Chapter 6: Saturday and Sunday morning - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall
When Hermione came down to breakfast - appallingly late by her own standards and just a trifle hung over - she found Draco already sitting at the table, dressed in Muggle morning dress that was tailored to the millimetre and complete even to the carnation in his buttonhole. Her spirits rose immeasurably as she appreciated the effort he had gone to - even if he did have an infuriatingly impertinent quirk to his raised eyebrow, and a hint of a grin on lips that, albeit compressed together, nonetheless conveyed a clear message:
Of course I’m too discreet actually to ask any questions about last night. But my face is my own business, and I’m not planning to censor that.
He surveyed her in a leisurely way over the edge of his coffee cup, and then smiled the slow, exasperating smile she had endured through seven interminable school years.
“Very nice, Granger. And tell me: how far did you have to put yourself into hock to buy that outfit?”
Against her will, she blushed, hotly. And then set her teeth.
“I can afford it. I assure you.”
He looked her up-and-down some more. And smiled again. “I’m sure you can. As can my mother, who, when she buys Muggle gear, goes to the exact same place. Just not very often.”
No-one could reasonably have expected someone male to be so unfairly well-informed. She snarled wordlessly at him. He smiled, and passed her the toast-rack without further comment.
“Bastard,” she said.
“I can see it’s going to be a long day,” he said.
On the high table at the far end of the room the bridal party sat in state. Hermione judged, by Draco and her distance away from the table of honour, and their proximity to the doors through to the kitchens, that their status in the pecking order at this particular party must be somewhere close to the bottom. Two of the other guests on their table had failed to show up altogether; their starters had sat in lonely isolation throughout the meal until a waiter had collected them shortly before the speeches had begun.
Draco had initially surveyed the other two guests on their particular table rather as Charles Darwin might viewed some hitherto unknown Galapagian lizards but, much to Hermione’s relief, had refrained from overt comment beyond minor pleasantries until after the speeches, when coffee and liqueurs were being served.
At which point the dark-haired woman who was currently sprawled across the spindly gilt chair on Draco’s left, wearing an Armani outfit whose metallic top was V-slashed almost to the waist, but still managed somehow to fall on the stylish rather than tarty side of the sartorial knife-edge, roused herself momentarily to an upright posture. “So: are you bride’s side or groom’s, as they say?” she drawled at Draco in an impeccable Roedean accent.
Draco looked slowly at her, and then smiled. “Neither. I’m with Hermione. And you? What brings you here?”
The young woman gestured extravagantly. “Oh, Jonathan and I are here because of Brooke. Have you met her? She’s completely wonderful. She’s been such an inspiration. She’s the Circle-centre of our local Empowerment Pathway group, you know.”
For a moment Draco continued to survey her quizzically. Hermione’s heart sank. Then, with the note in his voice that she had had many years to learn to dread, he enquired innocently, “Empowerment Pathway? Remind me -“
The pause that followed was carefully calculated to be just too narrow for her to intervene to prevent disaster.
“I believe I know the name, but is it addiction or religion we’re talking about here?”
The dark-haired woman paused, momentarily, as though she could not believe what she was hearing, and then swivelled round on her chair so she was directly facing Draco. His entire body radiated guileless innocence, and Hermione felt a shifting queasiness in her gut that was an insult to the superb meal they had just absorbed.
She briefly contemplated whether staging a fainting fit was a good idea at this juncture, or whether it was a weapon she should retain in her armoury until she needed a drastic response later. As she undoubtedly would. Alternatively, of course, she could treat the fainting fit option as the low-intensity response, and build up her reaction proportionately to the perceived threat as the day progressed. It only required a little imagination.
And no scruples at all.
It was not a subject Hermione had ever speculated about before, and she had not expected to find it so deliciously tempting - like, perhaps, having all the Turkish Delight one could possibly eat. Not that she was really all that fond of Turkish Delight, actually -
And, of course, it was all so possible. After all, given her reputation in the wake of Recent Events, she could probably square a Full Body Bind at least with the Ministry - give out a cover story of catatonia, perhaps - and, although of courseit would be going far too far, it would be almost tempting to see whether Cruciatus could be passed off as a particularly intense grand mal attack - not, of course, that she would ever even think of actually putting something like that into practice - though, strictly in theory, it would be interesting to see if one could get away with it -
Her daydreams along these lines were abruptly interrupted as the man addressed as Jonathan gave a sudden snort of amusement. “A combination of both, the way Brooke approaches it, I’d say.”
The woman batted her eyelids and murmured, “Darling, I’ve told you before. Don’t get like such a grouch just because Brooke is so much more vibrant, so much more alive than everyone about her - “
“Makes me feel exhausted already,” Draco commented. Jonathan caught his eye, and grinned understandingly. His partner suddenly sat up with ramrod precision, and favoured both of them with a glare that had a hint of cold steel about it.
“Sneer, sneer, sneer, that’s all you ever do, Jon! I had hoped that by now you’d have been able to experience the benefits of EP for yourself - after all, as Brooke says, it’s not a case of whether or not you have abilities, but of being able to recognise the potential we all have within ourselves, and having the courage to unleash it - “
Despite the fact that the woman was self-evidently spouting total tosh Draco - blast him - was inclining his slickly groomed blond head towards her with an air of deeply flattering interest. With an internal flicker of angry pleasure Hermione concluded he must be less impervious to the impact of an outrageously plunging neckline than she would have supposed. She leaned back in her chair in an effort to ignore him, and was suddenly aware that a low voice was speaking into her ear, and had, apparently, been doing so for some moments.
”- looking wonderful, but then you always do. How are things going, then?”
She tilted her chair further back. Mark had always been one of Giles’ more tolerable friends, and she was somehow unreasonably glad to see him now. She smiled up at him.
“Oh, you know. Surviving. Business is going well.”
“And what about other things?” His eye flickered questioningly over Draco, who, unfairly, appeared to have managed to strike up some sort of comradeship with Jonathan, and was currently swapping increasingly outrageous comments about this Empowerment Pathway nonsense with an ease that suggested they were twins parted at birth. She gulped.
“I - ah - I suppose so.”
