It was indeed a lucky coincidence, Hermione thought while eyeing herself in the mirror of La Grenouille's powder room, that the sister of her business-partner-to-be was one of England's up-and-coming young designers. Parvati had spent the better part of Sunday morning creating an outfit for Hermione's evening at the opera, and she'd truly outdone herself.
The dress, a mere breath of copper-coloured fairy silk, was completed by a wrap-around top of a woolly material so light and soft that calling it wool was an insult. At first, Hermione had objected, because she'd thought the gold thread would render it scratchy, but then she'd discovered they didn't. The garment kept her warm and cosy, and its colour mix of brown, copper and gold complemented the dress perfectly.
She wasn't quite sure what had been more satisfying: the look on Lucius's face when he'd welcomed her at the Manor or his expression when she took the top off at the opera.
Padma had helped with her hair, and Hermione had to admit that she looked great. A last touch of lipstick, and she returned to their table, where the waiter was just opening a bottle of champagne.
'You are a very beautiful woman, Hermione, but tonight you have surpassed yourself.'
Lucius raised his glass, and she touched hers to it. 'Thank you for a wonderful evening, Lucius.'
'My pleasure entirely.'
They studied their menus and ordered – Hermione silently chastised herself for enjoying that prices just didn't matter – and then sat in silence for a short while.
'I think,' Hermione said, after she'd fuelled her courage with a second glass of champagne, 'that there is something I'd like to discuss with you.'
A shadow crossed his face. 'Does it have to be tonight?'
'You seem to think it's going to be unpleasant,' she teased.
'It did sound rather ominous, yes. Announcements of this kind rarely precede something pleasant. And I've been enjoying myself so much that I really wouldn't want to spoil it.'
Her hand crept across the table to caress his fingers. 'And if I told you that your pleasure isn't likely to be spoiled?'
Lucius sighed. 'Very well. I'm prepared to take the risk.'
'Good.' She leaned back to allow the waiter to serve their starters. 'This is going to be a game of questions and answers. I'll ask the questions, and you'll answer them.' Hermione smiled as his hand twitched under hers. 'I want to hear the truth, though. If you lie to me, this is our last evening together. Have I made myself clear?'
They both picked up their cutlery, and Lucius mustered her intently. 'How very intriguing – how do you intend to verify the truthfulness of my answers?'
'I thought you might find it intriguing. But I'm not going to tell you.'
'Do I at least have the right not to answer your questions?'
'You may skip one.'
His fork slipped from his fingers and clattered against the plate. 'One? That's hardly fair! How many questions will you be asking?'
She was pretty sure there wouldn't be more than four, but she wasn't going to tell him that. 'I haven't yet determined how many. I agree, it's probably not fair, but one is what I'm offering.'
'You drive a hard bargain,' he murmured. 'I suppose that, unless I accept, the consequences will be the same as for lying?' Hermione merely shrugged and tried to look enigmatic. 'Very well. I accept.'
'I'm flattered. I would have conceded two, if you'd insisted, but since you gave up so easily…'
The idea that he might want to deny her an answer hadn't even occurred to her; somehow she'd simply taken for granted that he'd prefer a lie or half-truth. With his unexpected move, though, and the necessity of reacting to it, Hermione was getting into the spirit of things. Now it was a game, and one she was starting to enjoy.
She smiled sweetly when he almost dropped his knife. 'Shall we begin?'
It was evident from Lucius's expression that he would have liked to say a good deal more, but all that came out was a clipped, 'Yes.'
'Why did you sleep with Narcissa?'
She knew the answer already, after Draco had Floo'ed his mother in the morning and reported back to her that it had, indeed, been a lovers' tiff: Sergey had wanted Narcissa to live in Russia with him, after the wedding, and she'd refused. On Lucius's part, it had been wounded pride, as his former teacher, Professor Sinistra, had ended their affair. Both had been shocked when Narcissa turned out to be pregnant, though not as shocked as their parents. The wedding had been arranged quickly – a lavish show of wealth and prestige to cover up the scandal. Narcissa had never confessed to her husband how much she'd been in love with her fiancé, or at least not until the moment she'd received a letter from the recently widowed Sergey.
Lucius shook his head. 'I'm sorry, but that's none of your business. It concerns exclusively Narcissa and myself, and I couldn't answer your question without consulting her beforehand.'
