CHAPTER SEVEN

Hermione, whose heart was not only warm and loving, as Severus had so correctly stated, but also a lot more romantic than even those who knew her best would have believed, Hermione would have liked nothing better than for father and son to cross the ten yards or so separating them running, to fall into each other's arms and pat each other's backs while holding back their tears in a manly fashion.

They didn't, however. They crossed the distance quite slowly and managed a handshake. Lucius's voice was trembling slightly when he said, 'Hello Draco. It is a pleasure to see you.'

Her desire for heart-warming drama thus thwarted, Hermione turned to Luna. 'How on earth did you manage…'

'I think,' Severus's voice – the classroom voice, the one that carried effortlessly and made people stop in mid-movement – bit through the incipient clamouring, 'we ought to adjourn to the living room. There are many questions to be asked, and many matters to be discussed, and, happy as we are to have these guests here, they cannot stay too long, as that might hold considerable risks for all of us.'

Apparently he had already given orders to Tipsy, for when the procession of seven entered the living room, the table was groaning with refreshments, and seven chairs had been grouped around it.

The three hosts had eaten breakfast not too long ago, but obviously the shock of their allies appearing out of the blue (or rather, green) in the garden had made them hungry again. While the tea and coffee were passed around and everybody was busy selecting nibbles, Hermione just had to ask her question, otherwise she was sure her head would explode.

'Luna' she said to the young woman sitting opposite her, 'please tell me: How did you manage to get everybody here?'

The slightly protruding blue eyes briefly came to rest on her, and then returned to the fireplace, which seemed to hold some obscure interest. 'Oh,' Luna said in a faraway tone of voice, 'That? That was easy.'

Draco slid his arm around Luna's shoulders and affectionately kissed her temple. 'Did you hear that, Granger? It was easy.' He grinned.

'Don't be such a prat, Draco!' Then, the penny dropped. 'You two are…'

'Your powers of observation haven't diminished, I see. Yes, Granger, she's my girlfriend, we're shacking up together, and so she just towed me along. I was sure that we hadn't been the only ones you contacted. I mean, if you and father had managed to find a way to get two letters out of this… prison, you of all people wouldn't have relied on one single chance, and certainly sent more. McGonagall seemed like the most reasonable choice. When she told us that she'd got a letter, but from Severus, not you, we were sure that the three of you had to be in this together. A very comforting thought, I must say.'

Luna smiled dreamily and snaffled the last cucumber sandwich from under her boyfriend's already outstretched hand with surprising precision. 'I floo-called Bogglesworth yesterday, after receiving your letter. I told her there was a rumour Blossomwood was infested by a plague of six-legged Heffalumps – one really shouldn't say such things lightly, because six-legged Heffalumps are no joking matter – but it was the best I could think of. So I asked her if I could pay a visit, merely to make sure that this was gossip and totally untrue, and I mentioned something about maybe doing a piece about all the war heroes at Blossomwood.' She took a bite of her sandwich and absentmindedly fed the other half to Draco, who was squirming under Hermione's amused glance. 'She accepted,' Luna continued, 'and so I called Rita – we'd already worked together on that interesting piece about the Goblins planning to destroy the wizarding economy – and it turned out that she'd received a letter as well. And here we are.' She smiled happily at everybody and then whispered something in Draco's ear.

Lucius, who had been listening in stony-faced silence, cleared his throat. 'And how long have you been, er, shacking up with Miss Lovegood?'

'We met in France, about three months ago, when Luna was trailing the… Er, what exactly were you trailing, darling?'

'I wasn't trailing anything, Draco. I was trying to get an interview with Nostradamus, who as you know, was reborn three years ago.'

'I see,' Lucius said, but his tone of voice gave the impression that he didn't really. 'Erm, well, congratulations, Draco.'

That had obviously been the right thing to say – Hermione let out a silent breath she'd been holding since Lucius asked his question – because Draco gave his father a broad smile. 'Thanks, father. I do hope you'll come and visit us once you're out of here.'

Lucius stiffened slightly. 'I… don't think I would enjoy being a visitor at a house that used to be my home,' he said slowly. 'But I am sure that a meeting can be arranged.'

'A house that used… Oh, the Manor. No, we don't live there. Too big, really, and not very comfy. You can have the old pile back once you're out,' Draco said. 'And the money, of course. I'm Uncle Brutus's business partner now, and Luna's, and I'm making heaps of money. I really don't need yours, after all, it belongs to you.'

'That is…' Lucius took a deep breath. 'That is very generous, Draco. Are you sure-'

'Of course I'm sure. And now' – Draco looked at the people assembled around the table – 'I think it's time we did some plotting. We don't have all day, you know?'

vvv

And plot they did.

It was agreed that Skeeter – who was, as Severus had suspected, by now on rather hostile terms with the Prophet, who continually refused to print her contributions – would first write a neutral but slightly critical piece on Blossomwood. No interviews as of yet, merely a description of how the patients were being kept, what therapy they received, and so on. If the Prophet was ready to bring it, well, that would give the conspirators the advantage of the Prophet's readers being at least reminded that there was such a thing as Blossomwood, and that the heroes of the Last Battle were still alive, but that things maybe weren't quite all right.

'We'll be walking a very fine line,' Skeeter said. 'We have to make them feel guilty, but not too guilty. They don't like that.'

