Melanie Schwartz struggled, futilely. The plant had the collar of her shirt firmly in its tentacles, and refused to give it up. Her ankles were equally entangled, and the long sharp thorns which completed the plant's formidable armoury were digging into her scalp, preventing her turning her head at all. Along her bare shins, below the hem of her calf-length cotton skirt, the rash produced by its corrosive leaves throbbed and itched. Blisters were already rising on her hands, legs, and everywhere else where the plant's tendrils had touched unprotected skin. Under the blazing noontide sun her sweat poured into her various scrapes and cuts, stinging unmercifully.
There was the sound of heavy, moist panting behind her. She briefly compared the unattractive alternatives of "stuck irrevocably in patch of malignant vegetable" and "prey of sex attacker in remote woodland", the latter being a peril her mother had repeatedly impressed upon her as the almost inevitable consequence of solitary walks in the English countryside.
"Don't be ridiculous," she scolded herself, "any rapist trying anything on in this plant's vicinity is going to regret it pretty quickly. More effective than a pepper spray, I shouldn't wonder. Pretty much incapacitating, in fact."
She had almost succeeded in convincing herself when the source of the panting broke through the undergrowth at her feet and revealed itself to be an inquisitive, and quite remarkably filthy, springer spaniel, who gave her a quick once-over, and then burst into a torrent of barking, in which Melanie felt she detected a slightly self-congratulatory note.
"What is it? What've you found this time, cloth ears?"
The sound of another human voice at close quarters convinced Melanie: the chance of being rescued from her current state of vegetative arrest was worth any possible risk of an assault on her virtue.
There was the sound of breaking undergrowth, and the same precise, clipped accent that had spoken before said,
"Hello? You do realize that you're technically trespassing, don't you?"
The burst of sheer rage that this comment inspired in Melanie caused her to lose the habits carefully instilled by her mother over the entire eighteen years of her life to date.
"I may be bloody well technically trespassing," she retorted to the unseen speaker. "I'm also being bloody well actually attacked by a mutant triffid, or something, and I'm in no position to stop trespassing. So if you object to my being here, I suggest you pull your finger out and do something about it."
There was a sharp intake of breath, and a rapid outbreak of muttering, which Melanie thought sounded vaguely like someone quoting from Tacitus, in the original and in a huff. At the same moment, by some freakish chance, the thorns in her scalp released themselves, permitting her to turn round, and she found the branches being held aside for her to struggle out of the woodland and onto the path.
"Thank you," she said with sarcastic emphasis.
An icy flicker of uncertainty made its way up from somewhere near the base of her spine. The young man she found facing her on the path, looking her up and down insolently from cold grey eyes, was undoubtedly far better looking than anyone she had seen before except on a cinema screen. He was, however, unnaturally pale and his over-formal, faintly archaic clothes lent him the air of someone playing at dressing up.
In a moment of sudden panic Melanie strained her ears for the sounds of cars - aeroplanes - any noise at all which would confirm to her that she was still in the last decade of the twentieth century.
"In another minute," she thought frantically, "someone's going to come round that corner on a bicycle, and call out 'My Lord - the Archduke Ferdinand's been assassinated at some place called Sarajevo' -"
What in fact came round the corner was the spaniel she had met earlier, accompanied by another, which was, if anything, even grubbier. They bounded up to her, jumping up to lick her hands and wuffling about the trailing shoe laces on her trainers. She covered her general confusion by dropping to her haunches and rubbing their ears with a rather overdone show of enthusiasm.
"Good boys! Who's going to have to have a bath when you get in, eh? Good dogs. Oy, paws, down! Now; now, I mean it. There's a good dog. Oh, you are a mucky pup. What have you been paddling in, eh?"
"She's right, you know, you horrible hounds," their owner observed sardonically. "Make sure you report to the scullery and get someone to clean you up before you can expect me to let you back into the Manor."
With this last comment the penny suddenly dropped. She straightened up so quickly that she felt a moment's dizziness.
"Oh, gosh! You must be the wicked Count - I mean - oh, golly - "
The young man's face came alive with what could only be described as a grin of sheer mischief. He extended a hand.
"Draco Malfoy. How do you do?"
"Melanie Schwartz. Oh, I am so sorry -"
"What was that you just called me?"
Her face flamed.
"I'm awfully sorry - it just slipped out - it's a nickname the Nelcorp management trainees invented. Well, you know. The Manor is awfully creepy, even the bits they've converted already - and no-one ever seemed to see you, and of course -"
"The name," he finished for her. He poked gently with one booted foot at the larger of the two spaniels, which rolled over onto its back and presented its tummy to be tickled.
"Sorry the children of the night are a bit unimpressive, but at least I'm having a good deal of success teaching this one to play the ukelele."
He turned and looked at the patch of undergrowth out of which she had struggled.
"Well, the Nelcorp land's that side of those plants. I don't know how you actually managed to get through there at all. I know the barriers have been in a dreadful state since my father died, but the one over there's supposed to be new. I'll have to have a word with the groundskeeper. In the meantime, you'd better come up with me to the Manor, and I can let you through the security gates at the top."
They started walking up the path towards the house, the spaniels bounding ahead of them. Draco looked at her.
"So you're a Nelcorp management trainee - ?"
Melanie felt that the way Draco's glance passed enquiringly over her was hardly flattering, even if her mother's favourite phrase of disapprobation: "Melanie, you look as though you've been dragged through a hedge, backwards" was more than usually applicable at the moment.
"No -o. I'm working at Gaia's Place - you know, that organic whole-food B&B in the village. It's my gap year, you see."
Melanie wondered from the baffled expression on Draco's face whether she had somehow slipped into talking Polish without realising it. She ploughed desperately on.
"Do you happen to know if the trainees looked as though they were more or less finished for the morning?"
"No idea. When I left they were doing something complicated involving poles and ropes, and a quite remarkable amount of bad language. Since I've no idea what it was intended to achieve, I can't say when they'll be finished."
Melanie fished a crumpled leaflet from the depths of her shoulder bag and peered at it. "It's a series of exercises intended to develop corporate problem-solving abilities, iterative analysis of team strengths and weaknesses, and the organic emergence of a mutually supportive matrix," she reported.
"In that case, I'd say they'd be some time."
"Drat! I did hope I might be able to meet up with Dudley for lunch. I'm back on duty at three."
"Dudley? Not Dudley Dursley, by any chance?"
"Yes. He's my boyfriend. Have you met him yet?"
Draco shook his head.
"No - I haven't met any of the trainees."
It was clear from his tone that he regarded "trainees" as an approximate synonym for "slugs". Melanie bristled up protectively, and glared at him. He looked at her, and appeared to take pity.
"But as a matter of fact, I did use to go to school with his cousin," he added.
Melanie's voice contained a note of pure horror.
"You - you can't mean the psychotic one who poisoned poor Dudley's childhood?"
Draco looked positively enchanted.
"What - there's someone else out there who feels that way about Potter?"
Melanie nodded, eagerly. "Poor Dudley suffered so much. He never says a lot about it, of course, but it's left him with a lot of baggage I'm trying to help him talk through."
She had a sense that she had dropped into Polish again. The expression on Draco's face clearly indicated that all the talking he ever expected to do about baggage could be summed up in the words: "Porter! Deal with that!" Also, the bit of her brain that from time to time caught up with her vocal cords and disapproved of their activities was now prompting her that Dudley had vaguely mentioned something distinctly unflattering about his cousin's school, and it was probably not at all sensitive of her to bring the subject up. It seemed that Draco had reached a similar conclusion, because he said abruptly,
"I'd hate to add to his problems - I know what he must be going through. Perhaps you'd better not mention I said that."
She nodded, eagerly. "I think you're right." Her expression turned slightly wistful. "I was rather hoping I'd meet his father down here, but Dudley says he's been much too busy over the conversion work to introduce me to him. Dudley's so proud his father got selected for this one: all the family reckon it's a real step towards the main US Board. Of course, it's selfish of me, but I do hope they don't all have to go off to Virginia just yet -"
She coughed, a little self-consciously, and equally self-consciously changed the subject.
