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Apple Pies and Other Amends

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On the first anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts, Hermione Granger decides to take up baking. Not for some planned “event” – Merlin knows, no one in their right mind is throwing a party to commemorate that day. Nor does she do so in preparation for some witchy version of womanhood, as Molly Weasley has been urging her to do for years.

Instead, Hermione starts baking in the same manner she started everything else she’s ever done: like it’s a calling. Something akin to a religion that requires her determination and focus and whole self to accomplish.

So this is how it begins, at 4 a.m. on the second morning of May, with Ron Weasley stumbling blearily into the kitchen of her tiny flat. Hermione’s face is covered in smears of something purple and her curls, white with flour, rise to uncontrolled heights from the sweat of her efforts. She’s so absorbed in her task that she doesn’t even notice Ron’s entrance.

“’Mione?” he croaks, after a few minutes of watching her scurry between two separate mixing bowls, muttering something that sounds an awful lot like an incantation. “What are you—?”

She cuts him off with an impatient wave of her hand, not even glancing up from the bowls. Unfortunately the gesture flings a tiny glob of what Ron learns in hindsight is blackberry jam, right onto the front of his white tee shirt. Ron peers down at the purplish smudge, frowns, and then peers back up at her.

He tries again.

“What exactly are you doing, Hermione?”

She sniffs once and goes to scrutinize a third bowl full of dough. She seems distracted by her project, but he knows her well enough – almost as well as his own siblings – to recognize when she’s avoiding eye contact with him.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” she asks.

Ron swipes one hand down his face. Rubs the back of his neck. “Well, to be quite honest…going a bit mental. That’s what it looks like.”

That gets her attention, and her gaze finally snaps up to his. She narrows her eyes and her fists ball onto her hips – a parody of that childhood stance she’s always used against him.

“I’m not going mental, Ronald Weasley.” Her voice edges back into the familiar, swotty octave he hates, and even though she cringes internally at it, Hermione never can seem to escape it. Not with him.

“I’m making a blackberry crumble," she says, aiming for a more measured tone and failing a bit. "Clearly.”

He blinks once, twice. “A blackberry crumble?”

“Yes.”

“At four in the morning?”

A pause, and then: “Yes. Clearly.”

Ron also pauses, but not long enough to take the sting out of his next statement.

“Hey, is this about what we decided last night?” he asks her. “Because it doesn’t have to be forever, ‘Mione, if you don’t want it to be. Our break, I mean. I just…I feel like we need some time, yeah? Some space. Before all of it becomes too much, and I start to hate you for talking too much, and you start to hate me for not talking enough, and we’re stuck with it and—”

“It’s not about last night!” she snarls, cutting him off. But, abruptly, her expression softens. “Sorry, Ron. That was…it isn’t about last night, okay? Really. It’s just…it’s about today.”

“Today?” he asks blankly.

She gives him a pointed look, all raised eyebrows and pursed lips. As if to indicate, Yes, today. To. Full Stop. Day. Full Stop. But Ron still doesn’t seem get it.

Trying hard not to roll her eyes or sigh, Hermione points to the date on the Muggle calendar push-pinned to her kitchen wall. Ron blinks at it, still confused, until her fingernail starts tapping on the number “2.”

“Oh. Today.” He drags the words out in realization. “Today, today.”

“Exactly,” she says. Then, with a prim nod, she turns back to her mixing bowls. Ron waits for further explanation, but it isn’t forthcoming. There’s just a resumed whirl of activity as Hermione continues to blunder through her very first crumble. Without much else to do and with sleep now impossible, Ron heaves a sigh and sits at her tiny kitchen table.

He stays there until just after dawn, when she pulls the baking pan out of the oven and serves them each a plate of piping hot blackberry mess. It’s ugly and unstructured and runny because of the heat. But it’s also surprisingly good. He tells her so with far more enthusiasm than today’s date and last night’s conversation actually calls for. After they’ve each finished a serving, he helps her clean their plates and stow the leftovers. Then, with a grim set of his lips, he gathers up the few items he’s stored at her flat – a toothbrush and comb, some spare pyjamas and a few Quidditch magazines – and makes his way to her fireplace.

She follows behind and grabs a fistful of Floo powder for him, since his hands are full. They stand there for an awkward moment – him in the fireplace, her on the hearth – until she leans in to give him a small, lingering kiss on the cheek.

“Goodbye, Ron,” she murmurs in his ear. Before things can grow even more uncomfortable, she tosses in the powder and calls out for the Burrow. Without another word, Ron Weasley is whisked away from her flat to his childhood home. Where he is undoubtedly breathing much easier now.

Hermione stares at the empty fireplace for a solid ten minutes. She knows how much time passes because she counts each second backwards, starting at 600. Then, digging the heels of her palms into her dry eyes, she returns to the kitchen.

For the rest of the day, Hermione stirs and chops and kneads and pours. She ignores the handful of knocks on her front door and the numerous letters that keep landing in the basket beneath the open, owl-delivery window that she’s installed in her sitting room. Most of the correspondents are probably reaching out to her because of today’s date. But a few might be doing so because Ron has already shared the news.

Honestly? She can’t muster up the energy to care about the difference.

It’s a mandated holiday, May second, from now until whenever wizards can’t remember how to spell Voldemort, much less say it. It’s also Hermione’s first day off from the Ministry since she started working there after her rescheduled N.E.W.T.’s at Christmas. And by Merlin, she intends to put this day to whatever use she sees fit.

It isn’t until very late that night, when she’s surrounded by three pies, five dozen biscuits, two cakes, and one treacle pudding, that she allows herself to inspect the clock over her stove. She watches, breath caught in her throat, as the numbers tick from 11:59 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. As the second of May becomes the third of May. Then she carefully folds a stained tea towel over the edge of her sink, sits at one of the kitchen chairs, and begins to sob uncontrollably into her hands.

* * *

Two months and six days after their break-up, Hermione arrives at the flat Ron shares with Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnegan. Hermione decides to call on Ron the old-fashioned, Muggle way: via the front door. He answers on the second knock and, for a moment, her heart constricts. His eyelids are puffy with sleep, his hair is ruffled, and there’s a small, purplish smudge on his white shirt that no amount of Molly’s bleaching spells have been able to remove. Blackberry is notoriously hard to get out, or so Hermione’s heard.

She smiles at him shyly and holds up a towel-covered basket by way of a greeting. Ron, ever the bloodhound, sniffs the basket and lifts up a corner of the towel.

“Muffins?” he asks, his face still hidden by the fabric.

“Chocolate ganache-covered banana nut muffins.”

Ron drops the towel. “Sounds bloody disgusting.”

“I suppose you’ll have to try them to find out, won’t you?”

“I suppose.”

He lets her inside and they sit together on opposite ends of the sofa. She sets the basket on the makeshift coffee table in front of them (two milk crates pushed together, honestly?) and plucks out a muffin for him to sample. Never one for formality, Ron takes a huge bite without offering to hang her coat or make her a cup of tea. While he chews and analyzes, Hermione removes her trench and scarf, folding them neatly over one arm of the sofa.

Ron finishes the muffin in four bites, licks his fingers clean, and gapes at her with something like incredulity. Hermione laughs outright, then. His expression is a familiar one, flashed to her over so many spells and potions and please-let-this-save-our-lives moments during their school years. But she hasn’t seen that look in a while, and she can’t believe how much she missed it.

“That…‘ganache,’ you called it?” he asks, still wide-eyed. “It’s stupid good.”

“I know.”

“And the way the chocolate complements the banana nut? It shouldn’t work, but it does. It really does.”

“I know.”

Ron hums a small sound of assent and reaches for another muffin. “I should’ve known better than to bet against Hermione Granger.”

Her answering laugh is warm, without a trace of the bitterness that might have been there if he’d said that to her three months ago.

“Save some of those muffins for your flatmates, please. I made enough for a whole regiment, so they should tide you lot and Harry over until….” She makes show of checking her wrist, where a watch would be. “At least this afternoon.”

“Sod ‘em,” Ron mumbles around crumbs. “Harry’s with Ginny at the Burrow today, getting a head start on the wedding planning, and Dean and Seamus will sleep until sunset if you let them.”

He takes another mammoth bite and continues to talk around his food. “I say we kill off these muffins and hang out until you have the urge to bake again. Which you are welcome to do, by the way. Anytime.”

A third, joyful laugh escapes her; three of those are a record for them, given the last six months of their… relationship? Friendship? She likes “friendship” better, and so she tucks her feet under her skirt to settle in for a good chat.

Hermione and Ron spend nearly that entire Saturday on the boys’ ratty, hand-me-down couch, talking and eating muffins. They don’t discuss them, or what went wrong, or what could have been. Instead, they talk about their jobs and ganache and Ginny’s almost-certain place in the next Quidditch World Cup. They talk about tea and the wedding and how to properly test a cake for doneness.

Finally, after a very long time, they talk about the War. And that makes sense to her, in a sad way. It’s always been like this with Ron: always a clear line between what they can discuss, and what they can’t. For him, “Ron-and-Hermione” and the War don’t have places in the same conversation. Despite the Horcruxes and heartbreak and first kisses in the midst of hell, Ron has always insisted that the War and them remain mutually exclusive topics.

So they talk War. And they cry. And they talk some more. And something that has been holding a tight, sharp, War-shaped place inside her heart releases. Just a bit.

When she leaves that evening, Hermione and Ron are all smiles and hugs. And she knows, without having to confirm it with him, that they will be from here on out.

Chapter Text

She didn’t really mean for Ron to be the beginning. But soon enough, she realizes that he is. It’s not until she’s brought a basil and strawberry sponge cake to Neville Longbottom and his new girlfriend, Hannah Abbott, a dozen rhubarb hand-pies to Luna and Xenophilius Lovegood, and another basket of ganache-covered muffins to Dean and Seamus, that Hermione admits to herself what she’s actually doing: she’s making a thing of this. She’s intentionally, methodically visiting everyone who fought and suffered in that damned War. Anyone who lost someone, or was hurt, or had to hurt someone else. Anyone who served a cause they believed in – or didn’t – and survived. It’s a veritable PTSD tour. With pastries. And hand-skimmed clotted cream. And she has no idea why she’s doing it, but it’s becoming very apparent that she is.

So she admits that much to herself – the existence of her PTSD Pastry Tour – and then refuses to think any further about its meaning, or how long it will last, or why cooking seems so central to the mission. Her work at the Ministry keeps her more than busy during the week, so the pastry visits are relegated to Saturdays. Each Saturday brings a new visit or two, and just as many new confections.

After Dean and Seamus, Hermione visits Andromeda Tonks. For the older witch, it’s a banana pudding and whipped-cream trifle, topped with homemade vanilla wafers that Teddy Lupin picks off one by one to pop into his tiny mouth.

Next, Kingsley Shacklebolt and his new wife devour an entire orange blossom honeycake, decorated with candied rose petals in the shape of a heart. Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil share a flat and therefore an offering of mango lassi ice cream, which scoops nicely onto dried lavender biscotti. Lavender particularly likes the ice cream, which she says feels cool against the still-healing werewolf bite on her throat. Padma, unfortunately, gets a smaller version of this dish the next week, and Hermione assuages her own guilt with the fact that the twins always seemed to have the same taste in boys and desserts.

Lee Jordan gets a platter of Turkish Delight, Ernie Macmillan a tray of fudge, and Cho Chang a rich custard with freshly macerated blueberries. Hermione presents Dennis Creevey (who is still wan and listless when he opens the door of his parents’ house) with a warm, gooey banoffee pie that smells so rich, even in its container, that the boy actually giggles. Katie Bell, Terry Boot, Michael Corner, Anthony Goldstein: every member of the D.A. receives some decadent treat, created during the wee hours of the morning in Hermione’s kitchen. Cormac McLaggen, however, gets a relatively bland mincemeat pie, and she pretends to “accidentally” dodge his thank-you hug.

For Madam Rosmerta it’s a rum cake, obviously. Hermione gives Hagrid the largest pumpkin pie she could possibly make in her standard-sized oven, and he still finishes it in two bites. Headmistress McGonagall eats her éclair with a controlled kind of zest and then tells Hermione to call her “Minerva” from now on. This makes Hermione cry, which in turn makes Minerva…well, sniffle wetly. Before she leaves Hogwarts that day, Hermione hands Irma Pince some quince-paste scones. And finally, she leaves a note and a plate of Earl Grey-infused biscuits at the door of Sybil Trelawney’s empty classroom, thanking all the gods she’s ever read about that the Divination professor didn’t foresee that afternoon’s visitor.

It’s only after finishing with this litany of friends, each of whom is shifting into an “acquaintance” as adulthood approaches, that Hermione can stomach the harder visits.

First, she portkeys to Bill and Fleur’s lovely flat in Paris. The three of them spend the afternoon eating cardamom teacakes and ogling Muggle ultrasound images that show the tiniest smudge of the first Weasley grandchild. In Romania with Charlie, Hermione eats a chocolate-covered marshmallow on the run, darting from dragon pen to dragon pen and gasping aloud when he toasts his mallow in the fire from a Welsh Green. Charlie’s arm hair is singed and the chocolate has melted literally everywhere, but he claims it tastes better this way and she almost believes him. Her visit to Percy is far more perfunctory: an exchange of pleasantries and lemon-curd shortbread. A goodbye with a promise to chat soon, both of them knowing that what “chat” really means is saying “hello” from time to time in the Ministry halls.

Her day at the Burrow is probably the hardest. Hermione stays almost twelve hours, during which she, Molly, and Arthur cry into their salted caramel bread pudding at various intervals. Harry and Ginny attend for a long while, as does Ron. It’s the most relaxed she has felt in his presence in months.

The trip to Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes is hard, too, in a different way. At first George seems manic, refusing to rest but instead dragging Hermione from gadget to gadget, displaying his newest inventions. Finally, when the front doors are shuttered for the night and she’s transfigured two Exploding Snap crates into comfortable wingback chairs, he agrees to sit and eat the first savory thing she’s ever made. The quiche stands over seven centimetres tall, surrounded by a flaky, gold crust and filled with goat cheese, mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and loads of ham. George actually moans after the first bite. Before they’ve each finished a second slice, he’s laughed at least eight times and sniffled once. Unlike his parents, he doesn’t fully cry. But when Hermione leaves, he clutches her hand so hard her knuckles pop.

* * *

The weekend after George, she stays home and decidedly out of her kitchen. But her downtime feels restless, and dammit, she knows why. This isn’t over; not really. Because, by Merlin, she’s Hermione Granger, and she’s already committed to visiting everyone on this PTSD Pastry Tour. Even the unpleasant characters.

Sitting in her squishiest reading chair with a cup of her favorite tea, Hermione asks herself why she saved these people for last. Why she didn’t just start with the baddies, and then move on to better and brighter. Taking a contemplative sip, she reasons that it’s similar to why she always studied her favorite subjects first at Hogwarts: there’s just more fun in the things that please you. Even if those things are Ancient Runes or cathartic quasi-therapy sessions over tear-soaked sponge cakes.

On the other hand, she might have waited because this next set of people will require more from her, if they willingly open their doors at all. They’re basically pariahs in the brave new Wizarding world – pariahs whose assets have been seized or parents jailed; who’ve faced any number of other horrible consequences that come with being on the losing side of a war. Needless to say, these people will be work. Perhaps she needed the previous visits to mend her own heart before she attempted to soothe theirs.

Or…maybe she just waited because these particular people were prejudiced jackasses in the past, and she intentionally took this long to hone her baking skills so that they resemble the sharpsharpsharp knives she now wields. Metaphorically slicing through her old enemies with pie, as it were.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter why she waited. She’s going through with this part of the Tour, regardless.

For self-preservation purposes, Hermione decides to start easy. Marietta Edgecombe gets a jar of berry compote and a mumbled “Sorry about those marks on your forehead.” Which, admittedly, is probably more than Marietta deserves, since she wasn’t even at the final battle. Rita Skeeter finds an anonymous basket of saffron-poached pears on her desk at the Daily Prophet – pears that may or may not also contain the tiniest infusion of Veritaserum.

Next, wand tucked very securely within reach, Hermione takes on Blaise Zabini and Theodore Nott. The first receives an apricot crostata, the other a tin of macarons. Both men are perfectly civil to her, if extremely confused. They each give her polite nods and uncomfortable acknowledgments of the treats.

But in the most perplexing response to this Tour yet, Theodore Nott actually invites her inside his near-empty manor for tea. He obviously has no idea why she’s there – with pistachio macarons, no less – but his impeccable pureblood breeding seems to override his better judgement. And so he sits through the first half of their ordeal looking utterly lost, making small talk until Hermione finally takes pity on him and tells him why she’s come.

“PTSD?” he asks, obviously unfamiliar with the term.

She explains it to him and, as she talks, understanding begins to dawn on his face. Then to her surprise, Theodore Nott starts to talk as well.

He tells her about his mother’s accident when he was five, and his crazy Death Eater father, and his own refusal to take the Dark Mark. He tells her about his favorite food at Hogwarts – pistachio pudding, incidentally – and pick-up Quidditch matches over the gardens of Malfoy Manor when he was a child, and how he wishes everything could just go back to the way it was before. Hermione tells him that she agrees, so very much, but they can’t go back. And maybe that will turn out to be a good thing, someday.

“Maybe,” he says.

“Maybe,” she insists.

You could knock Hermione down with a feather when Theodore Nott actually hugs her goodbye. But when he tells her that he’d like to grab a pint together, she believes him. They set a time for the upcoming Wednesday after work and by Merlin, he’s there, with Blaise and Pansy Parkinson in tow.

As Hermione suspected, Pansy is all black silk and grey fur and toothy snarls. More often than not, any inroad Hermione makes with her is shortly followed by a feral “Piss off, Granger.” Despite all that, Hermione pulls out the rather large (and only slightly ironically entitled) box of peanut brittle that she’d been saving for Pansy. By the time the pints transition into tumblers of firewhisky, Pansy has finished half the box of brittle herself. And when Hermione encounters her at Madame Malkin’s the following Sunday, Pansy manages a slight nod. It’s not much, but Hermione knows that small head-tilt probably took more effort on Pansy’s part than all the “Piss offs” did. So it’s not nothing, either.

Hermione waits two weeks before the next stop on her PTSD Pastry Tour, which requires less strength of will than she originally thought it would.

Gregory Goyle’s flat is in a seedier part of Wizarding London, above a dingy apothecary and a place that sells magically never-ending buckets of chips. Goyle answers on her sixth knock, pulling back the door only a few centimetres. Even through that small crack, Hermione can see that he’s wearing track pants and a stained white tank – a far cry from his pressed Slytherin robes. She tries her very, very best not to grin.

“What do you want?” he asks, after an appropriately uncomfortable silence.

She holds up a large parcel, wrapped in black ribbon. “I’ve brought you a Black Forest Cake.”

Black for your heart, she adds in her head.

Goyle scowls, an expression that seems more uncertain than it does hateful. “Why?”

“Well, I’m trying this whole thing, you see. Reconciliation. Through baked goods and sweets. It’s…well, it’s kind of a thing.”

“Recon—what?”

Hermione is about to explain herself further, when another voice from inside the flat cuts her short.

“Greg, who’s there?”

From around Goyle’s sizable bulk, Millicent Bulstrode peeks out with watery, suspicion-filled eyes.

“What does she want?” Millicent addresses Goyle without taking those narrowed eyes off Hermione.

Likewise, Goyle keeps his own gaze on Hermione as he lifts one massive shoulder in a noncommittal shrug. “She said she wants recon—reconcise—”

“Reconciliation,” Hermione offers, lifting the box again. “And maybe healing. In the form of chocolate cake.”

Millicent emits an unflattering, piggish snort, but she still reaches around Goyle – her flatmate? boyfriend? – to take the cake out of Hermione’s hands.

“Consider us reconciled, then,” she growls, before shoving Goyle out of the way and shutting the door in Hermione’s face.

After a beat, Hermione tells the splintered wood, “That actually went far better than I’d planned.” Then, with a small giggle, she Disapparates back to her own flat for a much-needed break.

And take a break she does, for over two months. She doesn’t sit idle during that time, however, and not just because it’s already the Christmas holidays. In addition to working and shopping and spending time with her – finally, finally – un-Obliviated parents, Hermione is busy practicing. Because Merlin knows, for her next and final visit, she’s going to need to be prepared.

It’s during this time that she meets Harry and Ginny four times for dinner, Ron three times for tea at the office, and Theodore Nott twice for after-work drinks. In her head, he’s become “Theo” now, and she introduces him to a handsome clerk named Erik from the Ministry. After his and Erik’s first date, Theo sends her a bottle of food-grade rosewater and a note that says:

“Maybe” you were right.

Hermione also receives another, wholly unexpected note from Millicent Goyle, née Bulstrode, thanking her for the cake. Below Millicent’s pert handwriting is a single, sloppily scrawled line:

Best bloody thing I’ve ever eaten.

These are all good things. Very good things. But Hermione can’t let them distract her from the task at hand. So for ten straight weeks, Hermione plows through every tricky recipe she can find, from panna cotta to soufflé to baklava. She tries French delicacies and Indonesian desserts and things that she can’t even pronounce with a phonetic guide.

By the time she feels fully prepared, she’s confident she could apply for an internship as a pastry chef anywhere in the city. But on the morning of her final visit of the PTSD Pastry Tour, she doesn’t fill her cakebox with mille-feuilles or baumkuchen or chestnut cream-topped mont blancs. Instead, she packs something far simpler. Something she suspects will be flung back into her face, possibly quite literally.

Just in case, she decides to wear a waterproof trench over her mauve jumper, wool skirt, and thick tights. It’s late February, she chides herself as she dresses. This coat isn’t nearly warm enough. And yet she can’t seem to rid herself of the precaution. She wraps a bright purple scarf around her neck, takes three long, calming breaths over the cakebox, and Apparates somewhere she once hoped never to see again.

Chapter Text

Malfoy Manor isn’t exactly how she remembers it.

Admittedly, the last time she saw this place, it was the Easter holidays of her absentee seventh year and she was terrified out of her damned mind. But she’s certain that something about the Manor is different today.

Some things are the same. The enormous grey home still has its endless turrets and windows, and those imposing hedges still line the long drive. Hermione just can’t place the difference. And then she sees them.

The writhing, black entry gates that guarded the Manor – the ones made of malevolent enchantments – have gone. In their place are what appear to be perfectly ordinary, wrought-iron gates. The kind you’d see in front of any stately old home in the English countryside…if that home were Muggle.

For a minute, Hermione is baffled about what to do with them. She shifts the cakebox to one hand and her wand to the other, ready to perform any number of spells to get the Malfoys’ attention without touching those gates.

A quick Sonorus, perhaps?

Oi, Malfoy! Fancy some sweets? But of course you do, you colossal ferret.

Maybe not.

Faced with the normalcy of such gates – in front of Malfoy Manor, of all places – Hermione feels quite at a loss. The feeling does not dissipate in the slightest when a tinny voice calls out to her from what resembles an electrical speaker, set off to one side of the gates.

“Does Miss need some assistance? Miss has been standing there for an awfully long time.”

It takes Hermione a few seconds to recognize the high-pitched voice as that of a house-elf, and a few more seconds to school away the grimace that accompanies this recognition. There’s a good chance that the Malfoys have wards set to alert them to Apparitions, and an even better chance that they’re watching her right now from the windows of their huge home. It will do no good for Hermione to storm the place with a judgmental glare and a few choice words about house-elf injustice. Not if she wants to complete this Tour the right way.

Juggling the items in her arms, Hermione presses a small button below the speaker. “I’m…I’m….”

Her mind goes ridiculously blank, before she plunges on in just two breaths.

“I’mHermioneGrangerandIbroughtsomethingfortheMalfoys.” A gasp, and then: “SomethingforalltheMalfoysbutjustDracowilldo.”

She pants at the end of the speech, absolutely horrified at herself. Over two months of preparation, totally wasted in the face of plain, old gates. She’s just about to Disapparate in humiliation, when a different voice comes through the speaker. One that she instantly recognizes, mostly from hearing it hurled at her so many times in the past.

“Granger?”

He sounds the same, she thinks. But…different. Like the Manor itself.

Maybe it’s because his voice is a bit deeper than the last time he called her a dirty name. Or maybe it’s just the distortion of the intercom. That might also explain why he doesn’t sound scornful, but…amused?

Hermione takes a few seconds to calm down and then pushes the button again.

“Hello, Malfoy. I’m just here to drop off a gift. Could you open the…erm…well, perhaps you might…remove the wards from the…?”

She hears what distinctly sounds like a laugh – a real one, not a cruel snicker.

“I’ll buzz you in.”

And just like that, the gates of Malfoy Manor open with a low electronic whine. Hermione takes one hesitant step, then another, and then scurries past the gates as though they might try to bite her. She spares one backward glance at them, baffled to see an electrical pulley system moving them back into place. Which makes no sense, because…well, because Magic. And Malfoys. And Magic, dammit.

By the time she makes it to the expansive front steps of the Manor, she is sweating despite the cold, and her hair has freed itself of its ponytail to curl into a spectacularly ungroomed mess. Notwithstanding her mission of reconciliation and peace, she is quietly cursing the landed classes and their need for long-arsed driveways so as to intimidate any visitor with conquest on his mind.

It’s in this disheveled, unprepared state that the massive double doors of Malfoy Manor swing open upon her. At first, Hermione thinks that no one is there to greet her, and she blinks rapidly at the empty air in front of her. Then her gaze trails down to a girlish house-elf, smiling prettily up from the interior of the home.

“Would Miss like to come in?” the elf offers, with a sweeping gesture to the inside of the Manor. Hermione nods dumbly and follows the invitation, wondering in some still-functioning part of her brain why the house-elf appears to be so well dressed. The little creature is wearing a black suitcoat and pencil skirt, tailored perfectly to her proportions, and the tiniest black heels Hermione has ever seen. An emerald brooch winks up at Hermione from the elf’s lapel.

“Welcome to Malfoy Manor,” the elf says pleasantly, closing the double doors and plunging them into semi-darkness. The elf snaps her forefingers, and a few chandeliers illuminate the length of the opulent foyer.

“Let Maevy take your coat, Miss.”

Hermione is about to protest being waited upon, and also the loss of her water- and dessert-proof trench. But she thinks better of it after the elf gives her a stern look. Hermione bends down to accommodate the elf in removing her coat and scarf, which the creature promptly stows in a coat cupboard disguised as a panel in the wall.

“Thank you,” Hermione tells the house-elf. “You don’t need to serve me, but I appreciate the help.”

The elf quirks a strange smile up at the witch. “Is this Miss’s first time at Malfoy Manor?”

Hermione’s stomach flops. She is just about to respond when another voice answers for her, from deeper into the foyer.

“No, Maevy, this is not Miss Granger’s first time at the Manor.”

Hermione spins toward the sound and sees Draco Malfoy sauntering into the foyer from around a corner.

Even in the dark, he moves with that aristocratic ease she always envied at school. Like the world knows better than to demand hurry from him. Hermione tries to keep cool, to keep her heartrate under control. But her first sighting of a Malfoy in almost two years has her fight-or-flight response jumping into overdrive. It takes her entire reserve of courage to stay immobile and breathe normally. She has to remind herself that all her work is for naught if she turns heel and flees. Or if she hexes him on the spot.

Maybe just a quick Densaugeo, for old times’ sake? See how he likes having tusks?

Maybe not.

Hermione makes herself study him analytically while he approaches, as though he’s a spell diagram or a particularly complicated potion. In her analysis, Draco Malfoy looks much the same as she remembers – pale, unnaturally blond, with a face so symmetrical and patrician it’s unfair. And yet…he doesn’t.

When did he get so tall? she thinks as he comes closer. And what’s different about his face? Something’s…changed. Something’s not the same, and I have no idea what.

Draco stops just a few metres from her and gives her a humorless, tight-lipped smile.

“Unfortunately,” he says, after a beat.

Hermione blinks once, twice. It’s a habit she picked up from Ron, when faced with something she doesn’t quite understand.

“Unfortunately?” she parrots.

Draco’s carefully controlled smile fades. “Unfortunately, this is not your first time at the Manor.”

Hermione can actually feel the blood flooding her cheeks. Which is terribly ironic, given why he hates her. And what happened to her in this house, almost two years ago. Without her conscious bidding, her eyes drift to her right, toward the front parlour of Malfoy Manor.

It’s a lovely room, she can tell even from here. Wide windows let in the light from the garden, and pieces of priceless antique furniture dot the walls. The new cream-coloured upholstery and wallpaper suit the room so much better than the heavy greys and blacks of her memory. But to be fair, Hermione really only got a good view of the ceiling the last time she was in there.

As if he’s read her thoughts, Draco moves quickly to block her view of the parlour. It’s an oddly kind gesture. Or perhaps he does it to avoid that conversation. The one involving curses and swords and batshit-crazy aunts who met justifiably bad ends.

Almost forcibly, Hermione drags her gaze from the parlour, back to Draco. His stance is casual: shoulders rolled back, hands in the pockets of his black trousers, not a care in the world. But there’s a hard line to his jaw, as if he’s clenching it shut. When her eyes meet his, she suddenly places what’s so different about him.

Animosity.

She can’t find any trace of it on his face, for the first time in their almost-decade of acquaintance. There are new frown lines around his mouth and the shadow of exhaustion along his eye sockets and temples. But not one mote of hatred or even derision in his pale grey eyes. Just restraint, caution, and…maybe the tiniest hint of curiosity? She can’t actually tell, and that in and of itself is intriguing.

Hermione has always prided herself on reading people, but Draco Malfoy is a bit of a puzzle. Especially after their sixth year at Hogwarts. She certainly hadn’t seen the end of that year coming. Nor had Draco, if Harry’s testimony at the Malfoys’ respective War trials was to be believed. Hermione refused to read the ghastly trial transcripts, but she had helped Harry write and practice his testimony until they both couldn’t see straight. In it, Draco came across as a far more ambivalent villain than she’d originally thought.

It isn’t until Draco coughs politely just now, that she realizes she’s been staring this entire time at him. Her blush returns with a vengeance and she peers down at her ballet flats, the cakebox, the floor. Anywhere but his face.

“Yes, well…” she says lamely, gaze locking desperately with little Maevy’s. The elf gives her an encouraging thumbs-up, and Hermione is almost certain she will finally die in Malfoy Manor. This time, of embarrassment. But when Hermione hazards another tiny glance at Draco, he’s staring just as intently at her. The curiosity in his eyes has grown stronger. As has the caution.

“Why are you here, Hermione?” he asks quietly.

She would bet every Galleon she owns that it’s the first time he’s used her given name. Ever. It knocks her right off guard, and her mind begins to buzz unhelpfully.

Here? Why am I here? Why are any of us here, really? What is ‘here,’ exactly?

She actually has to physically shake her head to silence it. If she could see Draco’s expression when she does so – which she can’t, given the movement of all that dark, unruly hair around her cheeks – she might catch a brief flash of real amusement on his face. But it’s gone when she peers back him.

In answer, she raises the cakebox higher between them. “Reconciliation,” she finally says. “Peace. In the form of baked goods.”

The ghost of his old smirk appears. “Ah, yes. I’ve already heard about your…mission.”

She frowns. “You have? From whom?”

At this, he snorts lightly. Coming from Millicent Goyle, the sound had been positively barnyard. From Draco Malfoy, however, this snort is about as refined as a starred review of a good-vintage Bordeaux.

“You’ve visited half of Wizarding England with your cakes,” he drawls. “Including most of the surviving members of Slytherin House. And you expect me not to have heard about this little crusade of yours?”

Apparently, that derisive phrase – little crusade – is all Hermione needs to regain her mental footing. One of her hands threads through the ribbon on the cakebox, while the other fists onto her hip. It’s all she can do not to drop the box and poke him in the double-breasted chest of his stupidly nice suit, like she did when they were children.

“If you already knew about my ‘crusade,’ as you so flatteringly put it,” she hisses, “then why ask me what I’m doing here? I know you were second behind me in marks, Malfoy, but I didn’t realize you were in such dire need of repetition.”

Draco’s nostrils flare in anger and, to her astonishment, his cheekbones redden. When he answers, however, his voice is tempered and neutral. Well, mostly neutral, given the fact that he makes his response through gritted teeth.

“I simply asked what you were doing here, Granger, because you’ve already visited almost every other damned person who fought in the War. And it gave me pause, at first, that even Gregory sodding Goyle was on the receiving end of one of your supposed culinary ‘masterpieces,’ but somehow I wasn’t. Then I understood, with perfect clarity, that I was getting yet another lesson on my many failings. Being reminded of all the terrible things I said as a child. And let’s not forget the terrible things I did.” He glances briefly at the parlour, before those grey eyes lock back onto hers. “Or in your case, the terrible things I didn’t stop, right? And so it doesn’t matter that I can’t sleep because of three sodding years of nightmares, or that I drink so much my hands shake when I don’t, or that I wish I could undo every goddamned thing that happened in this house two years ago. It never matters to anyone, you see? Because it’s always clear, no matter whom I might be now, that the only bloody thing any of you people care about is who I was back then. And who I was back then doesn’t deserve one of Hermione Granger’s precious, magical cakes.”

At the end of this speech, he’s panting. Much harder than she was panting earlier, outside his gates. She waits for a few heartbeats, to see if he has more to add, but apparently he’s spent his anger and is now staring at her with a mix of frustration and mortification. They are both frozen like that for an interminable amount of time when, finally, she asks:

“Is that what this is really about? Cake?”

She smiles, very faintly, to let him know that she’s teasing. Only teasing. Draco blinks, in much the same manner that she did, and then scowls deeply.

“Why would I want one of your sodding cakes? I have house-elves for that.”

Hermione glances at Maevy, who has stayed close throughout this exchange and now flashes the witch another encouraging thumbs-up. Hermione’s lips hitch higher and she glances back at Draco.

“Then it’s a good thing I didn’t make you a cake.”

Without further ado, she hands him the box she’s been holding this entire time. Mindlessly, Draco takes ahold of its ribbons – silver, curled around a pretty arrangement of greenery on top. The motion of transfer jostles the box’s lid, and a tantalizing whiff of cinnamon floats out toward them. Hermione watches Draco involuntarily breathe in the scent, and she hides her widening grin by looking down at the elf.

“Maevy, would you be so kind as to fetch my coat and scarf?”

“Of course, Miss.”

Within less than a minute, Hermione is dressed for the cold. She turns back to Draco, who still stands motionless in the middle of his foyer, holding onto the string of the cakebox like it’s the tail of a viper.

“You could probably use a warming charm on those,” she suggests, nodding toward the box. “And they really are divine with vanilla ice cream. If you have any.”

Instructions thus delivered, Hermione spins on her heels, exits the doors that Maevy has so helpfully opened for her, and strides down the long drive without a backward glance. Only when she is outside the gates, at the designated Apparition point, does Hermione pause.

Behind her closed eyelids, she can almost see an image of the four perfectly baked tarts sitting in that cakebox, each containing ring upon concentric ring of apples. Each ring of thinly sliced apples piles upon the next to form the shape of a fist-sized rose, glazed with just the right balance of cinnamon, sugar, and lemon juice. Hermione lets one more image chase the pastries: that of thirteen-year-old Draco Malfoy, peering sneakily around the Great Hall at the end of lunch before shoving a few extra apples into the pockets of his robes.

With this last image dancing across her closed eyelids, Hermione Granger allows herself a final, triumphant sigh and Disapparates back to the safety of her own flat.

Chapter Text

Two days later, Hermione faces her usual Monday tasks with something like relief. She’s finally received permission from Kingsley to draft a new block of giants’ rights legislation (permission that has nothing to do with a certain orange blossom honeycake, she’s sure). Plus, Cormac McLaggen has inexplicably taken the mincemeat pie for what it was meant to be: a final and complete brush-off of his advances at work. But the real icing on the cake, not to make too great a pun of things, is that the PTSD Pastry Tour seems to have come to an end.

Granted, things with her last visit didn’t go exactly to plan. She was, after all, prepared to face Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy as well. Ready to field their insincere apologies, for all that unpleasantness two years ago, dear. We’ve come to comprehend that Mudbl—…I’m sorry, dear, you’re all Muggleborns now, aren’t you? Well, we’ve learned that your kind are just as useful as pureblood witches and wizards. One lump of arsenic or two in your tea, Miss Granger?

Hermione suffers no illusions that the elder Malfoys would have handled her Tour with the same guilelessness as Theo Nott. Undoubtedly, they would have delivered a few backhanded compliments, laced with sneers and disgust. Then again, Hermione had expected the same treatment from Draco. And what she received from him instead was…well, different. Not a warm welcome, necessarily, but not a hateful one either.

Still. Their strange interaction doesn’t make Hermione doubt that she did, in fact, accomplish what she went to Malfoy Manor to do. Her goal with the PTSD Pastry Tour was merely to deliver something delicious, made just for the recipient, and offer a listening ear if they needed it. She listened to Draco Malfoy, in a manner of speaking, and so the PTSD Pastry Tour was a moderate success.

Matter closed, in her opinion.

This opinion does not alter itself Monday afternoon, when a massive gray eagle-owl swoops into her office along with the more modestly-sized Ministry owls.

A huge owl like this one isn’t that unusual at the Ministry, per se. Hermione has noted, with some alarm, that owl selections are growing grander every year, often in reverse proportion to the vault-size of said owl’s owner. It’s a weird trend, one she sincerely hopes will fade soon, due to smell alone. What is different about this huge owl, however, is that he wears a polished brass collar. As a general rule, most owls would not subject themselves to such adornment.

The mammoth bird lands expertly at the edge of her desk and waits, with infinite patience, while the other owls drop their parcels and fly off. Unlike his companions, this owl doesn’t leave his missive on her desk. Instead, he watches Hermione for her next move. After a measure of silence, during which the witch and the bird regard each other warily, Hermione reaches out her hand to his neck. Her moves are tentative, implicitly asking for permission. The owl actually nods its assent, and so she flips up the small disc attached to his collar.

Pleiades, it reads. The famous star cluster.

Hermione frowns down at the name, before realization dawns. She lets go of the tag to pull a roll of parchment from its loop around Pleiades’ leg. Then she unfurls the paper onto her desk with no small amount of reluctance. Written in the center of the parchment is a single line of straight, well-schooled letters, so fine that they’re practically calligraphy. Which makes perfect sense, given the upbringing of the message’s sender. The calligraphy simply reads:

Why four?

No signature. Of course.

Hermione could pretend she doesn’t know who sent this. She could also pretend she doesn’t know to what “four” the sender is referring. Both options would serve him right for owling such a terse, presumptuous letter.

Instead, she takes out her EverInk quill and responds directly below his question:

One apple tart for each of us – your father, your mother, yourself, and me. But given your speech, I decided to let you have my share. In the spirit of reconciliation.

She smirks at that last bit before using her wand to dry the ink. Then she rolls the parchment back up and provides the scroll, along with a few treats, to Pleiades.

“No reply necessary,” she croons at him when he offers her a ducked head of feathers to stroke. “And no need to return.”

Her touch apparently pleases him, because Pleiades lets out one happy hoot before swooping back up and out of her office. Hermione watches his flight with the oddest blend of emotions: admiration for the grand owl; annoyance at its owner; and resignation to the possibility that the PTSD Pastry Tour might not be over.

* * *


Pleiades, it seems, does not take orders from Hermione Granger. That much is clear when he arrives at her flat later that night, ignores her commands to stay seated at her delivery window, and instead flutters to land on her bare, outstretched foot. Her leg is dangling over the edge of her squishy chair, and she thinks to shake him off; the owl is just as heavy as he looks. But somehow, she suspects that wouldn’t be the best move to make with a bird of prey. An aristocrat’s bird of prey, no less.

“It’s after decent owling hours, you know,” she scolds him. “No self-respecting bird would be caught delivering messages past 10 p.m.”

Pleiades tilts his large head to one side and gives her a fixed stare.

“You’re right,” she sighs. “I’m the fool who left that window open. In February. I’m practically begging for correspondence.”

Pleiades hoots in agreement and hops up the length of her calf until he’s reached the edge of her nightdress. Hermione strokes him a few times atop his head before he drops a small parcel into her lap. This second delivery isn’t a scroll. It’s an envelope, with her full name in perfect calligraphy on the front.

Hermione’s brown eyes dart up to the bird’s large orange ones. “Should I open it?” she whispers. The whisper is somewhat for theatricality, somewhat because she honestly doesn’t know what to do. Pleiades emits another encouraging hoot, so she slips her finger under the flap of the envelope and pries it open.

A small square of thick, ivory-coloured paper slips out, and Hermione holds it delicately between two fingers. Most wedding invitations aren’t this nice, so she makes a mental note to show it to Ginny later. Of course, the contents of this invitation might raise a few eyebrows. Especially the part where Draco Malfoy cordially invites her, Hermione Granger, to tea on Tuesday, February 29th. Tomorrow. At Malfoy Manor. At 6 p.m. A late hour for tea, he knows, but she is a working Ministry crony, isn’t she?

“Damn straight, I have to work,” she declares angrily, to the note or to Pleiades, she isn’t sure. “I’m not some blue-blooded trust fund brat, thank you very much.”

Of course, Pleiades’ eyes seem to say. But you are someone who enjoys tea. And solving complex psychological puzzles, like the former Death Eater who has sent you two notes in one day. One of which included a joke, for Merlin’s sake.

“Quite right you are,” Hermione tells the owl as she reaches into the basket beside her chair. She pulls out a spare piece of parchment and an extra EverInk and scrawls out a reply:

Yes. Place settings for two, not four, please.

The not-so-subtle request that his parents not join them is a bit rude, she admits. But there’s only so much preparation for Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy a witch can do within a year. Before Hermione has time to regret agreeing to this madness, the note and a few extra owl treats are winging their way through the dark, back to Malfoy Manor.

Chapter Text

Hermione is justifiably terrified to Apparate on Tuesday. She stands in the entryway of her flat, pacing this way and that. Apparition is a tricky mode of transportation at best, not to be taken lightly if the witch is tired or distracted. Both of which Hermione has been since sending off that damned “yes” last night.

She slept terribly all night and couldn’t concentrate at work today. This morning, she spent a solid forty-five minutes picking out her plum-coloured dress, convinced that this tea was another one of Malfoy’s schemes to mock her for her inferior birth. As though purple knit could disabuse him of that idea. She even thought about whipping up some lemon-glazed ricotta biscuits to hold in front of her like a security blanket, in case things went awry.

Finally, at five minutes until six, Hermione takes two calming breaths, tells herself not to be a coward, and Apparates back to the strangely ordinary gates of Malfoy Manor. She’s so jittery it’s a miracle she doesn’t splinch herself.

This time, no buzzy intercom is necessary. Just after Hermione appears the gates swing inward with a mechanized whirr.

“Onward ho?” she asks them. Pointlessly, she knows, since they’re apparently not made of any kind of magic she understands. Not that anything magic at Malfoy Manor is obligated to respond to her. And not that she’s rambling inside her brain in an attempt to delay the inevitable.

Holding tightly to the edges of her trench – waterproof once more, in an effort to avoid the unpredictable – Hermione makes her way down the Malfoys’ impossibly long driveway. She’s so distracted by nerves that she even forgets to insult the paranoia inherent in the Manor’s architectural designs.

When Maevy finally opens the great set of front doors, Hermione is damn near ready to jump out of her skin. Her case of nerves only slightly improves when Maevy greets her brightly.

“Miss Granger. Maevy is glad to see Miss at the Manor again so soon. Very glad.”

“As am I, Maevy,” Hermione lies as she steps into the foyer of Malfoy Manor. Tonight, the chandeliers are already lit and battling the falling dark of the last evening in February. In the glow of the chandeliers, Hermione startles at Maevy’s clothes. The little elf is wearing a new suit of rich purple silk, with a black fur ruff and smartly matching heels. Undoubtedly, the outfit costs more than Hermione makes in a month.

“Maevy, you…you look quite lovely this evening.”

The elf glances down at her clothing almost absently, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world for an indentured servant to wear couture.

“Maevy’s glad you think so, Miss. Maevy noticed that Miss wore purple the last time she visited, so Maevy thought she’d wear Miss’s favorite colour tonight. And look!” the elf exclaims as she helps remove Hermione’s coat. “Maevy was right.”

“You were,” Hermione agrees, smoothing imaginary wrinkles from her own purple dress. “But Maevy, exactly how many suits do you own, that you can pick and choose colours according to mood?”

Maevy simply gives the witch a placid shrug, stows away the trench coat, and then sweeps her small arm toward the marble staircase at the end of the hall. “Will Miss please follow Maevy to tea?”

“Are we…are we not going in there?” Hermione flails one hand blindly at the parlour behind her, not quite ready to face it yet.

“Oh goodness, no.” Maevy shakes her head so hard her bat-like ears flap. “Never in there. No one goes in there anymore.”

Hermione breathes an audible sigh of relief, before asking, “Where to then?”

“To the smaller of the two libraries, if Miss pleases.”

Now that is a revelation. Not that the Malfoys have a library – all grand English homes do - but that they have two. And that the Malfoys would deign to serve tea in one, where books and ideas and logic might pollute the pureblood conversation.

It’s a mean thought, and Hermione chides herself for it as she follows Maevy down the hall. Of course, she has plenty of time to atone for the sin on their journey of endless steps and hallways and yet another formal staircase. Hermione is half-convinced that she couldn’t escape this house with a map, a Sherpa, and a month’s worth of provisions, when Maevy announces that they’ve arrived.

“The Smaller Library, Miss. Please, go in.”

With a hesitant lip-bite and a last glance at Maevy’s large, cheerful eyes, Hermione does just that.

For a second, her pupils have to adjust to the renewed light. The hallways were quite dim, and the “smaller” library is lit by a roaring fire the size of her parents’ car. In front of the wide fireplace two green armchairs wait. A narrow table sits between them, already stocked with a tea service. Around this pleasant setting are rows upon rows of books, most hiding in the shadows cast by the fire.

“It’s cruel, I know,” a voice says from one of those shadows. “To bring Hermione Granger to a library without the express purpose of letting her read.”

He steps into the light, and she’s taken aback. In front of the flickering light, she half-expected him to appear demonic – a Death Eater whose silhouette danced in the glow of hellfire. But despite his ubiquitous black suit, Draco Malfoy looks perfectly normal. Pleasant, even.

“Hello,” he says, gesturing for her to sit in one of the overstuffed chairs. His tone is so disarmingly calm, his demeanor so relaxed, that she’s unsettled. Counterintuitive, but there it is.

“Muggle gates?” she blurts out, and then cringes.

Hello, Hermione, she screams at herself internally. The appropriate response to ‘Hello’ is, not ironically, ‘Hello.’

Draco’s sharp features are blank for a moment. Then a slow smirk spreads across his mouth. “Ah. Of course you would notice those.”

“Because I’m Muggleborn,” she concludes flatly, but he shakes his head.

“Because you’re you. Aren’t you famous for, I don’t know, noticing things?”

“How so?”

“Do the Deathly Hallows ring a bell? Or were all those Daily Prophet articles as inaccurate as my father claims?”

Hermione can’t help her awkward laugh. Especially at the memory of Rita Skeeter’s recent, rather confessional article about the Animagus registry.

“Some of the Prophet’s stories were true,” she concedes. “Most were false. So score one for Lucius Malfoy.”

Draco shakes his head.

