SURPRISING RESULTS OF A VERY SECRET CONVERSATION

The Leaky Cauldron really wasn't the ideal venue for secret conversations, Hermione thought. Besides, having a Very Secret Conversation with Ginny Malfoy was the last thing she needed. They'd never been close friends – if Ginny hadn't been Ron's sister, they probably wouldn't have talked to each other at all during school. Later, they'd been forced to share a room at the Order headquarters, but that hadn't brought them much closer. Their paths had taken very different directions after the war was over: Hermione had thrown herself into her studies, in order to become the British wizarding world's foremost specialist for magical creatures (she'd acquired a Muggle university degree in veterinary medicine as well), and Ginny had set out on the hunt for a husband.

Both had been successful in their pursuits. Seven years after the war and at age twenty-six, Hermione was a renowned expert, the doorstep of whose surgery was crowded with patients and their owners, and young wizards and witches fought to become her apprentices.

Ginny had become Ms Malfoy eighteen months ago.

They did of course see each other sporadically, mostly when the Weasley matriarch called on her clan to assemble at the Burrow to celebrate the arrival of yet another grandchild. Although her relationship with Ron had been a brief one, and her affair with Charlie even briefer, Hermione was always invited to those family gatherings.

They'd met once or twice in Diagon Alley by chance, when Ginny was out shopping at the same time as Hermione had been called to the Owl Emporium to look after an ailing bird or toad. But they never met privately, and Hermione was wondering why she'd agreed to see Ginny in the first place. Probably because Ginny had sounded rather urgent, and Hermione knew herself well enough to be aware that the call of someone in need of her help would never remain unanswered.

Ginny was late, of course. She probably thought it was fashionable, whereas Hermione merely felt that it was rude and a waste of her precious time. She arrived when Hermione was well into her second glass of white wine.

'Sorry I'm late,' she said breezily, giving Hermione's cheek a perfunctory peck. 'But thanks for coming.' She got herself a glass of wine as well, and slid into the seat opposite Hermione's.

'Well, what's up?' Hermione asked, 'You sounded rather desperate when you called me this morning. Anything wrong?'

Ginny nodded gravely. 'You could say that.'

'Draco?' Hermione ventured.

'Oh, no! No, we're perfectly happy.'

'I'm glad to hear it,' Hermione said dryly. 'So what's the matter?'

Ginny didn't answer immediately, probably to increase the dramatic effect, Hermione thought. 'Lucius,' she finally said.

If Hermione was supposed to fall off her chair in surprise, she certainly wasn't going to oblige. She merely raised an eyebrow. 'What about Lucius?'

'I think,' Ginny said, leaning forward to be closer to Hermione's ear, 'that he's lusting after me.'

Hermione's snort of laughter was obviously not what she'd expected, because she leaned back with a frown on her pretty face. 'What's so funny about that?'

'Come on, Ginny. Honestly. After five years of refusing your advances, why should he suddenly be interested in you?'

Ginny's pursuit of Lucius Malfoy had provided ample food for many a conversation during the years following the war, but had started a few months prior to that, when Lucius Malfoy had contacted the Order asking their help for himself, his son and Severus Snape. Since he'd attached the charred but recognizable remains of a Horcrux to his letter, the vote to succour him had been positive if not unanimous. In spite of their useful contributions, the three Slytherins had remained the pariahs of Grimmauld Place, whom everybody tended to avoid, except for Lupin, Ginny and Hermione.

Hermione and Lupin behaved more friendly towards them because they had both, if in different ways, gone through their very own experiences of being excluded. Ginny's motives were a bit different: After getting over Harry, which had taken her less time than was generally expected, she found out that she really fancied Draco. Then, however, she'd had had a good look at Lucius, decided that he would easily live another hundred years, and that waiting that long for the really big money wasn't quite her cup of tea. So she'd set her cap at him.

Lucius had still been married at the time, but unable to be with his wife for obvious reasons. Ginny, who had come to be very pretty indeed, did a quick head count of pretty available females at Order headquarters, came up with two, namely herself and Hermione, and immediately discarded the latter as unavailable because Ron was still following her like a forlorn puppy. That, Ginny thought, would prevent Hermione from showing any interest in Lucius, because she wasn't the kind of girl who'd hurt her ex-boyfriend, especially not in times as dangerous as these, when you didn't know if you were going to return home from grocery shopping in one piece.

She had slightly miscalculated on that one, because Hermione still spent inordinate amounts of time talking, discussing and very often arguing with both Snape and Malfoy senior. When Ron complained, she succinctly told him to shut up. But, as far as Ginny was aware, there had never been a hint of anything like attraction between Hermione and the elder Malfoy.

What Ginny found aggravating, though, was that there never was so much of a hint coming from Lucius that he might be attracted to her in the slightest. He always treated her with politeness and a smooth sarcasm that she claimed to find very endearing. When news arrived about Narcissa having filed a divorce on the grounds of having been abandoned, Ginny thought that her time had come. But all he did was retire to his room and get drunk, and when he emerged the next morning, he was his usual aloof self.

Five years later, Ginny had finally given up on Lucius and begun to pursue Draco who'd proved much easier prey – probably also because she was genuinely fond of him.

Given that back story, Hermione was rather incredulous when Ginny came up with her tale of Lucius lusting after her.

'I didn't say he was interested in me,' Ginny said, obviously annoyed at the rather anodyne reaction to her bombshell. 'I said he was lusting after me, which is quite different.'

'Yes, that's true. But…' Hermione searched for a less offensive way of expressing Are You Sure You Aren't Imagining Things. 'What exactly makes you think that he's, uh, lusting after you?'

Ginny raised her chin in exactly the same manner as her mother did when she was about to launch into a lengthy harangue. 'First, he hasn't had a girlfriend in years.'

'He told you that?'

'Of course he didn't. The House Elves did.'

'Oh.' Hermione took a sip of wine to wash down the taste of uneasiness. 'Friends in low places. I see. Anything else?'

'Well, he stares at me.'

Praying for patience, Hermione asked, 'When exactly does he stare at you? I thought you lived in different wings of the Manor, having very little contact with each other?'

'He stares,' Ginny replied, voice vibrating with indignation, 'whenever there's an occasion to stare. Look, do you believe me or what?'

'I certainly believe that that's what you feel,' Hermione answered, hoping that this was a sufficiently diplomatic way of putting it. 'But why are you telling me? Did you talk to Draco about this?'

'To Draco?' Ginny shook her red curls. 'He'd go and kill his father. Of course I didn't tell Draco.'

Knowing Draco, Hermione wasn't so sure that he'd go and kill Lucius, merely because of Ginny's somewhat vague allegations. But that wasn't the point, now was it? 'But why are you telling me? I really don't see how I might help you.'

'Being a bit more supportive might have helped,' Ginny quipped, 'but of course I didn't tell you merely to see you nod and say Poor Ginny. I'd like…' She took a sip of wine and gave Hermione a calculating look. 'I'd like you to come and see for yourself.'

'And then what? Look, Ginny, even supposing that Lucius would stare at you while I'm there – which I don't think he'd do – what on earth do you want me to do if he does? Slap him? Tell him to stop staring at you? Tell him to get a girlfriend to stare at? Really, what kind of idea is this?'

But Ginny wasn't so easily deterred. 'Of course he would stare if you were there. He does it when Draco is around, so there!'

'And Draco doesn't notice?'

'No, of course he doesn't. We only see what we want to see, and Draco certainly doesn't want to see his own father ogling me.'

'All right, so he would stare. And what am I supposed to do then?'

'Talk to him. Find out why he does it. Make him stop.'

Hermione put down her glass and raised her hand. 'Stop right there. No, really, Ginny, that's just… I'm neither his mother nor his friend. Why would he listen to me?'

And why was she still sitting there, listening to Ginny? Hermione had to admit that she was intrigued, if only a little.

'You may not be his friend,' Ginny said, sounding a little too triumphant for Hermione's comfort, 'But you healed his favourite Polo Hippogriff, and you neutered that disgusting Kneazle he's so fond of.'

'Vanilla is a lovely Kneazle,' Hermione said heatedly, 'and she's not disgusting in the least!'

'She doesn't like me, the nasty furball. So she is disgusting. But that's neither here nor there. The point is, Lucius respects and trusts you. And I don't know many people of whom I'd say the same. Snape maybe, but if I told him Lucius is ogling me, he'd just laugh and tell me to piss off.'

Hermione fervently wished she'd done the same. 'There's no plausible reason for me to go to Malfoy Manor,' she said, a bit alarmed because she felt she was clinging to straws now.

'I might put something in Vanilla's food?'

'If you dare do such a thing,' Hermione hissed, bending forward, 'I'll hex off your hair. Permanently.'

'Don't be so touchy, it was just an idea. But there's a much better opportunity. Draco and Lucius are going to organize a private Polo match in July, that means fourteen Hippogriffs will be shipped to the Manor and stay there for at least two weeks – I don't need to tell you how long it takes them to calm down sufficiently to play. We'll need a vet there, the whole time. So why don't you take a holiday and come to stay for, say, three weeks? That'll give you more than enough time to watch Lucius's behaviour.'

Hermione's eyes became a bit unfocussed. Much as she loathed Quidditch, she adored Hippogriff Polo. It was played more or less like Quidditch, with the players riding Hippogriffs instead of broomsticks. It was dangerous, elegant, and also extremely costly. A good Polo Hippogriff would fetch up to ten thousand Galleons. Perseus, Lucius's favourite whom Hermione had treated about a year ago, had been bred at the Malfoy stables and, if Lucius ever thought of selling him, would change owners for no less than twenty thousand. Not that Lucius would ever part with the animal – she'd seen enough of his genuine distress when Perseus was sick, to know that it represented far more to him than its value in money.

'Well…' Hermione made a show of thinking about the suggestion, but had to admit to herself that Ginny had already won. 'In July, you said? A holiday does seem like a good idea…'

'Yes it does, doesn't it?' Ginny nodded energetically. 'And you'd be doing us a real service – Vidoroff would of course love to come, but-'

'Vidoroff?' Hermione glared. 'That… that lousy quack? That charlatan who doesn't know a Centaur's backside from a unicorn's head? If Lucius allows that…that disgusting old fart to even come near Perseus, I-'

'It's okay, Hermione,' Ginny interrupted her, 'Nobody would even dream of inviting Vidoroff if you're free. So, do we have a deal?'

Hermione sighed. 'Yes, I think we do. And between you and me: I really could use a holiday. Even if that means I have to tell Lucius off for ogling you.'

oooooo

Hermione had given in to her baser instincts and let herself be persuaded to stay at the Manor for the whole month of July. The match had been scheduled for the 22nd, which meant that the Hippogriffs would be arriving around the 10th. There was a lot of organizational work to be done before, though, from overseeing preparations in the stables to ensuring a steady food supply for the animals, to choosing a few extra stable boys. From a couple of floo conversations with Draco, Hermione had got a feeling of increasing uneasiness – how two grown men, who successfully ran a multinational enterprise worth billions of Galleons, could be so obtuse when it came to organizing housing for fourteen Hippogriffs was beyond her. Probably, she thought, because there was nobody there for them to delegate the dirty work to.

So she roped in Hagrid and Professors Kettleburn and Grubbly-Plank, to be left in charge of the surgery together with her two best apprentices, and portkeyed off to Malfoy Manor in the evening of 30 June.

It had been a hot day, and so she was grateful for the chill of the entrance hall, where the House Elf who'd opened the door for her had asked her to wait a few moments. Nothing had changed since she'd been there to treat Perseus, not that she'd expected it to. This wasn't an ordinary house where you changed the interior décor whenever you felt like it. The Manor had grown with the centuries, almost like a living being, and to make changes would have been the equivalent of scrubbing the patina off an antique leather sofa.

Lucius came down the stairs, still buttoning up his waistcoat. 'Sorry to have kept you waiting,' he said, bending over her hand. 'But I just finished training. Punctuality had to be sacrificed in favour of a shower.'

Hermione shook her head and smiled. 'No problem. It's so nice to be somewhere cool, I'd have waited longer, willingly.' He really must have come out of the shower only seconds ago, she thought, because he was still radiating body heat accompanied by the scent of freshly applied cologne. His hair wasn't completely dry, either. 'You're not overexerting him, are you?' she asked sternly.

'I wouldn't dream of it. Believe me, I learned my lesson very thoroughly last year. No, Perseus is in prime shape. Would you like to see him?'

'Of course!' Hermione unshrunk her luggage and handed it to the elf with a few instructions, then followed Lucius through the corridor that divided the house in two halves, to the back door and out into the park.