"You must see Dudley's father a lot."
"As a matter of fact, Hermione handled all that sort of thing, when Vernon Dursley came down at Easter."
"Oh! Yes. Dudley said his father had met your fiancée - "
Melanie was conscious of the all-too-familiar sensation of Having Put Her Foot in It. She was only relieved her mother had not been there to hear her.
"Oh, I'm so sorry - "
"Oh, you needn't be. We still get on OK, it's just that we concluded that as the biggest single thing we had in common was that we both preferred shagging men, the odds weren't good for a long term relationship. Are you sure that colour's completely healthy for you? Do you have heart problems?"
Melanie virtually doubled over, spluttering a sequence of squeaks, which came out something like "I'm sorry - you mean - you're - oh golly - I haven't actually met - I mean - before." Through her confusion she was dimly aware of Draco observing her response with fascination.
She had barely recovered herself enough to stand upright, and was still having difficulty speaking, when they came in sight of the Manor's orangerie, which lay at the back of the East Wing among a scatter of other out-buildings.
"Well, I suspect I have to offer you some tea and something for those blisters in the circumstances. Coming in?"
Melanie nodded, speechlessly. They passed under an arch surmounted by an elegant clock (which, she noticed in passing, was certainly not set to British Summer Time, whatever else it was showing) and into the orangerie, which was a long, thin, sun-drenched greenhouse with a soaring glass roof. Its only inhabitant was a tall, thickset young man with very broad shoulders and a broken nose, who was perched at a bench, repotting some seedlings with an expression of immense concentration.
"Oh, I thought you'd be here. Neville - this is Melanie. Melanie - Neville. She's going out with Potter's cousin Dudley, and she's just been attacked by a plant down where the main drive curves into the edge of Nelcorp land."
Neville looked up and frowned.
For one wild moment Melanie considered saying: "Well, it had white flowers, green leaves and was wearing a balaclava helmet, and it made its get-away in a terracotta plant pot." Neville gestured impatiently
"Palmated leaves? Succulent? Woody-stemmed? Trefoilated? "
Melanie looked helplessly at him.
"She said it was a mutant triffid," Draco observed.
"Yes, well, I find that hard to believe, even on Malfoy land." He vanished through a door into a small office at the back of the orangerie, muttering something that sounded rather like: "Knowledge of herbology: nil; knowledge of contemporary literature: patchy", and returned a minute or two later bearing a ledger-sized herbal which he put on the bench in front of Melanie. After a little hesitation she had no difficulty in putting her finger on a plate clearly depicting her late assailant.
"Bugger!" Neville said with feeling. "You know what this means? That patch of Virulent Chancrewort we had them root out at the end of autumn must have seeded down the slope before we got to it. Draco, you'll have to divert one of the working crews onto it ASAP, otherwise it'll be all over that part of the grounds."
He pulled an Ordnance Survey 6-inches-to-the-mile map from a drawer in the bench, uncorked a bottle of Indian ink and carefully etched another skull and cross-bones sign on it, adding to a cluster which was already as thick as blackberries at Michaelmas.
"Well, I suppose I'd better go and get Mrs P. to produce some more tea," Draco said. "Are those blisters going to be ok, or should I ask her to get out some salves while she's at it?"
Neville considered. "Well, unless you're one of the small minority of people who are allergic to Chancrewort venom - "
"What are the symptoms of that?" Melanie enquired apprehensively.
"Hm. How long ago did you get stung?"
"Fifteen minutes ago? Maybe a bit more."
"Well, if so, we can safely assume you aren't allergic. Good. Funerals really depress me. In that case, there's actually nothing you can sensibly do for those except not scratch them, and they'll go down of their own accord in a couple of days. But tea would definitely help. And possibly biscuits."
Draco shrugged, moved off the stool he had appropriated when he came in, brushed his lips gently over the back of Neville's sun-burned neck as he squeezed past him, and vanished through the back door of the orangerie, calling out for someone as he did so. The spaniels pattered after him. To cover her momentary confusion, Melanie said brightly,
"They're such lovely dogs. What're their names?"
Neville's face twisted into an expression of indefinable distaste. "Ah. That was Draco's choice, I'm afraid. I did tell him I thought it wasn't such a good idea, but he named them while I was away, and by the time I got back the little beasts wouldn't actually answer to anything else."
An expression of wild curiosity crossed Melanie's face.
"And-?" she prompted. "What are they called?"
Draco reappeared in time to hear her question.
"The bigger one's Marvolo, and the smaller one's Riddle," he said. Melanie looked puzzled.
"What's so bad about that?"
Neville looked as though he wanted to say rather more than he was permitting himself.
"You had to have been there," he muttered vaguely, and returned to a depressed perusal of the map. "This abortion really is the most snarled up excuse for a planned and managed estate you could possibly imagine. Draco - whatever your ancestors could have been thinking of (and it's all too obvious in at least some cases what they were thinking of) sustainable development and viable ecosystem clearly weren't phrases that ever crossed their minds. Still, I suppose there's one thing to be said for them. At least they didn't plant rhododendrons."
"So that's it? When the history of the age comes to be written, you're going to summarise the entire Malfoy family contribution in the single footnote 'Didn't plant rhododendrons'? "
"I wouldn't go that far. Call it the single positive family contribution."
Melanie started to relax. She might have little prior experience of eccentric gay aristocrats with sinister reputations, but she was wholly at home with people who tossed about phrases like "viable ecosystem" and rabbitted on about the reckless damage introduced species had done to the British countryside.
"So you're running the estate reclamation project?" she enquired.
"Oh, Lord, no. It'll take me at least ten years more training before I'll know enough to run any reclamation project, and I certainly wouldn't start with this one. All I'm doing is helping out on the preliminary survey work."
At this point an elderly lady wearing a flowered apron and an expression of extreme disapproval appeared from the house bearing a tray with a teapot, three mugs and a plate of biscuits.
"Will you be Melanie?" she said. "If so, I'm to tell you that the trainees seem to have finished and I'm to let you through the security gates as soon as you've had your tea."
Before Melanie could respond she had plonked the tray down on the bench, uttered a loud sniff, and stalked off muttering something, which Melanie could not quite make out, but which seemed to include the phrase:
"Never thought I'd live to see the day."
Melanie scrambled down from her stool, taking a quick swig of rather too hot tea, and looked rather shyly at Neville and Draco.
"Well, I'd better be going. Thanks for everything."
She scurried after the housekeeper's retreating back.
"She seems like a nice person," Neville observed.
"I expect that's why she's ended up with Potter's cousin. I daresay if she'd been able to choose she'd have opted to have stunning good looks and an amazing figure, and stuff the nice personality. Anyway, tell me what I've got to tell the crew to do about those plants, so I can see them started before we've got to go out. I take it we'll need to issue full protective robes for everyone again?"
"Do I really have to go to this ghastly dinner party?"
As Draco was already rummaging for his dress robes Neville guessed, accurately, that the question was no more than a token complaint, meant to put a stake in the ground if, as was all too probable, the evening turned into the disaster he feared. He put his arm round Draco's shoulders.
"Please. Do you have any idea of what a massive gesture Grandma's making here? The only people there are going to be my family and the poor sods who married into it. Specifically inviting us, as opposed to me, is practically her equivalent of taking out a full page ad in the Prophet: 'Neville and Draco OK - Official.' "
"You make the whole event sound so attractive."
Neville's voice was gloomy.
"I didn't say I was expecting to enjoy it. In fact, just so you aren't under any illusions about what's in store, I suggest you imagine the most awful dinner party you've ever been to, and double it."
Draco twisted round to face him.
"Really? The most awful dinner party I was ever at was the one where the Dark Lord cast Cruciatus on the host for offering him Brussels sprouts."
"Ugh! That's horrible."
"Mm, I know. I think the pudding was rhubarb crumble, too."
There was a tense moment, and then Draco quirked one eyebrow and Neville released a reluctant snort of laughter.
"And don't - whatever you do - even think of coming out with a line like that in front of Eustace. Anything he ever had which vaguely resembled a sense of humour was surgically removed shortly after birth."
