Chapter 1 - The Perilous Point by A.J. Hall
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.
Louis MacNeice: Bagpipe Music
The swan - the leading edges of its wings tinted with the Inaurare charm traditionally used to herald good news - had lapped up its water, delicately declined more substantial refreshment, stretched its long neck, and taken itself off through the window into the blaze of the setting sun, which transformed its entire plumage to a gold which engulfed the spell’s artificial gilding. It had dwindled to a dark speck against the western sky before either of the two in the room broke the silence, or looked up from the rectangle of pasteboard that the swan had deposited on the table.
“So it’s happened after all,” Harry said eventually. “I’d never really thought it would. Even when I saw how they looked together at Christmas. After all, who’d have bet on Hermione marrying a vicar?”
Ron looked uncharacteristically tense; his freckled face twisted in a grimace.
“So long as the so-and-so makes her happy I don’t care if she’s bloody well marrying the Archbishop of Canterbury.” He paused, momentarily, and his lips quirked in a ghost of his accustomed grin. “In fact, I only wish she was.”
Harry looked up in surprise; it had not occurred to him that Ron had even heard of the Anglican church’s top cleric, still less that he might have been sizing him up as potential husband material for their oldest friend. Anyway, he had a vague suspicion - not that he kept up with the Muggle news, these days - that Dr Williams was married already.
Ron’s stubby finger tapped emphatically on the pasteboard.
“Well, at least Canterbury’s in Kent.”
“Ah - oh. Yes. Well. Of course.”
There did not, on the whole seem much more that could be said. Harry tried anyway.
“I suppose there’s no chance that they’ll - I mean, of course, them, not them - anyway, that they won’t -?”
“What do you think?”
“No, I suppose not.”
They resumed their gloomy staring at the invitation. After a few moments, Harry roused himself enough to break it.
“Will you both be - ah - I mean, how do you think Adrienne’s going to take your invitation?”
Ron’s smile got grimmer, and Harry’s fist clenched in response. He dropped it below the level of the table, in case his friend might see.
Odd how people manage to hurt each other more in the name of love than Voldemort ever managed in the name of hate.
And there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing at all.
Even though after the end of Recent Events the whole wizarding world had conspired to convince him everything he turned his hand to must inevitably be crowned with glorious, against-all-odds triumph.
He had always known that to be nonsense, of course. And - his glance dropped down to the accusing smooth surface of the pasteboard with a sudden gut-wrenching jolt - on the one occasion he had let himself be seduced into almost-belief in his own omnipotence, the retribution had been swift, the damage irreparable.
Ron cleared his throat.
“It’s very kind of Hermione. The invitation. And I can’t see her accepting any excuse short of a funeral for not turning up. My own funeral, at that.”
It was a shock to detect that left to himself Ron might have ducked out of attending her wedding, despite all that the three of them had faced together. And a bigger shock to find himself half-acknowledging the appeal of that reaction.
Though not, of course, for the same reason. Were it happening in any other village -
Oh shit. How difficult can an apology be, after all?
He gulped. Too difficult, obviously. He saw his own cowardice - ironic, that, given his popular reputation - and acknowledged it even while flinching.
And after all, suppose he was there when I started to make it - and he would be there, knowing him -
For the umpteenth time in the last few years that particular Everest presented its most un-climbable face to him. Once again, mentally, he ducked the ascent, even though he hated himself for doing so.
Though few people would blame him, even if they knew.
Their whole world, after all, had patched itself up after Recent Events by polite avoidances and unspoken taboos. Don’t paddle in those waters; who knows what mud you’ll stir up?
And Hermione, of course, was too direct and innately honest to succumb readily to that sort of thing. The very wording of the invitation - 21 June 2003, St Sebastian’s Church, Malfoy Instrinsica and afterwards at Gaia’s Place - asserted as much.
Ron’s voice changed. “And anyway, of course Adrienne will insist we be there. After all, if you heard Malfoy’d topped himself, and you were invited to the funeral, wouldn’t you go?”
Harry swallowed. The answer, however, was inevitable - Ron’s head was cocked, awaiting his response, the grim smile on Ron’s lips tearing at his heart.
“Well.” Harry moistened dry lips. “I couldn’t miss, could I?”
Ron’s look got more challenging. Harry plunged on, hating himself, knowing what was expected, feeding Ron the straight line.
“Well, I’d want to make sure the bastard had really gone and done it, wouldn’t I?”
Ron nodded savagely.
“Have you considered if you two ought to think about - ” he began, and then floundered to a sticky halt, driven back by the expression in his friend’s face. He coughed, and did his best to extricate them both.
“Anyway, enough about that. I haven’t seen you in ages. How are the twins getting on?”
Ron’s face lightened.
“Brilliant. Just brilliant. Going from strength to strength. None of us know what they’re going to think up next. We just cower back and wait for the explosion to happen.”
Ron’s eye flicked down to the little slip of handwritten parchment that had come with the wedding invitation, and his expression softened still further.
“It was sweet of Hermione to ask them to be bridesmaids, wasn’t it?”
“Um.” As their godfather, it seemed churlish for Harry to question the suitability of Charlotte and Lucy for the role - and undoubtedly the four-year-olds would look adorable in the bridal party. As for their temperaments, however -
He shuddered, and opted to lie valiantly.
“I can’t think she could have chosen better.”
Ron nodded. He grinned; a real grin this time.
“Tell you what: why don’t we try what we can do to conjure up an Archbishopric for this Peter bloke? After all, even if we did get caught, with you being you the Ministry probably wouldn’t dare say anything. Think about it. Half a spell, and he could be sitting pretty in the Cathedral at Canterbury by Midsummer’s Day.”
Harry grinned back. “Or, better yet, York.”
Ron looked puzzled. “York?”
His smile was rather self-consciously encouraging as he played along with the joke. “Even further from Wiltshire.”
The flicker of humour had died down. Ron’s face had relapsed into morose lines, and Harry could track, plainly as though he had spoken them aloud, the bitter passage of his friend’s thoughts. He cast his eyes desperately about, trying to find any way at all to turn the conversation.
The last glows of the sunset were fading from the room. Framed in the window, high against the clear deepening blue of the western winter sky, wisps of cirrus cloud were beginning to form.
“The weather’s changing,” he said, taking welcome refuge in the banality.
The upstairs room of the Cabbage and Caterpillar was a room that looked better by lamplight than on a grey February afternoon with the rain brushing across the roofs of Kilburn in successive waves, and seeping in round the ill-fitting window frames.
In fact, in the opinion of the Stage Manager, who knew the room intimately from innumerable rehearsals to say nothing of the abbreviated runs of Morning Becomes Electric, a two-handed retelling of the Oresteia set in the condemned cell at San Quentin (“pointless and unpleasant”; Crouch End Advertiser and Record) and Waiting For Godot; The End-Of-The-Pier Version (“the most misguided idea since Hannibal decided to take 200 elephants on a skiing break to Courchevel”: East Finchley Herald) the room was at its best in the depths of night. In a power-cut.
It was, however, cheap. Which in the eyes of Fourth Wall Productions made up for numerous decorating deficiencies and even the occasional rodent (“Think of it as a gerbil who just chose a lousy agent,” she had grown accustomed to instructing startled newcomers to the company).
Despite the dingy surroundings and her long and bitter experience of the man, Dermot’s enthusiasm was still infectious.
He surveyed the motley gathering, pulled a sheaf of notes out of a battered file, and allowed his infinitely persuasive smile to flow like warmed syrup over them all. Even before he spoke the Stage Manager could feel the tidal pull of his charm.
Truly, if charisma were all it took to be a great star, Dermot would have Beverly Hills at his feet by now.
She suppressed her scepticism. Dermot had one thing no-one else in the company possessed; the ability to attract funding. Not in large quantities, it was true, but sufficient for them to eke out a precarious tour once a summer. And while each year at autumn time the Stage Manager swore “Never again!”, each year as the year rounded and the may blossomed on the thorn she would find herself off again to some god-forsaken part of the country, trying to hold a scraped-up company together with her bare hands.
Still. It beat bar work, at least. And it kept Equity and the DSS on the right side of gruntled. And so here she was, already committing herself to setting off again. And at least this time it looked like she was going to be in the right place at the right time.
“So,” Dermot said, tossing back his mane of blue-black and raking his fingers through it, “it’s a pity that they want us to present the Dream rather than the Tempest. But I’m working to see what I can do to change their mind.”
The Stage Manager gritted her teeth.
“We couldn’t think of doing the Tempest with our resources - “
Dermot looked artistically vague.
“Ah yes, but I had such an inspired idea as to how to do it. Look - see the whole play in terms of chaos theory, yes? The most trivial actions having the potential within them for disastrous and unforeseen consequences - things buried in a half-forgotten past coming home to roost with disastrous consequences - “
He waved a hand. The audience followed it, mesmerised.
“The ruling duke of Milan, beginning to be seduced by his forbidden books and his explorations into occult knowledge, starts to neglect the political trimming needed to keep the ship of state on an even keel. Nature, abhorring a vacuum, stirs Antonio up to consider whether he might not do his brother’s job better than he could. Imperceptibly, the butterfly’s wings begin to beat. And twelve years later the resulting storm will pull everyone down into a screaming maelstrom of hate, lust, revenge and the untameable power of the ocean. Can’t you see how powerful that production could be?”
Blast them: the audience was beginning to hang on his every word. She could even spot one or two of them experimentally beginning to mouth lines like, “To arms, We split, we split! - Farewell, my wife and children! - Farewell, brother! - We split, we split, we split!” and nodding to themselves.
It was imperative she stop this one in its tracks now, otherwise she just knew who would have the job of conjuring up a shipwreck, a Magical island full of Strange Shapes and unearthly music and a brace or so of goddesses and sea nymphs out of thin air and an even thinner budget. She glared at him, but tempered her vocabulary with pragmatism.
“Dermot - even if it weren’t Midsummer Night - get real, ok? They’re offshore oil and gas engineers. How tactful would it be to put on a play that starts with a major maritime disaster? Wouldn’t it just rake up the sort of memories that are better left buried - or drowned, I suppose, in their particular case?”
Reluctantly, blessedly he nodded.
“Now, that is a point. And I suppose even Shakespeare had to play to his sponsor’s prejudices. Look at Richard III. OK. We’ll take it no further. The Dream it is.”
A hand flapped, tentatively from the back.
“Tell me, do you think it’s appropriate to Fourth Wall’s stated aims to accept sponsorship from a company who inflict reckless damage on the environment?”
She suppressed a shudder. Edmund. Of course. However, she knew nothing to his discredit, and he had played Ahenobarbus in one of the better Antony & Cleopatras she’d ever seen staged.
