"I owe you a life debt," the wizard said tonelessly, holding his glass up to the light as if to admire the few drops of amber liquid that remained. "You've invited me back to Britain to call in the debt, haven't you?"
"That's right," Lucius Malfoy agreed, crossing one impeccably shod foot across the other and languidly Summoning a silver tray of bottles from the sideboard. "Do help yourself to another drink, old chap."
"What do you want me to do?"
Malfoy cocked his head and narrowed his cold grey eyes. "What, no indignant protestations? No righteous anger? Are you unwell?"
Severus Snape sighed and flicked his wand at the decanter, watching as it tipped a measure of single malt into his glass.
"Lucius, you saved my life —"
"To be strictly accurate, my house elf saved your life, but yes, it was under my instructions."
"I therefore owe you a life debt and had no doubt that you would call upon my services eventually. What do you require of me?"
"I'd prefer if you didn't make it sound such a burden."
"I've really had enough of being in thrall to older and more powerful wizards."
"Severus, please! I resent being spoken of in the same breath as that pair of manipulative megalomaniacs."
"Somehow you still manage to sound flattered. Tell me what you need me to do."
"Something you always did supremely well."
"Spy on someone."
Snape sipped his Glendronach and stared at the arrangement of silver-mauve roses in the fireplace.
"That sounds suspiciously easy. What's the catch?"
"Hm. Knowing your particular abilities, I don't think that it will be particularly gruelling. I would like you to keep an eye on a comely young witch for me, find out if she is getting up to anything that she shouldn't be. See if there is a lever I can use to... shall we say, persuade her to see things my way?"
"A witch? Are you losing your touch?"
Malfoys do not pout, but Lucius came damn close.
"Believe me, if I thought I could win Miss Iron Knickers over with a good dinner and a couple of bottles of champagne, I would. We have a history, shall we say. Plus, there is the intriguing appearance in my foe-glass of a house elf wearing clothes."
"A free elf? I believe that there have been a few of those around since the war, working for Wizarding shops and businesses. Are you sure it wasn't simply delivering groceries?"
"Not wearing a deerstalker hat and wielding a magnifying glass."
"You'd better tell me everything."
So Malfoy did.
A peacock roosting upon the terrace was startled into flight by the subsequent roar of laughter that issued from the open windows of the parlour.
Ron Weasley, Auror, best friend and side-kick of the Boy-Who-Lived-Twice and all-round good guy, bounded up the steps of the old townhouse in Grimmauld Place and rapped on the brass plate that stated, in Times New Roman, "The Number Twelve House Elf Detective Agency."
A house elf opened the door, stuck her head out level with Ron's hip and stared up at him.
"Hello Winky," he said cheerfully.
"I is no longer Winky," the elf squeaked. "I is Miss Marple, and I is thanking you to remember that."
"Oh," said Ron, "right. Has Hermione been letting you lot watch her old detective videos again?"
"We has been learning about being proper detectives," Miss Marple assured him as she let him into the hall. "I is leaving you with Kojak. I is doing the filing with Brother Cadfael."
A male elf leaned against the panelling. He wore a little pair of dark grey trousers and a jacket, although the suave effect was rather ruined by the bare feet and the way his sunglasses slid off his face every time his ears twitched. He was sucking on a lollipop. He looked up at Ron, switched the lollipop from one side of his mouth to the other and said, "Who loves ya, baby?" in a muffled squeak.
"Is Hermione in?" he asked.
Kojak's ears swivelled automatically towards Ron, forcing the elf to catch his sunglasses as they fell off completely.
"Miff Hermione iff in..." He removed the lollipop and banished it. "Miss Hermione is in her office, Master Ron. Is I to be taking you up?"
"No, it's fine, you get on with whatever you were doing."
"I is wondering," the elf said, "if the Aurors' offices needs detecting elves. We is getting very good at the detecting, we is enjoying it. We asks if the Ministry has a house elf Auror division."
"That's um, very good." Ron said. "You'll have to ask Harry about an elf division, though."
"Master Ron, was Mister Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson really doing all that hot stuff when they was not detecting?"
"I'm not sure about that. I haven't read much Muggle detective fiction, actually." Ron edged towards the staircase. "I'll just go on up and see Hermione, okay?"
