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Measure Of A Man

Chapter Text

 
One
The Journey Is The Destination

 

March 13, 2011


The quietest people have the loudest minds.

Hermione had always found the quote thought-provoking, not only because it was true, but also because she couldn't think of a more accurate statement to describe Theodore Nott.

He had never been loud—always reading and studying—which was something Hermione appreciated. As an adult, his pensive nature had transformed into the sort that frustrated most people, but never her. It kept Hermione alert, drew her attention, and constantly made her wonder what he was really thinking.

Some people were quiet because they had nothing happening in their minds, some had too much, but Theo's silence was neither. In fact, his squinty green eyes and purposefully understated presence reminded Hermione of yet another quote:

It takes one to know one.

And because she knew exactly what that look meant, she was well aware that Theo was scheming.

Hermione allowed it as she sorted through the tiny crumbs of clues she'd picked up over her last six years working for him—clues he'd inadvertently dropped that spoke of his intentions when he wouldn't. Whatever Theo wanted from her today was important to him. Personal.

She didn't like it one bit.

Theo didn't discuss anything remotely personal. Not with her or anyone else—at least not while they were at work. Pansy was the exception, but they had been lifelong friends. Hermione suspected that his strict division between work and play had been the only belief he hadn't shed after the war. Everything was business and had been since he'd spent his entire family's fortune buying and reviving the bankrupt hospital in a move that, while altruistic, had been far more lucrative than anyone had expected.

That had been eight years ago when Theodore Nott, Sr died during a prison break and he was left alone, desperate to atone for the sins of his father.

Anything that could make Theo, of all people, change the well-established status quo was certainly not an endeavour Hermione wanted to undertake. Instead, she watched him, her answer to his unasked question ready.

Theo's office was large with neutral walls, light wood floors, sparse furniture, and décor. The artificial lights gave the room an almost clinical glow. Even with Pansy's attempts at adding bits of masculine flair by way of artwork, rugs, and the black dragon-hide sofa in the designated sitting area across the room, it still wasn't particularly grand.

Hermione thought it was fitting for the sort of man Theo was.

Except for one thing: the children's dictionary all alone on the corner of his desk.

That didn't fit.

The man himself stood at the aforementioned bookshelf, skimming over the assortment of spines and pulling off a book here and there. Theo was almost as tall as Ron and handsome in a way that made it clear he was aware, but had never needed to use it for his benefit. He was too smart for that.

Honestly, Hermione had looked at him once or twice—she wasn't blind—and she might have subtly hinted at her interest. Ideally, Theo was her type now that she understood herself better. He had an odd sense of humour, was put together and astute, levelheaded but decisive, and had the bonus of being tall and extremely attractive. Theo, on the other hand, had never shown interest outside of friendship and that was it.

But it never stopped her from looking appreciatively.

As well as critically.

Dressed in fitted grey trousers and a crisp white shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, Theo exuded a sort of tactical calm that masqueraded itself as stoic indifference. But Hermione knew better and waited patiently for him to remember that he wasn't dealing with his normal ilk.

"I'm quite busy, Theo."

He responded by bringing his selected books back to his desk before he sat down, opening the first with the ease of a man that didn't have a meeting with the hospital board in twenty-seven minutes—twenty of which he would need to debate with her on the topic of whatever he was scheming about. He didn't have a lot of time to spare, but flipped the page with unhurried confidence anyway.

With his eyes still on his book, he picked up his porcelain teacup and brought it to his lips, taking a light sip of the piping hot tea that she had brewed from her own collection before she turned up for the meeting that had spontaneously appeared on her magi-scheduler that morning.

Theo was a particular sort of man who took his tea—no matter the variety—steeped for exactly five minutes with no sugar because he wanted to enjoy the flavour.

Boring, but Hermione couldn't bring herself to judge anyone who appreciated the classics.

It was such a rare thing these days.

As he read, Hermione reached for the tin thermal and poured herself a cup as well before settling back in her chair, crossing her legs as the knees, and taking her first sip. The tea was a blend of peppermint and rosemary grown and prepared in her vegetable patch several months ago; a perfect remedy for the afternoon slump they both tended to suffer.

Hermione took a reviving inhale of steam from her cup before ending the purposeful silence.

"If you delay any longer, you'll be late. The board will not be pleased. I'm already late for a visit with my parents, and my mother won't be pleased either."

That wasn't exactly true, but he didn't need to know that.

Not that it mattered. Theo's silence held out another full minute; he never spoke too soon or too late, only at the precise moment he meant to. "As usual, your blend is excellent." His voice was even and firm, but there was something almost gentle in his tone that told her his compliment was sincere. He placed his teacup on the saucer and looked at her again before closing the book he had been reading and extending it to her. Hermione peered at the cover.

Neurological Diseases and their Effects on Wizards.

She didn't accept it.

"I've already read this." Even though it wasn't her area of expertise. "Twice."

Hermione started in Plant Poisoning after quitting the Ministry and finishing Healer Academy, but hadn't stayed long due to the popularity of Alternative Healing—a branch that didn't quite fit inside the walls of St. Mungo's, but one that was needed after the war with the sharp rise in mental health concerns and specialties that didn't quite fit.

Hermione typically worked with recovering potions addicts, long-term patients that had been revived, and the occasional terminal patient, slowing the progression of their disease. Her unique method of therapy was very involved and multi-layered, but also extremely effective, which was why she only accepted one patient at a time and was allowed to work primarily out of her home. Theo had so much faith in her methods and success rate that he allowed her to pick her own patients.

He opened his desk drawer and retrieved a folder. Carefully, he placed it next to the book as if it was supposed to explain everything. It, in fact, gave her no clues at all.

"Take a look. Tell me what you think." Then he went back to his tea, pouring himself more from the tumbler.

He must really enjoy it.

A cursory glance at the folder was enough to brush against the edge of her curiosity simply because it was completely blank, which didn't look like any other patient file Hermione had seen. Each file at St. Mungo's had at least basic information on the front so the Healers wouldn't forget their patients' names. Inside, all identifying information had been rendered illegible, which meant she didn't have the proper clearance.

So, there was a need for discretion.

Privacy.

Interesting.

Hermione had several immediate theories, but until she had more information, she wouldn't show any signs of interest.

Instead, she started from the beginning. By no means did she give it a detailed read, merely a cursory skim. Hermione noted the symptoms: drowsiness, auditory hallucinations, bouts of confusion and forgetfulness, increased pulse and sweating, and temporary motor control issues. Then she read the differential diagnoses: poison, dark magic, a slow-progressing curse? No specific curse was provided as there wasn't one diagnosis that fit the wildly varied symptoms. Hermione flipped the page to scour the notes from the magical scans and tests, but found only incohesive results.

She turned the page to the second opinion from a German Healer that was utterly useless and suggested the patient was experiencing the physical manifestation of stress.

Recommendation: Rest.

And the third from a Japanese Healer with a lazy diagnosis of brainpox, which made no sense.

Recommendation: Further testing.

Finally, the fourth, which was from an American Healer who, after what appeared to be the largest battery of tests Hermione had ever seen performed on one patient, ventured outside of the realm of dark magic and violence-caused afflictions and landed on a diagnosis that fit.

Dementia.

Or rather, a magical form of it that manipulated the nervous system, which—according to the book next to the patient's folder—only sped up the progression of the disease. The form this particular patient had was typically fatal within eight years in Muggles, and only due to complications.

But in wizards?

Three years.

Perhaps four or five if the patient underwent an intensive care regime that focused on…

Hermione froze as realisation wrapped around her. "No."

Theo nodded like he'd expected her answer, not saying anything until he finished his tea; the quiet clank of the cup coming into contact with the saucer echoed in the room. "I'm more than willing to bargain."

"Five years for an assignment, Theo?" She scoffed at the absurdity of the request he hadn't verbally made. "How important is this patient?"

"To their family? Very."

Not the answer she was looking for. Hermione, who refused to let him play on her compassion, fixed him with a hard glare, ready to ask the question that was almost burning her brain. "And to you?"

That he didn't answer.

No, wouldn't.

Ah, so at least in some capacity, it was personal.

Theo didn't have any living relatives, but he did have family. One of his own creation. And even though Hermione knew enough about Theo to pick up on the clues he let slip, she only knew a select few members of his family.

Pansy wasn't sick; the witch was currently on the hunt for the perfect clawfoot tub for Hermione's bathroom. Blaise was in Egypt closing the deal on a rare artefact for a buyer (the less she knew the better) while his fiancé Padma was hard at work at St. Mungo's. Daphne, who worked with Blaise, took on lighter tasks as she prepared for the birth of her child with her husband, Dean. Goyle had lived in America with his wife and children for years.

Lastly, according to Harry, Malfoy had been insufferable while making quite the splash as the leader of the Ministry's Terrorist Task Force—a role in which he ironically terrorised everyone in both the Auror office and the Department of Magical Law Enforcement about the ongoing investigation into the Death Eater's base of operations.

What was she missing?

There was always one thing she missed.

Theo leaned back in his chair, his elbow on the arm, forefinger and thumb on his chin, kneading as if contemplating a particularly difficult chess move. "They are willing to triple your salary."

He was toying with her. Hermione scoffed. "I'm not going to dignify that with a response."

"It's part of the contract," he explained with an easy wave of his hand, allowing himself a brief glimpse at the large, but decorative clock on the wall next to his door. "There are additional benefits provided with this opportunity to make the long-term assignment easier for you. You'd have the ability to set your own hours, your own staff of two private Healers at your disposal to provide in-home care around the clock, and I am to relieve you of your role as a floater staff member."

"None of that is appealing."

Hermione already set her own hours while on assignment as her patients often required more than potions and rest. She liked doing things her own way, which was one of the many reasons she preferred to work alone. She took time to get to know her patients as people, not as a collection of diagnoses and reasons why they'd ended up in her care in the first place, and customised her plans to each person's individual needs and goals. When she needed some help, she could readily find it in a book. More importantly, Hermione liked working as a floater because it offered variety and experience. It kept her sharp and allowed her to broaden her knowledge on other areas of Healing that she hadn't specialised in.

"It's an excellent offer."

She gave him a noncommittal shrug. "Be that as it may, I don't like walking into anything blind. You're asking for years of my career and won't tell me anything worthwhile to assist in making that decision, so forgive me for being wary."

"I've provided their file."

Hermione chuckled dryly. "You've provided the bare minimum thinking it would pique my interest. And I'll admit, I am intrigued, but more about your role in all this than anything else. It's not like you to extend yourself this far. However, it's not enough to tempt me into accepting the assignment."

"They are willing to allow you to add your own terms to the contract."

Hermione's inquisitiveness almost always outweighed her reluctance. "Who is it?"

"That I can't tell you unless you agree."

"And I won't agree without knowing their identity." Hermione allowed her counterpoint to linger and continued to savour her tea. And then, with the same glacial pace as Theo, she finished it and placed the cup on the saucer. "It appears we're at an impasse and you're going to be late."

He fixed her with a challenging look that she more than gladly returned. "The board can—and will—wait." While his response wasn't incorrect, his tone gave Hermione more evidence regarding the importance of their conversation.

She allowed her mind to process the task at hand, attempting to comb through the more nuanced details of Theo's life in her search for answers. But she didn't get very far because Theo was as intelligent and observant as he was private and stubborn.

Hermione had learned, when she came to work for him, that he only shared what he wanted to—or was legally obligated to divulge. And though he often spoke to Hermione in confidence, Theo hadn't opened up to her enough for her to formulate a substantial theory. So, she tucked her suspicions away and got to the heart of the matter. "I won't concede."

"You wouldn't be Hermione Granger if you did."

It wasn't the first time she'd heard those words in that context, but where there was usually an undertone of either disdain or mild annoyance, Theo's only conveyed his admiration. Had she been anyone else, his words might have softened her to the idea of this mystery patient.

But, like he said, she was Hermione Granger.

"My answer is still no." And because she wasn't heartless, she suggested, "Susan might be able to assist or maybe Padma or even Roger Davies." They were the other Healers in their more specialised field; all three would be excellent choices for a long-term assignment like this. There were others, as well, that were just as capable and would likely be interested in the terms of the contract.

"They asked for the best. I asked the best." Theo shrugged as if it was that simple.

"Is that flattery I detect?"

"Merely a factual statement."

As her final answer, Hermione shut the file and sat the book on top of it, using her finger to push it back across the desk. His eyes were narrowed as he looked down then back up at her. When he sighed, she knew he was ready to be honest.

Good.

"There's always been a human element to your care that Roger cannot emulate, which puts you higher in my regards, despite his various accomplishments and accolades. Padma is busy planning a wedding, and as our Werewolf Specialist, I need her here to deal with the influx of new bites. Susan…" He trailed off momentarily to find the correct word. "Susan is too sensitive for this assignment."

"Too sensitive for a terminal case?" Hermione raised an eyebrow. "We're Healers, Theo. Death is something we have to face every day." She stared at him hard, ready to go to war for a witch she considered a friend. "It's something that we all have already had to stare into the eyes of once. We know how to take care of ourselves and each other when we lose a patient. I don't think you're giving her enough credit."

He shook his head. "That's not what I meant at all, Hermione." Theo was attempting to simmer the flames of her infamously protective nature. "I simply meant the patient is testy and stubborn and I need someone with the right constitution to challenge them, as they have a tendency to run roughshod over people. Not in a callous manner, but… they have a strong personality. Susan… doesn't, but you do."

Hermione found herself even less persuaded. "Thank you for the backhanded compliment, but—"

"Would you say yes if I arranged a meeting?"

She considered his proposal, then him, and the fact that he was giving her a guarded expression that almost seemed a bit hopeful. Hermione sighed and took back the folder and book. "I'll meet with them, but I maintain the right to say no after." And she likely would.

"That's reasonable, but…" Theo trailed off, using his finger to straighten the quill lying on his desk. "Just… keep an open mind."

That didn't inspire any confidence in their tentative deal, but Hermione considered herself a reasonable person. Sensible. "I can do that." They didn't shake on it, nor were there any binding formalities to their agreement. Only a mutual understanding and a look passed between them, followed by a slight nod of their heads."When should I expect them?"

"I will arrange the date and time and coordinate with you regarding your preferred consultation time. Thank you for agreeing to meet with them."

Hermione gave him a look. "I'm not making any promises."

"Duly noted."

The discussion was over and Hermione thought that her business was completed and she was free to go, but Theo didn't stand to leave, even though he had a full ten minutes before his meeting with the board.

Apparently, their conversation wasn't over.

"The Ministry has sent over an informal offer for you to join the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. They want me to discuss it with you." Theo picked up his teacup and took a sip. "This is me discussing it with you."

Hermione coughed delicately into her fist in an attempt to stifle a laugh at his outright defiance.

It wasn't the first time they'd had this particular conversation, and the reason the Ministry hadn't sent their offer directly to her was because she would have torn it to shreds and moved along with her day without a second thought.

She'd gone on a sabbatical after her incident with every intention of eventually returning; honestly, quitting hadn't been planned. It was a spur of the moment situation where Hermione found herself thinking about going back for the first time. Suddenly, she felt suffocated by the crushing weight of anxiety and responsibility.

When Hermione caught her breath, she knew she couldn't go back.

Not like that.

Not when she wanted to recapture the love that she had for working hard and feeling like she was accomplishing something important—making a difference. Even one that was small. She just wanted to recapture the love for life she once had before getting caught up in the push and pull of Ministry politics. Returning to a life where she had to split herself in every direction requested and be complicit in creating the illusion of peace the Wizengamot wanted to show the people… it wasn't appealing.

It just left her feeling empty and used.

Which was what had prompted her to write her resignation letter, part of what made her decide to apply to the Healer Academy, and definitely what led to her approaching Theo with her request to join the department that had been created to help combat the wizarding world's post-war mental health crisis.

"I'll write back and tell them you declined."

"You could also tell them to stop offering."

"I think we both know that they won't, just like we both know that this is merely an opportunity for you to get your second wind."

"I've been here six years. I think I can safely say I won't go back."

Theo continued drinking his tea and never responded.

And because he still made no attempts to move, Hermione asked, "What else?" with just a hint of suspicion. There had to be something else, some subject touchier than his mystery patient and the Ministry's job offer. There was a reason he'd strategically left it for last.

"There is also the matter of the threatening letters we've received."

"Ah."

Thirteen years had passed since the final battle, and the wizarding world was still not at peace, still dealing with Death Eaters, and still ripe for change.

Hermione knew that revolutions never took place when people were content and cared for, but when they felt disenfranchised and vulnerable. The Death Eaters had kept that thought in mind and believed that killing the famous Boy-Who-Lived-Twice and his allies under the Ministry's watch would scare them into striking the match that sparked that revolution.

The threatening letters, however, weren't just sent to her, Harry, and Ron. They extended out to the Weasleys, Malfoys, Luna, Neville, and even Theo's created family—who were all considered blood traitors.

Or literal traitors, as far as the Malfoys were concerned.

Right after the war, the letters would have been more effective in scaring her.

Now, they were an irritant at best.

"How was it delivered?" Hermione ran her finger along the wooden arm of her chair.

The letters usually came by owl or messenger, always to the hospital. She had worked out a spell years ago that essentially made people as unplottable as their homes, but everyone knew where she worked; her abrupt exit from her Ministry position seven years ago had been…rather public.

"This one was delivered this morning by an Imperiused Muggle who had been bitten—"

"Greyback?"

"Yes, but the Muggle tested negative for Lycanthropy, like most of the others." Which was a relief, but with a full moon soon, that was likely to change. Padma's patient count had been steadily on the rise for more than the last year. "He walked into the hospital as if the wards didn't exist." Hermione blinked at Theo in confusion. That move was a sharp deviation from the norm. The letters had always been petty threats, but the added bitten Muggle and security breach felt like every bit of the warning it was.

We can find you, no matter how well you hide.

Before she could ask, he continued, "The Terrorism Task Force interviewed him, the Obliviators modified his memories to include the fact that he likes his steak rare, and someone from Muggle Relations sent him on his way with a gift card for a steak dinner."

Nice to know, but Hermione had other questions. "The security breach?"

"We're looking into it." And that was it. Likely, it was all he could tell her. "In the meantime, in light of the breach, the Ministry wants to assign you a security detail for your protection."

It wasn't the first time the offer had been made, and it wouldn't be the last.

Theo looked serious. "I think you should consider the offer. There's a werewolf that's been roaming loose since his prison escape three years ago. He's out of control and has taken a liking to you."

"I'm aware." The liking wasn't new, but Hermione kept that to herself. He was out there. Waiting.

"It would be wise for you to consider the protection."

Hermione picked up her beaded bag, the file, and the book off his desk—she would need it for the patient's meeting. "Did Harry put you up to this?"

He lifted one brow in response to her question. It told her everything she needed to know.

Yes.

She shook her head fondly, chuckling to herself. Harry had become quite meddlesome since becoming a father, but they were at a point in their lives where they'd been best friends longer than not. He was one of the people Hermione considered a part of herself because of how well he knew her. And vice versa. Harry must have known she wouldn't be very welcoming considering he had made the suggestion and tried to circumvent her.

Nice try.

"I'm not scared of Greyback."

"You should at least be cautious." Theo's warning seemed to come from a place of concern. "He's rabid and he'll continue to get worse until he gets a taste of what he wants." He gave her a meaningful look. "There's only one thing you can do with a diseased animal…"

Put them down.

"I am cautious." She settled back in her seat. More cautious than he knew. Every now and then, she could hear a wolf howling at the moon near her home… and there were no wolves in her area. She knew, but she also knew her wards were impenetrable. "Greyback or not, I think by now you both should know that I am my own security.

One corner of Theo's mouth quirked. "I figured you would say that, but I had to try for liability purposes and to be able to honestly tell Potter that I gave it a shot. That's all I wanted to discuss with you today." He shrugged a little and stood to prepare for the meeting that he was now late for. Summoning his jacket with a nonverbal spell and putting it on, he adjusted the collar and sleeves with great care. Theo picked up a small stack of folders—likely the hospital's fiscal budget for next year—and cleared his throat with his fist covering his mouth. "The tea…"

Hermione smirked because sometimes Theo's quiet nature made him appear aloof, but his little signals gave him away. They had been friends for a few years now, and he still wasn't used to asking for what he wanted… when it actually pertained to himself. "I'll send some by way of Pansy."

"Thank you."

Hermione rose from her chair and was halfway to his door when she remembered something. "Why do you have a children's dictionary on your desk?"

Theo almost ignored her, he did that sometimes when her questions were too personal, but then he sighed. "It's a gift for my godson." That was… interesting. Also odd because not once had he ever mentioned a godson, but not unexpected because it was Theo. The man had a methodology behind every action.

"Oh, how old?" Hermione tried not to sound as curious as she naturally was.

Theo looked at her as if to say nice try. "Five as of roughly two months ago."

Interesting. Albus' birthday was next week. If magical, they would likely be schoolmates. Why hadn't Theo mentioned him before? Actually, Hermione had a better question. "So, you bought him a dictionary?" she deadpanned with a straight face and a large helping of sarcasm. "For fun? And everyone says I have no imagination."

Hermione had never seen Theo look as awkward as he did right then. "He doesn't play much and he enjoys the pictures. It will be a useful gift to him as his reading skills and comprehension increase."

Sensible and practical, of course, but when she extracted both of those things from his statement, the only question that remained was simple in its essence, but deep and challenging in its answer:

What sort of child doesn't play?

 


 

March 14, 2011

The kind of peace found in nature was irreplaceable, which was why Hermione loved the location of her home.

She experienced every aspect of nature just stepping out of her door. Or even just looking out her window. A colourful sunset and slow sunrise. Endless greenery and life. Hermione could breathe in air so fresh it felt like she could live forever, and listen to rain so loud she could hardly hear herself think.

There was a silent, picturesque beauty that couldn't be duplicated.

Winters that should have been exclusively dark and desolate were light. Springs were promising and transformative. Summers were full of growth, life, and hard work. And autumns were crisp, yet refreshing enough to enjoy a hot tea while bundled in a blanket. Blending during the transition between seasons was even better.

Like now.

Winter had begun its slow march towards spring in a series of steps, both forward and backwards, that started with unseasonable warmth last week. The chill that had returned in the last few days didn't inspire the confidence Hermione needed to undo the cloches over her row of root plants.

Maybe next week.

She looked around at row after row of covered vegetation planted together in groups. Three sets of plants on each row on two aisles, separated by a cobblestone walkway that led to the small greenhouse, which was larger on the inside, thanks to the only magic she used on her garden. Around the perimeter of her vegetable patch there was a variety of flowering bushes, all mulched to keep them safe from the cold.

All was silent and well… except for the young chickens in their coop that were celebrating their first couple of days outside her bathtub. And so was she.

If someone had told Hermione seven years ago that she would be an ex-employee of the Ministry, she would have laughed in their face and deemed them mad before running off to her next meeting. Had another person told her that she'd have an extensive vegetable patch with chickens and live with no neighbors for kilometres… she would have argued with them that she would never ever leave her central London flat.

But she had and here she was.

Life had a way of adjusting her priorities while simultaneously crumbling all of her expectations about how her plans would turn out until it was nothing but dust. Ash.

It had been hard to see initially, but now she knew of the beauty in the breakdown. The joy found in discovering her true self and restoring her strength, courage, and determination. It had been necessary, but Hermione had cleared away the rot and negative decay of her old life in order to create the space needed for new growth.

And she had grown.

Was still growing.

Hermione turned when her wards notified her of both the end of her quiet time and the arrival of someone she hadn't expected.

Daphne Greengrass-Thomas.

She was dressed in layers due to the chill in the air, but not enough to hide the fact that she was five months pregnant and generally irritated with everyone. Hermione didn't blink twice when she stormed out the door armed with a fork and a pie. She thought even less about her mood when Daphne sat on the magical swing with a huff and began aggressively eating while it slowly brought her to Hermione's side.

Recognition dawned when the swing stopped and she actually looked at said pie.

It was rhubarb.

"I made that for Pi Day." The serrated glare Hermione received in return told her that she would be making another, which made her sigh with resignation. "Did you at least bring me a fork?"

As it turned out, Daphne did. Apparently she was in the mood to share both the food (that wasn't hers to begin with) and her feelings—the latter still more of a shock than the former.

In the years since Daphne had eloped with Dean in a move no one had seen coming, she had never been one to share her innermost thoughts and had a tendency to internalise everything. But then her entire world flipped upside down when she found out about her pregnancy and lost her sister within the same week. The combination had shaken her to the very core, and she'd emerged from the aftermath as someone more inclined to share.

Which was where Hermione came in.

Probably due to needing an outlet or at the direction of her therapist, sometimes she would show up and sit on Hermione's swing. Sometimes she talked. Sometimes they sat in silence. She never knew why Daphne sought refuge there, but she had never turned her away. Today, she wanted to talk.

"I went to visit my nephew."

"Oh?" Hermione replied in a detached manner as she forked a piece of pie. It had come out just right. "And how did that go?" Admittedly, she knew very little about Daphne's contention with the Malfoys—in particular, Narcissa—but knew very well it had to do with her nephew, Scorpius.

"It went so well that I'm here to keep myself from going back and yelling at every adult Malfoy. Even Draco." Hermione internally winced, but chewed while nodding along. "As it stands, it was either yelling or an emergency appointment with my therapist. You just happened to be home, and as the most sensible and least compromised by the situation, I figured I would come here. We'll sit here in silence, you'll say something wise, and the urge to yell will pass."

"Is that all I need to do?" Hermione smirked at the blonde witch. "I should try that when Harry's whinging about Malfoy."

Daphne rolled her eyes. "You can try, but I doubt it'll work." She looked around and chuckled. "Not even the level of zen you've achieved out here with your herb garden, chickens, and isolation can ease the friction between those two."

Hermione hummed in agreement. The swing took them slightly higher, feet farther from the earth. They continued sharing the pie that was still warm from the charms, though Daphne ate most of it. Silence wasn't unusual with her, but the energy Daphne gave off didn't mix with the serenity surrounding them.

"You should probably relax before you talk about it," Hermione said after chewing on a piece of baked rhubarb. "I'm no doula, but I'm certain your stress affects the baby."

"That's why I'm here. I think we all agree that your house is like a refuge." Which made sense because everyone ended up at her home at some given point of the day or week. Even Theo had been known to come sit in her conservatory for tea.

Hermione rolled her shoulders. "Well, seeking refuge is how I ended up out here anyway."

The two witches exchanged meaningful looks. It wasn't long before Daphne was ready to speak about what had upset her. "I know that child-rearing is one of the few aspects of pureblood culture that is exclusively matriarchal, but every time I see Scorpius' rigid routine, every time I see him bow, every time I see him withdraw, I want to shake some sense into Narcissa and tell Draco that enough is enough."

Wisely, she kept her mouth shut. Listened.

"I know he won't." Daphne sighed. "He can't. Not now with everything happening. He has security for all the reasons he should be as paranoid as he is, but I'd like it if he did."

Hermione wondered if she missed something because the pieces weren't fitting together. "If he did what exactly?"

"Take the first step."

 


 

March 15, 2011

In some ways, the war ended the night Voldemort fell.

But in other ways, it didn't. It merely changed dimensions.

History had taught Hermione that while the death of one man could start a war, it couldn't end a war. The best way to end a conflict was through absolute victory; for them to push to the finish without letting up and to never let the enemy hide and recover. That should have happened when several Death Eaters had escaped and scattered following the Battle of Hogwarts.

But it didn't.

The Ministry didn't have the power or the numbers to round up all of the Death Eaters. So many witches and wizards were dead or missing, tortured or traumatised, too young to understand the enormity of the task before them and the grit needed to push themselves through the hard time and prevail.

Harry included.

Shacklebolt, as Interim Minister, had tried to organise a mission to strike the final blow, but during the post-war chaos, the newly-reformed Wizengamot had quietly stripped the position of majority of its power by invoking an obscure, old law, which gave them power above all during times of civil unrest for up to ten years unless ended through a vote. Essentially, it turned the government into an oligarchy.

A few to rule the many.

Kingsley had reasoned with them to restore the power of the position, but the last Minister had been responsible for heinous war crimes, an actual puppet to a homicidal tyrant. So when a vote was called to repeal the law, the required two-thirds hadn't been in favour of restoring the Minister's power before the ten year deadline.

Not just yet.

The move truly wouldn't have been an issue had they learned from their history and not made the same mistakes as their predecessors, had they remembered how damaging it was to ignore a problem rather than face it head on. Instead of offering their support during Shacklebolt's attempts at capturing the escaped Death Eaters, they overruled everything he tried to do, offering only a small bandage to fix the gaping hole in their world and doing nothing to cauterise the wound.

It really shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone when, rather than drop the Interim from his title two years after the war, Kingsley Shacklebolt had announced that he was retiring.

Effective immediately.

News of his exit spread far and wide, and criticism of the Ministry had quickly followed. The Wizengamot had asked him to reconsider, but his mind was already made up. Disillusioned after their many rejections and tired after losing so many of his friends, Kingsley never answered any of the media's questions about the circumstances surrounding his retirement. He did answer Hermione on his final day, when she'd stood in his empty office next to Harry and asked about his future plans.

She'd expected something cliched like travelling or visiting his family.

What she got instead was: "I've always wanted to be a beekeeper."

To her surprise, Kingsley bought a small patch of land and did just that.

Their paths hadn't crossed again until Hermione began experiencing root problems for the first time soon after she'd expanded her vegetable patch. Neville had given her a book on the benefits of honey that had a note with an address and an appointment time tucked inside.

From the book, Hermione had learned just how little she knew about honey—namely, that it was a solution to her problem. From Kingsley, she'd found a willing supplier.

His farm wasn't very large, a nice walk away from his house. He had a total of nine hives: two were new since her last visit in March and a third needed a lot of rehab before the honey would be viable. Hermione always brought money for the jars of honey he provided, but he never took it, so she started bringing him vegetables instead. Bartering.

That day, she brought onions, broccoli, rhubarb, garlic, morel mushrooms, and not to forget, his favourite—liquorice wands. Together, they sat outside, enjoying both their sweets and the tepid humidity that preceded the storm rolling in from the south. Hermione could see the wooden hive boxes in his growing apiary that was protected from wildlife by various deterrent wards whose slight shimmer she could make out if she squinted.

She kept her jacket on, but not buttoned, while she relaxed in his comfortable outdoor chair and put her feet on the stool in front of her. Kingsley still wore his purple beekeeping coverall, but had his veil up so he could enjoy his sweets.

"The bees are quiet today." Kingsley broke the peaceful silence between them. "I think the storm coming will be a bad one. You should take precautions with your garden."

"I already have."

He nodded, still looking in the distance at his bees. "Good."

Silence fell once more and Hermione took the time to enjoy the breeze, watching as the trees swayed in the distance. She never intended to stay long, but always did because it was nice there and she was rarely in a rush to get moving.

Kingsley was the sort of wizard who knew his purpose. He was no longer Minister, but was still a fighter, a guide, and a pillar of strength. He had such a confident and calming presence about him. Even when they had been fighting for their lives, high off the ground when they'd escaped from the Dursley's home with Harry, she had never once worried about whether they were going to make it.

She just knew.

"I'm thinking of starting a garden for my bees." Kingsley looked at her as he quirked his brow inquisitively. "Any ideas?"

Hermione had several and was mentally creating a low maintenance medicinal herb garden, going so far as to determine the height, width, and placement of the planters boxes. "I read in a book that thyme, apple mint, oregano, echinacea, borage, chamomile, nasturtium, and a few others are good for keeping disease and other insects away from your bees. You'll need flowers, as well."

At the recommendation, her thoughts expanded.

"It would need to be large with plenty of pollen producing plants: annuals and perennials mixed in with the herbs." A brief look of confusion passed, which made her chuckle. He didn't know much about flowers. "Also, unless you have a love for gardening that I'm not privy to, it will need to be self-sufficient."

"I'd like that." Kingsley had a thoughtful look on his face, taking another bite of his liquorice wand. "I trust your judgment."

She felt honoured by his faith in her, and looked forward to helping him make his vision a reality, but she had limitations. "It's an extensive project. Far too large for a single person. I can ask Neville to help. He has several apprentices that would be interested in a project like this. For you."

There were still plenty of people out there who wanted to live in the world that he had proposed while he was Interim Minister, a world that the Wizengamot had rejected in favour of their own.

While Kingsley had been Interim, they had given him just enough support so no one could accuse them of outright neglecting the very real threat of Death Eaters after Voldemort's demise, but nothing more. And instead of snuffing out the enduring enemy of peace, the Wizengamot decided that the Ministry should focus its efforts on recovery and restoration in an attempt at getting things back to normal as soon as possible.

In theory, it had been a good idea. Society had been shattered into so many tiny fragments that it was hard to tell what it once had been—long before either war.

In practice, not so much.

They hadn't accounted for the societal changes brought about by war. It would truly take generations to fix the mess that had been made in such a short amount of time. They could pass as many laws as they wanted to assist with rebuilding, but they couldn't fix what the people had gone through.

Also, there had been the small, very true thing about those in the Wizengamot…

They weren't elected by the people they promised to protect, acquiring their seats in a variety of means, including inheritance. They were also human, flawed, and had a different incentive for governance. One that was ultimately based on a desire to rebuild their own lives and businesses under the guise of fixing society…

For their own greater good.

And that hadn't changed much over the years.

"How is Harry doing?" Kingsley gave her a meaningful look. Because Hermione knew one of his only regrets in quitting was leaving their friend behind. "He seemed stressed the last time he was here."

She took a bite of her liquorice wand and chewed. "He's… Harry." She smiled with a fond shake of her head. "Still trying to do the right thing against all odds." And they were stacked pretty high against him.

Hermione helped whenever she could, but ultimately, he had to work with what they'd given him. Which wasn't much: just an underfunded department of weary Aurors, a task to round up all the Death Eaters, and the responsibility to partner with the Terrorism Task Force whose leadership had been questionable at best until about a year and a half ago.

"How are his efforts with the Death Eaters?"

"About the same as ever," Hermione answered honestly. "But they've managed to get someone on the inside and there's a raid being planned, so I hope something pans out before Harry and Malfoy kill each other."

Kingsley made a small noise from the back of his throat, looking out in the distance at the approaching storm clouds. "I'm still trying to make sense of the reasoning behind that particular decision." As was she, but it wasn't her business. "However, Draco Malfoy did pass Auror training in France and was responsible for capturing Rookwood there and shutting down that particular terror cell. He crippled them."

Well, that was… true.

Hermione swallowed her candy. "It's the least he could do. He used to be one."

No judgment, just a statement of fact that Kingsley gave a contemplative hum to in response.

"From the accounts I've heard and the memories I've seen, it wasn't exactly by choice. It might have started that way, because of what happened to his father and the ruination of his family's name, but it definitely didn't end that way." He stared at his partly eaten liquorice wand, talking more to himself than her. "He had no idea what he was in for."

That she couldn't deny—the haunted and defeated look on his face when he'd hesitated to identify them at Malfoy Manor had stuck in her mind. Well, that was until the Cruciatus Curse smothered all those thoughts.

"I suspect it is quite lonely to be Draco Malfoy right now. Or at any point in his life. He's been fighting to save the future, to atone for his mistakes, but no one—not even you—can see beyond his past."

Which was a sobering thought. It humbled her and brought about a tightening in her chest and a queasy feeling in her belly.

Guilt.

In her defence, Hermione hadn't thought about it—or him—again until his trial.

She hadn't even seen him since, only heard about him in periodic whispers over the years as her circle grew to include some of his oldest and closest friends. It was only then that someone else—Pansy or Daphne—mentioned him by name. But they never said much, often, or around her. At least not on purpose. They were fiercely protective of him. Hermione had learned that the hard way early on with Daphne. And then more recently with Pansy. Even in the last three months, Theo would give her a disapproving look whenever she voiced an unfavourable opinion of Malfoy as it pertained to his new working relationship with Harry.

Which was something that had left her incredulously blinking when the news had broken.

The world hadn't decided if Draco Malfoy was a hero, villain, or a little of both.

In France, he had been viewed as an anti-hero of sorts. Not seen much in the public, but his actions spoke louder. They didn't know much about either Wizarding War—seeing it as a British problem until the threat of the Death Eaters knocked on their door six years after the war. It had been then, when Draco Malfoy, who had secretly become an Auror, single-handedly organised the French Ministry's fight against them, driving them back where they had come from.

News of his successes and the captures of high ranking Death Eaters reached her ears via the Prophet. And Harry. The media had initially been flummoxed, but then redemption stories started sprouting here and there in the subsequent years. Nothing memorable or even outside the shadow of his more famous mother, but when he returned last year in July and took over as the Head of the Terrorism Task Force, the media went wild.

And when they caught wind that, with Harry's promotion to Head of the Auror's office last month, the old enemies would now be working together… Harry hated the exposure that it brought almost as much as he hated working with Draco Malfoy, who he claimed was the bane of his existence.

Just like old times.

"Regardless," Kingsley's calm voice cut through the silence, "I would still pay good money to see their strategy meetings." And with another chuckle, he continued enjoying his candy.

Hermione scoffed. "I can safely say everyone likes Harry over Malfoy."

Kingsley gave her a look. "It's not his job to be liked, Hermione. It's his job to coordinate with Harry to put an end to the Death Eaters. It's not an easy job, even if he had the tools he needed, because while people respect him in public, they spit on his name in private. Perplexing, given the universal love for his mother. Furthermore, the enemy wants to personally make an example out of him and his family. Harry should be able to empathise. Their children receive the same threats."

With some hesitancy, she acknowledged that perhaps he might have a point.

However, at the same time, it sometimes amazed her that thirteen years later, they were still talking about Death Eaters.

It had a lot to do with the Wizengamot's inaction, and how it led to the Death Eaters managing to regroup, rallying behind the Lestrange brothers and other survivors of Voldemort's inner circle. Attacks and murders started again not long after the final battle, disorganised initially, but as time passed and they continued to evade capture or death, their confidence and recklessness had grown. Azkaban escapes became a common occurrence again once the Dementors had been banished.

The Ministry insisted they had full control of the situation and some people, desperate to believe in something after so much misery, believed them. And when the skirmishes between the partly inexperienced Aurors and the Death Eaters began to increase in both frequency and severity, the Ministry started suppressing the news. Just like before.

However, unlike before, the journalists were bolder.

And just when the cries of the people rose to a crescendo, all hell broke loose at Malfoy Manor on the first Christmas after the Battle of Hogwarts. Lucius Malfoy had just enough time to call in the Aurors before he died protecting his family. The ensuing battle had been such a deadly affair that once the dust settled and everyone retreated, everything stopped.

The weakened Death Eaters retreated and went into hiding. And again, the opportunity for the Aurors to give chase had come. Shacklebolt had begged the Wizengamot's permission to hunt them down and snuff them out once and for all, but was overruled in favour of keeping guard of the peace they had obtained in their victory.

It took one year after the battle at Malfoy Manor for the attacks to start again. That time, the Wizengamot finally decided to listen to Shacklebolt, who had already quit, and created a task force to investigate the whereabouts of Death Eaters and coordinate with the Auror Department to shut each of them down. The same task force Draco Malfoy now led.

In Hermione's opinion, the action came too late.

The Death Eaters were more organised than ever, their violence louder even in the silence. Their message of hate remained the same: they sought to continue Voldemort's mission of protecting the purity of blood from those deemed unworthy.

Bigotry was, after all, still the silent poison of the wizarding world.

But as the years passed, the Death Eaters had gotten smarter, shifting their missives to include anti-Ministry rhetoric, which drew interest from those who had been neutral during the war and still lost everything. Those that, despite the economic boom after the war and the restoration of society, no longer trusted the Ministry.

And there were plenty.

Time could heal some wounds, but not all. Memories were not so easily forgotten, even through the passage of time. Memories were unique; the more powerful they were, the harder they imprinted themselves on someone's souls. And the memories of the Ministry's past failings were etched next to the names of those they had lost, those who were broken, and those who were still struggling.

Kingsley cleared his throat. "A little bird told me that they offered you a position to lead the Investigation Department." It was still funny how much Kingsley knew about the going ons at the Ministry. Most times he knew more than she did. Hermione found herself interested to know the identity of his source. "It seems they are trying to fast track you up the Magical Law Enforcement ladder."

So that had been the position they were offering?

Hermione scoffed. "I never looked. I just declined." At that, Kingsley chuckled, shaking his head, humoured by the stubbornness he knew all too well. She rolled her eyes with a small smile on her face. "I was only just beginning to make the transition between the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures and into Magical Law Enforcement when I quit. Not only am I not qualified, I'm also not interested."

Kingsley side-eyed her in that way of his. "I'm fairly certain you're more qualified than anyone in that department. You don't need experience to lead, Hermione. I think the current state of the Ministry can attest to that."

"You could always go back to change that." She levelled him with a challenging look of her own as the suggestion she had only ever thought about in the privacy of her own mind was laid out before she could rein it back in. "There are people who still support you. I still support you. Harry does, too. You could restore order. Percy is looking up old laws that would restore power to the Minister. There's always a way."

Initially, he didn't respond, finishing the last bit of his liquorice quill. "I quite like my bees."

"Who says you can't have both?"

Kingsley considered her words. "What about you, Hermione?"

"What about me?"

"You would make an excellent Minister for Magic one day, should you ever decide to return. I've always thought that about you, and it has very little to do with your brilliance. It's always been about your moral code, your compassion, and your determination to make things right." He paused as if choosing his words wisely. "I understand your reasons for leaving, just as you have always been understanding of mine…"

She glanced at him sceptically. "I feel there is a 'but' coming."

Kingsley laughed to himself, shoulders shaking with humour. "Nothing ever gets past you, does it? Your observation skills are as keen as ever." He shook his head, as if answering his own question. "I do wonder if your hesitance to return has little to do with the powers that be and more to do with fear of… perhaps a second failure?"

When she said nothing in response, only stared out in the distance, listening, he reached over and tapped the arm of her chair with his large hand in an act of attempted comfort.

"It's okay to be afraid, Hermione. You know what isn't okay? Letting that fear stop you."

Hermione reflected on his words for several long minutes. "I don't consider my time at the Ministry—or even what happened that led me to quit—as any sort of failure. I have zero regrets, both about leaving or failing to return. I think what happened gave me the perspective I needed to sort my priorities and acknowledge the truth that I'm just as human as anyone else. It allowed me to set my own course and help people who need it along the way, which is what I do now at the hospital."

"Have you figured out where you're going yet?"

She thought about her current commitments, ruminating over the offer she hadn't humoured and the case Theo seemed so keen on her accepting. For the first time in longer than she could recall, Hermione had no idea where she was going.

"No, but if I'm lucky, maybe I'll know where I'm going when I get there."

 

Everything must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before.
Mary Shelley

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Two
Pay It Forward

 

March 16, 2011

 

Hermione's father was a quiet, pragmatic man. His love of whisky, jazz music, and painting were quite out of character for his conservative nature.

Before a Hogwarts representative had given Hermione the letter that would alter the course of her life, she spent her early evenings watching her dad work on his labour of love.

His craft.

When they arrived home after her parents finished at the office, he would change into dungarees, pour himself a finger of whisky, and retreat to his art room while her mum prepared dinner from her Julia Child's cookbook—substituting ingredients she couldn't be bothered with. Her phone was always pressed to her ear as she chatted away with friends near and far; her laughter shook the spiralled phone cord that stretched across the kitchen.

Hermione, who spent her afternoons after school completing assignments in her parents' dental practice while the receptionist looked on and praised her brilliance, would change into comfortable clothes and sit with her feet tucked under her in the armchair—always with a book of some sort.

Her dad would ask her about her day as it pertained to her grades and assignments, and let her prattle on while he prepared his paints and provided the appropriate feedback. Hermione knew that conversation was over when he sipped his drink for the first time, turned on the old record player he'd had since university, and picked up his brush to work on his latest creation.

Her father had never taken a single lesson… and it showed.

His work was terrible, but he never cared.

And neither did she.

What kept Hermione coming every day was something that happened at the strangest of times.

It had nothing to do with the whisky—she wasn't old enough to drink it anyway. Nothing to do with the music; she didn't like jazz in the same way she didn't like Celestine Warbeck. As a child, Hermione found the music old, incomprehensible, and not so melodic. And he wasn't a skilled painter, but sometimes, when her dad was absorbed in the murky undertones of a piano as the saxophone and singer soothed his soul, sipping that glass of amber liquor, he would make broad strokes with his paintbrush and talk.

Not about anything in particular, just whatever came to mind.

Unless a football game was on, her dad was a quiet and thoughtful man, not social by any means, with only a few close friends. Always thinking and enjoying the quiet in his own mind until he was ready to interact with the rest of the world, it was difficult to get to know him. So, it was the little moments of openness that stuck with Hermione over the years; she kept them in her heart and leveraged them as part of her determined efforts during the long Horcrux hunt.

It was also in those moments when she felt like she knew her dad best.

He mostly gave advice about life: Stay true to yourself. Don't ever stop learning and growing.

Things she would remember for years: Create certainty, but leave room for unexpected.

He told stories she'd never heard about her grandparents who had died before she was born: You have my mother's hair and my father's spirit.

He told her stories about her mum and stories from while they were dating: Your mother sat next to me in school and talked incessantly. I only kissed her the first time to shut her up.

He sometimes told her stories of herself from before she could remember: When you were upset, all the cabinet doors would open and shut. I think we knew then that you were special.

But on very rare occasions, he talked about nothing that ended up being something.

"Love is never what we expect it to be." She remembered it from one day during summer holiday while Billie Holliday played on the record player. "It's bizarre, enigmatic, and doesn't make sense to anyone. Why do you think so many people write songs on the subject? Change their lives for it?"

Now that her parents were retired, and their lucrative practice was sold, her dad still painted and listened to jazz on the same record player when they weren't travelling…

But he no longer showed bits of himself to her. No longer told her stories.

Not like he once had.

It was yet another thing that time and the ever-growing distance between Hermione and her parents had changed. But his silence hadn't stopped her from sitting with him during her visits; hadn't stopped her from watching him like she once had, with a book on her lap as she listened to music she still didn't care for as an adult.

It didn't stop her from waiting for another opportunity to see him.

Her father's skills had improved greatly now that he had more time to devote to his craft… and had actually begun taking classes. His style was a clean mix of abstract, geometric, layered designs that he'd just started showing their friends instead of binning. He'd even sold one or two.

He'd never offered one of his paintings and she never asked.

Just like all the others, the painting session that day ended with her mother calling them for dinner.

Hermione ate with them once every few weeks in an attempt to keep her family from completely crumbling at her feet. She spent her time inwardly cringing from the tense smiles aimed at her, wondering just how they'd gotten to that point.

Well, actually, she knew.

It started when she returned their memories and tearfully tried to explain everything, including why they were in Australia of all places. While they understood the reason for the choice she made and forgave her, they chose to stay in Australia. Their only form of communication was monthly phone calls where they would politely ask her to visit and Hermione would decline. She knew they didn't mean it.

They did, however, return six years ago to help her sort through her own crisis, but the damage had long since been done. The divide between them was too great. Still, Hermione was diligent and kept trying, carrying the hope that one day she would finish construction on the bridge that would close the distance between them. Until then, Hermione joined her parents for a meal of roasted chicken and a boiled cabbage that she'd grown in her garden.

Most of the time, her mother wasn't the best cook. She hated following recipes and sometimes left out vital ingredients. Sometimes her alterations worked, but often, like tonight, they didn't. Her dad was used to it; his palate had adjusted over the years, so he ate his dry chicken and overcooked cabbage without complaint. Hermione followed suit like a dutiful daughter, but made sure to leave plenty of room for dessert.

That was where her mother excelled, and Hermione was keen on her bread and butter pudding.

"Next time you come for dinner," her mother said as they ate, "make sure you pick a day when Ron can come with you. He's such a sweet man and quite amusing." She chuckled in a motherly sort of way that reminded her of Mrs Weasley when she was thinking about something pleasant. "I think he loves my dessert as much as he loves you."

And that was the subject of their biggest disagreement to date.

"Mum," Hermione groaned while cutting into her chicken. "We're just friends."

That was all they would ever be.

She and Ron had reached the point where they had been apart longer than they had been together, yet her mother still hadn't let it go. In truth, neither had Ron, which complicated matters further as their lives were heavily entwined. He was her best friend, his family was like her own, and therefore, he would always be an important part of her life.

Just not in the way he wanted.

It had taken three years for Hermione to realise that, in addition to the fact that they weren't well-suited and had wildly different interests and opinions on basically everything, Ron wanted her in a box that she couldn't fit in. A box where he could take out the parts that he loved about her, and leave the rest.

He was traditional. He wanted her to take on those roles that she had no interest in.

And she wanted a partner, not a project.

Hermione grew tired of apologising for who she was, and stifling herself to avoid arguments. Even with the knowledge that no relationship was perfect, Hermione had a nagging feeling that she was settling rather than compromising. And it ate at her. It ate at her until she stopped trying to force herself to fight for something she didn't actually want in the end.

"I know, but he was so good for you."

Hermione didn't agree. When she glanced over at her father, who continued chewing while pretending to be engaged, she swore she saw just a hint of his disagreement, too. It was hard to tell, but for the purpose of her ongoing efforts to keep the peace, Hermione changed the subject. "How was Morocco?"

She continued eating as she listened to her mother tell stories of their trip while her father provided the occasional comment that usually involved correcting her mild exaggerations with a fond look on his face. It was her mother's way, after all. Her mother had always been sharp and lively, even more so now that she was older. She talked with her hands, and though she appeared wrapped up in her stories, her mother always kept an eye out for their reactions.

"We're going to Greece in early June. We're going to stay by the water."

They travelled a lot now that they had the time and financial freedom. They always went somewhere warm by the water because years in Australia had spoiled them for it.

"That sounds lovely."

Her mum served her dad another helping of chicken. "When was the last time you took a vacation?"

Hermione scratched her temple with the nail of her forefinger. "I went to Madrid with a few friends."

Over three years ago before Ginny was too far along with Lily to travel.

"That's nice." Her father nodded as he took a drink of water. "Travelling is good for your health."

And he left it at that.

Dinner progressed and Hermione forced a smile at their stilted attempts at making conversation—not knowing what they could discuss and what had been deemed off limits. It felt like she was sharing a meal with strangers, chatting about bland, predictable topics like the weather, her mum's wine tasting event with her friends the next day, her dad's growing interest in bird watching, and Hermione's plans for expanding a garden her parents still hadn't been to her house to see.

And though she hated the distance, it was better than the alternative of not seeing them at all. At least that was what she told herself as she grinned and bore the awkwardness, all while knowing and accepting her own fault in the breakdown.

As the only witch in their family, her parents had always had a certain level of trust in her. Trust that she wouldn't use magic to cheat the system, to solve every little problem, or hurt those with no way to fight back—no matter if that pain was caused by her wand or her actions. And she'd irreparably broken that trust when she'd altered their memories. They had forgiven her, but therapy taught her that forgiveness wasn't the end of the process, it was the beginning of a new relationship, which continued to be shaped by the very actions that had needed forgiving in the first place.

Whenever she caught subtle hints of their wariness, it was a harsh reminder of the road she was on towards reconciliation. Humility was something she was still working on, and not letting her own guilt blind her to progress she had made. Sometimes, when it returned with a vengeance, all Hermione could think about was how they'd never get back to where they once were. How it would always be a terrible thing between them—like a bacterium infecting her plants that only made its presence known with yellowing leaves and wilt.

But then she had to remind herself what she did when that happened—the extra care she had to take with each plant, the work she had to put in, and how in the end, her garden was healthier for it. More resilient.

She had to utilize that same care with her parents.

Hermione was laying the groundwork with each dinner, each visit, and every interaction. No matter how the distance made her feel, she knew she had to be as patient with them as she was with her garden, knew she had to keep coming for weekday dinners, keep offering yields from her garden for her mum to experiment with, and keep watching her dad paint and listen to jazz music. She had to keep the gate of communication open so they could come in, should they choose.

Maybe, one day, they would come in and stay awhile.

Until then, she would keep working.

When dinner concluded, Hermione helped her mother with the dishes while her dad wiped down the countertops and put away the extras. He finished first and gave her mum a quick kiss and Hermione a quick hug before disappearing into the sitting room to watch a bit of telly. With the sound of a football match as background music, they worked together, Hermione washing and her mum organising each dish in the dishwasher she had to have, but only used for drying.

"Your dad is concerned for you," her mum said in an almost conspiratorial whisper as she grouped the forks together. "He doesn't think it's good that you're alone so far out in the country."

She furrowed her brows. Her dad? Concerned? She couldn't tell. "I like the peace." Hermione shrugged. "I can Floo or Apparate anywhere I need to go."

Her mother pulled a face, much like she always did when she used wizarding terminology. "Why can't you opt for some place closer to the city? There are plenty of options in Surrey. You would be closer to us, if anything should happen. It would ease his worries."

"My vegetable patch wouldn't fit." Her parents would understand that if they visited, but she bit her tongue on the matter.

Hermione lived in a cottage too large for one person on land she protected under wards. The closest wizarding town was Godric's Hollow, and it wasn't close at all. There was not a neighbour in sight. Her house had been quite dilapidated when the realtor reluctantly showed it to her, but there was charm and potential that she'd loved at first sight.

She basically paid for the land and got the house free; the work needed was extensive. Her parents thought the purchase was foolish, as she'd just quit her job in the Ministry, but Hermione converted half of her Gringotts account—with her extensive savings from years of being thrifty and leftover war compensation funds—into pounds and used it to pay off the loan and the contractors for their work.

In truth, she could have done it with magic, but watching their daily progress gave her something to focus on. They tore out unseen rot and carefully carved away the original stone, rebuilding it back to the point where the outside looked the same, but the inside was all new.

It was a metaphor she couldn't ignore.

The vegetable patch had originally been a therapy assignment she'd started not long after construction finished to occupy her time and manage her stress. Her house was not yet furnished when Neville came by with a few young plants as a gift and an idea was born. Pretty soon, he was coming over weekly to show her how to build garden boxes, cultivate the land, what to plant, and where to plant it. She started reading books, planning, growing…

It gave her purpose.

After her first harvest, she and Neville sat in the pasture past her garden and gorged themselves on unwashed tomatoes. And when she shed cathartic tears, he didn't judge her. He just let her cry and reminded her that this was the first harvest of many more to come.

Hermione's house meant more to her than she could convey, and she hated that her parents didn't understand. So, she kept washing dishes, forearm-deep in warm, sudsy water when her mother revisited the topic Hermione thought she had properly circumvented. "I meant what I said about Ron, you should bring him when you come next time. More than that, you should reconsider him."

Just because she was trying to mend the gap didn't mean she would stifle herself on that particular topic. "You've made your opinion about that quite clear over the last six years."

"I'll keep saying it until you listen. You won't find anyone better, not with the sort of life you live." It wasn't said to be offensive or hurtful, it was just a fact. "Your work is very involved, Hermione. No man—wizard or not—will understand your level of commitment to your patients like he does."

Hermione almost laughed, but passed over the plate she'd just washed instead before starting on the cups. Ron had just gotten to the point in his life where he'd found his own footing outside of his large and now-distinguished family, but because he'd had to share so much in his younger years, he never liked sharing her. He was always insecure about his rank and role in her life.

Now that they were broken up and he was working with George to develop new products for the ever-expanding joke shop, and now that she was no longer on track to become the youngest Minister of Magic, he seemed more settled around her. Not as irritated when people sought her out over him. Now that she wasn't so busy or important, Ron wanted to try again as though her schedule had been the proximate cause of their breakup from the start.

It wasn't.

Rather than provide her mother with a detailed character analysis on Ron, Hermione opted for a response that would throw herself into a deeper pit, but at least it would be a different one. "You're right. My commitment is to my work. In fact, I'm so committed that I'm not looking for anything right now."

"You're not getting any younger."

Hermione turned her head, eyes narrowed in calculation. Her mother was just under thirty when Hermione was born. Her parents had wanted to be established in their careers first. Pot meet kettle. "I believe you wanted to have a career first. I'm just like you in that respect."

Because her mother would never admit that Hermione was right, she continued on without responding to the factual statement. "While I love Harry's children, I'd like to have my own grandchildren at some point."

"I'll have to meet the right person for that." Little did her mom know that with the way Theo was trying to convince her to take on a potential five-year contract, that didn't seem likely.

"You already have."

Hermione rolled her eyes. Her mother had always been very clever at guiding a conversation in the direction of her choosing. She passed her the final cup to rinse. "We'll have to agree to disagree."

"For now."

They tabled the conversation for another day and, once her mum finished arranging everything, she shut the dishwasher. Hermione drained the sink, wiping it with the dish towel until the water was completely gone. While she wrung out the wet cloth, her mother put on the electric kettle for tea. Hermione had brought ginger tea from her own collection after her mum complained of a stomach ache during their phone call last night. She went to sit at the table and her mother joined her after drying her hands and pouring the boiling water into the teapot to steep.

Tea first. Dessert second.

Her mother looked over her shoulder at the kettle before she stiffly asked, "How are you?"

Mentally was the unspoken word at the end of her question.

Trust issues aside, she was still her mother. And as a mother, by right, she always worried. Her mum was the daughter of a doctor and a dentist herself, so while mental health wasn't exactly a taboo subject, it was one that she approached with caution. Not that it mattered. It always put Hermione on edge regardless; it was just another one of those sore topics neither of them wanted to discuss because of the bad memories that it evoked in them both.

She kept her response simple. "I'm fine."

"You're not working too hard, are you?"

"No, mum. I'm currently between patients." Her last was an Auror who, thanks to experimental treatment, had been revived after being Death Eater ambushed early last year. It was a four-month assignment where she worked one-on-one to get him not only physically and mentally healthy, but accustomed to his new normal with the family that had never given up on him. Last week, she'd transitioned him to the care of another Healer who would do routine follow-ups, alerting Hermione only if needed.

"Good." Silence fell between them as her dad's complaints over the game filtered in from the sitting room. Arsenal must have been losing again. For a brief moment, she smirked, reminded of Ron and his love for the always-losing Cannons.

The kettle whistled and when her mother went to make tea for them both, Hermione rested her hand on her arm. "Let it steep longer with the ginger root. Another ten minutes or so."

With a nod, her mum continued with their conversation. "You're making sure you eat, right?"

Hermione sighed. "I am."

"And sleeping?"

"Eight hours a night." She paused, then said, "I'm not going to fall apart, Mum."

Not again.

At the memory, Hermione visibly winced, instantly agitated. In truth, she didn't care for any reminder of what had happened—not that she could remember it anyway. Now, she had to contend with the questions and looks, the concern and worries—not just from her mother, but from those closest to her as well.

The entire incident felt like a dream, an encounter that had happened to someone else. Not her. Hermione thought she was stronger; thought she could push herself to the brink and still maintain control. She thought herself invincible when, in fact, she was only human. The lesson she had learned had been humbling.

"I know you won't. You've been doing well." Her mother started to reach for her hand resting on the table, but faltered, placing her hand on top of the other. Hermione thought about completing the action and reaching for her, but hesitation was her current best friend, so she didn't. "You look like you've lost weight."

"I haven't."

"Okay, but I still worry, Hermione."

Frustration—mainly at herself—slipped past her lips during a moment she'd left herself unguarded. "I'm fine," she said curtly. She regretted it when her mother's face darkened and she straightened in her chair. Immediately chastened, Hermione sighed. "I'm sorry, I just—"

Her mother held up a hand. "I pushed too hard."

"It's not that, Mum," she said in barely a whisper as she looked down at the table. "Thank you for your concern. Everything is fine. I'm taking care of myself."

"Are you still attending therapy sessions?"

"As needed… and I haven't needed to in a while."

A moment of silence passed before she nodded, accepting Hermione's answer. Then her mother's line of questioning shifted. "And the threats?" Because one of their terms had been full disclosure, her parents knew all about them.

"There was another one this past week." She didn't want to detail everything that had happened, but she knew she had to tell her mother something. "It was an escalation from their normal methods."

Worry etched its way across her face. "And the werewolf? Should we be concerned?"

While Hermione had told them about Greyback and the personal threat he posed, she hadn't divulged everything… especially not about the periodic wolf howls she heard on the full moon near her home. No one knew about those… She shook the thought from her head. "No. The Ministry is handling it."

"Last I remembered, you didn't trust them."

As a matter of fact, she didn't, but Hermione trusted herself and her own skills. She'd had a layer of wards over her parents' house that made it practically impenetrable. And should anything less than human manage to penetrate them, she would be alerted immediately. The same wards existed over her own home and surrounding land. It was one of the reasons she didn't worry as much as she probably should.

Satisfied, her mother visibly relaxed and gave a sarcastic chuckle. "Well, if anything changes and our lives are being threatened, be sure to let us know before you modify our memories."

It was meant to be a joke, Hermione knew that.

Just an attempt at making light of a tense situation…

But damn if it didn't burn.

 


 

March 18, 2011

 

Brewing Wolfsbane was a complicated task, both draining and tedious. The ingredients were still not cheap or easily accessible, but Hermione brewed batch after batch each month for Padma's patients and any wolf that came to her clinic in the Alternative Healing department seeking the potion.

Hermione had not played any part in passing the Pro-Werewolf laws that made it a crime to discriminate against them for any reason. However, the Wizengamot had dragged her into the spectacle when they signed it into law. Additionally, they'd invited the media and Andromeda, who had been told to bring along Teddy (as the son of a werewolf) for the occasion.

Like a prop, they had all been there to make the powers that be look good.

And they needed her to do that.

They had taken great care to make certain and spin the story to make it look as if the law had only been made possible by the efforts of the brilliant war hero, Champion of People, Beast, and Beings alike Hermione Granger—despite the fact that there had been an entire team that had worked tirelessly on getting the law to pass. No, she had been the one forced to take the stage, front and centre, and smile for the cameras. Hermione shook hands with the Minister and Chief Warlock Tiberius McLaggan, played her role, and pretended not to feel guilty about it.

Pretended that no one sneered at her back.

Not that it mattered.

Laws, even ones as clear as the Pro-Werewolf articles, were easy to circumvent with moderate effort. Not to mention, the Ministry made them extremely hard to enforce. Unless explicit proof was provided, discrimination accusations were often deemed "hearsay" and "speculation" and thus, damaging to someone's reputation. It was something that kept a lot of the cases out of the ears of the Wizengamot as a whole and in their small committees where they either settled or the case was dropped.

So, instead of evicting a person because of their status and registration, they could be evicted for contamination concerns. Or because they didn't have a regular source of Wolfsbane.

Quietly, the Wizengamot hadn't passed the only beneficial aspect of the law, which would have made the Ministry responsible for providing Wolfsbane to all lycanthropes—for free.

That would have been too right, made things too easy for people treated as sub-human.

And that was why Hermione brewed as much as she could each month. Each vial truly made a difference. Unlike the fake laws, pretend tolerance, and false smiles for the media they tried to control, brewing was the real solution. And the real work. It had never been her favourite thing to do, but it was the right thing and something she excelled at.

Hermione would do more if she could, but Padma's patients (who consisted of newly bitten, long-term wolves, and defects from Greyback's side) were appreciative all the same. They weren't answering the call of the Death Eaters who promised a better life under their regime, and with the potion, they were able to work and live normally as a part of society.

Which was all that mattered.

"The full moon is tomorrow." Padma said, giving her a long look before she worked to prepare for her next group, waving her wand to neutralise the scent of other wolves from the air. They were especially sensitive in the days before the full moon. "Do you want someone to stay?"

Hermione counted the leftovers. She usually made forty. Today there were thirty left and Padma had two more group sessions of no more than six wolves in each, which was right around the normal. "I'll be home by moonrise. Besides, my wards are strong."

"I know all of that, but if you want company, I can stay." Then her brown eyes lit up. "You can help me pick flowers for the wedding."

She could think of an entire list of things she wanted to do more. Hermione chuckled at Padma's rare show of blatant enthusiasm. "I have a vegetable garden and a working knowledge of flowers as they pertain to pollinating, but I'm no expert outside of what's aesthetically pleasing."

"I know, but Neville is busy with his students, Parvati has wild ideas, and Cho will be busy."

"And Blaise? He's your fiancé after all."

Padma gave her a long look. "Blaise Zabini? Picking floral arrangements. Willingly?" She started laughing, and unable to stop herself, Hermione joined in. She had a point. The mental image of a bewildered Blaise deciding between lilacs, amaryllis, and carnations was hilarious. "Admittedly, he has good taste, but he's been threatening elopement so often I feel this would drive him over the edge."

Hermione snorted. "Fear of your grandmother will keep him in line."

"She has a Bat-Bogey hex that makes Ginny's look amateurish."

They both laughed and returned to their tasks, dropping into silence to focus on what they were doing. But soon, Hermione disrupted it.

"Are you coming tonight?" Every other Friday, they gathered at her house. Witches only.

"Yes. Parvati, too." Then she remembered. "Oh! Is it okay if I bring Cho?"

Hermione didn't feel one way or the other about Cho Chang, but she was Padma's best friend and was slowly becoming a regular at their events. Much to Pansy's annoyance. "That's fine."

Susan popped her head into the room, looking harried, yet perfectly composed. "Pad—oh, Hermione, you're here. Great. I know you're not floating this week, but I need help with a patient." Before either could ask, she continued, "Auror and Task Force versus Death Eaters in a skirmish in Chesterfield. One dead, one missing, two critical, and six injured."

There was a pause… then they both sprang into action, but Padma stopped herself. "I have a Group Session in fifteen minutes." Hermione summoned her trusty beaded bag. "I can't leave a room full of werewolves together the night before a full moon for any length of time." No, she absolutely could not. A fight would likely break out. Padma unclipped her potions holster and put it around Hermione's waist before she turned to Susan. "Any wolf bites?"

"No." Hermione and Padma exchange equally relieved looks. Greyback hadn't been set free. Yet. While not the full moon, there was always an alarming rise in the number of people bitten either just before or after. Almost as if it were on purpose.

Hermione pulled out her vial of dittany. "Is Harry out there?"

"No, he wasn't there, but I suppose he'll be around soon, along with Malfoy. The fatality was a Task Force member."

She paused in her efforts to find all the potions she carried in her bag. "Killing Curse?"

"Yes, and the most critical is a dagger wound laced with poison. The same one you cured Molly Weasley from." Hermione's eyes widened, then doubled her efforts, snatching her wand while on the move. She barely said goodbye to Padma before hurrying out with Susan, who walked as she talked. "It's been thirty minutes since he was stabbed. I called someone from Plant Poisoning up to assist." Good move, but that was to be expected, Susan was an excellent planner. "They brought the blade in case it's not the poison they've been using. Do you have the antidote?"

Hermione handed Susan her bag while she put her hair up into a messy bun. "One vial, but there's more in my office, if you don't mind."

"Of course."

"Anything else I need to know?"

"He's young."

Very young, as it turned out. Barely out of Hogwarts and not-so trained, it was yet another story of the life of the underfunded Auror office and Task Force team. He was tall, broad, blond, and close to death. Hermione couldn't tell which posed more of a threat: the dagger wound or the poison.

That was about as far as she got when she shed her sweater—so she wouldn't ruin another one with blood—and got to work. Hermione, who didn't wear a uniform or a badge, had no time for names or introductions. The other Aurors in the room must have recognised her from both her own fame and her lunch visits with Harry because no one stopped her. Also likely because the injured wizard was frothing at the mouth, bleeding from a chest wound, and hallucinating about a dead relative. The poison had a firm grip. It took two uninjured Aurors, a Mediwitch, and Hermione literally sitting on his legs to hold him down long enough for Susan, who had returned just in time, to get the first round of antidote down his throat.

Then something for pain.

Then Blood Replenishing.

Then Dreamless Sleep.

He would need it.

It wasn't long before she had his bloody robes torn open, and blood on her gloved hands. Susan followed her every move, making expert seals with her wand as Hermione carefully dripped dittany into the wound, closing as much of it as she could. They worked in silence, so familiar with each other that Hermione knew what Susan would do and what she needed before she could utter a request. And vice versa.

Hermione felt the cooling sensation tingle her skin, vanishing the sweat from her brow. "Thanks."

"Anytime." Susan returned to her task, remaining silent until the gashes were closed. He would have a scar, but he wouldn't die from the wound. The poison on the other hand… it was too soon to tell. "I'll run a few diagnostic charms for any internal damage." Hermione stood back while she worked, removing her gloves and using her wand to cleanse the patient's body of blood and dirt.

Susan finished her charms and reached for the enchanted parchment with the results. She winced, but if Hermione knew anything about the witch, it was that Susan wasn't as much of a pessimist as she should have been—given all the relatives she'd lost to Voldemort. "The poison's pretty advanced, but the dagger missed everything vital. If we can keep him stable through the twelve antidote rounds, he should live."

A brunette Mediwitch peeked in and looked at Hermione. "Harry Potter would like a status update on this patient."

"Critical, but stable."

The witch turned her attention to Susan. "Both Harry and the Task Force leader would like to speak to you about the deceased Task Force team member. They need to inform his family." Task Force leader? That seemed to be an odd way to address Draco Malfoy, given the informal way in which she addressed Harry.

Susan placed the charmed parchment on the table and sighed. "Right, of course."

The excitement of their success with one patient quickly turned into a reminder of a failure and loss of life. There was nothing she could have done, but still, it never got easier.

When she passed, Hermione rested a stable hand on her shoulder, giving her a look that conveyed her concern. Susan nodded in return.

"See you tonight, yeah?"

The witch appeared to think about it. "Who's turn is it to bartend? If it's Pansy, hell no. She's heavy-handed and I like to not be miserable for the next week."

Hermione burst out laughing, tossing her head back. She had a point. "No, it's Ginny's turn."

It showed every bit of her weariness from an obviously long day, but Susan smirked. "I'll be late, but I'll be there."

 


 

Ginny had three kids under the age of seven, so in essence, she had three jobs.

Her first was Mum, wife, short-order cook, and peacekeeper (the four positions were intertwined and paid exactly the same—absolutely nothing), her second was Quidditch reporter (that paid exceedingly well), and her last (but second-most important job) was barmaid.

And like an excellent barmaid, Ginny had a stiff and suspiciously fruity drink waiting for Hermione when she popped home after leaving the unexpected and full day of patients and charting at St. Mungo's.

"Oh, thank goodness." Without uttering a greeting, she drank it in three gulps, noting with a little fear in her heart that the liquor hadn't burned like it should, which didn't bode well for the rest of her evening.

Or her morning tomorrow.

She hadn't brewed any hangover potion in months.

But that didn't stop Hermione from placing the empty glass down and nodding for another. It was their Friday night ritual, one that had begun out of necessity for Ginny, who needed a few hours away from her kids for the sake of her sanity. Harry kept them on Friday nights and she kept them on Saturdays when he wanted to go out with his mates.

Over the years, their ritual had grown. Expanded.

Now, it included a few extra people. Like Luna, when she wasn't travelling the world for work. Daphne, Padma, Susan, and Parvati—when they weren't busy. And Pansy, but only when she promised to play nice with their latest addition: Cho.

Pansy didn't come often.

"That bad?"

Hermione sat on the barstool, placing her elbows on the white granite, head bowed in her hands. "I went to drop off Wolfsbane and ended up helping out after the ambush."

"Ah, Harry told me about that. One dead and one missing. Stan Mathers. He was just getting home from breaking the news to his parents when I was preparing to come here. He said you saved a young Auror who got stabbed with a poisoned dagger."

She nodded. "Same poison as the one that damaged your mum's hands. They've managed to fuse it into the blade itself. Nasty bit of magic. Unnatural. He almost died." Hermione frowned. "Susan said Malfoy took it to the Department of Mysteries for them to run tests on it. I was too busy saving the Auror's life." A thought passed. "I don't even remember his name."

"Alan Cottleback." When Hermione eyed her, Ginny shrugged, her answer the same for everything that concerned Auror business. "Harry told me. Also told me to say thank you."

"I was doing my job."

"On your holiday."

Hermione shrugged and accepted the drink Ginny offered.

"Did you miss dinner with your parents?" It was a brave question. Ginny knew exactly how little Hermione wanted to discuss her parents.

And yet she brought them up whenever the opportunity arose.

Internally grimacing, Hermione swallowed her drink down in quick, burning gulps without uttering a response. Now her best friend was more concerned. Hermione, despite having a bar under her island, had never been a heavy drinker. It was a matter of control, obviously, that kept her from indulging outside of the single glass of wine she allowed herself per day.

Tonight, though, she needed the reprieve.

"I didn't," she confessed with a sigh. "We had dinner night before last, but it didn't go very well either."

"So, like normal then." Ginny reached across the bar and patted her on the top of her lowered head in a dry, compassionate sort of way that made Hermione chuckle, despite how she felt.

Hermione launched into a run-through of the visit overall, spending extra time on the conversation with her mum that had stayed with her since tea and the excuse she made to leave before dessert. She played it on repeat in her mind like a scratched record. By the time she finished, Ginny's face had twisted into a cringe and her cheeks were pinker than they had been. "You definitely need another."

Then she dipped out of sight behind the island and re-emerged with a fresh bottle of Ogden's. She walked to Hermione's vintage refrigerator and returned with several small containers of freshly squeezed juices, an ice tray, and maraschino cherries before beginning her complicated mixing process that Hermione watched, but could never comprehend.

Having learned Molly's love for cooking over the years, Ginny was at home in any kitchen and spent enough time inside them to know what Hermione might need. Which was why she'd helped with the layout and didn't say much whenever she rearranged everything during moments of stress.

Everything from the stone flag flooring, white walls, ceiling lights, island's granite that didn't match the treated wood on the rest of the countertops, and distressed wood beams that ran into the sitting room was all Ginny's idea. Hermione couldn't even take credit for the sage green cabinets, the open shelves mixed with cabinets that ran along the wall where the stove was, or the location of the butler sink beneath the window that overlooked her garden and the land beyond as that had been Pansy's doing. The only thing she could say that was all her own idea was the fact that the windowsill was lined with pots of her regularly used herbs.

Honestly, it didn't matter. The space suited Hermione, which was great because when she wasn't brewing potions, working through her infinite reading list, working with patients, or gardening, she was cooking.

After a few small fires and failures, she'd found a new hobby.

"On to a different topic." Hermione rested her elbow on the table and plunked her chin in her hand. "How was your day?"

Ginny's answer was a sarcastic glance followed by an amused chuckle. "Let's just say I'm happy it's Friday. Before I left, Lily bit James because he kept putting his hands in her face after she told him to stop. Al still hates Nursery School and is already upset about returning on Monday, but no tears, just pouting. All in all, there are a lot of tears and hurt feelings happening at my house right now." She grinned. "Harry's thriving."

Or crying with them.

"Fun times."

Her mouth quirked into a fond smile that told Hermione that, chaos and all, Ginny wouldn't have it any other way. "Yes, it is." After shaking everything in the ice-filled tumbler one last time, she flashed a smile that instantly told Hermione that the redhead wanted something. "Any plans tomorrow?"

"No." She already knew why Ginny was asking. "I'll probably spend the day gardening with Al."

"Thanks." She grinned in response. "I'll bring him by in the morning."

Truthfully, they didn't need to ask, but every other week one of them would. And Hermione let them.

At five, Albus was the shiest of the three Potter kids, scared of anything too large, and had a tendency to melt into the background when mixed in with his more boisterous, chaos-inspiring siblings—and cousins.

Even though he was anxious to the point of tears around strange adults, in small, controlled environments, Al thrived. Harry and Ginny had realised, after daily tantrums and tears, that the sensory overload of his siblings exhausted him. So, they asked her to keep him every other Saturday—just so he could get away—while they worked at home to give him the peace he needed between visits.

He seemed happier during his visits, more inclined to talk, laugh, joke, and ask an array of random questions while he played with the chickens or helped pull weeds. Al was an excellent weed-puller. He enjoyed the quiet of the open pasture behind her gate and the walks they took on sunny days, each time venturing further from the house and closer to the forest he feared.

One day, they would make it.

One day, he would make it to the edge of the forest and realise there was nothing to fear. Hermione would be right there, holding his hand when he decided to take his first steps in.

When he stopped being afraid.

"Where's Luna?" Hermione asked.

Ginny poured the mixture into the glass and pushed it towards her. "Argentina."

"I thought she was supposed to return today."

"She had an issue with her Portkey, so she'll be back tomorrow."

"Ah." Hermione nodded. "And everyone else? Susan already told me she would be late."

"Parvati should be here soon. Padma's running late because she's narrowing down wedding venues with Blaise. She's bringing Cho. Pansy is upstairs deciding if she's going to be a bitch or not while measuring for your clawfoot tub."

"She found one?"

"Yes, she did," Pansy announced from the bottom of the stairs across the sitting room. The room was open to the kitchen, giving her the perfect sight of the drink in Hermione's hand. She gasped dramatically. "You chits started without me?"

Ginny rolled her eyes so hard her head went with the motion. "Oh, for fuck's sake." She picked up the metallic shaker and gave it a shake; the sound of ice hitting the metal rang out in the quiet room. Then, she poured a second glass as Pansy sat on the barstool next to Hermione. "Why do we tolerate you?"

"Call it a matter of good taste."

Ginny narrowed her eyes. "There's a compliment in there somewhere."

The true answer to Ginny's question was simple in its complexity.

She'd given Pansy a chance.

Not as an act of compassion or forgiveness, but rather as a favour to Theo that she almost declined simply because Hermione had never liked Pansy.

But they were adults, and she understood that even bullies were humans with the capacity to grow the hell up and become better people for it. But she'd never included Pansy in that thought before because, at the time, she hadn't spared the witch a single thought in years. Not since she'd shouted for someone to grab Harry so he could be offered to Voldemort to spare them all.

While he'd ended up doing just that, Hermione had principles and a strong sense of justice.

But it wasn't stronger than her desire to help someone obviously in need.

And Pansy had been in need.

The first time Hermione had seen Pansy since the war was in St. Mungo's when Theo had called her into his office to examine the battered witch. He'd waited outside. With the clothes off her back, she'd left her arranged marriage to a German wizard from a powerful wizarding family, and was subsequently burned off her family tree, and financially cut off.

The black eye, busted lip, and bruises had come from being hexed by her mother.

When Hermione had tried to heal her, Pansy had laughed and said, "No thank you, I'd like to wear them like a crown. I'm finally the ruler of my own destiny."

The remark had stayed with Hermione for weeks.

Months later, when she'd casually mentioned to Theo that she was preparing to finally start designing her house, he'd asked her to hire Pansy. Just to give her purpose. Focus. A chance.

Pansy had no experience outside of decorating Theo's office, a nasty attitude that was likely a defence mechanism, and she was almost as stubborn as Hermione. But she thought about their initial meeting, the words that had been laced with a strong desire to better herself, and a time not too long before that, when Hermione had needed purpose as well.

So, she had agreed to pay her to design one room—the kitchen.

The project had been gruelling for them both, due to their massive personality and style clash, but they'd found common ground over the sage green paint ultimately used on Hermione's cabinets.

It tentatively grew from there.

Pansy talked about her miserable life under the thumb of her ex-husband's family while Hermione listened and shared bits of her own struggles, the reason behind her departure from the Ministry, and why she'd become a Healer. The more Pansy learned about her, the more she stopped making bold, grandiose suggestions, instead switching to favour those more in line with Hermione's simple style.

When the project was completed, she caught Pansy blinking back tears of accomplishment. Proud of herself and her own capabilities. And like Neville had when she'd grown her first batch of oblong tomatoes, Hermione rested her head on her shoulder and paid it forward by not judging her.

Letting her cry while not speaking a word about it.

Only celebrating how far she'd come… and how far she would go.

Not long after, Hermione suggested Pansy to Hannah Abbott, who had just taken over The Leaky Cauldron and was in need of updating. She'd agreed and the business Pansy hadn't planned on having exploded. But despite her busy schedule, she'd kept Hermione's house a priority as they slowly worked—and argued—from room-to-room, turning her cottage into a home.

"Who all is coming—and you better not say Cho fucking Chang?"

They remained comically silent.

"Fuck, I'm leaving."

"I'm certain you can tolerate her for a few hours."

The doubtful glare Ginny received made Hermione wheeze out a laugh. "I can tolerate a lot of things—the both of you, for starters."

"Touché." Ginny grinned.

Instead of heading towards the Floo, Pansy approached them, rolling her eyes. "Padma is marrying one of my closest friends and Parvati is hilarious. Susan is tolerable, I suppose. I don't know her well enough except to say that, for a Hufflepuff, she has a glorious resting bitch face. Granger and I signed that armistice, and I suppose, Weasley, you've got a certain charm and a talent for hexes that the recovering bitch in me can respect. However, I draw the bloody line at Cho."

"Recovering?" Hermione cocked a brow, which earned her a scowl. She just grinned back.

Meanwhile, Ginny pulled out another glass from below and poured the remainder of the shaker into the glass. Ignoring most of Pansy's arguments, she scoffed. "I've been married to Harry for ten years. Are you going to call me Weasley forever?"

"Basically." Pansy brought the rim of her glass to her lips, drinking slowly. "Oh, I've just been reminded why. You make excellent drinks."

"Parenthood has taught me well," Ginny dramatically curtsied and they all laughed.

"How was dinner with your parents?" Pansy arched an eyebrow.

It was a topic they had discussed while breaking down the barriers between them. When Hermione sighed, she and Ginny exchange pointed looks. Pansy pursed her lips and exhaled. Even though she wasn't the comforting type, not in the least, she managed an awkward pat on Hermione's hand.

"Looks like I'm staying after all."

 


 

Hermione felt good.

Better than good, she felt absolutely splendid.

Thanks to a few of Ginny's feel-good concoctions of excellence, both the day and the conversation with her mother were all but a distant memory. Oh, she had no doubt it would return at a later time and place, but she would be better equipped to deal with it then. Not now when she was splayed on the sofa, body warmed and pliant from the alcohol, and her legs stretched out until they reached the empty spot Pansy had just vacated to make them both another drink.

Something different because Ginny had decided it would be an excellent idea for her to catch up with Hermione, and did just that by knocking back three of her mystery drinks rapidly just after the others had arrived.

Now, she looked as regret-free and happy as Hermione felt, and she smiled lazily at her friend who was currently lost in her own world. Ginny's hips swayed to the soft music coming from the Wireless as she waved her arms, eyes closed. Her red hair was freed from its ponytail, moving with her easy shimmies.

Susan, who was already pissed and asleep on the floor, was closer than she knew to being precariously stepped on by the dancing witch.

Oh well.

A slightly flushed Pansy returned with her third and Hermione's… well, she'd lost count. However, upon first taste, it didn't seem as strong as the others. It had a bit of a bite to it though.

"It's straight Firewhisky because I couldn't be bothered to make fancy drinks for someone as smashed as you are, love."

Her term of endearment alerted Hermione to the state of Pansy's sobriety. Or lack thereof.

When Pansy attempted to elegantly sit down, she missed her landing and lost a bit of her drink to her hands, which made her glare. "Damn you gravity. You fickle bitch."

Laughter rang out from Padma and Cho, who were on the two-seater talking about Padma's wedding plans—a common topic at their gatherings since she'd gotten engaged to Blaise Zabini at Christmas. She didn't mind. In fact, she was looking forward to their wedding next year in India.

Their inebriated giggles were drowned out by Parvati's. She was a bit of a lightweight, and nearly bombed after only one of Ginny's mixes, which made her tongue loose and her voice louder than usual. She sat on Hermione's coffee table, in black leggings and a bright pink shirt, while facing her sister and close friend, legs folded with her still unfinished first drink in her hand.

Conversation continued after their laughter subsided. Hermione listened, quiet and smiling, not catching every joke or sentence because the alcohol had loosened her to the point where she didn't care that Parvati was sitting on her sled coffee table that looked as if the wood was held together by metal—a table she and Pansy had argued about for two weeks because even though it didn't fit with the country modern theme of the space, Hermione loved it.

Ginny was bopping along in the corner when Cho asked, "How many guests have you and Blaise decided on?"

Padma, who wore her black hair wavy and down as of late, took a long drink and made a look that spoke a little to how overwhelmed she had been about the overall process—a sentiment she'd expressed to Hermione during their last lunch together. "It'll be at least a hundred people from my side and my parents' entire village—"

"Loads of family," Parvati blurted out, extending an arm as if it would quantify the number of guests. "I'm planning on not being single by then. Merlin, if I hear," her face changed as she mocked one of her numerous relatives, "'When are you going to find a good man to marry?' one more time, I'm going to launch myself at the sun!"

While Parvati commiserated on single life, Pansy gave her an insincere air pat with one hand and sipped her drink with the other. "There, there," she drawled like some louche aristocrat.

The Firewhisky dulled Hermione's ability to suppress anything she found remotely funny, so she barked out a loud laugh. Then blushed and apologised. Parvati glared at her but there was no heat in it—especially when she realised something quite important. "You'll need to find a date, too, Hermione. Good luck with that, mate. Your standards are far higher than mine."

"And your standards aren't, Parvati?" Cho asked innocently, but there was mischief in her eyes.

Susan rolled over onto her back and started snoring loudly. Bless.

"I'll settle for breathing with reasonably decent hygiene. I don't ask for much."

Pansy rolled her eyes and Cho agreed.

Padma, too.

"Lies!" Ginny yelled over the wireless, but kept dancing like she hadn't said a thing.

And while Parvati pouted, everyone laughed because they were familiar with her song and dance. Regardless of what she said, Parvati had standards and they were not low.

In fact, they were probably higher than Hermione's. In a way.

She'd never had a steady boyfriend, only a long string of casual flings that ultimately hadn't turned into anything more permanent. The reason why had been solely because she fancied unattainable men—whether physically, emotionally, or both. And when they began to show interest and talk of something more, when they began to chase her rather than the other way around… well, her interest in them practically vanished.

Hermione was familiar with the thrill of the hunt, of chasing something she wanted until she'd caught it, but she'd never known someone to win a race, collect their trophy, look at it, and toss it in the rubbish quite like Parvati. Over the years, she'd wondered if Parvati had even wanted all of those unobtainables in the first place, or if she merely liked the idea of them being just out of reach.

But now that she was sozzled and overthinking every little thing, Hermione found herself sipping her Firewhisky and contemplating the idea that perhaps Parvati didn't know what she wanted. Or maybe she did and was too scared of the additional stress and responsibilities that came along with twining her life with someone else's.

Hermione, secretly, could relate.

Padma had done it so easily in the last six years she'd been with Blaise that Hermione seriously considered flat out asking her just how she'd built something out of nothing. It couldn't have been easy considering the fact that they had so much against them, right from the start. Yet they fought each battle again and again with a better strategy and a growing resilience. There were so many people that doubted they would make it one month, much less a year.

Or six.

Hermione quietly confessed that she had been a doubter.

They were such a bizarre pair, right from the start, both cagey about the details that had led to their coming together.

Alcohol, if she had a guess.

Hermione liked when things made sense, when things were analysable, and they were neither. Padma wasn't as electric as her sister, not nearly as bold or outgoing. She knew how to have fun, but was a bit uptight. Like Hermione, she preferred a good book or foreign film over going out. They shared a love for hard work and a passion for helping people.

Blaise was… well, he was the sort of person people paid attention to because he never did anything that was expected of him. He was extremely laidback, charismatic, and open with what didn't matter but private about what did. In fact, no one had any idea they were even dating until some unfortunate soul tried to accost Padma during one of their group outings.

She was still trying to calculate how he'd gone from sitting next to Theo to punching some drunken wizard in the face. They'd all been all thrown out of the bar in the process.

Apparition had been ruled out because his wand was still at the table.

Nevertheless, that had been how everyone found out, and also how they all learned that neither of the families approved of the match. Padma's family didn't approve because he wasn't Indian, traditional, or interested in having a large family—something Padma wasn't interested in either. Hermione had expected Blaise's mother to disapprove because of Padma's blood status, but was surprised to learn that it actually stemmed from the simple fact that she wasn't rich.

Interesting.

But it seemed that the more their families tried to tear them apart, the tighter they held onto each other. They outlasted their disapproval and became stronger for it. Indomitable. Padma had simply blossomed with Blaise at her side, becoming a more confident version of herself, certain of her worth in every part of her life. She supported his career that kept him away at times and he celebrated each of her successes. On the occasions when she failed, he was still there supporting her. Encouraging her. Cheering her on in that subtle way of his.

Hermione sipped her drink and considered the possibility that she had been wrong about them…

Perhaps they made sense after all.

"Who did Blaise pick as his groomsmen?" Pansy rolled her eyes at Parvati, who was finishing her first drink and moaning pitifully to herself about her single life. Ginny was doing a strange version of The Robot. The music was all wrong for her dance moves, but Hermione tilted her glass at her friend and supported her life choices.

Like a good friend.

She hiccupped.

Susan rolled over onto her side; her snores were louder than the music. A silencing charm would do, but Hermione had no idea where her wand was. Probably for the best.

Pansy gave her a look out the corner of her eye, which made her grin. With all of her teeth.

"Oh good gods, Hermione, stop smiling!" Parvati exclaimed. "You look like you've trapped a bug."

There was another riotous round of laughter that she joined in on. Ginny, sometime during the fit of giggles, drifted over and flopped down next to Hermione on the sofa. She'd barely had time to move her legs.

"Who did he choose?" Ginny asked with a bit of a slur, her cheeks bright red with both exertion from her dancing and from her drinks.

Padma, who had long since kicked off her shoes, tucked her feet alongside her while leaning on Cho, pliant and happy. "Theo and Draco." Meanwhile, her choices for bridesmaids had been obvious: Parvati and Cho.

Hermione would be attending happily as a guest. Besides, Harry and Ginny's chaotic affair had made her seriously question if she wanted a ceremony at all… should she ever find someone. Or muster the energy to look for that matter.

At Blaise's choices, Parvati lifted her head, a gleam in her dark eyes. "He picked Draco? Excellent."

Cho tilted her head in curiosity. "I'm confused." There wasn't a slur in her words; she was the most sober person in the room, as she didn't drink—one of the many reasons Pansy couldn't stand her. "Just how buckled are you?"

"Yes."

Ginny almost choked while Parvati smiled at the inside of her cup before cackling with glee. "This is fantastic news."

"Why are you so excited about this?" Cho asked. "Draco Malfoy is a massive—" She cut her eyes in Pansy's direction and blushed at her misstep. She was talking about a friend of Pansy's who they all knew she was extremely protective over.

The witch didn't care, shrugging at her efforts at being tactful while completing her sentence. "Wanker? Prat? Arse? I've called Draco almost every version of the word I know at some point in our lives. Or in the last month. Or week." Pansy cut her eyes at Parvati. "The question remains: why are you so excited?"

Which seemed to be the question of the hour, judging by the look on everyone's face.

Parvati glanced around at each of them, more and more aghast by their lack of understanding. "Draco Malfoy will be wearing traditional Indian groomsmen robes." She spoke slowly like they were missing the point. And Hermione probably was because nothing the witch said made any sense. "He'll be wearing Indian robes." Padma chuckled knowingly—some twin thing Hermione never understood. The rest of them were still lost. "Indian! Robes!"

"I'm so lost right now," Cho said softly, more to Padma than anyone, but they all heard her anyway. Hermione found herself giggling because the witch's confusion was so loud she almost looked regretful for asking the question that had brought her to that point.

"Indian! Robes!" Parvati emphasised each word with a sharp cutting motion of her free hand.

"Yes, yes, we get it," Pansy huffed. "Get to the point, for fuck's sake!"

"Are you all fucking kidding me right now?" She looked at them all like she was the smartest person in the room. Hermione had evidence to prove otherwise. "The man is bloody gorgeous." Parvati brought her hand to her chin, pursing her lips in reflection as she added an addendum to her statement. "Well, not accounting for his personality, of course."

Cho's face was all scrunched up. "That's a pretty large thing to not account for." She glanced over at Pansy, who nodded her approval, then said, "He's an arse."

Ignoring her, Parvati pushed her braid off her shoulder. "Fair. That's incredibly fair. Witch Weekly asked me to interview the top ten Wizarding World Bachelors last week and Malfoy ranked number one." For a morbid reason, Hermione grimace. "His mum had to force him to attend the interview, but bloody hell is he fit. Have you lot seen him?"

Ginny and Cho exchanged shrugs. They hadn't. Padma and Pansy obviously had. As the only person who didn't answer, Hermione suddenly found all eyes on her. Parvati looked expectant. She scratched her eyebrow before awkwardly replying. "Uh… no. Haven't seen him in years, actually. Since his trial."

"Just how the hell have you managed that, Hermione?" Parvati scoffed. "You have lunch with Harry and they work together!"

