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December 2006

 

“This would go much faster if I could at least prep the fresh ingredients for you. Believe it or not, I’m fairly competent.”

“You’re lucky I even let you in here, Granger.” Draco diced a bit of dragon liver into precise cubes, weighing it before adding it to the cauldron. “They don’t let just anyone brew here.”

“It seems like maybe they do.” Hermione laughed, dodging a flicked scrap of liver. “I think I can handle assisting you with a basic Healing Potion. The sooner you get done, the sooner we can go to dinner.” 

He held up a hand and she realized he was counting stirs. He might allow her access to his lab in the basement of St. Mungo’s, but he was rigid about technique and intolerant of distraction. 

Hermione pushed off of the counter and settled on a stool, permitting her mind and eyes to wander. In the lab, Draco never wore his Healer robes—“They’re as much a safety hazard as they are an assault to the eyes, Granger.”—which left her free to admire the flex of his leanly muscled forearms and the graceful twist of his wrist as he stirred. He had a habit of rolling his sleeves, and the play of muscles in his arms and hands as he worked was mesmerizing.

She’d recently learned the term ‘sapiosexual’ while flipping through a Witch Weekly in the staff lounge. It resonated, rattling around her head, and it made sense why she found certain qualities particularly alluring. Hermione had since been unable to ignore the flutter she felt when she thought about how Draco had negotiated not one, but two career paths—a Potions mastery in France, and a Healer’s mastery under her mentorship at St. Mungo’s. 

Then there was the languid imperturbability with which he brewed. The unaffected confidence he displayed when more senior Healers called upon his expertise. 

And none of that took into account the glasses he tried to claim were only for reading, which made him look even more sharp and intellectual than usual. 

Hermione found herself dangerously attracted, given their proximity. She never could've imagined when he knocked on her door almost five years ago—wedging one dragonhide boot in the gap before she could slam it shut—that he’d become her roommate and her coworker in short order.

“Would you mind fetching the bottles and stoppers? They’re prepped already. Near the sink.”

A wave of her hand levitated the supplies to his workbench. “You don’t have to patronize me with a menial task.”

“My hands are busy.” He glanced up at her, flashing a grin. “You’re the one who wanted to be my lovely, over-qualified assistant.”  

Draco was always complimentary of her—her skill as a Healer, her compassion, her excellent apple crumble. He stared sometimes, and if she turned her gaze on him, sudden downcast eyes told her he felt caught. There was an openness in the way he spoke to her, especially at home, that she didn’t notice directed toward anyone else.

He brushed off countless suggestions of blind dates and fix-ups. I'm married to my work, he always said. A gentle evasion. At first, she’d wondered if he was keen to avoid distraction while he got settled at the hospital, but no love interest ever developed. 

Self-preservation was not a uniquely Slytherin trait. Draco was the best roommate she’d ever had. He was tidy, an excellent research partner, and he understood her odd hours. They had a professional relationship, of course, but he was also the most central person in her life. 

Though it was safe to say no one knew her better, they had an unspoken agreement to ignore their unattached statuses. For Hermione’s part, she felt an irrational certainty that bringing it up would trigger a seismic shift in her world. Some improbable event would displace Draco from her life: a sudden betrothal, or an accidental soulbond, perhaps. Best to not tempt fate.

If he had never acted on a possible attraction to her, he was likely also unwilling to disturb their peaceful equilibrium. 

Still, Theo’s sudden entrance to the lab was the distraction she needed to drag her eyes away from Draco’s graceful fingers.

“Pansy tells me neither one of you has been by to see her. Granger,” he said, clasping his hands together in supplication. “Please tell me you’re not planning on wearing one of these lime green monstrosities on Saturday, looking like you’ve come straight from rounds? This is an event.”

Theo was a Senior Healer in Spell Damage. He’d made a pitch to the hospital board to expand the department, adding meaningful research and clinical studies by collaborating with the Department of Mysteries. The board had agreed...if he could secure funding.

Doing nothing by halves, he’d charmed the right people. Invitations to this year's Ministry Ball had been extended to St. Mungo’s employees as well. It was no longer only a holiday gala, but also a fundraiser. 

Hermione knew this could be an incredible opportunity for him. Theo was brilliant, having almost chosen the path of an Unspeakable for himself. Instead, they’d gone through Healer training together. He'd become one of her closest (and most meddlesome) friends. 

“We’re stopping by on our way to dinner,” Hermione said. “It’s almost a whole week away. I don’t see what the rush is.”

Theo's sly grin was familiar. “I’m taking care of your date problem, so you have an incentive to make yourselves presentable now.”

“What—are you offering?” Hermione laughed at the idea that he’d be attending with anyone but Harry. They were newly married and thoroughly besotted with one another.

“The Bloke Who Lived to Blow Me might have a problem with that.”

“Jesus, Theo.” Draco didn’t look up from his clockwise stirring. 