“It’s rarely been ‘score one’ for Lucius Malfoy.” He holds up a hand when she makes to argue. “Oh, I’m not talking about the fabulous wealth or the ancestral home or the wife who inexplicably loves him. I’m referring to the elusive category of ‘solid decision making.’ He’s been a little lacking in that department for the past few years.”

Hermione has the good sense to take her seat without nodding in agreement.

“So, tell me,” Draco says, sliding gracefully into the chair across from hers. “Were the stories of your Great Big Love with Potter false, too?”

“I believe you’re the one who started that particular rumour, our fourth year at Hogwarts. The story was false then and false now. Ginny Weasley happens to be the future Mrs. Harry Potter. As for me, I quite enjoy the role of best friend, thanks.”

“Along with the Weasel,” he drawls. “Speaking of which, when will you two be settling down in a humble shack to create more red-headed nuisances?”

Hermione blushes and stares briefly at her lap. “We won’t, actually. Ron and I broke up on the first anniversary of…well, we broke up this past May. We’re doing quite well as friends, if you’d like to know.”

Draco opens his mouth to speak, but she cuts him off.

“And I’d like to remind you that tea is supposed to be a civil affair. Despite your behavior at school, that must have been part of your pureblood education. Along with calligraphy or falconry or whatever.”

That quip earns a booming laugh from him, and she goes almost numb with shock. His laugh is…nice. Rich and full and room-filling. It comes as a total surprise to her, that Draco Malfoy has a genuinely nice laugh. Especially when it isn’t directed at her hair or front teeth or parentage.

“The Malfoys opted to skip falconry,” he says. “In favor of dueling.”

“Really? I thought fencing was too eighteenth-century for modern aristocrats.”

Draco laughs. Not as loudly this time, but still sincere. “Actually, I meant wand duels. Like we did our second year and during the Wa—” He stops short, and then amends himself. “After our school training.”

“Oh.” Hermione knows exactly to which duels he’s not referring. And for now, at least, she’s happy to leave off the subject. They haven’t quite made it to the cry-about-the-War point in the conversation yet. Somehow, she thinks it’s going to take more than a few golden-crusted tarts to get there with him.

Draco doesn’t elaborate – doesn’t really need to – as he goes to pour them each a cup of tea. Wordlessly, he holds up a pair of tongs with one sugar cube and she nods twice. He interprets the gesture correctly, drops two cubes into her cup, and then doctors his own.

“Electricity,” he says suddenly, still stirring his drink.

“Pardon?”

“Electricity. It’s what powers the Muggle gates out there.”

“I guessed that much.”

He nods without looking up from his cup.

“The original gates – I’m sure you remember them – were composed almost entirely of ancestral Malfoy wards. No small amount of Dark Magic in them, of course. As part of our sentencing, we were required to allow a team of Aurors on site to destroy the old gates. Then the Ministry had Muggle electricians, whom the Aurors later Obliviated, install the new ones. Mostly as a dig to my father, I think. The new gates are a pain in the arse, to be frank. They’re always – what’s it called? – 'shorting out' in the rain. Of which we have loads in Wiltshire. So, mission accomplished by the Ministry, I suppose.”

It’s a little funny, she has to admit. But it also seems like a sore subject. Hermione picks up her cup and saucer, determined to compliment him on the tea’s taste or temperature or something. Luckily, the tea is fantastic – a floral blend she thinks she recognizes from one of her family’s holidays in France – and she takes another eager sip. That’s when she spies the maker’s mark on the bottom of the cup and nearly drops the whole thing.

Draco must see her fumble, because he asks, “What is it? Too hot?”

“N-no,” she stutters, setting both the cup and saucer back on the table. “I just realized that your tea service probably costs more than all the furniture in my flat. Maybe more than the flat itself. Maybe even the building.”

He snorts again – he’s so clearly better at that sound than Millicent – and lifts his own cup. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. More than a few of these are probably fakes, given the Lestrange brothers’ habit of wandering off with the china.”

Draco doesn’t notice her jerky flinch when he says that surname. But she notices the faint clattering that his cup makes against his saucer, as he tries to hold both steady. Hermione wasn’t sure how much of his speech last Saturday was true, but apparently Draco Malfoy didn’t lie about his shaking hands.

Without thinking, Hermione reaches across the space between them to place her small hand on his larger one. This time, it’s Draco who’s so surprised he nearly drops his cup.

“You can add some,” she says softly, pulling her hand back. “If you need to. I’ll even look away. If you’d like.”

He stares at her for a long minute, his face hard and unreadable in the firelight. Then, without taking his eyes from hers, he shifts the saucer to the table and pulls a small silver flask from the breast pocket of his suit. He adds a hefty pour of amber liquid – firewhisky, she thinks – to his tea. He screws the cap shut and returns the flask to its home.

“Aren’t you going to tell me this is bad for me?” he asks as he picks the cup back up. “That this stuff will rot my brain and my insides until I’m nothing but a slurring, skinny parody of my father?”

Hermione shakes her head. “Why would I, when you just said it for me?”

Draco makes a small, humorless noise and begins to drink. After a few sips, his tremors start to subside.

Feeling very much like she’s intruding on something private, Hermione regards the fire, her cup, anything but him. That’s when she sees a silver tray sitting behind the tea service. Upon the tray lie a dozen or so darkly browned biscuits. They’re painfully thin and misshapen, all topped with a single, scorched almond.

Her gaze flits back to his. “Are those what I think they are?” she asks.

He smirks again – or maybe not; maybe that expression is a little too wide for a smirk – and adds a light shrug. “Depends. What do you think they are?”

“Biscuits. Possibly.”

Draco doesn’t confirm or deny. Instead, he tilts his head suggestively between the almond biscuits and Hermione and then back to the biscuits. When she catches onto his meaning, her eyebrows dart upward.

“Do you want me to try those?” Without waiting for his answer, she reaches down, takes one, and taps it noisily on the edge of the tray. “Or do you want me to shingle a roof with them?”

He gives another annoyingly perfect snort. She thinks he’s going to rant – how dare you insult the sugared offerings of the only Malfoy heir? – but his response throws her for a loop.

“Right?” he commiserates. “And that was my fourth try. Forty-eight biscuits and only twelve of them turned out edible.”

The burnt biscuit pauses on its way to Hermione’s mouth. Which is now hanging open. “You…you made these?”

Draco rolls his eyes. “Well, if Maevy made them, you wouldn’t be seconds away from chipping a tooth.”

“My parents are dentists, it wouldn’t matter.” She waves dismissively when he starts to ask the inevitable wizard question about dentists. “But why, Malfoy? Why make four dozen of these things?”

He smirks. Or...no. No, this one is actually a grin. There’s a difference between those two movements of his mouth, she’s starting to realize. No matter what, the right side of his lips always moves a bit higher than the left. But when Draco grins, she can see a sliver of his teeth. His smirk is as withering as it was when they were children. His grin, however? It’s nice.

Oddly so.

“Granger,” Draco says, oblivious to her analysis of his mouth. “For years I came in behind you or Potter in almost everything I did. So it stands to reason that I should at least try to beat you at something. And to no one’s astonishment, I failed.”

He sounds resigned, but Hermione takes a nibble of the biscuit anyway.

“This isn’t necessarily a failure,” she mumbles around a tough bite. “Not if you want to become a roofer.”

“A possible option, maybe, if the Ministry orders more reparations.”

She swallows roughly. “Reparations?”

“Didn’t you read the transcripts of my family’s trials?”

“Only a few lines from each of your parents’,” she admits. “And none from yours.”

“Why not?”

“Because I found the whole circus disgusting, honestly. You were seventeen, for Merlin’s sake. That’s hardly the age of majority in Muggle or Wizard society, and I didn’t think the recommended sentence of two years in Azkaban was even remotely fair given the—”

“Yes, well,” he cuts her off, clearly embarrassed.

They are silent, before she prompts, “Reparations?”

“Oh, sorry. I forgot.”

He doesn’t seem to realize how rattled she is by his use of the word “sorry.” With her. To her. Instead, he takes intermittent sips of his tea as he explains.

“Part of our sentencing, in addition to my father’s one-year prison stint and my mother’s and my six-month house arrest, was reparations. In the form of Galleons, of course.”

“How much?”

“Half the contents of our Gringotts’ vault.”

Hermione all but spits out her tea. “Half?!?”

This time, he definitely smirks. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it, Granger. We’re still filthy rich.”

“That’s good, I suppose.” She nods absently and tries very hard not to think about the fact that Draco Malfoy just called her pretty. Well, he called her head pretty, anyway. And “pretty little head” is something distinctly different than “filthy little Mudblood.”

After that they don’t speak for a while, sipping their tea in silence – not an uncomfortable one, but not exactly comfortable either. She distracts herself from the disquiet by noting that, although he’s poured them both more tea, Draco hasn’t added more firewhisky to his cup. Given the renewed shake of his hands, he probably wants to crawl out of his skin right now. Hermione can only imagine how much restraint he must be exercising by not drinking more. So it must take some strength for him to break their silence first.

“You know,” he says offhandedly, “Pleiades is quite taken with you.”

“I like him, too. Far more than I expected, considering how pushy he is.”

“They say that owls mirror their owners’ personalities.”

Hermione’s lips twist in a parody of Draco’s trademark sneer. “I’m well aware. Although I didn’t expect him as your messenger. I thought you would have trained the white peacocks to fly by now.”

Draco actually shudders. “Absolutely not. I hate those bloody things. As does Pleiades, by the way. They peck him mercilessly whenever he goes near them.”

“Brutes.”

“Quite.”

“If they’re so terrible, you should re-home them at a wildlife sanctuary.”

“But then how would we flaunt our wealth outdoors?” he jokes. “Elaborate topiary?”

He takes another smug sip of his tea. Then his expression changes into one of exaggerated innocence. “So is Greg, by the way. Taken with you, that is.”

Hermione does that faltering blink thing again. “Goyle?”

Draco nods, all mock solemnity. “Afraid so.”

Gregory Goyle?”

“Are you acquainted with any other Goyles who might be taken with you?”

“Aside from Goyle Senior?”

Now it’s Draco’s turn to wave his hand dismissively. “In Azkaban. So…no.” Then his mock-solemn frown twists up wickedly at the edges. “Millie’s none too pleased about this new infatuation, obviously.”

“Oh, no,” Hermione moans, her hand fluttering to her mouth. “That’s not what I intended.”

“It’s what you accomplished, nonetheless.”

“But…how? And why?

Draco’s face goes slack.

That swot, Granger, yeah?” he says, in an uncanny impression of his hulking friend. “She’s gotten quite…uh…pretty, hasn’t she, Dray? You ‘member her, like, saving me, in the Room of Hidden Things? That was nice of her, yeah? And her cake, Dray. Her sodding cake…”

“But it was Black Forest!” Hermione protests, before he can go on. She tries to ignore the fact that he has, however inadvertently, now called her pretty twice in one evening. “I only meant it as a peace offering. And…and as a metaphor!”

Draco barks another loud laugh. “What, black for his soul?”

For the second time that night, Hermione’s mouth hangs open. From the information he’s just shared, as well as the fact that Draco Malfoy gets it. He actually gets it. And he finds it funny.

Even more so, they’re talking to each other. And it’s easy. And nice. Like, nice nice.

And therefore weird. Weird weird.

To cover her sudden confusion, Hermione picks her cup back up and begins to sip. But things have been going so well, she can’t resist just one more shot. Smiling lightly against the rim of the teacup, she asks, “So…you do just want me for my cake, then?”

“I thought that much was obvious.”

“Oh, Draco, Draco,” she says, setting down her cup and secretly relishing how her use of his given name makes him stiffen. “Judging by the quality of those almond biscuits, you have a long way to go until you graduate to cake.”

His smirk fades so quickly, she worries that she’s said the wrong thing. But he surprises her yet again.

“If that’s the case,” he says, enunciating each word, “may I make a request?”

“You may.”

“Teach me.”

“Pardon?”

“Teach me,” Draco repeats. “‘In the spirit of reconciliation,’ as you wrote yesterday. You’ve been making these pastry-filled pity stops every Saturday for the past few months—”

“How did you know—?”

“Theodore Nott,” he interrupts her interruption. “Anyway, as I understand it, I was the last person on your to-do list. I mean, Pansy was higher up than me, for Merlin’s sake. So I’m asking that you take those newly empty Saturdays of yours and do the same thing you were doing before: rehabilitating the broken – this time, that’s me – with dessert foods.”

“My Saturdays aren’t empty,” she mutters petulantly.

Draco puts his hands up in faux surrender. “Sure they’re not. But mine are. And you are on some kind of mercy mission. So why not distract me from my troubles? I can’t think of a better way for you to do so than to help me outdo you in something. For once.”

Instead of answering, Hermione takes stock of him: the planes of his face, grown sharper yet finer with age; the long, thin lines of his fingers; the amused yet somehow earnest set of his mouth.

“Why?” she asks plainly.

"Because I love sweets?” he jokes, but she only scowls in response.

Draco sighs and drops his hands, which are now fully shaking again, into his lap. “Because I’m a goddamned mess about ninety-percent of the time, and I need something to do other than drink myself to death.”

His honesty takes her breath away. Without thinking – and Hermione really should be thinking, given that this is Draco Malfoy – she nods.

“Okay then,” she says. “Saturdays. Starting this weekend, in the Manor kitchen. The work will be mostly wandless. That means you have to clean up after yourself – you, not Maevy. I’ll be here promptly at 9 a.m., and I expect you to answer the door – you, not Maevy. She needs breaks, too.”

Draco chuckles. “She won’t like that.”

“Since when do you worry about what house-elves like?”

He simply shrugs and stands. “Saturday at nine, then,” he says, gesturing to the library entrance where Maevy has suddenly reappeared. And just like that, their tea has apparently concluded.

“Nine,” Hermione confirms. She follows Maevy, glancing back at Draco just once before exiting the library. He's watching them, with a gaze that she can only describe as intense.

Draco’s right hand moves almost subconsciously to the breast pocket of his suit, where the flask of firewhisky waits. It strikes Hermione, not for the first time, that this strange man is very different from the rotten little boy she once knew.

Chapter Text

Hermione refuses to be something so clichéd as a bundle of nerves, twitching her way through the week before her first baking lesson at Malfoy Manor. After all, why should she be nervous? This is exactly what the PTSD Pastry Tour is about, albeit in a heightened way: healing, eating, and magically cooperating. Order Members and Death Eaters, moving on from the sins and scars of the past to find better lives.

She reasons that few former Death Eaters have as many emotional scars as Draco Malfoy. The man practically screams therapy. And since Hermione imagines that he would probably rather eat slugs than go to a psychiatrist, baking seems as therapeutic as any other activity. It’s practically her duty to help him, isn’t it?

So goes the logic-loop in Hermione’s brain for the entire week, until she wants to cancel the lesson, throw away all her cookware, and move to an isolated island where no one can find her. Instead, she does the next best thing and sets up a few distractions.

First is Wednesday afternoon tea with Ron and Ginny at the Ministry. But all Ron wants to do is talk about his idea for a ganache-based smoothie – Hear me out, ‘Mione. Dad has one of those Muggle blending things – and so that’s not much help. Friday evening is drinks at the Leaky Cauldron with Theo and Erik, who seem to adore each other and trying to make her laugh until she snorts. The night ends up being great fun, much more than she expected. But even though Draco’s name doesn’t come up, Hermione can’t help but think of him each time she stares too long at Theo’s expensive jacket or well-bred jawline.

Finally, when she needs it most, there’s a Saturday morning breakfast at her flat with Harry, only two hours before The First Lesson. Harry has no idea that he’s her pre-date for Draco Malfoy, nor is Harry exactly a morning person. But his best friend has asked him for a favor, so he arrives dutifully at 7 a.m. with a bag of scones and two cups of steaming coffee – black, the way they both prefer it this early in the morning.

“So,” Harry says, after exiting her fireplace, tossing the bag of scones onto her table, and flopping onto the sofa. “Have you picked out the bridesmaids’ dresses yet?”

She groans as she joins him on a neighboring cushion. “I can’t wrap my head around why Ginny would want me, of all people, to decide something like that. I get that I’m the maid-of-honor, but honestly? She knows I’m just going to settle on something purple.”

“And knit,” he says with a fond grin.

Hermione punches him on the shoulder but nods in agreement. “And knit. I mean, we do live in England.”

“And my wedding’s in August, Hermione.”

“Fine, no knit. Trench coats, perhaps?”

“Oh, yes,” he enthuses. “Perfect. Because you could get one for Gin, too, for the honeymoon. And then convince her to wear nothing underneath it so we can—”

Hermione whacks his shoulder a second time. “Ew, Harry Potter. Just…ew.”

“I’m a man in love. What can I say?”

“Maybe something that doesn’t involve me picturing two of my best friends naked?”

“Hm,” he muses, pausing to take a huge gulp of coffee. “You could distract me from my naked fiancée by telling me why in the bloody hell it was necessary that I be at your flat before the crack of dawn. Yeah?”

“Dawn broke twenty minutes ago.”

“Metaphorical crack, metaphorical dawn. And quit stalling.”

She sighs and leans into the back of her sofa. “Do you remember the side project I’ve been working on?”

“The PTSD P.T.?”

Hermione smiles broadly. Harry understands her love of acronyms, and his understanding is one of the things she loves about him.

“The one and only. It seems to have taken a turn for the…weird, lately.”

“How so?”

“Malfoy, for starters.”

Harry nearly spits out his next gulp of coffee. “Malfoy? Draco Malfoy?”

“No, Lucius.”

When Harry blanches, Hermione laughs. “Kidding, Harry, only kidding! Merlin, can you imagine? Although, Lucius may be a possibility at some point….”

Harry is still ashen when he asks, “Hermione, are you going to clarify? Or just keep letting me assume that Lucius Malfoy Imperio’d you into making him dessert?”

Hermione takes a prim sip of her coffee. “That depends. Are you going to ask me to provide a sample soufflé for the Auror Office to analyze?”

Harry groans so Hermione relents and tells him the whole story, from her first disastrous visit to the Manor, to tea this past Tuesday, to Draco’s odd request. She’s very thorough, except for the intentional omission of a few minor details: the type of dessert she brought Draco last Saturday, and the way he called her pretty. Or not called her pretty. Whichever. She doesn’t know why, but these small things feel personal, and she wants to keep them to herself.

“Whew,” Harry breathes once she’s finished. “That’s…wow. That’s something, isn’t it?”

Hermione toys with a loose thread on the blanket covering the back of her sofa. Finally, she asks, “Harry, am I doing the right thing here? With Malfoy?”

“Well, that all depends, doesn’t it?”

“On what?”

“On whether you see this thing as part of the PTSD Pastry Tour’s core mission, or whether it deviates.”

She hums a thoughtful sound. “You know, I’ve been over this exact question all week, and I think it might be a little of both. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially if I can help him. With the drinking, and the self-loathing.”

“And the lingering bigotry.”

“And the suits that really are too formal for weekend wear.”

Harry laughs loudly at that one and, in a gesture of approval for both the joke and the mission, he reaches over to clutch her coffee-free hand.

“Is this…is this about that thing you told me, when we were in the Forest of Dean?”

Hermione hesitates, her hand stiff under his. She knows what he’s asking – which of the deep, dark secrets they shared with each other in the deep, dark forest. What she doesn’t know is whether she’s ready to admit out loud that this secret has almost everything to do with why she said ‘yes’ to Draco Malfoy. So instead of speaking, Hermione just nods her confirmation.

Seeing this, Harry sighs. “It’s the right thing, then. You’re doing the right thing.”

“Good,” she says, relieved in a way that she could never explain to him, and would never need to. They’re quiet for a while, finishing their respective coffees in peaceful silence. Then, out of nowhere, he says:

“Goyle, huh?”

“Ew, Harry….just, ew.”

* * *

Harry Floos out of her flat just a few minutes before she’s meant to leave. She takes a moment to check her Undetectably Extended handbag, which she packed last night with the supplies for today’s lesson. Then she examines her outfit: trainers, jeans, and a maroon zip-up hoodie. Clothes so casual, they will no doubt displease the Malfoys’ delicate sensibilities. This idea in turn pleases her, and so she Apparates, safe in the knowledge that her clothes alone might provide her some defense.

When she lands, the electrical gates are already open, probably in anticipation of her visit. True to his word, Draco is also waiting inside the double doors of the Manor.

“Are you really wearing that?” she demands, upon finally arriving at the entrance.

Draco frowns and inspects his own outfit. “What’s wrong with what I have on?”

She hates to admit it, but there is unequivocally nothing wrong with how Draco Malfoy looks right now.

She’d been expecting the perfect blond coif and ubiquitous black suit, neither of which would be appropriate for a morning of sifting flour. But instead, the pale fringe of Draco’s hair falls loose to his brow, and he’s dressed in a light grey jumper and Muggle jeans. Granted, he’s also wearing brown wingtips that probably have some Italian surname embossed inside them. Yet for him, the outfit is damned near casual. Not trainers and hoodie casual, but still.

“You’re…perfect,” Hermione confesses, and her cheeks bloom furiously at his smirk.

“You expected anything less, Granger?”

Before she can argue that “Draco Malfoy” and “perfection” are hardly synonyms, he motions for her to come inside.

“The kitchens are at the back of the house. We’ll have just a bit of a walk to get there.”

“Kitchens?” She shuts the front doors behind her and moves to follow him. “Plural?”

“Singular,” he calls back over his shoulder as they start walking. “But rather large. Sort of feels like a series of interlocking rooms, given the sheer number of pantries.”

“You sound like you’re familiar with them. Does the Landed Lord who can’t cook know his way around his own kitchens?”

She’s expecting a snarl or insult as a reward for her teasing. Instead, Hermione can practically hear the smile in his voice when he says, “The Landed Lord was a horrible little boy who ate nothing but stolen sweets for the first twelve years of his life. So…yes. He does know the kitchens.”

They fall into a companionable silence as they wander the ground floor of the Manor, a floor that reminds Hermione she’d still need an engineer and a trail of breadcrumbs to figure this place out.

“Is everything in this house labyrinthine?” she finally asks.

“Absolutely and intentionally. Designed that way to confound—”

“Potential invading forces,” she supplies. “Just like your ridiculously long driveway.”

Draco laughs softly. “Why am I not surprised to hear that Hermione Granger is now an expert on the interior and exterior design defenses of Britain’s great Wizarding homes?”

She’s quite glad he can’t see the second blush spreading across her cheeks. “Oh, you know what they say: I’m a jack of all trades and a master of—”

“All those trades as well,” he finishes. She sniffs at the implication that she is, in fact, a swot. But his voice sounds venom-free, so she keeps quiet until they’ve reached a wide, pock-marked wooden door.

“Here we are,” he says, resting his palm on the scarred wood.

“That’s…quite old, isn’t it?”

Draco drums his fingers gently against the wood. “It is, actually. This part of the house dates back to William the Conqueror.”

“William?”

“The Conqueror. Yes.”

“What, are you going to tell me that he was a Malfoy, too?”

“No, but he did grant this estate and the original fortress to Armand Malfoy in 1071 A.D. So…there’s that.”

Hermione tries, with only moderate success, not to gape like a rube.

“Yes,” she manages to squeak. “There’s that.”

Draco doesn’t notice, or at least he pretends not to notice, her discomfort. He pushes against the ancient door, and it swings inward to reveal the most magnificent kitchen Hermione has ever seen.

The room runs the entire length of the Manor, and it does contain innumerable pantries. There are also three commercial grade ovens, a bank of deep farmhouse sinks, two walk-in freezers, and a wood-block kitchen island as long as two end-to-end sofas. Potted herbs hang in baskets from the ceiling, reaching their leaves to the light pouring in from a high set of eastern-facing windows, and the spotless white tiling practically glows. The space is airy and bright and tastefully updated, presumably well after William the Conqueror broke bread in it.

At this moment, however, the most prominent feature of the kitchen would have to be the sheer number of house-elves occupying it. Hermione can see at least eight of them – a huge sum, even for a wealthy Wizarding household. And like Maevy, each and every elf is dressed as if they’re about to attend Paris Fashion Week.

“Maevy?” Hermione asks. “I thought you were meant to have a break right now?”

“Maevy wanted to see if she could be of service to Miss. We all did.” Maevy indicates her companions, many of whom give Hermione cheerful waves.

“Well, erm…I actually instructed your…Master…that you were to have the morning free. So he could learn these skills properly.”

“Master?” Maevy titters, glancing between Hermione and Draco.

From the corner of her eye, Hermione spies Draco making some sort of “cease and desist” motion at Maevy. But he freezes when Hermione glares fully at him.

Ignoring the tense interplay between Draco and Hermione, Maevy merrily repeats, “Master!” As if it’s the most absurd thing in the world.

“Miss is funny, isn’t she?” she laughs.

The other elves make a chorus of cheery agreement and, without further ado, they disappear into thin air with a collective “pop.” Hermione wants to gape more at the kitchen – she really does – but the house-elf issue is burning a figurative hole in her brain. She waits until she’s sure that all the elves gone and then spins completely around to face Draco.

“Okay, what is the deal with your house-elves? I thought you people torture them and dress them in tea towels? Not that I’m complaining about the change in procedure, at all. But why does Maevy act like I’ve grown another head when I say anything of the sort? And why are her clothes nicer than yours?”

Hermione expects defensiveness; she always expects some kind of defense from him. But once again, the grown-up Draco seems to have a smaller chip on his shoulder than the younger version. He merely gives a rueful shrug.

“Another part of our sentencing. Our house-elves were freed by magical edict just after the trials. Some of them chose to stay, of course, especially after we renovated their dormitories into luxury suites. Those that stayed all but run the roost now. No more ‘Master this’ or ‘Mistress that.’ They’re basically insufferable. And we’re mandated to give them what the Ministry deems a fair yearly salary.”

“May I ask what the Ministry deems a fair salary for a Malfoy house-elf? If that’s not too forward of me.”

He tells her without hesitation, and she begins to cough so violently he has to fetch a glass of water. Once she’s improved, Hermione croaks, “Maevy makes more in a month than I do in a year.”

Draco takes the empty glass from her and places it in one of the kitchen’s deep sinks. “Shouldn’t that make you happy, Granger, given your school-aged crusade for…what was it? Vomit? Purge?”

“S.P.E.W. The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare.”

“That’s the one!”

Hermione grimaces. “I’m thrilled for Maevy, truly. Less so for my own vault.”

“Nasty shocks are what you get from not reading trial transcripts.”

“Apparently.”

He waits another second or two for her to process. Then he shoves his hands into his pockets and rocks back onto his heels. “What’s on our agenda for today?”

Mostly recovered, Hermione gives herself a little shake for clarity and places her beaded evening bag on the edge of the kitchen island. Draco eyes the handbag suspiciously.

“What is that thing?” he asks.

“What thing? This bag?”

He nods. “It’s like something my Great Aunt Walburga would carry.”

Hermione’s laugh breaks free of its own accord. “I cast an Undetectable Extension charm on this purse a few years ago. It’s not…technically licensed. So let’s not mention it to anyone else, okay?”

Draco gives a low whistle. “Hermione Granger, breaking the rules? What would the Minister say?”

She points a finger at him in mock ferocity. “Nothing, if you keep your mouth shut.”

When he laughs, her shoulders relax a bit. “Speaking of rule breakers, would you believe that I’ve actually met your Great Aunt? In a sense, anyway.”

“Where?”

“At the house Harry inherited from your cousin, Sirius. Walburga Black’s portrait is hanging in the front corridor.”

Draco groans. “Oh, hell. I’m sure she’s enamored with you well and good, then.”

“She certainly is. Which is why I accidentally-on-purpose used a Permanent Sticking Charm on those nice curtains that hang over her portrait. Shriek the M-word at me a few too many times and see what happens.”

He coughs awkwardly. “Point…ah, taken.”

She can tell that Draco’s unsure of whether he should feel offense that his racist old aunt has been shuttered, or shame that he shares – shared? please let it be shared – the old hag’s horrible beliefs. Perhaps both, Hermione decides, as she reaches into her purse to pull out large bags of sugar and almond flour, a handful of spice jars, a carton of eggs, several sticks of butter, a few tiny bottles of gel, and two rolls of silicone parchment.

Draco clears his throat and moves closer to the ingredients. “So what will all of those ingredients make? Theoretically.”

Hermione peeks up at him, her smile radiant. “Theoretical macarons, of course."

Chapter Text

They’re already an hour into macaron prep – Hermione is going very slowly with him, since the recipe is so demanding – when Draco blows a loose hank of white-blond hair out of his eyes in a puff of frustration.

Hermione gnaws at her bottom lip, a habit she never managed to break even after her front teeth shrank.  Perhaps she’s thrown him too quickly into the proverbial deep end.  Macarons are, after all, notoriously difficult to create, exacting the most precise measurements and movements from their baker.  Especially when that baker works wandless.  But there’s a method to Hermione’s madness. 

First of all, this prep work is no more difficult than what Severus Snape required of them, and Hermione distinctly remembers Draco excelling in their Potions courses.  (From favoritism and from merit.)  Furthermore, Draco has an unknown audience for these treats once he masters them, in the form of his mate Theo Nott.  And finally, macarons can’t really be shaped by shaking hands.  Thus his need to sober up.  Eventually.  If he really wants to.

Fortunately, he hasn’t taken a single drink this morning, and his hands seem relatively steady.  But the fine features of Draco’s face have started to shift into a scowl.

“I thought you said these were supposed to be pistachio macarons?” he asks, with an edge of irritation in his voice.

“Yep.”

“Then why did I sift a million grams of almond flour, and not pistachio?  I don’t see a single pistachio anywhere in this kitchen.”

Hermione grabs a tiny bottle of green, gel-based flavouring – the only kind of additive that doesn’t ruin the consistency of the macaron batter.

“I cheat,” she says plainly, handing him the bottle.

He studies it, frowning down at its label.  Then his features soften as he hands it back to her. 

“Huh.  Hermione Granger, cheating.  There are wonders left in this world after all.”

His statement pleases her immensely, for reasons she cannot fathom. 

“Why pistachio, then?” he presses.  “Why not almond?”

“Given your previous history with almond biscuits, do you really have to ask?”  That earns a small, if begrudging, laugh from him.  Feeling strangely victorious, she admits, “Theo, actually.”

“Theo?  Theodore Nott?”

“One and the same.  Pistachio is his favorite flavour, and I remember how you liked to show off to your Hogwarts’ housemates, so….”

Draco finally grins and turns back to his mixing bowl, where he’s stirring the dry ingredients together.  After a beat, he says, “So you and Theo really are friends now, huh?”

She hums, cutting several chunks of butter for the filling.  “I had drinks with him and Erik last night, actually.”

Without stopping his work, Draco asks, “Erik?”

“Theo’s new boyfriend.”

This information makes Draco pause.  “You know about Theo’s new boyfriend?”

“I should hope so.  I introduced them.”

He makes an indeterminate noise and she shoots him a glare. 

“What?” she asks testily, wondering if she’s overstepped some invisible boundary.  Preparing to be angry with him if that boundary involves anything short of whole-hearted acceptance of Theo’s love life.  Draco, however, doesn’t take the bait.  He continues to work at his mixing bowl, with his lips quirked up at the edges.

“What?” she repeats.

“Wonders, Granger,” he says softly.  “Wonders.”

* * *

In less than two hours, they’ve successfully prepped both the batter and the filling, which they’ll pipe between the two halves of each cooled macaron.  Thankfully, Draco’s mood has improved with every step of the recipe, and Hermione finds that she’s…oddly enough…enjoying herself. 

As it turns out, Draco Malfoy is smart.  Not just “My Daddy’s rich and probably buys my marks” smart, as she suspected at Hogwarts.  He’s truly smart – a quick learner who’s good with instructions and wand and wit, sometimes all at once.  By the time Hermione uses her own wand to draw the outline of rings onto the silicon mats (where they will pour each of their macaron halves), she’s concluded that Draco might be almost as intelligent as she is. 

Almost.

Beaming down at the evenness of her rings, Hermione unconsciously places both fists upon her hips.  She’s so caught up in admiring her handiwork that she doesn’t catch Draco side-eyeing her stance with his own, inscrutable smile.  A smile that drops away as soon as she faces him again.

“We’re ready, I think,” she says.

“For?”

“Dolloping.”

Draco snickers.  “Dolloping?”

“Creating each of the small circles that will form half of every biscuit,” she explains, picking up a plastic piping bag.  “We’ll cut a small corner of this bag off, add a pastry-tip to it, and fill the bag with batter.  Then all we have to do is pipe batter into the rings, tap out the bubbles, and bake.”

“And sit back to see what horror I’ve wrought upon food?”

“Yep.”  She hands him the piping bag and one of her ultra-sharp knives.  “Here, cut a corner off – just so – while I pick out the pastry-tip that’ll serve us best.”

“Alright,” he agrees, taking the bag and knife from her.  She picks up a small kit filled with tiny, metal baking tools and begins scrounging through it for the right pastry-tip.  She’s so intent on her hunt that she almost misses the hiss of pain beside her.

“Fuck,” Draco yelps.  “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

Her head whips toward the swearing, and her nostrils flare when she looks down at his fingers.  Two of them – the index and middle fingers of his left hand – are bleeding profusely all over the top of the kitchen island.  Hermione watches as Draco raises the dripping fingers and, inexplicably, pops them into his mouth.  Like a little boy who thinks every injury can be healed with a bit of spit and a kiss from mother. 

The childlike gesture shakes her out of her horrified trance.  “Draco!” she gasps, dashing to his side with her wand at the ready. 

Alarmed by her speed, Draco pulls the fingers out of his mouth, leaving a trail of bright red across his lower lip.  “It’s nothing,” he protests, but she doesn’t stop to argue with him.  Before he can retreat, Hermione snatches his injured hand and cups it, cut-side up, in her left palm. 

“Oh, these are deep,” she whispers.  “Almost to the bone.”

She pauses long enough to position her wand correctly.  Then she starts to murmur Vulnera Sanentur over the wounds, repeating the set of words three times.  With each utterance, his blood seeps further inside and his sliced flesh begins to knit back together. 

The sight of the retreating blood is so miraculous, the incantation so hypnotic, she doesn’t see him grow paler upon hearing the words of her spell.

“Who…who the fuck taught you that?”

The strangled quality of his voice causes her to jerk her head up from her work, wand still pointed at his mending fingers.  Draco’s lips, stained arterial red, are trembling.  With either rage or fear, she can’t tell.  She gives his hand what’s meant to be a reassuring squeeze and then winces apologetically when his fingers twitch.

“Harry,” she answers.  “He told me what happened that day in the prefects’ bath, our sixth year.  When Snape used this spell on you.  I memorized it for the…the War.  Just in case.”

Draco’s face is void of emotion for a beat, maybe two, before he yanks his healed hand away from her and sneers.

“So.  The Boy Who Lived happened to share a healing spell with you.  Did he also tell you what he did to me that warranted healing?”

“Yes.”  Hermione can feel the colour flare in her cheeks but she refuses to remove her eyes from Draco’s, no matter how angry his have grown.  “Harry did.  And I yelled at him for so long that I practically went hoarse.  Which was probably for the best, since we didn’t talk for a while after that.”

Draco’s snort is far less refined than usual.  “Oh?  And why on earth would you give Saint Potter the silent treatment for delivering such a fine blow to the big, bad Death Eater?”

“Because he was in the wrong.” 

Draco glowers skeptically at her.  She compels her expression into something impassive, despite the pounding in her chest.  It’s taking a lot of effort, so she finally averts her gaze to dig around inside her extended handbag.

“Harry hurt you, and it was wrong,” she goes on.  “Not just in the way it happened, but that it happened at all.  You two were just boys.  Children.” 

Still rummaging, she mutters, “We all were.”

Draco doesn’t respond.  So she asks, softly and with her eyes still trained on her bag, “Were your hands shaking just now?  When you cut yourself?”

He still doesn’t answer, and that’s confirmation enough.  Finding what she’s been searching for, Hermione pulls it from her bag.  She crosses the space between them, ignores the backward step he takes, and forcibly grabs the healed hand that he’s clasped to his chest. 

“Essence of dittany,” she explains, rubbing a tincture onto Draco’s fingertips.  “For scarring.”

He snorts again, but doesn’t pull away.  “Madam Pomfrey used it on me once.  Who knows?  Maybe it will actually work this time.”

Hermione quirks an eyebrow at him.  In lieu of reply, he reaches up with his free hand and pulls down the collar of his jumper to reveal a gnarled white scar, roping across his collarbone.

“Oh,” she half-whispers, half-moans.  So this is what Sectumsempra looks like.

Unconsciously, she reaches out to touch the tips of her middle and fore finger to the jagged line of tissue.  In response to her touch, Draco’s eyes widen and his mouth falls open.  But he doesn’t recoil from her, even when she traces the scar lightly, back and forth.  Even when she leaves a trail of gooseflesh in the wake of her delicate fingertips.

“There’s about four more,” he says roughly, breaking into her sad reverie.  “This one extends to my sternum, and the one over my heart goes down to my waistband.  The other three are relatively small.”

The information jolts her, and she pulls back at the sudden realization of what she’s been doing: holding onto Draco Malfoy with one hand while stroking his Sectumsempra'd collarbone with the other.  Unsure of where to place her traitorous hands, she decides to bury them in her hair.  A safe location, given the immensity of her curls.

“I’m…I’m sorry,” she whispers.

Draco releases his collar and shakes his head.  “Don’t be.  You didn’t do it.”

“No, but I—”

“Endured far worse in this very house.”

Her stomach flops.  “Are you…do you want to talk about—?”

“Not yet,” he interrupts, but not unkindly.  “We should, and we will.  Just…not yet.”

Hermione nods, feeling a little nauseated.  And a little lost.  In a sort of trance, she reaches up with her thumb to wipe away a smear of blood from his lip.  She regards the red and then holds it up for him to see.

“And here I thought your blood would be blue,” she jokes weakly.

Draco wins her eternal gratitude when he releases an unaffected laugh and says, “So, Granger – macarons?”

* * *

That night, the two glasses of red wine Hermione usually indulges in every Saturday become four.  Given the sheer amount of laughing and snapping and bleeding that occurred today, no one would blame her.  High drama indeed, for their first-ever baking lesson.  The day’s events should rattle her nerves, and they do. 

And yet….

And yet she can’t even pretend not to out-and-out beam as she pops a misshapen but delicious macaron into her mouth.

Chapter Text

Draco lets out an audible groan when, a week later, Hermione pulls a fresh set of macaron supplies from her bag.

“More little French biscuits?” he asks. “Really?”

“Practice makes perfect.”

“Practice makes perfect,” he mimics in that prissy falsetto she remembers so well from his childhood taunts. But there isn’t an ounce of spite in it today. She almost chokes when he playfully tugs one of her curls as he crosses behind her.

He leans a hip against the counter and folds his arms across the chest of his light blue jumper. “More pistachio?”

“Nope.”

He breathes an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Good. Theo was insufferable when I brought him a tin on Sunday. He and Erik ate a whole dozen. Right before they told me that if the biscuits hadn’t looked so terrible, they would’ve thought I broke into your flat and nicked them.”

Something about the fact Draco shared his creation – and publically admitted that the macarons were their creation – warms her insides in an inexplicably pleasant way.

“You met Erik?”

“Good choice with that one,” Draco confirms, and that warm glow spreads from her core to her chest. “Theo seems happy for the first time since…well, since he was thirteen, I’d wager.”

“I get the sense that Theo had a bad home life.”

He raises a single eyebrow. “You might say that. Thaddeus Nott loved his son. And underage Muggle girls. And the Cruciatus Curse.”

Hermione convulses at those last words. Actually convulses, so hard that Draco can’t possibly miss it. It’s hideously embarrassing, her quaking like that, but he doesn’t treat it as such. Instead, Draco’s hand brushes the one that she’s clutched to the island in an attempt to steady herself.

“Hey. Hey,” he murmurs, his fingers moving feather-light against her knuckles. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”

“No, I’m okay,” she wheezes. “It’s okay.”

He shakes his head vigorously. “Trust me, it’s not okay. I know. I’ve been at the receiving end of both Thaddeus’s and Aunt Bella’s Crucio, and let me tell you—”

“That crazy bitch Crucio’d her own nephew?”

“Many times,” he says, finally pulling his fingers from hers. “The first time was the day after I failed to kill Dumbledore. On the floor of the Manor’s foyer.”

“And the last?”

“Administered right after yours. For letting you all escape the Manor that day. And for failing to identify Potter beforehand.”

She’s still shaking, but she manages to pull her spine into something a bit more fitting of a Gryffindor.

“Forgive me for saying so, but I count all of those failures as successes. Not just for my side, but for you, personally.”

“Yes, well. Perhaps.”

Hermione draws a few more unsteady breaths and then surprises them both by saying, “Hurts like a goddamned riot, doesn’t it? The Cruciatus.”

It’s more of a statement than a question. But Draco nods anyway, tracing his fingers near hers on top of the island. “That it does.”

He continues to trace the whorls in the woodblock for a while, until he says, in a low rasp, “I’m sorry, Hermione. For that day. I…know it’s not worth much now, so long after the fact. But I am sorry.”

She doesn’t acknowledge his apology. At least, not out loud. Instead, she says, “I’m sorry I called your aunt a crazy bitch.”

Draco releases a puff of air that might be a sigh or a laugh. “Why apologize for the truth?” Then he grins roguishly. “Besides, I quite like hearing the occasional swear come out of that swotty little mouth of yours.”

At the word mouth, Hermione suddenly finds herself unable to look away from his lips, so red you’d think he still had blood on them. She has to shake her head, big hair and all, to scare away that damned brain buzz.

“Bollocks,” she offers, to distract him from her weird behavior. “Shite. Wanker. Bint. Sod sodding sod.”

Draco does this wince-laugh thing that she finds utterly delightful. For some reason.

“How…English of you, Granger.”

“Indeed.”

They smile at each other until he breaks the oddly electrified silence.

“So, then,” he says. “If we’re not doing pistachio macarons, what other torture do you have planned for me?”

She really should stop smiling so much in his presence. But Hermione goes on doing it like a bloody, sodding idiot.

“Apple, actually.”

A simple “huh” is all he offers. Draco turns his back in a show of setting the oven temperature with his wand, but he doesn’t fool her. She knows, even without seeing his face, that he’s smiling too.

* * *

They work amicably beside each other throughout the morning, him on the batter and her on the filling. When Hermione explains her plan to peel, core, and cut a dozen apples for a spell she’s devised to reduce them into a sticky jam, all in less than one hour, Draco calls her a mad bint. Then he winks at her, and returns to his flour measurements and the ongoing story of his first time on a broom.

As he talks, she can almost picture him, racing like a crow through the Manor gardens with a tubby little Vincent Crabbe trailing behind him. Despite the stars of his tale – two seven-year-old boys who would soon make her puberty a hellish one – it’s a charming story that he fills with clever analogies, animated hand gestures, and whooshing sounds to simulate flight.

She doesn’t comment on the way his voice softens each time he says Crabbe’s name, or the fact that he keeps moving closer to her with each spin of his arms. By the time he finishes the batter, which is much smoother this round and fragrant from the perfect amount of vanilla, there’s less than half a metre between them. It’s a space she’s weirdly loath to enlarge.

But enlarge it she must, if her spell’s going to work properly. So she sweeps the last of her apples into a stockpot, along with butter, sugar, and plenty of cinnamon.

Draco leaves his own mixture to peek into the pot. “I have to admit, Granger, I don’t see how this mess is going to transform into jam in half an hour. Half a week in our larder, maybe. But half an hour?”

Hermione scoffs and lifts her wand theatrically. “Do you doubt the great and powerful Granger?”

The Wizard of Oz reference goes right over his head, but he still smirks. “Doubt you? The ‘Brightest Witch of Her Age?’”

She rolls her eyes. “Ugh. Damn the Daily Prophet and its glib headlines.”

“Please. At least yours isn’t ‘Former Death Eater, Rehabilitated?’ Always with that bloody question mark.”

“Right?” she quips. “I mean, if they know the answer is no, why even ask the question in the first place?”

“So you do read the articles.” When Hermione chuckles, he moves closer to her work station. “Are you going to let me watch this newly invented and likely dangerous spell, Granger? Or is it confidential?”

She doesn’t answer him directly. Instead, she says a quick internal prayer for luck and mutters Reductio ad Fructus aloud with a circular flick of her wand. The apple-potion bubbles up violently, just once, and then settles into a nicely rolling simmer.

Draco scrutinizes the contents of the pot. “Dammit, Granger. You do realize that it’s terribly annoying when a know-it-all actually does know it all?”

“Harry and Ron have been telling me that for ages.” She lays her wand down on the counter next to her handbag. “Now, let’s get those biscuits dolloped and placed in the oven, shall we?”

“Already on it,” he says, reaching for a fresh piping bag and a knife.

Eyeing the knife in his hands, Hermione digs into her handbag, brings out the small item she added last night, and places it next to Draco’s station.

He sees it instantly, and his breath hitches. Slowly, gingerly, he sets down the knife. Then he stretches out one hand to stroke the glass bottle. To trace the raised, white letters printed against the amber-coloured liquid contained within.

“It’s the smallest size of Ogden’s Old Firewhisky they make,” Hermione cautions. “I’m not trying to encourage that kind of behavior. But you need steady hands to cut and by the looks of it, you already have a lifetime of scars to manage.”

“This is for me?” he asks. His hands still caress the bottle, but he gawks up at her with something akin to awe. Hermione grants him one curt nod. It is for him, even if she already regrets it.

Last night, she had second, third, and fourth thoughts about packing the firewhisky with her supplies. But despite what she just said about steady hands and scars, she’s also hoping. Foolishly hoping.

It takes all of her willpower not to dance with joy when Draco palms the bottle, sets it – unopened – against the splashback beside the stove, and returns to his work station. His hands don’t shake this time as he cuts one corner off the piping bag.

* * *

Only when the macarons are baking, the jam is simmering, and Draco has yet to pour a drop of booze into the tea they now share, can Hermione work up the courage to ask the question that’s plagued her for weeks.

“Malfoy, where exactly have your parents been during my visits?”

“Chained up in the dungeons,” he deadpans, and he laughs when she blanches. “You should see your face, Granger! They’re upstairs in their wing of the Manor, of course. Father’s cringing through some Muggle literature for his Ministry-led rehabilitation courses. Mother’s probably milling from room to room, mentally redecorating them.”

“Do they know I’m…?”

“Here? Yes.”

“Do they know about this?” She uses her tea-free hand to gesture widely around them.

“This?” he asks, in what she knows is feigned ignorance. “You mean their kitchen? Yes, I’m fairly certain they’re aware of the existence of their kitchen.”

“Not the kitchen, you prat. This.”

He waits for her to explain herself, clearly relishing her discomfort, and she flounders.

What does she call this thing they’re doing? Between the tea and the macarons and the whisky, she knows that they’ve moved beyond the purview of the PTSD Pastry Tour. But her and Draco’s – acquaintance? friendship? – is still too elusive to define. She’s rather afraid it will pop like a soap bubble if she tries.

“Granger,” he drawls, interrupting her thoughts. “Are you asking whether Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy know that their nineteen-year-old son and only heir is learning to bake, practically wandless, with a Muggleborn witch in their painstakingly renovated kitchen? If so, then the answer is yes.”