The Stage Manager pasted an expression of sweet reasonableness on her face (it was all a transparent pose anyway; no-one in the room was going to turn down a chance of paying professional work, no matter where the funds came from), but it was Dermot who intervened.
“Well, Edmund: look at it this way. What they’re spending on Art they can’t spend on pollution. And if Art has a value, maybe it might show them that there is something beyond a frantic plundering of the seas for the sake of profit. And that, come to think of it, does give me a few ideas for the staging. Let’s see if we can’t judder them to the bottoms of their little bourgeois souls, eh?”
She eyed him uneasily, and he returned a smile of blissful self-confidence. Her heart sank. But then she had to wade in to break up a fight between a potential Hermia and a potential Titania/Hippolyta, each of whom would rather be, respectively, Helena and Puck (the latter to be played as a hermaphrodite wandering spirit of unfettered sexual possibility) and she lost the chance to question him further. And anyway, it was hardly going to be any use. He was, after all, the producer - at least, when he insisted. She bent over her notepad, and started to make intense calculations.
It was when there was only a small, tight bunch of the faithful left, and the rest had drifted into the sodden North London night with visions of stardom dancing in their heads, that the Stage Manager exhaled and said, “Well, it’s going to be tight. Twelve principals and even Burbage couldn’t double a single extra role, and you’re just going to have to force that down our sponsor’s corporate gullet, Dermot. I can’t cast the Dream with anyone less, and warn them: they’re all going to have to play ball and help with the get-in. Got that? And this jazz trio they’ve already booked to play for the VIPs at dinner - they do understand we need them for the show? Or are we supposed to do it without music, too?”
Dermot smiled. It was the vague, Trust-Me-I’m-A-College-Git smile she particularly detested.
“It’ll be fine, Gwynneth. Trust me.”
She recollected in time that she had been properly brought up before she physically spat.
“Yes, Dermot. And I saw Shakespeare in Love too. But I’m telling you, I’m not having any bloody mysteries in this company.”
She paused a moment, and then added,
“I need to know exactly how you’ve planned this one and budgeted it. And I need to know it before we send the final figures back to our corporate sponsors. Which means now. Give me the figures, Dermot.”
She sensed a figure lurking in the back of the room, and looked up. “Yes, Nick. That is going to be five more pints of the Landlord and double Grouse chasers. And they’re on producer’s expenses. After all, Dermot has found us a sponsor.”
It was a good three-quarters of an hour later when Dermot laughed up at her - blast him, how could he instil that quantity of allure into what were, after all, a pair of perfectly normal eyes? - and said,
“Sorted. So? Tell me. What drives you to work with the company this season? I was beginning to think I really was going to find someone else, after last time.”
“What is it the estate agents say? Location, location, location. Let’s put it, Dermot, I’ve a particular interest in Wiltshire for Midsummer’s Day.”
She saw his eyes flick quickly to the ankh and pentacle combination round her neck, and saw him visibly reach an obvious - and completely erroneous - conclusion.
“No, Dermot. I have absolutely no intention of seeing the Summer Solstice over Stonehenge. Goddess! It’ll be Fluffy Bunny Central. I wouldn’t be caught under the altar stone in a crouching position there.”
She could see Edmund leaping forward to speak, but waved him back.
“There’s a stone circle above the village where your corporate sponsors want us to put on their benefit. Name of the Seven Sisters. Not well known - except in Magical circles. And not widely there. But I think if we were to perform some rituals there at the Solstice - well, you might be surprised at what we manage to invoke.”
Dermot smiled, indulgently. And to avoid the inevitable sarky comments, she nipped down the back stairs and asked Nick if he could send them up another round of drinks when he got five seconds. Producer’s expenses, of course. Only this time it was straight single malts.
The Cabbage and Caterpillar began to display its better face.
“Personally, I blame Enron,” the Finance Director muttered. “If it hadn’t been for those bloody wankers making the Yanks twitchy, we’d have none of this nitpicking attitude when costs go a few pounds over budget - “
Thirty five percent overrun per project on average the report in their agenda packs stated uncompromisingly.
“Or if the profits dip a little, understandably, given the current political climate - “
Eighteen percent under Budget at end of Q2, the report added by way of addendum.
The R&D Director, seated down at the draughty end of the long table, smiled sourly to himself.
Methinks they do protest too much.
He was unsurprised by the report. Which, itself, had taken some doing.
As a director appointed (as he knew full well) by the US parent company against the vocal opposition of the UK Board, he had had to fight his way through a morass of unexplained computer glitches to gain even the most basic information (the email announcing today’s revised meeting time had, for instance, unaccountably failed to reach his desktop PC).
Still, there were more ways than one of skinning a cat. And a Board which - in the main - had the deepest of contempt for modernizing technology and the skills which went with it, would not appreciate how transparent their security procedures were to someone who by his late teens had been accustomed to look on corporate computer systems with the leisured connoisseurship of a Raffles approaching a jeweller’s safe.
“Well,” the Chairman said, “on to the last item on the agenda. The Anniversary! And I think you’ll all agree that Rodney has come out with a simply cracking suggestion, and he’s got a short PowerPoint presentation for us. Lights!”
After a prolonged second, filled with accusing stares, the R&D director belatedly realised the order was addressed to him. Cursing sotto voce, he caught up the remote control where it lay on the polished tabletop and operated the dimmer switch.
The Marketing Director flicked the first slide up. It showed a map of the world, wherein a representation of the Nelcorp logo obliterated the northern half of Virginia and most of Washington DC; a constellation of bright sparks marked the rest of the Nelcorp Inc facilities across the globe; and a large blazing gash located across Southern England suggested that Salisbury Plain had been set alight in some disaster, and that the conflagration had swept through the New Forest and was now threatening most of the South Downs and parts of Exmoor.
The Board goggled collectively at it.
The Marketing Director’s light pointer added random patterns of red dots to the map wherever it rested.
“As you all know, the Main Board of our parent company will be having their annual Strategic Retreat in Europe for the first time in the corporation’s history. This is a fantastic opportunity for us to show them what we’ve been doing over here to contribute to the overall picture - “
And I’m sure that opportunity is exactly what they’re planning to take, too.
“But more importantly, it really gives us a chance to stand out - to showcase the core brand values which we brought to the table on the takeover!”
Ah! Those would be inefficiency, incompetence and a pathological resistance to change, then?
He clicked the remote control.
The screen displayed a lighted stage, down in a wooded hollow, a clear, starry sky above it, and a remarkably beautiful woman in a fetchingly low-cut Tudorbethan gown in red velvet yearned decorously from a somewhat wobbly balcony towards a blonde youth in a blue doublet. As it was taken from the back of the audience, the photo also managed to include a reassuringly opulent sense of evening dress, champagne, picnic hampers and a general air of the upper-middle classes dipping their collective toe into the cultural waters, and finding them appealingly warm, and reassuringly free of jellyfish.
The Marketing Director had obviously realised he had hooked his catch.
“Yes, gentlemen. To honour the fifth anniversary of our becoming part of Nelcorp, and the fourth anniversary of the opening of the Wiltshire R&D facility we propose to host a charity performance of The Midsummer Night’s Dream. An outdoor event. On the evening of Midsummer Night itself. Invitation only, of course. All the Main Board and their wives - plus anyone who matters in the local area - “
An awful sense of fate descending struck the R&D Director. “Local area? Where -?”
He had evidently, unwittingly delivered the straight line. The Marketing Director smiled across the table at him.
“Where else? Final slide, please.”
And the screen filled with a view of the low grassy mound, behind the church in the village where their European Headquarters was situated, the few scattered ruins of the Norman keep that had once stood there forming a rudimentary amphitheatre.
The Chairman led off a short and decorous round of applause, in which the R&D Director somewhat belatedly joined, his mind whirling. He was the only member of the Board who actually lived in the village; the others came in, virtually at gun-point, for as few meetings as might suffice.
And he couldn’t deny the idea’s appeal. Those bat-haunted ruins would be as romantic a venue as ever the Board could wish, and it might be a good excuse for easing the frequently tense relations with the village, with a few strategic invitations and some extravagant orders for victuals -
And yet -
He fought off his unease with a question.
“Who are the company who you’re thinking of inviting to perform? I saw a superb open-air Much Ado at Chichester last year, or there’s the Theatre in the Park crowd - “
The Chairman smiled, and suddenly the R&D Director wanted to hit him. He had seen that smile so often.
“You don’t need to worry about that. My wife has a nephew -“
He slumped back in his seat.
Of course. He’d been here nearly four years, after all. He knew the corporate style. Of course someone had a nephew. Or a son. Or a useless younger brother. And they all had to be found slurping room at the trough.
And sod any notion of talent, of best value, of objective excellence.
Carefully, tight-lippedly, he pulled his papers together. Carefully, tight-lippedly he sat through the rest of the agenda. Carefully, tight-lippedly, he exchanged a few brief farewells to the Board and went down alone in the lift.
Fortunately, given the howling wind and driving rain, there was a taxi bowling along Pall Mall as he emerged from the revolving doors, and he flagged it down.
“God rot them! And devil take the lot of them,” he muttered savagely to himself as the taxi bore him rapidly towards Paddington, and his train back to Malfoy Intrinsica.
Hermione’s hand went, unwittingly, to her lips as the last swathing of bubble-wrap unfolded, and the solid hunk of pink-tinted moulded resin rolled out onto the kitchen table.
She approached it tentatively; trying not to look intrigued, trying to pretend that it looked like - ah - make that trying to pretend that it didn’t look like - um - anything other than what it did look like, please? (And how did she find a model for it? Surely she couldn’t have - I mean, personally - ? Ugh!).
“Oh god,” she muttered. “At least Georgia O’Keeffe’s had the good manners to look a bit like lilies.”
Her fingers curled around the small slip of paper that had fallen out from amidst the wood-shavings that, together with the bubble-wrap, had - regrettably - protected it from all harm during its postal odyssey.
Peter’s voice sang out from upstairs. Despite her misgivings, she matched her voice to meet his.
“Nothing, sweetheart. Just another wedding present.”
There must - she swore she hadn’t put it consciously in her tone, but nevertheless - she must have sounded a note of audible dread. There was the pounding of feet on the stairs, and suddenly Peter was besides her, still clasping an armful of choral settings for the wedding hymns (Dear Lord And Father of Mankind, after four hours of intensive debate, and hang the unfortunate double entendre in the last verse) and staring down at the thing on the table. He inhaled sharply.
“Oh, flibblebottom! Aunt Hortense!”
Hermione still had her eyes resolutely averted.
