Lucius blinked back into existence late, face carved with weariness. Hermione had not even entertained the thought of sleeping; she worried terribly for Lucius. He had worked so hard to recover his relationship with Draco, and now it might be ruined.
She had known that this time would come, but it had always seemed distant and inconsequential, in the same way the knowledge that one day the sun would burn out bore no present concern. Her greatest fear for herself had been Harry's reaction. Once that came and went and he grudgingly accepted her choice, Hermione wasn't as worried about anyone else. At least not anyone else in her life.
But Lucius...she could not have the absolute faith in his family that she did in her own. There were so many variables, so many old grudges, and though he would pretend at contentment for her, she knew any disturbance to the fragile peace he'd built would wound him deeply. She didn't want to be the wedge between him and his family.
He strode over to her, his dark clothing seeming to absorb the candlelight. She stayed where she was on the couch, her heart pecking at her ribs. Lucius sat and reached forward to stroke her cheek.
"Thank you for your letter."
Hermione let go of the breath she was holding. "It...it got to you in time?"
"Yes. I didn't go in blind."
She sat up straighter, surprised. "You talked to him already?"
"Yes. There was no use in wasting time. Draco and I have both done enough of that."
Hermione blinked. She would have expected Lucius to take time to plan, to gather his wits, not just go headlong into a confrontation with Draco. But his words rang true; much time had been lost through avoidance and prevarication on both sides. It didn't surprise her that he had no patience for it anymore.
"What did he say?"
Lucius's lips quirked in a small, tired smile. "He is not thrilled that we are together. However, his greatest concern was not our relationship." He paused, brow creasing.
"Then what was his concern?" she asked.
Lucius didn't answer right away. For a long moment, he was elsewhere, mind churning. She had not seen that look in a long time. He still had not quite returned when he spoke again.
"He was there with me, Hermione. Draco is an Unspeakable, and he accompanied me during my Time Turner request."
Hermione opened her mouth, questions and demands ready, but Lucius held up a hand and she managed to stop herself.
"He saw and experienced everything that I did during the mission. He saw me walk away. Then he saw me return to this time and propose to you. He thought..." Lucius shifted, eyes thoughtful as they lit upon her face. "He thought that you had somehow influenced me to reject the chance to save myself. He believed I walked away for you."
Hermione breathed, trying to imagine what it was like to be in Draco's shoes. She couldn't. She could not even get past the madness of him being not just an Unspeakable, but the Unspeakable who had gone with Lucius to change the past. How could they have thought it would be a good idea?
"I had to explain to him that it was just the opposite. That I never would have tried if not for you."
"Did he believe you?"
"Completely? No. But enough to hear me out on the rest." He leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on her lips. "I'll tell you what I told him. My goal was happiness, and I realized when I was back there that I was already happy. There was no reason to risk that - to open my life up to the unknown. So if ever you are tempted to feel guilty," he paused, giving her a look which told her that he saw right through her, "don't."
Hermione nodded, swallowing the sudden lump in her throat. Throughout the day, she had turned it over in her mind, wondering what she would have done in his place. Her own experiences with time travel provided an unsavory, yet irrefutable realization: he could not have prevented his childhood trauma. To do so would create a temporal paradox that the Ministry would never allow. He was meant to go back only to find closure.
It had taken her a great deal of thought on her own foray into the past during third year to understand that. She should have realized it before encouraging him to go, but her emotions had been so wrapped up in wanting him to be healed and happy that there was no room for the complexities of time travel. If only...
Tears pricked her eyes. It wasn't guilt, as he feared, but sadness. Sadness that his chance had not really been a chance.
"None of that, now," Lucius said, voice soft but firm. "It's over with and I am ready."
Hermione sniffled. "Ready for what?"
"For now. No more then."
Her tears spilled over in spite of his admonishment, but they were no longer borne by grief. It hit her at that moment how strong he was; how incredible a man it took to find the peace he had. It could never be said that Lucius made the best choices, but that was...
That was then.
The line of demarcation slid into her mind at last, shutting away the shadow of the old blond viper she once knew. He was gone. He was dead. Lucius had left him behind in the past, his son at his side, on a balmy night in 1966. She would never again doubt that this was right, nor wonder if her place was anywhere but here.
"I love you," she said. All of you.
He smiled and kissed her as if she was a priceless work of art, with tenderness and reverence and bliss. Though he didn't speak, she knew his sentiments were the same. She knew that he loved her - maybe more than she would ever understand.
Then he stood up and lit another candle. He carried it with him to the desk by the window, and for the first time in weeks, he took out his ink and parchment. Lulled by the steady scratch of his quill, Hermione fell asleep at last.
She woke with a feeling of deep contentment. It was such a contrast from the stress of the last few days that Hermione basked in it for a few moments, enjoying the calm. Then she noticed that Lucius was not beside her. It seemed that he was back to his early rising ways.
Or, she reflected as she padded out of the bedroom and saw him sitting at the desk writing, perhaps he was back to his staying up all night writing ways.
"Good morning," he said, without pausing the movement of his quill.
"It's still morning?"
"For another hour, at least." He reached for his ink and dipped. "Shall I have Jo-Jo make you something?"
"I'll go bother her myself," Hermione said, crossing the room to twine her arms around his shoulders and plant a kiss on his temple. "Did you stay up all night?"
"No. I just have a few letters to send." He placed a gentle kiss on her forearm. "I'll join you for breakfast in a few minutes."
