17 June 2005
Friday early evening
Considering that it was mid-June and the summer solstice was only days away, the evening was unusually chilly. Hermione had thrown open windows to air out the flat when she’d arrived home from work, but now, only a couple of hours later, there was a nip in the air that had her reaching for a pullover fleece. It was one of Draco’s from Oxford, a slightly oversized, royal-blue hoodie she’d always loved for its softness and the wonderful smell of him permanently embedded in the fabric.
Draco would probably be late coming home tonight, she’d reminded herself, dropping her keys into the ceramic bowl on the table adjacent to the front door as she came in. The project he was currently involved in at the museum was resulting in a lot of overtime these days, it seemed. More often than not, he wasn’t arriving home until close to nine. Tonight would very likely be more of the same. Curious, she found herself thinking, that he seemed to be opting for all that overtime when really, he hadn’t needed to. A rotation system had been put into place, so that not everyone staffing the project would have to stay every night. He’d told her about it the week before. Yet he had ended up offering to be one of those staying night after night. Why?
Wandering into the kitchen, golden, early-evening sunshine streaming through the window and warming the room, she felt oddly restless, unsettled. Dinner should be the next project, yet she felt uninspired to do much more than root through the fridge for leftovers. Pulling a container of carrot-ginger soup out, she poured it into a large mug and murmured a warming spell. Faster than the microwave, and completely undetectable, even should a nosy neighbour be peering through her kitchen window, which of course wasn’t the case anyway.
Perching on a stool by the breakfast bar, she sipped the soup slowly. As she did, thoughts of Draco returned. Why would he be staying late so much more often than necessary? Could it be that…? No. She shook her head and smiled. No, he couldn’t actually be seeing someone, could he…? Could he? For just a moment, she found herself mentally reviewing all the co-workers of his that she’d met in the last year or so.
Not that she’d noticed anything overt in his behaviour or any evidence of something like that. None of the obvious, clichéd clues about cheating that one always read about in novels or saw in films. And there was no-one she could think of in his department at the museum who would even remotely be a possibility.
Stop it, Hermione! Don’t be stupid!
He was working hard, that was all. He was incredibly dedicated and had always derived a great deal of satisfaction from this job. That was nothing new. If only she could make sense of all this.
By half past eight, Hermione was tucked up in bed with a book she’d just started, though her attention was only half on the narrative. The other half had been checking the bedside clock every ten minutes or so. Finally, at a few minutes before nine, there was the unmistakable sound of a key turning in the front door lock. Jumping out of bed, she ran to the sitting room and ambushed Draco, who was slipping out of his jacket and reaching to hang it on a hook near the door.
“Hey, what’s all this, then?” he laughed through a mouthful of hair, as she threw her arms around him, burying her face in his chest. He held her away from him, noting the Oxford sweatshirt and baggy pyjama bottoms she was wearing.
“Sexy,” he teased, leaning in to kiss her. “I like it. Bit early for pyjamas, though, isn’t it?”
She shrugged noncommittally. “I was cold. Have you eaten?”
He nodded. “Yeah. They brought in food. I’m stuffed. Though I wouldn’t mind a bit of wine. Have we got anything good lying about?”
“Um… yes, I think we still have a bit of that Pinot Grigio from the other day. Go change and I’ll get us some.”
A few minutes later, he had returned to the sitting room clad in his own pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt.
“Bit nippy tonight, yeah? What about a fire then?” he asked brightly, patting the sofa cushion next to him.
Obligingly, she sat down next to him, handing him a glass of wine and setting her own down on the small cocktail table. “Yes, please! I’d love a fire!”
A moment later, Draco had a nice fire going, and together, they sat back and basked in its warmth as they sipped their wine.
“Home late again,” Hermione murmured eventually, her gaze on the tongues of flame curling about the logs. “That’s every night this week.”
He sighed deeply. “Yeah, sorry about that, love. We’re pretty much done with all that now, though. Well, the initial research phase, anyway. That’s what we’ve been slogging through the last week or so. Merlin, it’s good to be home. I’m knackered!”
They fell into silence then, their own thoughts absorbing them for a time.
“Draco,” Hermione said suddenly.
“Mmm…” His eyes were closed now, the wine and the warmth of the fire working together to lull him into a near-doze.
“We need to talk. About trying for a baby. I know we agreed to put the issue on hold, but that was months ago. I haven’t brought it up since then, because I haven’t wanted to pressure you. But honestly, I… I really think we need to make a decision.”
“Decision… yeah… okay…”
Hermione frowned. So far, this wasn’t going very well. It really would help if the future father of her children would at least be fully conscious during such a momentous conversation.
“So what do you think?” She gave his arm a small poke.
“Hermione, why are you so bothered about this? We’re young, we’re healthy, and it isn’t as if we’ve been married all that long. Three years.”
“And three months.”
“Okay, yeah, three years and three months, to be precise. That’s not a very long time, not at all. And twenty-five isn’t exactly what I’d call old, either. Fuck’s sake, Granger, what’s the rush?”
