After the third fabric shop, Draco was feeling guilty. It was well into the afternoon and neither of them had had a proper lunch or stopped for tea. His shopping list for this outing had been very particular and he was no more than halfway done. All things considered, he was probably being rude and a bore.
“You don’t have to come with me to the next one, if you have other obligations,” he said after they hefted the heavy skein of fabric back into the stacks. It was was almost, but not quite, entirely the wrong shade of blue once unspooled.
“It is Sunday. In November. It’s been raining all day. All I have waiting for me at home is more work. This is a nice break.” Hermione smiled, something she did rarely these days. “Attempting to reform a whole law system is tedious. I enjoy the distraction.”
“Very well. Thank you, I don’t think I would be very efficient without your help.”
“It’s alright. I did introduce the idea of quilting to Narcissa after all. At least part of this is my fault.”
“I don’t think I will hold a grudge about it. She’s… happy.”
Hermione interrupted him, grabbing a different roll of fabric down the aisle.
“How about this… chambray? The shelves’ sticker says it’s been dyed with indigo.”
Draco paused to look at the almost muted blue color and the subtle sheen of the fabric. Even in the cramped shop, it smelt earthy and raw.
“It is beautiful. It should complement beautifully the theme she is working on,” he consulted his list “And we will apparently need 10 yards of it.”
“I’ll get an attendant. Start looking for the next one.”
Two hours and three more shops later Draco finally crossed the last item off Narcissa's list.
“I think I need to either get Mother to start doing her own shopping, or get her to curb the number of items per visit,” Draco said, exhausted as they loaded the last bag into the back of a cab. Hermione’s flat was in the city proper, so it was easier to transport everything back there and then using the Floo to get back to Malfoy manor.
“Yes. Yes, you do.” Hermione stretched, massaging her lower back. “I’m exhausted. It’s been awhile since I did that much heavy lifting.”
“Once again, I must thank you. And I apologise for the imposition.”
“I wanted to be here Draco. But you can make it up to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Invite me to dinner,” she said, with a teasing challenging tone.
“I can have the...” he stopped himself and reworded his sentence, before putting himself on the receiving side of one more S.P.E.W. speech. “Household staff prepare something at the manor?”
“No. Muggle dinner. For a day, as a guide to the city.”
Draco chuckled. He was well aware that this request, a few short months ago, would have been met with a short rebuff and possibly an insult or two. Granger was smart, she had waited until he was both used to the Muggle world (or more so than in the past, in any case) and completely exhausted from the errands.
“As you wish. Miss Granger, will you do the honor or joining me for the evening meal?”
“I would be delighted, Sir Malfoy. I know just the place.” She smirked. “But we’ll need to stop by one more store. You have glitter on your left sleeve.”
Much to Draco’s relief, the last store did not require him getting out of the cab. Hermione had apparently memorised his measurements for clothes from past attempts at going shopping in what she deemed “absolutely not” outfits. He had learned not to argue with these judgements. On the one hand, Granger was still a hard opponent to out-argue; on the other, he had absolutely no interest in Muggle fashion and having her handle it was much, much easier.
When Hermione re-appeared Draco could not have said how long the errand had taken. The combination of warmth inside the car, the deep rumble of the motor and the soft music the driver was playing had lulled him into near slumber. He mulled over that fact as they drove away, when had he become that complacent?
Hermione’s flat was part of an old Victorian home that had been split into multiple units. A large multi-purpose room took up most of the area. The central area featured a small dining table, usually covered with work she would bring home from the Ministry, and two mismatched wooden chairs. A fireplace on the right wall (convenient for heat and access to the Floo network) was flanked on both sides by bookcases. A single reading chair near the fire tried to define the area. A functional kitchen lined the far wall, under the only windows in the space. Two doors on the left side led to the bedroom and bathroom. The walls were bare and almost blindingly white. Outside the books, there were no mementos, no pictures, nothing to claim the space.
They stacked the craft supplies on the table, an improbable pyramid of soft lumps and crinkly plastic. Hermione threw the clothes at Draco and gestured towards the bedroom so he could get changed. The bedroom was warm, compared to the rest of the apartment. The walls had been painted a soft lavender and the furniture was a deep mahogany color. The large double bed took up most of the space, softened by white and blue linens. On each side of the bed, nightstands held simple silver lamps and the dresser doubled as a vanity, with a large mirror with intricate etchings along its edges. Draco was quite certain the mirror was of Wizard origin, but had never asked about it.
