If you don’t know where you are going,
any road can take you there.
. . .
Stripped to its barest essentials, plummeting to one’s gratuitous end was a rather tedious affair. The dazzle of an explosive, gruesome demise turned outright boorish after the first few nosedives, leaving the experience akin to waiting atop a speeding train for a stern lecturing, the punishment tripled as it otherwise ruined a perfectly good hair day. The Reaper was certainly a cruel and unusual sort.
“And evidently bald,” a feminine voice echoed. “Which I suppose makes sense, being a skeleton in robes.” A speculative hum shook the earth. “Wait, how does he play chess without eyes?”
The quandary was most fascinating, Hermione mused, at least to a captive audience. But her mind quickly wandered to the slightly more pressing issue at hand, namely, the mechanics of a high-velocity impact with the high-density ground. Certainly the most feasible outcome dictated by physics would be splitting apart like a store mannequin chucked from a ten-story roof. An eternity spent in a dozen pieces was undoubtedly a dozen times more monotonous. Or perhaps her head would roll itself along until crossing paths with someone kind enough to sew it back on.
“You could use your tongue to scoot along,” Lavender mused from the black clouds converging above. “Just don’t come to me. I’d definitely stitch it on backward.”
“Then I could see everywhere I’ve been. How sentimental,” Hermione contemplated over the wind whipping through her skirt. And as the opening above became but a flickering ember she felt her limbs shrink in turn, until she was no more than a grain of sand falling through a colossal hourglass, identical to the thousands who came before and the countless who would surely follow.
She braced for final impact when a familiar monstrosity reached up from the dark sands, massive tentacles twisting free from the shadowy dunes and slithering across the terrarium walls, coiling upward until they overtook her vision in a writhing patchwork.
“I know you miss me desperately,” her disembodied friend lamented. “I have that effect on people, even the ones who try to murder me. But it’s much too soon for your return appearance.” The undulating limbs began to lower, slick, grasping eels illuminated by flashes of lightning, electricity skittering across the glass as smoke swirled behind the translucent dome. “Up you go.”
The cryptic words proved a valid warning but did little to prepare her for the powerful energy surge from below. Hermione screamed at last, catapulted like a flailing cannonball and soaring through the writhing crosshatch with a shocked cry. The roof shattered in a spectacular burst, glittering shards chasing her trajectory in a wide arc.
“Mione!” A man’s voice rose above the fog, somehow audible over her piercing scream as she clawed the mist for purchase. “It’s alright! You’re safe!” Large hands seized her shoulders, bringing her spinning orbit to a jarring halt. “Just breathe,” he coaxed, the simple instruction smothering the steam whistle in her throat.
Her lungs obeyed with astounding ease, a satisfying exhale weighing each limb until she was twirling to the ground like a feather, hollow bones landing atop rickety springs.
“Hermione?” He whispered, touch migrating from her shoulders to her neck, fumbling for her pulse. “Can you hear me?”
Her eyelids parted, a blurry mass outlined by white light. “H-Harry…” she attempted, voice cracking beyond recognition. His features bled into focus, cinched tight with relief. She reached out, desperate for a tether to whatever reality this was, but her arm refused to budge, throbbing in time to her erratic pulse.
“It’s alright,” he assured her, drawing focus to the thick bandage encasing her limb. “They sewed up the gunshot wound—”
“Where’s Tom?” She managed to ask through a mouthful of sand. Harry glanced away. “Where is he?” She repeated with force, grit turning to bitter poison in her throat. “Tell me!”
He gripped her shoulders when she attempted to rise, the morphine haze turning gravity on its head. “He’s still in surgery,” he replied calmly. Too calmly.
“I need to see him,” she breathed. “Take me right now.“
“You need to rest. You lost a lot of blood, they weren’t sure you’d—”
“You can’t see him. No one can.”
Her heartbeat migrated behind her eyes, thrumming erratically. “Please take me—”
“You’ve done all you can, Hermione. You saved his life in the tunnel.” He brushed the hair from her face as she collapsed into the pillows. “I’m so sorry. It’s up to the doctors now. We have to let them work.”
She turned her face away, wracked by painful sobs. They’d come too far, survived too much. She couldn’t lose him now, not in these final moments and not to a surgeon’s blade.
The door to her room opened. She surged upright with frenzied hope, blinking rapidly at the tall figure in the doorway.
“I heard talking,” the new arrival announced. “She awake?”
Disappointment was swift and crushing. “Give us a moment, Sirius,” Harry muttered, rubbing soothing circles down her spine as she curled at the edges.
“Of course. I just needed to see for myself. The Doctor scared the shite out of me, said she might die in her—”
“She’s alright,” her best friend asserted, resting his hand over hers. “Everything’s going to be alright…”
The rest of his words were lost to the deafening churn of her heartbeat, the world folding in on itself until only darkness remained.
Hermione gathered her skirts and bounded up the steps like a woman on fire, heart housed firmly in her throat as she stumbled on the landing, drawing steady against the massive doors and pulling them wide. The drone of street traffic was promptly swallowed by the chatter of the crowd within, every corner of the opulent lobby filled to burst. She inhaled a fortifying breath before braving the masses, shouldering her way through a sea of finely crafted suits and billowing skirts in her mad dash to the center. The buzz of conversation filled the void as her eyes drifted upward, latching onto the star-burst rafters.
The parrots are watching.
She blinked, taken aback by the outlandish notion. Her thoughts tended to wander these days, strange sights plaguing her daydreams since her release from St. Mungo’s weeks prior. The doctors claimed they were a likely side effect of the mysterious chemical cocktail she’d ingested, sure to fade with time. Truth be told, she wasn’t certain she wanted them to, the surreal visitations a welcome reprieve from the dark and lonely caverns of her mind. But for today, her focus was needed in the present, each distraction threatening to upend reality.
She rose on the balls of her feet before jumping in place, briefly glimpsing a world beyond the wall of heads and shoulders. A curl escaped its confines when she landed, swaying between her eyes like a mocking pendulum.
“Mione! Over here!”
She spun on her heel, smiling in relief. “Sorry,” she called, starting for the small gathering at the wall. “There was traffic on the thoroughfare, half of London must be here. You didn’t have to wait for me.”
“We just got here,” Padma replied. “Our flat is ten minutes away, it’s an easy walk.”
“I thought you were staying at the posh hotel downtown?”
Parvati crossed her arms on Hermione’s approach. “Blaise was paranoid I’d get bored and hump a bell-boy, so he’s locked us inside one of his ostentatious townhomes instead.”
“He’s trying to impress her,” her twin sighed. “He even hired staff for her to boss around.”
“And I sent them all home with full pay. I’m not some kept tart.”
“You were happy to redecorate the east wing.”
“Because I have eyes! If I’m forced to stay there I’m not staring at piss-yellow wallpaper each day.”
Hermione shook her head before turning her attention to the third member of their trio. “Hi Dawn, you look beautiful. How are you feeling?”
“A lot better,” the woman in question replied softly. “The doctors released me sooner than expected.”
“Where are you staying?”
“With us, of course. We’re painting her bedroom tomorrow.” Parvati glanced at the barren space beside Hermione. “Where’s Luna?”
“Neville said he’d bring her with Hannah. You know how punctual he is, they’re probably already seated.”
Padma linked her arm through Dawn’s. “Let’s go then.”
Hermione nodded, falling into step beside Parvati as they followed the bustling procession down the corridor. The press of strange arms made her skin itch, perspiration beading at her nape. Parvati peered sideways, taking Hermione’s hand and giving it an encouraging squeeze. “Nervous?”
“Terrified,” Hermione muttered, leaning into the woman’s side to avoid bumping a man to her left.
“It’s going to pass,” Parvati declared confidently, the echo of conversation reaching dizzying heights. “And if it doesn’t, we’ll break into the rich bastards’ homes and set fire to their toupees.”
“Hm. I was leaning towards sending a strongly worded letter, but your idea sounds much more satisfying.”
“I should go into politics.”
Hermione grinned as they passed beneath an archway and entered the massive theatre, footsteps radiating from every corner as audience members climbed the stands, benches steadily filling.
"There’s seats over here," Parvati yelled above the cacophony, pointing in a direction Hermione was too distracted to follow. Her attention was fixed upon the center of the room, searching out a familiar shock of white-blonde—
She turned with a jolt. Harry waved from across the room, Sirius to one side and Ron and Susan to the other. He’d reserved the space to his right but there was no room for the remaining girls. She smiled and shook her head, gesturing to the bench Parvati had successfully claimed through questionably violent means. She smoothed a hand along her front before perching gingerly between the sisters, eyes flickering about the room as bodies continued filtering inside, each bench packed within minutes.
Stragglers darted beneath the archway with seconds to spare, seeking refuge against the wall as the massive doors pulled shut with a final click. Her foot bounced restlessly, the incessant tapping devoured by the commotion of the crowd. The swarm of voices drove away complex thought until but one simple truth remained.
A group of strangers was about to decide her fate, altering the course of her life forever.
Draco thumbed rapidly through his notecards, sweat pooling across his brow and lower back as he hunted desperately for the fucking percentage—
“There’s our little study bee,” Blaise announced jovially, clapping his friend on the shoulder and jolting him forward. Draco scowled, nearly dropping the stack.
“I think you mean bookworm,” Theo mused, strolling in from his other side. “Nevertheless, neither endearment applies here seeing as Kingsley’s team provided all the research.”
“I did a shite-load on my own, arsehole.”
Theo leaned against the desk while Blaise gripped the back of Draco’s chair. “Nervous?” The former inquired.
“I’m about to spew like a firehose if you must know.”
“Fantastic. Aim for Matherson’s wig,” Blaise encouraged, eyeing the matted monstrosity from across the room. “I want to see if crows fly out.”
“I’m leaning towards bats,” Theo contended. “Or whatever remains of his dignity exploding in a puff of talcum powder—”
“Do you idiots mind? I’m trying to concentrate.”
“Want us to quiz you?” Blaise offered.
“This isn’t a multiple-choice exam.”
Theo tilted his head, viewing Draco at an angle that undoubtedly made him appear more unhinged. “Don’t worry, Malfoy. You’re going to be brilliant.”
Draco’s shoulders eased a fraction, fingers loosening upon the cards. “There’s no point in talking about it,” he clipped, the succinct response as close to a thank you as he could manage in his present state. But Theo seemed to interpret the hidden message just fine, offering a parting nod before starting towards the viewing stands.
Blaise began to follow, pacing backward as he spoke. “If you forget your lines start quoting Coriolanus, half the Committee’s too deaf to notice and the audience is uncultured swine.”
“Do you know anything from Coriolanus?”
“Course not. I’m the audience.”
Draco scrubbed a hand over his face. “Someone, please gag him.”
“We tried that years ago,” Theo called back. “He liked it too much.”
Draco shook his head and returned to his notes, engrossed in his opening statement when a halting shadow stretched across the desk, obscuring his hurried scrawl. He glanced up with a scowl but the accompanying curse died on his tongue, a welcomed sight towering above.
“How’s it coming along?” Kingsley inquired with easy confidence, completely at home in their gilded prison.
Draco swallowed tightly, on the verge of fainting. “Fantastic,” he muttered, a bead of sweat gliding past his temple. Kingsley smirked as Draco wiped it away, clutching the cards until his knuckles turned white. “I’m ready,” he asserted, feeling his heartbeat in his heels. “... I think.”
The Party Leader tipped his head and laughed, the rumbling baritone a soothing balm to his nerves. “You’ll be great, kid,” he offered warmly. “I have complete faith in you.”
The words sat heavily on his shoulders. Draco sank back in his chair, plagued by admiration and, most inexplicably, guilt. But before he could ponder the dichotomy another wave broke against the doors, a fresh surge of bodies flowing past. As per ritual, he scanned every face that entered, pupils dilating when he spotted her at long last. She was nestled among the faceless masses, visible only in pieces, but even the briefest glimpse of loosely plaited hair and periwinkle skirts leveled his staggering pulse enough to regain sensation in his legs.
He followed her progress until the stairs, some knuckle-dragging idiot blocking her from view. Draco faced forward with a heavy sigh, only to find Kingsley’s golden gaze fixed upon him.
“You’re sure you want to do this?”
Draco blinked, halted by the question. “Positive,” he replied on instinct, terrified beyond measure but no less confident in his answer.
Kingsley lifted his chin, grin reigniting. “Then give ‘em hell.”
Draco deflated with an exhale, taking the man’s departure as his cue to begin. The Moderator seemed to do the same, shouting above the hailstorm for everyone to find their seats. Draco started for the front of the room, the dense fog of conversation gradually lifting until his pounding heartbeat became the only sound in the universe.
The five stairs leading to the podium felt endless, exacerbated by a thousand needling eyes pricking his flesh from all sides. When he finally reached the summit a tremor seized his hand until he clutched the podium tight, facing the room and trying to recall how to breathe. He’d spoken at political gatherings before but never one so large, never for something so important and well-publicized. And never with her eyes upon him.
His father’s former Party members glared daggers from their table below, at least those who were present and awake. The group had thinned significantly these last few weeks, many under house-arrest while pending investigation, but the remaining bastards still had the numbers for a majority win, a fact Draco remained distinctly aware of as he centered his cards on the podium and turned his gaze upon the crowd.
His eyes sought their target on instinct, time fleeting when he spotted her encouraging grin in the third row. The Moderator’s droning introduction fell on deaf ears, the rest of the room coming back into focus only when she signaled him covertly.
Draco straightened, flushing as a member of the Opposition snickered from below. He ignored the slight and turned his focus outward. The crowd stared back with blatant expectation, his team included. He forced a grounding breath and lifted his chin, doing his utmost to emulate his father’s innate confidence.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he greeted at stage-volume, voice echoing off the domed-ceiling. “I’d like to extend my sincerest gratitude to Kingsley and his team for allowing me to speak at today’s session. The final gathering no less.”
Kingsley nodded from his chair below, lips quirked in amusement.
“Bloody traitor,” a member of the Opposition hissed, just loud enough for all the room to hear.
Draco’s stomach clenched but he refused to acknowledge the barb, focused on maintaining his steady volume. “To begin our discussion, I ask everyone to close their eyes.”
The reaction was as anticipated, the Opposition scoffing dramatically as the crowd exchanged glances of confusion. Draco loosened his death grip on the stand, tension easing with each passing second.
“I assure you, no one’s being assassinated today. At least not before the vote.” Laughter rippled through the stands as the audience followed his instruction at last. His gaze sought Hermione’s downturned lashes through no conscious decision of his own. “Now… picture London,” he prompted, eliciting a new wave of murmurs. “It’s not a trick. Imagine whatever comes to mind. The name alone should invoke a multitude of sights, sounds, and emotion unique to every one of us, wholly dependent upon our—”
“What’s the point of this moronic exercise?” One of his father’s protégés hissed. Hermione’s lids parted narrowly, searching for the disgruntled arse who interrupted.
“The point is that our city is rapidly evolving and ever-changing,” Draco replied civilly. “Adorning the identity of every age, ethnicity and gender found the world over. The Industrial Revolution ushered forth a new era of labor and our economy flourished from the soil of a diverse workforce, allowing us to become the most prosperous nation in the world.” The Opposition Leader, Matherson, crossed his arms, awarding his young adversary a patronizing stare. “But our position is a precarious one,” Draco pushed forth. “For a country is only as strong as its health allows which makes it imperative for medicine to remain at the forefront of innovation. We mustn't deny ourselves the next breakthrough, the next brilliant mind. Death and disease don’t care about race, gender, or upbringing and neither can we. Limiting our admission pool by half the population ties one hand behind our back in the endless fight against—”
“I can tell you spent a lot of time rehearsing this pretty little speech in front of the mirror, but let’s just cut to the chase, shall we?” Matherson drawled. “Women aren’t equipped to be doctors. It’s not a matter of preference or discrimination, it’s the scientific disposition of their birth.”
“He’s right,” another wig-adorned Lord spoke. “Women simply aren’t built for life or death situations, they crumble under stress. It’s the way nature made them, soft and delicate. Flowers to be treasured, not dunked in gallons of blood.”
“Women are already in the medical field,” one of Kingsley’s men argued. “They comprise over eighty-percent of the nursing workforce—”
“They aren’t holding a scalpel! There’s a difference, I assure you.”
Draco glanced at his cards. “The majority of British nurses are trained to assist during surgery and can even lead emergency operations during wartime—”
“We aren’t at war, young man.”
“Furthermore, the delicate nature you speak of has been thoroughly researched in the field of medicine. It’s known as empathy and allows for stronger bedside-manner and highly effective communication. Nurses also exhibit patient-centered care which lends towards fewer mistakes and reduced negligence—”
“This sounds like the type of liberal bullshite they’re pedaling out west. Did you borrow your speech from a Reconstructionist? Pretty soon you’ll be handing our jobs to foreigners because it promotes a sense of diversity.”
Draco ground his teeth, eyes narrowed on the row of scowling faces below. “There’s a gross shortage of qualified doctors in this country, opening our admission process is necessary to meet the rising demand of a growing population. If we refuse to educate half of our population then we'll be forced to turn to foreign aid for help.” More men scoffed, averting their attention with bellowing laughs. Draco brushed his notes aside and braced the podium, seized by a wild thrill. “Or perhaps the real problem is you don’t trust women?” A ripple of murmurs traveled the length of the room while the Opposition squirmed like beetles in their chairs. “Of course not,” Draco smiled darkly. “They’re only good for preparing your meals and raising your children—”
“I don’t want a woman to see me naked!” Matherson growled.
“And your wife is grateful to be spared the horror,” Draco said crisply, the room exploding with laughter as Matherson flushed to the tips of his ears, face twisted in disdain. “And what about women who aren’t comfortable with a man seeing them naked? What alternatives are they afforded?”
“That’s not the same thing—”
“For the record,” another Opposition member drawled, “I wouldn’t mind a pretty lass poking and prodding me with all types of instruments. Hell, I might actually look forward to my annual check-up. But this isn’t about proving themselves strong and independent, it’s about taking responsibility. Women belong with the family. Men can’t be mothers.”
“Thank you for that reminder, Patrick,” Draco replied drolly. “But not all women are mothers. Regardless, having children and maintaining a career aren’t mutually exclusive. Mothers and wives become teachers and nurses every day and no one bats an eye. Low-income households depend on dual—”
“There’s a difference between pulling levers at the saw-mill and cutting open a man’s chest.”
“And most can barely manage that,” Matherson readily agreed. “Accidents are through the roof since factories started letting women inside.”
“The majority of accidents are attributed to male workers,” Draco supplied flatly.
“Because women are bloody distractions!”
“In that case, we shouldn't trust male physicians with their female clientele. Certainly they’ll lose control every time they see a pair of breasts—”
“Draco,” Kingsley warned from below, earning his gaze. The enigmatic leader shook his head, the message clear. Stay the course.
Draco exhaled swiftly, reining in his self-control before turning his attention to the bristling crowd. “This isn’t an avant-garde social experiment. We’ve been admitting women into nursing school for hundreds of years and America began accepting female medical students over two decades ago. Every single one of them has graduated with top honors and moved into a successful career—”
“America! Ha! Their doctors couldn’t stitch two napkins together!”
“— with no scandals or malpractice suits to speak of,” Draco concluded loudly, patience rapidly dwindling.
“Women still too delicate—”
“— vengeful and irrational!”
“Which is it?” Draco called over the riot. “Delicate angels or viscous harpies?” The Opposition exploded alongside half the crowd, voices merging into a single, mind-numbing hum that filled every corner of his skull. Draco rubbed his temples, wondering how his father endured the circus for so many years, how anyone could thrive off such insanity.
“I understand your fear!” He shouted, cutting through the dense chatter. “Change is terrifying. The course of my life has altered so drastically these past few months I barely recognize myself or the world around me.” He resisted the urge to look at Hermione, certain he felt her eyes upon him. “Yet everything that’s happened has allowed me to understand your dispositions. Power is limited. In order to wield it, one must take it from the hands of another. You think empowering women will deny you and your sons. But this isn’t a war waged against faceless strangers, there’s no enemy at the gates. These are your daughters, your nieces, and wives. The girls you raised and the women you love, members of your family and trusted inner-circle. The ones you educated and shaped and swore to protect. Are you truly so terrified of them? Or are you afraid they’ll abandon you? Have you given them a reason to?”
An all-consuming hush swept the room as every eye set upon him. He met the challenge without fear, wings born from adrenaline.
“You fear women will turn away from the role of caretaker when medicine is designed for such proclivities. Child-rearing is a sacred, thankless duty requiring endless devotion and sacrifice. Who else would we want to treat our sick? We trust nurses to amputate limbs and midwives to deliver infants, we know they have the skills and fortitude to perform life-saving tasks. There’s no denying such a simple truth. Women have prospered in every discipline they’ve been allowed to enter. Their limitations lie not in their god-given nature but in their country’s government.” He turned to the Opposition, ripping a page from his father’s playbook and striking for the jugular. “Don’t be an artifact of the past, a footnote on the wrong side of history. The world is advancing and the only way to remain ahead is to take the first plunge. This vote will eventually pass, deep down you know it’s merely a matter of time. The only question is whether you want to be the brave Reformers who made it all possible or the faceless Dissenters no one remembers in thirty years.”
The aging Party glanced between each other, tension creasing their faces another decade. Draco tasted victory on the back of his tongue as Matherson’s prominent nose twitched. “Says the boy with no wife or daughters of his own,” the man relayed corrosively. “Rumor has it you’re only standing here to impress a girl who wants nothing to do with you.”
The blow struck its mark with lethal precision but Draco refused to yield. “I’m standing here because it’s what I believe in. Everyone should be free to journey their own path. As it stands, women have the choice of starting a family or joining a nunnery. It’s unacceptable. You don’t have to share my sentiment to support the cause. Truth be told, this bill affects your personal lives very little.” He leaned into the podium and launched his next assault where it surely counted the most. Their egos. “But the impact on your political careers is far-reaching. If this vote fails, picketers will gather on the steps outside your offices come rain or shine. Eventually, the Suffragettes will catch wind and then you'll really be in for a treat.” A sea of groans followed. Draco smirked. “Then there are the discrimination lawsuits to consider. You’ll be in and out of court for years and the migraine will last for decades longer. On the reverse, if this Act prospers with your names attached you’ll be guaranteed renewed funding for the projects you’re truly invested in.” He arched his brow, apprehension a faded memory. “The future is coming, gentlemen. Today’s vote simply decides whether you’ll stand atop it or be crushed beneath its weight.”
A tremor of anxiety rattled the Opposition table as the crowd tittered with excitement, whispering animatedly. Matherson blinked, inspecting his fellow members with thinly-veiled disdain. “You can’t seriously be considering this nonsense?”
His associate at the end of the row scratched beneath his wig. “He makes a good point—”
“Female doctors? Are you out of your bloody minds?”
“The vote will eventually pass, John,” another member sighed. “If not today then in another few years. America’s admitting women across the country, Harvard just accepted their first female applicant—”
“I won’t consider it! This is a child’s game and I’m done entertaining its ludicrousy!”
Draco gripped the sides of the podium, nails digging grooves into the wood as he forced his gaze upward, seeking her out before ripping the stand from its bolts. She shook her head once, patient countenance easing the violent urges burning through his stomach lining.
“We’ve heard your thoughts on the matter, John,” Kingsley stated calmly, rising from the head of his table to face all the Lords. “Let’s take a preliminary vote, shall we?”
Matherson huffed, sinking into his chair as the Moderator stepped forward and slammed his gavel, earning the collective gaze of the room.
“All in favor of allowing the Medical Act to pass, raise your hand!”
Naturally, every arm behind Kingsley lifted, Draco’s included. The other side glanced around warily, no one wanting to make the first move until finally, slowly, a tentative palm rose, followed by another and another until, by some profound miracle, half the Opposition sat in agreement. Draco blinked, his stuttering pulse overtaking Matherson’s colorful string of expletives.
“The majority has spoken,” the Moderator announced, slamming his gavel with finality. “The Medical Act passes, repealing all previous legislation on the matter. Every accredited medical university is enabled and required to grant qualifications to all people without the distinction of sex, effective immediately.”
Draco slumped into the podium as the crowd burst from their seats, a lion’s roar of shouting and applause vibrating the floor. But his gaze sought the same corner of the room, searching her out from the frenzy of movement and noise. She was embracing Parvati, their clinging bodies rotating until her reddened gaze met his. She grinned over her friend’s shoulder, a tear slipping from the corner of her eye. Draco swallowed thickly, crossing his arms over the podium and mirroring her expression.
Harry’s applause tapered off as the crowd broke apart, everyone clustering together as they migrated for the doors. He met Hermione’s eye from across the room, laughing as she was seized in yet another hug.
“About time we had a doctor in the family,” Sirius spoke from beside him, arms stretching overhead. “I wonder how soon before she can start writing prescriptions.”
“We should let her get her medical license first, then we can focus on making her lose it.”
“Fair enough. Let’s grab some dinner to celebrate, everyone’s invited.”
Harry nodded absently, attention drifting. “Sounds good,” he murmured, finding who he wanted in seconds. His pulse throbbed as Theo turned swiftly, seeming to feel the eyes upon him. Sirius arched a brow, following the direction of Harry’s focus.
“You round up the troops,” his godfather instructed with a smirk. “I’ll hail a couple of carriages.”
Harry nodded, dropping his gaze with a flush. “Sure. I’ll meet you out front in a few minutes.”
His godfather chuckled, joining the sea of foot traffic on its way out. Harry counted to ten, waiting until he lost sight of the man before turning on his heel and cutting a determined path across the room.
Draco stifled a groan as another eager hand clamped down on his shoulder. “Brilliant work, Malfoy!” Another passing idiot clapped his back, jolting him forward. “Great job, young man!”
He pasted on a brittle smile and dodged the next unwelcome hand in his path, seeking refuge at his desk.
“Impressive, kid,” a deep voice commended.
He gazed up from the task of gathering paperwork, smile turning genuine. “Thank you, Sir.”
“You made me proud today,” Kingsley continued, leaning against the edge of the table. “You’ve made your father proud as well.”
The air quickly soured. Draco averted his gaze, crumpling a loose page. “I highly doubt that.”
“Lucius doesn’t give two-shites about women entering the medical field. He doesn’t care about the majority of cases he argues. He just loves to argue, almost as much as he loves to win.”
“You know him well.”
“Since we were boys. He’s a skilled tactician, a natural-born leader. And he’d be immensely proud to know his son is following those same footsteps.”
“I don’t think this life is for me,” Draco admitted, stuffing parchment into his briefcase. “I can’t stomach the bureaucratic bullshite, no offense to your chosen profession.”
“None taken,” Kingsley chuckled. “The red-tape is frustrating at the best of times, I’ll admit. But unlike the majority of legislators, you actually care about the issues. You’re the type of person who should go into politics.”
Draco closed the lid, staring fixedly at the clasps. “I care about this issue.”
“The Medical Act bleeds into a dozen other policies, so on and so forth. You care about one, you care about a hundred others. That’s how it works.”
“I lack the adequate emotional capacity for such an endeavor.”
Deep laughter followed his words. “You’re young, you have too much emotional capacity.”
“So I keep hearing,” Draco muttered, scrubbing a hand over his face.
Kinglsey tilted his head. “Like it or not, Parliament is in your blood. When you’ve explored and exhausted your other options, there’s a spot waiting for you on my team.”
Draco rocked back, floored by the generous offer. “I… I’m honored, Sir.” His mind outpaced his heart, words difficult to find. “But…” Kingsley folded his arms, waiting patiently. “I couldn’t set foot in this place every day. This was my father’s kingdom, there are too many ghosts roaming the halls.” He peered sideways, met by a half-dozen glares. “And most of them are sodding arseholes.”
Kingsley followed his gaze, offering a smile and nod to the irate Lords lingering in the Theatre. “There are positions outside of London, outside of England. In fact, I’m looking for someone to help out at our Italian embassy. They’re having issues with their general election, the Prime Minister—”
“What about America?” Draco voiced, taken aback by his own eagerness.
Kingsley’s attention snapped forward. “Have your heart set on anything in particular?”
“Tilden and Hayes are running a controversial campaign and the electoral college is a shite show. It’ll all come to a head in November, there’s going to be a lot of policy to iron out.”
“You follow American politics?”
“I find it fascinating,” Draco confessed, pulse racing as Kingsley’s grin caught flame.
“Well, then. You’re going to love Washington.”
Hermione gasped, shaking with laughter as she was hauled into yet another tight embrace. “Congratulations!” Hannah squealed into her hair. “I’m so excited for you!”
“A doctor,” Padma beamed, clapping her hands in excitement. “This is incredible!”
“A lifetime supply of heroin,” her twin mused. “I’ve never been so proud.”
“Let’s not forget cocaine,” Blaise added, strolling in behind Parvati to loop his arms around her waist. “A balanced diet is the key to good health. Isn’t that right, Dr. Granger?”
Hermione rolled her eyes, gently untangling from Hannah. “The Act doesn’t make me a doctor. I still have to attend medical school, if I can even—”
“You’ll get in,” everyone deadpanned at once, infusing her chest with warmth.
Parvati leaned into Blaise, only to twist from his hold as his chin rested atop her head. “You’ll flatten my hair!”
“You were happy to flatten it last night,” he murmured, nipping her neck. “And twice this morning.”
“I see enough hair-flattening at the house,” Padma sighed. “I’m going to get some fresh air. Congratulations again, Hermione.”
“Thank you, Padma, but this win belongs to all of us.”
“Christ, you’re as bad as Malfoy,” Blaise groaned. “Pretty sure the arrogant bastard’s gunning for sainthood.”
Hermione glanced over her shoulder, searching the tables. “I need to—”
"Thank him properly," Parvati concluded, settling into her beau’s embrace. "You most certainly do. There are some curtains near the back, if you keep the volume down you can probably—"
“Thank you, Parvati!” Hermione snapped, already en route to the stage. “And I highly suggest having your drapes steam-cleaned!”
Her friend’s laughter faded to the backdrop as she crossed the floor, slowing when she spotted Draco and Kingsley in deep discussion. She squinted in a half-hearted attempt at reading their lips but her subterfuge was soon discovered. Kingsley beamed over his protégés’ shoulder, waving her forward. “Ms. Granger. I was pleased to see you in the audience today. I imagine you have a busy autumn ahead of you now.”
“Indeed,” she replied, smiling politely. “Though it still feels a bit surreal. I think it’ll really set in when I submit my application.”
Draco shifted at her side, taking a subtle step back. Kingsley caught the movement, glancing between them with a widening grin. “Well, I’m off to bask in the tears of our fallen enemies.” He winked. “Feel free to join me later, Malfoy.”
“Sounds marvelous,” Draco replied, shaking the man’s hand and watching his departure. Hermione shuffled awkwardly, clearing her throat as the silence stretched thin.
“You were incredible, Draco. Thank you so much for—”
“You don’t have to thank me,” he said, facing her slowly. “It was the right thing to do.”
“That doesn’t make me appreciate it any less. Thank you for believing in the words and having the courage to speak them aloud. You’ve helped change history.”
“I only delivered the final argument. The Bill belongs to all the people who spent years—”
“Bloody hell, you take a compliment worse than me.”
His wry grin made her breathe easier. “How are you?” He asked, the sudden shift throwing her for a loop. Then she noticed the direction of his gaze and straightened.
“Oh!” She peered at her arm, skimming the sleeve and scar tissue beneath. “Fine. Just a scratch.”
“They wouldn’t let me visit you at St. Mungo’s.”
Her gaze snapped forward, regret heavy in his voice. “I know. The police were in and out at all hours, they must have taken my statement a hundred times. Only Harry and Sirius were permitted entry. But they told me you stopped by—”
“Every day,” she echoed, smiling softly. The tension between them continued to linger, making it as good a time as any to ask her next question. “Where’s your father?”
He released a heavy sigh, propping against the table and crossing his arms. “Barricaded in the mansion. He holds his House Chair as a formality, he won’t be showing his face in public for months.”
“Is that how long it takes the world to forget?”
“Unfortunately. The public will be onto the next scandal in a week’s time.”
She shook her head, absently palming her scar. “And your mother?”
“You don’t have to pretend, Hermione.”
“There’s no love lost between Narcissa and myself,” she admitted. “But that doesn’t mean I wish her to suffer. She’s important to you.”
He rubbed his eyes, fatigue palpable. “Mum refuses to leave her bedroom and only eats when I beg her to.”
“I’m so sorry, Draco.” She started reaching forward, halting the gesture when he leaned back. Her hand dropped, curling at her side. “Is there anything I can do?”
“There’s nothing to be done. She has to find her way through, same as the rest of us.”
She sensed the finality in his voice and knew it best to drop the matter. Her fingers interlocked, eager to fidget. “So…” she began tentatively. “I couldn’t help but overhear the tail end of your conversation with Kingsley…” He tilted his head, watching her steadily. “America?” She asked.
“We were just talking. I doubt anything will—”
“You should do it.”
His gaze sparked, sharp and accusing.
“You need to get away from your father’s shadow without sacrificing your career,” she explained quickly. “You were brilliant today, Draco, imagine all the good you could do in government.”
“You think I should move to America?”
“Not permanently,” she clarified hastily. “But a temporary post may do you good. I’d like to get away, too. I’ve never been so jealous of Harry’s assignments.”
His agitation calmed, pale gaze raking her face. “They have medical schools in America, you know.”
“The thought had occurred to me,” she admitted.
He laced his hands over his thigh, shaking his head. “No. You’ve fought too hard to leave now. This Act belongs to you, it’s only right you be the first to take advantage of it.”
“I still have to get in—”
“You’ll get in.”
She bit her lip, cheeks flushing when he stared at her mouth. “Will you come to dinner with us?” She asked.
“Thank you for the offer.” His jaw ticked. “But I need to check on mum.”
“It’s alright, Hermione. Go celebrate. Don’t worry about me.”
Her brow creased, body canting forward. “I’ll always worry about you, I lo—”
“Don’t,” he whispered sharply, eyes glinting in warning. “Don’t say it.”
She swallowed thickly, the murmur of the crowd falling away as the room slowly cleared. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” he breathed, carding fingers through his hair. “I just… need some time.”
“You should go,” he said, staring at the reflection on his shoe. “They’re waiting for you.”
Her hands twisted in her skirts. “Will I see you soon?”
“Undoubtedly.” His eyes flickered up, silver grin handsome and forced. “It appears all of our friends are dating.”
Despite the hollowness of his tone, she laughed at the statement. “Seems we’ve all gone mad.”
His smile cracked, the burden too great to bear alone. Her arm throbbed as he pretended to fuss with the briefcase at his side, overcome by a warring need to provide comfort and slap the shite out of him.
“Draco… whether I say it or not… I still feel it.”
His jaw clenched so tightly it was amazing his teeth didn’t shatter. “I know,” he murmured, throat bobbing high as he traced a gleaming clasp with his thumb. “I just wish you felt it like I do.”
Tears pooled behind her eyes, as trapped as the words in her throat.
“Goodnight, Hermione,” he replied in her stead.
She inhaled for as long as she could, wishing it was possible to drown on air. “Goodnight,” she repeated, studying his profile like so many times before. He appeared the same yet, somehow, vastly different. She wondered if there would come a day when she didn’t recognize him at all.
The notion pained her as she forced a step back, and then another and another until her knees took up the motion of their own accord. Her thoughts became clouded with all the things she didn’t say, couldn’t say, and when she reached the towering archway she slowed, desperate to look back. But she managed to overcome the urge, certain Draco would read the guilt in her eyes and know the truth…
Her next destination wasn’t the restaurant.
Harry watched Theo’s steady approach, unable to contain his grin. The majority of the room was preoccupied, lost to celebration or tense debate. Though if eyes were upon them, he certainly wouldn’t have noticed or cared, the rest of the world falling away the moment Theo arrived before him.