'The new stables are almost finished,' he said while they were walking along the gravel path leading into the wood. 'Tonight you mustn't think about work, but I would be very grateful if you had a look at them tomorrow. Oh, and I think' – he stopped for a moment – 'I think I haven't yet thanked you properly for coming. I can imagine how hard it is for you to leave the surgery for four weeks, so I am doubly grateful.'

'Ginny was right. I needed a holiday.' They started walking again. 'And since it's also an extremely well-paid holiday, I'll be able to combine the useful with the pleasant.'

They had passed from the park into the adjacent wood, and Hermione could already smell the stables. After two hundred metres' walk under the trees, they finally came out to a clearing.

'Wow,' Hermione said, looking at the stables only part of which were familiar to her. 'This looks good. You really don't do things by half, do you?'

'I like to flatter myself that I don't. Not when it comes to Hippogriff Polo.' He gestured to the eastern part of the building. 'I left Perseus in his old quarters, though. Moving him might be too stressful for him.'

Hermione snorted. 'The old drama queen. But you're absolutely right. Do you think I might get something to drink?'

Mortified, Lucius slapped his forehead. 'Where are my manners? Really, Hermione, I must apologize for dragging you out here without so much as offering you a drink.'

'It was because of Perseus, so you're forgiven.' She patted his shoulder. 'Okay, let's go say hello to him.'

The stables were light and airy, with high ceilings, and big enough for a herd of elephants. Each hippogriff had his own private quarters, which was necessary because of their rather solitary nature and the males' tendency to sometimes lethal fighting. When they entered Perseus' domain, he stopped tearing at a large chunk of meat and trotted over to his visitors. Hermione bowed to him and stumbled back against Lucius when the animal affectionately butted his head against her shoulder.

'He's become even more of a beauty,' she said, gently stroking the feathers of his head and patting the muscular flank.

Lucius smiled with pride. 'Yes, he is truly unique. Not only because he's pure white – I've also never met a more intelligent Hippogriff. Yes, you!' he said to Perseus in a tone of voice few would have believed him capable of.

Hermione knew it already, from hours spent out there in the stables, watching Perseus get worse and worse until he miraculously recovered his strength and finally improved. She was convinced that the steady flow of words from his master, uttered in the same tone of voice, had played an important part in that recovery, more vital perhaps than her own healing skills.

When they emerged from the stables, a low table loaded with drinks and nibbles and two deckchairs were waiting for them in the shade of a large oak. They sat down and spent a few minutes in silence, sipping their drinks and enjoying the cool breeze that had started to rustle the leaves as the sun was moving towards the horizon.

'This is one of my favourite places,' Lucius said into the quiet.

'I can imagine. Has the library lost some of its attraction?'

'Not really, no. But I found that reading my books here, in the vicinity of the stables, is even more relaxing.'

'And more… well, alive, I suppose,' Hermione said pensively.

'Yes, exactly.' He turned his head to smile at her. 'Since there don't seem to be any grandchildren on the way…'

'Would you like to have grandchildren?'

'Well, that decision is obviously not mine to make. But yes, I suppose it would be a welcome change.'

'Do you think it's Draco or Ginny?'

'Ginevra, without a doubt. Not that I don't understand her. One look at her mother, and the thought of having children doesn't seem very attractive, does it?'

Hermione chuckled. 'Probably not. But why not have your own children?'

'Since parthenogenesis still remains a mystery to me, that doesn't seem very likely.'

'A daughter sprung from your head? Sounds intriguing.'

'I was thinking more along the lines of snails, not the Olympian approach. Imagine the headache…'

'Yes, poor Jupiter. To think that Aspirin hadn't yet been invented… But seriously, if it's not too personal a question. Have you never thought of just remarrying and having a couple of your own Malfoy cubs?'

'Marriage…' Lucius said, looking into the distance. 'No, at least not to anybody I knew. Although I do miss the companionship, to tell you the truth. Not what I had with Narcissa, but what I see when I'm watching my son and his wife.'

So much for lusting after you, you silly chit, Hermione thought grimly. 'Do you envy them?'

'Yes, I do. From time to time. Not that I would ever have thought of Ginevra as…' He chuckled. 'Well you know the story.'

'Better than I'd care to. But I imagined that… you know, with the kind of social life you're leading, I thought that you probably meet lots of women.'

'I do meet lots of women. But usually they are somebody's wives, which doesn't exactly make them eligible, or somebody's unmarried daughters whom their covetous mothers are trying to foist upon me.'

'A truly dire fate,' Hermione observed, her voice already quivering with laughter.

'It's not funny. They're all after my money.'

'Well, you have to give them credit for not being only after your looks.'

'What a comforting thought. You really made my day.' Lucius poured himself another glass of lemonade. 'Besides, you shouldn't lecture me. You're the only unmarried witch under fifty I know.'

'I don't think of myself as the marrying kind, really.'

'Interesting. How would you define the marrying kind, by the way?'

'Given the wizarding society's rather narrow views on that particular matter,' Hermione said, 'I would define the marrying kind as the type of woman who is willing to put her husband's wishes and the ideal of having children beyond her own career. And that's not what I want.'

'Not all wizards are like that. But have you never thought of marrying a Muggle?'

'I almost did, yes. Once. But' – she gave him a crooked smile – 'it turned out that he was a chauvinist pig, only without the justification a wizard might have for being what I'd call a chauvinist. Nasty story, really. It happened while I was still studying.'

The ensuing silence was interrupted by a House Elf popping into view, to announce that Dinner Is Ready, Master Lucius.

Lucius sighed, got up from his deckchair and offered his hand to Hermione. 'I'm afraid I spoiled the mood,' he said lightly when they started walking back to the Manor. 'I do apologize. I'm not usually that indiscreet.'

'That's okay. I really don't mind talking about it. I'm over it now.'

'But…' Lucius paused, evidently unsure whether to continue. 'Being over it sometimes makes me feel old,' he finally said. 'Jaded, you know.'

'Oh yes, I know the feeling. You've had your share of hurt and grief and all that, and you've come through it, somehow, but you don't really feel like repeating the experience.'

'Exactly,' he said, giving her a sideways glance.

oooooo

The first opportunity for a private talk with Ginny presented itself the next morning at breakfast. Draco had an early portkey to Paris, and Lucius needed to go to an equally early appointment at Gringott's. They had a cup of coffee with the two women, but then excused themselves and hurried off.

Ginny and Hermione lingered at the breakfast table, talking about this and that, until Hermione finally broached the subject of Lucius. 'I talked to him yesterday. And I really think you're wrong about him, Ginny.'

'Really?' Ginny frowned. 'And what makes you think so?'

'Well, it was a very private conversation, so I can't give you any details, but-'

'A very private conversation?' Ginny echoed. 'That sounds a bit strange – I mean, it's not as if you were close friends or anything.'

'I don't know…' Suddenly and unaccountably, Hermione felt annoyed. 'What's so strange about it?'

'The simple fact that Lucius is having a private conversation with somebody he doesn't know all that well, that's all. He isn't that kind of person.'

Hermione's coffee cup met the saucer with a sharp clink. 'He isn't the kind of person who would have a private conversation with me, but he is the kind of person who'd stare at you with lust-crazed eyes? Lucius, the sex-obsessed hermit?'

Ginny snorted. 'No, that's not…' She couldn't resist anymore and burst into a fit of giggles. 'Really, Hermione… It's okay, if you say I was wrong, I'll admit that I was wrong. Oh Merlin!' she exclaimed after glancing at the clock, 'Is that the time? Sorry, Hermione, I have to run!'

Hermione remained at the table for a while longer, drinking another cup of coffee and thinking about the other day's talk with Lucius. In a way, Ginny was right. Lucius was a very private person – not as private maybe as his friend Severus, but certainly very aware of where his personal sphere began – and she had been more than a little surprised at his frankness. Then again, she mused, it had been one of those moments, out there under the trees, after the visit at Perseus' stable… They had talked a lot while they were both fighting for the Hippogriff's life. And it had probably been that memory to make him more talkative than usual.

It was almost eleven when Hermione decided that she had to go and have a look at the stables.

oooooo

In order to hire some additional staff for the stables, Hermione had put an ad in the Daily Prophet. Potential candidates were invited to present themselves at the back entrance of the Manor on 5 July at ten in the morning.

Since Ginny had announced that she was to spend the day at her favourite beauty spa, and Draco was expected back from Paris only that evening, Lucius and Hermione had breakfast à deux. Or rather à trois, because Vanilla had accompanied her lord and master to the breakfast salon and was now resting majestically on the chair next to him, waiting for the occasional treat.

'You are spoiling her,' Hermione remarked smiling.

'I know, I know.' Lucius fed the Kneazle another bit of boiled egg. 'But she likes it.'

'Well, yes. Who doesn't like being spoiled? I did the same with Crookshanks…'

'That was the half-Kneazle you used to have back at Grimmauld Place, wasn't it?'

'You remember him?' Hermione beamed.

'I remember lots of orange hair on my trousers, yes. And Molly Weasley almost having a hysterical fit when he'd eaten half her meat loaf. Not that anybody would have been angry with him, except her of course. That meat loaf was truly disgusting.'

'Not one of Molly's finer moments,' Hermione admitted. 'Maybe I should have told her that Crooks vomited it all over the floor afterwards.'

Lucius snorted. 'I can't say I blame him. Did you leave him at home? You could have brought him along, you know.'

'He passed away shortly after I'd finished my studies. It was all very peaceful, really, he just fell asleep one day and didn't wake up anymore. Not that that kept me from crying my eyes out, of course.'

Vanilla purred loudly as Lucius scratched her head. 'Aren't the stable boys due today?' he asked.

'Yes, at ten. I'm going to interview them.'

'You?' Lucius's brows shot up. 'Why don't you leave such menial tasks to my staff?'

'Firstly because you're paying me to do those menial tasks-'

'I'm paying you to look after the Hippogriffs, not for slave work!'

'And secondly,' she continued unperturbed, 'because I would never let any Tom, Dick or Harry anywhere your guests' animals, not to mention Perseus. I hate to mention it, but you aren't exactly the wizarding world's darling. And we wouldn't want anything to happen to those precious hippogriffs, would we?'

'The lingering effects of wartime paranoia,' he murmured, but he was smiling.

'Probably,' she conceded, smiling at him in return. 'But it's for a good cause.'

'Oh, absolutely. I just don't understand – if they have any such intentions, they surely wouldn't tell you, would they?'

Hermione pulled a small vial from her pocket, held it up between her thumb and index finger and grinned.

'Verita-… Hermione, are you crazy?'

'Just in case Legilimency doesn't work,' she said lightly.

'I had no idea you were a Legilimens.'

'You are.'

Lucius stared. 'You seriously want me to interview stable boys?'

'Of course,' she said cheerfully. 'It's going to be fun. I always have a great time interviewing applicants for apprentice positions.'

'I don't quite see' – Lucius cleared his throat – 'I don't quite see where the fun might be in that.'

'No?' Vanilla had strolled over to her and now jumped on Hermione's lap. Her face partly obscured by the Kneazle's back, she said, 'You just have to look at it from a different point of view, Lucius. You're not interviewing stable boys, you're interrogating a possible enemy.'

The silence that followed made her look from Vanilla to her master. Lucius's face was white, his mouth had become a thin line. 'Oh, shit! Lucius, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to…' She put Vanilla on the floor, rose and went over to him, to put a hand on his shoulder. 'I really didn't mean to evoke unpleasant memories, Lucius. I am truly sorry.'

'They made me spill my innermost secrets,' he said tonelessly. 'Everything. Occlumency doesn't help, you know. If they ask the right questions, you have to tell them everything.'

'I know… I didn't mean to… I really wouldn't…' Her shoulders sagged. 'I'm sorry. I merely meant to protect you, nothing more. I didn't intend to hurt anybody.'

He looked up at her and briefly squeezed the hand that was still resting on his shoulder. 'I know. And I truly appreciate it. But… You know, don't you, that the unauthorized use of Veritaserum is a criminal offence.'

'Is that what the world has come to?' Hermione made a sound that could have been a laugh or a sob. 'Lucius Malfoy is lecturing me on morals, and he's right.'

'Serves you right,' he replied, a hint of humour returning to his eyes. 'May I remind you of those endless discussions at Grimmauld place, and of your merciless deconstruction of my beliefs?'

'I may have been a little… forceful back then. I was still very young.'

'You don't seem to have changed that much, if you're prepared to go to those lengths to protect… Perseus and his peers. Now let us have another cup of coffee and then interview those fellows.' Hermione nodded and went back to her chair. 'Perhaps,' Lucius said, 'we might simply make use of my fearsome presence to frighten them a little?'