“Sorry, love. I couldn't wait around for you forever. Anyway,” Theo said, ignoring Draco's snort, “you two are no fun, which is why you’re going to go together. That way you won’t ruin anyone else’s time.”

Draco glared at him, and Theo raised a brow, staring right back.

Hermione bit the inside of her cheek. She contemplated the suggestion for a moment before cutting through their maintained eye contact. 

“It’s not the worst idea. I mean, I’d planned on just going by myself, but it would be nice to avoid questions about why we don’t have dates. No one would say anything if we went together, Draco.” 

His gaze was still narrowed on Theo’s now-gleeful face.

She swallowed hard before deciding to qualify her statement. “I mean, as friends.”

Turning down the heat on the potion, Draco set aside the stirring rod and began to decant. “Why not?” he said, a flicker of resignation across his face. “We have to be there anyway, for the auction.” 

Hermione’s jaw dropped. “You said yes to that?” 

Theo had wheedled, urging her to take part. His best attempt was a demand that she had a “sworn duty to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of magi-medical breakthroughs.” It was a compelling argument. But she had no intention of standing in front of all her professional acquaintances, allowing herself to be sold to the highest bidder. She’d make a proper donation, and that would be that.

Draco paused in sealing the last bottles, fixing his eyes on Theo again—who was now sidling toward the door. “I was led to believe my participation was required,” he gritted, “by the organizer.” 

“On-call, must be going! Don’t forget to visit Pansy.” Theo slipped out the door.

 


 

On Thursday, they ate Thai takeaway and sat side by side on the sofa, watching Grey’s Anatomy. The Christmas tree they’d decorated together twinkled in the corner, wrapped gifts already tucked beneath. 

It was cozy. Normal and routine. That is, except for the underlying thread of tension that had been present since they discovered they would be going on a date. 

“This is shite, Granger.” Draco leaned back, arms behind his head, bare feet kicked up on the coffee table. “These Healers are rubbish. Not in a ‘magic is so much better’ way; they’re just idiots. Is that an American thing, or are British Healers incompetent as well?”

“Hush,” she said. “They’re new doctors. You were just learning once, too.”

“All they seem to be learning are the best places to shag each other around this hospital.”

In the lull that followed, the only sound in the room came from the television. She wondered if Draco was considering the most promising locations for a tryst in their own workplace. If not, he was a purer soul than she.

“Do me a favor, Granger?” He picked the conversation back up, and his mind seemed elsewhere. His arms dropped from behind his head to cross over his chest, and he appeared ready to bare an uncomfortable sliver of his soul. “If no one places a bid during the auction…”

She gaped at him as he trailed off. “Are you—are you serious right now? Have you looked in a mirror recently?” Hermione bit the inside of her cheek as a slow smile crawled across his face. “You’re fishing for compliments, aren’t you.”

“No. But thank you.” Draco turned sideways into the sofa, grin fading. His arms were still wrapped protectively across his chest, but he had no problem meeting her eyes. “I—well, you know how long memories can be. I’ve been back for a few years now, but I’m always prepared for the other shoe to drop. And it won't just be hospital staff.”

“Never fear, dear sir. I will ensure your ego remains unbruised, though I’m certain it won’t come to that.” Her heart clenched at his obvious worry, and her voice softened. “I’m sure you’ll rake in the galleons.”

 


 

Friendship with Draco meant proximity to his friends as well—and not just Theo. Hermione had said yes, of course, she’d be glad to wear one of Pansy’s original designs. She hadn’t even tried it on after picking it up, having received testy assurance it would fit.

Staring in the mirror, however, she wondered if Pansy had been plotting against her this whole time. An elaborate ruse, with an eventual endgame of setting Hermione up to wear something this revealing at an event full of colleagues. 

Hermione turned side to side. She tugged at the top, as if straps and a few more inches of sumptuous fabric to cover her cleavage would appear. She considered a transfiguration attempt, but hesitated at the thought of a wardrobe malfunction or the wrath of Pansy. Instead, she Floo-called her to come over. 

“Not bad, Granger,” Pansy said, appraising her from head to toe. “Not bad. I wasn’t aware you expected me to do your hair as well as dress you.”

Hermione tugged at a curl. “What’s wrong with my hair? Anyway, that’s not what I called you for. This”—she plucked at the gown, searching for the words least likely to offend—“is not exactly how you described it.” 

At Pansy’s dead stare, she continued. “It’s lovely, truly. I’m not sure I can pull it off.”

“Merlin. The pep talk is extra.” Pansy sighed, turning Hermione to face the mirror again. “The fit is perfect. Do you think I’d send you out in something I designed that wouldn’t be flattering? Jaws will drop, Granger, in a good way. Your heels need to be an inch taller, though.” She charmed them to the appropriate height. 

"And your hair, gods. At least let me—" Pins materialized out of thin air and Pansy placed them strategically, leaving her curls loose but managed. "There. I'm sure you can pull your hair back a bit. Show off some scandalous collarbone." 