He turned his attention to the outfit chosen for the evening. Dark wash jeans and a charcoal grey button down shirt with subtle steel tone pinstripe. It was more casual than he was used to, but he had to agree the combination with his pale eyes and long blond hair worked rather well. He waved the door open when Hermione knocked to check on him. She had changed into a knee length dress, with a print of bright blue and white ribbons weaving large almost wishing-bones patterns. Silver sequins had been fused at random into the fabric, catching the light as she moved. She was tying a large black sash around her waist as the door opened.
“Are you overly attached to the ribbon?” Hermione asked, stepping up to him and adjusting the black satin bow at the nape of his neck.
He paused, there was no use trying to lie to her.
“It’s a status marker.” It wasn’t a lie.
“Not what I’m asking,” she rolled her eyes. “Do you like it?”
“No. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and I see my father. And every time I startle it shames me.”
She nodded, untying the strip of black fabric and folding it over itself before discarding it on the bedside table.
“You could always cut your hair.”
“It is not that simple. There is,” he paused, losing his train of thought as she carded her fingers through his hair, scratching lightly at the scalp. “The other pure-blood families expect me to look, dress, act a certain way. And even allowing for my… personal doubts, I could not bring shame to my family with a… too visible of a rebellion.”
“All right,” she said. “Let me try something.”
She grabbed a comb and started parting and weaving sections of hair. He couldn’t tell what she was doing, distracted by the warmth of her at his back, the feeling of hands and fingers in his hair. How long had it been since he’d been touched with intent for longer than a greeting?
“There,” she said, backing away so he would be able to see his reflection in the vanity’s mirror. She had braided sections of hair, though not from the root, and tied everything in a loose bun at the nape of his neck.
“Nothing like your father?”
“Excellent. Let’s be on our way. I don’t want to be late and lose our table.”
The restaurant, as it turns out, was within walking distance of the red-bricked victorian house. It was a tiny thing, its name barely marked on a dark painted door. Draco was quite confident he would have walked straight past it, had he had only the address. The interior was covered in wood of various shades, sun bleached and stained, marked with strange stamps. Recycled from shipping crates he learned later.
The waiter led them to a table, one of six, not counting the long communal table with stools at the back. The table was lacquered wood, but the chairs were wrought iron with surprisingly comfortable cushions. The menus were laminated sheets, slightly tacky to touch.
“I know nothing on here,” he said. “I know some words are English, but they might all be Sylvan for that I can read them.”
“You’ve never had Japanese food?”
“I… “ he looked at the other patrons, then dropped his eyes and picked at the denim of the too-stiff new jeans, “I have been to many hosted parties, and ate at school. But never…” he waved a hand, feeling himself blush.
“Never outside of Britain. And you hosted with traditional dishes.”
She reached and grabbed his menu and stacked it with hers, catching the eye of the waiter. The words she spoke meant nothing to him, but she sounded sure of herself. There were greater risks he’d faced, he thought.
The waiter came back with a cast iron teapot, the metal handle wrapped in fabric to protect his hands from the heat. He put two cups in front of them and poured tea, leaving with a bow and no words. Draco looked at the small ceramic cups, lacking any handle. The cup was exactly the right size to be held between his palms, the warmth comforting. He sipped at the tea, it was a pale jade color, unlike the tea he was used too. There was no milk, no lemon, no sugar, but it had a faint sweet flavor nonetheless. Hermione smiled and said nothing - in the years since her overeagerness in class she had learned that sometimes it is better to let others discover at their own pace.
“This is good. It tastes like… popcorn?”
“There’s roasted rice in it. It makes it sweet. I’m glad you approve.”
Before Draco could answer the waiter was back with a rectangular plate, which he placed in the middle of the table. The plate was ceramic too, glazed a deep sea green. On it were six crescent moon shaped balls of dough and a shallow saucer of a pale amber sauce. It’s only when he left again that Draco spoke up.
“Why is there no silverware?”
Hermione looked at him and blinked for a second.
“Because I’m an idiot. I didn’t think you wouldn’t know how to use chopsticks.” She pointed to the two long black lacquered sticks in front of him. “I can get him to bring you a fork and knife, or I can teach you?”