Hermione Granger was in conversation with a house elf wearing a trench coat and fedora. He, or possibly she, slouched past Ron then paused in the doorway.
"We is packin' magic," the elf declared, "and we ain't afraid to use it." It snapped its fingers and vanished with a pop.
"Sam Spade again?" Ron asked, after a moment of contemplative silence.
"I know," she sighed. "Have a seat. I was going to have a cup of tea, d'you want one?"
"Yeah, that'd be good. You've created a monster."
"They can't help it." She waved her wand at the kettle, which began to whistle and chase the tea-pot in circles on the tea trolley. "You remember what Kreacher was like when we first met him, don't you?"
"A complete git?"
"Totally prejudiced against Muggles and Muggle-borns, not to mention depressed and miserable."
"He was bloody rude and uncooperative, I remember that much."
"He took the Blacks as his role models and copied his Mistress, even though she was only present in that ghastly portrait. Then when he adapted to having the three of us as his family, he became much nicer, and now that he's looking after Ginny and Harry and the baby, he's turned into a really sweet old thing. Elves take on the character of the household that they live in."
"What about Dobby, then? He was a Malfoy elf."
"He was a rebel, wasn't he?" Hermione smiled fondly. "Bless him; he was an exception, that's why he and Malfoy hated each other. I think he might have been very bright, actually. He thought for himself instead of following the party line. The elves here are all free elves, but they feel lost and lonely unless they're part of a family, so they've taken on the personae of literary detectives as their way of making the agency into a distinctive group, their own family with its customs and little quirks."
"You admit they don't all want to be freed, then? Finally given up on S.P.E.W.?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "I was a child. I still believe that they should be given the choice, but if they're happy and secure in good homes, who am I to tell them what to do? The agency is a way of making the free elves feel useful and needed."
"You're dead eccentric, you know that, don't you? Brilliant, but eccentric."
"Says the man who married Luna Lovegood," Hermione said, but softened her words with a fond smile. The kettle finally cornered the teapot between the sugar bowl and biscuit tin and poured boiling water into it. "How is Luna?"
"Expanding, glowing and generally looking forward to motherhood. She sends her love, by the way, and an invitation to Sunday lunch, and if you don't turn up by twelve, she'll set her Flimpitters on you. Not that I've ever seen a Flimpitter but she tells me they're terrifyingly pink and sparkly."
The teapot stood up on little legs and bowed, spilling a stream of fragrant tea into each of two mugs. A brown pottery jug scuttled to add milk, and the sugar tongs threw a cube of sugar into one mug, turned towards Ron, paused, then tossed in another two lumps for good measure before the mug floated across the office and settled on the desk in front of him.
"I don't do pink and sparkly," Hermione said.
"You'd better come to lunch on Sunday, then, hadn't you? And you aren't backing out of lunch down at the Leaky with Harry today, are you?"
"Of course I'm coming to lunch. I suspect you didn't just come to collect me, though, did you?"
"No," Ron sighed. "We're not sure if we've got a problem."
"Do you need another unofficial investigation?"
"Something like that, yeah. Your elves don't attract as much attention as Aurors."
"Go on, then, tell your Auntie Hermione."
"Lucius Malfoy's up to something. One of my team overheard Draco telling his wife that his dad was keeping a secret that he didn't want to get out."
Hermione picked up a quill and twirled it between her fingers, staring at the tip as it dipped and swirled through the air.
"You do? Do you know exactly what?"
"I've got my suspicions."
Ron sat forward in his seat, his eyes glowing. "Are we going to get that slippery bastard locked up at last? Please tell me he's raising Inferi or smuggling Dark artefacts so we can nail him!"
Hermione's lips twitched.
"Have you ever heard of Wiltshire's Magic Wand?"
Ron looked blank. "Is that something to do with the Deathly Hallows?"
"Or Champion Wiltshire's Bright Aura, Champion Wiltshire's Scrumptious, Champion Sorcery Wizard's Potion of Wiltshire, Wiltshire's Top Totty or the great sire, Champion Wiltshire's Standing Ovation?"
"Haven't a clue. Hang on, are they his peacocks? He calls them daft names like that?"
"I doubt if he calls the peacocks anything. No, his hobby is breeding Crups — top class pedigree Crups, apparently. He's well known in the fancy."