She unclasped the necklace Hermione had chosen, dropping it on her dresser. "The neckline is the necklace."

"The neckline...is the necklace?"

“Yes.” No further explanation was granted. Pansy stood back to examine her, giving a satisfied nod. 

Bolstered by the reassurance, Hermione smoothed her hands over her hips. Pansy was not one to give false compliments.

“Your date won’t be able to resist you.” 

Her eyes snapped to Pansy’s in the mirror. “I’m going with Draco. As friends.” When Pansy just held her gaze, Hermione’s stomach knotted itself. “Pans—”

Pansy waved her off, wrinkling her nose. “My mistake. This is like when I ask how someone’s doing to be polite, and they assume I want to hear their problems. I just want you to know I see you”—she pointed two fingers at her eyes and then turned them toward Hermione—“without talking about feelings.” 

She stepped toward the Floo. “Make sure that dress doesn’t end up on the floor, no matter who takes it off of you tonight.” 

 


 

Theo had insisted Draco get ready with him, so he could collect Hermione “like a proper gentleman, instead of some reprobate milk thief.” 

Hermione had narrowed her eyes and deflected, reminding him not to use idioms he didn’t understand. It seemed preferable to acknowledging that no one was getting any proverbial milk, for free or otherwise. 

The charade made sense when she heard Draco arrive and walked down the hall to meet him. It did feel a bit like a real date.

Her mouth fell open as she admired the impeccable cut of his suit and the fit body it flattered. Hermione swallowed her embarrassment when she realized she was staring, but the look on his face suggested he might be equally bothered. 

“Wow. You look—” he paused, eyes sweeping her from head to toe. She resisted squirming under his scrutiny, watching his throat bob. When he tried again, she could tell he was aiming for playful, but his tone was lower than normal. 

“Is it not enough to be the most intelligent person in any given room, Granger? You look stunning.” He pulled a flat, square box from the inside pocket of his suit. “An early Christmas present.” 

She thought about objecting, but she so rarely dressed up. Whatever the item, it was unlikely to be something she’d wear with her Healer’s robes or on a pub night. And if Draco wanted to give her a present, she could accept it, even if things were a little awkward at the moment.

The box revealed a beautiful cuff bracelet, two rows of textured gold that crossed each other. Draco took her hand to slip the bracelet onto her wrist. “Pansy was right,” he said. “I wanted a necklace, but she said it would distract from the design”—she spotted the surreptitious glance at her chest—“and she pushed gold instead of silver. Now that I see the dress, I understand.”

The bracelet had been in place for a few long moments, but his hand lingered and her heart raced until he caught her eye. “Ready?”

 


 

“You look crazy fuckable in that dress, Healer Granger.”

Theo’s laughable compliment helped settle her nerves and calm her pulse. After the intense start to the evening, she was failing at attempts to keep her feelings in check. Draco’s attentive touches to the small of her back and the curve of her wrist as they mingled were not helping.

Their friendship had been tactile from the beginning. He hadn't grown up with an excess of physical affection, and it was even scarcer during and following the war. Their physical contact said something to her about their comfort with each other. He'd bump his hip against hers while they cooked dinner, or ask her to push his hair back if it fell in his face when he needed both hands for brewing. Draco was a cool palm to the back of her neck after a nightmare, when she left her bedroom seeking tea, but had to steady herself against the wall.

Casual touch was nothing new. But this date—however utilitarian on the surface—had flayed open the platonic nature of their relationship, exposing something raw and tender beneath. It had the potential to be knit back together in ways Hermione couldn’t stop thinking about.

The food looked delicious. It was tasteless in her mouth. Her drink, though, went down easy. Harry caught her eye when she quickly accepted another, raising a brow in question. She gave a small smile and a shake of her head.

After Harry noticed her nerves, she made an effort to relax. She focused on the Christmas music and the pleasant buzz of the crowd. Elaborately trimmed trees lined the perimeter of the ballroom, and fairy lights twinkled everywhere. A single tree was the usual extent of her decorating inclination. Hermione admired the effort that had gone into the lavish winter wonderland theme. Too busy and distracted to appreciate it until now, she found herself looking forward to the approaching holiday.

By the time the meal was winding down, Hermione felt warm and comfortable. The third drink—which she now sipped—helped. 

It was Draco, she reminded herself. They were going to go home and watch a movie with popcorn, like always, and he’d charm her with questions about Muggle life. He acquitted himself well in and out of wizarding Britain at this point; she suspected his continued intrigue was only for her benefit. But it was their routine.

Harry leaned in to whisper to him and they excused themselves from the table. She tilted her head as they walked away. She needed him out of that spectacular suit that made his arse look like that. Not naked, Hermione redirected her train of thought. Just into the pajamas he lounged around in, or his Healer’s robes, or...anything else but the suit.

As soon as they left the ballroom, things could go back to normal.

The dinner settings disappeared, replaced by auction paddles. Harry took his place on the stage. Theo had badgered his husband into participating, pointing out how many galleons he might draw for the cause. When Harry said “We’re married, you daft thing,” Theo decided Harry could instead make his contribution by being the emcee.