Hermione drifted off to the kitchen and Lucius returned his attention to his letter - albeit with some difficulty. His conversation with Draco yesterday had made him realize that there were others in his life who would eventually find out who he was keeping company with, namely Narcissa. He couldn't picture her taking it well if she found out from anyone but him. Even then, she might not, but at least she would not feel that he had kept things from her. That always compounded the hurt.
Unfortunately, the fact remained that he had no idea how to tell his ex-wife who his new fiancee was, nor how she would react. That was why he was writing to her sister. Andromeda might tell him to go to hell, but according to Hermione she had been quite supportive of the relationship. Maybe, just maybe she could give him some insight so that he could avoid grievously wounding Narcissa.
He had drafted the letter twice already and thrown both away. He'd never exchanged a civil word with Andromeda. How was he supposed to ask her for a favor? Lucius frowned and started again.
I'm sure you are wondering why I would contact you. I admit that I am hardly deserving of your attention given the behaviors and activities of the past. As such I would understand if you did not wish to respond, or even finish reading this letter. However, should you do me the favor of reading on, I would greatly appreciate it.
To put it plainly, I need help. I know that you are aware of my relationship with Hermione. She assures me you are supportive of what we have together. I thank you for that, as most people would not react positively. We knew this when we decided to move forward, but it does not make it less difficult.
Two days ago, I asked Hermione to marry me. She said yes. In the same timeframe, both Hermione's ex-boyfriend and my son also found out about our relationship. This wasn't intentional but it is how things have unfolded.
My son has accepted things, but is less than enthusiastic. The same cannot be said of Mr. Weasley. However, he is not my real concern. In speaking with Draco, I realized that I must now tell Narcissa that I plan to remarry, and to whom I am affianced.
She is aware that I am with someone, which she took in stride, but she is not privy to how serious it has become. I want to tell her soon. However, I worry that she will take issue with Hermione - not in blood, but...
I do not want her to think that my choice of a younger woman is a reflection on her. I do not want her to feel that she is being replaced, or that she lacks something, or that my choices are influenced by anything other than the discovery of true, soul-baring love. Forgive me for waxing poetic, but I think you understand that I would never have had the gumption to get to this point if my connection with Hermione wasn't exceptional.
I know that Narcissa wants me to be happy. I want her to be happy as well, much happier than I ever made her. This is why I am afraid that this news may hit her hard. I don't know how to tell her that she is an incredible woman, and I can never express how grateful I am to have been able to call her my wife, or for her loyalty in times when I deserved none. I am not an easy man to exist with - I have realized this - and yet she put up with me. There is no value that can ever be placed on what Narcissa gave me. I am desperate to find a way to share this part of my life with her that will not wound.
If you have any advice for me, as both a woman and Narcissa's sister, I would be in your debt. Thank you again for supporting this unexpected, beautiful madness. It is more appreciated than you know.
He sighed and set the quill down. Even after all that had happened and the authorship of an autobiography, he was still unaccustomed to being totally honest on paper. He knew that this was the letter to send, though.
Exhaling, he folded the letter and went in search of an owl.
The evening found him seated on the couch, helping Hermione study for an exam she had neglected in her stress over the Time Turner ordeal. He privately thought it was endearing and amusing how she was unable to shirk responsibility even in extreme circumstances. No one would fault her for not doing as well on an exam given all that had occurred. No one except Hermione.
After an hour and a half he was becoming tired of hearing about all the horrible skin diseases that existed in the world. The more he studied with her, the more convinced he was that it was a small miracle that anyone was healthy. It was time for a distraction.
"Hermione," he said, "have you given any thought to what you want to do as a Healer?"
She frowned and shifted, face thoughtful. "I've thought about it a lot, but I'm not any good at these decisions. When you have so many interesting options it's hard not to feel like you might miss out on something or make the wrong choice. It's a bit annoying, actually."
"Annoying? To have choices?"
"Well, I thought when I left the Ministry I had figured it out. But now I have a hundred different specializations to decide on."
Lucius shrugged. "You have time. Not to mention you're smart enough to do whatever you want and nobody would dare stop you."
A slight tension around her mouth alerted him to the fact that she was about to say something he wouldn't like.
"What if I decide to go into infectious disease?" she asked experimentally.
"I've told you before that I don't want you to make any choices about your life and your future because of me. If you are passionate about it and feel like it is what you're meant to do, then do it. But don't do it on my behalf." He shuffled her flashcards, and then teasingly tossed them into her lap one by one. "Maybe...you want to specialize in…magical dermatology?"
The look on Hermione's face was priceless. Lucius laughed, glad that she shared his lack of affinity for this subject matter.
"The only person whose skin I want to see day after day is yours," she said.
Lucius smirked internally, though perhaps it slipped out onto his face, for she had just given him the window of opportunity he wanted. An hour and a half was enough studying. She would get a perfect score on the exam. She always did.
He dropped the rest of the flashcards on the floor, heedless of her protest, and took her by the ankles and dragged her to his side of the couch. There was no more talk of infectious disease or dermatology after that.
Andromeda diverted her eyes from Teddy just long enough to glance at the day's mail. There wasn't much of interest, except a letter addressed in handwriting she didn't recognize. With a wary glance at her grandson to make sure he was not getting himself into imminent mischief, she broke the seal and began to read.
When she was finished, she stood still, staring straight ahead, for a long time. So long, in fact, that Teddy felt her lack of attention and sought to remedy it by running in circles around her until he got dizzy and fell on his bottom giggling.
"You men," Andromeda said, smiling. "You're all so silly."