'Good cop – bad cop?' Hermione said, eyes lighting up. 'That sounds good. You'll see it's fun.'

'I am starting to believe it might be.'

'Oh, and…' She fumbled in her pocket for the vial and gave it to him. 'I suppose you'd love to destroy it yourself.'

He gave her a crooked smile. 'Poetic justice, hm? I shall keep it, to give it to my grandchildren – I imagine they will have fun with it. How lucky that it has an indefinite shelf life,' he added.

oooooo

'All right,' Hermione said to the five subdued young men standing in rank opposite her. 'You've seen the stables, you've seen the Hippogriffs, and you've been allotted your tasks. Any questions? Yes, Mr, uh, Pebbleton?'

'I, uh, I wanted to know…' He stared at the scuffed toes of his boots. 'What are our working hours?'

'There's a list right behind the entrance of the old stables – you are going to work according to a rota, in four-hour shifts.'

'What?' exclaimed a gangly boy with thin blond hair, 'Nights as well?'

'Of course.'

'My girlfriend won't like that a bit!' The other boys chuckled.

'My first concern is about the Hippogriffs, not your love life,' Hermione said sharply. 'And whoever isn't prepared to stay here twenty-four-seven is free to leave. May I remind you that the pay is equal to that of a senior ministry official – I think it's worth giving up three weeks of your private lives. But the decision is yours, of course. Well? Anybody want to leave?'

The gangly blond muttered something indistinguishable, but Hermione, whose sense of hearing was very well developed, clearly understood the words Death Eater. She was standing in front of him before he'd even closed his mouth, wand at the ready. 'Would you care to repeat that?' she hissed.

He swallowed, his protruding Adam's apple jumping. 'I said…' He cleared his throat, and continued more loudly, 'I said that the filthy Death Eater can't buy us, no matter how stinking rich he is.'

His eyes widened when Hermione's wand dug into his throat. 'You disgusting-' She took a deep breath. 'How old are you?'

'Sixteen,' he croaked.

'At Hogwarts?' He nodded. 'Well, I'll make sure to have a word with Headmistress McGonagall, young man. And in the meantime, you'd do well to remember that the man you just called a filthy Death Eater fought on our side against Voldemort.' She gave him a violent push that made him stumble against the boy that had spoken first. Slipping her wand back into her sleeve, she said coolly, 'I don't want to see you here anymore. Out! The rest of you, off to work!'

Still breathing heavily, she looked at them as they slouched off to the stables. When a hand came to rest lightly on her shoulder, she jumped and turned, her wand again in her hand. Lucius backed away a few steps and raised both hands. 'It's only me,' he said. 'No need to hex me.'

Hermione put her wand back and brushed an errant strand of hair back from her forehead. 'Wartime paranoia, just as you said. One never gets rid of it.'

Lucius remained where he was standing and gave her a pensive look. 'I have to admit that your somewhat belligerent protective streak is worrying me more than that.'

A trembling finger pointing in the direction the unlucky youth had gone, she blurted, 'He called you a… a-'

'I heard what he called me, Hermione. He doesn't even know what it means, I suppose. Something he heard at home, probably.'

'And that makes it better? People shouldn't say such things, it's simply not right!'

'I didn't say it was right, and I didn't say I liked it. But I can't very well hex him, or his parents for that matter. Unfortunately my position is still too precarious to allow for this kind of satisfaction, much as I may crave it.'

'You only have to say the word,' she said, already half-laughing, 'and I'll go after him and hex him for you.'

'Just as you said yesterday morning: Is that what the world has come to? A young woman offers to hex people for me?'

'If your male pride can cope with it…'

'I'm sure it could. But I'll save that offer for a worthier opponent.' He shrugged out of his robes and stood before her in his Polo apparel – robes or anything fluttery would be much too dangerous when riding a Hippogriff, as they might easily tangle in the wings and pull off the rider and, in especially nasty cases, make the animal plummet to the ground as well.

Hermione felt her face become rather hot. Those clothes were so tight fitting, they revealed everything (which was, probably, one of the main attractions for witches to watch the sport). He really was in top shape, she had to admit. Not much fat, if any, good legs and a very nice arse. 'I… I'll leave you to your training then,' she stammered.

'I had thought that you might like to fly a few rounds on Perseus.'

'Fly? Holy stars, no! I can't fly – not on a broomstick and certainly not on a Hippogriff.' Her recollections of flying Buckbeak were still a little too vivid for her liking.

He laughed. 'I didn't mean for you to fly him, just come along for a little ride.'

'I don't think that's a very good idea…'

'Oh, I think it is. Are you scared of heights?'

'No, not as such, it's just that…' She raised her hands in desperation. 'I'm just afraid, that's all.'

'Of what, exactly? It can't be Perseus, because you know him so well, and it isn't the height – so what are you afraid of?'

'Offallingoff.'

'I beg your pardon?'

'Of. Falling. Off. Bloody hell, Lucius, falling is my worst fear, all right, now you know it!' She was so angry all of a sudden that she stamped her foot. It was a very childish thing to do, and she knew it, but having one's innermost fears dragged out in the open wasn't exactly pleasant.

Suddenly he was standing very close to her. 'You think I'd let you fall?'

Hermione had to crane her head to look up and into his eyes. 'No. No, I'm sure you wouldn't , but-'

'But what? Don't you trust me?'

'Oh nonsense. Of course I trust you. And' – she stepped back and poked his chest – 'don't you dare turn this into a proof of my trust in you! That's not what it is about, and you know it!'

'Pity,' he said, 'I thought that would work. So I'll try something different: You claim to be a Gryffindor and aren't willing to face your fears? A fine Gryffindor you are!'

Hermione burst into a fit of giggles. 'All right, all right. I'll do it.'

'That worked?' Lucius's eyebrows shot up.

'No, it didn't, you silly man. But you were looking so disappointed, I just couldn't bear that. Come on, let's get it over with before I change my mind.'

The boyish grin that lit his face made him look years younger. 'Excellent! Take off your robes!'

'What?'

'You can't fly in these, too risky. Or is there nothing underneath?'

'I don't usually walk around naked under my robes, Lucius. There is such a thing as sudden gusts of wind.'

'The Aeolus charms we used to cast at Hogwarts,' Lucius said dreamily, 'merely to lift the girls' robes… Well then, take them off!'

'I'm wearing Muggle jeans underneath. And a t-shirt. It's not very, uh, stylish.'

'And these are stylish?' he countered, pointing at his own outfit.

Maybe not stylish, she thought, but they do show off your body in such a delightful way. 'I rest my case,' she said aloud, already taking off her robes. She didn't miss the appreciative glance he gave her. And she certainly didn't mind.

As they walked towards Perseus' stable, Lucius cast a spell to plait his hair. 'Wearing it open would be a hazard,' he said by way of an explanation.

'I supposed so. But that plait suits you. Gives you a rather wicked eighteenth-century look. Quite dashing.'

'Draco calls it girly, which is an epithet I really don't appreciate.'

She snorted. 'I can imagine. But rest assured, you don't look girly in the least.'

Perseus was called and obediently trotted out of his stable and towards them.

'God, he's beautiful,' Hermione said. 'You can appreciate that fully only when he's out here in the open.'

'Yes, isn't he. All right, you go first.'

'Are you sure he won't take off without you?' Lucius merely raised an eyebrow. 'Okay, okay, it was a stupid question,' she huffed. 'Forget that I asked.'

Perseus was of slimmer build than Buckbeak had been, and she had grown a few inches since her third year, so Hermione found sitting on his back more comfortable than she'd expected. Then Lucius mounted behind her, and she couldn't quite suppress a small shudder when she felt him so near. She hoped he hadn't noticed.

'All ready to go?' he asked into her ear.

'As ready as I'll ever be.' Hermione was glad that she'd answered before his arm grabbed her firmly around the waist, for she was sure the words would have come out rather squeaky. How long hadn't she had sex? Three years in August, she realized. There hadn't been anybody since Christopher, her Muggle boyfriend with whom she'd had a rather unfortunate relationship. And Ginny had told her that Lucius hadn't had a girlfriend in years… What an explosion of pent-up sexual desire that would be, if the two of them… She banished the thought, which was made easier by Perseus starting to run and then taking off.

The wind was making breathing difficult, and she felt it tugging at her top. It was very cool in spite of the summer heat. But Lucius's body warmed her from behind – had she not been so tense, she would have leaned into him and relaxed.

'How are you feeling?' He really had a lovely voice, she thought, it trickled like honey.

'Not as bad as I expected. It's really rather nice. But please don't make him do any loops or Wonky Faints or anything.'

She felt his laughter vibrate against her back. 'Of course not. I don't want you to be frightened, I want you to enjoy it!'

They were up in the air for maybe twenty minutes before a gentle squeeze of Lucius's thighs and a pat on Perseus' right flank told the Hippogriff to approach the ground in wide circles. It had been truly marvellous, Hermione thought, but the reason why she was almost reluctant to get off his back wasn't so much the end of her flying experience than the loss of physical contact with Lucius. She was standing in the sunlight, but her back felt strangely cold without his body leaning into hers.

He remained sitting on Perseus and smiled down at her.

'Thank you,' she said, 'that was wonderful. Maybe…' She was unsure whether to continue but then thought, what the hell. 'Maybe we could do that again?'

'I would be delighted,' he said, and she thought that there was a glint in his eyes that spoke of more than just the shared pleasure of riding Perseus.

Then he took off again and vanished behind the trees.

oooooo

The hippogriffs started to arrive the next day, and during the following week Hermione seldom had time to stay in the house for longer than an hour. She didn't get much sleep either One of the animals had a bad cold, another was so nervous that he threatened to demolish his stable with his frenzied kicks, there were bouts of dysentery and colitis, the suppliers had sent a few hundred pounds of half-rotted meat, and last but not least there was the staff to supervise.

When the four of them had dinner together in the evening of 15th July, Hermione wasn't even able to come up with a nasty retort when Draco said, 'Granger, not only do you smell of Hippogriff dung, you also look twice your age.'

'I'm just' – she yawned hugely – 'Sorry. I'm just tired, that's all. Nothing a good night's sleep won't cure.'

Ginny eyed her critically. 'That's probably true, but if you continue like this, you're never going to get that sleep.'

Swallowing a bite of steak, Hermione countered, as heatedly as she was capable of, 'I have a responsibility here. I can't just have a lie-in, while those idiots give the Hippogriffs the wrong medicine or food.'

'But this was supposed to be a holiday,' Ginny said. 'Lucius, do something! Tell her she can't go on like this!'

'Hagrid will be here tomorrow,' Lucius remarked while delicately spearing a potato.

'Excellent!' Draco beamed. 'Good thinking, father.'

'So glad you approve,' Lucius murmured.

Hermione slowly looked from one to the other 'What is this? A conspiracy? Look, I'm perfectly capable-'

'Ginevra is right,' Lucius interrupted her. 'You're working yourself to death here, and I won't allow it.'

'As if I cared!'

'I' paying you, therefore you are my employee for the time being, and if I tell you to take a day off, you will kindly do so. Hagrid is more than capable of standing in for you. I wouldn't leave him in charge for a longer period of time, but one day is absolutely acceptable.'

'Have you taken leave of your senses?' Hermione's cutlery landed on her plate with a loud clang. Her tiredness had disappeared and made room for red-hot fury. Draco and Ginny silently got up and left, but she was so focused on Lucius that she didn't notice. 'Who the hell do you think you are, you stuck-up, arrogant aristocrat? Do you think I'm yours to command because you're paying me? I have a responsibility here, and I'll live up to it the way I choose, not you, nor anybody else! Do you understand me?'

Lucius had continued eating and was now eyeing her with wary calm. 'Yes, I believe I do understand you, Hermione. Nevertheless, I insist that you rest for a day.'

Her fist hit the table. 'I refuse to be treated in this way!'

'I wasn't aware that I was treating you in any special way.'

'You are using your power! Or at least the power you think you have over me because you're paying me!'

'I admit that was a trifle out of line. I apologize. But my decision still stands.'

'Your decision? Your decision? I am the one who decides how I do my job!'

'Then you are on your way towards doing a very bad job indeed.'

She stared at him and swallowed. 'You are saying I'm doing a bad job?'

'No. I said that you were about to do a bad job. Note the difference, please.'

She could feel the tears welling up now. 'You want to hurt me, don't you? And you know me well enough to be sure where to aim. This is beneath you, Lucius.'

