That summer is one of many firsts, and a single last, for Hermione and Draco.
The first time they have a formal dinner with Lucius and Narcissa, everything is an unmitigated disaster. Despite the fact that they've already shared a few, casual meals with Hermione, the Malfoy elders can't seem to shake their pureblood formality around the dinner table. They sit, awkward and stiff in the Lesser Dining Room, making painful small talk until Lucius brings up his Ministry-led rehabilitation classes. With each passing course of dinner, Lucius shares what he has learned about Muggles. Which would be lovely, Hermione thinks, if it weren't for the fact that he feels the need to apologize to her every two minutes.
"Shoe horns?" he scoffs. "Shoe horns? I read an entire chapter on the maintenance of Muggle footwear, only to learn that most of them wear trainers now, anyway. Even their captains of industry. I'm sorry, Miss Granger, I know you're partial to comfortable footwear. But honestly, encasing one's toes in rubber and mesh? It's barbaric."
Narcissa, for her part, attempts to redirect the conversation to happier topics. Such as goblin history. Or eels. Or cannibalism. But Lucius, bless him, can't seem to help himself.
"And airplanes," he groans. "What a primitive concept those are. Apologies, Miss Granger. But the combustion of fossil fuels inside a tiny metal tube, thirteen kilometres above the earth? It's insanity, not to mention wasteful. I thought Muggles wanted to conserve resources, not set them aflame in the sky."
Finally, Hermione can't take it anymore.
"Maevy?" she calls out abruptly, interrupting another one of Lucius's tirades. The house-elf appears out of thin air, just beside Hermione's elbow.
"Was everything to Miss's liking?" Maevy asks, with a worried glance at Hermione's half-eaten plate of pheasant.
"As always, Maevy. But could we eat our dessert somewhere more…comfortable, perhaps?"
The house-elf gives Hermione a knowing wink and snaps her fingers so that their dishes and napkins disappear. Draco frowns, but he links his arm with Hermione's and his mother's. Lucius, who will never Apparate by himself again, grabs his wife, and the four of them Apparate together to the kitchens of Malfoy Manor.
There, four barstools wait for them, as does the large, intricately-decorated pie Draco made earlier that day. The beautiful pie resembles the tarts that Hermione brought to the Manor three months ago – an interlocking series of delicately-carved, apple roses, nestled inside a golden crust.
Lucius has the good sense to look abashed by the change of venue, and their dessert passes far more comfortably than their dinner. In fact, Hermione gets her second, awkward side-hug from Lucius at the end of the night. Narcissa merely gives the younger witch a sly smile, and Hermione decides that the night isn't such a waste after all.
Their first dinner out with Harry and Ginny goes marginally better. A liberal amount of wine on Harry's and Ginny's part and Quidditch talk on Draco's seem to ease some of the tension. As does the fact that Theo and Erik join them for post-dinner drinks at Hermione's flat. After the second bottle of Bordeaux, from which both Hermione and Draco abstain, the conversation starts to flow more naturally. So much so, she and Draco eventually curl up together on the couch, her head resting on his shoulder and his hand in her lap. Maybe Harry can see the adoration on their faces, or maybe he's just had too much wine, but he doesn't even wince when Draco kisses the edge of Hermione's mouth.
That's also the first night Draco sleeps over at her place. He doesn't ask to stay the night; he just helps her usher out their guests and then drags her toward the bedroom with a wicked grin. Her small bed can hardly accommodate their activities and, at some point, they both tumble onto the floor. Draco hits the ground first, and he curses angrily. But he seems to grasp the benefit of their situation when Hermione demonstrates why her landing face-first between his legs might not be such a bad thing.
Afterward, tangled up with him under the enchanted stars on her bedroom ceiling, Hermione lets her heart speak the word she's been thinking for months. Even if she can't quite say it out loud yet.
The first time Draco meets her parents, she almost – almost – says the word, anyway. She expects the worst that night, but Draco surprises her. The moment her dad opens the door to her parents' modest townhome in Surrey, Draco greets him with a raspberry-topped cheesecake and a firm, respectful handshake.
"What do you call a dentist who doesn't like tea?" Draco asks Mr. Granger, in lieu of an introduction. When her dad gives him a befuddled look, Draco simply says, "Denis."
Her dad – whose name, incidentally, is Dennis – laughs harder than he has since returning from Australia. So hard, Hermione knows he likes Draco, even when her parents catch them snogging over a sink full of dirty dishes after dinner.
Their first study sessions go just as well as that dinner. To her utter delight, Draco makes an excellent pupil. He's focused, determined, and unflinching about her colour-coded study guides. His exam application encounters a bureaucratic snag, of course, but a flick of Hermione's wand and a bit of muscling at the Ministry ensures that Draco will sit for the June N.E.W.T.'s. It also doesn't hurt that Hermione's good friend Minerva trusts her unconditionally, enough to reserve Draco a private carrel in the Hogwarts Library to take his exams away from prying eyes.
They only take a few breaks from his studies, one of which occurs on the fifth of June. Hermione pretends that it's just an ordinary Monday, owling Draco a perfunctory "Happy Birthday" note from her office. But when Draco goes downstairs to eat a solitary dinner in the Manor's kitchen that night, he finds the room packed with family, friends, and a chocolate-iced gingerbread cake.
Over the glow of twenty gold candles, Draco catches Hermione's smile. It's then that he knows. Knows.