Hermione lifts one eyebrow. “How long did you have to practice using the word ‘Muggleborn,’ Malfoy?”

“A while.” His tone is flat, but she thinks she sees a trace of amusement in his eyes.

“Good,” she huffs. “But do your parents know why you’re doing this?”

Draco sighs and lowers his cup. “I assume they do. Otherwise my father would have already stormed in here, demanding that I put down the pastries and pick up the firewhisky like a man. And since he hasn’t, I also assume that he knows all about the real firewhisky problem.”

Hermione nods, albeit unconvincingly.

“You can relax, Granger. They’re not going to fly down the staircase together on their broomsticks to hex you into oblivion.”

“That’s…reassuring.”

He studies her for a moment and then heaves another sigh. “If you must know, my mother approves of all this.”

“Approves?”

Here, he grimaces. “She’s…pleased. About what you’re trying to do here.”

Huh. Well. Okay then.

Hermione takes a contemplative drink of her tea. It’s that floral blend she already liked beforehand but is now growing to love. Draco placed two sugars in it without needing a reminder, and it tastes like bliss in a cup.

“You know,” Hermione muses after a few more sips, “I always wondered whether your mother had a heart in there somewhere. After all, look at what she did for Harry.”

Draco’s delicate snort makes its reappearance. “Didn’t you read the papers, Granger? My mother did all that out of pure self-interest. Pureblooded self-interest, no less. To save her own hide, and mine.”

“To save her child,” Hermione corrects. “Two children, technically. From a certain perspective, your mother risked her own life to save two children. Possibly even more, if you count all the students back at Hogwarts.”

“I highly doubt they crossed her mind.”

“But you don’t actually know, do you?”

“No. No one does, except her.” He taps his temple with his forefinger. “Powerful Occlumens and all.”

“Maybe you should ask her someday.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Maybe I will.”

“Be my guest.”

Hermione’s jaw thrusts outward. “What, you think I couldn’t talk to your mother? I could talk to her, witch to witch. I could.”

“Have at it, then.”

Draco matches her challenging expression, but she doesn’t miss it when he drops a distinctly satisfied smile into his raised teacup. As though he’s happy about the outcome of this conversation. Which, inexplicably, pleases her, too.

Chapter Text

The following Tuesday at work, Hermione does something she knows she’ll probably regret: she arranges a happy hour after work at the Leaky Cauldron. With Harry, Ginny, and Ron. And Erik.

And Theodore Nott.

She prepares Theo beforehand – an owled note effusive with please, please, please and they’ll like you, I promise. She even provides him with a few talking points and Gryffindor etiquette tips, just to be safe.

Harry, Ginny, and Ron, however? They don’t have a clue. Hermione has learned that this approach works best with this bunch. Forethought and planning were always more her strengths; but for her childhood best friends, blind improvisation is usually the right course. Still, she feels a small stab of guilt when the two redheads and Harry enter the bar that night, joking and smiling and totally unaware of what awaits them.

Her tactic proves risky for a second when Ron, catching a glimpse of Theo beside her at the table, turns on one heel to leave. Thankfully, Harry clasps a hand on Ron’s shoulder, forces him back around, and marches him toward Hermione while glaring at her from behind Ron’s back.

She rises to kiss all three of them on the cheek, whispering, “I’ll explain” into Ginny’s ear and “Be nice” into Ron’s and Harry’s. Thus warned, the three new arrivals settle with apprehensive frowns into the free seats at the table.

Harry, of course, is the first to break the tense silence. “Erik. Good to see you.”

“You, too, mate. Glad you guys could make it out tonight. I honestly wondered if you’d be able to break away, after that nastiness in Knockturn Alley this afternoon.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, subtly raising an eyebrow toward Hermione at the implication that Erik knew more about this get-together than him. “It was rough going there for a while. Got it all sorted out in the end, though. Mostly thanks to Ron here.”

“What happened?” Hermione asks and then takes a sip of her wine in an effort to appear blasé. Judging by Ron’s ongoing glower, it doesn’t work. Ron opens his mouth to speak but Ginny, bless her, cuts him off excitedly.

“Their Auror squad found a case of cursed bludgers moving through one of the Knockturn black markets. Can you believe it? Apparently, a dealer was trying to get them past inspections in time for the World Cup.”

“In favor of us, or the Yanks?” Theo asks.

Ginny assesses him coolly before answering. “The Yanks, apparently.”

“Well, then it’s a damned good thing Potter and Weasley stopped them, isn’t it?”

The table is silent for a moment, before everyone breaks into tentative laughter. The sound punctures some of the tension in the air, and Hermione feels her shoulders relax a fraction.

“It wasn’t just the two of us today,” Ron explains. He leans into the table to grab a pint from the round Theo bought beforehand. “Harry and me, we’re still in training for another year. Maybe two, in my case.”

“That’s not what I heard,” Erik says with a conspiratorial wink. “Word in the Undersecretary’s Office is that some exceptions might be made in the Auror Department soon. For both of you.”

“Oh, do tell.” Ginny scoots her stool closer to Erik’s and the two duck heads to trade Ministry rumours. Hermione smiles faintly, thinking of what Draco said that past weekend: Erik was a good choice for Theo. Then she resolves to stop thinking of Draco Malfoy, full stop.

The resolution works, for the most part. But an hour into what has become unexpectedly easy conversation, Theo has to go and bring up the PTSD Pastry Tour.

“So, Hermione, how’s the progress with Draco?” Theo asks her offhandedly, not seeing the way Ron’s eyes bulge from his skull. “Making any headway?”

“Erm…it’s going well, I think.” She takes another drink and hopes against all hope that someone brings up another topic, fast.

But no such luck.

“Malfoy?” Ron croaks. He looks back and forth between Hermione and Theo, his mouth hanging open a few centimetres. “What’s Hermione got to do with that bugger?”

“It’s just part of my project, Ron,” she says hastily. “The baking thing, remember? Speaking of which, I’ve been checking into your ideas for the ganache smoothie, and I think we might be able to make it work. With the right cold agents, of course. I’ve actually got some notes in my bag, if you want to see them?”

She starts rummaging in her beaded handbag that, regrettably, also has a tin of apple macarons in it. When she sets them on the table in search of her smoothie-notes, Ron snatches up the tin, opens it, and takes a big whiff.

“Blimey,” he says, as his eyes roll back in his head. “These smell like heaven. When did you make these?”

Hermione’s mouth falls open, empty of a good answer. Desperate for some kind of assistance, she scans the table. Erik’s no help – he merely takes an amused sip of his pint. Harry and Ginny just exchange worried glances. It’s Theo, Merlin love him, who comes to her rescue.

“Oh,” Theo says with an artfully careless shrug. “That’s all me, mate. I’m a big macaron obsessive, didn’t Hermione tell you? I’ve been commissioning different flavors from her for a few weeks now. These are some of her best, I think.”

“Damn right, they are,” Ron agrees, shoving one of the biscuits into his mouth without permission. He moans happily through a chew and gives her one of those adoring yet perplexed stares she’s always liked. “Hermione, love, I think you may have really found your…what’s it called? Your niche? I mean, I knew you were a talented witch, but I honestly can’t believe you made these all by yourself.”

“I can’t believe it either,” Erik snickers, before Theo elbows him lightly in the ribs. Thankfully, the subject of baking – and, obliquely, Draco – goes by the wayside, and the rest of the evening is far less fraught. Theo, Ron, and Ginny fall into an animated discussion about the World Cup; Harry and Erik talk Ministry politics, arguing good-naturedly about several of Harry’s rivals for future Head of the Auror Office.

As she follows each conversation, and weaves in and out wherever necessary, Hermione feels a distinct sense of peace. If one set of her friends likes another, then her life suddenly seems a lot less complicated. That is, if she doesn’t factor a certain, sarcastic blond into the equation. Which she’s not going to do. Nope, nope, nope.

Finally, far later than she originally anticipated, everyone decides to call it a night. With a quick kiss to Theo’s cheek, Erik leaves to Floo home from the Leaky’s fireplace. Ron, Harry, and Ginny move to go as well, until Ginny grabs her purse and sinks back into her chair.

“I just want to hang for a bit, yeah?” she says to Harry, brushing his cheek with the back of her hand. “Hermione and I have bridesmaid business to discuss.”

Her reference to the wedding is apparently enough excuse for Harry and Ron to escape in a flurry of quick goodbyes and Apparitions. Within seconds, it’s only Ginny, Hermione, and Theo left at the table.

Hermione thinks that Theo will leave, too, so Ginny can pull out the orange binder Molly made to keep the wedding details organized. But the infamous binder doesn’t appear. Instead, Ginny motions for Theo to keep his seat, throws a quick glance around the pub, and signals the bartender for another round of drinks. Ginny frowns suspiciously at Hermione and Theo, but she doesn’t speak until the drinks have been delivered and Hermione has taken a bracing gulp of wine.

“Okay, Granger,” Ginny drawls, inadvertently making Hermione think of someone else. “Spill it. Harry’s told me about the current subject of your project, but I know he left out details, being Harry and all. I’ve been watching you and Nott here exchange sly little glances all night. So spill it.”

An uncomfortable silence descends, until Theo blurts out:

“Hermione likes Draco!”

“I do not!” Hermione shrieks. But she knows, after the echo of her protest fades, that the damage is done. The thought is out there now, for everyone at the table – including herself – to ponder.

Ginny flips her long red braid, props her chin onto one palm, and assesses the table sagely. “Interesting,” she says. “And not all that shocking, given what I saw tonight. But the real question remains: what kind of ‘like’ are we talking about here?”

“Exactly!” Theo exclaims. He leans toward Ginny and ignores the outraged “O” into which Hermione’s mouth has just fallen. “That question has been bugging Erik and me for the last three weeks.”

Hermione has a sudden memory of her fourteen-year-old self, sitting on her bed in the Gryffindor girls’ dormitory with a pillow pressed to her face, shaking her head vigorously at Parvati Patil.

Out with it, Hermione. Do you like Ron, or do you like like him?

This current conversation feels a bit like that.

“Three weeks,” Ginny marvels, folding her arms onto the tabletop and giving Hermione an appraising once-over. “Three whole weeks, huh?”

“I’m not hiding anything,” Hermione squeaks. And then she cringes at exactly how unconvincing that sounds. She sucks down another long drink – one that Ginny and Theo apparently have no problem allowing – and takes another stab at it.

“I’m really not hiding anything from you two, I swear. I’m doing just what I set out to do, which is contact survivors of the War and help them work through what’s haunting them. I know dessert is a strange way to go about it, but it helped me. And it seems to help other people, too. Including Dra—Malfoy.”

Ginny is kind enough not to note Hermione’s slip of tongue. Instead, the younger witch reaches out to clasp one of Hermione’s listless, outstretched hands. After a moment’s hesitation, Theo does the same with her other hand. He nods at Ginny in solidarity, and then says something to Hermione that she doesn’t expect. Not at all.

“Hermione, no one is more grateful about what you’ve decided to do than I am. Trust me.” He throws a pointed look to the back of the Leaky, toward the fireplace where Erik Floo’d home. “But I think Red here and I are both thinking the same thing.”

“Which is…?”

“That you need to be careful. Especially when it comes to Draco Malfoy.”

Hermione feels her shoulders tighten. “What exactly do you mean by ‘careful,’ Theo?”

He exchanges another fretful glance with Ginny and then sighs. “What I mean is that Draco and I are friends. But he’s not my closest mate, and I’m not his.”

“Really?"

Somehow this startles Hermione, given how often she and Draco talk warmly about Theodore Nott. Theo, however, just nods.

“Really. I care about the bloke, very much, but he’s kind of a closed book these days. When we were kids, it was different. Everyone in Slytherin used to joke that he was the human equivalent of one of his family’s ridiculous white peacocks: all strut but no substance. You could learn everything about that boy if you sat through one of his boasts long enough. But then the War came, and we all know how spectacularly wrong things went for Draco after that. Dumbledore, that horrible Lestrange woman, Crabbe. Hell, even Draco’s own mum, what with her saving Potter’s life and all. Draco had everything he ever believed in thrown back in his face like rubbish, and it’s made him a touch…well, fragile isn’t quite the right word. But it’s close.”

Hermione shakes her head. “Theo, if this speech is your attempt to convince me that you don’t know Draco very well, then you might be failing. You seem to know him awfully well indeed.”

Theo sighs. “Ah, but that’s my point. That’s exactly my point. One can only get to know this ‘new’ Draco so well. He drinks, and he says snarky things, and very, very occasionally he shows up to our reunions. But mostly he stares at the wall and thinks about himself. Or oblivion. Or angst. Or whatever it is fallen anti-heroes think about.”

“Then how do you know he’s still the selfish, arrogant prick he was in school?” Ginny gives Hermione’s hand an inadvertent squeeze. “How do you know he hasn’t changed, just like the rest of us did after the War?”

Theo makes a small noise of appreciation.

“Another interesting point, Red. I don’t. Not really. All I really know is that Draco doesn’t let anyone ‘in’ anymore. Not long enough for any of us to figure out who he is now. Sure, we all have the occasional drink – me, him, Blaise, Pansy. Sometimes those Greengrass girls. And I know Draco takes Greg and Millie out once a month to some swanky restaurant in Diagon Alley. But I mostly think Draco does that because he knows all of the Goyle family’s assets were seized after the War. Greg and Millie are poor as church mice now. Aside from that stuff, it’s just Draco, the Manor, and those nutter parents of his. Circling the drain, alone forever. Or at least until his parents find him some suitably dry, pureblood mate.”

Hermione considers what Theo’s just said – how well it does or doesn’t dovetail with what she’s recently learned about Draco.

Many of the things Theo’s revealed do fit what she knows: the drinking; the closed-off demeanor; the mix of angry isolation and a desperate need for company. And yet there’s something missing between the Draco she’s getting to know and the one that Theo has just described.

There’s the man who bemoans Harry’s childhood victories over him but can also admit his own failings in the form of a dozen burnt biscuits. There’s the aristocratic boy who preens and snarls when cornered but pulls down the collar of his jumper to reveal what must have been one of the most physically painful days of his life. There’s the man who has, on more than one occasion, referred to the worst day of her life with regret, shame, and an unmistakable note of longing that it hadn’t happened at all.

Then there’s the man who didn’t put a drop of Ogden’s into his tea last weekend.

“Draco’s…complex. I do rather like that about him.”

Hermione concludes this aloud before she has fully organized her thoughts, and long before she’s weighed their consequences. A furious pink floods her cheeks and, for some reason, she feels the need to cover up the error by staring boldly at her companions. As though she’s challenging them to contradict her.

Theo, of course, offers her a sympathetic swipe of his thumb over her knuckle. “I know you do, Hermione. Otherwise you wouldn’t be helping him.”

It’s Ginny, however, who does the unexpected. The younger witch releases Hermione’s hand, stands to move in closer, and wraps her friend in a tight hug. Then she whispers, into Hermione’s ear but loud enough for Theo to hear:

“And that is one of the many reasons I love you, my lion-hearted friend.”

* * *

That Friday evening, the night before her next trip to Malfoy Manor, Hermione decides to take a different approach to her little project.

Originally, she’d planned to gather supplies for another treat that Draco might like: chocolate treacle pudding, which she remembers him shoveling into his childish mouth with aplomb, every Halloween at Hogwarts. But Theo’s words keep flitting around her brain. So Hermione skips her usual trip to the bakery specialty shop, in favor of the exotic foods greengrocer a few blocks from her flat.

It’s there, in the brightly lit produce aisle, that she finds what she’s seeking. She plucks a mesh bag from a pile, lifts it to her nose, and takes a deep whiff. The sweet, tart scent of citrus causes her eyelids to flutter shut and her lips to curve up slightly.

These are perfect, she thinks. The perfect test to see what Draco Malfoy makes of one of her happy memories.

Chapter Text

It’s absurd, how nervous Hermione feels when she presents her find to Draco the next day.

He makes a show of holding the bag up to the light of the kitchen windows, inspecting its contents closely. He frowns. Sniffs. Lets the mesh twist in his palm. Then he hands her back the bag with a good-natured sigh.

“Alright, Granger, you win. I have no idea what these are.”

Her shy smile swells with triumph. “They’re key limes.”

Draco’s eyebrows rise and he makes a small, intrigued move with his mouth. Which she does not find adorable. She does not.

“‘Key’ limes?” he says. “What, are they charmed to open locks?”

Hermione giggles – really giggles. So she tries to cover the embarrassing noise with a gush of information, like she used to do in school.

“Actually, the limes possess no magical properties whatsoever. They’re just named that way because they’re often grown in the Florida Keys. It’s a small cluster of islands off the southernmost tip of the United States. Well, the Keys are classified as an archipelago, actually. Some of the Keys are included in a national forest, with a tropical climate and a….”

She trails off when she realizes how pedantic she sounds. But for the first time in their acquaintance, Draco doesn’t call her on it. He just ducks his head, gives her a shrewd grin, and goes back to the piecrust dough she set him on earlier that morning.

Today he stands next to her at the kitchen island. He keeps his back turned firmly against the bottle of Ogden’s Firewhisky – still unopened, still where he set it last week – and his body is so close to hers, their elbows bump as they work.

“Why do I get the feeling, Granger, that you didn’t choose these wholly un-magical, wholly un-British fruits at random?”

She’s not going to giggle this time. She’s not.

Instead, she cuts the strings of the mesh bag and dumps a few limes onto the counter. The tiny green fruits roll about until she gathers them together into a small pile by her knife.

“Because it wasn’t random at all,” she says. “So here’s another test: can you guess why I chose them?”

Draco’s hands pause, mid-knead. “I don’t know the specifics, but I bet I can figure out the general reason.”

“Give it your best, then.”

“Alright.” He returns to his dough. “Every pastry you’ve delivered has some connection to the recipient, or at least to how you think of them. Greg with the black soul and the Black Forest cake. Pansy with the peanut brittle.”

“Does Pansy especially like peanuts?” Hermione asks teasingly.

Draco snorts. “Yes, but that’s beside the point. I suspect, like with Greg, you picked that one for the name. Pansy being brittle, and all.”

Hermione has to concentrate on rolling the limes beneath her palms to keep from flashing him a pleased grin.

“With me,” Draco goes on, his tone imperceptibly softer than before, “it’s the apples. Like maybe you remembered how much I liked them in school, so you showed up at my door with a happy memory all soaked in magic and cinnamon.”

She doesn’t confirm or deny this. Just keeps rolling the fruits against the countertop to soften their flesh. “And the limes? What’s your guess on the limes?”

He fixes her with a direct, steady gaze – rooting her to the spot with all that pale grey she used to find so cold.

“You,” Draco says. “The limes are your happy memory.”

Up until this point, she’s made a habit of refusing to break eye contact with him. But suddenly she can’t look away fast enough. She inspects the counter, the limes, her own hands. Anything but the piercing grey in front of her.

“T-twenty points to Slytherin,” she stammers with a shaky laugh.

Draco laughs, too, and then returns to his piecrust without making note of her strange behavior. They work silently beside each other for a while, and she takes advantage of the quiet to collect her thoughts. And, okay, maybe to wonder exactly what he’s thinking. Because after such astute observations about the PTSD Pastry Tour – especially as it concerns her – surely he’s thinking something?

Unaware of the tumult inside her head, Draco abruptly growls. “Okay, Granger, I give up. Congratulations.”

“Huh?”

“The suspense is unbearable, so just tell me already.”

“Tell you what?”

He rolls his eyes. “The memory, Granger. Your memory. The reason we’re making a pie with Yank limes that can’t open locks.”

“Oh. That.”

“Yes. That.”

She regards him: the long line of his fingers in the dough; the smudge of flour on his knuckles; the way he watches her now with a sort of open-faced anticipation.

Then carefully, so carefully, she says, “My parents. The memory is about my parents, and the trip I took with them the summer before the War.”

She waits guardedly for his reaction. When none is forthcoming, she begins to gnaw at her bottom lip, unsure of…unsure of….

Draco must realize what she’s expecting from him at the same time she does, because immediately, his eyes hood over and he casts one of his classic smirks at her. But beneath his familiar facade, other emotions seem to war. Shame, she thinks, and maybe even a prickly kind of hurt.

“Granger,” he drawls, “you do know I’m not going to hex you if you talk about your Muggle parents, don’t you?”

Hermione feels her cheeks redden. She’s somewhat embarrassed to admit it, even to herself. But this is one of the things she’s been so nervous about this morning: how Draco Malfoy will handle a reference to Muggles. The very people he once vowed to torture and subjugate.

“I suppose you won’t,” she answers cagily.

He nods, as if that’s good enough to close the subject, and moves back to his piecrust. Yet she’s still waiting, watching him stretch out the dough for rolling. He must sense her remaining hesitation. Without looking up from his task, he says, “Go on then, Granger. Tell me about the memory. Before my curiosity kills me.”

Okay, Hermione thinks. Okay.

“It was the summer right after our sixth year,” she begins. “After Dumbledore…well, after. Things were starting to look grim. Every day, the War just seemed to get closer and closer. I knew I’d be leaving soon to help Harry hunt for the Horcruxes, and I…I was terrified. All I wanted to do was escape, even for just a little bit. So I begged my parents for a trip, somewhere sunny and new and far away from England. My parents had a dental convention that July in Miami, in the States. I suggested we all go together and extend the trip down to the Keys. And that’s what we did: we drove down this long motorway across an impossibly blue ocean, stopping at every island along the way. We fished, and played board games, and didn’t wear enough sunscreen, and ate more pieces of key lime pie than I can count….”

Draco has stopped working and now stares at her intently. When she doesn’t continue, he gives her the smallest nod of encouragement. “It sounds great, Granger.”

“It was the best summer of my life.”

Her eyes start to burn without warning. Horrified, she reaches up to wipe at them. Draco takes a step closer, just before she blurts out: “I Obliviated them. A few days after we got home from our holiday. I sunbathed and swam and ate key lime pie with them. And when we got home, I wiped myself from their minds and sent them to Australia.”

Draco gives two stunned blinks – a habit he seems to have picked up from her. “For Merlin’s sake why, Granger?”

“To hide them from your…from the Death Eaters. I was Harry Potter’s Muggleborn best friend. It was reasonable to think that my parents might become targets, the longer the War went on.”

“That’s…damn. How long did they stay Obliviated?”

“Almost fourteen months. It took an entire team of curse breakers to undo what I did to them.”

He makes a pained hiss. “Shit.”

“Shit, indeed. Which is exactly the kind of daughter I felt like. They were mad as hell about it, too, once they got their memories back. But here’s the worst part: if the War repeated itself, I would do it all over again. Because I was, and still am, willing to do anything – anything – to protect them.”

The air rushes out of Draco, and he shakes his head at the kitchen counter.

“Would it…would it seem disingenuous to say that I completely understand?”

Hermione thinks back to Harry’s testimony at Draco’s trial. To the things Harry heard Draco say in the Astronomy Tower their sixth year, the night Dumbledore died.

He’s going to kill me if I don’t do this. He’s going to kill my parents.

“No,” she whispers. “That doesn’t seem disingenuous at all.”

They share another long stare, the air heavy with the things they aren’t saying. Draco watches her wipe away a few stray tears, his hand flexing on the countertop between them.

“Tell me about them,” he says. “Your parents, I mean.”

She’s so taken aback by his request that she’s momentarily speechless. Not knowing what else to do, she turns back to her limes and slowly begins halving them with her knife. After a few slices, she’s composed enough to comply.

“Well, they’re both dentists, as I said before – Muggle doctors who fix people’s teeth. It’s a bit ironic, considering my old overbite. And considering how much my mum likes sweets.”

“Like mother, like daughter?” he teases.

Hermione grants him a tentative smile, and he takes this as his cue to continue rolling out his crust. She takes that as her invitation to continue talking.

“They’re funny, my parents,” she goes on. “In a terribly corny way. It’s awful and endearing at the same time.”

“How so?”

“Well, my mum acts out everything, like her stories need charades to be properly understood. Not just waving her hands in the air – we’re talking full-out finger puppets. And my dad has this book of jokes that his great-uncle or someone gave him. Every time we have guests over, my dad tries out a new joke at the front door. It’s his equivalent of a handshake.”

“Example?”

Hermione cringes. “Really?”

“Really.”

“Alright, but you asked for it: how does a squid go into battle?”

“Is it a giant squid? Like the one in the Black Lake?”

“Um…I’m not sure, actually. Let’s just say it’s a regular-sized one.”

Draco considers this. “Well, in that case…I have no idea. How does a squid go into battle?”

“Well armed. Get it? Well armed?”

Draco groans and then does that wince-laugh thing she does not find charming. She does not.

“That’s awful, Granger. Truly.”

“I warned you, didn’t I?”

They go back to their work, both of them smiling faintly. But there’s something else she wants to share with him. She slices one lime, two, until she’s brave enough to say what she’s been thinking since he admitted to his drinking problem. It’s the secret she’s only shared once – on a deep, dark night in the Forest of Dean, when she and Harry thought all hope might be lost. A secret that Draco might…appreciate. Might need.

“He’s a recovering alcoholic,” she finally says. “My dad.”

From the corner of her eye, she sees Draco go still. He’s listening, obviously, so she continues.

“I was really young when he went through it, so I don’t remember much about that time in his life. Just some hazy things when I was small. The fights my parents had. The sound of ice cubes in a glass. The way my dad’s hands shook when they held mine. I don’t know how bad it truly was. But I do know that things were better afterward. Much.”

“How did he…how did your dad beat it?”

“Love,” she says plainly. “We loved him, and he loved us, and somehow, that helped him learn to love himself enough to quit.”

The truth, however powerful, sounds somewhat glib out loud. She wonders whether Draco is going to sneer at this small offering of hers. He doesn’t, though. He just studies her closely, those pale grey eyes burning into hers in a way that makes her both uncomfortable and oddly…confused? Frustrated?

Aroused?

The last, completely unbidden thought jolts her. She leaps back to her limes, desperately ignoring the heat of his gaze upon her cheek. Her knife cuts are frenetic, as though the sheer strength of them might clear away that persistent buzz in her brain. The feverish movements seem to be working, until:

“Can I meet them some day? Your parents?”

His soft inquiry surprises her so greatly, her hand slips. It takes two full heartbeats for her to register the hot stab of pain in her right index finger. She looks up at Draco, looks down at the kitchen island, and then feels herself sway on her heels.

“Oh, look,” she whispers, pointing to the island. “More blood.”

And then her knees buckle.

She doesn’t make it to the ground. Instead, she lands in a tangle of arms and legs, with her back pressed against someone’s broad chest. In this half-fallen, half-crouched position, she feels herself spun around until she is curled in Draco’s lap, facing him.

Why are we on the floor?

She doesn’t know whether she asks the question out loud or just thinks it. The answer ceases to matter much when Draco pulls her injured hand into his and, in the weirdest instinct ever, places her bleeding forefinger into his mouth.

The static in her brain goes wild. She can’t think, can’t think, can’t think, but she can feel the slightest, most fascinating slide of his tongue along her cut.

“My blood,” she manages to gasp.

My dirty, muddy blood.

Draco’s trance breaks, and his cheeks flush bright pink at the realization of what he’s just done. He pulls her finger from his lips, grabs his wand from his hip pocket, and begins feverishly murmuring Vulnera Sanentur over the cut. He does the counterspell so quickly that her finger is repaired within a matter of seconds, left with nothing but a small white line of healing skin.

When he finishes, he rubs his thumb across the line. “Does it hurt?”

If Harry or Ron asked her that, she would say no without hesitation. But there’s something about the way Draco studies her finger that kills her lie, before it even leaves her mouth.

“Yes,” she whispers. “It hurts.”

“The cut was bad. Much deeper than mine was the other day.”

His voice sounds raw but…reverent. Like she’s done something divine just by bleeding on him.

“How did it taste?” she blurts.

Still staring down at her hand, Draco lets out a hoarse laugh that does something positively sizzling to her spine.

“Coppery,” he says. “Just like mine.”

And there it is.

There it is right there, hanging between them like a banner. Echoing around them like a song. His blood, her blood. Blood that is currently pounding, flooding, rushing through her brain.

“Do you…do you still believe that my blood is—?”

“Of course I fucking don’t,” he rasps. “How could I, after…after everything?”

She becomes suddenly, intensely aware that she’s wrapped in Draco’s arms, sitting in his lap. And yet she makes no move to extract herself. He doesn’t try to change their position, either. Instead, he stares right at her, all pale blond and electric grey. For some reason, looking into his eyes makes her head spin from what she suspects isn’t just blood loss.

“Draco,” she whispers.

He shivers noticeably but doesn’t recoil from her breath on his skin. “Hermione.”

“I…I think you should do the cutting from now on.”

He blinks several times, emits another strangled laugh, and then nods. Slowly, he unfolds his legs until he has pulled both of them into a standing position.

“Good idea, Granger. I think you’ve sufficiently proven yourself a menace in the kitchen for today.”

She can’t be sure, but she thinks she feels one last stroke of his thumb against her finger before his hand disappears from hers.

* * *

Less than two hours later, he pulls the pie out of the oven and sets it beside the bowl of topping they prepared. Hermione, who has been slowly folding meringue upon itself with a wooden spoon, leans over the pie pan at the exact same time as Draco. She can feel her curls brush his shoulder, but he doesn’t shy away as they both drag in the aroma.

“Is it like you remember?” he asks, and his breath ghosts the side of her cheek.

They’ve been doing this all morning: circling each other more and more closely, until they’re practically touching every time one of them moves even a fraction. Each time they speak, they do so quietly. As if they’re both afraid that noise might dislodge the fragile orbit they’ve created. She’s not sure what any of this means, and she is definitely not letting herself overanalyze it. Nope, nope, nope.

She leans in farther. To catch the scent of the key lime pie, she thinks. Not to be nearer to him.

“It really does trigger my memories,” she says.

“Is that…a bad thing?”

She shakes her head. Tries to ignore how the movement places her face a centimetre closer to his. “Not at all. Especially when you take into account the smell of this one.”

Draco makes a noise of disbelief. “The smell, Granger?”

“Oh yeah, the smell. It’s sweet and tangy and rich all at the same time, you know? This pie smells like…like…”

“Magic?” he offers smugly.

She smacks him on the arm. “No.”

“What then? Does the pie smell luscious?” His smirk broadens and he reaches across her, toward her mixing bowl full of meringue. “Silky? Delectable?”

Her eyes track the proximity of his forearm to her body. She has to say something – anything – to distract herself from how very close he is to her right now.

“Are we quite done exercising our powers of gastronomical description, Malfoy?”

“Not yet, Granger. Not before we try scrumptious, or transcendent.”

Hermione can’t help her laugh. In an impulse she doesn’t really understand, she places her hands on Draco’s hips. He goes absolutely still, and she takes advantage of his sudden rigidity to switch places with him.

“Less describing, Malfoy, and more dolloping.”

He nods dumbly as she removes her hands. With what she thinks might be another shiver, he begins scooping out the meringue. Soon, the pie has grown by several centimetres of white foam atop the creamy yellow filling.

Draco places the wooden spoon back into the empty bowl. “Now what?”

Hermione demonstrates a wand flick that she’s invented, a sort of hybrid between Lumos and Incendio. “The incantation is ‘Deminuo Confrigo,’” she explains. “I created it during the War to melt small objects like some of the Horcruxes. I wanted something more controlled than Incendio or…or….”

“Fiendfyre,” he finishes.

She nods, worried that this oblique reference to Crabbe will rattle him. Instead, Draco’s face remains impassive. He repeats her words twice for practice and then, with a deft twist of his wand, incants the spell. A small blue flame bursts forth, making his wand look suspiciously like a butane torch. Draco is so thrilled with the results that he laughs and spins toward her.

“This spell is bloody fantastic.”

He returns to the pie and begins to toast the top of it with the flame. As she watches him, wearing that joyous smile and wielding the charm she created, Hermione feels a flood of warmth in her core.

“That thing smells too transcendent to wait,” she says. “I’m going to get some plates so we can eat right away.”

Draco makes a grunt of assent – he’s clearly having too much fun with the Deminuo Confrigo to argue, or help. Hermione moves farther into the kitchen toward a bank of whitewash cabinets.

Accio dessert plates,” she says with a quick swish of her wand. Instantly, an upper door opens and two small plates float out from inside it. She slips her wand back into the pocket of her jeans just in time to catch them.

At first, the plates appear elegant, if plain. Just simple white china, bordered with a delicate line of gold. As Hermione examines them, however, a gold-etched peacock feather winks magically in and out of existence at the center of each plate. At the tip of each feather, a chip of emerald stone glitters.

Hermione traces the healed pad of her finger across the enchantment.

Pretty. So pretty.

She’s still admiring the shimmery feather on the top plate when she hears a soft snick in front of her. Startled, she glances up just in time to see the cabinet reopen and two more dessert plates float toward her. The new additions land, unbidden and unsummoned, on top of their companions.

Frowning down at her stack of four plates, she spins back around to the front of the kitchen. “Draco, is there something wrong with your—?”

The pretty, bewitched plates nearly shatter to the floor when Hermione sees Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy standing arm-in-arm at the other end of the room. Staring right at her.

“Miss Granger,” Lucius drawls. “How lovely to see you again.”

Chapter Text

The first thing she notices about Lucius Malfoy is his hair.

Like his son's, Lucius's platinum hair glows in the sunlight. But in place of the long, pampered mane Hermione remembers from their unpleasant past, Lucius now wears his hair short. Longer than Draco's, certainly, but well above the line of his shoulders. It's unsettling, to find that Lucius Malfoy actually has a neck under what was once groomed tresses and lace cravats.

The second thing Hermione notices is how impossibly gaunt he's grown. The last time she saw the Malfoy patriarch in person, he was running wandless through the Great Hall of Hogwarts, screaming for his son in the middle of battle. Back then, Lucius's face bore lines of torture and terror. Yet he still looked very much like a middle-aged aristocrat. Now, standing in the harsh light of his own kitchen, Lucius looks for all the world like a well-dressed scarecrow. So haggard and thin, a strong wind could finish him.

In contrast, Narcissa Malfoy is as impeccable as ever. Despite the early hour, she already wears a set of black dress robes, pinned shut at her throat by a twinkling emerald brooch. Her pale hair rests in a sleek chignon at the base of her head, and her lips are painted a fetching shade of coral. She's ever so poised, ever the Lady of the Manor.

And yet….

And yet Narcissa's appearance also shows the fine cracks of stress. They're much less evident than her husband's, but they're still present. A few deep lines around her mouth. A streak of what might be white – and not white-blonde – along her left temple. And the hand she clutches to her husband's elbow, as though she's afraid he might tumble over without her support.

War, Hermione realizes, took its toll on all the Malfoys.

This thought jolts her out of her inspection of Narcissa and Lucius, and she turns with some alarm toward Draco. Draco, however, does not acknowledge her. Instead, he glares murderously at his parents, one hand gripped on his wand and the other clenched to the edge of the kitchen island. Apparently, he didn't expect their visit, either.

After a prim cough, Narcissa addresses Hermione first.

"Miss Granger, I trust you don't mind that we've intruded on your work today. But the aromas from the kitchen were simply too inviting to ignore."

"N-not at all," Hermione stammers as she steps closer to Draco. She sets the peacock plates – four of them, for the four people now in the room – upon the counter. "I'd rather hoped you both would join us at some point."

"How kind," Narcissa says, at the same time Draco snorts in derision.

Narcissa shoots him a look. It's one Hermione has seen Molly Weasley give Ron at least a thousand times, and she almost lets out an hysterical giggle at the surreal comparison. Trying not to shake, Hermione pulls the finished pie closer and removes her wand from her pocket. She keeps her movements slow, her wand pointed downward at all times, so as not to spook anyone. Merlin knows, the tension in the room is already excruciating enough without hexes flying.

"May I cut us each a slice?" she offers.

Lucius takes a step toward the island and nods eagerly. "Please do."

Hermione wands a slice of key lime pie onto each plate and then floats the plates gently across the island, in front of each person in the kitchen. She waits, stiff and uncomfortable, for someone to say something. Or curse someone. Or at least take a bloody bite. But Draco still hasn't moved, nor does he seem inclined to. So, with an awkward pang about making the Malfoys feel comfortable in a space they own, Hermione summons four forks, four napkins, and four of the barstools that usually perch below the far kitchen windows.

Draco takes his seat last, and he doesn't shift his glare or relinquish hold of his wand until he eats a bite of the pie. Almost at once, his eyelids flutter shut and he emits a small groan of pleasure – a sound echoed, rather disconcertingly, by his father.

Hermione watches in amazement as both father and son forget the tension, forget the Muggleborn witch in their midst, forget that they're sodding Malfoys, and tuck into their respective pieces of pie with fervor. Their zeal is a testament, really, to how dour and flavorless their last three years must have been.

Narcissa and Hermione, however, remember exactly who they are and with whom they sit. Each witch gives the other a strained smile, picks up a fork, and tries a nibble of the pie. Fortunately, Narcissa relents first.

"Oh," she breathes, after swallowing her bite. "Oh, this is very good. Very good indeed."

Hermione feels an odd swell of pride, but she inclines her head toward Draco. "You can thank your son for that. He's become quite an adept baker this past month."

"Has he, now?"

"He has. Although I'm not that surprised, given how well he did at school."

One of Narcissa's finely sculpted eyebrows lifts. "Oh? I was under the impression that you, Miss Granger, were the student who excelled most at school."

"I…I was. But Draco often challenged me."

This time, it's Lucius's turn to snort. The noise is hauntingly reminiscent of the elegant one his son so often makes.

"Miss Granger," Lucius drawls, "do I detect false modesty?"

Hermione can feel Draco watching her, monitoring her response with a carefully blank expression. So she sets her jaw into that same stubborn line she used with him the last time they discussed his mother.

"Alright. Draco was an excellent student but I was better. By far. Then again, I had something to prove, didn't I? What with my parentage and all."

That last, sarcastic comment stops Lucius's sneer right in its tracks. He sets down his fork – onto his nearly licked-clean plate – and shares an unreadable look with his wife. After that, Narcissa appraises Hermione coolly.

"Miss Granger," the older witch says, "may I ask you a somewhat frank question?"

Hermione hesitates, but only for a moment.

"Of course, Mrs. Malfoy. You've opened your home to me for a month now. I'll try to answer any questions you might have."

"Very well, then. But first, let me provide some context. Has Draco told you that I receive the occasional visitor to the Manor?"

"No, he hasn't."

"Well, I do. My husband's guests are limited, and monitored by Ministry-set wards. But Draco and I are permitted to receive a reasonable number of visitors each month, at our leisure. I grow so tired these days, I can't do much more than host a yearly tea for my old society friends. These are women with whom I share a past; women who understand how different our futures are now. I hosted my most recent tea in January, just after the holidays."

Hermione squirms on her barstool. She isn't sure, but she can guess where this is leading.

"January's tea was…pleasant enough," Narcissa goes on. "Truth be told and just among those of us at this table, I don't think I'll host it next January. As much as I enjoy having company, I find more and more that I don't have much in common with my old associates. But one fascinating topic of conversation did come up this year."

And all at once, Hermione already knows what the older witch will say, even before she says it.

"That topic was you, Miss Granger. More specifically, your desserts. Christine Zabini insisted I request one of your apricot crostatas. Priscilla Parkinson just wouldn't stop raving about your peanut brittle. And I won't even discuss the way Eleanor Goyle practically salivated over your Black Forest cake."

At the mention of Eleanor Goyle – Greg's mother, she presumes – Hermione feels Draco's shoe graze hers under the kitchen island. She hazards a side-long glance at him, to see if it was intentional. There, on his lips, she finds the barest hint of a smile. Inexplicably, the warmth in her stomach is back, and she discovers that she has the courage to interrupt Narcissa's story.

"Mrs. Malfoy, if I may be so rude, I think I know what you'd like to ask me."

Again, Narcissa arches that perfect, patrician eyebrow. "Oh? Do you?"

"Brightest Witch of Her Age, Mother," Draco mutters, and Hermione kicks his nearby foot.

Without waiting for his retaliation, Hermione says, "You want to know why Malfoy Manor was the last of all my visits. You want to know why I would willingly spend time with people I disliked but barely knew in school – like Blaise, or Pansy, or Goyle – before I would spend time with someone I admittedly hated, but interacted with more. Namely, Draco."

Narcissa doesn't confirm this out loud. But Hermione can tell from both of the older Malfoys' expectant faces that she guessed right. Even Draco, who has folded his arms across his chest, can't hide his interest.

After all, isn't this exactly what he asked her, the first time she arrived at the Manor with a cakebox full of apple tarts? She didn't answer him then, and it makes sense that he still wants to know now. What makes less sense is why he hasn't pushed her on the issue yet; why he's waited until today, with his infamous parents present, to find out.

Maybe, on some level, he's afraid of the answer. Maybe he wanted company more than he wanted to hear how much she used to hate him…how much she still might. Or maybe he's waited this entire time for her to be ready to talk about this. For her to examine herself, while trying to analyze him. If that's the case, then he deserves the truth.

They all do.

"The answer is simple," Hermione says quietly. "I was afraid. Afraid of the two of you, Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy, and of Draco. I was afraid of what you all could do to me. But mostly, I was afraid of how I'd handle being back here, in this house. I was terrified that if I saw this place and all of you again, I'd crumple to the floor and never get back up."

The truth hangs heavy, and she waits for one of them to do something unpleasant. Pretend that she's terribly vulgar for admitting such weakness. Laugh scornfully at her, perhaps, and confirm that her fears were well-founded.

But the Malfoys don't do any of these things. Instead, Narcissa sighs wearily.

"Oh, my dear girl. This family understands what it means to be afraid. I wish, more than anything – anything – that we never had reason to fear. And I know it may seem like cold comfort now, but I wish you never had, either."

Hermione tries hard, and fails, not to gawk after this confession. Her mouth is still hanging open when Narcissa shakes her head, as if to clear away sad thoughts, and scans the room.

"Well, that's enough of that, I suppose. I do believe we should have some tea. Yes?"

Narcissa doesn't wait for a response to summon a kettle and more priceless Malfoy china. Within the minute, a cup of that gorgeous floral tea sits in front of each of them, along with another round of freshly cut pie slices.

For lack of anything better to do with her mouth – because Merlin knows, she has no idea what to say right now – Hermione picks up her cup to sip silently. She's thinking that she has never felt so awkward in her entire life when she feels another press of Draco's shoe against hers below the table. This time he maintains the contact, even as he leans over to grasp his own tea.

The subtle touch is so comforting, it's insane. So, feeling particularly crazy, Hermione edges her foot back just a bit closer. To her shock, Draco does the same, until their calves rest lightly against each other. The sensation is simultaneously soothing and dizzying, and Hermione has to take a deep breath just to keep her head steady.

Mercifully, neither Narcissa nor Lucius sees the silent interplay going on across the table. Lucius is too busy taking enthusiastic bites of his second slice, while Narcissa watches him diligently, like every calorie he consumes means something to her. Given how painfully thin he is, that's probably true.

Once Lucius finishes, Narcissa beams at Hermione.

"My husband rather likes sweets," she confides.

"Dear, please don't—" Lucius begins, but Narcissa silences him with an amiable sniff.

"It's true, Lucius, you do! Or are you going to keep telling me it was Cornish pixies, banging around here at midnight last week, on the hunt for the rest of those apple macarons?"

A laugh echoes through the kitchen, and it takes Hermione five full seconds to register that it's hers. She clamps her hand down upon her mouth, aghast that she's just laughed.

At Lucius Malfoy. Inside Malfoy Manor.

She's just about to remove her hand and either apologize or defend herself profusely, when a distinct, snorting sound makes her head swivel toward Draco. Draco has folded his arms back across his chest and he's biting the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing aloud.

At Lucius Malfoy. Inside Malfoy Manor.

Lucius's expression goes dark and, for a heartbeat, Hermione thinks he might hex them both. The sinister effect is rather lost, however, when Narcissa snickers, too.

"Pixies," she gasps, and the three of them – Narcissa, Draco, and Hermione – start laughing outright. The fire in Lucius's eyes extinguishes, and his mouth draws into a sour frown.

"Amused, are we?" he drawls.

Narcissa and Draco begin howling when Hermione, in lieu of an answer, slides her uneaten slice of pie in front of Lucius.

***

Later, Hermione bids Narcissa and Lucius goodbye at the base of their grand staircase. She waits, long enough to see them whispering together before the shadows of the Manor swallow them. Then she faces Draco with her eyebrows raised all the way to her hairline.

Before she can barrage him with questions about what the hell just happened in his kitchen, he offers, "Walk you to the Apparition point?"

She blinks once, twice, in her most Ron-esque way.

Draco's never made an offer like this before; as far as she knows, he hasn't even stepped foot outside the Manor in the past month except to visit Theo. And now, he wants to walk her out, like…like a gentleman. She's shaking her head at how bizarre this day has gotten, when she sees Draco's jaw tighten.

"No, I can't walk you out?" he asks gruffly.

"Oh!" she gasps, realizing her error. "Of course you can! Sorry, I was just shaking my head because…well, this has been such a weird morning."

For some reason, his responding sigh sounds relieved. He rakes a hand through his pale hair, lets his palm rest on the back of his neck, and then grins down at her.

"Granger, I know exactly what you mean."

They stroll out together, Draco hanging back so she won't have to run to keep up with his long stride. For most of the walk, they share a companionable silence, both probably thinking about that morning's revelations. His parents. Her parents. Their latest round of blood-letting.

Draco confirms this when, halfway down the endless driveway, he addresses her with his old smirk.

"So, Granger, how does it feel to have officially faced your demons?"

She attempts one of his refined snorts. "I would hardly call your parents demons."

"Not anymore, you wouldn't."

This earns a real laugh from her. "Well, no. Not anymore."

"Hermione Granger: the Most Forgiving Witch of her Age?"

"It doesn't have quite the same ring to it as my usual title, does it?"

He considers that for a beat, then offers, "How about 'Hermione Granger: She Who Speaks Witch-to-Witch with Narcissa Malfoy, and Lives?' A bit too wordy, perhaps?"

She's thankful for the March chill that cools her blush. Draco's new tagline is so close to what they discussed last week, when she bragged about talking to his mother, that Hermione knows it's no coincidence. The tagline confirms what she suspected that day: Draco wanted Hermione to talk to his mother. He wanted the two witches to meet, face to face.

But to what end, Hermione still has no idea.

She's so distracted by this new puzzle, she altogether misses the fact that they've passed the entry gates and reached the Apparition point outside the Manor's wards. Head down, lost in thought, she actually keeps walking until she feels the tug of something upon her hand, yanking her to a stop. When she looks down, she's stunned to see Draco's hand wrapped around hers. Her wide eyes trail from their clasped hands, up the length of his arm, to his playful smile.

"Plan on wandering the valleys of Wiltshire this afternoon, Granger?"

"I…I'm not…I don't…."

He chuckles and pulls her closer to the Apparition point. Closer to him, too.

"You should go home and rest, Granger. Clearly, the sheer joy of making pie with me has addled that big brain of yours."

She wants to sneer at him. Wants to deliver some witty retort about how "Draco Malfoy" and "joy" are mutually exclusive concepts. But all she can seem to concentrate on is the feel of his palm against hers when he lifts her hand toward his face.

