"Please do take a seat, Miss Granger."
His voice is silky, yet it runs through her like a steel rapier.
Hermione pauses in the shadow of the huge door through which she has just come, allowing herself to adjust to the ice which floods her veins.
She takes a breath, squares her shoulders, sets her jaw.
Then she steps out of the shadow, into the light.
"Mrs. Weasley," she corrects him tersely. Her tone is composed and chilly, but somehow it rings back at her with unmistakable vulnerability. She is sure he can hear it too.
His letter is clutched in her hand, and she tells herself that she is crumpling it deliberately, defiantly; that it isn't a matter of trying to stop her hands from shaking. Her soul from shuddering.
She raises her eyes and their gazes collide.
It's all there: their fraught history, the hate, resentment, distrust, disgust...the neverending quest for ascension and superiority—his, hierarchical; hers, moral. It never went away. It has become something of a shared mythology.
But he merely murmurs, "But of course, how clumsy of me," and smiles in such a way as to refute any possibility of accidental clumsiness. "Please, do have a seat, Mrs. Weasely."
Her stilettoes make a hollow, rhythmic tic-tic-tic-tic as she crosses a sea of polished flooring to where the wizard lounges behind his huge office desk, luxuriously ensconced in the tufted leather of his imposing wing-backed chair. His pale hair looks almost like a shining halo against the glossy, dark burgundy, and Hermione is unnerved to find herself reminded of angels as she looks on the face of this devil-in-disguise.
He watches her approach with maddening impassivity. The relaxed elegance of his lines, the deliberate absence of intensity, the very ease and leisure he exudes; it hits her like a tacit barrage of control and dominance. As if he's tethered her up and holds the invisible reins slackly in his fist.
The chair facing his desk is significantly smaller and lower than his (deliberately, no doubt) but even so, Hermione feels almost swallowed up when at last her quivering body sinks down upon it. She perches at its very edge, her back ramrod-straight, defying his languid indifference with her own severe rigidity.
This is business, says her body language. Nothing more.
Oh no, this is pleasuree, taunts his. And it's all mine.
"You received my letter?" he asks her in an affably polite manner, as if he hasn't already noticed it balled up in her shaking hand.
"Yes." It's all she can manage at first.
This close, in his domain—with only a desk, and a paper-thin veneer of civility to divide their hatred—Lucius Malfoy is suddenly very real and very, very frightening. She feels like a little girl again, as if Time itself has stood still since that very first encounter when he loomed over her twelve-year-old self and drawlingly undermined her very self-confidence and worth. She is both unnerved and enraged by the memory.
She lifts her chin and hardens her lips. You're not a little girl, she reminds herself sharply. You're a woman. A grown witch. A...mother.
She doesn't mentally add, 'A wife.' She's never felt less like one than at this moment.
Lucius smiles, and though his lips are closed, his smile reminds her of sharp canine teeth. "I'm terribly sorry that you've been caught up in this...er, unfortunate affair," he says, his mild voice thrumming with sinister undertones. "You must have been very shocked to learn of your husband's manifold indiscretions." He tsks sympathetically, but she is certain she can detect a gleeful glint in his silver eyes.
Hermione glares bitterly at him, wondering how long he's going to keep up this charade of courtesy between them. If only she dared be the first to end it, she has a long list of expletives she would love to hurl in his smug face.
Don't do it! she warns herself. That's what he wants! He wants you to crack!
She has armed herself with a series of carefully rehearsed speeches and selects the one which seems most appropriate in light of his ostensibly-pitying words. "Thank you for your concern, Mr. Malfoy. There has certainly been some misunderstanding in the dealings between yourself and my husband, which I should like to clear up as expeditiously as possible."
Again, that smile. "Oh, there is no misunderstanding, I assure you, Miss Grange—ahem, Mrs. Weasely." His voice is still silken with civility, but he is deliberately turning down the thermostat on it. "My solicitors only await my orders to file an official complaint against your husband for embezzlement, fraud, larceny and theft...among other things."
