'No picnic, I'm afraid,' Lucius said when they emerged from the opera house into heavy rainfall and gusts of cold wind. 'Here, take my cloak, or you're going to catch your death.' He wrapped his cloak around her shoulders. 'You hadn't told me that Madame Butterfly makes you cry as well.'
Hermione sniffed. 'I'm being a bit emotional these days, obviously.'
'Obviously,' he said dryly and handed her a handkerchief. 'Shall we go back to the manor for dinner, then?'
'Yes, I'd like that,' Hermione said, shivering and pulling the cloak more closely around her. 'Brr. The temperature must have dropped by at least ten degrees.'
Ducking their heads against the rain, which the wind was whipping into their faces, they swiftly moved away from the crowd of Muggles and into the shades. 'The coast is clear, I think,' Lucius whispered after a careful look at their surroundings. 'On the count of three?'
The weather wasn't much better in Wiltshire, although the air was slightly less chilly. Hermione exhaled deeply when they'd finally entered the light and warmth of Malfoy Manor. 'A hot toddy, I think,' Lucius said. 'You're stone cold.'
'I'll just go and change into something dry.' She climbed the stairs to the first floor and entered Lucius's bedroom. The light summer robe she'd left there when she'd changed into something more formal didn't seem adequate to her needs, and she decided to simply transform it into an ankle-length cashmere dress. A spare bra was turned into a matching cardigan, and the silk of her stockings into wool. Already feeling much better, Hermione crossed the room to sit down at the dressing table and extricate the hairpins holding her coiffure.
Her eyes stared gravely back at her when she looked at herself in the mirror. The wedding date they'd agreed on was only five weeks away, and she'd decided to tell him well before they got married. Or maybe not, if he took it badly. Lucius certainly wasn't the kid of wizard who'd react well to the news that his fiancée had invaded his mind twice. She was pretty sure he'd be grateful for her Obliviating Lazenby and that he'd just love the present she was so impatient to give him, though unsure whether to start with the good or the bad news. The only thing she was absolutely certain about was the necessity to tell him right now. She'd been growing increasingly uneasy about her breach of confidence – how lucky, she thought dryly, that Madam Butterfly was the perfect justification for her crying fit. She would've had trouble explaining her tears otherwise.
She heard Lucius open and close the door to the adjacent dressing room. He had given her his cloak, so he had to be soaked to the skin and probably even colder than she was. There was something to be said in favour of old-fashioned chivalry, she thought. Maybe it was going to refrain him from hexing her after she'd confessed.
Hermione slipped her wand into the left sleeve of her dress and quietly exited the bedroom.
She was already half through her hot toddy when he joined her in the library. 'I think I'll have one too,' he said, motioning to the waiting House Elf.
They wandered over to the fireplace and sat next to each other on the sofa. Hermione inhaled the scent of leather and paper that mingled with a faint note of wood smoke from the crackling fire. Usually that smell appeased her, but tonight she was feeling a little too anxious for it to work. When they both had their drinks, she scooted closer to him, greedy for warmth and physical contact. They remained silent, both staring into he flames. Then, both started talking at the same time.
'Hermione, there is something-'
'Lucius, I have to tell you-'
'You go first,' they said in perfect synchronicity.
Another moment of silence. Lucius sat up a little straighter and dug in his pocket. 'Shall we throw a coin?'
'And let fate decide? Why not. I'll take head.'
'I'd rather you give head,' Lucius smirked, to be promptly elbowed in the ribs. 'Sorry, my dear. Bad but irresistible.'
'Like you,' she muttered.
He threw the coin, and they both bent forward to watch it spin around itself. When it finally stilled, showing them the side embossed with Merlin's head, Hermione rolled her eyes. 'Just my luck.' She grabbed the piece of metal and turned it. 'Erm...' She handed it back to Lucius with a grin. 'I just wanted to make sure there aren't two heads.'
'Thank you for your trust,' he said surly, pocketing it. But then he smiled and slid his arm back around her shoulder. 'So?'
