Draco and Neville sat on the floor of the muniments room of Malfoy Manor surrounded by piles of papers. There was an open bottle of Chateau Petrus and two glasses in the midst of the chaos. It was getting close to low tide in the bottle, but the wine had not helped to spread clarity. Lucius Malfoy appeared to have regarded Accountancy as one of the blackest of the numerous Dark Arts he practised, so deciphering his hieroglyphics was not easy, but such conclusions as the two had been able to draw were depressing. The room's heavy oak panelling, tiny mullioned windows, and age darkened portraits of sundry Malfoy ancestors contributed to the general atmosphere of gloom.
"Well, what are you planning to do about it?" Neville enquired. There was a sense that it was not the first time this question had been asked. Draco shrugged.
"Well, I suppose I could try to get a job. Can't say what I'm actually qualified for, though. I mean, all the guidance I can ever remember on the subject assumed 'Heir Apparent to the Dark Lord's Number Two' was my only viable career option, really. Perhaps I should set up as a consultant, pointing out the great glaring clangers in would-be Evil Overlords' cunning plans. Soul destroying work, but someone's got to do it."
"Just so long as any Evil Overlord with a vacancy didn't think you'd inherited your talents in that direction from your father."
Draco grinned and took another swig of claret.
"True. If the Dark Lord hadn't been such a sexist so-and-so he'd have appointed my mother as his Exec instead. Then he'd have won, and we wouldn't have these problems."
Neville made a distressed sound. Draco looked up at him from under his eyelashes.
"Come on, I didn't say we wouldn't have problems, did I? Just - not these particular ones."
"Well, I don't think you should joke about things like that. Suppose someone heard you and took you seriously? Look, why don't you ask your mother to bail you out? After all, she is loaded."
Draco looked at him.
"Would you like to summarise the key point about my mother?"
Neville looked faintly baffled.
"Stunningly beautiful? Currently abroad? Pissed off with me?" he hazarded.
"Oh, I wouldn't say she was really pissed off with you. After all, you've got so much 'Not being Pansy Parkinson' on the credit side of your ledger that it'll outweigh a practically infinite amount of 'male' on the debit side. In fact, about the only smile I've had out of her in the last few weeks was when I finally managed to convince her that I really was in no danger of a breach of promise suit from Pansy."
"And did you do everything with Pansy they hinted at in the Prophet?"
"Do it? I couldn't even spell it."
"Draco, you're probably the worst speller I've ever met."
"Ah well, you'd better put the answer to that question in with my indefinable air of mystery, then. Anyway, the key point about my mother is eligible. She's barely forty. In fact, she claims she isn't forty yet, but fortunately my arithmetic is a lot better than my spelling. She's practically bound to remarry, and she'll probably present me with a whole litter of half-brothers and sisters, with whom her loot will - in a hundred years or so - eventually have to be shared. What she won't do in the interim is give me any money to spend on the Manor - in her own inimitable words she 'spent the best years of her life keeping the roof on this dump, and now it's your turn'."
Neville passed over a dragon-hide bound ledger with uncharacteristically neat entries showing regular annual payments from a Gringotts Gruinard Offshore account to Lucius Malfoy, under the general heading: "Upkeep and Sundries".
"Well, I can't say I precisely blame her. If these are what I think they are then if she'd been a Muggle she could have run a private jet for less."
"A private what?"
"Doesn't matter. Think appallingly expensive, symbolically luxurious, and definitely minus the death-watch beetle."
"Hey - don't knock the death-watch beetles. If it wasn't for them holding hands this whole place would have fallen down by now."
He stared gloomily into the fire, whose leaping flames provided most of the minimal light in the muniments room. It seemed to give him a flicker of inspiration.
"How about, we burn the Manor to the ground and collect on the insurance?"
"On these figures, burning down the Manor and not collecting on the insurance would still improve your financial position by about three hundred and fifty percent."
Draco looked across at Neville.
"Is that yet another of your gentle hints that you regard yourself as the keeper of my conscience?"
"Well, you know I don't exactly like your habit of problem-solving by prioritising the illegal, immoral and excessively violent options first. But, as a matter of fact, it wasn't that this time. You insure through one of the Goblin companies, don't you?"
"Well, technically speaking, they're Kobolds. We get lower premiums if we put the business through the Zurich office. But yes, why?"
Neville dropped his voice.
"My grandmother used to tell me about a second cousin of hers who got caught out in an insurance scam on a Goblin company. They were picking the pieces out of every pothole between Warton Crag and Malham Tarn for months. And -"
His eyes widened with remembered horror.
"Some of the bits were still twitching when they buried them."
Draco looked at him.
"Just how old were you when your grandmother told you this little piece of family history?"
"Six or so, I suppose."
Draco sounded fascinated.
"And - er - were all her bedtime stories along the same lines?"
"Mostly. There were some really creepy ones she saved up for Hallowe'en."
Draco considered saying something, thought better of it, and tipped the rest of the Petrus into the two glasses.
"Well, the traditional Malfoy line here is for me to start looking out for an eligible heiress."
"Hardly an option, since you're gay."
Neville's voice was brittle and somewhat chilly. Draco looked up at him in surprise; then smiled. Reaching out his hand he traced gently down the line of Neville's jawbone with the ball of his thumb.
"Not an option in any circumstances. But a little detail like that would never have stopped the wicked ancestors. There are at least two well documented precedents, and I've always had my doubts about Great Uncle Roger."
One of the portrait figures leaned forward and shook a Mechlin-lace-ruffled fist at him.
"Withdraw your demmed insinuations instantly, you young blackguard, or I'll call you out!"
Draco gestured negligently towards Great Uncle Roger with his wine glass.
