The Thing About Biscuits
14 December 2019
Of all the potentially controversial topics Hermione could imagine, biscuits were not on the radar. Not even remotely.
And yet, somehow, the subject of biscuits had suddenly become a hotly contested one, at least regarding her children’s most recent owl posts from school. Thirteen-year-old Rose had begun campaigning for a holiday parcel from home more than a month earlier, not long after Bonfire Night, insisting that all the other girls in her house would be receiving lavishly packed boxes of treats and it simply would not do to be outshone. After all, she had her pride as a Weasley to consider, particularly as she was the first-ever Ravenclaw in the family, a surprise to everyone except Hermione. And this year, she was keen that the parcel should come from her mum for a change, rather than the usual (rather boring) fare from her doting paternal grandmother. There was to be a full week of secret, after-curfew feasts with the stash that would be carefully squirreled away, and Rose was determined to host her assigned night, the 21st of December, in style. The parcel simply had to arrive before the Solstice. And it had to be good. Better than good, actually; it had to be brilliant.
Eleven-year-old Hugo was a different story, though equally insistent on a richly packed parcel. For him, it had nothing whatsoever to do with house pride or a keen sense of competition with his fellow Gryffindors. He was just hungry. All the time, in fact, being a healthy, growing boy. His sweet tooth was both legendary and insatiable, at home and now at school as well. What better time than the holidays to gratify some of his most insistent cravings? Wasn’t that what mums did?
As a result, Hermione had received a pair of very long, detailed request lists by way of two desperately fatigued owls the first week of November (Rose must have nudged Hugo to post his at the same time, the resulting pressure from two lists being more effective than from one), and these lists had seemed to grow exponentially in the intervening weeks with the additional arrival of five more owls. Capitulation seemed the only option at this point if Hermione wanted to preserve her sanity, not to mention the lives of two poor, beleaguered owls being flown to an early death for the sake of Rosie’s reputation and Hugo’s stomach.
And so Hermione found herself in Diagon Alley on this bright, crisp Saturday morning, a large shopping satchel in hand. It was near to noon now and she’d been here a whole hour, but her bag was only a quarter full. She’d counted on finding a good assortment of treats at Fortescue’s, but the selection there had been surprisingly disappointing. Didn’t there used to be a whole lot more? she found herself wondering, images of the most divine sweets of all sorts flitting through her head as she recalled her own student days. She, Harry, and Ron would always stop for ice cream and other treats while shopping for the new term every September. It had been their tradition. She sighed quietly. Those had been such lovely, exciting times, at least in the beginning. Before things started to unravel.
Hermione shivered, reaching to wrap her cloak more securely around herself and tucking her woollen muffler snugly under her chin. She glanced at her watch. Lunchtime. She was feeling especially hungry now, even a bit light-headed, as breakfast had been a rushed affair, only a hasty cup of coffee and a piece of sadly charred toast. A quick lunch would be just the thing, she decided, heading back in the direction of Fortescue’s. At least she could get a decent sandwich and a cup of tea there. The remainder of her shopping, wherever she would wind up doing it, could wait.
Ten minutes later, Hermione was standing by the register, paying for her meal as she waited for it, when the bells above the shop door jangled cheerfully. A tall man dressed in smartly tailored black winter robes entered, his face obscured by a heavy muffler and a black felt fedora, its generous brim pulled well down over his eyes. There was the merest flash of white-blond hair peeking out from beneath the hat and fringing the muffler’s top and then the man seated himself in a corner of the shop and disappeared behind the menu.
Was that...? No. Couldn’t be. Could it? What on earth would he be doing here, of all places, and on his own, too? Hermione stole a discreet look in the man’s direction, just as he lowered the menu for a moment and his face came into full view.
Here in Fortescue’s, alone and looking very much like he wanted to keep it that way, if his hunched, drawn-in posture were any indication.
Well, she would respect his privacy. No need to intrude when he so clearly wanted no part of any social interaction. Just then, the server handed her a tray with her sandwich.