"I just haven't. It's not like they're chummy. I imagine they schedule their loo breaks to avoid seeing each other for a second longer than they have to."

The room erupted in laughter, despite Hermione being deadly serious about her statement. She just shrugged and started to take another sip of Firewhisky when Ginny made a slow grab that she'd seen coming a kilometre away. Ginny's success at stealing it could be completely blamed on Hermione's poor motor control and the fact that the room had a nice hazy glow to it. The joke ended up being on Ginny when she took the first sip and blanched at the taste, looking as if she'd swallowed molten lava.

She turned wild eyes on Hermione. "How are you drinking this straight?"

Her shrug was lazy at best. "It's spicy?"

"She's blitzed," Pansy cut in.

Hermione started to argue, but lost both the words and the will.

Next time, she vowed while nodding at nothing.

Then she chuckled at herself and leaned forward, which was actually to the side because her head touched Ginny's shoulder.

Ah, definitely smashed then. Marvellous.

Parvati brought the focus back on herself. "Of course she is, but that doesn't matter because Draco Malfoy will be wearing traditional Indian robes and I appear to be the only one who recognises it for the gloriousness that it is." Dramatically, she pointed at them all. "I'm ashamed of you all!"

"I, for one, don't see him that way because I've known him all his life," Pansy pointed out with a lazy wave of her hand and a sip of her drink. She crossed her legs and leaned back on the sofa. "Also," Pansy grimaced. "Been there, tried to do that Fifth Year, and that was a terrible mistake we agreed never to speak of again." Then she got up, plucked the glass from Ginny's hand and wobbled into the kitchen to pour more Firewhisky.

Hermione smiled in excitement.

Parvati looked up, appearing to deeply contemplate her point. "You know what? I'll allow that. He was still pointy then. Now, however, I'd give part of my salary for the opportunity to climb him like a tree."

Ginny made a high-pitched noise, her lips pursed and eyes squinted. "Pretty certain that's called prostitution."

"It's a bit illegal," Hermione needlessly pointed out.

"A bit?" Cho and Padma said simultaneously.

Then they broke out in light giggles with the rest of them joining in quickly. Susan continued snoring. Parvati, meanwhile, was glaring at them all, but none of them were threatened by her looks because she was too busy trying not to smile. "Okay, poor choice in words, but the fact remains. He's still a bit pointy, gorgeous, and—well, according to the rumours, he has started to date again after… you know."

And they did.

The witch cringed at her own insensitivity. Not because she felt particularly bad about her words—she would have said it regardless—but rather because Pansy was there. She hadn't been Astoria's friend, but she was Daphne's… and she was well within earshot.

But when the witch returned less than a minute later, she handed Ginny her glass and ignored the way Hermione sulked at being cut off before she coolly levelled Parvati with a look. "Don't stop on my account." She sat down and sipped her Firewhisky before she continued on, "Seriously. It doesn't offend me because it's fact: Draco is widowed, and we all knew it was coming after his son's birth. It wasn't a surprise. The surprise was how long Astoria lasted."

Ginny refused to share her drink, no matter how much Hermione pouted.

"His mother is planning to use this Season to find him a wife." After running a hand over her still perfect hair, she gave a very matter-of-fact shrug. "Purebloods who are widowed as early as he has been don't typically wait long to remarry, especially when they have young children. It's a witch's duty to raise the children, regardless if they are hers or not."

When Padma rested her head on Cho's shoulder, she took to carefully pushing her hair out of her face, frowning when she said, "Seems cold."

Pansy shrugged with an indifference that came from growing up in that world. "We all know that we'll never marry for love unless we're okay with living without a family. Well—" She offered the now nodding future Mrs Zabini a meaningful look. "The Zabini's aren't traditional in any sense of the word, so they don't count. The Greengrasses aren't as traditional either, but they didn't forgive Daphne for running off and marrying Dean until Astoria died. In fact, they still act like he doesn't exist, even though they're about to have a baby. My family was far stricter."

Ginny, who had been as quiet and thoughtful as Parvati, spoke up. "Do you regret leaving?"

Hermione's eyes were suddenly too heavy to keep open so she allowed her head to rest on the back cushion. The room swayed as if she were on a boat in the middle of the ocean, even though her eyes were shut.

Still, when Pansy answered, Hermione heard it loud and clear in the haze of her intoxicated mind. "I only regret not leaving sooner." And because she was always so bloody maudlin whenever she drank Firewhisky, the last thing Hermione heard before she drifted to sleep was: "I'll never be able to repay Theo, or even Firewhisky-soaked Granger here, for how they helped me figure myself out after, but I'll never forget it either."

 

If you can't pay it back, pay it forward.
Catherine Ryan Hyde

Chapter Text

 


Three
Leave Out All The Rest

 

March 21, 2011

The three keys to gardening—Hermione had learned when she and Neville began expanding hers beyond tomatoes, beans, and courgettes—were good planning, forethought and strategising. Which made it the ideal hobby for someone like Hermione.

At first, it had been a hobby that was critical to her physical and psychological health after quitting the Ministry. Assigned from a therapist who annoyed her immensely, it was an outlet for frustration with the eggshells everyone walked on around her.

But after her fair share of failures, a breakthrough in therapy, and dedicating time to discover things about herself, Hermione began to understand that gardening was more than digging holes, sticking plants in the ground, and keeping them watered properly.

It was about making connections.

Ones with science, art, and biology. She was fascinated with making things thrive and harmoniously arranging plants in their surroundings.

Experimentation was another key to gardening Hermione had yet to master—having learned everything she knew thus far from Neville, books, and experience—but that had to do with her own issues.

By its very nature, experimentation involved a lot of testing and frequent failures. She'd done a lot of that in her life, and she wasn't interested in doing more right now.

She wanted to maintain the status quo, plant what she needed that would grow, and use her hard work to help others.

She wanted to perfect the process before trying anything new.

In order to do that, Hermione was back to doing two things that were at the core of who she was: research and learning. But now she was doing it for her own desire to better herself and the world in a capacity that actually made a difference…

And didn't nearly kill her in the process.

So instead of laws, both magical and creature, she studied climate and weather patterns in her area and the purpose of indoor sowing. Before long, she was growing her own herbs for potions.

Instead of being dragged into the machinations of the most powerful at the Ministry who only wanted to use her image to make themselves look better, Hermione studied and tested soil for the right pH balance, and mastered the art of fertilising the earth correctly for each plant.

Instead of politics and learning which members of the Wizengamot to avoid or approach, she familiarised herself with the correct wards to deter the wrong sort of wildlife. She built a greenhouse and figured out the magic needed to make it hold everything she needed.

And instead of doing the work of six people, Hermione did the job of one: combining all of her knowledge to use, cultivate, and till the earth to make way for new growth.

It was exhilarating. Never dull, always therapeutic.

A practical hobby for a practical person.

Gardening taught her that growth—including that of her mind, body, and ideas—started with a seed. What she did with it was up to her. Losing plants taught her the value in all life, human or otherwise, and made her understand the importance of every step involved in nourishing something until it grew healthy and strong.

Like herbs for potions, fruits, and vegetables, life needed care and fertiliser, time and patience, sunshine and water to grow.

But gardening had also taught her to watch out for weeds.

They were hard to define, much like people. Some were harmless, blending into their environment and living alongside the intended plants. In rare cases, they could even be considered beneficial. But others were destructive and she made certain she pulled them as soon as she spotted them. If she didn't, they could spread and grow stronger, smothering the life out of the planted seedlings. Weeds impoverished the soil by depleting anything and everything just to strengthen themselves.

One such weed was waiting for her in her home office in the form of Tiberius McLaggan.

And Hermione couldn't wait for someone to pull him out by the roots.

Following the end of the war, the quiet depowering of the position of Minister through old laws had created a power vacuum unlike anything the Wizarding World had ever seen. Chaos was the reason it went unnoticed. They were all too busy recovering and burying the dead while every high-ranking Ministry official who hadn't been associated with Voldemort rushed in to fill the void.

One of those open positions had been Chief Warlock, who was the head of the Wizengamot.

The wizard who had filled it was standing in her office, eyeing her table of that month's sows of sweet peas, cauliflower, and peppers that were almost ready to be planted outdoors. His presence wouldn't have been an issue had the changing of the structure of their government not made him the most powerful wizard in the country.

Because he was as crooked as they came.

After receiving Theo's letters of refusal, he usually sent Cormac, and that was always an illuminating experience. Especially when he kept his hands and thoughts about her figure to himself.

Still, Cormac was easy to handle.

But Tiberius...?

Outside of his penchant for bribing to get his way, she didn't know enough about him to decide one way or another.

"Chief Warlock," Hermione greeted from her spot at the door, not moving.

He was in his late fifties, but looked younger and stronger than ever. Like Cormac, he was tall, broad, and imposing. His brown hair was just as curly as his nephew's, but his eyes were as different as his overall presence. Cormac leered and flirted, but Tiberius was sharper, his attention laser-focused on her.

There was a purpose and reason for seeking her out himself. He seemed like the sort who had a reason behind everything—including his attire. Tiberius arrogantly donned official robes that signified his station, and when he turned, there was a pleasant expression on his face that was as fake as a copper Galleon.

"Ah, Miss Granger." He clasped his hands together. "I was wondering when you would turn up."

Her plan had been to not turn up until after he had left back out the Floo he had entered from, but after thirty minutes of waiting in the vegetable patch, Tiberius showed an aggravating level of persistence.

Like his nephew.

"Your office is quite… lively."

It was spacious enough and mostly tidy. Cosy but about as professional as she could stand. Untouched by Pansy, who was chomping at the bit to decorate it, the office was a mishmash of rococo furnishings that blended in with her white walls and the oak floors that flowed through every room of the house except the kitchen. On the white table in front of the window to the left of her desk, next to her vegetables that were ready to go into the ground, were individual pots with that week's troublemakers—dittany and moly—who refused to sprout and needed more attention.

"Thank you." She inclined her head slightly. "My personal office hours don't begin for another hour."

"My apologies, I was unaware that I needed an appointment."

"Yes, well, regardless of your position, I have a schedule I keep and a meeting in an hour so please be brief." She crossed the room to her cluttered desk, taking her seat and gesturing to the one across from her. "Are you here for a consultation? I'm not accepting new patients at the moment, but I can always direct you to one of my peers. That is, if I know what sort of care you need."

He declined the seat, further indication that he was there for a specific purpose. "I'm not here for a consultation. This is merely a friendly visit."

Hermione wasn't sure if his smile was meant to be friendly, menacing, or a little of both.

"I wasn't aware that we were friends."

Tiberius' smile turned cold. Definitely intended to be menacing. "My nephew has been singing your praises since Hogwarts. He continues to do so after meeting with you regarding your ongoing rejections of the Ministry's offers."

Keeping the distaste off her face was a struggle. "Ah, well I see, but that doesn't make us friends. Perhaps acquaintances at best."

"Regardless, he firmly believes you will change your mind—"

"Then it's clear he doesn't know me at all."

For a moment, they watched each other like opponents at chess, each trying to figure out the other's move. Hermione was drawing all sorts of blanks. War hero status aside, she was a small cog in a large machine. His presence broke all kinds of established rules… as did her apathy about it.

"A bit of advice, Miss Granger. When the Chief Warlock takes time out of his extremely busy schedule to pay you a visit, you should at least pretend to look happy about it."

"I'll remember that." She opened the folder on her desk in preparation for her next meeting and folded her hands on top of it, leaning in slightly. "You want deference, but call this a friendly visit? I'll confess I'm perplexed. What is it that you want Chief Warlock?"

At first, Tiberius said nothing, moving from the vegetables to the eucalyptus plant she kept as an insect repellent. "Before I knew of your dedication during your time with the Ministry, I thought Cormac was exaggerating his tales of your intelligence, but now I know he was telling the truth. You're smart enough to gauge my reason for coming here."

"I can, but I don't like to make assumptions."

"The past work you did for the Ministry before your unfortunate departure was most impressive. So much that I wanted to personally see if you had carried that success on to your next position." He gestured to the office around him. "It seems that you have."

Hermione clenched her jaw. "You've been watching me."

"Watching is such a harsh term with a negative connotation." His evasive response reminded her so much of his nephew. For all the wrong reasons. "I prefer to think of it as following your illustrious career."

That gave her—well, not an idea, but something that needed confirmation. "Ah, so you're behind the job offers from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Not Hestia." She knew the answer; Hestia always rolled her eyes whenever they discussed the ridiculous offers.

"If I am?" His eyes lingered on the troublemaker plants in her windowsill for a moment before they met hers. "The department under Hestia Jones is having an image crisis that even promoting the famous Harry Potter to the Head of Aurors has been unable to cure."

That was what happened when a dirty wound was left unattended, it festered until it didn't matter how much was done to fix it, the entire limb had to go.

"It seems that the public's trust in those who uphold law and order is failing." Tiberius glanced out the window before returning his focus to her. "It's a problem that Harry doesn't seem to care about."

Hermione moved her finger, using wandless magic to lift the kettle spelled to keep warm. Another flick of her wrist and it poured the steaming liquid into her empty teacup. Tiberius watched as if she was supposed to have a different reaction—one that didn't have her at ease enough to drink tea in the presence of the most powerful wizard in the country.

After taking her first sip, she placed her teacup on the saucer and addressed the now glaring wizard without interest. "One could argue Harry has more than the public's trust to worry about. I can think of a few things. Death Eaters being one that you all seem keen on sweeping under the proverbial rug. An Auror is missing, several others were injured just days ago, and yet there was no mention of it in the papers."

"We felt there was no need to alarm the public."

"So, you're controlling the news outlets." Hermione leaned back in her chair. "This feels familiar."

Tiberius bristled. "That's not an accurate statement, Miss Granger. We've merely requested they run the story next week so that it doesn't interfere with the investigation."

"What investigation? From what I hear, you're not allowing them to send a team after Mathers."

Tiberius placed his hands behind his back—a comfortable and superior position. He wasn't threatened by her either; it appeared that he felt the need to show it. Interesting. "You're very informed for someone who left the Ministry and has no inclination to return."

"I am." It was a bold statement, but so was her next. "And I don't."

"Shame." He tsked. "Harry Potter could use you at his side. Draco Malfoy could, too."

Keeping her recoil internal, she took another sip of tea. "Why put them into positions of power if you don't believe they can do the job without someone else on their team?"

"Their talent wasn't the reason they were placed in their current positions." That much Hermione already knew, but she patiently listened, watching the Chief Warlock explain himself with bold gestures. "Harry Potter is the Boy-Who-Lived, defender of all that is good and just. Draco Malfoy is redemption in the form of a man who turned on those his family used to align themselves with. Rivals and enemies to allies. Their partnership is poetic."

What utter tripe.

"Apologies for my brusqueness, but this isn't a theatrical performance, Chief Warlock. This is real life with far-reaching consequences for your actions, or lack thereof. They may be qualified for the positions, but—"

"We each have a role we must play to ensure the preservation of our government and our way of life." Preserve was an interesting way to phrase it when there was still so much that needed to be changed. So much that was still wrong. So much that was corrupted, tainted by their mishandling. "All of us must do our part, including you, Miss Granger. People respect you. They remember your efforts in the war. The Ministry would benefit—"

"Or, rather than use me as a draw to complete your trifecta to tote around as proof of your dedication to the fight against Death Eaters, you could actually do your jobs and provide the funding the Auror office and Task Force need to clean up the mess created by the Wizengamot's ignorance. They're underfunded, not nearly trained enough, and spread thin… and yet, you're constantly giving them more responsibilities."

"The Ministry has many duties. We merely requested the Auror Department and the Task Force to perform theirs so that we can dedicate our efforts to restoring our economy and—"

"I'm aware of your duties to the economy." Hermione folded her arms. "But, tell me something, where do the people rank on that list?"

"People benefit from economic growth and stability."

"I'm talking about right now. What are you doing to help those who need it most at this very moment? Because it takes time for that to trickle down. Meanwhile the rich get richer, and people become more disenchanted." Hermione's stare sharpened like a blade. "How's business in Diagon Alley?"

He would know; he owned every business and building, after all.

Except the joke shop.

And the fact that the Chief Warlock was allowed to manage his business and real estate, while passing laws he directly benefited from was unconscionable. Unfortunately, due to a lack of precedent, there were no applicable wizarding laws. So while it wasn't illegal, the blatant disregard of any sort of ethics was appalling. It exposed a massive hole in the way things were run. A hole the Wizengamot had no interest in filling.

And people noticed.

"Business is not what I'm here to discuss with you today, Miss Granger. My nephew hasn't been successful in having a conversation with you that would persuade you to change your mind regarding our repeated offers, so I thought I would come here to figure out what it is that you want. I'm willing to negotiate terms, salary, and further compensation upon measurable success." He paused. "Things that no one else needs to know."

Now that he was showing exactly who he was, devoid of the public mask, Hermione shed hers. More like ripped it off. "I don't want anything you can provide me, I assure you. Your problems are larger than me and my so-called influence and I'm not interested in being the Ministry's puppet again."

Tiberius said nothing for a long moment. "I suppose you are part of the group that wants to unseat the Wizengamot."

Hermione kept her face perfectly blank. He wasn't correct, as she had no direct dealings with them, but he wasn't wrong either.

"We know they exist," he said in response to her silence. "They support you, too. That is, should you return."

Ah, well that explained it. They wanted her under their thumb. "I have no intentions to return. Not for you. Not for anyone. Perhaps you should focus less on bribing me, less on trying to scheme in order to quiet the complaints, and more on doing your job. Protect the people. Help them. Give the Aurors and Task Force a fighting chance with the funding and time they need to—"

"There are over a hundred Aurors—"

"I'm aware." She gave him a dark look that he returned with a challenge. "I used to track that sort of thing when I worked for the Ministry in one of my many unofficial jobs. They are trying to keep up with regular crime committed by desperate people who haven't recovered from a war that took place thirteen years ago while also fighting off Death Eaters in the countryside that are hiding in plain sight and picking them off one group at a time. Not to mention, working to find their base of operation. There aren't enough people to do what you're asking of them."

"The Ministry—"

"I won't discuss the rising increase in popularity of the Death Eater's cause." Hermione was in no mood for excuses. "And while they agree Voldemort was a megalomaniac with a philosophy that was severely flawed, the general consensus is that a regime change is a far better option than what they have right now."

The expression on the Chief Warlock's face shifted to something tight, his anger barely restrained. Tiberius clearly wasn't used to being spoken to in the manner in which Hermione was speaking to him. Used to respect.

Well, respect was earned.

"I think you've forgotten who I am."

"I assure you I know exactly who you are. Your robes show the power you're happily wielding." No matter how unqualified. "Nevertheless, I don't work for the Ministry—"

"We make rules that affect you."

"True, and not in all the good ways."

His jaw worked as he continued to keep his temper in check. "And your department is funded by the Ministry. "

"Correction: was. The start-up was for reasons you already know, but now we're self-funded through our research grants in a hospital that's privately owned. Not only do you have no power over my job, you also don't have any power in my home." Hermione allowed her words to hang in the air as she comfortably took another sip from her tea.

Peppermint with no sugar or honey.

But instead of lashing out, Tiberius did something odd. He smiled and looked genuinely pleased. Positively electrified. Engaged and intrigued by her. He actually looked a bit mad. "You have so much fire in you, Miss Granger. So much passion and brilliance. You're just what we need. You should consider returning and putting your skills to good use."

"As I've stated many times over, I have no interest in returning to the Ministry. I'm not playing anyone's game."

"Is this about the Ministry's handling of your incident?"

The casual way in which he spoke of something so deeply personal made her flinch. Visibly.

It set her on edge.

"Yes, most definitely, but also no." It was the best answer she could think of.

"Oh?" Tiberius looked intrigued.

"I'm aware of my own failings in that regard. I didn't prioritise myself and put my trust in an institution that didn't care if I lived or died. An institution that just wanted me to get my work done and continue spouting praises for the Ministry until I was blue in the face. Quite literally."

Unfortunately, she wasn't exaggerating.

At the height of Hermione's rise in the Ministry, when she was working extremely long hours and not tending to herself, she remembered feeling a wave of lightheadedness… then nothing else. She had no memory of it, but apparently someone found her convulsing on the floor and rushed her to St. Mungo's. A week later she woke up with no memories or knowledge of just how close to death she had worked herself.

All she could recall were the worried faces of her friends—and later, her parents. She struggled with the fact that she'd lost memories and an entire week to seizures she still couldn't remember. Seizures that had left her magic erratic for weeks. Her body was weak for longer, her mind distressed and unable to string together complicated thoughts.

Seizures that still threatened to return if she didn't monitor her stress.

They wanted her back in the office two days after she had woken up. That request had sparked her decision to leave. Her health had been a gamble they were willing to take for their self-proclaimed greater good, and that left a sour taste in her mouth.

Tiberius approached the topic like the politician he was—carefully. "I will admit that the handling could have been better. However—"

"However, we have nothing left to discuss. Please consider this my refusal of all offers extended. I have matters to attend to before my office hours begin. Please see yourself out."

She was halfway out the door when she heard him again.

"You should reconsider, Miss Granger. I know how much you enjoy making a difference. You could help thousands."

"I'd rather do it my own way, thank you." The allure was simply not enough.

With that, she left.

 


 

March 22, 2011

 

Exactly one day after confirming her consultation with Theo's mystery patient, Hermione was sitting in her home office, reading through their file for the third time, when Narcissa Malfoy stepped out of the Floo.

Interesting.

She wasn't the last person Hermione expected to see, but she was very close.

That position belonged to her son.

If it meant anything, she looked equally as surprised to see Hermione. The non-verbal clue told her that Theo was far sneakier than she had realised. He hadn't told either of them the complete story. And before she could speculate or speak to the witch who tried, but ultimately failed, to suppress her shock, the Floo burst to life again as two security wizards stepped out. They took their place on either side of their charge, folding their arms in an attempt to look intimidating with their matching black robes and deep frowns.

Like Hermione was a threat.

She almost laughed.

Narcissa stood out from her guards in lavender robes with silver accents, but Hermione spotted the mismatched gold band on a plain necklace. Her makeup, which highlighted her best features, was as perfect as her coiffed blonde hair. She was dressed to impress, and Hermione wondered if she might have dressed differently had she known the identity of the Healer she was scheduled to meet.

When she was younger, she knew the answer, but now it wasn't as clear.

Hermione gestured to the chair in front of her desk. "Please, do take a seat." Addressing Narcissa's security wizards, she said, "You both are welcome to wait outside the door."

Narcissa sat in the offered chair with her hands properly placed in her lap and her back straight; her guards remained rooted in their spots. Hermione stared at each of them, but they simply returned her pointed glare. The moment she was about to open her mouth and tell them to leave again, Narcissa raised one finger and motioned towards the door.

The last one out shut the door.

And then they were alone.

Hermione allowed her eyes to slide from left to right before settling back on the witch sitting in front of her. It was the part of the conversation where she would usually ask the patient to tell her a little about themselves and what they sought to accomplish under her care, but today, she merely waited. There was no need for formalities; they knew each other—even if it was barely well enough to identify the other on the street.

Or inside her home during a war.

Today, Hermione decided to sit, wait, and watch as Narcissa's eyes scanned everything in her periphery because the witch was too proper to turn her head or nose up.

It didn't matter. Hermione knew what she was seeing. They were in her home, after all.

On the walls, surrounding her white bookshelves that were spilling over with books, hung her accolades: her certificates and the awards she'd won. Narcissa stared at each frame as closely as she could from where she sat, scanning each with sharp eyes as if she found it impossible that someone as young and as Hermione had managed to accomplish so much.

But she was thirty-one with an Order of Merlin hanging in the centre of her wall of achievements. When Narcissa saw it, she stopped trying to scrutinise.

She started to take her seriously.

It did nothing to help convince Hermione to accept her as a patient.

It was business, she would explain to Narcissa at the end of the appointment. Nothing personal.

"Theodore did not inform me that you were the Healer he had arranged for this consultation."

"I surmised as much." Hermione glanced down at the file in front of her. "When you requested the best"— she raised her eyes to meet Narcissa's sharp gaze—"you should have been more specific if a certain blood status was a prerequisite for your treating Healer."

"My request was accurate." The older witch delicately patted her hairline with a silk, embroidered handkerchief.

Hermione noted the sweat before she dabbed it away. Just seeing one symptom was enough to inform her that the potions she had been prescribed were not working. Pity.

Narcissa seemed aware of her observation, and brought her hand back down as she narrowed her eyes defensively. "You could be a troll as far as I am concerned, Miss Granger. However, if you are indeed the best, then I am in the correct office."

"Very well." Hermione said nothing further on the subject.

Silence wasn't entirely uncommon during consultations, some patients struggled to accept that they needed her help, but the one that fell between them was different. Heavier. It coiled around Hermione, reaching into her stomach to settle there in a hard knot of history. There was so much of it, and it was complicated.

Here was a witch who had been a prisoner in her own home when it had been converted into an unfathomable hell. A witch who had lied to Voldemort about Harry being dead, risking her life to protect her son. Here was also the witch whose sister had taken joy in torturing her.

Yet she was asking for Hermione's help.

The irony was not lost on her.

But years in therapy had taught her that healing from trauma wasn't just physical or mental. It was also about taking charge of her personal liberation from the mental state of victimisation by not allowing herself to let past trauma interfere with her present and future.

While looking at Narcissa, she reminded herself that she'd already forgiven the witch and her family. She had let it go years ago, and she refused to go back to that place once more. She hadn't forgiven them for their sake, no, it was for hers. Hermione knew that she couldn't grow if she held on to every grudge, couldn't fly if she allowed herself to stay grounded by every weight in her past.

And she very much wanted to do both.

Forgiveness wasn't an action, but a choice that she continued to make each day. It wasn't easy, but Hermione had accepted her decision not to allow hate to cloud her judgment anymore. And that granted her the peace of mind she needed to be objective about the witch in front of her.

Detached enough to consider the facts of the assignment and not the patient.

The truth was that she couldn't accept her as a patient, no matter what the angle.

Hermione had rules about accepting patients she knew in any capacity; she mentally glared rusty daggers at Theo because he had known that all along yet he had still suggested she keep an open mind.

"Would you care for tea?" Hermione politely gestured to the kettle on her desk, charmed to stay warm. She provided this blend during all of her initial consultations. "It's a blend of lemon balm, kava, and valerian root. It's good to calm the nerves."

Narcissa looked mildly impressed, but ultimately declined. "My nerves are perfectly calm, thank you."

"Mmm." Hermione saw the subtle signs of stress, whether intentional or not. She saw the eye movements and tension in her shoulders that spoke to it, but she refused to make assumptions about a witch she hardly knew.

Thirteen years had passed and she doubted Narcissa Malfoy was the same witch she had been. That was impossible. Losing her husband and way of life had changed her, made her retreat. She'd disappeared from both London society and the country itself, living in an undisclosed part of France until recently.

And yet, she had been busy in her self-imposed exile.

Two years after her husband's death, Narcissa had published a tell-all that Hermione had never bothered with, but Andromeda had read it roughly six months after it had been released. It accurately detailed her life growing up in the Black household with a very honest telling of Andromeda's and Sirius' exits from the family, one that the witch herself couldn't denounce. She wrote of her marriage, her son (without many details, as he wished for privacy), the events that led to Voldemort living in her home, and every bit of suffering that followed up until her betrayal the night of the Battle of Hogwarts.

Andromeda had cried when she'd read Narcissa's words to Lucius about those final few moments when he'd hid her and their son away before the Death Eaters attacked. She cried harder when Narcissa detailed watching the Manor burn from a distance with Draco at her side. She wrote about it all: the emotions she felt, the pain, the parallels between her fate and the Manor's, destined to be both consumed and preserved by the never-ending magical fire.

It had been hailed as a poignant and harsh, yet honest tale of a witch's journey through life on the wrong side of the war.

The bestseller that had propelled her into stardom after a brutal war.

Now that Narcissa was sitting in her office, Hermione wondered if she carried the same prejudices that had been instilled in her from birth or if war had taught her that there was a better way. Bigotry was hard to notice in oneself, and harder still to change, but it could be done.

Maybe change had already taken root, but Hermione would never know because Narcissa was still a private and proud woman. But only proud of what she had created, overcome, and achieved. Exactly in that order. The rest, Hermione could tell, was too murky for her to tackle with a patient she didn't intend on acquiring.

So, she waited out the silence by sipping her own tea—green with a twist of fresh lemon from her greenhouse. A quick glance was all the other woman received before Hermione continued detailing notes for Roger Davies, whom she intended on passing Narcissa's case along to.

He would enjoy the challenge.

"I thought you would ask more questions, Miss Granger."

"What would you like me to ask?" Hermione rested her elbows on the arm of her chair, relaxing as she tapped her fingertips together and looked the blonde witch straight in the eye. "I've read your file. Three times."

"Perhaps you might inquire about my current condition."

"Honestly, I don't specialise in your condition. But from what I've observed, the elixirs and potions they have prescribed you are either not working, not the correct combination, or you aren't taking them consistently." Then she waved her hand and the kettle lifted off the table, pouring hot tea into the glass teacup in front of her.

Narcissa hesitated for a moment before properly picking up the cup and taking a sip.

After noting her approval, Hermione continued on. "I've noticed that you are currently experiencing symptoms. Sweats, mainly, but if I were to run diagnostic charms on you, I would likely find your pulse and blood pressure elevated. You've taken particular care of your makeup, likely because it covers the fact that you aren't sleeping well, and you experience daytime drowsiness. I've poured tea for you because you don't seem to trust yourself. Have you dropped anything recently due to tremors? Have you ended up in a place not remembering how you got there? Have you mixed up people's identities? Even infrequently?"

Hermione noticed the slight twitch in Narcissa's jaw that confirmed both her observations and answers.

"That's the nature of your disease. I don't have any questions about what I already know."

Narcissa sat the teacup on the saucer, looking stiff. "It seems that Draco did not exaggerate in any of his childhood accounts of your intelligence."

"It's my job to be observant." Hermione suppressed her chuckle by taking a quick sip of tea before continuing her notes and recommendation of care to Davies.

Narcissa took a delicate sip of tea. For a moment, she was quiet.

"I know what you must think of me coming here asking for your help after what happened between you and my sister."

Her tone was so matter-of-fact that it prompted Hermione's candid admission. "To be quite honest, until you came through my Floo today, I barely thought about you… Well, unless your other sister mentioned you."

It wasn't often, but she kept that piece to herself.

And for good reason, judging by the stony look on Narcissa's face.

Over the years, Andromeda had seemed keen on reconnecting with her younger sister, but it had yet to happen. She'd spoken of it, wrote letter after letter, but hadn't sent a single one. Hermione wondered if finding out about Narcissa's illness would change things, but it wasn't her place to deliver that information.

"With that being said," Hermione continued, trying to steer them back into the realm of professional conversation befitting of their current meeting. "I know you aren't here to discuss the past, and neither am I. I'd like to leave it behind us. This is your time to speak about your goals and motivation for seeking treatment."

"As I decline, my condition will require constant care." It sounded like Narcissa had accepted her disease, which was honestly better than most patients in her predicament.

Hermione made a quick note to Davies. "I'm aware, but why specifically me?"

"You are the best, according to Theodore. I trust his judgment." Narcissa placed her half-empty teacup on the saucer and straightened her spine. "I cannot change my fate, but it appears that with the proper care, I will be able to buy myself time. I…" When she folded one hand over the other on Hermione's desk, she seemed to strip away all pretences and pride, highlighting the reality of her condition and her reason for seeking such specialised care.

At such a high price.

Patiently, she waited until Narcissa finally spoke. "I'm not finished preparing myself and my family. I also would prefer that my grandson not lose his mother and grandmother so close together. He's just a boy."

An odd feeling came over her when she actually allowed herself to think about the fact that Draco Malfoy—of all people—had become a husband, father, and widower before the age of thirty. And she was still… Well, single. No prospects. No children of her own.

Not that she was complaining or wanted a different circumstance, but it was a jarring comparison.

She dusted away the thought like an annoying piece of lint and kept moving forward.

"And Draco. He's… he's not ready to be alone."

A complex maelstrom of emotions warred across Narcissa's features right then; one that seemed to threaten to pull her under. Hermione remained a good distance away, trying to recall where she'd put the box of tissue and quietly summoning them from the table where her stubborn plants were fighting against nature itself.

Hermione wanted to tell her that, while she'd spent her life protecting her son, no one could prevent the inevitable. But she kept her thoughts to herself, firmly locked away as she waited patiently for Narcissa to pull herself together.

"I would like to see him settled and remarried before I… Well, sooner rather than later. He complies with my requests to take marriage meetings—" Funny name for a date, she thought sarcastically. "But I know he is stalling. Biding his time. My son is an intelligent man but he's more stubborn than practical. He likes to control the things he can, and he thinks he can control this by waiting."

Hermione nodded along, half-listening.

She was still distracted by that bothersome piece of lingering mental lint.

Of course, she had known that Malfoy's father had been killed. Everyone knew and had mixed feelings about whether or not Lucius Malfoy had redeemed himself in death. It was such a grey area that Hermione vowed never to broach the subject; it wasn't her place.

Hermione also knew that Draco's marriage to Astoria Greengrass had been finalised the year his mother had published her book. Hermione had heard about the birth of his son, Scorpius, shortly before Al's birth in a roundabout way: the announcement had been splashed all over the society papers Hermione used as compost. Daphne had become a part of her circle of friends before she eloped with Dean, and she talked of her nephew from time to time, but mainly with Ginny because Albus was his age.

And when Astoria died last November, Daphne—who had been missing from their Friday gatherings during her younger sister's rapid decline—had turned up at Hermione's house at three in the morning the day of her funeral. She was in tears and didn't know what flowers to bring.

Flowers just from her.

Hermione had given her a pot of gladiolus from her greenhouse, told her to plant them by her graveside, and quietly spelled them to remain in a state of stasis. She'd never met Astoria, but from Daphne, she knew of her strength and sincerity.

The flowers seemed appropriate, but the act was done for a friend who was mourning.

Not for Draco Malfoy's deceased wife.

And while Hermione knew all of this, she had never spared a moment to analyse what any of that meant as it pertained to Malfoy or his state of being. His job. His role as father and son. The threats against his family. Hermione never once thought about any of those events as something that had occurred in his life—incidents that could and would define him.

But they had.

"You can't make him prepare," Hermione said in an attempt to firmly push the thoughts away before they could completely crystallise. "It has to be a choice that he makes on his own. One that only he can make."

"Perhaps." Narcissa lifted her head, still looking grim. "But I would like the time to try. For both of their futures. It is only proper that he marry to provide a mother for Scorpius, which is my goal while I am still alive." She looked as if she were trying to find something in Hermione's expression, and when she found whatever she was searching for, she rose to her feet, smoothing her robes with firm strokes. Her eyes widened slightly when Narcissa gave her a cold look. "It appears that I will not find the extra time I need under your care."

Hermione raised a single eyebrow in response.

"Just as you are observant, Miss Granger, I am as well. I haven't lost myself just yet."

Hermione rested back on her chair and listened with a blank look on her face.

"I have seen enough Healers in the last year to know that, had you wished to accept me as a patient, this consultation would have gone very differently. You would have done your own diagnostic charms and compared them to the prior readings." She wasn't wrong. "You would have explained why your care has been described by many as exemplary and by now we would be reviewing parchments with a more detailed layout of your treatment plans."

There was no need to mince words; she'd never been good at it. "You're correct."

Hermione stood up as well and walked around her desk, approaching as the other witch watched her every move with sharp eyes. Narcissa certainly hadn't appreciated the rejection. No matter, Hermione didn't like the fact that she'd been put in this position in the first place. It was a moot point, but that didn't mean she would be rude.

Now, standing in front of Narcissa, she couldn't help but make comparisons between them. While the older witch was well put-together, even after her episode during the consultation, Hermione was not. Her hair was pulled back into a rushed bun and she wore comfortable, faded jeans, a long-sleeved grey shirt, and ankle-high Wellies. Not professional, but she had been checking on the outdoor herbs after a night of rain when she'd remembered the appointment.

There was still dirt on one of her knees, but she made no move to brush it away.

Instead, she stood straight under Narcissa's scrutiny.

"I'm referring you to Healer Davies. He's excellent and will be willing to accept the terms of your contract." With a wave of her hand, the door opened and the guards immediately filed in. "He would be the best to handle your specific needs."

Narcissa bristled. "Might I have a reason as to why you are refusing to accept me?" She held up a hand in gesture for her to wait. "I have answered my own question. Of course, it has to do with our history on opposite sides of the war."

"If that were the case, it would be my right to make that decision." She inclined her head slightly to one side. "Don't you agree?"

A flash of something passed over the older witch's face, frustration or shame. She couldn't tell which, but she exhaled and didn't argue because she knew she couldn't. "I do."

Hermione noted the reluctance in her voice, but knew that it came from a place of pride. Honesty wasn't easy for everyone. "However, that simply isn't the truth." Hermione kept her tone direct but professional. "Regardless of the past, I don't work with patients that I know in any capacity due to the involved nature of the care that I provide. It's a rule of mine that's well-established, and I'm perplexed as to why Theo referred you to me knowing our history."

"Theodore has his own motivations."

That was something she could agree on. What the motivation was, she wasn't certain, but it had to be large if he thought she would break her rules and treat Narcissa for him. Hermione thought about asking if she knew Theo's end game, but the older witch likely wouldn't tell her without a price.

"I suppose he does. However, I don't need his approval to deny you," Hermione said bluntly, meeting Narcissa's hard gaze with one of her own. "I'll see to it that Roger gets your file and schedules an appointment with you as soon as possible. I wish you the best of luck."

"I thank you, Miss Granger," Narcissa said thinly, "for nothing more than wasting my time."

 


 

Hermione never learned to cook with magic.

Even under Mrs Weasley's tutelage, she had never been able to master the craft. Molly had said she lacked the drive—a phrase that had never before been used to describe Hermione Granger.

But she might have had a point.

The issue wasn't a lack of interest, but rather that it never felt natural. Maybe it was due to years of eating her mum's failures and triumphs, but Hermione found very little joy in food that was too perfect. Something about a meal coming out a bit oblong or a touch too dark—one she had made with her own hands—was more appealing than one that was flawless thanks to the aid of magic.

Ron thought it was a pity that she'd never learned, but he never mentioned it again when she suggested that he should be the one to join Harry in taking lessons from Molly if he wanted magically-cooked meals. Ron's silence was likely due to his inability to answer the question as to why he didn't need to learn in a way that wouldn't get him hexed.

When Hermione had moved into her house and started her vegetable patch, but before she'd started Healer Academy, she had been in a bookstore in Godric's Hollow, on the hunt for a book to help with her struggling wormwood plant. Neville had been busy, so she'd taken it upon herself to find the information she'd needed.

During her search, Hermione had walked down the wrong aisle and came face to face with a row of Muggle cookbooks. Impulsively, she'd purchased one that had simple in the title.

It came with a free bookstand, and Hermione left happy with her decision…

Until a month later when she'd finally found a moment to attempt Shepherd's pie.

It had ended with Hermione using her wand to air out the smoke and char from her kitchen. She'd quickly learned the error of her ways and decided to start from scratch—eggs and boiled potatoes—then grew on that.

Improved.

Worked until she was ready to try recipes out of the book again.

Cooking was a lot like potions: if she followed the recipes verbatim, she wouldn't have any issues. And while that wasn't always true, she still used her skills in brewing to get better.

After a series of lacklustre attempts while discovering the art of seasoning with herbs and spices, the first successful meal Hermione had made—that her friends genuinely enjoyed—was Beef Wellington. She'd made it to celebrate finishing her first year of Healer Academy, and as they ate and raved, Hermione had felt a sense of accomplishment that waving her wand to cook couldn't replicate.

After the conclusion of her appointment with Narcissa, Hermione—now far more proficient—didn't have the time needed to recreate her first success for dinner with her friends that evening, so she opted for something simple: Coq Au Vin with roasted new potatoes and a salad made with homegrown spring greens.

She'd just set the warming charms on her meal and started prepping the salad when Harry stepped out the Floo. Ginny had taken the kids to Shell Cottage that morning for the weekend so they could spend time with their older cousins, Louis and Dominique, who hadn't gone off to Hogwarts yet.

Harry brought over a Pinot Noir and a bottle of Ogden's because they'd finished the last one the previous Friday, which had made Saturday rough. Al hadn't minded just lying in the conservatory after their walk towards the forest because, even after a hangover potion, Hermione hadn't been able to do much else.

"Hey, it smells great in here. Do you need any help?"

Harry was always willing to help however he could, but Hermione sat down the knife she was using to chop the red peppers for the salad and shook her head.

"I'm putting the last bit into the salad, so no." She grinned at her best friend, accepting both his embrace and the wine she put in the chiller. The Ogden's went under the island, stored with the rest of the liquors she'd collected over the years. "We're just waiting for everyone else."

"Who all is coming?"

"Ron and Pansy." First, Harry rolled his eyes, because the two constantly argued, but then he smirked; she knew he rather enjoyed the bickering. Hermione laughed. "She promised to behave."

"I'll believe it when I see it."

"Fair point." Hermione shrugged. "How was your day?" She asked carefully. It would be rude if she didn't, even though she already knew the answer.

Harry had been promoted to Head of the Auror Department after the prior Head had gotten so fed up with Draco Malfoy that he'd retired eight years early just to avoid working with him. Harry had no illusions about the reason he'd been promoted. He was, after all, The Boy Who Lived… Twice.

And the Ministry used Harry the same way they had once tried to use her: as a symbol, a prop. He was a promotional tool they wielded to maintain the public's trust, without any power to make real change. But unlike her, Harry had accepted the role for his own reasons. He believed that the reason behind his promotion wouldn't negate the good he could accomplish. He was determined to eliminate the threat of the Death Eaters, not just for the wizarding world, but for his family as well.

His new position had come with an office, a more generous salary, and the very large task of collaborating with the Terrorism Task Force… and Draco Malfoy. The Wizengamot had put pressure on them both to make measurable progress as the public's disapproval with the Ministry as a whole continued to decline, especially after a Death Eater attack in December that had levelled an entire wizarding village as nothing more than a message to the Ministry.

And yet, despite the heavy odds, underfunding, and general chaos, they'd had a few successes and captured a handful of high-ranking Death Eaters in the last two months. However, that wasn't enough to appease the Wizengamot.

But Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither were their problems. Hermione found it appalling that they'd had the audacity to give them so little and demand so much, but she didn't work at the Ministry, so it wasn't her place to object. Mostly.

Things had been tense.

It didn't help that the two men at the centre of it all could barely stand each other. After years of therapy, Harry had learned better coping skills, addressed his childhood trauma, and made peace with the long list of losses he'd endured along the way. He was calmer now that the piece of Voldemort had been killed off, able to focus. He smiled more and was harder to anger, especially after becoming a father…

But he hadn't quite gotten past his old grudge.

Not completely.

There was something about Malfoy that woke up the fifteen-year-old inside of Harry that wanted very much to punch him in the face.

Regularly.

Repeatedly.

Harry ranted about him often enough that Hermione would complete several mental tasks, make her list for the market, update her to-do list, and do a little aimless mind-wandering while Harry let it all out. It never failed that whatever she did, whenever she returned to him, he would still be complaining.

Today was no exception.

"My day was normal in that Malfoy was being an utter bastard." Harry threw up his hands just as Hermione started the timer on her watch. She wanted to know if he would break his own rant record this time. "Remember that raid I told you about?"

She nodded mechanically.

Malfoy, after an exhaustive search, had located the Welsh hideout for the Lestrange brothers at the end of last year. Then, he'd recruited a wizard to infiltrate their ranks. Two weeks ago, that spy had reported back that there would be a meeting with the highest-ranking Death Eaters, but the date was not yet known, only that it would be before the end of May.

From what Harry had disclosed, it'd seemed like they could end it all during this raid.

Everyone had been discreetly preparing. Curse-Breakers were slowly being pulled off assignment to examine evidence and dark objects found that would assist the prosecution. Hit Wizards and Magical Law Officers were being pulled in to grow their numbers. But they hadn't had the time or capacity for the training needed to make them a more unified front.

"Yeah… Well, he's dismissed every team lead I've suggested without any reason beyond thinking they're incompetent, but wouldn't suggest Aurors that he approves of because that's my job."

Hermione kept her flinch inward, but only just barely. She could practically hear those words coming from Draco—well, the sixteen-year-old version of him. She hadn't been in the same room as the adult version, and thus had no reference material unless she counted Harry's accounts.

And, well, her best friend was a lot of things, but he wasn't always a reliable source when it came to Draco Malfoy. However, if she were to judge his character based on Harry's complaints and the bits she had heard about him, Hermione would say he was still the same bastard he'd been during school.

No matter how incredibly fit Parvati found him.

"Every plan I've designed around entry points into the Manor, he's rejected. He called them simple and said I'll get everyone killed, that my freakishly good luck only extends to me."

Privately, Hermione heard that in Malfoy's teenaged voice and wondered if it was too early to open the new bottle of Ogden's.

For him.

"Oh!" Harry snapped his fingers. "And then, I recommended Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder and Malfoy said no, because it's too messy."

He wasn't wrong, but Hermione didn't say anything. Yet.

"I brought in a Wards Expert to remove the ward, but he found someone else—a pureblood—to do it." Harry, whose cheeks had gone red, balled his fists. One of the several anger management tips he'd learned over the years.

It didn't look to be working because he was in full-on rant mode.

"I just hate that when we meet with the Wizengamot, I have to pretend like everything is just fine. Pretend that I'm not working with the biggest wanker I've ever known! And I have to act like a fucking professional when all I want to do is toss him out my window every single time I see his ferret face!" Harry took two deep, cleansing breaths, a technique he'd picked up from Ginny's Lamaze classes. Then he smiled. "That felt good. Better out than in."

"True." Hermione stopped her watch, hoping he didn't realise that she had been timing his Malfoy-centred rants.

He hated when she did that.

The record had been six minutes and thirteen seconds—set the day of their first meeting as heads of their respective departments. They'd nearly come to blows. Today, he hadn't even been close.

One minute and thirty-seven seconds.

Hermione cleared her throat and hoped she wouldn't start another rant with her perspective on the matter. She'd hate to have to restart the clock. "While I don't entirely disagree with Malfoy…" At the betrayed look on her best friend's face, she raised both hands. "Hear me out, Harry. He's got a point about Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder. It's a hindrance that will only cause more injuries through friendly fire. Besides, last I heard, the Hand of Glory was locked away in the Department of Mysteries. I doubt anyone will approve its usage given its tendency to wind up in the wrong hands."

At that, Harry pulled face, frowning deeply. "I didn't think about it like that." He rolled his eyes. "If he'd said it like that, I wouldn't have argued so hard about it."

Malfoy probably would have, but Hermione let Harry think that while she sat the bowl with the mixed salad in the fridge to keep cool while they waited.

The next person arrived not long after that.

As soon as Hermione shut the door and turned around, ready to bring up Tiberus' visit, Pansy arrived with a small pop, wearing a long-sleeved turquoise bohemian play dress that had small flowers she couldn't identify from across the room.

She did, however, recognise the positively thunderous look on Pansy's face. If Hermione were a betting person, she'd wager her entire Gringotts vault on the possibility that she was the source of Pansy's ire. If not for the glare of her icy blue eyes, then for the fact that she started yelling before Harry could greet her.

"I can't believe you rejected her as a patient!"

Hermione had never considered herself an overly emotional person. There were moments when her heart won out over her brain, moments when she reacted too quickly. She was human, after all, and that meant she constantly found herself balancing between hundreds of extremes. But generally, she prided herself on using her brain and logic to sort through every situation as it manifested itself.

And this was an issue.

While maintaining detachment, Hermione approached the island where Harry sat in wide-eyed silence while the witch to the right of him practically panted her indignation. Though there were several questions that crossed her mind—How? What? When? Who?—she cast them aside to focus on Pansy before her burning anger left scorch marks on everything.

"This is about Narcissa Malfoy." It was an overly calm, rhetorical statement designed to distract Pansy. And it worked. Her eyes went wide as she sputtered like a fish out of water; her mouth opened and closed just as fast.

Before she could get her second wind, Hermione rested one hand on the granite. "I have theories about how you managed to find out so quickly, or why you're involved in this matter to begin with, but I won't deny that I rejected her as a patient."

"Why? And don't waste your breath spouting your Healer rubbish about not being able to be objective because you know her. I wasn't born yesterday, Granger."

"I don't tell you how to do your job, so you don't get to tell me how to do mine."

Harry cleared his throat. "How about I just—"

Without taking her eyes off Pansy, Hermione raised her hand. "Stop talking, Harry."

"Okay."

"Don't talk to him like that!" Pansy cut her eyes at Harry, who looked just as surprised by her defence before she swore violently. "What the—you've got me defending Potter, for fuck's sake! You owe me a drink when I stop being mad at you. Shite, that didn't even feel right."

Harry frowned like he wanted to be offended, but then he shrugged. She had a point.

Hermione, on the other hand, examined Pansy with a probing look the other witch always hated. In fact, she probably would have hissed like a cat had they not had an audience. "I'm surprised you're the one arguing on her behalf and not her actual son."

Pansy rolled her eyes. "Draco would sooner choke on his pride and die than ask for help from anyone. It's not his way. It's never been his way. Control issues galore. Their relationship is strained at best, anyway, and he has enough problems on his hands. The threats. Work. I'd say Scorpius, too, but he's not involved in child-rearing. That's Narcissa's job now that Astoria's gone."

Hermione recalled that bothersome thought one more time before firmly locking it away.

And throwing away the key.

Hermione tilted her head. "Why do you care?"

"I've known Narcissa my entire life. She's been more of a mother to me than my own, and that was before she burned me." Pansy looked away then back, touching her hair, seemingly uneasy with her own candidness—especially around Harry, who looked intrigued. "As soon as she heard what happened, she gave me a chance to get away from it all until I was ready to stand on my own two feet."

She spoke of Narcissa like Hermione spoke of Mrs Weasley.

It was a comparison she couldn't ignore.

"When she told me about her illness, and Theo said that he was going to ask you to take her case, I was relieved because I knew she would be in the best hands. I hoped she might live as long as possible. Scorpius, though, while I don't exactly agree with how rigid she is with his schooling, needs the stability as long as possible. And I've seen how dedicated you are to your patients. I thought…" Her voice went brittle. "Well, obviously I thought wrong."

"Have you seen me with my patients? Because I don't believe you truly have. I essentially become a part of their lives. I monitor everything from their meals to their family situations, and should anything negatively affect them, I rectify the situation. I grow the ingredients for their potions in my greenhouse, and what I can't find, I acquire, no matter how specific."

Pansy tried to interject. "I—"

"It takes time and effort and a certain finesse that's not typical of any Healer out there. The meals they eat are from my vegetable patch, made by my own hands. I'm not just their Healer, I don't simply wave a wand, feed them potions, and make them better. I look out for their physical, mental, and emotional health. I help their families, because most people forget how much of a difference a supportive and knowledgeable family can make when it comes to a patient's care. Narcissa's, from what little I got from her today, is convoluted at best. Not to mention the fact that I don't even specialise in her disease."

Pansy folded her arms across her chest. "I know that. All of that."

"Then you should understand why I won't take her. Don't judge what you don't understand."

For a moment, her blue eyes were unguarded and open. "She just wants time, Hermione."

"Roger will be—"

"Davies?" She blanched. "That pompous prat? He'd sooner—"

"It's not about Roger's personality. It's about his ability to do his job objectively. Narcissa and I have history, Pansy, and it's complicated. That's like asking Harry to take care of her. It's—"

"I'd do it," Harry interrupted with a small, casual shrug. When the both turned their attention back to him, he ran a hand through his perpetually unruly hair. "What?" She caught sight of his famous scar before he brushed his hair back over it. "We've been writing for years now. Not often, but a few times. Her letters come to Grimmauld Place."

Pansy gaped at him. Hermione almost did as well.

He didn't seem particularly bothered. "I had tea with her there when she returned to the country. It was right before Malfoy took the position. Andromeda was supposed to join us, but she declined at the last minute."

Sometimes Harry caught her by surprise with the things he kept to himself.

Pansy stared at him intensely. "You'd help her?"

"Yeah." He shrugged again, looking between the two witches. "At one point, she helped us all…"

His response was simple in its totality and yet it said so much more.

 


 

Hermione's favourite room in her house was the conservatory.

It was a glass-paned addition located just off her kitchen with pitched ceilings that gave her a room with a view of the beautiful land around her home. It reminded her that she was part of the natural order. From any spot, she could see the world beyond her vegetable patch, the separate cobblestone walk that led from the steps to the fence, the field, and the trees in the distance that divided the end of her property and the start of the dense forest. But when simply looking wasn't enough, there was a door that opened up to that world.

Pansy had spent the better part of winter turning it into an oasis with creative lighting, floor to ceiling trellis in each corner for climbing roses, decorative rugs that kept the stone floor warm, and a small jungle of plants and flowers elegantly arranged in different places in the room.

The lounge area was in the centre of the room, with a dark resin wicker sofa, settee, and two matching chairs, all with plush, cream cushions. They artfully surrounded a glass top table lined with candles that were spelled to turn on whenever someone entered the room. To the right, just beyond the lounge area, was a reading nook tucked off with lamps and a comfortable chaise large enough for two people.

It wasn't uncommon for her to fall asleep in the chaise under a blanket while reading a book.

Or while gazing at the stars.

To the left of the lounge was an eating area with creative lighting for when it got too dark. Hermione's original dining table—a circular glass table with six chairs she'd been too sentimental to give up—served as the focal point of the area. It wasn't uncommon for Hermione to have dinner out there with guests. Or alone.

Tonight, the four of them sat comfortably, eating the meal Hermione had prepared, chatting under floating lamps that lined the stone outer wall of her home. The sun had dipped behind the trees as purple dusk began its mission to take over the sky and prepare it for nightfall. The stars would be making an appearance soon, too, and it was forecasted to be clear enough for them to enjoy the sight.

While Ron and Harry talked and joked around like always, Hermione drifted in and out of their conversation. They grew more animated as dinner progressed and their lips loosened over the lager Ron brought with him.

Neither were keen on the wine she and Pansy drank.

As usual, Ron sat a little too close. Close enough for her to feel his thigh brush against hers every now and then. Close enough for her to catch a small whiff of the scent she often associated with him. Hermione knew what he was doing, the goal he was trying to accomplish. Ron wasn't nearly as subtle as he thought, especially when he rested his hand on the back of her chair while talking to Harry.

He wanted her to let him back in, and he would keep trying bit by bit until she did.

But Hermione was more than stubborn, she was uninterested. So, when his fingers absently brushed against her hair, she scooted away, silently shutting him out while Pansy looked at him in disapproval.

Hermione found herself more focused on Pansy than Ron during the course of their meal and conversation. Pansy had let the earlier conversation lapse with Ron's arrival, but she was well aware the other witch was plotting. Pansy was more tolerable than expected. Tactfully amicable was a term that surfaced in Hermione's mind when she'd only looked mildly disgusted as Ron waved a chicken bone in the air while explaining something or other to Harry.

Pansy would play nice and bide her time like a coiled snake, waiting for the perfect moment to strike her prey. And Hermione was no one's prey.

The wards alerted Hermione to the arrival of an unexpected guest.

She immediately looked at Ron on her right. "Percy's here."

"Who is that?" Pansy nearly spit out her sip of wine.

"Ron's brother." Hermione nudged Ron with her elbow as he tried to figure out why his brother was there. Then she wanted it to dawn on him.

"Oh, right." He jumped from his seat and headed towards the door. Not paying attention, he nearly clipped the settee, but recovered. "He's bringing our tickets to the Cannons game tomorrow."

"The tickets weren't free?" Pansy asked with a bemused look on her face. "As if I'd pay one Knut to see them lose."

At her comment, Ron looked both outraged and insulted. The two emotions waged war over the right to be expressed first, but ultimately, he ended up sputtering like an engine that failed to start and vanished into her house after giving Pansy a deathly glare she simply laughed at. Harry and Hermione chuckled into their respective drinks and exchanged knowing looks.

Pansy wasn't wrong, but neither one would even so much as hint at that to their friend.

Hermione watched as the witch finished the rest of her wine and stood, pushing her chair in. "I have now reached my Weasley quota for one day."

Hermione would have explained, but thought it better for her to find out on her own

Harry, however, tried to give her a clue. "Percy's different."

"Does he have table manners?" It was a very serious question for someone like Pansy Parkinson.

"In a manner of speaking," he answered cryptically.

Hermione laughed, resting her hand on her cheeks, warmed from the wine.

Pansy blinked at him incredulously. "In a manner of—haven't I suffered enough? Of—"

"Good evening." Percy's polite yet posh baritone floated from the doorway before he approached the table with Ron.

Everyone turned to look.

That was the sort of presence Percy had developed over the years.

He'd always been different, but over time, he'd grown out of his desperate need to prove he was better than his family and their circumstances. He'd become a man who knew exactly who he was, where he'd come from, and what he was worth. Percy, who was the head of the International Magical Office of Law, walked with a sort of pride that reflected all he'd learned and experienced.

Hermione couldn't help but notice that the two brothers—in addition to being contraries in personality—were also visual opposites. Ron had made an effort tonight with dark jeans, a white shirt, and brushed hair. Taller than all of his siblings except George, he moved with a swagger of self-assurance, like someone that was settled and without a care in the world.

Percy, on the other hand, possessed the ease of a seasoned diplomat. Tonight, he looked almost casual in grey tailored trousers, a matching waistcoat, and a white and purple chequered shirt. No bowtie.

Hermione had never seen Pansy look so confused. "You're a Weasley?"

"I am." Percy looked taken aback by her brashness, but he recovered smoothly. "And you are…"

He allowed the question to linger, but when Pansy didn't respond—as she was too busy blinking at him like her brain had short-circuited—Hermione helped her out. "This is Pansy."

Percy's blue eyes briefly cut over to Hermione before returning to the black-haired witch. "Ah." He took another step towards her, courteously extending his hand. "And your surname?"

Finally, she remembered herself, but didn't move to accept his offered hand. In fact, she looked at it, then back up at him. "I'm between surnames right now."

Harry almost choked on his drink. Ron, who had returned to his seat during the introduction, slapped him on the back. Percy suppressed a smirk of his own, but didn't retract his hand, maintained eye-contact with an almost determined look on his face. For a moment, Hermione thought she'd have to intervene, but only a few more seconds passed before she extended hers as well.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Percy said.

Ron glared at his brother. "Oi! I thought you were coming just to say hello to Harry and Hermione."

"I've changed my mind," he said to Ron while still staring at Pansy, whose cheeks had taken on a slight colour under his fixed gaze. She cleared her throat as she slowly pulled her hand free of his. Hermione didn't miss the way she flexed her fingers before closing it into a fist and tucking that arm behind her back.

Pansy's eyes cut to her, then flickered around the room as if she were searching for something important. Probably the portal back to the universe where everything made sense to her.

She almost laughed at the thought.

"If you don't mind the intrusion," Percy glanced at Hermione, "I think I'll stay."

"Of course not. Pansy here was just leaving."

Percy glanced back at her. "Oh, you are?"

"To get more wine, of course." Pansy cleared her throat.

She did just that before Hermione could remind her of the half-full bottle right there on the table.

Percy took the empty chair next to hers, smoothing invisible wrinkles from his trousers. She glanced over at Harry, who was watching the man with a raised eyebrow that peeked over the thick rim of his glasses. Ron started talking about the seats for the game while Hermione followed her best friend's line of sight back to Percy, who was now making sure his already perfect red hair was just right.

Hermione tipped back the rest of her wine. "How was your day, Percy?"

Percy completely bypassed her question. "I didn't offend her, did I?"

"Why does it matter?" Ron looked confused. "It's just Pansy bleeding—"

"Shut up, Ron," Harry and Hermione said simultaneously.

The answer to his question was no, but it was also very precarious.

However, it wasn't her place to tell him any of that.

Being burned and ostracised from society had turned Pansy into a cautious person, a planner who liked to know what was coming so she could adequately prepare herself. She was excellent at reading people. The sort of witch who was jaded—or arrogant—enough to believe herself immune to being surprised by anyone or anything. The last time she had seen Pansy surprised by a person's actions had been when Hermione hugged her while she cried therapeutic tears over her first finished project. Pansy thought she'd had it—and everyone—figured out, and was just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

Hermione never had the heart to tell her truth: the game of life didn't have a standard set of rules. Humans were more complicated than whatever system she had used to sort them all. One day she would meet someone she couldn't immediately categorise.

And judging by the way she'd bolted, that day was today. And that person was Percy Weasley.

Percy was the only one that stood when Pansy returned with a single wine glass in her hand. She offered no excuses for why she hadn't grabbed another bottle either. In truth, she looked far more composed until he pulled out her chair.

She stared at him.

He held her gaze.

The standoff lasted until Ron abruptly stopped talking about the game and glared at them both. "Oh, for fuck's sake, just sit down, will you?" They both glared at him, but he didn't even care. "Percy thinks of himself as a perfect gentleman. Bit of a tosser, really." Ron only half meant it based on the smirk on his face.

Pansy's frown deepened into distaste and her eyes narrowed into tiny slits, but she placed her wine glass on the table and sat down without further argument. Percy adjusted her chair and returned to his before reaching for an empty glass and the bottle on the table, chilled with magic.

He poured himself a perfectly proper amount then turned to Pansy. "Would you care for more wine?"

She was hesitant, still puzzled by his entire existence, when she said, "Yes, please."

Percy smiled.

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.
Leo Tolstoy

Percy & Pansy
Source: Jaxxinthebox

Chapter Text

 

 

 


Four
Theory of Incompatibility

 


March 25, 2011


Hermione had always been fascinated by the stars.

Sometimes, on nights that were clear and unseasonably warm, she would wait until everything was quiet and take a blanket out into the pasture behind her house to lay out and gaze up at the sky.

It made Hermione feel small, overlooked, but she liked that.

Every pain and anxiety she carried from war and recovery, the worries that fluttered in and out of her mind even now, everything that culminated and threatened to consume her—it all seemed less overwhelming whenever she inhaled, exhaled, and understood that she was just one person in the middle of something much larger than herself. The universe. And Hermione knew her place in it. She was vital to few, important to some, a face in the crowd to others, and a stranger to most.

Overall insignificant in the greater cycle of nature.

There to serve her purpose. To just live life the best way she knew how.

During those brief, tranquil moments, while in contact with the earth and dwarfed by the heavens above, she felt held, content, and at peace. Free. Insignificance, she'd realised during therapy, wasn't demeaning, simply a reminder that she didn't have to be anything and everything at all moments.

Only herself for that moment.

And because of her understanding, it was as if the entire universe had unlocked itself, stretching out before her, filling her up with the notion that anything was possible.

Tonight she didn't wait for very long after Girls' Night concluded before she made her way outside with her blanket. Still warm from the wine Pansy had insisted they drink so they wouldn't crash like they had the week before, Hermione laid out in the grass and observed the sky. The night was clear, with just enough thin clouds to partially obscure the waning gibbous moon, allowing her to properly observe the sky that was dotted with stars.

Some were large, others little more than a speck to her naked eye, but it was all stunning.

The sound of peaceful wildlife and chirping bugs was calming. Peaceful. Hermione spotted the Big Dipper first, tilting rightward on its handle, then followed it towards Polaris. Then back up and over, where she landed on the ever-present Draco, who weaved his way between both dippers. From tip to head, Hermione used her finger to draw the dragon's body in the sky. She was moving towards Eltanin when the hum of her wards drew her attention.

Nothing alarming, just Harry and Ron.

A surprise, but not an unwelcome one.

Hermione turned her head to watch them approach, identifying them less because of their magical signatures, and more by the way they walked. Even in the grass, Ron walked too loudly, while Harry moved with the stealth of a cat due to years of being both an Auror and a parent. He was also more identifiable because he'd come bearing another blanket—one that looked to have come from her sofa.

Thoughtful.

She never accounted for how cool it would get while she was out there.

Harry took to unfolding the blanket while Ron plopped down next on her after greeting her with a boyish smile. The moonlight made it possible for her to see the colour of his eyes and the flush of his cheeks. "Hey."

"Hey," Hermione returned as he settled next to her. "You smell like a pub."

Ron laughed like he always did when he was pissed. "Seamus was in town and we had to take advantage of Harry's free night. We met up at The Leaky, but ended up across town at a bar closer to Dean's house. He didn't want to be too far away from Daphne."

"She's not due until June."

Ron only shrugged in response; he had no practical experience with babies outside his nieces and nephews.

Harry fanned out the blanket and covered them both. "She wasn't feeling well."

"Ah." She'd have to pay her a visit and bring her the teas she'd made just for her.

Pretty soon, she was wedged between her first friends, all huddled under the same blanket.

Warm. Content. It felt like home. It felt like family.

That feeling had never changed.

Harry was looking up at the sky, with his hands behind his head. Hermione knew he had no idea what he was looking at because he'd never bothered to remember what they'd learned in Astronomy. Ron was in a similar position, with one hand tucked behind his head and the other mere centimetres from hers, equally as unaware.

She moved her hand away, placing it on her stomach.

They laid in perfect silence for so long that Ron dozed off, his head right at her shoulder, his breath on her arm. It was only when he let out a light snore that Harry said, "I didn't want you to find out about Narcissa Malfoy like that."

It was the last thing she'd expected him to say. "You don't have to tell me everything."

He lifted up and used one hand to scrub his face. "Yeah, I know, but still… I didn't tell you because I wasn't sure how I felt about it myself. It…wasn't bad. She's…" After struggling to find the words, he settled on: "Interesting."

It was reflex that made her snort in disagreement, but Harry laughed all the same.

The witch she'd met could be described as far more than merely interesting.

Complicated seemed more like it. Also: shrewd, overbearing, and proud. Still, she understood why Theo had recommended her over Susan.

"I learned a significant amount of fairly useless information, mostly about wizarding etiquette, but she wasn't mean." Harry shrugged. "Malfoy reminds me of her when he glaring or questioning someone's status as a being capable of higher thought. So, basically all the time." Harry shook his head in amusement. "Oh, and she asked me why I named all my children after dead people, so that was fun."

There was a moment's pause before they both started laughing.

Even based on Hermione's limited knowledge of her as a person, that sounded very much like something Narcissa Malfoy would ask. "What did you say in response?"

"I asked her why everyone in the Black family was named after constellations. She looked at me as if I were a special sort of idiot before she said: tradition. Then, she gave me a look that said 'your move' and I just shut up after that."

Hermione couldn't hold back her laughter. "She's sharp, that's for sure."

Which made her inevitable decline all the more tragic. And sobering. Humbling. Everything she'd created, built, and overcome she would soon forget. Hermione couldn't imagine losing her memories. They were a piece of who she was: the good and the bad. Her connection between the past and present which would pave the way for the future.

Losing all of that was a fate no one deserved.

One worse than death.

In one breath, Hermione confessed a thought that had been weighing on her since her meeting with Narcissa. "She knew I was going to turn her down before I said anything."

At that, Harry's eyes found hers. She could barely see the flecks of green in the darkness, just his signature confused expression.

"Why did you turn her down? I won't act like I understand your job, because I don't, but I've never seen you decline anyone."

"I don't work with people I know."

Ron snuffled in his sleep, his hair tickling her jawline.

"Do you really know her?" Harry asked. "Outside of that day, you've got little idea about who she is or who she's become since the war. I confess I still don't, but as a parent, I understand her reasons for wanting to be accepted into your care. If I had to, I'd ask Malfoy for help if it meant more time with my kids."

Hermione highly doubted that, no matter how serious he sounded.

"Besides, you worked with Molly after her poisoning."

"That's different," Hermione argued gently, unable to raise her voice at him in any way. They'd been through too much for that. "Narcissa is going to need years of care to fight a battle she's never going to win."

"Who better to have on her side than you?"

She stared at her best friend for a long time, repeating his question in her head over and over without being able to formulate a response. Ron moved, mumbling inaudible words under his breath as he shifted closer to her.

Harry's brow went up. "On to a different topic of conversation: what are you going to do about that?" He nodded in Ron's direction. When she gave him a long look, he feigned an innocent expression. "I'm not getting involved, just asking a question."

With a sigh, Hermione rolled her eyes. "What's there to do? We broke up. Years ago. Messily, as I'm sure you remember."

The look on his face clearly told her to stop kidding herself. He'd never put himself in the middle of their drama, not even while they were dating. He'd always played the role of the mediator. When it got too bad, he just hid from them both until whatever fight had been resolved.

Better than choosing a side.

"You know what I mean, Hermione." Harry frowned. "He thinks—"

"I'm aware of what he thinks, but he's wrong."

"Then maybe you should start dating." He ran a hand through his dark hair, messing it up beyond repair. Clearly, he wanted to have the conversation less than she did, but that didn't stop him from talking about it. "As long as you're single, he'll always think he has a chance. He'll never let up. He's stubborn like that—like you." She cut him down with another glare that seemed to roll off him like water. "Hear me out, if you're not so available, he'll—"

"I don't want to date someone just to make a point. You know that's not who I am."

"I'm not saying that." Harry kept his voice low, his words slow and measured. "I'm saying bring someone around and show Ron that you aren't an option."

"Me simply saying I'm not an option should be enough."

Harry scratched his hairline. "I know, I do."

"Then why bring it up at all? Why not encourage him to move on?"

"I have been, but he's insistent this time. If you're unavailable, he'll get the message, and I won't have to listen to his plans for getting you back knowing full well they won't work."

Hermione sighed; she knew how much of a strain their failure to launch had put on him. "I'll think about it."

"That's all I ask."

Harry knew her well enough to know that she hardly ever made impulsive decisions. Breaking up with Ron hadn't even been one. Quitting the Ministry. Healing. Nothing was done rashly. Only after deep thought and consideration of all points.

Shifting a bit on the blanket, he turned his body towards her, opened his mouth, and paused thoughtfully. "I know you'll tell everyone who will listen how happy you are as you are, but I also know you, Hermione. I know you're stagnant because you're looking for something you haven't found yet."

She stared at her closest friend, but didn't argue. In the quiet around them, Hermione could admit that he wasn't wrong. Her heart was thudding in her chest when she asked, "What do you think I'm looking for?"

"What most people look for. Something deeper… something with greater meaning. Connection. Emotion. Something real. I hope you find it. I know I don't say it as much as I should, but I do appreciate everything you do. We all do. You give a lot—not just to your patients, but to us as well, especially with Albus. Sometimes, I worry that it's too much."

Hermione shoved him lightly. "Are you getting maudlin on me, Harry?"

"No." He rolled his eyes. "But it would be nice for you to get something back in return."

She bit her lip. "I do get fulfillment from helping everyone. I'm content and I know my limits." She saw his expression turn serious in the near darkness, which made her stop. A light breeze danced in the trees. "Everything that I do is because I want to. You know that, right? I don't do it to get something back."

"And that makes you deserve whatever it is you want even more…"



March 28, 2011


No one was more surprised than Molly when Hermione turned up at the Burrow bright and early on Monday morning with a wicker basket full of fresh cauliflower, leeks, chicory, and onions. She'd also brought along a container of fresh eggs from her small chicken coop.

It wasn't much, but they didn't need to keep much around anymore. At least not until the first Sunday of each month when all the Weasleys, family friends, their significant others, and any children not away at Hogwarts gathered for family dinner. Appreciative as always, Molly asked her to stay for a while and had a cup of tea ready before she could decline.

That was her way, after all. Nurturing, albeit a bit pushy.

But her heart was always in the right place.

"How are you feeling, dear?" Mrs Weasley wore that motherly smile that made her grin as well. Molly reached over and tucked her hair behind her ear. "You're not working too hard, are you?"

"I'm doing well, not working too hard, I promise." Hermione sipped her tea, noting the slice of lemon in her Earl Grey and Molly had gotten the sugar just right. For a brief moment, she thought about how strange it was that the line of questioning that had driven her to irritation with her own mother sounded so different coming from Molly. "I've just gotten my last assignment swapped over to a Primary Healer for maintenance. He's doing quite well. It's remarkable."

"That's exciting, dear. I saw his wife in Diagon Alley and she couldn't stop singing your praises. I'm so happy for their family to be whole again." Her smile was genuine, if a little sad like it always was when she thought about Fred.

It wasn't much, but it was all Molly could muster. Grief never arrived or left on a particular schedule, so Hermione readied herself by scooting her chair closer and resting her head on Molly's shoulder. For several quiet minutes, they stayed like that until the older woman affectionately squeezed her arm.

"Thank you."

Hermione lifted her head and nodded. "Anytime."

Mrs Weasley smiled softly at her. "You do look rested."

"I slept well last night." She, Harry, and Ron had spent the evening watching movies at Harry's house. It was his last night before Ginny and the kids returned from Shell Cottage, but he had to work so they weren't up too late. Ron had the next day off and had seen her home.

"Good, now drink up before it gets cold." Hermione scooted back, obediently taking another sip of her still hot tea. "I'm glad that you're resting between assignments. I'm proud of you, but you really do tend to overextend while you're working. Don't forget to make time for yourself."

"I won't." Again.

The unspoken implication hung in the air between the two women.

More than any awkwardness between Harry, Hermione had worried most about what Molly would think when she broke things off with Ron. By then, she had become more than just a mother figure; she was someone she trusted. Confided in. Of course, Hermione had never agreed with her more traditional views, but she'd never met a belief she didn't challenge. They could disagree and she would still love her.

Simple as that.

Over the years, Molly had given her example after example of how blood didn't always make a family. She was supportive when Hermione returned from Australia with only her parents' forgiveness and their phone number, holding her long after she'd cried herself to sleep. And she'd continued that support through her breakup with Ron. Molly had even been there when she'd woken up in St Mungo's, fragile and lost. She'd seen her through recovery and therapy, Healer Academy, and beyond. Never wavering, sometimes lecturing, but always loving her.

And, unexpectedly, Hermione had returned the good deed two years ago when Molly had come into contact with a letter that had been smeared with poison and delivered to the Burrow. She'd taken over her care, brewing the antidote with time to spare and no lasting effects.

It was after that incident when Hermione figured out the spell that made them all Unplottable.

"Have you and Neville started planning the next planting season? If you haven't yet, let me know when. I'd love to come over and help."

"Oh, you don't. We can—"

"I insist," Molly said with a smile. "The wars, losing my brothers, Fred, and everyone else… It made me realise just how precious time is. Being poisoned reminded me of that as well. It's simple things like planting fruits and vegetables with the little ones that make me appreciate the time I have with them more. It's priceless. They don't stay like that forever, you know, but the memories I make with them will outlive me."

Strangely, the statement stuck with her, made Hermione revisit her argument with Pansy and her discussion with Harry about Narcissa. She thought about what she knew, what she didn't, and what she had learned along the way.

Time was something that Narcissa Malfoy needed and was poised to pay any price for, but she would never be able to purchase enough, no matter the sum. It must have been incredibly difficult for her to swallow her pride and ask for Hermione's help when that was something she had given Molly for free.

"What's troubling you, love?"

Hermione forced a smile and almost diverted to another topic, almost made excuses for whatever clues she had carelessly dropped, but she couldn't. It was a real possibility that the topic would be one that kept coming up, especially with Pansy's vehement opposition to her refusal to accept Narcissa as a patient. She needed someone objective. Someone without a card to play in the matter.

"I had a consultation with a patient." Hermione carefully considered her words. "She has a disease that we can possibly slow the progression of with long-term aggressive care, but I declined the case."

"Oh, dear, why?"

"Theo suggested her, knowing that she was against my rules."

"I'm sure he had his reasons."

"He did." Hermione sighed, still mulling over that bit. There was one thing about the situation that didn't make sense: Theo's role. His game. The reason for his involvement. She simply couldn't accept the fact that she was the mother of someone Theo considered part of his family. "I don't know what his motivations are, but she requested the best Healer and he thinks I'm it."

Molly smiled proudly. "From what I've heard of your work, and seen of it myself, I'd have to agree. I was supposed to take a lot longer to heal from the poison, but you had me back home in a week with your quality care."

Lowering her head in quiet modesty, Hermione tucked her hair behind her ear and acknowledged her words with a nod. "Her disease is not so uncommon in Muggles, but it is rare in wizards—and aggressive. So aggressive, in fact, that not much is known about it. I can't even guarantee that I'll be able to provide the care she needs or the time she wants… it's outside my purview."

"I'm confident that you'll read and research to figure out if you can give her the proper care."

Hermione tilted her head to the side, face twisted in confusion. "You make it sound like I'm going to take the case."

"Aren't you?" Molly met her with a challenging look. "If it were me or Arthur or anyone you care about, would you do it?"

"I wouldn't hesitate."

"Well, that's against your rules. Why is this person any different?"

Hermione chuckled, thinking back on the way she and Narcissa had glared at each other in her office last week. The differences between them were more than a matter of social class and individual temperament. It went down to their core values and blood.

"Plenty of reasons. If the circumstances were reversed, she wouldn't spare me a second thought—"

"I've never seen you turn down someone in need. Not even when you don't like them or vice versa. I've seen you accept patients that don't respect you until after they've been in your care. It's never mattered to you. They are your patient and you remain objective no matter what. You treat them no matter what." In response to Molly's argument, she had no words. "I can't tell you what to do, love. In the end, it's your decision and I'll support whatever you decide. But give it some thought."

She pondered for several moments that seemed eternal, but in the end, she nodded. "I will."

"Good." Molly smiled and returned to their previous conversation. "Now, when is Neville coming?"

"Saturday morning. Harry's taking Lily for a daughter date, so Ginny will come over with the boys to help clear the spot in the vegetable patch. All the seedlings are ready, Neville brought over pots for the aubergines, celery, and broccoli. I let them each pick a fruit or vegetable they want to plant in the greenhouse. Any preferences?"

"Cucumbers, definitely. Last year's were so crisp and lovely." Hermione nodded; she already had some ready to be planted. "What did the kids pick?"

"Al wants watermelon, which is a tall order, so we'll see. James wants grapes, but I'd definitely have to grow them in the greenhouse with the fruit trees. Lily will eat anything off a bush. I've pruned the blueberry bush and it's looking to be a great year for them. She'll like that. Ginny agrees with James about grapes so I can make wine." They both fondly rolled their eyes. "Regardless, it will be fun."

"And what do you want?"

Hermione shrugged with a soft smile. "A healthy vegetable patch."

"You've got to want more than that, love."

She shook her head. "Healthy crops will suffice."

"If you say so." Molly was quiet for a moment and Hermione thought the older witch would make another go at trying to make her confess to wanting more, but then she asked, "Did Ron make any suggestions?"

Ah. There it was. Hermione's only problem—and a similar complaint she had with her own mother—was the fact that Molly was still determined for her to become her daughter.

In one way or another.

"He's invited himself to help this weekend."

Molly couldn't hide her elation. "Such a good man, my son is. Always willing to help those he cares about." She gave her a meaningful look that Hermione ignored by drinking her tea. "He's even upstairs right now taking care of the ghoul who woke up Arthur and I this morning by banging on the pipes. He should be down soon."

Almost on cue, her youngest son strolled into the kitchen, sweeping his hair from his face. He was dressed in dark jeans, trainers, and the Arsenal jersey her dad had given him ages ago for Christmas. "I've finished—" He noticed Hermione just as she finished the last of her tea. "Hey, what are you doing here?"

She placed the teacup on the table, but Molly answered before she could speak. "She brought over eggs and vegetables. Be sure to bring her a gift for good luck when we plant this weekend." Hermione's eyes narrowed at the pointed look she gave her son. She had never heard of such a tradition. Molly slowly rose to her feet, lovingly patting her on the shoulder. "You two chat, I'll put up the vegetables."

Hermione went to get up. "I can—"

Mrs Weasley shooed her and picked up the wicker basket. "No, no. I can handle this. I'll be back soon."

Ron watched his mother leave the room, but before he could take her seat, Hermione stood up, ready to leave. She could always come back later for her basket. Unfortunately, the action put her directly in front of Ron, who wore a look of determination she was all too familiar with.

"What are you doing the rest of the day?" The question tumbled out in a rush. At the impatient sigh she involuntarily gave off, he cringed a little and ran a nervous hand through his unruly hair. "It's been a while since we've hung out. Just the two of us."

That was intentional.

The last time they'd been alone together, Hermione had made a few regrettable decisions out of a bizarre culmination of weakness, loneliness, and a habit of doing stupid things to avoid the bigger issue. She learned old habits died harder than she cared to admit.

She really had known better.

Falling into bed with Ron was as problematic as it was destructive. Sex wasn't the issue. Ron was good. When he was passionate about something, he put everything into it. And he was enthusiastic about her. It just wasn't… enough. It wasn't right. And the problem had more to do with the fact that she didn't want him, but rather something she couldn't identify. More?

Harry had been more right than she would ever admit to him.

But none of that had mattered because he'd seized the opening she'd left for him. What she was missing didn't matter. Not when Ron was right there, kissing her tirelessly, caressing her gently. He did every little thing she wanted, all the ways she wanted, not out of instinct, but because she'd already told him what to do to make her happy. Told him just how she liked it. And while she tried to focus on the act itself, focus on him, she couldn't blot out the truth that she was wasting her time trying to fill a hole with nothing but air.

She was searching for something she couldn't identify in a place she already knew it wasn't.

A place it would never be.

That had been over two years ago. After, she'd told him it could never happen again and she'd maintained her distance when he hadn't believed her. She'd created better boundaries. Organised, categorised, and numbered her rules for why she couldn't do that again, reinforced her walls every time he tried to breach them.

And more importantly, Hermione had successfully suppressed that little feeling of something she hadn't been able to identify. It was irrelevant anyway. She had what she needed in her work and friends. Her life was great. She was healthy and content again, and all that feeling had done was make her chase the wind and make poor life choices.

But while Hermione, who was satisfied with her decision to box it all up, moved forward, Ron very much wanted to go back. That was why he stood there, unwavering, like personal space meant nothing between them.

"I'm picking colours with Pansy today for my bathroom." Hermione carefully sidestepped him. "You're welcome to come with us."

Ron blanched and shook his head as if he'd eaten something foul. "I still don't understand why you're friends with her. She tried to—"

"My friendship with her is my own business, but if you must know, we've made our peace with the past. I signed a treaty. Literally. It's done. I've let it go and so has Harry. If he can move on, how is it your right to cling to the past? They'll never be best mates, but they're at least civil with each other…" She thought about the one time Harry and Pansy had yelled at each other for a solid hour on a topic she couldn't recall while she and Ginny watched with amusement and shared taffy. "Well, for the most part." She waved a hand flippantly at the last bit. "Why can't you?"

"I really don't want to talk about her. I just want to spend some time with you."

Hermione folded her arms across her chest, eyebrow raised when she noted the intimate tone his voice had taken. "Respect my choice."

"I do. I just think you're wrong."

"You didn't think that when we broke up. In fact, you looked relieved, if I'm remembering it correctly." And she knew she was.

Ron couldn't deny the truth, but that didn't mean he wouldn't argue his point.

"Okay, but you were working all hours of the day and night, Hermione, I barely saw you. I wanted you home with me, and when you were, you hardly ever let me touch you because you would complain when I asked you to do anything. You were stressed out all the time and you pushed me away once I quit the Auror department. You were always going to work functions, and I didn't mind going with you, but we never spent any time together because someone was always there to pull you away. When I complained about it, you were dismissive. Of course, I wanted to end it. You were miserable, and so was I."

He wasn't wrong.

Hermione could admit her own faults, and she had on several occasions, both to him and her therapist. She wasn't perfect, but her imperfections were only a part of their issues. There was an entire other side of their problems that he wouldn't point out because it wasn't like Ron to highlight his own flaws in their failed relationship.

"I have several edits to make to your arguments. First edit: I didn't complain when you asked me to do something. You asked me to do everything. I cooked and cleaned after working all day, and you sat there like it was an expectation. I'm not your bloody mother. Second edit—"

"I'm not trying to argue with you, Hermione."

He had the gall to sound tired.

"You don't want to argue?" She was already mobilising her fleet of responses and her artillery unit for one, ready to pick anything and everything out of the sky with precision and accuracy. "That's interesting when you—"

"No." Ron gave a frustrated huff, running a hand over his face. "Okay, maybe I said that wrong. I'm trying to point out that we're different now. When you had your seizure and you quit your job… things changed. Then you went into Healing and things got better. You're better now. I've figured out what I wanted to do, and you're—the timing is right. We're older. More mature. We can do this."

She peered up at him with her mouth in a tight line.

"You don't love me, Ron. Not really."

He looked offended. "That's not true."

"It is. You say that we can do this. That we're older. That things are better. But not once did you say that you still love me." At that, his blue eyes widened slightly and his cheeks reddened. "It's okay that you don't, Ron. Stop forcing yourself to settle for me when I'm not what you truly want."

"Just because I didn't say it, doesn't mean I don't feel it."

"You're circling around again because you think things will be easier now, but they won't. You think what happened changed me? That was six years ago, Ron, and it only changed my career trajectory. It didn't drastically alter who I am."

Their personalities didn't work together. She didn't need any more data to prove her point. They had years of evidence that supported her theory of incompatibility.

Exhaling her frustration, Hermione rubbed her temple with two fingers then ran that hand over her face and took another deep breath. "I want my best friend back. I want to just leave us in the past where we belong."

Ron, as usual, stuck to his beliefs. It was typically an admirable quality, but just now it was bothersome. "You like action more than words." He stepped closer to her. "So, let me prove it to you."

What he didn't understand was that she didn't have to do anything. It wasn't her obligation to give him the opportunity to resurrect their dead relationship simply because it was something he wanted. Something everyone wanted. Expected, even. But it didn't work like that. Hermione didn't owe any of them a thing.

"I'm leaving now. I'll see you this weekend for planting, if you decide to come." She turned and walked in the direction of the kitchen where Molly stood at the sink pretending to wash vegetables when she'd only just heard the water cut on.

Molly had heard everything.

"I'm leaving, I'll see you Saturday."

"Okay, love." Molly gave a faint smile, hesitated for a moment then added, "You know, I love you both. I've always thought you two would work things out in your own time, but give him some thought." At the affronted look blossoming on Hermione's face, Molly held up her scarred hand. "And if you truly don't love him anymore, don't give him a chance to show you his affections. Let him go so he can move on."

But what she didn't understand was that her advice was too late.

Hermione already had.



March 29, 2011

When Hermione resolved to do something and committed herself to an idea, she was like a Seeker with a Snitch in sight. She'd told Molly she would think about it, and the promise had led her to do just that at sunrise when she took her tea and disappeared into her office with Narcissa's file to review and reflect.

Both of which turned into a deep dive off a cliff that sent her to a lot of unexpected places.

Like her parents' home at eight in the morning.

Her mother had been out shopping and her dad was just getting up when he opened the door for her—a late riser since retirement. When she asked to use the computer they barely ever touched despite her mum's insistence that they had to have one, he pointed in the direction of the living room and left her to it. For two hours, she scoured the internet for research and printed articles on the Muggle counterpart to Narcissa's condition: Lewy body dementia.

The idea was to learn more about its history, the protein build-up responsible, the steps in diagnosis, and the progression. Hermione absorbed every detail she could, chronicling and organising and making small notes to herself on a scrap of paper that turned into a notebook when her dad took pity on the overcrowded paper covered in notes and lines that had either been underlined or marked through.

He then pulled up a chair next to her and she tried to pick his brain. "How much do you know about dementia?"

"I'm a retired dentist." He shrugged. "I probably know about as much as the average person who has no experience with it." He eyed the stack of papers next to the printer. "But what I do know is if you print everything out, we'll likely need more paper. At least the cartridge is new. Your mother insisted on having a printer, but hardly uses it." He shook his head.

They both did because that was typical.

Hermione bit on her nail thoughtfully. "Can you get more paper, please? It's about a case I promised to have a second look at."

"Oh?" It was rare for him to show interest in her work. "I didn't think wizards got dementia."

"It's not common, but it happens. There's something in the magical core that makes it progress quicker." The one time having magic wasn't beneficial. Her father looked confused as he adjusted the sleeve of his maroon jumper. "Magic can't protect us from everything. In the end, we're all human and subject to the same decay. This way is just more rapid."

"True, but why research the disease if it's not exactly the same?"

"Because it's the closest one there is, and since it's rare in wizards, there's little research out there. The Americans seem to have more cases, but still no cure. There are other books, but getting a working knowledge of something similar may be effective in the long run. This form of dementia in wizards: the symptoms and nature of the diseases are almost identical. It's only the speed of the progression that differs."

Her dad was quiet long enough for Hermione to return to scrolling.

"You remind me so much of your mum right now. What do you need?"

When she froze and looked, she found her dad's smile was modest yet indulgent. The exchange had been harmonious and fluid in a way she had sorely missed. It felt… nice.

They may have had the same eyes and nose and chin all along, but for the first time in a while, she didn't feel like a familiar stranger. No. She actually felt like his daughter.

"I'll need paper." Her voice was quiet even though her heart was thundering in her chest.

"One or two?"

Caught up in the rush of emotions, Hermione barely heard him. "Hmm?"

"Paper packs. One or two?"

She cleared her throat. "Best make it two."

With a nod, he left her alone.

It took a minute, but Hermione refocused on her task, burying herself in research as she moved from one article to the next, frowning at what she found. The disease was relentless, even in Muggles, and receiving a conclusive diagnosis appeared to take just as long. Pansy had mentioned that Narcissa had been seeing Healers for a year before her diagnosis, which begged the question: how long had she been experiencing symptoms?

There were seven stages to dementia, but most patients weren't diagnosed until the fourth.

Hermione was steadily making notes on the third page in her notebook when a voice interrupted her concentration.

"You should eat."

It was her dad again, and he was wearing a black jacket, his hair clearly tousled by the wind. He also looked slightly… wet? Was it raining? Had he already gone out? One look at the two packs of perfectly dry printer paper under his arm answered her question. In the other was takeaway.

"That was fast," Hermione said in wide-eyed bewilderment. "I don't remember hearing you leave."

Her dad chuckled with a quick shake of his frizzy head. "I've been gone an hour. Here." He shrugged a little and sat the bag in front of her. It looked like a salad. "It's probably not as organic as you eat from your garden, but…" He awkwardly cleared his throat. "I thought maybe you hadn't eaten?"

"Thanks dad. It's perfect." Outside of whisky-induced moments while painting, he had never been too expressive. Hermione watched as he loaded the printer with more paper, noting the second container on a nearby table. "If you want, we can eat together."

She was barely able to keep the note of hope out of her voice.

He declined. "No, go ahead. You're researching. I'm going to listen to the Arsenal commentary on the radio."

Because she wasn't ready to sever the tenuous connection between them, Hermione ran her fingers through her hair. Then began the careful task of untangling her fingers because she hadn't bothered to brush it that morning after her shower. "So, um… when's the next game? Or is the season over? I'm not certain."

If this was a way in, she would learn if she had to.

Her father looked genuinely surprised by the question. "Um. Not over yet. The next game is on the second against Blackburn Rovers. Doesn't look good, but we'll see. It's not been all bad this season." He glanced at her screen. "I'll leave you to it. Let me know if you need anything else."

Hermione watched until he was out of sight.

Maybe it was nothing, but it felt like something.

The salad wasn't very good, but the sentiment behind it was enough for Hermione to eat every bite while she kept working. Another hour passed before she joined her dad on the sofa. Donning a pair of reading glasses, he skimmed the paper with the sports commentary playing in the background. When he looked over the rim, he noticed her sitting there patiently waiting.

He ruffled the paper. "What is it?"

"Do you have a library card?"

They ended up at the library, her mystified father looking around; he likely hadn't set foot in there since Hermione was a child. But he followed behind her as she found the right section and started pulling books off the shelf.

A natural step in her pursuit of knowledge.

"I think there's a limit." He laughed when she struggled to balance four volumes in her arms while picking up a fifth. He had three in his arms already and looked woefully out of his depth. "I'm quite certain there is."

And so there was. Hermione used her dad's card and checked out the maximum number, leaving three on the counter with a heavy sigh. They made another quick stop where she bought him a new set of paintbrushes in thanks. She left from her parents' house with hundreds of printed pages and a stack of books that were due back in two weeks.

She made a note to drop them off herself.

It was enough to keep Hermione busy for the rest of the day, but as soon as she returned home, her attention returned to Narcissa's file… and the Healers she had seen prior to her diagnosis. They had to have files on her, too. Files that probably had pertinent information. She would need those.

Again, just to give Narcissa's case a thorough, fair examination.

Then the Floo calls started.

The first three Healers didn't answer. Hermione was just about to give up after drafting owls to send later from the owlery in Godric's Hollow when she realised that, while it was just evening there, it was only around lunchtime where the final Healer was based in Boston.