“Actually,” she said, fingering the piece of paper that had fallen out of the package, “it’s from your sister Octavia.”
“I’d guessed,” Peter said. “But I meant the song. As the judge remarked the day that he acquitted my Aunt Hortense/To be smut it must be ut-/terly without redeeming social importance. I’d say that had to be pretty close to that standard, wouldn’t you? And what on earth does Tavia imagine we’re going to do with it?”
During a pregnant pause it was clear both of them were thinking of wildly inappropriate suggestions for what they could suggest to her she might do with it.
With a determined air of calm, Hermione said, “Perhaps we could put flowers in it?”
Peter snorted. “As the lady said to the gamekeeper. And to think, the family thought it was a good sign when Tavia moved onto sculpting from her collage phase. Golly, I wonder if it looks slightly less horrific the other way up?”
Grunting a little at the exertion, he bent over and kicked himself up into a handstand, his feet coming to rest against the battered wallpaper.
“I don’t think it - ” he was beginning, his voice somewhat muffled as a result of his unusual position, when the door swung open, and Neville, soaking wet and protectively sheltering an armload of greenery from the gale, walked straight into the kitchen.
Peter, maintaining considerable presence of mind, came neatly out of his handstand, his feet landing on the linoleum with a solid thump.
“Ah?” Neville said, with a distinct note of Am-I-Out-of-Place-Here?
Hermione gestured towards the thing on the table.
“Look what Peter’s sister has sent us for a wedding present!”
Neville looked, blenched and recoiled. Then, in a commendably steady voice, he enquired,
“Er - ah - what’s it supposed to be for?”
Peter, by now in possession of Tavia’s enclosed letter, rolled his eyes skywards.
“Apparently it’s to remind me of the centrality of the feminine principle in the midst of the patriarchal oppression of the Christian conspiracy. Honestly, there are times when I want to pack Tavia off on a four-year intensive anthropology course. Somewhere like Ulan Bator. Or introduce her to some of the more formidable feminist theologians I’ve met over the years.”
Hermione, approaching the wedding present from yet another angle and finding it looked, if anything, even worse, felt her voice acquire almost a wailing note. “But what are we going to do with it?”
Neville put the armload of vegetation down on a convenient chair, and pulled his wand from his belt. “Allow me,” he said.
Before Hermione could intervene to stop him - at least, so she told her over-sensitive conscience - he had descended upon Tavia’s gift - muttered something - made a pass or so over it and - it was no longer there.
The two of them looked at him. Hermione found her voice first.
“Er - Neville - that’s a very sweet thought, but - “
“What Hermione means,” Peter added, “is that Tavia isn’t going to stand for us just telling her that we’ve given the thing a central location on our mantelpiece. She’ll expect to be shown. And given that I know from bitter experience that my big sister has a right hook which would look respectable on Mike Tyson, and that the concept of ‘respect for the cloth’ in that context comes with a built in hollow laughter soundtrack, please could you retrieve it from wherever you’ve sent it, before she shows up to check we’re treating it right?”
Neville beamed happily at them both. “Try putting your hand - about here,” he suggested, gesturing. Hermione wiggled her fingers tentatively in the general direction, connected, and uttered a small gasp. “Invisible?”
Neville nodded. “Yes. To you. To everyone else who drops by. But not - um, provided I’ve done it right, that is - to Tavia. She should be able to see it perfectly.”
It took a moment for the penny to drop, and then Hermione gave a small squeak of delighted laughter.
“Neville! You mean, as far as she’s concerned we will have put it in pride of place? But that’s absolutely brilliant! How did you come to think of it?”
He shifted, a little uneasily, and flushed, but was evidently pleased by her accolades. “Well,” he said, “it was an idea that came to me after that discussion we were having about Ameliorative Magic, a couple of months ago - “
“Oh, yes, I see -“
For Peter’s benefit, she added parenthetically,
“Ameliorative Magic, you know, is the specific branch that deals with charms and spells that are generally intended to make the world a better place - it’s an area that gets a bit neglected, funnily enough; they very occasionally set a NEWTs question on it in Advanced Charms, but it’s so uncommon that normally they don’t bother to cover it in the syllabus -“
Peter looked rather serious.
“Well, that might not be such a bad position to start from.”
She must have shown her surprise in her expression, because he added, “I expect it’s all too easy to decide what is going to make the world a better place for someone, and then impose it on them, without taking into account what they feel about the whole matter -“
Neville grinned. “You know, that’s more or less what Gran told me the then Minister for Magic said, when she came down like a ton of bricks on Theodore Crumblehome.”
“On who?” Hermione looked at him. “I’ve never heard of Theodore - whoever.”
Neville’s grin broadened. “You wouldn’t be likely to. They were hardly going to let him have his own Chocolate Frog card, were they? In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Ministry hadn’t done its damnedest to make sure everyone forgot him. Didn’t want to risk anything like that happening again.”
“Why? What did he do?”
Neville shrugged. “Formed the first ever Wizarding Scout Troop. At Hogwarts. When he was appointed Professor of Muggle Studies. The Troop lasted a term and a half before they got banned. In perpetuity. Not that a lot of wizards realise they ever existed at all. The only reason I know is that Gran told me about him, when she broke the news that I’d have to leave the Whalley Scouts, once I’d got my Hogwarts letter.”
“Though, to be honest, given what Theodore Crumblehome was like, for once I can now see the Ministry’s point.”
“Why?” she demanded. “What did he do that was so awful?”
Neville smiled. “It was the Good Deeds. His company decided - after they’d been repelled by a few well placed hexes, one imagines - that it was a bit on the risky side doing good deeds in Hogsmeade. But - a Scout is never deterred from being active in a Good Cause. So Theodore Crumblehome started taking them out in the wilds. Ostensibly on camping trips. Actually, of course, they were descending on all the accessible local Muggle settlements in turn. Hell-bent on Doing Good. Magically. And then, once they’d done their Good Deeds, they’d memory-charm the victims - sorry, recipients - in case they’d spotted something unusual in the vicinity - “
Neville nodded. “You can say that again. Can you imagine what it would feel like to wake up one morning and discover that overnight your entire vegetable garden has been dug over, your lawn mowed, the doorbell fixed, the guttering cleared and you can’t remember a single thing about any of it? The Muggles thought that they were suffering from a mass outbreak of insanity. I think they still write books trying to explain it. Anyway, that put the tin lid on the Wizarding Scout Movement. Even now conduct likely to conduce towards the formation of Scout-type youth groups is officially enough to earn you a few months in Azkaban.”
Hermione noticed Peter’s eyes straying rather wistfully towards a fat paper folder on the shelf below the cookery books, which contained his collected correspondence with Mrs Frimm, the Akela of the St Sebastian’s Cub Scout Section.
However, rather than commenting on the hapless Theodore Crumblehome, Peter said,
“Well, that shows the sort of thing I mean. But that -“” he nodded in the direction of the selectively charmed wedding gift - “that strikes me as genuinely altruistic. Well considered, and generous towards all. And Hermione was talking about another example of that sort of thing, actually, the other day - what did you call it?”
Hermione smiled, with an edge of relief. “Rosae Lunuculae. Yes. Look, Neville, I know what you think of memory charms -“
As Neville bared his teeth in a politely acknowledging, chilling smile it occurred to her, uneasily, that maybe in truth she did not. She rushed hurriedly on.
“And we all agree they - mostly - do more harm than good. But with Rosae Lunuculae -well, let’s say you know everything that happened; but you’re predisposed to take it optimistically. You do have all the facts, of course -“
“That’s something.” Neville said, with a careful absence of inflection.
Hermione gestured impatiently.
“It’s obvious. People should be able to make up their own mind. All the charm does is - show them that ‘glass half-full’ feels better. And that seem what you wish to be changes lives, too. And not in a bad way.”
He smiled at her. “If they really aren’t deceived about who or what they are or saw, then I don’t see it’s wrong - anyway, have you got enough of the greenery, or should I tell them to bring down some more?”
Relieved, she smiled back at him. “No; that’s more than enough. And I’m so grateful to you for offering to put up me and the parents, and give everyone a place to change on the morning itself - “
“No problem. Our pleasure. Drop me an owl with the final dates, please -“
It was a shame, she reflected, as he Disapparated, that he was so hard to pin down. And still - after all these years - so shy and retiring. Inhibited, one might say.
“Oh, fuck. You bastard.”
The fluid - a few degrees hotter than blood-heat - dense with its heavy freight of spices (not all of them entirely conventional chocolate flavourings) and 85% pure coca solids - surged to the edge of the copper pan and there bulged, ominously, above the unprotected skin of his chest.
Against the soft bindings of the cuffs which held him spread-eagled to the head-board of the bed Draco writhed and struggled. Armed with the saucepan, Neville pressed closer. Draco fell back against the pillows, his lips parted. Neville bent over his torso. It would, Neville’s expression suggested, possibly be something that would take some time to resolve.
Draco uttered a helpless half-moan.
Neville bent closer - a further dark, slow, viscous stream poured inexorably out from the pan across Draco’s chest - he gasped with the shock of its sudden heat, and then gasped again as Neville’s tongue followed the path outlined by the melted chocolate -
Time slowed, and the blood pounded in his ears like the roaring sea.
Down in the hall, the doorbell sounded with a deep, insistent, pealing note. And again. And again.
“What the - ?”
“Oh fuck, surely I can’t have - !”
There was a sudden scrabbling of blunt claws on polished wood.
“Woof! Woof, woof, woof!”
Two dull thuds represented the first wave of the Special Spaniel Squadron’s assault on the bedroom door. The door - obviously imperfectly latched by Neville, who had, after all, had his hands full and other things on his mind at the time - resisted for a split second and then fell open. Marvolo and Riddle shot ecstatically into the bedroom, ears flying.
The dogs, Draco reflected, as he cringed back into the pillows, helpless in the face of inevitable doom, might not be the sharpest knives in the canine drawer, but they had an ability to sniff out chocolate across half the county.
Marvolo made a flying leap, and instantly commenced chocolate decontamination procedures on Draco’s naked body with a heroically single-minded fervour of DSO-winning proportions. Unarmed (save for a natural gift for sarcasm which had never previously worked on the dogs, and failed now, too) Draco was forced to submit to death by a thousand dog-licks, while frantically writhing in his handcuffs, struggling to find the weak links his bone-deep paranoia had insisted were incorporated in the chains.
And the doorbell below pealed on and on.
Draco glared up at Neville, who was pressing himself miserably back against his wardrobe door as though he wanted to sink through it into an entirely different world, and who had an expression which was unmistakably guilt-ridden.
“Well? Is there something you’ve - forgotten - to mention to me?”
