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Universal Truths

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PART I

"She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me."

Hermione Granger took a deep breath and scanned the room. She did not particularly want to be at this investment networking event, but she had promised Harry. Catching her eye through the crowd, he waved her over and she moved to join him in a small group of what she assumed were potential investors, steeling herself for an evening of small talk and bad wine.

Having recently quit his job as a ministry auror, Harry was trying to attract financiers for a new, London-based Quidditch team, a venture that would easily cost millions of galleons. This was his dream—conceived after years of difficult and depressing work, which of course had followed his abusive childhood and dark adolescence, during which he'd died to save the entire wizarding world from the Dark Lord. Twice.

Countless late night brainstorming sessions, scrapped proposals and endless revisions—many in which she had participated—had led to this moment. Hermione gazed at her best friend with deep affection. If anyone deserved a new start doing something that would give him joy, it was Harry. However, he did need serious capital if he was going to do it. And while his name paired with his Quidditch star fiancée Ginny's was enough to get people to listen to the pitch, it wasn't necessarily enough to get them to sign on. Hence the plea to Hermione to accompany them to this event and add a little additional golden girl lustre.

She supposed she did bring something to the table. She'd kept her profile high in the years since Voldemort's defeat and had risen through the ranks at the ministry. She was now in a top position in the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures department and she was proud of her work. She also wasn't above using her status to further it, so she did also have some skill at this networking game. How many ministry mixers had she smiled and chatted through? With that thought, she turned on the charm for the newcomers, murmuring her way through introductions, hoping her smile was gracious. They were indeed investors with many questions about the business plan and her involvement.

Hermione listened and made conversation, but her mind wandered. Which was probably why she noticed the exact moment that Draco Malfoy walked into the room with Theodore Nott. The rest of the crowd seemed to notice too and a ripple of whispers pulsed through it. Nott was a well-known angel investor, with the type of deep pockets most of the hopefuls at the gathering were dreaming about. And of course Malfoy controlled one of the largest fortunes in wizarding Britain. Their presence instantly seemed to make the room's energy higher, the laughter louder.

Hermione hadn't seen either wizard in years, but one couldn't avoid reading about them in the Daily Prophet, which followed particularly Malfoy's every move breathlessly. She supposed it was understandable—young, beautiful and rich always sold papers.

She very pointedly didn't stare, unlike some others in the crowd, but admitted to herself that the two wizards did make an impression. Both were tall and impeccably dressed—so polished that they looked a bit out of place in this group of hopefuls. Nott was on the slight side and a bit more relaxed in his bearing, his dark eyes twinkling as he surveyed the scene. Malfoy was the same yet different to her eye. The annoying cockiness of his school days had matured into a sort of languid confidence, and his face was no longer pointed, but more… arresting. She took in his perfectly tousled hair, broad shoulders and slim hips and was taken aback by the small frisson of heat that resulted, although she ruthlessly tamped it down. He'd been a twat in school, but an irritatingly good-looking one, so nothing had really changed.

The surprising thing was that Malfoy was the last person she expected to see at a function like this. He was too well-connected to need to network - she figured he must be there as a favor too. She noted that his features already registered a sort of pained boredom and sniffed to herself. Wasn't that just like him? He may have publicly renounced his family's wartime beliefs, but he was still a snob.

He obviously thinks himself above all this tedious money grubbing—she conveniently ignored the fact that her thoughts had been running in much the same direction not five minutes ago. Deciding not to waste any more attention on the two wizards, she instead redoubled her focus on Harry's investors, catching Ginny's eye and laughing as one of them attempted a witty comment.

~oOo~

A few hours later, Hermione was waiting at the bar for a glass of water, slightly hidden from the rest of the room by a potted shrubbery. She looked on in amusement; it seemed that the networking event had, with the help of the ample drink and rather scant food, turned into a bit of a dance party. Groups of people were whooping it up on the floor as the lights went lower and the band got louder.

Harry had been working the room—he'd spent a good 30 minutes talking to Theodore Nott—but he had now commandeered a table and was huddled up with another group who were gesturing and speaking loudly over the music. Ginny was sitting with them until she caught Hermione's eye and got up to join her.

"Looking for a way out, yet?" Ginny grimaced as she glanced around.

Hermione gave her a guilty smile. "Yesss, I believe my utility and patience are both spent for the night. You?"

"I think Harry's stuck in for a bit longer. I'll need to hang around in support, but you should get the fuck out of here while you can."

Just then the band started a particularly energetic tune that triggered waves of cheering from the pissed crowd. "I'm sorry, darling. I wish I could spirit you away too." Hermione winced as someone fell over on the dance floor.

"Oh I'll be ok. It's gillywater from here on out. I'll just have to make sure Harry doesn't need too much help home."

Hermione laughed and nodded—Harry had been going drink for drink with his new friends, and he was a notorious lightweight. "It seems like it's been a good night for him. Those men he's with have been talking to him for ages and I saw you two with Theodore Nott for a good bit of time."

"I know! It's been ace! I'll need to do background checks on that lot," Ginny gestured to the table, "but Nott is legitimate. He seemed really interested in Harry's plan. He asked all the right questions and suggested a follow-up meeting. I also actually enjoyed talking to him. He's not at all what I thought he was like in school. He was very charming and kind. Not stuck up in the least."

"That's good to hear. Unfortunately one can't say the same about his companion." The corner of Hermione's mouth tugged up.

"Yeah, Malfoy's been walking around all night like he has a stick up his arse." Ginny put on an over-the-top posh voice; "one wonders why he bothered sullying himself with the riff-raff."

Hermione snorted.

"Although, it's really too bad," Ginny continued with a mercenary gleam in her eye. "He would actually be an amazing addition to our investment team. Our publicity would double! And he's gotten surprisingly easy on the eyes."

"Agreed. But, total prat." Hermione tilted her head with mock regret, causing her friend let out a bark of laughter.

At that exact moment the band ended their set and in the relative silence Hermione overheard the voices of the subjects of their conversation from directly on the other side of the shrubbery. She slapped a hand over her mouth as Ginny's widening eyes mirrored her instant panic. Oh my god, had they been overheard...? But it soon became clear that Malfoy and Nott were deep in conversation and hadn't noticed them.

"...not all bad, Draco," said Nott's voice. "There are some great ideas in this room!"

"And did any of these ideas came with great business plans? Or really any sort of plan at all other than, 'give me your money and don't ask too many questions'?"

Hermione narrowed her eyes at Ginny, who mouthed 'twat', but remained in place and silent, committed to shameless eavesdropping.

"Thanks for your insight, but I'm not an idiot," said Nott, taking a sip of something. "Potter's scheme is actually rather intriguing. He wants to start a London-based Quidditch team, which when you think about it, it's astounding that no teams represent London. There's a large wizarding population to support a fan base and ample locations for a pitch. And with Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley's names attached to the project there will be a lot of free PR. I've asked him for a private meeting to discuss it further. I've always sort of fancied being involved with a Quidditch franchise."

Malfoy snorted, "Make sure you go over his numbers with a fine-toothed comb at your meeting. If I know anything about the 'chosen one', it's that he tends to rush in without much of a plan."

Hermione locked eyes with Ginny at this, although she privately acknowledged that the least well-supported part of the plan was the actual financials. She'd been meaning to review them, but hadn't had time to really sit down yet.

"Hermione Granger seems to be lending her support to it," countered Nott. "Seems like she wouldn't do that if it were a shit plan. In fact I think you should consider investing too. You love Quidditch, you live in London and you don't lack for funds. It would be a lark. Besides, you'd get to work with Granger, and she's gotten rather nice to look at."

Ginny's mouth dropped open in total surprise and Hermione's brows flew to her hairline—she was riveted waiting for Malfoy's response.

"Yes, the involvement of the 'brightest witch of our age' seems to be enough for the whole of wizarding Britain to drop everything and wade in," he said, his tone icy. "But Granger would do anything for Potter, including supporting a poorly thought-out investment scheme. I don't trust that lot to have worked anything through carefully, so I would never trust them with my gold."

Nott started to protest but Malfoy cut him off. "Anyway, I'm out, Theo. I can't stand another minute of this soiree and this crap wine. I can feel a headache coming on. Take your meeting with the Golden Trio if you want; you've certainly placed stupider bets. Just don't throw my name around and do not set yourself up as a matchmaker. Granger may be tolerable, but she's not enough to tempt me." A glass plunked on the bar, "I'll see you tomorrow at the Club." With this parting shot Malfoy stalked away. Nott called out a quick goodbye and also moved off - in Harry's direction.

Hermione looked at Ginny in complete silence for a full ten seconds before they both broke into helpless laughter. When Hermione could speak again, she posed exaggeratedly against the bar and drawled, "the brightest witch of our age is tolerable, but NOT enough to tempt me." This set Ginny off again and the two were wiping tears from their eyes as Harry approached.

"What's got you two in stitches?" he asked with a tipsy smile.

"Oh nothing," Ginny replied. "Just making fun of a couple of posh twats." This cracked Hermione up afresh and it took a moment before all was calm again.

"Well, I count this night a big success," said Harry, looking a bit puzzled at their antics, but clearly deciding from long experience to ignore them. "The investment group I was talking to at the table wants me to send them my proposal documents and Theo Nott wants to meet with me this week to discuss the plan in more depth."

"I'm so glad, Harry." Hermione planted a kiss on her best friend's cheek.

Ginny kissed his other cheek, "yes, love, that is really encouraging. I'll help you prepare the documents and prep for your meeting, but shall we get going home now?"

"Yes!" Hermione joined her voice to Harry's and then followed her friends out the door toward the apparition point.

~oOo~

Later in bed, she couldn't help chuckling again at the tone of Malfoy's voice when he'd said 'the brightest witch of our age'. She actually hated that moniker, every news article about her seemed to work it in and she thought it made her seem totally insufferable, but she cackled at the idea that it got under his skin. Anything to pierce that uppercrust arrogance.

And she truly didn't care about his opinion. Although the 'tolerable' comment had stung slightly, it also appealed to her sense of the ridiculous. She knew she was more than tolerable. And despite the fact that she'd seemed to display a very minor physical attraction to grown-up Malfoy tonight, she wouldn't ever remotely consider him either. He was too full of himself, and the pureblood world he moved in bored her to tears. She sighed, rolled over and closed her eyes, content to put him out of her mind for another several years.

Chapter Text

"She was a woman of mean undertaking, little information, and uncertain temper. when she was discontented she fancied herself nervous"

"Pass the mint jelly, Arthur. Oh no it's empty, I'll refill it from the pantry."

Hermione watched Molly Weasley bustle around her kitchen, magically filling plates with lamb, new potatoes and spring peas for the assorted members of the Weasley clan who were seated around the dining table.

There was a standing invitation for Sunday lunch at the Burrow and as an honorary Weasley, Hermione often attended. She was sitting next to Ginny as they discussed Harry's successful meeting with Theodore Nott that week.

"Nott seems really keen," said Harry through a mouthful of potato. "We talked for a good two hours over lunch and he understood why there are so many positives to the scheme." Ginny squeezed his arm in solidarity as an approving buzz rose around the table.

"That's great news, mate," said Ron, nodding enthusiastically.

Hermione glanced at him, struck—as she often was—by how distant they had grown since school. There had been the brief romance directly after the war, but they'd broken it off—she'd been rather devastated by it until she realised it did not mean exile from the whole of the Weasley family. But they had never seemed to be able to rise to the same level of friendship they had enjoyed before.

And since then Ron had drifted a bit, struggled to find his path. He'd lived in Spain for several years and while he was gone they had just … fallen out of regular touch, other than through Harry and Ginny or things like these meals or holiday gatherings. It had been a long time since she'd sat down and talked with him. Now he was living back at the Burrow and working part time at Fred and George's joke shop. She was fairly certain that he expected Harry to give him a position in the Quidditch venture once it was funded. And Harry probably would.

Bill Weasley chimed in too, pulling Hermione out of her reverie, "Theo Nott is a well respected backer and he tends to pick winners—although some say he invests more with his heart than his head." Bill's position at Gringott's gave him access to the rumour mill that was the world of finance, so the table quieted briefly as he spoke.

His words gave Hermione, who was enjoying Molly's excellent homemade chutney, a flashback to Draco Malfoy's remarks earlier in the week about Nott's impulsiveness, and she vowed anew to sit down with Harry and Ginny and go over financials in the next few days. She didn't want Harry losing such a valuable backer due to sloppiness. Especially if Malfoy was breathing down Nott's neck. And that was two too many thoughts for a merely tolerable girl to have of Draco Malfoy on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, she scolded herself with a slight grin.

Hermione's attention was recalled to Harry when he mentioned that Nott had actually invited him to his country estate the following weekend to go over the proposal documents in detail. Apparently Nott was having a sort of weekend houseparty, but had some free time in the afternoons. The group exclaimed at this news, but Mrs. Weasley's voice soon rose above the din.

"Well Harry you'll have to get as much as you can out of this. Did you say you were only invited for an afternoon? You'll have to find a way to stretch that into an evening or overnight invitation!"

"Mum!" Ginny protested, "Harry does not need to push himself in like that. Theo's all right, but his friends are the worst sort of toffs. We all went to Hogwarts together and we know them. It will be the old Slytherin crowd—Pansy Parkinson, that whatsername Greengrass girl, Dorothy or Daisy, ugh—Blaise Zabini and of course Mr. Arrogant himself, Draco Malfoy." Heads nodded all around the table in agreement.

"Malfoy?" said Mrs Weasley with a look like a pointer scenting a rabbit, "I loathe his family of course, but he's done a good bit to distance himself from all that, and since Lucius died he's the sole heir to that extremely large fortune! He could probably finance the whole scheme without turning a hair!"

Hermione shook her head as the table erupted with ten different (mostly negative) opinions about this remark. Ginny flushed bright red and Harry sputtered, "really, Molly I don't need any more time than the planned meeting. And Theo did offer for me to stay the weekend, but Gin is right, mixing with that crowd does not appeal. It's definitely better that I just focus my attention on a successful proposal review with Theo alone."

Hermione agreed wholeheartedly. She frankly couldn't imagine anything worse than a country weekend with Pansy Parkinson and her ilk. Her few interactions with Pansy since school had shown her that the woman hadn't changed. The war may have made blood purity views déclassé, but Pansy was still a snob and a bitch even without the overt bigotry. Hermione shook her head again and looked down-table where she caught a very shifty look on Molly Weasley's face. Ginny saw it too and jumped up, pointing her finger at her mother.

"Mum, don't you dare meddle in this! You could ruin the best chance Harry's had so far. And I'm going to be away for the tournament and unable to stop it! Dad, tell her not to interfere!" she pleaded to her father, who chuckled softly as Mrs. Weasley's mouth pursed alarmingly.

"Now Ginevra, no matter what your mother gets up to, Harry will carry the day. Wherever he goes, people will always think highly of him," he said. "Fred, pass me the radishes and tell Harry and Ginny about those investors you met."

Hermione raised her eyebrows in respect at the deftness of Mr. Weasley's deflection, watching as Fred further distracted Ginny and Molly from a showdown by telling Harry about his meeting with a property investment group who were looking to diversify. He and Harry agreed to arrange a dinner with them in the near future and Harry looked well-pleased.

During this conversation Ginny was shooting Hermione very intense glares and Hermione was sure she was going to be recruited to protect Harry from Mrs. Weasley's machinations while Ginny was away. Both of them knew enough about the extent of Molly Weasley's ambition for her children—including honorary and by-marriage children—to be concerned. Sure enough, right after lunch Ginny pulled her aside and demanded her solemn vow. Hermione gave it and mentally cleared her calendar for the following weekend, a bit alarmed, but hoping it would come to nothing.

~oOo~

The following Saturday morning at around 11am, Hermione was luxuriating on the couch and reading a trashy novel, when she was the recipient of a hysterical floo call. Suited up in her full Quidditch kit, Ginny looked murderous as she shrieked, "You have to help him Hermione! You have to get to Theo's and help him!"

"What. did. she. do?" Hermione said with deadly calm. Harry had been fine when he'd left the house not an hour ago. She'd checked him herself for traces of hexes and he'd been clear! She was trying to present a cool facade to pacify Ginny, but inside she wanted to KILL Molly Weasley. The woman was a scheming manipulator.

Hermione's demeanor must have helped, because Ginny stopped yelling and started speed talking, "I have to be on the pitch in two minutes, so I don't have much time to explain, but mum slipped him some kind of time-delayed puking pastille that allowed him just enough time to get to Theo's house before he started being sick all over the place."

"Also George told me she fucked up the dosage, so even though she planned for it to let up in time for him to stay for dinner, he's actually not going to be well until tomorrow or Monday. AND it's a new prototype that Fred and George were still developing so there's no counterspell! He's very dizzy and the healer said floo and apparition are too dangerous, so the only thing he can do is stay put in bed with a self-cleaning bucket and lots of fluids."

Ginny shook her head. "He's so upset, Hermione. Would you please go to him and stay with him and possibly talk Theo through the plan? I'm sorry to ask, but there's no way I can miss these matches and you know how strict team policy is. I can't get away until Monday!"

Tears had gathered in Ginny's eyes and Hermione was quick to reassure her that she would leave within minutes. Ginny thanked her repeatedly then called, "Nott House, Greater Winchbourne!" as she was being pulled away by her teammates before vanishing back into the fireplace.

Hermione took a deep, centering breath then looked out her magical travel bag, a small duffle that was charmed to accio anything from her closet upon request. She slipped her copy of Harry's business plan into it and added her copious notes. Then she located her magical atlas of Great Britain and found the closest apparition point to Nott House. She'd still have to walk a mile or so, but that couldn't be helped. At least the area looks beautiful, she thought, searching for a bright side.

Although she was decidedly not looking forward to the house party, she was determined to salvage the situation for Harry's sake. Changing out of her pajamas and slippers into jeans and her sturdy hill-walking boots, she focused on the apparition spot then disappeared with a crack.

~oOo~

About an hour later Hermione found herself walking energetically up a lovely country lane in the Northwest Cotswolds. Hedgerows rose on either side, oak trees stood in the fields and birdsong trilled from all around. She was rather enjoying herself despite her unsavoury destination; she'd never been to this part of the country and it was breathtaking.

The village had looked charming as well. She'd have to make sure to walk back down and explore its winding lanes and promising shops. It had been a while since she'd gotten outside London and taken a long ramble in the country. She took a lungful of pristine air and came around a bend in the road to a pair of huge stone gates. This must be it.

After checking with the house elf at the gatehouse Hermione was admitted promptly. The elf offered to apparate her up to the manor, but she declined in favor of continuing her walk—and perhaps putting off the inevitable for a bit longer.

About a half a mile up the drive, the way had started to feel steep and she was regretting her choice when she heard an engine purring behind her. It sounded for all the world like a muggle car, and she whirled around in surprise. She couldn't have been more shocked when she saw that it was a muggle car, an absolutely gorgeous classic Jaguar coming slowly up the drive. She stood to the side, mouth open, to let it pass. But it slowed. And as it pulled up next to her, the window rolled down.

"Granger, what are you doing mountaineering up Nott's driveway?" said an indifferent drawl. Sunlight glinted off a shock of platinum hair.

She was too busy circling the car to respond.

"Malfoy is this a fucking 1966 E-Type?" she asked when she came back around to the driver's side window.

He tilted his head and pulled off his sunglasses. "Well yes it fucking is, Granger. How did you know that?"

She took in the car's gleaming surface as she eyed Malfoy speculatively. It was black (of course) but with a red leather interior. How was Malfoy of all people driving a muggle car? And how was it the car she loved most in all the world? What the actual fuck?

"My grandmother had one of these. She shot him a look. "I loved it. My father sold it after she died, and it broke my heart. Hers was racing green."

"Ah, the classic," he said. "Roadster or Coupe?"

"Coupe, of course. How did you learn to drive a muggle car?" she asked with narrowed eyes, "Isn't that against some pureblood rule or something?"

"Why don't you hop in and I'll tell you all about it on the way up to the house, since I presume that's where you're going? Looking up at you is giving me a neck cramp." He lowered the sunglasses—of course they were Italian and chic—and leaned over to open the passenger side door.

She hesitated for only a second, weighing being 'tolerable' against her sore feet, before she slipped into the seat. The interior smelled heavenly—like vintage leather and some indefinable but delicious thing.

Her shock over the car receding, she answered his first question. "I'm here because I'm joining the house party to rescue Harry." Malfoy glanced at her and she continued, "he came here earlier today to meet with Nott, but became ill and can't be moved. Nothing serious, but rather debilitating for the next couple of days, and since Ginny's at a tournament, I have to come play nursemaid."

"Well that's a creative way to beg an invitation," he said. "I hope whatever "illness" Potter has isn't catching."

She sniffed. Rude. "Please. And what are you doing driving a muggle car? It doesn't even look enchanted." She leaned over to peer at the steering wheel and study his hand on the gear shift.

"It's not," he replied. "Part of my self-directed rehabilitation program after the war was to pick some muggle things and learn about them. I discovered that I particularly like cars and driving, so I learned how. I have a bit of a collection now, but this one is my favorite."

"Well you have good taste," she said, rolling her eyes internally at, "a bit of a collection," as he pulled to a stop in front of the house. He gave a soft snort, and she also had to laugh at herself, in jeans and hiking boots, complimenting one of the most aristocratic men in the wizarding world on his taste. "Thanks for the ride." She stroked the leather seat. "It was a privilege."

Malfoy killed the engine and looked at her for a beat from behind his sunglasses before giving a brief nod and climbing out of the coupe. He disappeared into the house without a backward glance. "Uh, 'you're welcome'," she said to the empty car as a parade of house elves arrived to greet her properly.

Chapter Text

"There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me."

The interior of Nott house was predictably beautiful and imposing. Hermione blinked at tooled woodwork and soaring ceilings as her eyes adjusted from the bright sun to the dim indoor light. House elves removed her anorak and took her travel bag, fussing around and asking her if she needed refreshment. She thanked them and declined just as Theo Nott appeared with Pansy Parkinson.

"Fantastic," she breathed, taking in Nott's formal robes and the other woman's spotless boucle sheath, Chanel?, and bitchy expression. Hermione's boots and jeans suddenly seemed a bit out of place.

However, Nott moved forward with a smile to take her hand in both of his, instantly dispelling any awkwardness she felt. "You're very welcome, Hermione!"

Parkinson's greeting was much quieter and distinctly less warm; "Hello, Granger," she said with a faint sneer.

"Thank you, Theo. Hello Pansy," Hermione smiled gratefully at the wizard and gave the witch a cool nod. "How is Harry? May I go to him?"

"He's as well as can be," said Theo with a sympathetic grimace. Pansy just grimaced. "Of course you'll be wanting to see him. Let's go straightaway and then we can find you some food and drink. I take it you walked here from the village? You must be peckish," Theo continued as they began to climb the sweeping staircase to the second floor. Parkinson stayed below watching them with distaste, although Hermione noted that her expression brightened when she saw Malfoy descending in the opposite direction.

He paused briefly. "Hello Theo. Granger."

"Draco!" said Nott. "Didn't realise you'd arrived. I'll come find you after I've settled Hermione. She's uh, here to check on Harry. Potter. Who's also here, but sick."

"Yes, Granger filled me in," Malfoy said, catching Hermione's eye briefly. Nott frowned in confusion, but seemed to let it go. He continued up the stairs and Hermione followed as Malfoy brushed past them.

~oOo~

"Oh God, I'm glad you're here," Pansy sighed, reaching out to grab Draco's waist. "I'm already over it and the weekend's barely started. Theo's haring around like the welcome wagon on speed. Blaise is fucking annoying and Daph says she's not going to drink because she's on a cleanse. Harry Potter, of all people, showed up and promptly started puking everywhere. And now we're going to have to play nice with Hermione Granger all weekend?" She pressed her body against his and tilted her head back slightly.

Draco reached around his back, dislodged her hands and put a good two feet of distance between them. He despised it when she acted proprietary. Although they'd slept together on and off for years, he'd always been honest and consistent about his lack of desire for a relationship—and it had been over a year since they'd last... But she could still be extremely tedious about it.

"Other than Daphne not drinking, that all sounds par for the course," he said, bored. "And both of us know she'll forget all about her cleanse by about 5:05pm. Lush," he added with affection.

"Well you can't deny that Potter and Granger are an annoyance. At least Potter's laid up in bed, but Granger? Whatever will we talk about? The latest in house elf rights? How to claw up the ministry promotion ladder? Vomit. She's going to completely cramp our style." Pansy flicked her hair. "I mean did you even see what she was wearing, Draco? She looked like she wandered in from L-Fest by way of dykesville with those fucking boots. I was personally offended by seeing denim in a wizarding home. And was she trying to prove some idiotic muggle point by walking up the hill instead of apparating? She was so flushed and sweaty. I noticed you brushed by her quickly. You must have been appalled."

"Actually," he said, now extremely bored, "I gave her a ride up the hill in my car. And I thought the exercise made her skin glow."

Pansy's mouth compressed into a thin line. Draco took advantage of her momentary silence to push past her out of the foyer. "Off for a smoke. See you later for drinks," he tossed over his shoulder.

~oOo~

Draco stood on a sufficiently secluded terrace, plucked a cigarette out of his silver case and looked out over the gardens, which were showing signs of the change from spring to summer. It was good to be in the country again. Work had been an absolute bitch lately, his mother and a recent situation with his ward Astoria had also been extremely mentally taxing. He was looking forward to a relaxing weekend, as long as Pansy's moaning didn't ruin it.

He couldn't give a shit about Potter being here. They would never be best friends, but ten years after the war, they could be cordial. He'd even brought Potter in to advise on a project at The Meadows last year. He just hoped Theo wouldn't make a stupid mistake with the Quidditch team investment. He'd find a way to look closely over the business plan at some point in the next few days.

As for Granger, this afternoon's encounter had bordered on inoffensive. Of course he had made his comment about her mostly to fuck with Pansy, but she had been somewhat tolerable to converse with for five minutes. Who knew she could appreciate something as singular as his car? Not that he was interested. Even if she had grown more attractive since school.

He shrugged off such dreary thoughts, stubbed out his cigarillo and magicked it away, intending to get in a little broom time on Theo's excellent practice pitch before cocktails and dinner. As he ran lightly up the stairs to his room to change, he conceded that the addition of Granger to this party probably wouldn't hurt. At the very least, it would be entertaining to watch her spar with the snakes.

~oOo~

Hermione sat with Harry, who looked distinctly green and kept emitting groans—intermittently due to nausea and being distraught at the situation.

"I can't believe that Molly would do this to me," he said for the fourth time.

"Can't you? I have to admit that I'm totally unsurprised. That woman is ruthless and incredibly stupid. It's a dangerous combination."

"You're right. I just thought that since you checked me I was in the clear. And now I've embarrassed myself and cocked up any chance to get funding from Nott."

"That I do not believe. Theo strikes me as intelligent and understanding. He won't judge you or pass on a good opportunity because of this. Besides, I'll find some way to talk to him about the plan again and keep his interest alive. Then we'll just schedule you another meeting for next week. Easy peasy." She stroked his forehead, brushing back his untidy hair. He covered her hand with his and looked at her with gratitude.

"Thanks so much for rushing to be here, Hermione. I feel much better now - well at least mentally better," he groaned, as his face went pale with another wave of nausea. He fought it down, "I really appreciate that you're willing to mix with with people you don't like very much in order to help me and the scheme." He flopped back onto the pillows, a sheen of sweat on his brow.

"You are very welcome and I will be fine."

Hermione measured out a dose of the dreamless sleep potion left by the healer and Harry swallowed it eagerly.

"After meeting Theo, I don't think he'll let anyone be too mean to me," she mused. "And Malfoy actually gave me a ride up the hill in his muggle car." She wiggled her brows at Harry and his eyes widened, even as they began to close in sleep.

"And, I think I'll actually enjoy sparring with that bitch, Parkinson. She has an obvious weakness that I'm eager to exploit," she said, thinking of the hungry way Pansy's eyes had followed Malfoy down the staircase. After all this time, she was still smitten with him...

By this time Harry was breathing deeply, so she left him with a watchful house elf and went to find her room. Theo had told her that cocktails were at 5pm on the terrace and she wanted to relax a bit before she stepped into the breach.

~oOo~

Hermione arrived on the patio promptly at five and looked around appreciatively. The light was golden, the air was soft and the gardens were lovely. The others began to trickle in as the sun rode low in the sky, starting with Theo and Blaise Zabini. Blaise was teasing Theo and they laughed as they greeted Hermione, then settled into a couple of the comfortable chairs strewn about.

"What's on the menu, man?" asked Blaise, rubbing his hands together. "I could use a DRINK!"

"Me too," said a melodious voice. It belonged to Daphne Greengrass, who hugged the two wizards, then came over and said a polite hello to Hermione.

Theo looked around, "Well, Pansy had some concoction she wanted to try. She was huddling with the elves about it earlier. Something with elderflower she had in St. Moritz."

"Sounds poncy," said Blaise.

"Well I've also got the usual—white, red and bubbly, ale, anything from the bar. Even butterbeer if you want to please your inner thirteen year old. "

"Wait, you two have got to try my Alpine Spritz!" called Pansy as she appeared. Hermione noted that she'd changed for the evening activities into something long and beautifully cut with a very plunging neckline. Her black hair was a shiny curtain framing her expertly made up face. Several carats of fine stones dangled from her ears.

"Wow, Pans, you look like a million. Literally," said Blaise, eyeing her earrings and leaning in to air kiss her cheeks.

"Thanks, love," she responded, her face lighting up, then falling almost comically as she spotted Hermione standing with Daphne. They were chatting politely, which in itself seemed to annoy her.

Also, Hermione thought with some relish, if Parkinson had hoped she'd make a sartorial faux pas, that hope was now dashed. She felt perfectly stylish in a summery jumpsuit and statement earrings. In fact, considering Daphne's simple linen trousers and blouse, and Theo and Blaise's similarly casual attire, it actually appeared that Pansy was a bit overdressed—a fact which did not seem to escape her as she twitched her hem and looked daggers at the other guests.

"Daph, Hermione," exclaimed Theo, ever the gracious host. "What is your poison? Do you want to try Pansy's Alpine cocktail? Oh but of course it will be sparkling water for you, Daph."

"Ahhh no," Daphne replied with a rueful look. "I, uh, actually think I'll have the Alpine thingy."

"Sooo predictable," commented Blaise, rolling his eyes. The rest of the group laughed, although Hermione glanced around, a bit confused.

"Daphne announced earlier that she wouldn't be drinking this weekend," commented a wry voice from behind her. "We all had bets on how long past 5 o'clock it would last and I think I won with '30 seconds'." Malfoy moved into view as the crowd, including Daphne, laughed. Hermione joined in. Daphne seemed like a good sport.

"Draco, you want to try Pansy's Alpine thing too?" asked Theo, as a helpful house elf hovered nearby with a pitcher of the drinks.

"It's called an Alpine Spritzer," said Pansy, her eyes flashing. "You have to taste it Draco, everyone was drinking them in St. Moritz this Winter and they're divine. It's Vodka and elderflower topped with champagne."

"Yes, sounds fine."

"And Hermione? You? Are you in for a Spritzer?" asked Theo.

"I think I'll just have some bubbly."

"Oh Hermione are you one of those people who doesn't drink hard alcohol'? Too much for you?" Pansy said.

"No, I just really like Champagne." Hermione forced a smile.

Daphne laughed, "who doesn't!?"

"Oh I see. You're going to nurse that glass all night." Pansy ignored Daphne and kept focused on Hermione.

Hermione stared back, feeling like she'd been transported back to 5th year, peer pressure and all—but decided it was best not to respond. She accepted a delicate flute from Theo with thanks and sipped contentedly, looking to start a conversation with someone, anyone - but Pansy seemed goaded by her silence.

"Well you won't be able to maintain long with this crowd," she said, looking around for confirmation. Blaise tittered and Theo made a noncommittal sound. Malfoy was totally silent, turning his back to the group to look out over the garden.

"So tell me how you discovered this drink, Pans. It's really delicious!" said Daphne, holding out her glass for a refill, obviously trying to diffuse her friend's vitriol.

But Pansy was relentless. "Oh, it was the thing at Badrutt's this Winter when I was there for the skiing. We drank pitchers of them and had fun, because we know how to."

Daphne shifted uncomfortably and Hermione noticed that the others seemed to have tacitly agreed to ignore Pansy.

She decided that Pansy deserved needling, so she walked in Malfoy's direction. "Malfoy," she said in carrying voice, looking up at him with a winsome tilt of her chin, "I was so taken with your car when you gave me a lift this afternoon that I forgot to ask what you've been doing and how you've been. I mean, I haven't seen you in an age." She smiled up at him and blinked rapidly. There was an audible exhale from somewhere behind her right shoulder at the mention of the lift. Really, the woman was too obvious for her own good.

Malfoy looked down at her, then cut his eyes briefly in Pansy's direction. He then turned so he faced away from her and screened Hermione from the rest of the group, creating a neat little circle of privacy.

"Well after my trial I did some 'soul-searching'," he said in a low voice, making their exchange even more intimate. To her annoyed surprise, Hermione noticed another frisson. "I traveled a bit and dove deep into some muggle 'stuff' as I mentioned earlier."

She nodded, finding herself actually interested. "What kind of muggle stuff? I mean, other than vintage cars."

"Oh the usual university kid things," he said, running a hand through his hair and quirking the corner of his mouth. "Literature, music, film, cooking…"

"Wait, don't tell me Draco Malfoy knows how to cook like a muggle!" He raised a brow. "Well what can you make?"

"I'm great with breakfast," he deadpanned, stepping slightly closer to her and intensifying his eye contact. She paused a beat, her pulse quickening, then broke into real laughter as she realised what he was about.

"Oh very good," she said as she settled into a chuckle, draining her glass. He finished his as well and gave her an almost smile.

Did I just have a moment with Draco Malfoy? The thought flitted through her mind with a little jolt.

After a beat, she and Malfoy seemed to realise they were staring at each other and turned abruptly back to the group to find themselves the subjects of intense scrutiny.

Pansy looked furious, which greatly amused Hermione. "So, you've proved you can drink a glass of champagne. Why don't you try the cocktail?" Pansy challenged, reckless now and seemingly unaware of how ridiculous she appeared.

Hermione sighed, done with this conversation. "To tell you the truth, I don't like vodka and never drink it. I find vodka drinks boring and I don't like the taste, which I can always detect. I consider it the liquor for people who 'don't want to taste the alcohol'. I'm sorry if that offends anyone here." She finished the statement with a cold smile, then heard the very faint ghost of a snicker from behind her.

Parkinson's face turned a dull red and it finally seemed to dawn on her how ridiculous she'd been about the whole thing. She snapped at one of the house elves and drew Daphne away to the side with a whispered comment.

"20 points to Gryffindor," muttered Blaise as Theo tried to smooth over the tension, coming over and offering to take Hermione around the sculpture garden.

"I really don't mean to be a snob," she said as she accepted his offer gratefully, still in disbelief that the discussion had run on this long. "It's just that spirits are an interest of mine and I know what I like." She clinked her glass to his as he smiled down at her and told her not to worry about it. But she couldn't help feeling like she'd been put to some sort of test—and she wasn't sure if she'd passed or not.

For the rest of the night she steered clear of Pansy and focused her attention on Theo, who was a delight; Blaise, who was ridiculous, but fun; and Daphne, who was truly friendly and also surprisingly knowledgeable about fine spirits.

They'd had a lively debate on the merits of Speyside versus Islay single malt whisky and Hermione had been surprised and pleased to find a pureblood so well versed in a muggle subject. Blaise had even jumped in to make the case for firewhiskey, although they'd shot him down pretty quickly, as one thing the witches were in agreement about was that there was really no comparison.

She didn't speak much more to Malfoy, but looked up once or twice to find his eyes on her. She didn't think anything of it, though, as he seemed to give her a wide berth all evening and then stepped out early, directly after Pansy announced that she was going to bed. She wondered idly if there was something more to them than she had realised, and then immediately hoped there was so that her little interlude with him would have pissed the bitch off even more.

Evil, Granger, you're getting evil in your old age, she chuckled to herself as she climbed the stairs to bed. The day hadn't been as bad as she'd feared, but she hoped to make tomorrow more pleasant by mostly keeping to herself until the requisite evening gathering. There was the village to explore as well as the beautiful grounds, which seemed to stretch on for miles. She decided she'd rise early and take a walk, as well as search out the library, which had to be impressive. She also needed to make sure she talked to Theo about Harry's plans and vowed to keep alert for an opportune time to do that.

She made a quick stop at Harry's room, poking her head in to make sure he was asleep, before heading off to bed herself, suddenly exhausted after the events of the day.

Chapter Text

"He had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty: he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes."

The next morning Hermione woke just after sunrise and went straight to check on Harry again. He was pale and sleeping so soundly that she didn't like to disturb him. Besides, the grounds beckoned.

She set out in the morning mist with a purposeful stride and a large mug of coffee provided by a friendly house elf. She walked for a few miles through carefully tended gardens closer to the house and less tame groves and woods further out. It was all delightful; obviously the product of years of careful tending by an army of experienced groundskeepers.

She had walked her fill and swung around back toward the house, intending to go in and clean up before heading into the village, when she heard a distinctive 'thunk...thunk…" sound in the near distance. "Oooh, target practice!" she thought as she hurried toward the sound. Rounding a bend out of the woods cautiously, she came to a large meadow where an archery course had been set up. Blaise and Theo were loosing arrows with practised ease, Theo a bit better of a shot, but both skilled. Theo caught sight of her and waved his arm.

"Good morning! Fancy a go?" he called, gesturing with his bow. She jogged over.

"I'd love to," she said as she approached them. "It's been ages, but I used to be keen. I didn't realise this was a wizarding sport too!"

"Yes, it's one of the few approved recreational activities that seem to cross magical and muggle lines," said Theo. "Another is fencing. I'm not sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with both activities being related to elements of combat that are useful in wizarding battle as well as muggle. Perhaps we learned them in ancient times to be effective if disarmed? There's actually an interesting book on this very thing in the library at the house."

Hermione had been nodding along, fascinated. At the mention of the library her pulse quickened. "Ohh yes, your library. Would it be ok if I took a look in there?"

Theo grinned and nodded while Blaise snorted. "Swot," Blaise said, but with no sting. He then notched another arrow and let it loose. It hit the board with a thunk, feathers quivering, then extracted itself and whizzed back to the basket next to Theo.

"Guilty," Hermione shrugged. "But, I would never forgive myself if I wasted my chance to peruse the library at Nott House."

"Your chance?" said Theo with raised brows. "You make it sound so final! I was going to invite you and Harry back for my Solstice party next month. "It's an annual celebration and I'd love for you both to come."

"That's so kind of you," she said, her mind automatically looking for a way to gracefully decline the invitation. She might be tolerating this crowd for Harry's sake, but she wasn't truly keen on furthering the relationship beyond friendly acquaintances.

Blaise, whom she had noticed was extremely socially perceptive, seemed to take her measure in a glance. "It's really an astounding do, Granger. The Nott House Summer Solstice Party? Haven't you heard of it? It's infamous. You'd be meeting all sorts of interesting people. Not just the posh toff crowd you're stuck with this weekend. And if Potter really hopes to make a success of a Quidditch team in London, he couldn't find a better set of contacts. PR influencers, regulatory heads, investors, suppliers—they'll all be here."

Hermione took the hint and shot Blaise a covert look of thanks mixed with resignation. He smirked and she took a deep breath, "I'd love to come, Theo, and I know Harry will too. In fact, he's extremely upset and embarrassed at what's happened this weekend—part of him asking me to come here was to convey that to you and to make sure you don't lose interest in the Quidditch investment just because he's a dolt who showed up on your doorstep and promptly vomited." She punctuated the last sentence with a rueful laugh, hoping to soften the mercenary tone of her statement.

"Of course his illness doesn't affect my interest in the scheme!" said Theo as he helped Hermione shoulder the bow. "I'm going to read over the proposal document this afternoon and then I'll make sure to set another meeting time with him before he goes. I haven't wanted to disturb him, but I'll definitely look in on him this afternoon."

"Thanks so much, Theo. I'm sure that news will speed his recovery." Hermione turned to sight the target and make her shot. The arrow went true and embedded itself respectably close to the bullseye.

"Nice one!" shouted Theo, patting Hermione on the back. "You know, I'm very sorry that Harry got sick, but the silver lining is that it's allowing me to get to know you better, which has been delightful." He took her hand and executed a little bow over it.

Hermione laughed. "Likewise," she said with her own bow.

~oOo~

Later, Hermione returned to the house and ate a quick lunch. She then ran up the stairs to Harry's room to peek in on him. He was awake and sipping a thin broth with the help of a house elf.

"Hullo," he said, his eyes downcast as he slurped at a spoonful of the unappetising-looking liquid.

Hermione apprised him of her conversation with Theo. "Blimey, that's good news," he said with a weak grin, pushing away the rest of the broth and falling back on his pillow.

"Do you want to sleep some more?" Hermione asked with concern and a silent curse for Molly Weasley. He'd been sleeping an awful lot.

"Well it's better than lying here bored and counting the squares in the canopy," he said, gesturing to the checked fabric over his head.

"Oh god, of course you're bored," Hermione leaned down to fluff his pillow. "Well listen, I was planning on going into the village this afternoon. I'll pick you up some Quidditch magazines and have the house elves bring you a deck of cards in the meantime." Harry nodded his thanks. "And I'll have a look in the library and see if there are any interesting books I can bring to you."

"I can't believe you've been here 24 hours and haven't been to the library yet," remarked Harry with a slight grin.

"Oh, you're well enough to make jokes," she said, smiling back. "You must be feeling better!" He laughed faintly, but his eyelids were lowering. "Ok," she said. "I'm off. I'll come back in a bit with your stuff and I'll tell Theo to come in and chat if you're awake in a few hours."

~oOo~

This time Hermione apparated into the village. As suspected, the shops were charming and she enjoyed a couple of hours wandering. She returned to the manor with Harry's magazines, some new books, and two bottles of good single malt—one for herself and the other to thank Theo for his hospitality to an unexpected guest.

She entered the manor from the apparition point rather than the front door and walked a different way to the entry hall, her steps clicking pleasantly on the thick marble floor. She suddenly caught a whiff of fragrant smoke and stopped, looking around for the source. A thin plume unfurled from behind a half-closed velvet drape that covered the entrance to what looked like a small balcony. She stepped closer and pulled the curtain aside, revealing a graceful torso stretched over a balustrade and a fair head glinting in the last of the evening sun.

"Hello, Granger," Malfoy said over his shoulder before taking an elegant drag on his thin, brown cigarette.

She stepped onto the balcony, wondering how he knew it was her. "You know those things are bad for you."

He shrugged, which she noticed did interesting things to the interplay of muscle under his fine linen shirt.

"May I have one?"

He turned around, head tilted, then extracted his cigarette case and a silver lighter. He stepped closer, offering her a slim, brown cylinder, which she took and put to her lips. The lighter wicked to life and she inhaled deeply and with some enjoyment.

"All right, I admit I'm at least as shocked about this as you were about the car," he said, gazing down at her. She raised her eyebrows and took another long drag, trying to ignore that she continued to find him annoyingly attractive. It wasn't that she was attracted to Malfoy, she told herself—it was some instinct in the primal brain that responded to a tall, well-built man.

"I'm not a 16 year old schoolgirl anymore," was the brilliant thing her mouth said. For some reason her voice came out a bit husky and it sounded sort of like a come-on. She cringed inwardly.

His eyes went unfocused for a second and she could have sworn he glanced her mouth before they both suddenly turned to face out over the grounds.

"It is really ridiculously beautiful here," she said in an attempt to diffuse the awkwardness.

The mellow sunset light gilded pockets in the trees that turned to a deep, flame orange as they watched.

"The magic hour," he agreed.

"You know, right now I'm actually glad I came here," she said, smiling out at the view.

"Not so dismissive about what money can buy?"

"What? I never…"

"Oh don't lie. You've been judging us all as spoiled rotten toffs since you got here."

She looked at him open-mouthed. He continued to look out at the scenery as she struggled to make a response.

Then she closed her mouth and her lip quirked up. "It was actually since the networking party."

"What?"

"I haven't been judging you since I got here. It's been at least since the networking party," she clarified. "Probably longer. Actually I've thought you were spoiled rotten since I first met you."

He paused for a moment then laughed, a real, honest laugh that did something to her pulse— and accompanied it with a smile that did something to her insides. She tried very hard to rationalise these effects.

"Thanks for the interlude. Glad I could provide some comic relief," she said in a rush, as she stubbed out her cigarette. He glanced at her as she turned to go.

"You'll be happy to know that drinks are in the library tonight." Was he stalling her?

"How does everyone seem to know that about me?" she mused, seemingly willing to be detained. "But yes, I'm looking forward to seeing it. Do you think we'll need to dress nicely for dinner again? Will I need to change?" She gestured to her silk t-shirt, trousers and stylish sandals that would be fine for almost any late spring dinner party she could conceive of. For fuck's sake, was she fishing for a compliment?

Malfoy surveyed her and exhaled, looking like the dragon of his namesake, then flicked his glance away. "Yes, you'll need to change, Granger. It's a formal dinner at Nott House, not a curry takeaway or that pile the Weasley's live in. You'll need to make an effort. Just like last night."

She rolled her eyes. That's what she got for forgetting what a total prat he could be. "I just find it tedious to select and change clothes multiple times a day."

"Is it, though?" he said. "I'd have said your high street fashion is more tedious, anytime." His lip curled and he turned back around. For a moment she longed to smack the back of his platinum head.

She contained her violent urges and gave his back a flat stare before spinning on her heel, whispering, "arse," under her breath. She was so intent on her exit, she missed the grin that transformed his face as she left.

~oOo~

Draco's smile faded and he kept his eyes firmly trained on the garden as he heard her light steps trip away across the entry hall, then up the carpeted stair. He exhaled, not realizing he'd been holding his breath. She was a surprise, that's all, a surprise. He wasn't going to let his reaction to her shake him. He'd known her since he was eleven, for fuck's sake. It wasn't like she'd exploded on his consciousness out of nowhere. But her company this weekend had been … refreshing? Interesting? Stimulating. Yes, stimulating. In more ways than one.

He'd actually noticed her at that ridiculous investor event—partly because it was her and partly because he'd caught her looking as bored and unhappy as he'd felt. She had also been wearing a distinctly sexy black dress—nothing trashy, but well-cut and showing off her slim build. If he was being totally honest, he'd always found her pretty—even when he was being a shit to her at school.

When he'd spotted her walking up to the manor yesterday, he'd been a bit startled by the strength of his response. He'd known it was her immediately and told himself not to stop, but his body hadn't listened to his brain. And then her reaction to the car—he huffed a soft laugh—that had been a surprise. He had been expecting her to be stiff and rude and had instead gotten an intriguing little conversation.

Their exchange in the car and again on the terrace last night. Just now. He was affected by her. Noticing the dusting of golden freckles across her nose and the dark wings of her expressive eyebrows. Her pretty mouth. He'd mocked her clothes because he absolutely couldn't say what he'd really been thinking. And then she'd called him an arse. Priceless. He grinned again. He was obviously too used to girls who fawned over him. The one that insulted him gave him a hard-on.

Maybe he needed to seek out Pansy tonight. It had been too long since he'd been with anyone. But the thought didn't appeal. Was Granger getting under his skin that badly? Fuck. He'd need to do something about this. Luckily they only had tonight and then would all be going their separate ways in the morning. He'd put her out of his mind—he'd always been good at compartmentalising.

Draco reached for his cigarettes and lit another—he almost never smoked more than one a day, but this was clearly a special circumstance. Maybe he'd follow it with a cold shower.

The smoke relaxed him and his mind wandered, picturing her walking across the garden to the house just now. Long, swinging strides and deep breaths. He could see her tits bouncing under her top and he'd stared like a fucking teenager. And then she'd come up to the balcony and he could smell her—the scent she'd left in his car.

Bollocks, maybe he should just pursue her—fuck her and get her out of his system. But no, he was almost sure she wouldn't go for a fling. He didn't think she was a prude per-se, but she was self-possessed. He couldn't see her standing for his shit. He realised with surprise that she wouldn't settle for him—or at least what he would offer her. She'd expect more.

More. He snorted as he thought of the reaction if he brought Granger home in her boots and muggle attire to Narcissa. The war had driven anti-muggle sentiment underground, but it still coursed through the pureblood community—especially the older generations. Muggles might be tolerated to work with or live next to, but not to marry or—horrors!— create half-blood children with. Draco himself no longer held these opinions, but he also didn't really intend to rock that particular boat when the time came. Marriages were alliances and he would make a good one. As long as his future spouse was undemanding (this requirement excluded Pansy) and could produce the requisite heir, they'd rub along just fine. His mother had been pestering him more intensely lately to settle down, with a proper girl, but he wasn't remotely ready.

No, Granger may be intriguing—clever and interesting, beautiful in a way that distracted him, but he was not interested in a misalliance. He could make it one more night and once this weekend was over he'd simply put her out of his mind.

Chapter Text

"There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil—a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome." "And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody." "And yours," he replied with a smile, "is willfully to misunderstand them."

An hour and a bit later, Hermione swept down the stairs in search of the library. She had initially agonised over her dress choice after Malfoy's comments, but her sense of humor had kicked in and she was able to have a good chuckle at his poncy-highness. So she went to dinner and drinks comfortable in a simple floor-length wrap dress of ochre silk that she'd definitely bought in the high street. With her hair in a loose, low twist and some very fetching heeled sandals, she felt ready to brave the snake pit.

She found what must be the library door, an elaborately carved wooden double passageway that looked like the gates to a lost fairy grotto rather than a normal room. Her breath caught as she stepped through the threshold and registered the size and beauty of the chamber. She took in the shelves of what were clearly thousands of books on two levels joined by spiraling staircases and felt a stab of pure lust to be mistress of Nott house and this incredible collection—despite the fact that she was 99% sure that Theo was gay. She would engage in a number of marriages of convenience to have free reign of this place.

She must have stopped and gaped in the doorway for an unseemly amount of time because Blaise soon prodded her lightly from behind whispering, "Malfoy Manor's library is five times this big. Just sayin'…" She shot a puzzled look at his highly amused face, then stepped away from him and into the room.

Theo greeted her with an outstretched hand, asking after her trip to the village. She held out the bottle of whisky in response, thanking him for his hospitality and generosity in opening his home to her.

"How kind," sneered Pansy's voice, cutting in from the deep leather couch on which she was sitting, resplendent in something dark green and definitely not from the high street. "So lovely and middle class that your mummy instilled the hostess gift rule in you." Hermione was amazed at her blatant rudeness, but refused to acknowledge it, figuring Pansy made herself look worse than anyone else ever could.

Theo leveled a long, murderous look at Pansy, then thanked Hermione for the thoughtful gift. He began to open the bottle directly and Daphne wandered over to ask about its origin and characteristics. Hermione chatted with her for a bit and they tried a dram. Blaise also came over for a lesson and taste. A late spring rain pattered against the windows, which had gone the deep violet of near night.

Hermione realised she hadn't seen Malfoy and looked around to spot him in a secluded corner desk, writing a letter. He seemed to be totally engrossed and ignoring everyone else, although she could see Pansy making little motions and sounds in an attempt to attract his attention.

She still wasn't sure what to make of her encounters with him during this house party, but she decided that her best course of action was probably to chalk them up to the strangeness of being thrown together in this circumstance… and then forget them.

"Do you mind if I just have a wander?" she asked Theo, gesturing to the further reaches of the library.

"Of course! Look all you like," he said. "Ground floor is history, literature and poetry. Second floor is magical reference. The oldest magical texts are in a special section in the back downstairs. The password to enter is paradísum voluptátis."

Hermione smiled. "Earthly delights indeed."

"Would you like a glass of this to take with you?" he indicated the whisky bottle.

"Yes, please. You really are the perfect host" she said, winking at him and taking another dram before heading for the nearest staircase.

Pansy snorted. "So true to form, Granger. Latin. Practically aroused over a library. Always reading. Don't you have any other hobbies?"

"I don't really consider reading a hobby—it's more of an 'essential for life' activity. But yes, I do have many other interests. Don't you worry about me."

Pansy rolled her eyes and mouthed the word "BOR-ING," in Malfoy's direction, but he continued to ignore her.

Hermione also ignored her, gathering her dress hem and climbing the staircase carefully. She ascended to a narrow walkway with a solid, carpeted center and open grillwork on either side. Taking a calming breath, she ran her fingers lightly over the spines of the books, noting at least seven titles she'd like a closer look at in the first shelf alone. She moved slowly down the walkway, soon becoming totally engrossed.

~oOo~

Theo watched Hermione with a fond gleam in his eye. He'd meant what he'd said earlier that day, he was enjoying getting to know her and glad that she had made an addition to their little group this weekend, even if he did feel sorry for Potter. He'd especially enjoyed the way she put Pansy, who could be exceedingly annoying, in her place. And she had great taste in whisky.

Sipping his dram and surveying the room, Theo's eye was caught by a movement from Draco's corner. He looked over to see his best friend glance up, startled, as Granger paused directly above him on the walkway. Theo caught a glimpse of long slender leg through the grillwork and the slit in Hermione's dress and figured the view must be much more explicit for Draco, who froze in place, upturned eyes glazed.

Theo gasped silently as his friend looked down and swallowed, delicate pink creeping up his neck and over his fine cheekbones. Draco stared down at the desk motionless for a full minute until a flash of annoyance crossed his features, and he schooled his countenance into its usual cool mask, then redoubled his attention on his letter.

So that's the way the wind blows? thought Theo with more than a little glee. A very quiet snort of laughter from his left let him know that the little display had not escaped Blaise's attention either. Theo looked at him with eyes wide and brows raised as Blaise shot him a huge grin and mimed a wolf whistle. Theo reached out and slapped him quietly on the wrist, shaking his head as if to say, 'don't you dare.'

He then darted a glance at Pansy, who luckily seemed to have chosen that moment to take her attention off Draco, but now seemed to decide she was tired of being ignored. "Draco darling, who are you writing to?" she drawled, her consonants making Theo think she had likely started drinking earlier in the day.

"Astoria," grunted Draco without looking up.

"Oh give the dear girl my love!" said Pansy, in raptures. Theo winced at the shrillness in the enclosed space. "Daph, I haven't seen your sister in an age and I do adore her. Such style and originality in a young girl. So gamine. Is she still at Hogwarts? Fifth year? It's sweet how you write to her, Draco. You play the role of wise guardian sooo perfectly. How did that come about again? You're all some sort of cousins, correct?"

Her gushing ceased momentarily as Daphne, looking up from a magazine, cut her eyes to Theo, a warning flashing in them. Theo gave her a slight nod.

"Second cousins once removed," said Draco, his attention still firmly fastened on his letter.

"Astor left Hogwarts this Winter," Daphne said cautiously. "She'll be at Beauxbatons once term starts."

"Amazing! A term in France. She'll gain just the polish she needs to be truly accomplished. You see so few girls these days that are well-rounded in the ways that all pureblood witches used to be. And so many witches," here Pansy glared at Hermione, who was coming carefully back down the spiral staircase, "who have no social graces or fashion sense to speak of." Theo felt like slapping her.

"And here I thought I looked rather well tonight," Hermione remarked under her breath, but not too quietly. Theo snorted—she could certainly take care of herself—and saw Draco's glance flick to her too. Louder, she said, "and what would make a pureblood witch considered 'truly accomplished'? And why would she want or need the designation?"

"Oh," said Pansy, with a sort of sneering enthusiasm that showed how eager she was to make Hermione aware of her shortcomings. Theo sighed audibly. "She would need tutors and a fine classical education, not just that half-assed shit they peddle at Hogwarts. Of course, she'd still need to be skilled at spellwork, to speak at least three languages - preferably English, French and either Italian, Mandarin or Russian - have a good knowledge of art, architecture, design and fashion, be able to play a musical instrument well, know how to run a grand home and have something in her air - something that marks her out as collected and above the fray at all times."

"And you know several women who qualify for this label?" asked Hermione.

"Of course. Loads."

Hermione snorted, "I'm surprised that you know even one." Pansy must have heard the implied insult because she looked daggers back. Theo cheered silently, but kept out of it, enjoying the banter.

"You're hard on your sex," interjected Malfoy from the corner, eying Hermione. Guess he couldn't keep out of it, Theo chortled to himself. Pansy grew even more annoyed, and Theo could tell she had not missed the fact that Hermione's contribution was the thing that drew Draco away from his precious letter.

"Am I?" said Hermione. "I rather think you purebloods are the ones who are hard on us. Imagine expecting someone to do all of that? What time would you have for just relaxing and enjoying life? And I didn't hear any mention of a career. So really, what is the reason for these paragons to develop all of these talents and virtues?" she asked.

"Well so that they, we, can be proper wives for pureblood men who need partners to run their homes and social lives while they run the world," remarked Pansy with a little flourish. Theo rolled his eyes.

"I'm sorry but did we suddenly go back in time to 1955?" asked Hermione.

"I'm perfectly serious, Granger," sneered Pansy. "Back me up the rest of you! Draco, don't you expect your wife to have all the qualities I listed?"

"Of course," replied Malfoy. "And she should add something more." Pansy raised her eyebrows in eager inquiry.

"She should be a voracious reader." He folded and sealed his letter. Hermione snorted and her eyes flew to him.

Pansy sniffed, and for once Theo was in sympathy because something had passed between the other two, but he had no idea what it was.

"I agree, the well-rounded woman should be sophisticated and educated," Pansy said, obviously trying to regain control of the conversation, "but she should never be a swot or an insufferable know-it-all," she finished with a pursed mouth and a dismissive air.

Hermione openly laughed at this, looking around for confirmation. Theo was about to speak up in support when Pansy interjected, "What?" she demanded, a little too aggressively.

"I just can't believe how old-fashioned you all are!"

"Hey…" said Blaise.

"Not all of us!" said Theo at the same time.

"Ok, well Pansy and Malfoy, representing a certain segment of wizarding society, then," conceded Hermione. "It's all so reductive and strange. Don't you want your partner to be an equal? Do there have to be strict roles based on gender? What if I'm ambitious and good at running a concern and my future husband is better at managing the home and our children? You're saying people should ignore essential parts of themselves to be trained for rigidly structured and gendered roles. I (and I daresay the rest of the modern world) just think that's limiting … and frankly, sad," she finished with a look of pity.

"You're saying you could see yourself ending up with a man who is happy to stay home and change nappies all day?" said Draco, standing up from the desk and stalking toward Hermione. Theo noticed the telltale signs of temper in his usually cool friend. The twitch of a jaw muscle, the tense way he held his frame.

"Yes," she said stoutly.

"I think you're fooling yourself," he countered. "Although you did date Weasly for a while, so maybe not." Hermione shook her head and rolled her eyes as Pansy giggled. Low blow, Draco, thought Theo.

"But," Draco continued, moving closer. "I don't think you'd be happy for one second with a man who is only a helpmeet, rather than someone who would challenge you." Theo's eyes slid to Blaise's in open surprise. Blaise looked like a kid on Christmas morning.

"And you would? Be satisfied with a woman who is purely ornamental? Only there to raise your children and make sure your flower arrangements are au courant?" said Hermione, now visibly annoyed and also drawing closer to Draco. Theo noticed that Pansy's face was rapidly moving from amused to concerned. Blaise was basically rubbing his hands together with glee and Daphne had looked up from her magazine, amused.

"I'm not saying that." Draco sounded irritated. "That's what Pansy said. I merely said I would want my wife to be educated, well-rounded and well-read." Theo noted he was now within a few feet of Hermione. "You are willfully misunderstanding me."

"Oh I don't think I am," she said. "Because I think you also require a few more things." She ticked off the items on her fingers directly in front of his face, "One, your partner have the right sort of name and connections to satisfy your family; two she not be cheap or "tedious"; and three that she not taint the ancient and venerable Malfoy line." Hermione had moved a step closer and Malfoy's face had grown a shade darker with each tick they were now virtually nose to nose.

"You. Are. Full. Of. Shit," he said. "You know nothing about me."

"Really?" she retorted. "Prove it. Name one muggle-born or half-blood girl you've dated, slept with or even snogged." Their bodies were now about an inch apart and Hermione was glaring up at Draco as he looked down at her. Tension thrummed between them and the words "slept with" and "snogged" seemed to hang in the air. They stared at each other for another beat, and Theo had no idea what was about to happen, although he was here for it, whatever it was.

But at the height of the tension, Draco suddenly pulled his face into the controlled mask, spun on his heel and walked away. It didn't miss Theo's notice that he went directly to the liquor cart and poured, then downed, a healthy measure of the whisky Hermione had brought.

Hermione retreated to peruse a shelf of nearby books, murmuring, "I knew he couldn't prove it." Theo actually did laugh out loud at that, and saw Draco's hand tighten on his whisky, but he showed no other sign of having heard her, and instead took up a softly worded conversation with Daphne.

Theo went into host mode, moving to Hermione and asking her some more about the single malt. Pansy was subdued and stayed that way for the rest of the night, thank God. Blaise tried half-heartedly to revive the argument, talking loudly about all the muggle models he'd slept with, but no one was biting.

The rest of the evening passed uneventfully. Theo kept Hermione close to him and let her engage him in conversation about the Quidditch scheme, since he knew she and Harry would be leaving in the morning. He didn't notice Draco's eyes on her again, although he had to admit the evening's events had given him enough food for thought to eat for weeks.

~oOo~

The next morning Hermione rose early and availed herself of her en suite's wonderful accoutrements. She hadn't had such a luxurious shower since the prefects' bathroom at Hogwarts. Once she'd dressed (back in her jeans) and packed, she made her way to Harry's room. He was also freshly clean and standing, if a little pale and wobbly.

"Can you face breakfast?"

"Uh, no," he said. "I'll have something light at home after we've floo'ed."

"Of course. Let's leave as soon as we go down and thank Theo." They walked slowly to the breakfast room, Hermione wishing they could go faster. She was hoping to avoid seeing any of the house guests and just make a clean getaway. Luckily Theo was at the table and they were able to spend 15 minutes alone with him, thanking him and chatting.

When it was time to leave, Hermione could tell Harry wouldn't have minded talking for longer. She cursed Molly Weasley one last time for destroying his chance to really get to know Theo this weekend. Hopefully she hadn't ruined anything by sparring with Pansy and Malfoy. Malfoy. The thought of having to say an awkward goodbye to him spurred her to action. She gave Harry a meaningful look and they made their final farewells. Theo walked them to the giant fireplace in the entrance hall and they floo'ed home, Hermione relieved that she hadn't seen Malfoy again.

Chapter Text

"You may ask questions which I shall not choose to answer."

The weeks following the house party were fairly routine for Hermione. She was happy to leave the rarified air of Nott house for the familiar round of flat, work, dinner with Harry and Ginny, running in the park, Sunday meal with the Weasleys, rinse and repeat. Everything went back to normal except for one disturbing thing—she kept seeing Draco Malfoy.

Just in random encounters—across the road in Diagon Alley or in a cafe where they were both having lunch with other groups. She'd have sworn she'd seen his fair hair in the stacks at the central library, although when she went to stealthily investigate, she didn't find him. After their last encounter at Nott House, she didn't have the desire to approach him and he never acknowledged her beyond a casual nod, but she still felt it was odd.

She'd never used to see him at all—the first time they'd been in any sort of proximity in years was that networking reception. Had they been shadowing each other before and she'd just not noticed? Was she now attuned to his presence somehow? She shrugged that thought off as daft and told herself that wizarding London was a very small world—after all, she'd seen Daphne in the market and avoided Pansy at a cocktail bar since the house party weekend—so maybe it was just coincidence.

Then one day she literally ran into Malfoy in the lobby of the Ministry. She'd had her head down studying a file as she exited a lift and he'd been looking over his shoulder as he went to enter it. She stumbled backwards and he reached out to steady her, grabbing hold of her forearms and pulling her away from the closing lift doors. They locked eyes and the moment of surprise was so great that they stayed close for a beat, just staring at each other from a few inches away. She'd have sworn that his eyes darted down to her mouth and she knew that a flush was creeping up her neck.

Then they both snapped out of it and stiffly tried to apologise at the same time. She'd smiled uncomfortably and he'd gone silent, but continued to look at her with an intensity that she couldn't tell stemmed from dislike or … she pushed the thought away—she was almost certain it wouldn't be anything other than dislike, considering their last interaction.

They'd made about thirty seconds of cool small talk - enough to establish that they were both well and that he was at the ministry to advise a committee—and then gone their separate ways. But Hermione couldn't stop thinking about the encounter and about her reaction to him, which was distressing to say the least. She didn't like Malfoy—she never had—and he certainly hadn't improved upon recent acquaintance—so why did her heartbeat and temperature increase just because he looked at her and touched her for three seconds? Annoying.

Even more annoying was opening the Daily Prophet the next day and seeing pictures of the encounter in the gossip section. "OH FOR FUCK'S SAKE!" she yelled.

That waste of space, Rita Skeeter, must have been haunting the lobby with her photographer again. She often did on a slow news day, hoping to catch the odd pairing she could speculate about, or someone coming in slightly tipsy from a boozy lunch that she could rake over the coals.

Malfoy was a beloved topic of hers and she often featured photos of him with breathless copy about 'the wizarding world's reformed bad boy'. In fact, Hermione and Ginny had quite enjoyed snickering over said entries in the past.

And now there were two photos of him and Hermione in the Prophet Insider column under the header, 'Opposites Attract! Gryffindor Golden Girl Snags (or SNOGS!) Prince of Slytherin?'

Hermione put her head in her hands before forcing herself to look. The first snap must have been taken just as Malfoy pulled her forward from the lift doors. The angle made his hands look less like they were grabbing and more like they were caressing. She stepped forward and then appeared to look down coyly (at her PAPERS—but of course that was cut out) as he pulled her to him, bending his neck in a gesture that looked protective and intimate.

Skeeter must have employed a spell to reduce the speed of the action because it looked slow and playful, when Hermione knew it had been fairly abrupt. The next snap was half a second later when they were staring at each other—her face turned up and his bent to hers. There was barely any movement to this one, they just seemed to sway toward each other. Suffice to say that the intensity she'd felt in the moment carried through loud and clear on film. It looked for all the world like he was about to kiss her.

"Fuck, fuck, fuckity FUCK! I'm going to KILL her!" Hermione pounded the table for emphasis. Ginny heard the disturbance and came out of the bathroom.

"What the hell?" she asked, mascara wand in one hand. Hermione shoved the paper toward her. Ginny took it in and gave a long, low whistle. Then she looked at Hermione with her eyebrows raised.

"Oh for fuck's… He ran into me and I stumbled! He reached out to right me and we overcorrected!"

"And then stared at each other for several moments like he wanted to throw you up against that elevator door and you wanted to let him?"

"It was the camera angle! And the editing!"

"Nope," said Ginny. "You can't fake chemistry like that. I would lay 20 golden galleons down that he wants to fuck you so badly he can taste it." Her raised eyebrows and smug expression clearly telegraphed the fact that she thought Hermione would also be a willing participant, although she was wise enough not to say that out loud.

"Ginny!" God, Hermione could feel her face heating. "I told you how we got along at the house party. He told me I was tedious—or at least my clothes were tedious. We basically had a shouting match in the library! I'm sure he still sees me as a boorish, unattractive muggle plebe. And I certainly still see him as a rude, poncy ass."

"Doesn't matter," said Ginny with a smug grin. "In fact verbal sparring and outward displays of dislike are classic precursors to ravenous fucking. And I highly doubt he thinks you're unattractive. I also didn't hear you say you think he's unattractive. And you went beet red when I brought up the fact that he wants to fuck you."

"STOP SAYING THAT! He does NOT! And he's not attractive! He's repellent! … His background and some of his opinions are repellent..." she said more quietly. "Just because he's clever and has interesting hobbies," she muttered.

"And his physical attractions?"

Hermione groaned. "Why do I ever talk to you?" she asked, flipping the paper into the fire grate and flouncing out of the kitchen.

Ginny's laugh followed her down the hallway. "That was an answer, you know! And you talk to me because you love me! … And because I tell you the truth!"

Hermione slammed her bedroom door, then leaned against it with a sigh.

~oOo~

Sitting in her office later, Hermione was ostensibly working, but in actuality brooding about the photos when an absolutely gorgeous Eagle owl suddenly appeared at her window. She opened the owl pane and accepted a small rolled parchment from its elegantly offered foot, giving the tawny bird a pellet from the bowl on her desk before it flew away. She unrolled the paper, immediately aware that it was of very fine quality. There was a short note centered in the middle of the page and the handwriting was precise, bold and unfamiliar;

Dear Hermione,

Please accept my apologies for the misleading photos in today's Daily Prophet. I should have been more careful. Incidentally, I've instructed Skeeter to publish a retraction and it will be in tomorrow's column. I again apologise for any embarrassment or discomfort this may have caused you.

Regards,
DM

Hermione sat with her mouth hanging open—then re-read the letter several times. Different emotions washed over her, among them utter surprise, gratitude, relief and a sort of deflated feeling that she didn't particularly want to examine.

What did he mean 'he should have been more careful'? Did he know Skeeter was following him? Or was he talking about their physical collision? Or did he mean careful about what he had revealed to the camera during the encounter? And how was he able to 'instruct' Skeeter!? Did he have some controlling interest in the Daily Prophet?

Hermione felt confused on many levels, but the question that rose most persistently was, why? Why did he do this? Was it really for her, to alleviate her discomfort? Or was he embarrassed to be seen in an intimate position with her and eager to preserve his reputation?

After ruminating for a good while, she came to the conclusion that she'd never really know the answers—unless she interrogated Malfoy himself, which was NOT going to happen. The only thing to do was put the entire incident out of her mind. She'd thank him casually the next time she saw him and treat it like a silly joke with everyone else. She'd have to deal with Ginny of course, but she could at least be trusted to keep quiet.

Hermione stroked the lovely paper. She couldn't deny that it pleased her somehow that he'd taken the care to write to her —and to apologize even though it wasn't really his fault. She briefly contemplated writing him a thank you note, but decided that would be overdoing it. Her original instinct to play it off casually was best.

She'd thank him the next time she saw him, likely at Theo's party in a few weeks. She, Ginny and Harry had finally accepted invitations and, she realised with surprise, she had actually begun to tentatively look forward to it.

Chapter Text

"Whatever he said, was said well; and whatever he did, done gracefully. Elizabeth went away with her head full of him."

Hermione walked briskly down the cobblestones of Diagon Alley, looking for the restaurant name Harry had told her this morning. She was headed to another investor event—this one a dinner with the group that Fred and George had found. Harry had asked her to come along because, although he was optimistic about a large investment from Theo, he still needed to secure at least three or four more sizable partners. Of course she had agreed, but not without some reluctance.

Aside from just not liking these sort of professional/socialising affairs, she'd finally taken a deeper look at Harry's numbers and realised they needed work. She'd explained her concerns to him and to Ginny, and both acknowledged them, but seemed to think she was being over-conservative and that any problems or shortfalls would be solved through a combination of PR and the right connections. Hermione believed they were being over-optimistic, but there wasn't much more she could say.

So, she felt distinctly unenthusiastic as she finally arrived, about fifteen minutes late, to the restaurant. Everyone had already been seated at a long, private table and she found herself at the end, her closest dining companion a man who looked a bit younger than the rest of the group. She sat down next to him and he smiled as he rose in welcome, then blinked as she saw that he was dazzlingly handsome—tall with curling dark hair and a striking blue gaze. His smile was roguish and friendly at the same time.

"Jack Wickham," he said, helping her into her chair and holding out his hand.

Hermione actually felt her eyelids batting as she said hello in an uncharacteristically stammering way. Maybe this dinner won't be so bad after all, she thought as she took in Wickham's broad shoulders and full lips, as well as the lively intelligence in his eyes.

She was right. Jack Wickham proved to be more than a pretty face, ('and body', her brain noted) but also a charming companion. They developed an instant, playful rapport and she found herself laughing much of the night. Dinner flew by as he regaled her with tales of living in America, where he had been since before the war, as well as his impressions of being back in England after so long. She was captivated by his mix of American twang and English drawl and was already teasing him about it before the meal was through.

Wickham also proved to be an attentive listener, asking about her work and interests and paying close attention to her answers. Hermione felt bathed in a glow of attention all night—and it certainly didn't hurt that it was coming from such a gorgeous man. Although she couldn't help but notice that Wickham was a flirt who seemed to draw women to him. The waitress, and even Ginny, were not immune to his charms—many feminine giggles could be heard around the table. And Ginny kept wiggling her eyebrows suggestively at Hermione when no one was looking.

Ron also seemed to be taken with Wickham and came over after the pudding to speak with him about a business venture Jack had run in America. Hermione gave him her seat and went to sit with Ginny for a moment. The covert squeeing immediately began.

"OhmygodheissofuckingHOT," Ginny yell-whispered behind her hand as soon as Hermione sat down.

"Calm down!" Hermione laughed. "Harry is sitting right there."

"Oh you know what I mean!" Ginny smacked her on the arm. "So are you going home with him tonight? Please tell me you are. Please tell me you are at least trying to pull that."

Hermione laughed again and told her friend she was crazy.

"You didn't say no! That was NOT a 'no'!" yelled Ginny, punching the air.

"Shhhh, you lunatic. Keep it down," Hermione hissed out of the corner of her mouth while shooting Ginny a killing look. "You are cut off. No more wine."

Ginny stuck out her tongue and very deliberately refilled her glass. "So we're going out after this of course. Ron knows a place nearby. I want to give you every opportunity to get drunk and make a beautiful mistake with that beautiful man."

"Why a mistake?" Hermione's eyes narrowed.

"Wellll, the guys told Harry that Wickham's a bit of a flirt. Apparently has women coming out of his ears. And he's looking for a 'sugar mama', as Fred called it. BUT that doesn't mean you can't use him and abuse him. Just keep your head in it and don't get attached."

"Hmmm," said Hermione, wincing. "Don't love the sound of that." Ginny groaned and dropped her head on the table. Hermione pulled her up, "Look, you know I don't mind a bit of fun, but I don't particularly like the idea of being nothing but a notch in someone's bedpost." For some irritating reason Draco Malfoy popped into her head at that moment.

Then she happened to look up and see Wickham and the waitress having a little … exchange. Ron had buggered off somewhere and Wickham was standing very close to the young witch, speaking quietly into her ear. Hermione kept her gaze averted, but watched them out of the corner of her eye. When he pulled away, the waitress pressed something into his hand and he gave her a quick grin before pocketing it.

"Ah," thought Hermione, officially reassigning Wickham from the, 'maybe has potential' category to the 'ok to flirt with, not ok to sleep with' category.

Ginny saw the whole thing too and sighed. "Another one bites the dust. Damnit."

"Don't worry, darling, we'll still go out. And I'll still flirt with him if it makes you happy. Do you fancy a bottle of champagne? I do!" Hermione chirped as they gathered their things, strangely unmoved by the fact that Wickham wasn't going to be a runner after all.

Her spirits were high as the group spilled out of the restaurant into the street. She fell into step with Jack while they followed Ron from the restaurant to the pub he knew. They chatted a bit, their rapport undamaged by her conclusions. In fact, it was sort of fun to observe him trying to pull her now that she had decided that was definitely not happening. She played along gamely, sure that a man with his opportunities wouldn't be too hurt when she said 'no thanks' in the end.

They hadn't gone two blocks when Hermione heard Harry call out, "Theo! Theo Nott! How the heck you doing!?" (Harry had had a good bit of wine with dinner). She craned her neck to spot Theo and saw his lanky frame through the group. He was man-hugging Harry and patting him on the back.

"Ahh, Nott," said Wickham, grinning at the pair in the distance. Harry was now trying to convince Theo to come to the pub with them.

"Oh do you know Theo?"

"Yes, yes we go way back," Jack said. "I've known him since school."

"But you never went to Hogwarts? Otherwise I'm sure I would have known you or known of you." She certainly wouldn't have missed him.

"Well school years, not school itsel…" Wickham stopped and stared at something, his face utterly still. Spooked, Hermione reached up to touch his arm and ask if he was ok. He didn't answer and she turned to see what he was looking at.

A pair of silver grey eyes bored into hers then flitted back to Wickham. She inhaled in surprise. What was Malfoy doing here and why was he looking at Jack with so much hositility? Malfoy's gaze shifted back to her again, and Hermione was suddenly aware of her intimate stance, so close to Jack. Malfoy's mouth tightened and a spasm of something close to disgust crossed his handsome face.

Hermione instinctively stepped away, then immediately wondered why she had done so. Malfoy turned from them and leaned over to speak to Theo. Theo's eyes cut to Wickham and darkened. He then said a quick but jovial goodbye to Harry and sent a wave to Hermione before he and Malfoy turned to leave.

Hermione's feet and mouth moved before her brain again. "Malfoy!" she called softly, "Draco!" She stepped forward and Jack melted away, seeming to want to distance himself. Malfoy stopped, not turning around. Hermione was surprised that he'd heard her through the din of the rowdy group—she'd been half-hoping he hadn't. She approached and stood behind him. His back looked rigid as he turned to almost face her.

"My given name, Granger?" he said without looking at her—he seemed angry. "I guess there's a first time for everything."

Hermione was flustered, an unusual feeling for her. Why had she called after him? It was something instinctive about not wanting him to go away thinking she was with Wickham when there seemed to be something hostile between them. This flitted through her mind in an instant, but she ended up blurting, "I just wanted to thank you. For the Prophet. And the letter. Your owl is beautiful. And your penmanship." Oh God, she was babbling. Fuck.

Oddly, his angry posture seemed to relax. He turned fully to her and looked down into her face, taking a step closer. His eyes went from flinty to warm in an instant, and Hermione felt her insides do a strange flip. "My penmanship, Granger?" he murmured, as the corner of his mouth pulled up.

"Um, yes. It's very neat. And bold. Your paper is nice too." His smirk turned into a smile and now she definitely felt her pulse speed. Had she ever seen him really smile before? Hermione had lost all touch with the others around them in her little bubble with Draco ('huh, 'Draco' again?').

"Well you don't have to. Thank me, that is," he said softly as his smile faded and his eyes roved around her face. "It was my fault, and my responsibility to make it right."

Hermione frowned, her hand darting out and gently touching his forearm. He gazed down at it. Electricity crackled between them."It wasn't your…" then suddenly she heard a loud, fake throat-clearing sound. Her head whipped around and she saw Ginny and Theo nearby staring at them—the others had continued down the street.

Jack Wickham was in the lead with Ron, but turned around at that moment to beckon Hermione down the alley. She came-to and snatched her hand back from Malfoy, practically leapt away and hurried to Ginny's side. Malfoy's posture tensed again, his easy warmth replaced by cool disdain. Hermione didn't dare look at Ginny, but she sensed the vibe emanating from her.

Malfoy blinked once and stepped toward Theo, his indifferent expression back in place. He and Theo said a terse goodbye and turned to walk in one direction, Hermione grabbed Ginny and moved in the other, as Ginny shot a significant glance at her that clearly said, you are telling me everything as soon as I get you alone. Hermione felt her face redden. Part of her longed to turn around and part of her wanted to apparate directly home and hide in bed.

"Hermione!" Malfoy's refined tones echoed in the alley. She whirled around at his use of her given name. "Watch yourself with your 'friend'." She looked puzzled. "Wickham," he almost spat. "He's not anyone you want to get too involved with."

Hermione's mouth opened and closed and her eyebrows drew together. She wanted to yell that she wasn't involved with Jack Wickham, but Malfoy had already turned around again, his tall figure stalking up the lane. Her anger flared—who the hell was he to tell her who to associate with? And besides, she'd already figured out that Wickham wasn't worth her time. She didn't need that interfering arse to tell her anything!

She too spun around, then grabbed Ginny's arm and steered her back toward the pub, walking at a furious pace. Why did Malfoy seem to be able to drive her to distraction one minute and enrage her the next?

"Wanker," she muttered under her breath. Ginny laughed and patted her arm as they walked on.

~oOo~

Draco's breath came fast as he and Theo moved up the alley. He wasn't sure if it was from his encounter with Wickham or with Granger.

Wickham. Back in London. The bloody cheek of that git to show his face here. He was lucky he wasn't in Azkaban awaiting trial. Only the need to protect the innocent had saved his worthless skin from prison. And to see him sniffing around Granger… and her touching him and staring up at him with those limpid doe eyes. Wickham was lucky he hadn't had his arse handed to him right in this alleyway.

She wouldn't be stupid enough to take up with that piece of human garbage, would she? But why had she been standing so close to him? And why did he fucking care? Why had her ridiculous comment about his penmanship bloomed in his chest like a ruddy warm flower? He'd been standing there grinning at her like an idiot when Theo had cleared his throat. And then her arsehole date had done that possessive little wave. Fuck, he felt foolish. And he hated feeling foolish.

Draco realised he was grinding his teeth and practically running up the street. Theo was keeping pace with him and staying silent, obviously aware that his friend was wound up.

He decided at that moment to do two things. 1) Focus on showing Wickham just what an inhospitable place London could be for him and 2) Redouble his efforts at banishing Hermione Granger from his sight and mind for good. Nothing good could come of this little preoccupation he had with her. She was all wrong for him—especially if she was giving her time to Wickham. Showed terrible judgment and worse taste.

No more finding excuses to be in the neighborhood where she worked and he'd only go to the Ministry during times he thought she wouldn't be there—like the weekends. Maybe he'd go out of town. He'd been needing to go to America to do some fact-finding for the new treatment center at the Meadows. He could leave tomorrow and stay a few weeks until Theo's party. There were plenty of distractions in New York and he could also use the time to investigate some of what Wickham had gotten up to in the states. Maybe the information would be of use in getting the fucking criminal out of Britain for good.

~oOo~

Later at the pub Hermione flitted from person to person, chatting and laughing with more than her usual vigor. She and Ginny had shared the better part of a bottle of champagne and she was feeling tipsy and sort of reckless.

She'd continued flirting with Wickham from across the room, although they hadn't spoken since they'd left the restaurant. Probably part of his strategy, she thought, amused, watching him lean suggestively over the bar and speak to the barmaid when he thought no one was looking. Eventually he found his way to Hermione and sat down.

"Having a nice night?" he smiled, looking into her eyes soulfully.

"Yes, lovely." She returned his intense gaze with a light smile. "And you?"

"How can I not be?"

Hermione fought the urge to snort.

He ducked his head and then looked up at her, clearly a practiced move. His face went from beguiling to serious, "I noticed you were rather familiar with Draco Malfoy earlier. Are you friends?"

Hermione did snort at this. "Friends? Hardly! He spent most of our childhood bullying me for being muggle-born, and our relationship as adults hasn't been much of an improvement. He's not at all what I'd call a friend." She tossed her head with a sniff.