They both laughed as Teddy tried to stagger to his feet and was unsuccessful. Shaking her head, Andromeda refolded the note and changed the address. She whistled for her owl and readied it. Teddy loved owls, so she let him give it a few treats before it flew off with the letter.
Lucius was uncommonly gifted with words, that was for sure. Perhaps not as much with sense. In the letter, he said everything he needed to say, just not to the right person. Those words were for Narcissa...so to Narcissa they went.
That morning, after sending Hermione off to class to take her dreaded integumentary system exam, Lucius sat at his desk for a long while. In that slow molasses night after returning from his confrontation with Draco, he had finished another story - the third in the trilogy.
It hadn't taken long. Perhaps two hours after Hermione fell asleep, he set down his quill and sat in numb disbelief. It felt cathartic, more cathartic even than his Time Turner ordeal. He didn't know what to do. His mind still grasped onto the tendrils of that world, a world now left behind.
He had not felt this way when he finished Faim or Soif. In his heart, he knew it was because neither book was really the end of anything. Sometimes one ended a story because there was nothing left to tell; other times, because there was too much left to tell.
Lucius folded the manuscript into its beaten folio with reverence. His hands shook slightly; it felt, unmistakably, like burying a part of himself. The man who penned Faim and Soif now rested in a grave of ink and paper.
When Netherwood was murdered, Lucius realized that he couldn't publish anonymously or under a pseudonym. The material in his books garnered too much interest, both from law enforcement and less benevolent parties. It was too dangerous for those involved. If he was to publish again, it would have to be under his own name. It went without saying that now was not the time to publish Soif or this as-yet-untitled conclusion.
He set the manuscript in the desk drawer. The decision was simple. He would arrange for the rest of the story to be published when he died. That way, he would be well beyond the arm of the law and anyone else who bore a vendetta, but the world could still have his story. After all, Faim could not stand on its own. Few things were crueler than a half told tale.
And yet...was this it? Was this all he would write? Lucius frowned. He had come to love the quiet frenzy of writing, its solitary voyage, the way in which it pushed all else from his mind. It had kept him not quite sane, but a good deal saner than he felt after the war's end.
He had no idea if anything he wrote now would be worth it. Could it be, when he was not ripping his heart from his chest with each word, each memory relived? Surely writers did not always have to be in such a state to create stories. Though from the discussions he had with Hermione about Muggle authors, he wondered. Many of the most famous had serious mental health issues.
Lucius set his quill down with a slight shake of his head. Perhaps one just had to be a little bit crazy to think so long and hard about anything, and then write it down for others to see.
His lips twisted in an unbidden smile. Of course he was crazy, but he had realized that there was more than one way to be so. Some weren't as bad as others.
With that in mind, he put his feet up on the desk and let himself slip into a light, untroubled sleep.
He didn't know how long his nap lasted. Suddenly Jo-Jo shook him awake and he blinked at her, trying to comprehend her concerned expression.
"Master Lucius," she said, tugging at his sleeve, "the wards."
He removed his feet from the desk and sat forward, rubbing sleep from his eyes. "What about them?"
"The warning alarm went off." She wrung her hands anxiously, and he took a moment to appreciate how her speech had improved since mastering the arduous task of reading.
"How long ago?"
"Less than a minute."
He frowned. He had programmed the wards to alarm but not react defensively for only one person.
"Narcissa," he murmured. Lucius stood and leaned on the desk, eyes searching the path up to the villa. Sure enough, there she was, standing at the cutoff point with her wand in one hand and what looked to be parchment in the other.
His stomach dropped. She had never shown any interest in coming to the villa before. Her arrival could only mean one thing. She knew.
Lucius straightened and nervously fixed his clothing. Had Andromeda told her? Had she intercepted the letter meant for her sister, or somehow seen it? Or perhaps Draco...but no, Draco made it clear that he would not be the one to tell her. It wasn't his responsibility.
Who else? Weasley? Potter? Marietta Edgecombe? Tiresias? They were the only ones who knew, but what did any of them have to gain by telling Narcissa about his relationship with Hermione? And what were the odds that she would believe any of them? Tiresias, perhaps, because he was a trusted associate, but Lucius knew it wasn't him. Narcissa would never outright believe any of the others.
It had to be the letter. That was what she held, clutched in delicate white knuckles.
"Jo-Jo," he said with more surety than he felt, "call Tiresias if I get hexed, will you?"
The elf's eyes went wide, but she nodded. With one more breath and a set of his spine, Lucius left to meet his visitor.
It seemed like the longest walk of his life. He wasn't ready for this. His letter to Andromeda was only to solicit advice. He hadn't expected to have this dreaded conversation so soon.
Come to think of it, he and Hermione had not been prepared for anyone to discover their relationship, but now seven people knew. Seven. What a fool he had been to ever think it could remain a secret.
He halted at the edge of the wards, a foot away from his ex-wife. She was a vision as always, dressed sharply in a magenta dress and a thin knit sweater. Her posture was one of barely contained emotion. Her face he couldn't see, for she was looking down at her feet.
The wards shimmered between them. Knowing he had to, Lucius stepped through. Hesitantly, he reached for her, tilting her chin up so he could see her face. The pit in his stomach grew larger when he saw the pink tint about her eyes and nose, and the glaze in her eyes that spoke of poorly restrained tears.
"Cissy..." he said.
"Don't you Cissy me," she said, stepping back from his touch. She lifted the parchment, shaking it and crumpling the pages in her hand. "You can say these things to my sister, but not to me?"