"Hm, marriage out, paid employment out, insurance fraud out -"
"Why don't you sell the Manor? Or at least, sell part of it? There's heaps of the grounds and outbuildings you never go near, and all except the East Wing has been shut up since your father died."
Draco frowned. "No-one to buy it. Anyone on the winning side in Recent Events wouldn't touch the Manor - far too many bad associations. And all the people who were on the losing side are in the same boat as me financially, if not worse, not to mention having huge grudges against the family."
Neville hesitated. There was a sense that he was picking his way carefully through some very treacherous quick sands.
"That doesn't - er - eliminate all the possibilities."
There was a pause. Draco looked at him suspiciously.
"Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?"
"I'm just recommending that you don't dismiss any option without thinking about it very carefully."
Draco pulled himself to his feet and swayed slightly unsteadily, a condition for which cramp and claret were perhaps equally responsible. He gestured expansively around the room, encompassing in one sweep of his pale elegant fingers ten generations of family continuity, and three hundred and eighty years of oppression, arrogance, greed, treachery and financial malfeasance.
"See Malfoy Manor in the hands of Muggles? Over my dead body," he declared.
Draco raised himself up on one elbow, and looked mulish. The patch of leaden sky visible through the bedroom window matched the stormy expression in his sulky grey eyes.
"I don't care what your grandmother says, Neville, I'm not involving Granger. All we're trying to do is let half the Manor and the old dragon pens to some Muggle company who wants a European headquarters that'll look drop dead amazing in the corporate brochure. It's practically a done deal. Why complicate everything?"
"Look, my grandmother does know something about business. And she says that when they do business, Muggles like to put people into boxes."
"Well, so did the Death Eaters, but I never thought I'd hear your grandmother recommending it."
Neville made an irritated "Tsk!" sound.
"She means, they feel much happier if they can put you into some sort of context. If they feel comfortable with you the deal's on: if not, you're dead in the water. Now, the CEO himself is coming over from the US to sign off on this. According to my grandmother that either means some of the other Board members are against the proposal, and he's trying to use his personal authority to shove it through, or he's taken a dislike to the idea and wants to kill it personally given half a chance."
"Well, where does Granger come into it?"
"Look, Draco, how many Muggles have you ever actually met, to talk to? Properly?"
Draco looked faintly shifty.
"Well - some. More than you'd think, actually. At least a dozen. Perhaps even twenty."
"Do you really seriously think you could single-handedly negotiate with a Muggle businessman for several hours, and he wouldn't grasp that there was something pretty - different - about you? You'd Summon the coffee instead of getting someone to bring it in, or say 'tell your people to owl my people' or mention Recent Events, or consult one of your ancestral portraits about the small print - "
"Muggles are awfully good at not seeing what they don't want to see."
"Even Muggles have limits. And anyway, stupid people don't get to be CEOs of quoted corporations. At least, if they do, they don't last long. Now Hermione grew up with Muggles. She still watches Muggle TV, and such. If she's there, this American won't have any reason to doubt she's a Muggle, and if you make any slips he'll probably just put it down to your being an eccentric English aristocrat."
Draco got up and paced around the room. As he passed under the central ceiling rose a small avalanche of decorative plaster-work detached itself, landing on the foot of the bed. He glared upwards, caught up his wand, and muttered "Reparo!" As the moulding reattached itself Neville pointedly refrained from raising his eyebrows.
"And what about you?"
"Oh, come off it, Draco. Nelcorp Offshore Inc's based in Norfolk, Virginia. It's hardly going to be the toleration capital of the US, is it? Those members of the Board who'd freak out if they found out they were about to lease their European headquarters from a wizard aren't going to be that much more chuffed if they know we're a couple, either."
At that moment Draco looked more furious than Neville had seen him since the day the Sunday Prophet had landed on their veranda as they breakfasted. He threw himself back down on the bed with such dramatic energy that the ceiling plasterwork detached itself again.
"Well, if that's going to be their attitude, they can stuff the deal. I'm not shuffling you off into the country like you were some dirty little secret. If that's the price of selling the Manor then it's too high."
Neville was so stunned by this display of uncharacteristic altruism that he put his arms round Draco's neck and kissed him.
"Nevertheless, " he continued some time later, "you can't pass up your only chance of solving your money problems and of keeping the Manor just because you're afraid of hurting my feelings. It'll only be for a week or so, and I'll find plenty to do in Scotland. There's at least four estates I want to take a seriously close look at, and that's if I leave out Gigha and Inverewe."
Draco looked unconvinced, but then shrugged.
"Well, I suppose so. Just don't think I actually like it. Quite apart from anything else, you know, your friends aren't necessarily mine, and I don't see why all of them need to know all the gory details about my overdraft."
"You know that isn't fair. Hermione's absolutely famous for not gossiping. If you tell something to her, she's the only person who knows until you say otherwise. What's more, she owes you one. After all, you did save her life."
"Even speaking as a rampant egomaniac with few moral scruples I have to point out that "not murdering someone when you're supposed to" is pretty much towards the far end on the spectrum of 'saving someone's life'."
"Trust me. I'm sure she'll be simply delighted to help."
Outside the window the first flakes of what would become a serious snowstorm began to drift unnoticeably down.
"I just want to make things absolutely clear," Hermione said firmly as she walked into the room. "I'm only doing this because I like Neville. And on the basis that you pay me 1.5% of the lease premium as a consultancy fee."
Draco raised one eyebrow.
"Ah. You've been talking to Mrs Longbottom, I see. 0.5%."
"0.75%. And expenses."
"Only if agreed in advance."
"And a comprehensive two-way confidentiality clause. I don't talk: you don't either."