"I'm glad to hear it," he said, looking down again and tracing circles on the table with his finger.

Hermione frowned. "Why do you say that?" she said, curiosity getting the better of her.

"Well I'm sure you noticed our odd exchange earlier."

"Yesss, I couldn't help but see the tension between you." She decided to keep Malfoy's comments about Wickham to herself until she knew more. "Do you know each other?"

"Know him? I grew up with him." Wickham flashed her a wry smile. She tilted her head in surprise, waiting for him to continue. "I was raised at Malfoy Manor until I was eleven years old. My father was Lucius's steward. He's a pureblood, although the Wickhams are nowhere near the same social strata as the Blacks or Malfoys. My mother was American and a muggle. She cut off her family when she married my dad and then died when I was born, so my dad raised me alone."

Hermione was barely containing her astonishment at this news when he shifted in his seat and continued, seeming to look inward. "Draco and I are only a few months apart in age, so we were natural playmates. Although I was never allowed to forget that I was lesser than the 'little lord'." Wickham's mouth twisted. "I was a halfblood with an insignificant name, we had little money and I was son of the help. Yet, we got along and were companions for many years."

Hermione murmured an encouraging sound, realising she was rather keen to hear this story.

"It was an isolated upbringing for both of us." He flicked her a glance. "Other than me, Draco was only allowed to socialise with certain children in controlled circumstances. He had tutors at home while I was sent to the village school, but I felt uncomfortable playing with the local children because it meant I had to hide my magic." He paused to order from the barmaid, who gave him an inviting smile, despite Hermione's presence.

"We were rather close until it was time for him to go to Hogwarts. Lucius Malfoy had told my father in no uncertain terms that I was not to go to 'Draco's school'. He'd tolerated our association at home but didn't want Draco sullied by my presence in public. He even secured his edict with a promise of gold should my father cooperate—a sizable sum to be released to me upon finishing school somewhere else."

Hermione inhaled sharply, shocked at what she was hearing.

Wickham noticed and gave her a half smile and a shrug. "So while I did receive a letter from Hogwarts, my father declined the invitation, and since I was half American, he was able to send me to Ilvermorny instead. Which was fine, I had a good experience at school and didn't know what I was missing, but it shows what type of control the Malfoys exercised over my life."

Hermione's brows had drawn together as he finished and she was fuming. This was so typical of that snobbish, managing TWAT, Lucius. Throwing his gold around to run people's lives. She shook her head and placed her hand over Wickham's on the table. "That's abhorrent," she said. "I'm so sorry. That wasn't fair to you at all."

He flipped his hand to grasp hers from underneath and continued, his eyes looking inward again. "Once Draco and I were apart at school our personal relationship grew distant as well. I'd sometimes see him when we were back from breaks at the same time, but I tried to stay with friends in America as often as I could and the Malfoys were often in France or at one of their other villas." Hermione rolled her eyes. "When we did see each other, it was awkward, and our friendship, such as it was, faded."

"But once the war started, I was glad of the distance. I didn't come back to England the entire time Voldemort was in ascension. I'm sorry if that seems cowardly, but it didn't seem like my fight. And I certainly didn't want to be forced to throw my lot in with Death Eaters."

"I think that's legitimate," Hermione nodded. "It was one thing to run away to America during the war, but you were already there and not even by your own choice. And besides if you'd come back home you would have been in danger from the scum living at Malfoy Manor."

"Exactly," he agreed, "In fact, my father barely made it out alive. He did it by keeping his head down, but there were some close calls. As a halfblood, I would definitely have been a target." He sighed, "and then after Voldemort was killed," his gaze flicked briefly across the room to Harry, "it came time for me to collect the sum that Lucius had promised my father. But of course by that time Lucius had died and I had to ask Draco for it. It was an uncomfortable interview, to say the least."

Hermione shook her head and Jack sighed. "Lucius had wanted me to study finance and estate management—so that I could take my father's place, you know? He'd set aside a sum to pay for a training and apprenticeship with Gringotts, but I didn't have any interest in that. I didn't want to be another servant for a rich family—especially the Malfoys." Hermione nodded vigorously and he smiled sadly, "I wanted to go to muggle medical school and become a doctor. Do something to help people. So I requested the lump sum to do with as I chose. Draco agreed to give it to me, but then when it came it was much less than I had been promised. It effectively ended my medical school hopes. It was better than nothing, though. So I took it to America and did what I could with property investment. That's how I wound up connected with this group. But I still feel the loss of pursuing my true calling."

"But why would he do that? Why wouldn't he give you what you were promised or even just enough to go to medical school? It's not like he couldn't afford it with ease." Hermione felt an unreasonably large surge of anger bubble up.

Wickham shook his head and shrugged. "I don't know for sure. He didn't make me privy to his reasoning or decision, but I always felt it had something to do with it being a muggle career. That he didn't approve of it somehow. Or maybe he was angry that I was rejecting employment with his family."

"Well that's total shite. He had no right to decide for you. This isn't the middle ages and you weren't his serf. It's so like him though. Born privileged, told he was better than everyone else all his life. Of course he's a managing arse. And arrogant too." Hermione felt her temper flare and let her voice rise. What an utter arsehole Malfoy was. She couldn't believe she had thought differently of him for one second.

~oOo~

Ginny heard Hermione's voice from across the bar, touched Harry's arm and walked in her friend's direction. She had been wondering if it was time to extricate her from Wickham. Hermione could generally handle herself, but she'd had more than usual to drink tonight and he had proved himself to be a silver-tongued bastard.

"How's it going over here," she asked, raising her eyebrows when she saw the familiar way Wickham was playing with Hermione's hands.

"Just talking about what a giant ARSEHOLE Malfoy is," said Hermione as Wickham chuckled.

"I think Hermione's feeling protective of me now that she knows the full history of my association with Draco Malfoy," Jack said as he reached over to tuck a curl behind her ear.

Ginny stared him down and his easy smile faltered. "That's funny because I thought we were starting to like Malfoy a bit more." Her gaze moved to Hermione, who shook her head and withdrew her hand from Wickham's, then asked if he minded if she told Ginny the history. He acquiesced and Hermione gave her the two minute version.

Ginny, being more sober than her friend and in much less turmoil over her feelings about a certain person, saw a few holes in the narrative that she thought were dodgy or at least worth further investigation. But she decided to keep her mouth shut until Hermione was in a better frame of mind to hear them.

"He thinks he's so great, with his smirks and his ability to lift a single eyebrow," Hermione was muttering. She was more drunk than Ginny had realised. It was clearly time to get her home.

"His cars and his face and clothes and his opinions make me angry. I am going to say something to him, Jack. I'll ask him why he did that to you. Why did you think you got to decide what a fully functioning autonomous human being got to do with his life, Malfoy!? I will ask him when I see him at Theo's party and I WILL have an answer." Ginny looked on with a mixture of consternation and amusement. Her friend seemed positively excited at the idea of a confrontation.

"Oh nonononono, Hermione, please don't," said Wickham sliding around to the other side of the booth and putting his arm around her. "I absolutely adore it that you're angry on my behalf, but it's water under the bridge at this point. I'm fine. Bringing it up will do nothing other than make us all feel awkward." Hermione looked sullen but agreed.

Ginny slid into the other side of the booth and shot Wickham another look. She was bothered by his familiarity, especially when Hermione was so obviously pissed. He had rapidly moved from potential fun-shag partner to way too close too fast and it was bordering on creepy. She looked around for Harry, caught his eye and touched her watch.

"Hey!" Hermione suddenly brightened. "Jack you know Theo and he's way nicer than Malfoy. Are you invited to his big party weekend after next? Ginny and Harry and I are going!"

Wickham cast his eyes down, "I highly doubt I'd be welcome if Draco is going to be there. He really doesn't like to mix with me or even speak to me anymore, as you saw tonight." Hermione looked ready to launch into another rant at this statement, so Ginny patted her hand and murmured soothingly while Wickham cut back in. "But I'm still friendly with Blaise Zabini. He and I met a few years ago at the Manor and hit it off. I'll ask him to ask Theo for me. Maybe it's a big enough party that no one will mind." This seemed to appease Hermione and she let it go.

There was a brief lull in the conversation and Ginny saw an opportunity to get Hermione home, so she took it, bundling her out of the booth to the apparition point down the street from the pub. She wanted to hear more about everything that had transpired this night, but it was obviously going to have to wait until her friend had had a deep, sobering sleep.

Chapter Text

"Mr. Darcy began to feel the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention."

Hermione woke the next morning late and with a splitting headache. "And this is why I never drink champagne in quantity," she muttered as she swung out of bed and mounted a heroic mission to the loo for painkillers and water. She encountered Ginny on the way back, just struggling in the door balancing a tray of coffees and several bags that smelled like sausage rolls and heaven.

She grabbed the hot beverages just before they tipped, "you are the best person in the ENTIRE UNIVERSE. How many sausage rolls are in there?"

"Harry's hungover too, so I just went for the dozen. There are some cheese and onion bakes too."

Hermione almost wept with gratitude.

"Let me bring this to Harry and then I'll be joining you in the living room," Ginny said with a significant look. Hermione took a blissful sip of scalding coffee and nodded, resigned.

She had ensconced herself on the couch with a large blanket, ready for her interrogation, when Ginny reappeared, looking amused. "Harry is in baaad shape. These nights are rough on him. He's such a lightweight," she chuckled.

"That was a bit of a rough night," Hermione said through a mouthful of cheese and onion.

"It was a very interesting night. I want to know what the hell is going on." Ginny held Hermione's gaze. "Especially with Malfoy. What was up with you and him?"

Hermione shook her head, "I don't even know."

"Come on," said Ginny, "I thought he was going to come through the crowd and hit Wickham at one point."

Hermione held up her palms.

Ginny slurped her coffee, "It was bloody sexy, I have to admit."

Hermione privately agreed.

"But then he flipped from arsehole to sweet when you went barmy on him about his penmanship. And then back to knob-end just as quickly when Wickham did that stupid little come hither thing."

"Yeah but after what Wickham told us, don't you think Malfoy's reaction makes more sense?"

"Not exactly. I was a bit more sober than you last night and I can guarantee you that Jack's story was dodgy as fuck. I won't believe that until it's verified by trusted sources. And besides there was no motivation in there for Malfoy to hate him. And that's what it seemed like last night. Hate." Hermione felt the sudden heat of Ginny's laser-like gaze, "Or maybe it was jealousy…?"

"No way. My recent interactions with Malfoy have been unpleasant or awkward or both—either him insulting me or us arguing. And remember the elevator thing was staged by those oafs at the Prophet. And I know you think arguing is foreplay, but seriously he did nothing but smirk at me and insult my clothes and/or opinions the whole time we were at Theo's! And I'm sure he could shag whatever model or gorgeous pureblood princess he wanted."

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Oh please, bitch. You know you're sex on legs. And I'm almost certain he was fucking with you with the tacky clothes comment. Seems like something a prat like him would find funny."

"Fine," Hermione brushed off her hands and finished her coffee. "Fine. So he runs hot and cold.I'm absolutely not going to think about this anymore. He's not a possibility for me. Even if I do find him attractive—and yes, I admit that I do." She put her hands up in the face of Ginny's monster smirk. "I will even concede that he's fucking gorgeous and my body or my id or something realises that and it's very annoying—but it's not enough for me to act on anything with him."

Ginny opened her mouth, but Hermione talked over her. "It's Malfoy for fuck's sake. He bullied me in school. We have some truly piss poor war memories between us. His family categorically hates people like me. His social milieu and lifestyle are completely different from mine. And even if we do have some common interests and have shared a good conversation or two, he's got a lot of women that are just gagging for it. And as we discussed last night, I do not fancy just taking a number so that I can be a notch on some conceited male's bed post. No thanks."

"Agreed on all points," said Ginny, seeming to realise that now was the time for a solidarity vote. "And you've had a weird bit of running into him, but that was probably just… coincidence. I mean, we hadn't seen him for years and years before last month. Maybe with time you'll be able to just let it go and put him out of your mind."

"Exactly!"

"Although, there is Theo's party. He's going to be there, right?

"Yes." Hermione scowled."Ok, I need a strategy. And a costume. What are you and Harry wearing?"

"We decided to go as lusty peasants. You know, all that midsummer boning in the fields for fertility. Harry's going to wear a rope belt and a tunic and I'm going to be in something that pushes my boobs up really spectacularly. What are you thinking?"

"Well I was in the library researching Wargs and I came across an illustrated book on Norse muggle mythology." Hermione saw Ginny roll her eyes and sent her friend a rude hand gesture. Ginny just laughed. "Anyway, there's a goddess called Freyja who is associated with gold and fertility. She rides in a chariot pulled by two cats and has a pet boar!"

"Lovely. We need to enchant a couple of cats and a pig to hang out with you all night."

"Ha. Ha. But I thought the costume would be rather simple. Maybe a sort of shift dress with a gold belt? Some gold circlets around my arms and I'll let my hair go loose and wild."

"Ohh we should draw some Norse runes on your arms in gold paint! And I'll braid some gold wire or ribbon through your hair. Absolutely brilliant!"

"Excellent. And my strategy will be *if* I see Malfoy there or any time before then, I will be polite yet distant. Distance is the watchword!"

"Good call. And seriously, I've heard about these parties. So many people are invited, plus things go a bit mad. You may not even see Malfoy. Or you might see him, but he'll be in a hot tub filled with soap suds with at least five models wearing nothing but gold bikini bottoms and he'll just make finger guns at you and the moment will pass."

"Oh god," giggled Hermione. "Thanks for the mental image. Speaking of the party being huge, do you think Wickham will be able to go?"

"Maybe? I've met Blaise Zabini a few times at Harpies events and he seems like a persuasive little shite who likes to stir the pot. I could see him talking Theo into it just to see Malfoy's reaction."

"Hmm, yeah I could see that too," said Hermione with a wicked gleam. "I do kind of hope Jack will be there. He may be a slag and have a mysterious conflict with Malfoy, but he's charming. I had a lot of fun with him last night once I decided not to sleep with him. And it would be nice to know one more person in that crowd."

"Mmm hmm. He's definitely good for looking at and chatting to," said Ginny. "But watch yourself around him. He was skewing a bit creepy last night."

"All that hand holding and eye contact at the end? I noticed that too and I'll be careful. I've put him firmly in the friend zone and there he will stay." Hermione raised her right hand for emphasis. The behaviour that she'd thought was funny last night seemed a little sleazy in the light of day.

"Good," Ginny sounded relieved. "Oh, GOD. Did I tell you that Theo also invited my mum and dad and 'all my brothers' to the party?"

"Whaaaat!?"

"Yes, fuck my life. He and Harry were walking back from their lunch last week and they ran into my mum. Who I'm sure was very persuasive slash embarrassingly obvious about fishing for an invitation," Ginny's cheeks had bloomed pink.

"Oh well how bad can it be in such a big crowd?" Hermione asked. Ginny just looked at her. "Yeah, ok it might be bad. We'll have to be on the lookout and run interference."

"Exactly. And I'm bringing sober-up potion and slipping it into every single one of her drinks."

"Is Ron going? And Fred and George?"

Ginny nodded. "Yes. It's going to be maximum Weasley chaos. Let's just hope no one breaks anything too expensive, snogs someone else's significant other and-or gets in a fistfight."

Hermione patted Ginny's arm. "Let's hope."

~oOo~

Theo dismounted his broom, breathing heavily. The late evening summer sun was just dipping below the horizon and casting long shadows across the pitch.

"Great chase," huffed Draco, wiping his brow.

"I almost fucking had it! I hate how quick you are!" Theo doubled over and heaved out a huge breath.

"Eh I'd chalk that one up to chance more than anything," said Draco, slapping him on the back. "If it had swerved left instead of right it would have been yours." He looked toward the manor. "Now let's go drink something cold. And strong."

Theo straightened up and smiled, never one to be miffed for long. The two wizards strode up the lawn towards Nott House, their long legs encased in identical white trousers tucked into tall leather boots, their robes billowing out behind them. Draco pulled his off as they walked, too hot under their heavy drape. Sweat dampened the back of his soft t-shirt and he stretched and rubbed the back of his neck. Theo let out a wolf whistle.

"Fuck off, you poof," Draco laughed.

"I"m just saying you look very sexy right now. You should let me take your picture and send it to the girl you like."

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Oh you know the one you like to send apology owls to. The one you keep 'running into'. The one over whom you almost got into fistcuffs in a public street last night…"

"You know Theo, your eyes are really the most beautifully deep shade of brown. Probably because you are full of utter shite. And it was a very small, out of the way alley."

Theo tipped his head back and laughed, wagging his finger at his friend, but he also decided to drop it. He thought Draco's little obsession with Granger was entertaining—and could possibly be very good for him, but he also knew the quickest way to crush it was to keep bringing it up. Much better to let it play out naturally.

"That was a bit of a shock seeing that shit, Wickham," he said, glancing at Draco, whose face drew into a scowl.

"That little cunt showing his face here? He must have a fucking death wish," Draco ground out. "And what the hell was Potter doing with him? I've told you that scheme is dodgy and now Wickham is attached to it?"

"Well we don't know if he's attached…"

"Those men were part of that investment group he is involved with. I tell you if they sign on, you sign off. They are dodgy. The plan is dodgy. The whole thing reeks of Potter's special brand of 'dive in first, consider things like details such as the soundness of my investors later.'" Draco shook his head.

"Well I'm going to decide for myself, but you know I take your advice seriously," said Theo, placing his hand on Draco's shoulder as they approached the house. "Would you take a close look at the prospectus with me? If you see something truly wrong, I'll reconsider my involvement."

Draco turned to him, "Of course. And if we find that it's airtight, I'll send you off into partnership with Potter with my blessing, such as it is. Harry's actually not a bad bloke, despite being heedless and uh, not detail-oriented. And Wickham doesn't have the capital to be deeply involved."

"I agree, I actually really like Harry," replied Theo. "Now Wickham I really hate. How much do you want to bet once Blaise realises he's in town, he asks me to invite him to the party?"

"I would not take that bet because it will definitely happen. Fucking Blaise," snorted Malfoy. "He's very transparent for a snake."

"Well I'm certainly not inviting Jack Wickham. Zabini will have to sneak him in if he really wants his drama," said Theo.

"I wouldn't put it past him. Hey, did you invite Potter and the gang too?" asked Draco as they sprang lightly up the steps to the house.

"Yes, I invited Hermione," said Theo, unable to help himself. "Now who's being transparent?"

Draco flushed slightly. "Fuck off. I just want to know what to expect."

Was Hermione seeing Wickham? Theo wondered. She was too smart for that, wasn't she? He didn't think Draco would handle seeing them together at the party very well. He'd probably hit Wickham just on principal. Theo made a mental note to impress upon Blaise how very detrimental it would be to his future access to Nott House events if he snuck Wickham into the party.

"Well they'll all be there—Harry, Ginny, Hermione and all the other Weasleys too."

"Shit, you invited ALL of them?"

"Yes," sighed Theo, "I ran into Mrs Weasley in Diagon Alley last week and she was … hinting."

"Oh God the mother is a fucking nightmare. Very ambitious and totally crass. I wouldn't be surprised if she was behind Potter's 'illness' at your house party..." Theo sighed and nodded.

Draco mounted the stairs to head up to his room and change. " By the way, I'm going to New York tomorrow."

"Oh? That's sudden." Theo knew what this was about.

"Not really, I've been meaning to go for a few months. There's an experimental treatment center north of the city that I want to observe. I'm planning to do something similar at the Meadows. But I'll be back in time for the party."

Theo let the statement lie. "And when you get back we'll look at the prospectus?"

"Definitely." Draco pulled his shirt over his head as he walked into his room, his back muscles rippling.

Theo whistled again, "Stop it, you show off. God, if she saw you like this, no one could hold her back."

Draco balled up his shirt and threw it at Theo. "Wanker."

Theo just laughed.

~oOo~

Draco woke in the deep of the New York night, but could immediately sense he wasn't alone in his bed. A familiar, seductive scent filled his nostrils and he became aware of the silken feel of a soft body pressed to his.

A completely nude body.

He shifted to press his front against her back, wrapping himself around her and feeling the tickle of wayward curls against his nose. He buried his face in her hair and breathed in more of the wonderful scent, his hands roving over her hips, skimming over her smooth belly and up to cup her breasts.

She sighed and arched into him. He kissed her neck, trailing down to her shoulder, where he bit her softly. She moaned his name and then laughed lightly at the bite. He was so hard he couldn't bear it. So eager for her that he felt like a 16 year old.

She pressed her perfect ass into his groin, lifting it to give him access and he couldn't wait any longer. He plunged into her, murmuring "Hermione, gods," as he slid in his full length—feeling her tight, wet, warmth. She reached her arms back and twined around the back of his neck and shoulders, pulling him closer, inviting him deeper. His strokes became faster, then frenzied as they both neared their peak. He could feel her tightening around him and she was panting his name. He started to come and everything dissolved… everything… the warm body, the moans, the scent.

Draco opened his eyes to realise he was alone in his hotel room bed. And that he'd just had the first nocturnal emission he could remember since he began sleeping with actual girls in 5th year.

He groaned and rolled over, grabbing his wand and performing a quick scourgify. This had gotten totally out of hand. He was putting this witch out of his mind if it killed him. He wouldn't even talk to her at Theo's party if he could help it.

Chapter Text

"This is an evening of wonders, indeed!"

Hermione walked up to Nott House with Ginny and Harry, chattering brightly. The evening settled around them in a warm haze, highlighted by the flaming torches that led up the lane. She felt a frisson of excitement race through her veins as they approached the doors, which were flung open to the sweet summer air and framed by two gigantic tapestries depicting the sun and moon. The old magic was high tonight. She could sense it crackling in the atmosphere. The longest day and shortest night of the year; a simultaneous celebration of light's triumph, even as it started to give way to the seductive dark. Wizards and Muggles alike had been celebrating this day since the beginning of time. She actually felt good to be here, a part of something exciting and a little bit wild.

She looked at Ginny with a nervous smile and Ginny patted her on the arm, then handed her a flask. "A little liquid courage to kick this off?"

Hermione accepted gratefully and drank deeply, a sweet burn running down her throat and into her belly. Molly's famously strong bramble brandy. No doubt distilled last from last summer's crop of rich blue-black fruit that grew riotously behind the Burrow.

She passed the flask to Harry who thanked her and took a big swig. The trio walked past a huge pile of branches and sticks set up for the later bonfire and approached the house. Ginny saluted the stacked wood with the flask and tipped it down her throat, her barely covered bosom bobbing in her tightly corseted peasant costume as she swallowed. She wiped her mouth and passed the half empty flask back to Hermione, who usually would have refused, but instead took a second deep drink, already feeling good from the first one. She linked arms with Harry on one side and Ginny on the other.

"Ok, peasants! What are our marching orders for tonight?"

"Don't get too pissed!" yelled Ginny.

"Yeah right," whispered Harry in an obvious aside to Hermione. Both girls hit him.

"OW! Ok, ok try to find people in this crowd with serious money and be charming to them!"

"Polite yet distant!" Hermione was definitely feeling the brandy now.

Harry looked at her as if she were mad. "Never you mind," said Ginny, giggling with her as Harry shook his head.

"Oh and secondary goal!" yelled Ginny. "Don't let MUM get too pissed!" Harry and Hermione dissolved into laughter and Ginny shook a full bottle of sober-up potion under their noses. "If either of you gits sees her accepting a drink, tell me so I can run over and tip this in!"

Harry placed his hand over his bloused chest and bowed low, "you have my word, fair maiden." Hermione snickered at the word maiden and Ginny gave her a two fingered salute, which made her laugh harder.

"But seriously." Hermione stopped her friends before they walked up the steps to the house. "No one leaves without telling the other two. And we don't let each other get too pissed or do strange drugs." Harry and Ginny agreed before they walked through the door.

Stepping into the foyer was like crossing a gateway into another world. The dark, cool interior Hermione remembered had been totally transformed into a golden grotto. There must have been thousands of lit candles sitting on every surface and floating in the air. Vines appeared to twine up the walls, reaching delicate tendrils to criss-cross the ceiling. Tree stumps interspersed with decadent floral arrangements lined the room. The effect was of nature in full blown, fertile riot, taking over anything man-made. A beautiful chaos of greenery and light.

Ginny clapped with delight as they looked around. "Marvelous!"

Just then a slender figure in a molded gold mask approached them. "Theo!" Hermione exclaimed holding out her arms. "This is completely amazing!"

"I'm so glad to see you," he said, giving her a kiss on the cheek and holding out his hand to Harry, then Ginny.

"Thank you so much for inviting us," said Harry. "What are you supposed to be? Golden Phantom of the Opera?" Theo raised his mask and looked at him blankly. "Sorry, muggle reference," said Harry, shooting a rueful look at Hermione.

"Well I'm actually just supposed to be the sun," Theo spun around to show off his costume. Hermione noticed that his mask was intricately worked and appeared to be actual gold leaf. His robes were long and flowing and the fabric was woven of a fine golden thread. A clever charm made the tips of his hems glow. She fingered the fine cloth and murmured in admiration.

"Warning, the rest of my family should be here shortly," Ginny said with a grimace.

Theo laughed, "They are very welcome. Please join the absolute insanity already underway. Drinks are scattered around the house. Food is being passed by servers. Don't drink any of Blaise's 'special punch', smoke or snort anything anyone gives you and you should be fine."

"Thanks," laughed Hermione, squeezing Theo's hand and leaving him to the next arrivals. She, Harry and Ginny proceeded further into the house, joining an absolute crush of partygoers. The scene was incredible. Music played and candles flickered, even as the mellow evening sun filtered through the windows.

Costumes and glamours of every sort met her eyes - all in Summer shades of gold and white and even some green. There was everything from muggle formalwear to ornate wizarding robes to fantastical get-ups. One wizard was dressed like an exact replica of Louis XIV, complete with his own cadre of elaborately costumed and bewigged courtiers. The sun king, of course, Hermione thought, accepting a glass of champagne from a passing server.

An absolutely stunning witch walked by in what looked to be a golden snitch costume, her dress a sheer veil of gold barely concealing her naughty bits and tiny fluttering wings sprouting from her shoulders. Ginny had to forcibly turn Harry's head from watching her walk away. She wagged a finger in his face and he grinned and held up his palms, then snatched her in for a deep kiss as she laughed.

Hermione smiled at them then looked down at her own costume, smoothing the short skirt and touching her hair. She'd created her Freyja look with a dark green leather dress that had a sort of warrior look to it. It was sleeveless with a high neck, braided shoulder detail, girdled waist and gored, slitted skirt. And it was very short thanks to Ginny's intervention at the last minute—no Goddess wears knee-length, Hermione. As a result, she wouldn't be leaning over even slightly at the waist tonight.

None of Hermione's shoes had seemed right, so Ginny had dug out a pair of knee-high gladiator sandals from another costume a few years back, and a gold metal belt encircled her waist while a similar circlet rested in her hair.

Her hair. It could probably be assigned its own postcode tonight. She usually took pains to tame it, but the truth was it could still be rather bushy despite a regiment of talented hairdressers, products and spellwork. And if left to its own devices, let alone encouraged, it easily formed a gigantic halo around her head. Ginny had woven some gold wire and ribbon into the mass, giving it some structure and a golden gleam. It was epic, but now seeing the crowd, Hermione didn't feel at all overdone.

To complete her costume, Nordic runes snaked down both of her shoulders to her upper arms. Ginny had drawn them and, being preoccupied with her hair, Hermione hadn't looked closely while she was doing it, although she had soon realised she was covered in rather risque references. "Fertility! Love! Abundance!" Ginny had sung when Hermione protested.

She shrugged inwardly. When in Rome… and this certainly wasn't a time or place for restraint. Scanning the crowd again, she noticed Harry and Ginny had already been pulled into a conversation with a group nearby. Harry's entrance had caused an audible stir, even after all these years. She doubted it would ever not be that way, despite his wishes. Well at least in this case, notoriety would work to his advantage.

She gulped her champagne and scanned the room, wishing she would see a familiar face, say, maybe Jack Wickham, when all of a sudden Blaise Zabini was there giving her a bear hug.

"Blaise!" she exclaimed as soon as she could breathe again. "You look amazing!" He preened and spun in a slow circle, inviting her to admire him. And she did. He was dressed like an Egyptian god - Ra? Aten? One of the sun gods... His beautifully muscled chest was bare except for a jeweled gold collar and he wore a fine linen kilt and no shoes. Bracelets circled his wrists and ankles and an elaborate falcon headdress adorned his head and shoulders. He looked like a Pharaoh come to life. Hermione sucked in her breath at such a display of male beauty.

"You like, Granger?" he said with a mischievous grin as he completed his circle.

"Please, you know you look like a romance novel fantasy." She reached out to skim her fingers over the rigid muscles and smooth skin of his upper arm.

"You don't look so bad yourself." He motioned for her to pivot as well. "Love the hair. And your legs look amazing. You should wear leather micro-minis more often." She snorted. He lifted his chin at her, "what do the runes say?"

"If you don't know, I'm not telling," she shook her finger at him. "Ginny drew them, and they're rude."

"Let's hope so." His white teeth flashed in his bronzed face.

"So did you manage to get Jack Wickham an invite?" she asked, looking around nonchalantly. Blaise's grin got bigger.

"Naww, Theo shut it down. His highness doesn't like Jack, you know."

"His highness?" Hermione had a sneaking suspicion who he was referring to and her brows were already drawing together.

"Draco. He and Jack have some bad blood between them, but I don't know the details. I happen to like the guy."

"Well so do I," said Hermione, feeling unreasonably put out. "It seems too bad that Malfoy's prejudice against him for being the son of the help would influence the situation."

Blaise raised his eyebrows and his palms. "Preaching to the choir, darling. I'd love to see the damage Jack could do in this crowd. Some right fit birds here."

She laughed. "Yeah he'd be like a kid in a sweet shop. He might even find his sugar mama!"

"Oh you know about that?" laughed Blaise, eyeing her.

"Yes, I don't hold it against him. We're just friends, but I do enjoy his company. I was just hoping to know at least one more person here."

"Look, you'll be fine," said Blaise, taking her by the arm. "I know absolutely everyone and I'm going to introduce you. You're the golden girl and you look smoking hot tonight." She smacked his arm playfully. "They'll love you. And you should try some of this special cocktail I mixed." He held out a flask, but remembering Theo's earlier warning she declined and instead grabbed another glass of champagne from a passing house elf, promising herself she'd switch to something less hangover-inducing for the next round.

"Ok, I challenge you to introduce me to the hottest wizard here," she said with a smirk.

"But we're already acquainted, darling," he drawled.

She sighed and grinned. "That I don't already know, of course."

He tipped his head in acknowledgment and looked into the middle distance. "I accept your challenge, Granger. And I will not let you down. Let's go." She laughed and clinked his flask with her glass as they moved off through the crowd.

~oOo~

Draco sat in a lounge chair in the library and tipped his head back, closing his eyes for a moment and taking a deep breath, gathering himself to leave the quiet sanctuary for the chaos of the party.

He sat up with a sigh. It wasn't that he didn't like the annual Nott midsummer celebration, he'd just been to a lot of them. Starting when he and Theo were 15, they'd been allowed to join the festivities. Of course those first few years, when Theo's father had run the show, the celebrations had been very different. Less like a social event and more focused on the rituals. There were a couple of really memorable years before the war really kicked off… But now it was just another party at which to see and be seen.

He wondered who he'd see tonight. If she had actually come. But he banished the thought as he walked down the dim corridor to the reception rooms. He wasn't going to focus on her. If she was here and he saw her, he'd be polite, but disengage as quickly as possible. No focusing, no lingering and no getting caught up. There'd be plenty to distract him anyway. Some things about this party hadn't changed that much after all.

He emerged into the blaze of candlelight in one of the drawing rooms and immediately ran into a gorgeous witch who he'd slept with a few years ago. She was poured into a gold gown that left little to the imagination. He let his eyes linger obviously on her curves as they chatted and she responded enthusiastically. Well there's someone for the end of the night, he thought. He found that he wasn't really interested, though.

He extricated himself and went in search of a drink, finding a bar tucked in a corner. He lounged there for a moment, sipping a very dry martini and surveying the scene. Theo had outdone himself with the decor this year. It really felt like the forest floor in some enchanted fairy world. Draco wondered if Pansy had had a hand in it. She was rather talented and something in the overblown, yet whimsical nature of the scene reminded him of her.

Speaking of Pansy, he spotted her across the room, dressed in deep green and hanging on the arm of an absurdly tall wizard. Draco moved into a shadow, hoping she wouldn't notice him. He needed at least one more drink in him before he could deal with her in full social mode.

Despite his best intentions, he felt his eyes searching and cataloging the room. He was looking for her, damn it. He swore to himself, swiftly finished his drink and ordered another, thinking it might be best to go find the witch in gold after all. But at that moment Blaise appeared, looking like a bloody bas-relief from a tomb wall.

"Drake!" he said with a broad grin. "Glad to see you at least made a nod to the theme this year, mate." He gestured to Draco's dark gold dinner jacket.

"You know I hate it when you call me that," Draco said thinly. "What are you supposed to be? Other than whatever costume allows you to be half naked?"

"Amen-Ra. Egyptian sun god. Duh," said Blaise. "When did you arrive and where have you been?"

"I stayed over last night. Just been gathering my strength before facing all of this."

"Yeah it's fucking mental! There are so many fit women here. Speaking of, I just finished introducing Granger to all the blokes," Blaise was all nonchalance, but his eyes were bright.

"Oh did she actually show?" said Draco, turning to signal the bartender for another round.

"Oh yes, and she looks fucking incredible," said Blaise with a grin. "She took rather well with the lads. Although she seemed to be looking for someone else."

"Oh?" said Draco, a model of supreme indifference.

"Yeah. Jack Wickham," said Blaise as he scanned the room. "Seemed really disappointed when I said he wasn't here." He also ordered a drink and took it off the bar, thanking the bartender. "Well I'm off. There's a delectable little piece dressed as a wood nymph that I intend to get to know better. Cheers, mate!" He saluted Draco and swaggered off through the crowd, a huge smile on his face.

Draco maintained his outward look of boredom but stood still, staring out at the room for several beats as he finished his drink. Then he pushed away from the bar and headed out into the party with purpose.

~oOo~

Hermione laughed up into the face of the charming wizard who was leaning over her. René? Ricard? She couldn't remember, and who really cared. He had a French accent, he was beautiful and, bonus, he was funny. She was about to ask him if he knew anything about French centaur herds since she was researching one for a project, when she felt a claw-like hand grasp her arm.

"There you are!" It was Ginny. "I was getting worried! This house is too fucking big."

"Oh yeah, Blaise took me around," said Hermione waving a little goodbye to René/Ricard ...Rémy! as he wound off through the crowd, mouthing that he would find her later. "I have no idea where I actually am. I must have only seen half of the house during the house party. Are you ok?" she asked, peering at Ginny. "You look tense."

Ginny sighed. "My family are just being fucking embarrassing is all. And Harry got sucked into a conversation in some random room, so I can't find him to help me."

Hermione exhaled, "what's going on?"

"Oh I let my mum out of my sight for 20 minutes and she managed to get wasted. And I heard someone say Fred and George were doing double keg stands. Need I remind you they're nearly 30? Ron is holding court in a corner and bellowing war stories to some barely legal witches. And my dad is nowhere to be seen. Probably in the library or smoking on a patio somewhere." Ginny paused for breath.

"I'm sorry." Hermione squeezed Ginny's shoulder. "But you know it's so busy that nobody is noticing. And it doesn't reflect on you. You are your own separate person and people realise that."

Ginny just looked at her and shook her head.

Hermione realised action was needed to save her friend's night. Ginny didn't often let being a Weasley get to her, so Hermione felt honor-bound to intervene when she did. "Right, so you still have the sober up potion?" Ginny nodded. Hermione took her friend's elbow and started walking. "We'll dump some of that in your mum's drink. We can tell a house elf that Theo asked to have the keg put away. I don't think anyone can get Ron to stop talking about his glory days, though."

Ginny laughed. "You're right and I'm sorry to whinge. They just rattle me sometimes."

Hermione gave her a half hug as they entered the main reception rooms. If anything the party had gotten bigger and louder and more wild since they'd arrived. She scanned the crowd, not admitting to herself that she was looking for anyone until she spotted a tall, fair figure dressed beautifully gold and black. Her heart did a little bump when she realised it was him. But then it did a dip when she also realised he was standing very close to a stunning dark-haired witch dressed in a diaphanous ball gown, his hand protectively spread across her lower back. His head was bent over hers and they were only inches apart. She couldn't see either of their faces, but it was clear that they were close.

"So Malfoy came with a date, so what," she told herself, taking a deep breath. What did she expect? She hadn't seen or talked to him in two weeks and their last interaction had ended badly. She was angry at him about Wickham! So why should it matter if he was here with someone. She tossed her head and averted her eyes, almost dragging Ginny into the next room.

Her temper frayed further as she observed the Weasleys at work, seemingly intent on winning awards for being embarrassing and uncouth. Molly was clearly drunk and Hermione could hear her even over the buzz of the party, bragging to another older witch about her 'son-in-law Harry Potter,' and how he was about to be very rich due to starting a Quidditch team in London.

Hermione and Ginny looked at each other and then went into action, Hermione distracting Molly while Ginny dumped practically the whole vial of sober up potion into her glass of wine. Unfortunately it wouldn't take full effect for at least twenty minutes, but they could at least babysit her until then.

~oOo~

Draco finally managed to extricate himself from Jonquil, a childhood friend with a penchant for crap men. As usual, she was a wreck over Alastair, an absolute cunt whom Draco had also known for many years and was not worth Jonnie's time. They'd recently broken up (again) and she hadn't known he was going to be here and of course he'd come with some tart who was draped all over him...

He twitched his head. A girl as intelligent and beautiful as Jonnie—it was too bad she would never learn. He was deep in these thoughts as he entered the main drawing room and simultaneously realised that one; he'd stepped into some sort of Weasley convention and two; he'd finally found Granger.

His first coherent thought upon seeing her was that she'd literally stopped him in his tracks. But he wasn't coherent for several moments. He white knuckled the doorknob, taking in endless legs under an extremely short skirt, an impossibly slim waist, and perfect tits encased in supple green leather. Her makeup was heavier than he'd ever seen—with dark, seductive eyes and full, deep red lips. The wild hair and golden runes twining seductively down her arms nearly undid him. He could read some old Norse—he knew what those runes said, and it made his groin tighten. He swallowed, still paralysed.

It took one of the Weasley twins yelling something inane to jar him out of his trance. Granger hadn't even noticed him. But all the Weasleys seemed to simultaneously erupt, with Fred and George attempting some sort of dual musical performance by banging on Theo's priceless 17th century harpsichord, while the oaf Ron knocked over a Sevres vase acting out what one could only presume was one of his exploits at Hogwarts over a decade ago. Draco recoiled in distaste, and then he heard the mother, nattering on about Potter and his investment scheme to an old biddy in the corner.

"Theo Nott will be investing and of course it has the support of Draco Malfoy." At the sound of his name, Draco's eyebrows snapped together and he glared at Mrs. Weasley, who continued, heedless of his presence. "In fact, you know my adopted daughter, Hermione Granger? Best friends with Harry Potter? And of course she's a war heroine in her own right. We thought at one point she'd marry into the family, but it didn't work out—well now she's involved with Draco Malfoy. There were pictures of them in the Prophet a few weeks ago. Did you see? What a match that would be. Her brains and his money! Of course that's unless she chooses Jack Wickham. He's new in town. Devastatingly handsome and a huge success in real estate. She's also seeing him! Make them work, I told her. Play them off each other and see who comes up to scratch!"

Mrs. Weasley only stopped because she ran out of breath, but Granger had clearly heard the last bit because she hustled over to the older witch and practically shoved a canapé in her mouth.

Draco felt his face drain of color at the news that Granger really was seeing that fucking animal, Wickham. He made a convulsive movement and it must have caught her attention because she slowly turned her head in his direction as though expecting the inevitable, flushing to the roots of her hair when they made eye contact. Draco was so furious at the Weasley mother and the idea of Granger with Wickham that he turned abruptly and exited the room.

This time she didn't call after him.

He strode to the nearest balcony and immediately lit a cigarette, taking a deep drag and trying to calm down. About halfway through he felt more himself, although the anger was simmering just below the surface. Was it the gossip about him and his money that bothered him? The idea of Hermione with Wickham? Or just the idea of Hermione with anyone...

It also occurred to Draco just then how close Granger was with the Weasleys since her own parents had disappeared after the war. She'd essentially been adopted by them. While Ginny and the older brothers were tolerable, Draco legitimately couldn't stand any of the others. An association with her would mean—he shuddered—family dinners and the like with them.

He exhaled sharply. This whole situation wasn't going the way it was supposed to. He wicked another cigarette to life and heard the curtain to the balcony swish open and closed. He tensed, wondering if she'd come looking for him after all.

"There you are, darling," slurred a familiar voice.

Gods, just who he didn't want to see right now.

"Good evening, Pansy. Having a nice time?" Maybe if he was extremely bland, she'd go away.

"Better now," she said, stepping closer to him. He caught a whiff of hard alcohol and strong perfume. "Can I beg a fag?"

He offered his cigarette case and she selected one, leaning into his lighter and inhaling with relish. "Ahh now this is more like it. It's entirely too loud and full of Weasleys in there," she sniffed, inclining her shoulder toward the rest of the house. "Whatever possessed Theo to invite all of them?"

He tensed at her mention of the family, but shrugged disdainfully in response. "Momentary dementia, I suppose."

She laughed too enthusiastically at his weak joke and he cringed, wishing she'd leave. He wanted to be alone with his brooding thoughts or at least with someone who could make a passing go at taking his mind off of them.

"Well they're really bringing the tone of the party down," she said. "And of course Granger and Potter are with them. It's like the Gryffindor common room in there. Emphasis on 'common'." She shuddered, "And I wonder who told Granger this was a fancy dress party."

"There are a lot of people in costume," Draco said mildly, in a bid to shut her up.

"But her hair. What a disaster."

"Actually, I thought her hair was incredibly sexy and I had an overwhelming compulsion to bury my hands and, even better, my face in it," he said as he flipped his cigarette butt into an ashtray. She stood speechless for several beats, but recovered.

"Well if you harbor those kinds of thoughts about her it's too bad. I hear she's hot and heavy with your father's steward's son." Her voice dripped venom. "Jack Wickham? He's supposed to be deliciously handsome… for the help. Blaise told me she was vocally put out that he wasn't invited tonight—especially when she learned that you were the one who prevented it."

Pansy's dark eyes sparked maliciously, and Draco's anger flared hot again, but he was too practised at this game to show it. He just lifted one shoulder and looked slightly to the side of her left ear, murmuring, "pardon me," as he slipped past her and back through the curtain. He heard her shrill voice demanding that he come back, but ignored it and proceeded through the entry hall and up the stairs to his room, done for the evening.

~oOo~

Hermione and Ginny found Harry and left the party soon after what Hermione was already dubbing, 'the most excruciatingly embarrassing 60 seconds of my life'. She was mortified that Malfoy had heard Mrs. Weasley and that he might possibly think the addled woman was repeating something she had expressed. His face when he had turned on his heel to leave the room! She'd never seen a more eloquent mixture of distaste and contempt. She'd thought about going after him, but what would she have said?

Ginny gave Hermione a sympathetic smile and rubbed her arm as they stepped through the fireplace into their own living room, but Hermione didn't feel like talking. She just grimaced and said goodnight, before heading down the hall to her bedroom. Once she was in bed, her head started pounding and she could tell sleep was a long way off.

She wasn't supposed to care what he thought, so why couldn't she stop the scene running over and over in her mind? Finally, she flicked on her light, picked a well-worn novel from her bookshelf and started to read. She read late into the night, shutting her eyes only when exhaustion completely overcame her.

Chapter Text

"I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself...My good opinion once lost is lost forever."

The morning after the party, Hermione woke feeling only slightly less mortified at the events of the evening before. She dearly hoped that Malfoy was aware of Molly Weasley's reputation and that his reaction was more to being gossiped about than the content of the gossip. Although, in the cold light of day she told herself sternly that the whole situation with him was something she needed to box up and put behind her anyway—and perhaps this incident, although distressing, would help her do that.

Besides, now that the party was over she'd have very little reason to see any of that crowd. And she was about to put her new field study into motion. A few weeks on-site in Provence working with a local Centaur herd would be just what she needed to move on and forget this whole upsetting episode.

And speaking of France, she had met that charming Rémy... Maybe she'd use him to take her mind off the events of the last few weeks. He'd told her where he was staying—she'd send him an owl and invite him for drinks. She kicked off her covers and rose out of bed with new purpose and determination.

But despite her resolve and the satisfying feeling of having a plan, Hermione felt flat all week. It didn't help that her plan seemed to be thwarted at every turn. She continued to have trouble getting the final permissions assured for France, which meant more delays. Rémy had gone out of town and sent his regrets about drinks. Harry had accompanied Ginny on an away stand with the Harpies, so there was no one in the flat. Wickham, who had been a fairly reliable lunch companion of late, also seemed to have disappeared. She wondered what had happened to him, until she read in the Prophet gossip column that he'd been seen around town with a notable heiress to a potions fortune. She sighed when she read the tidbit. She didn't begrudge Jack his ambitions, but she wouldn't have minded some company.

Her restlessness and sense of being in limbo were also making her extremely irritable. It was these times when she missed her mum and dad most. Jean had always been able to charm her out of these moods and her dad was great at distracting her with a new hobby or a bruising tennis match. With them in Australia a phone call was all that was possible and that just wasn't the same. Besides their lives were so separate now...

It also didn't help that she saw Draco at the ministry that week and he'd barely acknowledged her presence, giving her a curt nod and never breaking his stride. In fact, she thought he was actually trying to pretend he didn't see her until she'd lifted her hand in a small salute. Not that she cared per se, but it was a bit humiliating. And despite endless internal rationalisations, she continued to be stung by little barbs of embarrassment every time she thought of the scene with Molly at the party.

Work had always been a balm for Hermione, so she redoubled her focus to take her mind off of her low mood. She did make good headway in preparations and background research on the Centaur project—so much so that she was feeling rather soothed by the end of the week. Then Rémy came back into town and they went out, which was amusing, although she was strangely uninterested in him romantically. She told herself it was because she was being cautious.

Her mood lifted even more once Ginny and Harry returned and she was no longer alone in the flat.

She and Ginny were having a leisurely Saturday, sipping coffee and passing sections of the Prophet back and forth while Harry had a lie-in—and Hermione was feeling almost content again—when Ginny suddenly gasped.

"What!?" Hermione lowered the arts section.

"Wickham! He's engaged to that Pepper Up Potion witch!" Ginny said with wide eyes, showing her the printed announcement.

"Wow, he works quickly," Hermione laughed and shook her head. "Good on him. I hope they'll be happy."

"You're not upset at all?" asked Ginny, searching her face.

"God, no! I told you when I first met him that I would never get involved with him."

"I know, but at the party—you seemed so disappointed not to see him…"

"I just wanted to know someone else there. And it irked me that Malfoy had kept him out. Snob."

Ginny had looked back down at the paper. "Speaking of Malfoy," she said slowly.

Hermione glanced up as Ginny slid Skeeter's gossip column across the table, feeling a strange sense of dread steal over her.

'Dark Horse in the Running for Platinum Prince's Heart?' screamed a section header accompanied by a picture of Malfoy with what looked like the black-haired beauty from Theo's party. The grainy snap showed him hugging her close as she rested her forehead on his chest. Lurid copy next to the photo speculated wildly about their relationship and even mentioned that the 'dusky beauty' had edged out the 'golden girl' in the 'race for the Malfoy scion's heart'. Hermione was aware of a distinct taste of bile at the back of her throat as she took in the column.

Ginny was reading over her shoulder. "Who is that? And is she supposed to be a horse in this scenario? Fucking hell, Skeeter," she muttered.

Hermione swallowed and tried to school her reaction. "I saw her with Malfoy at the party. I'm not sure who she is since I didn't talk to either of them that night," she said in clipped tones. "Is there any more coffee?"

"Wait whoa, are you ok?"

"I'm fine. Can we just drop it?"

"Ok, ok," Ginny sat back down and put her palms up. "Just let me know if you want to talk about this at all."

"I don't." Hermione sat still for a moment, her mind churning. "It's just annoying that these implications that I was after him in any way keep surfacing. I mean he's clearly not after me. So it just makes me look pathetic."

Ginny covered her friend's hand with her own. "First, you could never look pathetic." Hermione snorted. "And second," Ginny said, raising her voice over the sound, "I'm not so sure he was never after you. You know my opinions about the house party weekend. And I was with you in that alleyway and—I wasn't going to tell you this because you didn't seem to want to talk about it—but I saw Malfoy when he first saw you at Theo's party. Just before my mum opened her big mouth. And he looked… knocked sideways. He stood there just staring at you like you were something he wanted to eat, for a good ten seconds—all that famous sangfroid out the window." She fluttered her fingers. "And we both know that you can't believe anything that Skeeter puts on paper. You of all people should understand that. And that pictures can be very misleading,"

Hermione's eyes drifted to the small image again. "I just don't know! All of this is so uncomfortable." She flopped back on the couch and moaned. "It's true. I'll admit it. I can't stop thinking about him, but I mull it over and reach the same conclusion every time. Which is that it's too complicated and the best thing to do is just forget it."

"I don't disagree," said Ginny carefully. "But sometimes we can tell ourselves something until we are blue in the face and it doesn't make a damned bit of difference. I remember that well from the time that Harry and I were apart." Hermione shot her friend a sympathetic look. "So just take care that you aren't fooling yourself or letting something as silly as fear hold you back."

Hermione nodded tightly, feeling stupidly close to tears. Then she launched herself across the table to wrap her friend in a tight hug. "What would I do without you?" she mumbled into Ginny's fiery hair.

"Oh you'd probably still be best friends with my git of a brother and wondering why you were walking through life constantly annoyed and bored at the same time," laughed Ginny, giving her a smacking kiss on the cheek.

~oOo~

A welcome invitation came in Hermione's window later that afternoon by way of a cream-colored barn owl. It was from Theo, asking her to brunch the next day. She was delighted to accept, thinking that if one good thing came out of this mess, it would be getting to be friends with him.

The next morning she walked up to a sweet little cafe off Diagon Alley and saw Theo wave at her from an outdoor table. He stood when she arrived, kissing her on both cheeks and flashing her a brilliant grin. She felt some more of her tension fall away as she sat and chatted with him in the sun.

"Are you all recovered from the party? Or more accurately is your house recovered?" she asked.

"Oh nearly so," he laughed. "The house elves have the clean-up down to a science, but there are still tree stumps in some of my drawing rooms." She chuckled. "Did you have a good time, though?" he asked searchingly, and she felt her face warm, wondering how much he'd heard about the scene with Draco and Molly. She hoped desperately it hadn't reached Pansy or Blaise's ears to be spread around.

"Oh yes," she managed to answer lightly. "I met some lovely people. Blaise introduced me to Rémy Leon?" Theo nodded and waggled his eyebrows. Rémy was very handsome… "He and I had drinks the other night. He's très amusant!"

"Yes, I've always fancied him," sighed Theo. "I have a thing for breathtakingly good-looking Frenchmen. It's too bad for me that he plays for the other side…" He accompanied his comment with a self deprecating little shrug. "You knew, didn't you?"

"I figured," she smiled. "Although it's too bad for the witch population that you play for the other side."

He laughed, "stop!"

"But all kidding aside," she said. "Is this public information or something that you'd like to keep private?"

Theo sighed, "well it's not a secret. It's public amongst my friends. But I don't flaunt it. I wish I felt confident enough to do so. It's a holdover from when my father was alive. He was very… opposed to the idea of living what the muggles would call an 'out and proud' sort of lifestyle." He sipped his espresso. "Most pureblood families are rather liberal about same sex relationships— as long as you marry a member of the opposite sex first and produce an heir or two. But I never wanted that. I've never wanted to live dishonestly." Hermione nodded sympathetically. "So I learned to hide and misdirect. It's just in the last year or two that I've talked about it aloud. Although my best friends have known for a few years. Draco's known forever."

Hermione felt herself flinch the slightest bit at the mention of Malfoy and Theo paused for a beat before exclaiming, "but enough about me! You and Rémy. Do tell. I want to live vicariously!"

She accepted the subject change gratefully, as she did not want to discuss Draco with his best friend—even tangentially. "Well sorry, but there's not much to tell. We went out and had tapas and a few drinks. He flirted with me and made me laugh. Then we parted ways with a quick peck and nothing more."

"So disappointing," said Theo. "What was wrong? Did he chew with his mouth open? Act rude to the server?"

She laughed. "No, nothing like that! I just didn't feel attracted to him. And I think he could sense that and was being a gentleman about it. I'm not sure why I didn't find him …" she waved her hands around, at a loss for words.

Theo tilted his head but stayed silent.

"I think," she continued, pausing to cut a bite of her food and gather her thoughts, "that Rémy's a bit of a charming rogue. And I tend to be very cautious when it comes to them. Sort of like Jack Wickham?" Theo nodded. "It's like as soon as a really beautiful man starts trying to aggressively charm me, my red flags go up and I'm instantly disinterested in that way. Do you know what I mean?"

He nodded again. "Yes, although unfortunately I do not suffer from the same affliction," he said with a smile. "So you were never dating Jack Wickham? When I saw you that one night you looked kind of cosy." This was said casually, although Hermione noticed a flutter of distaste cross his features when he said Jack's name.

"God, no!" She shook her head. "I will admit that when I very first met him, which was the night you saw us, I was dazzled. He's just so, so good-looking." Theo nodded emphatically. "He's also a great conversationalist—interesting and fun. But he's such a womanizer. He literally can't help himself. And he's so handsome and charismatic that he has an endless supply of willing victims. I personally saw him collect two phone numbers from complete strangers that night. After that I was definitely in the 'thanks, but no' camp."

Theo nodded. "Yes, that sounds like the Jack Wickham I've seen in action. Although it seemed like he was going out of his way to charm you."

"Oh yes, he definitely wanted me to go home with him!" she laughed. "But my sense of self-preservation is too strong."

"So you weren't at all upset by the announcement of his engagement?" Theo spooned berry coulis onto his yoghurt and Hermione had the distinct sensation that she was being grilled very gently and skillfully.

"No, not for myself," she said slowly. "But I do worry about that Pepper Up witch. What was her name…?"

"Gladiola Sinclair," supplied Theo. "Our families move in the same circles, although she's a bit older than us. She can definitely take care of herself. I figure she knows what she's got with Wickham, but doesn't care. We'll just see if her family allows it to actually happen, though. To my recollection, she hasn't actually inherited yet and won't for a few years, so they may pull the plug on her allowance if they want to pressure her to drop him."

"Hmm," Hermione was unsure what to think about his comment. On the one hand, she didn't wish a cheater on anyone, but on the other, if Wickham was Gladiola's choice and pureblood prejudice was all that was making him off-limits, that was infuriating on several levels. Of course if Wickham disappeared just because she wouldn't have any money for a few years that was also despicable.

"So what are your plans for the rest of the summer?" she asked after a slightly overlong silence. Theo grinned and launched into a description of a holiday to Italy he'd be taking in a few weeks. Hermione had been the year before and commended his choice.

They spent the rest of brunch skirting controversial topics in favor of discussing the merits of Rome vs Florence, where to find the best carbonara and what made Italian men so attractive (a combination of swagger and close attention to sartorial detail, they agreed).

It was lovely and Hermione went home much happier than when she'd started out. Probably because she felt she had cemented a friendship—and because Malfoy's name had never come up again.

~oOo~

Theo went on his way happy about the outcome of brunch. He'd had two purposes in inviting Hermione out. First, because he genuinely liked her and wanted to get closer to her and second because he wanted to feel her out with regard to certain topics. He felt he'd been successful in both endeavors and had much to think about.

Having hidden his true nature most of his life, he had become a very careful and subtle observer of others. Though she'd never known it, he'd watched Hermione closely when he asked about the party, when he mentioned Draco—just the once!—and when he'd probed her about Wickham. Her reactions were exactly as he would have predicted based on what he already knew of her.

Namely, she'd had nothing to do with Molly Weasley's crass comments, she had a tendre that she was barely acknowledging to herself for his best friend (eclipsing even the dangerously gorgeous Rémy Leon, no less) and she had no feelings for Jack Wickham beyond an amused sort of friendliness and mild protective impulse based on whatever fantasy story Wickham had fed her about his circumstances.

All of these conclusions pleased Theo and he hummed as he walked to his next appointment. He loved Draco dearly and had decided after much thought that Hermione would be very good for him. He wanted to do what he could to help his friend see that, but he also knew Draco was understandably intractable when it came to Wickham, and wouldn't consider anyone who'd been with him in any way. So these developments were encouraging, indeed.

Theo had suspected Hermione was made of finer stuff and he was right. Now just to help pull his best mate's head from his arse. Luckily he had a few strategies in mind for that. He grinned to himself as he pushed open the door to his fencing club and entered the cool, white interior.

Striding into the changing room he spotted Draco right away, half dressed in his whites, pulling a thin undershirt over his head. "You're late," he growled, clearly displeased that he'd have to wait while Theo got into his gear.

"Oh go get your practice thrusts in," Theo tossed over his shoulder as he removed his shoes. "I won't be two minutes."

Draco grumbled and exited to the salle. Once Theo joined him their bout began with a polite salute but quickly turned aggressive. Theo, usually the better fencer, found himself parrying and retreating down the piste at a rapid pace, Draco's attacks and lunges pushing him off the strip in record time. He had a strong suspicion what his friend's display was about—Draco had been in a foul mood since the party.

Theo gamely regrouped, more than willing to be the punching bag if it helped Draco work off his pique. But although he was more focused and intent in his attacks, he was again pushed off piste, with Draco applying a punishing bind to his foil for emphasis.

"Stop holding back," Draco snapped at him. "Let's have a real match."

Theo nodded once, tacitly agreeing to take off the kid gloves. He and Draco then engaged in furious combat, trading hits and points, blades ringing and clashing as they moved rapidly up and down the strip. Theo vaguely noticed that they had attracted the attention of others in the club, who drifted over to watch the match. Draco's energy and intensity matched against Theo's calculated skill meant they traded points equally for some time.

Finally, expertise won out with Theo combining a diabolical riposte with a compound attack to best Draco for the winning point, the two of them finishing practically chest to chest and gasping for air. They held still for a moment and then grinned at each other before breaking apart for the formal salute signalling the end of the match.

Theo clapped Draco on the back as they headed to the changing room, "that was the best I've ever seen you! You were a fury!"

"Still couldn't beat you, though" Draco said with a slight smile.

"Yes but I was fighting for my life the whole time," Theo stripped out of his whites and strolled back to the showers. Standing under the hot spray, he considered how best to address his friend's… emotional state.

"Where were you coming from before the match?" said Draco over the noise of the water.

Thank you very much for the perfect opening. Theo smothered a smile as he rinsed his hair. "I was having brunch!"

"With Blaise?" yelled Draco, water sluicing over his face and chest.

Theo snorted. Blaise was always banging on about brunch being one of the best ways to 'find fit tail on a Sunday'.

"No, Hermione!" he replied while pretending to scrub his face, but secretly watching his friend's reaction. Draco, who had been hanging his head under the hot water letting it massage the back of his neck, jerked up involuntarily, but didn't say anything. Theo turned off the shower and buried his smirking face in a towel.

Draco also cut off his shower and grabbed a towel, drying himself and tying it around his waist. "Was she well?" he asked after a lengthy pause.

"Oh yeah, great," said Theo with a blasé wave of his hand. "She had all kinds of tips for my Italy holiday. I should have kept a list."

Draco grunted and started getting dressed.

"I'm glad I asked her. I want to keep in touch with her," Theo mused. "I like that witch. She's very different from our usual crowd. Different from how I thought she was at school." He was careful to keep his tone neutral. "I got the impression she was mortified by Molly Weasley's remarks at the party."

Draco's head snapped up. "She mentioned that? Wait, how did you hear about it?" his eyes narrowed.

"House elves. And no, she didn't mention it. She just went bright red and uncomfortable when I asked her if she had a good time. I can't think of any other reason she'd react that way."

"Maybe because she was still fucked off that you didn't invite her twat-with-benefits, Wickham," Draco bit off. "Pansy told me she made a scene when she realised he wasn't there."

"No, she didn't," said Theo, rolling his eyes and giving Draco a, 'you really believed Pansy?' look. "To be honest, I don't think she cared much," he continued as he pulled his shirt over his head. "Wickham's name came up today and she's definitely not involved with him. Never has been, thank Merlin. I suspected she had better taste. I'm glad I was right. Couldn't really friends with her otherwise." He mock shuddered. "I don't even think they're really friends, although I do think the little shite fed her some sob story. She definitely feels sorry for him. But she knows he's a skirt-chasing tosser. She told me she figured it out within an hour of meeting him. Can't say I'm surprised. She's a sharp one," Theo chuckled.

Draco stared blankly for a moment and Theo grinned to himself. There's something to think about, eh mate?

"Speaking of, did you see the engagement announcement in the Prophet yesterday? Wickham and Gladiola?" Theo chattered on. Draco nodded, an expression of disgust breaking his trance. "I mentioned it to Hermione and she actually laughed when I asked if she was ok with it. She was concerned for Glady, though. I told her that's a witch who can definitely take care of herself. Although we'll see how long her new fiance sticks around if mummy and daddy cut off her allowance," Theo snorted. "Did Jonnie mention it when you saw her the other night? I saw that picture of you two in the Prophet. She also seemed upset at the party. Alistair must be fucking around again."

Draco shook his head. "She didn't and he is. Although I don't know if Jonquil and Glady are as close as they used to be. Alistair seems to drive all Jonnie's friends away. I'd like to hex that arsehole's bollocks off. She also needs to wake up and leave him."

Theo nodded. "She really does."

"Did you say anything to Granger about Astoria's, uh my, recent history with Wickham?"

"Of course not," said Theo, suddenly very serious. "Although you might want to consider a discreet lunch with Glady before things become official…" Draco nodded slowly.

Theo gathered his gear, intending to apparate home and let Draco sit with his thoughts. He knew from experience that Draco would need time to come to his own conclusions about what Theo had fed him today.

"Well I'm off!" he said, rubbing Draco's back briskly. "See you Thursday for Daph's birthday drinks? And give my love to Astoria. Can't wait to see her now that she's back in London."

"Yeah, thanks mate. Will do." Draco muttered distractedly, waving a hand over his shoulder.

Theo chuckled again as he strode out, pleased with the day's work.

Chapter Text

"But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever."

Draco wandered out of the fencing club in a daze, Theo's words playing over and over in his head: definitely not involved with him... never has been… don't even think they're friends... As the snippets ran through his mind, he felt a sense of lightness steal over him and was conscious of being in a better mood than he had been in a long while. Must have been the exercise, he told himself, smiling slightly as he headed home.

Opening the door to his flat, Draco was still lost in thought when he was assaulted from the side by a small whirlwind.

"Draco, Draco, Draco! I'm so glad you're home," said a high, sweet voice. "How was fencing and how is my favourite?"

Draco's felt his face relax into a smile as he beheld the small person clinging to his waist. She was all huge dark eyes and short, spiky black hair, the polar opposite of her tall, blonde sister.

"Hello, my Astor." He bent down to kiss her cheek. "Fencing was satisfying. Theo is well. He sends his love. How has your day been?"

"Daph and I went record-shopping in muggle London and it was brilliant. I brought home loads of cool things. We'll have a listening party later!" She twirled him around in a little dance and he let her. No one could get him to bend his dignity as easily as Astoria could.

He steadied her shoulders and looked into her face, searching for something there. She'd come into his life just after the war when he was still a shell of a person. Daphne's much younger sister, an orphaned casualty of the conflict. Her parents' will had contained an ancient and magically binding clause decreeing that if their minor child were left parentless, guardianship would pass to the male heir of the line.

Everyone else male in their entire tangled family tree had died or disappeared, but Draco. So to his extreme surprise he was informed that he had become the guardian of a six year old girl at 18 years of age. And Daphne's sister no less. He had immediately appointed Daph co-guardian and they had effectively become Astoria's parents from then on.

Helping to raise and guide her had transformed him in many ways, saved him really. He'd been smitten the moment she raised her dark eyes and small arms up to him the first time they met. From then on he'd been very actively involved in her life, despite his mother's suggestion that they ship her off to some distant Greengrass cousins in the North.

After he and Daphne had roundly rejected that idea, Astoria had come to live with them at their flat in London—and at Theo's, and his aunt's in France. She'd been raised cheerfully by committee. The day she'd first ridden the train to Hogwarts had been the most bittersweet of his life. And she'd done so well at school—sorted into Ravenclaw and quickly singled out for her kindness and musical talent.

The day last winter when he'd received a patronus from Minerva McGonagall informing him that she was missing had been his worst nightmare come true. They'd all been frantic and rushed to Scotland, where, thank gods, she'd been found quickly and physically unharmed.

But the damage had been profound.

Minerva had had to disarm Draco to stop him dealing Wickham the killing curse and then it had taken all Theo's strength to pull him off the other wizard. In the end they'd let Wickham go because nothing could be proven and Astoria wouldn't speak of it, except to repeat that she went with him willingly. The feeling was that bringing anything before the Wizengamot would harm her all over again. And Draco largely blamed himself because the whole sordid episode was clearly a revenge plot aimed at him.

He still couldn't think about it without wanting to throw up or break something, preferably several of Wickham's bones. The only reason he didn't hex the absolute cunt into oblivion each time he saw him was because when Astoria started talking again she had calmly and seriously told Draco and Daphne that the best thing they could do for her was to put it behind them. She had been all of 16 years old.

She'd eventually come back to them—slowly and not quite the same as she had been before. Leaving Hogwarts had helped, and she had declared she would never go back. Going to his aunt's in France for a long rest this spring had also soothed her. Then she had finally recovered enough to ask to enroll at Beauxbatons in the autumn and to come to London in the meantime, which he took as a good sign—although had he known Wickham was here he would never have allowed it.

For a while noise and activity had overwhelmed her, so the fact that she'd willingly gone into the city today was extremely encouraging. It did him good to see the sparkle back in her beautiful eyes. The eyes that now peered up at him with a keen look. He released her shoulders and stepped back.

"You're different than when you left this morning," she said, scrunching her face. "Lighter. Happier. And nooo, I don't think it's all down to the exercise…," Sometimes she was so perceptive he wondered if she had a touch of the sight. Many witches in her line had been known for it.

Draco just shrugged and grinned at her. "Maybe it was Theo's sparkling conversation. More important discussion though. What are we doing for your sister's birthday tomorrow? I want to celebrate with the three of us and not just rely on the big piss-up on Thursday."

Astoria pouted, "and besides you and Daphne are being big prats and not letting me go to that."

"That is because you are underage," said Draco. "Focus. Tomorrow."

"Well Daph was on about some muggle supper club that's supposed to be 'very now' and very hard to get into. She's such a hipster. So I called them and used my em, powers of persuasion to get us a table."

"You mean you cast a spell." Since she had withdrawn from Hogwarts, she wasn't bound by the same magical restrictions as students, and she had been making very free with the loophole.

"Don't come over all boring and fatherly, Draco. It was just a tiny wandless compelling charm. More of a suggestion than a spell. The muggle never knew because I did it over the telephone." She trained the full effect of her brilliant smile on him. He frowned. "Oh just forget about it. It's for Daphne," she wheedled. "She'll be so chuffed."

He held his frown for a moment longer and then relented, grabbing her face and kissing her on the forehead. "Fine, you menace. But when the Improper Use of Magic Office comes knocking on our door I'm just going to say, 'She's in there. Have at her.'"

She laughed and grabbed his hand. "Now come see all these records I bought and this cracking birthday gag I'm going to play on Daph Thursday..."

Draco smiled and let himself be led.

~oOo~

Hermione sucked down the last of her cocktail and started to gather her things. She'd done her duty with two hours and two drinks at the leaving do for a junior witch in Magical Creatures who was relocating to Germany. Now she wanted nothing more than to get home and finish a sheaf of reports that had been lingering in her in-tray.

Saying her goodbyes and good lucks to her colleague, she was just about to walk out of the bustling little pub when someone waved at her from the bar. It was Daphne Greengrass and she was wearing a very silly headband that read 'Birthday Girl' in blinking lights. Hermione walked over with a grin.

"I guess I should say … Happy Birthday?" She laughed up into Daphne's annoyed face.

Daphne huffed out an angry sigh. "Yes, my little sister is in town and purchased this charming item for me. She tricked me into trying it on and then informed me that it was enchanted to douse me in a wave of everlasting-stick glitter glue if I try to take it off within the next five hours."

"Clever and evil in equal parts!" Hermione noticed Blaise approaching out of the corner of her eye. "Your sister sounds intriguing. Is she the one who is going to Beauxbatons this year?"

"Yes, Astoria. She's spending part of the summer in London. But luckily she's not old enough to come here because I'd probably be hexing her right now." Daphne scowled as she accepted a glass from Blaise, the rainbow lights from her crown dancing across her face.

"Oh leave it," Blaise chuckled. "She got you good, Daph, and besides you look festive—bringing the disco wherever you go. Hello, Granger. Are you joining us for Daphne's birthday drinks?"

"Oh, I'd love to, but I'm just leaving another celebration and I have to get home," Hermione responded with fake sincerity, already edging away from the bar.

She liked Daphne, but was almost certain this occasion would involve Pansy Parkinson—and she wanted to avoid that encounter like the plague. And more importantly, Malfoy could show up any second, said her inner voice in a panic.

At that very instant, a pair of strong arms slid around her waist from behind while a kiss landed on her cheek. For a wild moment, the thought flitted through her brain that it was him and she started in shock.

"Leaving so soon?" an unnaturally deep voice tickled her ear.

Hermione twisted, a genuine smile breaking over her face and a slightly hysterical laugh escaping her lips. "Theo! You startled me!" He flashed her a smile, all dimples and innocent blue eyes, then released her with a twirl, holding her hand companionably.

"Do you really have to go?" he said with a moue of disappointment.

"I really do," she replied, her sense of urgency increasing as the clock ticked. "I've been here for hours with another group!" Theo continued to pout and didn't let go of her hand. Hermione started to get the distinct impression that he was detaining her, which made her even more nervous. She used a cunning little tactic she'd learned in a muggle self-defense class to disengage, then put some fast distance between herself and the others.

"I'm really sorry I can't stay and celebrate," she chattered, laying a small pile of galleons on the bar. "Happy Birthday, Daph, and next round's on me. Let's get together soon at that whisky bar in Knockturn that you were telling me about!" Hermione darted in to kiss Daphne on both cheeks, gave Blaise a little salute and walked backward away from Theo, who was still rubbing his wrist, blowing him a kiss as she went.

She was halfway across the room and still waving over her shoulder, when she noticed the most curious expression cross Theo's face. She had a split second to wonder why before she felt herself walk into something tall and fairly unyielding.

"Granger," murmured a fatally familiar and aristocratically bored voice, "we really must stop running into each other this way."

Hermione felt her heart drop to her toes.

She was usually a really very self-possessed person. She wasn't clumsy. She didn't embarrass easily. She'd once been described in the Prophet as having 'an easy confidence and natural authority'. So why, for the love of all that was magic, did her encounters with this wizard keep being so awkward? She really, really didn't want to look up.

"Hullo, Draco," ('Draco!') she said in a low voice, feeling a wave of warmth start up her neck. She forced her eyes up to his, expecting the cold dismissal he'd given her when he'd seen her in the ministry last week.

But he wasn't cold.

His eyes were warm. Warm and smiling with little crinkles at the corners. His mouth was faintly smiling too—as if he was in on a joke with her. A little laugh of relief and surprise burst from her lips and she felt something loosen in her shoulders.

"Sorry about that. Not looking where I was going. Have fun tonight, though," she said, attempting nonchalance.

"Oh are you leaving?" he murmured, his mouth turning down slightly. His mouth…mmm. God, why is he so good looking? Suddenly Ginny's words floated through her mind unbidden, "I'm not so sure he was never after you." The thought caused heat to flash over Hermione's body and that galvanized her to stop staring at him gormlessly and move. She stepped around him, although she didn't miss how arresting he was in impeccable grey robes.

"Yes, got to get home and do some exciting and scintillating work!"

"Isn't there something the muggles say about all work and no play?" he asked, tapping his forefinger to his temple in an exaggerated motion.

"Are you saying I'm dull?" she parried, unable to resist turning around and stepping closer.

"Furthest thing from it." Malfoy's half smile turned into a grin that could have really spelled trouble for her, except that Hermione could now see over his shoulder that Theo and Blaise were watching them avidly from the bar.

She gestured in their direction with a significant look. "I think your friends are waiting for you."

Malfoy turned and took in the situation, his fine brows drawing together in annoyance. Hermione used the opportunity to beat a full retreat.

"Don't work too hard," she heard his soft voice call behind her. She risked one more quick smile over her shoulder and stepped into the night, catching his eyes lingering on her as she walked out the door.

~oOo~

Harry bustled into the kitchen the next morning in slightly rumpled robes, tie askew and running ten minutes behind, as usual. Hermione was already there, humming as she fixed herself a cup of tea. She glided over and automatically began straightening his messy neckwear, still humming and wearing a dreamy smile.

"Why are you in such a good mood?" he demanded, shoving toast into his mouth and glancing suspiciously at her beatific face as he lifted his chin. It was very early in the morning for her to look so cheerful. Ginny for example, wouldn't be up for hours. Perk of not toiling at a desk job or having to take early meetings.

"Oh no reason," she said, her smile lingering as she put the finishing touches on what he knew would be a much-improved half-windsor. "Other than it's Friday and it's supposed to be hot this weekend. Where are you rushing out to?"

Harry continued to regard her. "Investor meeting at nine. What were you up to last night? Gin and I didn't see you before we went over to the Burrow."

"There was a leaving drinks thing at the Divining Rod for a colleague. I put in my time and came home to catch up on some reports. I must have just missed you." Hermione was now studying her reflection in the hall mirror, twisting bits of her hair this way and that.

Realization dawned on Harry and he felt a smirk tug at his mouth. "That's interesting because I ran into Theo Nott yesterday and he invited me to a drinks thing at the Divining Rod," he said. Hermione's cheeks flushed and she looked more closely in the mirror, now very obviously using it as a tactic not to look at Harry. She also didn't respond. "Did you happen to see Theo there?" he probed. "Couldn't have been the same drinks thing. He said his was a birthday do… for Daphne, I think?"

"Yes, now that you mention it I did see Theo there, just briefly," Hermione said, now sticking her head into the fridge and rummaging around.

"Anyone else we know show up?" Harry matched her tone and leaned against the counter, all nonchalance.

"Oh that whole gang from the house party was there," came the muffled reply from within the fridge. Harry's smirk deepened. Ginny had told him a bit about what was going on with Malfoy and Hermione and he found it… interesting. Judging by Hermione's mood today, Malfoy had shown up and their encounter had been better than the last one. Which was good, because Hermione had been in a right state since the party—alternating between glum slumping about the flat and near manic levels of activity.

When Ginny had mentioned her hunch about Hermione and Draco, Harry had been shocked at first, but then gradually warmed to the idea. The wizards and even a few muggles who had constituted Hermione's love life over the last few years had been distinctly lackluster in his opinion. Of course, he had extremely high expectations for anyone wanting to be a part of her life, and few measured up to those or her general excellency. But if anyone was as intelligent and ambitious as Hermione, it was Draco Malfoy. And they shared some very strong opinions about things that Harry couldn't work up a lot of fervor about—like art or runic translation or muggle music and food.

Besides, it had been a long time since he had viewed Malfoy with the hatred and distrust of their school years. They'd never be best mates, but Harry believed in actions and deeds—and Malfoy's during and since the war had proved who he really was. The project they'd worked on together at the Meadows last year, designing a diagnostic checklist for post-traumatic stress, had allowed him to further get to know his old rival. And while he firmly believed that Malfoy would always be somewhat of a posh twat, he'd also come to think that he was brilliant, caring and occasionally very funny.

One of the most surreal moments of Harry's post-war life had been sitting over a firewhisky with Draco Malfoy and laughing until tears rolled down his cheeks over Draco's spot-on impression of Minerva McGonagall.

And he respected that Malfoy was using his wealth and notoriety to do something useful. It would have been very easy for him to recede into an idle private life after the war, cushioned by money and the power that was still concentrated in the hands of a few dozen pureblood families. But he hadn't—he'd stuck his neck out again and again to build the Meadows and make it what it was, much to the displeasure of those same families.

If Malfoy recognized Hermione's quality—and she could get past his cool exterior to stir the depths, Harry thought they might have a real chance to make each other happy.

And interestingly, Harry had gotten the distinct impression that Theo Nott was advocating for the match too. Yesterday when they had bumped into each other the invitation to drinks was less to Harry and more to Harry if he were to bring Hermione. Theo had mentioned something about the misunderstanding with Molly Weasley at the party and that he had set Draco straight. He'd seemed eager to make sure Hermione knew that...

Harry snapped out of his reverie as Hermione emerged from the fridge, yoghurt in hand. "Harry," she asked, carefully opening the tub, "do you think people can change?"

Harry almost laughed out loud, but maintained his casual air. "Yes, I do. Or maybe I should say that I believe people can reveal themselves more fully as we get to know them, and that the way we perceive them can change."

"Hmm," she murmured, still contemplating her breakfast.

"But I also think that life can change people," continued Harry, warming to his subject. "Events, like the war. Having children. Doing a certain job. Being happy or unhappy in a marriage." Hermione nodded slowly. A thought struck Harry and he sobered, "Take Ron, for example. I'll always love him and he'll always be a mate, but I'd say we've all changed and grown apart - especially the two of you."

"It still makes me sad," Hermione said. "I know we've talked about this before, but it sneaks up on me once in a while." Harry sighed and sent her a sympathetic glance. "Of course our breakup was hard, but with our history, we should have been able to come back from it. And it was eight years ago. But I feel like I barely even know him now."

"Well it's sort of like I said—I think events changed Ron. Or maybe they shaped him. Well, they shaped all of us. I mean, look at Neville! But Ron never moved on from the war the way the rest of us did. He never progressed. I think your breakup was part of that. And then right afterward when you needed distance was when you got really close to Ginny, and she sort of replaced him, for better or for worse. For me too—falling in love and making a life with her meant I had less room for him. I think he resented that. Then when we three moved in together, even though he said he didn't want to live with us, I think it made him feel even more left out. I'm convinced that's why he left and stayed abroad for so many years."

Hermione nodded, "I felt so awkward after we split - I pushed him away and I'll always regret that." She dabbed at her eyes and gave a watery laugh. "Anyway, this is a bit heavy for Friday morning before work."

Harry crossed over to her and hugged her, sniffing a bit himself. "It's a good thing Ginny's not up. She'd be having a go at us for being watering-pots and telling us we got the better end of the Weasley bargain." Hermione smiled up at him. "Anyway," he continued placing his hands on her shoulders bracingly. "I think things are looking up for Ron. He's gotten close to Jack Wickham and they're cooking up some sort of business scheme that he's really excited about. Something to do with coastal property in Spain. They're combining Ron's knowledge of the area with Wickham's real estate expertise."

Hermione looked encouraged, "That's great!"

Harry nodded, "I know. I'm happy for him. But back to your earlier question, I truly do think people can change—and change again. The worst thing to do is remain rigid in your thinking about someone when they are showing you that they're different."

Hermione looked thoughtful, then placed her hands over Harry's. "Thanks, friend," she said with a smile. "Now I hate to tell you this after we've had such a lovely talk, but it's 8:56."

"Shite!" Harry grabbed his bag and dashed for the fireplace, "I have to meet this bloke at some tea shop in Diagon Alley in 4 minutes!"

"Floo with me to the ministry! It'll be fastest" Hermione called, shouldering her work satchel as she ran after him. She tossed the floo into the grate and they both stepped into the swirling green cloud and disappeared.

Chapter Text

"I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun."

Hermione browsed through the mystery section of Familiar Books, her favorite bookshop in Diagon Alley. Saturday had turned out to be more than just warm—hellishly hot would be a better description—and the only thing a sane person could do was buy a book and a picnic and take it to Green Park to sit under a tree with very deep shade and read the afternoon away. She was rather pleased at hitting on this plan after moaning about the heat in the sweltering flat for most of the morning. Ginny and Harry had invited her to the cinema with them, which had sounded appealing because of the air con, until she looked at the film choices. Explosions or rom-com, no thanks. So the park it would be.

And she needed something good to read along with the lovely cheese, figs and baguette she had picked up at the fancy market. A mystery seemed a little autumnal, but she was in the mood light, but clever. Her eyes darted through the section until she spotted an Elizabeth Peters she had never read. Summer of the Dragon? "Oddly fitting," her brain thought dryly. She plucked the slim volume from the shelf and wheeled around to head to the till—and almost ran into… Draco Malfoy? AGAIN?

This really couldn't be happening, her rational mind protested. But there he was, leaning in the aisle, looking down at her with a bemused expression. He was dressed the polar opposite of how he'd been at the pub the other night. Then he'd been the picture of a perfectly tailored wizard. Today he looked like a cute muggle in a fitted button-down and impeccable summer weight trousers. His sleeves were rolled—his one nod to the record-breaking heat? Oh no, second nod—he was wearing trainers.

God, but rolled sleeves and bare forearms were a kink of hers… Was it possible he looked even more delicious as a muggle than as a wizard? Interesting internal debate for another time, Hermione. Now it's time to stop staring and say something. She dragged her eyes up to his and said brilliantly, "What are YOU doing here?" Lovely Granger, just lovely and very smooth.

"I saw you come in," he said with an enigmatic look.

"Well I. It's very hot as you know, and so I need a book." She was even more thrown off by the idea that he'd followed her. And why did he have to be so put together? She was sure she looked sweaty and disheveled. Her rolled shorts and blousy top, which seemed cute and weather-appropriate when she left the house, now felt so un-crisp.

"Yes the heat makes reading essential for me too." A ghost of a smile played at the corners of his lips.

"I mean, I'm going to the park to sit under a shade tree and wait out the heat," she said with a better attempt at clarity and lucidity. "And I'll need a book to while away the hours I plan to spend. Hence, being here, and shopping for said book."

"Splendid idea. I commend you," he replied, his eyes traveling lazily down her person.

"What are you doing to… beat the heat?" she asked, swallowing. Oh god that sounded like a masturbation reference. "Apparating to an ice house?" FUCK. She had to STOP.

His eyes flicked back up to hers and held. "Oh no, I was thinking of buying a book and a picnic and going to the park."

