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Les Pèlerins

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I.

She saw him again at a café in Montmartre, sitting at a table alone.

From her seat inside, she first recognized his hand, of all things, visible over the black wool cuff of his coat. His fingers turned with the pages of his book, right to left, then back again, deliberate and refined.

She’d seen the gesture countless times in an earlier life, during the hours they’d spent tied together in a proximity neither of them wanted.

The fact of his presence struck her first and hardest, followed by the shock of unintended intimacy; she’d learned him without having meant to. She would have preferred to forget: how his narrow fingers curled and stretched searching through books he thought she had no right to touch, the self-satisfied circles he stirred in elixirs he would have liked to hoard for his own heritage, or the way he wielded his wand, his childhood magic innocuous until it was taught to be otherwise.

He was out of context. The presence of him and all his spare gentility in that café, in that quarter of that city, was as unlikely as it was intrusive. She’d chosen a landscape of strangers for herself, near enough to find her way back to the other life as soon as she wanted it, but far enough to forget it when that’s what she preferred.

He didn’t belong there.

His grace grated on her.

He had no right.

She bristled in resentment of the years she’d spent nurturing a habit of compassion as she reflexively turned the soil of her scorn over with her hands, looking for a seed of charity. To her alarm she found one there, small as a mustard grain.

She supposed that even Draco Malfoy inherited the mandatory patterns and inclinations of a body, in the same prosaic way that children throughout all of time had arrived in the world hauling their ancestors’ luggage. He was no more able to shake off the way he handled a book than his height or the color of his eyes.

He turned another page. Slid his finger down the trench of the joint. Lifted his gracile wrist to look at the face of a silver watch.

A path stood open between them. She might have taken it and left without drawing his notice, and she intended to, the strap of her bag already hanging from her shoulder as she swallowed the pool of cold coffee sitting in the bottom of her cup.

She refused to believe in fate.

She’d had enough of destiny and prophecies to last a lifetime. 

But try as she may, she felt, sometimes, that an invisible golden thread stretched out and away from her, fastened midway between her navel and her heart. It had drawn her out of a life without magic and into one where it was real, from security and solitude into friendship and danger, through the eye of ruin and out the other side, from childhood until she was grown.

She thought that it had brought her to where she was now because it meant to make amends, leading her in slow walks down boulevards plotted by empires, along and across a river of ancient hospitality and back again, demanding nothing of her but that she get up each morning, lay her head down at night, and feed her body and her mind in between.

She stood, believing with all her heart that when she moved, her thread would carry her from her table inside the café, through the door, and past the unknowing back of him. When she entered the stream of the street, it would steer her through her errand and then home, to the little table in the middle of her room with a new book and another coffee, water boiled with the invisible witchcraft of electricity beneath her kitchen window.

So when she went to go, and her thread curved around the edges of all the wrong tables, she could only watch in mute astonishment as it weaved her past every object that stood between her and him, and delivered her to stand beside the empty chair at his table, clutching at the body of her bag.

“Malfoy.”

His face told her that he hadn’t seen her—that he didn’t know: the widened eyes, the parted lips, his fingers digging at the edge of his book.

His legacy was a two-sided coin, and he acted from the side of him that had been schooled in politesse, face clicking into a portrayal of civility.

“Hermione.”

She recoiled. It was a physical thing—a curdling inside her belly. He might have said anything at all and shocked her less.

“Not Granger?” she asked.

His cup was fine and white and the coffee inside it was black. He sipped it while watching her with pale clear eyes, grey as the solid stratum of igneous clouds covering Paris like a lid.

“Is that what you’d prefer I call you?”

“I suppose not.”

He set down his cup, eased back in his chair, and slipped a mark into the seam of his book.

“James Joyce?” she asked.

It was a pointless announcement. She could see the title between them plain as day, printed at the top of the left-hand page. Her fingernails sank into the leather of a bag she'd spent far too much money on when she first arrived.

“Would you like to sit?” His wrist curved again, gesturing at the chair across from his own.

Hermione hesitated.

She did not want to sit.

She would have liked to walk away, and for the second time in her life be done with him forever.

But her thread guided her to unhook her bag from her shoulder and pulled her down to sit, perched stiff and alert at the edge of the chair, arms in her warm wool coat folded over her chest in protest of him and of herself.

Her curiosity outweighed her anger, which made her angrier still.

She wanted to know what he was doing there, in Paris, in a Muggle café, drinking black coffee with a copy of Ulysses open in front of him.

“Why are you here?” she asked, blunt as a hammer.

She expected one thing from him and received another.

She wanted his sneer, his hardened eyes, a counterattack.

Instead, he offered her an ironic contraction at the corner of his mouth.

“They make a very good cup of coffee.”

He steepled his slender fingers around the rim of his cup, drummed them once, soundlessly, in a line, then stacked his hands one over the other on the table between himself and the edge of his book. 

“I don’t mean here,” she said. “I mean here, in Paris.”

Fight, she asked him with a tightening of her arms over her chest. Be who you’re meant to, and when I stand up and walk away, I’ll trust my thread again.

He did not fight.

He only moved his hands as if they were mislaid objects he didn’t know where to place, scrubbing his fingers in the short-cropped hair at the back of his head.

“I imagine," he said, "for some of the same reasons that you’re here.”

He was not allowed to insinuate that they had anything in common.

“And why do you imagine I’m here?”

“If it’s more than a holiday, I should think you’re here to study.” He flicked at the abraded paperboard corner of his book. “Or not. Maybe you’ve only come here for the coffee.”

“I haven’t only come here for coffee. I’m not here to study, either. But that’s what you’re here for? Not just popping in to finish up your Christmas shopping?”

“I’m not here to do my Christmas shopping, no.”

A college of magic stood close by, down a narrow street and through an ancient stable door. It was a painfully selective institution, known for producing esoteric witches and wizards with their eyebrows singed away and fingertips stained with unstable potions, fit to teach school if they were kind, and putter around in private potions laboratories or toil away in secret libraries if they were not.

“You’re at the Université de L'Inconnu?” she asked.

“No.”