Even if that is so very definitely the wrong man you’re looking at. Be honest, what would you have said to Mark if he’d asked you that question this time yesterday? Why does life never come along in a sensible order, with properly plotted dramatic incidents and scheduled pauses for breath in between?
Deliberately, she turned away from the table to hear Mark better, but, it seemed, her gesture was not unequivocal enough.
Mark’s smile was suddenly wistful. “Oh well. Somehow, I never seem to happen across you at any of the right times. Fate, I suppose.”
Her voice was very low. “I suppose.”
He smiled again. “Well, if anything changes, you’ve got my number.”
He had gone before she could say anything further. Reluctantly, she turned her attention back to the conversation.
“Personally,” Jonathan was drawling, “If I’d been the groom I’d have thought it was a trifle - cold-blooded - of Brooke to go off schmoozing the country’s media at Grosvenor House two nights before her own wedding. Even if she did get to meet Goldenballs. If meet him is all she did. After all, I wouldn’t like to bet what Brooke wouldn’t do to get into the Inner Circle -“
Draco raised an eyebrow, plainly indicating Go on in response to Jonathan’s current vein of scurrility.
The dark haired woman looked shocked and disgusted, which, Hermione could have told her from bitter personal experience, was a mistake.
“Jonathan! She couldn’t help the timing of that dinner, and EP’s a discipline - if something’s the right thing to do, then you do it, and no matter what the cost in terms of personal convenience. And anyway, I don’t like what you’re suggesting. Men always assume a successful woman’s got that way on her back, rather than on her own merits. And I know Brooke wouldn’t do anything like that!”
“Want to bet?”
The two men flanking her were holding out their hands, palm-upwards, at the identical moment. Hermione looked sweetly across at the Armani-clad woman.
“Why don’t we leave it? Since these two aren’t going to be sensible. I can understand Brooke might have had good business reasons why she couldn’t not go to this do, even if they can’t -“
The dark-haired woman smiled gratefully at her. “Oh, yes. She really had no option. Not when she’s been working so hard for absolutely months to pull together the financing for the first residential EP Centre in Europe - and now she really thinks it’s all coming together. And as I was just telling - um - David -“
She glared at Draco, who smiled irrepressibly back.
“There’s a window of opportunity to buy the most perfect place - in this idyllic little village - and at an absolute bargain price - I understand the owner is desperate to sell, what with BSE and foot-and-mouth and all that -“
Her partner snorted.
“Oh, yes, beautiful. And no doubt once the Centre’s open, that will be your cue to spend the rest of my earnings going on imbecilic, meaningless courses so vile people can mouth unpleasant platitudes at you. What an opportunity, eh? Let’s all go off and be stuck in some ghastly Centre in the rain-sodden English countryside, and listen to pointless ramblings from a bunch of zombies with identical, perfectly flossed, empty grins. God, Joanna, can’t you just see how fake and how freaky the whole EP thing is? Can’t you realize that, actually, I thought you were a totally worthwhile person before Brooke dragged you in to this heap of bollocks?”
His earlier flippancy now completely gone, Jonathan’s voice had acquired a dangerous, almost desperate edge. Hermione looked covertly down to the table, but his glass was still more than half-full, and the bottles of Pouilly-Fumé and St Emilion on the table had been hardly touched. His fury, it appeared, was not alcohol-fuelled, unless he had a weaker head than she was prepared to credit anyone with.
Draco spread his hands.
“Look on the bright side. It’s a nice bit of rain-sodden countryside. Good pubs.”
Jonathan smiled grimly. “No doubt. I daresay it’s lovely. In fact, I’ll say this now - no, Joanna, I don’t care who hears me. In fact, I don’t give a flying fuck if the bloody Inner Circle have bugged the bleeding flower arrangements, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had, actually - “
“Jonathan!” Joanna hissed. Draco looked understandingly at him. Hermione contemplated murder, and tried to convey it towards both the males in her vicinity. Both of them ignored her. Jonathan continued on, unstoppably.
“Look, I don’t care how good the Centre is going to be. EP is taking over our bloody lives, Joanna. And that’s just wrong. And I don’t bloody like it. And I don’t care who knows it, either.”
His tirade over, he sat back in his chair, arms folded and lips tightly compressed. Joanna looked across the table at him in helpless embarrassment. Hermione made an effort to appear as though she had noticed nothing untoward, though her mind was racing.
Wow. Well, I don’t know about empowerment, but anything that can get an ex-public school type that - visibly - worked up in front of two total strangers obviously is effective. At something.
With more sensitivity than she would have credited him with - briefly, she regretted her earlier daydreams - Draco got to his feet.
“And they got me up earlier than was reasonable for this bloody bun fight, too. Look - I’m off to find myself a whisky from the bar. Hermione, slivovitz, I suppose? If you want anything different, squeak now or forever hold your peace. But Jonathan - I wouldn’t want to guess at what to get for you and - ah, Joanne? Would you mind coming to help me choose, and carry them back?”
The two men vanished in the direction of the bar.
The lithe figure in the spotless chef’s whites, the ends of his mop of dark hair dyed an improbable corn gold, and gelled into a mass of spikes, moved with the arrogance grace of a dancer across the crowded room. Draco, slumped back in the chair besides Hermione, took in the sight at first indifferently, and then stiffened into an attitude of total horror.
“Oh, shit!” he muttered. “What the fuck, what the fuck did I ever do to deserve this?”
Before Hermione could get the question out the chef - who had apparently spotted Draco at almost the same time as Draco had spotted him - abruptly diverged from his original course towards the top table and made a beeline in their direction.
Arriving at their side, he sneered down at Draco. Draco, without bothering to unslump himself, sneered eloquently back up at him. Hermione’s gaze flicked helplessly from one to the other. The easy grace of the chef’s carriage had misled her about his age; now she saw him close to she realised he must be in his mid thirties at least: already there were faint lines etched on his sallow face.
It was Draco who broke the silence.
“And, in case you’re wondering,” he said pointedly, “The name’s Molloy.”
“Is that so?” The chef’s accent was markedly American. His eye flicked down to the place card on the table in front of Draco. Having read it, he bared his teeth in a grin that spoke nothing of humour, but more of dark deeds in dangerous alleyways. “I see. David Molloy, yet. Wonders never cease.”