“I - um - I’ve got a horrid suspicion I - oh god - “
At which point a clear, unmistakable voice rang through the house.
“Draco? Neville? Is either of you in?”
Draco favoured his lover with a glare of withering accusation, even while still writhing on the bed in a frantic effort to defeat the dogs’ best efforts. “You told me Hermione and her parents weren’t due until tomorrow.”
Neville spread his hands helplessly. “I - ah - that is - she did just mention could they come a day early - the organization was getting a bit on top of her and she wanted to be on the spot - and I said it would be fine - and she did, actually, send me an owl to confirm - and I’d been meaning to tell you - but I suppose it must have slipped my mind - oh, goodness!”
He dived at the bedroom door, tripping over the end of the bed on his way. The saucepan and its contents went flying - Draco, whose bare legs had been caught in the spatter zone, swore pointedly - Riddle piled in to apply emergency first aid - Neville snatched up his dressing gown from the back of the door and belted it hastily round him. Marvolo, tearing his attention away from the spilled chocolate, chased after him onto the landing, barking furiously. The bedroom door swung sharply shut behind them and -
“Oh, fuck!” Draco said.
The flapping tail of Neville’s dressing gown had somehow managed to trap itself in the door-jamb. Draco jerked his hands harder, and at that moment the weak links gave. In the light of the current emergency he left the cuffs in situ, pausing only to throw on his own dressing gown before heading onto the landing to do what he could in the teeth of overwhelming disaster.
Hermione, her parents behind her, stood in a heap of suitcases in the hall below, gazing up the stairs in sheer disbelief.
“Neville! What on earth are you doing?”
It was, Draco had to admit, a not wholly unreasonable question. The force with which Neville’s dressing gown had been ripped from him as he caught it in the door, no doubt compounded by the cavorting of the two now hysterical dogs, had precipitated him over the head of the stairs, and he had crashed to a stop half-way down; spread-eagled, be-chocolated (much to the spaniels’ delight) and nude. Unquestionably nude. Stark - ahem - bollock naked. To be precise.
“Darling!” It was Hermione’s mother who had spoken. “I know we brought you up in a spirit of scientific enquiry, but you really ought to learn where to stop, dear. Ah - um - Draco, Neville - how nice to see you again. I’m sorry if we caught you at an inconvenient time - “
Hermione was not going to be silenced that easily. She glared at her fellow-Gryffindor, accurately assessing that he was less well positioned to defend himself against her onslaughts.
“Yes, but - Neville, you did get my owl, didn’t you?”
Draco, taking care not to tread on Neville as he descended the stairs with his head held high and his posture as arrogantly condescending as he could make it, dropped his lover’s dressing gown on top of him unobtrusively as he passed. He noted a small gasp of gratitude.
“Now you come to mention it, we have been having trouble with the local buzzards picking on incoming owls and frightening them away,” he said thoughtfully as he reached the level of the hallway. “Anyway, can I offer you some coffee? We’ll all be more comfortable in the little sitting room, I think. Through there.”
He raised his right hand to gesture, and then caught sight of Hermione’s horrified expression as she and her parents were treated to a full view of the handcuffs, with their dangling fragments of chain.
Hermione’s mother coughed, pointedly - he wasn’t sure whether her rigidly controlled expression concealed a desire to burst into hysterical laughter or simply to run screaming. She turned her head to consider the rain that was dashing itself against the diamond panes of the hall windows, and said,
“I do hope the poor men erecting the marquee don’t end up having to do it in this absolutely filthy weather.”
Nonchalantly burying his hands - and their incriminating and unconventional bracelets - deep in his dressing-gown pockets, and wishing he had had time to perform a cleansing charm on the chocolate remains, he seized his cue.
“Oh, accordingly to the Daily Prophet’s weather forecast the frontal system is supposed to blow through by Friday. After that, any odd weather we get will be strictly local.”
Hermione’s father - that was definitely a grin struggling to break through, blast him, the snarky bastard! - said with a deliberate air of detached interest,
“And is the locality prone to unexpected squalls?”
Hermione’s eyes narrowed. “Not that I’d ever heard. And it had better not choose Saturday to start, either.”
“Well, anyway. Let me get hold of Mrs P. and find you some coffee. You must be drenched. Through here - it’s much more comfortable, I think you’ll find.”
Head held high, he led the way into the sitting room. Out of the tail of his eye he could see Hermione’s parents exchanging a glance of the profoundest amusement, while Neville picked himself up, re-clothed himself in his dressing gown, and vanished into the remoter regions of the house.
“And then,” Hermione said dramatically, “to absolutely put the cherry on the top the door swung open again, and in walked Peter!”
Ginny’s eyes widened. “Peter the vicar?”
Hermione’s voice held a shade of coolness. “Peter the man I’m engaged to.”
“Yes, that’s what I said. Golly. And with Draco dangling handcuffs and Neville stark naked in the sitting room - no, you said he’d dodged out by then. Anyway.” She giggled. “On that topic - your verdict, on a score of one to ten? Reckon you’ve worked out what Draco sees in him?”
“Oh, really.” Hermione snorted. “Apart from anything else, they’ve been through enough together that I’d have thought anyone would realise that they had to be about something a bit more serious than just sex.”
Almost afraid she had gone too far, Ginny was relieved to notice the softening edge of humour in the curl of Hermione’s mouth, as she added,
“Mind you, if Draco is being more shallow about things than I’m giving him credit for, based on yesterday’s inspection I’d say he had an awful lot to be shallow about.”
Ginny snorted with amusement, and, spotting that the Pinot Grigio in Hermione’s glass had ebbed towards low tide, summoned the waiter. “Oh dear. If only Neville swung the other way and wasn’t taken, at least making a pass at him might add a bit of interest to the wedding reception - “
Instantly, Hermione’s face closed up.
“If you did that -” She was breathing heavily, through clenched teeth.
“If I did what? Simply offer an alternative? And then what? Oh, don’t tell me. Draco’s the pathologically jealous sort, like Adrienne? Yes, right?”
Hermione’s voice was absolutely steady.
“I don’t think you ought to be discussing Adrienne with me, do you?”
Ginny blinked. And then she smiled.
“But who else can I bitch about her to?”
Without pausing she added,
“When she gives me the old but I know you’d give your eye-teeth to have a husband and kids bullshit. I look at her and I think, Sunshine, you may think I’m a sad single, but fuck me, at least the guys I go to bed with actually want it, they didn’t just fall for the old convenient cock-up with the Contraceptus charm trick - “
Hermione had gone dead white, and Ginny swallowed, abruptly conscious of just how many lines she had crossed. She temporised, hurriedly.
“Not that I think there’s anything in it. It’s just the sort of thing people say when they’re yelling at each other. And Adrienne’s ok if you keep off her sore points. And I’m sorry not to be doing the wedding fever bit, but you’d feel the same way if you had less than zero interest in the subject and yet every fucking wedding, engagement and naming party you go to seems to be an excuse for someone trotting out the same old and when’s it going to be your turn, dear? multiplied by one mother, three sisters-in-law and however many cousins-by-marriage happen to be hanging around in the hope of a free feed - “
She had not intended to sound bitter; her lack of interest in matrimony was, no matter how much her mother insisted to the contrary, wholly unfeigned. So she was honestly both surprised and contrite when Hermione’s head jerked up suddenly, and she heard her say in a faintly muffled voice,
“I’m sorry. I really did want you as chief bridesmaid, but what could I do? Given the situation, the least I could do was ask Charlotte and Lucy - “
“God help you,” Ginny muttered reflexively.
For a moment Hermione almost looked disconcerted. Then she waved a dismissive hand.
“Well, that meant I had to ask one of Peter’s family for the last one. I mean, I suppose I could have had more bridesmaids, but I - well, after Rebecca’s wedding, that all looked so diabolically pretentious. I - we - wanted something different - “
Ginny intervened before she could say any more, while nonetheless revelling in the sense of pity it gave her to know Hermione so mistaken.
“Truly, it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Hermione propped her elbows on the table, and dropped her chin into her hands. “This last week has really been getting to me, you know? Everyone dashing around, all with their terribly important wedding business, and somehow me and Peter don’t seem to have any say in anything that’s happening. We’re just the excuse. And everything seems to be speeding up and rushing me on towards Saturday, and I just want to catch hold of something, somehow, and say ‘Hang on a minute: give me a chance to catch my breath and think.’ But I can’t. It - ” She gestured vaguely. “It’s like being picked up and whirled around by a typhoon; I don’t even know if I’ll still be above water when the storm passes, and I certainly don’t know where it’s going to take me. But there’s no way I can cling on to stay where I am.”
Ginny picked her words very carefully. “This isn’t - it doesn’t - um, you and Peter aren’t having doubts about it, are you?”
The expression of naked surprise in Hermione’s face was astonishing. “Oh, no. I can’t imagine anything that feels more right than the idea of being married to Peter. I mean it’s quite different from - from anything I’ve ever felt before. But it’s the getting married part of it that’s so terrifying. You know, the weird thing? Just at this moment I can’t actually see past three pm on Saturday at all. I mean, I know intellectually that life isn’t going to stop at that precise moment, but I just can’t see past it. It’s as though we’ll all be engulfed at the moment when I say, ‘I will’ and never emerge again.”
She looked rueful for a moment. “Actually, with Harry, Ron and Adrienne and Viktor all being in the same place at the same time, to say nothing of the Draco and Neville complication, I can’t actually say that a great cataclysmic disaster in the middle of the church is absolutely out of the question. I mean; I can’t not invite any of them, but they’ve all been separated for years ever since the War, moving in their own little circles, and now it’s like I’m picking them up by the scruff of their necks and throwing them all together. And if it all spirals out of control, then whose fault will it be?”
Ginny summoned the waiter again. “Well, count on me to do anything you need to help.” She grinned. “Including peace-keeping as needed. And do get one thing dead straight. I really don’t mind not being a bridesmaid. Even just as an aunt I expect I’ll get lumbered with having to keep control of Charlotte and Lucy, and I’d hate to have it as my official responsibility. I mean, forget Peter’s relatives: who you really want for chief bridesmaid is someone with a good grasp of the Unforgivable curses and absolutely no scruples whatsoever about using them.”
“Yes, well, I can’t see Draco accepting the job, somehow.”
Hermione spoke with determined lightness, but Ginny thought uneasily that she was still looking rather shaky. In an effort to change the subject, she said,
“Anyway, what is Peter’s family like? Dad’s been panting to meet them ever since he found out they were practically all scientists. I think he’s expecting to meet the Muggle equivalent of the Department of Mysteries.”