His eyes were really the most extraordinary shade of silvery grey, she mused, must be a recessive gene trait that went with the platinum hair… She'd gone silent for a beat as he looked expectantly at her.

She started. Did he want to join her? No, he couldn't! But that had sounded like he was fishing for an invitation. Her mind went into a panicked state. What did this mean? It seemed like he wanted to come? Otherwise why would he joke about that!? But what would they talk about all day? Had it been too long since she said something? Was she being unforgivably rude?

"Would you like to come with me?" she finally blurted. "It would be silly to just be… sitting under different trees." Mouth moving before brain again, she cursed herself. She used to be rather erudite and quick with him. What had he done to her mind-speech connection?

"I thought you'd never ask," his smile was dazzling in the dim stacks. She acquiesced in a daze and paid for her book. They were walking out of wizarding London before she could register what had happened.

"So where are we going?" he asked. "Hyde? St. James? Green?"

"Admirable knowledge of nearby Muggle parks," she said, shooting him an amused sideways glance. Being in a little less close proximity had seemed to afford her use of her brain again. "I like Green Park for days like this. Less crowded and bigger, more plentiful trees."

Their slow stroll—it was too hot to move quickly—gave Hermione a chance to fully restore her equilibrium, although walking next to him, glancing at his fine profile, was a bit intoxicating. She scoffed at herself for being shallow, but she couldn't deny that being so close to a tall, beautiful man was a turn-on. Some small, regressive part of her brain actually liked that people must think they were together. Distressing. She'd have to examine her feminist sensibilities later.

"Oh how did Daphne's birthday go the other night? Did she manage to wear that crown until the spell faded or did she get doused in glitter?"

"Absolutely covered," he responded with a grin.

Hermione laughed and put her hand over her mouth, "Oh no! What happened?"

"You know our Daph's a bit of a lush?" he asked, and Hermione nodded, still snickering. "Well she got absolutely blotto on these ridiculous shots Blaise kept ordering her. I told her shots are for amateurs," he sniffed.

Hermione laughed outright, nodding. She'd said the same thing many times herself.

"So eventually she went round the bend and decided she had to have the crown off. She kept trying to point her wand at it but her aim wasn't great and she took out a chandelier in this smart cocktail lounge we'd gone to. So we confiscated the wand and then she just got angry and tried to fling the crown at Blaise. I think she was hoping it would explode on its way and get him? But as soon as it left her head by a millimeter it was like a small, glitter-filled bomb went off," he laughed, shaking his head at the memory. "Her face, her hair. You know that muggle film Carrie?" Hermione nodded, really laughing now and also a bit impressed at his film knowledge. "Picture that, except glitter instead of blood."

"OhnonoNO, poor thing!" she gasped. "I hope you were all able to help her clean up!"

"Pansy knew a charm for removing cosmetic glue—do not ask because I have no idea why!" he said, holding up his hand and laughing at her horrified, yet fascinated, face. "But it worked and Daph was only a bit shiny by the time we got her home. Excellent night, though. You should have stayed on." His laugh turned into a half smile aimed at her. He looked so fucking adorable that whatever she was about to say in response flew out of her brain and she could only smile dumbly at him in response.

Luckily for Hermione's composure, or lack thereof, their steps had delivered them to the park's lush, emerald grounds. Most of the gigantic oaks scattered about the lawns already had groups of picnickers surrounding their bases. Hermione looked for a nice one and whispered a wandless spell. Suddenly the Muggles occupying the area dispersed—deciding to abandon their choice tree and sit far, far away.

Draco cut his eyes to her and whistled. "Damn. That was ruthless."

She grinned. "Oh I'll use my magical advantages to get the best shade."

~oOo~

Fucking adorable, Draco thought to himself. He cursed his use of that word. But he couldn't seem to help it when it came to her. She was adorable. "And bloody sexy," his brain added. He'd spotted her across the alley as she'd come out of the food market. Or more accurately, he'd been stopped dead in his tracks by her. Again. Especially her legs. Long, smooth and barely covered by some seriously short shorts that she'd rolled up to make even shorter. A clear attempt to drive men mad. His mind had gone straight to the gutter and his feet had followed her into the bookstore before he'd even known what he was doing. He'd had a vague plan to go to the Meadows and do some work today, maybe have lunch with Daph and Astor, but it had all gone out the window the moment he'd seen her. Whatever she was doing today he was now doing.

Something had changed when he'd found out she wasn't seeing Wickham. Before then he'd been attracted to her, but determined to fight it. Why get involved with someone who would pose… complications? He'd felt attraction and not acted on it many times. And the taint of Wickham had allowed his distaste to override his baser instincts. But now somehow his defenses had come down. He'd lost interest in fighting.

When he'd seen her at the bar the other night, he hadn't held himself back and their interaction had been a fucking delight. She was playful and fun and, needless to say, wickedly clever. And it didn't hurt that she'd made him want to cast a disillusionment charm on his arsehole friends and snog her senseless in the middle of the room. And then to top it off, she'd said no to his invitation to stay! He was so used to girls being overeager. He'd really had to hold himself back from flipping Blaise and Theo off and following her out the door.

They stepped into the deepest part of the tree's shelter and it felt at least ten degrees cooler. "Ahhhh" she said, stretching her arms overhead, which lifted her breasts beguilingly. Draco took a discreet deep breath and tried not very successfully to look elsewhere. Thank Merlin for sunglasses. "Now this is lovely. Where is that blanket?" She started digging in her small canvas shoulder bag, bringing out her book, a baguette, cheese, figs, a cutting board, a straw hat, a tube of sunscreen, a flask of water, something that looked like a small muggle electronic device, a few magazines, a deck of cards and finally a folded square of soft cloth. Draco's eyes had gotten wider the more she pulled out of the small sack.

"My God, woman, what else have you got in there?"

She rolled her eyes. "What is it with wizards being shocked by witch handbags? Haven't you ever seen an extension charm before?"

He just shook his head and grinned as she unfurled the square of blue patterned cloth and laid it down on the soft green. She distributed the other items around the blanket, muttered a quick repelling spell to keep others away and then sat down with a contented sigh. Draco dropped down next to her, elbows on his knees and wrists crossed as he took in the scene around them. They sat silently for a while, breathing in the sweet air and cooling down after their hot walk. Hermione passed him the water flask and he drank deeply, a bit struck by the casual intimacy of putting his mouth where hers had just been.

There was a lot of scope for people-watching in the immediate vicinity. One nearby group seemed to be all young women who, at the ripe hour of 11:30 am, were already pissed, if the number of empty wine bottles near their area was any indicator. They were also playing some form of tag that seemed to involve a lot of falling over and giggling. This was much to the amusement of a nearby group of boys, who were ogling the girls as they flashed thighs and knickers with their antics. Another group of mums with young children shot both girls and boys dirty looks as they sniffed and tsked at the rowdy behavior.

"Ahh muggle London," he sighed, watching them all from under his sunglasses.

"Don't be a snob."

"I'm not. I'm really not," he protested, wounded. "I have extreme affection for muggle London. I feel affectionate about this scene."

"Hmph, ok I guess," she slanted him a suspicious look.

"I'm serious." he took off his glasses off and looked back. "When things were bad after the war. Right after they let me out of prison, but people still openly hated me, I came here often. In fact, you know I have a ward? Daphne's sister?" Hermione nodded. "Well when she was small I used to take her to that play park right over there, " he pointed. "And then we'd go for ice lollies there," he pointed to a shop down across the street. "No one knew me and everyone was polite and pleasant. It was refreshing and at the risk of sounding like a total ponce, healing."

"I can see that," she said, tilting her head at him, her eyes soft. He wished at that moment, and probably for the tenth time since he'd seen her at that stupid networking event, that they didn't have the weight of their history between them.

Instead he murmured, "you know, I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" she said, "for?"

"Just all of it," he said, suddenly very serious, looking deeply into her eyes. She looked back at him with eyebrows raised. "Bullying you when we were kids. Calling you names. Ever thinking badly of you for how you were born. For not doing more to stop my psychotic aunt."

"Draco, please," she stopped him, stopped the memories, laid her hand on his arm. "Thank you, but it's not necessary. I understand where you came from and you've done so much since then to show who you are. Your work. You helped raise a war orphan, for god's sake! And I do think people can change. Let's let the past stay in the past. Being here, together as… uh, friends, is enough."

He put his hand over hers. "Please let me."

"Ok... then I accept," she said slowly. He held her gaze and the atmosphere became rather charged. But suddenly she smirked and patted him. "Then I also apologize for hitting you in the face third year."

He laughed and withdrew his hand, running it through his hair. "Oh please. A mere slap."

"You didn't think so then!" she laughed. "Admit it, I dropped you to the floor!"

"Bitch," he chuckled, sliding his shades back on and leaning back on his folded hands. "You don't happen to have a pillow in that insane bag do you?"

She pulled one out and pitched it at him. He caught it and tucked it behind his head while she continued rummaging. "What will she pull out next, ladies and gents?" he announced at large, "a harpsichord? The three volume illustrated Hogwarts, a History? A sofa?"

"Arse," she muttered, pulling out another small electronic device. "It's a muggle music player. Didn't you mention you studied muggle music a bit when we were at Theo's?"

"Yes, I did, and it's now another interest of mine," he replied. "Far superior to any wizard- produced music, which is 99% shit."

"Ok I know you're reformed and all that, but to say something muggle is far superior than something from the magical world?"

"Oh there are a lot of muggle things I feel that way about," he said, slanting her a look.

~oOo~

Hermione suddenly got very busy with her music player as Draco settled back onto his pillow. Was he flirting with her? She couldn't quite tell. He'd definitely been much warmer at the pub. And now he was inviting himself on her outing, saying vaguely suggestive things, apologising? If it were anyone else she'd suspect he was making a play, but her read of his signs was all muddled. She just couldn't trust that he was attracted to her or if it was her attraction to him sending all the signals. Ginny thought he was after her, but Ginny was sort of biased. And insanely confident. Hermione didn't lack for confidence, but Ginny could make her look like a wallflower at times.

Truthfully part of her thrilled to the idea of him. She hadn't been stimulated like this, well... ever. Her intellectual equal, funny, interesting and sophisticated, able to make her pulse speed up with a glance? God, just walking next to him earlier had gotten to her. But her cautious side held sway. As she'd told Ginny repeatedly, it was Malfoy, for fuck's sake. She just couldn't forget or ignore that. With their history and his reputation… and she flatly refused to be just another number in his lineup. He might play this charming role with many girls, like specifically that beautiful girl from the party and the Prophet, she reminded herself.

"Music, cars, clothing, design and architecture, food and restaurants, wine, whisky, psychology, just the sheer variety of experience, all far superior," he ticked on his fingers, addressing the tree tops. "I can't imagine going through life without incorporating the muggle world. It would be so limiting."

"I agree, obviously." She smiled at him, marveling at the change from the Malfoy of their youth. "And from my point of view, some pureblood families seem almost stunted in their ignorance of it."

"Thinking of the Weasleys?" he drawled. She swatted him on the shoulder.

"Hey! You just apologised for hitting me!" he protested. "And you have to admit that that family is a prime example of inbred wizarding weirdness. You should have married one of them and injected some fresh blood into the lineage."

"Well Ginny, Percy and Bill are taken and Charlie's gay, so I don't really see an option there," she said and then broke into laughter.

"Good point," he remarked, smiling at her appreciatively. "It's interesting to see your mean, bitchy side, Hermione. You know I quite like it."

She went to smack him again but he grabbed her arm. God he was quick. Time slowed down as she looked at her wrist encircled by his fingers, intimate as a caress, and felt a stab of pure, scalding lust. What would he do if she turned her wrist in his and stroked his face. Or if she leaned down and kissed him? Would he let her? Would it be sweet and light? Or would it be instantly hot—his hands tangled in her hair? Hermione had glazed over slightly with the possibilities, but he just tsked, and gently dropped her hand. She turned away and rummaged in her bag again to hide her confusion, withdrawing some plates and cutlery, to his renewed amusement. "Lunch?" she asked with only a slight tremor in her voice.

"Yes, please."

Hermione handed him a piece of bread and cheese liberally smeared with fig. He thanked her, leaned back on his elbows and contemplated the park.

"Draco." She prepared her own snack and took a bite. It was heaven; a perfect blend of sweet salty.

"Hmm?" he also seemed to be enjoying the food.

"How did the Meadows come about?" She licked some preserve off her thumb. He watched her from under lowered lids.

"Well," he straightened up. "It was also part of my foray into the muggle world. Once I spent more time here and read more, I realised that muggles have many more options for dealing with mental illness and just… coping… than wizards do. It occurred to me that it was patently ridiculous that we either have St. Mungos or Azkaban and nothing in between. We were essentially 100 years behind the muggles in this area."

Hermione shook her head in sympathy, "completely agree."

"And then the effects of the wars. Two successive generations grew up under the threat or experience of terror and death. Our childhood, for example, was incredibly stunted. You had all these strange effects. People getting married too young, rearing children when they were still children themselves, children without families, anger problems, depression, isolation. But no names for it and no treatment that wasn't a potion or a fucking dementor. Barbaric." He polished off his bread and reached for the loaf again. "This is delicious."

"I'm glad you like it." They smiled at each other for a moment, but then he turned serious again, looking off in the distance.

"And the Manor. I couldn't ever live there again. The whole place was tainted." His eyes flicked to her. "But it seemed so wasteful to just shut it up and let it fall to ruin. I wanted to transform it and, this is going to sound silly," he glanced at her with a self-deprecating shrug, "But I wanted it to be a symbol of a radical dismantling of the past."

"That doesn't sound silly!" she exclaimed. "It's a …a ….noble, ambition" Her eyes shone.

"Ahh yes, I forgot I was talking to the would-be freer of house elves and a scion of Gryffindor house," he said with a smile that took the sting out of his remark. She threw a piece of bread at him. He caught it and popped it in his mouth. "You just can't say those kinds of things around Slytherins…"

"Well you're in a safe space now," she soothed and then snickered. He grinned and shook his head slightly before resuming his story.

"So now we have over two hundred beds as well as outpatient facilities that can treat hundreds more. We offer therapy around all sorts of issues and we combine muggle and wizarding methods. My head of treatment is training the next generation of counselors as well. Right now we're very focused on putting together a course of study that the ministry will recognize with a designation like a muggle doctor of psychology. That's why I've been at the ministry HQ so much lately. A lot of lobbying. I don't like it because it takes me away from the facility, but it's necessary," he shrugged.

"All kidding aside, what you've done is wonderful, Draco," she said. "It's more than enough apology for me." He smiled and lunged for the water bottle, taking a long swig. "And if you're not at the Manor where do you live now?" Hermione asked, realizing she had absolutely no idea.

"I have a flat here. But I spend a fair amount of time in other places. New York, my mother's house, France, Theo's. I'm probably here less than half the time."

Bachelor pad, the thought popped into her head, along with images of him from the gossip columns. But then she felt uncharitable. Hadn't he just told her about the incredibly important work he was doing?

"And I share the flat with Daph," he continued. "As roommates," he added quickly. "We've basically roomed together since we took guardianship of Astoria. We wanted to give her a sense of having a home. Although we do all move around a lot, so Daph and I usually aren't there at the same time unless Astor is there too. You should meet Astoria someday. I think you two would hit it off. She's a complete swot in school too." he smiled.

Now Hermione felt like an arse. She covered it with a barrage of questions about his guardianship and Draco explained how Astoria had come into his life. The way he talked about the young girl showed how much she meant to him and Hermione was amazed at how he continued to surprise her. Harry's words ran through her mind. "The worst thing to do is remain rigid in your thinking about someone when they are showing you that they're different."

She could feel herself relaxing by the minute.

~oOo~

"Enough about me. What about you? What are you working on in Magical Creatures?"

"Well you know about the creature Bill of Rights project?"

He nodded, "An excellent idea. And opposed by many of my father's oldest friends, which means it has my ringing endorsement."

She laughed. "Well we finished our test cases with dwarves and imps. Two admittedly easy species that we knew would be unanimously in favor of and cooperate with the plan. Now it's time for a challenge." He lifted a brow. "We need a high profile species for publicity and to capture the public attention and support. We're not going to be able to do that unless we show that we can tackle more than just the easy cases." He nodded. "So next is Centaurs. Along with merpeople and werewolves, they form our biggest challenge to universal adoption."

He let out a long whistle, "yeah, that's going to be tough."

"Yes, they're notoriously intractable and each one is fiercely individual. Even though they live in herds, consensus doesn't come easily to them. And yet," she continued, "they're one of the most at-risk groups for persecution and misunderstanding. So they need the bill desperately."

"Very true," he said. "I recall discussions at the manor during the war about uses for centaurs once victory was assured." He shook his head, disgusted.

She sighed, "exactly. So I'll be going to France soon for an indefinite amount of time. There's a herd in Provence who have made tentative responses to our overtures. We've identified them as the most receptive of all the groups. They're also large and influential in the greater community. If we could win with them, we'd have something real to take to the others."

"Are you speaking of the Aix herd?"

"Yes! Do you know of them?"

"My great aunt 'owns' part of the land in their territory. Although whether or not she actually owns it is a longstanding bone of contention between them."

"Of course! Your great aunt is Lucretia Black!"

"That's the one," he confirmed. "I'm related to all the Blacks, for better or worse."

"Right... Well, I've been writing to her for months, trying to get permission to cross her land. She's totally ignored my letters!"

"Yes, that sounds like her. Dreadful snob. She doesn't open mail if she doesn't already know the sender."

"But my letters came on Ministry letterhead!"

"Oh that's an even lower chance of success. She doesn't acknowledge the Ministry." Hermione laughed. He examined his fingernails, carefully not looking at her. "I may be able to intercede on your behalf. Would that be helpful?"

"Oh my god! Would you do that? That would be amazing! I have a letter of introduction to the herd from Bane at Hogwarts. I just need your aunt to confirm that she'll lift the wards on her land for me."

It occurred to him that he would do a fair bit to get her face to light up like that.

"Of course. I'll owl her tomorrow. I can't guarantee her permission, but at least she'll read your letter."

"Oh thank you!" Hermione looked like she was about to throw her arms around his neck. And part of him very much wanted her to, but actually getting to know her was proving satisfying. He wouldn't rush his fences now.

"Speaking of Provence," he suddenly declared, "it also has rather a reputation for crisp, dry, thirst-quenching Rosé wine. I should know. I own vineyards there that produce lovely vintages."

She rolled her eyes, "toff."

"ANYway," he said over her remark. "It occurs to me some of said wine would perfect this already pleasant day." Hermione nodded enthusiastically. "And," he continued "I keep seeing folk come out of that shop across the way with cold bottles of the stuff. I propose that I go over there and bring us back some."

"Yes, please! That's a great shop. Good selection and knowledgeable clerk. Can you handle muggle money?" She had started to dig around in her bag again.

"Can I? … Witch, it is lucky that you find me in a mellow and relaxed mood," he said, glaring at her in mock outrage and standing up. He looked down at her and lifted an imperious brow, then turned and strode away. "How do you think I bought the Jaguar?" he tossed over his shoulder. She waved him off and picked up her book.

~oOo~

Of course she was only pretending to read. In reality she was watching him walk. And watching the young pissed girls watch him too. One girl actually lowered her sunglasses and let out a silent wolf whistle at his back as he strolled by. She then gave Hermione a salute of sisterly solidarity. Hermione waved at her then sighed. From an empirical perspective, he really was, what was the technical term? Oh, yes it was, 'fucking gorgeous'. The way he moved—the combination of unstudied elegance and confidence—was unfair. He'd always had that, even when he was a arsey little school bully. It was probably something that came from being born with unnatural amounts of good looks, wealth and privilege.

Fuck. It occurred to her that she was very much on the way to being in trouble here. Was she the type of woman to be seduced by these things? She'd never thought she was. She'd really meant what she'd said in the Nott House library about being happy with a house husband. But did that mean she couldn't also be happy with something different?

Either way, she was having real trouble controlling her brain's tendency to think of scenarios like verbally sparring with him here in the park, then takin him back to her flat to channel that combative energy in, ahem, creative ways as soon as they walked through the door. Or him being very impressive as her escort at future ministry events. After which she would show him her appreciation… in bed.

She moaned and flopped onto her stomach, feeling shallow. But then she reminded herself that she was also appreciating his conversation and actually very impressed with the things he cared about and what he had accomplished. It wasn't just about his looks and stature. She was enjoying him. Let's face it, if this were a blind date she would be sneaking off to the loo to send an excited patronus update to Ginny right now.

And he had apologised. That had been a shock. Maybe she just needed to let this breathe and not be so wound up. He had clearly changed. Or, according to Harry, he'd always been this way and her perception of him had changed. Both of which contributed to his attractiveness. Fuck, back to square one.

She sighed, really the only current course of action was to wait and see. She couldn't forget the dark-haired girl. And who knows how many more there could be. She needed to stay on her guard, but perhaps be open to possibilities? And not get too pissed today. Clearly her hormones were trying to run away with her and she needed to be careful of charming men bearing wine. Which he was—coming her way with a carrier bag.

"Success?" she queried, squinting up at him.

"Well yes," he replied, his brow drawing down. He pulled a lightly frosted bottle from the bag and expertly twisted a corkscrew into it, giving Hermione a chance to lust over his forearms again. "But the man also asked for my phone number…?"

Hermione snorted, unsurprised if the clerk was the very gay one she had chatted to in the past. "Well did you stand around in that louche way of yours and discourse knowledgeably about subregions of the Rhône Valley?"

He glinted a smile at her, "possibly."

She went completely liquid inside, but laughed outwardly and withdrew two glasses from her bag. His eyebrows shot up as he regarded the now legendary canvas square. He caught the glasses up, poured them each a healthy measure and took a sip.

"Crisp with a clean, dry, minerality," he pronounced with satisfaction. "Just as the chap said. Maybe I should have given him my number…" Hermione laughed again and clinked her glass to his.

~oOo~

A few hours later the air was still balmy as they polished off the last bottle of wine. The sun was low in the sky and they lay side by side, not touching, examining the canopy of green above them. Hermione broke her gaze at the tree tops to glance around the park. Not many people had left and if anything, the party atmosphere had increased as muggle London celebrated one of the truly warm evenings of the year. Draco's long legs were crossed at the ankles and he was gesturing with his glass. She laughed out loud when wine sloshed on her legs.

"You are completely full of shit, Malfoy!"

"Am not. You have no taste."

"NO TASTE? I'm telling you Sticky Fingers is the best Rolling Stones album and you are telling me I have no taste?"

"I'm telling you anyone who doesn't rank Exile on Main Street first has no taste. Ergo, dot dot dot. Full stop. You know I'm right."

"What I KNOW is that you've taken this 'I'm an expert at muggle stuff' thing a bit too far. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Hobgoblin of small minds and all that," she said vaguely.

"Are you daring to imply i'm not that intelligent? You will pay for that, Granger. Ooh what's this song?" A buzzed Draco was easily distracted.

"'Fade Into You'. Mazzy Star."

"Mazza wha?"

"Mazzy Star. 'Fade into You'. It was the number one song for muggle boys to lose their virginity to during our school years."

"Oh really?" He perked up and flipped over onto one elbow to stare down at her. "It is rather sexy…"

"Yes this and Glory Box by Portishead. Big makeout songs of the mid-90s. I brought recordings of both of them into Hogwarts and Dean Thomas had a CD player that he somehow enchanted into working. All the witches in Gryffindor loved them. So many snog sessions," she said airily.

"God, what the fuck was I missing? I always assumed we were having the best parties."

"You didn't have any muggles—they couldn't have been as good." He looked at her speculatively and she stuck her tongue out at him. "Why do you like Exile better?"

"Huh?" He was still staring at her in a slightly glazed way.

"How did you develop your uninformed and fallacious opinion about the best Rolling Stones album?"

"Other than having ears?"

She made a rude gesture at him.

"So vulgar! Well my tertiary reason is that I play piano and it's a much better keyboard album."

"You play piano? Like muggle piano?"

"The instrument is largely the same in both worlds, and yes, I play. I grew up learning very stuffy and complicated wizarding compositions and some of the elite muggle classical pieces. Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, blah blah blah. But then when I started listening to rock, of course I wanted to play it too. Much more fun."

"So you can play things from Exile?"

"Of course! You should hear my Torn and Frayed. It's fun to sing too. Great country sound. I also like to do Tumbling Dice—and that song alone could comprise my entire argument."

"Fun to sing… you sing too?" she said weakly, mind blown. He nodded. "I would absolutely love to hear that. And I counter your one song argument with Wild Horses."

"Ooh put that on."

"Ok. Does that mean you concede?"

"No, it's just a really good fucking song and I want to listen to it. Are you always this dogged?"

"Yes."

"Excellent. I like opinionated women."

~oOo~

They finally left the park in the deep twilight, chatting companionably as they passed from muggle London back into Diagon Alley. At one point Draco laughed out loud at something Hermione said and his face was so boyishly transformed that it took her breath away.

They were close as they strolled and she felt her shoulder and fingers brush his, contact which sent delightful frissons up her body. This time she didn't try to tamp them down. The better part of two bottles of wine paired with hours of conversation and playful flirting had muted her sense of caution. She was barely paying attention to their route and was surprised to look up and see that Draco had guided them to her street. She hadn't realised he knew where she lived. They slowly climbed the stair and paused at the doorway to her flat. She wondered if she should invite him in. She didn't really want the evening to end. But Harry and Ginny may be home and that could be awkward.

"Thank you for a lovely afternoon… and evening," he said. "I can't remember the last time I did nothing for quite so long—or enjoyed it quite so much."

She laughed softly. "We really were the most appalling slugs, weren't we?" His answering smile flashed through the dark and she felt herself sway toward him—as if her very molecules were being pulled toward his. She was just close enough to catch an alluring hint of his woodsy spice scent when an overly loud voice rang out through the dark.

"Look, Harry! What good timing!" Ginny waved at them from the pavement at the bottom of the steps. Hermione knew Ginny had spoken up to give a warning in case they were interrupting something, but her reaction was still sheer annoyance. But despite her pique, she managed to call down a casual hello while Draco subtly shifted a bit further away from her and greeted Harry and Ginny politely as they came up the stairs.

Hermione participated in the slightly awkward chit-chat about how they'd all spent their day, enduring Ginny's significant looks and Harry's amused ones, but felt disgruntled when Malfoy mentioned that he should be going. He said his goodnights with nothing more intimate than a jaunty wave, before pushing himself off the stair rail and tripping lightly down the steps to stroll off into the night.

The three roommates wandered inside, Harry and Ginny declaring themselves utterly knackered and heading straight to bed. Hermione lingered in the hall staring blankly into space. With no talk of seeing Draco again and no closure to their encounter, she started to second guess the tone of the day. Had it been nothing more than a friendly distraction on a hot, boring Saturday?

Still standing in the hallway, Hermione was contemplating whether she should have a cool shower and fall into her own bed or if a cognac would be advisable, when three soft raps sounded on the front door.

She wheeled back around—what the hell?—and cracked the heavy door to see Draco lounging against her porch as if he'd never left. His eyes kindled when he saw it was her.

"What are you doing...?" she started softly, opening the door and slipping out.

"I forgot something," he interrupted. His eyes were dark in the low light and there was tension in his bearing, although he also wore a slight smile. She looked up, puzzled, as he pushed forward from the rail. He moved closer and then stepped into her, his hands sliding around her waist and pulling her against him in a single, swift movement. She puffed out a soft, "oh," as her hands slid up his chest and her eyes locked with his.

He bent his head but paused, almost touching her parted lips, then whispered against them with that hint of a smile, "I've been wanting to do this all day. You?" She responded by reaching up and capturing his mouth with hers. Her eager reaction seemed to undo his playful calm and he crushed her against him. Desire exploded through her as she gave in to what she'd been fighting for weeks. She pushed even closer, molding to him, reveling in his height and the feel of his lean body as he stroked his tongue between her lips. She ran her hands up his neck and into his bright hair, running it through her fingers and leaning against the closed door so that her weak knees wouldn't give out. She was desperate for the taste of him and he matched her desire, pinning her against the cool wood and ravishing her mouth. She tilted her head to give him deeper access, twining her tongue with his recklessly.

The kiss continued to heat and Hermione lost all sense of where she was and what they were doing—not caring that she was making out with him in the open, for anyone to see. She realised her leg—when had she moved it?—was sliding up his, hooking him to her as he pressed against her and ran his hand into her hair, angling her neck so he could trail kisses down her throat. "You taste like honey," he mouthed against her skin, his voice hoarse and deep.

"Draco," she whispered as his other hand skimmed up under her blouse and over the curve of her waist, his fingers smooth and sure against her bare skin.

He inhaled sharply and his lips crashed back against hers while his fingers spasmed against her hip. She swept her hands underneath his shirt, up the sleek muscle and smooth skin of his bare back. God, he felt perfect—and then he breathed her name and it was absolutely sinful.

The small part of her brain that was capable of rational thought was trying to decide how good of an idea it would be to pull him inside and smuggle him into her bedroom—how fast could she cast a silencing charm?—when a faint noise intruded on her consciousness. She tried to ignore it as he was now doing something devastating to the sensitive spot just beneath her earlobe, but the sound got louder and closer.

"Hermione? Hullo!?"

Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. It was Ginny. She must have gotten up after Harry fell asleep to have a chat. She sounded worried and Hermione knew that her bedroom door was wide open and all rooms in the house were very obviously empty. It was only a matter of time before Ginny came pelting outside to see if she was ok. She very reluctantly drew away from, hands-down, the best kiss of her life, and looked ruefully at Draco.

He cupped her jaw in one hand and rested his forehead softly against hers, whispering, "I guess I should be going." She considered the angles and then nodded reluctantly, biting down hard on her swollen lower lip to keep from lunging at him again.

His eyes went dark as he focused on her mouth. "Do you want to drive me totally mad, woman?" he said softly, claiming her lips once more. She responded hungrily and they were off again, but he pulled back, taking a deep breath. "May I reiterate that today was lovely," he exhaled, feathering kisses from the corner of her mouth to her temple and moving his hands to her shoulders. He was breathless. High color tinted his cheekbones and his hair was disheveled. Hermione felt absurdly pleased to have rumpled him. He also looked utterly delectable and she directed a round of particularly nasty mental curses at her best friend.

Ginny's steps toward the front door were audible now, so he placed a last, light kiss on her lips. "I want to see you again. Soon," he said softly, then stepped back, tapped the side of his nose with a wicked smile and disapparated totally silently. Show off, Hermione thought. At that moment the door yanked open.

"What the wank are you doing out here? I was worried!" Ginny practically shouted. Then she looked at Hermione and blinked, taking in her mussed hair and swollen lips. "Oh." Her eyes widened and her mouth went slack. "He. Came. Back! That sneaky git came back!" A huge grin overtook her face and she started to cackle, but then she stopped abruptly, throwing her hands over her mouth. "Hermione oh my GODS I am so sorry! I am officially the world's worst twat blocker. You were about to get some and I ruuuuuined it!"

"Could we please do this more quietly and not on the stair, Gin? And I was not about to 'get some'," Hermione sniffed, conveniently forgetting her thought process of not two minutes previous. "It was just a kiss."

"Some kiss," Ginny said slyly. "You look like you were properly snogged, you slag."

Hermione flipped her off and then sighed as she felt a dreamy look came over her face. They stepped back through the door and into the flat. "Well I think I'm off to bed."

"Yeah and I absolutely promise I will not knock on, open or approach this door in any way shape or form until you exit your room tomorrow," said Ginny, raising her right hand and touching Hermione's bedroom door with her left. "Just in case he decides to put his broom to good use and fly in your window or something."

Hermione laughed, "I think that was it for tonight. I'm actually glad it didn't go any further. If I'm doing this—and it seems like I am doing this—I want to go slow. And I was about to, uh, not go slow."

Ginny snorted, "I knew it!"

"He made me lose my mind, Gin. It's never been like that for me."

"Well, I'm not surprised. As I may have said a few times before, you two have insane chemistry. And he's extremely attractive. I don't know when or how it happened. But here we are. Even I see it. And we're basically born and sworn mortal enemies. But I care more about your happiness and sexual satisfaction than I do about old grudges. And so does Harry. Well less about the sex part and more about the happiness for him. But he and I talked about it. It's clear the ferret has turned—or turned over a new leaf. I dunno. But go for it with our full support."

"Thanks, love, and goodnight," Hermione murmured, wiggling her fingers and floating into her room.

Chapter Text

“A lady's imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

Draco cruised along a winding country lane, enjoying the purr of the E-Type mixed with the strains of Sway blasting from its speakers. Could that enchanting witch possibly have been right about the best Stones album? He smiled - even the fact that he had been summoned to what would certainly be a stiff and boring lunch with his mother couldn’t dampen his mood. 

He swung the long nose of the car up a discreet drive and revved the engine a bit as he crested the hill. Narcissa absolutely hated it when he drove his muggle cars onto her property, and so he took a boyish delight in doing it. As he’d asked her once, what was the point of having a driveway if you weren’t going to drive something on it? She’d sniffed and told him not to be obtuse. 

Oh good, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking guitar intro. Draco turned up the sound and idled in front of the house for a moment of maximum obnoxiousness. His mind drifted to the already well-worn memory of the previous day’s - and night’s - events, and he felt a softness steal over his features. She’d tasted like fucking honey. Her skin. Her lips. It was better than even his most heated imaginings. Gods, her hands running up his back and her voice sighing his name. And that was just the cherry on top. The whole day had been fucking delightful. 

He wondered if it would seem overeager to try to see her again tonight. He wanted to taste more of her. Bury his face in her hair. Feel those long legs wrapped around him. Hear her opinions about something obscure and interesting. He wondered what she’d do if he told her she was right about her precious record. He suspected that might be a turn on for her and laughed softly. He also shifted in his seat and pulled his mind back to the present. It wouldn’t do to walk into his mother’s house in a state of obvious arousal.  

He finally cut the engine and slid out of the car, moving slowly up the steps to what Narcissa called her ‘cottage’. On the one hand it was about one tenth the size of the Manor, and on the other it had at least ten bedrooms, four sitting rooms and a conservatory, so one’s mileage may vary. He did find it mildly interesting that his mother also hadn’t wanted to live in the ancestral home after the war, although she had been totally and unsurprisingly opposed to the idea of the Meadows. Of course, the Malfoy family followed the most sexist of pureblood inheritance laws, so control of the entire fortune had been left to him. Narcissa had her own money, but the Malfoy estate dwarfed that. And he’d been running through it happily in funding the Meadows, much to Narcissa’s dismay. He didn’t know why she was so fretful, there was more than enough to spend in several lifetimes. 

Walking into the cool interior of the house, Draco was greeted by one of the several house elves who had come with Narcissa to the cottage rather than stay at the Manor and serve the plebes. He was divested of his driving coat and escorted to the terrace where a lovely and elaborate table setting was laid. His mother sat in serene calm, her pearl gray robes a perfect compliment to the platinum edge of the bone china. He crossed to her and kissed her lightly powdered cheek before dropping into a chair. 

“Hello, mother. Thank you for the invitation. Lovely day for lunch in the country.” 

“Draco.” She picked up and sipped a small, very cold glass of white wine. 

Wonderful, she was in a pique. He’d wondered at the reason for this lunch. Or maybe he’d overdone it with the car and the music. He’d probably need to grow up and stop acting like a 15 year old with her at some point, but it was so amusing. 

Draco requested his own glass of wine and told the elf to leave the bottle. A slight crease appeared between his mother’s brows and she narrowed her eyes, but he ignored her and drank a healthy measure. He could always floo home and leave the car here, which would annoy her even more.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, mother?” he said buoyantly, his good mood from yesterday still unsinkable.

Narcissa signaled for the first course. “A mother likes to see her son in person, rather than exclusively in the newspapers.”

Ah, so it was going to be a lecture about being more discreet. Probably mixed with a bit of ‘when are you going to settle down’ and an underpinning of ‘you are such a disappointment to me’. Of course, Draco had come to see his mother’s disappointment as a sign that he was doing something right, so he wasn’t too daunted at the prospect of today’s instruction. He’d just tune Narcissa out, drink her excellent wine and replay yesterday in his mind until it was time to leave. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs ankle over knee, another thing he knew she hated, and prepared to pretend he was listening. Her next remark drew him up short, though. 

“What are your intentions with regard to Hermione Granger, Draco?” His mother was a lady to the core, but she was never one to beat around the bush. 

Draco popped up from his blasé pose, not missing the tiny flicker of triumph in her eyes. “What do you mean?” he said, trying to temper his reaction. How did she fucking know? Did she have spies in the streets and parks of muggle London?

“I mean that I saw a set of very incriminating pictures in the Daily Prophet a few weeks ago, which I dismissed as idle speculation and/or a meaningless dalliance,” Draco felt heat start up his neck. “Until I received an owl from your great-aunt this morning, informing me in gleeful tones that you had written to her on Ms. Granger’s behalf. Those two occurrences and a rising tide of whispers amongst my acquaintance lead me to my question. What are your intentions with the muggle-born?” 

Draco ground his teeth together to bite back a response that would have been both unhelpful and vulgar. He was seething and he could feel the flush on his neck spreading upwards. Could he not have this good thing for a time before it was sullied by familial expectations? Of course not, because everything he did was under scrutiny. 

To be truthful he didn’t know what his intentions were yet. And one kiss in, he shouldn’t have to know. What he did know was that he was enjoying getting to know someone. That she excited and interested him. That her beauty captivated him. That he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her for weeks. And yes, he also knew in the back of his mind that if it went further than casual it would be complicated - and not only for him. She would face her own uncomfortable consequences in becoming entangled with an infamous former death eater. And he hadn’t really examined that. But he didn’t want to yet and certainly not with his mother. 

“My intentions are to not discuss anything about my private life with you unless I deem it appropriate,” he said in what he hoped was an extremely indifferent tone. 

Narcissa wasn’t deterred. “You don’t deny that you’ve become involved with this person? That she’s a part of your ‘private life’?” His mother’s calm was cracking, which was rather alarming. 

“Your Wisteria looks particularly prolific this year, mother. Whatever is your secret?” he took another deep draught of his wine. 

“Draco. You will answer me. I will not have my only son throw himself and the lines of two ancient families away on a muggle-born. I will not. This is not what I saved you for.”

Draco blanched and a muscle twitched in his jaw. “This conversation has grown incredibly boring, mother. Thank you for the lunch invitation, but I find I can’t stay. Another time when you’re less upset, perhaps.” He rose from the table and walked through the house out to the Jaguar without a backward glance. Fuck it, he’d drive, he’d only had one glass of wine. He conducted the car calmly down the drive and out onto the lane, accelerating with a squeal of tires only when he knew he was out of earshot. 

Anger coursed through his veins as he took the curves of the road at breakneck speed. Without realizing it, he’d set a course for Theo’s house. He needed the drive, his friend’s calming presence and maybe a hard fly around the practice pitch to work this poison out of his system. 

The worst thing was that he knew that Narcissa was in some small, absolutely bollocks way, right. He would have to ‘examine his intentions’ at some point and decide if he was all in for the shit that would come his way - and Hermione’s way - if they decided to make a real go of this. They weren’t just normal people who could go out, spend time together or even fall in love. It would all be scrutinised and dissected and the whole wizarding world would have opinions. It could have consequences for both of their careers. Did he really want that?  

It would be much easier to do as he’d always planned - marry a woman of his own class and live his private life privately, in the way of countless generations of his pureblood ancestors. He hit the steering wheel. FUCK! He’d felt so good this morning and now he felt unsettled. Maybe that had been Narcissa’s intention all along. To plant an insidious little seed. He swore long and fluently, setting an illegal pace and muttering a disillusionment charm so that he could get to Theo’s as quickly as possible without ending up in a muggle jail. 

~oOo~

Hermione sat at the desk in her bedroom, chin in hand, musing about the events of the previous day, or more accurately, mooning over that incredible kiss. That first moment when he’d pulled her to him had been like an explosion. She was breathless just thinking about it. And she was honest in what she’d told Ginny - it had never been like that for her before. 

What would it be like the next time she saw him…? A wicked grin spread over her face and she sighed decadently. But suddenly a sharp tapping interrupted her reverie. A sleek owl had appeared at her window, hovering imperiously. She let it in and untied a tightly wound scroll from its ankle, a feeling of déjà vu stealing over her as she recognized the quality of the thick parchment. Excitement spiked in her blood when she realised it was the long awaited response from Lucretia Black! Draco had worked quickly indeed. He must have owled his aunt last night. Her cheeks warmed with pleasure at the thought of his help. 

The response was formal and succinct, granting Hermione permission to cross the Black lands and treat with the centaur herd. But the boon was huge, effectively clearing the last roadblock to her project. Even though it was the weekend, Hermione excitedly owled a memo to her department head to inform her of the news. 

The woman wrote back not ten minutes later with congratulations and a command that Hermione immediately put her travel plans into motion. She expected her in France within the week for an indefinite stay. Hermione promptly began making an itinerary for the journey. Her first order of business was owling Percy and Penelope Weasley to let them know she’d be coming. She then set to making lists. 

By late afternoon she had gotten many things in order as well as a reply from Pen stating that the cottage was ready and waiting for her. She smiled at this, looking forward to seeing her friends. It was Sunday and she should be ready to leave by Wednesday. She anticipated the work ahead with a satisfied sigh. Then she tilted her head to the side. Should she tell Draco that she was leaving town? It seemed … rude … to disappear without word after the day they’d shared. But one kiss, no matter how earth-shattering, also seemed premature to be alerting him to her movements. And wouldn’t it seem a little over-eager to reach out to him so quickly?

She tapped her fingers thoughtfully. Could she possibly write him a thank you note for interceding with his aunt and mention that in light of the positive response she would be leaving directly? That seemed… non-weird. And it would leave the door open for seeing each other before she left. He had said ‘soon’. She gave a little sigh of disappointment that she would be leaving just as things were starting between them. Then, before she could second-guess herself she dashed off a missive and finished it with a bit that re-flamed her cheeks. She quickly summoned the house owl to deliver it and prepared to start packing. 

~oOo~

Draco was sitting in the library at Nott House, feeling much more collected than when he’d arrived. He and Theo had flown a bruising course around the pitch and fenced until they fell down. Now they were enjoying an old and peaty single malt as they talked. His earlier agitation hadn’t really allowed for meaningful conversation, but now he was catching Theo up on the general outline of what had been going on. 

Theo seemed particularly interested in the developments with Hermione, although he wasn’t dismissive of Narcissa’s reaction. Draco was reminded that his friend had profound experience with the unpleasant reality of defying familial expectations. And the fact remained that the interview with Narcissa had shaken Draco. He’d tried to get back some of the euphoria he’d felt earlier, but it just hadn’t come. 

He leaned back in his chair and sighed, then became aware of a tapping at the library window. A vaguely familiar owl was hovering outside. Theo opened the latch and it flew in, looking extremely tired, and landed next to Draco. 

“Poor little bloke looks like he’s been trying to find you all day,” crooned Theo. 

“Well I have literally been all over the countryside.” Draco untied the scroll from the tired owl’s foot and gave him a stroke. “Hope he didn’t try to follow me when I was driving!” 

Theo summoned a house elf and asked him to take the bird to the owlery for refreshment and rest. Draco unrolled the scroll and couldn’t stop a smile stealing over his face as he realised who it was from. He involuntarily stroked the paper with a finger as he read. Theo looked quizzically at him. Draco looked back, the smile still tugging at the corners of his mouth. 

“It’s from Hermione. She’s thanking me for interceding with my aunt. Lucretia’s given her full permission to cross the Black lands and she’s leaving for France in three days. She’ll be there for at least six weeks.” He didn’t tell Theo about the little personal comment the note had ended with, but it landed like a sweet arrow in his heart, leaching away some of the doubt planted there by his mother. 

His next thought was more bittersweet. She’d be gone for six weeks . Just as they had begun. He sighed. Maybe he could try to see her before she left, although he figured she’d be busy getting ready to go. 

“Six weeks. That’s a long time,” said Theo, seemingly reading his mind. 

“Yeah. Well maybe it’s for the best. I can get some perspective and see if this thing has legs.” 

Theo shook his head, “mmm if I were you, I’d be inventing an excuse to visit my aunt.” As the words left his lips, the floo suddenly leapt to life in the library fireplace and emitted a crying Daphne. 

“Daph, what’s wrong?” asked Theo, jumping up. Draco also sprang forward and supported the witch to a chair, his eyes wide with worry.

“It’s Astor,” she sniffed wiping her eyes with Theo’s proffered handkerchief. Draco kneeled next to her, terrified, grasping her hands.“We saw that fucking arsehole in Oxford Street. She wanted to go shopping and I thought muggle London would be safe. It was fine the other day. Plus there’s no way we’ll run into anyone in a huge crowd of muggles, right? Well there he was with his stupid, smirking face. And he had the nerve to try to talk to her. And I couldn’t hex him, because muggles. I got her out of there, but now she’s gone into that weird place where she won’t speak and just lays on the bed staring out the window. I don’t know what to do. I knew we shouldn’t have let her stay in London once we knew he was there. Anyway, I need to get back, but I wanted you to know as soon as possible, Draco.” 

Draco’s felt his face set into rigid lines throughout this recitation. “I’ll go with you,” he said tightly. “Right now. Theo can you have the elves send my things?” 

“Of course. I’ll actually follow with them myself. I’ll be at the flat in less than an hour.”

Draco nodded and he and Daphne moved toward the fireplace, his arm around her slumped shoulders. “It will be ok, Daph. We’ll get her through it. I’ll do anything.Take her away. She’s been on at me about New York. We can be there in 6 hours on a muggle jet.” 

Daphne let out a little sob. “Thank you. You know I can’t do this without you.” 

“You’ll never have to. Now let’s go help her get better.” He grasped her hand and they disappeared into the floo. 

~oOo~

Twelve hours later Draco sat with Daphne and Astoria in a chartered jet on the runway at London City. The idea of New York had been the only thing that would revive the young witch and so he’d put it into motion immediately. Maybe running away wasn’t the best thing to do, but he couldn’t stand to see her with that vacant stare. There had been weeks of it last winter and it had been bloody awful. They hadn’t known if she’d ever come back. He would do nearly anything to not let her go to that place again. 

He had felt a pang of regret that he wouldn’t see Hermione before she left, but he’d dashed off a quick note responding to hers and congratulating her on the progress of her project at long last. He’d told her something unexpected meant he’d be in New York indefinitely and closed with an endearment similar to hers. “But I look forward very much to when I can see you again, whenever that may be. xx. ~D” He stared out at the pinks and oranges of the sunrise as they took off over the sinuous Thames and hoped it would be enough. 

Chapter Text

PART II

“The distance is nothing when one has motive.”

Hermione stepped out of the floo into a gracious stone walled room with high raftered ceilings and mellow light filtering in through mullioned windows. She also stepped directly into the arms of Penelope Weasley, who shrieked, “Hermione!” and spun her around in a tight hug. 

“Pen! It’s so good to see you!” 

“Give her some breathing room,” chuckled a more restrained voice. Percy Weasley disentangled Hermione from his wife’s grasp and gave her a quick hug and peck on the cheek. “But it is lovely to see you here, finally,” he said, holding her at arm’s length. “You look well.” 

“I am well, thank you, and better now that I’m here!” After a Portkey from London to Paris, another from Paris to Avignon and then a floo journey to the Weasleys’ home outside of a tiny village, she was feeling a little green, but also excited. “Finally the months of planning come to the point!” she smiled. “I’m so happy to be here with you both and I can’t wait to get to work.”

“But first a cup of tea after the journey?” asked Percy. She acquiesced and he ushered her from the large, dim sitting room into the light-filled kitchen and put on the kettle. 

“Let me take your things,” said Pen, commandeering Hermione’s trunk. “You’re staying in the cottage and all is ready for you, so I’ll just have Aimee bring this out.” A sweet-faced house elf curtseyed to Hermione, and she curtseyed back, much to the elf’s amusement. 

“Where are the children?” she looked around, realizing it was strangely quiet. 

“Artie is at Quidditch practice and the twins are at a creche in the village. I’ll go get them in about an hour, so there’s a bit of time to relax before the whirlwind!” 

“Excellent. I’ve brought them little treats, I hope you don’t kind.” Hermione doted on all the Weasley offspring, considering them her honorary nieces and nephews.

“Of course not! You’ll be their favorite auntie!” Pen said. “Oh it’s just good to have you here,” She reached out and grabbed Hermione’s hands, her clear green eyes slightly teary. Hermione smiled, a little teary too. It had been Christmas since she’d seen Pen and Percy - and Christmases at the Burrow were so chaotic they’d barely had time to chat. 

She had gotten rather close with Penelope when she’d started in Magical Creatures and Pen, a few years senior in the department, had been assigned to train and mentor her. They’d become fast friends, which had allowed Hermione to become closer to Percy too. He had mellowed considerably in the years since school. His disillusionment with the ministry after the war had dampened his ambitions for a career there and he had trained to become a teacher instead. 

The couple had moved to France two years prior because magical teaching for children started much earlier there and Percy’s particular interest was in early childhood magical development. He was now deputy headmaster for a prestigious regional day school. Pen, always more interested in the practical rather than policy side of her work, had turned their 18th century farmhouse and grounds into a hospital and rehabilitation center for large magical creatures. Hermione had glimpsed a hippogriff with a bandaged wing in the paddock out the sitting room window when she’d arrived. 

“So tell us all about your project plan,” said Percy, and Hermione launched into a description of what she hoped to accomplish. Pen’s background meant she was already knowledgeable about the bill of rights program and Percy’s incisive questions deepened the discussion. As always, she found herself appreciating how intellectually curious and well-informed they were -  which inadvertently made her think of Draco. 

A little pang shot through her. She had been disappointed to learn that he’d had to leave London before they could see each other again, although his note had been sweet. She really had no idea how long she’d be abroad or when they would see each other next. And would they be able to recapture the spark between them when they did? 

It was so new - and time, distance (and beautiful women in the newspaper) could do fatal damage. She sighed inwardly, but resolved to put it out of her mind. She was here to do work she was passionate about and for which she had been preparing for years. She wasn’t going to let a relatively brief flirtation, no matter how intoxicating, dampen her excitement over that.

Penelope suddenly jumped up, remembering the children, and rushed out to the village to collect them. Percy showed Hermione to the cottage so that she could unpack and settle in. 

“Percy, it’s beautiful!” she said as they approached the structure. It was a small building set at a distance from the main house with its own low wall and gate. Made of stone and built into the side of a small green hillock, it had dormer windows that peeped from the front facade and climbing roses that ran up over the doorway. 

“Glad you like it,” Percy’s light blue eyes crinkled as he opened the thick wooden door and folded his lanky frame to duck inside. Hermione exclaimed again over the interior, which was also charming and consisted of a sitting room/kitchen, small bedroom and ensuite. The kitchen was dominated by a huge wooden table that she could immediately see would be her research command centre. 

“I love it. Thank you so much for having me. It means more than I can say.”  

Percy cocked his head, “I think I hear the sound of the coming onslaught. Are you ready?” 

Hermione laughed and nodded. They stepped out of the cottage into a riot of children, seven year old Arthur competing with 4 year old twins Lucy and Giles for Hermione’s undivided attention. Hermione handed out treats and heard the day’s news (all at once) from the little ones, while Pen shepherded them to a large outdoor table laid for an informal dinner. After eating, the adults sat in the warm evening, chatting and watching the children run around in the twilight. 

“So what finally put the project in motion?” asked Percy. “There seemed to be a block for ages and then suddenly you were coming in two days.”

Hermione took a quick drink of wine. “Well as you may know, the herd ranges over a good-sized chunk of private land divided between several owners. Since this whole region is magical, I knew that many of the tracts would be warded, so I had to get in touch with the land owners to request access. All of them were very responsive and gracious, except for one - who happened to own the largest bit.” 

Percy and Penelope looked at each other with identical smirks. “Lucretia Black?” asked Pen. 

“The very one. She never responded to my letters - and I wrote several .”

“I’m totally unsurprised.” said Pen with a grin. “She’s an eccentric. When we first came to the area we heard all kinds of stories about her. Most of them turned out to be true. But we’ve actually become rather friendly with her. She’s a laugh.”  

“Yes,” said Percy, “she’s one of these old pureblood witches who are so rich and connected that they can do whatever they want. And she does. Including hobnobbing with muggles and declaring the British Ministry an amoral and defunct entity, which I rather enjoy.” 

“That’s what I was told! She doesn’t recognize the Ministry or open letters from people she doesn’t already know.” Hermione laughed. 

“So what on earth did you do to get through?” said Pen. “You could have asked us, but I’m not sure how much pull we would have had.” 

“An, er, friend, interceded.” Hermione played with the stem of her wine glass. Pen and Percy looked at her questioningly. “Em, Draco Malfoy in fact. You remember him from school? He’s her nephew and he wrote to her for me on Saturday. She granted permission on Sunday.”

Pen’s eyes had grown wider during this recitation, the end of which Hermione buried in her wine glass. 

“Malfoy!? Do I remember…wha?” sputtered Percy. “You’re friends ? Friends to the extent that he wrote to Madame Black for you? How did that happen!?” 

“I did see some photos of you in the Prophet with him a few weeks back, but I mentioned it to Gin and she said it was all a mix up and not what it seemed,” Pen said slowly, her eyes sharp on Hermione.

“Oh that!” said Hermione waving her hand at Penelope’s question and responding to Percy’s. “We met again through Harry’s investment scheme a few months ago. I’ve gotten quite close with Theo Nott too. And Daphne Greengrass. They’re actually all rather nice.” 

“But Malfoy? I have to say I’m surprised,” said Percy shaking his head.

“Well, he’s changed. A lot. It’s been so many years since the war,” said Hermione in a rush. “Believe me I had the same reaction at first. But he’s different. Even Harry gets along with him now.”

“The Meadows is a very important contribution too,” said Pen, still eyeing Hermione but turning to Percy, a slight warning in her gaze as he seemed about to break in and argue again. Percy subsided. “The person who built that has to have some redeeming qualities.” Hermione nodded eagerly.  

“I’ll just have to take your word for it,” Percy said. “But he’s still a Malfoy.” 

Hermione bristled inside but kept quiet. If she was going to pursue anything with Draco she’d have to get used to this. “Well there is no question that he helped me greatly. I can’t believe how quickly things happened once he sent his owl. And now here I am, ready and eager to go to work.” 

“On that note,” said Percy with a yawn. “We should probably round up the hellions and shove off to bed. We wake with cockerel here. Literally - he’s over in that yard and he’s very loud.” 

Hermione laughed. “That’s fine. I look forward to a good dose of early-to-bed, early-to-rise country life. I’ve been knocking around the city too long.” 

“Getting started first thing, then?” asked Penelope as she and Hermione floated the dishes into the house. Percy was rounding up squealing children and trundling them off to the bath. 

“Oh yes. First on my list is owling Lady Black to thank her and let her know I’ll be starting. And then I’m heading out into the woods.” 

“That is really rather lucky that you struck up a friendship with a person so close to her,” mused Pen. “She could have made it rather difficult for you. She’s one of those people where if you’re in, you’re sorted. But until she knows you, she can be very remote and inaccessible. We became acquainted because she needed help with an injured kneazle and I was able to provide care. And then she and Perce bonded over their mutual negative feelings regarding the Ministry. But if that hadn’t occurred we could have remained strangers for years. There are still many in this area who have never been invited to her house or even introduced.” 

“Well I’d very much like to meet her. She sounds interesting.” 

“She is.” Pen gave her a thoughtful stare. “And I have a feeling you will.”

~oOo~

Over the next few days, Hermione settled into an agreeable routine of rising early (Percy hadn’t been joking about the cockerel), spending mornings in the woods, afternoons researching and writing at her table/desk and quiet evenings with the Weasley family - well, as quiet as the evenings could be with three children under the age of seven. She was satisfied and had been making slow but steady progress with the herd. Her notes had grown copiously and she was hitting all the milestones on her self-created project timeline. If sometimes, ok, a few times a day she sank into little moments of thoughtfulness and then blushed and/or heaved a melancholy sigh, she didn’t share the reason why with anyone. On the whole, she was very satisfied with her work and her situation.

An exciting development came about a week and a half after she arrived in the form of an owl from Madame Black. It bore an invitation for the adult Weasleys and herself to dinner for Sunday evening. Hermione looked forward very much to meeting the person she had grown to regard as a larger-than-life character. 

Lucretia didn’t disappoint. 

Upon arrival at her manse, a fantastical confection of rounded towers and neo-gothic flourishes,  Percy, Pen and Hermione were shown into an elegant 19th century drawing room done in the Egyptian revival style, with restrained flourishes of gilt and trompe l’oeil gracing the walls and ceiling, which was at least 25 feet high and supported by graceful lotus pillars. The furniture and rugs looked museum-quality and there were priceless magical items interspersed with what appeared to be several original paintings by muggle masters. Hermione was trying unsuccessfully not to gawk like the middle class muggle-born she was, when she sensed a Presence gliding through an open archway to her right. 

“Darling Percy and Penelope, how lovely to see you!” sang out a carrying, but melodious voice. Lady Black swept into the room in a cloud of Pucci and matching feathered turban. Hermione’s immediate impression was of a grande dame out of Georgette Heyer by way of the French Riviera circa 1972. 

“And this must be Ms. Granger…” Hermione smiled at her hostess and Madame Black took her hands in a gracious gesture of welcome. Hermione noticed Penelope and Percy glance at each other in surprise. She was also surprised and touched by the show of warmth and her smile deepened as she looked into her hostess’s sparkling eyes - an unusual shade of blue-violet - and felt an instant kinship. 

“It’s very good to meet you, Madame Black. I’m so pleased to be able to thank you in person for granting me permission to access your lands.” 

“Of course, child. Anything for a friend of the family.” Lucretia smiled and Hermione felt her cheeks flush. “And I sense that in a very short while, we’ll be friends on our own terms as well.” 

“I would like that very much.” 

“And here is dear Alain,” Madame Black gestured to a tall and elegantly robed wizard who seemed to have materialized behind her. Hermione suspected he’d always been there, but just eclipsed by their hostess’s charisma. She said a polite hello and he stepped forward to bow over her hand. At closer quarters, she could see that he was very handsome and at least 20 years younger than Lucretia. 

At that moment a few other guests were ushered into the room and Hermione turned to Percy and Penelope as Lucretia moved off to welcome the newcomers. “Well done, you,” murmured Pen as she sipped an aperitif. Hermione raised her eyebrows in inquiry and accepted what looked like a Kir from a very prettily attired house elf. “She was just very familiar,” continued Penelope. “I think she likes you.” Percy nodded in agreement. 

“Well I like her,” said Hermione, taking a small sip of her drink. “She’s not at all what I expected. She’s rather free, isn’t she?” 

“Mmm-hmm,” said Pen. “She’s not at all a typical stuffy, rich, pureblood. She used to be a dancer. Maybe if we’re lucky she’ll pull out some old photographs of her days on the stage. She was in muggle productions and even films . The Blacks nearly disowned her over it. And her maternal family too. I think she didn’t speak to them for years, but she outlived them all, so she had the last laugh.” 

Hermione chuckled. Madame Black continued to intrigue. 

After a cordial half hour in the drawing room, the group was shown into an even more impressive space for dinner. Hermione didn’t think she’d ever sat at such a grand table. Candelabra floated lightly above its polished surface and a truly staggering number of dishes came and went in the hands of an army of house elves. There were a total of ten for dinner and Hermione sat next to Percy and one down from Lucretia, who was at the head of the table. Alain sat at the foot and Pen was next to him. The other guests were assorted members of the local magical community, although as Percy had told her on the way over, Mme Black wasn’t opposed to including muggles at her table as well. On those occasions, invitations to magical guests would include a note to refrain from any spellwork and the house elves would be replaced by human cooks and servers. Apparently Madame reveled in these breaks from magical tradition. 

Hermione found herself enjoying the older witch’s conversation throughout dinner. She learned that she had been married four times, divorced twice and widowed twice. She’d been at the center of what seemed like every glamorous social movement or cultural scene since the early twentieth century. Exactly how old is she , Hermione wondered. Her original estimate of 75 now seemed like it might have been off. Sometimes her muggle assumptions still made her forget the realities of the wizarding world. 

After dinner, the party proceeded to another sitting room, this one more richly decorated than the reception room, and easily twice as large. One wall was comprised entirely of double doors that were flung open to a stone terrace. The night was mild, and jasmine-perfumed air drifted in from vines that twined around the patio. Hermione wandered outside to inspect the beautiful view. Soft steps approached behind her and she turned to face Lucretia, who took a breath of the scented air. 

“Ahh, deep summer. My favorite time of year,” she sighed, looking up at the luminous moon. “I am a creature who craves warmth and light, which is why I left that cold, dark island you call home many years ago.” The twinkle in her eye undercut any sharpness in her words and Hermione laughed. 

“This is certainly seductive,” Hermione gestured to the scene; a formal French garden silvered by moonlight, the air warm enough to be comfortable without a wrap.

Lucretia whispered a soft “lumos,” and several large lanterns lit with flickering flames, adding to the romance of the setting. 

“I feel a bit like I’ve fallen back in time,” said Hermione dreamily. “If I turn around will there be people in regency dress dancing a quadrille?” 

Lucretia smiled. “There were certainly balls like that in this house. Maybe you can sense the ghosts. In fact, there used to be a party every summer at this time, just before the weather started to turn. One could count on the beau monde to be in the country because Paris in August is intolerable.”

“Oh I’m sure that was brilliant,” said Hermione, fascinated. 

“Masquerades, ridottos, house parties that lasted for weeks,” sighed the older witch. “Entertainment was an art form then. Perhaps I should revive the tradition and throw a ball myself. It’s been rather dull here of late.” 

“That would be fantastic,” said Hermione, taken with the idea. 

“What am I missing? You look cosy,” came Penelope’s playful voice from behind them. 

“Only my informal announcement of a ball in ten days time,” said Lucretia with a wave of her hand. 

“Capital!” said Pen. “Just the thing to break up the summer doldrums.” 

“And we’ll not just have foxtrots and waltzes,” said Lucretia. “There will be modern music as well. My Studio 54 days aren’t that far behind me.” Hermione and Penelope’s brows went to their hairlines as they gaped at the older witch.

“You’ll have to tell us more about that…” said Pen grabbing Lucretia’s arm and a glass of champagne while leading her to a seating area. 

“Yes, do tell… “ Hermione echoed as she picked up two more glasses and  followed in their wake, avid curiosity lighting her face.

~oOo~

Draco peered out at the incredible night skyline of Lower Manhattan and sighed. 

“What’s wrong?” asked Astoria, looking up from her book. 

Draco started, not realizing he had put sound to his feelings. He turned to his ward with a half smile. “Nothing, really. Just contemplating the view.”

She put her book down. “Mmm, I don’t think so. You haven’t been yourself lately. You passed up Double Indemnity at the midnight cinema and barely got excited when I showed you that first edition of On The Road I found at the bookshop. You weren’t even moved by the pastrami sandwich at Katz’s.” 

Draco’s lip lifted with distaste - that sandwich had been obscene. 

“You were so light those last few days in London. Since we arrived here you’ve been a bit flat.” 

He grimaced ruefully at her words. “It’s work and the time difference. I think I’m just tired.” She continued to look at him skeptically and Draco cursed her perceptiveness. He’d been trying very hard to conceal the exact thing she’d picked up. He did feel a little deflated since they’d left London, but he wanted Astoria to enjoy her time in New York. He had been looking forward to showing her this city for years. And normally he loved New York himself, but this visit he’d found it hot and crowded and smelling pervasively of rubbish. He didn’t want to think too closely about why. 

He ran his hand through his hair distractedly. “The important question is, have you had a good time?” he asked, trying to shift the conversation. 

“Oh yes, it’s been marvelous. There’s no place like this in the world!” Astor’s eyes glowed. Then she put her chin in her hand and stared into the middle distance, “but I think I’m also a bit … tired.” 

Draco’s gaze sharpened and he started to ask if she was all right, but she interrupted him. “I’m fine. Truly. The incident in London? Forgotten. This trip has been a wonderful distraction from … all that. The whole summer has been. I can’t thank you and Daph enough for putting up with me.” Her eyes swept over the floor at her feet.

He walked over to her, crouched down in front of her and lifted her chin with a finger so she was looking at him. “You don’t have to thank me for taking care of you. I always will. Happily.” Her eyes were bright with unshed tears as she placed her hand over his and nodded. 

“So if you’re tired of New York, what would you like to do next?” he asked. “There are what - six weeks - left until term starts? We could go back to England and stay with Theo in the country. Go elsewhere in America? Somewhere tropical?” 

Astoria’s eyes had dried and she looked rather sly for a moment. “Well, what I was actually thinking is that I’d like to go somewhere relaxing - where I can rest and prepare for starting school.” She was watching Draco very closely and he returned her look, puzzled, trying to think of the best place to do those things. Then the penny dropped. 

“You want to go to France.”  

“YES. It would be so perfect, Draco. We can laze around the estate and do nothing and I can perfect my French so I don’t embarrass myself at school.” She looked eagerly at him and the impish expression crossed her face again. She also batted her eyelids a little too quickly. 

“Did Daphne mention something to you?” he asked, narrowing his eyes at her and vowing to have a little chat with Daph when she got home. Astoria’s French was already perfect and just the day before yesterday she’d been making noises about visiting New Orleans before they left America. 

“Perhaps,” she said demurely, twiddling a loose thread on her shirt. He stared at her silently. “Oh Draco!” she burst out, “I want to meet her! I always have done, but now ??? And Daph told me she’s there to work with the herd. You know how much I love them. It’s a perfect storm of opportunity!” Her eyes were really wide now and her speech had sped up to near lightning speed the more excited she became. 

He put up his hands, unable to prevent a smile from tugging at his lips, “I surrender. We’ll go to France.” 

She squealed with delight, “let’s leave tomorrow!!” 

“Under one condition,” he continued, setting his face in stern lines. She quieted and straightened up, looking at him like the most obedient young woman in the world. “You do not interfere in my personal life. No hinting. No contrived meetings or happenings. No meaningful glances. No matchmaking at all. Nothing.” She nodded slowly, her eyes as wide as saucers. “Theo is enough to cope with. And now, apparently, your sister.” He had begun pacing. 

“I swear to keep my nose clean, boss” she said in a terrible attempt at an American accent, holding up her palm and staring at him solemnly. 

He stopped pacing and looked at her. Her pose was so silly that he broke into a real smile. “Fine, you minx!” 

“See you’re light again!” He gave her a warning look. “But I promise, I do promise to be good.” She leapt up and gave him a hug. “So we leave for France tomorrow?” 

“Tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

“She had dressed with unusual care and prepared in the highest spirits…”

Hermione sipped her tea and stared at Lucretia in amazement, shaking her head, “So you actually sat for Andy Warhol and he painted you, but you altered his memory so he wouldn’t recall??” 

“The painting is in my dressing room if you’d like to see. It was unfortunate that I had to charm his memories; I did so enjoy his outlook and he was a most interesting gossip. But there was an accidental magic incident that simply couldn’t be explained away… I was in a dreadful spot of trouble with that ministry of yours for a bit,” the older witch said, waving her hand in the air vaguely. Hermione laughed.

The two witches were tête-à-tête in a small jewel-like apartment tucked in one of the corners of the manse, partaking of afternoon tea. Hermione was on her second scone with clotted cream and thoroughly engrossed in her hostess’s fascinating past. 

“Are your preparations for the ball complete?” she asked, sipping from a delicate porcelain cup. 

“Nearly so, and most of the invitation responses have come back acceptances. I expect over two hundred.” 

Hermione’s eyes widened. The party was shaping up to be a grand event. Pen had told her that the local gossip was that no one in the area could remember the last time a ball had been held at the Black chateau, so those lucky enough to receive invitations had accepted with alacrity. 

“I keep meaning to ask you what you are planning to wear, my dear,” said Lucretia. 

Hermione felt a pained look cross her face. The truth was she had no idea, and the problem had been nagging at her for days. She loved clothing, but her style was on the casual side. She had a few tailored gowns and a set of neat dress robes she trotted out for ministry events, but none of that seemed appropriate for a grand ball at a french manor house. She had a vague plan to go shopping in Aix, but didn’t have much hope that she’d find the perfect thing. 

“I have no idea,” she blurted, spilling her tale of sartorial woe. 

Lucretia’s eyes narrowed. “Stand up dear.” Hermione was puzzled, but she stood while Lucretia eyes ran up and down her frame. “Hmm, yes. You’re near the same size I was when I was your age. Perhaps a bit taller, but that’s not a problem...” She stood abruptly. “Come with me. Let’s show you the Warhol.” She swept from the room and Hermione had little choice but to trot after her. 

They went down several hallways and then came to a grand boudoir comprised of several rooms. Passing through a few of these, they made their way to an inner sanctum holding racks and storage shelves with countless garments, shoes, hats and accessories neatly organized. And in pride of place on one wall, a colorful Icon painting of a much younger Lucretia. Hermione felt like she’d stumbled into a storage room at the Victoria & Albert. 

“My collection,” said Lucretia. “It represents the best of a lifetime of couture.”

Hermione took in the display with amazement, compulsively starting forward to examine the clothes. To even a casual student of fashion such as herself, this was a rare treat. In just a quick skim of the racks she saw what looked to be decadent turn of the century ball gowns, the tweed of a 1920s Chanel suit, the nipped waist of a Dior new look frock, batty looking mod dresses. And was that a YSL Le Smoking? She sighed as she brushed the sleeve of the iconic suit.

Lucretia looked gratified at Hermione’s reaction. “Let’s see if we can find you something to wear on Saturday,” she said. “I think a bias cut from the 1930s or a slim line from the '40s would suit you best.”

“You can’t mean to lend something to me,” Hermione gasped, whipping her head around to look at Lucretia.

“Of course I do. And don’t be tiresome and try to refuse.” 

Hermione shook her head quickly. She would not be refusing.

“Good. Much better to take these things out and give them an airing rather than have them secreted away in here. I tell my niece Astoria the same thing when she comes to visit. She looks marvelous in my avante-garde things from the early '60s. Gamine, you know.”

Hermione was reminded of Pansy Parkinson saying the same thing in the library at Nott House what seemed like eons ago and wondered if she’d ever meet this girl in person. It also occurred to her that Pansy would probably give her left arm to be in Hermione’s place right now. As usual when her thoughts turned in that direction, her mind naturally progressed to Draco - and her heart gave a little flutter of melancholy. She wondered where he was and what he was doing.

However, her woolgathering abruptly ceased the moment Lucretia pulled out an elegant dress in sumptuous green silk with intricate beading at the hem. “Schiaparelli,” the older witch sighed. “I wore it to a dance on a boat. A very large boat. The hem is heavy, but it pulls down to create a beautiful, very daring line along the bust. Try it on.”

Hermione stepped behind a screen in the corner, stripped to her knickers and slipped the cool green column very carefully over her body. It felt like soft, slithering heaven and the short train pooled around her ankles elegantly. She’d definitely need very high heels with it. She went up on tip toe and minced out from behind the screen.

Lucretia clapped her hands, “Lovely! Absolutely lovely. I was right - your figure is made for the bias cut.”

Hermione stepped up on a small dais and twisted this way and that, looking at herself in an ornate three way mirror. The dress was perfect, but Lucretia had pulled another few gowns out as well. One was pink, feathered and totally whimsical; another was a soft yellow chiffon with a gored skirt, and still another - a very risque cut in a deep wine red gauze. Hermione tried them all, enjoying herself hugely, but was thinking she should probably just go with the green silk, when her eye was caught by a flash of silver. She gingerly pulled out the edge of what looked like a flowing sheet of mercury; warm and metallic at the same time.

“The Vionnet!” Lucretia walked over and pulled it off the rack. “Of course. That is the perfect dress for you. The drape, the cut. And one must have slim hips and a petite bust to carry it off because one simply can’t wear anything under it.” She winked at Hermione. “Put it on!”

Hermione obliged. The style was simple, a draped column, and although the tailoring was magnificent, it was the fabric that elevated the dress to sublime. It moved like liquid silver and clung to every curve of her body. The cut was also very sexy, with a deep, slightly draped vee between the breasts and a back so low that it was almost non-existent. 

“Stunning,” pronounced Lucretia, circling Hermione and scrutinizing her from every angle. “Vionnet was a squib, you know. And not one of those squibs who have no magic whatsoever. She had something . And she wove it into every dress she created. And since she created this piece for me , she put in even more than usual.” 

“It is absolutely magic, for lack of a better word,” said Hermione, looking down and smoothing the skirt. 

“I wore that dress the night I met my second, and favourite, husband,” mused Lucretia. “It will do me good to see it circulate again.” She clapped her hands twice, “then we are decided!” 

“Mignon!” she called to a house elf who was hovering in the corner. “Take the Vionnet to be freshened. We’ll bring it to Ms. Hermione the day of the party.” She turned to Hermione, “And Mignon will come with the dress to help with your hair and makeup, which must be apropos.”

Hermione inclined her head to the tiny elf, “I should be glad of your help.” The elf went bright red and bobbed several curtsies. Hermione went back behind the screen and changed out of the gown, now looking forward to the party without reservation. 

~oOo~

Draco assisted Astoria out of the floo into the vast, cool chamber of the Black manse’s entryway. They stood for a second, getting their bearings and Draco realised they were alone -  his aunt wasn’t there to welcome them. That was strange - he’d owled a few days ago from Paris and she usually made a point to greet them, especially if she knew Astor was coming. 

At that moment a harried looking house elf came puffing into the room, apologizing for her tardiness. She would show Monsieur et Mademoiselle to their rooms directly and then bring them refreshment on the instant! She finished her outburst with more apologies, and began hustling them out of the room, still muttering to herself.  

Draco assured her that it was fine as Astoria stopped the elf and bent down to her level.

“Please don’t fret, Mimi! We know our way to our rooms and to the kitchen,” she smiled. “What are you so busy with and how may we help? And where is Auntie Cree?” 

“Oh mam'selle! We is at sixes and sevens!,” the elf squeaked. “The guests is arriving at seven and the decor in the second ballroom is still not done. The fairy cakes is not floating and the champagne fountain is spraying too high. Madame had to go to her room with a cool cloth or she is having the headache for the party! She said to tell you hello and your clothes for tonight is in your rooms.”

“What party?” asked Draco, his brow lowered. He’d hoped for a quiet evening and early appointment with his bed after a whirlwind departure from New York and frenetic last few days in Paris. 

“We is putting on a ball tonight, Monsieur! Two hundred peoples!” 

Draco sighed and Astoria clapped, “Delightful!” Mimi rolled her eyes expressively and wrung her hands.

“Off with you then, Mimi,” Draco said, not unkindly. “It sounds like you have enough to do without seeing to us. Besides we’ll have just enough time for a quick rest and not much else before this whole thing starts.” He shooed the elf away and kissed Astoria’s cheek before starting in the direction of his rooms. 

Astoria turned toward the opposite wing then suddenly blurted, “do you think she’ll come?” 

Draco stopped, turned and gave her a level stare. She clapped her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry! I spoke without thinking.” Her eyes were huge. “I just wonder if she’s met Auntie yet.”

“I have no idea and that’s the last I want to hear about it.” She nodded, chagrined and hustled out of the room. Draco shook his head and began climbing the stairs. If he was being truthful, that was the first thought that had entered his mind upon hearing there was a party tonight as well. Would she be here? It had been weeks since their last meeting and they hadn’t communicated after those last notes in England. But it was entirely possible she’d made his aunt’s acquaintance in that time.

He stepped into the familiar comfort of his rooms, noting a very smart dinner suit with an ivory jacket hung on the front door of his wardrobe. So Lucretia wanted him in mugglewear tonight? He smiled faintly and unbuttoned his shirt, determined to do nothing else until he washed the dirt of the city and floo travel off his person.

A bit later, feeling somewhat refreshed, he reclined on the balcony in his dressing gown, smoking a cigarette and drowsing in the warm rays of the late afternoon sun. Inevitably it seemed, his thoughts ran to her. After the last encounter with his mother, the pressure from his friends and the intervening weeks away, he admitted was feeling a bit … imbalanced. Had the attraction been real or just the hunter in him reacting to a challenge? He’d certainly felt euphoric after that day in the park. And the memory of it still stirred him. But he ran cool and cautious by nature.

He tipped back his head and frowned, blowing out a long plume of smoke. What would he do if she knocked on his door right now? The memory of her taste ran across his senses and he shifted, his features softening. Then he suddenly straightened and ran his hand through his damp hair, reserve replacing the whimsy in his face. He was being ridiculous. There was no guarantee she’d even be present tonight. His aunt could be reclusive and high in the instep - it was possible she hadn’t reached out.

He went to the wardrobe and began donning the elegant suit, trying to remember the spell for tying a muggle bow tie properly. As he worked, his expression settled into its typical aloof lines and by the time he was fully dressed, his sangfroid was properly in place. He squared his shoulders in the mirror and shot his cuffs, then brushed a speck from the cream colored lapel of his jacket. He was ready as he’d ever be to do social battle with two hundred of his aunt’s closest friends. And if he saw Hermione and wasn’t moved, then he’d have his answer. It had certainly happened before with other witches. He knew his fancy could be fickle. And if that was the case, he’d simply be back where he started, which he told himself wouldn’t be entirely bad.

Chapter Text

“Till this moment I never knew myself.”

Hermione arrived at the manse with a trickle of excitement in her belly. She was looking forward to the night’s entertainment and to meeting Lucretia’s influential circle. It also didn’t hurt that she knew she looked very well. 

True to her word, Mignon the house elf had arrived earlier that afternoon with both the silver dress and her expertise with hair and makeup. As a result, Hermione was the epitome of a 1930s femme fatale, with dramatic pin waves, smoky eyes and deep red lips. Even Ginny couldn’t have achieved such a stunning result. Mignon had also carried out Madame’s orders to ensure she not wear a stitch under the Vionnet. Difficult because although Hermione was happy to go without a bra, she had still insisted on knickers until the elf forcibly turned her around and pointed out the ugly line they left across her waist and hip. She’d reluctantly removed them, feeling like a wanton, although she was actually quite comfortable now. She chuckled at her earlier prudishness as she skipped up the steps to the manor, Pen and Percy at her heels. Penelope was gorgeous herself in a full skirted 1950s-style ball gown and Percy tall and distinguished in his formal robes. 

They entered the main hall to see that the ball was already in full swing. Lucretia wafted over and welcomed them, kissing her fingers to Hermione’s ensemble. Chatting with them for only a few minutes, she was soon off to greet other guests, but her eyes held Hermione’s for a moment with a mischievous gleam that made the younger witch wonder what could be behind such a look. She soon forgot it in the whirl of meeting new people and actual dancing, which had already started. 

Pen and Percy were magic on the dance floor and the general level of skill made Hermione glad she’d buckled down and taken wizarding dance classes since school. When she wasn’t waltzing, she made a point to seek out a few of the landowners she’d corresponded with, but not met in person. And during a break in the action while she was fortifying herself with a glass of champagne, she was very happy to see Rémy DeLeon waving to her from across the room. 

“C’est magnifique!” he declared as she approached and kissed him on both cheeks. “What is this divine creation you are wearing? I am on my knees!” 

Hermione did a slow pivot with a flourish and Rémy fanned himself exaggeratedly when he saw the nonexistent back of the dress. “It’s on loan from Madame Black,” she explained. “An original Vionnet from 1932.” 

“Couture, naturallement . It looks made for you,” he said with a smoldering look before asking her to dance. She smiled up into his handsome face and accepted the invitation. 

~oOo~

Draco had barely reached the reception rooms before an old crony of his father’s spotted him and pulled him aside to natter in his ear. Since his involvement with the Meadows and his open support of muggle equality, most of these types avoided him. However the occasional one still popped up to annoy him at social events - usually because they had unmarried daughters. This one proved to be no exception and, sure enough, within five minutes Draco was being presented to a pretty, but vapid girl with impeccable lineage. He asked her to dance mostly to get away from her father. His pained expression at her stilted conversation must have been a tad obvious because Astoria appeared just as the song ended and requested his help with an ‘urgent matter.’

“Thank you very much,” he said as he led her away. 

“You’re very welcome,” she murmured with a smile. “I actually killed two birds with one stone because you allowed me to make my excuses to the younger brother!” 

“They work fearfully efficiently,” he said with an arched brow. “Champagne?”

“Yes please!” she responded, taking the proffered flute. “Ohh I see Georgia Bernard over there! She’ll be at Beauxbatons in my year. I’m going to say hello!” 

Draco waved her off and watched her dash away, taking a deep draught of his drink and scanning the dance floor from behind a strategic pillar. There had to be someone here he wanted to talk to. Unfortunately the crowd so far seemed to skew on the side of old and boring… He was weighing his aunt’s displeasure against the enticing prospect of an early departure when the dancers parted and his eyes landed on an absolutely stunning dress hugging tightly to an even more magnificent figure. His eyes skimmed appreciatively down a long and elegant back, bare except for a delightfully draped bit of fabric resting just below a trim waist. An absolutely perfect arse and long legs. Dark, lustrous hair caught up in gentle waves above a slender neck and graceful shoulders. His hand tightened on his flute and his breath drew in sharply as recognition dawned. He watched with a sense of inevitability as she turned sideways to reveal her profile and his heart stuttered in his chest. 

So much for not being moved. 

Without even realizing it, he had started walking toward her.   

~oOo~

Hermione wiggled her fingers to Rémy, who was off after some girl he was trying to sleep with. He’d been very candid with her about it since they both seemed to understand the same fate was not in store for the two of them - despite his florid and blatant invitations. She mentally wished him good luck and headed in the direction of an absinthe bar she’d spotted earlier in a small parlor off the library. She’d been talking with Lucretia about the notorious spirit a few days ago and was eager to sample some of the available selection. Reaching the bar and perusing the bottles, she entered into a lively discussion of the merits of each type with the bartender, a goblin who turned out to be very knowledgeable on the subject. Finally making a choice, she settled in to watch the theater of the pouring of the spirit. 

“Why do they prop that funny little spoon on the glass?” said a deep voice from behind her. 

Intent on the ritual she answered distractedly as she twisted to look at the speaker, “he’s going to place a sugar cube in it and then pour ice water o…” the words died on her lips as her mouth dropped open and she stared in utter surprise. 

Her heart thumped and she felt heat creep up her entire body. Her brain slowed terribly, but she was able to register that it was him and that he’d never looked better. His fair hair was swept back and his eyes glinted silver with humour … and something more. He never broke eye contact, but swept her hand up to his lips and grazed a light, lingering kiss against her knuckles. 

“You’re breathtaking,” he said sincerely, his eyes making a slow trip down to her toes and back up. She felt the trail of his gaze like liquid heat burning down her skin. 