"Sorry, Granger," he murmurs, suddenly sincere as he inspects the tip of her mended finger. "I'm a shite healer. This one's definitely going to scar."

"It's alright." An insane idea flits into her head, and she gently places her free hand on the left forearm of his jumper. Right over the place where the faded outline of his Dark Mark must be. "We all have a few scars."

His arm tenses beneath her touch, but only briefly. When it relaxes, she risks a glimpse up at him. Draco stares down at her, and she would swear on everything she holds holy that his grey eyes are actually scorching her. The way he stares at her is confusing and frustrating and dear-Merlin-don't-think-arousing, and she suddenly needs to be anywhere but there right now.

Hermione pulls her hand out of Draco's as if it's on fire and, with a curt nod at the man she does not find attractive – she does not – she Disapparates home.

Chapter Text

This time, Hermione admits it to herself: she's a cliché. A pastry-baking, book-toting, legislation-drafting cliché. She has devolved into a pile of nerves – over a boy, of all things – and she has no idea what to do about it.

The first step to recovery, she knows, is admitting that she has a problem. So she gives herself all Sunday to wallow in confusion and frustration and that other word she's not letting herself think. She bakes, she reads, she ignores Ginny's Floo-calls. And she forgives herself for muttering throughout the day, working aloud on the jumble of emotions that seem to rise each time she thinks about Draco Malfoy.

What the hell is going on? she asks herself on more than one occasion. And what the hell are we?

Are they former childhood enemies turned acquaintances? Journeyman and apprentice bakers? Partners in addressing his alcohol problem? Are they…friends?

Friendly something else's?

Or is she completely insane, and there isn't even a "them" to over-analyze? The entire mess nearly makes her do what she considered before their first baking lesson: toss the PTSD Pastry Tour, her career, and her friendships (real, pseudo, or otherwise) into the rubbish bin, and then move to a tropical island with a mountain of books. Of course, her brain also puts key limes on that island, and the whole circuitous loop starts right back up again.

On Monday morning, Hermione sets aside the chaos in her brain to focus solely on giants' civil liberties. She spends the majority of the day drafting bills, arguing various points of law with clerks in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, and owling Hagrid on the finer aspects of giant…ethics, for lack of a better term. As she hoped it would, the project becomes all-consuming, and she actually sleeps in the Ministry that night. She only leaves her desk for a few minutes the next morning to change robes in the loo and perform a quick freshening charm on her teeth. Then it's back to giants' rights with a vengeance.

By late Tuesday evening, she declares the exercise a success. Draco Malfoy has hardly entered her mind at all, and she Floos home feeling spent and ready for the longest tub-soak of her life. She's therefore totally unprepared for the sight of Pleiades, perched regally on the back of her sofa.

Judging by the small pile of molted feathers on the cushions beneath him, he's been waiting for some time. And if the feathers don't give it away, there's always the accusatory glint in his large, orange eyes.

Hermione immediately drops her work satchel and hurries over to him. He seems fine, physically; just severely put out. So she pets his feathers and coos at him, telling him he's a handsome bird – a patient bird. At first, the owl swivels away from her, all righteous indignation. He can't resist the attention, however, and his head soon rotates back toward her caressing fingers. Pleiades allows her to soothe him for a while longer, until he apparently feels that she's made appropriate amends. Then he shuffles forward so she can remove the parcel he carries.

She doesn't need to open the envelope to guess what it says. But she does so anyway, with a delicacy she doesn't fully comprehend. Inside, there's that same rich cardstock, the same lovely calligraphy, which reads:

Draco Malfoy cordially requests the presence of Hermione Granger

For dinner, this Saturday, March 25, 2000

In lieu of their usual Saturday activities

Dinner served promptly at 8 p.m.

The Lesser Dining Room, Second Floor, Malfoy Manor

In tiny, parenthetical script below the body of the invitation, a single line states: Dinner to be prepared by Draco Malfoy. Merlin help us all.

Hermione is still grinning at that last line when the entire body of text disappears and is replaced by the following:

Dress is semi-formal, Granger.

I trust you own more than knits and those fetching trainers you always wear?

"I don't," she tells the invitation. Her grin widens as his words melt into a new set of lines, written in smaller and less ornate script than his were.

Maevy figured as much, Miss.

Maevy will arrive at Miss's flat at 6 p.m. on Saturday to help.

Please, Miss, try to do something with that hair beforehand.

Maevy has only so much talent.

The elf's note vanishes, replaced once more by Draco's calligraphy.

I would say sorry about that, Granger, but you only have yourself to blame.

House-elf rights' initiatives and all.

See you Saturday?

After this last bit, the highly-communicative invitation goes blank for a few seconds. Then it transitions into what appears to be a reply card. Hermione rushes for her quill, scribbles out an enthusiastic "yes" and her address so that Maevy can Apparate nearby, and slips the card back into the envelope.

Pleiades doesn't need any further instruction. He grasps the envelope in his talons, takes a few treats from Hermione's palm, and flaps out the owl-delivery window. As Hermione watches him go, she realizes that she has the answer to one of her questions.

Friends, then. At the very least, friends.

***

It's not that Hermione doesn't trust Maevy, but….

Hermione doesn't trust Maevy.

The house-elf undoubtedly has the best intentions and, Merlin knows, Hermione could use the help. Especially since "Hermione Granger" and "formal dress" have only entered the same sentence on three other occasions, one of which resulted in Viktor Krum's tongue down her throat and another, Cormac McLaggen's hands on her bum. But truth be told, Maevy seems to know a great deal more about fashion than Hermione, and the witch finds that fact just a wee bit intimidating.

That's why, after being admitted through the front door of Hermione's flat on Saturday evening, Maevy finds Ginny and a huge pile of borrowed dresses on Hermione's couch. To Hermione's relief, Maevy claps her hands delightedly at the sight.

"How thoughtful! Miss has brought the Ginny Weasley for Maevy to meet!"

Ginny laughs. "The Ginny Weasley? Really?"

"Oh, yes," Maevy enthuses. "Miss Weasley is quite famous, you know. Quite famous indeed."

"How have you heard about Ginny, Maevy?" Hermione asks, taking a seat in one of the chairs that flanks her sofa.

"The Daily Prophet, of course. And that lovely article in Witch Weekly about Miss Weasley's upcoming wedding."

Ginny makes an astonished face. "Malfoy lets his house-elves read the Prophet?"

At this, Maevy sniffs haughtily and places her tiny hand on her hip. Only then does Ginny notice the elf's attire: another high-end purple suit, this one with a heavily embroidered red-and-black vest to match Maevy's red, open-toed pumps. Ringing up the possible cost of such an outfit in her head, Ginny lets out a low whistle.

"Sorry, Maevy. I meant no offense, I swear."

"No offense taken, Miss Weasley." Maevy rubs her hands together eagerly. "Now, let's see what goodies you've brought Miss Granger tonight!"

Hermione slumps back into her chair as the little elf and Ginny dig happily through the clothing on the couch. Items are held up, considered, and flung away with such speed that Hermione starts to wonder if she should just wear a knit dress like a sensible human being.

Finally, Ginny pulls something from the pile that meets Maevy's high standards. It's a simple enough dress: deep, wine-dark cashmere, with long sleeves and a curve-hugging skirt. There's even a hidden pocket for her wand. The neckline plunges a tad too low for Hermione's taste, but she supposes that beggars can't be choosers when it comes to another witch's robes.

"This is lovely, Gin," Hermione says, running her fingers over the soft fabric. "Where did you get this?"

"It's Fleur's, actually. She's been giving me a ton of stuff lately, since she 'von't 'ave zis figure after ze baby.'"

"Won't Fleur always have a perfect figure? She's part Veela – they hardly even age."

Ginny shrugs. "Probably. But who am I to argue with a pregnant woman?"

"Who are any of us to argue about this dress?" Maevy counters, petting the cashmere along with Hermione. "Now…shoes?"

Hermione fetches the only dress shoes she owns – a pair of black kitten heels – and hands them over to the elf. Maevy just shakes her head at them in frustration.

"Mister Draco stands a whole head above you," the elf complains. "These aren't tall enough, not nearly tall enough."

"For whom? Him, or me?"

"For you, Miss, obviously. How else are you supposed to kiss him?"

Maevy is the picture of innocence, but Hermione almost swallows her tongue. Between her freckles, Ginny has gone wan, and her gaze whips between Maevy and Hermione as though they're playing a tennis match. Finally, Hermione manages a strangled reply.

"Who said anything about kissing?"

Maevy waves her hand in dismissal. "No one did. But Maevy isn't blind."

"Blind to what?"

Ginny asks the question oh-so-casually. But she pushes herself to the very edge of her seat, as if even a single centimetre will affect her ability to hear the elf's answer. Hermione leans forward, too, her hands clawed into the arms of her chair. Maevy doesn't detect any of the tension that has descended over the room; she's too busy examining the shoes, holding them against the dress with a grimace of distaste.

"Miss Granger is one of the only witches to visit Mister Draco in the last three years," Maevy says distractedly. "Aside from that horrid Pansy Parkinson and those insipid Greengrass girls."

"Maevy!" Hermione gasps, but the elf merely shrugs.

"Sorry, Miss. But ever since the Ministry released Maevy from – what did that piece of paper call it? Servitude? – Maevy speaks her mind."

"Well, that's…a good thing. A great thing, really."

"Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, Maevy was very pleased to meet Miss Granger last month. And Maevy is more pleased with the way Mister Draco looks at Miss Granger."

Ginny lifts one eyebrow at the little elf. "And how is that?"

"Mister Draco looks at Miss Granger," Maevy says, "like a drowning man looks at air."

Ginny and Hermione share a fraught look. While Maevy continues to manipulate the shoes, the witches engage in a heated exchange of whispers.

"Like air? Like air, Hermione?"

"It's just because I'm helping him. That's all."

"With what, mouth-to-mouth?"

"Ginny!"

"Hermione!"

Hermione blushes, waves her hands about frantically, and flat-out refuses to acknowledge Maevy's suggestion.

"He's…he's struggling, Ginny. Like we all are. Like…well, like I am, whether anyone can see it in me or not. Draco needs someone, and right now, I want to be that person. I need to be that person. For me, not just for him. Is that…do you think that's horrible, Gin? Be honest."

"Is he still drinking too much?"

"I don't think so. But I don't know for sure."

Ginny regards her friend with care, and then nods. "It's not horrible at all. That's what I think."

Maevy's triumphant cackle interrupts them, and the two witches turn around just in time to see Hermione's heels transfigure into a pair of tall, black velvet pumps. When she glances up from her handiwork, Maevy's eyes twinkle with mirth.

"Now, Miss, about that hair…."

***

At a quarter to eight, Maevy declares Hermione about as finished a product as she's going to get. Ginny and the elf step back to admire their work: the form-fitting dress, the transfigured heels, the web of glittery pins holding back the upper half of Hermione's curls. And the swipe of plum-coloured lipstick that no amount of Hermione's protests could stop.

"Well done, Miss Weasley!" Maevy raves. "It seems you're famous for a reason."

"Yeah, I'm not sure that hair-and-makeup was really what the Daily Prophet had in mind when they labeled Hermione and me War-heroines."

"You're witches of many talents, then."

Both women laugh, and Ginny moves toward the fireplace to go. Before grabbing a handful of Floo powder, she wraps Hermione in a tight hug and whispers, "I love you. And I trust you, you know."

In a flash of emerald green dust, Ginny vanishes. Hermione stares at the empty hearth for a long while and then spins on one, high heel toward Maevy.

The elf holds out her small hand.

"Malfoy Manor, Miss?"

With a nervous nod and a silent prayer, Hermione takes Maevy's hand and together, they Apparate.

Chapter Text

Apparently Maevy has permission to Apparate wherever she wishes, regardless of the Ministry-set wards. That's the only way Hermione can explain why she and the elf arrive inside the Manor, at the base of the grand staircase.

Side-along Apparitions haven't been Hermione's forte since the War, and so she stumbles slightly upon their landing. It's not Maevy's hand, however, that grasps her elbow.

"You alright, Granger?"

Hermione allows Draco to steady her, keeping her gaze trained to the marble floor in an attempt to collect herself. When she finally peeks up at him, he's wearing a small smile that she finds rather bewildering.

Were his lips always so full? And his eyes…when did his eyes start doing that weird fluttery thing to her heart?

"Are you alright?" he repeats.

She nods numbly. "Yeah, sorry. Side-alongs just aren't my thing anymore."

"Hermione Granger, not the best at something?" Draco smirks, but there's no malice in it. "Alert the Ministry at once. Inquiries will need to be made."

"Har har, Malfoy."

She straightens her spine and gives him an appraising once-over. The infamous black suit is back, this time with a white oxford shirt and black tie. There's a sharp edge to his jaw tonight, which she now recognizes as nerves instead of cruelty. He smells delightfully clean-scrubbed, like citrus and spice, and he's combed his hair neatly again. Although it's not loose like he wears it on Saturday mornings, she finds that she rather likes his hair this way, too. Even in this buttoned-up state – so similar to their school days – she thinks he looks…Draco looks…he's….

Oh Merlin, I'm in trouble.

Hermione takes his elbow when he offers it and joins him in climbing the never-ending staircase. They are silent for eight, nine, steps, until he inclines his head toward her.

"So, Granger, how ready are you for food-poisoning?"

"I've been dry heaving all day in preparation."

"Damn, it's just like you and O.W.L.'s all over again, isn't it?"

"There was much less vomiting with the exams, I think."

His laugh causes them to pause briefly at the first floor landing. To their left she sees an enormous dining room, dominated by black teak paneling and a long, obsidian table. Hermione moves toward it, but Draco pulls her back.

"Not that dining room?" she asks, and feels his responding shudder against her arm.

"No, not that dining room. Never that dining room."

"Why not?"

"Because that's where he held meetings."

Hermione shudders, too. "You know, sometimes I forget that he lived here during the War."

She feels Draco force a shrug against her shoulder. "I forget sometimes, too. And then I pass by a certain room, or smell something burning, or hear a loud voice, and then I…then I…."

Hermione clutches him tighter to her side as they climb. "And then you remember," she finishes, but kindly. Softly. With just the tiniest clutch of her fingers into the fabric of his coat.

"Sometimes," he says, "I wish I could open up my skull and just scrape out every image I have of him."

"I'd offer you a Memory Charm, but we both know I'm a little too good at those."

Draco snorts. "You'd have to remove the memories of my own home, too. There's nothing like having a mad bastard as a house guest to really change the way you view real estate."

"Too true." She nods sadly, and then attempts a joke: "Charming nine bed, twelve bath mansion for sale in Wiltshire. Two formal dinings, two libraries, a chef's kitchen, and a peacock sanctuary. Torture chamber optional. Only three bloodstains in the main parlour. A real steal at this price."

"Dungeons recently remodeled into a home gym," he adds, and her head whips toward him.

"Is that true?"

"Why, are you up for a quick jog right now?"

"No. But the idea of Narcissa Malfoy doing calisthenics is almost too much to handle."

"Well, my mother is technically a kept woman, isn't she?"

Hermione is still laughing when Draco pulls them to a stop on the second floor, just at the entrance to a long and very lovely room. Like the dark space one floor below, this room is filled by a seemingly endless table. But this dining room is far more welcoming, decorated in warm, cherry woods and lit by a roaring fireplace. Colourful paintings line the walls, the figures in each one moving magically beneath the glittering chandeliers. At the far end of the room, two place settings wait for them.

Hermione emits a small, contented sigh and turns toward Draco to express her gratitude for such a scene. The "thank you" seizes in her throat, however, when she sees his face.

Almost unconsciously, he is studying her in the firelight. His gaze pauses at the curl of her hair, the plunge of her dress, the colour on her lips. He catches her catching him, and the pale skin along his cheekbones reddens fiercely. She sees his throat bob once, twice, as he swallows. All of a sudden she's blushing, too, and she wants to say something to cover for him. But to her horror, to her delight, he speaks first.

"You look…nice tonight."

She runs one hand over the place where the dress catches her hipbone and blushes harder at the way his eyes follow the movement.

"T-thanks," she stutters. "If I had a choice, I would have worn trainers and a hoodie. This was all Ginny Weasley and Maevy."

Moving them closer to their seats, Draco coughs lightly around his embarrassment. "Remind me to give Maevy a pay raise, then."

"Will do. As long as you help me draft a letter to Kingsley, begging a raise for myself."

He laughs as he pulls out one of the chairs for her. "What gives you the impression that Shacklebolt would listen to anything I had to say?"

Hermione sits and places a white linen napkin in her lap. She waits for Draco to take the neighboring seat before replying, with mock sweetness, "Oh, we wouldn't sign your name to the letter. That's political suicide."

"Har har, Granger."

She inclines her head toward him as he removes his own napkin. "That is, unless the Malfoy family intends to donate a sizable sum to the giants' rights Law Library I plan to establish soon."

"I didn't think the Ministry could house a library that large. Get it, large? Large, as in giant?"

Hermione groans and intentionally lets her leg bump his under the table. As a kick. Not just to touch him, obviously. But when she moves her leg back, Draco chases it, and the edge of his shoe settles ever so slightly against her elfishly-enhanced pumps.

He pulls his wand from the pocket inside his coat and casts a quick Aguamenti. Immediately, one set of their glasses fills with water. After a second, nonverbal wave over the table, his wineglass remains empty but an opened wine bottle appears next to hers. She glances fleetingly at its label, glances again, and then directs her spluttering noises at Draco.

"What is that?" she asks, stabbing one finger at the bottle beside her.

"What do you think it is?"

Draco asks the question like he might inquire about the weather: all nonchalance and casual wand work, as the bottle magically pours Hermione her first, ruby-red glass of wine.

"That," she says, "looks an awful lot like a bottle of 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc. One of the best wines in the world. Maybe in the universe. So I assume that it's not actually what it looks like, sitting next to my glass."

"Filling your glass, technically." Draco shrugs and takes a long, slow drink of his water. "And what if it is what it looks like?"

"Then it's too extravagant, Malfoy," she grits out. "Far too extravagant, and I can't possibly accept."

He smiles lightly into his glass. "I bet I can give you five reasons to accept."

"You can't give me one valid reason," she says, crossing her arms indignantly over her chest.

"Alright," he drawls. He holds up his right hand with all five fingers sprawled away from each other. For each reason, he lowers one finger, until he finishes with a loosely closed fist.

"Five: we have a case of this in our wine cellar. So the Malfoys have eleven more opportunities to flaunt our wealth and extravagance after this one bottle has been drained. Four: if this bottle sits in that cellar for even one more night, it will be a damned shame. I'm not sure if you've noticed, Granger, but the Malfoy family isn't particularly well-liked or well-visited these days. We won't be hosting any 'meetings' anytime soon – which is for the best, I'm sure you agree – nor do I think we're even allowed to throw our annual pureblood Christmas party. So if you don't drink this wine, it will eventually turn to vinegar. Splendid vinegar, I'm sure, but vinegar nonetheless. Three: this wine was undoubtedly purchased to impress the Dark Lord. And I can't think of a better way to chap his scaly arse in the afterworld than watch his most favorite Muggleborn down an entire bottle tonight. Two: I'm an alcoholic, or pretty close to one. Any booze you remove from my home, and thus from my path of temptation, is probably a good thing. Finally, reason number one: Theo tells me you like red wine, particularly a good Bordeaux. And so all I really want – the real reason I decanted this bottle – is to watch your lips when you taste the best red wine there is, and possibly ever was."

Hermione's indignation starts to flee by reason number three and vanishes by reason number two. Reason number one, however, sends her heartrate into overdrive, and she takes a concessionary drink of wine to cover her discomfort. Then she takes a second. And a third. And a fourth, until Draco's laughter stops the glass on its return path to her mouth.

"It never gets old," he says.

Hermione scowls, even though the heat of the expression probably gets a bit lost with her fifth sip of wine. "What never gets old?"

"Being right all the time."

"True," she says, swallowing a gulp of pure perfection. "I've plenty of experience with that. But how would you know?"

Draco-of-old would have taken the bait and delivered the cruelest, most direct hit in response. This Draco – the Draco with whom she's blood-let, whose foot now presses against hers below the mahogany – just grins in triumph and waves his wand over the tabletop.

A colourful salad appears for their first course. Hermione sees shaved fennel, shallots, chopped walnuts, and some figs, amongst other ingredients. She takes an experimental bite and then makes a small, happy noise of approval.

"Lovely, Draco. Really lovely. You did this all by yourself?"

Perhaps it's the wine, or the beautiful setting, or the way he watches her when he thinks she isn't looking, but his first name slips out of her mouth without warning. She doesn't seem to notice, or particularly care.

"I composed the salad," he says. "And made the vinaigrette. But Maevy had a pretty heavy hand in everything except dessert. I mean, I cooked but she was…kind of my director today, while we prepped everything. Honestly, I didn't really try to stop her. I don't actually want to give us food poisoning, you know."

Hermione smiles. "Given that Maevy was the mastermind behind my hair tonight, I don't think I have any room to judge."

Draco's gaze roves over her curls and the glittering hairpins holding them back.

"Yes, well," he says around some gravel in his voice. "She's not exactly subtle, is she?"

Hermione just shakes her head and then gestures for Draco to proceed with the second course. The meal goes on in this fashion, from one delicious course to the next. The entire time they eat, Hermione continues to sip that Cheval Blanc with something akin to worship. Almost as if he can't help himself, Draco watches her closely as she drinks. At first, she worries that he's coveting the alcohol – the heady buzz that follows each gulp of the world's most perfect Bordeaux. But soon, Hermione realizes that it isn't the wine he craves.

He's watching her lips, just as he promised: the way they purse with every sip; the way they fold against each other after a particularly long drink; the way her tongue flicks against them to capture a stray, red droplet. Draco Malfoy can't seem to look away from her mouth. Can't seem to pretend that he's doing anything else.

At one point his thoughts must break free, because he bursts out, mid-course: "Thank you. For being here tonight, I mean."

Hermione sets down her glass and frowns. "Where else would I be?"

He rolls his eyes, even though he's obviously ill at ease with what he just said to her. "Anywhere, Granger. The Leaky Cauldron. Potter's house. Hell, even Nott Manor. Anywhere but here."

Hermione's frown deepens. "Draco, I'm not sure if it's me or the wine that's confessing this, but I think I've come to…well, I kind of like it here now. Despite, you know, everything."

He nods, clearly relieved, but also clearly still upset about something.

"What is it, Draco?" she presses. "What's bothering you?"

He regards her warily, before admitting, "The company, it's…nice. Your company, I mean."

Hermione tilts her head to one side and considers him. She could try to force him to elaborate on this, and part of her wants to – wants to find out why her company is nice, in particular. Instead, she takes another route.

"What, you Slytherins don't have get-togethers? Because I have to tell you, we Gryffindors throw a brilliant game night once a month." The corner of her mouth dimples. "You could join us sometime, you know. Really show Harry up in cards?"

"All that competition and stick-to-itiveness and bravado in one room? Thanks, but no."

She laughs, despite herself. "You joke, but that's eerily accurate. Although I'm sure a Slytherin party would be damned near Roman, what with all the political intrigue and backstabbing."

"Actually, our school parties were mostly just about punch-spiking and shagging in broom cupboards." He grins at her obvious embarrassment. "And we do get together every now and then. But we drink a lot nowadays. More than we should. All of us, not just me. Plus, our talks can be…troubling."

"Troubling in what way?"

He sighs and traces the rim of his empty wineglass with one index finger. "We talk about the War, sometimes. But there isn't as much remorse as there should be. And on very rare occasions, the conversation gets a bit too…let's just say nostalgic, for my tastes. From people outside my closest circle, there's the occasional 'could have been.' Like we don't bloody well know what life would've been like if he'd won. Like we wouldn't all be dead right now, too."

She wrinkles her nose. "Merlin, that's…ugh."

"Indeed." Draco stills his hand and fixes his attention completely on her. "So it's just…different with you, I think. When you and I talk about the War, you seem to…you really….What I mean is, when it comes to the stupidity and the regret and the resignation and the hope, you really just seem to…."

"Get it," she finishes. "I just get it."

He nods with a lightness that resembles relief. She recognizes it, because she feels that way, too. She's already come to the illogical, weird, but nonetheless spot-on conclusion that, more often than not, Draco Malfoy gets it.

Gets her.

Draco, however, is now staring at his empty glass with a deep, wrinkling frown. As if the glass itself holds the meaning of life, and that meaning isn't pretty.

"Granger," he says. "There's still one thing I don't understand."

Sensing that something big is coming, Hermione sets aside her wineglass. Pushes away her near-empty plate of quail and roasted potatoes.

"And what, exactly, is that?"

"I know why I want you here." His eyes meet hers, and the fire in all that grey just kills her. "But why are you here? How can you even stand to be near me? Is it because of your project? Is it just because you want to complete it? Or is it…pity?"

Draco practically spits the last word out, and his mouth curls into something unpleasant. Something very similar to his old sneer. It's a cruel look, one designed to intimidate and, long ago, to bully. But tonight, Draco's eyes give him away. There's something truer than cruelty in them – a blend of worry, anticipation, and some other emotion she's not quite sure she's ready to name yet.

For a long while, Hermione can't answer him. Partly because she's stunned by his sudden vulnerability – by the fact she actually knows him well enough to recognize that vulnerability.

But she's also unsure of what to say. Unsure of how to put it so that he understands what she needs from their friendship. Unsure of how to treat him better than a former Death Eater, but also better than some psychologically-damaged soap bubble. Because while he might be both of those things, he isn't just those things.

Not to her. Not anymore.

"Should I give you five reasons?" she finally asks, with a wry twist of her lips. When he doesn't respond, she holds up her fingers like he did and begins to count downward.

"Five: it was about the tour at first, I'll admit that. For the sake of disclosure, I should also tell you I call it the PTSD Pastry Tour. Ron hates the name, but I love it. Initially, one of the reasons I agreed to your request was because, yes, I did want to finish the Tour. Four: you, Draco, have PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. And you're right, I do pity you for it. But guess what? Everyone I've visited has it. Everyone. The Weasleys, Kingsley, Theo, even Pansy. Here's another tidbit for you: I have it, too. Bad. I hear your aunt cackling in my dreams. If my eye starts twitching when I'm tired, I worry that it's an after-effect of the Crucio. And I still can't go into your front parlour. So I pity myself more than I do you, trust me. Three, and this is a big one: lots of people are willing to talk about the War, but you're actually the only one who seems willing to talk about the bad stuff, too. The really bad stuff, like Voldemort, or the Cruciatus Curse, or the way people act like we should be over it by now. Harry will touch on it with me, but only a little. Ron and I actually broke up because he didn't want to talk about it. But I do. And apparently you do, too. Which is a massive relief. Two: I don't want you to drink yourself to death, because I can't imagine a world without you in it. And one: I like talking to you. And baking with you, and drinking tea with you, and doing magic with you, and arguing with you. So I guess it's safe to say that I like you, Draco Malfoy. I like your company, too."

It's no coincidence that the last finger she lowers is the one he healed. The one that still bears the faint scar of his spell. His gaze lingers on it as she tucks it back into her fist and, perhaps unknowingly, his eyes flit to her lips again.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Draco smiles.

"Fancy some dessert, Granger?"

Chapter Text

Maybe it's the aftershock of their five-pronged confessions, or maybe it's the bottle of wine she almost finished. Whatever the cause, Hermione feels jittery as Draco leads her from the dining room to the Smaller Library, where they shared their first tea.

He pushes the library door open and gestures for her to go inside. When she crosses the threshold, she passes close enough to smell his aftershave. The lingering spice of it sends her head spinning, and she staggers. One of his hands grips her elbow again, while his other hand lands – disconcertingly, distractingly – on the small of her back.

"Trouble walking tonight, Granger?"

"It's these damned shoes," she lies. "Your pushy house-elf made me wear them, Merlin knows why."

Draco emits one of his elegant snorts. "Yes, I can see how someone might dislike the way a pair of heels makes a pretty girl's legs look."

Her humiliation – and confusion and frustration and that other word she doesn't let herself think – grows. So she keeps her comments to herself as he leads them over to the fireplace. The pair of green armchairs is still there, facing the oversized fire and flanking the small tea table. Upon which sits a silver tray, stacked with….

"Macarons!" Hermione exclaims. She hurries over to them as quickly as her transfigured heels will allow.

The macarons on the platter are far prettier than the ones from his first attempt. Each of these little biscuits is perfectly symmetrical, perfectly puffed, and shiny in the firelight. Hermione picks one up and looks back at him.

"Your handiwork?"

When he nods, she gleefully pops the biscuit into her mouth. But after the first chew, her teeth grind to a halt. Although the texture is perfect and the taste divine, she'd recognize that flavor anywhere.

Slowly, she finishes the bite and then asks, "Key lime?"

Draco nods again, a mysterious smile playing across his lips. Wordlessly, he sits in his chair and pulls his own biscuit from the tray. She studies him for a wary second before she takes her own seat.

"These are…excellent," she concedes, gesturing to the stack of biscuits.

"Are they?" He contemplates his own macaron. "You don't think they might be a touch dry?"

Hermione shakes her head. "No, they really are lovely. Where…erm, where did you get the key limes?"

That enigmatic smile returns. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"Try me."

"Alright. My mother and I went into London to find them."

"Wizarding London?"

Draco just shakes his head, and Hermione chokes. Actually chokes.

"Muggle London?" she rasps.

"Well, they certainly don't carry key limes in Wizarding grocery shops. Trust me, we checked."

Hermione is blinking so rapidly, she thinks her eyelids might be broken. "Draco Malfoy. And Narcissa Malfoy. Went shopping. In a Muggle supermarket."

"Five of them, to be precise. You didn't tell me that key limes were considered an exotic fruit in England. Rather tricky of you, Granger."

"How did you…just how?"

"With some wandering around, before I finally gave in and asked for directions. And with some Muggles staring at us, as well. My mother is part of that generation that insists on wearing robes, no matter where she goes and no matter who might see her. Plus, the money exchanging was a bit of a mess."

"Then why didn't you just make a different flavor?"

Draco feigns surprise. "Damn. If only I'd thought of that a few days ago."

"Why?" Hermione asks, undeterred by his teasing. "Why would you do something like that? Why would your mother?"

"I thought that part would be obvious."

"It isn't."

"Really? And here I thought you were stunningly, unquestioningly brilliant."

"I am."

Draco laughs – one of those loud, genuine affairs that makes her feel all kinds of wonderful things she isn't going to think about right now.

"Reason number one, Granger. Mine, and yours."

All Hermione can manage is a dumbfounded, "Oh."

She places another macaron to her lips, in an effort to keep from saying aloud the things she's not supposed to be thinking. Draco waves his wand in summons, and his water appears on the table along with her near-emptied wineglass. Which reminds her….

"Draco," she asks quietly, "how long has it been since you've last had a drink? Of alcohol, I mean."

He takes a long sip of water, narrowing his eyes as if he has to give it some thought. "Well, let's see. Carry the one, divide by four…that's…yes, that's twenty-one days, twenty-two hours, seventeen minutes, and approximately forty-eight seconds. Not that I'm counting."

Hermione balks. Then she begins the rapid math in her head.

"That's…that was about—"

"The night before you arrived for our first lesson," he says, saving her the trouble, "I got totally pissed. And I mean totally pissed. A bottle and a half of firewhisky, stumbling blind, vomiting in the rubbish bin, lying halfway in my bathtub and halfway out. The kind of pissed that makes you ashamed when you wake up. Not that that's any different from the other times I've gotten drunk. But this one was…let's just leave it at 'bad,' without any more details."

"But you seemed so normal that morning. So put together."

He shrugs. "Over the past three years, I've learned how to handle my hangovers. I brew an outstanding Sober-Up Potion, and I drink about three litres of coffee. I did that morning, so I'd be prepared when you arrived."

"Why, though? Why did you get so drunk that night?"

Draco flinches, as though what he's about to admit might physically hurt him. "Because I was afraid."

"Afraid? Of what?"

"Of…well, of you, I suppose."

"Me?" she squeaks.

"Yes, you. What you were going to say to me, and what you were going to make me confront about you. About myself, too, and the reason I drank in the first place."

Hermione blanches. "That was the day you cut your fingers, wasn't it?"

Draco doesn't respond but takes another swig of his water. She watches the movement of his lips against the glass, the bob of his throat around the water. Her eyes slide to her glass of wine and then back to him.

"Why was that the last day you drank, Draco? Why did you pick that day to stop?"

"Because," he says slowly. Thoughtfully, as if he's only coming to the truth of what he speaks while speaking it. "I was thinking about stopping for the last few months. Just because I needed to stop, you know? Just because I was supposed to, at some point. But after that first morning, when we made the pistachio macarons, something…changed. Now, I want to stop this. I don't want to be numb anymore."

"Numb?" she whispers.

"I've been drinking to go numb – to stay numb. But now, I want to...feel. Anything, everything. I want to be with my friends without seeing them through a haze of booze. I want to have conversations with my parents where they don't have to yell at me because I can barely stay awake. And maybe…maybe I want to feel some other things, too."

Hermione doesn't ask him to name those other things. Instead, she pulls her wand from its hidden pocket and swiftly Vanishes her glass of Cheval Blanc.

Observing the charm, Draco raises one eyebrow. "Granger, as you pointed out earlier, that's an exceptionally good glass of wine you just Vanished."

She shrugs and gives a small smirk that she can tell he likes, by the way his lips twitch when she does it. "I know it is, Draco. And I suddenly find that I don't have a reason to drink it anymore, either."

She's pleased when Draco's mouth drops open a fraction.

"Accio my water glass," she calls. Soon, her goblet from dinner lands on the tea table. She performs an Aguamenti to refill it, lifts it toward Draco in cheers, and takes a slow, deliberate drink. He's watching her and she knows it, but she doesn't hurry the gesture. Once finished, she sets her cup next to his on the table and meets his gaze full-on.

When Draco finally speaks, his voice comes out low and rough.

"You don't have to do that, Granger. You're not the one with the problem."

"Oh? Is that so?"

They assess each other across their water glasses. Hermione raises her chin in her best imitation of Narcissa Malfoy. It's not an easy task, since Draco is gazing at her in a way that's setting her insides on fire.

Finally, he nods, like her challenging stare has answered some question for him. He stands from his chair and walks over to the fireplace. Then he turns toward her and holds out his hand.

"May I show you something?" he asks.

Her face stays impassive as she rises to join him on the wide marble hearth. Internally, of course, she screams at her fingers not to shake or twitch or do anything embarrassing when she takes his outstretched hand. He wraps his fingers around hers and then reaches with his free hand to scoop something out of a tall vase next to the fire. In his open palm, a handful of dust shimmers.

Floo powder, she thinks, right before Draco tosses it into the fire and calls out "Granger's Flat." A whirl of emerald-tinged flames dances all around them. The colours shift and fade, until she's staring at what looks exactly like her sofa. In her living room. In her flat.

"What the—?"

She only has time to utter those two syllables before Draco scoops powder from the container next to her own fireplace, flings it at their feet, and calls, "Malfoy Manor." Once more they're swirling through the Floo Network, tumbling magically together until they arrive in a green cloud at the hearth in Draco's library.

The two trips occur in such rapid succession that Hermione finds herself off balance. She clings to his shoulder for stability, gripping the sooty fabric of his coat.

Which she releases the minute she regains her footing, so that she can swat angrily at him.

"What was that, Draco Malfoy?" she demands, her hands only leaving their assault to ball up into fists on her hips. "How the hell did you get access to my Floo station?"

"Maevy?" he says sheepishly.

"You sneaky little…snake!" she shrieks, and goes to swat at him again. He catches her wrist mid-swing, twists it gently so that his thumb is planted in the center of her palm, and holds up his other hand to stop her.

"Hear me out, Granger? Please?"

There's a rumble of warning from Hermione's throat, but she does not argue. Draco must understand that this is the only opportunity he'll get to explain himself, because he plunges forward quickly.

"Every time you Apparate here, you're always green around the gills. Like it makes you nauseated. I mean, you're good at it, but you clearly don't enjoy it. I noticed that the first time you came to the Manor with the tarts, and it hasn't changed since. So I thought you might prefer the Floo, instead. I discussed the idea with my parents, and my mother visited the Ministry this week for special permission to join our fireplaces—"

"Your mother?" she interrupts. "Narcissa asked for an exception to your family's restrictions? For me?"

"And received it, just in the nick of time. As Shacklebolt so delicately put it in his letter this morning, the approval had far more to do with your name than ours. I asked Maevy to perform the connecting charms on your end while you were getting dressed tonight, so I could surprise you. Which…I now realize was a terrible idea."

He ends his sentence with the lilt of a question. Hermione lets out a graceless noise that one might categorize, unflatteringly, as a guffaw, and she jerks her hand from his.

Then she thinks long and hard about what he's just revealed. About him noticing her anxiety with Apparition. About his intercession with his parents on her behalf. About him recruiting Maevy to his plot.

At first, Hermione just scowls indignantly. But after a few agonizing minutes, her scowl melts into a frown. Then slowly, oh so slowly, the frown softens until it's gone.

Seeing this transformation, Draco ventures, "Not so terrible an idea? Maybe?"

There are clear lines of discomfort – and hope – in the set of his mouth. She rather likes that.

Wordlessly, Hermione steps around him toward the vase of Floo powder. She grabs a handful of the dust, saunters directly in front of the fire, and turns to face him.

"Maybe," she finally answers. Then she leans forward, just the tiniest bit, and places her powder-free hand on the lapel of his coat. With a dash of mettle even she finds surprising, she places a soft kiss on his cheek.

When she pulls back, she finds that his face has gone slack and he's pale as bone. Except, of course, for the attractive hint of red along his cheekbones.

"Guess you'll find out at next week's dinner, won't you?" she teases, and then she tosses the Floo powder at her feet. Just before she calls out for her flat and vanishes into the green flames, she sees Draco's fingers reach up to brush the place where her lips touched him.

Chapter Text

The following week, Hermione's case of nerves has completely vanished.

At work, she's whistled show-tunes and witty comebacks and well-formed arguments in favor of a primary school programme for giants. At lunch with Harry and Ron on Wednesday, she's belly laughs and eye rolls and bad puns. And with Pleiades, when he arrives at her window on Thursday evening, she's a happy little dance that must never be seen by another human being.

This time, her invitation contains only one line of that perfect calligraphy. It asks, very simply:

Shall we?

With her own flourish of ink, she writes back, We shall. She has a giddy moment where she considers Flooing straightaway to his library and handing him her reply in person. Not to see him sooner. Just to test out the Floo, of course.

"Of course," she says aloud with a giggle. Hearing her, Pleiades angles his head entirely to one side.

"Do I sound crazy, boy, talking to myself out loud?"

He cocks his head fully in the other direction: an owlish confirmation of her insanity. She giggles again anyway and pets his sleek feathers until he presses his large head into her hand, almost cat-like in his affection. The comparison amuses her even more when he begins to make a series of low, rhythmic hoots she would almost swear is a purr.

Still stroking his feathers, Hermione leans closer. "Pleiades, can I ask you to make a quick stop before going back to the Manor tonight?"

His large, feathered eyebrows nudge together, which she takes to mean, Maybe. Maybe not.

"Such a Malfoy," she grumbles, but she's grinning as she fetches a spare piece of parchment and her quill. She scrawls out a quick note, charms it dry, and attaches the note as well as her reply card to Pleiades' thin leg. As she presents him with a handful of treats, she says, "The scroll is for Ginny Weasley, at No.12 Grimmauld Place, London. It's on your way home, I promise."

Pleiades narrows his luminous eyes, to indicate how much this extra work irritates him. But he doesn't drop his additional parcel when he flutters to her window.

"Just like your owner," she says, passing him a few more treats for the road. "All bark but only a little bite."

Perhaps this offends Pleiades, because he gives her thumb a playful nip. Probably to remind her that he is, in fact, a Malfoy. Hermione waggles her fingers at him in reprimand and opens the window so he can get on with it. Then she returns to the book she abandoned upon his arrival and settles into her couch with a contented sigh.

***

At five p.m. that Saturday, the sound of Hermione's activated Floo whooshes throughout her flat. She sets down the kettle she was just about to put on for tea and rushes to her living room…where someone entirely unexpected stands, brushing dust from his clothes.

"Harry!" she cries out in surprise, moving forward to hug him. It isn't until she's already wrapped her arms around him that she pauses and pulls back to inspect his face.

"What are you doing here?" she demands. "Is Ginny okay? Where is she?"

"Last-minute Quidditch tryouts. And nice to see you, too, friend."

"You don't mean that she's...?"

Harry beams. "I do. She's been hand-picked to tryout out for the national World Cup team. Summer training begins next month, to run alongside Harpies' practices."

"That's fantastic! But, Merlin, she's going to be exhausted from the double workouts."

Harry nods sympathetically and then flashes a lecherous grin. "And so bloody fit. The wedding is the week after the World Cup – can you imagine how she'll look on our honeymoon?"

Hermione sighs. "Why must you always force me to smack you, Harry Potter?"

"Because I'm the Chosen One?" he tries, and they both dissolve into a fit of laughter – one that doesn't stop her from swatting him playfully over the head.

"Tea?" she asks, and so he follows her into the kitchen where she uses her wand to set the kettle boiling. She joins Harry at the table, bringing with her a platter of the gingersnaps she created last night.

After Harry finishes his first one, he looks at her thoughtfully.

"You did something different with these, didn't you? A little heat on the back end?"

She smiles in confirmation. "Cayenne. It's one of my favorite secret ingredients for spice-heavy desserts."

"They're quite good."

"I know," she says, levitating the steaming kettle to pour hot water into their cups. Harry laughs at her self-assurance as he takes another biscuit from the platter.

"Lord, Hermione, you're starting to sound just like Malfoy."

He must notice the way her wand twitches as she floats the kettle back to the stove, because his grin fades. Harry, however, has never been a pushy friend. Instead, he chews gingersnaps and waits for Hermione to say her piece.

Finally, by his third biscuit, she lowers her cup and levels him with a pointed stare.

"Does Ginny actually have World Cup tryouts tonight?"

"Yes."

"And did you really come here to help me pick out an outfit?"

"Yes."

Under her disbelieving glare, he sighs. "And…no. Look, Ginny did have to cancel tonight, but it was my idea to come in her place."

"So you could interrogate me?"

To her surprise, Harry cackles. "Well, yeah."

"Did you bring some Veritaserum with you, then?"

"I must have left it in my other robes."

Hermione snorts and tries hard not to let that sound remind her of Draco. "Merlin, Harry, you really are an Auror now, aren't you?"

He looks so pleased by her statement that she can't help but sigh in defeat. She's not mad; not really. After all, Harry is her best friend. At some point, he was bound to get curious about the way the PTSD Pastry Tour recently seems to have morphed into…something else.

"Well, you might as well get on with it, then," she says good-naturedly, lifting her cup toward him in a welcoming gesture.

Apparently that's all the cue he needs, because he blurts out, "Are you and Malfoy dating?"

Jump right to the point, why don't you, Harry?

Aloud, Hermione says, "Nope." She pops the "p" emphatically, exaggerating the letter with a smack of her lips.

"Are you, you know, going to?"

Hermione furrows her brow and silently dares him – dares him – to push that issue. Harry takes the hint. They fall into a meditative silence, sipping tea and chewing gingersnaps until he finally raises his green eyes to her brown ones.

"Guess you should get on with it, then," he says begrudgingly.

She frowns. "Get on with what, Harry?"

He moans, runs a hand through his messy black hair, and then drags that hand over his face. "The fashion show," he mutters behind his fingers. "I promised Ginny I would perform her duties tonight and I always keep my promises."

Hermione sets down her cup and smirks in a way that she knows is Malfoy-esque. "You do realize that you've brought this upon yourself, don't you?"

Harry nods gravely. "I do. And I will face the consequences of my actions like a good Gryffindor."

She pats his hand, jumps from her chair, and proceeds to subject him to almost two hours of payback. All the dresses Ginny left there last week go on display, especially the outrageous ones. Hermione and Harry both giggle at a long white gown covered in ostrich feathers, a set of robes embroidered with moving, glow-in-the-dark solar systems, and a fluffy, pink-and-gold taffeta number that could only have been popular in the 1950's.

Finally, at a quarter past seven, Hermione gets down to business and tries on the black silk dress she's been eyeing all week. If it's possible, she loves this one even more than the dress she wore last weekend. Tonight's dress fits perfectly, snug in the strapless bodice but flaring prettily at her waist when she spins. It even has deep hip pockets where she can hide her wand. Without Maevy there to direct things, Hermione opts to leave her hair wild and her lips colour-free. But she does slip the transfigured heels back on and fasten diamond studs into each of her earlobes.

When she exits her bedroom and performs a twirl for Harry, he lets out a low wolf-whistle. "Wow, Hermione. You look almost as good as Ginny would in that dress."

She snorts, dipping one foot behind the other in a kind of curtsy. "Considering how you feel about her in clothes, I'll take that as a compliment."

It's then that Harry spies her heels. "Um, Hermione?"

"Yeah?"

"Since when did you start wearing shoes like that?"

"What, don't you like them?"

"They're nice. And they definitely show you off in the leg-department. But…Merlin, Hermione, they're so tall for you."

She glances down at her pointed toes. "Oh, I know, but Draco's at least a head taller than me, and it's nice to look into his eyes when we…."

Hermione trails off when she realizes what she's said. She glances back up at Harry, and he's watching her again with that concerned frown.

"Are you sure you're not dating Malfoy?"

"Really, Harry? Really?"

She infuses her words with as much indignation as possible. Mostly because she doesn't know the answer to his question anymore.

Chapter Text

Ten minutes until eight, Harry gives her a brief hug for luck and then vanishes into her fireplace. Hermione stares after him, unsure of how best to proceed.

Should she just Floo, then? Just waltz into Malfoy Manor as though she owns the place?

She realizes now what an intimate gift this Floo connection actually is. She's never had to think about something like this before; it was always a forgone conclusion that she and her friends would connect their homes by Floo.

But with Draco, this pathway is different. It's not just a direct line from her home to his. It's also an invitation to make herself comfortable in his home. To come and go in his world as she pleases, in direct opposition to what Theo told her about the grown-up, isolated Draco. It's also a literal symbol of Draco's trust in her.

The realization is a tad daunting, so she decides to approach this like a Gryffindor: jump first, analyze later. Repeating "don't think, don't think, don't think" in her head, Hermione hops into her fireplace, announces "Malfoy Manor," and holds her breath for the ride.

Draco's suspicions were correct. The Floo upsets her far less than Apparition, and she steps into his library with a steady heartbeat and a clear head. That is, until she sees that he's waiting for her in one of the green armchairs, and her heartbeat becomes just a bit more erratic.

He has one long leg folded over the other and his face hidden by a thick leather volume. The book's spine reads, Potions in Practice: Sourcing Materials in a World of Shrinking Resources.

"Good read?" she asks as a greeting.

He lowers the book to reveal a smirk. "Good trip?"

"Quite nice, actually." Hermione tries to conceal her smile by brushing some soot off the skirt of her dress.

"Do you feel like assaulting me some more?" he asks. "I think there are still a few spots on my shoulder you didn't bruise last week."

"Well, you should know that I'm a little violent when I have no idea what's going on."

"Duly noted."