'I don't…' Lucius didn't lose his supernatural calm very often, but when he did, he did so very thoroughly. 'I don't mean to hurt you, you silly woman!'

'Don't you call me-'

'I merely meant to tell you,' he continued, grabbing her wrist, 'I merely meant to tell you, and you will bloody well hear me out, that if you continue overworking yourself like this, you'll be half-dead on the day of the match. No, I am talking now,' he bellowed when she opened her mouth to protest, 'and you'll kindly let me finish. What if one of the Hippogriffs is badly hurt that day, and you're not up to healing it? What if a collision happens and you're too slow to cushion a fall? Is that what you call living up to your responsibility?' He took a deep breath and balled his fist, so that the knuckles turned white. 'All right. I said what I had to say. Take it or leave it, it's your decision.' He flung his napkin on the table, rose and stormed out of the room.

Hermione gaped after him open-mouthed. She had never seen him like this. Nobody had dared to speak to her like this since she was a child.

And worse, she had to admit he had a point.

oooooo

He was still sitting at the breakfast table when she came down the next morning. There was no trace of Draco or Ginny.

Hermione bade him a cool good morning, went to the sideboard to select some food, and sat down. The coffee pot was standing near his plate. And it was very bad manners indeed to use Accio at the table.

'Erm, could you pass the coffee please,' she said, choosing talking to him over misbehaving.

He handed the pot to her and continued to stroke Vanilla, who was resting on his lap.

She buttered a piece of toast, and the scratching sound of the knife scraping over the bread seemed as loud as thunder in the tense silence.

Lucius took a sip of coffee and returned to caressing the Kneazle.

'Look, this is stupid!' she said, resolutely putting down her knife.

He slowly raised his head. 'I beg your pardon?'

'I said this is stupid, and you heard me very well.'

'It is rather awkward,' he said stiffly.

'I'm glad you agree. So, what are we going to do about it? We had a nasty row last night, and I'm sure I said some things I didn't mean…'

'Would stuck-up, arrogant aristocrat be one of those?' he asked sweetly.

'Yes, that too. But you have to admit that your way of suggesting a day off was… well…'

'Unbearably supercilious?'

'I couldn't have phrased it any better. But I admit that you were essentially right. I could use a day off.'

Lucius's mouth twitched. 'Really?'

'Yes, really. I'm not irreplaceable – assuming that I am is one of my weak points.'

'Oh, you certainly are unique,' he said lightly, 'but that doesn't mean you should work yourself to death.'

'That's a much nicer way of saying it. Has Hagrid arrived?'

'Oh yes. He's in seventh heaven.'

'As was to be expected.' She discreetly hid a yawn behind her hand. 'Tell you what: I'm going back to sleep.'

'That seems like an excellent idea. What about another ride on Perseus – maybe a little longer this time – and tea somewhere in the park when you wake up?'

It was an offer of peace, if ever she had seen one. Lucius being Lucius, an outright apology was probably out of the question. She decided to bury the axe. 'That sounds lovely,' she said. 'I'll send a House Elf when I'm ready.'

oooooo

They'd been up in the air for more than an hour, and both were flushed and out of breath when they dismounted. Lucius winced and rubbed his thighs when he walked the first few steps.

'Anything wrong?' Hermione asked, switching into doctor-mode.

'No, no. It's just… My muscles are a little sore – I'm not used to holding more than my own weight in balance.'

'A massage surely would-' She stopped in mid-sentence, biting her lip. 'Erm, maybe not such a good idea after all.'

He grinned at her. 'You are most welcome. But let's have some tea first.'

They walked further into the woods and soon found the blankets and picnic basket a House Elf had deposited there for them. Lucius drew his wand and unshrunk the contents. 'I hope you're hungry.'

Hermione doubtfully eyed the heaps of food spread out before them. 'Hungry, yes, but certainly not that hungry.'

'We'll do our best then,' he said. 'And we can skip dinner if necessary.'

They spread out the blankets and lay down on either side of the basket.

'You were a lot more relaxed today, during the ride,' Lucius said after they'd calmed the worst bites of hunger.

'It seems that my fear has abated a bit. Probably due to your presence.'

'That's a very nice thing to say. I'm glad you enjoyed it.'

A silence settled on them that wasn't awkward but, Hermione realized, filled with tension, though not of the bad kind.

'How is Hagrid doing?' she asked when she could bear it no longer.

'Oh, fine, as was to be expected. Besides, I think the critical period is over. They have calmed down.'

'A week is usually enough. When are the guests going to arrive?'

'In two or three days, they're going to trickle in one by one. You and Ginevra' – he fished another sandwich out of the depths of the basket – 'are going to like this. You'll probably be the only women in exclusively male company.'

'Really? How come?'

'Hippogiff Polo is an exclusively male sport, as you may have realized. This kind of pastime is the ideal pretext for leaving the wives at home and enjoy a bit of male bonding.'

'You mean drinking and telling dirty jokes,' she said dryly. 'I can already see the walls dripping with testosterone.'

'Yes, mostly. An additional reason for me to be grateful for your presence. I daresay my guests will be slightly better behaved if there are women around.'

'Aren't you going to retire to some separate salon for that bit of male bonding?'

'We would, if I encouraged it. As things are, I prefer to keep the female element integrated, so as to maintain a certain level of civility.'

'I know a few pretty dirty jokes,' Hermione said pensively, 'and so does Ginny.'

'I would thank you not to make that information public. The last thing I want to do is hex my guests because they can't keep their hands off you or my daughter-in-law.'

'I'm sure Draco would like to hex them if they dared touch Ginny.'

Lucius was doing an autopsy of his half-eaten sandwich. 'I knew it,' he said after sniffing the contents. 'I don't know how many times I told them to use Dijon mustard, and they always put in this indefinable British stuff. But I have to agree, yes, Draco would probably prefer to hex them himself.'

'Which means that the girls would have to do the job, since the men's position is still too precarious.'

'Erm, yes, it seems they would indeed.' Lucius sat up and groaned. 'I think,' he said, smiling apologetically at Hermione, 'I'd really like to take you up on your offer of a massage. I do have a muscle relaxing potion back at the Manor, but I doubt whether I'll be able to get there.'

'You're as much of a drama queen as Perseus. Besides, why don't you Apparate?'

'No Apparating on Malfoy grounds,' he said. 'My father took a leaf out of the Founders' book, you know. Usually I am quite happy with the situation, but obviously there are exceptions.'

'Obviously. Well' – she scrambled to her feet – 'it seems that I'll have to ease your pain.' She walked over to him. 'And now you're being treated by a Muggleborn horse doctor.'

'As for being Muggleborn, you know that my views have changed, not least because of you,' he replied, a little irritated, 'And as for being a horse doctor… well, I think a massage can't do any lasting harm.'

'The massage can't, but this could.' Hermione dug a vial out of the back pocket of her jeans. 'It's a non-specific relaxant, I often have to use it on nervous patients. How much do you weigh?'

Lucius gaped at her, evidently lost for words. 'Twelve stones, more or less,' he finally said.

'All right, so two drops ought to do the job. Open your mouth!'

'But…' He shook his head. 'I must be dreaming, and this one is not going to appear on my list of favourite dreams. Are you saying you're giving me animal medicine?'

'It's a potion brewed by Severus, if that's any comfort to you.'

'Severus also brews excellent poisons, so the answer is no.'

Hermione sat down next to him on the blanket. 'And if I told you that I've already taken it? Only one drop of course, or I couldn't have put the stopper back on.'

'You have?'

'Yes, I have, once or twice, when I was sore after having to remain in the same position for too long, once with a foaling unicorn and once… never mind. It really does help.' He didn't look much less doubtful, but slowly moved towards her. 'Oh, and you ought to keep your tea ready – you need something to wash that stuff down, it really tastes awful.'

'Are you sure that this isn't some sort of dare?'

'I am. Now take it, and I promise I'll give you that massage afterwards.'

They were very close when she carefully let two drops fall into his mouth. So close that he could lean his head against her shoulder when he'd obediently swallowed the potion and washed it down with a cup of tea. 'Merlin, that was… indescribably awful,' he panted, forehead resting against her. 'I don't think that there's any word in any human language to even come close to that awfulness. And you took it more than once?'

'Three times, all in all. And yes, I know what you mean.' She patted his back and chuckled. 'Now let me see your eyes.'

His head came up and he looked straight into her eyes. 'Anything of interest?'

'I merely wanted to check if your pupils were significantly dilated. But they aren't, so everything is okay. How do you feel?'

Lucius smiled a slightly dopey smile. 'Good. Relaxed.' He fell onto his back in slow motion and rolled over to lie on his belly, stretching like a cat. 'Marvellous, actually. Can I have that massage now?'

'Hmm. Well, since I promised… All right then. Where does it hurt?' A rather limp hand indicated the back and inside of his thighs. Well, she thought, it could have been worse. It could have been his arse.

'And…' He sighed deeply. 'My back and my, er-'

'Arse,' she said.

'Er, yes. But I wouldn't expect you to…'

'I'm a doctor, Lucius. I've already touched more embarrassing things. Put that' – she rolled up one of the blankets – 'under your chest and support your head with both forearms.'

He obeyed and lay sprawled before her, his shirt already partially untucked from his trousers. The plait he had spelled his hair into for flying was almost undone. Trying to tell herself that seeing him like this, in boneless, defenceless relaxation, wasn't endearing at all, Hermione hunted through the picnic basket for the small bottle of olive oil she'd seen there before. Finally she found it buried under a heap of napkins and poured a small quantity into her palm, rubbing her hands to warm the liquid. She ought to have pulled up his shirt before, she realized. Now she had to stain it with oil, because her Samaritan inclinations didn't go as far as lifting the material up with her teeth. And it would be too similar to ripping his clothes off, and she certainly didn't want to go there right now. The expanse of naked skin she was currently eyeing was quite enough for her to cope with, thank you very much.

'Here?' she asked, pressing gently into the muscles at his waist. His answering yes was more of a moan. 'Very well. Brace yourself. The last animal I had to massage was a baby behemoth.'

He snorted into the blanket, and she saw his shoulders shake. 'Have mercy!'

'Oh, I will, I will. I'm not going to actually walk over you.'

His skin was very white, hairless und unblemished. The pressure of her fingers, although not overly hard, left red marks. And she had to admit, he had a very nice back with beautifully defined muscles. Now she dimly recalled that he had played Beater for the Hogwarts team, and she knew he played the same position at Hippogriff Polo. Well, she thought, that certainly accounted for all those nice, lean muscles.

'Okay,' she said after maybe twenty minutes, 'turn round.'

Lucius cleared his throat. 'I think… I'd rather not.'

It took her a second to take the hint. Grateful that he couldn't see her face going red, she said, 'Maybe there are some ice cubes left…'

He propped himself up on both elbows, careful to lift his body off the ground only to the waist, and looked at her. 'You're not going to leave me a shred of dignity, are you?'

'I can't see what's so undignified about having an erection. It's a natural reaction, and it happens at the most awkward times.'

Letting his head fall into his hands, he groaned. 'You never stop being a doctor, do you? Whether it's a Hippogriff in heat or a human being, it's all the same to you. All patients, all in need of help.'

'That's not true!' Hermione replied indignantly. 'But I don't think that running off shrieking would improve the situation. You don't want me to feel sexually harassed, do you?'

'No,' he admitted, face still buried in his hands, 'That's not what I wanted.'

'Well, what else do you want? Yelping maiden is obviously as unwelcome as matter-of-fact doctor.'

'What about just… woman? Without any maidenly or professional attributes?'

Now Hermione was at a loss for words. 'I'm not…' She took a deep breath. 'I'm not quite sure what you mean.'

'That's a no then.'

'No, it's not! It's just that… well, if you mean to say what I think you mean to say the answer would probably be yes, but…'

'If I mean what you think I mean. You're not going to make this easy for me, Hermione, are you?'

'I have no intentions to make this – whatever this is – difficult for you. But you do remember, don't you, our talk on my first day here? About being jaded?'

'I remember that all too well.'

'So one of us has to jump in the cold water and see if he can swim.'

'The fact that you said "he" and not "he or she" makes it sufficiently clear whom of us you want to jump,' Lucius said, sounding rather resigned.

She snorted. 'We can play Stone, Paper, Scissors, if you think that's fairer. Although I think that you'd probably cheat.'

'Enough is enough,' he said, his voice muffled by his hands and the blanket. 'I'm just going to do it, never mind that you're going to slap me.' He grabbed her – she hadn't thought he'd move so fast under the influence of the potion – and pulled her down to him, then flipped them both over so that she was on her back, her legs pinned down by his thigh.