“Thank you,” she breathed, not having quite found her voice. The goblin cleared his throat and she started, then turned to pick up her drink. Draco ordered another of the same, stepping closer to her to lean toward the bar. She could feel the warmth of his body along her back. 

She wanted to step backward and into him, but realised that would probably be inappropriate. So instead she turned again and regarded him over the rim of her glass as she took a tiny taste of the potent anise-flavored liquid. She licked her lips and was gratified to see his eyes darken. 

“When did you arrive?” she asked softly, realizing she now had a good idea what Lucretia’s look had been about earlier.

He took his drink from the bartender. “About three hours ago. I haven’t even seen my aunt yet. Had no idea that I was walking into a massive to-do.” He sounded a bit annoyed and Hermione realised he looked tired, with light purple shadows under his eyes. She again had to fight an inappropriate urge, this time to reach up and trace them with a gentle finger.  

“And do you always travel with muggle black tie at the ready?” she sallied, finally finding her conversational footing as her shock and surprise gave way to a distinct feeling of giddiness. She reached out and brushed the fine ivory fabric of his lapel. It was really sinful how good he looked in a tuxedo - and she was absurdly pleased that he had seen her looking her best too. 

He gave her a slow smile that transformed his face and Hermione inhaled a little sharply. That smile did things to her. 

“Auntie Cree left it out for me. I’m sure I don’t know why she chose muggle formalwear.” The smile deepened into something closer to a leer as he let his eyes slide down the length of her body again. 

She laughed and became very aware that she wasn’t wearing anything at all except for a thin layer of silk - and even that suddenly felt too warm. He took her empty glass out of her hand and placed it on the bar. 

“Want to dance?” 

“Yes,” she said quickly. He took her elbow and her heart contracted again.

“No foxtrots or quadrilles or whatever rubbish they’re doing in the main room. Let’s see what Cree’s got on in the lounge.” 

“Ok.” She smiled up at him and he stopped for a beat, just looking down at her before guiding her from the room. 

~oOo~

Draco wasn’t sure he’d got his wits back about him yet, but he was trying valiantly. Perhaps the dark of the lounge would help. God, but she was stunning. He hadn’t appreciated it fully until he’d gotten up close, seen her beautiful face and smelled the glorious scent emanating from her neck and hair. And that dress was so perfectly molded to her body - he would have staked the Jaguar on the fact that she wasn’t wearing a single thing under it. She couldn’t be. He’d actually seen her nipples tighten under the fabric when he’d leered at her. Fuck.   

They walked in silence, although she was leaning into his personal space in an enticing way. He caught Astor’s bright eyed stare from across the room as they passed by, but ignored it. He didn’t want to talk to anyone just now. 

They reached the darkened lounge and Draco realised where the younger crowd had been all night. Cree had done a neat trick and turned one of her reception parlors into an intimate little dance club with sofas and soft chairs, low lighting and vintage films flickering on one of the walls. A mirror ball hung from the ceiling and rotated slowly, sending out moody flashes of light. They arrived just as a slow and sexy tempo began blasting from the speakers. Draco pulled Hermione to the center of the dance floor and into his arms. They swayed slowly and he looked down into her upturned face, feeling her lithe body against him. 

How had he ever thought he would be indifferent? 

“You really are ravishing. I’m at a loss for the right words.” He frowned a bit and his eyes drifted to her lips. 

“You clean up very nicely yourself.” She smiled wickedly and tilted her head. “I can never decide if I like you better as an elegant wizard or devastatingly handsome muggle.” 

Draco felt his grin reappear, tugging at the corners of his mouth. This time her eyes went to his lips and her hand snaked up from his shoulder, where it had been resting, to the nape of his neck. She stroked him there lightly in time to the music and absentmindedly mouthed some of the words. It was a song he was unfamiliar with and he couldn’t quite tell what she was saying, but he didn’t care. The caress was almost unbearably provocative. His own hands were resting on the silk at her slim waist, but in response to her gesture, he moved his palm to sweep up her back then trail down her spine. Her skin was like satin. She sighed and he began wondering in earnest if it would be gauche to ask her to come to his rooms a bare five minutes after they’d first seen each other again. 

The song changed and she seemed to come back to herself, asking how he’d found New York and how long he would be staying in France. He told her about the restlessness and the rubbish and of Astoria’s plan to stay until term started. 

“Of course I’ll have to be in and out to Paris and England for work, but I should generally be residing here for the next month.” 

“That’s good news,” she said softly. 

“Is it? I’m sorry there wasn’t much opportunity to communicate the last few weeks.”

“Yes. Can’t you tell I’m rather glad you’re here?” 

“If we weren’t in a crowd with some of the wizarding world’s foremost gossips and likely a reporter or two or I’d be forced to answer that nonverbally.” 

“Mmm, more’s the pity.” 

“Is there a private terrace around here that we can escape to?” he asked craning his neck around in an exaggerated way that had her laughing softly. 

“I’m sure there are dozens,” she smiled, “but unfortunately your aunt is bearing down on us and will be here in 5, 4, 3, 2, …”

~oOo~

It would have been comical how his face fell if Hermione hadn’t been feeling the same. Despite her hospitality and generosity, Lucretia was the last person she wanted to see at this moment. In fact the only thing she wanted to do was find a secluded spot and see how fast she could get a muggle bowtie off. When he smiled at her like that, she just…

“My darlings,” called Lucretia as she reached them. “How well you look together. I knew the cream would set off the silver.”

She lifted her cheek for Draco to kiss and he did, his expression carefully neutral. “Hello, Auntie. Your party looks to be a smashing success.” 

Hermione added her congratulations, realizing with a start that she was still holding Draco’s hand. Lucretia seemed to notice too and her brows lifted. Hermione quickly let go and felt him step a tiny bit away from her, pulling his reserve around him. It was probably for the best - as he said, the whole house was full of wagging tongues. Rita fucking Skeeter probably had at least one spy circulating. 

Just then the music jumped in tempo and noise level and Lucretia motioned to them to move on with her. 

“Astoria would like to meet Hermione,” she said once they were in a quieter spot. “And, my dear, there are a few French government ministers that you should speak with as well. They will smooth your path when you start to introduce the international version of your legislation.” The older witch’s tone was brisk and Hermione took it as a very slight rebuke of their public display. She noticed Draco look at his aunt thoughtfully. 

“So I take it the two of you are well-acquainted,” he remarked as they moved into the main reception rooms. 

“Yes, yes. I have enjoyed Hermione’s company frequently the last several weeks,” said Lucretia with a warm smile at the younger witch. Hermione nodded affectionately at her in return. “In fact, that is my Vionnet she is wearing,” Lucretia continued with a half smile at Draco. 

“My compliments,” he inclined his head, his lips quirking in a rakish smirk. Hermione shot him a look. He raised his eyebrows and looked her up and down again as if to say, “ what? ” She stifled a snort of laughter and looked away, noticing a very beautiful young girl hurrying toward them.

“Draco! Auntie! This party is incroyable ,” she exclaimed as she approached. “Oh, Ms. Granger! I’ve been so longing to meet you! You look amazing in that dress … and the makeup and hair. L'ensemble est tout simplement parfait ! Astoria Greengrass, how do you do?” She bobbed an elegant little curtsy and peeped up with bright eyes. Hermione was instantly charmed by her artless manner. 

“It’s lovely to meet you too. And please call me Hermione. I’ve heard so much about you from - well, everyone! Draco, your sister, your aunt, your friends - I feel like I know you already.” She held out her hand and Astoria shook it firmly, cementing Hermione’s regard. “Your dress is fantastic - like a modern Audrey Hepburn!”

Astoria burbled her thanks, explaining that the dress was her aunt’s. The two witches then embarked on an animated conversation about Lucretia’s collection and the treasures therein. Astoria also had several questions about Hermione’s work with the herd. Lucretia took the opening to draw Draco away, explaining that a prominent wizard psychiatrist he’d been wanting to meet was in the crowd somewhere. Draco let himself be led, but not before throwing a significant look over his shoulder to Hermione. She held his eyes and smiled, a wordless confirmation that they would find each other later.  

Hermione continued to chat with Astoria and then was introduced to the ministers Lucretia had mentioned. She conversed with them intelligently, but her mind wandered. It was clear now that she’d been practicing a good deal of self-deception over the last few weeks, thinking she could set aside her feelings for him. Work had been satisfying and a great distraction, but her reaction tonight was telling. For example, she knew it was important she talk to these people and win them over to her cause, but all she wanted to do was make an excuse and dash off to find him, preferably somewhere private. Lucretia had been right to remind them of their position. Desire was making her indiscreet, but it would be awful to be whispered about or splashed all over the papers at this early stage. 

And she did need to focus. She redoubled her efforts to inform and charm her audience, letting one of the ministers pull her into conversation with a few other influential wizards from various branches of the French ministry. Hermione was soon engrossed, although she couldn’t help looking for glimpses of white blonde hair and ivory-clad shoulders through the crowd. At one point she saw him laughing with a very beautiful older witch and felt a distinct stab of jealousy. But at another she glanced up to find him talking to someone, but looking at her. And when her eyes met his, he winked. 

Eventually she lost track of him. The night was winding down and she felt very hot and a little drunk. She desperately needed to get out of the stuffy ballroom and remove her shoes. 

Scanning the crowd and seeing no familiar faces, she made her way to the room with the absinthe bar, recalling that it had a little balcony she hoped would be free of other people and the cigar smoke that was wafting in from the main terrace. The goblin bartender was still there, so she requested another glass and took it with her through the double doors. Mercifully, the terrace was empty and she sank down on a small bench, slipping out of her shoes with a sigh. Then she stood up and stretched over the rail, enjoying the feel of cool stone against the soles of her feet and warm breeze against her bare back. The now-familiar scent of night jasmine perfumed the air and she breathed deeply. 

She sipped her drink and looked up at the stars until the sound of the door opening disturbed her reverie. She kept her gaze averted, hoping whoever it was would keep to themselves or leave. But when she heard no other noise, she looked over her shoulder to see Draco lounging against the wall, jacket and tie gone, arms crossed, looking at her from under hooded lids. 

“What are you doing there?” she teased, turning fully around and resting her forearms and back on the balustrade. God, he looked absolutely lethal. She took a slow drink, keeping her eyes on his.

“Enjoying the view.” 

“Your aunt’s gardens are very beautiful at night.”

He pushed back from the wall and started toward her. “That’s not what I meant.”

She put her glass down.

He stopped just shy of touching her and placed his hands on the railing at either side of her waist. This close she could see the dangerous glitter in his eyes and smell whisky on his breath. Her pulse sped up. Men who’d drunk a little too much whisky were such a turn on. 

She met his intense stare with a challenge in her eyes. It didn’t hurt that the absinthe was racing through her blood, making her feel a little reckless. 

“Do you like what you see?”

“Yes.”

She was about to say something else provocative when he suddenly pressed forward and bent her back against the rail, his mouth on hers with hard insistence. She met him with similar force, devouring him with open lips. One of his hands left the stone and swept up her back, pulling her against him, while the other slid up her front to cup her breast. He pushed roughly between her lips and their tongues clashed. Then the world fell away for several minutes, or hours - she didn’t know. And she didn’t care. All she did know was that it felt good and she wanted more. 

Next time she came up for air, she had pushed him down on the bench and was straddling him, her dress pushed up to mid-thigh. He’d pulled her hair down and she had both hands buried in his as she tilted his head back and kissed him with everything she had. He was pushing her dress up even further, his hands wrapping around her arse and pulling her against him. 

Suddenly a loud burst of laughter from the main terrace broke through the haze of lust that permeated their little balcony. Hermione drew back and looked at him, stroking the sides of his face with her thumbs. He was so beautiful. She took a very deep breath and let out a shaky laugh. 

“God, you make me lose my mind. Where am I? What is my name?”

A slow grin spread over his face and he leaned forward to kiss her softly, teasing against her lips, “I don’t know if I caught your name.”

She drew back and smacked him playfully. He caught her hand and kissed her inner wrist. 

“What happened to your jacket? I liked it,” she pouted. Although he also looked unfairly gorgeous in shirt sleeves and mussed hair. 

“Must have left it in the card room. I was in there trying to escape this very persistent witch in a silver dress.”

“Prat.”

He laughed softly, trailing his hand up into her hair and cupping her face. “Do you know how beautiful you are?” 

“Mmm,” she leaned into his hand and closed her eyes, “tell me.”

He murmured something very sweet and silly into her ear and she huffed a soft laugh, leaning in to place kisses down his neck. 

He let his head tilt back against the rail and sighed with pleasure. “I want to ask you to come to my rooms,” 

“But?” she breathed against his skin. 

“It’s very late and …” She started nibbling on his ear. “I … I don’t remember what I was saying. Please come with me immediately.”  

“No, you’re right. It’s very late and I don’t think your aunt would quite like it.”  

He heaved a self-sacrificing sigh. “ That’s what I was going to say. How very proper and boring of us. But come on. I’ll walk you to the apparition point.” 

She pulled back regretfully and, still straddling him, twisted her hair into a messy knot. Hopefully not too many people were still in the house. She was sure her makeup was destroyed.

He ran his hands up the sides of her waist and watched her, his eyes dark with desire. Then he seemed to collect himself, “Lucretia has commanded a family dinner tomorrow and I have to go to London on Monday for a few days. But then I want to see you. As soon as possible.”

“Owl me when you’re back. Or come by that farm just down the road. That’s where I’m staying - with Percy and Penelope Weasley. They’ve given me a cottage on the property.” 

He nodded and she reluctantly climbed off his lap, then offered him her hand. He took it and stood, then led her off the balcony and through the largely empty house. It seemed the remainder of the party was on the terrace, where Lucretia was holding court. Instinctively, they skirted the area and looked for a side door. 

“I haven’t even asked how your work is going,” he glanced down at her, slightly abashed. 

“You were distracted,” she said with an arch look. 

He stopped and gazed down at her for a beat, then abruptly pulled her into an alcove for another urgent kiss. “Still am,” he breathed when they came up for air. He ran his hand down her back and over her arse. “I really do want to know what Cree was about, putting you in this dress and then scolding me for my lack of subtlety.” 

“Oh did you get a scold?” she slid her fingers into his hair. 

He closed his eyes and stretched into the caress like a cat. “I did. But it was worth it.”

She chuckled. “Well, you can ask me all about my work next time.” 

“Mmm, I will.” he released her reluctantly and straightened her bodice, lingering a little too long on the scrap of fabric covering her breasts. “Or maybe I’ll forget all over again.” 

Leaving the alcove, they eventually found their way out of the house. When they reached the apparition point, they were in view of the terrace, so he inclined his head formally and stepped away from her. 

“Tell me when you’re back,” she said softly, 

“I will. Wild horses and all that,” he smiled. 

She gave him a look and disappeared into the night.

Chapter Text

"The handsomest young lady that ever was seen; and so accomplished! She plays and sings all day long"

Hermione woke late the next day thanks to a muffling charm she'd cast to silence the song of the cockerel. She stretched and yawned in her warm bed as a grin spread over her face. It had been a very good night. She padded over to the kitchen and made a coffee to combat the slight headache threatening behind her eyes. Probably shouldn't have had that last absinthe...

Sipping the hot drink, she stared out the window blankly for a full five minutes, chuckling one moment and sighing the next. Then she realised she must look like look like a lunatic and wished Ginny were there for a nice, gossipy post-mortem. She felt sorry for herself for a moment before realizing that it was late on a Sunday morning and highly likely Ginny was lounging around the London flat doing absolutely nothing…

She raced over to the fireplace and threw in some floo powder, muttering "my flat." The green flames burst to life and she shoved her head in, feeling the tickling breezy sensation that the floo flames imparted. In a blink, she could see her living room back home and Ginny bundled up on the sofa, nursing a cup of tea and reading the Daily Prophet.

"Hermione!" Ginny shrieked. "You gave me a fright! Is everything ok?"

"Yes, everything is fine. I just wanted a chat."

"Uh huh, like I believe that for a second," said Ginny, narrowing her eyes and sitting up straighter. "You hate floo-calling and I just got an owl from you two days ago. What's happened?"

Hermione blushed and wondered if Ginny could see it through the green cast to her face. Apparently Ginny could because she shrieked again.

"You got some last night! Who with!? Not Malfoy, he's in New York!" Ginny had moved fully over to the fireplace now and was right in Hermione's face. "That fit French guy? Rémy?"

"Um, well. Malfoy's not exactly in New York anymore." Hermione couldn't help the grin tugging at the corner of her mouth.

"Arrgghhhhhh!" Ginny fell over backwards and punched the air in triumph. "Finally, finally you get some! And I win 50 galleons off Potter. Absolutely brilliant start to my Sunday!"

"Ok several things to unpack here," said Hermione. "First, I didn't 'get some' as you so charmingly put it. I had a very good time last night, but it stayed over the clothes for the most part. And secondly, you have a bet about me with Harry? You two are such TWATS!"

Ginny waved her hand, "Ok but it's only a matter of time right?"

Hermione's grin tugged at her mouth again, "welll, yarsssss. I think so." She was sure her face was red as a tomato.

"Tell me everything," Ginny replied, then jumped up. "Wait, wait. Let me get another cuppa and then I'll call you. I know you don't like the flames and that will keep Prude Potter from hearing all the juicy details. I won't be five minutes."

Hermione laughed and told her to go on. Once Ginny called back they had a long chat that made Hermione a little less moany about being a country away. Finally they signed off, with Ginny promising they'd split a nice bottle of Champagne with the 50 galleons once they were both in the same location and Hermione giving her a friendly two fingered salute in return.

She was still laughing and walking away from the fireplace, contemplating a bath, when she noticed a drab grey owl hovering near the kitchen window. She threw open the cottage door and the bird flew in, hooting softly. She untied a scroll from its foot and tossed it a few owl pellets before it swooped out the door. She smiled when she realised the scroll was from Theo. He was telling her he'd be in the area in a couple of days and hoped he'd see her.

"Lovely," she murmured, sitting down to write him back directly. Her quill scratched for a few moments, then she looked up and frowned, realizing this might put a bit of a damper on her plans with Draco. Or was she comfortable with people knowing about them? Draco might have told Theo something about what was going on. After all, they were best friends. But if Theo knew did that mean Daphne and Blaise? Or, Hermione shuddered; Pansy?

She sighed out loud, putting her chin in her hand. She hadn't really had a long think about the ramifications of a public relationship with Draco Malfoy. It had all been so sudden and spontaneous and she had really been enjoying not over-analysing things for a change. But she couldn't ignore that it would be … challenging. She sighed and stared out over the garden with unseeing eyes. Then she remembered one of the things he'd whispered in her ear the night before and the searing way he'd looked at her right before he'd kissed her. Her face changed and she flicked her head impatiently. Who cared what anyone else thought? She quickly finished her reply to Theo and affixed it to the grey owl's leg.

~oOo~

Draco tried to concentrate on the policy meeting he was chairing for The Meadows board of directors, but his mind was wandering freely, so he adjourned early and made his way directly to the Portkey in his office. A fast trip to Paris and then a sick-inducing floo journey to Lucretia's manor and he was back in Provence. He barely glanced in on his aunt and ward before he declared he was taking a walk. Ignoring Lucretia's raised brows and Astoria's pointed silence, he left the chateau and made his way directly to the grey stone farmhouse at the foot of his aunt's long driveway.

Whistling down the road between the two houses, Draco admired the mellow late afternoon light playing across the fields and the birdsong in the air. His long strides took him to the farm Hermione had referenced in short order and he soon stepped into the wide courtyard of a gracious grey stone house.

A blonde witch, presumably Penelope Weasley - he thought he remembered her a bit from school - was there, brushing the coat of a tawny hippogriff. Draco approached slowly and called out a low greeting. The witch spun around in surprise and the hippogriff danced in place a bit. Penelope spoke in soothing tones to the animal then stepped forward with her hand out to greet Draco.

"Hello, I'm Penelope Weasley. You must be Draco Malfoy." Her smile was open and her grip was strong and warm.

Draco felt himself smiling in return, which was rare for him upon first meeting someone. "Yes, Hello. Very nice to meet you. I know your husband, of course, and I've heard great things about the sanctuary you've built here." The hippogriff was still dancing on its lead, viewing Draco with obvious suspicion. "May I bow to her?" he asked.

"Yes, I think that would be best," Penelope smiled, speaking soothingly to the agitated beast. "Wilhelmina is young and sweet-tempered, but she was abused by her last trainer and she's wary of men as a result." Draco shook his head then stepped forward very slowly before making a deep bow, exposing all of his neck and shoulders to the animal. He'd learned a bit about hippogriffs since his run-in with Buckbeak at Hogwarts; a memory that could still make him cringe. Wilhelmina bowed her stately head to him and Penelope gave him the all clear to stand up. He did and held out his hand to the beautiful creature. She sniffed it delicately and then allowed him to scratch her cheek.

"She likes you," said Penelope, looking bemused. "She's bowed to Percy but she still won't let him touch her. She must prefer blondes," she smirked as Draco snorted softly. "So what brings you to the farm...?"

~oOo~

"After I told him you weren't home yet, I invited him to have a cup of tea with me. I was rather surprised when he agreed - he seemed so cool and reserved."

Penelope and Hermione were seated at the giant island in the farmhouse kitchen later that evening, sharing a bottle of rosé. Hermione had worked in the field with the herd until the last drop of light was wrung from the evening sky, not walking home until after 9pm. She'd approached the cottage door to find a note from Pen asking her to come up for a chat after the childrens' bedtime. So after a late dinner, Hermione had wandered over, curious as to why she was being summoned.

She'd been surprised (and exceedingly pleased) when Pen had handed her a small piece of thick card stock with Draco L. Malfoy embossed on it in elegant script. He'd come to see her - just as he said he would. And he had a calling card. He hadn't wasted any time, either. Her heart gave a queer little thump at that.

"That is surprising, but if he was going to warm to anyone it would be you," smiled Hermione. "What did you talk about?"

"Mostly the sanctuary. He was very interested in what I do and we compared notes. Rehabilitating animals and humans isn't all that different, you know. He also incorporates animals as therapy aids at his facility."

"Fascinating," Hermione tilted her head and a dreamy smile passed over her face.

Penelope's eyebrows lifted as she took a deep drink of wine. "So may I ask what's going on between you? His expression was unguarded for about a split second after I said you weren't here; longing and disappointment in equal measure I'd say."

Hermione looked away and laughed lightly. She was not used to doing this with someone other than Ginny. "I'm not sure there's much to tell yet." She fiddled with her wine glass stem, "I guess… I'm drawn to him and I hope he feels similarly?"

"Mmm I think we can safely say he does," smiled Pen. "And can I just say one more thing before I let you change the subject, as I can see you desperately want to do?"

Hermione laughed a real laugh and nodded.

Pen laid her hand over Hermione's on the table and leaned toward her. "He's just gorgeous, Hermione. Good on you."

~oOo~

The next day Hermione made certain to finish her field work early, so that she would have time to walk over to the manor and return Draco's visit. She'd promised to babysit for Pen and Percy that night, but she wanted to make sure she was prompt in her attentions. And she just wanted to see him.

She showered off in the cottage's generous bath and donned a pretty floral-patterned dress, anticipating his appreciative eyes on her as she stepped out of the cottage, then decided to walk up to the larger house.

When Hermione arrived at the chateau, Lucretia was nowhere to be found and the house elf told her Mr. Draco was also not in, but offered to show her to Ms. Astoria. For a split second, Hermione thought she might just go home and come back another day, but then remembered Astoria's bright eyes and lively conversation. She wanted to get to know Draco's ward and what better opportunity? Impatient with herself, she shook off her nervousness and told the house elf to lead the way to her young mistress.

They walked toward a part of the house Hermione had never been in - and as they moved further into the wing, she could hear a sort of dull roar emanating from the end of the hallway. The roar got louder as they came to a door and then burst out all around them when the house elf flicked it open. Hermione realised it was music, specifically what sounded like Joan Jett's Bad Reputation blasting at high volume. A black clad figure suddenly launched off a nearby sofa and careened over to the door.

"Hermione!" yelled Astoria over the wail of the guitar. Hermione, who loved the song, couldn't help nodding her head in time to the music as she shouted and waved her hello. Astoria's grin got huge and she shouted, "do you like this?" as she pointed up into the ether at the thumping music.

"Yes!" yelled Hermione, "Joan Jett is a LEGEND." Astoria nodded and put her hand up for a high five just as the song ended with an abrupt clang.

"I knew you were cool," she said at normal volume. Hermione laughed. "Draco and I were having a bit of a listening party last night," she continued, beckoning Hermione into the room. "I bought all these albums when we were in London." She pointed to a large stack of LPs leaning against the sofa.

"Nice!" said Hermione, making a beeline for the records and plopping down to flip through them. Jeff Buckley, The Cure, The Shins newest one, PJ Harvey, Al Green, Rumours and ha! Sticky Fingers. "You've got some great stuff here," she looked over her shoulder at Astoria, who smiled. Hermione took in the girl's petite figure and inky crop, wondering at the difference between this miniature punk and the elegant miss of a few nights before - not to mention the total contrast with her tall, cool sister.

"Thanks." Astoria looked shyly pleased.

"Does Draco like Joan Jett?" Hermione asked incredulously as the singer's voice wailed out another driving track. She was having trouble picturing him interacting with this.

"Mmm, he's more of a Chrissie Hynde guy," Astoria mused. Hermione smiled and nodded. "But he humours me. I can get him dancing to this if I feed him enough booze."

Hermione cackled, "I would dearly love to see that."

"Oh it's bloody brilliant. Hey, this one's almost over," said Astoria, "You want to pick another one and listen with me? I can get Mimi to bring us some refreshments." She wiggled her eyebrows and her shoulders, making Hermione wonder just what kind of refreshments she meant.

Hermione looked around "well, ah…"

"Oh he went out to the practice pitch. He just left so he'll be there for ages yet. Quidditch, ugh." The younger witch rolled her eyes. "Why don't you hang out with me until he gets back!?"

"Yes, please," Hermione replied, Astoria having completely dispelled any nervousness she'd felt.

Astoria clapped her hands. "Pick a record and I'll call Mimi!"

A bottle of champagne and several trays of macarons later, the two witches were lolling around on the floor and listening to Hermione's favourite (and the best) Rolling Stones album.

She couldn't remember the last time she'd enjoyed a teenager's company so much. Although Astoria did seem older than her years. Hermione wondered idly if the younger witch had ever met little Teddy Lupin, who was also a free spirit - and an orphan of the war. They'd get on famously - and weren't they some kind of cousins? She'd have to ask Draco…

And she had also discovered that Astoria had a long-standing relationship with the centaur herd. The younger witch offered to help with any roadblocks she might encounter and Hermione had gratefully accepted.

She shoved one of the last macarons on the plate whole into her mouth and sighed with contentment just as Dead Flowers came on. Astoria grabbed an acoustic guitar she'd been strumming on and off and Hermione swallowed her biscuit. The two witches then sang along enthusiastically, harmonizing on the chorus and imitating the singers' faux American twangs. Hermione conceded that the champagne may have gone to their heads a bit, but did not care.

This was how Draco found them. He lounged in the doorway, laughing softly, his eyes warm on the scene. Hermione noticed him first but didn't stop singing or leave her position on the floor with legs propped up on the cushions of the sofa. Astoria noticed him next and leapt up to tug him into the room and push him down at the piano. He gamely played the rest of the song and Hermione was impressed with his skill and the way he interacted with his young ward. They were so relaxed and playful. It was a side of him Hermione had only glimpsed.

She was also rather impressed by the way he looked in his Quidditch whites. She'd never loved the game, but she did have a weakness for the uniform. And there was something about a good-looking man in a full kit just banging out a tune on a piano that was exceedingly attractive… Hermione realised she was staring when Draco winked at her. She stuck out her tongue at him and he raised his eyebrows and tilted his head as if to say, "is that a promise?"

The song ended and the much softer tones of Moonlight Mile came on. Astoria used her wand to lower the volume and asked Draco about his practice session.

"Very satisfying," he said with a long stretch, which Hermione enjoyed. "And you two look like you've been having a nice time." His eyes traveled over the empty bottle and biscuit crumbs.

"SUCH a good time," enthused Astoria, while Hermione murmured her agreement. "I love this witch!" Astoria impulsively threw her arms around Hermione, who had sat up. Hermione laughed and returned the squeeze. Astoria let her go and made her way to Draco, ostensibly to throw her arms around him as well.

"No, no," he held up his hand. "Don't come near me. I'm absolutely disgusting. Let me go rinse off and change and then I'll come back."

Hermione was surprised how the thoughts of a sweaty Draco and a showering Draco affected her, but tried to keep it to herself. Somehow the little look he threw her as he left the room made her think he knew, though. She suddenly felt quite warm.

Astoria was flipping through the albums again when a small clock on the mantel emitted five dulcet chimes. The dark-haired witch stopped, listened and then yelled, "OH SHIT!"

Hermione jolted up, "What!? What's wrong?"

"Shit shit shit! I'm supposed to be at my friend Georgia's house for dinner. I totally forgot because I was having so much fun with you!" Astoria fretted. "Will you think me terribly rude if I dash? I've already postponed this once and this girl will be in my class at Beauxbatons. I really want to cultivate the friendship."

"Of course! Go, go!" said Hermione. "I'll be fine. I'll show myself out - or Draco will. Do not worry at all."

"Ok, thank you so much. If you want to just go find Draco instead of waiting here, his rooms are in this wing but on the other side of the corridor and upstairs." Astoria blew her a quick kiss and ran out the door.

Hermione kicked her heels for a few minutes, fiddling with the record player and examining some liner notes, then decided to go in search of Draco rather than wait any longer. Pen and Percy needed to leave for their date by six and she wanted to give them some extra time to get ready and give her instructions, so she didn't have a lot of time.

Her soft footsteps whispered down the long, cool hallway and she mounted the stairs, turned left, and walked through an archway to yet another wing of the chateau. Unlike the rooms below, which were more ornate and dark, this area was lighter and more open, with large windows looking out over lush countryside that rolled back in waves of green vineyards.

Hermione savored the view for a moment before continuing on to peek in some of the doorways leading off the long corridor. She found an additional drawing room, a small reading room stuffed with books (!), a billiards room and a delightful outdoor sitting area, but nothing that looked like living quarters. Finally she got close enough to see a door at the very end of the hall. More of an archway, really - that must be it.

She approached the arch, peeking around it and suddenly feeling a bit shy. Maybe she should just wait in the reading room for him to walk by? She whirled around, deciding that was the best course of action, at the same moment Draco stepped out of another, smaller doorway just beside the arch. She stumbled briefly against him and he grasped her upper arms to steady her. She looked down, then looked up and inhaled sharply.

He was wearing nothing. Well, nothing but a towel wrapped low around his hips. His hair was wet and carelessly brushed back from his face, although a lock had fallen over his forehead. His skin was flushed from the heat and steam of the shower. Hermione's brain stumbled - the male beauty on display was simply overwhelming.

His chest, the silken skin over hard muscle she had previously touched, was absolutely mouthwatering to view - finely proportioned, with long smooth lines that she wanted to trace with her fingers, with her lips... And the towel, oh god the towel. It was set just below the deep vees of his hips, vees that drew the eye down on a distinctly naughty journey. Hermione gazed eagerly until she realised she was just very fully and obviously staring at his crotch and hadn't looked at his face at all. She whipped her eyes up, expecting him to be amused.

But there was no sign of laughter.

He was staring at her with intense focus and his eyes had gone very dark. His mouth was slightly open and she could see his chest moving up and down. He stepped closer to her. Hermione licked her lips. Oh God.

At that moment, a single drop of water fell from his hair to his shoulder and then meandered down his left pectoral. Hermione watched it, fascinated, then reached forward. She had meant to simply brush the water away with her thumb, just to stroke the softness of his skin and say something clever about him having missed a spot. But instead her head went forward and her tongue darted out and she licked him. She licked the water drop that had come to settle somewhere very close to his left nipple. They hadn't even said a word to each other and she'd licked him! And once she'd tasted him, she didn't want to stop.

~oOo~

The moment her soft little tongue hit his skin, Draco was lost. He moaned and dug his hands into her glorious hair, pulling her against him roughly. He was so fucking turned on he could hardly stand. He'd already been feeling aroused after standing in the warm water and thinking about her. He was happy to be near her again. Eager to see her alone, finally.

And she was so obviously aroused. The thought of her flushed cheeks and roving eyes ripped another groan from his throat and he stifled it by crashing his lips down on hers, pulling her into a kiss that was hot and consuming. He slid down against the doorway holding her against him and tilting his head back. Her clever mouth caressed his lips and her fingers skimmed up the length of his body and down his arms. Each touch made him harder.

Barely realizing it, he pushed them up and moved her into his rooms, lifting her onto the back of a sofa and pressing between her legs. His hands gripped her hips and she pressed back against him eagerly, kicking off her sandal and sliding the instep of her foot up the back of his calf. The dress she was wearing - he had admired it earlier - was just a soft whisper of silk. Really, the only thing between them was the tiny slip of her knickers and the cotton of his towel.

He had no objection to this.

He continued to devour her mouth and move against her as she gasped and began to ride him through the thin fabric, obviously pleasuring herself. Draco felt like his head, or more accurately his cock, might explode. Then she threw her head back, sighing his name, and he really, really wanted to fuck her. It would be so easy - he just had to drop the towel, push aside her knickers, and...

He wanted it more than he'd ever wanted anything.

But he also didn't want their first time to be a quickie on the back of a sofa with his aunt and his ward somewhere on the premises - and possibly nearby. So he very reluctantly drew away, pulling up to place a gentle kiss on her forehead.

She seemed to understand what he was doing and pulled back to stroke his hair, then smile into his eyes. "Hi there," she eventually whispered in a smoky bedroom voice so hot that his hard-on throbbed.

He laughed softly against her, "hi yourself."

"I guess I found your rooms"

"Excellent detective work." She was still stroking his hair as he feathered tiny kisses against her neck.

"I missed you. Could you tell?"

"I missed you too," he lifted his head and slid her off the sofa and against him, then bent his head to kiss her lips softly. He broke the kiss to smile at her wickedly. "And that was quite a hello."

"Well you can't just go around flaunting yourself in a Quidditch kit, then appear in nothing but a towel and not expect women to jump you," she smiled in return, running her index finger down his neck and across his clavicle.

He laughed softly again, capturing her lips in another kiss, which heated up almost immediately. He came up for air eventually, mumbling against her lips. "Are you busy right now? Tonight?" Visions of taking her out and then back home for a much longer, more explicit version of what had just occurred flashed vividly across his mind.

She broke the kiss, groaning with regret. "I actually am. I promised Pen and Percy that I'd babysit. I have to go. Astoria left too by the way. She went to a friend's for dinner."

He sighed. "Mmm, what a shame." He had begun nibbling her neck and pushing the strap down on the shoulder of her dress so that he could kiss underneath it. He realised he'd still never seen her breasts, which seemed unfair and wrong. "This is a very pretty little dress. I'd like to see it on my floor."

She giggled, but pushed the strap back up and stepped backward. "I really do have to go. Pen and Percy are going to a show in Avignon and I don't want to make them late."

"Tomorrow then," he held her hand and her gaze. He wasn't going to let too much time pass before she panted his name again. He could see himself becoming addicted to the sound.

"I am free tomorrow." She leaned in to give him a quick kiss, then pulled back, biting down on her lower lip. He reached out lightning quick and pulled her to him again, drawing her into a much deeper kiss. She broke it, laughing "Draco, Draco I have to go."

"As I believe I told you once before, you can't just bite your gorgeous, plump lip like that and not expect consequences," he said with a half smile. "All right," he straightened up, "I'll let you go, but only on the condition that you go out with me tomor… SHIT."

Her eyes widened. "What?"

"I forgot Theo is going to be here tomorrow," he sighed. "And Daph. And likely that wanker, Zabini. We arranged it in Paris last week."

"Not Pansy?" she said quickly.

The corner of his mouth lifted, "no, not Pansy." Although secretly he'd enjoy that. She'd done so well against Pansy. "But I did tell them we'd go out. There's some party. Someone Theo knows. I think someone Theo is trying to sleep with, actually," he mused, touching his chin.

She made a sound of regret and his eyes swept to hers and then a rather obvious idea occurred to him. "Come with us. Join us. Please."

"I'd love to," she said quickly. "Theo actually owled me too and I'd love to see him."

"Good," he grinned. "We'll collect you at eight. I think we'll use a portkey since they'll be so many of us."

"Perfect. And now, although this interlude was lovely, I need to GO, Draco. Help me find a fireplace."

Chapter Text

" Everything nourishes what is strong already"

Hermione spun in a slow circle in her closet and sighed. He was going to be here in less than an hour and she just could not decide what to wear.

After a slight internal struggle - which had ended with her exasperatedly asking herself how she really wanted the night to end, she'd donned her smallest, most pretty set of underwear. But what to put over it?

She tapped her lips with her finger… The long skirt and tiny, ruffled crop top? Possibly too casual. The cool trousers and linen tank? Didn't feel very sexy- and she wanted to feel sexy. The extremely short, full skirted black dress with no back? Hmmm… maybe with the right shoes?

Suddenly a knock sounded on the cottage door. She started - fucking hell! He was early! It was only 7:15! Her hair wasn't done. She didn't have any makeup on… She tightened the belt on her dressing gown and hurried to the door in a bit of a temper, throwing the latch and flinging it open.

But the words of protest died on her lips and her mouth tugged up into a huge smile instead.

"Theo! What are you doing here!?" she exclaimed, throwing her arms around the slender wizard.

He laughed and returned her embrace. "Surprise! I have been sent to retrieve you. Our mutual friend decided it was better to apparate rather than portkey, but is caught up in host duties at the manor, so he sent me as his emissary. We'll meet at the party. Also, I just wanted to have a cosy chat with you." He winked and broke the hug, holding Hermione at arm's length. "You look fucking fantastic by the way. France agrees with you. A little honey in your complexion and some gold in your hair?"

"Me? You're the one who looks amazing. Talk about tan - and I love this thin mustache look you have going on." She lightly touched his upper lip and Theo preened under her scrutiny. "And there's something else," Hermione squinted at him. "What is it? You look relaxed… Did you take up yoga in Italy or something?"

"Mmm more like I took up with Alessandro in Rome, Niccolo in Florence and Giancarlo in Milan."

Hermione burst out laughing. "Good for you, you rake! That's what you look like with that mustache; a rake. And these muggle clothes are gorgeous." She brushed the soft fabric of his perfectly cut shirt.

"Giancarlo works for Prada," he winked.

"Rogue. Well, now that you're a fashion expert, you can help me decide what to wear tonight."

"Love to," he said, sitting down to lounge in a chair next to her fireplace. "Show me your looks."

"Would you like a glass of wine?" she asked, going to the fridge and withdrawing a bottle.

"Ooh, yes please."

"Now tell me about this party," she said, pouring out two glasses. "Draco said something about it being a friend of yours?"

"I'd be surprised if that were all he said," replied Theo with a smirk, accepting his glass and clinking it to hers.

Hermione laughed, ducking into her bedroom to pull on the crop top and skirt outfit. "Well yes, he may have said your interest is more than friendly," she called.

"His name is Rafik," he said with a huge sigh. "And he's gorgeous. I met him in Paris. He's in the music industry."

"Muggle?" she stepped into the living room and twirled around.

"Wizard. But he works in the muggle world." He scrutinized her. "I think that's cute, but too boho for tonight." She nodded and went back into the room.

"What's the story for tonight anyway? What kind of party is this?" She asked, changing into another outfit.

"It's at Rafik's flat. He has an enormous roof deck and he hosts these soirees to showcase new bands."

"Ooh so there will be music?" She came out and Theo just wrinkled his nose at her wide-legged trousers and tank top. She chuckled and spun on her heel, heading back to her room to put on the dress. Hopefully it would pass muster.

"Yes, live music. The band is from Paris and very hip. The crowd will likely be the same."

"Aha. Sounds fun," she said, stepping out in the black dress. It was made of a fine, almost sheer linen with a boat neck and wide three quarter length sleeves that tightened at her elbow. It had a fitted waist and full, indecently short skirt - Hermione almost hadn't bought it because of the length, but Ginny had strong-armed her. The back dipped in a very low vee, where it fastened with shell buttons at the waist. "What do you think?" she asked, twisting around to look at her back, hoping she wasn't flashing her arse.

"Oooh," Theo sat up straight and made a motion for her to twirl. "Yes, he'll like that," he said with raised brows and a leer. She stuck her tongue out at him and he laughed. "Wear your hair up, so you get the full effect of the back."

"Ok, Svengali," she snarked, but then went to the mirror and used her wand to whisk her hair into a bun on crown of her head. He was right, it was perfect for the style of the dress. She quickly magicked her makeup then slipped on some high, wedge sandals. "And I'm ready!" she sang, stepping back into the living room.

Theo let out a low whistle. "It will be fun watching him try to be subtle tonight with you looking like that."

Hermione blew him a kiss, but then paused. "Did he say something to you about keeping this quiet?"

Theo's brow furrowed, "well not in so many words, but I assumed…"

"Yes, everyone seems to be assuming that…" Hermione trailed off.

"Does it bother you?" he asked, concern in his tone.

"Not per se. I mean, I understand the reasons. I just - I guess, I'm not used to it."

"Yes," he said with a thoughtful look, "I'm sure people usually splash an association with the golden girl all over the shop."

She gave a sharp laugh, "well yes, that's the opposite problem. Anyway, no matter. It's all very new. I'm surprised he even said anything to you about it."

"Oh, he didn't. He didn't have to. I can just tell when he's happy." She blushed and he shot a smile at her, rising fluidly out of the chair and offering his arm. "Shall we?"

"We shall," she looked up at him and they stepped out of the door.

~oOo~

Theo apparated them from the cottage and they landed with abrupt pop in a stairwell lined with huge potted plants.

"Come on," he said, taking Hermione's hand and towing her up the stairs. They climbed the long flight then emerged into a scene that to Hermione's eye looked like something out of a film.

The terrace was huge, but broken up by a clever placement of furniture and more of the gigantic plants. Fairy lights were strung across the space and various candles and lanterns provided the rest of the golden glow that seemed to float over the scene. Groups of beautiful and stylish people gathered in corners sipping cocktails or cool glasses of wine and there was a low hum of conversation broken by occasional laughter. Hip music played from hidden speakers. The air was soft and there was a perfect breeze taking the edge off the lingering heat of the day. The lights of the city twinkled from every vantage point.

Hermione slanted a look at Theo, "Oh my."

"Amazing, right?" he grinned at her. "Wait til you meet Rafik." He scanned the crowd. "There he is. Come on." He pulled her again, this time to a corner sofa, where a group of people were speaking animated French. They were all gorgeous, but Hermione's eye was immediately drawn to a boy sitting in the corner, who had the most striking liquid chocolate eyes fringed by impossibly long lashes. Those eyes flicked up to Theo as they approached and a huge grin split the boy's face.

"Theo, you bastard! You made it!" He stood up and stepped through the tangle of legs to embrace her friend, who gave Hermione a very smug smirk over his shoulder.

"I wouldn't have missed it," Theo murmured, splaying his fingers against Rafik's neck. The two wizards parted and then drew very slightly back to look at each other at close range. Hermione felt the scorching wave of heat that passed between them and cheered inwardly for Theo.

At that moment the French wizard's eyes flicked her way, "and who is this chic creature you have brought to me, Theo?" he asked in accented English, moving over to capture and kiss Hermione's hand.

"This is my friend Hermione. Hermione, Rafik. Rafik, Hermione. She has a keen interest in music."

"Lovely to meet you, Hermione," Rafik said, smiling. "I hope you will enjoy tonight's entertainment."

"I'm sure I will. Your place is beautiful," Hermione waved her hand to encompass the space and he inclined his head.

"So what is on the menu music-wise tonight?" Theo asked. "You told me the band is from Paris?"

"Oui," said Rafik. "They're great. You will like them. Very warm sound, yet also cool? If that makes sense. They sing in English too, which is rare for French artists and an interesting choice."

Hermione was intrigued and embarked on a conversation with Rafik about the band, his work and the music scene in France. It was so engrossing that she barely noticed when Theo melted away and then returned with cocktails. She had nearly finished one drink and was still talking with Rafik and Theo, when it occurred to her that she hadn't even seen Draco yet.

She looked up to scan the crowd and immediately a gleam of white blonde caught her eye. She zeroed in on a familiar nape, broad shoulders, slim hips and absolutely outstanding arse. He was chatting with an unfamiliar group, looking gorgeous in muggle jeans and a collared shirt, with rolled sleeves, crowed Hermione's rat brain.

As she gazed at him he turned sideways and really laughed at something one of his companions said, his grin a glint of white teeth and crinkled eyes. Hermione felt her insides do a familiar slow flip and suddenly felt an intense surge of pleasure that he was hers for the taking. She also felt an overwhelming urge to walk over and wrap her arms around him from the back, kiss his neck and draw him into a dark corner.

It was like her lust set off a homing signal, because suddenly he turned around and they made eye contact. He looked her up and down for a beat, smiled a slow smile, then mouthed, "Hi," across the crowd.

Hermione's knees went totally weak and her knickers definitely soaked, but she managed to be cool and shoot him what she hoped was a sexy little wave. Rafik noticed and followed the direction of her eyes.

"Ah, is that the mal famé, Malfoy?" he asked.

"The one and only," smirked Theo, also waving to his best friend, who waggled his fingers and winked in return.

"My god," said Rafik, clutching his heart.

"I know," said Theo, rolling his eyes, "I spent a good part of my early teens hoping he'd suddenly wake up gay."

Hermione shot Theo a look and he put his palms up. "What? I got over it like a decade ago!" he laughed, and she gave him a half hug.

"So when is the band going on?" she asked Rafik with an avid gleam. "I can't wait to hear them."

"About twenty minutes," he said, "which gives us just enough time for another drink and a smoke before they start. Hermione?" he proffered a chic cigarette case, but Hermione declined, the desire to find a certain someone overcoming her. She air-kissed the two wizards and made her way off in search of Draco.

~oOo~

Draco scanned the crowd for another glimpse of Hermione, but he couldn't see her anymore. He felt a prick of annoyance - he was talking to a very earnest young French wizard about the Meadows and seemed to have gotten rather stuck. They'd been chatting in a group, but the young man was so keen that his questions eventually drove the others away. Draco had answered him patiently for several minutes, but was now eager to find his witch.

His mind lingered on her as he tuned the Frenchman out. What was that delightful thing had she been wearing? Something very short that showed off her legs. He wanted to get a much closer look, maybe find a secluded spot... The trend of these thoughts put an end to his patience and he was about to be abrupt with his young companion when Daphne walked up. He used the boy's momentary distraction at Daph's loveliness to quickly extract himself and made a silent vow to make it up to her later.

Scanning the crowd fruitlessly for Hermione, Draco cursed the low, ambient lighting and abundant foliage for creating too many interesting nooks where people could hide, then decided he might as well have a drink in the meantime.

He moved toward the bar, nodding at acquaintances, keeping an eye out and wondering when the band would start. Suddenly the crowd parted and there she was - at the bar herself, deep in conversation with the bartender. Probably asking about the local Pastis scene, Draco thought with a curious little stab of affection. As he watched, the bartender gestured to something behind him on a lower shelf. Hermione stepped up on the brass foot rail and grasped the bartop with her fingers, hoisting herself up to look.

Draco's inhaled sharply. The extremely short hem of her dress didn't have far to go before it showed her arse and yet it lifted and lifted the further she leant. He could see the tops of her thighs and thought any minute he'd be seeing more. Maybe a slip of kickers, his brain supplied hopefully. He stopped in his tracks, gripping the back of a convenient chair as the dress crept up and his mind glazed over. She kicked her leg out so she could pitch further forward and Draco suddenly noticed the avid glances of a few other men near the bar trained on her, which galvanized him to action. He strode toward her and didn't stop until his front was almost touching her back, then rested his hand lightly on her waist and leaned down.

"Find what you're looking for?" he murmured against her ear. She straightened up abruptly and twisted around, dropping off the rung of the bar in a slow slide against him. He could feel every inch of that slide.

She looked up from under her brows with an arch stare. "Now I have."

Draco felt himself go instantly hard.

"You should watch what you do in this dress," he murmured, keeping his eyes trained on hers. He was still holding her waist with one hand, but had the other resting on the bar. "It's quite short you know. About one inch further over and I would have seen your goods." He raised his brows and smirked.

Her eyes widened, a gleam appearing in them. "Would that have been a problem?" she asked in a low, faux-innocent voice.

Draco coughed in surprise. Had she known he was watching? Gods he was so fucking turned on right now. Would it be ill-bred to apparate them away from this bar in the middle of the party? Probably. Did he care? Not really. She raised her drink - it *was* Pastis! - dipped her finger in the liquid, then very slowly and deliberately slid it in and out of her mouth, all while staring into his eyes.

"Only if you have an objection to being instantly taken somewhere much more private." He couldn't tear his eyes off her and they continued to just stare at each other for several beats, the whole party scene fading into the background, when Draco heard the decidedly non-dulcet tones of Blaise Zabini from somewhere over his left shoulder.

"Malfoy! Granger!" he was calling. "Quit eye-fucking and say hello to an old friend." He sounded drunk. Draco rolled his eyes at a grinning Hermione, but stepped to the side and reluctantly turned around. Fucking Zabini.

To make matters worse, Blaise wasn't alone. A very beautiful and bitchy French witch with whom Draco was previously 'acquainted' was on his arm. Just what he didn't need right now. His annoyance level climbed precipitously.

"Hello Blaise," said Hermione, stepping forward to kiss his cheek. Blaise of course took it too far, turning his head so her kiss landed on his lips. She drew back with a little giggle of surprise and Draco scowled at his annoying friend.

"Oh look, just who I didn't want to see," he drawled, stone-faced.

"Don't be an arsehole, Draco," scolded Blaise. "And you haven't even greeted Hélène," he continued, eyes sparkling with mischief.

The French witch stepped forward at his words, flipping her long blonde hair over her shoulder and staring up at Draco with a come-hither look. "Draco, amant. It's been an age," she said in a smoky, sexily accented voice. "You didn't owl me after the last time we were together." She placed a slight emphasis on 'together' and pouted up at him, her hand sliding up his forearm to his bicep as she leaned in to air kiss his cheeks. She lingered on the second kiss and whispered something in his ear, her eyes flicking to Hermione, then drew back to smile up at him.

Draco very pointedly introduced the two witches. Hermione greeted Hélène cordially, but the French witch returned the most perfunctory of responses before grabbing Draco's elbow, turning him away and asking about mutual acquaintances in rapid French.

Draco heard a faint snort from Hermione's vicinity and glanced over. She was observing the little scene with a raised brow and bemused smirk. Hélène noticed her looking too and angled her body even more, tinkling a laugh at Draco and placing her hand on his chest.

Draco stepped back with a fastidious sniff, but almost immediately heard Hermione ask Blaise if he'd met Rafik yet. Blaise murmured something and then suddenly they were moving away through the crowd, Hermione gesturing animatedly. Blaise shot Draco a huge grin before they disappeared and Draco vowed to pay his "friend" back for this little farce. He'd wait for the right moment and curse him with something particularly nasty. Maybe an impotence hex the next time he saw the shit trying to chat up a pretty girl...

Draco snapped out of his revenge fantasies long enough to disentangle himself from Hélène by being blatantly rude. She walked off in a huff and he immediately went to find Hermione. He spotted her just as the band took the stage and started to play. She'd seemed to have lost Blaise and was up front with another wizard - someone who looked vaguely familiar to Draco, but whom he couldn't place. He was tall and dark-haired, good-looking. Had he been at Theo's party? Anyway, he looked entirely too fucking close to her, and she was laughing up into his face as he waved his arms. Draco felt his eyes narrow and his fingers curl. He was now actually ready to kill Blaise - and this dark-haired interloper.

Just then the roof lights dimmed and the stage lights went up.

~oOo~

"Oooh!" Hermione exclaimed, widening her eyes at Rémy as the lights went down. Finally. Rafik had been a bit optimistic with his estimate of 20 minutes. She turned her attention to the stage, deciding to focus on the music instead of wondering if Draco was still talking to that snotty French bitch.

Four extremely hip men took the stage and launched into the first song, which she loved instantly - it was, as Rafik had said, warm and cool at the same time - with a pretty melody and an interesting synth sound.

She glanced up to mention it to Rémy, but he was talking loudly to someone behind them - actually a bit too loudly, she sniffed to herself, giving him a dirty look and stepping well away from him as she turned back toward the stage.

"Don't you hate it when people talk over the band?" a familiar voice whispered in her ear. His breath tickled and she felt strategic parts of her body tingle in response. She arched an eyebrow over her shoulder. Draco shot her a half smile and pressed a cool glass into her hand.

"Thank you," she murmured, sipping the cold liquid gratefully - something effervescent with anise and lemon? Perfect for the warm night.

She held his gaze over the rim of her glass. His eyes warmed on hers before he straightened and turned his attention to the stage, keeping close behind her, but listening intently. Hermione felt a distinct sense of triumph that he had come to find her again so quickly.

Between songs, his breath ghosted against her ear again, "It wasn't nice of you abandon me to that harpy earlier." She could hear the grin in his voice.

She twisted around to look at him fully, her lip curled, "I don't compete, Draco."

His soft laughter drifted down to her. "Of course you don't. Neither do I." His eyes flicked toward Rémy for the briefest second. She raised a dismissive brow, shook her head once and turned back around.

He leaned down again and she cocked her head to listen to whatever he was going to ask her, but instead he just lingered there, his lips millimeters from her skin. After a few beats he finally spoke, his words whispering against her, "Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?" Hermione's heart raced. Her knickers were absolutely destroyed.

She peeked up at him and caught a devilish smirk crossing his features, as if he knew what he'd just done to her. Impulsively, she turned around and went up on tip-toe, pulling him down as if to whisper in his ear, letting her breasts push against his chest and her hand almost touch the nape of his neck.

Feeling his fast exhale, a smirk of her own crossed her lips. She breathed in his scent for several seconds. Still indefinable, still delicious. "Thank you," she whispered in his ear. She felt, more than heard, his soft laugh in response as she pulled back, her eyes lingering on his before she turned around again.

They watched in silence for a few moments and Hermione attempted, somewhat unsuccessfully, to collect herself. As the band finished another good song, she looked over her shoulder and gestured to the stage, "What do you think?"

"I like them. A lot." She was gratified to hear that he sounded a bit breathless. He cleared his throat. "Great sound. Great style. The keys are brilliant and I like his lyrics even if his English isn't perfect. Actually, because his English isn't perfect."

"I think that makes up part of the appeal."

"Exactly."

They smiled at each other.

They were quiet for another several beats, then she felt the pad of his finger just graze the inside of her wrist, coming lightly around to circle it. Her heart sped. The touch felt intimate in the absence of other contact, and all of Hermione's attention focused on the one tiny spot where his skin was brushing hers.

Suddenly he tugged gently and spun her back to face him. She looked up, caught in his gaze, which was heated and dark. The band had launched into a slow, sexy instrumental piece as, for the second time that night, the rest of the party seemed to fall away and she felt like they were the only two people in the world. His grip tightened and he turned, pulling her away from the stage all the way back to a secluded little alley at the edge of the terrace.

He stopped only inches from her. Hermione looked up at him, tracing the planes of his beautiful face with her gaze, her fingers aching to do the same.

"It's very unpleasant to be here with you and not be able to kiss you… touch you, the way I'd like to," he breathed, seeming to echo her thoughts.

She decided it was time to cast coyness to the wind.

"Well, why don't you come home with me and touch me all you want?" she murmured, reaching out to run her fingertips lightly up the inside of his forearm.

He watched her hand for a beat then stepped into her, angling his mouth to her neck.

"Give me five minutes," he breathed against her ear.

Her heartbeat spiked.

He lifted his head and looked over her shoulder as if scanning for somebody. "Just to find Daph and Theo and tell them I'm leaving."

"And Blaise?"

"Fuck Zabini."

She chuckled. "I think Theo might be busy," she inclined her chin toward a nearby dim corner, where the dark-haired wizard was very enthusiastically making out with Rafik.

Draco snorted, "Ok, two minutes to find Daph. You leave first and I'll follow."

Chapter Text

"There was too much to be thought, and felt, and said, for attention to any other objects"

Hermione apparated to her cottage and immediately kicked off her shoes. She moved quickly around the small space, lighting candles and straightening various papers and pillows. It occurred to her that a silencing charm may be in order so, blushing hotly, she twirled her wand upward and muttered the spell. She then dashed to the mirror and was fussing with her hair when a signature crack sounded outside, followed by a sharp double-rap on the cottage door.

She needn't have bothered with her hair because as soon as she pulled the door open she was swept into a furious embrace, Draco's arms snaking around her waist and his lips insistent on hers. Hermione's hands went to his hair and tangled there. His tongue licked against her lips and she instantly opened to him. A few beats passed and she realised the door was still hanging wide open.

"The door, Draco," she murmured against his mouth. He broke the kiss for a second to look over his shoulder, then reached out behind him and kicked it shut, hitching her up against the wall behind it and pressing between her legs. A moan slipped out of her throat, her level of arousal shooting through the roof. Why were boys so often tentative and sweet, when really what one wanted was to be shoved up against a wall? That was her last rational thought for a while.

"Gods, I've wanted to do this all night … all week … for months," he whispered, as he pulled her away from the wall and walked her backward through the kitchen, his tongue doing wicked things to her mouth, while his hands roved her body. The backs of her thighs hit the edge of the table. "You drive me absolutely mad."

"The feeling … is mutual," she murmured, as fire licked everywhere he touched. He placed his hands around her waist and lifted her onto the smooth surface of the table. Her legs parted and he pushed between them, skimming his hand down her side to palm her thigh and lift it against him. The soft fabric of her dress bunched under his grip. She wrapped her knee around his hips and crooked her ankle around his legs to pull him to her, almost out of her mind with want.

She pushed up under his shirt, untucking it and ripping at the buttons, then ran her nails along his taut stomach, her thumbnails grazing his nipples. He inhaled sharply and she swept her hands over his shoulders, shoving the shirt down his arms, tearing it off his wrists and letting it flutter to the floor. She took a brief moment to pull back from his delectable mouth and appreciate the finely molded planes of his smooth chest, skimming her palm over it and marveling at the steel over silk feel of his muscles and skin. She looked deep into his heated eyes and he grasped her hand and pulled her palm to his lips, never breaking their gaze. She licked her lips and he took them again.

He pushed her dress up further, gripping her arse. "By the way, what the hell is this extremely short thing you're wearing?" he breathed against her mouth.

"Just something tedious … I bought … in the High Street," she panted, burying her face into his shoulder and nipping at him. He arched his neck and she swirled her tongue on his skin, "You probably find it … oh God … beneath you…" She lapped his warm taste and felt him huff out a soft laugh.

"No, it's actually been driving me balls mad all night," he said, going to work on the buttons at the back of the waist. "And I hope you know I was taking the piss when I said that, that day. You looked fucking adorable and I had to hide the fact that I wanted to do this… to you right there on that balcony." He suited his actions to his words, kissing down the line of her neck.

Her girlish heart thrilled to 'adorable'. He got her dress buttons open and impatiently pushed the bodice and sleeves down. "For fuck's sake," he groaned drinking in the sight of her breasts in a lacy black bra. He looked for a moment, his eyes heated, then ran his index fingers under the bra straps, pushing them down her shoulders. The filmy fabric barely caught on her nipples, just covering them. He inhaled raggedly and bent his head to the taut buds, laving his tongue under the lace. She arched backward, moaning as he sweetly tortured her sensitive flesh.

"Oh GOD, Draco," she hissed, tangling her hands in his hair. His mouth worked her nipple and his hands slipped behind her. One deft movement and her bra came free. He pulled it off her arms and released it to join his shirt on the floor, then cupped her other breast, rolling her nipple between his fingers as she gasped her intense pleasure.

"Glorious, perfect tits, I should have known," he murmured continuing to lavish attention on them.

She ran her hands down from his neck to his back, dragging her nails over his skin. When she got to his lower back, she pulled him to her almost violently, pleasuring herself against the hard length of his erect cock.

"Fucking, hell," he gasped. "I'm going to fuck you right here on this table if you don't ... " He was now ripping at her knickers and she was frantically undoing his belt.

"YES," she cut in, clear of the buckle and starting on his fly. He'd gotten one leg of her knickers off and she let the other hang off her ankle, not caring.

"I had - - planned to do this for the first time in an actual bed," he breathed into her ear, "are you sure you don't want to move to the bedroo…"

"Draco Malfoy if you stop now, I will KILL you," she panted.

His laugh blew against her lips as he slid his hand up from her inner thigh to her clit. "Fuck, you're so wet," he murmured, as he slid two fingers into her slick passage, then pulled them out to drag against her sensitive bud.

"That's your doing." She moaned deep in her throat as his fingers moved in and out and across her in a delicious rhythm.

"I want to taste your sweet, dripping pussy," he whispered. "I could make you come so fast."

"Yes, please, but later," she gasped. "I need you inside of me." She pushed his trousers and pants down with an impatient foot and took the full, thick length of his cock in her hand. He inhaled sharply and increased the speed and pressure of his fingers against her sex. She responded by stroking up and down his shaft, her thumb moving over his tip and the wetness there. His eyes closed and he made a sound deep in his throat.

"Please Draco. Fuck me," she half whispered, half groaned.

He straightened up and looked into her hooded eyes; his own obsidian with want. Moving his hands from her core, he gripped her hips under the fabric of her dress, pulling her to him and pausing just a moment before he plunged to the hilt in a single, ferocious stroke.

A cry ripped from her lips as she felt him fill her for the first time. It was like nothing, nothing she'd ever experienced before. When he pulled back and drove into her again, she let out another cry - this time his name. The feeling was exquisite; fullness, wholeness. Also, the pleasure was absolutely searing. She was so aroused that his cock was moving against her clit. She felt her orgasm already building and with shattering force.

"Oh my fucking god!" she shouted to the rafters, a very small corner of her brain glad she had remembered the silencing charm earlier.

"So … tight," he gasped in a mangled voice, barely able to speak. His speed and rhythm increased until she was incoherent, crying out with every thrust. He stroked his fingers against her clit again and she felt like she was going to exit her body and fly up to the ceiling in a shot of pure, transcendent sensation. She screamed his name again as she felt her release coming, her inner muscles starting to clench until she lost all sense of time or place in a wave of pure pleasure that broke over and over again. Finally she came down and pulled his hand away, her passage gripping powerfully around him. He grabbed her hips and she clamped her legs around his back, tilting her angle up to give him deeper access. He snapped his hips with feverish intensity until suddenly he threw his head back and came with a wordless shout.

They lay there collapsed on the table for a few minutes - or maybe it was a lifetime. Her hands made their way into his hair and his lips moved against her neck in tiny, soft kisses. Eventually he pushed up and swept his hands behind her to pull her up off the table. She ran her hands up his back and clutched him to her, nuzzling into his bare chest.

"My fucking, fucking GOD," he breathed, threading his fingers gently into her hair and pulling her head back so he could look at her face.

She gave him a lazy smile and shook her head.

His eyes roved over her face. "Do you know how beautiful you are when you come?"

She blushed.

"I could get used to seeing that vision regularly," he continued, "And you did say,'later.'"

"Mmm," she bit her lip and gazed up at him. "Take me to bed, then."

He quirked an eyebrow, then lifted her up in one swift movement as she laughed and clutched at him. Carrying her down the hall to her bedroom, he placed her gently on the duvet - kissing her softly as he lowered her. She broke the kiss to pull off her mangled dress. He watched avidly, his gaze running over her as she arched and stretched - putting on a bit of a show. She went to drop the dress on the floor, but he stopped her.

"Wait, wait, be careful how you treat my now favorite garment in the entire world - even if it is from the High Street." He took it from her and lovingly folded it.

"Even better than the silver one from the ball?"

"Tough choice," he tapped on his chin. "There was something magic about your arse in that gown, but I only got to snog you that night."

She giggled and started to climb under the covers, but he stopped her. "Let me just look for a bit." She lowered her eyes and chin and glanced up at him, heat still in her gaze as she reclined fully, her hands laced behind her head.

"Absolutely exquisite," he murmured, skimming his palm over her stomach and waist and then up to her breast. The pad of his thumb ran over her nipple and she felt a spark of heat start down low again. His hand continued up her neck and into her hair, where his fingers twined. She realised it was a mess - half up and half down - and pulled at the top of her bun to shake the wavy mass down around her shoulders. "Even better," he breathed, leaning forward to nuzzle her neck and bury his face in the silky strands.

"You're beautiful too, you know," she murmured, reaching a laguid hand out to trace the fine planes of his shoulders and obliques. Skittering her fingertips down the muscles of his upper arms. He was perfect - so beautifully proportioned. She could look at him for hours. He inhaled and she saw his nipples harden. She traced her fingers there and his cock jumped.

"Watch it, woman. If you keep on with that I'll have to fuck you again," he sighed, laying down on the bed as she eased over him.

"Ooh, what a terrible threat," she breathed, leaning down to replace her fingers with her lips. His breath came sharply. She couldn't get enough of the smoothness of his skin, the sinew and muscle beneath it. It was like she wanted to consume him with her fingertips. He lay back and let her wander, his eyes silver and intense as he watched her movements.

She covered him in concentric licks and kisses until she came to his center and contemplated the thick length of his glorious cock, which was already hard again.

"You have a lovely cock," she smirked, as she stroked it.

"Nice of you to say," he said tightly, his eyes fluttering. "I look forward to getting a closer look at your cunt."

Smiling, she brought his tip to her mouth and laved it softly with her tongue. He inhaled sharply and watched her, his eyes glittering in the low light. She moved from licking to languidly sucking, taking most of him in, her gaze mischievous on his.

"Oh my… FUCK," he gasped, his eyes rolling back and his erection immediately rock hard again. She set up a slow steady rhythm, pulling him in and out, her hand wrapped around his base. His gasps got louder and more profane, until he sat up abruptly. She slid her mouth off of him achingly slowly and looked up with a question in her eyes.

"I'm going to come as fast as a bloody 16 year old if you don't stop," he muttered, surging up over her and flipping her on her back.

She smirked then pouted, "but I was enjoying myself."

He pinned her wrists lightly, and began kissing down her neck. "I plan for you to enjoy yourself even more." His mouth moved down her chest and over her stomach, eventually moving lower.

She gave a little cry as she felt his tongue at her core for the first time. He swirled on her clit and she shuddered. The pressure was perfect and his tongue was warm and sure. Licking and swirling again, he made her whole body tremor. A giddy thought raced through her head, he's really fucking good at this. She realised he was murmuring against her.

"It's confirmed. You're gorgeous everywhere. Sweet, pink cunt."

She let out a gentle laugh that turned into a moan as he bent back to his task and added his fingers, stroking in and out of her as that clever tongue worked tiny, explosive miracles. Within minutes, Hermione was riding his face with total abandon, pulling at his bright hair and gasping for breath. He had been right - she was going to come fast and hard. A bare second later, he did a little sucking motion on her clit and her heart seemed to squeeze in her chest. Her thighs convulsed around his ears as she screamed his name - again - riding a crest of pleasure for what felt like a very long time.

Eventually her eyes fluttered shut and she lay in a warm force field for several moments, distantly feeling the lazy strokes he was feathering against her thigh. She opened just as he was sliding back up and caught an extremely smug look on his face.

"Good for you, darling?" he smirked, his eyes dancing.

She raised a brow and slowly extended her middle finger.

"So vulgar!" he laughed. "And is that an invitation?" He was now up at her eye level.

"Possibly," she murmured, kissing him and tasting herself. She could tell by his insistent tongue that he was incredibly aroused, so she gently rolled him over and straddled him, lowering her now very soft and wet pussy over his rigid cock.

~oOo~

Draco felt his eyes roll so far back in his head, he wasn't sure they'd ever come back. The feeling of her. So tight, yet soft and slick as silk. It was nearly unbearable. He almost came on the first stroke. But he was made of sterner stuff. He gathered himself and opened his eyes, enjoying the dark curtain her hair made around them. She still smelled and tasted like honey. Especially that sweet little cunt. Oh shit, he shouldn't think about that if he wanted to last.

"You should just let yourself go," she whispered, "don't try to hold back." She sent him a distinctly wicked look and sat up straight, arching her back and pushing out her spectacular tits. Draco groaned.

"I see what you're trying to do," he gasped, "just because I made you come in under five minutes." She grinned and his eyes rolled back again as he was caught up in the pure sensation of her. Every sense on fire; the sight of her beautiful body, the scent of her gorgeous skin and hair, the taste of her still in his mouth, the sound of her low chuckle followed by a breathy little moan, and the feel, oh gods, the feel of her wet, tight cunt sliding down on his cock again and again.

And now he could feel her muscles starting to pulse on his shaft. His eyes flew open and he saw that she was touching herself as she rode him, head thrown back and breaths heavy. It was too much and he felt a distinct sense of surrender as he gave in to his body, no longer trying to hold back and starting to come so powerfully that he couldn't believe it was the second time that night. She collapsed on him with a moan of her own, her hair flowing over both of them.

When he felt he could move again, he ran his hands over her back, feeling the satin of her skin, the sweet indent of her waist and flare of her hips. He shifted gently, turning her on her side and tucking her head onto his chest. They stayed that way for several minutes, just breathing.

"Wonder if Theo got as lucky as you did," she murmured, finally breaking the easy silence.

He laughed. "Not a chance. Even if he did get Rafik to sleep with him."

It was her turn to chuckle and she did so softly, against his chest. "And Daphne? Did you manage to say goodbye to her?"

"Yes, I actually found her talking, rather animatedly for Daph, to that tall wizard you were with earlier."

"Oh, Rémy?" she propped up on her elbow with an avid look. "Hmm, he and Daphne… interesting…"

He raised an eyebrow, aware of a small flash of relief at her reaction. "Why interesting?"

She rubbed her chin. "Well, Daphne's just more on the serious side. Rémy is kind of a big kid. A bit goofy. But of course very good looking," she mused.

"Oh?" he raised a brow.

She looked at him for a beat then pushed up to kiss him. "I mean if one likes that sort of thing," she breathed against his lips. She pulled away and lay on her stomach with a contented sigh. "I know Theo's a fan."

"Of Rémy's?"

"Uh huh. He was absolutely gobsmacked that I wasn't attracted to him."

"And why weren't you?" he laced his fingers through the ends of her hair and let it slide through them.

"There was somebody else," she said breezily, waving a hand.

"Anyone, I know?"

She sighed. "Some managing, blond toff with a car collection and terrible taste in Rolling Stones albums. I question my own judgement someti…!"

Her quip ended in a shriek as he grabbed her and in a lightning quick movement, pulled her on top of him, then landed a sharp smack on her perfect, perfect arse.

"Oh you'll pay for that!" she gasped, laughing. "Where is my wand!?"

"All… the … way … in … the … kitchen," he kissed her between each word and they were occupied for a few moments after that. Draco still couldn't get over her taste and scent - honey, yes - but also something earthy, spiced.

"You know," she said, finally breaking their kiss and looking down at him with an adorable, squinched brow. "We're talking about Rémy when you were actually the one with a very willing prospect tonight."

"Other than yourself?" he drawled.

"Watch it, Malfoy."

He snorted. "Well I thought you handled it rather well."

She raised her eyebrows.

"She's someone from my past," he shrugged. "Someone I realised rather quickly was exceedingly boring. She thinks her looks carry the day, but they … don't." He felt an expression of distaste cross his features and then a scowl pull down his lip. "Fucking Blaise, though. I owe that little shit a hex."

"I think he's funny," she protested. "He's so obvious. You shouldn't let him get to you. He just does it to wind you up."

"I know," he groaned. "His whole goal in life is to fuck with me. But when I think that he almost derailed this night?" He growled low in his throat.

"Mmm," she stroked his collarbone. "I don't think anything could have kept me away from you tonight. You know I'm very attracted to you…" She placed kisses along the path of her fingers.

"Are you? Perhaps you could demonstrate..." They were non-verbal again for several minutes, but Draco was the one who broke their embrace this time.

"I'm parched," he said, looking around. "Do you have anything cold?"

"Yes, if Theo didn't drink it all earlier," she said, starting to get up. Draco enjoyed very much the rear view of her totally naked body. Her arse really was superb - and her beautiful back… But then his manners and training kicked in. "Lie down," he commanded. "I'll get it." He swept into her kitchen and pulled a frosted bottle of Pinot Gris from the fridge, perfect.

"Oh good, there's some left," she smiled as he walked back in the bedroom with two glasses. 'It's quite good. Lovely minerality."

He took a sip, "I like that you know your wine. And your whisky."

She shot him a very lascivious glance from under her lashes, "I just know what I like."

Draco felt his mouth quirk up and felt suddenly that all was very right with the world. He'd just gotten fantastically shagged, he was gazing at a breathtakingly gorgeous, naked woman who was clever and entertaining. He was drinking good wine in a cottage in France and he had absolutely nowhere to be tomorrow. He didn't envy, well, anyone, at this moment.

She patted the bed. "Come sit next to me. When you look at me like that, all warm grey eyes and half smile, I feel very much like I want to kiss you." He went. They kissed. He thought he could kiss her endlessly.

"Did you enjoy Theo stopping by tonight?" he asked a bit later. They were both now propped up against the headboard, leaning companionably. "I'm sorry I couldn't come. I think I cheated myself out of a bit of time with you."

"No it was lovely," she said. "I missed seeing you, yes, but I adore him. It was good to see him looking so relaxed and happy."

Draco snorted, "Yes all that cock he got in Italy seems to have done wonders for him."

Hermione laughed and smacked him. "Draco!"

He laughed, then sobered, "I'm actually serious. He had to hide for so long. It makes me happy that he's finally coming into his own."

"You're a good friend to him," she said seriously. "He told me you've known about him for a long time."

"I can't remember a time I didn't know," he shrugged. "It was just who he was. Although we both instinctively knew to keep it secret." He felt a shadow cross his brow. Thank fucking Merlin Nott senior was in the ground.

He looked over to see she had slid down into the pillows and her eyelids were growing heavy. He felt a touch of fatigue himself. She yawned hugely and he chuckled. "Tired?"

"Yes," she murmured. "But will you stay for a bit?"

"Mmm hmm," he breathed, sliding down himself and wrapping around her, finding his own eyes closing. He buried his face in her fragrant hair and let sleep take him, his last thought something fragmented, but blissful.

~oOo~

Draco woke in the deep twilight of early morning, and could immediately sense he wasn't alone in bed. A familiar, seductive scent filled his nostrils and he became aware of the silken feel of a soft body pressed to his. A completely nude body. Memory returned and he smiled then shifted to press his front against her back, wrapping himself around her and feeling the tickle of wayward curls against his nose. He buried his face in her hair and breathed in more of the wonderful scent, his hands roving over her hips, skimming over her smooth belly and up to cup her breasts.

She sighed and arched into him.

"You're awake," he kissed her neck, trailing down to her shoulder where he bit her softly. She moaned and then laughed lightly at the bite. "I had a dream very similar to this about you a few months ago," he murmured into her ear.

"Oh, when was that?" She pressed her perfect arse into his groin, rubbing rhythmically against his now rigid cock.

He was so hard he almost couldn't bear it. "In New York," he sighed, kissing her neck again. "I was behind you, just like this. I could smell you. Feel you."

"And then what happened?" she breathed.

"I started fucking you," he groaned. "It felt so good."

She lifted her arse and her hands reached around to guide his cock toward her entrance. He eased into her, murmuring "Hermione, oh Gods," as he slid in his full length - feeling her tight, wet, warmth. She twined her hands around the back of his neck and shoulders, pulling him closer, inviting him deeper. His strokes became faster, her breathy little cries driving him on. She took a hand from his neck and pulled it down to stroke herself, turning her soft cries into moans.

As they both neared their peak, he reached out and gripped her hips. He could feel her tightening around him and she was panting his name between invocations of the muggle god. He started to come and everything came into sharp focus … her warm body, their sounds, her scent - then he was utterly carried away by ecstasy and knew no more for a few moments.

Draco eventually opened his eyes to see her gazing at him. She'd turned over at some point to face him and was smiling slightly.

"Is that how your dream ended?" she murmured, stroking her finger down his cheek.

He snorted. "Ah, no. Well, sort of."

She raised a brow that he could just see in the low light.

"I, uh, had a nocturnal emission," he chuckled.

"You had a wet dream about me!?" she was shaking with soft laughter. "Wow."

He held up his hand, "in my defense, I hadn't had one since I was about fifteen."

"I'm flattered," she declared then sighed, "your first wet dream about me…"

"Well, not the first."

"But you said, you hadn't … WAIT, are you saying…?" Her mouth was hanging open.

"Yes I am saying." He could feel his smirk emerging.

"But you hated me then!"

"Hate is a strong word. And you were still bloody fit. I used to fantasise about fucking you against a bookshelf in the library. Skirt on, knickers down." He shifted, "Mmm, if we hadn't just… Maybe an idea for another day."

"A few of my uniform skirts do still fit me. Barely."

"I'll put it in my diary," he grabbed her and kissed her.

"I may have thought about you too," she said in a small voice against his chest.

"Do tell."

"It wasn't anything so explicit as yours. But I do remember thinking you were irritatingly attractive. I saw you making out with Pansy during prefect rounds once and I had a quick little stab of wondering what it would be like if it were me. I was immediately aghast at myself. Must have been tired that night…"

His low laugh sounded against her. She yawned and gave a contented sigh before her breathing grew regular again. Draco waited until she was fully asleep before he slipped out of bed and located his clothes. He then found his wand and stood over the kitchen table, conjuring a clever little something. He grinned to himself and padded into her bedroom to place it on her pillow, then took a last lingering look at her peaceful form before he let himself out of the cottage.

Chapter Text

"There was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her."

Hermione woke in warm sunlight, feeling lazy and contented. She stretched as she opened her eyes, looking around and realizing from the silence that she was alone. Her mouth started to turn down, but then she noticed something on the pillow next to her. She shifted up, yawning, and saw that it was a single, magnificent gardenia - all creamy white petals and deep green leaves. She smiled and lowered her face to it, inhaling its scent of ineffable sweetness, then sighed, gazing dreamily out the window for several moments.

Suddenly she giggled and shook her head, snapping out of her daydream to extend a finger and stroke a soft petal, but as soon as she touched the exquisite flower, it spun on the pillow, it's leaves growing to extend around its white center. When it stopped, a deep green envelope sat in its place, a bold and familiar 'H' penned on the front. She smiled in delight at the exquisite magic, then immediately ripped at the envelope. The paper within was thick, the precise shade of the flower - and it held a light whiff of gorgeous scent.

"Remarkable," she breathed, turning it over in her hands. It read simply,

Be ready at 11? I'm taking you to lunch.

~ D

She huffed a huge, satisfied sigh and flopped back on her pillow, clutching the note to her chest. She lay there for quite a few moments just breathing, remembering favorite parts of the night before and enjoying the idea of the day to come, before it suddenly occurred to her to check the time.

She sat bolt upright, shite actually the light looked quite a lot like mid to late morning. Leaping out of bed and finding her clock under a discarded undergarment, Hermione realised she had exactly 20 minutes to get ready. Racing to the shower and throwing on the kettle on her way, she gave herself ten minutes to luxuriate in the warm water before jumping out and pulling on a deep red, linen dress - one of her favorites. She dragged a comb through her hair and was just putting the finishing touches on her makeup when she heard a light knock on the door. Funny, she thought as she padded over to open it, she hadn't heard the crack of apparition…

She pushed at the heavy wooden panel, feeling a bit shy, suddenly - her cheeks warming and her mouth tugging up at the corners. He was half turned away from her, glancing over his shoulder at a slight disturbance coming from the hippogriff field. She had a split second to admire the line of his back and shoulders in a soft white shirt, before he turned around.

"Good morning," he said, a smile pulling at his mouth too.

Hermione didn't like this feeling of shyness in herself, so instead of answering, she stepped out of the doorway, went up on tiptoe and pulled him down for a kiss. She'd meant it to be a sweet hello, but the moment her lips touched his, she couldn't help herself and her tongue flitted against him. He opened with a slight smile and slid his arms around her waist, pulling her close. Then moving his hand up, he wound his fingers into the damp hair at the nape of her neck, tilting her head back and deepening the kiss. Sunspots danced behind her eyes and after a few blissful moments, she gave a little moan of pleasure. The sound seemed to recall him and he pulled back gently, his eyes locked on hers with an amused warmth.

"A very good morning," he murmured, running his hand down from her neck to skim her clavicle and shoulder.

She bit her lip and raised a brow, "indeed."

He laughed softly, finishing the path of his hand by twining his fingers with hers, which somehow made her heart skip even more than the kiss. "So you saw my note? And you're free for lunch?"

"Yes, you clever wizard. That was a lovely bit of magic. And I just realised I'm starving."

His eyes crinkled, "Wait, did you just get out of bed? You absolute laggard. I've been up for hours! Had a fly around the pitch, breakfast with my aunt, looked out the car…" he laughed as he defended himself from the slap she tried to land on his forearm.

"Shut up, Malfoy," she glared at him but was unable to keep her smile from growing. "What's this about a car? And where are we going?"

"Nowhere until you put on some shoes," he stared pointedly at her bare feet.

"Oh bollocks!" she dashed back into the cottage and re-emerged with some very fetching sandals, a sunhat, bag and sunglasses.

"Very nice," he murmured, looking her up and down. "I particularly like how that dress buttons all the way down the front… But the hat will have to go in the boot."

"Oh? Why?" she looked up at him, "and where is this automobile?"

"I parked on the road and walked up. Didn't want to scare our friends in the paddock."

"That was sweet of you," she laced her fingers in his as they turned toward the path to the road.

He glanced down at her and she felt her insides do the familiar flip.

"The car is a Citroen DS - a 1963 - and it's a cabriolet, hence your hat going in the boot. And we're going to an out of the way little muggle place. It has a Michelin star, but it's rarely crowded for lunch. I think you'll like it."

"I'm sure I will."

~oOo~

Hermione leaned back and groaned, "I think the soup put me over the edge."

"Gannet," he said, smiling at her. "You didn't have to eat it all, you know."

"But it was soo good." Her eyes took on a dreamy quality.

Just then the waiter appeared asking if they wanted coffee. He looked at her and she nodded. "I didn't get much sleep last night," she murmured.

Draco suppressed a grin and ordered two espressos then leaned back, taking in her beautiful profile as she looked out over the vineyard they were seated practically in the middle of.

She turned back to him, "this is all so lovely," she gestured to their idyllic surroundings - white umbrellas, crisp tablecloths, a trellis with green vines snaking over their heads - and the grapes, rolling back in orderly rows as far as the eye could see. "How did you find it?"

"Lucretia," he said. "She knows every good place in the area. This is one of her favorites."