Charles Smith was a graduate of Ilvermorny, a leading Healer in the field of magical neurological conditions. With twenty years of experience with both the Muggle and magical variety of this disease, he was her best hope for answers.

He was also probably eating lunch, but persistence was her middle name so she tried her luck again and was rewarded when the Floo finally connected. A voice made the flames dance. "This is Charles Smith."

Hermione all but scrambled to sit in front of the fireplace, her notebook ready. "Hi, sorry for the intrusion and abrupt Floo call."

"It's no problem. I was just finishing up a consult. Your timing is impeccable."

Good to know.

Now down to business.

"Perfect. My name is Hermione Granger and I'm a Healer. I was calling because you diagnosed a patient with dementia a few months ago. I'm reviewing their file after a consultation and have a few questions."

More like several, but she didn't want to scare him. There was a long enough silence for her to wonder if the transatlantic connection had failed, but then she heard a clear American accent ask, "And the name of the patient?"

"Narcissa Malfoy."

Another pause.

"Ah, her." That didn't bode well, but considering the person, it made perfect sense. "She's quite difficult." That went without saying. "She subjected herself to my testing methods, which are unconventional at best and involve a battery of non-magical tests that generally make most wizardfolk uncomfortable. I think she just wanted answers. However, when I offered to take her on as a patient and work with her Palliative Care Healers, I explained what my care would entail and she said she didn't agree with my methodology and would find her own Healer."

Well, that was surprising.

"Oh?" Hermione scratched out more notes. "What didn't she agree with?"

"She didn't say anything until I mentioned that I work with a No-Mag Specialist, who would start her on medication and arrange for Specialists in London to begin working with her."

Hermione put her notebook down. Intriguing. "Why a Specialist?"

"I've noticed that a combination of magical and non-magical treatment is best to lengthen the time between the phases. When I mentioned my partner and what his care involved, she declined and left my office."

"Did she say why?" Hermione popped her knuckles. Her hands were tired from their hard work.

"No." Words like prejudice and bigotry came to mind, but Hermione didn't want to judge and sentence Narcissa for a crime she didn't know if she'd actually committed. "I was quite shocked, but she did have an old-school distrust of people without magic that's understandable for patients her age and from her culture. My partner's father is a Squib. His sister is a witch, but he was born without magic. He's familiar with wizarding customs, and I tried to explain this to her, but she refused to have anything to do with him or his methodology. And that was that."

Hermione nodded with understanding, then stopped as she realised she was on a Floo call and shook her head, embarrassed. The flames danced on. "Are there any Healers in my area that have experience with her disease?"

"I don't know of any. But dementia in wizards is beginning to rise there. Narcissa was my third patient from overseas that month. The other two started in my care and are doing as well as can be expected."

That was good to hear.

The wizard chuckled to himself, making the flames flare slightly. "It's funny you're calling, the owner of St Mungo's reached out to me and asked me the same questions." She perked up again; she liked the fact that Charles was chatty. "I advised him to pick someone who has a background in slowing down illnesses to treat her. Someone with tough skin, willing to learn a lot very quickly, and able to treat the situation with a dynamic approach and the delicacy it requires. It's not a matter of specialty. It's a matter of patience and understanding."

Well, that explained a lot.

"Is there a way to incorporate Muggle methods into treating her without a Specialist?"

"While there is no cure, nor any potions or medications aimed specifically at treating the disease, we focus our treatment on alleviating symptoms. The Muggle Specialist tends to handle the medication aspect of treatment. They focus on therapies, such as physical and speech. Lifestyle changes could be key, too. The same healthy lifestyle changes that are used to prevent dementia in Muggles can also be useful in slowing the advancement of symptoms in witches and wizards."

"Such as?"

“Regular exercise, sleep, mitigating stress, mental stimulation, and keeping up social engagements. She has a healthy social life, from what I remember, so I would monitor this to make certain she is not wearing herself out. Also a brain healthy diet. The Healer who cares for her would need to tackle her motor control deterioration and the depression that will likely become an issue as she progresses. Lastly, making sure her family is on board and connected is key, but as a Healer, you know this. In her case, her family needs a plan to ensure her safety as her memories and body deteriorate. From what I understand, she is responsible for her grandson in some capacity.”

That was true.

“Remember, she still has magic and accidents can happen. Accidental bursts of magic are common during the later stages, but Apparition during a moment of confusion is highly dangerous. Splinching is common and can be fatal.”

Duly noted.

Hermione underlined that note twice. “I’m assuming the magical aspect of treatment involves potions."

“Yes, but it’s tricky. I’ve read she’s on a five-potion regimen, but I’m not certain if it’s working.” Judging from what Hermione had seen during their brief meeting, it almost certainly was not. “I personally use a nine-potion system for my patients. The more specifically targeted the composition of the potion is as it pertains to her metabolic response, the better and more consistently it’ll work.” 

And then he listed all nine without her having to ask. 

Hermione scribbled down each.

“We’re working to develop a potion to encompass them all into one, one that perhaps will marginally slow the progression of the disease, but we’re still sorting the composition and the bureaucracy.”

She shook her head, knowing a little about how politicians dipped their toes in things they had no business in. "Good luck with that and thank you. If needed, would you be available for future consults?"

For other patients, of course. Not Narcissa Malfoy.

Hermione had always been committed to the continued sharing of knowledge. A lifelong student. And Charles seemed like a good ally to have.

"I have a magi-scheduler, just schedule something when I'm free. You can add me. My middle name is Alexander. There are more Charles Smiths than I can account for."

"I'm probably the only Hermione Granger, so I'll be easy to add." They both chuckled and she looked at the time, noticing that almost fifteen minutes had passed. "Thank you. I have a lot to review. Apologies again for disrupting you."

"None needed. Good luck treating Mrs Malfoy."

"Oh, I'm not treating her. I'm just doing a bit of research."

Before ending the Floo call, she swore she heard a very confused "Wait, what?" from the other end.

Hermione got up, stretched, and went to pour herself more tea. Black tea with a splash of milk. She was beginning the process of sorting through her findings when she thought about one last call she needed to make: a Floo call to Mrs Malfoy's Primary Healer who had prescribed the current regimen of potions Narcissa was taking.

"Kendrick." The wizard who answered sounded extremely put out.

"Hello, my name is Hermione Granger—"

"Oh!" With some degree of annoyance, she heard him sputter and noted his abrupt change in tone. "Healer Granger, how can I be of assistance?"

"Apologies for the late call—"

"No, not at all. It's not every day one receives a call from the Hermione Granger. It's an honour."

Hermione opened her mouth, but remembered she was looking for information, which was going to be an easier mission now that he wanted to impress her. "Thank you. I was reaching out to discuss a patient of yours. Narcissa Malfoy. She was referred to me after being diagnosed with—"

"Ah, yes. Nasty bit of business."

"Truly unfortunate." Hermione paused. "How much do you know about her condition?"

He obviously hadn't expected her call or line of questioning, so she waited patiently while he found her chart—a chart Hermione requested a copy of. For review, of course. "Admittedly, I don't know much about her condition. I'm more of a General Healer. I prescribed her potions based on what I felt would work best. The Healer who diagnosed her prescribed nine potions, which I thought to be excessive."

"How did you pick the five?"

"Her disease is incurable. When she sought my care, she was taking seven of the nine that had been prescribed. I picked the five with the most benefits and the least amount of side effects so that she could continue on as normal for as long as possible. It was her request."

"And you let patients decide their own treatment?" There was silence and Hermione realised just how snippy her question had sounded. Before he could respond, she cleared her throat. "Does she have a personal Potions Master creating these potions specially for her?"

"No…" Kendrick sounded like he was trying to figure out how he should feel. "She acquires them from the Apothecary herself."

"Did you consider her body chemistry when picking the potions?"

"No."

That was to be expected from someone with only a passing amount of knowledge on the topic.

No matter.

The more questions Hermione asked, the more she appeared to irritate him. She didn't know why. Knowing the quantity and quality of ingredients in each prescribed potion was a vital aspect of the art of Healing. When she reminded him of this—well, apparently the firecall disconnected.

What a pity.

But she could find out for herself.

Even without magic, dementia is a strange mind game, Hermione thought as she scoured all the research she had gathered that day. She realised, as she re-read the book she had taken from Theo's office on magic's effect on neurological diseases, that it seemed like magic itself fuelled the disease, making it more unpredictable and aggressive. Full of uncertainty—which Hermione didn't like. She could keep every variable the same, do everything right, and Narcissa could still die in three years. Or she could live six. Ten? Well… that was unheard of, according to the book.

The point was that there were no guarantees, no way to control the outcome or timing of… well, anything. And that didn't make her comfortable.

But she had to remember that Narcissa wasn't asking for a cure—she was asking for time. It wasn't something she couldn't guarantee or even promise. All she could do was try. But would that be good enough?

Well, Hermione frowned at the thought—if she were accepting her as a patient.

Which she was not.

Too full of nervous energy to sit, Hermione drifted around her office, reading and organising her printed research into three piles—relevant, irrelevant, and unknown. She was more than a quarter of the way through when she realised that the sun was no longer in the sky.

"Hmm."

Then she noticed the haphazard state of the rest of her office.

"Well."

Someone knocked on her door three times. Only Pansy. She hadn't even felt the wards tingle in response to her arrival. Interesting. Hermione had half a mind to clear away the papers, but it was too late.

Pansy threw open the door. "Granger, you've been in here for—" The witch took one look at the state of her office and gaped. "Are you cracked?"

"I'm doing a bit of research." Hermione sighed as Pansy gesticulated wildly around her office. "Okay, a lot of research. This is your fault, mind you."

Her voice went up an entire octave. "What the—"

"Ugh!" Before the witch started shrilling, she cut her off. "You're the one who wanted me to consider Narcissa!"

"Yes, I did, but—" Pansy narrowed her eyes. "How long have you been in here?"

"It was daylight when I last looked up."

"Have you eaten?"

"My dad bought me a salad?"

Pansy looked murderous, which was normal. "You went to your parents'?"

"And the library." She gestured to the books under her 'keep' pile. "I made a few Floo calls, too. One to the American Healer who diagnosed Narcissa."

Her friend's patience was clearly wearing incredibly thin. "Okay, let me rephrase this. When was the last time you ate something?"

Folding her arms defiantly, she repeated herself, "I had a salad."

"Fucking hell. I'm calling Weasley!" Pansy turned on her heel and left.

Hermione swore violently, nearly tripping over a pile of papers while she tried to catch up. She called after Pansy but the witch only covered her ears and made some squawking noise that Luna would have been proud of as she marched on to the living room Floo.

The last person on Earth Hermione wanted summoned to talk about her eating habits was Ginny Potter. She had three kids and there would be hell to pay if she had to show up to take care of her. Not to mention the disappointed looks she'd mastered since becoming a parent. The last time Ginny had worried about her, there had been many memorable threats about calling her therapist

And worse, her mother.

No thanks.

There was only one option, one move that she could use. Her best move. She knew better than to bargain with a Slytherin, but desperate times called for desperate measure. "Dinner! Anywhere you want!"

Everything—both Pansy and her obnoxious noises—stopped.

She whirled around. Her voice was as smooth as the smirk on her face. "I believe we have a deal."



March 30, 2011


Roger Davies was a brilliant Healer.

His older brother had landed in the Janus Thickey ward after he'd tried to Obliviate himself on the one year anniversary of the day that his Muggle-born wife had been killed by Snatchers. Because of his brother, and everything his family had endured in the aftermath, maintaining quality mental health was Roger's personal mission.

After all, his brother hadn't been alone in his struggles after the war.

There were countless cases of traumatized Aurors having flashbacks during mission and training exercises. Potions and substance abuse statistics were high as well, and the sharp increase of instances concerning incorrectly applied memory charms resulted in a surplus of patients in the Janus Thickey ward.

On a random Tuesday in October, after endless petitions on his part, the Wizengamot had allowed Roger to present his proposal for funding to create an Alternative Health department at St Mungo's. The department would research and treat patients whose ailments were primarily mental and didn't fit in any other department. Fresh out of her make-up year at Hogwarts and working in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, Hermione hadn't had time to attend the hearing, but she had heard that, while the talk was certainly illuminating, his proposal had been rejected almost unanimously.

The Minister had been the only approval, but his word was no longer the only law.

Roger's failure was worth mentioning because of what happened next.

Roughly six months after the rejection, Parvati Patil had published an article in The Daily Prophet about her difficulties with survivor's guilt following the death of her best friend. She'd talked about how she wished the Ministry would help those who were still struggling—not with the financial assistance that had helped their economy recover, but actual help. Someone who could help them navigate the new normal, in their community. Someone who knew about their struggles that they could talk to.

A companion piece, published the following day, had photos provided by Dennis Creevey, who'd paid tribute to his fallen brother by using Collin's camera to tell the story of his family's struggles adjusting to life without him.

Together, the two articles had resonated so strongly with everyone who had lost someone during the war that the public actually started talking about their problems, rather than burying them.

In fact, the response had been so powerful that when Roger returned, the Wizengamot was forced to approve his proposal or risk the wrath of already waning public opinion. But in Roger's eyes, the journey didn't matter, only that he'd won the race.

His research on PTSD's effect on magic had ended up being ground-breaking, with articles published in papers all over the wizarding world. Precedents had been set. Mental health was no longer a taboo, but a topic people sought help for.

Even before Hermione's abrupt change in careers, she'd read each and every one of his papers on the effects of trauma and stress on magic as she tried to sort through her own issues. It should have prepared her for what happened to her, but hindsight was always perfect, as the saying went.

Regardless, Hermione held the wizard in high regard, and respected him as a fellow Healer and innovator. But there was just one thing.

Well, actually, there was more than one, but first things first:

She could never trust anyone with a spotless office.

Hermione considered herself a tidy person, but she preferred a certain method to all the madness in her world. She preferred just enough clutter in life to make things interesting without coming across as—well, cluttered. Besides, with all the research that went along with their work, there was always bound to be something lying about.

Both Roger and his office looked like they were being featured in Witch Weekly. And with his popularity, for all she knew, that very well could have been true. For just a breath, Hermione—who wore coveralls that had seen better days, a white shirt, and trainers with anti-slip charms—felt underdressed. But then she remembered the purpose of her visit.

And she wasn't there to impress anyone.

Hermione knocked on his open door twice, trying not to look too judgmental when he lifted his head from his work and waved her into his pristine office with a genial smile on his face.

Roger was handsome in a clinical sense. With his short brown hair that was neatly combed, brown eyes, and medium build, he gave all appearances of the successful person he was.

"Punctual as always. Please, come in."

After doing just that, she shut the door behind her. "Afternoon, Roger." When she slid into the chair in front of his desk, Hermione peeked at the file on his. Not a patient's file, but research. His latest project involved experimental treatment for the extremely traumatised patients that resided full-time in their ward.

From what Padma had told her, the trials weren't going well.

"How are you?" Roger greeted her with a friendly smile that she returned. Even though their individual war stories had made them both famous, they were little more than colleagues with a healthy mutual respect for each other's work. "I was quite surprised when your name appeared on my calendar for a meeting. I thought you were between patients."

Everyone was well aware that when that occurred, she barely made an appearance at the hospital.

For anything except meetings with Theo.

In lieu of a proper response to his greeting, where she would be forced to make small talk on topics she didn't care about, Hermione bypassed his question and comment. "I was wondering if you've started working on Narcissa Malfoy's case."

"I have not." Roger offered her his full attention by leaning forward and resting his elbows on his oak desk. "I did, however, review her contract. We're scheduled to meet to discuss my terms tomorrow."

"Without looking at her case?" Hermione kept her tone even. Unbothered.

Roger had never been modest—always bordering on conceited—but it wasn't his job to downplay his talent and successes. Healers, as a whole, were an arrogant bunch, so it had never mattered much to her. How could patients trust a Healer if they weren't confident in their abilities?

"I have reviewed her file, but I also have four other priority cases ahead of hers. If I'm being honest, I only accepted Mrs Malfoy because of your reference and, well, curiosity. I've never seen a case like hers. I'm interested in the possibility of running tests to determine if her condition is genetic or environmental."

Tests were all well and good, but Narcissa's disease was in the early stages. The quicker they attacked it, the better chance they had to slow its progress—at least, that was what her research had suggested.

Which led to something else that bothered her about him: at heart, Roger was a researcher.

He was meticulous, with an eye for detail, and knew how to back up an argument. Hermione was like-minded and had found it easy to work with him when she'd first joined the department almost six years ago.

Where they differed vastly, however, was their bedside manner.

Roger looked at his patients, not as individuals, but predominantly in terms of how they might usefully contribute to his future research. Of course, he would work tirelessly while the patient was in his care, and had a record of successes to back up his method, but at the end of it all, they were walking, talking, and breathing case studies. Roger tended to work with only high-profile cases, people who'd experienced extreme trauma, or those who had severe psychoses and were too dangerous to be in public.

His work, as of late, had been developing an elixir used to combat PTSD with several potion makers, but he had a growing interest in cases like Narcissa's—where Muggle disorders were exacerbated by magic.

It had been the reason Hermione had referred the case to him to start with.

"Have you created a treatment plan?"

"An outline of one. I want to run more tests to try and determine the cause."

That was perfectly fine, but… "When do you plan to start treating her?"

Roger stroked his chin for a moment, deep in thought. "A few months of research will do. Then we can begin experimental treatment options."

His words made her want to recoil, but she recovered, suppressing her confused and flabbergasted look. "Aggressive options, right?"

"I'll experiment with some known potions right now—"

She gave a hard exhale, trying to disguise her frustration. "What combination will you use?"

"I haven't thought about it."

That made what little patience Hermione possessed slip away. She squinted at him. "If you don't mind me asking, what exactly have you thought about?" Her tone gave every indication that she was done skirting the issue at hand.

She wanted an answer. Sooner rather than later.

The abrupt question made him falter, then he cocked his head a bit to the side, fixing her with a hard look. Right then, Hermione realised she'd gone too far. "This feels like an interrogation."

"Sorry, that wasn't my intention."

It most certainly was, but she knew when to stand her ground and when a tactful backtrack made the most sense. Right then, the latter was quickly determined to be her best option—one that didn't ruin a perfectly good professional relationship. "I've spent a bit of time researching her condition and wanted to have a meeting of minds, but I didn't know you hadn't started. My apologies." She gave a soft, self-deprecating laugh and rubbed the back of her neck with one hand, trying to appear awkward. "You know how I am. Insatiable thirst for knowledge."

She was reaching, but falling back on history always worked with schoolmates like Roger, and she watched the stern look on his face soften. Then he smiled, shaking his head as he chuckled. "I do know how you are. I remember seeing you in the library all the time. I still believe you would have done well in Ravenclaw."

Everyone believed that, but she'd been sorted into Gryffindor and had no regrets.

"As a Ravenclaw, I probably would have still lost a lot of sleep trying to keep Harry alive."

"But gained us a lot of house points." He flashed her a charming grin.

Hermione gave a nostalgic sigh. "The things I did for Gryffindor tapestry."

Roger laughed harder while she chuckled along for nothing more than the noise it provided in the silence of his office. Comradery. Her misstep was forgiven. She wouldn't let her impatience cause another outburst.

Now, for a different angle.

Roger loved to pick her brain when he got stuck or something didn't work. Hermione only gave little clues to satisfy him. And she never gave them for free.

"When I came in, I saw that you were reviewing your research on the new experimental treatment regimen for extreme cases of emotional trauma."

He didn't bother asking how she'd seen all that so quickly. "Yes, the trials aren't going well."

"I heard." Hermione frowned, briefly lamenting with him. "And I might have a few thoughts about it."

Roger looked intrigued. "Go on."

"I believe your failure was due, in part, to the addition of the Draught of Peace. Long-term use of it causes blunted reactions. Have you considered the Elixir of Tranquillity? It's stronger, but not habit-forming or dangerous if brewed incorrectly. May be worth looking into."

With his face lit up, Hermione knew she had piqued his interest.

"I'll do just that. You truly are brilliant, Hermione. I know you have your patients and interests, but if you ever want to collaborate or even join the research side…" He allowed the suggestion to linger.

"I'll think about it," Hermione lied smoothly, then circled back to the reason she'd scheduled this meeting in the first place. Narcissa. "In all honesty, I'll take my appreciation in a favour."

He made a gesture. Go on.

"Move Narcissa's case up on your list. I only suggest it as her condition hasn't progressed too much. The faster you start, the more you can work with her from diagnosis and beyond, accounting for every factor conceivable along the way."

He looked at her for a moment. Then conceded with a nod. "I can do that."

"If you're interested, I've done a bit of research on Narcissa's case. Just to give you a head start, of course. You're a busy Healer, after all." Flattery never hurt, judging from how quickly he agreed to listen to her. Hermione reached into her bag, pulled out a thick roll of parchment, and sat it on his overly neat desk.

"A bit of research?" Clearly, Roger was amused.

"Just a brief synopsis of all the research I've compiled on both the Muggle and magical versions of her disease."

Because of the summary he was currently skimming, her desk was a mess of books, parchment, paper, and every bit of research that she'd found on Narcissa's condition. After sushi and sake in London, followed by a film Pansy wanted to see, Hermione had returned home the night before and decided to schedule a short appointment with Roger—just for a few follow-up questions.

After all, he had to have done just as much research as she had. Right?

The answer—as she now knew—was no.

Hermione had doubts, and they all started with the state of his office—and the man himself who sat behind the desk with only his nameplate, a glass of water, his research file, and a picture of his family facing toward him. She'd done enough digging to know that the time Narcissa wanted wouldn't be possible if he treated her like an experiment.

No matter what he promised, she still didn't feel right leaving Narcissa in his care.

Her decision, she realised while she watched his eyes scan the parchment, was made.

"If you'll excuse me, Roger. I have to go. Oh, and I'm going to need that back."

Before she could talk herself out of what could potentially be a poor decision, Hermione took her parchment and left with one destination in mind. She didn't stop until she stood outside Theo's door. In an uncharacteristic move, she knocked and didn't wait for someone to open the door before she walked in…

And froze at the sight.

The man himself was sitting on the sofa in front of the fireplace, his arm thrown over the back. Nothing looked unusual… except for the child sitting next to him, flipping through the children's dictionary while he looked on. There was a softness in Theo's eyes and a fond expression on his face—one she had never seen from him. It was bizarrely warm and intensely attractive, but she didn't have time to sort through that because standing in front of the mantle was her target.

Narcissa.

And she appeared deep in thought, standing stiff in grey robes and touching the gold band on her necklace.

Hermione cleared her throat and three heads snapped to her.

Sheepishly, she rubbed the side of her neck. "My apologies for the intrusion. I was coming to talk to Theo about your case, but since you're here, I'd like to discuss the terms of your contract, Mrs Malfoy." The smallest head in the room tilted to the side in innocent curiosity, eyebrows knitted together as if he were patiently waiting for her to finish her statement.

It was… strangely adult. Even more so because Theo had a similar look on his face.

"Or I could make an appointment if you… need to not speak of these matters around him." She awkwardly gestured to the boy wearing black trousers and a black shirt, his platinum blond hair parted severely to the side.

"My grandson is five." Narcissa's face remained impassive. "He does not understand. Scorpius?"

The boy immediately abandoned the dictionary and stood. Obedient, even without instruction.

Trained.

Hermione's frown deepened when she noted a matching expression on Theo's face. Before she could give instructions to her grandson, Theo rose to his feet. "We'll take a walk around the floor while you two speak."

He offered the child his hand, but with a look that reminded Hermione very much of his father, Scorpius lowered his eyes to Theo's hand then back up at the tall wizard who seemed to be imploring him to accept it.

"Your manners." Narcissa's voice was nurturing and lecturing all at once. An odd blend.

Despite his reluctance, Scorpius complied, placing his hand into Theo's much larger one and allowing himself to be led away. Hermione stepped to the side when they approached, her attention so focused on Narcissa that she barely noticed when they left.

When the door shut behind the pair, Narcissa didn't wait. Hermione hadn't expected her to. "I believe you have already refused me. I have a meeting with Healer—"

"Cancel it. I've decided to accept your case."

"Why?" The question she didn't expect was the first one that Narcissa asked.

But Hermione was prepared with an answer. She had several, in fact, but she hadn't known which to provide until the words were already spoken.

"I've got a soft spot for helping those in need."

"I am no charity case, Miss Granger."

"No, you're not." Hermione decided to approach her from a different angle, one that put them both on the common ground they would need going forward. "You once saved us all, and while I can't return the favour, nor do I offer any guarantees, if you let me, I can try to give you what you've requested."

Narcissa stiffened. "And what is that, Miss Granger?"

"A fighting chance."

 

We rise by lifting others.
Robert Ingersoll

Chapter Text

 


Five
Granger

 

April 2, 2011


The greenhouse itself was not green.

It was a homemade hut made of glass, wood, and metal framing. Crafted with extendable charms, the outside wasn't imposing, quaint enough to blend in the scenery around her vegetable patch. The inside, however, was spacious with room to grow. A pathway led through the rich foliage. Some plants were potted, some were mounted on trellises, and some even hung from the ceiling. But everything was bursting with colour. Organised and spaced out into sections, Hermione had a method to the way she arranged her plants. Fruit trees in the back, certain flowers in the middle, vegetables that wouldn't survive outdoors dotted between, and an ever-expanding selection of individual pots on tables that housed herbs needed to brew her potions.

The empty tables served as a reminder of its status as a work in progress.

But maybe one day it would house every herb imaginable…

Until then, she used what she had to make a difference in her own way.

The sun was out but there was a chill in the air from an easterly wind. High clouds softened the light and prevented any harsh shadows from forming. Inside the greenhouse was warm and lush, like Spring, thanks to natural light and temperature-control charms. Hermione shed her jumper the moment she entered, placing it on a bench next to the door.

Hermione flicked her wrist and water sprouted over her fruit trees while she contemplated adding a dwarf mango to the mix of pears, lemons, figs, and the latest addition, oranges. The kids would like that. After filing it away for further consideration, Hermione moved over to checking the flowers, fruits, and vegetables before turning her attention to the main reason she'd started the greenhouse: the herbs.

Particularly the ones for potions.

Her first stop was the dittany plants, which had been on the brink of death for the last year. That was the main reason for her current attempt to grow another, which stubbornly remained in the windowsill of her office, refusing to sprout. Today, it still looked grim, but resilient. Neville would probably have to take it to his greenhouse for better rehabilitation.

Nettle was next, but she was careful around it, tending to it with impenetrable dragon-hide gloves. Asphodel, leaping toadstools, neem, ipecacuanha, and wormwood all looked good. The aconite plants had their own table and had grown to twenty since Daphne had started collecting them for Hermione over the last three years so she could brew Wolfsbane for Padma's patients.

They were thriving, mainly due to Neville's efforts, teachings, and special fertiliser.

Hermione had just finished watering them when the doors parted and Daphne walked in. Right behind her was Neville, who was carrying her latest procurement.

Always a gentleman.

"Arka."

Hermione stopped, fully focused on their approach. When Neville stopped beside her, she reverently touched the leaves of the plant with her gloved hand. It was a wonderful addition that would help create potions to ease the pain from the Cruciatus Curse. It was also an ingredient in several of Narcissa's potions.

She hadn't asked for it, but the timing couldn't be more perfect. "Where did you find it?"

Daphne gave a sly smile. "At George's birthday extravaganza last night, a birdie told me that you have a new patient and arka is an ingredient in a few of their potions." Hermione astutely cut her eyes to Neville—the only person who would have known about her need for certain ingredients because she'd raided his greenhouse before the party. He just whistled innocently before giving her a crooked smile that she returned. Daphne laughed. "The birdie came with me to pick it up. Where are you going to put it?"

She had several empty tables for herbs, as she'd planned ahead for expansion, but before she could direct him, Neville picked out a spot on his own. "We should give it some space to start with." He took it to the last table on the row.

Hermione turned to Daphne. "How much do I owe you?"

"Nothing. That was all good timing. I always let Neville know when I acquire a plant in a deal. Just happened to be your lucky day that the owner died and I was able to negotiate… Oh!" Daphne went into her pocket, pulling out a small bag of dried herbs. "Kava, as requested." Something Hermione had needed as she used a small amount of it in her teas for new patients. It always helped settle their nerves. "I tried to find you the plant itself, but my seller wasn't willing to part with it or provide a clipping. It'll harm the plant, apparently."

Which was fair.

"Thanks." Hermione put the herb along with her wand into the pocket of her apron.

"Blaise will be by with the rest later. He's tied up negotiating a rare painting for a client."

The less she knew the better, judging from the expression on Daphne's face.

Daphne and Blaise had been partners in the business of procurement for longer than Hermione had been gardening. It had started as a pastime for them both, but quickly became a career. Originally, Hermione thought it was an odd choice, but Daphne apparently had a knack for finding things. She'd found the almost extinct ingredients required to make the antidote for Molly, and had done it with time to spare.

Their business wasn't just tracking down herbal rarities, they worked with private collectors of almost anything. From Magizoologists seeking to rescue unusual magical creatures from illegal trade to Ministries all over the world procuring rare, requested items. Daphne generally left the practical work to Blaise and their underlings while she focused on less complex finds and researching what they were looking for—especially since she'd found out she was pregnant.

Neville examined the akra plant and took a sample of the soil before returning to them. "It's extremely healthy. Better than I noticed at first glance." Hermione cast another look over his shoulder at the plant. "We can let it settle for a week or two then re-pot it. It'll need to be in the exact same quality soil so it doesn't ruin the plant."

"How long before I can prepare it myself?"

"A month?"

"I've found what you need in the meantime," Daphne said before the initial tickle of worry could form. After all, she had spent the last two days working on her potions alone and the thought of missing pieces tingled at her anxiety. "Blaise will bring it by with everything else you've ordered."

Excellent.

First problem handled.

It was decent enough outside—in that it wasn't raining or too windy—so they grabbed blankets and snacks and ventured out into the field behind her house. Hermione quickly transfigured a weed into the ugliest mustard yellow sofa she'd ever seen, but after exchanging shrugs with Daphne, they both lounged on opposite ends under a shared blanket, their shoes nearly touching. Neville, meanwhile, had spread a blanket out on the grass in front of them and laid on his back, with his hands behind his head. Hermione cast a quick warming charm on him.

They stayed like that for nearly an hour, enjoying the strange peace they found out in the field as they passed around the bag of crisps. Ultimately, there was a silent agreement to let Daphne eat the majority of them.

She was eating for two, after all.

"Where's Luna?" Hermione asked. Usually, she came with Neville whenever he came by.

"Clearing Nargles from Harry's house. Apparently, there's another infestation."

"Ah."

"Tell her I said thank you for the gifts for the baby, but I don't think she got the colour right." Daphne chuckled. "Pretty certain I'm having a boy."

They wanted to find out a little closer to her due date, which didn't seem practical to Hermione, who thought things like preparation and names were important. Not that it mattered. Everyone thought they were having a boy anyway. Something about the way she was carrying, but Hermione was no expert.

Luna firmly believed she was carrying a girl. In fact, her belief ran so deep that while they were all coming up with masculine names at Girl's Night last night, she only came up with one.

Halia.

In remembrance of a loved one.

Definitely more fitting than Cho's dull suggestion of Paul that made Pansy stare at her as if she were an escaped mental patient.

Neville shrugged. "Maybe you are having a girl."

"Of course you'd agree with your girlfriend." Daphne shook the bag of crisps and sighed after realising they were all gone. "You both ate them all."

He lifted his head up, ready to argue the contrary, but Hermione caught his eye and shook her head. Best if he didn't. There had been actual tears when Parvati loudly marvelled at the fact that Daphne had eaten two bags of crisps in one sitting. "Ah, sorry about that. I'll make lunch?"

"I suppose I could eat, but will there be pie?"

"I can make that happen."

Daphne, who hadn't been able to eat much during the first three months of her pregnancy, genuinely looked excited.

Neville chuckled to himself and laid back down. "Oh, I'm going to start Kingsley's bee garden." Hermione perked up at that while Daphne raised a confused eyebrow. "I'm looking into getting the plants right now and I also need to pick from my students who volunteered as soon as they'd heard it was for him."

"Understandable." Daphne shrugged before Hermione could say anything. "If it's for Kingsley, let me know if you need Blaise and I to find anything." When they both looked at her, the witch just shrugged. "What? I like him. If he were the Minister again, I wouldn't oppose."

There was an entire underground movement dedicated to making that happen.

"Well, if there's anything I need, I'll let you know." Neville sat up, crossing his legs at the ankles as he leaned back on his hands, breeze blowing through his hair. Then he turned towards Hermione after a measured silence. "So…your new patient?"

Daphne perked up. "Yeah, what made you change your mind? Pansy said you'd refused her."

"How badly did she talk about me?"

The blonde said nothing, but her look spoke tomes.

Hermione winced. "That bad?"

The long look continued until Daphne rolled her eyes. "The phrase 'stubborn bitch' was thrown around a few times, but I think she meant it in a loving way?" Doubtful, but she offered an awkward shrug and smile anyway before it transformed into something more resigned. "Look, she has a great respect for Narcissa that I don't understand, but that may be my bias speaking."

"Your sister and nephew?" Hermione asked automatically.

"Yes. And Draco."

Neville's eyebrows went up even higher than hers. "Malfoy?"

Daphne's sigh sounded exactly like Harry's when he was preparing to launch into a Malfoy-inspired rant. She had one chance to pass a glance at Neville to try and change the trajectory of the conversation, but found the man intrigued instead.

"She treated my sister like a placeholder, just waiting for her to die so she could find someone better to take her place as the next Malfoy Matriarch." The disgust in her voice drew Hermione in rather than repelled her. This was pertinent to learning a little more about the dynamic she was walking into.

So far, it wasn't pretty.

Not a surprise.

"I've already given my word about treating her." Hermione wouldn't change her mind because of their friendship. This was work and Narcissa was a patient in her care.

"And I'd never come between that with my opinions. I may not like her, I may find her slowly dying horribly ironic because of how she treated my sister." She shook her head ruefully. "But for Scorpius not to lose someone else so quickly, I'm willing to put my feelings aside."

Spoken like someone who truly loved him. Family.

"I can't save her, I'm only slowing the progress. Or trying to. I'm working out the details."

Those details involved putting a lot of pieces together. Potions and ingredients. Taking pages from the treatment methods Narcissa had rejected. Figuring out the family dynamic to determine just how useful—or difficult—Draco Malfoy would be when it came to his mother's care.

When Hermione looked again, she found Daphne's blue eyes fixed on her; full of emotions so vivid and complex that no words existed to describe them. "Whatever happens, for what it's worth, I'm glad it's you."

There was nothing Hermione could say in response.

When she lowered her eyes to the hideous, colourful blanket that kept her warm, Daphne continued her story. "As far as Astoria goes, my grievances run deep. Having Scorpius didn't change her relationship with Narcissa, but it appeased her, I think, gave her someone else to focus on." That didn't sound like a good thing. "Draco was busy and did what he could, and Astoria tried. She handled as much of Scorpius' care for as long as she was able until Narcissa took over with her silly rules, rigorous schedule, training, and expectations. He's five!"

"He's…" Hermione trailed off, frowning.

"You've met Scorpius?"

"Briefly." It wasn't a very memorable interaction. In fact, Hermione hadn't thought about it too much in the hours and days since. However, now that it was coming into focus again, there had been a few things she'd picked up on.

Okay, several.

"And what did you think?"

"He's very well-mannered and obedient. Seems oddly perceptive." Hermione tried to recall the boy from Theo's office. "Oh, and very quiet."

"Everything Narcissa thinks he should be—except one thing: a child."

Well, now that she mentioned it… there was one more thing Hermione recalled. "I don't think I heard him utter a word."

"And you won't." Daphne sounded almost brittle. "He doesn't speak."

"Can't?" Neville's question was intended to correct her statement.

"No, won't." She emphasised with a sharp movement of her hand. "He's shy around strangers, of course, but he used to talk incessantly around family. About three months before my sister died… it's like he realised what was happening and just shut down. One day he just… stopped."

Grief would do that, especially in a child.

Daphne ran a rough hand through her hair, trying to keep herself under control by focusing on the discussion at hand. Having nothing to offer, Hermione pressed the sole of her shoe against Daphne's in silent support, which drew her attention momentarily and she was rewarded with an appreciative look. Pressing a flat hand against her bump, Daphne looked to the nearby forest, to the trees that swayed in the breeze.

"Watching him shut down was distressing to Astoria…" Daphne shook her head. "I promised to keep a close eye on him, but…" Her unkept promise lingered all around them, resting heavy on her shoulders. Hermione watched as she continued weathering the storm of her emotions, each wave of it stronger than the last. More brutal. Daphne tried to tread water, but couldn't. She sank into the depths of honesty. "It's been hard since—" She took a deep breath, voice quieter when she confessed. "He hardly looks at me. It's almost like he can't."

"Give him time," Neville suggested. "My parents are still alive and sometimes it's hard to…"

Neville fell silent, staring up at the sky. His lost words left a residue behind that made the air heavy with the weight of sadness, collective pain, and loss. The latter, Hermione knew, came in so many shapes that it was difficult to distinguish one from the other or rank them in order of magnitude.

But at the same time, hope still lingered.

People carried their struggles in hundreds of forms and in different ways, mostly in silence, but it was amazing how some were able to reach out with ease, not only in help, but in solidarity.

And Neville did just that—had been doing just that from time to time since Astoria died, despite them not being very close before. He rested his hand, palms up, on the sofa next to Daphne, and in a show of ever-increasing trust, she accepted his support.

"Give him time," Neville repeated.

"How much?"

"As long as he needs."

Time passed like that.

A second.

Ten minutes.

It all went by in a blur of thoughts and internal musings.

Somewhere in between, Daphne let go of Neville's hand and he went back to watching the clouds in the sky. It probably wasn't the time, but there was a question niggling at her. Hermione bit her fingernail to try and coax the words back, but they came anyway.

"I understand how you would be biased about your sister and nephew but… why Malfoy?" Then Hermione drew the blanket up to her neck, catching the chill in the air despite the warming charms imbued in the fabric. The blonde opposite of her wasn't as cold, likely heated from within based on the fire in her eyes.

"Draco's actions—or inactions—directly affect Scorpius. He's so closed up. Even from Scorpius. I'm not sure he even knows how damaging the emotional distance he keeps is. He doesn't talk to me about his reasons. Or anything, really. Furthermore, Draco is… a product of his upbringing and journey. It's hard for me to look at Narcissa and not blame her for both of them."

 



April 4, 2011

 

Hermione read somewhere that the secret to successful negotiations was finding common ground and acting as an observer rather than the opposition. Reason with them but never issue a threat. The best way to win was to find the information needed, lay out the options, and present the situation with a healthy dose of poise and logic.

It reminded her of all the wizard's chess lessons Ron had given her, lessons she remembered well while weaving in and out of the Ministry's political maze. He never took mercy on her. Each time they played, he would repeat that the key to winning was to always think several moves ahead and only sacrifice pieces she knew she could live without.

There were two problems with that way of thinking:

One - Hermione was absolute pants at chess.

Two - she was far too stubborn to sacrifice any of her pieces.

And that was why she and Narcissa were sitting in a silence that threatened to multiply and envelop them both like a dust storm.

But it didn't scare her one bit.

Hermione was on her third cup of tea while the other witch was just finishing her second, a minty blend that she seemed to enjoy. Under the orders of her son and their boss, her guards were not allowed to take their eyes off their charge at any given time during the appointment. So, they had each taken a corner in her office. One of them was swaying on his feet while the other was admiring the young Abyssinian Shrivelfig in the corner that wasn't quite ready to go into the greenhouse.

She allowed her eyes to drift back to Narcissa as she took another sip.

It hadn't been such a terrible appointment thus far.

They'd both started by signing the original agreement. Hermione had carefully read it over and Percy had given his stamp of approval last night over dinner—as he did with all of her legal documents. Of course, he made suggestions for changes that would maximize the benefits for Hermione, but she hadn't added anything. The salary was already astronomical and she wanted little else except weekends and hols off. The deal had also come with Narcissa's staff of private Palliative Care Healers, and Hermione reminded herself to schedule a meeting with them as soon as possible.

Just to bring them on board with her plan… as soon as she completed her creation of it.

For the first time in her career, Hermione Granger was improvising.

According to Charles, there wasn't an established treatment plan directly for Narcissa's dementia, they were treating symptoms rather than the source, which meant she had to be creative, find something effective, and hope for the best. His Specialist seemed to have a plan in place that she could use without the addition of Muggle medicine.

For now, it would have to do…

Until she could convince Narcissa (or maybe even Malfoy) to bring in a Specialist to assist.

Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Once the binding contract had been signed, Hermione had begun work right away, running a battery of tests to establish her baseline. Cognitive and sensory tests were completed, both with and without the aid of magic. Accompanied by her guards, they took a walk along the banks of the stream in front of her home where Hermione tested her balance, reflexes, and strength through various methods that irritated the older witch, but she hadn't complained too much.

When they were back in her office, Narcissa produced all her potions, giving Hermione everything she needed to prepare her daily regimen, which they would discuss during her first home visit. Their current impasse had been reached when Hermione's requests turned from Narcissa's potions to her calendar and her very, very full schedule.

As it turned out, for someone who hadn't been part of London's society for years, Narcissa Malfoy was a very busy woman.

While blood status was still important to maintaining prestige in proper society, after the war, the upper echelon of the wizarding world's social order had transformed, expanding to include a new group of people: affluent half-bloods and very influential Muggleborns—though the latter were only included as proof of their tolerance.

Their forward-thinking.

A sign of change.

As Hermione had been preparing to move into politics, she had been to several events before her career change, but not so many since. The drop off in invitations hadn't offended her, since she wasn't much for organised events anyway.

That being said, Hermione had a vague, but working knowledge of how high society operated. She knew just how rigorous each season was with galas and glittering balls, charity and sporting events, magical garden shows and festivities, dinners and tea parties. It wasn't unheard of for there to be an activity every day for a solid month. When she'd told Narcissa to scale back on her plans for the current social season until everything with her potions was sorted…

Well, they had regressed back to the mean.

Silence.

Hermione was qualified, prepared, and resolved to outlast Narcissa in the prolonged stalemate, which ended up being more of a gift than a challenge. She had no idea how Narcissa occupied her thoughts during the impasse, but Hermione used her time wisely, laying out both a daily schedule for Narcissa to follow, and working out the technicalities of her potions regime.

For that, she'd need alone time with several potions books in her collection and possibly another firecall with the Healer Smith. She was mentally calculating the time difference when she heard a throat clear.

Prim and high-pitched.

She lifted her head from where her notes were spread across her desk, a single eyebrow arched as she met Narcissa's cool expression.

"Yes?" It was intended to sound patient to the point where it bordered on condescending. Judging from the way Narcissa's eyes sharpened into shards of ice, Hermione had been right on target.

"I am willing to negotiate scaling back my activities, Miss Granger. However, I do not think you grasp that one's standing in society is more than simply wealth and influence. It is important to me and the future of my family, but I do not expect you to understand tradition."

Hermione's jaw clenched. She wasn't under any delusions that they would become anything more than Healer and patient during the course of her treatment, and that statement made the point very clear. Also, it meant she had no problem speaking her mind in any way, shape, or form.

Lovely.

But also not surprising.

Hermione could handle anything Narcissa threw at her.

"You're correct, I don't understand," she said placidly and Narcissa tilted her head. "However, my lack of knowledge has little to do with my blood status and more to do with the fact that you were gone for years from any society circles."

"Which makes it more imperative that I am seen."

"I'm sure your son can take your place at these events," Hermione suggested with a flourish of her hand. "I have no doubt that you've groomed and trained him well to be a perfectly respectable member of high society." She fixed the witch with a hard look. "You certainly raised him to believe himself superior to everyone because of nothing more than his family name and the purity of his blood. I'm certain he'll fit right in."

Narcissa bristled like a cat that had been splashed with cold water, but Hermione only maintained her even stare with her eyes on her patient. The expression on Narcissa's face was sharp, a testament to the fact that she'd struck a tender spot with the older witch.

Perhaps a source of her shame.

Interesting.

She hadn't been aiming for it, but had hit it anyway.

"I suppose I deserved that."

"You did." Hermione didn't mince her words. "I know you're used to being spoken to in a certain manner, but for as long as I'm able to, I'm here to take care of your body and preserve your mind as long as possible—not your feelings." She paused, allowing her words to sink in as she organised her next statement. "I think it should be stated right now that I will show you the same respect that you show me. I hope that we can come to a sort of understanding during my time as your Healer."

If she would have blinked, Hermione might have missed the slight furrowing of Narcissa's brows and only caught the look of calculation followed by careful consideration on her face. "Perhaps we can."

It was enough.

She laced her finger together and placed her hands on the parchment strewn all over her desk. "Now, we were discussing diminishing your Society activities in favour—"

"Draco is simply not an option." Narcissa's tone made Hermione recoil as much as her words did. The divisive line had been drawn in the metaphorical sand. "He has little interest in society, and thinks it as a waste of time."

She was sure there was more to that, but Narcissa kept it to herself. Furthermore, Hermione didn't disagree with him on that front, but kept her face perfectly passive and trained on the older witch.

Years spent embroiled in Ministry politics had also improved her poker face exponentially, and she wore it well enough for Narcissa to continue speaking. Hermione noted both the sweat on her brow and the tiny tremble in her hand when she held her teacup and frowned.

"When his presence is required, Draco will attend, but he refuses to socialise with anyone. He will not dance, speak to, walk with, or even be seen showing any sort of attention to a single eligible witch, which would be the entire purpose of his attendance…"

Hermione's attention drifted to the silent duo of guards. One was looking at the abstract painting over her fireplace and the other was yawning. She kept the amused smirk off her face when she focused on her patient… who was still going on about her son.

"Draco is a widower in need of a wife, but only when it is proper for him to take one again. That is what I am using this season to prepare for. I will not stand anyone speaking ill of him—at least not while I am still here with all of my faculties."

It took every shred of self-control for Hermione not to roll her eyes.

"Unfortunately, my son is… there is something stirring in him that has been building since Astoria's death and it will not be quieted. I am hoping to introduce him to someone of his liking before whatever is going on with him comes into complete focus." The phrasing of her statement drew Hermione's attention like static electricity—just a little jolt, then it was gone. "The issue is timing. He attends the marriage dates that I arrange—not because he wants to, but purely out of duty to his family. I'm afraid I am on a serious time constraint when it comes to his compliance, so I have been meeting various prospects at society events to arrange these dates. As you can see, Miss Granger, my presence is vital."

Hermione took to drinking her tea in an attempt to swallow down each and every retort that tried to surface, but found herself out of tea and still rankled. Bothered by her words. Her flippant tone.

It wasn't her business.

Really, it wasn't.

Hermione chanted the phrase to herself repeatedly, but hell, she'd mentally overstepped so far that even when she tried to correct it, she still found herself careening off the side of the cliff into not her business territory—which was dangerous.

So, for her own sake—as the thought would pester her relentlessly until it festered and she had to think it—Hermione allowed it safe passage across the bridge of her mind, then locked it away with the hundreds of things she would never say.

For starters, Astoria wasn't six months in the ground and there she was, trying to marry Malfoy off again—but only when it was proper. Hermione pinched herself to stop the look of disgust from escaping. She didn't know enough about pureblood culture to judge them for it. For all she knew, a quick second wife was their answer when a motherless child was involved.

It seemed to be Narcissa's.

But what did she know?

Pansy had said that they arranged their marriages—sometimes before birth—so a new one wasn't exactly a farfetched idea. Narcissa had said that she didn't want him to be alone after she was gone.

But Cho was right, it just seemed cold.

And Daphne's bitterness made more sense.

Threats. A job that seemed almost like a personal mission. A deceased wife. A selectively mute son. Dying mother. The circumstances of Draco Malfoy's life were stressful and complicated in a way that seemed painfully obvious to Hermione. Adding a newly contracted marriage—one born from force and not choice—seemed very much like throwing accelerant on an inferno. It would burn out of control.

Narcissa appeared willfully ignorant of the potential consequences of her actions.

Probably out of sheer stubbornness or perhaps because acknowledging them wouldn't do her agenda any good.

Which led right into her other thought: regardless of the situation Malfoy had found himself in following the death of his wife, perhaps if she didn't force a grown man to attend marriage dates like an errant bachelor, he might do it on his own. In his own time. In his own way. With the person of his choosing. If that were allowed.

Hermione didn't know, nor did she care, really.

Feeling much better now that she'd let those thoughts run free, Hermione locked the door and threw away the key. She focused on her real objective. "I'm reasonable and willing to negotiate."

At that, Narcissa, who was idly toying with the ring around her neck, looked intrigued.

"I'll monitor you daily for the first few weeks and you should go on as normal to establish a baseline under the new potions regime. However, you must keep your stress levels as low as possible while at these events. Also, you must take a day for yourself to mentally relax—any day of the week would suffice, I'm not fussed about specifics. I personally suggest the spa or perhaps taking up a new hobby that's not physically strenuous but still mentally stimulating. Last, because I can only imagine how you exert yourself at these events, I'll attend to observe you, but stay out of the way. Only ones that I have been invited to as well, as I'm under the impression that your condition is a secret. Am I correct?"

"You are. And I intend to keep it one until I can no longer do so."

"Does Mal—Draco know?" Because it would be hard to explain her presence if he didn't.

"He does, but…" She trailed off, looking uncomfortable as her face grew sombre and a sigh accompanied her downward stare. Her hands were properly placed in her lap. "Since you are likely to find out anyway, my relationship with my son is… complicated. We live together in our family's home that he purchased after we returned from France, but I rarely see him unless it has something to do with Scorpius' care or our numerous discussions around the subject of his eventual marriage. For a myriad of reasons, we are not on the best of terms. I doubt he even cares about my illness. He has not inquired once about my health since I told him."

"Ah." That was all she could say on that front.

Her actual answer—how unsurprising—wouldn't have been welcomed.

She should have expected the added density to the situation. After all, she was dealing with the Malfoys. Hermione hadn't needed to know about the fractured state of Draco and Narcissa's relationship to recognise that she was sailing into stormy waters.

But Hermione had a plan to skirt the outer edges of the storm, never allowing herself to get too close. She had all she needed to do just that: a sturdy boat, proper anchors, and a good moral compass should she need to find true North. She wasn't worried, secure in her resolve to care for Narcissa and give her the time she wanted to fix what had been broken.

And maybe work with Malfoy to figure out a plan for further along down the road.

"Are you available for a home visit? I'd like to see the set up to figure out if I'll need to use my own kitchen to prepare your meals."

"Meals?" Narcissa didn't hide her scepticism.

"Yes, meals." Hermione pointedly ignored the look. "I prepare meals for my patients, as I believe food heals, and with your condition, your diet is just as important as the potions I will prescribe."

"Well, perhaps with house-elves and magic—"

"I don't cook with magic, and I don't have a house-elf."

At the strong statement, the naked look of aghast bewilderment on the older witch's face was so comical that Hermione wondered if she'd ever eaten a meal not prepared with magic.

"Then how do you cook?" There was suspicion in her eyes, as if she only started fires for cooking with twigs and flint rock. Primitive.

"In a kitchen. With recipes, measurements, and a cooker. Might use a knife. As far as food, I use ingredients from my garden and I bake my own bread with flour I purchase from a Muggle farmer near my home." If at all possible, the witch looked even more put off. Hermione continued on as if she weren't looking so scandalised. "I'd like to start you on a full diet, but I understand how difficult that will be, so I'm willing to start you off with one meal a day and increase from there."

Narcissa looked as if she were trying to feed her aconite. "Why?"

Hermione unrolled the parchment that contained a summary of her research.

It was a valid question. One that she had the right to know as it pertained to her health.

"There is much we don't know about your condition in those with magic, but with the Muggle version of your disease, research shows that maintaining a healthy diet is very important. As you decline, your mood will change, as will what you want to eat, so malnutrition, weight loss, and dehydration may occur."

She caught the way the witch flinched and had to remember that, while she might have accepted her fate, discussing the inevitable would never be an easy topic. Hermione knew better, then smoothed her words out in a semblance of an apology, aiming more for comforting than clinical.

"I believe that the more aggressive we are in treating you and getting your symptoms under control, the slower the disease will progress." She spoke slowly, clearly. "I'd like you to eat more foods with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, which is why I'm going to start making meals for you. I have a list prepared for your review, should you like to make suggestions based on your personal preferences." Hermione offered her another parchment that she accepted with tentative hands.

"I would like that, thank you."

"I offer no guarantees, but I'm learning about your condition as we go." Which was something Narcissa knew. "I'm nearly finished with creating your potions, but I've found that there are some ingredients whose benefits are enhanced by combining them with certain foods."

"And I am willing to make the necessary changes… however unconventional they may be."

Which opened up a line of conversation that needed to happen. "And the Specialist—"

"No." Narcissa's response was firm and unequivocal.

"Might I ask for a reason why? Studies show—"

"No Muggles or their Specialists." Narcissa spat the word as if it were poison. Then she fixed Hermione with a hard look of warning. "If you cannot abide by my wishes, then I will find a different Healer who can."

The statement made it very clear who Narcissa believed was running the show. And while that might have worked with her Primary Healer, it would not with her. Hermione made a casual gesture to her fireplace in a move that was purely to bait her. "You're free to do as you please. I have better things to do with my time than help someone who isn't willing to help themselves."

Narcissa's face tightened with anger first and Hermione readied herself for a fight—one of many, unless she took the out provided. But the argument never came. From one breath to the next, she visibly relaxed; a blankness swept over her pale features that was odd and alarming.

They stared at each other in mutual confusion. "Who are you?"

Realisation jolted Hermione like a thunderclap, but she forced herself to remain calm. Patient. Understanding. "My name is Hermione Granger."

Hermione offered Narcissa a handkerchief to wipe her brow, staying her hand at the guards who were now fully paying attention.

After she dabbed her hairline, Narcissa's eyes wandered around the room, focused as if she were trying to pick up clues. Her hands trembled, but not from the cold. Then her gaze fell back on Hermione, a twitch at the corner of her mouth as her jaw ticked. "How did I get here?"

Hermione was smart enough to know when to fight and when prudence called for retreat. This required the latter. "I'm your Healer. This is my office."

There was another pause and Narcissa took several deep breaths as she placed her fingertips on her temples, closing her eyes tight. With a small nod, she seemed to come back to herself, but was clearly still shaken by the empty space in her mind. "Of course, of course. Do carry on, Miss Granger."

Carry on would have sent her back through the fireplace, per their previous argument, but Hermione wasn't cruel or unfeeling. The discussion could wait. It would have to. "Would you like to pick this conversation up later?"

"I'm not an invalid."

Ah, she was completely back then. And surly from the moment of vulnerability.

"Of course not," Hermione replied thinly. "How often does that happen?"

"More than I'd like."

"For how long?"

"Shortly after I was diagnosed."

"Was that before or after you picked your new potions?"

Narcissa's lack of an answer was all Hermione needed to know. "This treatment isn't going to be without its side effects and you might not like them. The important thing is that you stick to the plan."

And Hermione wasn't naïve enough to believe that she wouldn't try to push. It was Narcissa Malfoy's way—stubborn and proud, she wasn't used to giving up any sort of control to anyone. Not anymore. Never again. Not if she could help it. No matter the reason or the cost.

While compliant now, Hermione knew better than to believe that would be the norm.

After clearing her throat, she continued on with her expectations now that her patient seemed ready. "I'd like for you to exercise. It will help with balance, which may reduce the chance for falls. Massages help increase circulation, so I recommend them. I'd also like to see where I can store your potions during the home visit to check out your kitchen capacities. I'll brew enough for a week to make sure they're as fresh as possible. I'll be sure to bring them with a list of what to take, when to take it, and how. I'll need to meet with your Palliative Care Healers as well so that we are all on the same page."

Narcissa nodded, her eyes falling on the forgotten list in front of her. Several minutes of silence passed before she seemed completely back to normal. Their imminent argument was forever lost. Hermione deleted it from her own mind, but the topic remained saved in a file for later.

"You've put a lot of thought into this, Miss Granger, and in such a short amount of time about a disease you are not familiar with. I know I am not the easiest patient you have encountered—" A massive understatement. She cleared her throat in an attempt to not choke on the words, but Narcissa was sharp enough to read between the lines. "However, I do thank you for taking my case seriously, despite our history."

"Once I commit to something, I don't let up. Remember that."

Narcissa's blue eyes lifted to meet hers, and while it was so fleeting she might have missed it had she hesitated a second, Hermione caught a hint of respect in her stare.

Far more than at the start of their conversation.

Far more than expected, if she were being honest.

But later, as Hermione hung more herbs to dry for later brews, she was reminded that just as every plant started as a seed, every person had to start somewhere as well. And there, in her office, on a Monday afternoon, seemed as good a spot as any for Narcissa Malfoy to start growing.

 



April 6, 2011

 

Hermione was actually dating someone important…

Herself.

On the second Wednesday of every month, she would take herself out. Most of the time, she went to the theatres for productions, cinema for films of her choosing, ballet productions, and concerts—and any other events she was interested in. Sometimes, she would go for a walk in the park and marvel at the world around her, maybe take a book to read for the evening until it was too dark to see. She would buy herself gifts, little indulgences she never allowed herself to have. Flowers. Sweets. Other times, she would go to the market and buy everything she needed for a quiet night in with an excellent meal and even better company…

Herself.

Most of her friends thought it was bizarre that she actually kept to her scheduled dates with herself, but Pansy and Parvati had found it liberating and had started doing it as well. Ron would infrequently invite himself along—an invitation she always declined as that defeated the entire purpose of self-partnering.

Dating herself had allowed Hermione to get in touch with what she expected from herself and potentially what she would need from an eventual partner. It allowed her to connect with herself, gave her the opportunity to improve her self-care habits, and gave herself a chance to fulfil her own desires without relying on someone else.

In truth, Hermione wanted to take herself out more, but one day a month was all she could commit to at that time. Maybe it would change in the future, but for now, it worked.

She'd skipped March and was determined to not do the same for April, but date night fell on possibly the worst day imaginable.

It started with a storm the previous night that had shattered a glass pane in her greenhouse. The magical repair had gone quickly, but it had thrown her morning gardening schedule awry.

Then, Theo's name suddenly appeared on her calendar for an emergency meeting, but he'd neglected to mention the fact that she would be walking into a trap named Roger Davies.

"You poached my patient!"

There was no point in lying about something she'd done intentionally. "I did."

For a breath, Roger faltered, staring at her, flummoxed by her blunt admission. His mood shifted from astonishment to self-righteous anger. "I never thought you were capable of something like this. Of all people, Hermione, I thought you operated on a higher moral plane—one where you don't go behind a colleague's back and snatch their patient. A patient, might I add, that you declined! It's uncouth, unprofessional, and…"

Hermione stopped listening in favour of letting her eyes drift to Theo.

To the casual observer, he appeared exceedingly detached from what was happening in his office, which was exactly the attitude he attempted to convey. She knew better. There was a glint in his eye that spoke of just how vastly entertained Theo was by Roger's rant. Hermione also caught him chuckling into his tea, not intending on stopping him.

Theo's lack of response meant only one thing: he was testing her.

Sometimes he did it out of boredom, but mostly, it was for his own amusement as he had a bit of a god complex that stemmed from being the most observant person in any room. Theo loved to see people squirm. Well, mainly Hermione because, for the most part, she was unflappable. He also liked to test her because, no matter how many offers she had refused, he hadn't let go of the belief that Hermione would one day run the Ministry.

And even though he was wrong as hell, Hermione had never failed an exam in her life and she certainly wasn't going to start then.

So, she took his test and marvelled at how effortless it was to achieve top marks.

Easy because she had already prepared for Roger. He'd been a blip on her radar when she'd taken Narcissa's case, small in the grand scheme of things. Knowing he wouldn't take too kindly to the theft, Hermione had already prepared a little speech that played to the things Roger valued most: his work and his ego.

"Narcissa Malfoy needs to begin treatment immediately, rather than in a few months while you run tests to determine where her disease originates. Its progression is too rapid for you to waste time."

"That's insulting that you don't thin—"

Hermione narrowed her eyes at him. "Do you know what would happen if Narcissa Malfoy—or even Draco—got any sort of inkling that your treatment delays had cost her the time she wanted with her family?"

The threat was partially empty, but not one he was willing to test if the look on his face meant anything.

Silence fell in Theo's office, and Hermione used it to hammer that thought home.

"The liability exposure alone would dismantle your career and put all your research into question, Roger. So… yes, I accepted her case." She folded her arms across her chest, face pinched. "And I broke my own rules to do it. I hope that your ego won't blind you into seeing that I've done you a massive favour to protect our department and our work as a whole. Oh, and you."

Roger rubbed the back of his neck, as most of the men in her life did when they felt guilty. "I… I didn't see it that way." Still, he was earnest when he apologised for calling her in for the unscheduled meeting, his cheeks a touch pink. "I'll still review her file, if you'll provide a copy, and should you need assistance, I'll make myself available. I'd still like to research her family history as well—"

"I can handle that when I'm settled into treating her."

"Very well then." He glanced at his watch. "I have a meeting."

When Roger left, Theo placed his teacup on the saucer and stood tall. He fixed his cufflinks first before running a hand down his white shirt, smoothing his navy tie, straightening any creases. "Nicely done."

The fact that he looked fit didn't stop Hermione from glaring at the smirking wizard.

"A warning next time would be appreciated."

The expression on Theo's face told her that was never going to happen. In fact, she was about to tell him where he could go when there was a knock on the door.

Padma stuck her head in, surprised, but happy to see Hermione. "I need help."

The task ended up taking three hours, an exhausting number of tests, and finally the diagnosis: powdered silver poisoning. Then she'd found the bite mark that caused Padma to make the call to report a newly made werewolf.

By the time Padma had finished recommending a good therapist and the Ministry launched their investigation into how they'd been bitten, it was well after four and Hermione only had an hour until her meeting with Narcissa and her current Healers.

It was date night, and Hermione was planning to take herself to a show in the city that started at eight. After several calculations, she realised she wouldn't make it on time unless she left from the Malfoys' home.

Which was how Hermione ended up in their spacious kitchen on a Thursday evening, dressed for a night out in a dark green lace cocktail dress and nude heels. Her long hair was tamed into soft curls with the help of more than a little Sleekeazy's. When she'd stepped out of the Floo, Narcissa had given her the first approving look in their brief association.

They convened at a long, walnut kitchen table that was larger than her dining table. Hermione had laid out Narcissa's treatment plan, her research parchment, and the potions she had brewed the night before. They were separated into morning, afternoon, and evening. Nine in total.

Narcissa's Palliative Care Healers, Keating and Sachs (she never bothered with first names), sat across from her. As far as she knew, they came once every few days and accompanied her to events as members of her staff.

Those roles would have to change over the coming months and years.

They quietly read over her detailed instructions regarding Narcissa's potion regime and meal plan. Narcissa was flipping through her copy of everything, oddly quiet with no complaints, but she put observing the witch aside in favour of assessing the private Healers.

With her mouth flattened into a line, Hermione's initial assessment deemed them perfectly adequate Healers. Nothing particularly special. They were older than Hermione, but younger than Narcissa, nondescript like most private Healers with forgettable features, but neither had any desire to stand out. They were everything they needed to be: capable of following instruction and talented enough to do their job.

They were, however, boldly loyal to Narcissa… and Hermione had no way of determining if that would be an advantage or a detriment. What she did know was that they were obviously sceptical of Hermione's presence.

And her treatment plan.

"Healer Granger," Sachs spoke up after Hermione asked if there were any questions. "This is an extensive list of potions, how do you know they won't counteract one another?"

Well, her answer was simple. She'd done her damn job, but that wasn't the answer Hermione gave. What she actually said was, "It's my specialty."

And she left it at that.

Narcissa coughed delicately.

Keating picked up the second in the line of nine vials that she had laid out to show what they all looked like. "And you want her to take—"

"The schedule is very clear." Hermione maintained a professional tone.

"It says here that you'll be providing meals." Sachs pointed out

"I will. One meal a day for now, starting tomorrow." Truthfully, she hadn't had the energy to prepare her meals and brew potions. They were all unfamiliar recipes she had never attempted before, and thus the task of brewing had taken longer than she'd expected. Probably not her best work, but she had not made a mistake.

"I don't understand why the house-elves can't prepare all of her meals anymore."

Patiently, Hermione gestured to the carefully folded parchments that she'd made for them both to study. "Please review my research as it answers all the questions you may have. You may call me with any additional inquiries you may have or anything to add to my research. I would like the next thirty days to monitor Narcissa—exclusively. But once that passes, I expect you both to return to your normal schedules. Enjoy your holidays."

"Paid," Narcissa added.

The two witches shook their head, both pleased by the sudden vacation and their boss' generosity.

"That's all I have for today." Hermione gave them both a smile. "I look forward to working with you both." Handshakes were exchanged before they both gathered their rolls of parchment and left.

"You do not seem fond of my Healers, Miss Granger."

Hermione honestly didn't have an opinion of them just yet. Just an evaluation that could—and likely would—be adjusted with further interactions as she got to know them both better as Healers and people. "I generally work alone, so it will be… different." But not in a bad way, as their presence would make it possible for Hermione to have a life outside of working and brewing once things worsened.

There was still the bit about their loyalties that made Hermione worry.

"How long have they been employed by your family."

"They cared for Astoria for the duration of her illness. They are trained for Terminal Care."

Ah.

Years, then.

Loyalty might be an issue should Narcissa stray from her treatment plan. It didn't look like either had the fortitude to stand up to the older witch. Which would be a problem if she decided to stop complying… and judging from Hermione's research into personality changes that occurred during the duration of the disease, that was likely. Not completely on purpose, though.

Well, the fact that the Malfoys likely had a house-elf was a positive.

Should anything happen, Hermione would be alerted.

Speaking of elves, Hermione scanned the room with slightly furrowed brows.

The last thing she'd done before quitting the Ministry was swaying the Wizengamot to vote in favour of their emancipation, which had caused quite the stir up amongst the families wealthy enough to have the beings passed along generationally. With the new law, families were required to free them and provide an option for rehiring: paid and provided with liveable conditions.

Furthermore, extensive documentation had to be provided to the Ministry before any family was allowed to retain an elf. The Ministry did check for undocumented house-elves—the Aurors would be called in if the Beast or Being Division had any trouble. The fines and public shame alone were not worth breaking the rules.

Hermine had even started the plans to set up a small sanctuary in Scotland for them to live free of servitude, but allowed to come and go as they pleased for work—should they decide not to live with the family.

She wondered if the plan had lived on.

"Miss Granger," Narcissa spoke up for the first time. "If you are looking for our house-elf, we only employ one part-time, as Draco feels this house is too small for a full staff. He mainly does the cleaning and helps with Scorpius' evening plans."

Hermione hadn't had an opportunity to explore their home, but based off the kitchen and the adjacent living room alone, she seriously doubted the Malfoys would willingly live anywhere that could be described as small.

It was oddly modern in design for such a traditional family, so much was disrupting her perception of them. It was to the point where Narcissa, in her plum dress robes, staple necklace with the gold band, and hair styled under her matching fancy hat, seemed almost out of place and too old-fashioned while she sat next to Hermione at the head of the table.

The area itself was a clean, open, and bright space, with windows, plenty of light, white walls, light wood flooring that offset the dark coloured cabinets in the kitchen, and the granite counters that matched the waterfall island.

The living room had dark grey sofas with a coffee table between them, all adequately spaced away from the fireplace she'd stepped out of over thirty minutes before. Artwork was tastefully spaced throughout the space, and Hermione saw more leading up the stairs on the other side of the room. She knew for a fact that Narcissa hadn't designed it. She also knew that a lot of Pansy's décor staples were present in the room, but it didn't explain just how modern it was.

And she found herself wondering…

"Zippy!" Narcissa called politely and the free house-elf materialised next to her, wearing a black bowtie and looking quite healthy.

"Yes, Mistress."

"This is Miss Hermione Granger." Hermione gave a courteous nod at the elf, who stared at her with large eyes, filled with recognition. And… admiration. Narcissa continued on. "She will be tending to me along with Keating and Sachs. You're to do as she instructs as if she were a member of this family."

"It will be an honour."

Narcissa eyed the smaller creature before her eyes slid to Hermione. "Thank you, Zippy. Now, please update me on Scorpius' progression through his schedule."

"Young Master is finishing Etiquette. Miss Prichard will dress him in proper dinner attire and he will be ready shortly. Master Draco will have no need for me. I will go home."

"Thank you. Enjoy your holiday."

Zippy gave another reverent nod and vanished with a snap of his fingers.

Hermione officially found herself baffled on so many levels that she wasn't even going to try and point them all out because she didn't want to confuse herself any further. Not only was that a bad feeling, it was a completely foreign concept for her. But what made matters worse was that even though Hermione tried not to think about it, she found that it was like trying not to breathe; very soon the strain would become too great and she had to take a desperate breath.

Which was exactly what happened.

Her thoughts ran wild.

First, Zippy was oddly well-spoken for a house-elf. Better than Kreacher. Reverent, as most were of the families they worked for, but he worked part-time, had a home away, and days off.

That alone was enough of a shock to last her for a long time, but it just continued.

Not about the house-elf, but etiquette lessons for a five-year-old? Ginny had a hard time getting Al through a meal without getting food on his clothes, much less using the correct cutlery while doing it.

Blessedly, after that, the wheels in her brain slowed long enough for her to catch her breath and spit out her last two topics of confusion—their modern home and, hell, them—but she couldn't muster up much of an analysis on either.

That would take time.

Loads of it.

And a whiteboard.

Hermione only realised she was broadcasting very loudly in the silence that followed Zippy's departure when she noticed that Narcissa was regarding her with a challenging look. Her head was cocked to the side, already prepared for another skirmish. To be fair, discussions that occurred due to their conflicting philosophies seemed almost normal, even after only a couple of interactions.

It was not as professional as she'd like, but better than one could hope for given the amount of time they would spend in each other's company. Hermione had a rule: she only played defence. Never offense. She left that to Narcissa, who played so well it begged to wonder if the witch was only asking her pointed questions to test her boundaries and limits, poking and prodding to see how much Hermione could take before she reached her limit and snapped.

It was normal. Every patient tried, but none had succeeded.

Best they got this part over with.

"Tell me, Miss Granger, were you expecting something different from the house-elf?"

Based on her affronted tone, her tense body language, and the narrowed look of barely concealed irritation on her face, Hermione knew better than to answer that question as forthrightly as she otherwise would have. She looked more inclined to start a war than make peace. "I look forward to working with him."

It was the wrong response.

Narcissa folded the parchment with her treatment plans. "I know that my family does not have the best reputation for treating elves with respect." Another one of those understatements, to say the least. "However, I assure you that Zippy is treated fairly, paid hourly wages, has holiday time, is healthy, and is free. He is not bound to my family, as he also works for the Greengrass family. Times have changed, Miss Granger."

"They have," Hermione agreed with a slight nod, but because she couldn't help herself, she had to point out a key counter to her argument. "By law."

Narcissa didn't flinch, but dug her sanctimonious heels further in. "Be that as it may, it still should speak for itself that we are abiding by said law. There are always ways to circumvent any rule."

Of course, Narcissa would know that better than anyone.

"True, but the alternative would bring unwanted attention to your family; attention that you don't need if you want to maintain the place you've worked so hard to regain in society, which seem to be important to you. So, your compliance is a tactical avenue and, therefore, means little to me." Hermione paused, but reluctantly gave her a bit of credit. "It is nice to see, however."

No words were exchanged for several moments. Hermione stood, gathering the nine potion vials she had placed on the table earlier and sliding them in with the others in the wicker basket she'd brought with her. Then, she went to search for a place to store the vials.

Narcissa's eyes were on her the entire time as she placed the basket on the countertop and stepped back to eye the long row of walnut cabinets. The open cabinets were lined with decorative kitchen items. Hermione opened the door in front of her. Glass, cups, teacups. She closed it.

"Miss Granger…" The older witch's tone was thoughtful; it sounded like she had been contemplating whatever she was about to say for a while. Hermione remained silent, allowing her to continue. "I have noticed in our interactions that you are very opinionated, and you do so little to censor yourself."

"Touché."

Narcissa gave a flippant wave of her dainty hand. "At my age, I believe I have earned the right to speak my mind, wouldn't you say?"

"You do have that right, just as I have a right to speak mine. Age doesn't mean that you have a free pass, nor does it mean that you're exempt from being held accountable for your words and actions."

"I mean no offence, of course. I am just getting to know you better, since we are to be around each other for the foreseeable future." Narcissa cleared her throat like she wanted to say more, but stopped herself.

Hermione glanced over her shoulder at her, eyebrow raised expectantly. "Go on."

Narcissa's eyes were slightly narrowed in a manner that meant she was ready to keep pushing. Hermione welcomed the challenge with a rather bored expression.

"It's just that during our interactions, I've noticed a few things. You are Draco's age, yes?"

"From what I remember, I'm nearly a year older. I'll be thirty-two in September."

"Are you married?"

"No."

"Divorced?" There was an antiquated disgust in her tone at the word.

"No."

"Engaged?"

"No, I'm single."

"For years, I imagine, hmm?" The question sounded innocent, but there was something patronising beneath it. "Your lack of response means that the answer is yes, something I find interesting." Narcissa touched her chin, appearing thoughtful. Then she ran her fingers over the necklace that often seemed to clash with her attire, but she wore it regardless. "That you are unmarried at your age makes sense in a way. Your uncompromising attitude is unbecoming of a woman who seeks to marry."

"Not everyone wants to marry."

She levelled Hermione with a knowing look. "You are quite liberal, Miss Granger." And it was the same tone someone very rich would use to call another person very poor. "However, you are a woman. It is in our nature to want to marry, raise a family, settle down, and be a wife."

There were two vastly different opinions competing for dominance in Hermione's head.

The first was the bothersome truth that Narcissa wasn't wrong. Hermione had toyed around with the idea of really committing to building a life with someone and having children of her own, but it hadn't worked.

If she were being perfectly honest with herself, after Ron, she'd never given it an honest try.

However, the second idea was louder, more rankled by the fact that Narcissa's comment was completely off the mark. Hermione was indeed a woman. While she wouldn't judge anyone who wanted to go that route—because it was their choice—she had more lofty aspirations than only being a wife, married for the sole purpose to breed.

Hermione was a professional and Narcissa was her patient; she refused to let the witch provoke her. So, in lieu of a response, she continued searching for a cabinet to store her weekly potions. And while she opened and shut various cabinets down the row, she formulated at least seventeen responses in her head.

Because one wasn't enough.

"The upper corner cabinet is empty and will do just fine."

Of course, Narcissa was correct. It was her home, after all. As Hermione started carefully placing the labelled vials in rows and organising them, Mrs Malfoy delicately cleared her throat as if she were about to address a captive audience. If her voice had been a little higher in pitch, she would have reminded her of Umbridge.

Hermione, already slightly flustered from having to censor herself, tensed before she realised she'd done so. Then, she gritted her teeth. "Yes?"

"I confess I am intrigued by you, Miss Granger." She wasn't certain if that was a good or bad thing, but decided it best if she said nothing and allowed the witch to continue uninterrupted. "You remind me a lot of myself, and because of that, I have decided to give you a bit of friendly advice. Just a little something my mother once said to me."

Hermione ignored the way the witch's drawled words made her feel like a rat who had learned how to push a button without being trained.

"I am not accustomed to your culture, Miss Granger, but wizards do not want a witch that emasculates them. They have no interest in a witch who will challenge them in every aspect, someone too capable of taking care of herself, too used to being alone. Wizards want to be needed. Adored. Catered to. They want to lead, and not be led. Even if you have to fake it, Miss Granger, I suggest you learn to do that if you ever hope to marry."

Hermione paused halfway between placing the last of her morning potions in a neat row on the shelf as she decided on whether to respond or pretend like she hadn't heard a thing.

It wasn't the first time someone had said that to her, so it didn't grate at her like it would have in any other situation. In fact, Hermione silently thanked Mrs Weasley who—during all their little talks when she was dating Ron—had unwittingly prepared her for the current situation.

Right down to her response.

Yes, response, because she could no longer hold her peace. Not when it had been so thoroughly disrupted.

It simply wasn't in her nature.

Hermione placed a vial on the shelf and continued working, finishing the last of the morning vials before she inhaled, exhaled, and summoned a chill in her voice that even she hadn't expected.

"That's the difference between us, I suppose."

"Oh?" Narcissa sounded intrigued.

A moment of silence passed between them as Hermione started on the afternoon vials, still facing away. "Unlike you, I won't fake it or play a role just to appeal to or please a man. Yes, man, because wizards are men, first and foremost. There is no distinction between the two. If a man wants me, he'll want me as I am now and he'll want who I will become. I'm constantly growing and changing, just as I expect he will be. He won't be intimidated or emasculated by my power—or me—because the man I choose will be just that: a man. Not an insecure child."

She exhaled, trying to force the keyed up energy that accompanied her words to pass.

But it didn't.

"The man I choose will be secure in himself and the roles that we will play in each other's lives. And when I cater to him, it won't be because I'm appealing to his ego, but because I want to. Because I love and respect him and what we share. When he chooses to lead, I'll follow, not blindly or as an act of appeasement, but rather by choice. Because we are, first and foremost, partners—which means I'll trust him not to make decisions that will affect us both jointly and individually without consulting me first. It'll be our duty to each other and the—"

"Draco, how long have you been standing there?"

It happened in a series of blunders that, had Hermione been more cognizant about what was going on around her and not in full-on rant mode, might have been avoided. It started with the wind instantly vanishing from the sails of her argument; the energy behind her fervent words just as dead on the water as they were in her throat. Then she lost her footing—both figuratively and literally—as her heel lost its grip, skidding out from under her.

Narcissa's loud gasp was all she heard when she only just managed to keep a vial safe—and not ruin a night's worth of hard work—by catching herself with her elbows on the counter.

"Miss Granger, are you all right?" At least Narcissa had the decency to sound startled and worried.

"I'm quite all right." Hermione pulled herself back up and resumed her task. Nothing to see. Of course, her ankle hurt almost as much as her pride, but she would rather break the other one than admit it. "Just going to finish up here and head out. I'll be back in in the morning with your meals."

"Are you certain—"

"I'm fine!" And because that sounded too flustered and sharp, Hermione tried it again, still with her back to them. "Thank you for your concern but I am perfectly well."

The silence that followed was as long as it was deafening. She could almost feel their eyes on her, observing. She felt her cheeks warm with embarrassment. But Hermione took her time and composed herself as she continued placing the vials of potions on the shelf. Noticing she was running low on excuses not to turn around, Hermione was immediately relieved when Narcissa started talking to her son.

"How long have you been home, Draco?"

"Not long. How was Scorpius today?"

The first thing Hermione noticed was that he sounded older—a thought she found silly because of course he did. They were adults now, no longer scared children on opposing sides of a war. It made sense that his voice was different, that his pitch had deepened to a lower, more confident, more rich tenor. He still sounded posh—something that would likely never change—but Hermione found it oddly comforting.

It was reassuring to know that while some things could change, there were still constants in human nature.

"He was well-behaved and there were no incidents. Not that you need to worry."

The phrasing made Hermione pause and tilt her head in question before she pushed the twinge of curiosity aside in favour of continuing her task. She had another ten minutes until she needed to leave in order to make it to the theatre in time for the show, but the tension in the room had spiked so high she knew better than to draw any attention to herself. Or her hurt ankle.

"Good." He spoke quietly, but there was a sharp quality to his voice. Then he took an audible breath and Hermione carefully clanked two vials together to hide the fact that she was listening. "Where is he?"

There was a tinge of something there that she couldn't define.

"I am taking him to dinner at the Greengrass Estate," Narcissa told him coolly. "I assume you will be working late again…"

"That is correct."

Another silence fell, but it didn't last nearly as long.

"Please shave that ghastly facial hair off your face. I have scheduled a marriage meeting with the elder Sayre sister. She is twenty-five now, and while I feel that is old, you—"

"Cancel it." Malfoy's tone was clipped with a sort of finality that Hermione understood. The conversation was over. "I'll be working in my office tonight."

"You could at least show your face at dinner wit—"

"No." His response sounded decisive, but also churlish. "Enjoy your evening."

The silence was brief, almost awkward.

"I know Scorpius comes to sit in your office when he is put to bed. Do not keep him up late, Draco. He has a schedule to keep. The nanny says he has been grouchy in the mornings lately."

"What would you have me do, Mother?" There was a brittle pause. "Would you have me turn him away?" The question was hollow. Empty.

"Draco—"

"I think we're finished here."

Hermione was still facing away from them, but the tension that lingered was loud, angry, and visceral. But that strain was mostly coming from Malfoy, tangible enough that she thought she could reach out and touch it. She wouldn't though. She knew better. It might have seemed as controlled as Malfoy's tone, but something that inherently volatile would surely explode with only the slightest bit of carelessness.

The sound of Narcissa moving reached her ears just before she heard her heels connect with the hardwood floor.

"Is that all for today, Miss Granger?" There was a twinge of exhaustion in Narcissa's voice that hadn't been there earlier. "I have another engagement to attend."

"Yes," Hermione answered, but only after a small delay as she tried—for the sake of propriety—not to appear though she was eavesdropping.

Which she was.

But honestly, how could they expect anyone not to listen?

Hermione was nosy. Too much so for her own good. With a healthy and almost insatiable thirst for knowledge in any form—even when it didn't pertain to her—having an almost cryptic conversation in her presence was like placing a glass of Firewhisky in front of an alcoholic and telling them not to drink.

It was an impossible feat.

When she considered it, Hermione arrived at an excellent question: could it be considered eavesdropping when they were speaking so freely in front of her?

No.

She cleared her throat. "I'll finish here and see you in the morning."

"Very well."

Hermione heard Narcissa's heels click across the wood floor, echoing as she walked away with measured steps. Narcissa paused once for several breaths, then continued on, her footsteps fading into nothing. Hermione almost relaxed and placed the last of the vials on the shelf, but then remembered something important.

She wasn't alone.

Well, Hermione supposed it would happen at some point. She shut the cabinet and carefully turned around. Keeping her eyes on the floor in an attempt to mind her aching ankle, she turned in a slow circle, bracing her hands on the edge of the granite countertop as she lifted her gaze to the remaining Malfoy across the room, partially obscured by the island between them.

Despite Parvati's recent ranting about Malfoy being climbable, for the last year and a half, Hermione had been listening to Harry vocalise his grievances about the man's behaviour and character. His complaints coupled with how she remembered him at school and his trial had created a detailed picture in Hermione's head of what he was supposed to look like—a thin, pale, sneering prat with cold grey eyes who wore his hair long like the father he sought to emulate.

But the real version wasn't anywhere close to that.

Except for his attitude, Malfoy had never been described as ugly, so that fact hadn't changed in thirteen years. If anything, the passage of time had only served to make him more aesthetically appealing, which was a thought so patently ridiculous that Hermione rejected it instantly. For good measure, she then had the banned notion burned, the ashes swept up into a neat pile, and binned.

However, sweeping always left a bit of residue, but not enough to matter.

Malfoy was taller than she remembered, perhaps a head taller than Harry, still lean and pale, but not in the hollow and almost translucent way he'd looked after living through the hell of having Voldemort as a murderous house guest. He looked stronger. Serious. Poised. He stood taller, far more confident. Hermione figured that had come with age because Malfoy had matured—at least, physically.

Time—and a bit of facial hair—made his boyish features taut, sharper, and more defined. But not so refined where he looked like his father. On that note, Malfoy wore his blond hair—not long like other pureblooded men—but rather short and parted to the right, combed into a pompadour style that suited him.

He was…

He was walking towards her. The sound of his shoes on the wood floors was loud in the silence.

Hermione never averted her eyes, aware that she was staring boldly at him. But he returned her gaze with one of his own, grey eyes unreadable—except for a twitch in his jaw and a glimmer of what looked like an odd mix of curiosity and suspicion as he stopped on the opposite end of the kitchen.

The way they stood now, facing each other with no island between them, felt as if they were readying for a duel. It made her pulse quicken, made her ready to fight; her wand hand itched to feel her trusty vine wood in its grasp. But it was tucked in her beaded bag on the island, exactly halfway between them.

Hermione pushed herself off the counter, walking normally, confidently, despite the stabbing pain in her ankle. She stopped at her bag and took her eyes off him long enough to pick it up. She cut her eyes back to the man who hadn't moved a muscle, noting little things: the way he stood, the signet ring on his right hand, the way he watched her like a chess master watched his opponent's moves. But mostly, Hermione noticed his body language, which was relaxed in a way that was completely at odds with the intensity that rolled off him.

She had to say something. The air between them was too taut to remain silent, so Hermione opted for something simple.

His name.

"Malfoy."

When he said nothing in response, she searched his face for a hint of reaction, but saw nothing discernible… except for the flip of the switch and the moment he stopped looking and started seeing her.

The weight of his gaze was unsettling and uncomfortable, but Hermione fought off those feelings and tilted her head in defiance. She hardly recognised herself in this scenario where she should have had plenty to say, yet found herself unable to speak.

But then his eyes cut from her feet to her face so fast that she almost missed it. Hermione did not, however, miss the fact that in just that look, Malfoy had assessed her almost as completely as she had him.

A quick glance at the wall clock behind him, coupled with a strange little jolt, told her that it was time to go.

Hermione turned on her heels, making sure to keep the pain off her face and out of her gait, and she walked away. Careful steps, but not too careful. She felt his eyes on her like pin pricks. It only made her want to leave quicker. Her exit strategy was nearly a success when she heard him say one word.

Her name.

"Granger."

It took until intermission for Hermione to realise that something else had changed about him.

Malfoy hadn't said her name like a curse or a filthy word that he had to spit out of his mouth.

It had sounded like a riddle.

One he intended to solve.

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.
Proverb

Chapter Text


Six
There Is No Crown

 

April 10, 2011


Percy Weasley didn't do social calls.

At least, Percy Weasley didn't do social calls without purpose.

That would be a waste of his time, and he had never been the sort to do such a thing.

They were close in the sense that they had been friends for years—through Ron, obviously, but outside of that, too. Percy handled all of her legal issues: documentation, concerns, and questions. He also kept her abreast of what was happening in the Ministry and beyond, but nothing else. Percy was careful about that, just in case anyone had questions for her.

So, when Percy stepped out of her Floo after nine, while she was kneading dough for bread, Hermione regarded him with a puzzled expression that cooled to something wary when she noticed his casual attire.

"Are you all right?" she asked with a slight tilt of her head. "Everything okay with Arthur and Molly?"

"Yes, of course." Percy was wearing grey trousers and a plaid shirt, but he might as well have been in pyjamas.

Very strange.

It all got weirder when Percy washed and dried his hands before approaching her from the left. Ready to help.

Hermione arched an eyebrow. "Do you even know how to bake bread?"

"No, but I make an excellent banoffee pie."

Good enough.

He took over kneading the dough while Hermione prepared the breadmaker—a gift to herself after several disastrous attempts. Percy worked quietly, his mind seemingly elsewhere. The pan was ready before he finished and she had to bump his shoulder to get his attention. Embarrassment tinted his features, turning his ears red in a way that reminded her so much of Ron that it made her snort. He stepped to the side and allowed her to finish up, and by the time she washed her hands of the flour, his were cleaned and he was sitting at the island. It was too early in the baking process for them to smell the product of their efforts, but soon.

Hermione loved the smell of baking bread.

It smelled like home.

She finished drying her hands with her back still to him. "I know this isn't a social call." Then she looked over her shoulder at the redhead whose pensiveness had returned in the midst of the silence.

"It's not." Percy had never been anything except direct.

"More than one thing?"

"Of course."

Hermione joined him at the island, but only after grabbing Schiava from the chiller and summoning two glasses. He poured while she sat down and they both swirled their glasses before drinking quietly. It was good. Sweet like berries and cotton candy. She'd picked it because, while Percy would claim to prefer merlot or chianti, Hermione knew he had a penchant for sweeter dry wine that was light and elegant.

"Where do you want to start?" Hermione turned on her stool to face him. "Business might be easier. How's your pet project?" She gave Percy a meaningful look, knowing little about it beyond its existence.

Tactical ignorance.

"Slowly coming together." His answer was flippant. "I'm trying to arrange a visit to a Cambridge library with a secret, private wizarding section. He happens to have access that I've been trying to obtain for the last four years." Hermione's eyebrow lifted in silent curiosity at the very mention of a secret library. "It has records from around the time of the Wizengamot and the Ministry's formation. The less you know the better."

"True." Hermione couldn't help but wonder. "I wasn't aware that any of you worked jointly on the pet project. Or really knew each other outside of wherever it is you all meet to plot."

"We don't. We're all linked by a common goal. I just happen to be working with this person."

Hermione continued sipping her wine. It wasn't much longer before the smell of baking bread began to suffuse the kitchen. "Anything else?"

In another uncharacteristic move, instead of savouring, Percy finished his wine in two mouthfuls and refilled. Whatever was still bothering him, wouldn't come clear in his mind. Frustrating for someone like him. Hermione could relate. It was a more intricate problem, the answer more elusive. Human in both element and in scale.

Personal.

Hermione couldn't think of the last time either of them had gone to the other about anything along those lines. Maybe around two years ago when Penelope Clearwater eloped with a famous American Quidditch player. But Percy had taken the blow with ease, using her home as an escape from everyone's prying eyes and his mother's nagging about when he was going to settle down.

Tonight was obviously different.

"Just one thing." Percy had all the hallmarks of a man who had something weighing heavily on his shoulders. He exhaled the last little bit of what held him back and addressed his issue head-on like the Gryffindor he was. "Pansy."

Which prompted Hermione to finish her glass as well.

She needed a fresh one to tackle that particular issue.

They both did.

"What about her?" Hermione carefully asked as she poured, glancing at him from the corner of her eye. He ran a frustrated hand through his styled hair, messing it up. Then he scowled at himself before fixing it. It wasn't the same. Percy was… off balance. Unsteady. Both shaken and still composed in a way only he could be. And, of course, she knew the reason—the who that had slipped her way under his skin with a single interaction.

Admittedly, it had been a long interaction that had lasted long past dinner.

They'd gone from the table to the sofa in the conservatory, then to the swing outside. The exchange hadn't been constant chatter from what she'd remembered, just bits of exchanges. But the looks from Pansy spoke of her curiosity louder than her apathy. Moments where Percy had been real enough to shed his perfectly crafted skin and laugh at something she'd said. Small smiles had been thrown back and forth between the two, which served as confirmation of the formation of tenuous strings of connection.

Hermione had witnessed most of their exchange from the vantage point where she, Harry, and Ron had drank and talked until they were laughing at nothing and grinning at everything.

And even through the haze of wine, even while brushing Ron's hand off her knee every now and then, she could still see that Percy had seemed… at ease in a way Hermione wouldn't have believed possible had she not seen it for herself. He was far less removed and considerably more engaged than she could ever remember him being with any other woman he had dated. More than that, there had been a certain amount of genuine contentment in the air around Percy that night, one she had never experienced for herself with another person who wasn't a close friend or pseudo-family member.

Hermione was self-aware and realistic enough to recognise that something like that would probably never happen with her. Just as she knew it was unlikely that she even could unknowingly expose herself the same way Percy naturally had that night around Pansy.

In fact, Hermione had known he was in deep, far before Harry had taken one good look, laughed, and said just that.

"How long have you been friends with her?" Percy was clearly trying not to sound as hungry for knowledge as he was.

"A couple of years. We have a peace treaty."

"Literally or figuratively?"

"Both." Hermione shrugged a little and ran a hand over her hair. Percy looked as confused as he was intrigued. With a fond shake of her head, she smirked a bit. "We've come a long way from arguing about kitchen cabinet colours. We're not as different as I'd once thought." She paused. "Well, we are, but I've learned to appreciate that."

"She has a story." Then he frowned at himself. "It's probably not your place to say."

"Everyone has a story, but it's easy to get swept up in what we think a person's story might be, when in fact, we really have no idea what it is unless they share it with us. But you're right. It's not my place to tell you hers. I don't know it all myself." But since Hermione was a good friend and had a great deal of respect for him, she levelled with him. "However, I can offer you a bit of advice, if that's something you might want."

"I doubt I'd be here if I didn't need a bit of guidance."

They exchanged looks before Hermione made a small noise in the back of her throat at the same time Percy sipped his wine. This was well outside her comfort zone, but he had asked—just as she had offered.