Goyle, Theo, and Blaise see the change on their friend's face, as does Narcissa. Pansy doesn't notice anything, probably because she's too busy slipping her hand into the back pocket of Ron Weasley's jeans. Ron doesn't look at anyone, probably because Hermione caught him groping Pansy outside the Leaky Cauldron's loos last weekend. As for Harry and Ginny, they just try not to touch anything valuable, including the Slytherins. Lucius simply pulls Hermione to his side in gratitude and she decides that, as far as awkward hugs go, she could do worse.
Draco and Hermione take another break to walk one Saturday afternoon, hand-in-hand down Diagon Alley. It's there that a stranger hisses "Death Eater" at them for the first time. Hermione takes the man aside and speaks firmly with him for almost an hour. Then the couple leaves with the stranger's address so they can bring him some chai-spiced madeleines that evening.
At Draco's first Gryffindor game-night, he does in fact show Harry up at cards – along with Hermione, Ginny, Dean, Seamus, and pretty much everyone else in attendance. Ron suggests that maybe Slytherins are naturally better at poker, given their innate duplicity. Draco suggests that Ron go screw himself. And Neville suggests that everyone stop fighting – including the rest of the Gryffindors, who can't help but argue over which of them gets to have Draco on their team next month.
The first time Hermione enters the front parlour of Malfoy Manor, Draco holds her hand so tightly it aches. They last about five seconds inside the room before she starts hyperventilating and begs to be taken back upstairs to the safety of their library. The next three times occur in much the same manner, but each time, she's able to stand it a little longer. On her fifth try, she makes it fifteen minutes. Together, they declare this a victory and vow never to enter the room again.
To celebrate, Draco takes her to the Manor's Larger Library. Hermione wanders its interlocking rooms for nearly three, awestruck hours. Eventually, she grabs two enormous volumes for some light reading later that night. Then she grabs Draco and proceeds to do a few unmentionable things to him against the bookcases.
Hermione and Draco's first big row as a couple – since they've agreed not to count the broken Floo connection as such – happens the night he receives his exam scores.
He's tense and pacing like a panther when she arrives at the Smaller Library after work that evening. At first, Hermione has no idea what's made him so agitated. She attempts to soothe him like she always does, with soft words and reason. But apparently, reason is the last thing Draco wants to hear. Within a few minutes, they're both snarling and shouting and storming around the room.
They go on that way for almost an hour, until Hermione spies an unopened envelope lying upon the tea table. On the clean, white front of the envelope are the words "Draco Lucius Malfoy" and the letters N-E-W-T. She moves toward the table, and Draco almost dives over the couch to stop her.
"Don't you dare!" he shouts.
Hermione's chin juts imperiously into the air. "And why shouldn't I?"
"Because they're my scores, Granger!"
"But it's our life, Draco!"
Just like that, the anger drains out of their fight. It's the first time she's officially referred to their future in that way – with the possessive "ours" – and they both know it. Draco's mouth stays in its hard line, but she sees the sudden questions in his eyes.
Feeling strangely shy, Hermione picks up the envelope and traces one finger along the paper's edge.
"You know these won't change anything, right?" she says softly.
Draco snorts. "Those scores will change everything, Granger."
She shakes her head. "Not between us. Even if you got all P's – which you didn't – I won't feel any differently about you. Merlin, even if you got all T's, I would still…I still…."
"You still what?"
Her eyes move from the envelope, back up to his face. "I've said everything else first," she whispers. "Should I say this first, too?"
Draco pauses, but just for a heartbeat.
"No," he growls. Then he pulls her to him roughly and drops his mouth onto hers.
"I love you," he says, between their kisses. "I knew it on my birthday. I knew I loved you."
Hermione laughs joyously. "Well, I knew I loved you in Paris."
"One-upper," Draco teases, threading his fingers into her curls to pull her even closer.
"Prat," she whispers against his lips.
After Hermione says that, there isn't much talking. Except for one other word – love – whispered over and over again onto each other's bare skin.
Later, when it no longer matters, they open the first bit of mail that they consider "theirs." And they both agree they deserve at least one more round in their transfigured sheets, for all those lovely O's on his score card.
The last confection Hermione officially creates for her PTSD Pastry Tour is her best, by far. Everyone agrees. She knows this, because just about every witch and wizard she's ever met gets to taste it.
Almost the entire English Wizarding world attends Harry and Ginny's wedding, much to Molly Weasley's chagrin. Even at the reception, the guests can still hear Molly mutter, "If the Ministry mandated attendance to this wedding, then the Ministry should've bloody well paid for it."
Hermione secretly agrees, which is why the cake is free and extravagant.
The cake in question now sits at the center of the lead table, surrounded by a sea of hydrangeas and enchanted paper sparrows. The exterior of the cake is iced in basic, white buttercream, with a few piped designs to match the embroidery on Ginny's dress. There's nothing exceptional or extraordinary about the cake; not until you register its precipitous height.
It towers a metre and half over the table, with ten separately-flavored layers charmed to hold perfectly still and uniform, no matter how many slices are taken out – even from the lower tiers. There's a pumpkin layer for Harry, cherry for Ginny, salted caramel for Molly and Arthur, chocolate ganache for Ron, lemon curd for Percy, marshmallow for Charlie, cardamom for Bill, sweetened goat cheese for George, and orange-rosemary in remembrance of Fred. A flavor for each of the Weasley siblings, one for the parents of the bride, and one for the groom, to make nine layers total.
Then there's the tenth layer, which isn't specifically assigned to anyone. Hermione's date to the wedding, however, recognizes the flavor. It's a simple, apple-cinnamon jam – nothing special, she teased him while creating it. But her date insists that it's the best flavor of the night. Later, as he whirls her around the dance floor, Hermione tastes it upon Draco's lips.
And she has to admit: he's right.