And if, they all agreed, the Prophet refused to print that first piece, the Quibbler was to step in.

'First,' Draco said, chewing his quill, 'I think we ought to have a short article on how the Prophet has become Scrimgeour's mouthpiece over the years, they're completely under his thumb, etcetera, the usual.'

'As if people didn't know that,' McGonagall huffed.

'Well, you see, they may know that, but they don't really mind. If something like this were to happen in France, there'd be an uproar, immediately. They have a very different kind of political culture there.'

'They didn't have Voldemort,' Severus observed.

'No, they didn't, and who knows how things might have gone if they had. Anyway, we'll have maybe one or two articles, two weeks apart I'd say, so as to prepare the ground. And then, a special edition dedicated to Blossomwood. That ought to do the trick, and that's where you come in, Professor,' he said to McGonagall.

It pained Hermione to see how deep the traces were that the war had left on her favourite teacher. McGonagall had never quite recovered from the stunning spells fired at her five years ago, but more than that it was the constant grief that had marked her face. Despite of her brisk and sometimes prickly demeanour, the former Head of Gryffindor had loved her students as if they were her own children, and always tried to keep contact with as many of them as possible after they left Hogwarts. The loss of so many young people, not only from her own house, seemed to somehow have diminished her, she looked frail and almost translucent. But something of her old strength was gleaming in her eyes when she addressed Draco.

'What would you have me do?' she asked.

'I think,' Draco said slowly, 'that we'd have to do a lengthy interview with you. But' – he shot her an uncertain look – 'you'd have to delve into the memories of some of the patients here, if they consent of course. My father, Severus, Granger, Weasley, the lot. Only… I'm not sure… I mean it won't be easy for you to revisit all those things you'd probably rather forget.'

'Nonsense!' McGonagall made a brisk gesture of impatience. 'These people are being unlawfully detained, and we need to get them out of here. That's my first objective. If we manage to create a scandal big enough that Scrimgeour has to resign, well, I can't say I'd regret that. But, as I said, the people currently interned here are more important than any political agenda. I gave my word to do everything in my power to achieve that goal, and if that means I have to look at unpleasant memories, who am I to complain?'

'That's the spirit!' Draco said, but at the same time rolled his eyes at Hermione's expression of blissful admiration. 'So, the professor will be able to tell the public at large' – he started counting the items off his fingers – 'what the patients here at Blossomwood have done for this country, how they were forced or at least persuaded to consent to staying here, what kind of treatment they get – or don't get, as the case may be. We'll try to fix interviews with the Healers, too, and we'll of course do exclusives with the three of you.'

At this point Hermione decided that, just for once, she didn't have to raise her hand in order to be called upon, to impress everybody else with her knowledge and intelligence. Maybe it was due to having spent two weeks with two wizards whose sometimes astonishing insights stemmed from careful observation, or maybe it was that mix of tiredness and euphoria that had overcome her when she realized that they had friends who were willing to risk a lot for them, so she didn't have to push and goad and nag – whatever the reason, Hermione decided to tune out the debate and merely watch the people gathered around the table. And what she saw during that silent observation, so uncharacteristic of her, was certainly worth giving up her role as resident know-it-all for a while.

Draco had changed. He had changed so much that she could hardly believe her eyes. She had last seen him in their sixth year at Hogwarts, and even back then there had been something different about him – now she did of course know that it had mostly been badly hidden anxiety. But the differences were far more obvious now. He was wearing his hair very short, and his face that had always been narrower than his father's had filled out a little. There were faint lines running from his nostrils to the corners of his mouth, and he seemed more serious, more mature. But the most noteworthy change had taken place in the way he spoke and behaved: Gone was the arrogant drawl, gone was the aloofness, and gone was the desire to become a carbon copy of his father. He was affectionate towards Luna, respectful towards McGonagall. When he was speaking to his father, there was a vulnerability about him which Hermione would never have believed him capable of feeling and much less showing in public.

Her eyes swerved towards Lucius. She had trouble suppressing a fond smile, which would have been totally out of place, as the discussion was becoming rather heated at this point. Lucius was obviously happy but afraid to believe it. She watched his eyes straying towards his son every few seconds. When their eyes met, Lucius looked quickly away, but when Draco was talking to somebody on the other side of the table, the icy grey eyes remained on him with cautious fondness.

She observed McGonagall, who from time to time exchanged a look of complicity and a warm smile with Severus.

She saw the expression on Luna's face when Draco talked or smiled to her, or when he touched her hand.

All this made her happy but at the same time sad. Life had gone on out there, people were living their lives, falling in love… But she was imprisoned at Blossomwood – true, she had Lucius and Severus as her companions, but if the Big Plan really worked out, and they'd be free within a few weeks, what was she going to do? Would she be able to cope? Would she be capable of leading a real life, with a job and friends and all those small things which set a life apart from a mere existence?

Suddenly she felt so afraid that she had to excuse herself and run off to her room, where she started crying, grabbing a rather uncooperative Crookshanks and holding him close for comfort.

vvv

She must have fallen asleep, and woke up when somebody knocked at her door. 'Come in!' she said, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. She could feel they were swollen.