"Pansies… are colourful and delicate." Hermione ran her finger along the rim of her wine glass. "Common but beautiful. They live under conditions where most things would die." She looked over to find Percy watching her closely, as if he were committing her words to memory. He truly wanted to understand; it was endearing in a way that softened her a bit. "Like her namesake, Pansy may not look like it, but she's tough and stubborn. She won't quit, has lived through harsh conditions, and doesn't need you for her continued survival."

"That doesn't sound daunting at all."

"It's as simple as it's not." Hermione shifted in her chair. "Pansy has to want you. She has to choose you. She has to look at each of her options, each of her reasons for saying no, and decide to say yes, despite it all. And you have to be patient until she does."

Percy remained thoughtfully quiet for a moment before he drank more of his wine. "Explains why she's ignored all my letters. I even sent her a rose today. Peach… for sincerity." He was awkward just discussing it, blushing from the neck up, but Hermione smiled when he rested his elbow on the table, then his chin on his fist; human in a way that she hadn't expected to like.

She found him relatable.

Right then, Percy wasn't all waistcoats, confidence, and a member of a quiet revolution. He was just a man who didn't understand a woman's heart. Or anything else about her, for the matter.

"I'm not certain if she even liked it."

"Did you get it back?" Hermione asked.

"No."

"Then she loved it." That much she knew for certain. Pansy had no problem rejecting anyone. The fact that she hadn't spoke louder than her silence. "She's prickly as hell, so be consistent, but not clingy. Don't back her into a corner. Let her breathe. She's got her own commitment issues, but let her tell you about her history because it makes her who she is… which you seem to be drawn to."

The flash of smile she saw was slightly boyish for someone so serious and it disappeared before Hermione could call him out on it. Percy cleared his throat, sat up straighter, and she could tell he was formulating a plan.

"I have a lot of work to do." It wasn't a question, just a statement. Percy looked determined in that single-minded way of his.

"You do, and it won't be easy. Arithmancy might be easier."

Percy made a small noise in the back of his throat. "Well, it's a good thing I got an O."

Hermione laughed, and glanced at the clock. The bread would be done soon.

"You know, Hermione…" He spoke deliberately, which signalled a purposeful shift in their conversation. "You're good at giving advice, especially for someone who isn't actively dating."

With a shrug, she took a sip of wine. "I happen to have knowledge on this particular subject."

"Relationships?"

"No, Pansy."

Percy chuckled, appearing more at ease, far more relaxed and grounded than he had been when he'd first arrived. Unfortunately, he was secure enough in himself to turn his focus to her. "What about relationships? My little brother is circling again…" That time he gave her a knowing look.

Hermione drained her second glass, beginning to feel the flush of inebriation. "Seems everyone knows. No one has anything better to talk about? George and Angelina? They're making a real go at it."

"Which is why everyone is turning their attention to him."

"And not you?" She cocked a brow at him.

Percy rolled his eyes. "I've been a bit preoccupied trying to restore a government. Apparently, it's still not a good enough excuse for my mother."

Hermione barked out a laugh, then covered her mouth in an attempt to suppress her humour when he scowled. "Trust me, my mum is the same. At least yours understands the good you're trying to do. Mine?" She winced ruefully. "If she had it her way, I'd be married to Ron with two children by now."

A chuckle was all she received in response. "I think that's my mother's wish for you as well. Ron wouldn't oppose either." His tone turned careful, blue eyes exploratory. "What about you? What do you want?"

"Not that."

"Not ever?"

Hermione considered it. "I won't say not ever, but not with Ron."

Percy drank his wine and allowed the silence between them to linger, but not for long. "You do know that you didn't answer the question—that you never answer the question about what you do want. Only what you don't. I won't argue about it. It's just something for you to consider."

She took a deep breath, exhaling her confession. "I haven't put much thought into my wants, if I'm being honest." And she was. Coupled with the trust she had in him, the wine began to dull her senses, and her walls dipped lower. "I could argue that I have everything I want and need nothing else. I'm quite comfortable. I'm content. Yes, I have Death Eater and werewolf issues, but I'm—"

"Surviving." Percy gave her a look that made Hermione intensely uncomfortable. "Yes, I know. But you're also lying to yourself if you believe you don't want more." He was right, of course. Had he been talking to Harry? "You are undoubtedly one of the smartest people I know, but more than that, you're unstoppable. People like you are always in pursuit. You're focused on each and every challenge you face, but when it's time, you continue pushing towards the next level of excellence. It's not in your nature to be stagnant, but you are."

"I'm allowed to not push myself harder than I have to."

He raised the wine glass to his lips and took several sips. "Of course, when it comes to working long hours or extending yourself to your friends, absolutely don't push. However, when it comes to self-fulfillment, determining what you want, what you're looking for, and what will make you happy—or even who, if that's the path you wind up on—you need to invest the time."

She knew deep down to the core of her being that Percy was right—no reflection was needed, he just was. And that was… just as difficult to accept as it was to correct. The truth was that there was nothing except her own self-awareness to push her forward.

Which wasn't enough.

Percy cleared his throat. "Moving further down the road of what you want, my brother clings to this idea that you will come to your senses and realise he's right and that you two belong together."

"And do you think he is?"

"No. Ron's… Well, Ron's still trying to figure out what he wants. But it's different than with you in that he actually does know. He's just not looked anywhere else to find it, and until he does, he'll always come back to what's familiar. You. He'll try to make you fit when you don't."

That simply would not work.

She and Ron were still the same people, just newer moulds of who they had once been. Changed by experience and circumstances, their contrasts were now more striking. The outside looked the same, but the inside was different. Renovated. Sometimes, what had once worked simply… didn't anymore. Or maybe it had worked right then, but with all the shifting and moulding, the pieces simply stopped fitting.

Hermione understood. But Ron? Not so much.

"That doesn't make me a solution. I wasn't the answer the first time, and I won't be this time either. I'm not sure what else I can do to make him understand."

Percy nodded, swirling the rest of the wine in his glass before taking another sip. "I understand that." It was a practical start, but Hermione knew there was more. "But you don't know either. What you're looking for, I mean. What you want."

"I'll know it when I see it." She got up and went to check on the bread, but it wasn't ready yet. She might as well have thrown in a pout for how petulant she both felt and sounded.

His chuckle was low and soft, laced with a hum of rational amusement. "We're a lot alike, Hermione. And speaking as someone who's still trying to both sort logic from conjecture and make wise decisions about a person I barely know, I can safely say you won't."

She looked over her shoulder at the man sitting at her island.

"First and foremost, you'll need time for your emotions to catch up with your rationale. You never make any moves without first analysing each step to determine if making a move is even worth it in the first place."

True. Quite true, yet Hermione couldn't help but see the flaw in his reasoning. "Okay, but you're making a move with Pansy. Surely you haven't completed your calculations after one meeting."

"Actually, I have."

 

Hermione MoaM
Source: Jaxxinthebox


April 11, 2011


Hermione was an early riser. She relished those quiet hours when the world was dark and hushed and peaceful. Mornings gave her time to think, time to plan and prepare herself for another day.

But that morning was unique.

It was her first official day of her new assignment as Narcissa Malfoy's Healer, and she gave herself extra time to give the beginning of her new journey the respect it deserved. It wasn't going to be easy—terminal cases like Narcissa's never were, even without their clash of worlds.

But as Hermione scanned through printed articles, she readied herself for a long trip, mentally packing every ounce of patience and stamina she would need along the way as she took her first steps down the road. One that, no matter how long she delayed the inevitable, would ultimately lead to failure, but Hermione tucked the thought away.

It wouldn't do if she started the journey already thinking about the outcome.

And what did she know?

Maybe her detailed records on Narcissa would one day help the researcher who would eventually find the cure for her condition. When she looked at it from that perspective, Hermione couldn't see any of her upcoming work as a failure. Besides, not all failures were necessarily bad. They sometimes empowered a person in a way that successes couldn't. And she knew that well because hers had taught Hermione more about her own humility, strength, and perseverance than any of her triumphs ever could.

In the quiet hours before dawn, Hermione looked out the window of her office at the sky and privately wondered what lessons she would learn during this one…

She was a lifelong student, after all, and as such, she prided herself on always learning new things and challenging her own ideologies. She was bound to learn something from the new experience, even if it was that she would never understand pureblood culture or Narcissa Malfoy.

Well, Hermione thought with a chuckle as she made her way to the kitchen, at least she could work on her list of retorts for Narcissa's brazenly stated opinions.

Always best to be prepared.

Normally, she spent her mornings tending to her conservatory plants before moving outdoors after sunrise, or she would read for pleasure. But that morning, inspired by Narcissa's preferred foods of choice, and the fact that she would be observing her for the entire day for any adverse reactions to the potions, Hermione started gathering everything she might need. She carefully packed enough food to make three meals (as she wasn't interested in eating house-elf made meals), and all of her utensils and cookware—because she had serious doubts the Malfoys' had the proper pans to make… well, anything without magic.

Half an hour later, Hermione found herself checking her mental list for the second time. Confident she had everything organised in her bag, she stepped into her Floo.

Her destination? The Malfoy residence.

It was nearly six by the time she stepped out of the fireplace. Ceiling lights automatically turned on as the wards admitted her with a magical warmth that tingled down to the tips of her fingers. In truth, she hadn't paid much attention to the wards—or even her surroundings. The last time she had been there, she'd been more focused on keeping to her schedule.

But now she had time to look past furniture placement.

Hermione didn't venture past the invisible boundaries of the open living room and kitchen, but she did venture towards the floor to ceiling glass wall—with grey curtains pulled back on each side—that led to their garden. The sky was beginning to stir. Pretty soon, warm colours of pink and orange would trickle across the horizon as the sun began its ascent. It would be beautiful to witness that outside the Malfoys' home where, beyond the white outdoor furniture just past the window, there was a blank canvas of grass.

She noted the telescope towards the back with a small nod of interest.

A decoration, perhaps?

From there, Hermione moved on, beaded bag in hand, slowly circumventing the pristine living room. She took note of the marble staircase by the wall and the long hall that extended past the kitchen, magic turning on each light one by one down the hall, inviting her to explore.

She didn't accept.

Instead, Hermione folded her arms across her chest, frowning at her surroundings.

Truth be told, she wasn't surveying their home out of curiosity or to be nosy—well, not completely. She always looked around her patients' home as it told her a lot about them, things she couldn't discern through any other means. It was the fastest way to learn about the little odds and ends that made them who they were, which ultimately could be used to determine their motivation, nature, and character.

It made her job easier in the long run.

And while the Malfoys' unexpectedly modern home drew forth a lot of questions that she couldn't even begin to search for answers to, Hermione couldn't get past one little thing that tickled at the back of her skull…

The house felt clinical, impersonal—not at all like a home, more like a museum exhibit.

There were no accents or decorations, no bookshelves that could speak of the sort of subjects they were interested in. No tapestries with faces. No portraits—not even ones that would curse her existence. In fact, there were no pictures of any member of their family, only abstract paintings that could be found anywhere—artistic and expensive, but ultimately lacking personality and warmth.

It was actually sort of frustrating. Hermione frowned in response to the emotion, then frowned harder at the kitchen's blank countertops. Their home told Hermione nothing about who the Malfoys' were as a family. Or even as individual people.

She knew nothing more about Narcissa than she had before entering through the fireplace.

Actually, that wasn't entirely true.

Their home had told her one thing: they were intensely private, but that should have been obvious.

Hermione went into the kitchen and placed her bag on the island, staring thoughtfully into the immaculate, nondescript living room with her forefinger and thumb cupping her chin.

Their house had also told her another thing: The Malfoys' wanted nothing to do with who they had been before the war. While her current surroundings screamed superiority, there was nothing within her line of sight that told of the rich family history they had once been so proud of.

One that was still burning nearly thirteen years later under a dome of wards and magic.

It was only then that Hermione realised there was also nothing in the house that so much as hinted at the existence of Scorpius. Harry had three kids, but even when James was the only one, signs of him had been everywhere. Here, there was no drawn artwork on the fridge. No toys left strewn about. No smudges or stains that even magic couldn't wipe clean.

But having met Scorpius—however briefly—it sort of made sense.

Hermione put the thought to the side. Solving all the Malfoy family's mysteries in one morning was beyond unrealistic. Family was always a tricky aspect of caring for a terminally ill patient, but she had a little time yet before she really needed them on board. Right now, she needed to focus on why she was there. And that was to try and slow Narcissa's decline.

She wouldn't be able to do that without potions, which required breakfast.

After looking around for appropriate cookware—and finding none for her intended purpose—Hermione was grateful she had brought her own. She put the perishables she'd packed in the refrigerator and set to work.

Breakfast was simple: porridge and a fresh fruit salad with pecans, chia, an assortment of berries, cut apples, with freshly squeezed orange juice. She made enough for both of them, but still had extras. Something hardy for her first dose of potions. Hermione put a kettle on for tea, pulled out Narcissa's morning potions, and had just finished when she heard a throat clear from the open entrance of the kitchen.

Hermione lifted her head, her eyes settling on the sight of Malfoy, who seemed confused by her presence in his kitchen.

Well, that made two of them because Hermione found herself just as baffled by the sight of him.

First, he was freshly shaved—likely an act of appeasement to his mother—but second… he was wearing glasses.

Square-framed and black and—since when did he wear glasses?

He hadn't been wearing them before.

She would have remembered that.

"Malfoy," Hermione greeted the man, who had the Prophet and a crossword puzzle book in one hand and a pen in the other. His outward appearance sent a clear message to back the fuck off. Typical. With his pale skin and styled hair, he might as well have also had a sign over his head that said unapproachable for anyone stupid enough not to heed his first message.

Malfoy wore black like it was invented just for him, as if it defined him. It was a contrast from his mother, who wore colour all the time, but his choice wasn't particularly shocking. Black was a symbol of power, elegance, and perhaps his perceived superiority over everyone else. Harry had mentioned that he very rarely wore the navy robes that showed his position and rank. Refused to, even.

No one had argued with him.

Briefly, Hermione amused herself with the mental image of his closet having rows upon rows of black suits and robes, dress shirts and ties. All black everything. Or maybe he just had seven, one marked for each day of the week—and on the floor there were probably seven pairs of black dress shoes organised in a row. A rigid attire for an equally rigid man.

That thought stopped in her mind as if someone had pressed pause when Malfoy greeted her with a nod that was every bit as cool as his eyes were piercing.

"Granger." Maybe she had hallucinated it, but Hermione swore she saw his eyes cut down, then back to hers. But when she blinked, he was staring at her impassively. "You look… normal today."

Malfoy's statement instantly placed her on a defensive edge where she felt that surge, that sharp swell of energy that caused her heart to pump blood forcefully to her muscles. Hermione felt shaky, much like she always did before a fight. She had no idea why though, and found herself unable to stop from reacting to a statement she would have otherwise let wash over her like the tide.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Oh, and his comment definitely hadn't made Hermione reconsider her current attire of jeans and a plain black quarter length shirt. Not only would that be illogical, it would go against everything about her unapologetic appearance that she held dear.

"Your ankle is better, I presume." Malfoy's response was more of a deflection than an actual answer.

Actually, it wasn't an answer at all.

Hermione had all but forgotten about her twisted ankle; she'd healed it the moment she was out of the Malfoys' house. Not that she would ever admit to injuring herself because his presence had startled her. "My ankle wasn't hurt."

At that, he said nothing, only approached her with a walk that managed to be business-like and efficient, but casual at the same time. His energy was distinctive and piquant, but difficult to explain or ignore.

In a low voice, just as he passed, Malfoy said, "You're not a very good liar, Granger."

Then he continued on while Hermione's hand flexed, hesitating momentarily over… whatever she had been reaching for. She didn't really know or remember what she had been doing and she found herself a bit flustered by her own jitters. Tracking Malfoy's movements with her eyes, she observed as he continued on to an upper cabinet that she hadn't looked in, placing the paper, book, and pen on the countertop. He reached, but stopped mid-way, turning his head towards her, eyes sharp and probing.

"Can I help you?"

Hermione had the good sense to avert her gaze, but she kept her ears open as he went through a sequence of actions that seemed routine. And she resumed hers, pulling her wand out and using it to clear the island of the evidence of her meal preparations and set the stasis charm needed to keep the food hot.

By the time she finished, Hermione heard his footsteps again on the wood. Not walking back in her direction, but taking a different path around the island.

Lifting her eyes, she watched as he placed a note next to a small bowl and spoon. She was so focused that the sound of the refrigerator opening jarred her. Still, a container of milk floated to the table and landed in front of the bowl, next to the box of… Frosties?

Hermione's eyebrows raised so high they threatened to merge with the rest of her hair; then higher while she watched Malfoy artfully arrange the bowl and spoon on the table with much more care than needed.

Now, she officially had more questions than answers.

"I can hear you thinking over there, Granger. If you must know, even though it's none of your business," despite the low volume, his tenor carried his irritation across the space between them, "my mother allows my son cereal on Mondays when he's had a good previous week." With that bizarre statement out in the universe wreaking havoc on her baseline knowledge of Draco Malfoy, the man himself retrieved his wand from his jacket pocket and set his own stasis charm.

She should have kept silent, but that wasn't her way. "His choice in cereal is surprisingly—"

"Muggle?" Grey eyes cut over to her. The tiny tick of his jaw that hinted at his disapproval was barely noticeable, but she still saw it. "How unsurprisingly judgmental of you. Still, I expected better." His chide was short, only a few words, but it was as brutal as the sharp blades flashing from his eyes. His mouth was whipcord thin, jawline strong, more pronounced and crisp now that he was clean-shaven.

Malfoy was suited up, armed, and ready for an argument.

And because of his attitude, Hermione prepared herself for battle.

Hermione chased the thought about his tone back to when he'd said her name, wondering if she had been experiencing some sort of auditory hallucinations because right then, Malfoy sounded every bit like the unapologetic arse Harry constantly complained about.

She folded her arms across her chest to distract herself from the fact that his tone and words, expression and presence—all of it had left her inching even closer to that edge she had been trying to step away from. Her actions were an attempt to return back to the safety of solid ground. It took a breath, then a second, before she felt her agitation recede enough for her to launch a counter.

"It's not judgmental if it is based on fact."

"Is that what you tell yourself?" Malfoy pocketed his wand, took a step back from the table, then approached. Hermione half-expected him to leave, having seemingly disturbed his morning, but he took a seat on the other side of the island where she stood. He summoned his paper, book, and pen, and snapped his fingers once… then realised something that Hermione was still trying to process.

The house-elf was on holiday.

Draco sighed.

For some unknown reason, she spoke. "I've got a kettle on for tea, if you'd like."

Malfoy adjusted the rim of his glasses. "No thank you." His response was curt, as expected, before he opened the book to a half-finished crossword he had obviously been working on before. Hermione's presence was forgotten as soon as he picked up his pen and started working on it.

Intrigue kept her standing there.

Hermione happened to like crosswords. Outside of the fact that it was a sort of mental exercise the academic in her greatly appreciated, they were also orderly, neat. There was only one correct choice for each square. Everything was predestined in a way that was deeply satisfying. Only one thing was off…

He used a pen and that was horrifying to her.

It was gutsy. Bold. Arrogant.

But more than that, he seemed to move efficiently from one clue to the next while she looked on, waiting for him to make a mistake.

He didn't.

Several minutes passed like that. Hermione stopped anticipating an error and started noticing little things, like the fact that Malfoy was left-handed and his handwriting wasn't as pristine as his attire, but rather messy and difficult to read.

The completionist in her forced her to read the unmarked clues upside down. "Four down is abstruse."

His pen abruptly paused on twelve across, mid-letter, and his grip tightened. "I know." And there it was, the drawl she remembered. The one she hated. Hermione refused to apologise. A few more seconds passed before Malfoy exhaled in exasperation, recapped his pen, and closed his book. "I'm certain you have something better to do."

Of course Hermione did, but now that he was here, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to speak to him in private about his mother's care. Perhaps she'd try to battle the flames of the fire she had voluntarily walked into. "I—"

Whatever she was about to say died when Malfoy abruptly unfolded the paper, an act that removed him from her sight. Now all Hermione could see was the front page photo of the Minister and the Chief of the Wizengamot posing together under the headline Ministry Celebrates Seventh Economic Surplus.

Which was unsettling.

Most of the Ministry's money went to the departments that helped with rebuilding and ensuring their economic future; far less went to defending that future. It made no sense, but very few of their actions did anyway—nothing was ever done unless it was to forward their own personal agendas and line their pockets.

They were reporting an economic surplus, but couldn't provide lycanthropes Wolfsbane, couldn't help those who were left destitute after the war and various Death Eater attacks over the years, and couldn't provide Harry a decent budget to properly train the newer Aurors. Or re-educate the older ones that swore they knew it all. Or even properly staff the Task Force.

A Task Force—Harry had informed her—that was worse off than the Auror Department. It was full of Hit Wizards that had been selected for a department that made them work long, thankless, and often dangerous hours for little money. Harry had told her that Malfoy worked for no salary. She looked around. It wasn't like he needed the money anyway, but…

Hermione frowned once more at the magical picture on the front page, watching the loop of a stiff handshake and even stiffer smiles, before looking away, her eyes drifting back to the table set up for his son.

Like his lack of salary, him setting out his son's breakfast was sweet in an odd sort of way that didn't match up with the prattish, arrogant man currently skimming through the morning paper to blot out her presence.

The kettle whistle was loud in the silence.

Hermione took her time retrieving two teacups, but left one on the counter next to the stove for Narcissa when she came down for breakfast. The second she used to make herself a cup of green tea, not bothering to add anything. She cut off the eye on the stovetop, vowing to bring her electric kettle tomorrow as she leaned back on the counter.

Hermione held her teacup in one hand while working the teabag up and down with the other, keeping her eyes trained on him as she tried to figure out a different way to speak about his mother.

From behind the paper, Malfoy's deep, dry voice cut through the quiet like a hot knife through butter. "Will your interruption of my daily hour of peace and quiet become a regular occurrence or is today a special occasion?"

Hermione stopped mid-steep.

Now that the real Draco Malfoy was there, and not whoever had been wearing his skin and speaking in his voice yesterday, she made the proper adjustments. This person, Hermione could handle, and did so by narrowing her eyes into a glare that was hot enough for the paper in his hands to spontaneously catch fire.

"Unfortunately, it appears we'll be disrupting each other's peace for the foreseeable future. I'll be working with your mother as her Healer."

"She has informed me." He brought each end of the paper together to flip the page. After rustling it twice, he went back to reading, still obscured completely by the newspaper. "I'll confess I'm surprised that you accepted her after rejecting her so decidedly."

It was a dead topic she thought she was finished discussing.

Apparently not.

"I'm well within my right to change my mind after a bit of research."

Malfoy folded the paper in half, his eyes already resting on her. Then he doubled it over again, trailing the crease with his thumb and forefinger, his movements precise and crisp.

"Only after Pansy's meddling, I heard." There was a flutter of interest about how and when he'd heard, but her growing list of questions regarding him was almost too long and she didn't want to overload herself by adding more. Besides, Malfoy clearly wasn't finished. "How long have you been a Healer? Last I heard, you were marching up the ranks in the Ministry."

"Six years. Your information must be severely outdated."

"Hmm." His noncommittal response hung in the silence until he continued. "I find it interesting that you've made a career out of taking on charity projects… albeit unsurprising."

Her recoil was minute and instinctive, but judging from the tiny quirk of his brow above the frame of his glasses, he'd still observed her reaction before she was able to cover it up.

That only caused an uptick in her irritation.

"My patients are people, not projects. I doubt you'd like it if I considered your mother as a project."

"Project or person, it means very little to me how you think of my mother. Only that you actually do the job she's paying an exorbitant fee for you to do."

"That job you speak so flippantly about is working to monitor and possibly slowing the progression of her dementia." Hermione watched Malfoy's face for any clues he might subconsciously provide, but he gave nothing away, locked up tight. Daphne was right. "I figured that would be important to her son, of all people." He opened his mouth to speak, but Hermione cut him off before he got started. "Furthermore, I didn't set my salary, your mother did. I don't know what you're implying, but—"

"I'm not implying anything, Granger. I'm merely stating a fact." He adjusted his glasses. "My mother is notorious for her extravagant spending. Money is no object." Shrugging, he shifted his attention from her for a moment. "I don't care about the terms of your contract, I'm more curious about why you accepted her after rejecting her so swiftly." Malfoy placed the paper on the granite. His voice was laced with suspicion. "Why did you change your mind?"

Hermione pulled herself up from her relaxed position against the counter, approaching the island he was sitting at. She noticed as his focus narrowed on her. "I have my reasons."

"That's not an answer."

"Why do they matter to you?"

His brow raised over the rim of his glasses. "I make it my business to know these things, especially if it involves a member of my family."

"Your mother isn't easy. What ulterior motives would I have to accept her as a patient?"

Folding his arms across his chest, he stared straight at her. "You tell me."

It wasn't his words, but rather the implication beneath them that rubbed her the wrong way. "Do I look like the sort that would exploit her? Better yet, is your mother the sort to be exploited?"

"Not at this stage, at least." It was a thin reply, at best. Narcissa was under the impression that he didn't care whether she lived one second more than she should, but his attitude made Hermione have second thoughts. "As for your other questions, I suppose it's a matter of character… and I don't believe I know yours."

"Touché."

"My character, on the other hand, has little to do with how you treat my mother." Malfoy sounded as frustrated as she felt. Good. She observed the stiffness of his shoulders and the small tick of his jaw, cataloguing them for later.

"No, but your character has everything to do with how well you and I are going to work together in the future as your mother declines. We—"

"Then it shouldn't matter because you and I will not be working together."

Resting her teacup on the island, she folded her arms across her chest, mirroring him.

"That's interesting." In more than one way because Malfoy was absolutely delusional if he didn't think he would have to involve himself at some point. At any point, really. "Regardless of what you think, how you feel, or your relationship with your mother, there will come a point when you will have to step in, too. You'll need a plan for her as her magic becomes erratic and she begins to forget everything—including you. She will have hallucinations and motor control issues, she'll become combative and have mood swings. She may Apparate in a moment of confusion and Splinch herself. There's so much more to contend with that you can't ignore simply because of how you feel. Yes, she might have Healers, but you will have to start making decisions for her when she cannot."

"I'm perfectly aware of my duties, Granger." Malfoy's voice was dangerously soft with an undercurrent of pure steel. "I am constantly reminded of them."

Because she was listening so closely for clues, she spotted it. Beneath the cold ice of his irritation laid something that made her pause, made her reconsider her words and even her tone…

She could hear his bone-deep exhaustion.

Hermione sipped her green tea to wet her suddenly dry throat. It didn't help.

"I…" She cleared her throat. "I said no to your mother initially because we know each other, and that's strictly against my rules. That's it. No other factors played into my initial decision. Why I changed my mind, well—it wasn't just Pansy advocating for your mother, but Harry as well." And she noted the small spark of interest, holding onto it for a rainy day.

"Why would Potter—"

"Harry said he would have accepted her." In response, Malfoy only blinked once, then looked away, frowning deeply. "It should have been Roger Davies here in my place, but ultimately, the decision was mine. And I made the choice with the firm belief that I'm the best Healer for the sort of care that your mother needs."

The silence that remained was not a calm or relaxing one. Though, Hermione felt some measure of relief for the break in conversation.

"Charming words, Granger." From his tone, that meant very little to him. Which was fine because they were true. "And your history with my family won't affect her care?"

"Not only did I take an oath when I became a Healer, but I wouldn't have taken her case if in my core I believed I couldn't be unbiased. I understand the threat against your family. We all face the same opposition. But are you really so paranoid?"

When he didn't respond, she took a quiet breath in an attempt to mask her irritation.

"Your mother will receive the best care that I can provide, considering the parameters she's set." His face continued to give nothing, so she tried yet another approach. "Do you have any questions about her treatment plan? I can provide a copy of—"

"That won't be necessary. As I've stated, I don't care to be involved with my mother's care at the present moment."

It sounded less and less like his lack of involvement was due to his trust of her treatment plan, and more because he simply didn't give a damn. When lined up with how he'd repeatedly asked why she had accepted Narcissa as a patient, his apathy didn't match up.

Not many things about him were lining up with what she knew of his character.

Hermione wasn't sure how she felt about that.

Rather than hold on, she released the thought with the knowledge that it wouldn't go far. Fundamental things that didn't make sense never ventured too far from her. With it gone for now, Hermione touched on a topic that she would one day need to attack more vigorously in the future. Today, however, she approached it like a spooked deer. "Your mother needs your support."

Malfoy did not look impressed. "My support?"

"She's not…" Going to survive this. She refrained from actually speaking the words.

Which was fine as Malfoy wasn't done giving his short-sighted opinion on the topic. "If you think we're going to sit around and discuss our feelings on her mortality, then you obviously don't know my family."

"No, I don't," Hermione said honestly. "However, I find it a bit strange that you care more about your mother bringing her security detail everywhere because of the threat of Death Eaters than you care about the disease that's actually killing her."

His face settled into a mask harder than the granite that separated them. "Don't presume that after one day you know the inner-workings of my family."

"I never assumed anything. I was merely making an observation."

"Your observation sounds a lot like judgment, which you have absolutely no—"

"Observation, Malfoy, is a neutral act of taking in information. Judgment involves formulating an opinion regarding both the value and merit of what's being observed. If you're going to use the two words, know what they mean and know that they aren't interchangeable."

The hard look he gave from behind his glasses made Hermione straighten her spine and meet his stare just as boldly.

"Bullshit, Granger."

"No, it isn't. It—"

Malfoy scoffed. "You don't know how to separate observation from assumption and judgment. You observe something and immediately formulate an interpretation, and from that interpretation you make a decision. An assumption, really."

"That's not true."

"Case in point: my son's cereal choices." Malfoy held her gaze, a challenge in his stare. "You observe his cereal and make an assumption that because we're purebloods we don't know anything about the Muggle world, much less allow my son to have anything from it. Which validates my previous statement."

Hermione attempted to make a counterpoint, but hesitated because—

Well, he might have had a point.

The look on his face transformed; he recognised his victory, but she wasn't finished. "Fine, then help me understand. I'll be treating your mother for the foreseeable future, and whether or not you know it, treating her is more than giving her potions to ease the symptoms of her disease. It's about understanding her drive to seek care in the first place and making sure I can keep her motivated to stay the course, even when things become more difficult down the line. Family has always been a motivator to her. It's why she sought my help in the first place and it will make my job easier when I know what I'm working with."

At her request, Malfoy eyed her sharply, his head slightly tilting to the side as he observed her with what looked like bewilderment. Hermione had no idea. She had no real baseline that she could use to decipher him.

Except Hogwarts, and that was as skewed a reference point as any because he wasn't that child anymore.

His response said as such. "My mother is your only patient. You would do well to remember that." But before he left, he pointed at the bowl of porridge under the stasis charm. "However, in the interest of helping," the last word came out in a sneer that took her back to Second Year, "I'd like to wish you luck, Granger. You'll need it to get my mother to willingly eat that bowl of slop."

As she watched him go, Hermione briefly considered testing her luck to see if she could make a direct hit when she threw it at his head.


Draco - Newspaper
Source: Jaxxinthebox

Unfortunately, Malfoy had been right.

Narcissa stared at the bowl of porridge like it had personally offended her. Or like it would spontaneously come to life. Or like she was trying to identify it without having to outright ask. Hermione wasn't completely certain which, as her face seemed to go through a wide range of emotions before settling into a look of extreme suspicion.

She heaved a patient sigh, then glanced at her watch.

Almost half an hour had passed since she'd floated into the kitchen elegantly, dressed in long, flowing periwinkle robes and the simple necklace with the plain gold band. She must have already dressed for hosting tea with acquaintances at noon (before her afternoon potions)—an hour when Hermione would make herself scarce.

Narcissa's symptoms weren't obvious that morning, but they were present. There was a light sheen of sweat on her forehead that she'd tried to dab away, despite the hand tremors. She voiced her deep frustration at having forgotten where she'd placed her favourite broach, forgot an answer to one of Hermione's questions, and was agitated from a poor night's rest.

Hermione hoped the complete regime of potions would help, but it would be days or even a week before she would be able to definitively determine that. Still, Hermione placed several charms on one of her bracelets in order to turn it into a tracker that would continually monitor her vitals. The results would appear in real time on charmed paper that Hermione would check regularly.

She also quietly set a deterrent charm, just in case Narcissa decided one day that she wanted to remove it altogether. That could not happen.

Hermione's second cup of tea was nearly empty—her food long since finished, bowl and spoon washed by hand and put away. And she found herself pretending not to watch Narcissa Malfoy. Hermione skimmed the calorie content from the box of cereal that was still where Malfoy had left it… along with the milk, bowl, and spoon, all neatly arranged across from where she sat.

The sugar content was obscene.

Narcissa delicately poked her porridge with her spoon, and Hermione cut her eyes over to her, clearing her throat politely, which made the older witch glance at her.

"It's quite good, if you give yourself a chance." Hermione felt like she was speaking to a petulant child.

The suspicious look only deepened. "I do not eat breakfast in general."

"Which is why I made porridge. It's a start. You'll have to eat, as the morning potions will make you nauseous if you don't." Besides, Hermione had watched as Narcissa tried to cover the tremor that had passed not too long ago by attempting to start a conversation about changing the drapes by the window.

The last of her old potions was out of her system and, while it was informative to see her baseline, Hermione wasn't interested in watching her struggle to hold a spoon any longer than absolutely necessary.

"Perhaps if I drink tea—"

"It's not enough." Hermione folded her hands in a show of her thinning patience. "Perhaps if we determine what you would eat for breakfast, maybe—"

"There is a very long list of things I would rather eat than this." She poked the porridge again with her spoon.

"You haven't actually tried it." Frowning, Hermione wondered if she should have tried a more traditional English breakfast for their first day.

"It looks most unappetising." The witch nudged a blueberry in her fruit salad with her spoon. "The fruit salad at least looks palatable, but I have no taste for it at the moment. Not when it is room temperature."

"I have it on good account that you like pie, which is essentially warm fruit." Hermione frowned and rolled her eyes. "Perhaps, I could make you a smoothie."

If at all possible, the look on her face soured even more. "That sounds even more unappealing."

"How could you possibly know?"

"I know because I have extremely delicate sensibilities, Miss Granger."

She was about to retort when she heard footsteps approaching quickly on the wood floors. Much too quick to be Malfoy's. Or any adult's. Which meant…

Hermione turned just in time to catch sight of the youngest Malfoy's approach.

"Remember your manners, Scorpius." Narcissa didn't even look up from the porridge she had finally scooped onto her spoon.

Her words made him halt in the entryway, but his eyes scanned the room, obviously not finding what he had all but ran into the room in search of. His shoulders fell in disappointment… until he spotted Hermione, who was unabashedly staring at the little boy, struck by just how much he looked like his father.

Well, except for the small differences.

In school, Draco had always been just a bit taller than Harry, but Scorpius was slightly shorter than Albus, who was taller than James had been at his age. How he compared to other children his age, Hermione had no idea. Still, he was a slight boy with pale skin. Hair that was more blond than white was parted to the left and combed back neatly. He had been dressed like a schoolboy in black shorts, white shirt, a dark blazer, socks rolled up, and leather shoes. It seemed to be his everyday attire by the way he didn't pick and pull at it.

Or perhaps it wasn't in his nature to do such a childish thing.

"You may approach," Narcissa said formally, which struck Hermione as bizarre because she was speaking to her grandchild—not a stranger.

She'd heard so many stories about how much she doted on Malfoy, and she had seen the evidence of it with all the sweets he'd received during school. So, it struck Hermione as odd to see Narcissa being so stern with Scorpius. It was to the point where she considered laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of the entire situation, but unable to do so because it wasn't a joke.

It was real life.

And it called into focus Daphne's words from a few days ago.

Especially when Scorpius did as instructed, obediently advancing with careful steps. His chin was slightly raised, back straight, and shoulders held in a posture so perfect it looked robotic on a child.

Trained, was the first word that came to mind.

Hermione turned back to her still-steaming tea, taking a long sip, in an attempt to rid herself of the slightly peculiar feeling associated with the word. Scorpius stopped next to Narcissa's chair, waiting to be addressed.

Hermione placed her teacup on the saucer with a small clink.

"How did you sleep?" the older witch asked her grandson.

She waited to hear a childlike response, if only to determine if he sounded like Malfoy as well, but it wasn't until the silence following her question stretched on that Hermione remembered something of utmost importance:

He didn't speak.

At that, she turned her head… only to lock eyes with the bluest eyes she'd ever seen on a person. Piercing and bright, they weren't his father's eyes, but she caught the stubbornness and shrewd intelligence in them that he'd inherited from the man himself. As well as that childlike curiosity she remembered from Theo's office. When she smiled politely in greeting, his ears turned red and he briefly looked down.

Hermione's grin transformed instantly for one reason only:

Scorpius was adorable.

Not nearly as hard and pointy as his father, the boy was softer. Not as cold. In fact, the more she looked at him, the more she could tell that there was something warm about him, in spite of his grandmother's treatment.

Narcissa noticed Scorpius staring at her and chided him. "You mustn't stare, Scorpius. It is impolite."

The little boy looked down once again in a bashful apology. Then he must have remembered himself because he stood straight—like he had been taught to do—averting his eyes. But it only lasted a moment because Hermione turned in her chair towards him, leaning in a bit as she offered her hand to shake.

"I'm Hermione."

Scorpius looked at her hand for several moments, but like with Theo, he made no move to accept it, simply lifting his eyes back to hers. And though it was a rejection, it didn't feel like one because Scorpius kept staring at her in the way small kids often did.

Curious.

Because he wanted to learn.

Because she was something new to his world.

A quick glance at his grandmother made him remember his manners, which was why he bowed politely before stepping back. Hermione's eyes followed him all the way to the chair across the table from hers, her smile waning, transforming into something more thoughtful as she watched him take his seat after removing his blazer and patting his pockets. The chair was charmed to automatically bring him up to the appropriate height for him to sit comfortably.

A bit of magic Hermione hadn't seen before, but Scorpius never reacted.

Apparently, this was his normal.

His routine.

It was odd to watch a child methodically settle in for breakfast. Scorpius knew where everything should be; he didn't even look when he first reached for the scrap of paper she had seen Malfoy leave.

A note, Hermione's brain corrected.

Draco Malfoy left a note for his son.

Not out of the ordinary for any father, but the way Daphne spoke of his distance didn't exactly make a lot of sense when put next to the note. But Hermione pondered it further as she watched him unfold the note, blue eyes scanning the words with deep concentration. Almost as if he—

"Scorpius can read a little, but I doubt he can read Draco's handwriting. It is incredibly poor."

Almost on cue, his head turned to the side, still trying to figure it out. Hermione suppressed her laughter, disguising it as a cough that didn't fool anyone. Narcissa frowned and when she glanced back at Scorpius, she found his unamused expression reminiscent of his father.

"He is quite shy, Miss Granger." Narcissa gave the little boy who had gone back to his note a look before pouring milk into his cereal bowl. Briefly, she left the table and returned with a small glass of juice, placing it to his right. Scorpius looked instantly confused by the drink, but of course, remained silent. "Do not be offended if he does not speak to you. I make sure to speak to him normally, even though I know I will not receive a response."

Well, Daphne had told her, but still, it was so bizarre all Hermione could manage was, "Oh."

"Make no mistake, he can speak, Miss Granger. He just stubbornly chooses not to."

Scorpius looked directly at Hermione, as if confirming his grandmother's statement with a blank expression. Then, he picked up his spoon with his left hand—yet another thing he had inherited from his father—and tucked into his sugary cereal with manners highly unusual for a boy his age—or any age for that matter.

Narcissa delicately tasted her porridge. She didn't use her napkin to spit it out, though, from the look on her face, it was a close call. Upon her first couple of chews, her face morphed from sceptical to cautiously impressed. "It is not as horrific as it looks."

"Good." Meanwhile, Hermione's mind was short-circuiting from the large quantities of rapid-fire processing it performed in the seconds after her statement. Not about her finding the porridge palatable, but before… about the silent little boy politely eating his cereal while staring at the note next to his bowl. He looked like a miniature Draco Malfoy reading the paper.

Just without glasses, the cold disposition, or the attitude.

"Scorpius," Narcissa gently chastised after a large silence where Hermione finished her tea and stored away her observations, careful not to make assumptions. "Do not slouch." She ate her porridge slower when the little boy started watching her, emulating her.

Hermione cleared her throat. "You should finish soon. I'm trying to keep your potions on a schedule and you're running a little close to the end of it."

Which was enough to distract Narcissa from further conversation.

Spoon halfway to his mouth, Scorpius regarded her for a moment with an expression she couldn't read before he went back to his breakfast. The meal progressed quickly from there, with pockets of conversation with Narcissa and her continued observation of the silent Scorpius. But once Narcissa finished, Hermione watched as she proceeded to take her first set of potions, chasing each with tea.

They were quite disgusting apparently.

After running a series of diagnostic charms that had the youngest Malfoy observing in wide-eyed wonder, Hermione went about clearing the table after checking the results on the charmed parchment.

"Do not trouble yourself, Miss Granger, the nanny will be in shortly to sort it. She usually fills in on weekends and when Zippy is on holiday."

"It's no trouble at all." Hermione went to work, picking up her empty teacup and Narcissa's bowl and walking them over to the sink. With her back turned, Hermione listened for any mishaps while she did the washing.

Scorpius appeared at her side, politely handing Hermione his empty bowl, his cup, and his spoon inside of it.

He was helping.

Graciously, Hermione smiled. "Thank you, Scorpius."

The little boy slowly nodded in a move that was so like his father that it was almost comical.

And yet very strange.

"Scorpius." When his grandmother called him, Hermione watched as he returned to her side.

She made quick work of cleaning his bowl and drying everything with a wave of her wand, levitating each piece back in its place while pretending not to listen—when in fact she was listening for every scrap of information that could help her understand just what the hell she'd walked into.

"You did very well yesterday. Let us make it another day with no incidents." There was a chill in her tone that settled on Hermione's spine. A pause followed her words where Scorpius likely responded with that strange bow of his. "You have two minutes and your tutor is waiting for you upstairs in the library."

Hermione turned around just in time for his stiff exit, making certain Scorpius was long gone before she moved from her spot at the sink. "How old is he?" Of course, she already knew, but she asked more to make conversation than anything. She wanted to hear what Narcissa had to say about him when he wasn't around.

"Five."

"He… is extremely well-behaved."

That was a massive understatement; he seemed more like a miniature adult than a child.

Except for moments when she saw hints of the child…

"We pay excellent money for tutors to make sure of it."

The detached quality of her voice made Hermione suddenly anxious for a change of subject. "The schedule you provided states that you are hosting tea. Is there a place where I can make myself scarce during that time with some reading I need to do?"

"As you plan to monitor me throughout the day for the next thirty days, you can use Draco's office to work. It is just down the hall." She pointed in the direction her grandson had just disappeared, which led her to believe there was more than one staircase in their home. The second she knew of being just off the living room. "It should be to your liking."

Hermione nodded absently, noticing the small changes in her physical symptoms since she'd taken her morning potions. Her eyes even looked brighter.

"How do you feel? The combination is designed to give you a little energy boost."

"Then they are working as planned. I actually feel…" Narcissa tilted her head to the side almost as if she couldn't believe her next words. "Quite good."

It was either a success or a Placebo Effect.

Only time would tell.

Scorpius Malfoy
Source: Jaxxinthebox

 

If Hermione had to predict how Malfoy's office would look, she would have guessed that it resembled the rest of the home: modern and clean with neutral tones, elaborately furnished, and zero personal touches. Enigmatic.

Truthfully, she would have only earned half marks.

Malfoy's office reminded her a lot of her own. It was about the same size, cosy and not too large, with a darker wood desk that had a healthy amount of clutter. There were no plants, but there was a large, faded Turkish rug that looked more like a tapestry. Terribly unsightly, really. In front of the fireplace was a black leather sofa and a small glass table.

Above the fireplace hung an ornate family portrait with Narcissa, Draco, and Scorpius—all looking very stern and all dressed in black. The faces of the Malfoy family. If Hermione had to guess, it had been done recently, as the frame was brand new. There were two smaller portraits next to the larger one. One of Draco standing alone, currently looking severe, frowning at her presence in his office. The next was of Narcissa and Scorpius, taken likely the same day as the larger portrait. Portrait Narcissa had her hands on his shoulders and the boy looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.

It was saddening.

Hermione looked away, looked on, taking in the entire wall lined with floor to ceiling bookcases, all organised and packed to the brim.

But that wasn't all that got her attention.

From the doorway, at a mere glance, his office looked very much like it belonged to the conservative man society thought he should be. Books that spoke to his intelligence, family portraits that spoke to his dedication to his duty to uphold his family's name, and a space that was just ornate enough to remind a visitor of his extreme wealth. But when she stepped through the threshold and took a closer, deeper look, she spotted the inconsistencies that were only noticeable to the most observant of people.

The books themselves were a dichotomy between what society knew of Draco Malfoy, how he presented himself to the world, and the identity of the man who—judging from the clutter—seemingly spent a lot of time in this room. They weren't all on magical subjects by magical authors. No Dark Arts texts or any manuscripts by any extremists. Instead, there were books on Chemistry and Geology, Botany and Physics, Philosophy and Art History. Buddhism. She spotted Blanchot, Derrida, Tolstoy, Nietzsche. Classical fiction. A few autobiographies. Poetry.

And that was just what she could see.

There was so much more to explore if she climbed the black ladder and scanned the higher shelves, but Hermione didn't. She left it alone with one question to the empty office:

"Who is Draco Malfoy?"

Nothing made sense. Not the home and certainly not the people living within its walls.

None of it fit in the neat box she'd created for them based off of the bits and pieces she'd picked up from what others had said, the larger pieces of what she'd already known, and the more telling bits from the recent conversations with Narcissa. And for someone like Hermione, who liked things that made sense because they brought order to chaos, it was really wreaking havoc on her worldview.

It would have been easy to brand them as a pureblood cliché, reduce them all to the vision of what they ought to be, but how the hell could she possibly do that now?

Now, when Malfoy's earlier words were still ringing in her head so loud she had to jerk her head from side to side for it to subside.

Now, when she had to take a hard look at her own flawed logic and question it… and herself.

Hermione opened her mind to every angle, and reminded herself that there wasn't a metric to measure people. It was something she already knew down to the deepest part of her, and yet, for some reason, that rule hadn't been applied to the difficult Malfoys.

Maybe—okay, most definitely—it was her bias.

That stubborn, know-it-all part of her that just knew she had them all figured out and was right about the sort of people they were. The part of her that—

Hermione sighed in resignation.

The part of her that judged.

There.

She said it.

Hermione could admit that she'd made a few assessments about them that hadn't been correct. A character flaw of sorts. Would it change now that she was standing in the most confusing room of the house?

No.

But what she could do was something she should have done the moment she accepted Narcissa as a patient.

Start over.

No, truly start at the beginning with them, as she had with every other patient. She needed to scrub her mind of everything she knew about the Malfoys' and start with a clean slate. Hermione could admit to herself that she was well outside of her depths when it came to them. She had no idea who they were and she knew she needed to go about learning them in a better, more productive way.

Only then would she learn without bias, and help Narcissa throughout the course of her illness—without harming or drawing any inference from one belief about them to another. No matter what Malfoy thought, she really was treating the entire family. Giving them time. No matter how much he didn't want to be involved or said he didn't care, Malfoy would have to accept that his mother was dying and there was nothing to be done about it.

It was inevitable.

But as her Healer, Hermione had tasked herself with caring for Narcissa and walking alongside them all to help them through each phase… until the end.

She couldn't take that journey with them if she didn't know them.

Malfoy especially. Narcissa's only child. The one who would take her loss the hardest.

So, Hermione packed away all the assumptions, excavated her unconscious attitude, stepped back from all that she'd known, and was left with… nothing. Of course, she didn't completely delete it all—everything always had a way of making itself relevant again—but she wouldn't lean on those experiences, presumptions, and expectations to make decisions about her observations before she'd really given them some thought.

Feeling more optimistic, Hermione crossed the room to Malfoy's desk, with her bag in hand, ready to dig into research for light reading. But when she sat at his cluttered desk, she saw… well, Draco Malfoy.

Not just as an aggravating man, her old classmate and adversary, and Narcissa's only son…

But Hermione saw him as a father.

There, in a neat and simple frame—turned away from the room, for his eyes only—was a moving picture of him holding a newborn Scorpius with a look of confused wonder on his face that slowly transformed to a soft smile.

The photo was so intimate and warm, so unlike who she knew him to be, that Hermione turned her head only to catch another photo. It had been taken recently—both father and son dressed in black bespoke suits, not smiling or touching or anything.

Cold.

Hermione found it strange that such vastly different photos were displayed side by side on his desk hidden from view. Almost as if…

Not allowing herself to take one more step in the direction of that thought, she abruptly stood and claimed a spot on his sofa. After rifling around in her bag for her research, Hermione immersed herself in her task. She needed to clear all the excess from her mind and focus on a task that called for her full attention.

Eventually, though, Hermione needed to spread her work out on the glass coffee table, so she did, making notes on the printed paper in pen and highlighting important bits that warranted further research.

In fact, she was so wrapped up in examining everything—flipping through article after article, comparing them to the books she'd brought along—that all of it nearly went airborne when the Floo flared to life and Draco Malfoy walked out as if he were stepping out of hell and back onto Earth.

Malfoy—no longer in glasses—was so surprised by her presence that it stopped him in his tracks, completely speechless.

His mouth opened then closed once. Just long enough for him to get his bearings.

Then his eyes darkened like the sky before a storm, and his hand flexed at his side. "What are you doing in my office, Granger?"

Hermione almost apologised, but she stopped herself.

Apologise for what?

Unconsciously, she sat up straighter, pushing her hair from her shoulder. Hermione met his cool glare with one of equal measure. "Your mother said I could work here while she hosted tea. She said you would be late, as always."

"Did she now," Malfoy intoned with a deep frown. His response was more of a statement than a question. "I happened to have left a roll of parchment here… for work."

That unique feeling of discomfort returned, creeping along her spine as she started gathering her papers together in a rushed pile, mixing things she'd wanted to keep separate. It didn't matter. A fleeting thought was given to the photos on his desk and really, Hermione felt secretly guilty for invading what obviously was his private space.

"I can leave. I didn't mean to intrude."

"That won't be necessary." His words halted her move to depart. Hermione raised her attention to the wizard, noting the fact that Malfoy was still standing there, still watching her with scrutiny like she'd done something wrong when she had only followed instructions. "I'll have a conversation with my mother later."

"She didn't seem to think you'd mind."

But her argument in Narcissa's favour did nothing to appease him. "That's the problem right there, Granger." His voice was incredibly tight. "She didn't think."

Finally, he moved from his spot in front of the fireplace, crossing the room to his desk. Her eyes tracked his movement—watching, waiting in silent tension—as he picked up a roll of parchment off his desk.

Without turning around, he asked in a tone so deadly serious that she continued gathering her papers because fuck this. "Did you sit at my desk?"

Exactly how he knew, Hermione had no idea. She'd been careful to not touch anything. For a breath, she considered lying, but decided it was pointless to lie to someone who already knew the answer before asking the question.

"I did, but only for a second. Your desk didn't provide the space I needed, so I moved to the sofa."

Malfoy turned his head to her, eyes narrowed with suspicion. Contempt? "Did my office provide you with everything you needed to make your judgment of me?"

Setting her jaw, Hermione stood up with her papers in hand, fighting back the urge to respond in a way that would only escalate things. Because she wanted to, but she knew it wouldn't do anyone any good. Not after the decision she'd just made.

Hermione stepped out from her spot in front of the sofa, having nothing to hide. "My observation, Malfoy, is simple. I don't know the person you've become in the last thirteen years, that much is true, but the same goes for you." She took a step towards him, probing. "Perhaps I'm not the only one with preconceived notions."

His face changed with recognition. "Ah, so you admit it."

"Something about me that you don't know, Malfoy? I'm not scared to admit when I'm wrong." Hermione shrugged and when his expression slowly transformed to something akin to tightly focused bewilderment, she took a step forward. Then another. Watching him. "I've never claimed to be perfect, nor do I expect myself or anyone else to hold themselves to such an impossible challenge."

"That doesn't quite fit with your reputation as the Brightest Witch of our Age."

"My reputation may be that, but it's not exactly who I am; it's who others think I am—" Just like you aren't exactly your reputation, Hermione almost said. But she stopped herself. Backtracked. "I get angry and can be vindictive. I can be self-righteous and hypercritical. I have little shame in who I am, because that person is ever-evolving as I challenge myself to be better. Right now, I am challenging myself, not just as it pertains to your mother, but also as it pertains to you." She paused when Malfoy's brows drew together. "However, just as I have made assumptions about your family, you have made them about me—"

"And yet, I feel there's more that you want to add." Malfoy folded his arm, leaning back on his cluttered desk. The mask of ease, even when his clenched fist spoke of his agitation.

"No addition. Only a perhaps." Hermione held up a finger and offered a metaphorical olive branch. "As in, perhaps, in time, I hope that we might have a better, judgment-free understanding of one another."

Malfoy's cold glare and snide question was quintessentially him. "And why would we do that, Granger?"

"Because we're adults, not quarrelling children," she reminded him pointedly. "And because of your mother, I'll be a part of your life—in some respects—for the rest of hers. You might not like it, but it's—"

"Fine." He stared at her long and hard for several moments before he pushed off the desk. Two steps later and he was directly in front of her, speaking in a voice that kept her single-minded focus on him. "Speaking of the future, for future reference, my office is off limits. To everyone."

Malfoy left the same way he came in.

 


 

Hermione stood in her living room after a long first day for a solid thirty minutes just blinking at nothing before she waved the proverbial white flag and called an emergency gathering.

On a Monday.

No matter. By the time Hermione arrived at the not so crowded pub in Hackney, no less than an hour after she'd sent off the request via Patronus, Parvati and Pansy were already there, sitting at a quieter table near the back. The former had the most obnoxious fruity pink drink waiting while the latter had four shots sitting in front of her. Hermione eyed them both sceptically before taking the seat between them. "I Apparated here, are you both trying to make me Splinch myself going home?" She examined one of the shot glasses full of clear liquid. "Is this—"

"Russian vodka? Yes. Two for you and two for me." Pansy grinned. "Have you eaten? I ordered Beef Wellington for you. Should be around soon."

"I haven't eaten since lunch." Which had included meeting Scorpius' young nanny who had delivered him for a meal with his grandmother, but didn't stick around. Narcissa hadn't returned from tea at that time so Hermione had spent ten long minutes locked in a staring match with a five-year-old.

He won.

She hadn't expected his presence for the meal, but he ate the chicken salad she'd given him without fuss—well, the lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese. Scorpius carefully picked around the chicken. The fact that the opposite hadn't happened was strange, but it wasn't her place to give it much thought. Hermione left that bit to Narcissa who kept prodding him to eat the chicken when she arrived for lunch.

But he never did.

"In fairness to us," Parvati said from her left, "we didn't know what state you'd be in when you arrived. The last time you called an emergency outing on a Monday was when you had that one-off with Krum four years ago when he visited."

Hermione whipped her head around so fast she vaguely heard Pansy's "What the fuck?" when the ends of her ponytail hit her in the face.

"First of all, I didn't shag him." She almost had, but had gotten cold feet. Vicktor had been good about it. Understanding. After all, they had been essentially penpals for years. It didn't seem like a good idea. "Second, how did you even know anything happened?"

Parvati gave her a sly look. "I put two and twelve together." When Hermione kept glaring and folded her arms, the witch's smile grew. "I'm a journalist. It's what I do. You went to dinner with him and after that, every time someone mentioned him, you'd just deflect." She leaned in close. "Was it terrible?"

"Pansy, tell her—" But when Hermione looked, she found the other witch waiting eagerly for an answer as well. So she rolled her eyes and deflected. "Who else is on their way?"

"Weasley will be late. She's delivering the kids to the Burrow because Potter's working late and Luna's coming. Daphne is working, Padma and Susan are still at the hospital." Suddenly, Parvati remembered something. "Pansy, weren't you supposed to invite Cho?"

"Oops, I forgot." Pansy covered her mouth with a fake gasp. "What a shame. Such a pity."

Hermione snorted while Parvati rolled her eyes before sweeping her long wavy curls over her shoulders. "So why did you call the emergency dinner?"

"Simple. Today was my first day with Narcissa Malfoy." At that statement, Pansy perked up.

Meanwhile, Parvati cringed. "You should start off with the Russian vodka."

"How did it go?" Pansy asked.

"As well as it could. There's the part where Malfoy is—"

"Oh fuck, you've seen him?" Parvati squealed and clapped her hands as she bounced in her seat, garnering attention from the man at the bar who eyed her appreciatively. "He's fit as fuck, yeah?" Parvati nudged her in the shoulder. "I need all the details."

Pansy looked as though she were struggling to keep her comments to herself. It probably took every shred of effort, but she remained quiet.

"All the details fall under the Patient-Healer Confidentiality Agreem—"

"Not your job, him! Was he not as climbable as I said?"

"That's quite literally not the point, Parvati."

Pansy nudged one of the shot glasses in her direction and Hermione drank it in one go, bearing the burn with a tight grimace. She'd never been one for hard liquor.

Today it was warranted.

"Malfoy was a bit intense." An understatement, really. There were natural disasters less intense than him. Parvati sipped on the fruity monstrosity while paying close attention. Hermione rubbed the side of her neck. "I don't remember him being like that. A tosser, yes, but he's—"

"You weren't the only one changed by life and circumstances, Granger. I think it's safe to say Draco has a lot to contend with, in addition to the heavy weight of responsibilities and expectations being piled on him."

And the fact that Pansy had so much respect for the person primarily responsible was baffling, but that topic Hermione would have to approach at a better time.

"We all have different ways that we cope. Draco's is to bear it in silence, completely alone."

"That's not coping, that's avoiding."

"That's Draco."

There was a sigh to her right that sounded like an infatuated schoolgirl. "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown… or whatever Padma says whenever she's feeling maudlin." Parvati snapped her fingers, cursing herself. "Damn, I should have used that line for his feature!"

Hermione rolled her eyes as Pansy tossed back the second shot. If she felt the burn, she didn't show it. "Nice quote, but Draco is no king."

No, he was just one man.

 

The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.
Atisa

Chapter Text

Seven
The Art of Compromise

 

May 11, 2011

Time passed like it always did: slowly, surreally, yet in a rush. A complete contradiction. A constant presence that was never static…

Minutes turned into hours, hours turned into days, days turned into weeks, and before Hermione knew it, four weeks had passed since she'd begun caring for Narcissa. Yet, despite four weeks worth of work, she found herself right back where everything had started:

Sitting in Theo's office.

Now, though, it was for her first status meeting. This was not something Hermione had done with every patient, but this assignment warranted the appointment that appeared in her magi-scheduler that morning.

Today, they sat on the sofa instead of his desk and Theo sipped lemon ginger green tea—his first cup—while Hermione had just poured herself a third. His eyebrow quirked, but he wisely remained quiet. The silence felt foreboding, the proverbial calm before the storm.

Hermione was ready to drown them both in the sheer volume of words she needed to say.

Twenty-six minutes wouldn't be enough.

Theo must have felt her glare, must have heard her mental diatribe in the silence, because he was mere moments from taking another sip when he sighed like Hermione's mere energy had disrupted his peace. He placed his teacup on the glass table, which made Hermione practically gulp hers down, ignoring the burning of both the hot water and ginger.

Her agitation burned hotter anyway.

Not that she didn't try to hide it.

Her mood was a disagreeable companion that had followed her for weeks, a shadow that grew longer and more distorted as the days went on.

Before it overtook them both, Theo cut to the chase. "How have the first thirty days of your latest assignment been?" The question was followed by an almost wincing pause. "Feel free to be honest."

"I quit."

Theo had no reaction. "You don't mean that."

"I don't, but I feel better now that I've said it out loud instead of in my head."

Three hundred and nineteen times over the last thirty days… for a myriad of reasons.

His expression spoke of his experience dealing with her, his voice as calm and neutral as his posture. It reminded Hermione of how she spoke to a patient when she needed to earn their trust. Theo had the gall to look handsome in his sincerity.

"Talk to me, Hermione."

It made her scoff. Loudly. "You sound like my therapist."

Theo made a noncommittal noise as he casually leaned back on the sofa, legs crossed, making himself comfortable. Hermione really hated the sight he made in burgundy trousers, almost as much as she hated the continued sentiment of his next words. "I was hoping to sound like a friend."

"A friend wouldn't have sent me into battle with the wrong weapon. You gave me a butter knife when I needed a blowtorch. And an army."

For all his posturing, he didn't look the least bit apologetic. Instead, he looked interested, far more than usual. "I've not seen you this rattled before… Intriguing."

"Are you serious? This isn't the time for one of your little tests."

"I don't test you for my own amusement, it's mainly for your self-improvement." That made her argument fall limp before the finish line. "You're excellent at your job, but I've wanted to pull you from your comfort zone for quite some time now. I've also always wondered what an immovable force and an unstoppable object meeting would actually look like. I didn't think it would happen quite like it has. Hmm, apparently I'm overdue for a surprise."

"Not the time, Theo."

"I don't feel you entered into this with reasonable expectations for yourself." He spoke slowly despite the metaphorical steam coming from her ears, lacing his fingers together. "Did you think it would be so simple?"

Hermione opened her mouth once, twice, but nothing came out, then a third for good measure before shutting it for lack of a complete answer. No? But also yes? Slightly?

Okay, perhaps she'd taken an arrogant approach to the assignment.

Recollection brought her past thoughts of keeping out the storm into sharper focus. Her high hopes of figuring out a balance with Narcissa, a possible alliance with Malfoy regarding her future safety plans and preparation, and the possible levelling of her symptoms. She was no closer to any of those goals now than she had been a month prior. Hermione knew she needed a different plan. She had to drift closer, but doing so risked her ability to remain disconnected and neutral. It would test her ability to not speak her peace about every aspect of Narcissa's life that didn't involve her direct care.

The problems she'd seen.

The growing flames…

The fire-warped pieces of Narcissa's life made Hermione uncomfortable, but it wasn't her job to fix them. It was Narcissa's job to use the time she was given wisely. Dramatic changes weren't completely unthinkable, but as a thirty-day objective with a family like the Malfoys? Her goals had been impossible at best. And now that Hermione had time to think, she realised her frustration had less to do with the source of her discontent, and more to do with the fact that she hadn't made much progress—on any front.

The Malfoys were still a secretly broken family at the top echelon of a society that praised them for their unity during the most difficult times.

Ironic, but mostly tragic.

"The situation is… complicated, I'm aware. As is the family, which I'm sure you've discovered by now."

"Complicated?" Hermione balked. "They're painful. Malfoy is… I have no idea. I'm pretty certain I see him more than anyone." Theo's brow lifted in silent query, but Hermione had no response that didn't involve a full-fledged shrug. Malfoy left before either his mother or Scorpius came down and was still gone when Hermione departed each evening. Hermione put little thought into that and forged on. "Narcissa's results have also been strange from the start."

"So I've seen from what you sent over."

He'd had time to look?

"Yes, she declines sharply in the evenings and overnights are awful. Her sleeping patterns have deteriorated. She's agitated and is beginning to have spells where she wanders to different parts of the house and doesn't remember how she got there. From my understanding, she hardly sleeps, just tosses and turns, which makes her irritable during the day. More than she already is. If she yells at Scorpius' nanny one more time, the poor girl will either cry or quit… maybe both."

"She was… extremely temperamental at dinner with Pansy, Draco, and I last week." Theo's wince didn't go unnoticed. "Which was why I asked to see her results and your notes thus far."

"Find anything worth mentioning? Anything I haven't already analysed to death?"

"No, but I sent a copy over to Charles Smith in Boston. He says you two have been discussing her case for the last month or so. Is that correct?"

Yes, they had.

In addition to Narcissa's attitude—as well as her symptoms—her episodes of blankness and tremors had not decreased like they should have under her new potions regime. Nothing had increased either, which was only the silver lining. And while there had been several incidents where Narcissa had forgotten her and everyone else, there had only been one incident of accidental magic, when she had Apparated across the room.

To everyone's relief, no Splinching had occurred, but it made Hermione desperate to figure out the root cause of her issues. "Have you heard back from him?"

"I've scheduled time to discuss it with him tomorrow, should you want to attend…" He gave her a look that bordered on amusement. "That is, if you haven't yet quit."

Hermione cut her eyes at him. "I absolutely would like to be on the call. Regardless of how I feel, I intend to see this through. There have just been… growing pains." To say the least.

Hermione strived for progression with her work, not regression.

The potions should have worked. Narcissa's symptoms should have curbed, and she should have levelled off by now. The fact that they hadn't was a sign that Hermione was missing something important.

And that simply would not do.

"And Scorpius?"

It was an odd question since they had just been discussing Narcissa, but she supposed he would want to know about his godson. Narcissa brought him by to see Theo weekly for visits, but that was all she knew. "What about him?"

"Merely a question. I don't get much time to see him."

"He's…" At the curious tilt of Theo's head, she had a moment of honesty. "I've honestly never met a child like him."

She doubted she ever would.

Scorpius lived by a routine so unwaveringly strict Hermione could tell time by his entrances and exits. He was keenly observant, more so than even she'd realised. He watched and waited and listened to everything and everyone around him, hyper-focused and almost anxious in a way that made Hermione vastly uncomfortable to even speak around him.

There were many things she had observed, things she had yet to piece together, but the main difference between Scorpius and every child Hermione had known was simple:

He didn't appear to know any better.

He was so detached that Narcissa's treatment of him didn't seem to register as anything except normal. So affection-starved that he would preen at each moment of kindness, no matter how small or mundane. So lonely it was almost painful to watch him day in and day out. And the worst part was the sadness just under the surface of each of his actions.

It was indescribable, chilling, and unmistakable… yet not acknowledged—by anyone.

There must have been something open about her expression, honest even. It hadn't been intentional, but it made Theo heave a sigh. "You've seen it then."

"What?"

"His misery."

Theo's voice was low with a terribly penetrating power that made Hermione suck in a breath as she scrubbed a hand over her face. She tried to fight the growing feelings of unease with what was undoubtedly her best weapon: pure logic.

"He's not my patient." She watched Theo's look deepen into something harder and more intense, probing, until Hermione allowed her eyes to slide towards the door with the quiet hope that someone would interrupt.

But no one did.

"Per my own rules and conditions, the only way I can do this job effectively is if I remain detached, unaffected, and objective. I am trying hard to do just that." She turned accusatory eyes on him. "If you've seen it, then you do something about it."

"I've tried. I'm trying." It was probably the most emotional she had heard him, which stunned her into perfect silence. "Narcissa thinks she is doing the right thing and Draco is…"

Theo never finished. He didn't need to. She knew the answer: Malfoy was never there. Hermione had some idea from her conversation with Daphne back in March, right before she'd found herself in the middle of the hurricane that was the Malfoys. Knowing what she knew now, she wished she would have paid more attention, not just to her friend's words but to the sheer magnitude of the impending storm.

She tilted her head, narrowed her eyes, and focused on Theo as fragments of thoughts and ideas gathered together. The more Hermione pondered over it, the more everything made sense. The more the pieces fit. The picture became clearer.

The assignment request. The personal nature of Theo's involvement. Yes, it had to do with Narcissa and Malfoy, but the key to unlocking the man before her was small and at the mercy of the adults in his life.

"It's Scorpius, isn't it? The reason you're so invested in her care, I mean."

His face cooled into his default visage of powerful omniscience, but Hermione knew she had read him correctly. Theo uncrossed his legs and picked up his still-steaming teacup, taking a long drink to finish it out before placing the empty cup back on the table. "He is my godson. Draco and I have known each other since childhood."

Now that she understood better, Hermione was able to pick on the subtleties in his careful wielding of words. "Known, you say, but you weren't friends. Or, at least, I don't remember you being close." He wasn't being completely truthful. "Malfoy is—"

"Not the same as he was."

"I know."

That much had been obvious since before he'd first said her name.

While his mother had been the cause of Hermione's mounting frustration, and the reason for her late nights of books and research and transatlantic Floo calls, Draco Malfoy had become the source of her endless questions and curiosity. He was a confusing presence. Despite seeing him every morning, as she prepared breakfast and he worked diligently on both his crossword puzzle and paper, Hermione couldn't determine which version of him was real and which one was for display—a facade he wore to remind her (and everyone else) who he was supposed to be.

A massive prat.

Theo cleared his throat. "You can't understand the son without understanding the father."

Hermione wasn't trying to do either outside the scope of her job. The son was—well, that was a slippery slope indeed. And the father was… someone that didn't fit the realm of her current comprehension. "I'm trying to remain impartial, Theo. I only wish to understand him enough to secure his cooperation. That's really all I need."

A wry chuckle escaped Theo's lips. "Tell me then, how are your attempts working for you?"

Hermione wasn't exactly certain how to answer that question.

Malfoy hadn't spoken to her much after their first face-off in the kitchen (then his office), which had been expected. But that didn't stop Hermione from greeting him each morning and trying to start a conversation. Initially, they had been sincere attempts to try and earn his cooperation, and maybe figure out the reason behind the rift—after all, he was always there when she arrived. Then, after days of little success, it shifted into speaking to him out of sheer stubbornness and growing curiosity about a man who completed puzzles with a pen, didn't seem to sleep much (given his long hours), but still made sure he left a note for Scorpius each day. His actions were nothing short of perplexing, to say the least. Draco Malfoy was a man who went about his day so deliberately it seemed like he was purposefully avoiding his family.

His problems.

Malfoy was like a cliff on the edge of the sea, meeting each crashing wave of her attempts at gathering information with silence stronger than a rock face, scrutinising looks, and strange facial expressions she didn't know him well enough to identify.

But that randomly changed on a Tuesday—eight days into her assignment.

Malfoy hadn't been there when she'd arrived. Uncommon, but not too strange. The minutes had ticked on. Five. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty minutes passed before he had rushed in with no paper or crossword. His tie had been undone, hair barely dry. Hermione had been in the middle of making breakfast, but quickly was able to gather that he'd lost track of time while swimming in the pool Hermione still hadn't seen.

He had been uncharacteristically flustered and disorganised, swearing about how nothing was where it belonged, his schedule—and possibly day—in ruins. Hermione related so much that her reaction had been instinct.

She stopped what she was doing and helped, fixing his tie with a flick of her wand and packing breakfast and tea for him before sending him on his way. Malfoy had been halfway out the door when they both suddenly realised what the hell had just transpired.

Malfoy had surprised her with just two words before he left:

Thank you.

After that, Hermione couldn't say things were good, but he stopped completely ignoring her presence and started engaging, in his own frustrating way, by answering her questions with terse responses of his own.

One sentence.

Then two.

Theo interrupted her reverie. "You didn't answer the question."

"Hm?" Hermione had been so caught up analysing Malfoy's every move for the umpteenth time that she'd forgotten what Theo had said. Backtracking, she cleared her throat. "Oh, yes. Well, I'm not certain how to answer it. I can't say that my attempts are working at all, truth be told, but Malfoy's spoken to me a few times in the last couple of weeks."

Somewhat.

Sort of.

Conversation had been stilted and slightly weird, firmly rooted in extremely mundane subjects that carried no risk. Malfoy never initiated these engagements, only responded, and Hermione found herself initially attempting to tailor her attempts at conversation to things he might enjoy. Quidditch had been her first attempt, but Malfoy had struck that topic down.

"You don't care for Quidditch. Don't waste my time. Or yours."

So, Hermione hadn't.

Instead, she'd taken one look at his paper and mentioned the ineptitude of reporting in the front-page article about yet another Ministry achievement, calling it the "the embodiment of propaganda." When Malfoy hummed his agreement, she'd found herself intrigued.

In the days that had followed, Hermione picked topics that were easy to gather from the parts of the paper she could see:

The debate regarding the removal of the Statute of Secrecy.

His response: "Never going to happen. Also idiotic."

Lowering the age of the removal of The Trace to sixteen.

His response: "I would argue raising it."

An article noting the rise of sales on defensive items following the Death Eater attack in March.

His response: "Potter hasn't given up his belief that Mathers is alive. He's probably dead."

But when Hermione had voiced her opinion about the possibility of a third wizarding war, Malfoy's response had been the first complete one yet.

"Those with the most power don't want peace. There's no profit in it. Peace would also level out the balance of power and turn the public's attention to the things that matter, such as why the Wizengamot has not restored power to the Minister after the agreed upon ten years."

It had been such a true and perceptive statement that it had left her momentarily speechless.

It made Hermione curious, made her want to poke and pick his mind for whatever gems she could find. Thoughts. Opinions. Ideas. Observations.

After that morning, their dialogues had morphed into chats that became less about what she could find out and more about his thoughts on various topics. They began to do nothing more than just talk for the sake of it.

Which was… unexpected, to say the least.

Each conversation was like opening a different box, and Hermione never knew what was going to be on the inside. She knew she had the option not to open it, but she did so anyway.

Magical theory. History. Arithmancy. Charms. Malfoy picked her brain about the fact that she brewed potions, and she discovered his quiet passion for the subject after a lengthy argument about copper cauldrons versus brass for brewing Dreamless Sleep. And when he started bringing up Muggle topics—Literature, Science Fiction, Physics—Hermione pretended not to look surprised.

But she was.

Some days were like pulling teeth. Others were easier. He would mostly engage, showing hints of something more than apathy—until he'd inevitably realise what he was doing and shut back down. But, for the most part, Malfoy argued down each of her points and rose up to challenge every statement.

He didn't always win.

But neither did she.

And that was… different, oddly refreshing, but baffling nonetheless.

Conversation was more than a sum of words, more than communication and the exchange of information. Hermione always found it easier to understand and relate to people when she just talked to them, but with Malfoy…?

Not so much.

Each conversation left her more puzzled than before, less about his interests and opinions, and more about the ins and outs of who he was.

His identity.

 


 

May 13, 2011

 

When it came to paranoia, there was only one rule: it couldn't be considered paranoia if it was real.

Hermione reminded herself of this yet again when she stepped out of the Floo Bank in the Ministry on a busy Wednesday afternoon, walking alongside other people into the bustling Atrium. While true visitors drifted to the sides for their wands to be checked, Hermione continued on with the general flow, feeling eyes on her all the while.

In most cases, they only looked because she was famous and rarely seen in public, but Harry's private Floo hadn't worked since he'd become Head of the Auror's Office, and no other Floo was open for her access. So, there she was. A face in the crowd.

In most cases, like the two workers sitting at the fountain who suddenly stopped talking to each other in favour of staring at her before whispering again, the watching had been curiosity, the result of the rumours surrounding her departure from the Ministry. Or maybe the sprinkle of rumours that had followed ever since, each more absurd than the last.

But in one case, she knew, it was more than that.

The wizard who watched her had been lying in wait in the Atrium, and suddenly realised he needed to walk directly behind her. He had been tracking her comings and goings since the Ministry had started sending her job offers three years ago, following her as she went, surely reporting her every move inside the Ministry's walls.

Naturally, Hermione had been aware of his presence, and he knew it, too.

It was complicated at best, but felt like a game.

Well, a game she didn't know the rules of and without a clear objective. She had no idea why they were even playing it.

When her watcher stepped into the empty space next to her in the queue for the lift, she spoke without looking because she already knew who she was going to see. "McLaggen, I'm just having lunch with Harry. What threat do I specifically pose to need you as an escort?"

"Technically, since you don't work for the Ministry, you shouldn't be roaming on your own. Especially since you didn't check your wand when you entered. My uncle grows more and more restless about the moves being made to unseat him. Your presence would only add to his distress. I am merely—"

"Wasting your words on a topic I don't care about."

"Funny, my uncle seems to think you know about the movement somehow. Maybe you're involved, maybe you're not. All I know is that he's beginning to question people."

Hermione stored that knowledge away for later. "This feels familiar."

"Familiar how?"

"Like the history we're about to repeat unless things change."

"If you decided to return, pledge your allegiance to the Ministry—"

"You mean to him? No thanks," Hermione interjected with a flippant twist of her wrist. "Tyrants come in many forms and wear many different masks… or ornate robes, should I say." Her words likely went right over Cormac's head. "Not only am I not willing to pledge my allegiance to any man, but I'm also not searching for a change in career. I'm happy where I am."

Cormac made a small, curt noise. Dismissive. In his head, he always thought he knew better than anyone. "I'd believe you more if I knew you less."

"You don't know me at all." She kept her public mask on effortlessly and kept the irritation that accompanied his presence out of her voice. It would only egg him on and draw more stares than necessary.

The next lift arrived and the queue for it moved, but there still wasn't enough space for her to squeeze on and get away from him. Hermione looked around, searching for a familiar face for the company, but saw none.

With an internal sigh, she turned, observing the wizard who hadn't changed much in appearance since Hogwarts. Cormac was still broad and muscular in a way that fit his frame nicely. He still had strong features and a smile that could be charming, and his dark blonde curls were still tamed in a way that most witches would consider flattering. Today, instead of his normal neutral colours, he wore plum trousers and a white dress shirt with expensive-looking cufflinks. Robes displaying his high position in the Wizengamot Administration Services were draped over his arm.

Unfortunately, all that glittered wasn't gold.

It really was a shame that Cormac hadn't grown past his aggressive and arrogant nature.

Cormac's shoulder brushed hers, and his voice dropped low for her ears only. "I happen to know women like you very well. I can show you how well over—"

Hermione cut him off with a single, pointed glare. "Do you lurk every day in hopes that I'll turn up at the Ministry, or do you have an actual career?"

"Oh, Hermione." He said her name in a pretentious way she didn't especially appreciate. She also didn't appreciate the fact that, for the second time, his shoulder brushed hers. It meant that he was standing far too close for comfort. "Surely you're aware that I'm set to inherit my uncle's seat on the Wizengamot when he's ousted."

When.

Cormac knew something was changing, too.

The timing of Tiberius McLaggen's appointment to the Wizengamot wasn't important, all that mattered was what had happened in the years since he'd become Chief Warlock. After buying nearly every business in Diagon Alley from desperate owners just looking to survive, he—out of the kindness of his own heart, of course—turned around and allowed those business owners to rent the stores they'd previously owned for a percentage of their annual sales.

It was undoubtedly helpful in the couple of years after the war, when some shops went days without a single patron and people were still too afraid to return to the normalcy of things like shopping trips and expenditures that weren't strictly necessary.

The questionable actions came when, after his appointment as Chief Warlock, he pushed through the major rehabilitation project that poured millions of Ministry Galleons into rebuilding wizarding businesses… in Diagon Alley. As businesses recovered and sales picked up, so did their rent.

Tiberius McLaggen had made millions. Anyone that challenged their rental agreement was quickly shut down. Percy had been quietly checking into the legality of the agreements with his tenants, but he'd run into obstacles. No one who had been privy to Tiberius' unforgiving nature had been eager to cooperate for fear of losing what they'd worked so hard for without a fair fight. Even now, gathering information was a slow process.

Much like Percy's pet project.

While not every member of the Wizengamot was as corrupt as the Chief Warlock, there were just enough members who liked the perks of the current status quo to keep any true change at bay. In her eyes, they were no better than the ones whose vaults were amassing the unethical Galleons.

The lift arrived before she said anything else and they filed on with the others. She took a spot in front of Cormac, fully prepared to ignore him like the pest he was. In enclosed spaces, it was habit for her to observe her surroundings, and when she did just that, her eyes fell on a familiar white-blond head in the front corner by the button panel.

Malfoy.

She hadn't seen him in the Atrium when she'd looked around. In fact, Hermione barely had a chance to wonder if he'd even seen her when her gaze was pulled to the open gates as one more wizard decided to squeeze on rather than wait for the next lift.

Everyone shifted to accommodate the final passenger.

The wizard in front of her shuffled backwards, putting himself too close for her comfort. Automatically, Hermione tried to move out of his way, but found her back pressed against Cormac's broad chest. It was instinctive to apologise, but she stopped herself before she could.

Best if she didn't acknowledge him or their current state.

Not that it mattered. It was Cormac McLaggen, after all.

It wasn't like him to ignore a perfect opportunity.

Despite the lack of space on the now moving lift, he was able to lower his head, whispering into her temple in a voice predatory, "If I were you, Hermione…" His hand ghosted up her arm to push her hair off her shoulder and her hackles rose until it felt as though all her muscles were perpetually tensed. "I would endear yourself to me so that I'll remember you when I'm in my new position."

"If you touch me one more time, McLaggen, I'll become the scariest thing you've ever seen." Her voice was low, serious enough to make him back off ever so slightly.

But he kept his head exactly where it was so he could speak to her without anyone noticing—or hearing him. "Still so feisty. I've always admired that about you."

"And you're still an arrogant bastard who will be doing the Wizengamot's legwork for the rest of your miserable life."

"I don't see following a beautiful woman around on scheduled visits for lunch with her best friend as a particular hardship." Cormac's voice dropped even lower as he whispered. "More like my pleasure."

"This is why you can't keep a wife." His second divorce was playing out nastily in the papers, at least according to the ones she'd lined her chicken coop with last week.

"Third time's a charm."

Before Hermione could verbalise her absolute disgust or turn around and club him over the head with her beaded bag, the doors opened and a few Ministry employees filed out, still absorbed in getting to their destination as quickly as possible. It wasn't the floor where Harry's office was located, but at least with only one man entering the lift, there was now enough space for her to step away from Cormac without bumping into anyone else.

She reached for the strap above her head in preparation for the lift to begin moving, then glared daggers at Cormac, who remained in his spot against the back wall. Watching her. Waiting. Like a lion on the prowl. Hermione ignored him in favour of glancing around the still crowded lift, but now she had a clear visual of Malfoy, who regarded her with an odd, indecipherable expression as the lift began moving again.

It wasn't the first time she'd seen him that day, but she had no basis to rate their interaction that morning when Malfoy had asked for a cup of whatever tea she had been drinking—a fruity mint mixture she'd concocted for Narcissa. Something that, in theory, he should hate, but he drank the mix with a passive look and zero complaints. Hermione had been left unable to discern if he liked it or not.

The front page this morning had been around the Death Eater sightings in Wales.

Hermione had asked a standard question: "Does the Task Force and the Auror's Office have enough to properly investigate?"

But his reply had been different, layered with complexities she didn't understand. "Not particularly, Potter has a spare team that has just arrived back from an assignment that he'll be forced to send. I just returned this morning actually and will be taking a Portkey back this evening to return, once again, the following morning."

She hadn't been able to stop her next question. "Do you sleep?"

And that had promptly ended their conversation.

Now the fact that he was looking between her and Cormac in that probing way of his was all the stranger. As far as Hermione was concerned, the extent of his curiosity with her began and ended with why she'd taken on his mother as a patient. He'd reserved his other feelings for being highly irritated when she looked on while he worked on his crossword.

Finally, the doors to the lift opened on Harry's floor and a few more people filed out. And if Hermione whispered a Trip Jinx that left Cormac a sprawled mess on the floor of the lift… well, that was between her and anyone who noticed. The gates shut and the lift left with Cormac yelling something on his way to whichever floor the lift would stop at next.

Feeling proud of herself, and with a smile on her face, Hermione took two steps in the direction of Harry's office, then remembered that someone had noticed. And that someone happened to have longer legs, which allowed him to fall in step alongside her with relative ease.

"Lover's quarrel?" Malfoy's voice was so dry and posh it made Hermione's hair stand on end.

Along with her nerves.

"Excuse me?" She looked at him in confusion.

"McLaggen." He said it so blandly it was as if Hermione should have already known what he was talking about. His face was drawn in an expression that fell somewhere between grudgingly curious and outright annoyed—two emotions that didn't even belong on the same scale. "I saw you two on the—"

"That pompous wanker is not—I repeat, not—my lover in any definition of the word." She seethed with such strong vehemence she nearly missed the tiny stutter in his step. "Cormac wouldn't know how to love anyone other than himself if someone gave him a map and a guide."

There was a short pause before Malfoy said, "Ah, well, excuse me." He then calmly turned and went in the opposite direction.

Unspeakably baffled, Hermione stood and watched him stalk around the corner before vanishing from sight. "What the hell…"

She shook it all off, chalked it up to him being Malfoy, and followed the path into the controlled chaos of the ever-busy Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Pointedly ignoring the eyes and whispers that followed her presence, Hermione forced herself not to look down until she found herself at the door to the Auror's Division.

Greeted by a nearly empty office, she guessed most Aurors were on assignment or lunch at that part of the day. Only a handful were at their desks doing paperwork, not paying attention to the new person in the room.

The only person who paid her any mind was the secretary, Deloris, an older witch with greying black hair who always wore purple robes. "Miss Granger, it's lovely to see you."

Deloris was like the mother of this branch of the DMLE. She brought a meal for everyone at least once a week and even baked cookies every Friday. Like most secretaries, she knew everything that happened in the Ministry, all the rumours, both significant and dull. Hermione had told Harry when he'd been appointed Head Auror that he should always stop and listen to anything she had to say, including the latest gossip.

It was likely more informative than the Prophet.

She'd been the office secretary longer than Harry had been alive, but she'd told Hermione last month that she still believed he did a better job than any of his predecessors, even without the current circumstances.

"Lovely to see you as well, Deloris."

"How's your gardening, love?"

"By next visit, I should have strawberries, gooseberries, peas, broad beans, and more for you."

"Oh, that sounds lovely. Can't wait. Make sure to bring extras so I can make you some jam."

Deloris made the best jam. Last summer, she'd brought Hermione several jars from the extra fruit she'd given her—she and Al had only eaten toast and their jam of the day for breakfast during his visits for months. Hermione was already looking forward to this year.

"I can't wait. Oh!" She opened her beaded bag, and reached deep until she found what she was looking for. "I brought you more salve for your husband's knee and your pain potion, as well."

Harry had found out a few years after joining the Auror Department that Deloris had been hit with a dark spell while protecting her Muggle-born husband from Snatchers during the war. St Mungo's hadn't been much help outside of healing the immediate damage, which had led to years of her suffering in silence. Harry had asked for Hermione's help after years of her not being able to find any respite through conventional methods, of course, she'd agreed. After research and a few failures, she'd found success in an obscure plant that helped boost the potency of the regular pain potion. Deloris only needed one drop.

Hermione handed the witch the vial and a tin canister of salve.

"Thank you so much." Deloris graciously accepted her offerings. "You really should let me pay you—"

Hermione shook her head. That wasn't why she did it. "It's no trouble at all. Keep looking out for Harry, that's all I ask." Speaking of her best friend… "Is he busy?" Hermione asked the witch with a kind smile.

"He's just returned from his meeting with Hestia and Mr Malfoy regarding the canvassing team they need for that unfortunate bit happening in Wales." The one Malfoy was spending his nights coordinating while working days here. Her question about his sleep habits had been valid. "He's also tied up with staffing for the raid that no one is talking about."

The two women exchanged knowing looks and matching eye rolls. Hermione was more worried about the almost open secret getting too far out and failing, but didn't share those concerns with Deloris. "Has Harry eaten?"

"No, even though I told him he should. He's had an incredibly busy day, and his afternoon is completely booked. He has another private meeting with Mr Malfoy in fifteen minutes."

Ah, one of their strategy meetings.

"I've brought him lunch." She held up her beaded bag. "Is he doing anything right now?"

"Paperwork." The witch made a face that spoke of her empathy.

"Ah, the bane of his existence."

Deloris smirked. "Too right you are."

"Better go save him then."

The older witch grinned, shooing her along. Hermione gave her a fond look before walking past her desk, and knocking on the closed office door with Harry's name and title etched in the gold plaque. The heavy door opened with a creak that Magical Maintenance had yet to fix. Hermione entered, allowing the noisy door to shut behind her.

Harry's office, as always, was a minimalistic mess. She never could figure out how that was possible, but it was. He didn't have much: a few books, important keepsakes, and framed pictures of Ginny and the children on his desk. Nothing on the walls. Simple. In the corner was a rack of hangers with jackets and robes on them.

The newest addition was a table in the centre of the room with what looked like a map covered in different coloured pins strategically spread across the full length of it.

Even with few things, though Harry's was a perpetual mess. Nothing was ever organised, and he had a ton of paperwork stacked on his desk at any given time. She spotted her best friend sitting behind a mountain of parchment, scratching away at something she couldn't see.

"How can I help you?" Harry asked without looking up.

"Well, I'm looking for my best friend, who happens to be The Chosen One—"

He looked up then rolled his eyes, laughing before glancing at his gold watch as Hermione crossed the room to sit at the chair in front of his desk.

"Blimey, is it one already?"

She placed her beaded bag on the desk and opened it up, pulling out a simple lunch of roasted chicken sandwiches stuffed with tomatoes, cheese, cucumbers, and romaine lettuce. Hermione made sure to pack some oven-roasted potato wedges along with a couple of cold cans of Vimtos— blackcurrant because that was their favourite.

"Yes, I just finished with Narcissa's lunch potions and she's overseeing her grandson's lessons." More like making suggestions and lesson plan changes.

She'd be tied up at least until dinner, when she was sure to sharply decline, get irritable. Narcissa could be downright mean towards Scorpius' nanny, who was understandably stressed at all times. His tutor wasn't much better, but he generally stayed in Narcissa's good graces as he was the sort of traditionalist she respected.

Harry moved the parchment aside, giving her and their lunch his full attention. "How is that going?"

"Interesting. They're… a lot. Different from how I expected."

"How so?" His interest was clearly piqued.

Hermione let out a breath that turned into a chuckle as she made a series of exaggerated hand gestures to emphasise each word. "I can't possibly list it all during the fifteen minutes I have between now and your strategy meeting with Malfoy. We'll have to talk about it at another time." At his nod and Harry-esque soft smile, Hermione opened her container and pulled out forks for them to use on the potatoes. "I can't speak much about her treatment, but I can tell you that she's probably the most infuriating patient I've ever had."

"She's your Draco Malfoy, then."

"I suppose so. I often forget she's even sick." Until the evenings and nights remind her. Hermione pursed her lips, deep in thought. "Ever felt like you were missing something that was staring you in the face?"

"All the time."

Hermione chuckled. "That's how I feel about Narcissa's treatment. The nights are rough to the point where I've considered staying."

"At Malfoy's house?"

"Yes, just until I figure out what's wrong with her evening potions."

"Well, you won't have to worry about Malfoy much. He'll be in Wales coordinating the sweep where the Death Eaters were spotted. He thinks there may be a hideout nearby."

She stabbed one of the potatoes with her fork and brought it to her mouth while Harry started at his sandwich. "Does he actually sleep?"

"How should I know? I imagine he gets some sort of sleep. Has to or he'd be more insufferable than he already is." That seemed doubtful based on hard evidence that pointed to the opposite. Perhaps he was— "Enough about him. I'll be seeing him soon enough." A quick frown expressed his distaste, but it was followed by a wiggling of his eyebrows. "Have you had any interesting conversations with his mother lately?"

With a roll of her eyes, Hermione's pensive expression morphed into a grin. "She hasn't said anything particularly rude since she tried to give me advice." She emphasised the last word with air quotes, her fork still in hand. Harry laughed almost as hard as he had the first time that she'd told him the story. "She's been busy with society activities and her grandson's lessons. We haven't had a chance to speak much… well, outside of her complaints about each meal before she takes a bite and finds it remarkably palatable," Hermione mocked in a poor imitation of Narcissa's voice.

"Sounds like a compliment to me."

"Honestly it's the closest I might ever get." Hermione snickered. "She'd rather walk on the surface of the sun than admit she likes my primitive cooking."

Snorting in response, Harry took a sip of his drink and shook his head. "And before he gets here. What about Malfoy? Is he the model son? Does he call you incompetent and argue about the best way to care for his mother because surely only he knows best?"

Wincing, Hermione recalled the abrupt way he'd left her outside the lift. "Actually… no."

Malfoy was incredibly hard to pin down. Distrustful and private, aloof and sarcastic, astute and defensive. He was more perceptive of the world around him than she'd expected from someone who grew up believing he was the centre of it. More than that, Malfoy didn't fit the image that Harry, himself, had put into her mind. Maybe he acted differently around Harry. Maybe Harry had the same effect on Malfoy as the reverse. Hermione had no idea.

"He doesn't want to be involved in any aspect of her care. Not now or as she worsens. I've no idea why."

At that, Harry's smirk faded. "That's surprising… I've always thought they were close. Narcissa's letters practically sung his praises."

"Either she's extremely deluded or blatantly lying to cover up the rift, but it's there. Loud. Granted, I haven't seen them in the same room together since the first day, but it's awfully tense."