“Tea’ll be ready in a tick, love,” she told Hermione with a friendly wink. “Just brewing now. Madam Fortescue’s own special blend. You just go and make yourself comfortable and I’ll bring it right over.”
Madam Fortescue, redoubtable widow of the shop’s original owner, had waited a lengthy interval following her husband’s demise at the hands of Death Eaters some twenty-three years earlier before quietly taking the reins herself. Now, the traumas of the war receding further into memory by the day, the shop bustled with steady business. The menu reflected that energy with a variety of new foods in addition to its fabulous ice cream concoctions, featuring special tea blends that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
“Thanks,” Hermione murmured, smiling back as she accepted the tray. “This looks wonderful!”
Seating herself, her back to Malfoy, she leaned in for a first bite of her sandwich, unaware that his head had come up sharply from behind the menu at the sound of her voice.
“Well, well. Granger, of all people. Or rather, I should say ‘Granger-Weasley.’ What a surprise. You haven’t been round here in donkey’s years.”
She turned to see Malfoy leaning back slightly in his chair; the fedora was still pulled down over his eyes, but a sardonic little half-smile lifted a corner of his mouth.
What he’d said was true, in fact. Twisting around to get a better look, Hermione raised an eyebrow, curious despite herself.
“Oh, and you have, I suppose?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. I come here for lunch every Saturday.” Surprising though such an answer was, he gave it with casual aplomb, as if such an occurrence were the most normal thing in the world.
Malfoy shrugged gracefully, tilting back further in his chair and raising the brim of his hat just a bit. A lock of pale hair, threads of silver mixing with the blond, slipped the hat's confines and fell over his forehead, the effect boyishly youthful against the tailored severity of the hat and cloak. And now that she was really looking, she noticed a fine growth of darker blond beard lightly shadowing the pale skin of his face.
“Dunno, really. The food’s good?” he offered glibly.
Hermione rolled her eyes and turned back to her own lunch. What a surprise. Had she really thought she would get a straight answer from him? What else could she expect, apart from the usual wise-arse rubbish he’d always favoured her with? Never mind that they were both hovering around the forty mark now, well past the sort of wankerish repartee that would have been far better suited to a fourteen-year-old. A few long seconds passed.
“Habit,” he said then. His voice had lost its edge and had gone very quiet. “That’s really it, I reckon. Force of habit.”
And now Hermione turned all the way around to look squarely at Draco. The menu was still in his hands, but now he seemed a million miles away.
“Just how long have you been coming here?” Impulsively, she pulled out the chair next to her own, gesturing toward it with a tilt of her head.
His eyebrows lifted in surprise; nevertheless, he rose from his seat and made his way over to her table. A quick nod in the direction of the server and the kindly older witch was at the table, her pad and self-writing quill poised in the air beside her.
“Don’t suppose I’ll need these, will I?” she chuckled, nodding in the direction of her pad and quill and then Summoning two steaming china cups; they settled neatly, post-flight, in front of Hermione and Draco. “The usual, Mr. Malfoy?”
He nodded his head with a wry smile, raising his cup to his lips. “Thanks, Beryl. The usual, yes.” Pausing to take a sip, he sat back, regarding Hermione thoughtfully. “We have the same taste in tea, it seems,” he remarked. “You ordered my special blend, as it happens – the one Madam Fortescue created to my specifications.”
“Your specifications...?” Hermione echoed.
Draco laughed briefly at her obvious surprise. “We have an import branch in the family business that handles goods from around the world. Tea is one of our specialties.” He raised the cup to his nose and took an appreciative whiff, closing his eyes and relishing the tea’s fragrance. “Not much different, really, to being a wine connoisseur. You learn to savour the bouquet, understand how the different leaves blend harmoniously to create a unique perfume and flavour. No two blends are precisely alike, you know,” he added.
It was obvious to Hermione that he took this avocation very seriously, and she nodded. Then she remembered something. “You never explained why you come here every weekend.”
Draco’s expression shifted then, seeming to close off, like a veil being drawn. The answer to the question would be complicated.
