ET TU, BRUTE
'Going for 3000 Galleons… Won't anybody offer more for this beautiful estate? The Aurors have been through it, folks, there's no need to worry! Do I hear 3100? No? Well then. Gone for 3000 Galleons to Miss Hermione Granger!'
So that was it, Lucius Malfoy thought.
He wasn't usually an avid listener to the Wizarding Wireless Network, but for the life of him he wouldn't have gone to that auction. His Manor, the house that generations of Malfoys – maybe not as many as he claimed, but the number was still impressive – had called their home, being auctioned off. He just couldn't bear to witness it in person. Neither had he wanted to be left in the dark as to the buyer's identity, though, and so he'd decided to follow the event by way of the WWN.
When the auctioneer's hammer struck for the last time, however, Lucius wasn't so sure anymore that even just listening to what was going on at Gringotts' had been such a good idea. Maybe he just ought to have quietly left England and retired to that lovely château in the Champagne. Not quite the way he'd imagined his exit from the scene of history, true. But having to witness the disgrace of the Manor being sold to that bushy-haired termagant, that pushy, overeager, bullying little witch…
He would have liked to call her a Mudblood. Unfortunately, after she'd testified in his favour when he'd stood accused (again!) before the Wizengamot, he had thanked her profusely – he still cursed himself for that sentimental slip – and professed himself to be in her debt. Miss Granger had merely smiled at him and told him that he may consider his debt repaid, if he promised to never call her a Mudblood again. So he really couldn't do it, could he?
Besides, he'd seen her fight. Only a true witch was able to fight like that, he thought while lazily summoning the whisky bottle. A man was entitled to get drunk after losing his ancestral home. To a muggleborn witch of all people – if anything warranted getting well and truly sloshed, this kind of personal apocalypse surely did.
The bottle was already more than half-empty. Lucius snorted. The indomitable Miss Granger would of course point out that it was almost half full. She did have that annoying habit of always seeing the best in people and making the best of whatever came her way. That galling optimism! Lucius wondered what she'd have to say if she were in his situation.
He drank deeply from his glass and felt the liquid's hot caress down into his stomach.
One thing was for sure: The girl would never give up. She'd probably try whichever trick she could come up with to win back what she regarded as rightfully hers. Even if she had to recur to using her not inconsiderable charms.
He'd just been about to take another sip, but the tumbler remained where it was, coolly touching his lower lip, while Lucius sat as still as a statue.
Speaking of considerable charms… Granger was unattached, wasn't she?
He smiled to himself and resolutely put down the glass. This required planning and focus. He had to act quickly but efficiently. And he couldn't do that with a hangover.
Ideas were already flitting through his brain like lizards over a hot stone wall, when he raised his wand to summon a dose of sobering potion.
Droplets of sweat were running down Neville Longbottom's forehead and into his eyes. He blinked furiously, concentrating hard on maintaining the levitating spell on an enormous mahogany desk.
'More to the left!' Hermione commanded. 'More… more… no, that's too much. A bit more to the left…'
'Your left or my left?' Neville bit out.
'Your left of course. My right. Just a little bit. Okay, that's it.'
Panting, Neville slumped down on a large box marked 'Books, Charms, Ab-Cr'. 'There are thirty House Elves here, Hermione,' he rasped. 'You bought them together with this bloody house. Why on earth don't you use them?'
'Because,' Hermione replied archly, while for the umpteenth time trying to fix her hair on top of her head with the rather inefficient help of magical hairpins, 'this bloody house is going to become the headquarters of S.P.E.W. Setting House Elves to work while intending to free them would rather defy the purpose, wouldn't it?'
Neville rolled his eyes. 'Hermione, you're my friend and I love you. But sometimes you're making loving you quite hard.' He ran a hand through his damp hair. 'You're paying those creatures, why don't you make them work for it?' Hermione was about to answer, but he continued. 'And where are Ron and Harry? The Twins? Ginny? The rest of the effing Order?'
'They, erm…' Hermione started polishing the desk with the sleeve of her robe. 'They were, uh, otherwise occupied.'
'You mean they refused to give you a hand?' Neville's face was taking on an alarming shade of red. 'You mean I'm the only gullible idiot you managed to rope in?'
'Well, that would be putting it awfully-'
'Awfully close to the truth! Tell you what, Hermione. You've got thirty House Elves. I've got a shop to attend to.'
Hermione merely stared as Neville – good, old Neville, whatever had got into him? – Disapparated with a loud crack.
It was hot, and she was feeling thirsty. On her way down to the kitchens, she wondered what exactly she was doing wrong. 'You see,' she muttered to Crookshanks, who had miraculously reappeared from some safe hiding place and was now trotting next to her, 'they just don't understand me. This is important to me, but all they do is make fun of S.P.E.W. I mean, Harry gave me the money to buy the house, and that was awfully nice of him, but he doesn't want to help me move in. And neither do the others. How can they be so blind? I've copied all the relevant texts for them to read, and I've been discussing elfish rights with them for Merlin knows how long, and still…' She sighed. 'I'll have to do it all by myself,' she continued, her voice now a bit watery. 'Because you won't be much help, will you, big boy? You just want to eat and sleep and be cuddled…'
'You have to admit, though,' a mellifluous voice said from behind her, 'that your familiar has got his priorities straight.'