Draco’s voice was nonchalant to the point of boredom.
“So, then, what are they calling you, these days?”
“Sir, when I tell them to. And when I say, “Jump!” they ask me how high.”
“Indeed? As you say. Wonders will never cease. Nice meal, by the way. I take it you had something to do with it?”
“No shit, David. I was flown in from New York City to have something to do with it. At the bride’s personal request. And my publisher’s.” His gesture encompassed the guests scattered around the room. “Very well connected in the media, the bride is, it seems.”
Draco raised an eyebrow.
“I am impressed. Mind you -“
His voice was slow and deliberate.
“I grant you I’m fond of my duck pink. But I thought you exaggerated it just a smidgeon too much. I could have sworn I heard a ghost of a quack when the waiter put my plate in front of me.”
Stormy dark eyes glared into bland grey ones, and the chef’s hands balled into fists by his sides. It was with infinite relief that Hermione noticed the frantic, albeit discreet, flurry of signalling to him from the top table. As the chef spotted that Draco had seen it too his lean, bony face relaxed, and his hands unclenched. Suddenly, Draco seemed almost amused.
“Seems you’re in demand. Don’t keep your public waiting on my account. They are paying for the pleasure, after all. Through the nose, I trust?”
There was a pause. “Any messages?” he added abruptly.
The chef raised his eyebrows. “Messages? Why the fuck would I -?”
Draco shrugged. “Worth asking.”
The other looked at him speculatively. “Time was, you wouldn’t have bothered.”
That was acknowledged by a prolonged exhalation and a brief, choppy nod.
“So they do. You’re here, after all. You’d not have gotten Lucius into a place like this.”
Draco grimaced assentingly.
“Well, not and expected to leave on my feet afterwards.”
“True. Well, be seeing you.”
“Not if I see you first.”
Unpredictably, that provoked a smile: a real smile that warmed the chef’s deep-set, heavy-lidded eyes. He nodded, and then moved serenely on towards the top table to receive his plaudits.
Hermione turned to Draco, only to find his hand was already raised in a gesture obviously intended to cut short comment.
“No,” he interrupted before she had a chance to get a word out, “I’m not planning to tell you what that was all about. All you need to know is that it’s all far too complicated to explain and it’s nothing at all like what you’re probably thinking.”
She felt herself blushing. “Draco! Of course I’m not -“
He put his head on one side. “If you’re not, how come you knew at once just what it was you weren’t thinking?”
Hermione ducked the issue, and snorted instead. “Draco, you are an infuriating so-and-so, you know.”
He was unmoved. “True. But I’m also the infuriating so-and-so who actually agreed to escort you here. And I’m sure I wasn’t the first thought you had.”
“I - ah, oh -“
It was quite unfair how much sardonic commentary he was apparently able to convey with his eyebrows. Or how much he appeared to be able to read from her expression.
Hermione surveyed the room with agitation. “Oh, look! Lots of people did change for the dance. Oh, bother it! I knew I ought to have brought a second outfit -“
Draco, his startling paleness now emphasised by the deep midnight black of his dinner jacket, surveyed her in silence for a minute.
“Stop flapping, Granger. Much better to go for one superbly well chosen outfit than two mediocre ones.”
She paused, waiting for the inevitable sting in the tail, but he only smiled lazily at her, and took another sip of the Louis Roederer Cristal. She resumed her survey of the dance floor.
“I don’t see Jonathan or Joanna -“
The smile broadened, and acquired a dash of crocodile. “You won’t. I - ah - suggested to Jonathan that since Joanna seems to be turned on by assertiveness, he should whisk her away during the break while they were setting up for this bit and find somewhere where he could assert himself. He seemed to think it was a brilliant idea. I don’t reckon they’re coming back.”
Against her will, she smiled back at him. “Since when have you been so into organising everyone’s lives? I thought that was what I was supposed to specialise in.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“And you do. Believe me, you do.” He paused, and then added, “Things are going pretty well for me at the moment. Maybe it’s turning me soft in my old age. And I had quite a chat with Jonathan while we were getting the drinks.”
“We noticed. If there hadn’t been wine on the table, Joanna and I would have died of thirst before you got back.”
“Mm. Well. From what I could gather, he’s got good reason to be worried about what Joanna’s getting herself into. And the really interesting thing, was -“
A voice cut in from behind them.
“Hermy! Introduce me to your friend, would you?”
They turned. The bride was leaning casually against the back of Draco’s chair. Hermione suppressed an irritated snort. Whatever else anyone had chosen to do about changing for the evening dance, the bride had emphatically opted for a complete change of image. In place of the deceptively simple sheath of strapless ivory satin which she had worn for the ceremony and that afternoon’s reception, she was now wearing a draped scarlet number, that appeared to consist of a few lengths of silk jersey held together only by large gold clasps of vaguely Celtic design in a frighteningly small number of strategic places. It allowed the observer, Hermione supposed, the maximum opportunity to assess the success of Brooke’s pilates regime. To say nothing of the uniformity of her tan.
Her perfectly shaped and waxed legs emerged apparently endlessly from the scanty swathings of the garment’s skirts, and their length was only emphasised by her bright red Manolo Blahnik spike-heeled pumps.
Hermione gulped. “Ah, yes. D- David Molloy - Brooke Nash - ah, oh - that is, I suppose-?”
She came to an awkward stop. Brooke smiled a slow, lazy smile displaying the perfection of her teeth between her blood-red, high-gloss lips.
“Well, nearly right, Hermy.” She extended her hand to Draco. “For social occasions, Brooke Lloyd-Ashby. At least till the novelty wears off.”
Draco bent over the hand and brushed it with his lips. Her eyes widened.
“Well! Aren’t you the smooth one?”
Brooke cast an appraising eye over him. “Tux and tails, too. There don’t seem to be many of the men who went to that trouble.”
He shrugged. “Changing was hardly a trouble. My London house is only a few minutes walk from here.”
Her eyes widened still further. “Nice neighbourhood.”
Draco grinned. “Family opinion is, it’s all gone dreadfully downhill since the 1780s, actually.”
Hermione tried flashing him a warning with her eyes, but he was studiously looking the other way.
