The Miserable Bastards Club
Hermione didn't think of Lucius as a friend, or even trustworthy, but when someone dangled bait in front of her about goblins and Ministry secrets, she was going to bite anyway. The thought that this was some sort of trap made her hesitate, hand on the Ministry Library door, for a second or so, but she couldn't see that knowing something would ever get her into trouble.
Knowledge was good.
She pushed the door open, and stepped into the only place in the Ministry she ever felt she could relax in.
That Hermione loved libraries was a given. It was therefore no surprise to anyone when the second place she searched out on joining the Ministry – the first was the loo, for practical reasons, and also to give her somewhere to hide from her boss – was the Ministry Library.
After Hogwarts, it seemed small and shabby, but it hadn't taken her long to work out that it held a damned fine collection of books, entirely unknown to her. Borrowing books from the library was the only perk her job afforded her above the pittance she was insulted with every month that was ironically entitled salary, as if anyone could live on it.
Hermione loved libraries, but it was a sad fact that librarians didn't love her. She made demands of them, expected them to find obscure books, knew that the first edition of that book was better than the second, and that the Scariton was more reliable than the Shrefton. She knew how to use the catalogue, the obscure shelf numbering system, and could wrestle the Darkest book into submission.
She was the piece of grit that blocked up the smooth running works of the Library. When she was around, books were out on loan, and there were ugly gaping wounds in the bookcases.
"Morning," she said to the empty room.
The Librarian popped his head above the counter, and blinked at her. "Oh, it's you. You haven't been in for ages, which isn't like you. I wondered if you'd been ill."
Hermione ignored the subtext that made it clear that it was rather more hoping than wondering.
She usually went two or three times a week, and borrowed her one-at-a-time permitted book, and started reading her way through the stacks, starting at alchemy and with the ultimate aim of reaching the books on Zoroastrianism and its influence on potions.
"I got bogged down on my last project," she replied, putting her copy of 'Arithmancy, and how to Rule the World" on the returns desk.
"No success with this then, I see. Not Minister yet." The Librarian allowed himself a small chuckle at his own joke.
"Not yet." Hermione smiled back, though the words stung. As far as she could see, Deputy Head of Department of Cauldron Depth was out of her reach.
The Librarian had gone from slightly surprised to see anyone borrow books they didn't need to read, to fighting a running battle with Hermione to stop her doing so. He had suggested wholly inappropriate and unhelpful titles and restricted her to one book at a time unless she had a note from her boss authorising additional borrowing.
Hermione had no idea what his first name was. He was just The Librarian.
He was also too important to deal with a mere minion such as herself, which was a relief for both of them. "Susan, here, will sort you out," he said, and then disappeared back under the counter.
If the Librarian didn't like Hermione, Susan did. They were both in the same position of working for someone less talented than themselves, who resented that bitterly, and missed no chance to let that be known.
Susan occasionally managed to sneak an extra book Hermione's way, or pointed out the more interesting books to read. Hermione looked at her – forty, greying, and with a permanent furrow in her brow from the strain of dealing with an idiot – and hoped she wasn't looking at her future.
Hermione moved away from the counter, deeper into the Library, where she wouldn't be overheard.
"So you'll be wanting to move onto Bookcase VIII," Susan said, following Hermione into the stacks. "There's a very entertaining book on Austromancy."
"Divination isn't exactly my thing..."
"It's rather a sideways look at the discipline, with the – how shall I put it? – emphasis rather more on the windiness of one's colleagues, than the actual divination."
Hermione snorted. "Perhaps another time. It does sound fun. But this time, I'm rather after something on the Goblin Wars. Someone has suggested to me that the version I was taught at Hogwarts wasn't entirely accurate."
Susan froze. "I don't think we have anything that answers that description. Er, who mentioned this to you?"
"Does it matter, if there's no truth in the suggestion?"
She gave Hermione a hard look. "If you know enough to ask about it, then you know enough to know that there might be some truth about it. If I were you, I wouldn't ask any more awkward questions. The Librarian is supposed to report anyone who requests this information. As it's you...You know he'd love to do it."
"So there is something. I wondered."
"You're not going to let this go, are you?" Susan sighed. "I've never really approved of banning books... You'll find nothing here, but, if you aren't going to ask the original source of information for help...?"
Hermione shook her head. "I don't trust him. Well, I don't trust him a lot."
"Very wise." Susah shook her head, not in denial, but in resignation at the eccentricities of the world. "There are very few bookshops that would have the volumes in question, and you can't afford them anyway as the Ministry has a standing order for anyone that comes across the books, so there are only two possible sources that are beyond the Ministry's reach. One of whom you have just ruled out."
"Is that why he managed to stay out of Azkaban?"