To say that Hermione jumped two feet high with fright and surprise would be an exaggeration, but jump she did. 'Mr Malfoy!' Her voice was shrill with outrage, and so she stopped shrieking, counted to ten and then continued in less strident tones. 'What are you doing here? This is my house now, and you'
'Of course,' he replied, all soothing urbanity. 'Of course, Miss Granger.' He put a hand on her forearm and noticed, with some satisfaction, that she did not flinch. 'This is your house, which you have purchased with your money.'
Hermione blushed. 'Well, to tell you the truth-'
'Why on earth would you do that?' Lucius interrupted her.
Nonplussed, Hermione gaped at him. 'Because that's what you do, that's why.'
'It is certainly not what I do, my dear young lady. Not unless inevitable, that is. And I have spent a sufficient amount of time in the company of Tom Riddle & Co to be able to detect truth serum both in my food and drink. Anyway' – he casually slipped his arm around her shoulders and steered her towards the kitchens – 'the house, as you said, is yours now.' He held the kitchen door open for her and followed her into the vast expanse of white tiles and shimmering copper. 'However, unbelievable as it may seem to you, I feel that I am still in your debt. Thus the least I can do is to, er, give you a few, well, instructions on how to handle the house that is now yours.'
Hermione, who had Accioed a jug of iced lemonade and two glasses filled with ice cubes, shot him a suspicious glance. 'The Aurors have been over every inch of the Manor. I doubt there'd be anything left that might put me in any danger.'
Lucius accepted the proffered glass with a slight bow. 'Who said I was referring to any dangers you might incur, my dear?'
'Well, what else can there be in a house that you-' Hermione blushed violently. 'I mean, it was the first thing that came to my mind…'
He didn't seem offended in the least. 'Was it indeed? But that, my dear' – he stepped closer to her and caught her gaze in his – 'means that you severely underestimate me.'
After a hasty sip of lemonade – and why she was feeling hotter by the second instead of cooler was a mystery to her – Hermione reminded herself that she was a powerful witch, this was her house, and the handsome bastard standing a little too close to her might be a bastard, but he was still handsome. No, she corrected herself furiously. He might be handsome, but he was still a bastard. She really wasn't interested in his mind games. 'Underestimate you?' she said, 'What exactly are you referring to?'
Two chairs obeyed to his non-verbal spell and slid noiselessly across the floor. Lucius gestured for Hermione to sit down. 'This,' he began and crossed his legs, 'has been a home to a not exactly poor family for many centuries.' He refilled his glass, covertly gazing at the young witch from beneath his lashes. She was listening attentively. Good. Catching her undivided attention was essential to his plans. 'Whereas I may have made a not entirely fortunate choice during my misguided youth-'
Hermione snorted. 'That's like saying Jack the Ripper used to perform cosmetic surgery. But continue, please. This sounds interesting.'
'Thank you. As I was saying, these venerable walls have seen a long, long procession of Malfoys who spent their entire lives here, from the moment of their birth to the hour of their death. They loved this house and made it as comfortable as they possibly could. But' – he uncrossed and re-crossed his legs – 'they also made sure that they, and only they, would reap the benefits of their own spellwork.'
Mesmerized, Hermione continued to stare at him when he had long finished his sentence. Then the sound of silence suddenly sobered her, and she sat up straight. 'And you…' She shot him a calculating look. 'You'd be willing to show me?' she asked, the doubt evident in her voice.
'Believe me, Miss Granger, I may resent the loss of this estate. But neither am I so stupid as to hold a grudge against you – after all, you were most emphatically not the one who confiscated my property – nor am I sufficiently pusillanimous to rejoice at your inability to discover what I cannot enjoy anymore.'
Hermione had to admit to herself that he'd got her. Hate, fury and invectives would have provoked nothing but cold scorn on her part. Flattery and compliments would have made her slam down the visor immediately. But Malfoy's ability to reason where others would have tried a violent or sycophantic approach – that was something she admired. 'Well, in that case…' Trying to mask her sudden nervousness, she poured more lemonade for both of them. 'Just let me know whenever it's convenient for you to start.'
'And this,' Lucius said, 'is what finally convinced your mother she was in love with me.' He flicked his wand at the gryphon-headed taps. 'Especially the one that scrubs your back. See?' Sitting down on the broad marble rim of the tub, he motioned for the tap to move closer to the little boy's back.
At first, the grey eyes under the frizzy mop of blond hair went wide with fright, but then Claudius started to grin broadly, thus showing off two impressive upper incisors.
'I knew you were going to like it,' Lucius said. 'You are your mother's son, without any doubt. And since this lovely tub played such an important part – she succumbed to our combined charms the very first day…'
'Lucius Malfoy! You of all people ought to be aware that altering historical facts is a dangerous thing!'
He turned to look at his wife. 'Of course, my dear. But I suppose you will agree that sometimes the anecdote, for all its lack of historical exactitude, is able to convey a much more poignant sense of historical truth than a mere rendition of bare facts. Just think of Caesar, he almost certainly never said "Et tu Brute", but-'
'The historical truth, my darling, is that you practically begged for it, after a month of totally unsuccessful attempts at seducing me.'
'To a Malfoy – who, by the way, never begs – a month of unsuccessful attempts is but a day,' Lucius retorted. 'Time is such a relative notion.'
Hermione's eyes narrowed. 'What about time spent on the couch, all by yourself?'
'A mere hour would be to me as a century.' His smile became a little predatory.
The handsome bastard, she thought. He may be a bastard, but he was still handsome. She'd been right the first time round.