"There's no law against breeding Crups." Ron sounded regretful.
"No. However, he has been falsifying pedigrees."
"That's unlikely to get him sent to Azkaban. How do you know?"
"One of my customers showed me her new pup and its pedigree, which quoted the coat colours of its ancestors. It was bred by Malfoy; he owned most of the Crups on the pedigree and it can't be correct."
"Simple genetics. Crups are like domestic dogs in many respects, including inheritance of coat colour. Black coats are dominant, so two liver parents can't possibly have produced a black pup unless there was a new mutation, which is highly unlikely... I've lost you, haven't I?"
Ron nodded and stuck his hands in his pockets. "I'll take your word for it. How d'you know all this stuff?"
"I looked it up, of course. Wizards don't understand genetics, it's a Muggle subject that they've never bothered with. Malfoy's a big wheel in the Crup Association of Great Britain. His pups fetch very high prices and if this gets out, their pedigrees may not be worth the parchment they're written on. It appears that he has been secretly crossing Crups with Jack Russell terriers — Muggle Jack Russell terriers. His pure-blood Crups are actually cross-bred mongrels. I got Sherlock to poke around at Malfoy Manor just out of interest."
"Can I tell Rita Skeeter? Please?"
"That isn't ethical, Ron."
"Tempting, though," Ron sighed. "Malfoy doesn't do ethical so why should we? Are you sure that's all he's up to?"
"No, that's just all I know about. Sorry."
"Damn. I'd love to get him for something." Ron frowned. "Is that one of Crookshanks' pals?"
Hermione turned around in her seat to face the window, where a large, rather rangy black cat sat on the sill, glowering through the glass. She flicked her wand to open the casement.
"No, I've never seen that one before. Hello, boy, haven't you got a home to go to? D'you want to come in?"
The cat lifted a paw and licked it, studiously ignoring her.
"You can't stay there," Hermione told it, "you might fall off and hurt yourself."
"It's a cat, they always land on their feet," Ron said. "Shall I send it packing?" The cat lifted the sides of its lips, revealing the tips of two little kitty fangs. Hermione got up and went to the window, reaching out to the animal. The cat shot under her arm, bounded across the room and went to ground under her desk. "Oy!" Ron exclaimed and pointed his wand at it. "Get out of there!"
"Don't hurt it!"
"I'm not going to hurt it, I'm going to make sure it isn't an Animagus." He sighted along his wand and recited the spell to force an Animagus to revert to its human form. The cat clawed at the carpet but remained stubbornly feline. Ron holstered his wand.
"Just some manky old stray," he remarked and the cat growled as if in response.
Hermione opened the door and called "Tolly? Are you busy?"
"Not being any Tolly here," an elf called back.
"Oh, sorry! Kojak, then. Have you got a minute?"
The house elf bumped into the door as he pattered into the room.
"You want I should bust 'em, boss?"
"You don't have to wear dark glasses indoors, you know," Ron told him. Kojak glared over the top of his sunglasses.
"I is Kojak and Kojak wears shades." The elf pulled a red lollipop out of the air and stuck it firmly into the corner of his mouth, sucking audibly.
"Right. Well, can you please offer this cat some of Crookshank's food and a saucer of milk? Then I want you to draw up a report on everything we've got on Lucius Malfoy."
"And Draco," Ron said.
"But Draco hasn't done anything."
"Bet you he has," Ron said darkly. "He did in sixth year, didn't he? No-one believed Harry at the time but it was Malfoy who let the Death Eaters into Hogwarts."
"Oh very well. Kojak, make that everything we have on all three of the Malfoys, please."
"Yes, Miss Hermione, I is right on it." The elf popped out of the room.
"You coming to lunch, then?" Ron asked. "Harry'll be waiting for us by now."
"Yes, let's go." Hermione summoned her cloak and purse and Ron followed her out of the room.
In the dark space beneath the desk, the black cat stretched and rolled on the carpet for a while before clambering to its feet. It jumped lightly up onto Hermione's chair and peered at the neat row of box files on the shelf, then began nosing at the one labelled 'M'.
Lucius Malfoy strode across the stable yard, slapping a riding crop against his shiny leather boot in irritation. He was trailed by a house elf leading a pair of excited young Crups on leashes and a wizard wearing a black travelling cloak and a scowl.