Same response as every other time they’d talked about it, almost word for word. But this time, she would not be put off.
“‘What’s the rush?’ ‘Not old’? Just how long am I supposed to buy into all that rubbish?” Her voice had a definite edge now; suddenly, she was teetering on the verge of tears and trying very hard to swallow them down. “It sounds to me as if, at the bottom of it, you really don’t want a child at all, and you’re just trying to find a way out of it, whatever will shut me up!”
Oh fuck. Draco dragged himself into an upright position and rubbed his eyes. A perfectly peaceful Friday night was going straight down the toilet, and now Granger really had her hackles up.
And she wasn’t finished either.
“Do you want a baby or not? No more dancing round the issue.”
She was sitting very straight, her arms folded across her chest, and he could see her mentally ticking off the seconds until he gave her an answer. There was no getting out of it this time; that was plain.
Did he want a child? If he were being totally honest, he did, at least in part. Okay, sometimes in large part. Something about small children terrified him at times, but they also intrigued him. They were like another species altogether, cryptic and weird and demanding and not at all inhibited about making huge, noisy fusses in public. But if they loved you, it was unconditional and forever. And it seemed as if parents were completely over the moon about their offspring. He’d seen that crazy, powerful love shining from Harry’s eyes whenever he talked about little Taran, even more so when he had the baby in his arms. Even when he was knee-deep in poo or sick, or when the baby had the temerity to pee on his father in the middle of a nappie change… even then, Harry looked as if he had a tiny, joyful miracle in his arms. Plainly speaking, he was smitten. Ginny too.
Something about that whole thing mystified Draco, but it called to him as well, touching on something very deep. He had the feeling that were he to become a father, he would be exactly the same way. There was something wonderful about such a powerful, all-consuming love – but scary, too. Would he lose a part of himself, he wondered. Would he lose a part of Hermione? Marriages could change once a kid came into the picture. Would theirs?
And would he be a truly good father? His own father hadn’t exactly been the best role model. What was that old phrase? “The sins of the fathers are to be laid upon the children.” He’d read that line in a play by Shakespeare when he was at Oxford. “The Merchant of Venice,” he recalled. What if, despite his best intentions, he let his children down, making them feel as if they could never quite meet his expectations, never completely earn his approval? As if approval and acceptance – love – were things to be earned rather than given freely and unconditionally. The idea that one day, he might find himself replicating his father’s exacting standards and unyielding disapproval, always so hurtful, was unbearable. His mouth tightened, remembering.
And what about his work? He’d hoped to be further along in his career by this time. Having a child now would mean he would likely have to take on more work from his father, or possibly even leave the museum and work for Malfoy Enterprises full-time. That wasn’t exactly a happy prospect. But in truth, he had serious doubts about just how much real advancement was going to be possible at the museum at all, even after another several years had passed. Banking on that happening was probably foolish in any case.
So. Where did that leave him?
He turned to Hermione, who was gazing at him steadily, just waiting, and took a deep breath.
“Yeah. Reckon I do, actually.”
She drew in a deep, incredulous breath. “You do? Really? You mean it?”
He nodded, a silly grin blooming on his face despite himself.
She launched herself into his arms, hugging him very tightly. He could feel hot tears on the back of his neck.
Laughing, he gently loosened her grip. “Steady on, darling. I’d like to live long enough to actually make that baby, if it’s all the same to you.”
With a sheepish little giggle she sat back, smiling radiantly at him through happy tears. “Sorry!"
“S’okay. It’s why I’ve been working late every night, really.”
Hermione wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand and looked at him quizzically. The conversation had taken a sudden, serious turn she hadn’t expected.
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” Draco began, looking a bit uncomfortable suddenly. “I know how important this is to you –to us, I mean – and I wanted… well, it’s just that I hoped I’d be a bit further along there, you know? So I thought that maybe… if I pushed a bit, really showed them my commitment, going above and beyond, putting in the extra time… maybe, eventually, it would help to move things along for me there. Let them know I’m dead serious about the work, yeah? Because that way, I’d feel more ready to… you know… go ahead with this baby thing. Because I want our child to know that his father can earn a good living, not just…”
“Not just inherit one,” Hermione finished. She was smiling at him now in an entirely different way, and her eyes were puddling up again. So that was it!
He nodded; now it was his turn to feel just slightly embarrassed. He began to say how pointless it had probably been, but stopped when he saw Hermione's face. Clearly, his wife seemed to feel that he’d just said something rather heroic, judging by her reaction. Gently twining her arms about his neck, she gave him a tender smile and then she kissed him. It might just have been one of the best kisses he’d ever had, and considering how she’d already spoilt him the past five years in the snogging department, that was saying a lot.
And then she drew closer, whispering something in his ear.
Apparently, there was a lot more waiting where that kiss came from. Grinning, he followed her into the bedroom. If this was what it took to successfully make a baby, he’d happily make himself available whenever and wherever she wanted him.