“Well, isn’t that a pity? Hermy, I threw a little cocktail party in my suite for the girls last night. If I’d thought you were staying just round the corner, I’d have suggested you come join us.”
The subtly interrogative note in Brooke’s voice set Hermione’s teeth on edge.
She’s trying to work out if Draco and me actually are an item. And if we are, how come I managed it?
Before she could respond, Draco had intervened once more. “Oh, we weren’t up in London last night. I never sleep in the townhouse if I can help it. Hermione and I came up from my place in Wiltshire this morning.”
Brooke absorbed this with a faintly calculating look. “Wiltshire? Now isn’t that interesting? Where, exactly?”
Draco raised his eyebrows. “Oh, a little village a few miles south west of Salisbury. Practically on the Dorset border. You wouldn’t have heard of it. In fact, I’m fairly impressed you’ve even heard of Wiltshire. Unless perhaps you’re a Thomas Hardy fan?”
Brooke gave a short, metallic laugh. “Hardly. Corporate finance doesn’t give leave one time to read anything but analyses and reports. Not if you’re doing it seriously and not playing about with it. No - the last assignment I was scrambling to get off my desk before Giles and I fly out tomorrow was based in Wiltshire. And with the amount of research I’ve been putting into that proposal, I can tell you, I probably know more things about your county than you do yourself. In fact, I’m sure of it.”
To Hermione’s deep relief, Draco forbore to challenge this assertion. Instead, he said, “Joanna was telling me something about some Centre you were hoping to start -?”
An expression flitted very quickly across Brooke’s face. It was gone before Hermione could analyse it, but she felt a sudden chill. She was glad that Joanna was no longer with them.
“Oh,” Brooke said, “Did she?”
“Mm. Sounded fascinating.”
Her voice changed. “There’s still a wonderful opportunity to get in on the ground floor. If you were interested -“
Draco’s voice was a low purr. “Ma warned me to make it a rule never to mix business with pleasure.”
She extended a long-nailed hand to him. “Come dance with me, and maybe I’ll persuade you to break some rules?”
He looked her up and down in a leisurely way, and smiled.
“Well,” he breathed, “I can’t guarantee that you’ll succeed. But I’m sure we can have great fun while you try.”
He looked down at Hermione. “Excuse us.”
They got up and walked towards the dance floor. Brooke nodded towards the band-leader. Apparently it was a signal of some sort. The high sound of a jazz saxophone started to make themselves heard. To the strains of Round Midnight Draco and Brooke took the floor.
“A vertical expression of a horizontal desire, don’t they call it?”
Hermione knew her expression was bitter. Somehow, it no longer mattered. Why expect me to pretend to be enjoying myself, after all? He looked up at her, quirking his eyebrows in various puppyish combinations, trying to recapture the camaraderie they had experienced earlier. She took a perverse pleasure in meeting all his attempts with a mask of stony indifference. Baulked, apparently, his features suddenly relaxed into an expression of smug superiority. She preferred that: it was reassuringly like school, after all. Unfortunately, he then spoke again.
“The man who said that, you know, said it about the tango. And I’d be flabbergasted if she’d ever learned how.”
She looked ferociously at him. He shrugged, and continued airily, “Not having had the benefit of Great-grandmamma’s bizarre notions of what constitutes useful social skills, you know. Oh do stop looking at me like that. We were only dancing.”
It might be completely idiotic and absurd in the circumstances, but she felt that she had been building up a really histrionic strop all day and she was not going to be deprived of giving vent to it now. The bit of her brain that usually handled rationality enquired politely are you really sure you’re yelling at the right man? but she ignored it.
“She was doing an awful lot more than that. To say nothing of whispering sweet nothings in your ear the whole time. When she didn’t appear to be chewing it.”
Draco raised an eyebrow. “Very interesting things, she was saying to me.” She could tell he was watching her, testing for her reaction. She folded her arms and compressed her lips, resolutely saying nothing. He made a deeply exasperated noise.
“Oh, come off it, Granger. In the first place, whatever I was doing with her, there’s only one person entitled to pull me up for it, and he’s not here. Secondly, I can assure you that she’s a lot more interested in what she surmises to be the state of my bank balance than in my body.” He paused for a moment. “Mind you, I’ll concede that that’s almost certainly true about the man she’s just married, too -“
Hermione allowed a snort to escape her lips. Draco eyed her sidelong, and continued on.
“Anyway, lastly, even if that sort of thing were my bag, it would be awfully like shagging a skeleton with her, you know. Not at all my type, really. Whereas in your case - if I weren’t already spoken for, of course -“
He paused. His eyes blazed.
“Oh, god. Stop being so completely ridiculous. Or you’ll force me to do something I’ll - “
Abruptly, his voice turned unexpectedly gentle.
“Right, Granger, this is it.”
Every molecule of charm he’d ever owned, it appeared, was being beamed in her direction at the same blinding moment.
“Would you be so good as to lend me all the Muggle money you’ve got? And - ah - let me put you under Imperius for the next twenty minutes?”
Her voice was not, it seemed, responding properly either. “Draco! That last question makes no conceivable sense whatsoever. Have you gone mad?”
“Trust me? OK? After all, if I don’t do something about it, the mood you’re in you’re either going to slap someone or burst into tears, or get yourself completely wazz-arsed and then probably end up doing both. And since I’m the nearest person in slapping range, you might let me have my way, in sheer self-defence.”
It was completely insane. And then he laughed up at her, and she made up her mind. Why not just go with the flow for once? No-one ever expects me to be frivolous. Grace. Wherever it comes from. Hermione nodded weakly and braced herself against the forcible invasion of her will. With relief, she saw it had been postponed - that he forgotten it, had got to his feet and moved away for a moment to talk to the band-leader - holding her purse, apparently -
The music started up again, this time with an unmistakable rhythm. His expectations about useful social skills were justified, it appeared. Within seconds the dance floor was empty.
And the arrogantly paced, inexorable beat was suddenly in her very feet, possessing them.
She looked up into the silver-grey eyes confronting her.
“Bastard,” she said clearly.
He grinned. “I know. The only question is; are you going to fight me or surrender gracefully? I know that you can, but - ?”
He held out his hand. “My pleasure?”