"That must be fun for whatserface who's marrying him."
"Elaine. She's a South African, over here to study. They met," Neville added portentously, "at Eustace's church group."
"At his what?" Draco's tone conveyed a perfect blend of shock and horror. Neville nodded sadly.
"He's a big wheel in the Pendle and Hyndburn Ecumenical Group, is Eustace. He had a religious experience at the age of fourteen, and the whole family's been suffering from it ever since. He went through endless moral dilemmas about whether using magic was theologically sound or not. Eventually he decided it was, provided each usage was individually justifiable on moral grounds within an overall spiritual context. So he went into the Ministry."
Draco, wisely, realized that there are some statements with which even a life-long habit of irony cannot contend. His voice still dripping horror, he changed the subject.
"And - Elaine? She is - she is a witch, isn't she?"
"Oh yes. Mind you," Neville added, "She might as well not be. Eustace, you see, has Views on married witches practising magic outside the home."
"And you really think we've got to go to this party?"
Neville nodded again.
"I strongly recommend you leave your imagination at home, though. I can assure you, in an evening with the family, you'll be much happier without it."
Draco's tone changed.
"Well, in that case, perhaps I ought to let it out for some exercise before leaving it in for the evening with a plateful of biscuits and a flask of cocoa."
His hand drifted lightly down Neville's back.
The rest of the guests had already assembled by the time Neville and Draco Apparated into the porch of Emily Longbottom's house in Pendle. The evening air was still and warm, scented with gorse and heather. The Hill slept serenely in the summer sunshine.
Indoors, however, the mood was far from matching the serenity of the day outside. Eustace, who was a tall broad-shouldered man with an unfortunate resemblance to a camel, was standing sternly over the chair in which Mrs Longbottom had installed herself, and from which she had been supervising Betsey's service of pre-dinner sherry.
"Great-aunt Emily, this puts me and poor El in a most awkward position. I hate to say this, but I believe you actively misled me."
"Hmph! And how do you reckon that? I invited you to a family party to celebrate your engagement. If you didn't want your fiancée to meet the family, you should have said."
"Of course, I want her to meet the family. I hope you think of her as part of it, after all, and I want her to feel - welcome."
"Good. I'm glad we've got that settled."
Eustace gritted his teeth.
"It's not the family to whom I'm objecting. As you know perfectly well."
She looked steadily at him.
"This is Neville's home. He knows my views on his living comical but - he is my only grandson, and this is his home."
"Well, I'm not saying you shouldn't have invited Neville. It's inviting that - that - I mean, it's just encouraging them!"
"Hmph! It's clear you don't read the Prophet. When I saw That Photograph, it didn't look as though they needed any encouragement."
"You might have had the decency to make it clear to Neville that that - creature - should find himself a prior engagement for the evening."
Emily Longbottom's lips thinned into a tight line. It was clear that her great-nephew had finally succeeded in getting her undivided attention.
"I'd have bloody well disinherited him if he'd accepted any invitation of mine on that basis. And if his father - god bless him - had known, he'd have shaken my hand for it."
Eustace looked rather as the skipper of the Graf Spee might have done, on realizing that Ajax, Achilles and Exeter were not about to turn and run for safety. He loaded his guns with heavy shells, and charged heedlessly back into the fray.
"His father! Can you imagine what Uncle Frank would say about this, if he were able - "
His voice dried up. Emily Longbottom had, in a turbulent century of existence, been through death and loss, madness and annihilation. For one split second she looked straight into Eustace's eyes, and laid it bare. It was enough. He recoiled, chalky pale and sweating. Her voice dropped to a whisper.
"I'd be obliged if you wouldn't mention my son's name again. The subject is closed."
She turned half away, to supervise something in the further reaches of the room. Eustace clenched his fist, and half raised it.
"Great Aunt Emily - "
But at that moment there was a swish of air in the room and Betsey announced:
"They'se here, Madam."
Emily Longbottom smiled serenely.
"Good. Then we needn't wait dinner. In a quarter of an hour, Betsey."
With the arrival of Draco and Neville the average age of the people in the room dropped by at least a decade. There was a somewhat confused scramble of introductions, which might have been easier to keep straight had they been accompanied by an annotated family tree.
"And, Great Aunt Florence, this is Draco," Neville finished up. Great Aunt Florence, a small wispy witch swathed in chiffon scarves, goggled nervously up at him.
"Yes, of course. You're Neville's - er - um - "
"We thought the best word for it was 'Watkin'," Draco said helpfully. She goggled even more, clearly wondering whether she dare enquire further, or if the answer would turn out to be wildly improper. She took a deep breath and decided to chance it.
"I'm sorry - what? I mean, why?"
"Oh, when the story broke in the Prophet the reaction of everyone we'd been to school with seemed to be 'Watkin Neville possibly see in him?' So we decided it was obviously the only way to introduce me."
Mrs Longbottom, who was within earshot, gave a brief bark of laughter.
"You shouldn't put yourself down, young man. You'll find plenty of volunteers to do that, without you starting."
"Thank you so much for that vote of confidence, " Draco muttered.
Eustace emerged from the group at the back of the room, towing by the hand a young woman of about 26 who was wearing what Draco mentally catalogued as "the little black robe" and a possessive simper.
"Anyway, Neville," Eustace said firmly "You must meet El. El, this is my cousin Neville. You know, that one."
Before Neville could respond to this gambit, Draco extended his hand to Elaine, and said cheerfully,
"What an unusual name. Are you named after the place or the unit of measurement?"
Elaine's brows pulled together in a frown of nervous incomprehension. Draco relented.
"Doesn't matter. Feeble joke. Call it a pre-emptive strike on the strange name topic."
Elaine caught at the last phrase as though it were a lifebelt thrown to her in shark-infested waters.
"Yes, yours is rather weird, isn't it?" she said earnestly. An unspoken flicker of amusement passed between Neville and Draco.
"Well, not by my family's standards," Draco said.
"Is that of weird, or of names?" Neville murmured gently.
"Does it matter?"
Elaine was clearly having difficulty following this. Something about her expression provoked a brief flash of nostalgia in Draco.
"Golly, you remind me so much of someone I was at school with. Two someones, actually."
Neville made a small, urgent, cool it gesture with his hand. Fortunately, at this moment, Mrs Longbottom reappeared on the scene with one of Neville's elderly relatives.
"There you are, Algie. Five sickles says you spot who Draco's grandfather was within two minutes. What d'ya think?"
Great Uncle Algie peered at Draco for a few moments.
"Surely not, Emily. Fancy Patrice deVries having a grown-up grandson! I can hardly believe there's been enough time - "
"Knowing what I know about my grandfather, I'd be surprised if I were a singular phenomenon - "
Great Uncle Algie pattered on, regardless.
"My late wife used to know Patrice quite well at one time - "
Draco's face became suddenly immobile.
"- before we married, of course. I think they were neighbours when she was still living in Norfolk."
Neville devoutly hoped none of his more shockable relatives had been able to lip-read Draco's sotto voce expression of relief.
"I don't think we heard anything about what your grandfather did in Recent Events," Eustace said pointedly.
"That would be due to his being killed in 1968, I expect."
"Good God, yes! I'd forgotten all about that." Great Uncle Algie slapped his thigh. "It was old Sneckles Fortescue who did it, wasn't it? Good old Sneckles - he was one of my best mates in Hufflepuff - he's still going strong, you know - still at his place down near Salcombe - getting a bit deaf now, but still as healthy as ever. Still pottering on up the estuary in his Drascombe, and always managing to get tide-bound till the pub's shut."
"Next time I get out my Ouija board I'll be certain to pass on the good news," Draco murmured.
"What did he do?" Neville enquired apprehensively. Draco shrugged.
"Hit grandfather with a stunning spell."
"But I thought you said he was killed? How do you kill someone with a stunning spell?"
"Oh, quite easily if they're taking a roundabout on two wheels at eighty at the time. Mrs Fortescue managed to Apparate out of the passenger seat, but my grandfather ploughed straight on into a bus."
Neville looked rather puzzled.