“For once, I’d not say your Dad was wrong. Specially not when it comes to the Professor of Quantum Physics. But it’s not the academic ones that are the problem -“
She allowed her voice to tail off.
“Oh, well. It’s Peter’s mother and sister - it’s his sister’s kid I’ve had to invite to be a bridesmaid, actually. But the real problem’s going to be his mother. She was the only girl in a family with hordes of brothers - “
“And this explanation is going to make me lose sympathy with her how, precisely?”
“Don’t interrupt. Anyhow, the brothers all trooped off to school and university and came back with more prizes and scholarships and doctorates than you could shake a stick at, and Do Call Me Dorothy Dear -“
Hermione made an impatient gesture.
“My mother-in-law to be. It’s the way she talks.”
Ginny raised her eyebrows. Ignoring her, Hermione continued.
“Anyway, I reckon she decided that she couldn’t possibly compete with that, so not being the sort to take a back seat she decided to set up as the common-sense one. You know: All you clever people and if it wasn’t for the fool of the family reminding you of the things that really matter where would we all be? “
“And does she? Keep track of essentials, I mean?”
Hermione snorted again. “Depends on how life-threatening you think not putting doilies under scones is, I suppose. Anyway, not content with that, she then decided to specialise in being ill. So far as I can tell, she suffers from every allergy known to medical science, and enough that aren’t to fuel several major research projects. Oh, and she’s Sensitive.”
“I’m not surprised. With all those allergies, she must have a permanent rash.”
Hermione giggled, which Ginny optimistically took as a sign that her spirits were lightening up. Still, it would be nice once this wedding was behind them all. At a guess, Hermione had lost half a stone since she had last seen her six weeks ago, and the little worried line between her brows was threatening to move from habitual to permanent.
“No, silly. Sensitive to Atmosphere. She can walk straight into a room and come over all woozy because she Just Knows a horrid crime was once committed there.”
“Golly,” Ginny said thoughtfully, “it’s a good job she’s not being put up at Malfoy Manor along with your parents, then, isn’t it? It’d be like the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.”
Hermione looked surprised.
Ginny made an explanatory gesture with the hand holding the glass (the waiter, spotting it, took it as a request for a refill. She considered demurring, but changed her mind).
“The boys thought it would liven things up if we put some really old stuff into our repertoire. Music hall and all that. God, it’s amazing what they were able to get away with back then. I mean, the words themselves look pretty harmless, but if you put it over properly, the effect is just smoulderingly raunchy - “
She tailed off, embarrassed to be caught displaying so much enthusiasm. Sounding like your father her mother would have called it: she could hear her doing it now. But, unusually, Hermione was looking genuinely interested.
“Sorry. I forgot to ask about the singing. How’s it going?”
“Well -” She wrinkled her nose. “I can’t see myself giving up the day job any time soon. But we’re getting a lot more gigs now, and I’m having fun.”
“And the family? They must be quite impressed?”
Ginny felt her face twist up. “Oh, Dad likes it because I get to meet lots of Muggles and Mum disapproves of it for the same reason. And as for the rest, they couldn’t care less whether I’m singing jazz or grand opera. It’s all just Ginny’s little hobby. Anyway, enough of that. If that’s what’s wrong with Peter’s mother, what about the sister?”
Hermione, she could tell, was faintly disconcerted by the abrupt change of subject, but too well mannered to trespass further onto what she had clearly signalled as private ground.
“Tavia? Oh, I think she disagrees with practically everything her mother thinks except for the atmosphere bit. Only it takes her differently. She sketches people’s auras.”
“Good god! If she’s tried taking yours recently I bet it came out looking like a Knarl done in a tasteful shade of battleship grey.”
Hermione looked amused, but refused to be distracted from her tirade.
“Oh, and she told Peter he was collaborating in a genocidal tyranny when he got ordained.”
Ginny’s face must have spoken the question because Hermione shrugged impatiently.
“Oh, she’s bought into a whole lot of new age pagan tosh about Christianity being a tool used to destroy the Old Religion, when women were the seats of mystical tribal knowledge, and everyone lived in harmony with the earth, and all that sort of stuff - “
“Golly. If she believes matriarchy’s dead I’d like to introduce her to Neville’s Gran,” Ginny said thoughtfully. Hermione giggled.
“Wait a few days and you could just get your wish. Though Mrs Longbottom still hasn’t finally decided if she’s coming or not; she really hasn’t been well this year, I gather. Anyway, you should just see what Tavia gave us as a wedding present. At least, you can’t see it because Neville enchanted it so only she can, bless him -“
“Neville? Bit of a sophisticated charm for him to bring off, wasn’t it?”
Hermione shrugged. “Well, I think he’s learned a lot from Draco.”
Ginny felt her face crease in a ribald grin. “And not just charms, it looks like. Handcuffs and chocolate! Who’d have thought it? Though they do say it’s always the quiet ones, don’t they?”
“But I haven’t told you yet about how the APs took it. That was the funniest part - “
Their heads bent closer together, and when the waiter arrived to point out that, after all, Pinot Grigio worked out cheaper by the bottle, it was a suggestion they took very seriously indeed.
“And now,” Hermione said with determined courtesy, “may I introduce Peter’s mother? Mrs Blakeney; Narcissa deVries.”
Narcissa took the languidly proffered, much be-ringed plump hand in hers. “Mrs Blakeney. Welcome to Malfoy Manor.”
The older woman’s eyes darted about, taking in the panelled hallway. Her expression was petulant, and Narcissa felt she was comparing the Jacobean splendour of the accommodation offered to the parents of the bride to the leaky Victoriana of the vicarage. Evidently the comparison was not a favourable one. She pursed her lips. Narcissa observed her with interest, and speculated about which quarter the squall would erupt from.
Mrs Blakeney staggered dramatically, clutching at her breast in the region popularly supposed to cover the heart.
“They cry out to me!” she gasped. “Those poor, poor people! Do you not feel it yourself? But no; why should you?”
“Feel what?” Narcissa enquired with politely feigned interest. Mrs Blakeney looked soulfully at her.
“The massacre, of course. I am afflicted with acute sensitivity to atmosphere, and while you may not be aware of it, I can tell you that a hideous, hideous massacre took place in this very room - yes, on that very spot!”
And she pointed with trembling fingers over towards one of the far corners.
Narcissa drew a deep breath, and assumed her most matter-of-fact tones.
“No; I think you’ll find the principal massacres all took place in the old ballroom. But that’s in the part of the house Draco let to those Americans, so I’m afraid I can’t show it to you at present.” She looked around thoughtfully. “You know, I’m not sure there’s ever been a murder in this particular room. At least, not an important one. But of course, with a house like the Manor it isn’t always easy to keep track - anyway, may I offer you a coffee?”
Mrs Blakeney suppressed a gasp. However, Narcissa had obviously done enough to shock her into quiescence for the time being, and she followed her obediently into the breakfast room.
The dressing session was in full swing, the hairdresser expected momentarily and the chief bridesmaid well beyond her expected time -
“I really can’t imagine,” Mrs Blakeney said querulously, “why that child finds it impossible to get anywhere on time. Though I suppose as she hasn’t been brought up on any kind of settled schedule it isn’t surprising that she loses track, poor dear.”
Tavia flared her nostrils. “Some of us might think, as mothers, that we owed our children better memories of their childhood than as an endless series of petty pointless acts, performed in accordance with a martinet-like regime.”
Mrs Blakeney raised her eyebrows.
“Some of us, Octavia dear, might think that as mothers we owed our children better than to put them through all the trauma of a messy divorce. Some of us happen to take the notion of a vow seriously, and think that the extra effort needed to take the rough with the smooth is actually part of what marriage means.”
Tavia half rose to her feet; the flats of her hands were on the table in front of her, and her voice was a low, deep growl.
“Some of us might think, as responsible parents, staying in a marriage with a partner to whom one was patently unsuited is little short of child abuse. In my personal opinion. Naturally.”
Narcissa, with a vague mutter about “going to see if Mrs P. is coping” made her excuses and left. Actually, as she knew quite well, Mrs P. had been engaged since sunrise in the naturally difficult exercise of organising an ox roast on the premises of a lifelong vegetarian. But she accurately surmised that none of her hearers would have a housekeeper, or know of anyone who had, and that the vagaries of so fabulous a beast would therefore pass without question.
She was sitting at the kitchen table, curling her fingers around a mug of coffee and hoping that the distraction charms she had set to deter her son from wandering into the path of the dressing party would hold until she’d got them all safely off on the way to the church, when she became aware of a tap on the window. She looked up to see a tall, dark-haired young man in full Muggle morning dress complete with button-hole trying to attract her attention.
She opened the kitchen door.
“You must be Narcissa deVries. Thank god I caught you alone.”
Her eyes must have done the questioning for her, because his face lit with a brilliant smile and he extended his hand.
“I’m so sorry. David McDonald. I’m Peter’s best man. And - um - we’re dealing with a sort of minor wedding crisis, and Peter sent me up here with the strictest possible instructions to get hold of you first, and break the news to you, and on no account to get dragged into any explanations with his mother or his sister or his fiancée until you’d been put in the picture and I was sure you were on side or the fat really would be in the fire and we’d have to appeal for a UN peace-keeping force to deal with the fall-out. So here I am.”
And he beamed engagingly at her.
She had had a feeling in her bones that morning that something was bound to go off the rails sooner or later, and she was rather relieved than otherwise that her experienced bones had not deceived her. And unless this young man - really an exceptionally attractive young man too - was preternaturally laid back, it was clear the crisis, whatever it was, was not going to be anything life threatening.
She smiled back at him. “Well, you’d better come in and tell me all about it. And yes, I am Narcissa, but how did you guess so quickly?”
David’s smile grew impish. “Well, with Peter’s description I could hardly miss, could I? Try looking for a tall blonde with legs that go all the way up to her armpits, and a face rated at at least a kiloHelen. Of course, at the time I thought he was exaggerating.”
She kept the amusement at his blatant flattery out of her face, and raised an inquisitive eye.
He spread his hands. “SI unit of beauty. Quantity of beauty required to launch one ship: a miliHelen. To launch a thousand ships: a Helen. To launch a million ships -“
“A kiloHelen. I see. But this isn’t telling me about the crisis?”