She smiled suddenly, scrambled out of the chair and let her feet take themselves where they would. He whirled her round so he was standing behind her, and put his hands on her shoulders. She could feel the full length of his body against hers, his breath soft and warm on the nape of her neck, his long fingers clasping her. The beat of the music was loud and sensual. Gentle instructions breathed in her ear, apparently making their way to her body without passing through her brain first.
She turned in his arms at the end of the floor, facing him for the first time as they prepared to go back the way they had come. His expression was rapt with concentration - it occurred to her, with some languorous part of her brain to which most of her consciousness seemed to have retreated, following its blissful abandonment of her will - that controlling two sets of feet simultaneously could hardly be easy. It made for sensational dancing, though. If she had not been able to feel the sheer perfection of their co-ordination herself, the awed appreciation on the faces of most of the onlookers would have reflected it back to her.
“Two feet bad, four feet good,” she murmured, and giggled. Her partner raised a reproving eyebrow.
“Concentrate, woman,” he breathed. “There’s a really complicated bit coming up. And you don’t giggle in tango. You’re supposed to look as though I’m the epitome of every man who’s ever wronged you, on whom you intend to get your revenge by driving into a frenzy of passion and then abandoning without even a backwards look.”
On the instruction, she could feel her face set into lines of pure hauteur. She lifted her chin and tossed back her hair. A flicker danced in his grey eyes, and he gave her the smallest of nods.
The beat was becoming faster and more assertive. He handed her off to the very tips of his fingers, and purred, “Now.”
A breakneck sequence of moves took possession of her body. She spun, stamped and whirled, treating her partner as a fixed axis around which she performed a ruthlessly choreographed silent drama of lust, betrayal, pride and revenge. Back in the trapped part of her brain, a howl of disbelief was rising.
This can’t possibly work. Sooner or later, I’ve got to trip over my feet or something and look like an idiot in front of them all. He simply can’t make this work.
The sequence ended, and she spun back, her shoulder blades resting against Draco’s stiff shirt-front.
“Very good,” he purred into her ear. He took her hands and turned her swiftly round. They crossed the dance floor again. When they were almost exactly in front of the band he spun her once more, back to the position in which they had started. With one final foot-stamp they came to a complete halt. On the instant, the music stopped. Draco looked up and exchanged a brief nod with the band-leader, before taking Hermione’s hand and pressing it elegantly to his lips. She could feel her will reasserting itself at the same time as he released her from Imperius.
There was a stunned silence in the room, as the guests evidently tried to make their minds up about whether it would be ill-bred to clap or not. Presumably taking a cue from someone or other, a buzz or somewhat awkward conversation made itself felt instead. Under its cover they made their way back to their table.
Draco looked tireder than the pure exertion of the dancing should have left him. She had to put out a hand to prevent him blundering into the back of one of the tables.
“Thanks.” He yawned. “I don’t envy anyone who tries that with you when you are resisting it. Even your feet seem to have minds of their own.”
“So they tell me.” With an assertive movement of one hand she summoned a passing waiter, and acquired two glasses of champagne, one of which she passed across to Draco. He sipped it and began to revive. His eyes glittered mischievously.
“Well, well, well, Granger. Upstaging the bride at her own wedding. Such deplorable behaviour - I can’t imagine what you can have been thinking of.”
She laughed back at him over the rims of the champagne flutes.
“Congratulations,” an all-too-familiar voice said from behind her head. She turned abruptly to find Giles leaning familiarly against her chair-back. He had loosened his cravat and was breathing heavily: momentarily Hermione wondered whether he was drunk.
Draco, at whom the comment had apparently been addressed, raised one eyebrow. “Surely today at least the congratulations ought to be flowing the other way?”
“I meant - congratulations on dancing with Hermy and managing to stop her trying to lead. I’ve never brought it off. What’s your secret?”
Draco’s diamond-hard, social smile did not reach his eyes, which remained watchful.
“Animal magnetism?” he suggested.
Giles frowned, as though he suspected a double meaning but he had failed to identify it. Then he gave a brief bark of laughter.
“Sounds like this Empowerment Pathway business Brooke’s so obsessed with. That’s done her no harm, though. She’s made enough contacts through it. Odd ducks, some of them, but they’ve delivered the goods so far. Perhaps you should try it, Hermy.”
Before she could respond Draco observed smoothly,” I hardly think so. I think most of Hermione’s friends would agree that she’s at least as empowered as she needs to be.”
Giles snorted with laughter. “Well, you could well be right there.” He patted her shoulder, his fingers lingering just a little too long, ostensibly exploring the fine detail of the embroidery on the Lacroix jacket. “It certainly seems that you haven’t done too badly, for a little girl who left school with just ‘A’ levels and went straight out to work.”
Hermione’s fingers, reaching blindly under the table for her bag, encountered an unmoving obstacle. Draco’s foot was planted on top of it, and clearly deliberately so.
“Dr- David,” she said sweetly, ” You’re standing on my handbag. I need to just go and repair my make-up.”
Draco, his eyes wary, surrendered the bag, keeping his eyes on Hermione’s face and the fingers of his left hand resting casually on his right cuff as he did so. Giles, evidently aware that something was up, but unsure as to what, released her shoulder at last.
“Well, Hermy, can I have the next dance when you’ve finished? For old times sake?”
She got to her feet in a single movement. With her heels, she was tall enough to look him directly in the eyes, and did so, smiling sweetly.
“I don’t think so, Giles,” she said. “I’m not planning to dance any more today. It would be - anti-climactic.”
Still moving smoothly, though blindly, she crossed the room and made for the Ladies.
When she emerged from its Art Deco splendours she tracked Draco down to the bar. He gestured with his glass at her as she stood in the doorway.
“God,” he began,” You can pick them, can’t you? What can I get you, by the way?”
“Just mineral water, thanks. Um - I don’t know what got into him, there. He - I think he’s had a bit much to drink -“
“And the rest. And given what I walked in on him and the best man doing with a credit card in the bogs about an hour ago, he doesn’t seem to be too worried about mixing his stimulants, either.”
“Coke? Giles? But - he never used - I mean, are you sure?”