Spearing a piece of artichoke, Hermione raised her eyebrows. 'Isn't it a bit early in the game to squander your one and only get-out-of-jail card?'
'It may surprise you, but I do have my principles.'
'I wouldn't call it a surprise, but it's certainly a pleasant reminder.' She slipped out of her sandal and caressed his ankle with her toes. 'On to question number two, then: Why and how did you choose me?'
Squaring his shoulders, Lucius put down his knife and fork and removed the napkin from his lap. 'Your lack of insistence, when I refused to answer the first question, suggests that you knew the answer already, although Merlin only knows how you found out. If the same is true for this question…' He paused to look down, but then raised his head to fully meet her eyes with his. 'I refuse to be treated in this way, Hermione. If you derive amusement from my humiliation, attempting to court you was a mistake and I'll be glad to take my leave.'
She caught his hand just before he got up. 'Why is it so humiliating to admit that you wanted to find the right woman? Arithmancy may be somewhat lacking in romantic allure, but if I had tried and failed twice, I suppose I, too, would prefer the scientific approach.'
Had she morphed into Voldemort, he couldn't have looked more stricken. 'How…' He cleared his throat. 'You really did know? But how?'
'I'm afraid that I'm the one who asks the questions tonight. Remember the rules?'
'I also remember you promising that you weren't going to spoil the evening.'
'Well, the evening isn't over yet. Question number three: How would you describe your feelings for me?'
To her relief, he relaxed fractionally. 'Well, I can answer this one. When my, er, equations had yielded the same result for five times in a row, I must admit that my interest was sparked. I know, of course, that Arithmancy merely shows the most likely among a wide range of possibilities, but given our, well, history, I would never even have considered…'
'Were you shocked?'
'Yes. That's why I tried five different approaches, to make sure.'
'I can imagine,' she said dryly. 'By the way, I did my own bit of Arithmancy today, after lunch.'
'What was the – oh, I forgot. You are asking the questions.'
Hermione smiled and inclined her head. 'And afterwards? When the first shock had passed?'
'I Apparated to the Daily Prophet and turned their archives upside down.'
'You read up on me. Exactly what I would have done under the circumstances. It seems that we have more in common than we both thought. And then?'
'Then I went back home and debated with myself whether to get smashed right away or do a bit of planning before drinking myself into a coma.'
She laughed. 'How flattering.'
'You are misunderstanding me deliberately.'
'No.' Her hand found his fingers and squeezed. 'No, I don't misunderstand you. Considering our, as you said, shared history, the idea does seem rather bizarre. Not revolting, or anything like that. Just, well, outlandish.'
Deciding to give him a bit of time to recover, Hermione finished her starter. So far things had gone surprisingly well.
When their plates were changed, she'd made up her mind: if he gave the right answer to her most important question, she was going to take the plunge.
'You still haven't answered my question, Lucius. The one about your feelings for me.'
'You're worse than a terrier pursuing a rat,' he said and chuckled.
'I certainly hope so.'
'It's not… an easy question to answer.'
'All I want is the truth.'
He looked up, and their eyes met. 'You intrigue me. You are a beautiful, intelligent and independent woman. A passionate lover. A powerful witch. I've come to genuinely like you. No more and no less.'
'And you mean to marry me.'
'Not now.' He gave her a quick smile. 'But later on, yes.'
'What would you be prepared to do for me?'
In a mere fraction of a second, his expression went from light-hearted to closed-off. 'That is dangerous territory, Hermione.' The fingertips of his right hand ghosted over his left sleeve, brushing the spot where his Dark Mark had been.
'True. I'm sorry.' Her toes resumed their exploration of his leg. 'Let me reformulate: if I promised to consider your offer, would you promise me in turn to abandon your plans of finding the culprit?'
'Oh, that. Yes, of course I would.'
'Because you already know who it is.'
He shrugged. 'If you say so.'
'You're very lucky that this wasn't a question, Lucius.'
'I know.' He grinned at her.
'So that promise isn't worth a great deal, is it?'
'Not really, no.' He'd finished de-boning his fish and proceeded to sprinkle lemon juice on it. 'Just to interrupt the routine of our game, may I say that I want to take you home and fuck you unconscious?'
