TILL DEATH DO US JOIN
Lucius Malfoy deemed himself a very lucky man indeed.
For what else might a man be called, or call himself, but lucky, when what he saw in the mirror was an immaculately attired, attractive wizard with long blond hair, sixty-five years of age, wealthy, healthy, and single.
Being single and still wealthy was due less to luck than to a herd of lawyers, who were as crafty and cunning as they were well-paid. Lucius had to admit that being left for Kingsley Shacklebolt had smarted a bit, even though he was aware that the position of Minister for Magic did lend the man a certain glamour, which more shallow witches obviously found irresistible. But that dent in his self-esteem had been nicely repaired by a fortune that was diminished only by a small allowance he had to pay every month to his ex-wife.
His less than fanatically pro-Voldemort attitude after being set free from Azkaban, and his more than enthusiastic support of the New Order of Things after the battle of Hogwarts had made it possible for Lucius to gradually regain the social standing and prestige befitting a Malfoy. He had the Minister's ear (a relatively small but important body part in exchange for a whole ex-wife), he was again one of Hogwarts' School Governors, and a series of well-placed investments had ensured that no important political or economical decisions be made without consulting him.
Draco had married and given him a grandson. Scorpius had just started his second year of schooling at Hogwarts, after spending his summer holidays at the Manor. Following a time-honed family tradition, Lucius was taking an active part in the boy's upbringing. His own father's untimely death had robbed Draco of the benefit of a grandfather's hand guiding him where his parents had failed to do so, and this lack of a benevolent but more objective supervision hadn't done the boy any good. The youngest Malfoy, however, was going to profit from the lessons his father and grandfather had had to learn the hard way.
Much as Lucius had enjoyed Scorpius' company, having the Manor all to himself again wasn't bad either. He had every intention to make the most of his recently reacquired state as a bachelor, and an eligible one at that. But so long as there was a child in the house, there were certain limitations he had to impose on himself. Now, however, he was free to enjoy himself.
Lucius gave his reflection in the mirror a last contented smile and left his dressing room to treat himself to the pleasures of a full English breakfast.
The mornings had been quite chilly for some time; it was already September, after all. The House Elves had left the French doors leading onto the terrace wide open, and Lucius felt his feet grow cold when he sat down at the table.
'Close the doors immediately,' he snapped at the nearest elf, marking the importance of his request by a nonchalant kick. 'Or do you want me to catch my death?'
ERM, said a voice from somewhere behind him, THAT SEEMS TO BE A COMMON MISUNDERSTANDING. USUALLY IT'S THE OTHER WAY ROUND, YOU KNOW?
Lucius whirled round, but couldn't see anything.
I'M HERE, RIGHT BEHIND YOU, BUT YOU CAN'T SEE ME, I'M AFRAID.
'What… Who are you?'
THREE GUESSES, the voice said, and chuckled.
That chuckle sent a cold shudder down Lucius's spine. 'But… That can't…' He noticed that he was spluttering, and tried to regain control of himself and the situation, although he wasn't quite sure about the latter. 'Look,' he said. 'This has to be a misunderstanding. I'm only sixty-five, barely past my prime, and I don't quite see how-'
I'M NOT THAT PREDICTABLE, Death said, a little miffed. SOMETIMES I DO COME UNEXPECTEDLY, NOT THAT I LIKE IT, MIND YOU, BECAUSE PEOPLE ALWAYS DEMAND THE MOST TEDIOUS EXPLANATIONS.
'But… But why?'
JUST AS I SAID. WHY CAN'T PEOPLE BE A BIT MORE REASONABLE? I MERELY DO WHAT I HAVE TO DO, BUT I CAN'T TELL YOU WHY.
Lucius felt panic overcome him slowly but inexorably. 'I don't want to die. Not now. There's a lot of things I still want to do. Can't we… strike some sort of bargain?'
THAT'S A VERY COMMON REQUEST, Death said pensively, AND SOMETIMES I DO AGREE TO IT. I MUST SAY THOUGH, I'M NOT REALLY INCLINED TO STRIKE A BARGAIN WITH A MORTAL WHO SEEMED TO THINK HE COULD EAT ME.
Lucius winced. 'That, uh, was a trifle tactless, I admit. Though I would like to point out that I didn't come up with that name.'