She can feel her face drain of colour, but she continues determinedly. "These accusations are groundless—ridiculous, in fact. There's no way my husband would ever—"
"Allow me to prove them to you, madam," Lucius interrupts smoothly, producing and unfurling a scroll, then sending it to her side of the desk with an elegant swish of his wand. Hermione doesn't lean forward to take it; she already knows its contents. After all, she did spend the past week frantically ascertaining the truth, after receiving the unexpected missive from the lawyers acting on behalf of PureProfit Holdings Ltd.
"Or would you prefer to peruse a groveling (and more importantly, incriminating) letter in your husband's own hand?" He slides open the top drawer of his desk and takes out a packet of folded papers. "I have several at your disposal."
Something within her sinks and all she can think is, Oh, Ron. You idiot.
For a moment she is silent and still. Paralyzed by the enormity of deciding her next move.
She can't seem to think anymore. The last hellish, sleepless night she has thought herself to the brink of madness, and all that is left is a kind of empty, desolate desperation. "He has p-problems," she hears herself stammering at last. "Post-traumatic stress—he can't help it—it's an addiction, a-a-a sickness—"
"Oh, yes, all very tragic, I'm sure," Lucius overrides her, throwing the packet of letters carelessly down next to the scroll with a precise flick of his wrist. One eyebrow arches with elegant incredulity. "A proclivity for the gaming tables is rather a common failing, so I'm told." The emphasis on 'common' is as deliberate as it is subtle. "It's even possible your husband might avoid Azkaban by an indefinite stretch in St Mungo's, if you were willing to—forgive me—gamble everything upon that unlikely outcome..."
He allows for an extended silence as she is forced to weigh the implications if the gamble were not to pay off. Then he adds reasonably, "Of course if you were to raise and repay the outstanding sum before the end of the financial year, I should perhaps be dissuaded from pressing charges..."
The financial year he speaks of is a little less than a fortnight away, as they both well know.
"Impossible," Hermione replies numbly, staring at the letter in her hands. "There's nothing left. It's all gone."
"Ah, such a pity," he murmurs softly. Then, with infinite delicacy, he tightens his grip on those invisible reins. "...But perhaps you and I might come to...an acceptable arrangement."
The ice in her blood taints with dread. 'Arrangement.' An innocuous enough word in many contexts. But, slipping suavely from Lucius's handsome mouth, it elementally transmutes into poison.
Her throat has clammed shut, and when she tries to coolly enquire what exactly he means, nothing comes out. Finally, she squeezes out a whisper. "Arrangement?"
Lucius leans forwards, planting his elbows on the desk and steepling his fingers as he regards her with predatory, calculating eyes.
It's all she can do not to shrink back from that glittering silver gaze. Despite the mahogany expanse dividing them, she feels as if he is looming over her, breathing down her neck.
However, he's not ready for the kill. He wants to play with her a little longer. "Come, come, my dear," he says, "you must have something you should like to offer me by way of remuneration. An ancient family heirloom perhaps, or some valuable relic—but of course, no!" He affects to suddenly recall. "You don't have an ancient family, do you? And your husband's ancestral wealth is notoriously...ah, limited." His lips purse with facetious concern, though his eyes portray anything but. "Dear, oh dear."
He drums his long fingers against each other, causing the precious jewels of his many rings to mockingly sparkle, conspicuously proclaiming his own unassailably secure status and wealth. "...Well, I suppose it behooves me to consider some other proposal of your own making." His lips part ever-so-slightly in a new, more dangerous smile. "I'm all ears, Miss Granger."
He seems to be daring her to correct his choice of pronoun. She doesn't.
Hermione's mouth is dry. The tether is tightening.
"I...I..." She swallows painfully. "I don't know. I don't have...anything to give you."
The smile widens. "But of course you do, my dear. You simply have to use a little imagination. That shouldn't be difficult for a witch of your celebrated genius." Such is his subtlety, there is not even a hint of sarcasm in the last two words. But her cheeks burn nonetheless.
