her voice deadly.
'You slept with that blonde pervert, you… you scarlet woman!'
A few seconds and a blinding flash of yellow light later, there was only one person in the room, but the number of chairs had increased by one carrot-coloured armchair that somehow managed to look mutinous. 'Oh dear,' Hermione said, hovering somewhere between tears and laughter. 'This one's going to be a bitch to reverse…'
She was standing next to the Ron-chair, tying to concentrate, when Lucius entered the room. 'Well,' he drawled, 'you seem to have got rid of Mr Weasley on your own. Pity, really, I'd have loved to hex his balls off.'
Hermione silently pointed to the chair.
'Ah.' A malicious spark lit Lucius's eye when he drew his wand to spell the door shut. 'It might interest you to learn' – a complex movement of his wand made sure that nobody would enter the room – 'that some transfiguration scholars claim that living creatures, while transformed into inanimate objects, retain their full cognitive powers.' He sat on the Ron-chair and motioned for her to approach him. 'And if this isn't the perfect opportunity to test the theory…' he muttered, when she sat astride him, giggling.
Hermione was sitting on the loo, unsuccessfully attempting to hypnotize a small plastic stick. 'Go away!' she muttered, glaring at the two blue stripes that seemed to grin at her trough the oval window right in the middle of the stick. 'You're not really there, so go away!'
But it was the third pregnancy test she'd made, and they'd all shown the same result. Hermione Granger, who'd always prided herself on being cleverer than her peers, and certainly clever enough to avoid an unplanned pregnancy, was pregnant. Five weeks into courtship, and she was pregnant.
She rose from the loo with a sigh and went to the living room. Crookshanks was looking at her expectantly from his favourite spot on the couch. 'There's nothing for it Crooks,' she said, 'I'll have to tell him. Not that it isn't his fault too, but…' She shrugged. 'On the other hand,' she continued, brightening a little, 'we might have the engagement a little earlier, and the wedding in June instead of August… It's a good thing he already asked me, you know. Otherwise he may have thought I mean to trap him, which would be absolute nonsense, but you never know with men.' She scratched him behind the ears. 'Present company excepted, of course. I guess I'll make myself a cup of tea.'
Hermione had just put on the kettle, when she heard a loud crack from the living room. Wand drawn, she tiptoed round the corner. Lucius was standing there, holding Vanilla in his arms and fixing Crookshanks with a deadly glare. 'Vile rapist!' he hissed.
Crookshanks deigned to briefly look up and then dedicated himself to thoroughly cleaning his paw.
'Lucius?' Hermione slipped her wand back into her sleeve and walked into the room. 'Anything the matter?'
'That… mongrel' – Lucius pointed an accusing finger at Crookshanks – 'that vile beast has impregnated her!'
Hermione looked at Vanilla, who was contentedly purring in her wizard's arms, and saw that her belly was, indeed, quite round. No moment like the present, she thought. She'd have to tell him anyway. 'Considering that I just found out I'm pregnant,' she said lightly, 'that's what I'd call a perfect piece of cross-insemination. Tea?'
He really did look cute when he was lost for words, she thought. Not something she expected to manage very often. But she was going to try really hard.