"I'll get my things from the car."
"What do you call those?" Draco asked in an awful voice.
"They're dogs." Her voice was definitely defensive. The liver and white springer spaniels lolled their tongues and grinned up impartially at them.
"Well, I didn't expect you to claim they were a brace of Animagi you were having a free and open relationship with. What I mean is, what are you proposing to do with them here?"
"They're part of your cover story."
"Oh no they bloody aren't. They'll shed."
"No they won't. I used a special No-Moult Potion I got from Diagon Alley before putting them in the car. They haven't lost a hair in a hundred and twenty miles."
"I don't care. I'm not having them in the Manor. Take them back where they came from, at once."
Hermione's lip trembled.
"I can't. Their owner got killed in Recent Events, and no-one's been able to find a home for them since. I can't keep them in the flat, and anyway Crookshanks doesn't get on with them."
"I never thought I'd say this, but I can see that cat's point."
"But, Draco, they were going to be destroyed."
"Yes? Look, since when did I turn into a soft touch for springer spaniel sob-stories? How long have you known me, Granger? Quite frankly, with my reputation, would you trust me with a goldfish?"
"But you've got all this space down here, and you've got people to take them for walks, and things. You'd hardly have to lift a finger. And they don't eat much."
"Don't be totally ridiculous, Granger. They quite evidently eat anything they can get their jaws round."
Hermione was nothing if not a realist. She acknowledged the hit with a defiant lift of the chin, and reverted to the stronger aspects of her case.
"If you're trying to come over as your typical impoverished English aristocrat this American will be expecting you to be surrounded by cute floppy dogs. I couldn't expect you to know that, but that's why you brought me in as a consultant in the first place. You need to make the Manor as much like something out of the Muggle movies as possible. Think of these dogs as an investment for the future."
"Remind me, why was it I ruled out the insurance fraud option?" Draco muttered. Hermione looked at him. The spaniels looked at him.
"Reminds me of a demmed nice little long haired bitch I had once," Great Uncle Roger interjected unexpectedly. Hermione jumped.
"Don't worry, " Draco advised, "I'm sure he's being purely literal. Names?"
"I asked, do your furry faced friends have names?"
"Oh." From her expression, it appeared she was collecting her thoughts rapidly. "Well, as a matter of fact I've been calling them Dog 1 and Dog 2. I didn't want to let myself get too fond of them, as their futures were so uncertain."
"So you won't mind if I re-name them?"
She smiled gratefully at him. "Anything you like. Just so long as it makes you feel they're part of the family."
One of the spaniels wandered over from the hearthrug and slobbered trustingly against the knee of his robes.
The thin pale sunlight of a fine February morning streamed in through the tiny diamond panes of the Manor's breakfast room. Draco was reading a letter from Neville and sharing his bacon rinds with the owl which had brought it. Across the table the shells of two boiled eggs (turned neatly upside down in the egg cups) and the remains of a tub of low fat, polyunsaturated spread indicated that Hermione had already breakfasted, and was out somewhere putting the finishing touches to tidying up the Manor for the Patullos' visit. The Malfoy portraits, mostly protesting indignantly, had been temporarily moved into the bedrooms in the East wing and replaced by a selection of still lives and Guaranteed Not To Give Any Backchat Modernist Abstracts.
Draco buttered another piece of toast, and skipped two paragraphs of "amazing micro-climate", "four distinct sub-species of umbellifers" and "at least two unrecorded types of wild orchid" in favour of the infinitely more satisfactory material towards the end.
There was a disapproving cough from the doorway.
"Haven't you finished yet? They'll be here any minute."
Draco looked up with exaggerated patience.
"Granger, has it ever been explained to you that 'morning person' and 'me' do not have any real conceptual affinity? If they'd only understood that at school, perhaps they might have given me some sensitive pastoral care, rather than writing me off on the assumption that I simply had a foul personality."
"Well; and unacceptable politics and dreadful taste in friends, surely."
Draco changed the subject.
"Granger, what's that thing you're holding?"
Hermoine brandished the Barbour over the breakfast table. "It's your jacket."
"Sorry, think you're mistaken there. That frightful green oily object has never been given closet-room in any wardrobe of mine."
"Is this going to be another case of your calling me in just to ignore my advice? It's what Muggles wear in the country."
"Go right ahead, then. I'm not stopping you."
"What's wrong with your wearing it?"
"It's too new, it's too nouveau, it's too uncomfortable and it's too bloody Islington."
"What do you mean, Islington?"
"I have got the right place? That is, an area of Muggle London populated by trendy media types and weekend cottage-owning wannabes, no?"
Hermione's jaw dropped. Draco gestured at the window seat of the breakfast room. It was piled high with Muggle magazines; she spotted Living etc, Elle Dec, Tatler, Country Life, FHM and Loaded. A few battered looking Penguins, including Cold Comfort Farm, The Empress of Blandings, Brideshead Revisited and The Monarch of the Glen, lay scattered around.
"Research. You obsessed about research, so I did some. And all I can say is that the Muggles are bloody lucky it never occurred to the Dark Lord to read Muggle magazines. He'd have only had to get a really good Dark research team onto this Internet thing they seem so keen on and they'd never know what hit them."
"Anyway, even if you don't wear this, you can't possibly meet the Patullos in that decrepit tweed object. It looks as though it's been slept in for the last ten years."
"It was you who said 'Emphasise the English aristocrat bit.' This happens to be the jacket in which my grandfather seduced the Duchess of Argyll in the driver's seat of an Alfa Romeo Spyder on the summit of the San Bernardino pass. It couldn't get more aristocratic if you held auditions."