Hermione stared at his hand, mesmerized, as it squeezed the wedge of lemon. 'Duly noted, Mr Malfoy. But I still want you to answer my previous question. So tell me, if I promised to consider your offer, would you do me a favour? I'm going to disclose a secret to you, and it's something I know will upset you. To, erm, use a euphemism. Instead of losing your temper, will you promise to hear me out quietly and act like a grown-up?'
'You're being vague again. And terribly ominous, I might add.'
'Yes, I'm aware of that. But don't you think it's time to show me some trust?'
'And now you're being very, very sneaky.' He chuckled. 'I appreciate that in a woman.'
She held out her hand to him. 'Do we have a deal?'
For a moment she thought she'd gambled too high and lost it all. But then he took her fingers in a firm grip. 'We have a deal, Miss Granger.'
Many, though certainly not all, of those who knew Lucius Malfoy might have been astonished to learn that he was, indeed, a man of his word.
He had listened quietly to what Hermione had told him. Brow darkening but outwardly calm, he'd finished his main course. The waiter's offer of dessert had met with stony-faced refusal. He had written out a payment order and left a tip of two galleons without a word. Lips compressed into a thin line but composed, he had risen from his chair and taken Hermione's hand to help her up. He had slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and guided her out of the restaurant without speaking. Once outside, he'd Apparated them straight to his bedroom. Once there, he had, indeed, fucked her unconscious.
The two times they'd made love before hadn't exactly been vanilla sex, but Hermione had sensed a certain restraint or hesitation about him; an almost imperceptible loosening of his grip, the slightest softening of his lips when he kissed her, had spoken of something ferocious that was being reined in at the last moment.
Tonight, there had been none of that.
Never before had she realized the meaning of "rough" as clearly and, she had to acknowledge, pleasantly as when he'd pounced on her after their wordless return from La Grenouille. It had surprised and overwhelmed her, but not for a single moment had she been afraid. Somewhere at the back of her mind there was the safe knowledge that he'd stop immediately if she told him to. But the experience was far too fascinating even to consider calling a halt to it. Strange though it still felt to her, she did trust him not to hurt her.
That, however, didn't mean that she didn't lose consciousness, if only briefly, after he'd driven her to a third, almost painful orgasm.
When she came to, feeling sore and exhausted, she sensed his hand resting lightly on her belly. Her lips were tender and a little bruised, but she felt them curl into a smile nonetheless.
'We'll have to work on your stamina, my dear,' he murmured in honeyed tones, which didn't quite conceal the underlying worry. 'All this fainting is a little irritating, despite the undeniable dramatic flair.'
Eyelids drooping, because she simply didn't have the strength to keep them open, she let her limp hand wander to his (equally limp) cock and squeezed. 'Stop acting all superior, Malfoy. I can feel your hand tremble.'
The hand, which was indeed shaking slightly, moved to curl around her hip. 'I didn't hurt you, did I?'
'No.' Hermione opened her eyes and met his, stormy and a little troubled. 'No, you didn't, and I'm sure you didn't want to.' Her muscles were protesting the movement, but she scooted closer to him. 'Lucius, if this is the effect bad news has on you, I must try it again.'
'Does that mean…' His glance swerved towards her upper arm, and she winced when his finger brushed a very delicate spot. She raised the arm to have a look – this wasn't a mere bruise but a bite mark. 'Does that mean you liked it?' he finished the question.
'It's not something I'd do every day – too exhausting by half – and maybe you could refrain next time from trying to gnaw off my arm, but the excitement factor is rather high.' She cupped his cheek. 'How are you feeling?'
Lucius gave her a lopsided grin. 'Wrung out, to own the truth. But not in a bad way. Would you maybe like some coffee?'
'I doubt I'll be able to raise the cup to my lips, but coffee would be wonderful. And maybe some sweets? Our hasty departure deprived me of dessert.'
'And a brandy,' he added gravely. 'There's nothing like coffee and brandy to initiate a civilized conversation.'
'So long as you don't expect me to smoke a cigar and discuss the latest Quidditch match...'
He'd given her a pyjama top and put on the matching bottoms, and they were lounging in bed, sipping coffee.
'So my son is gay,' he stated. Apart from a slight note of resignation, no emotion was detectable in his voice. 'Do you have any idea whom he might be seeing?'