“Oh, yes, that. Um. Well, it is all a bit unfortunate, and I don’t entirely blame Ari - at least, everyone’s quite entitled to be cross at her for what she did - and Peter has had a very serious talk with her already, you wouldn’t think to look at him but he really is impressive when he comes the parson in dead earnest - but anyway, as I said, it isn’t wholly Ari’s fault; she never wanted to be a bridesmaid in the first place, and made it as clear as possible to Tavia that she didn’t - and it was all wrong of Tavia to trade Ari toeing the line at Peter’s wedding for letting her go diving off Corryvreckan with Jeremy, when she knows that Ari’s been counting on that trip for simply months, and as if Tavia hasn’t been doing her damnedest to screw up Ari’s relationship with her father ever since the divorce, let alone this latest load of bollocks - pardon my French - she’s been spouting about only having married Jeremy because she needed a father for her child, and them never having sex but Ari being conceived via a turkey baster which is the most utter and complete crap, because Tavia was as heterosexual as the next girl when she was at University, and I should know.”
He ran down in a tide of righteous indignation, and Narcissa tentatively began to disentangle the relevant parts from the more interesting but less pertinent indiscretions.
“So Ari’s the bridesmaid? The missing one?”
David snorted. “Is that what Tavia’s been saying? Honestly, she is the limit. Ari quite specifically said that she’d change at the Vicarage because she didn’t want to be dragged into the hen-fest up at the Manor, with everyone nearly twice her age and Tavia and Deadly Dorothy fault-finding and using her to score off each other, the way they do. Honestly, they’d do better if they tried treating her as a person, not a demilitarised zone. Which, of course, was why Peter told me to get hold of you first.” He eyed her somewhat dubiously, and added, “But perhaps you’ve not had a lot of experience with teenagers?”
She was unable to repress a snort. “Au contraire. In fact, I’ve suffered as fully as anyone could reasonably expect with one of my own.”
David looked gratifyingly surprised (or merely, Narcissa thought cynically, he was just a very good actor).
“You, the mother of a teenager? But you don’t look old enough.”
Briefly, she considered whether she could continue with this flattering delusion, but regretfully abandoned the notion. Even if she could persuade Draco to play along with the idea of passing himself off as no older than nineteen, the best man presumably had some notion of how old the bride was, and would be likely to perform inconvenient arithmetic once he discovered Draco and Hermione had been at school together.
“As a matter of fact, I’m old enough to be the mother of a twenty-three year old,” she said, “I’m just lucky with my bone structure.”
He inspected her features with unblushing admiration. “You can say that again. I haven’t seen cheekbones as good as yours since the late Bronze Age ones I came across last week.”
He sensed her bafflement because he added, “It’s my job, you know. I specialise in human skeletal remains.”
“So, alas, did many of my late husband’s circle,” she murmured, and then, more briskly, “anyway, what has this wretched girl done?”
David looked apprehensive. “I - ah - it perhaps would be easier if I showed you? She’s in my car. I parked it round the bend of the drive. But look here, you are going to take this calmly, aren’t you?”
“Green?” Hermione asked, her voice edgy with panicky disbelief.
“Green,” Narcissa said firmly. “And she assures me the dye is a semi-permanent one. In fact, to do the child credit, I think she’s made a very conscientious effort to match the hair colour to the dress.”
“I’m sure I’m thrilled by her thoughtfulness,” Hermione said bitterly. “But couldn’t you do something?”
Narcissa regarded her steadily. “Well, I could. So could you. Of course. But what then? How do you propose to explain to all the Muggles who’ve already seen her with green hair how you got rid of semi-fast dye in five seconds just by muttering at it? No, I’m sorry, Hermione, but if you can’t tone it down by Muggle methods, then you’re stuck with it. And whatever you do, it’d better be fast. Time, tide and bloody bishops aren’t noted for waiting around, even to suit your convenience.”
Hermione set her jaw determinedly, but Narcissa had little doubt that the essential logic of her position would sink in shortly.
“Anyway,” she added, with an inner twinge of amusement - clearly that very personable young man’s piece of special pleading on behalf of the young sinner had had more of an impact than she had thought - “you should be grateful.”
Narcissa smiled sweetly. “Because anything that is capable of absorbing all of your future mother-in-law’s formidable fault-finding capacity for the rest of the day will be worth its weight in coined silver by tea-time, sweetie. Trust m- “
A wail rent the air.
“Green! Oh, my God, green! Quick, Tavia! My handbag, my heart medicine. Oh, my god! How could she have done that to me? Today of all days, when she should have known how much on edge I was? Green!”
As one woman, Narcissa and Hermione turned and dived back into the Manor.
“Here. Take this.”
Narcissa’s perfectly manicured fingers were curled around the stem of the proffered champagne flute.
Hermione made her voice extremely dry. “Thank you, but no. It’s far too early for champagne in the first place, and in any event, I don’t think the Endurance Elixir actually is likely to improve its flavour.”
“Oh, you spotted - my little addition to the cocktails?”
Hermione, responding to the other’s indifferent tone, barely veiled her sarcasm.
“I could hardly miss, now, could I?”
Narcissa shrugged. “True. I’ve every respect for your brains. But I’d still say you were as much in need of it as any of the others in there. More, probably. But suit yourself.”
A note of sheer disbelief entered Hermione’s tone.
“You know, if I hadn’t seen it, I’d not have believed you’d have the nerve to do what you just did. Just casually waltzing in and dosing a whole bunch of Muggles with a potion that only a licensed Healer’s allowed to distil at all -“
Narcissa shrugged again. “Frankly, sweetie, at that moment it was a straight toss-up between using the elixir and performing a mass Avada Kedavra. And even given the provocation, I thought wiping out the best part of your female in-laws to be would rather detract from the enjoyment of the occasion, don’t you think?”
Hermione took a deep breath and glared at the older woman.
“Absolutely! I don’t know how you can even think of such a thing. I mean -” The native honesty of Hermione’s disposition caught up with her in mid sentence. There was a pause. Narcissa raised an eloquent eyebrow. The pause lengthened. Hermione ran her fingers through her hair, realised she was in the process of undoing a small fortune in hairdressing, and clicked her tongue resignedly against her teeth.
“Oh well. After all, if you care about someone enough to spend the rest of your life with him, his relatives oughtn’t really to matter, should they?”
A sequence of conflicting emotions flickered across Narcissa’s face. Then she sighed.
“This probably isn’t the right time to mention it, but I remember telling myself more-or-less exactly the same thing on my wedding day, too - “
There was a charged silence in the Manor kitchen. Dust-motes danced in the shafts of golden light streaming in through the small, diamond-paned windows. Reluctantly, Narcissa sighed.
“Of course, at least you have one thing going for you. After all; fate gives you your in-laws. It’s your husband who saddles you with his friends.”
The silence in the Manor kitchen deepened.
Hermione reached out for the glass like a drowning man grasping at anything that might serve to pull him from a tempestuous sea.
“OK. Give me that drink. Please.”
Hermione downed the contents in one gulp, squared her shoulders, and returned to the fray.
She was acutely conscious that not looking her best was an understatement. The startling-looking young man was doing absolutely nothing to put her at her ease about it, either. His eyebrows eloquently pointed to his opinion of her bedraggled and dripping state.
Something the cat dragged in.
He turned in the kitchen doorway and shouted into the further recesses of the outbuildings to the rear,
“Mrs P.! A soggy woman with green hair seems to have appeared in our kitchen. Do you know anything about her?”
Undecided whether to be more indignant about the lack of direct address, or flattered by being promoted to “woman”, since “that idiot girl” was the category her family preferred to place her in, she kept silent.
The housekeeper, wiping her hands down the front of her apron, emerged from the rear of the building and emitted a profound sniff.
“She’ll be the one Mr Neville pulled out of the pond. She’s one of Mistress Hermione’s bridesmaids. Or so I understand. Sir.”
“Really? Good grief.” He turned round and surveyed her in a leisurely way from toe to head.
“Never seen a bridesmaid wearing duckweed before. Is it a Muggle fashion, do you think? And that hair’s a shocking colour, you know.”
Mrs P. delivered herself of another sniff. “Not as green as it was before it got wet, I understand, sir. Mistress Hermione seemed to be really quite put out about it, earlier.”
She set her teeth. It was intolerable to hear herself spoken around, as though she were a mere ornament, incapable of understanding human speech. Nevertheless she would not rise to the bait. Her alter ego, the infinitely cool, courageous, beautiful and resourceful being who starred in the endless series of adventures that made up her private fantasy life, would have known exactly what to do in the improbable event of being caught at such a disadvantage by a jaw-droppingly gorgeous, arrogant young aristocrat.
“Icy control,” she muttered under her breath. “Icy control.” She sneezed helplessly.
“There!” The housekeeper, apparently from nowhere, produced a warmed and fluffy white bath-towel which, entirely against her will, was deployed vigorously over her head and shoulders.
When she emerged from the housekeeper’s clutches she was conscious that however bad her hair might have been looking before, it was unquestionably infinitely worse now. A sidelong glance at the big mirror that hung on the wall next to the door gave no good news. Hair was sticking out at all angles, making her look, she thought miserably, rather like a porcupine which had caught one wet paw in a live electric socket.
“Hm.” The wicked gleam in the young man’s grey eyes suggested that it was not for reasons of tact that he was refraining from further comment on her appearance. “And what were you doing in my pond?”
Fantasy abruptly splintered from reality as she definitively Lost It.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she snapped. “Doggy paddle. Crawl. Butterfly. Whatever.”
His lips curled into a supercilious smile.
“Good grief,” he breathed, “it can actually talk.”
She suddenly became acutely aware that she was having a shit day, and no-one in her immediate circle gave a fuck whether she lived or died, and they had all absolutely totally overreacted to the hair business, and no-one actually cared a damn about her, and as for this tosser, money or no money, looks or no looks, he could just go off and get stuffed and see if she cared, and she hoped he died slowly of a malignant skin disease, too -
Her eyes filled up with tears. She was conscious that she was not sounding at her clearest.
“Oh, it’s all very well for you to stand there poking fun. You haven’t been chased by a total loony and driven into a pond -“
Pleased to have even this much attention, she nodded vigorously. “Yes. He was up near that stone circle - I’d gone out for - um - a walk -“
“She was avoiding what Mistress Hermione had to say about that hair, more likely, sir,” the housekeeper put in from the doorway. The young man shot her a look.
“Yes, well, Mrs P., don’t let us keep you. I’m sure you’ve plenty to be getting on with on a morning like this one.”
Mrs P., a suspicion of a flounce in her manner, made her departure. The young man looked back at her, his face very slightly less mocking.
“Quite a long way to run, from the Seven Sisters to our pond. So what did this - ah - loony do to scare you, then?”
It was all going to sound completely childish, and silly, and she was going to look like a complete idiot but for some reason she seemed unable not to tell him.
“He - ah - he fell down at my feet. And - um - kissed them. All over. It was -“
She hesitated. People in books had their feet kissed. She had read about it. It sounded - on the printed page - extravagantly romantic. She was sure no proper heroine would have found it -
Yucky and somehow deeply worrying.