The fundraiser had garnered more willing participants than Hermione expected. There were some Ministry employees on display as well. She didn’t recognize everyone, but she clapped along with the rest of the ballroom as a few good-natured bidding wars commenced. She realized Theo had slotted more notable (and presumably lucrative) prospects toward the end. Lavender was in her element. A new addition to Magical Transportation, someone Hermione had never met, received the highest bid so far.

Draco was the last of the lineup before the tables would disappear for dancing. He seemed composed, hands in his pockets, giving not the slightest reaction to Cormac McLaggen’s preening under the attention of the audience.

He was chewing the inside lip of his lower lip, though. Hermione wondered if anyone else knew that was one of Draco’s rare nervous tics. Or watched him close enough to notice when he did it.

Even apprehensive, he was unconscionably attractive. Pansy had outdone herself with his suit, and he wore it with the ease of experience. Artfully tousled hair begged for fingers to run through it. He looked self-possessed but unassuming. Cormac could take lessons.

Hermione twisted the bracelet on her wrist, unable to take her eyes off of Draco and no longer trying. She allowed herself to ignore the pragmatic nature of their arrangement for a moment. Regardless of circumstance, her date was the most handsome man in the room. The satisfaction in that was undeniable.

But as soon as Harry introduced him, something very alarming happened.

It became clear that Draco’s fear that he might not garner any interest was unfounded. Painfully unfounded. The room around her was a sea of paddles held aloft, a cacophony of admirers.

Hermione rocked on her slightly-tipsy foundation. In her preoccupation, she hadn’t once considered what it would be like to watch someone else win him.

She shifted in her seat at the clamor of bid after bid. Angling her head, she peeked across the room at the most relentless contender. She glared at the profile, the sleek blonde hair, and the cool countenance of the witch pursuing Hermione's date with a singular focus.

They’d met in passing. Hermione had a vague recollection that she was an archivist. Or employed in the Ministry library in some capacity. She had a tree name. Holly? No, Hazel.

Hermione’s face felt hot, and a swallow of the drink she clutched did little to cool it. This witch acted like it was a foregone conclusion that Draco would be hers by the end of the evening. The hungry gaze she had fixed upon him made Hermione’s jaw clench.

She tried to clear her mind, but when she closed her eyes, she saw this stranger sitting on their sofa: an unwelcome presence that filled the space between them. Hazel’s hand crept up Draco’s thigh until she climbed into his lap. Silky hair fell in a curtain that concealed his face from view as they ignored Hermione's presence.

She shook the intrusive vision away, swallowing down more alcohol and her fidgety desire to shake her leg under the table. Draco’s eyes widened imperceptibly as the bids reached an impressive range. Like he had no idea what a fucking catch he was.

“Lovely, isn’t she?” Theo nudged her elbow, giving a subtle nod in Hazel’s direction. “Of course, she has nothing on you, darling. Especially in this dress.”

Hermione closed her eyes again, practiced mindful breathing, and reached for a distraction. Work. She had Wolfsbane research she needed to focus on.

But a vision of Hazel reappeared, seated upon the countertop in the Potions lab. Draco was pressed close between her parted thighs. He prepared life-saving potions there. Had they no respect for a sanitized surface?

She banished the lab from her mind. Work was too closely-tied to Draco. Breathing deep in and out, Hermione envisioned a checklist of gifts she had yet to buy.

As she itemized presents already purchased, Hazel breached Hermione’s mental defenses again. Discarded wrapping paper surrounded her on the rug next to their Christmas tree. As Hermione looked on, Hazel lifted the hem of her nightshirt seductively, telling Draco she had one last present for him to unwrap.

Hazel, mouth open to accept a morsel of brownie (the kind Draco sometimes baked for Hermione after a long week). Straight from the dexterous fingers that Hermione loved.

Hazel, with a gloating backward glance as she disappeared behind Draco's bedroom door.

“Persistent.” Theo’s voice, sardonic and from somewhere in her periphery, pulled her back to reality. “I have to admire someone who knows what she wants and goes after it.”

A fierce urge struck Hermione; the desire to march up the steps and drag Draco away with her was dizzying. The hand not holding her drink flexed in restraint.

She took another glance at Hazel. Smug and gorgeous and very determined to steal Hermione's date. Ready to snatch up the life Hermione could possibly have for herself.

“Reminds me of a blonde Pansy,” Theo said, chuckling. “You two could end up spending a lot of time together. Perhaps she’ll become your new best friend.”

That was Hermione’s limit. She'd had enough. Enough of Theo’s commentary, of her traitorous imagination, and especially of the audacity of Ministry archivists.

Her heavy tumbler hit the table with a head-turning thud. “The fuck she will.”

It was louder than necessary, judging from nearby reactions, and certainly impolite. But considering what happened next, it was hardly Hermione’s worst lapse of self-control.