Her best friend still seemed confused. "I'm shocked, really. I mean, he seemed disillusioned with his father during his trial, but he never let go of his mother's hand."

Hermione had her own vague memories of the day, now scattered by time and her own life events that occurred in the years between. The Malfoys had always seemed like a complicated, yet tight-knit family. Though, appearances were often deceiving.

"They aren't." Hermione finally picked up her sandwich. "Their dynamic is strange. Painfully tense. I don't know how anyone can stand it—how I stand it."

"I mean, it's not like we sit and chat like old friends." Harry snorted as if the thought were utterly inconceivable. "But they've had a death in the family in the last six months. Deloris told me of the rumours going around. Apparently, he'll be married again within the year, should his mother have her way."

Hermione winced, but took another bite, her mouth suddenly dry.

"Might be a source of contention, but I doubt it." Harry gave a lazy shrug. "Ginny says the Malfoys are all about fulfilling their duty to family over self, it's practically etched in stone on some ancient rock somewhere."

She sipped her drink, nodding along even though she should have been laughing at Harry's joke.

He finished his potatoes and eyed the second half of his sandwich, sobering. "I wasn't working directly with him at the time. They had me doing a lot of public appearances before my promotion, but he was gone for weeks. When he returned he was just as"—Harry waved his hand—"Malfoy-ish as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary."

As she continued eating, Hermione allowed her mind to wander, sorting through the data she had gathered over the last few weeks.

She recognised the division between the adults as something she would have to address as Narcissa worsened. Who would make important decisions for her? Draco? Yes, but would he give a damn to make the right decision for her? No was looking like the most accurate answer. What safeguards could she employ to ensure the older witch's safety? There would be legal documents and aspects Hermione absolutely needed Malfoy for. He would have to—

Hermione took a deep breath.

She couldn't let herself run wild on that particular train of thought, not when there was another that was far more complicated…

Scorpius.

He was absolutely none of her business, though Hermione couldn't help but notice the dynamic between his father and grandmother as it pertained to the boy's care. Hermione had never seen either in the same room together, but Malfoy seemed diligent whenever he wasn't around. He listened intently to status reports from Zippy, set Scorpius' place at the table…

He left his son notes.

Still, it was Narcissa who was in control of the oversight of her grandson's complicated daily schedule, packed to the point where she had Third Year flashbacks whenever Zippy would recite his daily activities to Malfoy. Narcissa was the one who made sure he sat up straight, was polite, and trained—a word that still made her shudder. She treated him so unlike she'd treated her own son during their years at school that it was almost beyond belief.

With her rules and regulations, it was a wonder she hadn't burned the curiosity out of him.

Somehow, remarkably, she hadn't.

But like Hermione had already said, he was none of her business and the Malfoys were a better topic for another day. Preferably one when they could chat over the fruity wine Harry would never admit that he enjoyed.

They're been quiet long enough to warrant a subject change, and Harry graciously did the honours. "Something else that's strange? No McLaggen. He usually follows you to my office door."

Her thoughts scattered before a smug grin curled the edges of Hermione's lips. "Wandless Trip Jinx in the lift."

"Nice." Harry looked impressed as he bit into the second half of his sandwich. "I suppose that's why you won't accept the security detail, then. Theo told me."

Of course he had. Hermione hadn't even thought about the offer since the first time she'd declined it. "Honestly, Harry, you know me better than that. I can take care of myself."

"Trust me, I'm aware, but they're getting closer to us than I'd like. A threat came to James' school." Hermione's heart stuttered. That really was too close. At her wince, he sighed, looking far wearier than anyone should at their age. "No one was hurt. The teams came in and did a sweep, but found nothing. Ginny and I are beginning to wonder if maybe we need to move schools… or possibly send James to a wizarding primary school, which would be more equipped to handle the threat of Death Eaters, should they attack. Molly thinks we should pull them all out and let her homeschool them."

The look on his face said that would be a last resort.

"Are you looking into private security for the children?"

"A pair at each school." Harry nodded. "Malfoy gave me the name of the company he hired to watch his family."

She raised an inquiring brow. "You two managed to have a conversation long enough to get to that point?"

In response, he finished his bite before shrugging. "I just asked. When I mentioned it was for my kids, he didn't hesitate. I'm serious though, Hermione, I think you should consider it."

"As I told Theo, I am my own security."

Harry's face turned serious. "You don't have to be."

 


 

They finished eating, packed the glass containers back in her bag, and were busy arranging Al's weekend visit when there was a distinctive knock on the door.

Two quick taps, followed by a paused… then a single knock.

Harry sighed, but it wasn't out of exhaustion, just in acknowledgement that his day wasn't yet over. Judging from the calm and cleansing breath he took, he knew exactly who it was.

"Malfoy." With a wave of his hand, Harry's office door creaked open, and the confirmation of his statement stood there like a brooding statue in all black. His arms were even folded as his eyes cut back and forth between them.

"Come in." Harry's tone was far more polite than it tended to be when he talked about the wizard behind his back. Professional. Malfoy entered the office as Hermione stood to leave, grabbing her bag off his desk. Tucking her hair behind her ear, she felt the mood in the office shift with the new addition, turning from friendly to something far chillier. Both had serious expressions on their face, prepared to work.

Or battle.

Likely both.

Still, Malfoy approached Harry's desk, stopping just at the edge. He didn't even try to hide his contempt with the subtle glance at Harry's desk.

"Potter." He didn't spit his name like he used to, but it still made Hermione shift uncomfortably from foot to foot. He was dry, polite, the product of someone who'd spent years entrenched in 'proper' society. Then grey eyes cut to her. "We meet again, Granger."

Confusion flashed across Harry's face as he mouthed 'again?'

"We saw each other in the lift with McLaggen."

"Ah."

They stood in awkward silence for what felt like hours with each of them looking everywhere to avoid looking at each other. In actuality, it was less than a minute before Hermione couldn't take it anymore and clasped her hands together. "Well, I'll leave you both to it."

She gave Harry a look that wished him all the luck in the world, a look that made him scratch his scar, not because it itched, simply a force of habit.

Something he only did when he was supremely uncomfortable.

Given the awkward energy that blanketed the room, his feelings made sense.

Unfortunately, there was nothing much to do about that, not much more she could say for encouragement. Hermione's focus went from her best friend back to Malfoy, who was regarding her with a potent yet slightly bemused expression. Then he huffed and glared at Harry. "You didn't ask her, did you?"

"Ask me what, Harry?" Instantly suspicious, she folded her arms across her chest and glared, gritting her teeth.

What Hermione hated most—well, after tardiness, laziness, and mouth-breathing—was being the last to know anything. Especially, if it pertained to her in any form. Of course, she could handle it, but that didn't mean she cared to be put in that situation.

And by her best friend, no less.

Harry patted down his messy, dark hair and rubbed the back of his neck. Guilty. "We're developing a strategy for the raid and we need a third party's opinion."

"What about Ron?" She immediately deleted the thought because he wouldn't be objective at all when it came to anything involving Malfoy. He'd side with Harry, regardless if he liked his idea or not, just to spite Malfoy. She would have said as much had the blond man not opened his mouth.

"Are you serious, Granger?" Malfoy sounded every bit the prat he was at Hogwarts. "Weasley's idea of foresight is putting his socks on before his shoes."

Hermione found herself suspended in a state of disbelief. Not by what he'd said—that was typical, really—but rather by the dramatic difference between who he was around her versus who he was around Harry. Not saying that he was the most amiable person, but at least Malfoy tried to hold his tongue in his own home. There was also the small part that whispered a reminder that he was the same person who left notes for Scorpius and had politely asked for tea that very morning.

All in all, it felt like whiplash.

Naturally, Harry's infamous temper flared to life in defence of Ron. She couldn't even get a word in edgewise prior to snide comments flying back and forth between the two nemeses, but before it could escalate into unprofessional insults, Hermione took the stance as mediator.

In a way.

"I actually have better things to do than listen to you both squabble like children." She glared at them both, jaw set. "So, if we could please, get on with it, I'd appreciate it."

For her troubles, she received a set of piercing frowns that she met with an equal one of her own. She made certain to exude every bit of the irritation she felt.

When the next silence began to stretch again, she huffed. "Harry, stop letting Malfoy regress you fifteen years, it's ridiculous." The anger in her friend's eyes instantly died when he finally realised how immature he was acting.

His cheeks flushed.

One down.

Hermione shifted her weight from one foot to another before facing her last obstacle between them all and peace.

"And Malfoy." His expression was stoic defiance. "We all know and remember quite clearly that you're a massive prat. There's no need to remind us by posturing. No one needs that kind of energy on a team, especially not when there's so much on the line. You both have common goals. Remember that."

Almost as if she'd slapped him, the wizard visibly recoiled. In fact, he took a full step back before remembering himself. There was a very good chance no one had taken him to task like that in quite some time.

It was a job Hermione didn't mind taking.

She readied herself for the retaliation, but had one last thing to say. "Oh, and just so you know, Ron's probably a better strategist than I am. In some respects, at least. But Harry was right not to ask him because he'll side with Harry over you out of spite. I won't. It doesn't matter to me who came up with what idea, only which one works best." She unfolded her arms, resting them on her hips. "Don't judge what you don't know."

While Harry was good and chastened, Malfoy's glare only intensified at the callback from their first full conversation. But she honestly didn't care as she stepped forward, closer to him, meeting his opposition with a scowl.

"Reminder, Malfoy: you two have a bigger fight ahead than the one against each other. It doesn't just involve your jobs. It doesn't involve just you as individuals. It involves your families, too." She didn't miss that small tick in his jaw or the way he seemed to reset. Exhale. Refocus. "Now, are you both finished?"

Malfoy acquiesced with a subtle nod.

Harry's agreement, on the other hand, was crystal clear. "If you have any other suggestions for candidates, I'll gladly step aside as I want as little to do with the Ministry as possible. At least in its current state."

There was a long pause while they waited for the last person in the room to get on board.

They didn't have to wait long.

"Since you're already here, I suppose you'll do." Malfoy's response was cool even though the way his hands were curled into tight fists spoke to his aggravation. But then he flexed his hands and his entire demeanour slowly changed. Shifted. Settled. His tone took a professional edge. "Shall we?"

Now that everyone was ready, Hermione got to the point. "Is there a blueprint of the Lestrange Manor where the raid will take place?"

"There." Malfoy gestured to the table in the centre of the room. "The only uncluttered surface in Potter's office." His comment wasn't critical or hostile, merely matter-of-fact. So much so that Harry only shrugged in response.

He had a point.

They were all gathered around the table—Harry and Hermione on one side, Malfoy on the other—staring down at the blueprint with pins that seemed to be colour-coded for a particular purpose.

Malfoy cleared his throat. "This particular Lestrange Manor hasn't been occupied for at least fifty years, but it's complicated and likely has traps. Its wards can only be taken down by someone of Lestrange blood, but after speaking to several experts, I've found that there's a way to trick the wards."

"Really?" That was fascinating. Impressive, really. Not only because of the possibilities, but also due to the work Malfoy must have put in to discover that piece of knowledge.

Apparently he hadn't shared any of that with Harry, because her friend's face was scrunched up in confusion, as though he were hearing this for the first time. "How is it possible to trick a ward? I didn't know that was possible."

The look on Malfoy's face spoke volumes, namely that Harry was too stupid to live. It was one her friend must have been the recipient of before because it didn't seem to bother him one bit. "It is when the wards are old and very specific, weaved into blood magic. The Manor's wards were specific like that until—"

Cursed fire that never burned out.

Hermione cringed.

No need to dwell on any of that.

Hermione moved her gaze back to the map. "How do you trick them?"

"It's astoundingly simple." Malfoy reached clear across the table to fix one of the pins. The action caused his cuff to rise higher than usual. It wasn't a particularly noteworthy movement, except for the fact that the action had caused him to tease something she never expected to see on a wizard who wore black like it was a second skin.

It wasn't just the obvious fact that he had a tattoo—or a very large, scaly tattoo, from the looks of it— that wrapped around his wrist and disappeared under his suit.

Yes. Okay. That was highly unexpected.

But what actually caught her attention—what piqued her curiosity—was the colour.

She only caught flashes of red and orange and a hint of green before Malfoy righted himself.

Hermione looked away when his scrutinous gaze settled on her, daring her to say something, but she didn't accept the bait. She was smarter than that. Instead, she focused on the broken fireplace behind him. She'd have to ask Deloris to put in an order with Magical Maintenance to fix it because Harry would never remember. Or have time to handle it.

After clearing his throat, Malfoy continued on. "From my inquiry and research, it seems that the Ward Specialist has to be— at the very least—a pureblood. I happen to have found one you both know and trust—Ernie Macmillan. He mainly works on wards for businesses, but he knows how to do it because his family's estate has similar wards. He has already agreed to the job."

Hermione recalled Harry's rant about him changing the wards specialist, but now it made perfect sense.

The Head Auror realised it as well, but also something else. "Ernie doesn't work for the Ministry, Malfoy, we don't have the budget—"

"Technically, he'll be working for me, as I'll be handling his fee." At the surprised look on Harry's face, Malfoy set his jaw, seeming put off by Harry's shock. "I think I've made myself perfectly clear when I said that I was willing to do whatever it takes to end this. Money is no object. Will that be an issue, Potter?"

She and Harry exchanged looks but Hermione said nothing.

It wasn't her place.

The Auror regarded the man across the table for a long moment, and compromised with an exhale. "It won't." He scrubbed his face several times before running a hand through his already wild hair.

"Very well then." Malfoy redirected their attention to the blueprint of the Lestrange Manor. "According to the mole, the black pin is the meeting location. Red pins are the entrance points, not including windows, of course. Anything else you need to know before making an assessment, Granger?"

Hermione looked closer. The room they were meeting in was circular, situated near the centre of the Manor, and it looked like it could pass for a small ballroom. Four clear entrances into the mansion but there were five red pins. It looked like there were two doors that served as both entrances and exits. Not much room for escape—for anyone. Which could go either way. Very good or very bad. There was also no telling if there were any sort of traps waiting for them in the house or on the grounds. Hermione bent forward a little, touching the only pin that didn't make sense. A red pin, which meant entrance, but there were no doors leading to the outside.

"What is this pin?"

"A possible secret entryway." Malfoy replied. "I've confirmed there is a tunnel that runs under the house, which stops under this room. I believe there's a way to get into the room from the tunnel."

"Ah." That was intriguing. She tucked her hair behind her ear, wishing she'd brought something to tie it back. Hermione concentrated better that way. "Harry? Do you have a rubber band?" They looked at his messy desk. "Nevermind."

Her best friend's smile was sheepish. "I should clear that up."

"Undoubtedly."

"It's fine." Hermione waved him off. "First, I'd like to hear your strategy, Harry." The dark-haired wizard nodded. "Then yours, Malfoy."

She moved to the head of the table, leaving the other two facing each other. Malfoy made a stiff gesture at Harry to start, and after straightening his glasses, he did just that.

Hermione listened to them both. She followed each step of their individual plans, asking questions along the way, while noting that they both had strategies to leverage various advantages to compensate for the lack of manpower.

Harry's strategy was very reflective of his personality: simple and to the point. Storm in, block all exits, make sure they can't Apparate out. Battle until they surrender. How very Veni, vidi, vici of him. He had Aurors, Hit Wizards, and Magical Law Enforcement officers blended into groups, regardless of experience, with the intent that the more seasoned fighters would help when needed. She guessed Harry hadn't considered the secret passageway in his plan because it hadn't been confirmed.

Malfoy's plan was clever and careful, but far more flexible than Harry's, leaning heavily on strategy to compensate for the lack of experience from most of their fighters. It would be easy enough to adjust for any surprises based on their opponents and circumstances. He had the fighters mixed as well, but there was order in the groups, pairings based on experience. Malfoy had arranged for the more experienced fighters to take the main entrances while the untested fighters came through the secret passage.

Harry turned to her once Malfoy concluded. "So, what do you think?"

Hermione pondered over each plan for the raid, asking several questions from both to firm up the parts that hadn't been explained well. Then she closed her eyes and mapped it all out in her head, nodding to herself when she was done, ignoring them both as they stared at her. Harry's regard was good-natured but knowing—he'd witnessed this side of her from time to time over the years. He knew how to wait. Malfoy's narrowed grey eyes basically bore into her as if he were trying to figure out her response before she gave it. Hermione ignored it.

Ignored him.

With her fingers touching her chin, she noted the positives and negatives as she visualised, made her final tallies, and nodded confidently.

Finally, she had an answer.

"And?" Harry tried again, eyes widened.

"Neither."

Malfoy gave her a thin, testy look, while her best friend responded with bewilderment. "What?"

"Hear me out." She raised her hand, looking down at the blueprint. "I think the more optimal strategy would be a combination of the two. A compromise, if you will. Harry's right in needing to pack a decisive and strong blow, but Malfoy's flexible plan would be helpful should anything go awry at the last minute. Send Teams C and D through the main two entrances along with E, but have Teams A and B come through the secret passage. Your opponents will think they have the upper hand until your very strong Teams A and B attack from behind." Hermione lifted her eyes to the man on the other side of the table, who now wore a very thoughtful expression. He was listening. "Have you confirmed the passageway?"

"I'm working on that as we speak." Malfoy didn't give any more information.

She rearranged the placement of the teams to different entrances. "On the off chance that there is no secret passageway, just send Teams A and B as a second wave, a stronger wave. Although less experienced, the three teams should be able to wear your targets down, leading them into a false sense of security, before the elite teams show up. It's—"

"Impressive." Malfoy sounded like he meant it, albeit reluctantly—if the frown on his face meant anything.

"I didn't do anything except combine both of your ideas. It's something you both could have done without my influence." She gave an offhanded shrug, noting the growing interest on Malfoy's face as he stared at the blueprint. Had they put forth the effort to work as a team, they would have arrived at the same conclusion. "I can't guarantee it'll work. The best laid plans of mice and men—"

"Often go awry," the blond wizard finished. His eyes met hers in a steady gaze.

Hermione blinked, caught off guard, but also remembering the books in his office, as well as the ones she hadn't seen. More to him than meets the eye, indeed.

There was colour on his arm that also attested to this fact.

"Right." Clearing her throat, she turned to Harry, who also wore a pensive expression, but he was looking at Malfoy rather than the blueprint. "What do you think, Harry?"

The question seemed to snap him from his thoughts. "Oh, I think it's brilliant."

"It'll likely need adjusting, of course, as we receive more intel." Malfoy was being surprisingly reasonable. "I think Potter and I will be able to make the appropriate modifications."

It was a foundation… a good place to start.

"How much time do you have for training?" Hermione made a few adjustments, replacing the pins representing the two elite teams.

"A month, perhaps a little more. Malfoy believes the meeting will take place before the start of summer." Harry's statement was confirmed by Malfoy's nod. Hermione frowned; that wasn't a lot of time. "If we could get everyone together more than once a week, we could run drills and help the ones with the least amount of experience improve. However, we don't have the extra time, space, or—"

Hermione scoffed. "Since when have you really ever cared about any of that, or even rules?"

Malfoy made a small, snarky noise, which caused them both to shoot him matching dirty looks.

"You'll have to go about it like in Fifth Year."

"Sneaking around to train people? That's—"

"Do you have any better suggestions, Malfoy?" Hermione only tilted her head in challenge. When he folded his arms and looked away, she turned back to Harry. "I think this could work. How many people on each team?"

"Eight." Harry only shrugged when he noticed her tight grimace. "It was all we could pull together. Hestia tried to appeal for more, to pull more people in off assignment, but the Wizengamot said no. As it stands, the department is already spread thin. The Hit Wizards are at capacity as they've pulled half their ranks for Malfoy's Task Force, Magical Law Enforcement Agents are splitting their time between security for members of the Wizengamot—"

Hermione held up a hand as she drew back. "Wait, that's not their job."

The blond levelled her with a look. "Do you honestly think they give a damn, Granger?"

She knew what he was trying to say, but it was inconceivable to her. "So, they acknowledge the threat of Death Eaters and provide just enough assistance to where they can blame you both should anything bad happen, but they turn around and seek to protect themselves? Wow. That is completely—"

"Unsurprising," Malfoy drawled.

Harry agreed with a nod, then his face twisted like he couldn't believe he'd had a moment of accord with Draco Malfoy. Stranger things had already happened, but Hermione wasn't concerned with any of that right then, only her point.

"How can you do nothing about it?" She knew she sounded every bit as self-righteous as she could muster.

Rubbing the back of his neck, Harry looked uneasy. "It's a predicament, sure, but there's nothing to be done about it."

"There's plenty to be done!"

Malfoy cleared his throat. "As much as I despise the very idea of agreeing with Potter, and will never admit to doing this should anyone bring this up, but… he's right. What would you have him do? Take on the entire Wizengamot?"

Hermione shrugged. "Not the worst idea you've ever had."

"It's short-sighted, Granger, and you know it. They'll sack anyone who so much as steps a toe out of line." He cast a glance over at Harry. "I don't know about Potter here, but I'm not interested in living the rest of my life looking over my shoulder. I'd rather be on this side of the fight, where I have control. I'm not depending on someone who doesn't have a stake in this to ensure the safety of my family. So, if that means smiling in their faces, spending my own money, and working around the corruption to suit my needs and finish this job, then that's what I'll do."

Hermione most definitely didn't like it, but she resigned herself to the fact that Malfoy had a point.

In a way.

His statement tickled at the part of her brain that wanted to say a lot more—especially along the lines of the distance he kept from everyone he sought to protect—but Hermione saved that for later. A better time. Besides, Malfoy, more than any of them, would be a sitting duck if not for his current position. It gave him more than control, it gave him a say in what happened and how it would affect him. And she wondered if that had been his purpose in taking the position. Or even starting a career to begin with.

He worked for free.

"I don't completely disagree with Malfoy," Harry said after a brief silence. "I've sworn to use my position for as much good as possible. We've got forty wizards to take part in a raid that may finally end it all. That's all I can focus on right now. That and making sure I do what I need to keep everyone I care about safe. After? Maybe I'll be able to look towards the fight against corruption, but right now, this is where I am."

And no matter how much it grated her with just how unfair things were, how insane it was that they had to make that choice, Hermione wasn't self-righteous to the point where she could ignore the logic behind their position or the order of their priorities.

They were both more than their jobs.

More than childhood enemies.

They were men.

Fathers.

With a deep breath, she redirected her energy back to the forty wizards they had, no longer fretting over things beyond her control. "Okay, since we're concentrating on this, perhaps you could schedule weekly meetings with each team and use those meetings for training. With eight people per team, you both can—"

Harry interrupted first, expressionless. "You want me to train people. With Malfoy?"

"Why not?" Hermione blinked slowly, genuinely trying to figure out if she'd missed something important along the way. "He went through Auror training in France."

Grey eyes widened before he could guard his expression. Then they narrowed in deep suspicion. "Who the hell told you that?"

"A bee."

Harry chuckled, while Malfoy glared at her even harder. "Is that supposed to be a cipher? A name, Granger. I need a name."

She raised one brow in challenge. "Do you think I'm the sort that would reveal my source?" Stepping around the head of the table, she rested one hand flat against the surface.

Malfoy angled his body towards her, arms still folded as he waited impatiently for an answer she would never give.

"You say you don't want to look over your shoulder forever. What does it matter how I know you went through Auror training? I just do. I just know. Are you going to help or not?"

She held his gaze, emboldened when his glare started to recede. Still, his focus remained on her, head tilting slightly to the left, much like it had in the lift with McLaggen. What was he trying to figure out? She wasn't nervous, not even when her eyes slipped from his momentarily, down to his right foot as it tapped once against the carpet, then back up.

Finally, he clenched his jaw. "You're especially aggravating when you think you're right."

Harry snorted in agreement, which made them both look at him; he was picking his nails and only lifted his head when he felt the full weight of their eyes on him. "What? You are."

Just when Hermione was going to retort, they heard Malfoy sigh. "I'll help. Only to help increase our chances at finishing this job and only if Potter stops being a—"

"How about you both put your differences aside until this is done, yeah?"

"I can if he can," Harry said.

With that, Hermione took a step back. "Well, I'll leave it to you both to coordinate schedules. Most of your time should be dedicated to Teams D and E. If you need, I can create training manuals for them."

Malfoy's face twisted in confusion. "You aren't an Auror."

"True, but I am a fighter."

Bemusement quickly crossed his features. It was gone in an instant. "I'm increasingly baffled as to why you'd waste your time as a Healer when you're obviously good at this particular line of work. If things were different with leadership, you would get a lot more recognition doing this than what you're doing now."

Harry looked downright shocked at the backhanded compliment, but Hermione wasn't focused on why Malfoy had felt the need to acknowledge her competency, she was hung up on his blind eye to the larger moral dilemma in his statement. It wasn't the first time she'd been questioned about recognition, and it surely wouldn't be the last. Percy used to bring it up often, until he understood her reasons.

Until she explained herself.

"If I wanted recognition, I would have accepted the job offers they've sent me, but I won't because I don't. I've always wanted to make a difference, and I've learned along the way that there is more than one way to do that." She didn't try to decipher his expression because she couldn't read it. Instead, she focused on her own truth. "I worked for the Ministry for almost as long as I've been a Healer, if not longer, and I've found it more fulfilling to make a large difference on a small scale rather than to change thousands of lives in a very minimal way."

"How noble of you." Malfoy's response was dry. Aloof. Dismissive.

"That's the thing, Malfoy. I'm not being noble. I'm not being honourable. I'm just being myself."

A knock halted all conversation. They all looked when the door opened to reveal Percy, who wore a grim expression. "Apologies for the interruption, but The Chief Warlock would like to speak to you in his office."

"What does he want now?" Harry sighed. "We've answered all his questions. He's obsessed with sussing out any conspiracy against him."

Hermione furrowed her brows in curiosity, recalling her earlier conversation with his nephew.

"With power comes paranoia of losing that power." Malfoy's voice was closer than she'd expected, spoken from directly beside her.

His point was… true, but Hermione hadn't heard him move, much less realised that he was standing so close. She only felt his presence after he'd already spoken. Had she been a more jumpy person, she would have had a physical reaction, but as it was, there was only a slight uptick in her pulse, a cord of tension pulled taut.

Finally, when she couldn't stand it any longer, she looked.

"What time are we being summoned, Weasley?"

There was something about his tone that—well, whatever Hermione had been trying to figure out was lost with Percy's response.

"He doesn't want to speak to either of you this time." Blue eyes fell on her and she already knew what he was going to say next, but she braced herself for it anyway. "He'd like to speak with Hermione."

 


 

Everything about Tiberius McLaggen's office was ornate and extravagant, ornamented with gold tones and the finest décor she had ever seen in a Ministry office. It was fitting for him: a bit tacky. She stood in front of the exquisitely crafted maple desk that was decorated with trinkets and expensive clutter that served no purpose except to remind the visitor of his status. There was a small, blue, porcelain kettle with steam wafting from the spout next to two matching cups.

Hermione kept her attention on the man fully dressed in his Wizengamot regalia. Unnecessary outside of hearings and official events. He hadn't once looked up from his task since his door had opened for her admittance, calmly dipping his peacock quill in ink before scratching sounds filled the silence again. But there were little clues that gave away his true feelings, a sense of impatience that told Hermione his silence was a power play.

Unlike last time, she didn't have the advantage.

But her experience with waiting out Theo's silences had prepared her for this moment.

Hermione sat on a chair inlaid with patterned blue silk, and padded with matching damask, so close a match to his desk that Hermione wondered if it had been carved from the same wood. Keeping her body relaxed, and the air about her as poised and confident as she felt, Hermione waited. She kept her hands locked on her lap as she picked up more information from his office than she had from their entire conversation in hers.

His posturing and power plays. His attitude and almost brittle impatience. The way he made sure everyone knew who the leader was.

The fact that he was doing his own work made one thing very clear: Malfoy was right. Tiberius wasn't as in control as he wanted everyone to believe; he was scrambling to keep his position of power.

After all, a king shouldn't have to prove who he is.

Which made her want to pull him apart all the more. She took a deeper look around, paying close attention to everything, gathering information she filed away for later use. Hermione eyed the row of portraits on the wall to her left, all of whom were watching her closely. Portraits of him in various outfits and poses and backgrounds.

The arrogance of it was perversely amusing.

Tiberius worked on, flipping from parchment to parchment, appearing to sign his name over and over. She could only wonder what he was doing as she wasn't in the right position to read upside down. Pity.

When he placed his quill on the holder next to the inkwell, she knew his impatience had won out.

Hermione was ready.

"Would you care for a cup of tea, Miss Granger?"

He looked up long enough to see her politely incline her head in acceptance. His wandless magic wasn't very smooth, but he managed to pour two cups of tea before replacing the kettle on his desk. She picked up one and wrapped her hands around the warming porcelain.

The tea was dark enough to require the milk he put in his, but she refused.

"I bet you are wondering why you were summoned here today, Miss Granger."

"The thought crossed my mind once or twice." Hermione wore a fixed smile, small and anything but genuine, but she doubted he'd know sincerity even if he saw it. "I would have thought our last conversation would have set the tone and expectations of our future interactions. I don't like surprises any more than I like being summoned."

"Apologies for that. I know you're a busy woman with a new assignment that—"

"Is frankly none of your business, Chief Warlock." Hermione looked down at the liquid. "As I am admittedly quite busy, I hope you don't mind if we bypass the small talk and get straight to the purpose of your invitation."

"Yes, of course. Have you given any additional thought to my last offer?"

"No, and I won't explain myself further as I've run out of ways to say no that you will comprehend."

"Very well then, Miss Granger. That will be all. You are free to stay and enjoy your tea." Tiberius took a sip of his and dramatically placed it on the ornamental saucer. It felt like a free performance. Hermione was anything but impressed. "In the interest of you declining my offer yet again, I've been hearing louder whispers about—"

"Is this an official inquiry? Because if so, let me remind you that I'm allowed to have counsel present." She levelled him with a look. "And if this is indeed a friendly dialogue, I'll remind you that unlawful use of Veritaserum—say, outside of an official inquiry—is a violation of Article Two, Part Three, Subsection D of the Unlawful Use of Potions Act signed into law—"

"Miss Granger, I don't know what you're inferring with your statement."

"Your brew is colourless and odorless." Hermione sat the teacup on the desk. "But something I've noticed while brewing Veritaserum is that there's a slight sheen to it. Just a hint. Only noticeable if you know what to look for."

"I assure you I would never do such a thing."

"Hmm." Hermione folded her arms. "Perhaps you wouldn't, but if you were looking to find out information that you were desperate enough to bend the rules for my own greater good to obtain—perhaps that would be a risk you think you could reasonably take due to your station. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. I don't need Veritaserum to tell you what I know, which is nothing."

"You know something. I just don't know how much."

"I know a great deal of things, Chief Warlock." Hermione stood up. "I have heard the rumblings, I've heard that there are those working to end the corruption that leads right up the ladder to you. I even know you've begun questioning those who might go against you."

Tiberius looked nervous, agitated, but he didn't deny any of it.

She wondered if Percy's project was closing in on a solution.

"A word of friendly advice, Chief Warlock: pick your battles or you will end up like your predecessors." She held her hand up when he rose to his feet in anger. "It's well documented that they were more worried about the Ministry's reputation than actual security, that they abused their power to manipulate the media, and knowingly vilified the wrong people to give the facade of progress. In the end, it was their undoing."

"Miss Granger, are you threatening me?"

"No, but you should worry less about getting me under the Ministry's thumb along with Harry and Malfoy, less about me playing the role you believe I should play, and less about the push to restore power back to the Minister. Try worrying more about what's happening out there to the people you want to lead so badly. You can interview everyone you want, you can dose them all to find out whatever truths you seek, but you'll never be able to silence what is right."

Hermione started for the door, but turned around.

"Change is coming." Hermione smiled. "You can't hide from something that's already begun."

 

Time is on the side of change.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg

 

Chapter Text

 


Eight
A Silent Shout

 

 

 

Narcissa

 

May 18, 2011


Narcissa looked like a ghost trapped between two worlds.

Shrouded in darkness in the garden at five in the morning, her shadow shimmered against the grass, cast by the flickering light coming from the lone outdoor lamp, highlighted by the moon itself. Her silk white nightgown hung below her knees, the wind blowing, fluttering her gown like a silent, billowing flag. Her legs were exposed to the chill of the elements as her loose blonde curls blew around her shoulders. A robe lay forgotten around her feet.

From the sliding glass door, Hermione could see it all.

Narcissa's face was slack. Blank. Skin so pale it was almost translucent. Her eyes were milky, completely iced over, like she was not present, even in her own mind.

Hermione had been awake, thanks to early morning research and notes from her and Theo's discussion with Charles regarding possible reasons behind Narcissa's irregular readings, when the charmed parchment used to monitor her patient's vitals had started trembling—a sign of trouble.

She was in the Floo in a matter of seconds.

The sight that had greeted Hermione when she arrived was not one she had expected.

Malfoy.

He stood facing the glass door, watching his mother with his hands clasped behind his back. Dressed in his normal black attire, tall and imposing, the only thing that was off about him was something she didn't see until she approached his left:

A forming bruise on his cheek and a black eye.

But Hermione didn't spare Malfoy another glance, already retrieving her wand and a potion to sedate her patient from her charmed bag. "How long has she been there?"

"I have no idea. I found her out here when I returned home."

Ah, from his overnight work in Wales.

She doubted that he'd slept, but Hermione pushed that thought aside and dug a little deeper, her arm fully submerged in the bag as she rifled around for the last thing she needed. "And how long ago was that?"

"Thirty minutes."

"Did you try—"

"Granger, the state of my face should tell you exactly what I have and have not done." There was a sharpness, an edge to his tone that didn't land easy on her ears. It was hard to determine if there was anything beneath it because Malfoy's bruised face gave nothing away. He took a step back. "This isn't the first time this has happened, even before she became your patient. I'll leave you to do your job." When he turned to leave, one hand was still behind his back while the other—his right—went to his shoulder, gripping it as if trying to massage the tension away.

Was he hurt?

To his retreating form, Hermione repeated something she had said to him several times in the last month, much to his aggravation, which she cared little about. "I understand you don't want to be involved, but it's not just my job. It's her life and she's your mother. It would be helpful to know your side of her disease."

Malfoy didn't stop, didn't react, vanishing from sight through the paned double doors of the study next to the staircase. The drapes went down and he was gone, leaving Hermione to contend with his mother.

Hermione sighed to the empty room, braced herself, and walked out.

The predawn air was crisp; the breeze was cooler than she had anticipated, making Hermione's face and body beneath her clothes feel slightly brittle. In contrast, beneath her feet, the grass was soft once she stepped off the cobblestone in her slow approach. In the last month, there hadn't been many incidents, but enough for Hermione to learn how to handle Narcissa better. She knew to remain calm and keep her responses brief, no sudden movements, knew not to bend to pick up the robe, but use a spell—which she did.

Hermione was just about to cast a warming charm on the robe—Narcissa had to be ice cold—when the woman turned to her abruptly. Physically, she was unharmed, but her blue eyes were still vacant. Lost. Haunted. Her lips were faintly trembling. Not from a fear response, but because she was whispering something under her breath. Hermione couldn't hear.

When Narcissa blinked a few times, Hermione thought she was beginning to come out of the episode. However, the fact that she looked almost happy to see Hermione made her realise that no, she wasn't.

They were simply Healer and patient. Nothing more.

And yet, the smile on Narcissa's face was slow, familiar. Fond. "Meda."

Hermione's breath caught in her chest. She struggled to complete a simple task like form words. Every shred of logic and research in her head told her that she looked nothing like Andromeda, but that was who Narcissa saw.

An image. A mirage. A ghost from her past and a shade from her present.

She knew what to do, what she needed to say, but the urge to correct Narcissa was strong. Still, Hermione took a deep breath and went on a trip with her.

Back to a time when her life was simpler, her mind whole, and her sister was at her side.

"Cissa." Hermione kept her tone affectionate and light, trying to mimic Andromeda's speech pattern as best as she could. "Are you cold?" When she touched her bare arm, Hermione immediately realised that no, she wasn't cold at all, but impossibly warm. The only way that would be possible was with a charm.

Hermione instinctively looked over her shoulder, almost expecting a second presence.

There was none.

"It's beautiful out." Narcissa lifted her eyes to the sky, her tone light in a way Hermione had never heard her speak before. "I think I'll stay. Just a little longer."

"It'll be morning soon. You should come inside."

Narcissa lowered her head slowly. There was a look in her blue eyes that was both inviting and tinged with sadness. She touched Hermione's face with a tenderness that left her incapable of moving or speaking, left her staring into her eyes and stepping closer. Her voice trembled when she spoke. "I know you aren't real. I know you're a hallucination. Like the others."

Like the others.

The words sent a chill rippling up Hermione's spine, rooting her to the spot.

But then Narcissa's face softened, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. "But I'm glad it's you here now." Her voice lowered to a whisper. "If only to see you again."

Narcissa seemed to crumple, and Hermione had no option but to pull her close and lower them both to their knees in the grass. Narcissa's pain was loud in the morning's silence. It tugged and squeezed, carved and moulded, applying enough pressure to her fragile state until she broke and shattered under the weight of it.

Listening to her sobs was just as distressing as the knowledge that she likely wouldn't remember this episode when she woke up. Hermione stroked her hair as she trembled, placating her with soft words she truly meant despite the fact that Narcissa irritated her greatly.

" It's okay, I'm here now."

There was an ache in Hermione's chest that clawed its way up, a heaviness that kept her from being able to breathe properly. Nothing terrible, just that this memory would stick with her for days. Weeks. Months. Her stomach quivered as she pushed down the swell steadily rising in her throat.

This was the human element to an ugly and cruel disease that was unjust and painful to watch.

But also horrible to experience first-hand.

It was a cold reminder that Narcissa's entire life was changing beyond her control and there were parts of her journey that she would never remember. Like crying out for her sister. Striking her son. And gods, yes, she was the most aggravating person Hermione had ever treated, but it was her duty to be patient. To be understanding. To be kind… even when Narcissa wasn't.

And that was sobering.

Grounding.

Hermione held Narcissa until she calmed, until her grip loosened, until she had enough of a grasp on her own mind to do her job. She couldn't keep the chill from creeping further into her skin, couldn't stop her fingers from trembling as she manoeuvred until she could uncork the vial.

"Cissa, w-who else do you see?"

It was a question Hermione was scared to know the answer to, but nonetheless had to ask.

Had to know.

Narcissa lifted her head, and Hermione carefully dried her eyes with a whispered spell. The older witch's quiet confession was spoken in a tone laced with an emotion she hid so well during the day: terror. "Those I know are dead. The Dark Lord, he was here, just as real as you…"

Hermione swallowed.

Malfoy.

Distress and confusion started to work their way across Narcissa's features; what little colour was there faded fast. She knew what was next, had experienced it once before.

The combativeness. The panic. Fear.

She knew she had to act fast. "Drink this. It'll help them go away."

"You're not real. Why should I trust you?"

"Because I'm…" Hermione trailed off, staring at her patient, scrambling for reasons. She did not want to lie to Narcissa, but she also needed her to comply. "Just trust me. Please."

By some miracle, Narcissa did, accepting the vial with hands that shook hard, and bringing it to her lips. The sedative worked quickly, and soon Hermione levitated her patient back into the house and tucked her into bed.

By the time she closed Narcissa's bedroom door and asked Zippy to notify her when the older witch woke, Hermione's exhaustion was bone deep. Both physically and emotionally.

Her mind was whirring with several ideas about how to effectively utilise the Palliative Care team, who were due back at the start of next week. It might have been early on, but the last thirty days had shown Hermione that Narcissa needed monitoring around the clock, and it couldn't be done with her enchanted parchment that monitored her vitals alone. There had to be someone there, someone who could coax her back, isolate the triggers for her episodes. Help her.

One for the day and one for the night perhaps.

Hermione was still thinking about logistics when she returned to the kitchen and found Malfoy placing his daily note by Scorpius' seat.

"I assume your attempt was a success." He didn't look up, but his voice sounded as tired as she felt.

"It was." Hermione paused. "Do you plan to sleep at all?"

She had to ask because when she thought about it, more often than not, he spent his days at the Ministry and his nights in Wales canvassing with a team for a possible Death Eater hideout. Malfoy was, by definition, burning the candle at both ends… and it showed. He was beginning to look drawn, paler. His posture and face told Hermione he hadn't slept in days, if not longer.

"That's none of your concern."

Well, he sounded just as sharp as ever.

"No, I suppose it's not." Hermione went into her bag and retrieved two vials that might help him through the day—Invigoration Draught and Girding Potion. She frowned and retrieved a third for pain before placing them all on the end of the table. "One's for pain. The other two are for you. They aren't substitutes for actual rest, but you'll become a danger to everyone and yourself without some sort of aid."

Hermione would know.

She'd wound up in St. Mungo's after tempting fate too many times.

"I don't want your potions, Granger. Nor do I want your pity," Malfoy spat. So cold and devoid of warmth, it was even more unsettling than the fury that was contained within his eyes.

Hermione's fist tightened at her side before she took a deep, cleansing breath and left them on the table as a standing offer. "I don't pity you and I definitely don't envy your life. Take them or not, Malfoy, I don't care." She ran a hand through her wild curls. "I'm honestly trying to help and I don't have the energy for your attitude today. Your mother—"

"What about her?"

"She's resting and I…"

There must have been something he heard, a twinge in her tone that cooled him down. "Who did she think you were?"

Rubbing a rough hand over her cheek, Hermione sighed. "Andromeda, but I doubt she'll remember anything."

His snort was bitter, grating, derisive. "Lucky for her."

She had looked at him before, earlier, and again when she'd entered the room, but just then, Hermione took a closer look. Malfoy's eye was worse now—angry and painful, the fresh bruise had spread across his cheekbone and blended away on his right temple. The other mark on the left side of his face had been the one Malfoy had, unsuccessfully, attempted to heal. The discolouration ran from his temple to his cheek, red and swollen, standing out against his pale skin.

She felt… bad for him, for what had likely happened when he'd gone to help his mother, for what her disease was likely doing to him. Not that he would ever admit it.

And when empathy crossed her mind, Malfoy's eyes flashed, and a sudden scowl marred his injured features. "I've already said that I don't want your pity, Granger. And before you deny it, I don't need Legilimency to hear it loud and clear."

Taking a patient breath, Hermione waded through his defences as she took step after step until there was only a table between them. "Forgive me for feeling bad for you, I'll try not to. But if you take a seat, I can heal you."

"I'm fine." He didn't move.

Pursing her lips, Hermione broke eye contact and rubbed her arm first then rested her hands on her hips. She tried to remember how she spoke to all her cagey patients, but gave up trying to treat him like anyone else when he so clearly wasn't.

"You're terrible at Healing Charms, Malfoy. Just like you're probably not fine." He remained unreadable, a stoic mask if not for the small tick of his jaw. "She told me what she saw, who she thought you were. That must have been—"

"I'm not having this discussion with you of all people."

He abruptly left the room.

In the silence following his departure, Hermione frowned at the empty space he had just occupied.

That went about as well as expected.

Then she noticed two of the three potions she'd left were gone. Hermione hadn't seen him take either.

The one that remained was for pain.

 


 

Hermione went about making herself tea and breakfast in preparation to stay until Narcissa woke up. Eggs, toast with jam, and green tea were quickly made, and Hermione contemplated crafting a sensible lunch for Narcissa, who probably wouldn't even be up before then. As she sat at the island, flipping through a recipe book for ideas, she snuck glances at Zippy (as she had done every morning) while he crafted a fine breakfast for a little boy who never seemed interested.

For the first time, Hermione asked, "Why do you make Scorpius such elaborate meals?"

"It is what Mistress wants," the house-elf answered automatically, voice low and devoid of any emotion. Without prompting, Zippy added, "Mistress wishes to refine his palate."

That was absolutely ridiculous, but Hermione kept her thought to herself as she watched him seamlessly combine each ingredient with magic before cooking and plating the meal. Another snap and it floated over to where Scorpius sat each day, charmed to keep warm. Continuing on his daily routine before his return to Narcissa's room, Zippy vanished with a second snap of his fingers—a bit flummoxed when she thanked him.

Hermione wasn't alone for long.

Malfoy appeared—yes, appeared, as she never once heard his approach—in the doorway while she was placing her clean teacup back in the cupboard. Still bruised, Malfoy seemed calm and composed in that way of his. He held a folder steady in his hand. He had obviously taken the potions. His colour had returned, eyes brightened, posture straightened, he'd even had a shower and changed clothes. The only reason Hermione had been able to tell was because of the difference in the style, material, and cut of his trousers. And his hair wasn't completely dry yet. He'd abandoned his jacket for a black leather wand holster that he'd strapped to his right shoulder.

The best position for a quick draw.

Perhaps that was also the reason his glasses were tucked in the front of his shirt.

He didn't put them on until he dropped the folder on the end of the island.

"You left these."

There was no telling what was inside. In the last month, Hermione had managed to coordinate and organise her research and bought a file cabinet to keep everything in order. But she had research spread out between two houses.

"My mother's potions ingredients."

Something she had misplaced two days prior.

Before Hermione could move, Malfoy had the folder open, and as she approached, she caught sight of untidy scrawl. He'd made notes.

Lots of them. In handwriting she could hardly read.

Hermione retrieved the folder, glancing up at the impassive man who didn't move. She took a small step away and out of his bubble before allowing her attention to settle on what he'd done to her ingredients.

There were notes on her morning and afternoon potions, which looked more like suggestions than criticisms from what she could ascertain. But on her evening potions, Malfoy circled two ingredients—knotgrass and dandelion rootunderlined two more—Goat's horn and hops—multiple times, and made more illegible comments beneath that. Hermione turned her head to the side to try and decipher but came up with nothing.

"Who created the potion?"

His question made her blink twice before turning her attention to him, not at all surprised to find intensity where most people found dullness. The fact that Malfoy appeared to be waiting for an answer made her more comfortable. "I thought you didn't care to be involved."

Barely concealed irritation appeared in a flash before fading, but there was a twinge of it lingering in his tone. "And I thought that as my mother's Healer, you would be astute enough to know when something is wrong."

"Oh, I know something is wrong. I've known for weeks. The only reason you don't is because you don't care to know. Simple as—"

"Your evening potion doesn't work."

Hermione inhaled, readying her response when she paused. "Excuse me?" Single-minded, Hermione brought the parchment to her face, squinting at his notes. Merlin, was that an A or a triangle? Or a D? "Has anyone ever told you that your handwriting is utter rubbish?" Absently, Hermione waved her hand before he could argue. "Not that I understand your notes, but what makes you think—"

The words died when she felt him at her arm, looming over her shoulder like a shadow. Malfoy pointed to the two ingredients he'd circled. "How did you make the decision to use this amount of knotgrass and dandelion root?"

"I felt that snowdrop would be too harsh on her stomach and these two were recommended as replacements without diminishing the efficacy."

It didn't take a genius to know that Malfoy didn't like her answer. "Who told you that?"

"I confirmed it with several Potions Masters—"

"That's lazy and unlike you and, frankly, it annoys the hell out of me that I have to break it down this much for someone who is supposedly so bright." The final word was spat like it tasted vile in his mouth.

Hermione straightened her spine and set her shoulders. She felt herself warming from being flustered and irritated and unanchored—a state of being that, around him, was beginning to feel normal. A feeling she despised so much that the question of why he bothered her had been locked away in a box, within a larger box, inside a metal cage, behind a spelled door inside her mind.

She turned and found herself toe-to-toe with him. His solid chest was eye level, so she raised her head, looking at his strong jawline, his eyes behind the frames of his glasses, his bruises.

"As far as your mother's condition is concerned, I am limited to what I know, what I've read during research, and what I've been told. This sounds like it's outside of all three. Obviously, a gap exists that I didn't know about. You can't blame me, but you can lose the damn attitude, Malfoy, and inform me so I can help your mother."

His eyes were narrowed. "You want me to do your job for you then?"

Hermione fed him back a wide-eyed look of flaming dissent. "No, I want your help. If you've figured something out, and it sounds like you have, either speak up or get out."

"Your experts are idiots."

What made it worse was that right now, Malfoy was in her personal space criticising her work ethic, but there was the part of her brain that recognised the vague scent of mint, cedar, and something clean coming from him. She would have been perfectly sane had it smelled as horrible as he was acting.

She banished the thought immediately, gearing up to take him on.

Hermione had never made a habit of backing down.

"My experts are at the top of their field for a reason—" Hermione remembered who she was defending herself against and recoiled abruptly. Rather than retreat or struggle under the intensity he seemed to carry with ease, she turned to him completely, her brows knitted together. "Actually, I'm confused as to why I'm explaining this to you as you've expressed time and time again that you don't care about any part of your mother's treatment."

Malfoy took a step back. He dusted the invisible lint off his shirt, turning his head in such a way that made the bruises on his face look even worse. Internally, Hermione winced. Externally, she maintained the fierceness that came along with the momentum of her statement, waiting for his response.

"I don't." There was a rough edge to his voice that made the hairs on Hermione's neck stand up. "I just thought you should know, Granger, that while the ingredients are not technically incorrect, the potion is rendered ineffective by my mother's allergy to Goat's Horn."

Wait, what?

She held up the universal symbol for pause. "I'm sorry, what allergy?"

Narcissa had none listed in her file. When she'd asked, before their standoff in her office the very first day, Narcissa had made it clear that she had no allergies. The fact that there was—well, there was the anger rising in her that stemmed from the blatant disregard Narcissa had for her own health in order to keep something as petty as an allergy a secret.

Real damage could have been done.

Second, that could have been the key to everything: her irregular results and how she seemed to sharply decline in the evening. She had been practically drinking pumpkin juice as evening potions for the last month. None of the potions were effective unless all three were being taken accordingly.

Shite.

A month's worth of work never happened, just like that.

Hermione's mood further soured. Tightened. She shut the folder, placed it on the granite island, and repeated herself one last time. "What allergy?"

Malfoy's expression shifted to something between a glower and a smirk, his eyes still hard. If at all possible, he stood taller. "I'm not surprised she didn't tell you. She scarcely remembers it herself, but it's not lethal. Goat's Horn has magical properties that don't work on her, which essentially neutralises your evening potions…and likely all the others as well." There was a hint of something lurking underneath each word, each breath, that seemed to take pride in flexing his knowledge.

Pride in knowing something no one else knew.

And how did she know that?

Well, she recognised it in herself. "When did you figure this out?"

"Last night before my Portkey to Wales. I found your ingredients list the day before and took a look. It wasn't hard to figure out the problem in her potions from there."

"Because she's your mother and you know these things."

"No, because I consult myself and my own knowledge when I want to figure something out. Not so-called experts," Malfoy snapped, but his tone was less caustic and more… Hermione wasn't actually certain. "There are several alternatives that would serve as a replacement, but based on the other ingredients, you should add more arka and dandelion root. I've included the amounts on the parchment." There was a pause as she scanned the parchment. He made no apologies for his poor handwriting. "Furthermore, you don't need hops in there at all. It's useless, not at all the binding agent you and your experts seem to think it is. Might I suggest something common like shellac."

Hermione was speechless.

Malfoy had obviously put more thought into it than he would ever confess. Still, it was probably the most she'd heard him speak about anything concerning his mother's treatment.

A step forward.

Change?

He was open. However accidental that had been, and Hermione forced back that giddy part of her that wanted to ask him a million things now that he seemed to be in a talkative mood. She kept her tone fixed with that undercurrent of irritation she almost always felt about and around his mother. And him.

"How did you find out about her allergy?"

"The ingredient was in a vanity potion of hers t—" Malfoy suddenly remembered himself, their proximity, and who he was speaking to, all but reaching out and snatching back the words he had spoken.

One step forward, two steps back.

After clearing his throat, Malfoy fixed his tie and ran a quick hand down the front of his shirt before taking yet another step back. Hermione allowed herself to follow each step as he closed himself up before he said anything else unintentional, frowning at herself for not asking a better question while she had the opportunity.

"What does it matter how I know, Granger? Now you do. Also, you have your parchment and your solution. Brew the potion with those suggestions and it should work."

"Fine." She waited for him to say something else, but he didn't, long gone back into his fortress with high walls. "Thank you for your help, however reluctant."

"I'm just trying not to get punched again."

Hermione frowned. "How many times has something like that happened?"

"Enough." Well, that was that. Conversation over. "Additionally, I found your potions book and left it upstairs in your designated area."

"I'll need it to brew, along with the parchment, of course."

His eyebrow lifted above his glasses. "You brew with books?"

"Yes."

"Because you're unfamiliar with the potion?"

Hermione folded her arms across her chest, feeling suddenly odd. "I brew with books, and even parchment, no matter how many times I have created the potion. It's necessary for error-proof potions making."

Malfoy looked like someone with weighted opinions. "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why books or parchment? Why do you need directions when you already know what you're doing—especially when you've made a particular potion before?"

"Why does it matter, Malfoy?" She found herself on the defence. "The potion is brewed correctly."

He brought his hand to his chin and made a small hmm noise before pulling his wand from his holster and summoning a single vial of his mother's potions. The colour told Hermione that it was her afternoon dose. Malfoy caught it effortlessly while re-holstering his wand.

For a second, Hermione was torn between watching his visual inspection of her work and just watching him. But she quickly settled into some twisted hybrid of the two that had her watching every motion of Malfoy's hands, every movement of his eyes. She took the same breath he did when he uncorked the potion and took a small whiff.

Evaluating him in some foolish mission to figure out why his actions didn't match his behaviour, she couldn't look away.

"Each week, I've looked at the potions you leave for my mother. Admittedly, your potions appear correct and the quality is quite good, given the lack of imagination." That made her bristle. "They are… better than some Apothecaries." He didn't look exactly thrilled about having to compliment her, however backhanded. Hermione raised an eyebrow in challenge. "Although, it could be better."

She didn't take criticism well. Not unusual, but his burned. "You already admitted that my potions are brewed correctly, that they are better than some Apothecaries. How could they possibly be better?"

"If you experimented, they could be, but you obviously don't." An echo of the boy he'd once been coloured the deep timbre of his voice. "Something I find very strange."

"And why's that?"

"I remember you differently."

Just like that, the flames of her anger were extinguished.

Hermione blinked at him in naked confusion she didn't bother to hide.

Apparently, he was feeling particularly loquacious and challenging; his step forward was as confident as her step back was defensive. "You've always annoyingly had the right answers. The Room of Requirement. Protean coins. Umbridge. The dragon at Gringotts. Your house-elf agenda. I'm certain there's more that you, Potter, and Weasley have managed to hide from the world, but as it stands right now, people will follow, should you ever choose to lead."

"I have no interest in that."

"So I recall." Malfoy's scrutiny was heavy, like a lead weight, his voice low as though he didn't want anyone else to overhear the conversation, which was ridiculous because they were alone. "Not only have you changed careers, you also don't experiment. Not so daring anymore, are you?"

Her fingers curled into a fist.

At her lack of immediate response, he probed harder, unreadable eyes searching hers for what seemed like years in a matter of seconds. It wasn't the first time she'd heard those words, but coming from Malfoy, coupled with her exhaustion from Narcissa, they made her wilt. She no longer wanted to engage. An involuntary flinch made Hermione look away and stall for time or something witty to say before she left, but she came up empty-handed on all fronts.

She hadn't retreated from any of their previous conversations in the last month—Malfoy seemed to be the master of dramatic exits—but there was a first time for everything. Still, Hermione kept her calm as she picked up her folder.

"I'm going to check on your mother." She passed him on her way out, resolved to wait in Narcissa's sitting area until she—

"Interesting," his voice rang out in the silence. "For the last month, this is all I had to say to shut you up."

Hermione took a hard breath, knowing he was only saying that to get a rise out of her. She wouldn't take the bait.

"I'm as tired as you pretend not to be." Hermione turned around, using a last flare of energy to make her final point. Malfoy's arrogance had diminished into a grimace. "Don't underestimate me, Malfoy. I'm still quite daring, but I don't expend energy to experiment unless I absolutely have to. Until I have a reason. And right now, I don't. Also, you speak of who I was when the only reason I did any of it was because it was right and also I did it all to help Harry. My job is done in that aspect."

"Perhaps, but you're a Healer now. I should think that improving the potions you provide your patients warrants experimentation."

"The potions work. Or they would have. Your mother's undisclosed allergy is the cause of all this, but that doesn't negate anything else. When that's fixed, they will work. Why would I try to fix something that isn't broken?"

"Just because something isn't broken doesn't mean you've achieved optimal results. How would you even know? You haven't experimented enough to ascertain if something is broken or not. I believe knowledge is about the pursuit of truth, rather than convenient applications. There is always room for improvement."

"That can be said about people as well."

He flinched, and it was more dramatic with the bruising on his face, but he recovered quickly. "Ah, yes. People." His drawl made her tense, made her want her wand in her hand, but she squeezed her empty fist tighter. "You think you know us all so well, don't you?"

"One could argue with your assessment of my character that you're the same way."

Malfoy scoffed. "Don't waste my time with the 'we're so alike' bullshit. We're not."

"I never said we're alike. I—"

"For the last month, I've listened to your rhetoric. Your opinions about different topics, your deep-seated wish to make the world a better place one person, one interaction at a time. It's all bullshit, idealistic, but I'll bite. On the original subject of experimentation, how can you strive for a better world when you won't experiment? When you won't let yourself try something new? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."

His words lit a fire inside of Hermione, a call to arms to defend herself. All thoughts of abandoning the conversation vanished like smoke in the breeze.

She readied herself.

"First, I don't expect different results. I expect the correct ones."

Malfoy folded his arms.

"Second, it's not all bullshit—"

"People aren't wired to care about anyone except themselves, their inner circle of family and friends, and anyone that serves a purpose to them. Humans are inherently self-centred, greedy, and self-seeking. Every single thing we do, we do in order to serve the interest of our own."

She took a step towards him. "People are not inherently anything but human, however your pessimism doesn't surprise me."

"I'm a realist, Granger, and you may say all the right things, but you're no different than anyone. Your work seems like altruism when you're driven by your desire to feel good about yourself, to look good in the eyes of others, and to remain consistent with your principles. Your selfishness may take a different form, but in the end, you're just like everyone else."

"You have no idea who I am. Or the work I do."

His expression didn't change, but she detected a flash of something in his eyes. "I know enough about your work. Perhaps not about anything else, but your 'make a larger impact on a smaller scale' view is flawed by your behaviour. In order to incite the change you talk about, you have to be willing to make alterations and modifications to existing solutions. You have to keep pushing. You can't be as complacent as you are, dependent on your existing knowledge."

Hermione shifted her weight from foot to foot. "You quoted Einstein before when you said—"

"Your bias is showing." Malfoy looked more annoyed than disappointed.

She huffed, not in anger, but because Hermione found herself flustered and it aggravated the hell out of her. "No, it's not. As I was saying, if you want to quote Einstein, he also said that problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them. You think my beliefs are bullshit, but you haven't expressed your own on the matter."

"You don't care to hear my views."

"I wouldn't have said anything if I didn't." She approached him slowly, like one would a wild cat, his eyes heavy on her, tensing more and more with each step she took. But Malfoy didn't back away, didn't back down. Not even when she stood right in front of him. "It's so easy to criticise when you do nothing."

"So we should all be like you, then? Solving the world's problems one at a time?"

With a curt frown, he folded his arms across his chest, and for a second, Hermione's eyes drifted to the sleeve of his shirt, remembering the splashes of colour her curiosity wouldn't let her forget. Malfoy abruptly dropped his arms in a move that drew her attention back to him. Back to his statement.

"I'm not surprised you've misinterpreted my statement. We cannot solve the world's problems. I've never once put that responsibility on my shoulders. I'm only one person. As are you. I merely said that I'd rather make significant changes on a smaller scale. They're more impactful that way. And change always ripples out. Furthermore, I believe it's our duty as humans to leave this world better than we found it, however we can, and that's what I intend to do. In my own way. Starting here."

Hermione lifted up on the tips of her toes and whispered a Healing Charm.

Malfoy braced one hand on the granite and inhaled sharply, probably to argue, but his words were dead on arrival. Hermione worked, her fingers hovering over his healing skin as she murmured another spell, but the weight of his gaze remained heavy. Piercing. Hard to ignore. Hard to decipher.

But tension seemed to bleed from him as the magic took hold, as the pain he'd never confess to feeling began to recede.

Seconds passed, but felt far longer, before his bruises completely faded, healed, and vanished into nothing except flawless skin.

"That is how I am wired," she said in a near whisper as she lowered herself back until the soles of her shoes touched the wooden floor again.

His eyes followed her action. Followed her.

They exhaled simultaneously. Hermione felt strange and untethered, but not disoriented enough to stop her from making her point.

"I'm not perfectly altruistic, but I am wired to care about people. I'm wired to help any and everyone I can, even you. And for someone who doesn't give a damn, you've obviously put a lot of thought into my character."

That seemed to wake him from his trance. His eyes hardened. "Just as I assume you having these daily discussions with me are to determine mine. Have you got your answers yet?"

"No."

He was so cagey, so defensive; it would take a thousand conversations to understand him and more energy than she had time to expend. Malfoy gave her an odd look before checking his watch. Hermione glanced at the clock behind him.

It was just past seven.

Time for him to leave.

With just enough time to be gone before Narcissa's normal arrival, though today she'd be having a lie in.

But Scorpius…

Malfoy didn't say goodbye, he never did, he simply sidestepped her on his way out. The only difference today was the fact that he repeatedly ran a rough hand through his hair, messing it up, then shook his head as he approached the threshold of the kitchen that would lead him in the direction of his office to Floo into work. He was off to continue his schedule, working a job he never got paid for, while she remained to do hers—all the while noticing the little things that weren't her business, but kept the flames of her curiosity flickering.

One in particular?

"Scorpius looks for you every morning without fail."

Malfoy paused just inside the arch of the doorway. She could see the wave of tension in the rise and fall of his shoulders, the flex of his hands, the rigid line of his posture. His audible breath.

"I thought you should know."

He continued on.

 


 

Hermione considered being there when Narcissa woke, but she wasn't.

She needed the rest.

As did the staff.

After deciphering Malfoy's handwriting, researching alternatives all morning in her office, and checking everything over with her experts first—who seemed impressed by Malfoy's suggestions—Hermione reached out to Neville to see if he had the herbs in his greenhouse. He did, thankfully, already dried.

Perfect.

From there, Hermione fed the chickens table scraps and took her frustration out on the weeds in her herb garden. She watered everything in the greenhouse and made notes on how the arka plant was growing for Neville. It had grown. Not much, but just enough. With mostly everything done, Hermione treated herself to an early lunch and a book when she found herself hungry just before eleven.

But after finishing her sandwich and two chapters, that mounting frustration returned, distracting her to the point where she was reading pages twice. Which was how she found herself in her brewing room with a trusty book on the stand, making a batch of the evening potion for Narcissa.

Pretty soon, everything was chopped, diced, minced, sorted, and added with flicks of her wrist into the bubbling cauldron. The flames were low, just like they should be. Everything just as Malfoy had directed in the horrid handwriting she was beginning to decode. Perfect.

It took Hermione a little longer than usual to focus. A little longer to settle. More effort to clear her mind. Brewing was as difficult as it could be calming, but today Hermione found herself agitated.

It probably had something to do with the earworm that stuck with her from her conversation with Malfoy.

It wasn't that she couldn't brew without books—she could—but there was comfort in the action, in the routine. She always set a text up on the stand, flipped to the right page, and started from the beginning, looking on as she went. There was familiarity in the habit.

Hermione wasn't exactly passionate about potions or cooking. Despite having a room dedicated to each craft, she cooked and brewed potions mainly for others. But the joy she got in it wasn't just the fact that she could help them, it had to do with the residual part of the child in her that loved the act of following directions. Hermione liked the order in it, the stability; she liked the process of making something that, in truth, didn't require a lot of talent to produce.

And the bit about not experimenting?

Well.

There was no need for any other project. Everything had worked as it should through an extensive amount of research and the consultation of experts. It made no sense to change something that had been proven to work. No need to change the written word.

That went for Narcissa's case, as well.

The readjustment to her evening potion had taken little effort—just a tweak.

Right now, the brew looked as he'd described on the corners of the parchment.

What did he want her to do? Adjust the entire thing? That made no sense. Banishing the thought to the corner of her mind, Hermione inhaled and exhaled before allowing his words to roll off her shoulders into a heap around her feet. Then, she did things her way.

The proper amount of time passed before the potion exuded its faint purple smoke, indicating completion. And after bottling it into seven vials, a glance at the wall made her frown. It was nearly one.

Narcissa should be up soon.

And they needed to talk.

That mood followed her back into Malfoy's residence, where she stocked the new evening potions and disposed of the old ones. When Hermione went to check on Narcissa, Zippy was stationed outside her door. Watchful. "Has she woken up?"

"Mistress continues to sleep peacefully."

"Please get me when she wakes? And if she isn't up in an hour, please come get me anyway. I'll be around here."

"Yes, Miss."

With a friendly nod at the house-elf who seemed eager to follow her command, she left the way she'd entered, walking through Narcissa's private sitting area. The room was decorated in her ornate traditional style—the only part of the house embellished in such a manner, a symbol of the room being strictly hers.

Like Malfoy's office.

Hermione had options to pass the time. She had research to review and notes to continue drafting on her day to day care for Narcissa's case study. There was a smaller study upstairs, right next door to where Scorpius' tutor conducted lessons, which had been cleared after that disastrous first day. Hermione was headed there when she spotted something strange in the living room.

Someone who had drifted off-course from his schedule.

Scorpius.

Standing by the glass door, with his back to her as he stared out into the empty garden, he pressed one hand on the glass that was sure to leave a smudge for Zippy to clean.

It was probably the loneliest sight Hermione had ever seen.

After backing away, she went on the hunt for his nanny; Scorpius' location didn't quite line up with his schedule she had all but learned. Hermione found Catherine in the library where his tutoring sessions took place with the tutor himself. She was helping him tune a stubborn piano for music lessons.

Hermione asked if either of them had noticed that their pupil had left.

"It's fine. I'll find him when we're ready to get started."

It sounded like something she had done before, something she had great experience with.

"Oh, I know where he is." The tutor pressed a key on the piano and, though not musically inclined, it still sounded wrong to Hermione's ear.

"Can you keep an eye on him until we finish?"

Hermione almost said something much different from her actual response, which was, "Of course."

When she returned, she found Scorpius in the same place, his hand still on the glass. What he was looking at or for, Hermione had no idea. She stood next to him to see if she could figure it out, but all she did was alert him to her presence.

He looked up at her. Not startled or scared. Just blank.

Staring had been their default for the last month. He did it at breakfast and the occasional lunch when Narcissa would request his presence. Scorpius looked on as she asked Narcissa her battery of questions—something she tried not to do in his presence, but Narcissa didn't especially care.

It was innocent really, if a little unnerving, but it changed when Hermione started moving his glass of juice from his right to his left. The original reason had been so he would stop accidentally reaching for Narcissa's, but after that day Scorpius began watching her differently.

It was hard to explain.

His routine was set in stone. Whenever he entered the kitchen, he would look around for his father, then after his spell of disappointment, his eyes would fall on her. Only her. And he would watch Hermione through his grandmother's initial directions to the point where she was certain if tested, he would never remember what she'd said. Scorpius would watch her through breakfast, but wouldn't touch his juice until she moved it from the right to left. And after a few days of that, he even started looking back at her whenever he was sent to lessons.

The first time Hermione waved, he'd nearly walked into a wall.

Her second instinct had been to chuckle, which was quickly overridden by her first: to make sure he was okay. But Scorpius just blushed and walked away.

She didn't hear Narcissa's first comment about his behaviour, but she had heard her aggravated sigh.

" That boy."

Today was different. And it likely had to do with his appearance when and where he shouldn't have been. Scorpius stared at her for long enough that Hermione started a conversation to break the silence.

"Do you want to go outside?"

It was overcast, breezy, and would probably rain soon, but perhaps it would hold out long enough for Scorpius to get the fresh air he likely needed. The nod he gave in response was as hesitant as expected. That uncertainty extended even after she opened the door, allowing a gust of wind to blow his hair askance. In fact, Hermione had to walk out first before he tentatively followed.

"Feels good, yes?"

Scorpius didn't agree and it wasn't more than a few wind gusts later that Hermione followed him back inside where he sat in front of the window, fixed his hair, and watched. He was more content to observe rather than experience the weather for himself. At least the wind. Odd for a child his age, but it made sense in a way.

Having nothing better to do, Hermione joined him, folding her legs comfortably. Just like his.

As it turned out, the rain didn't stay away. Darkening clouds continued to roll in, and soon droplets hit the glass pane in a slow, rhythmic beat that quickened as the storm barrelled overhead. Hermione glanced over at Scorpius and found him looking at her curiously.

A soft smile developed where none had been before. "You really remind me of your dad. Only you don't scowl as much as he did."

If at all possible, Scorpius perked up, scooting closer to her, eager to hear more.

About his father.

Hermione's heart skipped a beat, and she suddenly felt a bit lightheaded. "Your dad… you want to know more about him?"

Scorpius nodded, jittery in the way children got when they were stifling excitement.

Dread rose in her chest as she rubbed the back of her neck, patting down her frizz with several strokes. Hermione struggled to find the words.

What could she tell Scorpius Malfoy about his father?

In school, he had been a spoiled bully, a bigot, an ignorant blood purist who was intolerant and manipulative and believed himself better than everyone else. Malfoy had been his father's son. But everything couldn't be blamed on his parents. Malfoy had made bad choices, done awful things, and—Kingsley's words came roaring back.

Words that reminded her that, while Draco Malfoy had been all of those terrible things, she didn't have the right to judge him. Not at face value, not at all.

Not when he was trying to atone.

In his own way.

Though vastly different, Hermione had made choices for which she sought a similar version of atonement with her parents. Being on the winning side of the war hadn't justified every single one of her actions, just like him being on the losing side didn't deem him eternally a villain incapable of change.

It just made them both human. Two sides of the same coin. Capable of great and terrible things.

It wasn't her place to determine what he deserved, but in that moment, it wasn't about Malfoy.

It was about Scorpius.

But it definitely wasn't ideal to give him a true account of the person his father had been, even as she sought answers to determine who he was now. The pieces she had of Draco Malfoy's life made little sense—the notes he left and the distance he kept, the time he'd invested to figuring out the problem with his mother's potions and his overall apathy towards her disease—but something Hermione did know was that he had changed.

And perhaps Scorpius deserved to know this version of his father.

She knew it wasn't her place to tell him anything, but the open curiosity on his adorable face made Hermione try to find something she could say.

"Your dad and I… Well, we weren't friends. I don't know him that well, but what I do know is that he's smart and is good at fixing things." The more she spoke, the easier it got. Somewhat. "He was good at flying. He played Quidditch—" Scorpius tilted his head to the side like a confused baby owl. "Ah, you don't know Quidditch. Neither do I, but—" Maybe one day Malfoy would teach him. Hermione cleared her throat. "Your dad was great at potions. Still is, it seems."

None of it was a lie, even if the truth was far more complex than the washed down version she gave.

Scorpius hung on her every word, cheeks flushed pink as if he were holding his breath.

He wanted to know him.

The sight of his curiosity made Hermione's heart squeeze tightly in her chest. She found herself grappling through the files in her mind just so she could help him. "H-he likes reading the paper and crosswords puzzles. He swims. He sets your place at the table every day and puts your note there himself."

That made him freeze before producing not just one note, but a small handful, from the pocket of his trousers, dropping some like most kids did when they tried to grab too many things for their little hands. What spilled from his pockets represented days and days of notes. Notes that Scorpius kept close as he tried to decipher his father from words too illegible for him to read.

There was a sad sort of irony that Hermione couldn't help but notice.

Couldn't help but feel the ache in her head and heart.

What she'd told him wasn't much, but from the way his attention went from her to the notes, maybe it was enough.

For now.

One by one, after looking at each note and trying to decipher it, Scorpius returned them to his pocket that was clearly charmed to hold the sheer volume of notes he kept there. He then returned to watching the storm, getting up and standing in front of the window, just as she had found him before.

He seemed contemplative and stoic in a way that made him look older than five.

As though life had dealt him a bad hand—maybe quite a few—but he was bearing it.

Even the way Scorpius held himself, like his father with both hands behind his back, made her feel both amused and sad. It was a strange mix that hurt because she could see that beneath it all, everything about him spoke of anguish. And melancholy.

A roll of thunder and a flash of lightning came and went, but he didn't flinch. His focus was on the raindrops that slid down the glass, distorting the world outside, raindrops that he'd begun randomly tracing the trail of with a small finger. As she watched him, a question was called from the recesses of her mind. Hermione had no idea why she even asked it or where the question had come from, but in the silence between them, as the rain fell, the wind gusted, and lightning crackled overhead, a quiet question floated from her mouth to his ears.

" Are you okay?"

She immediately felt the bottom drop out of her heart when Scorpius tensed then fell apart right before her eyes.

He flinched as if her words had physically struck him, the hand still behind him curling into a small fist. The action tugged hard on every heartstring Hermione had and a familiar tightness returned. Only more intense.

She heard Scorpius take a sharp breath before he rested his head on the cool glass. It only lasted a moment before he took a step back, wrapped his small hands around his stomach, and curled in on himself as though he needed protection and the only place he could find it was… in himself.

Hermione moved on instinct rather than logic, placing a gentle, encouraging hand on his shoulder. He sidestepped. His message was clear.

Don't touch. Keep away.

And she listened, but remained close, helpless, hating that she'd unearthed his pain with one question. Scorpius' cheeks reddened as he turned his back to her completely, taking ragged breath after breath as if he were struggling for air.

Trying to keep something in that desperately wanted out.

"It's… it's okay to not be okay."

No, Scorpius didn't make much noise, his hurt remained silent, but his pain?

That was loud, vivid, and honest.

It shook Hermione to the core.

He lifted his head, staring at the ceiling as he struggled on, fighting it, breathing so loud it was deafening. Like the storm outside, the one in front of her was a force of nature all its own.

Scorpius was all Hermione could hear. His devastation was all she could feel.

But slowly, he began to realise that he wasn't alone. That she was there. And he seemed to retreat further. Deeper. Fixing his face brick by brick. Getting his breathing under control. Scorpius did everything except cry.

And she hated that somewhere along the line, he had been taught to control himself to that extent.

Hermione crawled to him, putting herself back in his line of sight—face to face. She had no idea what to say or what to do. But she knew she had to do something before he closed up again. Hermione didn't touch him, but she tried her best and offered some comfort.

A word.

The only one she could muster.

His name.

"Scorpius."

Whatever progress he'd made crumpled with the quivering of his lip. The forming tears in his eyes were scrubbed away too hard with small hands he then used to cover his face. Scorpius staggered back as if unmoored. And all Hermione could do was try to pull him back with words.

"Can I help?"

Gods, her hands were shaking so bad with her overwhelming urge to help him, to reach for him, to give a hurting child the comfort he so desperately needed. But the look he gave her haunted Hermione long after he calmed himself down enough to leave.

A look that said one thing.

No, she couldn't help.

He had been quiet for too long.

 


 

Ginny eyed the pie Hermione offered with the same suspicion she reserved for James whenever he tried to blame Albus and Lily for something they clearly hadn't done. Hermione held her breath until she accepted the offer. Because really, who would turn down a pie?

Blueberry especially.

It was Lily's favourite.

But acceptance didn't smooth her furrowed brows or remove that pinched expression from her face—the look that meant Hermione wasn't sure if Ginny was going to hold on for a meaningful lecture or let it go until next time.

In truth, she didn't know which would be worse.

"You only bake dessert under duress or for someone's birthday." Ginny looked to her right at the second bag. "It's no one's birthday and you've baked two pies. What the hell happened to you today?"

Actually, she'd made three, but Hermione kept that bit of information to herself.

"I made that for Daphne. She loves pie." Hermione cleared her throat. "Where are the kids?"

"Nice diversion attempt, but I'll allow it. James is upstairs finishing his homework." She stopped and yelled for him to come down because Hermione was there. She could hear immediate movement. "Lily's with my parents, and Albus is out with Harry. He needed a break." Ginny sighed and joined her at the table. "School was rough today. He came home in tears and he's still eating lunch alone."

Hermione hated to hear that. Al was so kind and generous, but he never knew what to say to the other children. He'd get so excited that he'd just freeze up, sort of like stage fright. The children avoided him, called him names, and—well, he needed a friend who understood him.

"I know it's not my weekend, but if you—"

"Oh no, we couldn't." Ginny waved her off. "Harry took him to dinner and they're going to the Planetarium."

Albus loved the stars.

"Still, I wouldn't mind." Thoughts of another little boy's pain and loneliness swelled and swirled in her memory, then receded, before coming back harder—like the tide. With it, Hermione felt the first signs of the emotional blowback from the afternoon rise in her chest. She felt tightness behind her eyes that matched the one in her chest and blinked furiously to prevent any tears from falling. Her thumbnail dug into her hand—hard. "It'd be nice to see him."

Ginny said nothing at first, then leaned forward, placing her hand over Hermione's locked fingers, trying to catch her eye.

Hermione looked past her friend to where another redhead entered the room. "Hi James!" she greeted him with a bright smile that quickly hollowed out.

At seven, James wasn't a hugger, never had been. He was more inclined to run or complain his way through one, but there must have been something on Hermione's face that made him approach with a tentativeness she had never seen before. Something that made him pause at her side…

Then wrap his arms around her.

The hug didn't last long, just a few seconds, but it helped.

Having no idea how much she needed that, James hopped over to Ginny's side with a wide smile. Too wide. Like a Cheshire cat. "Muuuuum…"

Already knowing what he wanted, Ginny gave him a long look. "Did you finish your assignments?"

"Yes!"

"Go get your shoes on and I'll take you over to the Burr—" With a whoop, he ran back out, and seconds later, they both heard him stomping around upstairs. Ginny chuckled to herself and Hermione couldn't help but join in. "George is doing fireworks at the Burrow. Angelina's in town. You should come. Take your mind off whatever it is that's troubling you."

"It'll just be back tomorrow." Hermione knew her smile was tight as she stared at her friend across the table.

"You never did say what happened today."

Hermione took a deep breath. "Not what, who."

Ginny's eyebrow lifted. "Malfoys'?"

"Yes, but no. The smallest one is…" Hermione was at a loss for words. "Ginny."

"Oh." Whatever her friend knew about the Malfoys' situation seemed to settle in. "Oh… how long has it been? Six months?" Ginny winced, knowing too much about loss. "Not a lot of time. Not for any of them, even Malfoy."

Hermione frowned. "From what I've gathered, it wasn't a marriage of love. Just duty."

"Doesn't change the fact that he lost someone, too."

The words stuck to her like a second skin, a film that no amount of scrubbing could cleanse, they settled and made her itch with irritation. Made her oddly restless.

It was one thing to think of Draco Malfoy as father and son, but another to remind herself that he was in fact a widower. That he'd lost someone, as well. His attitude certainly never served as a cue… he never acted like someone who was in mourning.

But that wasn't fair of her.

How could anyone tell someone how to grieve?

Much less someone like Draco Malfoy whose pride and defensiveness had made him hard pressed to ask for help in its simplest form. Even when he needed it.

Especially then.

Her thoughts made her decline Ginny's invitation a second time and brought her to her next destination: Dean and Daphne's. When Hermione showed up at their doorstep after dark, Dean took one look at her face, then at what she was holding, and stepped aside.

"Daph! Hermione's here! Looks like she's brought a pie!"

The pregnant woman practically materialised at the top of the stairs. "Oh! What kind?" They locked eyes and knowing expressions passed between them. "Dean can you—"

"Ron's invited me to the Burrow for fireworks, remember? But you said you wanted me—"

"To work on the nursery, yes yes, but now you can go." Daphne had already started down the stairs, one hand on the railing and the other cradling her ever-growing belly. She was in her eighth month and starting to waddle, which was how she walked over to her husband, kissing him soundly before shooing him off.

Dean left before she could change her mind and put him back to work, but not before he looked back. "Want me to bring anything home?"

"We're out of crisps. You ate them all."

They all knew that was a lie, but Dean just smiled. "Sure thing. Sorry, love."

"The cheese ones, please."

He just chuckled, nodded fondly, and left them alone in the foyer.

"Smells fresh." Daphne accepted the pie with a raised eyebrow.

"It is." Before she could ask, Hermione told her the flavour. "Blueberry."

"One of my favourites."

That was a ticket, because Daphne led the way to their living room, where Hermione took off her shoes and settled on the smaller of the two sofas, waiting while Daphne grabbed two forks. They ate in companionable silence. Daphne used her baby bump to balance the pie. They were halfway finished when the blonde held the fork to her lips, and handed the pie off to Hermione.

Not that she was finished, but she clearly had something to say.

"As much as I love your pie, I know you didn't bake one just to come here and share it with me. You hardly like baking at all, unless it's someone's birthday or you're agitated." Daphne reached over and scooped up another bite. "You look like the latter. What happened?" When Hermione said nothing, Daphne sighed. "Obviously something happened, so don't lie."

"Just a long day."

"How is he?"

The he she was referring to was obvious. Ginny had asked her the same question, but for some reason honesty came easier with Daphne. Likely because she knew. Because she had experienced Scorpius' pain for herself. The father and son weren't the only ones who had lost someone.

"I…" Hermione exhaled a rough breath. "I've spent the hours it took to prepare and bake this pie from scratch wondering how someone so small can feel so much. It's…"

Mind-boggling.

Heartbreaking.

Crippling.

Watching him stumble towards the edge of falling apart only to fight and claw his way back was a different kind of pain, more than unbearable. And worse, watching Scorpius compose himself as if it were a practised act made her nauseous.

Long after he had left, Hermione had struggled to stay within the boundaries she'd set up when she'd started working as Narcissa's Healer. Struggled to hold on to the belief, the idea, the fucking delusion that she could keep to the outside of the Malfoy family's storm.

Honestly, she hadn't done a good job.

Hermione had stood outside the library earlier and listened to Scorpius struggle through music lessons, cringing as his nanny gently corrected him over and over until it was time for him to move on to another subject: dead languages. And he seemed to struggle through that as well with the way his tutor kept having to tell him to focus. Pay attention. Hermione had only just been able to pull herself away.

But that knowing discomfort lingered, whispering the truth that she preferred to ignore because it really wasn't her place.

As Malfoy liked to remind her, she had one patient, and Narcissa was it.

But was it?

The random question made Hermione remove herself completely—not only from the room, but the Malfoys' home. She'd let Zippy handle Narcissa's meals for the rest of the day, went home, pulled weeds, chased the chickens, reorganised her cupboards, and aggressively made three pies.

The third one would be a gift for Scorpius' nanny.

"I went over earlier, apparently right after you'd left." Daphne didn't look especially thrilled about the visit. "I didn't stay long. He was not having a good day."

Of course not. Hermione bit her lip before asking, "Did he look at you?"

"No."

They continued eating the pie with new vigour, but Hermione could no longer taste the sweetness of the fruit or the richness of the crust. It tasted like nothing. Daphne must have felt the same way; they stopped eating almost simultaneously.

Hermione put the pie on the table and it wasn't long before she ran a hand through her hair. Daphne did something very similar, looking past her at the blank wall over her head. She grabbed Hermione's hand and held on without questioning any further.

Honestly, she thought that Daphne would be the first to crack, but in the end, it was her own frustration and heavy emotions that outweighed everything else.

"I'm frustrated," Hermione confessed abruptly. "And I'm not certain I'll be able to remain objective."

"With Narcissa?"

"No, Scorpius." Hermione sucked in a deep breath while Daphne watched her with an unreadable expression. She exhaled until she had nothing left. "I'm not always clinical, you know. I do have a heart. I'm not impervious. I'm not blind nor am I deaf to a child who is crying out for help. I have tried to keep my distance. Gods, I've watched this play out for an entire month, but I don't know how long I'll be able to ignore what's so blatantly happening in front of me. How don't they see?"

"Draco is too busy to see. Too distracted trying to atone for his sins and fix… well, everything to protect his family. Too overwhelmed by everything that's happened and everything that's coming at him incredibly fast." Which was an excuse, but also a reality. Hermione didn't know whether to empathise or criticise. So she did neither, continuing to listen. "And Narcissa doesn't want to see. She's willfully ignorant to the fact that she's turning him into Draco. Blessedly, not who he was when he was a child, but who he is now."

"Apathetic? Pessimistic? Frustrating? Disconnected?" The list went on and on, but Hermione left it at that.

"Ah yes, all of that." Daphne shook her head. "But moreover… lonely."

"How is Malfoy lonely? He has you all in whatever capacity he needs. He has Scorpius who carries around weeks worth of letters that are completely illegible to him, but does so because he's desperate to know his father." Hermione took a breath, rubbing her hand across her forehead. "How I see it, this is by choice: the distance he keeps and the loneliness you say he feels. He's only lonely because he chooses to be."

For just for a moment, Daphne fell silent. "It's not an excuse, that's just all he knows."

 

In solitude the lonely man is eaten up by himself, among crowds by the many.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapter Text

 

 

 


Nine
Let The Wild Rumpus Start!

 

May 20, 2011


Bridges.

When Hermione spared herself a moment to consider them, she realised how strange they were. Outside of exquisite architecture and meticulous buildings, bridges were a contraption of metal and wood, wire and thick rope, built to link places, people, and worlds together that had been kept apart by nature itself.

Building one was complicated—impossible without the right tools—but travelling across a bridge involved an act of faith for someone like Hermione, who was terrified of heights. To her, they posed a strange and sudden sensation of impending doom. Like flying.

Irrational, but there was nothing to be done about it.

However, as Hermione sipped her mint tea with Narcissa's Palliative Healers, Sachs and Keating, she couldn't help but also realise that the bridges could be a metaphor for what she was trying to do: band all the pieces of Narcissa's life together to create a cohesive pathway of assistance, information, and maybe even progress where none had existed before.

Building bridges had been Hermione's primary motivation behind opening her home up to Narcissa's existing team. She had originally scheduled the meeting to take place at the Malfoy home, but she'd changed her mind. Sometimes a change in scenery was beneficial to generate the desired outcome; it could help shift perspectives and potentially create the foundation necessary to build those bridges.

It was also away from Narcissa's presence and influence.

The timing couldn't have been better.

Fresh off holiday, their guards were down and they were relaxed. The backdrop of the world around her cottage was just as green and alive as the plants in her conservatory they'd examined upon arrival. Hermione provided tea and fresh apple pie she'd baked after another frustrating day, but she tucked those feelings away and forced a thin smile as she politely listened to their stories about their holidays—time they had obviously needed, judging by their brighter spirits.

It was already going far better than their first meeting.

Sachs had gone on a bucket list trip to Egypt while Keating spent time with family and welcomed a new grandchild she proudly showed pictures of. A girl named Helena. The bits she'd learned during their conversation would help in her ultimate quest to get to know them as individuals…

That wasn't why Hermione had extended the invitation, of course, but she was finally understanding the reason behind Theo's controlled silences. Words were powerful, they could lay the groundwork, but silence was just as important.

She had to be patient. Had to watch them interact. Had to learn them in order to find a way in.

Which was something Hermione needed.

So, as they chatted with each other, she separated them and analysed each as an individual rather than a pair that worked so well together. On paper, she knew them well enough. Age. Hometown. Education. Healing Specialties. Employment history. Based on their employee files, they were qualified for the job she needed them to do, but Hermione could see the personality clash approaching from several kilometres away.

Keating was softer, more obliging and matronly in the same way as Molly. A nurturer and a follower. But Sachs was different. Bolder. More outspoken and confident—like an extremely watered down version of Narcissa. Like Keating and Narcissa, she was also traditional, but lacked the latter's poise and grace that came from years in high society. They were opposites, in every way. Sachs was a pale, greying brunette, while Keating had a beautiful olive complexion that complemented her full head of grey. They worked fluidly together thanks to experience, mutual respect, and a bond that established years before.

Ultimately, Hermione realised that Sachs would be her issue. But she could also be the key.

Keating would be an easy win, but if she won Sachs' favour, she wouldn't have to work hard for Keating's… and maybe they would help her win over Narcissa. Hermione pondered it. The plan was still a work in progress with issues she had to resolve in order to wiggle her way through the gap.

First order of business?

Determine the extent of their loyalty to each other and—more importantly—to Narcissa.

"Do you have any children?" Keating asked in an attempt to make conversation. She was clearly the sort that thought a good ice-breaker was a mildly invasive question about family.

With a good spirit and a polite smile, Hermione shook her head. "Three godchildren, something like one to another, but none of my own."

"Oh." There was an awkward pause as Keating looked at Sachs, who had wisely picked the right moment to put all her focus into sipping her tea. The older woman cleared her throat. "Well, there's still time."

That was something people said to placate a childless woman on the wrong side of thirty. What she really meant was: your time is running out.

Had Hermione's skin been thinner, had she not already had the same conversation with her mother, the woman's words might have bothered her a great deal. As it stood, though, she brushed the comment off. Still, they didn't make for a good transition. The air around them shifted imperceptibly, a bit more awkward now tinged with discomfort.

She needed to get things back on track. Hermione had not just invited them over for tea and a chat, she also wanted to discuss their new assignments. "If I'm meant to be a mother, I'll be one. If I'm not, I already have plenty of children to spoil."

Both women agreed with wordless nods. It wasn't the best response, slightly too personal for her taste—considering they were subordinates at best—but it was open enough to make her relatable in a way that was necessary to lay the foundation for what was needed.

Hermione wasn't used to working with others, at least not at the level she would be working with them, but if the last month had taught her anything, it was going to take a team effort. She couldn't do it alone.

She needed their help. Their support. Their knowledge about the family.

And, most importantly: their trust.

Which wasn't going to come easily.

"I'm glad you both had restful holidays. Have you had time to review everything I sent via owl yesterday?" The amended care plans had been thick. She'd given the delivery owls in Godric's Hollow two treats a piece to take them.

They both nodded.

"It was very… detailed."

"Do either of you have any preferences for morning or evening?" Hermione knew, just from Keating's remarks, that she hadn't read it all, but she kept that to herself. "And do you understand your duties as they pertain to each shift?"

"We've discussed it and I've agreed to take days as I've accompanied Narcissa to events in the past as an aide," Sachs spoke up. "Keating will take nights. Before you took over, we would alternate, but your manual didn't allow for such flexibility."

Hermione couldn't ignore her tone. She firmly believed that if a weed was left alone too long, it would grow and flower and spread its seeds, making her weeding situation exponentially worse. Which was why weeding had always been an essential daily activity. And while she had already weeded her garden, she apparently had more to go.

Clearing her throat, Hermione slipped her finger through the handle of her teacup, using her other hand to assist lifting it to her lips. "Before we go on, Sachs, do you have issues with my treatment methods, my presence, or just me?"

She took a healthy sip of tea. Lemongrass and ginger. Just the tang she needed.

Sachs blinked several times, jarred by her brazen question and stunned into silence. Keating, seated across from her, went completely still.

"I feel that the key to a successful working relationship is to create one based on respect, trust, and open communication. I sincerely hope that I haven't done or said anything that makes either of you feel as though you don't have a voice. Because you do. I considered myself to be approachable." Hermione made an easy gesture with her free hand. "Please, don't hesitate. Speak up."

After a long pause, Sachs did. "I don't have a problem at all with anything you have laid out in your treatment package, but it seems… strict. Narcissa will push back."

One could argue that her treatment was no less strict than Scorpius' schedule, but that was another thing she kept to herself. The irony of it was astounding.

"Be that as it may, it'll be your job to see that she doesn't. As she declines, she might become a different person, not the Narcissa you know. It's not an easy job going forward, so if you don't feel you can, please don't be afraid to let me know."

They both, in their own words, accepted the challenge.

Hermione took another sip. "Continuing on: the potions don't work unless they're taken both consistently and within a certain frame of time. Her condition, as well as her potions, require strict monitoring. I will also ask that you both make sure to keep notes in your notebooks. The parchment is spelled to appear on a master parchment so please monitor any fluctuations and be on the lookout for triggers to her episodes. While you trade off monitoring her days and nights, I'll be around during both, checking in, handling meals and making potions. Once we have a baseline, we can make adjustments."

Sachs picked up her fork. "I would have thought that after a month you would have been able to answer some of those questions yourself."

Hermione sat her teacup on the saucer. "Due to an undisclosed allergy to Goat's Horn, her potions have been rendered useless until two days ago. Unfortunately, I'm still trying to create a baseline."

Both looked confused. "She doesn't have any allergies."

Ah, they hadn't known either. "Apparently that's not true, as I found out a few days ago."

"From where?"

"Her son."