Absolutely she understands the subtext. She can see it in his eyes, his smile, she can feel it in the vibrations between them, the currents of rippling energy which surrounds them. There's something inevitable about this, a sense of fate catching up with her at last.
But she won't submit. She can't.
Hermione quickly rises to stand, and his evident surprise injects her with some much-needed confidence. "Good day, Mr. Malfoy," she says frostily, tossing his crumpled-up letter onto the desk in a gesture of defiant rejection of his insinuating advances. "We have already taken up too much of each other's time. No doubt we'll meet before the Wizengamot."
She turns, but not before registering the flame of admiration in his eyes. It's this, more than anything else, which sends her heartbeat into thudding overdrive as she stalks back to the door.
She is in the process of turning the handle when his laughter freezes her hand mid-twist. It's too triumphant to ignore—too much like a derisive, decisive, 'check-mate!'
Just go! her mind almost screams at her. Whatever you do, do NOT turn around!
But how can she not, when he's tugging on those invisible reins again?
"What is so funny, may I ask?" she demands, swinging around to face her nemesis.
"Why, you are, Miss Granger," Lucius replies. " Not for the first time I am led to muse on the unfortunate circumstances of your muggle birth, my dear.—But for that, you would have made a wonderful Slytherin."
She doesn't know what she was expecting, but it wasn't this. She feels odd, almost dizzy. "What do you mean?" she hisses at him, frightened by the sudden possibility that he knows something—something else—that he shouldn't.
"Oh, you know exactly what I'm talking about, my dear." The mask momentarily falls away and his voice fairly drips with undisguised malice. "Don't attempt to play the holier-than-thou Gryffindor with me. I'm much too old and jaded to be out-manoeuvred by a mudblood chit twenty-five years my junior."
He's bluffing! her mind screams. There's no way he can know! He must be bluffing!
But his smile shreds away every layer of certainty until she feels utterly exposed and naked beneath his gleaming gaze.
"What are you talking about?" she croaks.
His mouth twists in a cruel sneer. "Do spare me the innocent affectation, Miss Granger; it really has been a long day."
She is silenced by his timbre, rather than his words. Finally, finally he is getting to the point...
"What do you want from me?" she says at last. She's terrified of the note of defeat in her voice.
"Only to continue our negotiations, my dear," he replies, reassuming his civil suavity of manner. "Come and sit back down, my dear. I have something to show you."
Somehow she finds herself doing as he tells her. Each step towards the desk feels like a step to the gallows.
He's holding a blank, white envelope between his long, jewelled fingers, which he extends out to her as she warily approaches. "Peruse the contents, if you please, Miss Granger."
If her fingers trembled before, they're positively shaking now. She sits down—she has to, her legs are like water—and then proceeds to untuck the flap of the envelope and withdraw a piece of glossy parchment. A short gasping breath is impelled from her as if she's been punched in the stomach. The envelope falls to the floor.
It's all over.
The monochromatic photograph shows a zoomed-in image of a naked couple on a bed. Their writhing activity is caught in a perpetual loop in explicit, erotic detail: a slim woman sits astride her partner, her back arched, head thrown back and lips parted in blissful abandon. Slowly she slides up and sinks down upon the thick, jutting member of her dark-haired partner whose hands reach up to cup and caress her gently bouncing breasts...
"Anyone you recognise, Miss Granger?" Lucius's words are an open jibe.
Of course she recognises them; the woman is her. The man...
It had only been once—just once! One wild, drunken, wonderful night...It had been her birthday, and she'd booked a table for four at the Merlin Hotel's swanky new restaurant. There was almost a fatalistic inevitability about the whole situation: Ron not showing up, Ginny pleading off due to severe pregnancy nausea...
"How did you get this?" she hisses at the blond wizard. She feels sick at heart, but it isn't guilt or even fear of being caught. It's the tainting and cheapening of a memory which had become precious, almost sacred to her over time.