'Wicked eighteenth century,' she murmured, looking up and into his eyes. 'That was very much in style.'

He chuckled and bent over her until their lips nearly touched. 'So, are you going to slap me?'

'Not yet, I think.' Hermione sneaked her free arm around his back. 'You do smell divine, you know?'

'The problem is that, after taking that potion, I probably don't taste divine,' he said dryly. She rubbed her hip against his erection, and he groaned. 'Don't… just don't. I have no intention of rushing into this.'

'Well, there's rushing and there's rushing. I certainly won't have sex out here with you – imagine if one of the stable boys decided to have a pee in the woods. But I wouldn't object to a bit of light exercise after dinner.'

Now his lips brushed hers, very gently. 'Really? Whence the change of mind?'

'Would you mind kissing me properly? This is driving me mad!' She raised her head to fully meet his lips with hers, but he retreated. 'Lucius!'

'I think I'd like you to answer my question first.'

'What – oh. Of course. But there was no change of mind. What made you think so?'

'From calling me a stuck-up arrogant aristocrat to having no objection against a bit of, uh, light exercise, I mean.'

'I was furious yesterday, and now I'm not. That's not a change of mind.'

'So you don't think I'm a-'

'Not really. No. You can be dreadfully uppity at times, and you are of course quite arrogant, but I think you know that you'd better not try it on me. Will you kiss me now?'

'Your wish is my command,' he said and bowed his head over hers.

000000

This, Hermione thought while soaking in the bathtub, was the best part of starting a relationship, whether of love or just sex, whether permanent or short-lived. This delightful tension of the very first days, when heat simmered between a man and a woman, when fantasies hadn't yet been replaced by reality, when you mentally prepared yourself for the first sexual encounter. Not that first-time sex was usually the greatest, rather the contrary. It was mostly awkward, because it was all about one's own expectations, and the other's expectations, and having to find out whether the two matched.

Speaking strictly for herself, she mused, she didn't have that many expectations. She'd had sex with three men so far, all of them very different. Ron – well that had really been first-time sex, with both of them awkward virgins who hadn't yet fully grown into their own bodies. Oral sex had been a taboo because Hermione had been sure she'd have to retch, and Ron had been slightly put off by all that wetness and curly hair. Not that they'd told each other that, but such things had a way of getting round and then back to the person they really concerned, especially in closed communities such as Hogwarts or, worse, Grimmauld place.

Charlie had been… She smiled dreamily. That had been the first really good sex for her. Charlie was very much a child of nature with a pretty much laissez-faire attitude towards sex. No rules, no do's and don'ts, no strings attached. As long as two consenting adults were doing what both of them wanted, it was okay.

And then Christopher. That memory still hurt, because if she had felt teenage love for Ron and basically friendship for Charlie, with Christopher it had been love. He'd been kind and sweet and understanding, very clever, very intellectual – a man with whom she 'd been able to talk till the small hours of the morning, who'd shared her love of books and learning. So very sweet and dear, till the day she'd dared to lay her finger on a weak point in his thesis. She'd merely meant to help and been dumbfounded at his reaction. Her cleverness, her bossiness, her intellect, her love for her friends, and more had been thrown into her face pell-mell, with such incredible venom and rancour… She'd tried to save the relationship, but her heart hadn't been in it anymore. It had taken her a long time to regroup after they'd split up, because he'd made her severely doubt herself and everything she was.

And now Lucius.

She sighed and cast another warming charm over the water.

He was very, very attractive. He was also charming and witty. Rich didn't really interest her, as she was rather well off by now, but it was of course a bonus. He certainly didn't like to show himself in a disadvantageous light, but he hadn't hesitated to let her look at him in weaker moments. On the other hand, he also was a very dominant personality, bordering on autocratic. And she knew exactly that it was this mix of strength and weakness that was most dangerous to her. Seen from that point of view, their plans for after-dinner activities probably weren't a very good idea. She might fall in love with him, and she could already feel the pain she'd have to go through – again! – if things didn't work out.

But there simply was no way to plan those things, was there?

So she'd have to go for it, no matter what the outcome. For now it was just sex, and she'd just enjoy it as such. As far as first-time sex was enjoyable.

She giggled to herself and let herself slowly sink underwater, so as to wash her hair.

OOOOOO

'So,' Ginny asked when they had sat down to dinner, 'How was your day off?'

'It really did me a world of good.' Hermione gave her a sunny smile. 'I slept through the whole morning – after breakfast of course, otherwise it wouldn't have been a proper holiday – then Lucius took me for a ride on Perseus, and then we had tea in the park.'

'Oh, that sounds lovely.' To call the look Ginny gave her speculative would have been an understatement. 'And… it seems that the two of you made up?' This last question was directed at her father-in-law.

'That would be overstating the matter, my dear,' Lucius said smoothly. 'Hermione apologized, of course-'

'Lucius!'

'And I,' he continued, lips twitching, 'admitted that I'd maybe talked out of line, not that most people would have perceived it as such, but some are more sensitive than the rest of us…' He shot Hermione a sideways glance, daring her to give in to the impulse to hit him that was clearly showing on her face.

Draco was holding a napkin to his very red face.

Ginny's eyes were dancing with laughter.

Hermione took a deep breath. 'All right,' she said, 'I'm not going to deign that very unsubtle bait of any response whatsoever.' She took a sip of wine, was overcome by laughter and snorted into her glass.

'That was a perfectly good Bordeaux,' Lucius reprimanded her and cast a cleaning spell. 'I would even go as far as calling it excellent.'

Hermione was so busy laughing that she didn't notice the Very Meaningful Look passing between Draco and Ginny. 'I've got wine in my hair,' she said, still giggling.

'You've got wine all over you,' Lucius corrected, glancing at her in a way that clearly indicated that he would have preferred licking it off to using a cleaning spell.

'Yes, well. Such things happen to the best of us,' she said, merely to say something so the tension crackling between them would finally break.

When order had been restored, Hermione turned to Draco. 'And you? What have you been up to today?'

'Oh, this and that,' Draco said with a grin that clearly spoke of pleasures of the flesh. 'In case you should be looking for Vanilla, father, she has obviously made up her mind that she'd rather stay with us than you.'

But hadn't Ginny said to her that Vanilla didn't like her, Hermione thought. Well, maybe that had been one of Ginny's typical exaggerations, much like the accusations against Lucius, whose lustful stares had turned out to be nothing but an expression of envy at her and Draco's very obvious happiness. But the thought was impatiently tugging at her mind. 'I was under the impression that Vanilla didn't like you,' she said to Ginny.

Ginny frowned. 'Who said that? I? That must've been a misunderstanding. I said I didn't like her that much, because I hate it when she sheds all over me.'

Hermione still wasn't convinced, but decided to give the matter a rest. It really wasn't important after all. Her, or rather their, plans for the evening were of decidedly greater interest. She'd been so absorbed in her thoughts that she gave a slight squeak when Lucius's leg touched hers under the table. She turned it into an 'Oh!' and asked, 'Did anybody go to the stables today? To, er, see how Hagrid is doing?'

To her immense relief, the discussion immediately turned to the impending match, to the important question which rooms to give to which guests, and to the even more important topic of what to wear for the occasion.

And then Draco and Ginny excused themselves – the evening was lovely and they meant to take an extended walk through the park and woods – and Hermione was alone with Lucius.

'Coffee?' he asked, smiling at her, and she nodded. 'And perhaps you would like to move' – he indicated the library – 'somewhere more comfortable, where one may actually relax?'

'The… library. Yes, that would be nice.'

They got up and he tucked her arm into his. 'You didn't honestly think that I'd drag you off to bed right after dinner?'

'The thought had crossed my mind,' she said dryly, letting him steer her through the high double doors and towards a very welcoming-looking sofa.

She fell into the cushions and took off her shoes. 'These are killing me, no matter how many charms I tried to make them more snug.' She looked up at him, for he was still standing. 'Deplorable lack of manners, I know. But I tend to get rather grumpy when my feet are hurting. Do sit down, will you?'

He did as she'd told him. 'How are you feeling?' he asked.

A house elf came in with a coffee tray and was waved out impatiently by its master.

'Why do you ask?' she said.

'Because I want to know, obviously.'

'Er, yes. Obviously. Well, to tell you the truth, my head is feeling rather hot, whereas my hands and feet are cold, which is probably a symptom of my being nervous.'

'Good,' he said, nodding and taking a sip of coffee.

'I beg your pardon?'

'Good. I don't want to be the only one who feels nervous. Not in a bad way, but still nervous. You probably know what I mean.'

'Oh, I do.' She refilled her cup. 'How long has it been for you?'

'Too long, obviously, since I'm feeling like I had to pass my N.E.W.T.s all over again.'

'There won't be grades, though.'

'No Outstanding?' he said mockingly, 'No Exceeds Expectations?'

'Unfortunately not. But no Troll either, which ought to be a comforting thought, provided you're in a sufficiently humble state of mind.'

'Which is, as you well know, my usual state of mind.'

'Of course.'

The silence was there again, thicker this time and so heavy with unspoken desire that Hermione felt her breath hitch in her throat. Their eyes met, and slowly, slowly they leaned towards each other until they were at arm's reach. Still in slow motion, his hand moved to her shoulder while hers came to rest on his waist. And then the tension condensed into a kiss that left them both panting and struggling with the desire to tear off each other's clothes. Lucius pulled her roughly against him and with a crack they were gone.

It was only hours later that Hermione could finally express her admiration for their precise landing right in the centre of his bed.

oooooo

Before they had fallen asleep they had of course – like the two reasonable adults they were – agreed that Hermione was going to return to her chambers in the very early morning. But plans like that made in a state of mind like that were intrinsically prone to failure.

Hermione woke up at first light as she always did and slipped off to the bathroom for a pee and a few discreetly applied charms. When she emerged again, Lucius was awake and looking like the Kneazle that got the cream. 'Oh good,' he said in a voice so husky that it made Hermione shiver, 'you're still here.' He lifted the covers for her to slip under, and she joined him, very much against her better judgment. 'Would you excuse me for a moment?'

She nodded and immediately fell into a light doze, from which she was woken by a very insistent hand. 'You're not too tired, are you?' he purred into her ear.

'I'm so tired I could sleep a hundred years, but you make it seem like such a waste of time…' She turned to face him and rubbed her breasts against his chest. 'Tell me I don't have to leave this bed anytime soon.' Her fingers combed his hair, and they were soon immerged into a very thorough kiss.

'I'm sure,' he said a little breathlessly, 'that Hagrid would just love to stay for another day.' He nudged her thighs apart with his knee.

'But who's going to tell him to?'

'We will. Later.'

That 'later' held infinite promise, and he kept it.

oooooo

Only very rarely in her life had Hermione felt so awkward.

She'd made it to her rooms unseen, and she'd taken a shower (albeit very unwillingly, because she'd have preferred to keep his scent on her skin). She'd dressed and tried to persuade herself that every layer she put on helped her to separate herself from the memories of last night, only for a little while, and make her face unreadable to the others.

Lucius and Draco were already sitting at the breakfast table, discussing obscure financial operations. She greeted them in a way she thought was neither too cheerful nor too serious and busied herself at the sideboard. But when she returned to the table, her eyes met Lucius's, and that was the end of the illusion that she may be able to keep a cool façade. Their eyes locked with what she thought had to be an audible click, and her mind immediately erupted into a sequel of images of Lucius over her and under her, close-ups of his hands, his mouth, his eyelids fluttering shut in pleasure. She stood rooted to the spot, her heart hammering erratically against her ribcage.

That was, unfortunately, the moment Ginny chose to enter the room.

Hermione pretended to attend to her plate, in order to save the scrambled egg from sliding off, and hoped that this attempt at avoiding Ginny's eyes had been successful. Ginny's intuition for determining exactly which people had had sex and when was as amazing as it was terrifying for the targets of that unerring instinct. She had caused a medium sized scandal back at Grimmauld Place when she casually pointed out that Tonks had obviously just saved Harry from going to battle as a virgin. Hermione prayed to every deity from Norse to Voodoo that Ginny may have something else on her mind, just this once.

Both men excused themselves about half an hour later, and it turned out that Ginny had merely succumbed to a fit of discretion (or rather, Hermione thought, she probably was aware Lucius's rather fearsome temper), but that her powers of observation were as intact as ever.

'Tell me all about it,' she said, when the door had barely closed behind Draco and Lucius.

It was useless to play the ingénue, so Hermione merely said, 'No.'

Ginny made a moue that Draco would probably have found adorable. 'That's not a very nice thing to say.'

'I don't want to be nice, I want my privacy.'

