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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single, pure-blooded wizard with a domineering mother has no sex life.

Which was why Draco Malfoy was sequestered with the latest issue of Veela Vixens behind a securely locked and heavily Silenced bedroom door. And yes, he had triple-checked that there was no way his mother could enter and catch him unawares. He sighed, thinking wistfully of his Hogwarts days, when he’d shared a dormitory with fellow Slytherins, mates who might have teased about faultily-cast Silencing Charms but who certainly understood a young wizard’s natural urges. He wished he was back there, living a relatively carefree existence. Even his last two years, under that constant threat of death, had been more tolerable than the scrutiny he now dealt with on a daily basis. Oh, he knew that he was fortunate to have escaped the clutches of Azkaban; the testimony of certain irksome Gryffindorks had convinced the Wizengamot to reduce his sentence to one year of house arrest coupled with a heavy but not devastating financial penalty and a year of “voluntary” drudgery at the Ministry. But the contemptuous looks that he received whenever he showed his face in public and his mother’s constant hovering... She was like a Veela—the Harpy variation—monitoring his every move, nagging endlessly about making sure he did not step out of line...

Stop it!

Yes, he had to stop thinking about his mother. Her over-protectiveness was suffocating him enough as it was. He’d be damned if he let her choke his hard-on as well.

Staring once again at the coy brunette winking at him from the pages of the magazine, Draco re-established a steady rhythm.

But it seemed that Fortune had paired up with Loki to ruin his evening.

A loud BANG! from the windows startled him. Snarling, Draco tossed aside the magazine and wiped his hand on his bedsheets before Summoning his wand to unlock the window and let in the flustered owl. Snatching the rolled parchment and pointing the bird toward Giauzar’s bowl of treats, Draco snorted when he recognized the sloppy, childish handwriting of Goyle. His friend was in trouble—again.

Goyle had been stuffed into the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office to work off his sentence. And he was constantly coming to Draco for help. At first, Draco had been at a complete loss, being unfamiliar with most of the Muggle objects that confronted him. But after a bit of reading and with some common sense, he soon felt quite capable of dealing with whatever problems arose. He didn’t wonder that the daft Perkins had never gotten a promotion. Goyle, having only worked in the Office for six months, had a better handle (after some pointed instruction) on their workload than the old codger. That was not reassuring at all. While Goyle wasn’t mentally deficient per se—he hadn’t sorted into Hufflepuff, after all—he would never win prizes for cleverness or creative thinking.

Draco looked down at the bulge in his pants and huffed. A cold shower would be the quickest way to remove that impediment, and there was nothing to do but repress the associated sexual frustration. He headed toward his en suite bathroom.

And conjured up the always-helpful image of Potty and Weasel King tossing each other off.

***

Hermione unlocked her front door with a sigh.

It was on difficult days like these that she wished she lived in London—even Muggle London—rather than in Hertford. But her grandparents had left this house to her in their will. For a time after the Second Wizarding War, she had been grateful to have a sanctuary away from the constant reminders of the havoc Voldemort and his Death Eaters had wrought in the capital city. And it wasn’t so bad, really. Her fireplace was connected to the Floo Network, and Hertford did have a small wizarding community, so Apparition was available at several, convenient locations.

It was just a bit lonely to not be living near her friends.

Especially when said friends were prone to getting themselves into scrapes and needed her help extricating them. If she’d told him once, she’d told Ron a thousand times that he should not mix his drinks. The Hangover Potion would do its trick, but cleaning up vomit was never pleasant. Especially when it landed on her. One of these days, she would get Ron—get the entire lot of junior Aurors!—to take an Unbreakable Vow to never over-indulge on alcohol again. Harry was a slightly more responsible and capable drinker but not by much. And having Seamus goad them on didn’t help matters either. But never mind. Hermione was too tired to dwell on this.

She cast a quick cleansing spell on the bathtub and turned on the taps. She knew a hot shower would be more efficient, but after the ordeals of the day, she needed something to help her unwind. She selected three of her most calming CDs and charmed them to play on a random, continuous loop. She cast a few more spells that would stop the water from cooling down and prevent her from drowning, even if she fell asleep, then disrobed and stepped into the inviting tub.

***

“’Mione! Help!”

Hermione sighed. That plea, in all its iterations, she had heard far too many times. She thanked the Chinese Goddess of Mercy that the voice belonged to the least irritating and incompetent of her circle of friends and dependents. Harry usually had a legitimate reason for asking her assistance.