'Lucius, you aren't going to break- '
He leaned over to kiss her cheek. 'No, I'll keep my promise. I only hope' – he sighed deeply – 'that it's someone… worthy.'
'He certainly deserves to be with a nice bloke who loves him.' Hermione selected a petit four and peeled back the white paper ruffle. The sweet was almost in her mouth, when she suddenly put it down, because inspiration had struck.
Although the news had hit him hard, Lucius had taken them unexpectedly well. For him, such behaviour qualified as saintly (apart from the wild shagging, of course, which didn't quite fit into that category).
Such exemplary behaviour did warrant a little compensation, didn't it?
Her dislike of lies and subterfuge had surely been one of the determining factors in the Sorting Hat's decision. It had hesitated only briefly before proclaiming that Hermione Granger belonged into the House of Gryffindor. This particular character trait, or so she supposed, was one of those which made a distinction between nature and nurture quite impossible.
While still a small child, she hadn't been able to see the attraction or necessity of telling the untruth, whether white lie or black.
She did, of course, remember the later years, when inexplicable things had started to happen. She could still hear, in her mind, her parents exhorting her to be truthful – bad memories, those, from when she was aged about eight or nine, and her magic had begun to show.
It seemed paradoxical, but she'd almost discovered the simple beauty of a well-thought-out lie back then: it would have been so much easier to confess that she'd thrown a stone through the window, than that it had just exploded; one minute it had been there and whole, if slightly grubby, and the next she'd felt something, strange and wonderful and a bit frightening, just erupt from within her, and then there'd been only shards.
Her parents had wanted a truth that would have made them feel better, but much as she loved them, she hadn't been able to give it to them. She hadn't been able to say, Yes, I'm sorry, mum, dad, I threw a stone. It wasn't the truth, so why say it?
Later on, when she'd grown up and the world had shrunk to its true, adult dimensions, Hermione had understood the necessity of compromise which was, in and of itself, a lie. She'd begun to appreciate that a very slight correction of the truth could be the miraculous oil that made the cogwheels of life turn more smoothly.
The lie for its own sake, though, l'art pour l'art, the false reality one fabricated merely because one could, was completely new territory to her.
Somehow she didn't believe it was a coincidence that she'd dabbled in the fine art of wilful deceit for the first time when she'd tried, and successfully so, to worm the truth out of one Lucius Malfoy during their dinner at La Grenouille. It had been a reversal of roles, and one she'd thoroughly relished.
Apart from pretending that she didn't already know the answers to all the questions she'd asked him – except for the most important one about his feelings for her, which was pretty ironic, too – she'd also told him an outright fib: she hadn't run any Arithmantic equations before going to the Manor. True, she'd flirted with the idea, had even sat down twice with quill and parchment, but courage had deserted her.
That had been two days ago. Much had happened since she'd dismissed the equations and instead made herself pretty for an evening at the opera. Lucius had revealed a lot of himself that night to her– not that she was entertaining any illusions, he certainly hadn't revealed more than he absolutely had to. But still, he had sacrificed (how perversely oxymoronic that word was in connection with Lucius!) his one opportunity of denying her an answer, because he respected his ex-wife's privacy. He'd responded clearly and unambiguously to her question concerning his feelings for her. And he'd kept his promise, when she'd confronted him with the truth about Draco.
Lucius's behaviour that evening had been a powerful catalyst; her own emotions had undergone a most dramatic change. And now, at home on a drizzly, chilly Tuesday evening, she felt that she had to know.
No more what-if's, Hermione said to herself. If the result of the equation she was about to start indicated Lucius as her ideal match, or even only him among others, there wouldn't be much need for self-examination.
If, on the other hand, the outcome excluded him, then she'd do well to put the relationship on hold, stay at a distance and have a very close look at her feelings. She was only human and not immune to charms, money and earth-shattering sex.
If it wasn't him, she really was going to miss the sex…
The flames in the fireplace flared green.
She'd been waiting for the call, nervously pacing her small flat and unable to do anything but play and replay scenarios in her mind of Ginny telling Harry about Malfoy, of a final and irremediable breach between the couple, of her and Ginny's friendship being severed because Hermione had bullied her friend into telling Harry the truth.
Ginny's voice sounded tremulous and a bit thick, and Hermione felt her heart sink.