"So why didn't this Fortescue character end up in Azkaban?"
Draco made a dismissive gesture.
"Oh, the Minister for Magic at the time had his suspicions about why his gorgeous Titian-haired wife had just presented him with an adorable blonde baby girl, and everyone on the bus was a Muggle, of course. So after a bit of legal argy-bargy they brought it in as 'Reckless Use of a Wand in a Public Place' and fined him a thousand Galleons."
The tone was as light as ever, but Neville noticed that Draco's wand hand had tensed into a claw where it rested against his side.
"Well, Algie," Mrs Longbottom said briskly. "I don't think we can expect young Draco here to spend the whole evening discussing how your friend killed his relative."
Eustace raised his eyebrows.
"Really? I was thinking he might find it a refreshing change."
Possibly to everyone's relief, Betsey at this point announced:
"Dinner is served".
The party was herded purposefully through to the dining room, over which sundry heavy oils of whiskered and top-hatted Chattox and Longbottom ancestors presided with almost Forsytean gravitas and respectability.
Mrs Longbottom firmly collared Draco and Eustace and deployed them on her left and right sides. Elaine she separated from her beloved, to whose side she had been glued throughout the sherry phase of the festivities, and settled on Draco's other side. Neville she banished with the flick of a finger to the position opposite her at the foot of the table, flanked by Great Aunts Florence and Bertha. The rest of the family filled in the remaining spaces. Her eye passed over her kingdom, and she smiled.
"Well, isn't it grand to have a quiet evening when the whole family can get together as a family? Yes, Eustace, you may say grace, but make it snappy. It may be vichyssoise, but I don't believe in letting even cold soup get colder."
Elaine appeared to have been racking her brains for suitable conversational topics during the soup course, during which she had remained completely silent while those around her had carried on a desultory but reasonably friendly conversation mainly about Quidditch.
As the lamb was served she said brightly to Draco:
"I do feel jealous of you people who were able to go to Hogwarts. I really think I missed out on that, with my parents emigrating to South Africa when I was two. I had an idyllic childhood, of course, but it isn't the biggest magical community in the world. At least, not traditional magic. We always felt frightfully provincial when some-one came out to visit us from Europe."
"Why did your parents emigrate?" Great-Uncle Algie enquired. Elaine looked rather serious.
"Well - my mother was from a Muggle family, and she didn't feel quite comfortable about the difficulties that were happening here at that time. So my parents felt it was best to go somewhere where we wouldn't be affected by any of that sort of thing as we were growing up."
"So are you planning to whisk Eustace off to Jo'burg when you marry?"
Great Uncle Algie's voice was clearly audible at the far end of the table, and Draco fancied that not only Neville looked hopefully up for the answer. Elaine shook her head.
"No, as a matter of fact my parents are thinking of coming home themselves. It's just not the same as it used to be; obviously the crime problem has got desperate, and service standards are just collapsing everywhere. And anyway, after Recent Events the problems here are much less. Speaking of which, Draco, I've just thought! You must have been in the same Hogwarts year as Harry Potter! That must have been a real privilege."
"Um. Up to a point."
Draco's tone was one of studied neutrality. Eustace's eyes glittered.
"You weren't, of course, in the same House as each other," he observed.
"Quite candidly, if either one of us saw the other coming in time we weren't usually in the same county."
"How interesting. And why might that have been?"
"Various reasons. Personally, I think the situation became irrevocable when Potter refused to believe that I genuinely am allergic to Hippogriff saliva. He probably had a different view of things, though. I expect Neville could tell you. So, Elaine, when did Eustace pop the question?"
Elaine giggled, and blushed.
"A fortnight ago. It's all been an absolute whirlwind - to think, two months ago we hadn't even met! But of course, it feels as though I've known Eustace for absolutely ever!"
"I can see that one might," Draco observed, applying himself to the lamb.
There was comparative peace until Betsey arrived with bowls of strawberries. The sugar sifter had been transplanted to the far side of the table in an effort to demonstrate why the Puddlemere Keeper had been so culpably out of his proper position during the Cup semi-final of the just-concluded season. As Draco stretched out his left hand for it he noticed Eustace gazing fixedly at his arm, where the sleeve of his robe had accidentally been rolled back to some six inches above his wrist. He caught Eustace's eye, and, very deliberately, flicked the sleeve down so as to cover his arm and hand to the knuckle. Eustace gave a small, satisfied "ha!" noise, and turned his gaze away.
Draco turned to Mrs Longbottom.
"I'm sorry, but I'm finding it incredibly close in here. Would you mind if I popped out for some fresh air?"
She looked at him for a moment.
"Yes, you do look a bit pale. No, go on. I wouldn't want you fainting on us."
He left his napkin on his chair, and was gone. At the other end of the table Neville looked up in sudden alarm and caught his grandmother's eye. She gave an almost imperceptible nod of the head. With an apologetic mutter to his great-aunts he followed Draco.
He caught up with him on the stone steps, which led down from the veranda into the garden, where Draco was leaning against the decorative green-painted iron-work and breathing hard. His expression was pitched somewhere between murderous rage and seriously upset. Neville stretched out a tentative hand and rested it on Draco's arm.
"Go on," he said, "what was the camel's final straw?"
Draco gave a huff of laughter that had no amusement in it at all.
"He was making it entirely clear to everyone around him - well, apart from Elaine, but then I don't suppose he had a large billboard and a choir of singing pixies handy - that he was looking for the Dark Mark."
Neville looked baffled. "But that's totally ridiculous. Everyone knows - "
"Doesn't stop a fair number of people thinking they know better. You'd be surprised how often it happens. But usually they have the decency to be a bit less obvious about it."
"Eustace doesn't have decency. He trumps it with Rectitude. Look, should I go in and talk to him? After all, whatever his Views are, he can't pretend I haven't seen your arm often enough. Through to the bones, on at least one occasion. And I didn't spot any marks on those, either."
Draco shook his head.
"You're missing the point. If that had been the answer I'd have shoved my sleeve further up instead of pulling it down."
He bit on his lower lip and gazed across at the Hill, trying to find the right words.
"The Dark Mark was a bloody idiotic idea, I've always thought," he said abruptly. "I mean, talk about giving Counsel for the Defence an uphill struggle if an Auror ever pulled you in. Besides being quite unbelievably ugly. My father - "
He paused, swallowed, and visibly changed tack.
"Never underestimate the damage done by stupid people in large groups. I read that somewhere. Look, suppose I'd shoved my sleeve up so all the table could see it. Or suppose you go back in now and tell Eustace there's nothing there. All he'll think is that the charm I'm using to conceal it must be really effective, or that you're so besotted you'll say anything. None of it's going to convince him that there isn't anything there, because to be convinced he'd have to admit he was wrong in the first place. And since nothing is more true for him than his own opinion, that just can't happen. Being in the right is his Cause. I've seen - a lot of people do a lot of rather unpleasant things. And basically, if they're doing them from self-interest there's always a chance you can change their minds for them - give them some other carrot to go for, or some other stick to avoid. But when it comes to blind faith in the Cause - then I could cut off my bloody arm and put on his dessert plate in front of him, and he'd swear to the ends of the earth that it's a well known fact that the Mark vanishes when the link to the body ceases."
His grey eyes burned with deep-set misery. Neville met his gaze steadily.
"And the Lestranges?" he asked.
There was a pause.
"What are you driving at?"
"I'm trying to understand what you mean. And I just asked you a question. You had to have been in You Know Who's HQ that time when the Dementors turned Azkaban and let the prisoners out. Was your aunt in it for self interest, or for blind faith in her Cause?"
Draco turned half away. The scent of the roses came up heavily from the garden. His voice was so low as to be barely audible.
"I think - that there was very little - difference - between Mrs Lestrange's expression as I saw it last and - what I saw in his face this evening. But please don't ask anything more."
Neville fumbled in the pockets of his robes.
"Here. I expected we'd need this."
He lit the spliff and passed it across to Draco, whose eyes widened with improbable amusement.
"Where on earth did you get this from?"