"I wanted to say them to you. I didn't know how I could do that without hurting you. I thought maybe...I thought Andromeda might know better than me."
"She's known about this all along, hasn't she?"
Bugger. He had not intended to get Andromeda in trouble. "All along?" he sighed. "No. But...for a little while now."
Narcissa began to pace, breathing hard, the parchment crumpled tighter and tighter in her hand. Quite abruptly, she stopped and pointed at him.
"She has an excuse. She's always been a hopeless romantic. She would want to believe in this...this thing you've gotten yourself into!"
"Thing?" he said, controlling his effrontery. "Narcissa, I think you know it has gone well beyond that."
"Did you ever stop to think?" she nearly shouted.
"Of course I did!" he responded. "We both did. We nearly thought ourselves right out of it. Neither of us ever expected this to happen, let alone to last."
"That girl has a million reasons to hate us, and you in particular! Why would she suddenly love you? Why would you believe it?" Narcissa stomped her foot in annoyance. "Have you any idea of her motivations? Of the damage she could do to you, to your family?"
Lucius took a breath, clenching his jaw muscles and willing himself to stay calm. "Cissy, she isn't like us. She's had a dozen chances to hurt me and she never has." He looked away, unused to the emotions rising in him; in every failed relationship there were things left unsaid, small resentments best left alone, but even as he tried to control his words, he knew he had to give them voice.
"I hurt you. I know I did and there's no excuse. But all that time, Cissy, all those months after Azkaban, after the war, I was dying. Dying. And you could never see past your own anger to realize it. I would have given anything for one kind word, one look, one touch, but you were so intent on hurting me back for things I never meant to do. If you're worried about someone hurting me, it's a bit late."
Narcissa blinked, her mouth working for a moment.
Lucius went on, knowing he had to get it out now or he might never say it. He held it back the last time they talked, those many months ago, because his anger would serve no purpose. He did forgive Narcissa, but that did not mean he forgot the pain she had inflicted on him. If she wished to question his involvement with Hermione she had to accept her own role in it.
"Hermione was there for me. She cared for me when I could barely tolerate myself. She refused to let me fade away and she refused to believe I had nothing to give. She gave me the second chance that no one else would, not even you."
"If you want to think poorly of her, I can't stop you. But don't you dare reduce what I have with her to a mere thing. Hermione gave me my life back and I love her, for that and for many other reasons. I'm not asking you to like it or even accept it. I just wanted to have the decency tell you myself, so you didn't have to hear it from someone else. And now it's done."
He turned, blood pounding in his ears, and walked back toward the villa. He felt the tingle of the wards encasing him. He knew he ought to turn back, to say something to comfort Narcissa, but he couldn't. He just couldn't. Not this time.
It took a long time for him to calm down. For a while Lucius couldn't understand what had riled him so; Narcissa's concerns were very Slytherin, and of course valid. It was not what he expected out of the confrontation. However, he had not expected to lose his temper, either.
He sat on the couch in Smythe's home office while the healer wrote in charts. He felt bad for intruding at such an hour; here in Vancouver it was the wee hours of the morning, and Lucius routinely forgot about the time difference. However, Tiresias swore he was awake to catch up on charting anyhow. Beyond that, he seemed to know that Lucius would talk when he was ready. Until then he was perfectly content to let him stare into his cup of tea in silence.
Lucius felt a wet nose on his hand and glanced down at a shiny-coated chocolate lab. He had not seen Gerald in a while; his soulful brown eyes could coax anyone out of a mood. Lucius put down his mug and stroked the dog's velveteen ears. He rested his head on Lucius's leg and closed his eyes in contentment.
It was the hypocrisy, he supposed. How easily Narcissa forgot that Lucius had put up no protest at her fledgling relationship with Dawlish, an Auror. Lucius had many reasons to hate and mistrust Aurors, as did Narcissa. How could she know it was not a ploy to spy on them, a last effort to condemn a family that had, in the eyes of many, escaped the law too easily?
Dawlish had never worked at Azkaban and never been directly involved in any of his brushes with the law. Lucius had no reason to hate him in particular, but nonetheless, he could certainly have put up a fuss. Instead, he trusted Narcissa's judgment. He gave his blessing without so much as a peep.
For her to insinuate that he was foolish enough to ignore the possibility that Hermione had an agenda was ludicrous. He had spent much of their first month together trying to squelch his innate mistrust of the whole situation. Every scenario had crossed his mind, and only with Hermione's extreme patience had he been able to accept that there was nothing motivating her except love. He meant what he said to Narcissa. Hermione wasn't like them. She didn't think the same way - the Slytherin way. She did not keep a list of everyone's weaknesses in the back of her mind, nor the arsenal of words and plots to punish them.
But more than that, Narcissa's disregard for the sheer intensity of what he felt for Hermione enraged him. She knew him better than that. She knew he rarely expressed strong positive emotions, and when he did they were not to be doubted.
He had expected her to feel something, but not this...disdain. Disdain that was more for him than Hermione. That was why he uncorked the bottle of his precarious emotions. All along he had been very patient with Narcissa, never punishing her for the way she shut him out - never emulating her behavior because he wanted reconciliation. But at last he could acknowledge to himself just how much her cruel rejection had compounded the multitude of pains he suffered back then.
Much of it was his fault. He could have communicated, told her everything instead of leaving her to wonder at his odd behavior, but couldn't she see? She, who knew him best. Couldn't she see the way he withered, the way his hands trembled with rage and impotence, the way he jerked awake most nights with a scream clenched so tightly between his teeth that the veins in his forehead stood out? That was not a man out dallying with other women. That was a man struggling to find reasons to live.