'Hermione.' Ginny shook her head. 'You're sitting here, so totally shagged out – looking like that and telling me that you want your privacy is like running around stark naked before a group of men, shouting that you don't want to have sex.'

'Which would be my god-given right,' Hermione said vehemently, her inner feminist awakening and stripping off her bra, ready to burn it.

'Of course it is, only you'd have a hard time explaining that to the men in question.'

'But you aren't a man, you're a woman, and thus expected to show a modicum of solidarity!'

'Exactly.' Ginny grinned. 'Now we can swap stories about the Malfoy males. If that isn't solidarity…' She drained her coffee cup and refilled it. 'So, how is he in bed?'

'Ginny, really…' The problem was, though, that Hermione felt overcome with a desire to share her happiness. Her protest sounded accordingly feeble.

'Really what? Really good or really bad?'

'You're showing a remarkable interest in your father-in-law's sexual prowess, considering that you were complaining about his lust-crazed eyes only a month ago!'

'Oh, that!' Ginny said, laughing. 'One of my better ideas, really.'

Resisting the desire to pinch herself in order to establish whether she was maybe dreaming, Hermione merely stared at her.

'Don't look at me like that! I had to get you here somehow, didn't I?'

'Wait a moment!' Hermione's stomach had turned into a cold, heavy lump. 'Lucius told you to-'

'Lucius? No, of course not. The stupid man was going on and on about you, Hermione the brilliant veterinarian, Hermione has done this, the Prophet wrote that about Hermione, remember how ill Perseus was – and that one came up after every training… It was beginning to get on both our nerves.' Hermione, who suspected that she was looking anything but brilliant right now, merely nodded. 'So Draco came up with the idea of Lucius being after me, and I had the inspiration of talking Lucius into the Polo match. We were sure it would work, et voilà!'

'But how… I mean, what if I hadn't… You couldn't be sure I'd fall for him!'

'Not sure, no. But you got on really well, back at Grimmauld Place – I mean there was all that fighting and bickering, and still he didn't hex you. So we thought that it was worth a try. Which it obviously was.'

'Obviously…' Hermione said weakly.

'So, are you going to tell me now? Are you in love with him?'

'Well, I wouldn't go that far, at least not yet.'

'Ah, so it's just the sex for now? And you like him of course. I think that's a very promising beginning.'

'Yes, I think you could say that.' The smile that had been wanting to spread over her face all the time was tugging at her mouth. 'He's absolutely unbelievable. The first time was a bit short, but-'

'Just in and, wham? Well that was to be expected after such a long time without getting laid.'

'Not that short,' Hermione said defensively.

'And is he – you know' – Ginny pointed downwards – 'Well-endowed?'

Hermione covered her face with her hands. 'Ginny, please! This is disgusting! He's your father-in-law!'

'And that's supposed to make me stop?'

'I thought it was worth a try. I obviously ought to have known better. Will you be satisfied if I tell you that it was the best sex I ever had?'

'Hm.' Ginny cocked her head. 'Seeing as it was the first time, that's saying something. And since you're looking so flustered, I'll leave you be for the moment.' She smiled and reached across the table to put her hand on Hermione's. 'I'm very happy for you, really. When's the wedding going to be?'

'Wedding? Ginny, we just slept together, it's not as if he proposed or anything!'

'Oh, he will, he will, believe me. He respects you far too much to just have an affair with you.'

'I don't see why having an affair would mean that he doesn't respect me.'

'Pureblood thing,' Ginny said, shrugging. 'They feel that marriage is the proper thing to do if they want to be with a woman they respect. So, will you marry him?'

Mind still boggling, Hermione slowly shook her head. 'I'm not sure. If the Pureblood codex of behaviour is so important to him, he'd probably stick to it all the way through. Which means giving up my work – and I certainly won't do that – and becoming some kind of breeding mare.'

'Try to be reasonable, Hermione. This would be a second marriage, and he already has an heir. Children would be optional, and I'm sure he wouldn't have a problem if you continued working. He leads a rather busy life, you know, so he certainly wouldn't want you to sit at home, twiddling your thumbs.'

'I really don't know what to say. I mean, you knew all this and still tried this little experiment on me? What if I don't want to get married? Am I going to lose him?'

'You'll have to discuss that with him, I suppose. I just don't understand why you wouldn't want to marry. It's not that bad, is it?'

'How should I know?' Hermione retorted sharply. Then she told herself that taking her insecurity out on Ginny wasn't fair. 'Sorry, I'm just… I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I'll have to think about it very thoroughly, I suppose.'

oooooo

When Hermione had to do some serious thinking, she usually went for a walk. Since she was sure that the Hippogriffs were under Hagrid's excellent, if maybe a little overenthusiastic care, she decided to indulge herself and stroll through the grounds. The period of heat that had started towards the end of June didn't seem to want to end anytime soon. Cooling charms were fine, but even so her robes would have been too much to wear. So she left them in her rooms and set out in jeans and a tank top. Her shoes had been transfigured into flip-flops, and she'd turned a sock into a straw hat. On second thought, after having walked maybe two hundred metres, she transfigured the jeans into a light summer skirt.

'I probably look like Tess of the D'Urbervilles,' she murmured to herself.

Her breakfast conversation with Ginny had been something of a shock. Less because of the cunning plan the two had hatched to lure her to Malfoy Manor, although they'd deceived her. What really upset her was Ginny's nonchalant remark about marriage being the only option if she wanted to take things further with Lucius.

She would have to talk to him about that, of course. And sooner rather than later. Maybe talking would relieve some of the anxiety she was trying to fight right now, that feeling that she was trapped, and whichever way out she tried to take was going to lead somewhere unpleasant.

Hermione clearly recognized that thinking matters through on her own would get her only so far. How was she supposed to know, at this early stage, whether she wanted to marry the man? Besides, she felt slightly ridiculous. No witch who was in serious danger of falling in love with Lucius and had the possibility to marry him would think about it twice. Probably. But she wasn't just a witch, she also came from a very different background, and that was what made her hesitate.

Without realizing it, Hermione had arrived at the place where they had kissed for the first time – had that really happened only yesterday? Well, she thought, maybe it was a sign. Maybe she ought to stay here for a bit and try to clear her head. She was feeling the tiredness and the heat creeping into her bones, and so she transfigured a leaf into a light blanket and stretched out on the grass.

She'd only slept little over an hour last night, and fell drifted off into slumber immediately.

Her dreams were edgy and bizarre – she dreamed of people she'd known at Hogwarts but never seen again afterwards, she dreamed of Hogwarts' corridors and staircases which were shifting as if to spite her, for she wasn't able to find her way. Then she dreamed that she was running into a suit of armour while rounding a corner at full speed, but the thing seemed to suddenly come alive. It wasn't frightening in the least, and in her dream she thought that it wasn't real because she was merely dreaming. The arms that had shortly before been metal but now seemed strangely human sneaked around her, the helmet and visor came slowly to rest against her face, and the suit of armour kissed her deeply.

Hermione jerked awake, only to find herself in Lucius's arms. 'Tired?' he asked, drawing a finger over her earlobe and down her throat.

'Yes, I… we didn't sleep a lot last night.'

'A mere waste of time, just as you said. I'm sorry I woke you up, but I went for a stroll and saw you lying here…' He pulled her closer and kissed her again, deeper this time. But the kiss didn't last very long. 'There is something wrong, isn't there?'

'N-not wrong, no.'

'Are you sure?' He moved away from her by a few inches. 'You move differently, you fell different, and you don't look me in the eye. That seems to indicate that something is indeed wrong. Are you having regrets?'

'Not about what happened last night, no. Certainly not. Did I tell you it was fantastic?'

'Not in so many words, but I had gathered as much, yes. So what are those regrets about, if not last night?'

'Regret is the wrong word, I guess. Because you can't regret something that hasn't yet happened.'

'Oh,' he said. 'I see. Has my son or my daughter-in-law told you tales of horror about Big Bad Lucius consuming virgins by the dozen and then dumping them, to die in the street in naked misery? I assure you that those stories are all untrue. It is not my habit to bed women and then throw them out when I'm getting bored with them.'

She sighed. 'No, nobody told me such stories. Rather… rather the contrary.'

'If you're afraid that all the virgins are still at the Manor, roaming the corridors at night and howling, that's not true either.'

The mental image made her giggle. 'I'd just hex them and then hide away their bodies. No, Lucius, I'm not concerned about you chasing other women. As I said, it's rather the contrary that worries me. I'd really like to talk to you about it, only it seems like the wrong moment.' She closed her eyes and let herself fall back on the blanket. 'I wish Ginny hadn't-'

'What?' It sounded like the crack of a whip. 'What did Ginevra do or say? If that little shrew so much as tries to interfere-'

'No!' Hermione put a hand over his mouth. 'No, really, Lucius. No tales of horror, of whichever nature.' His pupils went back to normal, and she felt his facial muscles relax under her touch. Her hand still lingered on his lips, and he playfully bit into her palm. Somehow, that effortless transition from incipient fury to mischievous teasing encouraged her. There was no wrong moment for talking to him, she suddenly was quite sure of that. 'Ginny did of course notice how I'd spent the night. She was being very nice about it all – apart from a few lapses into indiscretion – and then told me, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, that she was sure you cared a lot about me and would soon ask me to marry you.'

'And since you don't think of yourself as the marrying kind, that was something of a shock.'

'Exactly. You're from such an old, tradition-enamoured family, and I'm simply not sure… No, this is a moment of absolute honesty. I'm afraid that you may use my feelings as a lever to get me to marry you, because that's how it's done among purebloods, and that you would then…' She sighed. 'That makes you sound like an ogre, and that's not what I wanted. I meant to say that, despite your best intentions, I'm afraid you won't be able to keep those good intentions up, merely because pureblood culture and pureblood rules are running in your veins. And maybe I'd even try to adjust, in the beginning, but then I would come to a point where I couldn't adjust anymore, and that would be… terrible.'

She thought he was going to kiss her, but he merely laid his head on her shoulder. 'Did Ginevra tell you… er, anything else? About me, I mean?'

Repeating what Ginny had told her earlier was probably going to get the young Ms Malfoy the dressing-down of her life from Lucius. Never mind, Hermione thought, it was Ginny who'd landed her in this conflict – being read the riot act by Lucius really couldn't do her any harm. 'She seemed to indicate that you, uh, weren't totally indifferent to me? Before I came here two weeks ago?'

'Very diplomatically phrased,' he said, 'Almost worth of Fudge at his worst. She is right, of course. I was reminded of you every time I led Perseus out of his stable. I wasn't in love with you – rest assured that I would have been quite capable of expressing that feeling, had it already existed. But I readily admit that I was intrigued. In a different way than all those years ago at Grimmauld Place, where you annoyed rather than intrigued me. Not that I disliked you then, you were just a little… overdosed.'

'But you have to admit that you did nothing to make me lower the dose.'

'Of course not, that was part of the fun. You were the only person worth having a conversation with who willingly talked to the three of us. Much as I appreciated Lupin's efforts,' he added as an afterthought.

'Is this, er, confession meant to be a solution to my problem?'

'I suppose you'll have to find that out for yourself. All I can tell you is that I am not the kind of man who cuts an eagle's wings out of fear that he might fly away. I prefer to be chosen willingly.'

'Oh Lucius.' She caressed his cheek with her thumb. 'All this sounds too good to be true. Too perfect, you know?'

He rose to a sitting position and looked down at her. 'I do feel flattered, my dear, but in my rare moments of clarity I'm quite aware that I'm not perfect.'

'Let the drums be beaten and the trumpets blown,' she said dryly. 'Lucius Malfoy just admitted that he's not perfect.'

Lucius rolled his eyes. 'Is that the reward for baring my soul to you? Mockery? Shameless, open sarcasm?'

'It usually helps me when I'm feeling overwhelmed. I'm not saying that you are perfect. But I'm afraid you might be perfect for me. That's what seems too good to be true.'

'Am I correct in assuming that you would readily believe that this is real if I told you to give up your professional career and become a piece of interior decoration that breeds one child per year, but that you have difficulties accepting my assurance that I have no intention of doing so?' He slapped his thigh in obvious exasperation. 'The problem being of course that you'd reject me either way.'

'I didn't say anything about rejecting you, Lucius. But my life experience has taught me that such men just don't exist.'

'It was that Muggle boy whom the deities may curse with syphilis, wasn't it?'

'I'd go for something like an itchy rash and his nails falling off,' Hermione said. 'Syphilis is easily treatable nowadays, you know? Skin diseases are still a lot more difficult.' Lucius snorted. 'You're right, though. Yes, it was him, and the wound has scarred over by now. But I can't deny that there's a scar.' She reached over to put her hand on his knee. 'Does it really have to be marriage?'