Hermione stretched in the sun, and his eye was caught by the graceful line of her long neck, which brought on a flash of memory from last night. Maybe they shouldn't have ordered coffee… they would be that much closer to leaving, to her cottage, to privacy. He continued to gaze at her and she flicked her eyes to him, brows raised. He schooled his features. Gods, he couldn't remember the last time a woman had distracted him so thoroughly.

He cleared his throat and took a sip of wine. "Tell me about your parents. They left Britain during the war, correct?"

Her eyes drew down and she sighed. "Yes, I altered their memories the summer after sixth year and sent them to Australia for their safety. They've been there ever since."

"Altered their memories? How so?" He'd heard something about this, but never the whole story.

"Well in order for them to be truly safe, to know that they wouldn't try to come find me or help me and place themselves in the line of fire, I had to … remove all traces of myself. Full obliviation." She looked down again, playing with her napkin.

He leaned toward her, placing his hand near hers on the table. "I had no idea. I'm so sorry." She glanced up and met his gaze, her eyes glassy with unshed tears.

"Thank you. It was the most difficult thing I've ever done."

He touched her hand. "And after the war?"

Her fingers brushed his and she sighed, "well I was able to remove most of the spellwork, but a lot had happened by then."

He tilted his head, wanting her to go on, but not wanting to push.

"Before I came back, my mother fell pregnant and had another child. A son - my brother Henry. He's almost 10 now."

"I see."

"They were young when they had me, but frankly it didn't occur to me that it might happen." She gave a self-deprecating little laugh. "He's not magical. And they're all very happy - he's the reason they didn't want to leave Sydney."

He frowned, "But I'm surprised they wouldn't want to be closer to you."

She sighed - a huge sigh, and her eyes were sad. He suddenly felt protective, angry, at these people he'd never met.

"I think," her brows drew together. "I think that it was very difficult with me. And I never realised because I was so caught up in the magical world and the war and these huge world-altering events that I found myself in the middle of. But it was devastating for them. We had been a unit of three all my life. We were very close. And," her eyes turned up slightly in the ghost of a smile, "as you know we were very middle class." He inclined his head. "They never meant to send me away to school or to lose me from their lives so completely. Of course I would have gone to university, but Oxford and Cambridge weren't far." He snorted affectionately and her smile emerged briefly, but then her face grew serious again. "So when I was subsumed so totally and taken away from them, I think it was fairly awful - especially for my mother. Looking back now I can see how much pain she was hiding."

They paused for a moment as the waiter appeared with their coffee.

He sipped thoughtfully. "This is actually something I've been thinking about in a professional capacity. Something we could do at The Meadows for muggle families like yours - who have a magical child."

She nodded. "That's a wonderful idea. It's needed. Because there was nothing. They had less than a year to get used to the idea that I was a witch - that there was an entire world of magic - and that I would be leaving home, essentially for good, at eleven years of age. And there was no support from Hogwarts, rather just an expectation that they would go along and be fine."

He gazed at her, ideas blooming and taking hold in his mind. A muggle support and integration program… classes and counseling groups. He could liaise with McGonagall and house part of it at Hogwarts. He could ask Hermione to consult on it… She spoke again and he pulled his attention back.

"So when they had Henry, it was like they started over. They were so happy when I came to find them. I nearly didn't restore their memories." She paused and looked out over the vines again. "And when I did, they were almost angry at first. It was difficult for them to put the two halves of their lives back together." She brought her eyes back to his and lifted her brows. "So that's my sad story. But at least they're happy. And my brother is a hoot. I try to go down and see them once a year."

"Does he know that you're a witch?"

Her lips tightened. "No. They asked me not to … I think after what happened they wanted to banish as much of the magical world as they could. And they also feared for Henry's safety."

It sounded to Draco like they'd banished her too. He took her hand and stroked the back with his thumb. "I'm really very sorry," he said. "You didn't deserve that."

"Thank you. But I've had a lot of years to come to terms with it. And being an honorary member of the Weasley clan helps." Draco couldn't help an internal grimace as she took a deep breath and straightened to sip her coffee. "And are you close to your mother, post-war? Have her views changed the way yours have?"

He snorted and looked away. "No, and no."

Her face fell. "I'm sorry too, then."

"Yes, well," he pulled his hand back and raked it through his hair. "She's very rigid in her thinking. Our opinions over my choices diverge quite markedly at this point." He made eye contact with the waiter and signaled for the check. "Ready to go?"

"Ok," she smiled at him. "Will we just drive back or do you have other plans?"

He leaned back and smirked at her. "Yes."

"To which?" her exasperated smile was so fucking charming.

"Both. Yes, we're 'just' driving back and yes, I have other plans. They involve getting you alone again."

"Oh." Her blush was also fucking charming. He rose and held out his hand to help her out of her chair and they began walking out of the courtyard.

"Draco?"

"Hmm?" Something in the look she was giving him was sending off faint alarm bells in his mind.

"Do you ever let people drive your cars?"

He stopped short and looked at her. She looked back at him. He shifted and averted his eyes.

"No."

"No?"

"No." His hand spasmed around his keys.

"Interesting." She continued walking. He was still standing there, looking after her. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled. "Well aren't you coming? I thought you said you wanted to get me alone."

He blinked twice and went.

~oOo~

Later, they were laying on her couch, limbs entwined. She'd put something soft and pretty on the turntable and they were having more of the good white wine. Late afternoon sunlight slanted through the thick glass of the cottage windows. Her fingers were slipping slowly and rhythmically through his hair and he didn't know if he'd ever felt so relaxed.

Unfortunate that he'd have to ruin the idyll.

"So I do have to go," he murmured against her temple.

"You do?" She glanced up at him.

"Auntie has asked me to be home for dinner. I would fob her off except for feeling obligated because I stay with her."

"No, you shouldn't fob her off." She sat up and pulled the belt of her silk dressing gown a little tighter, then leaned down to kiss him softly. "I've had a good share of you over the last twenty-four hours."

She started to pull back, but he didn't let her, sliding his hand over the back of her head to hold her in place.

"Tired of me already, Granger?" he said against her mouth. He felt her answering smile.

"If you let me answer that truthfully, you'll probably be late for dinner."

He shifted to pull her whole body down on his, "tempting."

"Draco," she laughed as he started to pull at the tie of her gown.

He sighed and stilled his hands. "You're right. I really do need to get my own place here, though. I have a bit of property nearby. A few acres of vines and a level building site. I'll show it to you. I've been planning on doing something with it forever."

"I'd love to see it. Maybe some evening this week?"

He sighed, "Well the other thing is, I have to go to London tomorrow. Until Friday. Maybe Thursday if I can be ruthlessly efficient."

She frowned. "Mmm. Four whole days. I'll miss you."

"You have no idea," he kissed her soundly and rose up, picking up his trousers and shirt.

She looked up at him from where she was kneeling on the couch, the tips her long curls just brushing the tips of her breasts, the outline of which he could clearly see through the thin silk of her robe. She truly had no idea.

"What are you going for? Meetings?"

"Yes, and interviews. I'm trying to hire a new head of Operations. Scintillating stuff."

"I find it interesting."

He half smiled at her. Of course she would. "I'll give you a rundown on the promising candidates when I see you next." He buttoned his shirt. "And what is your plan for the week? How's progress with the herd?"

"Going very well, thanks. I think we're within striking distance of an agreement on the bill language. And all of the signals coming from London seem to be favourable as well. I actually expect to be done here fairly soon."

He felt a small stab of melancholy at the thought that their time in France would come to an end, but brushed it off. It wouldn't be for weeks yet."That's brilliant. I didn't think it would go this smoothly."

"Neither did I, but I'm glad of it, even though I wouldn't mind idling away here for another few months." Her thoughts seemed to echo his. "When does Astoria go to school?"

"September 1st. Daph and I will be trekking up to the Pyrennees with her."

"So soon! I'll have to be sure to make some more time with her before she goes. And how long is Daphne staying this visit?"

"I know Astor would like that. And I believe Daph and Theo meant to go to Paris today, unless she really hit it off with your friend..."

"Oh I'm sorry to miss them. I'll have to owl Rémy and see if I can get the details at lunch or drinks," she pursed her lips speculatively.

He gave her a level stare and she blinked, then stood up to place her arms around his waist and gaze into his eyes. "Have I told you today how very attractive I find you? It's extremely difficult to let you go."

He laughed softly and drew her in for a deep kiss that he broke only when he was worried it was about to go past a point of no return. He took a ragged breath and collected himself. "Until Friday? Or Thursday if I possibly can."

"Until then." She gave him a lovely smile as he disappeared.

Chapter Text

"How soon any other wishes introduced themselves I can hardly tell"

Hermione started her week determined to make the most of the opportunity for uninterrupted work and some time spent with Pen and Percy, whom she felt she had been neglecting. She cooked for the family on Monday and attended Artie's under-10s Quidditch game on Tuesday. She also made a good bit of progress on her project documentation, which she had also given short shrift of late. And she spent long hours with the herd. Not only working, but just enjoying their presence.

But she couldn't deny that her mind was frequently otherwise occupied. Just at odd little times of the day, she'd find herself staring off into space and smiling. Or she'd chuckle over something when she was completely alone. Very alarming behavior, really. She scolded herself for being such a twit. They'd slept together once. Well, a good deal more than once... — but one episode. It was a good thing she was not living with Ginny right now — she'd never hear the end of it.

Speaking of Ginny, Hermione realised she was avoiding corresponding with her best friend, who had sent her two owls in a row and was probably about to break in on her floo unannounced if Hermione didn't respond soon. But she knew that Ginny would suss out what had happened the moment she saw her face and Hermione found she wasn't really ready for the interrogation that would follow. She wanted to keep this just for herself a little longer.

Pen seemed to know something of what was going on, though. Being very unlike her sister-in-law, she didn't say anything directly, but Hermione caught her giving little looks. Then she would find ways to work his name into the conversation. Something she'd seen in the Prophet or something his aunt had said. And Hermione wouldn't realise she'd jumped on the chance to talk about him until she was two minutes into a rambling comment and Pen was giving her an indulgent smile.

It was somewhat disconcerting. But it was also nice to be able to speak about him without getting the third degree.

And although she didn't hear from Draco himself, she wasn't surprised. International owl post had long lag times and she didn't think she was quite ready to see his head popping up in her fireplace. But then on Wednesday morning she opened her door to find a crate of the wine they'd drunk over the weekend sitting on her steps. No note, but she somehow doubted Theo had sent it. She stooped down to drag it inside and couldn't prevent a smile from blooming across her face. So he was thinking about her too.

Her thoughts also turned to his family and she wondered if she should invite herself over for a visit with Astoria. Inviting herself to visit Lucretia seemed … not quite on. The older witch had been kind to her, but she was still a bit formidable. And Hermione remained unclear on how Lucretia viewed her — whatever this was — with Draco.

So it was with some pleasure that she beheld Mignon the house elf standing at her cottage door on Wednesday evening with a letter in hand. The envelope contained an elegant note requesting Hermione's company at an intimate family dinner with Lucretia, Astoria and Alain the following night. No mention of Draco, hmm... Hermione figured Lucretia didn't expect him until Friday. Interesting, she stared into space, the hand holding the note dropping to her side.

Deep in thought, she almost missed a second square of paper which fluttered to the ground with her movement. It was hot pink and covered in black block printing. Hermione smiled as she picked it up and unfolded it. The note asked if she would like Astoria's company on her visit to the herd tomorrow and promised a trip to a secret swimming place as an inducement. Hermione quickly dispatched Mignon with two affirmative replies, looking forward to her day with the girl and evening with the family.

~oOo~

The next morning Hermione walked up the path to the herd's meadow, swimsuit and towel in her rucksack along with her usual supplies. Coming around a bend she saw a petite form perched on a boulder next to the trail. She waved a friendly hello and Astoria bolted up, then ran over to and threw her arms around Hermione's waist.

"Good morning! I'm so glad you let me come today!" she said in a rush, her smile blinding. Hermione wondered, not for the first time, how she and the cool, reserved Daphne could come from the same stock.

"Let you? Of course! I'm glad you're here!" Hermione stepped back from the hug and held Astoria by the shoulders with an affectionate smile. "Louise will be well-pleased too. She's been asking me when you'd visit." She had told the proud herd matriarch about her acquaintance with Astoria and was certain it had unbent the centaur a touch.

Astoria tilted her head, "ohh, sweet Lulu."

Hermione raised her eyebrows at the nickname and the characterization of the stern creature as 'sweet'. Astoria really did seem to have a way…

Her speculation was immediately proved by the manner in which the herd greeted her young friend. Cantering around her in a circle, their excited whinnies and calls rang out through the morning air. Astoria greeted each one with a personal comment or question, and was allowed to touch even the most recalcitrant herd members. Hermione noticed many of the centaurs stroking Astoria in a soothing way and speaking soft words to her. Louise touched her forehead briefly to the young witch's brow and whispered something that had Astoria nodding and swiping quickly at her eyes. Hermione wondered, but stood back and just watched, sensing that she shouldn't interrupt.

Eventually the greeting circle broke and the two witches went to work. The day flew with two of them and Hermione had never found the centaurs easier to communicate with. I should have invited her sooner and more often, she thought, smiling at Astoria, who was studiously taking notes. Toward late afternoon the heat had become rather oppressive and Louise announced that the herd would be leaving for cooler elevations, so Hermione and Astoria packed up and headed toward the swimming place.

"You are going to love it," Astoria said, eyes bright. "The water is the most amazing color and there are rocks you can jump from."

"Lead the way!" Hermione was desperate for the feel of the cool water on her sweaty, dusty person.

They walked for about a mile in a companionable silence, Hermione taking in the lovely scenery and thinking she was going to miss the wildness of the country here. The craggy outcroppings and scrubby trees - the faintly herbal scent in the warm air.

Just then they came around a wide bend in the trail and Astoria clapped her hands, "here we are!"

Hermione gasped. They were overlooking a beautiful scene; the dammed up section of a meandering river, which had created a deep, clear aquamarine pool. Surrounded on three sides by mellow gold cliffs and with a good sized beach covered in smooth stones, it was totally deserted.

Hermione looked Astoria with wide eyes. "This is amazing!"

"Race you!" cried the young girl, running the rest of the way down the track to the beach.

"I don't even have my suit on!" called Hermione, jogging behind her.

"You can change behind those boulders over there!" Astoria was pulling off her t-shirt and kicking down her shorts. Hermione ducked behind the suggested rocks and heard a splash and a whoop. Quickly donning her black two piece, she ran to join her friend in the cool water.

They swam and floated in the pristine pool for over an hour. Hermione stayed in the water until she was completely wrinkled, then finally got out and lay down on a large, flat rock, letting the sun warm and dry her. Astoria came to lay next to her, letting out a soft, contented sigh.

Hermione propped herself up on an elbow. "Are you excited for your new school?" she asked, fond memories of the joy she used to feel over a new year at Hogwarts washing over her.

"I am," Astoria said, but without her usual bubbliness. "I'm also a bit nervous, to be honest."

"Of course," said Hermione. "That's completely normal." She paused and turned her eyes to Astoria's, "And may I ask," she said softly, "why you decided to switch schools? Is it about getting a more well-rounded education?" she asked, remembering Pansy's comments on the subject.

Astoria shifted. "No, I wasn't … happy … at Hogwarts anymore. I had a … troubling experience." She looked away and seemed to turn in on herself. Hermione was instantly reminded of the way the centaurs had greeted the young witch earlier and reached out to rub her arm, wondering what could have happened, but not daring to pry.

"I'm so sorry."

Astoria's eyes flitted back to hers. "Thank you." She took a deep breath and smiled. "But it's behind me now. I am ready to start a new chapter. I'm just a little nervous because I won't know many people there."

"Somehow I don't think that will be a problem for long," smiled Hermione, her curiosity over what had happened tempered by the girl's obvious desire to change the subject.

Astoria rested her head briefly on Hermione's shoulder and then straightened up and squinted at the cloudless sky. "I hate to say it, but I think we should probably go soon if we want to be back in time for Auntie's dinner."

"You're right." Hermione moaned with regret as she picked herself up off the warm stone. "But let's come back here before you go."

"You're on."

Finding her cutoff jean shorts behind the changing boulders, Hermione slipped them over her suit bottoms and pulled on her old white t-shirt. The sun-warmed cotton felt delicious, but she definitely needed time to change before she presented herself to Lucretia. She finger combed her hair, loosening the tight curls formed by the water and went to join Astoria on the beach.

"Can we apparate from here?" she called. "I'm not sure I have time to hike all the way back."

Astoria slung her towel over her shoulder. "No, but there's an actual point up the trail a bit."

"Oh good." Hermione started up the small hill to the path.

They walked down the trail into a section that was wooded and shady. "It's just up ahead," said Astoria over her shoulder as she disappeared around a sharp bend.

Hermione suddenly heard one of the girl's distinctive shrieks and hurried to see what was going on. She came around the bend to see the tiny witch launching herself at an amused Draco.

His eyes met Hermione's over Astoria's head as he hugged the young girl, then kissed her cheek soundly. She looked up and cried, "what are you doing here? You're early!"

Hermione stood back and waved at him, unable to keep a smile from spreading across her face.

'Hello, my Astor," he chuckled. "Hello," he called a little more softly to Hermione, holding her gaze. She suddenly felt warmer.

He looked back at his ward. "I was able to move some meetings around, so here I am." His eyes again slid to Hermione on the last bit of the sentence. Astoria seemed to notice because she abruptly stepped out from between them.

"How did you know we were here?" asked Hermione, tilting her head.

"Mignon. She told me about your plans with the herd, and the swimming." He glanced back at Astoria. "How was it?"

"Brilliant!" she crowed. "It was so good to see them."

"And the swimming was gorgeous," Hermione added.

His eyes flicked briefly down her body and she felt a bit self-conscious. She'd really gone full-on sloppy muggle today.

Astoria eyes darted from Draco to Hermione. "Well Auntie must not even know you're here! I should, uh, go tell her so she knows you'll be here for dinner. Wouldn't want to surprise her and throw off the numbers! You know how she hates that." She shot a glance at Draco that was all huge, round eyes as she rushed to what must be the apparition spot. "See you in a bit!" she called over her shoulder before disappearing.

"But I already … told… Mignon…," he trailed off, shaking his head and shrugging at Hermione.

"She's not what I'd call subtle," she said, moving toward him with a grin still tugging at the corners of her mouth.

He chuckled. "And yet I find I appreciate the gesture. Come here." He reached out and pulled her to him, capturing her lips. She molded to his lean body, pressing against him as she ran her hands up to stroke the soft skin of his nape.

He felt just as good as she remembered.

His hands wandered down her back and under her frayed t-shirt, sweeping up under the tie of her bathing suit. "Today, you taste like sunshine... and heat," he murmured when he came up for air.

"And look like a vagrant," she laughed, pulling back and gesturing to herself.

"Mmm, nooo," he said, "I quite like this. What are these? Jeans that you made into shorts?" She nodded. "They're very short. Muggle fashion can really be quite lovely in the way it accentuates the body." His eyes twinkled as his hands traveled down over her arse and ran under the frayed hems. "I do enjoy it when you make your already abbreviated garments even smaller," he murmured, his lips moving lightly down her neck. "It reminds me of our day in the park."

Hermione was finding it difficult to form a coherent answer, so she settled for a soft sigh.

"I wish I'd seen your swim costume, though" he continued, kissing back up to her mouth. "Seems there's very little to it." His fingers tugged at the string holding her bikini top on.

"Heyyy!" she said against his lips.

He shot her a wicked smile. "I suppose we do have to get back for dinner. 6pm sharp, correct?"

"Yes," Hermione glanced at her watch. "Which gives me just under thirty minutes, so I'm going to have to go if I want to shower off this river water." She pulled back and gathered her rucksack, which had dropped to the dusty ground.

"A shower?" his eyes lit on hers, all warm, melting silver. "I could help you with that, you know. I'm very helpful"

"I'm sure you could, but then I'd definitely be late."

"You can't look at me like that unless you want me to kiss you," he said, narrowing his eyes and stepping toward her again. Hermione could sympathize. She was finding it extremely difficult not to throw him against a tree and have her way with him. But she gathered herself. Lucretia had asked her to dinner and she had accepted. This distracting wizard would just have to wait.

Which is what she told him.

He chuckled. "Fine, fine. But I'll see you very soon." He grabbed her hand and led her to the apparition spot - and she blew him one last kiss before she swirled away.

~oOo~

"Your progress with the herd has been admirable, Hermione," said Lucretia as she took a small sip of wine. "They can be quite difficult in my experience."

"Yes, I was expecting more resistance, but they have been reasonable, even helpful." Hermione spooned a bite of basil-lime sorbet into her mouth and looked at Astoria, "But today was something else entirely. Astoria's rapport with the herd is extraordinary."

The young witch colored. "Oh no. I've just known them for a long time."

"It's more than that," smiled Hermione. "You know intrinsically how to act with them." She looked around the table, "I should have had her with me every day. My job would have gone much faster." Everyone murmured their praise and agreement. "Although, I wouldn't have wanted to shorten my time here." Hermione couldn't help her eyes darting toward Draco as she said this. He was looking down, but his lips lifted slightly.

Lucretia cleared her throat. "And when will you be going, my dear? I'm devastated at the idea of losing Astoria, yourself, and presumably Draco, from the neighborhood at the same time. I shall have to plan a trip." Her eyebrow went up in an amused curve when she mentioned her nephew. He looked up and met her gaze with a smirk.

Hermione ignored the little interaction and did a swift calculation in her head. "Astoria, you leave two weeks from Tuesday?" she asked. Astoria nodded. "Hmm, I think if you help me for a few more days, I'll only need about a week after that. So less than a month total."

Lucretia sighed and Hermione tilted her head in agreement. The end of Summer always brought some wistfulness - and this had been such a good one.

"Well," said Lucretia, making a little motion to Mignon to clear the table. "I believe I have something that will cheer at least you, my dear. Astoria reminded me of it the other day. I had totally forgotten… when one gets to my age," she shook her head with impatience. "Anyway, there is a collection on centaurs in the library here that you should look at and catalogue. Many rare and old volumes."

"Oh?" said Hermione, straightening in her seat, her brows flying up. A private collection? There might be works she'd never seen before... She heard an amused exhale from Draco's end of the table.

"Yes," the older witch waved her hand. "There are books of course, but the real gems are diaries kept by my great aunt and her mother before her. They were both fascinated by the herd and became very close to them, with daily contact and observation." Hermione could feel her eyes widening with every word. "They recorded books and books over the span of their two lifetimes. About the beasts' culture, habits, shifting patterns over time. In French, of course, but I presume you read it?"

"Yes," said Hermione. "And that sounds absolutely brilliant. Those kinds of texts about centaurs just don't exist. I've read most - well, likely all - of the literature," she definitely heard a snort from Draco's direction at this, "AND," she shot a quick glare down table, "I've never seen anything like what you describe. They're such private and wary creatures. Most who have studied them were only given limited access for a discrete amount of time, like me."

"I believe my aunts were a special case. Growing up with the creatures and gaining their trust - the type of trust that can only be accomplished over a lifetime … or two." Hermione's pulse sped at the older witch's words, her mind racing in about ten different directions as the group rose from the table and moved toward one of the parlors for an after-dinner drink. Lucretia fell into step with her, "You shall have them tonight. I'm only sorry that I didn't recall them sooner."

Hermione dismissed her apology and thanked her effusively. The older witch smiled as she fluttered down onto a low velvet sofa, her eyes flicking to Draco, who was helping to pour and distribute drinks. "Darling, would you please show Hermione the collection? It's in the rare works and family texts area, which," she glanced at Hermione, "is heavily warded. You'll need a member of the Black family as an escort." Hermione could have sworn a hint of a mischievous smile danced over the older witch's lips as she commented.

Draco inclined his head in his aunt's direction, "of course." He turned to Hermione, his face carefully neutral, but his eyes warm. "Would you like to go now?"

"Oh yes, go now. It's getting late and I fear we may have lost Hermione's attention for good anyway," Lucretia waved them away.

Hermione started. She had indeed been staring off into space and imagining the contents of the notebooks and what it might mean to her project, not to mention the general world store of knowledge about centaurs. "I'm so sorry," she shook her head and refocused on her hostess.

"Never apologize for your passions, my dear," said Lucretia, leveling a long look at her.

Hermione smiled at the older witch for a beat before she acquiesced and said her good-nights, then turned to let Draco show her out of the room.

~oOo~

They walked mostly in silence through yet another wing of the chateau. Hermione was still deep in thought and barely registering their route. She glanced up at Draco and he smiled down at her, then lightly touched the tips of her fingers to guide her down a series of turns and corridors to a high-ceilinged room, the chateau's library, which was somehow ornate and airy at the same time. Hermione was reminded of the Ravenclaw common room at Hogwarts.

Draco took her hand more firmly as they walked through the main atrium. "The section we want is at the back."

They moved through a series of similar chambers to a small apartment that was dark and cozy in comparison to the rest, its walls comprised of wooden bookshelves crammed with every size and shape of text. Draco muttered a low incantation as they walked through the doorway and Hermione felt the magic warding the door expand and contract to admit them.

"I believe the section is just… here," he said softly, perusing the stacks then pointing to two shelves of slim volumes.

Hermione smiled at him, then released his fingers to select the first book on the upper shelf. She opened it carefully. The cover page contained a beautifully detailed sketch of the herd gathered in the greeting meadow she was so familiar with. It was dated 1690. She inhaled sharply and traced the paper with a reverent finger, sinking down onto a convenient bench to become completely absorbed in it.

She was vaguely aware of Draco moving off through the stacks for a bit and eventually coming back to settle in a nearby armchair. The only noise in the room was the turning of their pages and Hermione's occasional exhale of delight as she came across a revelatory observation or another charming sketch. The elder Black aunt had possessed a keen eye and a sharp wit.

Making a relatively brief study of the first set of journals and dipping into the second, Hermione was aware that a much more thorough review of the collection would be needed - as well as translation and transcription of the sketches. She'd need to call on Rolf and have him look at them first … a find of this magnitude needed his assessment … and there were several others in her department who would need to be alerted. She was going over the order of precedence in her mind when Mimi the house elf suddenly appeared with a crack outside the door to the chamber, starting Hermione out of her thoughts.

"Hullo, Mimi" drawled Draco, looking up from his book. Hermione noted that it was what looked very much like a first edition of Potions Most Potente, which would put it at roughly 600 years old. Her mouth watered.

"Hello Mister Draco, Miss Hermione." The elf bobbed a curtsey. "Mimi has brought you some refreshments and come to tell you that Madame, Monsieur and Miss have gone to bed. Madame said to tell you…," the elf looked skyward and took a deep breath, obviously reciting something she had been told not to forget, "that you and Miss Hermione must take all the time you require. Madame has sent a special box to transport the journals to Miss Hermione's house and trusts that Mister Draco will ensure that she and the books go home safely - no matter how late … or how early!" Hermione snorted and Draco's amused glance flew to hers as the elf finished with a smile and a nod, then brandished a tray of what looked like whisky and shortbread.

"Thank you very much, Mimi," said Draco smoothly, stepping out to take the tray from the elf. "Now you must go to bed yourself. It's late."

"Oh no Mister Draco! We is waiting up until you have retired as well. In case you need anything!" The elf's eyes were huge.

"Ahh, but Ms. Granger and I may be … quite late. There are many books to go through, you see." He gestured to the stack Hermione had accumulated next to her on the bench. The elf still looked hesitant, so he shot an apologetic look at Hermione then said, "Mimi, I command you and all of the other elves to go to bed. If you were to stay up it would go against my express wishes."

Did Hermione imagine the very quick look of relief that passed over the elf's face? She couldn't be sure.

"As you wish, Mister Draco." Mimi bowed deeply to both of them, then disappeared.

Draco placed the tray on a small table next to his seat and poured out a measure of whisky for each of them. Hermione stretched and rolled her neck before she took her glass and a buttery biscuit.

"Anything good?" he asked, gesturing to the journals.

"Oh Draco…" Hermione sighed. "They're simply amazing. They're going to change everything we know about centaurs. This is an extremely significant find." She stood up from her bench and moved toward his deep club chair. He had dropped back down in it and was turning his glass to watch the mellow light of the library candles filter through the golden liquid. He looked up at her and she was struck, for maybe the four-hundredth time in the last few months, by how beautiful he was. His white blonde hair gleamed in the candle light, which highlighted the arresting planes of his face. His eyes were warm and darkly fringed - and right now alight with approbation and affection. And of course he'd discarded his jacket and rolled his linen sleeves since they'd arrived in the book room.

Hermione had unconsciously moved until she was right in front of him, standing over him as he sat, legs elegantly crossed.

"Thank you for letting me get lost," she murmured, reaching out to brush his bare forearm with her fingertips.

His mouth turned up. "I know better than to get between you and your books."

She gave a soft laugh and leaned down to kiss him, putting her whisky down and bracing herself on the arms of the chair. His hand slid behind her head and she climbed into his lap, settling down and twining her arms around his neck. His fingers splayed across her lower back, pulling her to him before he skimmed one hand down over her hip and back up her thigh under her dress.

Their kiss deepened until it was a heated thing of twining tongues and soft, gasping breaths. She broke it and pulled back, tracing the pad of her thumb over his eyebrow and down his cheek.

"I meant what I said. Thank you for not demanding anything of me just now. I can be," she looked down, "single-minded at times, when it comes to research."

His brows lifted, "Never… You?"

She chuckled and stuck out her tongue, but then sobered. "I don't apologize for it. But really, not everyone … understands that. Has understood it." She looked away, inward. "It's caused problems in the past."

"Well," he pulled her to him and placed a series of kisses along her jawline, "it's a good thing I'm the confident, well-read sort. In fact, I find it bloody sexy to watch you get caught up." He brought his lips back up and captured her mouth, his hand pushing at the hem of her dress again. She shuddered and groaned softly then adjusted herself to straddle him on her knees. Her fingers went to the buttons of his shirt and she quickly undid the top few, wanting to see and touch his beautiful skin.

He reached around to pull down the zip along the back of her dress, his fingers trailing down her spine then going back up to the clasp of her bra.

"Wait," she gasped, holding his arms and touching her forehead to his with a wicked smile. He looked at her with dark eyes, his chest visibly rising and falling, as she climbed up off his lap. His look turned quizzical as she walked slowly backward toward the wall of books in front of them.

She leaned against it and smirked at him. "I'd like to reward such exemplary behaviour."

His eyebrows crept up as she pulled out her wand and waved it over herself, then muttered a few soft spells. With a soft shimmer, the tasteful white shirt dress she'd selected for dinner with Lucretia transfigured into something else altogether.

"Fucking hell," he breathed when she was done. She smoothed the short, pleated skirt of her Hogwarts uniform and tugged at her over-the-knee tights. He was utterly still and staring at her, his eyes dark slate.

"You did say, you wanted to…" she looked up from under lowered lids and licked her lips, gesturing to the books behind her.

"Yes, I fucking did." He surged up in a quick movement and started toward her.

~oOo~

It was like a school fantasy, one of his hottest, come to life.

She leaned against the bookshelf and toyed with her red and gold tie, undoing it and sliding it off her neck to drop in front of him. He swallowed and she kept her eyes on his as she slowly undid the buttons of her white blouse.

He actually chuckled when she revealed the black lace push-up bra underneath. That was a little touch just for him; he knew there was no way she had worn anything like that at school.

Her answering smile confirmed his suspicion and he moved closer, his eyes on the creamy expanse of flesh above the edge of the lace.

Eyes glittering, she put her index finger to her mouth and looked up at him. "I wonder if someone could help me get a book down from the top shelf." Her voice was low and husky in the quiet space and his cock actually pulsed at the sound of it. He looked at her for a beat, wantonly spread against the shelves - curls mussed, skirt a bit too short and blouse undone over her tarty bra, then desire overtook him and he stepped roughly against her, pushing one leg between her knees and slamming his palms against the shelf above her head.

The motion pressed their bodies together and their faces were almost touching. He angled his head to match his mouth to hers, although he didn't kiss her. He was enjoying the feel of her ragged breath against his lips and the little hitches he could hear in her throat. He dipped his lips as if to capture hers and her mouth reached up hungrily - but at the last second he pulled back and moved his hands from the shelves to her shoulders, spinning her around so she was facing the stacks.

Her hands flattened against the shelves and she gasped. He pressed his whole length against her again, wrapping his arm around her waist to pull her tightly against him, brushing his mouth to her shoulder, pushing down her blouse and bra and kissing her soft skin with furious desire. She moaned low in her throat and he reached up to lift her hair off her neck then work the silky skin at her nape. Her moan turned into a sharper sound and she arched her back, pushing her arse against his groin with a delicious pressure.

"Fuck," he muttered against her neck and his hand tightened on her hair, fisting into it as he nuzzled into her skin, whispering against her, "you've got me so hard. I'm going to reach under your skirt, tear off whatever pretty little knickers you have on and fuck you against this wall until you scream."

"I'm not wearing any knickers."

She was now obviously circling her pert arse against his cock. He groaned and slid his hand up under her skirt, around to her silky cunt, which was so wet that he groaned again, sliding his fingers against her swollen clit. His other hand reached up to flick open her bra and his fingers closed over her peaked nipple.

"Draco, please," her voice came out in a kind of sob. He increased his pace against her clit and bit her neck again, rolling her tightly budded nipple between his fingers. "Oh god, oh god, oh godohgodohgodOH! GOD!" she was thrusting against his hand and arching back to rest the back of her head on his shoulder, gasping for breath. She started to come and he pulled his hand from her breast and reached down to slide his fingers into her passage. Her muscles clamped and she screamed his name - he remembered with a quick flash that he hadn't cast a silencing charm and crashed his mouth around to hers to muffle the sound. Her cry turned into a sort of groan and she subsided under his lips, her breath coming fast and ragged. After a few beats, she sagged against him and he held her up as her breathing slowed.

His breathing was still fast and rough and his cock was harder than he could ever remember it being. He couldn't help rubbing it slowly against her arse as she floated back to herself, his nose and mouth buried in her soft hair and his hands again on her gorgeous tits.

Suddenly she straightened and slid around to face him, her mouth reaching up to his. He kissed her hungrily, a bit desperately - he wanted so badly to be inside of her. She teased him with her tongue, twining and parrying.

"Why, Malfoy," she whispered with a smile in her voice, "was that really an appropriate activity for prefect rounds?"

He breathed a soft laugh, so intent on the kiss and her words that he hardly realised she was turning them around until his back hit the bookcase. Her mouth left his to trail down his jaw to his neck, where she nipped and licked him until he groaned.

His hands reached down and skimmed under her skirt again, cupping her bare arse. But to his disappointment, she reached around and pulled his palms away from her, looking up into his puzzled face with wicked promise. He lunged forward to capture her lips again and she gave him a quick kiss before disengaging.

Then she dropped to her knees.

Oh Gods. He let his head fall back against the stacks. Now this was the stuff of his schoolboy fantasies.

Her deft little fingers went right to his flies and he heard the clink of metal as she quickly undid his belt.

"Shall I show you what I really wanted to do that night I saw you in the corridor with Pansy?"

He sucked his breath in — a long low hiss as he felt her palm against the length of his cock.

And then her mouth. Oh God and Merlin and Salazar and Morgana and Jesus Christ and whoever people prayed to, her mouth. She wasn't just licking and sucking, but taking him deep into her throat with relentless strokes.

He could do absolutely nothing but stand there and feel. And try to stay upright.

His eyes rolled back and his fingers gripped blindly against the shelves until he felt his release nearing, then, after a few deep pulls from her satiny lips, beginning to rip through him with wild force. His instinct was to thrust, although he tried to pull away — but she held him against her firmly as he came with a ragged shout, looking down at the last second to watch as she took his cock and every last bit of his seed into her perfect mouth.

Then it was his turn to sag against the shelves.

She stood back up and wrapped her arms around him, burying her face against his chest. His arms went around her and he stroked her lithe back.

After a few moments he pushed up and led them back to the chair, dropping into it and pulling her down on him. She put her head on his shoulder and he closed his eyes for a bit. They rested there until she sighed - a bit mournfully.

He found his voice with some difficulty, "what?"

"It's just…"

He pulled back to look at her with a raised brow.

Her eyes twinkled as she attempted a pout, "well, it's just that you said you were gong to fuck me against the shelves until I screamed."

He looked at her.

"Of course, I understand if you're too tired." She started to get up, very obviously flashing him from under her short skirt. His eyes went unfocused and then he started.

"Too tired…?" he grabbed her and pulled her back down, back to front, and began kissing her neck and shoulder again. Before long he had reached around and had his hand under her skirt, teasing against her. His cock was hardening and she had begun to breathe heavily. Gods but she was responsive.

His lips wandered to her ear, "now, where was that book you needed help with?"

Chapter Text

"From knowing him better, his disposition was better understood."

Hermione yawned over her notes as she sat at her kitchen table, trying to finish a paragraph before the disappearance of the late summer light necessitated a candle. After several days of dividing her time between the Black journals and her fieldwork, she was absolutely exhausted. And a string of late nights hadn't helped either. Her lips tugged up in a smile — not that she regretted anything.

She leaned back and stretched. While her brain was fatigued and could use a night of unbroken sleep, her body felt marvelous. She couldn't remember when she'd last been this relaxed. Even that muggle yoga class she'd tried a few years ago couldn't beat regular, spectacular sex. She giggled to herself, her eyes far away as she nibbled on the end of her quill.

Suddenly her floo leaped to life with a roar and she looked up to see Ginny's head staring accusingly at her from across the room.

"Hermione. Jean. Granger. THREE owls I have sent with THREE letters and NO REPLY!? It's a good thing you're staying with my brother and sister, who assured me you are alive and well, or I would have filed a missing persons report by now!"

Hermione got up from the table and moved toward her fireplace with a grimace. "I'm so sorry Gin. There's just... There's been a lot going on. With the herd and this amazing source material I found." She looked away, "and er, personally. But that's no excuse for neglecting you."

"Oh I know what's been 'going on'," said Ginny. "Pen is not blind, nor is she averse to a bit of juicy goss. BUT," she gave a very unconvincing wounded look, "I'm very hurt that you haven't shared it all with me yet."

"Well I don't know how much there is to share…" Hermione's voice trailed away.

"Not much to share - aren't you SHAGGING!?" Ginny's voice boomed out in the cozy room.

Hermione's head whipped to her open kitchen window and she hustled over to close it, "Keep it down! Jesus. This is why I'm reluctant to talk to you sometimes!"

"Ok, ok," Ginny's voice dropped to an exaggeratedly low and modulated tone, and she took a deep breath. "Are you shagging?"

Hermione laughed and put her hands over her face. "yes."

"I didn't heeeaaarrrr that!" sang Ginny.

"YES. Ok! YES. We are shagging our brains out and it's fantastic and you won your 50 galleons and I can't get enough and you were right about everything! You were right." Hermione lifted her hands from her face to reveal a goofy grin.

"Tell me everything," Ginny's eyes gleamed and Hermione flopped down in front of the hearth to give her a quick rundown of all that had happened since they last spoke.

"Ok, yeah, great. You went to a music party a couple of weeks ago and he came home with you. You've gone out a few times. He's been over a lot. You like his neice or ward or whatever. His aunt is cool." Ginny waved her hand. "But tell me the good stuff. Is he icy and commanding in bed? Does he order you around? 'Put your leg there. Now sit on my face.'" Ginny put on a posh accent and raised an imperious brow.

Hermione laughed out loud. "No! You slag." Ginny just looked at her expectantly. "I mean he does have a lot of confidence, but he's quite sweet."

"But not boring?"

"NO! Anything but. Rather mind-blowing, in fact."

Ginny let out a silent wolf whistle. "And does he look as good under his robes as we thought he would?"

"Better."

Both witches indulged in a bit of screaming before calming down enough to speak again.

"So the second most pressing question in all three of my letters…" Ginny said, shaking her head. "When in the HELL are you coming home? I miss you! Harry misses you!" Her eyes narrowed, "although now it makes a lot more sense that you've been lingering in the French countryside."

"Well it hasn't all been just shagging and mooning about!" Hermione protested. "I've been doing a job here too. A good one."

Ginny rolled her eyes and made a move on gesture with her hand.

"ANYWAY," glared Hermione. "My job should finish in about two weeks. Astoria, who has been helping me, is off to school on the 1st and then I think I'll need one more week to tie up loose ends. So say around the 7th or 8th?"

Ginny nodded. "And what's going to happen… when you get back?"

Hermione sighed. "To tell you the truth, I don't know. It's been such an idyll here. Not many people know and no one really talks about it. It's mostly been just us."

"Yeah and I noticed you mentioned going out to mostly muggle places," Ginny's eyes rested on hers, brows slightly raised.

"Well I mean, that's not a big deal. They're much more fun around here anyway. And there's more of them"

"Mmm hmm. But that's going to change once you're in London."

Hermione looked away. "Yeah. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Ginny's face turned serious for a moment, but then she brightened up. "Well I'll be sure to look for your boyfriend next month in the Sacred Stroll section of the Prophet…"

"Oh god, I totally forgot about that! And he's not my boyfriend." Hermione shook her head.

Ginny just laughed, then looked over her shoulder. "Potter's home!"

Suddenly Harry's head poked into the flames as well. "Hey Hermione! I miss you!" he called.

"Harry! I miss you too!" Hermione blew him a kiss. His answering smile sent a stab of homesickness through her and she realised a part of her would be glad to get back.

"Sorry to cut you two short, but we've got to go if we're going to make the film," Harry said to Ginny.

"Ok, ok! Love you, Hermione. See you in a couple of weeks. And owl me back once in a while!" Ginny called.

"I will. Miss you both. See you very soon!" Hermione blinked as the flames went dark.

It was dim in the cottage now, so she muttered a soft 'lumos' to turn on the lamps, then moved to the couch and sat down with a pensive stare. What would they do when they got to London? So much would change. And she hadn't thought much about where they went when they went out - but it had been mostly muggle places... Was it coincidence or were they covertly hiding? Maybe they should go more public here for a soft landing, so to speak.

Or maybe they should attend the Founders Ball as a couple. Rip that bandage right off… Hermione snorted aloud at the idea. She couldn't believe she'd forgotten about the stuffiest social event of the year. The fucking 'Sacred Stroll' — formally known as the Founders Ball — but so nicknamed because it had been started by Sacred 28 families generations ago. She doubted they even let muggle-borns in the door.

Draco had figured prominently in Rita Skeeter's previous coverage of it, so Hermione knew he must go every year. Actually come to think of it, that seemed out of character. Why did he go? And what if they went together this year? On the one hand it was the last place she'd ever want to be, but on the other, what a bold declaration...

Anyway, she was too tired to be puzzling through this now. Her bed and sleep called. She fell into her soft mattress and was out almost instantly, her dreams filled with twirling couples.

~oOo~

Hermione thwacked the tennis ball with all she had, sending it spinning over the net. Astoria, with uncanny quickness, was there to return her serve with a wicked backhand. Hermione grunted as she lunged to meet the shot.

She had been pleased to learn that Lucretia had enjoyed muggle tennis in her younger years and had had courts put in at the chateau. She'd been surprised, but no less pleased, to learn that Astoria knew how to play, having developed an interest in the sport as a result of her jaunts to muggle London with Draco when she was small. The girl was rather good and Hermione had found herself fighting for every point at the match they'd arranged to play that day.

"Well done," she called as she approached the net after they finished, acknowledging Astoria's victory through deep breaths of the late afternoon air.

"And you," said Astoria, extending her hand to shake. The two witches walked off the court and up a sloping green hill to the house.

"Where are you off to?" Hermione asked, remembering that Astoria had an outing tonight with Lucretia. Draco was away. In Wiltshire for meetings again.

"Auntie is taking me to the muggle opera," Astoria said, slinging her racket over her shoulder. "She says I need to 'expand my musical horizons.'" This was accompanied by a dramatic eye roll.

"She's absolutely right!" laughed Hermione, "It's never a bad thing to expose yourself to new types of culture. And besides the opera is lovely. I think you'll enjoy it. Lots of opulent scenes and rich costumes." Astoria was still frowning. "Be open-minded," Hermione chided gently.

"Ok, ok, I'll take your word for it. It's just I'd rather go to this party that Georgia's throwing while her parents are away tonight," Astoria grumbled. "Auntie came up with the opera plan very spur of the moment and I can't help but wonder if it's to keep me from going."

"Mmm, possibly," shrugged Hermione. "But there will be lots of parties."

Astoria sighed but then brightened. "You're right. And Auntie has promised to take me to a very decadent restaurant in Le Marais for a treat afterward."

"Oh, you're going to the opera in Paris?"

"Yes." Astoria said with a sly smile.

"Then you really have nothing to complain about! That will be amazing."

"I know, I know," Astoria was laughing now. She stopped at the foot of the steps to the house. "This is where I bid you adieu, although, actually, you should still come in and have a drink. But I need to get ready. Auntie wants to leave in — shit! — 15 minutes!" The last part of the statement ended on a shriek as she bolted for the stairs, wailing something about never giving herself enough time.

Hermione laughed as she watched the girl's frenzied progress then turned to walk toward the apparition point, thinking she should really get home and finish some reports tonight. But then she paused. She was rather thirsty and Mimi made the most brilliant lavender-scented citron pressé… Impulsively she turned and followed Astoria up the stairs and into the cool dim of the chateau.

A bit later, glass in hand, she saw Astoria and Lucretia off. Astoria looked as if she'd had two hours instead of fifteen minutes to prepare and Lucretia was impeccable as always. "Have a lovely time," Hermione said, smiling at the pair.

"Thank you dear. Enjoy your drink on the west terrace where the view of the sunset is best," Lucretia directed as she ushered Astoria out the door. "Stay as long as you like."

"I'll do that," Hermione waved as they disappeared. Mimi refreshed her pressé and Hermione carried it toward the suggested spot, realising the west terrace would be the one closest to Draco's wing. It must be the pretty seating area she had passed when she had been looking for him that day. The day she had licked him. She giggled at the memory and then sighed. She missed him. Even though he'd only been away for a few days.

Finding the doors to the terrace, Hermione pulled them open and stepped out, taking a deep breath of the soft air as she watched the sun dip below the distant hills. She flopped onto a chaise longue and sipped her drink contentedly. Was this really her life? London and the flat and her grey little office at the Ministry seemed very far away. She lifted her hair off her neck and squinted into the distance. What would it be like to be Lucretia and have this every day? Or even to be Draco and always have access to it?

If she were a permanent part of his life, this would be her reality too. The thought flitted across her mind and she shifted, uncomfortable. Where had that come from? A permanent part of his life... Also, she didn't like to think of him that way - to put her relationship with him in the context of his wealth and status. She was drawn to the person, not what he represented. She knew that in her bones. If his family disowned him, if his fortune were wiped out tomorrow, she'd still… what? Be drawn to him? Attracted to him? Want to spend time with him? Want him? Yes to all of that. And… more? A frown ghosted her face.

She pushed up from the chaise and walked to the railing of the balcony, these thoughts of Draco sharpening her longing for him, making her restless. He'd be back, tomorrow or the next day, but she really wished he was here now… Her mind drifted back to their first night together and the library... a flash of his supple fingers, his talented lips… Mmm, yes, she really missed him.

She chuckled and forcibly turned her thoughts from the carnal, her mind drifting to the sweet piece of magic he'd left for her that first morning after. Suddenly an idea sprung to her mind that she'd do the same thing for him — so that when he arrived he'd know she'd been here and been thinking about him. She pushed off the balustrade and walked toward his rooms, a smile tugging at her mouth — maybe she'd steal one of his shirts to sleep in too…

Hermione was leaning over his desk, stretching her tight back muscles and writing what she hoped was a sweet, but somewhat indecent note, when a voice sounded from behind her.

"Now that's a lovely way to welcome a chap home."

She whirled in surprise to see Draco leaning in the doorway, arms crossed.

Delight - and more - flooded her. "You weren't supposed to be back until tomorrow!"

"Couldn't stay away," his lips tugged up into a rakish half smile as he pushed off the door frame. "And to what do I owe this very lovely vision in my rooms?"

"I was leaving you a note," she stepped toward him, smiling. "It was going to turn into a broom or a dragon or something and whiz around."

He reached her and his arms slid around her waist. "And why did I deserve that?"

"Oh, you're just very deserving." She let her eyes drift obviously down his body. His eyebrows went up as he watched her. "And it was also to make up for the fact that I was going to steal your shirt," she gestured to a soft blue button-down slung over the back of his desk chair.

He tilted his head, "may I ask why you were committing larceny against one of my oxfords?"

"I missed you. I wanted to sleep in it." Hermione just had time to notice his eyes widen slightly before desire overcame her and she reached up to capture his lips. He responded instantly, his tongue teasing hers and his hands drifting down from her waist to her arse, where his fingers dipped under her skirt and pushed it up. She kissed him hungrily, backing him against the sofa and pressing between his legs. He seemed to register her heightened state of arousal because she felt him smile.

"Do you know," he said a bit breathlessly, his fingers slipping beneath her pants to skim her arse,"I believe a tennis costume is my very favourite type of muggle clothing…"

"How surprising? Why?" she moved her lips down his neck as she made quick work of his shirt buttons.

"Ohh," his breath left him in a quick puff as he realised that she was already undressing him. "Well obviously it's very short," he leaned back as she dipped down and moved her mouth over his clavicle and chest.

"Yes, I think we've established that you like short."

He huffed a soft laugh. "Indeed. And the white sets off your skin," his hands ran up her back and into her hair.

"Mmm," her hands went to his belt buckle.

"Very short," he breathed, "very white." She was now running her fingers under his waistband and pushing on his trousers. "Mean that your arse … is barely covered and your … legs look ...incredible," he was panting now because she had palmed him and was slowly stroking his hard length with her clasped fingers. "...so I immediately imagine them wrapped around my face as I eat your... sweet little cunt. Yes," he hissed as she increased her pace.

"Do you also imagine bending me over and fucking me from behind?"

He made a strangled sound in his throat. "Is that what you want?"

"Unless you'd rather I straddle you." She was panting now too, she wanted him so badly.

"Difficult decision." He reached around ripped her pants down, "either way the skirt stays on."

"Yes," she moaned as he started stroking her.

"Fuck," he muttered. "This is such a nice way to be greeted." She gave a short laugh that turned into a gasp of pure pleasure against his hands, his lips.

"Please fuck me, Draco," she sighed after a few moments of delicious teasing. "I want you so badly. I was thinking about you... this… before." Her words came out as a kind of little sob that seemed to snap his last thread of control, because she suddenly found herself spinning so she was facing the high back of the couch. The flat of his hand pushed between her shoulder blades and she went down, her forearms and face buried in the cushions.

She could feel his cock rigid against her and she tensed with anticipation while his fingers ran lightly over her bare arse.

"Pert little arse… do you want this?" he whispered in her ear, his voice hot and dark. "Do you want me to bury my cock in your tight, dripping cunt?" she could feel him moving against her, parting her, stroking her.

She turned her head, every sense on fire. "YES," she hissed. "God, yes."

"Good." On that one syllable he pushed into her with a groan.

She moaned into the cushions. God, this was what she'd wanted. It felt so fucking good.

His thrusts were deep, but unhurried. She couldn't help crying out against the exquisite sensation. Suddenly his hands gripped her hips and he pulled her up, even tighter against him, and began increasing his pace until eventually she was incoherent, her muscles clenching in pleasure, almost over the edge.

"FUCK!" she gasped as he changed his angle and she suddenly felt a lightning bolt of pure ecstasy shoot through her. She couldn't resist moving her fingers to her clit.

He must have seen what she was doing because soon he was encouraging her. "Yes, touch yourself. Sweet fucking cunt. Gods. I want to feel you come on my cock. Come for me, Hermione. Do it."

It was the command in his last words that sent her over the edge and she yelled his name as she flew apart, fingers gripping the pillow so hard some part of her feared she'd damaged the fabric. He followed soon after, his shout echoing hers, then collapsed on her back, heaving against her.

She shifted and he immediately pulled up, wrapping his arms around her center and pulling her with him. She felt his lips against her neck and his sweet breath against her skin, "Mother of fucking Circe," he breathed. She sagged against him and tilted her head back, still not quite able to speak or stand properly. He found his wand and muttered cleaning and silencing spells.

"I feel like it might be a bit late for that," she smiled lazily.

"Auntie and Astoria are out, correct?" he asked, turning her and taking her hand to lead her into his bedroom. Hermione nodded as she realized with a nudge of surprise that she'd never seen it before today. She had an impression of high ceilings and airy furnishings in the dim twilight, but then he pulled her onto the bed and started kissing her and she forgot about anything else in the headiness of lazily exploring him.

And it seemed she was insatiable, because exploring soon turned to more, after which they decided to take a shower. Then the shower had gone long — and been extremely satisfying. Hermione had never been so utterly boneless, or so clean, in her life. But she was also starving, so they had sneaked down to the kitchen, successfully avoiding the elves, and discovered a half tarte tatin in the pantry that they were now consuming while seated at the tall kitchen island.

"So why are you back early again?" Hermione looked at Draco across the wooden slab and took a bite. He leaned back and stretched, his black t-shirt and wet hair making a compelling combination in the halo of the overhead light.

"I managed to hire my Operations head more quickly than I'd thought. I expected the negotiations to take weeks, but she was more keen than I realised."

"She?" Hermione raised a brow. Keen? Hmmm.

His smile emerged. "She's sixty and I believe very devoted to her wife."

Hermione grinned and looked down.

"And what about your work? How goes it with the herd? And what of the journals?" He leaned forward for her reply and she told him about her week — the excited first reactions to the texts from Rolf Scamander, the detail around resolving a point of contention in the bill language with the centaurs. He listened attentively and asked thoughtful questions.

She paused to chew another bite of the tarte, which was buttery and divine. "You know it's very nice," she said.

He looked at her in inquiry.

"To have someone to talk to about this."

He took a bite and nodded slowly.

"It's just…" she continued, trying to gather her thoughts. "My circle in London — I love them — but Harry, and especially Ginny don't have a lot of patience for the minutiae of my work. I sometimes wish Pen and Percy lived closer. They're more interested in these types of conversations."

"I know exactly what you mean," he said. "And it is nice." He nudged her leg under the table and she nudged him back with a shy smile. They ate in companionable silence for a moment.

"I was thinking earlier that home seems very far away," Hermione cut her eyes to the open kitchen window and the very un-London like scene of deep twilight in the Provencal countryside beyond. "Sometimes I'm not sure I want to go back," she said with a little laugh.

"I know." His eyes flicked to hers, their expression warm, but serious.

Hermione felt questions bubbling up, a discussion that needed to be had. But it felt a bit soon — so she changed the subject. To something safer, that she'd also been wondering about.

"Draco,"

"Mmm?"

"You and Daphne — were you ever...? I mean, because of Astoria, and the guardianship? Or before?" His eyebrows knitted and she held up her hand, "nothing strange, I just wondered. It seems like it might have been natural…"

"Well the answer is no," he said with a shrug. "We've just never been that way. Not even when we were young. Maybe because she was always Pansy's best friend and... but no, it wasn't even that." He shook his head once.

Hermione nodded.

"What about you and Potter?" he muttered, looking down. "Ever anything there?"

"HarryGod, no!" Hermione exclaimed.

He looked up with a smirk and she rolled her eyes at him. "Not that he's not a lovely and attractive man. But, same. Same as you with Daphne. I love him dearly, but I just never felt that way about him. And from a very early point there was Ginny. Not to mention Ron. So no, never."

They ate in silence for a few moments and then he looked up with a glint. "Glad we cleared that up."

She burst out laughing and came up off her stool to circle around to him. He turned toward her and she stepped between his legs then twined her arms around his neck.

"You're lovely," she sighed. "I like you."

His arms went around her waist and the corner of his mouth went up, "the feeling is mutual."

She brushed her fingers through his damp hair. "Do you have any other plans tonight? Now that we've had dessert," his eyes twinkled at her obvious double entendre, "...I'm hungry for dinner." His eyebrows flew up. "Food dinner," she clarified. "Not more sex. Yet."

He was laughing as she finished this statement, but then he pulled his head back, looked down at the mostly finished tarte and then squinted back up at her, "I believe my earlier characterisation of you as a gannet has proved accurate." She wrinkled her nose at him and he made a face back. "And my only plan for tonight is to spend it with you."

"Mmm, that's nice," she rested her hand on his shoulder. "Remy told me about a tapas place in muggle Aix. They have live music on the weekend. Shall we go?"

He kissed her. "Lead the way."

Chapter Text

"If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm sore"

Draco shut the door of the Citroen and turned his steps up the path to Hermione's cottage. He half smiled - the way had become very familiar over the last few weeks. He saw Penelope in the paddock with the Hippogriffs and waved. Wilhelmina noticed him and ruffled her wings in greeting. He inclined his head to her.

Inhaling deeply, he crested the hill and noticed that the air had changed subtly — and the light too. Summer really was ending and Autumn was almost upon them. He'd be taking Astoria to school on Tuesday. He sighed, hoping she'd be well there.

But then the door swung open and Hermione looked out, barefoot and in her dressing gown, and his melancholy thoughts flew away. She also waved at Pen, then beckoned him inside with a quick greeting. He ducked through the doorway into the cozy little room. He would miss this place. He'd spent so many pleasurable hours here.

"What are you smirking at?" she asked with a suspicious smile as she hustled back to her bedroom. "And I'm still getting dressed! You were so cryptic about where we were going today that I couldn't decide…" her voice trailed off and he ambled toward the bedroom door.

"I'm smiling because I was just thinking of all the agreeable times I've spent in this little cottage. And put on something on the warm side. There's a nip in the air." He lounged in the doorway and crossed his arms. "Although what you're wearing right now is quite nice."

"Heyyy," she looked over her shoulder. She had just slid off her dressing gown and was standing in front of her wardrobe in nothing but a very pretty sheer peach set. The thought of disrupting her toilette crossed his mind — it was a distracting bit of lingerie — but he was looking forward to the day's plans. So he stayed in the doorway as she donned a pair of muggle jeans and a soft shirt, then pulled on an oversized jumper.

"Boots or sandals?" she asked him as she did something to her hair with her wand.

"Boots. We'll be doing a bit of trail-walking."

"Ooh, sounds nice. I haven't worn my jeans and boots in what feels like a very long time." She smiled at him and leaned down to do up her laces, and his mind drifted to what was now a favorite memory of her walking up Theo's driveway.

"Ok, ready!" her bright tone interrupted his reverie. She approached the doorway, but he didn't move. She stepped very close to him until her breasts were just brushing his crossed forearms. He looked down at her and he did smirk this time.

"What?" she said, peering up at him.

"Just deciding if I should let you pass - or if we should scrap our plans and spend the day in bed."

"Tempting." She raised her eyebrows and he uncrossed his arms to pull her to him, capturing her lips in a long kiss. Her hands slid up to his jaw and held his face. "Very tempting," she murmured after a good while. The corners of his mouth lifted and she pulled back very slightly. "But I am curious about these mysterious plans of yours."

He took a deep breath and stepped back. "Then let's go. We can spend the day in bed anytime." He felt a genuine smile steal across his face at the thought that it was true. She took his hand and they walked out the door.

~oOo~

Hermione craned her neck as Draco pulled the car to a smooth stop at the side of the road. They had driven for about thirty-five minutes into the country and had long since turned off the road onto a private gravel track. They were well and truly in the middle of a beautiful nowhere - nothing around but vineyards and trees. When he cut the engine, the silence of the countryside was complete, but for the trills of a few birds.

"Where are we?" she asked, turning to face him. "And how will we get anywhere from here?" She didn't see any sign of a trail or a path, although the land did rise into beautiful hills on either side of the road; the ones on the left smooth and undulating and those on the right bright with crags of white limestone.

Draco tossed her a quick grin and hopped out of the car. He leaned into the back seat and picked something up off the floor.

To Hermione's alarm, it was a broom.

She gave him a look and his grin widened. "Come on, it won't be that bad."

"It will be. I don't like flying."

"But you've never flown with me."

"I've seen you fly. It's not reassuring. Quite the opposite, in fact."

"It's not going to be like a Quidditch match," he shook his head. "It's a very different type of flying when one has a passenger."

"Yes that's what Ron said too. And Harry."

"I promise to be smooth and gentle. No sudden movements. I used to take Astoria up when she was small, you know."

Hermione narrowed her eyes at him. "Why doesn't she fly with you anymore?"

He laughed. "She has her own broom!"

"But I thought she hated Quidditch!"

"She does! Or at least she finds it profoundly boring. Daft girl. But that's what I'm trying to tell you. All flying is not Quidditch. Not all dives and feints and whiplash-inducing changes of direction."

Hermione was feeling green just at his words. She let out a huge sigh.

His eyes softened. "Look, it's the only way to get there. And I really want to show it to you. It's my property. You know, the one I spoke about a few weeks ago."

"Oh, of course." She tilted her head back, looked skyward, then unbuckled her seatbelt. She did want to see it — the country was so beautiful here. And if they had to fly, the views would probably be breathtaking. Also the fact that he wanted to share it with her set off something warm and sweet inside of her.

"Fine," she finally said. "But no sudden movements! And if I tell you I need to get down, you have to listen! Right away."

He put up his hands and spoke softly, "Ok, ok." He leaned the broom against the car and pulled her up out of her seat and into his arms, resting his chin on the top of her head. Her arms went slowly around him. "I will be careful," he murmured, "but what is it you don't like? Are you afraid of heights?"

"A bit," she mumbled into his shirtfront. "And when I fly by myself I don't have good control. When I'm with someone else, I tend to feel sick - especially if they do any of the things you mentioned earlier."

"Ah," his hand stroked over the back of her head. "Well, I used to tell Astoria to look at the horizon, but I'm not sure if that actually works with flying."

She chuckled. "No, I think that's for boats. But let's stop talking about it and get it over with. The dread is half the problem."

"Right." He set her back and picked up the broom, which she did notice seemed to be different than the sleek racing variety Quidditch players used. It looked quite sturdy and actually had two small seats built into the handle. He noticed her looking and smiled, "Old Faithful here won't win any sprints, but it's much more comfortable for two." She gave him a half grimace-half smile.

He swung his leg over the front seat and looked over his shoulder at her, the light breeze ruffling his bright hair. God, he was gorgeous. She should focus on that and not the terrifying thing she was about to do. Taking a deep breath, she climbed on behind him, snaking her arms around his lean waist in a death grip. She could feel his chuckle. Then he reached behind him and hitched her even closer, so her core fit tightly against his lower back. Hmm, she'd always been too paralysed with fear to consider the potentially stimulating possibilities of this… She relaxed a bit then and molded against him, resting her cheek against his upper back and inhaling the warm cotton scent of his shirt.

"Ok?" He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb.

"Ok."

Hermione closed her eyes as he kicked off and they rose steadily, then started forward. She kept her eyes tightly closed, but could feel an instant difference in the air. It was warmer and more still. She could also tell that they had gone in the direction of the limestone side of the road. She didn't feel that they had risen that high, so she cautiously squinched one eye open and saw that they were skimming just over the tops of the vines. If she reached her foot down she could almost touch them. They weren't moving too fast, but definitely briskly.

"These are my grapes. Mostly Cinsault," he called over his shoulder. "Lucretia manages them for me and farms out the picking to a local vintner. Makes a lovely Rose."

Hermione nodded against his back, then plucked up the courage to fully open both eyes. The surroundings were gorgeous. Rolling rows of green broken only by the large, stony outcrop she'd seen from the road.

"That's where we're going," he said, indicating the huge rock with his head. "The building site is right at the top, so we're going to start rising. But I'll go slowly."

Hermione very much appreciated the play-by-play and felt herself relaxing even as they started to rise and circle around to the right. The cliff was less sheer here, and as they curved, she could see it was actually a hillside that had been carved in half. Probably by some prehistoric glacier or river. The vines stopped abruptly at its foot, but swept up the back section in a rolling wave. It was absolutely gorgeous and she forgot to be frightened for a bit as she simply stared.

"It's so beautiful, Draco!" she called.

"Glad you opened your eyes!" She saw a quick glint of white teeth over his shoulder and squeezed him in response, again feeling his answering chuckle.

She didn't know if she wanted to stroke his ego by admitting it, but she privately acknowledged that she'd never felt so secure flying with someone before. He really was very steady and in control; his confidence complete. With Ron, it always felt like he had something to prove, and so he'd go fast and reckless to prove it. Harry just couldn't help himself - it was so hard for him to hold back - and hard for him to understand her fear. He and Ginny would do the most heart-stopping stunts when they flew together…

But this was … nice. She felt safe. Even though now that she looked around, she realised they had flown quite high. The grapes were far below them and she could see dark water marks on the face of the cliff. A moment of heart-wrenching fear grabbed her and she buried her face in Draco's back, taking deep breaths. She felt his arm slide around behind her in a quick half hug. He stroked her once and she felt their ascent slow.

"We're over the top of the cliff now," he called. "Going to land." He pulled his hand back and steadied it on the broom.

Hermione raised her head and saw they were just a few feet above a meadow of wildflowers and grasses. Draco guided the broom softly to the ground and she felt her feet touch earth again. She sagged against him with relief.

He waited a beat until she sat up and then dismounted, turning quickly to give her his hand. She stood up on legs that were only a bit wobbly. He was looking down at her with a slight frown, his eyes searching her face.

She offered him a small smile. "That was actually ok. Until the bit at the end when I realised how high up we were."

"Yeah, I'm sorry." He dragged his fingers through his hair. "I should have gone the longer way around instead of up the cliff face. But you seemed like you were doing ok until then."

"No it wasn't bad. It was just the surprise, really. I had been enjoying myself and not paying attention. If I'd been tracking more closely, I think I would have been fine - but let's take the long way back," she finished quickly.

He still looked concerned so she reached up and pulled his face down for a kiss. "It was quite nice wrapping myself around you like that. I think I could even come to like that part of it," she breathed against him. She felt his lips relax and he kissed her back with interest, sliding his arms around her waist.

"Should have known you'd like that part."

She deepened the kiss and they were occupied for a moment, his hands running under her jumper to sweep up her bare skin as she sighed. "Just how alone are we up here?" she asked as her lips wandered close to his ear.

"Exceedingly alone." He arched into her. "There's no road or path and it's heavily warded."

"Mmm…" she moved against him in a suggestive way. "Near death experiences do make me want to prove I'm alive," she whispered with a mischievous smile.

He pulled back and looked at her. "Near death? I was in control the whole time, woman."

She laughed, "Gotcha." Stepping back from his embrace, and his eye roll, she threaded her fingers through his. "I actually felt very safe." She squeezed his hand. "So give me the tour. What are your ideas and plans? This place is marvelous."

And it was. As she'd suspected, the views from the top of the cliff were incredible, unbroken swathes of green in every direction, a golden haze hanging over the vines. And in the far off distance she could see the spires of the city - so small it looked like a play set. A few tiny villages nestled in pockets of the hills as well. She realised she hadn't even explored half as much of this area as she would have liked.

Draco swept his arm to encompass the large flat meadow they were standing in. "This is the building site. I'd like to put the house just here, where we're standing. Nothing huge and very modern. Lots of windows. And a deck around the whole thing. I'd like the wall that faces this way," he pointed toward the sheer cliff face, "to open completely to the outside space."

Hermione nodded, envisioning it all. "Sounds absolutely amazing. I think it's the right decision to go with something spare."

"Yes, I want it to complement the landscape, not overpower it."

She murmured her agreement as he turned and faced the other direction. "And I think a pool and guest house somewhere over there. In front of the orchard."

"There's an orchard!?"

"Yes, just down the way. There are some ruins as well. This was the site of a muggle monastery at one time."

"Can we go see it?" Hermione was practically bouncing on the balls of her feet.

He smiled down at her. "Yes of course. Come on."

They walked across the meadow, which was quite large, until it started to slope gently downward. As they descended, Hermione could see the gnarled shapes of regularly planted trees in the distance.

"What are they?" she asked, shading her eyes with her palm.

"Apple. And they still produce good fruit - small, but sweet. There may be a few ripe ones even though it's a bit early."

"Let's go see!" Hermione took off running down the gentle path and heard his quick steps behind her.

~oOo~

Drawing back his arm, Draco launched his apple core into the far reaches of the orchard. Hermione watched him, then followed suit.

"You were right," she said. "They're delicious."

"We'll pick a few more before we leave. I'm sure the Weasley children would like them."

"Good idea." He watched as she got comfortable against the trunk of the old tree they were sitting under, straightening their picnic blanket, then tilting her head back and closing her eyes in the dappled sunlight. "And I'll have to thank Mimi for that gorgeous lunch."

"Mmm-hmm, the lemon tarts were a nice touch." He put aside the small basket their meal had been in, then folded her discarded jumper, placed it on her lap and lay his head on it - stretching his legs out with a sigh. She looked down at him with a little smile and brushed her hand through his hair. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.

He found that he liked her caresses a bit more than he cared to admit. He'd had so few in his life. ...Perhaps when he was very small.

Her hand had stilled, so he pulled it to his lips, placing a kiss on the inside of her wrist. They sat for a few moments in contented silence, listening to the breeze rustle in the leaves of the apple trees.

Draco felt himself drifting off when she suddenly spoke. "So what is the history of this place? Did Lucretia give it to you? Or is it just part of the estate?"

"My mother actually gave it to me," he said, opening his eyes and looking into hers. "She inherited it directly. It's an ancient carve-out from the main estate." He looked away. "She deeded it to me in secret when things got bad with my father - when he became more heavily involved with Voldemort. She had an idea of what was coming. I think she always hoped I could come here, escape here, if I needed to. She actually encouraged me to. Just before I took the mark. I was too afraid of what would happen to her if I did, but she always said I should come here after. If he won."

He looked up at her again, half afraid of what he might see in her face, but her eyes were sympathetic.

"What do you think would have happened to you? If he'd won?"

He felt a blast of bitter laughter blow past his lips. "Probably wouldn't have lasted six months. He hated my family by the end. And he'd gotten quite fond of the Manor. No, I don't think any of us would have lived long." She made a small sound of dismay and placed her palm against his chest. He covered her hand with his.

"I did think about this place, though. As a kind of escape when things were very bad. Maybe I could have faked my own death and made it here. Lived as a muggle - just farming grapes. Or defected and made it a safe house. Helped the other side…Something. But I couldn't take the torture and the killing."

"Do you still have nightmares?" she said softly.

"Sometimes."

"I do too," she sighed.

He sat up and turned toward her, reaching out to cup her cheek in his hand. "I'm sorry."

"I hope you're not apologizing to me again. We've been through that."

"No, I'm just sorry for it all." He held her gaze as her mouth twisted into a small smile. Her eyes held sadness, but also understanding.

He leaned forward and kissed her softly, sliding a hand into the hair at her temple, then ghosting his lips to her throat. He lingered there, just breathing, thinking that being with her was something like healing.

Her hands lifted into his hair again then her fingers stroked lightly down his neck. He sighed at the caress and tilted his head back to look at her through slitted lids. A strand of her hair lifted in the soft breeze and he captured it between his fingertips.

"Do you quite understand how beautiful you are?" It was almost an academic question. He wondered if she knew and just tried to downplay it or if she truly had no idea.

She smiled slowly and leaned forward to kiss him again. "I could ask the same of you." He chuckled and pushed himself up, keeping his lips on hers as he shifted to sit back against the tree and pull her into his lap. She went willingly, straddling him and placing light, teasing kisses along his jaw and cheek, followed by a nip to his earlobe that made him shiver with pleasure. He ran his palms up her thighs and pulled her closer. Desire kindled deep and he swept one hand up the length of her back and over her neck to hold her against him as he explored her mouth with increasing intensity.

Her fingers tightened on his shoulders and he ran his other hand under her jumper to palm the sweet weight of her breast, brushing his thumb over a taut nipple. She sighed, shifting against him, and he inhaled deeply at the exquisite friction.

"You did say we're quite alone here?" she breathed against his lips.

"Utterly," he tilted his head back against the tree trunk as her lips left his to wander down the column of his throat.

"Good." She muttered an incantation against his skin - warming charm - and then drew back slightly to pull her shirt over her head. The pretty peach mesh of her bra did nothing to conceal the dark buds of her nipples, which he quite liked. He leaned forward, sweeping his hands up her back, and took one in his mouth, laving the soft flesh through the filmy fabric. She arched into him and he moved to the other, giving it equal attention.

After a moment he pulled back, wanting to appreciate the site of her, lips swollen and eyelids at half mast. Then he reached out to slip her bra strap down, pushing the fabric over her breast until it caught on her bare nipple. His gaze caught there for a beat, a flash of white hot desire coursing through him, before he leaned forward to take her into his mouth again. Her breath hitched and she dug her fingers into his hair, moving against him and sighing his name. His tongue swirled against her and he pushed the other strap down to free the other breast, rolling the nipple between his fingertips. She pulled at him again but he leaned back once more, wanting to get his fill of looking at her; in the open air, head thrown back, bare breasts free of her disheveled bra. He didn't think he'd ever seen a more beautiful or erotic sight.

She sensed his regard and tilted her head to look down at him, her eyes dark with desire. Reaching around she went to unhook her bra but he stopped her.

"Leave it. I like it this way."

A lazy smile stole over her face and she moved her hands back to slide under her breasts and lift them, her fingers teasing her own nipples as she looked deep into his heated gaze.

Desire exploded through him again and with a deliberate movement, he reached forward and captured her lips, surging slowly up and holding her against him as he placed her on her back. She settled with a sigh and looked up, eyes dreamy as her fingers went to his shirt and pulled it over his head. She then ran her nails lightly up the planes of his chest and he shuddered with pleasure. The light breeze lifted again, warm against his bare back.

Suddenly he wanted nothing more than to see all of her, naked, in his field. His fingers went quickly to her waistband and she began helping him, shimmying out of her tight trousers and pretty knickers as he did away with the rest of his own clothing, kicking down his trousers and pants.

Once they were free of their clothes, he ran his hands over her golden skin and sweet curves — then his teeth over the satin of her shoulder. She gasped and he moved his lips to her clavicle and then her breasts. The pads of her fingers stroked over his back and down to his arse and back up again, the caress unbearably lovely.

"I want to taste you," he whispered against her skin as he trailed his lips down her belly. He felt her answering shudder and glanced up to see her cheeks flushed, her lips parted and her gaze trained on him.

The sight was like a spark to dry tinder and he moved his tongue quickly to her core, licking and swirling there until her moans turned into gasps. He was so intent on the sensation of her - the taste and softness of her flesh, her writhing movements - that he barely noticed she was tugging on his hair until she spoke.

"Please," she gasped, "please Draco. I need…"

He understood instinctively what she wanted and went up on his knees, looking deep into her eyes as he grasped her hips and pulled her toward him to slide his throbbing cock into her tight warmth. The feeling of being slowly sheathed by her when he was so extremely aroused was exquisite, and he groaned deep in the back of his throat. Her answering moan - long and low - echoed in the air around them and he thought it might have been the most seductive thing he'd ever experienced. The feel of her dragging against his cock as he moved in and out. Gods.

He went down on his elbows so he could kiss her as he fucked her and she met him ravenously, tonguing deep into his mouth. She also shifted her hips and legs so he could thrust deeper and when he did she cried out against his lips. This drove him to fuck her furiously, bury himself in her — mine-mine-mine — until she was gasping his name over and over.

He could tell she was close, building; could feel her muscles fluttering against him. She pulled back and arched her neck against the blanket, breathing heavily and watching him, dragging her fingernails over his chest and shoulders. He realised he was very close too - so he moved his hand to her clit, finding the hard little nub of flesh and stroking against it with sure, steady pressure. Her hips bucked off the blanket and she screamed.

He tilted her up and adjusted his knees so he could push even more deeply, feeling his release mounting in a powerful wave. Her response was wordless, her cries almost guttural. The sound drove him even further into his own pleasure and he gasped her name. Her hands had left him and she was pinching her nipples between her fingers, keeping her dark gaze on his, when her walls started to clench around him. The sensation undid whatever control he still had and he thrust ferociously, mindlessly until his orgasm ripped through him just as hers subsided.

He existed in a weightless place of ecstasy for a long time before coming back to awareness, collapsed against her as if he had died the best sort of death. He came-to via her fingers, slipping absently through his hair in the now-familiar caress. He arched into it and sighed her name, finally drawing back to look at her face. She wore a lazy smile, but her eyes were deep, fathomless.

"Do you know, I believe we fit together rather well," she murmured, one corner of her mouth lifting higher.

"If by 'fit together well' you mean have the most earth-shattering sex I've ever experienced in this life or any others I may have lived, then I agree," he said with his own smirk.

She chuckled and pulled him against her, nuzzling into his neck. "Yes, that's exactly what I mean."

He laughed softly and rolled them to the side. "As much as I'd like to stay here like this, I think it's beginning to cool down."

"Mmm hmm," she sighed, slowly getting up and reaching for her knickers. He propped his head on his hand, enjoying watching her step into them. The view of her pretty little arse under the sheer mesh was still extremely enticing.

"Luckily there's a nice warm bed back at your cottage," he murmured, raising a brow.

She raised her own brow back then buttoned her jeans and pulled her jumper over her head. He spotted a twig in her mussed hair and grinned.

She looked down at him. "While the view is magnificent, I do think you should probably put on your clothes before I take off that warming charm," she said, her eyes dancing.

"You wouldn't." He sat up, reaching for his things and magicking himself back together. "Much easier this way, you know."

She snorted and he pulled her to him, meaning to place a light kiss on her lips, but she held him tightly and ran her hands up under his shirt, her palms sweeping his skin. He gave a light growl and smiled against her mouth, deepening the kiss and sweeping his tongue against hers. It seemed he couldn't get enough of her.

But the light was fading and he didn't want her to have to fly in the shadow, which might be frightening for her, so he lifted his lips from hers and braced his hands on her shoulders. "Ready to get on the broom again?"

She groaned, "I suppose. As ready as I'll ever be."

He chuckled, "come on. It won't be that bad. Now you know that I'm not going to practice my Wronski Feint... And we'll go the long way round."

"Ok." Her knitted brows were adorable. Although he didn't like that she was afraid. Maybe they could work on it. He'd like to see her confident on a broom someday.

They walked back toward the meadow for a clear shot over the trees.

"So what is your timeline for all of this?" she asked, sweeping her hand to encompass the building site.

"I've been working with an architect in Paris on and off. I think we're almost there with the design for the house. And I'm also going to need a road for my cars," he grinned and she laughed. "I'm hoping it will be habitable by late Spring and finished in a year or so?"

"And will you be based here?" she said - a little shyly, he thought.

"No, I think my base will still have to be England - London and Wiltshire - for the time being, but I'll want to spend more time here - especially with Astor at Beauxbatons."

"Of course." She looked down and he wondered very much what she was thinking. But then she looked up again, this time with a light smile. "Well it's beautiful - and it's going to be splendid."

He nodded, looking forward to the day he'd be able to show it to her, hoping that she'd want to see it. That she'd still be in his life. But all he said was, "thanks." Curse his reticence.

"Ok let's not put this off any longer!" she said a little too loudly as she hopped on the broom. He settled himself in front of her and with a slight frown, lifted them gently off the ground.

Chapter Text

"I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation."

Draco watched Daphne lean back against the chaise longue, wick his silver lighter to life and take a deep drag. She'd arrived at the Chateau about an hour ago, in time for Astoria's farewell dinner before they would be taking her to school in the morning.

He frowned, "I would have gotten that for you." She just shrugged and exhaled, her eyes holding his. She enjoyed a smoke, but similar to Draco, didn't like to let Astor see her indulge, hence their tête-à-tête in his rooms. He also sensed she had something to say to him, and wasn't sure he was going to like it.

"Do you think she's ready?" she asked, her gaze sweeping away from him to the view of the Provençal sunset.

He reached for the lighter. "Fuck if I know." He inhaled his cigarette to life. "She's so good at hiding under all that energy." His eyes also traveled out, away. "But what else can we do? I hope so."

Daphne stayed silent.

"What do you think?"

She shrugged again, shaking her head. "One thing I do think..." her eyes cut back to him and he tensed. "It would be easier for her without you being front page news."

He felt himself ice over. He didn't respond, but he could feel her sharp focus on him.

"What are your intentions, Draco?"

"God, you sound like my fucking mother."

"At least from me it's a legitimate question."

"Is it?"

She just looked at him.

He exhaled and stood up. "My 'intentions' are no one's business but mine." She started to speak, but he held up his hand. "But out of respect to you - and to Astoria, I'll tell you that I'm not planning on ending it any time soon."

Her breath exploded in a little huff, "I like her too, Draco. But if you aren't serious… If you're just fucking around. Or just fucking," He lifted a brow at her, but she stared him down. "If that's all it is, then it's not fair to anyone. Least of all Astoria. And we both know she's vulnerable."

He looked away and reached for his cigarette case, pulling out another slender cylinder and putting it to his lips. He smoked, waiting out her expectant silence. Finally he heard her sigh.

"Right." She stood up and he heard her soft footsteps move toward the indoors. She turned at the last moment. "We'll leave on the early side, yes? I'll oversee the packing. You've arranged all of the travel bits?"

This was one of his favourite things about Daphne. She could let things go … and just shift.

He cleared his throat. "Yes, all arranged."

"Ok, I'll see you at dinner." The door closed softly on her exit and Draco leaned back, watching the sun sink below the horizon.

~oOo~

Hermione tidied the last of her books and notes into neat piles. She would be packing up over the weekend and knew it would be easier if her work were organized first. She glanced at the clock, a little fizz of pleasure running through her veins. It was after nine - Draco should be here soon.

He and Daphne had left with Astoria for Beauxbatons on Tuesday morning. The farewell dinner on Monday night had been emotional for Hermione - although she'd tried to hide it for Astor's sake. But she was going to miss the young witch. They'd become genuinely close and Hermione was worried about her heading off to a new school. Especially since she couldn't shake the notion that the girl was somehow fragile. But she brushed those thoughts away - seeing Draco and Daphne with her, she knew that they would never do anything other than what was best for her. It was remarkable, really - the way they had created a family.

Hermione smiled, remembering Astoria's squeal when she opened her going-away presents; a couple of LPs and Hermione's own copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. She had been telling the young witch about the muggle book and thought the silliness might help with any spots of homesickness that might crop up. And Astoria had given her a very sweet letter - thanking her again for letting her help with the centaur project - and promising to owl regularly from school.

Her eyes went to the clock again. Draco had intended on coming back to France yesterday - he'd told her he had to be in London over the weekend, so they knew these would be some of their last few days here together - but an owl had arrived Wednesday morning informing her that there had been an emergency at the Meadows that would delay his return. He would see her Thursday night, likely late. She hoped it was nothing too serious and that they would be able to spend some of Friday together before he had to rush off again.