Hermione, who had no reason to care about him at all, had taken that man and forced him to face it all. Narcissa, his wife of twenty-five years and someone with whom he shared a poorly-defined version of love, had never even tried. He would no longer attempt to shelter her from that. He had made many mistakes, but that didn't mean that the hurts others bestowed on him were meaningless. He, too, was allowed to bleed.
Nonetheless, he had not meant to lose his temper. Lucius sighed. He had wanted to handle it gently. He had not succeeded.
"Tiresias," he said, "were you ever married?"
The healer looked up and nudged his reading glasses up onto the bridge of his nose. "Married? No, but I came close."
"Tell me about it."
Tiresias looked at him for a moment, as if to gauge how serious he was. Then he put his quill down. As if knowing a story was about to follow, Gerald climbed onto the couch and curled up next to Lucius.
"I was twenty-four when I met her. Her name was Ines. We were in school together. I was well on my way to flunking Advanced Healing Charms because she was in my study group and I couldn't focus on anything but her. Luckily, my professor noticed the way I looked at her and suggested I switch study groups. I did, but eventually I worked up the courage to ask her out on a date."
"And she agreed?"
"No. Shot me down without blinking."
"So how did you end up engaged to her?"
"Well, a few months later we all went out on our first clinical rotations. We were placed in the same hospital. It was awkward at first, but we were almost always on night shift, and sometimes there's literally nothing to do but talk to one another to pass the time and keep from falling asleep. So we got to know one another. When the clinical was over, she invited me to dinner. I thought it was supposed to be a big group of people from school, but when I arrived, it was only her. I think she was too embarrassed to admit she wanted to go on a date after rejecting me before, so she made it look like an accident."
Lucius chuckled. "Clever woman."
"It happened pretty quickly after that. We started seeing each other more and more, and within ten months we moved in together. In another three months I had scraped together the money for an engagement ring. I was totally in love." Here he paused to remove his glasses and heave a sigh. "She said yes and everything seemed perfect."
"But?" Lucius supplied.
"But every time I asked her about planning the wedding, she said we had time to figure it out. As a man you think women are planning their weddings practically from birth, so I didn't understand her reluctance to even pick a date. I wanted to marry her and be the best husband in the universe and had visions of us as this amazing doctor couple with a lovely home and two dogs and a spare room set aside to be a nursery someday. She...well, maybe she had those visions, too, but after a while it became pretty clear that I wasn't part of them."
Lucius frowned. He could hear the lingering hurt in the healer's voice. "What happened?"
"One night we were sitting on the couch watching some Muggle programs and she turned to me and said she didn't want to do this anymore. I didn't ask her why. There was no point; I knew I wasn't going to change her mind. She gave the ring back, packed her things, and left that night. I haven't seen or spoken to her since. I put my head down, finished my schooling, and threw myself into being a healer. And that's the whole sad sack story."
"What for?" Tiresias said, shrugging it off. "Everyone has at least one tale of woe."
"But you didn't do anything wrong."
"Sometimes that doesn't matter, unfortunately."
Lucius took that in, comparing it to his own situation. He knew he was to blame for much of what had happened with his relationship with Narcissa. He couldn't imagine the pain and frustration of doing everything right and still being rejected.
"Why are you asking me this?" Tiresias said. "Are you having second thoughts about your engagement? Thanks for telling me about that, by the way."
"I barely had time to process it myself!"
"I know, I'm only kidding."
"I'm not having any second thoughts about marrying Hermione. My ex-wife found out about us today, though. I spoke with her." Lucius shook his head. "I lost my temper. I thought I was in control of all those ugly divorce emotions and I was wrong."
"Losing your temper doesn't occur in a vacuum. Something must have set you off."
"Yes, but I shouldn't have reacted that way."
Then Tiresias surprised him. "Why not?" he said. "You can only be the calm, collected better man for so long. If people insist on stirring things up you're within your right to let them know how you feel." He crossed his arms over his chest. "Besides, you did her the courtesy of informing her of your new relationship. You aren't asking for her permission or approval."
"No," he agreed. "I suppose I just didn't realize I was holding onto that bitterness."
"Well, now you both know." The healer's tone held a note of irritation that had no specific target.
"I'm sorry, Tiresias. I didn't mean to bring up bad memories."
He shrugged and began to methodically put away his files. "It's all right. Gerald loves me."
At the mention of his name, the dog's ears perked up and his tail thumped against the couch cushions. Lucius smiled. He was right about that.
"Ines was a fool," he offered. "Andromeda isn't."
For a while Tiresias said nothing, intent on his filing. When he was finished, he opened another drawer and emerged with a half-full bottle of firewhisky and two glasses. Without a word he poured two portions and crossed the office to hand one to Lucius.
"To second chances," he said.
Here, here, Lucius thought, and touched his glass to the healer's.
Lucius wasn't there when she returned from school. Hermione felt no worry over it. In fact, she had been hoping to find a few minutes alone to write a letter to Harry.
She knew she had left him in a dreadful situation the other night at the Department of Mysteries. The fact that he was thoughtful enough to send warning letters about Draco told her that he wasn't angry. However, she did owe him an apology. She had no doubt that Ron gave him hell.
When she sat down to write, Hermione frowned. Letters weren't good enough sometimes. With Harry, face to face was always better. He was just that kind of person.