'Ginny?' She fell to her knees in front of the fireplace, hitting the floor hard. Never mind the bruises, though, they could be easily healed. 'Ginny, is everything all right?'
Oh, the relief, the unspeakable relief, when Ginny smiled and nodded.
'It's fine. It wasn't easy, but… I think I'd like for Harry to have a second target now. Why don't you come through and tell him about your, erm, plans?'
'Are you sure he's going to survive it?'
'Pretty sure, yes. What could be worse than his own wife entrusting her mental health to Lucius?'
'There's that, yes. But I think his best friend having a relationship with Lucius comes a close second.'
Ginny blew her nose and smirked at her. 'Let's put him to the test, then.'
She really was one of the most resilient creatures Hermione knew, this Ginny Potter.
Harry waved a weak hand. 'I think I need a drink now.'
'Make that two,' Hermione said. 'Confessing is almost as taxing as granting absolution, you know.'
'I haven't done that yet.'
'But you will, won't you?'
He got up with a sigh and walked, slightly unsteady, towards the kitchen. His expression was troubled, but he ruffled Hermione's hair when he went past her.
'You hadn't told me about the equation!' Ginny said, every word dripping with reproach.
'That was my little surprise for tonight. A bonus, let us say, for your bravery in the face of… er…'
'…the enemy,' Ginny finished the sentence, and both women laughed. 'Well, believe me, that was exactly how I felt. I don't know how I found the courage.'
'We'll have to put it down to love then, I suppose.'
'How disgustingly romantic.'
'Yes, isn't it. Oh, thanks, Harry.' She eyed her glass. 'If the quantity of whisky is in any way related to the general distress coefficient…'
'It is,' he replied sombrely. 'But I'm trying to look at the bright side: I'd believe, if reluctantly, that one of you might have gone mad. But not both of you. And since Malfoy seems to have treated both of you well-'
'Oh, he's been treating Hermione exceedingly well,' Ginny said, leering.
'I don't think I want to deal with that particular aspect right now,' Harry said, giving her a plaintive look. 'Have some mercy, please. Let me get used to it step by step.' The rather large gulp of whisky he took clearly indicated that he was trying to flush certain images from his mind. The coughing fit this provoked clearly indicated that he wasn't usually a whisky-gulper.
The ladies tactfully refrained from snickering.
'Are you sure you got your equation right?' Harry asked when he could breathe again.
Hermione glared. 'I'll just pretend I didn't hear this one.'
'Sorry. And, erm, waiting for Mohammad Abdullah Ben Ahmed Ibn Saoud to grow up wouldn't be an option, I suppose?'
'I'm thirty, Harry darling, or as good as, and he's just turned two.'
'So mentioning that Malfoy was twenty-seven when you turned two probably wouldn't be a good idea, either, huh?'
'Not really, no.' Suddenly serious, she leaned over and put her hand on his forearm. 'You're taking this far, far better than I would ever have dared to hope, Harry. Thanks.'
'Well, I am a rather nice bloke, you know?'
'Not to forget The Boy Who Lived,' Ginny put in.
'Order of Merlin, First Class,' Hermione supplied.
He relaxed visibly and smiled at them in turn. 'You forgot the highest honours, though: Husband of Ginny and Best Friend of Hermione.'
'I think,' Ginny said after she'd kissed him thoroughly, 'you ought to write that line down somewhere for your next interview. It's better than anything even Lockhart could've come up with.'
'I'm so glad I married a woman who always puts me in my place. Anyway, Hermione, tell us about the grand scheme for your birthday party.'
'Oh, that.' She tried to look modest. 'Well, first of all Lucius has been so very sensible about Draco. Considering how well he reacted to news I know must have been shattering, I really think he ought to be rewarded.'
'Isn't that what you've been doing every night since Sunday? I'm rather astonished that a man of his age survived all this rewarding.'
Harry groaned and put a hand over his eyes.
'Really, Ginny,' Hermione said, once she'd recovered from her own coughing fit. 'Have some consideration for your poor husband. And then, I thought that Draco is enjoying his plotting and planning way too much. I'm very fond of him, but he really shouldn't be allowed to think that he's so much cleverer than the rest of us. Let us show him that Gryffindors, too, can be quite cunning.'