“My son and I used to come here every Saturday,” he began at last. “From the time he was very small, in fact. We’d go look at all the latest brooms, have a browse round the books in F&B, maybe see what new creatures were in stock at the Menagerie, and then come here for lunch and the biggest ice cream sundaes they could make. It was something just we two shared, our special ritual. And then... well...” Draco sighed heavily and stared down at his teacup, the amber liquid inside cooling now. “Then, two years ago, my wife and I separated. Well, the truth is, she left me for somebody else. The timing was... unfortunate. It was just after we’d seen Scorpius off to school for the first time. He’s never forgiven either one of us, but I suspect he blames me more, somehow. As if I’d somehow driven his mother away. Trust me, I hadn’t.” A small muscle in his jaw pulsed, his mouth a grim, tight line. “She was happy to go.”
His words had been halting at first, but gradually, they came faster, as if he were a corked bottle filled with an incendiary liquid ready to burst. Unburdening himself at last, his relief was palpable.
“Anyway, I come here now... well, it’s a bit mad, really, isn’t it...” He laughed ruefully, his eyes dark with bitterness and regret. “I suppose I do it because it’s a way to hold on to what I used to share with my son. He doesn’t want to see me or have anything to do with me now.”
Hermione’s hand flew to her mouth and she drew in a sharp breath. “Oh no, Malfoy, why?”
He turned away, grimacing. “My fault. I was so bitter when Astoria left... so angry. I didn’t want to see anyone, not even my son. Or perhaps especially not my son. Because, of course, looking at him reminded me of her. So after he went to school, I left. Left the country. Went to France and buried myself in work. I only got back about six months ago. It was stupid, I know, and very selfish. But I just couldn’t bring myself to carry on as normal.”
“Not even for your son?” Hermione asked softly.
Draco shook his head in anguish. “Not even for him. Don’t you suppose I hate myself for it now?”
“You didn’t write? Not ever? Or see him in the hols?” This was more than Hermione could fathom.
Draco shook his head once again. “No. There’s been nothing. At first, yeah, I was the one pulling away. But later, when I tried to put things right, all my letters were returned and he refused to see me. Look, the damage has been done. And I don’t think I can undo it. So... ” He let slip a small, pained sigh. “I come here on Saturdays.”
The full weight of his terrible situation lay in those five words. The pain and sadness of such a loss were burdens far too heavy for any parent to bear, and suddenly, that was the sum total of the man who now shared the table with her: a father grieving for his lost child.
It was her heart that did the talking next, because in retrospect, it certainly hadn’t been her brain or her common sense.
“Look,” she found herself saying. “After lunch, I’m off to do a bit of shopping for holiday parcels I’m planning to post to my kids. Rosie – my daughter Rose. You’ve seen her, I expect, on leaving day at King's Cross. I believe she’s in the same year as your son–”
Draco nodded. He was sitting up a bit straighter now, his food forgotten for the moment. “Ah yes. I remember. Typical ginger Weasel–er, Weasley, yeah?”
“Mmm. Well, she’s requested some special treats this year, things they don’t usually get up at school, as she’s hosting a holiday party for her house next week. My son Hugo's asked for a parcel as well. I thought maybe I’d buy some stuff my mum always had round the house when I was growing up. And maybe send along a couple of cakes.” She took a deep, measured breath. “Anyway, I was thinking… why don’t you come along and put together a parcel for your son as well? I’ll wager you’ve never been in a Muggle supermarket. You might find it interesting. We could even make a cake for him too, if you like. I mean, why not? Whilst I’m about it, what’s one more? What’s his favourite?”
For a moment, Draco seemed completely at a loss. He sat there staring at Hermione as if she had just propositioned him in Swahili. Finally, though, he found his tongue. “Um... if memory serves, it’s chocolate sponge. But –”
“That,” Hermione interrupted, a mischievous glint in her eye, “is Hugo’s favourite as well. Well, anything chocolate, really. We can do one up for Scorpius too. I’ll help you,” she added hastily, seeing the look of utter panic on Draco’s face. “What do you say?”
“Yeah… all right… I reckon. If you really think this is a good idea.” Draco frowned, still dubious. “What exactly are you proposing?”