So, instead she sent him an invitation to dinner. She didn't know where Lucius was or when he would be back, but if he wanted to marry her he'd have to get used to the occasional awkward dinner. He could always go to Paolo and Elisabetta's if he became too uncomfortable.
Harry looked up at the wood-beamed ceiling, taking in its height and the way the candlelight never made it all the way to the top. He had been here before, but in the daytime, and without the realization that Hermione lived here. His eyes had been for evidence then; now they were for the strange architecture of a home and relationship he might never fully understand.
"Will you ever get electricity?" he asked.
Hermione looked up from setting the table. She had only prepared for two. Given what Jo-Jo had told her about Narcissa showing up, it was not likely that Lucius would return tonight. Once again he was forced to do damage control. She wondered how much of their lives would be spent that way.
"I don't know," she responded after a moment. "We haven't needed it."
"It's very quiet."
"Yes. Quite a change from London."
He leaned against Lucius's desk. There was a sense of awkwardness between them, one that hadn't existed before, but Hermione thought it was more due to the setting than anything else. Harry might never like being in Lucius's house.
"He won't be here," she murmured, placing silverware. "He's gone for the night."
Harry shifted and looked at his feet. "Hermione…"
"It's all right. I know this is strange. You don't have to come here anymore if you aren't comfortable." She smiled. "We can have dinner anywhere."
"It's fine," he said. He crossed the room and took her hands in his. "Really. I just have to wrap my brain around it, is all."
Hermione nodded, squeezing and then releasing his hands. "Well, I wanted to talk to you because I wanted to apologize for leaving you with Ron like that. I'm sorry. I know it must have been awful."
Harry let out something that might have been a choked laugh. "He was angry but it was brief and nobody got hurt."
"He's still talking to you, right?"
"No," Harry said, "and I don't blame him. If our positions were reversed, I wouldn't talk to me, either."
She chewed her lip. "I know I was blunt. I just..I just don't know how else to get through to him, sometimes."
"Believe me, you got through to him."
Hermione reached for her wine glass and took a long sip. Harry watched her - the flickers of emotion in her eyes and her face, her body language, which he had been privileged to come to know in great detail during their time on the run as the war raged around them. There had always been so much compassion in Hermione; perhaps a bit too much, in some cases. No matter how fearsome she could be, he knew how much it stressed her to hurt another being.
"He left Auror training."
Hermione's face fell. "No."
"Unfortunately he did. I don't think he's coming back."
"I ruined it for him." She touched her hand to her forehead, distress plain on her face. "It was all he talked about. He was desperate to be an Auror."
Harry took a breath before responding. "This is going to sound crazy, but I think it might be good for him."
"How? How can this possibly be good for him?" Hermione's eyes were glassy.
Harry shook his head and reached for the other wine glass. "He's always been with us. Me, the most grudgingly famous wizard of our generation, and you, the smartest witch of our generation. Since we were eleven years old it's been about the three of us, or worse, about me. Before that it was his family. When has he ever had time to just let life be about him?"
"Probably never," Hermione admitted.
"This is what he needs," Harry said, nodding to himself. "He can always reapply for Auror training if it's what he wants. But right now, he needs to figure himself out. Besides, he's in good hands. Molly got a letter from Charlie. Ron's with him in Romania."
Hermione absorbed it, pondering Harry's words. She had run off to Italy and found a great deal more than she expected. She hoped it would be the same for Ron in Romania.
"Do you think he'll ever speak to us again?"
"Me, yes." Harry paused and offered an uncertain look. "You, I don't know."
She sighed. "That's what I was afraid of."
Harry looked her in the eyes, and Hermione stared back. His eyes were the same green pools as always - honest, steadfast, gentle, though his life had not given him much reason to be any of those things.
"Is he worth it, Hermione?"
She gave Harry a look that was a mixture of wonder and sadness. He couldn't know how many times she had asked herself that very question, but only early in the relationship. Recently it had not crossed her mind because she knew the answer.
"Yes. It's mad, but this is…this is what people spend their lives looking for. I know…I guess I always knew…that I couldn't expect everyone to accept it."
Hermione picked at imaginary lint on the tablecloth. She felt such love for Lucius, but at the same time she felt an ache that was becoming too familiar. They knew it would come. Even so, they had both hoped there would be more time to remain insulated from everyone else's opinions. Not so, it seemed.
"It's selfish of me to want Ron or anyone else who has ever been hurt by Lucius to cast aside their feelings on my behalf. I realize that. I knew there would be consequences."
There was a long pause, and then Harry spoke softly.
"Sometimes we have to be a little selfish."
She smiled around the tears pooling in the corners of her eyes. Then she leaned into his chest and accepted the embrace she knew he would give.
"Maybe he'll come around," he murmured into her hair. "Someday."
"He won't." Harry's shirt smelled of fresh laundry and the pomegranate lotion Ginny sometimes used. This was truly one of the most comforting places in the world, she thought. Strange how the arms of more than one man could feel like home, but in entirely different ways. "None of the Weasleys will ever forgive me."
"He didn't tell them. As far as they're concerned, the two of you broke up and that's all." He twisted a curl about his finger. "Doubt you'll get a Christmas sweater, though."
"I deserve that," Hermione said, feeling strengthened by the news that none of the other Weasleys knew, and by Harry's ability to joke in what was really a painful situation for all involved. She stood up straight and offered a watery smile. "Let's eat before it gets cold."