Her heart beating wildly, Hermione took a deep breath. 'What do you want to hear first? Good or bad news?'
'Good,' he replied. 'They'll hopefully be fortifying enough for me to bear the bad ones with manly dignity.'
'All right. I...' She realized hat she had forgotten to exhale and was close to hyperventilating. 'I Obliviated Lazenby.'
She'd expected Lucius to thank her, but been thoroughly unprepared to see him laugh. 'I'm sorry,' he said, wiping tears of mirth from the corner of his eye and pressing a kiss on her temple, 'but this is... Go on, tell me the bad news. I think I can take them.'
'You'll have to work a bit on your manly dignity though,' she said scathingly. 'And I do hope you have a very good explanation for laughing. Anyway, the bad news is that I performed Legilimency on you, twice.'
'Well that's obvious, since you-' He stopped in mid-sentence when he saw her surprise. 'You mean you didn't Obliviate him because-'
'No. That's not what I saw, although now I understand why I saw that you had an ulterior motive for proposing. You wanted to ask me to Obliviate him once we were married, didn't you?'
Lucius cringed. She saw it with deep satisfaction. 'N-not exactly. But that was part of the confession I meant to make. Wouldn't you like to finish yours before I start?'
'I don't think so,' she said, eyes narrowing. 'Out with it, Lucius. What do you have to say?'
Closing his eyes, he tentatively drew her closer, and when she didn't resist, pulled her over to rest against him. Her left hand was resting limply on her thigh and he took it. The ring still refused to move. 'I suppose,' he began slowly, 'that during your, er, excursions into my mind you were able to see that my affection for you is genuine?' He felt her nod against his shoulder. 'Well, that should make this a little easier. Firstly I would like to confirm your initial suspicion. Scrimgeour did indeed pay me a visit at Azkaban, and he offered me a deal: Three hundred thousand galleons for my freedom, the destruction of all the files concerning me, and the possibility to participate in the battle against He Who- Voldemort.'
Hermione chuckled. 'You see? I was right.'
'Yes, you were, and you can probably imagine how unwelcome your questions were. I would not have hesitated to take more, well, drastic actions, had I not succumbed to your considerable charm.'
'You mean you would have...' Hermione swallowed. 'Killed me?'
'Killed you? No. I had to assume that somebody knew you'd pay me a visit, so that would have been out of the question.'
'You're being so refreshingly ethical these days,' Hermione said, sounding rather exasperated.
'If you had lived through two years of imprisonment at Azkaban, ethics would be your least concern if faced with the possibility of returning there, my dear.'
'I know,' she said into his shoulder. 'I saw it.'
He stiffened. 'I can't say I like the idea of your having witnessed-'
'Remember the first time we made love?'
'That's hardly something I'd forget.'
'Remember that you fell asleep afterwards?'
He sighed and relaxed marginally. 'I still dream about... it.'
'I had already Obliviated Lazenby a few days before that, just so you know I didn't do it out of pity or whatever you think may have motivated me. I saw that you were having a very bad dream, and I guessed what it might be, and so... It was merely a confirmation that I'd been right in eliminating the possibility of you having to go back to Azkaban. But back to your story. So you would have liked to put me under Imperius, but where prevented from doing so by my considerable charms.'
'I tried to find a way to combine the useful with the pleasant.'
'You thought you'd be able to shut me up by marrying me? Maybe you don't know me all that well.'
He briefly buried his nose in her hair before continuing to speak. 'I didn't think for a second that I'd ever be able to shut you up. No, I intended to make you pay your debt by Obliviating Lazenby, and to choose a marriage vow that would effectively thwart any desire you might have to denounce me to the authorities. There, that's it.' His hand squeezed her shoulder. 'Why do people keep telling one that one will feel better after confessing?. I'm feeling a lot worse now.'
'You need to wait for absolution in order to feel better, I suppose.'
'Ah. That explains it. Am I to be granted absolution?'