Lucius, who was carrying a tray – that would be the perfect disguise for him to wear to a costume ball, absolutely unrecognizable, she thought – was followed by Severus, who held a bottle of wine and three glasses in one hand, and a vial in the other.

'Are you feeling better now?' Lucius asked. He put the tray down on her bedside table. A bowl of soup and a spoon had been placed on it.

Severus sat down on the bed, while Lucius summoned himself an armchair and started uncorking the bottle. He gave her a worried look. 'You've been crying, haven't you?'

'Crying?' Lucius leant forward to examine her in the faint light of the candle on the bedside table. 'We thought that you'd had too much to eat, and had to leave because you felt sick. So she won't need the Antiquease potion,' he remarked to Severus.'

Hermione could only mutely shake her head, for she felt like crying again. She felt stupid, and weak, and she was sure of being a burden to the two men who looked so cheerful, although both were visibly worrying about her.

Severus stroked her leg. 'No, I don't think the little lioness has overeaten. There's something else wrong with her, and I would very much like to know what it is.' He got up and went around the bed, to sit on Hermione's right side with his back against the headboard, while Lucius took the same position at her left.

'What is it, sweet?' Lucius asked. 'You seem thoroughly unhappy.' He handed each of them a glass and, having taken a sip from his own, put an arm around her. 'Why don't you tell us?'

The tears wanted out, and she tried in vain to hold them back. 'It's stupid!' she bit out in a last attempt to gain control over her emotions. 'It's stupid, and I don't want to tell you, because it's so fucking stupid!'

Lucius's hand was massaging her shoulder, and Severus's fingers began to stroke her hair. 'If it makes you feel so bad on a day like this, it cannot be stupid. It has to be something really, really serious.'

'Don't you feel it?' She looked at the two wizards in turn. 'I can't be the only one… Or maybe I am. Maybe I am mad, just like Blackendale said, that stupid git who calls himself a Healer. But maybe he's right about this, and I'm really crazy, so of course nobody feels what I feel!'

'Hermione.' Severus's hand continued caressing her curls while he spoke. 'You are one of the sanest people I know. Why don't you have a little wine, and then just tell us what has upset you so?'

She nodded, wiped the tears off her cheeks with the heel of her hand, and took a few sips of wine. Swirling the liquid around in her glass, she thought that she really ought to confide in them. She didn't have any other friends, not right now, and probably not at all. And they were in the same situation as herself, so maybe they would be able to understand. And they really seemed to care.

She took another sip of wine and briefly enjoyed the pleasant warmth spreading outwards from her stomach. 'I was looking at… at them,' she began hesitantly, 'And somehow it struck me how much they had changed, and that all those changes came from having real lives, out there. Real lives, you know. Draco and Luna are together, and they have to run a newspaper, and Skeeter seemed a lot more human, maybe because she finally understood that she has a responsibility, or maybe because she had to experience for herself what it means to be mobbed and pointed at. I'm sure it wasn't a pleasant experience, but at least it was life, something where she was able to make her own choices, whether right or wrong, but they were her own…' She took another sip and looked first at Severus, then at Lucius. 'I'm not making any sense, am I?'

Lucius leaned over to kiss her forehead. 'You're actually making quite a lot of sense. I can understand you, to a certain degree, although age seems to be an important factor here. Severus and I, we both had a life before the war. You didn't. You went from school straight to Grimmauld Place, from there to a horrible battle, and from there to Blossomwood. You know nothing about life, and pretty little about the wizarding world, you don't belong to the Muggle world anymore, and you're mortally afraid that you won't be able to lead a normal life. Do I get the picture?'

Hermione stared at him. 'Yes, you do. And you don't seem to think it's stupid.'

'No, I don't. And neither, I am sure, does Severus. Who, I may add, might be able to empathize a lot better than I.'

'Why… Oh.' She looked at Severus over her shoulder. 'Yes, that makes sense. Hogwarts doesn't really prepare one for the world out there, whether you're a teacher or a student.' She scrutinized the contents of her wineglass thoughtfully. 'But… Please don't get the impression that I'm starting a misery competition here, but not only am I completely unprepared – I mean, I think I could cope with that – but I'll be twenty-one come September, and I don't have any kind of professional training. I don't have a family anymore, I don't have a single knut… That's what makes it all so very frightening.'

'I can imagine,' Severus said sympathetically. 'Being a war veteran-'

'Blackendale called me that, so don't you'-

Lucius squeezed her shoulders. 'What's so bad about being called a veteran?'

'Muggle thing probably,' she replied gruffly. 'Makes me think of gnarled old men in uniform, with lots of medals and at least one wooden prosthesis.'

It took Lucius a few seconds to digest that information. 'Like Moody, you mean?'

'Yes, that's – it's not funny, Severus!'

'Well you have to admit that the comparison is very slightly funny.'

'A bit,' she admitted.

'But there's one thing I don't get,' Lucius tried to steer the conversation back on track. 'What do you mean when you say you don't have any professional training? If I remember correctly, you passed your N.E.W.T.s, didn't you?'

'She scored Outstanding in every subject she took,' Severus supplied, 'And that was only because there wasn't anything better than Outstanding.'

Lucius refilled their glasses. 'I really don't quite see the problem. With results like that, you'll have to fend off potential employers. Unless of course,' he added lightly, 'you prefer to get married to some bloke who's totally undeserving of such a fine witch, and have a bunch of frizzy-haired brats.'