And he did. The Aurors were heading out on another raid after an anonymous tip, and Harry needed her to fill in as babysitter for his little godson. Hermione smiled. Teddy was adorable. A handful, yes, but then, he was an active three-year-old. She grabbed a storybook and a handful of sugar-free candies before taking a pinch of Floo powder from the mantle.

“Annie Mynie!”

Hermione nearly toppled over as a lump of enthusiasm grabbed her calves into a tight hug. “Hello, Teddy! Have you got a new building to show me?” She accepted Harry’s hasty kiss and thanks as he Floo’d away and allowed an excited Teddy to drag her toward a pile of wooden blocks that he proudly considered his biggest project to date. Hermione dutifully praised it and then settled onto the floor to participate in a game of Tumbling Blocks.

Things were going well until the second warning honk alerted them to another, imminent collapse of their structure. Teddy’s infectious giggle was interrupted by a sudden hiccup. Before Hermione knew what was happening, the blocks scattered across the room like debris from a bomb. And instead of collapsing onto the ground after coming into contact with a wall or a piece of furniture, the blocks seemed to have turned to rubber and kept bouncing off of different objects and changing trajectory. Hermione attempted, in vain, to stop the blocks. Teddy began crying as he got hit by a few of them. Hermione paused in her pursuit of order to hug the distressed toddler.

In the midst of the chaos, Hermione heard the FOOM! of the fireplace, followed by a high-pitched scream. Fully expecting to see an astonished Andromeda, Hermione was stunned when she met the shocked eyes of Draco Malfoy.

“Recedite, plebes! Gero rem imperialem!”

Hermione wasn’t sure if it was Malfoy’s haughty tone or the fact that Teddy had stopped crying, but the blocks paused in mid-action and dropped to the ground. With an imperious wave, Malfoy gathered them into a neat pile in one corner.

“Well now, have you been causing trouble, young Thaddaeus?”

“Unnel Dako!”

Teddy had regained his good spirits, squirmed down from Hermione’s embrace, and ran into the waiting arms of his Uncle Draco. Hermione was still rooted to the spot as she saw Malfoy, with a look of tenderness she’d never witnessed, hug his little cousin and rub his hair affectionately.

“We was playing Tummel Box, Unnel Dako! Me an’ Annie Mynie!”

“Were you? Well, it looked more like Bouncing Blocks when I came in. What did you do to them, hmm?”

“I ’un-no! Dey jump awound! Funny!”

“Well, I brought a little present that I think is much safer for you to play with, but given that it seems you’re showing your first signs of accidental magic, perhaps we should save it for later. Shall we get you a snack first?”

“NO! Wanna play!”

Hermione finally found her voice. “I think we should do as your... your Uncle Draco says, Teddy. Grandma says she baked your favourite cookies!”

“NO!”

Teddy’s scream hit both Hermione and Draco like pies in the face. Indeed, a moment later, they both collapsed with laughter. Teddy’s indignation had set off another bout of accidental magic, which painted Draco’s face blue and yellow and splattered Hermione’s hair pink and purple. Teddy laughed with them.

When they regained their composure and regular looks, Auntie Hermione and Uncle Draco managed to coax the rambunctious toddler into wanting his snack. Draco settled him into his highchair at the table while Hermione grabbed the milk and cookies for the three of them.

“So, Granger, fancy bumping into you here.”

“Likewise, Malfoy.”

“Didn’t think you were so domesticated.”

“Didn’t think you’d realized you had extended family, never mind reconciled with them.”

“Being on the losing side and a year of house arrest lend perspective.”

“You should do it more often, then. You may become decent yet.”

“In that case, you should spend more time with Teddy. You may finally acquiesce to settling down and popping out your gang of ginger kits.”

“Hmph! Unless you stopped your subscription to the Prophet, you must have heard from Rita Skeeter that Ron and I are not dating—have not been for over two years. And what about you? Are we soon to hear the announcement of your intentions to breed your business of albinos to carry on the proud family name?”

“At least my sprogs will have flawless skin and manageable hair.”

“Yes, I suppose those will help compensate for their pug noses.”

“Now who’s behind on times? Pansy and I haven’t been a pair even before all of us had to convert to worshipping His Most Foolhardiness, Save-Us-Oh-Lord Scarhead.”

“Unnel Hehwee!”

“I can’t believe you’ve been calling Harry that awful name in front of Teddy!”

“I usually use the short version, plain old ‘Scarhead’. Are you going to hex me into oblivion, Annie Mynie?”

“Bad Unnel Dako! No hex! Me like Annie Mynie!”