Draco closes his book to set it onto the empty tea table. Hermione takes advantage of the fact that his eyes are averted to drink in the sight of him. He's eschewed the black suit for a grey one, and it looks rather striking against his pale skin and hair. Again he wears the white oxford shirt, but tonight he's paired it with a light grey tie that matches the colour of his eyes. Hermione must admit that suits do make nice weekend-wear. Particularly on him.

"Dinner?" he asks, gazing back at her in a knowing way. Like he's aware that she was just checking him out.

She simply nods and slips her hand into the crook of his elbow when he stands to offer it. They exit the library without speaking. Darkness lies so heavy in the hallway, it almost muffles their steps. Almost muffles his voice when he whispers, "You look beautiful tonight."

"So do you," she blurts out, and then audibly groans in humiliation. Draco doesn't respond at all. The only thing he might do, so gently she can't be sure it actually happens, is pull her closer to him as they walk.

After that exchange they move toward the Lesser Dining Room in silence, with only the rustle of her skirt and the shuffle of his shoes echoing in the corridor. She suspects that he's in a quiet mood tonight, and she finds that it doesn't bother her in the slightest. In fact, she likes the quiet between them.

By the time they reach the bright entrance to the dining room, she's overcome with a strangely entrancing idea. Like last week, Draco has set two places for them, together at the far end of the table. But with a light squeeze of his arm, Hermione pulls out her wand and summons one of the place settings. She levitates the whole arrangement – gilded plates, monogrammed cutlery, and glinting crystal – toward the end of the table closest to them. Once she finishes, there is a setting at each end of the impossibly long table.

Draco turns toward her, frowning in inquiry. Hermione's lips just curl into an inscrutable smile. She lifts onto her toes, kisses him lightly on the cheek, and makes her way – with a small swing of her hips – toward the farthest-away chair.

"We're so far apart, we won't be able to talk to each other," he calls after her. But she just waves her hand without turning around.

"You're a resourceful man. I'm sure you'll figure something out."

By the time he's conjured their drinks – no wine this time, but magically chilled, self-refilling glasses of water – he's apparently solved her puzzle. At least, that's what she assumes when Pleiades swoops into the dining room with a pile of parchment and an EverInk quill in his talons.

After Pleiades lands, Draco strokes the owl and murmurs softly to him. Hermione finds this show of affection so damned appealing, she has to look away. She peeks back up in time to see Draco scribble out a note, roll it up, and attach both the scroll and quill to the owl's leg. Within seconds, Pleiades has fluttered to her end of the table and landed beside her plate. The owl allows her to pull the bundle from his ankle, and she unrolls it quickly.

The note reads:

This is ludicrous, you know.

Hermione scans it, grinning, and then grabs the quill to scrawl out her own note:

Well, it's your table.

With a speed that matches her excitement, she rolls the parchment and quill up together and slips them to Pleiades. He gives a longsuffering hoot and makes the trek back to the other side. Draco responds immediately.

I'll have you know, Granger, that we usually eat in here like normal people. You know, by sitting together at a meal.

Next, it's Hermione's turn with the quill, which she wastes no time putting to good use. And so the evening's conversation begins in earnest.

If you never use all these chairs, Draco, then why own the table at all?

Why take calligraphy lessons? Some things in the Malfoy household just ARE.

Like owling your guests at dinner?

May I remind you, Granger, that you were the one who wanted to eat this way?

Fair enough. Although I'm starting to regret this method of communication. Wild animals and gazpacho don't really mix, if you catch my drift.

Don't insult Pleiades that way. He's an impeccably clean bird.

Sure he is. And his feathers go very nicely with chilled tomato soup.

I'm glad you agree.

I'm just suggesting we find a different way to communicate. Like…maybe those pneumatic messages tubes outside Muggle chemists?

Those what? Outside where?

Pneumatic message tubes that use pressurized air to…oh, never mind.

No, no, please go on. This can be one of our new projects, once I've mastered baking. We'll rewire the damned front gates and then install pneuma-tubes to the side of my mother's six hundred year old table.

This table is six hundred years old?!?

Give or take.

You know, I can't help but feel like I'm eating dinner with Bruce Wayne.

Who?

Batman's alter-ego.

I repeat: who?

Batman. He's a Muggle superhero who fights evil. Or may sometimes be evil, depending on one's interpretation. He wears a black cape and a mask, and he's super wealthy.

I quite like the sound of him. Remind you of anyone in particular?

I'm not sure you would like Batman, Draco. Unlike most Muggle superheroes, he has no magical powers.

Then how exactly does he fight evil?

With his superwealth. Essentially.

Not seeing a downside to this fellow.

Actually, now that I think about it, you would like Batman. He's all angst and sadness and self-imposed tragedy.

Hermione Granger, how dare you imply something that you could say outright?

Alright, then. You're all angst and sadness and self-imposed tragedy.

That's much better.

The night goes on in roughly the same manner, until Pleiades has finally had enough. Exhausted, the owl drops their last note and then swoops out of the dining room with an indignant hoot. Hermione supposes that's her cue as well, since they finished the dessert course – a roughly-hewn but decadent olive oil cake, topped with fresh buttercream icing and sliced peaches – almost an hour ago. She folds her napkin onto her plate, pushes back her oversized chair, and makes the long walk toward Draco's seat.

When she arrives, she says nothing. But she holds out her hand for him with that little smirk she knows he likes. Draco lifts one eyebrow, smirks back, and takes Hermione's hand to pull himself standing. Their wordless communication is clear enough: if they haven't spoken aloud most of this evening, why start now?

Shaking Draco's hand vigorously like an old chum, Hermione feels her mouth stretch into a full, toothy smile. After all, he just bloody gets it. The sensation of being understood – and by Draco Malfoy – is starting to become less unnerving and more pleasant, each time she sees him. And she's brave enough to admit to herself that she wants to see him. Maybe every day, if he'd let her.

Draco smiles, too. They stay like that for long enough that at some point, their joined hands stop shaking and start…holding. She realizes, with a start, that they've been standing like that for a while: hands and eyes locked, with what seems like less and less space between their bodies. Also, she apparently stopped breathing some time ago.

Hermione drags in a big gulp of air, gives Draco a firm nod of goodbye, and slips her hand from his. It's clear that she intends to leave the dining room as she occupied it tonight - silently - and so he lets her go without comment.

She moves through the dark hallways wordlessly. But when she makes it back to the Smaller Library, she pauses to run her fingers along the place where Draco's fingertips traced her palm, just before she walked away.

Chapter Text

"So," Hermione mumbles into her glass of wine, "I might be dating Draco Malfoy."

Harry recoils from her admission, but Ginny crows in triumph.

"I knew it!" she practically shouts, making the other patrons in the fancy Muggle restaurant shoot glares at their table. "I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!"

Hermione sighs and sets down her wine – a 1989 Chateaux Margaux, because she intends to treat herself when not in Draco's presence. It's Friday evening, the night before her next…well, date with Draco, and she's finally decided to make a full confession to Harry and Ginny. With good food. And plenty of Bordeaux.

"You were right to be suspicious, Harry," she admits. "But I swear, it just crept up on me. I didn't even realize that's what was happening until you planted the idea in my head the other night."

"I'm good at that," Harry says with a sage nod.

Ginny just rolls her eyes at him and leans closer to Hermione. "Spill it. Spill everything."

"I'm not even sure where to start, really."

"Start with the snogging," Ginny suggests. "It's always good to start with the snogging."

Harry gags dramatically, and a few of the more annoyed patrons glare at their table again. Harry looks like he's going to continue with this loud show of repulsion, so Hermione waves her hands violently to dismiss Ginny's idea.

"No, no, no! It's not like that. I don't think we're intentionally dating each other; more like…'de facto dating,' I'd called it. I mean, we haven't even kissed yet. Well, except for when I kissed him on the cheek last week. And two weeks ago. But I only kissed him two weeks ago to fluster him, since he didn't ask my permission to connect our Floo stations—"

"He did what?" Harry gasps.

"Oh, it was just a misunderstanding. You see, Draco noticed that I secretly hate to Apparate—"

"You hate to Apparate?" Ginny asks, surprised, at the same time Harry nods in understanding. Harry undoubtedly remembers the day Hermione aced her Apparition test. Just like he remembers the day that nasty Death Eater, Yaxley, forced a side-along on her during the War and thus ruined Apparition for her.

"I do hate it. Almost as much as flying. So Draco was technically trying to do something thoughtful for me. Albeit in an irritatingly intrusive way."

"Uh, yeah," Harry says.

"But it was also somewhat sweet," Hermione argues. "I think he just doesn't know how to dial back the extravagance. Like the wine he served at our first dinner. I mean, Merlin, a bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc probably costs more than my flat—"

"But that's Malfoy, isn't it?" Harry scoffs. "All show. Like those daft peacocks of his."

Hermione scowls at his interruption. "Draco doesn't even like the peacocks. Apparently, they're horrible to Pleiades—"

"Plee-a-what?"

"Pleiades. Draco's owl. Whom I adore, and who has been wonderful to me. Especially considering how we made him carry letters back and forth between us at dinner last week, for almost four hours until he finally got fed up and—"

"You and Malfoy owled each other? Over dinner?"

Hermione feels herself blushing. "Well, the table in the Lesser Dining Room is rather long and—"

"The Lesser Dining Room?"

"Yes."

"Lesser than what?"

"Than the Grand Dining Room."

"Obviously."

"Obviously. Anyway, the table in the Lesser Dining Room is about nine metres long, and that means you can hardly hear each other from opposite ends of the—"

"Wait, Malfoy owns a table that's considered small at nine metres long?"

"Yes."

"Good lord, Hermione, it's like you're having dinner with Bruce Wayne every week."

"That's what I said! But of course Draco didn't get the reference."

"Who's Bruce Wayne?" Ginny asks.

"Batman," Harry and Hermione answer simultaneously. To which Ginny replies, "Who's Batman?"

Harry and Hermione shake their heads in unison.

"Purebloods," they both sigh.

***

Hermione hates to admit it, but wine really does improve the situation.

Their conversation has grown increasingly discordant, much to the joy of everyone else in the restaurant. Interruption piles upon misunderstanding, louder and louder until Hermione fears they'll be booted from the restaurant before they can finish their meal. She pours Harry and Ginny both a glass of the Chateaux Margaux in the hope that they'll drink instead of interrupt. Then she proceeds to tell them everything.

She leaves out a few details, like how often Draco's foot accidentally-on-purpose grazes hers under the table. Or the way her stomach goes all warm and her brain all buzzy when her eyes meet his for more than a few seconds.

But she tells Harry and Ginny about loads of other things, like the baking and the talking and his parents. She tells them about the bottle of Ogden's that is presumably still unopened in his kitchen, and the key lime macarons, and how he looked at her when she Vanished her glass of Cheval Blanc. When she gets to their mutual injuries, and the way Draco popped her bleeding finger into his mouth, Harry almost spits expensive red wine all over their table.

"What?"

Hermione cringes at the memory. "I know. It was definitely…something."

"Yeah," Harry snorts, a sound he only makes when he's a smidgen drunk. "And that something is unsanitary."

"But also symbolic, right?"

As soon as Ginny asks the question, she and Harry share a worried glance. Then they both look back at Hermione.

"Is he still, you know…?"

"A giant pureblood elitist?" Hermione finishes for Harry. "I don't think so. Not if he did something like that with my finger. After he healed me, Draco basically admitted that he didn't believe in the blood-purity rubbish anymore. But I know it takes time for a racist to come to terms with his own bullshit. Maybe a lifetime."

"Do you have that long to wait?" Harry asks harshly. It's Ginny, however, who reaches across the table to take Hermione's hand.

"What does your heart tell you, friend?"

Hermione gnaws on her lower lip before answering. "My heart tells me that Draco's changing. That he knows he was a terrible human being, and the knowledge makes him sick. Literally. He wants to be a better person – is trying to be a better person. And I think…I think I'd like to be there to see the results."

The table falls silent for a long time, even after their bowls of sorbet arrive. Harry is still deep in thought, listlessly dragging a spoon through his melting dessert, when Hermione says, "Harry, if it makes you feel any better, you have my permission to hex him if he hurts me."

Harry grins drunkenly. "Hermione, if Draco Malfoy hurts you, I'll just be the first in a very long line of people who'll want to hex him."

Ginny's eyebrows waggle. "Including Gregory Goyle, apparently."

At this, Harry and Hermione give twin groans.

"If it makes you feel any better, Hermione," Ginny says, waggling her eyebrows again, "I get it. The physical attraction, I mean."

Harry's head swivels so fast toward his fiancée, he might sustain whiplash. "What do you mean, you 'get' the physical attraction?"

Ginny shrugs. "To Malfoy. He's no Troll, that's for sure. And I have some pretty vivid memories of the way he looked in Quidditch pants."

"I played Quidditch, too, you know," Harry grumbles.

"Oh, I know." Ginny drapes an arm over Harry's shoulder and leans so close to him that her nose brushes his cheek. "Why do you think I'm marrying you, Potter?"

This time, it's just Hermione who groans. Possibly because her mouth is the only one not occupied with snogging at the moment. She motions frantically for the bill, hoping against all hope that they can leave the restaurant before they get thrown out for violating public decency laws.

Chapter Text

The next day, Hermione wakes to a sharp throbbing in her temples. And to pupils that refuse to work properly when they meet the sunlight. And to the taste of week-old rubbish on her tongue.

"Oh, hell," she moans into her pillow. "What have I done?"

At first, she can't remember how this happened. Then the previous night comes flooding back to her in perfect, painful clarity.

***

Everything had started so innocently. She parted ways with Harry and Ginny as quickly as possible, unwilling to witness them make the inevitable transition from snogging to not-just-snogging. As Hermione watched them vanish into the night, she felt a sense of relief that they had taken her news so well.

But suddenly, the relief transformed into complete terror. Because she liked Draco Malfoy. Like liked him.

Which could go badly. Bad badly.

Panic bubbled in her chest, and all Hermione could think to do was Disapparate from the alley beside the Muggle restaurant to the pavement outside Number One, Diagon Alley. In front of her, the Leaky Cauldron sat bright and welcoming, the din of a good Friday night pouring out from the open doors. She peered into its dirty windows cautiously but saw no one inside she knew.

With her lips set in a grim line, she entered the tavern, marched up to the long bar, and ordered their largest glass of firewhisky, pleaseandthankyou. The first sip scalded her throat, and it made her wonder how the hell Draco could drink bottle after bottle of this stuff. Of course, that only meant she had to try more.

By her second glass, all the things she told Harry and Ginny resurfaced in her mind. Like the way Draco made her laugh, despite herself. Or the way he talked about the War as though he didn't resent their conversations. Or the way he was trying to shed his ugly past like an old skin. And, okay, sure, she also thought about the way she kind of sort of wanted to find out how his lips tasted.

By the fourth glass, she shared that information with the bartender. Or, at least, some version of it.

"He's a prat," Hermione began, sloshing the liquid in her glass with an expansive gesture.

The bartender, an older witch with one of those wide-open faces, nodded sympathetically and gave another patron a refill. "They all are, sweetie."

"Ah, but this one's a special-case prat. There have been articles about his prat-ishness. Published ones."

The bartender started hanging clean glasses above the bar without comment. Unfortunately, Hermione took this nonresponse as her cue to keep babbling.

"I mean, he's arrogant," she went on. "Still. After all these years. Even though he's remorseful now, and troubled, and sad, and…and bloody Batman, he still thinks he's great."

"And you don't agree?" the bartender asked.

Hermione tossed back another drink of whisky and groaned. "That's the problem: he is great. Just not in the way he thinks. I mean, yes, he's fit, good-looking, and rich. Hence Batman. But he's also funny. And clever. And perceptive. And honest in a way he didn't use to be. And…and his eyes. Merlin, his eyes."

She didn't finish cataloguing all the things that were wrong but also weirdly, unexpectedly, wonderfully right about Draco Malfoy until her glass rattled with only ice cubes. By this point, the night had grown very late. Without Hermione realizing it, the bartender had already ushered out the remaining patrons, locked the front doors, and Lumos Nox'd the main lights. Then, with a practiced hand, the older witch led an unsteady Hermione to the Floo station at the back of the Leaky.

"Where to, love?" the bartender asked, gently positioning Hermione in the fireplace and scooping up some Floo powder.

"Granger's Flat. I mean, my flat. Hermione Granger. I mean, I'm Hermione Granger. And I have my own flat."

"How nice for you, dear," the bartender said, patting Hermione on the back before tossing the powder at the younger witch's feet.

***

All of which leads Hermione to her current predicament: lying full-clothed in bed after 2 p.m. on Saturday, hungover and still very confused about a funny, clever, perceptive, honest wizard with stupidly interesting eyes and a bad past.

"Why am I an idiot?" Hermione wails, kicking at her tangled sheets.

"Well, Miss," a small voice to her right squeaks. "Given the smell of your breath, Maevy would say Miss had two – no, three – too many drinks last night."

Hermione immediately rolls onto her side and pulls her covers back up to her chin.

"Maevy, what are you doing here? I didn't...I didn't show up at the Manor last night, did I?"

The elf, who looks quite at home sitting on the plush chair beside Hermione's bed, gives the witch a tranquil smile.

"No, Miss, you did not. Maevy is just here to deliver a message. And to help Miss, by the smell of it."

Hermione opens and closes her mouth dumbly, and then croaks, "Message? Why didn't Draco just send Pleiades?"

"Well, to be honest, Pleiades is still a touch…miffed at Mister Draco, after all that flying around inside the dining room last weekend. But the real reason Maevy is here, and not an owl, is because Mister Draco wasn't the one to send Miss a message this morning."

At this last piece of information, Hermione jerks up into a seated position. And then gasps at the ensuing pang in her head. It feels like a vomit-inducing combination of a spin and a jab.

Maevy gives Hermione a sympathetic pat on the hand. "Miss should really think about moving more slowly this afternoon. At least, for a while."

"Miss will take that suggestion under extreme consideration."

Hermione clenches her eyelids shut and places her fingers upon each of her temples in order to press away the pain. The attempt is illogical, but she's just about willing to do anything to lessen her headache. It's in this pose that Hermione feels, rather than sees, the soft drop of something into her lap. She peeks down through squinted eyelids to find a small, square envelope on her blanketed knee.

This envelope is shaped like the ones Draco usually sends, but it's not the same luxurious cream colour. The paper of this envelope shimmers iridescent silver or gold, depending on the light – magic cardstock, obviously charmed to catch the reader's eye. As Hermione picks up the envelope and slides it open, she muses that stationery like this probably costs a small fortune.

The calligraphy on the invitation inside is lovely, but not Draco's. This writing slants in a direction opposite to his, and the ink lines are also lighter, as if made by a smaller hand. In a pretty yet somehow unyielding way, the note reads:


Miss Hermione Granger's presence is expected today

Four o'clock, at Malfoy Manor

for Afternoon Tea with Mrs. Narcissa Malfoy

That's it. No elaborations or explanations. No reply card, either. Just a command for tea. Today. With the High Priestess of Purebloods herself.

Hermione sighs loudly. "Well, that's just bloody fantastic, isn't it?"

"How so, Miss?"

"Your…employer? Mrs. Malfoy? She wants me to meet her for tea. In less than two hours."

"And why is that a cause for swears, Miss?"

Because her sister tried to kill me two years ago? Because Narcissa might try to finish the job today with tea and crumpets?

Because I want to snog her son senseless?

Aloud, Hermione says, "Because I'm so hungover, I think I might actually be dead and I just haven't figured it out yet."

Maevy pats Hermione's hand again and then twists in her seat. From behind her back, she pulls out a black satin clutch. Maevy opens the purse and removes a brown apothecary bottle.

"One of Mister Draco's Sober-Up Potions," she explains, while she hands the bottle over to Hermione. "Maevy has carried them with her the last few years, just in case."

Hermione inspects the bottle, and a cold lump of shame settles in the pit of her stomach. "Thank you, Maevy," she whispers.

The elf shrugs offhandedly. "Will Miss need more of this potion in the future? Perhaps Maevy should continue to keep it stocked?"

Despite the way the motion makes her brain slosh, Hermione shakes her head. Hard.

"No, I won't. Especially if I want to keep seeing Draco. But thanks, Maevy. Really."

Hermione unstoppers the bottle, tilts her head back, and tips the contents into her mouth. The liquid feels oily against her tongue, and it leaves behind a mildly herbaceous aftertaste. She gulps every bit of it down, closing her eyes in anticipation.

"Merlin, he was right," she sighs in relief a few seconds later. "He does brew an excellent Sober-Up."

Her headache and nausea evaporate, as if they never occurred at all. Suddenly, the idea of tea with Narcissa seems less terrifyingly impossible and more…well, terrifyingly probable. Hermione pats her hair, which has become an absolute rat's nest.

"Oh, Maevy," she sighs. "I'm still a mess."

The little elf waves her arm toward the door of Hermione's loo. "Miss should clean herself up; Maevy will do the rest."

An hour later, Hermione has scalded the previous night from her skin, teeth, and hair. Wrapped in her bathrobe, she emerges from the washroom with a fresh face and neat-ish curls to find that Maevy has placed a set of clothes upon her bed.

"Um, Maevy?"

Hermione points to the outfit that the elf has laid out: a white sheath dress covered in colourful, embroidered petals, a cardigan, and a pair of ballet flats. Each of which looks quite different than when Hermione last saw them all in her wardrobe. "I…erm, I didn't know I even owned that much green."

Maevy surveys her creation proudly. "Miss didn't, actually. Maevy charmed a few items. Aren't they just lovely for a springtime tea?"

Feeling oddly petulant – and highly Gryffindor – Hermione folds her arms across her chest. "Could we transfigure those back to their original, red and pink colours, please?"

"But the Malfoys love green."

Hermione rolls her eyes. "I'm well aware. But I don't."

Maevy delivers another one of those deceptively casual shrugs. "Very well. But could Miss clarify something for Maevy?"

Hermione gives a hesitant nod.

"Just so Maevy is clear: Miss is willing to spend hours and hours in the Manor, and bake the Malfoys complicated confections to enjoy, but Miss is not willing to wear an entire spoke of the colour wheel? One that might endear Miss to her rather formidable hostess this afternoon?"

Hermione sputters. Then, with an irate grunt, she ushers the ridiculously smart elf out of the room so that she can put on the damned outfit. Which she will not admit is perfect for tea. She will not.

Maevy waits on the sofa, tiny legs crossed and bat ears twitching lightly, when Hermione finally enters the living room.

"How pretty Miss looks in green. Is Miss ready to Floo to the Manor now? We'll be a bit early, but that should give Miss a little time to spend with Mister Draco beforehand—"

"Actually, just give me a moment, Maevy. There's something I need to do first." Then Hermione adds, "Oh, and Maevy? Don't think you and I aren't going to have a serious talk later about my Floo, and privacy, and what friends do and don't tell each other."

"Of course, Miss Granger." Maevy nods gravely, but Hermione doesn't miss the sparkle in the little elf's eyes.

Away from the elf and in the safety of her kitchen, Hermione leans against the counter for support. I can do this, she thinks. I can do this. Then she goes to her fridge to retrieve what she came in here for: a long, creamy tart, filled with cranberries and toasted hazelnuts. It's an experimental dessert but the best she can do on such short notice. With her wand, she summons a lavender-hued cakebox, sets the tart inside, and wraps the whole package up with fairy lights and a transfigured sprig of purple thistle. The result is lovely and looks far more Granger than Malfoy. Which is sort of the point.

Hermione levitates the cakebox into the living room, following behind it with her wand raised. She needn't do so – she could just carry it, after all – but doing magic has always soothed her, ever since the day she received her Hogwarts letter. The surge and tingle of it reassures her. Focuses her. And boy, does she need to focus right now.

Finally, just beside the fireplace, Hermione tucks the box under one arm and slips her wand into her cardigan. "You coming, Maevy?" she asks over her shoulder.

"Oh no, Miss. Maevy has errands to run in Diagon Alley. But Maevy wishes Miss the best of luck. Just go to the Ladies' Parlour – it's a yellow room on the first floor, not too far from the Smaller Library. Mrs. Narcissa will be waiting."

Before Hermione can answer or even turn fully around, she hears the crack of Disapparition behind her. Maevy, it seems, isn't going to stroll hand-in-hand with Hermione into this tea.

Facing her Floo station, the witch shudders slightly.

Alright, she thinks. Alone, then.

***

Hermione has prepared herself for the long, lonely walk from the Smaller Library to wherever certain doom awaits. She's therefore surprised to step out of the green flames and see Draco pacing frantically between his fireplace and the armchairs.

Upon seeing her, Draco jerks to a halt. Instead of saying hello, he closes the gap between them with two long strides.

"You don't have to do this, Hermione."

His voice, even strangled with fear, sends a frisson of delight through her. Delight, and a sudden surge of much-needed confidence.

"Oh, but I must, Draco. Otherwise, what will I do with this tart?"

She hefts the cakebox up for him to see. He narrows his eyes at the box, as though it might contain a boggart.

"You made my mother a tart?"

"Well, I made the tart a few days ago. And I've brought it to your mother today. But I'd appreciate it if you kept that little detail between us."

He stands frozen, less than half a metre from her. His whole face has pinched in on itself with tension, and she thinks she can actually hear his teeth grinding in his skull.

"I have no idea what she wants, Granger. Or what she's going to say to you."

He delivers the warning in his most hostile drawl, almost like a reprimand. But she knows, without having to ask, that he's not mad. He's worried.

She feels herself grinning. "Do you think you could take me to the Ladies' Parlour? Because Maevy's directions left something to be desired. I mostly got the word 'yellow' and somehow, I don't think that's going to help me much."

Draco doesn't move, except for the twitch of a muscle in his jaw. Sighing, Hermione transfers the cakebox to one arm, reaches for his hand, and drags him to the library door. Only when they've left the room and started down the hallway does he speak.

"We're going the wrong way, Granger. Unless you'd like to visit our billiard room."

"Not today, Draco. Not today."

As he changes their direction, she feels his hand shift inside hers until, suddenly, he laces their fingers together. Within no time at all, they reach what must be the Ladies' Parlour. Warm sunlight pours out of the entrance, and Hermione can smell the floral notes of her favorite tea. Draco jerks them to a stop beside the doorway and pivots toward her.

"You don't have to go inside."

She angles her head toward him and whispers, "I'm pretty sure I do."

"No, you don't. I can just tell my mother you fell ill and had to go home."

"I'll be fine, Draco. And I have my wand on me, if not."

"Bloody Gryffindor," he growls, but he gives her hand a tiny squeeze.

Before she can respond with some disparaging remark about his house affiliation, Draco leans over, brushes his lips against her cheek, and then practically bolts away from her down the corridor.

There's an absolutely still moment, where nothing in the universe moves. Then, slowly, Hermione wonders whether the buzz in her brain has lost its volume control. That might explain why it's changed from white noise to raucous stadium-cheers.

Listening to the roar in her head, she absently touches her cheek. The skin there feels warm, from either her blush or his kiss. Or both.

Once Hermione has both her brain and her blush under control, she crosses the threshold of the parlour, feeling a little like she could take on Voldemort himself.

Chapter Text

The steel in Hermione's spine weakens, just a touch, when Narcissa Malfoy rises to greet her. It's nothing the older witch says or does, per se; it's just the persistent sense of better-ness that seems to radiate like an aura off each of the Malfoys. Almost as though privilege and wealth compose their very DNA.

"Miss Granger," Narcissa says warmly, while exuding an air of noblesse that sets Hermione's teeth on edge. "So good of you to join me today."

Like your invitation left me much choice.

Aloud, Hermione says, "It was good of you to invite me, Mrs. Malfoy."

"Narcissa, please. Let's not stand on formality."

"Alright. But I insist you call me Hermione, then. I hear enough 'Granger' from your son."

One of Narcissa's cheeks dimples reflexively. She smooths an invisible wrinkle in her robes, perhaps in an attempt to cover her amusement.

"I suppose that's fair…Hermione."

As if to punctuate their accord, Narcissa sweeps her arm toward a set of delicate-looking wingback chairs that have been upholstered in bright yellow brocade. In fact, the entire room is yellow: wallpaper, rugs, curtains, paintings. Even the wainscoting. Everything in the parlour oozes butter, or daffodil, or mustard.

Narcissa must notice Hermione's reaction to the colour scheme, because she asks, "What do you think of the décor?"

Hermione places the cakebox on an empty side table and takes her seat in one of the wingbacks. "It's very…sunny," she hedges.

"It's very garish," Narcissa says bluntly. She sits down across from Hermione and levitates a steaming china teapot toward them. "Lucius's grandmother decorated this room many years ago, for ladies' luncheons. I suppose she thought the colour would lighten the conversation. Personally, I think it only contributes to migraines."

Hermione relaxes a millimetre as she takes a teacup from Narcissa's extended hand. "Imagine the amount of Pepper-Up Potion they must have added to the tea back in those days, just to bear all this 'lightness.'"

Narcissa grins – actually grins – and Hermione can see a trace of Draco in the expression. "Oh, I think it was more than tea or potions they were drinking in here, if you catch my meaning."

"Can you blame them?" Hermione asks. "There's only so much a witch can do to survive all this canary and sunflower."

"Agreed. It's not half as pleasant as, say, green."

"Or red," Hermione counters, and then blanches when Narcissa conducts a deliberate review of her clothes. Which happen to share the exact, spring-green hue as the robes Narcissa wears today – a fact Maevy conveniently forgot to mention. To Hermione's relief, the older witch doesn't comment on Hermione's outfit; instead, she waves one hand dismissively in the air.

"Green, red, puce…anything but yellow, as far as I'm concerned."

Hermione nods. Then, with the flame of Gryffindor pride still flaring inside her heart, she decides to take a stab at a thornier topic.

"I like how you've remodeled the parlour on the ground floor," she says. "Much lighter in there now. At least, from what I've seen of it, whenever I'm standing in your foyer."

Narcissa's expression freezes – a trait she apparently shares with her son, whenever the subject matter or situation takes an unexpected turn. Then the older witch smiles knowingly.

"Thank you. I do find that the cream has changed the tenor of the room."

"Quite right. Cream doesn't have the same negative connotations that the black and slate grey did. Less…torturous, perhaps?"

Narcissa's lips quirk higher. "Well, Hermione, I'll give you this: you certainly have a way with words."

"That I do."

A few minutes pass as the witches drink their tea in uneasy silence. Eventually, Hermione can no longer stand the tension in the room, so she sets down her cup.

"I've brought something special for us today."

Narcissa mirrors Hermione's actions with her own teacup. "Oh, good. I was so hoping to try another of your treats."

While Hermione levitates the cakebox toward them, Narcissa does the same with a set of china plates – no peacock feathers this time, but silvery "M's" that magically change from upper- to lower-case and back. Hermione is just about to remove the tart for serving, but Narcissa catches sight of the box itself.

"Oh," she sighs. "The wrapping is quite pretty. May I?"

When Hermione nods her assent, Narcissa raises her wand and directs the package into her own lap. First she admires the fairy lights and the charmed thistle. Then she opens the lid to ooh and aah at the confection inside.

"This looks scrumptious. Shall I serve us each a slice?"

"I can do it," Hermione says, but Narcissa waves away the offer.

"No, I insist. I'm the hostess, after all."

Hermione bites the inside of her cheek as Narcissa wands a slice of tart onto each of the dessert plates. Hermione can't help but wonder how the rest of this tea will go, when they keep dancing between sincere conversation and stilted niceties. Maybe this is the way of things in pureblood society: all unspoken rules and guarded smiles and skilled machinations. If so, Hermione doesn't want much part in it. But…given how she feels about Draco now, her distaste for pureblood convention may be a moot point.

She accepts a plate from Narcissa but waits for the older witch to take the first bite. After all, the tart was a last-minute decision, one she's afraid might rescind her invitation to Malfoy Manor forever. Luckily, Narcissa's eyelids flutter shut and she makes an involuntary, happy noise. She finishes her chew before asking, "Cranberries, I think, with some kind of nut?"

"Hazelnuts. Toasted."

Narcissa's eyes finally open. "What an interesting combination. I wouldn't have thought to pair them, but they work well together."

"Thank you. I've made so many desserts lately, I find that I have to get a little more creative now. I've been trying out new flavour and texture combinations, or presenting old dishes in unusual ways."

Narcisssa sets aside her tart, picks up her teacup, and gives Hermione a warm smile. "Like a Potions Master might?"

Hermione is taken aback when she feels a blush warm her cheeks. Who would have thought she would care about Narcissa's flattering comparison?

"In a way," she answers, with an awkward laugh. "I don't have much time to do it anymore, but I do like brewing Potions."

"As does my son."

Narcissa's voice never changes inflection, but Hermione is a very smart girl. It's their first, real reference to Draco, and Hermione knows it means something. A subtle implication, perhaps, or a subtle question.

"Yes," Hermione says carefully. "Draco did quite well in Potions class. Sometimes better than me, prior to our sixth year."

Narcissa clicks her tongue. "Ah, yes. Draco's sixth year. What an…interesting time that was."

Is this my test? Hermione thinks.

Out loud, she says, "'Interesting' seems a bit understated, Narcissa. 'Horrifying' might be more accurate. Particularly for Draco."

"Oh?" Narcissa takes a sip of tea. Raises a flawless blonde eyebrow. "Did you interact with Draco much during your sixth year?"

Here we go then.

"No, I didn't. But I remember his deterioration. Partway through that year, he started to look terrible, honestly. His skin went sallow and he lost far too much weight. I only found out later what kind of stress he was under. I want to…I think I…." Hermione sighs and sets aside her uneaten slice of tart. "Narcissa, may I be quite frank with you?"

The older witch gives a tight smile that doesn't reach her eyes. "Of course. I do love honest conversation."

"Alright." Hermione meets Narcissa's bright blue gaze dead-on. "Draco and I disliked each other, almost from the moment we met. The first time we ever spoke directly, he called me the dirtiest word in the Wizarding world. He was an arrogant, spoiled, cowardly git and, although I never let him see me do it, he made me cry on many occasions. I hated him for making me feel less than worthy, and making me doubt myself. But to be fair, Draco hated me, too. For beating him in marks. For being beloved by most of our teachers. For doing so well at magic, even with blood he just knew was dirtier than his – an idea he no doubt learned while sitting next to your haute couture stilettos."

Hermione pauses in her brutal tirade to gauge Narcissa's reaction. Narcissa, however, sips her tea impassively and waits for the younger witch to continue. So Hermione heaves another sigh.

"I suppose the answer to your question, Narcissa, is yes – Draco and I did interact. In the worst possible ways. But something changed our sixth year. I'm not sure if it was after he began missing our N.E.W.T.-level classes, or after his eyes went so dull, but I started to watch him. When Harry cast that Sectumsempra on him, I was livid. Draco never deserved that, and to this day, I hate that it happened to him. He didn't even deserve it after he sat there and let your sister Crucio me. I know I'm one of the few people who hold that opinion, but I truly, deeply believe it. It's one of the reasons I started bringing baked goods to everyone: because I believe we all deserve better than what that War gave us. No matter how soon, or how late, we realized our errors."

Narcissa hums lightly. "And do you believe that Draco has 'realized his errors?'"

"I do. But that's not why I'm still coming to your home. If it was just about holding up a mirror to Draco's mistakes, or letting him know that at least I've forgiven him, then I would have stopped after those apple tarts. I didn't, though. I couldn't. Because…because it turns out that Draco is so much more than I thought he was. I'm not a fool: I know he's still his old self, in some ways. He's still arrogant and short-tempered and extravagant. But he's also intelligent, honest, witty, thoughtful, and…and he's trying so hard not to be that boy who hated me."

Finally, Narcissa's icy exterior melts. She abandons her cup with a clatter, leans forward, and fixes Hermione with a fierce stare.

"Do you still hate him, then?"

"Of course not. Quite the opposite, actually."

The confession pours from Hermione's mouth as though she's just swallowed Veritaserum. It's a lot of truth to speak aloud, particularly to your former enemy, and both witches fall silent for a long while. Then a soft, tender glow enters Narcissa's eyes.

"I can see why Draco likes you so much."

At this, Hermione begins to cough. "Ma'am?" she chokes out, rather inarticulately.

"My son. He adores you."

"He…adores me?"

"Oh, yes. It was terribly obvious that morning in our kitchens, when we shared the key lime pie. And when Draco speaks about you…my goodness, his whole face changes. But it's also obvious that he's terrified to tell us. He fears our reactions, I think."

"Due to my blood status," Hermione concludes.

Narcissa retrieves her teacup. "Among other things, my dear."

"For instance?"

"Your wealth. Or lack thereof, I'm assuming. Your position at the very Ministry that punished our family. And your previous connection to the youngest Weasley boy, who undoubtedly still hates my son."

As Narcissa rattles off this list in that pleasant, high-born cadence of hers, a lump of dread lodges itself in Hermione's throat. How could she have been so foolish? So silly as to think that maybe she and Draco Malfoy could ever have something? That his prejudiced parents might actually approve of someone like her?

"I see," she says dully. "I should probably go then, yes?"

Narcissa responds with a pealing laugh. "Oh, dear girl, no! You mistake me completely."

"I do?"

Narcissa laughs again, like Hermione has just told a hilarious joke. "Of course. Those are the objections that Draco thinks I'll have to your…friendship."

"But you…?"

"Don't have them anymore?" Narcissa finishes. "No, I don't. I did, at one time, obviously. Once, I hoped that Draco would align himself with someone from the Sacred Twenty-Eight. Infuse our line with new, pure blood and our vaults with more Galleons. I wanted that future for us, almost as fervently as Lucius did. But I've come to want other things for my family, now. Things that are much harder to come by."

"Such as?"

"Peace," Narcissa breathes. "Calm, uneventful, unambitious peace. And, where Draco's concerned, happiness."

"So how do I fit into this new vision of your family's future?"

Narcissa shakes her head. "My dear girl, in the short time you've been visiting us, you've brought both of those things I so desperately desire: peace to this home, and happiness to Draco. It's unexpected, I'll admit, but not unwelcome. Not at all. So as to your place in our future? That's entirely up to you."

Hermione does her once-twice blink. Then she smiles broadly and raises her wand toward the cranberry-hazelnut tart.

"More dessert, Narcissa?"

***

The sun has set and the yellow décor faded into a more bearable gold, when the two witches finally emerge from the room. They remain in such deep conversation that neither notices the lanky figure, leaning dejectedly against the wall opposite the parlour door.

Narcissa catches sight of her son first. "Draco, darling, whatever are you doing out here?"

"I'm—" he starts, but his mother cuts him short before he can articulate an excuse.

"If you insist on lingering about like a Hogwarts ghost, darling, please try not to slouch." Narcissa turns away from her son to face the young witch at her side. "Hermione, dear, you'll have to forgive me, but I suddenly find that I'm rather tired. Do you mind horribly if I leave you two children to entertain yourselves?"

"Of course not, Narcissa. And thank you again for inviting me to tea. It was…most enlightening."

The witches share conspiratorial smiles, before Narcissa bustles down the hallway away from them. Draco waits to speak until his mother disappears around a corner.

"Narcissa?" he asks, with an incredulous frown.

"That's your mother's name."

"And Hermione?"

"That's my name. Two for two, Draco."

"Did she…did my mother hex you or something?"

Hermione feigns a shudder. "Worse. She hugged me."

Draco blinks at her once, twice, and she will absolutely admit to herself how adorable she finds that.

Hermione loops her arm through his and pulls him away from the wall. "Come on, I'm starving. One can't live on floral tea and tarts alone."

Draco allows her to drag him along the corridor, silent and still blinking as though he just received some startling news. When he finally finds his voice again, he rasps, "I was so…I didn't prepare anything for dinner tonight. Should we…? Maybe Maevy and the other elves could whip up something for us to eat?"

"Nah. Let's be casual tonight."

Hermione walks her fingers down the length of his arm until her hand fits into his. She sighs contentedly when his fingers entwine with hers, and she leans her head lightly against him.

"Tell me, Draco: have you ever had Muggle takeaway?"

***

"My mother actually, honest-to-Merlin hugged you?" Draco asks around a mouthful of chicken tikka masala. He uses his fork to gesture at the Styrofoam container he's holding. "This is bloody amazing, by the way."

"She did indeed. And I told you so – nothing beats Muggle takeaway. Nothing."

Hermione takes her own bite, savouring the gooey perfection of palak paneer and silently congratulating herself on her choice of cuisine. Earlier, while Draco stayed in his library to transfigure their green velvet armchairs into a comfortable sofa, she Floo'd home and ran downstairs to the variety of takeaway shops on her street. There was a fraught moment when she wavered between pizza and Indian food. But judging by the satisfied look on Draco's face as he consumes another forkful of chicken soaked in buttery tomato sauce, she chose wisely.

As he sets aside his meal, Draco's expression shifts to a different kind of satisfied, in the form of that ever-present smirk.

"And thus, Hermione Granger utters her favourite phrase of all time."

"What, 'Muggle takeaway?'"

"No, 'I told you so.'"

Hermione giggles and doesn't feel the least bit silly doing it. "It's only one of my favorite phrases because I've had to say it so many times."

"Along with 'Let's research it' and 'For Merlin's sake, Harry, don't do that.'"

Hermione gasps in fake shock. "Draco Malfoy, did you just use Harry Potter's given name?"

"Damn, I think I did. Quick, perform a Scourgify on my tongue."

"Wouldn't a Scourgify just fork it further? Your tongue, I mean."

"Taking cheap shots at Slytherin snakes, are we?"

"All Slytherin shots are cheap, by their nature."

Draco rolls his eyes and, to her delight, pinches one of the feet she slid closer to him during dinner. At the moment, they each sit on opposite ends of the newly-transfigured sofa: him, with his long legs stretched out in front, and her, leaning against one rolled arm of the sofa with her bare feet splayed across the cushions. In retaliation for his pinch, Hermione digs the toes of both her feet under his thigh and then wiggles them.

"Gross, Granger. I don't know where those feet have been."

"Inside my shoes," she says, grinning as she points to the ballet flats she removed earlier. Draco makes a disgusted noise, but he grins back at her in a way that sets her pulse racing.

"Like that's any comfort," he complains.

"Would you like me to go traipse through some muck, to give you a point of comparison?"

"The muck might be an improvement."

"Don't you dare disparage my beautiful feet, Draco Malfoy. Or my ballet flats."

His smile grows wicked. "About those little flats of yours, Granger…."

"Yes? What of them?"

"Well, I couldn't help but notice that they're very…green."

"Oh, are they?" she asks breezily. "How did that happen? Let me remedy the error, straightaway."

She discards her own takeaway container, pulls her wand from the pocket of her cardigan, and chants Finite Incantatem over the shoes. Immediately, they shimmer back into Gryffindor red.

"You missed a spot," Draco drawls, gesturing with one hand to her entire person. Only then does she remember that almost everything about her is green tonight.

"Bloody hell," she mutters, and then casts the spell repeatedly over her clothes. With each wave of her wand, her cardigan reddens and the petals on her dress return to their original pink. She's so intent on undoing Maevy's creation that she doesn't notice Draco's hand slip into the coat pocket where he keeps his wand.

"Satisfied?" Hermione asks, facing him again with a haughty lift of her chin. But he's still grinning wickedly, as though he's won some kind of prize.

"Red really isn't your colour, Granger. I think you look far better in green."

She scoffs, despite the flutter in her heart. "Hardly."

"Don't believe me? Then maybe you should see for yourself."

Bewildered, she tilts her head to the side. "Draco, what are you—?"

She stops short when she catches another glimpse of her clothes. Which have been transfigured back into green. Not spring-green, though. This time, they're a dark, woodsy, Slytherin green. She's about to whip out her wand to undo the charm, and possibly hex him for good measure. But then she just groans. After last night's trip to the Leaky Cauldron and today's emotional turmoil, she just doesn't have the strength to cast even one more spell.

"Fine," she moans. "I'm too knackered to fight it. Go, Slytherin, go. Rah, Slytherin, rah."

Draco laughs – that loud, genuine sound that makes her heart soar. "This is excellent news, Granger. Apparently, all I have to do to win our battles is tire you out."

She should argue with him, probably, or lecture him on the unauthorized use of clothing charms. Instead, she sighs sleepily, pulls her feet out from under his thigh, and stretches her legs proprietarily across his lap.

In response to this new intimacy, Draco freezes and his face goes blank. Hermione, however, has learned his moods well enough by now to see that he's thinking. Weighing and evaluating several courses of action before he follows one. She closes her eyes, reclines fully against the sofa, and waits for him to make up his mind.

Eventually, Draco rests his palms upon her bare legs and wraps his long fingers around her calves. Hermione makes a happy noise in the back of her throat and nestles further into the sofa. And further into him.

They stay like that for so long, they both lose track of time. Neither of them comments on their current position. In fact, neither speaks again for the rest of the night. They remain just as they are – Hermione with her eyes shut and Draco, staring into the fire and tracing patterns on her skin with his thumbs – until finally, she drifts off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Hermione wakes slowly the next morning, pulling herself piece by piece from a delicious dream she can't fully recall. It dances on the edge of her memory, and she decides to chase it by squeezing her eyelids harder together and burrowing deeper into bed.

She reaches out to tuck her worn, cotton comforter beneath her chin, but her fingers grasp something soft and downy instead. She wrenches her eyelids open to find herself covered by a fluffy, ink-black blanket that she's never seen before. Blinking without comprehension, she pushes herself into a seated position and peers blearily around her.

Nothing looks familiar. No potted plants or purple curtains or framed photos of Harry and Ron. Just sunlight and expensive furniture and row upon row of leather-bound books.

"Where the—?"

And then it hits her: she fell asleep in Malfoy Manor. And apparently stayed all night. Without being murdered or maimed or even hexed. The thought alone is mystifying. But something else strikes her, and she scans the library frantically.

She finds what she's searching for lying on the floor beside the sofa, his eyes shut and his breaths even. He's still in his white, oxford shirt and loosened tie, with his copy of Potions in Practice open across his stomach. His jacket, however, is missing, and she can guess how her black blanket came into being.

Sleep has mussed his hair, and it now spreads in white-blond tufts across the colourful rug beneath his head. Carefully, so as not to wake him, she reaches down and brushes a few strands from his forehead. At her touch, Draco hums a contented noise but doesn't wake. Something about that sound makes her heart constrict and, for a second, Hermione thinks about leaning over to taste his lips.

Instead, she untangles herself from her covers and climbs off the sofa. She stands above him, unsure about what to do until her stomach rumbles. So she pulls her wand out from her cardigan to perform a de-wrinkling charm on her dress and then steps over Draco's prone form. Her shoes lay next to one of the sofa's clawed feet, and she starts to slip into them. But a hitch in Draco's breath makes her pause and pull back one foot.

Slowly, gently, she picks up her ballet flats and sets them on top of his transfigured jacket. The Gryffindor-red shoes stand in stark contrast to the inky black of the blanket. There's no way Draco won't see them when he wakes up, and they should let him know that she's still somewhere inside the Manor.

Message thus delivered, Hermione creeps quietly from the room. In the dark corridor outside the library door, she takes a minute to orient herself. To her right, she sees a long row of closed doors. To her left, a hint of light glows from the end of the hallway. She moves in that direction, hoping to find the main staircase.

A few wrong turns, several unfamiliar corridors, three staircases, and some whispered swears later, Hermione finally – finally – finds herself at the door to the Manor kitchens. She pushes against the ancient wood and sighs in relief to find the huge room empty, of both elves and Malfoys. After a quick scan of each of the pantries, she sets to work.