'It doesn't have to be. But I have to maintain certain important social contacts, and it would pain me to see those people despise you. I just don't see your point, though. You weren't married to that idiotic pup, were you? And did it hurt any less for that?'

'Good point. You're right on that one. But if you were indeed to hurt me, I could get away from you much more quickly if we weren't married. It takes such a long time, you know, to undo everything. I really don't mean to paint the future all in black, but if we got married and then decided to have a divorce, we couldn't just say good bye and go our separate ways. There'd be meetings with lawyers, and settlements… all that tedious stuff, you know, when each partner just wants to get away and start a new life.'

'Muggle prejudice,' Lucius said. 'You probably have no idea how many ways there are of marrying among wizards. We could, for example, make a contract stipulating that, if you or I speak a certain formula, we are automatically and lawfully divorced and never have to see each other again.'

'Oh. That sounds intriguing. I hope you're going to choose a more complicated formula than "Could you pass the salt please". That would be a bitch to avoid.'

Her eyes went wide when he suddenly bent over her, regarding her with an expression hat made her heart flutter. 'You're adorable,' he murmured, his voice rough.

'The stable boys…' she protested before he kissed her.

'Bugger the stable boys,' he muttered into her ear.

'See?' she said triumphantly. 'I knew you weren't perfect.'

oooooo

The polo match and accompanying al fresco party had gone exceedingly well. There had been a few small incidents – a hippogriff hit with a Beater's club, a wing hurt by a bludger – but nothing Hermione couldn't handle easily.

The house guests, an all-male group from eight different countries, had been a little raucous on the first evening, but Lucius's prediction about the two women's presence keeping the whole event from deteriorating into a primates' gathering had been accurate. They'd been much better behaved the second evening, because each of them had to be in top form for the match that was to take place the day after.

Hermione had taken to spend her nights at Lucius's chambers (it really didn't matter anymore, since Lucius wasn't at all averse to public displays of affection when there were only the four of them) and had received Lucius's announcement that there wasn't to be any sex the night before the match with an equanimity that had quite unsettled him. When he literally pounced on her as she came out of the bathroom, hot and alluring and wrapped only in a dressing gown whose transparency defied description, he'd finally understood why his refusal of sex hadn't really unsettled her. He had to admit that she had considerable power over him and knew exactly how to handle it.

Although there hadn't been any serious accidents during the match, its aftermath had kept Hermione rather busy – there were sweaty Hippogriffs to be scrubbed dry, minor lesions to be healed and stable staff to be supervised. Thus, Hermione had only joined the throng of party guests who were drinking, chatting and enjoying themselves in the park when the event was already in full swing. After seeing to the animals, she'd had to take a thorough shower, for she absolutely refused to appear among Lucius's guests sweaty and smelling of stables.

Everybody seemed to be there – journalists, ministry officials, ambassadors, Lucius and Draco's business partners. Hermione, who hated parties, was a little reluctant to join the throng. But then she spotted Ginny, surrounded by members of the Weasley clan, and steered toward her, careful not to spill her drink on herself or anybody else. She'd walked almost half the distance when an arm sneaked around her shoulders from behind and a honeyed voice said, 'There you are, my dear.'

It was an awkward moment, for even though Hermione didn't have any reservations about showing her affection when only Ginny and Draco were around, she wasn't quite sure what to do when surrounded by Very Important Wizards. The kiss that he gave her did reassure her though, and she returned it, feeling him smile against her lips. Lucius introduced her to all and sundry without being specific about the role she was playing, but it was obvious to everybody that she wasn't just the family vet.

The house guests were to stay for another night, and the crowd dispersed shortly after eleven p.m. The remaining group continued to celebrate a very good match indeed until long past midnight. Most of the men had to be discreetly helped to their rooms by House Elves, for physical exertion, heat and alcohol didn't mix too well.

Lucius was looking sober but tired when he climbed the stairs together with Hermione. She gave him a critical look. 'Are you okay? You seem to be limping. I hope,' she continued sternly while opening the door to his rooms and following him inside, 'that you weren't so foolish as to conceal some injury in order to cut a dashing figure before your guests?'

He sank into an armchair with a moan that had definitely nothing to do with pleasure. 'I'm a man, but even my stupidity has its limits.' He unbuttoned his waistcoat. 'I'm not hurt, I merely underestimated the difference between training and the real thing, that's all. And therefore I'm feeling as if a herd of elephants had run all over me. Twice.'

At a muttered Accio from Hermione a little vial of ominous familiarity flew straight into her palm. 'Care to have another go?'

'Oh no!' Lucius hid his face in his hands. 'Not that disgusting concoction again!'

'But it did help, didn't it?'

'Yes, but…'

'And you could wash it down with a glass of brandy,' she cajoled. 'And the massage I'm going to give you afterwards will be much more… well, thorough than the one you had last time.'

'Well…' He cocked his head. 'If you put it that way…'

A few minutes later he was sprawled on the bed stark naked, and Hermione was pouring massage oil into her palm. 'Much better than mere olive oil,' she said, straddling him. 'And now, just relax and enjoy.'

She kneaded the knotted muscles of his back, arse and legs, smiling and thinking that she had become familiar with his body quite fast. 'Are you still awake?' she whispered.

'More or less, yes.'

'And able to turn on your back?'

'I think I am.' He slowly rolled onto his back. 'And this time, I don't have to hide anything,' he said, grinning at her.

'Difficult to hide an object of that size,' she replied with a smirk.

When his arms and his thighs had been duly massaged she applied her considerable skills to his cock. After keeping him hovering close to the edge for almost half an hour, she decided to finally have mercy on him and let him come. It was a long, drawn-out orgasm that made him pant and moan and dig his fingers into the mattress. When it was over, he wordlessly opened his arms. Hermione stretched out next to him and cuddled close, stroking his chest and belly.

'I'm sorry,' he muttered, already half asleep. 'I would have liked to recip… reprocate, but I really…' He fell asleep in mid-sentence.

Upon waking up the next morning, he was of course mortified. Lesser wizards apologized when they were mortified. Not so Lucius. Lucius was merely grumpy. Grumpier than a very grumpy grumpiness.

Hermione bade him a very affectionate good morning, but he turned his head away and muttered something indistinguishable. She started brushing gentle kisses across his ears, cheeks and throat, and he tried to shove her away. Being the brilliant witch she was, she correctly guessed the reason for his somewhat prickly behaviour. The temptation to laugh out loud was almost irresistible but she managed to suppress the urge. She merely continued to caress him and murmured into his ear, 'You do know the difference between a relationship and a business transaction, don't you?'

He didn't answer but she felt him relax a fraction. 'Because,' she continued, 'just like a business transaction, a relationship means giving as well as taking. But you know what?' Her hand began to gently stroke his chest. 'The fantastic thing about relationships is that one doesn't keep tabs. There is no fixed price for everything, you're in no danger of running into debt. You give what you're able and willing to give, and that's enough.'

A deep sigh raised his ribcage, but he still didn't look at her. 'And sex,' she said, 'isn't a business transaction either. You give what is yours to give, and if both partners are happy with that, well that's the recipe for good sex.'

'Don't lecture me,' he growled, 'I'm not one of your patients.'

'All right,' she said lightly, finger-walking from his waist up to his throat. 'No lecturing. But I'd like to ask you a question: Who are you so angry with? Yourself or me?'

'I think I quite clearly expressed my desire not to be treated like a patient.'

'Oh, you're not my patient, Lucius. You're my lover, and you might become my husband.'

Now she had his attention. He slowly turned his head to look at her. 'I think I made a mistake, Hermione. I'm too old for you. This is never going to work. We ought to… end it, I think.'

'Too old for me. I see. You're fifty-three, and I'm almost twenty-seven, and we're both wizards who may reasonably expect to live to one hundred fifty. But you're too old for me. And you will, of course, do the honourable thing and release me from any obligations I may have to you?'

There was doubt flickering in his eyes now, but he merely looked at her in silence.

'Very well,' she said. 'I'm convinced that this is merely a very clever way to get rid of what you thought of as a nice cheap fuck right from the beginning, but that's all right with me. Better now than too late. Bye, Lucius.' She kissed him quickly on the lips, got out of the bed, accioed her clothes and left the room.

She didn't know whether to laugh or cry while she swiftly packed her things. She was gambling, and the stakes were high.

oooooo

Hermione had expected Ginny to drop in already in the late morning, but she came in the early afternoon.

'What happened?' she asked, giving Hermione a murderous look.

'And a very good day to you too, Ginny.'

'Stop that right now. This is serious, Hermione. What the fuck happened? You two were so obviously happy last night, and today you are gone and Lucius is behaving worse than I've ever seen him.'

'Is he? What exactly does that imply?

'Come on, Hermione, stop playing cool. I know you're in love with him. You were there last night, you're not there anymore today, and I suppose you're pretty shaken up. So don't pretend you don't mind'

'It was sex, Ginny, nothing else. Good sex, I'll give you that, but nothing more than that. I'm very sorry to have to destroy your romantic notions, but a wizard and a witch don't actually have to be in love to fuck each other. It's perfectly normal and healthy. And when the sex is over, it's over. No drama, no tears, no regrets. I suppose that the concept is a bit difficult for you to embrace but you really ought to give it a try.'

'But it was more than that for Lucius!' Ginny protested furiously.

'And how would you know? Did he tell you? Or was it just your own smug satisfaction at a job well done that made you see what you wanted to see? Ginny the matchmaker, Ginny who just knew that Lucius and Hermione were made for each other, Ginny who had a plan, Ginny who successfully put that plan into action. Grow up, Ginny, but you don't necessarily have to do it in my house!'

Hermione almost pitied her, because there were tears in her eyes now, and her lips were trembling. But then she thought of all that was now at stake, and wisely decided to keep her very own agenda to herself.

'That's…' Ginny's eyes filled with tears. 'That's a very mean thing to say, Hermione. And I don't think I deserved that, because I only wanted you happy.' She sniffed. 'All right, if there's nothing else you want to tell me…'

'I really don't think there is.'

Ginny nodded, sniffed again and disapparated without uttering another word.

oooooo

Hermione had half expected Lucius to apologize, certainly not in person, but she'd been prepared for letters, flowers or the like. She'd even been fantasizing about waiting until the twentieth bunch of flowers arrived, and then sending them back all at once, informing him in no uncertain terms that she was a vet and had no intention of opening a flower shop.

Two weeks after her departure from Malfoy Manor she was beginning to think that she'd miscalculated. Or that Lucius had really been after sex only, and nothing else. But every time that doubt crept into her mind, she reminded herself of their conversations, of his behaviour during the party after the polo match, and of the many moments of genuine affection they'd shared. No, she hadn't deceived herself, she was sure. But maybe she'd gambled too high and lost.

Her next visitor was something of a surprise. Hermione had just returned home from a rather stressful day at the surgery and was most unwilling to open her door to any visitors, but in the end she gave in and went to see who had the audacity to disturb her at nine o'clock on a Friday evening.

It was Draco, looking less than happy to be standing on her doorstep.

'May I come in?' he asked.

'If you have to,' Hermione said and stepped aside to let him enter. 'May I offer you something to drink? I was just making tea.'

'Yes, please.' He followed her into the kitchen. 'Nice flat, Granger.'

'Thanks. Do you think you might come to the point of your visit?' She shoved him aside rather rudely to get access to the fridge, which Draco eyed with badly concealed curiosity. 'Muggle equivalent for stasis spells,' she explained. 'So? What brought you here?'

They went back to the living room, where Hermione filled their cups and then leaned back in her armchair, warily eyeing her uninvited guest.

'I don't think I need to explain why I'm here,' Draco began what was obviously a very well rehearsed speech.

'Oh yes, you do.'

'I beg your pardon?' He almost spilled his tea.

'I said yes, you do have to explain why you're here. You've never come to visit me, so why now?'

'Really, Granger. This isn't playing it cool, it's playing it dumb. You came to the Manor, because Ginny and I had planned to lure you there, you shagged my father, you didn't seem to have any objections when he made it clear to the guests that you were the new woman at his side, and the next day you're gone. So why would I be here?'

'Maybe you mean to acquire a pet Niffler and need information on Niffler-keeping?'

Draco snorted. 'Very funny, Granger. But I think we may consider the niceties as done with, and proceed to the important stuff. What the fuck happened?'

'I think you just gave an admirably short and concise summary of the events: I went there, shagged Lucius and left. So?'