"Your grandfather seducing a Muggle? Bit out of character for a Malfoy, wasn't it?"
"This may be Wiltshire, but I did have two grandfathers, actually. My mother's father didn't object to Muggles at all provided they were female, aristocratic, and horizontal. There were so many Dukes and Earls turned up at his funeral to check he was really dead that they had to take The Times social column into a special edition. And I inherited his entire Muggle wardrobe, which he had precision engineered for him in Savile Row at a cost approximately equivalent to the gross national product of Belgium. By some freak of inheritance they happen to fit me perfectly, and if the choice is between wearing them and - and - that, I'm not going to let the minor fact that they're nearly forty years old stop me. Retro, I understand, is in, anyway."
Hermione opened her mouth and shut it again. This, unfortunately, gave Draco time to get his second wind. Her left hand was resting on the table, revealing the large sapphire surrounded by brilliant cut diamonds that decorated her third finger.
"And what's that?"
"If we're supposed to be engaged, the Patullos will expect to see an engagement ring. I Transfigured that little dolphin one of mine to make it look more plausible."
"Well you can just un-Transfigure it. You might want to project a total lack of natural taste, but you aren't foisting it off on me. Oh, give it here."
He caught her wrist and turned her hand over, pulled out his wand, frowned, and muttered. For a moment the ring's shape blurred back to the original dolphin, and then changed again. Hermione gave a gasp of pleased surprise. The ring was now a sprung balance of dynamic tension caught in platinum, set with a flawless diamond which hung between delicate points, suspended by nothing more than the precise balance of opposing forces.
"There!" Draco's tone betrayed that he felt rather pleased with himself. "You know what they say: if you want a decent ring, get a Dark wizard to design it for you."
Hermione sounded rather hesitant.
"Draco? I - er - never thought I'd find myself saying this."
"I think this research thing can be taken too far."
"Ah. Well, while we're into constructive criticism, can I make a suggestion?"
"Turn down the volume on your nag control. We're supposed to be projecting Recently Engaged; you've currently got it set to Married for the Last Ten Years."
Before Hermione could say anything there was a shout from the hall, and the sound of frantic barking and claws scrabbling on polished flooring. The owl took off indignantly and went into cover behind the carved fruit of the Grinling Gibbons chimney-breast.
"In here!" Draco yelled. The door to the breakfast room was pushed tentatively open, and a grey haired man with a weather-beaten face poked his head round.
"Hi. I'm Tom Patullo. No-one seemed to be answering the bell, and the door was open so we just came in. I hope you don't mind."
"No, not at all." Draco pulled himself gracefully to his feet, and extended a hand. Patullo came fully into the room, followed by a tall, elegantly dressed grey-haired woman in a taupe trouser-suit.
"And this is my wife, Irene."
"How do you do. Welcome to the Manor. This, of course, is my -"
Draco gathered from Hermione's expression that he must be looking visibly boggled.
"Partner in crime, Hermione Granger," he concluded, with an impish grin.
Tom Patullo smiled at him.
"Still takes a bit of getting used to, eh? I swear, Irene and I had our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary last August, and I still find myself surprised we're even married yet. It's wonderful you people down here can still leave the front door wide open. When I was a boy, growing up in the country, we did that all the time. Can't do it now, even in the country -"
It had never occurred to Draco that any Muggle would even think of burgling the Manor. Before, however, he could express this, Irene said
"Do you know any place I can go antique hunting? I figured I'd let you guys climb all over the site, and then meet up with you for dinner this evening. I hoped there'd be an antique shop in the village, but no luck."
"Do people buy antiques? I've always thought you should grow your own."
"Draco! There'll be heaps of places in Salisbury, I should have thought. Or Wareham, perhaps. Or you could go to Bath, but that's at least fifty miles, I'm afraid. Or you could go to Lyme Regis, and see the place where Louisa Musgrove fell, as well."
"Perfect! I adore Austen. Look, darling, I'll be back about six, ok?"
Irene stretched out her hand towards the chair on which she had dropped her scarf and handbag.
Something small and aggressive swooped towards her. She cowered back; Tom grabbed her bag and lunged blindly at the threat with it. It skittered past, and hooted derisively.
"Malfoy, what in hell's that?"
"Scops, I think," Draco observed, collaring the owl firmly. "I'm most terribly sorry. She does tend to get a bit over-excited. Hermione, you couldn't possibly organise some coffee for our guests, could you? And I suspect there are some very good pork and leek sausages under that cover. I'll drop this one off at the Owlery: it's way past her bedtime. Can I see you at the front door in ten minutes?"
They nodded wordlessly as he left, carrying the owl in the crook of one arm. Hermione sighed. She felt it would probably be a very long day.
Draco was unsurprised, if a trifle depressed, to note that Hermione had Transfigured her Renault Clio overnight into a Range Rover, complete with designer dents in the bumper and an authentic layer of mud splashes. However, he did think she was overdoing it when she neatly intercepted his advance towards the driver's door.
"Darling! You know the doctor said you shouldn't drive until he's quite sure there are no complications from your head injury."
Draco sighed. He had, as a matter of fact, suffered a skull fracture in the dying days of Recent Events, at the hands of a serious-minded young wizard on the Allied side who had misinterpreted some pre-combat gallows humour in execrable taste as a confession that Draco was on the point of re-defecting to Voldemort with the Allied dispositions in the pocket of his robes. The principal complication which had resulted was Draco's unenviable reputation as probably the only person who had ever received life threatening injuries from both sides in the same conflict, in each case from a member of his own side. He scrambled resignedly into the seat behind her, although he had to admit, as she produced from the depths of her handbag a set of car keys he had not suspected she possessed, that she was indeed better at remembering the minutiae of Muggle life than he was.