“Quite the turnout,” Harry mused, grasping for an easy topic. “I didn’t know so many people cared about medicine.”
“They don’t. They care about history being made.” Theo’s sapphire gaze drifted to the front of the room where Hermione engaged Kingsley and Draco in a discussion. “Granger looks happy.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her like this.” Harry warmed at the sight. “She deserves something good, something to call her own.”
“I think we’ve all earned that,” Theo sighed, earning his companion’s gaze. “Freedom,” he continued.
Harry watched him carefully. “Thank you, Theo.”
The man peered sideways. “For what?”
“Everything,” Harry stated earnestly. “I couldn’t have gotten through any of this without you.”
“I beg to differ. I only joined your little adventure club at the ninth hour—”
“You were with me long before then.”
Theo’s eyes glimmered, voice canting low. “Father’s gone,” he divulged, leaving Harry to blink slowly. “Still alive, unfortunately. Though he’s currently in the Alps so it’s only a matter of time until he chokes to death on clean air.”
“He went to Switzerland?”
“Left for the retreat last weekend, tail tucked firmly between his legs.”
“For how long?”
“The rest of his life, if he has any functional brain cells left. Which is debatable. Scotland Yard is dying to drag him before the magistrate.”
Harry’s shoulders drew level. “He was a part of the trafficking ring?”
“Please,” Theo scoffed. “He isn’t sober long enough to shave, little less conspire. In his formaldehyde-soaked haze, it seems he forgot to pay his taxes. For two decades.”
Harry lifted a brow. “I thought you handled the finances?”
“I did, using the doctored books Parkinson provided. He’s been our accountant since I was born and skimming money off the top since I learned to walk.”
“I read about his arrest,” Harry muttered, scratching his head as he summoned the memory of the bold headline. “Felony tax-evasion and grand larceny?”
“Pansy collected evidence of his off-shore accounts, then convinced her mum to drain their remaining funds before he posted bail.”
“Clever girl,” Harry commended. “I suppose this postpones the engagement party? A shame. I bought you a swan-shaped gravy boat, real classy shite. I guess I can—”
“The wedding’s off.”
Harry’s grin faded as static filled his ears. “What?”
“Pansy and I burned the contract, lit cigars, and got blitzed in celebration.”
“Her father may beat the charges—”
“He’s in financial ruins, same as mine. Their leverage is gone.” Sunlight radiated from Theo’s limbs, spilling from his mouth. “We’re free.”
Harry exhaled, something heavy pressing his chest. “Congratulations on not getting married.”
“Thank you, we’re very excited.”
Harry laughed, light-headed and dazed. “So—” he scrambled for coherent thought. “What’s your plan now?”
“For the rest of the day or the rest of my life?”
“They’re one and the same.”
Harry blinked, mood rapidly sobering as Theo edged closer, the temperature rising until the walls caught flame and scorched earth laid at their feet. But a sharp laugh near the doorway brought reality crashing overhead, reminding him that they weren’t alone, were never alone, and a broken engagement brought them no closer to finding peace and solitude.
“I’m leaving,” Harry announced abruptly, halting Theo mid-step. “In two days,” he clarified, shoulders aching with the weight of each word. “A twelve-week tour of the Ivory Coast, with a likely extension afterward.”
Theo’s throat bobbed, jaw working silently before speaking the question aloud. “Is it dangerous?”
“Not really. There’s been some civil unrest since France withdrew. The trading posts are being raided, locals executed in the street, we’re going to help sort it out.”
“So by not really you mean yes, extremely.”
Harry’s cheeks dimpled. “I feel guilty cashing a paycheck if I’m not being shot at.”
“That isn’t funny.”
“Suppose you have to be there.”
Theo shook his head, carding a hand through his dark locks. “Two days?”
His lover nodded, gaze drifting in avid thought. “Guess I’ll have to endure your snoring until then. We’ll stay at mine.”
Harry’s abdomen tightened. “I don’t snore.”
“You sound like a tuba that’s been fished out of a collection bin.”
“I see. Well, at least I don’t chirp.”
Theo rocked back at the accusation. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You turn into a dying parakeet when you sleep on your back.”
“You're an arse.”
“I thought I was a defunct brass instrument played by hobos in the street?”
"That too," Theo smirked. "Alright, neither of us is allowed to sleep tonight."
Harry’s grin threatened to split his face in two. “Somehow, I think we can manage.”
Hermione crossed the checkerboard tiles two at a time, stopping before the reception desk with a carefully-crafted grin. “Good evening,” she greeted, pretending not to hear the answering groan. “I’m here to see—”
“We’re all very aware, Ms. Granger,” the nurse replied tersely.
She folded her hands primly, cheeks tinging pink. “I apologize for the other night, Ma’am. I realize you were simply doing your job—”
“He’s been cleared for visitors.”
She gripped the counter for purchase. “Really? But yesterday—”
“The Doctor approved the order this morning.”
“Thank you!” She cried, sprinting for the hall before the woman had even finished speaking.
“Visiting hours end in forty-five minutes!” The nurse yelled, her warning falling on deaf ears as Hermione burst through the double doors and narrowly avoided collision with an empty gurney. She rounded the corner in a blur, counting off rooms until reaching the door at the end, the barrier ajar with faint movement inside. She lifted a hand but hesitated, heart thrumming as she knocked gently.
“Enter,” a feminine voice replied. Hermione blinked, wasting no time pushing through.
A nurse stood at the window organizing a pill tray, the evening sun stretching her shadow across the far wall and illuminating the bed in golden hues. Hermione struggled to breathe, invisible hands wrapping her throat as she laid eyes upon him for the first time in a fortnight.
“… Hello,” she offered softly, rooted to the floor by his gleaming stare.
“Ms. Granger,” he murmured, mouth curving upward as though privy to her frenzied sprint down the hall. The sleep-thickened greeting pulled warmth to her neck, wrists throbbing at the intimacy it conveyed. Her gaze alighted to his overgrown locks and darkened stubble, hands fidgeting with the effort of keeping her focus above jawline. The endeavor was worsened by his exposed chest and abdomen, bare skin affording easy access to the thick bandages stacked beneath his shoulder and waist. But his partial nudity didn’t seem to phase him in the least, smirk tugging higher before shaping the rest of his greeting. “I’ve been expecting you.”
The nurse looked up, hearing something in the gravel of his voice that caused her to flush and glance between them. “I’ll… be back in a little while,” she announced quickly, setting her tray aside and scurrying for the door. Hermione moved out of her way, nodding politely as she strode past, the door shutting with a loud click.
And then there were two.
She rotated slowly, the room growing impossibly small as the current continued to rise, washing away everything but his immovable presence at the center. “I tried coming sooner but you weren’t allowed company,” she whispered, eager to hear him speak again.
“I know. I heard you arguing with the staff outside my room.”
“How strange. You must have been dreaming.”
“Hm.” He leaned into the pillows, eyes cast violet by the evening sun. “I must have been.”
She laughed softly, unaware her sight had betrayed her until it was too late. Amusement melted behind her tongue as she stared upon his lips and chin, following a trail of dark stubble over his jaw, past the swell of his Adam’s apple, propelled by a primal force she was helpless to out-reason. Shadows pooled in the hollow of his throat and across the ridge of his collarbone, into the narrow valley between his pectorals. She came to her senses when the bandages met her path, upturning a pitcher of ice water down her spine.
The dressings were clean and white but invoked blood-soaked memories with an artist’s palette. The crime scene was carved into their flesh, a mapwork of trauma impossible to decipher. But Hermione didn’t need to retrace their scars to relive the horror of that night; it played before her eyes every time she drew the curtains and turned out the light. The scenes often rearranged themselves but the opening act was one and the same, a deafening gunshot ringing through her skull like a cannon blast, its ground-shaking force driving her to her knees. The ghost of labored breathing would rise from the floor and a cold mist would fill her lungs, warm blood dripping between each finger—
“Your final surgery was a success,” she breathed, scrambling out of the well before the darkness took her completely. “They recovered all the shrapnel.”
“So I’ve heard.” He peered at the largest bandage with little interest. “Seems I have a fetching new scar to add to the collection.” His eyes lifted to her sleeve. “As do you.”
She placed a palm to her wound, severed nerves masking the touch. “I do hate being left out.”
“A lesson I learned the night we met.”
She pressed down firmly, red light glinting off the pane as the sun slowly set. The silence returned with a comfortable embrace, bringing to mind the relief she felt upon emerging from his wardrobe after narrowly avoiding her Matron’s wrath. The first time she saw him, fully and truly, encased in moonlight with a silver grin.
“Well?” He prompted, plucking her cleanly from the memory. “Don’t leave me in suspense.” The sun sank lower on the horizon, causing him to turn the dial on the bedside lantern. “How did they vote?”
“Oh!” She grinned, launched forward by excitement. “The Act passed!”
“Congratulations.” He sounded pleased, watching her drag a wooden chair towards the bed.
“I haven’t accomplished anything yet. I still have to get into medical school—”
“You’ll pass your exams with soaring colors.”
His tone brokered no room for dissent. She lowered to the seat, heat prickling behind her neck. “I’ll still need a sponsor.”
“Doctors should be queued around the block for the honor. But if they’re too foolish to recognize your potential, I’ll volunteer for the task.”
The casual offer triggered another flood of warmth. She shook her head. “I would never ask you to—”
“We’re past that, Hermione.” The lantern flickered, its orange flame burning steady in his gaze. “Come here.”
The chords of his voice slithered off the bed and across the floor, dark tendrils coiling around her ankles and winding up her calves, propelling her out of the chair before her mind could even process the command. Her senses returned when her knees bumped the side of the cot, an embarrassed gasp flitting past her thundering heart.
“Closer,” he beckoned, low and amused.
“You’re still recovering—”
She met his gaze and promptly froze, higher reasoning fractured by the scene presented before her. His lips were quirked in a sleepy, secretive grin, pupils blown wide beneath heavy lids and pillow-mussed hair. His linen pants were wrinkled and bunched, shoulders loose and throat bared. Simply put, Tom Riddle was completely undone, and what’s more, he appeared completely unaffected by that fact.
She blinked quickly, struggling to consolidate this portrait with the one she carried in her mind. But the longer she stared the more deeply the image embedded until it became the only version she recognized, dark suits and brooding stares overwritten by warm skin and tangled sheets.
The spell was broken by fingertips grazing her wrist. His eyes shone dark with expectation, the dare laid at her feet. She relented with a sigh and perched on the far edge of the mattress, a sneeze away from toppling to the floor. Her stubbornness only served to entertain him further, gaze tracking down her body with agonizing slowness. The leisurely path of his focus made her hyper-aware of her haggard state, hair tangled and dress askew from her cross-city dash.
“You saved me,” he murmured, the unexpected admission nestling in her spine. He reached forward, skimming her corset as she struggled to form an adequate response.
“I just kept you stable long enough for the medic to arrive.”
“You brought me back to life.” Calloused fingertips traced invisible patterns across the whalebone netting. She watched their movements carefully, wondering if this was merely a side effect of too much morphine.
“It wasn’t difficult,” she whispered. “Your time wasn’t up.”
“I suppose it wasn’t.” He hummed deeply, hand settling atop her lap. “After all, I promised you could drive a blade through my heart.”
Her gaze flickered up, catching the spark in his grin. “An offer I fully intend to seize,” she vowed, pleasure splintering outward as his laughter shook the cot. But the moment was short-lived, dimmed by a familiar stormcloud passing overhead.
“Tell me what happened,” he said, not bothering to sand the edges into a request. Once upon a time, the razor’s edge in his voice would have frightened her. Now she leaned closer, tasting the same metal at the back of her throat.
“He died screaming. Choked by his own poison.”
His chest expanded, savoring the sting of each word. “You’re certain?”
“Positive. But we can have the river searched if you’d—”
“The current was strong that night, his body could be halfway to Hampton.”
His frustration was readily apparent. She grasped the hand in her lap, squeezing in assurance. “He’s dead, Tom. I promise.”
Long fingers twitched as she traced the lines on his palm. “Tell me the rest,” he beckoned, calmer, deeper. As much as her gentle caress soothed him, his request infused her entire being with dread. She’d known the question would find her eventually and was given adequate time to prepare, but whenever she’d tried formulating a response the words refused to come.
The same tug-of-war wreaked havoc upon her now, inadequate lies and condemning truths pulling her apart. She released his hand and glanced away, only to be captured by those same fingers on her chin. The blurring reflex startled her, dispelling any doubts concerning his sobriety.
“Tell me,” he repeated, patient and firm.
“You’ll think I’m mad,” she whispered.
“Perhaps.” The pad of his thumb stroked her jaw, stopping at the edge of her mouth. “But I’ll still believe you.”
She leaned into his touch like a cat starved of affection, though it was understanding her heart hungered for most. In the days following her release, she had shared her broken dreams with Padma and Dawn, desperate for answers, for credence. But it was quickly made apparent such hope was hers alone, neither girl eager to retrieve their lost time. Hermione didn’t blame them in the slightest, their experiences deviating so greatly from her own. Were the tables turned, Hermione knew she would covet her amnesia as much as she detested it now.
So, out of respect to their recovery, she had taken up a spade and buried the past. But denying the memories didn’t free her of their presence, it merely encouraged them to warp and distort, shaping to fit whatever dark corner of her imaginings they could find.
“I don’t always believe it myself,” she confessed. “The images are faded. They come over me like flashes in the dark, gone before I can make sense of them. It’s a fantasy within a dream, so many layers to peel back. But with the things I’ve seen, I’m not certain I want to find what’s at the center.”
His hand lowered. She leaned forward, instinctually chasing its warmth. “You saw her,” he prompted, exposing the beating heart of his curiosity. The question brought to mind an inexplicable oddity. A golden orb, blinding even in memory. She turned to face him fully, legs folding over the bed until her knees rested atop his thigh. They sat in the belly of the leviathan, walls buckling with the creature’s every breath. But their gazes held, blind to the world beyond the four corners of their mattress.
“I don’t remember what I saw… I can’t recall if it was something I read… I only know the certainty, the overwhelming feeling of it.”
He watched her carefully, chest barely moving. “Of what?”
“A mother’s love.” She leaned closer, hands stacking atop his knee. “I know she adored you, Tom. You were her purpose, her strength, the only reason she held on for as long as she did.”
He scrubbed a hand over his face and tipped his head back, staring at the chipped ceiling as though it revealed some profound insight. “I killed my father,” he said at last, barely above a whisper.
She nodded slowly, absorbing the admission in stride. “I know.”
Her throat grew tight, too narrow for speech. She squeezed his knee instead.
“I murdered an innocent man,” he continued, tone flat and eyes clouded.
“He wasn’t innocent,” she amended firmly. This would not become the next albatross around his neck. “Your father wasn’t under Grindelwald's influence in the beginning. He could have reported the treatments when he first learned about—”
“He was trying to protect her.”
Hermione set her jaw, sensing a fruitless argument in her midst. Riding into battle at his side was an idle pastime she was happy to partake in, but inner-demons were his to conquer alone. “You can’t dwell on this, Tom. Let the past die and vanquish the Dollmaker for good. It’s what your parents would want. It’s how you can honor their memories.”
He brought his eyes forward, familiar and comforting darkness housed at their center. “More are out there.”
“Dolls.” The sun finally sank beneath the smoke-stack skyline, its dying rays painting the city red. “He sold them for decades. Only a fraction were at the auction.”
“I thought about that, too,” she confessed. “Perhaps Bones can help locate earlier victims.”
“Scotland Yard recovered the Lestranges’ purchase logs. They contain dozens of names and addresses from across the globe.”
“Bones visited you?” She straightened. “When?”
He turned his attention to the window, unaffected by her rising agitation. “A couple of days ago.”
“They let him inside but I was banned?” Her eyes narrowed. “That’s ridiculous! I filled out a visitor request form every single day—”
“Focus,” he murmured, fingers slipping behind her wrist as he watched the street lamps ignite below.
“Right.” She flushed, realizing just how foolish she sounded. “I’m glad you were allowed at least one visitor. Well then, I suppose we should start by contacting the governments in each—”
“It’s too much red tape. We’d be risking the women’s lives by getting the authorities involved. We don’t know who to trust at home, little less abroad.”
“Then we’ll send officers—”
“I’ve discussed it with the Commissioner.” His tone was bracing, expression carefully blank when it faced her again. “He doesn't have the manpower to spare. Neither does Albus, not without the Queen’s approval. And getting the Crown involved would cause a legal hailstorm.”
She drew back, knowing exactly where this was headed but needing to hear it aloud. “What are you suggesting, Tom?”
“I’m going,” he answered simply, stroking her wrist to soothe the blow. But the coaxing touch did nothing to silence the ringing in her ears, the prospect so obscene her nose twitched with the rising pressure.
“You’ve just had major surgery!”
“I’ll be released soon.”
“That’s irrelevant! You’re in no condition to travel!”
“My lung is healed—”
“But your ribs aren’t, not to mention your other wounds! You’re at severe risk of infection and your stitches haven’t even—”
“Someone has to do it, Hermione.”
His calm demeanor only riled her further. She breathed deeply, switching to another tactic. “Alright, fine. At least let me come with—”
“I want you to focus on medical school. I’ll have a much easier time maneuvering the streets alone.”
She pulled her hand from his grasp. “So that’s it then? You’re just going to embark on an International Liberation Spree whilst trying to avoid pneumonia and murder?”
“I wouldn’t have put it so eloquently—”
“This isn’t a joke!”
“Then I’ll refrain from laughing.”
She rubbed her throbbing temples and turned away. “I can’t—”
“Hermione.” She closed her eyes. “You know it has to be done,” he continued, palm resting above her knee. “And you know I’m the most capable of doing it. Bringing detectives up speed will cost more innocent lives.”
His words sucked up all the oxygen. “How long will you be gone?” She asked, faint and breathless. “Months? Years?”
The hand at her knee squeezed. “I’ll send word while I’m away.”
“We’ve known each other for twelve weeks. You don’t owe me anything.” No response could have remedied the brutal ache but his silence only magnified it. “You almost died. I was pushing on your chest and—” Her eyes opened, red dripping down the walls. “There was so much blood, Tom, so much blood. Your lips turned blue and your lungs went still and then— and then you died. Right there in front of me. Right there in my arms.” Her hands shook violently, wiping uselessly at her cheeks. “I tried so hard but I couldn’t stop you from leaving. I couldn’t stop you from going.”
He leaned forward, curving an arm around her waist and drawing her into his body without a word.
“But I brought you back,” she cried, tears dripping to his chest. “I refused to leave the tunnel alone. If I wasn’t there you wouldn’t be here—”
“I know,” he murmured, tone a calming hush. “I know what you did for me.”
“That’s not—” Her skull pounded. She tried pushing back for air but the arm tightened at her middle, strength unimpeded by his injuries. She sighed and settled into his hold. “What if I’m not there next time?” She posed, shuddering at the prospect. “You can only chase death so far before it turns around and reaches back. You’ve been marked, you won’t escape a second time.”
He hummed low in his throat, her body absorbing the soothing vibration. “I’m not chasing after death, Hermione. Not anymore. I’m after the final remnants of his legacy. He isn’t vanquished until every victim is recovered.” He stroked her spine in a coaxing pet. Her head dropped to his shoulder.
“I know,” she murmured, exhaling across his throat. “You have to go…. and I have to say goodbye.”
His hand stilled. “Thank you,” he offered abruptly. She glanced up, wondering what she’d missed. “For returning to the tunnel and lending me your breath. For stopping him when I couldn’t. And for staying until the end.”
She swallowed thickly. “Don’t forget, I also broke your rib.”
A smile curved his lips, tension uncoiling with the gesture. “Trust me, I didn’t forget.”
She laughed softly and sniffed the remainder of her tears away, only to realize she was practically sitting in his lap, tucked firmly against his unbandaged side.
“Sorry!” She flushed, trying to scramble away without jostling him. His amusement returned upon watching her many failed attempts at maneuvering out from under his arm. “Tom—” she huffed, realizing he was intentionally keeping her trapped. “You’re hurt, this is only making it worse.”
“I beg to differ.”
She awarded him a narrow glare, their faces so closely situated it was easy to forget her original mission. “Just promise me one thing.”
“I’m listening,” he murmured, undoubtedly the most entertained he’d been in weeks.
“Don’t kill anyone.”
His fingers sketched idle patterns on her hip, the air brimming with silence.
“I promise it will remain a last resort.”
She rolled her eyes. “Then at least tell me you’ll write. I’d like to keep apprised of the investigation.” Every night I don’t know you’re alive will be pure agony.
“I can do much better,” he vowed, head dipping low until his lips hovered at her shoulder. “I’ll send you their heads in Christmas wrapping.”
Her laughter bubbled over like a boiling pot, delighted and half-crazed. “I appreciate the sentiment,” she replied, a sob buried deep in her throat. “But letters will save us a fortune on postage.”
Harry disembarked from the passerelle with a quick step, eager to escape the pungent cloud of barnacles, grease, and body odor, the noxious cocktail of two hundred men living in confined quarters for weeks on end. The sun beamed brightly overhead, seagulls squawking at the gathering crowd on the dock, eager for a scrap of food or finger to nip. He adjusted the bag on his shoulder, watching families reunite on the wharf below, stomach twisting at the sight of lovers embracing—
“Take it easy, Lieutenant,” a sailor bid from the next plank.
“That’s the only way I know how.” Harry grinned. “Travel safe, Douglas, I’ll see you in the fall.”
Laughter sounded behind them, another crew member listening in. “If he doesn’t get a dishonorable discharge first. I’ve never seen someone make the Captain’s shite list so fast.”
Harry smirked. “Steer clear of dive bars and beautiful women and you’ll be fine.”
“Easier said than done,” the junior sailor lamented.
“Yeah right,” his mate jeered, slinging an arm around his neck. “I’ve seen the sea witches you bed at port, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble following Potter’s advice.”
“Oi, show some respect for your mum.”
His friend growled and threw an elbow, both men stumbling atop the narrow walkway as they proceeded to wrestle. Harry rolled his eyes and continued. “I'll see you gentlemen next month!” He called over his shoulder, watching them topple over the rail and splash into the water. “Try not to get arrested before then!”
He stepped onto the wharf and promptly cringed, the press of bodies unwelcome after so many months of close confinement. Sailors continued pouring out of the ship to the delighted cheers of friends and relatives, the crowd in a constant state of flux. He watched a superior officer scoop a young boy into his arms, balancing the tot atop his shoulders before kissing a woman with an infant on her hip. He grinned at the sight. Being apart from his friends for a quarter of the year was grueling, he couldn’t imagine being away from one’s children.
He continued along the dock, ducking and diving elbows and shoulders as bodies scrambled for embrace. He was nearly free of the commotion when a familiar voice called out, carrying above the delighted chatter.
“As I live and breathe!”
Harry shook his head and turned, searching the sea of grinning faces until finding the one focused upon him. His godfather stood against a lamppost, oblivious to the heated stares he garnered from women awaiting their beaus’ arrivals.
He watched Harry change direction, carding a hand through his overgrown locks before starting forward. “Could this strapping young lad be my adopted pain-in-the-arse?”
“Stop, you’re embarrassing me.”
Sirius smiled wider and drew him into a firm embrace. “Christ, look at you, how the hell are you still growing?”
“We got a lot of exercise running for our lives through the jungle.”
“They didn’t give you a machete to shave with?”
“Beards are natural bug repellents.”
“I thought you’d disguised yourself as a gorilla.”
“That’s what scared away the insects.”
Sirius took his bag with a bark of laughter. “Looks like we’ll be making a pit stop at the hotel, I have a feeling the Church bans heathens at the gate.”
Harry scratched his beard. “I thought I looked dashing.”
“Obviously they threw all the mirrors overboard.”
Harry shrugged, falling into easy step beside his former captain and lifelong mentor. “You’re staying at a hotel?”
“For the last month. Grimmauld’s turned into a drunken symphony of bad music.”
“You’ve taken up the clarinet again?”
“Hilarious. And I’ll kindly remind you that I was merely fulfilling a party dare like any good patriot.” Sirius led the way to a rented carriage, heaving the bag into the cargo hold.
“Construction is still happening?” Harry asked.
“They’re nearly finished, thank you, god. If the designer asks me one more question about Venetian molding I’m going to decorate the alabaster tiles with my whiskey-soaked brains.”
Harry opened the compartment door. “Alabaster?”
“Not to be confused with eggshell, chantilly lace, frost, or downy.” Sirius hoisted himself inside and sprawled sideways on the bench.
“In that case, I’m amazed you haven’t already blown your head off.”
“What can I say, I’m a totem of self-control.” His godfather yawned, managing to close the door with the toe of his boot before banging on the roof, signaling the driver into motion. The carriage lurched, wheels creaking atop the uneven brick. “We don’t have to be at the church for another hour,” he mused, awarding Harry with his signature grin. “Let’s get loaded.”
Hermione exhaled slowly, unable to avoid the frustrating procession of steam traveling through her mask and adhering to her magnifiers. She glared through the condensation, waiting for the lenses to clear before diving back in. No sooner had she regained her sight than a tendril of hair uncoiled from its pin, dangling between her eyes in blatant challenge.
Son of a— She swatted the offending curl with a gloved hand, rubber groaning between her fingers. Get it together, Granger. Life and death don’t wait for a good hair day. She narrowed her sights and positioned her scalpel over her four-legged patient, determined to see this through.
Human cadavers were expensive to obtain and controversial to use, even upon explicit donation. But the veterinary college shared their overflow at an affordable rate, the dead sow on her table one of many from last night’s delivery. She aligned her blade over the stomach cavity, sunlight spilling through the windows as she pressed down. The skin dimpled but refused to break, toughened by a week-long chemical soak. The school-issued scalpel certainly didn’t help matters along, blunt from years of practical exams, more useless than a jam knife.
She huffed with annoyance, glasses fogging anew, and added additional pressure. The thick hide punctured with a pop and a hiss, a cloud of pungent gas escaping the grey dermis. She held her breath and drew the blade down, concentrating on the initial incision before setting to work on the diaphragm. Bone split and she became lost in her task, consumed with removing the intestines and bladder to allow more room to maneuver.
Dissecting a dead pig was a far cry from Monday’s procedure but she took the task just as seriously, lifting away the miniature gallbladder with tender care, grinning at the clean cut. Her eyes and nose burned with the chemical stench but the triumphant pounding of her heart refused to be dissuaded. She bounced in place, setting the organ in a metal dish and returning to her handiwork, but halfway through examining the heart the odors overwhelmed her. She gripped the table for balance, staring at a random patch of the floor until the dizziness passed.
“Noxious beast,” she muttered, setting the toy scalpel aside.
“Do cut the sow some slack—” she screamed, metal clattering as she spun to face the door “— she’s been soaking in formaldehyde for weeks, after all.”
“Doctor Slughorn!” She gasped, pressing a shiny glove to her apron.
“Terribly sorry, my dear, I didn’t mean to startle you.” He started down the theatre steps with a boisterous grin. “Though I suppose we should be thankful the patient was already dead when you dropped her spleen.”
“Small blessings,” she agreed, leaning down to retrieve the upturned dish. “I thought the surgical wing was empty today.”
“As did I. I was overseeing the installation of our new X-Ray contraption when I heard tinkering from the theatre. I’d narrowed the list of suspects to our best and brightest student or a very persistent mouse.”
“As you can see, the mouse is at it again.”
His laughter bounced off the circular wall. “You’re far too modest to be a surgeon.”
“I’d happily trade modesty for a sharper blade. These school-issued knives are a travesty.” She glanced up. “No offense.”
“None taken.” His hands rested atop his stomach as he reached the slab. “I remember the days of carving through livestock with a hacksaw. You’ll get the real thing on Monday.”
“Little good that does me today,” she muttered, removing her magnifiers to see him clearly. “Not that I’m complaining. It’s terribly exciting.”
“And a bit nerve-racking,” she admitted, unwinding her mask and reaching for her sewing kit.
He tilted his head, watching her struggle to thread the needle with unbridled amusement. “You look on the verge of a massive coronary.”
“A stroke, more likely.” Her eyes narrowed on her task, wishing someone would invent a pair of gloves that actually conformed to one’s fingers.
“I remember my very first surgery like it was yesterday,” he mused, always eager to bestow her with an unsolicited stroll down memory lane. “Of the thousands I’ve conducted, that one shines brightest in my mind. Funny how our firsts stay with us through the years… I digress.” He shook his head with a laugh before turning his attention to her sutures. “I was terrified beyond measure. I couldn’t sleep the night before, couldn’t eat or hold a conversation. I couldn’t even keep my hands steady. I was convinced they’d throw me out before the operation even commenced.”
Hermione grinned, carefully spacing her passes through the spongy flesh. “How did you get through it?”
“I embraced my fear until I became one with it. Just before the procedure began a powerful sense of calm washed over me. I suddenly realized I had no choice but to trust in my skills and education, rely upon natural instinct and rigorous training. Whatever the outcome, it was meant to be. As soon as I accepted my fate, the panic dissolved and astute focus took its place.”
She smirked, rotating the sow’s leg for a better angle. “Sounds too good to be true.”
“Yes, well, a thimble or two of scotch may have also been involved.”
“Ah, it’s all coming together.”
"It was a different time, mind you. Much has changed since then, for the better, I might add. You're the keenest student to grace our halls in years."
“You’re very kind, Doctor.” She tied off the final loop with practiced skill. “And very biased.”
“Please,” he huffed. “My sponsorship bears no weight on the matter. You’re a prodigy with the blade, I can only imagine the havoc you’d reap with a kitchen knife.”
She paused with a hand half-way to her case, rendered motionless and breathless. There was a glimmer of blue in her peripheral, an itching deep between her eyes, but when she turned her head both sensations had passed, the world gray and three-dimensional once again.
“I’m long past the age of being considered a prodigy of anything,” she rued, removing her gloves and flexing her fingers.
“Dear girl, never complain about old age to someone who’s actually old.” He straightened, seeming to recall something. “Speaking of which, today isn’t your birthday, is it?”
“No, not for another week,” she smiled, reaching for a clean rag. “But I’m honored you remembered the month.”
“This harried mind can’t take all the credit, I’m afraid. I saw the gift in your delivery bin and made the assumption.”
“Hm? Oh, yes. A courier likely dropped it by last night.”
She wrung the cloth in her hands, curiosity taking hold. Why send a gift to the school a week in advance? Her friends knew her address, unless they feared she wouldn't be home to receive the parcel. It must be Harry sending trinkets from abroad, lord knows what he’s found this time. I just hope it doesn’t require air holes. Or perhaps it was courtesy of Sirius, eager to embarrass her in front of her peers with something equally outlandish and extravagant.
Her musings scattered as a soft thump emanated from the benches. They glanced up, sparing a mutual grin for the resident feline trotting across the desks, pausing to arch its back with a silent yawn.
“A cheeky bugger, isn’t he?” Slughorn laughed. “Roams the halls with more confidence than half the staff.”
Hermione tilted her head, watching the colorful Persian groom its bottlebrush tail without a care in the world. “I think it’s female—” Her words cut short as she caught sight of the clock mounted to the wall above. “Oh my god!”
“Time got away from me, I’m late!” She fumbled with the ties of her apron, fingers frantic. “Shite shite shite!” Warmth stained her cheeks as she met her sponsor’s bewildered stare. “I mean— Shite, sorry!”
“Not to fret, the sow and I have heard much worse.” He watched her scramble around the table, struggling to gather knives in one hand and wipe down the counter with the other. “Are you meeting friends for brunch? I’m certain they’ll pardon a few minutes tardi—”
“A wedding,” she stated in a panic. “I’m late for a bloody wedding— which I also happen to be in.”
His brows rose to meet his receding hairline. “My word… well, that certainly changes things.” He stepped forward to pry the rag from her clenched fist. “Run along, dear, I’ll lay the hog to rest.”
“I couldn’t possibly ask you to—”
“You didn’t, I offered. Now off you go.”
She hesitated. Leaving work for someone else went against every principle she held dear. Then again, if she showed up late to the wedding those principals would be buried alongside her in a very shallow grave.
“Thank you, Dr. Slughorn,” she said earnestly, tossing her apron on the table.
“Think nothing of it, you have enough on your mind this weekend.”
She was already en route to the door, bounding up the steps and calling over her shoulder. “I appreciate the surgical advice as well!”
“That’s what a sponsor is for!” He hollered back. “I’ll see you on Monday morning!”
“Bring an extra thimble!” His laughter trailed her down the hall until she rounded the corner in a whoosh of skirts, nearly toppling head over heels in the process.
She made it to the end of the corridor and skidded to a halt, blinking at the bushy sight awaiting her. The orange cat sat upon the reception desk licking its paw with an air of superiority intrinsic to its species. She glanced back the way she came, wondering how it managed to beat her to the lobby, then recalled such creatures weren’t constrained by the laws of physics.
She journeyed on, nearly to the exit when the feline pounced atop the mailbox cubbies, reminding her of Slughorn’s words. She changed course at once, racing for the wall and seeking out her plaque while the creature tracked her movement with gleaming eyes. Hermione relented, scratching behind its neck while continuing her search; a deep, rhythmic purr filling the hall.
She finally spotted her parcel. The bundle was tucked into the compartment so tightly she had to shimmy it free with both hands, mindful of tearing the dark paper. She worked it loose with careful tugs, grinning as it emerged with a final yank. There was no card attached but the sender’s identity was made obvious enough thanks to the distinctive wrapping. She traced the red ribbon with a delicate fingertip, pulse fluttering beneath her tongue.
The grandfather clock chimed loudly from the corner, jolting her higher than the cat. The feline shook its whiskered face, embarrassed on her behalf.
"Those who lick between their toes shouldn't judge others," Hermione rebuked, tucking the present firmly underarm and lifting her chin high. The animal flopped onto its back, hind legs spread as it watched her upside-down figure flee the hospital in a graceless dash.
Sunlight glinted off the stained glass, casting prisms across every blade of grass and smiling face alike. Bees flitted between fragrant bushes, buzzing merrily as children rushed past in a stampede of laughter and squeals. The scene was picturesque, serene, the perfect setting for two people about to profess their true and eternal love to the world.
Draco cracked his neck with a groan, eyeing a mouthy nightingale in the flowering tree above. “I need a drink.”
“Christ,” Theo muttered at his side. “We just got here, how are you already a miserable bastard?”
“Obviously this is your first wedding. They’re notoriously awful without alcohol. And don’t curse inside a church, heathen.”
“We aren’t inside yet, Pope Pius.”
Draco started up the steps at an unenthused pace, pausing half-way when he realized no one was beside him. He glanced back, arching a brow as Theo searched the circular drive.
“Waiting for something?”
“Yes, actually. My date.”
Draco turned fully. “Your what?” He moved aside as two women ascended, their oversized hats forcing him to duck or lose an eye.
Theo paid his plight no mind, tilting his head as a new carriage pulled past the Church gate and stopped at the end of the row. The driver hopped down, opening the gleaming door and assisting a young woman to the ground. Draco descended quickly. “What the hell is Pansy doing here?”
“Her boat arrived late last night, she preferred meeting—”
“She’s your bloody date?”
“Don’t curse inside a church.”
Draco rolled his eyes. “Why did you invite her?”
“Because going stag to a wedding is pathetic.”
He scowled at the back of the idiot’s perfectly styled head. “So you won’t be shagging the Best Man behind the vestibule later?”
“Keep your sodding voice down!” Theo hissed, glancing at a flock of children playing on the steps.
“Seriously, how did you rope her into this?”
“No one ropes Pansy into anything. Exception bondage, which is usually her idea." Theo turned his attention back to the driveway. "The wedding was her idea if you must know. She has a penchant for bridesmaids."
Draco scrubbed a hand over his face. “You’re both unbearable.”