'I don't think that's anywhere on my agenda.'

The two men exchanged a smile over her head. 'In that case,' Lucius said, 'I am willing to do my first good deed ever and offer two unoccupied stragglers the hospitality of Malfoy Manor, if they want it of course.'

'As good deeds go,' Hermione countered – but she had trouble concealing her obvious pleasure, 'this one isn't a very good Good Deed, because of its appalling lack of altruism.'

'Oh.' Lucius shot her a look of mock-surprise. 'Is altruism a criterion for Good Deeds to be recognized as such?'

'Some people do seem to think so,' Severus said.

'What a pity. And there I was thinking of myself as a thoroughly reformed character…'

Hermione giggled. 'Never mind. Anything that is likely to give the Average British Wizard a fit of hysterics may be counted as a Good Deed. Not to mention Molly Weasley…'

'Hm.' Lucius took a sip of wine. An evil grin slowly spread across his face. 'One might consider inviting the whole Weasley tribe to the house warming party. One might indeed.'

vvv

Since none of the three had expected anything to happen the next seven days or so, waiting for the events to come was much easier than it had been after they'd sent off their letters.

After their allies – whom they now knew and not merely hoped to be allies – had visited them, a certain serenity had settled in, which wasn't diminished in any way even by Lucius's occasional fits of moodiness. All three were sure – although to varying degrees – that the strategy they'd come up with was going to work in some way or other. They had learned their lesson, though, from the unexpected appearance of their visitors and so Lucius's hair was carefully hidden under a partial dissimulating spell, and so were Hermione's re-grown fingers. Severus had opted for the simple expedient of enlarging his robes, so that they were two sizes too big for him and hung on his sinewy body as they had done before the combination of potion and spell had restored both his health and his magic.

Thus, they were more than a little surprised but by no means unprepared when Bogglesworth showed up at their refuge, as they had come to consider it, at the end of their third week of exile, as the Senior Healer probably still thought of it.

She entered the living room when they were just having breakfast. Hermione's intense sense of relief – at least she hadn't intruded on one of their dinners, for they would've had considerable difficulties explaining the linen, cutlery and dishes bearing the Malfoy crest, or on their nightly activities – was immediately replaced by a sensation of intense dread. She cast discreet sideways glances at her two male companions. Being the Slytherins they were, they projected nothing but calm and a boredom that was being only marginally counteracted by curiosity.

'Good morning,' Bogglesworth greeted them. She summoned a chair and sat down between Lucius and Severus.

The three returned the greeting.

'I think,' Bogglesworth said, in the brisk and efficient tone of voice she always used with the patients – probably, Hermione thought, to make them feel brisk and efficient by extension or osmosis or something like that, 'that it is time for you to return to the main building and continue your therapy there.'

Hermione decided to let the two men handle this situation. She was much too overcome by fear and confusion – not that she doubted for a single moment that Lucius or Severus were prey to exactly the same emotions, but they were a lot better at dissimulating them – to do much more than force her face into a mask of impassivity. But she could keep that mask only if she didn't have to talk.

'Really?' Lucius said, bending forward and eyeing Bogglesworth with an expression of utter interest. 'So the Ministry has finally increased your budget. Congratulations, Senior Healer Bogglesworth.'

The grey-haired witch was momentarily reduced to a state of total speechlessness. 'How,' she began but had to clear her throat because the pitch of her voice was a little too high to befit a Healer of her experience and calibre. 'How did you come by that information?'

'Simple deduction,' Severus explained. Lucius leant back in his chair and crossed his arms, giving every impression of enjoying the spectacle which, to judge by his air of supreme arrogance, had been staged only for his amusement. Since Bogglesworth was now glaring at Severus, he gave Hermione a reassuring smile and winked at her.

'Mister Snape, You would do well to explain where you got this piece of information!'

'As I said, it was simple deduction, and no doubt Mr Malfoy here will confirm that. If I remember correctly' – Hermione noticed that he was now in full classroom mode – 'one of the main reasons you cited for sending me… and the others, of course, to this, er, outbuilding, was the amount of money our therapy cost the Average British Wizard.'

'Or witch,' Hermione just couldn't refrain from adding.

'Or indeed, witch,' Severus said gravely.

'Therefore,' Lucius took over smoothly, 'if you intend to, er, reintegrate the, er, prodigal sheep into the, er flock…' He made a lengthy pause. 'Because I would never dare to assume that you might have, er, misled us as to the true motives of our, er, exile.' He gave her the smile that had reduced dozens of witches to obedient, hormone-driven puppets.

Even Hermione, who had seen him in his less glorious and more vulnerable moments, had some major trouble resisting that smile. Bogglesworth did, of course, succumb.

'That's, uh, well…' She passed a hand over her grim hairstyle and giggled. 'That's true, Mr Malfoy, I would of course never…'

'Of course you wouldn't.' Lucius leaned towards her and briefly touched her forearm. 'Not a Healer of your calibre. You may have your doubts on my behalf, Senior Healer Bogglesworth, but I do admire people who deem their professional ethics to be their most valuable possession.'