She ground her teeth in bitter recollection.
“Hm. A bit early in the season for foot fetishists, I’d have said. And also -” he paused, delicately, and looked down at her feet, then shrugged. “Oh well. No accounting for tastes.”
She glared at him. He grinned. “Anyway,” he said, “I don’t know that you ought to be dripping all over my kitchen, since we haven’t been introduced. You do have a name, I take it?”
She gritted her teeth against the inevitable mockery.
“Arianhrod,” she spat out.
There was a pause as it sank in. The young man looked at her and -
Giggled. There was no other word for it.
“Good god. Not exactly the most auspicious person to be named after, was she? Don’t you have a middle name you could insist on, instead?”
Unfairly, she felt her skin flaring into deep red. He raised an enquiring eyebrow.
“Well, I have got a middle name,” she admitted. The eyebrow soared even higher.
“And?” he prompted.
“Um, well, actually it’s ‘Mistweaver’,” she said in a small voice. He let out a snort of helpless laughter.
“Oh fuck! Poor you. And when I thought my family had cornered the market in idiotic names, too.”
Her temper had run short. “Being?” she snapped. His eyes widened slightly.
“Well, mine’s Draco. But in the lottery of Malfoy naming I got off pretty lightly. Take my grandfather, for example. Commonly supposed to be barking mad. But given the name he’d been saddled with at birth, who could blame him for taking it out on the world at large?”
She ground her teeth as she realised she had been inveigled into conversation despite her resolve. He shrugged.
“Since you ask - Herpo.”
“Herpo - ?”
“I know,” he interrupted. “I gather it doesn’t sound quite so much like an STD if you’re a native Greek speaker. But still -“
A splutter of laughter escaped her, against her will. “Actually, I was only going to say it sounded like he was the long lost Marx brother.”
“Who?” Her host’s face remained artistically blank. After a pause, he reached under the work-top, into the buckets which had been stored there, fishing a cool green bottle from the depths. “Anyway, let’s have a toast. To imbecilic names, and the confusion of those who gave us them!”
For the first time in her life she found herself blinking at a proffered champagne flute. She nodded - mumbled something - and was arrested in the act of raising it to her lips by Hermione’s outraged shriek.
“Draco! What are you playing at? She’s fifteen!”
The young man blinked, slowly, and swivelled round to face to the door to the main part of the house, from which the protest had come.
“Well, so’s the champagne, for that matter,” he said with an air of cool reason. “1988 isn’t actually the best vintage going, but it’s quite acceptable, I find.”
“Draco! I do not want a bridesmaid who’s falling down plastered, as well as - “
Words failed Hermione. She put the bundle of fabric she was carrying carefully down on the kitchen table, apparently to allow her to gesticulate more violently.
He was unmoved. “Well, at least it’ll distract attention from that hair and the state of her dress.” A slow, thoroughly malicious smile spread over his sharp-featured face. “With any luck, you and Peter could pass her off as a charity project you’re gradually trying to reintegrate back into the community.”
Arianhrod thought she had managed to explore the full depths of Hermione’s anger earlier that morning. As, however, she watched the crimson tide of sheer speechless rage suffuse the bride’s face at the blond young man’s comment she realised that she had, in truth, scarcely scratched the surface. Draco’s grin broadened, and it occurred to Arianhrod that in the back of his mind some umpire had just chalked up 15-love in his favour.
“Draco!” Hermione snapped. “That’s hardly what bridesmaids are for.”
Draco shrugged. “Well, as a matter of fact that’s something I’ve always wondered. Though judging by Millicent Bulstrode’s wedding last month, it’s to make the bride look good by the contrast. Mind you, given the magnitude of that particular task, I reckon they’d had to go over to Chartres and kidnap a brace of gargoyles. But then, no-one could dream of suspecting you of wanting - or needing - to do anything of the kind.”
His eye lingered suggestively on Hermione before flicking across to Arianhrod. There was something in his expression as it passed over the wreck of her outfit that, despite his words, nonetheless conveyed the complete opposite.
“Actually,” Arianhrod said in a voice that dripped with withering sarcasm, “if you knew anything at all about folk-lore you’d know that it’s a survival of a custom from when people believed that the bride might get stolen away by the pixies, so the bride had several girls in attendance, so as to confuse them.”
Draco put his head on one side, his eyes bright and glittering. “You aren’t assuming very bright pixies, are you?” He gestured eloquently. “I mean, you’re one bridesmaid. The other two are aged four. Not only that, but Hermione’s wearing white and all the bridesmaids are wearing pond-slime green - even before your efforts. I mean, how long are the pixies going to stand at the door going, ‘Ooh, go on - give us three guesses, which one’s the bride?’ “
Arianhrod considered a snappy comeback, except that she could not, just at that precise moment, quite think of the appropriate one. Before she could rectify the problem another thought struck her.
“I said this shade of green doesn’t suit anybody,” she muttered. “And no-one listened to me. Maybe you can convince her.”
Draco turned his glittering smile momentarily fully in her direction. She blinked.
“Not at this late juncture. I can assure you I tried. And failed,” he said.
Hermione gritted her teeth. “Draco! Being gay doesn’t automatically provide you with impeccable colour co-ordination and flawless fashion sense, you know.”
“Oh I agree. You should just see the cravat Neville’s opted for, for this afternoon,” Draco drawled. Hermione paled. “But,” he added when he was sure of having made the impact, “being the son of my mother does. And if she couldn’t have carried off that shade without looking like a daffodil in the last stages of a terminal aphid infestation, I don’t think it was fair to expect her - “
He nodded in Arianhrod’s direction.
“To attempt it either. Anyway, speaking of ma, why do you appear to be lugging half her wardrobe around with you?”
Hermione drew a deep breath. “In the vague hope that since your mother’s about the only person with about the same build as this brat, we might be able to find something in her wardrobe which Arianhrod could wear which would just about fit into the overall colour scheme.”
Draco cast a glance at the green silk brocade number that was on top of the pile Hermione had put down on the kitchen table, and his eyes widened.
“Well, she can’t wear that.”
His voice was flatly categorical.
“And why not?”
He shrugged. “Ma got it for some bash Neville’s Gran forced her to attend, for political reasons, and ma got into a complete strop about the whole thing - having set Neville up to escort her - and turned up in that as some idea of revenge. Neville claimed he practically wanted to fall through the floor when he saw her coming down the main staircase into the Ministry Grand Chamber - and we’ve called the dress ‘Gunga Din’ in the family ever since.”
He shrugged. “Nothing much before/and rather less than half of that behind.”
Hermione snatched up the dress and subjected it to a rapid inspection. It seemed to bear out Draco’s assertion because, without regard to its self-evident expensive delicacy, she tossed it aside with a snort.
“You’re right. She can’t wear that in church. Especially not since the Bishop has managed to ignore all Peter’s hints, and is positively insisting on performing the ceremony - “
Arianhrod set her jaw.
“And why can’t the Bishop see me in that?”
Draco’s interjection cut in before Hermione had a chance to speak.
“You’d remind him too much of his daughter. It would be insensitive. In all the circumstances.”
“Oh,” Arianhrod said blankly.
“Anyway,” he added, “there’s a perfectly acceptable cream satin one with a aquamarine trim at the bottom of the pile. Try her in that.”
Hermione, without deigning to comment, hustled Arianhrod out of the kitchen and into a small sitting room that apparently was doing duty as an auxiliary changing room. Arianhrod noticed that it was the cream number that was handed to her first. It fitted as though it had been hand tailored to her body, and felt as though she was wearing rose-petals. Although she had not been offered a mirror, she felt utterly confident that it suited her.
“Well,” the bride said with a hint of a disgusted snort, “I suppose it’ll have to do. Now, come with me and we’ll find the hairdresser and see what we can retrieve.”
The area in front of the porch of St Sebastian’s church was filling up. Few people had yet ventured inside; most were still in the process of meeting and greeting old acquaintances or making new ones. The sun blazed down on a brightly clad group, and the incessant change ringing of the bells shook the summer-scented air.
And of course, as at all such gatherings these days, one found oneself looking around; half expecting despite everything to catch sight of the other ones, the shadowy throng whose absence made so much more of an impact than many people’s presence.
Sirius. Percy. Luna. Oliver. Cho.
Harry gritted his teeth, and made a determined effort to think of something else.
“Oh, god,” Ron muttered, waving his hand vaguely towards a platinum blond head bobbing amid the crowd. “That git Malfoy. The bastard’s actually had the nerve to be early.”
“You could always try ignoring him,” Harry suggested, a trifle desperately.
Adrienne, on Ron’s other side, drew herself up.
“Ronald might, but I most certainly cannot. It is a family matter.”
And she launched herself at Draco, catching his wrist in a vice-like grip to swing him round to face her, and then kissing him effusively on both cheeks.
“Mon cher cousin!”
“Good grief! Adrienne!” He reciprocated the cheek-kissing routine with, Harry suspected, strictly limited enthusiasm, adding with patent insincerity, “ravi de te revoir.”
“Moi aussi. Et comment sont les derniers primeurs de Moissac? Puisqu’il paraît que c’est à toi depuis que ta grand-mère l’a volé à sa soeur?”
“Pareil que les années précédentes, une bibine infecte. Pas étonnant, on dit bien que le raisin prend son goût du vigneron qui l’a planté. N’est-ce pas, cousine?”
Ron had been growing an increasingly deep shade of puce during the whole of this little exchange, which Harry was willing to bet he’d followed even less of than Harry had managed. Unfortunately, it did appear that the crucial word “cousin” was one of the ones that had got through.
“Cousin? Adrienne, you can’t possibly mean you’re related to Malfoy?”
“Of course she is,” Narcissa said, strolling up arm in arm with a Neville who looked rather ill-at-ease in Muggle morning dress, and more so on spotting Harry. He resolutely avoided Harry’s attempts to catch his eye.
She surveyed them coolly. “Harry. Goodness. You look more like your father every time I see you. Though fortunately you have Lily’s eyes.”
Narcissa went through the cheek kissing routine with Adrienne, and murmured, “and please, don’t forget to pass on my most sincere wishes to your grandmother when next you see her.”
She added helpfully, “Adrienne, you know, is my late mother-in-law’s sister’s granddaughter.”
Ron indulged in some rather frantic working out on his fingers. He stared at Draco.
“But that makes that slimy bastard your father my children’s first cousin twice removed!” he spluttered. Draco looked elaborately bored.
“Yes, and I wasn’t precisely jumping for joy when I realised we were going to end up related by marriage either, Weasel-features.”