Tom Patullo turned and looked at him sympathetically.
"A head injury? Anything much? How'dya do it?"
Draco shrugged. "Depressed fracture of the skull. You know - the usual thing. Recent Events. I thought that the sensible place to put your private road through would be about here, by the way: it could join the M - main road at the old South Lodge gates, and come straight up to the front of the Manor, going past the pens - I mean, your new research facility - on the way. That would make your facility completely self contained: I'd run a short sweep from the East wing entrance onto the current main drive, and then neither of us would have to go over the other's part of the land at all."
"That ought to work; I was going over the plans on the plane, and I'd been reckoning on that line as the best for putting our fibre-optic cabling through. If you are sure we aren't going to run into any problems getting planning consents, that is. After all, the Manor must be a pretty historic sort of house. When was it built?"
"1620," Draco said, abandoning "planning consents" as "Muggle stuff: Hermione's problem".
'We've been around for a lot longer, of course, but the old Manor got burned down by a mob from the village who suspected the Malfoy of the day of practising the Dark Arts."
"And was he?" Patullo enquired. Hermione's hands twitched on the wheel; she appeared to be considering whether putting the Range Rover in the ditch now would be the simplest option.
"Well, not hard enough, evidently, or he'd never have let the villagers burn him alive in his own house. Actually, the whole thing was being whipped up by one of the local Puritans, who went by the name of Zealous-In-The-Cause-of-the-Lord Fletcher. The King at the time had published a book on Demonology, and anyone who wanted to get on at Court had to show off their witch-hunting credentials. I reckon old Zealous hoped he might get granted the Manor grounds when the ashes had cooled."
"God," Patullo muttered, fascinated, "looks as though corporate infighting hasn't changed much in 300 years."
"Anyway, it all blew up in Zealous's face, because the next Malfoy heir, who everyone thought had been lost at sea, turned up from the West Indies while the ruins were still smouldering, with absolute shed-loads of loot, and announced he was going to get his revenge on his brother's murderers. Zealous was so terrified that he didn't stop running until he got to Plymouth and he hopped on the first boat he could find. It turned out to be the Mayflower and there you are."
Patullo threw back his head and laughed.
"Nice one. But before you tell that yarn again, Malfoy, you'd better remember that in some parts of my country they keep pretty good records of everyone who was on the Mayflower, and their descendants, and I'm damn sure you won't find a Zealous-In-The-Cause-of-The-Lord Fletcher on the list."
"Well, naturally he'd have changed his name, being pursued by my vengeful ancestor," Draco suggested hopefully, but Patullo shook his head.
"I'm not buying it. It's a good story, though. But you'd better be careful who you tell it to; I can think of a couple of guys on the Board, for example, who wouldn't approve at all of your claiming to be descended from someone who'd dabbled in the occult."
"Well, I can definitely say that none of the Malfoys have dabbled since."
The Range Rover jinked, sharply.
"Sorry, darling," Hermione said sweetly. "I was trying to avoid flattening a ferret."
The track wound through a small copse of beech trees, rounded a final bend, and Hermione pulled up with a flourish.
"Good God, Malfoy, what was your ancestor thinking of?"
The Malfoy dragon houses had been built by the architect who had designed the Brighton Pavilion, and his commission had apparently consisted of being given a pipe-full of opium and told to use his imagination a bit more this time. They were a spectacular riot of orientalism, and the suddenness of the impact only increased the effect.
"Oh, he collected exotic animals, and he wanted somewhere where they'd feel at home. Want to come inside?"
"You cannot possibly believe them until you've seen them, Irene. We could put the entire R&D facility in there and hardly notice they were there. And the light! Goodness only knows how they did it, but the amount of natural light that gets in there is just sensational. The guys will just adore it."
Irene wandered into the bathroom.
"Oh, Tom! I thought you'd be much further on than that. You'll never be ready if we're to get to the Manor in time for drinks."
"I know, I know. But I got looking at the plans, and seeing just what we could do with that place. Tux or not, do you reckon?"
"Tux," Irene said definitely. Tom looked at her.
"Sure? Seems a bit too formal. It's practically the twenty-first century, after all. I nearly didn't pack it."
"I can flat guarantee that our host'll be wearing one."
"Really? I've seen better dusters than the jacket he was wearing this morning."
"That duster was hand-tailored Gieves & Hawkes. Anyway, the tuxedo won't be his decision."
Irene shook her head decisively. "Well, look at it this way. That young man is really exceptionally good-looking. It's obvious he'll be a knock-out in formal evening wear. I'm sure his fiancée looks for any excuse to get him into it."
Tom began meditatively to soap his face and neck.
"Well, I daresay you're right."
He hummed a little.
"Still, it shows how young folks are different these days."
Tom grinned wickedly at Irene.
"I seem to remember when we were engaged you looked for any excuse to get me out of my clothes."
Irene was just holding out her glass when there was a bang, followed by a flurry of barking as the two dogs streaked into the hall to greet the new arrival. Draco spun on the spot.
"What the -?"
A golden halo of hair framed Narcissa's head as she pushed open the door to the living room.
"Draco darling, those dogs -"
Her eyes widened as she took in the sight of Draco in a dinner jacket, two total strangers, and Hermione, who had turned to face the door, reflexively flicking back her hair in a gesture which picked up and shattered the candlelight in shards from the diamond on her left hand.
"I know, mama. I've told them and told them that you said it would be obedience classes next, but they simply wouldn't listen - champagne?"
Narcissa's lips fastened on the champagne flute. One eloquent eye signalled: there had better be a good explanation for this one, sunshine in the general direction of her son. Equally without moving a muscle, Draco signalled back: trust me. Just don't say anything - unfortunate.