"Oh, come off it. You might have got the lowest mark in Herbology in our year, but you ought to take some interest in what's happening in your own greenhouses."
"Really?" Draco took a drag. " My father would have absolute kittens if he knew."
"What, after all he did - "
"Oh, the Dark Lord was dead against it. Personally, I don't think he fancied the risk of any of his followers saying 'Chill out, man, you must be fucking joking' when he was trying to talk them into another self-sacrificial assault."
He turned, settled himself down on the steps, and looked out across the valley.
"I'm sorry I stormed out. That little prick just got to me."
Neville looked at him in momentary bewilderment, and then grinned.
"Don't worry about it. Look here, your lot might have been into stiff upper lips and poison the bugger later, but believe you me the Longbottom family motto is 'Say it with crockery'. Honestly, your leaving dinner a bit early doesn't even rate a 1 on the Richter scale of family upset. If you want to draw comparisons, I'm told my Uncle John once had a blazing row with my father one time over the dinner table, walked out of the house, disguised himself as a Muggle, joined the British Antarctic Survey, and walked back in to dinner five years later by way of Patagonia without another word."
Draco raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, my grandmother said to him, 'I think you'll find your soup's cold' and he said, 'It'd've counted as warm where I've been, mother,' and they never said anything else about it. Look, I'm sorry about Eustace. After all, your family might be more of a public menace, but for sheer, grinding low-level unpleasantness mine can hold their own with the worst of them. Except for Grandma. She does try, even if her methods are a bit nerve-shattering at times."
Draco shuddered, delicately, in the manner of a Burmese cat caught in an unexpected shower.
"In the ranks of the scariest people I've ever met, believe me your grandmother is well up in the top two." He looked across toward the Hill, over the acres of dry-stone walled pasture that breathed late evening contentment in the golden glow of the setting sun, and gestured with one hand. "How much of that lot is yours, by the way?"
Neville drew his brows together, momentarily.
"Haven't the foggiest," he confessed. Even by the standards of Malfoy nonchalance about landed property this clearly made an impression. He thought it wise to amplify.
"If it's anyone's, it's Grandma's. And I shouldn't imagine she'd be in any hurry to let anyone know how she's split her investments between land and equities." A thought obviously struck him, and he smiled. "Do you realize, I think you're probably the only person who I was at school with to whom it'd ever occur to ask? I suspect most of them hear 'Longbottom' and add mentally 'Bring your own whippet'. I wouldn't hurry, by the way. There's a sort of unspoken family convention that if one of us does find the rest of them too much, the least he can do is give the others time for a nice bit of uninterrupted character assassination before walking back in."
He moved his arm so it circled Draco's shoulders completely. Draco leaned into his embrace. Neville tightened his grasp. They sat back against the sun-warmed steps and watched the harvest moon begin to rise behind the Hill.
The bed was a narrow one, and at least 95% of it was occupied by Dudley. Melanie balanced herself perilously on the minute shelf left to her, and tried to block out with the edge of the pillow the rhythmic snores that filled the room in an approximate rendition of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand, re-scored for pneumatic drills and bronchitic grampuses.
As major life events went, she concluded miserably, anti-climactic was the all too appropriate word.
"Well, if that's what it's all about, I'm surprised the human race got as far as the twentieth century," she muttered aloud, and then looked down with sudden guilt at the figure on the bed. She need not have worried. Dudley snored on, regardless.
With uncharacteristic decision she gave up the unequal struggle for the bed and walked over to the window seat, wrapping her shoulders in a discarded jumper.
The Nelcorp conference and training centre had been created by the conversion of the coach-houses and stabling, which occupied the same relative position to the West wing of the Manor as the orangerie did to the East. The dark bulk of the main house loomed just on the edge of the view framed by the window. The residential quarters of the training centre mainly overlooked the lawns, which were bathed in moonlight at that hour, and ran seamlessly (or so it seemed by a trick of the eye, and the strategic placing of a ha-ha) to the dark edging of the woodland which clustered and overhung the newly tarmacced track which wound for a three quarters of a mile down the coombe towards the gate which gave onto the main road.
Melanie contemplated the view uneasily for some minutes, and looked at her watch. Twenty to two. She looked back at the hump under the duvet, but the snoring continued unabated.
"After all, there is a moon. Bright as anything. And there can't be anyone in the grounds, with all those security gates and things. And it probably isn't more than ten minutes walk once you get to the main road. More like five, really."
She bit her lip, and began very slowly to dress, taking frequent glances back towards the bed.
Once she was fully dressed she perched herself on the edge of the window seat again.
"Perhaps if I count to fifty - "
She looked hopefully towards the hump on the bed.
"Well, possibly to a hundred."
There was no change in Dudley's position. She looked at her watch again, and dragged herself reluctantly to her feet.
"I mean, when you get to University you'll have to get yourself home at all sorts of times. Parties and things. And that's in a city. It'd be a good idea to get yourself used to it where you know there can't be any real danger."
She stretched out her hand to the doorknob, and then turned back irresolutely.
"Perhaps if I just count another fifty -"
Nothing changed. She got up.
"It just shows Mum was right. Fine of you to moan about not getting to go backpacking. I mean, if you can't even manage Wiltshire, you certainly wouldn't have enjoyed Thailand."
There was a quick, hot, prickle of self-pity under her eyelids. She clenched her hands into two fists and buried them deep in her jeans pockets.
"Right. That's it, then."
This, she said aloud. If she had hoped it might have made any difference, she was disappointed. With a bitten off sigh, she padded nervously out into the corridor, half hopeful and half apprehensive that she would meet one of the other trainees on her way out of the facility.
She reached the ground floor and, passing a row of training rooms whose daytime paraphernalia of whiteboards and computer monitors looked curiously eerie and forsaken at that time of night, sidled out into the courtyard. The door clicked gently shut behind her, and a small red light glowed, momentarily, as the electronic security lock engaged. No going back. She took a lungful of cool, grass-scented air, and strode determinedly out into the Manor grounds.
Her long shadow kept pace with her as she crossed the lawns, following the track as it wound down past the ha-ha and towards the coppices. Behind her the dark windows of the Manor gazed balefully at her retreating back. Twice she stopped abruptly, and spun round, trying to surprise whatever it was that she felt was following her. The first time she saw nothing; the second time she startled a huge owl which had been perched on the edge of the ha-ha, and which took off towards the Manor with an indignant screech. Her nerves jangled at the noise as though she had been given an electric shock.
The track reached the edge of the woodland. Above her tree branches interlaced, and the thick summer foliage threw a pattern of dancing black and silver chequers on the track in front of her.
At the very edge of her hearing there was a faint padding sound. She stopped. The padding stopped, perhaps half a beat later. She started to move again, a little more quickly. The padding started up again; louder, and a little quicker.
Losing all control she broke into a ragged run, her breath coming in sobbing gasps. There was a small open space in the midst of the trees ahead, where the moonlight shone full on the path. She pelted desperately towards the oasis of light, and the sounds behind her gathered momentum.
At the very edge of the clearing a black shadow rose up, caught her bodily round her waist, and flung her off the path into the undergrowth. As she hit the ground she felt as though gravity had suddenly quadrupled, pinning her to the earth. Movement or speech were equally unthinkable.
Something rushed past where she had been on the path; was outlined in the moonlight as it paused, momentarily, to throw back its head and raise its impossible jaws to howl, and then was gone.
"Can you move your legs and arms OK?"
The worried Lancashire accent was recognisable. She had heard it little more than twelve hours before. People who used phrases like "viable ecosystem" and fretted about unchecked rhododendron growth. Entirely familiar and normal, huh!
Melanie pushed herself muzzily up to a sitting position, and pinched randomly at her limbs, which seemed intact, if shaky.
"I'm sorry I startled you, but it was right behind you by the time I spotted you were on the path. There really wasn't time for anything else. And at least there wasn't anything too unpleasant in that patch you landed in this time."
"Ha- has it gone?"
"Mm. Well, I hope so. For the time being, at least. Is that necklace of yours silver?"
"Ye - yes."