“Thank goodness there’s an ocean between us.”
Despite their casual utterance, Draco felt the prick of each word needling into his skin. But before he could wrench the metal free Pansy arrived before them, waving an oversized fan of golden ostrich feathers.
“Hello, boys. We meet again.” She unfastened the silk shawl wrapping her torso and let it hit the ground with ring-leader showmanship, the plunging neckline of her gown causing a nearby footman to choke on his spit.
“Fucking hell, Pans,” Draco muttered, a searing migraine fast approaching. “You’re going to burst into flames crossing the threshold.”
“Is that supposed to be an insult?” She winked at an elderly guest embarking up the steps, tongue dragging the pavement at his feet. “Speaking of fabulous appearances, don’t you look like dog shite. Do people not sleep in Washington?”
“I’ve been transferred to New York and no, they don’t.”
“Hm. That would make a delightful catchphrase if you weren’t so very British.”
“I’ll be sure to write the governor.” He dropped his hand to direct his latest glare forward. “Also, behave yourself today.”
She slapped the fan against her palm, closing it with a snap. “Per usual, I'm shocked and offended.”
“You made a spectacle at the last wedding we attended—”
“I was twelve! Besides, that little bitch had it coming.”
“You set her on fire.”
“She told everyone my earrings were glass!”
“Shagging a bridesmaid is exponentially worse than trying to murder the flower girl.”
“It really depends on how loud they scream. But once again, I have no idea what you’re talking about. It seems you’ve mistaken your intentions for mine.”
He rocked back, unprepared for the uppercut. “I’m not here to—“
“Let’s take this cheery reunion inside, shall we?” Theo prompted, eyeing an approaching group in their wedding finery.
Pansy lifted her chin to glare down her nose. “Not until he apologizes for being a controlling, self-righteous twat with a massive stick shoved up his—”
“We get the idea,” Theo muttered, grinning politely at a young couple and their child.
Draco held her incensed glare as the family passed. “Do I really look terrible?”
She rolled her eyes, hostility giving way to annoyance. “Like an exhausted Greek statue. Stop fishing for compliments.” She smoothed a hand across her cinched bodice. “Do I really look like I could burst into flames?”
“Faster than a flower girl.”
She smirked, stepping forward to weave a hand around Theo’s arm. “Apology accepted. Shall we?”
“I’m going in through the side,” Draco responded. “Can’t let everyone see I’m stag.”
Pansy tipped her head with a melodic laugh. “There, there, darling, I’m sure you’ll find a pretty little bridesmaid to stroke your poor neglected ego.”
He shook his head as Theo escorted her to the main doors, guests sidestepping the obscene train of her gown while Draco embarked for the second entrance. He wasn’t keen on new arrivals watching him slink through the bushes like a burglar but battling his way through the thorned branches wasn’t a silent endeavor.
He was picking stray petals from his hair when the air shifted on a breeze, pulling his gaze with the current. A familiar mirage took shape in the distance, unmistakable in its outline. A feminine figure raced barefoot through the grass, shoes in one hand and a flowing gown in the other. Hair fell across her eyes as she reached the quaint building behind the sprawling Church, fumbling with the door before hauling it wide with her toes, disappearing into the shadowed interior before he could blink.
He exhaled slowly, wedged inside the bushes like a forgotten scarecrow until the cursed nightingale took perch on a nearby branch and launched its shrill song in his ear. Draco emerged from the trance with a low groan, knocking leaves from his coat and hauling himself through to the other side, determined to get this bloody day over with.
Portraits vibrated in their frames as a piercing wail shook the plaster, the cringe-inducing pitch causing Harry to fumble his cufflink, cursing at it rolled under the chair.
“Bloody hell,” Ron muttered, battling his cravat. “Is someone being slaughtered?”
“We wanted to surprise you,” George spoke from the chaise. “We killed a dozen goats to bring about good fortune.”
“Don’t say we never did anything for you,” his twin added, buttoning his placket across the room.
“What sort of fucked-up old maid’s tale is that?”
“Ignore them,” Harry muttered, plucking the silver bauble from the carpet. “It’s just your mum crying in the bridal suite.”
“Jesus Christ,” Ron groaned. “She’s going to ruin this for me. Susan will come to her senses before the ceremony even begins.”
“I think seeing you naked will take care of that tonight,” George supplied cheerily.
“You two,” Charlie snapped, scolding the twins from the doorway. “Shut up. You got in plenty of jabs during the ride over. Now’s the time to be good big brothers and help me get these annoying arseholes seated.”
“No!” Ron shouted, causing Harry to drop the stupid fucking cufflink a second fucking time. “We agreed to keep them away from guests. I won’t have them pulling some god awful prank on Susan’s great-aunt.”
“Sod off,” Fred replied. “We aren’t animals. We’re pranking her father.”
“We only have the Church until noon,” Charlie reminded everyone. “There’s no time to scrub blood from the walls after you idiots get shot.”
Neville rose from his chair. “I’ll help seat the guests.”
“Thanks, Nev.” Charlie clasped his shoulder as he passed. “Touch base with Perce, will you? He’ll have an aneurism if you deviate from his chart.”
“Can’t wait,” Neville muttered, turning to Ron on his way out. “See you out there, mate.”
The groom nodded, glowing a toxic shade of green. Charlie raised a brow, glancing between his youngest brother and the Best Man. “So, how’s it going in here?”
Ron scrubbed a hand over his face, cringing as his palm came away wet. “For fuck’s sake, I’m sweating like a—”
“Heffer?” George offered.
“Horse?” Fred joined in.
“Do whales sweat?”
“Hm, excellent inquiry—”
“New rule,” Charlie clipped. “Neither of you are allowed to speak until after the ceremony.”
George rolled his eyes. “Come on, lads, loosen up a bit.”
“It’s your wedding day, Ronnie, try smiling.”
“Don’t be cruel, Freddie, that would send Susan running for the hills faster than his small cock—”
“The sooner Ron takes his vows the sooner you can board your train,” Charlie informed Fred pointedly. “Maybe try helping things along, eh?”
The reminder turned his brother an alarming shade of red, much to Harry’s curiosity and amusement. “Train?” He asked, finally fastening the cufflink into place.
“You don’t know?” George erupted into laughter at his twin’s budding discomfort. “Freddie’s abandoning us for some high-society chit—”
“I already told you,” Fred interjected. “I’m brokering a deal with a press manufacturer while you manage the business at home.“
"There are press factories in London."
“Spain has cheaper operating costs.”
“Christ,” George groaned. “You’re as bad as Ron. Is this what love does to a man?”
“You’d have to ask Bill,” Charlie sighed, straightening his collar in the mirror. “He’s waiting for Fleur outside the water closet with her purse and shawl in hand.”
“How the mighty have fallen.”
“George, enough,” Harry commanded, watching Ron’s downward spiral with the tie. “Love is wonderful. If you can’t feel the warm glow go drink yourself under the bar at the reception hall. You won't feel much of anything then.”
"Finally, a man of reason." George rose from the chaise with a groan. "I'm going to find dad, try not losing your pretty bride before the ball and chain are firmly attached to her ankle."
“Wanker,” Ron scathed, immediately choking himself with the cravat. “This fucking thing!” He ripped the fabric away with a growl before tossing it to his feet. “We should have eloped. I could be wearing pajamas right now.”
“Yes, I’m sure Susan is kicking herself for not thinking of that,” Harry muttered, retrieving the battered silk. “Charlie, do you mind? Ron’s liable to kill himself.”
“Can’t have that, the caterer is already paid for.”
Harry handed over the length of fabric before setting off for the door. “I’ll have a chat with the Priest, let him know we’re nearly ready.” He paused at the threshold. “And Ron?” He waited for his friend to glance up, meeting his frantic gaze in the mirror. “Remember to breathe.” He offered a parting wink before slipping into the hall.
Hermione turned the knob with a cringe, peeking inside as the feminine chatter came to an abrupt and jarring halt. All eyes flickered to the door but Hermione’s focus remained captured by one thing. The bride stood atop a raised platform in all her finery, cream skirts spread across the floor in a mesmerizing display.
“Susan! You look—”
“Where have you been?” The woman shouted, nearly topping sideways with the outburst. “We were getting ready to send my father’s detectives looking for you!”
“I’m so sorry,” Hermione offered, slinking inside like a scolded pet. “I was at the hospital removing a pig’s intestinal tract—”
“Honestly, Hermione, not in a church,” Molly huffed, dabbing her reddened eyes with a handkerchief.
“Sorry, Mrs. Weasley.”
Susan smoothed a hand across her middle, inhaling deeply. “It’s alright, I’m just glad you’re okay.” And then she took in the new arrival’s wind-swept appearance more carefully. “Though I’d prefer if you were dressed as well.”
Hermione nodded, darting for a privacy partition in the corner. “Give me five minutes!” She called, dropping her shoes atop an upholstered chair.
“Do you need help?” Hannah asked from the vanity.
“I can manage, thanks.” Hermione draped her gown over the panel and peered around the frame. “By the way, you look stunning, Susan.” She watched Ginny thread a needle from her spot beside the platform. “Is something wrong with the dress?”
“Just some minor adjustments. I lost a bit of weight, all the stress from planning I suppose.”
Ginny smirked, pins pressed between her lips. “At least we know it’s not a shotgun wedding—”
“Ginevra!” Her mother scolded before turning her sights across the room. “Hermione, dear, we really must do something with your hair.”
“I can help with that,” Luna offered, loose petals and twine scattered across the rug at her feet.
Molly smiled thinly, inspecting the blonde’s messy braid and flower crown. “Er, thank you… Luanne, was it?”
“Right. No offense, dear, but I think it would be much better if—”
“That would be great, Luna,” Hermione spoke through the wicker, frantically tugging the stays on her dress. “And I’d love to wear one of your crowns.”
“Luna made them for all the girls,” Susan announced, inspecting her bodice in the full-length mirror. “White for bridesmaids, pink for Gin.”
“Actually…” the latter muttered, hiding behind the bride’s lacy skirt. “I changed mine to purple.”
“What?” Susan whirled around again, barely keeping her balance.
“Pink looks horrific with my hair. Besides, purple brings out the indigo in the dresses—”
“Fine,” the brunette sighed, massaging her temples. “Just no more surprises, please. My nerves are stretched thin enough.”
Hermione bit her lip, pushing rolls of fabric past her hips. “Not to pull them any tighter but… where’s Parvati?”
“Last I saw she was slipping into a water closet with Blaise,” Ginny volunteered.
Molly pressed a hand to her chest, complexion ashen. “Do tell me you’re joking.”
“She had better be,” Susan warned. “I’m not paying the clean-up fees.”
“I can’t listen to any more of this!” Molly rose from her chair with a huff. “I’m going to find Arthur.” She paused to inspect Susan from bottom to top, smiling proudly. “You look beautiful, sweetheart. Good enough for one of my boys. Well, Ron at least.”
She exited the suite with a beaming grin while Susan blinked and Hannah covered her mouth, barely smothering a laugh.
“I’d apologize, but this is pretty much her baseline,” Ginny offered, fluffing Susan’s train. “At least she stopped weeping like a banshee—” Hysterical sobbing started in the hallway right on cue. Ginny cringed. “Welcome to hell. Aren’t you glad you met us?”
“Immensely,” Susan muttered, leaning over to help Ginny spread the fabric. “We need to wrangle Parvati before she desecrates any more corners of the Church.”
Hermione slipped her arms into the sleeveless straps, eyeing the raised scar across her bicep. “I’ll find her, just lace me up—”
“I’ll go!” Ginny shouted, popping to her feet like a jack-in-the-box. The room fell silent, every head turned in her direction as she pulled the measuring tape from behind her neck and shuffled for the door. “I mean I was the one to see her last so I can probably find her again faster than any of you it shouldn’t take me long be right back!”
She disappeared from the room in a whirl of silk. Hermione glanced at Hannah. “Did you catch any of that?”
The blonde shrugged, standing from her chair and crossing for the partition.
“All finished!” Luna announced, raising her floral creation for all to see.
“Thank you,” Hermione said, lifting her hair as Hannah laced the back of her gown. “Are the flowers from your shop?”
Luna nodded, approaching with the delicate crown in hand. “Yes. The bouquets, too.”
“They’re beautiful,” Hermione breathed, dipping low so Luna could pin it in place. A heavy sigh sounded from the front of the room, earning their gazes. “Susan, are you alright?”
The bride in question nodded, gathering her skirts and attempting to disembark. Hermione pulled free from her friends’ busy hands and rushed to steady her. “Thank you,” Susan mumbled, eyes averted.
Hermione squeezed her fingers. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just a bit overwhelmed.”
“Cold feet are normal—”
“I don’t have cold feet,” Susan replied at once. “I love Ron more than anything, I want to be his wife.”
“Then it’s going to be a wonderful day.”
“I know. I just…” she shook her head. “Some days it feels so surreal. Like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Things can’t possibly be this normal, this peaceful, not after everything that’s happened.”
Hermione swallowed thickly, a lump rising in her throat. “I understand.”
“Then I feel selfish for questioning it. We’re all so lucky to be alive, I shouldn’t be dwelling on the past, thinking about what-ifs.”
“You’re a police chief's daughter, it’s in your blood.”
“—or I feel selfish for not questioning it enough, not thinking about it more, all those faces in the crime scene sketches, so many people—”
“Susan.” Hermione grasped her shoulders, giving them a gentle shake. “Everything’s okay. Just breathe.” The bride followed instruction, swaying on the exhale.
“Perhaps a bit of gin will soothe you?” Luna offered, drawing near.
Hannah raised her brow. “The Church has liquor?”
“Parvati smuggled in a flask.”
“Thanks,” Susan smiled, carefully drying her eyes. “But I’m still trying out this whole sober thing.”
“You don’t need alcohol,” Hermione affirmed, rubbing her shoulders through the delicate lace. “You need Ron and family and friends. Love and support got us this far and will carry us the rest of the way. The past can never change but it doesn’t have to color our future. We survived, now it’s our responsibility to live for all those who didn’t.”
Susan sniffled, dabbing her eyes anew. “Did I ruin my lashes?”
“You look perfect,” Hermione replied, leaning in for an embrace. The others followed suit, mindful of her flowing gown. But Susan didn’t seem nearly as concerned with the garment’s welfare, opening her arms and pulling them in close until they were tripping over each other’s feet and laughing vibrantly.
“Still…” the bride pondered aloud. “We definitely should have eloped.”
Hermione adjusted her lopsided crown and nodded readily. “Oh, that’s without question.”
Ginny slipped inside the Church on nimble tiptoes, padding close against the walls and weaving behind tapestries with a ninja’s stealth. But her espionage skills were wasted on this particular occasion, the ever-growing sea of laughing faces lost to their own diversions. The guest-list was long and varied between the merging families, though it seemed the one quality they all shared was a love for boisterous conversation.
She stepped out of the shadows and into the pews, pulse leaping at every bright plume of color that crossed her path. But her hunt was cut short by a high-pitched squeal and atrociously decorated hat, a round and sturdy figure charging her like a cricket player about to score the winning point. Before Ginny could so much as yelp she was hauled into a bone-jarring hug that left both parties staggering.
“Ginevra, darling! Don’t you look magnificent!”
Ginny spit out a feather, spine bowed. “Aunt Muriel, I can’t breathe—”
"Oh, sorry, sweetheart!" The woman leaned back but refused to relinquish the grip of her captive's arms. "Look at how big you've gotten! My my, it'll be your turn to walk down the aisle soon! And that beautiful hair, you're the spitting image of me when I was your age!" Ginny looked to the massive crucifix on the wall, praying for it to break loose and end them both. "Quite a party they have going," her aunt continued. "Do tell me, dearest, did the bride's father pay for all this?"
“Oh, I really don’t—”
“That is the proper way of things, you know. I don’t care what they consider modern and progressive these days, poor Arthur can’t afford—”
“Sorry, Aunt Muriel.” Ginny tried pulling away. “The ceremony is going to start soon and—”
“Can you believe little Ronald is the first to get married? I never would have believed it! He could barely walk a straight line as a boy, he must have swept the girl off her feet by tripping into her!”
“That’s pretty accurate, actually. Now if you’ll excuse me, I really need to—”
“I just met Bill’s pretty little fiancé. French. Dear lord. Thank goodness she's beautiful. I do hope she doesn't drag him back to that God-forsaken—”
“Gotta go!” Ginny all but yelled, wrenching free at last. “Enjoy the wedding!” She called over her shoulder, darting for freedom.
“We’ll catch up later! Tell your mother—” the rest of the woman’s words were lost to the churn of voices as Ginny slipped back into the throng, a heady cloud of cheap cologne and overpriced perfume making her head pound.
And then she heard Her voice and the rest of the room went quiet, the hush traveling across land and sea, to the outer reaches of time and space, nothing existing but the stars above and the radiant laughter at her back. Ginny rocked in place before rotating carefully, a slowly pivoting statue inspecting the room frame by frame.
But it didn’t take long to find the source of the vibrant melody. Pansy was, as always, patently easy to spot, the bustling floor posing little challenge. Ginny watched her converse before a colorful mural of the sky, positioned in such a way she seemed to descend from the heavens and emerge from the painting itself, the most provocative artwork any Church had ever housed. Ginny gripped the back of a pew and studied her intently, retracing every line and curve before making her way to her lips and cheekbones, nose and eyes—
She staggered, caught by the glinting stare. Pansy watched her with an intensity that made every vein dilate. Ginny exhaled in defeat, knowing her flush gave her away. She tried disguising her mortification with a small wave, instantly cursing her stupidity as it caught the attention of Pansy’s male companions.
Strike me dead.
She spun on her heel before the men could spot her, dreading their laughter, their knowing smirks and silent judgment. She made a beeline for the exit, shouldering her way through bodies indeterminately until tripping over a foot and collapsing into its owner's side.
“Shite! Sorry—” She reached out a steadying hand, catching sight of his face and rolling her eyes. “Oh. It’s you.”
“Ginevra,” Percy clipped, straightening his rumpled coat. “Happy to see you’ve hosed yourself off for the occasion.”
“Happy to see you can still walk with a gavel shoved up your arse.”
“I’m on the International Trade Commission, we don’t use gavels.”
“I assume it’s from your own personal collection.” She smiled sweetly, crossing her arms. “How’s Ron doing?”
“Still alive, according to Charlie.” He inspected the decor with little interest. “Let’s hope it stays that way, otherwise I’ve taken off work for nothing. How’s the bride? Sandra, is it?”
“Well, this has been fun,” she stated, bumping his shoulder as she passed. “Let’s do it again in a few years.”
“Gin!” He called, prompting her to turn with a groan. The corner of his mouth lifted. “You clean up half-decent.”
Her nose twitched, barely stifling her urge to seek out the living artwork in her peripheral. “If you came around more often you’d know that.” Her terse expression softened with a smirk. “I’m glad you’re here.” She slipped into the press of bodies before awaiting his response, wishing she’d never left the bridal suite in the first place.
However, when she made it to the exit she found herself glancing back anyway, eager to plunge the knife deeper, anything to drain this painful obsession from her heart. But when the crowd parted the mural stood empty, drab and forgettable without its striking centerpiece. Ginny pressed a hand to her chest and opened the door, in dire need of a dark place to hide.
Flushed, beaming faces filled every corner of the Church, its walls vibrating with conversation and laughter, barely able to contain the joyous overflow. Draco rubbed his aching brow, wondering not for the first time why the hell he bothered leaving his hotel room this morning.
Why board the ship at all? I should have sent an overpriced gift and avoided them for years to come like a proper gentleman.
His fingers moved to his nape, tension radiating through his shoulder blades after a sleepless fortnight at sea. Still, when the doors at the entrance parted his eyes were quick to follow, narrowing on the new arrival meandering through in an oversized cane and top hat. His stomach twinged, seeds of disappointment taking root.
“So,” he muttered, eager for distraction. “How’s business?”
“Are we really reduced to such mind-numbing small talk?” Pansy bemoaned.
“He’s been gone for ten months,” Theo recounted drolly, inspecting a cluster of questionably dressed wedding guests. “We’re obligated to engage in vacant pleasantries for at least a few minutes.”
Pansy rolled her eyes and leaned into his side. “Fine. Get on with it then.”
“The Nott Estate is flourishing,” he began, tone plagued by boredom. “The museum is still our largest investment, obviously, the frame completed construction this spring and brought a flurry of new investors.”
“Is your father involved?” Draco inquired, ignoring Pansy’s theatrics as she pretended to fall asleep atop Theo’s shoulder, snoring heavily.
“Your question implies he was ever involved in the first place. I’m working on getting his name scrubbed from the legal documents, it’s a nightmare to contend with but far more agreeable than dealing with the man himself.”
“Is the troll still terrorizing picturesque mountainside villages?”
Theo shrugged, dislodging a disgruntled Pansy in the process. “That’s where I send the monthly cheques. Someone’s been cashing them, can't say I particularly care who.”
“Speaking of cheques…” Draco shifted focus to the most boldly clad leg of their tripod. “How are you doing for money?”
“You heard me,” he asserted, immune to her venom.
“You aren’t my husband or ex-fiancé, Malfoy, my finances are none of your concern.”
“I know your father’s accounts are frozen. How are you and your mum supporting yourselves?”
“You can’t take a hint, can you?”
“Oh, he can,” Theo assured her, picking invisible lint from his lapel. “He just chooses not to.”
“I’m not trying to piss you off,” Draco snapped. “I just need to know you’re taken care of.”
Her face scrunched as though detecting a sour odor. “Gross. What did America do to you?”
“Introduced me to a glorious delicacy known as peanut butter. How are you funding your European tour?”
“They churn peanuts into butter?” Theo asked, grinning at Draco’s pointed glare. “What? You brought it up.”
“Since you obviously won’t shut up about it,” Pansy scathed, “Theo put me in touch with a very knowledgeable investor who’s managed to turn my mother’s modestly-sized nest egg into a golden goose. We're perfectly comfortable so please feel free to dump your testosterone-fueled knight-in-shining-armor bullshite on some other hapless maiden’s lap.”
“I don’t think anyone’s accusing you of being hapless or a maiden— ow!” Theo jerked sideways as she stomped his foot.
Pansy huffed, straightening her satin belt when something caught her eye from across the room, the heat of her focus drawing their amused stares with it. Draco skimmed a patchwork of unremarkable faces, curious to see which doe-eyed beauty would become her latest weekend conquest.
Pansy's taste ran excessive in all things, she'd never settle for less than the most attractive creature in the room, which was why the current selection left him vexed. The prettiest thing in his eye line was undoubtedly the Maid of Honor, already half-undone in her rumpled dress and lopsided floral crown, but surely the extenuating factors of her birthright took her out of the running, beauty be damned.
She was a Weasley for Christ’s sake, and not some distant cousin twice removed. This was the baby sister, cherished and chained. Whatever brave and fortunate soul spent a night between her legs would find himself manacled to the rest of the hog-wrestling clan come morning. Draco had suffered many humiliations throughout his short and eventful life but nothing whispered rock bottom quite like donning a Molly Weasley hand-knitted Christmas sweater in public.
As such, he was perfectly keen on passing the cursed forest nymph over when she gave their corner of the Church a little wave, her pretty, mortified face glowing brighter than the hair framing it.
“Bloody hell,” he muttered, turning back around. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Ah,” Pansy hummed, still looking past his shoulder. “You’ve transformed back into an arsehole. Thank goodness.”
He arched a brow, the comedy of her predicament quickly outpacing the tragedy. “I thought you preferred blondes.”
“Get over yourself.”
He shook his head as Theo took the reins of their derailed conversation. “Speaking of which, who last spoke to Daph?”
“I sent her a letter at the end of August,” Draco supplied.
Theo smirked. “Pity you. I received a letter last week.”
“And I exchanged telegrams with Greg last night,” Pansy relayed, finally tearing sight from her evening’s prey. “I win.” Her grin stretched obscenely as they donned matching scowls. “My beautiful godson is perfectly healthy. His mummie and daddy take turns sleeping atop whatever surface they land upon and couldn’t be happier.”
“I can’t believe they made you the sodding godmother,” Theo muttered.
“One of them at least,” she simpered. “Seems Tori and I are the only suitable candidates they could think of for such a sacred and vital role.”
“Greg said I would’ve gotten it if I didn't work so bloody much.”
“Green may be your favorite color, darling, but it clashes terribly with your pallor.”
“You detest children.”
“So do their parents.”
“And to think you almost became the mother of my offspring.”
"I dodged that bullet for everyone's sake. Your head is far too small for your body, our progeny would have to wear hats year-round. Hats, Theo."
“Is Astoria with them?” Draco interjected, rubbing his pounding brow with a thumb and forefinger.
“She returned to Barcelona last Wednesday,” Pansy regaled, straightening a velvet glove. “Last we spoke she was elbow deep in a bucket of filthy mop water, scrubbing her lovely fingers to the bone.”
Draco dropped his hand. “Mop water? Why doesn’t she have a maid?”
“Cleaning calms her nerves. Besides, she always insists on hosting guests atop sparkling floors.”
“Tori’s having a party?” Theo slumped into the wall. “Bloody hell, I can’t remember the last time I went to anything that wasn’t a tax write-off.”
“It’s more of an intimate soirée with a private floor show at the end,” she drawled, admiring her ruby bracelet in the light. Theo glanced sideways, smirk rising as the last member of their trio blinked like an idiot.
“Wait— Tori met someone?” Draco probed, the final piece clicking into place.
“Why do I even bother?” She groaned, tossing her hands and pushing off the mural. “I’m off to find whatever passes for entertainment among these circus carnies. Do avoid expiring from boredom in my absence, I’d like to split the hackney fare to the hotel.”
“Happy hunting,” Theo bid. “Perhaps you’ll stumble upon your missing soul in the process. This being a Church and all, I’m sure they keep a few spares in the back.”
“Missing? Silly boy,” she cooed with delight. “I keep it in a shoebox beneath my bed like a proper lady. It’s how we fit inside our corsets. And plot violent world domination without a shred of remorse.”
Draco shook his head as she departed with a final twirl, nearly upending a distracted usher in her flourish. “You introduced her to a money manager,” he iterated slowly, leaning against the wall.
“Indeed,” Theo confirmed. “A brilliant financial strategist with a keen investment portfolio. Great hair and devilishly handsome to boot.”
“And the modesty of a baboon’s flaming red arse.” Draco peered sideways. “I take it she has no idea you’re filling her coffers from your own private accounts?”
“Her pride would never survive it. So keep your mouth shut.”
Draco straightened, wounded at the slight. “I didn’t plan on telling her.”
Theo sighed, something akin to regret flashing in his eyes. “If we’d married I’d be doing the same thing. At least now I don’t have to entertain her mother during the holidays.”
“A shame,” Draco lamented. “Lady Parkinson is an utter delight after a gallon of eggnog and rum. My fondest holiday memory is the night she tacked Macnair’s toupee to the wall and called it mistletoe.”
Theo erupted into laughter. Draco grinned, basking in the shared camaraderie of a past life, but their momentary reprieve folded like a cheap table when the Church doors pulled wide and a familiar figure emerged. Green eyes searched the busy terrain while Theo performed a stunning rendition of a fish being gutted. Draco glanced between the pair, unable to deny his utter fascination.
“Trouble in paradise?” He inquired lightly, hoping to break his friend of the dark beguilement. “What could possibly drive a wedge between such happy roosters? Don’t tell me, Saint Potter nicked your favorite bath oil to shine his World’s Smallest Cock trophy.”
Theo continued to track the Best Man’s movements from across the room, deaf to the blonde’s goading. Draco rolled his eyes, relenting with a sigh. “Seriously, Theo, what’s going on? Is Potter upset you brought a date? I thought he knew about you and Pans—”
“Drop it,” Theo demanded.
Draco smirked, relieved to have elicited a response, however curt. “I don’t think I will. Is the Golden Boy actually jealous you invited your ex-fiancé to his best mate’s wedding? You’d think a man who’s never owned a comb would be a little less tedious.”
Theo tore his gaze away, scowl cutting deep. “Christ, where do they keep the sacramental wine?”
Draco’s smirk faded, watching the man quake with barely tamped frustration. “I was joking, Theo. Is Potter really jealous?”
“Of Pansy?” His friend scoffed indelicately. “Bloody ridiculous.”
“Of someone else then?” Draco put forth, curiosity mounting. “Did you meet another—”
“Stop reading into things.”
“I know when you're lying.”
"Well, maybe you don't know me as well as you used to," Theo bit, teeth scraping bone.
Draco flinched, then glared, refusing to swallow another helping of passive-aggressive bullshite. “You’re really upset I went to America? You travel for business all the fucking time!”
“Yes,” Theo scathed, just as eager to have it out. “And I send word during extended visits so my friends know I haven’t been hacked to bits and tossed into a dumpster. Meanwhile, you’re gone for ten bloody months and send half a letter from Ellis Island the week of your arrival!”
“The other half was written on the back.”
Theo shook his head. “Hilarious.”
“Look,” Draco sighed, rubbing his eyes in exhaustion. “I was swamped with work and didn't have time to write to anyone. Mum won’t let me hear the end of it either.”
“I’m not complaining,” Theo asserted, glaring pointedly at the Best Man’s suited back. “Do whatever you want, I have plenty to occupy my time beyond wondering if you’re dead in a filthy alley or imprisoned by some underground fight ring that requires men to kill each other in a dark pit to earn their freedom.”
“What the fuck are you on about?”
“I don’t know what kind of twisted shite the Americans are into!” Theo roared, crossing his arms and pivoting away like the ten-year-old they so passionately imitated.
Draco blinked at the rigid lines of his shoulders before noticing the curious stares and whispers they’d garnered. “Theo…” he hedged, speaking low to deter their audience. “I had to cut ties with everyone, alright? You, Blaise, Pansy… it was the only way.”
Theo continued to avert his face, tone sharp. “The only way to what?”
Draco massaged his forehead, wondering if there was time to work in some much-needed shock-therapy before returning to New York.
"Let go," he muttered simply, tendering no further explanation. Of everyone in his frayed and disjointed life, he trusted Theo to understand the most when given the least. Still, waiting for a response was agonizing, the violet gaze shifting back slowly, softening after a few blinks.
“Did it work?”
Draco’s lips parted on a breathless laugh, dry and bitter as smoke. “Why do you think I’m here?” He posed, staring out at a whirlwind of faces but seeing only one in his mind. “I’m about to find out.”
Luna slid a golden pin into place, securing another bloom in Susan’s hair while Hermione adjusted her lacings, both tasks made all the more difficult by the bride’s incessant fidgeting.
“Shite!” Susan exploded, causing Hannah to drop her brush with a clatter. “Where are they? Ginny left ten minutes ago!”
Hermione reinforced the bow before starting towards the door. “I’ll find them.”
“No,” the bride groaned. “You'll just go missing, too. There’s obviously a portal to some parallel universe in the sodding lavatory.”
“I think it’s safe to assume we’re already inside the parallel universe and the toilets are the gateway to freedom.”
Susan slumped into a velvet chair. “In that case, please stuff me inside one.”
“Wedding first,” Hermione instructed, reaching for the knob. “Then we drown ourselves.”
Susan’s weary sigh followed her into the corridor, making Hermione all the more determined to remedy the situation. She’d ensure this was the most magical bloody day of her friend’s life if she had to kill someone to obtain it. So, with bouquets and bloodlust in mind, she toed off her heels and gathered her skirts, dashing down the hallway and through the door, across the grass and up the stairs, pausing only when glittering stained glass obstructed her path. A man stepped forward to open the door, earning a nod of appreciation before she paced barefoot inside the Church.
The crowd was staggering. It seemed half the city had come to celebrate the happy occasion, filling every pew until they were certain to buckle. The swarm of bodies made it difficult to get a clear view of any one person, though she suspected neither missing girl was engaged in congenial small talk over cake toppers. She started along the rows, smiling and tiptoeing her way through the masses until reaching a closed door at the end, mercifully unlocked, its connecting hallway dark and empty. She slipped inside with an eager huff, savoring her newfound shelter until she closed the door and felt the pins in her hair shift dangerously, her cross-garden sprint threatening to upend all thirty-eight minutes of Luna’s meticulous styling.
“Don’t even think about it," she threatened the rebellious curls before treading the floor like a balance beam, mindful of her teetering updo. Unmarked doors lined either wall, lending poor guidance to her hunt. "Parvati? Ginny?" She called, holding her breath and awaiting a response. When only silence greeted she began trying knobs, the last in the row giving way beneath her touch.
"Hello?" She uttered, hope restored as a muffled thump responded from the other side. "Is someone in here?" She parted the door just wide enough to peer through, a large sacristy revealed. Crates and boxes filled her view, antique furniture, and seasonal decor dispersed intermittently. "Parv, Gin? Susan will eat her bouquet if we're not back in the next—" A loud creak emanated from somewhere deep inside. She crept forward, navigating the narrow aisles between towering stacks and overflowing bins, thin strips of sunlight cutting through the shutters to illuminate her path.
The center of the room housed a collection of life-sized statues concealed by sheets. A breeze whistled through the vents, billowing the fabric like wind in a sail and bringing the marble to life. The pieces slowly animated, shifting beneath their pale coverings as they prepared to converge. She grabbed the nearest veil and ripped it away, eager to dispel the haunting illusion, but the image presented ignited a new savage fear. The effigy’s front was heavily damaged, missing both arms and the entirety of its face, possessing only shallow craters where the eyes and mouth used to be. She twisted the sheet between nervous palms as another hiss echoed through the grate, its metallic moan amplified from deep inside the wall.
Something scraped the ground at her back. She whipped around with the fabric drawn tight, braced for attack. Dust particles scattered in the light, disturbed by the startled motion, nothing amiss but a swaying curtain ahead. Heavy velvet hung from the rafters, concealing the far back corner of the room. She closed in on the ominous decoration, leaving the sheet to pool at her heels as the rhythmic pounding returned with fervor. A tribal drum paced her every step until the curtain stilled and the air grew thin. But Hermione remained undeterred, grabbing the moth-chewed fabric by the fistful and throwing it wide, refusing to offer the burgeoning paranoia a foothold.
A striking cabinet towered above her, ornate carvings doing nothing to insulate the racket within. The structure rocked on its base, scraping the floor with increasing volume and speed until it became difficult to hear her own befuddled gasp. She blinked twice, finally recognizing the embellished structure for what it was. A confessional.
No sooner did the epiphany strike than the next one smacked her between the eyes.
“Oh my god…” she uttered in horror, watching the stall door rattle on its hinges. “Parvati!”
“Shite!” A panicked voice hissed, followed by a thud. “Stop, Blaise!”
“Ow— Damn, fuck!”
“Move your elbow!”
“You have to move your leg first!”
“Your giant head’s in the way!”
“I didn’t hear you complaining a minute ago—”
“Enough, both of you!” Hermione shouted. “You should be ashamed of yourselves, shagging inside a bloody church!” She tossed her hands up, head shaking at the rafters. “And now you have me cursing inside the bloody church—” She slapped a palm over her mouth, eyes flaring wide. “Dammit!”
Parvati struggled to catch her breath. “Just a minute—”
“No, right now!”
“Trust me, luv,” Blaise drawled. “You want to give me a moment.”
Hermione rubbed her temples, heat crawling up her neck at the unwelcome visual. “Fine. One minute.”
“Can you make it three? It was my turn next—”
“Shut up!” Parvati scolded.
Hermione glared at the booth. “I thought the honeymoon phase ended with the actual honeymoon?”
“Don’t look at me, he’s the insatiable one.”
“Please, I have to pry her off each night with a crowbar—”
“That’s it!” Hermione called, already en route to the hall. “Five minutes! Then I expect to find you both in your assigned positions and I’m not referring to illustrations from the Kama Sutra!”