“No? Where, then?”

His eyelids tensed, narrowed and elliptic as he tilted away from her and folded his book shut.

“At Sorbonne Université.

She failed to apprehend what he said, only that his French was beautiful.

Hermione could do many things better than most, but she was aware that no matter how unassailable her syntax, her accent was nimble as mud.

“What?”

“Paris-Sorbonne University. It’s an institute of higher education.” The mirth arrived at the corner of his mouth again.

“Are you laughing at me?”

“No. It’s only—” His fingertips glided along the half moon handle of his cup. “I’d half forgotten about the hair.”

The collar of her coat and her wide wool scarf made a nest around her chin, trapping most of her hair against her neck, but she grasped the end of a coiled hank that had fallen loose, then let it go. 

“We’re not talking about my hair. And I know what Sorbonne University is. What in God’s name are you studying there?”

Her wonder acted as a holy intercessor, tamping down her anger in the name of discovery, stretching every fuse to buy her time to make sense of what he’d said.

“Classics.”

She understood him.

She did not understand.

Muggle Classics?" she asked. "Socrates? Cicero?”

He looked around, anxious about their being heard, and she knew at once he was telling the truth.

In their other life—the one where he would have sooner spat on her than ask her to share a table with him in a café in any district, in any city, on any part of the globe—his isolation from the half of the world that had produced her was complete.

He’d since developed an instinct to hide what he was.

“Yes,” he said. “Them.”

“Why on Earth would you do that?”

“Because”—he opened the flap of the satchel hanging from the back of his chair, and filed his book in a neat rank of black leather notebooks—“it was better than the alternative.”

He was leaving.

There was no guarantee that she wouldn’t see him again, in a café or a bar, perhaps even on the Métro, if he’d lowered himself that far, but there was no guarantee that she would.

“What was the alternative?” she asked.

When she turned nineteen she’d been desperate to bury her trauma and everyone else’s, cocooning herself in first love and the newness of sex, in books and the weight of exams.

She only knew that he hadn’t been sent to prison.

His father was, but not his mother.

Not him.

Their conversation ended. He adjusted the loop of his scarf, buttoned his coat, drained the final ounces of his coffee from his cup. He stood, and hung his satchel on his shoulder. 

“Would you like to walk?” he asked.

“Walk?”

Her compassion was a seed. It was not a flower.

She owed him nothing.

She wanted nothing from him.

“Yes,” he said. “Walk.”

The traitorous thread tightened in her belly and then pulled hard, tugging her to the edge of her chair and forward, toward bitterness and fascination.

Toward him.

“Where would we walk to?”

“Anywhere you’d like.”

“I haven’t brought my gloves.”

Though early in the afternoon, the light was stingy and diffuse. The magic of Muggle science promised snow, and the sky sat over them like a ceiling of luminous ash, churning in slow motion, holding itself in.

“You can borrow mine.” He opened the flap of his satchel again, dug through his tightly organized belongings, and brought up a set of black leather gloves. He held them out to her. “They’ll be over-large, but they’re quite effective.”

Hermione’s thread strung her to the guiding hands of fortune like a lank-limbed marionette. It brought her to stand. It lifted her hands. It bent them to accept.

They were sewn from buttery leather and lined in dove grey cashmere, soft against her skin as she fitted her hands inside.

Their warmth was exquisite.

He slid his hands down into the pockets of his coat.

A woman emerged from the café carrying a rag, and began swiping it over a tabletop, gathering crumbs.

Merci, ” Draco said to her, his French forming fluid and articulate in the front of his mouth. “Joyeux Noël.

Joyeux Noël!” The woman folded her rag, then pointed between them and said something in rapid and heavily accented French, far at the back of her tongue, that Hermione couldn’t understand.

He stilled, and his lips parted.

Then he pressed them shut.

“Merci," he said. “C’est gentil.”

And then his attention belonged to Hermione again, circumspect and complete.

“Where would you like to go?” he asked.

She'd meant to go to the bookstore.

But she traced her golden thread, and found that it led nowhere she could see. It only traveled the metre between them and terminated uselessly somewhere beneath Draco’s ribs.

“Wherever our feet take us, I suppose.” She flexed her fingers inside his beautiful gloves, and tasted the air. “It’s going to snow.”

 

II.

Instead of tourist guides, Hermione read books on physical geography, as though by learning which natural processes had sculpted her new city, it would become clear to her why she was there.

On the day that her thread had delivered her to the Métro station at République, she'd taken in the statue of Marianne—holding out an olive branch, a lion at her feet, skateboarders’ wheels clacking on the pavement below—then paused long enough in her flat to set down her bags and breathe in the smell of faded disinfectant.

And then she'd walked.

Sometimes, on her solitary passages through the curling nautilus of Paris’s arrondissements, she thought of the city as a skin, covering the rock of the earth. The renowned grey-ivory luminosity of its streets was excised from the muscle and bone directly below, its houses and monuments built from pale Lutetian limestone mined since the time of the Roman Empire.

It's a city made of shells, sitting in the center of a sagging geologic basin like a titanic thumbprint in the earth, that spent millennia at the shoreline of a changing ocean. As the waters of the world rose and retreated, then rose again, they spilled over the lip of the shallow dish and became trapped in vast lagoons. Shelled creatures lived and ate and died and sank to the floor, their bodies stacked in layers then crushed and washed by the chemical action of the water until they were rock.

They began their walk at the foot of Montmarte, a dome of rock in the north of the city, liberated from the soft earth by the Seine. Its gypsum insides were scooped out by men, who took the minerals and left behind caves with vaulted ceilings, like a chain of cathedrals underground. Under windmills, the gypsum was crushed into dust, the dust turned into plaster, and the plaster turned into the city above.

They scaled the hollow hill without respect for efficiency, climbing northward up a ladder of cinched streets, their hard-soled shoes clipping sharp against the pavement. Same-level buildings rose to either side like the walls of a labyrinth capped with mansard roofs, and unlit strings of Christmas lights hung over their heads, caging them in parallel lines.