'Granger, I'm not an idiot. I saw the two of you during the days before the match. You were happy, and it showed. This wasn't merely about sex, I'm absolutely sure.'

'That's your view of the matter, Draco, and I certainly won't be the one to destroy your romantic notions.'

The abrupt hardening of his jaw reminded her so strongly of Lucius that she suddenly felt the urge to burst into tears. But she fought it and camouflaged the moment by refilling her teacup.

Draco took a deep breath before he started talking. Even so, the anger in his voice was quite audible. 'Granger. Hermione. My father's and my personal history may not always have been a lucky one, but I've come to terms with that, and I realize that he always did what he thought was best for me, even though sometimes his choices were total crap. He loves me, and I'm very, very fond of him. That' – he held his cup out for a refill – 'is reason enough for me to want to see him happy. Or at least as close as he can come to happy. I saw him with you, and I knew that he was happy. And so were you. As happy as two totally crazy, war-traumatized adults can be. I know that something must have happened to make you leave in such a hurry, and I want to know what it was.'

Hermione hadn't spent much of her time at the Manor in Draco's company, and she had seen him maybe twice during the years following the war. Their enmity had been buried long ago, during his stay at Grimmauld Place, but she'd never wanted to be friends with him, and was pretty sure that this sentiment was shared by him. Therefore the sudden intimate turn their conversation had taken caught her by surprise. She felt vulnerable, and the stab of pain she experienced when he reminded her of the time with Lucius increased the sensation.

'Then why don't you ask your father,' she said brusquely.

'You think I didn't try that before paying you this surprise visit?' He laughed and shook his head. 'Believe me, I did. But whenever I touched the subject, he stormed out of the room, and if the room happened to be his, he threw me out. I assure you that I tried. Given the rather meagre result, I thought I'd talk to you. Not that I'm more successful here, or so it seems.'

Uncrossing and re-crossing her legs, Hermione stared at him pensively. 'Suppose I did tell you,' she finally said, 'What would you do then?'

'Well, that largely depends on what you'd be telling me.'

'Uh-huh…' Should she tell him or shouldn't she? 'What if I told you – hypothetically speaking of course – that I didn't want anything but sex?'

'You'd be looking a lot better if that were the case. But if you told me that, and I believed it to be true, I'd simply go home without bothering you anymore. I wouldn't greet you if I met you socially, however.'

'Big loss,' she retorted acidly. 'And if I told you that your father completely fucked it up and I just won't accept that?'

'Ha.' Draco gave her a wide grin. 'Now that sounds more like it. What did the old man do or say to make you storm off like that?'

Hermione sighed deeply. 'You know, I'm absolutely convinced that telling you is a very, very bad idea. But I'll just do it. Seems' – she gave him a crooked smile – 'I don't have a lot to lose.'

'But…' Draco looked at her in open-mouthed surprise when she had finished. 'But why did you have to leave? You could have talked him out of it, or hit him, or…' He shook his head. 'Why did you have to overreact like that?'

'I hardly think it was an overreaction. Look, Draco, I suppose you'll have a hard time believing it, but I'm not that keen on becoming Ms Malfoy. I had strong reservations concerning marriage before I fell…' She paused and swallowed. 'Before Lucius. My reservations grew stronger when I had to consider eventually marrying your father – all that pureblood stuff, and the wizarding society's view on marriage in general. But I would have been willing to try, after a certain period of getting to know each other better. But that morning… It wasn't so much what he said, but what his words stood for, you know? If he needs to be Mr. Perfect, and if he needs me to constantly be aware and in awe of his perfection… If he can't live with his own weaknesses, how am I supposed to live with him?'

'Hm.' Draco looked at her, arms crossed. He nodded slowly. 'Well, I… I can't say that I completely understand you, but I can see what you're getting at. Do you love him?'

'Love…' Hermione raked a hand though her hair. 'Love is such a… There's no other word that has ever been abused so cruelly. I'm very hesitant to use it. It might become love, who knows, maybe with time… I do care for him, I do like him, and I really, really like being in his company. That's the only answer I can give you right now, and the most honest one. And I swear I'm going to kill you if you tell him.'

'I won't. But… If I somehow got him to talk to you, would you talk to him?'

'I suppose I would. But you'll have to use Imperius.'

'Kindly leave that to me, Granger. I'll think of something.'

oooooo

Ten days after Draco's visit – and hence almost a month after her break-up with Lucius – she still hadn't heard from any of the Malfoys. Gritting her teeth and ignoring her aching heart, Hermione decided that it was now time for her to start getting over Lucius. She'd known right from the beginning, hadn't she? The week with him had been marvellous, but had it been worth what she was going through now? Time would tell, she repeatedly said to herself. It wasn't as bad as with Christopher (though not much easier), and she was older now, and above all ending the relationship had been her own choice. That was something, wasn't it?

It was Sunday, and Hermione felt that she really ought to go out and do something – nothing was worse in a situation like hers than to stay at home moping. She opted for the Tate Modern, for it was a long time since she'd last been to a Muggle museum, and that particular one was a favourite of hers, because it allowed her to stay in touch with the latest developments in Muggle culture.

She was just standing in her bedroom, trying to determine whether to wear trousers or a skirt, when a loud crack from the living room made her jump. Wand drawn, she went to see what had happened.

A very dishevelled Draco was levitating a decidedly mutinous-looking Lucius into one of her armchairs.

'There,' Draco said, swiping his hair back from his forehead, 'He's yours to do with as you please. I used a slightly modified Petrificus Totalus, so he can move his head, but won't be able to do anything rash or speak. I'd appreciate, however, if you returned him in one piece. Ginny's pregnant and I'd like for my children to be able to visit their grandfather in one room, not all over the Manor.'

'Really?' Hermione beamed at him. 'Well, that's good news. And how do you explain, uh, this?' She indicated Lucius.

'Enough is enough. He was really getting on my nerves, and I must say I begin to understand you. If you send him back with his balls in an extra box, I certainly won't blame you.'

'Are you saying that I could hex your father's balls off and you would still greet me if we met socially?'

'Exactly.' He patted her shoulder. 'All right, Granger, I have to go – Gin means to announce the pregnancy today to the Weasley clan. Bye, and remember: no body parts. Except for the balls of course!' And he disapparated.

Hermione was left standing in her living room, clad in a pair of very old jeans and an oversized linen shirt, and looking at Lucius. He was dressed rather casually with his robes flung a bit haphazardly over his shirt and waistcoat – a result, Hermione supposed, of having been hexed and whisked off to her flat immediately after breakfast. Or during breakfast, she corrected herself, when she saw that his right hand was holding a piece of toast. She pried it from his grip and then, with mischief sparkling in her eyes, licked a trace of butter off his index finger.

'So,' she said, after accioing an armchair and sitting down comfortably, 'here you are, at my mercy.' Draco had really accomplished a masterpiece here, she had to admit, because Lucius's facial muscles didn't seem to be inhibited by the hex. His mouth was set into a grim line.

'I'd suggest that you blink once for yes and twice for no. I'll keep my questions accordingly simple. All right?'

He blinked once.

'Excellent. Did you miss me?'

He stared.

'I missed you a lot. Did you miss me too?'

He blinked once.

'That's good. Have you been thinking about our last morning?'

He blinked once.

'Really? Well, that's very encouraging. Have you come to any conclusions?'

He blinked once.

'Ah. Well, that brings us to some kind of impasse, because I'd really like to ask which conclusions. But,' she said lightly, upon seeing his hopeful look, 'we'll leave that for later. For now, I'd merely like to know if you understand why I left.'

He blinked three times.

'Yes and no? You think I should have stayed and talked to you?'

He blinked once.

'You see, I think that would have been the wrong thing to do. If you got away with this kind of behaviour once, what would keep you from doing it again? I knew you'd realize what I mean to you only if you had to do so on your own. If I mean anything to you,' she added. 'Do I?'

He blinked once.

'A lot?'

He blinked once.

'That's good. Because you mean a lot to me as well, although I can't believe I'm saying this to you.' She quickly got up and kissed him lightly. 'Do you still think you're too old for me?'

He blinked twice.

'You're a Slytherin, so I'd better cover my arse. Do you think I'm too young for you?'

He smiled and blinked twice.

'I'd like to get to know you a lot better before I even think of marriage. I need at least a year. Is that okay?'

He blinked three times.

'You're not sure? Why? I am of course going to keep my flat, but I'm willing to live at the Manor most of the time.'

He blinked once.

'One year of living together at Malfoy Manor?'

He blinked once and smiled.

'And you'll give it a try and work on your vanity?'

The smile broadened. He blinked once.

'If I end the spell now, do you promise you'll behave?'

He blinked once.

'I'm not that easily fooled, Lucius. Do you promise to be reasonable and behave like a gentleman?

He blinked twice, smile still lingering.

Her gaze slid from his face down to his crotch. She smirked. 'It's the gentleman bit that's bothering you, isn't it?'

She really had him at her mercy now, she thought, and kneeled before him, fingers busy with the fly of his trousers. 'Interesting,' she said. 'But then your cock isn't a muscle, so I probably shouldn't be surprised.' She took him into her mouth and played a bit. When she looked at his face, his fair skin was flushed. Hermione grinned and got to her feet. 'This is really kinky, you know?' She quickly unbuttoned the fly of her jeans and slid them off her legs. 'Not my most seductive underwear I'm afraid,' she said, pointing at her white cotton knickers. 'And really not something I'd like you to see me in. So they have to go.'

Lucius flinched slightly when she raised her wand. 'Really, Lucius. Why would I hex off your balls right now?' A muttered spell and a flick of her wand later, the chair had broadened and its armrests were gone. 'Yes, this is much better. The problem is, I'll have to do the foreplay all by myself.' She straddled him and rubbed herself against his cock. 'Mmmh, I missed that too.' And then she put her hands on his shoulders, positioned herself and slid slowly down. 'Oh, yes. And now' – she snatched her wand – 'I think I'm going to release you. But you know, don't you, that a true gentleman always makes sure his lady comes before him?'

He blinked one.

oooooo

'An engagement contract?' Mr Knocktup of Storke, Storke and Knocktup, family lawyers to the Malfoys since 1867, frowned at the couple sitting opposite him. 'I've never heard of such a thing.'

Hermione stared at his wizened face with a hefty dose of hatred. 'You merely have to take a standard marriage contract and replace all the "marry"s with "engage"s, you know?'

Lucius hid his amusement behind a polite cough. 'I do of course understand that this is a rather unusual request, but I am sure that your experience in matters of marital law will enable you to come up with something,' he said.

Knocktup muttered something incomprehensible behind his enormous white beard, frowned in concentration and pronounced, 'Accio Des Grieux's Manual of Standard Marriage Contracts!'

The heavy tome almost knocked him off his chair. Hermione saw it with satisfaction.

'You will be needing…' the lawyer murmured, busily leafing through the pages, 'You will be needing… Ah, here it is. Ethelbert Vance and Mireille de Fontenoy, 1284. A marriage contract which-' he shot Hermione a venomous glare – 'I may rather easily adapt. To be cancelled by thrice speaking the words, er…' He sniffed. 'Well, we are living in a more polite era now.Have you decided on a formula yet?'

'We, er, have decided to have one for each of us. Is that a problem?' Lucius said.

'No, not as such, we merely have to slightly alter the spell on the contract.'

'Very well.' Lucius cleared his throat again, obviously embarrassed. 'I have to say a female name, any female name, followed by the words "gives much better blow jobs than you do".'

Knocktup was staring at him, but ignored, since Hermione turned to her soon-to-be fiancé and vehemently shook her head. 'Oh, no! We said any name, not just female!'

'But I would never-'

'You know how many men get married, or engaged for that matter, and then suddenly discover they're gay?'

'I an assure you,' Lucius said in a tone so calm that his anger was quite palpable, 'that I am not gay, nor will I ever be.'

'Better safe than sorry,' Hermione countered. 'It's any name, or that bloody engagement is off.'

Lucius sagged slightly in his chair. 'All right. Any name, Mr. Knocktup.'

The lawyer nodded wordlessly and wrote down the phrase, although he evidently had difficulties putting such obscenities on parchment. 'And you, Miss Granger? May I ask what you have chosen?'

'A male name, followed by the words "fucks better than you do",' Hermione answered promptly.

'Male?' Lucius shot up like a rattlesnake. 'What about female? If I have to-'

'Male,' Hermione said, 'And that's my final word.'

'But…'He gave an exasperated sigh. 'Why? Why could I be gay whereas you certainly aren't?'

'Because I say so,' Hermione said and gave him an affectionate kiss.

FINIS