The tension was palpable in the oh so quaint little English street, somewhere in a medium-sized town the Fidelius charm forbids me to disclose.
"I had no idea you visited these parts."
"Nor I you… and bearing flowers, too…"
The blond threw the bunch of delicate orchids he had been holding into the gutter, in a gesture reminiscent of Pyrrhus standing over the smoldering ruins of Heraclea. Severus cast one last dejected look at his own dainty little parcel of chocolates, and let them fall on the pavement with a soft 'splotch'.
They looked up into each other's eyes, tense, decades of Death Eating so close to the surface that a potential casual observer would no doubt have heard the unsaid, lethal hexes each of them thought about.
"A duel it is, then." Lucius was smiling, but somehow it conveyed anything but cordiality.
"Your choice of weapons," Severus added dejectedly.
"My witness will contact you," Lucius answered just a little too soon.
"You aren't going to go to her?" Severus asked, his tone reverberating every drop of the injured surprise he felt at such intended perfidy.
"No more than you are," Lucius replied, his voice so acid it could have melted holes in the ground.
"Let us not part company, then," Severus said darkly.
"Shall we go to the Manor…?" Lucius offered.
"Do take me along," Severus said as he offered his left hand, his right one clutching his wand.
Hermione looked out her window. This was strange, no one had called on her yet. Usually either Severus or Lucius would 'pass by', bringing some small gift or other and making a rather unsubtle attempt to ingratiate themselves with a war hero. They were quite attaching, really, one couldn't refuse to see them… that was why she'd allowed them both into her Fidelius. Their company was quite agreeable… well, not tonight, obviously. She reached back for her book and resumed reading. Quiet evenings were not that bad… were they?
"So, this duel?" Lucius asked, fully aware of the wand trained on him.
"Do you want us to fight in your parlour, really?"
"No, not really – I would hate to see the wall paintings damaged – but it is too dark outside to fight properly, is it not?"
"I am given to understand that dawn is the traditional time for such rituals…"
"Dawn it is, then. And the weapon?"
Severus marked a hesitation. He could beat Lucius at anything, he was sure of that… better leave him the choice of arms, that way his own victory couldn't be contested, and Hermione would be his, his, his-
"I believe you think yourself the offensé, Lucius. Your choice."
"Would you care to step into the library? It is more pleasant there, I will not be accused of not being a good host…"
Harry's voice rang through the Floo network."
"Ron and I are going out for a couple of drinks – care to join us?"
"Hermione looked up from her Arithmancy treatise. Why not? She needed a break every now and then, and if neither of 'her' wizards cared to show up, well, she'd go out!
"I'll be right with you – no, wait, it's clear and dry outside, I'll walk a bit and Apparate later. See you in a moment!"
The blond wizard thought hard as they both walked into the library. Severus would best him in a traditional wizard's duel, bar a stroke of luck – and who would wager courtship to Hermione on a mere stroke of luck? Not a Malfoy, certainly. Muggle weapons? Now that would be so wonderfully ironical, seeing as they were both rivals for a Muggleborn's attention, obsessed with pure blood as they had once been… but then weren't Muggle semi-barbarians where weapons were concerned? They could actually hurt themselves with any of the swords Abraxas used to collect, and as for the pistol collection that had once belonged to great-uncle Rupert, well, those were just as likely to blast the hand of whoever dared hold them as their opponent's. No, no, it had to be something relatively harmless, something he was good at, think, Lucius, think, there is a lot at stake here…
"Have you decided yet? Getting a bit slow with old age, are you?" Severus' sarcasm would have been insulting in any other circumstance. Right now, it sounded more… threatening.
A drinking contest, perhaps? Severus couldn't hold his liquor… but wasn't that a bit too… juvenile?
"Would you like me to brew a wit-enhancing potion, perhaps?"
…but then the witch was about half his age. Juvenility it was.
"Have you ever heard of poker, Severus?"
Hermione locked and warded her door before stepping into the street. She was lucky it had stopped raining, the ground was quite wet… what were those? Who would throw flowers away like this? This was strange.
"Poker? But that is a… game, I believe?"
"It is indeed, as long as the stakes are low. It can more… dangerous."
"Do you mean for us to play this game, and for the loser to desist?"
"Let us not be so unsubtle. After each round, the loser will have to drink a glass of brandy. Dawn is a long time away from now… I have every reason to believe that one of us at least will be too drunk by then to go declare their flame to the object of our interest."
"That sounds… interesting. But what if neither of us make it?"
Lucius smiled ferally.
"You lack imagination, my dear friend. If one of us were to render their opponent too inebriated to apparate, what would prevent him from leaving him right here, dawn or not, and go to join the fair damsel on his own?"
"And the game would be, of course, to induce said opponent to follow him and to splinch himself, as he tried to tag along…"
"Exactly," Lucius answered.