Tense and without an objective, they made no progress. Hermione’s thread tethered her to him, and him to her, so that when one of them felt the tug of any given street, the other followed.

They went left, bending around the perimeter of an irregular city block, and found themselves back where they had started, standing below the semi-translucent shell of a plastic Father Christmas. It loomed over them, its feet buried in the green garland ringing the edge of an awning over a women’s dress shop.

They'd made too many lefts.

They went right.

The labyrinth widened around the aperture of a Métro station, flanked by a red brick church and a lit tree in a public square, and the cold became a vampire, nipping at the narrow band of vulnerable skin left exposed at Hermione's throat.

Draco’s gait stuttered as it slowed to match hers, then he spoke first, peeling away another layer of her expectations.

“So you’re living here?”

She licked her lips, flushed and stinging.

“I am.”

“For how long?”

Before she could answer, a trio of teenagers in skin-tight denims and puffer jackets brought them to a halt on the pavement.

“Vous auriez du feu?” asked a boy, cigarette pinched between his fingers.

Draco found a silver Muggle lighter in his satchel, then flicked the lid and grated the flint in a single amalgamated movement. The boys leaned in, one after the other, sucking at the canary-colored ends of their Marlboro cigarettes, then stepped away, ejecting great clouds of smoke and condensed breath into the cold.

“Have you picked up smoking?” Hermione asked once they were moving again.

“No. But I’m asked often enough for a light at university that it started to feel rude to be unable to oblige.”

“To answer your question, I’ve been here nearly three months,” she said. “I came at the start of October. Just after my birthday.”

At a t-junction, Draco led them left, past the front of a greengrocer’s, the tilted crates stacked outside the door loaded with pyramids of apples and pears, oranges and clementines, and then down a street flanked by shops with painted façades in purple and blue, glowing with strings of electric lights.

He brought his hands out of his pockets, his fingers blanched, and turned up the collar of his coat. “Are you living here? In the 18th, I mean.”

“No, I’m in the 11th. You?”

“I have a flat in the 6th. Close to university.”

“That’s very bohemian of you, Malfoy. I wouldn’t have thought you’d be capable of getting by without being tucked up in the magical quarter in a great house with a garden and everything.”

For some minutes, hands insulated in his gloves, she had been meditating on malice.

She would have liked to lace every word she served him with cyanide sarcasm. To file the edge of her tone until it was sharp as butchers’ knives.

But Malfoy was the whetstone and the reagent. She needed his participation to poison and prick.

Without it, her words left her mouth with the deadly potential of a push pin.

“One can only imagine a pied-à-terre in the style of a Malfoy. Shall I tell you what I think?”

It was a rhetorical question, and only the shape of enjoyment on his mouth made an answer for him.

“You,” she began, “a twenty-one year-old student at university, have sunk to the level of living in a flat with three-metre ceilings and a view. You have...four bedrooms, or a pair of enormous ones. Miles of chevron floors that your elves keep nicely polished for you. And a large decorative hearth. Probably gilded mirrors.”

They pivoted at the neon sign of a pharmacy, following the rise of Montmartre, her mouth crimped into a smile of pleasurable contempt.

His face mirrored hers, only with real amusement, alight at the promise of a game. “You’re wrong.” 

“I am not wrong.”

“I’m afraid you are.” His voice was glossy and lithe as a thoroughbred. “I do not have a large decorative hearth.”

“No?”

“No. I would describe all of the decorative hearths in my flat as being relatively modest.”

“Of course you would.” The wind gusted. She sank her chin into her scarf and bunched her fists in Draco’s gloves. “Did you know that your gloves are remarkably warm?”

“I did.”

“Have you charmed them?”

“No.”

“Well they’re lovely.”

They proceeded shoulder to shoulder through a passageway only wide enough for one car, decorated with graffiti tags, poetry, and a painting of a smiling blue dog.

“What are you doing in Montmartre today?” she asked. “Walking? Going to Mass?”

They turned west, away from the white dome of Sacré-Cœur, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, swarming with tourists and scammers, and the streets descended again.

“Walking, yes. I was after a sandwich.”

Hermione stopped, and Draco snagged at the end of their thread, halting four steps ahead.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

You are.”

A clutch of tourists banked around them in the street, heading uphill.

“You’re being polite, Malfoy. To me.” She pointed her hand, inside his glove, at the center of her chest.

Draco flinched, as though he’d suffered the pinch of an inoculation.

“We’re having a walk,” she said, spreading her hands apart to encompass the block around them. “It’s incredibly weird.”

The wind had been using its teeth on him, too, and twin islands of pink spread across the limestone pale of his cheeks.

Hermione’s eyes ached in the cold. She clicked them shut, and then opened them.

Draco waited for her to say something else.

“You were on your way to find a sandwich,” she said, “and got distracted by a coffee?”

“I did. It happens more often than you'd think.”

Hermione had been walking to a bookstore, and lost herself in the froth of a café crème.

She folded her arms over her chest again.

“What kind of a sandwich?” she asked.

Draco smiled.

 

They bought raclette and ham on baguettes and pints of wheat-colored beer, and ate them at a table in the corner of the restaurant, Draco’s gloves folded in Hermione’s pockets.

“I require you to tell me about Classics.” She pointed the tip of her sandwich at him like a police officer's truncheon, then turned it on herself and took a bite.

A pair of American girls in parkas with fur-lined hoods and cameras around their necks stood outside the take-out window, talking about mulled wine in casual California English.

He paused with his sandwich halfway to his mouth. “You want to talk about Classics?”

“Probably.” Hermione pursed her lips.

“Well.” He lay his sandwich down and brushed the tips of his fingers together, dusting flour onto his plate. “I’ve just finished reading a journal article on the Homeric aspirations of the Aeneid. Or if you’d like, we could start with the didactic tradition in natural philosophy. It’s bracing stuff.”

A spark crackled in the center of Hermione’s gut, at the join of her golden thread.

“We don’t need to talk about Classics. I’m not wondering about Virgil right now. I mean: why are you studying anything at all? I would have thought all this Muggle pageantry you’re playing at was well beneath you.”