Horrifyingly, and of its own volition, her hand found the paddle in front of her. When it rose, so did her body. And as she felt herself balance on too-high heels, Hermione heard her voice announce a ridiculous sum.

Well beyond the most recent bid.

More than the total of her planned charitable contributions for the coming year.

Time seemed to freeze for a moment as she took in the expression on Draco's face. She was sure it mirrored her own, stunned as she was by her actions.

And then three things happened, almost at once:

Draco locked eyes with her, one side of his mouth curving up in the beginning of a smile.

Theo was reduced to brevity with a warm, satisfied endorsement. “Atta girl.”

And Hazel rolled her eyes before promptly outbidding her.

Sound filtered back into Hermione’s consciousness as other voices returned and numbers continued to climb. She felt the heavy gaze of what seemed to be every pair of eyes in the room; an oppressive weight that choked her throat and constricted her lungs. Draco hadn’t stopped staring at her, but a furrowed brow replaced his tentative smile.

Embarrassed, as a word, didn't do justice to the feeling that flooded her. Mortified might come closer.

Hermione turned on her heel toward the nearest exit. She stumbled out onto a balcony in her panic, cursing when she realized it wasn’t an escape. Merlin, her head was spinning.

The ballroom must have had silencing charms up. Outside, serene snowflakes fell around her, at odds with the frantic heartbeat thudding in her ears. Hermione sucked in shallow breaths of cold air.

What had she been thinking? She’d revealed her feelings to Draco. In front of all her coworkers and most of the Ministry, who must think her foolish—or worse, pitiful. She didn't even have anything to show for her humiliation, and it’s not as if she didn’t have the money to spend. She could have kept on instead of fleeing. Now she’d have to deal with Hazel’s victory on top of her own self-inflicted misery.

She was in such a state that she jumped when someone joined her on the balcony. Harry gave her a reassuring smile, hanging back as Theo approached.

"Granger, Granger.” Theo shook his head in feigned disappointment, but cut his teasing short as he read her face. He handed her a parchment. “Don't say I never did anything for you."

Listed as the winning bidder of a date with Draco was Theodore Ignatius Nott. A bold slash crossed through his name, with Hermione's added above it. Theo's graceful signature authorized the Gringotts transfer. Her eyes blurred at an astonishing amount.

"Merlin, Theo. This is...”

“It’s nothing, darling. I always expected to fund my vision. This”—he waved vaguely behind him at the ballroom—“was for fun. If the two stupidest smart people I know figured something out, well. So much the better.” His grin was wicked, but the warmth in his eyes felt like a hug.

Hermione exhaled shakily. “I don’t know what came over me. People must be feeling sorry for me.” The thought made her stomach twist anew.

“Of course not. They're too busy imagining what Harry and I have planned for Draco.” He charmed her with a flirtatious wink, and she managed a laugh, “Happy Christmas, Granger. Don't muck it up by stewing over it, yeah? The first time I propositioned Harry, he said, 'Er, I don't even know if I like men.’ Where would I be if I just sulked over that minor potential complication? Not riding the Chosen Cock tonight, that's for sure.”

Harry made a small choked sound from his spot at the edge of the ballroom. "Please stop calling it that."

Theo leaned in, a bit wobbly, with a conspiratorial whisper. "The crazy thing is, their cocks are practically identical. You will not be disappointed."

That he could even make that kind of informed comparison was brand new information to Hermione. Under any other circumstance, she would have been quite keen to hear more.

"Okay, that's—" Harry stepped in, looking at Theo with fond exasperation, wrapping a supportive arm around his waist. "Time to take you home."

“Yeah it is,” Theo said, nuzzling his husband's neck.

“Harry?” He looked at her and saw the question on her face. Help me. Tell me what to do.

Harry sighed as Theo’s efforts turned into more open-mouthed affection. “I—ah, I trust your judgment, Hermione. I think Theo's right, though.” She watched, wide-eyed, as Theo began nipping at Harry’s neck. “Erm, not—not about cocks. I don’t know about that.”

“Twins,” Theo interrupted, pulling away long enough to murmur into Harry’s throat. “It's uncanny. Good of you to take Draco off my hands, Granger. I couldn't handle them both.”

Harry chose to ignore this, and Theo rededicated himself to distraction. “I've seen the way Malfoy looks at you, and the way you look at him. If I notice, there's something there worth exploring. Merlin, sweetheart,”—this last was not directed at Hermione, she noted with amusement—“just a minute.”

“Something worth exploring with your mouth,” Theo added, belated and lascivious.

Hermione gave him a look. She was in the middle of a personal crisis and had no energy left for Nott shenanigans.

He sobered slightly, clearing his throat and straightening. "My apologies. I took full advantage of the open bar. I have no impulse control right now, which is why I bought you a Draco. And I'm telling you, I will lose my mind if Harry doesn't take me home and play Head Auror Potter—"

Harry clapped a hand over Theo's mouth. “Good luck, Hermione, but I don't think you need it. We all kind of thought you two would get here on your own a long time ago. Are you not allowed to date, as coworkers? Is there a rule against it?”

