CHAPTER NINETEEN – TWO MONTHS LATER, AT SEVERUS SNAPE'S HOUSE

'Lucius,' Severus said, 'This isn't really… Well, come in.'

'This isn't really what?' Lucius stepped over the threshold and sniffed. 'Mmh, that smells marvellous. Are you expecting guests?'

'Yes, Potter and his wife are coming to dinner. That's why I meant to say that this isn't the best of times.'

Hermione joined them in the entrance. She was wearing an apron over a pair of old jeans and a sweatshirt that had probably been white before she started cooking. 'Who's there – oh, Lucius. Do you mind sitting in the kitchen while we're cooking? Harry and Ginny are due in an hour, and we can't really interrupt now.'

Lucius shrugged and followed them into the kitchen, where he accepted a chair and a glass of wine. He didn't look happy. 'I never have guests,' he said, staring into his glass.

Hermione, who was peeling mushrooms and cutting them into thin slices, gave him a sharp look. 'Are you being maudlin, Lucius?'

'I think I have every right to be maudlin.' He gestured at the work surface, where vegetables, bottles, cooking implements and a bunch of flowers formed a rather disorganized still life. 'You're having fun, and inviting guests…'

'You're aware, aren't you,' Severus said, 'that it's Potter and his wife coming to dinner. Not exactly my idea of having fun.'

Lucius shrugged and took a sip of his wine in a manner that somehow managed to convey obstinacy. He didn't respond either and merely watched Hermione work her way through the mushrooms.

After five minutes of silence, Hermione sighed and put down her knife. 'Can you finish on your own?' she asked Severus, who nodded and handed her the wine bottle and her glass. 'Come on, Lucius. Let's go to the living room and talk.'

'There's no need to treat me like a toddler,' Lucius snapped, but rose obediently when she took his hand, and followed her out of the kitchen.

When she'd closed the door behind them, Hermione rose on tiptoes and kissed him. 'Is that better? I don't usually kiss toddlers that way.'

'Minx,' was all he said.

The living room, which doubled as dining room, was ready for the visitors, and a shadow passed over Lucius's face, when he looked at the table. Hermione resolutely steered him towards the fireplace, pushed him into an armchair and unceremoniously made herself comfortable on his knees. 'You're unhappy, aren't you?'

'I feel lost,' he responded with unusual candour.

'Is it because you feel de trop, what with Severus and me being together?'

He flinched away from her caressing hand and looked into the fire. 'Sometimes. But mostly I'm just bored out of my mind. I can't just read and go for walks and tell myself that I'm lucky to have what I have. And don't' – he glared at her, when she was about to say something – 'don't you dare suggest I need a hobby.'

'That wasn't what I was going to say. You've always been an active kind of person, Lucius, I'm well aware that a hobby can't replace that. And of course I know that our arrangement can't replace a family of your own, because I strongly suspect that you're missing that, too, aren't you?'

'Not the one I used to have,' he bit out.

'No, of course not. I meant generally speaking – you liked being a paterfamilias, knowing you had an heir who'd take over, that sort of thing. Why don't you remarry?'

'Hermione, you're the cleverest witch I know, but sometimes you can be astonishingly stupid. I'm a convicted Death Eater – maybe they'd marry me for the money, but that's certainly not what I want.'

She cocked her head and scrutinized him. 'I think you're being too pessimistic here. Do you think I'm interested in your money?'

'Of course not, but-'

'But me no buts. What I'm trying to make you understand is that, if there's one woman who genuinely likes you for what you are, why shouldn't there be another? The problem is that you don't meet any women, because you never leave your bloody big manor, except if Severus and I drag you out. And even then you refuse to go anywhere public.'

'I've had enough humiliation to last me a lifetime. I don't need any more of that, thank you very much.'

Hermione stroked his cheek; this time he didn't flinch, but neither did he look at her. 'Lucius, you mustn't… Please, stop beating yourself up. It doesn't help, and it's just a waste of time.' She took a sip of wine. 'Maybe you ought to start plotting a bit, make plans to take over the world, hm? You could start by writing to the Minister, asking for a full pardon, so you'd be able to access all your frozen accounts and take back the reins of business. You practically own the Chudley Cannons, for heaven's sake, you own the biggest building company in England and, as far as I know, you own Broomstix Ltd., not to mention most of the forests supplying the wood.'

'He'll never grant me a full pardon.'

'How can you be so sure unless you try? Do you think I wouldn't help you? Tell you what, Lucius, I'll try to convince Harry to put in a word for you – there's a lot of good you could do with all that money. Just think of St. Mungo's, they're always short of budget and staff, or wizarding education. It's time somebody did something about post-N.E.W.T.s education, that's a complete mess, and nobody seems to care.'

Lucius sighed. 'All that sounds very… tempting, but-'

'Stop saying but, Lucius. Do something. The Minister won't call at Malfoy Manor, offering you your pardon. You want your life back, fight for it! It's been over ten years – people do forget, Lucius. Give them jobs, give them money, and you'll see how quick they'll be to accept you back into society. Severus thinks, and I think too, that it might be better if you waited a bit longer, but if it makes you so miserable, I think we ought to give it a try now, don't you agree?'

'You're being very bossy,' he said, but he was smiling.

'You don't leave me any other choice. We'll have to find you a bossy wife, a struggling but basically bossy virgin, since you seem to like that so much.'

'I didn't say I liked it.'

'But you do, don't you?'

'I think I'll Apparate home and write that letter. Are you really going to ask Potter's help?'

'It's going to be hard work, but I will. The Aurors' department has been requesting new brooms for years, but there's never enough money. Besides, they'd really appreciate getting preferential treatment at St. Mungo's. And those are just the things I can think of off the top of my head.'

'You're very cunning for a Gryffindor.' He bent forward to smell her hair and flick his tongue over her earlobe. 'And now' – he put down his glass and rose, thus depositing her on her feet – 'I'll leave you to your dinner preparations. That letter won't write itself, and I just remembered that the Minister owes me both a favour and a rather substantial amount of galleons… I'll have to verify the latter with the goblins of course…' He fleetingly kissed her cheek and strode towards the door, muttering to himself. As far as Hermione could make out, he was mentally calculating the interest that had been accumulating for seventeen years.

'Is he gone?' Severus asked, when she rejoined him in the kitchen. 'He seemed very dejected – is he better now?'

'Much better. And now listen, because tonight is going to be a lot more difficult than we thought. When we've finished dinner, you'll have to distract Ginny, because I need to talk to Harry about Lucius.'

'Distract her? But how-'

'It doesn't matter. You'll have to think of something. You used to be a double agent, you can't have forgotten all your skills.'

'But I barely know her!'

'Never mind.' Hermione kissed the tip of his nose. 'Come to think of it, you might tell her how you managed to burn the duck, and how you quickly and efficiently threw together whatever we're going to eat tonight.'

Maybe Lucius was right, she thought while climbing the stairs, still giggling at Severus's expression of helpless fury when he'd looked at the burnt lump. Maybe she was a little bossy. Just a little bit. So what? She liked being in charge. And tonight, she'd start convincing Harry that pardoning Lucius might lead to a lot of good things. Then she'd have to talk to the Minister, and obviously also to some select members of the Wizengamot…

Age and experience had taught her that she couldn't save the world all by herself. But that was all right. All she wanted was to keep her world intact – a world that contained carbonized ducks, depressive ex-Death Eaters, Potions masters with Master Chef delusions and complicated friendships. It wasn't perfect, but it was hers.

THE END