Granted, so far, it had been fun. Better than fun. Amazing, actually. But he really should have known, from that point on, that his methodical wife would make a thorough study of the most optimal times for them to try. And another thing. “Try” seemed a rather odd term, Draco found himself thinking, for something that should, at the very least, be a really good time not requiring a whole lot of effort; when all the stars and planets were properly aligned, it was so much more than that. Five years into their relationship, they were lucky that their physical connection was still a very powerful and magnetic one. Plainly put, they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
But this “trying” thing seemed likely to suck the juice from the whole proposition. Hermione was now “charting,” whatever that meant, though she seemed to know exactly what she was doing. Every morning, before she got out of bed – before she would even sit up – out came a special thermometer, a notebook, and a pencil, and she would take her temperature and then record it.
“Natural family planning,” she’d explained very matter-of-factly when he’d raised a sceptical eyebrow the first time. “See, it’s all about knowing when certain hormones are being released. My temperature is going to start spiking when I’m ovulating. I’ll keep a record of my temps on this chart, so I’ll know when the very best times are for us to try. It’s really quite scientific. I’ll also be checking my cervical m–”
“I remember,” he’d reassured her, holding up a hand. She’d explained once before about certain feminine secretions in more detail than he’d required, and he really didn’t fancy a recap of all that. Men just did not need to know all the finer details of the female reproductive system. ‘Let’s just focus on shagging, shall we?’ he’d thought, and shut her up with a firmly planted kiss.
One evening not long after, he arrived home to find Hermione curled up on the sofa with her laptop, a pad and pencil, and a copy of The Daily Prophet.
“What’s all this, then?” Bending over, he dropped a kiss on the top of her head, breathing in a whiff of her fragrant hair. It was all warmly vanilla- and apricot-scented, and he’d never tired of its perfume and its softness. It was hard to believe that he’d ever found those luxuriant curls and waves a source of amusement or ridicule. Sometimes, he found it hard to believe what an arse-brained git he’d been.
Leaning her head back on the sofa cushions, she closed her eyes and smiled, offering her mouth for a better kiss. “Classifieds. I’ve been thinking, Malfoy. It might be time to start looking for a bigger place.”
Move from Wren Street? Leave their cosy flat, their first real home together and one they’d truly made their own? What about the views of St. Andrews Gardens that it afforded, the proximity to work? What about Bloomsbury itself? They’d been so happy here.
His consternation was apparent. A frown replaced the hopeful look on Hermione’s face, and she nodded sadly. “I know, love. I feel the same way. I love it here too, I really do. But… there’s just no room for a baby. This flat is perfect for two, but not for three. I mean, in the beginning, it would be all right, because we would have the baby in our room with us. But eventually, well… unless you want to put a cot in the dining room, or maybe give up our room to the baby and sleep out here… I suppose we could always Transfigure the sofa into a bed at night. Or just buy a sofa bed.”
Draco had to concede that none of those prospects seemed very enticing. Sitting down in the chair by the fireplace, he rested his elbows on his knees and regarded Hermione thoughtfully.
“Reckon you have a point. Found anything?” He nodded in the direction of the Prophet, open to the classified ads pages.
She shook her head dismally. “Not yet, nothing specific. But there is a neighbourhood I think we should have a look at. There’s an article about it in the Prophet. Apparently, it’s an up-and-coming area for young wizarding families. Still a bit mixed on the outskirts, but more and more of us are moving in there.”
“Well,” Draco sighed. “Best go have a look then. See if it’s anything we might like. What’s it called?”
Relieved that the discussion had gone so smoothly, Hermione smiled.
The newly opened estate agents’ office in Diagon Alley was something of a hole in the wall, even as shops in that crowded warren of crooked lanes and alleyways went. Located upstairs above Fortescue’s, its bay window leaning crazily out over the street below, the office was small, cramped, and untidy, stacks of papers nesting chaotically on what one could only assume was a desk. Somewhere.
With a cautious knock, Hermione poked her head in and looked around.
“Hello?” she said hesitantly. “Anybody here?”
Draco was right behind her and now he reached past her, pushing the door open all the way.
“Come on, Granger,” he muttered. “The advert said business hours. This is a business. Somebody should be here.”
Hermione nodded and together they ventured inside. It appeared, on closer inspection, that someone was indeed on the premises. The stack of papers and folders in the centre of the desk wobbled a bit, and a sound somewhere between a dry cough and the wheeze of a hoover erupted from behind them. A woman’s head appeared next, peering up from behind the paper mountain.
“Good heavens, did we have an appointment? I’m ever so sorry. Please forgive me. I seem to be in a dreadful muddle these days. Don’t know what I’d do if my head weren’t attached to my neck!” The woman, her poufy, fire-engine-red hair cut in a bob that was far too youthful for her advanced middle age, clucked and then laughed heartily at her own observation.
She stood, holding out a plump hand to her visitors. “Imelda Stilton. Like the cheese.” Tinkle of laughter. “And you are…?” Then, moving a step closer and sliding her glasses down her nose, she peered at them quizzically. “Did we have an appointment?”