“There’s not.”

Draco’s voice was rough as he slipped out onto the balcony. He accepted a hug from Theo and an awkward shoulder pat from Harry before they took their leave.

Regardless of the words of encouragement, Hermione still felt exposed. She turned to watch the snow falling faster than before, rather than look Draco in the face.

“Are you okay?”

Hermione glanced over her shoulder with a half-hearted smile. It was unreal, how good he looked. Even with his brow creased in concern and hands in his pockets again. She cleared her throat, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’m fine. I needed some air.”

She felt him step close behind her, but she didn’t turn around. Not even at his touch of her elbow.

“Some air,” he repeated. Wry, but not unkind. He cast a warming charm and brushed his palms over her arms briskly before resting them on her shoulders. “Are we not going to talk about this?”

“Is that an option?”

“No. Was that—I know I asked you to bid if no one else was. Is that why?”

Hermione exhaled a shaky breath. She’d momentarily forgotten her promise that she would spare Draco from embarrassment. The chance to play off her impulsivity dangled: a tantalizing out. Even if he suspected otherwise, she thought he’d let her get away with it if she tried.

It was tempting. They were so much to each other already, with such enormous fallout potential if a relationship didn’t work out.

But Hermione thought of the way he had looked at her after she bid, with shock and a glimmer of something else. Something encouraging. Draco wouldn’t be asking her to clarify her intentions right now if he didn’t reciprocate her interest in some way, she thought. He wasn’t cruel.

Could she handle it if she let this chance pass by? If the mental images she had—whether with Hazel or someone else—manifested themselves down the road?

“No,” she said, deciding it best to be honest. “I was jealous.

He sucked in some air but said nothing as his hands left her shoulders.

Hermione closed her eyes. If she’d misread things and made even more of a fool out of herself, it would be the cherry on top of a fucking nightmare of an evening. She’d never come to a holiday ball again.

Then she felt Draco step closer, pressed against her back. The hands she loved so much tentatively gripped her hips. He leaned into her, forehead pressed into her curls, voice low. “Before I get my hopes up too high… Jealous like, ‘I know this date was just as friends, and I just lost my head in there for a little bit.’? Or jealous like, ‘You drive me mad and I want more with you.’?”

“Both of those are applicable.” It sounded ridiculous out loud, and she felt his sigh more than heard it, as her pulse skyrocketed. “Jealous like I imagined everything you could be doing with someone else, and I wanted you to be doing those things with me.”

His hands, resolute at her hips, squeezed. Fingers pressed against her in a way that wasn’t fleeting, or friendly, or anything else she’d settled for until now. 

Hermione was certain he could feel her rapid heartbeat. She covered one of his hands with her own to reassure him, so he might keep it there.  She was scorching under his touch. Part of her ached to kiss him. The other part was transfixed, unwilling to turn around and lose anything in this surreal moment.

 

 

He laughed then, warm breath tickling the nape of her neck. “It’s such a shame I’m not going to get to dance with you in this dress. Christ, Granger. This fucking dress.” A hand trailed up her side. “I should send Pansy flowers.” Fingers dipped beneath the edge of her bodice, skimming the side of her breast. The touch made her tremble. 

“Can we please get the fuck out of here?”

 


 

They exited the ball with purpose. By the time they stumbled out of the Floo in their flat, Draco was vibrating with impatient energy.

He crowded her instantly, pressing her back into the wall and pulling her against him at the same time with a firm arm around her waist. Draco kissed her with desperate intensity; a possessive, covetous slide of lips and tongue. Fingers gripped her like he’d been waiting years for the chance. As though someone might pull her away at any moment.

What a pale comparison everything else had ever been, Hermione thought, giddy as she wound her arms around his neck. Such senseless deprivation, to not be kissed like this until now.

Draco broke off, forehead resting against hers. He pressed another kiss to her mouth; soft, yet urgent. Like he was trying to maintain control but couldn’t resist her.

When she opened her eyes, his gaze searched her face.

“To be clear, you do want to—do you want to act on this? Because I know there’s this line and—”

Hermione huffed a breathless laugh. “The line’s crossed, Draco.” She drew a hand back, dragging her thumb across what was, quite honestly, the plushest cupid’s bow she’d ever seen. She needed to know how it felt between her teeth. “I don’t want to wait any longer.”

They staggered together down the hallway—Draco stepping on one of Crookshanks’ crinkly mice along the way—before stopping between the two bedrooms. He pinned her against the wall again, kissing behind her jaw and sucking a path down the line of her neck.

“Which room?” she panted. She could feel him through his trousers, hard and enticing. 

“Yours is closer.” Draco reached blindly for the doorknob, and she was relieved she’d left it tidy. He’d been in her room before, of course, but this was different.