A splinching was a public event of sorts since a Ministry team had to be sent off to collect the various bits and parts of the unfortunate witch or wizard. It could even make its way to the newspapers… there would be no contesting the defeat.
"Let us begin, then," Severus replied tersely.
Hermione bent down to collect one of the ruined flowers. It looked like a genuine orchid! How very odd. Were there any other clues… she spotted what looked like an unopened chocolate box lying in the gutter and turned it over with the tip of her shoe.
Something not quite kosher had been going on in these parts, she decided. One did not accidentally drop both the flowers and the chocolate.
"This is a new deck of cards," Lucius said.
Severus lifted an eyebrow and examined it himself before casting a revealing charm. Lucius snapped his fingers.
"Mopsy? Deal the cards – three at first, then two more. And then please fill the glasses with equal doses of brandy, yes, Elf, all of them! Good. You may dispose."
"You don't look like your normal self, Hermione. Is something troubling you?"
"No- yes. There is something – I ought to research this, I-"
"Ah, come on, don't be such a bore, you're always researching things, take a break! Here, have a pint!"
Hermione cast one glance at Harry, another at Ron. They were both so sweet, really, and her friends too: she couldn't deny them an evening together at the pub, now could she?
Five hours later…
"Pair of… hics!... queens!"
"Thassnot a pair, thassa single, card, cheater!"
"Nonono, hic! This here," Severus punctuated his affirmation with a smack of the index against the table, which missed the table by a few inches but did a great job of smacking his own thigh instead, "Ouch! This here, is the queen of spades. But, hic," and he rummaged in his cards with both hands, "this is the queen of hearts!"
Lucius narrowed his eyes so as to discern what cards he held himself with some greater measure of clarity. It was all a bit blurry… He didn't have a queen, that much seemed irrefutable… except Hermione, of course, but she wasn't his queen quite yet, was she? He had to beat Severus first. Ah, yes, beat Severus! To a pulp!
He tried to look up to his opponent but his cards were in the way. With a properly sur-human effort, he lifted the cards to glance beneath them.
Severus had slumped down on the table, over his – now undisputed – pair of queens. Ah, good. He wasn't up to apparate now, was he? Lucius was free to go himself, wasn't he?
"Sweet Hermione, here I come!" he cried, standing up and collapsing straight back on his chair. Since when did Malfoy Manor undulate so, he wondered, reaching for the table. With the help of the solid oak, he managed to right himself once more.
"You're, hic, not going anywhere!" Severus interrupted, his wand suddenly in hand.
Hermione sighed with relief. They were her friends, and they were nice, but the evening had been a tad longer than she'd expected, and she did have something to investigate. Now – the two wizards must have met in front of her door. The confrontation must have been, well, confrontational, hence the offerings in the gutter, and they had disappeared. She should track them down, really, just to make sure nothing had happened…
The distinctive sound of apparation jerked both wizards out of their silent, wands-out, staring match. The floor took the opportunity to swing violently from under Lucius' feet, and he landed on the carpet with a dull thud.
"What in Merlin's name is going on here?" Hermione demanded, hands on her hips.
"I won!" Lucius cried out. "He can't go to you now…"
The blond wizard proceeded to crawl to her, on all fours, and crouched up on one wobbly knee, an arm swung around her knee for stabilisation reasons.
"Willyer marry me?"
Hermione blinked. He actually sounded hopeful and sincere, if very, very drunk.
"It's not faiiiiir!" Severus whined from his chair. "I haven't spill- spin- pinched myself!"
Hermione retrieved her vial of Sobering Potion from within her inner robe pocket. One just did not go to the pub with one's childhood best friends without proper supplies…
"So," concluded a newly sober Severus a few moments later, "I had the pair of queens, so I won. Lucius is to stop courting you now!"
"That is not true," Lucius retorted, "it is quite evident that I was not as drunk as you were, so-"
"Enough!" Hermione interrupted. "Don't I get a say in this?"
Both wizards stopped in their tracks and looked at each other. Why hadn't they thought of this before? they wondered. Witches prefer blonds, Lucius calculated. Witches know that wizards with long noses…, Severus reasoned. She would rule in their favour, she had to-
"Good," Hermione went on. "So, I do get my pick between the two of you, do I not?"
She looked at the one, then at the other.
Choosing one of them over the other would mean a lifelong enmity with a powerful wizard – and a companion perhaps a bit too smug of having been chosen.
Choosing neither of them was what any right-thinking witch would do – there were many more fish in the sea, after all.
But she was no normal witch. She was a war hero, damn it, and if that didn't allow her to act as she bloody well pleased, what would. Besides, wizarding society was more than ripe for a bit of scandal.
Her decision was taken.
"I'll take you both," she said. "At the same time."
Their twin looks of bewilderment, disappointment, cautious interest and, eventually, keen appraisal of each other was priceless.
Hermione smiled to herself.
"So, gentlemen, shall we go upstairs?" she concluded.