Hermione's living room wasn't big enough for a table that could sit ten, but she'd simply shrunk the rest of her furniture – under Crookshanks' disapproving stare, because he, like all his fellow felines, hated changes in his routine or his flat – and transfigured her small rectangular table into a bigger, round one. Since this was her birthday party and hence a special occasion, she'd even put a very ingenious little charm on the chairs, so that they would assume the ideal height and form for those who occupied them.
The table was laden with fondue pots, plates of raw meat and vegetables, side dishes, salads and some very tasty sauces. Fondue had been her traditional birthday fare since she was old enough to do it properly, and she certainly wasn't going to change that on her thirtieth birthday. Besides, it was a lot more conducive to socializing and chatting than any other kind of meal.
Her guests arrived, alone or in couples, and Hermione made the necessary introductions. Her parents only knew Harry and Ginny, and it was high time they met Padma, Draco and Penny.
The champagne was opened, the heap of presents duly admired, and everybody toasted the birthday girl. Even Crookshanks, who had been in a foul mood all day long, deigned to make an appearance. Hermione was convinced he only did it to spite her, because he made a big show of head-butting and purring at her parents, who had cared for him while in Australia, but completely ignored his witch.
Then they all sat down to dinner.
'Are you expecting somebody else?' Mr Granger asked, pointing at two conspicuously empty chairs.
'Oh, yes.' Hermione speared a piece of beef fillet and added half a mushroom. 'Two surprise guests.'
Draco, who was sitting at her left, snorted. 'Meaning you don't know who they are?'
'Oh, I do know who they are.' She lowered her fork into the oil. 'But nobody else does.'
Mrs Granger, who had been eyeing Draco rather hopefully, frowned. 'But it's your birthday, darling. You ought to be surprised, not your guests.'
'My point exactly,' Draco said, giving her a sunny smile and elbowing Hermione. 'We don't like surprises.'
'Speak for yourself, ferret-boy,' Harry said. 'I do like surprises.'
He and Hermione exchanged a covert glance. Since he was in on the secret, it would hardly be a surprise for him.
She fondly watched her friend of old as he leaned over to kiss his wife. Ginny had been so worried about telling him, but she'd been right to bully her into it. A couple like Harry and Ginny, who had come such a long way, shouldn't have any secrets. Hermione beamed at the two of them and got two sly winks in return.
After this interlude, the conversation picked up and became lively: Penny and Mr Granger discovered a mutual interest in bird-watching, Hermione's mother let off a firework of charm at Draco, whom she obviously assumed to be Hermione's boyfriend, and Padma was deep in conversation with Harry and Ginny.
As no-one except Harry, Ginny and Hermione had anticipated, the doorbell rang at exactly twenty minutes to eight. Ginny, who had taken the chair nearest to the door, stood up.
Hermione, who had pretended to be getting up from her seat, sat down again.
'Are these the surprise guests?' Ginny asked.
'No.' Hermione frowned. 'They're supposed to arrive at half-eight. I wonder…'
'Well, I'll just have a look,' Ginny said brightly.
After peering through the spy hole, she returned to the table, eyes large with perfectly feigned wonderment. 'It's Lucius,' she whispered. 'Hermione, Draco, this is the perfect opportunity – start snogging! Now!'
Five pairs of eyes swivelled towards her. 'The perfect opportunity for what?' Padma hissed.
'Shh! Quiet! I'll explain later!' She frantically gestured for Draco and Hermione to get on with their show.
The doorbell rang again.
'All right, Granger,' Draco muttered, 'It's a sacrifice, but I'm doing it for you.' He gathered her in his arms and started kissing her.
Mr and Mrs Granger stared.
Harry cleared his throat and topped up his glass of Shiraz with a generous splash of Chablis.
Penny and Padma giggled.
Ginny opened the door. 'Mr Malfoy,' she trilled, 'what an unexpected pleasure! Hermione told us there would be surprise guests, but – Neville! Oh, it's lovely to see you! Come in and join us!'
Draco bit down on Hermione's lip and was rewarded by a sound kick in the shin. 'Sorry,' he whispered, 'but Neville's my boyfriend…'
'Keep going!' Hermione whispered back and drew him closer.