THAT WAS RIDDLE, I KNOW. EXCEEDINGLY UNPLEASANT FELLOW. I TRIED TO TALK TO HIM AFTER I CAME FOR HIM, BUT HE MERELY TURNED HIS BACK ON ME AND STALKED OFF.
'Well,' Lucius said, beginning to be drawn into the conversation despite himself, 'he must have been terribly disappointed.'
THAT IS NO EXCUSE FOR SUCH A BLATANT LACK OF MANNERS, IN MY OPINION.
'I agree. Good manners always ought to be observed.' Lucius shrugged. 'He was terribly bad ton, if you know what I mean. Brought up in a Muggle orphanage, what can you expect?'
MAYBE YOU'RE WILLING TO ENLIGHTEN ME. WHAT DID THAT MAN MEAN TO ACHIEVE?
'World domination, for one. And he meant to get rid of all Muggleborn wizards. And witches of course.'
THEN WHY DIDN'T HE CALL HIS FOLLOWERS SOMETHING LIKE "THE PUREBLOOD SUPREMACIST SOCIETY"?
'He always had this penchant for cheap drama. He thought that "Death Eaters" had more flair to it. Just like the uniforms he made us wear – of course he never put on one of those horrible masks, but we had to dress up whenever there was a meeting. Try to breathe under a Death Eater's mask, let alone talk. Not to mention what the hood did to one's hair.'
Death snorted. 'YOU AMUSE ME, LUCIUS MALFOY. MAYBE… MAYBE I'LL AGREE TO A BARGAIN AFTER ALL.'
'I would be delighted. I have to admit, though, that I cannot think of anything I might possibly offer you.'
YES, THAT'S A DIFFICULT ONE, ISN'T IT?
'Well, yes. Certainly more difficult than with mortals.' Lucius cleared his throat. 'Maybe you would be kind enough to, uh, suggest something?'
YOU WILL HAVE TO ANSWER A FEW QUESTIONS FIRST. TELL ME, LUCIUS MALFOY, DO YOU STILL BELIEVE THAT PUREBLOODED WIZARDS ARE BETTER THAN MUGGLEBORNS?
'That,' Lucius said cautiously, 'would of course depend on the individual we are talking-'
NO GAMES, LUCIUS MALFOY. NOT WITH ME.
Grinding his teeth, Lucius bit out, 'Yes, I do.'
AH. SO YOU WOULDN'T CONSIDER EVER BEING FRIENDS WITH A MUGGLEBORN WIZARD?
'I…' Lucius sighed. 'I wouldn't completely exclude the possibility, although it does seem improbable.'
UH-HUH. WHAT ABOUT MARRYING A MUGGLEBORN WITCH?
Lucius shook his head. 'No. I would never, ever consider marrying a Muggleborn witch.'
EVEN IF SHE WERE CLEVER AND PRETTY?
WELL, Death said, HERE'S MY SUGGESTION FOR OUR BARGAIN, THEN: I SHALL COME BACK TO VISIT YOU EXACTLY ONE YEAR FROM NOW. IF BY THEN YOU ARE MARRIED TO ONE HERMIONE WEASLEY, WHO, AS I UNDERSTAND, IS A VERY CLEVER AND QUITE PRETTY YOUNG MUGGLEBORN WITCH, YOU SHALL LIVE TILL YOUR ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-THIRD BIRTHDAY. IF YOU ARE STILL UNMARRIED OR MARRIED TO SOMEBODY ELSE, YOU SHALL COME WITH ME. NO CHEATING, THOUGH. YOU WON'T BE ALLOWED TO DIVORCE HER.
'Weasley? You mean Hermione Weasley née Granger?' Lucius threw up his hands in exasperation. 'But she's married, and that's only a minor obstacle, compared to my unwillingness-'
YOU'RE WELCOME TO ACCOMPANY ME RIGHT NOW, OF COURSE.
'No!' Lucius shouted, 'No, I don't want to – All right. I agree to the deal.'
DOING BUSINESS WITH YOU IS A PLEASURE, LUCIUS MALFOY. BY THE WAY, DO YOU LIKE CATS?'
Completely baffled, Lucius tried to figure out whether this was a trap. 'I do like cats, yes,' he finally said.
EXCELLENT. I FOUND THIS – a yellowish, mewling fur ball materialized under Lucius's nose – AND WOULD LIKE TO ENTRUST IT TO YOUR CARE. IT IS RATHER BIG FOR A KITTEN.
'It's a Kneazle,' Lucius said.