'That's… well, I… really, this is undeserved praise. I mean, everybody would-'

'You must be joking.' The smile vanished from Lucius's face, only to be followed by a dark cloud of deep but controlled distress. 'Even though some may have the purest of intentions, so few have the courage to follow through with them.' His right hand came to rest on his heart. 'May I say that I'm deeply honoured to have encountered one of those who still-'

Hermione had been absolutely sure that this last spoon of sugar had over-sweetened the cake. But obviously Lucius was a better judge of character. The bite went down smoothly and the patient didn't fall into a sugar coma.

'Don't flatter me,' Bogglesworth interrupted him. Her tone of voice now reminded Hermione of Professor Umbridge. 'Really, Mr… Lucius, you have formed too high an opinion of me.'

This time he didn't contradict her. If there really was a devil, Hermione thought, he ought to be taking Remedial Temptation with Lucius Malfoy. That man was capable of playing a human being like an instrument, with a deadly virtuosity that probably made the saints consider going on a holiday to hell, merely for the good company.

'So,' Healer Bogglesworth took a different approach (Hermione almost felt sorry for her, because she thought she was being so clever), 'Lucius, how do you feel about returning to your room in the main building?'

'I really couldn't…' Lucius gave a deep sigh. 'I couldn't say, really, I haven't been in contact with my emotions very much lately.'

Hermione had to pretend she was choking on a sip of coffee. Where had he got that catch phrase from? 'I'd really rather leave that decision to your superior judgement, Senior Healer Bogglesworth.'

There was a lot of things one might criticize about Lucius's way of monopolizing conversations, situations and lives, Hermione thought when Bogglesworth had left. But sometimes – and that day was such a time – one really and truly had to thank the deities for the gift of boundless narcissism they'd bestowed on the man.

vvv

Back at the main building, Senior Healer Bogglesworth was having a hard time defending the decision she'd just made – although, if she was absolutely honest with herself, she had no idea what had made her change her mind – against Minister Scrimgeour. She'd floo-called him immediately after her return from the not quite successful mission she'd been sent on by the Minister.

'It is certainly not better to leave them where they are,' Scrimgeour bellowed. 'If I believed it was, I wouldn't have told you to get them back to their rooms by tonight! Skeeter and that harridan McGonagall visiting Blossomwood is not a matter to be trifled with! Haven't you been reading the papers?'

'I have a retirement home to deal with.' Bogglesworth was sounding more and more stubborn. 'I don't have time to read the papers.'

'You'd have done well to sacrifice some of your precious time to reading the Quibbler! They're constantly attacking us-'

'What exactly do you mean by "us"?' she interrupted him.

'By "us", my dear Belinda, I mean myself, the ministry and thus indirectly also you.'

Her hackles visibly raised, Bogglesworth countered, 'It may have escaped your attention, Rufus, but Blossomwood is not an institution under the authority of the Ministry. Or is your memory so short that you've already forgotten that you expressly desired it to be an independent body? So as not to create the impression that my patients may in any way be forcibly held by the government?'

'The funds come from the Ministry, my dear, and I've just augmented them by a not exactly negligible sum!'

'For which I am exceedingly grateful. Especially as this budget raise has rather come as a surprise, I have to say. As coincidences go, this one is truly… miraculous.' She smiled at the Minister's leonine head. 'But, just as you were saying, Blossomwood is an independent institution. So what's the point of mentioning the budget raise?'

'Don't play dumb,' Scrimgeour growled. 'I want those three back into the main building, and no further discussion! Just imagine,' he said, in a more conciliatory tone, 'what would happen if those two shrews made even the slightest allegation of anything… er, improper happening there?'

'Improper? Don't be daft, Rufus, those three are constantly at each other's throats! Either of the men would have to use Imperius to get the girl to do anything even remotely improper, and the house and gardens are heavily warded against Unforgivables, curses, hexes and the lot. Besides,' she continued, 'I have decided, after the proper consultations with my Healers of course, that four weeks of isolation will have a very salubrious effect on them. They were driving their therapists half mad, and there was no progress whatsoever that would have made the nervous breakdown of three staff members worth the while.'

'You ought to have chosen better Healers, then.'

'Rufus, I warn you. You're entering very dangerous territory here. If you dare to make so much as an attempt to put the blame on me – and I mean not only for Malfoy, Granger and Snape, I mean for this whole sorry travesty of a retirement home, I swear I'm going to tell Skeeter about your explicit order to use the medicines the Ministry sent us, and not those coming from the usual suppliers!'

Scrimgeour's face went ashen; the sudden change was visible even in the flickering light cast by the fire. 'You wouldn't-'

'Oh yes, I would. Or did you believe I'd never get suspicious? I'm not especially fond of Snape or Malfoy, but they're patients, for Asclepios' sake! Granger is a young girl, and I'm not allowed to restore her hand? Tonks is stuck with green hair and a troll's nose, not to mention her webbed feet, and I'm forbidden to do anything about it? It's a breach of professional ethics, that's what it is, esteemed Minister, and to tell you the truth, I'm fed up with it. In the beginning you told me that Blossomwood was to be an experiment, all right, I'm telling you that the experiment has failed. Let us stop it here and now, give me your word that you'll release those poor devils tomorrow, and I swear I'll keep my silence.'