“Come shopping with me after lunch and then we’ll go back to my house and do the baking. We can put the parcels together later this afternoon.”
“Your house…? Hang on. Aren’t you forgetting something? What about your husband? Remember him?”
Hermione looked at him, genuinely nonplussed. “I’m divorced, Malfoy. I assumed you knew. I thought everybody did by now. Ron and I split up a year ago.” She paused and then regarded him thoughtfully. “Look. This could be a real first step for you and Scorpius. Just maybe if you reach out again, show him with a holiday parcel that you miss him and that he’s very much in your thoughts… well, who knows? Maybe this time will be different. Maybe it’ll remind him of all those Saturdays. It’s worth a try, don’t you think? What have you got to lose?”
Absolutely nothing, Draco had to admit. As truly bizarre as this afternoon was bound to be, what with an excursion to a Muggle food emporium followed by time spent in Granger’s house, of all places, she might be right. Such a gesture might just do the trick. If it meant that his son could be restored to him, he’d put up with all the Muggle supermarkets on the planet and a rather bossy, take-charge woman too.
To say the least, the Muggle supermarket had been strange.
This was an observation that Draco felt compelled to repeat more times than Hermione could count or cared to hear.
“Bloody hell, Granger! That place was enormous! What can they be thinking, forcing people to put up with such chaos just in order to purchase food? How can anyone find anything? And forcing people to listen to that dreadful tinned music, if you can even call it that... And it was dangerous, for Merlin’s sake! Those trolleys, for instance! They’re lethal weapons! I very nearly got run down by one!”
They were standing at Hermione’s kitchen table surrounded by the ingredients for the three cakes that would be made that afternoon. Equal amounts of butter and sugar had been put in a large, old yellow ware bowl, and Draco had been tasked with the job of blending them until the resulting mixture was smooth and creamy. Hermione had given him an old chef’s apron to protect his expensive jumper and trousers, and now he grasped the wooden spoon, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and stirred doggedly.
Hermione rolled her eyes, barely containing a snicker. “Honestly, Malfoy, you’re not seriously going to blame a little kid who was only having a bit of fun for the fact that you didn’t get out of the way quite fast enough?”
“Somebody ought to teach the little bugger some manners!” Draco muttered. “A new concept for him, no doubt. Probably for his parents as well!” He stirred furiously for a moment or two. “Muggles!”
“Watch it, Malfoy,” Hermione teased, though with the slightest edge of reproach in her voice now. “Remember whose house you’re in.”
“Well, you’re... you’re not... you’re different to them, that’s all,” he replied defensively.
She gave him a small, rather crooked smile. “Am I? So you finally believe that, do you? Except... in another way, I’m really not different at all. And neither are you, for that matter. We’re all just people at the bottom of it.”
“Ah, Granger,” he sighed. “I should have realised, coming here, that I’d be letting myself in for at least one sappy, bleeding-heart lecture!” He waited a moment and then slanted a sideways glance at her. There was a faintly cheeky glint in his eye.
Oh. Colouring slightly, Hermione turned away, her mouth twitching. So Malfoy actually had a sense of humour. “Piss off!” she retorted, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a grin, and handed him a bowl to cover the awkwardness of the moment. “Here, look, I’ve measured out the cocoa, flour, and salt. Put them through the sieve into this bowl, would you?”
“Tell me again why we’re not using our wands? Surely you know we could have it all done in a fraction of the time,” Draco complained, but his words seemed fairly good-natured. In fact, he didn’t really seem bothered at all, if his teasing grin were anything to go by.
“Well,” Hermione replied, “I thought you might enjoy the experience of actually creating something by hand from start to finish. They say that cooking is a way of showing love. One of these cakes is for Scorpius. Making it with your own two hands, you’re putting a lot of love into the cake. I think he’ll know the difference.”
“Oh, he’ll know all right!” he snorted. “My luck, it’ll end up looking like a giant hippogriff turd. What do I know about baking, for fuck’s sake? There are house-elves for that! Anyway, reckon I’d still rather have it over sooner so I could spend my time doing something else.” He began to dump the dry ingredients unceremoniously into the sieve.