She looked around her cozy cottage. Her supervisor had already scheduled a meeting for her to present her findings from the project to the larger department next week. Right back into the fire. By this time next Thursday, she'd be part of the crowd swarming out of the Ministry - maybe meeting Harry and Ginny at the pub or picking up a takeaway.

The idea made her sigh.

Part of her was excited to get back into the fast pace of her usual life - and she looked forward to what would undoubtedly be the challenging task of finalizing the bill. But she was also sad that her days of fieldwork in the sun and peaceful nights in the cottage were almost through. Not for the first time, she wished she could somehow be in two places, live two lives.

The crack of apparition from outside broke into her thoughts and she jumped up, running lightly over to the door and throwing it open even as Draco raised his hand to knock. A slow smile spread over his face as he looked down at her.

"Happy to see me?"

"Yes," she said, not interested in dissimilation. Throwing her arms around his waist, she looked up at him with a smile. He chuckled down at her and she realised that he looked dreadfully tired — even more pale than usual and with dark smudges under his eyes, which were glassy and dull. Her hand slid up to cup his cheek. "You look exhausted."

"Thanks?" He let her lead him into the flat. "It's been a shit couple of days. I haven't slept much."

Hermione felt a stab of worry, "Did everything go OK with Astoria?"

"Yes, that was fine. Other than that it's always difficult to say goodbye." He sat down at her table and rubbed his temples.

She skimmed her hand over his bowed back. "Would you like a drink?"

"Actually I haven't eaten since breakfast. Although I could just apparate up to the Chateau and ask the elves…"

"No, no!" she cut in. "Pen made this lovely onion soup - with the gruyere and the crouton and everything. I had a late lunch and was about to warm some. There's more than enough for two." She magicked the stove to life and set the soup to heat.

"Thanks," he lifted his head and gave her a faint smile.

"So what else happened? Was it the thing at the Meadows?"

"Yeah," he exhaled a huge sigh. "A patient attacked a medi-witch. She's in pretty bad shape. It was in the PTSD ward. He had been a torture victim. Something launched him into a psychotic episode."

Her hands flew to her mouth, "oh no. Will she be ok? How is the patient?"

"She'll live, but likely lose sight in one eye. But she's tough - one of my best. And she's already awake and asking when she can get back to work. The patient is … not so great. He had to be heavily sedated - we're hoping when he wakes up, he'll be out of the break, but if he is, the guilt is going to be horrific."

Hermione shook her head in sympathy as she ladeled the fragrant soup into bowls. She slid them onto the table then handed Draco a spoon. "Eat."

He complied, managing to be elegant even when consuming the messy concoction. Hermione poured them two glasses of deep ruby wine and sat down.

After a few moments of silence he spoke again. "The worst part," he paused to take a deep drink of the wine, and his eyes cut to hers, "...this is good."

She nodded once. "Mourvèdre. From Bandol."

He lifted his chin and continued, "The worst part is that every time something like this happens, the group who are opposed to The Meadows use it as a bludgeoning tactic to try to shut us down. They were trying to get my patient sent to Azkaban. That's why I had to rush over there."

Hermione shook her head. "That's reprehensible. Were you able to stop it?"

"Barely. But there will be an inquest. And every procedure and safety measure will be reviewed. Which is fine and should happen, but it will undoubtedly delay my work with the ministry classification." He leaned back in his chair and sighed, his face set.

"I'm so sorry," she said, reaching for his hand across the table. He grasped hers briefly and his demeanor relaxed a bit.

"Thanks, that was very good," he gestured to the soup and his smile glinted briefly at her as he got up and carried their bowls to the sink.

"I can take no credit." Hermione said, hands up. "This was all Penelope. I'm actually an extremely mediocre cook."

"You? Mediocre at something?" His smile emerged again as he cast a washing-up spell, then turned to lean against the sink, arms crossed. Hermione stared stupidly - even half-dead with fatigue he was so beautiful.

She made a face at his comment and got up to refill their wine glasses, but he reached for her as she passed, pulling her back against his front and wrapping his arms around her. She relaxed into him, leaning her head back into the crook of his neck. He rested his cheek against hers.

"God, I'm so fucking out of it." He did sound almost dazed.

"Well, come to the fire and sit." She twisted and grabbed the wine, leading him over to the soft sofa in front of her huge stone hearth. A quick wave of her wand set the logs within ablaze and he fell longways against the deep cushions, his hands laced behind his head. She busied herself with pouring the wine and arranging throw pillows, then lit a candle as he gazed at her through hooded lids.

"Stop fussing and come here," he commanded, opening his arms again. She raised a brow, but he raised his higher. So she went to lay half next to him, half on him, entwining her legs with his and reaching up to stroke his hair.

His eyes closed and he tilted his head into her caress. "All I could think about all day was how annoyed I was that I wasn't here with you. Doing this."

Her heart contracted a bit. "I may have been thinking about you too," she replied, angling up to touch his lips softly with hers. He responded in kind, kissing her gently and so sweetly that she sighed with pleasure.

"When you make sounds like that, I feel the strongest compulsion to swiftly remove all of your clothes," he mumbled against her lips, his hand reaching down to sweep against the curve of waist and down to her arse.

She laughed softly and stroked down his neck to his chest, her fingers sliding against the fine fabric of his jumper. She broke the kiss and looked down, "Draco, what is this made of?" Her hand brushed the decadent fabric lovingly.

His eyes rolled skyward, "I tell her I want to undress her and all she does is ask about my jumper. Cashmere, of course."

"Mmm, it's lovely," Hermione ducked her head and rubbed her cheek against him, staring at the flickering flames and taking a deep, contented breath.

"Could you use a bit of magic to just siphon that wine into my mouth?" he yawned. "I find I'm vastly too knackered and comfortable to move."

"Wouldn't want to spill it on your lovely jumper, though." She murmured, smiling against him. The soft rumble of his answering chuckle tickled as her gaze slid to the fire and her mind drifted.

How many more times would there be like this? Just the two of them together and utterly relaxed? She shared her flat with two very nosy people. He lived in at least three different places — none of them his alone. What was it going to be like with them both in London — back in their regular lives and busy schedules? She frowned into the flames for a few moments then suddenly raised her head, determined to stop wondering and just ask him. Talk about it. But when she looked up, his eyes were closed and his chest was rising and falling rhythmically.

"Ohh, my poor love," she breathed, enjoying the uninterrupted view of his beautiful face, taking in the tracery of blue veins in his eyelids, the fine line of his nose and the lock of pure platinum that had fallen over his forehead. She reached up to very gently trace his molded lips with the pad of her thumb and he barely stirred. He was really out.

Hermione was tired too. She'd taken the opportunity caused by his absence to spend all day with the herd. Now that the work on the bill was essentially done, she was trying to add to the information in the journals, fill in any blank spots, which meant a lot more physical exertion as she shadowed their natural movements. She'd hiked many miles today.

She yawned hugely and contemplated the gorgeous man on her couch. Should she try to get him to bed or leave him? She hated to wake him at all, so she decided he should stay where he was. She carefully got up and tiptoed to her bedroom, coming back with a spare duvet that she draped gently over him. He stirred and turned on his side, burrowing under the thick blanket. A slight smile tugged at her mouth, and she reached down to stroke his cheek one last time before snuffing the candle and heading off to her own bed.

A deep slumber was just about to take her when her eyelids suddenly flew open and her head came off her pillow. What had she said when she'd looked up to find him asleep? What had she called him? Her hand slowly snaked to her open mouth as her wide eyes stared unseeing into the darkness. Oh god. Her head sank slowly back to her pillow on a long exhale.

It was a long while before sleep came to find her again.

~oOo~

Draco started in the cool light of very early morning. He was immediately awake and aware that he was in unfamiliar surroundings, wearing his clothes from the night before. He sat up, looking around owlishly before his posture relaxed. Hermione's cottage, of course. He must have fallen asleep on the couch. He rubbed his face and swung his legs over the cushions, stretching as memories from the night before washed over him. He smiled slightly in the dim before pushing up and padding down the hallway to the bedroom. He paused in the doorway to look at her, abandoned to sleep - curls tumbled across the pillow, one arm flung out and a delicate foot peeping from under the sheet. Her pajama top had ridden up and he felt a stirring as he glimpsed the smooth plane of her bare stomach beneath.

Waving his wand, he removed most of his clothing and slid into the bed, slowing for a moment to look at her face; the slight jump of her nose, her dark-winged brows, her perfect mouth. She was so peaceful in slumber, beautiful lips slightly parted.

His gaze must have triggered something deep in her brain, because she stirred and murmured, her eyes fluttering open. For a moment she was startled but then her face relaxed and she reached up to brush his cheek. He caught her hand and held it there, then turned to kiss her palm. She smiled sleepily and he was caught unawares by the tide of emotion that flooded him.

He reached for her and pulled her close to him, burying his face in her hair. "Thank you for taking care of me last night," he murmured against the dark curls, inhaling their sweet scent. When was the last time someone had cared for him that way? Listened to him and took the time to soothe him? People listened to him, yes, because their livelihood or work depended on it. But this was different. He breathed deeply again, squeezing her against him.

"You're welcome," she mumbled.

He could feel her soft breath against his neck and her hands lightly stroking his lower back. His eyes closed and his mouth quirked up.

"Even if you did make me sleep on the couch."

He felt her answering smile. "You were so peaceful. I didn't want to wake you."

"A likely story. I think you just wanted this big, soft bed all to yourself." His hands slid to the bare skin of her stomach and he grasped gently there, fingers sliding over the satiny texture as he circled her waist. She sighed softly, the sound arrowing straight to his groin. He moved over her and brushed his lips to her neck. She tilted her head back and he trailed soft kisses down to her collarbone.

"I like this bed much better when you're in it," she murmured.

He laughed softly against her shoulder and swept his hands up from her stomach under her pajama top. He deepened his kiss against her neck, and she gasped, digging her fingers into his hair.

Suddenly her hands left him and she was sitting up to remove her top. He assisted with her bottoms and knickers and made quick work of his own boxer briefs.

Gods, it was glorious to be skin to skin with her.

He was unable to resist her dusky pink nipples and took one into his mouth, sucking gently.

She dragged her fingers down his neck to his back, sighing his name. He felt her nails skim his skin as he switched to the other nipple and sucked with more force. "I'll - ohh - make you sleep on the couch more if this is the result," she breathed.

He smiled, moving back up to tease her mouth, his palms sliding up to hold her face as he deepened the kiss, trying to telegraph the heightened feelings running through him. He dug his hands into her hair, then suddenly couldn't wait another second to be inside of her. She seemed to feel the same because she was murmuring, "Please, Draco," against his lips. Pulling back, he watched her face as he filled her, her eyes locked on his as her mouth parted in a silent gasp.

He continued to watch her as he moved in and out on the most exquisite waves of feeling. She was so fucking beautiful, pink suffusing her cheeks and ragged breaths exploding from her swollen lips.

"Oh god, you feel so good." Her hands swept down his back again and her legs twined around his hips, pulling him deeper.

She reached up and pulled his lips down again and he mumbled incoherently against her - something about how stunning she was, how good she felt.

"I want to see you," she said and gently moved from under him, pushing him onto his back and moving over him, placing her small hands on his chest, her right hand just over his rapidly beating heart.

She slid down him achingly slowly, and it felt so amazing that he arched his neck, hissing-in air, his hands convulsing around her waist. "Hermione, Gods," was all he could manage to say.

Rolling her hips, she tipped her head back and sighed his name. The sound almost undid him and the sight of her very nearly put him over the edge. He concentrated on staying in the moment - not wanting to fly off just yet.

She straightened and then bent over him, her silky hair draping across his chest and shoulders and her lips brushing against his. He reached up to meet her, passion coursing through him.

Every time with her, he was taken unawares at the intensity of emotion and physical feeling. It was like nothing he'd ever experienced - and he wasn't inexperienced - but with her it was different, more.

He reached down between them to caress at her core, stroking as she gasped sharply, her fingers digging into his shoulders. "I'm so close, Draco, God."

Good, because he was close too.

He felt her begin to tighten and let himself go to pure feeling. Her sweet tongue twining with his, the warm velvet of her walls pulling on him, her nails biting into his skin, her hair brushing his nipples.

And emotion. Like he'd never felt before.

"Gods, you are so sweet, so perfect," he whispered raggedly, wanting to give it voice. "Being with you is perfect."

She started coming, moaning against his lips and increasing her pace, which completely shattered him, his release peaking into a sharp crescendo that ripped a groan from him before spreading out in waves of pure joy.

Eventually she collapsed on him and his arms went around her, his fingers lazily stroking her back. Their breath, in sync, slowly went back to normal and Draco moved gently to twist them around so that she was underneath him.

He looked down at her in the dim light, into the dark velvet of her eyes, and realised he'd never felt so content and so … happy? Was that it?

She reached up and touched his jaw with a single fingertip, the corner of her mouth lifting ever so slightly and her eyes roving his face. He bent down to kiss her softly, just to brush at her lips with his, and was surprised at the fierceness with which she grabbed him, pulling him to her and ravishing his mouth possessively. He also liked it. Very much. And he willingly followed her into the depths of the kiss, breaking it only when she pulled back several moments later.

They stared at each other again. She took a deep breath and he thought that she was about to speak, but instead she just exhaled, turned on her side and pulled him against her back, again rather fiercely. He wrapped himself around her and stared into the dim until sleep took him again.

Chapter Text

"We are all fools in love"

Hermione awoke flat on her back in a patch of warm sunlight. Someone was making a good bit of noise in the kitchen, which must have been what had broken her slumber. After this early morning’s er, activities , she probably could have slept a good bit longer.  

She smile and yawned. Wait, someone in the kitchen ? Draco must have stayed! Her eyes widened. He had never stayed over before - he always apparated back to the Chateau before she woke. They’d never discussed it, but she figured it was part of the unwritten code of being his aunt’s house guest. Or maybe it had something to do with Astoria, and now that she was at school…?

She sat up, easing out of bed and sliding into the prettier of her two dressing gowns. Whatever , the smell of coffee and something else delicious was drifting into her room, so she wasn’t going to sit around having an internal debate. 

She approached the kitchen to a perfectly lovely sight; Draco standing at the stove, his back to her, wearing nothing but a pair of drawstring muggle-type joggers slung low on his hips. She shook her head and tilted her chin, sighing audibly. It just wasn’t fair. The broad shoulders and long back, tapering to the slim waist and hips. The little dents that just peeked out from the waistband of his trousers? And he was cooking  

Then he turned around.  

Hermione couldn’t help a much bigger sigh escaping her. 

“Oh so you’ve decided to join us?” he teased. 

“Coffee before chit-chat,” she said, ignoring the physical beauty on display in favor of the inner woman. She pulled down a cup and took a first, heavenly sip. And then a few more. He watched her, amusement on his face. 

“Ahhh,” she sighed as the caffeine hit her bloodstream. “What is all this? It smells amazing.”

“I told you I was good with breakfast,” he deadpanned, stepping over and into her personal space with a signature Malfoy smirk.   

She blinked up at him, unsuccessfully suppressing a silly smile as distant memories of Theo’s terrace surfaced. She trailed the tip of her index finger down his bare chest. “You’re going to have to prove that.” 

He looked down at her for a beat before suddenly wheeling away to open her oven door while throwing a very arch look over his shoulder. “Croissants are ready.”

“You made croissants ??” Hermione knew her mouth was hanging open in a very unflattering way.  

“Baking is a lot like potion-making. You just have to be very precise.” She found his clipped, know-it-all tone annoyingly attractive. “Sit.” He pointed to the table, which already held an array of fresh fruits and pots of yoghurt and various things to put in it.  

Hermione sat.  

“Oh this is wonderful,” she sighed a bit later, shamelessly slathering butter onto her second warm croissant. “You’ve definitely proven yourself. You can stay any morning and make breakfast any time.” His eyebrow went up and she felt her cheeks warm. She suddenly busied herself with the few days old copy of the Daily Prophet that was sitting on the table. It was the issue Ginny had mentioned, featuring the Founders Ball. 

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about this,” she said shaking the page with the headline about the ball at him. “Is this why you have to be in London this weekend?”

“Yes,” he scowled. “Unfortunately.” 

“If you don’t mind my asking,” she helped herself to a slice of pear, “ why ?” 

He heaved a dramatic sigh. “My mother.” An eye roll that reminded her of their school days followed. 

She looked at him inquiringly.  

“It’s the one thing she ‘requires’ of me socially,” he said, aggressively spearing a blueberry on his fork. “We have an informal agreement that if I go with her to this, she can’t harass me the rest of the year to come to dinners and parties and what-not.”  

Hermione’s eyebrows went up and she thought simultaneously that Narcissa must be made of rather stern stuff and that there was no way she would let her parents manipulate her like that.  

“I agree,” Draco put his hand up and Hermione realised her face must have given away her thoughts. “It’s intolerably boring and I find it more difficult each year to feign politeness with that crowd. I am not looking forward to it. Immensely.” 

Hermione toyed with her coffee mug then took a deep breath, In for a penny, in for a pound, Granger. “Would it help,” she darted a glance at his flinty eyes then looked down, “...if I went with you? As your date?” She had wanted to know how they would go public . Her eyes swept back up and she realised her heartbeat had sped. 

His eyes widened, “No!”  

She flinched back, hurt. 

“I mean,” he continued more slowly, holding her gaze, “that you would hate it.” 

“Or would they hate me ?” She was unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice.  

He stood up abruptly and came around to her side of the table, pulling out the chair next to her and turning it to face her before he sat down and took her hand. She kept her gaze averted, still stung.  

“Look, I’m going to be honest, Hermione.” He craned his neck to find her eyes, “It would be uncomfortable. It’s the Sacred 28 and maybe a handful from the next tier down - if they’re rich enough. But to a person, they’re all pureblood snobs. And they won’t care that you are a war hero or that you’re brilliant or that you’re there with me. They’ll still treat you as a muggle-born inferior. I can’t expose you to that.”  

“What if I don’t care? What if I would do it for you?” Would you do it for me?

He was shaking his head and she felt her insides do a slow drop. “You don’t know what it’s like. What they’re like. When they’re all together. It’s miserable enough for me - and I’m one of them.” 

“I’m sure I’ve endured worse.” She felt her chin lift. 

He pulled back and his face shuttered. “No, I couldn’t let you.”  

His words held a quiet finality, but she was nothing if not tenacious. “Couldn’t let me or don’t want me?” 

Breath exploding angrily from his lips, he stood up and started clearing dishes to the sink. “I refuse to answer that.” His voice held an iciness she hadn’t heard in weeks.  

Hermione realised she had crossed her arms over her chest at some point. “What other conclusion am I supposed to draw? You’ve said I’ll be uncomfortable. I’ve said I’ll endure it. For you. And you still say no. So I can’t think of any other reason why.” 

His cool suddenly shattered, “You don’t belong there, that’s why,” he bit out, then stalked out of the kitchen and down the hall to the bedroom. 

“What the FUCK is that supposed to mean?” She stood up and followed him. He was angrily pulling his shirt over his head and accio-ing his shoes. 

“It means what I said.” Spots of color had bloomed high on his cheeks. “There are some situations you can’t brazen out. Some places you can’t just put your chin up and toss your Hermione Granger curls and say ‘Fuck it, i’m here whether you like it or not’. And I’m not saying it’s right or it’s good,” some of the anger seemed to drain out of him at this point, “but it is the reality.” He looked up at her and his eyes were sombre. 

She felt the anger drain out of her too - replaced by something infinitely more frightening. “So what does that mean, Draco?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

“It means I’ll see you on Sunday.” He got up from her bed, somehow impeccably put together again, and stepped in front of her. He lifted her chin and looked deeply into her eyes. To her utter mortification, she felt tears pricking there. 

“I thought you’d be leaving a bit later.” 

He sighed and glanced away, “Theo’s in town unexpectedly and I have to meet him at noon in Diagon. It’s important and it’s the only time we could make work.” 

Hermione gathered the tattered shreds of her dignity around her. “Tell him I said hello. And owl me before you arrive on Sunday. I may be out doing some last bits of fieldwork.” She turned away and began tidying something - anything.  

She felt his hand warm on her shoulder, gently turning her back around. “Let’s not leave it like this,” he whispered. 

“Ok,” she said, forcing herself to look up at him. His lips brushed gently against hers and her eyes closed. 

“I’ll miss you,” he said softly. But before she could respond, he was striding out of the room and down the hall. 

And Hermione had never felt more like a kept woman kept in her place.

Chapter Text

"Angry people are not always wise"

Hermione moped around her cottage for about an hour after Draco left and then decided she was absolutely not going to sit and brood when she had so little time left in France. Instead she walked to the swimming spot and spent the rest of the morning there. Then she treated herself to lunch and shopping in Aix and finally invited herself to dinner with Pen, Percy and the children. They had a lovely night that reminded her of when she'd first arrived, although it was definitely colder and darker in the evening now.

On Saturday, she went up to the farmhouse early and offered to take the children for the evening so that Pen and Percy could get away alone. At first the couple protested, but Hermione shouted them down, practically pushing them out the door. An overnight with three under-eights was the perfect antidote to sitting around and obsessing about Draco at the ball he refused to take her to. She would much rather play endless rounds of Exploding Snap or Gobstones than wonder if the refusal was the first step down a long slippery slope that would end with her crying on a sofa and consuming too much ice cream.

The children wanted to stay in her cottage, seeing it as a sort of exotic holiday location, so they had a jolly time, camping out in her sitting room and staying up a bit too late. When the morning rolled around Hermione awoke refreshed and in a much better mood, her natural optimism and practicality having reasserted themselves. Even if this whatever-it-was with Draco didn't work out, she told herself briskly, she still had her work and her friends and her life in London. She would be fine. This frame of mind required quite a bit of ignoring of a persistent inner voice that whispered she would be anything but fine, but she managed for a few hours.

She delivered the small Weasleys up to the farmhouse in the late morning, where Pen told her that they would be leaving again for the rest of the day, on an invitation from friends in a neighboring village, to attend a fun fair and stay overnight. Hermione hung around and helped them to get ready, then waved them off a few hours later as they left through the floo.

She was locking up the farmhouse behind her when a large owl swooped by with the daily paper delivery. Hermione picked up the rolled Prophet absentmindedly and ambled down the path to the cottage, her thoughts on the presentation she would be making to her department next week. Would it be better to structure it chronologically or by individual rights enumerated…? She opened the cottage door and tossed the paper on the counter, then hurried over to her workspace to start jotting down ideas.

Working quietly for almost an hour, Hermione was startled by the floo when it flared in her fireplace grate. She was even more shocked when she realised the flames held a sobbing Ginny.

"Oh my God, what's wrong!?" Hermione called as she rushed across the room. As she got closer, Ginny dashed her tears away and Hermione realised that she was angry, not scared or sad.

"It's your fucking ferret of a boyfriend," Ginny spat.

"What!?"

"He's convinced Theo to pull all of his investment out of the quidditch scheme." Ginny's face was white and set, and her eyes sparked fire that Hermione could see even through the green flames.

"What? I can't believe it! He never said anything. When? How?"

"Yesterday. Theo came by yesterday and told Harry he'd gone over the plan in detail and 'just couldn't support it'." Ginny's voice dripped venom.

"Oh my god, poor Harry." Hermione's hand drifted to her mouth. "But how do you know Draco was involved? Did Theo say something?"

"He didn't have to. George was at that stupid club all the pureblood twats belong to - as a guest of course - and he saw them huddled up yesterday afternoon over the prospectus. He said Malfoy was doing all the talking. And Theo came to the house directly after."

Hermione felt the blood drain from her face. How could Draco have done that? Without even mentioning it to her? He'd even told her he was meeting with Theo… "How is Harry?" she said shakily.

"Oh he played it off with Nott," Ginny said bitterly, "but he's absolutely destroyed. This is effectively the end of the scheme. Once the news gets out that Nott has dropped out, no one is going to want to touch it." Ginny's anger seemed to seep away. "He's so depressed, Hermione," she sobbed. "I haven't seen him like this since after Sirius."

Hermione felt her anger flare. What the fuck? She couldn't believe Draco hadn't said something - warned her at least. And Theo? She'd thought they were closer than this… And even if she'd known on some level that Harry was playing fast and loose with the plan's financials, she'd figured Theo - and by extension Draco - knew that by now and had factored it in. Ginny was right, Theo's desertion would cripple the scheme. Her fists clenched and she exhaled raggedly.

"I want you to know that I had no idea this was in the offing," she said, looking intently at Ginny. "No clue. I would have told you."

"I know that, of course." Ginny's face was sad. "And I want you to know that part of me is sorry about what this means for you."

Hermione shook her head. "I don't know what it means. But I will find out. And maybe I can fix it."

A look of doubt flashed across Ginny's face before she glanced over her shoulder. "I have to go. Harry's awake - he didn't sleep at all last night and he's been napping for the last few hours. I'm going to try to get him to eat something. He hasn't had anything since yesterday." She turned back to Hermione, "I'll see you on Tuesday or Wednesday, yeah?"

"Yes, likely Tuesday evening."

Ginny nodded once and the flames went dark.

Hermione sat in front of the empty fireplace grate, hugging her knees and staring off into nothing for a long while. Eventually she pushed up and moved across the cottage into the kitchen - she definitely needed a drink.

Reaching for a glass, she poured a healthy measure of cognac and leaned against the counter, sipping slowly.

She was angry, yes, and hurt at the lack of openness. The secrecy and back-room dealing felt, for lack of a better descriptor, so Slytherin. But her analytical side also knew that there had always been real flaws in Harry's scheme - flaws that she'd pointed out to him and to Ginny, and which they obviously hadn't addressed.

She'd known there was going to be difficulty and awkwardness around integrating her relationship with Draco with her life back home, but this was going to be a true trial by fire. Wait until Molly Weasley got wind of it… She blew out a long breath.

Was it even worth it? On the heels of that thought, she imagined the way Draco had looked at her in the dim light yesterday morning. When his eyes had been deep and fathomless and she had almost said what was in her heart.

Didn't all worthy things take work?

She sighed and looked down. This was going to take a lot of work.

Staring into nothing again, Hermione's eye was caught by the moving image on the front page of the rolled up Daily Prophet. Something in the shape looked familiar…

She picked up the paper and shook it out, turning it over to the front cover. What she saw made her gasp, her cognac glass slipping from her fingers to shatter on the hard stone floor.

'Sacred Stroll Straight to the Altar!?' screamed the headline.

And under it two photos — both of Draco … and the dark-haired girl from Theo's party.

Hermione's brain seemed to stall in place as she gazed at them.

Of course she first registered that he looked gorgeous, his dark dress robes in stark contrast to his striking hair. Then she noted that the girl - oh her name was Jonquil, how lovely - was absolutely breathtaking, a perfect china doll, complete with porcelain skin and sleek ebony locks. And then she took in their body language. In the first picture, they were dancing, the copy noting that they had opened the ball. The girl, Jonquil, was smiling up at Draco as they twirled. He was obscured at first, but the picture ended on a full view of his face, tenderness radiating from it as he looked down at his partner. Blaise Zabini was grinning just over his shoulder and the cherry on top was Narcissa Malfoy, looking on with a beaming smile.

The second photo? Oh the second photo was even better! It was much smaller and clearly taken from quite far away. Draco and Jonquil were tucked into a dim corner, obviously having a very personal conversation. She placed her hand on his chest (Hermione's breath sucked in painfully at this), and he pulled her gently against him. Then she rested her head against his lapels as his hand went up to cup the back of her neck.

Hermione felt like she was going to throw up.

And that was before she noticed the lurid bold-faced type at the bottom of the page, "Turn to Rita Skeeter's latest on page six to see how the rest of the lovebirds' night (and morning after) went!"

Seemingly of their own volition, Hermione's shaking fingers found page six, but not before she noticed a gushing quote from Narcissa referencing her hopes for a 'happy announcement' in the very near future.

Page six was almost all photos. In contrast to the high quality images on the cover, these were grainy and unfocused. But they still painted a clear picture; Draco leading the dark-haired girl into his flat the night of the ball and her exiting the next morning, this morning, when Hermione had been helping the children sort every-flavoured beans on her sitting room floor.

And Jonquil was wearing one of his shirts.

Hermione slid to the ground, her eyes barely taking in the article accompanying the photos - something about long-standing engagement rumours and two fortunes joining to fund major projects at the Meadows...Then she snapped into focus again, her horror renewing as she read,

"Does this mean Draco's golden days in France are over? We've heard rumours that he's been keeping company with a certain well-known golden girl on assignment there. But it seems that play-time is over for the platinum-haired prince and it's time to settle down."

And then all the way at the bottom of the column Hermione noticed Jack Wickham's name. She skimmed the item dazedly, her blood beginning to boil. It was about the breakup of Wickam's engagement, with Skeeter alluding to a person from his past warning-off Gladiola Sinclair (did they all having fucking flower names?) — then noting archly that Draco had been seen at an intimate lunch with the heiress the week before. He had certainly been fucking busy. The item continued with hints at the bad blood between Draco and Jack, finishing with a typically Skeeter-like flourish, "Does it seem fair that as he's finding happiness, Draco is preventing an old 'friend' from doing the same? But then again, Draco Malfoy has never played by the rules…"

Hermione's fist pounded the floor. Every feeling about being hidden away and not good enough rioted to the surface. She was so angry.

Oh, of course she was angry at him, the duplicitous bastard. But she was more angry at herself. How could she have drifted into this role? The ever-available mistress, tucked away in the French countryside… known only to a few trusted friends and even fewer family members.

She'd let passion get in the way of her judgement. Gone against every instinct - every warning flag that had come up. She'd just ignored it and this was what she got.

Her fingers curled against the flagstones. It was so clear now that she'd been kept in a little bubble exactly where he wanted her. And no, they had never talked about exclusivity, but she had fucking assumed.

She heaved up and stumbled back over to the fireplace, throwing in the floo powder and muttering, "my flat."

Ginny was already sitting at the grate. "I wondered if you'd seen yet," she said tonelessly when she saw Hermione's face.

"I just. I feel like such a fool. I should have listened to myself."

"I'm so sorry," Ginny reached her hand out through the flames. "I'm angry at him on Harry's behalf, but I'm livid with him on yours."

Hermione felt a tear roll down her cheek.

"Fuck!" Ginny's breath exploded from her lips. "I mean, It's just this crowd, Hermone. We shouldn't have trusted them. Skeeter got it right for once. They don't play by the same rules that we do. Decency? Honesty? Who cares!"

Hermione nodded but felt some niggling thoughts intrude, mainly around Astoria and the care Draco had taken with her, but that was obviously the exception. And, of course, Astoria was one of their own.

"We tried to give them the benefit of the doubt." Ginny continued, "We really tried." She looked up at Hermione with tired eyes, "I'm so sorry, love. I wish I were there."

"And I wish I were there," Hermione choked out. "But I'm leaving though, Gin. As soon as Pen and Percy come back tomorrow evening. I'll say goodbye to the herd tomorrow during the day and owl Lucretia. There's no need for me to stay any longer."

"Are you going to see him before you go?"

"Yes, he's supposed to come over tonight. And seeing as I'm not a fucking coward, I'll tell him in person what I think."

"Well call me any time of the night if you need to." Ginny blew her a sad kiss and Hermione reached out her hand back to her.

"Thanks, love. I'll see you very soon."

The flames died again and Hermione picked herself up and made her way to the kitchen, where she cleaned up the shards of her broken glass. Pouring another, she picked up the paper and dragged a chair to the back garden of the cottage, then sat herself down to watch the sunset and wait.

Chapter Text

"Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil?"

Draco mounted the steps to Hermione's cottage, whistling. Happy to think that his obligations were behind him and he was now where he actually wanted to be.

Although he was glad he'd been able to help Jonnie last night. Fucking Alistair. But he thought he'd finally been able to talk some sense into his old friend. It sounded like she was truly ready to leave the cunt for good. Blaise's blatant flirting hadn't hurt either. He'd put some credit back in the bank with Draco, making Jonnie feel good again. Between the three of them they'd even managed to salvage the ball, staying up late and talking shite about the idiots in attendance.

Draco had also decided this was his last time humoring Narcissa and going to the ridiculous event. Hermione's words had rung in his ears all day. He'd felt something close to shame as he stepped into the opulent ballroom and made polite conversation with bigots and blood purists. How had he ever endured it calmly before?

His knuckles went up to the wooden door. She must not have heard him apparate. He knocked once and was surprised when the heavy panel swung open, revealing a dark and silent interior. A prick of worry furrowed his brow.

"Hermione?"

No answer. Draco moved swiftly through the large front room down the hall to the bedroom. All was empty, quiet. He felt a distinct stab of panic until he noticed that the door to the garden was hanging slightly open. Relief washed through him. She must be outside.

He pushed through and saw her, letting out a breath he didn't realise he'd been holding. Oddly, she was sitting in one of her kitchen chairs at the end of the garden, facing out to the rolling fields beyond. The last rays of the sun just gilding the tips of her hair. Beautiful.

He hurried across the grass to her, excited - and a little apprehensive. To tell her. Tell her what he'd realised this weekend. When he was talking with Theo and his friend had been gushing about being a 'man in love'. Telling Draco about all the little ways Rafik captivated him.

And Draco realised as Theo spoke, that he felt the same way. About her.

He was in love with her.

That was the emotion he had felt the other morning. The happiness and contentment, the rush of pure feeling, the thrill of being in her presence. The joy.

Love.

Well, fuck him.

He shook his head once and grinned as he drew closer to her. "Hello!"

She didn't respond. That was odd. A little swell of unease washed over him. "Hermione?"

No answer.

He stopped a few feet away from her. "What's wrong?"

She still didn't turn, but her hand rose, holding a newspaper. She shook it in his direction. He took it and inhaled sharply when he saw the cover. "What the fuck?"

"Indeed." Her voice was flat. "And you'll want to turn to page six. That's where all the best bits are."

"I can explain," he muttered, still skimming the article and swearing softly when he saw the interior spread.

She laughed hollowly. "So cliché. Draco. Well I can explain too. I went against every instinct to become involved with you. I knew what you were like. And, no, we weren't exclusive - so technically you're in the clear."

"Hermione, I didn't…"

She cut him off. "And I know about what you did to Harry."

"What did I do to Potter?" his mind was reeling.

"Told Theo not to invest. Well you can feel good about that because Theo pulled out. Totally. And now no one is going to want to sign on. Harry's properly devastated."

"I only gave my friend my opinion." He could hear his voice go cold.

She snorted. "And last but not least poor Jack Wickham. You've been busy, Draco."

"Poor Jack Wickham?" He felt the blood rise up his neck. "You show a lot of concern for him."

"Well I feel a kinship with him, don't I?" Her tone was scathing and he finally saw a flash of her dark eyes over her shoulder. "We're neither of us good enough for you."

Draco stepped back as if she'd hit him. He felt ill, dizzy at how quickly he'd gone from light and joyful to bleak and angry.

"Are you going to give me a chance to explain?"

"What is there to explain? I'm more angry at myself than even you over this. I should have known. You've been keeping me as your dirty little muggle secret all along. I was never going to step out in public with you, or take a place at your side, was I?"

"What do you mean? We've been out in public! My aunt knows about you, us. Theo, Daphne, Astoria!"

"In muggle public. And known only to a neat, closed little group. But tell me, does your mother know?"

He couldn't answer. How could he explain that his mother was the least important person in that list?

"Because she seems to think you're engaged to this woman," she continued. "And who fucking knows. Maybe you are. I've certainly seen you with her before. In the papers. At Theo's party." Her voice broke a bit here and he felt his heart do the same. "But like I said, we never discussed it, so you're in the clear. Shame on me. Fool me once and all that. But I'm not getting fooled twice."

She dashed something from her eye and he started toward her, but she held a hand up, turning to face him, her features remote. "This little thing we had? Is over. I'm going back to London tomorrow. I know we can't be seen together there, so maybe you were planning to end it anyway."

"I wasn't planning to end it." His voice was low, the shock and urgency he felt mixed in his tone. "And I can explain these pictures - they're all taken out of context. Jonnie is a friend, that's all."

"A friend who stays over at your house and wears your clothes the next morning? How stupid do you think I am?" She stood up and walked toward him, fury radiating from her slight frame. "And even without this, stupidity, on my part. I can't live with what you did to Harry. You and Theo. Thanks to you and your little games he hasn't gotten out of bed in two days. How could you do that without talking to me first? Without warning me?"

Draco just shook his head. His mind seemed to have shut down at the weight of her accusations.

"Even if we weren't exclusive," she continued, and he shook his head again, started to speak, but she talked through him, "...you and I were effectively in some sort of relationship, so it would have been the decent thing to tell me, let me in on what was happening. If you had been more open. But I'm seeing it a lot more clearly now. And we were never in a relationship in your mind. I was just your fuck in France."

Draco felt the blood drain from his face. He staggered a little and reached out to grip the back of her chair, looking down at her averted face. "This is what you feel?"

"This is what I know," she spat. "I regret every minute of my … association with you."

"If that's how you feel, I don't think there's anything I can say." He felt numbness stealing over him.

"There isn't." Tears started down her cheeks and Draco, in spite of everything, wanted to reach out. Wipe them away. Instead, he turned to go. There seemed to be nothing he could say.

Then he stopped and turned back. He would say one more thing. From his heart.

"I don't regret one second of our association."

Before he could see her response, he walked with lead feet to the apparition point and flashed away.

~oOo~

Hermione heard the crack of his leaving and collapsed on the grass, sobbing her broken heart into the soft earth. Eventually she dragged herself back to the cottage and into bed, but sleep never came for her.

The next morning, she rose woodenly as soon as the sun lightened the sky. Her mind was bleary and her body heavy, but she knew she had to make her farewells to the herd. An almost full pot of coffee didn't help her fatigue or her mental state, and she set off in an agitated, desolate frame of mind to say goodbye.

Rounding the path to the meadow, she stopped with a sharp inhale. A tall frame stood in the path, shoulders broad, fair hair glinting in the rays of the rising sun. He turned around at the sound of her breath and she had the strongest urge to run to him, fling herself into his arms, forget and forgive everything.

But she was trying not to be a fool.

He cleared his throat and stepped toward her. He had something in his hand. An envelope, thickly stuffed. She noted that his face was white and the hollows under his bloodshot eyes a deep purple. He held the parcel out to her.

"If you would do me the courtesy of reading this." His tone was formal.

Her hand went out, but her face must have shown reluctance, because he continued. "It's not an attempt to change your mind. You've made your feelings plain. But I would like a chance to explain."

She took the letter and held it in shaking hands. He took a small step closer, his eyes roving her face but then stopped, stiffened, went cold. "You can apply to Theo, Lucretia and Daphne to confirm any of the facts within. Even Astoria is aware of what I've written and has given her strong consent, although I'd rather you not pursue further discussion of the contents with her."

Hermione felt her eyes widen. She nodded slowly.

He took a breath. "I'm leaving this morning so you won't be burdened with my presence as you finish your work here. I wish you all the best." He nodded once. "Good bye."

On these words, he turned and walked away without a backward glance.

Hermione heard the sharp crack of apparition after he rounded the bend in the path. Her heart gave a mighty ache and she sank down against a nearby fencepost, ripping at the heavy cream envelope to reveal what was inside; many sheets of thick paper, covered in his bold, now-familiar script.

She unfolded them and began to read.

 

 

Dear Hermione,

Please don't think that this letter will try to change your mind or your feelings. That is not my intent nor, after your words yesterday, is it my hope.

My only object is to provide explanation regarding three circumstances you laid at my door as the source of your or your friends' unhappiness and/or misfortune. I do this not just to clear myself of blame, but in the hope that I may alleviate some of the pain you may be feeling.

I will address them in order of importance - least to most. Namely, 1) Potter's investment scheme; 2) my conduct surrounding the Founders Ball; and 3) Jack Wickham's plight.

First, Potter's scheme. At the risk of angering you from the start, I'm going to be very honest and blunt about my feelings and motivations here.

I have thought from the beginning that Harry's plan stood on dubious ground. And I have voiced that opinion to Theo without reservation since we first were made aware of it.

I didn't have the chance - for various reasons - to review the prospectus closely until quite recently. And once I did, I made my objections to Theo more vociferously - and showed him supporting data from the document itself. He was certainly rattled by my findings, and that may well have been the reason he decided to pull his funds. That said, Theo is his own man and I do not control his actions. The decision not to invest was his alone.

I also consider the following information fairly beside the point since I stand by the above arguments on their own merits, but Theo did give me to believe - and I think believes himself - that Potter had numerous other investors willing to step in. Neither of us were aware that Theo's withdrawal would end the project.

But it remains that there were aspects of the plan - particularly the financials -that were highly unstable. In fact, I would be surprised if you had gone through it thoroughly and not seen them. I couldn't in good conscience recommend my friend to proceed on what could be such a ruinous course.

You are loyal to your friends and I am loyal to mine.

As for your assertion that I should have warned you in advance, perhaps you are correct. I can only point to my natural reticence and habit of not seeking counsel if I believe my course of action to be correct. Right or wrong, it's an ingrained custom. Further, I didn't see my advice to Theo as necessarily determinative. And finally, you and I had already had tense words that morning and I was reluctant to add anything that might distress you more deeply. I do apologize for that. It was cowardly.

So as for me being the source of Potter's unhappiness, I do not accept responsibility. While your devotion to your friend is admirable, I think it also serves to obscure what you know to be true and reasonable in this situation.

~

Second, The Founders Ball. I still feel that you would have been unhappy and uncomfortable there. But I now see - and in fact came to see all throughout Friday and Saturday - that the correct course of action would have been for me not to attend an event where you weren't welcome, despite whatever my mother would have said or done. I realise it's a fairly moot point now, but I have resolved never to attend again.

As for Jonquil (Jonnie), as I said, she's a friend. Has been nothing but a friend for a very long time — except for about a week when we were both 15. She's been engaged to a man called Alistair, who is a lying, cheating fuck, for over four years. But she won't leave him. No one quite knows why - although I'm sure Daphne could give you some theories.

But anyway, Jonnie has fallen into a pattern of coming to me for support when Alistair has done something horrible. I think because Daphne will no longer listen to her on the subject. The other newspaper picture you mentioned and Theo's party - those were similar times.

Last night (was it just last night?) at the ball, Jonnie was in a state. She'd actually walked in on Alistair with her flatmate. And when she'd rushed out to her parent's house, her mother forced her to get dressed and go to the ball - ostensibly to 'lift her spirits'. So I danced with her and comforted her, which was what the pictures captured. Blaise was actually there too - he was the one that flirted with her, made her feel better about herself.

We three left the ball early and went back to my flat to have a takeaway. I let her sleep on my sofa because she was drunk and didn't want to face her mother again. I gave her a shirt to sleep in because she couldn't manage to transfigure her ball gown properly.

You can ask Zabini about it if you wish - he stayed over too - although I don't know why anyone would trust him. And I can't speak for my mother and her daft comments. She's delusional when it comes to my love life and always has been.

But the reality of Jonnie doesn't trouble me as much as the implications behind your words. That is, that I didn't think we were in a relationship and that I was 'hiding' you in France.

I have no way to prove the following. I can't have you apply to Theo to confirm what's in my mind and heart, so you'll just have to believe me (or not) when I stress that those things are categorically untrue. The fact that I have to write this is deeply painful to me - because I realise that you must not have trusted me all along - and I know I bear a good bit of responsibility for this.

~

Finally we come to the third part of this letter. Forgive me if my penmanship becomes less neat than what you've previously admired, but it's very late now and this is the most difficult for me to write.

Wickham's circumstances. You may be surprised that I rank this accusation the most important. There are a number of reasons why, as you'll see. But I think the most personal to me is that if I had acted in the way Wickham represents, it would show me to have the most weak and callous of characters. Perhaps at this point I deserve the assumption, I no longer know.

Anyway, I read the section of the Prophet that you referred to yesterday and infer from that and your comments that you are convinced that I broke up Jack Wickham's engagement because I believe he isn't fit to marry a pureblood witch of my social class.

Before I relay the details of my association with him, I would like to categorically deny that assertion. I no longer have prejudices around marriage or any other association between muggles, muggle borns, half bloods and purebloods. I believe all magical and non-magical people to be equal. I certainly do not see you as beneath me in any way, as you implied.

As for Jack Wickham, I can't be sure of what exactly he told you, but I think it's probably some variation of the story that has followed him ever since he parted ways with my family a decade ago; that my father promised him something in return for a service or favor - that I was supposed to fulfill that bargain in light of my father's death - and that I didn't, due to some combination of blood prejudice, jealousy and pure spite - which left poor Wickham in straitened circumstances, stunting his chances at happiness and success.

Here is the true story, about which, if my word is insufficient to assure you, you may apply to Theo for confirmation of all details.

To first dispose of Wickham's version of the narrative, my father - never having possessed a generous or thoughtful nature - didn't promise him anything. In reality, he barely noticed that there was another boy living at the manor.

My acquaintance with Jack was similarly slim. Before we went away to school, he spent half of each year in America and our schedules and activities during the remaining half were so different that we rarely saw each other. After he chose to attend Ilvermornay, we went years without meeting at all. I had quite forgotten about him when he showed up in the months after my father's death demanding money to pay gambling debts.

This was the first point at which I heard the tale about my father stipulating a grant or some sort of living for him. It didn't ring true to me at the time - as I said it would have been totally out of character for Lucius - but I also couldn't find a stick of evidence for any such agreement, nor could Wickham produce any.

However I did feel some responsibility to him - I think his upbringing must have been difficult in many ways. So I agreed to discharge his outstanding debts on the condition that he choose a muggle or wizarding career training or course of study - that I would pay for - and finish it. My motivations weren't entirely altruistic here - I wanted him self-sufficient so he'd stay out of my hair. He agreed readily enough and decided on a magical law apprenticeship in the States. I paid his debts and gave him the money for the program and his expenses in a lump sum (looking back, a severe error in judgment).

And then I forgot about him again - until he appeared a year later asking for more money. He wouldn't say what had happened to the first sum - only that the law didn't suit him and he now wanted to try muggle medical school. When I suggested that the only way I would agree to something like that would be if I were to pay the school directly, he stormed out.

I didn't see him again for another year. And I don't know what he was doing or how he lived, although I did hear rumours of more gambling and other unsavoury goings-on, often involving women.

My next contact with him was infinitely more painful. And it is of the most sensitive nature. No one knows what I am next going to relate except for the principals, Daphne, Theo, Lucretia and Minerva McGonnagal. I trust that you will keep it in the strictest confidence.

Last Spring, I received an almost hysterical floo call from the Headmistress, informing me that Astoria was missing from Hogwarts. Daphne and I went immediately to Scotland and - to make a long and anguished story shorter - after a frantic search, we found her a few days later in a filthy flat in Glasgow … with Jack Wickham.

From what we came to understand, he had arranged an 'accidental' meeting between them in Hogsmeade around the start of term and had exercised his considerable charm. They'd started writing to each other. He persuaded her to sneak away to visit him a handful of times, eventually convincing her to leave school and elope.

Astoria is heiress to a considerable fortune of her own, you see. Although, I can't help but think that money wasn't Wickham's sole motivation. I believe he also did it to revenge himself on me - which has caused me many sleepless nights. And not all of my nightmares are about the war.

When we found them they were as yet unmarried, but only because she had gotten cold feet and put him off. She had just turned 16.

The only reason the absolute cunt walks free is that Astoria insisted that she went with him willingly and that any public airing of the story would devastate her even more. Despite realizing that both things were true, it was very difficult for me to accede to her wishes. I nearly killed him the day that we found them. Sometimes I wish that I had. Sometimes I imagine - in great detail - that I did.

It took many weeks for Astoria to start speaking again, months for her to go out in public and I think you've noticed that she's still fragile. Not to mention that he ruined a place she loved and looked on as home, as I'm sure you'll deeply understand.

So now you'll perceive what kind of 'man' Jack Wickham is and why I met with Gladiola Sinclair to caution her strongly against an alliance with him. I'm deeply sorry I wasn't able to relay more of this earlier, because I think it contributed to your distrust of me - but I could not. Even now, I only reveal the story at Astoria's passionate urging.

~

We come to the close, finally. I am very tired now, so please forgive me if the following makes no sense - but I think even if my explanations cast me in a perfect light, which I know they do not, that something was broken yesterday - by my conduct and your lack of trust.

And as I said at the beginning of this letter, I do not expect my words to change your feelings or to fix it - for either of us. But I hope they can put your mind a small bit more at ease, even if mine will remain restless - perhaps forever.

~DLM

The letter dropped from Hermione's hand, white pages scattering on the green grass. Tears trickled down her face as she stared sightlessly ahead.

So much to take in.

After a moment, she started and looked down, almost frantically gathering up the pages, making sure they were still in order, undamaged, unstained. She folded them carefully and then almost immediately unfolded them, starting to read again.

She looked up as she finished the first section, blowing out her breath and wiping her damp eyes. He was really fooling himself here, thinking he hadn't influenced Theo enough to make him pull out of Harry's scheme. She pursed her lips as she re-read the sentence about his loyalties and hers.

Where was his loyalty to her? Even if there were flaws in the plan (and her inner voice whispered that she knew there were) why hadn't he come to her with his concerns instead of blowing everything up? Because he was naturally reticent? Please. And the whole part about not realizing that Theo's withdrawal would kill the project - totally disingenuous.

No, she still didn't buy his explanation here. Even if a tiny part of her did respect how unwavering he was.

She kept reading.

The Founders Ball. "Jonnie". She sighed. She wanted to trust him here, she did. She didn't want to feel cheated on and tucked out of sight. She wanted to believe that he had danced with another woman (a pureblood heiress) at the exclusive ball that he wouldn't take her (the muggle -born plebe) to - just because he was being supportive - and a bit obtuse. She wanted to believe that this woman came to him for friendly emotional support and comfort only. She wanted to believe that Jonnie walked out of his flat the next morning wearing nothing but Draco's shirt because he was just being a nice guy.

She wanted to believe that he'd be proud to have her by his side.

Her brow furrowed. Could she let herself trust him that way? There was just no way to get proof - unless she had faith in Blaise, which, no, she really didn't.

Her finger traced lightly across the words, '...confirm what's in my mind and in my heart,' and she closed her eyes, tears flooding them again.

It would have to be trust. In Draco.

She mentally shook her head, then pushed herself off the ground, needing to walk, move.

Her eyes skimmed the final part of the letter as she went down the trail, although it already felt like the words were burned in her brain. Poor Astoria. Her heart absolutely broke for the girl. Her fists clenched - she wanted to physically harm that fuck, Wickham. She could totally understand Draco's fantasies about killing him slowly. What kind of morally bereft animal…? 16 years old! A silent wave of magic actually surged from Hermione's body, ruffling the grass and shaking a few startled birds off a tree branch. She stopped and took a deep breath.

So she obviously believed him here. Believed him unreservedly. Pictures flashed through her mind - Jack stroking her palm in the pub, Astoria being comforted by the herd, Wickham's face when he saw Draco in the alleyway. It all rang true. In fact, she felt sick that she'd ever welcomed Wickham into her life, that she'd laughed with him, defended him. That she'd thought Draco was the lesser man in some ways.

If she had been wrong about this, had she been wrong about everything?

Well not everything. He was still delusional about his role in the failure of Harry's project. Hermione started moving again. She needed to finish here - wrap up with the herd, say her goodbyes to Pen and Percy, get home to London and think about this.

Although his closing words rang ominously in her head.

Something was broken...

Hermione stopped again. Her hands stole up to her mouth and she gave an involuntary, wrenching sob.

Oh god, oh god, oh god, what had she done.

Chapter Text

PART III

"Her astonishment, as she reflected on what had passed, was increased by every review of it"

Hermione stepped out of a lift at the ministry and clicked across the vast lobby. Opening the door she ducked into a gust of late September drizzle. The weather perfectly reflected her state of mind. She could not have felt further from the warm sun and soft air of Provence.

Clutching her robes to her, she hurried into the takeaway shop and picked up her dinner, before heading to the apparition point and then home. Opening the door she called out, but there was no response — Harry and Ginny must be out somewhere. Good, it was time some of them stopped moping around the flat.

She moved to the kitchen, stowing her work bag and kicking off her heels, then padded to the living room to sit on the couch, stare out the window and eat directly from her takeout container. Well, 'eat' was a relative term. All she could seem to do these days was pick at her food.

Three weeks. It was three weeks that she'd been back in London. Since she'd seen him.

She could recite from memory the words of his letter - fingers brushing the softness of paper that had become almost like fabric, it was so well-worn. But no new words. No word at all.

And she hadn't reached out either. Some combination of hesitance and fear held her back. Also she didn't fucking know where he was. A birthday card from Astoria had mentioned him being in America, but hadn't specified where. Somehow it was fitting that they weren't even on the same continent.

Hermione sighed into the silence. Most of the time she tried not to give in to her feelings, but all by herself with no distractions, it was difficult. The last three weeks had been utterly awful. Aside from the world's saddest birthday celebration, (Hermione trying gamely to work up some enthusiasm over the cake Ginny had baked her, and failing so badly that they'd broken out the gin before 3pm) work had been fine and a good distraction - her presentation had gone well and the bill was proceeding through approvals rapidly. She expected to have something on the books by year-end. And the Aix herd journals had caused exactly the stir she'd thought they would - she'd been introducing them to all the crucial players in her field.

And she'd been forcing herself to get out and do things. Runs along the Thames; a film festival with a coworker; some live music she'd dragged Harry to. But Harry hadn't liked the band and the films had been weird and off-putting and on one of her runs her feet had somehow carried her to Green Park and under the canopy of 'their' tree. She'd stood there with tears rolling down her face for five minutes before she'd angrily snapped out of it and jogged home.

So her mental state remained poor.

She'd tried to talk to Ginny about it and showed her parts of the letter, but it was difficult with Gin so angry and resentful.

"He's being totally unrealistic about his effect on Theo and the scheme," Ginny had bit out, her eyes flashing. "And the whole thing with this Jonnie person comes off a bit too neat."

Hermione opened her mouth to defend him, but then remembered she had had the same reaction at first.

"Although," Ginny continued, her face softening, "the part you told me about Wickham seems to track, so I don't know. I want to be a sounding board, but I'm probably not the best person to be impartial." She'd squeezed Hermione's hand with a grimace.

Hermione of course hadn't shown anyone the section in the letter about Wickham and Astoria, but she'd told Ginny and Harry what she could about Wickham's financial dealings. She was worried because Ron had been spending so much time with Jack, going deep on the Spanish property project. It was all he could talk about at three successive Sunday lunches at the Burrow.

She'd talked to Harry and Ginny about saying something to him, but they concluded that it might not be well-received and may even backfire and cause Ron to stop confiding in them. And, as Harry pointed out glumly, Ron didn't have enough money for Wickham to get him into too much trouble. So they ultimately decided to just wait and watch the situation closely, while making sure to keep Jack out of their lives completely.

Magical London was fairly small though, so it was inevitable that they occasionally ran into him. Hermione took care to make their interactions short and unencouraging, until the first time he had tried on the old charm and asked her to lunch. She had declined flatly, a flash of hot anger coursing through her at his audacity. He'd stepped back in surprise, but then his face had shuttered and he'd bid her a polite, but cold, farewell. In subsequent encounters his manner had been similarly brusque. He seemed to know that she had turned on him, and she wondered how many people he had had that experience with.

Hermione shook off thoughts of Jack Wickham and stowed her half-full takeaway container in the trash, then slumped off toward her bed — not looking forward to another night of disrupted sleep. She hadn't had a solid eight hours since a few days before she'd left France.

She lay down, numb, remembering other, sweeter nights very much in spite of herself. A tear trickled down her face to her pillow and she swiped it away. Fuck. She was glad Harry and Ginny had gone out, but nights on her own were obviously not good for her at this juncture. And she had used to so enjoy her time alone...

She tossed under her covers, annoyed with herself. A co-worker had invited her to a book reading tomorrow and she decided on the spot that she was going. Maybe it would be another failed attempt at distraction, but she certainly couldn't take another night like this. She snuffed the lamp and exhaled into the darkness.

~oOo~

The bookshop was warm, lit by mellow candlelight and oil lamps. Hermione inhaled deeply the scent of parchment and melted wax and felt a tiny flicker of gladness in her heart. She was actually happy she had come out for the reading — even after her friend from Magical Artifacts had begged off, claiming she was too tired after a night up with her young baby.

Picking through the rows of spindly chairs, Hermione found an empty seat in the front, where no one ever seemed to want to sit, and dropped down with a sigh. She cracked open her copy of the book being featured that night, her eyes skimming a few of the poems and essays within. The author was a young witch, a very bright and funny writer, who had a way with little bits of verse. Hermione was looking forward to hearing her give voice to her work.

She looked around and, noticing the audience was almost entirely female, snorted softly to herself — she should have made Harry come with her. But then she wouldn't have wanted his presence to detract from the author's. Hazard of having an internationally famous best friend.

Of course, Hermione wasn't exactly anonymous either. She noticed some whispers and significant glances being sent her way and the two seats next to her remained empty even as the rest of the room filled. She didn't mind, and soon became engrossed in re-reading one of the essays as she waited. She was so caught up that she started in slight surprise when she felt someone drop into the seat next to her. A waft of a familiar soft scent accompanied the motion and she looked up to meet Daphne Greengrass's wide blue gaze.

"Hermione!"

"Daphne!"

Hermione leaned over to give Daphne a quick hug - and noticed that she had a companion. The room seemed to tilt to one side and then right itself very quickly as she registered that Jonquil, no Jonnie, was sitting in the next chair over, looking on with a tentative half smile.

Oh my god.

Hermione knew her face registered shocked surprise (and maybe a touch of horror?), so she schooled it quickly, masking her agitation behind a barrage of questions to Daphne about how she was and what she had been up to since they'd last seen each other.

Daph answered with her signature calm and then she turned to her left. Hermione felt time slow as Daphne introduced her to, "my good friend, Jonquil Avery."

The beautiful dark-haired witch - yes, she was even more exquisite up close and in person - smiled warmly and extended her hand across Daphne, saying "Jonnie. So pleased to meet you."

Hermione watched her own hand reach out and shake the other woman's and heard her own voice murmur polite words. Her brain had gone into free fall, but she tried to maintain herself, noticing a copy of the author's book in Jonnie's lap and asking the two witches what they thought of it. There were a merciful few minutes where Hermione didn't have to speak while Daphne and Jonnie praised the work, but then the topic was exhausted and Hermione wondered desperately if it was time for the reading to start yet. She glanced at her watch. Five more minutes to go.

"So yeah, that poem on page 54 is why I dragged Jonnie out here tonight…" Daphne was finishing with a gentle smile at her friend.

Hermione nodded, noting that Jonnie's face actually crumpled slightly at this statement. She glanced at Hermione and a faint flush stained her cheeks, "I've been going through a bit of a rough time. Bad break up," she said with a terse nod.

Of course Hermione remembered every word from Draco's letter, but didn't let on. The stricken look in the other witch's eyes actually tugged at her heart, though. This was another person in pain.

"I'm so sorry," she said with real sincerity. Jonnie's eyes became a bit shiny as she nodded again. Just then the light dimmed in the room and the young author took the stage to a wave of enthusiastic applause.

Hermione settled back in her seat to listen, although she couldn't help her mind returning to the witch two seats down. She didn't look like someone who had recently been off fucking a friend-with-benefits. She looked heartbroken.

Hermione knew the feeling.

The author read for about thirty minutes and her wry words about love and humor and loss arrowed straight to Hermione's heart. She found herself breathing heavily, her pulse racing in the dim. Just when she thought she might have to get up and leave, the lights went up and a short break was announced. She glanced over at Jonnie and Daph, but Jonnie quickly excused herself to the loo, her face again reflecting what Hermione was feeling.

Groups of witches gathered in tight little knots, sipping glasses of wine and chatting animatedly. Hermione talked with Daphne for a few moments until Daph suddenly saw another friend across the room and waved, telling Hermione she was just going to run over and say hello.

"Come on and I'll introduce you," she said, tugging at Hermione's hand, but Hermione couldn't contemplate trying to make small talk at this moment.

"I'd really rather not," she said with a wince and a grimace. Daphne stopped and turned back, looking at her searchingly. "I'm fine just here with my book," Hermione tried for a real smile.

"Ok," Daphne said softly, pressing Hermione's palm before she moved off.

Hermione sat back down. These situations were what made her feel the most foreign in her own life. Happy people chattering about happy topics, when all she could seem to do was sink in sadness. It was claustrophobic. She stood up, suddenly needing to get out of the warm room.

Pushing out into the crisp night was like coming up for air from under deep water. Hermione leaned against the wall of the shop, taking deep breaths.

"Hey," a soft voice came from the darkness. Jonnie. Also leaning against the wall in the dark, a wisp of cigarette smoke wafting from between her fingers.

Oh god.

"Uh, hi," said Hermione's voice - again feeling like it came from somewhere other than inside of her.

"Sorry I ran out. I feel like such a weakling," Jonnie said, smiling, but with a quaver in her voice.

Hermione's sympathy reasserted itself, "No, no - it's fine. I needed to get out of there too. That last poem? Whew. If you've ever made a stupid mistake in love …" she felt a humourless little laugh burst from between her lips, "yeah."

Jonnie also gave a pained laugh. "Yeah."

Hermione found herself moving closer, "Hey, may I have one of those?"

"Sure, of course!" Jonnie dug in her bag and held out a silver case and lighter.

"Muggle lighter?" Hermione smiled.

"I like the sound it makes." Jonnie's dark eyes crinkled at the corners and Hermione felt a stab - she was so beautiful. And she seemed nice.

They smoked in silence for a few moments before Jonnie spoke up again. "So I actually feel like I know you already."

Her eyes swept up to Hermione's face, which Hermione knew registered surprise.

"Draco." Jonnie said with a smile. "He's an old friend. Last time I saw him he mentioned that you were seeing each other. And he talked about you, uh, quite a lot. For Draco." Her smile widened.

Hermione almost dropped her cigarette. "Oh?" she managed to choke out.

"Yeah, I got the impression it was pretty serious." Jonnie's eyebrows were high. "You must be missing him since he's been off in America these last few weeks."

Hermione wasn't sure she was equal to this conversation. "Uh," she rubbed between her eyebrows, "we actually, sort of broke up?"

"Oh no, I'm so sorry to hear that!" Jonnie frowned, "Did he do something stupid? I really despair of him at times."

"No, I fear it may have been me who was...," Hermione trailed off, feeling a waver in her voice. She regrouped. "But I've been trying to move on. Doing a shit job of it most of the time," she laughed shakily.

Jonnie nodded slowly, her eyes watchful. "I know the feeling. I left my ex a month ago - after four years of him treating me absolutely abominably - and a bloody poetry reading has the power to make me go to pieces."

She looked down and seemed so forlorn that Hermione actually stepped forward and touched her arm.

Jonnie looked up and took a deep breath. "Anyway, I'm really sorry about you and Dra…,"

Just then the door to the shop opened and Daphne's head popped out. "There you two are! Are you ready to come in? She's about to start again!" She made little ushering motions with her hand and Hermione jumped to hurry inside.

The three witches threaded through the crowd back to their seats just as the lights went down again. Hermione turned her eyes to the stage, but her mind was far away from the proceedings.

In fact, it was reeling.

She looked over at Jonnie, who threw her a quick, grateful smile in the darkness. There was no way she had faked any of that.

But what the hell did that mean? That she had been wrong about this too?

Hermione felt something drain out of her and something else surge through her - a confused mix of relief — remorse — and shame...?

If he had been telling the truth about Jonnie. And about Jack…

Guilt trickled in. And pain. A full moon tide of it — swamping her in a relentless wave — and it was all she could do to stay until the end of the reading.

Leaping up the moment the lights flicked back on, she said quick goodbyes to Daphne and Jonnie, then apparated home and slammed herself directly into her bedroom, where she sank down on her bed and sobbed.

Chapter Text

 

"My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed"

Draco swirled the ice in his glass, fixated on the mellow light filtering through the amber liquid. He seemed to be doing this frequently - sitting and staring at things for minutes on end - his acuity and focus utterly shot. He'd also been listening to the same song on repeat for at least 30 minutes.

What had happened to him?

He shook his head once and pushed up, frustrated, loosening his tie and unbuttoning the top few buttons of his shirt. The deep copper of early autumn lit his window, which looked out over the turrets and long walls of Ilvermorny school. He'd been in Massachusetts for two weeks, observing the muggle integration program here. Figuring out how he could translate it for Britain and Hogwarts.

Hermione may have dismissed him from her life, but he hadn't been able to dismiss her ideas from his mind.

And after he'd gotten over the first white-hot flash of anger (after the truly first thing, which was despair) he'd become very focused, shutting himself away for several days while he wrote out a project plan for a muggle integration program to be split between the Meadows and Hogwarts. He'd emerged with a sort of fevered energy around him, ordering models built, facilities designed, messaging drawn up, press junkets organised, teams hired. He wanted this thing in place before the next school year started — so in less than twelve months.

He'd gone to Scotland after that, met with Minerva and told her his ideas. She had been extremely receptive and suggested this trip to America. Ilvermorny had started a similar program a decade ago, although in Draco's opinion it didn't go far enough. He wanted to do more. Not just explanation and instruction, but true integration of muggle families into their magical childrens' worlds. He didn't want another muggle-borns to have to suffer what Hermione had suffered.

His hand curled at his side. Hermione.

"Had you been more open," her anguished words rang in his ears, as they had a hundred times since the day she spoke them. Because that was what it came down to, wasn't it? At least that was the conclusion he had drawn. Everything she had flung at him, deserved or undeserved. Everything he had written in that fucking opus of a letter. It could have been avoided. If he'd opened himself, been unreserved about his actions and motivations. Truly brought her into his life.

And why hadn't he just done that? If he talked to his professionals at The Meadows, they'd probably say that it had something to do with his cold, love-starved upbringing or the fact that sharing his thoughts or feelings would have cost him his life at one time. And maybe they would be right. It was certainly difficult for him to let people in — much easier to live life at arms' length — and the thought of doing it with someone beyond his trusted circle frankly terrified him to his core.

But she'd already been in. Already been closer to him than almost anyone. He just hadn't shown her that.

He'd lost her over something in his control.

He slammed his glass down on a nearby table and walked toward his closet, pulling his shirt over his head. Wrenching open the door, he grabbed his Quidditch kit and flung it on the bed. Flying was the only thing that could quiet his mind these days. Five minutes later he walked out of his hotel, broom in hand, and launched into the sky.

Wisps of cloud scudded in the dimming slate blue sky and the colors of the trees below were almost surreal - saturated oranges, yellows and reds. He climbed high in a straight, steep line and then pulled abruptly out of his ascent, wheeling over into a backwards dive that was so breakneck he felt gravity pulling hard against him. The ground was rising fast - but the object was to wait it out until the last minute. A good Wronski meant the blades of grass brushed your knees as you pulled up.

He accomplished it once, twice, three times - the steady ascent higher each time, the streaking fall and the last second redemption. But on the fourth, something went wrong. A distraction or miscalculation? Maybe he had been dwelling too much on a memory. All he knew was that he caught something, hit the earth, skidded for several dozen feet and came to unceremonious rest at the base of a very large thorned bush.

He lay flat on his back and laughed mirthlessly. Nothing felt broken, at least - lucky it hadn't been his neck. He picked himself up, swung back on his broom and flew slowly back to the inn.

~oOo~

Openness.

Later at the bar in the hotel, he brooded over the concept. He realised he needed insight, help. Too bad Theo had fucked off with Rafik. Last heard from in Fez, Morocco, his most recent communication had been a muggle postcard (delivered by owl) with nothing but a lipstick kiss on the back. Theo didn't even know what had happened.

Draco sighed. He was happy for his best friend, but he had also never needed him more.

Daph? Jonnie? He stared into his glass. They'd certainly have some insight - Jonnie had been at him for years on this subject - and she definitely owed him. But she was going through her own shit - and what if they were photographed again? He shook his head. And Daph was in the first throes of infatuation with that French bloke. He hated to come in with his sad story just as she was finding happiness.

The one thing he knew was that it was time to leave. He'd been alone and brooding in this remote corner of the States for long enough. Ilvermornay reminded him too much of Hogwarts, yet it was also foreign and strange. The combination was making him feel completely disconnected. Also, he was going to kill himself with the flying he'd been doing if he didn't stop.

He pushed away from the bar and headed up the stairs to his room, his steps heavy. Almost automatically his wand moved to turn on his muggle music player and his fingers reached for the whisky bottle. So it was going to be another night of drinking and listening to sad songs? He blew out his breath in exasperation. When was he going to feel better? Snap out of it like he always had. Even after the war. What had done it then?

Astoria.

Of course. He'd go back to France.

But not to fucking Provence.

~oOo~

"It's such a nice surprise to have you here, Draco." Astoria tilted her head and gave him a sweet smile. She looked better than she had in a long time. Centered, calm. And it seemed like she'd matured in the last month. How was that possible? He regarded her - her hair was different, shorter. And her makeup was darker. She was growing up - the thought pierced his heart with equal parts pride and sorrow.

"What?" she asked, raising her brows.

"I like your hair," he said. "The shorter length suits you. And I can tell the French girls have been helping you with your makeup." He could feel his mouth quirk up. An almost smile - the first in weeks. It had been the right decision to come see her.

A quick smile of her own. "Yes, my housemates had a bit of fun with me tonight. When they heard we were coming here," she gestured to their fine surroundings - an exclusive restaurant near to the school.

"I'd heard it was good." Draco lifted a shoulder.

Astoria looked at him for a moment, searching his face. He met her eyes steadily, then sipped his wine. This was going to be more difficult than he'd thought.

"I'm glad you're here," she finally said softly. "But is there a particular reason why?"

"I wanted to see you."

She inhaled and looked away, suddenly very much a teenager.

"I wanted to talk to you," he conceded, annoyed with himself. "Or more accurately, to let you talk to me."

She looked back and her eyes were kind, but puzzled. "To talk to you?"

He twirled his glass on the table, looking down, "do you think I have a problem with … openness?"

A laugh bubbled from her lips and she answered immediately, almost before he'd finished speaking. "Yes."

He frowned and she reached across the table to cover his large hand with her small one. "It's understandable, Draco. Your upbringing, what happened to you during the war. The way people treated you afterward. But yes. Although I think you're more open with me than anyone. Or most people..." Her eyes cut away.

Hermione, she meant Hermione. The little seize in his heart spurred him. "I'm trying to … change that. And I thought I'd start with you. That's why I'm here."

Her eyes widened. "Ok," she said.

He leaned back. "So I want you to ask me anything. And I'm going to try to answer. Be open." He felt a distinct sensation of bracing himself as her dark eyes roved over his face.

"What happened?" she finally said.

He raised his brows.

"I mean, I know basically what happened. I know you're apart. But what really happened?"

He cleared his throat, blinked — and told her. Speaking through the first course, the second and all the way into dessert.

And as he spoke — about falling in love (those words strangely easy to pronounce), about being happy, and about how he'd still kept some part of it at arms' length, which ultimately fucked it up — he did feel himself growing a very small bit lighter.

Astoria was a good listener, her dark eyes trained on his face the whole time. She asked questions. She made comments that he knew he'd want to mull over later — and at certain parts of the narrative she looked at him with so much exasperation that she reminded him forcibly of her older sister. At the end, when he told her about the letter, she reached for his hand again.

"Oh Draco." Tears glinted in her lashes. "Do you think that's it? Is it over for good?"

He just looked at her, bleakness stealing over him. "I don't know. I assume so. I haven't heard back from her. What do you think?"

"I think," she sniffed and wiped delicately at her eyes with her napkin, "that I'm very angry with her! And with you! She should have trusted you! But you made it rather difficult, didn't you?"

He inclined his head.

She huffed out a huge sigh and looked away. "I don't know. I know what I want and what I believe in my bones should happen."

"What's that?"

"I want you to be with her! I believe that you love each other and that she makes you happy. I'd never seen you like you were this summer." She sniffed again. "And love her. I want her to be a part of our lives."

He nodded. "You think she loves me too?" This was the most difficult thing he'd said all night.

"I can't speak for her, of course. But I saw her with you."

He leaned back and sighed. Her face crumpled and she dabbed at her eyes in earnest.

It was quite late now and the dining room had emptied almost completely. Draco signaled for the cheque. "Thank you for listening. I hope it wasn't too much. Sometimes it's easy to forget that you're only 16."

She leapt up and dashed around the table, throwing her arms around him. "Oh Draco, of course it wasn't. I'm so glad you talked to me." She pulled back and he grasped her hands. "What will you do now?" she asked, a sad smile lifting her lips.

"Stop drinking too much whisky and listening to the same sad songs over and over." He felt the ghost of a smile cross his face and she gave a watery chuckle. "But seriously, I'm going back to England tomorrow and announcing the Integration Program soon. Work will be very busy for a while."

"And will you try to see her?"

He took a deep breath and blew it out. "She was very adamant when we last spoke. And after my letter, I rather think the ball is in her court, don't you? It's been over a month with no word."

"Mmm. Yes. Although don't discount the fact that she may feel too mortified to respond. And you've been impossible to reach."

He looked at her thoughtfully, then stood up, pulling her with him. "It's late. Let's get you back to school."

"Ok," she leaned her head on his shoulder as they walked out of the restaurant. "It was good to see you. Don't forget I'll be coming home for mid-term break in two weeks."

"I haven't. You can come to Wiltshire and see the Centre plans. I'm hoping Theo will be done with his jauntering by then as well and can stay with us."

"Oh yes, I miss him! He sent me the most droll muggle postcard."

"I'm sure." He hugged her briefly and fiercely against him. "Thank you again, my Astor. I love you."

"Oh Draco, I love you too!" She hugged him back and then ran to the carriage that would take her to school, waving over her shoulder as she went. "And I'll make you a new playlist!" she called.

He almost chuckled as he watched her drive away.

Chapter Text

"It was consequently necessary to name some other period for the commencement of actual felicity; to have some other point on which her wishes and hopes might be fixed, and by again enjoying the pleasure of anticipation, console herself for the present"

Hermione pushed her food around on her plate until she caught Molly Weasley giving her a look. She flushed and took a large bite, hoping to appease her hostess, but not expecting to enjoy it — most food was still dust in her mouth these days. But she shouldn't have underestimated Molly's culinary skill. The roast was actually heavenly and she savoured it, then devoured the rest of her portion.

"It's good to see you here again, dear," Molly said with rare softness, as she placed more of the tender meat on Hermione's plate.

Hermione had skipped the last two Sunday lunches due to being 'busy with work' but in actuality because she hadn't been feeling social. But today was a special occasion.

"I wouldn't have missed it." She smiled at Molly and then looked down the table. "It's not often that I get to see two of my favorite people in the world." Her smile widened as her eyes focused on Charlie Weasley and his fiancé, Hamish Gardiner, who were making a long visit from their home in Romania.

Charlie lifted his chin and smiled back at her, while Hamish blew a kiss. "It's so good to see you too, darling. It's been far too long."

Hermione accepted the goodwill, feeling lighter than she had in weeks. Despite them living so far away and not seeing them very regularly, she still counted Charlie and Hamish as two of her closest friends. A work trip to Romania two years ago to study Charlie's dragons had started it. She and Charlie had become close — his mix of Ginny's playfulness and Arthur's gentleness drawing her in almost immediately. And she'd been there the night he met Hamish — then been witness to, and enthusiastic supporter of, their storybook romance — which had resulted in a mutual proposal last summer. The two men were very different, but she loved each of them.

When she'd gotten word last week they were coming, and for an extended stay, she'd felt like she finally had something to look forward to. A small speck of light to break through the general gloom that had been consuming her. And now they were here.

She caught Charlie's eyes on her and smiled again. His eyes warmed on her, but she noted concern in his face too. Was she that obvious?

"Ron, tell Charlie and Hamish about the scheme you're developing with Jack Wickham," Molly's voice cut through the general murmur of conversation around the table. "It's so exciting." She smiled at Ron, then glanced at the couple. "Jack is a top investor and he's asked Ron to partner him on an extremely lucrative project."

Harry and Ginny shot wary glances Hermione's way. They still hadn't hit on a good strategy for separating Ron from Wickham. And, as Ron launched into a proud recitation of the plan's vague outlines, it was clear that it would not be a simple task.

"Well I'm glad things are going well for you at least, Ronald," Mrs. Weasley's fond gaze on her youngest son lasered to Harry and her voice turned waspish, "Especially since Theodore Nott and that Draco Malfoy killed Harry's project."

Harry's face went a dull red and Ginny exclaimed, "Mum!" as Charlie asked what happened and Arthur made shushing noises.

"Well it's true. I don't even blame Nott. I'm sure it was Malfoy all along. He hates our family and the people we associate with." She nodded in Hermione's direction with pursed lips.

Hermione looked down at her plate, feeling lightheaded. She swallowed. Ginny was giving Charlie and Hamish a quick background, but Hermione felt like she was listening from far away.

When Ginny started to explain Theo's role in the 'death of the project', Harry talked over her. "Actually," he said quietly and Hermione could hear that he was facing her, although she still hadn't looked up. "I take a good bit of responsibility for what happened there." Hermione's gaze flew to his, as general protests erupted around the table. Harry silenced them and looked around. "No, no. I do. After the initial shock wore off and I was able to consider things more calmly, I went back through what Nott had shown me. And he was right. Everything he said was right. I still wish that he hadn't just withdrawn. I wish we could have worked through it together. But I understand his reservations better now. And I'm going to take another crack at the plan — try to iron some of them out. I'd appreciate your help, Bill."

Bill Weasley nodded and murmured his assent as Hermione caught Ginny's gaze. Gin gave her a slight nod too.

"Well," said Molly with a sniff. "I still don't like that Malfoy. And you can't tell me he didn't influence Theo to walk away from the scheme."

"He did no more than what any loyal friend would have done." No one was more surprised than Hermione to hear the low, angry words come out of her mouth. The table quieted and she felt 11 pairs of astonished eyes on her.

Total silence held the room for several beats.

Ginny cleared her throat. "It's true," she looked around the table. "Any one of us would have advised a friend to be cautious if we saw cause for worry." Harry agreed and eventually heads began nodding slowly.

Hermione released her breath in a silent whoosh and looked up to see Charlie's gaze on her again. He barely broke eye contact as he spoke to the table at large. "So, Gin. Tell us about the Harpies' chances on Sunday. I hear the Cannons' Seeker is a terror this year."

The subject change worked and the table was soon alive with a loud debate about the upcoming match. Hermione subsided into silence again, but saw a significant look pass between Hamish and Charlie before they both rested their eyes on her.

~oOo~

Hermione watched out the window at various Weasleys zipping around on brooms through the Burrow garden and meadow beyond. The discussion of next week's match had, as it often did, turned into a call for an impromptu scrimmage. Everyone had left the table in a simultaneous rush and stampeded outside to participate or spectate, but she had stayed in — taking the chance to be alone for a few minutes and nurse a coffee.

She heard a commotion behind her and turned to see Ron hurrying toward the back door, trying to pull a jumper over his head while holding a broom. He was failing at both, and the broom clattered to the floor.

"Here let me help you with that!" Hermione jumped up and righted the broom, then yanked the jumper into place.

"Thanks, Hermione," he said as she handed the broom up to him. Sometimes it still shocked her how tall Ron was. Maybe it was something to do with being childhood friends. They'd been the same height at one time. He looked at her for a moment and seemed on the verge of saying something, but then he just gave her a half smile and turned to go.

"Ron, wait," God, what was it with her voice saying things her brain hadn't sanctioned today? But he had already turned around and was looking at her questioningly. Hermione took a deep breath. She knew she needed to do this. If she was willing to defend Draco to the whole of the Weasley family at Sunday fucking lunch, then she should have the courage to talk to Ron about Wickham.

"I wanted to talk to you," she said.

"Ok, but I do want to get out to the pitch before they start…" He looked out the window, a crease appearing between his eyes.

"I wanted to talk to you about Jack Wickham," she continued. There, it was out.

His eyes flicked back to hers and the crease deepened. "What about?"

Great, he already sounded defensive. "I ...received some information about him. Credible information. I'm afraid he's not a good person. And he's had questionable financial dealings. I think you should withdraw your involvement with him and his scheme."

Ron's face turned hard. "Where did you get this information? What are the details? Who is the source?

Hermione flushed. She'd known this part would be difficult. "I can't share any of that, but I'm asking you to trust…"

Ron cut her off. "Because if the source is your ex-death eater, twat of a boyfriend, I'm not interested. Jack filled me in on all his dealings with him. No surprises there. Tracks completely with what I know of him. I'd say the only surprise is that we're having this conversation right now."

"Ron you know me. You know my judgement. I wouldn't tell you this if it weren't valid."

"Actually, Hermione. I don't feel like I know you at all anymore." Ron shook his head. His face showed brief concern, but then hardened again. "And after what I've heard of your 'judgement' over the last few months, I'm sure I don't trust that either." He turned to go, "And I'll thank you to stay out of my business going forward," he said over his shoulder as he stalked from the room.

Hermione flopped back on the couch. Well that had gone well. Shite. And now she was going to have to tell Harry and Ginny that she'd gone against their plan to wait and see and that it had backfired — just as they suspected it would. Nice one, Granger. But she did feel a tiny bit of relief that she'd spoken up. At least maybe Ron would be on the lookout now.

She closed her eyes and heaved a huge sigh.

"Well that was a world-weary sound if I've ever heard one." A playful voice made Hermione's eyes fly open again.

"Hamish!" The stocky, golden-haired wizard was stamping in from the outdoors, looking impeccable as always, in a tweed cap and a beautiful tartan scarf in soft mauves and greys.

"Hullo darling, I've come inside to join the Quidditch Indifference League. I really can't with these scrimmages. It's impossible to tell who is on what side or what's happening, and then they all fly over that rise in the back meadow and you can't see anything for ten minutes." He gave a delicate shudder.

Hermione was smiling by the end of his recitation. "Completely agree. And I'm glad you've joined me as I've just utterly cocked up a conversation with Ron and was beginning to sink into a depression."

"Oh? What about?"

"That plan he was on about at lunch. I think it's dodgy. But he doesn't want to listen."

"It sounded a bit, to be honest. Well, you were a good friend to try to warn him. But he's a grown adult. If he doesn't take your advice, there's not much more you can do."

His words seemed to lift a weight off Hermione's shoulders. Ron really wasn't her responsibility anymore, was he? "You're right. I don't know why it's so difficult to remember that sometimes — or why I still feel responsible in some odd way. I guess since we were so close at one time..." Hamish shook his head and gave a dismissive shrug and she took a deep breath. "But off with dreary topics! I want to hear how things are with you. Have you set a date for the wedding?"