There was a legend that Narcissa had once acted as hostess for her husband at a cocktail party during which Voldemort had reduced five Death Eaters to steaming heaps of ash on the carpet for failure to carry out his orders to the letter. Throughout everything the canapés had been served and the wine had flowed with uninterrupted grace and style. Narcissa was not the sort to disconcert easily, still less to betray it by any uncontrolled word or gesture.
"Anyway, may I introduce Tom and Irene Patullo? As you've probably guessed, this is my mother."
"Narcissa deVries," she murmured, extending a delicate hand. The lack of anything more than polite interest which greeted this introduction confirmed her suspicions. Unobtrusively she adjusted the drape of her travelling cloak, ensuring it concealed her robes beneath its swathes of safely anonymous charcoal-grey pashmina.
"I've just flown in from Prague," she added experimentally. There was an unmistakable air of tension on Draco's face. Narcissa decided to turn the screw a little.
"Didn't you get my -"
The delicate crystal of his champagne flute shivered into shards on the floor.
"-message?" Narcissa finished innocently, as Hermione tried to keep the over-excited dogs away from the wreckage.
"Prague is so amazing," Irene enthused, as Draco and Hermione made a rather ham fisted and not entirely bloodless job of getting rid of the glass. "Tom and I were there last year. It's totally romantic. You should really think about it for your honeymoon, you know, Hermione, if you and Draco haven't already decided where to go-"
"I expect Draco's planning on the location being a surprise," Narcissa said, raising one eyebrow pointedly at her son, who continued to scrabble about on the floor, keeping his head firmly down. "He enjoys surprising people."
"You must be so thrilled about the engagement."
"Well, to be honest, everything's been in such a whirl since I was told about it that it's hardly had time to sink in."
Hermione coughed, dug in her handbag and pulled out a mobile phone.
"Shall I phone the restaurant and put back our reservation by half an hour and say we'll be five instead of four? Or are you too tired after your flight?"
"No, not too tired, I'd love to join you. But you know M - mobiles won't work in the Manor -"
"They've put in a new ariel up on the top of the hill," Hermione put in quickly, making a rather complex little gesture over the phone as she flipped it open. "The problem you used to have getting a signal here has practically vanished."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that," Tom Patullo observed. "Comms are absolutely central to our business. If we locate our European headquarters here it simply will have to have 24/7 availability to the rest of the corporation."
"Hermione, dear, can I borrow you for five minutes or so while I change? There's a couple of things I need to discuss with you. Do excuse us."
Narcissa set down her glass and vanished decisively upstairs. Hermione cast one dubious look at Draco (who had begun a long and implausible anecdote about one of the Elizabethan Malfoys and the world premiere of Dr Faustus), evidently decided he could probably cope unaided for five minutes, and followed in her wake.
"Hermione, just what is going on? And where's Neville? And does he know about this - this engagement farce?"
Narcissa pulled her travelling cloak off and dropped her robes to the ground in one energetic movement.
'I'm waiting," she added, beginning to riffle through racks of dress robes, apparently in search of a Muggle evening gown. "I may have all the maternal instincts of a seahorse, but I'm not going to stand by if some half-baked scheme of Draco's is messing up his relationship with the only more-or-less stable and sensible person who's been prepared to take him on. Where's Neville?"
"He's in Scotland. And yes, he does know. As a matter of fact it was his grandmother's idea."
Narcissa snorted, and vanished into the attached bathroom to shower. If Hermione had hoped that this would take the heat off her, she was mistaken.
"Was it?" Narcissa called back through the part-open door. " Well, I suppose I should be relieved at least to know someone with half a brain's been involved in this idiotic caper. Well, go on. Enlighten me. What's this all in aid of?"
Hermione bit her lip.
"Well, you know the problems with the roof?"
"I know everything there is to know about that roof. Wet rot, dry rot, woodworm. Death watch beetle. Splaying. Infestation with bats. Bowing of the central timbers. Damage from mis-aimed hexes. War damage. Hurricane damage. Sabotage by frustrated Animagus (don't ask). I am probably the only witch in this country who, given a straight choice between meeting the Dark Lord in the immediate aftermath of bungled root canal work and a Wizarding roofing contractor with a set of estimates would unhesitatingly opt for Old Red Eyes."
She reappeared in the bedroom, towelling vigorously.
"So what's this got to do with the roof?"
"Well, Draco had to think up something to do about it. And we've had the chance to let all the unused bit of the Manor, the land on that side, and the dragon pens on a long lease at an absolutely stupendous premium to this American engineering group who make stuff for the offshore oil and gas industry. They want it for their European headquarters and R&D facility. Neville thought the CEO and his wife - that's them downstairs, by the way - mightn't think he and Draco were - er - quite respectable. So he asked me to help."
"Such tact," Narcissa murmured, her eyes beginning to sparkle. "Do you have any conception of how Lucius would have felt about a Muggle company full of Americans using the Manor for trade?"
Hermione nodded. "I know. But it really was the only thing they could think of, and they couldn't get hold of you to let you know."
"Oh, don't think I mind. It's just rather a shame I can't tell him about it. So the Patullos are here to close the deal, are they? Well, you can count on me to help."
She was now wearing a backless evening gown in dragon-fly blue. She tucked her wand into the matching bag and straightened up.
"Well, lead on, Macduff. Oh, there's just one thing. Hermione?"
"Whatever you do, don't mention the roof."