"Damn it, Severus, you've got to stop her! I've got Delilah Derwent bringing Champion ThreeWitches Pernickety to Magic Wand next week and Spode owled me only yesterday to book his best bitch to Potion for her next season. I desperately want to prove Potion; if he throws a decent litter I'll mate him to Scrumptious for her final litter and that will give me another line back to Ovation." He took a deep and steadying breath. "Another blasted free elf has been hanging about my kennels, wearing sunglasses and a suit and sucking a lollipop, would you believe? If that — that Mudblood goes to the press, my entire breeding programme will be in ruins."
"I wish you wouldn't use that term," Snape said in an icily clear voice. "I also suppose that her elves discovering that I am still alive doesn't particularly concern you."
"Should it?" Malfoy turned and stood with his fists on his hips. "My dear Severus, I'm happy to keep your existence a secret if you so desire, but I really don't see the point. Potter exonerated you, didn't he? Your reputation — unlike mine — is spotless; there's even an Order of Merlin somewhere with your name on it. I, on the other hand, stand to be thrown out of the Crup Association! My Crups will lose their show awards. No-one will allow me to use their dogs at stud or buy my pups. Look at her!"
He pointed to an athletic black Crup with a white blaze and star on her chest, who was standing on her hind legs at the fence of her pen and wagging furiously at her master.
"Junior Warrant holder, Wiltshire's Top Totty, pup of the year last year, best junior at the Association's championship show and already two thirds of the way to her title. She's the best hunting Crup I've had for the last ten years and I'm damned if I'll let the bastards demote her to the status of mongrel. She just might," he lowered his voice, "be the breed's next dual champion. Merlin's beard, what I'd give for that! It would put my breeding on the map for all time!"
"Perhaps you should have thought before using a Muggle terrier on your bitch."
"He had a conformation to die for," Malfoy muttered, "not to mention a terrific hunting drive. Seemed a shame to let prejudice stand in the way of the betterment of the breed."
Snape made a sound like a snort, but when his friend turned to face him again, he merely looked bored.
"Very well, what d'you expect me to do? I have no doubt that I could break into the house and destroy her files on you, but she'll simply replace them, get suspicious and dig even deeper."
"Can't you distract her?"
"How? Pretend to haunt the place? The redoubtable Miss Granger is hardly likely to be scared away by a haunting; she's more likely to call in her dear Auror friends, and then so much for me keeping a low profile."
"You could return from the dead stark naked in her bath."
"Piss off, Lucius."
"Only trying to be helpful. Portly, feed the pups and send the juniors out for a run in the paddock as usual. Tell Waspish that Aura is not to be allowed out with the males yet, she can be exercised with Scrumptious and Totty. That's all."
The elf bowed and led the Crups away. Malfoy tossed his riding crop into the tack room and flexed his back. "Hm, a hot bath isn't a bad idea, plus a glass of something warming. Come along, Severus."
Crookshanks settled himself on Hermione's lap. Without even raising the journal that she was reading, she reached to scratch him behind the ears in the place that made him turn from a cat into a limp noodle of purring bliss. Instead of Crookshanks' thick mane, her fingers encountered short, sleek fur. She allowed the Journal of Applied Spells and Incantations to slide to one side so that she could confirm that the black stray was indeed perched on her thighs. He appeared to be staring at an article on the effects of heating charms on the different metals used to make cauldrons.
"Are you someone's familiar?" she enquired. The cat merely blinked at her. "I'm only asking because you're not an Animagus and ordinary cats don't usually read magazines."
The cat reached out, hooked a claw into the journal and tugged, ripping a small tear in the paper. Hermione snatched it out of reach. "Hey, I haven't read that yet! Bad kitty!"
The cat said 'pprrpp' in a manner that sounded slightly rude and turned in a circle, treading the fabric of her robe before plopping down into a large, hot, black cushion on her thighs.
"You'll be in trouble when Crookshanks comes home," an amused tenor voice remarked from the doorway. The cat tensed and Hermione automatically slid a hand down his silky back to reassure him.
"Hi, Harry. Have you come for the rent?"
"Of course I don't want the rent, you silly girl. I've told you a hundred times, you're welcome to use the old dump for as long as you want." He came into the room and sat down on the sofa.