“Hey! Careful!” Hermione sputtered suddenly, swooping in close to Draco in order to reposition the bowl. “Half of it’s going to wind up on the table!” They were standing side by side now, nearly touching, the bowl and sieve still in their hands. “What would you rather be doing?” she asked after a moment, unable to resist.
Draco turned his head to gaze down at her thoughtfully. “I can think of several things,” he said, his voice low and the corners of his mouth hinting at a rakish, little smile.
Normally, her kitchen was rather chilly, but just at present, it seemed the thermostat had been turned up impossibly high. Pink-cheeked, Hermione moved quickly away, busying herself with retrieving several round cake tins. Reaching into a cupboard, she took a steadying breath and then sent a quizzical glance over her shoulder in Draco’s direction, but he seemed thoroughly engrossed in cracking eggs into the flour mixture one-handed.
“Well, well, what d’you know, Granger,” he crowed a moment later, flashing her an impossibly cocky grin. “Not one drop spilt, no shells in the bowl, and the yolks aren’t even broken! Not too shabby for not using magic!”
“How old are you, anyway? Ten?”
“I beg your pardon. This sort of thing takes considerable skill. And now, Madam Chef,” Draco told her, presenting the bowl with a flourish, “all the ingredients are well mixed and ready for baking.”
A few minutes later, the tins were filled and in the oven, the timer set for twenty-five minutes precisely. Draco folded his arms and lounged comfortably in the doorway.
“Reckon we’re done. Well, for now, anyway,” he remarked, eyeing the comfortable armchair in the sitting room with obvious longing. Then he directed a careful, sidelong glance at her. “So, um... you and Weasley... what happened? If you don’t mind me asking.”
Hermione had had her back to him, bending to fish something out of a lower cupboard. Now she straightened and turned to face him, brandishing a strange wooden object, large and cylindrical and with a small handle at either end. It looked distinctly like a weapon.
“What the hell is that thing?” he blurted out, taking an involuntary half-step back, his earlier question momentarily forgotten.
“Oh, sorry!” Hermione couldn’t help giggling. “You weren’t to know. This is a rolling pin. You hold it like so.” Laying the object on the table, she grasped the two handles, pushing the cylinder back and forth. “See, it rotates when you press it down on something, making it nice and flat.” She paused, and then looked at Draco, her expression suddenly far more sombre. “About Ron and me... well... we just weren’t a good fit, you know?”
“I could’ve predicted that one a mile off,” Draco muttered, unable to hide a smirk.
Hermione heaved a small sigh. “I should’ve been able to as well, but I just didn’t see it. I suppose I had an idea in my head about him and me, something I’d believed for ever so long, and I had a very hard time letting it go. But I had to in the end, didn’t I, for my own sanity. Because I wasn’t getting what I needed, and neither was he. I think... I think we stayed together far longer than we should have done, because of the kids.”
Draco nodded. He understood that scenario only too well. It had been a painful one for him too.
“Astoria and I... it was the same for us. I reckon she did me a favour, really, walking out the way she did. I don’t know if I’d have had the courage. Far too worried about keeping up appearances, maintaining the Malfoy public image." He shook his head, disgusted. "Bollocks, the lot of it.”
“At least you see it now. That’s what really matters,” Hermione said quietly. A couple of long moments passed, both of them caught up once again in memories that still had the power to hurt. Then she turned to him, summoning a bright smile. “Come on, Malfoy. Let’s leave the past where it is. We’ve biscuits to bake!”
Three hours later
The cakes had come out of the oven, cooled, and been crowned with a decadently rich fudge icing. Three trays of biscuits – chocolate peppermint stars, jam-filled snowdrops dusted with icing sugar, and delicate, melt-in-your-mouth lemon crisps – had been rolled out, baked, and decorated.