She raised her hand automatically to touch her necklace for reassurance, and her stomach suddenly plummeted. Under the shadow of the trees she could not see her hand before her face. Her companion, who must be only feet away, was completely invisible - and he could see her perfectly in the dark.
"Time for us to get out of here, I think," Neville added. There was a sudden explosion of white and green sparks, as though he had let off a small firework. Melanie caught a glimpse of his face in the brief glow, before the sparks subsided and the darkness rushed in again, much blacker than before.
Moments later there was a rush of air and a soft thud from somewhere in the darkness on the other side of the track.
"Melanie's with me. I met her on the path," Neville called out in a low tone, in which Melanie thought she detected a note of warning. There was a low mutter, and another rush of air, and Draco stepped out onto the moonlit path where it crossed the clearing, pushing back his hood from his head with gloved hands so that the moonlight blazed coldly back from his silver-blond hair. Melanie suppressed a gasp. Draco was now bizarrely dressed in a loose black robe, which reached to the ankles of his boots, and a black cloak. However, he moved with unconscious assurance in the cumbersome clothing, and had utterly lost the slightly stagey air Melanie had sensed at their first meeting. His eyes glittered with concentration and he looked years older.
"Are you both OK? The line it was taking, I made sure it was going to go right through you."
"It nearly did," Neville said grimly, guiding Melanie by the elbow out of the undergrowth and into the patch of moonlight in the clearing. He, too, was robed, cloaked, booted and gloved. "I had to Transfigure her into a rock to make sure it didn't pick up her scent."
"My god! Melanie, have you counted all your arms and legs since?"
There was a faint thread of amusement in Draco's tone.
"Yes, well, it worked, didn't it? Which way did it go?"
"It broke towards the South Lodge. I'd say it was probably off the estate by now, but there'd be nothing to stop it doubling back. And the thing I was watching lit out in the other direction like a bat out of hell before I could find out just what it was. By the trajectory I'd have said broomstick, but I'd be surprised if you could get that sort of acceleration even out of the Firebolt TT-"
"Draco! Time. Place. We'd better be getting back to the Manor in case it does double back; we can do the Top Twig reviews when we're safely inside. Come on, Melanie."
Melanie set her jaw determinedly.
"I'm not going anywhere with you. You - you're some kind of Satanists, aren't you? Well, I can tell you, if you want me as a sacrifice, you'll find you're a few hours too late."
Draco looked rather affronted.
"Of course we aren't Satanists. The family's always been C of E - not that we go, of course. Well, OK, one of the ancestors did organise a chapter of the Hell Fire Club down here back in the 1770s, but I think that was just for the kinky sex and the blackmail opportunities."
"Sounds like Great Aunt Bertha's explanation of why she joined the WI," Neville murmured. Melanie gave an impatient shrug, and made as if to start walking down the track again.
"Well, anyway, whatever you are, there's no reason why I should trust you enough to come back to the Manor with you. You could do anything once you got me back there. So I'll be going. I'm due back on duty at the guest house at quarter to seven, anyway, to do breakfast."
Neville tightened her grip on her arm.
"Melanie, you've got to believe us. Tonight, there is every chance you wouldn't reach the main road alive."
"I'll take the risk." There was a tremor in her voice, and she clamped her jaws together to avoid betraying herself further.
"Look, she's putting all three of us in danger by keeping us here arguing about it. Why don't we just knock her out and carry her back to the Manor?"
Melanie gave a quick yelp of fright and tried to twist herself out of Neville's grip, kicking ineffectually at his shins, and kneeing (rather more effectually, judging by his sudden "oof" of pain) in the general direction of his groin.
"Draco - that simply isn't helping." Neville's voice sounded as though it were coming through gritted teeth.
He caught her other shoulder, and swung her round to face him, gripping her upper arms and turning his hips to pin her against a tree so as to block her further kicking efforts.
"Calm down and let's try looking at this logically. We may be everything you suspect we are. If so, then there are two of us, and one of you. Both of us are - well, in your terms, think of it as armed - and we can see in the dark, whereas you can't. And finally, we're in the middle of a wood, and there's no-one else within call. Can you can honestly think of anything we could do to you back at the Manor that we couldn't just as easily do here?"
Melanie opened her mouth and then shut it again. Seeing that he was having some effect, Neville continued.
"On the other hand, you've got to accept that it's at least theoretically possible we're telling the truth. In that case, it's a no-brainer - going back to the Manor with us at least doesn't increase your risk. Trying to make your own way home does. Just think of it as playing the odds."
"And the job?" Melanie said stubbornly. "Someone's got to be there to serve the grockles' breakfast."
Draco sighed. "Ordinarily, I'd offer to run you down in the car, but there's good reasons why neither of us ought to leave the Manor grounds at least till moonset. However, while Malfoy hospitality may not be all it once was - "
"Thank goodness," Neville muttered, "or she would have reason to worry."
"- I do still have at least half a dozen spare bedrooms you could crash out in. Just do make sure you're off the premises before Mrs P. shows up in the morning. I can't face having to talk her out of giving notice for the third time this week."
"Why-?" Melanie was beginning to ask, when a slight change in the direction of the breeze blowing up the coombe brought the faintest sound of howling towards them. It made up her mind for her.
"OK. But believe me, you'd better give me some good explanations once we're indoors."
They moved swiftly back up the track in single file. Melanie's nerves jangled at every rustle from the undergrowth, or breaking branch, and the young men in front of and behind her seemed equally tense, but nothing came to challenge them. Within a few minutes they were at a massive oak door to the rear of the Manor's East wing. Draco put one hand on it and it swung open.
"Lumos," he said clearly, and the interior blazed with a warm yellow glow, from some unseen light source, illuminating a huge stone flagged kitchen, with a big, farmhouse table and, incongruously to Melanie's eyes, an Aga taking up much of one corner. He looked at Melanie, whose eyes appeared unnaturally large when reflected in the mirror that hung next to the door (in which she was relieved to see both her companions were also reflected).
"Of course, it could always be - " he gestured with one hand, as though fishing for the right expression, "voice-activated electronics, couldn't it?"
"It isn't." Her tone did not make it a question. He nodded.
"No. It isn't."
He pulled out a wand from his belt, and sketched a complex pattern, which hung for a few seconds in fire across the door that had swung shut behind them.
"And before you ask, that isn't intended to keep you in. It's intended to keep other things out."
"Like that thing I met?"
"Among other things, yes."
He pulled a bottle from a cupboard, sloshed two generous measures into a couple of tumblers, and gestured enquiringly with the bottle to Neville, who had dropped his cloak onto a pile by the door and, moving somewhat gingerly, assumed a position leaning against the Aga. Neville shook his head. Draco pushed one of the tumblers across towards Melanie, and took a hefty swallow from his own. She sniffed suspiciously at the contents.
"Whisky. And that's all it is. I don't mix things with decent whisky. Don't bother telling me you don't like the taste, because I'll just tell you to hold your nose and get it down your throat. You'll feel a lot better when you have."
Her hand, she noticed, was shaking where it held the tumbler, and her teeth chattering. She split a little with her first swallow, but the second was easier. So was the third. She put the half-empty glass down on the table with sudden decision.
"Hm. This is going to be difficult."
Whisky, exhaustion and terror combined to produce an unwonted sense of assertiveness. Melanie set her teeth.
"How, difficult? Try giving that as difficult on a scale of one to ten, with assembling IKEA flat pack furniture as a five."
Draco and Neville exchanged baffled glances. She tried another tack.
"Well? What was that thing? What did it want? And why was it in the Manor grounds?"
Draco traced a pattern with one forefinger on the table in the spilled whisky.
"In order: it was a werewolf, it wanted blood, and it was here because whoever arranged for it to be here would rather that blood were mine."
It was the sheer ordinariness of his tone, coupled with the lunatic nature of the content, that threatened for a moment to tip her into unconsciousness from sheer fright. The room whirled abruptly round, and dark clouds pressed in from the edges of her vision.
"Draco, you're frightening her." Neville's arm was suddenly round her shoulders. "Ssh, it's OK. Nothing can get in here. Promise. Gosh, you're cold. You'd better put this on."
