The Inspectorate for Elfish Labour Conditions
Chapter 12: Epilogue
Music: A Close Friend, James Newton Howard (Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them)
It was already late in the afternoon when the clear sound of a doorbell rang through the modest countryside house, built in a traditional style that was typical for the south-west of England. The two people on the doorstep pulled their cloaks more tightly around them against the cutting, bleak wind as they waited for the owners to open the door, knowing that they were home. They had announced their arrival.
Winter had come late this year. Not until the First of December had the driving rain of November made place for the first hesitant snowflakes. Tonight a snowstorm would move across England, The Daily Prophet had prophesized. The two visitors drew in a relieved breath when the door to what stood midway between a large cottage and a small country estate opened, revealing a small house-elf dressed in a colourful knitted jumper looking at them with big eyes.
The wizard opened his mouth. "We're...here...bec...becau..." His attempt failed miserably. The cold had made his jaw become completely numb.
But the house-elf kept looking at him with his big eyes, motionlessly awaiting his explanation as he left the visitors standing on the doorstep.
Fortunately, something stirred behind the small house-elf and a quiet voice said, "You can let them in, Squeaky. They have an appointment."
The house-elf opened the door and let the couple into the vestibule, where they shed their snow covered cloaks. Only then did he allow them through the french doors toward the hallway tiled with rustic brown tiles, where a man and a woman stood, waiting to welcome the visitors. The man was tall with blond hair and cool grey eyes. He had his arm wrapped around the slender waist of the woman, whose gleaming chestnut curls touched his shoulder. In her arms she held a baby. The woman's attentive gaze softened into a smile when the visitors entered the hall. At seeing their discomfort, she raised her wand and softly spoke an incantation. A blissful warmth chased away the cold from the visitors' bodies.
"That's better, isn't it? I know it's a rather long walk from the main house."
A hesitant smile appeared on the visitors' lips. "Thank you, Miss Gr... I mean, Mrs. Malfoy," the female visitor said, stammering for a moment as she tasted the strange name on her tongue.
The man next to Mrs. Malfoy raised his eyebrow in mild amusement and she lowered her gaze. She still remembered his cold, unrelenting expression from the first time their paths had crossed, when Mrs. Malfoy had been part of the inspection team. Had it already been two years?
Their first compliance visit to Malfoy Manor was supposed to be a routine visit, but it had unleashed a storm beyond comparison involving the supposed hidden relationship between the now-married couple. At the time, the young witch had never actually noticed if such a thing had been going on, but what she did remember was that there had been something about Malfoy Manor - something the young inspector had failed to understand - which had meant more to Miss Granger than the other inspection locations. But even if the suggested relationship had never existed at that point, it certainly had developed from that moment on. When Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy had gotten married in a small, private ceremony in September, it was all The Daily Prophet had written about for an entire week. They'd been rewarded with a few attractive pictures made by Dennis Creevey, released by the couple themselves. Only the big wedding of Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley this year had drawn more attention.
The young inspector's gaze was drawn to the infant in Mrs. Malfoy's arms, born a few months ago. She was a delicate girl with downy, light blonde hair and caramel eyes looking at her curiously. The young witch's expression softened and she lifted her hand to let the infant grip her finger when her mother smilingly nodded her consent. Much to the inspector's delight, Hermione then placed the little girl in her arms, her face turned so that she was still able to see her mother.
"She's beautiful, Miss...Mrs. Malfoy." She gave the child in her arms a tender look, completely forgetting the purpose of her visit as she carefully fondled the girl's cheek. Her words even drew the faintest of smiles appear to Mr. Malfoy's reserved features. Her male companion, however, cast a non-understanding glance at her and decided to have another try at stating their business.
"We're here to inspect the labour conditions of the house-elf in residence."
The inspector's gaze rested on Squeaky, whose ears bobbed at the attention, not seeing the nostalgic look the Malfoys exchanged at his words. "We've already wound up inspection of the main house and, since this house has gained possession of a house-elf since our last inspection visit two years ago..."
"Not possession," Squeaky piped up. "Squeaky is a free elf now and chooses to be here." His long, spiny fingers pointed at his seasonal jumper decorated with silver bells.
A charming smile lit up the young Mrs. Malfoy's features as the young inspectors shamefacedly lowered their gazes. "Squeaky is right. He is here of his own free will and he receives payment for his services as long as he wishes to be here. Meanwhile, we have worked to make sure his working conditions are in accordance with the law. But please, skip the formalities. The members of my inspectorate are very welcome in our home. I'm glad to see you."