That got both of their attention. They went from relaxed to sitting straighter in their chairs, which made her do the same. Keating and Sachs exchanged looks. The former looked flummoxed while the latter's eyebrows lifted slowly.

"Draco helped?"

"Reluctantly." Hermione found herself wondering what they knew and how easy it might be to get them to talk about the Malfoys. Keating seemed to take her cues from Sachs, which made Hermione grimace. "He told me about the allergy and made the adjustments to her potion."

So far, her potions had been working well.

Everything hadn't quite levelled out, but last night had been the first with zero disturbances.

It was an improvement.

Hermione was as cautiously optimistic as Malfoy had been quietly cocky that morning over his black tea and daily crossword. Outside of his physical signs of exhaustion, her biggest clue to his lack of sleep had been Malfoy not reacting when she'd told him the answer to fifteen across.

Vexatious.

Absolutely fitting.

She frowned with deep annoyance.

"Are they speaking again?" Keating asked, forcing Hermione to tuck the thought away.

"Not particularly." Hermione was brave enough to push the envelope. "You both have been working for the family for years. Do you know how long things have been like this between them?" Another look passed between the two women. "I only ask because I'm part of the team as well."

Which was true.

Something that was also true?

The help knew everything.

Sachs sighed, resting back on the chair and folding her arms. They traded one last look before Keating took the lead. "I was originally caring for Astoria, the poor dear." The Healer paused for a moment. "Her parents spent an excessive amount of time and money trying to save her. She had just graduated from Hogwarts when I was hired, and they could barely afford my salary. When she married Draco, I was given a choice. Deciding to stay required me to move to France. I didn't think twice. I packed up my family and moved. I didn't want her to be alone and I didn't know what sort of man Draco was—the rumours about him were awful."

Interesting, but true. Malfoy's reputation in Wizarding London hadn't been the best—an understatement, despite his mother's beloved status.

"And what do you think of him now?"

There was a quick moment where Keating pondered her statement, but her body language didn't indicate anything except truth. "He's distant and guarded, but not unkind. They did the best they could under the circumstances."

The statement was so loaded Hermione couldn't fathom interpreting it right then.

She would need time, wine, and a whiteboard.

For now, there were hundreds of questions that passed through her mind, hundreds more options, but Hermione chose one. The first one: "Was he involved?" That question would determine if his lack of involvement in Narcissa's care was a normal thing or an exception.

"Her disease was incurable, Miss Granger, but there was a treatment that existed which slowed it down. Not enough for her to have a normal lifespan, but that wasn't good enough for her parents who wanted her cured. So, Astoria spent every spare moment of her life being experimented on. By the time she married Draco, she was tired of being subjected to dangerous, experimental magic and harsh potions that would leave her sick or listless."

That sounded horrible. Hermione couldn't fathom the pain, both from disappointment and from the treatments themselves. Vaguely, she remembered Daphne explaining this to her a long time ago, but she couldn't recall many details.

"In a way, her marriage saved her from that. Draco had the decency to respect her wishes for a normal life. As far as involvement, he had more than a passing level of knowledge about her blood illness. I doubt she would have lived as long had he not made her potions himself."

Hermione froze.

Definitely an exception.

As for the rest, she filed it away with the other things that needed processing, categorising, and analysing. It would take a while.

"When did you start?" Hermione asked Sachs.

"Halfway into her pregnancy with Scorpius. Narcissa hired me exclusively for end of life care. No one expected her to live through childbirth. They were nearly correct about her and Scorpius."

An awkward bubble was born deep inside Hermione and it swiftly rose to the surface. When it burst, it projected the pure, vivid image of a man who had nearly lost everything in one day—in one instant. The visual caused something to coil inside her, a long, slow wind that tightened uncomfortably with a small jerk. Hermione finished her tea, but it tasted like warm water.

It took another few moments to realise that Sachs was still talking. "…she was so frail after he was born but determined to be involved in raising him. Naturally, they had a Mediwitch and a nanny, but Astoria was very involved in his day-to-day care. And as he got older, she mustered the strength to teach him, despite being nearly bedridden."

Hermione had to ask. "Etiquette?"

"No," Keating spoke up. "The basics that one would teach a toddler: colours, counting, letters, shapes. She hardly ever had the energy to take him outside, but she played with him, read to him all the time, and showed him everything she could. Her sister visited monthly and she would take him places. Not around too many people, of course. There were a few incidents…" Keating pressed her lips into a thin line. "Daphne stopped taking him out after the last one. Instead, she tried to bring activities to him. I think that was around the time they put a telly in Astoria's quarters. Narcissa was upset."

Hermione found the mental image of Narcissa in a state about a telly appearing in her home hilarious. "Do they still have it?"

"I haven't seen it since the move back to London. It's probably put away along with everything else." All of Astoria's things. Keating looked wistful, like most caregivers thinking of a lost patient. Even when they were expecting it, it still hurt. "Narcissa would never allow it in the house. She only tolerated it because Draco—well, things were sour with them long before Scorpius was born. Partly had to do with Narcissa's treatment of her."

"You're speculating." There was a hard set to Sachs' narrowed eyes. "Draco was hardly around."

"He was around when he could," Keating clarified after catching sight of Hermione's raised eyebrow. "He also helped when he could, but…" The woman's sigh was one of someone who had a lot to say, but didn't quite know how to phrase it. "I think he spent more time on security and warding than anything."

"As he should have," Sachs said. "I still have scars on my hands from that poison."

Hermione blinked, then took a sharp look at Sachs' hands.

The similarity between her scars and Molly's was—

Keating blinked down at her partner's hands and took a deep breath. She got back on subject. "Narcissa's education didn't start until after Astoria reached the point of no return."

Sachs made a small noise after taking a sip of tea. "My opinion is that had she allowed Narcissa to help with Scorpius earlier, she might have taken better care of herself and lived longer. But as it was, she dedicated every ounce of energy she could to raise him and shut Narcissa out until she absolutely had no choice in the matter."

Having seen her strict treatment of Scorpius, Hermione honestly couldn't—

"Can you blame her?"

For a split second, Hermione wondered if she'd asked the question that had been on her mind. How embarrassing. But then she realised that no, she hadn't.

It had come from Keating.

There was a frown on her face and she was gripping her teacup with both hands; a complete opposite to Sachs who had nearly finished her pie.

And there it was.

The divide.

 


 

May 21, 2011


Hermione woke up in stages.

She found she was in no rush to start the day after a late night with Padma and Susan in the conservatory, drinking elf-made wine and chatting about the ins and outs of work at St Mungo's—something they couldn't do when everyone else was around as they found their work stories dull. Hermione felt good, despite the lack of sleep, deciding to lie there for a while and watch the sun creep across the floor towards the bed. Fortunately, she hadn't bothered to shut the drapes, and she was catching a glimpse of a glorious sunrise.

The promise of it pulled her from the bed and into her bath, where she showered before pulling her hair back into a purposefully messy bun. Opting for comfortable clothes, she laced up her Wellies and headed downstairs for tea. She also needed to check on Narcissa's enchanted parchment.

A second night of stable readings was more than enough proof that the corrected potion was working.

From the readings, it appeared she was still sleeping.

Good.

Today was the first day back for Keating and Sachs. Hermione made a mental reminder to visit Keating tonight and draw her into conversation. Perhaps during the day tomorrow, she would go over to check on Sachs.

A solid plan all around.

With that done, Hermione decided to check on the sun's journey into the morning sky, but first she took a call from her mother who asked her what she was doing.

"About to start in the garden."

"Sounds lovely, dear." There was a noise in the background and it sounded like her dad. "Oh, never you mind." He must have realised she was still on the phone. "Sorry about that, love. Your dad has opinions." Whatever that meant, Hermione knew better than to ask because she would never get an answer.

Not from her dad, at least.

"Anyway, I was calling to check and see if you were free for dinner Thursday. We'll be leaving for Greece in a couple of weeks and thought it would be lovely to see you before we go."

Hermione blinked at the change in plans. The change in the schedule they had adhered to for years. It was a welcomed surprise that filled her with a hope. "Oh! Of course."

"Wonderful. See you then!"

Farewells were exchanged before Hermione hung up the phone. With a pep in her step, she ventured around the conservatory, caring for the plants scheduled for Saturday watering and even those who were greedy and dry when they shouldn't be.

By the time she started pruning the climbing roses, the sun had really begun to make an appearance, brightening all corners of the room… and further lifting her spirit.

It was a lovely sight to behold.

Both the conservatory from above and the world beyond the window.

Peaceful and quiet.

The morning sky was blue with streaks of orange, reds, and yellows, and cloudless for a change as the last couple of days had been grey, heavy and drizzly. Well, at least until yesterday afternoon when it had cleared up. Typical for the season and her location, but today was a treat.

Hermione looked around the orderly room.

She'd done enough work. It was time to enjoy the view.

After climbing down her ladder, she put it away and curled on her chaise by the full-length window with a fresh cup of tea and a book she'd been working through over the last week. She was truly ready to enjoy the view of her growing garden, the greenhouse a short walk away, and the pasture that led to the edge of the forest in the distance. After a long look, she opened her battered copy of The Book Thief and picked up where she'd left off.

The sun was a good deal higher in the sky when she heard her Floo come to life and felt the tingling of her wards announcing the arrival of two people. After tucking her bookmark between the pages, Hermione ventured back into the living room to find her guests patiently waiting.

Well, not the smaller of the two.

As she stepped through the door and into her kitchen, she had just enough time after hearing "Auntie 'Mione!" to shut the door behind her before a child-sized blur appeared, wearing a Cannon jersey, jeans, and Velcro trainers. The blur named Albus Potter practically launched himself at her legs, hugging them tightly and almost knocking her off balance.

"Oof!" Hermine breathed out a laugh when he didn't let go. "Well, hello to you too, Al."

"Hi!" The little boy's word sounded more like a squeak.

Harry, meanwhile, just chuckled from his spot in front of the fireplace, shaking his head in amusement as he sat Albus' bag on the sofa. "Hey."

"It's only been a week!" She ruffled his soft but messy brown hair. "Missed me much?"

"Yes!" he answered, still holding on.

"He's not lying." His father crossed into the kitchen and approached them. "He woke us up at five, and was already dressed with his bag packed for the day. Quite determined." Harry gave Albus a fond look. The little boy raised his head, peering up at her with a big grin, flushed cheeks, and bright green eyes. "Sorry we're so early."

"No bother at all." She looked down and smiled. "Did you eat?"

Albus shook his head.

She made an exaggerated face, pretending to think very deeply. "I might have a bit more of that strawberry jam Deloris made." At that, his eyes lit up more. "We can have eggs and toast with jam. How do you feel about bacon?"

"Yes, please!"

Hermione grinned. "Okay, go wash your hands and I'll let you help make breakfast."

Off he ran, back through the living room and up the stairs to the guest bath upstairs where his stool had a permanent home so he could reach the sink. They both watched him go, then Harry grinned. "He'll be gone for ten minutes, tops."

"Yep."

They both chuckled.

"Thanks again, Hermione."

"Stop thanking me, I love having Albus over. James and Lily, too." Even though all three together were chaotic at best. She had no idea how Harry and Ginny managed. Years of practice, she supposed. When she had all three, Hermione would sleep for hours after they left, truly worn out. "They're fun and a big help in the vegetable patch. What are you all doing today?"

"Errands mostly, but we're taking the kids to the Aquarium and then to Diagon Alley this afternoon. I asked Al if he wanted to go, but when Ginny said he could come here, even though it wasn't his week, he was hell bent." Harry shrugged. "What's on your agenda?"

"Weeding mostly, but I've got to clean the chicken coop. We'll picnic in the pasture, too. Last time, he wanted me to read Where the Wild Things Are and Scaredy Squirrel, so I'll do that before we take a walk towards the forest."

"Ah." Harry fixed his glasses and gave her a look as he leaned against the kitchen island. "He said he's ready this week. Let me know if he makes it, yeah? It's all he's talked about."

"Will do." After a moment's hesitation, Hermione gave her best friend a knowing look as she folded her arms. "How's it going with Malfoy?"

The question made him sigh, despite the fact that it had been just over a week since their compromise in his office. She had no idea if his response was good or not.

"It's not going horribly, if that's what you're asking. We've started quietly training Teams D and E together. We let Hestia in enough for her to create the cover. Malfoy found a training room and warded the hell out of it. It's going well enough. Malfoy is…" Harry frowned, unwilling to continue on that train of thought. "We've scheduled a meeting with Team C on Monday."

"Then why the sigh?"

"Because it's Malfoy." Harry's statement was deeply relatable. "He's frustrating."

"That he is."

Harry was silent for a moment. "I will say he's been far more tolerable than usual. Also, he's not so horrible as a teacher. Yet for some reason, I still have the urge to hex him—repeatedly."

"A natural reaction." Hermione patted his shoulder in mock sympathy. "There, there."

Mending bridges wasn't the easiest thing to do. It also wasn't something that could be done in a week or two with a few positive interactions. It would take time and a conscious effort from them both. Whether it would extend past the completion of their job of eradicating the threat of Death Eaters, Hermione had no idea. She refused to speculate or give it much consideration.

"Regardless, I'm just glad I was able to help." She cleared her throat, tentatively touching on a subject she was curious about. "How has he been the last… say, week or so?"

"A bit off, but I can't tell how." He looked at her oddly. "Why?"

"No reason." It was a quick lie and Harry didn't look convinced. He crossed his arms, which made her poke at the topic a little harder. Might as well; he was already slightly suspicious anyway. "He told me that he's doing the nighttime canvassing in Wales?"

Harry's eyebrow disappeared into his hairline. "He told you that?"

"Yes."

The look he gave her was oddly probing, but Harry was no Theo—or even Malfoy—so she returned his stare comfortably until he shrugged.

"He volunteered to handle them. The Task Force is…" He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Malfoy's trying to wrangle them together before someone gets killed. He believes there's a hideout nearby, and based on the number of low-level Death Eaters they've caught in the last couple of days, I think he's right. We were supposed to report to the Wizengamot, but all security briefings have been suspended as Tiberius goes through each department and questions people about the restoration movement."

"It has a name?"

"I have no idea. I'm not allowed to know anything, apparently."

"Then how do you know that?"

Harry smiled and they both started laughing—but not for long. When her best friend ran his fingers through his messy hair, she knew that he was trying to approach a topic he was unsure about, and gave him a look that basically told him to spit it out. "That day, in my office…"

"What about it?"

"That's probably the most Malfoy has spoken since we caught Rockwood. Usually, it's all one-sided conversation where he hates all my ideas, but doesn't offer any reason for the things he suggests. Like the pureblood Ward Specialist? Had he actually said that, I would have understood. I might have even agreed!"

He wasn't wrong. There was a deep communication issue between them, which had a lot to do with their fundamental differences—not to mention their history.

"Not to make excuses for him, but what did you expect? Didn't you have a row with him your first week?"

Harry looked slightly ashamed of himself. "Okay, yes… but—"

"It happened." Hermione shrugged casually. "Not your finest moment, but Malfoy didn't have to be an enormous prat in the aftermath. Let's call it a tie and start over. Leave it in the past. That's all you can do if you truly want this collaboration to be successful. I know both of you are anxious to be rid of the Death Eaters. I am too. They're getting too close for comfort, especially with the children."

"And your threats aren't too close for comfort? Theo told me about two more attempted security breaches in the last month."

Of course Theo did. Harry gave her a look and she pressed her lips into a thin line.

"The fact that you and Theo discuss me behind my back is aggravating."

"If you want details, it happens over—" Hermione shoved him in the arm, which only made him laugh. "Don't act like you don't use Deloris to keep tabs on me."

"That's not the point."

"But it is. Just like the threats concerning my kids, they're also too close to you—"

"I can protect myself. James, Al, and Lily—they can't. Malfoy's probably having similar thoughts about his family, hence his extensive attention to security."

"You're right." With another sigh, her best friend rubbed the back of his neck.

"You're both on the same side now, with a common enemy," she reminded him as she slid into the space next to him, angled towards her friend. "I'm not saying become friends with him, but there's more common ground between you two than battleground. You're both fathers with children and families who are facing the same threat. I don't know the extent of Malfoy's issues with Death Eaters, or what's happened while they were in France, but from what little I do know, it wasn't easy. And I know everything with Molly and the kids… it's been difficult for everyone. If Malfoy is paranoid enough to work a job for free to avoid being a sitting duck, I just—"

"You really should have taken that Liaison position before they offered it to Malfoy." Harry gave her a sidelong glance. "Would have made life easier."

Hermione rolled her eyes after bumping his shoulder with hers. "You'd just rather work with me over Malfoy. Admit it."

"True, but also, you'd be good at it. You're capable of looking at an argument from both sides."

Hermione gave a half-shrug. "Perhaps, but I'm not always right, nor do I always have the right answer. I have my point of view, and will express that through my words. With that being said, I actually think it's good that I'm not working with you."

"Oh?" Harry's brow rose over the rim of his glasses.

"Yeah." She thought back to her conversation with Theo. "I'm not a challenge for you and we've been through so much together that our perspectives are too similar. We generally agree on most things, and even when we don't, we still manage to find common ground. Malfoy is that different perspective, Harry, and he's also a test for you."

Really, Malfoy was testing them both.

The thought made Hermione frown. Meanwhile, Harry's scoff was one part annoyance and one part sceptical amusement. "A test? That's an understatement."

She chuckled quietly. "Maybe so, but Theo said something that made me think. From working with his mother—and by extension him—perhaps sometimes we need to be challenged in order to grow as people. It's the only way we learn and the only way you'll prove that you're a capable leader to anyone who doubts you."

They fell into a short, companionable silence, where Harry reflected and she listened out for Al, who had a tendency to play in the sink when he was supposed to be washing his hands. She'd give him another minute.

"You're right." He let out a deep sigh. "Any Malfoy advice?"

"I've got no idea how to read him—" At her best friend's disbelief, because she always had a grasp on most people and their motivations, she held up a hand. "No seriously, I don't. Think about it. It's not like Malfoy to be up-front with anything. I mean, think about it, you basically had to stalk him around Hogwarts to glean information. What makes you think he's any different as an adult? We know less about him now than we did then."

Harry merely shrugged, clearly not ashamed about his past actions. She couldn't deny he'd had his reasons—right or wrong. But his face shifted momentarily as he turned his curious green eyes on her. He didn't even bother hiding his continued scepticism. "Really? You seemed to have a handle on him in my office. He actually listened to you instead of calling you an idiot."

She scoffed with a dismissive roll of her eyes. "From what little he does know of me, not even Malfoy could, in good faith, call me an idiot. On any scale."

At that, he laughed and tossed his head back. Hermione couldn't help but smile at the response.

"That's true." Harry's crooked grin reminded her of Albus when he found something both surprising and funny. "If it means something, I think he's trying to figure you out, too—and he's stumped."

Hermione barely suppressed her recoil, but found herself shocked by his statement; a flare of unfamiliar warmth shot through her veins. But a quick rub at the back of her neck was her only outward reaction. "What makes you think that?"

"He watches you." With a shrug, Harry glanced at his watch as they both heard Al's footsteps approaching.

"Malfoy's observant. "

"Yeah, but it's like he's waiting for you to say something that doesn't ring true, something that isn't straight. Anyway, I should head back. I left Ginny to sort breakfast. James and Lily were arguing about who should get the last of the juice."

Which meant Ginny was about to break both of their spirits and drink it all herself.

In front of them.

She would call it a lesson about compromise.

Harry would likely return to a house of pouting children and a wife who was supremely proud of herself. "One of us will come by and pick him up later."

"Take your time." Hermione waved him off as Al made his appearance, holding onto the railing.

His shirt was soaked, so she already knew he'd been splashing around in the sink.

Hermione chuckled to herself as she went to the refrigerator to pull out eggs, bacon, and cameo apples Neville had brought by last weekend. Peering in her breadbox that was under a stasis charm, she picked out the bread she'd just baked the previous morning, and found it perfectly fresh.

Harry, meanwhile, used his wand to dry his son's shirt before kneeling down and hugging Al, who never ran from affection like James. The little boy only grinning when his dad kissed him on the forehead. It was nice. Harry never once hesitated to show Albus—or any of his children—the affection he hadn't grown up with.

"Have fun today."

"I will, Dad!"

Albus was at her side before Harry could leave through the Floo. Step stool acquired from the closet, the five-year-old was ready to crack the eggs.

"Remember how I showed you?" Hermione placed the bowl in front of him and summoned a fork.

The young boy eagerly nodded. "I can do it."

Of course he could. She had no doubt about it.

Fears and wariness around strangers aside, Al had an independent streak a kilometre long that he'd inherited from his father, along with a healthy dose of obstinacy from both of his parents. When Hermione handed him the egg, she stood behind him, not hovering, but watching as he gently tapped it on the edge of the countertop just like she'd taught him. Then he broke open it over the bowl. A little heavy-handed, as she quickly picked out a few shells, but overall, it had been a job well done. Hermione took a moment to celebrate with him by letting him do the second egg.

And third.

 


 

In almost no time, she and Albus were eating breakfast at the table in the conservatory, enjoying the slow crawl of the sun across the morning sky. By then, he had settled into his normal bundle of content energy and was on his knees in his chair because it was easier for him to reach. His fork usage was spotty, at best, as he licked jam off his fingers and created a mess on his face.

Between—and sometimes during—bites, he chattered about every pertinent event from his week. Which was basically every second of every day. Hermione listened along as she ate, smiling when he told her about something good, asking questions that made his entire face light up, and making sure she looked engaged, even though she had no idea what he was saying during the parts the young boy sped through with frenetic energy.

"Can I play with the chickies today?" Albus finished his apple juice, licking his lips. He was mostly done eating, just a bit more to go. The area around his mouth was a sticky mess, but he looked pleased with himself.

She left him be. For now.

"Well, you happen to be in luck." His eyes widened in barely concealed excitement. "I've got to clean the coop out, so you'll need to feed them while I work, okay?"

"Okay."

"After we're done, we can weed the garden and water the plants in the greenhouse. How's that sound?"

"Fun!" Albus smiled, reaching for his fork with his left hand.

"So, when you finish up, you've got to clean your face and hands then we can get started, okay?"

"Okay!"

Hermione stood, picking up her dish and cup. "Don't forget to bring yours in when you're finished."

"I won't!" Al beamed as he continued eating the last few bites of his meal. He dropped a piece of egg on his shirt, picked it up, and ate it. Boys. Exactly how Ginny kept his and James' clothes clean, she had no idea, but it likely involved a good amount of magic. After shaking her head and chuckling at the sight of him licking the jam off his toast as opposed to eating it, Hermione gave him one last lingering look before leaving him there to happily finish his breakfast.

It didn't take long.

By the time she was putting her teacup away, Al came inside, balancing his breakfast dishes.

She went to help him, but he insisted he could do it himself. And she let him, moving his little step stool over in front of the sink so he could do his own washing. She made him wash his hands while she wet a fresh dish towel with warm water to wipe his face. Naturally, Al grouched and complained, but was pretty good-natured about it once she told him the bugs were going to eat him up if he came outside sticky sweet.

After putting the clean dishes away, Hermione clasped her hands together, snickering when he did the same. "Now, what shall we do first?"

The five-year-old threw his hands up. "Chickies!"

And that's what they did.

Hermione had never intended to own chickens, but back in January, when a wizard had offered to barter three newly-hatched chickens for the rest of the vegetables she'd brought to the market in Godric's Hollow, she couldn't pass up the idea of fresh eggs every day. She didn't require much or many. How hard could it have been anyway?

Famous last words.

For the Brightest Witch of her Age, raising chicks had ended up being a lot more of an undertaking than she'd anticipated. She made more than a few errors along the way, but once they were big enough in late February, Neville had built a dedicated area for them to roam (outside her garden), equipped with their own chicken coop. No one was happier than Pansy, who had threatened to end their friendship over the fact that she'd kept baby chicks in her spare bath for a month under warming charms while they were growing.

They'd warded the coop against cold, weather, and predators, and the three chickens were thriving. Each of Harry's kids had named one—Zazu, Iago, and Pink (courtesy of Lily's favourite colour and word). Last week, Al had asked if there were going to be more baby chickens for him to cuddle.

The answer? Not if she could help it.

At least not right then.

Hermione cleaned out the small coop and Vanished the mess, lining the floor with old Prophets and hay and refilling their water and fresh feed with a wave of her wand. Meanwhile, Al fed the chickens scraps she'd given him, played with them, talked to them about anything he could think of, and walked around their enclosed area while they toddled after him obediently.

The sight was adorable, especially when he sat down and the three competed for his attention.

But he just loved them all, looking deliriously happy.

Soon enough, they got bored with him and started eating, but by then her task was complete.

"Did you have fun?" Hermione asked once he ran over to her at the gate.

Al nodded with a goofy grin, trailing after her out the enclosure. "They're so big!"

Hermione led the way back into her garden and helped him into his gloves before putting hers on. With a little direction, they worked under the rising sun. It was nice outside, the perfect day to be out, and Al was loving the fresh air. And the weed pulling.

He was pretty excellent at it.

"Next time," Hermione told him as they worked. "They'll be a little bit bigger."

Al gasped. "Bigger than me?"

"No, never." Noting the look of relief on his face, she tapped her gloved finger against his nose, which made him giggle before he refocused on pulling the weeds.

Just like she taught him.

His small hands combined with the softer earth from the rain gave him just enough of what he needed to succeed. When he held up the weed to show her, root still intact, the look on his flushed face was pure pride.

She grinned with him. "Good job, Al!"

Using their hands and a bit of magic, they worked for almost two hours to complete the task. Or she did. Al ended up going back to the chicken enclosure to run around with them before flopping onto the magical hammock and napping in the breeze.

It was just past noon when she finished, and Al was ready for lunch. But first, he wanted to see if any of the fruit in the greenhouse was ripe enough to eat.

To his disappointment, they weren't.

She made sandwiches, cut up fruit, and packed crisps into a picnic basket before grabbing her outdoor blanket, sunglasses for them both, and allowing Al to carry the books he wanted to read. He picked a spot in the middle of the pasture behind her house that put them in the direct sun. Together, they laid out the multi-coloured blanket and sat with their legs folded under them as they ate. Al talked his heart out between bites—he never got to say much around the much louder James or younger Lily.

Here Al had a chance to speak his mind.

Hermione enjoyed the warmth of the sun as she listened.

It wasn't long after they finished that they stretched out on the blanket with a book held aloft, blocking the sun from blinding her, despite the tint of her sunglasses. Al curled up against her and laid his head on the crook of her arm as she read Where The Wild Things Are to him for what felt like the hundredth time.

It was his favourite book.

"And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws."

Like he'd never heard it before, Al gasped and covered his eyes.

"Do you want me to stop?" Hermione knew the answer.

The little boy uncovered his eyes long enough to turn the page. "No."

With a tiny grin, she continued on until she finished and he clapped his small hands. She only sat up long enough to pick up the second book and place the first next to her. Al's second choice was a book she purchased for him called The Scaredy Squirrel.

"I never leave my nut tree. It's way too dangerous out there. I could encounter germs, poison ivy, or sharks. If danger comes along, I'm prepared. I have antibacterial soap, Band-Aids, and a parachute."

Albus giggled his way through the book, as always, and Hermione reminded herself to read him the second in the series next in an attempt to help normalise his fears, and help him overcome them one by one. Starting with the first one. His biggest one.

The forest.

He must have been gathering his nerve while she read because as soon as Hermione finished, Al was getting to his feet. "Can we walk now?"

"Of course, love."

They left their things at the blanket and walked towards the edge of the forest with the breeze blowing both their hair, untamed as ever. Al was quiet, as always, slipping his smaller hand into hers as he braved on, mouth set in determination. Hermione never once forced him on these walks. It was something he initiated. A challenge to himself. Her wards extended into the trees and James went into the forest all the time with Harry, Lily too. Albus wanted to be brave enough to join them.

So on they walked, closer and closer to the place of his fears.

As always, behind her sunglasses, Hermione watched him more than she focused on the sunny day and greenery around them, reading the subtle cues he gave off and noting each milestone they made. The first part was always easiest and he smiled up at her before running ahead.

Until the point where he got a little nervous.

Then he waited for her.

Reached out to hold her hand.

Before long, he let her hand go long enough to pick up the marker of where they had last stopped, holding on to it as the forest loomed closer. Al was now slowly walking, lagging behind to the point where Hermione slowed down with him.

"It's okay, Al, we can stop."

"I'm okay." She heard the tremble in his voice.

Still, they pressed on, walking more than a hundred paces past the last marked spot before Al finally squeezed her hand and stopped. He was looking up at the tall trees. They were so close she could hear the sounds of the forest. Smell it. Al pushed the little Cannons flag they used as a marker into the soft earth as a reminder of how far they'd come. Hermione was bursting with pride for his new milestone, but today he seemed sadder than usual.

And she had an inkling as to why.

Disappointment.

"Come now, sit." Hermione tugged him down gently.

They both sat right there on the same path they did every other Saturday. Al was facing her, looking closer to tears than she'd seen him in a long time. Frustration. Hermione lifted his chin with her finger, using her thumb to rub his flushed cheek and wipe away the tear that slipped from under his sunglasses.

"You've done brilliant, Albus." When he shrugged sadly and more frustrated tears fell, she took off his sunglasses and tucked them into his shirt. His lip quivered as he struggled not to cry. "You know I think you're brave, right?"

Al's pouty face scrunched up adorably. "But I'm scared and James says I'm a baby and—"

"You're scared yet you walk with me anyway. In my opinion, that makes you brave."

His eyes widened in child-like wonder. "It does?"

"Yes!" Hermione patted her knees and he crawled into her lap; he was almost too big. One day he would be for those moments and it made her momentarily sad. Nostalgic. But she shook it off and brushed the hair from his face before wrapping him up in a comforting hug. She felt his small arms around her and rested her chin on his forehead, speaking to him softly. "You're brave because you get scared, but keep going. You never give up."

It was truly what she loved best about Al: his determination.

It reminded her so much of Harry.

"My dad says never give up and I won't."

No, he wouldn't. Hermione was more confident of that than she was of most things.

She held him in silence, stroking his hair as he went through his emotions about not making it. When Al started to stir, she asked, "When we get there, what do you want to do first?"

"Climb trees!" It was the same answer he gave every visit and he sounded much better than he had before.

"And that's what we'll do. Your dad and Neville will build you, James, and Lily the best treehouse. I'll bring you sandwiches and juice while you three play."

"But what if it's not James or Lily?"

Hermione frowned in confusion. "Who else would you play with in your treehouse?"

Albus thought about it for a long minute. "I don't know… a friend?"

 


 

The rest of the day passed too quickly, but Hermione enjoyed every second of the energy Albus brought into her house. His presence kept her focused; it kept the troubling thoughts about a second boy at bay.

For now.

She got to continue her morning reading by the stream in front of her house, watching him play and splash around in the lazy flowing water that went to the knees of the jeans she'd rolled up in an effort to keep them dry (she'd failed). He was less occupied with rock collecting, more interested in trying and failing to catch the small fish that avoided him at all cost.

Much to her horror, Albus had, however, caught a small frog and brought it into the house.

And lost it.

It took ten minutes of panic before Hermione found it, and together they sent it back home into the great outdoors.

"Bye, Mr Frog." Al waved enthusiastically as it hopped towards the water's edge.

Neville would have been amused.

Hermione spent the rest of their afternoon together testing him on the names of plants she'd taught him on his last visit and teaching him some new ones. Al was intelligent and, more importantly, motivated to learn. They worked on reading, addition and subtraction, and the schoolwork that he was struggling with. She even approached the tough subject of school itself.

"No one likes me," Albus confessed with a shrug that looked as casual as it wasn't. His eyes were sad, shining with unshed tears. Then he cuddled against her on the sofa. "I try."

"I like you, and…" Hermione trailed off, occupied by fresh thoughts of Scorpius. Albus looked at her curiously. Her smile was tinged with sadness he seemed to notice. He stared at her, patiently waiting for her to finish. "I know another boy out there who will like you, too."

That grabbed his attention. "Really? A friend?"

"Maybe." Hermione swallowed thickly. Green eyes were focused on her. It reminded her so much of Scorpius wanting to know more about his father. She held onto Albus a little tighter and rested her cheek on his messy brown hair. "Do you want to know about him?"

"Yes."

Then Albus shifted away, turning to her and Hermione tapped her finger against her chin. "Hmm, he's five, like you." Al's face broke into a grin while she found herself scrambling to recall little details about Scorpius. Admittedly, she didn't know him well. "He likes books."

"I like books, too!"

Ruffling his hair, Hermione smiled softly. "Yes, you do, love. But he's quiet. He doesn't talk."

"Why not?"

"I don't know." It was an honest answer, if not a complete one. Al remained in pensive silence for several seconds longer than expected. Then he nodded like he'd made a decision. "What is it?"

"I can be friends." And there was that determination in his eyes.

"Oh? What do you know about being friends?"

"Being nice and sharing and—and—can we count now?"

Hermione laughed at the abrupt change of subject. "Sure, but why so suddenly?"

Albus blushed. "I want to get it right so I can show my new friend."

There were moments when she found herself in awe of Albus Potter. It boggled her mind how anyone could make fun of someone so kind. Children were cruel sometimes, but not Al. Never Al. And so Hermione counted to twenty with him in French and German—something he'd learned in the Nursery School he hated—and she even let him pick out a film to watch.

Not that it mattered, Al fell asleep before the opening credits, tuckered out from his day.

Harry returned to collect him right when Hermione finished making him a treat for the next day. His favourite: lemon cake with strawberries. She'd made enough to share with his siblings, but she was certain there was plenty for him.

"How was he?" Harry asked after he crept past his son. The telly in the corner of the room next to the fireplace was muted and Al was still bundled under the blanket she'd covered him with earlier.

"Excellent as usual. We made it closer today."

"Yeah?" Harry's proud smile reminded her so much of Al.

She nodded and handed him the container with the cake. "Yes, just over a hundred paces closer. It's probably the biggest jump he's made since he started, but he's frustrated with himself." Hermione paused. "I need to talk to you about something." Which made Harry grow serious. "Not about Al, he's great, but… I think I have a solution to your socialisation problem."

"Oh?"

"You're not going to like it." Hermione glanced over at the sleeping figure. "But I think he needs a smaller space to meet a friend. One-on-one. It may boost his confidence. And, I have a suggestion."

Then she smiled.

Harry's suspicion was tangible. "Hermione, the last time you looked like that I ended up on an albino dragon."

Which was incredibly fair.

"But did you die?"

Harry winced. "I mean, technically—" Then he looked around the room to ignore the well-deserved glare he'd earned from her. Finally, his acquiescence came in the form of a sigh. "Fine, who is it?"

"Malfoy's son is his age."

His recoil was so dramatic it was comical. "Is that why you made a cake? Ginny said you made sad pie when I took Al to the planetarium."

"Partially, and it wasn't completely sad, it was blueberry. Lily's favourite." Harry squinted further. "I already know what you're going to say, but if I could state my argument. I think it could be a good idea."

Harry ran his hand through his hair three times then huffed. "Look, Dean already says he's a lot different from Malfoy, which is fine. Okay, I'm not going to say no because his dad is a wanker who's decided to be moderately tolerant in the last week. But do you honestly think either of us will survive a playdate? Much less scheduling one?"

No, but she would pay all the Galleons in her vault just to witness that conversation. Hermione was barely able to hold back her amusement at the mental picture.

"Al's already excited."

If at all possible, Harry looked even more stressed. "Oh, Merlin! I'm doomed."

"You're being dramatic." Hermione grinned too wide, but in all likelihood, he was right. Once Al latched onto something, he would never let anyone forget it. "I could host?"

The look he gave her was long-suffering at best. "I make no promises for a quick turnaround, but I'll discuss it with Gin, then I suppose I'll approach Malfoy." He looked like he'd rather drink magma from the core of the Earth. "If it happens, you have to stay."

Hermione just laughed. "Don't threaten me with a good time."

 


 

When Hermione stepped out of the Floo, it was just after nine, too late to be considered evening but too early to be called night, a weird, nameless time between the two. That she had found herself in the Malfoys house at such a time had long since lost its shock value, but the real surprise was that everything looked exactly the same right then as it did at five in the morning.

Cold. Empty. Quiet.

Devoid of character and identity.

It wasn't a home.

Just brick and wood, held together by nails and plaster, constructed into a nicely furnished dwelling, albeit divided.

And that truth was easier to ignore in the early hours of morning. Easier not to look at the lack of personality in favour of putting on the kettle and cooking, with Malfoy serving as an opinionated distraction in glasses. Easier still to ignore the plain walls when Narcissa complained about each meal while simultaneously enjoying the food, even during her irritable moments when she was snappish, when she stared at nothing. Even easier to ignore a home that was too sterile when Scorpius waited for her to move his glass from right to left, and watched her until she waved goodbye like it meant something to him.

Because it was beginning to mean more to her.

There was life in those moments.

Hope.

She never saw it in the moment, too caught up in analysis and action, but she knew that, even in darkness, hope was something that could be found anywhere. She just had to look for it. And keep finding it each day, during each interaction.

The same applied to her own life. To her own struggles. And Hermione did just that with the Malfoys, discovering tendrils of it in the most uncanny places, reaching for her. It breathed new life into her spirit and strengthened her bones.

But there was also something to be said about the hope found in healing. It made the days easier for Hermione, who needed the tiny shreds of it found in those moments.

Without hope, there was no determination. Without determination, there was nothing. And having nothing would make her job very, very hard.

Nothing wouldn't provide the inspiration Narcissa needed to fight to accomplish her goals.

No matter how much Hermione disagreed with some of them. That wasn't her place. And so, she persisted.

Though crippled and barely visible, Hermione held onto each string of hope in order to see past the bleak grief, past the loneliness and pain, and past the family's problems. Problems that flowed like a river: on and on, in search of a sea it never found. All it did was gather sediments, which were slowly muddying the waters of her opinions, and those waters could only be purified by looking through the lens of the distance that separated them.

Hermione sighed to the empty room.

Tonight it felt extra cold and lonely.

Enough to propel Hermione in the direction of Narcissa's quarters.

Just before she knocked, a slice of light farther down the hall drew her attention.

Malfoy's office.

The light meant that the door was open. He was home and the fact that she found that odd made her cringe internally.

Hermione had every intention of ignoring it and him. She planned to knock on Narcissa's door and be accepted into the room by Keating.

But, as it often did, curiosity got the better of her.

With light, careful steps, she made sure not to announce herself too soon on the creaking wood. An odd feeling accompanied her, building with each step down a dimly lit hall, keeping her close to the blank wall. Her mind began to spin in anticipation of what she might see as dozens of scenarios played in her head.

Malfoy in his glasses working. Or reading. Or scowling as he prepared to shut the door in her face. Maybe he would talk. Or argue. Or not even look up when he flexed the fingers needed to spell the door shut.

Anything was possible with him so Hermione prepared for it all.

In the end, reality was different from anything she had anticipated. What she happened upon was a sight mind-bogglingly normal, yet it still managed to blow all her working knowledge of him out of the water.

Malfoy stood beside the chair in front of his desk that faced the door with a hand on his chin. His emerald signet ring stood out amongst the black of his clothing. There was a frown marring his expression, not angry, but there was some sort of hesitance in it that gave Hermione pause. She was used to seeing surface emotions of cold annoyance and defensiveness coupled with confidence and that little unidentifiable bit of him that made her want to slap him. But this vacant expression of doubt? Indecision?

This was new.

Malfoy looked as if he were attempting advanced Arithmancy with no parchment—an impossible feat. And when Hermione stepped closer, when she stopped focusing on him and turned to look for what had given him pause, she finally noticed what—no, who—was the reason behind the expression.

Scorpius.

Wearing navy pajamas with gold snitches racing around, he had awkwardly fallen asleep in the oversized chair with his knees drawn to his chest and a familiar dictionary open, haphazardly pressed against the cushion, pages wrinkled. Hermione silently tsked at his bare feet, noting one was tucked under the other. He was probably cold. His little head rested against the cushion, hair sleep-mussed, and his thumb was in his mouth. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully, but it looked uncomfortable despite being adorable enough to make Hermione smile.

Children had a habit of falling asleep anywhere.

Would Malfoy leave him there?

Perhaps not.

Malfoy slowly and carefully extracted the dictionary from his son's grip, freezing when Scorpius shifted in his sleep as he brought his second arm around himself. Seconds passed before Scorpius settled again. Malfoy seemed to calculate each move before he made it.

He quietly shut the book and placed it on his desk without making a sound.

With that out of the way, he adjusted his glasses and returned to how Hermione had found him.

Hand on his chin, mouth tight, brows furrowed.

Pensive.

He focused on Scorpius much like he did his crosswords. Then he moved. Only now, with the book gone, he wasn't nearly as confident, nor did he appear to have a clear plan. Hermione watched as he reached, paused, moved towards Scorpius again, then wavered. It was like a dance of contemplation, of uncertainty, one where Malfoy never hazarded too close but didn't venture too far either.

What he was trying to do dawned on Hermione so suddenly she felt silly for not realising it all along. Malfoy was trying to be careful. Trying to plot, calculate, and solve one problem.

His only problem.

How could he pick up Scorpius without waking him?

And that was hilariously… ordinary. And strange. And… woefully human.

Hermione bit her lip in an attempt to push back a myriad of reactions that blended together, melted into shocked amusement, and then evaporated. She was currently standing in a reality where she found herself witnessing something that wouldn't have been a private moment for anyone else.

But Draco Malfoy wasn't anyone.

There was a wall around him that kept everyone out—a thick one built and reinforced with years of commitment. Seeing him awkwardly try to figure out how to pick up his sleeping son felt like an invasion of privacy, a step past a different sort of line. There was wading closer to the Malfoys storm and then there was launching herself into the eye of it.

Not the most strategic or the wisest of moves.

Rather than wait until he noticed her, she decided to leave Malfoy to it. But she didn't move. At least not fast enough to miss hearing him sigh right before crouching next to the chair. With a slowness tinged in nervousness, he hesitantly brushed Scorpius' tousled blond fringe from his forehead in one swipe that didn't accomplish his mission.

It shouldn't have made her pulse skip.

But it did.

The action was normal, Hermione rationalised. Malfoy was his father. It was just… different.

Outside a smiling photo on his desk, she had never seen that softer side of him; she doubted many had. A sleeping child served as the instrument that smoothed the edges of him. That was…

Hermione flexed her hands, not realising how tense and stiff she'd gotten until she tore her eyes away in order to take those first steps back towards Narcissa's room. Exhaling the breath she hadn't realised she was holding, she ran a hand over her hair.

Then she took a second breath.

A third and fourth.

Hermione knocked on the door and Keating opened it almost immediately. Forcing her to push back all thoughts of Malfoy, Scorpius, and the tickle in the back of her mind, she focused on the task at hand.

It wasn't long after her walkthrough and update that she found herself reviewing notes Keating had already taken, catching words like hallucination and restless legs.

"How is she doing tonight?"

"Just went to sleep not an hour ago after Draco-inspired agitation." The woman shook her head, leaning in to gossip, which meant she was comfortable. She was right. She knew Keating wouldn't be the issue. "Apparently, he refused a second marriage date with a witch she liked. Sent her into quite a state because he wouldn't tell her what he didn't like about her."

"Interesting." Hermione redirected a displaced thought. "How did she tolerate the evening potion?"

"Despite not being a fan of the taste, she took it well." The taste couldn't be helped. "Do you want to see her readings for the day? She looks even, right on the baseline of where she should be that you've provided."

Keating turned to retrieve the care plan Hermione had created, but Hermione reached out and rested her hand on the woman's arm.

"No, I have the master parchment in my office. I only came tonight to check on things and see how you were settling in. Nights aren't easy." Hermione cleared her throat. "I couldn't help but glance at your notes. Hallucinations? Did she have an episode?"

"Oh." Keating made a small gesture like it was hard for her to explain. "No, she didn't. Sachs and I agreed on this schedule because I'm better at handling her when she does hallucinate, which happens more at night, according to the research you included in your care manual… and also from experience." She had at least read that part, which was nice to know. Comforting, because nights had been difficult for Narcissa—and for her as well.

"That's true, yes, but why did you write it down?"

"I've been around Narcissa long enough to know when she's seeing something she shouldn't." That was valuable information Hermione had little to no knowledge of. "It doesn't always happen in the confines of her episodes, which are—as you know—very intense." Hermione agreed with a tired nod. "Normally, her hallucinations don't agitate her, but when she sees something distressing, that's when I've witnessed more dramatic episodes. Do you know if she wandered off yet?"

"She's with security all the time when she leaves the house. They haven't reported anything to me."

"Good." Keating took a relieved breath. "Narcissa has wandered off a few times over the last year and I don't know what the trigger for that is. It's nearly impossible to find her, but Draco always manages to."

Duly noted. "Ah, well as far as her wandering goes, the trigger could be anything." Even in the Muggle form of the disease, the severity and path varied from person to person and could still change once she had established a baseline, that much Hermione remembered in her extensive readings. She'd drilled that piece of information into her skull. "How can you tell she's hallucinating?"

"She looks off to the side mainly. Like she's looking at someone sitting next to her. Or at least that's how I could tell before she realised I noticed such things. She hides it much better now."

Hermione folded her arms, glancing over Keating's shoulder at the shut door where Narcissa was tucked into bed. "Why would she hide it?"

"I think whoever she sees is a comfort for her."

Finding comfort in a hallucination was disturbing, but since it didn't bother Narcissa, she wouldn't even address it. "You noted restless legs as well? Her evening potions are designed to combat this."

"They do, but I observed her while she was asleep not long before you came and noticed that while her readings show that she's entering into a deep sleep, she's tossing and turning and her legs are restless. I'll monitor her through the night and make notes."

Her statement was correct, readings could only show so much. There was a human element of care that Hermione couldn't do by herself day in and day out. It simply didn't work.

"You should head home, Miss Granger." Keating gave her a matronly smile. "You don't work weekends, but you do work exhaustive hours during the weeks: brewing, researching, monitoring her condition, and cooking meals. I know you're not used to having help, but it's our job to handle the in between. Go and enjoy the rest of your weekend. Our weekly meetings are on Mondays, yes?"

Hermione was slightly mystified. "Ah, yes. Okay, thank you. Have a good night."

"You, too."

Possible clashing with Sachs aside, she was happy to have the Palliative Care team—a shift in her original opinion on the matter. But time and experience had shown her that Narcissa's case was intricate and ever-changing. Caregiving was more than one person. It involved the sort of teamwork Hermione had never required with other assignments.

Perhaps a change from the status quo wouldn't be so horrible.

They had already provided a different perspective, more information, and fresh eyes.

All things needed to build those metaphorical bridges.

When Hermione shut the door behind her with a soft click, her eyes automatically went to where that light caught her attention for the second time.

No.

It was really none of her business.

She was finished there for the night. Done working. Well, sort of. She was headed home to prepare for tomorrow's brewing of Wolfsbane for Padma's patients, but all in all, her work at the Malfoys was done. Hermione repeated this over and over as she took step after step away from the light that called to her curiosity…

No.

Hermione made it all the way to the Floo, had her hand on the container and was fully determined to (for once in her damn life) not be so bloody nosy, and—

"You're not supposed to be here today," someone—okay, not someone: Malfoy—said from behind her in a low voice that sounded like distant thunder. She'd learned his voice like she'd learned most things—after studying. Not that it mattered.

She hadn't heard him coming so the fact that he was suddenly there startled Hermione so badly she knocked the container off the hearth. It shattered. In one swift motion, she whirled around, words positioned for exit, and—

Then the fire was snuffed out.

Like magic.

Why?

Because in his arms was Scorpius, and he was asleep.

Hermione found herself wondering if he would move on so she could leave in peace, but time awkwardly continued to stretch on as she picked apart the sight in front of her.

Whether it was because of how tired he looked or because he just wasn't used to the act itself she wasn't sure, but Malfoy looked incredibly stiff while holding him. One hand was on his son's back, the other under his bottom. Scorpius' head was nestled in the crook of Malfoy's neck, turned away from him as he slept on. Hermione couldn't tell if the visible tension rolling off Malfoy had to do with the fact that Scorpius was heavy or because she was there.

Maybe both?

Silence quickly lost its appeal. "I'll just…" She trailed off as she turned to repair the broken Floo Powder container. After it was mended, Hermione placed it back where it belonged and slowly turned back to the man who was still waiting. "Have—"

Scorpius turned his head, exhaling a word that changed the entire course of Hermione's night.

"Mum."

Hermione probably would have broken the container again had she been holding it so tight because she jolted at the sound of his soft, mumbling voice. Malfoy peered down at his son as best as he could, more confused than anything.

She was nearly breathless, trying to regain control of her racing heart.

"Did he just—"

"No."

"Mummy."

Her inhale was loud in the empty room, but she couldn't help it. The sharp stab of pain felt like a knife to the gut. It twisted further when she heard a pained, choked-off sob come from the boy.

No tears.

He was dreaming.

Try as she might, Hermione couldn't keep her heart from aching for him without restriction. Her focus was strictly on the little boy, vaguely recognising the sound of both her bag and wand hitting the floor, no longer caring about either as she approached them slowly, carefully. She was so afraid to spook him.

But Malfoy never so much as moved. Never stopped looking at Scorpius. Never lifted his head.

He was just… there.

A blank husk. A part of the background in the scene before her.

Frozen to the spot.

What little colour he had drained from his face as a visible heaviness settled over him like a solid weight. It seemed to drag him down further when Scorpius kept pitifully calling for his mother, squirming in his father's arms, and breathing heavily while Malfoy just blinked over and over, unsure of what to do.

He just held Scorpius as best as he could, looking overwhelmed and rigid and as lost as he was exhausted.

When Hermione gripped his arm, Malfoy finally moved, if only in an attempt to recoil from her touch. It became apparent by the deep, ragged breath he took that had he not been so shocked by her presence, had he been able to move, he would have retreated and the entire incident would have been another thing they didn't speak about.

Not that Hermione would ever forget it.

But as it was, she was there.

Malfoy tried to say something, but Scorpius moaned again and she felt her heart crumble all over again. Hermione took an uneven breath of her own then did what came natural.

She helped them both.

The shushing noise she made did nothing except make Malfoy tense so bad he seemed to vibrate, but Hermione remained as calm as she could, tentatively resting her hand on the top of Scorpius' blond head; his hair was as soft as it looked. "You're okay."

He instantly fell silent.

After catching a glimpse of Malfoy's surprise, emboldened by success, Hermione got closer, ignoring his gaze in favour of continuing, running gentle fingers through Scorpius' hair and talking to him. Words her mother used to say when she was a child came to her slowly. "As… as the day turns to night, keep your worries out of sight." Scorpius steadily continued to settle. "Close your eyes and go to sleep for all the good times are yours to keep."

There was more, Hermione was sure of it, but that was all she could recall.

Malfoy carefully adjusted him and she followed the action, keeping contact and connection as she stroked his hair and whispered nothing noises until he finally went still.

Scorpius was asleep.

The silence that followed was more than awkward, more than deafening, it was nearly unbearable, but Hermione waited it out as long as she could before taking a hesitant step back. "Y-you should take him to bed."

Without a single debate, Malfoy did just that, but his steps were not as silent. Hermione didn't watch him go—couldn't. Instead, she picked up her wand and bag, tossed them both on the chair, and sat down on the sofa, feeling emotionally spent.

But she didn't leave.

Time passed as she waited for Malfoy to return.

Five minutes turned into fifteen.

By twenty, Hermione was on her feet, ready to find him. She knew it didn't take that long to put a sleeping child to bed. But Malfoy returned then and she really took a look at him. Pale. Haggard. Malfoy was exhausted in a way that looked just as soul deep as physical, but his eyes still had that sharp quality to them, one that told her to tread very lightly. All she wanted to do was the opposite.

Malfoy looked like he'd rather be anywhere else.

Well, that made two of them.

"We should talk."

A hundred different responses to his placid statement raced around in her mind, but the winner was only a single word: "Where?"

They ended up in his office with Hermione sitting in the same chair Scorpius had fallen asleep in hours before. Only now it faced Malfoy, who sat behind his desk, paying no mind to the fact that she was hurling fire at him.

He remained focused on his task, sweeping silver eyes back and forth between writing on parchment and reading from probably the oldest book she had ever seen—so old he had to be delicate about turning the pages, which he'd only done once in the last thirty minutes they'd been sitting there. As a person with a deep respect for books, Hermione appreciated the care he took, but as someone who had her questions crafted, listed, categorised, and ready to be asked…

Well, she wasn't in the mood for games.

It was late—nearly midnight—and Hermione was as drained, depleted, both mentally and physically.

Unfortunately, that didn't mean her mind rested while she watched him work. Hermione had another look around, taking in things she'd missed on her first visit. A broom mounted to his wall. A framed Falmouth Falcons shirt. More books caught her attention, of course, but not on his wall-to-wall shelves. There were eight books on his desk that looked just as old and dusty as the written word itself. The animal hide covers were so faded she could hardly read the titles.

Just as well.

She had already tried reading the pages he appeared to be copying—no, translating—over a dozen times, but Hermione wasn't skilled enough to read his handwriting right side up, much less upside down.

The letters were familiar, but they were arranged in a language she didn't speak.

A convoluted thought tumbled into the doors of her mind and she sent it back out, but it was slow to leave. Hermione found herself wanting to be able to translate him with the same ease he converted the words in front of him. She had no reason in particular beyond being able to communicate with him in the only language he seemed to understand.

His own.

Malfoy worked on, but she could tell his energy was nearly sapped. His current appearance made the version of him from earlier that week—who'd taken two of the three potions with him when he left the room—seem healthy and full of vigour.

There was a tremble in Malfoy's hands that he kept flexing through, kept trying to steady. He rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses, eyes that were heavier than ever before—now that she was paying enough attention to notice. He'd already nodded off three times while writing. Hermione pretended not to notice the simple truth that he was running low on fumes. And the whisky that floated next to him wasn't helping matters.

Why he insisted on pushing himself so hard, Hermione had no idea, but couldn't focus on that.

At least, not now.

"You like your silences just as tactical as Theo does, I see."

Malfoy's quill stopped abruptly. "I actually find the way he starts conversations annoying as hell." He sat the quill down before finally looking up. Hermione nearly cringed at the dark circles under his eyes. He looked almost sick. "Frankly, my head is pounding and I was merely waiting for you to begin."

And just like that, her well-prepared list of questions vanished before her eyes, leaving Hermione at a loss for words. "I don't know where to start."

"It's obvious where you want to start." Malfoy grabbed his floating whisky glass and finished it in one go, taking a breath after quickly grimacing. "No need to wait. Go on and tell me I'm a failure of a father."

That gave her pause. He wanted her to say that? Actually, no. Expected it. The bait had been laid out so perfectly, but every instinct in her told her to leave it. So she did. "I won't say that. I don't know your situation beyond what I see, but I will say that Scorpius needs help. Therapy at the very minimum. My department has a pediatric Healer."

"I'll speak to my mother about it." He rubbed the stiffness from his jaw—or tried to, at least. There was a certain detachment in his tone that made her distastefully frown. Those were words he said a lot. Said to placate. Said to end conversations. "She handles his daily activities for now."

For now.

Hermione managed to stifle all but one of her comments.

A proud moment.

"Your mother?" She blinked at the overtired man incredulously. "Your same mother whose treatment of him is just as rigid as his schedule?" There was more Hermione wanted to say, but the hardening of his expression made it perfectly clear that she was about to lose her window of opportunity. She had to backtrack. "Forget that." Because she absolutely needed to choose her battles carefully and Malfoy was not himself right now. "Let's start with what happened—"

"That hasn't happened before, as far as I know. Sometimes he wakes after he's gone to bed and sits in my office until he falls asleep. My mother can't stand it. But—" He pinched the bridge of his nose yet again. "I haven't—" Malfoy stopped himself short of divulging more than he wanted to say, but she already had a good guess.

Even if Scorpius had been upset in his sleep recently, Malfoy would not know because he wasn't there.

And really hadn't been in the last week or so with his overnight canvassing trips in Wales.

Hermione waited in brittle silence as he poured himself at least two fingers, but didn't drink it. He just stared at the liquid before placing it on the table. Malfoy removed his glasses and sat them on top of the stack of books, massaging his eyes so roughly it made her cringe. Resting his elbow on his desk, he ran a rough hand through his hair multiple times and rubbed the back of his neck—it was surely stiff and sore.

Meanwhile, the Healer in Hermione was listing off symptoms to a condition she knew he already had. Mental exhaustion on top of physical. Strain.

She leaned back in her chair. "How's your stomach?"

"Stop diagnosing me." The glare she earned was worth it.

"Stop giving me a reason to lace your whisky with a sedative and go to bed. You're beyond exhausted, Malfoy, and I meant what I said before. You're no use to anyone like this."

"There—"

"I have a lot of things I wish to discuss with you, but I can't say anything because you look like death."

Malfoy yawned, seemingly irritated by the outward signs of his fatigue, but even his own emotions fell flat. Limp.

"For what you did for him, I suppose I owe you a favour."

She frowned. "You know, a thank you would have sufficed, but I won't turn down your help. Favour or otherwise."

"Fine. If you'll excuse me, I have a Portkey to—"

"Sorry what?" Judging by the way he looked, there was no possible way that he could even function another day without sleep. He looked a breath from falling over. "When's the last time you actually slept, Malfoy?" His jaw clenched and Hermione rolled her eyes at his stubborn stupidity.

But she took a patient breath. She could do this.

"You're not my patient, Malfoy, we've established that, but you're clearly not fit to do anything except sleep. I—" And the words of her half-detailed argument died in her mouth when he stood, grabbed the floating whisky glass, and took it with him across the room to the sofa in front of the fireplace.

Hermione got to her feet when he sat, feeling a wave of frustration course like fire through her veins with nowhere to go.

"You do what you want, Malfoy. I'll just go."

The battle between them looked like it would be one of attrition.

And right now it was too close to call.

"Close the door on your way out."

Hermione would have. Really. She'd even opened the door to leave. But then she heard the sound of glass on wood as he sat his whisky on the coffee table, heard the sofa's low creak under his weight as he shifted. A noise that sounded something like resignation escaped Malfoy only moments before he laid down…

Kicked off his shoes

Gave in.

There wasn't much Hermione could do to stop herself from drawing closer to him.

The fact that Malfoy was already asleep and breathing deeply by the time she stood over him was the truest testament to his exhaustion. On his side and knees bent, he used his arms for a pillow. He was fully dressed but had no blanket for warmth. And while the sofa was just long enough for him to stretch to his full height, it wasn't a bed. Also, well….

Hermione found the sight just as lonely as Scorpius looking out the window.

She gave a mournful exhale for his inevitable aches and pains. "You'll be hurting in the morning for sure." Maybe she would leave a potion for him on the island. Not that he would take it, but perhaps a night on the sofa would make him more apt to comply. "Definitely should sleep in a bed." It was a half-joke. One she said more to herself than the sleeping man.

But Malfoy's mumbled words shocked her.

They followed her like a shadow, growing heavier to the point where they ached. They stayed with her long after she found a throw blanket to cover him with. They waited for her while she turned the lights off and shut the door. They haunted her in the space between awareness and sleep. Echoing over and over and over again…

"I can't."

 

He's just a boy, pretending to be a wolf, pretending to be king.
Maurice Sendak

Chapter Text

 

 

Ten
Sanctuary

 

May 22, 2011


Patience and understanding were key ingredients in cooking as well as life. It was about understanding the basic, raw ingredients and how to balance tastes, textures, and flavours to create meals. Hermione kept turning the thought over in her mind as she gathered everything the recipe book called for to make Bolognese.

It was a favourite of Narcissa's, and considering Hermione needed a healthy dose of those key ingredients to deal with the older witch, it seemed like an appropriate use of her Sunday afternoon.

Preparation for another week.

Hermione organised all her ingredients on the countertop, pre-measured per the recipe in individual bowls. Minced beef, pancetta, milk, wine, onions, carrots, celery, tomato sauce, paste, and spices were all ready to be added.

As she worked, heating the olive oil in a pot before adding the finely chopped vegetables, she also realised that cooking involved an endless amount of beginnings.

Really, each meal she prepared was another fresh start.

Hermione raised the heat, added minced beef, and stirred, breaking up the meat as it browned. Like people, no two recipes were the same, and that sentiment extended to the Malfoys' as well. While composed of the same base ingredients, each flavour profile couldn't be more different.

Next came the tomato sauce, paste, and more spices. Everything was mixing well together when she lowered the heat and added the bay leaf. Each step was executed exactly as printed in the recipe book next to her.

As she waited for the pot to boil, Hermione allowed her thoughts to turn to each of the Malfoys.

Narcissa's recipe gave her a dish that was delicate but potent; the flavours came out one by one over time.

Though she had some understanding of Scorpius' texture, she was still trying to guess all the ingredients that made him up. There was a sweetness to him that was natural. He clashed with Narcissa's potency and she didn't know how he blended with his father.

Malfoy was something all his own. Strong like Narcissa, he wasn't at all delicate, just convoluted. A flavour symphony that teetered between sweet and sour or bland and spicy.

How could anyone make those contrasts blend together into something congruent?

The question floated around in her head as she lowered the temperature. Bolognese required a slow and patient simmer for three hours in order to achieve the ideal, authentic texture. Hermione gave it the time it needed by completing her other tasks. First, she checked the parchment for notes from Sachs: there were only two.

Narcissa didn't like the pre-made breakfast. She prefers it fresh. It didn't seem like the insult it was intended to be.

She will be attending dinner with the Greengrass family and Scorpius. Interesting. She wondered if Malfoy spoke to her about their conversation.

Or if he was even awake.

The query lingered before floating off as Hermione scheduled her next meeting with Charles to check in regarding the adjusted potions. But each time she stirred the Bolognese sauce, the thought about blending flavours and Malfoys returned.

Her reason for considering them all was Narcissa. They were her family, her motivation, and though she was partly responsible for the friction, it would wear on her over time. No matter how unaffected she seemed. And that wouldn't do. The only way to relieve it would be to strip the three apart and focus on each dish independently of the others. Which meant a little closer look at the one dish that hadn't ventured too far from her mind since—

Pansy popped into her living room dressed in a black and white polka dot dress with a peach rose tucked behind her ear and her hair pulled back into a ponytail. She lowered her sunglasses before frowning at the sight of Hermione cooking.

"I was planning on Granger-napping you to take you out to dinner, but you look like an orphan that's been rolling around in dirt all day."

Hermione laughed. "I've had a productive day." The sauce was nearly done and it was time to start the pasta. She tapped the pot on the stove with her wand, watching as it filled with water. With a flick of her wrist, she turned on the hob. A few drops of oil later and she gave her full attention to the witch in her kitchen. "Are you staying for dinner?"

"Every one of your days is productive. As for your dinner invitation…" Dramatic as usual, Pansy inclined her chin, touching it delicately with two fingers, appearing wistful. "Seeing as I'm such a good friend, I must keep you company. I suppose I'll—"

"I've chilled a bottle of Chianti to go with it."

Pansy put her purse down on the edge of the island. "Say no more, Granger. You don't need to work so hard to convince me to stay." Hermione rolled her eyes, but smiled at her ridiculousness, noting that the water was now boiling, perfect for the linguini. "You're making that al dente, right?"

"Yes." For someone who couldn't cook, Pansy certainly had specific tastes. She removed her sunglasses, placing them on the island next to her purse, and gracefully took her seat on a barstool across from Hermione, who was preparing their salads. "How has your day been?"

"Busy. I've got two parties to plan. A small one for Draco's birthday that I'm forcing on him because he'll only turn thirty-one once. And a much larger one for Summer Solstice at Theo's next month."

Pansy threw parties like toddlers threw tantrums. One for every holiday and birthday. Really, she barely needed an excuse. Organising every detail of an event—right down to the mandatory magically binding non-disclosure agreement, with an added clause for privacy protection—gave Pansy something to do when she was bored and in need of stimuli. It also gave her the connection with people she'd never admit to needing. Whenever Pansy seemed a little morose, or when dark thoughts she'd never confess to having started creeping to the forefront of her mind, Hermione knew she would plan a party.

Theo always gave her a place because he knew she needed it.

He was good like that.

"What's the theme of the solstice party?"

"Floral and bohemian. It'll be outside in the clearing behind his family's country estate so I'm thinking of a place for people to dance, music, light hors d'oeuvres, tables set up under the trees with fairy lights and candles floating above them. Nothing fancy or elaborate." She ended with a shrug. "Of course, there will be flowers incorporated into all the decorations so perhaps that may take time. But really. It'll be simple."

It didn't sound simple.

Hermione stirred the pasta. "Uh-huh, how many people?"

"A fair amount… perhaps two hundred?"

"I don't even know a hundred people I want to be at a party with."

"Draco said the same thing when I approached him about putting a Stonehenge replica behind the estate. There's enough room and the clearing is perfect to view it as if you were there. Only with less Muggles." Pansy smiled at the sceptical look on her face. "It's a social gathering, Hermione. Don't be dull." Then her smile widened.

She glared at Pansy. "What do you want?"

"Two favours."

One of her eyebrows lifted in curiosity. "It depends."

"Nothing elaborate." Pansy rolled her eyes. "I just want a vial of your inhibition potions for the drinks, as I won't be serving wine. The potion was such a hit at my Winter Solstice party. The guests said they didn't feel any different."

The request was easy, even if the potion was not. Potions that lowered a person's reserves were complicated at best, couldn't be rushed, and took an incredibly long time to make—likely why Pansy had put in the request a month early. Too much and they lost their free will, acting purely on instinct. Too little and they wouldn't work at all. Just right and they would be freer with their words and slightly bolder with their actions. "I'll do it, how long do you want it to last?"

That was an entirely different set of variables she would have to account for.

Not hard, just time consuming.

"I'm thinking until the Last Light—the last moment of daylight. The official end of the solstice. Make it strong enough for me to consider speaking to Cho… voluntarily."

"Like I did for Winter Solstice but slightly stronger? You did say hello to Cho at Winter Solstice, and you were cheerful about it."

The cringe she received was comical. "Don't remind me."

Hermione checked the timer for the pasta. It had a few minutes left. "What's the second favour?"

"Oh, nothing particularly strenuous." Pansy's pause sounded more strategic than necessary. "You could invite the Weasley brother with table manners."

"Percy?"

"Is that his name?" Pansy blinked with wide-eyed innocence. "I hardly remember."

Hermione glared at her friend, who had found something particularly interesting about the jade green cabinets, but she decided to let Pansy stew in her own denial. She could wait until they'd both had a couple of glasses of Chianti. Her lips would be a little looser.

Pansy checked her fingernails. "I suppose his company won't be intolerable."

"Am I asking him to the party itself or as your date? The former I'll do, the latter I won't."

"The former. I'll give you the invitation tomorrow."

The last couple of minutes ticked away. Hermione summoned everything she needed, turned off the bog, and set it all up in the sink to strain. Once the pasta was ready, Hermione began the process of plating. Salad first, then the linguini, then Bolognese sauce. Hermione carried the plates and cutlery out to the conservatory while Pansy grabbed what was important to her: wine and glasses. Soon they were eating and drinking with the sunset as a backdrop.

Pansy finished her first glass before she even started eating. "How's Narcissa been since the potions debacle?"

"Who told you about it?"

"Theo told me that Draco figured it out."

That path of communication seemed accurate. "That's correct. She's not had any issues since starting on the corrected potion." Hermione took a sip of her wine and looked out at the darkening sky. "Speaking of, we should have a conversation about Narcissa since you're here."

Hermione expected general caginess from Pansy, but instead, she got something else.

"I've been waiting for this for nearly a month. I'm surprised you took this long."

"I was a bit busy trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with her and why she started declining right after I changed her potions. Forgive me for not being quicker."

"You're forgiven." Pansy smiled. "What do you want to know?"

Hermione gave her a look. "What I want to know and what you're willing to divulge are two different things."

"That would be correct, but I'm willing to make an exception."

"How gracious."

"You are doing me a couple of favours, after all. Not to mention the fact that I yelled at you about not taking her case. Would be pointless of me not to help." Which was all true. "Besides, the last month or so of her ranting about you—well, outside of her horrid mood swings and the fact that she calls me Bella all the time, which is just as horrifying as it sounds—has been interesting at best."

Hermione just blinked at that new bit of information. Best if she catalogued it for later.

"And here I was thinking we were becoming great friends." She rolled her eyes sarcastically, which made Pansy laugh. Hermione revisited one of their earlier conversations. "She did say that I remind her of herself, though I'm certain that was a backhanded comment at best."

"Or maybe it was a compliment."

"Doubtful," Hermione replied with a dry chuckle. "From what she's told you, what do you—"

"Look, I'll be honest with you. I love Narcissa, she's been something like a second mother to me, but she likes things done a particular way, and she's not used to relinquishing control. Especially not as much as you're asking her to give up."

"Sooner or later, she'll have to. Either by choice or the disease will take it from her. I'm trying to make her realise that she needs to make adjustments in her life now to prepare for this change. She cannot be in control of everything—"

"And she should, but look at it from her perspective. You're asking her to change a lot in a very short amount of time. You're asking her to give up a large piece of who she is."

"I didn't say she had to completely give up on society, in fact. I'm going to observe her book reading tomorrow just to see how she is when she doesn't know I'm around. My reason for asking her to step back is that at some point, her disease won't let her operate at the capacity she does now. She'll have to stop running Scorpius' education, society events, everything. I'm trying to help ease her into that transition, but—"

"Don't you think she knows this?" Pansy sat her fork on the plate and leaned back. "She knows that she'll decline to the point where she won't know herself or anyone else. I think she's taking comfort in the routine before she has to come to grips with reality."

"I understand that, but—"

"There's the second issue. You. But you can't change yourself, so nothing to do there."

Hermione tilted her head. "Me?"

Pansy chuckled into her glass. "A little insight on Narcissa. People treat her one of three ways." She held up one manicured finger. "One: with respectful reverence she has earned through her name, wealth, fame, or her philanthropy since the war." Then a second. "Two: with scorn and contempt. Even though Lucius died, the Manor has been burning for thirteen years, and they're prime targets for Death Eaters, some people don't feel that the Malfoys have suffered enough." Pansy added a third finger. "Or three: with awkward confusion. Like they have no idea how to feel about her."

Hermione thought that sounded accurate.

"You… don't fit into any of those categories, Granger. She's also not used to anyone speaking to her the way you have." Pansy shook her head before laughing to herself. "Did you really tell her—" The witch stopped herself. "Knowing you, everything she has accused you of saying is likely true. Also, Draco confirmed it."

Ah, so he had heard more than she thought.

Hermione merely shrugged. "She gave unsolicited advice like she didn't expect a challenge. Meanwhile, I have never backed down from one."

"In that part of your life, yes." Pansy gave her a meaningful glare that Hermione returned just as stubbornly. "Speaking of challenges…" Pansy shook her head before chewing on her bottom lip. "Do you think you'll be able to regulate her condition?"

Hermione shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "It's too soon to tell after the mishap. It seems the potions have helped so far. At the very least, she's sleeping better. But she's not exactly forthcoming about any symptoms she does experience. That needs to change."

"Give her time. She'll come around."

"Whether she comes around or not, that's not my only concern. This is a job she hired me to do. She wants time and I can't give it to her without transparency on her part. I'm giving it on mine." Hermione ate more from her plate while Pansy drank first then joined in. Several minutes of companionable silence passed before Hermione settled on another question. "How long have you known about her condition?"

Pansy sighed the sigh of someone faced with having a conversation she would much rather avoid. "She would occasionally forget things, but I don't think anyone thought it out of the ordinary until she took Scorpius to the tailor to be fitted for robes for Astoria's funeral and returned home without him."

Hermione stopped eating. "What?"

"I was there with Daphne and Draco. They were making arrangements together when she came in. When Draco asked where Scorpius was, she looked at him and had no idea what he was talking about. I'll never forget, she said, 'You're too young to have a son.' And then all hell broke loose."

All she could do was blink wildly. "Where was Scorpius?"

Likely terrified and confused. Lost. She couldn't imagine.

"He was still at the tailor where she'd left him, and the owner was just completing the fitting. He said she went to look at a different colour robes while he was doing measurements, and when he turned around, she was gone. He pretended like nothing was amiss so as not to distress Scorpius." She sighed, rubbing her temple. "He wasn't talking by that point, but I doubt he noticed anything was wrong."

Hermione deeply doubted that. "Any other incidents?"

"Over the last three years? Hmm. I can think of several, thanks to hindsight. More when I was staying with them after my divorce. During tea, she would forget what she was talking about, who I was, or where we were. It still happens. She calls me Andromeda sometimes but mostly Bella. I never say anything to correct her, just go along with it." Smart. Exactly what she would advise. "Let's see. Before her diagnosis, her hands would shake uncontrollably. She would sweat and get agitated. Once she Apparated across the room accidentally. I'm honestly surprised she didn't Splinch herself. She's wandered off loads of times over the last two years. Draco probably has a better account of it. He's been dealing with it longer. Had to force her to see a Healer."

"From what I gather, things aren't great between them."

"No, they aren't. They're both stubborn as fuck and refuse to bend. They might not speak much outside of very select topics, but he won't let her go anywhere without security."

That sparked her interest. "How long has she had security?"

Years, she assumed, given everything she knew and didn't know about the Death Eater threats the Malfoys had faced. At least since the letters started. Or maybe since they moved back to London. Or—

"There were incidents in the past, of course, but Draco hired them the day after she left Scorpius. That was his last straw."

Which meant they were hired for more than just protection from threats—they were hired to protect her from herself.

After recalling her accusations about him being more concerned with the threat of Death Eaters than what was actually killing his mother, Hermione inwardly winced. She hadn't been entirely right in that assumption. Not that Malfoy had been open with his reasons, but… Well, like she'd said to Harry, it wasn't like him to be forthright.

At that point, Hermione began to wonder what she had gotten right about him.

Didn't seem like much.

Questions.

Hermione had plenty of them, and they all were threatening to burst forth all at once. However, she knew better. Was more patient. Knew she couldn't ask them all at once.

In fact, she waited to ask any more until after they were finished with their meal and sitting on the sofa, enjoying wine and the ambiance of the darkening sky. The fairy lights had only just come on, adding enough light for Hermione to really see the rose in Pansy's hair.

It wasn't decorative, but alive.

Now that was a question she could ask. "You're wearing a real rose in your hair?"

"Of course, you would notice." Pansy took a delicate sip of Chianti. "Weasley's been sending them. Just one rose a week. Seems like every time I come close to forgetting him, another rose shows up."

Smart.

"Weasley?" Hermione gave her a knowing look. "The one you don't know?"

"Oh, fuck you, Granger." Pansy glared at her, but there was no heat behind it. They were both relaxed from the Chianti and the comfortable mood between them, which had taken years to perfect. "I happen to hate it very much, thank you. I'm not interested in being courted."

She didn't believe Pansy for a second, not when she had his flower in her hair, but she didn't press for more details. Her friend would talk on her own terms, be honest in her own way, and Hermione would be ready to listen whenever that happened.

That was how they worked.

Hermione drank a bit of Chianti, enjoying the flavour. "I wasn't under the impression that there were rules to courting for purebloods. I thought it was all contracts, arrangements, and societal machinations."

"Of course, you're not wrong. But you're not entirely right either. It depends on the family's status. I was the only girl, so my marriage contract basically auctioned me off to the highest bidder." Pansy shrugged like it was normal, even though she'd run from that life.

"I won't say I understand it—"

"You're quite expressive with your disapproval, Granger. You're not as subtle as you believe. In fact, Narcissa said that you looked like you'd smelled something rotten when she talked about contracting Draco's second marriage."

Well, there was no denying how she felt about it. "The entire matter is archaic."

Pansy crossed her legs properly, reclining on the sofa. "It's the pureblood way."

"But you don't subscribe to it anymore."

"Not entirely, but I can't help the way I was raised. It's ingrained into me, taught to me by tutors and governesses and my mother." Pansy finished her wine, placing her glass on the table in front of her. "No matter how removed I am from it, that life is a part of who I am. I still catch myself walking how I was told to, speaking when I should, and reaching for a dress that I would usually wear. Parvati wanted to get a tattoo and I immediately rejected the idea because tattoos are somewhat of a taboo in society—"

Hermione almost choked. "Sorry what? Tattoos are a what?"

"No respectable pureblood has one." The other witch stated, as if obvious. "They have a negative connotation, especially given Voldemort. It's also unseemly to mark up your body."

Of course, now all she could think about was the colour on Malfoy's left arm. "What else would be considered unseemly? Just… to understand Narcissa better."

"Facial hair, but that's becoming more acceptable with the time. It's still frowned upon in certain circles with more traditional families. Narcissa complains about Draco's facial hair until he gets irritated and shaves it off… and then he lets it grow again. He's moody like that." She pursed her lips. "What else? Hmmm… Short hair on both wizards and witches. Being divorced or unmarried past a certain age. Honestly, there are so many more."

"What about children?"

Hermione's attempt at casual fell flat as Pansy's blue eyes settled on her. "Ah, so you've met Scorpius." Not a question, but a statement. Pansy leaned forward and refilled her glass with the last of the wine like she was going to need it. "Go on, I know you have a million questions. I'm not certain how much help I'll be. Theo has a better grasp of the situation. I met him when he was two and wasn't around much, but I'll answer what I can."

Interesting.

Hermione made a gesture. "I'll let you speak freely."

"The fact that he doesn't talk is a source of stress for Narcissa. She's tried everything to get him to talk—coercion, mainly, but she's tried to make compromises, too. Everything except outwardly expressing her frustration." Which was a good thing, Hermione supposed. "Nothing works. He's incredibly strong-willed for a five-year-old."

"I wouldn't talk either if she treated me like she treats him."

Pansy sighed. "Between Daphne, Theo, and now you—"

"Scorpius is well taken care of, no doubt about it, but his emotional care leaves a lot to be desired. How can you ignore how coldly she treats him? How can you revere her when she—"

"I've had this argument with her so many times in the last six months that I'm sick of the words, but she's insistent on doing things her way. She thinks she's making him strong." Pansy swirled the wine in her glass. "I know you don't understand my relationship with her. Daphne and I fight all the time about it, but I can say that you can care about someone and not like their choices."

There was so much more that she wanted to say, but wouldn't allow herself. Scorpius wasn't a patient, after all. And yet… "She's got to know that his silence is an obvious sign that he's grieving and needs help. Last night I told Malfoy that he needs help and he—"

"What? Said that he'd talk to his mother about it."

"Yes."

"Do you honestly think that Narcissa would put him in counselling? That's like admitting that he has a problem. That they're not perfect. Draco can try, but he won't succeed."

She had a point. Even while working at St. Mungo's, there weren't many that sought help in her department. Many still thought of mental health as a taboo topic. "Okay, but she's not his father. Malfoy—"

"Traditionally, he has little to do with Scorpius' care right now. He's too young."

Hermione stared at her as if she were speaking a different language. "What exactly does that even mean?"

"It's the pureblood way."

She took a breath, patience vanishing rapidly. "Pansy, if you say that one more time."

The witch gave her an irritated look that matched her own. "You asked, Granger, and now I'm telling you. You're going to call it antiquated, but this is how it works in pureblood families. Witches take care of the children up until a certain age. They handle their lessons, etiquette, preparing them for Society, and they fulfill their emotional needs. Everything. Fathers are rarely involved with a child's care."

"That's—"

"How it is." Pansy examined her nails like she was explaining something as common as time. Hermione felt a rant building, welling inside of her like a shift in the tide. But she stopped herself and listened to what her friend had to say. "If he were a girl, Narcissa would continue preparing him for society, but since he's a boy, when Scorpius turns eight, Draco will step in, take over, and teach him like his father taught him."

Hermione waited several long moments. "You're absolutely right. That is completely—"

"Traditional. I know it's a swear word to you, but to some people, it's a way of life." Pansy took another long pull of her wine. "I learned from my mother, who learned from hers, and so on. I know that with Scorpius, the lessons Draco will teach will be very different from his father's teachings as he had a rapid change of heart during and after the war."

"Nevermind that." Hermione dismissed the thought of Draco teaching his son. That didn't matter because Scorpius was three years off. And a lot would change for them in those three years. First being… "Narcissa has dementia. She's only going to decline from here. Now, at what rate, I'm still not certain, but who will take over his care when she's unable to? His nanny or his tutors? People who don't know him—"

"Or Draco's new wife."

At Hermione's sharp recoil, her friend sighed. "I already know what you're thinking and you're wrong."

"I'm not thinking anything at all." She bit back what she wanted to say and finished finishing her wine.

"Liar." When Hermione said nothing in her own defence, her friend sighed. "It's not uncommon for him to marry again. In fact, it's expected. I won't deny the fact that I believe Narcissa's disease is making her focus hard on that one-year deadline. I know she's making him take marriage meetings and attend Gatherings. Well…" She looked momentarily uncomfortable. "That's part of the reason."

"It's disgusting." Hermione realised she was gripping the stem of her empty glass too tightly and set it on the table. "He should be focused on his son, not finding a new wife."

"His focus remains elsewhere, much to Narcissa's frustration." With a tired exhale, Pansy tilted her head up, observing the darkening skies. After such a wonderful day, it looked ready to rain, with clouds rolling in from the south. "Draco is… complicated, and I'll need more wine to discuss him. I understand him both less and more than I did when we were teenagers. However, it goes without saying that he's always been… Draco."

That also sounded like a vast understatement, but Hermione didn't dare speak that out loud.

"He's always been faced with difficult decisions, always had so much on his shoulders. He struggles with the weight of it all, but he tries to do the right thing for his family, even if the choice he makes isn't always the right one. I know for a fact he has zero interest in remarrying. He didn't want to marry in the first place—neither did Astoria… at least not to him, but that's neither here nor there."

Hermione blinked a couple of times, trying to catch the parts that Pansy had blazed through, knowing for certain that she'd missed something along the way, but unable to pinpoint what. Or remember every word of what had been spoken. Still, she had one question about what she had caught from Pansy's tumble of words: "If he's not interested, then why go along with it? Why let his mother orchestrate his remarriage at all?"

The question was left in the universe for so long that she had no idea if the other witch would acknowledge it or let it scatter to corners of the sky.

Fade into nothing.

Pansy broke the silence just as it was shifting into uncomfortable. "I had to be burned off my family tree to live and choose for myself, but Draco has never had the opportunity to do the same."


 

May 23, 2011


Hermione had a talent.

Well, she had many, but one in particular was noteworthy considering her fame as The Brains.

She knew how to blend into crowds and become invisible, either out of absolute necessity or selfish desire. And though ideal, she didn't need Polyjuice Potion to do it.

The secret was to become a different person. Someone not Hermione Granger, someone washed out and forgettable. A face and nothing more. And that wasn't just accomplished by dressing differently, changing her makeup, or taming her recognisable hair. It was about changing her body language. About not sitting alone. Mingling was absolutely necessary, but not starting random conversations with strangers, only joining them.

And the most important tip?

Being confident in the fact that anyone notable who attended upscale charity events didn't pay any mind to those who weren't worthy of their time or attention. Those who weren't on their level. Those who weren't instantly recognisable.

Narcissa never noticed her.

It had been a busy week for her patient, as the witch was hosting her third charity event—and it was only Wednesday. Narcissa had been so preoccupied over the last few days that she'd barely had time to argue or criticise Hermione and her care, much less complain about her meals. In fact, she had eaten every breakfast and lunch Hermione had prepared without fuss.

It seemed like the perfect time to see just how stressful Narcissa's life was.

Which was why she was in an elegant decorated ballroom that had a surprisingly intimate feel. Tonight's social gathering was for the Orphans of the Wizarding Wars—one of the many charities the older witch supported. The event had opened with a moving reading from her biography, which was still as popular ever. But other than that, it was nothing more than Narcissa floating around the room, engaging with donors—wealthy families and fans rich enough to afford the thousand-Galleon seat alike—while Malfoy dutifully stood next to her, clean-shaven and in proper wizarding attire. All black.

He looked almost bored.

Well, no matter. Narcissa's lack of awareness worked for what Hermione needed to do: observe.

Hermione watched her for any blank moments, any signs of confusion or distress, even the subtle ones like tremors or sweats. Or physical ones like any slow movements or rigidity. Hermione also watched out for any changes in alertness or attention. Overall, her observation had been a bust. However, there had been one moment when her face had momentarily tensed, but it ended up being nothing as she cut her eyes over to her son after he'd said something to an older looking gentleman after he'd presented a stunningly beautiful witch.

Whatever Malfoy had said hadn't amused his mother one bit.

Outside of that moment, there was nothing noteworthy.

It had been a good night, and Hermione was glad for it. For her. She deserved it.

That thought caused her surveillance to shift from monitoring her as a Healer… to observing her as a person.

Hermione knew about her book—everyone did—but she hadn't been cognizant of the extent of its reach. Over ten years had passed since its release and she was still reading passages from it, still auctioning signed copies for charity. It was impressive. As Hermione mingled, weaving in and out of conversations, she did so with a growing awareness of just how many of the event's attendants still clamoured to get in Narcissa's good graces. Still were intrigued by the Malfoys as a whole. Wanted to be associated with them. Seen with them. Know them.

Or in several cases, become a part of them.

And while her son had a certain appeal, it mainly had to do with her.

That night, Narcissa was beautiful as always in stunning emerald robes, her blonde hair twisted into a graceful coiffure. Life, time, and a progressing illness could not—and had not—withered her. There was so much life in her, so much shrewd intelligence and poise that Hermione found herself much like the other guests: stuck just watching Narcissa Malfoy in her element.

The public gravitated towards Narcissa like moons around a planet, believing they were close when in actuality, they were stuck in her orbit. Millions of kilometres away. Her intent all along had been to attract, not to allow them into her atmosphere.

Because then they might be able to see past her surface and mine their way into the core of who she was. See the cracks and flaws she hadn't exposed in her book. The dull parts that hadn't been buffed to perfection. And in doing that, perhaps they wouldn't revere her so much…

Or perhaps they would love her more because of those imperfections.

After all, those were the aspects of Narcissa that reminded Hermione of her humanity, reminded her that Narcissa was more than her conventional beliefs. More than their differences, friction, and clash of wills. More than just a patient. And it made Hermione wonder if there was a part of her that could get to know Narcissa on that level, a part that could understand the older witch simply because those cracks and flaws reflected something.

Something that reminded Hermione of her own imperfections.

The appearance of an unfamiliar witch in her line of sight pulled Hermione from her thoughts.

She was taller, thanks to her heels, with blue eyes that contrasted her black hair, which was pulled back into a low bun that highlighted her high cheekbones and slender neck. Her robes were as black as her hair, modest but snug enough to off her figure.

"Oh, hello." Hermione's eyes flickered down, noticing Narcissa's signed book in her hand.

It wasn't the first time someone had approached her that evening, but it was typically single wizards—oh, and the lone married one she had sent immediately on his way after noting the pale line on his ring finger.

"Do we know each other?" she asked, already knowing the answer.

"Oh no, I'm Olivia. I just spotted you standing here looking at the Malfoys and thought I'd say hello." Naturally, Hermione almost argued, but actually she had been staring. She put on a pleasant smile, but apparently the other woman wasn't finished. "Have you been formally introduced?"

Hermione blinked. "To who?"

"Why the Malfoys', of course." Olivia scoffed as if she couldn't believe how silly Hermione was being. "You can't be invited to a marriage meeting without an introduction."

"Oh, no." Hermione shook her head. "I'm certainly not looking to contract myself into a marriage."

When the other woman realised that Hermione wasn't in competition she softened. Or rather, she began to brag. "My father introduced me to his mother with the hopes of securing a marriage meeting with Draco. We may be half-bloods, but my family owns Madam Malkin's as well as several clothing lines. My dowry is quite substantial."

So, she was very rich. Hermione pretended to care. "Wow…"

Not noticing the sarcasm in her tone, the strange woman continued on, unbothered. "I think it will be enough to secure a Meeting and I'll let my charm do the rest. Rumour has it, he's not looking to remarry, but I think I'm persuasive enough." She lifted her chin and put on a sly, knowing smile. "I know what men like him want."

"Oh, definitely."

"Exactly." Olivia smiled like she'd found a kindred spirit. "A little of that and I'll be the next Mrs Malfoy in no time. My parents will be elated."

Good luck with that, Hermione almost said, but only just barely managed to stifle herself. "Have you met him yet?"

The witch stole another glance at the unsmiling Malfoy heir. "Only from afar." Her eyes lingered for a second. "But I'm hoping to by the end of the evening. How do I look?"

"Lovely." That wasn't a lie. Hermione really tried not to ask her next question, but what harm could it do? It was conversational at best. "What do you know about him?" She nodded in Malfoy's direction.

To observe.

While Narcissa charmed a nicely dressed pair, a witch who looked at least a decade younger than Malfoy offered her hand to him while smiling in a simpering sort of way. Sharp grey eyes cut from hers, down to her extended hand, then back up before the corners of his mouth quirked into a frown and he turned his attention elsewhere.

The smile on the girl's face crashed and burned.

For a moment, Hermione felt bad for her, a little indignant because of his behaviour, but then she remembered the intent behind her action and reasons for getting close… and her sympathy went out the window.

Meanwhile, Olivia barely seemed to notice. "I know that he's rich, eligible, and comes from an influential family; the rest doesn't matter. At least he's attractive for someone so cold. Thank Merlin for that." She started to chuckle, thinking Hermione would join in. She didn't. Nowhere in that did she mention Scorpius, which was extremely off putting. And after the awkward moment, Olivia sobered and cleared her throat while gripping the book in her hand.

"Well, best of luck to you, Olivia. I really must be going."

Startled by her abrupt farewell, the woman just nodded. "Oh, well it's nice to meet you…" Her eyes narrowed in confusion. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name?"

Quick on the uptake, she thought of a name that was inconspicuous. Forgettable. Her middle name. "Jean."

"Oh! Well, Jean, it's been wonderful to meet you."

"Likewise, Future Mrs Malfoy."

The witch giggled, flushing prettily. Hermione made her way towards the exit, passing people by who barely gave her a glance. She was just another face in the crowd, after all. She didn't matter because she wasn't memorable. Even Olivia had already moved on and was now chatting with the latest of Malfoy's rejects, patting the sullen witch on the back, not believing at all that she may end up just like her by night's end.

But that wasn't Hermione's problem and she silently wished the witch luck.

Now that her task was complete, there was only one task left: leaving.

Hermione was only a few steps from the door when she felt something strange.

She looked over her shoulder to figure out what it was and—well, the moment called forth another reminder: she wasn't always the most observant person in the room. She wasn't always the smartest or the quickest either. There was almost always someone better. Someone that didn't quite fall into line with expectations. Someone who already hadn't.

Someone whose grey eyes had locked on her from across the room, trapping her in his gaze.

Hermione froze, heart stuttering in her chest until—

Wait, she had nothing to hide and every reason to be there. She held his even gaze, noting the way his eyebrow rose slowly in question. But instead of making his mother aware of Hermione's presence, his mouth lifted into a wry smirk.

Then Malfoy looked away, moved on, resuming his conversation with a wizard who seemed to be a little baffled by his moment of distraction. The man had even looked in her direction, but didn't see her.

At least not the way Malfoy did.

 


 

May 25, 2011


Narcissa Malfoy had never exercised for fitness purposes a day in her life… and it showed.

When hosting and entertaining—or even existing—she possessed the grace and elegance of a bygone era. There was a presence about her that caused people to look whenever she entered any room; an energy that made everyone take notice. Infectious. Just because she was immune to Narcissa's charms, just because they had vastly different attitudes and beliefs that clashed like two armies vowing to take no prisoners, it didn't mean she was blind to it.

Didn't mean she didn't notice.

Or respect it. Privately.

Consistently, Hermione met the challenge each day as Narcissa's Healer, never backing down from the continuous test of having a patient that was almost as strong-willed as herself.

However, now that her potions had been corrected and she was levelling out, it was time to tackle other aspects of her care.

Namely, physical activity.

Hermione watched as every ounce of that poise and dignity evaporated within the first few steps of their scheduled walk outdoors. It was a source of humour for her, a moment that showed Narcissa's humanity in such a bizarre way that she often had to stifle her mirth behind her hand. It had taken five whole minutes into their first walk for Hermione to realise just why Narcissa hated exercising so vehemently.

Narcissa hated sweating. Hated the physical aches that followed a good, long walk. Hated everything that had anything to do with the act.

That knowledge didn't stop Hermione from changing into trainers and approaching Narcissa as she reviewed her schedule while sipping tea. "Let's take a walk, shall we?"