He raised an irritatingly superior eyebrow. “Yes, Granger. I used to hang around with enough people who were into that sort of thing, you know. And anyway, just look at him. I can tell the difference between a plain old fashioned arsehole and a coked-up-to-the-eyeballs arsehole, you know. “
She looked doubtfully at him. “You don’t, do you?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I do like your way of associating ideas. So tactful.” She must have been still looking questioningly at him, because he shook his head. “Not any more. And only a few times then. I worked out eventually that apart from the temporary high, the most noticeable effect on people was that it turned them into self-important narcissistic bores, with the attention span of gnats and an obsession with designer labels. So given the natural advantages life has blessed me with, I thought it made sense to save the money and spend it on the roof.”
He paused, and then a new note entered his voice. “Besides, I’d given myself the scare of a lifetime with dodgy potions when I was in fifth year. I wasn’t in the best frame of mind for experiments when that lot started it in the sixth.”
“Sixth-? You mean there were people doing drugs at school?”
She knew her voice must have gone up in shock. He had resumed his irritatingly smug expression.
“Yes, Granger. Not everyone was able to get their teenage kicks fighting off the forces of ultimate evil, you know. Or wanted to.”
She looked at him in fascination. “Golly. Who, ah -?”
Draco grinned suddenly. “The self-titled cool set? Well, Pansy’s little parties were quite notorious, of course. If you were in the know.”
“Pansy? But where was she getting it from?”
His face closed, suddenly. “Well, with the benefit of hindsight, the most probable answer would seem to be my father, wouldn’t you think? Whatever the official party line on that sort of thing might have been.”
Hermione, momentarily, was lost for words, but it hardly mattered because Draco was continuing onwards, a reflective note in his voice.
” You know, Pansy was the biggest dealer in school at one point. And wherever she was getting it from, I’ve got a pretty good idea where the profits were going. Sniffers for Voldie - maybe I ought to have designed them a T-shirt.”
What Hermione might have said at that point was lost as a waiter crossed the bar towards them.
“David Molloy, sir?” he enquired. Draco nodded, looking a little stunned. The waiter handed him an envelope, which Draco opened, quickly scanning the note it apparently contained. His eyebrows went up, and he read the note again, more slowly.
He moved casually away from the bar, out of earshot of the barman, before turning to Hermione. The sheer lack of expression on his face chilled her even before he spoke. She had, after all, come through Recent Events in the eye of the storm, and danger, for her, did not need elaborate stage effects to announce its presence.
Draco’s voice was dead level. “Go back in there and dance with someone. Someone you actually know. Someone you think you might trust. Look as though you’re having a good time. Look as though you’re set in for the evening.”
She nodded. “And you? “
“I’m planning to finish this drink. I might even buy Giles one, come to think of it. Poor bastard needs it, even if he may not know yet quite how much.”
“And after we’ve each done what we have to, you’re going to meet me on the sixth floor, in room 16. Knock three times, and, if I don’t answer, give two more knocks twenty counted seconds apart. And if I don’t answer after that - well - Apparate the hell out of there, and don’t get all noble, and decide to hang around looking for me, at least not without calling in serious back-up, understand what I mean, Hermione?”
Even as fear struck through her, the discipline she had learned before she was fifteen years old took over. His almost-relieved face told her that he recognised that. To reassure him further, she nodded again. He added, abruptly:
“Oh, and if any of the bridal party spot you heading towards the lift, don’t let any spurious concerns about your reputation or, god forbid, mine lead you to disabuse them of the obvious conclusion why you’re heading up to the bedroom floors. In fact, the longer they think we’re disreputably engaged elsewhere in the building, the better.”
She nodded again. A sudden memory stabbed through her at his expression. During Recent Events she had frequently seen identically nonchalant smiles, from people putting a light face on a dangerous job. And so many of them had not come back.
“Good luck,” he said and turned away. She poked her head through the door to the main room. Mark was sitting alone on a table at the far side of the dance-floor. She fixed her smile firmly on her face, and picked her way through the throng towards him.
There was a heart-stopping pause, and then the door swung silently open. She could see no-one inside, though, to her surprise, her coat and Draco’s were on the bed. She took a quick glance up and down the apparently deserted corridor, drew her wand, and advanced into the room.
There was a gentle click as the door swung to behind her. She turned: Draco had apparently been standing behind the door and stepped forward now. Before she could speak he smiled at her - an expression of relief that they had got this far unscathed, it seemed - and said, “You have absolutely no idea what an inexpressible benefit it is in a tight corner to know that you’re with someone who can be trusted to follow bizarre instructions without demanding explanations in advance.”
She swallowed, hard, steadied her voice and said, as calmly as possible,
“Well? I wouldn’t mind an explanation now if there’s one on offer.”
He held out a crumpled piece of paper towards her: she supposed it must have been the mysterious note the waiter had brought. The writing was bold, in a black felt tip almost thick enough to be a marker pen.
If you must set out to fuck someone off, can’t you choose someone who doesn’t have friends? If you and your girlfriend know what’s healthy you’ll get the hell out of here. Just not by any of the exits. I’ve had your coats taken up to room 616 - key card enclosed. Ask your girlfriend if you can’t figure out how it works - but then - you won’t have any trouble opening the door anyway, will you? I trust you to make your own arrangements after that. Don’t mess with the room, by the way: it’s one of the little extras the bride’s going to find on her bill, and I’ll be needing it later if I get lucky.
She looked at it, and re-read it.
“We’ve been threatened?”
He nodded. “It would seem like it. Someone seems to have pulled in some favours. Now, remind me, who have we pissed off recently?”
Without pausing to let her get a word in edgeways, he added contemplatively. “A fast worker, evidently. And in contact with some very unusual people, by the looks of it. Our people.”
The shock of what he seemed to be saying was leaving her curiously numb. In a flat, dead voice, barely above a whisper, she found herself saying:
“You can’t mean - Brooke?”
He nodded. “In my book, she’d be the most likely suspect. And I can tell you, if Nick feels it worth warning me about it, it can’t merely be a beating-up that’s waiting outside all the exits to this place. If that was what was on offer, he’d be volunteering to hold coats.”