“Listen to your little cousin, Unnel Dako. He has sense. No danger of him ending up in Slytherin.”

“I suppose landing in Pufflefluff is so much better!”

“You’re lucky your aunt isn’t around to hear you say that!”

“Merlin, you’re sounding more and more like my mother! Are you sure you’re not in nesting mode?”

“Quiet! Teddy go loo!”

Despite themselves, both Hermione and Draco grinned. Teddy insisted that Uncle Draco attend him to the toilet. Hermione cleared the dishes away and went to grab the book she’d brought. Teddy was a creature of routine and would be needing his nap soon. Indeed, when Draco brought him back to the sitting room, Teddy’s hair had turned the telltale aquamarine that indicated his waning energy levels. He noticed the book and demanded Auntie Hermione read to him.

After Hermione tucked Teddy securely into his bed, she returned to the sitting room, and an awkward silence ensued. Draco had not uttered a sound throughout storytime. He now roused himself and mumbled about needing to run some errands before returning home. He politely said his goodbyes and disappeared through the fireplace.

Hermione watched him leave. She gave an unconscious sigh as she put away the toys still scattered on the floor. She made sure to put the unopened gift on top of Teddy’s toybox.

***

Hermione was re-stocking on her favourite snacks in “Weezies” when Fred pounced on her.

“So, Hermione, what’s this I hear about a new boyfriend?”

“Whatever filthy gossip rag you may have heard that from is lying. And you should know better than to believe such stories, Frederick Gideon Weasley.”

“What a mean aunt you are, Hermione. You’re lucky Andromeda isn’t around to hear you describe sweet little Teddy in such terms! The little tot was merely chatting with his godparents. Although, to be fair, Ginny may have exaggerated things. Did she?”

Abashed, Hermione tartly replied that Ginny had clearly misunderstood the situation and refused to dignify Fred’s teasing with further comment.

After leaving Weezies, she was heading toward Flourish and Blotts when someone linked arms with her. Hermione was startled to see Pansy Parkinson act so chummy. Not that they were enemies like they had been in school, but still.

“So, Hermione, fancy accompanying me to Twilfitt and Tattings? There’s a dress from the new Sophia C collection that I need someone’s opinion on. C’mon!”

Hermione reluctantly allowed herself to be dragged into the shop. Having worked with Pansy on a joint project between their departments and passed the time socially with the witch after hours, Hermione knew she wouldn’t have to wait long for the true reason Pansy had approached her.

“So, what’s this I hear about you spending quality time with my best friend?”

“I haven’t seen Daphne in weeks. Isn’t she still in Peru?”

“I was talking about Draco.”

Hermione sighed. “Whatever you may have heard from Harry or Ginny through Seamus has been grossly misrepresented. We just happened to have been at Andromeda’s at the same time.”

“Really? Do you make it a habit of sharing cookies with everyone you happen upon? If that’s the case, then I should be offended. I’ve known you for a year and never had the pleasure.”

“You’ve never stepped foot in a kitchen, Pansy, so I’m not surprised.”

“Oh, stop playing coy. I had dinner with Draco that night, and he was in such a distracted mood that I barely got half-a-dozen sentences from him. He hasn’t been like this for a long time.”

“Not even during Sixth?”

“Fine, he was distracted then, too, but also bad-tempered and snappish. If we hadn’t known each other for so long...”

“Well, we all forgive the shortcomings of our loved ones.”

“Hardly. I mean, not in the way that you’re implying—and I’ve seen what you put up with from Weasley, even now. No, while I admit I fancied Draco for longer than I should have, I knew by the end of Fifth that I had to stop. So, it wasn’t difficult to comply when my parents warned me to keep my distance from him in Sixth. What do you think, the green or the turquoise? Sophia’s outdone herself again, but of course, that makes it that much harder to choose!”

“The turquoise is a more unusual colour. The cut suits you better as well. Seamus is going to want to punch any bloke who so much as does a double-take, which is, I’m sure, the effect you want.”

Pansy smirked. “We can’t let ourselves be taken for granted, Hermione. Oh, look at these! You should try on the robin’s egg.”

“I don’t have an occasion for something so dressy.”

“You can’t know that! And it’s always good to have something on-hand. Besides, it really isn’t that formal—you could wear this to a nice restaurant. I bet you only have functional clothes in your closet.”

“I do not! I—”

“Have that cute set of periwinkle dress robes from Fourth, which I’m sure no longer fit.”

“No! I still have the dress I wore for Bill’s wedding—”

“Didn’t you say that it got tattered because you had to escape Death Eaters? Have you bought a replacement since? Look, I’m not forcing you to buy the dress. But at least try it on.”