Boyish laughter slipped between the macabre decor. "Thanks again for the book, Granger! It was our favorite wedding present of the lot!"
“It taught him how to read!” His wife called merrily.
Hermione emerged from the dust-addled prison with a groan, silently praying she wouldn’t find Ginny similarly engaged. “Bloody hell,” she muttered, immediately peering skyward with a cringe. “Sorry!”
Harry made it one step past the threshold when the shockwave bowed him in half, incessant chatter and screeching laughter scraping his spine like rocks on a stern. He'd finally grown accustomed to the glaring lack of privacy at sea and port, the temptation of a quiet, watery grave enough to send a man overboard. But now it seemed that peaceful solitude was reduced to a poor man's fantasy even at home. He was thrilled for Ron and honored to stand by his side, but Harry would be overflowing with horse shite if he claimed his greatest desire was anything but passing the fuck out in his hotel room with a bottle of whiskey clutched firmly in hand. The pipe dream seemed attainable enough, assuming the wedding actually took place before sundown. So, with a bracing sigh, he gathered every spare ounce of military conditioning and journeyed on, embarking for the vestibule at the back of the Church.
Halfway en route he nearly committed the cardinal sin of raking a hand through his hair, avoiding utter catastrophe with sheer millimeters to spare. It had taken ninety minutes of painstaking grooming to get the hornet’s nest lying flat, a taxing feat he wasn’t keen on repeating before the turn of the century. Relieved, he shook his artfully-sculpted head and resumed the hunt, determined to find the sodding Priest before they all dropped dead.
But it didn’t take long for his pursuit to fly off the rails, his Godfather's vibrating laughter too entertaining to ignore. It seemed half the guests were similarly entranced, men and women peering sideways with blatant interest, eagerly awaiting their chance to sidle closer. His bespoke suit and wild abandon only testified to his rakish charm, intrigue magnified by the increasing likelihood this was the closest Lord Black would ever stand to a marriage altar. Green-eyed vipers swarmed their prey but none were brave enough to strike, reluctant to interrupt the famed Admiral from his lively discussion with the Father of the Bride.
The unlikely pair stood beside a vat of holy water, inspiring a superbly entertaining notion. Harry smirked, envisioning the ever-stoic and always terrifying Commissioner drowning the Weasley twins in the golden basin after whatever failed high-jinks were certain to follow the ceremony. The fantasy trailed his thoughts down the aisle and across the altar when lightning struck.
He staggered, every cell electrified, muscles clenched. His skin flushed hot, then cold, nerve-endings sparking as the press of eyes melted across his spine. The caress was a familiar one, welcomed and necessary after so many grinding, lonesome months of deprivation. There was a special form of suffering that accompanied a laughing crowd, surrounded by a thousand grinning faces but never the one you wanted most. The only one he ever wanted…
But now he felt it. The heady thrill of being watched, studied, memorized. Blunt teeth pressing the skin, fingertips digging into his thighs. He turned swiftly, searching the room with the full force of his Naval training, carefully scoping the perimeter, starved for even a glimpse—
His chest deflated with a low hiss, punctured by a glinting stare from across the room. Theo watched him with a chilling calculation that did nothing to contain the explosive wildfire raging between the pews, heat and destruction reflected in their shared gaze. Harry’s mouth went dry, heartbeat centered behind his knees, willing him forward with every painful throb. Yet his heels remained locked, the swarming crowd a powerful deterrent even in his fever-driven madness. The object of his every desire stood only twenty meters away but there might as well have been an ocean between them, smiling guests swarming the murky depths with razors in their mouths, eager to shred them apart at even the slightest whiff of scandal.
But still, their gazes held, Harry content to stand like a gaping fool for the rest of his days if it meant keeping this view. And then the fire extinguished as quickly as it set, Theo’s eyes flashing as he turned away, dismissal written across the rigid line of his back. Harry blinked, rusting over like a bronzed statue until anger brought him to life. Longing transformed into a sickening growl, deep, furious, hands trembling with the brewing storm.
His feet started forward of their own volition, perfectly content to have it out here and now before God and all his disciples. But the final thread of his common sense plucked like a harp string, urging him in the opposite direction before he brought the wrath of heaven crashing down. He ripped open the door behind the altar and tore through the empty hall like a man possessed, unable to enjoy the blessed solitude he'd finally managed to acquire. He dragged clawed hands through his hair, scrubbing them furiously, eager to destroy the pristine work, every strand set with meticulous care for Him. Stupid fucking knob.
Bloody hell. Harry swiped a hand over his mouth, hot breath pouring between his fingers. Get a grip, this day isn’t yours. He closed his eyes, fumbling for his sanity. Don’t ruin it for Ron, you selfish prick.
He cracked his neck and strode to the nearest closed door. “Father?” He called, barely able to unclench his teeth. Before he could listen for a response the door at his back opened, a dense cloud of voices flooding the narrow hall as a lithe body slipped inside, promptly shutting it once more.
Harry straightened, shoulders drawing level as Theo raked him through the coals with a searing glare. Blatant hostility aside, the man cut an impressive sight up close, styled and tailored to pulse-pounding perfection. The intensity of his features was matched only by their beauty, lips full and lids heavy. Harry swayed, realizing not for the first time what a pale imitation his imagination spun.
All those drunken, monotonous nights at the port when his crew swarmed the local taverns and inns, hungering for a moment's respite in a stranger's bed while Harry crept aboard the ship like a thief in the night, seeking solace in his empty dorm. Eyes closed and knees bent, hand creeping beneath the sheet with slow anticipation, determined to make it last, to summon the fantasy with care. It didn't always work, his mind too preoccupied, body too spent, but on the nights it did… nothing was quite so glorious.
A tentative few strokes and the mattress would dip at his side, warm skin pressing his shoulder, his thigh, steam exhaled across his throat. Theo’s scent would envelop him completely and a guttural whisper would fill his ear, filthy demands and passionate declarations consuming every fiber of his being until Harry was pumping his hips like a rutting beast, a ragged growl tearing through the corridor before he collapsed in a panting heap, seed dripping down his abdomen and pooling in his naval.
The buzzing afterglow was even more satisfying, fingers in his hair and lips at his jaw, blunt teeth scraping his pulsing artery. If he was lucky the phantom caress would follow him into sleep, but more often than not a drunken sailor would stumble on board with a mighty clatter, forcing his eyes open and the fantasy at bay.
He’d spent many a night in that cold, empty bed surrounded by the chorus of snoring men and hissing pipes, sailing to the edge of the earth with only one hope in his heart. To make it home alive. To make it back to him. But now, drawn and quartered by that same violet stare, Harry was confronted by a simple, painful truth. Theo was indeed a living masterpiece befitting the halls of the Louvre, and just as unattainable as the rest of its treasures.
“If looks could kill we’d both be dead,” Harry stated at length, crossing his arms to face down his adversary. “Susan will scatter your limbs for leaving her wedding party a member short.”
Theo didn’t so much as blink, his brooding glower putting Heathcliff to shame.
"Alright, I get it," Harry continued, agitation steadily rising. "You've obviously pissed about something. So let's have it out here and now and get on with our merry day, shall we? There are idiots in the next room trying to celebrate love." The stillness was absolute, suffocating. "The Silent Game. Lucky me. You finally got me something I wanted." He rocked in place, overcome by his own thundering heart. "Honestly, Theo, this is the type of dumb shite I'd expect from Sirius. What the fuck happened? I haven't seen you in months and this is the greeting I get? You're a real piece of work." The last of his patience was buried beneath a deepening scowl. "Fine, arsehole," he muttered, stalking forward with sinister intent. "I'll play along."
At last, Theo showed the first sign of reaction, a rosy flush staining the high bridge of his cheeks and nose as he staggered into the door, pressing flat to the wood but making no move for the handle. Harry’s chest rumbled with satisfaction, hands slamming the barrier on either side of his prey, effectively caging his body with his arms. “I like games, too,” he breathed, head dipping low to purr in his ear. “We’ll see how long you can keep that smarmy mouth shut when I bend over a pew and pry your thighs apart—”
“We’re in a Church,” Theo hissed, shuddering despite his words.
“Really? No wonder I can’t find the buffet.” Harry smirked as Theo bared his teeth, no doubt longing for a weapon within reach. “So you can speak, you’re just choosing to be an uptight twat.” He leaned in close, taking the idiot’s scent deep into his lungs as the pale throat bobbed convulsively. “Theo,” he breathed, pressing forward for a kiss, growling as the stubborn prick averted his face. “Seriously— what the fuck crawled up your arse and died?”
Theo’s gaze snapped forward, bright and incensed. “I don’t know why I bother!” He scathed, dislodging Harry with a mighty shove. “Waste of my sodding time—”
“What the fuck’s your problem?”
“What’s my problem?”
“Great question, wish I’d thought of it.”
The deep blue gaze pulsed red with outrage. “My problem is you’re denser than a block of bloody cement!”
“And? You knew that when you approached me at the pub.”
Theo reared back, scandalized. “Are you daft? You seduced me!”
“After you made the first move!”
“I tripped and stumbled—”
“Oldest tactic in the book,” Harry challenged, taking immense pleasure in winding the cogger up like a toy soldier. The release of pent aggression was a far cry from the relief they normally provided each other but nearly as satisfying.
“If you’re going to treat this like a farce I’m leaving,” Theo warned, reaching for the door.
“The fuck you are.” Harry surged forward, grabbing his arm and spinning him around. “You’re staying right here until we sort this out. Are you mad my assignment ran long? The ship had a fueling issue in Santander—”
“Are you really so obtuse?”
“Fancy words don't make you any less of a dumbass.”
“Forget it,” Theo muttered, wrenching free from his grasp.
Harry stepped back to retrieve a fold of parchment from his vest, creased and softened from constant handling. “Does it have anything to do with this?”
Theo peered sideways with casual contempt, blinking quickly. “What…” He blanched. “You have it on you?”
“Always,” Harry stated, unfolding it with care. “It hasn’t left my pocket since San-Pedro.”
Theo continued to stare at the back of the page, lips working soundlessly. “All that time and you never responded…” His senses returned in a flare of heat. “The least you could have done was—”
“I never responded because the words needed to be spoken in person. Honestly, I should be the one who’s pissed.”
“You said you love me for the first time through a stupid fucking letter! On the very last fucking line! Like a careless afterthought just to shut me up—”
“I was trying to be romantic, you useless sodding cow’s arse!”
“You should have told me to my useless sodding face!”
“I wanted to but you weren’t here, were you? You’re never fucking here! You’re gone nine months out of the year and I’m left wondering if you've been shot or stabbed or thrown overboard and sucked into the bloody ship propeller! All I have for company are the daily reports of riots and executions in the streets. I spend my nights searching through every paper on the stand for any mention of your crew, I check the death reports ten times an hour just to convince myself it’s okay to breathe. I told you how I felt in the stupid fucking letter because I was terrified it would be my only chance to tell you!”
Harry blinked slowly, pressure swelling inside his chest like a balloon. “Theo…” he squeezed the parchment. “You shouldn’t be reading those reports, the news is sensationalized—”
“That isn’t the point! Every time you set sail it feels like losing a part of myself. I forget what being whole even means until you wander back home with your oblivious fucking grin and I fucking hate it. I hate the control you have over me. I hate your stupid clothes. I hate that you throw yourself in the path of bullets for complete strangers. I hate how the thought of losing you terrifies me more than anything in this life and I hate hate hate that I fucking love you.” He scrubbed trembling hands over his face, wetness smearing his temples. “I love you, Harry. And it’s fucking unbearable.”
Harry rocked in place, heartbeat trapped in the base of his throat. “What’s wrong with my clothes?”
"Bloody hell." Theo rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I've never wanted to kill someone so much in all my life. Rodolphus included."
Harry chanced a step closer, breath expelling when Theo made no retreat. “You can hit me. You can set fire to my closet. I really don’t give a shite. As long as you’re with me.”
Theo gazed up through swollen eyes, voice steeped in anguish. “I haven’t ruined it?”
“You could never ruin it.”
“It’s all I’m good at. I do things wrong and people leave. My mother, my father—”
“Your mother wasn’t your fault, Theo. And your father is a useless piece of shite who couldn’t find his own arsehole with a lantern and a map.” Harry gripped his shoulders and held his gaze intently, needing him to listen and hear, to take every word deep into his soul. "I love you, Theodore Nott," he declared firmly. "I've never been so certain of anything in all my life. My title, my career, half my relationships, they're all haunted by the same ghost. But with you, there is no doubt. I'm not confused. This isn't a phase. This is what artists and poets spend their entire lives trying to capture. The beginning and end of everything. I've loved you for so fucking long I can't remember what came before. It's always been and always will be and there's nothing that can stop it. Not God, not Parliament, not even you. And long after I’m sucked into a propeller and sprayed across the afterlife, I’ll still be madly in love with you.”
Theo shook his head, vibrating with unspent laughter and tears. “And the moment had such potential.”
Harry smiled and cupped his jaw, then grasped his waist and pulled him close for another attempt. Theo didn't turn away this time. Their mouths pressed tenderly, savoring the feel, each touch lingering.
“Say it again,” Theo whispered.
“I love you,” Harry repeated against his lips.
“I love—” the remaining syllable was promptly devoured, a feral switch flipped in both their bodies. Low moans filled every corner of the hall, shoulders bumping portrait frames as they stumbled aimlessly, drunk with mounting need. Blunt nails raked across Harry’s scalp, pulling his hair and clawing his back. He reciprocated with a low-throated groan, pinning Theo flat to the wall and grinding their pelvises with shameless desperation. The friction drove them to madness, teeth scraping, panting into each other’s mouths when the door at their side began to open.
They flew apart like a powder keg, colliding into opposite walls with eyes wide and pupils blown. Harry trembled with the shock, straightening his shirt and jacket, erection throbbing heavily between his legs.
“Oh, hello gentlemen,” an elderly voice greeted. The Priest emerged from a side room, offering a smile to their flushed and horrified faces. “I was just coming to check on the bride and groom. I believe it’s time we move things along.”
Harry nodded eagerly, able to feel each hair standing on end. “Yes. Great. Let’s do that. That great idea. That you had.”
The man raised a white brow, glancing between them with more care. “My word, are you boys alright? You look positively feverish.”
Theo tugged at his collar, revealing twin welts left by Harry's teeth. “We just got a bit warm searching for you.” He cleared the gravel from his throat. “The Church is bigger than it looks.”
“All the better to celebrate our Lord.” The Priest grinned anew, patting their shoulders as he passed. “Excellent. I’ll inform the violinist it’s time.”
Harry nodded, deflating with a hiss the moment the door closed between them. And then he made the monumental mistake of glancing across the hall, cock pulsing hot when Theo adjusted his own turgid length through his pants. Harry ground his teeth and closed his eyes, counting backward from ten before he gave standing at the altar an entirely new meaning. His erection remained uncomfortably stiff when he reached the end of the timer but, to his boundless surprise and relief, their lord and savior came to the rescue.
An oversized portrait of Jesus hung directly ahead, glowing halo and watchful eyes instantly softening the matter. Harry blinked and tilted his head, realizing the son of God looked remarkably like his Godfather when the latter forgot to shave for a few days. Best to keep that particular anecdote to himself, he mused. The last thing he needed was Sirius running off to start his own religion, leaving the remainder of Grimmauld’s construction to his supremely uninterested heir.
“Dear God,” Theo muttered, pulling his focus. In the thirty seconds Harry had spent collecting dust his companion had successfully converted his lust-ravaged appearance into debonair charm. “Don’t tell me you’ve found the Holy Spirit.”
“And what if I have?” Harry posed, smirking as Theo pushed off the wall to pace closer.
“I’d say our names were officially smote from Heaven’s gate the night we celebrated your birthday in Waterloo.”
Harry grinned at the memory. “The fate of my soul never concerned me much,” he reflected, lifting his chin as Theo straightened his collar. “If God really is up there, he’s got a few bigger concerns than who I’m fucking.”
“Such a romantic.”
“I have my moments. Besides,” Harry groaned with pleasure, eyelids weighing heavy as nimble fingers combed his hair into a manageable pile. “If he didn’t intend for me to want you, he wouldn't have set you in my path.”
Theo paused, palms warm against his nape as he met Harry’s hooded gaze with a faint blush. “Alright, that actually was a bit romantic.”
“He also wouldn’t have made me so bloody attractive—”
“And we’re back.”
“— impossible for you to resist hitting on.”
“For the last bloody time, I tripped over a stool.”
Harry grabbed him by the waist and leaned into the wall, tipping their bodies flush. “There was no stool,” he recounted against Theo’s lips. “We were queued outside the gents.”
Theo blinked, blush melting down his neck even as his lips curved wryly. “Hm. That’s right. The stool was Plan B, in case you were too dense to notice me tripping over air the first time round.”
Harry laughed into his mouth, hands smoothing up his spine. “That’s funny. I distinctly remember tripping you on purpose.”
“You’re an arsehole.”
“That’s what you said when I threw you into my carriage.”
Theo shook his head and pressed a kiss to Harry’s mouth, stroking his jaw and whispering softly. “Come home with me tonight.”
Harry searched his gaze, bluer than any ocean he'd ever sailed. Halfway around the world and back again, Harry had known every adventure and thrill a boy could imagine. The sea meant freedom, escape, but never quite home. And now, standing in the narrow vestibule of a Church, Harry finally understood why. Home wasn't a place or a person, a memory or a dream. Home was the present moment. Home was here and now.
He laid a hand on Theo's chest and smiled against his lips. "Where you go, I go."
Pansy straightened her gloves, smoothing the velvet between her fingers and admiring her emerald-cut ring beneath the stained glass. Prisms reflected across her dress, a dazzling display of light and color that attracted the gasps of children playing in the pews. They giggled and pointed, rushing in for a better look. Pansy grinned, limbs solidified by their wondrous stares. They gathered before her like ducklings in a pond, squealing with delight as she fluffed her voluminous skirts.
“Do you want to see a magic trick?” She whispered, magnifying their enthusiasm ten-fold. They nodded eagerly, scooting back at her silent ushering. Once she had ample clearance she lifted her arms and bent her leg, twirling in place like a spinning top. Her skirts expanded in a pinwheel design, layered petticoats creating satin ribbons of contrasting colors. The children fell silent, several adults facing their way by the time her momentum ebbed. She staggered on the dismount, dizzy and breathless but enervated just the same. Her captive audience exploded with cheer, sidling close with a flurry of questions.
“Are you a ballerina?” A child asked, voice rising above her peers.
“Aren’t you precious,” Pansy cooed, tapping the girl’s nose as she would a beloved pet. “Alas, no. Unfortunately, I was born with a rib cage.” She straightened her belt, grinning fondly at the memory. “Though a ballerina did teach me that move. Then I taught her one of mine.”
A livid gasp cut through the excited chatter. Pansy glanced up, grin fading as a woman stormed towards their gathering. “Katrina! Come here this instant!” The little girl blinked, confused by her mother’s ire. “Now!” The cow demanded, summoning the child into motion and drawing more eyes to their corner.
Pansy drew back, skewered by the glares of a dozen perfect strangers. Their whispers were quick to follow, as per tradition, assaulting her from every angle but up.
“Who is that?”
“—can’t believe someone would wear that to a wedding—“
“Looks like a harlot—”
“She has a reputation, you know.”
“Stop staring, John!”
Her eyes flickered left just in time to watch a shrill hen drag her husband away. He gazed on appreciatively, casting a wink over his shoulder before disappearing into the crowd. Pansy sighed, gathering her skirts and cutting through the scandalized onlookers until reaching the side exit, bursting through the door and emerging into a picturesque garden.
She slowed her furious steps in the middle of the grass, tipping back her head and willing the sunlight to cast her invisible again. It was a strange desire, one she hadn’t grown entirely custom to just yet. Solitude was a rather vexing bedfellow, suffocating at times and energizing at others, as ever-changing as her shoes. But the last twelve months had taught Pansy many things, the restorative powers of transformation chief among them. Recreating oneself offered more than a perfectly reasonable excuse to overhaul one’s wardrobe. It was a survival imperative, the only thing that kept her rolling out of bed each morning, ready to face the judgemental eyes of the world.
Still, there were simply days when rising from one's mattress proved far too great a chore. As such, Pansy's second epiphany came to blossom. Idiots couldn't judge what they couldn't see. And at present, that particular tactic seemed by far the most practical. Though Pansy never shied away from a healthy scandal, she was a Lady first and foremost. Today was about the Bride and whatever trivial boor she'd settled upon, Pansy would remain on her best behavior for the poor chit's sake. It wasn't every day a young woman got to celebrate her complete and total loss of autonomy with family, friends, and a cake she couldn't eat. Far be it for Pansy to ruin the merriment. No matter. She hadn't come for the festivities. Speaking of which…
She turned to face the Church, wilting in its shadow. This was undoubtedly the most ridiculous length she’d gone to for something rare and beautiful, and that included impersonating a member of the Imperial Court to get her hands on a Fabergé locket. Solitude had obviously turned her mad.
You’ve come this far. She sighed, trudging back the way she’d fled. Off to make a bigger fool of myself. On the bright side, she now had the perfect remedy when it came time to mend her broken heart. She wondered if Katrina would enjoy watching her mother’s atrocious dress catch flame, lost to the idle musing when a muffled sneeze sounded at her back.
She spun swiftly, searching the scenic green. Bees flitted between flowering bushes and leaves rustled in the breeze while Pansy stood in perfect stillness, holding her breath and listening carefully.
Grass crunched to her right, behind a row of privacy hedges. Her eyes narrowed, flashes of color appearing between the branches. Her feet were in motion before her mind could think up what to say. The perfume of nectar and pollen carried on the breeze, her nose twitching as another sneeze carried through the foliage.
Pansy neared the edge of the barrier, slowing to a stop as a strange and sudden anxiety took root. It started in her stomach and spread through her chest, vines growing in her throat until she could barely exhale. It had been many years since she’d felt so afflicted but the bitter taste was familiar. A blink of her eyes and she was ten years old again, peering through her bedroom keyhole as her father stormed past in a blaze of fury. The heavy vibration carried through the floor and into her ribs, turning each breath into a shuddering hiss.
A third sneeze shattered the black and white image, the garden reappearing like a watercolor portrait in her mind. She shook the lingering splinters from her hair and stepped through the frame, emerging on the other side of the hedge.
Auburn hair burned copper in the sunlight, Pansy learned, a striking contrast to the violet silk pooling in the grass.
“Parvati?” A melodic voice called, moving in the opposite direction with a sniffle. “Are you back here? Please don’t be connected to Blaise…”
Pansy smirked, admiring the long line of her back a moment longer. “My, my,” she spoke, eliciting a shocked yelp of response. “This just got interesting.”
Ginny whipped around so quickly she nearly toppled into the hedge. “Pansy!”
“You remembered, I’m flattered.”
“Of course I—” Her eyes flickered to Pansy’s rueful grin, cheeks tinging pink. “Right. Sorry. I wasn’t expecting… I was hoping to catch the bridesmaid shagging her husband in the bushes.” She blinked twice. “That isn’t— I mean I don’t— I didn’t want to see it, the wedding is about to start and we can’t find—”
“Take a breath, Ginevra.” Ginny swallowed thickly. Pansy tilted her head, watching warmth spill down the pale column of her throat. “There’s no shame in a bit of voyeurism. It’s an excellent way to learn the true nature of others. And yourself.”
Ginny laughed softly, tension ebbing. “I’ll have to give it a go sometime. Preferably not in a Church.”
“Why not? I can think of no better locale for a scandalous tryst.” Pansy started forward at a leisurely pace, flicking leaves as she neared. “You didn’t look surprised to see me earlier.”
The pretty fox shuffled in place. “I heard a rumor you might be coming,” she muttered, the quiet admission making Pansy’s heart skip.
“Is that so? And what else did the gossips say?”
“Nothing,” Ginny added hastily. “I mean nothing bad. Nothing at all, really, but definitely nothing bad. I wouldn’t have listened otherwise.”
Pansy grinned, helping her out of the fire and into the flame. “You look marvelous.”
Ginny blinked, blush spreading faster as she registered the compliment. “Thank you. So do you, obviously. You always look—” Her lashes fluttered, eyes bluer than the sky above. “That dress is… wow.”
“What, this old rag?” Pansy’s grin unfurled with pleasure, slowing her step to build anticipation. “I designed it myself. You inspired me, actually.”
“Naturally. It’s based on the cut of your emerald gown. Though I suppose I added a few minor adjustments.”
Ginny tipped her head and let loose a peal of laughter so genuine and unrestrained Pansy forgot what brought it about, distracted by the motion of her throat as the sound danced all around them. "Bloody hell!" Ginny spoke around gasping breaths. "I'd say so. I could never pull off something like that."
“Of course you could.” Pansy stopped a full pace closer than proper etiquette permitted, pleased when her still-laughing companion made no retreat, pins loose and crown askew. “Your flowers are different from the other girls.”
“W-what? Oh.” Ginny touched the petals with a dazed look. “Mum wanted me to wear a different dress at first, said it was tradition. But it didn’t feel right. We’re all the Maid of Honor, really. I just got the title because I’m also the sister-in-law.”
Pansy reached up, arranging the blooms and securing them in place. “Who chose morning glories?”
Ginny’s breathing turned shallow, warming Pansy’s wrists as she performed her task. “I did,” she whispered.
“Hm. They suit you.” Pansy adjusted the final pin, meeting the blue gaze centered before her. “There. Perfect.”
Ginny swayed, barely seeming to breathe. “Where’s your fan?” She asked suddenly, leaving Pansy to blink.
“Oh.” She grinned. “I donated it to a statue in dire need of accessorizing. Poor thing was wrapped in a table linen.”
“I’m sure the Virgin Mary has never looked better.”
Pansy laughed, a quick and sharp sound she wasn’t entirely in control of. Frigid crones among the Peerage would have swooned at the indelicacy but Ginny seemed to bask in it, proud of being the one to draw it forth.
“How was your trip?” Ginny inquired, taking her companion by surprise once again. But this time a flood of warmth accompanied the words, spreading outward with every pulse of her heart.
“You really have been asking about me.”
Ginny glanced down, bare feet toeing the grass. “Maybe more than a little,” she confessed, biting her lip in a manner that admitted to so much more.
Pansy’s hand lifted, possessed by a force much greater than herself, gently tapping Ginny’s chin and tilting her face up. Their gazes held, lungs expelling a gust of steam that rose between them. Pansy leaned in, hardly aware of her actions, and then Ginny mirrored her movements and she stopped thinking altogether.
“Ginny?” A voice called from outside the Church.
“Shite!” Ginny hissed, lurching back in a panic. “It’s Mione!”
“Of course it is,” Pansy muttered, gloves smoothing along her front.
“I have to—”
Ginny paced back slowly. “I’ll see you after the ceremony?”
“I’ll be hard to miss.”
The Maid of Honor stopped at the end of the hedge, examining Pansy with the same artful precision she’d been subjected to earlier. Pansy shifted, the seed of uncertainty stirring again, but her companion’s radiant grin quickly stomped the weeds to rest.
“You always are,” Ginny replied, departing on a graceful spin.
Pansy watched her circle the end of the row and leaned into the branches, light-headed in the wake of their encounter. Sunlight glowed warm on her skin and a rapid fluttering filled her stomach but both sensations were lost to her next great epiphany. No eyes were upon her, and yet she still remained whole.
Harry knocked twice before opening the door and peeking inside, promptly searching the floor for bodies. Alas, the Groom had managed to remain upright, pacing the rug like a frantic horse and sweating just as profusely.
“It’s time,” he announced, fighting down a grin as the man turned whiter than the flower on his lapel.
Ron scrubbed a hand across his face and gulped audibly. “Bollocks.”
Susan stared at her reflection in the vanity, silently counting down the seconds until the next major catastrophe while Luna hummed merrily in the corner. If she made it to zero, the bride decided she would strip off her gown and charge the streets in her skivvies, as logical a plan as any she was used to making, but rapid footsteps in the hall spared her the effort.
The room’s remaining inhabitants spun to face the door as it burst wide, Hermione nearly face-planting over the threshold. She’d barely managed to recover her slip when Parvati and Ginny skidded in from behind, the trio toppling to the rug like dominoes.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Susan shouted, springing from her stool. “Where the hell have you lot been? I could be onto my third husband by now!”
“I just spoke with the Priest,” Hermione panted, gripping the knob to haul herself up. “They’re ready for us.”
Susan gripped her pale skirts by the fistfuls. “Bollocks,” she whispered, rushing to the standing mirror. “Help me with the veil!”
The next ten minutes were a blur of fluttering lace and flailing limbs, but once the dust settled she somehow found herself standing in the Church lobby, bridesmaids stacked neatly in a row and everyone struggling to catch their breath.
Susan rocked back and forth as the guests took their seats, toes already swelling in the strikingly beautiful and terribly impractical heels Ginny had chosen for her. Until, finally, the pews were filled and a collective hush swept the room, stifling the rest of her thoughts.
The sole violinist began to play, his elegant melody signaling the doors to open. Susan swayed, overcome by a blur of faces, the sea creature with a thousand blinking eyes. The flower girl wasn’t so deterred, beginning her joyful skip down the aisle to the attention and delight of all. She threw petals in the air and stuffed a few in her mouth, abandoning the basket halfway down to play with a ribbon in her hair. Luna hurried forward as the crowd shook with laughter, retrieving the fallen prop and escorting the girl the rest of the way. Susan exhaled swiftly, spots appearing before her veil-covered eyes.
“You look beautiful, sweetheart,” her father murmured at her side. “So much like your mother… I wish more than anything she could be here today.”
She clutched his arm tighter, spots slowly fading. “Me, too,” she whispered, watching Parvati depart next. Try as she might to keep the tremor from her voice she felt the inescapable weight of his gaze upon her.
“Are you sure about all this?” He asked, voice cast low so the others wouldn’t hear.
“Of course,” she replied quickly, glancing up. “I thought you liked him?”
“I like anyone who makes you happy. Weasley’s a good kid and I can tell he loves you but that doesn’t mean you have to—” He sighed, eyes briefly closing. “What I mean to say is… you don’t owe anything to anyone. It’s never too late to change your mind.”
The corner of her lips turned up, concealed by the veil. “I think three hundred guests would stand in adamant disagreement.”
“I have zero reservations about tossing these freeloading bastards out on the street.”
She snorted, tension easing from her limbs. “Would I have to return the gifts?”
“I’ll buy you anything you want.”
Her smile unwound fully as Hermione journeyed forward. “Thank you, Dad, but I’m exactly where I want to be.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. “I promise.”
He nodded curtly and dropped a kiss to her temple. “Good.” They watched Ginny depart, the last of her party to go. He lifted his chin, speaking at normal volume. “But if my idiot son-in-law does anything to make you unhappy, come straight to Daddy. They’ll never find the body.”
She smothered a laugh inside her bouquet, feeling the vibration of his silent amusement against her side. “Perfect, it’ll save us the hassle of a prenup.”
The violin stopped, its final chord echoing through the hall as the crowd stood as one to face the doors with expectant grins.
“Ready?” Her father inquired gently.
Susan swallowed thickly. “Ready.”
They started forward. The arm beneath her grip remained rigid, as if he knew she needed all the help she could get to stay upright. He slowed his natural gait to accommodate her limited stride, dense skirts and narrow heels reducing her mobility to a slug’s gallop. Their limited pace only prolonged the agony of three hundred stares pressing in from all sides, an affectionate pillow smothering her face. She’d never been more grateful for the cumbersome veil, her only shield from the penetrating eyes.
It was then she realized the depth of her transformation. Years of addiction had sewn deep-seated mistrust in her heart until she knew only one thing to be true, attention was never good. The paranoia she once felt buried beneath her quilt at home had become second nature to her now. Her pores twitched and her palms itched as her body cried out for a cure it hadn’t tasted in over a year. The opium had been her remedy for so long, the solution to every woe, her mind still reached for it like a phantom limb.
It’s just the stress, the moment will pass. It always does.
Her gaze flitted to the crowd and landed on an old woman she didn’t recognize, one of Ron’s many relatives. The stranger leaned towards the man beside her and whispered sharply, he nodded his head and murmured something back, neither taking their eyes from the passing Bride. Susan quaked, certain they knew the truth. More whispers filled her ears. She glanced to her other side and found the entire crowd engaged in hushed conversation, their stares narrow and accusing. They all saw it, every sin and tragedy written across her face.
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, allowing her father to guide her steps until she was confident her heart wouldn’t tumble free from her mouth. When she opened her lids the madness had passed, reality knitting together a quaint and peaceful scene of love and adoration. Her pulse settled, the happiness on everyone’s faces reminding her of the source of her own. She gazed to the altar, overcome by the sight of him.
Ron stood tall and handsome in his pressed uniform, shoulders broad and hands clasped behind his back, likely to hide their fidgeting. She grinned at the thought, the shared exhilaration binding their hearts. His grin stretched to either end of his face, proud and gleaming, while his eyes shone with the same brilliance as the precious stones in her necklace, borrowed from Parvati to keep with tradition. She’d drawn the line at putting a sixpence in her shoe.
Their gazes held steady as she continued her forward journey, even when Harry clasped his shoulder and spoke quietly in his ear. Ron’s grin somehow widened, medals gleaming on his breast. The aisle seemed to go on forever and yet remained impossibly short. A blink and a heartbeat and she stood before him, breathless and dazed.
“Who gives away this bride?” The Priest asked, voice echoing through the rafters.
The immovable presence at her side shifted. “Her father,” he replied, arm tensing before falling away. She turned to face him as he carefully lifted the veil, meeting her gaze just long enough to convey a message of tenderness. She blinked quickly as he kissed her cheek, tears burning behind her eyes when he moved to face the Groom.
Ron’s grin wilted at the edges, a slow blister creeping its way up from beneath his collar as the famed Detective pressed him with a narrow stare. His groomsmen looked amused but Ron managed not to squirm, holding his ground with a scarlet flush until her father laughed, signaling the rest of the room to join in. He offered his hand in truce and Ron accepted it eagerly, sunlight filling the Church.
And then her father headed for his seat and she felt the weight of his absence all at once, ground shifting beneath her feet. She desperately wished her mother was here, longing for the woman more than ever, but Ron stepped forward and the shadow passed.
“Hi,” he whispered, a touch nervous.
“Hi,” she echoed, regretting their decision not to elope.
He leaned forward, reading her mind and speaking low. “There’s still time to run away, you know.”
“Our deposit on the reception hall is non-refundable. Might as well go through with it.”
His amusement cut short when the Priest cleared his throat. “Ahem.” They spun forward like naughty school children. “If the bride and groom will please join me.”
They did as bade, Harry winking when they passed and Ginny rushing forward to straighten her train over the steps. “You’re so beautiful,” Ron murmured, watching her intently. “I can’t believe I get to marry you.”
“I was just thinking the same thing.” Warmth bloomed across her chest. “You’re quite lucky.”
His smile radiated a fondness that took her breath away, which was just as well since the Priest responded first. “Are you two about ready?”
Her laughter chimed high and delighted as she tossed her bouquet to Ginny and reached for her Groom. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Hermione ducked behind her bouquet, drying her eyes as the Priest’s jovial announcement filled the Church.
“It is with great joy I declare you Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Billius Weasley, you may now kiss your bride.”
Ron perched his hands on Susan’s waist and leaned in, pecking her lips chastely as the audience erupted into rowdy, unrestrained cheer. Hermione tucked her bouquet underarm and clapped, joining in the crowd’s delight when Susan threw her arms around his neck to instigate a far more passionate exchange.
They complimented each other perfectly, she thought, watching Ron emerge from the kiss flushed and grinning. She recalled the boy she’d once known, toothless and grass-stained, tearing through the house with a wild scream as the twins chased him with a spider. The man before her now stood broad-chested and proud, gleaming medals on his chest and a beautiful wife in his arms. Tears spilled forth with vigor, blurring her view of the newlyweds embarking down the aisle. Shouts of praise and congratulations echoed louder than bells, following them through the doors.