Draco shrugged. “Well, whatever he’s calling himself these days. I did hear a rumour he’d changed his name after he got out of Terre Haute Penitentiary. But then: some people get a kick out of mixing with the bad boys. Maybe that’s why Brooke had him flown in for her wedding in the first place.”
“Nick’s the chef? That’s who sent you the warning?”
He nodded. Although his voice was light she had a sense of treacherous undercurrents swirling below his surface calm.
“Well, if blood weren’t thicker than water, what would be the point of coq au vin?” He paused. “Just a bit of a shock to have it actually proved to me. After all these years.”
Hermione was having difficulty taking this in.
“You mean - you’re related to - to the chef? But he’s a Muggle - “
His face flushed up as at a deadly insult, and she felt a sudden sense of disorientation. Somehow, for as long as she had moved between the two worlds, she could still find herself tripping over histories and assumptions it had never occurred to her to suspect might exist, giving her a permanent slight sense of being a gold-rush millionaire dumped into an Edwardian house-party, never entirely sure which fork to use, acutely aware that all the other guests - and even the servants - tied into an interlocking web of family, flirtations and feuds which stretched back centuries. Draco’s voice was heavy with strained politeness when he said,
“If you want to be technical, he’s a Squib. Actually.”
And is that supposed to be better?
She bit her lip on the question, and instead said,
“And - how’s he related to you?”
Draco did not meet her eyes, and his voice was somewhat muffled. He had acquired an acute interest in the wall-paper, it seemed.
“Ah, well, he’s either my half-uncle or my half-brother, as a matter of fact.”
She couldn’t help it. The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. “What do you mean, he’s either your brother or your uncle? Surely you know?”
Generations of pure-blood hauteur were in his expression as he turned to face her.
“Well, since even his mother is in doubt about it, I hardly see why I should be expected to know.”
“In doubt -? I mean - you mean -“
He sighed, exaggeratedly. “Is the Knut dropping, now, Granger? Look, you aren’t entitled to have a monopoly on having an idiotically complicated and messed up love-life, you know -“
She blushed, furiously. “I’ve never -“
His voice was sardonic.
“Well, while on the little I’ve seen of him, Giles quite obviously wasn’t your finest hour, I’ll agree having him in your past hardly compares to hopping into bed with my father and grandfather in rapid succession - at least, one hopes it was succession -“
Hermione gulped. It seemed, however, that the sense of repelled fascination which was warring with good manners inside her head must have made its way into her expression, because, unprompted, Draco added,
“Not, I suppose, that Nick’s mother had a lot of choice about it. Specially not as she was only about 15 or so at the time.”
Her voice was low with shock. “You don’t mean - you think that they may have raped her?”
Draco’s voice was reflective. “Well, I don’t suppose any of the three people concerned would have looked at it that way, you know. It’s just been a tradition since way back when, that in the - appropriate circles - round the village: if a Malfoy asks, no isn’t an option in the range of possible responses.”
Her jaw dropped, her palms suddenly started sweating and her heart raced. For the first time, she was acutely conscious that they were in a bedroom. In an effort to conceal her sudden panic she tried not to look at Draco, but, unfairly, her thoughts must be being more than usually transparent today. He raised an eyebrow, and gave an exaggerated sigh.
“No, Granger. I’ve never played by those particular rules, as it happens. Ma always made it abundantly clear that if she ever heard of me taking advantage of the local traditions with anyone she’d personally flay me alive. Now, I grant that my father, in general, would have been more inclined to take the view that boys will be boys. But certainly not with boys. So either way, no. For your information. And thank you so much for your faith in me.”
She made a determined effort to sound calm and practical.
“Has it ever occurred to you, Draco, that yours is a seriously dysfunctional family?”
He looked across at her in apparently genuine surprise. Then he shook his head decisively.
“No, you’re wrong there. Neville’s family is seriously dysfunctional. I just happen to be descended from a long line of total shits.”
“Anyway, I haven’t got time for you to psycho-analyse me now. We’d better be getting out of here.”
Hermione nodded. “Where to?”
He considered. “My London place, first, I think. I can send Neville an owl from there warning him we seemed to have walked into even more trouble. And in any case, I’ve got to get out of this gear and into something I can be seen in Diagon Alley in.”
“Diagon Alley? Why?”
“Because I don’t want whoever’s after us to think they’ve got us on the run. I am not just vanishing into hiding. Equally, I don’t want to play hide and seek with an unknown enemy through Muggle London. But I can’t see anyone having the nerve to try to take us both down on magical ground. I mean, if they got you even the Ministry would be forced to do something -“
Draco smiled a trifle grimly. “Well, the Ministry might have to pay lip-service to an investigation, even in my case, in those circumstances. But I can assure you that anyone trying it on would have a lot more than the Ministry to deal with.”
He picked up her coat and helped her on with it. “Shall we be going?”
A familiar voice murmured in his ear. He struggled up from under a thick blanket of sleep, and opened one eye an intensely cautious millimetre. Morning light streamed unsympathetically in at him.
“I said: and what time did you get in last night?”
He cogitated. It hurt.
“Let’s take this carefully, shall we? You went to the wedding, yes?”
He nodded, with extreme care.
“It went on quite late. There was an evening do. With dancing. And a buffet. Ugh.”
The gentle voice was inexorable in his ear.
“Well, we made our getaway. Eventually. That was - interesting. You did get my owls, I take it?”
“I did. Unexpected difficulties. Watch your back. And if I turn up dead, get hold of Nick and ask him what he knows, wasn’t actually calculated either to reassure me or inform me, you know.”
“Well, I did send another one, once we were safely into Diagon Alley.”
“Mm, yes. Ignore previous owl; murderous attackers baffled for time being. Keep wards up, though. Do you mind telling me what was going on?”
“I’ll explain about that bit when I’m properly awake. And obviously, Hermione was in a bit of a state by then, and it was clear she needed cheering up -“
“So I took her to that bar - you know, the one just off Diagon Alley - quite a long way along - actually -“
“Ah - you do know the one? Well, that did go quite OK - though I must say, when we walked in they looked as though they’d have been a lot happier with either Hermione on her own or me on my own than with either of us together -“
“Really? You surprise me.”