“Fine.”

Hermione ended up buying the dress, having reluctantly admitted that Pansy had a good eye for fashion and had chosen the one dress that really did suit her.

***

Hermione looked at the interoffice memos and owls amassed on her desk and wanted to tear her hair out. She worked in Global Co-op, not Public Information Services! But her friends seemed incapable of fending for themselves.

Mione, can I borrow your Translation Quill? Harry and I are off to Kurgst Kyrst Gigurz some place where they speak Turkish or some such. I want to get Victoire some Turkish Delights.

Hermione, what’s the name of the Muggle Minister for Magic when Lufkin was in power? I need to give a talk in ten minutes, so if you wouldn’t mind...

Hermione, the yellow strapless or the violet off-shoulder for the Harpies Gala tonight?

Hermione, what’s another word for “dating” that rhymes with lip?

Hermione, I must’ve miscast the Caterwauling Charm and Enemy-Repelling Spell around my flat last night because now I can’t get out. Help!

Hermione, do you know if any of the astronauts are on the International Space Station right now? How long do you think it’d take to apply for a Portkey there? Was thinking of bringing Panse for a romantic, moonlit dinner, and you can’t get much closer than that, right?

The last missive was from Seamus. Hermione groaned. She sorted the pile into “Will Respond” and “Ignore” and then by priority. Half-hour later, she started going through her actual work in-tray.

***

“If you managed to figure out a way to send me that owl, why in Fangorn’s green earth didn’t you just think of how to get yourself untied?”

Flint had the grace to look embarrassed. “The concierge and the slag are partners. After they grabbed my Galleons, he told me that trying to untie the bonds would alert hotel management to the fact that I didn’t have the money to pay the room bill, and I don’t need another scandal in the Prophet...”

Draco sighed. “They probably said that to stop you from trying to chase after them. There’s a very basic stasis spell on the knots; a quick Severing Charm would’ve done the trick. Diffindo! Now, get dressed. I’ll settle your bill and meet you in the lobby. And don’t dawdle! I have an important meeting in a half-hour.”

“Thank you, Malfoy. I owe you.”

“Oh, believe me, I’m keeping tabs. If I can’t think of better repayment, then one of the new line of Firebolts will do nicely for Christmas.”

***

Hermione smiled in contentment as she looked across at her luncheon companion. Those who only knew their shared history in school would’ve been shocked to know that, of all her friends, he was the only one who didn’t coming crying to her for help nowadays. The irony still amused her sometimes. After a week of constant messages demanding her assistance, though, it was welcome reprieve to just spend a quiet day chatting.

“... so, I’ll be transferring the jonquils to a larger pot tomorrow.”

“Oh! Neville’s going a-courting again! Who’s the lucky witch?”

“No-no, they’re not for me, they’re for Cousin Philip.”

“Cousin Philip?”

“You remember Philip Hawkins, don’t you? I introduced you at last year’s Ministry Ball.”

“Oh, of course! But I thought both your parents were only children, Neville.”

“They are! Oh, sorry, I forget about the confusion. Phil’s my... third cousin, on Gran’s side, but we grew up together and the family got used to calling us ‘Cousin Philip’ and ‘Cousin Neville’.”

“Oh, I see! So, who’s the lucky witch?”

“She’s Zacharias Smith’s older sister, Harriet. They work together in Law-force. Now, don’t look so sceptical, Hermione. Harriet’s not mouthy like her brother. She’s actually very sweet.”

“Well, for Phil’s sake, I’m glad. And... have you... thought about dating someone again, Neville?”

Neville gave her a sad smile. “I’m not ready just yet. Luna’s... well, she’s really one of a kind. If only... if only she and Gran could see eye to eye...”

“It may not have worked out, Neville, but you two did find happiness. Cherish that.” Hermione squeezed his hand. “And who knows what the future might bring? You could meet someone just as unique as Luna but who also gets along with Augusta.”

“Thanks, Hermione. I won’t give up hope, don’t worry. But I don’t want to date just anyone for the sake of not being lonely. Luna still writes me—when she’s out hunting for her elusive magical creatures. We’ll always be good friends. And what about you, Hermione? Anyone special?”

“No one. I’m happily single right now.”

“You know, I may be removed from most of the gossip, working in Hogsmeade like I do, but I have heard whispers... I hear he’s not as snotty as he used to be—”

“Oh no. Not you, too, Neville! We were just in the same place at the same time and for only an hour or so at that! And we were so preoccupied with looking after Teddy that what we said over cookies and milk could barely be considered a real conversation—”

“Relax, Hermione! I’m just teasing. I do find it funny that you’re as worked up about it being nothing as Ginny is that there’s something.”