“There is some very provocative evidence hinting at the possibility of Democritus having been a wizard.” He pinched a lost rectangle of jamon from his plate and popped it into his mouth. “But mostly, it’s Classics because we learned a very great deal of Latin at school, did we not?”

Hermione made short work of the remainder of her sandwich, then cleaned her fingers with a serviette. “We did. But that explains precisely nothing.”

He turned his glass in a circle against the table, and watched as a slew of bubbles defected to the surface. 

“You mentioned you were stopping by a bookstore,” he said. “Most of the shops close early on Christmas Eve.”

“I know.”

“Shall we?”

Outside the door, the American women photographed one another holding their cups of wine close to their faces.

“Do you mean go to the bookstore? With you?” she asked.

“I mean go to the bookstore with me, yes.”

“And we’d walk?”

“And we’d walk.”

 

III.

She found him distracting, like a pointed pebble asserting itself in the arch of a shoe.

They took more than an hour to find the bookshop, pausing at a dozen windows to remark on the Christmas displays.

Hermione favored colored lights. Draco preferred white. They both loved a snowy village with dolls in formal dress dancing in a gazebo, felt indifferent to a scene of bobble-headed reindeer with lifeless eyes and too-vivid mouths, and failed to mask their enthusiasm for a flight of hot air balloons over a sparkling Alpine mountain range in monochrome blue.

By the time they arrived at the book seller’s, it was set to close within forty minutes.

Hermione breathed in the dry, sweet smell of old books, and the crisp acidity of the new, alongside dust trapped in hopeless crevices, wood polished with beeswax and orange oil, wool rugs and wool jumpers and the cusp of snow tinting the air blowing through the door.

A flight of shallow, blue-painted stairs lead up to a mezzanine hovering over the rear of the shop, and Hermione climbed it, picking up and replacing a dozen volumes along the way. Draco followed, taking up a stylishly indolent lean against a column between fine arts and cinema, his overcoat buttoned and a paperback in his hands.

Hermione traveled clockwise around the mezzanine with the langor of an hour hand, ticking through one section and then the next, until she stood a metre away from him, clutching a volume of Beaudelaire’s translations of Poe to her chest like a life preserver.

“Why are you here?” she whispered.

His eyes remained fastened to his book, a hand tucked beneath a page in anticipation of turning it, flicking at its corner with a thumb.

“I think we’re looking at books,” he whispered back.

Hermione lowered her head to find Le Cinéma selon Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut printed on the spine visible between his fingers.

“I suppose.” The floor protested with a descending yawn as she took another step around the dial. “But I’m at a loss as to how you would know anything about Star Wars, let alone why you’ve taken an interest in Hitchcock. Or Truffaut. Next thing you’ll tell me you’re keen on Almodóvar.”

Still examining his book, he puffed a single dry laugh through his nostrils.

Do you know about Star Wars?” she asked.

“Of course I know about Star Wars. And Almodóvar.”

Of course you do,” she said. “How could you not?”

She pulled the first volume of Paul Klee’s notebooks on color theory from a shelf and flipped it open at random, but the current of his presence was overpowering, and her awareness couldn’t swim free.

He still dressed impeccably, now with the self-ownership of a mostly grown man. His black wool coat hit just below his knees, its finish and drape broadcasting luxury with unimpeachable tact, and the cuffs at the hem of his charcoal grey trousers struck precisely where they ought to have done at the tops of his wingtip shoes.

He was as much a Malfoy as he’d ever been, keeping himself far smarter than a man his age needed to, blending into the Parisian landscape but holding onto an air of stubborn aristocratic English reserve.

But someone else lay beneath the person he’d been before, or a foreign self was layered on top of the familiar one, or one had entirely replaced parts of the other, intermingling so irrevocably that there was no separation between them at all—she couldn’t tell. He troubled her, or confused her, or only fueled her curiosity, driving an intense interest she couldn’t reconcile with the animus he’d etched into the interior walls of her heart.

“I do want to know, you know.”

Without intending to, she’d ticked closer to him by the width of a shelf, and surprised them both when she lifted her chin and looked straight into the desaturated liquid grey of his eyes.

“You’ve grown into your face,” she said out loud, then nearly laughed at the absurdity of it.

“Thank you." He drew himself up taller. "I’m afraid your hair has kept pace with you. What is it that you want to know?”

“Don’t be obtuse.”

“Are you going to buy that?”

Hermione considered the books in her hands.

“The Klee?”

“Yes.”

“No.” She shelved the Klee and held up the paperback. “I’m buying the Beaudelaire.”

“I have it if you’d like to borrow it.”

“The Beaudelaire?”

“I meant the Klee.”

“Have you read it?” she asked.

“I’ve read all the books in my flat.”

Hermione flushed with indignation. “No, you haven’t.”

He laughed outright. “What do you mean, no, I haven’t? They’re my books, I think I should be trusted to know whether or not I’ve read them.”

“How many do you have?”

“I don’t know. Not many. Several hundred.”

“Are they all Muggle books?”

“Here? Yes.”

“And you don’t own any that you haven’t read?”

He slipped a copy of André Bazin’s Qu'est-ce que le cinéma? from the shelf nearest his elbow and took an unswerving interest in it. “I don’t.”

“You’re a monster. Next you’re going to tell me you have a Klee painting in your flat.”

His eyes darted up from the page. “Unfortunately not.”

Hermione glared at him.

After a pause, tinged with a whiff of guilt, he said, “I have a Schiele. It’s quite small.”

“I’m leaving.” Hermione swerved on the point of her heel and stalked off with her paperback under her arm. As she approached the top of the blue stairs, she tipped her chin upward without looking back. “You can come if you want.”

 

Outside, the sun had lowered behind the high curtain of clouds, and the frigid air lost all restraint.

“Did I offend you?” His hands returned to the shelter of his pockets.

The cold champed at Hermione’s fingers, and as she pushed them into his gloves, the stage lights of the city flickered on.

Three months ago, Hermione’s thread had tugged her out of the dark cupboard her life had become in London, and reeled her toward the illuminated lamp of Paris like a light-drunk moth.