The hospitable words of his wife made the man next to her suddenly come to life. He stepped aside and motioned to a door in the back of the hall. "The kitchen is this way, if you'll follow me..."
With a smile, Mrs. Malfoy took over the little girl from the inspector as her colleague set course for the kitchen. The young witch turned to follow him, casting a quick look back over her shoulder when she reached the kitchen door. Mr. Malfoy lightly kissed his wife's temple and caressed the infant's cheek with a tender gesture. "I will be up in a minute," she heard him say softly.
The inspector disappeared into the inviting kitchen with a smile on her features.
"I knew of my son's affection for you when he let slip the remark that you had taught him the Patronus spell during your last year at Hogwarts," Narcissa Malfoy said plainly as her cool blue gaze rested on the young witch before her. Her affected voice betrayed neither approval nor disapproval as she immediately came to the point. In between them sat the silver tea service - silent witness to the first time Narcissa had invited Hermione to tea since Hermione had unexpectedly appeared at the breakfast table on New Year's Day. The atmosphere between the two women was tense, uncomfortable as they'd sat down and looked at each other silently, before Narcissa had lifted the teapot. With an elegant gesture, she'd poured Hermione a richly coloured tea which had now cooled down, the cup remaining untouched.
"I saw it in his eyes. A mother can see such things, even before her son becomes aware of his feelings himself. Of course my husband didn't suspect a thing." A soft sigh escaped the aristocratic woman as she averted her eyes to the window - a vision of cold beauty, saddened by life experience.
Hermione said nothing, giving the older witch a free rein while she waited.
"I had hoped..." Mrs. Malfoy's voice trailed away, and after only a few seconds she continued in a quieter, somewhat forlorn tone, "I had hoped that when he met Astoria, she could make him forget about...his feelings for you. Forget about you."
There was a certain bitterness to her words but they held no reproach, and Hermione bowed her head. She knew what Narcissa meant. For seven long years she, too, had tried to forget about that intangible something that had developed between her and Draco during their eighth year at Hogwarts. It had taken her all these years to come to realise that it had affected Draco as much as it had affected her.
"You didn't want him to get hurt," was the first thing she said, her voice soft.
Narcissa cast her a cautious, sideways look in response. "He had already been hurt. He was the moment you both graduated from Hogwarts. He just didn't realise it. What I saw in his eyes back then, I...tried to ignore it and discouraged the occasional time he spoke of you."
Hermione nodded. "I understand. He had to get his life back on track."
"I hated myself for it," the older woman confessed, regal even in her dejectedness. "But I couldn't allow him to be drawn into the swamps of hopelessness which my husband and I have been in since..." Her voice trembled and trailed away again. They were the words of someone with no hope and no direction, a wandering soul whose only remaining goal in life had become to spare her son the same fate.
Hermione's heart wrenched for the older woman as she watched with silent admiration as Narcissa regained control of herself almost immediately. "We have already taken his childhood from him because of our actions. It's a guilt I'll be carrying with me forever. I couldn't let him lose the rest of his life, too..."
"Because of me," Hermione softly stated what the aristocratic witch had left out discreetly. For Draco, she was the picture of the Golden Trio hanging on the walls, the one woman who was completely out of his reach - because of their past, because of the war, because of what was expected of them in their future lives. On impulse, she leaned forward and put her hand on Mrs. Malfoy's ringed fingers.
"I understand, Mrs. Malfoy. I can only hope that you believe that I love your son...from the moment I came to know who he really is."
Mrs. Malfoy stared at Hermione's hand resting on hers as she understood what Hermione, the light of The Golden Trio, had just confessed to. A faint smile ghosted over her lips as the cool gaze in her eyes retreated to make place for a more tender one. "It's no matter of believing, my dear. I can see it in your eyes."
Then she rose from her seat and, with an elegant movement, she bowed forward to press a light kiss to Hermione's forehead. "Thank you, Hermione Granger. For loving my son back."
Hermione carefully put her daughter to bed, making sure that the blanket completely covered her small body. A gentle smile graced her features when the infant turned her head to look at her mother as she took her wand and put the music box in motion. An enchanting, tinkling melody began to play while small specks of fairy-shaped light danced across the room. She tenderly fondled her daughter's soft cheek as she watched her caramel eyes, so like hers, closing slowly. Then she sat down in the rocking chair, waiting for Draco to come up.
Her thoughts trailed back to that moment two years ago, when she had appeared on his doorstep with two inexperienced inspectors, the same ones who were interviewing Squeaky downstairs at the moment. So much had happened since then.