She pulled her wand, lighting the fire and then setting it on her dresser, hastily pulling pins from her hair. Draco stepped behind her again, dropping his wand next to hers and settling his hands on her hips. It was the same proximity as on the balcony less than an hour ago, but any hesitance was gone. He pulled her flush against him, and the commanding motion elicited a shiver.

Draco kissed his way along her exposed shoulder until he found the zipper. “I hope I adequately conveyed how fucking spectacular you look in this dress, Granger. I wanted to take it off of you before we even left tonight”—she felt him grin against the nape of her neck—“but that would have been inappropriate at the time.”

“Pansy will kill you if it ends up on the floor.”

Clothes removed and dress hung, they took a moment to admire each other in the dancing shadows of the firelight.

Hermione often saw him shirtless, so the pale skin and faded scarring weren't surprising. But fully nude Draco was greater than the sum of his parts; unquestionably even fitter out of the suit than in it.

Her perusal did not go unnoticed.

“You’re checking me out,” he said, chuckling. “Everyone thinks you’re all buttoned up, but look at you. Leering at my naked form.”

“It is a fine form, indeed.” Hermione felt the heat of a mottled flush spread across her chest as she made her way to the bed, settling back against the pillows. “But we’re Healers, you know. If you’ve seen one body, you’ve seen them all.”

“Mmm,” he smiled, climbing over her. “Mine was worth a fair few galleons earlier, if you’ll recall.”

Hermione's head dropped back with a grimace at the teasing, but this was good. They were still themselves with each other. “I will never live that down, will I? I may have to Obliviate you.”

“You’re actually quite distracting." Humor evaporated as he dipped his head, pulling a nipple into his mouth. “I find my mind elsewhere already.”

The friction of Draco’s body against hers set Hermione aflame. She let herself learn the parts of him that were new to her, reveling in the play of his fingers across her skin. He wound her tight and she ached for release almost immediately. 

“Please, Draco,” she begged, panting as he left off sucking bruises into her thighs and ventured higher. “I need you to—please, please stay there.”

He lifted his head with a jerk, heavy-lidded eyes meeting hers. “That’s the hottest fucking thing I’ve ever heard. But no.” He curled a palm around the base of her throat, thumb stroking over her pulse as he laid kisses up her stomach. “I’m not ready for you to come yet.” A graze of teeth, a testing bite to the underside of her breast that made her whimper.

“I rather like hearing how nicely you ask for it, though.”

She kept pleading until she loosened her grip from his hair to slip a hand between them. So beyond ready for release, she was willing to claim it with her own fingers.

Draco sighed, a heavy, indulgent sound. “Let me enjoy you, Hermione.” He kneeled, collecting her wrists with one hand and pinning them above her head. “Okay?”

The use of her given name stilled her. Even in the dim room, she noticed the small flicker of uncertainty in his eyes. This was nothing she’d be comfortable with so soon with any other partner, but she trusted Draco. He wanted her to relinquish a modicum of control so he could focus on her pleasure. Hermione was more than fine with that.

In theory, anyway. His position straddling her thighs was a welcome weight pressing her into the bed, and it provided an excellent view of the firm length of his cock. A bead of moisture perched on the broad head, and it made her mouth water. Exploring it felt like a very worthwhile diversion.

She took a deep breath before nodding her assent. “I won’t move my hands. But—I want to taste you.”

Draco looked at her, confused, until she opened her mouth.

“Oh, fuck. Yeah, okay. Yes.”

He moved up her body, bracing himself against her headboard with one hand while he held the base of his cock with the other. He hesitated, stroking himself. “Are you sure? You don’t have to.”

She licked her lips. “I want to. Please.”

“Fuck, that’s—when you say that. ‘Please.’ Merlin, you have no idea.” Draco skimmed the head of his cock across her lips, leaving a smear of precome. Her tongue darted out to taste it, and the soft, pleased sound he made encouraged her. She opened her mouth, tongue slightly forward. He held her eyes as he rested the weight of just the head of his cock on it.

“Gods, Granger. You look—”

She closed her lips around the head with a soft mouth, tracing the ridge with her tongue. His hips gave a small, involuntary thrust, and she sucked harder, increasing the pressure as she took more of him in.

Draco looked debauched, and she wasn’t even laying a finger on him. Hermione felt like a goddess. Powerful despite her wrists still crossed on the pillow above her. She luxuriated in the sounds he made, the lust written across his face heightening her coiled tension. But she sensed the remnants of his restraint.

Hermione wanted to drive him mad. She wanted to wreck him.

She paused, pulling off with a drag of her tongue up the underside of his cock.

“Don’t hold back so much, Draco. Please." She swallowed, licking her lips. "I can take more.”

Draco shoved a hand into his hair, throat exposed on a heavy sigh. Fingers gripped the strands tightly for a moment. "Fuck," he groaned, scrubbing the hand back down his face. Hermione felt herself drip with arousal.

The angle was limiting, but he tested longer strokes. The hand he’d used to guide himself curved around her jaw, slipping into her hair as he murmured nonsensical praise.