But before the electric lights there were gas lamps; before the gas lamps there were candles; before the candles were fires; and before the fires there was only the moon, hanging over a dark and unhurried river. The Seine once spread wider than the radius of the city that accreted on its banks, twining the black limbs of its arms and tributaries around the curve of the earth, the luminous bow of the moon overhead like a snip in the fabric of the sky.

Hermione sometimes wandered under the urban lighting and thought about the dark beyond, its stars erased, and wished she could have them both: the brilliant city and the primordial dark, one each in the palm of a hand.

Draco’s elbow jostled Hermione’s arm as they walked side by side along the Rue de Saint-Pétersbourg.

Did you offend me?” she asked. “Which occasion would you like me to begin with?”

Draco looked away from her, toward a car passing by in the street.

Her compassion was determined to bloom.

“Am I offended by you collecting Muggle art? No.” She guided them left, her thread sunk as obstinately between them as ever. “No more than I’m offended by any one person keeping a Schiele in their flat. But no more deflection. Why in Merlin’s name are you here, living like this?”

Draco’s eyes squinched against a gust of wind blowing down the pavement. “Would you like a glass of wine?”

She turned around and faced him, walking backward without breaking her stride, and pushed her palm against the center of his chest. “I said no deflections.”

For a scant second he covered her gloved hand with his own. “Always so violent.”

“I am not violent. You’re slithering out at every turn.” She faced forward again and swung her bag in front of her like a shield. “If I had known you were only going to make me eat sandwiches and encourage book-buying I would never have gone walking with you.”

“Is it a problem?”

“The books?” she asked.

“No, books are clearly a problem.”

“They are if you haven’t got a manor library with magically enhanced dimensions for storing them.”

“Fair enough. I meant the walking. You don’t like it?”

Hermione liked the walking very much.

Pulling up at a street corner, the thread between them gleamed.

He hunched his shoulders to his ears as if the wind had crept over the threshold of his coat.

“Is there anyone waiting for you?” he asked. “At your flat, or...?”

The light from a traffic signal reflected red and then green against his skin.

“No one’s waiting for me.”

His shoulders eased.

“Have dinner with me.” He pulled his end of their thread southward across the intersection.

“I thought you said wine.”

“Wine is part of dinner, obviously.”

“If I have dinner with you, will you tell me what you’re doing here?”

“I will. But you have to do the same.”

“Do you have someone? Waiting for you?” she asked.

“No."

"You're not spending Christmas with your mother?"

"My mother is spending the holidays with her new paramour in Indonesia. I declined to join them.”

“Understandable. I planned to eat cheese and crackers for dinner,” Hermione admitted. “Is there going to be a table at this time of night?”

“That’s not a problem.”

She considered the skirt and blouse underneath her coat. “Do I need to change?”

“You’re fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

 

Three and a half hours later, she leaned back in a plush chair beside a hedge of spindly orchids and pointed her spoon at the center of her plate.

“I’ve eaten your dinner.”

They’d shed their coats into the hands of an attendant at the door, and Draco sat beside her at the circle of their table in a dark wool jumper over a button-up shirt, the top of his collar undone.

“And what did you think of it?” he asked.

Hermione surveyed the private room, dim lit and drowsy, gilded and soothingly solitary. She’d fed on amuse-bouches and bread, crusted truffle and lobster tail, filet de boeuf and pigeon, poached pear and chocolate soufflé, Bûche de Noël and petit fours, everything paired with wine: Chardonnay, Bordeaux, Côte-Rôtie and more than one bottle of Bollinger.

“I think you’ve been here before.” She turned the stem of her glass in her fingertips, louche with wine and incomparable food.

“I have," he said, pushing his sleeves up his arms then pulling a hand through his almost colorless hair, still short but nothing like the way he’d worn it at school.

“There’s a wave to it.” Hermione gestured at him. “I never would have guessed.”

“To my hair or yours? Because if you mean yours, I’m afraid to tell you it’s more than a wave.”

“Yours.”

He pinched his own glass in his fingers and swirled his wine.

“My mother and I came here whenever we were in town.”

“To a Muggle restaurant?”

“Yes. On the condition that we never told my father.” He tipped the last swallow into his mouth. “There’s a streak of affinity for the mundane on the Black side of my family. It terrified him.”

Hermione slid her spoon through the center of her plate and licked away a streak of lemon cream. “I wouldn’t call this mundane.”

“You know what I mean.”

She did.

“So?” She lifted her hands in expectation.

“Alright,” he said. “I’m here because I’m pointedly unwanted in England. And my French is significantly better than my German, and I speak Mandarin like a toddler.”

Glass at her lips again, Hermione laughed. “So you’re here in voluntary linguistic exile?” She finished her drink, then propped her chin on her fingertips. “And you’re living like a grotesquely privileged Muggle university student because…” She regarded him shrewdly. “You’re unwanted socially here, too?”

“Something like that. And you?”

She’d been fed and watered into easy honesty.

“I came here to be alone.”

Draco didn’t stop the waiter from pouring the last of the champagne.

“Alone, with two million other people, crowded around a different river than the one at home,” he said. “Something like that?”

Hermione’s eyes drifted closed. She lifted them open.

“Something like that.”

 

IV.

The Seine runs through Paris like a bent elbow.

Its source is on the Langres plateau in Burgundy, in a park just off a narrow country road, where spring water seeps into ditches and depressions in the ground.

Two thousand years ago, Gallic pilgrims traveled there from as far away as the Mediterranean Sea and the English Channel to make votive offerings to the goddess Sequana, the animist deity of the Seine.

The Romans replaced the Gauls’ healing shrine at Source-Seine with their own temples, and asked for Sequana’s intercession in the same way that the Gauls had done, tossing ex votos into the seeping springs, carved to reflect the sources of their afflictions: heads, limbs, breasts, livers, hearts.

From the source, the river writhes serpentine to the northwest, across the floor of the Paris Basin until it reaches the English Channel at Le Havre, and gives its water to the sea.

It’s a slow moving thing, drifting through the heart of Paris black as a Tahitian pearl.