“Anyway, a number of the usual crowd were in - and Hermione seemed to have perked up a bit by then - and started getting on fabulously with them - they really were very sympathetic about the whole business, and were falling over themselves to buy her drinks - “
“Oh dear -“
His voice, he knew, sounded distinctly aggrieved.
“I think she ought to have mentioned that she was allergic to tequila, don’t you think?”
“Can one be allergic to tequila?”
“Anyway, obviously I then had to see her back to her flat -“
“I’ll gloss over what’s evidently covered by the then, shall I?”
“And then that bloody cat of hers dive-bombed me from the picture rail when I was carrying her in through the front door -“
“Typical Muggles, putting a picture rail in a 50’s mansion block. I expect you thought so the time. Probably mentioned it to your hostess, come to think of it. Still, I’m glad to get an explanation for the scratch-marks on your nose. I was envisaging all sorts of scenarios where you Apparated up to Hogsmeade and decided to have it out with McGonagall about Gryffindor/Slytherin rivalry and gratuitous bias in house points allocation -“
He snorted in what he hoped was a quelling manner.
“Well, while I was still trying to fend off that bloody cat, Hermione decided to burst into tears and start explaining to me why she’d got every relationship of her life to date wrong. In detail. Which was definitely Too Much Information, and far more than I could be expected to cope with.”
“So then you -?”
“Went to raid the fridge. There was no way I was going to try and cope with that unanaesthetised. And anyway, I thought that it might help Hermione if I found something to counteract the tequila. And I did actually find some smoked fish, which seemed to do the trick-“
The voice in his ears sounded faintly appalled.
“You fed Hermione smoked fish? At that particular moment in time?”
He shook his head. It was a distinct mistake. Evidently his expression had finally made an impact on his auditor, because he said, “Oh, I forgot. Mrs P. left this for you. She said you might appreciate it about now. I suggest you drink it.”
He dimly perceived a glass being held out towards him. He choked back the faintly mint-flavoured contents with an effort. However, almost immediately the effects began to spread beatifically down the blood vessels of his brain. It was an effort to restrain his fingers from wandering towards the cheque-book he had left on the bedside table and instantly writing his cook a massive bonus on the strength of it. Part of his brain wondered, briefly, whether he underestimated Mrs P.’s potions abilities. Could one produce distilled Imperius?
“No,” he said patiently, now blissfully undistracted by a small but crack team of armourers doing the Anvil Chorus on his cerebellum, “I bribed that fiendish feline with the fish to stop it chewing up my features. I also found a perfectly decent Cava that I thought Hermione might appreciate - but she didn’t seem entirely interested -“
“I could make a point here about how common sense is rated by the Sorting Hat in its judgments, but it seems hardly fair -“
“Anyway,” he interrupted, having finally remembered the point of his anecdote and being damned if he was going to be baulked of the punch line now, “Then the bloody hearth burst into flames and what should be in the middle of them but Our Hero Of The Late Unpleasantness, who apparently had just managed to work out in his North American love-nest that today might have been just a bit trying for one of his oldest friends, and it might be sensible - and, indeed, sensitive - to contact her to find out how she was coping.”
“Oh, oops! Oh god, I mean - ah - oops!”
“Oops was not the word. Have you ever considered just how difficult it is to explain away a scenario in which you are mopping up blood from various facial cat-scratches, and easing your pain by downing what that illiterate moron persisted in referring to as champagne from the neck, while a very attractive woman in a designer trouser suit sobs uncontrollably, stage left, on a sofa?”
“I could see it might be difficult.”
“Difficult! That bloody imbecile kept muttering, “Crookshanks is part Kneazle! They can sense unreliable people!” and I kept trying to point out that Crookshanks was a significantly bigger part cat, and that they are even better at sensing dog-owners . But no luck, of course. Anyway, I was having no success at all getting through to him - and Hermione wasn’t actually up to doing any explanations either - and unfortunately I then decided to point out that if Potter objected to the whole scenario, then he could have bloody well got his arse over to England and given Hermione his support instead of mine, and good luck to him -“
“And? That’s not actually a bad point, you know.”
He knew his voice was sounding a little defensive. “I think it might have been more telling if I hadn’t described his current activities as fucking your way round Massachusetts -“
“Understandable, though,” the warm furry voice in his ear observed. Soothed by the support, he stretched luxuriously in the big bed.
“So I thought sod it, and Apparated back, and here I am.”
“So I see.” There was a pause. Arms were curled in an unequivocal manner round his body. Then, questioningly, the voice said:
“Did you know you’ve got lipstick half way up your left ear?”
“Ah?” He paused. “That’s not got anything to do with Hermione, of course.”
“I know. She left here yesterday with her mouth a tasteful shade of fuchsia pink. The residue I’m looking at here seems to be unquestionably Tarty Scarlet.”
“Ah. That would be the bride, then. I suppose.”
“I take it she wasn’t going for the dewy innocent look, then?”
He snorted. “Far from it.” He paused, as he appreciated the tone of the last comment, and the relaxed comfort of the limbs currently sprawled across his body. “Neville?”
“Is there anything I can do to drive you into an insane paroxysm of jealous fury?”
There was a rumble of amusement from the chest against which his cheek was currently resting. “Possibly. But certainly not involving anyone who could deliberately choose that shade of lipstick. Sorry. Love.”
There was a pause.
“So - what was the bride like?”
“Scary. In fact, I think the groom had only just worked out quite how scary on the day, which wasn’t entirely brilliant timing. He was running away from the news as fast as he could, I think. And in fact, some of her scariness seems focussed somewhat in our direction. But also in directions that - well, put it this way - I ought to have a word with Peter about.”
Neville half rose in the bed, his arm round Draco’s shoulders, turning him inevitably towards the window.
The thrilling of the bells in tumbling peals, which he had been vaguely conscious of on the edge of his hearing for at least half an hour, had turned to a rapid, urgent tolling.
“Sunday, love. Sunday services. It may have escaped your notice, but Peter’s working. Until at least 8.00pm this evening. So if you need to tell him anything, you need to wait.”
“Really?” He sank back into the pillows. “But then, if that’s so, what am I supposed to do in the interim?”
His arms reached up and pulled Neville down against his body.
“Use your imagination?” his lover suggested. Hopefully.
He had only one option.
He rose to the occasion.