Hermione had taken her time to carefully introduce Draco to the extensive family of Weasleys and Order members in her life. Draco gingerly entered a world he'd chosen a long time ago but not until now was actually becoming a part of it. With his calm and engaging behaviour, he won them over one by one, gradually being accepted even by Ron. It was Harry who persuaded Ron into giving Malfoy a chance to prove himself. The first time Hermione took Draco with her on a visit to The Burrow, Draco asked Ron to show him around the grounds and turned the page with an apology for his behaviour in the past, which Ron reluctantly accepted.
After that, Ron asked Hermione to come over to The Burrow alone. That night, they were sitting on a bench overlooking the grasslands and Ron was the first to break the awkward silence between them.
"So, Malfoy, right?"
A small smile played around Hermione's lips. "Yeah."
Ron gave her a sideways look. "So, is it true then, what The Prophet wrote about you two?"
Hermione sighed. "No."
"I still can't believe you fell for bloody Malfoy," he then murmured as he looked up at the stars. "But I guess...you could do worse."
Her eyes glistened when she took his hand and squeezed it. "Thank you, Ron. That means the world to me."
Ginny on the other hand said simply and with a big grin, "Told you I caught you staring at him."
The third time Draco visited The Burrow with Hermione, he was asked to bring his broomstick for a game of Quidditch. Draco's eyes glistened when Ron had made this sudden proposition, his ears turning a little red as if his own words shocked him. The way Draco's reserved features lit up reminded Hermione of the day a Golden Snitch had crashed into the Potions classroom. And Ron was in for another surprise the moment Draco entered the back garden with his broomstick in his hand.
"Wow, that's an old one..." Ron commented in surprise, looking at Draco's broomstick. Then it dawned on him. "Isn't that your..."
"It's a Nimbus 2001," Draco confirmed helpfully. Ron's gaze trailed to the newest Aeolus in his own hand. The model had come out only a month ago and was the latest must-have when it came to racing sticks.
"I haven't been able to play Quidditch since school, so there was no need to replace it for another one. It's a good broomstick," Draco elaborated, correctly guessing Ron's trail of thoughts.
It was an honest, matter-of-fact - if not a bit lonely - answer as he looked at the older but well-maintained broomstick in his hands.
"Well, it seemed as if the tables have turned, then," Ron commented with a frown.
The young Malfoy only smiled amusedly at the small jab and gestured at the pitch. "So, what position do I play?"
Ten minutes later, they were all up in the air, their activities being followed through the kitchen window by Hermione and Mrs. Weasley. Harry naturally assumed his position as a Seeker and Ron had decided for Draco to become Chaser, despite his Nimbus 2001 being slower than the Aeoluses of the other players. But since Draco wasn't used to getting his hands dirty, so declared Ron, he would be useless as a Beater.
"He's really enjoying himself. It must have been a while since he last played Quidditch," Mrs. Weasley remarked as she summoned a spatula for the batter she was going to make, her sharp eyes not missing the pensive smile ghosting over Hermione's lips as she watched the rough game. Draco was barely able to dodge a Bludger sent to him by George as he passed Ron the Quaffle, who played the position of rush goalie.
"It's been a while indeed," Hermione agreed. "This means a lot to him."
Mrs. Weasley raised her eyebrows. "Well, if he's going to be part of your life, then he won't be able to escape a game from time to time. The boys can certainly use a fair player, especially since Ginny barely plays with them anymore."
At this Hermione pulled her in a tight, grateful hug. Patting Hermione's back, Mrs. Weasley smiled understandingly and then pushed the bowl with batter into her hands to finish it up.
Being introduced to Hermione's friends and family also meant that Draco got to know a part of his own family that he had never met until the day he found himself playing a wizard's chess against his six year old great-nephew at The Burrow. He was astonished to learn that little Teddy was also Potter's godchild. Draco's aunt Andromeda, his mother's sister, watched as he made sure he lost at the game. Upon leaving, he spontaneously invited them over to the manor because he felt that it would do his mother good. For a long moment, the older witch studied him before a smile had lit up her embittered features. She had seen the worry in his eyes when he thought of his mother.
"You've become a good boy, Draco," she said quietly. Then she asked little Teddy to say goodbye to his second cousin Draco, to which the child obliged a bit shyly.
It didn't take long before Andromeda came to visit Narcissa, and it was with silent gratitude that Draco saw the warm smile return on her face he'd missed seeing for so many years.