I SEE. ONE LIVES TO LEARN, ALTHOUGH IN MY CASE THE VERB ISN'T QUITE CORRECT. SHE WANTS TO BE CALLED VANILLA.
'Vanilla,' Lucius repeated tonelessly. But no one answered. Death had left, and he was sitting at the breakfast table, watching his new pet make quick work of his scrambled eggs, and trying to come to terms with what he'd just agreed to.
Being in love with a married woman was enough to drive a man to drink or, if Goethe's Young Werther was to be believed, shoot himself. Lucius, however, was facing a worse problem. He had to successfully seduce a married woman, whom he didn't even know, unless you counted the exchange of a few hexes twenty-five years ago and having to watch her, two years later, being tortured by his mad sister-in-law.
Lucius had never been the kind of wizard who got off on screams of pain and pleas for mercy and, unlike many of his peers, he didn't fancy young girls. He therefore decided that the first thing he had to do in order to be successful was get rid of the mental image of a wild-haired, grimy, flat-chested seventeen-year old witch writhing on his priceless Aubusson rug.
Instead of drinking himself into a coma or purchasing a Muggle firearm, Lucius therefore dedicated his considerable plotting skills to devising a plan. He had to meet Hermione Weasley in person and thus kill two birds with one stone: Seeing her face to face would supplant the memory of a skinny teenager with something more up to date and – hopefully – more alluring, and it would also provide the opportunity for him to test the waters.
He knew, of course, that she was Deputy Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, bound to be promoted to Head as soon as her boss went into retirement. But even as second in command, Hermione Weasley wasn't the kind of Ministry employee whom you met without previously making an appointment. And to make an appointment, you needed a reason. A good reason, if you wanted to talk to Hermione Weasley.
Now there was any number of motives for MLE to still want to talk to him, or for the Aurors to perform the occasional, albeit never successful, raid on his home, preferably during the holidays, when his grandson was with him. This, however, was precisely the reason why the reverse scenario, i.e. Lucius seeking out the Deputy Head of MLE, lacked credibility.
Eyeing the brandy carafe with a doleful look, Lucius withstood the temptation to indulge in a midmorning alcohol binge and tried to concentrate on the problem at hand. His attempt was thwarted by a House Elf Apparating into the library with a loud crack. Its skinny arms stretched out as far as possible, the elf tried to prevent the hissing fur ball it was holding in spindly fingers from swiping at its eyes. Usually Lucius would have punished the elf for disturbing his thought processes, but since Vanilla the Kneazle kitten was doing a sterling job of terrifying the elf, he merely leaned back and watched.
'Master,' the elf squeaked, 'Master, I begs your pardon, Master, but I finds the kitten in the kitchen, and it is eating all the Beluga caviar, Master.'
A lazy Accio later, Vanilla was sitting on her wizard's lap, purring contentedly and giving off a strong aroma of fish, and the elf had been sent off to the kitchens to eat twenty jalapeno peppers. A most lenient punishment, Lucius thought, shaking his head at his own indulgence. But he'd had an idea, and the blinding flash of inspiration had momentarily hampered his usual inventiveness when it came to devising methods of elf castigation.
Hermione Weasley closed her office door with a well-aimed kick and smiled to herself when the loud thud of wood against wood made the stacks of files on her desk wobble.
She hated early-morning meetings, especially those that started before nine a.m. Contrary to popular opinion, she'd never been a morning person, and she had absolutely no idea why so many people – her husband among them – still believed that talking to her before she'd been out of bed for at least two hours was a good idea. At least there had been coffee today. Ministry-made, meeting coffee, for all it was worth.
A swish of her wand switched on the espresso machine sitting on a small table next to her desk. It was a Muggle device she'd charmed to work in magical surroundings. It usually produced excellent coffee, except for those days when there was a disturbance in the magical field, caused by solar wind. On such occasions the machine had been known to cough out matchboxes that sang O Sole Mio, talking mice and, only once, pralines filled with Irish Coffee. Thanking the deities that today was a disturbance-free day, at least as far as the magical field was concerned, Hermione made herself a double espresso and settled into her chair. While she inhaled the aroma and took a first, blissful sip of the black brew, she mentally went through her To-Do list.