"I'm running a business; I can't just stay for free."
"Why not? Ginny and I don't want to live here. I'd rather it wasn't left empty and your elves keep everything shipshape."
"They're not 'my' elves, they're free elves."
Harry grinned, licked a finger and scored a figure one in the air. Hermione stuck out her tongue. "If it isn't about the rent, is this a social call?"
"Not really. I wondered how you're getting on with your investigation."
"Which one? We're tracking down an elderly witch who stands to inherit under her sister's will, evidence of adultery for a divorce case or the possible theft of valuables from a wizard who suspects his own nephew and doesn't want the Aurors involved. I can't tell you anymore because of the client confidentially clauses —"
"Hermione! The Malfoy case, of course; Ron said you're looking into things at Malfoy Manor."
The cat's claws touched her thighs without pricking the skin but she felt the tiny frisson that ran through him.
"Are you really that interested in Malfoy's shady Crup dealings?"
"Not in the slightest." Harry leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees. He had his wand in his hand and rotated it between his fingers. "Something odd happened."
"Yes, odd. You see, Draco's a very astute businessman."
"I never expected to hear you say Draco Malfoy was good at anything."
"Oh, he is. Lucius is passionate about his standing in society; Draco's more interested in running his businesses."
"He probably wants to prove himself without relying on his name alone."
"We all know that feeling, don't we?"
They shared a moment of silent empathy.
"What about Draco?"
"He owns a potions owl-order supply business, among others. Yesterday, he moved the head office from Diagon Alley to the Île de Sorcellerie in Paris."
"Yes, 'oh.' Who knew you were looking into the Malfoys?"
"Ron, you, me and three of my elves: Sherlock, Kojak and Miss Marple. The elves won't discuss anything with anyone outside this building unless instructed to do so — you know how loyal they are. We used silencing charms in the pub, as always. Unless you told Ginny, or Ron told Luna?" Harry shook his head. "So, what's Draco hiding?"
"More to the point, sweetheart, who warned him?"
Harry stared at the cat, who stared back. Instead of the usual green or gold eyes of a domestic feline, the cat's eyes were deep amber. They were narrowed with suspicion.
"He isn't an Animagus, Harry." Hermione stroked the cat's back but it felt as tightly strung as a piano wire. "That was the first thing Ron checked."
"Okay." Harry's wand stilled in his hand and he swung the tip idly in the cat's direction. The cat did not blink. "That's good, then. He still might be someone's familiar. Draco's, do you think?"
"A bit obvious. Perhaps his wife or sister-in-law? I'll get an elf onto it first thing tomorrow. Columbo has been nagging me for another project."
The cat stretched and flexed his back, then jumped down onto the hearthrug, where he sat down, curling his tail around his toes like an Egyptian votive statue.
"Petrificus totalis," Harry murmured. The cat sat ram-rod straight on the hearth, wide eyes fixed on Harry's face.
"What is it, Harry?"
"You can force an Animagus back into its human form as long as you're as strong, or stronger, than the witch or wizard in Animagus form. It took both Sirius and Remus to force Peter out of being a rat, didn't it? And much as I love Ron, he isn't the most powerful of wizards."
"That's true," Hermione said. "I never managed to force Minerva McGonagall back into human form in class, even though she didn't try to fight me. Do you really think this cat is a wizard?"
"I don't want to take any chances."
Hermione's breath caught and Harry met her gaze, his own wide and wondering.
"Draco runs a potions business," Hermione breathed.
"I don't know who brews the potions, but it isn't Draco — he's too busy building the Malfoy business empire."
"Or his wife or sister-in-law, they weren't that good at potions. There has to be someone brilliant behind the company; a researcher who doesn't put their own name on any of the patents. I still read the New Sorcerer and Potions Monthly so I'd know..."
"Merlin's hairy saggy scrotum! We're onto something here!"
"Harry James Potter! That's disgusting!"
As Harry turned to her, the cat gave a little shrug. Then, as if peeling off an invisible strait-jacket, he wriggled from the shoulders down and bolted. Harry sent a stunning spell but missed, gouging a chunk out of the opposite wall.
"Catch the cat!" Harry yelled and two house elves appeared in the passageway. Kojak made a grab but, partially blinded by his dark glasses, allowed the cat to slip between his hands.