"Perhaps you didn't know that my business portfolio includes investment in the hospitality industry."
Despair claws at her insides. "...You own the Merlin hotel?" she asks with a bitter smile.
"I own Accio International."
Ah, so that's why she never associated his name with the Merlin—it is a smaller subsidiary of his multinational company. Of course, if she'd known that, she'd never have put so much as a toe through its glittering doors...
A shiver runs through her. "So what happens now?" she whispers. She's no longer tethered by reins, but bound by chains. She's completely in her enemy's power. Her own career prospects would never survive the scandal, but she's thinking more of Harry at this moment. She knows how deeply he regretted the fling; she knows how much he adores Ginny and worships his boys and little Lily. A revelation would destroy...everything. Who was she to wreck his happy home, just because her own has imploded?
Lucius Malfoy stands up. He makes a display of leisurely fixing a loosened cufflink, of smoothing down his sharply-cut suit jacket and neatening his cravat. He's in no hurry. Somehow, she knows he's patiently awaited this moment for ten long years, and he's savouring the last few moments of the pieces of his revenge clicking into place.
With an almost feline grace, he silently moves around the desk and comes to stop in front of the chair on which she sits like a statue, barely breathing, the photo still clutched in her hands.
He leans down and plucks it crisply from her numb fingers, then slides it in an inner breast pocket of his suit. His scent is overbearingly, nauseatingly sweet. For a moment she fears she might be sick all over his sharply pointed patent leather business shoes.
"Now, Miss Granger," he drawls—and she is acutely reminded of the muggle fairytale about the wolf who swallows a bag of flour to make his voice sound soft and silky—"suppose we start again with our...negotiations?"
She arrives home that evening with a brand new letter clutched in her hand. Her fingers are still shaking, but it's no longer with fear. It's now with rage.
She almost laughs at the pathetic tableaux she is met with. Ron, sprawled on their shabby couch, drowning himself in cheap whiskey and cheaper self-pity. He doesn't comment on the fact she's later home than usual, or even the fact that their children are missing. She wonders if he even noticed.
Wordlessly, she hands him the letter; sees his puffy face turn from worried confusion to relieved realization, as he discovers his release from his debts and exoneration from any criminal wrongdoing.
She never felt more disgusted by anyone in her life, not even herself—and after this today's degrading encounter, that's saying something.
She stands there, scornfully watching her husband's idiotic jubilation, while the afternoon's events replay over and again in her mind...lying upside down on a huge leather sofa, her mouth crammed and throat constricted by Lucius Malfoy's slowly-pistoning cock...crying out with humiliating pleasure as he mercilessly hammered into her traitorously spasming core...gasping at the stinging wrench of his fingers in her hair as he held her still and splattered her face with his spurting spend...
And as she recalls every demeaning, debasing detail of her subjugation, her husband continues his contemptible, crowing celebrations. It's not until he's downed three more shots of whiskey before he even thinks to question her about how she obtained the letter.
By then she's already retrieved the suitcase she packed this morning, and she addresses him impassively from the doorway, her anger dismantled in the face of his utterly puerile behaviour. "I'm leaving, Ron. We're leaving. The kids are already with mum. I'll collect them when I've found a flat."
Ron doesn't respond right away. For a long moment he just stares blearily at her through a haze of disbelief and alcohol, his mouth opening and shutting like a fish. Then his face crumples. "Yyoo...you're...not really leaver...leaving me, Mion?" His slurring speech is barely intelligible. "...Miny?...ssshit...Mione?"
"Yes, Ron, I'm leaving you," she replies with cold contempt. "Forever."
She's had it with the selfishness of men—Ron's weak and parasitic nature, Lucius Malfoy's predatory manipulations...even Harry's hurtful pretense that nothing ever happened between them. ...It's all selfishness, pure and simple.
Never again. Never again will she allow herself to be used.
She pauses on the threshold; turns back one last time. "And Ron?...Just...grow the fuck up."
The door slams behind her with ringing finality.