Hermione took a deep breath. “There’s truly nothing. That was the first time I’d seen him since the trials. And I haven’t seen him at all after that afternoon at Andromeda’s.”

“Well, for Teddy’s sake, I’m glad the two of you didn’t end up hexing each other.”

Hermione giggled. “Actually, Teddy forbade him to hex me.”

“Really? Godfather Harry’s gallantry must be rubbing off.”

“Or his dad’s genes.”

“True! Speaking of which, Sprout says the new Defence Against Dark Arts teacher is settling in comfortably, now that the curse on the position is gone and there isn’t such an imminent threat.”

“That’s great! And the plants in the new greenhouses are thriving?”

“They are! Next time you have more than a lunch hour to spare me, I’ll show you around.”

“I promise you: the first chance I get! If only people would leave me alone to do my job, I wouldn’t need to go in on weekends!”

“Poor Hermione! You were always our walking library in school, so now that there’s no Hogwarts library at all to use for finding answers...”

“Well, I’m very glad to be spending time with a good friend who knows how to find answers for himself. You’re amazing, Nagini’s Bane.”

“Oh, hush! Your fish is getting cold.”

***

“Ginevra Molly Weasley Potter!”

“Bellatrix’s rotted womb, Hermione! Don’t do that! You sound just like Mum!”

“I should do it more often, then. Maybe that’ll teach you to not spread rumours about me dating Malfoy and being the talk of the town!”

“Now, just a minute! All I did was talk about the funny incident with Harry. What he gossiped about to the boys at the office, using me as the source, is none of my doing!”

Hermione took several deep breaths, mentally counting down. Finally, in a calmer, tighter voice, she said, “My apologies, Ginny. I should know better than accuse you of spreading rumours about me. Excuse me while I go strangle your husband.” She Disapparated with a *pop*…

… and reappeared in an open field outside of Brigg and Goole, where the boys were playing their weekly game of Quidditch.

“Harry James Potter!”

“Oh wow, look at the time! Mum’s expecting me for dinner!”

“Yeah, we ran overtime today! See you chaps next week!”

“My girlfriend warned me not to be late for dinner!”

“Bye!”

“Bye!”

The rest of them scattered within five minutes, leaving a sheepish Harry behind. Even Ron decided not to stick around.

Hermione’s hair was sending off little sparks, causing it to look even more bushy than usual. It was never a good sign. Her friends usually preferred her hands-on-hips look.

“Have mercy, Hermione! James isn’t even a year old! You don’t want him growing up without a dad, do you?”

“Maybe not. But I can certainly make sure he grows up an only child!”

“Aw, Hermione, you wouldn’t be so cruel to the little man—remember how often you wished you had siblings? That’s why you adopted Ron and me as brothers.”

Hermione sniffed. “And I can always disown you, let you fend for yourselves, see how well you get along.”

“You know we’d be lost without you! I could never have destroyed all the Horcruxes without you.”

“Hmph! And spreading a nasty rumour about me dating Malfoy is your way of saying thanks, is it?”

“Merlin! I didn’t!”

“Don’t lie! Ginny said she didn’t, and she has no reason to lie to me.”

“Well, I don’t either! But... you know, he isn’t really that bad a bloke. No, really! That year that he had to work at the Ministry for free? He was bumped around to a few of the other departments to be kicked about when we weren’t in the office. And he didn’t once complain or step out of line; just kept his head down. Oh, I don’t doubt that he hexed voodoo dolls of everyone at the Ministry when he was home, but he managed to keep his temper. And he’s actually got a really good work ethic—we just don’t see it when he’s got his fat mouth going. I’m not encouraging or anything, but if you were... interested, I wouldn’t mind so much now as I would’ve if we were still at Hogwarts.”

Hermione was so taken aback by this that she could only gape. Harry was relieved she didn’t start hexing him.

When Hermione finally found her voice, she replied, “Well, I’m not interested. But when I find out whoever the gossiping troll is...” She huffed, gave Harry a perfunctory kiss goodbye, and disappeared.

Harry sighed in relief. Then made a mental note to tell everyone at the office to not spill the beans on him, else they could forget about asking him to have their backs when they were in the field. The lot of them owed him doubly for abandoning him just now in his hour of need, besides.

***

“Granger, what the hell are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same, Malfoy.”