The crowd rose to follow, the pews slowly emptying as conversations began and children took leave of their parents, eager to expel their pent-up energy. Hermione turned away to dry her cheeks once more, embarrassed by her outpour, and felt a sudden shift in the atmosphere. She spun back around, searching out the source, watching bodies gather in clusters and migrate for the doors. Except for one.
He lingered in the back row, silver gaze fixed upon her. The image he cut was distinctly overwhelming, handsome and impeccable, just as she remembered. But there was also a shadow in his eyes she couldn’t quite place. It did nothing to diminish their intensity, their weight, though it emitted a mushroom cloud of uncertainty she was hesitant to breathe.
“Mione?” A hand touched her arm, causing her to jolt. “Are you alright?” Hannah asked.
Hermione met her gaze, blinking quickly. “Oh. Yes…” She looked back to the pews. Draco had vacated his seat, en route to the exit. “Wonderful,” she muttered, turning back to her fellow bridesmaid. “Let’s go stuff our faces with cake, shall we?”
Hannah nodded with enthusiasm, linking their arms. “Until they have to cut me out of this dress.”
Parvati laced her fingers behind her husband’s neck, leaning into his hold as he guided her across the dance floor. “Did you know,” he rumbled, fingers tracing down her spine. “You’re the most beautiful woman here.”
“Hm.” She rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to keep casting lines, Byron, you’ve already locked this down.”
“Perhaps,” he murmured, dipping his head to kiss the side of her neck. “But you could still slip the restraints. A good husband keeps his wife tightly ensnared at all times.”
“You did not just say that.”
“I know you love it.”
“Don’t get too complacent. I still have loads of mystery up my sleeve.” She winked. "And by mystery, I mean psychotic episodes. I'm just waiting until the documents finalize to unleash them."
“Funny you should mention that…” He grinned broadly. “The paperwork arrived today, you’re officially entitled to half of everything I own.”
“A tempting prospect.”
“Why settle for half when you can stand by my side and have it all?”
“Bloody hell,” she groaned. “How did I fall for these god awful lines the first time around?”
“You were drunk.”
“Ah. That’s right.”
He spun her in a flourish and pulled her back with a roguish grin, nearby couples gasping with delight. Unfortunately, his next question unraveled all of life’s happiness with six simple words. “How was your afternoon with mum?”
Her eyes narrowed, bristling before she began. “Less than an hour in I wanted to stab us both in the throat. They closed down the entire department store so she could shop undisturbed, half a day of browsing and she buys a bloody cigarette case.”
“Sounds about right. Did she order lunch for you again?”
“Yes! Like I’m some cross-eyed illiterate who can’t read a fucking—” An elderly couple peered sidelong at her outburst, mouths puckered in scandal. She smiled sweetly, resting her head on his shoulder. “Beautiful ceremony, wasn’t it?”
The pair aimed their waltz in the opposite direction. “Thanks for taking the bullet, luv,” Blaise sighed. “It was too soon after the last visit for me to endure her company again.”
“What’s she doing back already? I thought you said she spends one week a year in London.”
“I’ve no sodding clue.” He cracked his neck on a harried groan. “She’s never paid me this much attention in all my life. It’s utterly terrifying. My guess is she’s sniffing around for grandchildren.”
Parvati laughed derisively. “I can’t picture her as Grandma.”
“Oh, she’ll make them call her Countess but she wants them nonetheless. Anything to set her above the venomous shrews in her gilded social circle. Healthy heirs are like red diamonds to them.”
“Great,” she muttered, scrounging for a silver-lining. “At least she isn’t trying to split us apart anymore.”
His eyes lit with mischief, mood easily restored; one of the many qualities she adored in her other half. “Seems your previous message was received loud and clear. No one’s ever thrown her from a moving carriage before; you’ve sufficiently won her over.”
She skimmed his jaw with a contemplative hum. “So that’s where you get it from.”
“I've no idea what you’re talking about, heart.” He blinked innocently, hands invoking scandal along her hips.
She jabbed his ribs in warning but only succeeded in switching on his laughter. The steady vibration dueled with the tempo, earning irritable whispers from the more serious dancers on the floor. Parvati grinned, unconcerned by their opinions. The world contained between Blaise’s arms was small and filled with treasures, a narrow paradise no outsider could breach. She wasn’t so naive as to think the pink-haze a permanent fixture in their lives. The glass dome would eventually lift and the fog would dissipate along with it, reality materializing piece by piece or with crushing swiftness.
She’d learned life’s simple truths young and held each one close to her heart. The hotter wood burned the faster it turned to ash; what went up must come down; and, her personal favorite, nothing good could last. These universal constants had protected her thus far and yet, when Blaise had dropped to one knee and pulled the ring box from his pocket, she hadn’t hesitated to scream yes before he’d even completed the question, her own bit of existential knowledge supplanting all the rest: their worst day together was far and above her worst day alone.
“Are you tired of me yet?” She asked, the sincerity of her tone ending his laughter abruptly.
“Never,” he declared firmly.
She nodded, tracing idle patterns along his nape. “It’s just… we eloped six months ago and you’ve already paid for my sister’s math courses, her best friend’s culinary program, and their flat in the city. Not to mention building me a bloody mansion from the ground up—”
“Sound investments for a return of domestic bliss. What else would I be spending the money on?”
“I’m certain I don’t want to know.”
“Probably for the best.” He drew her flush to his chest and pressed their foreheads together. “A man’s fortune is meaningless in the face of love.”
"Dear God," she cringed.
“Behold beauty and witness a lifetime of—”
“Where the hell are you getting this shite?”
“Longbottom dropped his poetry journal during his visit with Hannah.”
Her brow creased. “That poor thing.”
“You’re referring to Hannah?”
His gaze drifted to her hair, admiring the refraction of light across the dark pool. “I thumbed through a few pages for blackmail material and stumbled across his proposal speech.”
Parvati blinked, processing both ends of the statement before gasping with Shakespearean finesse. “Our little Hannah, a blushing bride! The house will feel tragically bereft without her.”
“We still have Luna.”
She waved her hand in dismissal. “Luna practically sleeps at her shop, I barely see her anymore.” A new thought occurred, shared only in half-jest. “I’m going to get empty-nest syndrome.”
His eyes narrowed above a wolfish grin, a formidable combination that sent a bolt of heat directly between her thighs. “There’s an all-natural remedy for that, you know.”
“I do care about the environment,” she mused. “I fed a swan last week, annoying fucker shite all over the lawn. Majestic my arse—”
“We could refill the nest with actual offspring, as opposed to young women we off-handedly refer to as our children.”
Parvati blinked, sober as a gunshot blast. “You still want kids?”
“Of course,” he replied at once. “Don’t you?”
“Yes, I’m just relieved you brought it up first because I wasn’t sure how to tell you—”
“Ready to get started?” He smirked, arm tightening at her waist. “The ledge in the water closet looked sturdy enough to—”
He froze in place, forcing an adjacent pair to stumble wildly, narrowly avoiding a collision. Parvati ignored their plight, focusing on his face and holding her breath. Her eyes burned at the prolonged silence, the swift disappointment.
“What?” He finally whispered, searching her face. “You— you’re… you’re certain?”
She swallowed thickly, exhaling the words in a rush. “Positive. The doctor confirmed it yesterday—!” She squealed as he seized her waist and lifted her off the ground. “Don’t make a spectacle, we’re still at a wedding!”
“I don’t care!” He bellowed, spinning in rapid circles while she held on tight. “Shite!” He hissed, rocking to a halt. “Is this bad for the babies?” He lowered her abruptly, staring at her middle as she clutched his shoulders for balance. “Are you okay? Did I scramble his brain? Will she need glasses now?”
Parvati blinked, the world tilting sideways, and then his words caught up to her and she exploded with laughter, half the dance floor watching with curiosity and amusement.
“I’ll take that as a no,” he said.
“How many kids do you think are in there, Blaise?”
He scratched the side of his head. “Twins run in the family, right? Wait—“ His arm fell. “I thought you smuggled a flask into the Church?”
“I brought it for Susan,” she relayed between breaths. “Marrying a Weasley can’t be easy, figured she’d need to get loaded at some point.”
His smile bordered on the obscene as he cupped her face and kissed her passionately, causing even the band to stare outright. “So thoughtful,” he murmured against her lips. “You’re going to be the best fucking mum ever.”
“Bet your perfect arse I will.” She wove her arms around his neck and melted into his embrace. “And you’re going to be a bloody fantastic dad to our quintuplets.”
He laughed against her temple and retook her waist, leading them into some semblance of a waltz, neither paying any attention to the music. “We’re definitely going to screw this up.”
"Without a doubt," she sighed, fingers carding through his hair. "But that's what firstborns are for."
Harry turned his head and exhaled, smoke billowing downwind of the patio and its fellow inhabitants. The scattered guests found solace along the railing, breaking from indoor festivities to converse in the summer air.
“Can’t believe little Ron was the first of his brothers to walk the plank,” his godfather mused, clipping the end off a second cigar. “Hell. He beat you, too, kid.”
Harry grinned, watching the evening’s final rays shimmer across the lawn like sunset over the water. “Don’t exclude yourself from the line-up, old man. There’s no ring on your finger either.”
“That prospect sailed from my horizon many moons ago.” The laughter following his declaration lacked the vibrancy Harry had grown so accustomed to hearing. He brought the cigar to his lips and peered sideways.
“Never say never. Love has a way of creeping up when you least expect it.”
Sirius tipped his head and breathed out, a blue cloud tinging each word. “I suppose it does.” A tenuous pause settled between them, the distant murmur of conversation and music filling the void. And then Sirius started for the grass, speaking over his shoulder. “Let’s take a walk, catch up a bit.” Harry rolled the cigar between his fingers, hesitating until the Admiral stopped to peer back. “Coming?”
The sky burned warm tangerine when Harry arrived at his side, the hue reflecting across the grass. They strolled through the lake of fire in silence, Sirius watching the treeline and Harry watching him, ashes flicking in their wake.
“Alright,” Harry spoke at last, stopping in the middle of the field. “What’s happened?”
Sirius glanced up, blinking curiously. “What makes you think something’s happened?”
“The last time you asked me to take a quiet walk you didn’t exactly have good news to impart.”
His godfather stood straighter, eyes darkened by the memory. “Christ, Harry, I didn’t…. This is nothing like that. I’m sorry if I scared you.”
“I’m not scared. Everyone I love is either drunk at the bar or drunk on the dance floor. But you have that same look in your eyes. I can tell something’s wrong.”
His godfather sighed, turning his focus to the end of his cigar. “Nothing’s wrong. Quite the opposite in fact. Seeing Ron get married just got me thinking…” His breath went the way of the gently curling smoke, absorbed by a rust-colored cloud.
“Got you thinking…?” Harry prompted.
“It got me thinking that maybe, sometimes, there isn’t always a… you can’t always know… it’s not always easy to—” He rubbed the bridge of his nose while Harry took a long drag, thoroughly entertained. “Let me start again. When you were young I always thought you would… no, that’s not— what I meant to say is, there wasn’t always a good way to—”
“Are you always this poetic or did you practice just for me?”
“Don’t be a cheeky bastard,” Sirius muttered.
“I always know how to lighten the mood.”
“Sorry, I’m always interrupting—”
“Are you quite done?”
“Are you?” He grinned around his cigar. “I promised Hermione the next dance, if I stand her up she’s liable to turn me into a practice cadaver.”
“I’ll have you back to your deadly lass by the next song,” the man assured, uncharacteristically pensive. “I just wanted to say… marriage is a wonderful thing.”
Harry arched a brow, pungent smoke seeping from the corners of his mouth. “Wow. Thank you, Sirius.” He took a step back. “I’m going to reflect on that inside—”
“Stop right there,” the Admiral demanded. “And don’t give me that look. I haven’t seen you in months, the least you can do is stand still and pretend to listen for five bloody minutes.” Harry relented with a groan. “Good lad. Now, where the hell were we… ah, marriage. It’s a wonderful thing—”
“So I’ve heard.”
“— but it isn’t the only thing.” The unexpected conclusion left Harry blinking, curiosity piqued. “A man’s got plenty of options these days,” his godfather continued, casual tone belied by his steadfast gaze. “Some are getting married older, some not at all, others settle for the company of a full-time— well, you get the idea. Remaining a bachelor is what suited my life and I’ve never regretted—”
“Sirius.” Harry stubbed out his cigar on the sole of his boot and swallowed the bitter cloud it left behind, realizing this speech had, in fact, been rehearsed before today. “It’ll be far less tedious if you just say it.”
The treeline hovered closer than before, the field rapidly shrinking at their feet.
“It’s okay to want things that other people don’t,” Sirius began, finding his poise at last. “And it’s okay to not want the things they all strive for. No one else can lead your life and no one can feel the weight of your heart. Anyone who tells you differently doesn’t really see you, Harry, and more importantly, they don’t want to. They’re trapped in a world of mirrors and anything that doesn’t look and act exactly as they do scares the hell out of them. But that’s their cross to bear, not yours.”
Harry straightened, the weight of the moment finally seizing him. This wasn’t a conversation he was entirely ready for, nevermind how many times it played through his mind, but he was grateful Sirius had lured him outside to attempt the feat. A fortress couldn’t contain the storm inside his chest.
"There will be moments of doubt," his godfather continued intently. "Moments when you'll wonder if it's better to just pretend. That maybe with time you'll grow to like what they like and love what they love. Life behind a mirror seems easier, a place where judgment and heartache can't find you. But every time I stepped behind it, I was the one to shatter. I broke myself again and again in the hopes I would reform into something they wanted but all I became was a useless pile of shards, carelessly swept and thrown away."
The sun dipped behind the trees and pulled a violet blanket across the earth. Harry held his breath, absorbed by its shadow.
“After James and Lily…” Sirius glanced away, expression pained as he tried again. “The day I signed your adoption papers I made a vow to your parents and to God I would do everything in my power to protect you. No matter the cost, no matter the situation, I would never ask you to hide behind a mirror.” His eyes flickered, ferocity simmering in their depths. “Whatever you decide for your future, Harry, I’ll always support you. I’ll always fight for you. And I’ll always love you.”
Harry swayed, trapped by the thrall of his words. “Thank you, Sirius.” He cleared his throat, voice thick. “I’m sorry I didn’t— I meant to tell you sooner. I was going to tell you sooner but I thought… maybe…”
“I’d stand against it.”
“No,” Harry spoke at once. “Of everyone in my life, you’re the most accepting, the most forgiving. But I don’t want that same devotion to cost you everything. If I’m caught they’ll strip me of my rank, title, and freedom. I won’t have them doing the same to you.”
“I don’t give a shite what they do to me—”
“But I do,” Harry insisted. “You’re all I have left of them, I can’t lose another parent.” Sirius’s jaw locked tight, fight smothered at the earnest declaration. “I don’t shy away from much in life,” Harry reflected. “I’m happy to make a complete arse of myself and face rejection afterward. I don’t see the point in pleasing everyone when I don’t like most people to begin with. But when it comes to protecting the people I love there can be no compromise. I’ll do everything in my power to keep them safe. And in this case, silence is my greatest weapon.”
It felt good to free himself of the words, even if they darkened the air around them. “But I’m not ashamed,” he insisted. “Someday, somewhere, things might be different. But it won’t be in my lifetime. So I keep it locked away inside and pretend that it’s enough because it has to be, and I’m tired of living with disappointment.”
Sirius exhaled slowly, fist curled at his side. “Harry, I…” He forced the hand to loosen, bringing it to Harry’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, son.” Harry glanced away, chest tight, but when he moved to pull back the hand clasped tighter, halting his retreat. “I’m proud of you,” his godfather proclaimed. “Of all you’ve accomplished, all you’ve overcome, the life you’ve built after losing so much. You’re an incredible sailor, a fierce and loyal friend and the best son a man could possibly hope for.”
Harry breathed the words in slowly, taking them deep into his heart.
“I wish so badly the world was a different place for you,” Sirius whispered. “I wish you could… I wish you could lead any life of your choosing without fear or apology. I want you to have so much more than I ever did. But you’re right. This isn’t going to change in our lifetime, not enough to count. Which is why you need to keep a very small circle of trust and never let anyone outside of it ever suspect—”
”I know,” Harry breathed, the fingers on his shoulder pressing in. Sirius cringed.
“I’m sorry, Harry. I don’t want to say these things, I hate myself for saying them. But I can’t lose you. I won’t. I’ll cut down anyone who tries to take you—”
“— bastards will have to get through me, I don’t give a shite if they bring the entire goddamn cavalry—“
“Sirius!” Harry reached forward, dislodging the bracing touch to offer one of his own. “That won’t happen,” he vowed, holding his godfather’s faceted gaze steady. “I’ll be careful. I promise.”
“I know you will,” Sirius muttered, shaken from the stupor. “I’m sorry I… I’m glad you told me. You can tell me anything.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. Harry’s hand fell away. “Christ. It feels like I’m constantly on the cusp of losing you to some grave and mortal peril.”
Harry found himself grinning. “I’ve never heard love described quite so accurately.”
Sirius lowered his arm, eyeing him intently. “You’re that far gone for this one?”
“Yes,” Harry replied without hesitation, the heat of the letter pulsing through his vest.
Sirius nodded, stubbing out his forgotten cigar with a deep inhale. “Same thing happened to James. Practically fell out of his chair the first time your mum walked by, then went cross-eyed each time after that. Though I suppose that was more to the fact he always took his glasses off when she came ‘round. Thought it made him look dashing.” His laughter rolled across the field on a cool breeze, eyes drifting with the memory. “Blind idiot walked into a lamppost and broke his bloody nose. Gushed like a fucking firehouse, sprayed some poor old bat and her yapping dog while Rem and I laughed our arses off. Lily scolded us for being brutes and took him to the clinic, held his hand while they bandaged him up.”
He paused his recollection to gaze up at the sky, stars winking from their indigo backdrop. “Clever man. Always with his eye on the long game. That’s what made him such a damn good Captain.” His words dissolved with a sigh before ending in a whisper. “I miss them.”
Harry nodded, tipping his head to stare at the lavender moon. “Me, too,” he affirmed.
Sirius broke from the reverie first, tossing his cigar and kicking up grass. “I take it you aren’t returning to the hotel then?” The innocuous question took Harry off guard, its meaning catching up a moment later. His full-body flush glowed beneath the moonlight. “Fair enough,” the cheeky arsehole smirked. “I won’t say anything more. Except, of course, have fun and don’t do anything I—”
“All that matters is you’re safe about— wait,” Sirius paused, scratching his chin in thought. “Hm. ‘Spose that doesn’t really apply here. One less thing to worry—”
“I’m going inside now,” Harry declared, backpedaling for the patio.
“Trust me, it’ll save you a mountain of stress in the long run!” His godfather called, strolling in his wake. “And since I know you value my opinion above all others, I think you picked a good one!”
“One humiliating conversation a day! You’ve reached your quota, old man!”
“The clock resets tomorrow, you little shite!”
Harry shook his head and bounded up the steps, unable to contain his grin.
Draco swirled the meager contents of his glass, watching the melted ice mimic the spinning galaxy taking shape on the dance floor. Each joyous couple clung together like twin stars rapidly circling a black hole, i.e. the love-struck bride and groom poised at the center of the colorful spiral. The newlyweds stared deeply into each other's eyes and whispered sweet nothings into each other's ears, giggling secretively all the while. Fucking adorable.
He rotated his neck in either direction before emptying the tumbler and pushing off the bar, eager to find less claustrophobic confines. He made it half a step before colliding with a feminine body just to his right. “Shite, sorry—” He reached out to steady her, thoughts jolted by the familiar face. “Luna.” He blinked. “Hi.”
“Hello, Draco. I was just stopping by to exchange pleasantries. And to ask your opinion on the colcannon. I thought it was a bit heavy on cabbage but the seasoning was just right.”
He released her arms to rub his brow, a dull throb gaining momentum at the base of his skull. “I’ll take your word for it,” he muttered, equally vexed and relieved by her company. “The flowers look great by the way,” he remarked, opting to linger a moment longer. “You furnished the entire venue yourself?”
“Hannah and Neville helped with the delivery but otherwise, yes.”
“If you say so.” She smiled, playing idly with her plait as the band concluded their latest song, offering a brief reprieve from the deafening tempo.
“I’m glad I ran into you,” Draco continued, seizing the opportunity silence provided. “We need to discuss a potential new investor—”
“I should have strung hollyhock around the columns,” she mused, eyeing the support beams before meeting his blank stare. “To promote fertility,” she explained patiently while somehow managing to make him feel like an idiot.
“I don’t think the Weasels need any help reproducing,” he replied flatly. She hummed in contemplation, revisiting her dreamy inspection of the room. “Listen, Luna,” he pressed on. “A new opportunity arose and I think it’s worth your while—”
“How much is a while worth?”
His eye twitched as the band started anew, a lively polka drawing couples to the dance floor like flies to honey. “Depends on the person,” he spoke above the stampede. “I usually charge by the minute.”
She stepped out of the path of the surging crowd before returning her gaze to the intricate plait. “You’re my investor, why should I need another?”
“More investors mean more money.”
“I don’t want more money.”
He cringed as a drunken arsehole clipped his shoulder with a grating laugh. “More inventory then. You can expand to other stores, hire staff and manage the whole lot.”
“I like working alone. It’s peaceful.”
A woman stepped on his foot. He inhaled slowly, stifling the urge to rip the gaudy fascinator from the oblivious bint’s head. “The boutique performed admirably during its first quarter,” he chose to explain instead, “far more profitable than expected, this is the time to strike.”
“You seem agitated,” she observed serenely. “Perhaps some gerbera will soothe you, I’ll send a bouquet to the hotel.”
“Luna, listen to me. It’s good for you to have more than one investor, you can’t keep all your eggs in my basket.”
“I may drop dead of an embolism. During this conversation.”
She adjusted the petal crown atop her head. “Then I’ll provide the floral arrangements for your funeral and apply for a job at Kew.”
“You also think about business too much.”
He took her elbow and steered them from the path of galloping buffoons. “I didn’t back your shop out of the kindness of my heart,” he recounted sternly.
“Of course not. You did it out of guilt.”
He reared back, releasing her arm as though burned. “What?”
"You feel responsible for my well-being since your family most likely contracted my father's homicide." The prosaic response cast a noose around his neck, drawing tighter with every word. "But their misdeeds aren't your own, Draco. I'm not your burden or your responsibility."
He stared at her pale crown for several moments, unwilling to breach that particular floodgate during a sodding celebration party. "No, you're my investment," he muttered at last. "It's in my best interest to help you succeed."
“And I have,” she replied evenly, finally peering up from her hair. “I’m quite content with the way things are. I like running the shop by myself, it’s the only thing I’ve ever called my own. Everything else has been torn from my grasp or withered away and died while I was forced to watch. But this, this is finally mine. I won’t let anyone take it from me.” She tipped her head innocently, eyes gleaming with calculation and certainty.
“More investors means less control, something I’m not willing to relinquish for anything on this earth, little less money. I don’t want to expand. I don’t want to acquire more. I want to treasure and cultivate what I have. Can you accept that?” He blinked twice, unable to formulate a response before she continued. “If you prefer to withdraw as an investor I understand. I’m quite happy purchasing your shares at the current market value—”
“No,” he stated firmly, finding his voice behind latent shock. “I don’t want out. We’ll keep things as they are, low risk and high liquidity.” He cleared his throat, watching as she resumed playing with her braid. “Besides, expanding now would cripple us in overhead. Better to corner the niche market and keep demand high.” His eyes narrowed, examining her with a new appreciation. “You have an impressive knack for business, Lovegood.”
“Not really. I just recognize a flower from a weed.”
“Good. Then you know how to poison the latter.”
“Poison threatens the entire root system. I prefer setting them on fire.”
He arched a brow, staring at the back of her head as she turned to face the dance floor without further ado. But the lively crowd soon drew his notice as well, jerking limbs and twirling skirts settling as the polka came to its grand conclusion. The guests erupted into cheer and applause, sweating couples dispersing for chairs and refreshments while others filled their vacant spots.
His chin lifted as Potter emerged from the colorful sea, escorting his partner to the middle of the room.
“She looks quite lovely, doesn’t she?” Luna inquired.
Draco blinked, recalling her presence at his side. “What?”
The band opted for a slower melody this time, encouraging dancers to press close and drift languidly. His eyes affixed to her back, watching as she rose on tiptoes to loop her bare arms around the grinning idiot’s neck.
“You should ask her to dance,” Luna continued.
“Should I,” he deadpanned, lacking the patience to feign confusion.
The bridesmaid hummed, unfettered by his derision. "Perhaps it will lead to the answer you're searching for."
His heart skipped dangerously, eyes tracking sideways as she backed away with a placid grin. “Of course, you already know it. But it’s fun pretending, isn’t it?” He swallowed past the rising knot in his throat. “Have a pleasant evening, Draco. I look forward to your next pen-pal letter.”
He glared at her retreating figure. “They’re monthly risk mitigation reports!”
The pale gleam of her hair was swallowed by the press of bodies, guests swarming across every surface like ants at a picnic. He rubbed his pounding temple before turning back to the main floor, watching Potter dip his head and murmur something in her ear that triggered a flood of laughter, the canary song rising high and spreading wide, pale smoke on the horizon. Draco inhaled it deep into his lungs while Luna’s voice filled every corner of his skull.
It’s fun pretending, isn’t it?
He started forward with determination, smoke seeping from his lips as he shouldered aside laughing strangers on his way to the happy pair.
Hermione clutched Harry’s arms for balance, tipping sideways with laughter as he steadied her waist. A boyish grin lit his features until the flashbulb burst, the moment captured in black and white and imprinted on her mind for all time. And then the clock rapidly reversed, images speeding backward until they were children again, stumbling wildly across the dance floor without care or concern. Alive only for the space between heartbeats, untouched by sin and uncertainty, tragedy and doubt.
She basked in the transformation, leaning against his chest with a smile. “Oh, poor George,” she gasped, drying her eyes at the corners. “Do you think he’ll ever get the dye out?”
“After a week of soaking in vinegar… probably not.”
She lifted her chin and met his gaze, a sardonic beat passing before they exploded with laughter anew. “And where was Fred in all this?”
“He left after the ceremony. George set it all up by himself, apparently.”
“Further proof they’ll never survive apart,” she mused, barely able to hear the music over the throbbing of her heart. “Did the Commissioner get hit in the blast?”
Harry directed her in a spin several beats too late, equally distracted by the tale. "He spotted the trip-wire and reverse-engineered the rig without George ever noticing. The dye exploded in the opposite direction, he's totally spotless."
She pressed her face into his shoulder to stifle another outburst, vibrating out of her skin with the effort. “This is undoubtedly my favorite prank of all-time,” she wheezed. “Nothing will ever top it.”
“I’m sure George will work tirelessly at proving you wrong.”
“God, I hope so.” She placed her head against his chest as they changed direction, following the cues of fellow dancers. She lost herself to the repetitive rhythm and steady drone of background conversation, blessedly weightless until he ripped her down in one fell swoop.
“Are you excited about Monday?” He asked, the innocent question shattering whatever spell had taken hold. Time raced forward until they emerged in their old skin, scarred and weathered by the burdens of youth.
“You just had to ruin it,” she groaned.
He grinned knowingly. “Nervous then.”
“I’m cutting someone open, of course I’m nervous.”
“You’ve performed surgeries before, we watched you slice into that man’s knee. Ron nearly lost his lunch all over the stands.”
“Yes,” she recounted. “I remember his impressive retching noises as they escorted him from the theatre. But I was only assisting then, handing over tools and dabbing sweaty foreheads. This will be the first time I take the lead.”
His eyes shone with pride. “What kind is it?”
“A cholecystectomy.” Harry blinked. “Removal of the gallbladder,” she clarified, stomach twisting at the thought.
“Removal?” He echoed. “Won’t he be needing it?”
"The gallbladder stores bile between meals. Without it, the liver supplies waste directly to the intestines. He'll experience frequent diarrhea but far less sudden death."
“So glad I asked.”
“Wait until you see the incision!” She beamed, bouncing in place and stomping his toe on the landing. “I’ve been practicing for weeks— oh, sorry!” She cringed sympathetically as he hissed. “You still plan on attending, right?”
“Wild horses couldn’t keep me away,” he groaned, shaking his bruised foot. “I’ve made a giant banner to hold above my head while you’re carving away.”
“Just leave the foghorn at home, please.”
“The foghorn sets the mood.”
She shook her head as he launched her into another breathless twirl, the motion completely out of sequence with everyone else on the floor. “So,” she laughed upon revisiting his hold, “other than getting me kicked out of school, what are your plans while you’re home?”
He shrugged casually, overselling it with an impartial sigh. “Grimmauld’s still under construction, figured I’d lay around the hotel getting fat on room-service and throwing darts at the wall.”
His eyes narrowed. “Don’t uh-huh me.”
“Would you prefer I bop you on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper for lying to my face?”
“Alright,” he conceded, looking far too amused. “I may leave the room every now and again to get fat inside the restaurant—”
“Why am I bothering with newspapers? I have access to hundreds of needles—”
“Fine,” he relented. “I plan on leaving here in his carriage. Happy?”
She linked her hands behind his neck, grinning broadly. “Only if you are.”
Gemstones glimmered in his eyes, a comforting reflection of the past. “I’m the happiest I’ve been since before losing my parents,” he admitted tentatively, seemingly shocked by his own admission. “Everyone I love is here, alive and safe. I couldn’t ask for more.”
She swallowed thickly, fighting down a sudden and inexplicable wave of emotion. “You deserve this, Harry,” she whispered, truth laid bare as he searched her face for something more. She knew his next words long before they came to fruition, the same question plaguing all their hearts.
“Then why do I feel so guilty?”
She pressed a hand to his chest, wishing a needle and thread could mend more than torn flesh and arteries. “Because that’s who you are, Harry, but you mustn’t cling to this weight any longer. It’s just like you taught me all those years ago; you can either hold on and float aimlessly or let go and swim to shore.”
His breath released slowly, folding down the edges of their shared melancholy until it shaped matching grins of endurance. The sensation trickled to her heart when familiar laughter drifted overhead, drawing their sideways glance to a neighboring pair. Neville and Hannah waltzed slowly, oblivious to the vigilant eyes of the outside world as they conversed animatedly within their own.
“Did he show you the ring?” Harry muttered, watching their childhood friend dip his partner with confidence.
“Yes,” she replied, smile pulling higher. “Said it belonged to his mum.”
“He’s proposing after winter break, something wildly romantic and distinctly over the top.”
“Good,” she affirmed, content to watch the happy couple for the rest of the night. “Hannah deserves to be the center of attention for once.”
Her best friend sighed, his low hiss trapped between resignation and discontent. “Feels like everyone’s settling down,” he bemoaned.
“Why do you say it like that?”
“They’ll all need babysitters. I won’t have a weekend to myself for the next fifteen years.”
Amusement bubbled in her throat. “Excellent point,” she conceded. “We should divide the labor now. I’ll handle skinned knees if you change nappies.”
“Nice try,” he scoffed. “You’re not sticking me on piss duty.”
“Oh, I just thought you’d be more comfortable.” Her lashes fluttered innocently. “Considering you wet the bed until you were seven.”
“Bloody hell.” He reared back at the brutal assault. “You’re not taking any prisoners.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And I’m not changing nappies.”
“Good evening,” a third voice spoke.
The sudden interruption caused her to gasp and stumble, held aloft by Harry’s tightening grip on her waist. She peered sideways and flushed, Draco’s gleaming stare awaiting her in perfect stillness. He posed with textbook symmetry, shoulders an angular square and hands clasped calmly behind his back. And yet, for all the rigid confidence his posture exuded, his eyes burned with an impatience she recognized as well as her own reflection.
“May I cut in. With the lady’s permission, of course.” It wasn't phrased as a question, nor did he bother glancing in Harry’s direction. The remaining dancers weaved unsteady paths around the stationary trio, offering a variety of murmurs and huffs that went easily ignored.
Harry glanced between the eye-locked pair, unable to keep the sheer unadulterated joy off his face. “Depends. I’m sure Dr. Granger discourages any strenuous activity with a pole protruding from your—”
“Harry!” She scolded.
Draco broke from his inflexible stance to glare sideways. “Idiot.”
She shook her head at Harry’s answering grin and twisted free of his hold. “I’d be delighted, Draco,” she replied with measured politeness, hands smoothing across her skirt of their own volition. “Thank you for asking.”
Metallic eyes flitted back, softening imperceptibly as she wetted her lips and silently debated how to proceed. Harry eased into a comfortable viewing position. “This I’ve got to see—”
“Shut up,” they spoke in unison, eyes fixed upon each other.
Her best friend raised his hands in mock surrender, backing away slowly. “If you insist. Have fun, kids.”
Hermione exhaled swiftly, ignoring his departure in lieu of composing a more adequate greeting. “Hi,” she chose with wild abandon, feeling like a complete and utter fool.
Draco’s lips quirked, gaze trailing the rosy stain on her cheeks and throat. “Hello, Hermione.”
She laughed softly, tension miraculously ebbing as he stepped close and extended his hands in the first position. She placed her palms in his and held her breath, allowing him to draw her forward, stopping only when their bodies stood a hairsbreadth apart. His precise structuring was a glaring departure from Harry’s full-contact approach, for which she was immensely grateful, at least until she lifted her chin and realized how closely their faces were situated.
Her pulse skipped, throbbing in her wrists and neck as he urged her back on precisely the right beat, guiding each step until they were seamlessly immersed in the blooming kaleidoscope of twirling silk.
Susan grinned, admiring the concentration mapped across her husband’s features as he navigated them through a slow and simple waltz. The perplexity of the notion registered in her mind a short moment later, heart swelling at the reminder that she was, in fact, someone’s wife and the man trying his utmost not to step on her foot was, quite surely, her husband.
His eyes flickered up in time to see the epiphany ripple across her face. “Are you happy?” He asked suddenly, prompting her to stumble. She took a moment to regain her footing before offering a reply.
“Yes, of course.”
A deep rivet formed between his brows, cutting and sharp.
“What?” She asked.
Susan blinked, nearly stumbling again. “I did not!”
“You did, I heard it—“
“Ron, seriously, these shoes are killing me and I can’t stop thinking about all the things we have to do before we leave for the honeymoon—”
“Susan, luv.” His arm tightened around her waist. “Please, let me enjoy this momentous occasion just a little while longer.”
She rolled her eyes and smiled anew, relaxing in his grasp. “Such a sap.”
“I meant the fact your father hasn’t threatened to maim or dismember me in over twenty-four hours.” His eyes shone with pride. “I think I’ve finally grown on him.”
“Or he’s deeply preoccupied with digesting your mother’s cooking. She uses an alarming amount of butter, Ron, the chicken slid out of the broiler.”
“It slides out of more than just the broiler but I don’t think that’s it. We’ve finally turned a corner.”
She cringed at the visual but patted his arm just the same. “Whatever you say, my love.” The corner of his mouth lifted before he drew her in for a kiss, the casual intimacy igniting warmth throughout her entire body.
“Ello, darlings!” The distinctive greeting broke them apart. Bill and his fiancé appeared at their sides, the most striking pair on the dance floor. “Don’t you look marvelous together! Ze ceremony was trés romantique.”
“Thank you, Fleur,” Susan replied. “We’re so happy you’re here to celebrate with us.” Her focus shifted back to Ron, grinning at the sight of his blistering complexion.
“Ronald, you must teach your big brother to be more impulsif,” the buxom nurse pleaded, running a hand along her partner’s chest while nearby guests looked on shamelessly. “We have been engaged for over a year and still he refuses to pick a date!”