'Oh, you'll keep your silence anyway, I believe,' Scrimgeour answered smoothly. 'Because, as you so correctly stated, what you and your troupe of blundering idiots have been doing to our war heroes is not merely a breach of professional ethics. Belinda, Belinda.' He shook his head. 'By deliberately neglecting to properly care for our heroes you have besmirched the memory of Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter, you have, indeed, slapped the faces of all those who suffered during the years of war… My, my… Just imagine – if the press were to somehow find out… They might even discover that the price difference between the potions you habitually use and the concoctions you ordered for Blossomwood went into your own pocket. What a pity that would be…'

Bogglesworth was clutching her throat. 'You… You wouldn't…'

'I think you know me well enough, my dear Belinda, to know that I would. Without hesitation.' He smiled and nodded. 'I have to go now – busy schedule, you know. Give my regards to Skeeter and McGonagall!'

When his head had vanished from the fireplace, Bogglesworth sat down on the hearth rug and cried.

vvv

They had another visit from Bogglesworth the next morning. Unlike the day before, she was looking rather flustered, nervous and not as sure of herself as she usually was.

'I'm afraid,' she began – this time she hadn't even sat down but remained standing and occasionally pacing, 'that some… well rather undesirable elements have got it into their heads to… er, well, to direct public attention to a place where nothing ought to disturb the placid atmosphere that is so vital for the occupants' peace and well-being.'

'You mean a cemetery?' Hermione asked cautiously.

Lucius bit his lower lip and was suddenly very interested in the state of his fingernails.

'Certainly not, Miss Granger. I am, of course, referring to Blossomwood.'

'What kind of… er, undesirable elements are you referring to then, Senior Healer Bogglesworth?' Severus inquired.

Lucius dropped the coffee cup he'd just been about to drink from. 'Please!' he exclaimed, wide-open grey eyes staring, hands raised in defence against the horrors to come. 'Please, not the Dementors! Please don't let them get me!'

He was so convincing that, for a second or so, Hermione did indeed believe him. But Severus, who was sitting with his back towards the Healer, rolled his eyes, and that persuaded Hermione that Lucius was indeed play-acting, though certainly at Oscar level (and certainly never as a supporting actor, she couldn't resist thinking).

Bogglesworth instantly snapped into Motherly-Healer mode and did her best to reassure her blond patient. 'No, of course not, Mr Malfoy! Please calm down, there is no reason to be afraid. Oh goodness, maybe I ought to have phrased my announcement more carefully… You don't have to be afraid of anything, Mr Malfoy, and neither of course' – she glanced at Severus and Hermione – 'do you.'

'Then maybe,' Severus said in a tone of mock-patience, 'you would care to enlighten us concerning the nature of the undesirable elements you are kind enough to regard as such, since they seem to be threatening our peace and… er, recovery.'

'Journalists,' Bogglesworth said. She pronounced the word in a sinister tone of voice, as the Great Inquisitor might have done when saying 'daemons'.

'Journalists?' Severus echoed. 'Now I begin to understand your distress, Healer. That… vermin really ought to be exterminated, every single one of them. They cause nothing but trouble!'

'Exactly my feelings.' Bogglesworth nodded.

'And how many of them are there?' Hermione ventured a question of her own.

'Two, but only one of them is strictly speaking a journalist. The other…'

'Ye-es?' Lucius was back from the realm of imaginary horrors and now wore the – by no means fake – expression of a very hungry cat eyeing a very juicy mouse.

'The other is Minerva McGonagall. Yes,' she said at their unanimous expressions, both verbal and mimic, of horrified surprise. 'Her of all people. And I can't even deny her request, because she is carrying an official letter from the French Minister of Magic who kindly asks permission for her to view the facilities on behalf of the International Wizengamot. The Minister' – she paused and inhaled deeply – 'the Minister has given his permission for them to visit the premises, although he did, of course, point out that the patients are not to be unduly harassed.'

Draco had obviously been pulling a few strings, and his puppets weren't of the kind one might easily ignore. Hermione mentally patted his shoulder.

'The problem is,' Bogglesworth went on, pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, 'that I could of course refuse them entrance, but you know how it is with journalists: Deny them and they'll immediately jump to conclusions.'

'Bastards,' Hermione said with feeling.

'Indeed.' Bogglesworth stopped her pacing and looked at the trio. 'The named a few patients they'd like to speak to, and you are among them. All three of you. Do you think you might…' The rest of the sentence remained suspended.

Severus sighed deeply. 'I can of course only speak for myself, but…' He paused, long enough to make her squirm. 'Considering the excellent care Blossomwood has been taking of me, it would be an act of supreme ingratitude, were I to refuse and thus drive the journalists to jump to any wrong conclusions. I am not enthusiastic, of course, but I do agree. For the greater cause, so to say.'

Lucius and Hermione expressed similar points of view, and expected Bogglesworth to leave. But she didn't. Instead, she perched uncomfortably and a bit awkwardly on one of the armchairs, looking pained but visibly lost for words.

Both men would have left her to squirm and have taken pleasure in what seemed more and more like anxiety. Hermione, though, didn't believe in the adage that revenge was a dish best served cold. Besides, she'd always attributed the Healers' apparent inability to help them more to lack of experience and knowledge than to lack of will. 'Is anything the matter?' she asked therefore, stepping closer to Bogglesworth.