Susan nodded. "That, and all the other information that family have acquired over the years. You know Archimedes said that you could move the world with a long enough lever and somewhere safe to stand – I'd say the Malfoys have always had a very long lever."
Once, Hermione would have protested that was unfair. Now she was wondering what she could do with a lever of her own. "And the other source?"
"The estate of Albus Dumbledore was distributed to many sources. I believe his books were added to the Hogwarts' library."
"In that case, could I trouble you for something on protective wards? I'd like to know how to make places Unplottable, for instance."
"Let me see..." Susan walked to the central aisle and opened the catalogue. She ran a finger along the index. "This might be just what you were after. On a purely academic basis, of course."
The evil look the Librarian gave her as she left was only equalled by the one the Hyena chose to show Hermione when she slipped into her cubicle ten minutes late.
"Your timekeeping is deplorable, Miss Granger," she said. "If this keeps up, I shall have to..."
Hermione smiled brightly. "Sack me? And explain to the press why you sacked Hermione Granger, Heroine of the Wizarding World. I don't think so, do you?"
The Hyena frowned for a moment, thinking things through. "I was going to say that I would report you to Mr Weasley."
"Oh do," Hermione replied, still smiling, though it didn't reach her eyes. "I'm sure he'd like to explain the same thing to the press. Now, why don't you leave me in peace to get on with doing my work. Or perhaps you'd like to try doing some yourself?"
The Hyena's eyes widened, and she controlled herself with difficulty. "This is not the end of matters."
"Bloody right, they aren't," Hermione muttered under her breath, and turned to her book. Since she'd started on her work to rule, she'd developed a habit of working on Wednesdays and Thursdays to get her allotted tasks completed, leaving the rest of the week free for plotting and long lunches.
It was, she thought, an important lesson – if you do the hard work, you don't get the thanks; you get more hard work. To which her response could only be summarised as: sod that for a game of soldiers.
The pub was dark and dingy, and hadn't seen a cleaning spell since the last century – no, the century before that as the last century was only last week really - and it suited her mood down to the ground, though she wasn't sure whether her mood was dingy. It was dark, granted, but could a mood be dingy. Perhaps she was dingy, and her mood was dark.
She took another sip of firewhisky.
The pub was dark and dingy, and that suited her down to the ground – her mood was dark, and she was dingy.
Still wasn't working.
The pub was shit, and so was she. There, that summed it all up in one sentence. Whoever had said that the answers to all problems could be found in the bottle of firewhisky was spot on. Apart from Arithmancy problems, of course, for which a piece of paper and a quill would be more suitable, or maybe you just needed to have another bottle ...
On the one hand, she hadn't got any Arithmancy problems that needed solving, on the other hand, the bottle was looking a bit empty.
She didn't pay much attention to the figure at the bar as she weaved over to it to order a second.
"Are you sure that's wise, Miss Granger?"
It seemed perfectly natural to her that Professor Snape should be there to tell her off for drinking. That's what Professor Snape did.
"Probably not," she said. "Not going to stop me though."
The look he gave her – both of him – was composed of irritation and curiosity in about equal measure, with only a slight hint of concern. Presumably concern won out, or maybe it was the curiosity, because she found herself wedged at his table next to Lucius Malfoy. She would have objected, but he'd brought another bottle, and poured her a glass of wine.
It wasn't as strong as the Firewhiskey, but the bar was an awfully long way away and it was too much effort to get something better.
"Still picking up waifs and strays, Severus?" Lucius murmured.
Hermione glared at him. "I'm not a waif."
"Someone has to look after her." Severus poured another glass and passed it across to Lucius. "She's not very sober, and this is not a salubrious establishment."
"Is it a dive?" she asked. "I've always wanted to go to a dive, but the boys won't ever take me. Spoilsports."
"This is not a dive. Lucius wouldn't appear in a dive." Severus poured himself a glass, and took a healthy swallow.
Hermione pouted, then tried to peer down her own nose to see the pout. She'd never pouted before. She wasn't sure if it was a new skill she was acquiring as part of her repertoire of plottingness, or merely another sign of her moral decay.
"If you want it to be a dive, then it can be," Lucius observed. "The glasses are certainly dirty enough."
Hermione smiled brightly. Pouting clearly worked.
"Are you drowning your sorrows too?" she asked. "I am. I don't think it's helping though."
"It rarely does," Severus replied. "And the hangover tomorrow will just make everything worse."
She blinked at him. That sounded like the voice of experience. She wondered what life had been like for him at Hogwarts, entirely isolated and with no one to talk to. "Then it's a celebration," she said. "A celebration of the worm turning."
"Do tell," Lucius said.