"I assure you I am very busy." Narcissa was tense, her voice as crisp as the early morning air. The vertical lines between her eyebrows were so firmly grooved that Hermione had to assume that her expression—and outright refusal—would have been her instinctive reaction to any suggestion in that moment.

Not just walking.

Her mood now had Hermione's attention.

Not to combat it, but to figure out the source and determine if it was worthy of the stab of concern she felt as her Healer.

Narcissa was temperamental at best, but this was something unusual and that made it noteworthy. In truth, Narcissa had been in quite a horrific mood all morning. After Scorpius was hurried along to his lessons by his nanny, Zippy had reported to her that morning that Narcissa had returned extremely late after last night's charity event (her second of the week) and ignored all his attempts at rousing.

When she entered the kitchen about an hour later than usual, Narcissa looked as if she hadn't slept a wink. She was flushed and quiet, agitated to the point where she would have spilled her tea had Hermione not used magic to save the cup. And it had still been a close call. But after breakfast and potions, her mood had seemed to improve.

Until now.

Hermione sat on the sofa next to her, wand in hand, several diagnostic charms at the tip of her tongue. "How are you feeling right now?"

"Annoyed." She shut her planner and sent it to the table with a smooth push of magic. "I despise walking, yet here you are."

All of her slowly mounting worries temporarily vanished as she suppressed her laugh by clearing her throat. "I've already explained the importance of having a physical activity routine. We've been lax on it, but now that your symptoms have levelled off, I feel it's a good time to integrate it." At that, she earned a dark glower. "Perhaps we can compromise. Is there an activity that you enjoy doing that we can substitute?"

Narcissa offered a testy look in response. "I am going to the spa today, as recommended. In fact, I leave within the hour and will return before dinner."

"Good for circulation, but not exercise. I only suggested walking as it's a lower impact activity. Perhaps swimming? Zippy told me that there's a pool inside—"

"That is Draco's domain. He swims twice a day. Sometimes more." Narcissa waved her hand with casual poise. "I, myself, have never gone down there, nor do I intend to, as I find the act tedious and unbecoming."

Unbecoming of what exactly? But Hermione didn't ask that, she knew how and when to pick her battles. She'd also learned that sometimes, if she waited long enough and let things settle, she wouldn't have to fight at all.

Narcissa's eyes softened as if struck by a memory, fiddling with the ever-present ring around her neck as she often did while contemplating. "I enjoy gardening as a whole," she confessed softly, much to Hermione's surprise. "It was the only task at the Manor I did not allow the elves to do. The only task I did with minimal magic. I happen to find it incredibly relaxing and the outcome is always rewarding so I don't mind the labour."

Which actually meant she didn't mind sweating, as long as it was on her own terms.

It made perfect sense.

Amongst all their differences, it was something that they had in common.

Something she could work with. Something they could grow from.

"I have a greenhouse and garden that regularly need work, if you're interested."

Narcissa contemplated it for a moment before smoothing down the front of her robes. "I suppose it will do for your required physical activity." Her tone was so dry it could have caught fire, but Hermione caught a hint of colour in her cheeks and a twinkle in her eye that verified her true feelings.

Delight.

For the second time, Hermione suppressed her smile with her fist, but for an entirely different reason. She cleared her throat. "I'll add it to your schedule?"

"See that you do." Narcissa glanced at her watch. "I prefer to garden in the morning after breakfast. We can begin tomorrow."

"I'll be sure to schedule that in." While Narcissa continued her tea, Hermione sat in patient silence, but not for long. "How are you feeling on the potions?"

"More like myself than I have in months. However, I have noticed that the afternoon potions increase my appetite, and that simply won't do."

"There's nothing to be done about that, I'm afraid."

"Are there not other alternatives that would remedy this? I am aware it sounds vain, but it's concerning."

"Perhaps, I can look into an alternative." At the look of relief on Narcissa's face, Hermione added a disclaimer: "I'm not making any promises."

"I understand." The older witch nodded. "Also, there is one matter I wish to discuss with you."

"Oh?"

"Particularly about your meals." Hermione visibly relaxed, but readied herself for an argument until she noticed a hint of hesitation. It reminded her of Malfoy, which tickled her curiosity. "I understand that we have agreed to one meal a day during the week. However, I am finding everything I eat outside of breakfast dissatisfying and unpalatable." Which might as well have been a compliment. "I understand that our agreement…"

"If you like, perhaps I can add dinner, something hearty but healthy. I can make meals ahead of time for you, enough to last through the week and weekend. Something that can be reheated or charmed to remain fresh." At the little sign of interest, she continued. "We can come up with a menu based off of the fruits and vegetables in season. I can start preparing snacks to curb your appetite after your potions. We can adjust to your taste."

Narcissa finished her tea and leaned forward, placing it on the glass coffee table facing the fireplace. "I would like that."

"Good."

Feeling more than accomplished, as that had been the most that she'd gotten out of Narcissa since becoming her Healer, Hermione started to rise when the witch seated next to her said something that kept her seated. "Also, I quite enjoy your tea selection, but would like to be afforded the opportunity to sample other blends."

"As you wish." Hermione smiled. "Any particular preferences?"

Once Narcissa left for the spa following a pleasant lunch where they scheduled time for her to garden, Hermione decided to treat her patient with a surprise dinner of baked wild salmon and salad upon her return, elated by the progress they had made on several fronts.

Dinner preparation had been easy.

The tip with salmon was to not season it too early or the salt would break down the proteins and draw moisture out of the fish, so until Hermione was ready to bake, she went about preparing the salad. Normally, she would have made it warm with asparagus heads, fennel, and radishes, but instead—knowing Narcissa's preference for refreshing foods and cold salads during the warmer months—she created a blend of freshly picked spinach and arugula, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers with a sherry vinaigrette she'd made that wouldn't be too strong.

Simple yet flavourful.

By the time Scorpius' nanny entered the kitchen with purposeful, rubber-soled strides, Hermione was busy humming to herself while slicing tomatoes and cucumbers. She looked up to greet the witch the same way she always did: with a distant yet polite hello, but halted when she noted the frustrated grimace on her face. Panic rolled off her in waves while she purposefully searched the living room, looking under the table and behind all the furniture.

Likely Scorpius-related.

It wasn't that he was wild—quite the opposite—but even on a good day, Catherine Prichard barely had her wits about her. Hermione thought it had a lot to do with Narcissa's need for strict routines and order. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that Catherine, at twenty-one, was almost too young for such an encompassing position and incapable of standing up for herself, especially when Narcissa was being unreasonable.

It was a wonder she had kept the nanny on, or hired her in the first place, but Hermione got the impression that Catherine was the latest caretaker on a long list that had come before her—all driven away for a variety of reasons that Hermione wasn't privy to.

But what she did know was that the help always talked.

Which meant one thing: Catherine, however inexperienced, would be hard to replace.

The witch only spotted Hermione at the island when her search turned to the kitchen. Her face smoothed into a tight smile that did nothing to hide the fact that she was troubled. "Hello, Miss Granger."

She tried not to bristle, but being called Miss Granger by someone easily ten years younger made her feel incredibly old. "Please, call me Hermione."

It wasn't the first time she'd said this, but her request fell on distracted ears as Catherine pulled open the cupboard, looked inside, and shut it with a frustrated groan. "I wish locator charms worked in this house."

"Oh, if you're looking for Narcissa, she's gone to the spa and will be back later."

Catherine's shoulders sagged in relief. "Thank you for letting me know that, but I'm not looking for Narcissa for the status update." She and Zippy seemed to rotate the task of updating Narcissa on her grandson's lessons with his tutors.

It didn't make much sense to Hermione. Actually, none of it did.

Why hire a nanny when she had a perfectly capable House-elf that could—with a snap of his fingers—easily handle all matters concerning both housework and child supervision?

Strange, but also none of her concern.

Catherine looked around as if Narcissa might be eavesdropping. "In truth, I've lost Scorpius." Hermione's eyes widened, her task instantly forgotten. Sure, he was quiet, but how could she possibly lose an entire child? The nanny cringed, clearly reading Hermione's expression. "I know, but I was discussing a timetable for when they would be adding Latin lessons with his tutor and Zippy was off cleaning. When I turned around, Scorpius was gone. Have you seen him?"

To keep her distaste to herself about a five-year-old's strict schedule, Hermione squatted down to the lower cabinet she was in front of to grab the salad bowl. "I ha—oh my goodness!"

She nearly lost her balance, heart hammering like a war drum in her chest. Instead of her bowl, she found Scorpius.

His blue eyes went wide with shock as he clutched the open dictionary tightly to his chest, no doubt wrinkling the pages. He had been just as startled as Hermione, but unlike her, he hadn't made a sound.

There were several questions running around like people escaping from a smoke-filled room, but the first one was the most important: How long had he been there?

Hermione instinctively looked around the space he'd created, spotting her bowl directly next to his feet. It wasn't too cramped; outside of the kitchen items she'd left to stop the back and forth, there was hardly anything in the storage space inside the island. It was the perfect crawl space for a child who was currently staring at her like an owl.

"Miss Granger?" The now alarmed Catherine appeared at the end of the island. "Are you okay?"

"Um…" Hermione gripped the open cabinet door, blinking at the little boy. Instantly, she noted the sharp spike in his anxiety as he started to fidget and look for an escape. The level of stress coming from a child so young bothered her on a deeper level than she cared to admit. "I…"

And it really, really wasn't any of her business.

Truly it wasn't.

Not in the slightest.

But… she'd never quite gotten the mental image of him falling apart out of her head and she hadn't been able to forget him calling for his mother while asleep in his father's arms. She continued moving his cup each morning and waving him goodbye, all while feeling more and more drawn to him. Unable to look away. Like now.

Scorpius' eyes turned desperate; holding onto hers like a lifeline. The world began slowing on its axis. Not because she had made a decision, but because it had been made before she knew there was one to make.

"I haven't seen him."

Genuine surprise spread across the little boy's features and she ripped herself from his gaze, turning her head towards Catherine. Then she stood. "Sorry for alarming you, I seem to have forgotten a bowl I was looking for. But no, I haven't seen him. If I do, I'll bring him to you straight away."

"Thank you." Catherine smiled so genuinely she almost felt bad for lying. Almost. "He's especially good at hiding when he's tired of lessons, I'll check his normal spots."

"Good idea." Hermione reached for her wand as soon as the nanny turned her head. With a whisper, she cast a charm that would ensure she wouldn't return. It was a simple charm really, nothing that would hurt her, but anytime she thought of the kitchen, another room with another hiding spot would pull her away. The nanny went stiff the moment the spell made contact, but kept walking, her shoes echoing on the wood floor as she went.

Positive that Catherine wouldn't come back, Hermione set her wand on the counter and sank to her knees, resting back on her heels.

If at all possible, Scorpius looked even cagier.

Hermione wondered why, but the answer was as clear as glass. Outside of seeing her every morning at breakfast and their lone interaction beyond that, Scorpius didn't know her. Or trust her.

First things first?

A reintroduction.

"Hi." She extended her hand with a soft, sincere grin. "I'm Hermione."

It must have been a Malfoy thing because Scorpius studied at her hand as if it were a particularly confusing word in the dictionary he still clutched to his chest. Then his eyes flicked back to hers. Ultimately, Scorpius made no attempt to accept what she was offering. Instead, he carefully smoothed the wrinkles from the page of his beloved book.

While she hadn't expected to see a child so reverent about a book, Hermione had anticipated the snub; she wasn't offended. "Do you want to come out of there?"

Scorpius shook his head.

No surprise there, either.

With a patience reserved for children and animals, Hermione's head bobbed with a nod as she pushed her hair over her shoulder. "That's fine." She paused then gestured to the book. "Can I see what you're looking at?"

It was an innocent enough request for him to comply, manoeuvring the large book so she could see the page. Then he pointed at the plant.

Ah.

That was simple.

She tucked her hair behind her ear, making herself as non-threatening as possible. "Do you like plants, Scorpius?"

Still hesitant, he answered with a slow nod.

It was enough.

"I love them, too," Hermione disclosed with a soft smile. Blue eyes narrowed at her warily, and Hermione was amused at how expressive Scorpius could be despite his silence. "So much that I keep them close. In fact—" Blindly, she reached up and felt around until her hand came into contact with her beaded bag and she pulled it down. Scorpius observed with growing curiosity as half her hand disappeared into the bag before finding what she'd been looking for.

A sprig of mint.

She offered it to him. "Here."

Without accepting, Scorpius examined the herb closely. He was so completely focused on the task that Hermione had all the time in the world to just observe him, unable to do anything else. Scorpius wore his normal attire: blazer, white shirt, shorts, and socks to his knees. Like a proper schoolboy. Nothing amiss there… well, except for the fact that he was hiding in a cabinet with a book.

For some unknown reason.

A feeling had settled deep in her gut ever since she'd entered the house, overheard the bits of conversations pertaining to the little boy, and actually observed him. A feeling that had only grown the more she saw him—studied him. A feeling that told her right then that perhaps this cabinet wasn't the first one he'd hidden in.

His incidents, as Narcissa had called them. Perhaps these were it. Moments when he snuck off and disappeared in places around the house like the day by the window. Today it was the small, cramped space where no one knew to look for him. It made sense to her. His schedule was so restrictive that it didn't leave him much room to express himself like children his age typically would. It didn't give him time to relax—or play. It didn't allow much for anything, actually.

Scorpius Malfoy had no free will.

Hiding seemed less like an act of rebellion or a fear response, and more like he was seeking sanctuary.

Freedom.

"You can hold it," Hermione told the boy who was still inspecting the spring of mint pinched between her fingers. "You can smell it, too, and even eat it." At the dissecting look that reminded her far too much of his father, she couldn't help but smother her amusement into her closed fist. Then she gave him a choice. "I can show you, but only when you're ready to come out, okay?"

Still trying to determine what to make of her, Scorpius' eyes went from hers to the mint bundle, back and forth, much like a curious woodland creature would before they scampered off deeper into the forest.

Back to safety.

"How about this, I'll finish preparing your grandmother's dinner and if you'd like, then I'll show you other things you can do with mint." Once the suggestion was out, Hermione mentally scrambled in an attempt to plan for something she hadn't anticipated doing in the first place. But she had his full attention. Twisting the mint between her fingers, she offered it to him again. "Would you hold onto it and keep it safe? Can you do that for me?"

Scorpius put the book down with child-like clumsiness that should have been normal, but was odd given how shrewd he seemed. It was then she realised why. He was interested. Curious. Ready to accept the responsibility. So much so that after nodding, eyes locked on the mint as if it were a shiny new toy, he accepted the sprig with reverent fingers.

It was adorable, really, watching him light up when he smelled it. His eyes went wide, as if shocked that it actually smelled nice, that she had been honest with him. Then Scorpius sniffed the herb again, much like someone would roses; when he saw her staring, his face evened out.

Closed up.

Hermione didn't push it, knowing better than to say anything else. She allowed her actions to speak louder than words and left the cabinet door open for him to accept her offer.

When he was ready.

Hermione returned to her task of cutting up the tomatoes and cucumbers for Narcissa's salad, seasoned the salmon and put it into the oven to bake at the proper temperature before she set her watch.

She glanced over at the open cabinet door to see if he'd used it.

Hoping he would.

And if her heart raced at the appearance of a little blond head peeking from the cabinet—well, that was only because he'd startled her. Not because she had been waiting patiently while cleaning up the evidence of food preparation without magic.

Not at all.

Scorpius' small, pale hand gripped the cabinet only moments before he stood to his full height, facing away from her until he turned. Mint sprig still in his hand, the silent boy carefully closed the door, minding his fingers before Hermione could instinctively tell him to after having said it so many times before to Harry's children.

Awkwardly, he held the mint out to her and her heart just warmed.

"Thank you, but hold onto it just a bit longer, okay?"

They stared at each other with Scorpius still holding the bundle out, blinking with an expression that faintly reminded her of a child waiting for something to happen.

Like a magic trick.

Oh, right.

He was used to things being prepared in front of his face with the snap of Zippy's fingers.

"I don't use magic," she said candidly as an idea formed in her head, making her realise she would need a few items from home. "It'll take some time. I have one thing that I need to get from my house. Take a seat right here and I'll be right back."

Before he could react, Hermione left him standing there, grabbing her bag and hurrying into the living room Floo. When she stepped out of her own fireplace, she could hear Pansy yelling at someone upstairs—likely about the tub that was being delivered that day—but it didn't matter.

Hermione was on a mission.

After looking around, she quickly found the right ingredients and stuffed them all into her beaded bag. Another handful of Floo powder brought her back to the Malfoys' home where…

Where Scorpius stood right in front of the fireplace, his face carefully blank in a way that reminded her of James when he was trying to look like he wasn't doing something he—in fact—had been doing all along. And he looked as if he hadn't been waiting right there the entire time.

Awaiting her return while holding her mint.

Just like that, her breath caught from visualising Scorpius just anticipating her return, but not knowing when she would. Or if, her internal voice whispered as Hermione reflected in mounting, unfamiliar dread. He didn't speak, so words were useless. She couldn't ask him how he felt, but there were little cues Scorpius gave off that gave her pause. He reminded her so much of Al when he was struggling.

He reminded her that words couldn't always tell someone's story.

Al was an anxious boy who required more attention than his siblings; it was the entire purpose of his bi-monthly visits. However, his nerves weren't born out of any stressful situations or neglect. They were natural. He would grow out of them as he conquered his fears, of that she was confident.

And while Hermione didn't know about Scorpius outside of their staring sessions over breakfast and their one conversation, she would bet her salary that distress played a part in both the flush of his cheeks and how stiffly he was standing at attention during his wait. There was no doubt in her mind that he was well-taken care of, but with Narcissa's firm hand, Malfoy's absence, and Astoria's death…

Hermione kneeled in front of the unreadable little boy, something she did with Al to put them face to face. She didn't touch him, but made certain she kept eye contact when she said, "I just rushed out of here. I'm so sorry about that. I won't do that again, okay?"

Scorpius relaxed only long enough to unlock his knees. Then his blond head bobbed.

"Are you ready? I've got everything we need." Hermione flashed a reassuring smile and held up her beaded bag as evidence, but Scorpius only blinked as if she had three heads. Wondering if all the progress she'd made to get him out of his hiding spot had been lost, Hermione righted herself and led the way back to the kitchen.

When she looked over her shoulder, Scorpius was following behind her with a look on his face that spoke of his hesitation. But that didn't seem to stop him. And Hermione didn't allow her own apprehension to speak any louder than it already was, she muffled it in favour of looking over her shoulder once again.

Perhaps not all had been lost after all.

Smiling to herself, Hermione started setting up while Scorpius stood next to the stool; the top of his towhead barely peeked over the counter. After pulling out strawberries, blueberries, apples, oranges, and honey, she heard a chair scraping against wood. Curious, she abandoned her spot and peeked around the island—only to find the five-year-old still holding the mint while trying to manoeuvre his way onto the barstool.

And failing.

"Would you like some help?"

Obviously, Scorpius hadn't seen her because he was momentarily startled. He declined with a distracted shake of his head, attempting again to climb his way onto the stool. He wasn't successful. After suppressing a smile at his stomp of frustration, Hermione whispered a quiet charm that stuck the chair to the floor… so he could use the steps.

By the time he was situated, Hermione was already back at the island directly across from where he was seated, slicing strawberries and peeling oranges.

While her audience was mesmerized by her task, she observed the way his blond brows furrowed in concentration at each of her actions. She struggled with the abnormal silence. Whenever she cooked for Harry's kids, there was never a moment's peace. In fact, she never had associated quiet and children together in one thought before she'd met Scorpius. James never stopped talking, Al only talked in small groups or when he was one-on-one, and Lily was surprisingly eloquent for a three-year-old.

Scorpius just watching her in patient examination was so bizarre that she found herself filling the silence with pointless conversation, describing every step of her process. "I'm making fruit salad. I usually make it with pecans, but I don't know if you're allergic. I'll ask—" At the way he briefly tensed, Hermione scrunched her face. "I'll ask someone." She shrugged and continued on when he relaxed. "After I peel the oranges, I'll do the same with kiwi and apples. Then I'll add the strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries together in the bowls for us. I'll drizzle the honey on it all and chop up the mint and sprinkle it on top. Does that sound good?"

Scorpius' blue eyes met hers before he agreed stiffly, handing over the bundle of mint for chopping. Hermione accepted it for the second time with a warm smile.

"Maybe next time I'll make you something sweet like sorbet. Have you ever had it?"

It was something she'd made for Harry's kids a few times, when they'd stopped fighting long enough to agree on a flavour. Scorpius looked bewildered and that saddened her. Not because he hadn't had it—with Narcissa's firm hand, that had been expected—but rather because sorbet in the summer was almost as good as magic itself, and he'd never known the joy of racing to eat it on a hot afternoon before it melted.

It was an experience.

Something memorable.

She couldn't help but wonder how many moments like that Scorpius had missed. Or had yet to experience. Or never would. Not the important ones, but the minor ones that didn't mean much to anyone outside of the memory, but everything to the one living it. Moments that a child would reminisce about later in life with a smile on their face and joy in their heart. As Hermione did exactly as described, she found herself wanting to do more with the short notice she'd been given.

Quietly, she longed for it to be just enough to invoke a feeling.

A memory.

A moment he'd look back on fondly.

Something.

As Hermione prepared fruit salad, she stole little glances at Scorpius, who watched the short process as if there were going to be a test on it. When completed, she placed the bowl of fruit salad in front of him, sprinkled the minced mint on top and chuckled to herself at how eager he seemed to try it. Then she frowned in confusion when he continued to wait with odd patience.

Oh, right.

He didn't have a fork.

As a demonstration, Hermione picked up a cut strawberry and popped it into her mouth, chewing a few times before swallowing.

"Sometimes fruit tastes best when you eat it with your hands." Next she picked up a blueberry, gently encouraging him to do the same.

Scorpius was highly sceptical, frowning so hard it looked like he was going to crumble upon himself. In fact, his expression was so pinched that Hermione almost retrieved a fork for him to use. But then Scorpius picked up a cut orange that had bits of honey and mint on it, and eyed it carefully before bringing it to his mouth.

Hermione bit back her own smile when his eyes lit up upon tasting it.

He liked it.

She let him eat with his hands a little longer before joining him with her own bowl and two forks, giving him the option of whether or not he wanted to use it. For a while, Scorpius didn't, simply enjoying his fruit salad with a content look on his face and sticky hands. But, eventually, his training won out and he picked up the fork. The first attempt was blueberry that rolled right off the fork and down his white shirt, staining it.

"Whoops," she said in an absent yet playful tone, ready to get down and pick up the fruit that had fallen onto the floor.

Al was a messy eater, too. Dropping fruit on the floor was practically a rite of passage. But the distressed look on the boy's face stopped Hermione, and made her halt her comparisons of the two children. Scorpius dropped the fork, visibly shaken, looking around as if someone were going to walk in the room and find him with a mess on his shirt.

Though he wanted to, he didn't touch his shirt because his hands were sticky from the honey, which only upset him further. His cheeks flushed.

Hermione had no idea why his mood had shifted so drastically, but managed to get his attention. "Hey, it's okay. Can I help?"

That only made his face go redder. She reached for her wand and Vanished the blemishes on his hands and shirt, which… calmed him down. He was no longer looking at her, instead peering down at his hands. It made Hermione instantly want to help, made her recall the sequence of events that had led up to that point.

Scorpius had been perfectly fine with messy hands, so that hadn't been the issue. He'd only become distraught after his shirt bore a visible stain. Which made Hermione wonder if it had less to do with the blueberry spot itself, and more to do with being caught with evidence of a mistake.

An imperfection.

Hermione offered her hand to him that was stained with the juice of berries she'd cut. "I have stains, too. Take a look." She adjusted on the stool, facing him and holding onto the seat while he did the same, facing her. "I have so many, actually." Hermione pointed to each imperfection on her jeans, starting with the knees. "From weeding this morning." Then she pointed to a faint stain on the centre of her shirt. "From breakfast. Your dad startled me."

With his entrance and stiff, unprompted Good Morning.

Hermione had dribbled a bit of poached egg on her shirt.

She had no idea why Malfoy had startled her so badly. He'd been greeting her ever since that night with Scorpius. It felt like a temporary ceasefire that Hermione had accepted. She would keep her comments to a minimum and he would materialise and look as though he'd actually rested.

On the sofa, her traitorous mind reminded her.

That twinge bothered her more than the stain on her already yellow shirt.

"Stains are okay," Hermione told the young boy who was staring at the dirt on her knee with a pinched expression. "They happen because no one's perfect. Not even me. Your grandmother nearly spilled tea today, so she's not perfect either."

At that, Scorpius lifted his head, blue eyes sharp and inquiring. When would she recover from the shock of him and his mannerisms reminding her so much of his father? Probably never, Hermione thought with an internal shrug and fond chuckle at the little boy who was still eyeing her, basically telling her to elaborate.

So, she did.

"She's not perfect. And that's good. Just like sometimes stains like yours and mine are good." Hermione opened her blemished hands to him, but his eyes remained fixed on her. Listening. "I could clean them away with magic, just like I did yours, but it's okay that I don't. I'm proud of mine. They show that I've worked hard. And when I'm ready, I can just wipe them away and start fresh."

Hermione did just that with a fluid movement of her wand and a whispered spell. His eyes widened in wonder, much like they did when she performed diagnostic charms on Narcissa at breakfast. He was intrigued by magic. "One day, you'll be able to do this, too."

Scorpius appeared confused.

Hermione grinned. "Yes, you'll go off to school and learn just as your father did, and—"

Zippy popped into the room and spotted them both. "Miss Prichard is searching for Young Master. He must resume his lessons."

For the first time, Hermione heard Scorpius make a noise when he sighed before glancing over at her with wide, innocent eyes. It was almost like he was begging her to let him stay. But he couldn't. He'd stayed long enough. She'd given him a well-deserved reprieve.

"It's time to go back to your lessons." Hermione slid off the stool and helped a now pouty Scorpius down. He sullenly fixed his blazer and one of his socks that had rolled down a little.

Perfect again, the little boy turned to leave, but before he could—well, Hermione couldn't help herself. She tapped his small shoulder, which made him turn back to her with sad eyes and pink cheeks. As she had in front of the fireplace, she kneeled in front of Scorpius, putting herself at his eye level. She had no idea why, but Hermione told him, "Thank you for keeping my mint safe."

After hesitating, Scorpius bowed, all stiff movements like he'd been taught.

But when he lifted his head, Hermione shook hers. There were so many things she found herself wanting to tell the little boy while she had his full attention, but instead, she was flooded by odd emotions—regret, empathy, wonder, and just plain old exhaustion.

"Don't bow to me, only smile. When you're ready."

But he didn't, obviously puzzled by her request.

It had never been her place to care about the quietest child she'd ever met, but it wasn't enough to stop Hermione from wanting to hug the sour look off his face like she'd done to Al countless times. Not enough to stop her from wanting to make promises just to make him smile for a bit. It was a similar sentiment to the emotions she felt for Harry and Ginny's kids.

Despite all the ways he was different, Scorpius was also the same.

Just a child.

And a lonely one at that.

But as she grappled with what to say, Scorpius watched her with ever-increasing curiosity, even taking an unconscious step forward—one of significance she recognised for what it was: he was trying, making a small connection and an effort to open the door she'd unconsciously unlocked by providing him sanctuary.

Instead of twisting the lock back into place as she should have, Hermione left it up to him by not saying another word. Allowing him to make a decision about her. Giving him the choice.

She extended an open hand for him to take.

Which he did, slipping his small hand into hers, holding on until they both heard Zippy move behind him. Then he let go. Scorpius only looked back at her once before they vanished from sight, but Hermione remained rooted to her spot long after he left.

It was a mistake.

The entire encounter had been one mistake after another. An overstep on her part—one of those that had been so far over the edge there was no going back. And yet…

Hermione had a lot of regrets, things that she could have done differently or said better. She accepted her flaws for what they were. Owned her mistakes. Understood the sources of her shame. But her inability to continue turning a blind eye to Scorpius—his blue eyes, sweet and guarded spirit, or his silence—much to her utter shock, wasn't something she regretted at all.

"Fuck."

 


 

Narcissa had been pleased with the surprise extra meal, so Hermione left her to eat it alone at the outdoor table while she enjoyed the setting sun and music from the Wireless. It was later than Hermione usually stayed, as she typically turned the reins over to Zippy to handle her dinners and evening potions after lunch.

Tonight, she would have gone home, but didn't as she needed to make one last stop.

Since accepting Narcissa as a patient, Hermione had been drafting a list of questions that couldn't be answered by her patient or file. Some of her questions had inadvertently been answered by Pansy, but there were more than a few left that could only be answered by one person.

Her son.

Who owed her a favour.

Armed with parchment and a peace offering in the form of a dinner plate, Hermione went to his office.

Malfoy sat at his slightly cluttered desk where it appeared he was still working on his translations. The back of his chair faced forward and the only part of him that she could see was the very top of his head. But that wasn't what first caught her attention.

That honour belonged to a copy of a very familiar blueprint charmed to float at eye-level.

Now, instead of pins, there were coloured letters. A through E. From the doorway, Hermione could hear the sound of a quill scratching against parchment, but couldn't see the evidence that he was writing. His head rose from the parchment before lowering to the blueprint, taking what sounded like detailed notes.

So focused on his task, Malfoy didn't notice her presence until she knocked on his open door.

The intrusion made him sigh hard before rotating in his chair. "Mother, I'm not in the mood to discuss another one of those insipid marriage m—"

His eyes landed on her, then on the plate in her hand. All of the frustration in his voice, the tension in his shoulders, and the lines on his forehead smoothed out into an expression that wasn't quite indifference. But close.

"Granger." Malfoy released the quill in his hand, allowing it to float beside his head as he leaned back in his chair, elbows resting on each arm. He was the picture of tense ease, an oxymoron, and yet Hermione was beginning to understand that was his default response to her.

Not a threat, but also not an ally. Just something.

She understood the sentiment; it resembled her own.

"To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"May I come in? I made your mother dinner and figured you hadn't eaten. Have you?" Hermione asked, not moving from the doorway.

Malfoy stared at her with an odd expression. A strange moment that ended with an honest response. "I have not."

"Are you hungry? It's salmon and roasted vegetables. I'm not sure what you like but—"

"That's fine." He gestured for her to come in, an offer she accepted, placing the plate on a clear spot on his desk. She didn't sit, but stole a glance around the room while Malfoy pretended not to examine the food. Hermione didn't want to watch him eat any more than he wanted her to watch, so she ventured to the wall of books.

Everything still looked the same, except the ladder, which had been moved recently.

What was he reading? The question rang odd in her own head so Hermione ignored it because what did Draco Malfoy's reading list matter in the grand scheme of things? Nothing.

"Scorpius is asleep on the sofa, if you're here to start that argument we never finished."

Oh?

Without any hesitation, she ventured to the sofa and found Scorpius covered up by the same blanket she'd covered his father with. He looked content, small on the large sofa, and adorable with his thumb in his mouth. From across the room, she heard the sound of a fork scraping against a plate and almost looked up to see if he liked the food, but refrained. Her attention went from Scorpius to the photo above the fireplace then back to the books before settling on the little boy again.

"Does he fall asleep here every day?"

"No," Malfoy replied after a moment's pause. "Not ten minutes ago, he went directly to the sofa and fell asleep."

Automatically, she brought the blanket to Scorpius' shoulders, tucking him in, ignoring the weight of his father's inspection. By now, she was used to it, even found it a comfortable norm for them. Hermione approached Malfoy's desk next. She didn't sit, but did notice that he had at least tried the food. Eaten a portion of it. It was hard to determine by expression alone if he liked it, but Hermione didn't try to puzzle it out, only handed him the parchment.

"I have written out a few questions about your mother that only you can answer to fulfill your promised favour."

Absently, Malfoy reached for his reading glasses, putting them on before staring at the top of her parchment. He flipped through the pages quickly, eyes widening slightly at the sheer number of questions. "A few?" Malfoy's usual drawl was tinged with a hint of amusement. "There are forty-six questions."

Equally spaced for ample room to answer.

"I'm thorough."

"That you are." It didn't sound unkind, just an obvious statement. He peered up at her from above the rim of his glasses that had slid down his nose. "Thorough enough to observe my mother at a charity event."

Ah, so they were going to talk about this.

Hermione only shrugged. "It's a part of my job." At his doubtful look, she shifted her weight from her left to right. "I watched your mother for symptoms or blank moments, signs of agitation. I need to know what they look like, how they come on, and any cues she gives before they occur. She had none that night."

Malfoy's next query came after a short pause. "Why not ask her directly?"

It was a fair question. "Perhaps she may remember what she was feeling before an episode, but she definitely wouldn't know how she looked. If she got suddenly hot or cold, whether the expression on her face had changed or not. There are little signs that can only be observed."

He stared at her for several moments, seemingly turning her words over in his mind. "Seems plausible." It sounded like a concession and Hermione felt victorious until he glanced back at her list. "I'm too busy tonight to answer these before bed. Perhaps you should just ask my mother. You have a talent for aggravating her into doing things she doesn't want to do."

Another backhanded compliment.

Hermione had already walked down that avenue and ended up at a dead end on each of those forty-six questions. "She'll only provide information she's willing to part with."

Obviously, a family trait.

"I fail to see how…" Malfoy trailed off, eyes back on her parchment, flipping to the third page. "Question nineteen is relevant."

"I would argue that the Black's tendencies towards mental illness are absolutely relevant to her current condition, especially should anyone want to determine if her form of dementia is hereditary. And there will be research done."

Malfoy fixed his glasses, shooting her an appraising look. "You've memorised the questions?"

"Of course, I wrote them."

He took a second look, but suddenly frowned, mood darkening. "This is going to take time that I don't have right now. Perhaps we can schedule a time and place to go through them."

"Okay." She quickly ran through a list of possible compromises that wouldn't antagonise Malfoy any more than absolutely necessary. "My office should do. Feel free to schedule the date and time."

"Will do." Mission accomplished, Hermione turned and headed for the door, nearly breaching the doorway when his voice rang out in the silence. "This doesn't taste bad."

That wasn't at all what she had expected and it made her turn around.

"Thank you? I can't tell if that's a compliment."

"It's not an insult." He kept his eyes on her for a long moment. "I confirmed the secret passageway."

"Oh?" Intrigued, she waited until he nodded before she asked, "And the plan?"

"Moving forward."

That was good.

"Are you sleeping?"

Malfoy's annoyance was visceral, but she waited for an answer anyway, which he eventually gave with a sigh. "I am no longer needed on overnights. The hideout was found Sunday morning and it was abandoned. Hestia has sent in a team of investigators to gather evidence."

"Good to know." Even though he didn't answer the question. Hermione let it go and folded her arms across her chest, bag wrapped around her wrist. "And training?" She had already asked Harry about it once, so while she knew the answer, she found herself wanting to hear his side of things. His perspective.

Malfoy grimaced at the question. "It's going about as well as it can with Aurors, Hit Wizards, and Magical Law Enforcement officers fresh out of training. But Potter…" He trailed off with a sour expression that conveyed the fact that he was more willing to simultaneously eat plutonium while having his organs removed with a rusty spoon than admit to whatever was about to come out of his mouth. "Potter isn't a completely useless teacher."

After suppressing her amusement behind a delicate cough, she let the still-grimacing man in on a little secret…

"Funny, he said the same thing about you."

Malfoy couldn't hide his surprise—or the flash of pride—fast enough before schooling his features behind a suspicious, narrow glare. But it was too late. She'd seen every bit of it.

And just a bit more of him.

 

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.
Chinese Proverb

Chapter Text

 

Eleven
The Facets of Human Connection

 

May 27, 2011


For all the questions Hermione had about Draco Malfoy, she at least had one answer

Like his mother and son, he was a creature of habit and routine. Malfoy was staunch with his morning swim. Particular with how he spent his time during tea. Uncompromising when it came to his rituals surrounding crosswords and reading the morning paper. But at the same time, he wasn't too rigid, able to compromise. Hermione's presence had made him adjust his routine slightly—even if only by force. Now it had expanded to include gruff greetings, toleration for whatever tea she had made, and conversation.

The surface of this man remained true to the person she knew he once was, right down to his attire and the way in which he parted his hair.

It was an odd thought, considering there was much more to him, a deep chasm of intricate thoughts and reasons behind his actions and all the pieces that made up his identity. Hermione was barely skimming just beneath the surface, just beginning her quest to understand who he was now.

But this morning represented a shift—a small dip.

It was ten minutes past seven, and Malfoy was still there, showing no signs of leaving.

It was—well, first and foremost—odd.

He wasn't reading, she could tell when he was—his intense concentration gave him away. Malfoy engrossed himself in whatever he was reading, regardless of interest. Hermione could quietly relate. But right then, his attention went from the paper, to his watch, then to her, head tilted as if he had a pressing question that he would not ask. Malfoy went through three cycles of this before she realised what was happening.

He was waiting.

On what, Hermione had no idea. Whatever it was, he seemed to battle back and forth with himself about it while she kept to her task of making Narcissa's breakfast: buckwheat crepes with ham, spinach, and mushrooms. Healthy and light. She only had plans to make two: one for herself and one for Narcissa, but Malfoy's prolonged presence left her needing something to do. So, she made a third, packed it into a glass container charmed to maintain freshness, and placed it next to him. The glass clicking against the granite broke the silence.

"What's this?" Malfoy cut his eyes to the container, then back to her in mild suspicion.

"Breakfast. I made an extra." Hermione shrugged. "You can leave it if you'd like. I've noticed you only drink tea. I've never seen you eat a meal before leaving, except for your protein drinks."

And that was odd, too.

"That's because I don't." With two crisp actions, he folded the paper and checked his watch one last time.

"What are you waiting for?" It wasn't a question she intended to ask, their conversation for the morning was long since over, but she couldn't help herself. Malfoy was so off-course that he was throwing her off, too.

"Nothing." Obviously a lie. "I have an inquiry in thirty minutes with Chief Warlock McLaggen. My third."

Hermione cringed.

Third? Tiberius must have been very suspicious… or very paranoid. Or both. But she remembered who she was speaking to: Draco Malfoy, whose reputation for being on the wrong side of every war had preceded him.

The restoration movement would be yet another wrong side for anyone who wished for things to remain the same. And taking no side would be just as wrong to someone who wanted change, someone like her. Malfoy couldn't win either way. The difference between good and evil was clear from all sides, but distorted by perception and motivation, and hardly ever processed with any sense of clarity. Draco Malfoy was doomed to spend his life in the grey—always suspected and never trusted, regardless of stance.

And for the first time, Hermione wondered—well, nevermind.

She cleared the discomfort lodged in her throat. "You should probably be gone then."

Malfoy hummed his low, rumbling agreement. It sounded like brass, refined and polished. "I suppose."

But he didn't move.

For several seconds, Hermione watched him from the corner of her eye. Not yet ready to eat, she sipped tea and catalogued her thoughts. Malfoy's reputation was limited by what others thought of him. Preconceived notions. Not who he was. Hermione had learned over the years, as she struggled to find her own identity outside of her reputation, that it was a convoluted construct and struggle. People were in a constant state of flux, shifting and evolving. Hermione wasn't immune to it…

And neither was he.

The thought weighed so heavily on her mind that the warning slipped out unchecked. "Don't drink the tea."

A single blond brow rose above the rim of his glasses. "Did you?"

"No. I just thought—"

"I'm an Occlumens, Granger. I can withstand Veritaserum. He doesn't know this as it's not in my file." Harry had mentioned that Malfoy had been trained ages ago, but the knowledge had been lost to time. That it wasn't in his file—well, that was definitely a violation but… also, none of Hermione's business. She wouldn't judge as most of the Wizengamot's activities and interests toed the proverbial line—lack of precedent left them with too much control.

"So you know about his tea—"

"It's an open secret." Which was just as disturbing as Malfoy's overall ambivalence about it. But then she remembered what he had said in Harry's office and forced her many opinions down. "I'm certain a lot of secrets have come out, just not the ones he wants." A ghost of a smirk played at his lips. Then he looked at his watch. Again. Malfoy frowned.

Hermione couldn't tamp down her rampant curiosity. "What do you know about the movement?"

"It's existence." He looked at her hard with a strange combination of accusation and resignation. "Does that seem to be something I'd involve myself in?"

Malfoy seemed more likely to ignore something like an entire underground Ministry restoration movement because it didn't suit his needs. "Not likely. If I remember correctly, you want to shut down the Death Eater organisation so you can check it off your to-do list and get on with your life."

"Precisely." He cut his gaze away and remained silent until he finished his tea. "You have opinions."

"Of course I do."

"But I don't see you leading a rebellion."

Fair point, but Percy seemed twitchy about her involvement, and she was reluctant to push him. He didn't want her involved—yet. Though, he hadn't said anything about the future. Percy chose each of his words carefully, crafted what he wanted someone to know and omitted anything even mildly extraneous, which is why she paid close attention to even minor updates on his progress.

She tasted her tea. "I certainly know more about it than just its existence."

"Is that so." Not a question—a statement. Malfoy tapped his finger on the granite. "One could argue that restoring the power to the Minister won't change everything."

"The same argument could be made that it depends on who sits in the Minister's seat after the next election. The best leaders are great teachers. They can bring about change through compromise, have an eye towards the future, and build those up around them because of it. They're humble and genuine. Firm but never to a fault. They follow an ethic of responsibility to their people by creating the best possible future. I can think of a few people like that I would willingly follow."

"Oh?" It didn't sound like interest yet it wasn't apathy. Malfoy put everything he'd brought with him aside in a move that made it clear Hermione now had his attention. And he had hers. "Who?"

"I thought you would talk more about my idealism or at least argue that no one person exists that fits that role in its totality. In fact, I can think of at least three more fitting responses to my statement than your question."

"I suppose you're right." Malfoy shrugged in consideration. "I do have more opinions on that matter concerning your odd blend of idealism and realism, not to mention the fact that you should keep them separate. Unfortunately, though, I don't have time to argue with you today, Granger. It'll have to be Monday."

"Did you just schedule an argument?"

He glanced at his watch again. "It appears I did."

Fifteen minutes after seven, less time until his Inquiry, yet he still didn't move.

Malfoy did, however, glance at the doorway surreptitiously in a move she calculated much like most things concerning him. Not that she understood the meaning, but she knew just enough to understand that it meant something. Malfoy was the sort that did nothing without purpose or cause. He calculated everything and everyone, but his variables were still unknown so Hermione could never tell if she was holding the question, the solution, or meaningless parts of a complex equation.

"What are you waiting for?"

"Nothing."

An obvious lie, but Hermione was beginning to learn when to press harder and when to release.

At least with him.

With nothing else to do or say, as Malfoy would leave when he was ready, Hermione charmed the dishes to wash, and took her tea and breakfast to the stool next to him. A first, as she usually stood across the island and silently read and answered his crossword upside down until he realised what she was doing and scowled.

Malfoy's folded Prophet was closest to her and an article caught her attention with just one glance.

"They're building an Aquatic Sanctuary for rare magical creatures in Berlin and giving the public the opportunity to observe and learn about them." It looked like it would be offering protection for those whose homes were being destroyed by humans.

"I saw." Malfoy pushed the paper in her direction, granting her permission to take a look, which she did, reading the article thoroughly until his next statement stopped her. "I despise aquariums. Animals belong in the wild."

"But they're providing a safe haven."

"In a tank."

"Better than danger. Fish like the tank. It's all they know."

"No, they live in a tank because humans don't give a fuck about anything. You call it a sanctuary, but the way I see it, it's just a place where the same people who destroyed their habitats can observe them for a special rate of one Galleon and five Sickles on weekdays. It's disgusting." When he put it like that, the idea soured. "There's nothing glamorous about living in a cage."

He was speaking from personal experience. The more she learned about the archaic pureblood culture he was born into and expected to uphold the ideals of, the more Hermione found herself quietly agreeing with him.

His tank was pristine, but there was only room for one. It was too cluttered with duties, so clouded that it made it hard for him to see things the same way Hermione—or anyone else—could from the outside.

But in thinking about his tank, she was forced to think about her own that she removed herself from years ago. It called to mind all the expectations that had driven her into the ground, and her own skewed perceptions hadn't changed until the excess was removed. Her clutter was different than his, of course, filled with expectations of greatness and stuffed with the work thrust on her simply because of her status as a hero, reputation as the brightest, and potential to lead.

"I suppose you're right," Hermione said finally, turning the paper over so neither could see the article. "But you're also wrong."

Malfoy's eyes held hers like a magnet. "Oh?"

"Just because you're born in a tank doesn't mean you're condemned to one forever. If you want to be free, free yourself."

"That's easier said than done when—" He stopped himself, but she finished it in her head, pieced together from the odds and ends of conversation she'd had with others. When the tank is all you know.

"Oh."

She could only manage the one word, but Malfoy's discomfort morphed into something physical that stirred something inside of her. Not because it was a new topic—Hermione had been on the receiving end of so much information about Draco Malfoy over the last few months that she hadn't taken a moment to process all of it. She treated it like speculation. But with the more recent conversations on her mind, his unfinished statement and unspoken words felt like an answer. A confirmation.

It felt real. Human. Raw.

The same way she felt when she covered him with that blanket.

Did he sleep there last night?

Or the night before?

Would he tonight?

Those questions were on the tip of Hermione's tongue, and she spent so much energy choking them back that something else slipped out. "You're going to be late. Whatever it is you're waiting for isn't here."

"As I've stated before, I'm not waiting for anything."

And his particular enunciation made it click. "Your mother doesn't come down for at least another thirty minutes."

"I'm not waiting for her."

Okay so now she was confused, who else—oh!

Scorpius looks for you every morning without fail.

When he realised that she had sussed him out, that he was now exposed, Malfoy's face hardened like stone. He pointedly looked away, stood, and left, taking everything he'd come with: the Prophet, the crossword book, and his pen.

But also something he'd been given along the way.

The glass container.

In Malfoy's haste to run from the truth he had all but admitted—albeit accidentally—he missed something key, something quiet and nearly undetectable. Hermione didn't notice it either until Malfoy stepped under the archway of the door.

Scorpius.

Raised on the tips of his toes, bracing himself, he peeked around the corner, staring after his father's retreating form with a longing that was as wide and deep as the ocean, one Hermione hoped to never know. Scorpius opened his mouth to call after him, but stopped, upset and unable to find the words or the courage he needed in order to speak. His shoulder slumped in renewed sorrow.

There were three types of connections.

Ones that were found, ones that were lost, and ones that were missed by minutes…

Seconds…

Moments…

When Scorpius waved to the empty space where his father had just been, Hermione's heart clenched so tight it hurt. But for which end of the missed connection it ached for most… for the first time, she wasn't sure.

 


 

Hermione wondered if Narcissa stood in front of a mirror each night and practiced schooling her facial expressions into a variety of emotions in order to decide just the right one to use in every instance.

Like now.

They hadn't been outside long, but Narcissa had already examined every tree, plant, herb, fruit bush, and vegetable in her greenhouse and garden with a look so perfectly distasteful that it was nothing short of staged. It was as though Narcissa had counted everything she didn't like and the number was offensive. Meanwhile, Hermione gave her the tour in perfect silence, oftentimes having to look away in order not to get caught rolling her eyes.

Which was not only immature, it was backsliding.

But Hermione had to admit that Narcissa had come dressed to work, wearing probably the most casual attire she had ever seen her in: hair styled perfectly under a wide brim hat with a soft pink mesh scarf wrapped around her head and neck to protect her from the sun. She wore a long-sleeved floral shirt, comfortable trousers (because proper women don't own jeans, Miss Granger), and a surprising pair of Wellies that were so clean they were likely as new as the shiny pink gloves on her hands and the pressed apron tied around her waist.

Meaning she'd taken the time to prepare, even with only one day's notice.

Still, Narcissa looked like she had stepped out of another era. It wasn't the first time Hermione had made the comparison. Nor would it be the last.

They had rounded their way back to the start of the tour when Narcissa primly laced her fingers together and cast a long, dramatic look around, tilting her sunglasses. "I have several questions, Miss Granger."

Of course she did, Hermione thought with a long-suffering sigh. "Go on."

"Who taught you how to garden?"

"A friend of mine named Neville helped me start from tomatoes and herbs. He showed me the basics about plant care." Neville worked primarily with magical foliage, but knew enough about mundane vegetation to help Hermione begin her garden. "He's an absolute genius with magical plants."

Narcissa looked around with a tight frown. "You use the word genius far too generously."

Hermione almost choked on the litany of words ready to spill from her lips in defence of her friend, but she swallowed them down and took the high road—which was hard. "I believe I've used the word correctly. Your criticism is harsh and unnecessary, not to mention, unfounded as you don't know—"

"First—" Narcissa raised a gloved finger. "Without criticism, there is no improvement. Someone as intelligent as yourself should know this and not take offence to my observations."

"You're right, but there's a way to criticise constructively without insulting a friend of mine."

And someone who had been essential in helping her find normality through her outlet in gardening, planted the seeds in the form of words that led to Hermione looking into Healing as a career alternative.

To make the difference you want to make, you don't have to be the best at everything, you just have to care.

Narcissa lips thinned in consideration. "I meant no offence as I was speaking as someone with extensive experience with mundane horticulture. When I married Lucius, I redesigned the gardens at Malfoy Manor to make them more functional, as his family had little interest in upkeep." Narcissa touched the stem of her blackberry bush, full of berries not yet ready to be picked. "Tending a mundane garden is different. I only asked who taught you to garden after observing your garden's current state."

"Why does that matter?"

"Because your mundane plants are treated like the magical plants in your greenhouse, and that simply will not do."

Hermione didn't understand the difference or why it mattered. Her expression obviously spoke to that because Narcissa shook her head. "There are three basic elements involved in caring for plants: light, water, and heat. Like people, each plant is different, not only in appearance but in what quantity of each basic element they require to survive, and what additional care they need to thrive. Because surviving and thriving, while used interchangeably far too often, are very much at opposite ends of the spectrum."

"What does that have to do with magical versus mundane gardening methods?"

"Caring for mundane plants like one would magical plants can keep them alive, but they will not thrive. Magical plants do not always require certain maintenance that mundane plants need in excess. Your magical plants are thriving in the greenhouse—particularly your moly, arka, and bubotubers—but your mundane plants are just surviving, especially your flowers both inside and outside the greenhouse. They appear healthy enough, but they won't flourish if they don't have a full range of the necessary minerals and proper care, just as people won't."

As someone with a thirst for knowledge, Hermione's interest was piqued. She fell into step beside Narcissa, who took her for a second turnabout in the garden.

But that time with a new perspective.

Narcissa was more proficient in horticulture than she'd originally let on. Pretty soon, Hermione found herself jotting down notes for future reference.

For the first time, on a level deeper than clinical, it dawned on her that Narcissa would no longer remember her own advice at some point. Her skills. Her family. Her name. Over time, her memories would begin to come and go like the tide, and then they would be just gone. Her body would exist even as the soul that lived in it slowly dwindled away…

Hermione looked away momentarily as a small swell of emotions brushed against her heart. She batted the feelings away because it wasn't a good thought to have.

Not so impartial.

"When you landscaped in preparation to plant, it's obvious that you followed directions from books, as yours is exemplary. However, books leave out a certain je ne sais quoi that is hard to describe, but it differentiates a nice garden from an excellent one. Yours is… functional, at best, if a bit dull and unimaginative, but that…" Narcissa trailed off, showing a level of tact she hardly ever used around Hermione.

After all, tact was usually reserved for those she needed to be tactful around. Hermione had never met her requirement before, and judging from the almost embarrassed expression, perhaps she did now, but it didn't matter. Hermione already knew what Narcissa was going to say.

Dull? Unimaginative?

But that's who you are.

After an awkward yet almost apologetic silence, Narcissa stood in front of her hydrangea bush by the fence that separated her garden from the pasture. Again, she frowned when she spotted yellow leaves. "Do you prune with magic?"

"No."

"Good, you shouldn't." She paused and properly lowered herself to her knees with a certain grace that could not be taught. She touched the base of the plant, removing blooms and leaf debris. "Your hydrangeas are suffering from moisture stress, either too wet or too dry. It rained two nights ago, yet this is already parched. Perhaps the debris here was blocking the water from getting to the roots, which account for the yellowing leaves."

"I thought that a little debris would make a good compost."

"Perhaps for other plants, but not hydrangeas. What is good for one is not good for all. You should also consider clipping these old stems to allow the plant to breathe."

"I can do that… or you can."

Narcissa lifted her head, one blonde brow arching above the rim of her glasses, but said nothing, only began her task after extracting her hand shears from her apron—spelled to cut through anything. After finishing, she stood and examined her work.

"I suppose I can work with this."

Instead of paying attention to her words, Hermione found the tiny flower of compliment hidden in the vast garden of criticism. Now, she was ready to learn. "Any other points you would like to make?"

"Your pruning is horrible, especially on the fruit trees in the greenhouse. Your cuts are wrong, you either snip too much or not enough, and on several occasions, you have clipped them too soon. Knowing when to prune is critical for young trees, as they need to be trained in order to develop a strong structure."

Trained.

There was that word again, niggling at her, calling forth images of little Scorpius standing at attention with a serious expression on his face. The boy who never smiled, only watched and held everything inside.

Like his father.

Hermione snapped back to focus only to find Narcissa casting a look at her house. Her security guards stood just outside the door, probably bored. There really had been no reason for their presence today as Hermione's wards practically guaranteed her safety.

But they had their orders.

"Miss Granger, I find myself curious about something." That tone made Hermione inwardly cringe.

"Oh?"

Merlin.

Conversation starters like that never ended without tense discussions. Recent common ground aside, tensing was only a natural reaction. Progress wasn't linear, nor was it one-dimensional. It was full of twists and turns, ups and downs, backtracks and loops that would eventually lead to where they were supposed to end up. Or maybe it wouldn't. Perhaps they would get to at a point where they were both comfortable with the balance.

Or maybe discussions about their differences would be their normal.

"You have a rather large home for someone who is unmarried and lives alone." Narcissa cast a sidelong glance back at Hermione. "While lovely, I cannot decide if you intend to rectify that. However, given your liberal views on marriage and the fact that you live in virtual solitude, I'd have to conclude not."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "I don't owe you a response as it's none of your business, but my opinions on marriage aren't indicative of whether or not I intend to marry at all. That's quite short-sighted of you, but—" Hermione bit her own tongue, but the sharp look she received in response made it clear that Narcissa knew her next words.

But that's who you are.

Narcissa frowned. "It is expected for a woman to give up her home when she marries. You have settled here, at least it appears so from the parts of your home I have seen. It does not seem likely that you would be able to give this up. Additionally, it would be quite hard to transfer a vegetable garden of this magnitude."

"Or my future husband can live here."

"It is simply not proper, Miss Granger." Narcissa's laugh mocked her sentiment. "How can he be head of a home that is not his?"

"Because we're partners in life and what's mine is his. There is no room for pride or ego in love and respect."

"You say this now because you don't know—"

"I'll always say this because it's what I believe." Hermione took a deep breath. "Just like you have your beliefs, I have mine. I don't necessarily agree with yours, but I don't dismiss what you say simply because I find it antiquated and regressive. You shouldn't dismiss me either. Perhaps as we continue working towards compromise, you should try to understand me, just as I'm trying to understand you." Hermione couldn't see her eyes, but felt them weighing heavily on her. "Why are you concerned about whether I'll marry?"

"As I often tell Draco, it's not good to be alone."

"I have friends and family. I have my work and I love that I work on an individual scale. I have my home, this vegetable patch, and a great appreciation for myself. I don't seek outside validation. I'm content."

"But are you happy?"

The question struck her like a thunderbolt, but Hermione didn't react. Didn't answer. "I—"

"I often find myself wondering how you manage to keep everything together." Narcissa removed her sunglasses, tucking them in her apron. "You cook for me, prepare my potions weekly, and monitor my condition while keeping detailed records on the progression of my disease—one that you don't even specialise in—and researching the nature of it. You frequently consult with other Healers to make sure that you are providing the best care. Additionally, you have this garden with chickens and a home much too large for one person. You still work at St Mungo's doing floater work, attend dinners with your parents, host gatherings with your friends, and you make yourself available whenever anyone needs anything… according to Pansy. How much time do you actually make for yourself, Miss Granger?"

The question, while soft, had a hint of genuine concern that matched the look in her eyes.

"I make time." Some. "I just like keeping busy."

Narcissa started walking and Hermione fell into step beside her until they stopped between the radishes and carrots. "When Lucius died, I was inconsolable. Even after we moved to France, I managed to distract myself with helping Draco secure a wife and a flurry of activities to avoid thinking about him. I wonder if you're doing the same, distracting yourself from your own… restlessness."

There were several rebuttals on the tip of her tongue, but they all were flawed. Parts of her were still stunned by Narcissa's awareness.

"Just think about it." The older witch's tone bordered on motherly.

"Pushing marriage isn't a remedy to loneliness." The thought was so strange that Hermione snorted. Then she closed her mouth, flushing first in embarrassment then wincing at the fact that she'd admitted having a problem. Out loud. To her patient. In the middle of her garden.

Maybe Narcissa hadn't noticed.

One glance told Hermione that she absolutely had.

"Perhaps you're right and it is not the answer. But maybe finding someone who understands you is."

Hermione processed her words as she cleared her throat and looked away, awkwardly pulling at the end of her braid. "I…" After trailing off, Hermione brushed away a leaf that had gotten stuck in Narcissa's hat. "We should get started working on the garden. Any other critiques?"

Even her patient's critical appraisals felt better than the current hollowness inside her ribs.

Narcissa led the way down a row of vegetables almost ready for harvest, then turned back to Hermione, who was clinically monitoring her gait. "Overall, your garden is lovely, Miss Granger. Healthy—despite errors due to inexperience." Narcissa readjusted her scarf. "My criticism seems harsh to you, as it appears you have worked quite hard to cultivate this land, but I cannot help but examine with a sharp eye geared towards improvement."

Which was fair.

Her words were also laden with double meaning.

"That being said, your garden needs proper and correct attention, that is, if you are willing to learn from someone as old-fashioned as me."

She was.

And with a short nod, it began.

 


 

Time passed as they worked alongside one another. Narcissa taught her tricks she'd learned while cultivating Malfoy Manor's gardens. How to cut. Where to cut. When to cut. She showed Hermione the results of her errors in split branches and prematurely dying leaves. They pulled weeds and Narcissa showed her the difference between healthy soil and its dusty, barely living counterpart.

It was a humbling experience that could have gone a lot differently had Narcissa's tone been harsher, had Hermione been stubborn and unwilling to listen. But it had gone well. Today certainly wouldn't be the last time they disagreed, but perhaps the length of time between each one would grow.

While Narcissa was good with all her other fruit-bearing vegetation, she seemed to pay special attention to the flowers. Cared for them. Genuinely liked her variety. She had more specific instructions and ideas on which she should plant for added pollination. And she knew just the place where they could go, a place that would require Hermione to extend her fence at least a metre out.

Not feasible at the moment, but it was something to consider.

Before she knew, the recommended hour had passed, but Narcissa wanted to finish weeding the row of broad and runner beans before she stopped for the day. Hermione noted the colour in her cheeks, the healthy glow of satisfaction. Despite the sweat on her brow, she looked far more relaxed than she'd seen her after all their walks combined.

Happier.

Everything shifted in the blink of an eye. Narcissa stood to her feet, but stopped short as she looked past Hermione and tilted her head strangely. "Miss Granger, you have said in the past that if I believe I am having an incident to inform you immediately."

Hermione dropped her notebook and rushed to her side, reaching into her pockets and finding a cloth to wipe the sweat from her brow. Narcissa looked visibly shaken, but more than that, she seemed confused. Visual hallucinations were a common symptom of her disease and there were so many ways to handle one, but Hermione settled on a tactic she knew would work.

Hermione kept her voice calm, speaking in soothing tones. "Narcissa. Tell me what you see."

"I always see Lucius."

A chill shot up her spine as Sachs' words played in her mind. Her comforting presence.

Her voice seemed far away as she stared on, taking an unconscious step towards the hallucination. "But it is not… Lucius has been here all along. All day."

Now the question of what else she kept to herself lingered. Suddenly, meeting with Malfoy was of utmost importance. She couldn't delay. But right then, Hermione walked alongside Narcissa as she slowly approached her mirage. In front of the chicken coop where the three were still running around, Hermione made a request only her patient could hear. "Tell me about the person you see."

Narcissa didn't hesitate. "A man with black hair and skin that's covered in bruises. He's on the other side of the stream, both watching us and trying to get inside. But he cannot. He does not stop trying. It looks painful. His hand looks… wrong."

That… was an oddly specific hallucination.

"What is he wearing?" Hermione took out her wand and performed several quick diagnostic charms that didn't reveal anything spectacular. It worried her more.

"His clothes are tattered and dirty. His hair is wild with leaves and branches stuck in it. He looks so real. Like Lucius. It's remarkable."

Quietly disturbed by the visual she was painting, Hermione asked. "Can you look at me, Narcissa? I'd like to see your eyes." When she turned her head, she discovered that they weren't glazed over like they had been that morning in the garden. They were clear. Focused. Scared. "Let's get you out of the sun and I'll make you a cup of tea. I'll—" Hermione turned her head. "Uhh…"

Hermione had very limited experience with hallucinations of any kind, but she did know—from extensive research and training—that there were different levels and types to consider.

Something else she knew?

It wasn't a hallucination if she could see it as well.

Dread invaded Hermione's body, sinking into her skin as her stomach dropped. Adrenaline propelled her into action, not running from but rather towards the man. Narcissa was somewhere in the background, yelling for her to stop.

Not that she'd ever listened before—the word wasn't in her vocabulary.

As she got closer, the man came into clearer focus. Narcissa had been accurate in her description, right down to his filth. He kept walking into her wards like he had no idea that he would fall into the stream if he succeeded. Almost as if he knew no other way, stuck in a trance. Idea in mind, Hermione ran towards the walkway that served as a bridge, exiting her wards, fully prepared for a fight…

That never came.

She crept towards the almost skeletal stranger, one step after the other, wand pointed, and eyes and ears open for any surprises. It was unsettling the way he repeatedly collided with her invisible wards that shimmered from the unauthorised contact. His eyes were focused and unseeing. He was barefoot, all his visible skin covered in festering cuts and bruises and welts that made her wonder if he'd walked straight there from wherever he'd come from.

How had he gotten through her diversion wards?

"Who are you?"

The stranger's head slowly turned, movement stiff and unnatural, allowing her to see his dark, empty eyes for the first time. When he opened his mouth, blood and saliva ran from the corners of his lips, staining his filthy chin and torn clothes. Hermione could barely make out his tongue, but she could see that it was the source of the bleeding. Bitten clean off.

His jaw worked hard, lips moving as if he were trying to speak. Her fist tensed around her wand.

"Hermione Granger."

The voice he spoke in was gargled from the blood spilling out and hoarse from overuse.

"We see you."

Or screaming.

"We see you all."

And he charged at her—as best as he could, given his slow gait, due to his obviously broken ankle. But he was wandless. Not a threat. There was no fear, only logic. Hermione aimed for his chest, just a Body Bind Curse to subdue. But she never had the opportunity to fire.

Instead, a Stunner came from behind her, whizzing a safe distance away from her head and landing on its target with enough force to knock the man right off his feet. Feet over head, the stranger landed in a heap of twisted limbs in the patchy grass a few metres away. Hermione whipped around, ready to fight, only to find one of Narcissa's ever-present security guards behind her. The other guard was across the creek with her patient, who looked on anxiously, wringing her gloved hands.

"What the hell?" she yelled at him, rushing over to the unconscious man. Pressing two gloved fingers against his neck, she searched until she found his pulse. Weak yet steady. The guard didn't look a bit apologetic, which made anger flood her veins. Through gritted teeth, she sucked in a breath. "I had it under control. You don't stun an obviously injured person like that. It's barbaric!"

"He charged at you." Impatience was written all over his gruff face. "Mrs Malfoy gave me an order to help you, so I did my job—"

"Your assignment is to protect Narcissa, who is quite safe within my wards. I don't need your help. Go back to your actual job."

The wizard looked leery, his wand still tight in his grip, ready to hex again if the man so much as moved. "I heard what he said to you, Miss Granger. You shouldn't—"

"While I appreciate the concern, he's not a threat. He's unconscious and injured. I'm a Healer. It's a part of my oath and duty to help those who need it, regardless of what they've done. So, go." She glared daggers at him until he went, eyes following him until he was back at Narcissa's side, delivering a message into her ear. One that she nodded at, but didn't look too pleased about receiving.

Distractions gone, Hermione sent a Patronus to Harry. The message was quick and to the point. And while she waited, she stabilised him and performed every diagnostic charm she could think of that wouldn't harm him. His magical readings were all over the place.

Ah, so he was a wizard. Good to know.

From there, she noted his haggard condition: the wounds on the soles of his feet, obviously infected sores and burns all over his visible skin. He was too thin and warm with fever. Wherever he had been kept, he had been there a long time, likely caged like an animal with no one to tend to his ailments. With clinical gentleness, Hermione gently turned his head towards her. More bruises. Discolouration around both of his hollow eyes that were open and red from strain.

Bitten tongue. Tense muscles. Bloodshot eyes.

All the classic signs of overuse of the Cruciatus Curse.

The stunning likely hadn't helped. She glared over her shoulder at the guard, who stood on the other side of Narcissa, still waiting. Her patient had her arms folded and was tapping her foot. She could have left, they were finished, after all, but she remained right there.

Hermione continued her assessment. More strained muscles, rope burns on his wrists that served as proof of his captivity. He had landed awkwardly on his left arm, so she moved to the other side to prepare to reset his shoulder…

Then she noticed it. The letter in his discoloured hand.

With a start, Hermione immediately used her wand to remove it. She didn't read it, more concerned with the man's black fingertips and the slow spread of darkness that was indicative of the infection that would soon enter his bloodstream. The sight brought forth unforgettable memories.

His hand looked just like Molly's when she'd been poisoned.

Harry arrived with a soft pop, looking as if he'd been fighting or running. His shoulders were tense, glasses crooked, cheeks coloured, and a light sheen of sweat painted his forehead. Ah, he must have been in the middle of a training session when he'd gotten her message and rushed out in a hurry. His immediate relief upon seeing her uninjured was written all over his face. Harry slipped his wand back into the holster over his shoulder.

"Are you okay?"

Before Hermione could respond, Malfoy appeared on the scene in all black, no jacket, leather wand harness on display. And though his face was all sharp lines and stoic indifference, he bore the same signs of physical activity: a slight flush, no sweat, but his hair was in mild disarray, as if he'd run his hands through it several times.

Probably in irritation.

"Granger."

He must have been there when Harry got her message, which meant they were still teaching together. No one was missing a limb. Interesting. Hermione was almost proud of them.

"Malfoy."

In the span of a single blink, Malfoy scanned her from head to toe before glancing over at the unconscious man. She was getting better at noticing, but it was still impossible to know what he was thinking; his stone-faced expression gave nothing away.

"Are you injured?"

The question came as a surprise, probably to them both. "No, but he is." She gestured to the man lying in the grass, stepping aside as they approached for a closer look.

Colour bled from Harry's face as recognition dawned on him. "Oh fuck. It's Mathers."

The missing Auror.

Harry stepped to one side of the stunned wizard, Malfoy to the other, while Hermione stood at his feet. "I'll call in a team."

"C Team," Malfoy suggested without tearing his attention from the unconscious man. "They need practice canvassing. We'll need to complete a proper sweep of the area. Three kilometres out in all directions."

Harry agreed with a nod and—to Hermione's surprise—without argument. "We'll also need to contact his family."

"Later." Malfoy crouched next to Mathers' still form, his hands on his knees. "When he's stable."

"Right." Harry ran a heavy hand through his hair. Hermione knew he was troubled, even as he backed away. Harry took everything harder than he should, because he valued everyone, right down to Deloris. However, he was still the consummate professional, a true leader, and he knew what to do. Quickly, Harry put his feelings aside and pointed his wand in the air to call forth his silvery stag.

It was time to get to work.

One knee in the grass, Malfoy slid his wand back into its holster in a smooth motion. He hadn't been as affected as Harry—at least not visibly. His reaction had been far more subtle and thus harder to point out for dissection. The first clue of his inner workings came from the simple fact that Malfoy seemed unsurprised by the brutality.

Hermione noted nothing beyond indifference in his clinical indifference. "Do you know him?"

"Not like Potter."

Hermione knew what he meant.

Being an Auror—well, now the Head of the Auror's Office—was Harry's career, something he knew he would be doing for a long time. He had always made it a mission to know every person who worked for him. Families, birthdays, hobbies. This assignment and collaboration with the Task Force was just that: an assignment. It was about the people who went from assignment to assignment with him. They were important.

Malfoy, from what she could ascertain, was different. No surprise there. The people who worked under him were just that: people. He didn't try to get to know them, wasn't interested in gaining their respect. All business. It was a surprisingly linear way of thinking that Hermione knew didn't always work. His detachment—in addition to the fact that he was Draco Malfoy—was likely why everyone deferred to Harry. And also why he didn't seem to care.

"I'll see that he's transported to St. Mungo's," Hermione said just to end the odd silence. "When he wakes, he'll likely need to be questioned."

Malfoy said nothing as he examined the man's injuries. "Looks like the work of the Carrows. They're particularly heavy-handed with the Cruciatus curse. They also think setting captives loose in the forest without a wand to hunt like prey is a perfectly acceptable form of entertainment." She had the wisdom to think before asking how he knew about such a barbaric act. "Did he say anything to you?"

Hermione gulped. "My name." That didn't bother him at all, so she told him the rest. "We see you. We see you all."

She noticed the shift, the stiffness in his shoulders, as he lifted his eyes to hers. For a second, Hermione saw the worry in them before he tucked it away. "Anything else? Anything… more specific?"

"No."

Harry joined them, his jaw set in a tight line. "They'll be here momentarily. Will he be okay?" His eyes were hopeful despite his grim expression

Malfoy answered before she could. "He'll likely end up like Longbottom's parents. It'll be a waste to question him or even retrieve his memories."

"There have been significant strides in reversing the long-term effects of the curse." While possible, his response wasn't exactly true. She rested a hand on Harry's shoulder. "They won't know how bad he is until he regains consciousness."

"How long will that take?"

"I have no idea." Hermione levitated the letter with her wand. "This was in his hand. It's poisoned, and while I didn't read it for obvious reasons, it looks the same as all the others. His hand looks like Molly's. It has to be the same poison." Malfoy didn't hide his confusion; his eyes cut back and forth between them as he tried to put the puzzle pieces together. Harry heaved a sigh and Hermione tried to fill in the gaps. "It's a slow-acting poison that is fatal if left untreated for—"

"I'm familiar with it."

That's right. Sachs.

Still, there was so much tension and finality in those four words that Hermione left it alone.

"Do you still have the antidote?" Harry asked.

"I have one vial that will have to do for now, but I can make more. I would have gotten it, but I didn't want to leave him alone." Lest anything else happen. Or he regained consciousness—or worse: vanished.

"Did you stun him?" Malfoy asked with a frown.

"No, your mother's security did when he tried to attack me before I could put him in a Body Bind. He's likely been cursed, Imperius if I had to guess, and sent here to deliver a message, so I can't hold his actions against him. He didn't come close at all to harming me."

All at once, understanding swept across Malfoy's features like a quickly-moving thunderstorm. "My mother's security team? Why is she here?" He whipped around to look for her. "Where—"

"Right over there."

The aggravated wizard spotted his mother on the other side of the stream with both guards. Harry excused himself as Task Force members began arriving with a series of pops, ranging from loud to soft.

"Your mother came here to work in my garden in lieu of walking, which she hates. She's remained safe behind my wards the entire time, if that was your concern." At that, he gave her a hard glare. "She's the one who noticed Mathers when we were finishing up."

"This is where you live?" Malfoy rose to his feet, grey eyes now surveying his mother's surroundings. He seemed to take in everything from the chickens chasing each other, to the bits of her garden that were visible from their vantage point, to the white bricks that made up her home. "It's remote." Malfoy reached out, skimming the edges of her active wards with the same hand that bore his signet ring.

Close but not touching.

"Yes, and it's warded tight."

Malfoy trailed his fingers along the invisible barrier, still a hair's breadth away. "I can't see them."

"But you can see your mother, right?"

"Yes."

"It's because you have the same access to my home as your mother does. If you didn't, you wouldn't be able to see anything."

Malfoy's only response was a single arched brow.

Hermione looked back at Harry, who was giving directions with authoritative patience to a Task Force member who seemed confused about where they were. Harry mentioned her house and every one of them looked around, seeing nothing. The truth of her words seemed to dawn on him all at once.

"But—"

"You're my patient's son, it made sense to let you in."

His voice was low, controlled. "Of course."

For reasons unknown, Hermione stepped right to the edge of her own wards. Next to him, but still out of reach. "I won't let any harm come to your mother, not while she's in my care. You know that, right?"

The silence that fell between them extended until the sound of the first set of team members leaving to canvass the area. Hermione turned, preparing to Apparate into her home to retrieve everything she would need, but hesitated.

"I know." His voice was so low she barely heard him.

Hermione shook off the touch of unease she felt before Disapparating, landing just outside her brewing room. From there, she gathered what she needed, and made a Floo call to Theo to send someone to her home to transport a new patient. By the time she made it back outside, the Task Force had gone off to explore the area. Narcissa had transfigured something into a chair and was back in her sunglasses, watching what was occurring just outside her wards with a bored fascination. Her guards were standing at attention by her side.

"I have a meeting with my planning team for the end of season soirée I am hosting."

"I didn't expect you to stay," Hermione replied honestly.

Narcissa crossed her legs and laced her fingers together. She wasn't moving. "I thought I might be of some assistance. I was the first to see him, after all, and I saw him long before we finished gardening, but he was just standing there, watching. I assumed he was a hallucination."

"About your hallucinations—"

"I do not wish to speak about them right now, Miss Granger." She reached up to touch the ring dangling on the chain around her neck. "I have had a rather trying morning."

"That's understandable." Hermione let it go. For now. "We'll discuss this later."

The witch then lowered her glasses, giving her a cursory onceover as she changed the subject. "I see you remain uninjured. Good. I heard the presence of my security guard angered you. He was merely acting on my orders to protect you. I was…" She trailed off, adjusting her glasses as she turned her head back to where her son and Harry were—not yelling or fighting—just talking across the stream. The latter nodded and when one of the Task Force members arrived back on the scene, he went to speak to them.

Malfoy was left alone with the still-unconscious Mathers.

When he kneeled next to the man and pulled out his wand, Hermione excused herself with few words. After a small tug, she appeared across the stream at the still-unconscious man's side. With Malfoy. Immediately, she noticed the blood around his mouth and chin had been cleaned. His eyes had been shut, and there was a steady rise and fall of his chest with each breath. He appeared to be sleeping.

He would wake soon and probably need to be subdued.

Then she realised something. "Did you do anything—"

"I'm not proficient in Healing, Granger." Malfoy rose from his stooped position, pocketing his wand. "Potter cleaned the blood."

"Okay." Hermione had almost no proof, but somehow, she knew that he was lying.

Much like that morning, though, she gave no indication of disbelief. Nevertheless, there was a curiosity building inside of her that would no longer be ignored. What he had done for Mathers wasn't much, except that it showed a hint of humanity hidden in a small act of kindness from a man who did everything possible to put forth an image that only perpetuated what people already thought about him.

Cynical. Apathetic. Meticulous. Distant. Demanding.

Accurate.

Hermione recalled the photo with baby Scorpius from his office, the way Malfoy never shut out his son, the way he held onto the boy when he dreamed of his mother, and waited until the very last minute for him to come to the kitchen—okay perhaps… not entirely accurate?

Malfoy's dichotomy was something she hadn't been able to wrap her head around during any of their interactions, and he didn't make figuring him out easy. But really, it had not weighed heavily on her mind until that night in his office. The mystery he shrouded himself in had to be intentional. Malfoy seemed to prefer being an enigma, and she had a few guesses as to why.

Not that he would ever confirm if she was right.

Still, Hermione thought about it more and more. The only solution to the equation of him was that perhaps his behaviour provided him true privacy, as well as a measure of control. Everyone—friend, foe, or stranger alike—thought that they knew Malfoy well enough to predict what he would say or do in any given situation.

Leaving him the opportunity to either prove them correct or not.

It was always his choice.

And it was becoming more and more apparent to Hermione that he hadn't been afforded the opportunity to make many of those for himself. Much like his son.

Her solution made sense, in a way, but it begged the question of who he actually was.

That had been the constant niggling thing at the back of her mind that reared to life whenever he did something unexpected.

Or even something expected.

Hermione cleared her throat. "I called Theo, he's sending a—"

Right then, Susan appeared, followed by two Mediwitches Hermione knew only by face. Malfoy stepped away from Mathers and left her to it. In no time, she had explained the situation, detailed the diagnostic charms she'd performed, and handed them the potions. Hermione left them to set up transport.

Duty finished, she approached Harry and Malfoy, who appeared to be having a discussion. When she moved closer, they both looked as if they had been waiting for her to join.

Hermione furrowed her brows. "What?"

"Narcissa's memory of what she witnessed…"

"Ah, yes. She told me that she'd noticed him before she said something."

"I was wondering how long Mathers had been there. If, at any point, she had seen him from the corner of her eye. Is her memory safe to extract?" Harry shot an uncomfortable glance in Malfoy's direction. The man remained inscrutable as ever. She frowned at him, but turned to her best friend, who awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck. "I only ask because of her—"

"Dementia, Potter," Malfoy snapped so suddenly Hermione jolted.

Harry glared at Malfoy, his jaw clenched. "I was trying to be sensitive—"

"When you don't have to be. Not around me. I'm well aware of my mother's disease and Granger is her Healer. She doesn't need your pity." He spat the last word like it was poison.

"I'm not pitying her, I'm—"

Before it devolved into arguing, Hermione mediated. "You can extract the memory, Harry. It shouldn't be an issue."

And it wasn't. Except, when asked, Narcissa looked at them individually for several awkward seconds before she frowned. "Memory of what exactly?"

If Hermione noticed the slight way her son's face fell, she wisely kept it to herself.

 


 

On the ride home from King's Cross after First Year, Hermione told endless stories about her time at Hogwarts. Naturally, she left out the bits about ill-advised late night detention in the Forbidden Forest, two-faced Quirrell, and any part where she'd nearly died. If she'd told her parents everything, they'd never have let her return to her true home.

When Hermione explained Sorting, about the possibility of being given a choice, her parents had asked her to sort them.

Just for fun.

For her dad, her answer had been automatic. He was the quintessential Hufflepuff with all of the characteristics: loyalty, fairness, impartiality, patience, and modesty.

Her mother had been harder, but ultimately, she'd decided on Gryffindor. Hermione felt she was most like her: daring, courageous, intelligent, and brave. The hypothetical Sorting error had gone unchecked for over twenty years before being realised at an impromptu dinner gathering.

Everything had been shaping up to be a normal evening, one where Hermione arrived with high hopes after spending the entire afternoon following the intruder incident reviewing Narcissa's files. Charles, who had diagnosed her after a battery of Muggle tests, had forwarded the results over by Owl, but they were hard to understand as Hermione wasn't a doctor. There were, however, a few Squib physicians that helped at St Mungo's she could lean on for possible help interpreting the data.

She'd spend the rest of her day making appointments.

Tired from the long day, Hermione had all but crashed in the chair she always sat in, and spent the better part of an hour half-reading while watching her dad paint with jazz music in the background.

And then something happened.

A shift.

A notable one that occurred when Hermione's father abruptly stepped away from his canvas and cleared his throat—the noise made her lift her head, her eyes falling on his latest work.

Daybreak. The moment the sun began to rise. The start of a new day. A beginning.

Hermione wasn't much of an artist, she didn't have the skill or drive, but she knew enough to understand how different this was from his abstract work, how far he'd come as an artist during the course of his classes. The details, from the direction of the sunrise to the star or two on the opposite end of the canvas, were thoughtful and evocative. It was beautiful.

Her father stepped back again, now looking with artistic eyes, and tipped his paint stained fingers against his chin.

"We're working on different styles in my art class. What do you think?"

Hermione hadn't expected his—well, anything, if she were being honest, so his question made her heart jump. "Looks great, Dad." Her voice was so thick with emotion that it drew her father's attention.

"Are you okay?"

It had been years since he'd asked for her opinion about his work. "Yes, yes I am."

"Good." His modest yet pleased smile inspired one of her own. He looked so proud, navy fingerprint smudges on his cheek and all. Her dad closed his eyes, letting the swell of music take him back in time. "Dizzy sounds good tonight, doesn't he?"

Hermione wasn't keen on the music, as it had been reduced to background noise for so long, but she was a fan of her father. "He really does…"

His smile only grew.

That feeling of hope and optimism remained until her mother called them downstairs for dinner.

Then it died a fiery death when she spotted Ron sitting at the table with her mum.

Her dad stopped short at the sight of him, clearly puzzled, but greeted him with kindness nonetheless. "Good to see you again, Ron."

"You too, Mr Granger."

As Hermione blinked in confusion at the sight before her, two things dawned on her:

First, her mother's invitation had been a trap.

Second, the woman who'd given birth to her was actually a Slytherin.

Cunning. Resourceful. Ambitious. Determined.

"Ron stopped by to say hello." Her mother flashed a warm, dramatic smile as she gestured to their guest. "And since he was on time for dinner, I invited him to stay. I hope you don't mind." While rolling his eyes, her dad took his seat next to his wife and complimented the meal— roasted lamb, potatoes, and salad—as he did every day.

Hermione already knew the meat would be bland and overcooked at best.

She looked at her friend.

It wasn't that Ron was a terrible liar—he could lie with the best of them and look on casually as someone else crafted a tall tale. They had a lot of experience with that, actually. Years. She knew him as well as he knew himself. Sometimes even better. And because of that, Hermione knew exactly what to look for: the slight flush and fidget, naturally, but it had been his imperceptible recoil at her mother's words that was damning. It was all the evidence needed to determine that his presence had been planned.

Expected.

Anticipated.

Hermione felt her temper spark, but tried to stomp it out before it could catch. Instead, she smiled. It was a forced and twisted one, thin with barely concealed contempt.

"Oh, how…" She trailed off to exhale her next word. "Nice."

Because Ron knew her just as well, his eyes widened. He reached for his glass of water and took a long drink.

"It is, isn't it? Have a seat. Ron." At that, the redheaded man's head jerked up in response. "Be a love and get Hermione's chair."

Her dad sat back and watched the show while Ron cringed without looking. He likely couldn't help his reaction because—as her best friend—he already knew the expression he'd see on Hermione's face, the dangerous sparks shooting from her eyes and a look of perfect disdain. Ron knew better than to follow through on her mother's request.

Especially if he wanted to see the canaries again.

"Uh…" Blue eyes continued shifting as he scrambled to get himself out of the situation. Hermione watched him with the same fascination Al would watch a worm wriggle in the dirt after a storm before she took mercy on him.

"I'm perfectly capable of getting my own chair, thank you." She took the last empty seat.

Ron gave her a weak smile; she glared in return. He swallowed audibly.

"It's good manners, Hermione. You should never turn down a man's kindness."

She was ready to launch into a diatribe for the ages, but remembered where she was and the goal she wanted to accomplish. Hermione closed her mouth, took a breath, and counted to ten—then twenty—before she opened her eyes again and plastered on a smile. "What's for dinner?"

"I made roasted lamb, just how you like it."

Today's meal was more of an effort than she'd made in years.

"Doesn't Ron look handsome?" Her mum wiggled her eyebrow.

Honestly, there was no amount of counting that could stop her from saying something before the end of the night.

Hermione's dad sighed with uncharacteristic impatience. "Can we eat now?"

"Yes dear, we can."

Dinner commenced.

At least for the three of them.

As for Hermione, well…

There were a million things she wanted to say, and not all of them were nice or in line with her ideal temperament. In her attempt to stifle herself, she only made matters worse. Now everything was tangled up in knots that were impossible to unravel without disrupting the progress she'd made.

Conversation with her dad aside, Hermione had assumed that the irregular invitation had really meant something from her mother. A sign of change or a possible shift in the dynamic she'd worked tirelessly to fix. It had given her hope that perhaps she was on the right path towards atonement for her past mistakes with them, but in the end, today's dinner was just a ploy for her mother to play matchmaker.

And that burned bad enough for Hermione to stand up abruptly. "Mum, a word please?"

"After dinner, lo—"

"Now. Please." With that, she marched out of the room, leading the way to the sitting room at the front of the house, far away from other ears. When her mum appeared in the doorway less than a minute later, she didn't look amused.

Well, that made two of them.

"Hermione," her mum began with a patient sigh, stepping fully into the room and folding her arms across her chest. "I already know what you're thinking." Hermione couldn't help herself, she snorted in disbelief. The noise made impatience begin its slow creep across her mother's face. "You might not see it now, but I'm doing you a favour."

"I fail to see how blatantly ignoring everything I've said is doing me a favour, so please"—she waved her hand—"explain it to me."

Never one to back down, Hermione's mother accepted the gauntlet she'd all but thrown down.

"You're nearly thirty-two and single. It's not a problem, except for the fact that you have been for years. You're not even trying. If that's what you wanted, I'd be fine with it, but it's not." She unfolded one arm to point towards the kitchen, where Ron likely sat in awkward silence with her dad. "There's a man in there who's been through it all with you, through things your father and I can't comprehend. He clearly loves you, but you won't even let him."

"Not that it's any of your business, but Ron and I have been down that road already. It didn't work. We're not compatible." Amongst other things she had no energy to explain in detail.

"Who's to say it can't now?"

Talking to her mother was like trying to teach Arithmancy to a three-year-old who couldn't even read. "You're wasting your time, not to mention his and mine. Have you been listening to anything I've—"

"What do you want, Hermione? Do you even know?" Her mum ran a hand over her fluffy hair in a move she often did when she was nearing her peak of frustration. It was one of many of their similarities. "You've been stuck in the same place for years. Ever since you got sick, you've been at a standstill, busying yourself with your patients and your garden—and excuses."

Hermione flinched. "Thank you for being so supportive, Mother."

Her mother winced at her own misstep. "I'm not saying that I don't support you. I'm saying that I'm concerned for you."

"Because I'm thirty-one and single?" Hermione scoffed with disbelief, rolling her eyes. "I don't need a partner to be fulfilled, Mum. I'm happy as I am."

"Are you?" She took a concerned step forward. "Because if you were truly happy, I don't think I'd be so worried. You're drifting and have been so long that you're lost. I just don't understand why you're dead set against a man who wants to make you happy."

"Because he can't, Mum! He can't!"

"Ron wants to give it another chance. How can he when you've closed yourself up and won't even entertain the possibility that it could work?"

Hermione pinched the bridge of her nose and took a single, calming breath. "I'm tired of arguing about something I don't want."

If her mum heard the shift in her tone, she ignored it. "Which leads me back to my previous question: what do you want? Do you even know? You're obviously waiting for something, but you aren't actively looking for it. You've given up, love, and as your mother, that worries me. And… perhaps I shouldn't have asked Ron over for dinner—"

"Perhaps," Hermione shot back, hating the shrill in her voice. "I've already told him I'm not interested, and here you are making him think he can persuade me when he can't."

Her mother sighed. "I just don't want you to be alone. You'll wake up in ten years and regret the fact that you were too stubborn to settle down with someone who wants you. It's a harsh lesson, but you can't get everything you want. Sometimes you have to find someone and stick with it."

That made her recoil. Not from her words, but from the implication.

It didn't matter so much that it was Ron, her mother just wanted her with someone—anyone.

That was just… selfish. Both to her and Ron. She might not love him the way he wanted her to, but he was one of her oldest friends. He deserved more than being her someone.

"You'll understand one day."

Hermione shook her head. She was willing to compromise about so many things, but not this.

Not now.

Not anymore.

"As my mother, you're supposed to encourage me to strive for something more than a warm body. You're supposed to tell me to find someone who understands and accepts me completely, flaws and all. Today. As I am. Where I am and where I'm going. Someone I can do the same with. You're supposed to tell me that I'm worth it and I deserve better than settling for something I know in my bones isn't right for me. You're supposed to tell me to wait."

Her mother took several steps towards her, stopping only an arm's length away. As usual. Though she tried and sometimes succeeded, she wasn't naturally a warm and comforting type of parent, far too pragmatic and set in her ways.

"Your dad wasn't my type and I fell in love with him anyway. It's not settling to be with someone who doesn't match your fantasy."

"But it is when you don't love them, when you know they don't really love you either."

"Of course, he does."

Hermione heaved a sigh. "Ron loves the idea of me, but not me."

"That's not fair, Hermione, and you know it."

"No, listen." She held up her hand. "I nag, can be self-righteous and bossy, and while I'm finally at a point where I can accept that I'm not always right, it still irritates the hell out of me when I'm not. I'm arrogant and analytical. I'm challenging. I've got my own Code of Ethics where I frown on breaking one set of rules but not another. It doesn't make sense but sometimes, just don't. I'm slow to experiment without evidence of success—"

"You're more than all the negatives, love."

"I know that, but I also know these are the pieces of me that Ron doesn't like, complains about, and wants to change. And while I'm capable of self-correcting, most days I don't want to because without those imperfections, without those bits of me that he finds aggravating, I'm not being true to myself. If I go back to him, we'll fight, and to keep a long-term peace, I'll have to play a role. I can't stifle myself like that. I won't. I'd rather be alone than feel like I've got to be someone else."

"You think I don't compromise with your father? There—"

"The difference is that you two love each other." Hermione couldn't stop the swell of emotions. "Ron loves the version he imagines me to be without those pesky flaws he hates so much, but it doesn't work because I'm not her. I'm not who he thinks I am or who I once was anymore. I'm me."

Her mother sighed for what felt like the millionth time. "I just want what's best for you."

"You don't even know what that is." Hermione looked away. "Dinner's getting cold and we shouldn't keep everyone waiting."

After a gesture to lead the way and a short staring session that ended without resolution or any further disagreement, she followed her mother out. The table was as quiet as ever; her dad was nearly halfway finished. Ron had waited to take even a single bite. When her mother sat down and began eating, he glanced over at Hermione, giving her a series of looks—his way of showing concern.

She nodded in return and started on her lamb. "Dinner looks lovely."

"Thank you." Her mother's response was crisp and dry, nothing like the exuberance she'd shown before.

Hermione felt bad for being the cause of the mood shift, but she was more upset about the ground she would likely have to make up with her mum after that conversation. Dinner ended up being a quiet affair, layered with tension so heavy it weighed down every interaction.

No one could sit still. Fingers drummed on the tabletop. Shoes tapped on the tile floors. Forks scraped against the plates.

Hermione used the silence to figure out which main ingredient her mother had purposefully altered (she'd substituted fresh mint for dried in the Mediterranean mint sauce, which made the texture odd) while noting that the lamb was too well done.

Ron chattered on about inane topics to stave off the silence, and her dad went from responding to stealing glances at her mother, who ate with a perfectly blank expression. She didn't say much, but responded to Ron's idle chatter with fond looks, even when the topic was something wizarding that she had no understanding about. All attempts at drawing Hermione into the conversation ended with her mother returning to silence, so after a few times, she reduced herself to little intones to agree or disagree all while knowing one thing:

Her mother's mood would last through the rest of the meal.

And it did.

Even through dessert, which was orange honey cake with pistachios. She would have asked for the recipe, but her mother abruptly left to answer a phantom phone call after serving both her dad and Ron. With a shrug, Hermione plated a piece for herself while her dad watched.

Ron wasn't so tactful, but he at least waited to talk about dinner until they had left her parents' and were sitting in the grass by the stream outside her house. "What happened with your mum? Cause she completely changed after you two got back from talking."

"We talked about her meddling in things she doesn't understand." Hermione saw no point in lying. "You, to be exact."

"Me?"

"If she invites you to dinner again—and I know she invited you this time." He winced. "Just… do us both a favour and decline." She listened to the sound of slow moving water and the rumble of thunder coming from the south. "I don't want her to keep giving you the impression that you can change my mind when I know you can't."

"Change your mind?"

"You're not stupid, Ron." She gave him a knowing look in the dying light of day. "You know exactly what I'm talking about. There's only one reason why you would accept a dinner invitation from my mother without telling me. And you've had plenty of chances."

In fact, just yesterday evening he'd come by, only to find Hermione armed with potions and teas as gifts, on her way to Daphne and Dean's for a visit ahead of the birth of their baby. Ron had gone with her and lingered until she finished touring the nursery and chatting, accompanying her back home where they watched a film on the telly.