He left Tiresias asleep on the couch in his office, Gerald half-draped on top of him. Lucius walked in the cool morning air, taking in the details of the Canadian suburb. Tiresias was quite comfortable living among Muggles. They seemed a friendly enough lot; the few that were out this early, jogging or walking their dogs or leaving for an early-riser's job, waved or at the very least nodded at him. Every time he'd visited, the people had been unfailingly polite. He knew, of course, that everyone had their moments; he had one the day before, when he lost his temper with Narcissa.
Now his mind had shifted from what had occurred to how it had occurred. Narcissa had somehow gotten ahold of the letter he sent to Andromeda. Was it pure coincidence? She had mentioned not so long ago that Andromeda would allow her to look after Teddy sometimes. Perhaps she had been there when the letter was delivered, and, recognizing his handwriting, her curiosity got the better of her.
Or perhaps it had been intentional, either on Narcissa's or Andromeda's part. Among Slytherins it was almost expected to spy on one's relatives if they were careless enough to forgo proper precautions. It was best for everyone when nothing short of a Ministry legal decree could intercept and read one's personal correspondence.
Yet it did not seem in character for either woman. Andromeda didn't put much stock in what was expected of a Slytherin or a Pureblood. Narcissa was still working to regain Andromeda's trust; more than that, she was trying to know and understand her for the first time. It was the wrong time to read her sister's mail.
That left him with one conclusion, beyond sheer coincidence. If it had not happened by accident, it had happened on purpose. Andromeda had sent his letter on to Narcissa.
It was his own fault. Had he not learned by now that he oughtn't send letters to those whose behavior he couldn't predict? She had never acted in the way that was expected of her, that much he knew. But perhaps this was her advice. Perhaps…he had said everything he needed to say to Narcissa in his letter to her sister.
A part of him knew he wouldn't have been able to look Narcissa in the face and say it all, but another part wanted to try. Even so, the very thought of seeing her expression change as he spoke, watching her eyes fill with ice or pain or even just plain shock, was not something he knew how to handle. The Narcissa he'd met on the road to the villa was one he knew well; he'd been confronted with her so many times during and after the war. That Narcissa, the clipped, disdainful, yet not at all irrational woman - he could speak to her.
Strange as it was, it could very well be that this was the best possible outcome. His feet had carried him to a cafe he'd tried once before at Smythe's suggestion, and there he sat at a bistro table sipping a very strong coffee. It wasn't the first time he had sat and pondered the true nature of his relationship with Narcissa. If she ever spoke to him again, perhaps it wouldn't be the last.
Hermione settled into bed, feeling as though she ought to study. However, she had a clear conscience since she was already two chapters ahead of the class. Thankfully they were moving on to more interesting parts of the body. She curled up on her left side and closed her eyes.
However, it soon became clear that sleep was not forthcoming. Over and over, her mind kept wandering to Ron. Ron, who was in Romania with his brother, licking at wounds that she had inflicted.
The more distance she had from him, the more she understood. His mistakes, hers, their unrealistic expectations for love, and why it had all fallen apart. She had never wanted to hurt him, but in being truthful, there was no way to avoid it. And while she remembered how angry she'd felt when he briefly dated Lavender Brown, not to mention during the numerous and frustrating exchanges that had marked the slow denouement of their relationship, she knew it couldn't compare to the way he felt about her being with Lucius.
Aware that she was selfish for doing so, Hermione wished Lucius was in bed beside her. With him there she wouldn't think about Ron. There would be no room in her mind to mope about how she had hurt one of her best friends. However thick, stubborn, and frustrating he was…
Hermione sighed. She had to get up and do something, or else she would lay awake all night, trapped in a whirlwind of guilty thoughts. She slid from the bed and padded out to the main living area, lighting candles as she went.
She opened her textbook, flipping to the chapter where she'd left off. The renal system was next. With a sigh, she flicked her wand at the far wall, to the left of Lucius's desk, which they had collectively deemed a brainstorming area. They had smoothed the old rock into something of a blackboard. Lucius never used it when she was around, but sometimes, in the morning, she could see smudges where he had erased. Only once had anything legible been left: the words "the fullness of the thing."
It seemed perversely appropriate now, given the full state of her mind. Picking up a piece of the chalk that sat on the windowsill, Hermione began to read, painstakingly outlining the long and complicated chapter on the stone wall. The scratch of the chalk was calming, and soon her mind settled on the comfort of academia.
However much Harry and Ron had made fun of her during school, she knew that this exact coping mechanism was one of the reasons they were still alive. She smiled to herself; sleep lost was knowledge gained. Hermione turned the page - section 8.12, Hemodialysis - and plowed on, the night oblivious to her rebellion.
Lucius returned home sometime in the early afternoon, blinking against the bright sun and his self-inflicted time zone lag. He hadn't slept, but had drunk enough espresso to counteract the immediate urge to curl up in bed. The windows were open at the villa. Had Hermione stayed home from school?
It was Jo-Jo who met him. She had begun to subtly spruce the place up, fixing cracked walls or peeling paint or crumbling ceiling tiles. Today she was attempting to tame the tangle of vines and weeds that had crept up the wall on one side of the courtyard. Lucius kind of liked it the way it was, but he could see how much damage the unchecked foliage was doing, and so he let her carry on.
He couldn't say what it was about the casual erosion of the villa that he found so pleasing. Normally he liked things crisp, orderly, gleaming. However, he had known for a long time that this home had its own personality, and if he altered it, it would no longer feel right.
This is the one place where YOU don't have to be crisp, orderly, and gleaming.