'If I hadn't had that look into your mind' – she was holding the ring on her finger pinched between her thumb and index– 'this ring would probably come off now, and I'd throw it into your face. What on earth were you thinking?' She pulled up her feet to kneel next to him. 'Did you honestly believe I'd stay with you for another second if you tried to coerce me into Obliviating him?'
'No, that's why I planned to tell you everything tonight. Ask Severus if you don't believe me!'
Hermione sat back on her haunches. 'Snape was in on this?'
'You were plotting my total and utter humiliation together with Severus Snape?'
She tried to wrench the ring off her finger, but in vain. The ring stayed where it was, refusing to be taken off. Hermione slowly rose from the couch and took a few steps back. 'What have you done with this ring?'
Lucius frowned. 'I haven't-'
'You ought to know better than to further infuriate me,' she spat. 'Tell me this instant, what spell or curse or whatever have you put on this ring? I hate you so much, and I certainly don't want to marry you, so why doesn't it fucking come off? You said it would, if one of us had doubts. And since this fucking wedding is definitely not going to happen, and I'm so fucking angry I could kill you on the spot, and the fucking ring is still on my finger, there's only one explanation: either you tampered with it, or you lied to me when you said it comes off if one of us had doubts!'
'That's two,' Lucius said.
'I beg your pardon?'
'That's two explanations. Having tampered with it or having lied to you. Although there is of course a third explanation, which you understandably failed to mention: you don't have doubts.'
'Of course I don't have doubts! "Doubts" doesn't even begin to express what I'm feeling right now! I'm not in doubt, I'm absolutely dead certain that I don't want to become your wife, because I'd be able to forgive you that nasty plot, but plotting with Snape, against me, that's definitely too much!'
'He's my best friend!'
'Well so what? Ginny's my friend, and I didn't...well maybe I did,' she said, a little calmer. 'But never that! Never to humiliate you.'
'I didn't talk to Severus to humiliate you! I confided in him because he's the only one who knows, and I was in dire need of advice! Is that so difficult to understand?'
Hermione sighed. 'I can understand it, on a purely rational level. I might even have done the same in your place. It just feels wrong – you two pulling the strings, and I'm the puppet.'
'Is that how I'm making you feel?' Lucius said tonelessly. 'A puppet on a string? That was certainly not what I intended. If that was what I wanted, I would have put you under Imperius, and saved myself a lot of trouble.'
'And I'm supposed to be grateful now, or what?'
Lucius gave her a thin-lipped smile. 'Not grateful, my dear. But certainly relieved.'
'Well, I am. But it doesn't really make me feel better. Besides I'm hungry, and I think I've caught cold. And I'm still hurt.'
He was on his feet and standing close to her in an instant. 'Would you like me to kiss it better?'
'Stop that, Lucius,' she said, somewhere between laughing and crying. 'Charming though you doubtlessly are, that's not enough for you to get back into my good graces.'
'I'd be quite happy with getting back into your knickers, for a start.' His arms sneaked around her waist.
'Sex isn't going to put things right!'
'Are you quite sure? Seeing as the ring still seems to think we want to get married...'
'And I said I'm hungry!'
'We could have supper in bed. And I can think of so many creative uses for certain items of food.'
'And I feel a cold coming on.'
'As do I. But doesn't the vision of taking PepperUp together, and then having sex with smoke coming out of our ears hold a certain appeal?'
Still encircled by his arms, she turned to face him. 'Sex as a panacea?'
'Not necessarily,' he replied, caressing her bum. 'But I was hoping it might remind you that getting married to me does have its perks, you know?'
'What about Scrimgeour?' she said, looking up and into his eyes. 'I suppose you want me to leave him be?'
'Think of it as your dowry. But,' he said, catching her hands when he saw the anger return to her eyes, 'maybe you'll be more willing to desist if I tell you that I've tried to track the old bastard down since the day I left Azkaban. To no avail.'
Hermione grinned. 'And that's supposed to stop me? The mere idea of succeeding where you failed makes me go all warm and fuzzy.'