"I've been taken for granted."
"Potter?" said Severus.
"Weasleys. All of them. Amongst a long sodding list."
"Ah." Severus poured himself another glass, and passed it to Lucius.
"Do you know what he bought me for our first Christmas together? Season tickets to the Chudley Cannons. Chudley. Cannons."
"I feel your pain, Miss Granger," Lucius said. "I really do, the Cannons are a truly awful team."
"I hate Quidditch," she said flatly. "One of my defining characteristics – love books, hate Quidditch. Didn't even get me a sodding book token, which would have been thoughtless and careless, but season tickets to a sport I hate? What does that say about us?"
"Which, of course, you asked him," Severus put in.
Hermione nodded. "Which, I did, and he said, well what do you like? in this sneering way that made me want to slap him, or hold his face under the washing up water till the bubbles stopped. I mean, really, that much. And then I realised, I couldn't think what I liked any more – other than books. Because we always do what he wants, or what Harry wants, or what Harry and Ron wants, and we never get to do what I want."
She belched, putting her hand to her mouth in a ladylike fashion.
"And now I have to do what Arthur wants, and what the Hyena wants, because otherwise I'm getting above myself, which is just bloody typical. The point is though, the point I am trying to make, was that I was telling Arthur all about my Evil Boss, and he tells me that my other Evil Boss, not the Hyena, but the other one, the one before the Hyena has stolen my ideas to make him look good..."
"Poor thing," Lucius said, and patted her hand, trying to look avuncular. As his uncle Morad was a two-faced backstabber who made Macchiavelli look moral, he succeeded admirably.
"And he didn't believe me." Hermione looked at them in turn, eyes wide. "He thought I was making it up to make myself look better."
"People tend to be ungrateful," Severus said darkly.
"I've never liked the Weasleys," said Lucius.
Hermione snuffled, then turned to Lucius. "It's sweet the way you're supporting me, but I want you to know that doesn't mean I trust you."
"I should hope not," he replied. "That would be a terrible blow to my reputation."
"It's true. I've known him thirty years, and I don't trust him." Severus nodded wisely. "He's untrustworthy."
"Thank you, Severus. It's always nice to be appreciated." Lucius patted Severus on the shoulder.
"I wouldn't know," Hermione said. "I wouldn't bloody know."
"I would have thought that life would be rather easy for someone in your position," Lucius remarked.
"Apparently, all I contributed to the downfall of Voldemort..." - both men winced at the name - "... was doing the sodding washing up." Hermione paused to consider the iniquities of the boys. "Ron ran away, you know," she said. "You didn't run away." She looked at Severus, then turned to Lucius and peered at him beadily for a second, before adding, "Or you, come to that."
"Narcissa wouldn't agree with you on that," Lucius replied, in a carefully neutral tone.
"Well, she shouldn't, would she? It's much easier to blame you for everything than face up to her own faults. I'm not seeing much moral high ground there." Hermione wobbled on her stool, and steadied herself on the bar's counter top.
"And Gryffindors are experts at moral high ground," Severus said.
"I think there's an insult in there. But I'm going to ignore it, because I'm almost coming to like you, and because I'm in the middle of whinging, and I want to get to the end." Hermione took another gulp of her wine. "Uncle Lucius promised to listen, didn't you?"
Lucius flinched at the sobriquet, and had to take some firewhiskey to fortify himself. "Why not just call me Lucius, my dear."
"Ok," she said. There was something nagging her about his appearance. The hair was impeccable as always, and she wondered whether she could ask him what spells he used, and what he'd want in return.
"What happened to your cane?" she said. "You're not very Looshesusy without your cane. I mean, you've still got the pretty pretty hair – what do you use as conditioner, though, the blood of virgins- but you need the cane back. Is it..." - she hiccupped discreetly, mildly amused that she was conforming to the stereotype of a drunk, then turned back to the fascinating topic of Lucius' emasculation – "Is it a boy thing?" She waggled her eyebrows suggestively.
"Madam!" Lucius exclaimed, and drew his robes a little more closely round himself.
Severus laughed. "You can't hex her, Lucius," he said, once he'd managed to control himself. "You're only just out of probation."
"Too many witnesses, as well," Hermione said.
"That too." Severus smirked.
"I can make her life a completely misery," Lucius replied, glaring at the pair of them.
"Too late," Hermione said mournfully. "Too late. Already there."
And then she had the most brilliant idea. If her friends weren't going to be useful, perhaps her enemy could. "Do you want to come home with me? I've got something to show you."
"Why not?" Lucius said.
"I can give you any number of reasons." Severus threw Lucius an admonishing look.
"I've got a couple of bottles of wine, and a bit of cheese and some biscuits," she said.