“I refuse to spend a fortune on something that lasts a few hours and supplies my estranged relatives with booze,” Bill defended drolly, then glanced at Susan with chagrin. “Shite, no offense.”
"None taken," she assured him. "And for what it's worth, my father got a steep discount. He just had to expunge a few misdemeanors and overlook a murder."
“Then he’s a welcome addition to our family,” he laughed, amusement cut short by Fleur’s dramatic gasp.
“Ze bouquet!” The blonde shouted, wrenching free of her date’s hold to round on the bride. Susan blinked, taking a moment to process the outburst before glancing to the front of the room.
“It’s on the table—”
“No, no!” Fleur shook her head, arms flying like propellers. “You must, how you say— lancer le bouquet— it’s tradition!”
Susan glanced between the brothers for assistance, receiving only looks of befuddlement before registering the meaning on her own. “Oh, throw the bouquet!” Susan laughed, turning curiously to the blonde. “You know only single women try to catch it, right?”
The nurse humphed and lifted her left hand between them, rotating it in either direction. “I see no ring on zis finger, do you?” She cocked her chin, dutifully avoiding her date’s exasperated stare. “Perhaps ze bouquet will inspire my fiancé to actually get married, it seems I need all ze ‘elp I can get!”
Bill rubbed his brow. “Bloody hell, we can swing by the courthouse on our way to the hotel—”
“Ze courthouse?” She squawked, boring down on him like an illustrious bird of prey.
Susan leaned into her groom, settling in for the show as the vehement French tirade began. “I just remembered,” she muttered brightly, face tipping up. “It’s time to toss the bouquet.”
“Excellent idea, luv.” He dropped a kiss to her forehead, smiling dotingly. “My brilliant wife.”
She rose on tiptoes to peck his lips before untangling from his hold. “Better round up the girls.”
“Mione will chew her arm off before participating,” he warned, watching her pace away.
"Then she'll have to chew through both," Susan replied over her shoulder. "She's doing it." His laughter embraced her warmly as she continued, making it to the edge of the dance floor before he called her back to attention.
She turned around, the rest of the crowd distracted by Fleur’s impressive display. She could barely hear Ron over the string of French expletives, opting to read his lips instead.
“Where the hell is Gin?”
Ginny tossed her head with a wild laugh, the untamed melody carrying through the branches and scattering the birds until their soaring figures cut black against the topaz sky. “Wait,” she gasped between breaths. “Bulls run in the actual street? Like with shops and restaurants?”
“Mmm,” Pansy hummed, preoccupied with watching the convulsions of her companion’s throat. “Though most close down for a few days, likely because their owners are passed out shirtless in the gutter.”
Ginny grinned wider. “Are there many injuries?”
“To the drunks or the bulls?”
Her exuberance faded at once. “The bulls get hurt?”
“Of course,” the brunette replied, eyes lifting from Ginny’s flushed neck. “There’s always some fool wielding a broken bottle or knife.”
Pansy smiled indulgently. "Rest assured, luv, they're usually rewarded with a razor-sharp horn to the arse."
Ginny’s despair lightened, even as her heart skipped wildly at the casual endearment. “You root for the bulls?”
“It sounds incredible,” she whispered, gazing at the violet clouds. “I can’t imagine that kind of energy, bulls running through the city while people watch and cheer… it’s like a dream.”
Pansy hummed anew, plucking a fragrant bloom from the neighboring bush as they continued their leisurely stroll through the grounds. “You should come to next year's festival.”
“Yeah,” Ginny scoffed. “I’m sure mum would love that.”
“Tell her you’re taking a cultural excursion, lots of young women travel between Seasons.”
Her head whipped sideways with a blink. “Really?”
“Oh yes,” Pansy mused, flicking torn petals to the grass. “Men love a well-rounded bride. It makes locking them away for the rest of their natural-born lives far more satisfying.”
Ginny gazed forward with a knot in the pit of her stomach, the pressure intensifying when Pansy lifted a hand to her cheek, tucking a fallen strand of hair into place while Ginny’s knees quaked. “Mum would never buy it,” she whispered, trying to hide the shudder of her breath. “I’m not the well-traveled type.”
“All the more reason to start now. Tell her you applied to a finishing school on the continent.”
“I…” Ginny shook her head, thoughts scattered among the leaves at their feet. “That’s much too elaborate, she knows we could never afford it—”
“We’ll fake a scholarship. I have a forgery bloke on retainer, excellent penmanship, he can send an acceptance letter to your house.”
Ginny bit her lip, titillated at Pansy’s choice of pronoun before registering the second half of her statement. “Wait, you have a what bloke?”
“— now that I think about it, there’s a school in Barcelona that caters to English aristocrats, we can use their crest—”
“Pansy, that's very sweet but very insane.”
The brunette arched a perfectly-shaped brow. “Why ever so?”
“Because even if we somehow manage to fool my parents it doesn’t change the fact I’ve no money for actual travel. And what am I supposed to tell them when the fantasy trip is over? I got expelled from an elite school and lost my imaginary scholarship? Mum would bludgeon me with a pan.”
“I’d pay your way, obviously,” Pansy stated boorishly, tossing the corpse of the flower aside. “And you’d return home between semesters, same as any student.”
Ginny slowed, hands curling at her sides to stop them from trembling. “So I’d… I’d take the trip… with you?”
Her companion glanced at her sharply. “What did you think I meant?”
“I didn’t— ” She stumbled over a seam in the brick path, a flush rapidly overtaking her chest and neck. “I-I’m not sure,” she admitted. Pansy tilted her head, eyes gleaming as Ginny struggled to gather a coherent sentence. “I don’t think— that is, I’d love to, truly, but… I couldn’t possibly accept such an extravagant gift.”
“It’s actually quite practical,” her companion relayed pointedly. “I’ve been traveling alone since Astoria began her third novel. It’s terribly uncouth, even for a woman of my reputation. You’d be doing me a favor.”
“Your reputation?” Ginny echoed, shoulders tensing as Pansy tittered with laughter, acidic and bitter, erupting from her lips in a dark cloud.
“Between my broken engagement and father’s arrest, I’m not exactly topping many guest lists these days. Unless I’m invited as a sideshow attraction. Most simply assume I’m scouring Europe for a rich husband outside the gentry. Others think I’m a high-end prostitute.”
Ginny reared back, nearly tripping over a shrub. “What? Are they fucking daft?” She cringed at her outburst, covering her mouth as Pansy laughed again. But this version was just how Ginny liked it, full of warmth and passion, drawing life to her cheeks and light to her eyes.
“Honestly, darling, I don’t mind the latter,” Pansy assured, stepping close to link their arms. “It’s the hunting rumor I can’t abide. Women wrench their husbands from my path as though I’ll lie in the middle of the road and spread my legs for their bald and gout-ridden abominations, only for those same perverts to proposition me the moment the miserable shrews turn their heads. It’s all terribly tedious.” She sighed wearily, steps unfaltering as she led their way down the garden path. “So, as you can imagine, a young female traveling companion would do wonders to quell the rumor mill.”
Ginny stared at their joined arms and inhaled deeply, alyssum coating the back of her throat. “But— isn’t it— won’t they think—” Pansy drew her in until their shoulders pressed flush, then proceeded to gaze upon her mouth as though daring it to speak the question aloud. Ginny shuddered, body twitching like a heartbeat as she forced the words free. “Won’t people say it’s improper for us to travel alone together?”
Pansy’s russet gaze lifted, the corner of her mouth following suit. “No,” she replied simply, guiding them around a pair of fruit trees. “Women are rarely suspected of such lawlessness. Men have it much worse in that regard, one of the only benefits our gender bequeaths us. Besides,” she lowered her chin, eyes darkening beneath the setting sun. “There’s nothing to suspect. We’re friends, right?”
Ginny’s heart kicked painfully. “Yes,” she whispered, cheeks aflame. “Of course.” She was grateful for the shadows, anything to conceal her reaction as Pansy grinned with wicked delight.
“The choice is yours, Ginevra. Stay or go. Jerez will likely be my next stop—”
“Jerez?” Ginny parroted, straightening like a reed.
Pansy smirked, stopping their stroll behind a pair of sprawling hydrangeas, leaves and petals extending half a meter above their heads. “You’ve heard of it?”
“Their stables are famous!” Ginny practically yelled, unweaving their arms to gesture wildly. “The riding schools are ranked top in Europe, only the elite get in, the competition is fierce —usually scandalous as well— not to mention the races themselves, journalists flock there for the gossip, then there’s the underground betting…” Pansy leaned against a neighboring plum tree, pink petals dripping from its branches as she absorbed the exuberant rant with silent amusement.
The sun slowly set, their surroundings illuminated by the scattered glow of outdoor torches and moonlight. Stars began to emerge from behind the indigo curtain when her speech finally reached its conclusion. Ginny caught her breath and paced closer, unable to see her companion in the shadows until, as if attuned to her heart’s desire, the clouds parted and pale moonlight filtered through, cutting across Pansy’s face in a narrow beam. Ginny rocked in place, veins dilating as she watched the brunette pick a stray petal from her between her bust and blow it from her fingertip like a fallen eyelash.
“My, my,” Pansy mused, voice a languid purr. “Who knew riding a horse in circles could be so utterly fascinating.”
Ginny swallowed thickly, thoughts grinding as her pulse raced uncontrollably. “If you didn’t know any of this, why are you going there?”
“I heard they mix an excellent cocktail. Coffee and liqueur, can you even imagine? Needless to say, I simply must investigate. If you decide to accompany me perhaps you can enroll in a riding course or two. Find a scandal to embroil yourself in, place a few illegal bets. We’ll blend right in with the locals.” Ginny smiled, too overcome with excitement to feel even a twinge of self-doubt. “It would certainly minimize the lie to your parents,” the woman added, reviving Ginny’s senses like a physical slap.
“I don’t like lying to them at all.”
“I know,” Pansy murmured. “But we all must lie eventually, darling. If not to others, then to ourselves. It’s necessary to survive in this life.”
“It sounds miserable,” Ginny admitted, watching the torchlight flicker across her companion’s vibrant skirt and bare skin.
“We're all perpetually miserable, it’s the only experience common to the human race. Unless you’re fortunate enough to find someone to share your true face with, to bear the heart and soul of your greatest secrets and fears.” Pansy exhaled sharply, pushing off from the tree. “Or so I’ve heard,” she clipped, brushing bark from her palms. “Personally, I’ve yet to encounter such a thing.”
“You’ve lied to me?” Ginny asked.
Pansy took a deep breath, continuing to inspect her gloves. “Yes.”
“As I told you before, I’m terribly selfish.”
Ginny shook her head, refusing to settle for such a lackluster response. “No, you aren’t. You just have shite parents.” Pansy blinked, gaze snapping up as Ginny paced closer. “You don’t have to go through life this way. You just need to surround yourself with unconditional love.”
“Oh, is that all?” Pansy rued. “I’d no idea it was so very simple—”
“Love is simple,” Ginny affirmed, moving forward another step. “It doesn’t even require words. Just a glance can sweep you away. A simple brush of the arm.” She reached up and skimmed a purposely line from Pansy’s shoulder to wrist, their eyes locked throughout her fingertip’s arduous journey across the bare expanse. Pansy’s chest stuttered, breath held tight as Ginny grazed her palm, tracing its heel to her trembling fingertips, velvet warm to the touch.
“You don’t need to lie to me,” Ginny murmured, closing the last step between them. “You can lie to others if you want, lie to the entire world if it makes you happy. But not to me. Please, never to me.”
Pansy licked her lips and tried to swallow, the motion sticking in her throat as she interlaced their fingers. “I chose Jerez for you,” she whispered sharply, features drawn tight as though the admission pained her. “I returned to London for you.” She blinked quickly, a tear slipping from the corner of her eye. “We aren’t friends, Ginevra. I could never be your friend. And I never want to be.”
Ginny swayed in place, sick with longing and seized by madness. She leaned in without reason or thought, gripping Pany’s waist and drawing her flush, fusing their mouths in a wild, passionate bid at satisfying the raging hunger consuming her from the inside out. A feral beast lived under her skin, devouring all in its path to get to Pansy, refusing to settle for anything less than every single piece of her.
Pansy answered the howl with frantic fervor, fingers raking through Ginny’s hair and directing the angle of her head to allow her tongue entry. They pulled and clawed, bruised and bit, stumbling blindly into the tree and falling to the grass with breathless gasps.
Ginny opened her eyes, blinking dazedly as Pansy sprawled beneath her, hair full of leaves and dress stained with plum juice. “When can we go?” She panted, picking a twig from the woman’s bodice.
Pansy smiled, reaching up to trace Ginny’s swollen lips. “How soon can you pack?”
Hermione tensed in her partner's hold, feeling like a graceless cow as he led her through a tight box step with effortless skill. Beyond a handful of customary dance classes in her youth, Hermione hadn't many occasions to exercise ballroom etiquette. She'd attended numerous parties to be certain, back when such trivialities had seemed commonplace, but her dance card was always folded in half and tossed aside at the earliest opportunity, the bulk of her evening steeped in lively conversation and debate. A decision she now came to regret with red-hot fervor.
Granted, the majority of wedding guests were three-sheets to the wind and stumbling across the floor, but their disjointed display only made her partner’s innate abilities all the more obvious. The unwavering intensity of his gaze certainly didn’t help matters, the scorching heat in her neck causing her to fumble her next step, spine taut with embarrassment.
“What’s wrong?” He asked.
She looked away, trying to force the stiffness from her limbs. “Nothing. I just… this is the first time you’ve asked me to dance.”
Draco blinked. “We’ve danced before.”
“During partner switches. You’ve never approached me openly before tonight.”
He watched her for a long moment, breaking the silence with a low sigh. “I was an idiot back then.”
“I don’t disagree,” she replied readily, catching sight of his answering smirk a moment before he retaliated. She laughed, launched into a breathless spin without warning, ending the twirl by stumbling into his body.
His grin widened, the subtle gesture transforming his face. “I suddenly recall why I never asked you to dance.”
“As if I would have accepted,” she huffed, bracing his shoulders for balance while his hands steadied her waist.
He shook his head ruefully. “So,” he drawled, casting his gaze to the main table. “The Weaslebee got married. Susan must have the patience of a Saint.”
“Evidently. She invited you.” Her chest warmed with his answering laughter, relieved it sounded just as she remembered.
“Touché,” he conceded, adjusting his grip before guiding them through a quick-stepped promenade. She bit her lip with concentration, flushed and panting when the beat finally calmed. Their childish energy depleted with it, a ruminative cloud settling overhead. “How are you?” He inquired, drawing her close so no one could eavesdrop.
“You would know if you’d read my letters,” she asserted.
“I read them.”
“Hm. So you were just too busy to write back and let me know you were alive?”
“You knew I was alive,” he replied coolly. “Just as you knew my address every time it changed, miraculously.”
“We had to get our updates through Luna. If your envelopes weren’t postmarked we’d have no idea you transferred to New York.”
“It wasn’t worth mentioning,” he drawled, sparing a bored glance for a neighboring pair of dancers. Hermione reared away, or tried to, annoyance doubled as he tightened his grip and drew her back in.
“You’re working with the Indian tribes, that’s certainly worth mentioning!”
His gaze snapped forward, shoulders tense. “How did you—”
“I’ve been following every piece of news I can find. It’s the only way I can keep track of you.” She flushed with the admission, glancing away before his reaction could reveal itself. “The last article mentioned a land dispute.”
He sighed heavily. “Gold was discovered in the Black Hills area, a small and isolated mountain range in South Dakota.” His voice deepened as they glided past the stage, tempo vibrating through the floor. “The U.S. Government wants to lay claim but the Sioux and Cheyenne refuse to cede ownership. It’s resulted in exorbitant bloodshed.” He searched her gaze. “I'm sure you heard about the Battle of Little Bighorn?”
“Yes, the military was defeated.”
"They were crushed," he corrected, eyes gleaming from above. "Obviously, the Americans weren't pleased. That's when they began tapping other countries for aid and counsel, including ours. My team is evaluating the territory claim from a legal standpoint. The U.S. handles property law far differently from England. It's quite primal."
She released a slow breath, carefully considering her next words. “Can you get injured?”
“I’m based in New York.”
“So New York isn’t dangerous?”
He rolled his eyes, steps unfaltering. “It’s a danger I’m quite familiar with thanks to all the people who tried to murder me in London.”
Her lips pressed thin, unable to argue that logic. “Do you like your job?” She posed instead, hoping to dispel the growing tension in his arms.
"I'm finding greater purpose in it. The American Indians find themselves in a precarious position. They've been residents of the continent as far back as their lineage can be traced yet bear no legal claim to it. They're forced out and cast aside at the whim of a government they don't recognize and constrained by laws they have no ability to change. And now the land itself is being demolished by goldmines and lumberyards. It's utter chaos."
The conviction of his words gave her pause, a terrifying seed taking root. “Draco… surely you're not standing against the U.S. government?”
“Surely you don’t stand with them?”
“Of course not, what they’re doing is barbaric, but they’re known for corruption and murder—”
“So is everyone else.”
“And I’d strongly advise you from opposing Parliament as well. Arguing for the Medical Act was one thing, it bruised the egos of a declining political party, but the American Indian War is another matter entirely. This comes down to money, property, and nationalism, thousands are being killed—”
“I’m well aware, I see the daily reports,” he clipped, eyes sparking as he forced a calming breath. “The tribes are helpless, Hermione, they need legal counsel to protect their lands—”
“Does Kingsley know you’re helping them?”
“Yes,” he muttered, quick and stubborn.
“And let me guess, he told you to back down immediately.”
“Honestly, do you tell Potter not to get involved in political matters?”
“Harry’s a soldier, it’s his job to get involved at Her Majesty’s bequest. He has a fleet of warships and a kingdom at his back. You’re a junior legal aid working on temporary assignment in a country that just tried ripping itself in half!”
“So if it’s not my nation I shouldn't give a shite?”
“That’s not what I’m saying!” She hissed, cringing at his near-painful grip on her waist. “You absolutely should care but you can’t take a stand like this without serious help. You’ll get yourself shot before you can make any worthwhile contribution—”
“If I was a stranger you’d be rooting me on.”
“If you were a stranger I’d think you were terribly brave and tragically foolish, and when I read about your inevitable killing I’d feel saddened but not completely destroyed. You need to go to Kingsley before the target on your back gets any larger.”
His eyes flickered, exhaustion warring with annoyance, as though this wasn’t his first time defending the matter. “I can take care of myself.”
"Obviously," she deadpanned, cataloging every crease and shadow on his face. "You look like you haven't slept in five days."
“Six, actually, and that’s because I dreaded seeing you.”
She tripped over his feet, gasping as he righted her course before she toppled over. “What?” She breathed, watching his throat bob beneath the starched cravat. “Seeing me? Why?”
His jaw tensed, aggravated by his own slip. “I wasn’t sure I could handle it,” he admitted, purging his soul of the rest.
“That’s why you never wrote back?” She shook her head, heart skipping with the notion. Almost a full year of separation, of distraction and personal growth, and yet they somehow ended up right back where they started. “What about the others? Theo and Blaise never got a response either.”
“I needed a break from my life, Hermione.”
The words cut into her ribs, en route to puncture her heart. “I understand,” she muttered, clearing her throat to alleviate the strain. “I’m sorry, Draco.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“It is. I…” Her airway closed despite her best efforts, which was just as well considering she’d run out of things to say. He picked up the fallen reins in her stead, remarkably composed in light of the topic.
“We both needed space,” he spoke calmly. “And you were right, the post in America allowed me to escape my father’s shadow. No one knows the Malfoy name there. His reputation isn’t tacked to my forehead every time I enter a room. I can build my career upon the platforms I want to climb, my successes and failures are solely my own. I can start again.”
She blinked back tears, squeezing his hand as he directed her through the final turns of the song. “That’s wonderful, Draco, and everything I ever wanted for you… but, I didn’t mean you should abandon your old life entirely. Your friends love you. I understand why you didn’t reply to me but please stay in touch with them. They deserve more.”
“I already went rounds with Theo,” he lamented. “I’m going to write more often.”
“And will you please speak with Kingsley?” She requested, placing a hand to his chest to stall the inevitable groan. “Not because I don’t have faith in you, I know you’re capable of anything you set your mind to. That’s why I want you to go to him. If anyone can lead the charge for the tribes it’s you, which is why it’s paramount you stay alive long enough to help them. There’s no shame in admitting you need backup to face down the American Government. I know you can win this with the right resources.”
He released a grunt, weary and defeated, while his gaze lingered on a curl swaying beside her face. “I’ll touch base with him tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” she beamed, making no move to disengage as the next song began to play, slow and melodic. Instead, she stepped away from the cliff's edge and breached a new, hazardous terrain. “So… how’s Narcissa?”
He took the abrupt segue in stride, merely rubbing his brow in exhaustion. “Better,” he muttered. “Or so I hear from the staff. She leaves the house once a month to visit the market.”
Hermione bit her tongue to stifle a scoff, trembling with the mounting pressure. The market! Does she even know what an uncooked vegetable looks like? Perhaps she thinks all carrots are made of gold…
She shook the derisive thought from her mind, scolding herself for such unwarranted cruelty. Backhanded compliments and chiding criticisms aside, Narcissa had never caused Hermione true injury. If her greatest fault was loving a man to complete and utter stupidity, it certainly wasn’t Hermione’s place to judge. Unfortunately, willful ignorance wasn’t a crime, merely a black mark on the soul.
Still, the idea of the ever-stunning Lady Malfoy bartering over the price of goats in her diamond bracelets and mink stole was undeniably priceless.
“I reacted similarly,” he mused, eyes glittering as though the fantasy was projected between them. “The thought of my mother stepping foot in the grocer is distinctly bizarre. I don’t think she could distinguish a couchette from a cucumber to save her life. But if it gets her out of the Manor for a few hours, so be it.”
“That’s wonderful,” Hermione replied in earnest. “Maybe she’ll take up a new hobby.”
His laugh was short and bitter. “Yes, Narcissa Malfoy discovers how to light a stove. Alert the Tribune.”
“You’re angry with her,” she surmised, cringing beneath the heat of his stare.
“She should have left him. He’s the black cloud hanging over her head, the reason for every sobbing night and gloom-filled morning.”
“They’ve been together a long time, I can’t imagine how difficult—”
"Don't give her the benefit of the doubt, she certainly never extended it to you." His tone was final, the warning clear. Hermione side-stepped the barricade with the grace of a cat in ice skates.
“Love isn’t a switch, Draco, it can’t be turned off overnight.”
“I’m well aware.”
His eyes pulsed, the curve of his jaw sharp and unforgiving. She looked away and flushed, cursing her stupidity.
“Your mother built her whole life around him,” she continued slowly, an unspoken apology woven in her gentle tone. “Then she expanded those walls to fit you. Her family wasn’t just the most important thing, it was the only thing. Her identity, her purpose for being, it all revolved around being the perfect wife and mother to the perfect family. And in one night, beyond her reach or control, that entire world was shattered.” Hermione shook her head, wondering if they were building snowmen in hell while she defended Narcissa Malfoy’s honor and dignity to her son. “Now she has to start again, build something new with the broken pieces of what’s left behind. I can’t imagine how terrifying that must be, especially for a woman without any means of supporting herself independently.”
“She still has a claim to the Black fortune,” he scathed, face darkened by her impassioned defense. “Sirius would’ve given her access to the accounts. He offered to buy her a house as well. She refused his assistance on all counts. Not because she’s a shivering leaf afraid of facing the big bad world on her own, she stayed because she’s complicit in his bullshite and would rather spend eternity haunting the Manor like a weeping ghost than live a single day without him.”
Hermione deflated in his arms, long abandoning the pretense of dancing. They’d disengaged from the beat several minutes prior, rotating in distracted circles as fellow dancers exchanged partners around them.
“When was the last time you spoke to him?” She asked.
“He writes every week,” Draco divulged, glaring over her shoulder as though his simmering resentment had summoned the man to the dance floor. “I’ve yet to open a single letter. With any luck, I’ll never speak to him again.”
“I think you need closure—”
“I don’t need anything from him,” he stated firmly.
“Okay…” she muttered, contemplating her next move. Defending Narcissa had been a bitter pill to swallow, one she’d willingly suffered for Draco’s sake. There would come a day when he’d need his mother, crave the comforting touch and reassuring voice only she could provide, and her absence from his life would only deepen the wound. But Lucius Malfoy was another poison entirely, a taste far too rancid to stomach. “You’re right,” she conceded, weaving her hands behind his neck. “You’re much better off without him. I’m sorry I brought it up. Let’s talk about something else.”
Draco blinked, the unexpected surrender taking him off guard. He searched her face, brow heavy with suspicion, and then his pale gaze reached her lips and the harsh lines blurred. The muscle in his nape unclenched, loosening the cord through his shoulders and arms until his hands slid around to her lower back.
“I hear you’re cutting a man to pieces on Monday,” he deflected without ceremony.
She blinked twice before bouncing in place. “You did read my letters!”
“Carving out some poor sod’s gallbladder,” he lamented dryly, smirking at her reaction. “I think death would be preferable.”
“Undoubtedly. Then again, I may kill him on the table—”
“I was joking. You’re going to be a smashing success.”
Hermione bit her lip, his candid sincerity coaxing a dreaded admission from her heart. “I’m terrified,” she whispered.
“Of course you are. But you’ll gain confidence with time, same as everything else you’ve conquered.”
She smiled half-heartedly until a new thought occurred. “Can you attend the surgery?” His expression fell, the answer housed in his shuttered gaze. “It’s alright,” she added, embarrassed she even asked. “I didn’t mean— I shouldn’t have assumed— obviously you have plenty to do while you’re home—”
"It's not that," he explained. "I want to attend, badly, but my train departs Sunday evening. I'll already be on the Atlantic when you're elbow-deep in viscera."
She leaned back. “You’re heading back that soon?”
“The Black Hills dispute is raging, every hour counts—”
“I understand,” she muttered, rocks piling in her stomach. “Lives are at stake, you need to be there.”
His palms burned warm against her bodice. “What you’re doing is just as important, more so, I just have to be—”
“I understand, Draco. Really, it’s okay.”
The silence turned brittle, shattered by a chorus of drunken laughter from the edge of the stage. They stared at the small and boisterous gathering, Draco voicing their shared thought aloud.
“It doesn’t feel real, does it?” He pondered gravely.
The words weighed heavily on her shoulders. “No. Some mornings I just stare at the ceiling, certain I’m still asleep.” She closed her eyes, the Dollmaker’s sputtering pleas echoing through her mind, the moment before he slipped beneath the dark waves, pale hands clawing the glassy surface as the gaping maw devoured him alive. “I keep the article on my nightstand. I read it once a day to remind myself it really happened. To convince myself.”
“The one with Rodolphus’s sentencing?”
“Naturally.” She opened her eyes. “The artist did an incredible job recreating his enraged snarl. I’d love to commission a full-length portrait of him slowly decaying in a cold dark prison cell.”
“It would certainly spruce up the water closet.”
She smiled, then tilted her head, watching him carefully. “Has there been any progress on the hunt for Bellatrix?”
“Not yet,” he muttered, gaze drifting in ominous contemplation. “But I have a feeling she’s suffering wherever she is.”
“Not nearly enough,” Hermione declared, malice burning in her heart. She knew he dragged a heavy anchor regarding his aunt and did her best to respect that burden. But Hermione suffered no such ambivalence with her own feelings. In fact, her position was quite clear. If she ever had the great fortune of crossing paths with Bellatrix Lestrange again, her only internal struggle would be turning the murderous bitch over to the authorities instead of striking her dead where she stood.
Alas, nothing healthy could bloom from a bed of ashes, so she set her anger aside and reached for another topic. The words that surfaced had been sitting on her tongue for quite some time, easy to speak, easier yet to mean. “I’m so proud of you, Draco. Of all you’ve done and all you hope to accomplish. It’s very admirable.”
He raised a brow, crafting a handsome mask of indifference, but he couldn’t conceal the flash of emotion in his eyes, pleasure warming the silver. “Says the doctor who saves lives.”
“I’m not a doctor yet,” she reminded him. “And even if and when that day comes, I’ll still feel the same.”
His mask slipped, just for a moment, but she witnessed his true expression beneath and felt her heart kick painfully.
The current song drew to a close. The band rose from their chairs, bowing to the applause of the crowd before stretching their limbs. Guests began dispersing for food and conversation but Hermione and Draco remained rooted in place like dancers in a music box, frozen by their spring. He studied her carefully, hands pressing warm and firm against her sides until suddenly they weren’t. He stepped away just as abruptly, expression shuttered behind an invisible wall.
“Thank you for the dance,” he bid politely, going so far as to bow at the waist like an asshat. Her chest seized as he glanced away, dismissal clear in his eyes.
“Draco—” She blurted quickly, unsure how to proceed. His gaze flickered back, tense and guarded as though sensing the trembling floodgates in her throat. “Would you like to have lunch tomorrow?” She continued. “I know your train departs sometime in the evening but we could take a walk around the park and you could tell me more about the Black Hills case—”
Her lips clamped shut, pulse hammering wildly as he offered a patient, tired grin. “I can’t have lunch with you.”
“Brunch then,” she forged on, blinking quickly to dispel the awful burning in her eyes.
“I can’t sit across a table from you, just the two of us. Not yet.” His jaw clenched, voice barely contained. “Maybe someday… or perhaps in another life. But right now it’s just pretending and... I can’t pretend with you.”
A tear slipped free. She wiped it away quickly, nodding to calm her nerves. “Will you at least write?”
“Yes,” he whispered, electricity sparking in his gaze. “It was wonderful seeing you again.”
She smiled in return, face pained by the effort. “It really was. I’ve missed you, Draco. Welcome home.”
He examined her slowly, carefully, noting every detail as she swayed on her feet and inhaled—
“There you are!” She jolted when a hand accosted her arm, pulling her sideways. “I’m tossing the bouquet!” Susan announced with dark glee. “Come on!”
Every ounce of blood drained to her feet as she was hauled to the gallows. “Oh God, please no—”
“It’s tradition, you’re doing it! Now move your arse!”
She flailed helplessly in the bride’s death-grip, glancing at Draco with pleading eyes.
“Don’t be afraid to throw an elbow, Granger,” he suggested with a grin. Prat.
“That’s the spirit!” Susan chirped, ignoring the spiteful glare at her side. Another yank and her unwilling volunteer was deposited front and center of the dance floor alongside her fellow victims.
Hermione rubbed her arm and cringed, renewing the circulation while hunting for an escape route. A gap appeared among the cluster of unwitting maidens but Fleur soon blocked the way, rubbing her palms in eager anticipation of the competition to come. The blonde evaluated her opponents with a calculative gleam while Hermione massaged her temples and muttered under her breath. “Kill me now.”
“Let’s make it a murder-suicide,” Hannah suggested, emerging from the gathering with a look of resignation.
The band reunited for the travesty, playing a lively tune as Susan tossed more young women into the pile, each more mortified than the last. Her antics drew the attention of surrounding guests, curious and amused faces appearing along the perimeter until the crowd presented a physical blockade. They shouted out suggestions on how to catch the bouquet, blurring the line between quaint tradition and rowdy street brawl.
“Alright, ladies!” Parvati shouted from a nearby table, perched atop her husband’s lap. “I want to see some good old-fashioned gut punches and hair pulling!”
Hermione groaned as Luna appeared at her side, idly picking apart a dinner roll as Susan launched her forward with a gentle shove. Three more women were herded into the mix before the bride gathered her skirts and climbed atop the stage, kicking off her shoes and signaling the band to silence. Fleur pushed her way to the front of the group, eyes teaming with blood-lust.
Hermione caught Harry’s gaze from across the room and twitched her nose, unamused by his uncontrollable laughter. Conversations tapered off as Susan faced the wall with her bouquet gripped tightly, the audience joining in her countdown.
“3... 2… 1!” She launched the flowers overhead with an impressive wind-up, wilted petals raining from above while the crowd cheered wildly.
Hermione’s heart stuttered as the bouquet began its downward arc, rapidly descending for her head. Her knees locked with terror, time slowing to an agonizing crawl as leaves scattered in her hair. She returned to her senses with no seconds to spare, stems grazing her cheek before she ducked sideways with a gasp, colliding hard with Luna. The slight blonde lost her balance and fell into her neighbor, creating a domino effect among the tightly packed cluster. The crowd erupted into hysterics as the woman fell into a kicking heap of silk, Sirius clutching a chair and struggling to breathe.
Fleur dove head-first over the pile of bodies and reached desperately for the fallen bouquet, only for it to bounce off her forearms, smacking an innocent bystander in the head. The Frenchwoman rolled with a feral growl, smacking the floor before scrambling to her knees, searching out her lost bounty with a half-dozen others. She spotted it beneath a table at the same moment as another guest, both women racing forward to engage in a furious tug-of-war that attracted two more to their plight. The four-person battle upended the table and knocked over chairs, the flowers somehow launching skyward as arms flailed in every direction.
The bouquet soared overhead a second time while Hannah assisted Hermione to her feet, the crowd scrambling for a better view when the flowers fell at the back of the room. Hermione reached down, hauling Luna from the pile of grappling limbs as everyone shuffled in for a closer look.
A trail of torn petals parted the audience down the middle, leading to a very bewildered, very red-faced Aunt Muriel, bouquet clenched tightly in her trembling hands. The woman blinked several times, ruby flush spreading when the room erupted with drunken enthusiasm, a sea of voices showering the unwitting victor with praise.
Fleur staggered upright, clutching her broken dress strap and stomping towards her fiancé. He looped an arm around her waist and whispered against her temple before leading her towards the water closet with a grin. The spectators converged on his aunt, leaving Hermione to bat debris from her skirt as the others limped away, off to find some quiet corner to lick their battle wounds. One poor bystander sported a scuffed and bleeding elbow, the glistening sight luring Hermione forward. But before she could offer her assistance she felt a familiar caress at her back and turned to face the opposite side of the room.
The floor vibrated with a steady percussion of music and conversation but the world quaked at Draco’s smile, the simple gesture relieving the lingering weight upon her heart. The knot in her stomach loosened in turn, giving rise to her own amused grin as the hum of chatter rose, the night alive with celebration. And for the first time since standing before her parents’ shared tombstone, Hermione felt the calming certainty that everything was going to be alright.
. . .
“You’re sure you don’t want to come?” Susan asked, fingers curled over the window frame.
Hermione stepped away from the carriage with a shake of her head. “I need to prepare for Monday—”
“Honestly, Mione, it’s only surgery! Come to the pub with us!” Ron called from beside his wife, flushed with drink and smeared with frosting. Susan rolled her eyes, picking cake from his collar and flicking it aside.
His brother stretched across the opposite bench, stained blue from head to waist as though dipped upside-down in an inkwell. “Better pace yourself tonight, Ronnie, or you’ll be too drunk to find your cock—”
“George Weasley!” Hermione scolded. “Your little sister is—” She blinked, scanning the barren interior. “Wait. Where’s Gin?”
"She's been M.I.A all night," he grumbled, loosening his dye-soaked cravat. "Can we get a move on, please? I have a long night of soaking in vinegar to look forward to."
“I saw her half an hour ago,” Ron yawned. “She was in a rush to get home. And I think you should keep the blue, George, it’s a vast improvement on your face.”
“You’re lucky it’s your wedding day, you knobless little prick—”
Hermione shook her head, ignoring their barbs and facing the bride. “Congratulations again. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, unless I’m asked to post bail tonight.”
“Better stay by the telegram, luv,” Susan muttered before elbowing her husband in the side. “Am I the only one eager to get our honeymoon underway?”
His eyes flared wide, fist banging the roof in a fury. “Oi, driver! Get us the hell out of here!”