Plenty of time to mention dinner with her parents.

Ron sighed; his silly ploy at complete innocence was up. "I'm trying, Hermione." He threw a rock in the direction of the stream and frowned when he missed. "Just like I told you I would. Tonight… didn't go so well."

"Understatement."

His next question only hinted at the true scope of his frustration with her reluctance and refusal. "What do you want me to do, Hermione? I'm—"

"I want you to stop and listen to me, rather than what you want." She poked him in the arm. "I didn't ask you to try. Quite the opposite, actually. I asked you to leave us in the past."

He fixed her with a hard stare, but she didn't flinch. Didn't blink until he did. Ron rolled his eyes at her stubbornness, his hair gently blowing in the evening breeze. "Why are you so against me?" Hermione opened her mouth to answer, but he interrupted her, voice soft as his gaze returned to her. "We loved each other at one point."

Ron wasn't wrong.

They had loved each other through war and the false peace perpetuated by the Ministry, through mourning, recovery, and healing. Through the thousands of fights and pains between. Life had been chaotic when they had first fallen for one another. And still, even now, Hermione thought of their time together in the way of first loves—when everything was a first and she had no understanding of the word and its true meaning, when she didn't even know or love herself.

For the first couple of years, Hermione thought that love wouldn't be any harder than the war they'd just fought and the pain from the losses they'd incurred. She thought that love was the answer to all her questions. At that time, Hermione thought love was about being needed and selflessly putting his happiness before her own, suffering in the name of the word just for the sake of some version of life she wasn't even sure she wanted.

It was beautiful, in a poetic way, but unrealistic.

Hermione grew older, as all people must. She changed; it was inevitable with the life she was living after the war. It wasn't exactly healthy or wise, but at that time, she was focused on the integral role she played in the Ministry as their champion. Little did she realise, she was actually their pet, running on their hamster wheel, wearing herself thin yet going nowhere.

And perhaps initially she hadn't sprouted in the right direction, but at least she was growing.

But her love for Ron?

That didn't grow. It stayed exactly the same. It got comfortable. Stagnant. As did he. More than that, what made things worse was that he wasn't interested. He felt that they were doing all right as they were, fights and clashes notwithstanding, as he battled for his top place in her priorities. As she rose in the ranks at work, Ron clung tighter to the person Hermione used to be. The girl from Hogwarts. The girl in the tent. The girl that put his needs higher in the months (and years) after the war because of the loss of Fred. The girl that made him comfortable due to nothing more than familiarity and proximity.

A girl she couldn't be anymore, not only because she had been working too hard to give him the attention he craved, but because Hermione wanted more.

Originally, after the death of their relationship, Hermione thought more was career-related, and she wanted to be the champion for those that couldn't defend themselves. She had plans to make the wizarding world a better place for everyone, to work diligently, to right all the wrongs, end the prejudices. And when they began piling more responsibilities on her to distract her from her efforts, it made it harder to work on her own projects and proposed laws, but she sacrificed sleep and food to get everything done.

But the fulfillment she sought wasn't related to her work. Not completely. That was something she'd learned during the hindsight provided by the damage she'd done to herself and the fallout of her carelessness. The mending and restoration had led to more self-assessment in the months that followed her departure.

It took therapy, buying a house, and starting a garden—it took becoming a Healer—for Hermione to properly heal herself. Not from what had happened, but from all the trauma she'd been too distracted helping everyone else overcome to truly deal with on her own. It had taken a complete overhaul to become more aware of her identity and reconnect to who she had been before the war verses after, now with the full understanding of how one had become the other. She hadn't determined what that more was, but she was aware of what it wasn't.

And to her, more didn't involve going backwards. Only moving forward.

"Nothing to say?"

Hermione snorted. "Now, you know me better than that."

"I do." He sounded so earnest.

Looking out at the forest, she steeled herself. This was the last time she would have this conversation. "I'm tired of talking about this, especially since you're just going to ignore everything that I'm saying in favour of what you want."

"It's not just about what I want, Hermione. I think you're being stubborn and unreasonable." Ron's undertone of irritation and bitterness burst out into the open, giving voice to feelings he'd been suppressing for the entirety of their short conversation. "You've never moved on, you've never—"

She jerked her head back to Ron just in time to watch him run a frustrated hand through his hair.

"That's factually inaccurate. I don't need to be with someone else to prove to you I've moved on. I'm sick and tired of having to explain myself repeatedly. I'm tired of you thinking that I have to—"

"I'm not telling you that you have to do anything, I'm just saying that I'm here and I want to try and see if we can get back to what we used to have. I want—"

"Do I matter that little to you?" Her voice was smaller than intended, but full of everything she felt.

"You matter a lot to me, Hermione. Of course, you do! It's why I keep trying, even though you refuse to give me a chance. That's all I want. One chance."

"One chance to do what exactly? You want so much from me, Ron, but what I want doesn't matter to you. That's not love. That's not what it means and how it's supposed to feel."

"Herm—"

"It's about mutual respect and acceptance without making one person feel less than—without making them feel like their wants are born out of stubbornness. It's about so much more than that, so much more than I even have the time or energy to explain."

"Hermione, I know what love is, and I know we had it. We owe it to ourselves, our friends, and our families to—"

"I don't owe you or anyone anything." The words burned their way out before she could temper her own flames. "I only owe it to myself to always be the best version of who I am at every point in my life. I owe it to myself to be happy."

Ron lifted his eyes to hers.

Her confession was hard to speak out loud, but even more difficult to admit to herself. "I—I… I'm not always happy, Ron. I'm restless and I haven't figured out exactly what I want or what I'm looking for. But I want to." Raw emotion coursed through her, growing wilder by the second. Tears rolled down her cheeks, but she didn't hide them. Not from him and not from herself. "I want to figure it out. I don't want to settle, and you shouldn't either. You should want more than that. You deserve better than someone who doesn't want the same things as you."

Ron said nothing, only looked away, his lips pressed tight while Hermione further opened the door to the parts of her that she had kept private. Secret. Tamped down during their relationship and in the years following.

"I… I want to be seen. I want intimacy. I want a connection. I want to be turned inside out by someone who knows me just as well as I know myself. I want someone who loves me for who I am, and you don't. I can't keep bending and contorting and stretching myself thin to keep the peace and make you happy. I'll snap. Again."

She could tell when the memories jumped to the forefront of his brain by the way his eyes went distant. "Hermione…"

"I love myself. I know my value and identity. Maybe I'll find what I'm looking for, maybe I won't, but I'll wait the rest of my life before I settle for anything less than what I deserve. And I deserve to be loved correctly… or not at all."

 

If it doesn't set your soul on fire, it's not worth the burn.
C. Churchill

Chapter Text


Twelve
Touch Me Not

 

May 28, 2011

 

When the first bookstore opened in Godric's Hollow between the plant store and the pub, Hermione had been at the front of the line. She was a frequent enough visitor for the owner—an older wizard—to offer to unlock the doors two hours early. Just for her. Hermione's presence in town was generally met with odd looks and the occasional wizard who would ask for a photo. But almost everyone left her alone.

Still just as quaint as she remembered it when she'd come with Harry, the village had expanded in the years after the war, but it was a ghost town early Saturday morning when she knocked on the door of the bookstore.

The bell on top of the door jingled as the door opened, and the older man greeted her with a smile. "Ah, Miss Granger. I've got some new selections for you to peruse."

"At this rate, I'll need another bookshelf." Hermione laughed. "But today I'm here for journals for the kids."

It was something she'd started doing for Harry's kids a few years before, a set of blank pages she encouraged them to fill with whatever they wanted. A creative outlet. Hermione picked out a pink one for Lily to fill hers with scribbles and artwork. There were unicorns on the front and that was always a safe bet. James would stack his with an assortment of his interests, which mainly included Quidditch, and Hermione found one covered in Snitches for him. Al was a little harder to choose for, but she found a journal with the planets on the cover that she knew he would like.

Selections made, Hermione turned, her elbow catching another journal by mistake and knocking it on the floor. She picked it up, ready to return it to its spot, but caught sight of familiar constellations on the front.

Al would probably run out of pages first and he loved the stars. She slid it on top of the other three.

It never hurt to have a spare.

The journals were half-forgotten, nestled deep in her trusty beaded bag, when she made her second stop. She needed to pick up an item on the short list Narcissa had given her from the plant store. A special order kneeling pad for her comfort. It was ornate and ridiculous, but she bought it anyway. And to reward herself for her continued ability to compromise, Hermione decided to indulge in an aloe plant, too. She was in the process of paying when she spotted a drooping cactus.

"Is this priced correctly?"

It was early—too early, as the store had only opened ten minutes before—so when the teenage boy who had barely spoken a word to her covered a yawn with his fist, Hermione didn't judge him.

Free Cactus.

Couldn't be correct.

Everything had a price, even a sagging plant. Hermione had never seen a plant look so sad, and she found herself curious about the little thing. When she grazed her fingers against its spines, pushing to find any soft spots that would determine if the plant had, in fact, already died, it still pricked her in a way that told her it was very much alive.

It made her smile with thoughts about something else that was just as small and defensive.

Perfect, really.

"The price is correct, but it's a lost cause," the clerk replied with a shrug. "Do you want it? If no one takes it by the end of the week, my boss told me to bin it."

Hermione didn't believe in lost causes, so she ended up with a drooping cactus.

The first thing she did upon returning home was place the aloe plant with the others in her conservatory. The second thing she did was search every room of her house that contained books for a very specific one that would help her situation.

One about desert plants.

After all, she already had one cactus, a grumpy thing that Luna had brought back from Mexico. Spelled to keep dry from the rain and humidity, it had no business surviving the English winters in a large pot just outside her back door, but it had stubbornly lived through the last three and showed no signs of dying. So long as she left it alone. Most of the time, when it didn't need pruning and she didn't need its water for a potion, Hermione forgot she even had it.

At long last, she found what she was looking for in a chest full of books she had meant to donate to charity. Relaxing on the ottoman in the conservatory to read, she set the droopy cactus on the small table next to her to bask in the sun. Her skim of pertinent information didn't take long. As it turned out, it wasn't dying. It had been kept in a cold store when it needed warmth, neglected without enough light or water. Of course it was sagging…

It was stressed.

Well, Hermione could remedy that. "Shall we, little one?"

With dragon-hide gloves—the task would be painful in anything else—she set a stasis charm and spent the rest of the hour humming to music from the Wireless as she worked to re-pot the prickly little plant. Hermione considered placing it with the others in her conservatory, but as she set warming charms to keep it at the recommended temperature, Hermione changed her mind.

It needed time and attention and the right amount of space.

Maybe then it would perk up and grow.

Hermione had just finished when her wards announced the arrival of Pansy and a surprise in the form of chipper Daphne. Hermione took off her gloves and laid them down before leaving to greet her guests, stealing a final glance over her shoulder at her pitiful cactus.

She was just passing the table when Pansy came through the door of the conservatory bearing breakfast with coffees floating above the boxes. Daphne waddled behind her, already sipping on what looked like juice with a straw. They sat at the table and ate French toast because Daphne had a craving for them.

"Don't judge me," she said after she finished her breakfast and half of Pansy's. "I'm celebrating."

"Oh?" Hermione was curious.

"Yes, I went to visit Scorpius and he looked at me." That snatched both her and Pansy's attention instantly. Daphne smiled. "It was only for a second, but…"

It was progress.

"I didn't stay long. Things were tense after Scorpius went to bed. Draco brought up therapy to see if I knew anyone in the area for children—"

Because Daphne had a standing appointment with one and had for years.

Hermione had to force herself to breathe because Malfoy had actually listened. "What happened?"

"Not sure, but Narcissa wasn't keen on the idea, saying there was nothing wrong with him. That he's just stubborn. Draco… well, he got frustrated and stormed out. I wasn't trying to be around Narcissa any longer than necessary so I left as well."

There were at least thirteen more questions bouncing around Hermione's head, but she knew better than to blurt them all out at once. "Oh, that's interesting."

"Yes, but also odd. Still, I won't complain. I'm going to ask my therapist for recommendations."

Well, that was something, so they ate French toast to celebrate small victories.

"I'm growing life and trying not to end my husband's because he's hovering." Daphne rubbed her belly fondly as Hermione laughed along with Pansy. "Laugh now, but at some point you'll both be where I am now."

They both stopped laughing, and Pansy blanched. "Hope to fucking Merlin not! Besides, I can speak for Granger as well when I say I am happily self-coupled."

Secretly, Hermione didn't completely reject the idea like her friend.

"Wait a minute." Daphne cocked a blond eyebrow and rested her folded arms on top of her baby bump. "Didn't you spray your perfume on Percy Weasley's invitation to your Summer Solstice party?"

"I would never—" Pansy looked scandalized. At the disbelief on her friend's faces, she tried another angle. "It was a slip of the hand." Hermione folded her arms to match Daphne, leaning back in her chair. "Perhaps I might have done that, but how dare you ruin our circle of trust, Daphne?"

"Oh, I already knew, if that's what you're worried about." Hermione waved a lazy hand. "Dean gave Percy the invitation so of course he told Ron about it. Ron told me the day before yesterday."

There was a sour look on Pansy's face for several long seconds. "Did he like it?" she asked in an uncharacteristic rush for their nonchalant friend.

"Ron didn't give a detailed account of his reaction, but I know that he cleared his schedule to attend." Hermione watched Pansy smother her pleased expression by smiling into her cup. "Last I checked, you were complaining about his flowers. What changed?"

"Somehow he figured that I like orchids and tulips." Pansy gave her a knowing glare. Hermione looked away and whistled. Pansy rolled her eyes. "That's what I thought. Anyway, I saw him at the Ministry. He asked me to take tea with him so, naturally, I gave him the most complicated tea request I could think of, just to be a bitch—" Of course she did. "But by the time I made it to his office, he had a cup waiting for me. It was impressive. And the conversation wasn't dull. He invited me to lunch on Tuesday, but I haven't responded yet. He's quite… rigid."

Hermione and Daphne exchanged knowing looks. Pansy's ex-husband had been a strict traditionalist and a very controlling man who made her feel worthless. While there were things that had been ingrained in her since birth, she'd done everything possible to leave what she could behind. They both knew their friend ran at a moment's notice when anything reminded her of what she'd left behind.

She and Daphne had a silent conversation where the latter agreed to let Hermione take the lead. "Percy is…" she trailed off for a second, choosing her words. "Okay, yes, he's rigid and a bit intense, but he's a good man. And who knows? He might be good for you."

Pansy finished her juice and cut her eyes between her friends. "Was that supposed to be a pep talk? Because bloody hell, Granger, that was terrible."

They all laughed.

"Wear something floral," Daphne suggested.

"How do you know I'm going to say yes?"

"Because I know you."

Hermione never understood their dynamic. They were close, but also cycled between hating and loving each other. Regularly. When Daphne and Dean eloped about a year after the war—to the shock of literally everyone—the former had been distraught when Pansy had cut her out just like everyone else in the pureblood circle.

Of course, Pansy had been newly married and living in Germany at the time, under the thumb of her husband. They hadn't spoken until just over three years prior when Pansy had shown up with bruises from her mother's hexes and a wild determination to become a new person.

Still, they argued and fought. There had been times when Pansy had refused to go to events if Daphne was going to be there. But all of that ended when Astoria's condition deteriorated, when they'd returned to London and the inevitable turned into any day now. When she died and Daphne started to drown in her grief, Pansy had halted her current projects and all but moved into their home for a week to help Dean keep her afloat.

For herself and the baby she was carrying.

Pansy had fed her crackers while she'd cried. Sat in the tub and held her hand while Dean kept her hair back as she got sick. Stayed by her side when she'd wandered around listless. Hugged her when she'd wanted it. Left her alone when she'd needed it. Pansy had even become quite adept at cleaning charms.

And how did Hermione know all this?

Because she'd let Pansy talk it out. Every day.

And grieve on her sofa. Every night.

Initially, Dean hadn't been enthused—because of the long-standing animosity between them—but after a few days, when Harry had asked him how it was going with Pansy's invasion after they'd dragged him out for a pint, he'd finished his and said, "She's not so bad."

A week hadn't been enough, as there was no timeline for grief, but Pansy knew it was time to leave them to pick up the pieces together. Rebuild. And they did.

They still were.

"Why were you at the Ministry anyway?" Hermione asked.

"I went to have lunch with Draco to annoy him into letting us take him to dinner—" Pansy glanced at Daphne. "He said yes, by the way. To the group dinner."

Daphne smiled and adjusted in her chair. One or two more shifts in her chair and she would be ready to sit on an actual sofa. With her feet up. "How much did he argue?"

"He said yes."

"That's not what I asked."

"Just yes… you know, let's leave it at him agreeing." Pansy lazily waved her hand. "The rest is irrelevant."

"So…" Daphne trailed off with an excited look Hermione had only seen a few times, but it always had something to do with food. "Important question: will there be cake?"

Nothing had changed, Hermione chuckled to herself, but then frowned, slightly lost. "Sorry, whose birthday is it?"

They both looked at her as if she'd gone insane. "It's Draco's."

"I didn't know that." If she had known that at some point, time had definitely made the exact date vanish from her memory. Narcissa hadn't mentioned anything about his birthday—or about him—only the end of season soirée she had been chosen to host just before the start of summer.

"I suppose you wouldn't." Pansy shrugged. "Well, his birthday is on June fifth, and he's agreed to dinner. Nothing fancy, of course. Want to join us?"

For a moment, Hermione thought she was addressing Daphne, but as it turned out, they were both looking at her. She swallowed, eyes flickering back and forth between the two expectant witches.

"Umm… Malfoy and I aren't…"

He was a curiosity she had only just admitted to having. Well, admitted to herself, at least. Outside of that, they were acquaintances, but certainly not friendly enough for her to attend his birthday dinner.

"Well, we're not too much of anything, really. Outside of helping him and Harry with the logistics of a raid they're working on, and morning tea discussions about articles in the paper, we don't really speak."

They exchanged puzzled glances.

"Morning tea discussions?" Pansy folded her hands on her lap. "And that is…?"

Uncomfortable under two sets of probing eyes, Hermione awkwardly shrugged, looked away while examining the ends of her hair. She needed a trim. Badly. "We discuss the articles in the paper he's reading. I'm usually making breakfast, but I make him a cup of tea. It's a fruity blend Narcissa likes. It's light."

If at all possible, they looked even more confused.

"Draco prefers either coffee or tea so strong it's almost black. He also has never let me make him a cup of tea," Pansy informed her with a look so serious Hermione thought there was going to be a test on it later.

"Could be because you're shite at it."

Pansy ignored Hermione's sarcastic comeback. "Also he won't allow outside… well, anything. Nor will he or drink or eat something when he can't identify where it's come from. I am genuinely surprised he lets you make Narcissa's meals—he's extremely paranoid." The two witches gave each other cagey glances. "With good reason."

Great.

Now there were even more questions crashing together like waves against rocks, but she thought it best if she gave them time to subside. Calm down. Arrange themselves in logical order. Preferably when she had a Quick-Quotes Quill. Or a tape recorder.

They were watching her expectantly, and Hermione shrugged. "Not sure what to say."

She was certain he watched her… maybe that was due to his paranoia that she might lace Narcissa's food, which was patently ridiculous as she had been working hard to keep his mother's faculties intact for as long as possible.

If Hermione truly wanted to harm his mother, all she had to do was wait.

"As far our mornings, that's how they go. He used to read, work on his crossword, and leave, but now he talks either very little or at length." It depended on his mood and level of agitation with her. Hermione kept that to herself. "But he leaves at precisely seven every morning."

Despite that one break in the habit.

"Oh!" Pansy snapped her fingers. "How did dinner go with your parents?"

"Abysmally." Hermione sighed. "Ron was there. My mother was trying to play matchmaker."

They both winced, but it was Daphne who spoke up. "I heard."

"How?"

The fact that their conversation had already spread amongst their friend group made her intensely uncomfortable. Maybe it had to do with the fact that Hermione was an only child and didn't have many friends before Harry and Ron, but she was a private person who kept everything close, especially if it was personal. Ron, who had so many siblings, never had privacy so he saw no issues with sharing. Their relationship problems being known and spoken about had been one of their many issues while they were dating.

"After he left you, he went to the pub with Dean and Neville. Dean told me, obviously," Daphne said. Apparently she hadn't told Pansy, who looked slightly betrayed. "Wasn't my place." Daphne shrugged and sipped her orange juice. "I'll admit, I thought at some point he'd convince you, but I'm glad to be wrong."

Pansy relaxed in her chair. "Sounds like you're finally admitting that you're not fine as you are." A sharp spike in adrenaline accompanied her words, but when Pansy held her hand up, Hermione settled down. "I don't want details. I'm just glad you've stopped lying to yourself. I'm also glad I don't have to worry about you going back to that Weasley." She shuddered delicately.

"Why would you both think that?" Hermione had to know if something she'd said or done made people think she would go back to Ron, despite being vocal about them not working.

Daphne and Pansy exchanged looks before the latter folded her arms and waited while the former looked around and huffed. "I like visiting you. Not just because we've gotten close over the years or because I've found peace here since my sister died, but I come here to keep you company. It wasn't the only reason Girls' Night was started, but it was one reason. Ginny thought—well, we all know that lonely people will get to the point where they'll do what it takes to not be lonely anymore." Daphne gave her a meaningful look.

Hermione was embarrassed. Shocked. She didn't know how to process the new information. Half of her wanted to be angry, to declare that their worries weren't necessary, but the other part secretly knew they had a point, and maybe even a reason to worry enough to start a group activity. "I understand that you all were acting as my friends, but I'm not that person. I—"

"We know that now." Daphne rested a hand on her stomach, a sign that her baby was moving. "But it's hard to tell what you will and won't do because you're guarded and you keep yourself incredibly busy. You seem okay, especially when you're taking on everything and everyone effortlessly, but I know how that looks. I've seen it in D—" Daphne cut herself off and looked down. "Anyway, I just thought eventually you would get tired of it and go back. Besides, when you two had that one off two years ago—"

"Merlin, don't remind me," Pansy blurted out. "I was barely your mate then but I wanted to shove you off a cliff when you told me what had happened."

"I believe you told me just that." Loudly and with a lot more swearing, if Hermione recalled correctly. Pansy seemed to remember the same conversation all at once and smiled, still proud of herself. There was also mention of her being too smart to do something so fucking idiotic. She remembered thinking it had almost felt like a compliment.

Daphne looked between them and shifted in her chair again. "Weasley will get over the wound to his ego, but for what it's worth, I'm glad you're not going to settle."

"Tell me that again when I'm forty and surrounded by cats and chickens. I—"

"No more bloody chickens!" Pansy exclaimed. "Fuck off with that."

Daphne laughed. "They're cute."

"One of them pecked me. I can't remember which one so I hate them all." Pansy's logic was clearly sound to herself.

"Well, I'm not settling, so no worries there."

"Good." Pansy reached for Daphne's juice until the witch slapped her hand, even though she was eyeing the climbing roses. Hermione picked up her own drink and regarded the now frowning Pansy with a smirk. Something she did must have triggered a thought because Pansy's eyes widened; defeat all but forgotten. "Speaking of drinks—"

"Literally, no one was speaking about drinks," Daphne deadpanned.

"Semantics." A handwave later and Pansy had fully shifted towards Hermione. "About my inhibition potion for my solstice party. How is it coming along? Did Blaise deliver what you needed?"

"One question at a time. It's going well. Blaise delivered everything I needed so I'll brew it today. If we've missed anything, I have to do inventory later so I'll be sure to send him a list. It should be ready before the party."

"I'll make sure he doesn't delay."

"How strong are you making it?" Daphne asked.

Hermione smiled. "Strong enough for Pansy to say hello to Cho willingly."

The blonde witch cut her eyes over to her old classmate. "Why exactly don't you like her? I need details, because your hatred of her—while comical—is confusing."

Pansy was ready. Almost like she'd been waiting for this moment. "She's too nice, too positive, too pretty, too smart, too humble—"

"So…" Daphne theorised with a wave of her hand. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you don't like Cho Chang because she's a good person?"

"Exactly!" Then Pansy reconsidered her stance. "Well, sort of. It's really because she's too good of a person. It's unnatural. She forgave Granger for disfiguring her friend—"

"That was literally half a lifetime ago," Hermione argued. "We've all grown up and Marietta's face is just fine." Well, it was once the word had faded. It took a few years for it to completely vanish.

She was aware that she probably could have handled that better.

Shockingly, there were no hard feelings. The last time she had seen Marietta was at Padma's engagement dinner in February. Marietta was an Unspeakable, married to a wizard who worked in Magical Transportation. They had two children—girls. Her life was normal and she was happy.

"But still!" Pansy argued. "If someone disfigured me, would you forgive them?"

Daphne paused for so long it made Pansy scowl. "I mean, let's be honest. Granger's a fighter and will most likely be doing the disfiguring…"

"I am not!" Hermione's indignation was wholly ignored.

"As for me, it depends on what you did, and if I like you at that moment." Daphne flashed a too-wide grin.

Pansy fixed her lips to argue, but shut them in dramatic fashion, examining her nails. "Okay, that's fair."

Hermione cleared her throat. "I would like to point out that I'm out of the disfigurement game."

"Sure you are."

Hermione turned to Daphne for assistance, but only received a raised eyebrow in return. Then she pushed her hair over her shoulder and adjusted in her seat for a third time. By the way she was holding her round belly, it had less to do with discomfort of the chair and more to do with being kicked in the ribs by an active baby.

"Face it, Granger," Daphne said finally. "You're always willing to do what you feel is right, and if that means charming a parchment to make sure everyone remains loyal, then so be it. It's ruthless in a morally grey way that I can respect." She gave a half shrug and Pansy nodded along in agreement. "You'll fight for anything you believe in, even when it's not your war."

"That's who I am." Hermione looked over, catching sight of the drooping cactus that bathed in sunlight. "I think you both know, like I do, that some things are worth fighting for."

 


 

When Hermione became a Healer, and later when she privatised and specialised her care in her current department, she made a promise to herself that she would never work on the weekends.

For five days, she worked diligently, but the weekends were her time to do what she pleased. A chance to refresh. A break from the pressures and routine of working and caring for patients. And with a patient like Narcissa Malfoy… well, she needed the time away.

It was mere minutes after Daphne and Pansy had left when Draco Malfoy's name appeared on her calendar—blocking three hours off for a meeting that would begin at three o'clock. Hermione almost declined, and would have had she been confident that he would reschedule for another day during the week, rather than the more likely alternative: not at all.

Except he owed her.

And yet.

Some battles weren't worth starting, let alone fighting, so she accepted the meeting.

Then Hermione went about her chores: gardening and watering the plants in the greenhouse, feeding the chickens, and collecting eggs. She made a meal—roasted chicken and potatoes—as his meeting would run right into dinner time. Or over, should it take longer than anticipated to answer the questions.

Time quickly got away from her, as it often did. The sun had peaked in the sky when she turned her work indoors. After a quick lunch, she had an even quicker Floo call with Ginny. The kids wanted to talk to her. Mainly Albus, who inquired about several things, including his marker and his future friend.

She got off the call wondering if Harry and Malfoy had talked about their sons meeting.

The lack of surprise from Ginny told her that he'd at least brought it up to her.

That was something.

Hermione glanced at her watch. It was a quarter past two and there was time for one last task before Malfoy's arrival via her office's Floo. That way, after he left, she could relax until it was time to meet everyone for drinks—a monthly (or so) outing that had evolved over the years and blended all her social circles together for one loud and boisterous evening.

Motivated, she began the careful process of hanging herbs to dry in the designated area inside her brewing room, all while making notes of ingredients she would need to order from Blaise with a Quick-Quotes Quill.

Focused on her task, Hermione barely registered the tingle of her wards coming to life, signalling the acceptance of a new arrival.

Malfoy.

She figured Malfoy would remain in her office, poking around her space as she'd done his, so she took a moment to finish hanging the last of her muslin bags from the ceiling. After dusting her hands off on her jeans, Hermione glanced down at herself and frowned at her denim smock dress, black leggings, and green Wellies.

Not very professional, but impressing Draco Malfoy wasn't her job—especially not on a Saturday.

Still, Hermione fixed her messy bun and threw open the door to her brewing room only to find Malfoy preparing to step directly in front of the door. The only hint of his hesitation and discomfort was the way his focus initially seemed to be further down the hall, searching.

Well, until it shifted abruptly to her.

They both froze like statues. If her heart leapt in her chest, no one was any the wiser.

Least of all him.

Hand still on the door, Hermione's fingers tightened around the knob. "I assumed that you would wait in my office."

"I wasn't sure if you had received the meeting invitation via the Magi-Scheduler. It appears that you…" Malfoy trailed off, looking past her into the part of the brewing room he could see from his vantage point. His expression slowly morphed into one that she couldn't put into words. Intrigued? Perhaps. In a way. "You have a brewing room?"

Definitely intrigued. "Yes, I…"

The words died on her tongue when Malfoy took an unconscious, distracted step towards her, entering into the outer edges of her space. Hermione inhaled, wanting to step back, but there was nowhere to go.

It wasn't their first breach of personal space, but this one made her take notice. After that night with Scorpius, Malfoy had maintained his distance. Physical or otherwise. It seemed like a conscious effort. He would observe and dissect, comment and argue each of his points to resolution, but he operated from the safety of his own citadel.

Never leaving.

But Malfoy's almost unlimited self-control, and his aloof and guarded manner weren't limited to just her. She knew that from her own observations and interactions. From his mother to Harry to everyone he spoke to at the charity event… He treated everyone differently, according to several factors, likely history and propriety, but kept them all at arm's length, never letting anyone close. Hermione hadn't bothered to analyse him from that vantage point before (or compare them to the times when he'd stepped too close) because it had never mattered.

Until right then when Malfoy stepped into her territory.

Unsure of her own voice, Hermione stepped aside, putting as much space between them as she could.

"Would you like a tour?" It was the only question she could think to ask. Malfoy didn't respond with words, just accepted her invitation with one of his piercing looks. With nothing else to do, Hermione watched him as he explored from the doorway.

He had dressed casually, though it didn't seem like the best word to describe his attire. Still black, of course, but more relaxed. The fit of his trousers weren't so perfect and the top two buttons of his dress shirt were unbuttoned. He didn't even wear a jacket or tie.

Business casual.

Malfoy's first stop on his journey around the room was to the wall alongside the door with floor to ceiling bookshelves. It was filled to the brim with potion tomes that he greeted by running his fingers across the spines, stopping every so often to read a title. The almost careful manner in which he explored caused an odd feeling to blossom in her chest, one she didn't know how to describe, only that it didn't feel right.

Strange.

From the books, he continued on, the sound of his shoes echoing on the stone floor. He had a quick look in her drying space, where herbs hung low from the ceiling in muslin bags. It was perfect for her height to reach up, but a challenge for him if he didn't want to bump into any of the sacks and disrupt their progress.

With one backwards step, Malfoy exited, turning towards the main attraction.

Her cauldrons.

All of them.

Beneath two large windows with the curtains currently drawn, there was a table that stretched the entire width of the room. Five cauldrons of increasing size and density sat on top, made with different bases and equally spaced apart with spots to prepare and chop. Each cauldron had a specific purpose. All were ready for immediate use with a small, hovering bookstand, ready to meet her at the cauldron of her choosing. Under the table were extras that weren't needed often—the rare ones.

With his hands behind his back, Malfoy examined each, sizing them up in a silence so tense she instantly wanted to fill it with words.

Something.

Hermione only barely managed to stop herself from providing a lengthy explanation about her reasoning behind having so many cauldrons. Barely stopped herself from visibly twitching. There was an odd feeling growing in her chest as he went from small to large… and then turned his attention to the largest of them all.

In the centre of the room, with its own book stand, was her biggest cauldron—aptly nicknamed by Harry when she'd first purchased it over two years ago: Tank. It was easily large enough to completely submerge her should she sit inside. To use it, due to her height, Hermione had to stand on a stool.

There and gone, a thought passed.

Malfoy wouldn't need anything.

Like the others, he inspected it with the same careful ease he seemed to show all her cauldrons. But unlike the others, Malfoy walked around Tank twice—the second time he brought one hand from behind him to run a finger along the brim as if he were checking for dust.

Her fidgeting worsened as his tour continued, and she wrung her hands together and tapped her foot. Playing with her hair and dusting invisible dirt from her smock dress. Not knowing where her agitation stemmed from bothered her, but Hermione wrapped her fingers around her left wrist and squeezed to further tamp down the peculiar feeling twisting and heating up inside her.

Or, she tried to.

But it wasn't working.

Malfoy vanished into her stores with its rows of shelves that started just off the floor and ended right above the doorway, packed with ingredients she'd either stored herself or purchased. For a second, she remembered that her Quick-Quotes Quill was still in there, ready to continue her list. She wondered if he would look.

Probably.

Then she wondered if she would still feel so strange if he were making comments—critical or otherwise—or maybe even if he asked questions. But he said nothing. His expression wasn't detached, but it wasn't welcoming either. Intrigued, but not exuberant. In fact, as the silence continued on, his unresponsiveness marched her closer and closer to an unfamiliar edge. The longer Malfoy was out of sight, the more Hermione continued to stew in discomfort… until the answer dawned on her like a lost key that had been in her hand all along.

Outside of herself, no one had ever been interested enough to look around. Explore. Analyse. And now Malfoy—of all people—was in there doing just that, inspecting a part of her world that she had never shown anyone. A place where Hermione spent enough time to not see the flaws—tea cups left around the room, bulbs that needed changing. Tank could use a thorough cleaning as well. It was a part of her that, thanks to his visit, she'd only just realised was private.

The invasion didn't feel good.

Not because of anything he was doing. No, her feelings stemmed from within and the fact that all she could do was wonder what he was thinking—if he was thinking anything at all.

Was he observing her world rather than judging it?

And did he like what he saw?

She needed to know the answer, if only to satisfy a minuscule part of her curiosity.

Not to know if he approved.

Hermione first rubbed her temple, then dragged her hand down her face, cursing herself for letting him in instead of redirecting him to her office. Unfortunately, she had no one to blame but herself.

By the time Malfoy emerged from her stores, face still annoyingly blank, Hermione had managed to wrangle her features into an arrangement resembling clinical neutrality, but only after she'd subdued her agitation into submission.

Hermione cleared her throat. "Are you finished?"

In lieu of an answer, Malfoy took one last look around. "I wasn't aware that you brewed in your home."

"Your mother's potions need to be made weekly. Where else would I be able to brew?" He looked back at her, grey eyes slightly widening with surprise. Meanwhile, hers narrowed. "She didn't tell you?"

"We don't discuss her treatment." Malfoy's face hardened, confirming what she had already observed: they didn't discuss much of anything. Hermione kept the questions about that to herself. His visit wasn't casual. Favour or not, it would be a shame if he left in anger before she could get the information she needed. Malfoy touched Tank's bookstand. "I still find it strange that you're the one who brews my mother's potions."

She stood up straighter, stance defensive. "We're not about to have this brewing with books argument again."

"I'd rather not repeat that particular exercise in futility."

"You still disagree with my method, then?"

"I doubt a few weeks will change either of our fundamentally different stances on the subject." Malfoy gave her a pointed look that she ignored in favour of glancing in the direction of her drying room, noticing that one of the muslin bags was perilously close to slipping off. "My surprise stems from the fact that not only do you brew, but you have an entire room dedicated to a craft that you're not passionate about."

"I think the fact that I have an entire room shows at least some level of passion."

"Perhaps to your career, but not to the art."

Hermione fought back a scoff. "That's a bold assumption."

"Tell me then." His eyes fell on her like lead weights. "Am I wrong?"

Well, no. He wasn't. Which burned.

However, Hermione would rather fling herself off the metaphorical bridge she was trying to construct than give Malfoy the satisfaction of being correct about anything that pertained to her. That had been a lucky guess.

"Are you still checking your mother's potions batch?"

"Yes." Malfoy matched her in both attitude and posture. "I make it my business to look at everything and everyone that enters my home."

"Because you only trust yourself."

Now it was his turn to remain silent.

It felt like they'd reached a stalemate; neither were gaining any ground. Rather than dig trenches, Hermione gestured to the door. "We should get on with the purpose of your visit. If you'll follow me…" She led the way out and was already in the hall before Malfoy could so much as move.

Still, she watched with a certain level of questioning discomfort as he took one last look around before following her out. Hermione took a large step back once he filled the space in the hall with his presence. "Lead the way, Granger."

Normally, she would have routed him back to her office for their meeting, but her own agitation made her change her mind and adjust. The thought of being with him in her crowded office for the length of time needed to go through her questions made her uncomfortable.

She needed the space.

The sunlight.

"Just a moment." Hermione left him standing there, deliberately ignoring the look on his face.

After gathering everything she needed—the set of questions she'd transposed to the parchment she'd given him, notebook, pen, and recorder for the bits she inevitably missed—she returned to Malfoy, who hadn't moved from his spot. And if she caught him still glancing back to her brewing room, well… it gave Hermione the answer she had been trying to discern from his silence.

Malfoy approved.

 


 

Hermione continued down the hall that led to the open space of her living room and kitchen. Looking over her shoulder at the sharp-eyed man, she wasn't surprised to find him taking it all in, scrutinising her home. He had only seen from the outside, and it was so different from his. Colour in spots where his was neutral, cluttered where his was empty. The scent of cooked food still lingering in the air, and two plates sat on the island under stasis charms.

She thought Malfoy would comment, but he didn't, eyeing the herbs in the windowsill above her sink.

"Just this way." Hermione opened the door to her conservatory, leading the way to the table. Malfoy just stood in the doorway, eyes moving back and forth, taking in what his mother had called her jungle just the day before.

Whether that had been a compliment remained to be determined.

Hermione was setting up the table when Malfoy finally joined her, still looking around, even as he retrieved a shrunken briefcase from his pocket. He took his eyes off their surroundings for a moment as he spelled the briefcase back to its regular size. After summoning what he needed, his glasses and the parchment she'd presented him with, he stood next to his chair, his eyes on her.

Waiting.

Maybe for her. Maybe for the battle to begin.

But today, there was no need for a fight.

Not when his presence was the equivalent of an armistice.

However temporary.

"Before we start, I suggest we take a short walk. We can call it a continuation of the tour or an icebreaker." It wasn't a stretch at all, or even an uncommon act when meeting with a family member of a patient. Granted, it usually happened either in her office at home or at the hospital. This location would be new, even if the suggestion was the same.

But Malfoy looked at her as if she were asking him to do the impossible, like stand in the centre of an inferno and not choke on the flames.

"An icebreaker?" The texture of his voice felt like silk brushing against her nerves. "The activity would be appropriate if we were strangers." Malfoy's brow quirked so quickly she almost missed it. "I don't believe you and I meet the qualifications. First and foremost, we aren't strangers."

Hermione folded her arms. "But we aren't friends."

"You're correct."

They weren't anything at all outside of people whose lives had been entwined to the point where they shared space, conversation, and a rare meal. Two people who had grown up together, seen each other in school for years, interacted, but didn't know each other at all. Her analysis felt like a gross oversimplification of the complex maze that was their past and present, but that was the best Hermione could do with the question mark standing in front of her.

"I still think an icebreaker would—"

"You didn't invite me here to get to know me. You invited me to answer forty-six questions, but since you insist, Granger, lead the way."

After a lingering look, Hermione did just that.

The late May air was warm and slightly humid; the breeze was still scented from last night's rain. It was sunny out, something that was becoming less rare as they marched towards summer. Blue skies expanded in all directions with thin clouds that did little to block the sun. But that didn't matter.

It might not have been a true icebreaker, but Hermione found that she probably needed the moment more than Malfoy did. She began to unfurl like a tightly closed flower under the expanse of the afternoon sky, that coiled spring inside her chest slowly unravelling. The inhale she took was deep, rehabilitating, and when she exhaled, it felt like the first time she'd done so in weeks.

The air around them had little to do with the simmering tension Hermione constantly felt in his presence—that was as normal to her as magic itself. No, the environment was peaceful. Relaxing. Liberating. Removed from civilization, all that was left was the green expanse of the pasture that stretched to the edges of the forest, clucking chickens, wind rustling the trees in the breeze, and the small, unconscious reminders of Malfoy's presence.

He hadn't so much as looked in her direction since opening the door with a polite yet stiff 'after you' gesture. His grey eyes had taken to the skies and the world beyond her home, absorbing everything. Malfoy looked indifferent for a while. His default setting. But with each glance Hermione snuck in his direction, the more she wondered, the more she thought something might be there. Maybe a quizzical sort of approval.

Or maybe she was hallucinating and it was nothing.

But then Malfoy abruptly stopped and looked back. "You grow mainly herbs and both root and leafy vegetables outdoors."

That was not a comment Hermione had expected. "Yes, at least I do at this time of year. There are a few fruits I'm growing out here." She pointed to each. "Strawberries are over there, rhubarb. I've cleared that bed to plant pumpkins, and that one is for courgettes."

"And you grow all of this for your patients." Another one of his non-questions that begged for an answer.

"Mostly, but also for my family, friends, and myself. It's purposeful." Hermione looked around and a random thought struck her at the oddest of moments. "Scorpius would love it here." Her head snapped back to Malfoy, who had gone from carefully blank to contemptuous.

Definitely the wrong thing to say.

"What makes you say that?"

Hermione could tell he was ready for an argument, but rather in defence than offense. She made herself relax, removed the natural edge from her tone, and continued walking, only looking over at Malfoy when he started walking with her again.

She stared straight ahead, smiling as she thought of the little boy holding the spring of mint like it was something precious. "He likes plants."

Loves was the more appropriate phrase, given his daily reaction to each sprig and clipping Hermione let him hold over breakfast. Narcissa allowed it, as she had a similar passion, but said nothing. She just watched. Observed. She had questions, Hermione could tell, and they likely pertained to the fact that every day since he'd taken her hand, Scorpius was shifting closer, looking at her more, staring.

When Hermione sat next to him instead of across the table the day before, he'd held the hem of her shirt for most of breakfast. Neither of them had moved until it was time for him to go to his lessons. It had been a blur trying to divide her attention between Narcissa and Scorpius, but the only thing she remembered was not wanting to sever the literal connection he had reached for.

"And you know this how?"

The answer was layered. "I bring him a clipping or a sprig of a plant each day. Or, at least I have been since Tuesday." When confusion crossed his strong features, Hermione knew just what to say. "Your mother knows."

Which didn't return Malfoy to his default.

His quiet demand for more became louder in the moment of silence.

But there wasn't much to tell.

Scorpius was still the same hyper-obedient child who did everything as he should both in his grandmother's presence and out. Still the miserable and lonely boy with a rigid schedule, weighed down by ridiculous rules and training… Still the child whose cup she moved from right to left each day. The one she waved to each time he left.

It had been a few days since he'd taken her hand, but the shift had begun. That was hard to articulate.

Each reaction to a new plant was slightly different than the previous. Chamomile got her worried looks until Narcissa lifted the book to cover her eyes. Lavender was the first he'd accepted in his grandmother's presence. Rosemary stirred his curiosity. And yesterday, he held on to the parsley longer than he had any of the others.

Hermione found herself already planning, listing, and ordering herbs that she wanted—

"So he likes plants." Malfoy's statement ended her musing abruptly.

"Yes."

There was a small part of her that waited with bated breath for further questions and scrutiny, but none came from the man beside her who observed everything with his hands clasped behind his back. Malfoy continued walking and Hermione fell in step with him, only stopping once they reached the greenhouse and he opened the door for her without asking.

"I can—"

Malfoy held the door open wider, barely concealed impatience etched in his expression. Exactly why he was doing it had little to do with want and more to do with his own etiquette, manners, and training.

She really hated that word.

With a huff, she walked through the door and when she heard it shut with a soft click, Hermione turned and caught him. Malfoy's hand was still on the knob, but his sharp eyes were everywhere, taking in the space she spent just as much time in as she did the inside of her home. There was a part of her that wanted to be as uncomfortable with his exploration here as she had been in the brewing room, but he didn't seem judgmental. Just curious.

Malfoy walked past her as if she didn't exist, but she casually invited him to have a look around.

Not that he heard her.

Hermione excused herself to fix a few of the large bags of soil that were leaning precariously. The task took longer than anticipated. One of the bags was close to ripping and then she decided where they were wasn't the best place. A few charms later and her task was complete.

She didn't have to look long to find Malfoy.

Black contrasted with everything vibrant and light. Hermione found the colour abrupt and sharp, but against the lush surroundings of her greenhouse, Malfoy was striking. And when he carded his fingers through his hair—well…

She took out her wand to check the temperature control charms. The charms were fine.

Weirdly enough.

Hermione joined him in front of the tangerine tree. None were ripe yet, but there would be plenty when it was ready. She followed him over to the lemons that were mere days away from pickable condition.

"No wonder you needed my mother's help with gardening."

His first comment.

"I didn't need it, per se." Or her very haughty criticisms of… well, everything, but missing Auror and lost memories aside, the experience hadn't been entirely negative. Hermione had learned a lot, written down more, and was almost looking forward to their next gardening session. "I've already told you this, but she finds exercise tedious, despite the importance of physical activity in her care plan. Your mother enjoys gardening, as you might know, and well…" Hermione gestured to the life around them. "It was a compromise."

"Funny, she's never been good at those until you."

She snorted. "She's likely never needed to study the art until me, so there's that."

Malfoy didn't disagree. "I also don't think I've seen my mother so frustrated with a person."

"Outside of you?" Hermione cocked a brow. Narcissa was endlessly frustrated, both with her son and by his actions… or lack thereof.

He didn't issue a denial. Nor did he argue. Malfoy did what he was good at: he created a verbal diversion. "What are the empty tables for?"

"For expansion purposes." She skimmed her fingers along the green leaf of the arka plant. "I have to ensure the quality of the ingredients I use for the potions I brew for my patients."

Malfoy remained silent, but when he spoke up, his tone was even and almost casual, even if his words were not. "Have you answered your questions yet?"

"About?"

"Me."

Hermione's mouth dropped open as she sputtered, shocked and unable to form a good argument that he wouldn't cut through with the same finesse he employed on his crosswords. "I—"

There was space between them, but it barely equalled a metre. Hermione found herself lifting her chin up just to keep watch. In the unfiltered brightness of the greenhouse, Malfoy's eyes were piercing, searching, cold despite the controlled warmth of the space. Feeling cornered in an open room wasn't new, but when Malfoy turned and eliminated half of the distance between them, she felt the uptick of her pulse, felt time all around her slow, felt that familiar sensation of fight or flight.

"I know when I'm being analysed, Granger," Malfoy said coolly, still probing for whatever it was about her that—if Harry's comment was to be believed—didn't ring true or honest. "You've been assessing me since becoming my mother's Healer. You've been doing it since I got here."

It was easy to lie or divert elsewhere, but no. That wasn't in her nature.

"So have you." Hermione brashly stared at the man still observing her with an intensity that she was now familiar with but still unsettled by. The warring emotions in her should have stolen her eloquence, but instead it made her bolder. "Have you figured me out?"

The silence that followed her question was only a few seconds, but it felt never-ending. Hermione used it to predict his next move and figure out her own. She knew, like she knew every plant in her vegetable patch, that Malfoy was doing the same. Even though she had a list of ideas about his response, he still managed to surprise her by issuing a silent agreement. He gave her no option but to take it when he lifted his eyes past hers before continuing his tour of her world.

Hermione went with him.

She analysed their exchange to death during the silence that continued even once they were outside her greenhouse and matching strides as they ventured towards the forest. His choice, not hers. They were just starting the walk when Malfoy's hands disappeared into the pocket of his trousers. His relaxed posture was the opposite of his stern expression. Hermione could almost feel his coiled tension.

"I suppose in order to fulfill your requirement for an icebreaker, since we have but a few safe topics of discussion, we could continue the argument regarding your need to separate your pragmatism from your idealism. Or I could leave it on the calendar for Monday."

A flash of memory from last night's argument with both her mother and Ron appeared in her head. "Better leave it there. After last night, I've done enough arguing to last me weeks." One blond brow rose, but he said nothing further. Why she offered more, Hermione had no idea, but honesty spilled from her unchecked. "My mother has ideas about how I should live my life. I—" And then realised who was on the other side of the conversation. She snatched her words back before more could escape. Except four. "Apparently yours does, too."

"Apparently so." Malfoy's gaze returned to the pasture before him. "But that's not a topic I'm willing to discuss."

With you.

"Same."

There was a pause. A shift in the breeze and energy between and around them. Malfoy's attention went to the rustling trees. "Your wards are intriguing. Did you set them yourself?"

"No, I had a Specialist set them when I first moved in after the threats started. I've read enough to learn how to make improvements." He rolled his eyes and shook his head, a hint of amusement playing at the corner of his lips. "I improved the security measures and the bit of warding magic that both allows and restricts access to my home."

"How far do they extend?"

"Everything that falls within my property, which extends into the forest." When she glanced over, it seemed as though he were making a mental note. Which made a small alarm go off. Leave it to Malfoy to change the rules. "These don't sound like icebreaker questions."

"They're not," he admitted. "Potter is curious how Mathers got past your diversion wards, as am I. He makes your wards sound almost infallible, but I know that nothing is perfect."

"I'm curious as well." However, in honesty, she hadn't had a moment to really investigate. "As far as my wards, they're strong, but I've never said they're perfect. With enough power and force, they'll fall too. As will the wards over your home."

"And yet you remain confident, despite the obvious threat against our lives? One that quite literally showed up at your home."

"As opposed to what? Living in fear? I refuse to do that." Hermione turned to look back towards her home. "I'll check the diversion wards to see what happened." When Malfoy said nothing in response, she looked back at him just in time to catch the breeze ruffling his hair, causing part of it to part from the rest. He didn't notice or she was sure he would have rushed to fix it, but the imperfection made him look slightly less severe. More natural. Approachable.

Handsome, a traitorous voice whispered that she pointedly ignored.

"How is Mathers?" Hermione asked in an attempt to silence and compartmentalise the word.

"Stable but sedated. Responding to the antidote well. Davies said that his mind…" Malfoy shook his head. The fact that Roger was on his case meant that he'd dropped everything to do so, which wasn't a good sign. "His memories are too fractured to extract. Even if he does recover, he'll be a shell of himself. They're just trying to make him comfortable at this point before reviving him." Which was tragic news. He looked so young.

But then Hermione remembered something. "The letter? What did it say?"

"Standard threats that they have been making for months: releasing the poison into the air."

Despite the fact that Malfoy made his entire statement seem like old news, it was new to her. The poison was deadly enough by touch alone. Once it made it into the bloodstream, it was hard to come back from. Seeping into someone's pores would make that happen quicker. The wider implications of such an attack would be astronomical. They wouldn't have enough antidotes to treat everyone. Choices would have to be made. It—

She would need to talk to someone about mass-producing the antidote instead of leaving it in the hands of the few staff members who knew how to make it.

It would take months, but it could save so many lives.

"It also said something odd at the bottom. Don't hide."

An icy chill shot up her spine and buried itself there for a few agonising moments before fading away. Gone but certainly not forgotten. She knew that message was personal and directed at her.

"Oh…" It was the only thing Hermione could muster.

Her attempt at subtly must not have worked because Malfoy was now scrutinising her. She looked down at her shoes before focusing on the path ahead. Al's marker was getting closer. She felt his eyes on her long after she looked away, but that didn't stop it from rattling her nerves as they approached a topic that returned to her focus each full moon. One that was a little too personal to discuss with the sun in the sky.

"Was Mathers bitten?" Hermione chanced a glance at the man. Yes, he still looked suspicious.

"Not during a full moon." He sounded suspicious, too. "Potter said he would continue investigating the note. Independently."

Whether or not Malfoy knew it, his last word meant that very soon, Harry Potter would be around to discuss security options that she didn't want or need. There would be meaningful looks and Ginny as backup. But Hermione would be ready with the threat of a long talk about keeping secrets in the form of biological warfare threats.

To her surprise, Malfoy said nothing else on the topic.

When they passed Al's marker, Hermione ran her hand on the top of the flag. "Has Harry talked to you about setting up a playdate between your sons?"

There was a small hesitation in his step. "Is that what he was trying to discuss with me yesterday?" His voice was dry, but there was a hint of amusement. "How interesting."

"Would you consider it?"

"I doubt my mother would have any opinion one way or another. She would encourage a friendship between the two. For strategic reasons, of course."

No further explanation was needed. Narcissa was always planning for the future, and Albus was a Potter. There was value in a name. Or so a woman like Narcissa Malfoy would think. A friendship between the pair—something Malfoy had failed at when given his only opportunity—would be a good look for the Malfoy family. It would afford Scorpius a certain protection he'd likely need in the event of trouble when he went to Hogwarts. Smart of her to allow an alliance, but Hermione found herself willing to look past all the machinations to what was truly important:

Two lonely children in desperate need of a friend.

"Would you encourage it?" she asked the man who glanced over once the question was out, mouth forming a tight frown. "Scorpius—"

"Has never been around other children. Just us and the staff."

Hermione's heart hurt once again, the pain ragged and dull. "Why not?"

The question went unanswered, but she had an inkling that it had to do with security and threats and the reason behind the familiar scars on the back of Sachs' hand. Hermione understood but also didn't, not that she had the chance to utter anything before Malfoy cleared his throat.

"Did he—" A quick pause was taken to push past the reluctance that was displayed so openly on his face. Malfoy exhaled and tried again. "Did Scorpius ever come down yesterday?"

Hermione wondered how long that question had been on his mind. The way he forced it out meant that it had probably been there for a long time. Possibly longer than he'd been at her home.

"He watched you leave."

Malfoy said nothing, just looked away. There was a weariness to him in that moment, one that was both foreign and familiar to her. It echoed in the open space around them, hinting at more than exhaustion. A pain that was bone-deep and visceral.

Initially, Hermione was rendered speechless, but the need to fix everything overrode her good sense and she couldn't keep quiet. "You should try again. Maybe he—"

"Don't meddle, Granger," Malfoy snapped, but there wasn't much heat to it, just a firm resolve, a resigned sort of severity from someone so far outside their comfort zone that they were beginning to disengage. Slow down. Give up.

And while it wasn't her place, Hermione had been on both sides of their missed connection. The link between father and son. She had a grip on one end and found herself trying to grab the other before it drifted away, but Malfoy was too stubborn and trapped by his own self-reliance to grab hold. It might have been a fruitless effort, but Hermione couldn't watch a man drown without offering some aid.

Usually, she preferred action, but this time words would have to do.

"Don't give up on him." A swell of emotions caught her off guard. "You're all he has left."

Malfoy never said anything to her statement, remaining in what appeared to be thoughtful silence for the rest of the walk. But when they returned to her home, his first question made a tiny bloom of hope sprout where none had existed before.

"When would this… playdate take place?"


Draco In The Greenhouse
Source: Jaxxinabox

 

The ice wasn't completely broken, but they got to work anyway.

Malfoy put on his glasses, picked up the parchment with her questions, and scanned it more than once. Over the rim, he gave her a long stare, followed by a quick quirk of his brow that seemed unapologetically smug. And if the sequence briefly lit up the small portion of her awareness that registered attraction, Hermione—well, it didn't matter. She killed the power to the entire section for the second time that day without a second's hesitation.

Because no.

"Where would you like to start?" he asked, voice low, entirely focused on his task.

Despite killing the lights, Hermione found herself blinking at him repeatedly until she recovered, looking away and down as she touched the side of her warm neck. Then back at the man across from her, who was flipping through the pages as if checking to be sure he'd brought them all.

No matter how many times she'd seen him in glasses, it still momentarily tripped her up—especially when he was right there. "Wherever you'd like." Distractedly, Hermione picked up her recorder. "Do you mind if I tape this?"

"I don't mind." Malfoy didn't look up, not even when she started the recorder and sat it on the table between them. "Your questions aren't in order, so I took the time to organise them chronologically."

Hermione's hand stalled mid-reach for her pen. "You did? That means you—"

Malfoy shot her a piercing look. "Looked at your questions? Obviously. You aren't the only person capable of higher thought, Granger."

"Of course not." She rolled her eyes with a scoff. "I'll be honest. I was expecting more attitude and less cooperation, as you've made it pretty explicit that you're not interested in being involved."

In an instant, his expression hardened. "I don't like owing anyone anything."

Well that settled that.

Hermione reminded herself about picking battles for the second time. "What number did you rearrange to be first?"

"Nineteen, coincidentally. Any known similar illnesses in her family history? The answer is complicated, and likely why she didn't answer it." Malfoy folded his hands together on the table in a move that drew her attention first to his long, lean fingers, then to his left wrist…

There wasn't even a hint of the tattoo she knew was there from what she'd seen in Harry's office.

She frowned in confusion.

"Obviously my aunt…" Malfoy trailed off with a distasteful frown. If he stared any harder at the parchment, it would likely catch fire. She wanted to tell him that she'd moved on—had to because she wanted to live her life not haunted by the past and all the nightmares from it. Instead, Hermione cleared her throat, gesturing for him to continue. "I haven't found any other incidents of my mother's form of dementia on either side of her family."

He'd looked?

Judging from his expression, Hermione knew better than to ask. "Nothing similar?"

"Outside of outright insanity born from nature, nurture, or Azkaban? No." She made several notes as Malfoy continued on. "That question leads into the second. Number thirty-four, which further questions her family tree, as it pertains to intermarriages."

Hermione found the question after a brief scan. "I only asked due to a lot of pureblood tendencies towards inbreeding to remain unsullied. It's well-documented that the act can and will affect future generations due to the lack of genetic variety, making them more susceptible to insanity and rare diseases—even those not commonly found in wizards, like your mother's."

"Ah. I'd deny it, but the House of Black's motto is Toujours Pur, so take that as you will." Malfoy tilted his head, glancing at her before shrugging almost casually. "At the time, it wasn't uncommon, but some families took it to extremes, like the Gaunts. As far as the Blacks, I believe there are a few instances of second cousins marrying and having children, but nothing closer than that."

Hermione was surprised. Not by his words, but how candidly he spoke them. He was still a little detached, but she could acknowledge that they were beyond throwing accusations about the other's character.

It was… progress.

Maybe her expression was a little too astonished for Malfoy because from one breath to the next, his tone changed from his version of normal to incredibly curt. "You asked for answers to fill in the gaps my mother wouldn't. I'm giving them. No need to look so shocked."

That earned him a dubious look. "Excuse me for being sceptical. You've refused to so much as discuss her condition with her, yet now you're helping me freely with information it appears you've done research on. Favour or not, it makes no sense."

Thus far, getting any sort of information out of Malfoy had been like cleaning layers of paint off of an old table: she scraped tirelessly, but it would only come off only in little chips and flecks. Today, in several short minutes, she'd gotten more out of him than she had in all of their morning conversations combined.

It made no sense.

"I don't do anything in halves, Granger. Either I'm assisting as requested or I'm not." Apathy flowed off him in waves. "It's your choice."

He made no sense.

But she was intelligent enough to know when to draw and when to fold. She did the latter, but only after skimming her notes while under the weight of his gaze.

"So…" Hermione cleared her through lightly. "No creatures in the bloodline?"

Malfoy exhaled, something just above a whisper, and rolled his eyes with an attitude that cut through his normal stoic nature. "Just because I'm pale and have white-blond hair doesn't mean I have Veela blood. The same goes for my mother."

"She's the only blond of the Black sisters." Hermione shrugged. "The question is valid."

"True, but still utterly ludicrous."

Hermione would have laughed had he not looked so heated. "So, no Veela blood or instances of intermarriage. Genetically—"

"All pureblood families are related in some capacity. Potter and I are cousins, in a way. Same goes for him and his wife, however distant. No one bats an eye beyond third cousins."

Frowning distastefully, she underlined intermarriage twice. "That's still disgusting."

"That's the pureblood way, at least, it used to be. It's a culture with traditions that are dying slowly as well, or so I think." There was something cold in his tone that, despite the warmth of the room, made her inwardly shudder. "My mother has a different opinion, as you likely know."

Hermione did, in fact, know. "It's impossible that every person in every pureblood family is actually a true pureblood. The signs of inbreeding would become obvious throughout the generations, whether through various deformities, infertility, or madness."

Malfoy agreed. "I know of other well respected families that aren't fanatical and have members that they acknowledge aren't completely pure in blood. I believe this is how things will become in the future. Distinguishing by name rather than blood purity."

"And you're okay with that?" Hermione only asked because of how he had been raised.

But it was the wrong question.

Malfoy levelled her with penetrating grey eyes, his response so low and deep she almost didn't hear him. "I'm not that boy anymore, Granger."

He sounded so honest that it made for a brief moment of discomfort for them both, but for two entirely different reasons: Malfoy seemed unsettled by his own honesty, Hermione was unsettled by him as a whole.

Everything from his quiet confession to him drinking light tea that he didn't like—according to two people who knew him far better than she did. From the way he didn't argue about her bringing food into his home to the way he silently familiarised himself with her world. Admired it… however subtly.

Hermione was so baffled she felt like she had to answer the questions about Malfoy that had been flying around in her brain. With attentive eyes, she observed the way his gaze dropped back to the parchment. He wasn't reading, only staring as he seemed to reset. Lower his iron gates. Raise his drawbridge.

However, before Malfoy could completely isolate himself in his fortress, in a voice just as quiet as his, Hermione asked him a question that had been burning inside of her for weeks now.

"Who are you?"

"I'm…" In the blink of an eye, he shut down and sealed himself off—tight. "I am not your patient."

But it was natural for Hermione to push. Call her thirst for knowledge a character flaw that had gotten her into some sticky situations in the past, but that was who she was. And without a second thought, she began pushing, not thinking at all about the person she was trying to delve into.

She wouldn't go too far. Just a peek. A handful of dirt might have the answers she sought.

"I'm aware, but you pointed out who you weren't. I merely asked who you were."

"Tell me, Granger…" Malfoy's expression narrowed as he folded his hands on the table. Leaning forward just enough to make Hermione consider purchasing a larger table, his voice was low, equally as serious as the glint in his eyes. "Who do you think I am?"

He was challenging her. "You're…"

She trailed off when he sat up straighter in his chair. Waiting. Watching. He was gearing up for a clash of words, a war he wanted to wage for whatever reason. Defensiveness? Maybe she had hit too close… but to what target? Hermione had no idea. There were so many subjects they'd spoken about. And while she didn't mind arguing with him on some things, this wasn't one of them. So, she took the high road.

Honesty.

But she left him with something Kingsley once told her.

"You're human, Malfoy, so only you get to decide who you are. Not me. Not anyone."

Several emotions flashed across his face like bolts of lightning cutting through a stormy sky. They were gone before Hermione could fully decipher them or even determine if his reaction had been positive, negative, or something in between.

Then his focus rested on her, the line of his jaw tight as he stared at her with such severe examination that Hermione felt her skin prickle under his attention.

But she didn't look away. Wouldn't. Couldn't.

Not for the first time, Hermione wondered what was going through his head. Too lost in her own thoughts, she didn't realise she had been holding her breath until it was over.

Then she exhaled it all in one go.

It was only then that Malfoy averted his eyes, turning his head towards her plants by the window, mouth pursing. "It's warm in here."

True.

Judging from the bits of colour on his face and neck that she hadn't noticed before, he wasn't lying about the heat. Hermione preferred not to regulate the temperature in the conservatory with magic; it wasn't good for some of the plants. Heat was always trapped inside during the sunnier days like today, as few and far between as there were.

"Would you like something to drink?"

Ever the consummate hostess, Hermione didn't wait before leaving. Her exit was a little more abrupt than she'd planned, but she honestly didn't care. She needed the space. In a second unplanned move, before fixing two glasses of water, Hermione walked around her island three times to expend the restless energy that had settled into her bones.

Probably from working on a weekend.

That was it.

That was all it could be.

When she returned with water, Malfoy had already rolled up one sleeve and was working on the other, which should have provided a visual of the tattoo that wasn't proper for him to even have.

But the canvas was blank.

Glamoured, Hermione reminded herself as she placed the glass in front of him and returned to her own chair. Malfoy thanked her the same way he did every morning when she placed a cup of tea in front of him. Composed, if a bit subdued. They drank in silence, but she noted the way he didn't drink his water until after she took a few sips of her own. When he finished, Malfoy adjusted his glasses and rested his joined hands on top of the parchment once more.

"Are you ready to continue? We have several questions left."

"Yes."

From there, Hermione learned more about Narcissa, namely through incidents. The first time Malfoy recalled his mother forgetting— months before leaving Scorpius in the dress robes shop. She'd called him Lucius several times before realising her mistake. That had been nearly two years before when they were still in France.

The timeline was worrisome. It made her wonder just how advanced the illness actually was. It would require more testing… and possibly a favour from Roger.

He owed her.

"No other incidents followed that for a year until she berated one of Astoria's Healers, accusing her of breaking into the house. That's when I knew there was something wrong, but she continued to ignore the issue."

"Is that when she went to see the first Healer?" Hermione recalled that was the one who had only recommended rest.

"Yes. By force."

From there, they continued on. Malfoy made short work of her list, noting the questions that overlapped and were repetitive, much to her annoyance.

At least until Hermione realised that he had a point.

Not that she ever would admit it aloud.

But it was forgivable because his responses had such detail in them that soon the focus of the interview shifted from the strict format of her forty-six questions to them just talking. Malfoy's deep voice had a certain… cadence to it. Still a bit posh and proper, it had an edge that was all his own. But the rhythm was steady. Pleasant.

It wasn't horrible to listen to him.

Unconsciously, Hermione found herself writing less, then she gave up altogether and laid her pen down to strictly listen. It was fine, her recorder would pick up anything she missed while she watched him.

With his black attire and temperament that seemed to slide up and down an invisible scale Hermione couldn't read, Draco Malfoy was such an interesting contrast in her well-lit and colourful room. Visually, he had a backdrop of light from a sun that was in the perfect position to cast a warm glow over him, making him look like darkness bathing in light.

It was difficult not to stare.

Impossible not to notice.

"In case you haven't noticed, Granger, my mother likes to be in control of every aspect of her life, which stems from a period of time when she wasn't. She struggles with transitions."

A family trait, but Hermione kept those words to herself, only nodding while watching him.

During Hogwarts, Malfoy used to speak with bold and aggressive gestures. But time—and perhaps life and his mother—had curtailed the habit—mostly. Every now and then he would use his hands to emphasise his words, but not often.

"I've noticed, but I haven't sorted how to make her understand that she needs to scale back."

He briefly glanced over his shoulder, scanning the room he seemed periodically bemused with. "Society occupies her mind. It gives her purpose. She was active when we lived in France. As a warning, due to the change in season, I doubt you'll get much cooperation from her until her event."

That was interesting.

Not the last bit about her cooperation, but the former.

From what Hermione knew, they hadn't returned to London until Astoria's condition worsened to the point where everyone knew and accepted that the inevitable was upon them. "I was under the impression that her motivation to participate in society had less to do entertaining herself and more to do with maintaining your family's name in important social circles and networking to find you a new wife."

Malfoy gave her a dark look. "It was."

A twinge settled in her chest.

She took a sip of water and changed the subject. The topic was too raw and the reality of the situation too harsh. "I've only observed her at one event. Has she had any incidents of forgetfulness that you've noticed when she's extremely busy or stressed?"

"A few."

"Could you recount those incidents for me with as much detail as you remember?"

As it turned out, he could.

It wasn't only that Malfoy was observant and analytical of the surrounding world. The way in which he picked things apart from the smallest detail—well, that was no surprise. She'd already seen him in action and experienced it for herself.

However, the penetrating knowledge of his mother and the level with which he remembered details? Now that had been impressive in a way that seemed impossible for him to be apathetic.

Strained relationship, notwithstanding, Malfoy knew too much not to care. He'd been watching for too long to be a casual, uninterested observer. She'd seen the way he looked when Narcissa had forgotten about the intruder, but whenever she so much as turned a soft eye towards the situation, he would lock himself inside his castle with such a severe expression that Hermione knew she had to go around, because climbing those high walls wasn't a possibility.

Not without experience or the proper tools.

She had neither.

"Were there any changes in her incidents once moving back to London?"

"Yes, but there were several factors that could have played a role…"

As she listened to his hypotheses, Hermione found that she liked that Malfoy didn't speak in monosyllables—and hadn't in some time. It had made her job infinitely easier and gave her a lot to think about. There were still things he hesitated on or got defensive about, still questions he answered with a certain level of reluctance.

But he answered them nonetheless.

They had two left when Hermione heard her phone ringing. Pushing away from the table, she excused herself with a polite grimace.

"Sorry, it's probably my mother." She was the only person Hermione knew who used the Muggle telephone.

Not that she was in the mood to talk to her after dinner last night, but in the spirit of being a good daughter, Hermione did just that, leaving Malfoy in the conservatory to answer the phone.

As it turned out, it wasn't her mother, but her father. And he had taken on a new role in their odd family dynamic: mediator. The position was natural for him, given his nature, but not one he had to assume regularly as Hermione had done her very best to avoid arguments with her mother.

"You should come over later for tea. Your mother will be out."

It was a trap. Her dad wasn't a ritual tea drinker. "I'm meeting with a patient's son right now."

"But it's Saturday. You never work on the weekend…"

"Couldn't be helped," she said dismissively with a flourish of her hand, despite the obvious fact that he couldn't see her.

There was a pause. "Are you okay?"

Because she knew what he was really asking, Hermione responded automatically. "I'm eating, drinking, and sleeping normally. Promise."

"Okay then, but—"

"I'll be busy later. Another time?"

Her father exhaled, which meant only one thing: he was about to speak his mind as opposed to executing his fake tea idea. "Hermione, I don't always agree with her tactics, but your mother means well. She worries and… so do I."

With a long sigh, Hermione shifted her weight and rubbed her temple with her free hand, closing her eyes. It was probably the most she'd heard him say in one conversation in years. Progress, but only after conflict.

"Ron isn't the answer to your worries."

"Never said he was." She almost dropped the phone in shock, only just managing to hold on to listen. "Don't get me wrong, I like him. He's a good bloke, but it's clear he's not a fit. I try to stay out of it, as it's none of my business, but your mum—"

Hermione chuckled bitterly. "Has decided to make it hers. Right."

Her father heaved a sigh. "Your mother has a tendency to blend ingredients together without accounting for taste, smell, or consistency—sometimes it works, but most of the time it doesn't. They say you have to try a new food ten times before your taste buds can decide whether they really like the food or not, but I say don't keep forcing yourself to eat something that you know isn't palatable because you might miss out on finding something that is."

For a moment, Hermione was left speechless as her heart thudded in her chest. There was only word that spilled from her, one full of all the emotions she hoped she could convey through the phone.

"Dad…"

And for the first time, he seemed to understand what she was trying to say. He cleared his throat, but he still sounded choked up. "You'll find something that works for you. I know you will."

When she hung up, Hermione sat on the sofa for several minutes with her head in her hands, nearly forgetting about Malfoy in the conservatory. She concentrated on blinking back tears from the swell of emotions brought forth by her father's words. It took just a few more minutes before she got up and relished in the feeling, the connection, and continued on. But now, the canyon between them didn't feel so wide or daunting.

After a series of cleansing breaths, Hermione refocused as she opened the door to the conservatory—only to find a briefcase in the chair where Malfoy had once been. The man himself was standing in front of her indoor potted garden. His back was facing her but his hands were behind him, as they had been when he'd explored her brewing room. Thoughts about the conversation with her dad took a step backwards as her curiosity stepped into its place.

What was he looking at?

Her feet moved accordingly, carrying her to the spot next to him, footsteps loud enough to alert him to her presence but quiet enough not to disturb whatever he was doing. Not that it mattered. Malfoy didn't react when she entered his territory, nor when she stepped into the space next to him.

A little too close, but it was too late.

She was already there.

The answer to her question was both what she'd expected and not: Malfoy was just… looking. Not touching anything, he was careful with his appraisal of her plants, just as he had been with everything else in her home. In truth, Hermione wasn't surprised. He'd been looking in that direction off and on for quite some time.

Interest had finally got the better of him.

She knew the feeling.

"How does a gardener have a dying cactus?" He cut his eyes to the prickly little thing still on the table next to her ottoman.

"Because it's not dead," Hermione told him firmly. "It just needs care."

"Ah, a project." His drawl was so deep that it sounded like it came up from the earth itself. "You still have those. Still a champion for the defenceless and lost causes."

"There's no such thing as a lost cause, at least not in my mind. If you care enough to try, anything is possible. Little things like time, patience, and attention can make a big impact."

He said nothing, turning his attention to her. Malfoy examined her as if he were trying to figure something out. A riddle. A question. It was a look she had seen before. He seemed to want in her head, but without Legilimency. Unsettling as it was, Hermione held his gaze, eyes narrowed with resolve, until he turned away.

Moved to the next plant.

Changed the subject.

"You might as well take a butcher knife to your plants with how you prune."

Slightly rattled from his assessment of her, Hermione accidentally snorted at his snippy comment in a move that eased the tension she hadn't realised she'd been holding in her neck and shoulders until it was gone.

First Narcissa, now her son. Apparently everyone wanted to criticise her pruning.

"You're an expert then?" She rolled her eyes. "Is that a Malfoy family trait?"

Once again, grey eyes cut over to hers, but there wasn't derision in his glare. Just weight. "My mother showed me how as a child in the Manor's garden. We still have a greenhouse with rarities hidden under blood wards."

Well, that was fascinating.

Malfoy reached out to touch the branch of her umbrella tree that nearly hung in his face. His thumb scraped the rough edges where she'd pruned only last week. "You could use a softer touch…"

"Is that so?"

He let go of the branch, moving on to a different pot she'd placed directly in front of the window. Unlike in her brewing room, that time Hermione went with him, not wanting him in contact with anything he had no business touching. Judging from the questioning tilt of his head, it was a plant he hadn't seen before in a pot nearly the circumference of the table. The leaves were thick, healthy, and a vibrant green. Open.

"Mimosa Pudica, commonly known as Touch Me Not," Hermione informed him. "I use it in a balm for Luna whenever she's travelling. She has a tendency to end up in poison oak or ivy." She fondly shook her head. "Though, the name implies otherwise, you can touch it, if you'd like."

For several moments, Malfoy didn't move. But then his hand came from behind him, tentatively moving towards the plant, one finger leading the way.

He was hesitant and careful, but he wasn't doing it right.

Without thinking, Hermione stopped him by resting her right hand on top of his. Malfoy tensed. But she ignored his reaction and continued on, shifting her stance and guiding him. Her free hand rested lightly on his back as she urged him forward. His skin was warm, maybe from the room. She was surprised to find that his hand felt rougher than it looked, fingers curiously scarred on the tips with light marks that were ready to fade away.

"It's sensitive," she said in a voice that was low and soft, but confidential as she guided his finger up the spine of the plant. They both watched leaves fold together just from his touch. "If you touch it wrong, they'll close up too early. Ruins the effect."

The small hairs on the back of Hermione's hand and arm stood on end when she peered up at his face. Only… he wasn't watching the demonstration. He was watching her with another one of his unreadable expressions that made her feel as if he were trying to peer into the very core of her being.

It all came together slowly but in a rush that was as contradictory as the man beside her.

Their position.

Her hand covering his.

The other on his back.

The way he'd tensed.

Hermione all but threw his hand back at him, stepping away several paces. Her cheeks were warm with embarrassment.

"Um." She ran a flustered hand over her hair as she turned, heading towards the table. "We have a few questions left. If you're ready."

Malfoy said nothing for a long moment. "I'm ready when you are, Granger."

When she glanced over her shoulder, Hermione expected to see derision and disgust all over his stoic yet stern face, but she found something completely different.

A sight that should have been private.

Malfoy glanced at the hand she'd touched. Nothing strange there, but then he flexed it before making a tight fist. The muscles in his forearm bulged and rippled, shaking under some strain. Then he relaxed, stared out the window for several seconds, and returned to the table, moving with ease that belied the tension she still felt.

By the time he sat down, Malfoy had returned to his default neutral state.

She knew he was inside his fortress, its walls high and strong…

Except for the smallest crack.

There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen

Chapter Text

 

Thirteen
Shape of Your Heart

 

June 1, 2011

On the scale between chaos and cleanliness, Hermione hovered somewhere in the middle. Chaos looked like Harry's office while Andromeda's house was cleanliness personified.

Almost disturbingly so.

Hermione didn't trust anything too clean… except Andromeda. The irony wasn't lost on her, just ignored. She had always made certain never to find herself in the other woman's home—for anything.

That wasn't an easy task. Andromeda picked the most inopportune times to request Hermione's presence. They were close because of Teddy and Harry, but her seizure had shifted their relationship. Not in a maternal way, but they had struck up an unusual friendship and met after bad therapy sessions to wait out their dark moods together. And though those days were few and far between now, Andromeda had remained a constant presence in Hermione's life, inviting her over to her disturbingly clean home to catch up.

But Hermione had a system to avoid surprises, she always made sure to invite her over first. Not too often or Andromeda would realise what she was doing. But not too infrequently either, or she might find a summons on her Magi-Scheduler. To maintain the delicate balance, Hermione equated the visit intervals to roughly every twelve weeks.

Unfortunately, she'd been too busy to notice the lapse in time, and when the invitation appeared after another unproductive day with Narcissa, who was in party planning mode, Hermione was flummoxed.

Certainly it wasn't time.

But Hermione thought back and realised she hadn't seen Andromeda since Easter. That meant it was actually past time. When Hermione tried to strategically move the meeting to reschedule it at a different location, the event wouldn't move or vanish.

The pesky note was as stubborn as Andromeda.

That was how Hermione found herself sitting at the table watching Andromeda make tea in a kitchen so clean it actually sparkled. She would have offered to help, but they'd had enough arguments for Hermione to know her role as a guest.

Which meant she was to sit and do nothing.

Andromeda placed a steaming teacup in front of Hermione before joining her with her own. The tea was fruity, sweet, and light—she never let it steep for too long. A bit bland for Hermione, but exactly how Andromeda preferred hers.

"Are you staying for dinner? I can make Aubergine Parmigiana with everything you brought over from your greenhouse."

Despite her internal cringe at simply existing amongst this level of cleanliness, the prospect of dinner piqued her interest. Andromeda was a far better cook than she was. "I can be coaxed into staying."

Andromeda's smile was only a quick flash, but genuine nonetheless. Hermione saw it all the same and wondered if her summoning wasn't just for a check-in. The house remained clean without Teddy's chaos, but it was also quiet, which didn't always equal peace.

"I'll get started on that after we finish tea. How are you?"

"A bit tired, actually," Hermione confessed. "You?"

The clear parallel to her sister was not missed. In fact, when she analysed it, despite Andromeda's features being similar to Bellatrix's, minus the colour of her hair, now that Hermione was familiar with Narcissa, she could pick out their similarities. Nothing overt, just subtle expressions she recognised from Narcissa—guarded but openly aware of it.

"I have my days. I'm glad for the company." Andromeda sipped her tea with the elegance and equanimity borne from breeding. "Are you sleeping and eating like you should?"

Well… that was a difficult question to answer. Hermione's eating schedule was normal, thanks to meal preparations for Narcissa, but her sleep schedule had yet to recover from weeks of early morning incidents. Even on the weekends, she would find herself awake before dawn and asleep after midnight, tossing and turning most of the night. She hadn't slipped back into insomnia, but the signs were there.

Hermione cleared her throat. "Mostly." Andromeda squinted, which made her grimace into her teacup before sighing. She should have known honesty was always her best bet. "I'm eating just fine, but sleeping…"

Andromeda patiently locked her hands on the table.

"I know." Hermione shook her head. "I've just been incredibly busy."

"Don't lose sight of your progress."

"I won't."

Silence fell between them for a few moments.

"Is it work keeping you busy or are you seeing someone?" There was a twine of hope in Andromeda's eyes. When Hermione made a face, the other woman looked unimpressed. "Do try not to look so offended at the idea."

"I'm not." She took a sip and replaced her teacup on the white saucer. "But I recently had back-to-back arguments with my mother and Ron about our relationship revival and I'm pretty exhausted by the topic."

"Ah." Andromeda's cringe was delicate, and gone before Hermione could blink. "I imagine that went… well."

"Splendid." Hermione rolled her eyes. "Neither one is talking to me, but I won't apologise for standing up for myself. They'll have to get over it. Ron will, I think. My mother…" That was a different matter and she found herself up during the night scrubbing her mind of any lingering guilt.

"Your mother will either realise that you know what's best for yourself and come around or she won't." Andromeda sat back, her eyes fixed on Hermione. "I know you want to repair your relationship with your parents, but you've hyper-fixated on the wound for years and kept it bandaged so long that it's slowed the healing process. If you keep picking at it, if you keep protecting it, it will never heal. Let it breathe."

But what if it didn't heal? What then?

That small fear had grown as time passed after her talk with her father, pushing its way to the front of her brain. Hermione had more than enough wounds. They were all stitched up to the point where it was hard to remember that they hadn't always been there. So, what was one more? She could take the pain. It would hurt until she could no longer feel it. And then… Hermione's head throbbed and her mouth went dry despite the tea she'd just drank.

"You worry too much about things you can't control, while simultaneously knowing that you have no control." Andromeda's statement lifted the short silence. "It's an endless circle that feeds on itself. Like a snake eating its own tail."

"People say that the ouroboros is a symbol of the cyclical nature of the universe: creation from destruction, life out of death. A metaphor for a person's ongoing struggle within themselves, their weaknesses and vices."

"All I see is a snake that's going to suffocate if it doesn't stop." Andromeda shrugged.

Hermione took a deep breath. "I haven't figured out how to let go."

"Let someone help." She gave her a look reminiscent of Narcissa during their first and last chat in her vegetable garden. "You're very good at giving, not so much at taking." And that wasn't the first time those words had been spoken to her, but the woman remained as she always was: patient and watchful. "It's not a lesson you can learn with words. Only the experience of being forced to let go." There was a pause where Andromeda took a sip, a look of open approval on her face. "What is this blend? I quite like it."

Only then did Hermione realise she'd brought the blend made specifically for Narcissa.

She almost changed the subject—Andromeda always knew when she was being lied to—but there was a small jolt when she thought back to that morning in the garden, back to each moment Narcissa accidentally called her or Sachs by her sister's name.

In order to shake the previous uncomfortable topic off, Hermione was willing to create a different one that wasn't focused on her. Besides, to squander a perfect educational opportunity would be criminal.

"It's a blend I made especially for my patient."

Tension pulsed from Andromeda like sound waves from a tuning fork. It was all Hermione needed to shake off all thoughts of her mother and shift her focus to a tiny nugget of realisation.

Harry had been talking to her.

Likely not much knowing Harry. He wasn't bound by a contract but had enough good sense to keep himself out of business that wasn't his. Like Narcissa's illness. It wasn't something Hermione had even considered discussing with Andromeda; she'd even mentally deemed it a topic to avoid. But now that she had unwittingly walked into it, she had to be incredibly careful.

There were so many factors, and navigating each was like walking a tightrope without training, a safety net, or a pole to help her balance. She stepped out on pure instinct, hoping to ease her way into the discussion, but Andromeda was almost as direct as the nephew she'd never met.

"I know my sister is your patient. I've known for a few weeks now."

"I wasn't hiding it." Hermione tapped her fingernail on the wood. "What did Harry tell you?"

"What makes you assume it was Harry? It could have been Theo."

Hermione gave her an expression that perfectly communicated just how little sense her statement made. She had met Theo exactly once, and that had been early in the days of Hermione's unrequited crush when she'd invited him to Teddy's tenth birthday party and had been shocked when he'd actually turned up with a gift in hand. The entire interaction had been memorable because Andromeda took one look at the man who was regarding her with a curious tilt of his head, and uttered one word that summed up her opinion of him as a romantic prospect:

No.

Andromeda examined her nails nonchalantly like her mistake hadn't mattered. "Or Daphne."

The two were friends, bound by a life choice that cut them off from their families, but Hermione knew Daphne. She and Astoria weren't estranged because the latter refused to cut her sister off, but with Astoria's disease and death, she would never divulge anything without careful consideration and consulting Hermione over pie.

"So, when did Harry tell you?"

Andromeda stared at her before relenting with a sigh. "When you took her on as a patient. He didn't tell me much else, even though I know he knows more."

"There's not much I can say due to the confidentiality agreement."

"Interesting." The witch's eyes narrowed slightly before she exhaled a puff of air, seemingly bemused by the extra steps her sister had taken to protect her privacy.

Hermione took a cautious second step. "Would you ask if I could speak on why she's my patient?"

"I already asked Harry, but his response made it clear he didn't want to say the wrong thing."

"Oh? What did he say?"

"I don't want to say the wrong thing."

They both laughed because that was typical of Harry, but when they fell silent, Hermione pressed forward. A third step.

"From what I understand you're estranged."

"We are, but the word doesn't encompass the enormity of being burned off the Black family tapestry. It's like I don't exist, like she doesn't have a sister." Andromeda looked down. "Like I'm nothing to her. All because I dared to be different while she wanted to be the same." She tucked a stray hair behind her ear. "And yet…" Andromeda trailed off, appearing to descend into her own thoughts as she finished her tea.

"And yet…"

"It's complicated." Andromeda knew, much like Hermione, that family always was. "She might hate me, but I don't wish her ill. I don't know why she's your patient, but I hope it's not serious."

Hermione did everything to smother her initial reaction."Why would she hate you? Last I recall, she invited you to tea at Grimmauld Place. You didn't turn up."

"I got dressed to go." Andromeda looked away. "Went to the Floo and even picked up the powder, but I just couldn't say the words to leave. I kept thinking about our last argument and I just…"

Couldn't.

Hermione could relate. After her release from St Mungo's, that was how her first attempts at meeting her parents had gone. Overthinking had been the result of leaving pieces of her past broken and uncorrected, like a sea of hesitation she kept drowning in, and was still drowning in—even now. Andromeda was no different.

"What was it about? If you don't mind asking…"

"She begged me not to go." Andromeda fiddled with her teacup. "Begged me to stay and marry my intended."

"Who was it?"

"Lucius."

Hermione froze, trying to process her shock without it seeping into her expression. "Oh."

In an uncharacteristic move, raw emotion strained Andromeda's features as she repeatedly ran her hands through her hair. She stood up, looking at the kitchen as if searching for something to clean to keep herself occupied. But there was nothing.

"I was in love with Ted and…" Andromeda trailed off, her back facing Hermione, who watched with unchecked curiosity. "Bella was already married so Narcissa had to take my place to avoid public shame and the heavy monetary and magical penalties that would have resulted from a broken Malfoy marriage contract. My family was rich, but the Malfoys were richer and more ruthless. I knew what I was doing to them all when I left, but…"

The look on her face told Hermione that despite the pain of losing her entire family—not once, but twice—she would do it all over again.

"I don't know who Narcissa is now, but when we were young, she was the opposite of Bella. As golden as her hair, she was beautiful, untouchable, but not weak or docile as many expected. She was never one to forgive easily." Andromeda wrapped her arms across her middle, glancing over her shoulder at Hermione. "Her invitation for tea felt like a trap."

"Why would it be?"

"The war had been over for over a decade and not once had she bothered to reach out before."

"Have you?" Communication was a two-way street, after all. "Reached out, I mean?"

"I saw her once." Andromeda seemed to be struggling with her words. "She was coming out of a tailor shop last November, right around the time Daphne's sister died. But when I called her name, she looked as if she had no idea who I was." The pain in her voice was unmistakable. "I think I knew right then that Narcissa was gone for good…"

Hermione thought back to Pansy's story about Narcissa leaving Scorpius all alone, and wished she'd never asked. The story was a reminder that knowledge bore fruit.

And sometimes that fruit was pain.

 


 

June 3, 2011


The atmosphere in the office was tense, but not hostile.

Harry and Malfoy weren't in that historical loop that kept creating intense animosity between them, but they were by no means friendly. Their exchanges were snippy at best and terse at worst, but they weren't actively fighting. She figured it was their way to maintain the status quo while actively ignoring their attitudes towards each other. They'd evolved. Grown. It was both pleasing and odd to witness them in action, working together despite the fact that they both were on edge and fractious.

But there were more pressing matters at hand. It was nice that they both finally recognised that.

From her spot at the head of the table, Hermione's attentive eyes swept between the two men, steady as a tuning beacon. She observed, waited, but not once did she speak. Even though she was there to play mediator, it was clear that her words weren't necessary.

Malfoy fiddled with his signet ring before cutting Harry's speech off by simply raising his hand.

"This isn't going to work."

Harry crossed his arms. "Only because you don't want it to."

"No, it simply won't work."

For what seemed like the hundredth time that hour, Harry ran his hand through his hair. "What do you suggest then, Malfoy?" His tone wasn't rude, just matter-of-fact. Tired. They both were, though Harry displayed his, as he did with most of his emotions. It could easily have been interpreted as frustration, and likely had been by Malfoy, but Hermione knew her best friend better. As for Malfoy, his signs were more subtle: a slight grimace and fidgeting.

"Cancel the raid." Malfoy tapped his fingers against the table. "But leave the mole in to scout for a second opportunity."

Play it safe.

It wasn't something either wanted. They had come too far and trained too hard to cancel their one shot.

Harry scrubbed his face. "We won't get a chance like this again."

"Perhaps not, but strategy won't do us any good if there are more Death Eaters in attendance than anticipated. Instead of two to one odds, we'll be fighting five to one."

Something he clearly was not keen on.

"We could always fight with them. Add to our numbers."

"That would be a strategic nightmare." Hermione couldn't help but intervene. "You're both recognisable and therefore a distraction—not the good kind. Besides, should anything go wrong, they'll retaliate against you both directly because they know how to target you."

Their families.

Malfoy looked grim, and Harry cringed, but neither argued. However, that didn't stop Harry from expressing his opinion."I don't like sitting on the sidelines."

"Always the hero." Malfoy rolled his eyes, absently adjusting the cuff on his right hand. "P—"

"This plan," Hermione cut him off, which earned her a scowl. She almost flashed a humourless grin in return. The one with too many teeth that scared Harry. However, restraint was employed to save time. "It calls for a direct attack. With the secret passage confirmed and the Ward Specialist to take down the blood wards, you'll have the element of surprise to make up for your lack of numbers." Hermione gestured to the blueprint. "The plan never called for you both to fight. In fact, it's not wise for either of you to be seen at all." Malfoy especially, but she left that out. "You've been training the Aurors and Task Force team for weeks. Let them complete the mission. Let them end this. Keep it clean. No added variables."

Harry didn't look happy about it, but sighed because he knew she was right.

Malfoy, on the other hand, seemed smug.

"Any comments, Malfoy?"

Grey eyes shifted to hers, his expression levelling out. "Not at the present moment."

A slight jolt accompanied his words, but with a glance at her watch, Hermione shook it off and backed away from the table, summoning her beaded bag from the chair with an outstretched hand.

"Very well then. I have to go prepare lunch." Speaking of lunch, she reached into her bottomless bag and pulled out Harry's, handing it to him. "Roast beef sandwich, crisps, and fruit." Then she approached Malfoy and held out an identical bag that he accepted with a curious expression. Harry tilted his head like a confused puppy while Malfoy stared at the package in his hand. "It's lunch."

"I gathered."

Hermione watched at the man who regarded her with an arched eyebrow but remained silent. "I figured since I brought Harry lunch, then—"

"It's not necessary." Malfoy glanced over her head, frowning at Harry before returning his gaze to her and lowering his voice so their audience couldn't hear. "I had breakfast."

That she knew. She'd made it for him, as she had been for the last week or so, not that he'd accepted the containers. This morning had marked only the second one Malfoy had taken it with him. Getting him to accept anything required more effort than making the meal itself.

Hermione lowered her voice, too. "Have you eaten since?"

"No, but—"

"Then keep it. I had extra."

She excused herself, pointedly ignoring the pair of green eyes that followed her out. After all, she was going to be late.

For Hermione, punctuality was as important as preparedness and hard work. Being late showed a lack of consideration and respect for someone's time, and she wasn't one to tolerate something like that.

Not from anyone.

Narcissa, on the other hand, was late for lunch.

Her presence had been subpar at best since the invasion of her planning team for the season-ending soirée she was hosting. The event was next weekend, but the Monday after their first gardening session had marked the escalation of planning commitments. Narcissa had little time for anything including morning gardening, reviewing Scorpius' lessons, and Hermione's daily check-ups.

But not everyone was as upset about Narcissa's absence.

Malfoy didn't appear to care, given the way he pointedly rolled his eyes whenever Hermione mentioned his mother by name during their morning conversations. Evidently, this behaviour was normal whenever Narcissa was in party planning mode. As long as his mother stopped pestering him about bringing a date, Malfoy didn