Hermione has no idea how long she's in there, scurrying between mixing bowls and frying pans and ovens. Instead of tracking time, she loses herself in the consistency of batter, the sizzle of crisping sausages, the smell of vanilla. This is the reason she started baking that early May morning last year: for the sheer joy of it, certainly, but also for the way the ingredients demand a total commitment of her brain and heart. The transformation of food is the closest thing to magic she's experienced outside of her wand and, each time she cooks, it's the closest she gets to freeing herself of her dark, wonderful, terrible past.

She's stacking the last crepe onto a tall pile when a faint "ahem" draws her attention to the doorway. Draco stands there, watching her. He's shucked his tie, and his shirt and hair are still messy. Her shoes are in his hand and there's a softness to his eyes that she hasn't seen before today.

Her heart constricts again. So much so, she can only whisper, "Good morning."

"Good morning," he says. The rough, just-woken quality of his voice does something pleasurable and vaguely awkward to her core.

"Breakfast?" she offers, desperately hoping he doesn't notice her cheeks redden or her pupils widen. Draco just nods and circles the kitchen island to stop right behind her. He drops her shoes to the floor, so that she can slip into them whenever she wants. Then, without saying a word, he leans around her to take a strip of meat from a plate of food she set out.

In doing so, his chest presses against her shoulders. Before she's consciously aware of it, Hermione pushes back into him. The moment their bodies are flush, Draco inhales sharply. But he doesn't pull away from her. Instead, his free hand drops to her hip.

"Granger," he whispers in her ear, and her brain buzz explodes.

She's about to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him until he can't breathe anymore, when another voice stops her short.

"Good morning, Draco. Miss Granger, what a pleasant surprise."

Hermione's attention slides reluctantly to the doorway, where Lucius Malfoy is staring at them. Draco lingers at her back for a few heartbeats, his hand still on her hip. Then, with a tiny groan only she can hear, he lets her go and steps to the side.

"Father," Draco drawls. The lack of welcome positively drips from that one word.

"Do you mind if I join the two of you?" Lucius asks, either oblivious to or unbothered by his son's irritation. "I couldn't help but follow the smells of breakfast."

From the corner of her eye, Hermione sees the hard lines of Draco's mouth soften.

"Are you actually hungry this morning?" he asks his father. Despite his prior annoyance, Draco's voice is tender. As though Lucius' being hungry matters far more than it used to.

"I am," Lucius says, smiling. "Although it may not be that surprising, given the effect Miss Granger's cooking seems to have on me."

The unexpected compliment almost makes up for the opportunity she and Draco just missed. Hermione summons another plate and quickly serves up two crepes, half a grapefruit, and a large helping of sausages. She hands the plate to Lucius and waits for him to pull out his wand to acquire his own cutlery and barstool. When he doesn't, she frowns and summons them for him.

"Thank you," he says quietly as he takes his seat, "for doing all this work, Miss Granger. You see, I am no longer permitted the use of a wand. Ministry's orders."

Hermione feels something cold drop to her stomach. Part of her is pleased, thrilled even, that the infamous Lucius Malfoy has been chastened in this way. That he can no longer do the type of harm he used to do with a wand. But another part of her is sickened by this punishment – by the sheer horror of a wizard being so denuded.

"I'm sorry," she whispers.

Before she really knows why, before she can comprehend the lunacy of it, she reaches out to grasp him. Three sets of eyes snap toward the sight of Hermione Granger's little hand, clasped over Lucius Malfoy's.

Almost at once, Hermione jerks her fingers back as though she's touched a viper. "I didn't…I'm not sure I…."

Draco saves her by fixing himself a plate. Loudly.

"Granger," he says, his volume at least three notches higher than usual. "Should I put jam on these little pancakes, then?"

Hermione feels such a strong rush of gratitude, she could kiss him. But Lucius still watches them closely, so she fills her words with derision.

"You're not twelve anymore, Draco. Eat them with caster sugar and a squeeze of lemon like a grown-up."

Draco sneers, but when he crosses behind her to sit next to his father, he trails his fingers along her waistline. And just like that, she's smiling again.

The rest of the morning passes pleasantly, with the three of them sharing polite conversation until Narcissa joins them. Upon seeing Hermione, wearing yesterday's dress in a new shade of green and sporting a nest of morning-hair, Narcissa arches one eyebrow. Thankfully, the older witch doesn't comment upon Hermione's appearance as she makes her own plate.

"How lovely," she says, taking her seat. "I haven't had crepes in ages."

Narcissa, however, apparently didn't join them just for breakfast. She has only taken a few bites of grapefruit before she fixes her son with a meaningful stare.

"Draco, darling, about that thing you asked me to arrange yesterday?"

He all but drops his fork onto his plate and looks up at his mother. "Yes?" he asks eagerly. "Did you get it?"

"I did. But there's a slight…wrinkle." At Draco's frown, she sighs. "The only time they'll permit it is tonight. At 6:30."

He balks. "Tonight? Tonight tonight? As in, this evening?"

"I'm afraid so. Apparently, another family made a reservation for the...location as well, but they did so for tonight. So it's more convenient for the Aurors to monitor everything this evening, rather than next Saturday."

"How is that our bloody problem?" he growls and runs a hand through his messy hair.

"You know why, dearest. You can curse them all you like, but it won't change their decision. So please, try to be grateful that they said yes at all."

"I will. Try, that is."

Narcissa clicks her tongue in disapproval but doesn't reprimand him further.

"I've made the Floo-call to Bastien to rearrange things," she says. "Luckily, they had an opening at 7 p.m. tonight – so early, it's almost gauche. Still, begging wizards can't be picky about their cauldrons."

Draco scowls down at his plate, but he says, "Thank you, mother. For taking care of all this. You've…done so much already."

"Of course, darling. Anything for you. And you should know: all the effort is worth it, I think. Quite worth it."

For just a fraction of a second, Narcissa's gaze darts toward Hermione. Hermione knows, then, that they're discussing something that has to do with her. Draco only piques her curiosity further when he angles his body toward hers.

"Granger, are you finished?"

She frowns down at her plate, cleaned of everything but a half-eaten sausage. "Yes, but what—?"

"Would you mind following me back up to the Library?" he interrupts. "I have some things to do, and I need your help."

"Of course I will," she says. Partly because it's true and partly because she's now dying to know what's going on. Draco clears their plates, levitating them to the sink and setting a sponge to work with a scrubbing spell. Hermione nearly laughs at the sight of it: Draco Malfoy, performing household charms without her help. More proof that the Malfoy house-elves really are liberated. More proof that he's been paying attention to their lessons in more ways than one.

Oblivious to her amusement, Draco kisses his mother on the cheek, nods at his father, and goes to the kitchen door. Hermione anxiously rises to join him.

"Lovely to see you again, Hermione," Narcissa calls after her with a knowing little smile. "Do enjoy yourself, won't you?"

Frowning, Hermione turns back around to ask Narcissa what she means. But before she can do so, Lucius stands and interrupts the thought.

"Miss Granger," he says, "thank you for another enchanting meal."

"Anytime, Mr. Malfoy. And please, call me Hermione."

Lucius bows slightly – a throwback to his pureblood manners, no doubt. Then, in a move that must take a great deal of courage, he puts one arm around her shoulders and gives her the world's most awkward squeeze.

***

By the time they reach the Smaller Library, Hermione has almost stopped feeling mortified by what just happened in the kitchen. Draco holds the door open for her, and he lets loose a long breath.

"So…both my parents have hugged you in the past twenty-four hours, right? I'm not hallucinating that?"

"It seems not. Which makes me wonder: how cold do you think hell is, now that it's frozen over?"

"You know, I'm not even sure my father has ever hugged me."

Hermione shakes her head as she follows him into the room. "You should try one of your father's hugs sometime. I highly recommend them – very warm and sincere. And clearly well-practiced."

Draco laughs loudly and strolls to the center of the library. There, the transfigured blanket has vanished, returned instead to its original form. She watches him, hoping he'll reveal the details of what he and his mother were discussing in the kitchen. But as he slowly tidies the room – Vanishing their used takeaway containers, folding his restored jacket neatly upon the back of the sofa – she decides she can't wait any longer.

"What were you talking about earlier?" she blurts out. "With your mother, in the kitchen?"

Draco pauses, lowers his wand, and faces her with a strange smile. It's close-lipped: equal parts sly and unsure. Without answering right away, he pockets his wand and steps closer to her. When they're near enough to touch, his smile drops and he clears his throat nervously.

"Granger, do you have any plans tonight?"

She frowns in thought. Today is…Sunday? Normally, Hermione spends Sunday night surrounded by legal texts and reams of parchment, preparing to-do lists for the upcoming week. A nonessential task, certainly, but far more routine than spending time with Draco, whom she hasn't seen outside of a Saturday for a while now.

Aside from this morning, of course. And this morning has been so…so….

Draco's staring anxiously at her, and she realizes with a jolt that she hasn't answered him yet. Seeing him standing there, worrying his lip with his teeth and near-twitching with nervous energy, she tries not to smile.

"I don't know, Draco – do I have plans?"

Draco, clever man that he is, catches her meaning instantly, and some of his tension disappears.

"That depends, Granger. Do you think you could refrain from reacting violently to a surprise this time?"

"Well, that depends, too. Are you going to shove me into some form of magical transportation without telling me why?"

His sly grin returns. "Of course I am."

Hermione crosses her arms and forces her face into a scowl; it's rather difficult, since all she really wants to do is smile like a bloody fool.

"What are you up to, Draco Malfoy?"

"You'll see, Hermione Granger."

She sighs in faux annoyance. "Okay, keep some of your secrets…for now. But I won't be going anywhere with you until I know what form of magical transportation we're going to use."

"A Portkey, if you have to know. It's in Diagon Alley, and it should activate for us at 6:30 tonight."

"What's the dress code, then?"

"Why would you think there's a dress code?"

She snorts. "This is you we're talking about, Draco."

"Fair point. Dress is semi-formal, I'm afraid."

"Why 'afraid?'"

"Because our Portkey reservation is only nine hours away, and I'm not sure that's enough time for you to gain control of your hair and do fancy dress."

"Are we fourteen again, Draco? Because insulting my hair didn't help you then, and it won't do you much good now."

"Fine, fine." He throws his hands up in surrender. "Leave your hair as it is. We can store our wands in it during dinner."

Hermione ignores the insult and jabs one finger at him in triumph. "Ha! So we are going to dinner!"

He smirks. "Well caught, Granger. But the 'where' is going to remain a mystery until tonight. I mean it."

"I can live with that. I'll just Floo home to rest and get ready, and then we can meet up in Diagon Alley? Maybe near Flourish and Blotts? There's a special order I've been waiting on and I…."

She trails off when she sees Draco's smug expression waver.

"Actually," he says, cringing, "could I just Floo to your flat, and then Side-along with you to the Portkey? That would be…more convenient, I think."

"How? Side-alongs are so miserable, Draco. Why not just Apparate to Diagon yourself?"

He trains his eyes on the floor. "Because I can't. Not for another three weeks and one day."

"Three—?" she starts out, but then she understands.

In three weeks and one day, it will be the second of May. Which happens to be the second anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts. And also the date the Wizengamot chose, when setting most of its Azkaban sentences.

"That was part of your sentencing, wasn't it?" Hermione asks him softly. "They revoked your Apparition license for two years."

Draco seems hideously embarrassed, but he nods.

"That's one of the reasons you connected our Floos, isn't it?" she goes on. "So you could come see me, before then?"

He hesitates before nodding a second time.

The ache in her stomach reminds her of the one she felt that morning, when she learned about Lucius's wand restrictions. On some level, she understands this aspect of Draco's sentencing. On another, all she wants to do is grab him.

So that's exactly what she does. She stops fighting against her instincts and narrows the space between their bodies.

Again, Draco goes rigid at her touch. But after only two seconds' uncertainty, he wraps his arms tightly around her as well. She leans her head upon his shirt and breathes in the clean, spicy scent of him. She can feel all of him – the rise and fall of his chest, the muscles of his forearms across her waist, the shape of his belt buckle against her abdomen – and she has to tell herself not to shiver with satisfaction.

"That's a hug from every Malfoy in twenty-four hours," she whispers into his chest, and she feels rather than hears his laugh.

"Hermione, I—" Draco begins, but she cuts him off with a light squeeze. She can guess what he's going to say, and she doesn't want this moment to be their beginning. She wants tonight – every secretive, frightening, marvelous minute of tonight – to be their beginning.

"I better get going," she says with forced casualness as she releases him. "If I'm going to follow orders and do something with this big, bushy head of mine."

Draco's breathing has become shallow, his pupils dilated. But he smiles anyway – probably at her use of one of his favorite, old taunts.

"Why do that, Granger, when your hair provides so much extra storage space?"

"Are you telling me you prefer this," she asks, pointing to her head, "to my beaded handbag?"

Draco snorts elegantly. "I'm not sure – they're both spacious and strange."

Hermione shakes her head, as if to emphasize the offending nest of curls, and moves to his fireplace. Once she stands at its center with a handful of Floo powder, she looks back at him.

"6:15 at your place, Granger?"

"It's a date," she says. Then she drops the powder and calls out for her flat. Instead of the swirling green of the flames, all she really sees is his lips as they curve into a smile.

Chapter Text

Despite what she admitted two nights ago to Harry and Ginny, Hermione knows that tonight is her first real date with Draco Malfoy. The first one that they've named as such, anyway – out loud and to each other.

This is also the first date that she'll prepare for without someone's help. To distract herself from that fact, and from the date itself, Hermione works all day from home, sifting through other departments' memoranda to determine if any of them might affect her giant legislation. The work is so engrossing, she completely forgets to start getting ready until well after five.

The distraction, perhaps, was a bad plan. As Draco predicted, her hair proves itself damned near impossible to control. She performs charms and applies Muggle tonics to no avail. By a quarter to six she's a sweaty, frustrated mess, and she wonders whether she should just start cataloguing the curses she'll lob at Draco's head, the minute he appears in her fireplace.

By five after six, however, her hair has finally been conquered, curls semi-tamed with a potion and shaped by a million hairpins into a low bun. She's scrubbed her face, spritzed on some perfume, and even swept a bit of pink gloss over her lips. But as for her outfit….

Hermione stares at the tall pile of clothes on her bed, dresses and skirts and blouses threatening to teeter over the edges. Nothing looks right to her, nothing screams "first date," and she actually gives the clothing a feral growl.

"I am not someone who freaks out about outfits," she tells the pile. "I'm just not."

Sure, she's nervous and excited and a mixture of other, bubbling emotions. But she refuses to obsess about her appearance for even a minute longer. So she holds her wand over the bed, closes her eyes, and says, "Accio semi-formal dress."

There's a light shuffling noise in front of her. When she opens her eyes, a black velvet dress floats midair above its companions. It's actually one of hers, purchased for a Ministry function that she later decided to skip. Like the dress she wore last weekend, this one flares at the hips. But instead of a strapless neckline, this dress slouches prettily off the shoulders. It's lovely, semi-formal, and good enough.

Checking her bedside clock with something akin to panic, she slips the dress on quickly. Then she digs around the floor of her wardrobe until she finds Maevy's transfigured heels. She's just wrapping two strands of her mother's pearls around her neck when she hears the echoing whoosh of her Floo.

Oh, dear Merlin. He's here. He's here. In her flat. In her warm, shabby, welcoming little sitting room, with its overstuffed furniture and overflowing bookcases.

"Just make yourself comfortable," she calls out, fully dressed but not quite ready to face him yet. "I'll be right out."

"How do you know it's me," Draco calls back, "and not some Weasley come to sabotage a perfectly nice evening?"

"Weasleys don't wear that much cologne," she jokes, and sighs in relief when he immediately laughs. "Wait – was that an implicit promise to behave nicely tonight?"

"Absolutely not," he purrs, almost too quietly for her to hear. The innuendo makes her even more nervous or anxious to leave this room – she can't decide which.

"Hey," Draco says, much louder now. "Didn't you have a cat?"

"Half-cat, half-Kneazle, actually. But Crookshanks ran off after the Battle of Hogwarts. We never found him afterward."

"Shit, I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I mean, I wasn't happy about it back then. But Crookshanks was rather old when I got him, so I expected that I'd lose him one day."

"I suppose," Draco says, but he sounds so genuinely apologetic it gives her the confidence to leave her bedroom, ambivalent outfit and all.

Out in the living area, Draco has his back to her as he examines one of her bookcases. Hermione stays quiet for a bit, watching him slide a book out to read its spine. This inspection is a casual enough thing to do, just something to occupy his time while he waits on her. But to Hermione, the act of him exploring her bookshelf is so intimate, so damned sexy, she's already blushing by the time she clears her throat to announce her presence.

At the sound, Draco whirls around with a smirk and quip ready on his lips. The second he sees her, however, he goes still.

He looks fantastic tonight, in his charcoal suit and navy-blue tie: a grown man, and a damned fine one at that. Yet something about his stunned, rapt expression right now gives her a distinct sense of déjà vu. Exactly why, she doesn't know. Not until an image of his younger self – the haughty, privileged boy from Hogwarts – flashes into her mind.

It was fourth year, the night of the Yule Ball. Hermione was dressed to the nines and nervous as hell. But she forced herself to descend the great staircase at Hogwarts like a queen, hand upon Viktor Krum's arm and head raised against the sound of her own name being whispered throughout the school. Though she walked beside Viktor, her eyes pinned themselves to Ron, with his tattered dress robes and petulant expression. Despite her date, and despite the abominable way Ron behaved later, Hermione would watch him all night. She would pine and ache and yearn for him. But before that happened, another face stood out from the crowd. If just for the briefest of moments.

As Hermione crossed into the Great Hall that night, she saw none other than Draco Malfoy staring openly at her. Pansy Parkinson clung to his robes with a bored sneer, and his cronies jostled him; those things should have held at least some of his attention. And yet he watched Hermione with confused fascination, like he couldn't look anywhere else if he tried. Like he didn't understand how or why, but she had become the only girl in the room, the school, maybe even the whole world.

It was unfathomable back then, to her fifteen-year-old mind. But now, his expression is impossible to mistake. Draco Malfoy was attracted to her on the night of the Yule Ball, in a way he couldn't hide. And he's clearly attracted to her tonight. This time, of course, the feeling is mutual.

"Hey, you," she breathes.

"Granger," he says raggedly. "You look…you're just…I mean…."

She decides to save him, just this once.

"You look good, too, Draco. Very." She holds out one arm graciously. "Shall we?"

In a kind of trance, Draco walks over to her and places his hand in the crook of her elbow. She waits until he's snug at her side before she Apparates them both to Diagon Alley. Hermione is careful with this Side-along, and she and Draco land smoothly just outside Flourish and Blotts. Still, they're both aware of the effect that Apparition has on her, and his hands immediately move to her waist.

"You alright?" he whispers in her ear. She merely nods, happy to find that it isn't nausea clenching her stomach but delight. He gives her waist a gentle squeeze before removing his hands. Hermione's having none of that, though – she reaches down and takes one of his retreating hands firmly in hers.

"Where's this supposed Portkey, then?" she asks.

Draco tilts his head toward Flourish and Blotts. "Don't tell me that Hermione Granger is going to resist ducking into a bookshop? After all, we do have five whole minutes until the activation."

She sighs theatrically. "It will take great effort on my part. Consider yourself very, very lucky that I have such dedication to being punctual."

"Lucky, eh?"

"Very."

During this conversation, they've begun strolling down the street. Without breaking stride, Draco leans back toward her ear and whispers, "Seeing you in that dress, Granger? I am lucky. I really, really am."

She shivers happily and tugs him until their shoulders touch again.

As they walk, the lanterns on top of the Alley's lampposts flicker to life. The day has just started to shift into night, and the lovely pink tones of sunset wash over this part of the street. In the early evening glow, Draco's pale cheekbones seem sharper, and flushed. The way he looks in this light…well, if Hermione didn't already know about the existence of magic, she would certainly believe in it tonight.

He notices her staring and smirks. "Something catch your eye, Granger?"

She smirks right back at him. "Maybe. I haven't decided yet."

"Then it's a good thing we're at the Portkey, isn't it?"

"What—?"

Her words evaporate into thin air when Draco pulls them to an abrupt stop in front of a streetlight and uses their linked hands to grab the post. Everything howls, and the world becomes a twisting, discomfiting mass of flashes and shrieks. In the chaos, she hears a tinny strain of music that sounds like an accordion.

Just as quickly as it began, the whirling ceases. They land in a dark, empty alleyway, and Draco leads them toward a bustling city street. Cars roar up and down the busy avenue in front of them, and the pavement upon which they stand is lined with twinkle-lit trees and cafés. The latter are crowded with patrons, everyone clinking coffee cups and blowing cigarette smoke into the night air. Above the cafés and shopfronts, white and grey buildings line the street. Each building is decked with row upon row of wrought-iron balconies, where people are drinking wine and enjoying the sunset.

That tinny accordion music she heard during their Portkey trip sounds clearer now, as it pours out from one of the nearby cafés. La Vie en Rose, if Hermione's not mistaken.

"Paris," she breathes. "You've brought me to Paris."

"Boulevard Beaumarchais, to be precise. Although we won't be dining here. Are those shoes made for walking, Granger?"

She twirls one heeled foot in front of her, showing off Maevy's lovely stilettos. "They're as good as trainers."

Draco chuckles. "Excellent. Le Passage Secret is further into the Third Arrondissement, on Rue de Montmorency. It's just a few blocks from here."

Hermione didn't realize he knew anything about Paris. She had, rather critically, assumed that Draco spent his entire life flitting between Hogwarts and the Manor. The fact that he knows something of the wide world both humbles and pleases her.

"Le Passage Secret…the Secret Passage?" she asks as they begin strolling toward their destination. "Exactly what kind of clandestine place are you taking me to?"

"It's a Wizarding restaurant," he explains. "Very exclusive, and very secretive."

"In other words, very expensive?"

Draco shrugs. "The Malfoys have held an account there for centuries."

"Centuries? Literal centuries?"

"Le Passage Secret shares kitchens with the oldest inn in Paris, which has a long-standing relationship with the Wizarding world. I…think you'll understand better when we get there."

Twenty minutes later, Hermione understands. She really, really does.

Although 51 Rue de Montmorency doesn't contain any visible signs or doors for Le Passage Secret, she can clearly see the brightly-lit windows of a Muggle restaurant on the ground floor of the Inn. Above the entrance to the restaurant, and presumably the Inn itself, a carved stone inscription proclaims this site to be the oldest building in Paris. And home of none other than L'Auberge de Nicolas Flamel.

Hermione gapes at the engraved placard and the Inn for a long while, before asking, "Nicolas Flamel? The Niholas Flamel?"

"The one and only," Draco answers. "He and his wife began construction on this building in 1407. Le Passage Secret opened its doors in 1550, about three years before Lucius the First applied for our account here."

Hermione tries very hard to keep her mouth from flapping like a trout's. Finally, she manages, "Wasn't the first Lucius swimming in Galleons like the rest of you? Why would he start a line of credit?"

"Well, he'd just been rejected by Elizabeth the First. I imagine he wanted to go somewhere that would keep his bar-tab open and flowing."

"Elizabeth the First," Hermione says flatly. "The Virgin Queen."

Draco grins and gives her a sly, sidelong glance. "Much to the disappointment of my ancestor."

She stares at him for a moment and then slowly grins back. "My ancestors helped build England's first crematorium, in Surrey. Does that count for something?"

"That depends. What's a crematorium?"

When she explains, he begins laughing loudly. "To a family full of Dark Arts practitioners? It counts for everything, Granger."

"So is this what I can expect from our date: gallows humor?"

"Granger, you're on a date with Draco Malfoy. A tolerance for gallows humor is basically a prerequisite."

Their hands are still linked as he waves his wand at the building next to Nicolas Flamel's old home. The mortar joining the two buildings grinds and twists, until a narrow alleyway appears between the two.

"Are you a Secret Keeper for this place?" she asks.

He shrugs again and pulls them toward the alley. "In a fashion. Le Passage Secret is subject to a somewhat broader version of the Fidelius Charm. One that works on public spaces."

Once inside the newly-formed passageway, Hermione can only see a long, blank wall of ancient rocks. Draco taps his wand upon a few of the worn stones in a pattern much like the one on the back wall of the Leaky Cauldron. The stones respond to his magic, rearranging themselves to reveal a gold, intricately-fashioned gate, over which the words "Mot de passe, s'il vous plaȋt" glitter in mid-air.

"La moelle osseuse et oursin," Draco says smoothly, and the gate creaks open.

"The password is 'bone marrow and sea urchin?'"

Draco chuckles quietly as they step across the threshold of the restaurant. "It changes every year. But like I said: humor is a must."

Hermione is still grinning when they approach the hostess – one of those striking witches of an indeterminate age, all sleek brown hair and black robes and infinite self-assurance.

"Mr. Malfoy and Ms. Granger?" she asks in a heavy accent. After they confirm, she gives them a clipped nod. "Bastien said to expect you at an early hour. Please, follow me."

Once the witch has turned her back to lead them through the restaurant, Hermione hazards a quick whisper to Draco.

"She said 'early hour' like we have a disease."

Draco doesn't look at her, but she can see the corner of his mouth lift in the flickering candlelight. "For the French, we might as well. To dine before 8 p.m. is terribly uncouth, you know."

Hermione shakes her head and then allows herself to take in the view.

Although the restaurant is built into the ground floor of an existing building, Le Passage Secret is unlike any place she's ever seen. The closest room she could compare it to is the Great Hall at Hogwarts, but only because they both have enchanted ceilings. Above the diners of Le Passage Secret, a magical sunset puts Diagon Alley to shame: pale peach, rose, and lavender hues fade slowly into the glittering starlight of the night sky. The ceiling, however, is where Le Passage Secret's similarity to Hogwarts ends.

Here, the space feels small and intimate, with every table nestled into its own alcove inside what appears to be an ongoing grotto. The diners within each alcove have complete privacy, aside from their exposure to the center aisle. Running down the middle of that aisle, where Hermione and Draco now walk, a charmed stream burbles prettily. It flows throughout the restaurant yet somehow doesn't wet their shoes. Brightly-coloured fish of a species Hermione can't identify weave patterns in the stream, and fat little candles float upon its surface.

"Merlin," she breathes, still gawking at their surroundings.

"Another Slytherin, actually." Draco nudges her in the side playfully. "Feel like forgiving my House for our differences yet?"

"Is that what this is?" she teases. "You just brought me here in the spirit of reconciliation?"

"Well, you did mention it in your first note."

Hermione flushes, pleased beyond measure that he remembers those words. Feeling embarrassed and happy and lot of other, wonderful things, she admires the beauty all around them.

"If this is what comes from making pastries for people," she says, "then bring on the palmiers."

Overhearing this part of their conversation, the hostess spins around on one high heel and frowns down at Hermione. "Does Mademoiselle desire palmiers for dessert? I believe Chef has planned a cheese course and something chocolate to end the meal. But if Mademoiselle wishes, I can inform the kitchen of any special requests."

Hermione blushes again and waves the hand that isn't holding Draco's at the hostess. "No, that won't be necessary. Cheese and chocolate sound lovely, thank you."

Even with the issue clarified, the hostess scowls as she sweeps her arm toward an empty alcove. "Mr. Malfoy and Ms. Granger – your table, if you please."

Hermione and Draco both duck their heads as though they've been scolded, and they quickly take their chairs without speaking. Once the hostess has poured them each a glass of sparkling water and departed, they let out audible sighs of relief.

"She's…intense," Hermione says.

Draco nods. "She's hosted every time I've eaten here, ever since I was a little boy. And I don't even know her name – I'm too scared to ask. I swear, this is the least intimidating I've seen her. She must really like you."

Hermione smiles archly. "I'm a likeable gal."

"Sometimes. But let's see how you fare after a full meal here."

"Oh? Bring dates here often, do you?"

"If by dates, you mean Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy, then yes. I've spent many, many dates here, discussing delightful topics like International Wizarding politics over escargot."

"I can't tell you how much I would pay to watch Lucius Malfoy eat snails."

Draco raises his cup of sparkling water. "Save your Galleons for an eel dish. My father's so slippery, it's like viewing a cannibal in the wild. Or so I've been told."

Laughing quietly, they toast each other across the silken tablecloth. Soon, Hermione has waved away the wine list – a gesture that earns her another soft flicker of grey eyes – and their meal begins in earnest.

Course after incredible course magically fills their plates. Even with all her culinary practice, Hermione has never eaten food like this: caviar-encrusted sweetbreads; root vegetables, swimming in delicate broths; sweet monkfish in braised oxtail sauce; and the thinnest, most tender cuts of meat imaginable.

Although they're dining in what must be one of the finest restaurants in the Wizarding world – if not the whole world itself – both Hermione and Draco can't seem to stop their tiny moans of pleasure with each new dish.

"This lamb is a miracle," Hermione says around a mouthful. "I'm serious: I intend to write the Vatican tomorrow and nominate this lamb for sainthood."

"See if you can get them to approve my marriage to this steak, while you're at it."

The conversation stays light throughout the meal, aided by the occasional toast to their favorite dishes – a clinking of water glasses to the supernatural taste of a sauce, or the divinity of a lamb chop. But somewhere between courses six and seven, their topics shift to those of a weightier nature.

"Forever?" Draco asks as he scoops up his last bite of blood-orange sorbet, served to clear their palates before the next course.

Hermione nods vigorously. "Absolutely. I love my work at the Ministry – drafting new laws, arguing for the rights of marginalized groups. As long as there's inequality in the Wizarding world, I have something I want to accomplish. And unfortunately, I think I'll have enough work for a long, long time."

"Always the crusader, then?"

"Is that a problem?" she counters, lifting her near-empty goblet in a sort of challenge. Draco, however, just clinks his own glass against the rim of hers, while a small platter of cheese replaces their seventh course.

"If it was a problem, Granger, I never would've had the pleasure of trying key lime pie."

Smiling faintly, Hermione shakes her head. "What about you, Draco?"

"What about me?"

"What about your future? Your plans?"

For some reason, he looks startled, and he takes a sip of his sparkling water to cover his discomfort.

"I…I'm not sure if I have any plans, Granger."

"None?"

He shrugs without meeting her eyes. "None to speak of. My bloodline's been rich for centuries. I know it's boastful, but it's also true. Aside from the odd political advisor or land developer, no one in my family has worked for years. Certainly not my father, nor my grandfather before him."

"But even after the reparations…?"

"There are probably still enough Galleons in our vault for another century or two of Malfoy sloth, before one of us has to start amassing wealth again."

That cagey look remains on his face, but there's something else there, too. Something that makes Hermione press harder, despite his words.

"Does that mean that you don't want to work?" she asks. "Just because your ancestors didn't, and you're not expected to? Don't you have any passions that belong just to you, outside of being a Malfoy?"

Draco cringes slightly. "Does it even matter, Granger? No one is going to hire a Malfoy. Not after…everything."

Hermione shifts her chair closer to his so that she can take his hand back into hers. She twines their fingers together – laces them until you can only tell them apart by the difference in their skin tones. Draco frowns down at their joined hands, but his thumb begins to stroke the top of her wrist lightly.

They stay there, quiet and connected, long enough that the untouched cheese plate vanishes and a decadent tower of chocolate takes its place. Hermione and Draco ignore the teetering dessert; he keeps his eyes trained on their hands, and she keeps her eyes trained on him.

"What are you passionate about, Draco?" she near-whispers. "What do you love most?"

Those grey eyes flicker back up to hers, and her heart leaps. He takes a long time in answering, so long she's almost certain her heart will explode and Draco will be wrongly imprisoned for her murder, since none of her friends technically know she's there.

Finally, mercifully, he says, "Potions."

"Really?"

"Really. I love everything about them. The precision and accuracy required for a perfect batch. Their applications. Where their materials come from, and how I could source the rare ones. I…I think about that a lot: what a life working with potions might be like."

Hermione releases a slow breath between pursed lips. And then she begins to smile like a bloody fool.

"Well, I have good – no, spectacular – news for you."

Despite the delicious tension still sparking between them, Draco smirks. "What is it, Granger? The Ministry has decided they need test subjects for a new strain of Dragon Pox?"

"Better. The Ministry is opening up a Potions-Master training programme this fall. A lot of the old Masters were…erm, lost in the War, and we desperately need new ones. All you'd need to do is get O's on the right N.E.W.T. exams and—"

His loud sigh interrupts her. "Granger, I didn't take any N.E.W.T.'s. I was too busy being a minion of evil during our seventh year, remember?"

Hermione dismisses his sarcasm with a wave. "And I was too busy fighting evil. But the test administrators are making some broad exceptions for our class, obviously. We're owed at least that much, after we fought another generation's battles for them. I went back to Hogwarts for a semester after the War, to study and take my N.E.W.T.'s at an irregularly-scheduled time. I'm sure you could sit for exams, too."

"They aren't going to make exceptions for a former Death Eater."

"Maybe not. But they can't stop you from sitting for the regularly-scheduled N.E.W.T.'s, can they?"

Draco snorts, but some of the sting has gone out of his expression.

"The next sitting for exams would be in late June, Granger. That's far too little time for me to apply, and study, and…." He trails off when he sees the fanatical gleam in her eyes. "What exactly are you thinking, Granger? You look like you're going to boil and serve me as our tenth course."

Hermione laughs. "Well, if you must know, I'm mentally colour-coding your study guides right now."

"My…what?"

"Study guides. I'll draw up the ones you'll need for your supporting N.E.W.T. subjects. Arithmancy, no doubt, and Transfiguration. Possibly Charms and Ancient Runes. Since Potions will be your primary focus, we'll have to do extra prep work on that one. But I've no doubt you'll be just fine in that subject."

"And why is that?"

"Because," she says, as she squeezes his hand, "you scored top marks in Potions at school. You still study it. I saw that book in your library, and I doubt it's the first one you've read on your own. You love the subject – that much is clear. And…."

"And?"

Hermione inhales deeply and then confesses, "And you're absolutely brilliant, Draco. As brilliant as I am. It's one of the things I love best about you. So if I can ace my N.E.W.T.'s, then I'm positive you can, too."

Another long, taut moment draws out between them. Hermione ducks her head under the weight of her gushing praise, so that her gaze falls onto their clasped hands. In contrast, Draco can't seem to tear his gaze from her. Slowly, carefully, he curves the index finger of his free hand under her chin and tips it up until she meets his eyes again.

"You would do that?" he asks her softly. "You would help me study?"

"I would, and I will. And I'll tell Kingsley that if the Ministry doesn't accept you into the training programme, then they're all idiots." When he lets out a raw laugh, she grins. "I'd start tonight, Draco, if you'd let me. But I think it might kill the romance."

"What romance?" he teases, but his fingers slip from her chin to graze her cheek. He leans closer to her and, instinctively, she leans into him. Near enough that she can feel his exhalations on her skin.

"Draco," she whispers. Just one word. In either a statement or request, she's not sure.

"Hermione," he whispers back, and she shivers from the heat of those four syllables upon her lips. "Hermione, I think I'm going to kiss—"

"'Mione?" a voice interrupts them. "And…Malfoy?"

With their lips only one second, one heartbeat apart, both Hermione and Draco turn toward the intruder. There, standing a mere step from their alcove and looking for all the world like he might hex them, is Ron Weasley.

Chapter Text

"Ron?" Hermione gasps. Neither she nor Draco move, both of them still leaning close enough to kiss. "Why...why are you here?"

"Fleur and Bill are taking some of us to dinner." Ron points an accusatory finger at them like he's caught them doing something shameful. "Why are you here?"

"What does it look like, Weasley?" Draco drawls, without removing his fingers from Hermione's cheek.

"It looks like you were trying to snog my girlfriend, Malfoy."

"Your girlfriend?" Hermione sputters. "Honestly, Ron, you can't be serious!"

Ron ignores her, not bothering to argue about their relationship status as he continues to glare at Draco. "You owe me an answer, Malfoy. What the hell are you doing here?"

"I think you can draw your own conclusions," Draco says with a derisive laugh. But he still pulls his hand away from her as though he was doing something wrong.

Ron flushes pink between his freckles, now too furious to care that they aren't touching anymore. "My 'own conclusions?'" he snaps. "My own fucking conclusions? Well, Malfoy, I conclude that Hermione would have to be some Death Eater slag to want to kiss the likes of you, and that's not bloody likely, is it?"

Draco rises from his chair so hard it falls backward, and he and Ron stalk toward each other.

"What did you just call her?" Draco hisses.

"I didn't call her shit. I called you something."

"You think I'm deaf? I just heard you insult her."

"Isn't that usually your favorite activity, Ferret?"

"You're doing a fine job on your own tonight, Weasel."

Ron balks and then makes a sort of snarling sound. "Get the hell away from Hermione, Malfoy."

"Or what?"

Both of their hands reach for their wands, just as the hostess reappears with a soft "pop" of Apparition. Closely behind her follow Bill, Arthur, a very pregnant Fleur, and Molly. The latter Weasley scowls at her son, almost as hard as the hostess scowls at Draco.

"Ronald Bilius Weasley, we get invited to one fancy restaurant, and you can't manage to keep your wand in your pocket for more than two minutes?" Molly's teeth grind together so hard, the sound echoes off the enchanted ceiling. Then Molly does an about-face to give Hermione a sweet smile. "Hello, Hermione dear. Don't you look lovely this evening!"

"Her?" Ron shrieks, clearly outraged. "You're complimenting her, when she's daft enough to be here with this bloody Death—?"

Draco draws his wand and points it directly at Ron's throat. "Don't you dare insult her again, Weasel, or I'll make sure the freckles on your face connect directly to the ones on your shoulders."

Whatever line the hostess has set for decorum, they've officially crossed it. Before either man can utter another syllable, the hostess pulls out her own wand – a thin, ebony affair that fits her to a T – and aims it at them.

"Out," she commands. "Both of you."

"My family—" Ron begins, but the hostess shuts him up with a flick of her wand.

"You take this problem outside and resolve it. You may return to your family when you've calmed down enough to respect the sanctity of Le Passage Secret." Her sharp eyes whip toward Draco, who's already lowered his own wand. "Your account has been billed, Mr. Malfoy. I assume you and Ms. Granger are prepared to leave as well."

That last sentence is a statement, not a question. Draco nods curtly and holds out his hand for Hermione to take. She's so flustered, she doesn't think twice – she just slips her hand into his, gives the Weasleys an apologetic grimace, and follows his broad strides down the stream-filled center aisle.

Outside, in the cool night air, she's able to breathe again. To clear her head and think. Which is fortunate, since Ron has followed them out and no one but Hermione appears to be capable of rational thought right now.

As if to demonstrate this fact, Ron and Draco begin circling each other in the alleyway like wild animals. Although Ron doesn't look at her, he addresses Hermione first.

"What the hell are you doing here, Hermione? Did he Imperius you, or something?"

"No, Ron," she grits out. Anger itches beneath her skin and threatens to spoil her focus. "I don't need a spell cast on me to have a date, you know."

Ron scoffs. "A date? Are you actually trying to tell me that you're on a date with Draco sodding Malfoy?"

"Did you seriously just ask her that, Weasel?" Draco taunts. "Are you so bloody thick, you need to repeat a variation of that question for a third time?"

"Draco," Hermione says in warning. "Please."

That finally captures Ron's attention, and his gaze slides briefly over to Hermione. "Draco? Since when do you call him Draco?"

Hermione groans and throws her hands into the air. "Since I agreed to go on a date with him, Ronald."

Draco raises a suggestive eyebrow. "Oh, even before that, I think."

The implication earns him a sharp poke in the shoulder from Hermione, who has edged close enough to the wizards that she can Stupefy them both if necessary.

"Don't antagonize him, Draco."

"Oh, please antagonize me, Draco," Ron jeers, slipping his wand from his pocket. "I'm daring you."

Draco reaches for his own wand again, pausing only when Hermione places a hand on his arm. Her touch is gentle, but she delivers her next words in a tone that could freeze blood.

"Draco. Ron. If you don't stop prowling around each other, I swear to Merlin I will hex you both. I mean it."

Hermione and Ron have been friends for years; she and Draco, only a few months. And yet it's Draco – not Ron – who stops moving first. The muscles in his jaw twitch nonstop and his glare remains murderous. But he complies with Hermione's wishes and drops his hands to his sides. Granted, those hands happen to be balled into tense fists that could connect with Ron's teeth at any moment, but…it's an effort. Far more than the one Ron makes as he continues to pace in front of Draco with his wand raised.

"Ron."

She doesn't change her icy tone. But something must finally break through Ron's angry haze, because he snaps to attention like he's been slapped. He halts mid-pace and slowly looks at her again. He blinks at her, once, twice, like he's seeing her for the first time. There's a small shift behind his stare, a softening so imperceptible she would miss it, if she didn't know Ron's face so well.

"You really do look pretty tonight, Hermione," he says quietly.

She opens her mouth to thank him, but a soft rumbling from the back of Draco's throat beats her to the punch.

Draco doesn't say anything else. He makes no more taunts or interruptions and gives no further reason for an attack, other than his presence in this alley and that low rumbling.

But the rumble itself? Hermione and Ron both know what it means: Draco Malfoy actually growled when another wizard complimented her. And that growl had a clear intent behind it.

Ron glances between Draco and Hermione rapidly – a tennis-match motion of the head that the Weasleys often make, when they're figuring something out.

Hermione can guess what Ron sees as he observes them: the protective way Draco angles his body toward hers; the equally possessive way her hand remains on his arm; the tenderness with which she keeps looking up at Draco, as if she's worried about his reaction to this confrontation. In that moment, standing in the darkened alleyway, Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy don't look like childhood enemies, seconds away from a slap or a hex. They look like lovers, united against her jealous ex. And while Ron Weasley might be a loyal friend with a big heart, he isn't the type of man to let that kind of thing go.

Ron's face distorts until it's almost ugly. He's a good-looking guy, but he doesn't wear sneers well. There's something about his long nose, maybe, or the thinness of his upper lip, that makes the expression too sour and brittle all at once.

"Good job, Malfoy," Ron says, his voice so cold Hermione feels a chill run down her bare arms. "Perfect bloody job, in fact."

"What are you on about, Weasel?"

"Don't you know?" Ron's smile grows even harsher - it's almost a baring of teeth now. "I'm congratulating you for pulling a solid con on a smart witch."

"Ron, don't," Hermione pleads, at the same time that Draco says, "Seriously, what the hell are you talking about, Weasley?"

Ron lets loose a bleak laugh. "I'm talking about you, Malfoy – the perpetual liar and schemer. What did you do, make her feel so sorry for you that she agreed to go on a date with you tonight? Did you tell her how hard life is now for all you poor, pathetic Death Eaters?"

"Ronald Weasley, don't you dare," Hermione says, but that was just Ron's warm up. Ignoring her warning, he delivers his fatal blow hard, fast, and mercilessly.

"I bet that's exactly what you did, you ferret," Ron hisses at Draco, who's gone eerily motionless. "Hermione's been doing this…this weird tour thing lately, hasn't she? So she probably came by that snake pit you call home with some dessert. And you started preying on her like a bloody vampire. But you know the worst part? She fucking fell for it, that's how evil you are. You're poison, Malfoy. Fucking poison. Everything you touch dies. Look at Dumbledore and your precious Death Eaters. Shit, even Crabbe. You're a toxic pit of despair, Malfoy, and you're just trying to drag Hermione down into it so you don't have to drown alone."

As Ron spits out those last vile words, the two wizards are a study in contrasts. Ron's face has shifted from pink to scarlet, so that he looks like a slash of blood-red against the grey stones of the passageway. Across from him, Draco has become living marble – a pale statue from head to toe, cold and unmoving in the darkness. Ron, shuddering with spent anger; Draco, as still as a block of ice.

Hermione, however, is the picture of bitter disappointment. Not with Draco, who has yet to defend himself, but with one of her oldest friends in the world. The boy she loved first. The boy who just broke her heart for the second time in a year.

Ron's speech is a dagger inside her chest, and not because she agrees with him that Draco used her – not at all. If anything, she started out using Draco, to prove to herself that she was strong enough to help someone truly broken. To reassure herself that someone else was even more broken than she felt. But somewhere along the way, all that changed. Her heart changed. So Ron's words don't hurt because of what they say about Draco, or even about her. They hurt because of what they say about Ron.

Between each of Ron's venomous phrases, Hermione hears the hidden message: Ron still thinks her Tour, her fears, her need to work through the WarWarWar in her brain, are all unnecessary. He still can't reconcile them and the War in a way that they can both live with. Plus, he apparently thinks she's weak enough to fall for any old sob story. That alone sets her heart on fire.

And if her heart aches….

She turns toward Draco with tears in her eyes. How will she pull him back from the precipice that Ron just pushed him toward? How will she rebuild the fragile scaffolding that Ron just destroyed?

Draco looks so breakable right now, she has no idea how she should even approach him. But he stuns her when he shakes his head, straightens his spine, and fixes her with a bland stare. He tucks one hand into a tailored pocket and turns toward her with that familiar, aristocratic ease. If she didn't know him better – if she didn't see the small crease between his brows or the tight line of strain around his mouth – she would think he didn't have a care in the world.

When he gets close enough, Draco slips his free hand into her hair and tugs her toward him. The motion is gentle, but a lock of her hair falls from its bun anyway. Draco ponders that tendril for a moment – twists it carefully around one long finger. He lets go of the curl slowly, almost regretfully, and leans forward to press a firm, close-lipped kiss to her forehead.

"Go home with the Weasleys," he whispers against her skin.

"W-what?"

"Please," he whispers. Then he raises his voice so that Ron can hear him, too. "I'm sure the Weasleys won't mind if you share their Portkey home. They won't have hidden Aurors watching their journey, you know. Maybe you could even join them for the dessert we missed. While you wait."

"No," Hermione protests. "After all that bullshit you just heard, there's no way I'm going to let you—"

"I've asked you nicely," Draco sneers, his calm demeanor abruptly disdainful. "Don't make me repeat myself."

"What? What do you—?"

"I need to go home and think, Granger. When I'm ready to talk, I'll owl you."

Without further explanation or even a goodbye, Draco turns and walks out of the alley, leaving her alone with Ron. Who is now chuckling in triumph.

"Still a bloody coward," Ron shouts at Draco's retreating form. He grins as he turns back to her. "Once a ferret, always a ferret. Right, 'Mione?"

And suddenly, Hermione isn't the picture of tearful disappointment. She is the picture of unmitigated rage.

In that narrow corridor, with only darkness between her and Ron, Hermione releases her rage like a fire-breathing dragon. She's screaming at Ron before she fully considers her words. Before she can douse their heat with reason. Unchecked, those words ignite the air itself, furious and glowing and fused together with burning indignation.

She's only vaguely aware of the things she says, of the vitriol she spews at him. But she does keep a precious few things inside. For instance, she only just refrains from laying bare his failings as a friend, a lover, a person. Those thoughts are too mean, too painful for even this moment. So she locks them in her heart, inside a little cupboard marked, Things I Don't Say but Definitely Feel.

Unlike Ron, Hermione doesn't pant upon finishing. She doesn't turn puce or go pale. Instead, she rocks back on her pretty black stilettos and assesses Ron coolly.