Hermione laughed, stepping back with a parting wave as the carriage lurched into motion. Their echoing laughter followed them up the winding drive, lingering on the summer air long after they turned the corner and disappeared from sight. She dropped her hand and peered at the waxing moon, its pale glow dimmed by a film of clouds.
“Evening, lass!” A nearby driver called. “Need a ride?”
She tore her gaze from the sky and grinned anew. “Yes, actually,” she replied, adjusting the bag on her shoulder and starting for his carriage. “The Girl’s Home on Bromley, please.”
. . .
She traced the edge of the package with an idle fingertip, winding the satin bow around her thumb as the carriage rocked from side to side gently, the repetitive motion and shadowed interior lulling her into a trance. The steady clop of hooves was broken by the driver’s shout, horses braying as he pulled on the reins.
“Here we are!”
Hermione blinked, peering through the window at a familiar sight beyond. The Home stood as tall and imposing as ever, its striking architecture cutting a bold silhouette against the foggy skyline. Its stained glass sparkled in the dim moonlight, the dark garden rustling behind curved iron gates. The scent of dahlias carried on the breeze and brought to mind a frightful dream, half-formed in a haze of sleepless nights. She pushed the notion aside with all the others, reaching for the handle and hopping to the gravel path.
“You live here, Miss?” The stranger inquired, inspecting the property with a wary eye.
“Just paying a visit,” she hummed, opening her coin purse. “Thank you for the ride.”
“I can wait here until you’re done.”
“That’s not necessary.”
He nodded, accepted her payment with a grave expression. “Be careful, lass. Rumor is this place is haunted. Lotta bad things happened beyond them gates.”
“It isn’t a rumor. But the ghosts aren’t out for blood anymore.” She tilted her head, considering. “Well, not buckets anyway. Have a pleasant night.” He blinked at her parting grin, waiting until she was slipping through the gate to urge the horses forward.
The rod iron groaned beneath her touch, its metallic squeal reminding her of time’s long past, memories bobbing in rapid succession as she followed the narrow path through the garden and up the steps, the Home doubling in size the closer she drew. The very walls seemed to shift, exhaling upon her arrival, recognizing the return of an old friend. The knocker remained cold and heavy in her hand, each strike piercing the still night.
An owl hooted from a nearby branch, large eyes glinting in the darkness. She held its burning gaze, gasping as another glowing stare appeared beside it, materializing from seemingly nowhere. A third was quick to follow, then a fourth, the branch buckling beneath their feathered weight, razor-sharp talons carving deep grooves in the wood.
The door swung open, eliciting a shocked yelp from her throat.
“Ms. Granger. We weren’t expecting you this evening.”
She pressed a hand to her chest. “Darius! You startled me…” Her eyes flickered sideways, blinking quickly at the empty tree.
“Ms. Granger? Is everything alright?”
She rubbed her temples and slowly turned. “Yes. I… I was just passing through the neighborhood and thought I’d pay a quick visit. Is she still awake?”
“Indeed. The Madam is finishing an appointment as we speak.”
“I’m happy to wait,” she offered, black box pressed firmly between her palms as he took a step back and gestured her forward.
“Please, do come in.”
She held her breath and crossed the threshold, static lifting her hair as she gave the shadowed entrance a cursory inspection. “You replaced the chandelier,” she observed.
“Hm. The Madam deemed the previous decor far too macabre.”
“I agree. This is much more fitting.”
Her focus lingered on the modern fixture until his throat cleared, drawing her gaze to the archway. She stood at attention, realizing he’d crossed the floor in her absence. She hurried to follow, their footfalls echoing across the stone as he led her down the corridor she’d once been dragged through. Her wrist throbbed, cobwebs torn apart at the memory, but the sound of childish laughter dulled the ache, muffled voices drifting through the vents as residents scurried around the upper floors.
“They never sleep,” the groundskeeper sighed. “Any suggestions on getting them to stay put?”
“I’m the last person you want to ask that question, trust me.”
He shook his head in exasperated before directing their path to the door at the end of the hall. “Just a moment, I’ll announce your arrival.”
He rapped softly on the wood, waiting for the faint and succinct beckoning before slipping inside. Hermione rocked back on her heels, eyeing a crack in the wood panel as she waited. The lightning bolt pattern reached the ceiling, splitting the tile before disappearing into the seam. The gaslight stationed beneath suddenly flickered, its flame dancing wildly before snuffing out with a faint hiss, smoke curling upward, drifting into the dark gap. She stared into the black void, her peripheral fogging as a faint whisper filled the air, drifting not from the vents but the ceiling crack overhead.
The voices were too low to discern but she knew they didn’t belong to any child living under this roof. The temperature soon dropped and the shadows deepened, goosebumps erupting down her limbs as the whispers grew in volume, voices overlapping. A floorboard creaked behind her, a haggard breath sounding at the mouth of the corridor.
Hermione lifted her chin and felt a presence rapidly descend at her back, toes dragging the carpet. “Stop that,” she clipped, eyes narrowed on the closed door ahead. The air went still and silent, the whispers ending abruptly at the stern command. The entity at her back breathed across her neck, daring her to turn around. She crossed her arms and planted her feet. “I’ve no plans to entertain your theatrics. I suggest finding another venue to haunt. Perhaps an actual theatre, actors do love a good ghost story.”
The specter exhaled, the frigid gust traveling the length of her spine as low, wet laughter emitted from a torn, mangled throat. Hermione straightened, fists curled at her sides until, just as suddenly as it appeared, the apparition vanished, leaving behind only a bitter tinge of smoke and blood on the air. The shadows lifted like a curtain as the gaslight sparked to life, flame standing tall and proud as the door opened at her front.
“Ms. Granger,” Darius announced, searching the empty corridor at her back. “Were you talking to someone?”
“Not at all.” She smiled. “You must be hearing things.”
“Evidently.” He arched a graying brow and stood back. “You may enter.”
“Thank you,” she replied, proceeding forward with confidence.
Stepping inside this particular office had been a taxing feat upon her first check-in, her heart pounding with dreaded anticipation while she'd waited in the hall. Seeing the desk free from cat sculptures had certainly helped calm her nerves, but surely it took more than a fresh coat of paint to exorcise a demon from its lair. Alas, it appeared the new layout bore more than just new decor, it also came equipped with a glaring pair of eyes that followed her every movement.
“Mr. Snape,” she startled, straightening beneath his narrow gaze.
“Ms. Granger,” he returned flatly, turning up his nose before concluding his inspection. “You have a stain on your dress.”
Hermione blinked, peering down. “Oh!” She laughed, sweeping the remnants of frosting from her bodice. “I must have taken some wedding cake home with me, most of the guests did. Ron stuffed a piece into Susan’s mouth and she retaliated by dumping the top tier over his head—”
“A riveting story, if there ever was one.” He rose from his chair swiftly, buttoning his floor-length frock with supreme boredom. “On that note, I believe it’s time to take my leave.”
She shook her head, edging forward. “Please don’t depart on my account, I’ve clearly interrupted—”
“You aren’t interrupting,” replied a stern voice from behind the desk. “Severus and I enjoy a cup of tea after his weekly deliveries, but the hour is late and I’m sure his shop needs attending.”
Hermione glanced between the unlikely pair, suppressing a grin as a rosy flush warmed the translucent pallor of his skin, no doubt born from the woman’s casual address.
He caught Hermione staring and scowled, spine somehow aligning straighter. “Quite right,” he clipped, nodding to the Headmistress in deference. “Minerva.”
McGonagall lowered her chin to gaze over the top of her spectacles. “Goodnight, Severus. And do make an effort not to growl at my girls.”
His lip curled. “The sky doesn’t rain sugar cubes and daffodils, the sooner they learn this the better.”
“But it does emit sulfur and nitrogen oxides,” Hermione volunteered with a smile, “which combines to form an acidic vapor that’s surprisingly simple to condense and bottle.”
“Thank you, Ms, Granger, I do love arts and crafts.” The Headmistress redirected her narrow gaze forward. “However, the issue is not with London precipitation. It seems some of our older residents revel in your disdain, Severus, and have developed hopeless crushes in the process. A few even write poetry about the brooding Chemist wandering our halls.”
Hermione pressed a hand to her mouth, barely able to smother her laughter in time.
“These children are disturbed,” he spoke in sheer and utter horror.
“Then we’re agreed. Travel safely, young man.”
He shook his head in disbelief but offered a bow of respect before turning to Hermione. “Horace informs me you were selected to perform surgery next week.”
“Y-Yes,” she replied, surprised and flattered by the inquiry. “A cholecystectomy on Monday morning.”
“Hm.” His prominent nose twitched. “Do try not to kill your first patient, Ms. Granger.”
“That’s number two on my list. After finding a stylish pair of operating gloves, of course.”
The corner of his mouth lifted. “I anticipate Tuesday’s report with bated breath. Good evening, ladies.”
Hermione nodded her farewell, watching him glide into the hall like a surly shadow before turning to face the room’s remaining occupant. “Madam McGonagall,” she greeted, dipping into a polite and tragic curtsy.
“Enough of that. Take a seat, my dear.”
Hermione did as bade, setting her bag on the ground and the present in her lap.
“So,” the Headmistress continued, retaking her place behind the sprawling desk. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this time, Ms. Granger?”
“I just wanted to see if you needed any more supplies before the next shipment is delivered—”
“We have plenty from your last haul. Please tell me you aren’t stealing from the hospital supply pantry, I won’t be the cause of your expulsion.”
“Certainly not,” Hermione laughed, easing into her chair. “There’s a designated allotment for donation and they know I deliver to the Home. Anything beyond that I purchase myself.”
McGonagall’s eyes narrowed. “You also supply a personal cheque each month, there’s no need to purchase bandages and tinctures as well.”
“But I’m happy to do it. I was a resident beside many of these girls not long ago, their well-being is important to me.”
The Headmistress regarded her carefully. “Tea?”
The woman gestured to a gleaming tray on the corner of her desk, a dead ringer for the set Hermione had weaponized at Rabastan’s estate. She blinked, doing her utmost not to fidget. “No, but thank you.”
The Madam retrieved her cup and took a delicate sip, watching her young companion over the porcelain rim. “Severus mentioned an upcoming surgery, I believe?”
“Oh, yes,” Hermione said, seizing the distraction. “I’m quite nervous, truth be told.”
“Are others in your class operating?”
“Clever girl.” McGonagall restored the cup to its saucer with a soft tink. “I’ve no doubt you have a natural affinity for slicing men open.”
Hermione stroked the satin ribbon in thought. “I suppose I do.”
"How fortunate to find one's calling so young." The Madam's keen gaze shifted to the black box in Hermione's lap. "Did you steal a gift from the wedding?"
Hermione peered down with a smile. “I left Ron and Susan all the stemware. This is just an early birthday present.” She tilted her head. “At least I think.”
“I see,” the woman mused, fingers tapping along the polished wood. “Clearly you’ve had an eventful day. Something tells me you’ve extended it even longer for more than just a friendly visit.”
Hermione swallowed tightly, forcing a bright smile. "Honestly, I just wanted to check-in."
Aged hands folded atop the gleaming surface of the desk. “To make certain Dolores Umbridge hasn’t returned,” McGonagall surmised calmly, the simple statement absorbing any lie Hermione may have concocted.
“I have nightmares that she’s living in the walls,” Hermione whispered, shuddering at her own admission. “Perhaps Darius can do another sweep of the grounds, particularly the attic—”
“The attic has been sealed, my dear. The doll room included.”
Hermione glanced away.
“I assure you, Ms. Granger, Dolores Umbridge is nothing but a faded memory few are cursed with. Most of the older residents have moved on from this place and the younger girls hardly recall their former Mistress. Her stain has been scrubbed clean from these walls and burned from the record books.” Hermione nodded, looping the ribbon around her finger until the tip turned blue. McGonagall tilted her head. “Is something else troubling—”
“Have you found a new physician yet?” Hermione blurted in a rush, cheeks heating with the outburst.
The Matron’s perpetually arched brow pulled higher. “I’m still reviewing applicants. I take the appointment very seriously and will settle for nothing but the best.”
“Are you double-checking references? There have been forgeries in the past—”
“I have been running youth shelters for many decades, dear girl. I know exactly what types of wolves come sniffing at these doors and won’t allow a single one past the gates, I assure you.”
Hermione exhaled slowly, easing back. “Then I look forward to meeting whomever you choose.”
The Madam narrowed her gaze, undoubtedly sensing her guest’s lingering disappointment tinging the air. “Would you be interested in assisting with the interview process?” She inquired, the offer so unexpected Hermione nearly toppled from her seat.
“A second pair of eyes and ears is always helpful, especially those of a trained physician.”
“I’ll send word when I’ve narrowed the selection,” McGonagall declared, settling the matter and reaching for her tea.
Hermione sat straighter, mood soaring at the prospect. “Thank you, Headmistress.” McGonagall smirked behind the cup before finishing its contents with a slow sip. “Well, I suppose that’s all then,” Hermione mused, sliding to the edge of her cushion. “Thank you very much for hosting me. I’ll allow you and Darius to return to your evening.”
“Enjoy your weekend, dear.” McGonagall watched her rise. “And good luck on Monday. If my schedule permits, I’ll join the audience in the surgical theatre.”
Hermione’s heart skipped, touched by the thought. “That would be wonderful, if you’re able.”
“Very good.” The Madam slid her saucer aside and reached for a stack of parchment, quill already in hand.
“Goodnight, ma’am,” Hermione bid, en route to the door.
“Goodnight, Ms. Granger. Travel safely.”
Hermione thought of Snape’s reaction to the same farewell and laughed softly, entering the corridor with a lightened step. She made it to the entrance hall unencumbered by grisly apparitions and mocking spirits alike, encountering only the sharp laughter and racing footsteps of children as they tore through the upstairs dorm.
She paused at the bottom of the staircase when two girls emerged on the landing above, delighted squeals announcing their presence before they sped around the corner and disappeared into the next hallway like a shot, bare feet silent on the runner. Their appearance was no more than a dream until Darius arrived a moment later, panting and flushed.
"Which way did they go?" He asked between labored breaths, clinging to the banister.
Hermione shrugged innocently. “I didn’t see a thing.”
“Heavenly Father, you're just as incorrigible. Please vacant this residence before you give the children any ideas.”
Hermione backed away with a laugh, offering a parting wink to a little girl hiding behind the drapes, toys stacked across the windowsill.
The temperature outside had dropped considerably since her arrival, leaves flickering in the cool breeze and trailing her steps to the gate. Low branches stroked her hair as she paused at the curving bars and turned back around, the same silent beckoning drawing her gaze each time. Clouds parted before the moon, illuminating the sprawling property in all its glory.
The attic window glinted above, the Home’s all-seeing eye watching her through a foggy lens. The circular glass blinked its farewell while the chevet grinned in eager anticipation of her return. After all, the truth was abundantly certain, though Hermione had escaped the clutches of her former Matron, she would never be free of this place, a piece of her soul forever trapped behind its walls, sealed away with the rest of the broken, abandoned dolls. And someday, when the building was inevitably demolished to make way for something modern and shiny and new, the ashes of her former self would join the rubble while its ghosts wandered the earth in restless pursuit of their graves.
But all of those things mattered little to her on this night, the weight of her past a familiar burden she'd long grown accustomed to. Instead, she turned to face the gate and slipped through its narrow parting, eager to put her evening to rest.
The tavern across the street was bursting with music and laughter, the clink and shatter of glass carrying through the whole neighborhood, deterring carriage drivers from entering. A hefty tip from a drunken passenger was hardly worth the chore of scrubbing their vomit from the floorboards all evening. Resigned to her plight, Hermione tucked her present underarm and journeyed onward, confident she’d find a ride on the next road over.
Alas, when she rounded the last building in the row an empty stretch of cobblestone greeted her.
"Damn," she muttered, wishing she'd accepted her driver's offer to wait outside the Home. Her feet throbbed as she continued across the unforgiving brick, carefully steering her path through the orange glow of street lamps. The package crinkled with each step, a nagging temptation in the wake of her growing annoyance. But the distraction was short-lived, thoughts rapidly fleeting when she passed the mouth of an alley and a heavy scrape emitted from the darkness.
She stumbled into a nearby post, gripping it for balance and staring into the gaping maw, unable to distinguish shapes from shadows. The scrape sounded again, closer, louder, metal dragging cement. Glowing eyes appeared in the blackness, bright amber framing slitted pupils. Hermione shrieked as the feline pounced, orange fur zipping past her face before it landed in the middle of the street and gave a leisurely stretch. She placed a hand to her neck, the rapid thrum of her artery overcome by her laughter, pitch rising with relief and embarrassment.
The bushy creature trotted to the bench and perched atop its narrow slats, standing still and picturesque as it watched the ridiculous human erupt like a hysterical idiot. Hermione wiped the corners of her eyes and continued her search, pausing only to cast a pondering glance over her shoulder. The feline looked remarkably familiar… Don’t be ridiculous, we’re nowhere near St. Mungo’s. She shook her head and journeyed on, its red gaze following her around the corner.
The next street began at the top of a hill, the downward incline lightening her mood considerably until she was halfway down, the eerie stillness finally setting in. She paused, peering around her dark encapsulation for any sign of life. The shops bordering her path were shuttered and gated, crumpled newspapers rustling in the wind, the only movement she could discern until footsteps sounded in the distance.
The steady gait echoed from the bottom of the street, drawing ever closer and louder until their owner appeared, a lanky man in a trench coat, collar flipped high and hat pulled low. Hermione blinked, edging backward as he started an upward trek towards her, long legs making quick work of the pavement. His face was tipped down, identity safely hidden in shadow. She glanced around quickly, considering crossing the road to avoid his path.
Stop being paranoid.
She released a shallow breath before continuing down, sidling close to storefronts to afford him a wide berth. He was right upon her now, close enough to touch. Her shoulder blades merged, steps quickening—
And then he was striding past without a glance in her direction, boot clicks rapidly receding in the distance. Hermione exhaled swiftly, slowing at the end of the sidewalk to collect her bearings. The man was at the top of the hill by the time she glanced back, tall figure rounding a shuttered cafe, lost to sight. His pounding footsteps soon faded with him, the entire encounter over before it began.
She tipped her head back and sighed, taking solace in the pulsing glow of the moon before tucking the present into her bag and turning onto the next avenue.
A streak of orange darted past her feet, launching her a meter off the ground while her shriek echoed off every boarded window on the block. No sooner had she staggered her landing than the shock of fur came circling back, amber eyes glinting wild and bushy tail standing on end. She spared the meddlesome creature an annoyed glare before continuing forward, or at least attempting to, making it another step before the whiskered beast charged her with a menacing hiss.
“I’ve had just about enough of you!” Hermione scathed, stumbling sideways to avoid being herded back the way she came. “Wretched pest!”
Dagger claws swiped at her ankle, snagging the hem of her dress. She shook the offending paw loose, lips parting with a venomous rebuke when a new sound filled the vacant street and stole the words from her throat. She halted all movement, rocking like a mannequin and sharing the feline’s panicked gaze.
Voices echoed, loud and disorderly, laughing like jackals and slurring their words. Her breath stilled as scraping footsteps rounded the end of the Avenue. Three men appeared, caked with grime and glistening with sweat. One smoked a cigarette while another clutched a jug of dark brown liquor, the third lucky to even be upright in his inebriated state. She edged back slowly, praying to evade their notice, making it barely a stone’s throw before their glassy eyes turned up, laughter dying abruptly.
“Oi!” The bottle-wielder declared. “What’ve we got here, gents?”
The feline announced its presence with a low-throated mewl, hackles rising as it stalked between Hermione and the new arrivals. But its threatening advance went easily ignored, their gleaming stares unwavering.
“‘Ello, poppet, what you doing out here all by your lonesome?”
Hermione took another tentative step backward. “I was just asking myself that very question,” she replied, careful to maintain an unaffected tone. “Good evening, gentlemen. Allow me to get out of your way.” She spun on her heel and strode briskly for the corner she’d just vacated, heart tumbling inside her ribcage as they continued to call out.
“Oi, hold up now!”
“Don’t be like that, luv!”
"Pretty little thing, ain't she?"
“Ah, poppet’s just nervous. We best introduce ourselves like proper gents, let ‘er know what good company we are.”
She broke into a dead run as pounding steps sounded at her back, flying around the corner and gasping for breath. Her bag weighed a metric ton, slamming her hip with every heaving stride. She started to drop the load but quickly reconsidered, realizing it may be her only means of defense in the next few minutes. Her knees trembled, struggling to keep balanced atop narrow-stacked heels. She kicked them off without hesitation, continuing her uphill sprint barefoot and frantic.
The incline was brutal, nearly twice as long as she remembered. They'd catch her long before she reached the top, Hermione knew, aided by superior height and a bloodstream full of bourbon. She changed tactics, darting for the nearest alleyway instead, tiptoeing past soiled food containers and moldy newspapers while her pursuers arrived at the bottom of the street, panting like racehorses.
“Where’d she go?”
“No way she made it up there that fast.”
She reached the other end of the alley, a two-story brick wall blocking her escape.
“Prolly behind one of these shops. Spread out, find her.”
“Come on, Jackie, it ain’t worth it—”
“I said find ‘er!”
She sank behind the dumpster as they dispersed, holding her breath when their shadows moved across the brick at her side. They continued past, rattling gates and kicking bins, laughing all the while. The boisterous taunts transported her to Rabastan’s narrow cupboard, limbs curled tightly as she listened to his guards tear apart the house in mad pursuit of their prisoner. But the terrifying memory provided a twisted comfort, reminding her of the daring escape she’d managed with far less at her disposal. Now, in the heart of the city, her worst enemy was the vacant road. She just needed to go a little bit further…
Easier imagined than enacted.
A gentle thump on the dumpster lid made her gasp and scramble back, heartbeat stuttering behind her tongue when a familiar creature leaped to the pavement at her feet.
“What are you doing here?” Hermione whispered, relieved to not be alone, even if said companion began anxiously pacing the damp ground, scouring the alley in avid search of something.
Food scraps, undoubtedly. It has eight more lives to spare, I’m the least of its worries.
She rubbed the crease between her brows, a dull throb forming behind her eyes. “Why do people always try to kill me on the weekend?” She pondered aloud. “I have so little free time as it is.”
The cat paused its determined hunt to pin her with a deeply unamused stare. She bit her lip, properly scolded, sighing as the creature bounded for the street without further ado, content to abandon the foolish human to her fate. She felt an inexplicable pang when its tail disappeared from sight, alone again, but her disappointment was short-lived as another startling realization made itself known. The banging and hollering had stopped, the street silent as a prayer.
It’s now or never, she urged, knowing doom would follow on swift wings if they circled back and discovered her here. She rose carefully, pressing the bag motionless to her side and creeping to the mouth of the alley. A cursory glance in either direction revealed a still and empty row of cobblestone. She held her breath and edged forward, staying close to the dark storefronts and proceeding downhill.
A sudden rustling caused her to shriek, the noise captured in both her hands before it could fill the air. An open newspaper tumbled down the sidewalk and climbed a lamppost, flapping innocently in the breeze. She swallowed thickly and rounded the final shop, assaulted by a foul odor the same moment two faces materialized from the darkness.
“There she is.”
She screamed, dropping her bag and scrambling away as the pair emerged from behind an announcement board.
“Don’t be scared, poppet,” the man with the sloshing jug laughed. “We ain’t gonna hurt you.”
She turned quickly, primed to renew her mad dash when their third associate appeared a few meters up the street, pacing the brick like a dog on a leash, eager for her to try it. She backed towards the opposite sidewalk, rapidly debating her options.
“What do you want?” She asked, on the off-chance reason might prevail. The man with the bottle leered, quickly dispelling such hope. “And I implore you to think long and hard about that question,” she continued. “If it’s companionship you’re after, there are far more agreeable options to be had. Some of who may not even charge you for their services.”
“Long and hard,” the second man snickered. “You hear that, Jackie? She said—” He keened like a mutt when his partner smacked him upside the head.
“I got two ears, don’t I?”
“Perhaps I overestimated your perspicacity,” Hermione muttered, stealing covert glances over her shoulder to guide her path.
“Pesit— blood ‘ell, lass, you makin’ up words?”
His companion rubbed his smarting head. “Must be a writer.”
“She’s an actress,” their remaining member spoke, rejoining his pack. “I recognize her from the paper, she’s famous or something.”
The other two studied her anew. “That true?” Bottle-man asked, eyeing her intently.
She rose onto the sidewalk with a careful step. “If I say yes, will you leave me alone?”
“Pretty and clever.” He grinned. “What’d I do to deserve such a dame?”
“We can rule out bathing.”
His expression fell while his comrades exploded with laughter, anger surfacing alongside a scarlet flush. “Mouthy bitch, I don’t give a fuck who you are, come here.”
“I’m afraid I must decline,” she breathed, quickening her backward pace.
“Afraid? You ain’t afraid.” He chuckled menacingly as she collided with a wall, the obstruction unseen in her peripheral. “Not until you’re screaming,” he growled, rapidly closing in.
She pressed flat to the brick, searching the ground for anything she might wield in defense. A narrow alley stood just to her right, dark and ominous. She supposed they’d try dragging her inside of it, maybe she’d get lucky and find a lead pipe—
Tobacco-stained fingers filled her vision, jagged nails curling like claws. She averted her face with a shuddering breath, preparing to deliver a blood-curdling scream that would shatter the palace windows in Kensington, but before she could so much as blink an arm emerged from the alley with blurring speed, capturing the offending hand and twisting it back until the wrist snapped.
Her attacker’s shrill scream put hers to shame, the agonizing wail piercing her eardrums until his body folded like a newspaper, knees cracking against the pavement. His bottle dropped, base shattering and liquor splashing in every direction.
“My,” a sinister voice spoke. “What an impressive sound.” A tall and imposing shadow emerged from the darkness, lording over his prey. “You literally shattered glass.” He continued bending the offending wrist until an inevitable crunch filled the night. The three on-lookers cringed as jagged bone punctured the skin, blood spraying the wall. The drunkard wailed anew, baring his teeth and thrashing helplessly, caught in a steel-toothed trap.
Tom lifted his chin, stone-mask splitting down the center to reveal a far more chilling grin beneath. “I suppose by your own logic, that must mean you’re terrified,” he reasoned calmly, eyes glowing with feral pleasure. Her sharp intake of breath caused his spine to straighten, gleaming gaze tracking sideways.
“Ms. Granger,” he greeted, the intensity of his stare driving her further into the wall. “Once again, I discover you somewhere you shouldn’t be.” He examined her with unhurried satisfaction, taking in each and every detail until arriving at her feet. She blushed, toes curling beneath her skirt. “And barefoot as always,” he observed, grin curving higher.
She folded her arms, pushing past the shock and terror of the last ten minutes to arrive on the other side of madness. “Perhaps if ladies shoes bore a practical design we could perform more violent tasks in them.”
“Practical indeed,” he murmured, eyes lingering on her throat. She swallowed thickly, perfectly motionless and profoundly dizzy.
They glanced forward.
“Let go of him!” The speaker edged back, hollowing out the demand.
“Y-Yeah,” the remaining man sputtered, gazing at the blood in horror. “We d-didn’t do nothin’ to you!”
It was as if the wind had spoken for all the attention Tom paid them, focus turning downward instead. Hermione gripped the stones at her back as bloodlust bloomed to life across his face, crimson petals unfolding in a pattern she recognized well.
“Did any of them touch you?” He asked her, eyes and grip firmly affixed to the man on his knees, currently retching all over himself.
“No,” she whispered, clearing her throat. “Come morning they’ll be too hungover to remember my face.” She tracked the steady drip of blood pouring from the exposed muscle and tendon. “Though something tells me they’ll have no trouble recalling yours.”
There was a sharp scrape, a flash of movement.
“Tom, look out!” She screamed.
He dodged back as the man slashed forward with the neck of the broken bottle, aiming for Tom’s throat and catching his forearm. Tom hissed as the jagged edge sliced through his sleeve, blood spilling across his hand.
“Fucker,” the stranger wheezed, tipping sideways with blood loss. “What are you dumb fucks standing there for?” He yelled at his motionless companions. “Kill the bastard!”
They continued imitating dumbstruck owls until one of them finally worked up the courage to step forward, fists balled and feet clumsy. Tom met him halfway without expression, ducking a blow to the head and awarding him one to the jaw. The man staggered, pressing his bruised face as Tom kneed him in the stomach, promptly crumbling to the curb and clutching his middle.
Tom shook the blood from his hand and turned to face the final member of the trio, patiently awaiting his drunken attempt. The man released a terrified shout and fled in the opposite direction, frantic footsteps fading in the distance.
“One out of three bears a brain,” he muttered, flexing his swollen knuckles with a crack. “Perhaps there’s hope for mankind after all.”
“Always the optimist,” she replied, rushing to his side. “Let me see.”
He lifted his arm with a tired sigh, holding still for her inspection while his fallen adversaries crawled up the street with pitiful moans.
“Come with me,” she beckoned, tugging his sleeve. “I have supplies in my bag.”
By some miracle he let her haul him to the corner without argument, continuing to watch in silence as she dropped to her knees and rummaged through her belongings. The red ribbon was the first sight to greet them upon opening the flap, the pristine bow stalling her thoughts until he spoke.
“You haven’t opened it.”
“It isn’t my birthday yet,” she replied matter-of-factly, ignoring his grin in her continued search for bandages. Alas, all she uncovered was her outfit from earlier in the day, supplies removed to make room for a change of clothes.
“Shite,” she hissed.
“That’s quite the supply closet.”
Hermione blinked, following his gaze to the item in her hand. A satin chemise. She rose swiftly, determined to make do. “It’ll work,” she muttered, folding the sheer fabric lengthwise and winding it around his bloodied forearm. “We need to get you to a clinic.”
“There’s no point.”
“You may need stitches.”
“If only I could find a trained professional at this hour.”
She met his gaze in challenge but the argument was quickly buried beneath clopping hooves. They turned, watching a horse and carriage turn the corner at a leisurely gait. The driver took a swig from his flask, catching sight of the wind-swept pair and coughing up his mouthful.
“Bloody hell,” he wheezed into the crook of his arm. “You kids alright?”
“We need a ride!” She called.
He eyed the make-shift dressing Tom wore, sleeve stained red. “You heading to the hospital?”
“No,” Tom asserted.
Hermione rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she relented, applying pressure to the wound and addressing the driver. “We’re going to a private residence.”
. . .
The carriage hit an uneven patch of road, rocking hard. Hermione adjusted her grip on his arm, the chemise starting to loosen. She tightened the knots as best she could in their dim interior, half-blind despite the twin beams of his stare watching her from the opposite bench.
“I thought you weren’t returning until the fall,” she said, eager to fill the silence with more than just her stuttered breathing.
“My business in Delhi concluded sooner than anticipated.”
“You found Divya?” She asked, glancing up. “Is she alright?”
“That depends on your definition. She’s at a facility recovering from malnourishment. They were able to locate her brother, she’ll be released to his care after recovery.”
“And her captor?” She pressed on, desperate for any insight into his travels. “Is he with the authorities?”
His eyes glinted red in the moonlight, the same as the cat in the alley. "He's being transported to London for trial. I came to ensure an adequate verdict is reached."
“You didn’t kill him,” she observed, smiling despite the ominous threat in his voice.
“The option was strongly considered.”
“I’m still proud of you,” she declared, beaming beneath his rueful stare. “You’re finished then?”
“It’s possible the Commissioner unearthed more records. I’ll pay a visit to Scotland Yard tomorrow.”
“You might give him a few days,” she advised. “His daughter got married this morning.”
“Hm. That’s right.” He inspected her at length. “Which explains the impractical shoes.”
Her heels pressed tight. “The sacrifices we make,” she muttered, head tilting in thought. “What were you doing so far from the docks tonight?”
“I was on my way to the Home to meet the new Headmistress.” He leaned back, upholstery groaning beneath his weight. “Then I was robbed and my plans changed accordingly.”
“What?” She surged forward, nearly dropping the chemise in shock. “Someone robbed you?”
“How the hell did they manage that?”
“I never saw him coming.”
“He got the jump on you?”
“It was more of a pounce, brutal and swift, followed by a rapid retreat.”
Hermione blinked. “You couldn’t catch him?”
“I didn’t stand a chance. Granted, he bore a great advantage over me.”
“What was that?” She asked, perched on the edge of her seat.
“An extra set of legs.”
Her lips parted, bizarre images taking shape in her mind until his glimmering stare regained all of her focus, consuming her thoughts with moonlight on water. “You were robbed by a cat,” she concluded.
He watched her intently, grinning with pleasure. “Your skills of deduction are uncanny as ever, Ms. Granger.”
“Let me guess,” she continued, amusement growing. “Orange and outspoken?”
She returned to his injury with a laugh. “What did it steal?”
Silence followed, magnified by their dark surroundings. She glanced up to discover his gaze fixed upon her mouth. Her knees pressed together. “Something quite precious,” he murmured. “But perhaps it was time to let it go.” His pulse throbbed steadily beneath her thumb. “I followed the little beast to Blackmore. It’s path led me straight to you.”
“How fortuitous,” she whispered.
“That’s one word for it.”
Their gazes held, bodies linked by her touch, and then the carriage rocked to a halt, the driver’s voice filling the narrow compartment through the open window.
“We’ve arrived, Sir!”
Hermione blinked and peered sideways, recalling the world beyond their four walls. “Right then,” she muttered, releasing his arm and clearing her throat. “The joys of no traffic.” She reached for the door but his hand arrived there first, a teasing lilt to his voice.
“Come now, Ms. Granger. You know the rules.”
She pressed back in her seat. “Perhaps you should remind me, Doctor.”
He opened the door and slid forward, knees framing her thighs. “Men always exit the carriage first,” he whispered, face open and innocent like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
She squirmed in place, fever rising as wickedness sparked in his gaze. “A rather archaic tradition, is it not?” she posed, watching him disembark in a single leap.
“Perhaps,” he agreed, reaching inside without warning. She gasped when he seized her waist and lifted her out, holding her so their faces drew level. “But I enjoy a bit of archaic tradition every now and then, don’t you?”
She gripped his shoulders and succumbed to a full-body flush, feet dangling half a meter off the ground when the driver coughed. She turned rigid with mortification, urging him to release her. He complied with great amusement, indifferent to her abashed suffering as he lowered her gently and extracted payment from his vest.
“Thank you, Sir,” the driver said, accepting the coins and tipping his cap. “By the way, this is a nice place you and the Misses got. Good neighborhood for a young family.”
Hermione’s entire head ignited, smoke billowing from her ears as she tried to formulate a response.
“You think so?” Tom replied, demeanor relaxed.
“Absolutely. It’s not far from where we raised our boys. Decent schools, low crime, helps keep ‘em out of trouble.”
“At least until they become teenagers,” Tom quipped.
The man erupted with noisy guffaws, clutching his side while Hermione glanced between the pair of perfect strangers, questioning her sanity for the twelfth time that hour.
“You got that right!” The man choked between breaths. “Once they hit fifteen, god help us all!” He adjusted his grip on the reins, eyeing Tom intently. “You got kids?”
“That’s good, that’s good,” the man nodded, drying the corners of his eyes. “Don’t worry, from the looks of your wife you got plenty of time to make more.”
Tom stepped back, tacking on a pleasant grin. “Thank you for the ride, but I think it’s due time we retire for the evening.”
“Oh, right, of course, of course!” The driver straightened with another tip of his cap. “Have a pleasant evening, folks.” He glanced at Tom’s arm, cringing sympathetically. “At least better than you’ve been having.”
“That shouldn’t be difficult,” Tom responded, perfectly carefree and completely perturbing.
The driver pulled the carriage around, winking in her direction as he passed. “I’m sure the Misses will take excellent care of you.” He urged the horses forward with a parting wave. Hermione watched his departure in stunned silence before turning slowly.