Hermione was the first to recover from the sheer surprise that was Imelda Stilton. “Yes. We did. I mean, we do. I’m Hermione Granger-Malfoy, and this is my husband Draco. We sent you an owl two days ago.”
Now the older witch looked confused and slightly vacant. “Did you? I can’t recall. Oh dear. Well, I’m sure it arrived, I just don’t…” She began riffling through the stack of paperwork closest to her, muttering to herself the whole time until she stopped abruptly and looked up. “Did I send you a reply, by any chance?”
Nodding, Hermione plunged a hand into her bag and began rooting around, finally pulling out a folded parchment in triumph and not a little relief. “Here it is. See, you said to come at two. So here we are. We need a bigger house. Can you help us?”
Imelda Stilton’s smile was reassuring. She was in her element. “Putting people in lovely new homes is what I do. You’ve come to the right place, my dears.” Now her tone turned briskly business-like. “Sit.”
“We serve wizarding families in all of metro London and environs. You are looking for one of our communities, I presume?”
Both Draco and Hermione nodded avidly.
“Good. Now then, had you a particular location in mind?” For a small, stocky woman, she moved quickly, and now she reached for her wand. Waving it, she murmured an indistinct spell word and a large parchment on the wall behind her unrolled itself with a snap. On it was a map of London, the city centre and its immediate suburbs, with certain areas outlined in various colours.
“Red means densely magical. Blue is predominantly magical, with a smattering of Muggles mixed in, but they are the ones who’ve married into our community. And Squibs, of course. Green is fifty-fifty, again mostly Squibs and mixed families accounting for the non-magical half. Yellow refers to areas that have some magical folk on the fringes, but of course, living in one of those communities necessitates living like a Muggle, essentially. Bloomsbury, for instance.” She pointed at one spot on the map outlined in yellow.
“We know. That’s where we live now,” Draco muttered, unable to keep the regret out of his voice.
“Oh, I see! And you’re looking to upgrade to an all-wizarding community instead? Is that it? So we will want to focus on the red and the blue. Right.”
“Actually,” Hermione piped up eagerly, “We’ve been reading about Primrose Hill. What can you tell us about that?”
Now Imelda Stilton’s smile turned canny. “Ah. Clients who do their homework. I like that. In fact, Primrose Hill is still rather a well-kept secret, probably because there are even more fashionable wizarding neighbourhoods that tend to attract buyers first. Utter nonsense, of course. Here, you can see it on the map. Purple.”
“Somewhere between the red and the blue,” Hermione murmured, half to herself.
Imelda nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, and really, it’s quite nice! Simply oozing gorgeous architecture, and there’s a park up on Primrose Hill with wonderful views. It’s also very close to Regent’s Park and the London Zoo. Absolutely marvellous for young families. Lovely, small-village feel.” She peered at the two of them closely and the canny smile returned. “Planning a family, are you?”
The beginnings of a blush tinged Hermione’s cheeks and she smiled shyly. “Well, as a matter of fact…”
The estate agent clapped her hands together. “I knew it! The minute you two walked into the office, I had a feeling something was brewing. How far along are you, my dear?” Her gaze flickered down to Hermione’s mid-section, lingering briefly.
“Oh! No, no, not yet. Soon, we hope!” Now the blush was in full bloom and Hermione giggled.
Draco found himself less than amused. This woman was seriously getting on his nerves, more and more by the second. He couldn’t quite put his finger on the reason, but she was certainly becoming far too chummy for his liking. Nosy old bat.
“Well, have you got anything in that area you could show us?” he broke in impatiently.
“I might do, just a moment…” the estate agent murmured, extricating a sheaf of papers from under one of the large piles. “Ah, yes… Here we are… hmmm…” She looked up in triumph. “This one is brand new, only just listed yesterday. And I’ve another as well, very near by. We can see both of them right now, if you like. I’ll just make a couple of quick Floo calls, shall I?”
She smiled brightly at her young clients, awaiting their answer.
Well, this was it. Or it could be. Suddenly uncertain, Draco gave Hermione’s hand a quick squeeze. “Well, Granger,” he whispered into her ear, “what d’you reckon?”
She gave him a tremulous smile. “Let’s go!”
Of the two properties that Imelda Stilton had on offer, both were damp squibs. At least as far as Draco was concerned, that is. The first was in Meadowbank, a bucolic-sounding road within Primrose Hill. She’d raved about it nonstop as they prepared to Apparate.
“Just fabulous, you’ll see! The rooms are huge, and there is a lovely, very private back garden that would be perfect for entertaining, or for children to play in.” She’d winked at them, and then nattered blithely on, not waiting for a response. “And of course –”
But just then, they vanished, sucked from the estate agents’ premises in Diagon Alley and materialising (discreetly behind a tall holly bush) in front of the house in question. The end of her sentence was swallowed up in the rush of wind that sucked them up, transporting them to Meadowbank.