Hermione sacrificed other comforts in order to keep a shelf of books in her tiny flat. In a volume on the history of the Seine was a picture she liked very much, of a small and exquisite bronze statue of Sequana draped in Roman robes, arms held out in beneficence, standing in a duck-shaped boat.

Like a pair of 19th century flâneurs, the wine slowly metabolizing from their veins, she and Draco passed through the thronging streets of the 8th arrondissement, crossed the Champs-Élysées with its trees tied in vertical lights, and gave in to the tidal pull of the riverside.   

“And do you like it?” he asked. “Being alone?”

They walked from west to east, between the boats at the river’s edge to their right, and monuments to kings, empire and democracy on their left.

Everything was bright in the dark.

The yellow floodlights on the palace and the assembly house, the vacillating reds and greens of the traffic lights, the red eyes at the backs of the cars, the strings of blue and white delineating the boats: all of them glanced off the black surface of the Seine in irregular rays, vibrating with the movement of the water.

“I do,” she said

They ambled on, both quiet, their hair and shoulders lit gold under lampposts.

Her answer might have sufficed if his silence had been blank.

But it was alert and attentive, a wordless open-ended question, asking her to continue.

She opened her mouth and a flow of words poured out, spreading in front of them in a mist of white condensation.

“Everything I was, for all of my adolescent years, was school. Magic school.” A hard stone materialized in her throat. “You cannot imagine how it felt to—”

Her words caught, and she swallowed around them.

“I was entirely defined by my education,” she went on, “and learning all there was to know about a war older than I was, so that I could fight in it.” She slipped her gloved hands into her pockets. “It was all intense, and frightening, and important.”

She felt unable to stop herself under the force of his reserve.

“And then I fell in love. And that felt intense, and frightening, and important, too. And it was hard, but I’ve always wanted things to be hard. I’m very good at doing things that are difficult.”

A family passed by, moving in the other direction: grandparents, parents, and a pair of teenage daughters, speaking Portuguese, their voices subdued.

“But then it was just work, which was mostly bureaucracy, and doing the dishes, and feeding the cat, and learning how to apologize properly when I'd said something awful. And all of that turned out to be hard in a way that I wasn’t good at at all.

She laughed, once, truncated and dull.

“You’re young, Hermione." 

The cold air cut at the damp pooling in the waterline of her eyes.

“I’m older than you are.”

For the first time since they arrived at the river, she allowed herself to look at him again.

His eyes had shuttered halfway, either thoughtful or concerned.

A wave of dismay swelled below her sternum at the discovery that she knew his hands, but not his face.

Not this face.

She knew the sneering one, and the one that laughed at other people’s pain. She knew what he looked like when he delighted in his own superiority, when he made it clear that he was above someone, when he wanted to scrape at a person’s self-worth with the blade of his distaste.

His hands were the same, and his face had changed.

Hermione didn’t know him at all.

She fell silent, walking with a stranger upstream.

“Are you still in love with him?” he asked.

“No.” She answered him so quickly it made her chest tighten with the pain of it. “By the end of it, we both understood that it shouldn’t be that hard to be together.” She twisted toward him. “Are you?"

"Am I what?

"In love with someone.” Hermione recalled him at school, stealing away in alcoves like everyone else until everything became too sad. “With Pansy? Or someone else?” As she walked, she passed through the warm white wreath of her own speech. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked you like that.”

“Don’t be sorry.”

He watched a boat slide by, and she marveled at the minute movements that his eyes and mouth undertook while he thought.

“Pansy means everything to me,” he said. “After the war, I spent an entire year, mostly alone, without leaving the Manor. She forced me to dry out, then pushed me to come here.”

The confession came from him so fluidly that Hermione had nothing to say, and let the unfilled space between them petition for more.

“But to answer your question, no. I love her, and I always will. We’ve been friends since before we could walk. I think being together like that for a while was inevitable, but we’re not in love. And there’s no one else.”

Hermione watched the thickening clouds.

“It’s trying so hard to not snow.”

“It really is.”

They passed the mouths of half a dozen bridges until they arrived at the end of Pont Neuf, connecting the shore to the Île de la Cité in the middle of the river.

Hermione towed them to the right, toward the island, the bridge heavy with pedestrians on their way to midnight Mass at Notre-Dame.

“Shall we walk to the cathedral?” he asked.

“What for?”

His face fell, and her belly clenched with a pang of remorse.

“You’re serious?” she asked. “It’s just that the crowd must be massive.”

“Do you have something against choirs? Or thuribles?”

“What’s a thurible?”

“The thing on the chain. You know.” Draco swung his arm forward and back. “With the incense.”

Hermione’s laugh spilled out in a mist, throaty and real. “How many Catholic Masses have you been to?”

So many.”

“You haven’t.”

He grimaced in mock affront. “I have. I love nothing so much as a good hymn.”

Their thread shimmered, warming Hermione from the inside out.

She couldn’t tear her eyes away from him.

“I don’t understand you at all.”

“And I don’t fully understand the Holy Trinity. So there we are.”

“Then you can be a Unitarian.”

“A what?”

She laughed again, at his expense.

“Do you really want to go and watch the choir?” she asked. “And the thurible?”

“I suppose I can live without the thurible." His lips bowed in a spoilt pout. "Even though it’s Christmas.”

They veered west together wordlessly, away from the cathedral, toward the pointed tip of the island.

“What do you think of it?" She rolled a heel in a seam in the pavement and tipped toward him. He caught her elbow and righted her. "Muggle religion, I mean.”

“That’s a sizable topic.”

They passed a bronze statue of King Henri IV sitting erect on a horse, then descended a flight of stairs and emerged at the entrance to a park at the level of the river.

Bare trees and more than a dozen brilliant lampposts ringed a teardrop of grass at the head of the island, like the prow of a boat steaming stationary downstream.

Hermione guided them clockwise around an outer walk. 

“I can only speak with any degree of authority on Christianity,” he said. “I know the primary text, a bit of history, something about the music, quite a lot about church architecture, and I’m solid on censers.”

“I’m buying you a thurible next Christmas.”