He opted for the second option. She demonstrated the proper hold a few times, before grabbing his hand and adjusting his fingers around the utensils. Her hands were soft, he noticed, Except for the fingertips, which were a bit callused from quills and layers of healed paper cuts. There was ink underneath her nails, faded but deep in the skin, like a diffuse tattoo.
“And now, moving just the top one try to grab one of the gyoza. Dip the soft side, not the crunchy side, in the sauce.”
Draco shook himself. He was certain there had a been a sentence before that. He needed to stop drifting like this. With a level of concentration usually reserved for Wizarding duels, he aimed for the far right lump of dough and succeeded in picking it up. However, he didn’t dip it as much as dropped it in the sauce with a splash. He frowned at it, disliking the feeling of inadequacy.
“Not bad for a first try. I’ve seen worse.”
“You’re too kind.”
“No. I’m being honest. Now eat your dumpling.”
He picked up the morsel again, eyeing it suspiciously to see if it would endeavour to escape his tenuous hold again. He managed to get the whole thing without dropping it to his mouth and bit at it victoriously. His eyes widened in surprise. He had expected a dough ball, but beneath the vinegar tang of the sauce, he was greeted with warm juicy pork, cabbage, chives and garlic. The heat of ginger was just enough to keep everything sharp and present. It was also very, very warm despite the wasted time with the chopstick lesson. As soon as he felt he could swallow without scalding his throat he raised his eyes back to Hermione’s, who was sitting silent and smiling.
“These are very good.”
“Thank you. For not laughing,” he said quietly.
“Why would I laugh? You’re allowed not to know things, especially if I’m being on the mean side and pushing you far out of your comfort zone.” She grabbed a gyoza for herself, stifling a short groan as the flavor hit her tongue.
“Why do you do it? Insist on getting me out of my comfort zone?”
“I don’t have many friends Draco.” She shrugged, gesturing for him to eat as she talked. “I have coworkers who in equal parts envy me, resent me or look down at me. I have Harry who is busy with his own life and family. I have awkward invitations from the Weasleys that I can’t always decline. You’re different. Different from when you were at school and different from them. I don’t have to pretend anything; because I don’t think I could ever really shock you. And you’re good company.”
Draco nodded. He could see the truth in what she was saying. Though he wouldn’t have gone far enough as calling himself good company. He was surly and confused half the time.
“Now you. Why do you let me drag you all around the city? Don’t say it’s the money, you figured those out ages ago.”
Draco was saved from having to answer immediately by the waiter’s impeccable timing. Two large bowls, white with fine lines of blue, were deposited in front of them. The contents steamed and the overall smell was salty, like the sea. He was relieved to see a spoon brought as well. The broth was salty and rich when he sipped it. Then, taking his cue from Hermione he tried the noodles, gingerly grabbing them with the chopstick until he could slurp at them. He felt ridiculous. But he had to admit the silky texture of the noodles was satisfying, with barely any resistance under the tooth.
“You see me,” he said, after carefully dabbing the broth off his lips with a napkin. “Not my family, not their legacy, just me. I only have Astoria and my mother, really, who see Draco instead of…” He frowned and pointed at the things displayed in the soup. “What are those?”
“Grilled and seasoned pork, marinated hard boiled egg,” she answered pointing. “Nori and kombu seaweed, shaved cucumber and green onions. You can make each bite different.”
The pork was fatty and tender, but surprisingly sweet. The outside of the pieces were still crunchy from the char despite the broth, but it took him a few bites to wrap his mind around the nearly candied meat in contrast to the salty broth. The seaweed tasted like the sea, and also very green, like a concentrated version of any leafy vegetable. He liked the nori but didn’t care much for the kombu. The eggs were creamy, almost like custard, and satisfying in a way he had not known was missing from his life.
“May I ask you a question?” Draco said after they both had a few bites.
“Well, seeing as you already did, go ahead for another one.”
“After… After everything, after things didn’t work out with...him. Why did you turn away all your suitors? I know there was more than one interested party.”
“Because they wanted the second hand hero. They wanted the aura of glory, the association. And I didn’t want to be that girl anymore. I want… I like my life. I want to be able to claim things of my own merit, not because of who I know. And I’d rather do it alone than be an idol on someone’s shrine.”
“Ah. They didn’t want to see you.”
She didn’t answer, turning back to the ramen in front of her.
“Would you braid my hair again?”
“It felt… nice.”
Hermione smiled, but it was layered. A practiced expression, a mask, smoothing over her face into careful neutrality.