Their return to Hogwarts for Andreas Selwyn's graduation ceremony in June was their first public appearance as a couple. Shortly after Andreas' graduation, Hermione accepted a position in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, feeling that her task was done for the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. The Inspectorate for Elfish Labour Conditions had become a well-oiled machine and had gained a respectable position in the wizarding community. It pained her to leave the inspection, but she knew she left it in good hands.
Hermione felt proud of the two now-very experienced inspectors downstairs, assessing the working conditions of the single house-elf her small household counted. A free house-elf, because following Dobby's example, Squeaky had accepted the sock she and Draco had presented him with. She hoped there would soon be many more.
The sound of the music box slowly died away and a subconscious sound of protest rose from the antique cot, though the little girl didn't wake up. Hermione silently waved her wand and the tinkling music, softer this time, once again filled the nursery.
And then, inevitably, the first of December arrived; the day of the annual ball of the Order of Merlin. It was the first major event in which Hermione and Draco would appear as a couple. After Andreas' graduation ceremony, rumours had started to spread again about the possible relationship between Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy, fueled by a few more public appearances they made together under the guise of a common interest in the events they had attended. The annual ball of the Order of Merlin, however, they had no reason to attend together other than as a couple. The Daily Prophet had been speculating for weeks about the chance of them walking down the red carpet together. So far, though, they had only been able to publish a few unconvincing pictures to back their claims and one curt quote from Headmistress McGonagall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: "I do not comment on family and friends attending graduation ceremonies."
On that dreary first of December, the Golden Trio would be the last to arrive at the Diagon Alley Theatre, as had become tradition. This year, however, a purple ribbon betrayed the first-time presence of a Second Class laureate with conspicuous blond hair among this group of First Class laureates.
As they were waiting for their turn to walk down the red carpet, Draco stood behind Hermione, his hand resting lightly on her waist. A slight uneasiness spoke from his sharp features while his gaze followed George and Angelina Weasley walking down the red carpet. He didn't know if it was only his imagination, but the crowd seemed bigger than previous years, with more reporters and cameras lining the perimeter. He turned his head when he felt a light squeeze of his hand and he noticed Hermione looking at him with a reassuring gaze in her caramel eyes. Not for the first time that evening, his heart skipped a beat at seeing how beautiful she looked. She was a vision in the slender emerald green dress, dotted with gold stars starting on the back of the strapless bodice and flaring out across the train. Her curls were pulled back in a low chignon, highlighting the beautiful line of her neck as subtle gold makeup made her caramel eyes stand out. Most breathtaking, however, was the happy smile that reached her eyes as he lightly put his hand on her elbow.
Hermione, on the other hand, never felt more grateful than with him standing next to her as they awaited their turn on the red carpet. Despite the slight discomfort in his otherwise unreadable expression, he was standing tall, looking more handsome than ever in his black dress robes. Her heart fluttered when he caught her gaze and his lips had momentarily curled up as he moved closer to her, taking her elbow as he made sure to keep blocking the icy wind with his body.
When they finally got permission to proceed, Ron whispered to them, "Will you please hurry up? We're freezing out here."
As soon as they appeared, the crowd burst into cheers and, for a moment, they stopped in surprise at the angry flashlights plunging them in a blinding sea of light. Perplexed, Draco and Hermione looked at each other, a hesitant smile on their lips, before they continued on their way down the red carpet amidst loud applause. It was the first time in all those years that Draco wasn't counting the steps to the gold plated doors of the theatre. Instead, he wore a smile for the entire stretch, not even noticing the cheering crowd and the reporters trying to get their attention. He only had eyes for the beautiful woman walking next to him.
Hermione felt as if she were floating next to Draco, who lightly supported her as they followed the red carpet down to the theatre. She was overwhelmed by the applause meant for them. Turning her head, she caught Draco's loving gaze and, on impulse, she lightly rested her head on his shoulder, a tender smile on her lips. In response, he wrapped his arm around her waist and pressed a small kiss on the top of her head. A whoop of excitement went through the crowd and camera lights flashed more angrily than before.
Ignoring the shouts for attention from reporters begging for comments, they went up the broad stairs of the theatre, but just as they were about to enter, Draco suddenly recognised one particular reporter dutifully covering the event for The Daily Prophet. It was the man who'd brought the story about them into the world. The scrawny man's quill was writing furiously as the couple approached the theatre entrance. Draco couldn't suppress an amused smirk as he bowed toward Hermione and whispered in her ear, "I hope you don't mind being the headline of tomorrow's newspaper again."
The warm smile on Hermione's lips told him that she wouldn't. Not this time.
When the reporter looked up, he suddenly stared right into Draco's steel grey eyes. He flinched and took a step backwards, but then he saw the amused smile playing on Hermione's lips and his eyes started to glisten. This event had unexpectedly turned into the scoop of the month.