The meeting with Shacklebolt and the Head of Mysteries was thankfully over. Next on the list was – Who? Lucius Malfoy? What could the man possibly want? Maybe he meant to complain about the raids Ron still insisted on performing every once in a while? Not that Hermione could blame him. If somebody else had repeatedly broken into Malfoy's house, without a search warrant and followed by the most clumsy, heavy-handed troupe the Auror department could possibly put together, they would probably have been transferred to Accounting. Not so Ron, the war hero. The Aurors responded solely to the Minister, and Shacklebolt had given his redheaded star Auror more than one stern dressing-down, but there was no way even Shacklebolt could demote Ron Weasley for inconveniencing a former Death Eater. Hermione considered this a severe abuse of his privileges and had repeatedly told her husband so, but he'd scarcely paid attention to her and merely stated that Malfoy only got what was coming to him.
Hermione finished her coffee and decided that there was time for another cup. While the machine was gurgling and spluttering, she pondered what she was going to say to Malfoy. She was responsible only for the MLE, not the Aurors, so the most she could do was drop another hint to Shacklebolt. Of course Malfoy wouldn't want to seek out the Minister – lodging a complaint with the man who'd married his wife not six months ago would be more than awkward.
She'd rehearsed a polite, noncommittal answer by the time her secretary's disembodied voice announced Lucius Malfoy through the magical intercom. 'Thank you, Mathilda,' she spoke into the flowerpot labelled "Interc. Secr.", 'and please make a call to maintenance. There's this strange mewling noise in the intercom, tell them to check it.'
'That…' Mathilda cleared her throat. 'That won't be necessary, ma'am.'
Hermione frowned; she could have sworn that her secretary was trying hard not to laugh. 'Are you sure?'
'Quite sure, ma'am. Would you like to see Mr Malfoy now?'
Sighing, Hermione said, 'Yes, please. Send him in.'
Although Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy had stopped sharing a bedroom some five years into their marriage and had, even before they started to sleep separately, never even thought of using the same bathroom, Narcissa had always disapproved of her husband spending at least an hour on his morning toilette. The two hours he'd lingered today would probably have driven her to nag him for the same amount of time, if they were still married, he thought.
Lucius knew everything about the importance of first impressions.
He and Hermione Weasley hadn't set eyes on each other for almost twenty years, and hence she probably remembered him as she'd last seen him. Not the most favourable of recollections, he was sure. A year spent in Azkaban, followed by ten months as a virtual prisoner in his own home, with Voldemort and Bellatrix as the most undesired guests in history since Paris had visited king Menelaus, had done nothing for his outward appearance. He still shuddered when he remembered the waxen complexion, hollow eyes and dull hair he'd seen in the mirror back then. Although not sure whether the then-Miss Granger had had any attention to spare for his looks during her sojourn at the Manor and the battle of Hogwarts, Lucius nevertheless wanted her to perceive him in a wholly new light.
He knew that he was good-looking. Looks never were a problem. But there was more to a first impression than a handsome face and a perfect body. It was the subtext that counted, and Lucius had had too many affairs to be ignorant of the importance of the subtext. Madam Weasley was a married woman who, to the best of his – or rather Rita Skeeter's – knowledge, had never had an affair in all her eighteen years of marriage. If he wanted to live another seventy-eight years, he would have to seduce her, sooner rather than later. That meant that he had to look his best, but without being overwhelming. So he chose robes in subdued shades of grey – maybe a bit boring, but less dangerous-looking than black and most of all the colour of respectability – and gathered his hair in a loose ponytail. Just the right compromise between wearing it open and pulling it back severely, as he did for appointments at Gringotts' and the like.
After fifteen minutes' pondering whether he ought to put a bow on Vanilla, he finally decided against it. It was Hermione Weasley he had to deal with after all, not Dolores Umbridge.
He knew he'd done it right the moment he entered her office.
She rose from her chair, a businesslike smile on her face, and walked towards him, her right hand already raised to shake his. Then she froze in mid-movement and did a double-take.
Lucius used the second or so it took her to regain control to thoroughly look her over. He had to admit to himself that he rather liked what he saw.
She certainly wasn't flat-chested anymore. The experience acquired by mentally undressing legions of women and later evaluating his data by undressing most of them for real told him that those severely cut ministry robes were hiding a rather curvaceous body. Her hair was still wild and frizzy, but she'd grown into it and tamed the worst of it by cutting it down to earlobe-length. Good skin, he thought. A few crow's feet, but certainly less than one would expect in a witch aged forty with two children, a stressful job and a ginger husband. When she finally extended her hand, he noticed the short, strong fingers and the lack of varnish on her short but impeccably manicured nails. No make-up, he observed, and no high heels. A no-nonsense woman. He'd have to be very careful.