"Noooo - you'd be the first to know. But we're being utterly lazy about it. I've always sort of fancied a long engagement anyway. There's something so romantic about being a fiancé," he said with a twinkle. "And things are fine. The dragons are fine. It's starting to get fucking cold in Romania. I'm not looking forward to another winter, but I'll lump it for my love."

"Yes that winter we spent was rather arctic," she said, "Thank Merlin for Țuică!"

He laughed, "Oh god. I barely touch that stuff anymore. The hangovers were so brutal. Although Charlie keeps making noises about wanting to start his own still."

"No! Just make sure he knows what he's doing. You can go blind if you don't make it properly!"

"Oh you know Chuck. He'll research it into the ground before he attempts anything."

Hermione nodded with a laugh. It was true. Charlie was incredibly careful and handy. If she trusted anyone with an illegal distillation operation, it would be him.

Hamish held her gaze for a beat and then tilted his head. His voice grew soft. "But enough about me, darling. How are you?" His face, usually mobile with humour, had gone very serious.

Hermione looked away. "Me? Oh I'm…" To her annoyance, she felt her eyes prick with tears. She fought them down and then shook her head. It was Hamish for Christ's sake. She let them go and felt wetness start down her cheeks, "I'm not great." Her words came out as a sort of half laugh, half sob.

He crossed to her quickly, sitting next to her on the couch and putting his arm around her shoulders. A snowy white handkerchief appeared in front of her face and she grasped it like a lifeline.

"Oh my poor dear."

Hermione snuffled. "Thank you."

"Tell me," he said. "What happened between you and Draco Malfoy?"

"What? How did you know?"

"Well the Weasley broadcasting service has been in full effect, so we heard an inkling - from Pen or Ginny - I don't remember which. But I wouldn't have needed the background. Your face and voice today when you defended him… What happened? Are you in love with him?"

The second question was asked so gently that Hermione couldn't dissimilate. "Yes," she sobbed. "But I fucked it all up. And I'm so unhappy now, Hamish. I can't snap out of it."

He comforted her again, making soothing noises until her tears subsided. "Would it help to tell me?"

"Maybe? Probably. Yes."

And it did. Finally talking to someone who didn't have an interest in, or wound from, what had happened. At the end he sat silently for several moments.

"What do you think?" she asked, a bit fearful of his response.

"I think you both acted like idiots." This was said with so much affection that Hermione smiled into the handkerchief. He continued. "I think that he's probably in love with you. But he needs to come to terms with that and what it means for his life. And you need to learn to trust him and recognize that you're going to have to do some work if you're going to be with him. Work that will, again, involve trusting him."

"You think he's in love with me too?" She felt stunned by the idea, which immediately took hold and started twining through her mind, coloring her recollections. Guilt followed in its wake. If he had loved her and she had said those things...

She looked up at Hamish. "I feel absolutely awful now for what I accused him of. Especially after meeting Jonnie. I don't know how he'd ever forgive me."

"Well, he wrote you a letter to explain. That's a good sign."

"But the letter was very hopeless with regard to us — to a future."

"Hermione, that was the day after you broke up with him rather spectacularly. It's understandable he was feeling bleak. Have you tried to contact him since?"

"I've thought about it so many times. But he was out of the country for weeks - I didn't know where. And then I always stumble over what I would say. What I would do. What if he were cold and dismissive? Or just didn't respond?"

"Hmm…" Hamish looked thoughtful, and just then the back door opened and Charlie tramped in.

"There you two are! I'd wondered where my cheering section had got to." He dropped into a chair opposite them with a grin that morphed into a more serious look as he took in their posture and Hermione's red rimmed eyes.

"Everything all right?" he said, his voice much softer.

Hamish squeezed Hermione, "I think so." She looked back at him and nodded.

"Did you tell her?" Charlie asked Hamish.

"Ah no, I haven't had a chance yet."

"Tell me what?" Hermione turned from one man to the other.

"You are coming on our trip with us," declared Hamish.

"Yes," added Charlie. "We're taking off on Thursday for a driving tour of the south-west and we want you to come."

"You look tired and too thin and like you need a holiday. And we want you all to ourselves for a few days," Hamish added.

Hermione's mind raced. There were a million reasons that she shouldn't go. Work was hectic and she hadn't planned to be away. And leaving the comfort of her recent routine felt frightening.

"I can see the wheels turning, but you're not saying no," said Hamish. "You need this and we deserve some time with you."

Hermione raised her brows at him. "You know, you and Ginny are the only people in the world I let bully me."

"So that's a yes, then?"

"Ok, ok," she finally laughed. "I'd love to."

Charlie gave a little cheer and Hamish smirked.

"So what's our itinerary?"

~oOo~

Draco dropped his case and walked into the flat, pulling off his robes as he went. Gods it had been an age since he'd been in London. June maybe? So, basically an entire lifetime.

The place felt quiet, as if it had been dormant in his absence.

He went to the liquor cart and poured himself a drink, then sank into the deep leather sofa and looked out the dark windowpane to the city lights beyond. He'd used to enjoy nights like this - the rare time alone quiet and restful.

Tilting his head back on the cushions he unknotted and pulled off his tie, unbuttoned his shirt collar, defiantly propped his feet up on the table in front of him and sighed. The next few days would be hectic. Good. Being alone with his thoughts was no longer pleasant.

He ran through his plans for the umpteenth time. It was Monday and he planned to announce the integration program in a week. He would work through the weekend to make sure everything was ready, because he knew that as soon as the word got out, certain factions would be looking for any way to stall or kill it — and he didn't plan to let that happen.

Astor would arrive tomorrow evening, which would also be a distraction. They'd spend a couple of days in the city and then go to Wiltshire. Everyone was coming for the announcement — to show support for him, he supposed. Even Theo had seen the date in the paper and owled to say he'd be home.

He sat up. Shit, there was probably nothing to eat in the flat and he was suddenly fucking starving. He'd have to go out and get something. Unbidden, the memory of when he'd gone to the cottage hungry and tired and she'd fed him flitted across his mind.

Their last good night.

He fought down a wave of melancholy and pushed up off the couch, shaking his head. But as he shouldered into his robes and began walking down the hall, he heard a key turn in the front door lock. The panel swung open and Daphne appeared.

"Daph!"

"Draco! I didn't think anyone would be here."

"I thought you were coming directly to Wiltshire or I would have warned you," he shrugged.

"I was, but I changed my plans." She came further into the flat and gave him an air kiss on the cheek.

Draco noticed the smell of good food wafting from a bag in her hand. He gestured to it, "I was just about to go out and get a takeaway myself. The cupboard is utterly bare."

"Oh, have some of this. It's curry. I couldn't decide, so I ordered way too much."

The bag did look rather heavy so he scooped it out of her hand and carried it to the kitchen. Being Daph, she also had a carrier bag containing a couple of bottles of cold white wine. Draco set everything out while she put her things in her room. He was pouring them each a glass of Riesling when she emerged.

"You're a lifesaver," he said as she settled into a stool across from him at the kitchen island. "I'm starved."

"This place is good too. Very close to the apparition point on the border." She dug into her food with relish and went to work on the wine.

They were silent for a bit as they ate and drank. When Draco felt a little less mad with hunger he swallowed and said, "How's Rémy?"

"Mmm," Daphne finished chewing. "He's well. I left him in Paris, but he'll be coming over here next week."

"And things between you?" Draco waved his hand.

"They're good." She looked down and smiled. When she looked up, Draco was still holding her gaze. He lifted his eyebrows when she remained silent. "Ok," she laughed. "What do you want to know?"

"Just how it's going. Are you serious? Are you happy? Is he going to become a part of our lives?"

She tilted her head and held her glass up to the light, regarding it in an exaggerated manner.

"What are you doing?"

"Just seeing if there's something funny in this wine that would be making Draco Malfoy ask me these types of questions."

"Oh come on, I'm not that bad." She just looked at him. "Ok, but you're the same. Example: You still haven't answered me."

She blew out a breath. "It's going well. Yes, I am happy. It's definitely on the way to being serious, which means there's a good chance he'll be popping up in our lives more regularly. I've told Astor about him. They met this summer and she loves him, so she approves."

"I'll wager she does. From what I understand they're kindred spirits. Both a bit, erm, energetic."

"Where did you hear that? I wasn't aware you'd met him."

The half smile on Draco's face faded and it was his turn to look down. "Hermione," he said. "She knows him."

Daphne was silent and Draco looked up to see her regarding him steadily. "And I know better than to ask you how you're doing," she said softly.

"I do want you to. I'd like to talk about it."

He saw the look of incredulity flit across her face, but she recovered quickly. "How are you?"

"Not great." He let the silence stretch until he heard the tiniest of snorts. He raised a brow at her. "I'm just trying to decide what to say."

"Why don't you tell me what happened? All I know is that we talked about it right before we took Astor to school and you were fairly adamant about keeping it going — and then a week later you were broken up." He flinched at her blunt words and her hand shot out to him. She touched the top of his closed fist with a gentle finger. "I'm sorry."

"No, it's ok. You're right. I just managed to fuck it up royally in that one short week. Or maybe before, I don't know."

"I assumed it was you who'd broken it off. Because it's usually you. And because when I saw her the other week she looked miserable."

"You saw her? Where?"

"Jonnie and I saw her at a book reading."

Draco felt his face drain of color. "Jonnie? She met Jonnie?"

"Yesss. Why is that a big deal? They seemed to get along. I found them out in the street smoking together."

He put his face in his hands and shook his head.

"What the fuck, Draco?"

So he told her about the ball and Hermione's issue with their friend.

"Oh my fucking GOD. Does Jonquil know about this?"

He shook his head. "No, no. And she doesn't need to. She's got enough going on."

Daphne was looking at him with so much exasperation that he threw his hands up. "What!? I know I fucked up, ok? Hermione explained it to me very clearly and I've been thinking about it almost non-stop for the past month."

"But do you, though? Do you really understand how she must have felt? I mean, you told her she couldn't come even though she offered - knowing full well the consequences - and then you leave in a huff after being an authoritarian arsehole. Then you open the ball with Jonnie? You know that's going to end up on the front page. You know it. And then you waltz back in expecting Hermione to be happy to see you..."

Draco shot Daphne a filthy look and grabbed the wine bottle she was struggling with. "Let me do it. You're mangling the cork." He opened it smoothly and topped up her glass. "You know you're a lot less sympathetic than Astoria."

"Yeah, because Astor worships you. She's also 16 and still unwise to the ways of the world. I can put myself in Hermione's shoes."

"Well I wrote her a letter to explain what had happened and gave it to her the next day."

"One question." Daphne's eyes were very narrow.

"Yes?"

"Did you apologise in this letter?"

He blinked at her. "Not. Exactly." She blew out an angry breath. "I didn't think I had anything to apologize for! It was all just a misunderstanding and I explained. I told her to ask you and Theo if she didn't believe me about Jonnie."

"But don't you see? Even if she knows your relationship with Jonnie is platonic. Which I think after they met in the bookshop, she probably does. Jonnie was having a bad Alistair night and I think she mentioned it to Hermione. Even if that is totally neutralised, a lot of the hurtful behavior is still there, Draco."

"I know that! I haven't been dwelling on my alleged affair with Jonnie the last four weeks, I've been thinking about what an arse I was."

"Good." Daphne was giving him a very hard stare. But then her face softened. "You're really unhappy."

"Yes, I'm really fucking unhappy." To his intense annoyance he felt the very faintest pricking of moisture in the backs of his eyes.

She tilted her head and her eyes widened. "You're in love with her."

He looked down and nodded once. Her hand came back across the table and covered his.

"What would you say to her if you could talk to her right now?"

"I don't know. I'm sorry? I miss you? I want to change...?" He blew out his breath. "But I have no idea how she feels about all of it. Maybe she's moved on and thinks she's dodged a bullet. Or maybe she's sad too, but is staying away because she thinks I'm bad for her — or we're bad for each other. All I know is that I wrote her and haven't heard back."

"You can't discount the fact that she may feel utterly mortified and doesn't know how to respond."

"Astor said something similar."

"I mean, as idiotish as you were, she could have trusted you more. She might feel rather awful now that some of her assumptions have been disproved. She did look a bit stricken the night of the book reading, after talking to Jonnie."

Draco's mind raced. The idea that Hermione was hurting, stricken, shot what felt like a physical pain into his heart. He wanted to kill the person who had hurt her, but then remembered it was himself.

He heaved up and started clearing dishes. Daphne came around the island and stopped him as he came away from the sink. He looked at her, puzzled, and she held out her arms. He stepped into them and she gripped him tightly.

"No matter what, Draco. You're a good person and you deserve to be happy," she said with a catch in her voice.

"Thank you, Daph. You too."

Chapter Text

"What are men to rocks and mountains?"

Hermione watched out the car window as the countryside flew by in flashes of grey and emerald green. Moisture streaked the glass and rendered the scene indistinct, melancholy. She sighed.

"All right back there?" Hamish's bright eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. Charlie twisted around in his seat to regard her too.

She sat up straight. "Yes, fine! Just enjoying the scenery. And the music." The song was dreamy and sad. A perfect complement to the landscape and Hermione's mood.

"It's The Clientele. Their newest one. Gorgeous, isn't it?" Hermione nodded as Hamish sang along.

They had been on their driving tour for two days - staying at sweet little inns in pretty villages, eating at lovely gastropubs with roaring fires and warm decor. With Hamish in charge of organising the holiday, Hermione hadn't expected anything less, but she was still surprised and touched at the care he'd taken, arranging an extra room for her at each place, frequently checking in as he'd just done, drawing her out of her introspection and into conversation. And Charlie too. He'd made sure to work some vigorous walks and rambles into their itinerary and the sharp air in her lungs combined with the sweeping views of the countryside had been a balm.

"'What are men to rocks and mountains?'" she'd muttered with a half smile from the top of a sharp peak.

What she hadn't realised, (and what she quite suspected Hamish and Charlie may have deliberately kept from her) was that their itinerary was cutting directly through the middle of Wiltshire. The road they were on now would take them past the turn-off to The Meadows. And she understood from this morning's daily run-down of the route, that the village they were staying in this evening was adjacent to the facility. She'd sighed at this news, but didn't feel as if she could dictate the terms of her friends' holiday. Charlie's sheepish and Hamish's challenging look in response had basically confirmed her suspicions.

So now she was pensive, uncertain. She knew it would probably come to nothing, but a tiny voice continued to whisper, 'what if?' in the back of her mind.

"This must be the beginning of the village," Charlie's gravelly voice pulled her away from her restless thoughts. Small buildings and charming cottages were beginning to appear with some regularity at the side of the road, and eventually they came around a sweeping curve into a well-preserved High Street. The pavements were crowded and shop windows glowed warm gold in the darkening afternoon.

"It's lovely," she murmured, rubbing at the window with her jumper sleeve.

"Yes," Hamish caught her eye in the mirror again. "I couldn't resist booking us here. It's supposed to be an absolute jewel. And I thought if I told you up front, you might skitter off." He wiggled his fingers and his eyes widened then crinkled. So bloody charming. Hermione found it impossible to be annoyed with him.

"You were probably right," she said with a shake of her head. "Where are we staying?"

"The Unicorn," said Charlie, "it should be just up on the left." As he spoke, Hamish guided their comfortable hired car to the kerb in front of a beautiful, ivy-covered inn. "We thought we might drop our things and then take a little walk through the village and surrounds?"

Hermione nodded. "Yes, please." She could use some air.

They exited into a damp cold, their breath blowing in clouds around them. Running up the steps to the inn, Hermione was grateful to pass into the warm interior. She looked around. The trip so far had been a mix of muggle and magical places and accommodations, but this inn - and the village surrounding it - were clearly of wizarding origin. If the fluttering of robes and the tall shapes of peaked hats in the high street hadn't been enough to clue her in, the eclectic decor of the cosy lobby would have done so. Also the fact that there was a goblin behind the front desk and house elves to take their bags and bring them refreshment as they waited to check in.

The process was concluded after some confusion over why they were traveling in, and what to do with, a muggle car — but they were soon back out on the High Street stamping in the cold.

"Let's strike off," called Charlie, obviously restless after the hours of inactivity. He strode up the way and took a left, out toward what looked like a riverside walk. Hamish and Hermione walked briskly behind him, companionably silent as they passed through the beautiful countryside. Presently they came to a sweet stone bridge and paused for a minute to take in the view of the meandering river, held in by dark green banks and just touched by bare, trailing branches.

Charlie leaned against the bridge wall and cut a quick glance over to Hermione, "I'd like to visit The Meadows while we're here."

She couldn't prevent a sharp inhale at his words. Hamish's hand went to her arm.

"You don't have to come, of course." Charlie's eyes were kind. "But I wanted you to know that I plan to go. I corresponded with him a bit, you know. Last year."

Hermione shook her head. No, she hadn't known. She supposed it would have been awkward to bring it up.

"He'd read our paper." Charlie's shoulder went up in a half shrug.

"Oh?" Her mind turned this information over. Charlie was undoubtedly referring to the treatise he'd completed with Hamish on depression in dragon populations. It was what had brought the couple together - Hamish the writer and Charlie the field researcher. It had been hugely influential in certain circles; she shouldn't have been surprised that Draco had seen it.

"Yes, we wrote back and forth a few times. I'm fascinated by what he's doing here — the possibilities and implications. I couldn't forgive myself if I didn't take the chance to see it since we're so close by. I have no idea if he's here, though. I haven't corresponded with him at all about this trip. I would have told you."

"Of course," Hermione's words were rushed and she felt warm. "And you should definitely go."

Hamish spoke up. "Have you ever been?"

"Not since… not since the war," she whispered the words.

"Oh God, of course," Hamish placed his hand over where she'd braced hers on the stone railing. "I'm an idiot. So sorry, darling."

"No, it's fine. I'm over all that. It's changed so much now, anyway. Now It's a … 'a symbol of a radical dismantling of the past,'" her voice caught on the remembered phrase, and her mind on their day in the park, and she suddenly felt like fucking sobbing.

Hamish was saying something about that being exactly what The Meadows was, but Hermione barely heard him. Her mind was racing. Should she go? What if she saw him? She was curious, but she couldn't - not if she was this unsteady. She'd probably just end up blubbering all over the reception desk.

Hamish had clearly asked her something and was now looking at her expectantly. "I'm sorry," she said faintly, blinking at him.

"I said, I think we could all use a drink. And a spot of dinner," he repeated, his voice gentle.

"Yes, let's get back to the village. The pub at the inn is supposed to serve a cracking shepherd's pie," Charlie added, linking his arm through Hermione's and pulling her against him. She suddenly came to, shaking off her confusion and leaning over to touch her head to his shoulder. His teeth gleamed as he threw her a quick smile.

"I love both of you dearly, you know." She declared, forcing herself to lighten - to be present with her friends.

Hamish slung an arm over her shoulders. "And we you, petal."

~oOo~

Sipping at a pint of crisp cider, Hermione leaned back in the booth and told herself to relax. The pub was cozy and the smells wafting from the kitchen were heavenly. Her back was to the door and she was sure if anyone came in, Hamish would give her a signal to dive under the table or something.

"You can go straight out the side door," he said, amusement glinting in his eyes.

"How do you do that?"

"Keen observer," he sniffed. Hermione gave a weak giggle.

Charlie looked up from his menu, puzzled. "What?"

"Nothing." Hermione and Hamish chuckled as they said the word at the same time and the barmaid bustled up to take their order. She smiled as they all requested shepherd's pie and asked if they were in town on business with 'the facility'.

"Well not per se," said Hamish, "But my fiance does want to go see it tomorrow. Do you know the best time to go up if one just wants to have a look around?" The waitress looked at Hermione, who pointedly turned her eyes to Charlie and raised her brows in his direction.

"Oh!" the waitress recovered quickly and addressed Charlie. "My sister works there and I can owl her for you. She's in public relations and sometimes acts as a kind of a tour guide. She'll take you around."

"That would be grand, thank you," Charlie said with a smile.

Hamish cut in, "And do you know if Mr. Malfoy is there?" he glanced in Charlie's direction, his eyes staying pointedly off of Hermione's.

She felt her heartbeat speed and her breath shorten as she waited for the girl's reply, which seemed to come in slow motion.

"Mr. Malfoy? Oh no, he hasn't been here in ages. I think Nell said he was in America for a good while. Or was it France?"

Hermione's shoulders relaxed, although she also felt a distinct stab of disappointment.

"He's supposed to be here soon, though." The girl continued. Hermione's heart rate increased again. How soon? "Making a big announcement at The Meadows on Monday. Nell has been working non-stop to ready it."

"Do you know Mr. Malfoy very well?" Hamish's voice was like silk, and Hermione saw Charlie send him a warning look. The girl hesitated and Hamish cut in, "or maybe he's not in here often... bit high in the instep?" He tilted his head.

"Oh no!" the girl cried. "He's not like that. I mean, of course he's posh and all, but he's not a snob. He comes in loads when he's here. Always polite and friendly. Interested in what's going on. The whole village relies very heavily on the facility, you know. A lot of people employed because of it. No, he's fairly well-liked around here."

Now Hamish's eyes did swing to Hermione and his brows went up.

Hermione's voice came out rusty, "Monday you say? Monday is the announcement?" It was Thursday.

"Yes, and now I remember Nell said Mr. Malfoy would be arriving Saturday — with a party of friends. She has to ready the guest house at the manor for them. Do you know him? Are you part of that group?" Her gaze darted around the table and landed on Charlie.

"Oh no," he answered. "We're acquaintances, but very distant. I doubt we'll see Mr. Malfoy — especially if we go up tomorrow." Hermione felt the implied comment to her in his statement.

"Aww ok," the girl smiled. "But will I owl Nell and tell her to expect you? 11 o'clock?"

"Perfect, thank you." said Hamish.

"Right, I'll just run off and put these orders in for you," she tossed them one last grin and sped away.

"Well I think that settles it," Hamish clapped his hands and trained bright eyes on Hermione.

"What?"

"You're coming with us."

~oOo~

How Hermione found herself walking up the path to the front doors of Malfoy Manor the next morning, she didn't exactly know. After Hamish's declaration, she had flat-out refused to consider the possibility. But he'd managed to make a few comments during dinner - before Charlie had given him a look of death and told him to stop running it into the ground - that had gotten her thinking, turning it over in her mind. God damn him.

To be honest she did want to see The Meadows. Desperately so. She was so curious. What was it like now? Of course she knew intellectually what Draco had done. She'd read about it and heard about it from him, but what would it feel like to be there? Her memories of it were so bleak…

She'd lain awake for several hours worrying before sinking into a fitful sleep. When she woke in the morning she was no less indecisive.

Hamish had been curiously silent at breakfast, which hadn't helped. Judging by a few looks that passed between them, she figured Charlie had given him a talking-to.

They'd all gone to the small village museum for a quick morning jaunt; Hermione barely paying attention to the exhibits or replying to conversation, she was so wound up. Then she had entered a small room — the last on the tour — to see a model of The Manor. Instead of satisfying her curiosity, the accompanying photographs and descriptions (frank about the building's past as well as its current state) had only whetted her appetite. Then her eye was caught by a small brass plaque indicating that the exhibit had been made possible by a generous donation from, and collaboration with, Mr. D Malfoy. She'd run her fingers over the letters of his name and sighed.

And then her thoughts had started to shift. He wasn't supposed to arrive until tomorrow. She could go and not give her name. Hope that the tour guide wouldn't recognize her. Just a quick look around. She'd stay for 30 minutes - apparate out and meet up with Charlie and Hamish later.

So she'd made a snap judgement almost in spite of herself, and here she was, mounting the steps, memories washing over her. A black night, being half dragged over these very stones. The pure, pissing fear that had coursed through her.

She must have made a little sound, because suddenly Charlie was grasping her hand. "You sure you want to do this?"

She nodded once and he smiled, then dropped her hand and moved ahead to catch up with Hamish - seeming to understand that she wanted to take it all in on her own.

Hermione actively pushed her memories away and forced herself to look around with new eyes. The changes were immediately apparent. She'd not seen much of the manor that night, but her impressions had been of a gothic palace - dark and suffused with the evil of its occupying force.

But it was light now - warm sandstone, white gravel and green lawn. The fussy formal gardens had been replaced by the meadows of its namesake, criss-crossed with walking paths and benches. It looked as though the ancient trees had been left behind, though. Neat signage indicating the way to different therapy centres and dormitory blocks also did much to promote the air of warm efficiency.

It struck Hermione that there was no pride of blood here — no reminders that this had been a great house of an important family. It felt entirely given over to its new purpose. Strangely, she felt tears prick at her eyes upon this realization. It acted as a more potent declaration than any she had read or heard.

She passed into the interior, noting the white walls and gleaming wood floors of the atrium. Again, almost clinical except for a series of bright muggle canvases that adorned the walls — nothing but the stonework to harken back to the manor's earlier form. She looked around, craning her neck and taking in the soaring ceilings and huge double staircase that curved to the upper floors. The hallway between the two led to the drawing room where she'd been tortured, although she almost couldn't believe it now.

A young woman walked out from behind a long reception counter and came forward to greet them, her obvious resemblance to their friendly barmaid marking her out as their tour guide. She introduced herself and started into an introductory statement, clearly practiced and often-recited. Conducting them to a few of the treatment rooms, an occupational therapy workshop and an art studio in the building, she gave an impassioned endorsement of the facility.

"I'm sorry," she said after a particularly gushing comment, "I just truly believe in what we do here and sometimes get a bit carried away."

"No, no," Hamish shushed her, "it's fine and you're right to be proud. It's clearly an incredible place."

"It is!" the girl joined, her face lighting again. "It's also so important to the community. The village was very depressed, you know, before the war." Her voice grew quiet. "The previous generation of owners weren't concerned with the well-being of the population. A few had employment here as domestics, but the estate was largely separate."

Hermione nodded along. The girl caught her eye. "And then during the war it was very bad. For many of our families."

Hermione reached out involuntarily and placed her hand on the guide's arm. Their eyes met and Hermione nodded. The girl took a deep breath and seemed to recover herself.

"But now, of course it's totally different. Thanks to young Mr. Malfoy." Her cheeks flushed slightly with this remark and Hermione knew she would see the lifted brow on Hamish's face before she actually did.

"And what's he like?" Hamish asked smoothly. "My fiancé and friend have made his acquaintance, but I never have." Hermione saw the stern look she shot at him mirrored in Charlie's face.

"Oh you know him!?" The girl's wide eyes flew to Hermione and then to Charlie. "He's lovely, isn't he? So kind. All of us who work for him feel in good hands."

Hermione nodded and murmured, not trusting her voice. Charlie took over, explaining he'd really only corresponded by letter, but had heard good things as well. He then changed the subject, asking after the therapy programs that incorporated animals, creatures and beasts. The girl launched into an excited monologue to which Hermione should really have been paying attention, but instead her thoughts drifted.

What a privilege it would be to be a part of this. To work or consult here. To support it in any way. What Draco was doing was so important and needed. She'd thought it before, but never really understood it until standing here, listening to a proud employee and soaking in the profound change to the atmosphere — to the very bones — of the place around her. She took a deep breath and turned slowly in place, her eyes darting around to take it all in. Then she stopped, feeling a rush of sadness.

She could have been involved, could have been part of it.

But she'd pushed it away. Pushed him away.

Tears threatened again and she looked up to realize Charlie was addressing her, his voice gentle. "We're heading out to the creature facilities. Do you want to come?"

As much as Hermione would have loved to see the areas that pertained most closely to her own work, she suddenly felt very much as if she needed to go.

"No, I think I'll, uh, head back to the village. I'll meet you both at the inn in a couple of hours?" The last words came out in a rush.

"That's fine, darling." Hamish's eyes were soft on her and Charlie nodded.

The tour guide chirped a goodbye and the three turned to go as Hermione hurried toward the main doors. "Oh!" the girl exclaimed and clapped her hands. Hermione turned. "I was going to end the tour by showing you the Muggle Integration Project room! It's just off the atrium before you exit. Take a peek if you're interested. It's our newest major program and we're very excited about it! All about how to bring the muggle families of magical youngsters into our world. I know that's probably an area of particular interest to you..." she blushed a little and Hermione realized with a little dart of dismay that she had been recognized. "Mr. Malfoy will be up tomorrow to make an announcement about the launch. It's a very important project for him and he's had deep involvement in every detail. He only introduced it to us two months ago, but it's already on track to go live early next year. Have a wander!" The girl waved cheerily as she shepherded Hamish and Charlie out the door.

Hermione's voice said goodbye, but her mind reeled.

A muggle integration project. For muggle families of magical youths. Started two months ago.

Had he done it because of her? Because of their conversation?

Her steps took her to the room the girl had pointed out and she entered slowly, her eyes widening as she looked around. The space was vibrant, colorful, and she struggled to take it all in at once. In the center of the room was a glass case holding two finely worked models similar to the one she'd seen in the museum earlier. One was labeled "Muggle Integration Centre - The Meadows and the other Muggle Integration Centre - Hogwarts." Hermione circled them. It seemed as if each facility would hold not only classrooms and therapeutic facilities, but also exhibition rooms for muggle art and innovations. So the integration would go both ways — help the wizarding world to understand and appreciate the muggle one as well.

She put an unsteady hand out and leaned on the glass case, blinking down at the miniature buildings. Then her eyes rose again to take in the rest. Plans and moving magical photographs on the surrounding walls described classes, therapy and discussion groups, practical lessons and demonstrations. They were interspersed with quotes from the Headmistress and other community leaders referencing support for and commitment to the project. Looping photographs of prominent muggle-borns described in short vignettes the struggles their families had faced as outsiders.

She should have been a part of this.

Could she still? Ideas swamped her mind and she pulled out the notebook she always kept in her purse, holding it up against the wall so she could jot a few things down. She wondered if he'd had support from the ministry — or if he still needed it… What was in the course of study? And had he thought about drafting accompanying texts? And what would he think of an exchange program…

She was so intent on not losing her train of thought that she didn't hear the sound of footsteps approaching the room. But she couldn't miss the sharp inhale that came from the doorway directly afterward.

Her eyes flew up and she felt her heart stop. Her pen clattered to the floor.

He was there.

Impossibly. Like she'd conjured him with her thoughts.

Time froze. She froze. But her eyes drank him in. The tall lean frame, bright hair, searching eyes. His face... Her first thought was that he looked exhausted, drawn, but still beautiful. Her second was more of an impulse — to go to him, put her hands on him, touch him to make sure he was real - smooth her fingers over his jaw, run her thumb over the crease in his brow. Her third was a wave of pure panic and embarrassment — ohgodohgodohgodohgod. What must he think of her? Here. Now. With no word or warning...

He cleared his throat, his cheeks faintly flushing. She started and her brain stuttered. He tilted against the doorway and she saw his hand briefly grip the frame. What was he going to say? What the fuck was she going to say? Ohgodohgodohgodohgod.

Finally after a moment which seemed to stretch for an eternity, he stepped through the door, picked up her pen and handed it toward her.

Lifting his chin to encompass the room, his eyes met hers. "What do you think?"

~oOo~

Draco felt like he was moving underwater. His reactions were slow and he couldn't quite reconcile what his eyes were seeing with his perception of reality. There was a loud rushing in his ears.

She was here.

Standing and taking bloody notes in his Muggle Integration Project room.

For a second his brain wondered what the fuck strange dimension had he wandered into.

But no, she was real — because she turned then and made a sound. He saw her fingers slacken and heard her pen clatter to the floor. Her beautiful eyes widened and ran over him, alive with some strong emotion, but then they swept down and he missed reading it. A deep red bloomed over her neck and jaw and up to her cheeks.

One of them had to speak.

He took a step into the room and asked her the first thing that came into his head, "What do you think?"

He picked up her pen and walked closer, handing it out to her.

She looked at it as if it was a crust of bread and she a wary bird. Her eyes darted to his. "You weren't supposed to be here until tomorrow. I would never have…" Her voice trailed off.

His heart dropped. She'd been hoping to avoid him. He felt the ice in his blood seep into his voice.

"I was. But I decided to come a day early."

His tone seemed to stiffen her. She inhaled and closed her eyes. "I meant to say... that I think it's wonderful. Amazing." Her voice was soft as she stepped forward and took the pen. Her closeness brought a wave of her scent, which made him feel weak. He could almost reach out and touch a silky curl, brush the satin of her cheek.

Their eyes met and caught. Her lips parted. He was at a loss.

"Hermione, darling - are you still here!?" An unnaturally loud voice intruded. Draco whipped his eyes to the other door - the one that opened directly to the outside.

She spun around. "Hamish!"

Draco felt a tide of red wash over him. Who the fuck was Hamish? Oh, he looked to be a handsome, well-dressed, absolute cunt who was calling Hermione 'darling'. His fists clenched.

"Yes, I'm still here," she was faltering. No doubt alive to the awkward circumstance of having to introduce the new boyfriend to the ex.

"Oh, hello," the cunt's voice was quiet as his eyes took in Draco, as if he were a fucking dangerous animal. Well maybe he was.

And now someone else was coming in. A dark red head pushing through the door, followed by powerful shoulders. "You're still here?" the second man said in Hermione's direction.

The cunt turned and ran his hand over the other man's arm as he walked into the room. Draco frowned. Wait..

"Yes, and it looks as if someone else has arrived too."

The redhead took in Draco's posture, blinked, then walked forward slowly. "Draco Malfoy?" he asked in a soft, even tone, holding out his hand. "Charlie Weasley." He looked over his shoulder, "and this is my fiancé Hamish Gardiner. We were touring the facility. Amazing place."

Draco felt his world freeze in place for the second time that day. Charlie Weasley. Fiancé. Gods.

How he managed to complete polite introductions, he didn't quite know. The cunt, no Hamish, Charlie Weasley's fiancé, helped quite a lot. Chattered brightly about the facility, asked questions about the Project. Draco managed to answer fairly evenly, although he had almost no idea what he was saying. He hoped it was coherent.

Charlie chimed in with a few questions and comments, but Draco could tell he wasn't much of a talker — unlike every other Weasley he'd ever met. He liked him instantly. He actually liked the c — Hamish too. He was glib, but intelligent and keen. They told him that their tour guide had been called away, so Draco found himself taking them around to the spots they hadn't seen yet, speaking about different facilities and programs. He even offered to bloody let them use the pool and gym while they were in the area. He chalked it up partly to their friendliness and partly to the fact that he couldn't seem to gather his wits.

And while he might have felt fuzzy, he remained hyper-aware of her — her position in the room, the soft sounds she made. She had receded into almost total silence, murmuring only when she was directly addressed, but every time he chanced a look at her, her dark eyes were on him. Did she seem thinner than when he'd last saw her? There were definitely faint tracings of purple-blue under her eyes.

At one point Hamish drew Charlie ahead, "Ohh look at the size of this beech, Charlie. It's magnificent!" and Draco was left alone with her.

She looked up at him and he noticed hectic spots of pink on her cheeks. She took a deep breath. "It's so different here," she said, glancing around the grounds. "What you've done is…" a brief smile, "I have no words."

He inclined his head. He was sympathetic - he had no idea what to say either. Despite the desperate things bubbling to the top of his mind. I'm sorry. I miss you.

Finally he cleared his throat. "Astoria is arriving tomorrow morning."

"Oh!?" her tense face brightened. "How is she? How is she finding Beauxbatons?"

"I'm sure she'd like to tell you herself."

"Oh," she looked down then quickly back up at him. Even tired and drawn, she was so beautiful. "I'd like to see her too."

"Shall I bring her round to have lunch with you?" Her brows drew together so he continued, "I have business in the village — I could leave her at your inn on my way."

Hermione nodded and Draco sensed Hamish and Charlie draw near again, though he was finding it difficult to drag his gaze from her face.

"Lunch with whom?" Hamish's light tone diffused the awkwardness of the moment.

"My ward, Astoria Greengrass. I hope you don't mind if she monopolizes Hermione for a bit tomorrow." He turned back to Hermione. "She'll be so keen to see you."

"Of course not. How lovely." Hamish smiled expectantly at Hermione.

"I'd love to see her," she murmured.

"And how long are you staying?" Draco addressed her, feeling a slightly mad plan forming that he didn't want to think through too carefully in case he second-guessed himself.

"Two more nights," Hamish cut in quickly.

Draco swung to him. "Then you'll have to come to dinner too. Tomorrow night. Here - at the guest house."

He heard a little sound from Hermione's direction and talked over it — looking back at her. "Theo will be there. Blaise, Daphne, Astor, of course."

Her mouth opened, but no sound came out.

"Theo will be desperate to see you, once he knows you're here." He hated that he was trying to convince her, but he couldn't help himself. She looked down and it occurred to him suddenly that she may not want to see Theo. She might still be angry with him. Shit. He started to speak, to give them an out, but Hamish cut in again.

"We'd love to. Thank you very much." Charlie added his thanks and Hermione nodded slowly.

Charlie glanced around the little group and cleared his throat. "Well, this has been lovely, but I think it's time we stopped imposing on you."

Draco murmured something polite and walked them to the apparition point. There was a flurry of goodbyes, him telling Hermione he'd deliver Astoria at noon and Hamish asking him to owl the details for dinner. And then they were gone, the last thing he saw a flash of her dark gaze over her shoulder.

He stood in place for several minutes just staring, before he jolted back to himself and strode off, although he wasn't sure exactly where he was going.

Chapter Text

"Of Mr. Darcy it was now a matter of anxiety to think well; and, as far as their acquaintance reached, there was no fault to find."

Theo stopped his stride up one of the trails that criss-crossed The Meadows' grounds and took a deep lungful of fresh, English air. It was good to be back—the soft greens and greys soothing after weeks of the searing blue and gold of Morocco and Spain.

Not that it hadn't been wonderful. Traveling, doing absolutely nothing, totally cut off from the world, just being who he was with whom he wanted… he'd never been happier. But it was good to be home again too.

Approaching the doors to the guest house, he was surprised to see them fling open and Draco step out, barefoot and uncharacteristically rumpled.

"Look who's back from beyond," he called, a grin splitting his face. Theo felt his lips pull up into a smile too. To his surprise, Draco moved forward and embraced him tightly. And when Theo went to pull away, Draco kept ahold of him, muttering, "I fucking missed you."

"I missed you too," Theo replied, successfully pulling back this time and glancing at his friend in surprise. Then he got a close-up look at Draco's face— and ran his eyes down his friend's body, which looked, and felt, about half a stone thinner than when he'd last seen him. He felt his smile fade as Draco's eyes darkened too.

"What the hell happened?" Theo asked slowly, knowing already.

"How long do you have?" Draco tried for light, but didn't quite achieve it.

"Fuck, I go away for a couple of months…" Theo shook his head and frowned into Draco's eyes. "Did you do something? Did she do something?"

"Yes?" Draco rubbed his hand over his face. "Come inside. I've got fresh coffee. I'll tell you the whole story."

Theo felt his eyebrows fly up, but he agreed and followed his friend into the warm interior.

~oOo~

"So yesterday was the first time I'd seen her since I gave her the letter." Draco sounded exhausted as he finished his recitation of what Theo found to be an extremely frustrating tale.

Theo drained his coffee. "And how did she seem?"

"Embarrassed? Quiet. She said she didn't expect me to be there. I don't think she would've come if she'd known I would be."

Shite, this was worse than he had thought.

"Well, she probably was embarrassed at being found there like that. With no word." Draco shrugged and Theo sighed. "Fuck, I feel terrible for my part in this." He held Draco's gaze.

"What? For the thing with Potter?" Draco shook his head. "Don't." He stopped and looked thoughtful. "Well, I mean if you want to talk to her about it you should," Theo nodded. "...But I think it was my reserve around it that was the real problem. My reserve around a lot of things." Draco sighed and fell back against the sofa cushions. "That's why I'm trying to turn over a new leaf." Theo squinted at him. "Talking to people about things." he continued. Letting them know that I missed them." His mouth quirked up, "even if they're wankers who left me high and dry in my time of need."

Theo closed his eyes and groaned, "I'm so sorry!"

"No, don't be!" Draco laughed "I'm just giving you a hard time. You deserved every minute."

"Well thank you," Theo smiled. He looked at his friend, still not quite adjusted to the changes in him. "I'm not sure my holiday was worth your whole life falling apart, though."

Draco snorted. "Not my whole life. Work has been productive. And my flying has really come on. How is Rafik, by the way?"

Theo just shook his head. "He's fine. In Paris signing a new band, but he'll be in London soon."

Draco murmured something polite and Theo inclined his head, then took a deep breath, straightened up and clapped his hands. "So. What's next? She'll be here tonight?"

"If she shows. I invited her and her friends, Charlie Weasley and his fiancé Hamish." Draco's eyes cut to Theo's and Theo felt his features register surprise—had he known Charlie Weasley was gay...? "So they'll be coming for dinner," Draco continued. "And she's having lunch with Astoria, who has not yet appeared this morning." Draco glanced toward the stairs and raised his voice. "Slug."

"Heyyy," came a sleepy voice from above.

"Well if the shoe fits…" drawled Theo.

Astoria's petite frame and messy head appeared at the top of the steps, "THEO!" She skidded to the bottom and launched herself at him. He intercepted her with a chuckle then spent a few minutes answering her breathless inquiries about his travels and his love life.

"And has anything in your life gone entirely to shit while I've been gone?" he asked her after a bit.

"Nooo," she tilted her head and frowned. "My life is great, other than that this one is so blue." She wrapped her arm around Draco, who had been sitting silently and letting them chat, and tilted into his shoulder. Theo found himself surprised anew that Draco had confided in her as well.

Draco briefly touched his head to hers then pushed up from between them. "I'm going for a shower." He turned and took them in, his brow creasing as he gazed at them. "You two… I am asking you, no ordering, you not to meddle," he said. "I don't want to make this any more awkward than it already is."

Astoria nodded solemnly, but Theo didn't. Like hell he wasn't going to meddle.

"We're due in the village in thirty minutes, Astoria." Draco said as he turned toward the stairs. He stopped and looked back, "I don't need to make it clear that 'not meddling' includes this lunch?"

"No," she said. "I'll keep mum."

He nodded and headed up the stairs. Theo turned to Astoria and raised his brows. She blew her breath out in a huge sigh and cocked her head as Draco's footsteps receded and a door slammed above them.

"So it's been bad?" Theo asked.

"Awful. I've never seen him like this. Especially after how happy he was this summer. I'm worried about him, Theo. He's not eating. I'm certain he's not sleeping. You should hear the music he's been listening to."

Theo gave a short laugh then frowned. "I cannot believe I was not here to stop this."

Astoria shook her head. "You couldn't have known. None of us could. It happened so fast. One moment they were as happy as I'd ever seen two people and the next, boom. Heartbreak." She ran her hand through her short hair, her dark eyes worried on his. "So he told you everything too?"

Theo nodded with a little smile, "the new Draco."

"I know! So different. But what's your take? Is it fixable?"

"I feel like it would have been." Theo shook his head. "They just needed to talk to each other, the idiots! But now all this time has gone by… And he said something about Hermione thinking they're bad for each other and that being why she's stayed away…" he trailed off.

"Yes, he said something similar to me."

"I hope she wouldn't think that," Theo said softly, glancing up the stairs. Sadness for his friend crept over him. He had really thought this might be it for Draco. He'd hoped it was.

Shite.

"I made him my own playlist."

"Hmm?" Theo looked at Astoria, not quite absorbing what she'd said.

"I made him a 'stop moping' list. A counterpart to all the sad breakup songs he'd had on repeat. Part, 'cheer up'—part, 'don't give up'." Her dimple flashed briefly.

Theo tilted his head and regarded her for a second. "You're absolutely right," he finally said.

She gave him a puzzled frown. "What?"

"They can't give up on this. Nor should we. He needs our help."

"But I've said I wouldn't meddle!"

"I didn't."

Astoria gave a little gurgle of laughter, "no, you did not!" Then she sobered and layed a small hand on his. "But be careful, Theo. I think the stakes are rather high." Her fine black brows drew together.

"Yes I know, darling. I know."

~oOo~

Hermione paced her room in frustration. She couldn't decide what to wear for this dinner, her hair was not cooperating, and a strange combination of dread and anticipation sat in her stomach like a stone. The last 24 hours had been such a total mind-fuck, she didn't know if she was coming or going.

After they'd left The Meadows yesterday, she'd been numb. Shock, probably. As soon as they'd alighted at the inn, she'd made a weak excuse to Charlie and Hamish and fled to her room, where she'd proceeded to stare into space for approximately two hours, her restless mind roving over the events of the afternoon.

God, seeing him again. She'd known it would be difficult, but she hadn't anticipated that level of hectic paralysis; a sort of suspended state between full panic and an utter inability to make her brain do anything. She was embarrassed at being found there, yes, but it was more than that. Her body's reaction to him had been instant, elemental. She'd felt the way she had the first time they'd kissed—as if every cell was reaching out to him.

But her doubts had crept in. About herself, about how he felt about her, about what had happened.

And she hadn't been able to read him well. Of course he'd been surprised at first, but then he'd gone cool and aloof after her tactless comment about expecting him not to be there. Why had she said that!? Although, when Hamish had first walked in, she could have sworn… But then when Charlie had appeared, he'd become almost warm.

He'd genuinely liked them. She paused her pacing and a tiny puff of laughter escaped her lips. She'd wager that had surprised him, actually liking a Weasley.

She began pacing again, her thoughts darting back to the night before when a soft but insistent knock on her door around dinnertime had startled her out of her thoughts, making her realize she was sitting in the dark and had been for some time. She'd opened it expecting to find Hamish and a third degree, but instead Charlie had been there with a room service tray. He'd made her eat, spoken softly and not mentioned Draco once. He'd also ordered her to get into bed and "try not to think about anything until after a good night's sleep." She'd snorted at this advice, but then been surprised when exhaustion overcame her almost the moment her head hit the pillow.

The next morning, the numbness had been replaced by nerves. She'd gotten up early and taken an energetic walk around the village, lingering in the bookshop in an attempt to kill time until her appointment with Astoria—which frankly had been a little awkward at first, with Hermione stuck in a sort of stiff, overly cheery mode. But Astoria's natural warmth had dispelled it and they had quickly regained their old intimacy, if not quite the same degree of levity.

They hadn't talked about Draco—despite Hermione's mind being rather crowded with him at first. She'd glimpsed him exiting the inn after delivering Astor to the doorstep, the glint of platinum she'd been half waiting-for leading her eyes to his elegant profile, his long stride. She'd watched him walk down the block until Astoria's greeting had forced her from the window.

But even avoiding controversial topics, the two witches had much to discuss: Beauxbatons, news of the herd, Lucretia's exotic travels. Astoria had even shyly brought up Wickham, telling Hermione she'd wanted to confide in her but hadn't known where to start. Hermione had held both of her hands and spoken her feelings on the matter in a low voice, again feeling the surge of protective magic gather around her. Astoria had felt it too and looked at her with tears in her eyes, whispering that she was a good friend.

They'd parted, back on the best of terms, and for a bit Hermione had felt more relaxed. But then as the day had worn on toward evening, her nerves had ratcheted up again, until she'd come to this point, stalking around her room with mad hair and half an outfit on.

She sighed angrily. What had happened to her calm strength? Her determination? Squaring her posture, she took several deep breaths, but then her shoulders fell. She didn't really have a choice in the matter, did she? She snorted, frustrated. She wasn't used to not having control over herself and her emotions.

A brisk knock sounded on the door and she knew that this time it would be Hamish. She admitted him and he raised his eyebrows at her state.

"I know," she groaned. "I can't think, Hamish!"

"Let's have a calming drink," he said, pulling a slim bottle from his vest pocket and transfiguring her water glasses into brandy snifters.

"Very nice." She smiled at the clever bit of magic.

"Well we're not animals."

Her smile turned into a laugh and the corners of his mouth pulled up too.

"So," he regarded her. "It looks like you need to make the bottom half of that outfit resolve with the top. I'll wait."

She made a face at him and then ducked into her closet, calling, "so Charlie finally let you come talk to me?"

He snorted. "Yes the 24-hour cooling off period has transpired."

She giggled, then emerged in a skirt and top that actually went together.

"Very pretty," he said from the chair in front of her fireplace.

"I just need to do something with this," she murmured, looking in the mirror and trying to smooth her hair.

"Let it go loose," he said. "He seems to like it that way." This last was buried in his glass of cognac and she looked sharply at him.

"What did you say?"

"Did I say something?" His face was absolutely angelic as she glared at him. She kept glaring until he sighed. "Fine. I just noticed him looking at it yesterday. A couple of times."

"Tell me," she commanded, sitting on the ottoman near his chair and leaning forward. "What did you think about the whole thing? I couldn't register what was happening, I was so embarrassed. I felt like I wasn't even occupying my own body."

"I hardly know what to think," he mused. "He holds his cards close, doesn't he?"

She shook her head, "tell me about it."

"One thing." She nodded, brows raised expectantly. He took a deliberate swallow of his drink. "He's absolutely stunning. I mean, God."

"Not helping, Hamish."

"So deliciously reserved. And that hair. The fit of his suit."

She threw a small pillow at him. He ducked then threw up his hands. "Well I don't have a lot for you. He seemed slightly flustered at first. But that could have been because he felt the awkwardness of us being there. But then I noticed him looking at you a few times... Of course you're gorgeous too, so that could have just been het stuff," he waved his hand vaguely. "I'll be watching tonight. Much more scope for observation."

She groaned. "God, I'm so anxious!"

"Don't be. You look lovely and you have Charlie and me to rescue you if anything goes sideways." He stood up and extended his hand to her. "You'll be fine. Everything will be fine."

She took it, but scowled. "Somehow I bloody doubt it."

Chapter Text

"She expected every moment that some of the gentlemen would enter the room. She wished, she feared that the master of the house might be amongst them; and whether she wished or feared it most, she could scarcely determine."

Hamish gave Hermione's hand a squeeze as they ascended the stairs to the rather large structure that Draco had referred to as a guest house. She returned him a tight smile and told herself to breathe.

As they approached, the door swung open to reveal an elegant figure, silhouetted against the light from within.

"Theo!" Hermione exclaimed, any pique she'd felt at him vanishing in her genuine happiness at seeing him again. He stepped forward and embraced her tightly. She felt the apology in the hug and when she pulled back the moisture in her eyes was reflected in his.

"It's so good to see you again," he smiled and Hermione put her palm against his cheek. He looked tan. Rested and happy.

Then she remembered herself and turned. "Theo, these are my dear friends Charlie Weasley and Hamish Gardiner. We're having a driving holiday in the area, which is how we ended up here."

The three men exchanged greetings as Theo ushered them into the house, offering to take their coats and bring them drinks.

"You see I've taken over as hostess, as usual," he winked.

"Well you're obviously a natural," Hamish laughed. Theo flashed his dimple in return and Hermione felt her nerves ease as she watched them. If nothing else, she could just stick close to these three all night. And Astoria.

At that moment Astoria herself appeared, embracing Hermione as if it had been weeks instead of hours since they'd last seen each other. Hermione performed the introductions there as well and it was clear that Hamish was instantly taken with her. Of course—absolute kindred spirits.

Now Hermione was really relaxing. She could do this. It would be fine. She caught Theo's eye as they entered the drawing room and the look on his face was like he was trying to give her a little warning or apology. She had a bare moment to wonder why before she heard Pansy Parkinson's drawl carry out over the soft hum of chatting voices that permeated the room. She cut her eyes to Theo and he leaned over.

"She invited herself," he breathed through thinned lips.

Shit. Well, it wasn't like she hadn't dealt with Parkinson before. And perhaps it would be another distraction from the truly unnerving part of this evening. Which had just materialised in a doorway on the other side of the room, looking starkly handsome in all black.

Their eyes homed in on each other and she felt his gaze slip over her, even as hers raked over him. Hamish gave a soft snort behind her, jogging her out of her stare. Then an older couple stepped in front of Draco and drew his attention away, unfreezing her brain and allowing her to look around the room.

Astoria was pulling Hamish around her and onto a sofa—they were already chatting animatedly. Daphne stood near the fireplace with an older man Hermione didn't know. Blaise and Pansy were at the drinks cart—seemed like she had another concoction she was pushing him to try. There were a few other guests Hermione didn't recognize, but by their age and look she imagined they were patrons of the integration project.

Theo's light hand on the small of her back guided her into the room. "Champagne?" he asked with a quirk of his mouth.

"Only if Pansy sees." Theo smiled and touched the back of her hand before moving off to get her drink and the ale Charlie had requested.

She turned to find Charlie still near. She forced a smile at him, "well?" He started to speak, but then his eyes moved past her and she knew, she knew, Draco had come up behind her. Maybe a subtle whiff of that indefinable but delicious thing she always associated with him? Or her bloody molecules reaching toward him again? She turned slowly as Charlie said hello for them and thanked him again for the invitation.

"You're very welcome." His deep voice and serious eyes. Fuck.

And then suddenly she was in a memory.

Lying on the sofa in Provence. A warm night in mid-August, windows open to the breeze. Kissing him languidly—like they had all the time in the world. She'd stopped and pulled back, framed his face with her hands, brushed her thumbs over his brows. "You know, your eyes are the most extraordinary colour." He'd reached up to capture her lips again, murmuring into her mouth with a smile on his. "Funny, people usually say that about my hair."

Charlie made a little motion and she started. "Yes, ah, it was very kind. So lovely to see everyone again," she muttered, biting her lip and glancing up into muted grey. His eyes widened slightly and she quickly pulled her lip from under her teeth, feeling heat bloom up her chest. What was she doing?

Stepping forward, Charlie asked him something about the creature facilities they'd toured yesterday and Draco turned to give him an explanation. Hermione was awkwardly silent. Theo walked up with the drinks. Taking in her expression at a glance, he pulled her away, saying something about how Daphne wanted to say hello.

The next bit of time passed in a rush. Hermione felt Pansy's dark, narrow-eyed gaze as she and Theo crossed to Daphne, who greeted her affectionately. She then chatted with one of the older couples. They had recognized her and wanted to know about her involvement in the integration project. Blaise rescued her from that particular minefield by pulling her into one of his bear hugs and drawing her away. He also loudly asked her out on a date as soon as Draco drew near enough to hear. Hermione didn't see Draco's reaction, but she registered it in Blaise's smirking face and Theo's immediate appearance.

Dinner was a blur. Hermione was seated between Astoria and Daphne and across from Hamish and Theo. Draco was far down at one end of the table and Pansy even further at the other. She wondered idly who'd done the arrangements.

Pushing food around on her plate and eating absolutely nothing, Hermione did manage to have a nice chat with Daph about Remy. The other witch smiled sweetly when she spoke of him and Hermione felt glad for her. She had the impression that Daphne rarely did things just for herself.

"I'm happy for both of you," she said, touching Daphne's arm.

Daph gave her quick smile, murmuring, "thanks," her eyes flicking very briefly toward Draco's end of the table. Hermione's gaze followed and she caught one of his rare smiles, directed at something one of the older guests had said. Her heart gave a lurch and she sighed very quietly—although Hamish's eyes immediately flicked her way.

"Hermione," he said, gesturing to Astoria, "did you know this delightful young woman is an accomplished musician?"

"I may have heard."

"Well I haven't!" Hamish turned to Astoria, who was laughing. "You must play after dinner."

"I will," she promised. "If Hermione helps me pick some songs."

Hermione nodded her assent.

The rest of the meal slipped by, and afterward the party gathered in the parlor again. Hermione sat and chatted intermittently with Theo as conversation ebbed and flowed around her, relieved that she seemed to have escaped the majority of the night unscathed thus far. Pansy had hardly acknowledged her. Probably remembers what she got last time, Hermione smirked into her drink.

She noticed Charlie and Draco tête-à-tête in the corner of the room and felt a faint smile lift her mouth—they really did like each other. Draco looked up at that moment and caught her expression, his lip lifting slightly as if he knew exactly what she was thinking and why it was amusing. Their eyes held for a second before they both flushed and looked away, Hermione feeling the familiar wash of regret.

She was wondering if she had any chance of convincing Hamish to leave early, when Daphne appeared and asked if she wanted to come outside for a cigarette. Hermione accepted gratefully and followed her through french doors to a small stone terrace.

"Thanks," she said as the doors shut behind them.

"I remember that you bummed one off Jonnie that night at the book reading." Daphne held out her cigarette case. "And it was getting a bit close in there."

Yes, it bloody was. Hermione accepted a light and inhaled, the ritual calming her. She leaned with Daphne over the low wall and smoked in silence for a while, looking up at the bright stars and savoring the chill air.

"I meant to ask," she said after a bit, "how is Jonnie? I think neither of us were at our best that night we met, but I enjoyed talking with her."

Daphne nodded. "She's well. Better. I was worried that her resolve wasn't going to stick, but she's managed to stay away from her arsehole of an ex."

"Good. He sounded awful."

"Oh, he is. The worst sort of cunt," Daphne's lip curled and Hermione shook her head. Daph stubbed out her cigarette, "but Jonnie asked after you the last time I saw her. Perhaps the three of us can meet for a drink or a coffee sometime."

Hermione nodded, "I'd like that."

Daphne's eyes flicked over Hermione's shoulder and she frowned slightly. And Hermione knewagain, that Draco was there. And that he'd probably heard them talking about Jonnie. Daphne's brows went up in inquiry as, for maybe the 17th time that night, Hermione felt heat flood her cheeks.

"Astoria is looking for both of you," his clipped tones sounded softly.

"I'll go," Daphne said as she performed a quick freshening charm. "I don't like her knowing I smoke." She grimaced at Hermione as she stepped swiftly through the doors.

Draco gave Hermione a brief, unreadable look and then turned to follow. "Draco, wait," Hermione's mouth said, to her very great surprise. He turned back slowly. She took a deep breath, "Daph and I—we were speaking about Jonnie."

"I heard."

"And I just want to say… I'm sorry. For what I said about you and her. Before. I know it's not true now and I feel terrible. Have felt terrible about it for some time."

A tension seemed to leave his face and his eyes searched hers. "Hermione, I... you don't have to…" His hands, which had been curled at his sides, unfolded abruptly.

"And Wickham!" she blurted, feeling if she didn't get it out now, she never would. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I want to apologize for that too."

His lips parted and she saw him breathe in, as if he was deciding what to say. His eyes were unguarded and Hermione felt her own breath catch in her throat.

"Granger," cut in a sneering voice from behind him. "You're being paged." Pansy stepped onto the terrace, her face a picture of disdain. "Astoria needs you."

Hermione swallowed and her eyes darted from Pansy back to Draco.

Pansy gave a slight huff and threaded her arm through his, pulling him aside as if to make way for Hermione to walk by. Not wanting to make the situation any more awkward, Hermione went, but not before she saw the arctic look Draco gave the other witch. And then she felt, more than saw, him shake off Pansy's arm before stalking back into the room.

His gesture seemed to make Pansy reckless. "Hermione," she trilled, her voice carrying out over the crowded room. "You mentioned Jack Wickham… Did I hear that he's engaged? What does that mean for the two of you?" Hermione stopped abruptly and felt the blood drain from her shocked face as Pansy flashed her a brittle smile of triumph. Over a buzzing in her ears she heard a discordant note clang on the piano, where she knew Astoria was sitting. "Guess that means they broke up," Pansy tittered to Blaise as she sank into a seat next to him.

Hermione ignored her and went immediately to Astoria, whose face was paper white. "I was supposed to help you choose something, I'm so sorry," she said softly as she approached.

Draco had reacted more quickly and was already there, his hand resting on the young girl's shoulder, and his gaze flying to Hermione's as she approached. "Let me accompany you," he was murmuring.

Astoria seemed to collect herself. She placed her hand over Draco's and peered up at both of them. "It's fine," she said evenly. "I'm fine. And I think I found the right piece," she smiled weakly at Hermione then turned her gaze to Draco. "Although I'd love some help. I'd like to do the guitar on this one." She got up from the piano bench, gesturing for him to sit down. He sat and looked at the music, his eyes going to Astoria's. She nodded as Hermione drifted back to a seat on a nearby couch.

Picking up her guitar, Astoria cleared her throat then introduced herself briefly, her usual bubbliness subdued. Hermione felt her fingers clench and she wished she and her wand were alone with that bitch Parkinson—or better yet Jack Wickham. She noted that Draco's shoulders were tense too and then she glanced round for Daphne and saw her in the back of the room, her mouth a tight line.

But then the music started. Hermione knew the famous muggle song instantly, although she wondered if many in this crowd had ever heard it before. It was a dirge—about the bitter, painful loss of love—and Hermione ached for Astoria and her choice of it. She also felt her own pain seep in as she listened to the haunting lyrics in Astoria's ethereal voice. And she didn't miss that Draco obviously knew the song well too - his beautiful playing of the mournful chords was not of someone simply reading music and following along. And in fact, she noticed he didn't even turn the pages of the open songbook in front of him. He knew it by heart.

When the last notes of the song finished, the room was perfectly silent for several beats—then Hamish's voice rang out, calling, "bravo!" which led a round of other shouts and enthusiastic applause. Hermione joined in and looked around to see most of the crowd dabbing at their faces and eyes. At least she wasn't alone. She ran her finger under her lower lashes just as Draco turned around on the piano bench and looked directly at her. She inhaled in sharp surprise. His usual mask wasn't in place and his expression was raw. Her heart contracted with pain—and just a tiny pinch of something else.

One of the older gentlemen got up to clap him on the back and ask about the song, breaking their eye contact. Draco got up and followed the man to the side of the room. Astoria struck up another tune then played several things after that—a wizarding piece, something brilliant of her own and a few more muggle songs—before the party started to break up. But Hermione's mind wasn't on the music for once. It was on Draco's face when he'd finished that song.

Was there room for hope?

She had no chance to speak to him before she left with Hamish and Charlie, their goodbyes buried in a swirl of people leaving at the same time and promises to get together with Theo and Daphne in London. But she felt his eyes on her and she let hers rest deliberately on him as she walked through the door, and into the now freezing night. She would sleep on it, yes, but she felt a conviction forming—a conviction that she should go to him. Talk to him.

That maybe all wasn't lost.

~oOo~

The door closed on the last guest and Draco leaned against it, closing his eyes.

The house was quiet. Astoria and Daphne had gone to bed and Blaise had persuaded Pansy to leave with him for a nightcap in London. She'd agreed to the suggestion with a curt laugh, her friends' marked coldness after her little outburst about Wickham seeming to drive home the fact that she wasn't, hadn't been, wanted.

Only Theo moved around in the quiet now, picking up a glass and decanter and pouring himself a measure.

"Would you like one?"

Draco nodded and pushed off the door, accepting the heavy glass and dropping into an armchair near the fire. Theo sat opposite him and tipped his head back against the worn leather with a sigh.

They sat and sipped in silence, the crack of flame and wood and the odd creak from a floorboard overhead the only sounds in the house. Draco felt almost hypnotised by the fire, his eyes fixed on its glow, his mind combing over the events of the night. Finally he inhaled and spoke softly.

"So what do you think?"

Theo paused for a long while before swallowing the last of his drink and rising from his chair.

"I think you should go and talk to her."

Draco looked up at him, holding his gaze for several beats before nodding and turning back to the fire. Theo moved toward the stairs, his hand brushing Draco's shoulder, gripping tightly as he passed.

~oOo~

Hermione sat in the parlour of the White Horse, sipping a cup of tea and crumbling up a scone while waiting for Hamish and Charlie. The three of them had checked out of the inn and were due to leave the village within the hour, but Hamish had requested a last minute trip to an art gallery to look at a painting he thought he might want for the house in Romania.

"Not that he'll have much of an opinion," he'd said to Hermione as he waited for Charlie to join him before setting off. "But I like to make sure he doesn't hate things before I spend a lot of money on them."

They'd of course asked her to go with them, but she'd waved them off, feeling unequal to making informed observations about art just now. In fact, she was a bit glad that the holiday was almost over—she needed some time to herself. Needed to sit in her room alone with her books and her things and think. ...Or maybe the time for thinking was over.

She made an impatient movement and turned to the window, craning her neck to look down the street. Where were they? They should have been back by now. Suddenly a soft sound came from the door to the lobby and she turned. "Oh good you're ba…" the words died on her lips, as instead of Hamish and Charlie, it was Draco standing there—looking tall and smart in a long wool coat. She felt her lips part but no sound came except for a short syllable of surprise.

"Hello," he said, lowering one shoulder to lean against the door frame.

"Hi." Her voice was a little too bright. She cringed internally and told herself to calm the fuck down. "Um, hello, are you …uh... here for lunch?"

"No," he took a step into the room. "I wanted to see you off." His face was carefully neutral, but his words set off a fluttering in Hermione's chest. She tilted her head and blinked, things she wanted to say catching in the net of nervousness at the back of her throat.

"You are leaving today?" His brows lifted slightly.

"Yes, ah. We're going within the hour. Hamish and Charlie are just at a gallery down the street." Ok, she could do small talk. Take refuge in it. But he was moving closer and jamming her senses. She could almost touch him now. Oh, how she wanted to.

He nodded. "And when will you be back in London?"

"Day after tomorrow… I," Oh fuck it—small talk was for cowards. "Draco, I - I'm glad you came today because I had wanted to talk to you." Her hand darted out from her side. "I was going to owl you when I got home."

"Oh?" He was very still.

"Yes, I started to say it last night. To apologize. I feel terrible about the things I thought, and said." She looked down. "Even the invest— "

"You don't have to—" They spoke at the same time.

He stopped and took a breath and she kept silent. "You don't have to apologize to me." His voice was low and close. She looked up and he was nearer.

"But I was wrong!" her breath burst out on a wave of frustration—with herself, with the situation. "I was so wrong and I don't want to leave it like this." She was keenly mindful that Hamish and Charlie might burst into the room at any minute. God, she wished they were alone.

"Leave it?" His face froze, and she opened her mouth to elaborate, but a flurry of activity from the doorway drew her attention. It was the goblin clerk and he was being circled by a frantic owl.

"Ms. Granger!" he croaked, waving his arms at the bird. "It appears you have an express."

The owl, hearing Hermione's name, immediately zoomed over to her and landed on her shoulder, emitting a barrage of shrill hoots.

Draco stepped forward with a soothing noise and removed a sloppily tied scroll from the bird's foot. He handed it to Hermione and the owl flew off immediately.

"It's from Ginny," she said, alarm growing in her chest. She began to unroll the paper when another small owl—this time grey and horned—came ripping into the room and began circling her.

"Looks like another," Draco said, catching the bird and removing the second scroll. "Same handwriting."

"Oh god," Hermione ripped open the first scroll and read rapidly. "It's Ron. It appears he's … missing? Oh god, and wanted for questioning by the police." She glanced into Draco's puzzled face. "She says … 'bring Charlie home because mum is hysterical. Even though she's probably overreacting, she's driving the rest of us insane.'" Hermione shook her head, confused, and shook open the other scroll. "This one is so poorly written I can barely read it," she squinted at the curled paper. "Oh! Oh no!" Her eyes flew to Draco's.

"What is it?" he leaned down to her eye level and his hand went to her shoulder.

"Wickham!" Hermione gasped. Draco shook his head, his brows drawing together. She hesitated for a bare second, then shook her head—he'll know soon enough anyway. "Ron's … disappeared with Jack Wickham. And they're wanted by the police." She skimmed down the letter, "investment fraud … fake property buying scheme…" Her hand clenched on the paper as she read. She looked up at him again, feeling the bleakness in her expression. "Harry and the Weasleys invested large sums and all the money is gone. They think Jack gambled it. There's nothing left. And there's," she shuddered, " … a human trafficking component." An expression of utter disgust crossed Draco's face and his hand fell away from her. Hermione felt a cold feeling wash through her veins as he took a step back and scrubbed over his eyes.

"I need to find Charlie and Hamish!" Hermione's cold was suddenly replaced by a manic burst of energy. "We need to go! Mr. Weasley needs Charlie's help in looking for Ron."

"Of course." Draco's tones were clipped. "But you should sit down." He poured her a glass of water then handed it to her while looking over his shoulder. "You there," he said to the goblin, who was lingering rather avidly in the doorway. "Send someone to find Mr. Weasley and Mr. Gardiner. They should be in the gallery on the corner." The goblin nodded and hurried out of the room.

Not a minute after he left—a minute in which Draco paced and Hermione stared unseeingly at the floor—Charlie and Hamish burst into the parlour, obviously having been given enough of the story to be very alarmed. Hermione handed them the letters and they read in tense silence. When he finished, Charlie flung the scrolls at Hamish and ran to the floo, calling for the Burrow, The goblin rushed to gather luggage and Hamish went for the car.

Hermione stood stock still, her brain running rapidly over the consequences of this debacle; the final death of the quidditch scheme, the loss of the Burrow, Ron in Azkaban, the family destroyed.

She felt a soft touch on her sleeve and started. Draco looked down at her, his expression unreadable. "I think you'll all be wanting me gone," he said softly, pointing his chin toward Charlie, who was trying to sooth an overwrought Molly through the floo flames.

NO I DON'T WANT YOU TO LEAVE! screamed Hermione's inner voice. Stay with me, please.

But she knew it was futile. Maybe their whole relationship was futile now. He wouldn't want to get within a hundred miles of the coming scandal. And god forbid Molly saw him through the flames.

Despair crept toward her and she watched helplessly as Draco nodded a quick goodbye to Charlie and then pivoted to her. At first his hand went out and she thought he might take hers, but then he blinked and stepped away, reaching for the door, his face set. He was gone before Hermione knew it—along with her hopes and what felt like any chance for happiness.

Chapter Text

"When I consider," she added, in a yet more agitated voice, "that I might have prevented it! — I who knew what he was. Had I but explained some part of it only — some part of what I learnt — to my own family! Had his character been known, this could not have happened. But it is all, all too late now."

Hermione glanced around the cluttered bedroom, dim in the grey light of early morning; two messy twin beds, tiny thick-glassed windows, stacks of old textbooks, faded quidditch posters curling off the walls. She'd been back at the Burrow for three days—taking time off from work to stay with Ginny in this cramped space that reminded her so forcibly of the past. The ghost of her younger self laughing with Ron and Harry as they sat on this floor seemed to linger in the still air.

Going to the window, she touched the glass with her fingertips, unseeing eyes staring out at fallow fields.

The men had all left—Arthur, Charlie and Hamish to Spain; Harry to London to consult with the DMLE; Bill to Gringotts to see if the financial trail would yield anything; Fred and George to the shop to try to attempt business as usual. The women had been left behind to wait for news, which hadn't come. All Hermione knew now was what she knew when they'd first arrived—that Ron and Wickham had been soliciting funds for an investment involving land in the southeastern coast of Spain. A rather large group had invested, including the Weasleys, who had mortgaged the Burrow. Harry had invested—heavily and without Ginny's knowledge.

But someone had gotten suspicious after a series of ignored communications from the principles and gone in search of the building site. And it turned out there had been no development, no land for sale—no scheme at all, in fact. Ron and Jack had been gone, the only traces of them having been in the area some gambling debts and the irate parents of a sixteen year old witch who had disappeared with them.

Now they were wanted by magical law enforcement of at least two countries.

It was sickening. Hermione felt physically ill at the idea of it. Especially when she thought of her half-hearted attempts to warn Ron off Wickham. She should have been more strident, more open. And no, she did not miss the irony there. But she should have exposed Jack for what he was—to everyone. Why hadn't she? Because she'd been afraid of what they would say? Afraid of revealing the source of her information and what that would mean...?

Draco.

Her mind seemed to sigh his name, her thoughts running to him as they often had since he had walked out of the hotel three days ago.

This must really be the end, mustn't it? His face had looked so set and cold when she'd read Jack's name in the letter. And then he'd just left. So quickly. He'd obviously wanted no part of this. And although Hermione wasn't a Weasley by birth or marriage, she may as well have been. To be so closely associated with Wickham's crimes… to expose Astoria to the story. He couldn't want that. It would be much easier to stay away. After all, she'd already pushed him out of her life.

Hermione padded across the hall to Ron's room. It didn't feel as abandoned as Ginny's since he'd been living here more recently, but something in the mix of the markers of childhood—a small broom, a stack of old trading cards—alongside a briefcase and a very large pair of shoes seemed somehow more melancholy.

She spun slowly in a circle, feelings of guilt stealing over her. She had really failed Ron, hadn't she? She'd given up so easily… But a flash of anger quickly followed. She had also tried to warn him. How could he have been so stupid? So careless? She felt further from her childhood friend than she ever had.

Fingernails curling into her palms, Hermione felt a now-familiar wave wash over her—helplessness, uselessness. She wanted to do something. It wasn't in her nature to sit idly by. But what could she do?

Abruptly, she spun out of the room and went downstairs. Molly was in the kitchen, sitting and staring out the window, a half-drunk mug of tea in front of her.

"Ginny went out, dear," she said. "Something about the garden." Her tone was so different from her customary energetic chatter that Hermione felt like crying.

"That's all right, Molly. I'll just sit with you, shall I?" She approached the older woman and noted that her tea was stone cold. "And I'll refresh this?"

Molly looked at her and nodded once. "Thank you, dear." Her eyes slid to the window again as Hermione busied herself with the kettle.

"It's cooling down, isn't it?" Hermione chattered. "Autumn truly here and winter around the corner."

Molly didn't respond and Hermione subsided into silence, concentrating on the tea. Finally she came back to the table with two steaming mugs. Molly accepted hers silently, her eyes finding Hermione's and seeming to actually note her presence for the first time. Their bright blue narrowed and Molly tilted her head slightly.

"You would have been the making of him, you know."

Hermione looked away, uncomfortable.

"I always wanted you for him. He needed you," Molly continued, "to motivate him, provide structure." Her gaze sharpened. "And he would have softened you." She nodded.

Hermione gave her a level stare. "I think we would have made each other very unhappy," she said. "He already resented me—even then. I was often frustrated with him. It would have grown into something darker." She held Molly's gaze until the older witch looked down.

"Perhaps you're right, dear. And I don't want you to think that I blame you for any of this."

Hermione buried a snort in her tea, the responses to the outrageous statement flitting through her mind rendered moot by the appearance of Ginny, in from the garden.

Stamping her feet in the doorway, Ginny blew on her fingertips. "It's bloody cold out there. Rather refreshing actually." Her sharp gaze darted between Hermione and Molly before resting on Hermione with a keen gleam. "Would you like to come for a walk?"

Hermione practically leapt out of her chair. "Yes! Just let me find my coat and boots."

She hurried off toward the front vestibule and returned to the kitchen properly clad, just in time to catch the tail end of a speech from Molly. It was obviously one of her 'wild notions', as Hermione and Ginny had taken to calling them—frequently repeated explanations for what could have happened with Jack and Ron. Invariably without any basis in fact or reason, and always ending with the two men completely innocent of any wrongdoing, they were exasperating to Hermione and infuriating to Ginny.

"Well, I just think it's possible there could have been a mistake," Molly was saying excitedly. "Mr. Beher could have gone to the wrong area. Or perhaps the locals had Ron and Jack mixed up with another pair of men. There is the language barrier, you know."

Ginny took a deep breath, her shoulders visibly tensing. "Mum, please. The police of two countries, dad, and several of your sons are not combing all of Europe for Ron due to a mix-up."

"All ready!" called Hermione, going to Ginny and placing her hand on her arm. "Let's go."

Ginny darted one more glance at her mother, who was staring out the window again, her burst of energy seemingly gone, then nodded at Hermione. "Back in a few, mum," she said softly.

Molly didn't respond.

~oOo~

Hermione took a great lungful of the crisp air as they stepped out into weak sunlight.

Ginny slammed the door behind them. "God, she's going to drive me totally insane," she bit out, setting a brisk pace through the garden. "What was she saying to you before I came in? I could tell it was something outrageous by the look on your face."

"Oh she was just sort of circuitously suggesting that if I'd just settled down and married Ron, none of this would have happened," said Hermione with a half laugh.

"Oh for, fuck's…" Ginny said, shaking her head. "Yeah, none of this would have happened because you'd have killed him by now. Honestly, that woman."

Hermione shook her head too and they walked in silence for a while. Hermione could feel the distance from the house act like a balm on her mood.

"Ginny," she said, "would I be totally abandoning you if I went back to the flat for a few days?"

Ginny came to a dead stop and faced her, eyes wide.

"God, of course not! I can't believe I've been so dense. Of course you should get out of here. It's fucking funereal. You must be going mad. And besides, our pot plants are probably in dire need of attention."

Hermione barked a short laugh, relief coursing through her. "Are you sure?"

Ginny took her hand. "Please, please, Hermione. Do go," she said. "There's no reason for both of us to suffer. I'll owl you the minute we hear anything."

A lightness seemed to lift Hermione and she smiled at her friend, "Thanks. I'll go this afternoon if that's all right." Ginny just grimaced at her and grabbed her arm.

They turned and started walking again, covering ground quickly, moving from the garden to a copse of evergreens that covered the small hill behind the house.

Hermione was enjoying the burn in her thighs and lungs when Ginny suddenly spoke. "I want to say I'm sorry," she said, her breath heavy as they tackled the steepest bit of the hill.

"Sorry?"

"For not being there for you the last couple of months. As much as I should have been."

"But, Gin—"

"No. You've been really unhappy and I've been a bitch because I was angry. Because of Harry and the scheme. I just didn't feel I could talk about any of it without going off. But that doesn't excuse me. I could see what you were going through, but I let Charlie and Hamish stand in when I should have been there." Ginny's voice hitched on the last words and Hermione stopped her and grabbed her hand.

Ginny looked at her for a beat and then hugged her fiercely.

"Don't. Gin. It's ok," Hermione stroked her friend as a sob ripped through Ginny's body.

Eventually Ginny pulled back. "God, look at me," she shook her head, "I was meant to be comforting you!" She wiped her eyes and with her thumb and forefinger and looked up. "Why am I such an arse?"

"You are NOT an arse." Hermione started.

Ginny held her hand up. "No, let me say this." Hermione was still. "This thing with Ron and Jack. Harry's going behind my back to invest. It's brought a few things home for me. One being that Draco was probably not as in the wrong as I thought he was. Definitely not about Wickham. And maybe not even about the Quidditch project. I wanted to cast him as the bad guy so badly," she gave a sharp laugh. "Habit, I guess." Hermione nodded. "But, also, no relationship is perfect," Ginny continued. "Sometimes even people we love can fuck up or fail to communicate or do things that surprise us. But that doesn't mean we give up on them or cut them off. We need to hear their side, talk to them…" her eyes took on a distant quality as she gazed away.

"So does that mean you're going to see Harry?" Hermione asked softly.

Ginny's eyes flicked back to her. "Yes. We're going to meet tomorrow. I just needed a few days. I was so furious that he went behind my back. Still am. But I need to hear him out. And we'll get through it. Even if we end up penniless and saddled with my broken family. I love him too much to let this come between us."

"Good. I'm glad," Hermione said, reaching out and touching Ginny's arm again.

Ginny patted her and then turned up the hill. "Let's keep going." Hermione nodded and they walked in silence until they reached the summit. Standing at the top, they took in deep breaths of cold air and looked at the patchwork view below.

Ginny turned to Hermione. "So what about Draco?"

Hermione frowned. "I don't know."

"Just to be clear," Ginny craned her neck to make eye contact and pointed to her own chest, "this is me going on record saying that I think you should hear him out too. I think you were too hasty— we were all too hasty—in our judgement of him."

Hermione felt an entirely mirthless smile cross her face. "Oh I agree. I just don't know if he's interested or willing anymore."

"What do you mean?"

Hermione sighed, "There's more to Draco's history with Wickham than what I told you before. I can't share details without breaking a strict confidence, but I can tell you that Wickham has done profound harm to Draco's family. Unforgivable harm." Ginny shook her head slowly, anger flashing across her features. "And when I received the news about Ron and Jack," Hermione continued, "...and Draco was there." Her voice trailed off and she felt tears start in her eyes. Ginny moved close and put her arm around her. "His face, Gin. His demeanor. I just don't think he can bear to expose his family to this man again. Even for me and what we almost had." The tears started down her face in earnest and Ginny pulled her close, murmuring soothing words.

After a moment Hermione pulled back and wiped her eyes. "So I don't think I should reach out at this point. When he walked away the other day, I think that was him making a clean break."

Ginny looked at her for several beats then blew out a huge sigh. "Im so fucking sorry that my fucking family is dragging you into this, Hermione. It's not even your fight. You're certainly not responsible for Ron at this point. Shit."

Hermione's hand shot out. "ANYthing that affects you and Harry is my fight. I know that, you know that and Draco knows that too. It's part of who I am."

"Yeah," Ginny closed her eyes and shook her head. "You're right, I know. I just wish none of this had ever happened. And I wish we'd fucking talked to Ron."

"Actually," Hermione said as they turned their steps back down the hill. "I did."

"What!?" Ginny stopped briefly to stare at her.

"I never had a chance to tell you and Harry because it happened right before I went away with Charlie and Hamish."

Ginny shook her head and they started walking again.

"It was here," Hermione continued. That last Sunday lunch before he disappeared. I approached him and warned him off Jack."

"Let me guess, he wasn't the most receptive?"

"Ah no. He figured out pretty quickly who my source was. And then he didn't want to listen at all. Jack had already poisoned that well."

"Right, and that on top of the uh, other reasons Ron hates Draco."

Hermione nodded and shrugged.

"Hell," Ginny said. "That makes Ron even more of a git, then. When they find him, they'd better put him behind bars just to protect him from me."

Hermione snorted as they approached the garden gate and let themselves through.

"I suggest going around to the side door so you can just pack your bag and avoid saying goodbye to mum," Ginny said. "It will be easier that way. I'll tell her you had a pressing work issue to attend to or something like that."

"Ok," said Hermione, relieved. "And you're sure you'll be all right? You'll owl me as soon as there is news—or even if you just need to chat."

"Yes to all of that. Now go before mum sees you." Ginny shooed her towards the stairs. "And Hermione?" Hermione stopped and turned to look into Ginny's solemn eyes. "If you see Potter tonight … tell him I miss him."

"I will, Gin." Hermione gave her a sad smile and continued up to pack her things.

~oOo~

Hermione fitted her key into the flat's lock with a sigh. After the chaos of the last few days, she was looking forward to the comfort and familiarity she would find on the other side of the door. Closing it behind her, she hung her wool cloak and headed down the hallway. It felt cold and barren, like her mood, and it occurred to her that it was almost November. The idea shocked her somehow—that the year was coming to a close.

She approached the kitchen, vague thoughts of heating a can of soup flitting through her mind. As she passed through the doorway, she was startled to see Harry there, leaning against the counter, draining a bottle of beer.

"Hermione!" he said, swallowing quickly and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Harry!" She rushed forward to give him a hug. He set his bottle down and returned the embrace, holding on to her a little longer than usual.

She pulled back, her hands still on his arms. "I don't know why I'm surprised to see you here… Of course you haven't been sleeping at the Ministry."

"Yeah, my days of a cot in the office are well and truly over," he said, the ghost of a smile passing over his face.