"Don't hurt him!" Hermione shouted.
Brother Cadfael, clad in a brown habit and with a frill of hair around his otherwise bare head, stood between the cat and freedom. The cat clawed his bare leg, screeching like a banshee, and was gone. The elf huffed and pointed a finger at his knee, healing the scratches.
"Does you want us to catch the kitty?" Kojak enquired. "We can throw the kitty in the slammer."
"If that's Snape, he'll have Apparated," Harry said. "Well, what now?"
"I shall go and have a word with Mister Malfoy," Hermione declared. "I've had enough of this; I'm starting to get cross."
Draco Malfoy sat back on his heels before the Floo and refrained from rolling his eyes. "I did tell you that I was intending to move the office to Paris, Father."
"Unfortunately attracting the attention of a certain very nosy young witch. I've just had an owl from..." Lucius glanced down at the scroll in his hand, "Ms Hermione Granger of The Number Twelve House Elf Detective Agency, requesting an interview at my earliest convenience."
"That's nice for you," Draco remarked, earning a glare from the head in his fireplace.
"The wretched girl was in your year. You know her better than I do. What does she want?"
"I've no idea."
"That's not helpful, Draco."
"You won't be able to buy her off, I can tell you that much. You might as well persuade Severus to meet her, that'll distract her."
"Hm." Lucius stroked his chin. "Not a bad idea. Was she afraid of him?"
"I don't think she knows the meaning of the word. If she scents a secret, she won't let go till she's uncovered it, she's tenacious. Or, you could always let her explore the library, that'll keep her occupied for a couple of years."
Lucius appeared horrified.
"Thank you for your support, Draco, I'll keep you informed." His head withdrew from the fireplace and the green flames vanished.
"Who was it, Draco?" Astoria called from where she was putting Scorpius to bed for his nap.
"Just Father, again. I wish he'd find himself another hobby, he's really starting to get on my wick."
Astoria came down the staircase, her light-weight summer robes fluttering around her slender ankles. She slid her arms around his neck.
"He definitely needs to get laid."
Draco smirked and grasped her hips.
"Now that gives me an idea..."
Somewhere in a darkened room, a very large, dark man swathed in robes and glamours kissed the hand of an elegant witch who smiled and indicated the seat next to her.
"We're waiting for my sister," she murmured. The room was so thoroughly warded that her voice sounded thin, every echo suppressed. A slender wizard sat opposite them, beside a witch who was gazing into a crystal ball, her shadowed face smooth and calm. She curved a hand around the crystal, cupping it lightly.
"They're moving into place," she remarked, "but I can see an aura of danger around them." She looked up, cocking her head to one side. "This is a very imprecise tool; however, it can function similarly to a foe glass. I believe that someone else is scheming."
A third witch came into the room as she spoke, slipping into the vacant chair and arranging her robes. She looked around and nodded.
"Scheming's always been the lifeblood of Slytherins," the big wizard remarked. His voice was dark and deep, resonating despite the wards. "So, Slytherins, shall we begin?"
In the darkness beneath the table, a black cat quietly licked its paw.
Hermione glowered at the gates as they opened silently. They should have given an ominous creak, at the very least. The gravelled drive should have been shrouded in dark cypress, not beech hedges with spring flowers peeping out at their feet, and the house most certainly ought to be a gothic monstrosity. She really, really hated that Malfoy Manor was beautiful. Built of pale Cotswold limestone, it was a jewel of Tudor architecture around an even earlier central building.
She stamped up the steps and her temper was not improved by being unable to hammer on the oak door, because it opened as she raised her hand. An elf clad in a spotless pillowcase stood in the doorway.
"You isn't going to give Waspish clothes, is you?"
Hermione's anger deflated.
"No, I promise not to give anyone clothes unless they actually ask for them."
"Master is feeding the puppies. Would Miss wish to wait inside or would Miss like to see the Crups?"
"I'll see the Crups, please."
She was vaguely interested in seeing Lucius in his usual environment, and considerably less interested in revisiting the scene of her torture at the end of Bellatrix Lestrange's wand.
The elf closed the door behind them and led the way around the right-hand wing of the house, through an archway and into the stable yard.