Truth be told, Draco had done slightly more watching than actual helping (when it came to icing the cakes, he’d pleaded utter incompetence), though he’d had a hand in the application of jam and the dusting of sugar. Most of the cut-out stars had been his handiwork as well, he pointed out, when Hermione tactfully suggested that he might perhaps have done a bit more.
Now, the time had come to pack everything up, and the large, farmhouse table was buried under a small mountain of tantalising sweets. Besides the homemade ones, there were seemingly endless packages of store-bought things: toffee creams, lollies in a rainbow of flavours, chocolate bars, fruit chews, jellies, sherbet lemons, clotted cream fudge, and biscuits, enough to make up three quite generous parcels of holiday cheer for three lucky children away at school in the Scottish Highlands.
“If you planned on baking biscuits, remind me again why we bought all this lot as well?” Draco picked up a package of Hobnobs and held it out to Hermione.
“Oh!” She grinned, a bit self-consciously. “Those were always my favourites when I was little. The chocolate orange ones, especially. My mum made sure to always have some in the house, even after I’d gone away to school. She knew I would be expecting to have them at the hols and in the summers when I came back home. The chocolate digestives as well. They are the best ever for tea, you know, perfect for dunking...”
Her words trailed off in embarrassment at his quirked eyebrow. Malfoys didn’t dunk. Of course they didn’t. Clearing her throat, she soldiered on. “Mum used to send them up to school as well. Just like we’re doing now. It was always so nice, getting those parcels. The thing about biscuits is, you can never have too many.”
“True. My mother sent cakes from time to time.” Draco chuckled to himself, remembering. “Reckon she thought I must be wasting away, judging by the size of those cakes.” He grinned crookedly. “She loves me very much, but I’m quite sure she never put on an apron to prove it. Not that I would’ve expected her to, of course.”
Hermione nodded. “Of course. But this is different. I really believe that Scorpius will understand what the gesture means and appreciate it. You’ll put in a note, too, won’t you?”
Draco’s face fell and he looked away. After a long moment, he said quietly, “I will, yes. I’ll ask him to forgive me once again, though I can’t say I have much faith that this time will be any different.” He looked at her entreatingly. “My son hates me now, Hermione. And it’s my own fault. I brought it on myself.” Then he paused, his eyes narrowing slightly. “Why are you doing this? Why are you – you, of all people – being so kind to me?”
“After the way you treated me, you mean?” Hermione framed the afterthought he hadn’t been able to bring himself to say.
He answered with a brief, uneasy nod.
“It’s been years. Over twenty now, since the war ended and we left school. I think we can move past what happened all those years ago, don’t you? We were children, and you... you were what you’d always been taught to be. I understand that now, even if I couldn’t see it then.”
Surprise flickered in Draco’s eyes, and he was silent for a time. When he looked at her again, the surprise had been replaced by chagrin and something else, something deeper and more profound.
“I’m sorry.” His words were barely audible. “For all of it. I was beastly to you.”
“You were,” she agreed softly, gazing down at her hands.
“I have no excuses. If I was merely a product of my parents’ values, that’s worse, in a way. Because it means I was unable or unwilling to think for myself. I just accepted what I was told. Even in the face of the obvious. Merlin, Hermione – could there have been any more glaring proof of the error of my father’s beliefs than you? I think not! And yet, I persisted. You showed me up time after time, and that made it much worse for me. I never heard the end of it at home, and I hated you for it.”
“So can you really blame yourself, when your father was putting so much pressure on you? And what about what Voldemort did to you? All of that came out, you know. Harry told us, and then everybody knew before too long. Sixth year, and then seventh, too... It must have been truly dreadful for you!”
Draco nodded grimly. “It was. I often think about the choices I’ve made in my life, how I might have done things differently, if...”
“No point in thinking about ‘ifs’ now,” she cut in quietly.
“I suppose,” he sighed. “Nevertheless, I regret... well... everything. All of it, right from first year. I’d like to ask for your forgiveness, too – if you’re willing to give it. If it isn’t too late.”
Hermione put down the length of ribbon she’d been absently trimming and held out her hands. Shyly, tentatively, he placed his own in hers, and she grasped them warmly.
The gesture was answer enough.