"H-Hermione," he stutters. "I…I'm so sorry. I love you, you know. Not…not like that, anymore. But you're still one of my best friends, and I shouldn't have—"

"No. You shouldn't have."

With his stricken expression burning in her brain, Hermione Disapparates to the Gare du Nord station and prays that the last train back to London hasn't departed yet. Because there's no way in hell she's Portkeying anywhere with Ron Weasley tonight.

Or maybe ever again.

Chapter Text

The next Tuesday evening, Hermione brings Ron a pie.

Pleiades hasn't visited her flat yet, and she hasn't received any Floo-calls. But she's only a little anxious. She knows Draco needs time, and she wants to give him that. After what happened Sunday night – after what he heard – he deserves that much from her, at least.

So Hermione spends all Monday night trying not to think about Draco while she makes the kind of food only Ronald Weasley would like. It's a pie filled with an amalgam of savory things, including ground beef, pork belly, pepperoni, Italian sausage, and ham. The dish contains enough nitrates to clog the arteries of an Olympic runner, and Hermione instinctively knows Ron will love it.

She also knows it should be the other way around: Ron should come to her door, bearing a tin of biscuits and his own contrition. But he won't, for a number of reasons, insecurity being the primary one. It seems to Hermione that Ron has battled insecurity every minute of every day since they were eleven. Maybe even since his birth.

It also seems that Ron is just as broken as she and Draco. Far more than he ever let on when they were dating. In fact, Ron's reticence about the War apparently hides a wealth of new, emotional problems that Hermione is just now starting to understand.

Certain things about Ron, however, haven't changed: he's still loyal and tactless; loving and short-sighted; kind and foolish. He is not the man she wants to be with, and he certainly bollocksed things up quite nicely the other night. But despite everything, she loves Ron too much for Sunday to be the end of their friendship. So, just like she's done many times in their past, she'll drag him kicking and screaming to this resolution, as well.

When he opens the door to his flat Tuesday night, Ron wears deep smudges of regret beneath his eyes, almost dark enough to match the blackberry stain on his t-shirt. It's then that Hermione knows this conversation will be their hardest yet. Harder than the one they had in the Forest of Dean. Harder, even, than last May.

"'Mione," he croaks. His voice sounds rough with guilt and a lack of sleep. "What are you—?"

"Do you lot actually own an oven?" she asks, breezing past him into the flat.

She wants very much to keep things neutral and light, until they're ready for the hard stuff. But she can't help skidding to a stop inside the entrance of Ron's flat.

The place is, to put it kindly, a disaster. Cabinets lay open and dishes stack so high throughout the kitchen, she can't see the countertops. Most of the cheap, plastic chairs that dot the flat are either broken or askew. Takeaway containers and empty beer bottles litter every available surface, except for one corner of the couch where a tall pile of laundry – dirty? clean? both? – leans like a drunken houseguest who overstayed its welcome.

"What the hell happened in here?" she asks.

Ron comes up beside her and shrugs. "I was really shitty to one of my best friends, and I took it out on my flat afterward."

"You did all of this in forty-eight hours?"

"Technically, it's only been about forty-five hours since I got home from Paris."

Hermione shudders. "Imagine what you could have done with the final three. I think there are still a few clean spots left on the ceiling – want to have a go at them?"

He shakes his head self-consciously and slips his hands into the pockets of his sweatpants. Without asking permission to do so, Hermione raises her wand and begins to tidy up the debris – Vanishing the rubbish and beer bottles, levitating the laundry down the hallway toward Ron's bedroom. After about ten minutes of wand work, there's a clear path to the kitchen and some space for them on the sofa.

"You're so good at stuff like that," Ron says softly from his place at her elbow.

She has to force herself not to snort. Draco rarely assumes that she'll do all the household charms by herself. Unlike Ron, who hasn't changed this attitude once in nine years. But Draco doesn't…Draco hasn't….

Draco hasn't owled her yet.

Hermione sighs irritably.

"You are quite capable of cleaning up after yourself, Ron." To demonstrate, she hands him the pie tin. "Here. Take this to the kitchen, cast a warming charm on it, and cut us each a slice."

He takes the tin, frowning down at the towel that covers it. "You sure you wouldn't feel more comfortable, if you were the one to—?"

"Nope," she says, with a pleasant smile. "I wouldn't. But I will make myself comfortable on your couch while you serve us the dinner I prepared. Deal?"

Ron nods and quickly moves to the kitchen. That's one of the beautiful things about him: once he starts digging himself into a metaphoric hole, he usually stops after being told to.

Hermione slips off her trainers and hoodie and sets them upon one of the few, intact plastic chairs. By the time Ron returns with two mismatched plates of pie, she's found a spot on the couch that needs only a little Scourgify. He hands her a plate and plastic fork and then takes his place on the sofa.

He doesn't wait for her before tucking into his own pie with giant, shovel-sized bites. Hermione has barely begun, when Ron finishes his slice and goes back for more.

"How many types of meat are in this thing?" he asks as he reemerges from the kitchen, carrying a second slice that dwarfs his first.

"Five. Six, if you count the chicken stock I used to steam the vegetables."

Ron flops unceremoniously onto the couch and sniffs his plate. "There are vegetables in here?"

"Some. But try not to hold that fact against the pie itself."

"I won't," he says around a mouthful. "What do you call this thing, anyway?"

"Well, after some careful deliberation, I decided to call it Ron's-a-Jerk-and-Needs-a-Swift-Kick-in-the-Arse Surprise."

Ron swallows his bite and winces. "Are we really going to do this tonight, then?"

"That depends."

"On what?"

"On whether you'd like to remain friends."

"Oh," he says.

"Yes. Oh."

A long pause, and then: "I do, you know. Want to stay friends."

"Me, too," she sighs. "But you know what you have to do to make that happen, right?"

Ron groans and tilts his head back against the sofa. "I know. I have to apologize for insulting you about…him."

"Yes, you do. I'd also say you need to apologize to Draco, too, but—"

"But you know that will happen on the twenty-first of Never?"

"Pretty much." Hermione pats his arm sympathetically. "I know all of this hard for you to accept, Ron, and I do understand. Of course, I don't plan to do anything to make it easier on you. But I still understand."

He blinks at her. "Are you really, honest-to-Merlin dating that wanker?"

"Ron," she growls in warning.

"Sorry. Are you really dating Malfoy?"

"Sort of. Maybe. I mean, we've been hanging out a lot for the past few months. But Sunday was our first official date."

Ron grins. "And I ruined it."

"You know, Ronald, if we were playing the Hot-or-Cold game right now, you would be cold. As in, frigid."

"The same temperature as Malfoy's blood, then?"

Hermione makes another warning sound in the back of her throat.

"Okay, okay!" Ron holds up his palms in surrender. "I'm just having a hard time processing how you could follow me up with him."

"That's a fair question, I suppose. The two of you really are diametric opposites."

"Die-amma what?"

She smiles, despite herself. "You and Harry really don't read, do you? Diametric. Complete and total opposites. In other words, you and Draco couldn't be any more different if you tried."

"So what's the appeal, then? Please tell me it's not just a…physical thing."

"You sound just like Ginny, you know."

Ron starts to gag, and Hermione laughs. From genuine amusement, sure, but also from relief so strong, her two-day-old headache begins to fade.

"No," she says, after she's collected herself. "It's not just physical for me. I mean, I am attracted to him in that way, very much—"

He pretends to vomit on the rug and she snickers.

"Honestly, Ron, upchuck could only do this floor a favor. And no, I don't like Draco just because of his looks. I like his brain, and his sense of humor, and his heart—"

"That shriveled-up prune in his chest? That thing that beats only for the Dark Arts and Pansy Parkinson?"

Hermione sighs again. "He's not the baddie from some fairy story, Ron."

"Could've fooled me, with all the black suits and hair gel."

"Those bad things you keep pointing out about him? Those are past tense. Well…except for the suits, I guess."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning, Draco knows he was wrong, and he's actually apologized for it. More than once, and in more than one way."

"Oh, la-ti-da."

"You act like that's not a big deal, Ron, but it is. For someone like him, brought up the way he was, to admit that it was all shite? To admit he screwed up, and then try to change himself? I'm not saying it's better than if you or I did it, but it's at least as important. Growing up, you and I had decent parents with a decent grasp on reality. The Malfoys arrived very late to that game, and I'm impressed they're trying to play it at all."

"What are you telling me?" Ron asks scornfully. "That the Malfoy family is the perfect little picture of goodness and light, now?"

"Of course not. Narcissa is still as cunning as ever, Lucius drawls everything he says, and Draco goes back and forth between arrogance and self-loathing. But they're trying. Merlin, are they trying. And I sort of love them for it. Love him for it."

Ron goes so still, he actually reminds her of Draco. Just for a moment. Just before his eyebrows draw into such a deep scowl, he looks like he has an angry red gash above his eyes.

"Love? You love him?"

"I didn't say that. But I do want to date him. And sometimes, love follows suit. So…it's possible. Maybe. Someday."

That isn't exactly the truth, and Hermione knows it. She's far closer to that word than she'll admit aloud. But Ron still emits a low, despairing noise, and she knows he's reached his limit.

"Enough," she says quietly. "I've said enough for you to know that I'm serious, and that you'll have to at least tolerate this…thing I have going with Draco. If you and I are to stay friends. Yeah?"

Ron ponders her quasi-ultimatum long enough to make her heart skip. But finally, he says, "Yeah. Yeah, Hermione. I can live with that. And I am sorry, you know. About the other night."

She's about to sigh in relief when he suddenly narrows his eyes and points a finger at her.

"But don't think for one minute that I'm going to be 'cool' with it, 'Mione. Tolerant, sure. Cool, no. And under no circumstances – and I mean no circumstances – will you snog him in front of me. Deal?"

Hermione wants to laugh. Wants to hug him in gratitude, even though she knows that he's giving her the bare minimum of what she would give to him, if their situations were reversed. Instead, she pretends to consider his offer and then grabs his pointed finger to shake it in agreement.

"Deal."

He nods like that's the end of it. But then he scrutinizes her face as though he'll find the meaning of life written there.

"What?" she asks testily.

"I'm just wondering if you were this pretty when we dated, or if—"

"Or if what, Ron?" she snaps, confused and wounded in a way she doesn't understand. "You think Draco cast some kind of beauty charm on me, or something?"

Ron makes a pained frown. "Of course I don't. I was just wondering if that tosser is the one who brings out this…this glow in you."

"I'm glowing?"

"Yeah. In a sense. I've never seen you prettier than how you looked in Paris, except for tonight. You're even prettier tonight. And I'm wondering how he factors into that."

Hermione considers what Ron's said. Considers what Draco means to her, why they might just fit together, and how she should put it so that Ron Weasley doesn't lose his mind.

"Draco just…gets it, Ron. He gets what I'm trying to do with the PTSD Pastry Tour. He gets what makes me frustrated, or happy. Gets what makes me laugh. Draco just gets me."

At this revelation, Ron falls silent. He doesn't scream or protest or argue about how it couldn't be Draco Malfoy who might best understand the woman at his side. And in Ron's silence, Hermione hears a peace offering. A promise to stay her friend, no matter whom she dates.

After a while, they both settle back into the sofa: Hermione, to finish her first slice of pie; Ron, to finish his second. She enjoys the comfortable silence and the released tension in her shoulders. This is the way it should be with Ron. This is how she envisioned their friendship after they broke up last May.

Sure, the War will always be a strained, once-every-blue-moon topic between them, and Ron certainly won't be inviting Draco over for poker night with the Gryffindors. But tolerance? Tolerance is good.

Just ask Draco Malfoy.

Chapter Text

But it seems that Hermione isn't going to get the chance to ask Draco Malfoy anything.

She waited those two days after Paris without contacting him. Hell, she waited a full week after Paris, and then six days more. She gave him his space and his time. But nothing happened. No Pleaides with a smartly-worded note. No Maevy, insisting that Miss do something with her hair. No Floo-call.

Nothing.

Now, almost two weeks later, Hermione sits at home with a book. Alone, as per her usual Saturday nights before Draco. But not perfectly content, as per usual. Not content at all.

She's just reread the same sentence for the third time, still not focusing on the words, when the Weasleys' geriatric owl flaps in through her open window. Errol moves with the creaky pace of a senior citizen, landing precariously at the edge of Hermione's sofa. He sneezes – at least, she thinks it's a sneeze – and tosses her a scroll as somewhat of an afterthought. Before Hermione can properly unroll the scroll, Errol closes his eyes and falls into what she hopes is a nap and not a coma.

On the parchment, Ginny's pretty handwriting asks:

Anything yet?

Ginny must be visiting her parents, if she's using Errol instead of Harry's new barn owl. And Harry must have told Ginny what Hermione shared with him last night, via Floo-call: that Draco Malfoy is officially absentee.

Hermione sighs, gnaws at her bottom lip, and then Accio's her EverInk. All she writes back on Ginny's parchment is:

Zip. Zilch. Zero.

She could tell Ginny not to worry. Or, if Hermione wants to be really honest, she could explain to Ginny how her heart feels like it might break into two. Which is silly, really, because she and Draco haven't even kissed. He doesn't owe her anything, and she doesn't owe him. And yet….

And yet….

Hermione leaves her note as it is and rolls it back up for Errol, who miraculously revives when she waves a treat under his nose.

"Back to the Burrow, old boy. Please."

Errol takes his sweet time chewing the treat and mulling over her request, before he ascends unevenly into the air. Once he's left, Hermione does not wish that Pleiades' huge wingspan and orange eyes would take Errol's place. She does not.

Instead, Hermione returns to her book. She makes it six pages before she realizes that another two hours have passed and she can't recall a single word of what she's read. If someone issued an exam on this book right now, she'd fail miserably. Hermione groans, just about ready to throw the book across the room in frustration, when her Floo whooshes loudly.

Her head whips toward the sound. Then her heart stutters, in both disappointment and surprise.

"Ginny and Theo? And…Luna?"

The three of them stand side-by-side-by-side on her hearth, wearing identical expressions of glum empathy. Well, Ginny and Theo look sad. Luna looks about as grim as that permanently angelic face of hers will allow.

"What are you doing here?" Hermione asks them.

For as spacey as Luna acts, she's also keenly observant; it's one of the things Hermione loves most about her. Luna knows exactly whom Hermione means by "you," and so she smiles apologetically.

"Ginny Floo-called me tonight. She thought I might have some insight about your predicament. Although I must admit, I find it all rather romantic." Luna pauses, tilts her head to one side, and studies Hermione in a hauntingly owlish manner. "Do you mind horribly, that we're here?"

Hermione regards the three of them, asking herself that very question. Then she exhales through pursed lips.

"Not at all, actually. It's kind of relief to have someone – three someone's – to work through this mess with me. I talked to Ron the other week, but he's not the person I want to discuss Draco with, obviously. "

"That's an understatement," Ginny says with a light laugh.

Hermione smiles wanly, and then narrows her eyes at her guests. "Theo, are you sure you're comfortable being a part of this conversation? Draco is one of your close friends."

Theo shrugs as he exits the fireplace. "You may not realize it, Hermione, but you've become one of my close friends, too. And I've been broken-up with a few times. When Ginny owled me tonight, I decided to come over right away."

"Oh, Merlin," Hermione moans. Her hand flutters to her mouth and she slumps back into her sofa. "Is that what's happening to me? Am I…am I being broken-up with? For the second time in a year?"

Theo quickly crouches at Hermione's side. "No, I don't think you are. I really don't. But what upsets you more? That it might be a break-up, or that Draco's the one doing it?"

She opens her mouth, wanting to say Break-up, Break-up, Break-up. Instead, she sighs, confesses the truth in her head, and then confesses it aloud.

"Because it's Draco," she admits. "I know it sounds absurd, and I know we don't fit together on paper. But I'm crazy about him. And I think he's crazy about me. And…and why the hell is he doing this?"

"The three of us have already discussed it," Ginny says as she steps out of the fireplace with Luna. "And we don't have much to offer on that score. Except for these, of course."

From behind her back, Ginny pulls out two objects. In one hand, she holds a carton of chocolate-cherry ice cream from the reopened Fortescue's. In the other, a jug of cheap, red wine from Merlin knows where.

"The ice cream was my idea," Luna chimes. "Like in all those Muggle romance films we watched? They eat ice cream when they're sad about love, right? Muggles do?"

Hermione just ponders the choices before her. Then she taps each item with her index fingers. "Both?"

"Atta girl," Ginny says approvingly.

In a few minutes, the four of them have settled into Hermione's living room, wineglasses on her coffee table and heaping bowls of ice cream in their hands. While they eat, Hermione fills them in on what happened in Paris. Ginny, of course, has already heard the other side of the story: the one where Ron attempted to defend Hermione's honor, while Draco twirled his imaginary mustache like a villain in an old horror movie.

Hermione provides a less biased version, as well as a summary of her recent talk with Ron. Afterward, Ginny sighs and drops her empty bowl onto the table.

"My brother," she says, picking up a wineglass, "can be a real twat."

Theo practically chokes on his ice cream. "Damn, Red. You're a bit cold-blooded, aren't you?"

Ginny grins. "Are you calling me a lizard, Nott?"

"More like a snake. As in, 'If it hisses and slithers, it might be a—'"

"Slytherin?" Luna offers, and Theo barks out a surprised laugh. Ginny, however, doesn't laugh. Instead, she fixes Theo with a pointed look.

"Speaking of snakes, why do you think our favorite blond wizard is giving Hermione the silent treatment?"

Theo sets down his bowl, and his eyes flick back and forth among the three witches staring at him.

"Maybe he's just having a really dramatic, Malfoy-sized fit?" he suggests.

Ginny chuckles darkly. "After six full years at Hogwarts together, Hermione's probably more than accustomed to those. So you think that's it? Is Malfoy just throwing a fit about not getting his way in Paris?"

"Possibly," Hermione says. "But Draco doesn't really seem like that kid anymore, you know? The one who threw epic tantrums? Honestly, he hasn't seemed like that kid in years. Not since after he…he…."

"Took the Mark?" Theo finishes gently, and Hermione nods. Theo makes a small, thoughtful hum. "You know, Hermione, you might be on to something there. All that 'my father this, my father that' crap ended a long time ago. I mean, he's still dramatic—"

"And angsty," Hermione adds.

"Don't forget brooding," Ginny says. "Very brooding. And tall. And handsome. In that snakey, Death Eatery, hot-in-Quidditch-pants way I'm not supposed to find attractive…."

Ginny's gaze grows a little dreamy as she trails off. Hermione can't help a tiny laugh – the first she's had in over a week.

"Um, Gin? Could we focus here?"

Ginny blinks repeatedly and then shakes her head, loose red hair spilling over the shoulders of her Harpies jumper. "Sorry. I got…ah…distracted?"

"By Draco's Quidditch pants?" Luna asks.

"She wouldn't be the first," Theo says, and Hermione's three guests dissolve into laughter. Theo winks at Hermione, and amusement bubbles up inside her like champagne. It feels so good – so much better than her own brooding – that she laughs, too.

She hadn't realized it until now, but she needed tonight. Very badly. Despite Ron, and herself, and freaking Draco, tonight's odd little conference (among an even odder group of friends) has actually made her heart feel about two stone lighter.

But all the laughter stops short when Luna abruptly frowns. Hard.

"Luna?" Hermione asks. "What's wrong?"

The blonde witch keeps frowning as she does that owl-tilt thing with her head again. "Oh, I've just had the most interesting thought."

Hermione, Ginny, and Theo wait for an explanation, but none comes. Luna just continues to ponder the mysteries of the universe in her strange, silent way. Finally, Ginny sighs in exasperation.

"Luna? Your thought?"

Luna laughs breezily. "Oh, sorry! I had the thought, and then I started thinking about wrackspurts. Then I wondered how wrackspurts might affect panic attacks. Could they make them worse, possibly? It's an intriguing idea that I'd like to test out on—"

"Panic attacks?" Hermione interrupts. "You know about panic attacks?"

Luna nods. "Remember that Muggle healing book you gave me, when I was worried a Nargle-infestation might be affecting my dad's heart? Most helpful, that book. Who knew that all the salted cod my dad ate was raising his…blood prefer, was it?"

"Blood pressure," Hermione supplies, even though she's utterly confused.

"That's the phrase, thanks! Anyway, I read about panic attacks in a paragraph of that book. It addressed how a Muggle's mental state can physically paralyze them, even in the absence of other medical symptoms. And that had me wondering: does Draco Malfoy need a wrackspurt repellant? Do you think he would let me spray him with a few test-batches? He'd make a very interesting study."

Hermione lets out a low whistle in understanding. "You think Draco is panicking, don't you, Luna? About what Ron said."

"And maybe even about you," Theo muses. "I've never known the bloke to 'catch feelings,' if you get my drift. It certainly wouldn't be his style to show them, if he did. I mean, he's so pureblood, he probably still thinks revealing fear or love is tantamount to having food stains on his robes. But from all the changes I've seen in him, it's obvious that Draco feels something for you. Something big. In fact, I think he might actually—"

"Love her," Ginny breathes. She sees Hermione's shock and shrugs. "Or be close enough to it that he freaked the hell out and hid."

"Is that something he would do?" Luna asks. "Hide from love?"

"Yes." Theo and Hermione answer simultaneously, and then share cheerless smiles.

After that, the four of them fall silent. Hermione uses the quiet to mull over Theo and Ginny's theory. Is it possible that Draco isn't just upset about the things Ron said in Paris? Is it possible that he feels as deeply for her as she feels about him…and that it terrifies him?

If so, she can't blame him. The idea of being with Draco – kissing him, dating him, maybe even loving him – absolutely terrifies her, almost as much as it thrills her. But she's Hermione Granger, and she's never run from a challenge. Draco Malfoy, on the other hand….

Hermione takes a long look at the wineglass sitting closest to her on the coffee table. For some reason, she hasn't taken a single sip tonight, and she doubts she will. Something about it would feel like betrayal – like breaking an implicit promise to the man she…likes. Maybe more than likes.

Hermione sighs loudly. "What next, then?"

Ginny palms her glass and shrugs again. "Give him another week. Just a few more days to work things through that thick, wealthy skull of his."

"And after that?"

"After that?" Ginny exchanges a look with Theo and Luna and then grins wickedly. "After that, you have our permission to transfigure him back into a ferret."

***

So that's exactly what Hermione does (minus the ferret part). Instead of thinking about Draco – mooning over him, if she's honest about how she behaved during the two weeks prior to this one – she pours herself into her work.

Monday and Tuesday find Hermione buried to her elbows in statute books at the Ministry. Wednesday finds her drafting proposals so quickly and prolifically, her officemates would see smoke rising from her quill if they looked hard enough. On Thursday, she spends the entire day gathering signatures from her colleagues, peers, and former War buddies – so many, no legal tribunal in the world could ignore her proposal. At her request, Hagrid arrives at the Ministry on Friday evening after teaching his classes at Hogwarts. Hermione and the half-giant sprawl out in her office to prepare his testimony, late into that night and all day Saturday, too.

On the morning of Sunday, April thirtieth, a grim-faced Hermione and Hagrid descend the five floors between her office and the Wizengamot chambers to attend the open-legislation hour the tribunal holds on the last day of every month. This hour was an idea put forth by Kingsley after the War, to ensure that all witches and wizards get a fair hearing whether or not they have an appointment – a concept inspired, in part, by the bureaucratic horrors Harry often had to endure in those chambers.

That evening, several hours after their hearing ends, Hermione and Hagrid join Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Headmistress McGonagall for dinner in Diagon Alley. The six of them celebrate the future implementation of the Giant Primary School Programme with many toasts – so many, Hagrid openly cries into his whisky and Hermione into her tea. The moment is so lovely, such a perfect culmination of her brief career at the Ministry, that she thinks her heart might burst from happiness.

But the following Monday morning, as Hermione listens to the tumult of congratulations and complaints at work, her heart begins to ache again. For three reasons, mostly.

First, because the implementation of this law will be an uphill battle, like so many other things involving civil liberties in the Wizarding world. Second, because she wants to cheer or cry into a glass of wine so badly she can taste it, but she refuses to go back on her unspoken promise. And third, because she wants to celebrate her victory and mourn the fact that today is May bloody first with the one person in the world she apparently can't.

Around the time she admits to reason number three, she also decides she's done enough waiting.

She arrives home Monday evening, already gearing herself up for what she plans to do. Preferably, she would face this battle in a couture dress, with great hair. But black storm clouds have started to gather outside, so practical clothing is a must. As quickly as she can, Hermione changes from her Ministry robes into jeans, a hoodie, and pretty – if practical – ballet flats. She twists her hair into a bun at the nape of her neck and jams about a thousand little pins into the mass, until it seems relatively stable. Then she strides purposefully to her fireplace.

With a scoop of Floo powder in her fist, she takes a deep breath, drops the powder, and calls out, "Malfoy Manor."

The green flames don't rise up to meet her. Instead, a weak, yellow light flickers, before extinguishing with a loud "pop." She frowns down at her shoes, where that strange light vanished.

Huh. Weird.

She tries again with a much larger amount of powder – enough that it puffs up in its own, grey cloud, before being swallowed by those bizarre flames. This time, the yellow lasts longer, and Hermione can almost make out the familiar swirl of incomprehensible Floo-images inside of it. But the images quickly disappear, right along with the yellow light.

Maybe my Floo is broken? she thinks, with a touch of panic. Maybe a spell has gone faulty?

To test the theory, Hermione drops another handful of powder and calls out for No. 12, Grimmauld Place. Green consumes her and, in seconds, she sees Harry and Ginny eating dinner together at Grimmauld's kitchen table.

Harry's eyebrows dart up in surprise. "Um…hi?"

"I'll explain later," Hermione says shakily, and she Floos home before her friends can ask any questions. Which is probably for the best, considering how fast her heart is beating.

It can't be true, she thinks. What she suspects just can't be true. She refuses to believe it.

So Hermione tries a third time, dropping more powder to her feet and calling out for the Manor. And for a third time, those sickly yellow flames gutter and die around her. It's only then that she admits to herself what has happened.

Her Floo isn't broken. It's been disconnected.

But not from her end. Only someone at Malfoy Manor could have performed the disconnection spell – incanted the right words, so that Hermione could no longer travel from her home to theirs.

And just as sure as Hermione knows that their connection has been severed, she also knows that Draco did this. Not his mother or father or even Maevy. Draco.

He severed the connection between himself and Hermione without so much as a goodbye.

Hurt jabs her gut so hard, she can't breathe. But soon, a completely different emotion replaces it.

Anger. Swift, powerful, unstoppable anger.

"So that's how you want to play it?" she whisper-snarls at her fireplace. "Then let's see how you handle this move."

And she Disapparates on the spot.

Chapter Text

Hermione lands squarely on her feet outside Malfoy Manor. No stumbles or nausea this time – just a roiling anger she can't wait to unleash. She casts a quick Protego overhead to keep away the sudden downpour, but she knows that the few seconds of rain she caught have already destroyed her bun. And by Merlin, she doesn't care. She yanks out her hairpins for good measure and lets her curls go wild, their tangles and snarls an apt manifestation of her heart right now.

Muttering curses – for practice, if need be – she storms through the open Muggle gates. They've likely shorted-out in the rain again; if Draco broke their Floo connection, then there's no way he left the gates open for her.

The long drive to the Manor has become soggy in places, filled with wide puddles she can't entirely dodge. By the time Hermione reaches the entrance, her ballet flats are as ruined as her hair. She resists the urge to kick them against the doors and instead bangs her fists upon the wood, so hard her wrists hurt.

The doors swing open to reveal Maevy, who looks horrified by Hermione's appearance, both literal and metaphoric.

"Miss Granger," the elf squeaks. "You shouldn't—"

"Where is he?" Hermione demands. Maevy hesitates, her little fingers still clasped to the edge of one door.

"Maevy's sorry, Miss, but Mister Draco isn't receiving company at the moment."

"Then it's a good thing I won't be much company, isn't it?"

Before Maevy can embarrass them both by trying to bar the door, a murmured Lumos echoes throughout the dark foyer. Beneath the spell's light, Narcissa Malfoy stands regal in her navy-blue dress robes. Her wand and chin are raised, and she looks far, far more imposing than her house-elf.

"Hermione," Narcissa says, all calm composure and gracious welcome. "How lovely to see you again. Please, come in from that horrible storm."

Hermione's wrath hasn't abated in the slightest. But she accepts the invitation, stepping inside to drip all over the marble entryway. She casts a drying charm on her clothing but specifically avoids the nest of curls atop her head; Draco doesn't deserve reasonably-sized Granger-hair tonight.

Somewhat more presentable, Hermione faces Narcissa. She's set to explain or defend herself to the older witch with whatever means necessary, including hexes. But it's not resistance she sees in Narcissa's eyes. Instead, the Malfoy matriarch is staring at Hermione with unwavering, unquestionable respect.

Narcissa angles her head toward the grand staircase. "I think you'll find what you're looking for upstairs, having a massive sulk in his library."

After a stunned pause, Hermione nods. "Thank you, Narcissa. I mean it."

"Anytime," Narcissa answers breezily. Then she lowers her gaze to the elf still sputtering at the door. "Maevy, I do believe we're needed in the kitchens. Straightaway, please."

Hermione watches them leave the foyer, Narcissa still carrying the wand above her head and Maevy following with a few, nervous glances over her shoulder. Hermione waits until the unlikely duo disappears into the shadows of the Manor. Then she storms up the grand staircase.

Despite all her previous trouble with the Manor's maze-like corridors, Hermione finds her way with little effort tonight. Maybe it's the number of times she's been here by now, or the angry flashes of the storm, lighting her way. Or maybe it's the fury seething in her gut.

That last option, she thinks, is the most likely explanation for the swiftness with which she finally bursts through the unlocked entrance of the Smaller Library. The door slams off the wall behind it, and the sound reverberates throughout the room.

Draco is standing at the far side of the library, staring out a darkened window at the front gardens of the Manor. He doesn't move – doesn't make any indication that he's heard the echo of the slamming door around him. This infuriates Hermione even more, and she makes no effort to hide her irregular breathing or the stomp of her feet as she marches into the library.

"How dare you!" she all but shouts at him. "How dare you disappear for three weeks and then shut the Floo on me!"

"Didn't stop you from Apparating here, now did it?"

"In a storm, Draco. In thunder and lightning and rain. Lots of rain."

"How is that my problem?" he drawls, and he slowly turns from the window to face her.

She starts to tell him exactly what kind of problem he's about to deal with and then stops short at the sight of his right hand. There, he's holding a crystal tumbler, filled with ice and at least two fingers of bright, amber-coloured liquid.

Firewhisky?

In less than five steps, Hermione crosses the rest of the library, bypasses the green sofa, and comes close enough to yank the glass out of his hand. Before Draco can protest, she knocks back an enormous gulp of its contents. She doesn't drink all of it – she wants at least a few drops to throw in his face, afterward. But the moment the liquid hits her tongue, she feels a relief so palpable she nearly sags to the floor.

"It's not…it's just tea," she breathes. "Cold tea."

"Now it is." He snatches the glass back from her roughly. "How do you know I didn't just transfigure whisky into tea, before you got here?"

"Because food and beverages other than water are the First Principal Exception to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration – they can't be transmuted."

Draco falters, obviously surprised by her automatic recitation. But he quickly recovers, and his jaw tightens. "Fuck, Granger, do you have to be such a goddamned know-it-all?"

"I'll take that as a compliment," she snaps. "Do you have to try so damned hard to make me think you're drinking again?"

"Just how conceited are you, Granger? I wasn't trying to make you think anything. I was just drinking tea in my library, trying to stay sober like I've been doing every night for the last three months. You were the one who barged in here unannounced."

Hermione rolls her eyes. "Don't give me that 'unannounced' crap. You saw me coming from the Apparition point by the gates – you said so yourself."

"Okay then, I'll amend my word choice. You weren't unannounced, you were uninvited. Or didn't the broken Floo connection make that clear?"

Hermione feels that stab of hurt again, white-hot and cruel. She forces herself to ignore the ache as she presses forward.

"Oh, so we're back to cowardice now, are we?"

His pale eyebrows draw together. "What?"

"Cowardice," she drones, in her swottiest voice. "C-O-W-A-R-D-I-C-E. Defined as the pathological lack of courage. E.g., Draco Malfoy."

Draco snorts, and the sound is far too livid for its usual elegance. "Just like a bloody Gryffindor, to make it all about courage. I swear, the word 'bravery' probably gets your lot off, doesn't it?"

She blushes at the implication and opens her mouth to tell him off, but he goes on.

"Merlin, Granger, it doesn't take courage to keep someone like you out of my house. It just takes brains. And one bloody revocation spell."

All at once she's seeing red, and her hand twitches toward her wand. It's a testament to how she feels about him – how she still feels about him, despite this terrible display – that she doesn't draw the wand and hex him right there.

"Someone like me?" she hisses. "Someone 'like me'? Why don't you just say it outright, Draco, and save yourself the trouble of wiggling around it?"

His brow furrows again, into something that's not quite a scowl anymore. "What are you on about, Granger?"

"Just say it. Say the word. Get it out in the open like a curse." Hermione is practically shrieking now, and she doesn't care. Doesn't care if the whole Malfoy household can hear her. Doesn't care about the very real confusion on Draco's face.

"Granger, what the hell are you—?"

"You know what word I mean," she cuts him off harshly. "Quit pretending."

"I honestly have no idea—"

"Mudblood," she shouts. "Your favorite name for me. Mud-fucking-blood."

Her words slice the air between them like a scythe. She hadn't meant to say it aloud. She'd only meant to dance around it until he felt guilty enough to incriminate himself. But he hadn't said it; she had. And now that word hangs suspended between them like Avada Kedavra. Foul and green and itching to destroy someone.

Draco sucks in a sharp breath, and the blood drains from his face. "I didn't…I don't…."

He can't seem to finish his thoughts in the wake of the bomb she just detonated. Seeing the wounded look in his eyes, Hermione feels a twinge of regret. But his resolve has clearly faltered, so she plunges on.

"Why have you been avoiding me, Draco? Why did you close our Floo connection?"

His mouth opens. Shuts. He runs one hand through his hair, mussing its blond perfection. Finally, he swears and slams his glass down on a nearby bookcase. Without a backward glance at her, he stalks toward the roaring fire. Hermione knows, then – knows that he'll tell her. He won't hide it from her forever. Not if she fights the truth out of him right now, like the lion she is.

"Why?" she repeats, moving around the sofa so he can't escape her. "Tell me why."

Draco hangs his head, grips the tall fireplace mantel with both hands, and leans into it. He still doesn't answer her. The only noise that comes out of him is a series of ragged breaths.

"Tell me," she commands.

"Because I'm poison," he rasps, without turning away from the fire.

The frenetic pulse of her anger - so insistent only two seconds ago - stops abruptly. As hard and sudden as a branch shoved into the spokes of a bicycle wheel.

"You're...what?"

"Weasley was right that night, Granger: I'm poison. I'm a ruiner. I've ruined everything I've ever touched. That's one of the reasons I drank – the reason, most of the time. I didn't just fail sodding Voldemort, or Dumbledore, or my father, or Vince. I failed myself. I failed you. And I can't – I won't - do that to you again. Because I didn't know it back then but I know it now. I know it in every rotten corner of my rotten heart."

He thuds his fist onto his chest to emphasize the point and finally, finally, looks at her.

"Know what?" Hermione whispers, afraid to break the spell of honesty that has fallen over him. "What do you know, Draco?"

His eyes frantically skim over her curls, her body, her lips. "I know that you're…you're so…."

"What? I'm so what?"

Swotty? Annoying? Muggle?

Unwelcome?

"Perfect," he gasps. "You're so perfect to me."

Draco's eyes widen, as though he just stunned himself as much as he did her. He moves like he's been jolted with electricity, twitching and jerking backward. Away from the fireplace and away from her.

But Hermione still isn't going to let him escape. Not after he said that. She strides toward him, even when he edges backward until his legs strike the sofa.

"You aren't poison, Draco. You aren't a ruiner."

Her words themselves are kind, as are the thoughts behind them. But her tone is brutal. While Hermione's heart already knows where she wants this conversation to go, her head is still furious. So they need to fight until her anger dissipates, or he changes his mind, or both.

Draco senses this, she thinks; she can tell by the way his eyes start to glow and his lips curl into a sneer. It sends a thrill right up her spine, the fact that he's going to fight with her in earnest. The fact that she matters enough for him to do this, right here and right now, whatever the outcome might be.

"You don't think that," he growls, angry again instead of broken. "You can't."

"How do you know? Are you a Legilimens all of a sudden?"

"I'm a fucking Occlumens. You know that."

"Of course I do. And quit dodging the question. Why can't I think that? Why do you think I secretly hate you?"

"Because you showed up at my house with pastries," he says. "With bloody apple tarts, like you wanted to make some kind of…some kind of amends."

"And that's supposed to mean what, exactly?"

"That means we have a bloody problem. There are only two reasons you would do something like that: either you're terrified of me and had to figure out a way to cope with it, or you're insane." When she makes a derisive noise, he snarls again. "You were fucking tortured here, Granger. Then you show up almost two years later, looking to apologize. It doesn't make any bloody sense. And since we both know you're too stubborn to lose your mind, I'm left with only the first option."

His sneer deepens, but it isn't really directed at her anymore. "What kind of monster am I," he asks, "to have that effect on people? To make someone feel like they have to pacify me so that they're whole again?"

Hermione groans in frustration. "Merlin, you are so damned arrogant. I didn't bring the tarts to apologize to you, Draco, or to pacify you like some dragon under a mountain. I brought them to show you that you didn't have to apologize to me. I wanted you to know that you didn't have to make amends, because I forgave you before I even arrived here that day."

He rakes both his hands through his hair, which has gone from mussed to wild like hers. "You...before you even...? You already forgave me? So...what is this, then? You're here to fix me?"

"Fix you? You think I want to fix you, Draco? If that were even possible – for one person to fix another – I still wouldn't want to. Do you even remember what I told you about my father? It wasn't up to me or my mum to fix him. Help him, yes. But fix him? No. He had to heal himself, just like you do. The hard work is all yours, Draco, not mine. I just want to be around to watch the process. Maybe enjoy the finished product."

He snorts at that, but she barrels on.

"Ron was full of shit, by the way. You're not the poison, Draco, any more than I'm the antidote. And just so you know, you self-centered prat, my forgiveness had nothing to do with you. It had to do with me. It was my brain and my heart that forgave you, without any action on your part. And I did it a long time ago. Long before I…before I…."

"Before you what, Granger?" he snaps. "Spit it out."

"Before I fell for you, you giant arse."

The scowl melts right off his face. He's blinking – a shock-response he definitely picked up from her – and his mouth opens and closes wordlessly. It feels like forever, a wizard's full lifetime, until he finds his voice.

"F-fell?"

"Yes, fell. I've fallen for you, Draco. For you – not for your supposed 'con,' like Ron said. Not 'despite' anything, either. I haven't forgotten how you treated me in school, or the fact that you didn't stop your aunt, or the way you slunk into the shadows after the War. Your mistakes are still as much a part of you now as they were back then. But I fell for what you're trying to do with all those mistakes now – the way you're taking that lump of shitty clay and molding it into something worthwhile. And I've learned that there was plenty worthwhile to begin with, underneath all the dross. So that's what I want, Draco: you. Your past and your future. All of you."

"Me?"

"You," Hermione says firmly. "I want you, Draco. Full stop. However – and this is a big 'however,' so pay attention – the stunts you pulled at the restaurant and with the Floo mean that my heart isn't the one in question. I'm not going to stay where I'm not wanted. So you better say something right now. You better tell me what you want from me. Or you can watch me from that window as I Apparate away from here. For good."

Her words sink in, and he goes pale. So worryingly pale. His hand lifts toward her, clenches and unclenches in the air, and then drops to his side.

"You," Draco says finally. Not with doubt, as she feared, but with a sad sort of resignation. Like he's waiting for her to take it all back. "I want you, Hermione. All of you."

Her heart leaps. Jumps. Soars. Yet there's more he owes her. Not because they're competing, but because he's Draco, she's Hermione, and, given their strange and circuitous history, she needs this.

"Why?" she asks. "I need to know why."

"Because you're Hermione Granger," he says. When she scoffs, he holds up one hand.

"Hear me out, okay? You're this amazing war heroine. The Hermione Granger, versus this Death Eater piece of rubbish." Draco gestures vaguely to himself. "Before you start to argue with me, just stop. I was a Death Eater piece of rubbish. I'm not anymore, but people still see me that way – the way I was as a boy. Yet here you are, acting like I'm worth something."

It breaks her heart, to hear his voice crack over that last sentence, but she doesn't interrupt again.

"You treat me that way," he goes on, "because you really believe it. You believe I'm worth something. Even on that first day with the tarts – when you had no reason to, when you barely knew me – you treated me as though…as though I might be human after all."

"And that's the only reason you want me?" she asks. "Because I'm one of the few people who treats you like a human being?"

"That's why I started to like you as a person, not why I started to want you."

"Then why, Draco? Why do you want me?"

Her tone stays neutral and smooth. But inside, she's begging, begging, that he wants her for the right reasons. Not because she's The Hermione Granger, or because she doesn't treat him like scum, or because he was lonely and lost before she burst into his life with a cakebox full of apple tarts.

"I want you, Hermione," he says raggedly, "because I can't look away from you. Sometimes you're a mess, and sometimes you're so fucking beautiful I can't take it. But no matter which, I can never look away from you. It's…it's like you've bewitched me. And I know that's a cliché, considering what we are, but that doesn't make it any less true."

Despite the tingle in her spine, she doesn't change her impassive tone. "How I look, then? Is that it?"

Draco frowns and runs one hand through his ruined hair. "Of course not. Do you want me to tell you it's because you're smart? Well, you know you're smart. But you're also funny – darkly so, sometimes, thank god – and you're a damned talented witch. And somehow, some way, you started to look at me the way I've been looking at you since you showed back up at the Manor."

"And how is that?"

"Like you want…." Draco hesitates. Breathes slowly in and out. Meets her eyes with a hopeful, searching gaze that makes her toes curl. "Like you want to kiss me as much as I want to kiss you."

Her cool facade nearly shatters. "You want to...kiss me?"

"Yes. Yes." He laughs softly. "I'm so goddamned afraid I'm going to fuck it up, just like everything else I've ever done. But all I've been able to think about since that first day you showed up here is how much I want to kiss you until you can't breathe anymore."

And with that, she's done. In an abrupt flash of movement, Hermione closes the space between them, fists his shirt in her hands, and crushes her lips to his.

Chapter Text

Their first kiss isn't much of one – just a hard press of mouths and teeth and longing. But for everything that kiss isn't, it's also unquestionably electric. Hermione feels it like static in her hair, or lightning in her veins. Draco must feel it, too. Surely he must.

Hermione wrenches away from him to assess his reaction. But despite his swollen mouth and ruffled hair, Draco's face is blank. His arms hover awkwardly in the air, unsure of where to land. Primal terror seems to roll off him in waves and she thinks, just for a second, that she's made a terrible mistake.

Then suddenly, he wraps his arms around her and pulls her close. So close, she couldn't fit a sheet of parchment between their bodies if she tried. He smiles down at her, his grey eyes full of something that looks an awful lot like wonder, before he bends his head and molds his lips to hers.

Now this is a kiss. A real kiss that enflames her heart and floods her brain with that familiar buzz she's come to know so well.

But it's there, with his lips upon hers, that she finally understands: it isn't a buzz she's been experiencing inside her brain, this whole time. It's a song, comprised of all the things she adores about him. It's his laugh, his wit, his eyes, his hands. It's the softness of his lips as they press, tug, pull at hers. And it's the fiery sweet tang of his tongue when it finally meets her own.

The world feels like floral tea and cinnamon and laughter and everything indefinably, undeniably good. Their tongues brush a second time, a third time, and her knees buckle. But he's holding her up with one arm, tangling the fingers of his free hand into her web of hair and kissing her even deeper.

When she whimpers into his mouth, he actually growls and lowers his lips to suck at the place where her shoulder meets her neck. She moans as he trails his mouth from that perfectperfectperfect spot to another, glorious one at the base her ear. The movement leaves his neck exposed, too, so she angles her head to lave at his pulse point with her tongue. He groans softly, and so she traces her tongue from his neck to his earlobe. Which she nips at with her teeth. Just a bit.

"Fuck, Hermione," he gasps, jerking back to meet her gaze. His pupils are blown, dilated fully with desire.

"My thoughts exactly," she whispers, and both of her hands drop to his belt buckle.

Draco freezes. Nothing moves except his eyes, which dart to the buckle and then back to hers. "I don't…I haven't…."

Her heart clenches in the most pleasant way imaginable.

"Ever?" she asks.

"Yeah. I mean, I have. But not in a few years. Not since before the War." He releases a hoarse, uncomfortable laugh. "A hazard of my former occupation, I guess."

Hermione leaves one hand on his buckle but removes the other, threading her fingers through the soft hair at the base of his neck. Without removing either hand, she lifts onto her toes to meet his lips again. This kiss is different, but just as lovely as the others: slower and gentler and sweeter than she would have ever expected from him.

She doesn't break the kiss, even when she murmurs, "Don't shut me out again, Draco."

"I won't," he says into her mouth.

"Swear it."

He pulls away, only to close his eyes and lean his forehead against hers.

"You're 'in,' Granger. That's permanent. At least, it is for me. The only way you're getting out of my life now is on your own. You can leave anytime you want – I would never force you to stay. But I…I wouldn't leave you. I couldn't. Not now."

His hand, still woven in her hair, starts to shake. Not from a lack of booze, but from the terrifying truth of his confession. He's been scared for so long, she realizes, that he hasn't learned to trust in the good things. He hasn't given himself permission to believe, just once, that something might go right in his life.

Hermione nudges his sharp chin up with her nose until he meets her gaze.

"I'm not going anywhere, Draco. You can snarl and stomp and swagger like a peacock. I've seen it all before, and I'm sure I'll see it again. But none of that will change what's between us. Because I want you. All of you."

Apparently that's all he needs to know. Draco's mouth recaptures hers with a new urgency. This time, he doesn't stop her hands when they undo his belt buckle. As soon as Hermione accomplishes that task, her fingers move to the buttons at his collar. He continues to kiss her while she yanks off his tie and accidentally rips his shirt in her haste.

The sound of buttons clattering to the floor does something riotous to her insides, and she steps back to cast Colloportus and Muffliato on the library door. Hearing the spells, Draco grins madly.

"That, Granger, was the sexiest thing I've ever seen."

"For now," she promises. She doesn't give him time to respond before she tackles him to the floor.

At first, they're just a jumble of limbs and hands and tongues in front of the fire. But somewhere along the way, they begin to shed their clothing, piece by piece. Each article they lose, Hermione transfigures into an item of bedding upon the floor. Draco's jacket and her hoodie combine into a plush blanket beneath them. His tattered shirt makes a perfect, silken bedsheet. Their shoes, a handful of thick pillows. Their pants, more sheets that just beg to be tangled.

At some point – between transfigured outer clothing and completely discarded undergarments – she grabs his wand and flings it, along with hers, onto the sofa. As far as she's concerned, that's not the kind of magic they'll need tonight. Maybe not even tomorrow, judging by the way his tongue dips between her breasts and her hips grind into his.