“You can say that again,” Neville muttered. Draco spun to face him.
“I thought I took the news much better than anyone could have expected,” he said indignantly. Neville sighed.
“Well, provided it’s clearly understood that better than expected’ is in no sense synonymous with well’ I suppose I’d have to accept that was true. But only you could assume that getting into a royal sulk for two days because the wedding was going to happen at all, and then repeating it once you realised you weren’t invited was a logically consistent position.”
Adrienne’s face broke into a malicious grin.
“Draco? Tu voulais une invitation à notre mariage? Mais tu n’avais qu’ à me le demander!”
Draco, looking faintly pink, said, “Oh, can it, Adrienne. If you want to try coming the über-bitch with me, you might remember I’ve been able to out-hex you since we’ve both been ten.”
Harry thought for one moment Ron was literally going to choke with rage.
“Malfoy, how dare you speak to my wife like that?”
A pair of eerily similar blank grey stares were turned on him. Over to the side, Harry was conscious of Neville looking anxious, looking straight at him for the first time, and making Please Stay Out Of This gestures.
“Ronald, I am quite capable of dealing with Draco without your intervention,” Adrienne said firmly. “And whatever may have been true when we were ten, he shouldn’t be too sure that he can still out-hex me these days.”
Narcissa’s nostrils flared. “Nobody is hexing anyone on Hermione’s wedding day. And certainly not in front of the Bishop. I can give you my personal guarantee of that. And if you decide to call me on it, personal is exactly how it’s going to get.”
There was a momentary silence, after which Narcissa added,
“Anyway, Adrienne, I must say your charming little ones are a credit to the family. And they look so adorable in their bridesmaids’ dresses. “
There was a faintly odd expression about Narcissa’s eyes as she added, in a lower voice, after Adrienne had acknowledged the compliment with a stiff inclination of the head, and moved over to talk to Seamus and Nuala, “and that delightfully original way of doing their hair complements their frocks to perfection.”
To Harry’s apprehension, whatever Narcissa was trying to signal had clearly got through to Draco; his pointed face was alight with mischief and his eyes glittered.
“Oh, dear,” he breathed, “don’t tell me it’s reached epidemic proportions?”
Narcissa cast a sidelong glance, as though checking Adrienne was really too engrossed in conversation to over-hear.
“Well, they seemed so enchanted with Arianhrod’s hair that I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to get them to the church at all if we didn’t give in and let them have the same - and they do seem to have inherited all the most strong-willed character traits from both sides of the family - “
Ron looked ominous, but said nothing. Narcissa continued.
“And since we couldn’t do anything about Arianhrod by that stage - well, I’d got her to agree to let me over dye it jet-black, but Tavia vetoed it on the grounds it looked aggressive, and Mrs Blakeney vetoed it on the grounds it looked common, so by that stage Hermione reckoned the best she could do was turn out Charlotte and Lucy as a matching set, and try to pass the whole thing off as a calculated stroke of avant-garde imagination - “
And at that moment a tall Muggle, who Harry vaguely recalled having been told was the best man, arrived. “Can you all start wandering inside, please? Peter’s getting twitchy, and I’m told it would be most unsafe to assume Hermione was going to be late. Oh, Narcissa! I’ve saved you a seat just behind us. Promise me you’ll take dramatic action to stop me dropping off if the Bish insists on giving us a sermon?”
“I’m sure I can think of something to keep you awake,” Narcissa purred, her eyes dancing, allowing herself to be led off by the young man.
Half-expecting an explosion, Harry turned towards Draco, only to find that he’d drifted off to say hello to Justin Finch-Fletchley. That seemed to offer its own kind of opening; he tried to catch Neville’s eye, but Neville seemed studiously to be looking the other way.
And then it was too late: the change ringing stopped, and an insistent, tolling single bell warned them that it was truly time to go inside.
The shout from halfway across the bar of the Rose and Crown caused her to spin on the spot. No-body - no-body - ought to be using that nickname here. But as she turned she saw Si and Reno signalling from a corner, from behind a barricade of empty glasses, with another guy - a blond one whom she didn’t recognise - and realised that, by some random chance, today the two halves of her life had been thrown forcibly together.
There was only one thing to do. She picked up her drink from the bar, and walked across to join them.
“So?” Si demanded. “What brings you here?”
His practised eye was skimming over the unbelievably conventional Muggle dress, jacket and hat that were already feeling like a straitjacket on her. She shrugged.
“Wedding. Old school friend’s marrying the vicar here.”
She glanced down at her trade mark pink gin in her hand - it was not just the songs of the 40s and 50s she adored - and added, “I ducked out of the church; I was feeling a bit faint. I’ll be back for the reception.”
Actually, what you really mean is that you suddenly found the cadences and the imagery all too horribly familiar, even though the context was wholly alien. And then you realised that a sixteen year old boy brought up sixty years ago in a Muggle orphanage would have had those cadences, those time-smoothed phrases pounded into him year on year, and in his anger and resentment that he might have taken them, moulded them, turned and twisted them into something quite other - made his own voice of them, something seductive and yet indescribably evil -
Her flight from the pew, muttering something about feeling unwell, had been hasty and ill-considered; she had tripped over a pair of someone’s feet and it was only their owner’s hastily extended hand that had saved her from sprawling into the aisle altogether. It was only then that she noticed that they had been Draco Malfoy’s feet. She had expected, even in church, some cutting comment, but he had just looked at her oddly, and moved back to let her pass.
It was only when she got as far as the porch that she had realised that she might not have been alone in associating those cadences and time-smoothed phrases with - someone who had found another use for them.
Still, that was no business of Si and Reno. Or any of her musician friends, for that matter. And she intended to keep things that way. She flopped down at their table, and grinned at them.
“Anyway, what brings you to this godforsaken dump?”
Si shrugged. “Ah. Work. We’re the music for a play. Shakespeare, no less. Outdoor do.” He screwed up his face, and assumed a parody of an upper-class accent. “Desperately original, dontcha know?” He grinned up at her. “God, is it ever shite.”
He inclined his head over towards one of the other corners of the bar.
“Them,” he said in a voice of doom. “Some of our ac-tors. Peculiar bunch of buggers. I mean half of them were up at dawn to go dancing naked on the hillside, if you believe me. Absolutely fucking off their trolleys, the lot of them.”
One of them - an intense character with saggy jowls and a comb-over - was gesturing in the air, and saying, obviously not for the first time,
“I saw her, I tell you. Up by the Seven Sisters. The Queen of Elfland herself - or at least, one of her ladies-in-waiting. I paid her appropriate homage. Naturally.”
The other actors, being off duty, made no more than a token effort to look impressed.
“Nuts,” Reno said, following the line of her gaze. “Absolutely fucking nuts. Fancy coming to the after-show party to give us someone normal to talk to? When the champagne runs out at your wedding?”
The third musician looked up at her. “Yes, do. Come and save our lives, darling. We don’t fancy being caught in the props tent with this lot when they’ve had a few, I can tell you.”
“Well - ” She smiled across the table at them. “I’ll think about it.”
At that moment she heard a faint, apologetic cough behind her ear, and turned to see Neville smiling shyly at her.
“You left in such a hurry, we got a bit worried,” he said. She scrambled to her feet, and he waved her back down, smiling a polite self-introduction at the musicians as he did so.
“Oh, no hurry, Gin. Plenty of time to finish your drink. Everyone’s still lining up outside the church to take photos and congratulate Hermione on how ‘daringly original’ the bridesmaids’ hair looked -“
She snorted. “Oh, wasn’t that moment wonderful? I really thought Adrienne was going to choke -“
Neville nodded solemnly. “I know. But as Draco said, the Devil looks after his own - Oh, I’m sorry. She is your sister-in-law after all.”
She nodded, grimly. “And no likelihood of a change there - at least, not now -“
An expression that was all too comprehending passed swiftly across his face, before he resumed an air of polite blankness.
Slightly conscious of having, perhaps, gone too far, and recollecting a faint oddity in what he’d said earlier, she put a questioning note in her voice and said, “Anyway, we got a bit worried?”
“Well, you did go on to fracture Draco’s metatarsal after kicking hell out of my shins, you know,” Neville said. She was beginning to splutter defensively when he added, thoughtfully, “But don’t worry. He set the bone himself.”
Abruptly, she realised he was teasing her - or perhaps his absent lover - or both of them. She grinned in response.
“How did you work out I was in here?”
Neville waved his hand towards the part-open door of the pub. “Elvis told me.”
On the edge of her vision she could see Reno making a forehead tapping gesture, and mouthing at the other two, “See what I mean? All fucking mental round here.”
Neville’s forehead creased with amusement. “Elvis, our local bobby.” Reno leaned back, contemplating the dregs of his pint.
“Ah. Mother a fan, was she?”
“No.” Jack, the pub landlord, had left the bar temporarily unattended in order to collect empty glasses. “Not nearly old enough. Anyway, Phyllis always claims he was conceived behind the Portaloos at Knebworth during the Elvis Costello set. And as she forgot to ask the young man’s name, she decided to call the kid after the singer instead.”
“Huh.” Reno finished his pint and added the glass to Jack’s collection. “Bloody audiences. You sweat your backside off to keep them interested, and then they go off and make their own entertainment.”
At the far end of the bar a party of hikers were signalling frantically. One of them, getting over-bold, yelled, “Oy! Who do you have to screw to get served round here?”
Ignoring him, Jack settled quietly back against the chimney-breast, the empties hanging from his fingers. The party by the bar howled again in his direction.
“You short-handed?” Neville asked, raising his eyebrows. The landlord shrugged.
“What do you think? Most of my regular staff are booked to do double shifts elsewhere. This corporate play business with those Yankee loonies - that’s one. And then your wedding -“
Neville looked pained, if faintly amused.
“Hardly mine. All things considered.”
“Whatever.” Jack looked up from his table wiping, and added, “Look, if they bring in this change in the law they’re talking about, and you do decide to tie the knot with himself, do an old mate a favour and give me six months notice to book a cruise. The Falklands are always seasonable, they tell me.”
Neville grinned. “My word on it. If I get any notice myself. But frankly, after all this kerfuffle, if the subject ever did come up, I reckon we’d most probably elope. Anyway, are you fit, Gin? Because we probably ought to be wandering.”
She drained her glass, she waved a farewell to the musicians, and she allowed herself to be taken out of the pub, and up the High Street towards the marquee in a garden where, she was told, the reception was happening. And as she wandered, exchanging the odd word with Neville, the last vestiges of her discombobulation left her, and she felt that she had come safely to a refuge where she would neither be blamed nor mocked for her panic earlier.