This one was wrong from the start. Judging from the exterior – in fact, the entire block of houses – neither Draco nor Hermione even had to see the inside to know that it would be completely devoid of interesting and appealing architectural features, and rather sterile-looking in its severe modernity. It was difficult to imagine how anyone with magic could choose a house so lacking in a sense of whimsy and history. “Boring and ugly,” Draco muttered. They glanced at each other, and their identical frowns confirmed it. Ever the polite one, though, Hermione smiled at the estate agent, giving Draco a small shove when he lagged behind as they approached the house.
The inside was exactly what the outside had predicted.
Large rooms, yes, but they were spare and rather cold. Everything was angular and stark, ultra-modern. Even their cosy furniture couldn’t fix what was wrong here.
“Maths, not Mozart,” Hermione had whispered. Draco had nodded, baffled by that somewhat cryptic statement, but suspecting that whatever his wife had meant, she was probably spot on.
The Ainger Road house had only been marginally better. Attractive enough on the outside, it was a half-timbered, attached home covered in ivy and sandwiched between two identical brick houses, with a pretty, little front garden. The moment they’d walked inside, however, Draco had shaken his head.
“Don’t much fancy this place either. Squatty and dark,” he’d decided. “Like living in a hole in the ground.”
Unfortunately, this was fairly accurate. Hermione had been disappointed, because she’d been charmed by the exterior. But small, cramped rooms, narrow hallways, and poor light were a claustrophobic turn-off, especially after two lovely years in a light-filled, airy flat with wonderful park views.
“Sorry, Mrs. Stilton,” she’d sighed. “This one won’t do either, I’m afraid.”
Over the next several weeks, there were seven more houses on offer that the intrepid estate agent insisted would be simply perfect for them.
“My dears!” she would trill, her head materialising suddenly in their sitting room hearth amidst a corona of green flames. “I’ve found The One! I’m sure of it! You simply must see it today before somebody else snaps it up!”
Or her owl would be rapping at the kitchen window, looking fairly frazzled, yet another message from her tied to its leg.
On one such occasion, he’d just got out of the shower and was standing in the kitchen in only a towel, sipping coffee, his back to the window. The sudden, sharp tapping on the pane of glass had startled him so much that he’d swallowed too big a gulp and burnt his mouth, the towel dropping to the floor.
Hermione had scooped up the fallen towel, grinning evilly. The exhausted little owl had looked on, swivelling its head nearly 180 degrees to stare inquisitively at Draco.
“Hope Imelda isn’t a Legilimens,” she’d teased, dancing away nimbly when he’d made a playful grab for her. “Though on second thought, it probably doesn’t work with animals.”
“If it does, I’m the best thing she’s seen in two decades,” he’d shrugged, snatching the towel from her and wrapping it around his naked nether regions once again. Then he’d pointed at the owl. “Look at him. He’s dead knackered. Criminal, what she’s doing to that bird.”
Strolling over to the window ledge, he’d plucked the rolled-up parchment from the owl’s leg to examine its contents. “House in Chalcot Road,” he’d begun.
“‘Simply must see!’” they’d continued in unison and then laughed.
And so it went. Either the offering was too expensive (He: “Bloody hell, Granger! Are they joking?” She (laughing): “You grew up in a castle and you’re surprised at expensive real estate?” He: “Pardon me. I grew up in a piece of history that’s worth a fortune. This is highway robbery.” She: “Oh, rubbish!” He: “That too.”), too large for their purposes (She: “Seriously? Nobody needs five bathrooms!”), or too small (He: “Fucking broom cupboard. Definitely not on.”). As nice as some aspects of these houses were, none of them offered the whole package. None of them jumped out at Hermione and Draco as the Wren Street flat had done so compellingly.
“I’m beginning to think this is going to take a lot longer than I’d expected.” With a circumspect little sigh, Hermione rolled over, snuggling into Draco’s arms as they lay in bed late one night.
“S’okay. I’m not bothered,” he murmured groggily. “We’ll find something soon.”
A moment later, he was sound asleep. Hermione wasn’t so lucky. She lay awake long after that, staring at the shadowy patterns on the ceiling and thinking.
The knocking and subsequent ringing of the doorbell were loud and insistent enough to wake anyone out of the deepest sleep.
Draco cracked open one eye and peered balefully at the clock on the bedside table. Half eight. Far too early for any civilised person to be awake on a Saturday morning. Who in the name of Merlin was banging on their front door? Half tempted to grab his wand and do something extremely nasty with it, he threw off the covers, snatching a t-shirt from the nearby chair and hastily pulling it over his head.
“No! Who on earth is that?” Hermione’s voice was a muffled wail, as she’d pulled her pillow over her head. She sounded as cranky as Draco felt. They’d had a very late night; baby-making was a serious and time-consuming business, and they’d dedicated most of the night to trying out new and intriguing positions detailed in a book Hermione had brought home.