“Goyle Floo-called me in a panic about another Muggle item gone haywire.”

“Perkins memo’d for the same reason and, I assume, about the same object.”

“Hey! Hold off on the niceties! We could use some help!”

Hermione was relieved to see that they were not expected to cram into the tiny office that Harry had told her about. What with Arthur’s influence after his promotion and the Death Eater attack on Muggle London during the Second Wizarding War, the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office had acquired a bigger space to deal with the increased workload and the frequent collaborations with the other offices working to ensure the breach to the Statute of Secrecy was kept at a minimum.

Hermione couldn’t help but giggle—and she heard Malfoy snort beside her—when she was confronted with the misbehaving object atop the large table in the centre of the room. It was a toaster, and it was currently ejecting burnt slices of toast every few minutes.

Hermione’s eyes widened as she noticed the detailing on the appliance. “A diamond-encrusted toaster? What sort of vain... wait, are they shaped like Marilyn Monroe?”

“Who?”

“She was a famous move—a famous Muggle a few decades ago. Yes! The diamonds form a picture of her in her famous pose. And look! Her skirt lifts up whenever toast is ejected! That’s quite a fancy bit of magic!”

“I don’t care who she is! Just, please, make it stop! The Obliviators have already been to the poor sod’s house, but this is apparently a very important possession to him. He’s been badgering the Muggle Aurors about being robbed—filed a report and all! We need to get this back to him, fast! But nothing Goyle and I have tried has worked! In fact, the blasted thing seems to be spewing toast even faster than before! And I’ve got no idea where the bread’s coming from!”

Hermione put a Stasis Charm on it; two pieces of toast hovered in mid-air just above the toaster.

Perkins gulped then wiped his forehead. “I never thought to use that! I tried a Freezing Spell, but that only caused the thing to overheat and then the chunks of ice just exploded off it!”

Draco had moved closer to examine the toaster, careful to not touch it. “There’s a modified Perpetualus on it—probably to prevent basic commands like Finite Incantatem from working. Whoever spelled this is a master prankster.”

“Fitzsimon, does the owner of the toaster have any known wizards or witches as neighbours? Or any neighbours who may have magical relatives?”

“Not that I’m aware, but I’ll memo Muggle Liaison.”

“What do you think, Malfoy, an Inanimatus Conjurus coupled with something like a Backfiring Jinx or a Hurling Hex? And maybe one of the mimicking spells modified so the skirt movement is timed to match the ejection of toast?”

“Agreed. I’d say the Hurling. And also a basic Transfiguration paired with the Refilling to produce the toast. Goyle, have you noticed anything missing from the office? Bits of parchment? Quills? Anything?”

“Uh, no.”

“It wouldn’t be parchment or quills, Malfoy. Muggles don’t use them in their daily lives. It would need to be something in ready supply in the room. Where did the owner usually keep the toaster, Fitzsimon?”

“Let me check my notes... Ah, yes, a locked glass cabinet in the sitting room. He likes showing it off to visitors.”

“And what else is in the cabinet? Has he reported anything else missing?”

“Just other Muggle junk—he says they’re a collection of some sort. Oh wait, he does mention all his framed photographs missing from the walls.”

“That’s it! Fitzsimon, Goyle, check your desks and all your files to see if you have any missing photographs, whether pictures of family or case-related ones.”

A quick search confirmed that, indeed, a whole cabinet’s worth of archived photographs were missing, along with the photographs on Perkins’ desk of his family.

“Well, that also explains why the toast has been expelled at a quicker rate: the toaster is using magical photographs instead of Muggle ones. Added power. Fitzsimon, do you have all the pieces of toast here?”

“Yes. Goyle’s been stacking them in that burlap sack under the table.”

“Good. That makes things easier. Malfoy, do you want to unspell the toaster while I detransfigure the toast?”

“Fine by me.”

The two worked in complete silence and had everything restored in twenty minutes. All the while, Perkins and Goyle watched, wide-eyed. Perkins shook both their hands fervently at the end and kept insisting that he owed them dinner one night.

***

Draco was puzzled by the somewhat cryptic interoffice memo summoning him to the Junior Undersecretary’s Office. He was even more puzzled when he saw Granger seated in the reception area. But he did not have a chance to exchange greetings when they were both shown into a small conference room. He noticed that there was a plain box of dark wood placed inside one of the containment boxes that the Aurors often used to transport Dark Arts objects. His curiosity piqued, he turned his attention to Granger and noticed that she had also come to certain conclusions about the box. However, the sombreness of the room and the sense of secrecy that surrounded this odd meeting kept both of them silent.