There was a view of a paddock, in which two shining dapple grey horses grazed, their steel-grey wings folded upon their backs. An elf trotted across the yard, levitating a heap of straw through a stable door, and a huge, brown tabby Kneazle dozed in the sun on top of a bale of hay.
Lucius Malfoy was wearing riding breeches, gleaming, black leather boots and a green, checked jacket over a white shirt. His hair was tied back with a black ribbon. Hermione had never seen him clad in anything but robes before. Too intent upon the four little Crups gambolling around his boots to notice her, he sank down on his heels.
"Armagnac," he remarked and pointed at a sandy-coloured Crup. It bounced on the spot, its forked tail a blur of motion, then sat. "Calvados. Schnapps. Palinka." As he spoke, each puppy sat down, until all four faced him, their tiny faces expectant. He pointed his wand and four bowls appeared on the ground, each containing small chunks of meat and vegetables in gravy. "Good Crups," he told them. "You may eat." The Crups did so with a great deal of enthusiasm. He rose smoothly to his feet, turned and met Hermione's gaze.
"Good morning, Miss Granger. How may I help you?" His tone was cool and polite.
"I'd like a word with you, Mr Malfoy."
He extended a hand, palm up.
"Be my guest. May I offer you any refreshments? I was about to have tea."
Never would Hermione have expected to find herself leaning on a fence next to Lucius Malfoy, drinking Darjeeling out of a bone china mug.
"Are they Granians?" Hermione asked, as the smaller of the two winged horses wandered over to investigate her pockets.
"Of course. They're retired champion racers, the mare is in foal and the stallion stands at stud and is my favourite hack. I enjoy his speed and his spirit."
"Do you race, Mr Malfoy?"
He shook his head.
"That's Draco's sport. I ride them for exercise."
Which accounted, she supposed, for his muscular thighs and taut posterior. She had a moment of horrified realisation, that she had actually been ogling Lucius Malfoy's arse, and turned to pat the horse's neck to hide her overheating face.
The Crup pups were now investigating each other's dinner bowls to ensure that not a scrap had been missed, and she caught the moment when all four of them noticed her. They looked at each other, back to her, and then barrelled towards her, screeched to a stop and stood in front of her in a row, tongues hanging.
"I have taught them not to jump up," Malfoy said laconically. "They'll be going to their new homes next week. They probably think that you're here to choose one for yourself."
They were very endearing little creatures. Hermione had always preferred cats but she could see the attraction. She bent down and held out a hand.
"No, I'm not going to buy one of you, I'm sorry."
They immediately circled her, sniffing, wagging and nudging at her fingers. "Who are their parents?"
"They're out of Champion Wiltshire's Bright Aura by the import, Champion OwlTime Tennessee Whiskey. The American line brought in fresh blood and hopefully will improve hindquarters and bonding with their owners' magic."
"Did it work?"
"I'll have a better idea when I breed the next couple of generations. Draco and Astoria want another pet Crup so they'll take Schnapps. We'll watch how he develops and I'll show him and use him at stud if I still like him when he's an adult."
Hermione frowned, recalling her original research into Crups. The Encyclopaedia Magica had a large article on the breeding and showing of the animals.
"I thought that the British Crup fanciers didn't like American Crups?"
He shrugged. "They don't. They think that they're too big and rather exaggerated, and probably have smooth fox terrier blood. Personally, I find them very biddable, highly attuned to their owners and, if used with care, the smaller ones introduce substance and elegance to our breeding."
"Is that why you used Jack Russell terriers?"
He turned his head, and although his mouth barely moved, his eyes smiled at her, cool and clear and predatory.
"What an accusation to make!"
"I notice that you don't deny it."
He looked down at the Crups. Two had got bored and were wrestling, making small growling noises as they tumbled. One was investigating the fence posts and the last, Schnapps, was sitting on Malfoy's left foot.
"What would you do if I did?"
Hermione realised that she didn't have an answer to that question. Feeling unaccountably flustered, she went into attack mode.
"Why did you send Severus Snape to spy on me?"
"My dear Miss Granger," he purred, "the entire Wizarding world believes Severus to be dead. Perhaps someone is playing a prank upon you? What makes you think he survived?"
"His body vanished after the battle of Hogwarts."
"Maybe an enemy destroyed it or a friend banished it before it could be interfered with?"