Numbly, she allowed herself to have a cloak wrapped around her, and, blindly, she took another swallow from her glass. Draco refilled it.
"What would you do if it did get in?" she asked dully. Draco looked at her.
"Speaking strictly for me, get out pronto through the other door screaming: 'Oh shit, oh shit, we're all going to die'. Not having a thousand year old House tradition of courage to maintain, you understand. But Neville's right. It isn't going to happen. Something did try to get into the Manor this evening, when we were both out. The defences were too good to let it pass, but there were at least two intruders in the grounds when we went out to check, besides the werewolf. Both of those seem to have gone for the time being, but we certainly can't risk being drawn out of the Manor again tonight."
Marvolo and Riddle, who had been curled in their baskets next to the Aga, chasing rabbits in their sleep and whimpering, roused themselves up at the sound of voices and came padding over to her, licking at her hands and settling on her feet in two heavy bundles of warmth and comfort. She buried her fingers gratefully in the soft fur of their necks and ears.
"How do you know it was a werewolf? I mean, couldn't it have been just an ordinary wolf?"
"A representative of the indigenous wolf packs of Wiltshire, no doubt?"
The mockery in Draco's tone caused her to flush.
"There's the beast of Bodmin - " she began defensively.
"Believe me, you don't want to know the story behind the beast of Bodmin. No, it was definitely a werewolf. We were taught how to recognize them at school. By one, actually."
Melanie parked the implications of that one firmly under a lid that read: "Seriously Worrying Stuff. Do Not Investigate", and assumed a tone of determined rationality.
"So - why do you think someone would want to kill you?"
The other two looked at her for some moments in sheer surprise. Draco recovered first.
"Oh, I know lots of people who want to kill me. It's the ones who might actually be free and able to do it who are a bit harder to pin down."
Melanie swallowed. It seemed difficult to believe that someone not much older than herself could have multiple mortal enemies - but then Dudley had insisted that his cousin's school was for the seriously disturbed and dysfunctional, and the earlier events of the evening had suggested to her that he hadn't known the half of it.
"I mean, it could be practically anybody. People out for revenge for what my father did to their families - people who think I'll do something similar if they don't stop me first - people out for revenge for what my mother did to their families - even, at a pinch, someone registering a protest at - what do the Muggle magazines call it? Oh yes, our 'lifestyle choices'. "
The back part of Melanie's brain suddenly caught up with the front part, and the combination exploded into speech.
"You think you might be being stalked by a homophobic werewolf?"
Her voice went up into an uncontrollable shriek. Draco shrugged.
"Well, weirder things have happened."
Her brain analysed this sentence for perhaps two seconds. She threw her head back with sheer disbelief.
"Weirder things have happened? In what universe are we talking about here?"
Neville and Draco exchanged glances.
"She's right, you know. That one would be a bit weird, even for us."
Draco filled their glasses again.
"Anyway," he said, "I suppose I'd better go and make sure the last victim's entrails have been tidied out of the bedroom I was planning to put you in."
Melanie shot him a I'm-Not-Falling-for-That-One glower from under her eyebrows, and he grinned at her unrepentantly and vanished upstairs. Melanie looked faintly guilty, and half rose.
"Perhaps I ought to go and help make the bed -"
Neville caught her arm and pushed her gently back into her seat.
"Sit down," he advised firmly. "In the first place, I imagine you make quite enough beds in your day job as it is. Secondly, if Mrs P. hasn't left every bed in this place in a fit state for the Minister for Magic to kip on without notice I'll be absolutely gobsmacked. Finally, all Draco'll be planning to do about anything that isn't as it should be will be to point a wand at it and say: 'make it so', and even that much effort will probably have the furniture fainting in surprise. Anyway, you still haven't told us why you were wandering about the Manor grounds at two in the morning at all."
Melanie blushed. To cover her confusion she took another swallow of whisky and waved her hand vaguely.
"Oh, Dudley asked me up after supper to help him with some of the tricky bits of his assignment, and then he made me coffee - and we had some drinks - and then it got later than I'd intended -"
The kitchen was warm from the heat of the Aga. Marvolo and Riddle went back to sleep on her feet. She was vaguely conscious that she was babbling a little, before her head was on the kitchen table, and she was being gently shaken awake by Neville.
"You'd be a lot better off in a bed. Come on, it's ready."
She moved stiffly to her feet. Marvolo and Riddle, yawning and whimpering in protest, got up too. She looked down at the two dogs, then at the subtly alien appearance of the two young men who were lounging about the kitchen, and at the way the shadows danced disconcertingly around the heavy oak timbers of the kitchen, leaving her with the uneasy sense that something that was not, and never had been human was watching her from the crevices. A hollow pit of sheer naked terror opened in the region of her midriff. She looked desperately at Draco.
"Would you mind awfully if I kept the dogs with me?"
Draco opened his mouth to say something, and then visibly changed his mind.
"OK. But don't let them climb on the bed. And I warn you, if a werewolf does get in -"
"Which it won't," Neville prompted anxiously.
"Which, as I was about to say, it won't - you have to understand they'll be about as much use as a chocolate frog in a cup of cocoa. But faced with any other threat I admit they'll probably get it sufficiently baffled while they make up their minds whether to shag it, eat it or slobber all over it for you to think up some sort of escape plan. Personally, I always recommend screaming very loudly."
The Manor stairs were uneven and poorly lit, and the oil paintings on the staircase walls leered unpleasantly at her as she walked nervously past them. At the first floor landing, Draco gestured at a door on his left hand.
"That's yours. Goodnight."
Her hand closed over the doorknob. She was conscious of his eyes looking straight at her, suddenly very bright, and with an odd look in them.
"Funny, what was that he just said?" was her last coherent thought as her head hit the pillow and she went out like a light.
Melanie woke because her shoulder was being firmly shaken.
"Whah - wazzit?" she muttered thickly.
"Morning. Sorry, but you did say you had to be on duty for breakfast. I did try yelling from the passage, but it obviously wasn't getting through. Oy, you two. Off! Off!"
Through the cautious millimetre that was all the "open" her eye-lids seemed to want to manage at this hour she could see two spaniels being grabbed by the scruffs of their respective necks and swung heartlessly off her bed onto the floor. They turned at the door to give a heart-rending unspoken commentary on the brutality of a harsh universe from deep reproachful eyes and slunk off.
Melanie checked that her crumpled T-shirt was modestly covering her upper body, and pushed herself up on one elbow. Waking up in strange beds with no clue as to how one had arrived there was one of the perils of which her mother had frequently warned her, but she had a subtle sense that this particular scenario was infinitely more complicated than any her mother had envisaged.
"Er - I'm sorry if this sounds a bit dense, but how did I get here?"
Neville leaned against the doorjamb.
"Well - er - when you left the conference centre you bumped into us coming back from this dinner party, and we invited you in for a night-cap and eventually you - er - fell asleep. So it seemed simplest to put you up in one of the spare bedrooms -"
Melanie's hand went to her mouth. "Oh, golly, that is - so - embarrassing."
She crimsoned. Neville watched her intently. She paused, and suddenly the room jolted into focus around her. His eyebrows came together as he recognised the change in her expression.
"That isn't what happened at all, is it?" Her voice was high and accusing.
He shook his head. "Damn. I thought when Draco was casting that Memory Charm that it hadn't quite taken, but he was absolutely positive it had."
Melanie gulped, skipped over the implications of "memory charm" and eyed Neville nervously. This morning he was indistinguishable from any other student, in a pair of faded jeans and a decrepit rugby shirt bearing the crest of the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, but she could - now - clearly remember how he had looked the previous night. Nothing he or Draco had said or done then had any place on the spectrum which Melanie recognised as normal experience.
"I do remember - there were various weird things happening - we got attacked by something - and you did something to me so as to fend it off - look, what are you people, anyway?"
Neville sighed. "Since you ask, we're wizards. But we'd be grateful if you didn't mention it to anyone. Especially not to your boyfriend."
"Dudley? Why him, especially? "
"Because he'd be likely to believe you."
Melanie gave a nervous snort of disbelief.