When the door finally opened, it only took him a moment to recognize her as one of the Ravenclaw Prefects a few years above them in school. Yes, Clearwater, Penelope. Promoted to Junior Undersecretary two years ago, one of five who held the title.

“Hello, Hermione, Draco. You probably don’t remember me. I’m Penelope Clearwater. I was in Fourth, Ravenclaw when both of you Sorted.”

“Of course I remember you, Penelope. We were Petrified in the library the year you became Prefect.”

“Not a particularly pleasant time, that. And it’s thanks to your warning about the mirror that I’m still alive.”

“Oh, please don’t mention it. Um, I’m guessing you asked us here about the Himitsu-Bako in the containment box?”

“Yes. So, that’s what it is! That explains a lot! The package it arrived in was addressed to the Minister, the sender unknown and, of course, with no return address. The Aurors have already determined that it doesn’t contain explosives or any known, detectable Dark object. But because they can’t rule out the possibility that a harmful substance or spell can be emitted from it, they took the precaution of containing it. No one has been successful in opening it, using either mechanical or magical means, and it was suggested that we consult the two of you. You both came highly recommended. Now, I’ll leave you to it! If you require any tools, anything at all, just tell Fanny at reception. And take as long as you need—we’ll make sure to bring you lunch... and coffee and tea later on, if needed.”

After she left the room, Draco raised an eyebrow and asked, “Aren’t Japanese puzzle boxes usually intricately patterned?”

“They are, but I noticed the lacquering technique. I happen to have one at home that’s also plain, though not made of such high quality wood nor with such a refined finishing. My parents bought it for me.”

“How many manipulations would you guess it needs before it can be opened?”

“Hard to say—I read somewhere that the record is over fifteen hundred manual moves. So, probably many, with some very subtle and unusual ones mixed in; otherwise, I’m sure someone would’ve managed to at least partially open it—especially since we have magical means. I’m guessing that this box was designed to be opened mechanically.”

“I noticed they didn’t provide us with notes on previous attempts. Must want us to think more creatively.”

“Most likely. Fresh perspective can be helpful. I’ll ask Fanny for a Self-Writing Quill and some parchment so we have our own record. Maybe Shield Cloaks as a precaution?”

“Those will do to start.”

They worked in companionable silence. The box was a fair size, but there were still moments when their fingers brushed or they got into each other’s way. Draco could see a faint blush on Granger’s cheeks; he felt a bit warm under the collar.

By lunch, they had removed the outer box, and judging from the size of the inner box, there were several layers yet to be unravelled, unless the object contained within was very large. Draco doubted it, though. The box did not weigh all that much.

“So, Granger, I take it that you’re often called upon to problem solve when your friends are stumped?”

“Too often. I’ve had to come in on weekends to stay on top of my workload because of the constant interruptions I get. I assume you’re in a similar predicament?”

“Indeed. And it seems that my ‘circle of influence’ is expanding. Just the other day, Pansy owl’d me to help her boyfriend sort a problem in some Muggle establishment.”

“Oh! I wondered why I didn’t receive an owl from him! When he told me about the assignment—his first alone—I was bracing myself to be bombarded. I don’t mind helping them, but it’s just... I wish they’d learn to think for themselves, sometimes.”

“The more people I meet and interact with, the more I’m convinced that the world in general holds little regard for logic and competence.”

“Yes! You wouldn’t think that common sense is that hard to come by!”

“Perhaps you should consider becoming a teacher at Hogwarts and imparting such knowledge to the sprogs while they can still be taught.”

“Why me and not you? I’m quite happy where I am, actually.”

“Implying that I’m not.”

“Well, you are rather wasted dealing with boring paperwork in Broom Regulatory Control. Oh, don’t look so shocked. Pansy told me.”

“I deemed it prudent to give proof positive that I had no illusions of becoming the next Dark Lord and taking over the Ministry by force.”

“Well, if we manage to figure out this puzzle box, I’m sure you’ll receive the proper recognition from the right quarters.”

“One can only hope. As I’m sure you’re aware, prejudices are very hard to get rid of.”

“True, but being a defeatist only harms yourself.”

“Ten points to Gryffindor. Now, shall we continue with the task at hand?”

To the surprise of neither, the puzzle became more and more complex with each successive layer. Toward the end of the working day, they agreed that it would be prudent to request that dinner and comfortable cots be sent in. Penelope Clearwater checked in with them before she left for the day and told them that the Auror Office was aware that they would be remaining overnight and would have a junior Auror stay at the Ministry to assist them in any way necessary—they needed only to send a memo. Should they have success at any point before the beginning of working hours the following day, the Minister had left strict orders that the junior Auror was to inform him immediately.