"His portrait in the Headmaster's office has never woken."
"I doubt if Severus ever wanted to be there."
"Draco owns a very successful business called Marquess Potions, with a lot of brilliant patents, which has suddenly moved its head office from Diagon Alley to the Île de Sorcellerie."
"Really? He did mention the possibility last time he came for dinner. I don't see the connection."
"Of course you do!" Hermione snapped. "He moved because your spy told him I'd be looking into the activities of all three of you!"
"All three of us? What has Astoria possibly been up to? She's far too busy rearing Scorpius and running the Nocturne Alley restoration project to be involved in anything nefarious."
Hermione refrained from stamping her foot, mainly because Palinka was now leaning against it.
"Your wife, Mr Malfoy! Narcissa, the tall blond woman?"
"Oh, my ex-wife. She lives in France. Draco moved the potions business over to Paris so that he could spend more time with his mother."
"I didn't know you were divorced."
"Because the divorce went through in France." He Summoned a couple of carrots from the stables and held them out to the horses, watching as their velvety muzzles lipped his hands.
"But it was never mentioned in The Prophet!"
He shrugged. "We divorced the day that your dear friend married his red-headed sweetheart so the reporters had their minds on other things. I was surprised that you didn't join the Weasley clan at the same time, I admit."
"That's none of your business," Hermione muttered. Malfoy merely raised a blond eyebrow and she felt her face warming again. How had the bastard managed to wrest control of the entire conversation? "Look, I know Severus Snape is alive, I know that he's an unregistered Animagus and I know you sent him to spy on me!"
"An Animagus, you say? What form does he take?"
"Really? Did you force him back to his human form?"
"No, Ron tried but couldn't do it and he escaped before Harry could try."
"So, you had a cat, which you claim was Severus, whom you couldn't change back? This sounds a little far-fetched to me."
"Harry's an Auror, I run an investigative agency and we know that cat is Snape."
"Do you have any proof of wrong-doing? If so, what are you accusing me of?"
"Being an evil Slytherin, no doubt."
Those six words, spoken behind her in a soft, silky voice, ran through Hermione like an electric shock. She was simultaneously standing in the spring sunshine and transported back to the dungeon classroom of the past. Snape's voice was unmistakeable, inspiring a frisson of apprehension as she turned to face the teacher whom she had respected but whose respect she had never been able to earn in return.
"Professor Snape," she said, and her voice trembled audibly.
He was still Snape. He wore black robes, he had oily black hair and a hooked nose and sharp, impenetrable black eyes; he could have been a statue in marble and jet. This was how she had known him, controlled and implacable, and yet on further examination, she could see the changes wrought in him by ten years of peace. He was still lean but had lost that famished, stretched-thin appearance of a man living on the edge of his nerves. He was less sallow than she remembered, although his hair could still do with a trim.
"How did —" Hermione snapped her mouth shut and smiled at him. "I apologise, it's none of my business how you survived. All I can say is that I'm so glad that you did."
He inclined his head, graciously accepting her words as his due.
"Lucius and Draco have kept my existence a secret," he told her, "until your interference forced my hand. I cannot allow you to harass my friend simply because he did me a favour."
"Of course," Hermione said. "Marquess Potions gave me a clue. Did you do all the development work yourself? I was really impressed by the way that the treatment for Spattergroit blended Muggle anti-virals and potions —"
"Please," Malfoy murmured, "my dear witch, is this really the time or the place?" He clapped his hands. "Portly, put the pups back into their kennel to rest. Severus, Miss Granger, would you care to join me for lunch? Splendid! Waspish, lunch for three in fifteen minutes in the parlour. Severus, do accompany Miss Granger into the house while I free myself from the faint but distinctive aroma of horse."
He gave a slight bow and Apparated out of the yard. Hermione blinked. The Granian stallion whinnied and pranced around in a circle, standing with his neck arched as the mare grazed on, unconcerned.
"Poser," she said, and Snape gave a tiny huff. Startled, she looked at him and saw the corners of his eyes crinkle.
"He does exude an air of arrogant masculinity, does he not? Come, Miss Granger, let us obey our host's command and avail ourselves of his hospitality. Follow me."
Hermione obeyed, with the impression that she was being manipulated but no idea why.