“Please do.”

At the apex of the island, a weeping willow, denuded in December, slept like a spectral hand. People sat in huddled pairs on the pavement below, their legs dangling over the surface of the reflecting river, talking quietly while bright-lit cruise boats motored by.

They found a patch wide enough for them both, and sat down looking west, toward the incandescent city rolling like a static wave beyond the arches of the Pont des Arts, a reconstructed sea rising over the Seine.

Hermione had the bewildering sense that as the gap of quietude between them widened, they drifted nearer together, though neither of them had moved.

They sat quite still, sated diners at the table of the ephemeral, drinking their measure of time.

After long minutes, he leaned back on his arms and trained his vision toward the black sky on the other side of the lamplight.

"I like the idea of forgiveness," he said. "Of it being available."

She adopted his posture, watching for movement overhead.

"I think it is,” she said. “Mostly."

"Do you?"

She turned to find his stranger's face already studying her.

"I do." She meant it. "But it has to be earned. Very few of us are in possession of an immaculate heart."

A fleck of white landed on the tip of Draco's lashes, over the shadowed wells of his eyes. She gasped out loud, then looked up again, holding out a hand.

The clouds had relented and let go. Their cold cargo twisted in a slow-motion cascade through bands of electric light as far as the eye could see.

"I think I might have been brought here to have my heart healed," she said. She followed a single flake as it landed on the heel of her hand and lingered there a moment before melting. "I don't know how, exactly. But I hold out a great deal of hope for Sequana, floating down the Seine in her duck-shaped boat." She faced him, alight with self-deprecation at her own folly. "Isn't it ridiculous?"

"No. That's not ridiculous at all."

Hermione cocked an ear to absorb a familiar sound, slow to identify it.

“Can you hear that?”

They were choral voices, streaming from the cathedral to the east, their words indistinguishable.

She strained to hear, but before she could discover the tune it faded, and the bells in every cathedral tower called the city to midnight Mass.

The voice of Emmanuel, the largest and lowest of the bells at Notre-Dame, sang out its resonant F sharp as the snow fell on the glittering city, on the chilled and waiting pavement, on the moving face of the beneficent river.

"Has it?" Draco asked.

"Has what?" Hermione pushed her tongue forward, licking at the sky.

"Has your heart been healed?"

"I don't know.” She laughed without knowing why. “Do you suppose it just happens? You wake up one morning, and you're whole again?"

Snow settled in his hair. It collected on the folds of his scarf, and on the lapels of his beautiful coat.

"I think it does,” he said. “If you try."

The river flowed around them, searching for the sea.

 

V.

He walked her home in a haze of white, their steps memorialized in a thickening glaze of snow.

"Come up for tea?"

Standing on the pavement below her windows, she felt an urge to tug at her end of their thread to make him comply.

He didn’t need her to.

Without a struggle, she reeled him up each flight of her winding stairs, and through the door of her top floor flat.

In her other life, she would have Vanished the snow from her coat, but here, she let it fall to the floor and melt into the fabric.

She pulled off his gloves, over-large and heated by her hands, and held them out to him.

“Thank you very much,” she said. “I suppose I could have done a warming charm, but these were really lovely.”

He took them from her, and folded them down into his satchel.

She unwound her scarf from her throat, hung her bag and her coat on a peg by the door, then held out her hand.

“Can I take your coat?"

He stood inert in the doorway, as though he had no intention of either removing his coat or moving farther into the room.

Hermione burned with embarrassment.

She had everything she needed: a bath to the left and kitchen around the corner, with a stove, a sink, and three cabinets below a square dormer window. Flush against the far wall, facing a second window, she had a bed large enough for herself and an occasional guest.

But eight comfortable steps were all it took to travel the length of the room.

In the center, the ceiling sloped from the interior wall to the windows, supported by two low-hanging dark wood beams, obliging her to bend her head every time she approached her little table and chair to sit down.

“I know it’s not up to Malfoy standards, but I’m quite fond.” She bent to an outlet set in the short exterior wall and plugged in a cord. Vintage Muggle fairy lights in subdued red, gold, blue and green blinked on around both window frames. “See? I’ve even decorated.”

Draco remained in the doorway, his coat fastened and satchel hanging from his shoulder.

“I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?” She pointed an awkward finger toward the kitchen.

She itched with uncertainty as she topped off her electric kettle at the sink, fitted it into its stand and flicked it on.

And then she prattled.

“I could use magic, but ever since I arrived I’ve enjoyed doing things like this. I’ve spent so long being able to do everything at the wave of a wand, I’d forgotten how much pleasure there is in some of the things I grew up with.”

She brought a pair of rose-patterned tea cups down from an open shelf over the sink, dropped a tea bag into each one, then stood with her hands propped on her hips to watch the kettle boil.

“I ought to be going,” he said.

The water began to heat with a soft turbine rumble.

He still hadn’t moved.

“You’re welcome to stay. At least to warm your hands a bit.” She glanced at him. “How do you take your tea?”

Snow had melted in his hair, and the faint wave there flirted with the notion of being a curl.

“But I suppose they’re perfectly warm,” she said to the kettle. “I can’t imagine you haven’t at least charmed your pockets.”

Reaching for the sugar, she swallowed a dose of bravery and looked at him properly.

He'd been watching her, one hand holding onto the strap of his satchel, and the other hanging limp by his side, flushed red from his palms to his fingernails.

Hermione stared at his pink-tipped fingers.

“Malfoy, your hands look so—” She remained immobile, hand suspended over the gilded lid of the sugar bowl, then stepped toward him, abandoning the tea.

With a hesitant touch, she took the hand hanging at his side in hers.

“My God, Draco. You're freezing. And I’ve had your gloves all this time. You should have said something.”

He said nothing.

Without letting go of the hand she’d taken, she pulled the other from his satchel strap, and found it every bit as chilled as the first.

“Why did you let them get this cold?”

She pressed his palms together, then folded his hands in hers, laid her mouth against their fingers, and breathed out.

“Hermione.”

The intensity of his expression startled her.