“Whoever it is, I’m going to kill them,” Draco muttered, stomping out of the bedroom and grumbling as he marched down the long hall towards the front door.
When he yanked the door open, feeling murderous and ready to hex whoever had wrecked his well-earned sleep, the whirlwind that was Imelda Stilton was standing there, her chubby face wreathed in smiles, eyes twinkling.
“Oh, good!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands together. “I didn’t wake you, did I?” Not waiting for his answer and apparently oblivious to his deepening scowl, she chirped on. “I’ve the most wonderful property to show you two. It’s just come on the market and it’s brilliant. Simply perfect for a young family! As soon as I saw the listing, I said to myself, ‘Now this really is The One! They’ve got to see this!’ So I came right over. I just knew you wouldn’t want me to wait!” She gave a trill of musical laughter and patted Draco’s arm. “Come on, then! Go get dressed! We haven’t got all day, you know!”
Within fifteen minutes (ten of which the estate agent spent impatiently tapping the pointy toe of her expensive shoe on the tiled floor), both Hermione and Draco were dressed and ready.
“This is positively uncivilised,” Draco complained under his breath, turning the key in the front door to lock it. “No time, even, for a cup of coffee. I hate that woman!”
Hermione’s head was spinning just enough that she didn’t really care one way or the other if they viewed this property or if some other buyer snatched it right out from under them. All she knew at the moment was that she was desperately short about five hours of uninterrupted sleep. And it didn’t look like she’d get it today.
Positioning themselves near the front door and away from any windows, the three of them Disapparated, Imelda Stilton between them, their arms linked.
A moment later, they were standing in a tree-lined avenue beneath what was likely the largest and oldest oak tree in the area. Hermione and Draco exchanged a meaningful glance. Magic resided in this place. They could feel it already.
“It’s that one, just there,” the estate agent said, pointing to a cottage-like house tucked neatly into a row of charming stucco, stone and brick attached homes. She looked eagerly from Hermione to Draco. “Well? What do you think?”
“It’s lovely!” Hermione enthused. “Can we see the inside right now?”
“Of course.” Imelda smiled broadly. “The owners are away for the day, but they’ve left me the key.” At the sight of their raised eyebrows, she added, “Well, one can’t be too careful, you know. It is mostly wizarding families, but the area is a bit patchy still, some Muggles here and there. People here try to keep their magic indoors for the most part. Come along.”
They followed her along the neatly trimmed slate path as she headed briskly for the front door. A few seconds of fishing in her oversized purse, and then, with a triumphant smile, she brought out a single, rather large key on a brass ring.
“Ah, there we are! Right, then. Let’s go in, shall we?”
The key turned in the lock with a decided clunk and the door swung open. Hermione turned a nervously excited smile in Draco’s direction and caught his hand in hers. He gave it a squeeze and grinned back. Could this be the one, finally?
Passing through a smallish entry foyer that faced a staircase, Imelda led them into the sitting room, a generously proportioned, rectangular room with a fireplace at the other end, flanked on both sides by built-in bookcases above glass-fronted cupboards. The room was flooded with bright morning light, giving it a pleasant and very warm ambiance. At the far end, to the right of the bookcase, there was an arched entryway leading into the dining room.
“Oh, Draco!” Hermione whispered excitedly, clutching at his arm. “Look at this!”
Along the long wall were French doors that opened onto an enclosed stone patio, and beyond that, to the back garden. It was enormous for an urban home.
“All that land… it isn’t all part of this property, is it?” Draco asked as he moved closer to the French doors to get a better look.
“No, that’s the common area for this little enclave, which is called Arbour Close, by the way,” the estate agent replied. “All the homes along this side of the road and in the next one over share the common area. It’s exclusive to the homeowners here. Very private. Nobody else can enter. So it’s quite safe as well, especially for families with young children. Very desirable, for obvious reasons.”
Now that was an interesting piece of information. Suddenly, the house had become even more of a draw. Draco could practically hear what Hermione was thinking. What a great place to raise kids! So safe and private. And it’s so pretty! I love it!
She turned to him with a dazzling smile.
“I know. You love it,” he whispered as she opened her mouth to speak. “Let’s see the rest of it before we jump to any conclusions, yeah?”
Imelda Stilton was already on her way into the kitchen, which opened onto the dining room through a pair of louvred doors. Her young clients trailed behind her, both of them looking around, both already imagining, despite themselves, what it would be like to call this house “home.”
The kitchen did not disappoint. It was generously sized and bright, square in shape, with a large window overlooking the back garden. Pale blue-grey, glass-fronted cabinets, butcher-block work surfaces, and shiny, hardwood flooring made it a most attractive room, large enough for a good-sized table in the centre or possibly a work island with stools for seating. A door at one end opened out onto the patio. Another, diagonally opposite, led down a set of stairs to the basement, which, it turned out, was finished very nicely and also included a laundry room and a small loo.
“This could be a playroom! Oh gosh, Malfoy, it’s fantastic!” Hermione squeezed Draco’s arm excitedly.