'Madam Weasley.' He settled for a handshake instead of kissing the proffered hand. 'Thank you very much for giving me an appointment at such short notice.'
'Mr Malfoy.' The hand that briefly squeezed his was warm and dry, its grip firm. 'How may I help you?' She gestured him to a large leather armchair. 'Tea?'
He'd smelled the aroma of coffee upon entering her office. 'Coffee would be more welcome, unless it's too much trouble.'
She smiled and nodded. 'Not at all. And maybe a saucer of milk for your charming companion?'
'I'm sure Vanilla would appreciate that,' he replied gravely.
'Vanilla?' Already busy with the espresso machine, she looked back over her shoulder. 'A very fitting name, really. I've never seen this particular colouring in a Kneazle. She looks very young – how long have you had her?'
Lucius waited until she returned to the table, two cups of espresso and a saucer of milk floating ahead of her. 'Only three days. She is the reason why I came to see you.'
Vanilla started slurping her milk, purring loudly and visibly enjoying herself.
'The reason…' Madam Weasley's eyebrows rose. 'That comes as something of a surprise.'
'The coffee is excellent,' Lucius said, and she inclined her head and smiled. 'I am aware, madam, that my asking for an urgent appointment because of a Kneazle kitten must seem a little, well, odd. But I am sure you'll understand.'
'I'm sure.' She stroked Vanilla's back with her forefinger and leaned back into her chair. 'Explain, please.'
'As you certainly know, my overall situation is still slightly precarious. The raids the Aurors obviously see fit to perform on my house every now and then are sufficient proof, and I am quite sure that the Magical Intelligence Agency still keeps me under surveillance.'
'I'm not familiar with MIA procedures,' she said after a short pause, 'but I suppose you might be right.'
'So,' he continued, 'you will certainly understand that I wouldn't want to take any risks.' He put his empty cup down on the coffee table and crossed his arms. 'When Vanilla suddenly appeared on my doorstep, three days ago, I thought that she might have escaped from the adjacent grounds. Which, as you probably know, belong to the belligerent Augusta Wynthorppe.'
'The one who whacked Fudge with her umbrella?'
'No, that would be her daughter. Augusta senior is less known for her forceful political opinions than for breeding pedigreed Kneazles.'
A few discreet inquiries via the House Elf grapevine had already resulted in the certainty that Vanilla did not come from the Wynthorppe harridan's estate. In matters as literally vital as this, Lucius couldn't afford to be less than thorough.
'Ah, I see.' She peered at his empty cup. 'Would you like another one?'
'You are too kind. Yes, please.' He watched her as she prepared the coffee and continued, 'Since the day my father decided to marry my late mother instead of Augusta – not that I blame him – there has been an ongoing feud between our families. I'll spare you the gory details, but imagine how happy the old lady would be to find out that I, er, alienated one of her precious Kneazles.'
'So you want me to find out if one of her kittens is missing,' she said, returning to her chair with two steaming cups.
Vanilla, disregarding the most basic rules of etiquette, had decided that a nap was in order and lay sprawled in the middle of the coffee table. When the Deputy Head of Magical Law enforcement gently tickled her belly, she yawned widely and rolled onto her back.
'Well,' Lucius said, delighted that the stern Mrs Weasley seemed to have a soft spot for small, fluffy animals, 'I'm sure that such an unimportant matter is well beneath you, but I thought-'
'Considering any matter too unimportant or beneath me,' she retorted, getting up and straightening her robes, 'would be a grave mistake. One I sincerely hope I'll never make. I shall see to the matter personally and, of course, discreetly and owl you as soon as possible.'
Unlike his new pet, Lucius knew everything about etiquette. Madam Weasley had dismissed him, and so he rose from his chair, picked up Vanilla and bent down to kiss the hand of the woman who was to become his wife, unless he wanted to follow the Grim Reaper in less than a year. 'Your help is very much appreciated, madam. I shall look forward to receiving your owl.'
'You're welcome. Are you going to keep her, if Mrs Wynthorppe doesn't claim her?'
Lucius smiled down at her. 'I think I will. I can always pretend I'm doing it for my grandson's sake.'
The slight widening of her eyes told him that this last arrow had hit home. But he permitted himself a smile of satisfaction only when he'd reached the elevator.