'Yes… But I'm not sure… This is such a delicate situation, I hardly know how to…'

'You mean Scrimgeour doesn't want us to tell Skeeter how we came to be here?' Lucius said with a bluntness Hermione would never have believed him capable of.

But he'd definitely achieved his goal. Tears began to stream from the Healer's eyes, and it was a while before she was able to speak. 'I really shouldn't burden you with this,' she muttered, her voice still quavering. 'You are patients, and supposed to be in my care…'

'I think,' Severus observed acidly, 'that we've had enough of your care to last us a few lifetimes. Out with it, woman! What did our esteemed Minister have to say?'

So Bogglesworth reported the floo conversation of the evening before; and since unburdening her heart felt so good, she told them everything from the beginning. How she had been approached first by Percy Weasley, then by the Minister himself. How they'd lured her with the prospect of running her own retirement home, and with the assurance of its independence. How they'd hinted that the Heroes of the Last Battle would better be kept away from public life for some time, until everything had calmed down, until they could go back to leading normal lives. How they'd insinuated that this experiment might be a unique chance for the development of new ways of healing, especially the soul, especially if the patients involved were not to be magically cured of their physical handicaps, because invaluable lessons might be learned which would benefit future patients with incurable handicaps. How they's argued that Blossomwood was a worthwhile but horrendously expensive experiment, and that they might save on certain items like, for example the healing potions.

The three listened in grim silence. It wasn't the truth that came as a shock, it was the fact that they'd guessed it and been right.

Hermione was the first to speak. 'So he's blackmailing you.'

'He threatened, indirectly of course but it was clear enough, to destroy me if I told Skeeter anything of what I just told you.'

'And what,' Lucius asked, 'have you decided to do? Let him get away with it, intern us here forever?'

Bogglesworth shook her head so violently that strands of hair came free from her bun and stood out at strange angles. 'No! That's not what I want! I just don't know what to do – I won't be able to find employment ever again, if he exposes me. But I know that I won't be able to live with myself if I just pretend yesterday's conversation never took place. I can't.'

'Well,' Severus said slowly, 'I think it might be time for us to show you a few things. To, er, maintain the balance of power, so to speak.' He glanced at Lucius and Hermione, who nodded. 'Because if any of what you just told us gets out, there will be a scandal, and Scrimgeour won't have problems choosing his scapegoat. So…' He drew his wand and removed the spell from his robes, Lucius's hair and Hermione's hand. 'And that was just for starters. You are gaping like a fish, Senior Healer Bogglesworth. I assure you that this is not a very becoming expression.'

The Healer's face did indeed give a rather ichthyic impression. 'You did…' she said, gasping for air, 'You are… But I don't understand…'

'It's a rather long story,' Hermione said, patting the Healer's shoulder. 'I'm sure we'd be happy to tell it to you sometime, but now I think we ought to include you in a cunning little plan that involves pensieves, a ruthless journalist and my favourite teacher. Present company excluded, of course,' she added, giving Severus a sunny smile.

Seeing that smile, Bogglesworth reverted from incipient human to goldfish.

vvv

Four pensieves, filled to the brim and ready to be shrunk to pocket size, were standing on the sideboard. The Dictoquill had already been pocketed, and the five people currently occupying the living room were having a quiet afternoon tea.

Skeeter, who had specifically required cream for her tea, poured a generous measure into her cup, blissfully ignorant of the others' disapproving stares.

'Where on earth did you acquire this filthy habit, Rita?' Lucius inquired, barely able to suppress a shudder.

'You mean the cream? Oh…' She smiled. 'That goes a long way back. Your mother is to blame, of course. Don't you remember the lecture on good manners she gave me – needless to mention, it was completely uncalled for – before spraying acid all over my family tree?'

'It, uh, was a long time ago,' Lucius said, clearing his throat. 'I don't remember every detail – did she indeed talk about how to take one's tea?'

'She most certainly did, describing, unless I'm very much mistaken, the unforgivable faux pas of putting cream in one's tea as… wait… I think she said "As deeply disgusting as fornicating with Mudbloods", which was especially nice since my mother is muggleborn.'

Lucius coughed again. 'Did she indeed? I'm sure she didn't mean to deliberately insult you, but…' He shrugged. 'Mother very rarely cared whether she was insulting people.'

'Malfoy family trait, I'm sure,' Hermione said.

'Absolutely,' Severus agreed, 'And one of the top requirements for marrying into the family. By now it's in the genes and breeds true, so even if a Malfoy were by any chance to be orphaned and raised by foster parents, he'd overcome any attempt at education.'

'Badmouthing people who are in the same room as you, my dear friend, doesn't qualify as impeccable behaviour either, you know.'

'True, true. Then again, saying nasty things about you when you're not listening is only half the fun.'

McGonagall and Bogglesworth, who had been engaged in quiet conversation with their heads bent towards each other, both looked up at the same time.

'I think,' McGonagall said sharply, 'healing magic isn't all that has been going on here.'

'No,' Severus replied, giving her a winning and totally un-Snape-ish smile, 'we also did a lot of duelling.'

'And bathing,' Hermione chimed in. 'You should see the bathroom, it's lovely.'

'Not to forget the delicious food,' Lucius said. 'Once we'd pocketed that House Elf – metaphorically speaking of course – the little bugger proved to be quite useful.'