Granger suggested that they take a physical break and eat their dinners elsewhere. Being away from the room might help clear their minds as well as stretch their muscles. They ended up having dinner by the fountain in the Main Atrium. The odd worker could still be seen roaming the area, but they otherwise had the place to themselves. Granger noted that it seemed less ominous than the time she, Potter, and their friends had snuck in to steal the prophecy. She’d stopped short after uttering the statement and apologized for bringing up painful memories. Draco assured her that, after all that happened since, he was not particularly bothered by the outcome of that incident. She gave a wan smile but tactfully changed the subject.

They worked for another three hours before finally unveiling a box that was no bigger than the size of his palm. They were fairly certain that this was the innermost layer. And the box stumped them. Other than smashing it to pieces or setting fire to it, they tried every conceivable method—to no avail. Frustrated, Granger had even Floo’d home briefly to search some paperless Muggle library for techniques they might have overlooked. Nothing.

Finally, they agreed to get a few hours’ rest before attempting another round of experimentation.

Draco did not know how long he’d been asleep when a yelp startled him into wakefulness.

“That’s it! Of course! So silly of me not to—now, it’d mostly likely be in Japanese—but what sort of spell—if only we knew who—but maybe it’s the recipient—where to start—”

“Granger! I have not the pleasure of understanding you. Would you care to formulate one complete, cohesive thought in your head before you voice it?”

Granger practically bounced with excitement. “The box needs to be opened magically!”

Draco stared. “Are you certain?”

“We’ve tried every known or reasoned mechanical method. And there’s a Muggle saying that goes ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however—’”

“‘However improbable, must be the truth.’ Well, it certainly can’t hurt. What? I do read, you know.”

“So, should we start with some simple Japanese words and spells? I know the library has a handy book of translations.”

“See if there’s a travel guide as well.”

“Right.”

When the simple failed, they increased the complexity until they were using phrases, even snippets of poetry. The box remained stubbornly intact.

Now, truly frustrated, Granger huffed and snarled, “I give up! This is ridiculous! It has to be some sort of practical joke! The word is probably something absurdly simple like ‘Edro’ or ‘Alohomora!’

To their utter astonishment, the box split into four quadrants and opened to reveal a single clipping of an exquisite Japanese iris. A small envelope, addressed to the Minister, was tucked underneath.

When a rather bleary-eyed Shacklebolt ambled into the conference room a half-hour later, he stopped short as soon as he spotted the flower and then grinned. Reading the accompanying note only widened his smile.

“Ah, my friend, Takeshi in Kyoto is such a thoughtful but mischievous man. This is the first blossom from his garden. As you are aware, Hermione, we plan to improve trade relations with Japan and talks begin in two weeks’ time. Takeshi will be one of his country’s representatives. Now, you both should go home and get some much-deserved rest. I will tell your superiors not to expect you at the office in the morning. And you’ll be relieved of your regular duties for the next few days, however long you need. You’ve shown such capacity for thought that I need not ask anyone else to come up with an equally unusual and unexpected return gift to send Takeshi-san.”

***

It ended up taking Hermione and Draco two days from conceptualization to finished product.

Following Hermione’s suggestion that they focus on innovations related to the Industrial Revolution, they chose to be whimsical and designed a steam-powered, clockworks teapot made of stainless steel and glass in the shape of a Golden Snitch. Six Oriental-style, bone-china cups completed the set. On its own, the teapot became motorized once steam from hot liquid poured into its cavity activated the clockworks. Magicked, the teapot could distinguish between sake and loose-leaf tea and water, heat up the beverage to the appropriate temperature, and move toward each china cup, whence the filigreed-steel wings would unfold and extend, allowing the teapot to hover as it poured. When each cup was filled, the teapot would return to the centre of the table. Draco suggested, as a finishing touch to the gift, a copy of Shakespeare’s thirtieth Sonnet.

Kingsley was delighted.

As their reward, Hermione was promoted and Draco transferred to the Trading Standards Body of Global Co-op. Now, they came into frequent contact, working in the same department and occasionally having overlapping projects.

Two weeks after starting at his new position, Draco finally mustered the courage to ask Hermione out on a date. She accepted.

When asked where they would be going, Draco impishly replied that he was awaiting final arrangements to be confirmed by Pansy. It turned out that he had cashed in on their IOUs and wrangled all their friends to chip in toward planning and paying for their date.