He couldn’t help smiling. It really was very nice indeed, and they hadn’t even seen the upstairs yet. Imelda Stilton was ready to remedy that, however. Beckoning to them with a small, private smile –she knew in her bones that she was on the verge of a sale – she brought them back up to the ground floor and through the living room to the staircase.
“I think you’ll just adore the upstairs,” she gushed. “There are three bedrooms, and the master has a fireplace. Very handy, for obvious reasons.” She winked suggestively at her young clients. “Romantic, too.”
The master bedroom was huge; it faced the street and had large, sunny windows, as did the sitting room below it. And like the sitting room, there was a generous fireplace at one end. Draco glanced over at his wife and knew instantly that she was imagining their furniture in this room and how she would decorate, where pictures would be hung, how she would make the place truly theirs. She was smiling to herself as she wandered around, lightly running the tips of her fingers over the surfaces of the chests of drawers, the headboard of the large bed, the long windowsill. Stopping there, she gazed out onto the road beyond the front garden below, a dreamy expression on her face.
He knew right then and there that this would be their new home. Hermione was sold. Truth to tell, so was he.
“… and there are two additional bedrooms that would be perfect for children. Until then, of course, they would do very nicely as a guest room and home office,” Imelda was saying, gesturing towards the two rooms across the hall. “There’s an en-suite here in the master bedroom, as you see, and a second full bath down the hall.”
Hermione was already exploring the other bedrooms, which had views of the back garden. The small, dreamy smile Draco had caught earlier had broadened, and there were stars in her eyes.
He turned to the estate agent, who was taking it all in and looking rather smug. Didn’t I tell you? her expression crowed.
“How much?” he wanted to know. “What are they asking?”
“That’s quite possibly the best part of all,” Imelda replied enigmatically, and left the thought hanging for a bit of extra drama.
“What do you mean?” Hermione interjected, coming back into the master bedroom.
“Well, you see, the current owners are relocating abroad shortly, due to a job transfer. They’re looking for a quick sale because they must be in Belgium in a month’s time. And so, they are willing to take a substantial cut in the selling price, simply because they don’t have the luxury of waiting indefinitely. But believe me…” Imelda paused, eyeing her clients with sudden gravity.
Here it comes. Draco raised an expectant eyebrow.
“Believe me,” she repeated, extra emphasis on the words this second time. “You will not find a better deal anywhere in London, or for that matter, anywhere in Britain, period. This house is worth at least one hundred thousand Galleons. But they are willing to take substantially less.”
Draco narrowed his eyes. “How much less?”
“They instructed me to tell you that they’d be willing to entertain an offer of eighty thousand. You won’t find anything even close to this magnificent house at such a price.”
“Eighty!” Hermione breathed, her eyes wide. That sounded like an awful lot. She clutched at his arm, drawing him into a corner where they could speak more freely.
“We can get it for less. I’m sure of it. If they’re that desperate to sell, they’ll go lower,” Draco whispered. “Let me handle this.”
Swallowing what felt suddenly like a Snitch stuck in her throat, Hermione nodded and slipped her hand, just a bit clammy now, into his. They returned to the estate agent, who was waiting by the fireplace, and Draco cleared his throat.
“It’s a great house, fantastic actually. But eighty thousand is just a bit steep for us.”
That hadn’t been the reaction Imelda Stilton had expected. This was a Malfoy, after all. Nonplussed, she pursed her lips and considered for a moment.
Draco heaved a deep, regretful sigh. “Not possible, I’m afraid.” He waited an additional moment. “Sixty.”
Imelda Stilton took about ten seconds to evaluate, consulted the seller’s instructions one last time, and looked Draco straight in the eye. “Sixty-five and not a Sickle less. That’s really as low as I can go.”
Draco shrugged, and for one truly terrible moment, Hermione was afraid the deal had been blown and the house lost to them. Then he grinned.
Releasing a pent-up breath, the estate agent smiled broadly. “Congratulations. You’ve bought yourself a wonderful house. I’ll have the papers drawn up straightaway.”
As they left, the heavy, old key turning in the door behind them as Imelda locked up, Hermione slipped her hand into Draco’s and gave it a squeeze.
“This is the right one. I can feel it. Can’t you?” she asked softly. He could see that she was on the verge of very happy tears.
He smiled tenderly at her. “I can, yeah.”
“Can we really afford it, though?” Suddenly, she looked worried. Were they getting in over their heads?
He nodded. “I’ve been putting away most of what I’ve earned from the work I do for my father. And honestly, Hermione, I reckon it’s time, finally, to use some of that inheritance money we’ve been sitting on for so long. It’s grown, you know. I asked Father to invest a fair bit of it a while ago and the returns have been tremendous. We can definitely afford this house now.”
“Thanks to you! This is really going to happen, isn’t it!” Throwing her arms around his neck, she held on tightly. “And you’re right. This is the perfect time to use that money! Draco, I am so proud of you!”
“Thanks, love,” he whispered into her hair and drew her closer.