Thirty years of perfectionism, hard graft and crockery hurling had gone to make Barton Cleeve Country House Hotel a Michelin-starred player in a league that recognised few peers and no superiors. Barton Cleeve might not be as long established as Sharrow Bay; as hard to get to as the Altnaharrie Inn or have the high profile hand on the tiller of Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons, but it fought level with all of them, and no-one in the know would have dared to suggest that any sommelier or sous-chef patissier lured to Barton Cleeve from one of its better known rivals was thereby taking a downwards step.
The dining room glowed in the soft light of multiple candles. Their steady flames were reflected in the heavy silver, gave a creamy warmth to the acres of white linen and picked out the soft rich tones of oriental rugs here and there on the polished hardwood floors.
The owner took his customary mid-evening tour of inspection, catching an eye here, pursing his lips in disapproval there. A minute hand signal brought the head-waiter over to him.
"That couple in the corner? The ones who've just been seated?"
The couple were behind the owner as he stood, but the head-waiter was an old player at this game of discreet semaphore. He picked up the two intended instantly.
"Yes, sir. Restaurant critic?"
"I hope. Not one of the regulars, though. Better take no chances. After all, we do have -" a slight inclination of the head indicated a member of the Cabinet, seated in a discreet little alcove just outside the dining room and waiting for his companion to return from the Ladies.
"Indeed, sir. And it would be such a pity if anything were to spoil his evening, or, of course, his wife's."
"Ye-es. A very lovely lady. If a little - um - ?"
"Changeable in her moods, perhaps, sir?"
"Exactly. They've been coming here for over five years, and sometimes it's hard to believe she's the same woman."
"I believe, sir, that something of her volatility may be attributable to her health. From my observations this evening, sir, I understand her to be an unfortunate martyr to sinus trouble."
Their eyes met in perfect understanding.
"Tell the staff it's code aubergine on that restaurant critic or whatever he is for the rest of the night."
The owner passed serenely on through his domain, noting that the party of five for the big table in the bay window had arrived at last, and that the Cabinet Minister and his lady had been shepherded to their well-sheltered nook by a route which never crossed the suspect restaurant critic's line of sight. In any event, he seemed far too absorbed in watching the new arrivals to pose any threat to the Minister's privacy.
"And after all," the owner thought, "who can blame him? Even I can't remember if I've ever seen a blond that stunning in here. And certainly not more than once."
Hermione's handbag broke into Flowers of Scotland, and she dived for it, retrieving the mobile after an apparent eternity.
"I am so sorry about this - I ought to have switched it off - hi, yes? Oh, hello. I hadn't expected you to ring. Well, yes he is here but we are about to eat - OK, I'll pass you over to him."
She looked across the table at Draco.
"It's Neville. He says he needs a quick word."
Draco took the mobile with the approximate amount of enthusiasm with which he would have approached a live tarantula, and put it gingerly to his ear.
"Hi - Neville? Oh, yes, we're all fine. Yes, the Patullos have been here all day, they're with me now as a matter of fact. Oh yes, I think so. My mother arrived from Prague a couple of hours ago, too. Um? Well, yes, it was rather. She's here with us now too, actually. Oh, we're at Barton Cleeve. No, I don't think you have, come to think of it. Look, can you make it snappy? I'm using that ghastly gadget of Hermione's - what do you mean, that explains it? Oh, OK, I will talk a bit quieter. That better? Now, what is it? Yes, she arrived perfectly safely. Yes, of course I'm treating her right, what do you take me for? Well, yes, but that was a long time ago and I was under a lot of stress then. Of course I remembered to feed her. Yes, exactly in accordance with your instructions. Yes, that's right. Two minced mice and a sprinkling of feta cheese across the top in case she was feeling homesick. No, I shouldn't imagine she's suffering from stress. Well, she's seemed perfectly happy since she got here. What do you mean, toe nibbling? They all do that. It doesn't mean anything. No, honestly. Yes, I will make sure she gets plenty of sleep. OK. Well, enjoy yourself. Yes, you too. Bye."
He closed the phone with a snap.
"Neville. He's in a flap about his owl. He hasn't had her long, and he's convinced I'll do something dreadful to her."
Narcissa's eyes danced.
"I fancy I speak for the whole table here in expressing my appreciation for that clarification, darling."
Irene smiled at him.
"So who is Neville? Apart, of course, from a worried owl owner."
"Oh, we were at school together. And after that, we were in the same unit during Re- We've been through a lot together. I'm looking after his owl while he's up in Scotland."
Tom Patullo looked interested. "You were in the Forces?"
"In a manner of speaking. Am I the only one having the lobster? Do you think that they'd give me even more gadgets to de-shell it with if I claimed I was a brain surgeon?"
The meal was winding down to a gentle and satisfactory close. They were finishing up cheese or pudding and giving thought to coffee and brandies when two tables away behind them the inconceivable happened.
For possibly the first time in the history of Barton Cleeve one of the oriental rugs had somehow moved from its well-ordered position in the general scheme of things. The people whose job it was to notice such things and put them instantly and discreetly right had apparently slipped out for a quiet cigarette. The waiter, who was in the course of delivering main courses to a party of four, caught his toe in the fold of carpet as he turned a little too rapidly to answer a question about the steak. He lost his footing, tried to recover himself, failed, grabbed wildly for support, and tipped the table edge beyond the point of no return as he went down with an unholy crash.
The clatter of falling plates seemed to go on, and on. Finally, and almost in slow motion, the big silver covered serving dish slithered to the floor and up-ended. The whole suckling pig it had been concealing slithered across the polished floor in its own grease and came to a stop by Draco's feet. The smell of crackling came richly up from it.
"Excuse me a moment," Draco said, and bolted towards the Gents. The remaining party gazed, stunned, at his retreating back. Hermione reached her hand across the table and gripped Narcissa's wrist.