The following morning, a full-page photograph of Draco kissing the top of Hermione's head was published on the front page underneath a bold headline stating Hermione Granger And Draco Malfoy - A Historic Love Affair Unfolds At Merlin Order Ball. The article below contained the single statement only one reporter had been able to elicit from Draco that evening. 'Perhaps you gave us the idea.'
The sound of light footsteps on the stairs preceded the moment the door to the nursery opened and a small ray of light crept over the antique cradle before Hermione's husband appeared in the doorway. His sharp features immediately softened when he discerned his wife in the rocking chair. He quietly closed the door behind him and went over his daughter in her antique cot.
"Is she already asleep? Did I miss it?" His voice sounded regretful as he looked down on the peacefully sleeping baby girl and extended a hand to caress her small head. Tenderness and fondness had completely replaced the usual reservation in his cool grey gaze when he drew his wand and renewed the spell that kept the music box going. He secretly liked the peaceful, tinkling music, Hermione knew, her expression softening as she watched her husband's athletic figure bent over the cot. His blond hair lit up in the moonlight coming through the delicate voile curtains.
Over the past two months, this had become her favourite moment of the day; the image of Draco saying goodnight to his daughter took her breath away each night she witnessed it. Sometimes he would whisper something unintelligible, sometimes he would only carefully straighten the embroidered sheets, but he always made sure his little girl would feel his presence.
With an easy movement, Hermione stood and quietly went to stand behind him, resting her head against his shoulder as she put her hands on his stomach. "She was tired," she whispered in response, a warm feeling spreading through her chest when he curled his hand around hers. "She loves Grandfather Malfoy's stories about all those family members from the past."
Draco's features softened. "She really does. Although I believe that for now she mostly enjoys sitting on his lap and listening to his voice."
Hermione smiled against his back. Who would have thought that Lucius Malfoy was such a good storyteller? Certainly not Draco, who had been astonished to see the infant lean against her grandfather as the older man raised his eyebrows at his wife Narcissa in mild amusement. It had taken a while for Lucius to warm up to his daughter-in-law, but Hermione had seen the hint of real emotion behind his piercing eyes when he'd asked her why she'd agreed to teaching Draco the Patronus spell and she'd simply answered, "Because I believed in him."
It was enough for the older Pureblood wizard, who'd then graciously invited Hermione's parents for a visit to the manor after the announcement of Draco and Hermione's engagement in The Daily Prophet. The birth of his grandchild had him finally put aside what little doubt towards Hermione had been left. He simply adored his precocious granddaughter.
"Don't you think it's a bit worrying that there are so many of them? Every time, he comes up with a new one, even stranger than the previous one," she commented dryly and, unnoticed by his wife, Draco's lips curled up in a knowing smile.
"Well, the Malfoys are a very old family, so we've had a lot of time to accumulate them." He turned around in her arms and pulled her in a gentle embrace.
"Is everything going well downstairs?" she asked after a long, peaceful silence.
A dry chuckle rumbled in Draco chest. "As long as Squeaky doesn't submit a complaint again, it's fine with me." His arms around her tightened as he rested his chin on the top of her head. "Though I'm grateful that he did, back then."
Hermione smiled in the darkness. "Me, too." And she closed her eyes when he leaned in for a loving kiss.
Eleven years had passed when, on a warm September evening, a soft ticking against the window of the living room made Hermione and Draco look up from their books. An expectant look appeared in their eyes and Hermione quickly stood to open the window. The small owl entering the living room was their daughter's, and Hermione's heart skipped a beat as she took the note from its claw and sent it off to the Owlery. Tomorrow, the owl would be ready to undertake the long journey back to Scotland.
After a moment of hesitation, she swiftly opened the envelope.
Meanwhile, Draco had put aside his book as well and studied his wife's features, eyebrow eagerly raised, hoping but failing to read her expression. He only saw how her lips finally curled in a warm smile. It was the smile he loved so much about her.
"And?" Draco finally couldn't contain himself anymore. He quickly came over to Hermione and looked over her shoulder. Then a smile of his own softened his reserved features. Once again, he felt amused by the turns life took. He wrapped his arm around Hermione, brushing a gentle kiss over her lips.
"Ravenclaw. She's been sorted into Ravenclaw."
- THE END -
A/N: I named the newest models of racing brooms after the Greek god of the winds: Aiolos. As always I would like to thank my beta Crimson Eyed Sakura for her wonderful work.
Thank you very, very much for reading!