“Oh, fuck. Your mouth is—so good. So hot. Always wondered if you'd be like this. Hermione. How are you so good at everything? Merlin. Oh, you tricked me.”

Her cheeks lifted in a smile around his cock, swallowing as he thrust deeper.

“You let me think I was in control, but you’re just trying to make me lose it. Trying to get closer to coming. I’m onto you, Granger.”

He withdrew with a reluctant sigh, moving to kiss her hungrily. “Thank you for that," he panted against her lips. Then he settled between her legs, drawing one over a broad shoulder.

"Fuck, you're pretty.” He pressed a sweet kiss to her inner thigh. "It’s brutal to think we could have been doing this for years."

For all that she couldn’t recall when he’d last been out on a date, Draco wasted no time taking her apart. He lapped at the evidence of her arousal, tonguing at her cunt to make her drip some more. Then he placed teasing licks to her clit, pausing between each one—long enough to make her squirm and beg to his satisfaction—before applying more pressure. Firm hands held her hips down, fingertips pressing into her flesh with a suggestive warning. “I’ll charm this fine arse to the bed, love.”

Hermione loved those fingers, finely boned yet so capable and sure. But she realized in all her preoccupation with his hands, she’d not given his mouth a fair focus.

She could admit it had always been attractive, even when the overall effect of his younger self was anything but. In the years since he knocked on her door looking for redemption, she’d learned the shape of that mouth sipping from a spoonful of soup, catching popcorn tossed in the air, pursed in concentration when he brewed, holding steady as he delivered bad news, curved in a smile reserved for her.

But the heady experience of feeling Draco’s mouth on her body, tasting it herself, allowing it to push her to the peak of bliss and then over the edge—it was a momentous shift. A heightened awareness. Certain to be a distraction.

He kissed her afterward, mouth slick and messy. Easy with his affection. Like they hadn’t danced around this inevitability for a very long time. Hermione threaded her fingers through his hair, licking into his mouth, drawing that full upper lip between her teeth. She couldn’t get close enough.

Draco sank into her then, a slow, heavy slide that arched her back and stole her breath.

“Oh,” she exhaled, “oh, this is—” The pleasure-pain of the stretch was euphoric. It erased any residual anxiety she had. There was no room for anything except the mind-bending sensation of utter fullness.

He held her eyes, letting her body become accustomed to him. “Yeah,” he said, soothing his hoarse voice with a swallow, “it is.” He caught her mouth in a kiss before dragging back out and rocking into a decadent rhythm.

“You’re unfairly good at this,” she panted. “All of it.”

“We’re a couple of overachievers, Granger,” he said, brushing curls out of her face. “Lucky us.”

 


 

Draco was a cuddler, belying his prickly demeanor. He cast lazy cleaning charms and pulled her against him, stroking her sides, burying his face in her curls with a deep inhale.

She coaxed him from bed for leftover takeout. They stretched out in front of the fireplace, sipping wine and talking easily. The only new thing was their nakedness beneath the quilt from her bedroom.

“I overheard you telling Smith, shortly after I started, that you wouldn’t date a coworker,” he said, propping himself up on an elbow. “And being a Healer is...I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”

“I’m sure I would have only said that to kindly make it clear I wasn’t interested in him,” she said. The idea of Draco leaving the hospital was startling. “There’s no rule against two employees dating, as long as one person isn’t supervising the other. It’s in the handbook.”

“Swot,” he said, kissing the tip of her nose. “I’m aware. I looked it up four years ago, after Quarantine Christmas.”

Draco had still been shadowing Hermione when a rare strain of dragon pox cropped up at St. Mungo’s. By the time tests revealed what it was, they’d both been exposed. They spent eight days in the locked-down hospital, waiting to see if they would become symptomatic.

“I should have been well prepared for a break from you after that. But when you left for the Burrow and I went to the manor, I missed you. All I could think about was getting back here and complaining about how fucked up our Christmas was.”

Draco found her hand under the blanket, slipping his fingers between hers. He traced the arteries and tendons in her wrist with his thumb. “So, just shy of four years. That’s how long I’ve been reminding myself I’m not allowed to fall in love with you.”

Four years. Hermione’s lips curved up in a smile. “Do you think it’s too much? Working together, living together, and starting a relationship?”

“No.” Without hesitation. “Maybe if we’d just moved in together. We can find someplace larger if we need more of our own space.”

She pushed his shoulder back into the rug and straddled him, dragging the quilt up over them. “I hope you have your thinking cap on. I have a certificate that entitles me to one date.”

“This wasn’t it? You have awfully high expectations. I just gave you my best, Granger.” He pulled her close, and she opened her mouth to him. Because she wanted to, and she could.

Snow blanketed the world outside and frost etched the windows, yet Hermione had never felt more warmth. Being wrapped up with Draco under the glow of the fire and fairy lights was blissful. Christmas was still a few days away, but she'd already received what was sure to be her favorite gift of the season.