"It's obvious you've never met him. I don't know anyone who's less likely to believe in the supernatural. I mean, he even scoffs about ley lines, and positive crystal energies -"
"That may be so, but as far as wizards and Dudley are concerned 'believe in' isn't really the word. Have you got any cousins?"
Baffled by this bizarre twist in the conversation Melanie nodded, thinking of Kim and Lisa - older, sophisticated, unachievably more together somehow. No-one dreamed of doubting Kim and Lisa's cool competence. No-one would have dared to tell them they couldn't manage BUNAC - Kenya - a detour back via like-minded friends in Goa -
"And - do you believe in them?"
"You don't believe in your family, they're just facts of life."
The implications suddenly caught up with Melanie.
"You mean - Dudley's ghastly cousin is a wizard ? But he can't be -"
Neville nodded. "He's a bloody famous one. Has been all his life. And skip the ghastly bit - he is by way of being a friend of mine, after all. Even if we have sort of lost touch recently."
"But Draco said he couldn't stand him either-"
Neville looked resigned. "Well, you can't really expect Draco to be all that logical on the subject of Harry. Look, there's no point in my going into all the background - to begin with, if those grockles are ever going to get fed this morning, we haven't time - but the short version is that if it weren't for Harry the odds are Draco's father wouldn't be dead; Nelcorp Inc wouldn't be occupying half the Manor; far from scraping by on their last few million Galleons the Malfoys would be billionaires; and Draco would probably be the fourth most powerful man in the country. Of course, the downside is that we'd all be living under a very unpleasant dictatorship and you'd be either dead or enslaved. But nevertheless, most of our world isn't exactly falling over itself to believe that Draco did anything to stop that happening, you know. He's had a roughish year, and then last night went and happened just when it looked as though things were calming down at last. So Harry's an obvious target if he wants to let off steam about something."
Melanie tried to digest that.
"Anyway, the bathroom's next door. I'll see you down in the kitchen in ten minutes, OK?"
When she got down to the kitchen she found two mugs being pushed firmly across the table in her direction. One was self-evidently black coffee, and the other contained a thin straw-coloured liquid that smelt rather like hay. She looked at it with deep scepticism.
"Look, what's that? If you're a wizard, how do I know you aren't going to turn me into a toad or something"
"I could show you my school reports," Neville said cheerfully, swigging down his own coffee. "One look at those and you'd be convinced that I'm the last person likely to turn you into a toad. No bets on what would happen if I tried, mind you. Though look on the bright side: if by some stretch of the imagination I did manage it, you could rest assured that I am an absolute expert on how you ought to be fed your maggots. But as a matter of fact it's only a hangover remedy."
"But I haven't got a -"
"That's probably something to do with you having had your last drink less than three hours ago. But I can assure you, as someone who's probably put a lot more unlikely combinations of drinks down his throttle in his time than you have, that if you don't drink it, by about ten o'clock this morning even being semi-turned into a toad by me will look like an infinitely preferable alternative."
She sniffed at it again.
"Look, I'm a vegetarian. You're sure this hasn't been tested on animals?"
"Not unless you count Draco's father," Neville said. "I'm told it's a traditional family remedy. You know, folk medicine. Handed down for generations. Just the thing if you've put rather a lot of malt whisky on top of - well, whatever it was you'd been drinking earlier."
"Malibu. But how did you know I'd -"
Neville looked slightly as though he was trying to balance candour and tact, and finding it, like many before him, a thankless task.
"Er - we inferred it," he muttered.
Melanie gave the mugs another sceptical glance, and then drained both of them in quick succession. She reached for her shoulder bag.
"OK, I'm ready."
Neville lead the way to the back of the Manor, where a Land Rover apparently held together with baler twine was parked in improbable companionship with a midnight blue Porsche 996 convertible bearing the plates "DM 666". Neville wandered vaguely in the direction of the Land Rover, paused, turned decisively, pulled a wand from his belt and pointed it at the passenger-side door of the Porsche, which swung smartly open.
"Hop in," he ordered. Melanie nervously lowered herself into the navy suede passenger seat, which went down a whole lot further than she could have possibly imagined. From a height of some six inches above the ground she goggled up at Neville, who was swinging himself into the driving seat.
"Will he mind?" Melanie enquired nervously. Neville grinned.
"Have to be awake to mind, wouldn't he? "
He eyed her, gave an Oh-What-the-Hell shrug, and pointed the wand at the ignition. The car shot backwards out of its space; Neville swung the wheel, and with a knicker-elastic-twanging burst of acceleration the car took off down the driveway in a shower of gravel chippings. Melanie gulped as Neville made a dramatic swerve almost completely onto the lawn in order to avoid a badger which was apparently making its leisurely way home to its sett after a hard night digging things up, and sat firmly on her hands.
"Mind you," Neville added conversationally as the speedometer climbed steadily and the engine began to emit the steady pleased purr of something with which the world was going completely right, "if something were to go wrong, it might be as well to pray we're both killed outright. He's only had it a fortnight, after all."
"Is this really a Porsche?" Melanie asked, giving a sideways glance at Neville's driving style which appeared to involve less hand and foot contact with any form of controls than her own tentative and terrifying few driving lessons had suggested was prudent, or even possible.
"Well. In the sense that it began life in a factory in Stuttgart, certainly."
He braked sharply for the gates onto the main road, murmured, "Aperio!" at them, and took the car through as soon as they allowed him space.
"On the other hand," he continued, "once it'd finished being souped-up by a bunch of mad Muggles in Warrington, and then Draco'd had his people crawl all over it, I should imagine about the only original bits left would be the light-bulbs."
He overtook the village doctor at the start of the long winding descent into the village proper.
"Does the car - er - fly?"
"Oh, god, I hope not. I advised him against it, but as you might have spotted he doesn't always take my advice."
Neville swung with aplomb round the turn into the short drive which ran up to Gaia's Place, and managed to turn the corner to the staff entrance near the kitchen garden without either accident or unexpected aeronautic adventures. Melanie clambered out.
"Well, er - " She paused. Neville climbed out as well, folded his arms on the canopy, and leaned his chin on them.
"Well, all the best. I'm sorry about - well, everything, really. But you will remember not to say anything? Please? The last thing Draco needs is trouble with the Ministry - especially not from that quarter."
She nodded, firmly.
"OK. You can count on me. But what I don't understand is why you didn't simply re-do the memory charm when you found it hadn't worked."
Neville raised his eyebrows.
"For someone who was so suspicious about a hangover cure, you seem remarkably happy to have the inside of your head rearranged. Personally, I can't stand the bloody things. They have all sorts of unforeseen side-effects, and anyway, I don't care for them in principle."
She looked at him stubbornly.
"What would have happened if it had worked?"
"Well, in theory, you should have forgotten everything after leaving the conference centre until waking up this morning."
"Oh." Her voice was flat. "That bit."
Neville eyed her narrowly.
"Look- don't think I'm trying to interfere in your life, or anything, but if I'd spent an evening having sex with somebody and then being attacked by a werewolf, and it was the sex part I wanted to Obliviate, I think on balance I'd change the somebody."
Her face flamed. " Oh god. Was it that obvious?"
Neville looked as though he was choosing his words very cautiously. "Well, I wouldn't say you said anything wildly explicit or anything. But yes, it was fairly easy to get the general gist. But don't worry. We're both very discreet."
She looked at him. He looked back, ruefully.
"Oh, well, I admit that might be pushing it a bit. OK, in fact, I admit it, Draco's about as discreet as an indiscreet thing celebrating the festival of St Ignatius the Infamously Indiscreet. But you can console yourself that the only person he knows who'd be at all interested, he isn't on speaking terms with. And at least I'm reasonably discreet. Anyway, be seeing you."
He climbed back in the car, and started it. She put her hand on the staff door, and then turned.
"Forget what I said about the memory charm. It was my fault, anyway."
"Have it your own way. But, as my grandmother's so fond of saying, it takes two to tango. Anyway, like I said. None of my business. Bye."
The car shot away. Melanie put her key in the lock, and crept into the still sleeping guest-house.