'Really,' Hermione said, 'we had quite a lot of fun.'

'But you seemed so… tense,' Bogglesworth objected, rather faintly. 'That is to say… that day when the wards went off…'

'A minor altercation,' Lucius replied smoothly, his voice a trickle of honey.

'Of course we were tense,' Hermione said, 'I mean, wouldn't you? We'd stolen Tipsy, made wands, healed each other… We did have quite a lot to hide.'

Skeeter remained quiet, and observed the trio out of narrow eyes. One could almost see the cogwheels turning. The dictoquill in its sheath of snakeskin was visibly quivering.

'Rita,' Lucius said amiably, 'what about a little stroll through the garden? I'd like to have a word with you.' On their way to the door, he turned and winked at Hermione and Severus.

'How's he going to prevent her from, you know, writing about us?' she whispered.

'There's always a way for a Slytherin,' he replied, squeezing her hand.

EPILOGUE

The picture of Minister Scrimgeour being led out of the Ministry building by a squad of definitely unfriendly-looking Aurors was on the front page of wizarding newspapers around the world.

Percy Weasley's exit through one of the Ministry's side doors didn't make the papers, but a Howler sent to his cell in the Ministry dungeons was certainly worse than being publicly viewed as a criminal. The jailers were still snickering when he was escorted to the Wizengamot five weeks later.

And the Heroes of the Last Battle were so happy that, upon leaving Blossomwood, they managed radiant smiles for the waiting journalists. This immediately got them the Average British Wizard's – and witch's, yes, Hermione! – sympathy. After all that loneliness and isolation, they all were longing for human contact, for talking and laughing. They were invited to so many parties that most of them managed to stay continuously drunk for about two months.

But one party, the greatest of them all, was still to come.

vvv

Lucius stretched and snuggled closer to Hermione. 'I really have to say that I am quite reluctant to leave this bed of wanton lust in order to dress up and pretend to enjoy watching a crowd of proles trampling through my house, drinking my champagne and slurping my oysters.'

'Since they're your oysters and your precious bottles,' Severus observed, removing Lucius's hand from Hermione's breast and putting his own hand there in a blatantly possessive fashion, 'that's not my main concern. But there's precious little time left before this ambitious young lady starts her internship, which is doubtlessly to be followed by a stellar career. Knowing her, this is going to turn into a bed of frustrated wanking.'

Hermione merely giggled.

'Very funny.' Lucius propped himself up on an elbow and glowered down at Severus. 'Knowing you, you'll be living in that disgusting lab and only come out if you need to buy supplies. If that's my rewards for offering two ingrates free access to my house, heart and soul…'

'If I may remind you,' Hermione finally joined the discussion, 'you've been away from the Manor two weeks out of the last month, Mr. Political Adviser to the Minister of Magic.'

'That,' Lucius said with inimitable arrogance, 'was merely to fulfil my patriotic duty.'

'Bollocks! You merely discovered that you and Minerva have the same vicious sense of humour! Don't even try to deny it!' Hermione poked his shoulder. 'She told me! Besides' – she rolled onto her back and drew both men towards her for two long, languid kisses that considerably raised the room temperature – 'I think we've all realized the importance of enjoying each other's company.'

'Enjoy?' Lucius raised an ironic eyebrow.

'You must be joking,' Severus said.

That was the end of the conversation.

They'd really got the hang of moving together, Hermione thought.

THREE MONTHS LATER – THE REAL AND FINAL EPILOGUE

'How kind of you to receive us, mother. You do, of course, remember Severus?'

'The scrawny, unwashed brat with the big nose? Yes, I think I do.'

'And this is, er, Hermione. She is head of Gringott's Muggle liaison office.'

'I was under the impression that somebody had developed a cure for victims of the Poodle curse…'

'Mother, do you think you might at least try to exhibit a modicum of courtesy? Just this once? As a personal favour to your only son?'

'I fail to see why I should. The people you insist on dragging to my house… Although these two are not as bad as that Riddle person you once invited to tea.'

'I think we ought to let bygones be bygones, mother. I admit that befriending Tom Riddle was one of my less fortuitous choices.'

'Well, I am glad that you finally admit your mistake. What about these two, then? I do hope they are not going to talk you into something foolish, as did Riddle. That tattoo looked awful.'

'This is definitely not about tattoos, mother.'

'Well, what is it about, Lucius? Do try to be a little more coherent.'

'I am trying, mother. This is about…'

'Well?'

'Friendship, I suppose. Probably more.'

'Friendship? Two men and one woman? That seems quite unusual. And you are living together?'

'Yes, mother. We are living together.''Lucius, look at me. Is this what people commonly refer to as a ménage à trois?'

'Yes, mother. It probably is.'

'How deliciously debauched. You have to tell me more about it — I will need some details in order to thoroughly embarrass my dear lady friends at the bridge club. Severus, Hermione, please follow me to the Blue Salon. Lucius, be a dear and pop over to have a look at the kitchen staff. Don't stand there gaping like a fish, just go. Well, now, Hermione, you must tell me exactly what...'

The door closed behind the three. Lucius remained where he was for a moment, smiling to himself.

Then he walked towards the kitchen.

Being a thoroughly happy man didn't mean that he couldn't kick a House Elf when Hermione wasn't looking, now did it?

FINIS