“Now you have to stay." Her tone fumbled for a handhold on flippancy. “Just until your hands have warmed up again. When you go, you have to promise me that you’ll Apparate back to your flat. You can’t walk in the snow like this. Let me get my wand, I’ll do a proper warming charm.”

As she pulled away from him, he caught hold of her hand.

Hermione.

Wet and cold in the door, he was a painted portrait of watercolor grief, eyes pinched and searching.

“Hermione, I am so very, very sorry.”

The kettle thundered, and then clicked off.

“I have done terrible things to you." His voice splintered in this throat as he spoke. “To people that you care about. I have harmed or put into harm’s way people who aren’t here for me to make amends to.” His hand tightened around hers. “I don’t expect you to forgive me. I don’t expect you to say anything at all. But I’m going to go, and I needed to say it to you, so that you knew. And maybe my having said it can help you in some way. You don’t deserve to feel—”

“Stop.”

Draco’s expression stumbled over the edge of sorrow and fell into despair.

“Of course. I’m—I’ll go. Thank you for the walk. And for the offer of tea. Maybe another time.”

He started to release her hand, but Hermione laced her fingers through his and stepped so close to him that she believed she could estimate the difference in their heights to the millimetre.

“Please stay.”

She knew with absolute certainty that if he left, their thread—it had always been theirs—would stretch to the point of aching until it brought them near to one another again.

She guided his hand down and slipped it below the hem of her blouse, tensing as his cold fingertips made contact with the heated skin midway between her navel and her heart.

“What are you doing?” he whispered.

“This.”

Hermione rose to the balls of her feet, and pressed her lips to the corner of his mouth.

He stood rigid and motionless, his lips parting on the intake of a breath.

But slowly, under the heat of her, he thawed.

And then he melted.

And then he flowed into her, conforming to her shape, his hands sliding along her sides and flexing against the fabric of her skirt.

His touch felt as necessary and native as water.

“Hermione.” He muttered against her lips as she pushed the strap of his satchel from his shoulder. “Is this—”

She unbuttoned his coat, peeled it down his arms, and let it fall to the floor.

Is this what you want?

Is this a good idea?

Whatever his question was, Hermione didn’t want to answer it.

She filled her cupped hands to the brim with him, and drank him down.

He made no further protest, smoothing his cool palms over her sides.

She tugged at the hem of his jumper, then pulled it over his head. As it fell to the floor he was havoc all over, hair standing on end, his skin splotched with pink.

Throats parched for one another, they traveled a distance of eight easy steps in twenty, pressing each other's backs by turns against the wall.

Once they'd found shelter in Hermione’s bed, their hands worked together at buckles and buttons, ties and hooks, shedding every tangible thing that kept them apart.

At the moment their bodies grew so close that they met skin to skin at the twin origins of their thread, it flared bright as halogen and then vanished, as if it finally found what it had been looking for.

He moved in her, his fingers trembling at her temple, her pillow clenched in her fist behind her head, his hips notched into the arches of her feet.

She wanted to learn him immediately and perfectly, the way she did nearly everything else, but there wasn't time. Before she intended to, she gasped against his shoulder, clutched his waist between her thighs, then stretched her throat to welcome his wet mouth, parted against her skin as his body coursed into hers.

They lingered, then separated, and Hermione sat up in her bed, vibrating with shock and elation.

Lying on his back, recovering his breath, he stroked the damp center of her back tentatively, and then with drowsy, idle imprecision began to trace patterns over her skin.

She stretched her arm behind her, and took the lank hand lying at his side in hers. Flattening the back of it against her knee, she traveled the grooves on his palm with her thumb.

“I’ve been able to cast a wordless warming charm since the beginning of fourth year." She looked back over her shoulder. “You can’t, can you?”

A look she didn’t know yet settled into his features. She thought it might be shame.

He shook his head in the negative.

“Did they take your wand?” she asked.

“They did.”

Twelve hours ago she would have flushed with righteous victory at the thought of it.

“Did they take your magic?”

It was shame, she decided. Shame, and exhaustion.

He took a very long time to nod.

“How?” she asked.

He turned his attention to his hand, still writing runes at the base of her spine.

“Once a month, my very nice parole officer visits me in my admittedly very nice flat. She makes sure I’m not doing anything I shouldn’t be, and I drink the vial of potion that she gives me.”

“For how long?”

“Five years.”

“How many has it been?”

“Three and a half.”

On the other side of Hermione's colored lights, the snowflakes grew and multiplied.

“Should I go?” His voice thickened, shored up against a flood.

She liked to look at him now, so she did.

“Do you hate it?”

He picked up the end of a curl at the middle of her back, wound it around a fingertip, then rubbed it with his thumb.

“I’m not suffering here.”

“But do you hate it?”

A bead of water leaked from the outside corner of his eye, slid down his jaw and vanished into Hermione’s pillow.

“No. I don’t hate it.”

“Does it bother you that you don’t?"

"Sometimes.”

The snowfall quickened into a hypnotic blur. 

“Do what you were doing to my back again.”

His laugh moved through him weightless and weary.

“Bossy,” he whispered.

She let him pull her back down into his arms.

 

At dawn, light broke through her window bright as midday. She knew if she were to walk to the casement and look out over the city, she'd find it wearing a costume of snow. It would have accumulated on the gambrel roofs and the edges of the iron railings, on the cobblestone streets and the modern boulevards, scattering and amplifying the cloud-filtered daylight, damping every sound wave, from the click of a pedestrian heel to the strike notes of the cathedral bells that would call the penitent hearts to Mass in the evening on Christmas Day.

But she stayed in her bed, thrumming with fatigue and nascent morning desire, discovering the shape and texture of Draco's calves with the sole of her left foot. 

With his cool arms looped territorially around her waist and his cheek nestled between her breasts, she cradled his head in her arms, stroking her fingers in a line against the skin behind his ear.

“Your hands are so warm,” he muttered, voice gravel with sleep.

Flattening her palm against his back, she felt his heart beating through his ribs.

She breathed down to the bottom of her lungs, slow and complete, and brushed her lips in his unruly hair.

“It’s still snowing.”