'Try getting pregnant,' was his deadpan reply.
'Not very challenging, if Molly Weasley could do it seven times.'
'All right,' he said with a sigh, 'If you want to attempt to find him, I won't keep you from doing so.'
'Is that a promise?'
'Yes. Yes, it is a promise and I declare myself honour-bound to keep it.'
Hermione reached back to take his hands. 'Before we go upstairs to have sex, supper and PepperUp,' she said, pulling him towards the couch, 'I think I'd like to give you a little present.'
'That would be my cue to say something romantic along the lines of "You have already given me your heart, my darling, what else can I wish for", wouldn't it?'
'Coming from you, that would have a certain entertainment value.' Hermione pulled a thin gold chain from under the neckline of her dress. 'Alohomora,' she said, touching the clasp with her wand. The chain slid off her neck and pooled in her palm. 'And now, Restoreo!' A minuscule golden object Lucius hadn't seen because of its tininess grew back to its original size.
Lucius raised his brows. 'A Time Turner? Do you want me to go back and be a good boy?'
'Nonsense.' Her curls bobbed when she shook her head. 'Tell me, Lucius, how did you give the money to Scrimgeour?'
'I signed a magical contract, why?'
'Do you maybe remember if there was anything funny about the document you signed?'
'Funny in which way?'
'I don't want to influence you. Just try to remember.'
He sighed. 'I'm afraid I can't help you with this, Hermione.'
'Never mind. Just answer my questions. Do you remember signing the document?'
'Funny you should ask. No, I remember him telling me that I had to sign, I even remember having difficulties holding the quill, but... The bastard Obliviated me!'
'He had to. Because if you'd remembered the date on that document, it would have given you a clue as to his whereabouts. Or rather whenabouts. You know,' she said, closing his mouth with a gentle finger, 'I'm very fond of logical explanations. I just couldn't believe that locating Scrimgeour was impossible. Not for such a long time, and certainly not with Law Enforcement all over the globe looking for him. Sooner or later, if somebody isn't dead, he's bound to leave a trace. If he hadn't vanished in space, he had to have vanished in time. That's logical isn't it?' Lucius merely nodded. 'I only thought of that explanation a few days ago. So I went to have a look at the ministry's inventory. Very practical things, inventories, especially since this is as good as brand new. All the ministry's Time Turners were destroyed when we fought for the prophecy, so they had to begin a new one in 1996. All the Time Turners produced and acquired since then were accounted for. So I cast revealing spells on them, one by one. And' – she lifted her palm making the device sparkle in the candlelight – 'only one of them had been used twice. Used to go back to 4 September 1927, which happens to be the day Scrimgeour was born. Quite the sentimental thing to do, don't you think? The first time round, he opened an account at Gringott's – I can't prove it of course, but I'm absolutely sure he did. Then he came back and made you sign the contract. He had to Obliviate you because you'd probably noticed the date was wrong. And then he went back again, this time to stay. He had to leave the Time Turner at the ministry, of course, or else somebody might have noticed it was missing. Well, that's it. And this' – she held out her hand – 'is yours. Maybe you'd like to keep it as a souvenir. I've left a very good replica at the ministry.'
Lucius slowly shook his head. 'You,' he said hoarsely, 'are the single most amazing witch I've ever met. May the gods strike me down here and now if ever I dare to do so much as look at another woman.' He took the Time Turner. 'Amazing,' he repeated. 'You've outsmarted them all, my dear. Are you sure you don't have any plans for world domination or becoming the next Dark Lord?'
'Not right now. I'd rather take you up on your offer of sex.'
She sneezed. 'Definitely.'
'And you still won't marry me?'
Hermione tugged at the ring. 'I'm afraid I'll have to.'
'Do you want to?'
She smiled at him. 'I think I do. And just in case I should warm to the idea of Dark Lording, let's get married by that obscure ritual you told me about. How's it called?'
'The Canterbury Handfasting,' Lucius said and kissed the ring on her hand.