They're fully bared to each other now – a state that always made her feel a little mortified, whenever she did this with Ron. Draco, however, seems wholly unashamed. He's currently exploring every centimetre of her skin, whispering her first name like an incantation.

Hermione. A press of his lips to the hollow above her clavicle.

Hermione. A lick at the curve below her breast.

Hermione. Another kiss on her mouth, deep enough to set her aflame.

Draco hasn't touched anything important yet, and it's clearly intentional. He's waiting, she thinks, for her consent. Or trying to drive her mad. Either way, she adores him for it.

She tugs and twists them until his back is propped against the edge of the sofa and she's straddling his lap. Draco only has a moment to comprehend their new position – to dig his fingers sharply into her hips – before Hermione ducks her head to lap at the jagged Sectumsempra scars on his chest. She can feel his muscles tense beneath her, so she places one calming hand on the spot above his heart and another on the faded Mark upon his left arm.

"They're you," she says, still pressing kisses onto his puckered flesh. "They're part of you. So I want them, too."

Draco moans and yanks her hips forward, until the hard length of him lies deliciously against her stomach.

"Your mouth," he begs. "Give me your mouth. Please."

Hermione obeys and they're kissing again, lips and tongues colliding with a frantic kind of need. Draco entwines his fingers in her hair, angling her head backward so he can lower his mouth to her breasts. He licks one nipple tentatively, waits for the guttural sound she makes, and then pulls the nipple fully into his mouth.

Hermione's eyes have rolled so far back into her head, she might as well close them. She whispers something that might be yes, while his tongue dances along both her nipples. She sucks in a hard breath when his free hand snakes across her stomach and lands upon the warm, aching core between her legs.

Like his tongue, his fingers dance for a moment – seeking, teasing, exploring this part of her. He must understand the permission she grants with a wider spread of her legs, because his long fingers dip fully inside her. Slowly, blissfully, he plunges them in and out as his thumb rubs the cluster of nerves just above his fingers.

Her words become unintelligible, then. She scratches her fingernails wildly across his shoulders, and her thighs clench around his. Draco drags his mouth from her breasts to the nape of her neck, his hand still moving between them.

"Beautiful," he whispers against her skin. "You are so beautiful, Hermione."

"I want…I…I want…."

The heat of his laugh on her neck just destroys her. "Yes?" he teases. "What is it you want?"

"You," she gasps. "All of you."

"All of me?" he asks, with a suggestive thrust of hips.

Hermione doesn't respond right away. Instead, she raises her thighs until his fingers have slipped out of her and she kneels fully above him. Draco meets her gaze, frowning up at her with an unspoken question. In answer, she gently takes his face in her hands.

"You," she repeats, stroking his cheeks with her thumbs. "All of you."

Then she reaches between their bodies, positions the length of him against her, and slides down.

Draco doesn't gasp or cry out. But his arms encircle her waist and he pulls her torso forward so that their bodies are flush. Hermione gives them both a few seconds to adjust to their connection, before she arches her back and starts to rock her hips slowly and methodically against his.

This position, and the level of control that comes with it, is actually new to her. It's uncharted territory that she finds she likes bestbestbest of all.

Draco apparently agrees. After only a few sways from Hermione, his own hips begin to thrust upward into hers. His movements falter at first, but soon, the two of them build into a rhythm that has them both gasping. Only when her head drops to his shoulder does he slide his hand back between their bodies.

"Please," she pants into his ear as his fingers begin to circle again. "Please."

And so he complies, thrusting and circling until, abruptly, Hermione throws her head back. She's shattering, then – shattering so completely around him that she nearly whites-out from the feel of it. He doesn't seem to know what to do but keep going, circling and thrusting and kissing her deeply after her head snaps back toward his. As she reassembles herself above him, he whispers, "Beautiful," against her lips.

She whispers back one word – Draco – and he lets himself shatter, too.

***

Several hours and several more shatterings later, Hermione spins lazily in the circle of Draco's arms to face him. They're still naked, with only their transfigured bedding between them and the dying light of the fire.

"What are you thinking?" she asks.

"That your hair appears to have gained its own gravitational pull."

She shrugs one shoulder against his scarred chest. "You love that about me. I know it."

Without warning, Draco's fingers tighten upon her hips.

"I do, Granger," he murmurs. "I really do."

"Draco—" she starts, but he interrupts her with a small shake of his head.

"No, let me say something first. For once." He smirks, but his eyes are tender. "You gave me the reasons why you wanted me, tonight. But I just realized I didn't give you all the reasons I wanted you."

"There's more?"

"Yes."

She's breathing unevenly again, more turned on than she'd like to admit. But Hermione smirks back at him. "Oh, I already know what you want, Draco: my breasts, my biscuits, and my brains. In that order."

He laughs and takes her face gently in his hands. "Correct, as usual. But that's not all."

"My beauty?" she teases. "Like at the Yule Ball?"

When his body goes rigid, she mumbles, "Sorry. That was a joke. I didn't mean to bring up that night. Not if it makes you uncomfortable."

"I'm not uncomfortable," he says quietly. "I just didn't realize you saw that. The way I looked at you that night, I mean."

She nods into his hands, and he grimaces.

"You shocked me that night, Granger. I shocked myself, because I…I thought I hated you. I really did. But how could I hate you after what I saw outside the Great Hall? The way I reacted to you at the Yule Ball kept me wondering. Fourth year, fifth year, sixth year – every time I saw you after that night, every time we argued or insulted each other, I kept seeing you. Not just some caricature of you. So much so, I realized that I didn't actually hate you at all. I knew it, even before the War. But I couldn't quite admit the whole truth until I saw you standing in the foyer of the Manor that first day, carrying those tarts. Your hair was a disaster, and your cheeks were bright pink, and you looked so goddamned beautiful I couldn't even breathe for a minute. But that's still not the main reason I want you."

"No?" she whispers, pretty sure she's bright pink right now, too.

Draco shakes his head. "No. I want you because of your heart. Your mad, wild heart."

Despite her disbelieving laugh, the referenced organ beats frantically inside her chest. "Wild? Did you actually call my heart wild?"

He just cracks a lazy smile and nods.

Hermione scoffs again. "Aside from my hair, no one has ever called anything about me wild. Controlled, sure. Methodical, absolutely. Precise, detail-oriented…hell, even uptight. But never wild."

"And that's where they're wrong – where I was wrong, back in school." Draco's fingers slip from her face and he leans forward to whisper the rest of his words into the curls at her temple. "You, Hermione Granger, are controlled and methodical and precise. But your heart is just as wild and fierce as Pansy's."

"Thanks for the lovely comparison," she deadpans, and he laughs into her hair.

"It's not meant to be an insult. Pansy is lots of negative, nasty things, but she's also a fierce creature who would do anything to protect the people she loves. You told me that you're just like that, too. The day we talked about your parents."

"Yeah, but…Pansy?"

"You're going to have to get used to her, you know. Her and all the other Slytherins.

"Yeah, but…Pansy?"

He laughs again. "The Pansy thing is sort of beside the point. It's the 'wild' part I like."

"But how…? Why…?"

"Why do I see your heart as wild?" he finishes. "Maybe you Gryffindors call it 'brave.' Maybe I don't want to use the 'b' word because I'll always be a Slytherin, and courage is supposed to make me sick. But the way you stormed in here tonight and declared your feelings was wild, and risky, and brave. So was the way you told me about your father and his drinking. Or the way you ignored my snarling, the day I cut my fingers. Or the way you went witch-to-witch with my mother with a smile on your face. Or the way you treat my owl and my parents like they're actually worthwhile, too. Or the way you…the way you…."

Hermione hears the emotions crest in his voice, so she curls her fingers into his untamed hair. Silently gives him permission to stop, if he needs to. But Draco takes a shaky breath and continues.

"It's the way you looked that day, crying and screaming on our parlour floor, but not giving one fucking whit of information to my aunt. That was the day I knew, in my bones, that all the blood purity rhetoric was shite. Because you were strong and brave. And beautiful and brilliant, and the most incredible badass I'd ever seen."

Her eyes start to burn, and she clenches them shut to keep the tears back. In response, Draco tugs her closer to him. They stay like that for long enough, their breaths start to align, chests rising and falling in a matched rhythm.

"We don't have to talk about the War anymore," she eventually offers. "If you don't want to."

With her eyes still firmly closed, she feels rather than sees Draco pull back to study her. Eventually, she opens one eye to find him frowning down at her.

"Why wouldn't we talk about the War?" he asks.

The image of Ron's grimace flashes, unbidden, in her mind. She shrugs awkwardly.

"Sometimes couples don't want to talk about unpleasant things," she says. "After they, you know, 'couple up.'"

"Are you saying we're a couple now, Granger?"

"Well, you haven't slept with anyone in at least three years, and I'm lying naked on your floor. So…."

"So that means more romps on the floor, then?" he teases

"For as long as you…as long as we want."

"And how long is that? In your estimation?"

"For keeps," she admits with a sigh. "Maybe forever. Depending on your understanding of time and space."

Instead of the panicked release she expects from him, Hermione feels his arms tighten around her. Even now, even after the way they just devoured each other on this floor, his embrace makes her heart constrict.

But just as quickly as it arrives, her joy dims. Because Hermione knows this whole "honesty" game; she's played it before, with Ron. And she'll be damned if she traipses into something new without laying the ground rules this time.

"I mean what I said earlier, by the way. About the War stuff. We don't have to talk about it anymore. If that's how you want it to be between us, Draco, then I'll deal with it. I will."

Now it's Draco's turn to scoff.

"That's not going to work, Granger, and you know it. The War is as much a part of 'us,' together, as it is individually. Hell, there wouldn't even be an 'us' without the War. You want to hear something totally fucked up? I think I'm going to end up feeling grateful for that time in our lives, in some perverse way. Because of this." He runs a fingertip down her bare hip to demonstrate, and she shivers happily. "So get that idea out of your head. Any time you want to talk about us, or the War, or us and the War, just do it. The topics aren't mutually exclusive, and you don't need my permission. If I ever fight you on it, just drag me kicking and screaming right along with you. Like you did tonight."

Hermione's lips curve into a Cheshire grin. "Just like tonight?"

"Well, preferably with the kind of screaming that occurred in the latter part of the evening."

He laughs when she pushes on his shoulders until he's lying upon his back again. She climbs on top of him, laces her fingers with his, and gently pins his arms over his head. Still smiling, he asks, "What do you think you're doing, Granger?"

"Well, practice does make perfect," Hermione purrs. "Don't you agree?"

This time, Draco agrees. He really, really does.

Chapter Text

For the second time in a month Hermione wakes up in Malfoy Manor. This time, of course, she just happens to be naked.

Like last time, Draco sleeps peacefully beside her, his breath deep and even in her ear. She takes a moment to admire the predawn light on his pale skin – the way it makes him look like porcelain, smooth and breakable at the same time.

He's beautiful, she thinks. Beautiful and strange and hers.

Hermione briefly considers waking him for another round – their sixth? Seventh?

Instead, she carefully extracts herself from his arms and grabs one of their loose bedsheets. She finds her wand in a crook of the sofa, aims it at the sheet…and then groans quietly as the sheet transfigures back into its original form. Draco's tattered button-down is not what she was hoping for, but it will have to do.

She casts a soft Reparo on a few of the rips, slips her arms through those of the oxford, and then uses a Sticking Charm to close the front of the shirt. Hermione eyes the other sheets longingly, but they're wrapped too tightly around Draco to be transfigured without waking him. She pulls on her knickers – which apparently landed on the fireplace tools last night – and tiptoes barefoot from the library.

For some reason, the Manor corridors no longer confuse her, and she finds her way to the kitchen within five minutes. She's expecting an empty room in which to cook, just like the last time she woke up here. But even though the sun hasn't fully risen today, the kitchen is packed to the rafters with house-elves. Some are chatting over cups of coffee while some are preparing today's meals for the Malfoy family.

"Maevy!"

Hermione waves to the little elf standing by the stove. Maevy, who looks like royalty in her forest green suit, turns toward Hermione and lets out a sigh that could only be described as relieved.

"Oh, Miss! Maevy is so glad you're still here. So very glad that Mister Draco and Miss made up."

Then Maevy takes a long, hard look at the witch's clothing. Or lack thereof. Hermione, for her part, has the good sense to realize that she's almost starkers in front of all these superbly dressed elves. With a self-conscious wince, Hermione tugs the hem of Draco's shirt farther down her thighs. It's a belated attempt at modesty, but, well…it's all she's got.

Maevy exchanges a meaningful glance with the house-elf next to her.

"Has Miss…worked up an appetite, then?" Maevy asks innocently, and the other elf stifles a laugh.

"Actually," Hermione says, ignoring the rash of elfish titters that now spread around the kitchen, "I was hoping you'd let me cook breakfast? For myself and Draco?"

Maevy opens her mouth to answer but another, deeper voice cuts her off.

"Are we doing a full English then, Granger?"

Hermione spins around with an unabashed smile.

There he stands, leaning against the cabinetry with his arms folded across his scarred chest. He's wearing his re-transfigured black pants and nothing else. That makes sense, she supposes, since his ripped oxford is currently occupied.

"Hello there," she says, folding her own arms across her chest and cocking one of her hips to the side. "Ready for breakfast?"

Draco drinks in her suggestive stance until he can't restrain himself any longer. He makes a guttural noise in the back of his throat and reaches her in two broad strides. Before she has even a second to react, he's wrapped her in his bare arms.

"Why would I want food," he whispers in her ear, "when you look so tasty?"

Hermione giggles, grabs his hips, and yanks them further into hers. "First breakfast," she whispers back. "Then round number seven."

"Is it really only seven? You better eat fast, then – we're behind schedule."

Draco must see her blush, because he presses a small kiss to one of her heated cheeks. "Gorgeous, Granger. Even in my clothes."

"I rather like this shirt," she says with a sniff. "I think I'll keep it."

"As long as you promise to wear it and nothing else."

"What about my knickers?"

"Those are wholly optional."

"Oh? And which of us will exercise the option?"

In answer, Draco leans forward to kiss her deeply. She kisses him back and feels herself becoming more aroused by the second. Her hand has just started to swipe down his stomach, toward the button of his pants, when the giggling of elves stops her.

Only at that moment does she realize that they have an audience of at least eight. Her cheeks flush yet again, but Draco doesn't seem embarrassed in the slightest.

"Um, ladies?" he says to the elves, not bothering to pull his mouth from Hermione's. "Could you give us some privacy?"

A chorus of snickers echoes throughout the kitchen, followed by the cracking of Apparition. Only Maevy remains. Hermione can tell it's her, from the way the house-elf clears her throat in irritation.

"Should Maevy just send Mister and Miss's breakfast up to the Smaller Library, then? After all, we do prepare food in here. Maevy would like to keep this room sanitary, if you both please."

A laugh bubbles out of Hermione's throat, and she glances down at the little elf tapping an impatient foot beside them.

"I'm sorry, Maevy," Hermione says, and she means it. "I think we're in that 'carried away' stage right now."

Maevy sighs and makes a dismissive gesture with her tiny fingers. "Thank you for stating the obvious, Miss. Now, shoo."

Draco doesn't wait for further instruction. He keeps his arms wrapped around Hermione's waist and immediately, they pop back into the library where a steaming hot breakfast is already waiting for them.

Slowly, incredulously, Hermione's head swivels from the breakfast tray toward Draco.

"Did you…did you just Apparate us here?"

Draco shrugs, but there's a proud gleam in his eyes. "It's the second of May."

Before she can fully comprehend what he said, Hermione kisses him ferociously, just as proud of his newfound freedom as he is. Then his words sink in, and her heart plummets.

"The second," she whispers, and she suddenly finds that her legs don't feel steady anymore. With shaking knees, she plops gracelessly down onto the sofa. Draco watches her, uncertainty lining his features until it hits him. He drops at her side and takes one of her limp hands into his.

"This day is especially bad for you, isn't it?"

Hermione nods, fighting a wave of nausea. "Last year, I was so upset I stayed up until dawn baking. It was…sort of the unofficial start of the PTSD Pastry Tour."

"Also the night Weasley broke up with you?" he guesses. When she nods again, Draco sighs. "I know I have fewer reasons to hate this day than you, Granger…but I do. I fucking hate it. I felt that way, even before our sentencing. It feels like everyone who died in the War died today. I know that's not true, but…it still feels like it."

"I know exactly what you mean," she says. "Mad-Eye died at the start. And Dobby died that…that day I left here, over Easter holidays. But I think about the two of them most on this day. Then there's Tonks, Lupin, Colin Creevey—"

"Charity Burbage," he adds. "Severus Snape. Vincent Crabbe. Fred Weasley."

She shoots him a look, and he winces.

"I liked the twins," Draco explains ruefully. "Even though I never let on. They were funny in a distinctly unfunny time."

They don't speak again for a long while, Hermione staring blankly at the fireplace and Draco smoothing his thumb across the back of her hand. Then she makes a small, hopeful noise.

"I…think I may have another idea. Kind of along the same lines as the Pastry Tour. If you're open to it?"

He pulls his gaze from their hands and raises one eyebrow, which Hermione takes as an invitation to elaborate.

"Here's what I'm thinking: what if this day didn't have to be so awful? What if we made it a celebration of sorts?"

"A party?" Draco asks in a flat tone.

"That's one way to look at it," she hedges. "But maybe we should call it…a group-wide reconciliation, instead. A chance for us all to get together and just talk. Face the PTSD head-on."

Now both of Draco's eyebrows rise. But Hermione is just gathering steam. She keeps going with an excited little glow in her eyes.

"We could hold it at the Leaky. Tonight. Merlin knows the pub will be aching for the business. It's a Tuesday and the second of May– a double whammy, if you ask me. I could owl Hannah Abbott – she knows the owner – to get permission for us. Then you and I could owl all of our classmates. You'll take the Slytherins, obviously, and I'll take the other houses."

Draco snorts. "What, Granger? You don't think the Hufflepuffs will come running when I beckon?"

"Draco, your mother told me that the colour yellow literally makes her want to vomit. I assume the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

"Touché," he concedes.

Hermione studies him for a moment. "How will you handle it? Being around alcohol tonight, I mean? Because we can totally hold it somewhere other than a pub. My flat's too small, obviously, and Harry's place is big enough, but he won't give up the location. I think the Manor would freak too many people out, unfortunately. So a park, maybe? Or a…a public square or something?"

Draco shakes his head and runs one hand through his hair – loose, how she likes it best.

"We're going to hold it at the Leaky, Granger, and I'm going to drink sickly-sweet pumpkin juice. Lots of it. So much that your parents will likely have to remove all my molars tomorrow morning."

She grins broadly. "I'm sure you'll still look sexy with a full set of false teeth."

"Speaking of sexy, how will we handle 'us' tonight, Granger? We're so new, and I'm not sure the whole of Hogwarts is ready for a Malfoy-Granger pairing just yet. Weasley's head practically exploded when he found out. Granted, all the hot air inside it probably didn't help. But still."

Hermione elbows Draco in the ribs, but dammit if he has a point. There are only a handful of their classmates who know about them, and not even those select few know the full truth yet.

"How about we play it cool?" she suggests. "We arrive and leave together, but we steer clear of each other the rest of the night. Just to give people time to grieve and heal, before we hit them with the shock of their lives."

Draco nods his approval. But as she loses herself again in tonight's plans, Hermione doesn't see the disappointment that slips over his features. What she doesn't know – what she doesn't see, written all over his frown – is that Draco wouldn't play it cool tonight, if it were up to him.

The frown is gone when she glances back up at him.

"Let's eat our breakfast and then start owling our invitations," she suggests. "I'm sure if we get right to work, we can send them all off before noon so everyone can—"

"Oh no you don't, Granger," he growls in interruption. "Not until we finish round seven."

Draco lunges at her, finally destroying what's left of his oxford shirt. If her thrilled giggle is any indication, Hermione doesn't mind the delay. Not one bit.

***

After round seven – or eight, if you count the unbelievable things Draco can do with his tongue – they agree that someone needs a bath, even if they don't agree on which of them needs it most.

For a delicious moment, Hermione considers his offer to join him in his shower upstairs. But she declines with a sad shake of her head. As much as they'd like to, neither of them can stay in tattered clothing all day. Draco performs the reconnection spell to his fireplace (rather sheepishly, she thinks), and then Hermione Floos home for the fastest shower and change of her life.

When she arrives back at the library, he's waiting for her on the sofa, looking far too good in his jeans and black blazer. He must feel the same way about her appearance, because his eyes drift along the line of her bare legs up to her short, grey skirt. His gaze stops at her green jumper, and a slow smirk spreads across his lips.

"Did you have to rob a Slytherin for that top, Granger?"

"Oh, this? It's just something I had…lying around."

"Or something you transfigured?"

Without looking at him, Hermione strolls over to where their breakfast still waits. She takes a small, deliberate nibble of toast.

"Well, Draco, let's just say you shouldn't perform Finite Incantatem on this jumper unless you like the colour red."

Draco laughs loudly and pushes himself up from the sofa. He joins her at the sideboard and the two of them tuck into their meal, occasionally trading bites of food for kisses.

Eventually they've had their fill, so Draco summons a few of the EverInk quills he keeps stashed around the library. Hermione sinks into the sofa cushion next to his. Draco, however, shakes his head.

"Too far away," he declares. Without further explanation, he pulls her body with him while he leans back against one arm of the sofa.

"You'll choke on my hair," she warns, but she settles her shoulder blades upon his chest.

"C'est la vie, Granger. I've suspected I would die this way since I was eleven."

"You thought you would willingly get this close to me when you were eleven?"

"I didn't say that. I just said I thought death by your hair was a strong possibility."

"Death by my hair? Really, Draco?"

She feels his shrug against her back.

"After what we did on the floor this morning," he says, "it won't be an unhappy death. That has to bring you some comfort, right?"

In reply, Hermione just wiggles further into his lap. Thus positioned, she summons a stack of blank parchment. On the top sheet, she scrawls a generic greeting and the details of their get-together. Then she uses her wand to duplicate this template onto each of the other sheets. With a satisfied hum, she hands a wad of papers over her shoulder to Draco. He takes them, lifts the weight of her hair to one side, and plants a loud thank-you kiss on her neck.

"You see?" he says. "Your hair almost smothered me. Just now."

Hermione rolls her eyes. But she reaches back to trace her fingers over his cheek before she sets to work addressing her invitations. Draco begins his own as well, moving from Greg and Millie to Theo, Blaise, Pansy, Daphne Greengrass, Tracey Davis, Marcus Flint, and Adrian Pucey. He throws in a few more names for good measure but, given the number of his former housemates who are dead, in hiding, or incarcerated, Draco finishes far sooner than Hermione.

Once done, he leans over her shoulder and pretends to inspect her work.

"Doing alright with those illegible runes you call handwriting?" When she merely grunts, he smiles. "Very articulate, Granger."

She sighs and stretches out her cramping hand. "It's just…I'm trying to decide whether or not to invite professors and the older Order members. I'm thinking…not. Not this year, anyway."

"I can write those," he offers. "If you change your mind."

She shakes her head, and Draco laughs. "What is it, Granger? You don't want me adding my signature to your invitations as well?"

Hearing the strained tenor of his voice, Hermione angles her head to give him a light kiss.

"Of course not," she says. "We actually want people to come tonight, don't we?"

He laughs again, this time in the genuine way that makes her heart race. He doesn't lob a follow-up quip at her, so she turns back to her parchment.

As she scrawls more invitations, she feels his left hand drift down toward hers. At first, Draco just brushes his knuckles back and forth along her hand. It's a simple, absent-minded movement on his part – a subconscious way to stay connected to her while she writes. But after a while, his index finger begins to stroke her second finger from the left, tracing the spot where a ring might one day go. It's an inexpressibly intimate gesture, and she very nearly transfigures their fresh clothing into another set of bedding.

"I love this," she blurts out. "Being here like this with you. I…I want to do this every free minute we've got. If you'll let me."

Silence descends over the room and, for a full minute, she's certain he's going to push her off his lap and run. But Draco surprises her – thrills her – when he pulls her closer and whispers into her ear, "I do, too, Granger. I really do."

Chapter Text

Hermione discovers that, while Draco and Narcissa can now Apparate, the Manor's Floo network is still only connected to two locations: the main entrance of the Ministry, and her own home. Which is flattering, but also a damned annoyance. Draco is so out-of-practice with Apparition, there's no way he'll make it from the Manor to the Leaky Cauldron. Or from the Manor to ten metres outside the Manor, honestly.

With such limited travel options, she and Draco must Floo to her flat that evening and then turn back around to Floo to the Leaky. It's a problem she intends to badger Kingsley into remedying soon…but not tonight. Tonight is for grieving, or healing, or revealing. Merlin knows which, or in what order.

Hermione is still pondering that riddle as they arrive at the Leaky's Floo portal. But the minute their cloud of green dust disappears, she and Draco very nearly Floo right back home. Especially when they see what's waiting for them.

There, flanking each side of the fireplace, are their friends. Harry, Ginny, and Ron stand to one side, newly landed and still dusting Floo powder off their clothes. On the opposite side slouches none other than Pansy Parkinson.

Pansy looks ridiculously overdressed for a night at the pub. And of course, she's glaring at the lot of them.

Her bright eyes fall on the new arrivals and immediately narrow into slits.

"Pans," Draco greets her.

"Dray."

Her tone is as biting as his is bland. There's a fraught moment when no one else speaks or even moves. Then Pansy rolls her eyes so hard, Hermione can practically hear them pop inside their sockets.

"Oh, sod it," Pansy growls, and she stalks over to the bar.

While Pansy orders, Hermione turns to her friends. "Thanks for agreeing to do this," she mutters, nervous for reasons she can't – well, maybe she can – explain.

"Anytime," Harry says. "Besides, it looks like we aren't the only ones who responded. This is sort of unexpected, isn't it?"

He gestures to the rest of the pub, which is packed wall-to-wall with their former classmates. Gryffindors, mostly, but there's a fair share of Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws. And also a handful of terribly stiff-looking Slytherins.

Draco snorts. "Did you actually doubt they'd come, Potter? It was Granger's idea – of course it worked."

Harry blinks a few times before studying Draco with a mix of mistrust and appreciation. It's a weird expression, one that Ginny neatly summarizes for all of them.

"So this is awkward as hell, yeah?"

Draco barks out a laugh, and Ginny grins at him in surprise. Then her eyes dart quickly between Hermione and Draco.

"Dear Merlin," Ginny breathes. "You two are officially an item now, aren't you?"

Hermione's head swivels toward her. "What? How did you—?"

Ginny cuts her off with a shrug. "One: you arrived together. Two: you're standing, like, a millimetre apart. And three: Malfoy is looking at you like he wants to drag you to the loo and shag your brains out."

"Ginevra Molly Weasley!" Hermione gasps.

"Hermione Jean Granger!" Ginny gasps right back at her. "You already have, haven't you? You two have already shagged!"

The tips of Draco's ears flare pink, but he doesn't contradict it. Hermione is about to open her mouth and say something, anything, to give them plausible deniability, when Pansy rejoins their group with two glasses of firewhisky.

Pansy tucks one glass close to her unseasonably thick furs and gestures to Draco with the other. "Numbing agent, Dray?"

Draco shakes his head. "I'm giving sobriety a go. But thanks."

Pansy's well-tweezed eyebrows arch higher, almost into her hairline. Hermione fears that Pansy's going to make this a thing – insist on a round of shots, or start throwing hexes at everyone. Instead, Pansy brushes past Hermione and Draco to shove the second glass of whisky into Ron's chest.

"What about you, Weasel?" she asks. "You look like you could use one of these."

Ron, who has been watching this entire display with unveiled disgust, frowns deeply at her.

"What makes you say that, Parkinson?"

Pansy guffaws. "Because you're fucking chartreuse with envy. And everyone knows that green and red don't mix."

Ron looks like he might protest. But he makes his own sort of "Sod it" grimace, takes the glass from Pansy's outstretched hand, and downs its contents in one swallow. Even Pansy gawks at him, although she obviously recovers the quickest.

"Good on you, Weasley. Good on you." She raises her glass in salute before she follows his lead, knocking back her own firewhisky with a similarly brazen gulp. Her eyelids flutter shut and she utters a small noise that may indicate pleasure or pain. In her case, probably both.

Then she lowers her glass and fixes her icy-blue glare onto Harry. She studies him with the kind of scrutiny one might give to a piece of gum on the bottom of one's shoe. Finally, with what might be actual sincerity, she says, "Sorry about that whole 'Feed him to the snake' thing, Potter. Better your arse than ours back then, yeah?"

Ron lets out a bitter laugh, and Pansy's gaze whips toward the sound.

"You got a problem with that, Weasel?" she snarls.

"I might, yeah."

Ron is clearly spoiling for a fight, and Hermione can guess why. She wants to warn Pansy off – to tell the hostile, fur-bedecked witch to find someone else to torment tonight. But Ron's upper lip curls and he seems almost…excited by the prospect of an argument.

"Because why?" Pansy demands, when Ron doesn't actually define his problem.

"Because your apology wasn't much of one, was it, Parkinson?"

"I said 'back then,' didn't I?"

"As opposed to what?"

"As opposed to 'right now.' Or 'anymore.' Or 'still.'"

"And that's supposed to be good enough for Harry?"

"Damn straight it is."

"You're not even going to try and explain yourself?"

"No, I'm not," she says flatly. "I don't like talking about the War, Weasley. So either get over it, or get out of my way."

Hermione can think of a thousand things to say to Pansy, right then. Most of them unpleasant. But Ron just lifts one ginger eyebrow. Whatever he's searching for on Pansy's face, he must find it, because he steps forward and shoves his empty glass back at her.

"Alright, then. You refill me, Parkinson, and I might believe you."

Pansy appraises him carefully and delivers a quick, decisive nod. "The first two rounds are on me. The next two are on you. If you can afford that, on your Ministry pittance."

Hermione is about to ask how Pansy knows where Ron works, when the two of them stomp away in grim accord toward the bar. Once there, Ron and Pansy begin lining up a long row of shots, the strangest pair of drinking buddies Hermione has ever seen.

After a full minute of silence, Ginny laughs lightly. "Well, that was bizarre."

"That," Draco replies, "was Pansy."

Hermione angles her head toward Draco. "And you think she and I have something in common?"

"Judging by the way Pansy is currently pretending not to check out the Weasel's arse, I'd say yes. At a minimum, you two have similar taste in men." Hermione smacks him on the shoulder, but Draco just raises a smug corner of his mouth. "And you both hit harder than anyone I've ever met. So you have that in common, too."

Hermione glares at him, if only half-heartedly, and then directs a saccharine smile at Harry.

"I know he's making it impossible," she says, in an overly sweet tone, "but could you just ignore Mr. Personality over here and help me put these out?"

She hefts up her beaded handbag to demonstrate.

Harry groans. "We aren't setting up the tent, are we? I just…I'm not ready to see that tent again yet."

"No," she laughs. "Not today. But I do have about five dozen pamphlets about PTSD that I'd like to fan out, on top of the bar. Just in case anyone needs them."

Relieved, Harry nods his assent. Draco, however, clears his throat beside Hermione.

"A tent?" he asks her. "I assume you plan to tell me how that hideous bag and sharing a tent with Potter are related?"

"Later," she promises, lifting onto her toes to give Draco a light kiss.

Harry makes a noise that sounds an awful lot like "Blech" as the new couple breaks apart. Draco looks ready to snarl an insult – probably something involving the use of the word Potter as though it's a curse – when Ginny loops her arm through the blond's.

"Come on, Malfoy," she says. "Let's go see how many of my friends try to hex you tonight. I'm guessing ten. No…twelve."

With that, Ginny tugs Draco toward the swaying crowd farther inside the pub. Harry and Hermione watch them go. Not sixty seconds later, Ginny has to swat Lee Jordan's wand away from Draco's chin.

Hermione shakes her head. "That makes the first, I suppose. Honestly, I think Ginny undershot it with twelve."

Harry chuckles darkly. "I just want you to remember one thing tonight, Hermione."

"What's that?"

"This crazy scheme was all your idea. For the first time in our friendship, I'm totally blameless."

***

The night has grown quite late – nearing midnight, Hermione guesses – but the party still rages on. Within a few hours of the party's start, its noise shifted from polite din to something riotous and joyful – a cacophony of raised voices, echoing throughout the Leaky Cauldron. Now, it feels as though each person in the pub has discovered, inexplicably, that they want this; that they've been waiting on something like this for the past two years.

In the haze of booze and sweat and laughter, you can't tell one house member from the other. Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin – they all move in one accord, one mass of bodies swaying with the pulse of relief and release.

Hermione and Draco still orbit the room separately. But every so often, she meets his gaze over someone's shoulder. Each time, he's watching her with a knowing grin and taking deliberate sips of his pumpkin juice.

It's during one of those heated stares, when she's standing with Ron and Pansy – who is, weirdly, cackling at one of Ron's jokes – that Hermione sees a small brown owl swoop into the pub. The owl doesn't land but instead drops a scroll into Ron's open palm.

Ron blinks once, twice, at the scroll before unrolling it. He scans the note quickly and then breaks into a positively massive grin. Without saying a word to Hermione or Pansy, he runs over to Ginny and George and drags them up with him onto some empty barstools.

"Oi, wankers!" he shouts to the crowd, which lets Hermione know that he's well and truly pissed. Still wearing that giant grin, Ron waves the letter into the air. "Ginny just became an auntie, and George and me are uncles!"

"Which one of your siblings?" Pansy demands loudly. She's slurring, but there isn't a drop of acid in her words. In fact, she sounds rather…flirty. That's an interesting development, one Hermione will have to analyze later.

"Bill and Fleur!" Ron yells, to Pansy as well as everyone listening. "It's a little girl, and they've named her Victoire. Which is French for…for…?"

"Victory," Hermione calls up at him, and he winks at her in gratitude.

"Victory!" he shouts, yanking Ginny's and George's arms up with his in a show of triumph.

At this, the crowd goes absolutely insane. Everyone is laughing and cheers-ing and clapping each other heartily on the back. It's the perfect name, Hermione thinks, given today's date. The entire pub seems to agree: Harry and Luna hug fiercely; Neville grabs a handful of celebratory cigars from the bartender; and Cho Chang offers the Weasleys congratulatory shots of firewhisky, which the redheads down with aplomb.

It's there, in the festive chaos, that Hermione feels a light brush of fingers against her wrist. She turns toward the touch and is surprised to find Draco standing right beside her. He doesn't say anything but he's staring at her, his grey eyes fierce and his lips quirked into an enigmatic smile. She thinks to ask him if he's okay. But before she can do so, his hands cup her cheeks, his fingers tangle in her hair, and his lips crush down onto hers.

It's one of those kisses. The kind of toe-curling, heartbeat-racing kisses that sets you on fire from the inside out. The kind that changes your heart, your head, your everything.

Hermione isn't thinking. She's just kissing Draco back with the same amount of ferocity, her hands grasping at his shoulders, his waist, his hair. There isn't anything else in the world or even the universe but his lips. His tongue. Him.

Only when they finally break apart for air, with their lips still close enough to share each other's breath, does she notice that the pub has gone completely silent. Everyone saw them. Everyone knows. But to her utter shock, the crowd breaks into another round of raucous shouts and cheers.

Over the wild noise, she can make out a few, distinct voices.

"Nice one, Dray!" Goyle bellows.

Luna chimes out, "How lovely."

Pansy loudly suggests that they "Get a fucking room, already," and Theo and Ginny shout, in unison, "Finally!"

Hermione feels Draco laugh against her lips, right before he gives her a second, sweeter kiss. He releases her face to twine his fingers with hers and to rest his sharp chin atop her hair.

Around his shoulder, Hermione sees Ron watching them. He's returned to Pansy by now, holding another two tumblers of what looks like rum. His mouth has twisted to one side, and he glares daggers at Draco's back. But when Ron's eyes find Hermione's, his scowl melts into a begrudging, close-lipped smile. He raises his glass a centimetre higher. It's a salute, she realizes, and about the most approval she's going to get from him.

I'll take it, her answering smile tells Ron. When Draco's head lowers and his lips find hers again, she thinks, I'll take this, too.

That's pretty much the last articulate thought she has, and she doesn't even notice when the clock eventually ticks from 11:59 p.m., May second, to 12:00 a.m., May third.

Chapter Text

That summer is one of many firsts, and a single last, for Hermione and Draco.

The first time they have a formal dinner with Lucius and Narcissa, everything is an unmitigated disaster. Despite the fact that they've already shared a few, casual meals with Hermione, the Malfoy elders can't seem to shake their pureblood formality around the dinner table. They sit, awkward and stiff in the Lesser Dining Room, making painful small talk until Lucius brings up his Ministry-led rehabilitation classes. With each passing course of dinner, Lucius shares what he has learned about Muggles. Which would be lovely, Hermione thinks, if it weren't for the fact that he feels the need to apologize to her every two minutes.

"Shoe horns?" he scoffs. "Shoe horns? I read an entire chapter on the maintenance of Muggle footwear, only to learn that most of them wear trainers now, anyway. Even their captains of industry. I'm sorry, Miss Granger, I know you're partial to comfortable footwear. But honestly, encasing one's toes in rubber and mesh? It's barbaric."

Narcissa, for her part, attempts to redirect the conversation to happier topics. Such as goblin history. Or eels. Or cannibalism. But Lucius, bless him, can't seem to help himself.

"And airplanes," he groans. "What a primitive concept those are. Apologies, Miss Granger. But the combustion of fossil fuels inside a tiny metal tube, thirteen kilometres above the earth? It's insanity, not to mention wasteful. I thought Muggles wanted to conserve resources, not set them aflame in the sky."

Finally, Hermione can't take it anymore.

"Maevy?" she calls out abruptly, interrupting another one of Lucius's tirades. The house-elf appears out of thin air, just beside Hermione's elbow.

"Was everything to Miss's liking?" Maevy asks, with a worried glance at Hermione's half-eaten plate of pheasant.

"As always, Maevy. But could we eat our dessert somewhere more…comfortable, perhaps?"

The house-elf gives Hermione a knowing wink and snaps her fingers so that their dishes and napkins disappear. Draco frowns, but he links his arm with Hermione's and his mother's. Lucius, who will never Apparate by himself again, grabs his wife, and the four of them Apparate together to the kitchens of Malfoy Manor.

There, four barstools wait for them, as does the large, intricately-decorated pie Draco made earlier that day. The beautiful pie resembles the tarts that Hermione brought to the Manor three months ago – an interlocking series of delicately-carved, apple roses, nestled inside a golden crust.

Lucius has the good sense to look abashed by the change of venue, and their dessert passes far more comfortably than their dinner. In fact, Hermione gets her second, awkward side-hug from Lucius at the end of the night. Narcissa merely gives the younger witch a sly smile, and Hermione decides that the night isn't such a waste after all.

Their first dinner out with Harry and Ginny goes marginally better. A liberal amount of wine on Harry's and Ginny's part and Quidditch talk on Draco's seem to ease some of the tension. As does the fact that Theo and Erik join them for post-dinner drinks at Hermione's flat. After the second bottle of Bordeaux, from which both Hermione and Draco abstain, the conversation starts to flow more naturally. So much so, she and Draco eventually curl up together on the couch, her head resting on his shoulder and his hand in her lap. Maybe Harry can see the adoration on their faces, or maybe he's just had too much wine, but he doesn't even wince when Draco kisses the edge of Hermione's mouth.

That's also the first night Draco sleeps over at her place. He doesn't ask to stay the night; he just helps her usher out their guests and then drags her toward the bedroom with a wicked grin. Her small bed can hardly accommodate their activities and, at some point, they both tumble onto the floor. Draco hits the ground first, and he curses angrily. But he seems to grasp the benefit of their situation when Hermione demonstrates why her landing face-first between his legs might not be such a bad thing.

Afterward, tangled up with him under the enchanted stars on her bedroom ceiling, Hermione lets her heart speak the word she's been thinking for months. Even if she can't quite say it out loud yet.

The first time Draco meets her parents, she almost – almost – says the word, anyway. She expects the worst that night, but Draco surprises her. The moment her dad opens the door to her parents' modest townhome in Surrey, Draco greets him with a raspberry-topped cheesecake and a firm, respectful handshake.

"What do you call a dentist who doesn't like tea?" Draco asks Mr. Granger, in lieu of an introduction. When her dad gives him a befuddled look, Draco simply says, "Denis."

Her dad – whose name, incidentally, is Dennis – laughs harder than he has since returning from Australia. So hard, Hermione knows he likes Draco, even when her parents catch them snogging over a sink full of dirty dishes after dinner.

Their first study sessions go just as well as that dinner. To her utter delight, Draco makes an excellent pupil. He's focused, determined, and unflinching about her colour-coded study guides. His exam application encounters a bureaucratic snag, of course, but a flick of Hermione's wand and a bit of muscling at the Ministry ensures that Draco will sit for the June N.E.W.T.'s. It also doesn't hurt that Hermione's good friend Minerva trusts her unconditionally, enough to reserve Draco a private carrel in the Hogwarts Library to take his exams away from prying eyes.

They only take a few breaks from his studies, one of which occurs on the fifth of June. Hermione pretends that it's just an ordinary Monday, owling Draco a perfunctory "Happy Birthday" note from her office. But when Draco goes downstairs to eat a solitary dinner in the Manor's kitchen that night, he finds the room packed with family, friends, and a chocolate-iced gingerbread cake.

Over the glow of twenty gold candles, Draco catches Hermione's smile. It's then that he knows. Knows.

Goyle, Theo, and Blaise see the change on their friend's face, as does Narcissa. Pansy doesn't notice anything, probably because she's too busy slipping her hand into the back pocket of Ron Weasley's jeans. Ron doesn't look at anyone, probably because Hermione caught him groping Pansy outside the Leaky Cauldron's loos last weekend. As for Harry and Ginny, they just try not to touch anything valuable, including the Slytherins. Lucius simply pulls Hermione to his side in gratitude and she decides that, as far as awkward hugs go, she could do worse.

Draco and Hermione take another break to walk one Saturday afternoon, hand-in-hand down Diagon Alley. It's there that a stranger hisses "Death Eater" at them for the first time. Hermione takes the man aside and speaks firmly with him for almost an hour. Then the couple leaves with the stranger's address so they can bring him some chai-spiced madeleines that evening.

At Draco's first Gryffindor game-night, he does in fact show Harry up at cards – along with Hermione, Ginny, Dean, Seamus, and pretty much everyone else in attendance. Ron suggests that maybe Slytherins are naturally better at poker, given their innate duplicity. Draco suggests that Ron go screw himself. And Neville suggests that everyone stop fighting – including the rest of the Gryffindors, who can't help but argue over which of them gets to have Draco on their team next month.

The first time Hermione enters the front parlour of Malfoy Manor, Draco holds her hand so tightly it aches. They last about five seconds inside the room before she starts hyperventilating and begs to be taken back upstairs to the safety of their library. The next three times occur in much the same manner, but each time, she's able to stand it a little longer. On her fifth try, she makes it fifteen minutes. Together, they declare this a victory and vow never to enter the room again.

To celebrate, Draco takes her to the Manor's Larger Library. Hermione wanders its interlocking rooms for nearly three, awestruck hours. Eventually, she grabs two enormous volumes for some light reading later that night. Then she grabs Draco and proceeds to do a few unmentionable things to him against the bookcases.

Hermione and Draco's first big row as a couple – since they've agreed not to count the broken Floo connection as such – happens the night he receives his exam scores.

He's tense and pacing like a panther when she arrives at the Smaller Library after work that evening. At first, Hermione has no idea what's made him so agitated. She attempts to soothe him like she always does, with soft words and reason. But apparently, reason is the last thing Draco wants to hear. Within a few minutes, they're both snarling and shouting and storming around the room.

They go on that way for almost an hour, until Hermione spies an unopened envelope lying upon the tea table. On the clean, white front of the envelope are the words "Draco Lucius Malfoy" and the letters N-E-W-T. She moves toward the table, and Draco almost dives over the couch to stop her.

"Don't you dare!" he shouts.

Hermione's chin juts imperiously into the air. "And why shouldn't I?"

"Because they're my scores, Granger!"

"But it's our life, Draco!"

Just like that, the anger drains out of their fight. It's the first time she's officially referred to their future in that way – with the possessive "ours" – and they both know it. Draco's mouth stays in its hard line, but she sees the sudden questions in his eyes.

Feeling strangely shy, Hermione picks up the envelope and traces one finger along the paper's edge.

"You know these won't change anything, right?" she says softly.

Draco snorts. "Those scores will change everything, Granger."

She shakes her head. "Not between us. Even if you got all P's – which you didn't – I won't feel any differently about you. Merlin, even if you got all T's, I would still…I still…."

"You still what?"

Her eyes move from the envelope, back up to his face. "I've said everything else first," she whispers. "Should I say this first, too?"

Draco pauses, but just for a heartbeat.

"No," he growls. Then he pulls her to him roughly and drops his mouth onto hers.

"I love you," he says, between their kisses. "I knew it on my birthday. I knew I loved you."

Hermione laughs joyously. "Well, I knew I loved you in Paris."

"One-upper," Draco teases, threading his fingers into her curls to pull her even closer.

"Prat," she whispers against his lips.

"Swot."

"Ferret."

"Know-it-all."

"Mine."

After Hermione says that, there isn't much talking. Except for one other word – love – whispered over and over again onto each other's bare skin.

Later, when it no longer matters, they open the first bit of mail that they consider "theirs." And they both agree they deserve at least one more round in their transfigured sheets, for all those lovely O's on his score card.

***

One beautiful evening at the end of August – the weekend after Ginny leads England to win the Quidditch World Cup – Draco and Hermione share their very first "last."

The last confection Hermione officially creates for her PTSD Pastry Tour is her best, by far. Everyone agrees. She knows this, because just about every witch and wizard she's ever met gets to taste it.

Almost the entire English Wizarding world attends Harry and Ginny's wedding, much to Molly Weasley's chagrin. Even at the reception, the guests can still hear Molly mutter, "If the Ministry mandated attendance to this wedding, then the Ministry should've bloody well paid for it."

Hermione secretly agrees, which is why the cake is free and extravagant.

The cake in question now sits at the center of the lead table, surrounded by a sea of hydrangeas and enchanted paper sparrows. The exterior of the cake is iced in basic, white buttercream, with a few piped designs to match the embroidery on Ginny's dress. There's nothing exceptional or extraordinary about the cake; not until you register its precipitous height.

It towers a metre and half over the table, with ten separately-flavored layers charmed to hold perfectly still and uniform, no matter how many slices are taken out – even from the lower tiers. There's a pumpkin layer for Harry, cherry for Ginny, salted caramel for Molly and Arthur, chocolate ganache for Ron, lemon curd for Percy, marshmallow for Charlie, cardamom for Bill, sweetened goat cheese for George, and orange-rosemary in remembrance of Fred. A flavor for each of the Weasley siblings, one for the parents of the bride, and one for the groom, to make nine layers total.

Then there's the tenth layer, which isn't specifically assigned to anyone. Hermione's date to the wedding, however, recognizes the flavor. It's a simple, apple-cinnamon jam – nothing special, she teased him while creating it. But her date insists that it's the best flavor of the night. Later, as he whirls her around the dance floor, Hermione tastes it upon Draco's lips.

And she has to admit: he's right.

***THE END***