"And you think I'm that easily bought?" Severus asked.
"Oh, well, that makes all the difference, doesn't it?" Lucius said, and gathered his cloak on his arm. "Come along Severus."
"You don't even know what they are," Severus muttered under his breath as he held the door open for Hermione.
"I'm sure they're delightful," Lucius replied.
"No, they're salt and vinegar," Hermione replied, and stumbled into Severus who put out an arm to steady her.
"Close enough," he said, sounding almost kind. "Close enough."
Hermione's flat was small, but neatly arranged. You could swing a cat in it, provided it was a small cat, and you didn't mind it being concussed. Crookshanks stalked out of the kitchen diner and butted his head against Hermione's knee. "Hello, Crooks," she crooned. "Mummy's home."
Crookshanks went on to sniff at the feet of her companions. He sat back on his haunches, and meowed plaintively, until Severus bent down and scratched behind his ear.
"If you sit down, I'll fetch the stuff," she said.
There was barely room for two wizards on her sofa, or the little table she put in front of them with the promised nibbles. She perched on the arm of the sofa nearest Severus, whilst he poured them all a glass of wine.
"It's not as good as elf-made wine, I'm afraid," she said, very much aware it was the special offer from Sainsbury's that week.
Lucius sniffed at it suspiciously, then took a sip. "It's acceptable."
"That's gushing praise," Severus said dryly. "Now what was it you wanted to show us?"
"Well, I was thinking about what Lucius said when we had lunch, about the old boy's network, and I've been trying to map it out." She drew her wand, and Lucius' hand shifted to his arm. She pretended not to notice, but didn't cast until she had explained what she was doing. "I'm just going to drop the shielding charm."
She didn't move until his hand eased off, then cast the necessary spells. The web of influence shimmered into existence above them.
"Well, now," said Lucius. "Now that is a work of art."
Severus sighed, and helped himself to a handful of crisps.
"I can't work out all the connections, of course," she said, and nudged Severus. He held out the bowl to her, and she took a handful of crisps.
"And now you'd like me to fill in the gaps," Lucius said.
"Dunno," she said. "Depends on what you want in return."
Severus snorted. "You're not that drunk then."
Severus held the bowl out to Lucius, who inspected the contents with mild concern. He took a crisp, and bit down on it gingerly. Severus and Hermione watched the process with shared amusement.
"Most unusual," Lucius said, then took another crisp. He fixed his gaze on the glowing ball. "I want one of these installed at the Manor."
"I don't know," Hermione said, uncertainly.
"This charm is as good as the information contained in it, yes?" Lucius said.
"And I will be providing the bulk of the information contained in it."
Hermione nodded again.
"Then this means that I will know nothing at the end of the process that I didn't know already, whereas you will be much better informed."
Hermione blinked, and considered that. It would be nothing more than a representation of Lucius' mind. And Lucius already had one of those, so providing him with another one wouldn't make any difference to him at all, whilst making an awful lot of difference to her.
"All right," she said. "I can do that."
She could also link the two versions of the spell together, so she could keep an eye on what the twisty bastard was using it for. That would be spying on him, then, and not helping him, and was therefore acceptable.
Lucius began feeding her snippets of information, which Hermione reflected in the charm, altering the connections and adding new names as required. She could home in on particular sections, making them larger at will, then shrinking them back down again so they could move on to others.
As she did so, Severus' breathing deepened, and his body relaxed more and more. Eventually, as she made an adjustment to the finer details of the organisation of the Magical Liaison department, his head fell back on her leg.
Lucius cast a curious glance at her when she stopped manipulating the spell.
"Ah," he said, softly. "He still tires easily."
"I thought he was better." Hermione looked down at Snape's harsh features, finally relaxed in sleep, taking in the dark shadows under his eyes, and the lines etched across his face.
"He is better, that's not the same as cured."
Severus snuffled, and shifted to make himself more comfortable.
"He doesn't sleep well, I know that, though I doubt he ever did," Lucius added.
Hermione's fingers twitched, stifling the urge to move a strand of hair that had fallen across his cheek.
"His recovery has stalled - most of the time he just sits in the Conservatory enjoying the sun, and smiling. It's not like him."
Hermione realised two things. The first was that Lucius was genuinely worried about his friend, and he was probably the only person in the country who was. Other than her. And that was the second thing, Lucius had seen that small moment of sympathy and was going to exploit it ruthlessly.
He wasn't all that interested in the web spell, just in getting her to visit the Manor to talk to Severus.
She looked up at it spinning above her. A flick of the wrist added Severus to it, and then another tied him in to Lucius and to her.
"I think that you might just owe me that favour now," she said. "Tell me about the Goblins."