The door fell shut, and there was a brief silence, enhanced by the soft burbling of the hot oil in the fondue pots. Then, the sound of measured footsteps. Then, again, silence.
'What,' Lucius enunciated in clipped tones, 'is the meaning of this?'
Nobody said a word, while Draco and Hermione's lips separated with an audible smacking sound.
Draco cleared his throat. 'Father, I can explain…' He fell silent and looked up at his father, who was looming over him. 'Erm, if I absolutely have to.'
He wasn't the only one who winced when Lucius's hand came to rest heavily on his son's shoulder. 'Speak now, or forever hold your silence.'
'That was Shakespearian,' Hermione muttered to Draco, who merely glared. 'Oh, all right, it wasn't. Go on, Draco, tell your father!'
'I, uh, well, that is, Hermione and I…' He stopped and cast a look of desperation at Hermione.
She felt the laughter rise inside her like champagne from a just-opened bottle, but managed to keep it down. Draco's expression was well worth the effort. 'Well, Lucius, the truth is that Draco…'
'…is as gay as a maypole.'
'Well said, Lucius.'
'Thank you. And Mr Longbottom here' – he pulled a rather reluctant Neville forward, so that they were standing side by side – 'is the man on whom Draco's happiness depends, the lodestar of his life.'
'So it seems,' Hermione confirmed gravely.
'Why, then, Draco, did I have to witness you kissing Hermione Granger?'
'Well, it was… you see…'
'I can think of more believable rivals, Draco.'
'Women don't usually kick their boyfriends in the shin while kissing them, Draco.'
'I, erm, bit her, father.'
'So did I, but I don't remember her kicking me in the shin.'
'That,' Hermione said, 'would have been a bit difficult, seeing as my ankles were on your shoulders at the time. Don't look at me like that, mum. You're always going on about how I need a boyfriend.'
Draco, on whose face admiration had been warring with the humiliation of being neatly outmanoeuvred by a Gryffindor, and a quintessential one at that, tsk-ed at Hermione. 'I bet she didn't say biting was compulsory, Granger. Mrs Granger, may I introduce my father, Mr Lucius Malfoy. Mr Granger, Mr Malfoy. Mrs Granger, my boyfriend Neville Longbottom. Mr Granger, Mr Longbottom.'
With a wry glance at his son, Lucius shook the petrified Grangers' hands. Neville merely sketched a bow and waved at his former schoolmates.
Since neither of Hermione's parents had yet recovered sufficiently to talk, Lucius rounded the table to kiss first Padma's and then Penny's hand. Both women mouthed "Wow!" at Hermione, when he turned to kiss Ginny on both cheeks.
Then it was Harry's turn, and Hermione held her breath, grasping for Draco's hand.
'Mr Potter. We meet at last.'
'Mr Malfoy. I… want to thank you for what you did for my wife.'
'It was the least I could do, given my part in her, er, troubles.'
Lucius looked back over his shoulder when Hermione exhaled audibly, and smirked at her. Passing the still-catatonic Grangers, he returned to her side.
'I believe you wanted to vacate this seat, Draco,' he said, hoisting his son out of his chair and propelling him in the general direction of Neville Longbottom. 'And now, to an entirely unrehearsed part of Hermione's birthday party.'
He kneeled down and took Hermione's hand. 'Miss Granger, will you do me the honour of accepting this engagement ring?'
Hermione smiled down at him. 'No strings attached? Just so we can get to know each other better?'
'No strings attached.' He'd said it through clenched teeth, but then, Hermione thought, it was the intention that counted.
'In that case, yes, Mr Malfoy, I'd feel honoured.' She held out her hand, and Lucius slipped the ring on her finger.
'What do you mean-'
Mr Granger clapped a hand over his wife's mouth. 'Shh, dearest. Just keep remembering that this is the farthest she's ever got with any bloke.'
'Well,' Hermione said, 'that was a surprise, wasn't it? And now, I think, we could all use some dinner. Romance always makes me – Crookshanks!'
With a regretful glance at the last piece of beef fillet, Crookshanks ponderously hopped off the table, onto a chair and from there to the floor.
He'd seen worse birthdays.
-- THE -- END –
P.S.: Yes, Sol did approve of Lucius. This may be due to the fact that Sol was none other than Severus Snape, rescued from certain death by his blond friend.
But that is a different story, to be told at another time.