"I'm so sorry," she said. " I didn't realise -"
Narcissa looked bleak.
"I know. I know. It's not your fault. If only Lucius -"
Uncertainly, Hermoine rose to her feet and leaned across the table. The thin silk of her preposterous sleeves dabbled in her glass of Leoville Barton as she put an arm around Narcissa's thin bare shoulders and hugged.
As the sound of stiff upper lips cracking resounded like the 1812 Overture around her, Irene looked desperately at her husband. In the best traditions of his corps and corporation, he rose stunningly to the occasion.
"Honey, can you ask the waiter to serve the coffee and liqueurs in that little sitting room they took us into first? I'll be right back."
He dived after his host.
In the corner of the white tiled cubicle, completely bleached out in the glare of the lights, Draco sat slumped against the toilet bowl. It was some moments before he realised that there was a strong arm gripping his shoulders, and the edge of a balloon glass being forced between his lips. He spluttered.
"You - you shouldn't do that with that stuff. That must be 50 year old Armagnac you're wasting here."
Tom grinned down at him.
"I wouldn't know. I just intercepted the first waiter I saw carrying anything that looked like brandy. Hey, I'm sorry. I figured you were too young to have been in real combat -"
"Quite real enough for my liking. Look - one thing - if we do come to visit you in Norfolk - I - I seriously am not a barbecue person. Not after -"
Draco turned, and grabbed for the white porcelain of the toilet bowl. Tom steadied Draco's shoulders as his meal suddenly went the way of all flesh.
"Do you want to talk about it? After all, I reckon I've been in the same place."
"In hell, you mean? Funny, I didn't see you there."
Tom barked a short laugh.
"Yep. I guess you're about right. In hell. Tell me about it."
Draco swallowed. His mouth was dry and - despite the Armagnac - evil tasting.
"I can't tell you a lot. You find yourself in the middle of a war and don't know how you got there. Or what the right side is, or whether you're on it."
He was shaking uncontrollably on the white-tiled floor.
"And you can't let the Mu - the majority know the war is even being fought. And then friends die, and if you'd only made some different choices - woken up quicker - perhaps - "
He twisted one hand up and spread his fingers in front of his face, as though looking for blood on them. It was, as it happened, his wand hand.
Tom looked down at him.
"Yes, it is kinda tough. And it's hard to tell people who haven't been there how tough it can be. However much you love them. And somehow, however many years go past, it doesn't get any easier. But I reckon we need to go back now to the lounge for coffee and such. OK, son?"
Draco grinned palely.
"Plus, I'd better buy another Armagnac for the guy I stole that one from. Little guy who looked like a garden gnome, you should've seen his face when I dived in -"
They walked back to the dining room.
"Is he going to be all right?" Irene asked, as they watched the Range Rover out of sight, and turned back into their hotel. At that late hour the sitting room was deserted, and they flopped gratefully into armchairs either side of the fireplace.
"Sure. Combat flashback, that's all. He'll be OK after a good night's sleep."
Irene looked hesitant.
"You know - earlier this evening, I wasn't quite sure it was for real. That house - and the dogs - it was all a bit too much - like something out of the movies."
"I know what you mean. But I reckon that's the girlfriend. Not that I've anything against her, but I reckon she's marrying a bit out of her league. She probably thinks that's how it ought to be with the aristocracy, so she dresses it up. Him and his mother, they just treat that place like part of the furniture. You can't fake that. And the combat stuff was real enough, too. You hear guys who're blowing smoke about having been in, and they tell you all the details - accurate, too - half the time they know more than people who were there. But he was very cagey - special forces, I bet, and in some war that isn't officially supposed to have happened. Did you see him when the plates started to go?"
Irene shook her head.
"On his feet before I could blink and reaching straight inside his jacket. If this weren't England and if it wasn't that he didn't have room inside that monkey suit I'd have sworn he was carrying."
"Of course," Tom mused to himself, "that doesn't explain why his mother and fiancée both dived for their handbags in the same split-second. How do you explain an entire family with combat reflexes?"
He shook his head, like a swimmer trying to clear water from his ears.
"Anyway, I reckon we've made the right decision. Those elephant houses or whatever they were have got absolutely huge potential for our R&D function. We can turn them into something so state of the art it isn't true. Solid imaging suites - VR capability -there isn't any form of cabling we can't pipe into there. And as for the Manor -"
He contemplated it happily.
"Anyway," he added practically, "there's another benefit. With a project this major I can certainly convince the Board that the conversion needs day-to-day supervision from one of the Directors of our British subsidiary. That should keep the clown out of my hair, and even he shouldn't be able to screw up. I mean, heaven knows, it's only watching a bunch of builders, and our architect will be taking all the real decisions, anyway. He can't possibly make as big a hash out of converting Malfoy Manor as he does out of selling drills."
Irene had the resigned air of one who had heard all about the cock-ups of the errant director several times, probably for six hours running, at thirty three thousand feet.
"Tom, wouldn't it be simpler just to sack him?"
"Simpler, yes. But much more expensive. The smart-assed lawyers they used when we bought the business insisted on 5 year service contracts for all the existing UK Board. Unless I can prove he's done something truly awesomely incompetent (and give me time, honey, just give me time) he'll waltz away with the balance of his contract monies, and Nelcorp Offshore will have just made him a sizeable millionaire. I'm not planning to let that happen on my watch."
Tom glared into the embers of the wood fire on the hearth, and tapped the ash decisively off his cigar. Then a happier thought seemed to strike him. He grinned, slowly.
"Anyway, if he's on project management down here for the summer he'll have that young man to deal with. You know, Irene, somehow I can't imagine Draco Malfoy being Vernon Dursley's cup of tea at all."