Disclaimer: I own nothing.
A/N: To be completely honest, this was inspired by a scene at the end of Lord of the Rings.
To Pureblood witches, the initial and final bows of an interaction are of the utmost importance. The witch with the better social status, usually determined by breeding (see pages 547-56 for charts and formulae) bows second. If a witch of high social standing bows first, all of the others of lower standing than her must follow her example and bow to the one so honoured.
Two witches of equal social standing do not bow, but they must both be comfortable with the assumption of equal rank.
-Miss Magick Manner's Guide to Pureblood Etiquette
Hermione took a deep breath, and then another. Ron had offered to escort her, but if she was going to do this, she had better do it alone. Ron would take the slights personally, she knew, and the last thing she wanted was for him to have another excuse to keep apart from the other Purebloods. Blood wasn't important to her, but she still knew that it was still an important part of magical society. If Ron decided he didn't want to be part of that, that was fine, but it wouldn't be on her head.
When Kingsley had invited her to his inauguration as Minister for Magic, had he considered this? She was willing to get he had and had decided he didn't care. Damn him.
taking another deep breath, Hermione set one foot on the first step. It wasn't so old-fashioned a society or an event that there were heralds, but she nonetheless felt the tension. All eyes were on her. She trained her own eyes on the pillars on the opposite side of the room and tried not to think about it. In fact, there was nothing she wanted to think about less.
Well, almost nothing.
The newly elected Minister wasn't married, so he had to appoint a hostess to greet guests and generally ensure that things ran smoothly. Shacklebolt had, in his infinite wisdom, decided to show that everything was just dandy in Pureblood land, so he had chosen Narcissa Malfoy as his female counterpart. Hermione was hard-pressed to come up with a woman she would not have preferred to see waiting at the bottom of the staircase. Bellatrix Lestrange, perhaps, but that was a moot point if ever there was one. The bitch was long dead.
That thought enabled Hermione to glide down the stairs with a passably sincere smile. Mrs. Malfoy was waiting at the bottom, glittering like an approaching iceberg in her silver dress. She was poised to accept a bow.
Something in Hermione rebelled. By God, she had gone through Hell and back to save this woman and her kind, none of whom really deserved it. She would go to Hell (again) before she would defer to Narcissa Malfoy. They were equals in every sense but blood, and that was not her affair. Chin up, Hermione met the older woman's eyes as she stepped off the last step.
For a second, nothing happened, and no one moved. The event was indoors, but if it hadn't been, crickets' chirping would definitely have been involved. Then Narcissa Malfoy clasped her hands together behind her back and bowed smoothly from her waist. Hermione almost toppled over from surprise, but she managed to turn it into a responding bow.
The rest of the evening passed in a daze. Hermione was introduced to well-known academics, fat cats with actual gold pocket watches telling the security of their stocks, and a whole host of foreign dignitaries. Every time, they bowed first. Every time, Hermione almost swallowed her tongue. Narcissa Malfoy was effectively the Minister's wife, and when she gave precedence to someone, even a Mudblood with no official post or Pureblood man to her name, everyone else had to follow suit.
By the end of the night, Hermione had several new friends. They all wore sparkling rings and drank sparkling wine, and they all looked her up and down as if trying to see what Mrs. Malfoy had seen. Yet none of them questioned her right to be there, mingling with them. Ron grinned at her from a distance, but never tried to approach. She'd thank him for that later.
As the night edged towards morning, Hermione grew weary of the increasingly unbelievable smiles. She was fairly certain that wizards didn't know about plastic surgery, but sometimes she really wondered. She had to leave.
Unfortunately, that meant bidding Mrs. Malfoy farewell. Hermione scanned the room until she saw the hostess on Kingsley's arm. as she made her way through crowds that parted like the Red Sea before her, Hermione wondered idly where Lucius was. Probably sitting at home, sulking again. She didn't have much time to entertain the thought before she stood in front of the Minister and Narcissa. Shacklebolt beamed and hoped she had enjoyed her evening, then retreated to a discreet distance.
Hermione turned her gaze to Narcissa. The younger witch had always been slight, and she was wearing flats. Narcissa, naturally a tall woman, towered over her in diamond-encrusted heels. The shoes weren't vulgar, of course. This was a member of the house of Black, after all. Still, they were very large diamonds. Hermione swallowed.
When at last she found her voice, she couldn't bring herself to talk around her point. She said simply, "You saved me tonight."
Narcissa nodded. "You save me every night Draco outlives Voldemort."
Hermione nodded. "Then we're even. Good night, Mrs. Malfoy."
"Good night, Ms. Granger."
Hermione turned on her heel and walked away.