Hermione dropped her hands and stood back. "Any more of those?" she asked, gesturing to the beer.

"Yeah, yeah. Help yourself."

Hermione opened the fridge. "You want another one?"

"Yes, please."

She popped both tops and handed him a bottle, then leaned back against the counter herself.

"Any luck? Any news?" she asked.

"Nothing," he shook his head and looked at the floor. "The trail is utterly cold. What news from The Burrow? Are you just here to pick up some things or are you staying?"

"Nothing new, no. Things are much the same as they've been," Hermione said carefully. "And I'm staying. At least for a few days."

"So Ginny's alone? I mean, with Molly, but…"

"Yeah, she basically kicked me out. Said she'd be fine. She's been outside a lot. On her broom mostly—and I was going insane."

"Mmm," Harry still hadn't looked up and Hermione could practically feel the guilt radiating off him in waves. "How is she?" he finally asked, meeting Hermione's eyes.

She took a long pull from her bottle. "Not great. But better. She told me you two are meeting tomorrow."

Harry nodded once and he seemed about to say something, but then subsided.

"She seemed hopeful, Harry. She's not going to leave you." Hermione shook her head at her friend.

He sagged against the counter. "Thank fuck."

"Not that she's not epically and rightfully angry at you…" Hermione held up her hand as Harry started to speak. "But I'll let her handle that part."

"Ok," he said meekly.

They stood in silence for several moments until Hermione couldn't hold back any longer. "But really, how could you do that, Harry? What could have possibly…?" He flinched and she softened her tone. "Let me start over. I guess I just mean; what happened?"

Harry heaved a huge sigh and looked skyward. "Other than me acting a total idiot?" he queried the ceiling. Hermione snorted and he looked back at her, his bright eyes dim. "It was Ron," he finally said. "He came to me, oh about a month and a half ago, and asked for a loan." He stopped to swallow. "And you know how it is with him, Hermione. I found it really hard to say no."

Hermione nodded slowly. She knew exactly what he meant. That sense of guilt-tinged responsibility; of obligation. "But you didn't go to Ginny? Involve her in the decision?"

Harry blew out a long breath. "I knew she'd be against it—after what we'd learned about Jack. And Ron was desperate. He told me it was the last bit they needed to fund the project, that without it everything would fall apart. He begged me, Hermione. I could barely stand it." Harry's neck flushed red.

Hermione made a sympathetic sound and he continued, his glance darting away from hers. "And I was, you know ... angry," he rubbed his nape. "At Malfoy and Theo—I knew that feeling of losing it all, so I was less in a place to be careful or suspicious. Ron played to that too. Because I did tell him my concerns and a bit about what we'd learned. And he really raked me over the coals. Said he couldn't believe I would trust Draco Malfoy's judgement over his. Frankly it was hard to say no after that."

"He said much the same to me." Harry's brows drew together as he looked a question at her. "I tried to warn him too—at The Burrow just before I left with Charlie and Hamish," she explained. He shook his head slowly. "And did you think you'd be able to get your money back without telling Ginny?" she continued, squinting at him.

Harry looked sheepish. "I didn't really think it through. I guess I just figured it would come up naturally— once the project got going and the investors started recouping. I'd just mention that I had financed some of it, but the money was all back now."

"Mmm, having recently had some experience with men not letting me in on important decisions and it leading to a lot of shit, I'm inclined to agree that you were an idiot," Hermione said.

"I know." Harry mumbled.

"I still love you of course, and so does Ginny." Hermione crossed the kitchen to lay her hand on Harry's arm. "She asked me to tell you that she misses you."

His gaze whipped to hers, "Really?" She nodded and he gave her a real smile. "Thanks." Hermione squeezed him once and then went to the cupboard in search of her soup.

"So I guess we should have trusted him," Harry said in a musing tone.

"Hmm?" Hermione was rummaging through cans.

"Draco. About Wickham."

Hermione stopped moving and gripped the cabinet door. "It certainly seems so," she said tightly, trying not to succumb to the regret that was suddenly swamping her.

"And I meant what I said at The Burrow that last Sunday lunch," Harry continued. "Before all this." Hermione pulled her head out of the cupboard and looked at him. "About Malfoy and the Quidditch project," he said, running his hand over his still unruly hair. "He was right to warn Theo. He should have told you he was going to do it. But he was right to do it."

"I know." Hermione replied quietly.

"Do you think there's, you know, any hope for you? Now, I mean?" Harry said with a pained look. "Or do you not… want that?"

Hermione was silent for a long time before replying. "I would want it, but I think… Probably not," she said, trying to talk through the constriction in her throat. "I hoped maybe, after I saw him in Wiltshire. But no," she shook her head. "I think it's over now."

Harry took one look at her face and moved to her, wrapping her in his arms. "I'm sorry, Hermione."

"Me too," she choked out, holding on to him tightly.

~oOo~

Hermione closed the cover of the book she was halfway reading with a snap. Focusing on anything was so difficult lately. It infuriated her. She made an impatient gesture and stood up. Perhaps she should get out of the flat, take a walk, get some fresh air.

She moved to the window and peered out. Unfortunately, the grey, drizzly weather hadn't miraculously changed, but wasn't that what wellies and raincoats were for? Striding down the hall to the closet, she stuck her head in and pulled out one boot and then the other, her thoughts running on a well-worn track to the situation with Ron and Wickham.

It had been a week since she'd left The Burrow. A week with no news and no change. She had tried to keep busy, putting in long hours at the office and filling the rest of her time with work on the centaur journals. She'd finally managed to meet with Rolf Scamander and show them to him and he had been suitably excited. If the rest of her life weren't so shit, she'd be over the moon about them too, but as it was they were only a weak bright spot in the murkiness that had enveloped her.

She shrugged into her raincoat and went to the mirror to twist her hair into a knot at the base of her head; a probably-futile attempt to prevent it from doubling in size due to the damp.

It also didn't help her head state that the day after she'd seen Harry, he'd decamped to The Burrow to be with Ginny, their conversation having gone well and their bond stronger than ever. Of course, Hermione had been in total support of him going, but the result of being alone for a week hadn't been particularly pleasant.

She didn't often let the fact that her family was on the other side of the world and practically estranged get to her, but in times like this she really wished she had someone of her own. And of course on the heels of that thought, her mind went straight to Draco. She hissed in frustration and tried to clear her head, then grabbed her umbrella and reached for the door handle. Maybe she'd go to The Tate and look at the Turners. That always calmed her.

Just as her fingers touched the cool metal, a persistent tapping came from the sitting room. It sounded very much like an owl. Hermione ran back down the hall to the doorway and saw what was clearly the Weasleys' bird fluttering against the window. She rushed to let it in and untie the scroll from its foot. The note was from Ginny and consisted of only two words, "Come, now." Hermione dropped the paper and apparated on the spot.

Alighting in the front garden of The Burrow, she could already hear the noise from inside. She hurried to the front door, trying to pick out whether the din sounded more of elation or despair. Flinging the heavy panel open without bothering to knock, it was soon clear that, thank god, the news was good.

Molly was clutching a scroll and loudly thanking Merlin and Circe through tears of joy, Fred and George were whooping and hurrah-ing, Bill and Fleur were embracing, and Harry and Ginny were standing watching them all, holding hands with relieved smiles on their faces. Hermione saw moisture standing in their eyes as well. They all turned to her as one as she stepped through the doorway, Ginny's smile widened and Harry moved forward to grasp her hand.

"He's been found? He's ok?" Hermione asked.

"Yes," Harry said, "The owl just came." Hermione slumped with relief. She hadn't realized until that moment how worried she'd been about Ron, despite their differences.

"Oh, I'm so glad," she managed to choke out, tears springing to her eyes. Ginny moved to her and wrapped her in a huge hug. When she felt able to speak again, Hermione asked Harry what they knew.

"Ron and Jack have both been found. In Monaco, of all places. Ron's fine. Unhurt," Harry said. "The police are questioning them, but Charlie's note says it looks like Ron will go free because it's clear he had no idea Wickham was running a scam. Charlie actually implies that he still doesn't really seem to believe it."

Hermione shook her head and Ginny caught her eye, "astounding, right?" she said, "but if it helps him get out of this…"

Hermione nodded. "And what about the human trafficking?"

"That seems to have been a bit of a mistake," Ginny said. "It turns out it was one girl who was very much 'with' Wickham—and although she was nauseatingly young, she was of age."

Hermione felt relief and disgust in equal parts. Jack Wickham certainly hadn't changed his spots. "And the money?"

"Still gone." Harry shook his head and looked down.

"But I'm sure it will be found soon!" Molly's voice cut into their conversation. "It's clear it's all just been a big misunderstanding," she trilled. "Ron and Jack will be home any day now. And if you're lucky, Hermione, maybe you'll still have a crack at Mr. Wickham..." Molly winked hugely in her direction as Hermione felt her mouth fall open.

"Are you fucking, serious, mum…" Ginny started to sputter, but Hermione put her hand on her arm.

"It's ok, just leave it," she said softly. Ginny drew in her breath and nodded quickly. Let Molly have her delusions for the time being. The fact that the money was still gone and The Burrow still in danger would sink in soon enough.

George said something about a toast and Hermione was turning toward the kitchen to help when the crack of apparition sounded from outside the still-open front door. It was followed directly by an exhausted-looking Charlie stumbling in with Hamish in tow.

There was a moment of pure silence before Molly shrieked and the chaos of several people talking and shouting questions at once took over the room again. Hermione stood back, waiting for the initial reaction to ebb.

Finally, Hamish raised his voice over the din, "OY!" he yelled, and miraculously everyone quieted. He led Charlie to the sofa and pushed him gently down, saying over his shoulder, "Charles has had very little sleep in the last 48 hours and a tremendous lot of stress in the last week. I'll give you about ten minutes with him before I'm taking him upstairs and putting him to bed."

Everyone nodded solemnly. Charlie rubbed his hand over his forehead and sighed. He did look utterly knackered.

"So," he started, "since I sent my owl, there have been … developments."

"What— " Fred started to interject, but was silenced by a glare from Hamish.

Charlie blinked slowly. "It's good news. Good developments. In a nutshell, the money has been restored." The room erupted in gasps and Hermione's hands flew to her mouth.

"All of it?" asked Bill.

Charlie nodded briefly and Ginny grasped Harry's hand. "What? How?" she stuttered.

"I don't have a lot of detail," Charlie said, his eyes flitting briefly to Hermione's. She gave him a faint smile and he continued. "But dad has been working on it with…" he paused and shook his head slightly, "with the authorities, and the funds should be back with the investors by next week. Wickham will serve jail time in Spain. A lot of it. But they're dropping the charges against Ron and he's coming home. Likely in the next few days."

Molly erupted in sobs and Ginny went to her. Fred and George started shouting again and one of them renewed the call for a toast, pulling Bill and Fleur into the kitchen with them. Harry just looked at Hermione and heaved a huge sigh. She shook her head once and moved to the sofa, holding out her arms to Hamish, who grasped her tightly.

"You both must be utterly exhausted," she muttered, looking down at Charlie and resting her hand on his shoulder.

"We are," Hamish sighed. "And I don't think I can stand a toast just now."

"Me neither. Not after this week," said Charlie, rising from the sofa. He squeezed Hermione's arm, giving her another look as he passed her on his way to Molly and Ginny. "Mum, Gin, I'm dead on my feet. I have to go to bed. Let's talk in the morning."

"Oh, but the toast!" Molly started.

"Tomorrow," he said firmly. Hamish moved behind him and started shepherding him toward the stairs.

Hermione watched them go, Hamish's hand braced on Charlie's bowed back as they climbed. Her mind started to run and she began wondering... How in the world could the money have been found and restored? Surely Jack Wickham hadn't just been sitting on it all this time…especially if they'd been in Monaco with its tempting casinos for weeks. A frown crossed her face and she looked up to see her expression mirrored in Ginny's.

Just then Fred and George returned, complaining loudly at Charlie's absence. Bill and Fleur followed, and began distributing glasses. Hermione accepted one, smiled and drank—but she continued to turn the new information over in her mind, wondering if it would ever fully make sense.

~oOo~

Draco turned his back to the glow of the casino and leaned against the rail of the terrace. God he fucking hated Monaco. And he was so bloody tired. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.

"Draco, come in from there. It's getting brisk!" His aunt called to him from inside the hotel suite.

He pushed off from the low wall and moved into the opulent room.

"Martini, auntie?"

"Of course, darling. And tell me how it went today."

Draco mixed the drinks and filled her in. It had been a long day. Tedious and draining. Endless negotiation and moving money around. There was almost nothing he enjoyed less. But at least it was done.

He turned away from the bar and handed his aunt a frosted glass. She accepted with a slight smile.

"Well, I'm happy I was able to help you,"

"As am I. Thank you." He sipped thoughtfully and his eyes wandered to the bright skyline again.

When he'd left Wiltshire and Hermione two weeks ago, he'd had one thought in mind; to find and stop Jack Wickham. This time for good. A sick wash of guilt had enveloped him as he heard the words of Ginny's letters read in Hermione's stricken voice. Guilt and shame—because he could have prevented this. Outed Wickham for what he was before his actions had hurt more people; people that Hermione loved, and counted on for love.

He sighed and his aunt looked at him inquiringly. "Just regretting some of my choices," he said, lifting the corner of his mouth halfheartedly.

"Regret is a useless emotion. What's done is done. And the future is entirely at your command."

He regarded Lucretia steadily until she spoke again. "And now what will you do?"

What would he do now? His mind ran over the flurry of activity that had kept him feverishly occupied for so many days… After he'd left Wiltshire, he'd put out a call to Wickham's associates. As they were always hungry for cash, he'd thought the generous reward he was offering for information leading to Jack's whereabouts would lead fairly quickly to the man himself.

So he'd been surprised when the crucial information had come from a different source.

Lucretia, writing from a holiday in Monaco, had mentioned being unpleasantly surprised to see 'that criminal Jack Wickham' at the Casino Monte Carlo. 'But not to worry', she'd written — she'd dropped a word to her dear friend the manager, and had him thrown out. He and 'his ginger companion' had caused quite a scene and she was certain they'd be drummed out of the country soon enough.

After reading this missive with growing alarm, Draco had dispatched an urgent owl, telling Lucretia to halt any efforts to remove Wickham. Then he'd notified the Ministries of Britain and Spain, owled Charlie Weasley and made arrangements to go directly to Monaco himself.

When he'd arrived, he'd met with Charlie and been interviewed by the authorities, although he'd largely stayed out of their successful operation to capture Jack and Ron. It was a few days after the two had been arrested, when Charlie had relayed the magnitude of the financial losses, that Draco had gone into action again.

It had been difficult to convince the Weasleys at first, but Draco had worn them down; laying out every piece of Wickham's perfidy and every time he had looked the other way or actively covered it up. Finally, Arthur had exhaustedly conceded and Draco had met with Lucretia's bankers. Several days of negotiations and complex exchanges had followed, but eventually everything had been moved into place.

And now finally it was over. He'd met briefly with Charlie and Hamish today to relay the details. They had looked as exhausted as Draco felt.

"Thank you," Charlie had said, walking up and laying a hand on Draco's shoulder. "For myself and for my family."

"Please don't," Draco had said, shaking his head.

Charlie had nodded, "and you still don't want it to be known?"

His look had been significant, but Draco shook his head again. "No. I don't want anyone to feel a sense of obligation."

Hamish had started to speak, but a look from Charlie silenced him. "All right," Charlie had said. "You have our word."

The three men had shaken hands and Draco had come back to the hotel where he was staying in Lucretia's suite. He would go back to England soon—and then he didn't know what would happen. Possibly nothing at all.

He started out of his recollections and answered Lucretia's question, "I don't know, Auntie."

"Will you tell her what you did for her?"

Draco drained his martini. "It wasn't just for her. It was the right thing to do."

"Mmm," gentle disbelief was etched on his aunt's face.

He sighed. Remember about the openness, Draco? "I don't want anyone to come to me out of a sense of obligation."

"I don't think it would be that."

"Before I left her last. Before all of this happened. She said something about wanting to set things right. It didn't sound like a declaration of love," he closed his eyes. "It sounded like wanting to close a chapter. Like goodbye."

"My impression of Ms. Granger is that it's very important for her to make things right. That might be part of her type of love."

He shook his head. "I just think it's too late."

Lucretia rose from where she was sitting and went to him. She took his hand and made him look in her eyes. "If I have learned one thing from all of my rather many years on this planet, is that it is never too late. Especially for love."

He held her gaze thoughtfully, then nodded.

Chapter Text

"Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?"

"Shit, flats are expensive," Hermione muttered aloud in her office as she scanned the Prophet classifieds. After sharing with Harry and Ginny for almost ten years she'd totally lost touch with current rates, not to mention she'd never had to shoulder the cost of living on her own. She put down the paper and stared into space.

It had been a few days since the ecstatic news about Ron, and a strange sort of stasis had settled on her. Living on a steady diet of excitement of one kind or another for so long, she had quite forgotten what it was like to have nothing in particular going on. Even work had slowed down—there was nothing left to do on the Centaur bill but await routine final approvals, and she wouldn't start with a new species until the new year—hence the ability to flat-shop during work hours. She tapped the paper absentmindedly. She did suppose finding somewhere new to live was rather major.

A new place to live. She could barely wrap her mind around the concept. She ran her fingers over the newsprint and her eyes went unfocused as her thoughts traveled back to the night before...

Harry and Ginny had cooked dinner—pasta and salad with a good red wine—and sat her down, rather formally she thought, as she shook out her (cloth!) napkin and looked at them speculatively.

They chatted for a bit, discussing Ron's imminent return tomorrow or the next day, all charges against him dropped—and Molly's ill-conceived idea to have a welcome-home party for him.

"I told mum I don't know why we're celebrating," Ginny said, as she twirled spaghetti on her fork. "I asked her, 'Didn't he run off with all of your money to waste it in a fake property investment scheme that nearly landed him in Azkaban and robbed you of your home?'"

Hermione snorted as Harry shook his head. "What!? I just don't think a party is an appropriate response!" Ginny exclaimed.

"No, I completely agree," Hermione laughed. "What did she say?"

Ginny screwed her face up in a good imitation of her mother's habitually pursed lips and put on Molly's voice, "Oh poo. It will lift everyone's spirits!"

"Some things never change," Harry shook his head and looked down. "Although some things do…" He turned his face to Ginny with a funny sort of expression and raised his brows. She nodded and they both put down their forks and turned to Hermione, who suddenly felt tension thrum through her body.

"So," Ginny glanced at Harry with a little smile, which he returned. "There's actually going to be another, legitimate reason to celebrate at the party."

"Oh?" Hermione's glance darted between her two friends, an inkling of what they were about to say starting to dawn on her.

Harry's face broke into a huge grin as he looked at Ginny and then back at Hermione. "I've asked Gin to marry me and she's said yes."

"Oh my GOD!" Hermione shrieked as she jumped up and ran around the table to try and hug both friends at the same time. "CONGRATULATIONS! I'm so happy for you!"

There was a lot of confused embracing and crying for several minutes before they all got seated again, Ginny wiping her eyes and Harry smiling at her.

"You're the first person we've told," Ginny said. "Mum and dad will find out tomorrow and we'll tell the rest of the family at the party."

"We just figured we've waited long enough," Harry added. "All of these events really brought that home. We're at the right age now to take the next step and then the next. Possibly start a family in a year or so."

Hermione nodded, her heart full.

"But," Harry rubbed the spot behind his ear and looked down, "this will mean some changes."

"You know we have loved living with you and we've all been the best sort of flatmates," Ginny interjected. "But we feel like part of this will involve ... living on our own."

Ginny's voice broke on the last words and Harry's face was a picture of guilt, so Hermione rushed to reassure them. "Of course it will!" she said, reaching across the table to grab their hands. "I wouldn't expect anything else. Please don't feel bad. It's natural and fine and good. And I'm so incredibly happy for you."

Harry and Ginny had both exhaled with relief and there had been a lot more talk into the night. Harry had mentioned getting a new and improved Quidditch scheme launched in the new year and they'd discussed wedding plans and dates. Ginny wanted something small and informal— likely at The Burrow in early summer. Hermione had started mentally putting together a timeline for when she would leave the flat. Harry and Ginny were undecided as to whether they would stay there or look for something new, but it was definitely too large for just one person.

Just one person. Hermione blew out her breath and looked around her office, recalled to the present. She was, of course, overjoyed for Harry and Ginny, but their news had come with a dose of melancholy too. A small part of her felt left behind, her friends moving on with life milestones while she stayed stuck. And the task of finding somewhere new to live, packing up and moving house, seemed daunting after ten years in the same place. She'd be starting over—and she would be alone.

If only... the words blew across her mind like a wisp of a dream, and she allowed herself a moment to wonder about what could have been, before grimly turning her focus away. She hadn't heard from Draco since Wiltshire and frankly doubted she ever would again.

Snapping her head to the side impatiently, Hermione shook out the paper, redoubling her attention on the 'To-Let' section. Wallowing was unhealthy and unproductive and she had things to do. She circled a notice and then another and another, then began writing contact details on her blotter and sketching out a viewing schedule.

She was so absorbed in her task that she was doubly surprised when her office door suddenly flung open and she heard the voice of her assistant excitedly telling someone that Ms. Granger was busy and they needed to wait in the lobby to see if she was available.

Hermione half stood, her thoughts running riot, then froze utterly as Narcissa Malfoy strode through the doorway, sneered over her shoulder, "Malfoys don't wait in lobbies," then flicked her wand to slam the door behind her.

Hermione rose fully and blinked at the other woman for several seconds. Narcissa's cool blue gaze held hers unwaveringly. "May I help you?" Hermione finally said, pleased that her voice was steady.

Narcissa sniffed and glanced around Hermione's neat little office with a faint sneer. "I don't suppose there is anywhere else to have a conversation?" she finally said, twitching the sleeves of her fine black robes.

A conversation? Hermione's sense of having fallen into a surreal dream was increasing by the second. "Ah," she gestured to the window, "there's a prettyish little garden down there," referring to the small walled patio workers in her section used for outdoor lunches and cigarette breaks.

Her guest glided to the window and looked down. "Not private enough. I suppose this will have to do." She lowered herself into Hermione's guest chair as if it were filthy, then looked up, the flint in her gaze reminding Hermione forcibly of Draco, although Narcissa's eyes were infinitely more cold.

Hermione sat and stared, determined not to speak first.

There was a protracted silence before Narcissa finally broke into impatient speech. "I assume you know why I'm here."

"I confess I do not." Hermione answered truthfully.

For some reason this seemed to irk the other witch. "Don't play coy with me," she snapped. "I have more experience with social subtext in my little finger than you could ever hope to amass in a lifetime."

Hermione flinched back, her shock starting to give way to irritation. "Excuse me?"

Nacrissa's lip twitched. "Fine. I haven't time or the inclination to fence with you. A report has reached me that you are engaged to my son," she shook her head the smallest bit as an expression of distaste crossed her features, "although I know it to be utterly impossible."

Hermione felt the blood drain from her face. Engaged? to Draco? What the actual fuck? Where in the world could this have come from? And what did it mean? She stayed silent as she digested the information.

"Well?" Narcissa said, looking her up and down.

"Well, what?" Hermione snapped, her anger kindling.

"Tell me that it's not true," Narcissa said, more than a hint of command in her voice.

Hermione felt heat burn in her cheeks. "And why should I do that? I don't answer to you."

"Are you or are you not engaged to Draco?" Narcissa's voice was almost a hiss.

"You've already said it's impossible." Hermione felt her lips curve in a humourless smile.

"Insolent!" Narcissa smacked her palm on the desk and leaned forward, the tendons in her neck straining. "It is impossible!"

Hermione's brows flew up and Narcissa seemed to gather herself, inhaling sharply before she leaned back and narrowed her eyes, "But you're a pretty girl. In a common sort of way. I don't know what you may have ...thrown, at him."

Hermione felt her anger threaten to boil over, but she kept obstinately silent, unwilling to deign such an insulting implication with a reply.

"I have a right to know. He is my son." Narcissa continued.

"Then ask him!" Hermione exploded, finally raising her voice. "I am not obligated to tell you a single thing about my actions or motivations."

Narcissa stiffened. "I can't. He's out of the country. And besides, what I said is true. It is impossible." She threw Hermione a triumphant look.

Hermione shrugged and held up her hands, utterly mystified.

"It's impossible because he's already engaged. To Jonquil Avery. You'll have seen them in the papers."

Narcissa dropped this information as if it were a bomb, but Hermione remained controlled, Jonnie's sweet features and easy smile flitting through her mind. "Well, that should comfort you," she said, letting sarcasm tint her words, "because there is no way he could be engaged to me if he's already promised to her."

Narcissa looked away for the first time. "The engagement is unique. As a muggle-born you wouldn't be familiar. But her mother and I arranged it when they were very young."

"You might have let Draco and Jonnie in on that," Hermione snorted, incredulous. Draco had said his mother was delusional about his love life, and this strange encounter was certainly verification of that—the latest assertion of his that had proved true.

"Your obstinacy and sarcasm do not flatter you, Ms. Granger." Narcissa leaned forward again, "Draco and Jonquil are made for each other; each descended from impeccable pureblood lines; each contributing an equal portion to the match. She can enhance him in ways you cannot begin to fathom." Hermione shook her head and started to speak, but Narcissa talked over her, "And what would you bring to the table? No name, no blood, a mid-level ministry job, the possibility of squibs introduced into the Malfoy and Black lines? It can't and won't be."

Hermione rolled her eyes. The muggles leading to squibs theory had been so thoroughly disproved. "Do you hear yourself? Please, do join us in the twenty-first century, Mrs. Malfoy. I'm a witch, Draco is a wizard. We're equals. I know it. He knows it. If you don't know it, that's your problem."

A dull red flooded up Narcissa's pale cheeks and her nostrils flared. "Tell me once and for all," she bit out, "are you engaged to my son?"

Hermione wanted out of this conversation—and this woman out of her office. "No," she said briskly, "and now if you'll excuse me— "

Narcissa exhaled a sigh of relief and talked over her, "and do you promise never to become engaged to him?"

Hermione's anger flared again, "I do not," she said, indignant.

Narcissa stood up abruptly, "How dare you..." she started.

"How dare you." Hermione also stood up and leaned over her desk. "Come into my place of work and try to intimidate me with this, this, rubbish. To think that you could influence my actions in any way? The fact that you're here at all shows just how much pull you have with Draco, but believe me when I assure you that you have even less with me. Now, I have work to do, so I'll kindly ask you to leave."

"Not so hasty," Narcissa hissed, leaning so close that Hermione could see the fine lines radiating from her narrowed eyes and a small smear of pale pink lipstick on her bared teeth. "I know what happened with that family you're so close to. Jack Wickham's scam? Hushed up and brushed under the carpet, but that Weasley boy came this close to Azkaban." She held up her pinched fingers in Hermione's face.

"Oh that's rich, coming from you." Hermione straightened, shaking her head.

"You don't care, then? Don't care that the perfidy of your connections will reflect on Draco, taint him?"

"You certainly didn't." Hermione held the other woman's gaze, her knuckles white on the sides of her desk, suddenly so furious on Draco's behalf that her magic pulsed.

Narcissa stepped back, blinking rapidly.

"Now get out of my office." Hermione pointed to the door.

Drawing a deep breath, Narcissa schooled her features and spun away. At the last minute she turned and said through clenched teeth. "You'll never have him. Not if I have anything to say about it."

"Well, then it's a good thing that you don't." Hermione sat, picked up her quill and opened whatever file that was on the top of her in-tray. There was a long, silent pause, but she didn't look up until the door slammed.

~oOo~

Hermione decided to walk home.

Her steps were hurried and her thoughts were scattered as she moved through the brisk night. What the fuck had that been about? Who could have given Narcissa Malfoy the impression that they were engaged? Especially now? When she hadn't heard from Draco in weeks...

Logic told her it was nothing, but her mind wouldn't rest and she mulled over the confrontation and its possible implications until she looked up and found herself almost home. She turned onto her street to see the door to her flat opening and Harry ushering someone out into the night with a friendly goodbye. It took until the person tripped down the steps and met her on the pavement for her to realise that it was Theo.

"Hermione!" he exclaimed, rushing forward.

"Hello!" she replied, leaning it to kiss his cheek. "Lovely to see you. What are you doing here?"

"I came to talk to Harry." He gestured backward toward the flat.

"Oh?" said Hermione, wondering what this could mean.

Theo shoved his hands in his pockets. "Say, are you busy right now?" he asked, suddenly seeming a little shy. "Or could we go for that drink we talked about?"

"I'm not busy and I'd love to have a drink with you," Hermione said, touching his arm. "We can go to my local unless you have somewhere in mind."

"Your local sounds perfect," Theo smiled down at her and squeezed her close to him. "Lead the way."

Within a few minutes they were seated at a table, cold pints in front of them. Hermione sipped at hers thoughtfully, wondering at Theo's rather subdued attitude. She was even more curious about why he'd been visiting Harry.

She was about to break the slightly overlong silence and ask, when Theo blurted, "so I never got to properly apologise. For my part in all that business with Harry's scheme." He looked down and toyed with his glass, then glanced back up at her.

Hermione reached out and touched his hand, "Thanks, but you— "

"No. Please let me. I wanted to talk to you about it in Wiltshire but it didn't seem right with all the others around." He took a swallow of his drink, "...but it was really shit of me. To just withdraw like that—without warning to Harry, or to you. And while Draco's advice did influence me a bit, it was entirely my decision and more about me being selfish than anything else."

Hermione tilted her head and looked at him inquiringly. Had Draco had talked to Theo about this?

"I was just so wrapped up with Rafik," he explained. "And frankly I was looking for an excuse not to deal with anything else. So when Draco brought his concerns to me the day Rafik invited me on holiday… I didn't consider anything but what I wanted to do." He looked down. "It was Rafik, actually, who first pointed out what a twat I'd been. I just didn't think it through—what my withdrawal would do to the project. Or the ripples it would cause. And I'm really very sorry."

He looked up and his deep blue eyes were so sincere that Hermione's heart squeezed. "Oh Theo," she began, reaching across the table to him again.

"And I'm re-upping my investment!" he interrupted her excitedly. "That's why I was there tonight. Harry sent me the new prospectus last week and I looked it over with Rafik. He told me I'd be an idiot to pass it up. And that I needed to stop being a lazy git and do something with my time," he chuckled. "So here we are." His bright smile emerged.

"Oh Theo, that's brilliant!" Hermione grabbed his hands. "I'm so glad that you're going to work with Harry and I think it will be a massive success." She leaned back. "And something I never had the chance to tell you—is that I knew the numbers weren't great. From early on." Theo raised his brows and she shook her head. "I was always on at Harry and Ginny to work on them, and fully intended to make sure they did. I never meant to deceive you or try to get you involved in a poorly supported investment. But circumstances always seemed to intervene."

"I know." Theo gave her a sad smile.

Hermione blew out a sigh, "so anyway, I don't blame you for withdrawing. There was fault on both sides. If anything, I wished one of you had let me know before it happened. But I certainly can't condemn you for being so wrapped up in your love life that you ignored everything else." She finished her statement with a rueful smile.

"Speaking of..." he said, an unspoken question in his voice.

Hermione sighed and shrugged. "I haven't heard from him. Since Wiltshire."

"Well he has been out of town. Abroad somewhere. I don't even know where—and neither does Daph."

"That seems odd."

"It does a bit."

He paused and Hermione briefly considered telling him about Narcissa's visit. But she was still too thrown by it to want to discuss it with anyone. And she also had a vague idea that if she did discuss it with someone, that person should probably be Draco.

That thought prompted her next words, out of her mouth before she could second-guess herself. "Will you tell me? When you know he's back in town?"

Theo looked into her eyes and his were very serious. "I will." He nodded once.

"Thank you." Hermione didn't know what she would do with the knowledge, but she would think it over. Narcissa's words had struck something in her that said she needed to fight for this.

"Enough about all that, though," she said, shaking her head impatiently. "Tell me all about Rafik! And your holiday. And what's next for you. Are you moving to Paris? I want to hear everything."

"We'd better get another round, then," Theo laughed.

"Definitely." Hermione signaled the barmaid and leaned back with a smile.

Chapter Text

"Her heart did whisper that he had done it for her"

"Charge your glasses everyone, I want to make toast," Hermione spun toward the sound of Ron's slightly slurred voice as he stood up unsteadily. The light murmur of conversation around the Burrow sitting room died and Ginny cut her eyes to Hermione's with a speaking glance. Ron cleared his throat, "I'd just like to say, thanks to my family, for having faith in me and never doubting me," Ginny snorted and Molly shot her a filthy look. Ron paused for a second but then continued, "I'm truly proud to be a Weasley today and all days," he weaved a little as he raised his glass.

"Oh for fuck's sake," Ginny hissed as she took an obligatory sip of her drink. Hermione supressed a laugh and shook her head slightly before sipping hers. She couldn't believe Molly had actually gone through with the welcome-home party. The gathering thus far had been awkward and strange, with everyone except for Ron and Molly very half-hearted about their reason for being there. But luckily Harry and Ginny would be hijacking the farce of an event at any moment with their actual cause for celebration.

Hermione raised her brows at Ginny and nodded toward the kitchen where she knew several bottles of champagne were chilling and Ginny nodded back, but just then Molly moved to Ron and took up his hand, launching into an inane speech about how happy they were to have him back and how excited she was for the future. No mention of fraudulent schemes or narrowly avoided prison sentences.

"It's really too bad Jack couldn't be here, though," she trilled, and Hermione felt more than heard the shocked intake of breath around the room. "So unfair that he has to, well you know," she motioned with her glass, "for such a small thing!" The murmur started up again, the group seeming to have decided as one to try and drown Molly out. She turned to the side and muttered something that Hermione, still focused on her, didn't quite catch. Then her voice rose again, cutting through the quiet chatter as she turned to Fleur, who was standing nearest her, "Anyway, I maintain that the real criminal here is Draco Malfoy." Hermione felt a rushing in her ears and sensed Ginny tensing beside her. She also saw Charlie's quick glance dart to his mother, who waved her arm, the gesture loose. "If he had only given Jack the money he owed, it never would have come to this."

Hermione felt the blood heat her face. She was really tired of Draco being blamed for Jack's shit. Her anger erupted and her voice rose, "You know what, Molly? Draco did give Jack money. And Jack gambled it away. And then when Draco wouldn't replace it, Jack set out to deliberately harm him and his family. And I should have said something about it long ago, but I was too afraid of upsetting everyone. Although," Hermione paused and swung toward Ron, "I did try to tell him. Not that he would listen." Ron reared back and blinked and Hermione realised the room had gone totally silent, but found she didn't care."The only thing surprising about this whole scenario is that your money," she pointed at Molly, "was somehow found before Jack gambled it away too."

Molly started to sputter, but then Ginny's voice piped up, "Yeah, it's certain there was at least one idiot and one criminal in this scenario and neither of them are Draco Malfoy." Hamish's sharp laugh cracked through the silence as did a sound of protest from Ron and a quelling murmur from Arthur. Hermione noticed Charlie's gaze on her.

Molly harrumphed and subsided into silence as Ginny wheeled away and pulled Hermione through the door to the kitchen, where Harry was lining up the bottles of champagne on the counter. "Well, Hermione and I have just set the stage in a really lovely way for our announcement," she snorted. Hermione laughed, shaking her head.

Harry threw a concerned look at them and raised his brows. Ginny moved across the room and wrapped her arms around him from behind. "Don't worry, it will be fine. Typical Weasley gathering." He turned and kissed her over his shoulder.

"What's all this!?" Hamish came through the door and gestured at the frosty bottles, his eyes glinting at Harry and Ginny. "Ohh, I think I know! Please get out there and cut the tension. Molly's rambling again and I don't know how much longer I can hold Chuck back. Nor do I want to." He winked, taking a handful of glasses from the counter and moving back toward the doors. "I'll start distributing these."

"So pushy," Ginny sighed. "I love him more than over 50% of my brothers." Hermione laughed and grabbed a trayful of glasses herself, moving back into the sitting room and handing them out to various surprised Weasleys.

"Heyyy, what's this," slurred Ron as she pressed a flute into his hand. She just raised her eyebrow and moved away. In her peripheral vision she saw Harry and Ginny emerge from the kitchen, Hamish behind them with the wine.

Hermione moved back, standing with tears in her eyes as Harry and Ginny told the family their happy news and a real wave of joy swept the rancor out of the room. Corks popped, people hugged and shouted. Hermione laughed and her tears spilled over. She felt an arm slide around her waist and looked to the side to see Hamish, smiling at the scene.

"Some truly good news for once," he said.

She nodded then touched her head to his shoulder. "I'm so happy for them."

He stepped back and looked at her, "and what does this mean for you?"

"Well, I'm flat-shopping!" she said brightly, wiping at the underside of her eye.

"Hmm," he murmured, and she could hear in the one small syllable the fact that Hamish, as always, knew how she was really feeling. Her eyes started to well again and he gave her a quick look. "Sayyy, you wouldn't want to consider moving to Romania and keeping an old friend from going mad, would you?" He laughed and wrinkled his nose.

"Ha! Believe me that actually sounds tempting." Hermione smiled and shook her head.

"What's tempting?" Charlie walked up and clinked his glass to hers. "Cheers."

"Ooh I'm just weaving an irresistible portrait of life in Romania in a desperate bid to get Hermione to move there now that she's going to be homeless," Hamish said.

"He forgets I've already been." Hermione winked at Charlie and he laughed.

"What will you do, though?" Charlie asked, sobering.

"Oh I'll find a nice flat, try living on my own for a while. Maybe get another cat." Hermione lifted a shoulder and absolutely refused to let in the melancholy that was threatening.

Charlie gave her a long look, his brow slightly wrinkled. Hermione felt Hamish shift next to her and the air was suddenly charged with something unsaid. Her gaze darted between the two men, catching Hamish's raised brows and Charlie's very slight head shake. What could this be about? She had just opened her mouth to ask, when Ron collided into their group, wielding a half full bottle of champagne.

"Refills!" he called, sloshing wine into Hermione's glass. "Lots to celebrate today! It got lost in all that engagement rot, but Fred and George have given me a job at the shop. Junior Partner too. Good news all round!" He seemed determined to ignore the earlier awkwardness and Hermione mentally shook her head. It was so like him.

Hamish said something under his breath and flicked his wrist, shaking off the champagne Ron had spilled on his hand with a fastidious sniff. Hermione murmured her congratulations with a sense of unreality.

Charlie reached out and braced his brother's upper arm, holding him steady. "That's great, Ron. That will be a good fit for you."

"Yeah, turned out property development wasn't my bag," Ron shrugged. "Although I still think Jack isn't as bad a guy as you make him out," he pointed a wavering finger at Hermione. "I mean, what did he do wrong?" He asked the room at large. Hermione caught Hamish's monster eye roll. "All the money was returned. No harm, no foul."

"Ron," Hermione started, thinking of the seventeen year old witch found with them and unable to keep silent.

"No, no, no," he talked over her, wagging his finger in her face, "you've just been poisoned against Jack. By Malfoy, of all people." His face twisted. "Still can't believe that, Hermione. You and him." He shook his head and inhaled sharply. "But he hates Jack. Old Lucius liked Jack better, you see. Wanted to raise him up like a son and ickle Draco didn't like that. No he didn't."

Hermione had subsided into staring in shocked fascination at this recital.

"He didn't like it and he still doesn't." Ron turned to Charlie and elbowed him in the side, "You could see it in Monaco, couldn't you? Malfoy hates Jack." He laughed wheezily.

Charlie's eyes widened and darted to Hermione, who felt her mouth drop open. She saw Hamish grin out of the corner of her eye, even as Ron's hand slapped over his mouth. "Oops, wasn't supposed to say anything, was I? Oh well," he chortled, then looked at the champagne bottle, "Heyyy, this is empty. I'll go get 'nother." He leveled a strangely flat glance at Hermione, then walked away.

There were several beats of silence as Hermione stared at Charlie and he stared back. "I think it may be time to have a little talk. Outside," cut in Hamish's smooth voice. Hermione nodded slowly, never taking her eyes off Charlie. He dipped his chin once and they turned to go.

~oOo~

"So that's all of it," Charlie finished, running his hand through his hair and glancing at Hermione. "The money was totally gone, but he restored it. And he won't hear of any sort of repayment from dad or me or any of us. And it was supposed to stay completely confidential." He shook his head once, his eyes focusing on one of the Burrow's sitting room windows where Ron was framed in warm light.

Hamish rubbed his hands together and blew on them to ward off the evening chill, his eyes bright on Hermione's through the gloom of the almost-dark garden. "I wanted to tell you all along. So difficult—dealing with stoics."

She snorted an almost-laugh, her mind reeling with what she had just learned. It felt like finding a crucial piece of a jigsaw. Everything made so much more sense now.

But what did it mean?

The question reverberated through her whole being like a depth charge.

Hamish, ever the mind reader, took her hand, "you know what this means, don't you?" She just looked at him. He waited for a beat, then patted her arm. His eyes twinkled. "Do make sure he builds a little west-facing deck on the vineyard guest house will you? I so like to sit in the evening sun..."

Charlie snorted and Hermione shook her head slowly, one corner of her mouth starting to lift. Then suddenly she stood up.

"I, I have to go," she said, her voice faint.

"Yes," Charlie said, rising with her.

"I'll get your things and we'll make your excuses," Hamish added, already moving toward the house.

"Will I see you before you go back?" Hermione said to Charlie, feeling as if she were looking at him through a thick pane of glass.

"If not, you'll see us soon enough." He took her hand and she could see Hamish moving back through the living room, her coat and bag in his arms. "And Hermione?"

"Yes?" her attention moved back to Charlie.

"I'm very happy for you. He's a good man."

She took his other hand and squeezed.

~oOo~

Back at her flat, Hermione sat down on the first horizontal surface she encountered, the sitting room sofa, and stared into space for a long time. The last of the light eventually sank from the sky and the room went totally dark. Still she sat, until suddenly she started up with a sharp inhale and reached out to turn on the nearest lamp. It created a pale circle in the gloom.

Tea, she'd have some tea.

She walked to the kitchen and flicked on the kettle, then stared again as it boiled and flicked off, the sound startling her out of her reverie. She looked around— god, it was bloody cold— then moved out of the kitchen and to her bedroom, where she donned her warmest flannel pyjamas.

She drifted back into the kitchen. Oh, she'd forgotten to make the tea. She boiled the kettle again, and leaned against the counter to wait. Hamish's words returned to her for maybe the twentieth time since he'd uttered them.

"You know what this means, don't you?"

Did she? Her heart did whisper that he'd done it for her, although her mind couldn't quite believe it. He might have just been trying to make things right… But to do so much? And he hadn't wanted her to know. Why? She flashed on Narcissa Malfoy's angry face in her office the other day and something seemed to slide into place. The last piece of the jigsaw.

She took a deep, sobbing breath and sagged against the counter, tears starting to her eyes and her hand sliding to her throat.

At that moment, a tapping came from the darkened window over the sink. She turned to slide it open and a pale barn owl swooped in.

Theo's bird.

She held out her arm and it landed softly, then offered its foot. She undid the scroll with unsteady fingers and unrolled the parchment.

"He's back. As of tonight. At his flat in town." An address and then Theo's scrawled signature.

Hermione dropped the paper to the ground and ran for the door.

Chapter Text

"You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever. "

Draco carefully closed the door of the Porsche and performed the usual protective wards on the car before making his way up the steps to the flat.

A light rain started and London seemed to hum around him as he unlocked the door, the darkening streets alive with foot traffic and sound. But he felt disconnected from the energetic scene. He wondered when he'd feel normal again—when he'd be able to take simple joy in a brisk drive on a smooth road, like he'd used to do.

Maybe never. Uplifting thought.

He stepped through the doorway—home again—sighed and hung his damp coat, then walked down the hall to his bedroom, intending to get rid of his suit in favor of something more comfortable for sitting around and feeling sorry for himself.

He shook his head, the corner of his mouth turning down. Sad bastard. But it did feel like the end of something. He unbuttoned his shirt and stepped out of his shoes. 'A chapter in his life'? Sounded trite, but accurate. He pulled a soft t-shirt over his head and opened a bureau drawer—jeans or joggers? Jeans. He buttoned them—they were still a bit loose.

He felt very empty somehow. All tasks done and the dust settled. What now? What now indeed.

Well, he gave an impatient shake of his head, it was almost bloody Christmas. Astoria would be home for winter break soon. Daphne wanted her to come to Paris and Lucretia had mentioned spending the holiday together at the Chateau, but was he ready to go back to Provence?

Provence. He dropped down on his bed and flopped back, staring at the ceiling.

She pushed away from the rock and swam toward him, sun glinting off her water-slicked hair, eyes alight with mischief.

"What do you think you're doing?" He held his hands out in a protective posture as she came closer.

She didn't speak, but instead dove under and was gone for a beat, then two. He stood motionless, still grinning, the sun hot on his shoulders. Waiting.

Suddenly a surge from behind him, a slow slide up his back, arms snaking around his waist, lips at his neck. He laughed and turned, met the lips, which held the hint of a smile…

"Caught," she murmured.

"Yes."

Draco shook his head again; Christmas in Paris was always lovely. Or maybe they'd ski. Courchevel?

He pushed up off the bed and drifted out of his bedroom to the drinks cart and splashed something very old and rare into a glass. He clearly needed it tonight. Lifting the crystal to his lips he sipped, letting the sweet burn warm his chest. Treacle, fig and a light smokiness… He rolled the second sip around his mouth more slowly, concentrating and savouring. There was definitely a greenness there too, maybe cut grass or clover? He swallowed and raised the glass to his lips again—but was interrupted by a brisk knocking at the flat door.

His brows drew together. Who the hell could that be? Theo? An emergency? It was late for anyone else. He went swiftly down the hall and pulled open the door with a jerk, half frightened by what could be on the other side.

Hermione.

His breath seemed to leave him.

Hermione was at his door. At his flat. In what looked like pyjamas—and trainers? A scroll clutched in her hand. Droplets of rain sparkling in her hair.

Fear gripped him, "What…?" He couldn't seem to actually speak.

She stepped inside and closed the door behind her, her dark eyes staying on his. "I know what you did."

He stepped back, wary, realisation beginning to dawn.

She moved forward, closer to him. "I know what you did. I know it was you. I know what you did for the Weasleys. And for Harry."

Now he understood fully. Anger flared and he felt his face set. He turned suddenly and walked down the hall, gripping his glass tightly.

"I thought Charlie Weasley was a man of his word. Or was it Hamish?" he tossed over his shoulder. He could hear her following him as he passed into the sitting room. He went to the dark window and looked out, keeping his back to her. Not sure he could face her.

"No, no!" she was saying, still moving behind him. He could see her reflected in the glass. "It was Ron. He got drunk tonight and blurted it out. I made Charlie tell me it all after that. I was already suspicious… It didn't add up."

Draco drank deeply, not tasting anything other than the burn of alcohol now.

"I know— I know you wanted to see Jack put away. But the money, Draco? Your money? You didn't have to do that." He saw her look down and then back up. "So, I wanted to thank you." Her voice started soft, but then strengthened, "...for the Weasleys—for all of us."

Draco felt a ripple of pain. She was here to thank him. Of course. To make things right. To fulfill an obligation. Just what he'd thought would bloody happen. He looked down and shook his head, despair teasing at the corners of his mind. But then his aunt's voice flitted in too, "...maybe making things right is part of the way she loves."

Openness, Draco.

He turned. Met her eyes.

"Surely you must know— " He shook his head. "Surely you must know... that I did it for you." He stepped away from the window and put down his glass, held her gaze, breathed. "Because I love you. Have loved you. So if you thank me for anyone, let it be for yourself alone."

Her eyes widened and her lips parted. He saw her hand reach out, but now that he'd started he couldn't stop. He needed to know.

"Don't play with me, Hermione. If you feel the same as you did in France, if we are truly over," his voice broke, "then tell me now so that I can try to move on."

She moved to him and her face was stricken. He saw tears in her eyes. "My feelings haven't changed at all." He felt his heart drop, but she must have seen it on his face because she rushed on, words tumbling over each other. "I loved you then. I love you now. I will love you… I think, always. I'm so sorry for doubting you." She reached out again, "I have missed you." The last ended on a sob.

He blinked—waited a bare moment while his whole world shifted on its axis —before closing the distance between them and pulling her into his arms. She grasped him tightly and buried her face against his chest, murmuring his name between soft I love you's. His hand went to her hair and his cheek to the top of her head. He felt her breathe and her heart beat and it was all so dear to him. He took a deep shuddering breath and she looked up. He saw real happiness in her face, and wonder. He felt it reflected in his.

His hands slid around to frame her face. "I love you too, Hermione," he whispered again.

The most beautiful smile bloomed over her features. He saw his whole future in it.

"So much," she said, then reached up and her lips touched his, soft and smiling at first, but quickly becoming searching, urgent. He felt an intoxicating joy at touching her—in her scent, the silk of her hair, the feel of the pads of her fingers on his skin.

He shifted and deepened the kiss, wanting more of her, all of her. His hands roved her body and his tongue teased at hers. She responded in kind, and soon he was lost completely.

Somehow he picked her up, brought her to his bed, laid her on it gently. Somehow they were skin to skin and he was experiencing her, consuming her. Somehow he was inside of her and it was a claiming—he of her, yes, but she of him too. Of each other. He felt her teeth on his neck and a whispered word in his ear, "mine…"

"Yes," he agreed. "Yours."

Forever.

And afterward, when they lay silently, and her fingers were sipping through his hair in the old, perfect way, he moved his head to her chest and listened to the strong steady beat of her heart and knew in his bones that it also, was his.

~oOo~

Hermione watched her finger brush over Draco's smooth skin, tracing the planes and curves of his chest and arm. He sighed with his eyes closed, a slight smile lifting his mouth.

She moved over him and lowered her lips to his. She couldn't resist—she didn't have to. She kissed him slowly and lazily, exploring and tasting. His hand swept up her back and neck to hold her in place as he returned her ardor, his tongue wicked on hers.

"Mmm," she murmured after a bit, and reluctantly broke away.

He looked a question at her. Why did you stop?

She twiddled with the blanket and glanced down. She could so easily lose herself in him and in the thrilling feeling of being loved, and in love. She could spend days touching his skin and breathing into his neck. Tasting his lips and feeling the aching slide of him inside of her, where he belonged. She could forget everything else in that. But there were things that needed to be said. Things she specifically needed to say—that he deserved to hear.

So she looked up and took a deep breath, "I wanted to talk…"

He lifted his brows, shifting up on the stack of pillows and lacing his hands behind his head, face serious. She sat up too, pulling the blanket with her and crossing her legs.

"I want to tell you that I'm sorry." She held his gaze and tried to keep her voice steady. This was more difficult than she'd thought it would be, bringing up these old hurts. "For not trusting you. For thinking the worst of you." She felt moisture in her eyes and a lump in her throat. She looked down again.

His finger caressed under her chin, tilted her face up. "You don't have to apologise." His eyes were soft with a vulnerability she'd never seen before.

"I do. I was so wrong. Jonnie, Jack Wickham—even Harry and the scheme. I came to realise that over the last few months. Your letter started it."

"That letter, Gods!" he snorted. "Fifteen pages and not one word of apology or explanation of how I felt— "

"No, no!" she put her hand out. "Its effect on me was profound. And besides, I think we're both rather different people now."

"Or maybe we're the same, but we understand each other better?" He half smiled at her and she puffed out a small laugh.

"Maybe that's it."

He regarded her for a moment and then tilted his head, his eyes glinting silver in the low light. "Come here. I don't like you so far away."

She laughed softly again. There were about two inches separating them. But she also happily went—shifting around so that she was also lying against the pillows, her head on his chest and her legs intertwined with his. She resumed stroking the smooth expanse of his skin just over his heart.

"But you do know that you're a wonderful person, Draco?"

He snorted.

She looked up and smacked her hand lightly against him. "I'm serious! You do so much for so many. When I saw The Meadows… And the Integration Centre. I don't think I truly understood until then." Her hand slid up to his neck and she stroked his jaw with her thumb. He squeezed her closer and reached down to kiss her.

They were occupied that way for several moments until he eventually broke the contact, saying a bit breathlessly, "Thank you, but I think you may be biased. Or perhaps blinded by my shocking abilities as a lover."

She rolled her eyes and started to speak, but he talked over her, the humour in his face fading to something more serious. "But thank you. You're also incredible. And if we're doing this right now. Then I have some things to say too."

"You really don't…" He stopped her with a look and she went quiet.

"What I want to say is that I'm sorry for not letting you in—and for being an autocratic wanker at times. I don't really have an explanation as to why I'm that way." He shrugged. "I was raised to be selfish and cold and there have been a lot of years of making decisions without much regard for opinions or feelings other than my own. I suppose my therapy staff at The Meadows would also say something about 'defense mechanisms'."

Hermione nodded and he reached out to stroke a curl away from her face.

"But I'm trying to change. Trying bloody hard. I ambushed Astoria, Daphne and Theo and made them listen to me talk about my feelings."

"I wondered…" Hermione murmured. "A few things Theo said…"

"Yes, well." He shifted and looked away then looked back, his expression sombre. "And then the hiding. The idea that I was hiding us."

"Oh no Draco, please." Hermione felt real distress. "I was so wrong to say that. I was angry and hurt."

"I know. But still. Let me say this." She nodded slowly. "While I was never trying to hide you, I wasn't clear either. Your words have rung in my ears so many times in the last few months, 'had you been more open.'

Hermione began shaking her head but he kept on, "No. You were right. I should have been clear. That I wanted you by my side—that I was, am, proud to have you with me in every way."

Hermione felt a tear start down her cheek—and she couldn't speak, could only nod. He reached out and brushed the tear with the pad of his thumb.

"You have changed me, Hermione. Being with you has made me a better person. And made me want to keep being better."

"Me too," she whispered, resting her chin on his chest and watching him.

He looked down at her and suddenly his eyes were fierce and focused. He took her hand and spoke, low and intense. "Because this is it for me, Hermione. I realised that the last few months. I love you and I will never stop. And sooner rather than later I'll ask you to marry me, so that we'll never be apart again."

Hermione's throat constricted again but she managed to choke out, "Same." She touched her temple to his chest and smiled into the dim light of the bedroom, basking in a happiness, a belonging more profound than any she'd ever felt before. She heard him sigh and felt his fingers in her hair.

Then after a minute she looked up again, feeling mischievous. "So. Was that a proposal?"

He laughed and his brows flicked up, "Not quite. You'll know when I propose to you."

She rose and put her lips very close to his, "Or maybe I'll ask you."

"My modern woman," he breathed, then kissed her deeply.

She leaned into the kiss, slipping her tongue into his mouth and sliding one leg over his torso so that she was straddling him. He groaned and swept his hands up her sides, resting them around her waist. She felt him hard against her and began moving with a rhythm that was familiar and yet endlessly exciting.

His hands went to her breasts and she gasped, arching her back into the exquisite sensation of being touched by him again. And when he pulled a nipple into his mouth, she shifted to slip over him, and slid his full length into her soft passage.

"Gods, Hermione" he groaned against her skin, his fingers spasming.

"Yes," she hissed, throwing her head back and giving in utterly.

~oOo~

Draco groaned and rolled over. He didn't think he'd ever been more sexually satisfied— even after their first night together.

She laughed softly, seeming to catch his meaning, and he smiled lazily at her. "You'll be the death of me, woman."

"Mmm, but what a lovely way to go." She dipped her head and nipped at the skin of his neck. Shockingly, his cock twitched again. She nibbled lower and he pulled back to watch her.

"Why; are you hungry, Hermione?" His smirk emerged.

"Actually," her head popped up and she looked around quizzically. "I am. Starving in fact. I left the Weasleys' before dinner and wasn't even able to drink a cup of tea before I ran out to come here."

"Well come on. Let's see what we've got. I know Daph was here until yesterday so there's bound to be something." He got up and slipped on his jeans, but didn't bother with a shirt.

"I'll just be a moment," she said.

He nodded and padded down to the kitchen, taking the time to be a bit stunned at the turn this night, his life, had taken. Happiness flooded him and he stood in place and grinned at nothing like a complete idiot.

Her step sounded behind him and he pivoted to catch her in his arms and kiss her yet again. She responded enthusiastically, running her nails up his bare back in a way that made him growl into her ear.

She laughed and pulled a little bit back. "You know, I really like this look," her eyes skimmed lasciviously over his chest and down lower.

He grinned, "and I like yours." He pulled at the hem of her boxy flannel top. "What are we calling it, 'sexy granny'?"

She looked up at him for a beat and then swatted him, hard, on the arm. "It was cold in my flat!" She hit him again, "wanker!"

He laughed and grabbed her wrists, then went in for another deep kiss. "They're actually lovely. A testament to how you can look beautiful in anything."

"Nice try, Malfoy," she mumbled against him, "now make me something to eat."

"Yes, let's get some food in you." He smiled and dropped her wrists, then opened the refrigerator. "Eggs, gruyere, chives, two bottles of good Pinot Blanc, and some very nice Parisian chocolate. Yes it's clear that Daphne has been here. Probably with that French boyfriend of hers. Although, he'll have to get to know her better. She hates chocolate."

Hermione laughed. "Then she won't mind if we eat it all."

"She won't and we will." He pivoted to the hob, ingredients in his hands, "but it looks like omelette is on the menu first."

"Ooh, lovely," Hermione said, coming up behind him. "And shall I pour us some of this wine?"

"Please." Draco busied himself with bowls and pans and mixing tools then accepted a cold glass with a kiss.

Hermione settled at the kitchen island with her own glass. "Draco,"

"Yes, my love?"

"When did you fall in love with me?"

He glanced up to the perfectly beautiful sight of her haloed in the soft kitchen light, hair a bit wild, lower lip caught under her teeth. He knew there was a time when he hadn't loved her, but it seemed so improbable now.

He thought back. "It's been coming on so gradually… I don't quite know. I definitely fell in lust with you at Theo's: probably that very first day when you were parading your perfect arse up the hill in front of my car."

She made a face.

"What?" he threw his hands up in mock innocence, "you have a truly outstanding arse!"

She rolled her eyes. "Where is the Jaguar by the way. Is it here?" her gaze turned avid.

"It is not here. I drove my Porsche today."

"Ohh, a Porsche. What type?"

"1988 Carrerra."

"Color?"

"Black."

"Mmm, the Jaguar is black."

He looked at her with an amused grin, "yes it is."

She swept a very arresting look up at him from under her eyelashes. A look he felt would probably get her anything she wanted for the rest of their days. "May I drive it?"

He slid the finished omelette onto a plate and put it down in front of her, "You may. You may have precisely anything you want from me."

She took a huge bite and smiled at him as she chewed.

"Delicious." She reached out and touched his arm as he walked by.

"Glad you like it. And back to your question. Love… " He crossed his arms and leaned against the counter. "I think that day at the park had something to do with it."

Her eyes grew warm and she sighed, "that day at the park. So lovely. One of the best days. And I agree it may have started there." She took a sip of wine.

"Although, I think the night I came to the cottage, when I was so tired and you fed me soup. That was the night I realised it, although it took me a couple of days to name it." It struck him that until today he would have said it took until too late.

She nodded. "Our last good night—until this one, of course," her smile beamed up at him.

"This one and all the others to come," he smiled back at her. "Chocolate?"

"Mmm, yes."

He took her empty plate, set a spell to wash it, then sat down across from her.

"I loved you early on too," her eyes tracked him and her face was serious now, "but I don't think I fully appreciated you until I saw The Meadows in person."

"That day, gods," he shook his head.

She tilted her chin back and took a deep breath, "yes, that day." She reached across the counter and took his hand. "I felt so awkward to be found there that I think it came across as distaste or not wanting to see you, but that was far from the truth. I was actually devastated because I was so amazed by everything there, by what you've done. And then the idea that I'd pushed it away," she shook her head and tears welled in her eyes.

He squeezed her hand, "Don't. It's ok. It's behind us."

She nodded and looked down. "About the project, Draco…"

"Yes?"

"May I help with it?" She looked up again, suddenly seeming a tiny bit shy.

He snorted. "Well I created it for you, so yes, you can help."

"Oh good. Because I have some ideas," an eager light appeared in her eye.

"I'm sure you do," he laughed and leaned up over the counter to kiss her.

She stood up and met his lips then sat back down with a sigh. "But it's true that all of that magnified what I already felt."

"I was so happy that you got to see it." He leaned back and stretched. "Well, happy through my extreme emotional turmoil. You know Hamish narrowly avoided being hit when he came through that door calling you 'darling'"

She laughed, "I wondered…"

"It was a very good thing Charlie showed up right when he did."

'You really like Charlie." Her brows went up and her eyes danced.

"I do. First Weasley I can truthfully say that about. Oh and apparently I'm going to Romania in the Spring. Hamish strong-armed me when we were in Monaco."

She laughed, "that sounds like him. And I'm coming with you."

"Yes, you are."

She smiled, but then sobered again. "And oh god, the party. I thought I was going to dissolve into a little pile of dust and blow away."

"You looked so beautiful that night," he said softly, taking her other hand. "I couldn't take my eyes off you. I was sure everyone there could see how wretchedly in love with you I was. Am."

"Same. And when you played that song," she whispered.

He half laughed, a bit amazed he could find humour in that moment now. "Yes. Shit, Astoria, what a choice." He looked down and then up, "And when you looked at me when I was talking to Charlie. A whole vision of how we could have been flashed through my mind. It felt almost physically painful."

She got up and came around to his side of the counter, stepped between his legs and looped her arms around his neck. "We can be," she said and kissed him.

He slid his arms around her waist and his lips moved against her mouth. "We will be."

~oOo~

Hermione drew back from the tender kiss and ruffled his bright hair. Then she stepped back and took his hands, pulled him up. Her eyes made a slow trip down over the beautiful view of his bare chest tapering to the flat plane of his stomach disappearing into low-slung denim.

"Let's go sit somewhere more comfortable."

"All right," he spun her around and grabbed her from behind, then walked her out to the sitting room. She giggled as they dropped down onto the sofa, a tangle of arms and legs. He pinned her and kissed her lightly, teasingly, and she responded in kind, reveling in the sensation of his him, his skin, his delicious scent. And in her enjoyment, their lightness shifted to something deeper.

She opened her lips and licked against him, the sensual motion and his languid response restarting the heat that had barely abated. Her leg went up around his back in a slow slide and her hand tangled in the hair at his nape. He groaned and tongued deeply into her mouth, and by the time he moved down her neck to her breasts she was panting and slick with want. How she could need him again so badly, so soon... She started pushing at the waistband of her pyjamas and pants, desperate. He realised what she was doing and yanked them down with a swift motion. She was starting to tug at his flies, but he stayed her hand. Then his head went lower.

Hermione rolled her neck against the arm of the sofa as his clever tongue worked in circles around her core, the pressure and intensity seemingly perfectly calculated to fucking wreck her. She pulled at his hair, arched her back and eventually came on a long slow wave, the fourth orgasm of the night not quite as sharp as the first or second, but no less astounding. After a few seconds in which she blanked out from bliss, he made a slow slide up her body and pulled them around so she was lying on his chest.

He pulled a blanket down from the top of the sofa back to cover them and sighed. "Gods, I missed that."

"What?" she murmured, still very much in a blissful orbit somewhere in outer space.

"Tasting you as you come."

She giggled and then came to a little sharper focus. "Do you want to?" she gestured downward and started to shift up, very much willing to continue.

"Mmm, I think I'll rest and bask in my enjoyment of that last," he said with a smile in his voice, his arms tightening to hold her in place. "After all there's no rush. And I want to be ready in case I should wake up in the middle of the night."

"I think it is the middle of the night," she laughed.

"Do you care?"

"No. I'm not tired at all. Just a little dreamy." She paused and burrowed against him. He made a contented sound and stroked her hair.

"I wouldn't mind a fire and one of those chocolates, though," he muttered after a moment, rummaging underneath them and pulling out his wand. Once he had it in hand, the flames in the sleek grate in front of them leaped to life and the chocolate box sailed across the room.

Hermione selected one. "So Daphne really doesn't like chocolate?" she asked, popping it in her mouth.

"Daft. Just like her sister," he said.

"Astoria!" It suddenly occurred to Hermione that this turn of events meant she was gaining more than just Draco and the idea zipped through her veins like Champagne bubbles.

"She's going to be rather happy when she hears about this," he drawled, seeming to pick up on her thoughts.

"When will I see her?" Hermione could hear the excitement in her own voice.

"Well Winter break starts in just over three weeks," he said.

"Of course. And Christmas!" Do you usually go to France? Or maybe you spend it with your mother…?" her voice trailed off, her mind taking a disappointed turn. If he spent Christmas with Narcissa, then she would definitely not be attending.

He snorted, "Ah no. Mother and I actually do Boxing Day. We have a very cold and civilized lunch at which we exchange exactly one gift with each other."

Hermione shuddered. "Good, because I think I'm rather in her black books."

"What do you mean?" He craned his neck so he could look at her.

"Ahhhahaha…" Hermione ate another chocolate. "She didn't tell you?"

"What? Hermione, what did she do?" He moved into a sitting position and the look of consternation on his face was actually adorable.

"She came to see me," she said, licking her fingers. "At work."

He flopped back down, "oh FUCK." His eyelids fluttered shut and his hand went to his brow. "What about?" he muttered faintly.

"She wanted to know if we were engaged. And when I told her we weren't, she wanted me to give her my word that we would never become engaged. She tried to convince me that you and Jonnie had been betrothed since birth."

Draco groaned.

"No, no it's really very amusing after the fact." Hermione smiled down at him.

"What did you do? What did you say?"

"I told her it was none of her business and kicked her out of my office."

He stared at her for a moment then lunged forward, grabbed her face in his hands and gave her a very firm kiss. "I love you so fucking much."

She laughed, but he lay back and scowled at the ceiling. "Gods, I ought to cut her out of my life."

"Well don't be hasty," she said, laying a hand on his arm.

"No. When I think that she tried to ruin this?" he gestured rather wildly.

"Well, actually I'd say her visit had the opposite effect," Hermione said softly, stroking a finger down his cheek.

"What do you mean?"

"Well at that point, after Wiltshire, I had almost totally given up on you. I thought the thing with Wickham— the association, the scandal— was too much. That you had walked away for good."

"That wasn't it at all!" he bolted up again. "I just felt so guilty when I heard what happened. I was instantly consumed with making it right."

"I know," she soothed. "I know that now. But then? I was in a bad place. And when she came to see me it was like it lit a little light of hope. Why would this information have come to her? And especially why then, after I had all but given up? Someone had put the idea in her mind. Was it you? Someone close to you?" She traced a finger down his arm. "And then I saw Theo the same afternoon and that was when I asked him to tell me as soon as he knew you were back in town. When I knew I had to try again."

He lifted his head and looked at her, "Well, blimey. Perhaps I should send her a bouquet."

She laughed. "Well, as I said, the confrontation did not end cordially. I think she'll be rather absent from your life—our life—" she felt a shy smile steal over her face as he nodded, "for a while."

"No loss there." He tapped his chin, "I wonder who in the world would have told her, though? Which one of the several people who enjoy meddling in my affairs…? Not that I'm complaining."

"Could have been Theo," Hermione ventured. "But I feel like he would have said something."

"Oh, he can be quite sphinx-like when he wants to be. But no, he wouldn't have left so much to chance."

"Astoria?"

"Perhaps. An innocent line dropped in a letter…? But she's not generally that cunning. And she of all people knew the intimate details of the situation. Knew that we were most certainly not together. Maybe Jonnie? But no, she barely sees mother." He turned and looked at Hermione, his face animated, his eyes glowing a light silver. "I think it was Lucretia. Smacks of her style. She's a source mother would trust and no one is better at getting under Narcissa's skin. And she told me just a couple of days ago not to give up on you."

"Oh. Perhaps I'll send her a bouquet." Hermione touched her lips to his as he laughed softly. She pulled back and looked at him, "Well, maybe we'll never know. But I find I don't really care all that much." She slid her fingers into his hair and stroked his temples. "The result is what matters."

"Exactly." He pushed forward and kissed her deeply. Things were getting heated and Hermione's hands were moving down his body in a purposeful way when he broke the kiss and said, a bit breathlessly, "Oh and did Theo tell you about the scheme?"

"Harry's project?" She may have been a bit breathless too.

"Yes, that he's fully invested again?"

"He did tell me. We had quite a nice little meet-up. He apologised for withdrawing initially and told me he's back on board. Harry is over the moon about it."

"Excellent."

"Theo tried to claim it was Rafik who had prompted him," Hermione felt a mischievous look steal over her face, "but I figured it was really that you'd given him your permission."

He looked at her for a moment, his eyes narrowing, then his hands shot out and he started tickling her. "You little..." he laughed and she shrieked and jerked away.

"Admit it! You did!" Her laughter was punctuated by more shrieks.

He rolled them over until he was pinning her. "Maybe I did."

His eyes glinted and she grabbed his hands and stilled them. He dipped his head and kissed her with purpose. She was amazed yet again by how she responded to his touch, her legs snaking up around him and her body instinctively moving against his. For a moment, his insistent hands and heated lips made her think he was going to take things all the way, but then he pulled back, breathing heavily.

"Gods, I can't get enough of you," he said, looking rather dazed.

She reached up and stroked his face. "You can have all of me that you want."

The sweetest look came over his face and he shook his head once, then touched his forehead to hers.

"Hermione?" She didn't think she'd ever tire of hearing her name in his voice.

"Yes, my love?"

He moved his head and began kissing down her jawline and into a very sensitive spot on her neck. She arched and sighed.

"What should we do tomorrow?" This was said against her neck and she could hear and feel the smile in his voice.

Tomorrow. Yes, what an incredible thought. That she would have all her tomorrows with him. "Well we could go to the park and sit under a tree," she said.

"Lovely idea, but it's supposed to rain."

"Or I could drive the Jaguar!"

He chuckled against her skin, "you certainly could."

A thought suddenly struck her and Hermione shifted up, "Oh shit, Draco! I'm actually meant to be viewing flats tomorrow! I have six appointments and my first is at nine!"

He pulled back. "Viewing flats?"

"Harry and Ginny just got engaged and they want to strike out on their own."

"Ahh." He looked at her for a few moments, then lowered his head and began kissing her neck again. "Cancel them."

"Cancel…? What?"

"Your viewings. Cancel them."

What he was doing was very distracting and it took Hermione a bit of time to answer, "so we can spend the day together instead?"

"Well yes. And also because you'll be coming to live with me." She put her hands on the sides of his face, stilled his lips. He looked up and his eyes were very light silver. "We can live here or find somewhere new. Daph's moving to Paris permanently next month so we have the option."

Hermione felt her happiness actually rob her of speech. And in her moment of silence she saw a slight vulnerability creep into his expression by way of a small crease between his eyes.

"If you want to, that is…" he began, but she silenced him with a smacking kiss.

"Yes, yes, yes," she chanted, punctuating each word with another kiss as he began to chuckle. Hermione finished her litany with a final soft brush of her lips and then pulled back to speak from the very deepest part of her heart. "I don't want to be parted from you again. Ever."

He stopped too and looked at her. Really looked at her, his expression fathomless and tender.

"No we won't be. Ever again."

~FIN~

 

Chapter Text

 

10 months later...

Hermione watched the road unspool in front of her like a long grey ribbon and her hair blew around her face as she shifted gears to tackle the beginning of the incline. The Provencal air was soft, warm and carrying its familar earthy scent. She took a deep breath of it and smiled dreamily, glancing around to appreciate the green roll of the vineyards, the stark white of the cliff face and at it's top, the small glassy shape that glinted in the early evening sun.

Home.

She was almost there.

The music shifted and her smile widened in delight—one of her favourite songs, it would certainly be playing tomorrow, and was perfect for this moment too. She sang along as she cruised around the final bend and crested the small hill to a neatly graveled drive. Angling her car carefully into the garage, she stepped out and breathed deeply again, the calm and joy she associated with this place settling around her like a mantle.

She grabbed her bag and shouldered it, then crunched up the drive past the guest house (with the west facing terrace) and through the orchard, which was now neatly maintained. The apples looked lovely and ripe, so she pulled a few down and stuffed them in her pockets. She'd go out later and pick a whole bowlful. Involuntarily she laughed, struck by the perfection of the moment: striding through the sun in her own orchard, pockets full of apples…

She was still smiling when she reached the house, all clean lines and warm wood, which was flung open to the warm air and soft breeze. She moved through it quickly, tossing her bag on a sofa and making her way to the large, wraparound deck, where she knew he'd be.

She stepped through the huge sliding glass door—more of a whole wall really—and saw him, standing tall and straight-backed, looking out over the view. She paused for a bare moment to appreciate his lean body, his bright hair, the set of his shoulders, before launching herself forward. He heard her tread and turned, a beautiful smile breaking over his features. In two steps he crossed to her and pulled her into his arms.

"Darling," he murmured into her hair.

"Mmmm," was her only response, as she inhaled his delicious scent mixed with the warm cotton of his fine shirt.

He held her for several moments and then pulled back, "are those apples in your pockets or are you happy to see me?"

She laughed. "Apples. They're so perfect right now." She pulled out one of the dusky fruits and held it up to him. He took it from her and bit into the crisp flesh.

"Perfect." He swallowed, then launched the half-eaten fruit off the deck and over the cliff, "but does that mean you're not happy to see me?"

"I'm overjoyed to see you," she said, reaching up to kiss him, tasting the sweet juice on his lips. His arms tightened around her and he deepened the embrace, tongue licking against the seam of her mouth. She opened and the kiss became rather heated. She tilted her head into the sunlight and gave herself over to it. He began backing her into the house, his lips moving down her neck and collarbone in a purposeful way.

"We said we'd never be apart again," he breathed between kisses, "and yet I've been without my wife-to-be for an entire week." His hands were roaming now, down her waist, over her backside. She sighed as he found the nearest wall, pressed her against it and pushed her jacket off her shoulders. His deft fingers then went to her blouse, which he began to unbutton.

"Isn't it, oh, bad luck… to do this the day before the wedding?" she gasped, reaching up under his shirt to push it up over his head, actions totally at odds with her words.

"I think," he nipped at her neck, "it's actually very good luck." She giggled as his head dipped lower and his mouth ghosted over her breasts. "It's also...mmm front-closure, excellent." he snapped open her bra and stopped what he was doing to look. "It's also," his eyes, dark slate and twinkling, flicked up to hers, then back down. His head bent again, "...it's also very good for the groom—to promote, mmm, relaxation. Reduce stress."

Hermione gave a sharp moan and fisted her hands into his hair as he sucked hard on one nipple, and then the other. "What's good for the gander…" she murmured distractedly. His soft laugh puffed against her breast as he reached around to unzip the back of her skirt. It soon slipped to the floor along with her knickers. Her fingers went to his flies and she fumbled impatiently at his zip, until it finally came down and she pushed at his trousers too. Then his hands were on her arse and he was lifting her, pressing into her with an urgency she felt singing through her veins. A groan slipped from his mouth and she moved her hands up to snake them over his back, wrapping her legs around him and pulling him to her tightly.

"Draco, oh god," she sighed no longer able to tease. She reached down to touch her own soft wetness and then stroke him.

He buried his face in her neck, shifted and then she felt him at her entrance. "Now, please," she gasped, moving against him. He paused for a split second, his lips working her skin, his teeth nipping, before pushing into her with a long, slow moan.

One of Hermione's very favorite things about this house they'd built in an isolated valley, atop a steep cliff, with extremely effective magical wards that she'd designed herself—was how alone they were here. So alone that she could cry his name over and over as she came and no one in the fucking world had a chance of hearing. She did so after a few urgent minutes—their week apart having made her frantic for him—gasping and groaning as he fucked her into the wall so relentlessly that she came several times in succession, the feel of him losing control and spilling inside of her undoing any claim she had to sanity or coherence.

"I will never get tired of that," he said faintly, several moments later. His forehead was tilted against hers and he was still breathing heavily.

"Nor I," she said with a wicked grin, twisting down to capture his lips. He kissed her lazily as he set her down and grasped his wand, then used it to put them both to rights. "Such a lovely way to be welcomed home." Her fingers slid into his hair and stroked.

"I missed you," he murmured, nuzzling her neck. "How are your parents? Well-situated?"

"Yes," she sighed, still more focused on what he was doing than her narrative. "They're at the hotel in Aix now. And we had a nice time in London, taking Henry to all our old haunts."

"Wonderful," he said, pulling back and slipping her hand into his. He used the other to push his hair back over his forehead and she sighed inwardly at how handsome he was, would always be, to her. "And how are you feeling about tomorrow?" He tugged her toward the kitchen.

"Good. Ready." His eyebrows flicked up and he released her hand to open the refrigerator and remove a bottle of wine, delicate pink and frosted. "Ready for all the planning to come to fruition," she clarified. He came over with her glass and she ran a shy finger along his forearm. "Ready to be your wife."

He stopped and propped his elbow on the counter, put his chin in his hand, gazed at her. "My wife," he murmured, his eyes glowing warm silver and his mouth slanting up. "How did I get so lucky… What did I do?"

"Well," she felt her eyes crinkle and her lip slide under her teeth, "You were born very handsome. And you're so rich. You have some truly astounding real estate," he was straightening up as she talked, his eyes glinting and one eyebrow inching higher and higher, "and your cock," she gurgled, "you're really very talented— !" She broke off with a shriek as he lunged at her and threw her over his shoulder.

"You cheeky little minx. You will pay for that," he said, giving her bottom a sharp smack.

"Put me down," she was half shrieking, half laughing.

"No." He stood and spun in place. "But where to take you?"

"Draco!"

"The pool?"

"You wouldn't!"

"Oh I would, except that this skirt is silk and I am fond of it." His hand slid back and forth over her backside briskly.

"Put me DOWN!" she pounded lightly on his back and bit his side. He smacked her arse again.

"That's it," he said decisively, turning to stride down the hall. "It will have to be the bedroom. I obviously didn't tire you out enough and you're still frisky."

She laughed at his tone and twisted up to nip his shoulder.

"Proof," he said crisply, approaching the door to their bedroom. He stepped through the threshold and launched her onto the bed, muttering a cushioning charm to ease her landing.

She looked up at him, lacing her hands behind her head, a dreamy feeling stealing the mirth from her face. He looked down at her, and his mouth quirked up.

"Come here," she commanded softly and he lowered himself onto the bed and stretched out beside her. She reached out to trace a light finger over the angles and planes of his face and his eyes fluttered closed. Her finger reached his lips and lingered there, running over and over his molded mouth until it's corner lifted in a slight smile. "I love you," she murmured. "I can't wait for tomorrow."

~oOo~

The next day dawned bright and warm, promising perfect temperature and light for the sunset ceremony. A small army of elves and others came early from the Chateau and other places of Lucretia's direction to work magic on the glass house's grounds, make the food and drink and ensure that the bride and groom had nothing to worry about

There was so little to do that after a sun-dappled breakfast, Hermione had a leisurely swim and a nap while Draco took a long solo flight out over the grapes, returning relaxed and windblown just as everyone was beginning to wonder where he was.

The sun sank toward the horizon as the attendants arrived; Astoria and Ginny to help Hermione into her exquisite ivory gown and Harry and Theo keep Draco company in the guesthouse as he dressed. At one point Hermione looked down at Ginny's red head bent over her wrist, fingers deftly doing up the shell buttons of one long sleeve, and tears of happiness and joy spilled from her eyes. Ginny heard her sniff and glanced up, her eyes instantly welling too before she launched herself against Hermione, her rather large belly making the hug awkward, but no less sweet.

Once the sun dipped behind the mountains, the ceremony began. Hermione walked the aisle with Harry, her long, lacy train sweeping behind her, the emerald on her left ring finger winking in the mellow light. Draco stood tall at the altar, easy in his linen muggle suit, eyes bright with unshed tears.

Words of love and commitment were spoken and each guest at the small gathering felt honored to be there, to witness something fine and right and true. And when the bride and groom kissed to seal the ceremony in the muggle way, an involuntary cheer went up, ringing out across the vines and echoing against the white stone cliffs.

After the ceremony, the party began. Ginny and Theo gave the official toasts that made everyone cry—Theo's words on friendship and families of choice breaking even Draco's reserve. Hamish gave an unofficial toast that made everyone laugh, and Charlie gave his new husband a resounding kiss when he sat back down. Astoria, backed by one of Rafik's bands, sang A Case of You, which completely undid Hermione, who ran up afterward to fold her in a fierce embrace.

Blaise ended up in the pool. And little Teddy Lupin and Henry Granger led the Weasley children down to the orchard, where they picked a barrowful of apples and brought them up to the guests, who ate dozens and declared that they were just as delicious as the wedding cake.

Ron sent his regrets and Narcissa sent nothing at all. Pansy wasn't invited. Molly Weasley found it in herself to attend, but any worries Ginny harbored over her mother's behavior were quashed when it became clear that Molly was completely cowed by Lucretia, resulting in her nursing one drink and saying exactly three words all night.

Lucretia made sure the whole day was perfect, her touch evident on everything from the cocktails to the delightfully disarranged floral arrangements. And when the candles were guttering low and the moon was high, she stood up and clapped her hands, announcing that it was time to leave the newlyweds to each other, but that there was a portkey back to the Chateau, where the party would continue. The guests gave a loud huzzah, shouted, cried and/or hugged their goodbyes and then suddenly, were gone.

~oOo~

Draco led Hermione to the firepit, blazing merrily in the center of the huge deck, which stretched out under a black sky studded by sparkling stars. He looked up and directed a silent word of thanks to his aunt for taking everyone else away.

They sat down on either side of the blaze and Hermione shivered slightly in the chilling air. Draco took off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. She looked at him, face aglow with happiness and his wife was so beautiful in the firelight that it took his breath away.

His wife.

"And how are you this evening, Mrs. Malfoy?" he said, a smile tugging at his lips.

"You know I'm keeping my name, Draco." She was smiling too.

"Of course. I wouldn't have it any other way."

"But," she reached over and took his hand, twining her fingers with his, "you may call me that sometimes, once in a great while."

"And when may I do that?" he lifted their hands and placed a soft kiss on the underside of her wrist.

"When we're here, just the two of us, and you are exceptionally, singularly, extraordinarily happy."

He grinned, "Why, then you'd better get used to hearing it...Mrs. Malfoy," and leaned over to capture her lips, which were also curving in a smile.

The song playing softly in the background drew to an end and the first notes of a new one started. Draco cocked his head, what perfect timing. Hermione's eyes met his and he knew she was thinking the same thing.

She stood up and held out her hand, tears in her eyes. "Would you like to dance?"

He looked up at her, hoping the love in his heart could be seen in his face, and grasped her fingers.

"Wild horses and all that," he whispered, pulling her close.

~THE END~