The estate agent smiled complacently, folding her arms across her chest. She was used to such emotional displays. They were par for the course in her profession. All those happy tears translated into lovely Galleons in commission fees for her, from both sellers and buyers.
“Well, folks, we’d best be getting back to my office so that we can get the ball rolling on this sale,” she said presently. Five minutes of weepy theatrics was quite sufficient. She had things to do.
“Oh, yes!” Hermione laughed a little bit, embarrassed. “Of course!”
Linking arms with the older witch, Draco and Hermione braced themselves for the momentary but definitely unpleasant effects of Side-Along Apparition. Just then, however, a cheery voice rang out, coming from the direction of the house. Or more specifically, as they discovered when they turned to look back, from the house next door.
A rotund woman in her late sixties was waddling in their direction and waving a garden trowel. Her bulk meant that she couldn’t move all that quickly, but she was clearly determined to waylay them. She wore a straw sunhat, and tiny beads of perspiration had collected around her hairline beneath the wide brim. Large curls framed her face in a style that was decades out of date, and her face was made up apparently under the delusion that more was always better. A lot more. In her other hand, she held a tray of something baked, though it was difficult to tell exactly what it was.
“You’re the ones, aren’t you. My new neighbours. I saw you in my crystal, you see. Early this morning. I consult my crystal every morning, you know. Never take a step without doing that.” She giggled lightly, as Hermione and Draco stared back, unabashed. “Anyway,” she went on merrily, “I just knew you’d be coming. Could have bet money on it. And now, here you are. Beryl Mountbank.” She stuck out the hand holding the trowel, laughed again and then shoved the tool into a deep pocket in her housedress, absently wiping her hand on the skirt. “Very pleased to make your acquaintance, I’m sure.”
Draco was still staring, alarmed, as Hermione gave the woman a sweet smile and shook the proffered hand. “Hello. Lovely to meet you, Ms. Mountbank.”
“Beryl. Please. No formalities necessary.”
“Right, sorry. Beryl. Yes, we’ve made an offer on the house. I’m Hermione Granger-Malfoy and this is my husband, Draco.”
“‘Malfoy’… oh my stars, not…” Moving a step closer, Beryl peered into Draco’s face, whereupon her suspicions were confirmed. “My goodness, we’ve a celebrity in the neighbourhood! How exciting!”
“No, not…” Draco began and then stopped himself. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing for their neighbour to treat him with a certain deference. Maybe then she wouldn’t stick her nose into their business quite so eagerly. Or at least, not into his. He’d play the “pure-blood royalty” card for as long as he possibly could, if it meant that he wouldn’t have to deal with intrusive old biddies like Beryl Mountbank.
However, such a strategy did absolutely nothing to shield him from what came next.
“I made fresh scones to welcome you to the neighbourhood. Have one!” Thrusting the tray of what looked like large, dough-coloured rocks in their direction, she smiled winningly. This close up, one could see that there were small flecks of red lipstick on her front teeth. Shuddering, Draco turned away, only to receive a small, insistent dig from Hermione’s elbow.
“Be nice!” she hissed. “Take one!”
“That thing she called a scone is still sitting in my stomach, you know!” he grumbled hours later, as they were getting ready for bed. “Like a lead weight! I’ll probably develop an ulcer.”
Hermione was brushing her teeth. He heard her spit and rinse, and then clear her throat. “Silly, it was just a bit… overdone.”
“‘Overdone’? Hard as a fucking rock, you mean. I’m surprised I didn’t break a tooth! And totally tasteless. Bloody revolting. Don’t know how you managed to eat the whole thing.”
Hermione laughed ruefully as she turned down the covers and climbed into bed. “Me either. It was pretty bad.”
He slipped in beside her and drew her close. “Well, maybe we’ll get lucky and she’ll drop dead before we move in.”
She sat up, giving him a teasing poke in the ribs, and then resettled herself in the crook of his arm. “You’re terrible, Malfoy! She’s just a sweet, harmless old lady. Probably lonely too. Just be nice to her, okay? We might want her to babysit sometime.”
Draco gave a derisive snort. “No bloody way is that woman getting anywhere near a child of mine! And besides, Mrs. Malfoy, aren’t you getting just a bit ahead of yourself? We don’t have a kid, remember?”
Scooting closer and settling her hand lightly over a certain part of his anatomy, Hermione laughed softly. “Not yet, perhaps, but let’s see what we can do about that. I’ve a few ideas.”
Suddenly, things were looking decidedly brighter and the undigested scone was forgotten. He dearly hoped she was drawing inspiration from that amazing book she’d brought home. “Page ninety-seven?”
She nodded, dropping sweet little kisses on the smooth skin of his chest. “And page one hundred and eleven, one hundred and twenty-six, one hundred and forty-three…”
Beryl Mountbank and her scones receded further into the haze of a very long day that was nearly over. There were far more pleasant things on offer to occupy his attention now.
Page ninety-seven, for starters.