“... what just happened?”
Tom scrubbed a hand over his face, exhaustion taking the place of whatever mask he’d donned moments prior. “Sorry,” he intoned deeply. “Force of habit.”
“Pretending to be a suburban dad?”
“If you agree with someone’s first assumption you won’t stand out in their memory. Makes hunting people through crowded cities exorbitantly easier.”
“Ah. Delightful.” She paced closer. “Should I be alarmed that my pretend husband plans on murdering me and fleeing into the night?”
He dropped his hand, staring down through dark and humorous eyes. “I would never leave our pretend child motherless.”
She shook her head and stepped around his towering form. “The marriage is saved. Come along, sweetheart.” His hum was low and smooth at her back, trailing them down the sidewalk and through the picket fence. Halfway across the garden his gait slowed, lingering beside the flower boxes.
“Oh, Luna planted those,” she said, fishing keys from her bag. “They were her housewarming gift.”
“Of course,” he murmured, following her up the steps and onto the porch, inspecting the lilac shutters. “Very picturesque.”
"That was the selling point," she relayed with a grin, fumbling to unlock her door. "So, I wasn't expecting— I mean, I didn't have a chance to clean up before I left. It's a bit…" She bit her lip, feeling the warmth of his gaze on her skin. "I have a few things lying around, I'm sure."
“I thought I taught you to bury the corpses right away.”
The lock turned, door opening with the assistance of her hip. “I prefer soaking them in lye, dissolves the bones in a tick.” Her hand scrambled for the dial on the wall, gaslight flooding the quaint entry as she paced inside and dropped her bag on the ground, hyper-aware of the male presence crossing her threshold and closing her door.
She turned around, static crackling as she took in the sight of him standing in her entryway, the strangest daydream yet. “We should clean your cut,” she suggested, eager to bask in the comfort of sewing flesh back together. “I’ll go… gather some things. If you want to have a seat… somewhere. I’ll be right back.” He offered no response, opting to study her decor in silence, expression indecipherable. “Right,” she muttered, backing away casually until it was safe to race down the hall like a cat on a hot tin roof.
She paused a few steps down to retrieve a discarded nightdress from the floor, cramming it inside her linen closet and scouring the rug for more incriminating evidence. Her hectic class load and rotating training schedule left little time for errands and chores, or so she liked to tell herself. Upon further consideration, she was quite certain she was just a lazy cow, late-night study sessions no excuse for a messy roost. If he discovered a dirty pair of knickers lying about she was going to guzzle a gallon of bleach straight from the bottle. Assuming there was even a bottle in the house to chug… she certainly couldn't recall the last time she'd scrubbed the kitchen. How dirty can it be when you’re never home to use it?
His footsteps echoed through the front of the house, meandering from room to room in silent exploration while she kicked laundry under the furniture like a frantic loon. The water closet was her next stop, panting breath filling the cupboard as she gathered bottles and towels in a neat stack. By the time she made the careful trek back to the entry, her midnight guest was nowhere in sight. She visited the den next, the cozy abode equally vacant. The air felt stagnant, eerie and still in his absence.
“Tom?” She called.
She exhaled swiftly, following the vibration of his voice to the dark kitchen. Moonlight illuminated the edges of tables and chairs, helping her navigate the shadows for the switch beside the pantry. The light flickered once, twice, then bloomed to life in a spectacular burst, revealing the broad figure directly at her side. She gasped and lurched away, blinking quickly as he continued to stare through her window with profound fascination.
“You failed to mention the spectacular view in your letters,” he muttered, focus absolute.
She gripped the counter and returned to his side, following his gaze until the source of his preoccupation became evident through the bushes. “Ah, yes. Mr. Dupont,” she relayed thoughtfully. “The famed eccentric all the neighbors love to gossip about.” The elderly man wandered through his backyard shirtless and barefoot, a lit pipe dangling from his mouth and multiple wine bottles strapped to his hip.
“I’m sure he keeps them quite busy.”
“You’ve no idea,” she laughed, pushing away from the island and gesturing to the table in the corner. “Please, have a seat. I’ll be right with you.”
Her cordial invitation broke his focus. He glanced sideways, eyes teaming with amusement, and followed her instruction without further comment. She trailed a few paces behind, testing the words in her mind before trying them on her tongue. “So, speaking of letters…” She watched his long limbs fold gracefully in the chair, legs stretching to the far end of the table. “You only sent two.”
“I was undercover,” he replied, tracking her movements to the neighboring seat. “My correspondence could have been intercepted. The longer the investigation lasted the further my reputation preceded me.” He laid his arm flat, awaiting her care. “I couldn't risk alerting my targets or endangering their captives.”
“Right, of course,” she uttered quickly, unwrapping the blood-crusted chemise with nervous fingers. She felt terribly foolish and decided to focus on the task at hand. His wound appeared far less gruesome beneath the pulsing gaslight, the outpour already stemmed.
“It seems your stationary still went to use,” he spoke suddenly, prompting her to blink in confusion.
He nodded to a stack of letters on the island. “You have several admirers.”
Her heart kicked painfully. “You read them?”
“Only the envelopes. None of them bear a return address.”
“Those—” Hermione shook her head and reached for a towel. “It’s not anything you—” She sighed, unfolding the terry cloth and smoothing it across the table. “They aren’t important.”
He watched her carefully, the rumble of his voice traveling up her spine. “I’m sure it’s none of my business.”
She bit the inside of her cheek, hearing the silent beckoning behind the words. “If you say so,” she muttered, grabbing the bottle of alcohol. When she leaned in for the cotton swabs a loose tendril of hair brushed across his wrist. His arm twitched, fist curling beneath the warmth of her body. “It looks like only your superficial flexor muscles were hit,” she assessed. “Your radial vein is fine, thank goodness. A clean dressing should be enough to—”
“Who’s writing you,” he interrupted, words caught between question and demand.
She sat back, bracing for the storm. “Several people,” she replied, quickly unscrewing the bottle cap. “I may even know a few.” He offered no reaction, continuing to watch in silence as she worked dutifully. “They never sign their names. Bones thinks it might be former students but there’s really no way of—”
She soaked a piece of cotton in pungent solution, nose twitching with the chemical sting. “The letters are… hate mail, for lack of a better term.”
“What?” He hissed, control giving way at last.
“It’s hardly worth mentioning—”
“We’re past that. Tell me what they say.”
She exhaled slowly, scrubbing away his blood with careful strokes. “Exactly what you’d imagine. Small-minded idiots taking their far-reaching short-comings out on me.”
“In regards to what?”
Her fingers jumped, the specter arriving without warning. Wet, sputtering screams, splashing water and rolling waves—
“The Medical Act,” she breathed, reaching for a jar of salve. “No one knows about my connection to…” Her throat bobbed, gaze slowly lifting. His eyes were dark, concealing everything but the anger on his face.
“Bones thinks it’s former students?”
She nodded, returning to her task. “A lot of people dropped out when the school announced my acceptance. Others stayed enrolled but openly despise me—”
“I want their names.”
She scoffed without heat, prying off the tin lid. “I don’t think so.”
“Has anyone threatened you?”
“They aren’t creative enough to be a threat.”
"That isn't what I asked." His fist tightened when she applied a poultice to the narrow gash. "Is Bones investigating this? You should have officers with you around the clock, especially in the evenings."
“You sound like Harry.”
“I’m surprised Mr. Potter let you out of his sight at all. Your photograph was featured in every major publication throughout London, you’re a walking target for every backwoods idiot with a gun.”
She snapped the lid back into place with force. “Such is the way of forward progress. You aren’t going to fix anything with violence.”
“Violence fixes everything,” he stated evenly, watching her with a predator’s focus. “Give me the letters, Hermione. I’m going to track each of them down—”
“You’re not killing anyone!” She jolted with her outburst, knocking the bottle on its side. Alcohol flooded the table and splashed the wall, dripping to the floor. She snatched another towel, shaking it open with a scowl. “Just because they’re bumbling fools doesn’t mean they deserve to die—“
“Let me finish,” he continued, eyes wild as her jaw tightened. “I’m going to track them down and then I’m going to break every single bone in their bodies until they can never hold a pen or lick an envelope ever again.”
“Wow.” She pressed her weight on the cloth, mopping up the spill. “Thank you for curbing your violent urges, Tom, I’m sure that was immensely difficult for you.”
“The key is taking it one day at a time.”
"Well, you've made excellent progress." She opened a roll of gauze with her teeth, ripping off strips with the same feral pleasure. "While I appreciate the sentiment, I don't need your protection." Her tongue pressed the roof of her mouth as his pointed stare pinned her in place. "Except for tonight," she relented, biting through another strip. "When it was slightly beneficial. Otherwise, I’m more than capable of taking care of myself.”
She faced him squarely and began wrapping his limb, pulling the knots as tight as possible.
“They say women have a gentle touch in medicine,” he muttered at length. “I see you’re committed to refuting every stereotype in your path.”
Hermione blinked, gazing closely upon her handiwork to discover his fingers were blue. “Shite!” She quickly loosened the knots, freeing his arm and massaging the grooves between muscles until his fingers relaxed, veins pulsing hard as circulation was restored. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“I can take it,” he murmured, arm going limp in her hold. She swallowed thickly and moved lower, gently rubbing his wrist before prodding the meaty pad beneath his thumb, focusing on the pressure points that throbbed in her own hand after a long day of wielding scalpels. His lids became heavy, gaze distant and face lax. She continued her manipulations for another few minutes before clearing her throat and adjusting the bandage.
“All done,” she announced quietly, causing him to straighten. She ignored the dazed look in his eyes, focused on clearing the table. “Obviously you know the proper aftercare so I won’t waste your time—”
“I could use the reminder,” he replied thickly. “In case I forget anything pertinent.”
Her thighs pressed tight, toes curling against the hardwood as she gathered soiled cotton in a pile. “The initial dressing should be kept clean and dry and checked every hour,” she recited smoothly. “From there it should be changed one to four times a day depending on drainage. Avoid irritating the wound or engaging in any physical activity that promotes bleeding. The poultice should be refreshed with every bandage change to encourage healing and help the gauze stay in place. If you suffer any sudden increase in pain or discomfort notify your physician immediately. Keep close watch of the surrounding skin and notify your physician of any discoloration or odor. And keep closely apprised of sudden changes in energy, appetite, or temperature as these could also be early signs of infection. Do you have any questions?”
He leaned back with a slow grin. “None at all. It seems I’m in very capable hands.” She shook her head and mirrored his expression, pushing back from the table and rising swiftly. “Aside from the occasional death threat,” he continued in her departure, “How is school otherwise?”
“Well, I haven’t been expelled, so that’s good.”
“Evidently,” he hummed, watching her dispose of the waste in the bin. “First years are rarely selected to take the lead on live procedures.”
She spun quickly. “How do you know about that?”
“I may have stopped by the school when I first arrived,” he admitted without chagrin, carding a hand through his hair and sprawling back. “You’d already left. I was on my way out when Slughorn crossed my path.”
She leaned into the island, gripping its edge as the fantasy played through her mind. Tom roaming the hallways in search of her, peeking his head into classrooms he’d once sat in as a student. Heat pooled at her middle, working its way down. “Slughorn said you were selected to perform a nephrectomy in your first year,” she shared, ignoring her body’s reaction.
“Hm.” He tipped his head back, gazing at the ceiling in recollection. “I’d nearly forgotten about that.”
She laughed softly, still clutching the counter. “I look forward to the day when I have so many successful procedures under my belt I can’t remember them all.”
“Oh, you remember them all,” he stated, chin slowly lowering. “The successful ones just go to the bottom of the pile.”
Her heart kicked painfully, fingernails digging grooves into the wood. He seemed to sense her rising dismay and assured her calmly. “You’re going to be wonderful, Hermione. There’s no one more capable. They chose you for a reason, and all humbleness aside, you know what it is.”
She glanced down to hide her damning blush and caught sight of her dress, if it could even still be classified as such, fabric stiff with dried blood and fondant. Glorious. Another gown laid to waste by her vibrant social calendar.
“I should change,” she muttered, glancing up to meet his inscrutable stare. “Out of my clothes, I mean.” His brow lifted. She quickly replayed the words in her mind, standing straighter. “Out of these clothes— I should put on something more appropriate— clean. I’m going to find something clean.” She pushed off the island and dashed across the floor, pausing at the threshold with a sudden, undeniable curiosity. “Where are you staying?” She asked.
He turned sideways in his chair, long legs stretched out in front and hands folded across his abdomen, supremely at ease in her tiny kitchen. "The Grand, most likely. I'm not particular, as long as they afford me privacy I'll stay almost anywhere."
She licked her lips and picked idly at the molding. “It’s late, without a reservation they probably won’t rent to you at this hour.”
He dropped his head back, resting it against the wall. “Then I’ll find a local tavern with rooms.”
Hermione stiffened, unable to stop the downward spiral of her thoughts, imaging the type of people who frequented such establishments at this time of night. Working women, buxom and seductive, eyes glittering when Tom entered the pub rough and wind-swept, exhaustion deepening his voice and darkening his gaze.
“Stay here,” she said firmly, the acute focus of his stare making her wonder if spontaneous combustion was covered in her medical books. “For tonight, I mean. I’ll make up the sofa. It’s very comfortable. I sleep on it most nights.”
“What’s wrong with your bed?”
She rocked sideways, caught by the doorframe, speechless beneath his steady gaze. Another few seconds of loaded silence and she realized the true, innocent meaning of his words. She burned hotly, mortified by her misinterpretation. “Oh, of course, um, nothing, my bed is great— I mean it’s a normal bed, I suppose, I just study late into the night and…” She cleared her throat, airway pressed by his knowing smirk. “I’m going to get changed,” she announced once more, eager to escape their claustrophobic confines. “Would you like to stay for the evening?”
His pupils expanded, ever so slightly. “If you’re certain it’s not an imposition.”
“Indubitably,” she chimed. “Besides, you need someone to check your dressing through the night. Doctor’s orders.”
“Far be it for me to argue with the sound advice of my physician.”
Her grin returned. “I’ll bring some extra linens,” she offered before scurrying into the hall, stopping only to fetch her discarded bag from the entry.
She closed herself in her bedroom at the earliest opportunity, hands bracing the door and breath shuddering. It wasn’t until she pushed away that she caught sight of the box nestled atop the other items in her bag, its glaring temptation revived in an instant. The ribbon pulsed before her eyes, begging to be unwound, but as she reached down a soft tapping echoed from across the room.
She glanced up, staring at her window as dark branches swayed behind the pane, scraping the siding. She released a sigh and reached for the bag once more, grazing the bow when a monstrous shadow rushed past her wall, sweeping her body like a physical touch. Hermione spun with a gasp, frantically searching the empty room. Her window creaked, the scenery beyond unchanged. She padded barefoot across the rug, breath steaming the beveled glass as she studied the garden below. Leaves flickered and buds shivered but nothing seemed amiss—
A bushy mass landed on the sill with a soft thump, its arrival met by her shocked cry. She reared back, falling against her nightstand as the feline balanced on the narrow ledged and pressed against the glass with a rhythmic purr. Hermione’s hand encircled her throat, transfixed by the item in the creature’s mouth. She rushed forward for a closer look, amber eyes tracking her progress as it displayed its hard-won prize between miniature fangs. A worn, frayed ribbon, the same color as the blood dried across her skirt.
She inhaled sharply, watching the cat leap to the grass and bat its toy through the shrubs.
She spun, gripping the curtain for balance. “Yes?”
“I heard a scream,” he uttered through the door.
“It was more of a surprised yip,” she replied, pushing the hair from her face and turning back to the window.
“... what’s a yip?”
His muffled voice was overtaken by the pounding of her heart, a glaringly empty yard laid before her. She leaned forward, pressing her nose to the pane and avidly searching the garden and grass, the fence and trees—
“Nevermind,” she called, clutching the sill. “I’ll be right out.” Blunt nails raked across her scalp, bedside clock ticking loudly as she sent a silent prayer to whoever was listening above or below, kindly requesting that the final thread of her sanity remain intact for just one more hour.
The benevolent deity granted her three minutes, the timer going off as she paced her hallway with blankets and pillows in hand, entering the den and discovering it empty. She set the pile on the sofa and passed the doorway to her kitchen, surprised to find it vacant as well.
Perhaps he’s in the water closet.
Alas, another few steps found that door open, too. Continually losing a man twice her size in a one-bedroom home was an impressive feat to be certain, but her rising dread outpaced her mirth.
“Tom?” Her front door closed. She changed direction, pulse steadily rising until she entered the den and found him perusing medical books on her shelf. “Where were you?”
“Checking your locks,” he muttered, distracted by the heavy tome in his hands. He opened the cover, skimming the table of contents.
“Oh.” She toed the edge of the rug, watching him replace the book and select another. “How did they do?”
“Subpar at best. None of the windows are reinforced. And you could benefit from a dog.”
He hummed, flipping a page and continuing to read. “They’re natural alarms and effective deterrents for those bearing criminal inclinations.”
“I see.” She paced closer. “And I suppose you’d recommend I find one with three heads?”
He abandoned her book collection for the items lining her mantle. "Any snarling hellhound will do. I'm not particular about the breed."
She tilted her head, studying the broad wall of his back while he inspected her eclectic decor, all gifts received from her varied group of friends at one time or another. His hair shone black in the moonlight, skin finally carved marble as he lifted the lid of a golden snuff box, the muscles in his forearm outlined by shadow. She leaned forward subconsciously, licking her lips of her own volition.
“Tom—” She flushed at the thickness of her voice. He turned around and she lost her nerve, rapidly recalibrating. “In light of our colorful reunion, I forgot to mention… I’m glad you’re home. Even if it’s only temporary.”
He rotated fully, watching the spill of heat down her throat. “Home,” he repeated.
She replayed the syllable in her mind until realizing her folly. “Back,” she quickly corrected. “I’m glad you’re back in London.”
His attention lifted, holding her immobile as he began a slow and methodical stroll forward. “So am I,” he said, hands slipping inside his pockets. Her chest stilled when he arrived before her, basking in the warmth he radiated. “Now,” he murmured. “What were you really going to say?”
His eyes stripped her bare and his scent filled her lungs, overtaking every part of her. “Do you ever…” Her mind stuttered like a bunched film reel but his patience never wavered. “Do you ever see things?” She managed at last. “Things that aren’t really there, or perhaps weren’t real to begin with?” Her heart hammered wildly, desperate to beat its way free.
“Yes,” he replied simply. She exhaled in a rush, rocking forward. He steadied her arms, voice taking on a haunted edge. “I see Him. And sometimes I see my mother. But mostly, I see darkness.”
“What do you mean?” She whispered.
Shadows danced across the walls, trees stirring in a breeze.
“I found a girl in Moscow. I tracked her captor to the Cathedral but was spotted before making contact. He took off running, just as the bells started ringing.”
She leaned forward, hearing the bells in her mind. “What happened?”
“I’m not entirely certain,” he muttered, eyes dimming with the retelling. “It’s like a dark wave crashed over me. One moment I was chasing him through the crowded street, the next I was standing in an alley over his bloody, beaten body.”
“Were you injured?”
His lips curved sardonically. “Only my fists.” She sighed with relief. “The same thing happened in Luxembourg,” he continued. “Then again in Prague. I feared that maybe, somehow, he’d gotten into my head after all. Programmed me with an invisible switch. I questioned if he was really dead, if men like him can ever truly die. But then I would find another doll and the wave would pass. I had something to focus on, to work towards. Nothing else mattered, even madness.”
She laid a hand to his chest, just beside the rhythmic pounding of his heart. “What happens when all the women are recovered?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted, chest rising at her touch. “I don’t know who I am without this darkness in my life. I’m not certain I can exist without it.”
His pulse skipped. Her fingers curled as if to capture it. “The darkness will always be a part of you, Tom, but it doesn’t have to define you. Grindelwald is dead. It’s time to bury his ghost.” She reached up with her free hand, touching his jaw before cupping it. His Adam’s apple bobbed, its shadow stretching all the way down his throat. She traced its curve, nails skimming the sensitive flesh. His lips parted, body tensing as though every muscle was contracting at once. And then his hands were on her waist, drawing her forward.
She held his gaze, fingers twisting in his shirt as his pupils blew wide and his head tilted down—
A trumpet filled the room, its high-pitched whine carrying easily through her non-reinforced windows and sub-par doors. Tom blinked, pupils constricting in perplexity. “What the hell is that?”
She deflated in his arms. “Koenig.”
“Who—” His gaze tracked to the window as the orchestra joined in, clashing symbols and thundering drums adding to the rising tempo. “It sounds like a marching band in the street.”
“It’s a phonograph,” she explained, gently extracting from his hold and starting for the entry.
“A music player?”
She nodded. “Mr. Dupont brought one back from America last month. It’s quite magnificent, listen.” She opened her door and the song poured in louder, clearer, a piano adding to the lively melody.
Tom grinned, absorbed by the marvelous feat of innovation. “Impressive.”
“Isn’t it?” She leaned into the frame, enjoying the free entertainment. “Unfortunately for Mr. Dupont, the rest of the neighborhood doesn’t share in our enthusiasm. Wait for it…” She counted down the seconds in her head, the song building to its climax as a bang sounded across the street, signaling the start of the real show. “Come here,” she whispered excitedly, beckoning him closer. “This should be good!”
He paced to her side, more amused by her reaction than the spectacle rapidly unfolding in the street.
“Turn that bloody racket off, you French bastard!” A portly neighbor shouted from the sidewalk, adorned in his robe and slippers.
“Oi!” Another voice joined in. “Your shouting’s worse than the fucking music!”
A light clicked on in an adjacent house. "Hey!" The owner screamed through her window. "There are children in this neighborhood, watch your filthy mouths!"
Hermione pressed a hand to her own mouth to smother a snort, dimly aware of Tom’s presence at her back, chest framing her shoulder blades.
“Some of us have to get up early for work in the morning!” Someone shouted.
“I’m going to smash that bloody thing over someone’s head!”
“Then I’m shoving the broken pieces up their arse!”
Hermione clutched her knob, tipping sideways with laughter. Tom shook his head from above, steadying her with a hand on her lower back. “A great neighborhood for a young family,” he mused.
She glanced up, eyes tearing at the corners. “Don’t tell me you want to move already?”
His smile widened at her uncontrollable laughter. She struggled to contain her outburst, face burning hot, but after the chaos of her night the sudden release of tension felt glorious. She closed the door with a click, breathless and light-headed, and turned to discover Tom stationed directly before her. Amusement danced in his eyes and lightened his expression, turning back the clock to a time when evil didn’t know his name.
Her hands curled against the door to stop from reaching forward, possessed by the same dark specter. And then the spell shattered, shadows lifting from the floor to reclaim their rightful place at his side. Intensity swelled in his gaze, once a frightening sight to behold, now a crushing intimacy. She knew what it meant to be the sole recipient of his focus, the only target in his line of sight. It drove her to the edge of an unseen precipice, one step away from plummeting into the great chasm.
He stepped closer and she gripped the edge of the frame, knees turning weak until he leaned back, breaking the connection with a jarring snap. She slumped against the door, boneless and dazed, searching his face for the words she knew he'd never speak in the light of day. His eyes were guarded, shoulders tense, and she wondered if this was fear she was seeing, his version of it. A perpetual dread of the darkness taking him under while she was near. Indifferent as he liked to present, Hermione knew that regret had plagued him his entire life. Perhaps the possibility of harming her was one burden too many, the final risk he refused to take. But when her lips parted to lay those fears to rest the clock in the den chimed loudly, announcing the hour.
She rubbed her chest instead, feeling something precious slip from her grasp. “You’ve had a long day,” she whispered, exhausted in a way she’d never known before. “I’ll let you get some rest.”
The shadows converged, forming a mantle at his back. “Goodnight, Hermione,” he bid, stoic as a knight.
“Goodnight,” she whispered, edging past and continuing down the hall.
Her bedroom door clicked softly at her touch but the sound rang definite through her heart. She paced to her dresser, movements automatic, limbs mechanical, rigs and springs animating her joints as she stripped off her gown and pulled on a chemise. Her limbs felt heavy, tethered to something just beyond her reach until the weight of it pulled her to the floor. She leaned into the footboard and tugged the pins from her hair, staring blankly ahead while the tendrils uncoiled down her back. And then she caught sight of the forgotten bag and her gears shifted loudly.
She crawled forward, extracting the box and examining it beneath the moonlight, comforted by its weight. This was a piece of him, unguarded to her touch, invoking memories both good and bad but tangible and real. Had he still been abroad she would have happily waited until her birthday to pull away the wrapping. But seeing as the Gifter was currently roaming her house in the hopes of finding an intruder he could torture to the brink of death, Hermione felt inclined to treat herself to an early present.
Her fingers traced the ribbon one last time before pulling swiftly, the satin floating to the ground in a smear of red. She worked her finger under the seam and pulled the paper away in long strips, revealing a plain box beneath. She pried its lid apart and pulled out a leather roll, finely-crafted and supple, a folded card tucked beneath its tie. She slid it free with care, a simple message scrawled across its center.
Something to drive through my heart.
She read it several times, heat dancing at her fingertips. The tie gave way with another tug and the roll came loose, unwinding across her floor to showcase a row of gleaming scalpels, razor-sharp edges aligned in an orderly row. Her breathing turned shallow when she held the bundle to the window, metal glinting blue in the moonlight. Her eyes gleamed just as brightly, something dark and wild taking possession of her levers. She was on her feet before realizing she’d tucked the blades away and halfway down the hall without any recollection of opening her door.
Her footsteps were silent on the rug, drifting weightlessly into the den, but he sensed her apparition just the same, glancing up from his brooding perch beside the window the moment she entered. Her determination wavered in the face of this midnight version of him, vest removed and top buttons unfastened, the dark line of his throat bared. He’d been far more stripped at the hospital but the sight of rumpled fabric and rolled sleeves somehow made him appear more untamed.
He turned fully, studying her body with an acutely potent stare that reminded her of her own meager attire, goosebumps erupting across her exposed arms and legs. She shuffled in place and his gaze lifted, shoulders drawing perfectly level as he interpreted the message in her stare, making no attempt to intervene as she leaped from the cliff with both eyes open.
“There’s undoubtedly some profound, emotionally-charged speech I could make,” she began, clear and confident and absolutely mad. “About everything that’s happened to us, everything we’ve faced together and how it’s changed my life. I could wax poetic about my feelings, say that you bring me to life and haunt me in the same moment. That I’m fearless and terrified in your presence. How just the sound of your voice overwhelms my head and my heart until I can’t recall my own name. But I don’t think there’s much point in doing that, because what it all boils down to is quite simple. I’m in love with you.” The tethers at her wrists and ankles broke away, body careening in freefall. “An entire year apart with only blank postcards and buried memories to sustain me and still, my feelings haven’t changed in the slightest. Every time I see you feels like the first time. It takes my breath away.” She exhaled in surrender, far beyond saving. “I love you.”
Her final impact was met with absolute silence. His expression remained unreadable, motionless as stone. “You don’t have to respond,” she continued, relief far outweighing fear. “I don’t expect anything in return. I just needed to say it, even once, out loud. And I needed you to hear it in case… I just need you to know. So the next time the dark wave crashes overhead you have something to reach for, something to pull you to the surface and bring you back home.” She nodded to herself, embarrassment breaching her armor when she felt wetness beneath her eyes. She dried her face quickly and edged back. “Well, I feel much better,” she mused, laughing despite her nerves. “Sleep well, Tom.”
She turned away, making it one step towards the hall when the heavy stride of boots shook the floor. She’d barely begun to rotate again when a hand was hauling her back and spinning her firmly, capturing her remaining arm as she collided with his body, neck craned to meet his gleaming stare. The look on his face rendered her breathless, the anguish in his voice even more so.
“I’m not the man you deserve,” he spoke thickly, chest rising and falling in powerful bursts as though the admission took great effort.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” she replied brusquely. “Of which we know yours is highly skewed. Regardless, you’re the one I want.”
“It’s easy to think that now—”
“I know my own mind, Tom. I think I’ve proven that. Just as I know I’ll never love anyone else the way I love you. For as long as I live, no one will possess my heart as you do.” His eyes flickered, the muscle in his jaw pulsing as she reached her hands between their bodies and framed his heartbeat with her palms. “I don’t know how to describe it. More than want, greater than desire. It’s a cord at my center pulling me towards you at every turn, a yearning that goes all the way through. Don’t you feel it?”
His throat undulated, grazing the edge of his parted collar. “Yes,” he whispered, the stricken syllable her only warning before he fell upon her. She gladly surrendered to the attack, melting into his hold as he worked her lips apart with such exhaustive demand she felt the heat of it drip down her thighs. She rose on tiptoes, hunger gnawing and reason lost when he pulled his head back and whispered against her panting mouth.
“I wish I could split my soul apart.”
“What?” She muttered, blinking through the haze.
“To give you only the pieces that are good and worthy, to keep you from the darkness lurking inside of me.”
She lowered her heels and gripped his shirt in both hands. “I don’t want pieces of you, Tom. I want it all. Every last part.” Her face tilted up, seeking his mouth. “I can take it.”
He removed a hand from her waist to swipe a thumb across her swollen lips. “I’ve grown accustomed to being alone,” he imparted quietly. “Every person who promised to stay has left me, one way or another.” His touch slid to her throat, resting against her throbbing pulse. “Except for you.”
“I won’t ever run away,” she vowed.
The corner of his mouth turned up, blistered from her feverish attention. “I’d find you.”
“We’ve tried that already,” she swallowed. “I nearly killed you.”
His eyes turned to smoke. “So I recall… in vivid detail. Quite often.”
She rested her chin between the parting in his shirt, their skin igniting on contact. “I don’t have a fireplace poker lying about, but I’m quite certain I could bludgeon you with one of my textbooks. They weigh at least two stones.”
He chuckled darkly, fingers slipping behind her neck and into her hair, luxuriating in the wild tumble before using it as leverage to draw her forward. Her grin widened, body stretching up to meet his demand halfway, but when their lips collided she felt an inexplicable sob well in the base of her throat. She trembled with the effort of keeping it contained, his arms tightening until the madness passed, replaced by a feral heat the likes of which she'd never known. Her hands explored his body with a burgeoning hunger, smoothing up his chest and combing through his hair, raking across his scalp until a low growl tore from his throat, triggering the switch in both their bodies.
The kiss deepened, his arm pressing her forward and his legs striding back. Had she been limp in his hold brute force would have easily guided their path, but her frantic movements caused them to stagger sideways and collide with her shelf, half its contents scattering to the floor. She kicked a book on the circulatory system aside, kiss unbroken, moaning loudly when he seized her hips and pinned them flat to the wall. The rest of her body followed suit, her shoulder pushing a hanging portrait askew, its sharp edge digging into her skull. She released his neck to blindly claw the wallpaper, ripping the picture from its hook and tossing it across the room without further contemplation.
His mouth began to lower, skimming across her chin and down her neck, lingering at her frantic pulse and kissing the hollow of her throat. She reached for the loose hem of his shirt and pulled, driven purely by instinct, knees turning inward when he took the matter in hand and lifted it up and over his head, tousling his hair and throwing the garment aside. Moonlight radiated at his back, framing his dark silhouette and casting his bare chest into shadow. She roamed the warm expanse with her hands instead, fingertips grazing the deep ridges of his abdomen, every muscle twitching in her path and a low rumble stirring in his throat.
She reached a raised line and traced the scar with care, finding more along his side. His breath sharpened when she pressed her lips to the deepest groove beneath his collarbone, the bullet wound, nuzzling the firm muscle before continuing across the rest of his skin, hands gentle and insistent. He lowered his face into the curve of her neck and exhaled, the steam traveling beneath her chemise, thin fabric rendered translucent in the moonlight. She carded fingers through his hair again, gently tugging the roots until his head lifted. He quickly interpreted the desire in her eyes and willingly bared his throat, a deep purr radiating through his chest as she marked his flesh between her lips and teeth. His hand lifted, nimble fingers sweeping the hair from her face before directing her open-mouthed kisses where he wanted.
Moonlight reflected off his bandage, the pale dressing pulsing before her eyes. She went rigid as a rolling pin, bracing his chest and pushing back. “Your arm!”
He blinked twice, lost to her outburst before its meaning registered across his heavy brow. “It’s fine,” he growled, eyes clouded with single-minded need.
“This could cause further injury—”
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
She shook her head, halting his advance. "But I really think we should—"
“I love you,” he declared, fierce and feral and gutted.
Her heart stopped beating. Just long enough to know what it felt like to perish in the arms of the one you longed for most, how it must have been for him in the tunnel. The all-consuming agony and hollowing departure as the ground shook beneath their feet. And then the same words brought her back to life, spoken in a variation she cherished even more.
"I’m in love with you," he whispered beside her mouth.
Her breath came in shuddering bursts, tears welling behind her eyes as she committed this moment to memory for the rest of her days and pressed forward, basking in the heat of his skin and thorough coaxing of his mouth. He took control without hesitation, drawing a soft cry from her throat and the air from her lungs. She leaned back several moments later, panting heavily through swollen lips, head lolled against the wall. "I'm sure your arm will be fine," she muttered, staring dazedly at the ceiling. His grin was slow and decadent, eyes darker than midnight as he dropped his head and traced the marks on her throat with the same teeth that raised them.
The heat raged on, spreading quicker than flame until it unlocked an instinctual knowledge inside of her. She linked her arms behind his neck when his hands slipped beneath her thighs, lifting her feet off the ground and guiding her legs around his middle. Her chemise rode high, bare thighs squeezing his waist and ankles crossing behind the curve of his spine. Their gazes drew level, holding steady in the eye of the storm.
“Be certain,” she whispered, tracing patterns down his nape.
Recognition flashed across his face, raw desire giving way to deep affection. “I am,” he replied, nearly indecipherable through the grit.
She ran the backs of her fingers across his temple and down his jaw, tracing beneath his bottom lip before pressing it with a soft kiss. His chest rumbled with satisfaction, lazing in the tenderness of her touch before starting forward with rugged purpose. Hermione gasped, the startled sound muffled as he claimed her mouth again, long legs making easy work of the hall.
She clung to him tightly, dimly aware of a firm and insistent prodding just below the apex of her thighs. It took her fevered mind another second to work out exactly what the protrusion was, the realization triggering a flood of dampness and heat she was helpless to suppress. Her legs pulsed on instinct, squirming restlessly when he tightened his hold and smothered a guttural moan against her throat. But the maddening vexation was short-lived, a new anomaly demanding her attention in the same harried breath.
Bright, frantic bursts of color called her eyes to the window in the den, visible just beyond his shoulder. The scenery behind the foggy pane was unmistakable, mesmerizing, the night sky awash with shimmering jewels, spiraling ribbons reflecting across the atmosphere in a kaleidoscope of hues. More peculiar yet, the flat-faced feline was perched atop the sill, idly grooming its whiskers while brilliant patterns coalesced across its fur. Hermione turned her gaze forward, eager to share the discovery when he captured her mouth in a soul-searing kiss that reduced her higher-reasoning to warm putty. Her body throbbed, thighs clenching rhythmically as he entered the bedroom and kicked the door shut, continuing his resolute stride to the mattress.
And then the mounting pressure reached its limit and she ignited like a match, black fire spilling from her fingertips in scorching trails that eagerly swallowed everything in their path. The sentient heat snaked over the floor and lapped up the walls, climbing the curtains and spilling across the ceiling until her bedroom burned brighter than Phlegethon itself. The ravaging blaze overtook her vision when Tom laid her on the bed and parted her knees. And as his weight settled between her thighs the fire spilled over the headboard and consumed them, too, devouring grasping hands and pulsing cries and writhing limbs until nothing remained but the steady roar of flames everywhere.
— The End —