He smiled, taking a piece of fruit from the bowl Jo-Jo always left out. He nearly dropped it a moment later, when he walked into the living room and it became abundantly clear what Hermione had spent her time on while he was gone.
There was writing in chalk everywhere, words, formulae, diagrams. It filled the wall they'd designated for their mental scribblings and beyond. Try as he might, he couldn't follow the flow of her thoughts, nor fully understand what it was she outlined. In one place it said in large letters "COUNTERCURRENT FLOW", and in another, with several exclamation points, "PHOENIX TEARS!"
She had left her book on the desk, open to a page that he couldn't hope to comprehend, for it was Muggle science. Chemistry, they called it - the cousin to potions. Early on in potions, they learned something of the way different things interacted with one another and why, but in the end things were attributed to magic. Polyjuice worked because it was magic. Skele-grow worked because it was magic. It was only in reading over Hermione's shoulder that he had realized there was more to it.
He stood, shaking his head. It hit him then, not just that Hermione was so very much smarter than him, but why. Lucius was no slouch, yet he was limited by his environment - by the education that said because it's magic was an acceptable explanation for the many wonders in the world. True, it had been a long time since he was in school, and he knew that Draco's coursework had been different from his, but he'd never realized what a disservice it was for wizarding education to dismiss what was shared between magic and science.
He knew why it happened. To acknowledge that Muggle science had anything to do with their lives was to admit that they were less different than everyone imagined - and to admit to the considerable accomplishments Muggles had achieved without a stitch of magic. He had been one of the worst offenders. Even now, the thought made him uncomfortable. Would there ever be a day when it didn't?
Lucius flicked his wand at the wall, preserving Hermione's work. It wouldn't do to have Jo-Jo scrub it away. Even if he understood next to nothing encompassed by her scribbles, he could tell that it was important. If he was lucky, and if it was possible, she would explain it to him when she got home.
Minerva walked down the sprawling lawn, noticing how the late summer sun seemed already to be ceding its strength to autumn. This far north there wasn't much transition time between seasons. In another two or three weeks, the students would begin to pull their scarves and jumpers from their trunks.
She could see a young woman sitting on the banks of the lake. She was tossing bits of bread into the water for the birds to fight over – a risky gamble on the birds' part, for both the squid and the merpeople were partial to duck. Filch had told her it was a student out here, but he was wrong.
"Hermione?" Minerva ventured.
Hermione turned and offered a smile that was engaging but distant, as if she wasn't fully present. "Hello, Professor McGonagall."
"What brings you to Hogwarts?" she asked, settling her old bones on the shore beside her former student. Hermione looked at her with faint alarm; that creaking in her hip wasn't just her imagination. She would have to get Poppy to examine it.
"I had to check on something," Hermione replied.
"Well, you gave old Filch a start. Thought he'd caught a student cutting classes."
"I wouldn't know what that's like."
True, she wouldn't. In fact, Hermione had taken extra classes every chance she got. Minerva examined her with a sidelong glance. Her skin was tanned, no doubt from her residence in warmer climes. She was put-together and pretty in a way that Minerva wasn't used to, but also wasn't surprised by. The only things at odds with her general appearance were the tired face and far away eyes.
"Are you well?"
"Oh, yes, I'm fine, thank you."
"And your beau?"
"Good. It's been a while since our last correspondence."
"I'm sorry," Hermione said, guilt clear in her tone. "Things have been busy."
Minerva let it slide with an easy grace. "How is school?"
Hermione smiled, momentarily pulled away from her heavy thoughts. "It's wonderful. I'm learning so much. Sometimes I think I could stay in school forever."
"Albus would have said that life is a great classroom and we are always in attendance."
"I can picture him saying that." Hermione tilted her head, meeting Minerva's eyes. "Professor, do you ever see Fawkes around here?"
"Dumbledore's phoenix? No, I don't think anyone has seen him since the funeral."
Hermione sighed. "That's what I was afraid of."
"The phoenix is a particular creature. It's not often that it seeks or prefers the company of humans. As with so many other things, Albus was exceptional." Minerva looked out at the island on the lake, where her friend of many years rested. "Why do you need Fawkes?"
"I think I've figured out how to cure a major disease. Maybe several. I'm not sure." Hermione bit her lips. "Thing is, I need phoenix tears. I need to study them, and then figure out how I can use them to do what I want. Maybe I can use something else, and I plan to talk to Professor Slughorn about it, but my gut says that phoenix tears are the only thing that will work."
Now Minerva understood her mood. She wasn't the first to consider the many uses of phoenix tears in healing, but the simple fact was that it was difficult enough to find a phoenix, let alone convince it to cry. Most believed it to be a dead end. The majority of wizards and witches went their entire lives without ever seeing a phoenix.
It wasn't unheard of for phoenix tears to become available on the black market from time to time, but they were prohibitively expensive, never mind that it was impossible to prove that they were actually phoenix tears. This she knew from idle conversation with Horace. He, like every potions master, lusted after the rarest ingredients.
"Hagrid will know where to look for a phoenix," she offered.
Hermione nodded, heartened, though clearly disappointed. It would have been awfully convenient if Fawkes still hung around the grounds of Hogwarts. However, they both knew that life was rarely that easy.
Hermione stood up and offered a hand to the Headmistress. Minerva took it, grateful for the assistance. It was ridiculous how troublesome such tasks had become as the years piled upon her.
"Well, then," Hermione said, resolution straightening her posture, "I suppose I'm off to hunt the phoenix."